Happy Birthday Kep!

Today marks Horace Kephart’s 147th birthday–September 8, 1862, in East Salem, Pennsylvania. One hundred forty-seven is a blah number, not marking a decade, or a half-century, or any of the artificial bookends we assign to chronology. However, when you’re that old, it counts, because even if you’re famous, you could surely fade in the memory of people who might otherwise give a damn.

But now we happily have an effort by his family to rehabilitate and commemorate The Old Woodsman. Who knows where this will lead, but it’ll be interesting. Earlier this summer, on May 1, the Kephart family hosted the first-ever Kephart Day in Kephart’s home town of Bryson City, North Carolina. The mayor proclaimed May 1 “Horace Kephart Day,” lending the proper legitimacy.

Organized by Kep’s great-granddaughter Laura Kephart Hargrave and other family folks along with the local chamber of commerce, Kephart Day gathered an overflowing roomful of relatives and Kephart pilgrims for talks by Kephart writer and Smokies historian George Ellison along with a host of other presenters, including Brianne Coons Carter, who gave a paper on her great-great-grandfather as a conservationist. George Ellison (www.georgeellison.com/) is one of the two definitive Kephart biographers, and his introduction to the 1976 University of Tennessee Press edition of Our Southern Highlanders is the source of much of our knowledge about Kephart. The book is still in print.

To quote from the Swain County Chamber of Commerce announcement: (www.horacekephart.com/Kephart%20Day%20Document.pdf)

“The day will begin with a service at the author’s grave in Bryson City Cemetery. In the afternoon, Kephart devotees will gather at The Historic Calhoun House Hotel for a program hosted by owner Luke Hyde and organized by the Swain County Chamber of Commerce. Libby Kephart Hargrave will read selections from her great-grandfather’s works. There will also be a presentation by Park officials, and historic papers and artifacts will be displayed by Kephart scholar George Ellison and representatives of Western Carolina University.”

I attended the celebration, and thanks to George Ellison’s invitation had a small part in the proceedings, along with my colleague Janet McCue of Cornell University. The two of us are particularly keen about Kephart’s life as a librarian.

I’ve been to Bryson City before, but walking across the Tuckasegee River bridge and gazing at the back rooms above Bennett’s Drug Store, overlooking the river, where Kep had his office from about 1910 until his death in 1931, is evocative every time.

2009 also marks the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so the chamber of commerce had a stake in helping organize Kephart Day. Bryson City has been a bit slow in celebrating one of its more famous citizens, perhaps because while Kephart was well-loved among segments of the community and a member of the city council, he was also known as a binge drinker and thought to be a neglectful husband and father. “Horace Kephart was a celebrated citizen of Bryson City,” the chamber representative noted at the gravesite, as quoted in the Smoky Mountain Times on May 7 (www.thesmokymountaintimes.com/articles/2009/05/07/news/news02.txt). “Although in the past, he might not have seen the recognition he deserved, we plan on rectifying that in the future.”

Kephart’s work is recognized as instrumental in convincing Congress, the Park Service, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, local governments, landowners, and residents of the value of a national park in the Smokies.

Dale Ditmanson, park superintendent, said Kephart helped save the forests of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee.

“Change impacted Kephart’s world,” Ditmanson said, as reported in the Smoky Mountain Times on May 7. “He lived to see the lumber companies invade the Smokies and start to ruin the forests he so treasured.

“Beginning in the mid-20s, Mr. Kephart took a leadership role in a growing movement to preserve the Great Smokies as a national park. He turned his gift of eloquence in written word to detailing a compelling rationale for preserving the Great Smokies.”

Not an easy job, and Kephart died before the park was finally approved. But he has a mountain named after him, the park is now the most-visited in the national park system, and the forests were rescued before they could be totally decimated. The park superintendent also implied at his gravesite talk that the Park Service now recognizes the cultural damage done to the local population, as well as to the forests, by the clearcutting practices of the early 20th Century.

Several Kephart students were missing, including  John Christopher Bowers and Martin W. Maxwell, each of whom wrote Master’s theses  on Kephart, and conspicuously absent from the proceedings was Jim Casada (www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com/) . Casada and Ellison are our two pre-eminent Kephart scholars. Casada wrote the introduction to the 1988 University of Tennessee Press edition of Camping and Woodcraft, which remains in print. Casada believes, and from the evidence he relates he can’t be blamed for feeling as he does, that he has been badly treated by members of the family. They, and others, feel Casada has vastly over-emphasized Kephart’s failings as father and husband, and overly dwelt on his alcoholism. Casada grew up in Bryson City and has inteviewed and written perhaps more than anyone else about Kephart. He feels that he, as an historian, is providing an accurate portrait of the man his father knew, even if it means presenting details the family would prefer to overlook. Where is the balance? Perhaps it will be clearer in the future, but history is no guide in these matters.

