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FOR MEMORIAL DAY

May 28, 2017

Here are two of my favorite stories for Memorial Day.

Dr. William Wilson served as President of the Center for Congregational Health until 2014. In January of that year he founded The Center for Healthy Churches. The following story came from his blog. It is about an experience Bill had at gate A-3 in the Charlotte airport.

“As I approached the gate, I saw that my flight was delayed. Slightly annoyed, I sighed over the coming inconvenience. I noticed a cadre of Transportation Security Administration agents in uniform standing in the gate area, and assumed they were in training, as the senior member of the group was clearly giving instructions about some pressing issue.

“Eventually, I wandered over to the windows to look out at the arriving plane we were to board, and was stunned to see that, as it arrived, it was being surrounded by five fire trucks. A crowd was gathering with me, and someone wondered aloud what was going on. A quiet voice said: ‘There’s a fallen warrior on board this plane’. In the cargo hold was a casket of a member of the military who had died in Afghanistan.

“Suddenly, the mood in gate A-3 shifted dramatically from annoyance to stunned silence. About then we noticed a small crowd gathering below us on the tarmac. A hearse arrived. The TSA agents formed a cordon through which walked two dozen members of the soldier’s family and friends. Dressed in black, they formed up into a small congregation alongside the plane. It was easy to tell the parents, and if there were any doubt, when the cargo door opened and the casket appeared, the mother’s knees buckled and she crumpled to the tarmac. Everyone in the gate area gasped as she went down. Immediately, her husband and daughter and their pastor all surrounded her and helped her to her feet and embraced her.

“Tears were flowing in a silent gate A-3, as this family struggled to get through the hardest day of their life. It was a holy moment as men and women, weeping openly, some reaching out to embrace or take the hands of strangers, murmured words of blessing and encouragement through the glass windows to those gathered below.

“At that moment, a military honor guard walked up to the plane, surrounded the casket and lifted it from the plane. With majestic precision, they marched to the hearse and placed the fallen warrior there. His parents and family trailed them, touching and kissing the flag-draped coffin.

“Slowly, the hearse pulled away and the family turned to leave. Their path from the tarmac led them up into our gate area and through those of us who had gathered to watch the events unfold below us. As they walked through the crowd of tear-streaked strangers, many of us reached out to touch and encourage them on their journey into the rest of their life.”

 

The second story was sent to me several years ago by my cousin, Captain Jim Hudson. I’m not sure where he got it, but it is certainly worth sharing for Memorial Day.

“Kevin and I, volunteers at a national cemetery in Oklahoma, had suffered through a long hot August day.  We wanted to go down to Smokey’s and have a cold one. The time was 16:55, five minutes before the cemetery gates closed. My full dress uniform was hot. The temperature and humidity were both high.

“I saw a 1970 model Cadillac Deville pull into the drive at a snail’s pace. An old woman got out so slowly I thought she was disabled. She walked with a cane and carried four or five bunches of flowers.

“The thought came unwanted to my mind; she’s going to spend an hour or more here! This old soldier was hot! My hip was hurting, I was ready to leave, but my duty was to help any visitor needing assistance.

“I broke post attention. My hip made gritty noises when I took the first step, and the pain went up a notch. I must have made a real military sight: a middle-aged man with a pot gut and half a limp. Though I was in Marine full-dress uniform, it had lost its razor crease about thirty minutes after I began my watch at the cemetery.

“I stopped in front of her, halfway up the walk. She looked up at me with an old woman’s squint.

‘Ma’am, may I assist you in any way?’

‘Yes, son. Can you carry these flowers? I’m moving a tad slow these days.’

‘My pleasure, ma’am,’ I lied.

She looked again. ‘Marine, where did you serve?’

‘Vietnam, ma’am. Ground-pounder. ’69 to ’71.’

She looked at me closer. ‘Wounded in action, I see. Well done, Marine. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘No hurry, ma’am.’

“She smiled and winked at me. ‘Son, I’m eighty-five years old, and I can tell a lie from a long way off. Let’s get this done. Might be the last time I can do this. My name’s Joanne Wieserman, and I’ve a few Marines I’d like to see one more time.’

‘Yes, ma’am.  At your service.’

“In the World War I section, she stopped by a stone, placing one of the flower bunches on the marker. The name on the marble was Donald S. Davidson, USMC, France 1918.

