Adsense for search

Custom Search

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dr. James Reckner-the meaning of Memorial Day personified

There are times when I am incredibly lucky. Actually, rather than luck, I believe more in synchronicity, the concept that explains the "meaningful coincidences" in our lives. This synchronicity manifested in my life in several ways last week, not the least of which was meeting Dr. James Reckner. Sitting down to write on this Memorial Day, with its solemn meaning in mind, I think not only about all those who have given their lives for our nation, but also Dr. Reckner for what he did while our nation wanted to turn its face away. He dedicated himself to preserving the memories of our war in Vietnam, and those who were not so lucky.

Yes, I said "our" war, and I'm speaking to my own generation, the ones who came along during the last reverberations of the "baby boom", the ones who were eyewitnesses of, and participants in, the profound political and social dramas of the 1960s. We were the ones who remember the black and white news footage of what our government preferred to call a "conflict", the protests, the weekly obituaries in our home town papers. And to me personally, during twenty-four years of knowing a certain Vietnam Vet very well, (better than he ever thought I did) it was very much "our" war, even though, amazingly, the subject was nearly taboo. Despite every outward appearance of successful readjustment to civilian life, the Vietnam war was, and surely still is, an ever present entity in his life. Although he is living, I think of him too, on Memorial Day.

Dr. Reckner, also, must think of the war every single day. During two tours of duty in Southeast Asia, as part of the "Brown Navy", he advised the government of South Vietnam on the finer points of Riverine Warfare. He went on to become a highly respected Professor of History at Texas Tech University, an acclaimed author, widely recognized historian of the U.S. Navy with an emphasis on Theodore Roosevelt's development of it, beginning with the Great White Fleet. He is also the Director of the Vietnam Center , the product of the Vietnam Project he began in 1989. After discovering how little existed, accessible to the public, in the way of information, memorabilia, and documentation of the experiences of individual men and women who served, he diligently set about to collect and preserve every bit of Vietnam War history he could find. Now the Vietnam Center's archives are a vitally important repository of what could easily have been lost or sadly ignored. This gem is also proof of what history teaches us: one individual can make a huge difference. He is, in every sense, a hero, but if I said that to him he would disagree.

Dr. Reckner is a modest, quiet man. Yet when he gets up to speak in front of a crowd you see the man who is so smart, articulate, and even funny, that he reminds everyone in the room of the best teacher they ever had, or wished they had. He's warm and natural, down-to-earth, a loving father and husband of many decades, so proud of his marriage and family. I found out that all the money he earns from public speaking is used to help young people in Southeast Asia go to college. He is as surely a hero to them, as he is to the mothers who have handed over to him such things as letters from the sons they lost in Vietnam, to be preserved for the nation, forever.

So how did I come to meet Dr. James Reckner? It was through the magic of synchronicity, or "meaningful coincidences". As the result of a seemingly chance phone call (which of course was not) it came to the attention of Michele Bryant, of the Theodore Roosevelt Association that my great-uncle Ross C. Anway had been a member of the crew of the battleship Wisconsin, part of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, one hundred years ago. (I wrote about this in my post on this blog, of 5/18/08, called "Time Travel in Tacoma".) That first event commemorating the Great White Fleet's visit to Commencement Bay was one of four, both private and public, I had the privilege of attending last week. I met Dr. Reckner at a reception on Tuesday, May 20th, the first night of three during which I was totally immersed in the history of the Great White Fleet. This included a private reception and fantastic program put on by the Navy at Terminal 30 on the Seattle waterfront, and culminated in a public reception at the Museum of History and Industry, known as MOHAI. It was there that I had the opportunity to speak more with Dr. Reckner, or "Jim" as he called himself, and to buy his unique and fascinating book, Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet . It was an unforgettable week.

