Saturday, January 30, 2016


            We live in an age when the very word friend has become minimalized and even turned into a verb by the social media world. (One place incidentally where it is possible even to unfriend somebody!) Perhaps we should add a special symbol to the spelling to indicate its old fashion meaning (FRIEND ♥) for instance?  In my favorite dictionary I note such modifying words as trust, loyal and sympathy coming into play when defining the word. I would add what for me is the most cherished quality of all: enduring.
            Someone has facetiously but wisely said that a friend is someone you can call up at 2:30 in the morning and they won’t be mad. My wife has such a friend; a neighbor who was one of the first Utahans to welcome us to the state, and to our rather remote alpine community 47 years ago. In fact at the time we wouldn’t have used the word community, other than in jest. The heavily-wooded mountainous enclave was home to several dozen families intent on getting away from the valley-loving “herd” to a place where no one was apt to find them. (Yes, I suppose we weren’t all that different.) From the beginning Linda was different. She really cared about people. One-on-one. Her kind of friendship was decidedly not for public show or for self-gratification; it was real. And unstinting. All these years later, though addresses and family settings have changed, the friendship and the connection it reflects has not. Every so many weeks the phone will ring, and it’s Linda checking up on us or setting a date for a luncheon get-together. Her cheerful happy presence is unchanging and her sincere interest in her friends unwavering.
            Similarly, I have a friend who lives three thousand miles away and whom, until a Vermont visit in 2013, I hadn’t seen in person for more than fifty years. The very digital world about which I so often speak scornfully brought about a reconnection about 15 years ago, since which discovery we chat daily, and find our lives have moved in near-parallel courses. We are so much alike, my son says of us “two brothers with different mothers”. Both survivors of the Korean War and proud veterans, I am as sure as I have ever been that in a situation such as we are both familiar with, one would as easily take a grenade for the other today.  (See John 15: 13)
            When my father went to war in 1917 every man in the 20th Company fifth U.S. Marine Regiment came from the same two Washington State counties. Most had gone to school with and known each other before being recruited. My Uncle Oscar Cooper had seen his twin brother hit and fall, passing him by in the costly attack on a copse of trees known as Belleau Wood. Days would pass before he would learn my Dad’s fate. It was a time when every bullet or mortar round took or threatened someone you had wrestled or played sports with a year or two previous to the sound of battle. Close personal connections were also a casualty of war and sometimes the most painful. Forty years later my Father could recite those names as if written in old slanted cursive in his brain.
            I have learned over a lifetime that friendship is an active word, and not one to be taken for granted. I have worked to rekindle flagging relationships and strengthen others. In the last year I have added several esteemed new ones to the list and used the occasion to express my deep appreciation  to individuals who in a special way have sweetened my life, a couple of whom I now communicate with monthly or even weekly. It has been prophetically said that while many people enter, pass through, and leave our lives without making waves, there are others who leave their footprints on our heart. These I have learned to keep on the front burner of my “Thank You” priority list. The chance to do so may pass before we know it.
            A British anthropologist and psychologist named Robin Dunbar has completed an extraordinary study which indicates that the numerical capacity of most humans makes it possible for an individual to maintain a current social group of about 150 total people; of close friends about 50. That brings Dunbar to what I think of as the magic core of his hierarchy. He says that of true intimates we may well have only about 15, with a close support group of 5.
I don’t know if Dunbar has it right, but I do know that friends and friendship are worth more than gold.