“In the World War II section, she paused at another grave.  With a tear running down her cheek, she laid flowers above the name Stephen X. Davidson, USMC, 1943.

“Just up the row she placed another bunch on a stone, Stanley J. Wieserman, USMC, 1944.

“She paused, wiping tears from her eyes. ‘Just two more, son.’

‘Yes, ma’am. Take your time.’

“Walking down the path in the Vietnam section, the lady stopped at several stones before she found the ones she wanted. She placed flowers on Larry Wieserman, USMC, 1968. The last bunch was for Darrel Wieserman, USMC, 1970.

“She bowed her head in prayer and wept openly.

“After a few moments she was ready to leave. ‘Please help me back to my car. Time to go home.’

‘Yes, ma’am. If I may ask, were those your kinfolk?’

‘Yes, Donald Davidson was my father, Stephen was my brother, Stanley was my husband, Larry and Darrel were our sons. All killed in action, all Marines.

“Whether she had finished, or couldn’t finish, I don’t know. She slowly made her way to her car. I waited for a polite distance to come between us and then double-timed it over to Kevin, waiting by the car.

‘Get to the gate quickly. I have something I’ve got to do.’

“Kevin drove us to the gate down the service road fast. We beat her there. She hadn’t made it around the rotunda yet.

‘Kevin, stand at attention next to the gatepost. Follow my lead.’

“I hurried across the drive to the other post.

“When the Cadillac came puttering around from the hedges and began the short straight traverse to the gate, I called in my best gunny’s voice: ‘Tehen hut! Present haaaarms!’

“Mrs. Wieserman drove through that gate with two old soldiers giving her a send-off she deserved, for service rendered to her country, and for knowing duty, honor, and sacrifice far beyond most Americans.”

On Memorial Day we remember, not only those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in military service, but we also remember the families who will always grieve their passing.

MAMMY’S POUND CAKE

May 21, 2017

More than fifty years ago my picture appeared in the very first Stroller Cookbook, the collection of local recipes published annually by the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  Seymour Rosenberg wrote the daily Stroller column and compiled the cookbook.

Inside the front cover of that publication is one of those family pictures that you wish you could avoid when you are almost thirteen and the oldest of eight children. I was embarrassed.  In the photograph, taken by B and B Studio, I am standing behind six of my seven younger siblings. My right hand is on my mother’s shoulder. My left hand is on the shoulder of my brother Bill.

Mama had submitted a recipe for caramel cake to the Stroller a few days before my youngest sister, Kitty, was born. Seymour Rosenberg called Mama several weeks later to arrange a time for Harry White to take the picture. Kitty was six weeks old. Dad was hospitalized with a serious infection following knee surgery. Mama agreed to the photo but said she had no time to bake a cake.

I rode my bicycle to Community Cash Grocery Store located at the end of our street on the corner of Lucerne Drive and Union Road. I purchased the out-of-date angel food cake pictured in the photograph; the one Mama is pretending to cover with caramel icing. She was actually spreading Peter Pan peanut butter on the store-bought cake. After the photographer left, we all tasted the cake, but we fed most of it to the dog.

Mama died sixteen years ago. A part of her legacy is old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking.  With a good bit of motherly cajoling and masterful delegating, she compiled and published her own Neely Family Cookbook in 1991. Her goal was to preserve many of the favorite family recipes and the stories behind them in the cooks’ own words. Her cookbook has become a collector’s item, at least in our family.

“People just do better when they’ve been fed,” was her wise advice.

My culinary repertoire is limited to outdoor grilling, boiled shrimp, made-to-order omelets, bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches with mozzarella cheese, and my world famous peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sometimes with the deluxe banana and mayonnaise addition.

If the old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” is true, the men in my family may be the best examples.

Mama, a graduate of Winthrop College, majored in home economics. With eight children and forty-five grandchildren, it’s a good thing she was an excellent cook!

Dad learned to cook grits in Barnwell County from my step-grandmother, Miss Maude. Dad made the best grits I have ever tasted. And his sweet tea, oh, my!

My grandfather was not much of a cook, but he had some of the best culinary advice: “Don’t get married and hire a cook; just marry the cook.”

Pappy did exactly that. He met my grandmother at a Cakewalk at a Methodist church. Mammy was born and reared in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Pappy traveled to her hometown, twenty miles north of Savannah, to install the electrical wiring for a sawmill. On a Saturday night, Pappy entered the Cakewalk. When the music stopped, he won Mammy’s pound cake: And Mammy won his heart!

