The Congressional Medal of Honor

Tomorrow, March 25, is National Medal of Honor Day, so it’s appropriate that we consider the history of this distinguished award and honor those who have won it throughout our nation’s history.

The first Medal of Honor was awarded on March 25, 1863, to Private Jacob Parrott of Ohio for his involvement in the great Andrews Raid, the Union theft of a railroad locomotive in an attempt to destroy Confederate railroad bridges between Chattanooga and Atlanta. More than 1,420 other Civil War soldiers (all Union, of course) went on to win the Medal of Honor during that terrible conflict.

There have been a total of 3,498 recipients of the Medal of Honor, most of which have been awarded posthumously. In addition to those awarded in the Civil War, the following major conflicts had their share:

  • Boxer Rebellion, 58
  • Mexican War, 55
  • Philippine Insurrection, 84
  • Spanish-American War, 110
  • World War I, 127
  • World War II, 472 (16 of those at Pearl Harbor, 27 at Iwo Jima)
  • Vietnam War, 260
  • Afghanistan, 14
  • Iraq, 4

Three notable recipients were Arthur MacArthur of Wisconsin, father of General Douglas MacArthur, who won the MOH for his actions during the Battle of Missionary Ridge in 1863. Alvin C. York of Tennessee won his during World War I and was the subject of a famous movie starring Gary Cooper. And John Basilone won his for courageous fighting on Guadalcanal in World War II.

Every recipient of the nation’s highest award deserves our recognition and remembrance. For more information on the award and the stories of each recipient, check these web sites: http://www.cmohs.org and http://www.cmohfoundation.org (e-mail info@cmohedu.org).

The Importance of Storytelling

Everyone, regardless of age, likes a good story. If you don’t believe me, notice what happens to the person who’s nodding off during the sermon or a meeting when the speaker begins to tell a story to illustrate his or her point.

But storytelling is important for much more than mere entertainment, although that’s a legitimate use of it. Storytelling is a means by which we pass our values, history, and culture on to the next generation. Before the advent of the printing press and all of today’s technology-driven media, that was just about the only way of passing it along. And although we have so much technology and information at our fingertips today, storytelling is still an effective means of communicating truth and values to others.

Not just anyone can be an effective storyteller. It takes someone with special skills and abilities. Some of those people tell stories audibly; others tell them in written form.

Jesus Christ as the Master Storyteller. His most often used teaching technique was the parable, which often has been defined as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

Another good (albeit human) storyteller was Mark Twain. He not only wrote good stories but also told them to live audiences. And he even wrote a story telling other people how to tell stories effectively.

But the storyteller I most vividly remember from my childhood was my maternal grandfather. He grew up learning that part of the Southern Appalachian heritage, and his diverse life experiences gave him much grist for his story mill.

As a kid, I used to sit with Paw Summers on his blue-painted wooden porch on many warm afternoons, staring out across the road toward the Southern Railroad tracks and listen to him tell stories. He sat in a homemade rocking chair that was held together by innumerable layers of paint and stare into the distance as he spun his tales.

Although Paw probably never read Mark Twain’s instructions on how to tell a good story, he was expert at doing exactly what Twain advised. He made a big deal out of insignificant minor details in his stories. For example, during a story, he would worry over what day of the week the event about which he was telling actually happened, what the weather had been that day, what year it was, or whether the event had happened in Clinton or in Kingsport or on Chestnut Ridge or beside Bull Run Creek.

He quite often diverged innumerable times during a story, burying stories within stories but finally finding his way back to complete the original story just when listeners were beginning to think he had lost his way entirely. Yet, he somehow always left his listeners wanting to hear more, or he would use the just-finished story as a springboard into the next story.

Sometimes my grandmother (Nannie, we called her) would be sitting with us. She often entered Paw’s storytelling, usually to argue with him over one of the many insignificant details of his story. Or she would interrupt with, “Oh, Fred! You did not!” Sometimes, discerning the story that Paw was about to tell, she would declare, “Fred! You know better than to tell that!”

