Dec 232019

In May of 2019 I met with eleven other swimmers in Hurghada, Egypt. We boarded a yacht which would be our home for the next seven days. I have done such swims in Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Spain, and other places. But the Red Sea was different. The waves and currents and challenges of swimming were the same, but the sea life was beyond my experience. The five minute video which follows provides an in-water look.

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Wife Carrying Contest

 Posted by at 12:43 pm  2 Responses »
Sep 082018

There are many Scandinavian festivals that include wife carrying contests. The one I have attended is the New Jersey festival, held annually in Budd Lake on Labor Day weekend. The video shown here is mostly from the recent 2018 festival, with a few clips included from 2015. Wife carrying is said to date to the days of the Vikings and to their practice of selecting a wife and then carrying her off. Several types of carrying are practiced, which you will see. The principal ones include 1) piggyback, 2) fireman’s over-the-shoulder, and 3) Estonian style – where the wife hangs upside down with her legs around the husband’s shoulders, holding onto his waist. You will also see variations. 

The wife carrying course is rectangular and about 250 meters in length. It has 4 obstacles, consisting of car tires, hay bales, a wooden staircase, and pools of water. The winning man receives the woman’s weight in beer. The couple does not have to be married, thus any willing woman will do for the carry.

The Wife Carrying World Championships have been held annually in Sonkajarvi, Finland, since 1992.

Please enjoy! (You may wish to view full screen. Make sure your sound is turned on.)

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Sep 052018

There are those who live their lives with no moral struggles. To them, nothing is right or wrong. Things are simply desirable, or they aren’t. Self interest makes the choices. The laws of man or God may get in the way, but only as barriers to get around. 

Most of us aren’t able to live that way. Most of us have a nagging conscience raising questions of right and wrong. This can be a burden or a blessing . . .  depending. Most of us struggle to develop our standards of right and wrong, and struggle even more to follow them.

I was reminded of this at a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. A wonderfully clean and healthy place. A great place to live if you’re a cow or calf or human child. A place where Amish buggies come driving in to buy milk and eggs, delivering children to enjoy ice cream and animals.

The folks who run this farm work hard, love one another, live modestly, help their neighbors, study their Bibles, and go to church on Sundays. And like most of us, they consider the rightness or wrongness of their words and deeds. So as I read the polite request bullet-pointed in a list on the wall, I smiled but did not scorn it. It said:

To many, such a sign will seem quaint and belonging to an earlier time. When I first read it, I had that reaction. But then, the very next day, I read about the funeral of Aretha Franklin in Detroit. There was much discussion of the mini-skirt worn by one of the singers, and whether it was appropriate for a funeral or not. Many considered it “immodest attire.” And former president Bill Clinton was accused of gazing at the singer in an inappropriate manner by a Fox News panel. They called it “leering.” So the sign I read in rural Pennsylvania is more current than it appeared.

I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee. Most people were either Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Most went to church on Sunday. Local ministers took turns preaching in our schools. Revival meetings were common, and you could listen to preachers preaching on the radio almost non-stop. They preached against a variety of sins including drinking and dancing and women wearing shorts. Kids were forbidden to play sports on Sunday afternoons because it was “the Lord’s Day.” On the campus of my own “Christian college,” couples were forbidden from holding hands while walking together. I can say this for sure because I was once caught doing it.

In my lifetime, norms have gone from this to now having a President whose third wife used to pose for nude photographs, who has spoken on television of grabbing women by the genitals, and who has paid hush money to silence women about alleged affairs. We now have explicit photos and video free-for-all on the Internet, explicit how-to articles on sex available in women’s magazines at grocery checkout counters, and all sorts of revealing dress and language on television and in public places. One cannot but admire the fortitude of religious communities that have maintained their norms against such times.

But it all seems so arbitrary, so relative, so ambiguous. How short must shorts be to qualify as “short shorts?” How low must a neckline dip down to be an “inappropriate low neckline?” I can hear teenage girls asking these questions, and mothers having a hard time explaining. Then there are the other religions that insist on covering their women from head to toe, even the eyes. For them this is necessary to “maintain pure thoughts and actions.” For them, the Amish country norms are far too liberal.

