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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

One Good Dog

There is a genre of animal stories out there. Dogs, cats, horses, you know the routine. For my spouse it’s often cats like “Sneaky Pie Brown” from Rita Mae Browns, mystery series.  I was grew up loving Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and  later Marley from Marley and Me. More recently, knowing nothing about horses, I was enthralled by Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit.  You know where I’m coming from then.  Hurt, lonely, lost, and afraid. human and animal build trust, love and companionship and help each other survive and prosper. I don’t look for these stories. They just seem to find me like our rescue dog Lily did. She showed up hungry and abandoned at our friend’s dairy farm on Easter Sunday a year ago. When our friend passed on we took Lily the GSD into our home.
Ray (Troutbirder) & Lily

Or Chance, another dog in big trouble, who I found in One Good Dog by Susan Wilson, on the shelf of our local library.    Chance is a  mixed-breed pit bull who was trained to fight for the entertainment of cruel people.  When Chance escapes this miserable life and meets up with Adam a fascinating tale of struggle and redemption follows. Adam is an arrogant “high roller"  living the  good life until he snaps, hits his secretary and loses it all.   Adams job, wife, house are all gone in a flash. Adam is assigned “volunteer” work at a shelter for the indigent by a judge who is bent on teaching him to become “a better person.” Adam meets Chance and a homeless man with dementia at the shelter. The somewhat predictable plot follows.   Still you gotta cheer for the flawed man and feisty dog.
I was put off briefly by the dog narrating part of the story.  Mr. Ed, the talking horse of sixties TV, never appealed to me. But then this book began to work as I and Chance became better acquainted. Rescued animals, and rescued people can make for a very compelling story of second chances and unqualified loyalty and love.  I liked the book a lot... 

And as a side note I've been invited to join "The Book Review Club."   Sponsored by children's book author Barrie Summy  the first Wednesday of each month sees book reviews in both young adult and adult fiction and non- fiction genre.  Take a look......

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book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl


I left this place (St. Paul) “a provincial capital of the middling sort” (in Gogol’s words), as a callow young teacher, never to return. Left it for a small rural crossroads, in Bluff Country, married there, raised a family and now live there in mostly contented retirement. Award winning author, Patricia Hampl, has remained in St. Paul all her life, rooted to the city of her birth in the “blameless middle” of America. Her latest memoir, The Florists Daughter, tells the intriguing story of her relationship with her parents, the city of her birth and her desire to escape it and them. It culminated with the realization, sitting by the bedside of her dying mother, as to why she chose to remain there all her life. The Florists Daughter was highly recommended to me by two dear friends. Partly, I'm sure, because there are many allusions to places I knew intimately, as a child growing up. For instance, as Hampl reflects on her life and the influences of parent and place on that life, she was sitting at the hospital beside her dying mother. It turns out to be the very hospital in which I was born.
I'm not very familiar with the genre "memoirs." So, perhaps, I was expecting a literary version of a "chick flick." Not to be. Hampl, who is a Professor of English Literature at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, takes on far deeper issues. I suspect that is why the critics love her writing which also includes poetry and essays.
It's probably sacrilege to compare the fundamental premise of this book to a trashy novel like The Bridges of Madison County but it comes to mind. Francesca Johnson is a romantic stereotype of dreams and disillusionment. Patricia Hampl seems torn between two incompatible and unfathomable choices.  Yet both protagonists make the choice of what now are identified as "traditional values." Still, the Hampls  memoir is deeply rich into the self and human values.    That is surely  the difference between literature and trash. I liked this memoir a lot.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

One Million Steps by Bing West

In the tranquil atmosphere of Daydream Cottage, on the Nature Coast of Westcentral Florida, I got lots of reading done along with dog hiking and birding. The first book was a most interesting, inspiring and yet troubling book by Bing West on Americans longest war – Afghanistan……
Battalion 3/5 suffered the highest number of casualties in the war in Afghanistan. This is the story of one platoon in that distinguished battalion.
Every day brought a new skirmish. Each footfall might trigger an IED. Half the Marines in 3rd Platoon didn’t make it intact to the end of the tour. One Million Steps is the story of the fifty brave men who faced these grim odds and refused to back down. Based on Bing West’s embeds with 3rd Platoon, as well as on their handwritten log, this is a gripping grunt’s-eye view of life on the front lines of America’s longest war.   Each time a leader was struck down, another rose up to take his place. How does one man instill courage in another? What welded these men together as firmly as steel plates? 