We kids also used to love it when Daddy sat down in his recliner after supper. We begged him, “Daddy, tell us a farm story!” That’s what we called stories from his own childhood. They were usually funny, even after we’d heard the same ones time after time. The problem was that he, tired from a long day of work and his stomach full of supper, often fell asleep during his own storytelling. We never did.

Paw’s and Daddy’s storytelling were natural, not contrived. I think that they were totally unaware of their own storytelling prowess; they were just being themselves. Perhaps it is that very quality that makes Appalachian storytellers unique. Like Paw and Daddy, they just do “what comes natural.”

Storytelling is an important way in which my generation and countless ones before it learned of their heritage. It is part of our heritage that must be preserved and fostered, a skill that, like porch-sitting, must be passed on to our children and to their children for generations to come. Come to think about it, porch-sitting and storytelling seem to go naturally together!

Appreciating American Farmers

Today, March 17, is National Ag Day, a day dedicated to appreciating and learning about America’s producers of food and fibers. Begun in 1973, National Ag Day is 44 years old this year. It is sponsored by the Agriculture Council of America, which boasts among its directors representatives of industry giants Walmart, John Deere, American Farm Bureau Federation, FFA Foundation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and others.

The purpose of Ag Day is to help Americans understand the production of food and fiber products, appreciate the role of agriculture in providing us with an abundance of safe and affordable products, sense the role that agriculture plays in our national economy, and possibly even consider becoming agriculturists ourselves. This year’s theme is “Agriculture: Food for Life.”

According to the USDA, less than 1 percent of Americans claim farming as an occupation, and only about 2 percent actually live on farms. Yet they produce the “food and fibers” needed by the entire nation and much of the world. We can truly be thankful for American farmers and their ability to produce so much.

But agriculture is facing problems. One is that the amount of land devoted to farming is declining, from 922 million acres to 915 million acres, but the average farm size is increasing, from an average of 418 to 434 acres. Much of that increase is attributable to the buyout of small family farms by large corporations. Seventy-five percent of all farms are small operations, bringing in less than $50,000 a year. Farming has always been hard and costly work.

My grandfather was a dairy farmer in East Tennessee, operating a small farm in partnership with my father. They grew some crops as well, but the main focus was milk. The farm was a Test Demonstration Farm for the Tennessee Valley Authority during the late Forties and early Fifties. My father and grandfather saw firsthand (and demonstrated to numerous international visitors, including Albert, the Prince of Belgium)how improvements in agricultural studies, chemical fertilizers, and technology could help farmers increase yield and quality. But they also saw how costly farming was becoming, and cost was a major factor in his retirement from farming, which forced my father into another line of work. The costs of farming continue to increase. (Just check out the price of tractors and other farm equipment some time if you doubt this fact.)

Several organizations and media productions are trying to focus Americans’ attention on the importance of farming. The American Farm Bureau and its state affiliates, of course, do a wonderful job at that. A national television program, America’s Heartland, is also waging a media campaign to tell the farmer’s story. Hosted by veteran newsman Paul Ryan, each episode features several different farmers and kinds of farm operations–from field to  oceans and everywhere in between–and how they are contributing to the efficient production of food for the world.

On a local level, such TV series as Flavor, NC, hosted by Lisa Prince, are doing the same thing regionally. Prince is called variously the “Mayor of Flavor, NC”; the “President of Produce”; and the “Queen of the Kitchen.” Each episode of the program begins by showing a particular farming operation and ends with Prince in the kitchen with a locally famous chef preparing the food that the featured operation has produced, whether that be a locally grown meat, vegetable, fruit, or fish. The program boasts that Flavor is “more than an address and more than a state of mind. [It’s] the crossroads where the best of homegrown . . . agricultural specialties meet up with the people and places who nurture that bounty.”

So on this special day, take a few moments to thank the Lord that we have farmers and that we live in a country that has the freedom and technological inventiveness to produce so much bounty, not just for our basic gastronomic needs but also for our dining pleasure. Then thank a farmer for his part in making it all possible.

