Category Archives: Memorials

Memorial Day 2020

Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.

This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.

Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.

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Last year at this time, we were in Rochester, NY visiting my husband’s family, something that is no longer advisable. See For the Hometown Heroes on Memorial Day, May 31, 2019.

For Uncle Bill, on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

With the ceremonies attending this month’s 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, my Uncle Bill, a veteran of World War II, has been very much on my mind.  Bill wasn’t among those who stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Instead, he was a Frogman in the Pacific.  But were he alive today, he would have been 93, the same age as many of the veterans who returned to the French coast last week to be honored for their long-ago heroism.  Like these now elderly, frail gentlemen, during his military service, Bill persevered in the face of daunting odds and certain danger.  Like them, he would likely look back today and marvel at his youthful naivete, fearlessness and fortitude.  Also like these aged honorees, he would probably contemplate the accident of his own survival as he recalled friends who were not so fortunate. 

It seems fitting, then, to repost an amended version of a tribute to my dear Uncle Bill, written during Father’s Day week in 2012. 

Bill, age 5, with his younger brother Edwin, 1930.  Family photos are few in my mother’s family, and no baby picture of Bill seems to exist. 

William Graham was born in rural Marion County, Kentucky in 1925, the third of five children, the second of my maternal grandparents’ three sons.  My mother, the baby of the family, would enter the world ten years later.  In physical appearance, temperament and attitude, Bill was very much like his father, who died when I was almost six.  For me, Uncle Bill provided a tangible, very real link to my grandfather.  (See my earlier post here: A Week of Good Fathers: My Grandaddy.  For that reason alone, I would have revered him. For many other reasons, I loved, and loved being around my Uncle Bill. 

Uncle Bill, Mama and me at my grandparents’ house, c. 1965

By all accounts, Bill was so like my grandfather that they were often at loggerheads during my uncle’s boyhood and teen years. Each was painfully honest in every situation, and this may have proved more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone in their relationship. Bill had little interest in becoming a farmer like his father.  Fortunately for him, his older brother Leland had followed in Grandaddy’s footsteps and taken over the cultivation of the land by the Rolling Fork River. My grandfather continued to maintain the farm closer to town.  When World War II began, Bill saw it as an opportunity to escape farm work and put a stop to conflict with his father. He enlisted at seventeen, just before Christmas of 1943.  Although blessed with a keen intellect, a rebellious streak led to conflicts with teachers, and Bill left for the Army without completing his senior year of high school.  

A sad and serious Bill, age 17, in his first Army photo

Bill wrote home diligently throughout his military service, and we have most of the letters he sent. Never overly sentimental, never self-pitying, his early letters border on heartbreaking. They express the thoughts of a young man who acted in haste and immediately regretted his decision.

Bill, a year or so later, home on leave, looking a bit more upbeat.  It may have been during this trip that he brought my mother the biggest and most beautiful box of chocolates she’d ever seen.

These first letters, sent from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, tell of receiving vaccinations, shoveling snow in blizzard-like conditions, and hoping to join the Air Corps but being eight pounds underweight. Bill lists the various articles of clothing he has been issued, remarking with amazement that it’s more than he’s ever seen before. He asks his family to send some shoe polish, because his boots have stiffened uncomfortably from daily wear in the snow and slush. He also asks for a pencil and a few wire coat hangers. The talk in the barracks, morning and night, was that of homesick young men pining for their loved ones and the lives they had left behind. Most, like Uncle Bill, were from rural areas. They had realized, too late, the simple glory of farm life. In Bill’s words, he “never realized how swell home was, but he sure would like to see it now.” His father, he admits, knew more about the Army than he did. His letters are always signed “Love, Billy.”

Bill and a Navy pal.  My mother remembered this young man, Terry Hogan, a good friend of her brother.  Sadly, Terry was killed in the war. 

He was soon transferred to Fort Gordon-Johnston in Florida for basic training to enter an amphibious brigade. At the end of January 1944, he reports getting $39.55 for his first month of duty. Nearly every letter begins with an apology for not writing sooner, but he seems to have written every few days. He often asks about my mother’s asthma, the progress of the tobacco stripping, and he offers hopes that the crop will bring a good price. A high point about army life, he notes, is access to new movies. He mentions seeing Jack London, Swing Fever and later, Double Indemnity. In one letter he writes that he was “feeling fine, and at times, almost happy, but not quite.”  That expression of thoughtful, measured restraint is so very Bill. 