During the Kephart Day event I talked on the phone with Jim Casada, who was coincidentally in Bryson City caring for his father at the time of the gathering. I tried to convince him his scholarship would provide a leavening presence. Libby Kephart Hargrave assured me that he would be welcome. I could not convince Casada of that. He maintains he was initially interested in participating, but the chamber of commerce wouldn’t return his calls. There may be many reasons for this, but it is conceivable that he was considered unwelcome by someone. Perhaps if the event is repeated, he and others could be convinced it would be important to have him there. I very much hope that will be the case. I think that at this remove from Kephart’s time, the family is reconciled to Kephart’s failings–who has none?- and can deal with celebrating the man as he was. Perhaps this is a time in which human frailties are considered more leniently, but I’m no sociologist.

Perhaps  next year in Bryson City,  Casada and Ellison, Libby and the Kephart clan, and the other relatives and Kephart pilgrims can all gather for beers at Jimmy Mac’s.  If it worked for Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Sgt James Crowley, and President Obama (did it?), it might be a breakthrough here. A spirited, civil discussion would be of high interest, and a different point of view on some of these issues can help to avoid lionization.

It was a grand gathering. Presentations by interesting people who know a lot about Kephart, hiking in the Smokies, playing bagpipes in the cemetery, drinking vino in the evenings and chatting with Kephart descendents and fellow fans on the front porch of the Calhoun House Hotel. . . .  Jim, hope to see you there next year!

A Kephart Day webpage was developed at http://www.horacekephart.com, but a follow-up report with details of Kephart Day has not yet appeared at that site.


A quiet moment: the 78th anniversary of The Old Woodsman’s funeral

Seventy-eight years ago today, April 5, 1931,  locals and guests packed into the Bryson City, N.C. High School auditorium for Horace Kephart’s funeral.  The New York Times reported on April 6, “All the seats in the auditorium of the public school were taken. Hundreds stood outside.”  George Ellison’s marvelous introduction to the University of Tennessee Press edition of  Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders notes, “His wife, two sons, and a grandson were in attendance.” Kephart and his wife Laura had been estranged since 1903,but Ellison writes “certainly there was an understanding of real substance between them that was maintained for the remainder of their lives.”

The sad gathering followed Kephart’s death in a highway accident. Ellison describes the event: “On April 2, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight, Horace Kephart was killed in an automobile accident near Bryson City. A friend, the Georgia writer Fiswoode Tarleton, who was staying with Kephart for a few weeks, was also killed. They had hired a taxi to take them to a bootlegger’s and were on the way back to Bryson City when the driver lost control of the car in a curve.” The New York Times described it as a “moonlight sightseeing ride.”

Wasn’t even much of a curve, really, just a gentle arc in the flat highway, and a bridge across a creek, and a thigh-high stone wall with which the car collided and overturned.  There was speculation the hired driver had downed a noggin of moonshine before starting the trip back to Bryson City.

The New York Times story on the accident listed Mr. Tarleton first, then Kephart, since Tarleton was a 1928 O. Henry Prize winner and apparently a hotter property. Publishers’ Weekly also reported on the death in its April 18 edition, “Kephart had written many books on adventure, camping and the out-door life, besides Our Southern Highlanders, a volume which attracted much attention.”

I have not found a mention in Library Journal, but American Rifleman noted his passing. His contributions to librarianship had been forgotten, but his writings about firearms were still recognized.

The Horace Kephart Troop, Boy Scouts of America, Bryson City, North Carolina, erected a stone in his memory to mark his last permanent camp in the Smoky Mountains above Bryson City.  They wasted no time. The stone was placed only 57 days after Kephart’s death.

A bronze plaque is mounted on a large, lichen-covered boulder to mark his grave in the Bryson City Cemetery. A photo is shown at the “And Now, Horace Kephart” posting in this blog. The plaque reads:

Horace Kephart, 1862-1931
Scholar, author, outdoorsman
He loved his neighbors and pictured them in
“Our Southern Highlanders”
His vision helped to create The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While he may have loved his neighbors, the feeling was apparently not universally mutual. Old-timers thereabouts reported feeling that some of the mountain folk felt stereotyped and patronized in Kephart’s accounts. On the other hand, in Jim Casada’s collection of primary Kephart material, I have seen a letter to Kephart from the Bryson City Women’s Club thanking him in glowing terms for his taking the time to meet with them.

In any case, a moment of quiet to remember the Old Woodsman’s last days. He lived to the age of 68. Not bad, really, though not quite his Biblical quota.  But he apparently didn’t suffer from any terrible illness, and his demise was quick and, we hope, painless: a broken neck was thought to be the cause of death.  He left a vast number of readers who thought well of him. Although his family life appeared to be complex and strained, he was loved.  What more could we want for ourselves?

