Nashville — December 1864


150 years ago, in 1864,  following the Atlanta campaign, Confederate General John Bell Hood moved north into Tennessee in an attempt to draw General William T. Sherman away from Georgia. Hood marched to Nashville to capture the Union supply depot. Unfortunately for the Henry L. Norvell family, their plantation “Leafy Lot” lay in the path of both armies. From late November until mid-December 1864, the Battle of Nashville raged near the Norvell farm.  The area around the farm was lush and the cottage built by the Norvells sat on a ridge overlooking the plantation.  The Sevier family had given the new couple 2,000 acres of prime farm land when Henry and Laura Jane Sevier were married in 1842.   On December 3, 1864, Hood and his army encamped around the cottage, which became a field hospital, and  the farm became breastworks for the southern army.

December 1864 was bitterly cold, with rain and sleet. Many confederate soldiers lacked shoes; some estimates placed the shoeless at one-third of the army.   According to information from the Nashville Battlefield Preservation Society:

“A Mississippi colonel said his heart almost bled seeing the traces of blood on the ground, left “from the barefoot feet of our brave soldiers.” A Georgia lieutenant said, “Not a man in that company had shoes on his feet, and many were without a blanket.” A Tennessean said, “We bivouac on the cold and hard-frozen ground, and when we walk about, the echo of our footsteps sound like the echo of a tombstone. The earth is crusted with snow, and the wind from the northwest is piercing our very bones. We can see our ragged soldier, with sunken cheeks and famine glistening eyes.”

To keep warm Hood’s troops cut down trees for firewood, decimating the farm. As a result, the farm became known as “Hood’s Waste.”

This story was told in the Nashville American by Octavia Zolicoffer Bond, herself the daughter of a Confederate general, in a 1909 column:  Through necessity of war Confederate breastworks had been thrown up in uncompromising line directly across the site of the generous smokehouse and the surrounding negro cabins. On neither place could one brick be found upon another after the passing of the two armies.


Henry and Laura Norvell

Leafy Lot was left a wasteland and the northern army occupied its grounds for several years during the Reconstruction period.  After Henry’s death in 1874, his widow decided to sell the property.  Evidently, Laura Sevier Norvell was still receiving payments for the property at the time of her death, as in her will, dated 1893, she specified “All the proceeds from the place ‘Hoodwaste’ must be equally divided between my six children.”

A Norvell Family Christmas Vacation


Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation:

“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.

No, no. We’re all in this together.”

In 1989 my mother came to visit with us for 6 weeks (that’s 42 days — 1008 hours but who’s counting).  She arrived at Thanksgiving and stayed until after the new year. Had we known how Christmas would play out, perhaps we would have sent her home much earlier. (Actually even without Christmas we probably should have sent her home earlier, as anyone who has or had a parent living with them for a long period can attest that it is no high old time.)  

But back to Christmas.   It started well enough. We decorated the house and settled in for what I thought was to be a typical Norvell family Christmas

Holiday Greetings.

As December began, a note from the school arrived and we learned that our daughter and several classmates had head lice.  Now if you have experienced head lice, you know that everyone, including grandma, had to have their hair shampooed, bedding changed, toys bagged, and everything carefully watched.  Just when we thought it was all done, she picked them up again from another student and we repeated the process.  You have not had real holiday fun until you have had to wash your mother’s head for lice, ah yes, – actually I let my wife do it twice – what a treat.

Fa la la la la — and here’s a bill.

The merriment continued into mid December, when our newer car died.  The engine had seized and the dealer presented me with a present – a bill of about $3,500 to fix it.  So it was pay the bill or have 3,000 lb paper weight in the driveway.   While it was in the shop, our other car had a flat tire in front of the house on an ice-covered street.  Just one fun winter time car thing after another.

A holiday surprise.

Nothing says Christmas like the Heimlich Maneuver.  On the weekend before Christmas, while dining out, my oldest daughter choked on a piece of meat.  Nothing says adrenaline rush like administering the maneuver to a loved one in a crowded restaurant. Nothing says “Ho Ho Ho” like old dad having a panic attack over the dinner table. The maneuver worked– and all was fine, (thank you US Air Force for the training).  Still it could have been much worse, and for that I was truly grateful – that said a whole crop of new gray hairs popped up on my head that night.

Relatives arrive.

Since it was the Christmas, my sister and her husband decided to visit us to see the sights in Washington DC.  Living there, relatives and friends often felt that we ran a B&B and dropped in.  (We once had “friends” who literally stayed a week and only spent about 8 hours with us, but that is another story.)   Now my brother-in-law was a bit unusual.  I guess since it was Washington DC, he felt he needed to be prepared for anything.  He had a bowie-knife in his boot and a switch-like rod whip to defend himself in his coat. I didn’t know this until we went down to visit the U.S. Capitol and he had to hide them in the bushes so he could get through the metal detectors. Does the term felony ring a Christmas Bell?