Just where did the conscience of human beings come from? The religions think God gave us our conscience, all built in and set up. But if this were so, how come the definitions of right and wrong vary so greatly? And why do they vary so much from age to age, person to person, and religion to religion? Some people have a taste for broccoli, and others don’t. Are views of right and wrong like that? Are they that variable and individual? Are there things that are universally good or evil, and if so, what are those things?

The religions usually speak of their sacred writings as defining what is right and wrong. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is Moses and his ten commandments, given by God on a mountain and carved into tablets of stone. One of the ten says very simply, “thou shalt not kill.” But what do we make of that? What have Jews and Christians made of it? In its plainest, simplest meaning, it forbids the taking of another life. But over the years many exceptions have been proposed and carried out. These include euthanasia, capital punishment, assisted suicide, killing in self defense, killing under “stand your ground,” targeted killings by remotely operated drones, defensive wars, aggressive wars, and “pre-emptive wars,” a new term which seems a euphemism for wars of aggression.

Think of all the things that have been debated over the years from a moral standpoint: gay marriage, gay sex, premarital sex, breast feeding in public, contraception, masturbation, genital mutilation, pornography, inter-racial marriage, inter-faith marriage, human slavery, capital punishment, racial segregation, abortion, public nudity, private nude beaches, bull fighting, the torture of prisoners, the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, chemical weapons, and, of course, war itself.

Many of these discussions are far away from Amish country around New Holland, Pennsylvania. But it’s all part of the same. We’re all trying to figure out the right and wrong of things in life, and hope it matters.

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Jan 302017

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 29: Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest on January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. Protestors in Washington and around the country gathered to protest President Donald Trump's executive order barring the citizens of Muslim-majority countries Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from traveling to the United States.

He is banning members of the Muslim religion from our country, but I am not of that religion.

He is building a wall to keep out Mexicans, but I am not a Mexican.

He will not allow us to shelter the suffering, homeless, and dying refugees of war, but I am not a refugee.

He intends to torture prisoners, but I will not be one of those tortured.

He may cancel the health insurance of 20 million people, but I have other health insurance.

He will do away with protections for the environment, but I do not have so many years left to live, and future generations will pay for this, not me.

He is moving to further restrict the voting rights of minorities and others who oppose him, but I am a white man from Tennessee and I will still be able to vote.

He will degrade public education, on which most families depend, while funding private education for the well-off. But I already have my education.

He intends to deport some 12 million immigrants, including many who were born and grew up here. But I am not one of those to be deported.

He will reverse the civil rights gains made by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons, but I am not one of these persons.

He wants to make abortions illegal and even criminal, but I will not be needing an abortion.

He will reduce government benefits for the poor and vulnerable to benefit the wealthy and powerful, like himself. But I am not among the poor and vulnerable.

He wants more people in more places armed with more guns, so the “good guys” can kill the “bad guys.” This will increase our national murder rate even more than it already is. But I live a quiet life and am not likely to be among those murdered.

So, other than a terrible sadness for the plight of others, will he do me no harm?

Well, no harm unless . . .

Unless he is able to take away our freedom of speech, and of the press, and of religion, or from religion if we choose. Unless he can take our rights of travel and free association with others, and of voting and debating public issues, and of equal treatment under just laws. Unless we are left sold out and oppressed, with no truthful information on what is happening, to us and others in the world.

Unless he so divides and abuses and insults and provokes others who are not me, that some equivalent of a second American Civil War occurs. A conflict in which the military forces he now commands will be unleashed against citizens who oppose him, as in Assad’s Syria and Saddam’s Iraq and Franco’s Spain and Amin’s Uganda and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

Unless his constant and unpredictable anger, and belligerence toward other peoples and nations, leads us into nuclear destruction. Which now does not seem all that unlikely.

His view of our America is a dark and gloomy one, a view that sees threats on every side and emergencies he must address where none exist. And now that he has gained this power he sought, my own view has turned dark and gloomy as well. 

If I were a man of power and prominence in the country, and he read these words, I would doubtless be marked for suppression or retribution.

But I am not a man of power or prominence. Just a very worried citizen.

