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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Channel Crossings

Everybody has heard horror stories of how bad it can be crossing the English Channel in the winter or during a storm. I have two sources of winter crossings that are interesting, one for its historic perspective, and the second for its amusing culture clash.

The first set of crossings belong to my great-uncle Roger and his wife Flavia. Uncle Roger was a business executive who was sent from New York to London, then to Paris, to Germany, to Russia, and to Italy to open two European offices and to establish ties to subcontractors—in the winter and spring of 1930. He took Flavia with him on the 1930 trip, and the next year they returned to live in Europe for a few years with their young children. Here is a piece of Flavia’s letter after their crossing from London to Paris.

“Hotel Roblin
“February 9, 1930

“Dear Folks:

“And here we are in Paris - a beautiful city! We flew over from London Wednesday, making what might have been a long twelve hour trip in just two hours and ten minutes. And less expensive than by boat! The plane, a ‘Silver Wing’ was a huge tri-motored one, with a very comfortable cabin, seating eighteen people in addition to two pilots and a steward. Luncheon was served to us in the air - sandwiches and hot coffee. It seemed so strange to eat high above everything. The air seemed very smooth, visibility tho’ was poor. When crossing the channel we were in or above the clouds most of the time. It was a very beautiful sight - great soft billows of white and grey tinged with gold from the sun. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of white-capped waters below us, and were glad to be going by air instead of by boat. We crossed at the narrowest place and flew for many miles over northwestern France. It was wonderfully interesting - quaint villages - farms with their white walls - a few beautiful chateau[x] with towers and terraces and gardens and lakes. We flew low most of the time - about 1500 feet - except over the Channel where we went up to 2500. And traveled at about 90 miles an hour most of the time.”

This an excerpt from Roger’s letter when they returned to London, February 24, 1930:

“When we went to Paris we flew over in an English plane - ‘Imperial Airways’. So when we came back here today we decided to come on a French line, the ‘Air Union’. It certainly is worth while flying between Paris and London. The cost is the same as by train and boat, and in addition the time from hotel to hotel is less than half. And no rough channel crossings, and no seasickness, and no changing from train to boat and boat to train.

“We left Paris at half-past one this afternoon in a very dense fog. Five hundred feet off the ground, we were completely lost in fog, and in a minute or two we were in such dense clouds we were simply enveloped in an impenetrable blanket of white. But within ten minutes we had climbed above and were in the beautiful sunlight with billowy oceans of white clouds below us. After half an hour or so the clouds disappeared and we had clear vision. Over the Channel - 32 miles of water - it was very hazy again, but that cleared when England’s cliffs came into view and we landed at London Airdrome in a driving sleet rain just two hours and ten minutes after leaving the ground at Paris. And a nice luncheon served on board while we were speeding at over 100 miles an hour 3000 feet above the earth.”

Then on March 12, 1930, Roger wrote again about their crossing from London to Dusseldorf, Germany.

“I think Flavia wrote you of our flying from London to Dusseldorf. It was not a very pleasant trip as it was very foggy and also a very rough trip. We flew nearly all the way not over 600 feet from the ground, and over the Channel, which it took 25 minutes to cross. We were at times not over 100 feet above the waves, and at no time more than 400 feet. Both Flavia and I were airsick - an uncomfortable experience.”

In 1930 air passenger travel was in its early years. The first airplane crossing the English Channel was in July 1909. (An air crossing by balloon was successful in 1785.) Imperial Airways had formed in London in 1924 and that same spring began its service between London and Paris, its English base being at Croydon Airport, south of London. Flying that low to the ground was supposed to be one of the charms of early air travel. Since mostly only those with some wealth could fly, sightseeing was emphasized to draw in passengers. Still, I think my relatives were either brave or inveterate thrill seekers. I can’t imagine flying that low over the Channel, especially that March crossing to Dusseldorf when it was stormy and they had to fly so close to the waves.

But that brings me to my own memories. Like Roger and Flavia, most of my flights to Europe have been relatively smooth, but a couple of times we have had to fly through storms, once quite dramatically.