I shared the treasured Cakewalk recipe that I inherited from Mammy in a Stroller Cookbook several years ago. Her melt-in-your-mouth pound cake was beyond compare.

Mammy’s Pound Cake

 

1 pound sugar                                                                         3 tablespoons cream

1 pound butter                                                                        3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pound flour                                                                          1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 pound eggs

 

All ingredients must be at room temperature. Cream the butter. Gradually add the sugar. Mix alternately small portions of flour and eggs. Add cream, vanilla, and lemon. Beat mixture hard for 10 –20 minutes.

Grease and flour a tube cake pan. One inherited from your grandmother works best.

Pour batter into the pan. Pound the pan on a hard surface 20 to 30 times to remove all bubbles from the batter. Our distressed antique butcher block is the perfect hard surface.

Wham! Wham! Wham! This explains all the dents in the antique pan.

As a child, I thought the name, pound cake, came because Mammy pounded the cake pan on a wooden cutting board before she put the cake into the oven. The name actually comes from the exact weighing of the principal ingredients on kitchen scales. That includes weighing the eggs. Be sure to weigh them out of the shell.

Put the pan containing the batter into a cold oven. Set the oven to bake at 200 degrees for one hour. Then, increase the heat to 300 degrees and bake for about two hours more or until done.

Check the old-fashioned way, with a broom straw. Pull a straw out of a real straw broom. A plastic broom will not work. When you think the cake is done, stick the straw into the cake. Quickly take the straw out of the cake. If the straw has batter on it, the cake needs more time to bake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. Turn the cake onto a cooling rack and let the aroma fill the house.

Mammy’s pound cake is delicious! It can be served warm. Thin slices toasted and buttered make a delightful breakfast treat. For special occasions, serve a warm chunk of Mammy’s pound cake with fresh homemade ice cream

Mammy’s pound cake might change your life. Pappy and Mammy had nine children and thirty-six grandchildren. It all started with her pound cake.

When I got married I took Pappy’s advice. I, too, married a wonderful cook. Clare is a high school history teacher by training, but she is a professional homemaker by vocation. One of the many things I appreciate about my wife is that she has always fed our family well. When I children were small she made peanut butter soup to encourage them to get good protein on cold winter days. She made light fluffy cottage cheese pancakes insuring that even with whole-grain batter our family would receive the added dairy benefits. While she bakes excellent cakes in the style of her mother, Miz Lib, Clare’s specialties are loaded with chocolate. Her hot chocolate chip cookies are so yummy the kids like to eat the dough before she puts it on a cookie sheet.  Her double fudge chocolate brownies are to die for.

I am not at all sure my theology is on solid ground when I affirm that I believe heaven will include banana pudding, strawberry short cake, apple pie, peach cobbler, Mammy’s pound cake, and Clare’s double fudge brownies.  We’ll just have to wait and see!

THE MOCKINGBIRD’S SONG

May 15, 2017

On a warm spring day last week, I was working in our yard. I was weeding a flower bed and adding new plants to our garden. Down on my knees digging in the good earth, I enjoyed the smell of the soil, the gentle breeze at my back, and the songs of a mother wren tending her fledglings.

Suddenly in the distance I heard a loud disturbance. A pair of blue jays were squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, my garden feline. She was taking a catnap in the shade. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. Maybe a hawk posed the threat. I saw nothing in flight or waiting to attack from a tree high above the ruckus. Upon closer investigation I saw a black rat snake climbing a winged elm tree. The hungry serpent was anticipating a meal of young birds. Using a rake, I lifted the snake from the limb and moved it to the back of the property. As I did a mockingbird made several hostile passes at the intruder dangling from the end of my rake.

Before long, order was restored. The mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree and sang the rest of the afternoon.

A lady in our acquaintance takes her newspaper and a cup of freshly brewed coffee to her backporch every morning. “I always have my cell phone with me,” she explained. “I never know when one of my children might call.”

Early one sunny day as she enjoyed her coffee, she heard the familiar ringtone of her cell phone. She took the phone from her pocket. “I thought that the call had been lost. Then I heard the sound again,” she said. “It wasn’t my phone at all! It was a mockingbird ringing from high up in a sweet gum tree. That bird had heard my ringtone so often that he memorized it!”