West is at his best describing the tactical decisions of small-unit leaders. The opening chapters give a heart-pounding portrayal of the battalion’s brutal first month. . . . What makes these Marines so impressive is not that they are superhumans for whom danger and exhaustion are their natural habitat and killing a joy, but very young men for whom the prospect of walking 2.6 miles a day for six months over IED-riddled ground is no more appealing than it would be for anyone

Yet "One Million Steps," even as it focuses on the relentlessness of the Marines in Sangin, also offers a blistering assault on America's senior military leadership for purportedly adopting a new counterinsurgency approach that Mr. West depicts as a "quixotic strategy of a benevolent war," one that "replaced war with social evangelism" and is more "an exercise in civics" than a type of military strategy
Lambasting military leaders for turning American warriors into "community organizers" is attention-grabbing, but it isn't convincing. Neither the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written by Gen. Petraeus and Gen. James Amos, nor an assessment of the COIN campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan square with Mr. West's take. The two generals assert in the manual's preface that a "counterinsurgency campaign is . . . a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations," which hardly sounds like "an exercise in civics." Moreover, Gen. Petraeus's September 2007 report to Congress on the Iraq surge doesn't focus on schools but on "significant blows to Al Qaeda-Iraq.

In the end I’d rate the book A as a revelation of the what the war was like for our young Marines. And a D for strategy analysis.  Which seems about right considering how the Iraq conflict was botched from unnecessary beginning to end and The Afghan one wasn’t much better after it switched from rooting out the terrorists to “nation building.”  in tribal, ethnically and religiously divided place on the map.  What a disaster….


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Normandy, France

It’s been more than twelve years now since I retired from teaching and two years less for Mrs. T. from the same profession. The two years difference came from her decision to go on a little longer than me to pay off the mortgage on our new house in the woods. I took on the role of “house husband” to her infinite satisfaction.  I had promised to take her to France on her retirement but that was delayed for one year as she successfully fought off a bout with ovarian cancer. The delay proved fortuitous in that our good friends Steve and Jewel could join us. It turned out Steve had taught high school French for a few years before turning to dairy farm. That allowed us more opportunities to venture further out on our own on "free" days from the tour group.

 A direct flight from the Twin Cities brought us to Paris where a quick city tour and a good night’s sleep prepared us for the trip to Normandy and the D Day invasion beaches.

I had been urged by Mrs. T's cousin Joe to be sure and sample Normandies most famous adult beverage - Calvados.  Sure enough the program included a visit to a place where the apples were converted into the famous beverage.It was all very interesting but the highlight for me was (given my perverted sense of humor) the "tasting" that followed the tour. It seems the majority of the elderly entourage had missed the part about Calvados being a rather strong applebrandy. Given the gasps and chokes that followed our group toast with the beverage, it seems the majority of people had expected to be imbibing an fruity apple cider!

Our first city stop was  Rouen which had a long and exciting history. Here the French kings had been crowned and Joan of Arc burned as a heritic by the English. Naturally, we visited the famous cathedral.

Standing in the square, looking back at the cathedral, I
recalled that the French impressionist, Claude Monet, had
spent many hours here drawing it. His studies of light and
shadow fueled much of his later work.

We had lunch in the town center, visited a market
and walked in the garden surrounding the marker to the martyrdom of St. Joan

The next morning found us approaching the famous bridge crossing over the Orne River - Pegasus. The significance of the bridge on D-Day was simple but key. Allied deception had persuaded to leave their major Panzer formations near Caen to the north. The allied landings were to the south. Holding the left flank bridges across the Orne against German counter attacks would vastly increase the probablity of success for the Allied landing.
That task was assigned to the 6th British Airborne Divison. On the night of 5/6 June 1944, a force of 181 men, led by Major John Howard, landed in six Horsa gliders to capture Pegasus Bridge, and also "Horsa Bridge", a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River.

It was given the permanent name of Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation. This name derives from the shoulder emblem worn by the attacking British, which is the flying horse Pegasus.