One Christmas my mother and I flew to Spain to pick up my sister, who was in the United States military stationed near Madrid, and we drove to Calais, France, where we crossed the channel on New Year’s Eve, enroute to visit an aunt and uncle in England. During our trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to Madrid, we ran into a turbulent storm while the cabin staff were serving dinner.

Just as the captain announced that there might be turbulence and that the staff were to return to their seats, our plane hit a pocket and dropped about 50 feet. Trays and food and everything loose hit the ceiling of the plane, people screamed at the tops of their lungs, and all the staff had hit the floor immediately, spread-eagled and grasping the bolted legs of the seats nearest them. My mother and I stayed outwardly calm, but I’m sure our faces were several shades paler than normal. Thankfully, that was the only bad part. It was bumpy after that, but not bad. The captain came on the intercom again and explained the air pressure and the physics of the incident, in a bit of an effort to help people regain confidence in how the airplane handled such things (and in his own competence).

That week a storm hit the English Channel, just a couple months after an incredibly powerful storm created damage across the entire south coast of the country. When we arrived the next week in Calais, we were told that gale force 9 conditions had meant terrible crossing conditions in the Channel (force 12 is hurricane force). People were understandably nervous.

But when we arrived in Calais the evening of December 31st, conditions were quiet. Not just quiet, the sea was glassy smooth, reflecting perfectly the nearly-full moon’s orb and its long track across the sea to the base of our ferry boat. We drove my sister’s car on board and parked it on the parking deck, then moved upstairs to the passenger deck. There were few passengers, and indoors a mother and a small group of children sat around a small television set that was showing American cartoons. The three of us strolled about the deck outside, but there was little to see except the moon and its track on the sea, so we went back inside and sat on some chairs a distance away from the group around the television.

My sister and I noticed that the cartoons were some of our childhood favorites; Looney Tunes’ Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote were up to their old tricks. We giggled at the expected outcome of one of the Coyote’s elaborate, ludicrous invention-based plans to capture the Roadrunner. Invariably the Coyote met with a violent end, but no matter how violent the end, he popped up ready to keep chasing his dinner in the next scene. This is a staple of American humor, the disconnect between the realistic expectation and the cartoon outcome using extreme slapstick-style comedy. I think nobody but Americans really “gets” this type of humor, and the people on that ferry certainly didn’t. The mothers were frankly horrified at us callously chuckling at this terrible show that was supposed to be for children.
We tried to stifle ourselves, realizing that we were the only ones finding the cartoon funny. But we simply couldn’t. We kept giggling, trying to be silent. Stifling our giggling got to be its own humor, making us teary-eyed with our efforts to be quiet. We had to get up and go outside to the deck rail where we could laugh—and watch the lights of Dover drawing close as we glided into port.

So the only rough sea crossing I’ve experienced is that of cultural misunderstanding—and I just had to laugh. Having flown in small planes a few times, once with a roommate who was practicing for a test to renew her pilot’s license, I learned how precarious it could be to stay in the air under certain conditions. My friend was practicing mid-air stalls, and we flew down to the lake near our home so as to practice over the water. I asked her what would happen to us if we crashed. She said it might be bad, but she said, “If we were over land, it might be worse. We could be over a school, or a busy intersection. I’d rather be over something empty than risk more than just our two lives. But of course nothing bad is going to happen.”

And it didn’t, but her words resonated with me. She talked me through the kinds of problems an aircraft could develop where landing could be very difficult if the pilot couldn’t keep the craft in the air. It was enlightening and I realized that so as not to develop real fear of flying I had to adopt a certain level of calm fatalism—if this must be my time to go, so be it. That sort of thing helped with that Christmas flight over the Atlantic, but I don’t know if I could have been as calm flying close to the waves in a small aircraft through a storm.

Next time I cross the English Channel, I want to try the Chunnel. I don’t have any sense of claustrophobia, so a train all the way from London to Paris sounds like my best plan for an easy crossing.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Your Dog Did What During the Eclipse?

I saw a number of ridiculous posts on Facebook over the past week leading up to the solar eclipse across the United States about how people needed to prepare their pets and animals for the great event. What if the animals didn’t have eye protection and went blind by looking into the sun at the wrong time? Horrors!