Listen to a reading of this story:

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Breakfast in Payson

 Posted by at 9:51 am  No Responses »
Aug 312016

I'm a big fan of Garrison Keillor. He once said that if you drive around the country, stop in small towns, and sit down with the locals in their breakfast cafe, you never know when you may hear something interesting, surprising, or even profound. John Steinbeck also believed that. He took his dog and drove across America, talking with ordinary people and collecting stories. They went into a thoughtful and entertaining book titled "Travels With Charley."

payson azWell . . . I came to the desert town of Payson, Arizona. I ordered breakfast in a small diner there beside the road. The adjoining booth was occupied by a local man, sitting by himself, talking on his cellphone, his voice lowered. He had long, unkept hair and a long, unkept beard. His clothes looked as worn and tired as he did, and his speech had the lingering of alcohol about it. I heard him use the word "innebriated," a term less confessional and more respectable than the word "drunk." But meaning the same, of course.

The man was talking with a woman. You could tell she was someone he missed, someone he owed something to, someone he needed to have around and planned to see again.

The man was doing most of the talking, mostly about nothing, until the end of the conversation. The woman on the line had apparently said, "I love you."

Now, a man in those circumstances must say something. As a man myself, I know about this moment, that pause that needs a response, as the woman awaits one. I didn't expect a memorable response from this man, but I heard one.

There was a moment of hesitation, and then: "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."

I love you no matter what I say or do.

Payson, Arizona

Payson, Arizona

It was said wistfully. Like saying you don't want to borrow money again, but you really have to. Wistfully, like thinking of an old friend and remembering your last words were something you wish hadn't been said. Wistfully, like remembering that opportunity of a lifetime you missed out on, because you were so stupid, stupid.

"No matter what I say or do," remember I love you.

The man is admitting his sins of the past, but also anticipating their repetition in the future. He's disclaiming in advance the hurt that he may cause. He's professing both his love, and his liklihood of acting contrary to it. In essence, he wants forgiveness in advance, saved up for a rainy day. What a deal!

I tried to imagine . . . what were those words and deeds that had passed between them, out there in the desert?

Did he verbally abuse this woman? Call her names, or fat, or ugly? Had he insulted her family, her friends? Had he sworn hatefully at her, unprovoked?

Did he maybe wreck her car, steal money from her purse, break up her furniture?  Did he hit her? In the face, or somewhere else?  With his fist, or with something else?  And whatever that history was, it's one thing to own up and ask forgiveness, but how, at the same time, do you say you'll be repeating such things in the future?

Pathetic, I thought, sitting there listening. "Believe that I love you, no matter what I'm about to say or do to hurt you?" Can his woman accept that, and live with it? And if she does, is she to be admired or pitied?

It may well be that she did accept it, did believe it, and was willing to live with it. It may well be that in spite of his drinking and all his flaws, she loves him. Maybe she knows and appreciates qualities of his the rest of the world has missed. There are women like that. There are women devoted to deeply flawed men. There are women who feel they have no choice except to go along and make the best of things. I imagined that maybe the woman on the phone line was that sort of woman. And not knowing her, I felt sad for her.

I felt sad because her fear of loosing him may be greater than any fear of him. She can put up with his drinking and abuse, because her greater fear is being without him and alone.

But then . . . hold on . . . who am I to know or to judge about any of this? 

Could there be another side to it, I've asked myself since then? Should his words be viewed in a more positive light? Was this the true confession of a down-and-out man who knows and freely admits his failure and weakness? An honest man. Honest to a fault, and about his faults. When he said "no matter what I say or do," did his woman smile a knowing smile, or even laugh out loud? I imagined that happening. Did this woman love him truly, despite anything he'd said or done, anything he might say or do? 

If so, we onlookers would say he's lucky to have her. But she may consider herself lucky to have him, even him. He may be the best she can do in Payson, Arizona.

The man left the restaurant ahead of me, and I observed him as he went. The kind of man people glance at, but then away from. Who appears sad to the world, and is. The kind of man you might want to forget, but can't.

I did take something home from this. When my own woman says, "I love you," and a reply is called for, I've tried out those words of his. I say, "I love you . . . no matter what I say or do."

Sometimes she laughs, but not always.

Listen to a reading of this story:

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Jun 142016

On June 12, 2016, I completed my 7th Great Chesapeake Bay Swim. My time was 2 hours and 36 minutes which is my best to date. I finished in 520th place among the 642 finishers. This does mean that a lot of swimmers finished ahead of me, but it also means I came in ahead of 122 others, all younger than myself. I finished first in my age group (75-79) although, full disclosure, there were only two of us in that age group. My Garmin Forerunner sport watch counted the 4,136 swimming strokes it took me to swim the 4.4 miles, and it estimated I burned 1,619 calories. My family made up this calorie deficit afterward with a barbecue dinner at the Red, Hot, & Blue place. The race was won by a 20-year-old man with a time of 1:24, which was a near record. The swimmers who swim across the bay that fast seem beyond mere mortals to me.