What I will never forget is meeting this man who also, "will never forget", about the Vietnam War, its veterans,their stories, and the tremendous significance all of these have in our nation's history. That is why he seemed the perfect subject for my blog on this Memorial Day, 2008. Now we are involved in another "unpopular" war. It will have it's own legacy. But to all Americans who remember Vietnam, the vets, their families, the Vietnamese people,to all of you who ever read a newspaper or simply lived and breathed then, I have this simple message: when Memorial Day comes around, REMEMBER. Dr. Reckner has made sure our nation will never forget.

Note: photo of Candace Brown and Dr. James Reckner at MOHAI, May 21,2008, courtesy of Maryann Huang

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Time Travel in Tacoma

If I asked you what last Saturday, May 17, 2008 was, what would you say? Gorgeous? Ninety degrees? The perfect day to golf or go boating? All that is true, but did you know it was also Armed Forces Day? I'm sure the many military families in our area did, and to all American citizens who were out there enjoying themselves in a country that, despite its problems, is still free and full of opportunity, I say...I hope you did. Many members of the Armed Forces have made, and are still making, heavy sacrifices, in the name of that freedom. This particular Armed Forces Day also commemorated something of major importance that happened in Tacoma one hundred years ago, May 27, 1908. I'm shocked to realize how few people know about it.

Did you ever hear of the Great White Fleet? Beginning in December of 1907, then President Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet of sixteen American battleships on a mission of peace and goodwill. They were symbolically painted white. It began in Hampton Roads, Virginia, went around the horn of South America to San Francisco with the intention of visiting our "neighbors" around the Pacific Ocean, but was extended into a world tour. It took fourteen months, 46,000 miles, and stopped in numerous countries. While in the Mediterranean, ships from the fleet helped victims of an earthquake in Italy. The Great White Fleet was a worldwide sensation! It put America on the map! Men fought for a place in line to enlist in the Navy and be a part of it. My great-uncle Ross C. Anway was one of them. He joined the adventure in San Francisco.

After the ships reached San Francisco, the first leg of the journey completed, they made a trip north to Puget Sound, visiting Port Angeles, Port Townsend, the shipyard in Bremerton, the city of Seattle,and other spots. But lucky Tacoma was visited by the largest number of ships of any place in Puget Sound. On May 27, 1908, the citizens were awed by EIGHT gleaming white American battleships, plus a hospital ship, in our own Commencement Bay. It was a day to celebrate!

One hundred years later, my husband and I were among a mere handful of spectators who gathered at tiny Jack Hyde Park, on the waterfront just below Old Town. The Navy League of the United States, Tacoma Council had organized a beautiful ceremony, complete with a Parade of the Colors by the Hornet Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, and the presentation of centennial plaques to Tacoma's Mayor Bill Baarsma and LCDR Robert W. Thomas, Executive Officer of the USS Maine. Navy League Tacoma's President, Mary Olsen, did the presentation and both she and her husband Roger Olsen, Secretary of the League, spoke eloquently about the history being remembered. So did Mayor Baarsma and LCDR Thomas.

I had not met our mayor personally until that day, but as he stood there in the sunshine, with sparkling water and Brown's point behind him, I saw a bit of who this civic leader is and what he stands for. He was animated as he described the scene in 1908, waving an arm to indicate how, a century before, the ships would have been RIGHT THERE just off shore from where we stood. He told us about a banner placed across Pacific Avenue, the streets absolutely filled with sailors marching to the wild cheers of the citizens of Tacoma, and how the stores were all closed until one o'clock in the afternoon so employees wouldn't miss the event.

Mayor Baarsma, like the others, could have been somewhere else last Saturday morning, but it was important to him to be nowhere but THERE. I thought to myself as he spoke with respect and appreciation for his city's history, that he did so with as much enthusiasm and sincerity as if he had a crowd of thousands listening. He honored our city, our country's story and the past and present members of the Armed Forces, by treating the occasion with the dignity it deserved.

After the ceremony ended and the flag was withdrawn, I thanked Mary and Roger Olsen, Mayor Baarsma, and LCDR Thomas, and showed them something I'd brought along. It was a beribboned military-type medal in a little wooden box, a gift to my great-uncle from the city of Yokohama, Japan. It read "Welcome to our guests from America". Then everyone left, feeling like we'd been a small but special group, fellow travelers through time.