I couldn’t help but laugh. Who has a pet that looks into the sun at any time? Does the cat check out the sun going behind a cloud? Nope. Does your dog watch the sunset? I didn’t think so. Are there mass numbers of farm animals and wild animals all over the country running around blind because they stared at the sun? Not hardly. Animals know better than to look at the sun. Duh! They have good instincts! We don’t (much)!

Yet in those horror scenarios the writers had the audacity to “quote” veterinarians who suggested keeping the animals indoors. No way was any reputable vet quoted saying anything of the kind. If any vets out there tell me they suggested such a thing, I’m going to call their licensing boards. Are you kidding me? You must be kidding me.

Our dog didn’t like the eclipse. Where I live, we got about 91% of the eclipse, so it did not get dark, but the light was dimmer than usual. The temperatures dropped significantly. It was a hot morning and the afternoon was beastly hot.

Anyway, during the eclipse, not having obtained eclipse glasses, we were all out on the patio, mostly under our awning. We did try to see the shadow in the holes of the kitchen colander, but apparently we’re all too dumb to make that work. We forgot completely to look at the shadows cast by the tree leaves. Our neighbors did that and their photographs are beautiful. So I just had my son stand in the sunlight and “be” the eclipse for my camera. We had a laptop on the table out there to watch the online experience of folks in Madras, Oregon (where some of my cousins live) and Idaho Falls, Idaho (where one of my brothers lives).
Forty-five minutes until maximum eclipse.
You can see the reflection at the top shows the progress.
Yeah, okay, we had the colander out but were too dumb to work it right
Ten minutes to go
The full eclipse that we were able to get!
This is 91% of the sun eclipsed. With the awesome power of the sun,
you can barely tell anything is different. But the light was dimmer
and the temperature dropped 20 degrees F. (See the reflection near the bottom.)
So we watched the total eclipse online. Not the same thing!

Meanwhile the dog did not like what was going on. He went into his house and looked at us with reproachful eyes. “What are you doing to make things so weird?” he seemed to be asking. He got back up, ran out onto the lawn and retrieved his favorite toy and took it to the safety of his house. He shut his eyes and waited for it all to be over with.
What are you doing to make things so weird?
I’m just going to wait until this is all over . . .

He did not once look up at the sky.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eagle Lake Summer

Eagle Lake (photo credit: USGS)
The summer I was 10 we spent a long vacation at Eagle Lake in northern California. We were there with two other families, the Rices, whose four boys were the same ages as my siblings and me, and the Bonderants, who were an older childless couple. Tents were pitched for the kids to sleep in, and the adult couples each had a trailer or camper to sleep in. Our camp sites, of course, were all together in a line along the south shore of the lake.

To get to the lake itself from our camp, we crossed an area of hard dirt that gave way to a marsh. Several long, narrow boards set end-to-end on pylons a foot above the water bridged the marsh. Beyond the marsh was the lake with its muddy and rocky bottom sloping down from the marsh area. We tied up our little boat there, and the Rices and the Bonderants also had their boats there.

Our boat had a small 5-horsepower motor. That year or maybe the next my dad bought a larger boat and a 35-horsepower motor, just enough power to pull a skinny teenage boy up on water skis if only one spotter rode in the boat with the driver. Our friends had more powerful boats and did most of the driving for the water skiers and the “aquaplane” riders. The aquaplane was a board with a rope handle at one end and small sides against which the rider could brace his or her feet--you stood on it holding the rope handle, and the boat pulled you up out of the water just like on water skis, but not quite so difficult to balance.

At the age of 10, all I could handle was the aquaplane, not water skis yet. I had terrible balance as a kid. I couldn’t ride a bicycle until I was nearly twelve years old because of my poor balance. I always had wanted to walk our fences like my brothers did, but I couldn’t. I’d practice and practice on a two-by-four board on the ground, and I just couldn’t stay on it. Anyway, I was so proud of myself the day I got up on the aquaplane and was towed around a large circle by that shore of Eagle Lake where we were camped.

