Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking a battle on this day 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 sprinked 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, 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 co-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 is The Battle of Britain Day, 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 today is The Battle of Britain Day, and, although he was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!

 

 

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There Is A Small Medium at Large

Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic, in the movie Ghost.
Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae, the psychic medium, in the movie Ghost.

Well, my traveling friends, it’s true: there is a small medium at large.  You know how, when you travel, you are met with  new and unexpected experiences?  That’s the draw of it, right?  This is also true when you move to a new region–there are sure to be interesting developments, to be moments of “Oh, wow,  that’s never happened to me before.”

Any number of moments, really.   But here is one for your consideration.

The red stone house in Germany
The red stone house in Germany

As you know, we’ve just moved back to the States from Germany.  And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I was sorely disappointed that the very old stone house we lived in there wasn’t haunted, even though we had enough ghost stories under our belts already.  Anyhoo, as we packed up to bid Germany goodbye and we planned our new life in Florida, we gave up any hope of supernatural tales.  In fact, in our last weeks, we were told that the old German house used to be called Villa Sunshine by the locals.  Not much spooky there.

So off to sunny Florida, where sangria and surf are the norm and atmospheric tales stay at bay.

Then again . . . we hadn’t even gotten to Florida before a Floridian friend was in contact and, on hearing where we would be renting our house, said “Hey, that’s the neighborhood with the psychic, isn’t it?”  zoltarfull02

Was it?  We didn’t know.  Honestly, we didn’t care.   But weeks later, as we moved into the new digs, we found ourselves on the lookout.  Any odd-birds in the neighborhood?  Anyone walking around in a turban, looking like Zoltar the fortune teller?

Our curiosity was peaked, but we had no idea what we might be looking for.  There were no “Sister Rosa, Palm Reader” signs in front yards–the Home Owner’s Association would have frowned on that.  There were no Gypsy caravans parked in driveways.  So we were on the lookout for any eccentrics that we might pin the role on, but we were coming up with nothing.  Which just made us more curious.

I don’t have any experience with psychic mediums.  My only reference points are examples like the Zoltar fortune teller machine and Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the movie Ghost.  (A character whose narrative arc is pretty interesting:  she starts out as a charlatan and ends up being more sage than she ever knew she could be.)  If you don’t remember her, here’s a small clip for you:

 

Yeah, generally speaking, I guess the idea of a psychic makes me giggle.  At worst, this person would be a con man–  ready to prey on folks who are looking for reassurance or struggling through grief.  But then again, there are some people who are intuitive, you know?   And so many of us have stories that defy logical explanations, so maybe . . . just maybe. . .

Bottom line:  I’m a skeptic, but not foolish enough to say it isn’t possible.

So my husband and I continued our neighborhood watch– it was our project to figure out where this eccentric might live.  We embraced the challenge a little too happily:  we watched the neighborhood and the neighbors, we commented on odd decor and strange choices of head-gear, we sat in judgment of peculiarities or individual flights of fancy.

Little did we know. . .

Honestly, here’s exactly where I should have seen the plot twist coming– I’m an English and Religious Studies major, after all, and this is the age old tale.  When you’re looking for the trouble out there–the fault in your neighbor– well, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More often than not, the fault is your own.

So guess where this psychic lived?  Yep.  Oh, yep.

Turns out, we’d moved into the house.

*  * *

I’ll give up no information on this person– who by all accounts from neighbors, and our own dealings, is fantastic.  In fact, this makes me want to be more open to the idea of a . . . psychic?  I don’t even really know what that is.  I have this hodgepodge of terms in my head– psychic, clairvoyant, medium, spiritualist, etc.– and I don’t really know what they mean, or how they’d be distinguished one from the other.   Really, all this situation has taught me is that I know nothing and should probably keep my mouth shut.   We’ll see how well that lesson takes . . .

But in the meantime, I’m left with this:  as much as I’m a skeptic in my head, my heart seems to be a total buy in– and it’s causing me some real trouble.

A couple of weeks ago, our landlord dropped by the house with an extra set of  keys that we needed.   I answered the door, was welcoming and polite, as usual, and then suddenly froze  as I was shaking this person’s hand.  I had the thought, “What if _____ can sense my thoughts?  What if they know I know?  That I think being a psychic is strange?”  Of course, these thoughts were followed by a barrage of “Stop thinking.  Seriously.  Right now–stop.  Oh, I can’t control my thoughts!!!”    And, intuitive or not, anyone would have gotten some strange vibes from me then.  I’m pretty sure my entire facial expression went to the deer caught in the headlights pose for a minute or more, and I was pretty much a jabbering idiot.  So again, lesson to the arrogant:  judge not lest ye be judged.   Which is not fun.