The events around Pegasus Bridge are depicted in the movie The Longest Day. The role of Major Howard was played by Richard Todd, who actually participated in the real Allied defence of Pegasus Bridge, having been the 7th Parachute Battalion's Intelligence Officer on D-Day.

The original bridge was replaced in the 1990's. During our visit to France every day except one was sunny and warm. Our D Day visit, though, was dark and somber. The weather that day was actually perfect, setting the mood, as we visited the places where thousands died to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

The soldiers killed in these actions are mostly buried in the cemetery at nearby Ranville. There is a commemorative plaque that was installed by the family Gondrée, whose house near Pegasus Bridge was the first to be liberated during D-Day. It still exists and nowadays contains a café and a small museum shop that sells Pegasus Bridge related material. The lady who runs this café was a small child living in the home when it was liberated. Yes, we stopped in for some postcards.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Citizen Soldiers

In Citizen Soldiers – The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches To The Bulge To The Surrender Of Germany author Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the American foot soldier's experience in Europe.  Ambrose, one of my favorite military historians also wrote my favorite history book. It was Undaunted Courage the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition And what a story it is,  all from the point of view of the men who did the actual fighting.  Down and dirty….

This point of view is somewhat new and fresh considering the thousands of books published on this war by and about  the leaders and politicians whose perspective was from the top down.  Mr. Hull’s review in the New York Times gives us a hint of why this is so.

By Michael D. Hull

One chilly morning in November 1944, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps, climbed into a jeep and was driven to the front to "smell this new American battlefield." The untested U.S. 84th Infantry Division had been placed under his command for the attack on Geilenkirchen, north of Aachen, on the Dutch-German border. When he reached the division area, Horrocks was halted abruptly by an American sentry, who leaped out from behind a tree, pointed his rifle menacingly at the general's stomach and shouted, "Who the hell are you?"

Horrocks got out of the jeep gingerly and replied, "I am a Britisher–and what's more, your division has just been placed under my command."

The GI looked at him incredulously and asked his rank.

"A three-star general," answered Horrocks.

"Holy Moses!" said the soldier. "We don't see many of them up here."

Horrocks reported later that he was "able to meet and chat to a number of these fine-looking young soldiers." And he soon discovered a front-line problem that reminded him all too much of his grim World War I experiences in the trenches.

"It soon became obvious that, with the exception of the U.S. paratroop divisions, whose commanders literally lived with their forward troops (and, of course, with the exception of Patton), the normal U.S. corps and divisional commanders rarely, if ever, visited their forward troops," recalled Horrocks. "This was something I had to put right without delay, because of the appalling wintry conditions which the 84th were likely to meet in this their first experience of battle, opposed by experienced, battle-hardened German troops."

Horrocks ordered the 43rd Wessex Division, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and artillery and specialized tank units to support the Americans. He also ensured that the U.S. troops received hot food and dry socks, in order to boost morale.

The 84th Division secured its objectives in the Battle of Geilenkirchen, one of the hardest fought actions at the battalion, company and platoon level in the European theater. General Horrocks said he was "filled with admiration for the extreme gallantry displayed by the raw GIs."

The problem of commanders being out of touch with their troops was becoming endemic throughout the U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), says Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), his compelling foxhole-level history of the soldiers' war from Normandy to the German surrender. Not even battalion commanders were going to the front. It was humiliating, Ambrose says, that a British general had to order American staff officers and their commanding officers to go check on their soldiers. The American officers' absence was costly, for tens of thousands of young Americans and Germans died that November in battles–most notably in the Hürtgen Forest–that did little to hasten the end of the war and should have been avoided.

The hardships endured by American troops in the hedgerows and foxholes of northwest Europe–and the courage, resilience and adaptability with which they faced them–are chronicled vividly in this masterpiece of historical narrative. It is a stunning account–affectionate, yet honest–of ordinary men learning to beat a stubborn, well-trained foe at his own game. From Omaha Beach to St. Lô, and from Bastogne to Cologne, they marched, shivered, fought, groused, bled, died and triumphed magnificently.

One of the most articulate and informed historians writing today, Stephen Ambrose has distilled in brilliant clarity the essence of the American character that helped to preserve global freedom. Without doubt, his book will enthrall every veteran, scholar and general reader.

