Marcia and I got back to Chicago (me) and Des Moines (she) yesterday after a great nine-day trip in England. We did the Battle of Britain Tour with Back-Roads Touring Company, who also guided our 2016 tour to Tuscany. On both trips, we were the sole Americans in the groups, which were otherwise composed of Australians and New Zealanders. We enjoyed that facet of the trip very much.
We saw lots of planes (World War II and Cold War era, primarily), had the chance to fly in a 1936 Dragon Rapide, and also got to see a pair of Supermarine Spitfires (the sexiest plane of the war, if not the most effective) take to the air. Also saw ships, tanks, bombs, submarines, cars, memorials, monuments, code-breaking equipment, museums and so on, while having the chance to amble and ramble about London, Cambridge, Woodhall Spa, Lincoln, Winchester and Portsmouth. Among many highlights, I think Marcia and I would both agree that a private dinner in the Squadron Mess used by the legendary No. 617 “Dambusters” RAF Squadron in their wartime barracks in Petwood Hall was a most unique and rewarding experience. Over 40% of the young men who participated in the famous Dambusters raid against German hydro-power facilities died along the way, and those numbers were not atypical among the aviation units of the day. It was good to spend time where they did, and to remember their amazing stories.
One powerful theme that reoccurred throughout the trip was hearing from folks about their family connections to World War II and its aftermath in Central, Southern and Eastern England. One of many examples: a bearded, long-haired older gentleman named Mike at Thorpe Camp near Woodhall Spa, who has given of his time, talents and resources for over 30 years to preserve a bunch of old buildings that the Royal Air Force had abandoned to first squatters and then council housing after the War. Why did he see them as being worth so much work, and so much care? We asked Mike what fueled his passion for the project, and he said he still sleeps in the bedroom where he was born near the Camp, and that the other men and women who lived (and died) in and around Thorpe Camp “did not want forgetting.” He was committed to saving the buildings that housed and fed them and their families, and telling those community stories in the exhibition space he and his fellows created, keeping the global story local, as it were.
We met folks like Mike every place we visited: older women volunteering in replica NAAFI canteens because they did so as girls; a distinguished older retired Avro Vulcan engineer who (as a volunteer) wore a crisp suit and perfect tie to walk us around a collection of V bombers, sharing their quirks and secrets; an enthusiastic docent at the new Bomber Command Memorial in Lincoln who noted how often she cried as family members came to find the names of their loved ones and share their stories, etc. It seemed like everyone we met was touched somehow by the war and service to it, via family members or direct personal contact as veterans or survivors of the bombing of England during the Battle of Britain. We do not really get a sense of that magnitude from our side of the pond. We also saw that there are active efforts around the country to increase the remembrance as the last of the soldiers, sailors and flyers of the era are going on to their collective great rewards. That’s a good thing, and I am glad to have that perspective from this visit.
As always, we snapped lots of pics. Click on the image of the Dambusters’ Mess at Petwood Hall below to see them all:
Well, “Duck,” more precisely. Or “Tree,” more relevantly. Here’s a feature column from our new format newsletter at work. . .
My father was a career Marine Corps officer back in the days when “unaccompanied tours” (i.e. family members not included) were more the norm than the exception, often for long periods of time. During those times when he was overseas, my mother and I often lived with my grandparents in Ridgeland, South Carolina, in a small cinder block house that my grandfather had built himself. There were lots of cats and dogs around my grandparents’ house, along with an ill-tempered duck named Twiggy who lived on the roof and dive-bombed visitors, and an amazing (to me) tree, right smack in front of the door to the house.
It was a classic Low Country longleaf pine, and it was older than the house; I have pictures of my grandfather and uncle during its construction, and you can see that they tried to preserve as many of the existing trees on the lot as they could, even that one that crowded the front door stoop. And if that wasn’t inconvenient enough, my grandmother later planted wisteria around the tree, and its vines grew huge and thick, completely surrounding the bole of the pine – which is why I loved that tree so much as a little kid, because I could just pop out the front door, stumble over the root-buckled stairs, and use that knotted network of vines to climb to a favorite perch, high enough that I could even see Twiggy on the roof! Perfect!
I claimed that as my very favorite tree for much of my childhood and beyond. Of course, I know now that all the decisions my grandparents made about it were wrong – though they made them with good intentions, hoping for shade, pretty wisteria flowers, curb appeal, etc. The last time I was down that way, I drove by the old house and, not surprisingly, that tree and its choking vines were long, long gone. I suspect removal was an expensive and complicated job, given how knitted into the house that tree must have been when it finally wore out its welcome.
We all teach and preach “right tree, right place” when planting, but I suspect many of us might make the same sorts of mistakes my grandparents did when it comes to building around and in established urban forests, because at heart, we love our trees, and we want to save them all. This is why we seek to cover the full life cycle of trees in our cities when we award our wide spectrum of research grants, recognizing that with rigorous science behind us, we can make better decisions about what goes in, and what comes out, and when, and why.
Well, again, I suppose the singular would have been more apt, since I am discussing the Stanley Cup here . . . which my much beloved and long-suffering Washington Capitals won while we were in England. Huttah!
I’ve been following the Caps since elementary school days in Northern Virginia when they played their first season, and it should come as no surprise if you know them, me, and/or this blog that Caps Fandom has been, well, complicated throughout the years. As I noted more than once here on the blog, they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They have been truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity in aggregate, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking.
The Pittsburgh Penguins (who came into the season as the defending Cup champs) have been a particular nemesis for the Capitals, so it was exciting to see them come back from being down against Columbus, then gutting out a win over the Pens (finally!), then blowing a lead, but recovering from it against Tampa Bay, then surviving a rocky first game loss to move into dominant mode, dispatching the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in five games.
I haven’t wanted to jinx them here along the way by writing about all the games I’ve watched and fingernails I’ve gnawed while doing so, and on some plane, it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t able to watch the final games, since that might have been completely unnerving for me . . . but, at bottom line, they got it done, and that ends their long, hard reputation as not-so-loveable losers. I’m pleased and proud to have supported them so long, through so much, and happy as I can be for the them as a team, especially Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström, who have 24 years between them with the Caps, including a lot of sad, bad, and disappointing finishes that they were blamed for, mostly unjustly.
I think there’s dynasty potential here, now that they’ve exorcised their demons. Plus it will be nice to wear my “Rock the Red” t-shirt, and not have it seen as an ironic statement anymore . . .