And this week the same problem arose.  This time, our air conditioning started limping (freon leak), and we had to call the landlord.  My husband tried to hand me the phone to make the call– I’d noticed the problem and would generally have made the call myself.  But I was not feeling it.  It had been a stressful day –unpacking boxes, sifting through breakage, and muttering obscenities all day– and I just wasn’t ready to call up a mind reading spiritualist.   I had to, shame-faced, take my husband out of earshot of the kids and say, “You really have to make this call, because I think that maybe I DO believe in psychics, and I think that a psychic would pick up on a whole lot of bad juju and general craziness in me right now, and I’m not feeling like being evicted from my house today just because I happen to suffer from this-is-what-it’s-like-inside-my-wierd-head-syndrome.”

God bless my husband.  He asked no further questions and just made the phone call.

I did, however, have to speak to our small medium at large a couple of days later to confirm that the air conditioning repair man had been by.  I think that conversation went well.  Granted, I was manically chipper sounding.  Possibly one toe over the crazy-line of chipper. (I had to talk fast before the “can’t-  control- my- thoughts–you’re a pyschic!” stuff crept in.)  But it is what it is.

Any psychic worth their salt would understand the issue and forgive me.

I think it could be a real burden being a psychic and dealing with all us crazy humans.  Hopefully the voices from the other side are much more sensible.

 

All I Want for Christmas is a Ghost

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a This Old House post, but here goes.

We loved the atmosphere of this house from the first moment we saw it.  We have continued to love those moments when you turn the corner toward our house and– “Ta Da!”– you see the oh-so-European red stone castle (albeit diminutive) that we call home.

ghosty snow house moon
A foggy winter night at “the castle.”

We moved into the house a year and a half ago, fully aware that an old house would have its share of issues: hot spots, cold spots; inefficient utilities; old bathrooms; pipes that occasionally clog; and light fixtures that give up the ghost.

But we also considered that the ghosts of this house might not be the giving up kind.

“Marley was dead, to begin with … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”  Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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 When we first moved into this old home, I harbored a secret fear and longing–a uncomfortable pairing– that the place might be haunted.  It was the right sort of house for that:  imposing, old, creaky, and definitely situated in a country with its share of ghosts.

I was terrified that we’d be plagued by eerie happenings.

 But then nothing happened.  

Eventually, I became simply curious about whether eerie things might happen.

Still, nothing happened.  

After a while, I was just put out that nothing, not one darn thing, spooky had happened.  What a rip off!  I have to live with old (I mean OLD) bathrooms, and I don’t even get a good ghost story out of it!?  Not a fair trade off if you ask me.

DSC_0300 - CopyBut ghosts are people too, and they have their own agendas.  I remember putting up Christmas decorations last year and wondering what sort of celebrations this house had seen over the century-plus of its life.  It’s no manor, but it’s grand enough that the original owners must have lived a fine life.  What was Christmas like for them?  Did the Christmas Eve table gleam with silver?  Was it loaded with salmon, goose, and sausage?  Did the children go to sleep fat with gingerbread and the parents groggy with spiced wine?

And what of the years after World War I, when French troops occupied the area?  Was this a dramatic change, considering this area has always been a source of border disputes?  Was the occupation a barely perceptible weight on the shoulders of the locals who must have been haunted by their own grief, so many young soldiers lost in the war?

And this interplay of politics and personal life certainly wasn’t diminished in the years that crept toward World War II.  What about those Christmas dinners?  Were there rousing nationalistic talks around the table, was there support for the Third Reich, or was there dread at the creeping dark?  Were Jewish friends hidden in the cavernous basement to keep them safe?  Were Nazi armaments held there? This is the era whose ghosts send icy chills through me.  I want to know the house’s history, but I don’t want to know the house’s history.

Staircase between floors/apartments
Staircase between floors/apartments

And then after World War II, when the house was divided into apartments on each level–still lovely, but divided,  like Germany itself, by the rise and fall of its fortunes, ambitions, and fate.

Reverence or dread–the families who have lived here might inspire either.  I would revel in the one, but stoop under the weight of the other.

It’s better not to know, I tell myself.

Still, I want a ghost for Christmas.  I can’t shake that feeling.  It’s part of the old house package.

“The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  -William Faulkner

I had a ghost once, a few years ago.

