Signs of the Time by Craig Fuller

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The elections are just a few weeks away bringing heightened campaign activity to Talbot County. With active local, state and federal races occurring, voters are treated to a wide array of signs to boost interest in one or more candidates.

Traveling along highway 50 in Trappe, two signs caught my attention. On one property owner’s land was a sign for Democrat candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 1st District, Jesse Colvin; and, next to it was an equally large sign for Republican candidate for Governor, the incumbent, Larry Hogan. Curious? Maybe not.

I sense support growing not for the candidate of one party or the other, but for individuals who bring leadership to their respective offices and a desire to find solutions by working together.

You should know that, like the property owner hosting these signs, I believe Governor Hogan and Congressional candidate Jesse Colvin possess these qualities and therefore will have my vote on Election Day!

Voting ought to require us to do a little research, made easier by extensive online descriptions of the candidates and the positions across a wide range of issues. What I was most taken about were the individual descriptions of Hogan and Colvin on their respective campaign websites. These descriptions are carefully crafted and approved to reflect the nature of the candidate…it’s how they want to be seen.

You can look at both sites yourself (the link is at the bottom of the column). But, here is an easy way to compare the two:

 

Notice how, when they introduce themselves, they choose words like “state/people,” “country/people.” They refer to “policies” and to “problems” and they speak to “leadership” and “courage.”

We would, I believe, be well served by these two individuals, Hogan and Colvin, working together to protect our precious environment, to fight the dreaded scourge of opioid addiction, to work on economic growth with job training and expanded employment opportunities, and to insure our citizens have the health care they need.

Just imagine how you and I and our communities would benefit by having our state and federal representatives putting party aside to focus on the nations’s needs, the state’s needs and the needs we have in Talbot County.

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

The Right Time by George Merrill

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Ever think that if your parents and mine hadn’t bonded just when they did – to the split second, and maybe even nanosecond– neither of us would be here at the same time? You wouldn’t be reading this column and I wouldn’t have written it. You and I have come a long way just to be here together, today.

Following author Bill Bryson’s fascinating thought about generativity even further, if we went back in time, perhaps to the landing of the Mayflower, you and I would have had no less than 16, 384 ancestors “earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would eventually and miraculously, result in you (and me.)”

Even after we’re gone, we’re not finished. We’ve left something behind that is in the process of becoming. It will be realized at the right time.

Although she’s long gone, I often think of my mother. I have one recollection that stands out in my mind and although it is not exclusively about my mother as such, it’s one of the images that speaks obliquely to me about the mystery of generations, and what we have inherited that our ancestors wanted us to have. We certainly know they wanted us to have life, but beyond that it’s hard to discern. There are so many people involved, so may dreams, so many aspirations, so many eons. It takes time.

I recall sitting on the stairs at the far end of the living room in the Tudor style house where I grew up. I’m maybe eight or nine. I’m just home from school. It’s late afternoon. There’s a large, small paned bay window opposite the stairs with a southwest exposure. In the afternoon, the sun streams through it illuminating the room and particularly the baby grand piano that’s sits by it. My sister is playing. She plays well.

I remember three of the classics she would play; there was a Chopin etude, emphatic and almost bombastic although hauntingly melodic. Then she would play one of the Bach inventions, which tripped along methodically with its measured cadence, like the ticking of a metronome. Then the musical mood would shift to become breezy and playful as she played Percy Granger’s Country Gardens. It’s strange how we remember things and how over time we even alter or add to the recollections something that originally was not there. Nevertheless, it becomes a permanent part of the entire mental image and a reflection of how, with time, we sculpt our experiences by shaping and reshaping them. The core of the memory remains. It seemed to me in retrospect, that as the sunlight shone through the window it made my sister appear luminescent, as if she were glowing from within. Can music illuminate?

My sister was the only one in the family to take piano lessons and to stick with them until she left for nursing school and was married.

My mother was eager for me to take piano lessons. I was sent to Miss Lissenden to have instruction. Miss Lissenden was nice to me and patient, but there was something about the art of playing a piano that I just couldn’t get. I loved music and had an ear for classical music but I think I was too impatient at the time to stick with practicing long enough to see results. I did get as far as Moonlight Sonata, but I would have to concede that playing chopsticks was the height of my achievement. I played chopsticks well because it was simple and required nothing of me.

