Friday, February 24, 2012

The Other War Horses

Fetysz Ox 

Recently, I saw Steven Spielberg's newest movie, War Horse. Based on a best-
selling children's novel and stage play, the WWI film focuses on the life of a
idealistic young Englishman and his horse, Joey. As expected, it serves up a
large dose of Speilberg sentimentality.

I loved it. Even cried, much to the surprise of friends who found the film sappy
and implausible.

I will admit my fondness for Spielberg's creation was clouded by my state of
mind --and heart-- several days before viewing the film. Deep in novel research,
I'd been listening to a recording made many years ago by Lucy, my father's
cousin. My grandfather and Lucy's mother  -- brother and sister -- grew up on
a farm in Kallehnen, East Prussia. The family bred horses for the Prussian

War horses, called Trakeheners.

As the film rolled, I recalled bits of Lucy's story, told in a halting voice with a
thick German accent.

"The family owned a particularly beautiful and valuable mare named Falla. She
was deeply loved by the whole family.  On his trips back from town, your
great-grandfather would nod off from having had too much to drink. Falla always
got him and the wagon home safely. But one day, Falla stumbled into a ditch and
broke her leg. She had to be shot. My mother said that is the only time she saw her
mother weep,"

My Grandfather's War Horses

Trakehnen stud farm with statue of the Trakehner stallion Tempelhuter

Like the horses portrayed in War Horse, East Prussia's Trakehners were raised
for farm work and for the military. Thousands of Trakehner horses died in battle during WWI. By war's end, the
population had been reduced by half.

In the years between WWI and WWII, breeding resumed at the main Traekehner stud farm in Trakehnen and on the farms of area Prussians, like my great-grandparents. Slowly, the population grew again.

At Trakehnen, dubbed the "City of Horses," the horses lived like royalty. During their free time, they frolicked in wide, open pastures. The most prized studs on the farm lived in elegant stables graced with chandeliers. In one of those stables lived a
striking white stallion named Fetysz Ox who fathered many of the finest Trakehner horses.

The Long Trek of 1945 

By January of 1945, the Russian Army had advanced into East Prussia. The exodus
of East Prussians is a cruel and barbaric story. Egged on by Stalin, the Russians were
eager to avenge German atrocities at Stalingrad. Sadly, the innocent paid the price,
including many beautiful Trakehner horses.

Together the people and horses tried to escape in the harsh January weather
across snow-covered fields and stretches of frozen sea. From above, the
Russians shot at them, breaking up the ice so the refugees and horses would
drown in the frigid water. On the ground, Russian tanks rolled over the
frightened people and horses. Starvation, illness, and the severe weather
claimed many more.

Reaching Trakehnen, the Russians razed the stud farm and took the bronze
horse statue in the photo above to Russia as booty. Fetsyz Ox, the prized white
Trakehner stallion, was shot by Russian soldiers.


The City of Horses stud farm no longer exits. Neither does East Prussia.
After the war much of it was given to Russia. German names were changed to
Russian names. The farm and village where my great-grandparents lived
suffered the same fate. After the war, the Prussians still living in East Prussia
were deported.

Only roughly 100 out of East Prussia's 18,000 Trakehner horses survived the
war in Germany.

I doubt this story of the war horse will ever make it to the big screen.

The Long Trek of January 1945 

To read more about the Trakehner horse go to:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

