NATIONAL AND PERSONAL TRAGEDIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Everyone who was over the age of five on November 22, 1963, remembers where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. It was a seminal moment in most people’s lives.

I was in a ninth grade math class taught by my crusty, no nonsense math teacher, Miss Rosenthal. It was the last class on a Friday and I was sitting next to the window in the front row.

Me around ninth grade

I suddenly heard shouting outside on the front walkway and saw kids gathering and talking animatedly. Miss Rosenthal got annoyed at me for looking out the window and told me to face front and pay attention. I protested that something was going on outside but Miss Rosenthal didn’t care. She insisted I stay focused on the class and ignore the crowd growing just a few feet away from me. When we went back to school on Monday, Miss Rosenthal apologized to the class for preventing us from hearing the breaking news sooner.

As soon as class was over, we were accosted by kids in the hallway with reports of JFK’s shooting. In a haze, I went to my locker, got my coat and went outside. By the time I got to the front door, everyone was hysterical because JFK had died.

We were all crying on the car ride home. I spent the entire weekend watching the round the clock coverage of the death and the funeral. I saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV. I shared this grueling experience with most of the country – the first time we all went through a national crisis together in that way.

Oswald getting shot on live TV

In contrast, my mother was out shopping that Friday afternoon. She was looking at sets of China and fell in love with an expensive set that was way above her budget. She reluctantly left the store but was proud of her frugality. She immediately heard the news about JFK’s assassination. Her reaction, after horror and sorrow, was “Life is short”. So she turned around, went back into the china shop and bought the china! That’s my mom in a nutshell – a president’s assassination translates into the purchase of something beautiful.

My mom around 1963 all dolled-up to go out

I actually saw John F. Kennedy up close, in person, twice. The first time, his car slowly passed ours on the FDR Drive. He was in a convertible with the top down and his hair was blowing in the wind. He was charismatic. The second time, he was president and his motorcade was driving up Park Avenue, in New York City, the street I lived on. I was about twelve and was walking home. I stopped and stood in the street to catch a glimpse of his car. I saw him clearly through the window and I waved to him. As I watched the car drive past me, Kennedy turned around and waved back at me. There was no one else there that he could have been looking at! I was thrilled and I can still see his face in my mind.

JFK

Later in high school, I had a different experience with death. My best friend, Anne, lived a few blocks from me and we spent a lot of time together. One day, Anne’s father pulled me aside. He told me that Anne’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he wanted me to be the one to tell her. I was in eleventh grade! I was shocked and terrified. But he pleaded with me and said he just couldn’t do it himself.

When Anne was visiting, I sat her down in my comfy chair and gave her the bad news. As I had expected, she wanted to go right home and be with her parents. Her mother died a few months later.

My friend Anne in her Senior Yearbook photo

Unbelievably, this scenario repeated itself the very next year! In our senior year in high school, Anne’s father was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her Aunt Edna, her father’s sister, was very close to the family. She came to me and, again, asked if I would tell Anne that she was losing her sole remaining parent. I protested but Edna said that she and her brother didn’t want to be the ones to break the news to Anne.

So, again, I sat Anne down and gave her the life-changing news. This was devastating for me as well as for her. We both cried. When her dad died later that year, Aunt Edna moved in with Anne and became her permanent mother and father.

My senior yearbook photo

Anne and I stayed friends through college but then lost touch. We only reconnected, by email, after our 40th high school reunion, over ten years ago. She was a lawyer, was married and had two grown daughters. She seemed content with her life and I felt relieved to know that she had landed on her feet after her early tragedies.

So my high school years had different but powerful brushes with death that helped shape who I am and how I deal with tragedy and death.

QUOTH THE RAVENMASTER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

There are some strange professions. Many of them are with the British Royal Household, like Keeper of the Queen’s Stamps, Grand Carver, and Royal Clock Winder. However, the one that caught my eye was written about on October 21, 2018, in the Washington Post: Ravenmaster.

The Ravenmaster takes care of the seven ravens who reside at the Tower of London, the 11th-century fortress that is one of Britain’s most popular tourist sites. It was a prison and an execution site for many, like Anne Boleyn. It has numerous lurid stories from it’s long and brutal history.

Christopher Skaife in his regular Ravenmaster uniform

Ravens seem to have started living at the Tower in the Victorian era when the Gothic Revival was in full swing. Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet.

The Tower birds are now celebrities in their own right and they receive loving and meticulous care from the current Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife. He gives them treats of dog biscuits soaked in blood and he has had to climb parts of the Tower to retrieve rogue ravens.