The weather was a good news/bad news affair. There were winds blowing 33 miles per hour, but the wind was blowing in the direction we were swimming. However, the wind was kicking up waves said officially to be 2-3 feet but felt to be more like 4-5 feet by those of us in the water. It was hard to get reliable breaths without taking in mouthfuls of water. I kept thinking of the expression "tossed around like a cork." But the water was a pleasant temperature and the tidal currents were less than usual. Other than the terrific wind and waves, it was a great day for a swim.

I'm addressing 5 questions I've been asked about swimming out in open water.

Why do you do this?

Sometime around the year 2003, I was sitting at a company event next to a man named John Jellen. I'd recently given up running and taken up lap swimming. Jellen had recently completed the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, I asked him many questions about the swim, and I began thinking I'd love to do this myself. Sometime after that, I was innocently driving across the Bay Bridge on a second Sunday in June, and had the astonishing view of all those swimmers far down below in the water. I wondered if I could ever do a thing like that. Then later I decided to try.  I began doing shorter open water swims, eventually qualified to enter the Bay Swim, and completed my first one in 2005. 

The effort and discipline of getting ready for this swim gives me great incentive to stay healthy and keep in shape throughout the year. I know that at my age I can't get out of shape during the year and hope to do the swim on short notice. So I swim all year round, but with increasing effort starting in January.

I've always been drawn to adventure, and open water swimming is certainly in that category. At my age and now with an artificial right hip, I can't run or play tennis or climb mountains as I used to. But I can swim, and swim a lot. I think swimming is the ideal form of exercise for my situation. The next Bay Swim motivates my regular swimming and fitness all year long.

What do you think about?  

This was an interesting question. The person who asked may have thought you get bored swimming for two and a half hours. That can be true of swimming long distance in a lap pool. For that I have a waterproof MP3 player and a variety of music.

But out in open water there is much to do and much to occupy the mind. You must sight ahead and navigate your course. In many cases that's a full-time job. But along with that you have to avoid collisions with other swimmers, and the traps and other dangers you encounter. In rough water, every stroke and breath is different, and you're constantly trying to better adjust. You try to get in sync with the waves, to be in harmony with the elements instead of struggling against them. But that struggle is a struggle.

In a long swim, you have to keep assessing your level of effort, and balancing the desire to swim fast with the need to stay within your ability. There's a debate inside your head. One voice says go all out, and the other says slow down and play it safe. You have to moderate that debate and then deal with the consequences.

There's also the matter of motivation. There is almost always some adversity to be overcome. And the adversity requires a mental as well as a physical effort.

In the first half mile of this year's swim, I went through a period of tough breathing. It seemed I was getting a mouth full of water with every breath, and unable to get any breath at all between some strokes. There was some sense of panic in my thinking then, and I had to fight that, make myself slow down, and stay calm and work through this.

I mainly have the Chesapeake Bay Bridge memorized now, and as I swim I decide on new objectives one after another. This breaks up the course into manageable chunks.  This, also, occupies the mind.

How does swimming like this compare to pool swimming?  

Pool and open water swimming both involve making your way through water, but there are many differences after that.

Lap swimming in a pool is very safe, set, and structured. You swim down a marked lane and back, in nice clear water, with a life guard watching over you. The water is calm and temperature controlled, and its purity is closely monitored. At the end of the lane you get a big push off the wall before starting back. Any time you want you can stop and rest. You have your water bottle right there if you decide on a drink. You can hang off the side of the pool and chat with friends.

Out in a lake or river or bay or ocean, almost none of those things exists. Unlike the pool, you never know what you may experience, and you have to adjust to unexpected and often variable circumstances. Pool swimming is like walking the dog around an accustomed neighborhood route. Open water swimming is like exploring strange new territory or climbing a hill where no trail exists. You must improvise and adapt to whatever you encounter. You are more on your own, and the miles come harder. But the reward will most likely be greater.