History is all around us: buildings, places, and the spirit of great and ordinary people who shaped the world. The old Tacoma City Hall building still stands, as it did in the photos of May 27,1908, a witness to that proud day. As Americans, take time to learn about the past, to give some thought to the huge contributions of the Armed Forces, to appreciate what we have and are, and hopefully will continue to be.

Special thanks to the Tacoma Council of the Navy League of the United States.

Note to all those other history buffs out there:

You may have missed this event, but it isn't too late to take in some others in the area, or at least educate yourself about the Great White Fleet. Please check out these excellent websites:

Great White Fleet
Museum of History and Industry
Tacoma Navy League
Port of Seattle
Naval Historical Center

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Serendipity-Finding a Louisiana Fairytale in Southwest Washington

We finally met Nadine, and now we understand. We'd known her husband David for a little while. He'd come up I-5 to Tacoma from Vancouver several times to sub in our Traditional Jazz band, Combo de Luxe. ( ) on clarinet and sax. David was a perfect fit, recommended by our cornet player Chris Tyle. They had both played this music we love, the classic jazz of the 1920s and '30s, for many years in New Orleans, the city of its birth. Easing into our lives like a warm magnolia-scented breeze, came this tall eloquent gentleman from the South, and we knew we'd be friends forever. He hadn't been in our house for five minutes when we first heard of Nadine. They'd been married for twenty years and he was still smitten. "I really want you to meet her," he said to me. "You two would get along."

David is a sensitive, thoughtful and appreciative person, in a way that transcends manners. His personality is revealed in everything he does, as a musician and as a human being. Every note he plays must feel like a dove let loose into the world with purpose, carefully chosen to guide the human heart to some new place of meaning. We see who he is in the way he talks to our dog, as if she is as important as anyone he's ever met. He does or says nothing without intention and kindness. But it is when he speaks of Nadine that he radiates pure love.

Last weekend my husband Dave and I headed "down south", as far as you can go in Washington State that is, to the city of Vancouver on the Columbia River, for a two day music job. David was playing with us, and he'd invited us to stay at his home. We'd gone directly to the gig and had played awhile, when there in the crowd was a lovely redheaded woman he obviously knew. At the end of his solo he took a breath and smiled and said, "There's Nadine!" There she was indeed, tapping her feet in time to the music, smiling at all of us with genuine warmth, and even before I finished playing the song I knew I liked her.

After the job we followed them home, uphill from the river, through a beautiful area of wooded neighborhoods, where rhododendrons, flowering trees, and spring bulbs contrasted with all the green. When we turned into their driveway it was to find ourselves surrounded by a sea of tulips and pots of ranunculus, as a welcome, and that was only the beginning. On the other side of that door was a piece of Louisiana in the Evergreen State, complete with more Southern Hospitality than I had ever known, and at the center of it was Nadine. She'd come home with bags and bags of groceries, even though we'd planned to take her out to eat while David played another gig that night.

"Oh I just decided at the last minute, I'd make some Jambalaya." she said, with a native Louisiana accent that could have soothed a baby to sleep in minutes. Real authentic Louisiana Jambalaya! We couldn't wait. That's when the coffee pot went on and the stove was heated up, and the aromas of green peppers, onion and tomatoes, sizzling sausage and warm roasted chicken began to waft through the room. All that homey kitchen noise was background music to good conversation, while their sweet dog Jasper supervised. David went upstairs to change for his gig while she cooked. Pretty soon I was helping by chopping vegetables while she stirred and a happy feeling came over me, of having done this so many times before in my life with the women in my family. She could have been a sister. When it was done we sat down to a meal I'll never forget, and it seemed like all the color, warmth and flavor of the South, the appreciation for good food, the appreciation for life, were before me on my plate.