Treats for the ravens

Mr. Skaife was a machine gunner in the British Army for 24 years and then became a Yeoman Warder, one of 37 élite guards who are keepers of tradition and tour guides. He now lives at the Tower with his family. It must be fun for his kids to bring friends ‘home’ for playdates!

The Tower ravens come from bird breeders. They are wild, though acclimated to humans. They roam free during the day. At night, Skaife has to round them up and put them in airy enclosures to protect them from foxes, who ate two ravens in 2013.

Night enclosures

In the morning, Skaife releases the birds in careful order, from least dominant to the most dominant. The birds apparently have a very strict hierarchy which the Ravenmaster must respect. They have also divided the tower into individual territories according to that hierarchy.

Ceremonial Ravenmaster uniform

The birds are scavengers and like to rummage through the trash cans. They are particularly fond of potato chips but they don’t like the flavored kind, like cheddar or onion. So they wash the flavored chips in puddles to get rid of the extra flavoring, which I think is very clever! They are also known to steal sandwiches from children.

Ravens at Tower

Ravens can fly but not too far or too often. They can fly to the roof or the ramparts, but that’s about it. Previous caregivers would trim their feathers so they couldn’t fly at all. But one bird, on Skaife’s watch, climbed up some scaffolding and leaped off it. He died in Skaife’s arms so Skaife will no longer limit the ravens’ flight.

Once one raven did manage to escape the Tower and flew down the Thames River. She was captured by a local birdwatcher who recognized the bracelet on her leg as belonging to the Tower flock. The Good Samaritan put the raven in her gym bag and returned her to her home.

Raven at the Tower

I love all animals so this job caught my imagination. While not the cutest or friendliest of birds, it must be gratifying to preserve a long-held tradition at an historically famous site. Caring for a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens, the words for a group of ravens is clearly not a job for everyone.

After eleven years, Christopher Skaife is still going strong at his job. He’s even written an autobiography. Who knew that being a Ravenmaster could be the route to becoming a published author!

 

AN ANCIENT WORLD IN YOUR HANDS – Marilyn Armstrong

I collect very old Chinese porcelain. I used to have a lot more of it, but in the name of de-cluttering, I divided my collection and gave the other half to my best friend who I knew would appreciate it.

Han Dynasty 206 BC - 220 AD
Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD

The Chinese government has not always been diligent in managing their national treasures. Sometimes, it was a political decision. Many times, foreigners have stolen the best and most beautiful, which is why you will see so much Chinese art in English and American museums. They didn’t give it to us; we didn’t buy it. We stole it. What a shock they aren’t as in love with us as we think they ought to be.

Very fragile — and broken. All I have left is this single photograph.

In recent decades, the issues have been pragmatic — lack of money. There is so much that needs preservation. The U.S. has difficulty preserving our 250 years of history. Imagine how hard — and expensive — if your nation’s history goes back thousands of years. And your country is huge and densely populated.

Suddenly, preservation becomes more than slightly daunting.

Counter point - Modern Limoge ca 1965 alongside Song dynasty vase (China Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD). I use the vase for single roses. Perfect size.
Counter point – Modern Limoges ca 1965 alongside Song dynasty vase (China Song Dynasty 960-1279 AD). I use the vase for single roses. Perfect size.

Private collectors — like me — who have become custodians of some of these very old things have an obligation to care for them. We have to make sure they will be inherited by others who will treasure them. That’s not as easy as you might think. Not everyone “gets it.” And many people have no room; they have their own stuff and can’t help with yours.

I could have sold my pots but I didn’t want them to go to the highest bidder. I wanted them to be where they would be loved. If that sounds weird, you have never collected antiquities.

Antique Famille Rose Porcelain plate

When you hold one of these pieces, you in the most literal sense hold history in your hand. Imagine how many people have held this vase, this statue, this oil lamp. How many lives this pot has touched. Imagine!

HOLOCAUST STORIES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I was born in New York City in 1949, just a few years after the end of WWII. My parents and grandparents, all Jewish, lived through WWII hearing horror stories about Jewish persecution and the concentration camps. They genuinely feared that if Germany won the war, a distinct possibility for much of the war, the ‘final solution’ for the Jews would spread all around the Nazi-controlled world. It was a scary time for everyone, but particularly for Jews, even in America.

