February Reading

The last couple of months have been an extremely productive reading time for me. Adventure season will be underway soon and reading time will be more scarce but for now I’m focusing on a few simple rules – always carry a book, turn off the tv, and choose reading over mindless activities.

It’s worked well so far although many were quite easy this month as my brain has been on overload. Here’s the February pile.

You don’t want to read a review of them all but I will point out a few even though I loved every single one.

Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones

This is a delightful book based around a simple concept. Hold up a photo from the past in the place where it was originally taken. Then write a sentence about what that photo means to you. It’s an easy read but thought provoking at times. It’s also fun to pull off the shelf when you just need something a little different.

Hannah’s Suitcase by Karen Levine

This title was written for a young audience so it was an easy read but one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time. It tells the story of how the director of a Holocaust museum in Japan tracked down the fate of a little girl who was sent to Auschwitz. The museum had received the girl’s suitcase which had her name printed on the side. That’s all the director had to work with – the girl’s name – to unravel the story of what happened to her and her family.

This is difficult subject matter but the story is told respectfully and I am grateful that I stumbled into this book.

Survivor’s Club by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

CBS This Morning featured a moving segment about the Holocaust last month. It talked about how this horrific event is being forgotten by younger generations and about the increase in people who believe that it didn’t happen at all.

They interviewed MichaeL Bornstein whose photograph was taken in 1945 when he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother’s arms. He was just four that day and had known only loss and misery in his short life. The fact he survived the camp is nothing short of a miracle as the Nazis killed most children on the day they arrived.

The reason he told his story is that he saw his likeness – the picture he uses on the book cover – on a website that denies the Holocaust. He knew then that it was time to educate people and to combat the deniers.

This is a family memoir and incredibly personal but it is exceptionally told. It is heartbreaking and uplifting. Read it.

The Melody Lingers On by Mary Higgins Clark

This author recently died after a prolific decades long career which resulted in dozens of books I’ve never read. When a suspense addicted friend learned of this oversight I was strongly encouraged to put my nose in one of her books immediately, if not sooner. This book is fast paced with a great story line and a twist. I enjoyed it and would certainly read more of her work.

A Fools’s Errand by Lonnie Bunch III

Lonnie Bunch is the Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I read this memoir after seeing some interviews with him when the museum opened. He is a fascinating man and an engaging conversationalist (at least in interviews) and I would love to have a museum tour with him. The book tells a fascinating story but it was written by an academic and can be dry at times. Hang in there though.

There are some beautiful stories within these chapters – humorous, sad and enraging at times. He began this museum with nothing. No staff, no money, not even a desk to call his own or a phone extension to reach him. He persevered, engaging celebrities, politicians and common people to find the money, artifacts and willpower to keep going.

The museum isn’t meant to attract just African Americans. It tells the story of America and the important place of African Americans within that story. One of my favorite stories was of the shoe shine man who refused payment because he wanted Lonnie to put the $8 toward the museum. When Lonnie insisted on paying, the elderly African American man said “Don’t be rude. I am not sure what is in a museum, but it may be the only place where my grandchildren will learn what life did to me, and what I did with my life.”

I’m officially dying to go explore.

* * *

I started reading David McCullough’s “The Pioneers” but set it aside for a while. I will be captivated by this book someday but my head wasn’t in the game and needed something a little easier!

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Remembering Mr. Prusas

There was a man who I crossed paths with years ago while I worked my way through college as a student assistant in the university library.

He was a well dressed elderly man who came in early every morning. He read things like the New York Times and financial magazines. No fluff. He never checked out anything and rarely spoke to anyone.

I became friendly with him but knew very little about the man aside from what I learned from a supervisor. His name was Dr. Zenon Prusas but we just called him Mr. Prusas. To me, he was the nice man who liked to be the first to read the Wall Street Journal every day.

Looking back, I wish I had the opportunity to know him better and recently Googled him on a whim. Sadly, I found his obituary – not surprising as I figured he would be close to a hundred by now.

Being a sort of connoisseur of fine obituaries (yes, it’s weird but don’t judge me) I was pleased to see that someone had taken the time to honor a life well lived by telling his rather colorful story.