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimu, to mimic, and ployglottos, for many-tongued. The mockingbird’s song is a medley of the calls of other birds. The mockingbird imitates short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new song.

Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina wren or the cardinal, are easily copied by the mockingbird. A mockingbird usually has 30 to 40 songs in its repertoire. These include other bird songs, insect or amphibian sounds, and even the noise of a squeaky gate or a car alarm.

The mockingbird is not only a good mimic, but it is also a loud, vocal bird. Unmated males often sing through the night, especially when the moon is full. These bachelors are singing to woo any available female.

I enjoy sitting in my backyard at night. It is my favorite time to meditate.  Eighteen-wheel petroleum trucks groan by on the four-lane in front of our home. Long freight trains rumble along the railroad tracks in back. Dogs bark in the distance. An occasional siren pierces the night, prompting the dogs to howl. I breathe a prayer for whatever family is involved in the emergency.

When these sounds fade away, I am treated to the symphony of nature. Bullfrogs in the pond and tree frogs in the woods are joined by crickets and cicadas in a chorus. In the spring whippoorwills sing from the meadow behind our property.  Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours from the top of a pecan tree.

The mockingbird is closely identified with the South, where it is a year-round resident.  It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. My grandfather, a Tennessee native, told me it was his favorite bird. From him I learned to identify the mockingbird by the distinctive white chevron markings on the wings and the long tail that constantly moves up and down.

Mockingbirds have an adaptable diet. They eat insects in summer but switch to a menu of berries and seeds in winter.

Mockingbird males establish a nesting territory in early February. They tend to be monogamous.  Both mates are involved in the nest building. The male does most of the work while the female perches nearby to watch for predators. The nest is built 3 to 10 feet above the ground. The mother bird lays and incubates three to five eggs. Once the fledglings hatch, both the male and female feed them.

Mockingbirds aggressively defend their nest. I have seen a pair harass a red-tailed hawk until the encroacher left the territory.  They have been known to peck bald spots on the rear end of a cat and inflict a wound on a dog that required stitches from a vet. Mockingbirds will even target humans, as my dear wife can attest. Clare walked though a gate into our backyard. Unbeknownst to her, she was too close to a nest. A mockingbird, diving like a kamikaze, struck her on the shoulder.

2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. The story’s hero, Atticus Finch, gives his children air rifles for Christmas, warning, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  A neighbor, Miss Maudie, explains to the children, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1855. My favorite rendition is an instrumental guitar arrangement by Chet Atkins entitled “Hot Mockingbird.” In his recording, Chet makes his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar sing like the gray and white bird.

Most parents have sung the “Mockingbird Lullaby” to their children. Carly Simon and James Taylor recorded a version that was a popular success in 1974. One of the joys of being a grandfather is singing to our grandchildren. They provide the only audience that will listen to my warbles without complaining.

Recently Clare and I were babysitting for one of our young granddaughters. After she had supper and a bath, a fresh diaper, and clean pajamas, I took her upstairs to bed. We followed the usual routine, a sip of water, a favorite book, a little rocking chair time, and a song.

I started the lullaby.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.

Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.

Outside of the bedroom window from the top of a sassafras tree, we heard the sweet music of a mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put our granddaughter in her bed. Without a whimper she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.

THE STORY OF A MIGRANT MOTHER

May 13, 2017

For Mothers’ Day I repeat a story that captures the essence of motherhood.

On May 10, 1908, Anna Jarvis organized the first Mother’s Day celebration in Grafton, West Virginia. Neither a wife nor a mother herself, Anna wanted to encourage Americans to honor the women who are the strength of the nation. When the holiday became so quickly commercialized, Jarvis protested. The sale of cards and flowers and the proliferation of Mother’s Day advertising, detracted from Anna’s initial vision of a simple day to express gratitude for our mothers and grandmothers.

Arthur Brisbane, a famous newspaper editor, gave this advice to his fellow journalists, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Picture a woman whose face you have seen and probably recognize. She is not a famous celebrity; neither a beauty queen, nor a film star. When she gave permission for her most familiar photograph, she was not strutting on a red carpet. She was under a makeshift tent, nursing the youngest of her seven children. Though the photograph became an immediate success, the mother in the picture never received any compensation. For the photographer, the picture brought fame. For the woman pictured and her family it became a source of shame.

The thirty-two-year-old mother could have been on the cover of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Her story is similar to that of Steinbeck’s Ma Joad. The mother of six, Ma is a poor but strong woman married to a tenant farmer. Driven from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl drought, the Joads set out for California.

