Wednesday, May 25, 2016

REMEMBERING THE SOUNDS OF OUR TIME



            My connections with coastal Maine run deep and strong; one branch of my family was among the first pioneer settlers of that island-studded and fog-bound land to which I have escaped myself almost annually for more than fifty years. In a way it is my “spiritual home” and the best place to go when my internal batteries need recharging. While I see it as a piece of America that clings to history and tradition more than almost anywhere else, even that is changing. Very few of the state’s light houses still function as key navigational aids, but now even the companion fog horns are being shut down to save operating and maintenance costs, inasmuch as space-age navigation aids and GPS pretty much do the job.
            But for many “Mainers” this is a step too far. From West Quoddy Head down East to the Nubble on the South, the sound of Maine’s fog horns has played folks to sleep and called lobster boats home for two hundred years – all the way back to a time when they used cannons and striking bells to warn of rocks and shoals and points of land where it is said fog was born. How often have I snuggled into my bunk in a tiny white cottage on John’s Bay to the background music of the great horn at Seguin Light, one of the three foggiest pockets in the entire Northeast, or taken refuge at a campsite in the Camden Hills where the fog horn at Owl’s Head announced the changing weather on Penobscot Bay. I can’t quite picture a world without the sound of those “voices” of a proud maritime tradition. I may have to respond as many Down-Easters are; by purchasing a CD recording of Maine’s historic fog horns with which to play myself to sleep.

            Sadly, there are other sounds I am having to think of in a past tense. For one thing I am thankful to have lived when the sound of a steam locomotive whistling its way through the dark of a moonless night was a serenade to the ears of listening kids huddled deep beneath eiderdowns dreaming of the day they might grow up to have their own hand on the throttle of such a hundred-ton monster following the path of a bright white light through canyon draw and curving riverside right-of-way; from somebody’s home town to some distant destination two-day’s into someone else’s tomorrow. How many times have I listened to the clack, clack of the tracks passing beneath me and the whistle left behind by the charging steam horse up ahead while swaying comfortably in an upper rack of a Texas Katy sleeper car halfway across America’s west or through an echo-shouting cut in a Rocky Mountain gorge. (Or once in a pitching hammock hung from the overhead in the passenger car of a coal-burning narrow-guage over miles of gleaming track and through hundreds of tunnels between Tokyo and Iwakuni at postwar Japan’s southern tip.) Nothing fathered by the electric horn of a modern diesel locomotive can compare with the primitive wail and wavering notes of steam being forced through the heart and soul of those artfully-tuned 5-chime beauties atop an iron monster of the 30s and 40s!
            Thinking back I realize that there was something reassuring about the sounds of truck brakes and  clinking bottles at 5AM in the morning as the milk man made his rounds. Amid the fears and uncertainties of a world at war it spoke of continuity and order. Somehow I realized that young kids in Poland and Lithuania would not be waking up to those sounds of freedom.
            Perhaps more concerning than the demise of any other sounds of my time is the tolling of church bells on Sunday mornings. In the small New Jersey town of my birth I would hear first the bells on the tower of the Dutch Reformed congregation, then the local Catholic Church’s call to Mass, then it would be my turn to pull the bell rope in the space behind the organ loft in Saint Stephens Episcopal where I was also an altar boy. When the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville visited the New World in the 1830s he concluded that representative democracy worked here because we were a nation of virtue. He noted that there was a church in every town and village and a bible in every home. I wonder what he would think in the silence which tolls so loudly in much of today’s New World ?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