Kephart was fond of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps especially so of Kidnapped. The following passage appears in Stevenson’s A Christmas Sermon. It seems a worthy goal for humans, and it reminds me of what I like to think about Kephart.  The reference to “. . . make, upon the whole, a family happier for his presence,” will seem ironic to those who take a dark view of Kephart’s carrying out of his family responsibilities. But in any case we really don’t know what goes on in other families, and we can’t presume to know much about the complicated nature of Kephart’s relationships.

To be honest
to be kind
to earn a little and
spend a little less
to make, upon the whole,
a family happier for his presence,
to renounce when that shall be necessary
and not be embittered,
to keep a few friends,
but these without capitulation-
above all, on the same grim condition,
to keep friends with himself-
here is a task for all that
a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

Published in: on April 6, 2008 at 12:08 am  Comments (1)  
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Who’s responsible for this?

These musings are mine, and welcome to them.  A retired university librarian and previously a bookseller, I’m director of the Alaska Center for Horace Kephart Studies, an informal institution staffed by one man and a Golden Retriever.  We see no significant grants in our future.

Horace Kephart (1862-1931) was a librarian and outdoor writer. He was highly thought of in his day, in both spheres. Why bother to read Kephart today? The purpose of the Center is to bring Kephart, who still has much to say to us, back to a modern audience.  Click here for a brief intro to Kephart’s life.

More broadly, the Center is interested in the vigorous tradition of American outdoor and exploration writing in its Golden Age between the Civil War and the Great Depression, when the world was still fresh and mysterious. There are lots of wonderful writers out there, and interesting resources and websites dealing with camping, canoeing, bicycling, sailing, woodcraft, mountaineering, and vintage adventuring. Besides Kephart, other writers of this ilk include George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”), Daniel Carter Beard, Ernest Seton-Thompson, Stewart Edward White, Albert Bigelow Paine, Warren Miller, William Long, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Dr Frederick A. Cook, Robert E. Peary, Capt. Joshua Slocum, Fanny Bullock Workman,  and many others of this grand and cantankerous cadre of outdoor writers, male and female.

Here under appropriate categories are also observations, some dubious for sure, about other topics of interest to the proprietor and the dog, both with short but exuberant attention spans.

This happens from Vole Manor, on Chena Ridge looking east across the Tanana River and the Tanana Valley of Interior Alaska. Welcome to our world. Comments are welcome.

—Dennis Stephens

The first tool: Kephart on outdoor knives

Knives, it is said, were humankind’s first tool, if “tool” is defined as something you have to fabricate, rather than just picking up a chunk of tree and whacking something with it. Given the niche knives occupy in human culture, it’s not surprising that they are still of keen interest to outdoors people (and cooks,), and that endless varieties of knives have been developed over human history.

Humans were probably debating the virtues of different blade shapes and handle since they sat at the mouths of their caves in the sunny South of France and knapped flint to make blades to peel the hides off their food supply. They likely argued about where the best flint came from, and whether blades should be pointy or broad. Thus it still is. Broad blades are better for spreading peanut butter.  Visit http://www.bladeforums.com/forums and you’ll have a clue about the endless fascination many people find in knives.

People who spend time in the outdoors have their personal favorite knives, and the subject is debated vigorously. Outdoor writers are happy and tell you which are best, and why. Kephart was no exception. In the 1906 first edition of his The Book of Camping and Woodcraft from Outing Publishing Company, he wrote (in the chapter on “Personal Kits,” pages 28-29):

“On the subject of hunting knives I am tempted to be diffuse. In my green and callow days (perhaps not yet over) I tried nearly everything in the knife line from a shoemaker’s skiver to a machete, and I had knives made to order. The conventional hunting knife is, or was until quite recently, of the familiar dime-novel pattern invented by Colonel Bowie. Such a knife is too thick and clumsy to whittle with, much too thick for a good skinning knife, and too sharply pointed to cook and eat with. It is always tempered too hard. When put to the rough service for which it is supposed to be intended, as in cutting through the ossified false ribs of an old buck, it is an even bet that out will come a nick as big as a saw-tooth…. Such a knife is designed expressly for stabbing, which is about the very last thing that a woodsman ever has occasion to do, our lamented grandmothers notwithstanding.

