Posts tagged: History
When I was 12 years old, my family moved into a rambling Craftsman-style bungalow. The house had been built in the early-to-mid 1920s with all the signature details of the era including beautiful wainscoting, built-in bookcases and, in two rooms, window seats that ran the length of one wall. I spent many hours on those window seats, my forehead pressed against the glass, looking over the rooftops of the neighborhood behind us. I did a lot of reading on that cushioned seat and a lot of daydreaming.
One day, looking for a place to hide in a neighborhood game of Hide and Seek, I opened the top of one of the window seats, but there was already something in it. I pulled out a fabric-wrapped bundle that held a pair of stiff canvas objects I couldn’t identify and what looked like some kind of mask. I showed them to my grandfather, my source for the answer to all mysteries.
“Those are Doughboy gaiters and a gas mask,” he told me, turning them over in his hands.
I’d never heard of a gaiter and the only doughboy I knew anything about advertised canned biscuits. The mask was familiar, but only from movies and books. I got a quick history lesson about the First World War, the nickname for American soldiers at the time, the rough wool uniforms, legs protected by the gaiters—or leggings—that strapped and laced around a man’s calves and the gas attacks that sent soldiers scrambling, often too late, for their protective masks.
He told me I had ancestors who’d fought in the Great War, pulled out the Encyclopedia and left me to my research.
That was the start of an interest that has lasted a lifetime. The war that was to end all wars never left my mind for long after that, drawing me to books and songs and even fashions of the era. Some time in my early 20s, digging through a box of junk at a flea market, I came across a U.S. Victory Medal. Such medals were sent to every surviving soldier in 1921 to mark his service. It’s in my jewelry box now.
On the back of the medal are the words, “The War of Civilization.” If only it had been. If that war, one of the most brutal and destructive in history, had been the last, my grandfather would not have spent years in the South Pacific during the Second World War. My father would not have gone to Korea and Vietnam.
As it was, a generation was decimated, lost to not only the war, but the collateral damage of the Spanish Influenza that rode its coattails around the world. By the end, 16 million were dead and the landscape of parts of Europe was forever changed.
When the phrase “The Greatest Generation” became popular, I bit my tongue. It seemed to me the “greatest” generation was the that fought and survived that First World War. Many returned to simply pick up and go on. Others were broken completely, suffering what was called “shell shock.” That generation endured the Great War, the Great Depression and then, the ultimate cruelty, was either called to fight again again or, worse, send their sons to another unthinkable world war.
I finally made it to Belgium in 2012 and one of the stops on my itinerary was a tour of Flanders Fields, the site of so much of the horror of the Western Front. I stepped into preserved bunkers and if they chilled me on a warm spring day, I could only imagine how horrible, how dark and damp and cold, they must have been in the war, surrounded by a sea of mud, echoing the deafening barrage of shells and gunfire, filed with the sounds of the injured and dying.
At the at the Flanders Fields American Cemetery, I walked among the 368 white marble crosses reading the names, birth dates and home states—from Alabama to Washington—of the men that had fallen in the last battles before the armistice was signed in November, 1918.
I sat in what had been the “Gold Star Mothers” room, a place for visiting mothers who had lost sons and buried them in Flanders.
At the German Cemetery, a darker, more somber place, I read more names, some of them 16-year-old boys who’d been encouraged by their teachers to join up and experience what was going to be a quick rout. Startled, I saw the same name as my husband’s grandfather, a man whose family immigrated from Germany to the United States in the years before the war. It wasn’t him but it might have been a relative. No one seems to know.
I stood at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres) surrounded by the names of more than 50,000 men who have no known grave. I listened as the bugler played and a wreath was laid, participating in a ceremony that has been held each evening since 1927, except during the years of German occupation in the next world war.
Now, in 2014, we’ve reached the century mark. What began with the murder of an Archduke (and his wife, although no one ever seems to mention it) and ended with the Treaty of Versailles and a shattered world, is being remembered.
If you’ve ever thought of going to Europe, or wanted to go back, this anniversary is a good time to do it. Follow the branches of your family tree. Chances are, before the great generation that went to the Second World War, you had an ancestor in the First.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” (available at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at email@example.com
I hadn’t been in New Orleans for a long time, but the mystique is still true; the city is one you don’t forget. A lot has changed over time and after the devastating hurricane in 2005, but as I walked, taking in familiar sights, the distinctive architecture, the soft Southern voices and the sounds of jazz and Zydeco music, I knew exactly where I was.