My grandmother’s sister, Rachel had stayed in Russia, with one other sister, while her siblings and eventually her parents emigrated to the United States. They lived close to the western border, so when Hitler broke his pact with Russia and invaded, their town was one of the first to be taken. This was before the Russian army had even begun to mobilize. The Jews in their town were rounded up and put in the synagogue. The building was set on fire and anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Rachel’s oldest son was in school in Moscow at the time his family was murdered. After the war, organizations were formed all over the world to help Jews locate relatives and friends who were missing after the war. My grandmother spent years searching for her nephew, but no trace of him was ever found.

My grandmother as a young child (between her parents) with her siblings

My mother and grandmother were obsessed with the Holocaust when I was growing up. They read everything they could find on the persecution of Jews, and particularly about the concentration camps. I was given graphic books about the camps at around nine or ten years of age. Way too young, in my opinion.

But I also learned about the camps in another, more personal way. Two Czechoslovakian, identical twin sisters named Irina and Elena were good friends of my parents. They told us lots of stories about their time in concentration and work camps, including Auschwitz.

They were sixteen years old when they and their parents were put in overcrowded cattle cars, squashed together with other terrified Jews, and shipped to Auschwitz. They had no food, water or bathrooms for several days. People were crying and screaming. People got sick and died. The smells were unbearable. They arrived at the camp in horrible shape, physically as well as emotionally.

There was a line of Jews being processed into the camp. Dr. Joseph Mengele was at the front of the line with a whip which he used to indicate if a person should go to the left into the camp, or to the right, directly into the gas chambers.

He also picked people out of the line to be subjected to his horrible, sadistic ‘medical’ experiments – all done without anesthesia.

Dr. Josef Mengele, also called “The Angel of Death”

Irina and Elena tell how their lives were saved by a camp guard. The guard recognized that the girls were twins. He also knew that Dr. Mengele loved to do experiments on twins. This guard’s wife was also a twin so he took pity on the girls. He whispered to them that they should say that they were a year apart in age. Bewildered, the girls did as they were told and were sent to the camp, saving their lives. They also threw away their eyeglasses so they would be judged healthy and ready to work, thus avoiding the gas chamber.

I don’t remember all their stories about the camps. I remember that they were separated from their parents and didn’t know if they were even still alive till the end of the war. I also remember that a good friend of theirs, also a teenager, got sick. They tried to nurse her back to health. They even gave her part of their meager rations of food. But she died anyway and they were crushed.

They told us that they tried very hard to preserve some of their Jewish traditions – a reminder of life outside the camps. They feel this helped preserve their sanity and gave them the strength to survive. They and a few other friends would save up pieces of their daily bread so they could sneak off and have secret Shabbat ‘dinners’ and celebrate Passover at a makeshift Seder. They managed to find something to use as a tablecloth and maybe a candle, to make these celebrations as real as possible.

They were liberated by the Americans and the British at the end of the war. Miraculously, their parents survived (they had also been separated in the camp) and they were reunited. They were emaciated and weak and their heads had all been shaven. They went back to Czechoslovakia and began to recuperate and start a new life. Their hair began to grow back, which was a huge deal for the still young twins.

Tragically, Elena’s new life was cut short in 1948. She was arrested for being a communist, turned in by a ‘friend’. The Czech authorities shaved her head again and threw her into prison for another year. She had emotionally survived the camps but this was too much for her to handle. She had a complete mental breakdown in prison. She was mentally very fragile for the rest of her life. She went up and down emotionally and had many periods of serious meltdowns and crises. Her sister was at her side through all her problem periods, even when they lived in different parts of the world. They remained close the rest of their lives.

I made sure that my children understood the Holocaust, but in an age-appropriate way. When my daughter, Sarah, was around seven, we were in Germany and we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp, which is now a museum to the Holocaust. We answered any questions she had but didn’t push too much information on her. She came across a photo that got to her on a visceral level. It showed a child being torn away from its mother and the mother and child were frantically reaching for each other. Sarah was horrified when she realized that children were being separated from their parents. That’s what she could relate to at her age and it made an indelible impression on her.

Dachau Concentration Camp as a museum today

Both my children are adults now and know a lot about the Holocaust and World War II. Hopefully, they will make sure that their children never forget.

Hopefully, no one will forget.

INTOLERANCE: REEL AND REAL – Garry Armstrong

A friend today posted a review on Facebook about the film, “Schindler’s List” which he had just seen for the first time, 25-years after the acclaimed movie’s release. My friend talked about the film’s haunting power, its narrative about one man’s brave quest to save a number of Holocaust victims from death.

It’s based on a true story and Schindler holds a special place in Israel for his efforts.