We did make it through Christmas, with no family in jail, mother relatively calm – perhaps it was the double martini I made her– both cars working, and no one choking.

Then it was on to New Years.  Well I can hear you saying, you made it – WRONG.

New Years Eve.

We had invited several friends for festive dinner on New Years Eve.  Preparations were underway for a pleasant evening and of course it was then that the power went off all over northern Virginia.  So that is how we ended this pleasant (?) family holiday – sitting in the damp and the dark, with my mother giving us her theories on why the power was out and when it would come on — over and over and over again.

1990 only had to get better… after all we had survived Christmas….

Santa Claus is coming to town… again and again and again

Since 1971, Santa Claus has come to my house — every other year.

That was the first year that a 12 inch-tall standup Christmas card of Santa, holding a pipe with a heart applique in the billowing smoke, arrived in the mail. It was sent by some close friends that I had worked with as an Air Force lieutenant in Washington, D.C.

Now I was a Captain in flying training in California, with likelihood of being in combat soon and the stresses that the Vietnam War had placed in my path.

Santa Card

Then Santa arrived with this cheerful greeting:

“If Santa loaded up his sleigh and found room inside,
For someone who’s been nice all year to take a Christmas Ride.
He wouldn’t have to check his list or think it over twice –
He’s just say, ‘I’ll take Johnny ! Because you’re so EXTRA nice!’”

Kathy and Joe

with the engaging postscript: “Show All of Your Friends!”

A Christmas card for a 5-year-old, but still, Santa made me feel good.

I decided then that Santa would return to his sender the following year to wit:  “ A special card should be passed along each holiday – a living tradition for Xmas – 1972 – J&B.”  I was married by then) and in flight training in the F4 Phantom fighter in Arizona.

Santa came to me in 1973 in Udorn Thailand, where I had spent part of the year flying combat missions.

He simply said:  “As they say in the military, we concur -1973 J&K.”

Over the years Santa traveled from Alaska, where he announced to our friends:

“Surprise we are expecting – and you thought Santa might not be coming – 1976 J, B, and baby.”


Santa Card insideOr as the service moved us to Colorado, Alabama, California, Virginia, and finally after retirement back to New York, Santa came on his merry way to witness the changes in our lives.

As the years passed, he also began to develop on a more topical bent to his greetings:
“1975 was the year of Recession, this old friend wouldn’t think of receding, that would be a trangression.” JK

“An old friend to help the Norvells ring in a new decade, (No Johnny, just because he has a beard, it doesn’t mean he’s an Ayatollah). -1980.”

“To Cheer you after Princess Di, and Old Friend Comes to offer ‘Hi’!” -1997.”

“I’m glad to back with the Norvell clan, I know their Y2K bash will be grand- 1999.” JKLN

“ The presidential election never ends, but here’s your Merry Christmas Friend -2000.” J&B

And, by now he had some poetic tendencies as well:

“True ‘87 was no great shakes, But here’s an old friend to soothe your aches (from a broken leg). And he doesn’t blow smoke or exaggerate, when he says “88 will compensate. J, K, L, N – 1987.”

“Johnny may have retired, but Santy is still on active duty in 1989. Merry Christmas, J K Land N -1989.”

So back and forth he went in sprightly and not so sprightly verse, commenting on our lives and events, or to bring comfort in a time of great sadness and national loss:

“I’ve got red, white, but need some blue, so I can be patriotic too! -2001.”

After commenting on more than 40 years of births, deaths, moves, retirements, and even Y2K, Santa is creased, and wrinkled, with some yellowing tape to hold him together. He barely has a spot left that isn’t covered with greetings, but hasn’t stopped, I surmise, that he will find a way to continue for many years to always have the right words to say.

And once again – in 2014 he was sent on his merry way for another year. I expect he will be back in about 12 months.

In search of the perfect tree

The Perfect Tree

My father was not noted for his patience or his ability to pick Christmas trees.

His trees were seldom picture perfect.   Some were lopsided, some had missing branches, some were trees in name only, having dropped most of their needles before we got them home.  My father waited till the last minute when the tree lots were getting rid of the left-overs and his choices made Charlie Brown’s tree look magnificent.  When he finally brought it home,  we took rope and tied it to the wall, that was the only way it would stand up.  Then we decorated it.

Father would always put on the lights, that was his job.  We had those old-fashioned lights that if one went out they all went dark.  I would say that they stayed on for about the length of time it took to put all the ornaments on the tree.  Then my father would paw through the branches to find the bad bulb, and the cycle would start all over again until the tree went dark once more.  This probably happened about a zillion times much to my father’s consternation, as I said he didn’t have much patience.