I’d flown down to cover the maiden U. S. voyage of the Carnival Sunshine, sailing from the Port of New Orleans, and my husband was with me. We had a day to explore the city before the cruise began and we made a quick tour of the French Quarter and the waterfront, before heading up Magazine street to the New Orleans destination we’d really come to see: The World War II Museum.
I spent a week last summer touring the countryside of the Normandy region of France, and I’d visited most of the D-Day landing sites and museums. Since my return, I haven’t been able to shake the experience. The scope and stories of the profoundly life-changing experiences of the survivors, and the sheer number of lives lost, is, even 70 years later, overwhelming. I was anxious to see how the WWII Museum’s D-Day exhibit captured that time in history.
But first, before we explored anything indoors, we had another, more personal, monument to see. When the museum opened in 2000 my husband’s family purchased a commemorative brick to honor their father who served in the Marines and was stationed in the South Pacific during WWII. My husband, with one of our daughters, had visited the brick once before, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but I hadn’t seen it.
With the help of a map supplied by museum staff, we found my father-in-law’s engraved brick on the walkway near the entrance of the museum. My husband brushed away a few fallen leaves and I took his photo with it. We stood there for a few more minutes without saying anything, both of us lost in our own thoughts of someone we’d loved.
My father-in-law died in 2009 and he never got to see the small monument his children placed at the museum to honor him. But he knew it was there and I think it pleased him.
For the next week, cruising around the Caribbean, soaking up as much sun as possible before going back to the cold, already snowy, Northwest, my mind kept going back to the red brick carved with my father-in-law’s name and the torpedo bomber squadron to which he’d been assigned.
I’m glad we’d dedicated most of our free time in New Orleans to visiting the museum. The D-Day exhibit was moving and comprehensive and captured the true horror of the battles of the war. And it gave us a chance to revisit a personal history, to stop and take a moment to remember a kind and gentle man.
By coincidence, I arrived in Pittsburgh just about the same time a big yellow duck sailed in. A very big duck. The Rubber Duck Project, created by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, has been in Asia, Europe, South America and Australia, but Pittsburgh—beating out bigger cities like San Francisco— was the duck’s first North American stop. During its three-week stay more than 1 million people trekked down to the waterfront to see the 4-story tall, 30-foot wide floating art (Pittsburgh’s version of Hofmann’s duck was specifically sized to fit under the city’s bridges.) They posed for photos—even in the rain—and bought yellow duck souvenirs. They spent time and money in the city.
This was my first visit to Pittsburgh and it surprised me in many ways. Oh, I knew the city had long ago left its smoky industrial past behind as it climbed out of the crash of the US steel market in the 1970s and 80s. I didn’t expect smokestacks but, to be honest, I think I was expecting a tired urban area with more of the past than the future in it. Shame on me.
Pittsburgh was built where the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. It’s an old city with a lot of history, but unlike so many old river cities whose waterways were long ago given over to industry and transportation and have yet to be reclaimed or are only now moving in that direction, Pittsburgh embraces the water. Spanned by 496 bridges, busy with dinner cruises and Duck Tours (the WWII floating truck variety) the rivers dominate the center of the city. Adjacent to the site of Fort Pitt, is Point State Park an urban waterfront park and trail. And the two professional sports teams, the Steelers and the Pirates, play in waterside stadiums. Metro Pittsburgh is livable, walkable and the downtown area is vibrant and alive with new construction. The 90 neighborhoods that make up the city are each unique. The food, from the city’s signature sandwiches topped with fries and cole slaw to upscale farm-to-table fare, was delicious.
I’m late to the Pittsburgh party. National Geographic Traveler named the city one of the top places to visit in 2012, the Today Show picked it as a top travel destination for 2013, and an internationally known artist, who had his choice of prime ports, picked it as the best place to introduce his floating art installation. I added it to my own short list of places I’d be tempted to pull up stakes and move to.
Hofman has said the idea behind his big rubber duck is to remind everyone of the simple joys of childhood. The Rubber Duck Project can’t appear anywhere else for three months and its next stop is a secret, but Pittsburgh, a place built around water and a city with a sense of fun, was the perfect spot to introduce his giant smiling bathtub toy to North America.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
We walked through the gates of the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach just as the staff raised the twin American Flags that fly on the tall poles at the edge of green lawn dotted with rows of white marble crosses stretching as far as the eye can see. It was still early but I was surprised by the number of people that were already there. Some had come to find a particular name, others to pay their respects to lives lost, each to mark a dark moment in the modern world’s history.
