Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.

I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic.  I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning.  The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.

My parents grew up during WWII.  They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era.  If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music,  Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.”  It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.

It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft.  He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.

I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented.  Because I love my dad.

There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this.  In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you.  Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.

This is one of those nuggets:

The church system was older than this, but this gives you an idea of what it looked like.

In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings.  The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon?  Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on.  Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.

The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.

Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting.  You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place.  You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided. 

Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones.  So it seemed to me.  You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system.  From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children.  Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones.  Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.

When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground.  If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.

I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.  Today, it is crystal clear to me.  In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London.  I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel.  I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment.  Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts.  But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.

We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me.  The best.

So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have.  He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now.  It’s very difficult and grueling.  Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer.  But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!

 

 

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Today’s Yesterdays, Around the World: November 19th

I am waking slowly to an overcast Saturday in Florida, a day that holds the promise of slow motion, relaxation.  A day that belies the power of this date.

November the 19th has seen its share of action over the years and across the continents.  Columbus discovered Puerto Rico.  The Mayflower reached Cape Cod.  The Battle of Stalingrad reached a turning point.  Indira Ghandi and Calvin Klein were born.  Franz Schubert and Mike Nichols died.  Apollo 12 astronauts walked on the moon (the ultimate extreme-travel destination).

abraham-lincoln-1863-head-shotAnd my favorite moment from the time and space capsule of November 19th: U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863 as the Civil War raged on.  He stood at the cusp of the one-time battlefield, he dedicated a national cemetery for soldiers, and he reflected on the task of rededicating ourselves to the democratic ideal of equality and resolving that this new nation “by the people, of the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln mused that “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” but he was mistaken.  His speech feels like part of the bedrock of our culture– inspiring on our good days, re-centering on our bad days, and acting as a touchstone when the stresses of maintaining our union and healing its fissures weigh heavy.

Who knows what November 19, 2016 will bring to your life and your corner of the world . . . but you could do worse than to start your day with the words of Abraham Lincoln:

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Prague: The Lennon Wall

“I read the news today, oh boy . . .”  (A Day In the Life, Lennon and McCartney)

The news this week is heartbreaking, incomprehensible, and ugly.  Why is the human race so quick to choose fear and anger over love and tolerance?

Amid all of the rainbow pride flags being flown in solidarity and pasted across Facebook homepages, I wanted to offer up this traveler’s “peace flag”–a photo of the Lennon Wall (sometimes called the Peace Wall) in Prague.

DSC_0008

The wall began after John Lennon’s death in 1980.  His picture appeared on the wall, with anti-communist slogans  (remember, this was during the communist regime).  The wall was painted over, but the paintings of Lennon, along with graffiti about Lennon and Beatles lyrics,  kept reappearing.  It was an act of defiance against the corrupt and oppressive government.

During the 80’s, student protesters who called their movement “Lennonism”  (ironic and clever!) often clashed with police in the area.  Whenever the wall was repainted, the graffiti just came back.

The communist regime is long gone, but the wall still stands and continues to draw crowds and artists. It has been painted over many times, by whitewash and by years of artists leaving their messages, and it’s even been reconstructed as it crumbled.  Unlike the Berlin Wall,  which crumbled with the demise of communism, this wall stood for peace and watched communism fall in the (non-violent) 1989 “Velvet Revolution” in the former Czechoslovakia.

This week it stands and speaks to all of us with its rainbow of colors and its haunting refrains of “Give Peace a Chance.”

*The Lennon Wall is nearby the Charles Bridge and the French Embassy.

lennonwall

Surviving the Holocaust: Selma van der Perre

 

From projeckt-ravensbrueck.de webpage
From projeckt-ravensbrueck.de webpage

Last Friday, I had the good fortune to hear the 94 year old  Selma van der Perre speak about her experiences as a Jewish woman during the Holocaust and a survivor of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  I braced myself for difficult stories and a somber afternoon, but what appeared on stage was an absolute spitfire of a woman who radiated hope, energy, and life abundant.  I fell in love with Selma the minute she walked on stage–with a cane and on the arm of a younger person, wearing a neat suit, chic French scarf, and white beret.

She was chic, sharp, and a delight in every way.  Some of the stories she had to tell made your blood run cold and your stomach clench into a knot, but everything about her being shone bright and radiated hope.

Selma-vanderperreShe was a young woman growing up in the Netherlands when the Nazis came to power.  Her family was pulled apart, her father died in Auschwitz, and she became a courier with the Dutch resistance, taking a false identity and dodging the authorities while helping the cause.  Eventually, she was caught and sent to prison, then transferred to Ravensbruck.

Selma could, and eagerly would, tell you stories all day about those years–each story more fascinating than the last, and many of them heart-wrenching. They are her stories to tell, and I couldn’t do them justice, so I won’t try to re-present them here.  You may use this link to hear her tell some of her stories in her own words (from a BBC program on Ravensbruck– “Surviving Ravensbruck”).  I promise you that it is well worth your time.

What I will tell you is how she answered a question about what gave her the strength to go on and to not give up, although she was quite ill and weak much of the time.  She answered this very simply, taking little personal credit.  Yes, what she did in the resistance was dangerous, but it was a difficult time and she wanted to do her part and help people.  And besides that, she didn’t want to give the Nazis the satisfaction of crumbling– she wanted to “stick it to them.”

Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia
Ravensbruck prisoners, from Wikipedia

Even as a factory worker in Ravensbruck work camp, she and her colleagues would sabotage the gas masks they manufactured for the Third Reich, not screwing them together properly.  Anything they could do to undermine their captors, they did.  And they showed each other kindness–she was adamant that kindness from other inmates (and even a prison guard early on–a guard who was later incarcerated and killed for her part in helping inmates) kept her going during tenuous times.

There are very few survivors of the concentration camps still around, and, like Selma, they have reached a ripe age.  It is so important that we hear their stories whenever and wherever we get the chance.  I very nearly missed hearing her talk.  I had a busy day Friday and her talk wasn’t at a convenient time for me . . . and, as you can imagine, I felt a little discomfort about going.  It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon, and the Holocaust is a heavy, horrific topic which anyone might, understandably, want to avoid.   But that would have been a mistake.

When I left the theater and stepped back into the bright afternoon, I was uplifted.  The horror of the history had been laid out unquestionably in her talk–I flinched time and again as she told stories– but, I tell you this, the lesson was transformed in the person of Selma van der Perre.  “This cannot happen again,” she said, “we must be very aware of such things going on still in our world.”  Her message was clear and serious, but in her capable hands it was uplifting and resilient.  Our lights should all shine so bright.

Thank you, Selma van der Perre.