As the months ticked by, Bill wrote from increasingly exotic places, although his exact location could not be divulged. From Florida, he went to New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, many small islands in the Phillipines, and then on to Hawaii for training in Underwater Demolition. After his return, he talked of being dropped in the ocean, no land in sight, and no special equipment but a pair of flippers. He and his fellow Frogmen were expected to tread water for six to eight hours as they awaited the ship’s return. The Frogmen were the precursors to the Navy SEALs, and I can only imagine the intensity of other training exercises and actual duties. Bill didn’t talk much about any of that.

Bill, home on leave, with his older sister, my Aunt Jessie

The tone of homesick regret is gradually replaced by a sense of wonder at the strange beauty of places he could never have imagined. In the Philippines, he buys a handmade mattress from a local woman, tours a ruined city in a horse-drawn buggy-taxi, attends Saturday night dances on base where the “fine-looking” Spanish and Filippino girls “can jitterbug to put the girls back home to shame.” He discovers an injured cockatoo in the jungle and nurses it back to health.  He revels in the abundance of tropical fruit and notes that there is no cigarette shortage in the army, unlike in the States. He is surprised by his ability to work all day, on a ship in the equatorial zone, in temperatures up to 115 degrees, with hardly any ill effects. The miserable poverty of some of the native villages affects him deeply. Hospitalized for a while with “yellow jaundice,” he enjoys the rest, as well as the fluffy pillows. When a fellow patient has a break-down and runs screaming in the halls, he remarks that the jungles will do that to you, after two or three years. He laments not being able to write about the most interesting parts of his days, because such information would be censored. Despite his discretion, in several of his letters a line or two has been neatly cut away.  How I wish I’d read these letters during Bill’s lifetime.  There are so many questions I would have asked. 

Some of Bill’s letters home during his Army years
Bill’s Army knife, useful for cutting jungle foliage

In Bill’s letter of August 16, 1945, news has just broken of Japan’s surrender. The war is officially over. He begins to believe he will return home soon, to the farm he had so wanted to leave.  After several months in the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, he arrived stateside in the winter of 1946.  Like his fellow soldiers lucky enough to return, he was older and wiser, and had a renewed appreciation for home.   

Bill went to the University of Kentucky on the G. I. bill. His dark hair turned completely silver when he was still in his late 20s, giving him an air of elegant sophistication. My father, seeing Mama with her brother on campus, assumed she was with a handsome professor. Bill was in his 30s when he married a divorced woman with two sons. Margaret was the sister of one of my mother’s childhood friends. Bill never had any biological children, but he was a supportive and caring stepfather. Mama and Bill were close, and they were alike in many ways. As long as I can remember, Uncle Bill was a big part of my life. He often traveled to Atlanta on business. When it was still a rather grand hotel and hadn’t slipped into seediness, he stayed downtown at the old Henry Grady Hotel. He often had a free evening, and he’d treat my parents and me to a festive dinner, somewhere we wouldn’t ordinarily go. Occasionally he stayed at the now long-demolished Admiral Benbow Inn on Spring Street, which had a pool.  I remember swimming there a few times with my two best elementary school friends.  I always looked forward to Uncle Bill’s visits. I loved his dry wit, which was sarcastic and sometimes biting, but never mean-spirited. He was well-read, reflective, widely informed and inclined to doubt.  He shared with my mother and me a love for the melancholy humor of Thomas Hardy novels.  As a connoisseur of life’s ironic absurdities, Bill was highly amusing company.

Bill in the mid-60s, with his beagle Ginger, the first of his dogs that I remember.