In 1936, three years before Steinbeck published his work of fiction, Dorothea Lange snapped several black-and-white photographs of a destitute mother with three of her children. Lange worked for the United States Government Resettlement Administration as a photographer. While visiting a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo, California, she captured the picture that made her famous.

Lange selected one of the pictures to send to the San Francisco News. The newspaper printed the picture immediately, along with the caption that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California. Within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. By the time the shipment arrived, the young mother and her family had moved on to another camp.

The iconic portrait of an American mother living on the brink of starvation was entitled “Migrant Mother.” As an illustration of severe poverty, the worried and worn woman in the picture unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression.

Because Lange had been funded by the federal government when she took the picture, the image was always in the public domain. As a collection, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography. Ken Burns included many in his recent The Dust Bowl, a documentary film which aired on the Public Broadcasting System. The film recounts the impact of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This picture appears in the episode entitled “Reaping the Whirlwind,” a phrase taken from the Old Testament book of Job.

The connection to Job’s suffering is appropriate. The Library of Congress entitled the image, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

In Lange’s field notes preserved with the photograph in the Library of Congress, she recorded that the young mother and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” Lange later wrote of the meeting:

“I did not ask her name or her history.”

Who was the mysterious woman in the mythical portrait?

Because Lange failed to get the woman’s name, it was more than forty years later that the woman in the picture told her story. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Florence Owens Thompson at her mobile home in the Modesto Mobile Village. He recognized her from the forty-year-old photograph.

Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her father had abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried Charles Akman who was of Choctaw descent. The family lived on a small farm outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

At age seventeen, Florence married Cleo Owens on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy. The family migrated west with relatives to California. Cleo worked at a sawmill and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley.

By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child. She became the common law wife of Jim Hill.

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville where they hoped to find work in the lettuce fields.  On the road, their automobile broke down, and they coasted to a stop at the crowded migrant camp on Nipomo Mesa.  The crops had been destroyed by freezing rain.

Florence remembered setting up a temporary camp and cooking vegetables that had been frozen in the field for her children while her husband and two of her sons worked to repair the car. It was then that Dorothea Lange drove up and started taking photos including the one that bears witness to the deprivation and suffering of the Great Depression.

During the 1930s the family labored as migrant farm workers following the crops in California. Florence would later recall picking cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to see. She added, “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”

Florence and Jim Hill had three more children.

The family settled in Modesto, California in 1945. After World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson.

In a television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), daughter Katherine McIntosh, remembered her mother as a strong lady who was the backbone of the family.  She said, “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her. She loved music, and she loved to dance.”

In 1998, the photo of “Migrant Mother” became a 32-cent postage stamp in the 1930s Celebrate the Century series. In the same month the stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold at auction for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Florence, the woman in the picture, never got one red cent.

Florence died on September 16, 1983. She was buried in Hughson, California.

Her epitaph reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON

Migrant Mother

A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Anna Jarvis had the right idea. On Mother’s Day we celebrate with gratitude the women who, like Florence, have been the strength of our nation.

CINCO DE MAYO

April 30, 2017

Clare and I enjoy dining out occasionally. We make a habit of supporting locally owned businesses, restaurants included. I am convinced that when local business thrives, the community as a whole benefits.

As I write these words, we are ordering a supper of take-out food from our favorite Chinese eatery. When our children were small we made a point of celebrating Chinese New Year with Chinese food.

Our favorites for various members of our family are Thai, German, Italian, Greek, Indian, Cuban, and Middle Eastern cuisines. We enjoy sushi, crepes, falafel, as well good old Southern cooking.

A unanimous choice for our children and grandchildren is Mexican food. How many times have I ordered kids cheese quesadillas with rice?

Cinco de Mayo, like Chinese New Year, is a day to enjoy special food.  On the fifth of May many Mexican restaurants in the United States will be crowded with hungry customers.

A Bronco Mexican Restaurant is within walking distance of our home. The good folks who operate the business have become friends of ours over the years.  I stopped by one morning before they opened for lunch. I spoke with Maria, the manager. I specifically wanted to know about Cinco de Mayo. When I asked she smiled and explained.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo is very different in the United States than it is in Mexico. For most Americans, the fifth of May offers an excuse to drink tequila, eat Mexican food, and party. In Mexico, though, the holiday isn’t nearly as big a cause for celebration. In the United States, Cinco de Mayo festivities can be found in a multitude of cities with large Mexican-American populations.

