Sunday, June 26, 2016


            In the New Jersey years before World War II I looked forward to Saturdays, knowing we would pile into the Oldsmobile as a family and drive the six miles to the market town of Englewood. I always got a special thrill out of the rippling noise the tires made on the cobblestones of the Seven Sisters hill as we passed the Dwight Morrow estate where my hero Charles Lindbergh (“Lindy”) hung out part of the time. I usually asked Dad to park adjacent to the railroad tracks in case the timing would be right for a freight to come rolling through.
            While Mom did her shopping I would go with my Dad to the Lightning store whose shelves were overflowing with “guy” things from lanterns to axes and hammers tire tools and shovels. Dad would always pull a small 3-ring notebook from his pocket where he would have a list of needed items he had been assembling since last time: nuts, nails, washers, bolts, hangers, paints and more.
            Sooner or later, we would end up in the F.W Woolworth 5 and 10-cent store where I would carefully spend my modest allowance: a cylinder of bee bee’s, a new shooting “agate” for my marble supply or another lead soldier for my growing “army” of accurately-painted miniatures.
            We might meet Mom coming from Smalbein’s Jewish Bakery with one of their signature seven-layer cakes tied up in a white box and weighing a good pound or more. I would ask if she had remembered to pick up a container of their famous dill pickles from the barrel in front, and if it was a good week, she might have a sack of German Cruellers to eat on the way home.
            As deliciously predictable as all of this was the big treat would be the “music man”; the “organ grinder” with his red-capped chimpanzee and tin cup for coins, a colorful duo I would follow and admire for as long as I could. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we were among a privileged few to still have such an itinerant musician in our nearby community. At one time it was said that New York City had “one for every city block,” but that was before Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor and was swayed by a handful of “dyspeptic complainers” to make the city a quieter place.
            Most of these colorful street performers were Italian immigrants who arrived on our shores penniless and without the prospect of employment. The depression years were particularly hard on new arrivals who spoke a foreign language, had no employable skills and did not know their way around. For a small investment they could buy a portable “barrel organ” which, with a punch-holed cylinder like a player-piano roll, could play up to six tunes with the turning of a hand-crank. Most, like the short man with a black mustache I followed around, carried the instrument on a shoulder strap, while others preferred a larger free-standing version.
            Small monkeys – Chimpanzees – were plentiful at pet emporiums in the early days of the 20th century, and could be purchased for five dollars or so. The entrepreneur-minded emigrant, willing to put in the animal-training time, could put himself in a good paying business in less than a year, while providing musical diversion for an entertainment-hungry public with the help of the uniformed simian with a tin cup to gather coins from appreciative onlookers.
            One organ grinder questioned as to whether he had a business license explained “I’m a musician and my little friend here is a businessman. He doesn’t tell me what music to play and I don’t tell him how to run his business.”
            Shopping on Englewood’s main street all those years ago still replays in my mind from time to time, and I can still hear the “hurdy gurdy” music of the organ grinder in what I can’t help but remember as a simpler, more care-free space of time.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


