"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Christmas Star, 80 Years

This Christmas marks the 80th year a red star has graced the top of a Christmas tree in my family.   It is wrinkled and bent, but its meaning remains the same.

The story is presented here again as my way of wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year.


There were rumors, of course, but no way to know for certain.  If you read the pundits or listened to the politicians on the radio, you could believe anything you wanted to believe, or fear anything you wanted to fear.

They were young and in love.  We don’t know for sure if they discussed the rumors, but almost certainly they did.  Perhaps their love gave them the courage to surmount the rumors, or perhaps it was because of the rumors that they wed on the last day of November. 

On their first Christmas together they purchased a simple red aluminum foil star for the top of their small tabletop Christmas tree.  In the snapshot they stand on either side of the tree, he handsome with curly dark hair, wearing a suit, and she pretty in a sequined dress.  The star has a large hole in the center, obviously meant for a Christmas light to be inserted from the back.

Their first anniversary came on a Sunday a year later and once again we can believe the rumors and threats were not foremost in their minds, because they held a new life in their arms that day.  Their first child, a girl, had been born the previous Sunday.  Now they were parents with a helpless infant to love and protect.

A week later it all changed.  A week later, when their daughter was exactly two weeks old, the Japanese launched a sneak attack against the United States by bombing and strafing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.   The young father did not have to go immediately, but instead worked in manufacturing plants in Detroit

Again the red star adorned the top of the Christmas tree, though this holiday season was fraught with worry and concern.   America was having a difficult time in the war and the country was responding to help in the effort at home.

On their third Christmas the black and white photograph shows them with their year-old daughter between them, in front of the tree topped with a red star.

Eventually the father was called and found himself stationed in the Philippines.  The mother moved from the duplex in downtown Detroit to a large house in a more rural area of the city, where her sister lived with her five children.  While the men were gone to war, the women stayed home and raised their children as best they could.  Letters arrived sporadically from the men, sometimes taking months.

Each time a vehicle slowed in front of the large house, the women would watch anxiously, hoping it would not stop, hoping that bad news would pass them by.  There are no photographs for several years of a tree topped with a red star.  We know it was there only through oral stories, the decorated tree with the red star.

The men came home from the war but jobs were hard to find.  Soon the young couple moved to Alaska to begin a new life in a territory far from home.  The photographs began again and every year the same star graced the family Christmas tree.

One season the mother brought home a beautiful angel in a white gown trimmed with gold, decorated with spun glass.  She placed it atop the Christmas tree and set aside the old piece of red foil.  The eldest of the four children objected and the younger ones added their concurrence.  They wanted the old red star back on their tree.  The angel disappeared.



This evening, sixty-six years after it first was placed on top of a tree in the home of a hopeful, newly-wed couple facing threats of world war, it was once again fastened to the top branch of an evergreen, though it is now a miniature light that pierces its center and allows it to shine.  It bears the signs of its age, creased, wrinkled, and flattened.    The young couple is gone now, he before she by several years.  The youngest of their three daughters also is gone, well before her time.

The second child, a son, also went off to war and returned.  He now has two sons and a daughter.  The third child, a daughter, herself has two daughters.

And I, that child born two weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I am the one who placed that battered star in its place of honor.  As I did I thought of my parents, my siblings, my nieces and nephews.  We who remain are scattered from one side of the country to the other.   Like that star, we bear the signs of age, faces creased and hands wrinkled with age, hopes and dreams pressed with the realities of life. 

I wonder which of the nieces or nephews will take the star when I am gone.  Which of them will someday say, “This star has shone from the top of our family tree for exactly one hundred years.”

Emerging under a threat of war, strengthened in a move to a frontier land, unscathed by accidental fire, wounded by untimely death, tempered by love, rewarded with allegiance, this star has seen it all.  There’s a lifetime of stories in its crinkles and creases.  They give it character.

Courage, strength, survival, loss, love, dedication and above all else:  hope.  That is the significance of this old red star atop the Christmas tree.

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Pigeon called Cher Ami


     For three nights near midnight, after the janitors had finished, after the lights were dimmed and the doors of the Smithsonian Museum of American History were locked, I sat beside a pigeon and listened to her tale.  This was no ordinary pigeon, the variety you find everywhere white-washing all things beneath them.

  No, this was Cher Ami, a famous homing pigeon, a war hero, a decorated pigeon.

 Cher Ami - Wikipedia



    I scrolled past the book offered in my daily list from Book Bub that showed what e-book were on sale that day.

    “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” by Kathleen Rooney?   Sounded too much like a cutesy British romance for me.   Not my chosen genre for a good read.  I don’t recall the other books that day, but I did go back to Cher Ami (for short) to read the blurb and I am so glad I did.