Maria named Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Chicago as examples. “In those places Cinco de Mayo is like a big carnival. In Mexico it is much quieter.”

Cinco de Mayo is not a federal holiday in Mexico. Mexicans don’t spend the fifth of May drinking and partying. Since it’s not actually a declared national holiday, stores, offices, and banks are all open, and many people go about their day as usual.

Many Americans have no clue what the day is about. One elderly man in my acquaintance thought Cinco de Mayo was a brand of spicy, expensive mayonnaise, something akin to Grey Poupon Dijon Mustard

Maria continued, “Americans do not understand that Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence. It is not like our American Independence Day. Even if they don’t understand it, we are glad they want to celebrate. It really helps our business.”

Mexicans celebrate their independence from Spain on September 16th. This marks the day in 1810 when priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared war against the Spanish government with his call to arms that is known as the “Grito de Dolores” or “cry of suffering.”

Cinco de Mayo commemorates a relatively small battle. It is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla which resulted in the unlikely victory of Mexico over France in 1862.

In 1861, the liberal Mexican Benito Juarez became president of Mexico, a country in financial ruin. He was forced to default on Mexico’s debts to European governments. In response, France, Britain, and Spain sent naval forces to the Mexican port city of Veracruz to demand reimbursement. Britain and Spain negotiated with Mexico and withdrew, but France, ruled by Napoleon III, decided to use the opportunity to carve a dependent empire out of Mexican territory.

Late in 1861, a well-armed French fleet stormed the city of Veracruz, landing a large French force and driving President Juarez and his government into retreat. The French objective was to establish a monarchy in Mexico led by Maximilian, the Archduke of Austria.

Certain that French victory would come swiftly in Mexico, 6,000 French troops under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez set out to attack Puebla de Los Angeles, a town in central Mexico. From his new headquarters in the north, Juarez rounded up a rag-tag force of loyal men and sent them to Puebla. Led by Texas-born General Zaragoza, the 2,000 Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault with a poorly trained and much smaller army.

On the fifth of May, 1862, Lorencez drew his army, well-provisioned and supported by heavy artillery, before the city of Puebla and began their assault from the north. The battle lasted from daybreak to early evening. When the French finally retreated they had lost and the Mexicans had won the day. More than 500 French soldiers were killed in the Battle of Puebla while the Mexicans lost fewer than 100 men.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates this victory. Although it was small, it demonstrated Mexico’s fierce resistance toward the French who eventually withdrew from Mexico. Victory at the Battle of Puebla represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government, symbolizing the country’s ability to defend its sovereignty against threat by a powerful foreign nation.

Several years ago Clare and I were in Nashville, Tennessee, for a long weekend. Our daughter-in-law June and our daughter Betsy were both living in Music City at the time. One of our sons affectionately referred to June and Betsy as the twin divas of Nashville. I offered to take the group out for dinner on Saturday evening. Speaking as if with one voice, June and Betsy said, “Cinco de Mayo!” It was a Mexican restaurant, and it was quite popular among their friends.

I made reservations and when we arrived I was glad I had done so. The place was packed with people and filled with the pleasing aroma of good food. We were escorted to a large booth. The menu was extensive. After we ordered we found it difficult to talk above the noise. Just as our food arrived, a mariachi band started playing, making their way from table to table with their songs.

When Clare and I recall that evening Bronco comes to mind.

I asked Maria what business would be like on Cinco de Mayo.

“It will be a party!” she said. “We will be crowded and people will be happy.”

“Will there be music? Maybe a mariachi band?”

“No,” said Maria. Most of the mariachi bands in our area are in Greenville. We really don’t have enough room for a band, but we will certainly have music.”

“What will your customers eat?” I asked.

“Everything on the menu will be served” she said, then added, “but many people will just eat tacos. But they will drink. Dos Equis draft beer and our margaritas will be very popular.”

Clare and I will stay at home on Friday, but take-out is always a good possibility. She likes steak Mexicana with spinach. I enjoy pollo fundido.

Maybe you, too, would enjoy celebrating Cinco de Mayo with some good Mexican food.

And to drink?  The choice is entirely yours.

