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!

Posey Pot

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They call it the “Posey Pot.”

It’s in the middle of Laurelville, a small town in the Hocking Hills which I travel through somewhat frequently. I can’t begin to tell you how long it’s been there but the posey pot has been a source of pride in this community for generations.

It’s a farming community with a small population and few businesses. But it’s a nice village where the people are proud to fly their flag and where neighbors look out for one another. You’ll find the salt of the earth here.

I’ll take that over a city any day.

 

 

Honoring the Memphis Belle

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Dad and I with the Memphis Belle. Notice that I’m wearing my Rosie the Riveter shirt? Yes, I am a nerd!

As a student of history, I was over the moon last year when the Memphis Belle was installed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. They had a big weekend that included World War II reenactors, big band music and all sorts of other things.

My dad is a history buff too – he’s actually where I caught the bug from – so I dragged him along for a little father-daughter quality time. This was sort of a big deal because we don’t often get to do things on our own. Growing up, it was always me with my mother or all of us as a family but never dad and I alone.

Turns out the weather was horrible and rainy, ruining most of the outdoor fun but we had a nice time anyway.

If you’ve never been to this museum, it’s a great way to pass a day and it’s free. It’s packed full of planes and stories that you won’t read in most history books.

a crew.jpgThe Memphis Belle exhibit does a nice job telling the story of this plane and crew. The B-17 was vital to the war effort, having flown in every combat zone during World War II. The Memphis Belle was important because it completed 25 missions over Europe, a dangerous proposition and unheard of when it happened in 1942 and 1943.

The crew became symbols of the war effort, personifying all the young men who were doing their part to fight evil overseas. They ranged in age from 19 to 26 and came from across this nation. These were very young men, likely with little life experience, who were sent to hell and back 25 times.

I can’t imagine the terror they faced. I mean, can you imagine climbing into a plane time after time, knowing that you likely wouldn’t live through the day? And it wasn’t just the Memphis Belle crew – these guys beat very long odds to survive – but sixteen million Americans served in this war, asked every day to face the unthinkable.

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Many of these planes were lost to time following the war. But the Memphis Belle dodged that bullet, so to speak. It was sent to Memphis where it sat out in the elements for decades. Damaged by weather, vandals and looters, it was in pretty bad shape. But it was acquired by the museum and sent to Dayton for restoration several years ago. We were lucky to be there for the festivities when the plane was installed in Dayton in time for the 75th anniversary of the planes’ 25th mission.

Displays feature each of the crew members and there are some artifacts on display in addition to the plane itself. I especially loved this stained glass window.

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Want to visit the Memphis Belle at the Air Force Museum? Click here. I’ll write more about the museum another day.

 

 

 

 

City of Presidents

Rapid city downtown (8)

Rapid City, South Dakota is known as the City of Presidents. It’s a convenient place to stay if you’re visiting the region and is a nice place to spend your time. It’s a city that has a small town vibe.

The downtown area is vibrant with locally owned shops and restaurants, museums and things to do outdoors. Parking is free in their garage on holidays, Sundays and evenings so we never paid to park here.. You see plenty of law enforcement as well as security cameras making it seem safe enough. Abundant flowers, plentiful outdoor seating and a fun park are anchors here.

We did see a few homeless people and a particularly aggressive panhandler but you’ll unfortunately have that no matter where you go.

This is a very walkable downtown and motorists seem to respect the rights of pedestrians, a far cry from how motorists in Ohio seem to feel about them.

One thing that makes this city special is that each former US President and some Native American leaders have been immortalized with life sized statues throughout downtown. They were paid for by donors and each one is unique.

Here are a few pictures for your viewing pleasure.

I’ll share more pictures from Rapid City. Meanwhile, have a look their tourism site if you’re interested in knowing more about visiting.

Hiding In Plain Sight

z old lancaster church.jpgA recent work assignment found me on foot in Lancaster looking for photo ops. The thing about walking is that you notice things that you might miss from the car. Case in point: this old church, tucked in between two houses on a street about a block from downtown.

Check out the window and the patina on the brick!

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It appears to be a private residence now and I would love to see inside but obviously had to settle for a couple of exterior snapshots before moving on and getting back to work. It was hot that morning and I was too warm and tired by about 10 a.m. so this little shaded area was quite inviting and I could imagine sitting down under the tree with a cold drink and a book.

What a cool place to live.