I sensed it was important to my mother to have one of her children play the piano. Although I knew she didn’t play any instrument, I was aware she had great interest and love for classical music. She took us to concerts. If I had just said to her that I really didn’t like taking lessons I know she would have accepted it without a fuss. I did not want to disappoint her by saying directly I wanted to stop. I grew passively aggressive instead, torpedoing my musical career by not practicing and missing scheduled lessons. The whole matter died a quiet and natural death.
I regret it now.

I know how much pleasure mastering an art such as the piano can bring to the performer as well as the listener. I also know I disappointed my mother because having a pianist in the family was one of her dreams. My sister abandoned the piano shortly after she left for nursing, my brother had no interest whatsoever, so her dream ended with us, or so I thought.

There’s a twist, however. I am persuaded now that there is a fullness of time when the genes flow down from generation to generation, from person to person until a certain genetic configuration is achieved. At that moment, some personal gift or a skill emerges in a family like the flower that blooms in deserts to appear as if from nowhere. The process, however, had been in the works during the long line of our family evolutions.

My grandson Patrick expressed an early interest in music. When he visited our house as a young boy he would go to the piano and with one finger play some tunes he liked or hymns he recalled hearing in church. What began as a child’s diversion eventually grew into a passion. He attended Peabody Institute, studied piano and settled on the harpsichord as his instrument of choice. Patrick has performed in local and international competitions.

I have often thought that his interest in music, and ultimately his graduating from Peabody and working on his doctorate in harpsichord was the consummation of an historical family dream of a musical career, brewing in the family for heaven knows how long and finally coming into its own.

It happens when it happens.

On one occasion, I shared my idea with my grandson. He listened to me patiently, even indulgently the way people do as they humor someone whom they believe means well but thankfully is harmless.

Nevertheless, I hold resolutely to this thought. It’s my understanding of evolution, of destiny, of that long process of becoming which has characterized our universe.

The exciting part is being there when a becoming of some particular is realized, and being a witness to the fullness of it.

“Someday,” writes the celebrated priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

At the right time, I believe that our world will arrive at its collective destiny. It will take a long time and lots of practice, the way becoming coming a concert pianist does.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Breaking Bad by Al Sikes

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Early this summer, with a new high-speed connection just installed, my wife and I began to sample streaming TV shows. We had read articles about the show Breaking Bad and decided to see what it was about. Keep in mind that Breaking Bad was a sensation when it arrived, rather quickly became popular and was critically acclaimed.

We watched several episodes and then decided that unblinking video of grotesque violence breached an invisible line which persists in our lives.

But Breaking Bad, a show about a chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who turns to making and selling methamphetamine for his family’s economic future, is often a mirror on our nation. Which government financial scheme do you like? Incalculable debt? Gambling and marijuana tax revenues?

In 2016 Donald Trump, the most unconventional candidate by far, was elected. Most of those who inquire, write and videotape were aghast. So aghast that few sought to find out why this “vulgar man” beat Hillary Clinton. It turned out that millions decided that their lives were so disrupted by politics as usual, that they were prepared to take a flyer—much the motivation of our Breaking Bad chemistry teacher.

Now we are a month away from the mid-term election and many (me included) have to admit that some good things have happened in the last twenty months, although time only will allow a reasoned summing up. Many (me included) are nonetheless no less bothered by Trump’s need to win at the expense of shaming the loser, among other things.

Politics is highly cyclical:  introduce social distemper and the fall out will be incalculable on both sides of our two Party equation. And if it is not already difficult to get good people to seek office, it will become even more so.

Turning to the latest horror show, the reason for Statues of Limitation in criminal law is the difficulty of attaining justice when a number of years have passed since the alleged crime. Circumstances, memories and imaginations work together in all of our lives to cloud and distort and potential witness’s circumstances change and any likely forensic evidence disappears.

And, regardless of the forum, Judge Brett Kavanaugh is being charged with a crime even though prosecutor after prosecutor, across the full political spectrum, have said they would not prosecute, now thirty-six years later.