Uncle Bill was empathetic and attuned to the plight of the down-trodden. He was especially soft-hearted when it came to animals. (I sure wish I could have learned more about that injured cockatoo!)  Bill always had a dog, or he cared for someone else’s dog, typically one that would prefer to be Bill’s. When a neighbor’s three-legged lab mix made it clear that he would much rather live with my uncle, his owners passed him on. With Bill, Colonel got several walks each day, plus a long car ride. Colonel loved a ride, so Bill made it part of their routine. During a visit after Colonel’s death and not long before Bill’s own, I went with him on his nightly duty to walk a neighbor’s dog. Bill had noticed that the dog’s owner worked long hours, and he offered to provide an afternoon walk. Before long, this had turned into three daily walks. Bill was retired and dogless at the time, so he was happy to oblige. On the night I went with him, he put his raincoat over his pajamas and we walked down the street to the neighbor’s home. He let us in with his own key, and the woman rose to greet us warmly, from what appeared to be a late-night dinner party. No doubt her guests thought it odd that her dog-walker was a dashing silver-haired seventy-year old in PJs. No doubt they also thought she had lucked into a great deal. Bill never cared if people considered him somewhat eccentric.

Uncle Bill and me at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire in 1989

Bill’s time in the service may have fostered his love of travel. He and Margaret were always setting off for some legendary spot. During my year in England they popped in on several occasions. Our pre-dinner pub conversation was always a particular pleasure. They were my first visitors when I lived in Cambridge. We ate at the city’s best restaurants and took day-trips to Eton and Windsor Castle. Later in the year, we rented a car and drove up to York over the course of nearly a week. Bill and Margaret went on to Scotland and I returned to London by train. And when I was in England for a month the next year, they came back, too.  I can still see the look of incredulity on Bill’s face when he saw my tiny, cell-like room in the London House Annex, a dormitory for visiting students.

Bill, c. 1965

Uncle Bill died much too soon, at 71. I guess because he was so like my grandfather, who made it to 79, I thought we’d have him around for a few more years. He was there for my wedding, but he never got to see my beautiful baby girl. He would certainly have enjoyed watching her grow into the unique young woman she is now.  It’s a great consolation, however, to reflect on the many lives that Uncle Bill touched, with his kindness, generosity and humor. And I have faith that now, in some heavenly realm, he and Grandaddy, two kindred spirits, are enjoying peaceful, yet lively good fellowship.

For the Hometown Heroes on Memorial Day

Over Memorial Day weekend we visited my husband’s family in New York state.  Early on Saturday morning, when we woke up in Spencerport, a picturesque village on the Eerie Canal, Kiko and I headed out for our first walk.  My little dog was even more headstrong than usual.  If I attempted to turn left, he was determined to go right.  When I preferred right, he insisted on left.  Occasionally his obstinance resulted in a dead stop, as he splayed his legs and I tugged, to no avail, on the leash.  Our progress was slow and laborious.  The constant battle of wills made it difficult to properly appreciate the gracious old homes of Spencerport.  I was annoyed with Kiko, who clearly cares nothing for architecture, or for beauty in general.  How disappointing.  I tend, however irrationally, to expect more from him.  And because I’d given in to his choices, we were heading in a direction that I didn’t intend.  But up ahead, on South Union Street, I began to see the entrance to Fairfield Cemetery.  We’d passed it yesterday driving in.  To me, it looked inviting.  Kiko evidently felt the same way.  For the first time that morning, we were in agreement.    

Except for the exuberant chirping of a great variety of birds, all was quiet.  No sounds of mowing, cutting or leaf-blowing disturbed the serenity.  

Many of the graves were marked with small American flags.  I realized, with some chagrin, that I’d almost forgotten, at least momentarily, the significance of the long holiday weekend. 

As Kiko and I wandered the shaded, grassy pathways between the rows of gravestones, I noticed that we now walked together in easy step.  My stubborn dog had managed to bring me here, against my will, to this peaceful spot, to contemplate the cost of peace.  I thought of the old poem of achingly sad remembrance, of poppies waving in Flanders fields, between the crosses, row on row.  And of the vast and ever-growing expanse of white markers in Arlington Cemetery.  Not long ago, passing by that hallowed ground on the way to Reagan Airport, we saw the solemn spectacle of a horse-drawn caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin. 

Memorial Day reminds us to remember and honor the many lives lost in service to our country.  Consider the teenagers, who, like my Uncle Bill, traded the drudgery of 1940s farm work for the unknown adventure of World War II. My Uncle returned from the war.  Too many others did not.  Think of the young people who drew a final breath in the swampy fields of Vietnam.  Be grateful to those whose civic duty cost them their lives in the Gulf War, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in exotic locales most Americans would be hard-pressed to pronounce or locate on a map.  Acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died fighting a shape-shifting,  ill-defined enemy in our war on terror.   