    It was indeed a romance of sorts as I fell in love with a pigeon named Cher Ami.  Despite the masculine name, Cher Ami was a female homing pigeon trained for racing in Britain.   When World War I came along, pigeon keepers were “asked” to “offer” pigeons for messenger service.  Cher Ami and some of her fellow dovecote pigeons joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

     Major Whittlesey was a refined and educated man who enlisted and was placed in command of a bunch of rowdies from New York’s Lower East Side.

     I don’t want to reveal too much about this gripping novel, but it IS based closely on a true story.  You can Google Cher Ami and read about her, but if you do that and nothing more, you will miss out on a gorgeously-written book that educates you about pigeons, warfare, and the effects of the two.   I will tell you this:   she was awarded the French Croix du Guerre.


    The author, a teacher of fine art writing, chose a unique and intriguing style for her book.   The chapters alternate between the Point of View (POV) or Char Ami and Major Whittlesey with each couplet of chapters beginning with the same paragraph. 


    For instance, both the first chapter told by Cher Ami and the second chapter told by the major begin with this sentence: “Monuments matter most to pigeons and soldiers.”  How the two correlate follows in prose sometimes witty and funny, sometimes sad and heart-rending, but never dull and staid.



    I found myself looking forward to sitting in the Smithsonian Museum beside Cher Ami and listening to her reminisce.  I read it the first time for the story.   I will read it a second time to enjoy the writing,


    I had to let this book rest for a few days after I finished it at 2 A.M.   I did not get to sleep until almost six that morning and I am still deeply affected by it.  It is probably the most profound, but subtle, anti-war book I have ever read and I have read a number of history books about wars.


    Buy a copy, download a copy, whatever your choice is.   Then, after the janitors are gone, after the lights have dimmed, settle down beside Cher Ami in her glass display case and listen to her tale.  She is becoming forgotten;  don’t let that happen.


 Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Puff Balls

 I am still deep into organizing tens of thousand of photos and came across some bird photos that show how they handle cold weather.   I call them puff balls when they look like this:

By puffing out their feathers, the birds trap warm air against their bodies and stay warm in cold weather.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Browsing the Archives

 What better thing to do in the winter when outdoor activities are limited than to browse my very extensive photo archives from four different computers.    I was quite remiss all these years in establishing an orderly organizing system that would enable me to find a specific photo without tedious searches.  

  I'm not there yet, but am a lot farther along than I was a year ago.

In the meantime, it's been a blast finding photos I'd forgotten about.    Here are a few:

I didn't take the above photo but it is one of my favorites.   This is a formation in the rock of Uluru also known as Ayer's rock in the Australian Outback.   There is an unmistakable spiritual sense of this place.  It is a revered place for the Aboriginals.  I look at this photo and imagine that I am in the arms of Uluru.

Riding the mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, over-nighting at Phantom Ranch, and riding back up?   Priceless.   Notice the shape of the mule's tail.   That designates that the mule is old enough to "stop being silly" and is vouch-safe to carry a rider.

This is a spot along Turnagain Arm where the railroad tracks make an S curve.   It always catches my eye because it is so photogenic.   I'm trying to photograph it in all seasons.   I like the ethereal look here.

I was lucky to see this little tree swallow make its first flight.   I followed it a hundred feet, watching the other swallows diving at it, flying around it, encouraging it.   I got this photo when it landed.   Other fledgling landed nearby but this one needed to sit awile and ponder this thing called flying.

I was astonished when this Wandering Tattler let me get within ten feet of it.  

Why?   I just like it.

Those twilight minutes when everything is bathed in mauve.   Love it.

I've taken photos of birds that are a lot nicer than this, but this one is my all time favorite.   A boreal chickadee in a snowstorm waits for me to hand it a peanut.   Tough little birds.

Now, back to the archives.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

True Confessions of an Aging Soul

 The past few days have been such jolly fun!   I say that with all the sarcasm I can muster.

I turned 79 last week, putting me in my 80th year of life on earth.   All was well until about 11 P.M. Thanksgiving night.   Snow was falling and piling up.

Then, the electricity went out.  We would later learn a tree went across the lines.   I went to bed.   The temperature was around 30, so no imminent fear of water lines freezing.   The wood stove was keeping the house warm.

My Kindle is a Fire and self-illuminated.   I read and got up every couple hours to feed the wood stove.   The next morning, the power was still out as were the land line phones, cell phones, and Internet.   I started my generator, but the automatic transfer switch didn't feed power to the house.   I ran it long enough to charge its battery and then shut it off.



The snow depth was about 18 inches.   I was sure I couldn't drive my 4WD truck out to the highway.   I didn't want to get stuck and have to wade back to the house, so I didn't even try.  Had the driveway been shorter, I might have made it, but it's about 500 feet long.

 The power came back on late Friday afternoon.   Phones and Internet still out.   The phone crews were working 24 hours a day to located and begin repairs to broken lines and fried switches.




Saturday was more of the same.   The power was on but the phones were still out and the driveway still deep in snow.   every once in a while, I thought about how isolated I was.   What if I needed medical help?   The rescue truck couldn't reach me and I had no way of notifying anyone if I did need help.   I didn't obsess over this, wasn't anxious or concerned.   Just mindful.