We always had a real tree,  unlike my aunt and uncle who had an aluminum tree.  You couldn’t put real lights on an aluminum tree without the risk of electrocution or burning down the house.  It had a revolving color wheel light  to illuminate it.   To me, it looked like a big aluminum bottle brush.  Very trendy for the times, and also very ugly.  My aunt at the time worked for Montgomery Ward and I am sure she bought the tree there, probably with a discount. Certainly not the sort of thing my mother would have ever allowed in our house.  It was a real tree or no tree for her.

About 1958, I decided that I would go out into the woods to cut down a Christmas tree. In my humble opinion I knew I could do better. I was 14 and very confident that I could bring home the best tree ever.  My grandfather lived in the county and had several acres of wood lots and that is where I went to find the tree.

It was a very cold December afternoon. I went down behind my grandfather’s pasture and started to walk through the woods. I kept going on and on looking for the right tree, not realizing how long I had been out in the cold.   The trees in that part of the woods were not really the right kind for Christmas trees, mainly scrawny scrub pines, but I felt that if I kept looking and looking and looking I was sure to find the perfect tree.

After a while it began to get dark, but I couldn’t go back empty-handed. I had to get that tree, despite the cold and darkness. I wandered around until I had gotten very cold, but I did find a tree and cut it down.

I was on my way back when I saw my grandfather coming toward me, the family had gotten very worried when I had been gone a couple of hours.  I had gotten a bad case of overexposure and probably wouldn’t have made it back without his help.   I was lucky he found me.    I never was so glad to see somebody as I was to see him coming through the dark, snowy woods that afternoon.

As an adult I always have a perfect tree, it is artificial  – I learned my lesson the hard way.


The Strangest Thanksgiving Ever!


Everyone has a mental image of Thanksgiving that is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: the family around the table, Dad carving the turkey, the children beautifully dressed and smiling.

Well not all Thanksgivings are like that.

I have spent Thanksgiving in Thailand eating gummy fondue and bagels heated on a hotplate, Thanksgiving in Alaska on alert, and Thanksgiving with folks who were mad at each other and not speaking – that was pretty weird– and Thanksgivings with family members who were always eager to share their opinions on my life and how it was going.  But the absolutely strangest Thanksgiving was in California in 1972.

My wife and I had just been married and it was our first Thanksgiving. I was in training to fly the F4 in Arizona and we decided to go to California to visit a captain and his wife who were at an Air Force Base, down near Yosemite National Park.  They were people I had known in flying training. We had a nice visit and since we were close to Yosemite, our friend said that we should drive over to the park and sightsee. It was decided that we would do it on Thanksgiving day and his wife would stay home and prepare the meal, as she didn’t want to go. We set off in the morning with the plan that we would be back at 5 p.m for dinner. It was a beautiful day and we spent it surrounded by the magnificence of Yosemite.

At about 5 p.m. we returned to their quarters on base, expecting that dinner was ready – WRONG.

She had not even started the meal. Not only that– she hadn’t even put the bird in the oven. Don’t ask me why, I have no clue – the story was not clear then and it is not clear now, something about shopping etc, and then waiting until we got home. It didn’t make sense then and it certainly doesn’t 42 years later.  We even took their two year old child with us so she could have the day free to herself.

Well, as any adult knows, you do not cook a turkey in 1 hour or 2 hours or even 3 hours, usually it takes about 5 hours. Let’s see 5 p.m. plus 5 hours brings us to 10 p.m. And that is when dinner was finally served after my wife pitched in and helped.

Now we hadn’t eaten anything since about noon at Yosemite and it was 10 p.m. We were famished.

Did I mention there were no snacks to munch on while we waited for FIVE HOURS FOR DINNER.

We loaded our plates and literally inhaled it, no time for pleasantries, no comments about the food, no comments period.

I have never, never before or after, seen people eat so fast.

We shoveled it in –I think it was now about 10:07 at this point, or maybe 10:05, (as I said I have never seen people eat so fast).

And then it was time for refills.

Eating at so fast a pace meant that the “we were full signal” had not quite reached our brains.   As we tucked into that second big plate, it hit our stomachs.   I don’t remember much after that as we sat in a food-induced stupor.  And then it was time for bed.

We left the next day.

Oh well at least Yosemite was beautiful.

Wild in the Streets — Washington DC 1968-1971

Washington DC

From 1968-1971, before I entered flying training, I was assigned to a staff position in a command post in Washington, D.C. This was a time of great upheaval in America.

In April 1968, two months after I arrived at Bolling Air Force Base, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The city of Washington erupted: large sections of the city burned, businesses were looted, and for all practical purposes martial law was put in place. For the two months before Dr. King’s death I had taken public buses to go downtown or walked, the week of his murder I picked up my first car. As I drove on I-395, an elevated interstate near the U.S. Capitol building, I could see large plumes of smoke rising in the distance as the city burned. I was very glad I had a car as I no longer felt safe on a public bus.   For several weeks after it was not safe to go into many areas of Washington.  The city had become a war zone.