            Anyone seeking to do an autobiographical sketch of one’s life cannot help but discover the convenience of breaking the passage of time down into bite-size chunks – or “chapters.” In doing this it may come as a surprise to find that some of those significant course changes worthy of a time mark may not become historically visible until a certain number of years have flown by. Our perspectives change with the passage of time and the maturing of our outlook and sense of self-awareness; just one of many reasons why I believe any meaningful personal history is a continuous project and is never really “almost done.”
            In 1953 for instance, there was an extraordinary confluence of events in my life – perhaps more life-changing than I was even capable of comprehending at the time but which are emotionally exhausting even to think about now, so many years after. A year in a combat zone where gunfire, death and dying had been seen, and smelled, and heard and felt, and where young men died every day; where I lived in a canvas tent with ten other men (most of us still “boys” in our teens) had just suddenly come to an end. I was alive but I was somehow different.
            In 17 hours flying time I was back home in the U.S.A..There were no bugles and marching bands; no thank you’s and well done’s as there had been with our older brothers. The “cool” thing was to shut up and not say anything about the 39,000 dead, 8000 M.I.A. and thousands of guys with missing parts and scarred souls. (We didn’t even talk about it with each other – for about 40 years.)
            Two weeks after getting home I was married and off to a new life in the “peace-time” Air Force, 3,000  miles from home, in a strange civilian world where I didn’t know how to fit in; a young wife, a home to fill, groceries to buy and bills to pay and my first car to fix and keep in gasoline. Even scarier, I was now a senior non-commissioned officer in need of fitting into an established, rather complicated and highly structured military society, living “off-base” in the midst of but not a part of a civilian community; no more familiar barracks life, mess hall dining and fixed routine.
            While checking into my new base on day one, my welcoming experience was to be braced and chewed up one side and down the other for wearing an “illegal” shoulder patch, by the biggest, meanest Master Sergeant I had ever met. His name was Mike Rathsack, and he is the subject of this story.
            My stateside assignment was to the 529th Air Police Section at Paine A.F.B. near Everett, Washington, and the last stop on my list of things to do that day was to sign in at A.P. headquarters. When I reported to my new boss – the Provost Sergeant – there was 6 foot 6 inches tall, square-jawed Master Sergeant Sterling (Mike) Rathsack sitting behind the big desk! I immediately saw my new career assignment going down-hill right there. I knew there was no way I was going to hit it off with this guy after such an illustrious first meeting on the base Main Street an hour earlier. The 5th Air Force patch on my left shoulder weighed 5 pounds and seemed illuminated in neon. I never could have guessed in those moments that this rough-as-a-cob WWII veteran was about to become one of those “giants” that bless our lives at times of special need.
            Within a month, I was called before a promotion board, and found myself assigned as “Operations Sergeant” – essentially “number two” to the Provost Sergeant himself – and a regular companion to a father-like figure who saw something in me I was too immature to appreciate. Off base, the Rathsak family adopted us and soon found us a better living space in a duplex house close to their own in the ferry town of Mukilteo; an old house which we shared with the friendly Coast Guard couple manning the nearby lighthouse. Suddenly, we were part of an expanding “family-away-from-home” and able to concentrate on our new marriage and new life together. Mike taught me how to fish the northwestern lakes for crappie, and the harbor for salmon, and I soon had a new Labrador Retriever to run with his Springer Spaniel (a rather full boat load!)
            Looking across the landscape of a lifetime, I recognize Master Sgt. Mike Rathsak as a Tall Giant!

Sunday, June 19, 2016


            Our family was freshly arrived from a near-metropolitan New Jersey area, new to rural Vermont and still in the process of trying to fit in to a society which still prided itself for “having more cows than people” when we began to hear about “strange things going on up Cram Hill way!  The nearby mountain road known as Cram hill seemed to have all the appeal of a place where the “headless horseman” might still ride at the witching hour to an imaginative 13-year old boy who read too many books.
            In truth Cram Hill was a typical unpaved back road passing through a beautiful and heavily forested approach to a small farming community we could walk to – and frequently did -- from our farm place. Near the hamlet of West Brookfield, a hand-built wooden bridge crossed high over Ayers’ brook to reach an old, un-repaired house whose mysterious owner, Elmer Cram supposedly kept house with his several wives. All I knew for sure was that they didn’t have electricity or even a mail box, and we never saw anyone outside.
             In time, I came to feel somehow comforted to live in a place where it was “okay” to be different; where even the mystical (and “plural”) Elmer Cram clan, with oil lamps glowing dully behind their time-worn curtains could live free. And in private.
            Scott and Helen Nearing had already left their Vermont mountain homestead and relocated in an equally remote area of Maine at Cape Rosier on Penobscot Bay when I became interested in the events which caused them to escape the world of academe and the busy streets of Manhattan. Their book Living the Good Life telling of their decision in 1932 to leave one life behind in favor of a simpler and more basic existence in the unsettled wilds of New England practicing a self-reliant and more natural lifestyle captured my attention. They hand-built their own home and other buildings from stone, sought to raise most of their own food and devote no more than 50% of their time and energy earning a “bread income,” first with maple syrup and sugar in Vermont, then on commercial blueberries in Maine. Because they had become politically “unwelcome” in Scott’s university surroundings where he had been a Professor of Economics at a time when the term peaceniks had not yet been invented they felt they no longer fit in.
            After a long period of occasional correspondence, we made a family trip to meet with them and spent several days following them through greenhouses, growing beds, a new stone wall under construction and gaining familiarity with an impressive composting toilet. Scott was 92 and finishing one stone project he said would take “13 more years”.
            Having lived from August, 1883 to August, 1983, Scott died “voluntarily” at the age of 100 just as planned. Helen – 21 years younger – drove her car into a tree at age 91 after writing a final book titled Leaving the Good Life. I can say that I have never known anyone who lived more mindfully and intentionally than the Nearings, credited as they are with inspiring the entire “back-to-the-land” movement in America and elsewhere.
            In my imagination I often find “myself” living on a small offshore island on coastal Maine and pioneering a “saltwater farm” back at the turn of the 19th century when such a life would have been historically fitting and eminently satisfying. It is understandable therefore that I should greatly admire one who managed to actually live out the essence of such a lifelong dream. Her name was Tasha Tudor one of the most talented and successful writer/illustrators of children’s books of all time. She wished to live the bountiful country life of the 1830s surrounded by overflowing English gardens and small livestock, where she would weave and sew her own clothes from her sheep and goats, raise and preserve her own foods and enjoy the company of English Corgi dogs while producing lovely art work in a period home surrounded by beauty. Tasha Tudor (born Starling Burgess in Boston in 1915) did all this. The only disappointment is that although living near me in Marlboro, Vermont, she passed away at the age of 91 before I made good my hope of visiting with her. Only in America could so many such dreams come true.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


