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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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.

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

Creative Commons licensing

 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

Disgruntled Siblings and the French-German Border Disputes

File from Wikimedia Commons.
File from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m sure there is some sort of Universal Karmic connection between my children’s behavior and the long history of border disputes between France and Germany.  Just hear me out.

We made another jaunt over the border into France this weekend.  (I’ll write more about that soon.) We live less than an hour’s drive from the border…but the border wasn’t always the border.  In fact, given the history of the French-German border, I think they should just call it the Sorta-Borda, because (if history is any predictor) it will be shifting again any decade now.  It’s like the San Andreas Fault in California—once the pressure builds, it will shift.  It’s like my kids that way too…but more on that later.

About the “borderlands” of Germany and France: I recall some long-ago history class lecture about the Alsace-Lorraine region of France being  passed back and forth between German and French hands over the centuries.    The cuisine, town names, and architecture  make  this  blatantly obvious.

But I’ve only just learned that this geographic game of “hot potato” has continued into the 1900’s, and included some areas of the Rhineland-Saarland in Germany.    In the 1870’s, the French lost much of the Alsace region—as far in as Metz—to the Germans, and it wasn’t returned again until 1918.    On the flip side,  my husband tells me that parts of  the present-day German Saarland were only “re-Germanated” in the 1950’s.

About Snarky Siblings: This historical perspective makes me feel a little better about the “border disputes” that have been going on in our family since we moved into our Scooby Doo castle-house—we seem to be stuck in the “Hassle in the Castle” episode.  The kids are constantly arguing about which room is better, who gets which room, who then lays claim to the room that falls between the two rooms, who gets dibs on the top floor of the house, etc.

Holy Crum!  I think we are heir to two legacies here—the teen/preteen gimmees, and the French/German borderland disputes.  That equals “land-grab squared,” and it ain’t pretty.  Whatever developmental/hormonal  forces are at play with my kids are ramped up by some sort of historical/geographic energy field that is beyond our control.

That’s how it seems… and it makes for the better story.   Who’s to say that it’s not true?  I grew up in the South, and I’m convinced that the power of place is strong.

With a little parental intervention, our in-house border disputes seem to be slowly working themselves out.  Let’s hope they hold more firm than their European historical precedents.

Only time will tell.