Then disaster struck. I was walking that narrow board plank over the marsh when I lost my balance and had to jump down into the marsh so I didn’t fall over. It wasn’t all that deep, so I just walked alongside the board, heading toward the dry ground. But there was a bottle hidden in the marsh, and I stepped on it, and it broke into my foot. It sliced an arc right across the arch of my foot, cutting pretty deeply. I screamed and sat down on the bridge, holding my foot high, blood streaming out of it in a seeming waterfall.

One of my brothers was near and scooped me up in his arms and ran for the camp. The adults were all looking to see what was going on, and my relations dismissively said I’d probably stepped on a thorn or something and not to pay too much attention to my dramatic bid for attention. But the blood streaming out told a different story.

I was plunked into a chair, and Mrs. Bonderant, a nurse, knelt beside me to examine my foot. She told me to try to stop crying.

“Crying makes your blood run faster,” she said, which very effectively shut me up, except for the hiccups. It wasn’t hurting me. It was just that it was very scary to me to see all that blood coming out of my foot. I was in shock.

My mother sent one of my brothers to get one of my toys. I had a toy worm, which sounds the antithesis of a comforting thing, but it was actually a piece of sheepskin cut in a narrow oval about a foot long, dyed green, with black-and-white button eyes and a tiny pink tongue. If you put it on a piece of fabric-covered furniture and stroked its length, it appeared to undulate and was rather cute. I found a picture of a pink one on the internet at etsy. I couldn’t find one in the bright grass green color I remember mine was.

My foot was tightly bound in towels and my parents bundled me into the back of the station wagon with the seats all set down so I could lie flat with my mother beside me. My dad rode shotgun and Mr. Rice drove the winding 17-mile road to Susanville where the nearest hospital was. I think I chattered all the way, nervous but somehow excited too, to be the focus of all the adults’ attention for once, legitimately.

In the emergency room my mother told me to hold still and definitely not to wave my Wormy around, as it was a dirty, germy thing, she said. I waved it defiantly, but only once. I was shocked by the sight of the great big needle the doctor was going to stick into my foot. He told me to be very brave about it, so I screwed up my eyes and did not make another sound.

It seemed like he sewed and sewed and sewed forever, closing up the great gash. But after all he put in only eight stitches with elegant, thick, black silk. He did say that I had been very lucky, as one eighth of an inch deeper, I would never have walked on that foot again. I was too young to understand tendons.

There followed an extremely dreary week of not being allowed to walk anywhere. I spent it reading my parents’ paperback novels. I was introduced to Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner that week by necessity; they hadn’t brought too much reading material. I liked Perry Mason; not so much Mike Hammer. There seemed to be a lot of sex in those novels, most of which I didn’t understand at all but felt vaguely was supposed to be naughty.

I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the tent with the other kids. I had to sleep in the trailer with my parents. Horrible. I thought I was being treated too much like a baby, but I was powerless to change anything. The worst thing was having to be packed around on one or another brother’s back when I had to use the outhouse. Very embarrassing, and most of my brothers didn’t like it either. My favorite brother sympathized and was nice about it though. He’d sit and play his harmonica for me and whistle his favorite song, which that summer was Mel Carter’s big hit, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me.”

My mother took me back into Susanville one morning to see the doctor at his office. I remember his office looked like a large old house on a residential street. He pronounced that the wound was healing just as it should, and that he could remove the stitches. I wanted to know if I could keep the stitches, and he grinned back at me, dropping them one by one into my cupped hand as he snipped them and pulled them out. He gave me a little pill bottle to keep them in so that I could show all my friends when I got back home.

I don’t remember anything more about Eagle Lake that summer, except a regret that I had not been able to go on the aquaplane again, nor try water skiiing.

But there would be another summer at the lake, and other lakes, and more opportunities.

It’s Really Very Simple

It’s really very simple. After a dangerous rise in nationalist and supremacist movements during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Second World War broke out in 1939. Our country joined the war in 1941 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We sent a generation of young people to fight that war, and our side won. The world was told in no uncertain terms that the majority of right-thinking people realized that these ideologies were wrong and dangerous and would not be tolerated.