            Writing weekly columns of non-fiction is a demanding discipline in that it involves writing seriously in a format which allows limited space while requiring considerable attention to detail and accuracy. Breaking the process roughly into three distinct working venues, I divide my effort between (1) reading and research, (2) thinking, and (3) writing. Since I am often working on two or three different subjects-in-process it can get a bit complicated. Because of the need to say more in less space and fewer words it becomes a balancing act with the serious author feeling guilty for mastering so much more in new scholarship than he or she (and certainly I) can ever share with the target audience.
            During the past several weeks this has been especially true. Not only because military aviation history by its very nature is technologically challenging, but because those we allude to as the greatest generation reveal themselves to be the most articulate, motivated and literate recorders of an entire era of time one can imagine. They have made an “enterprise” out of their compulsion to pass on their very personal sense of history to those of us who follow after them. They are educated, principled, solid in their convictions and sure of the importance of the history they have lived. In short they are a rare generation in not only what they accomplished, but in the elegance with which they speak of it to those who are listening.
            This is particularly true of the WW II airmen about whom I have been writing. Every one of those 8th Air Force “Groups” I have researched and written about continue to meet and work together today – even though in starkly-reduced numbers – 70 years after their war. They have been sharing memories, personal experiences, flying records, names and fine details of virtually every mission or sortie they flew, together with bombing results, buddies lost and lessons learned. Their love and respect for friends living and lost is as alive and well in their 90s as it was in their 20s. As I access precious and meticulously-kept “Group and Squadron Archives”, I feel like a voyeur looking over their shoulders through the decades which for them are crowded with memories they keep alive and shining.

            As a visitor descends the front entrance to the “Mighty Eighth” museum today, the very first granite memorial seen says; In memory of the men and women of the resistance who risked their lives to come to the aid of Allied Airmen 1942-45. We will never forget.  In every Group archive I visited would be an entire proud section giving detail and sentiment to this message, often with such names as Dedee DeJongh and Arnold Deppe, Monique deBissy and organizations like the shadowy Compte Line.
            Because of the flight paths of the bomber streams, the skies over Belgium and The Netherlands were often the scenes of parachutes floating to earth as air crews departed their falling and crippled planes; Holland alone saw more than 800 crashed Allied planes between 1942 and 1945. Most airmen were quickly rounded up by Nazi troops or sympathizers and were quickly headed for Stalags or POW camps. But these countries were also the most patriotic to the Allied cause, and quick to give aid and comfort where they could. Escape and Evasion organizations brought together civilian patriots, safe houses, resources and everyday “workers” and “keepers”, engaged in an extremely dangerous enterprise, the end goal being to work the Allied airmen across the Pyrenees by foot, or south by rail to safety in Spain. Because families with young children were especially vulnerable to betrayal, these secret soldiers were often single women – both young and elderly – willing to risk all to save men whose language they didn’t even understand.

            In the end, it was determined that for every airman or soldier saved, two patriots lost their lives. Since escapees seldom went back into battle (a stand-out exception was young Chuck Yaeger who insisted to the contrary, and famously fought again,) it was not a great trade-off.   When asked why they persisted against such odds the civilian partisans said “because it was the right thing to do for the spirit of our nation.” Of those who were betrayed and imprisoned only 18% ever came home.

Note:  Readers wishing to know more about America’s bomber crews and the operation of Escape and Evasion patriots should read SHOT DOWN by Steve Snyder who tells his father’s real life story against the backdrop of the proud 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force in WWII.