“A camper has use for a common-sense sheath-knife, sometimes for dressing big game, but oftener for such homely work as cutting sticks, slicing bacon, and frying ‘spuds.’ For such purposes a rather thin, broad-pointed blade is required, and it need not be over four or five inches long. Nothing is gained by a longer blade, and it would be in one’s way every time he sat down. Such a knife, bearing the marks of hard usage, lies before me. Its blade and handle are each 4 1/2 inches long, the blade being 1 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick on the back, broad pointed, and continued through the handle as a hasp and riveted to it. It is tempered hard enough to cut green hardwood sticks, but soft enough so that when it strikes a knot or bone it will, if anything, turn rather than nick; then a whetstone puts it in order….” He goes on to describe, in equal detail, the handle, the guard, and the sheath. And more on the jackknife, or folding knife. And yet more on hatchets (“The notion that a heavy hunting knife can do the work of a hatchet is a delusion.” (The emphasis is mine.) Then he goes on to discuss the proper whetstone.

In the 1906 edition he could not recommend a particular commercial knife, knowing of none, but later on he found one, and described and drew it in his journal. The drawing appears to be a Marble’s model called the “Ideal,” designed by Webster Marble in 1900, or less likely Marble’s “Expert” which appeared in Marble’s 1906 catalog. There were many versions of each model. Webster Marble’s company is back in business, and the “Ideal” is again available after 50 years. It appears on their webpage at http://www.marblescutlery.com/cutlery/ideal.html. The “Expert” no longer appears in the Marble’s online catalog, but images of both knives are offered at http://www.jaysknives.com/marblesknives_1.htm.

In the 1917 Macmillan edition of Camping and Woodcraft Kephart found a knife he could recommend, again a Marble’s. “For years I used knives of my own design,” he wrote, “because there was nothing on the market that met my notion of what a sensible, practical sheath knife should be; but we have it now in the knife here shown…. It is of the right size (4 1/2-inch blade), the right shape, and the proper thinness.” The knife shown in his drawing is the distinct Marble’s Woodcraft, designed by Webster Marble and described in Outer’s Book in 1914, and included in Marble’s 1915 catalog. It is again being marketed by Marbles (http://www.marblescutlery.com/cutlery/woodcraft.html).

It appears that Kephart was a Marble’s fan.

George Washington Sears, who wrote under the pen name “Nessmuk,” and to whom Kephart dedicated Camping and Woodcraft, also had opinions on outdoor knives. In Chapter II of his Woodcraft and Camping, a re-edited Dover edition of Nessmuk’s 1920 Woodcraft, he writes, “A word as to knife, or knives. These are of prime necessity, and should be of the best, both as to shape and temper. The ‘bowies’ and ‘hunting knives’ usually kept on sale, are thick, clumsy affairs, with a sort of ridge along the middle of the blade, murderous-looking, but of little use…. [The preferred knife] is thin in the blade, and handy for skinning, cutting meat, or eating with….” An old image of Nessmuk’s unique knife, along with his folding knife and the Nessmuk hatchet, and further information about the man himself, can be found at http://www.oldjimbo.com/survival/racquette/nessmukbydale.html. Various versions of these knives are readily available for purchase on the web.

Published in: on December 14, 2007 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Did Hemingway read Kephart?

This blog is supposedly devoted to American outdoor literature written between the Civil War and the Great Depression, and particularly to Horace Kephart (1862-1931). But occasionally we stray. Even to fiction. There’s just so much good stuff out there.

I was cooling my heels at the clinic the other day, and found, nesting beneath old golfing magazines, a tattered paperback copy of Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea. It was his last major piece of fiction published during his lifetime, and earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Heady stuff. He was the toast of the town then for sure.

Like most readers, I last read it in high school, so if you’re interested, you’ll find a bit about the plot at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_Man_and_the_Sea. In a sentence, it’s a great story about an epic struggle between an old fisherman and a giant marlin, and addresses all the timeless literary themes. For flavor, here’s the opening paragraph:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like a flag of permanent defeat.”

The book struck a chord with the world’s readers, and was translated into the major languages including Russian (the Soviets apparently liked him, as they liked Jack London). The 35 entries in the Library of Congress catalog (http://catalog.loc.gov/) also include a recording of a symphonic poem from Prague based on the book, and a 1958 Warner Brothers movie starring Spencer Tracy (mixed reviews, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1070233-old_man_and_the_sea/).

This edition from the clinic is a good example of mergers and acquisitions in the publishing game. Published by Scribner in 1952 (and dedicated to “Charlie Scribner and to Max Perkins”), the title page of my little paperback notes “A Scribner Classic, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company.” These were all independent publishers at one time, but apparently they bought each other up. The copyright was renewed in 1980 by Ernest’s widow Mary Hemingway.

Hemingway suffered from depression in his later years. In 1961, in his Sun Valley home,  he shot himself , with, it was said, his favorite shotgun. You can see my own personal favorite photo of him at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway.