At the visitor’s center I sat down on a bench to watch a film with short biographies of some of those killed during the Battle of Normandy. A man who looked to be in his 80s, or even older, was seated on the bench beside me.
Absorbed by the film, by the stories of the lives of ordinary people cut short by a brutal war, I’d forgotten I wasn’t alone until I heard a sound from the man seated next to me. It was the soft shuddering sound of a breath that could have become a sob. An involuntary cry that had been quickly covered. Surprised, I glanced over at him and then quickly looked away. He didn’t move, his eyes remained locked on the screen, and he did not make another sound. The movie ended and I saw him reach up to wipe his hand across his eyes.
We both stood to move on. He rose slowly, stiffly, leaning on a cane as he walked from the room, I stayed behind to gather my thoughts. I have no idea if the man was a veteran of the Normandy landings. I suppose it’s possible. We lose so many WWII veterans each day but a few are still healthy enough to make the pilgrimage to Normandy.
The man could have been a boy at the time, just old enough to enlist, and one of the thousands who waded into hell that day. Or he might have lost someone, a father, a brother, an uncle or cousin, and watching the movie brought back the pain of the loss. I’ll never know. But the man beside me in the darkened room, a man who caught his breath on a sob, reminded me that battles may end but pain comes and goes as it pleases. And time means nothing when the right trigger is pulled.
War seems to be a more casual thing these days. Looking around me at airports, at the grocery store, at the mall, I see men and women in uniform every day. We’re quick to thank them for service and then move on. I know of some who served and returned to pick up their lives and go on and others who came home to find they no longer fit as comfortably into the lives they’d shed. Too many never make it home at all.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day and I can’t shake the image of more than 9,000 stark white crosses on a hillside overlooking the sea.
I keep hearing the sound of an old man trying not to cry.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com
(Thomas Jefferson's 'Poplar Forest' retreat. Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
It is easy to think we know everything there is to know about certain historical figures. Thomas Jefferson, for instance. But even great men have their domestic secrets.
On a recent trip to Virginia I drove up the long winding road that led to Thomas Jefferson’s secret love: a stately, symmetrical and elegant home situated along an avenue of tall poplar trees. I was not visiting Monticello. Instead, I was at Poplar Forest.
Jefferson and his wife Martha inherited Poplar Forest from Martha’s father in 1773 but Martha died in 1782 before construction. It wasn’t until 1806 that work finally began, with Jefferson there to supervise the laying of the foundation. The octagonal house was his own design and he was intimately connected to the construction, corresponding frequently with the builders. Whenever possible he traveled to the site to check progress or make some necessary or desired change to the plans.
When his presidency ended in 1809, Poplar Forest became Jefferson’s personal retreat and sanctuary, shared only with his family, and a few most-intimate friends. He escaped to it whenever he could, often accompanied by his granddaughters on his extended visits. Jefferson created the elaborate gardens and landscaping surrounding the house, choosing the plants and flowers that would grow there. He continued to make the journey to Poplar Forest until age and poor health finally kept him away. His last trip was in 1823. After Jefferson’s death his son inherited Poplar Forest but sold it to a neighbor two years later.
As a private home, the house survived fire and numerous renovations and Poplar Forest remained a virtual secret for generations. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when development encroached, that the beautiful and fragile estate was purchased from private homeowners, organized and set aside. And the long, slow process of maintaining a national landmark was begun.
Today, standing just inside the front doors, a visitor is bathed in light streaming in through windows in every room and through the long, narrow skylight in the dining room, light that illuminates every corner of the octagonal structure. It is easy to imagine the relief Thomas Jefferson might have felt as he rode away from the demands of the life that had come to settle on him, away from the pressures of law and government, away from crowds of admirers and, even in that day, celebrity-watchers, and arrived at this quiet place in the rolling hills of Virginia.
To visit Poplar Forest now is a gift. A chance to see this place so beloved by a man who treasured his privacy, who craved quiet time to read and think. At this time it is a beautiful shell. Walls have been strengthened and repaired. Oak flooring—as was in the original structure—has been installed. Windows have been rebuilt, alcoves opened and doorways reconfigured, all to bring the beautiful, light filled, octagonal home back to it's original design. All of the work is being done by master craftsmen and artisans, after intensive study and research. And, to the extent possible, in the manner it would have been done in Jefferson’s time.