And may we give some thought to those who managed to evade death on far-flung battlefields, only to return home to find the challenge of readapting to civilian life unsurmountable.  The deep wounds of war, mental, emotional, and physical, are near-impossible to comprehend for those who haven’t served.  Some who fought in Vietnam returned to a society that seemed to regard them as the enemy.   Let’s pray for those who survived the war but could not survive the trials of day-to-day life in the very towns they had once called home.   

As Kiko and I walked back from the cemetery, we were reminded that the service and the sacrifice continue today.  Along Union Street, every lamp post was decorated with a banner bearing the image and name of a current member of our armed forces.  Let us not forget the dedication and bravery of such hometown heroes, whether we know them personally, or not.  Every day, our brothers and sisters risk their lives in harsh conditions so that we may enjoy the day-to-day comforts of home and the fundamental, essential freedoms we often take for granted.  May we recognize the human cost of war and elect representatives who truly comprehend it, as well.  May our military men and women feel strongly supported during their deployment. 

That morning, I imagined the military men and women of Spencerport engaged in difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable work in a hostile environment.  I wondered if their families would gather soon in nearby back yards on this holiday weekend, keenly missing a son, a daughter, a father, mother, brother or sister.  I pray that our hometown heroes will be warmly welcomed back again in the near future, by a country that respects their service and provides the restorative care they need.  May we honor in memory those who paid the ultimate price in battle, and may we treat with compassion and dignity our soldiers who make it home. 

. . . Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;

Protect us by thy might, great God, our King. 

America, words:  Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744

Father’s Day Thoughts, 2017

Daddy’s final church directory photo

My father never made a big deal about days like today.  He wholeheartedly appreciated any modest gifts I might give him–a tie, cufflinks, a gift card to Long Horn Steakhouse–but he didn’t expect them, and he never considered them to be his due.  What he loved best were probably the photos I sent, especially the photo books I made for him.  He wasn’t enamored of stuff.  Daddy was, or at least seemed to be, to an almost extraordinary degree, perfectly content with his life in terms of the material and the intangible.

While Daddy wasn’t one for long telephone conversations, he valued a quick call on Father’s Day or his birthday.  I’d say I loved him, he’d say he loved me.  These weren’t just words, although we said them often.  In recent years, upon hearing my voice on the line, he usually said, “You sound like my little girl.”  Those words were a comfort.  I could hear the laughter in his voice, see the smile in his eyes.  They affirmed that I would always be his little girl.  And I could always be certain of my father’s love. 

My ears won’t hear Daddy say those familiar words today.  But they echo in my mind, and I will treasure them in my heart, forever.  How blessed I am to be my father’s girl. 

Daddy & me, in the back yard of what was then our new home in Atlanta, 1968.

For other posts on my father, who died on July 22, 2016, see here, here, here, and here.

Goodbye to the King: Elvis the Cat, 1995 – 2013

Elvis the Cat was my friend Doug’s beloved companion.  Doug passed away almost two years ago, after a long, hard-fought battle with the rare disease syringomyelia.  (See Remembering Doug, February 2012.) During Doug’s last years, when his illness had deprived him of nearly all mobility, Elvis must have been an especially great comfort.  After Doug died, Elvis was there to offer love and support for Doug’s wife.  Now Elvis has gone on to his eternal reward.  He was eighteen years old.  Like Doug, he was a unique character.  Like Doug, he will be greatly missed.

 

During visits to my parents in Atlanta, my daughter and I enjoyed dropping in to talk with Doug, who never failed to entertain; his love of life remained robust no matter his level of discomfort.  If we lingered a while, we would usually be graced by Elvis’s regal presence.  He was reserved around all but immediate family, not one to dole out affection indiscriminately.  Elvis was especially wary of children.  As Doug advised D when she was a preschooler, Elvis didn’t appreciate loud voices and sudden movements.  She took this advice to heart, and it often paid off.  Elvis would first peer in from the hall, sizing us up with his cool yellow cat eyes.  Sometimes he decided we weren’t worth his time.  With a flip of his tail, he’d disappear.  Other times he gave us the OK and  approached tentatively, gracefully, on tip-toe.  D was delighted when he decided to settle in beside her, allowing her to stroke his abundantly fluffy black fur and hear his deep, growly purr.