I don't mean to disparage pool swimming, or imply it's only good for conditioning. After many years of swimming laps, I still keep learning and finding new challenges. If I could only swim in a pool, I would keep swimming in the pool for sure.

I own and ride two bicycles: a road bike and a mountain bike. Both are bicycles. Both have 2 tires and a chain and seat and handlebars and gears and sprockets. But one bike is built for speed on a smooth surface. The other is heavier and slower with full suspension and lower gearing and built to handle rough terrain. The same conditioning is good for both types of riding, but the challenges and skill sets are different. Road riding is more even and predictable. Off-road biking is more variable, presenting a great variety of situations and requiring more improvisation. That, for me, is an appropriate analogy for swimming in the lap lanes as contrasted with swimming in open water.

How do you prepare to swim across the Chesapeake Bay?   

This is more about hard work and common sense than anything else. I try to eat healthy and keep in shape all year round. I put in many miles of laps in swimming pools all year round, but increasing in intensity as the event approaches. I average swimming 14-15 miles most weeks, including a lot of 3 mile swims and some 4's as well. I time every swim and keep track of my times and distances.

I do other things that benefit other parts of the body: hiking, bicycle riding, daily stretching and core-building exercises. If possible, I do shorter swims in open water in preparation. This year I did the Nanticoke River Swim (3 miles) about a month ahead of the Bay Swim. Since I swim in a wetsuit, I also do wetsuit training swims in the pool ahead of the swim. Wearing a wetsuit changes your balance in the water and affects your stroke, and it is good to adjust to this in practice ahead of time.

Two weeks before the swim I taper off. I cut back on mileage. The week before the swim this year I did a one mile swim on Monday, followed by half mile swims on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But those half miles consisted of 100 yard sprints at the fastest pace I could do. And I rested a lot otherwise. I prepared mentally by going over the swim course and my lessons learned from previous years. And another thing, very important, is hydration. I drink water, water, water the day before and the morning of the swim. I once passed out from dehydration after a 3 mile swim, and learned a hard lesson.

What is so special about the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim?  

The Bay Swim is a premier event among U.S. open water swims. I would't claim it to be the greatest, but it is up there with the Manhattan Island and Alcatraz Island swims for its unique and scenic location. I have done swims in Lake Bled, Slovenia, and along the southern Turkish coast where the swimmer views are stunning. The Bay Swim is still inspiring to me, even after several crossings.

We start from the beach of Sandy Point State Park on the Maryland western shore, swim out and into the 100-yard-wide space between the spans of the towering Chesapeake Bay Bridge, swim across the bay between those spans, exit at the eastern shore, and finish at the Hemingway's Marina beach. 

There are 650 of us swimming. We're supported by over 700 volunteers. They're in boats, kayaks, busses, firetrucks, ambulances, food trucks, overhead in 2 helicopters. Volunteers are handling all sorts of support and logistical duties. The U.S. Coast guard has 18 ships lined across the bay on both sides, closing off all boat traffic. It's the only time in the year this major shipping lane to Baltimore Harbor is closed. If you take time to look while swimminbg, you can see the crowded bridge traffic high above you, or a gathering of cormorants around the base of a bridge support. You see assorted great blue herons and ospreys, and should you be lucky a nesting peregrine falcon. When you finally emerge from under the bridge after 4 miles of swimming, you see the finish another half mile straight ahead down the jetty. The protected water there is smoother, more like a pool. And a cheering crowd is there, and you get to race down this homestretch with whatever swimmers are finishing there around you. 

That is all good to great. And this event has been going on annually for 25 years now, and has a great history of supporting worthy, charitable causes, with over $2M donated thus far.

The first time I did this swim, I wasn't as prepared as I was last Sunday. I came out of the water exhausted and hurting. I remember saying to my wife: "I'm glad I did this once, but I don't think I'll ever try it again."


Long before the January registration deadline, I was eager to try it again. 

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “Open Water Swim Events” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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May 022016

I have previously written about the annual open water swimming event in Maryland’s Nanticoke River. The 2012 swim is here and lthe 2013 swim is here. I won’t repeat descriptions of the area and the event, but simply report on my experience there just yesterday – May 1, 2016.