At this time, only a few pieces of furniture, including a reproduction of the 19th Century Campeachy chair—with its ancient but strikingly contemporary design—Jefferson preferred because of his painful arthritis.
Eventually, I suppose, the interior will be recreated to reflect the way Jefferson lived when he was there there. But at this moment, to be surrounded by the almost bare bones of the house is beautiful and evocative. It is impossible to stand in Jefferson’s bedroom, free of furniture and extraneous material, to see the empty alcove where his bed would have been, the rough handmade bricks lining his fireplace, to gaze out at the view of fields and forest visible through the tall windows, and not feel the powerful presence of the man who loved every inch of the place.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The two-story mercantile, a farmhouse, the old grain elevator, a bank building and a set of abandoned railroad tracks running across the grassland are the only visible reminders of the town of Virgelle, Montana. Settled in 1912 by homesteaders who rushed to claim their 300 acres in the harsh Montana landscape, by 1930 the boom was over and the little town was frozen in time
After the last holdout left in the 1970s, the ghost town could have faded away but the property was purchased by a pharmacist who’d grown up nearby. He filled the mercantile space with an antiques business and turned the upstairs rooms into a Bed and Breakfast. One by one, original homestead cabins, rescued from the surrounding countryside, were brought in and refurbished. A vintage sheepherder’s wagon was added to the mix of restored accommodations.
My room for the night was the 1914 Little Mosier homestead cabin. Big enough for a double bed, an oilcloth-covered table and two chairs, a big iron-and-nickel cook stove and a washstand with both a Coleman lantern and a battery lantern, the cabin faced the grassy slope rolling down toward the Missouri River. To my left, down the road a bit, I could see a working ranch. To my right, a bath house and the Mercantile building. A little further, more cabins and the rest of what remains of the original town.
Dropping my bags in a chair, I opened the screen door and stepped back out to the porch and stood there a long time looking out, trying to imagine the scenes that had played out in the tiny cabin and others like it. I thought about what it must have been like to live there a century ago, a child on my hip, maybe another in a cradle by the stove. The family would have ached with cold in the harsh winters and been baked by the relentless summer sun. It’s easy to imagine early optimism giving way to fatigue and loneliness and perhaps, eventually, even despair. The reality of the hardscrabble life most early homesteaders faced would break most of us. Only the toughest made it.
Grabbing my camera, chasing the golden light cast by the fading sun, I followed the path across the road and walked to where the old railroad sign still marked the town by the railroad tracks. A rabbit, startled by my footsteps, darted out and, deciding I was no threat, skirted me, almost touching my boots, before continuing down what was obviously a trail, worn and defined by generations of other wildlife.
As it always does, gazing out at the vast openness of the Montana sky and rolling grassland soothed the jangled tension inside me. Like many others, I am someone who needs quiet spaces but although I relish my solitude, I don’t need complete isolation to find it. The little cluster of old buildings and cabins was perfect. There were a few others staying in the restored cabins and the sheepherder’s wagon surrounding the mercantile store, but voices were low and each of us seemed to be happy to be left alone with our thoughts.
After a big meal served family style in the kitchen of the bed and breakfast, in the company of other guests—there were only one or two others as it was late in the tourist season—I was ready to call it a day. Flashlight in hand, I followed the path back to my cabin. A bird, startled by my footsteps on the porch, returned the favor and startled me as it flew over my head and out into the night sky. Inside the cabin, the lantern painted the walls with shadows.
I slipped between crisp cotton sheets, burrowing under the heavy hand-stitched quilts. The early September night was already cool, tinged with autumn, hinting at the winter that would come.
As I lay alone in the dark, listening to the coyotes call down by the river and the rustling of nightbirds and small creatures outside, I closed my eyes. Content, warm, safe, and, for the first time in weeks free of the noise of a busy life, it felt possible to pick up the loose and broken threads of work and family and all the other nagging worries that fight for attention in my mind and knit myself back together. I closed my eyes and let the night sounds sing me to sleep.
More information about the Virgelle Mercantile
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
We meet a couple of times a month, schedules permitting. We drink a cup of coffee and if I’m lucky there’s cake or pie. Then we spend an hour or two working on the words she has put on paper since we last met.