Charlottesville rally

Stephen Spielberg said he made the film to honor its hero, Oscar Schindler and remember all the Holocaust victims, those who were saved and the many who weren’t.

The film — with current headlines about neo-Nazi and white-supremacist rallies in the United States and elsewhere — feels more relevant than ever. The recent attacks on Synagogues in Pittsburgh and anti-semitic incidents in Massachusetts — leave people wondering: “Have we forgotten?”

Wounds are raw from last year’s ugly Charlottesville KKK rally that claimed one life and left our President issuing comments about “perpetrators on both sides.”  Antisemitism and racism continue to be headline stories more than 75-years after millions gave their lives in a war that should have ended those injustices.

Obviously not. There have been a few “message” movies that deal with those still festering issues which many insist no longer exist. Dissidents say it’s more “fake news” from the liberal media.  So many ostriches with their heads in the sand.

The other night I revisited the movie “Crossfire” which was released by RKO in 1947, the year before the more acclaimed “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was released. This drew public attention and “surprise” about Antisemitism in post-war America.

“Crossfire” is an excellent, understated film about this virulent subject matter. Its director, Edward Dmytryk (a victim of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s infamous “Blacklist) used the plot of a small group of GI’s, just mustered out of the war and trying to fit back into society.

Circa 1955: Studio headshot portrait of Canadian-born film director Edward Dmytryk (1908 – 1999). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

They encounter a friendly civilian at a bar who listens to their complaints about readjustment and offers sympathy where others just tune them out. One of the GI’s — lonely for his wife and exhibiting PTSD symptoms — is befriended by the civilian who invites him home for drinks and quiet conversation.

The other soldiers – uninvited — crowd into the apartment and lap up the booze.  One of them, a very obnoxious vet — sneers at men who avoided combat, who got rich running banks and law practices. He looks at one of his confused pals and yells: “Jews, man! You know those people! They get rich while we fight and die. Jews!”

The civilian referred to as “Sammy,” is tolerant. Veteran actor Sam Levene who played many similar roles is perhaps overly patient with the bigoted GI. This is Robert Ryan in one of his most chilling villain roles.

Robert Ryan

The secondary plot has “Sammy” murdered by one of the GIs. The PTSD soldier is fingered as the suspect but we know better. Robert Young, in a pre “Father Knows Best” role, plays the tough, weary cop who sifts through all the alibis. This is one of Robert Mitchum’s early films. He is excellent as the soft-spoken, no-nonsense veteran who is suspicious of the venomous Ryan character.

Ryan is ultimately outed as he rants about “those people.” He gets what he deserves and is gunned down during a police chase on a rainy New Orleans Street.

The final scene with Young and Mitchum in conversation about Ryan’s demons ends quietly as they go their separate ways, both wondering what World War Two was really all about.

Robert Mitchum

In an early 1970s interview, Robert Mitchum remembered “Crossfire.” He was in Boston shooting “The Friends Of Eddie Coyle,” so I had the good fortune to spend a long afternoon into the evening over drinks with “Mitch.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Mitchum recalled what it was like working in the 1940s, especially with “The Blacklist” hovering over Hollywood. He said some pals urged him not to do “Crossfire” because it would hurt his career.

“Mitch” grinned at me “You know what that was all about, Don’t ya?”   I nodded.  Mitchum continued, “There were so many hateful bastards —  there were always dissing Negroes (he looked at me and I nodded an ‘okay’) and Jews. They always thought I was with them. I had a few fights and dumped a few jobs because I couldn’t stand the two-faced bastards.”

Robert Mitchum, older portrait

I looked at Mitch and confirmed: “Not much has changed.” He shook his head sadly and ordered another round.

That was almost 50 years ago. No, not much has changed.  Not on the silver screen or in real life.

NINIANE, LADY OF THE LAKE – Reblog – Flint Johnson

TALLHWCH – The pursuit of history

The first mention of either the Lady of the Lake or Ninian (Niniane, Vivian, etc.) is to be found in the late work Prose Merlin.  Her character remains much the same through to Sir Thomas Malory, who simply makes the story more complex.  In all the stories that name her Ninian is a fully developed character.  She is the original owner of Arthur’s second sword and later becomes Merlin’s pupil.

However, as with many aspects of the Arthurian literary world, there are serious gaps in reasoning with her story, and these gaps suggest a very different origin for her.  For instance, Merlin somehow knows she will betray him, but teaches her anyway.  The romances explain that he does so because he loves her, but that sounds like more of a rationalization of something not understood than a historical fact that is.