Our country continued to fight the ideas of racial superiority and gender inequality through the next several decades. We still are fighting those battles, along with fight for the tolerance for differing beliefs and the continuing need to balance all these things with preserving freedom of speech for all.

It doesn’t take much logical thought to realize that when one is confronted with those who espouse oppression in any form, one must use that freedom of speech to speak up and protest those ideas. When the leader of our nation, which is supposed to stand for justice and equality for all under the law, meets a chance to declare what we stand for, that leader must take the opportunity to make a clear and positive declaration. Just say it. “We do not agree with Nazis. Our laws will not support racial supremacy, nor bigotry, nor gender discrimination, nor religious oppression of whatever kind, nor any other repugnant act against the equality of all people. We allow you the freedom to express your beliefs, but we do not allow you to act upon those beliefs if they infringe on the freedom of others.”

There is no room for wavering back and forth, for assigning “blame” to people who are protesting ideas that are absolutely opposed to what this country stands for, or for trying to justify the people advocating things that are clearly against our national values.

How I wish we did not have the president we now have. How grateful I am that I live in a country that allows me the freedom to express this opinion. I hope for better leadership in our future. I hope we survive to the end of this president’s term!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It Has to Stop or We Will Lose This War

Apparently not enough people were horrified at the end of World War II when the Nazi concentration camps were liberated and appalling photographs of the emaciated, suffering victims emerged, together with the truth of the killings of millions of human beings. These were people killed for who they were, not for anything they did or didn’t do, not for guilt nor any supposed threat to humanity.

Apparently a good many white parents of United States soldiers who had been sent overseas to fight the Nazis went right on teaching their children to believe that they were better than any other races, and that their religion made them better people than people of any other religion or of no religion, and that this or that attitude made them better than people with a different attitude or way of living.

Apparently too many of those soldiers came home and lapsed into bigoted ways themselves, despite what they’d fought and why they’d fought. Apparently they passed along their attitudes to their children and their grandchildren.

This past year has seen the rise of such people in greater numbers than I could ever have believed were possible, after all that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, after all that we know. And this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we saw the hatred these people have nurtured and cultivated, grown into a terribly powerful wave, engulfing and destroying the love and inclusiveness that should be the hallmark of our society.

I know we haven’t headed into the utopian society that some of us in the 1960s envisioned for our futures. I know that my white privilege has blinded me to how much of this is unsurprising to my brothers and sisters of color here in the United States. I’m ashamed that I haven’t yelled louder, written more forcefully, fought harder against this evil that is threatening us all. I don’t really know how.

But I do know how to write, and I must do what I can.

There can be no justification for prejudice, no rational way to describe bigotry, no mitigating circumstances explaining the subjugation of and discrimination against human beings by other human beings.

It’s wrong. It’s evil.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today issued a statement that said in part, “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.” Their statement quoted Jesus explaining to His disciples the first and second great commandments in religious law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39).

There is no greater way to fight evil than to spread love.

I don’t mean that you must not fight back. But I do know that love conquers all; that fighting while using love is different from fighting with hatred as a motivation.

Tomorrow when you go out and meet people in the course of your day, love everyone you meet. Fight your own tendency to be annoyed with the people who make mistakes in driving, the people who force you to take evasive action, the folks who delay you when you’re in a hurry, the people who want to talk to you when you’re trying to concentrate, that person at work who does everything wrong.

What’s harder is when you have made an enemy, and that person vows to get even with you, or works to destroy you before you can be the one doing the destroying. You have to get a grip on yourself, eradicate revenge from your nature, and turn around. You have to figure out how to make that person into your friend. It may be the hardest challenge you’ve ever accepted, but it can be done if you want it badly enough. You have to use every ounce of imagination, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and energy. Sometimes you’ll think you’ll never succeed, that the bitterness has just plain gone too deep and can never be eliminated. But I say it can, even if it takes years and years and years. I think the end result is worth any effort.

Work to love them. Your love is the most powerful force in the world and it will spread its influence to every single person with whom you come in contact, and you will be known as the person who spreads peace all around you.

If enough people do this, the world will change for the better. We will win this war.