Nanticoke scenic river on Maryland's Eastern Shore

Nanticoke scenic river on Maryland's Eastern Shore

To say that it was a cold and rainy day is putting it mildly. Rain was coming down almost constantly and alternating between light, medium, and heavy. The water temperature which is normally expected to be in the mid to upper 60’s was 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 12.8 Celsius. Last summer I swam in my coldest water to date, which was 17 Celsius in an alpine river in Italy. I worried before the Nanticoke race that the water temperature would keep me from getting enough breath. It actually did not. The cold was painful at first, but as I got into the swim I was able to swim and breathe normally. 

I have dear swimming friends who literally love cold water and thrive on swimming in colder and colder environments. I will not be joining those ranks. This day after the swim, I am glad I was able to swim in such water, but I will not look forward to doing so again.

Also many of my cold water loving friends swim bare-skinned in bathing suits. I do not. At the Nanticoke I wore my Orca full length wetsuit, wetsuit insulated socks, and a Blue Seventy insulated cap under the race cap. If there was anything else I could have worn to help with the cold, I would have worn it.

Other than rain and cold water, conditions for the 2016 Nanticoke swim were quite favorable. The wind and waves were minimal, and the tidal currents were much less than in my previous swims there. The race was also less crowded, due perhaps to the expected cold temperatures. The 3-mile portion of the event, my group, had only 50 participants.

I swam well and felt I had done about as good as I am capable of. My time was an hour and forty three minutes, an average of 34 minutes per mile. I placed 37th out of the 50 finishers. 

I had hoped for a time of an hour and a half. I can swim 3 miles in that time doing laps in the pool. But there is a considerable difference between swimming in open water and swimming laps in the pool. I have been thinking about the differences that would make my time in the river slower than my expected time in the pool. I have several thoughts about the question.

(1) In the pool you get a big breath and strong push off the wall every 25 yards or meters. You can never do sustained swimming as fast as you come off the wall at the ends of the lane. There is no pushing off out in a lake or river or ocean. (2) In the pool you are swimming an exact distance following a marked lane. In open water, despite your best effort to sight ahead and stay on course, you wander and add distance. (3) In the pool your time ends when you finish the last lap, but in most open water swim events (like Nanticoke), you have to haul yourself out of the water onto a beach, get your footing, and walk/run to a finish line and timing mat, adding additional time. (4) Then, of course, the water temperature in a pool is controlled and kept at an optimal temperature. I can only assume there is some physical handicap to swimming in 55 degree water as opposed to 78 or so degrees. 

Somewhere there must be scientific studies with data on this question, but I have yet to see them. For now, these points comprise my excuses for swimming at a 34 minute pace instead of a 30 minute pace. I would be interested in other thoughts, experiences, observations, or research on the matter.

I am now looking forward to participating in my seventh Great Chesapeake Bay Swim event on Sunday, June 12th. The water should be warmer.

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “Open Water Swim Events” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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Apr 292016

Today's soldiers communicate with families and friends in many ways. They can tweet and post on Facebook. They have email and voicemail, and they can send audio and video recordings. They can often make cellphone calls, use VoIP, and even videoconference using Facetime or other programs. There are, of course, restrictions on these activities in some locations and circumstances, but none of these modes existed in World War Two. Those soldiers had only letters and post cards. For them, the "mail call" was either a great reward, or a great disappointment.

Pfc. David Briggs, Jr.

Pfc. David Briggs, Jr.

I was the youngest of three brothers, and now the only one still living. My oldest brother, David Jr., volunteered for the army at age seventeen, over the objection of our father. He trained at various bases, then shipped to England, then fought in the Normandy Invasion. He was killed in action on August 15th, 1944 at the age of nineteen, five days before his twentieth birthday.

His death was a great loss to our family and I still think of him often. Just hearing the music from "Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" brings it back. By all accounts, my brother was bright and personable and had a fine life ahead of him. That his life ended at nineteen years of age and mine has been long and mostly happy seems unfair. That he was among nearly 300,000 other killed-in-action soldiers from the United States alone, all mostly his age, is a haunting memory.

I look at nineteen-year-olds today and they seem so young. It is hard to believe this was the age of my elder brother as a soldier. It is also hard to fathom the use of German boys aged twelve through sixteen which occurred toward the end of the war. There was actually an Allied camp for captured German boy soldiers that once housed 10,000 of them. 