I like to think Hemingway read Kephart. Hemingway was born in 1899, and would have been a boy when Kephart flourished, publishing books and magazine articles on topics that might have interested a boy: camping, hunting, guns and shooting, caving, fire-building, life in the great outdoors. Did their karmic paths cross? No doubt in my mind. But then, conjecture is always more fun than fact, eh?

Published in: on December 13, 2007 at 10:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Patrick McManus on trying to get your trailer lights to work

On an earlier post, in response to a comment asking if I’d read Patrick McManus’s outdoor stories, I mentioned one of my favorite McManus pieces. Published in 1985 in his book The Grasshopper Trap (Holt, Rinehart and Winston), this story relates the frustration, well- known to campers, boaters, hunters, and all ilk of trailer-pullers, of trying to get trailer lights to work. I’ve just run across that story again, and thought I could give the flavor of McManus’s humor (he’s the Will Rogers of contemporary outdoor writing, imho) by quoting the first couple of paragraphs of the story.

One of Kephart’s later stories, I think published in Saturday Evening Post though I’d have to look it up, was advice for on-the-road camping cookery. As I recall, the illustration showed what now appears as a primitive camping trailer. He was undoubtedly familiar with the topic of trailer lights, and I like to think of a smudged, sweaty Kephart, his shirtsleeves rolled up, on his back under the trailer, looking at the the wire in each hand, saying to himself, “Brakelight? Or taillight?”

So here’s McManus, in “Trailer Trials.”

“Shortly after man invented the wheel, he invented the trailer. Ever since then, he has been trying to figure out how to hook up the lights.

“I know a man who claims the lights on his boat trailer once worked twice consecutively. Anyone with one or more trailers will instantly recognize this as an outrageous claim, but the man is a member of the clergy, and for that reason alone I believe him. On the other hand, he’s also a fisherman, so he may be exaggerating a bit. Possibly his trailer lights worked only once consecutively.

“Over the course of his life, any sportsman worthy of the name will own a dozen or so trailers of various kinds–utility trailers, tent trailers, boat trailers, house trailers, horse trailers, trail-bike trailers, and snowmobile trailers, to name but a few. That is the reason researchers estimate that one-eighth of a sportsman’s life is spent trying to hook up trailer lights.”

If this taste of McManus induces anyone to read further, you’ll find plenty. Check your local public library, of course, and an Amazon search shows 239 hits for Patrick McManus, including all the editions of his outdoor books and his equally hilarious “crime” novels based on the loveable Sheriff Bo Tully of Blight, Idaho.

They make excellent holiday gifts, and appear on my own list for the Elves, along with more of Louis L’Amour’s great Westerns.

Published in: on November 26, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Old Woodsman’s turkey stuffing

In honor of Thanksgiving, I give you Horace Kephart’s simple woodsman’s recipe for turkey stuffing. Of course, those who are actually preparing dinner today are hopefully beyond needing a recipe and will be sitting at the table, well stuffed themselves by this time, maybe having pumpkin pie.

But there are a host of people who, having dinner at a friend’s table today, will have their own turkey at home, maybe secretly, in the coming days. This is for you.

The following is verbatim from the 1910 second edition of Kephart’s Camp Cookery, Outing Publishing Co. It appears unchanged in the “Camp Cookery” chapter  in the current University of Tennessee Press reissue of the Macmillan 1917 edition of Camping and Woodcraft.

Here goes:

Stuffing for turkey

1. If chestnuts are procurable, roast a quart of them, remove shells, and mash.

Add a teaspoon of salt, and some pepper. Mix well together, and stuff the bird with them.

2. Chop some fat salt pork very fine; soak stale bread or crackers in hot water, mash smooth, and mix with the chopped pork. Season with salt, pepper, sage, and chopped onion. No game bird save the wild turkey should be stuffed, unless you deliberately wish to disguise the natural flavor.

That’s it, an old-time, minimal approach to stuffing.

The funny thing is that when I read the recipe, I thought it was one recipe with with two steps, using (if you have them) chestnuts AND salt pork. And I thought it must be a very rare editing error that Kephart would have you stuff the turkey in the first step, then go on to mix the rest of the recipe and do what with it?

I pointed out this apparent error to my wife and her friend Margaret, with whom she happened to be on the phone this afternoon. When they stopped laughing, they explained to me that Kephart was giving us two different recipes, and it was unlikely, nowadays at least, that a cook would mix chestnuts with salt pork. If you have chestnuts, do recipe #1. If not, use recipe #2 with salt pork.

Kep’s got several recipes for cooking the turkey: roasted (“Suspend the fowl before a high bed of hardwood coals….”) and boiled. Who boils a turkey now? We deep fry them in fat. So much better for us.

