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Friday, December 11, 2015

Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

A Christmas Story no American who cares about valor will ever forget.  Our debt to The Greatest Generation is memorialized at The American Cemetery and Memorial near Luxembourg’s Findel Airport, just outside Luxembourg City.

You stride through the elaborate gates, look at the magnificent mosaic presentations of troop movements in World War II, but even at the sight of 5076 white crosses and Stars of David, it’s easy to overlook what it all means.  Aside from the sacrifice of young Americans in defense of their country and the bulwark against the totalitarian Nazis regime, you’re still left in ignorant awe.  There are young men and old interred here and at the head of them, in a grave set apart, lies a leader among leaders, General George S Patton, Jr.

Is this just another graveyard, like so many others?  Unfortunately, we are accustomed to seeing rows and rows of white crosses, from a war that cost us about 360,000 men and women killed. What’s the story?  Or to put it another way, what makes this military cemetery different.

A thumbnail of the saga goes like this: from 16 December 1944 until 25 January 1945, the German Army, under Adolf Hitler’s direct orders, fought what would be their last great offensive.  It was a final, desperate effort to fight the western allies to a stalemate and free Hitler to concentrate on the Russian front.  The battle has many names.  The Ardennes Offensive, or in French Bataille des Ardennes, or in German Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, Operation Watch on the Rhine.  The American Army referred to it as The Ardennes Counteroffensive, but the press coined the name that stuck, The Battle of the Bulge.

But, why Luxembourg as a place for an American Cemetery?  Look at the map.  Luxembourg and Belgium were where Germany thrust the sharp end of its last spear.

In short, the German forces massed and struck almost undetected.  The object:  Cut the allied forces in two and secure the channel ports, preventing reinforcements and devastating the allied war effort.  Very ambitious.  Had it worked, even if the allies had been only stifled for a year, the German Army had a bare chance of rearranging the final outcome.

What stopped the Germans?  Lack of sufficient fuel and fierce allied opposition.   The American line bent, but did not break, the most famous example being the 101st Airborne Division at the small town of Bastogne, but there were many others.

But the 101st couldn’t hold out indefinitely.  On 19 Dec, General Eisenhower discussed with his staff how to respond.  How fast can we get more troops there?  General Patton said, Give me 48 hours.  Everyone else at the meeting said it couldn’t be done.  Patton’s 3rd Army was heavily engaged in contact with the enemy.  He’d have to disengage, turn the 3rd Army 90 degrees, and march his 23 divisions from Metz, France to Bastogne, some 90 miles north, in winter, under attack.  But, having few other options, Eisenhower decided to let George Patton give it a try.

While watching his men heading toward the Germans surrounding Bastogne, he said, "No other army in the world could do this. No other soldiers could do what these men are doing. By God, I'm proud of them."  Bastogne was relieved shortly after Christmas, 1944.

Luxembourg has not forgotten.  The land for the cemetery is granted in perpetuity.

That’s what so special about these graves and these men who have lain here some 70 years, including a far sighted general, intent on victory, who drove his men hard, and himself even harder.  What lost dreams lie in these graves.  What sacrifice they represent.

Enjoy a Merry Christmas and give a thought to all those men and women, throughout our history, for whom Christmas is now just another cold December day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Small Glimpse of German Christmas Cheer!

This is the time for Christkindlmarkts.  Yep, in Germany the Christmas markets are in full swing across  the land.  Sure, you’ve heard of the big ones in Berlin and München, and so forth, but you don’t have to wander far to find smaller versions.  In my opinion, sometimes smaller is better.  No huge crowds.  No long lines for eating and drinking…essen und trinken.

The market in the photos took place a couple of weeks ago in a nearby city.  What do you think of when you think of Christmas markets?  Things to buy and eat?  Christmas ornaments?  Well, there’s all that, of course, but even more, a German Christkindlmarkt is a place for friends to gather for steaming cups of tea with rum, or mugs of Glühwein, that spiced and sugared red wine concoction.  Local bands play Christmas music.  The aroma of roasting meats fills the frosty air.

Choirs of school children, bundled up and showing off their weeks of practice, belt out choruses of traditional hymns and Santa Claus classics.  By the way, here are a couple of ‘Did you know?’ items.

Over here, Santa Claus is St. Nicolas and he delivers small gifts to children on St Nicolas Day, 6 December.  Family members exchange gifts on Christmas Eve.