Nadine, this sophisticated lady, successful business woman, and charming hostess, grew up on a Louisiana farm. She worked hard in the hot sun, picking their own cotton alongside her mother. "But nobody could pick like my mother," she said. "She was FAST." Some of that very same cotton filled the two old quilts I would sleep under that night, stitched together many decades before, by the strong and loving hands of a mother now passed away but still very present. I was shown an old photo of a very young woman with the hair around her face combed back and up and pinned in a 1940s style. That night I would think of her, and how time is only relative, as I lay there warmed by those quilts and my new friendship with her daughter.

After dinner David left for his gig and that was when my husband and I really had a chance to get to know Nadine. We listened, fascinated, while she told us all about her childhood, one that taught her the down home values and comfortable grace we saw, and the ten years she spent as the cruise director on a riverboat, living and working on the Mississippi River. David had worked on the riverboats for years too, as a musician, and that was how they'd met.

We laughed our heads off, hearing her funny stories of those crazy times and characters she'd known, like the dishwasher from the galley who would be called upon to say a few lines in a show (everybody, included Nadine did double duty) and would walk on stage in his apron and dripping rubber gloves. She told about how she not only directed the cruise, but also had to sing and dance in musical productions, and show movies like "Gone With the Wind" and "Showboat" on a white sheet in the dining room, because they didn't have a screen. Then there was the time they "blew the stacks" while she was on deck, and her white dress was instantly covered with black soot. She told us about the "Cat House", a bed and breakfast place along the river, where guests got a real cat with their room.

In the midst of all this hilarity Nadine remembered that she still had some notes from a talk she'd recently given about those days, and scrounging through the recycling bin in the garage, she found them, and read more to us, describing her job:

"where you meet Alex Haley, Ken Burns and BB King all on the same cruise"

"where you arrive in a town to be greeted by th
e mayor and all of the city dignitaries, complete with a brass band, because you are the attraction"

"where you only work half a day-of course that's 12 hours!"

When she finished, those notes were headed for the recycling again, but I begged her to give them to me. Just this morning I sat down to really read them over again, and saw even more on those pages. It was about David and their wedding. She was the first person he'd met when he boarded the boat in Cincinnati. Soon after, they were assigned to two different boats but became engaged in Memphis and married, her notes say, "when the two boats made a rare appearance together in Natchez, Mississippi." I'd seen a photo on the wall, among the many paintings of riverboat scenes, of a bride and groom kissing, with a riverboat crowded with cheering passengers in the background. It was them, David and Nadine!

Quoting Nadine's notes:

" People magazine heard about our wedding on this famous boat and thought it would make an interesting story. They sent a writer and a photographer down from New York and the photographer posed us out on the "stage" dangling over the river right out in the middle of the Mississippi River! Passengers from both boats lined the decks and we were dazzled by a barrage of flashes going off.

After the photographer was finished the two boats landed side by side at Natchez-Under-The-Hill, the most infamous town on the Mississippi River! The marriage was performed by a judge from Natchez who was two hours late because it was his first ceremony and he couldn't get to his robe. It was locked in a closet in the court house and the janitor, the only one with a key, was gone fishing!

When it was time for the boat to leave we stood on the bank in the early December darkness as the boats, lights twinkling on the water, slowly cast off."

Sitting there at the table this morning, drinking my coffee, her notes in hand, I finished the page reluctantly. I felt like I'd been there on the Mississippi with them. I could see those twinkling lights. I do believe a bit of that twinkle was absorbed by David and Nadine, because I've caught a glimpse of it in their eyes.

How many of us truly appreciate what we have? How many of us are wise enough to savor what a good Jambalaya represents: a richness of flavor, an act of love, good times, memories, a passion for life and all it offers the senses and the heart? How many of us stay in love forever, treating each other with respect and tenderness always, remembering how we felt when the lights of a riverboat twinkled on the water?