I know, I know–just hear me out.  This is a story that is usually told under different circumstances.  The general rule: you must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; for that matter, I must be at least a glass of wine or two into the evening; at that point, it all makes more sense.  And one more thing–the children aren’t around.  If they heard the story, they’d never sleep again.

I’m taking a risk in telling this story: first, I can’t be sure that you’ve had any wine (strike one); second, it’s 8 a.m., and I’m nursing a semi-cold cup of coffee, which is a much starker place to be than wrapped in the warmth of a wine glass (strike two); and third, my children may read this (although unlikely, as they find this “mommy blog” vaguely ridiculous) (strike three on two counts then).

So here’s the deal–I’ll tell you my ghost story tomorrow.  That gives you a chance to grab a glass of wine, if you are so inclined.  It gives me a chance to write this post in a foggy evening state, instead of this stark-morning-coffee-mind that has its current grip on me.

Meet me here tomorrow, if you dare, and I will tell you my ghost story.

chistms carol page

The Old Man and the Sea

July 2015,  Prague, Czech Republic

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This is one of those moments that gets under your skin, one of those moments that you wonder about long after the moment has passed.

We woke up early one day in Prague–planning to walk the town, and especially the Charles Bridge area, before the rest of the tourists woke up and the crowds gathered.  It was a good plan.  Prague is a fantastic city, but the summertime throng of tourists (added to the 100 degree heat of this particular week) is oppressive.  DSC_0085

So we started early, in order to have views like this:

We very nearly had the bridge and the streets to ourselves.  We meandered, took photos, and drank coffee.

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The sky was hazy in an early-morning way, and, while our spirits were high, our brains were just peeking out of their foggy morning stupors too.  We were in a quiet, subdued sort of morning state when we turned to make our way back over the Vltava River.

We walked slowly, sipping our coffee, and looked up to see this:

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A beautiful view of the Charles Bridge, with our rower in the mid ground.

I snapped a photo and sipped more coffee.  As I walked along, I kept a lookout over my left shoulder to watch the rower’s progress.

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Once he was close to me, I realized that this was a very elderly man, rowing his solitary boat down the long river ever so slowly.  He was dressed for more than that slight chill of the morning, in a heavy jacket and old camouflage pants, and he sat with his back to his travel bag and crutch in a rustic wooden boat.

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Where was he going, this elderly man who walked with a crutch and a heavy bag?  Was he rowing across town because it was easier than walking?  Was he making a longer journey, across towns or across borders, with just his arms and the current to propel him?  This man was a story that I’d never have the chance to read to its end–and that made me a little sad.  But I quietly cheered him on as he passed– he was the old man and the sea, full of determination and greatness, bowing neither to age nor circumstance.

When you look at a map of the Czech Republic, you will see a land locked country.  I used to see the same.  No more.  To me, the old man and the sea will always be an integral part of the city of Prague.

This Old House, This Storied Country, and One Mysterious Apple

 

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We are, each of us, a product of place, so sometimes our environment creeps into our psyche more than we care to admit–I was reminded of this fact by an unassuming apple in my front flowerbed.   A flowerbed that sits before a very old house, built of red stone, hand-hewn and crooked; a house that is, by turns, lovely and eerie.

I walked out the front door of my house and saw the apple  there–red and vibrant among the few green leaves that still cling to the frozen branches of those front bushes.  A bright spot of color in the largely barren tones of winter, it was a welcome sight.

But how did it get there?  There is no apple tree in the front yard, and the apples from the back yard are small and earth-toned by comparison.  Where did this gem come from?

Where my mind should have wandered in its answer is to my children.  “Who walked out the front door and threw their lunch apple into the bushes?”  That’s the logical question.

But I’ve been reading that German classic, the Brothers Grimm, and traveling to the Black Forest and various sundry towns mapped out in labryinthine streets of half timbered houses.  The sorts of places that both delight and unsettle the pysche as night falls. . .the sorts of places where Santa makes the rounds with his sinister cohort Krampus in tow.

So where did my mind go as my eyes fell on the apple?

The gypsy woman who had knocked on our front door the weekend before.  That had never happened before, and it was a little unsettling.  My husband answered the door, but couldn’t understand anything she was saying.  Was it German?  Was it some other language, something Eastern European?  Who knew?  He kindly, firmly sent her away without whatever she had come for.

And here we were the next day, with a lone apple in our front flower bed–red, shiny, seductive in the barren patch.  Like a riddle she left behind.

It’s still sitting there.  Part of me knows that this is a silly flight of fancy.

But part of me wants to run out and take a giant bite of it, just to see what magnificent story would begin to untangle in the moment of that fateful taste.

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