The end of her story is that Niniane does trap Merlin in a cave the moment her studies are over.  He is left there, alive (again, no serious explanation).  It certainly is not out of malice for Arthur.  Niniane takes over as his counselor for the remainder of his reign and does her best to help him.  She is also one of the four women who take him to Avalon.  That is the extent of Ninian’s literary career.  Clearly, her original character and the transformation have been hidden by chance and misunderstandings.

Uinniau was a prominent ecclesiastic of sixth-century Britain who may have been Columba’s teacher.  He was known as Niniane in Welsh saints’ lives or Nynia by Bede.  However, much of Scotland has place-names derived from his proper name of Uinniau.  This Uinniau was known for three things mainly.  First, he was one of the most knowledgeable persons of his age.  Second, he was a great teacher who made his monastery of Whithorn was a primary center of learning in Britain.  Finally, it is known that he would occasionally go on a retreat to a nearby cave, known as St. Ninian’s Cave, which was several miles away from his monastery.

Niniane would eventually became the form by which Uinniau was exclusively known.  In fact, the process must have been an early one.  Bede, writing in 725, knew him only by that name.  It was an unfortunate circumstance that Niniane was a Celtic name, and the romance writers who would treat Arthur on the continent spoke Germanic and Latin languages.  The unfamiliarity with Celtic would lead to confusion over his gender, and he became a she there.

Arthur was an attractive figure in the literature of the Middle Ages, gravitating all manner of figures, motifs, and stories to him.  In previous blogs, I have mentioned the attraction of the Myrddin (Merlin) legend and the figure of Urien.  The same sort of fate awaited Uinniau.  Long before Arthur had become a figure of romance, Uinniau’s dominant name-form had become to Niniane.  For the Celtic speaker that was still a male name, but for continentals, it was female.

That change from male to female, from independent ecclesiastic to intelligent layperson was where Uinniau became a different literary figure.  Once Uinniau was a part of the Arthurian universe, his reputation for intelligence would have drawn him to the already established Merlin; in an irony of history, a lunatic (Myrddin) became the teacher of one of the best-read people of the age (Uinniau).  Once that transformation was accomplished, the latent aspects of Uinniau’s memory easily made their way into Arthurian the tales, and Merlin was trapped in the cave Uinnau had used as a refuge.

I won’t pretend to know how Ninian became the Lady of the Lake.  However, she would not have begun her Arthurian career that way.  She would have started off as Merlin’s pupil and successor with the qualities of her historical precursor intact.  She was associated with a lake only by Robert de Boron, an author that I have discovered in my research was not one to stick with his traditional sources.  It is possible he knew of some Celtic tale which he used to enhance Uinniau’s mythology.  It is equally possible he used something more contemporary.  That part of the history of the Lady of the Lake we may never know.

Marilyn Armstrong‘s insight:

One of my favorite mysteries, leaving enough unanswered questions to hold my interest. If you have never visited TALLWCH, check it out: http://tallhwch.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/niniane-the-lady-of-the-lake/

See on: tallhwch.wordpress.com

TEMPLE TRACKS #writephoto – Marilyn Armstrong

MEMORIES IN STONE
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL MINI MYSTERY
#WRITE PHOTO

You could see where the temple had been. The ground was slightly raised forming what appeared to be a circle. If you looked carefully, you could see the tip of a pillar poking out of the ground. Not full evidence of what lay beneath the ground, but certainly some strong hints.

Every time I pass that place along that old road, I wondered what lay beneath the soil.

Then, one summer, a group descended on the area and began to very carefully dig. They found the pillars of a church, but when they dug further, they discovered the pillars of the church stood on the pillars of a Roman temple. Not merely pillars, but statues and a mosaic floor that was nearly perfect.

There was more.

The deeper they dug, the more they found. The Roman temple rested on pillars of something so ancient, no one was quite sure what it was and below that, what appeared to be tombs, possibly neolithic.

The ground was clearly regarded as sacred to every people who had lived here. Now, of course, it was an archaeological park with a small fee required to enter the area.

It was seeing history reveal itself in layers, and as each layer was lifted, it was taken to a museum. When finally, the reached bedrock, they brought back a couple of pillars and a covering so that this special, sacred space, could be remembered.

What memories were part of the ground, the air, the stones?  Why this spot? Many guesses, but no answers. The ones who knew were long-buried.

THURSDAY PHOTO PROMPT – Sue Vincent – The Daily Echo