REMEMBERING THE DEATH OF A WEHRMACHT SOLDIER



            When considering the immense nature of that historic tragedy known as the Holocaust it is easy to think of it in homocentric terms – as if it were one all-encompassing event stretching across Nazi-occupied Europe from the late 1930s to the end of WWII.  Actually it was a “whole” made up of many sad and sadistic pieces. The little-known “piece” I write about today emerged from research started several years ago when I became interested in work carried out by the post-war nation of Israel for the purpose of identifying and honoring largely forgotten individuals from among all the nations who had stepped forward to help Jewish victims, such as Oskar Schindler, a Polish businessman, often paying with their own fortunes and very lives to do so. Those mostly lost and unheralded “heroes” are commemorated and remembered as The Righteous Among the Nations; and they number in the thousands.
            The Ponary region of Lithuania, with borders which had been “re-drawn”, first by the League of Nations at the end of WWI, the Russians upon annexation in 1939, and the Nazis in 1941, was the scene of a particularly brutal chapter of history. The principal languages there were Polish and Yiddish reflecting the large (and unloved) Jewish population. To successive SS Einsatzenkommando units sent in following invasion with the mission of liquidating the Jews, the simmering hatred of the Christian population for the Jews seemed a ready-made tool worth making use of.  Also just “begging” to be utilized were a number of large circular excavations dug for petroleum storage tanks which had never arrived.
            With the promise of restored rule as a dangling “carrot” the Lithuanian Police, Militia and just ordinary citizens were “recruited” to do most of the “dirty” work, herding 3,000 Jews, intellectuals and other undesirables (men, women and children) each day to the edge of the excavations where they were disrobed, shot or clubbed to death and dumped in the holes. Observers who managed to escape the slaughter reported that not all were dead when covered with a light layer of sand in readiness for the next day. Between June and December, 1941, between 190,000 and 195,000 Jews were murdered in the Ponary massacre; 95 % of the Jewish population, representing the largest loss of life in a single location in so short a time period in the history of the Holocaust.
            A Sergeant (feldwebel) in the German Wehrmacht named Anton Schmid deployed to Vilnius, Lithuania in the fall of 1941, observed first the sadness of Jewish families being forced into the Ghettos  and then the grizzly carnage going on before his eyes in nearby Ponary. A former shop-owner in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss, he had been drafted into the German Army like so many other Austrians, and fitted into the hated gray uniform. Unable to reconcile his respect for human life with what he was seeing – especially the murder of children and babies - he began hiding away as many Jewish prisoners as he could, one-by-one and two-by-two and caring for them while he obtained documents for their escape. He is credited with saving the lives of some 250 before he was discovered and imprisoned. He was executed on April 13, 1942; 74 years ago this week as I prepare this column. He has been honored as one of those Righteous Among the Nations, both in Israel, where a street bears his name and in his homeland, where once his neighbors threw rocks through his mother’s windows because he was seen as a traitor.
            Beginning at the end of September, 1943 the orders came to destroy all evidence of what had taken place at Ponary as the advancing Russians threatened discovery. Now the past horrors played out again – in reverse - as the burial pits had to be reopened, emptied, and the human remains burned in giant wooden “pyramids” (after gold teeth and other valuables had been removed, of course.) Bones and other pieces of evidence had to be pulverized, mixed with sand and reburied. 3500 sets of remains would be burned in each pyramid with the fires allowed to burn for three days. Once again, it was local citizens and militia members who did the work while 80 Nazi guards looked on.
            As Edmund Burke reminded us: “all that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men do nothing.”   Now and then and here and there brave men and women such as Anton Schmid and others like him prove that humanity is not dead yet.                                                               

Monday, May 2, 2016

EXPLORING THE WORLD OF GOURMET CHOCOLATE



            One warm August day in Oaxaca, southern Mexico – within the very shadow of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Monte Alban – I watched as a container of chocolate beans still hot from roasting, were added to a well-worn piece of aged machinery in which they would be mixed, ground and churned into a paste. Nearby were trays in which a previous batch had already cooled into thick slabs of unsweetened dark chocolate. When we departed that sweet-smelling shop that day we carried with us a chunk of solid, unsweetened chocolate destined to be one of twenty ingredients cooked into a thick Mole sauce by our host family in Puebla. I had also filled my pockets with a handful of unprocessed chocolate beans harvested from a nearby mountainside where the descendents of the ancients had been plying their trade for several thousand years. Those purloined beans stand in a mason jar beside my keyboard today as I write. They have been the inspiration for years of personal fascination, wonder and study. The invading Spaniards who introduced those magical native “beans” to the European world could not have envisioned a day in which 3.5 to 4 million tons of cocoa per year might fall short of world demand!
            While the Swiss consume nearly 20 lbs. of chocolate per person each year with Germany running a close 2nd and the U.K. and Ireland in 3rd  place, the United States barely escapes being dead last with just over 9 lbs. per capita. What’s more, Americans eat a lot more milk chocolate (our teen-agers at 90%) than other countries where the virtues of dark chocolate, high in cacao content and with far less sugar, milk-fats and other additions, is favored.  We now know that raw cacao is rich in antioxidants that relax the cardiovascular system and strengthen the body’s resistance to cancer, and is one of nature’s richest sources of magnesium, so deficient in modern diets.
            Among dark-chocolate aficionados a bar of gourmet dark chocolate is a “gift” to be sampled in small – probably one-ounce portions – not a dessert to be consumed all-at-once or even in a single sitting. First, there is the smell as it is held under the nose, then the sound of the snap as a small piece is broken off, and pleasure in feeling the glossy shine of the surface which has been conched in an ages-old process once done – as the name suggests – by rubbing with a conch shell from the deep. As the piece melts on the tongue, it should be held against the roof of the mouth for a moment where a collection of taste buds plumb the combination of nuanced flavors and the intensity of chocolate at its melting best.
            While it is possible to find some examples of fine imported bars locally, some of the best come from abroad. Among the favorite sampling bars Shirley and I have compared are Green & Black’s Dark 85% made in Poland, Amedei Toscano Black 63% from Tuscany and Michel Cluizel Noir 72% from France – the latter the 2016 world champion in voting by the experts. To our surprise, we also chose it as our 1st choice. All of these and their close European competitors are made without soy lecithin emulsifiers and milk fat, and are never alkalized. Several contain either criollo or trinitario cacao beans, thought to be genetically linked to the oldest and finest of the earth’s “originals”.  Not only do these chocolate-makers insist on organic growing practices, but in a part of the world where child and slave labor is common pledge to reject any ingredient not in fair-trade compliance.
            We also enjoy such American labels as Ghirardelli Intense Dark 60% and Godiva Chocalatier 72% although packing some additional ingredients.
            Chocolate is the world’s favorite flavor, and I am a story teller. How can I resist such a clear invitation?