Monday, January 25, 2016


            The word beachhead when used in a military context defines a shore-based landing zone wrested from an enemy and secured as a route of access to inland targets. The key word invaders have learned often at a high cost over the centuries is secured. During World War II we heard of beachheads being fought for and secured at places called Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Tarawa in the Gilberts, and a succession of other Japanese strongholds across the Pacific. Much was learned about this highly specialized form of warfare. The costly landing on Makin Island led to our eventual recall of troops and the abandonment of the prize when proved ill-advised and even unnecessary.
            From the disastrous Dieppe raid by British Commandos on the French coast in August, 1942 the Allies learned at their cost just how difficult it was to make a successful landing on a defended piece of hostile coast line. Dieppe became a haunting byword for the planners pondering the inevitable invasion of Fortress Europe. For the chance of success, the invading force must have control of the sea, control of the air over the target and its surroundings and the advantage of over-arching surprise. As we were about to learn at an Italian seaport town known as Anzio, the choice of committed leadership of such a mission might be just as important as any of the other factors along with a requirement for up-to-the-minute intelligence.
            The allied situation in the closing days of 1943 saw an Italian campaign bogged down after the Salerno landings at the country’s southern tip as American, British and Empire troops found themselves facing determined German resistance after Italy’s rather meaningless surrender. More than ever, Hitler’s forces were bent on denying the taking of Rome. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and British senior commanders drew up plans for a surprise invasion midway between the main line of resistance and Rome to the north, thus circling around the German “Gustav line” and offering a speedy route to the Italian capital. Eisenhower, the only U.S. commander who had the voice to question the timing of such a plan had transferred his command to concentrate solely on the upcoming (and very secret) “Operation Overlord” – the invasion of Europe – leaving the British in charge of operations in Italy. With the direct influence of Churchill, whose predilection for an assault on “the soft underbelly” of Europe was still alive and well, the plan once cancelled, was resurrected. The Brits appointed U.S. Major General John P. Lucas, a veteran of WWI and C.O of the Fifth Army’s VI Corps to lead the invasion of the port city of Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, in the process “borrowing” assault craft and other resources heading to the Normandy build up.
            Lucas was convinced the whole enterprise was looking like a repeat of Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1916 which had nearly brought down the British government and had brought an end to Churchill’s career. (In fact no less a figure than that of George Patton told Lucas “you’re being set up to be the ‘fall guy’ when this thing fails John”.)
            Surprisingly the Anzio landing itself (Operation SHINGLE) was a complete surprise to Field Marshal Kesselring and the entire German High Command, and the beachhead objectives had been reached by noontime the 22nd without significant Allied casualties. One nine-mile stretch of beach was found to be defended by a single company. Then the Americans’ worst fears began to come true, leading to four months of some of the most bitter fighting of WWII. On Feb. 22nd, Lucas was replaced by Major General Lucian Truscott just as a major German counter attack began.
                It would be easy to blame Lucas in the aftermath of what turned into a costly disaster, for delaying his march inland for four days while consolidating his position on the beachhead and waiting for the Merchant ships and their striking civilian workers to begin landing the needed supplies after already moving almost ten miles beyond the beachhead. Still convinced he was leading a flawed enterprise, under constant air attack and without reliable intelligence on what he faced, the move off the beaches was led by  Commando’s, U.S. Army Rangers, paratroopers and other lightly-armed special forces carrying only grenades, bazookas, and short-range weaponry against the most elite of Hitler’s front line soldiers arriving on the scene. As a tragic example of the misuse of “infantry” during the break-out and the assault on the town of Cisterna, out of two battalions of the 4th Rangers and 15th Infantry numbering 767 men, only 6 returned! 

   German paratroopers prepare for battle during Anzio breakout.                German Federal Archive photo
Author’s Notes:          I believe the entire undertaking was ill-conceived and that if Eisenhower had still been on the ground, it would never have taken place. Bringing together British, French and American forces who had not fought together before, and then placing them under divided commands inspired confusion at every level. It was left up to Lucas to decide on objectives after landing, and as it turned out his forces were greatly outnumbered. Further, the operation might easily have compromised the secret preparations for OVERLORD. Lessons learned: Elite Special Forces should not be used as regular infantry. Political interests (the taking of Rome) should not determine battlefield strategy. Two Admirals, four Generals plus Churchill’s long shadow!  Too many chefs ruin the broth. Finally, planners and top leaders may have erred, but the young fighting men who fought the battle were among the most courageous and hard-hitting of any who paid in blood for final victory in World War II in Europe.
            As an eleven-year-old, I was personally touched by Anzio when a young family friend – Jack Mueller – lost his leg there when his jeep hit a land mine. I will never forget sitting proudly with his arm around me during his visit to our home after he returned.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


