The tiny chapel in the woods behind our house in Germany: I find myself missing it today in the metropolitan hum of suburban DC with the tiniest of snow flurries falling. What I wouldn’t give for a German Christmas Market, a dusting of snow, and a tiny chapel behind my stone house.
Wishing you each a season that is merry and bright!
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:
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.
Re-running this photo from late 2015. A remarkable view from a remarkable place. Like people all over the world, I was horrified to see it burning, but heartened to see what still stands and hear the ground-swell of support for rebuilding.
Notre Dame represents divine inspiration, but also the best of human spirit and human effort.
What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off? What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction? I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question. I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers. Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.
I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.
Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall. Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful. And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds. They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style. And it seems they have it still.
The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby.
A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown. The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC. Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful. The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.
And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least. Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful. Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious. I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere. Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.
I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold. I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.
Good morning all you bright eyed people. I can’t match your pep today. Not close. I’ve been awake since 2:30 -in -the -morning. Ugh. I had a lot on my mind. There was the good– an upcoming trip to Scotland. There was the bad– some worries over people I love, some anxiety about the 101 things I need to check off my to do list by . . .well, yesterday. And there was the odd– namely, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They came calling around 3 a.m., in just the way you might expect them to, as if they were still staying in The Plaza in New York, waking the other guests with drinking and dancing at all hours, not to mention frolicking in the fountain fully clothed. (I’ve never understood why their contemporaries took offense at the fully clothed part– seems to me that this part of the equation was their best nod to courtesy and decorum. Am I wrong?)
Obviously, they didn’t actually burst into my room and party the night away. They were, however, very loud inside my head. They kicked about and chatted away and both charmed me and bothered me in the unsettling way that senselessly tragic stories bother me.
If you’re asking yourself why the Fitzgeralds would descend upon my sleep-adled brain and refuse to budge for hours on end, you’d have to ask them. I will cop to having more than a passing fascination with them, but less than an obsession. They’re a puzzle to me–a tangled mess of talent and tragedy, of what might have been and what was.
They’ve always been stowed in my pocket– fellow travelers, entertaining raconteurs, rather rude house guests (as they proved last night). Every now and again I take them out and have a gnaw at them. Lately, they’ve been emboldened though. I suspect this is because I pass by their gravestones frequently*, and when I pass I often think of them. I never stop to visit. I always think that I should. I plan to do it some day. Maybe next week, I tell myself. Or when the weather is nicer. But I never do. So, guess what? They’ve come to me. That’s one way to do it, I suppose.
I’m a little worried that they’ll start showing up frequently. I think an excorcism is in order, by way of a visit to their graves– flowers in hand and apologies for having been a stranger so long. I do have a couple of hours free tomorrow morning, and if the sun shines bright and the chill breaks . . . maybe I’ll pay that visit and report back to you.
*Where are they buried? In Rockville, MD, as unlikely as that may seem. Scott grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and came East; Zelda was from Montgomery, Alabama. Scott had a long family history in Maryland, though, and when he passed away at the age of 44, from a heart attack and years of alcoholism, he was brought to Maryland to be buried next to his father. Unfortunately, the priest at St. Mary’s Church refused to allow Scott a burial there, as he was not a practicing Catholic. He was buried in a nearby protestant churchyard, by a minister who had never heard of him, in a service attended by only 20 or 25 people. “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” he once wrote. He knew the story arc well. But years later, and after her mother had also passed in a tragic and early death by fire, their daughter petitioned St. Mary’s to allow her parents to be moved to the family plot there. This time, it was allowed.
It’s a happier resting place than what went before, but still an odd fit. St. Mary’s is an old church, but the church grounds now sit on the edge of a monstrous intersection that is a main thoroughfare for morning commuter traffic into Washington, DC. It’s tucked between apartments, shopping strips, and a large Metro station.
I say it’s an odd fit, but, you know, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to look up one day, as I motor by, and see the eyes of Doctor T J Eckleburg looking down on me from a billboard above that very spot. Nobody escapes the judgement of those eyes. Not fleeing from a jazz joint, not laid to rest by the roadside in Rockville, and certainly not on a daily commute to and from our nation’s capital.