Mr. Prusas was born in 1921 in a small village in eastern Lithuania. He was forced from his homeland by the Russian invasion during World War II and immigrated to the United States.

He landed at the Mead Corporation’s Central Research offices in 1955 where he became an industry expert on pulp and paper technology. Colleagues described him as “a national treasure.”

Mr Prusas loved the outdoors and personally planted over a thousand trees on his own property. He published much professionally but also wrote a book about his family’s experiences during the Soviet and Nazi invasions and occupations of his homeland.

Mr. Prusas left many lasting marks on this world but I loved learning that he was a tireless advocate for the freeing of his native country from Soviet occupation. After Lithuania gained independence, Mr. Prusas organized and sponsored the creation of a monument in the center of his boyhood town. It is dedicated to the Lithuanian freedom fighters.

He died almost eight years ago but lives on in so many ways. In fact, I don’t think Mr. Prusas wasted a minute of his time on earth.

All these years later, I can’t help but wish I had been braver and tried harder to get to know him. My job experience as a reporter taught me that people often are open to questions about themselves – I suspect, if the opportunity were presented today, I could get some really good stories from this man.

Wherever he is, I hope Mr. Prusas has found peace and that he’s still always the first to read the morning paper.

Bad Habits

Lexington with St Paul Church in background

Of my many bad habits, one is making pictures without recording subject matter. This photo is from a trip to Kentucky a few years ago and popped up in my Snapfish account while looking for something else. It took some thinking and a quick Google search to figure out that it’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Lexington, Kentucky. The perspective is  through the glass of a very nice hotel room window.

It strengthens my desire to not just record my surroundings but to document where I am and to tell as many stories as possible. Meanwhile, I’m still wading through the 7,000 pictures (that’s not a typo – 7,000 pictures) pulled from my iPhone last month. If I ever get caught up with sorting through that mess, I’ll start weeding through the digital and print pictures from the past.

What are your bad photography habits? I can’t be the only one that has them!

Remembering Dr. King and the National Civil Rights Museum

Today we celebrate the life, teachings and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If he had not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, he would be 91 now. He would have elderly children, grandkids and great grandkids. It’s hard to picture when you consider the timeless images of a young man like the one above.

Here he is with his wife and first child. It brings to mind the famous quote that we all have heard.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

You have to wonder how much different the world and our country might be had he lived longer.

Today I thought we should visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. First of all, Memphis is one of my favorite places because there is music and history and culture and mac and cheese at every turn. Seriously, the abundance of homemade mac and cheese is pretty spectacular.

But it’s also home to this museum that beautifully and skillfully tells the story behind the movement.

Among other things, the museum has preserved the Loraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered. You can see his room and the balcony where he stood when bullets were fired from a boarding house across the street. Incidentally, you can tour that boarding house as well.

Visiting here was a sobering, humbling experience that sort of put a damper on the fun of all that music and food. But friends, I would go back today if given the opportunity and I would highly recommend it to you as well.

Facing history gives us the opportunity to learn from our past, to humanize those people we read about in text books and to hopefully do better tomorrow. And if nothing else, a place like this instills in us a new sense of empathy and understanding that we may not have known on our own.

Want to visit the National Civil Rights Museum? Click here for details. If you wish to ponder the teachings and thoughts of Dr. King, this is a good source for quotes.

A Native American Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a perfect time to share a story that you won’t read in any school textbook.

You’ve likely heard about the Navajo Code Talkers, US Marines of Navajo descent who used their native tongue to baffle Japanese code breakers during World War II. Their work is credited with helping end the war years earlier than predicted. Despite their unique skills and heroic efforts, they were subject to racism and discrimination and were treated poorly to put it mildly.

Their work was top secret. Most Americans (including their fellow soldiers) didn’t realize there were native people serving in the military and didn’t know about their significant contributions to the war effort until years later.

Here’s the story you likely haven’t heard.

A chance encounter brought together a photographer and one of these Code Talkers in the mid-seventies.

The Code Talker was a man named Carl Gorman who picked up a hitchhiking photographer near Window Rock, Arizona. They became acquainted and the photographer showed interest in the culture and history of the Code Talkers.