Published in: on November 23, 2007 at 12:23 am  Comments (3)  
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Veterans’ Day musings

Today is Veterans’ Day. Apparently, humans are fated to make war. Wars make veterans. We’ll never run out. I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The War on public television for the last six weeks. During the early dark days of World War II, there was apparently serious worry by Allied politicians that they could conceivably lose the war. What would the world be like had that happened?

This and other recent sharp sticks to the memory, including watching a new Dutch film called Black Book, and an old British film called The Cruel Sea. A friend sent  a video, called “A Pittance of Time ” by Canadian Terry Kelly (http://www.terry-kelly.com/pittance/pittance_en.htm# and click on “video”).  The deaths of war chroniclers Kurt Vonnegut and just now, Norman Mailer, and interviews today with veterans on the Alaska public radio show AK (http://www.akradio.org). They all generate in my memory a swarm of free-floating bits of history, disjointed images, blurry personal experiences, possibly mis-remembered snippets of conversations, and questions I ask myself about war.

Warning: this will be a long one.

I was born on the North Pacific coast, in Astoria, Oregon on Dec. 2, 1942, five days short of a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In Europe the Germans lay siege to Stalingrad, where the inhabitants were eating rats if they were lucky. At home, what was thought to be a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore one night in mid-June, and shelled the beach near Fort Stevens, a coastal artillery and harbor defense installation across the bay from Astoria. My dad, who spent the war working in a shipyard that built wooden minesweepers for the Navy and was thus exempt from military service (we never discussed how he felt about that) told me that like other Astorians, he awoke and saw the shell flashes and heard the thumps. No casualties, but he said it made people nervous. “Damn Japs.” Likely the shells had been maladroitly aimed at Fort Stevens. There was general alarm on the West coast about a Japanese invasion. Much later, we learned that a Japanese general reportedly counseled against such a move, arguing “In America there’s a rifle behind every blade of grass.”

I made rubbings of gravestones in the little cemetery at Fort Stevens: artillerymen,  and coast guardsmen drowned in the Columbia River.

My birthday was also the day Enrico Fermi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago produced the first controlled, sustained atomic chain reaction in a primitive nuclear reactor, paving the way for the atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

The Vietnam War followed World War II by only about 15 years, depending on when you start counting, and the Korean Armistice had been signed in 1953. In 1961, I joined the army just out of high school, and volunteered for Vietnam. This was before the war became a political issue – who knew – and that’s where the action was. But the army apparently needed my particular training in Germany. My only remote hint of combat was during the brief period of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I rode around northern Germany with the other guys in my detachment in the back of our truck, our M-14’s between our knees. We didn’t know where we were going, but rumor had it we would head west to Holland if the Soviets began to pour through the Fulda Gap. We were marginally and delusionally comforted by the knowledge we were a communications intelligence unit, not infantry, armored, or artillery. The crisis passed, though we later learned it came close to The Big One, and we went back to our secret work at our hut in the middle of the turnip field.

In Germany, days after I was discharged, I married a German woman. Sylvia’s father had died in action in World War II as a U-boat crewman in the North Atlantic. Knowing this gives new feeling to watching Das Boot or The Cruel Sea, both accounts of the desperate sea battles of the North Atlantic. From all accounts, her father was a good and decent man, doing his duty, which was torpedoing Allied shipping and sailors. Americans and Brits did their duty by killing German submariners whenever possible.

Fathers, brothers, sons, uncles in uncountable numbers fought in savage battles on the Eastern Front, and suffered terribly for Hitler or for Stalin and their invaded homeland. If you survived, you were a veteran. Hundreds of thousands, millions, of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians on all sides just disappeared.

One of Sylvia’s relatives was taken prisoner by the Russians, sent to Siberia, and came home 15 years later. I don’t know how he got so lucky. On the other side, the Russians suffered beyond understanding. I knew an Estonian veteran who fought with the Russians against the German invaders, then somehow wound up in a refugee camp in Germany that was located right across the road from our military post. He said he was the only survivor of his entire regiment. He was lonely and wanted to talk. I wonder what happened to him.

He may have spun yarns, of course. Veterans do. Or the passage of time blurs the details. A Canadian friend and I were comparing tattooes. He said he got his on shore leave while on convoy escort duty in the grim North Atlantic campaign. Yet when his obituary was published, there’s a photo of him riding the hood of a jeep, playing his pipes, as Allied troops crossed the Rhine into Germany. Maybe he did both. He was a remarkable guy.

When I was in Germany in the early ’60s American soldiers had a problematic reputation among the German civilians, but I was accepted by my wife’s family even before we were married, tentatively at first, then warmly. My mother-in-law Ester, a wonderful and gentle woman, was a superb cook and delighted in feeding a refugee from the mess hall. Otto, Sylvia’s stepfather, was a war veteran of the German navy, loved opera in German, and talked of visiting occupied Paris on leave. I wonder how that must have been? When I was first in Paris in the early 1960’s, a lot of buildings still bore bullet holes, testimony of the fierce Parisian resistance in the last days of the occupation.