David Briggs grave in Normandy

David Briggs grave in Normandy

Before he died, David Jr. wrote letters to me and to my older brother, John. The letters are cheerful, caring, and given to some wisdom and good advice. 

Dear John. Please buy a book on chemistry or something that you want. If there is a book that you want, buy it. Be good, kid, and think of your brother once in a while. Take care of yourself, and if I go oversees soon, don't worry about it. Nothing will happen to me, fellow. If anything ever does happen to me you will have to fill my place. I know that you will do a good job of it. Always remember that I am counting on you. Always keep in mind that it pays to do things for others. Try to resist the temptations that you will meet. You are now sixteen, and it won't be too long before you will be as old as I was when I came into the army. If I don't leave for overseas I will get a ten day furlow the first of June. I want to see all of you once more, then I am ready for anything. We've got a job to do, and our younger brothers owe to us something. They are bound by the blood that we shed for them to do a good job in life. Remember that. You owe us that much. It isn't asking too much. I may never go across, but you can't tell. Your brother, Dave.

A Private in the U.S. Army made $138 per month back then. I assume from his letter that my brother had enclosed a check for John, suggesting the chemistry book. 

The letter contains his youthful assertion that "nothing will happen to me," and then goes on to anticipate that, indeed, "something" may happen. Most of the latter anticipates that something will happen. If "something" does happen, sixteen-year-old John will need to fill his place: his place in the family, but most of all his place in the army if the war goes on. John will soon be military age. My brother is "ready for anything," but John must be ready also. I wonder about John's thoughts on reading these words.

Besides the anticipation of military service, there is also advice about living. John is asked to "be good," to "resist the temptations" he will meet, and to "do things for others."

I know where this may have came from. The three brothers of us were all Eagle Scouts of Troop 88 in Maryville, Tennessee. The "scout law" taught us to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. In our small East Tennessee town, these values were impressed upon us by parents and by grandparents, by teachers in the schools and by preachers in our churches.

Letter to Me

Letter to Me

I know that in my life I have sometimes been just the opposite of those values: untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unfriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, uncheerful, unthrifty, unbrave, unclean, and irreverent. But whenever I have violated them, something internal always reminds me of them. 

My brother's letter to me is briefer than John's. It mentions my new goat and our family dog. But it also includes the same "be a good boy" admonition.

Dear Edward. I hear you have a goat. That is swell. I had a goat when I was your age. Tell Queen hello for me. Study hard in school and be a good boy. I am working hard. Everything is fine down here. I'll see you sometime. Take care of the goat. Love, Davy.

American Cemetery at St. James

American Cemetery at St. James

It is humbling and remarkable that David Jr. would write his two brothers about these values in the midst of everything he was facing. There are so many other things that might have been expected: the food, the war, the Germans, his soldier buddies, the things he missed, the hardships he faced. Instead he focused on us, his brothers, and our lives. 

My brother wrote other letters to our parents on August 7th and on August 10th. The August 7th letter closes with "Give my love to Eddie and John. Give Eddie a five franc note to keep the little rascal satisfied." And the August 10th letter closes with: "Give my love to John and Edward."  

American Cemetery at St. James

American Cemetery at St. James

He was killed just 5 days later fighting with the 23rd Infantry Regiment near Truttemer le Grand. He is now buried in the Brittany American Cemetery near the town of St. James. 

I was eight years old at the time of his death, and did not think as much on these things as I do now. I knew my parents were sad and crying, and thought that I should do the same. But it soon passed, and my childhood resumed. It never left my parents, though, and now will not leave me.

I often replay in my mind the conclusion of "Saving Private Ryan."  The elderly Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. He speaks to the grave stone as to the captain:

I want to thank you not just for my life, but for all of (my family). And to tell you that I — that we've all tried the best we could to earn what you did for us. 

[Thoughts and comments are welcome. To read other articles on this subject, select the “World War II” category in the column on the right. To receive an email notification when new articles are posted here, click “Subscribe” in the menu bar above and enter your email address.]

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Apr 112016

Being somewhat of a nature and wildlife photographer and in the general area, I decided to visit the Point Lookout State Park in Southern Maryland. For those not acquainted, this is a remote location where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It was a clear and windy day, and very peaceful. A very few sightseers were around, but mostly I had the place to myself. I did see a variety of wildlife: bald eagles, brown pelicans, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, and assorted ducks and seagulls. I had come to Point Lookout innocently, unaware of the dark history of the area. But history overtook me.