Lessons from Doing Genealogical Research

I’m told that March 11 was Genealogy Day. (Yes, I know that I’m a little late in getting this date mentioned, but. . . . Better late than never!)

“Doing genealogy” can occur at several different levels, from hobbyist to obsessive compulsive. Over the years, I’ve done my genealogical research in fits and starts, so I guess that I’m more on the hobbyist end of the continuum, although some people think I slide somewhat nearer the other end. It’s all a matter of perspective–and how much time and money you have to devote to the pursuit.

My initial motivation was the result of a sudden realization that I didn’t know much about my ancestors beyond my grandparents and that the people who could best inform me were quickly passing from the scene. If I was to get the facts (more so, the human stories behind the facts) I needed, I had to act quickly. So, in the little time and few opportunities I had, I began interviewing those people.

That’s when I discovered that not all of the interviewees agreed on many essential details. My paternal grandparents argued with each other over many of those details, and, not wanting to cause a rift in an otherwise exemplary marriage, I changed the subject. They sometimes referred to the same people but by different names or nicknames, so I often got confused. And sometimes they got sidetracked telling interesting stories about some of the people while forgetting about the genealogical details that were my main objective. But the stories were so good, and my grandparents obviously had so much joy and fun telling them, that I dared not interrupt to press for mere data.

And mentioning getting sidetracked, the same thing happened to me while I was doing research on the maternal side of my family. I became so interested in tracing the steps of my uncle (Mother’s brother) through Europe during World War II that his story just about hijacked my entire time. (After all, history, especially the history of that war, is “my thing.”) But it just illustrates how easily sidetracked one can get while researching genealogy.

The benefits of doing such research, however, are great–even if (maybe especially if) one gets sidetracked while pursuing it.

The Bible says that genealogical studies can be “endless” (1 Tim. 1:4), leading us to get sidetracked from more important things in this present life. But the lessons to be learned from genealogical research are tremendous. We just have to keep our research properly balanced with the other responsibilities of life.

Perhaps the greatest lesson it has taught me is that I have what the psalmist called “a goodly heritage” (Psa. 16:6). I’ve discovered that my family tree includes a long line of Christian ancestors who were either preachers or teachers, and that line extends all the way to the present generation: an aunt and a cousin were teachers. My brother was a preacher. I was a teacher. And one of my daughters is a teacher. Seeing such continuity of calling in one’s heritage can provide a valuable motivation to make something of oneself, something of which his or her ancestors would be proud.

I can trace my heritage back only to 1735, when Charles Matthias Peterson was born in Kjolen, Sweden. One of his three sons, Tobias, was the first white settler of Poplar Creek in western North Carolina and is my direct ancestor. But those 282 years is far enough back for me to recognize the goodly heritage I have. That time span should provide enough information to keep my genealogical research going for the rest of my life, especially as sporadic as that research tends to be and as many rabbit trails as it leads me down!

I know that some of my readers are also doing their own genealogical research. I hope they enjoy the pursuit as much as I have.

 

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.

Two Historic Victories

On this date in history, March 7, 1945, two U.S. armored divisions achieved momentous victories, hastening the end of World War II in Europe.

The 3rd Armored Division captured Cologne on the Rhine River. My uncle was a tank driver for one of the three forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion in that division, which was nicknamed Spearhead. But the assault on that German city, as dangerous and destructive as it was, was a mere sideshow to the big show, so to speak. It kept German forces occupied and unable to send support to other German troops a few miles farther south, where an even greater victory occurred.

The 9th Armored Division achieved that victory: the capture of the Ludendorf Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen.

American troops never expected to find that railroad bridge intact. After all, all other bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed, either by American air power or by the Germans themselves in their attempt to slow the American juggernaut. Seeing the bridge still standing, the Americans worked desperately to get enough troops across it to establish a bridgehead before the Germans could destroy it.