I will not forget my weekend "down south". I hope to remember its lessons and should I forget, the look in David's eyes when he says his wife's name with remind me, like the old song, "Louisiana Fairytale". We finally met Nadine, and now we understand.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ruston's Ray of Sunshine Helps Women Bloom

I learned a new plant name today. It's "smelter weed." This came up in a conversation with Bev Wombacher, owner of the Ladies Workout Express gym in Ruston, while I happily exercised my way around the circuit of machines and stations. The sun was shining in the windows onto the raspberry-colored carpet and we were talking about what a nice day it was and how we should get out in our yards and pull weeds. As a gardener, I recoiled when she said "smelter weed", surely a weed that would give new meaning to the category "noxious". I pictured Bev in full protective gear, garden tools in hand.

"What's that?" I asked, in horror. I grew up on nearby Vashon Island and now live in Tacoma. I thought I knew all the weeds around here. That's when I found out it was plain old "horsetail", equisetum hyemale. "Smelter weed" is the name the Ruston locals have given it, and I do recall how back in the old days, before the pollution was cleaned up, and the huge ASARCO smelter still existed, this plant was a prominent part of the, ummm..."landscaping" around it.

"Oh, that stuff. It's amazingly tough and persistent," I told her. "I've heard that when you try to pull it out any little piece that remains will sprout a new plant! It just keeps going no matter what." Later in the day I would be thinking about horsetail and how it does actually symbolize some good qualities.

Ladies Workout Express, or LWE is my home-away-from-home and I can tell you why in one word: Bev. The acronym could just as well stand for "Live With Enthusiasm". Bev is Ruston's ray of sunshine. I remember the first day I came there to sign up. I'd never been to a gym before. Suddenly there was this cheerful, smiling woman about my age, greeting me warmly, and it all felt right. Since then I've become friends with Bev and my respect for her as a smart, ethical business woman, but more importantly as a wonderful and inspiring human being, continues to grow.

I'd been a little intimidated by the idea of joining a gym, and I wasn't sure if the fact that it was for women only made it easier or not. I imagined a bunch of hard-body types "going for the burn" that would be highly competitive and judgmental, scoffing at me for daring to show my rather out-of-shape self in their world. It wasn't like that at all. Believe me, the members come in all shapes and sizes, and those shapes and sizes CHANGE after awhile. And it isn't just bodies that change. So do members' outlooks on life. Bev is one of the main reasons.

Bev Wombacher is a cancer survivor. She talks about it freely, and just this morning we were discussing the fact that too many people are negative in their thinking. These days Bev is as healthy as a... well, a horsetail, and she knows a valuable truth. Life is much too beautiful, joyful, and precious to spend even a minute of it being negative. Her positive vibe so completely fills the room that no pettiness, gossip or other bad attitudes are able to exist. I can honestly say I have never, ever, heard an unkind word about anyone there. If a member who is not present is spoken of it's always in a good way. It's really amazing how strong the atmosphere of positive thinking is. No one would desire to, or dare to, compromise it. That's because we all love it there. We love how, by improving our bodies, we feel better about ourselves, and by improving our outlooks we feel better about life. And we love Bev.

At Ladies Workout Express you get a lot for your money. I would venture to say that there is no other gym in the Tacoma area, or any place else, where the owner herself is out on the floor all day, teaching, helping, encouraging, and inspiring the members. Bev is totally committed to helping women blossom, no matter what their age, situation in life, or body type. She goes way beyond what would be needed just to run a business, because it isn't just a business to her. It's a mission. With continuing education in the field of physical fitness she's up on all the latest and wants to serve the members in every way possible.

This afternoon I've been thinking about "smelter weed" and how it's not all that bad. It's bright and upright, vigorous, reliable and unstoppable. In a beauty pageant for plants it might not get the crown but would certainly win the title of "Most Optimistic". Bev Wombacher is a whole lot prettier and more appreciated than this weed, but in another way they are alike: unstoppable.

When you drive north on Pearl St. and cross the invisible line into our neighboring town of Ruston, be sure to notice the Ladies Workout Express. It's at 4927 N. Pearl St., second building on the right after Tatanka Take-out. The phone number is 253-752-8599. You can't miss it. The sun will be shining a little brighter there.