Doug’s wife told my mother that although the house feels oddly empty, now that Elvis is no longer there, she has much to be thankful for.  She is grateful that Elvis was with Doug until the end, and that he stayed a while afterwards to offer solace as she began the process of adjusting to life without her husband.  Anyone lucky enough to be helped through a difficult time by the precious comfort of a pet must know the feeling.

Rest in peace, dear Elvis.  It was our good fortune to know you.

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Elvis, ignoring a cat toy, 2013.

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And beautifying the Christmas tree, 2012.

Remembering Gudmund Vigtel of the High Museum of Art

 

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The High Museum of Art, August 1985.

My friend and former boss Gudmund Vigtel died last month at the age of 87.  For nearly thirty years, Vig, as he was generally known, was the face and guiding force  of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.  He became the museum’s director in 1963, when it was a fledgling institution in a provincial backwater, housed in a nondescript building adjacent to its first home, the Peachtree Street mansion of the High family.

Vig led the High through two pivotal periods of extraordinary growth.  In June of 1962, 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent arts patrons, returning from a museum-sponsored trip to Europe, were killed when their plane crashed on take-off at Orly Airport in Paris.  Since Atlanta’s founding in 1836 as Terminus, the end point of a railway hub, its citizens have tended to value business over culture.  But they are a resilient lot, determined not to be bested.  The Orly tragedy, like General Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War, inspired a deeply felt resolve to regroup and rebuild, bigger and better.  Gudmund Vigtel, then assistant director at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., was hired to head up the new, expanded arts facility to be known as the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.

Vig must have stood out as a cosmopolitan, dashing European figure in the Atlanta of the early 60s.   Born in Jerusalem to Lutheran missionaries from Norway, he had lived in Vienna and Oslo before his family fled (on skis, as I’ve always heard) from Nazi-occupied Norway into Sweden.  But Vig had Georgia ties as well.  Having studied art in Sweden, he received a Rotary Scholarship that first took him to a small college in north Georgia.  It was not a good fit.  He recounted how he spent lonely afternoons sitting on a big rock, asking himself, Why am I here? Before long, he managed to transfer to the Atlanta College of Art, where the more urban environment suited him better.

I met Vig during the second pivotal period of his  tenure at the High.  During the 1970s he became increasingly convinced that his museum was still too small. When, in 1977, the blockbuster King Tut show bypassed Atlanta for New Orleans because the High lacked sufficient exhibition space, it was clear that Vig was right.  He launched an impassioned campaign for a considerably larger and more striking building.  Despite the board’s initial preference for a local architect, he managed to persuade them to choose the as yet unproven Richard Meier of New York.  Meier would go on to to design the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture.

I had the  good fortune to work for Vig as Secretary to the Director during the High’s first two years in the new Meier facility.  (There are, of course no secretaries at the museum now, or perhaps anywhere; they have been promoted to other titles, if not in salary.) Thanks to my dentist, a family friend, avid art collector and museum patron, I learned about the job opening.  It was the summer of 1983, and I had just graduated from UGA with a degree in Art History.  I was coming to terms with the realization that this was, as I had  suspected, hardly a golden key to a lucrative or, perhaps, any career.  Luckily, I could type.  I applied at the High.  I wasn’t hired; there was a better, faster typist.  About three weeks later, I got a call from the museum.  The other applicant hadn’t worked out, for various reasons. When Vig had referred, for example, to the artist Botticelli in his dictated letters, this secretary had repeatedly transcribed Buddy Chelly.  Was I still interested?

The postmodern Meier building, its undulating facade clad in white enamel tile, was due to open that October when I began work in July. The offices had just moved into the new quarters, but the galleries and atrium remained unfinished.  Heavy plastic sheeting kept some of the dust out but did nothing to diminish the loudness of the construction noise. The pace of construction was quick and constant, and it only added to the excitement of working at the museum.  I loved my front-row seat in the living theatre that was staging the airy new building’s completion.  And I soon became fond of my boss and the rest of the museum staff.