This was my introduction to a whole new world.

I had grown up in a very small town in upstate New York, about 600 people. The most exciting thing that happened was the annual snow fall season when we would get about 100 inches of snow and school would be closed. We had visited Washington in high school in 1962 on a senior class trip, but Washington in 1962 was a far different place than it was in 1968.

By 1968, unrest around the county had spread significantly as civil rights protests and anti-war sentiment grew. In the summer  of 1968, the chaos of the Democratic National convention was shown nightly on TV, which coupled with the daily reports of the war, put the nation’s capital on an alert status. I would spend a great deal of time in the command post during this period, basically as a duty officer in case any incidents occurred. It was in the command post that I watched the 1968 Olympics on TV and saw American athletes give the black-gloved salute to the world.

Forty five years ago, 500,000 protestors gathered on the National Mall. While, demonstrations and marches were common, the November 1969 march was the largest political protest in American history. The marchers gathered at the Washington Monument, and famous antiwar activists such as Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and others performed for the crowd. Jane Fonda, who later was not too popular with the armed forces, may have been there as well.

As usual I was in the command post waiting to refer problems to the appropriate base agencies should they arise. We had national guard units camped on the base in case they were needed to respond should the demonstrations get out of hand. From a perspective of 45 years later, it is hard to believe how bad things were.

For all those today who think the 1960s was all love, peace, Woodstock, and flower children, it was not. Viet Cong flags were carried by Americans, while many, many young Americans were dying in South East Asia.  Young men and women  in uniform were spit on. The American flag was burned. The country was nearly ripped apart. In the early 1970s things would go from bad to worse. All in all it was a sad, sad time.

And the war dragged on and on.

Family Ties


My great-grandmother Mary Dean Redfield Norvell came from an old New England family. Her family line could be traced back from the Redfields to the Grinnells to the Peabodys and then to John and Priscilla Mullins Alden. Having a foot in both the South and North has given me the opportunity to see how very different early relatives came to deal with the American experience. The southern folks who arrived at Jamestown found themselves in a far different setting and environment than the Alden and Mullins families at Plymouth in 1620.

Having Mayflower ancestors has often been a quandary to me, do I tell others about it or do I keep it a secret.  At least ten percent of living Americans have an ancestor that arrived on The Mayflower, that is about 32 million people in the U.S. today. Not an insignificant number. So I would suspect that many people know someone related to the Pilgrims, but don’t know their Pilgrim ancestry.  In recent years I have told folks about John and Priscilla Alden – we are who we are.

This was brought home to me when at looking at my wife’s family, another old New England line.   Through her mother’s family —  the Eno family–   we discovered that she is a descendant of William Brewster. Now there is something truly amazing to discover that our ancestors  (my 8th great grandparents and her 8th great grandfather) knew each other nearly 400 years ago. Additionally, since both of our families were from New England, we were also distant cousins. We are both related to the Judd family, another old New England family. That is another thing, if you are related to one old New England family you are probably related to several others.

Interest in the Pilgrims rises dramatically, particularly at the time of year. There are many, many misconceptions about them. For example they never called themselves Pilgrims, they referred to themselves as Saints.  They were separatists from the Church of England not Puritans. They first attempted to leave England on a ship called The Speedwell, but it was a leaky vessel and then they turned back and then booked The Mayflower for the voyage. And in the case of my own family line there was no romance between Miles Standish and Priscilla Mullins. In fact most people in the United States knew little about the Pilgrims, let alone Alden, Standish, and the fair Priscilla, until Longfellow wrote his famous poem.   "The Landing of the Pilgrims."(1877)...

Alden, Miles Standish, and Priscilla Mullins, thanks to Longfellow’s poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish” share the most fame of the Pilgrim band. Longfellow based his poem on tales told to him by Peleg Wadsworth, another descendant of the Aldens, as was Longfellow, from Duxbury. This fictional tale of Standish’s wooing of Priscilla immediately became popular. Over 10,000 copies sold in London the first day alone.  Sort of the Brad, Jennifer, and Angelina tale of the 19th century.  Most people know the trio, but very little about the other Pilgrims.   Be that as it may, Alden married Priscilla Mullins about 1621.  And from my own standpoint I am glad he did.

Finally, don’t even get me started about Plymouth Rock!


Famous John  Alden descendants

Pres. John Adams,  Pres. John Quincy Adams,  Actress Marilyn Monroe, Poet William Cullen Bryant, Dancer Martha Graham,  US Secretary of State  Robert Lansing,  Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , Historian  Samuel Eliot Morison, Vice Pres.  James Danforth Quayle, Bishop Samuel Seabury, Jr.,  Senator Adlai Ewing Stevenson III,  Opera Star Frederica von Stade, and  Actor Orson Welles