It is also fair to ask what he has done in his adult life. Few of us would pass a test of propriety during the immaturity of our teenage years. While the principal allegation against him is sexual assault, his boisterous youth is said to corroborate the allegation.

In 1986 Judge Douglas Ginsburg was rejected when nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, for smoking marijuana. Most said, had this occurred while he was in college it would have been overlooked, but as it turned out he was smoking weed while a professor at Harvard’s law school.

I must assume that Kavanaugh’s adult life has been well-lived; if it hasn’t, do any of us doubt we would know? Presumably his most ardent opponents would prefer to use more recent objectionable conduct.

I can, of course, continue down what I have chosen to call the Breaking Bad path but I want to believe we will break back. I believe the #MeToo movement is helping us do so.

Almost six years ago Ted Cruz was elected to serve in the US Senate. Some months later I decided that there was no way I would support his political ambitions. Cruz attacked everybody. Nobody was good enough by his standards (whatever they were). Cruz, of course, using harsh disdain, became a credible candidate for the Republican nomination to be president. Now we have Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both US Senators, rejecting any sense of fairness as they accuse Judge Kavanaugh of being “evil.” Maybe harshness will work for them as well.

Will the fever break? Will America’s leaders break back? Will civility return as a necessary element in a healthy democracy? Will we get serious about our financial profligacy? It’s hard to say, but what we do know is that the script will be written by us.

It is also certain that if Supreme Court jurists read the Constitution as they would prefer it have been written, not as it reads, that future nominees will continue to be vilified by the Left or Right. In the course of trials by tabloid ethics, we will degrade the one institution that must help us protect our constitutional foundation. Remember, in a healthy democracy, laws are to be made by the people voters elect, and the Courts are there to make sure that happens.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Chesapeake Film Festival Spotlight: ‘An Island Out of Time’ Director Sandy Cannon-Brown

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Sandy Cannon-Brown is no stranger to documenting the devastating effect of sea level rising on the Eastern Shore. Along with writer Tom Horton and photographer Dave Harp, this trio has focused on the fragile state of the Delmarva since they started working as a time with the production of Beautiful Swimmers Revisited in 2017, followed by their devastating tale of the local impact of climate change on the Mid-Shore with High Tide in Dorchester, a widely applauded film on the grim forecast for Dorchester County and their future fight against rising water levels.

Now this gang of three have added a new installment to their portfolio with the premiere of An Island Out of Time at this year’s Chesapeake Film Festival next week, which follows Smith Island natives Mary Ada and Dwight Marshall, whose families date back to settlement of the island in the 1600s, who celebrate the distinctive culture of this small community as this severe threats it faces in the future.

The Spy sat down with Sandy at the Bullitt House recently to talk about her second life in documentary filmmaking (she was a television news broadcaster in her first one) and her special celebration of Horton and Harp as they continue their mission of putting a special spotlight on the Eastern Shore’s past and future.  She also highlights some of the fun planned for the Chesapeake Film Festival this year in her capacity as CFF’s vice-chair of the board of directors.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. An Island Out of Time will premiere on October 13 at the Chesapeake Bay Marine Museum at 7:30pm. For more information about the Chesapeake Film Festival and ticket sales please go here 

You Do Matter: For All Seasons and Suicide Prevention on the Mid-Shore

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It is most often the case that the subject of suicide comes up in conversation after a celebrity or public figure ends their life that way.  That was indeed the case when Anthony Bourdain killed himself in France during the summer.

And it is to the credit of the media that stories like Bourdain are now going beyond the sensational details and more frequently talk frankly about mental illness and the impact it has throughout the country. It is an occasion to have a national conversation about suicide.

In a local way, that is what For All Seasons wants to have with their “No Matter What…You Matter” suicide prevention campaign kicking off October 5th in Easton.  The staff and volunteer leaders of the Mid-Shore’s behavioral health provider, including director Beth Anne Langrell and Allie Prell, the chair of this year’s You Matter campaign, want the region to have those same conversations but with friends and family, and particularly with those that may be a risk of self-harm.