Do the early Christmas markets make a little more sense now?  Another thing to factor in is that Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day) is a big part of the holiday season, so celebrations begin about 1 December and go through to the 25th.  Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin, the season leading up to the coming of Jesus.

In Germany, at least for the present, Christmas is a religious time.  But, that doesn’t mean there are no Christmas trees!  There are plenty and the custom dates back to the middle ages.  Parents traditionally decorate the trees in secret.

There’s the German Christmas season in a nutshell.  Go out with friends and family and find a Christkindlmarkt, large or small.  It’s a social season!  Sip that tea and rum, or glug that Glühwein!  And, as they say in Germany…  Frohe Weihnachten!!!  Happy Christmas!!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Be Like Brit: A Small Haitian Orphanage

 Things that begin simply often turn wonderfully complex.  I sat in First Class on a short flight from Atlanta and I must admit creature comforts are a nice dalliance.   The doors weren’t yet closed; we hadn’t had the safety briefing and learned how to fasten our seat belts.

A lady in the row ahead of me asked if I’d like to change seats.  I’m nothing if not considerate.  The soul of kindness.  I moved up a row; she moved back and drinks arrived.  Scotch, thanks.  Rocks.  Smiles.  Glasses.  None of that plastic crap.

The nice looking, middle aged guy next to me, tie still on, suit jacket in the overhead, gave off that vibe of excess energy and soon we were locked in animated conversation.  Politics. Religion.  All those verboten things that on that day flowed with alacrity and smoothness.  We moved effortlessly into “Where ya been, whatcha been doin’?”

Turned out he’d just returned from Haiti.  Worked at an orphanage, building this and that.  “Oh, so you’re in construction?” said I.

Laughter.  “No, I’m an accountant.”  He wasn’t joking.  That begged a million questions, but it took only one match to get the fire roaring.

“What made you go to Haiti?”

The story that burst out of him intrigued me and it began with a name:  Britany Gengal.  A young woman who went to Haiti, saw the poverty, the hopelessness, and wrote to her parents, saying she thought she could make a difference and wanted to start an orphanage.  Unfortunately, the 7.0 earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 took her life and would have put an end to her dreams, except…

To honor their daughter, Brit’s parents took up the challenge and developed the orphanage.  It’s small scale, with only 33 boys and 33 girls, but has made a difference in these children’s lives and as it grows, more and more children will be helped.

My conversationalist friend told me how overwhelmed he was with the joy and caring he’d experienced first hand.

“So, you’d never done any building before this?”

“Didn’t know a hammer from a nail.  When I asked my wife about going to Haiti and donating my time, she wasn’t enthusiastic. 

We discussed and discussed until she finally told me, “Look, I know you’re going to go, so why are we even talking about this?  Just go.”

“So, I did.”

I wanted to know what the orphanage does for the kids.  Everything.  Provides a home and school, and a safe environment, plus medical care.  Evidently, medical people come down and provide voluntary healthcare.  My new friend related how he was wandering around and chanced upon a child who obviously needed some extensive help.  He told Brit’s mother who said she knew about the boy, but the work he needed couldn’t be performed on site and they were arranging for him to go back to the states for treatment.  “Don’t worry,” she said, “We’ve got him covered.”

I wanted to know, “What’s the end game?”  Haiti is a deep well of almost unimaginable poverty.

“The orphanage is training Haiti’s future leaders.”

I’m not a guy who is easily impressed.  I’ve lived around the world and have a built-in nonsense detector.  How many times have you and I heard, “It’s about helping the children?” To be honest, that is seldom true, although that is often the intent.  Too often bureaucracy spreads its dark wings and casts a shadow over the dream.  This time, the effort is personal and private.

My companion was so energized from his trip that I caught his enthusiasm.  Be Like Brit is not a charity that deals in millions of dollars, nor is it so esoteric that I can’t relate.  It’s something I can understand and is right now making a difference to 66 kids.

I want to help.   There are so many ways for you to join the effort, all described on the web site.  Money is always welcome, but the orphanage also posts a wish list of items they need, or you may want to join my airline buddy and do some building.  Check it out.  Here’s the web site.   AND be sure to post a link to this blog or to the website on any social media you use.  Help spread the word about this very worthwhile effort!

Be Like Brit is proud to be a Gold Participant with the Guide Star Exchange. Be Like Brit is a U.S.A. registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization which operates a 19,000sf earthquake proof orphanage in Grand Goave, Haiti. The orphanage was built in loving memory of 19 year old Britney Gengel who perished in the Haiti Earthquake while on a service trip with her college, Lynn University. Today there are 66 beautiful children living and thriving in the orphanage. Hundreds of people, from all over the world, come visit the orphanage to volunteer and thousands of individuals are part of the Be Like Brit Family.”