When the GIs sailed for Europe, as the author points out, they were going not as conquerors but as liberators. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, told them their mission in his June 6, 1944, order of the day: "The destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

The U.S. troops accomplished their mission. And, in the process, they helped to liberate the peoples of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and the Germans living west of the Elbe River.



Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Apple Orchard

The recent visit of the grandchildren from Arizona took us to a local orchard for a wagon ride and some caramel  apples. What fun!!!


Sunday, November 10, 2013

One Summer: America 1927

For years reading friends had urged me to check out bestselling travel writer Bill Brysons  (“A Walk in the Woods”) humorous writing.  A note from our town librarian Diane that his latest book, a New York Times best seller was available sent me into town to get it.  That book One Summer: America 1927 has  the author, a now traveling through time, taking us back to perhaps a high point or maybe a  low point, depending on your point of view to  the “Roaring 20’s.  I like the book and I didn’t like the book. And on that ambiguous note, I’ll try to explain why….

This is history as you may never have read it. It’s filled with famous and infamous people and  events, amazing coincidences and trivia.  We meet the real Babe Ruth, Charles Lindberg, Al Capone, Silent Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford   and the  “It” girl Clara Bow.  Bryson writes prose clear as crystal often makes us or shocks us into incredulity taking the heroes of the age down more than a peg.   

For instance, Bow, in addition to being the most celebrated Hollywood icon of her era, was also famously promiscuous, Bryson notes. She had a slew of boyfriends, many of them at the same time. Bryson tells of one boyfriend who arrived at her house only to realize that another man was hiding in the bathroom. The aggrieved boyfriend, Bryson tells us, demanded that the hidden man “come on out so I can knock your teeth out!” When the bathroom door opened, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey sheepishly appeared. The aggrieved boyfriend wisely kept his fists to himself, and the hulking Dempsey

The rise of radio and tabloid provide a look back at the seed of our own  pop and celebrity culture  which I  found appallingly reminiscent of our own times.

There isn’t a whole lot of deep thinking or interesting conclusions in Bryson’s account beyond cutting remarks and characterizations (often deserved). 

All in all,  the book is a fun read about what proved to be in the authors words….. “one hell of a summer.”
A few of the cast:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


It was Christmas Eve 1949. My cousin Prudy and I stood proudly in front of the Christmas tree, in my grandmas house in St. Paul, holding up our presents for all to see. Mine was an 027 gauge Lionel electric train. It doesn’t get any better than that. Thus began a lifelong interest in trains. I still have it on display in our basement.

Flash ahead a few years to the early fifties. I lived with my parents and two brothers in a new home on the East Side in St. Paul. It’s was the Daytons Bluff area. Below the bluff lay the Mississippi river and lots of railroad tracks and two "railroad yards." They belonged to the Milwaukee Road and the "Q" (Burlington & Quincy)

Our next door neighbor, Art, was a yard engineer for the Milwaukee Road. He didn't drive, so he walked to and from work every day, except on Saturdays. That's when my father picked him up at work. A trip to downtown St. Paul followed to cash his paycheck and pick up a case of an "adult beverage." I got to tag along.
More often than not on these Saturday afternoons, I was invited to climb up into the cab of the steam engine. Art would wave me aboard. It was a steep climb up into the cab.

Each and every time the excitement built. There was a cord hanging down, which when you pulled it, the steam whistle sounded so loud they must have been able to hear it miles away. A bin of coal was behind the engineers seat. I usually got to take a few shovels full, after opening the boiler door, and pitch it into the flames. It’s was very hot.

The biggest thrill of all was to back the train onto the "turntable." This was a revolving platform which turned to align each train into its own stall. I was ten or eleven years old and pretending to be Casey Jones. The neighborhood kids played in Indian Mounds Park high on the bluffs above the river. I can still picture that river, the airport beyond it and the railroad tracks far below. There were passenger trains like the orange and yellow Hiawatha of the Milwaukee and the silver bulleted Zephyr of the Burlington Road speeding by on their way to faraway places.

The steam engines are  long gone now except for a few touristy amusement rides. The sound of the diesel and later electric engines wasn’t nearly as exciting as the huff and puff of the steamers. Still, I’m left with fond memories of my Dad, Art the engineer, and those Saturday afternoons of boyhood enchantment.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Hindenberg disaster

These photographs are truly amazing. So is the newsreel!   (frame 22) It's been 75 years......