The Spy spent some time with Beth Anne and Allie at the Bullitt House last week to get their perspective on this awareness drive and their hopes for a community reaching out to loved ones for honest conversations about mental health.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about For All Seasons and its No Matter What…You Matter” suicide prevention campaign please go here

 

Lens Fog by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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We long to see things clearly. We want focus, detail, clarity—anything that illuminates or validates authenticity. But all too often we employ—consciously or otherwise—all kinds of imperfect filters to sort out some semblance of cold, hard truth. Yet sometimes accidents happen and “truth” takes on a softer hue.

Like in the photograph above. I took it a few days ago in Eastport, across Spa Creek from Annapolis. It was a warm, humid evening so when I went outside from the comfort of my air-conditioned living room to capture the image, I didn’t realize that the lens of my camera would be a coated with a thin layer of condensation that filtered the available light, rendering the image with a gauzy glow more akin to a Dutch painting than an amateur photograph. When I realized what had occurred, I dried off the lens and snapped a few more photographs, but to me, none captured the feel of that serene evening in the way that first one did. Fortuitous truth.

And then I looked closer. In the viewfinder, my eye had fixed on the array of boats, the spire of St. Mary’s, and the diffused light in the evening sky. But what I failed to notice at first were the three small paddlers in the lower right foreground, aligned shadows moving out toward the light. They gave the natural composition of the scene an unforeseen human dimension, taking a static moment and giving it a dynamic undertone. Dumb luck.

All of which, in a curious way, leads me around to what transpired up on Capitol Hill last week. Two individuals, each presenting his or her own version of an event that took place more than thirty years ago. One was vulnerable, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. The other was vitriolic, defiant, and self-righteous. Both seemed equally certain that their version of the truth was just that—the truth. But this was no accidental photograph, no fortuitous rendering of a serene moment. This was—this is—an agonizing human tragedy with profound consequences for both of the individuals who testified, for their families, and for our nation.

Questions abound: questions about motive, or character, or appropriate judicial temperament, but whether you ultimately believe Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh probably depends more on the filter or filters you’re using. Perhaps it’s your political persuasion, your gender, or even your gut instinct that leads you to conclude that one witness was telling the truth and the other was lying. Absent authentication of what really occurred, whether by an FBI investigation or some new and compelling fact, we may never know what exactly happened on that night, at that party. Even with perfect focus, clarity, and detail, we may still see have to draw our own conclusions about the characters of the individuals involved and why the indelible imprint left on their souls that night cuts so deep. As much as we may want a clear, detailed, and sharply focused photograph, we’re much more likely to be left with a hazy image shot through our own fogged lens.

Whatever this tragedy’s ultimate outcome, we’ve been reminded yet again how deep the divide is in our country. Vindication of one party or the other will never be enough to heal this wound; it may, in fact, only compound our present dangerous infection. Sad.

Just keep paddling toward the light as best you can.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

Maryland 3.0: High Fidelity on Main Street with Michael Hoatson

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Michael Hoatson is mildly disappointed,perhaps sad is a better word, that since he opened his high fidelity stereo equipment and record store ten months ago in downtown Chestertown, not a single local customer had made a purchase of the sophisticated audio components he offers at the Listening Room. While this is not the kind of talk that would typically inspire confidence in the future, Hoatson is thrilled to death in his decision to move the family business from Pikesville to Cannon Street in Chestertown. In fact, business has almost doubled since he made the move. Say what?

It turns out the Listening Room relocated from the Western Shore to be closer to its long-term customers who have fled places like Baltimore and Washington and retired to Bethany Beach or the Mid-Shore. Most of these predominantly male clients have no problem making the easy drive to Chestertown for a pleasant lunch with their wives after a morning of testing equipment, rather than crossing the Bay Bridge and beltway traffic.

And part of the fun for Michael is the flow of  Washington College kids coming to the shop to listen to their favorite music on stereo equipment which costs as much as their tuition. Hoatson feels its part of his job to educate people of all ages what genuinely realistic sound can be. And therefore he encourages students, or anyone else, to bring their favorite music into the shop to hear, sense, and feel that those special tunes sound on a $150,000 system.