Many of us spend our lives knowing and regretting that we have not yet hit upon the perfect career fit.  Vig found his, it would certainly seem.  He had a broad knowledge and true devotion to art of various genres and styles.  But he lacked any trace of pretense or conceit; he bore no resemblance to the stereotypical artsy intellectual.  Not a single aspect of the life of the museum was beneath him, and he was apparently tireless.  What’s more, Vig had a real  gift for the human connection; he was thoughtful, warm, empathetic, funny and charming.  He inspired the best in every staff member, and we held him in high regard.

As Vig’s dramatic vision for the new building was nearing completion, it was a heady time to be part of the HMA team. The museum opened on schedule in October, with a dizzying flurry of celebratory events  held in the soaring central atrium.  Vig treated his staff with the same respect and courtesy as the most generous or sought-after patrons.  HMA parties were equal-opportunity events.  Security guards danced with curators; art handlers and secretaries rubbed elbows with Atlanta’s civic leaders and the occasional celebrity.  Vig was always there at the heart of the party, like a joyful father of the bride, surrounded, in his elegant home, by those he loved best.

Vig’s oddly spelled Norwegian name confounded most homegrown Southerners.  Yet its pronounciation was straightforward:  Good mund Vig tel, with the accent on each first syllable.  I was amazed by the vast volume of unsolicited letters (many of them very strange, to say the least) that the museum received.  The majority of these erred comically in the spelling of Vig’s name. They variously addressed him as Gudmund Viglet, Gudmund Vigtoe, Goodmood Vigel, Goodood Wigtel and even, somehow, Tubmund Eigtel.  Vig never took himself too seriously, and he found these permutations as amusing as I did.  He also laughed and reassured me when I realized, too late, that one of the letters I typed had gone out to Ms. Roberta Goizueta instead of Mr. Roberto Goizueta, then the Chairman of Coca-Cola.

Vig’s impact on the arts of Atlanta was profound.  Like so many others whose lives he touched, I will think of him often, and with affection.  In my mind I see him now, and it’s 1985.  He’s coming back from checking a new painting in the  galleries, crossing the wide atrium.  He’s walking his characteristically jaunty walk, grey curls bouncing a bit, suit slightly rumpled.   As he approaches, I hear him speak my name in the Norwegian accent he never lost, and I see the customary twinkle in his eye.  Gudmund Vigtel will be greatly missed, but lovingly and gladly remembered.

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On this T-shirt, made c. 1985 by the HMA staff to celebrate Vig’s birthday, he is surrounded by some of the more egregiously erroneous misspellings of his name, collected from letters. Vig’s uncharacteristically gruff expression was intended for comic purposes.  I wish I hadn’t worn the shirt for painting; the splotch on Vig’s jacket is a later, accidental addition.

Out of the Blue: A Prayer for 9/11

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The weather is beautiful today here in northern Virginia.  The sky is clear and blue, the sun is bright, and the crisp, fresh promise of fall is in the air.  Eleven years ago, September 11 began just as gloriously.  We had no idea what was coming.

This morning, as I typically do on every September 11 since 2002, I find myself keeping an eye on the clock as 8:46 approaches.  Anything I might say about my memory of that day runs the risk of sounding trite or self-important, so I won’t attempt it.  All I can do is offer my prayer, in hopes that its power will be magnified as it joins and rises with the great cloud of kindred prayers around it.

On this September 11, I ask for God’s blessings on all those whose lives were irrevocably and tragically altered on that terrible day.  For the thousands who died, and for the many more loved ones who grieve for them.  For the children who grew up without a parent, for the spouses whose partners never returned, for the grandparents who became parents to their lost children’s children.  For those whose pain still pierces, and for those who suffer guilt because some healing has taken place, because cherished memories have dimmed.

I give thanks for the many heroes who sacrificed their lives or endangered their health on that day to save strangers.  For the firefighters, police and rescue workers who bravely answered the call to duty.  For unlikely individuals, like the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who rose to the daunting challenge.

I give thanks for the unity we feel as a nation each year on September 11.  I pray that it might outlast this one day.  In the poisonous political atmosphere of this election year, may it inspire us to set aside our bitterness, for a while, at least, so that we might work together.