No one in my wife’s family, and no neighbor, no one, escaped the destruction of the war and its aftermath. They were good, kind people, and I loved them all. Did they know about the concentration camps? Yes, but they couldn’t do anything about it. The Gestapo was everywhere. Or no, they had no idea. “How could our nation of Goethe and Schiller be guilty of such things?” Or, in the case of one of Sylvia’s friends, “It was the Russians who were responsible for the camps.”

I’m in no position to judge. It could happen again.

After the army I was a student in Germany, and lived in a town outside Munich. It was close enough that I could ride my bicycle to what was left of the Dachau concentration camp. The sign over the wrought iron gate still read “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free. I took a long solo bike trip from Munich to Vienna, Zagreb, and Venice. Everywhere were reminders of one war or another. Every town square in Europe has a monument to its share of each war’s dead. The “Gefallen.” I crossed the Inn River at Braunau, Hitler’s home town. No “Home of Adolf Hitler”  plaque noticed. Cycling along the Danube, I spotted a small sign that said “Mauthausen.” I knew of Mauthausen, but didn’t know it was here. I cycled up a long hill and found myself at the remains of another concentration camp, even worse than Dachau. Here, it was said, Himmler’s policy was “Death through work.”

I lived in Amsterdam, two canals from the Anne Frank house. I visited many times. When I was there, in the early 1970’s, popular feeling about the Germans was still evident, a generation after the war. When asked directions by a German tourist, it was the custom, even for children, to always reply, “Gerade aus.” Straight ahead. Germans occasionally found their car windows broken in the morning. I was glad I wasn’t a German, and I understood the motivation.

I rode my bike around the Dutch countryside a lot, and several times I peered behind tall hedgerows to find small, well-tended cemeteries full of rows of precisely spaced markers. The names represented a spectrum of the Allied countries of World War II. Free Polish airborne and American glider troops who died behind German lines after the Normandy landings, in battles including the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.

Today’s radio interviews with veterans included the reading of a loving and tender letter from an American soldier to his wife from France, Armistice Day 1918. I paraphrase: “It’s the greatest day there ever was. . . We’ll never have to do this again.”

There were several inteviews with vets who fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, and helped push Germans north, out of the Appennines. They suffered terrible casualties. When I began climbing in the mid-60’s, ropes, crampons, clothing, and other gear, was primitive by today’s standards. Not a speck of Spandex then. But in their day in the 10th Mountain, those mountaineers were devising the break-through gear that we were glad to buy 20 years later at army-navy surplus stores. Nylon ropes, better crampons and ice axes and pitons. Down jackets and sleeping bags. Those veterans revolutionized the sport and created an industry after the war, making outdoor gear and founding ski schools, making first ascents, creating a culture.

I have three veteran friends, two my age, about whom I’m worried. One is a high-school classmate with lung cancer, induced by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Veterans Administration, possibly anxious to redeem its shabby reputation for serving veterans, including Agent Orange-injured soldiers, is taking care of him and his family. I regret years went by before I reconnected with Bob after high school.

Another old friend is the only army buddy with whom I did keep in touch, all these years. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A curmudgeon with a sharp sense of humor, he and I have had some great times. I’ll visit Don and Shirley in Canada next month. He also spent time in Vietnam, but he maintains that what happened is he smoked himself to death.

There are, I understand, four World War I vets still living. World War II vets are dying in droves. And Iraq/Afghanistan vets are learning what it’s like to be home.

My young friend, in his 20s, returned not long ago from an extended tour as an infantryman in Iraq. His buddy was killed. He lost his fiancee.  He’s out of the army now, on the road, putting his life back together. He’ll be fine. He hates the war like poison.

According to a recent news item from The New York Times, “More than 400 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have turned up homeless, and the Veterans Affairs Department and aid groups say they are bracing for a new surge in homeless veterans in the years ahead.” One vets’ counselor in San Diego was quoted as saying “We’re beginning to see, across the country, the first trickle of this generation of warriors in homeless shelters. . . but we anticipate that it’s going to be a tsunami.”

And so it goes.

Published in: on November 11, 2007 at 11:01 pm  Comments (1)  

Piping at its best


Piper Jack Lee

I rattled on about bagpipes and piping in a previous blog. One of my classmates kindly read it and asked for audio of how these ancient instruments actually sound. Oh man, don’t get me started. But I’m happy to oblige, and better than just audio, here’s a YouTube vid of one of my favorite pipers in all the world: Jack Lee, at a pub on Maui on St. Patrick’s Day 2006.