Needless to say, the Spy was intrigued by all of this, and sat down with Mike for a short chat on a small town retail success story and his, and his customers, ongoing quest for the most realistic sound money can buy.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about the Listening Room please go here

Crackpot by George Merrill

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There’s a story about a small boy. He asks his mother to take him to the park. She says yes. Hand in hand they walk around the lake until the boy stops, excitedly telling his mother to look out on the lake. “See mommy, see all the gooses.” Mom looks at her son fondly and says, “Oh, they are not gooses, they’re geese.” The boy looks bewildered. He replies, “They sure look like gooses to me.”

This is one of those ‘twinkle in the eye’ tales so characteristic of the ebullient Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He has seen so much suffering, remains irrepressibly optimistic, and has facilitated so much healing in the world. Spirituality and humor make inspired companions.

His stories have a light touch. They speak to the depths of the human experience – in this case, how easy it is to miss the point by being too literal. The joy the boy felt in the discovery of the ‘gooses’ was what his exclamation was about, not the name they were called. I assume the mother never found out just what it was about the “gooses” that excited her son.

He received a grammar lesson instead. A missed opportunity

I hold the Archbishop in the same high esteem as I do Pope Francis. In a world where good men are becoming harder to find, these two remain a blessing to the world. I’d include the Dalai Lama among them and I know there are scores of others whose goodness I believe is keeping the world from destroying itself. There are many such good men and women out there, sowing hope and possibility. They are like flowers that bloom and cover the desert in fragrance. Few people even know how radiant they are.

Religion has been stuck in literalism for centuries, where doctrinal purity and correctness has been substituted for cultivating and searching matters of the spirit and of the heart. Religious pretensions to possessing the truth have not served well. The truth cannot be possessed; it can only be discovered and lived. Slavish devotion to orthodoxies of one kind or another trivialize the hope that lies inherent in an inspirational religious experience. We still have the parables. I can always depend on them. Parables have helped me get past the mediocre and mundane when I need inspiration and hope.

I’m thinking of the parables that have sustained our spirits throughout history. In one sense, the parable keeps us from getting lost in peripheral matters while it speaks to the heart of our human condition. As the old adage for writers goes; parables don’t tell, they show.

Parables offer hope. Hope is the mother of all possibilities and seems in short supply particularly among the young. Self- hatred is frequently manifest in drug usage and teen suicide. Psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder believes low self-esteem among teens is epidemic and viral; it seems to be spreading.

Teens are exquisitely sensitive to body image, how they look, or how they think they look. It’s often the place where despair takes root. Some of this is encouraged by the antiseptic and cosmetic images society promotes of its pretty people, the glamor of celebrity stars, and winners of one kind or another. In short, the social images defining men and women are pure fabrications. There’s nothing solid on which to build a hope. And, when a young person knows he or she has limitations, that they are not unblemished, they feel isolated and deformed. Our young people are so vulnerable trying to live the lies promoted by a flawed model of our humanity. To attempt to live it always leads to heart ache and a dead end. Tragically, it may lead to a literal dead end.

Of all Christianity’s best kept secrets, (well not a secret, exactly, we just keep forgetting it) is that we are all flawed, I mean, like, everyone. If we can fully embrace this as a fact, I am convinced we will be much kinder to our flawed brothers and sisters and to the flaws in ourselves.

The Buddhists have a grand parable about this very thing and it doesn’t feel preachy or patronizing, but liberating and hopeful. There’s something about it that takes me to a better place.

An old Chinese woman goes down to the river every day for water. She carries two pots, each one on the ends of a bamboo pole she straddles across her shoulders. The one pot is cracked, the other perfect so that when she returns from the river, she has one full pot and the other half filled with water. The perfect pot was proud all the time while the cracked pot felt inferior and broken. After many days of retrieving water the cracked pot finally said to the old woman: “I am so ashamed of myself because my side causes water to leak on the way back to your house.”

The old woman replies, “Didn’t you notice there are flowers on your side of the path. That’s because I’ve always known about your flaw so I planted seeds on your side of the path so that every day while we walk back, you will water them. If you were not the way you are there would not be these beautiful flowers that grace our path as we make our daily trek down and back from the river.”