And, most of all, I thank God for the good that always comes from bad, even if, in our sorrow and anger, we may not see it until months or years later.

May we be especially receptive to the vitality of God’s blessings on this September 11.  I pray that we will feel God’s mercy and love descending on us all, from out of the blue.

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The lower Manhattan skyline seen from Liberty State Park, NJ on August 19, 1991.

My Uncle Bill: WWII Frogman and Grandfatherly Uncle

My mother’s older brother Bill  was very much like my grandfather in physical appearance, temperament and attitude.  If our family life is a play, Uncle Bill was the understudy who took over when my grandfather was no longer available.  At least that’s the way it seemed to me.  My uncle provided a tangible, very real link to Grandaddy. 

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Uncle Bill, Mama and me at my grandparents’ house in the mid-60s.

By all accounts, my uncle was so like my grandfather that they were often at loggerheads during Bill’s boyhood and teen years.  Each was painfully honest in every situation, and this may have proved more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone in their relationship.  Bill had little interest in farming.  Fortunately for him, his older brother Leland had followed in Grandaddy’s footsteps and taken over the land up by the river.  When World War II began, Bill saw it as an opportunity to get off the farm and put a stop to conflict with his father.  He enlisted at seventeen, just before Christmas of 1943.  We have most of the letters he sent home during his military service.  Never overly sentimental, never self-pitying, his early letters border on heartbreaking.  They are the writings of a young man who acted too hastily and immediately regretted his decision.

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A sad and serious Uncle Bill, age 17, in his first Army photo.

These first letters, sent from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, tell of receiving vaccinations, shoveling snow in blizzard-like conditions, and hoping to join the Air Corps but being eight pounds underweight.  Bill  lists the various articles of clothing he has been issued, remarking with wonder that it’s more than he’s ever seen before.  He asks his family to send some shoe polish, because his boots have stiffened uncomfortably from daily wear in the snow and slush.  He also asks for a pencil and a few wire coat hangers.   The talk in the barracks, morning and night, was that of homesick young men pining for their loved ones and the lives they had left behind.  Most, like Uncle Bill, were from rural areas.  They had realized, too late, the simple glory of farm life.  In Bill’s words, he “never realized how swell home was, but he sure would like to see it now.”  His father, he admits, knew more about the Army than he did.  His letters are always signed “Love, Billy.” 

He was soon transferred to Fort Gordon-Johnston in Florida for basic training to enter an amphibious brigade. At the end of January 1944, he reports getting $39.55 for his first month of duty.  Nearly every letter begins with an apology for not writing sooner, but he seems to have written every few days.  He often asks about my mother’s asthma, the progress of the tobacco stripping, and he offers hopes that the crop will bring a good price. A high point about army life, he notes, is access to new movies.  He mentions seeing Jack London, Swing Fever and later, Double Indemnity.  In one letter he writes that he was “feeling fine, and at times, almost happy, but not quite.”

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Bill, a year or so later, looking a bit more upbeat.

As the months ticked by, Bill wrote from increasingly exotic places, although his exact location could not be divulged.  From Florida, he went to New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, many small islands in the Phillipines, and then on to Hawaii for training in Underwater Demolition.  After his return, he talked of being dropped in the ocean, no land in sight, and no special equipment but a pair of flippers.  He and his fellow Frogmen were expected to tread water for six to eight hours as they awaited the ship’s return.  The Frogmen were the precursors to the Navy SEALs, and I can only imagine the intensity of other training exercises and actual duties.  Bill didn’t talk much about any of that.

The tone of homesick regret is gradually replaced by a sense of wonder at the strange beauty of places he could never have imagined.  In the Philippines, he buys a handmade mattress from a local woman, tours a ruined city in a horse-drawn buggy-taxi, attends Saturday night dances on base where the “fine-looking” Spanish and Filippino girls “can jitterbug to put the girls back home to shame.”  He discovers an injured cockatoo in the jungle and nurses it back to health. He revels in the abundance of tropical fruit and notes that there is no cigarette shortage in the army, unlike in the States.  He is surprised by his ability to work all day, on a ship in the equatorial zone, in temperatures up to 115 degrees, with hardly any ill effects.  The miserable poverty of some of the native villages affects him deeply. Hospitalized for a while with “yellow jaundice,” he enjoys the rest, as well as the fluffy pillows.  When a fellow patient has a break-down and runs screaming in the halls, he remarks that the jungles will do that to you, after two or three years.  He laments not being able to write about the most interesting parts of his days, because such information would be censored.  Despite his discretion, in several of his letters a line or two has been neatly cut away.