The location of German forces on the heights on the eastern bank of the Rhine above the town of Remagen gave them a clear field of sight for ten miles. The German soldiers there had received orders to fight to the last man and to blow up the bridge to prevent American troops from crossing it. They kept the Americans under intense fire while engineers worked feverishly to set explosives to destroy the bridge.

But many of the Germans were convalescents, soldiers who had been wounded and were still recovering. Their commander had requested reinforcements, but none arrived. As they set about wiring the bridge with explosives, however, they realized that the explosives that they had been sent were industrial rather than military explosives. When they detonated them, the resulting explosions did not have the force necessary to topple the structure. Although damaged, the bridge remained intact, thereby allowing the Americans to send across infantrymen. American engineers, including future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, worked feverishly to strengthen the bridge to allow the passage of heavy armor to support the troops who were already crossing the bridge.

German troops manning machine guns in twin towers on the eastern end of the bridge were killed or captured by American infantrymen. Other German soldiers took refuge in a tunnel behind the towers, but German civilians, including many women and children, were also hiding in the tunnel. When the civilians began suffering casualties, they demanded that the German officers let them surrender. While the officers debated their request, the civilians surrendered without permission, and many of the German soldiers abandoned their weapons and joined them. The officers had no choice but to surrender as well. American troops established the bridgehead and kept the drive to Berlin alive and active.

Ironically, the bridge collapsed under its own weight (perhaps with the help of vibrations from the heavy armored vehicles that roared across it and numerous attempts by the Luftwaffe to destroy it) ten days later, on March 17.

Photos of the cathedral of Cologne, standing high above the ruins of the rest of the city, and the Ludendorf Bridge’s towers at Remagen are among the most iconic images that exist of World War II in Europe. The men who were involved in the capture of both landmarks deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice and service in helping to hasten the end of the war, which came two months later.

Hodge-Podge Day

A glance at my calendar informs me that every day this week has been or is a National _________ Day (you fill in the blank), and I couldn’t decide which of them to write about. None of them really rang the Muse-arousing bell in my head, so I finally decided that they all deserve some mention–but only a mere mention and a brief comment.

ghost-writerThe whole week is designated (just who designates such weeks/days, anyway?) Ghost Writers Week. I’ve been a ghost writer on many projects if that means that I wrote without a byline or any recognition. But when I think ghost writer, my memory sees my four daughters sleuthing around our house in Tennessee trying to find written “clues” that their mother had hidden all over the place and (hopefully) solving the mysteries she created for them. They wore pens or pencils attached to strings around their necks (see photo) and used them to write down the clues they found. Even the neighborhood kids got into the act. The little game was a spinoff from their watching the PBS show Ghost Writer, but it didn’t involve any real ghosts–just their creative mother.

220px-peanut-butter-jelly-sandwich1March 1 was National Peanut Butter Lovers Day, and that strikes a chord with me. I’ve liked peanut butter as far back as I can remember. While all the other kids were eating peanut butter and celery, peanut butter and marshmallows, and peanut butter and jelly, I was inventing a new recipe, one that I still enjoy today (as much for the looks of disgust it brings to people’s startled faces as for the delicious taste)–peanut butter-and-mayonnaise sandwiches. When I worked with my brick-mason father, I took peanut butter and crackers in my lunch every day.

March 2 was National Read Across America Day (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss Day). I’ve already written about how I became a reader and the importance of encouraging reading, so no further comment is needed here–although I could go on and on.

rifleman-lunchboxToday, March 3, is National Cold Cuts Day. I’ve eaten almost as many cold-cut sandwiches as peanut butter sandwiches. They’re the staple of the working man’s lunch. I always had one–usually bologna (or baloney, as we country people called it) or ham, but sometimes chicken salad or pimiento cheese–from the time I took my little The Rifleman lunch box to elementary school. I still enjoy a cold-cuts sandwich jfg-sandwich-spreadoccasionally, especially if I’m in a hurry or working on a tight deadline. They’re quickly and easily prepared and eaten. Almost as disgusting to my wife as my peanut butter-and-mayo sandwiches are my JFG Sandwich Spread sandwiches. And it must be JFG–J. F. Goodson Company–made in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Nothing else will do.