He was invited to a Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting and was welcomed into the group. The photographer began following the Code Talkers to parades and other functions where they appeared, eventually becaming their official association photographer.

That photographer was a Japanese man whose father was a surviving Kamikaze pilot from World War II.

You read that correctly.

The Navajo Code Talkers welcomed to their tight knit community a stranger who descended from the very people they had worked so hard to defeat only a few decades earlier.

Eventually, photographer Kenji Kawano began a new project, photographing Code Talkers in their own environments – in their homes and workplaces.

Some proudly wore their uniforms. Others posed with portraits of their young selves. Some saluted for the camera, a few posed with their spouses. Kenji reached some too late – they were already deceased – so he photographed their families or their military portraits.

Some of these portraits were compiled in a book along with a quote from each man. This is how I learned the story.

I actually picked up the book “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers” at the Crazy Horse Memorial this summer, thinking that it was just a nice book of photos to peruse on the plane. I had no idea that it would be such a moving experience to learn about the Code Talkers and the unlikely friend who would tell their story.

One of them spoke of how he was captured by U.S. Army soldiers who mistook his Navajo features as Japanese – a common problem for many of the Code Talkers.

Another spoke of how he continued to question why he had to kill and spoke of the psychological impact it had on him.

Another said that he joined up because there were no jobs on the Reservation.

The stories they tell often are only a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph, making it an easy but significant read.

If you aren’t a reader but enjoy photography and want to know more about this topic, this book is the way to go. You’ll learn a lot and be moved. You’ll also walk away with a number of questions and perhaps even with a new world view. It certainly worked for me.

It gives me hope to think of the kindness the Code Talkers showed this young photographer. They didn’t have to invite him to their meetings or allow him to stick around for pictures. They certainly didn’t have to welcome this son of their one-time enemy into their homes.

Kenji said that it was a bit awkward at first. I imagine this is an understatement. But if this unlikely friendship could develop and flourish, there’s hope for us all. In this divided world we live in today where we have so little tolerance for people who hold different views than us, we can use all the hope we can get.

Read the book if you can. I promise you won’t regret it.

Reconnaissance Mission In Oakland, Maryland

Monday Lurray Caverns and Garrett County (134)

The last big stop on this road trip adventure was in Oakland, Maryland. On Monday afternoon, I grabbed lunch to eat while traveling along mostly two lane highways from Luray Caverns and through western Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.

Being Columbus Day, a lot of Oakland businesses were closed but I was really there on a reconnaissance mission. You see, we think that some of my family came from this area. I had started working on my genealogy years ago but had to give up the effort when college, career and life got in the way.

Thanks to Ancestry.com this kind of research is much simpler than it was twenty years ago so I’m planning to buy myself a membership for Christmas and unravel some mysteries.

Meanwhile, I just wanted to see the town. And since I’ve seen it, I’m plotting a trip back in the spring when the weather is better. It’s about five hours from here – perfect for a long weekend.

The town is built into a mountain and has a commercial strip lined with all the non-descript fast food and retail you see in small towns. But the downtown is adorable. There’s a gorgeous old courthouse and it seems like even the plainest buildings have some kind of fun twist, even if it’s just artful displays of flowers outside.

Monday Lurray Caverns and Garrett County (138)I felt an attachment to one particular church for some reason. It was frustrating to photograph because of power lines and disappointing to see a modern door on the front. However, time marches on and modern doors are often a necessity.

I looked it up online and found images of beautiful wooden doors on the front of St. Matthews Episcopal Church.  I’ve never done this before, but will pack dress clothes and plan to attend a service here on my return. I circled back to this church a few times before leaving town.

There are several retail shops downtown including a few antique stores. I ventured into one for a couple of fun bargains including a travel themed cardboard hat box destined to be part of my vintage suitcase collection. Their prices were more than reasonable and the owners were  thrilled to have an out-of-town visitor.

The town also has three history museums, all of which were closed by the time I arrived. This area is a popular four season destination with a large lake for water sports as well as popular areas for skiing. This was the leg of the journey where I most needed my trusty atlas and where I spent a fair amount of time behind campers and trucks on two lane roads in the mountains.