Jack’s a nice guy, a friend, an outstanding performer, and world champion many times over in Grade 1 competition. On one occasion when the Fairbanks Red Hackle Pipe Band brought Jack to Fairbanks, he did a public recital at Noel Wien Library and packed the house to overflowing. Lots of piping fans in this town.

I’ve been lucky enough to have instruction from him on several occasions over the past dozen or so years. He’s a very good teacher but I’ll need a lot more instruction, because I’m still a long way from Grade 1.  I started late, I won’t live long enough, and more talent would be good.

Pipes as solo instruments are the ultimate, but the other setting for pipes is in the pipe band, which stem from the British Army bands of the 19th Century. Here’s a vid of Jack with the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (http://www.sfupipeband.com/) of Vancouver, British Columbia at the World Championships in Glasgow, 2006. They’ve won the Grade 1 World Pipe Band Championship, the best of the best, four times since 1995, and placed very high when they didn’t win. The initial footage is taken at the 2006 Pacific Northwest Highland Games near Seattle, where my band also competed. We didn’t win. They did.


Thanks to Kansas City’s  www.winterstorm.net for the photo of Jack.

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 10:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Strange goings-on: is the Tanana changing course at Byers Island?


This image, from Google Earth (http://earth.google.com/, download application for free), shows Byers Island in the Tanana River, just southwest of Fairbanks International Airport. I don’t find the map date, but the water is a bit low, so this satellite shot was likely done as the river drops in the Fall. The silt bars are visible. This is a big bend in the river, where the current, running from right to left, bumps into the ancient loess of Chena Ridge, and is diverted to the southwest about 60 river miles until it reaches the town of Nenana at the southern end of these northeast-southwest uplands. There the river turns north, then west, into the huge waterfowl nesting areas of Minto Flats State Game Refuge. You can see all this on Google Earth. Or, for that matter, on topo maps and in the printed Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer.

The road running northeast-southwest is Chena Pump Road, just southwest of the city of Fairbanks, but well within the ‘burbs, as you can see from the houses and neighborhoods. The clear Chena River enters the silty Tanana just off the upper right side of this image.

And–to get to the point of all this–the map shows the major stream  of the Tanana to be running over the top of the island, and the secondary stream, essentially a slough except under heavy flow conditions,  flowing on its southerly side. The two channels can be seen to meet at the southwest corner of Byers Island. (In the Alaska Atlas, the secondary stream/slough is shown as a tiny blue line, while the main river is depicted as a more substantial river-y looking broad blue strip.)

For 27 years I’ve been watching the river from my house on Chena Ridge. I look out over Byers Island. Not much changes on the river. One summer is like the last, one freezeup is like the last. But this year it changed. Damndest thing. As freezeup started its stately sequence in October, with chunks of ice coming down the river from the mountains of its birth, what had been the secondary channel, along the island’s southern edge, became the primary channel. The former primary channel, making the curve at the top of the island on the Google Earth view, narrowed and clogged with ice and became the secondary channel.

This thumbnail of a photo taken from my house shows, just to the left of center, the southeast tip of Byers Island. This is where the yellow pushpin appears in the Google Earth image. The photo was taken looking from the west looking east.


The river is iced over, and much of what’s not forest is river bottom in summer. It’s now snow-covered exposed glacial silt.  The former primary current is in the foreground. The new primary stream in the background was flowing water and ice chunks for at least a week after the old primary stream (foreground) had dropped in volume and frozen over.  The jumbled ice pans that floated downstream have clumped together and both channels are now frozen over, although a few patches of open water remain here and there.

If I had taken the photos earlier, while there was still  open water, it would be a lot more obvious.

So what happened to the river? Don’t know. Maybe ice blocks barricaded the formerly major stream, diverting water into the other channel. Or we’re seeing the endless slow-motion perambulations of a braided river, silting up oxbows and setting new channels. Maybe…. global warming! I’m no hydrologist or geographer,  and I haven’t talked with anyone who might actually know anything about this. I did chat with my neighbor, a pilot, who also noticed the channel change. In any case, it might be an interesting situation for the company that runs summer tourist riverboats from the Chena River into the Tanana. Maybe they’ll have to change their summer routes, relocate tourist stops, who knows what all.

Or–come breakup in the spring, it all may just revert to the way it was.

In any case, my neighbor and I agreed it was always more fun to conjecture than to actually find the truth. Hey-we’re just human.

You can download Google Earth and find Byers Island, and Fairbanks and the Fred Meyers stores and Wal*Mart, and the UAF campus. You can zoom in on your house. If the images were in real time, like military surveilance satellite shots, and you had enough resolution, you could read the license plate of the car now parked in your driveway. Who is that anyway?

Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 6:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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