NATIONAL HERO, JACKIE ROBINSON

April 23, 2017

Last week in Los Angeles, California, a new bronze statue was unveiled at Dodger stadium. Crafted by artist Branly Cadet, the statue is an image of Jackie Robinson stealing home. The idea for the new addition grew out of a meeting shortly after the team’s new ownership took control in 2012. Dodgers chairman Mark Walter had just met Robinson’s wife, Rachel.

“He pulled Mrs. Robinson aside and said, ‘We’re going to get a statue of your husband,'” team co-owner Magic Johnson said. “And he backed it up.”

It’s the first statue at Dodger Stadium. The unveiling came on the seventieth  anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. Baseball celebrates an annual Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, when all players and coaches wear his No. 42.

“Every advancement in society has come from people standing on the shoulders of giants,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “And in the history of baseball, in the history of our country, few people have stood taller than Jackie Robinson.”

A pregame ceremony included Frank Robinson, baseball’s first black manager; Dodgers Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully; Robinson’s children, Sharon and David, Kasten and Johnson.

Rachel Robinson, 94, was also in attendance, as were Robinson’s former teammates Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe, and Tommy Lasorda. Read more…

LET’S FLY A KITE!

April 19, 2017

Last week on my way to my teaching responsibilities at The University of South Carolina Upstate,  I drove past the duck pond and big fountain near Milliken headquarters. I saw families with young children enjoying Spring break.  Some were feeding the ducks, others were flying kites.

Clare and I were at the coast of South Carolina during Spring break several years ago. Good friends had allowed us to use their place at the beach for a time of uninterrupted writing. It was a pleasant and productive retreat for us. The weather was exceptionally warm as the bright sun pushed March temperatures close to seventy each day.

In any season beautiful weather brings much activity to the sandy shore.  Families with children built sandcastles fit for little princesses and princes. College boys pitched baseballs, tossed Frisbees, and threw footballs while stealing glances at college girls strategically sunbathing close by. Even a few daredevils – probably folks who had enjoyed a few too many beverages or those crazy Canadians who think that fifty degrees is as warm as ocean water ever gets – swam in the cold Atlantic.

From my perch inside the house, the activity that caught my eye was kite flying. Spring is the perfect kite-flying time, and the beach is the perfect kite-flying location. Soaring above the dunes were delta and diamond-shaped kites of various shapes and colors. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, each tethered with string, patrolled the skies as if attending to Curious George and Elmo. Flyers with ground control systems created the most fascinating display of aerobatics. The tricks, flips, and turns were amazing. One man’s kite – a five delta-winged multicolored ace – would take a kamikaze dive, swooping close to the sand.  Then at the last breathtaking moment, it would soar high above the waves. A black Labrador retriever – no doubt belonging to one of the crazy Canadians – was determined to seize the kite when it came close to the ground.  Seagulls dodged the unauthorized intruder when it ventured into their air space.

Watching these antics brought back memories of making my first kite when I was a Cub Scout.  It was crafted with newspaper, string, Elmer’s glue, and thin wood trimming gathered from sawdust piles near the table saw at the lumberyard. My diamond-shaped kite, which featured a picture of Stan “The Man” Musial – number six for the St. Louis Cardinals – flew well once I tied on a tail of scrap cloth.

The Chinese, said to have invented kites in the fifth century B.C., had materials ideal for kite building: silk fabric for sail material, high-tensile-strength silk for line, and bamboo for the strong, lightweight framework.

Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm as an experiment to prove that electricity caused lightning.  I doubt that Ben would have been foolish enough to try such a test. In 1750 he did, however, publish a proposal for the experiment.

Orville and Wilbur Wright used kites when developing the first airplane in the late 1800s. Through the years kites have been used for military messaging and surveillance, science, meteorology, and photography.  They have also been used for lifting radio antennas, generating power, and conducting experiments with aerodynamics.

Now, kites are used almost exclusively for recreation. Kite boating and kite surfing are popular among the beach crowd. Of course, hang gliding and parasailing are extreme forms of kite flying. Kite ice skating and kite snowboarding may someday be events in the Winter Olympics.

A friend of mine fishes for red drum off the Outer Banks each October. Fishermen there deploy a kite to take their bait well beyond the rough surf by attaching the fishing line to the kite string with a clothespin. When the distance is right a simple snap of the wrist drops the bait to the ocean bottom.

My dad was always interested in teaching us new things. In the days of my youth we rarely bought a kite. We usually made them and some were dandy kites. Dad taught us how to launch our homemade creations. Most of the diamond-shaped kites flew well.

