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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Postcards from the Road

I travel a lot, but I never send postcards. It's a quaint custom that seems to have lost its allure in this age of electronic, nearly instant communication.

Souvenir shops in France had a lot of postcards for sale during a recent visit, but I didn't see anybody buying them. Even if I had bought postcards, I would have had to find someplace that sells postage stamps. And I don't know many people to send them to. It's easier and faster to text photos from my cell phone, or to upload them when I'm someplace that has a wi-fi connection. 

So rather than postcards, I will include some digital postcards -- photos I have taken -- from the road. I have visited some amazing places -- some more than once -- and I love photography. So some digital postcards from a few of my favorite places seem appropriate. They won't get lost in the mail. It won't take a week or more for them to be delivered. And best of all, no postage is required. 

Yellowstone National Park
 
Botswana
 
Near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Yellowstone National Park

Montana Grizzly Encounter, Bozeman

Yellowstone National Park
Vermont

South Africa

London

Yellowstone National Park

Botswana

Yellowstone National Park
Kenya
Omaha Beach, Normandie, France
Normandie, France

Costa Rica


C

Monday, May 29, 2017

Pause. Remember. Reflect. Honor.

                                             Pause. Remember. Reflect. Honor.



As the United States today marks Memorial Day, please take a moment from your activities to Pause -- Remember -- Reflect -- and Honor the men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to our country.  

Our troops have gone to war in countries from Europe to Asia, in wars and actions both popular and reviled, and many never came home. Many were young people who never got the chance to get married, have a family and grow old. Many volunteered, while others were drafted but nonetheless did their service.

According to today's Albuquerque Journal, 1.3 million members of the US armed forces have lost their lives while defending our country:
 
Revolutionary War — 25,000
War of 1812 — 20,000
Mexican-American War — 13,283
Civil War — 625,000
Philippines — 4,196 (1899-1902)
World War I — 116,516
World War II — 405,399
Korea — 36,516
Vietnam — 58,307 (398 New Mexicans)
Iraq — 4,519 (47 from, or with close ties to, New Mexico)
Afghanistan — 2,396 (19 from, or with close ties to, New Mexico)


So today, pause whatever you are doing. Remember those who paid the ultimate price. Reflect on the lives lost, the families left behind and the sacrifices made. And honor them in whatever way is meaningful to you.




Friday, May 26, 2017

Not Just Another Holiday

Like many Americans, I typically have seen Memorial Day as little more than a day off work. Sure, I knew the meaning of the day, and I did give a silent thanks to those members of the US military who died in defense of our country. One year I took a guided tour of a local cemetery in California on Memorial Day. But that was about it.

Then I went on a wonderful hiking trip to France, and that trip changed everything.

France is a beautiful country known for its cuisine (the pain au chocolate -- a flaky pastry with chocolate inside -- is my favorite), its wines and cheeses, and its fashion. I ended my trip with two days in Paris, but I enjoyed the countryside regions of Normandy and Brittany much more.

The most moving part of the trip -- and my primary reason for going -- was a visit to Omaha Beach, where Allied forces won a hard-fought battle against German guns, land mines and machine guns. The D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, changed the course of the war.

At either end of Omaha Beach are 300-foot-high cliffs of rock. Due to a series of errors by the Allies, the first troops to reach the beach were mowed down by German machine gun fire. Bombs had missed their targets. Tanks sank in the ocean. Engineers tasked with clearing the beach of land mines were unable to complete their mission. Soldiers deployed in deep water found themselves sinking under the weight of their 80-pound packs. Guns got wet. Reports were that it was impossible to walk on the beach without stepping on bodies. But by the end of the day, the Allies were able to gain two tenuous footholds on the beach. 

Our French guide did a great job of explaining what happened on that beach. A German gun emplacement was visible nearby, as was a fortified machine gun nest. Because the tide was out, we could see remnants of a temporary harbor. The brainchild of Winston Churchill, the harbor is considered one of the greatest engineering feats ever. Two temporary harbors were built, one on Omaha Beach for American forces and one on Gold Beach for British and Canadian troops. This harbor allowed 220,000 men, 50,000 vehicles and 600,000 tons of supplies to be landed on the French coast, according to a Daily Mail story. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2297365/Port-Winston-harbour-built-Normandy-D-Day-uncovered-seabed-69-years-on.html#ixzz4i9JJvYdJ)  
Parts of a temporary harbor constructed for the D-Day invasion are visible off Omaha Beach
 

As we walked along the beach, the four members of our group became quiet as we learned details of the battle and reflected on the bravery and sacrifices of the young men who fought there. Nearby, I could see a bit of Utah Beach, where my father -- a young sailor of 19 in the US Navy -- had taken part in the battle. His destroyer was quickly sunk by German fire. While some of his shipmates perished, he was picked up by a British war ship after spending some time in the cold waters of the Atlantic. 