Point Lookout Marker

Point Lookout Marker

Almost immediately I noticed markers telling that a Civil War prison had been located here. The Union had established it after the Battle of Gettysburg, and it had housed more than 50,000 Confederate soldiers and Confederate-leaning citizens of Maryland. Some 4,000 had died and were buried here (the number is approximate because no accurate records were kept). There are no individually marked graves of these dead; all are buried in a common mass grave. 

No prisoner of war camp has ever been a happy place. The prison at Point Lookout had no buildings for the prisoners, only military tents. Summers were hot and winters were cold. Water was contaminated and diseases were frequent. Food was scarce and poor in quality. It should be understood that neither the Union or the Confederacy was adequately prepared to handle prisoners of war, and that conditions on both sides were disgraceful. It is believed that 26,000 Confederates died in Union prisons, representing 12% of all captured. And some 15% of Union soldiers died in Confederate prisons. Clearly neither side has anything to be proud of. More information can be found here.

US Cemetery Monument

US Cemetery Monument

A cemetery for these Confederate dead is maintained at Point Lookout by the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Although called a cemetery, it is actually just a mass grave location; there are no tombstones or individually marked graves. The site is marked by an impressive 80-foot-tall monument with bronze tablets containing the names of those known to be buried here. There are 3,382 names.

The American flag flies here, although none of the soldiers buried here fought under this flag. The soldiers buried here (all of the Union soldiers' remains were moved to Arlington Memorial cemetery) fought against that flag. So the business of flags at Point Lookout is something of a paradox.

None of this history was in my head when I first noticed the other memorial.  The other memorial also honors the Confederate dead and proudly flies their battle flag. I slowed the car and did a double-take (also popularly known as a WTF). Driving around in Maryland and Virginia you do notice the occasional Confederate flag displayed in someone's yard or in the back window of a pickup truck. But this was much more than a yard display. This was a large memorial area with the Confederate flag flying uppermost, surrounded by flags of the 13 states of the Confederacy. There is not an American flag in sight. And this is not South Carolina or Mississippi, this is in my own home state of Maryland. 

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Confederate Memorial at Point Lookout

Then I discovered that although some trees separate the areas, the Confederate memorial is located right beside the Government memorial. So, in a sense, we have dueling memorials here. 

The Confederate memorial is on private land and operated by a private group known as the Point Lookout Prisoners-of-War Descendants Organization. The group tried unsuccessfully to have the Confederate flag flown at the adjoining Government memorial. In walking around and reading the plaques, I gathered that as in much of American life these days, the issues of the Civil War still live on. Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, but America still manages to stand even as our divisions seemingly increase. 

The issue of soldier burials in any war is a potent one, but especially so in a civil war. The American civil war began with no plan for soldier buriels on either side. In 1864, a Confederate private from Virginia wrote a letter to his father as follows: "Dear Father. This is my last letter to you. I have been struck by a piece of shell and my right shoulder is horribly mangled and I know death is inevitable. I am very weak but I write to you because I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son. I know death is near, that I will die far from home and friends of my early youth but I have friends here too who are kind to me. My friend Fairfax will write you at my request and give you the particulars of my death. My grave will be marked so that you may visit it if you desire to do so. It is optionary with you whether you let my remains rest here or in Mississippi. I would like to rest in the graveyard with my dear mother and brothers but it's a matter of minor importance. Give my love to all my friends. My strength fails me. My horse and my equipments will be left for you. Again, a long farewell to you. May we meet in heaven. Your dying son, J. R. Montgomery,"

This letter is read in a PBS "American Experience" episode titled "Death and the Civil War." It illustrates the fact that if dead bodies were buried and graves marked, it was done by friends or relatives or fellow soldiers or by volunteers. Private Montgomery had made his own arrangements, but most soldiers could not. After the war, the Union launched an effort to identify the remains and mark the graves of Union soldiers. But although the war had officially ended, the effort did not include Confederate graves. Southerners interpreted this as revenge and retribution, not a promising step toward national reunification. It is estimated that about half of the 750,000 Civil War dead were never identified.

I did not come to Point Lookout to get involved in all of this. It was like walking along and tripping over something you didn't know was there. 

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