                      Even though expensive, the Michel Cluezel Noir (lower left) and Toscano Black (lower right) are worth it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

BRINGING IN LIEUTENANT CHO



            It was a moonless night with a high overcast that blocked whatever starlight might have challenged the cold blackness which swallowed me as I slipped out of the guard tent. I stood still for some time to allow my night vision to adjust. I refrained from pulling down the ear flaps so as to maximize hearing ability and felt each of the pockets of my outer gear to make sure I carried nothing that might jingle or cause noise. My left hand was covered by the standard two-piece winter glove while the right was sheathed only in the woven cotton inner liner which I could easily pull off with my teeth if I needed to bare my trigger finger. My M-2 .30 carbine had been retrieved from where I had left it, just outside the tent door so that I need not take time to wait for metal to stabilize with the temperature change. I was ready.
            Because the area around our home compound was mostly an unprotected “free-fire” zone, we depended on a barbed wire barrier interspersed with trip flares for day-time security and manned sentry outposts at night or when under imminent warning of enemy activity. Our greatest exposure was the danger of individual intruders targeting our power supply, radar equipment, ammunition dump and key communications for the western front. The area to our north, looking toward the 38th parallel was on rising ground denuded of all trees and undergrowth by napalm bombs and pock-marked by old trenches and fighting holes. In the nighttime dark it was a maze of hidden obstacles and dark recesses; a graveyard of hiding places which had changed sides three times in the fighting.
            Because of a “feeling in my bones”, I had given Airman Frost a night off and taken his place on Post#6 where I now sat behind an observation post of weathered sandbags looking out over that ghostly landscape where months earlier real “ghosts” had battled for a few square yards of miserable hardscrabble. (I was still naively intrepid and “gung ho” at that stage of my fast-fleeting teenage innocence, anxious to confront an enemy I had only seen through binoculars across the muddy Imjin River.)
            It was about 0300 hours when I felt as well as saw a movement out of the corner of one eye; something had changed the shape of a shadow cast by the lip of an abandoned gun emplacement not more than a dozen yards away from where I kept my silent vigil. With my heart pounding and moving quietly but rapidly to a point where I could look down from a safe quarter I pulled my bayonet from its sheath and slid it onto my carbine in such a way as to signal the action noisily, I sang out with the Korean language challenge to Halt!  JEONGJI! JEONGJI!
            There was no response, but I could now see the figure of a person scrunched down in the corner of the fighting hole and holding his hands in front of his pale face. I thought for an instant of what I had told myself I would do with such an “opportunity.” But if the guy had been armed I would probably have been dead by now. Having instead shouted out: Sergeant of the guard, Post No. 6!  Need back up! I jumped down into the hole to find myself looking into the frightened eyes of a “kid” dressed in the typical quilted winter duty wear of a North Korean soldier. Still shaking, I held my bayonet on him until my buddies arrived.
            In the wee hours of the morning I sat across from the pair as our interpreter and Korean National Liaison Officer Cha Wal Bin carried out the interrogation (not an altogether pleasant undertaking to witness.) The young prisoner turned out to be a 2nd Lieutenant in the North Korean Peoples’ Army on an undercover mission as a courier. When we opened up some of the threads applied to his jacket quilting we found tiny strips of rice paper rolled into narrow bundles containing addresses of Northern sympathizers in Seoul. I have long forgotten his name so I call him “Lieutenant Cho”. What I will never forget is his youthful face and terrified eyes looking up at me in the dark of that cold Korean night. I still wake up with that moment playing in my mind’s eye and I tell myself that if he is still living I may be the reason why. I allow myself to believe he stayed in the South when the armistice was signed and has a loving family and posterity of his own enjoying the freedom we helped to leave behind for him. His is a story I have only shared with family and close friends, but for me “Lieutenant Cho” lives permanently in a warm and hopeful corner of my brain and we are connected in a way I can’t completely explain. Or deny!