In her youth, teacher/writer Alama Palm, was in a desperate place. She felt hopeless and began considering suicide. Finally, after struggling for several years, with help she worked her way out of the abyss. She says of her story: “Life is not an easy journey for many of us, however one thing I know with all my heart and mind, if we continue to hope there is always a way through.” Then she says this: “And when you get though you will be in a perfect place to help someone else. You will also get the opportunity to see your life play out the way it’s meant to.” I understood her to mean that as she grew in hope, she found herself sharing hope with others. Even more than that, she discovered meaning for her life.

I believe that God, painfully aware of our flaws, works around them as much as we’ll allow. If we own our faults, half of God’s struggle to put us back on the path is accomplished. Our humility makes his job much easier.

Hope is the key; hope is reciprocal. When you have it, you give it to others. When you need it, you get it back?

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Remembering Those Who Fought in Normandy by David Montgomery

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Esther and I spent last week visiting the beaches and battlefields of Normandy where Allied forces landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Several in our group of 30 travelled here for the same reasons, to see where their fathers landed and fought to liberate Europe. For all of the sons and daughters, the trip was an emotional one: realizing the dangers their fathers faced and the continuous combat they experienced month after month, and wishing that they had known sooner what heroes their fathers were.  None of the fathers talked to their children about these experiences, they bore and suffered with their memories and feelings in silence.

Esther’s father, Pfc Raymond Stednitz, did write a memoir of his life, and from that and our own research we were able to reconstruct some of what happened after he landed on Omaha Beach with the 29th Division as part of the D-Day invasion.  Born in Hoboken, NJ, Esther’s father worked two jobs after school to support his single mother and older brother. He became a carpenter and at 21 years old was working as a shipfitter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when war was declared. He never expected to go to war when he joined the New Jersey National Guard in 1940, but when his unit was mobilized in 1941, he refused the deferment he was offered by the Commandant of the Navy Yard, writing later that “I decided to spend the next year with the guys I knew.”   

Though her father was from New Jersey, on arriving in England he was assigned to the 175th Infantry, a Maryland National Guard regiment known as the 5th Maryland before World War II.  Soldiers of the 5th Maryland served with distinction on both sides in the Civil War, inspiring the blue and gray shoulder patch of the 29th Division.  Esther’s father may well have served with soldiers whose children read the Spy.

Esther’s father was assigned as a machine gunner to Company D, the heavy weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry.  From Omaha Beach they first liberated Isigny and then advanced through the infamous hedgerows of Normandy toward their objective of Saint Lo, and we followed their path.

Driving down the lanes of Normandy revealed the dangers Esther’s father and his fellow soldiers faced.  The road and fields were still bordered by high banks topped by thick hedges, all of which could conceal a waiting German ambush.  Their progress was measured by the number of hedges they survived to cross in a day.

We stopped in the tiny village of Villiers Fossard to visit a monument commemorating a celebrated battle in which Esther’s father fought.  The monument was erected by veterans of the 29th Division from Baltimore, to honor the soldiers of the 175th who defended Hill 108, thereafter known as Purple Heart Hill, in a twelve-hour engagement on June 18, 1944.

The 1st Battalion, in which Esther’s father served, was leading the 29th Division’s advance on St Lo.  The monument told their story: “At 8:30 AM June 18, the enemy initiated a severe artillery bombardment followed by a strong counterattack against the 1st Battalion.  Heavily outnumbered, [they] stalwartly held their ground. Nearly surrounded, running low on ammunition, and out of communication with its supporting artillery unit, … the Battalion held on for more than twelve hours of combat at point blank range….  By dusk, the 1st Battalion had suffered more than 200 casualties, but had yielded not a foot of ground.”

Along with his fellow defenders of Purple Heart Hill, Pfc Stednitz received a Presidential Unit Citation and the French Croix de Guerre with silver gilt star, and possibly one of his two Purple Hearts. Esther reflected that “until we pieced this story together, nobody in my family knew what my father did.  I didn’t know that his pride in my becoming a Lieutenant in the Navy Nurse Corps was recognition from a real hero. I wish I could tell him how I feel today.”