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Just when you thought everything possible had been written about Winston Leonard Spenser-Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader, along comes another rewrite. 

Not so fast, friends and neighbors, liberals and conservatives.  Johnson approaches the Churchill mystique from a different direction, interweaving Churchill the man, the politician, the writer, and world player par excellence.  Johnson has got the background for it, himself a Member of Parliament, noted journalist, and Lord Mayor of London.

When I took Modern European History in high school, in what I now realize was the tyranny of the clock on the wall, teachers simply did not have the luxury of painting broad sweeps of history with more than a thin coat of watercolor. “You see,” they would say (with the textbook backing up every sharply pronounced syllable) “Napoleon did this and then he did that and that’s why Italy came to be united and the French hate the English and the Hapsburg Empire crumbled.”  I scribbled feverishly, knowing that for reasons unknown, scraps of that pronouncement would appear on the final and I would have to use a trusty No. 2 pencil to prosaically regurgitate.

Although the keepers of the holy historical script did their best, to the seventeen year old mind, the prolonged soliloquies did nothing more than describe the historical road in terms of long, unblemished freeways.

What Johnson does with The Churchill Factor is to give you a tour of the potholes, the resurfacing, the twists and turns and knotty reasons why the historical road is a curving, winding journey, and seldom smooth.  Historical twenty-twenty hindsight aims a bit high and too straight, catching only the occasional glint of the sun.  Johnson gets you down where the asphalt smokes and the steamroller driver screams at the dump truck driver, and the engineers step in to keep things going and the whole things costs ten times what was promised.

First elected in 1900, Sir Winston’s political career, with more highs and lows than a Disneyworld rollercoaster, lasted until 1964, the year before he died.  Two World Wars that set Europe in flames, along with brushfire wars here and there, along with the decline and fall of the British Empire were only a few of the roadblocks that marked Churchill’s journey.  Yes, he was First Lord of the Admiralty a couple of times, and Prime Minister twice, but he also was a conservative (Tory), turned liberal (for twenty years!), turned conservative.  He was a hero, a goat, a hero once again, and unthankfully voted out of office after what would come to be known as his greatest triumph, only to be voted back in six years later.

Did you realize the British Empire at its zenith was six times larger than the Roman Empire?  Did you know Winston Churchill, as a conservative, built the foundations of the modern British welfare state?

You can’t be in politics for well over sixty years and not make enemies, who were once friends, and once again returned to being so.  How in the world can your supporters suddenly despise you and your enemies admire you?

Was the wartime cabinet all Tories?  Not in the least.  As the war clouds formed over Europe and threatened very existence, did all of Churchill’s compatriots fall in line behind him and his stand against the blackness that was Nazi Germany?  Nope.  Then how in the world did he manage to become Prime Minister in 1940, when his enemies were many and his friends few?  It’s a crooked, rock-strewn story and Boris Johnson tells it well.

The Churchill Factor is not a dusted off rendition of what you read in high school.  It’s a polished page-turner that reads like a thriller.  And that’s exactly what Winston Churchill’s life was, a thriller.  He stumbled badly.  As modern speech would have it, he was many times ‘thrown under the bus,’ but he prevailed.  His will and insight and humor and indefatigable energy never failed him, even when those around him dismissed any thought of his rising again.

Churchill humor.  Well there were a lot of things he said and a lot of things he didn’t say that he got credit for saying.  Lady Asquith:  If I were your wife I would poison your tea.  Winston: Madame, if I were your husband, I would drink it.

Or how about Winston in the men’s room?  Someone knocks on the door and announces:  Mr. Churchill, The Lord Privy Seal is here to see you.  Winston:  Tell him I’m sealed in the privy and can only handle one shit at a time.

No, those are not direct quotes.  Read the book for goodness sake!  Don’t expect me to do all your work for you, especially not after Boris Johnson has already done it and done it well.

One proviso:  Best to read this book on a Kindle or Pad because Boris Johnson is an Englishman and the English vocabulary is upwards three times larger than the standard American vocabulary.  Much easier to push on the word and have a definition pop up than to have to perpetually thumb through a dictionary.

But however you read The Churchill Factor, you’re going to enjoy reading a great book about one of the great figures of the 20th or any other century.  What a story!