And tomorrow is Toy Soldier Day. I spent many hours as a kid playing with toy soldiers. I amassed huge armies–World War II: American, German, Japanese; War Between the States: Blue and Gray; and American Revolution: Patriots and Redcoats.

plastic-toy-soldiersSometimes my battlefield was the pile of sand that accumulated under the truck port that was attached to the chicken house, where Daddy dumped mason’s sand that had been left over from his jobs. Among the toy soldiers there, I also found numerous doodlebugs that I would coax to come to the surface in their backwards crawl by singing to them: “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire, fire, fire! Doodle! Doodle! Doodle!”

Sometimes the battlefield was a spot under a huge catalpa tree on the bank of my grandfather’s pond when heavy rains had caused the pond to overflow, creating a little river. Many battles were fought across that stream–when we kids weren’t chasing down and catching fish that had washed out with the overflow from the pond and then putting them back.

I think that the biggest disappointment–but perhaps the most important lesson in the principle of caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) was when I ordered a set of toy soldiers from a comic book advertisement. The ad pictured the two Revolutionary War armies in the set as being about 2-2 1/2 inches tall. I sent my money and waited eagerly for their delivery. When a 4x6x1-inch box arrived in the mail, I knew that it couldn’t be my soldier set–but it was. The warriors were only about half an inch tall but bigger than the cannons that were included. I never trusted a comic book ad again.

Read something (even if it’s not Dr. Seuss). Ghost write something–or look for clues that you can write down. Go play with some toy soldiers. And while you’re doing those things, enjoy some cold cuts and a peanut butter sandwich. Better yet, try a peanut butter-and-mayo sandwich or a JFG Sandwich Spread sandwich. You never know till you try!

The Boys Are Back!

ny-giantsFinally. After the long drought of late fall and a long (but very warm) winter, it’s spring, and the “boys of summer” are back! The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues are in full swing, and the regular season is approaching.

I fell in love with baseball long before I knew any of the intricacies of the game. As soon as the Knoxville News-Sentinel arrived in our mailbox late in the afternoon, my brother and I grabbed it, stretched out on our bellies on the grass, and turned to the sports page (after a brief stop at the comics page) to devour the baseball news.

I poured over those box scores. I had no idea what all the numbers meant, but I memorized names of teams and players. Names like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, and Bobby Richardson. And Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and the Boyer brothers. And Phil Rizzuto and Gil Hodges. And so many others.

And then the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta, becoming the only major league team in the South. A local AM radio station, WROL, carried their games, and I listened to them faithfully, even the late west-coast games that were so interrupted by static on the low-wattage station that I often didn’t know what was happening. Since our family didn’t have a TV, I had to use my imagination. And I was hooked on the Braves before it became popular to follow them and in spite of the fact that they often were as unlovely as the first-season New York Mets.

The names I followed changed. I now memorized the statistics of Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Rico Carty, Felix Milan, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Clete Boyer, Hoyt Wilhelm, and others. My mother was aghast when she one day realized that I had gradually replaced all of the family photos in the house with publicity photos of my favorite Braves players.

Daddy fed my craving for baseball by telling me stories about Uncle Homer, who had been a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and had taught him to throw a knuckleball. And Daddy regaled me with stories of his favorite players, Pepper Martin and Enos “Country” Slaughter. I loved to “pass ball” with Daddy, who tried to teach me to throw the knuckler as Homer had taught him, burning my palm right through the cheap leather glove I had. Those “passing” sessions were too few.

But I also read baseball voraciously. Two books stick in my memory even today. I bought my own copy of The Greatest World Series Thrillers and read it many times, learning about Don Larson’s perfect game and Bobby Thompson’s and Bill Mazeroski’s big homers. Not wanting to live baseball vicariously but personally, I also ordered a copy of Pete Rose’s little booklet titled How to Play Better Baseball and wore out its pages just like I wore the cover off many a baseball trying to practice what it taught.