One rainy day in March years ago my dad suggested that we build a kite. “It won’t rain forever,” he said. “There’ll be a sunny, windy day before long. We can have a kite ready when the time comes.”

Dad, who had made a box kite when he was a boy, knew he could do it again. So, with thin dowel rods, butcher paper, and sturdy string, we built the contraption, which appeared much too heavy to fly.

On the first sunny afternoon I was ready to launch.

“Not enough wind,” Dad explained, “but you can try if you want to.”

Together we tried but; alas, the kite never got off the ground.

Two days later the wind was blowing, really blowing.

“Maybe too much wind,” Dad warned, “but you can try if you want to.”

We carried the cumbersome box kite to the backyard. I held the string while Dad tossed it into the wind. The kite took off, nearly pulling me off the ground as it soared higher and higher and further and further away. Dad was thrilled. I was delighted.

Then the wind died, forcing the kite into a sudden descent.  I lost control and watched helplessly as it crashed into a telephone line. At that very moment the wind gusted again, causing the kite to make several flips around the wire. When Dad and I both tried to pull the kite loose, the string snapped, leaving it tightly wound around the telephone wire. Over the next several weeks I watched the slow demise of my stranded box kite until it finally disintegrated during a hard spring rain.

Flying a kite is not always successful, but it is always fun.  Flying a kite is not a strenuous activity, but it is a healthy pastime.  When I saw families flying kites near the Milliken headquarters last week it brought back fond memories. The adults launched the simple kites and then handed the strings to the children at their side. The image brought to mind the words of a song from the Walt Disney movie Mary Poppins.

 

With tuppence for paper and strings

You can have your own set of wings

With your feet on the ground

You’re a bird in a flight

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

 

When you send it flying up there

All at once you’re lighter than air

You can dance on the breeze

Over houses and trees

With your fist holding tight

To the string of your kite

 

Oh, oh, oh!

Let’s go fly a kite

Up to the highest height!

Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring

Up through the atmosphere

Up where the air is clear

Oh, let’s go fly a kite!

The Chapman Cultural Center has announced the 2017 , Spartanburg Soar!

The fourth annual International Kite Festival is back this Saturday, April 22, 2017 from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.! This family-friendly event began in 2014 as a mission to build civic pride, promote healthy outdoor play, and celebrate cultural diversity and creativity. Every year Spartanburg Soaring! is getting bigger.

The Festival will kick off at 11 A.M. in the greenspaces behind the Chapman Cultural Center and in Barnet Park. We encourage residents to bring their kites if they have one. Kites will also be available for purchase from the Chapman Cultural Center information booth and free kites will be given out while supplies last! Professional kite fliers will be in attendance with jaw-dropping aerial displays. Spartanburg Soaring! Kite Club, a group of locals that was formed after our inaugural festival, will be on hand, led by master kite maker and local enthusiast Chuck Holmes.

Holmes said: “The Spartanburg Soaring Kite Club and the WACKOS (Western Area Carolina Kite and Okra Society) will be at Spartanburg Soaring! to display their kites and to help participants get their kites launched and into the air. Our goal is together with area people to paint the sky with hundreds of beautiful kites. We hope that everyone will come out to join us!”

In addition to kite flying, the public can expect to hear live local music throughout the day, eat local foods, drink local beverages, and stroll through the local-art market for some shopping. Kids can try their hands at Kite trivia and decorating their own kites!

Music will be provided by The Rock and Roll Reunion Band (11 A.M.), The LOZ Band (1 P.M.), and The Abbey Elmore Band (3 P.M.) on the stage in Barnet Park.

Jennifer Evins, President and CEO of Chapman Cultural Center says: “When we started Spartanburg Soaring in 2014, it was to encourage cultural curiosity and promote active living. We hoped that the common love for kite flying across all cultures would bring people together to experience the vibrancy of our community.”

“Now, four years later, the festival represents that and so much more.  Spartanburg is soaring to new heights every year.”

This year’s sponsors for the festival are Spartanburg Soaring Kite Club, City of Spartanburg, The Phifer-Johnson Foundation, GSP International Airport, Molina Healthcare, Publix Super Markets Charities, WSPA-TV, and AT&T.

A rain date is planned for Sunday, April 23, 2017 from 1 P.M.-5 P.M..

Let’s go fly a kite!