Sunday was nice, but no phones yet.  The snowplow guy got the driveway plowed out about noon.    I heard Cooper Landing had cell service so I drove over there and posted on Facebook about my circumstances.

Another six hour power outage began midnight Monday morning.   Still no phones.

More trouble  began Monday.   Wind, snow, you name it.   Highway conditions were awful.  Still no phones but the power stayed on.


The driveway before the blizzard started Monday.

Today, Tuesday, another power outage began around 1 P.M.   As I write this, it's still out.   

BUT!   My neighbor came over and, after plowing enough snow that I could get out if I had to, figured out how to switch the generator power manually instead of the not-working automatic feature.

Now, I have water and power to my WI-Fi router.   The phones came back on mid-afternoon, but how they are working without electricity is beyond me.  Perhaps there's a battery backup.

The electric company, based in Anchorage, is having to deal with tough highway conditions, rain, still deep snow, etc.   It should have reached Moose Pass about 6 P.M., so hopefully this outage will be repaired tonight.

For now, I am going to fill the woodstove, shut down the generator and go read in bed by the light of my illuminated Kindle Fire.   I have a good Jonathan Kellerman novel going and am anxious to get back to it.

Maybe by  tomorrow things will be back to normal.   Whatever that is.


Saturday, November 21, 2020

Quality Time

 I recently took a break from a long on-going  project here at home to spend time with birds.

On the drive to where I knew I'd find birds, I passed Tern Lake and found a large number of the community out skating.

It appeared a pick up hockey game was about to ensue, along with the recreational skating.

Right across from the skaters was a bald eagle, perched on a cottonwood limb over a small patch of open water.   No doubt it was watching the water for a late-spawning salmon to appear, but I have to wonder if it wasn't also entertained by the laughing humans zipping around on the ice.

A little farther along the highway, several more eagles were perched above Dave's Creek, the tributary of Kenai River that is the waterway the salmon swim up to spawn in the lake.

There there were several juveniles, too.   I photographed a few eagles that were not in the thick of branches and limbs.

After taking a few photos, I turned around and pulled into the Dave's Creek parking area.  From the highway, I had seen five or six eagles gathered in a few trees right where I wanted to see if I could find one of my favorite birds--the amazing American Dipper, formerly known as a water ouzel, which is a far cooler name than dipper.

I walked down the path along the creek and approached the eagles.

Note to the neophyte photographers:   keep your mouth shut when standing under eagles or any other birds.

A close-up of a juvenile.

By this time, I'd reached the extent of the path without seeing a dipper.   As I stood there, I said, "Where are you dipper?"

Just then a dipper flew over and landed in the water quite near me.

"Not a good spot, Dipper," I said.   "There's no contrast.   You blend in with the dark water."

Dipper accommodated by flying to a small log in the water than had a bit of snow on it.   It was all the contrast I needed.

Any day spent with birds is a good day.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The 2020 Africa Journals, Ch. 26


Chapter Twentysix

The Cheetah and the Hyena


Our bags are packed

We’re ready to go….*

No, we aren’t.  Not by even a millimeter.  However, if we don’t go, we won’t have a place to sleep tonight.

So, our bags ARE packed and in the foyer, ready to be loaded and transferred to the airstrip where we will catch our flight from the Maasai Mara to Nairobi.


In the meantime, we have a short safari early this morning with breakfast back at camp, rather than in the field.  Six of us are leaving and three of the larger group are staying for another week.  Also, recent rains have made the river crossings impossible so we will have to take a long drive around to reach the airstrip.

We set out on our last drive from Entim Private Camp as dawn starts to break.   We won’t be going far from camp today.

The sky becomes ever more dramatic when we reach the top of a ridge.





We move down to a gentle plain and our guide Tinka is watching the topi carefully.   Suddenly, he stops, grabs his binoculars, and looks at the nearby ridge.  And away we go.   By watching the behavior of the topi, Tinka knows a predator is near.

He leads us to a cheetah, belly bulging from a recent meal.  How he managed to spot the cat in the long grass from more than a quarter mile away is beyond me.



The cheetah strolls along, pausing occasionally to lie down and rest.

Suddenly, I see a hyena approaching.




Hyenas frequently steal prey that cheetah’s have caught, leaving an exhausted cheetah without a meal.    They also kill cheetah cubs.




The hyena isn’t interested in the cheetah.   It is smelling the ground to find evidence of prey.   But, the cheetah is a long way from where it devoured it.


The hyena continues to watch the cheetah, thinking that the cat will eventually return to its kill.  The cheetah, however, does not. When we leave to return to camp, the cheetah is again resting in the long grass while the hyena lingers nearby.


The hyena is still watching the cheetah when we return to camp for breakfast and last-minute packing.



*Lyrics from  Leaving on a Jet Place by John Denver