That afternoon, we walked along part of the path that US troops had used on their way inland. We then had a couple of hours on our own to explore the US military cemetery at Colleville, high on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. 

The cemetery, on land donated by the French government in perpetuity, contains some 9,387 headstones -- either white marble crosses or Stars of David -- each inscribed with the name, military branch and dates of a service man who died during the invasion or ensuing military operations. Many of the graves are merely symbolic. Some of the deceased were repatriated to the US, while others were never found. Some headstones honor a soldier whose remains were never identified.

The cemetery is a place of sadness, knowing how many young lives were lost. And it is a place of beauty, with manicured lawns and a view of the beach where so many died. I was very moved as I walked among the headstones and through the visitor center. Although none of my family members perished in the war (both my father and uncles served), I nonetheless felt a great sense of sadness, as well as a sense of gratitude for their sacrifices. Our guide noted that during a previous tour of Omaha Beach, a veteran who had fought there commented that "I wasn't killed here, but I died here."

We have lost most of the D-Day survivors during the more than 70 years since this history-making battle. Estimates put the number of surviving veterans at between 5,000 and 10,000. In a few years, there will be no one left who took part in the horrendous battles on the beaches of France. 

I hope the passage of time will never erase the sacrifices of those men from several countries whose bravery marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. Please, take a moment this Memorial Day to remember those who paid the ultimate price, during World War II, the Korean conflict, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq and all the other armed conflicts. Fly the American flag. Go to a parade. Thank a member of our armed forces. 

However you choose to mark Memorial Day, please take a moment from your grilling or picnics or baseball games, and remember those who went to war and never came home.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Sounds in the Night

It has been a very long time since I slept well, so I spend a lot of time awake, listening to the sounds of the night.

Because I live on the edge of a city of about 90,000 people, in an area where the lots are all 1/2 acre, I seldom hear my neighbors. And the roads in this part of town are unpaved, so traffic, such as it is, usually moves fairly slowly.

One recent night found me awake at some ridiculous hour. My bedroom window was slightly open, so I could hear coyotes howling. Their howling started neighborhood dogs barking. Fortunately, my dogs were sound asleep and didn't respond to the howls and barks. I heard traffic on the big street a few blocks away, and then a jet overhead. Later that night (it was actually very early morning), I heard a train whistle as it sped along. I also heard one of my dogs whimpering in her sleep. 

I love the sounds of a peaceful night. When I lived in northern California, it seemed there was always a jet flying overhead (I was only a few miles from the San Jose airport), and blocks from a busy expressway. Even late at night I heard racing motorcycles, speeding cars and squawking ambulances or other emergency vehicles. And like many in northern California, my house was just a few feet from my neighbor. She was in her 80s and hard of hearing, so her television volume was very loud.

My most unusual, and startling, night sound happened a couple of years ago in Botswana. The first camp a friend and I stayed in was just outside Chobe National Park, and it had no fence around it. (Some African parks are surrounded by electric fences, but most are not). Animals were free to come and go. One night I was blasted out of bed by a single, very loud and very near trumpet of an elephant. I must have levitated about 2 feet above my bed. It took a while for my heart to return to its normal rhythm. After talking with another guest at breakfast, we decuded that the elephant must have been between our tents.

Last spring I was on safari in South Africa, again in a camp with no fencing. As I lay in my tent waiting to fall asleep, I listened to the roaring of nearby lions and the trumpeting of elephants. During my first safari, in Kenya, I could hear zebra and hippos nearby. Camp was located near a river, and hippos leave the safety of the water after dark to feed on vegetation (and any crops they can get to). And in Tanzania, one of the camp staff was walking me to my tent after dinner and scanning the area with a large flashlight. "There's a buffalo beside your tent," he said quietly. "Don't worry. Just keep the flaps down and you'll be fine." I got ready for bed very quietly that night. The buffalo also remained silent. 

It's always a bit unnerving to think that nothing more than a canvas tent (albeit a sturdy one) separates me from some potentially dangerous animals. But it's so nice to know that some of our planet's wonderful wildlife are so close that I can hear them going about their business.