            I was a high school Junior at the time the Merusi residence suffered an early morning fire in our Central Vermont village. While the home survived the fire and probably few if any residents even remember the event these days, it implanted a very clear image which remains as visible as yesterday in my mind. As a few of us watched from a safe distance, the outside kitchen door opened and Mr. Merusi - the proprietor of a retail store which was a town institution - emerged from the smoke-filled interior carrying in his arms a brand new family-size refrigerator which he carefully deposited in the back yard. A short and rather portly middle-aged Italian immigrant, he appeared not even to be breathing hard. An avid weight-lifter myself I knew I had just witnessed an “impossible” act.
            As I was waiting for the inspiration which led to today’s subject, a news story from Philadelphia hit the wires: a city police officer named Jesse Hartnett had just been the shooting victim of an ambusher who had attacked him as he sat in his police car, firing thirteen 9mm rounds at close range, 3 of which had struck the officer’s left arm, severing an artery in the process. Not only did officer Hartnett, while bleeding profusely leap from the car immediately in pursuit of the fleeing attacker, but managed to get off several accurately fired rounds from a difficult stance and increasing distance which hit home, leading to a quick apprehension. Quite a feat! 
            The story brought to mind a 68-year-old memory. My father and I had taken on the project of creating a small fresh-water pond on our farm property, first bull-dozing a basin, then building an earthen dam across Ayer’s Brook. The final step was the construction of a spillway which would permit us to control the flow of escaping water, thus maintaining stream flow and pond level. It was a warm summer day as I worked alone, installing cleat boards inside the log-faced spillway. I was wearing heavy waist-high rubber boots as I drove metal spikes into the partially submersed log walls. Due to the noise of the rushing water I never heard the sound of gunfire, although I did hear something fall into the shallow stream at my feet. When arterial blood, nearly black in color, began to shoot from my left arm into the water I deduced that my hammer blows against steel had somehow caused a metal fragment to penetrate the skin and pierce the large artery which curves around from the top of the hand and up the inside of the arm. The distance to the farmhouse was at least 700 yards, the first part up a hill across which a brand-new and tightly strung, triple high barbed wire fence had recently been erected.
            To say that I was motivated falls short of describing my run. All I know is that clad in hip boots and running uphill I easily cleared three strands of barbed wire. As I passed our Farmall tractor I grabbed a blue bandana hanging from the seat and, adding a carpenter’s pencil from a work bench, I had an effective tourniquet in place and working by the time I hit the rear steps of the house. The eight-mile hospital run in the family Olds driven by my older brother was almost an anti-climax. But not the .22 caliber bullet hole the ER Doc. identified.  Nearly spent, the bullet had apparently bounced back out (the “plop” I had heard in the water) when it struck the bone.  (Reconstructing the entire event which began with a ten-year-old neighbor boy disobeying an abusive father, we decided to keep it all a family secret.)
            What ties these stories together is a pair of triangular hormonal glands attached to the top of our kidneys, which together react to “a cry for help” sent by the human brain. Known as the adrenal glands they trigger a cascade of wide-ranging physiological and mental changes that prepare us for action – commonly known as the fight or flight response. What we refer to as adrenalin is actually the powerful hormone epinephrine which delivers a state of hyper-arousal in the face of danger and threat, increasing heart and lung action, suppressing immune function, dilating blood vessels flowing to muscles while liberating fat and glycogen for increased muscular action. Blood pressure, muscle tension for added speed, and an increase in the blood clotting function all act to give a human near-superhuman capabilities.
            Somehow, in ways I cannot explain, the human brain adds to all of this, the ability to compare the threat which is happening now to a recorded memory somewhere within the cerebral cortex, of lessons accumulated in the past.
            Throughout life, in peace and in war I have had frequent reminders of the power of this extraordinary human gift.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


            My paternal great-grandfather – Morris Washington Weigel – is buried somewhere in Alaska where a landslide carried him to his death on May 18th, 1898 at the age of 48. He had made his way from a home in Ohio following the “impossible dream” of rocks and rivers loaded with nuggets of gold ready for picking. He probably made that epic climb over the Chilkoot trail where the “Trail of ‘98” ended for so many “dreamers” who left everything behind – even their lives. What I wish is that he had left us something in writing; what thoughts occupied those lonely days and nights in that far northern place.  Did he think of the wife and eleven children he left behind? Did he wonder if his grand voyage was worth it all?
            Another Weigel ancestor died in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain during the march on Atlanta in 1864. We know where he is buried; even down to the grave number in a Civil War cemetery near Marietta, Georgia. He hadn’t yet celebrated his 20th birthday. I wish someone who knew and loved him had written something about this patriotic young westerner; I would like to know what he was like and how he felt about “Lincoln’s War”. What had his dreams for a future life been? Did he leave a sweetheart behind in Ohio?
            I knew my father very well. He told me many stories – true stories. Living in a remote forest cabin; confronting a cougar; eluding a marauding bear; exploring America by hitching on trains; wounded in action and lying with the dead in France at a place called Belleau Wood. He never wrote anything down; I possess only a single letter he wrote me during my war. As his son, and as a family genealogist it is my task to tell his life story so that generations who follow may know more than mere dates of birth, marriage and death.
            Because of all the things I wish I knew about family members of the past and the times in which they lived I have framed my own written life story as if to leave no doubt among my posterity as to who I was, what I believed, the people and things I loved, what experiences helped to shape me and what I did to find happiness and fulfillment in the years allotted to me on this good green earth. I want them to know how my wife and I met in high school, married while young, and managed to build a life-long love affair that was lasting, rewarding and successful, and the wonderful offspring that reflect the ideals we all learned to live together; that it takes more than a house to make a home and more than a home to make an eternal family.
            Because I want them to know about the “little things” that marked me as a mere mortal yet left their own unique stamp on my often-quirky persona, my stories, literary vignettes and pages of verse already fill a half-dozen fat ring binders as well as mega-bytes of digital memory.
            And then there are the lists! Mostly hand-written so far and always a work-in-progress, I have recorded such compilations as the most important people (“giants”) in my life, my favorite books and authors, motion pictures, destinations, institutions, restaurants, dishes, adventures. On one list are the children of my 1st grade class, on another my tent mates in Korea, while all the vehicles of my lifetime and their idiosyncrasies constitute a list separate from the aircraft I have flown or traveled in as a passenger.
            Perhaps the “grand-pappy” of all my lists is one started more than 50 years ago, titled “MY 100 FAVORITE THINGS”. Its’ contents range from soft cotton socks and the sound of crows on a frosty morning to the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point. They used to be subject to occasional change, but I can read over it all these years later and realize I wouldn’t change a thing.
            Genealogy it seems to me is not just about looking into the past, but mapping, pondering and telling our own story so that generations still unborn will come to know, love and feel connected to us.