I never got to play organized baseball. Given the chance to take piano lessons, I foresaw hours of practice that would mean foregoing baseball, so I turned it down. My brother took the lessons–and played organized baseball both in Babe Ruth League and on the high school team. I not only did not learn piano but also was not allowed by my father to play organized baseball.

I did play unorganized or disorganized baseball, though–on a cow pasture. We had to invent some unique ground rules for that unique field. It was a ground-rule double if the ball bounced into the pond in right field; a homer if it went into the drink on the fly. (The batter did not have to run the bases in those cases. Rather, he ran to the pond and fished out the ball before it became waterlogged.) It was an automatic single if a ball hit the ubiquitous and ever-present cow piles scattered randomly over the field. In spite of the hazards, we played on that field until it was so dark we couldn’t see the not-so-white ball. Today, every time I see a well-manicured Little League field, I turn green with envy of the tykes who are privileged to play on it.

In college one semester, I took a PE class on baseball. It was in that class that instructor Joe Elmer taught me not just to love the game but also to appreciate its intricacies.

Now, any time I hear someone lament how “boring” baseball is (“all they do is stand around”), I shake my head at their ignorance. Baseball is a constantly, continuously active sport. It’s a game of the mind. Before, during, and after every play, every player on the field–and even many off the field–is thinking. What pitch to throw–if you’re the pitcher or catcher. What the pitch will be–if you’re the batter. How much to lead off base–if you’re a runner. Where to throw the ball if it comes to you or where to go if it is not–if you’re a fielder. What signs to give batters and runners–if you’re a base coach. Whether to yank a pitcher or leave him in for one more batter or whether to put in a pinch runner or pinch hitter–if you’re a manager. If played and watched as it should be, baseball can never be a boring game.

When our four daughters were young, a new generation of Braves players arose, and the Braves of the 90s were writ large on our family schedule. Our girls became enthralled with baseball, with the Braves–Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz, and others. Whenever they were in the playoffs and World Series (which was practically every year during that decade), we let the girls stay up ‘way past their bedtime and watch the games to the very end–and they not only stayed awake but were on the edge of their seats with excitement.

We fed the girls’ insatiable appetite for baseball by taking them to numerous Knoxville Sox, Blue Jays, and Smokies games. (The franchise changed team affiliations so often it was hard to keep track of what they were called.)

Yes, I’m glad to see that the boys are back and that another season of America’s pastime is before us. Now that a new season is upon us, let’s sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and play ball!

 

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due

Seventy-two years ago yesterday–on February 23, 1945–perhaps the most famous war photograph in history was taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. It ended up becoming the first photo to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year in which it was taken. But it symbolizes today, not the photographic or journalistic abilities of Joe Rosenthal, but the tenacity and persistence of the American Spirit.

photolibrary-raisingtheflagoniwojima-highres-3138x2076That photo of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima–and the memorial statue in Washington, D.C., that is based on that photo–represents not only the U.S. Marine Corps but also American military resolve.

But many people don’t know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have said. They think that once the flag was raised, the battle was over. Far from it.

The battle, which had begun when the first marines rushed ashore on February 19, was not over until the island was declared secured on March 16. In fact, another lesser known photo was taken moments after the now-famous Rosenthal photo, and it shows marines with their M-1 carbines ready to defend themselves because the flag raisers had just come under enemy fire.

No, the raising of the flag was not the end of the battle. That would not occur until after 6,851 Americans had made the supreme sacrifice and another 20,000 were wounded. The Japanese, too, fell to the tune of 18,000 killed. Only 216 of them were captured.

The Battle of Iwo Jima resulted in the awarding of more medals of honor than during any other single battle in American history. Twenty-two marines and five sailors earned that distinguished honor, thirteen of them posthumously.

In describing the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Today, the Battle of Iwo Jima remains the Marine Corps standard of valor and service to one’s country, the measuring stick for how battles should be fought if they are to be won.