But that was just part of the fun!

I reluctantly left town and headed toward Clarksburg, West Virginia where I spent the night before heading westward early Tuesday morning. The trip out of Oakland was beautiful as the sun began to set over the lake. The trees, with their changing colors, shown in the brilliant autumn light.

Honestly, I hated to leave.

We still have a few small things to discuss about this trip in the coming days. Come back for more!

Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters

Saturday around Winchester (127)

Winchester, Virginia is a thriving city today but it was once ravaged by war as control over the town was hotly contested between the North and South. There are a lot of reasons why everyone wanted control of this city and region around it. I won’t bore you with all those details but will mention this – the railroad and the surrounding farmland made Winchester important to both sides.

While southern states farmed, they focused on cotton and tobacco – crops that you cannot eat. But the rich, fertile lands of the Shenandoah Valley were ripe for growing crops, making Winchester the bread basket of the Confederacy.

Historians say that control over Winchester changed at least 72 times, possibly 73. Thirteen times in a single day. When residents woke up each morning, they had to look outside to see which flag was flying to know who was running the show that day.

This makes the area an excellent source for learning about the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression or whatever you like to call it. There are historic markers all over the region and lots of museums.

If you choose to visit, there is no shortage of places to help sharpen your understanding of the war. This is such an important topic these days as we continue to grapple with vital issues like racism and the controversy over celebrating Confederate leaders in communities across our nation.

It’s hard to believe that 154 years after the Civil War ended we haven’t advanced a little further than we have today.

But I digress.

Old Town Winchester is home to the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum and there are many more important sites across the region. 

I most appreciated my visit to Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters, high atop a hill overlooking the city. Here, my tour guide (I think her name was Reva) was a retired history teacher who spoke of Stonewall Jackson as an old friend and of the history of Winchester as though she lived it.

If only we all could be so lucky to have a history teacher like this woman. 

She told us about the house, constructed in 1854 and occupied by Jackson during the winter of 1861-62. At the time, it was owned by Lewis T. Moore who had previously served in the military with Jackson. He was in the process of boarding up his gorgeous home to seek medical treatment out of town when he learned that Jackson needed a quiet place to set up his office. He had been working out of a hotel in what is now Old Town Winchester (it’s now a restaurant) and faced constant interruptions in this high traffic area.

So Moore offered the use of his home, believing it better occupied by Jackson than left empty and vulnerable. Jackson sent for his wife who joined him for the remainder of his stay in town and who remembered that winter as being one of the most romantic times of their marriage.

You can tour the home. It’s furnished with antiques – some original to the region but not to the house. However, there are a number of pieces original to the home and to Jackson himself. They have his desk and his personal prayer book which Jackson carried everywhere. Sometimes he rode with it in his hands, not to read, but simply for comfort. You can almost imagine him sitting in his office, wrestling with decisions that might cost lives if he chose wrong.

You cannot take pictures inside the house but they do sell postcards featuring some of the more important rooms.

Reva did a commendable job telling the human side of the house and the people who occupied it. She spoke of Jackson as a very humble, pious man. She talked about the difficulties of cooking over fire and how skilled a cook must be to prepare a large meal using cast iron and wood heat. She pointed out that this house was warmed by forced air heat and explained how such as system worked in 1861. We learned about the personal heartache and loss that endured by Jackson during his brief 39 years on this earth.

We also learned that Mr. Moore had a descendant, an elderly woman who used her wealth to help the museum during her later years. That woman was the actress Mary Tyler Moore, a fact I found terribly cool having grown up watching reruns of her shows on television.

I often think that people don’t like history because there’s too much focus on memorizing facts and dates and not enough emphasis on the people and their stories.

Reva’s tour beautifully illustrated how to relate history to a modern audience and how to give new life to the past.

Stonewall Jackson’s Headquarters is available for tours April through October and they would welcome you as a guest. It’s a bargain at just $5 for a guided tour and a must-see if you’re in town. 

Check back tomorrow for more from my road trip adventure!