The 175th Infantry Monument

Pfc Stednitz then fought his way past Paris, through Belgium north of the Battle of the Bulge, and joined in the race through Germany to prevent Russia from occupying Germany west of the Elbe.  He served from the declaration of war to its end in Europe. His first child was born just before he shipped out to England, and was two by the time he saw his father again.

Esther remembers her father as a man who took care of his family with the same self-sacrifice he showed in refusing a deferment to stay with his National Guard buddies when they were called up.  “He didn’t have an easy life, but every morning he made breakfast for us, he took us to school, girl scouts and all our other activities. We complained about our frequent trips to New York for parades, museums and especially the planetarium, but he made sure we had a good life no matter what it cost him.”

Lynne Richardson also came to see where her father fought.  She and her husband also pieced his story together from Army records.  He was 2nd Lt. James Melancon, and he commanded the 3rd Platoon, Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in Normandy.  Coming from a family of 13 children in St James, LA, he was accepted at LSU and joined the ROTC. His study of agricultural economics was interrupted early in the war, when all the ROTC cadets at LSU were sent to Officer Candidate School on Fort Benning, GA.  The 4th Division arrived in England on January 26, 1944, on their way to France.

Lt Melancon landed with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry, leading the assault on Utah Beach.  They moved out rapidly to the west to secure the harbor of Cherbourg. After fighting their way to Cherbourg, they turned south and joined up with Patton’s Third Army to break out from the Normandy Coast and start pushing German forces back out of France.

 

German Gun Emplacement Overlooking the Beach

Still in the hedgerows on August 7, the 2nd Battalion was heading toward the German counterattack at Mortain.   Company F was assigned to clear the road toward the German Panzer divisions, and Lt Melancon’s platoon led the advance down the road with the rest spread out in the fields. They were stopped by a minefield which they knew to be defended by retreating German units.  Nevertheless, he was ordered to send a squad to determine what enemy weapons were covering the minefield.

Lt Melancon insisted on joining the squad, and not far down the road they were attacked by German machine gun fire, tanks and mortars.  Most of the squad were killed or wounded, and the casualties lay in the road until the next morning. When the road was finally cleared by a tank battalion, Lynne’s father was found seriously wounded.

That was the end of the war for Lynne’s father.   He spent months in hospital in England, and was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership, courage and disregard for his own safety.  After the war he returned to LSU to finish his degree.

Lynne told me that “Dad suffered greatly from survivor guilt, and always questioned why he came home when so many others didn’t. To some questions, there are just no good answers.  I just know that my mother and 5 siblings are grateful for his life and what he taught us.”

The father of another of our companions, Bruce Blackford, was a farmer in Loveland, CO when he was drafted.  He was assigned to the 104th Infantry Division (known as the Timberwolves) and rose to the rank of First Sergeant before landing near Cherbourg on September 7.

On November 16, the 104th was pushing toward Germany under heavy resistance. His unit had nearly reached Cologne, and was fighting in Eschweiler on November 21 when First Sergeant Blackford was hit by mortar fire.  He was transported to a hospital in England, with his war over. Like the others, Bruce’s father did not want to talk about the war. Bruce commented that he always honored his father for what he did and wanted to learn more about his service. “But seeing what the soldiers in the first wave encountered and overcame on the beaches of Normandy, I am in awe of them.”

Some members of our group remembered other relatives who landed at D-Day.  One had an uncle who was a medical doctor from New York. He enlisted in 1943 at the age of 39.  He survived, but we saw memorials of other doctors who were killed during the Battle of Normandy while treating wounded soldiers.

In the course of the trip we saw the wide stretches of sand at Omaha and Utah Beaches that our fathers crossed through obstacles and heavy fire, the German gun emplacements they had to destroy, the cliffs and steep slopes up which they fought, and in Point-du-Hoc the craters that were left to show how fierce the battle was.  We drove through the hedgerows where Pfc Stednitz and Lt Melancon advanced, and could see how completely they hid the German troops waiting in ambush.