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Some of Uncle Bill’s letters home during his time in the Army.

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Bill’s Army knife, useful for cutting jungle foliage.

                                                 
In Bill’s letter of August 16, 1945, news has just broken of  Japan’s surrender.  The war is officially over.  He begins to believe he will return home soon, to the farm he so wanted to leave.  After several months in the U.S. occupational forces in Japan, he arrived stateside in the winter of 1946.  Like his fellow soldiers lucky enough to return, he was older and wiser, and had a new appreciation for home.

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Uncle Bill in the mid-60s with his beagle Ginger, the first of his dogs that I remember.

Bill went to the University of Kentucky on the G. I. bill.  His dark hair turned completely silver when he was still in his late 20s, giving him an air of elegant sophistication.  My father, seeing Mama with her brother on campus, assumed she was with a handsome professor.  Bill was in his 30s when he married a divorced woman with two sons.  Margaret was the sister of one of my mother’s childhood friends.  Bill never had any biological children, but he was a supportive and caring stepfather.

Mama and Bill were close, and they were alike in many ways.  As long as I can remember, Uncle Bill was a big part of my life.  He often traveled to Atlanta on business.  When it was still a rather grand  hotel and hadn’t slipped into seediness, he stayed downtown at the old Henry Grady Hotel.  He often had a free evening, and he’d treat my parents and me to a festive dinner, somewhere we wouldn’t ordinarily go.  I always looked forward to Uncle Bill’s visits.  I loved his dry wit, which was sarcastic and sometimes biting, but never mean-spirited.  As a connoisseur of life’s ironic absurdities, he was highly amusing company.

Uncle Bill was empathetic and attuned to the plight of the down-trodden.  He was especially soft-hearted when it came to animals.  Bill always had a dog, or he cared for someone else’s dog, typically one that would prefer to be Bill’s. When a neighbor’s three-legged lab mix made it clear that he would much rather live with my uncle, his owners passed him on.  With Bill, Colonel got several walks each day, plus a long car ride.  Colonel loved a ride, so Bill made it part of their routine.   During a visit after Colonel’s death and not long before Bill’s own, I went with him on his nightly duty to walk a neighbor’s dog.  Bill had noticed that the dog’s owner worked long hours, and he offered to provide an afternoon walk.  Before long, this had turned into three daily walks.  Bill was retired and dogless at the time, so he was happy to oblige.  On the night I went with him, he put his raincoat over his pajamas and we walked down the street to the neighbor’s home.  He let us in with his own key, and the woman rose to greet us warmly, from what appeared to be a late-night dinner party.  No doubt her guests thought it odd that her dog-walker was a dashing silver-haired seventy-year old in PJs.  No doubt they also thought she had lucked into a great deal.  Bill never cared if people considered him somewhat eccentric.

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Uncle Bill and me at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire in the 80s.

Bill’s time in the service may have fostered his love of travel.  He and Margaret were always setting off for some legendary spot.  During my year in England  they popped in on several occasions.  They were my first visitors when I lived in Cambridge.  We ate at the city’s best restaurants and took day-trips to Eton and Windsor Castle.  Later in the year, we rented a car and drove up to York over the course of nearly a week.  Bill and Margaret went on to Scotland and I returned to London by train.  And when I was in England for a month the next year, they came back, too.  I can still see the look on Bill’s face when I showed him my tiny, cell-like room in the London House Annex, a dormitory for visiting students.  

Uncle Bill died much too soon, at 71.  I guess because he was so like my grandfather, I thought we’d have him around for a few more years.   He was there for my wedding, but he never got the chance to see my beautiful baby girl.  It’s a great consolation, however, to reflect on the many lives that he touched, with his kindness, generosity and humor.  And I know that now, he and Grandaddy, two kindred spirits, are enjoying peaceful yet lively good fellowship.