In her mid-80s, she is writing down the memories she spent a lifetime collecting, organizing them as a surprise gift for her children, great-grandchildren and newborn great-grandson.
My job is more than just editing what she’s written or giving her advice about the choice of words or a turn of phrase. I’m her coach, there to give her confidence.
“I’m not a writer,” she said the first time we spoke by phone. “I’m not a writer,” she says as she hands me the paper. Oh, but she is. And like all of us, she has a unique story to tell.
She married young and stayed married for half a century. She raised a family, navigating the upheaval and shifting social landscape of the late 1960s and 70s. She volunteered at her church, traveled some and survived the loss of a spouse.
Now, grounded by arthritis and failing eyesight, she wants to leave her family with a window to who she was and how she came to be the woman they know as mother and grandmother. The stories she is writing down aren’t grand, sweeping dramas. They’re the quiet stuff of an ordinary life.
Her children know their parents took a cruise through the Panama Canal but they don’t the couple sat on the deck one night and, holding hands, began to talk, looking back over their years together. And that both ended up in tears, crying over the flush of first love, over the harsh words, the occasional cold nights and wasted time given over to the ordinary spats and grudges of any marriage. They wept over the sweetness of family and the beauty of the life they’d had together. In less than a year he was gone and she’s never told anyone about that night. Until now.
The children know the dishes on the table each Christmas belonged to a great-grandmother, but they’ve never heard the story of how that china, packed in excelsior and shipped in a big wood barrel, made its way across an ocean as a wedding gift only to arrive just after the groom succumbed to influenza and died leaving a grieving young widow. And the barrel was passed down, still unpacked, to the next generation.
She is writing about the scar on her knee and how she got it when she fell through the ice as a child, ripping the skin on a jagged rock on the edge of the lake. She’s putting into words just how it felt to hear the ice break beneath her and feel herself plunge into water so cold it stole her breath. How her legs were so numb she didn’t know she was injured until she was pulled to shore and the blood trailed bright scarlet across the ice. The memory is still so terrifying she’s never talked about it to anyone. Until now.
So we meet. And one day at a time, one word at a time, I encourage her. Together we tell her story as she becomes the writer she never believed herself to be.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet , Treasure Hunting blogs, she chronicles her travels on CAMera: Travel and Photo. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The first thing you notice about the Alamo is that it stands right in the center of San Antonio. The small, sand-colored building, surrounded by trees and a lawn of green grass, ringed by tall buildings, sits like an antique, rough-cut stone, in a modern setting.
Of course, the Alamo was there first. Everything else came along later.
I visited the Alamo for the first time late in the afternoon two days before the 175th anniversary of the battle that shaped both the legend and the aura of the Alamo, as well as the state of Texas.
I watched as people walked the grounds, stopping to read the names on the tall memorial. Some were in costume. Members of the Texas Living History Association were there to reenact the event. Horses, tied to lines strung between trees, dozed, lifting one foot and then another. Men strolled around in buckskin and homespun, some in the uniform of Mexican soldiers. The women were in bonnets and calico.
Finally, I opened the heavy wood doors and stepped inside. I am always struck by the power of a place with a past. The way inanimate buildings can breathe with life and echo silently with the sound of all they have witnessed.
In the wide central hall, visitors moved from one display to another, their voices hushed as though they were in a sacred place. The people of Texas would say they were.The air was perfumed with the cool, dry, mineral smell of stone and time.
As I stood there, listening to our guide speak of the battle, the deaths and indignities, I noticed a man walk through the door. Tall, lanky, wearing jeans and a wide cowboy hat - the quintessential Texan - he stopped and looked around him.
Then, slowly, he reached up and removed his Stetson and, with his big, rough hand cupped over the crown, held it over his heart.
I came back for the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the battle. Standing in the crowd, shivering in the dark, I listened to the speakers and felt the concussion from the musket volleys fired at dawn. I wondered if the man who’d stood so respectfully a few days before was there, lost in the crowd.
History is such a personal thing. But it is a collective experience, as well.
I hadn’t expected to be moved by the Alamo. That is their history, after all. Not mine. But I was moved. I was deeply moved by words and faces of the people who stood there with me as the sky lightened into a deep violet over the rough stone walls of the old mission.
I came away with the lesson we so often forget in a world that moves too fast to do much more than hold on to where we are at the moment.
Ultimately, history asks only one thing of us: Remember.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com