How Far It Was Across Omaha Beach

We also spent time at the many monuments dotted along the Normandy Coast.  Point du Hoc honored the Rangers who scaled the cliffs to silence German guns enfilading Utah and Omaha Beach, one monument at Omaha Beach honored the 1st and 29th Divisions th

at led the way, another honored all the green National Guard units that landed in Normandy, and on to Gold, Sword and Juno Beaches where British and Commonwealth divisions landed.

We visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial above Omaha Beach toward the end of our time in Normandy.  Esther, Lynne and our senior officer present, Joe Sychterz, laid a wreath at the memorial, remembering and honoring their fathers who survived as well as the 31,744 allied soldiers who died in the battle of Normandy.

Everyone I saw had tears in their eyes during the wreath-laying ceremony.  The tears were for the 9,387 soldiers who lay in the graves in Colleville-sur-Mer and the 1,557 whose bodies were never found.  They were also tears of gratitude that their fathers and family members had come home to them. Lynne summed up her feelings as “Even more gratitude that Dad had survived.  Even more sadness for all those who did not.”

Wreath Laying at the American Cemetery in Normandy

Throughout our visit, we were continually impressed and touched by how France has honored the men who died.  Normandy itself paid a high price for the liberation of Europe, with two-thirds as many civilians killed as Allied soldiers and airmen.  Almost no buildings built before 1944 were standing in the cities of Normandy that we visited. Caen, Saint Lo, Le Havre and other cities were leveled by Allied bombers in the weeks prior to D-Day, to slow German reinforcements and supplies from reaching Normandy, and what remained was destroyed in the protracted battles to drive out the Germans.  Showing their solidarity in suffering, the Normans erected a memorial to those who died on 9-11 at a 12th century church in Bayeux that we visited shortly after September 11.

Our final stop was at the World War II museum in Caen. It was an intense reminder of what the fighting was about.  The Nazi atrocities documented there made it clear what our fathers accomplished and why France has continued to remember them.  The pictures of 11,000 Jewish children rounded up and sent to their deaths by the French collaboration government were particularly horrifying.  We learned in Paris that all but one of the leaders of that government were executed after the war.

The photos and records of fighting in the museum provided graphic documentation of the price our fathers paid.  As Esther put it, “My one regret is that I did not ask him, ‘Dad, what was it like?” I see him now with a different set of eyes, and wish I had known what to ask to hear his story.  We will all be changed forever by what we learned here.”

Lt Melancon, Pfc Stednitz and Pvt Blackford did not come from privileged backgrounds.  Yet they did not portray themselves as victims or give in to resentment at being asked to serve.  Certainly they groused and complained like soldiers throughout history. Nevertheless, they stepped forward willingly, then returned hurt emotionally and physically to take their place as breadwinners for their families, treasuring the country they fought for and respecting its flag.

We also reflected that we and our children, nieces and nephews belong to the last generations who knew those men.  Before very long there will be few children of the men who landed in Normandy still alive. The average age of our group was around 70, and after we are gone only the memorials and stories will remain to remind our descendants of what was accomplished here, by very ordinary men who went willingly when called and carried our flag into a foreign land to liberate it from evil.  

Our group spanned the political spectrum, but those differences were submerged in our common feelings about our experiences.  All of us felt some kind of obligation to be here, to follow fathers’ steps, as the culmination of years of study of D-Day, to honor fellow men-at-arms, or to understand what happened. We believed it was an honor and privilege to see these scenes. Even though we started out strangers, each felt the others pain and sorrow, be it for the loss of fathers who came home but never spoke of their pain or for those who still lay in France.  We came to see for ourselves the beaches and fields of Normandy, and we also experienced a time of unity that transcended political parties.

I believe all of us who visited Normandy want to keep on telling this story so that it may not be forgotten and that our country may honor and try to emulate the virtues shown there.

 

David Montgomery is retired from a career of teaching, government service and consulting, during which he became internationally recognized as an expert on energy, environmental and climate policy.  He has a PhD in economics from Harvard University and also studied economics at Cambridge University and theology at the Catholic University of America,   David and his wife Esther live in St Michaels, and he now spends his time in front of the computer writing about economic, political and religious topics and the rest of the day outdoors engaged in politically incorrect activities.