The surviving veterans of Iwo Jima, like all veterans of World War II, are fast disappearing from the scene. They deserve our honor, acclaim, and expressions of sincere appreciation today while they are still among us. And their determination and resolve to fight on against overwhelming odds and a tenacious and fanatical enemy deserve our emulation as our nation once again faces similarly fanatical enemies today.

Semper fidelis!

Remembering a Buggy Battlefield

olusteekaflThe largest battle of the War Between the States that took place in the state of Florida occurred on February 20, 1864. That historic location was also the site of another kind of combat that my family and I waged several years ago when we took a little side trip to visit the Olustee battlefield.

Although the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as it was known at the time) is today long forgotten by most people and little considered by those who do know about it, the official website of the battlefield (www.battleofolustee.org) says, “In proportion to the number of troops involved, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.” It almost became the site of my family’s own Waterloo.

The battle was the culmination of a move by Union troops from Hilton Head, S.C., to capture Jacksonville and then move inland, depriving the Confederacy of supplies of cotton, food, timber, and turpentine. Secondary motives were to recruit black soldiers from among the slaves that might be freed and to convince Unionist Floridians in the northern part of the state to form a separate government.

tseymourfineganjoseph63As the 5,500 Union troops under General Truman A. Seymour (left) moved into the interior of northern Florida with their 16 cannons, the Confederate forces under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (right) put out a call for help and began preparing to force the enemy to colquittcivilwarfight on the Confederates’ terms. Southern troops from Georgia under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt (left) arrived to join Finegan’s force.

Finegan chose as his battlefield a place called Ocean Pond (today known as Olustee). He anchored the left end of his defensive line on the pond and his right end on an impenetrable swamp. He positioned his infantrymen in the narrow passage of dry land between these two points and supported the ends with cavalry.

The Union forces made first contact with Confederate skirmishers on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Southerners lured the Union troops into the preferred battlefield. It was covered with pine trees, but there was no underbrush and the Confederates had prepared no earthworks. The resulting battle raged until dark, when the Unionists retreated, leaving behind 1,861 dead. The Confederates lost about half that many (946).

The Confederate victory at Olustee allowed the interior of Florida to remain in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.

Several years ago, having read something about this little-known battlefield but wanting to know more, I decided that it also might be an educational stopover for my four daughters during one of our trips to visit their grandparents in South Florida. We got off of I-75 onto I-10 near Lake City and headed east toward Jacksonville. At that time, there had been no development along that route, and I was concerned about running out of gas or having car trouble in such a desolate place. And when you’re in unfamiliar territory, travel seems to take much longer than it really does.

About 15 miles east of Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, we found the exit for U.S. 90 and then traveled about 5 1/2 miles south to the battlefield. The only things we passed on the way were swamps, a prison (a desolate, swampy place is ideal for a prison, but don’t pick up hitchhikers!), and dismal-looking pine barrens. The entrance to the battlefield was nondescript and the battlefield itself was visually unimpressive. We drove up to a tiny, pine tree-surrounded building that seemed about the size of a POD or a shipping container. That was the welcome center and the museum.

Seeing a few monuments and cannons behind the building, we exited the car to stretch our legs and begin our educational tour. And what an education we got!

Gray clouds of mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we opened the car doors and followed us from exhibit to exhibit while being joined by reinforcements every step of the way. The girls got their exercise running and slapping and complaining. Even I, as focused as I was on gaining as much knowledge about this battlefield as I could, finally gave up trying to stay in one spot long enough to read anything. I was too busy retreating from mosquitoes. We found temporary refuge inside the tiny museum, but we could look at the few items housed there only so many times, then we had to dash to the car and hope that not too many of the enemy slipped inside with us.

The time we spent at Olustee was the shortest of all of the many visits our family has made to numerous Civil War battlefields. Granted, we were at Olustee in the summertime, whereas the actual battle occurred in February, but I still wonder how the soldiers of both sides stood it. Did they bathe in citronella before the battle? I also wonder how many of the 2,800 or so casualties in that battle were the result of mosquito bites! Maybe the mosquitoes, not Southern troops, were the reason the north-central part of the state remained in Confederate hands!