9/11. . . Redefining a Tragedy

         Days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I was in a funky little shop, the kind of place that splashes words of whimsy and inspiration across magnets, overstuffed pillows, pads of paper, and weathered planks of wood. There were quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Proust and pithy contemporary pronouncements like, “Due to the Current Economic Crisis the Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Been Turned Off.”
         Three women stood behind me, reading their favorite words aloud to each other, laughing lightheartedly. Then one of the women read, “Everything happens for a reason.” The other two women sighed in agreement, to which the reader responded, “I used to believe that. Until 9/11.”
I turned around and saw the reader’s solemn face and was painfully reminded of that tragic September day in 2001. I will never forget it. Car windows down, I was enjoying the crisp, clear morning air before heading to a dentist’s appointment. The radio was on NPR. A news report said a small plane had crashed into a building in New York City. By the time my appointment was over, people were jumping from the blazing Twin Towers.
To say this horror has changed us is an understatement. Fear and suspicion are now very real parts of the American experience and will be for a long time to come. I understand that and know we need to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks.
But what I find myself longing for is a better way for all Americans and people around the world to honor the victims of this tragedy. An inclusive and enduring way that supports my belief that there are more tolerant people in the world than the extremists at home and abroad would have us believe.
A way that redefines 9/11.
Were it up to me, 9/11 would become a day to work towards world tolerance. I would invite one adult and one child from every country in the world to come to New York City and gather at Ground Zero. After the traditional reading of names, tolling of bells, and moments of silence, each child would step up to the podium and offer, in their native language, simple words like, “I come to you from my home in Syria to stand beside you in peace and tolerance on your national day of mourning.”
No politics, no religion, just words of understanding and hope from small emissaries across the globe. Emissaries who will one day inherit this fractured world.
I am aware not everyone would embrace this plan. Many countries would decline our invitation. Others would seek ways to thwart its message.
That is to be expected.
            But this day wouldn’t be for them. It would be for the majority of people who would like to turn the tragedy of 9/11 into something very different. Something the terrorists never envisioned when they flew those planes into the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. Something that would prove the woman in the shop wrong. . .

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

And I Love Him

         Last night’s Paul McCartney concert at Wrigley Field was more than entertaining and nostalgic. It was transforming.
         With a crowd exceeding 30,000, the stands and field at the ivy-covered ballpark were rimmed with Wrigleyville rooftop parties and the twinkling lights of summer stars and Chicago’s stunning skyline.
About 8:30, it got even better when Sir Paul took the stage. But here I hesitate, wondering how to describe “That Boy” in a way that hasn’t been done hundreds of times. So I’ll just relay what seeing Paul in concert for the second time in my life means to me.
         Before the music began, I turned to my husband and said, “Isn’t it amazing how many people love music. His music.”
         He nodded. “I remember thinking that when I saw the video of the Beatles playing on the rooftop in New York. For a few minutes they were just four guys standing on a roof. Then they started playing music and the whole place was transformed.”
        And so it happened again last night when Paul appeared on stage in a red suit jacket, Beatle-skinny black pants, and a white long-sleeved shirt with suspenders. It wasn’t long before he shed the jacket, rolled-up the cuffs of his white shirt, and sent all the females in the audience into 1960s reminiscent giddiness. Guys in white shirts have always done it for me but Paul McCartney in one was heart-stopping. Honestly, at age 69, he is still absolutely, breathtakingly handsome. Same adorable smile, puppy-dog eyes, and shaggy hair, although it’s obviously dyed and a bit thinner.
        We were seated in the grandstands, just beneath the overhang of the upper deck. To say it was hot last night is an understatement. Sweat ran down my back all night but it was utterly worth it.
During one lull in the music I turned to my husband and said, “My dad wouldn’t know what to say if he saw this. He absolutely hated the Beatles. He blamed them for all the turmoil of the 60s. Told me their music would never last.”
         Hard to imagine, looking at the sea of raised cell phone cameras glowing in the summer night that anyone would doubt the lasting quality of this music. But then I don’t think my father understood the transforming quality of The Beatles. For him, music was for dancing, not for stadium-busting performance. Songs, for my father, weren’t meant to be screamed in unison. They didn’t have silly, repetitive lyrics like, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." I am convinced if my father had been watching the concert last night, hearing more than 30,000 people singing their hearts out, he would have thought the world had gone mad.
          Which is another thing that seeing Paul McCartney did for me last night. It made me revel in the memories of my youth. It made me proud to have been part of a generation who watched the phenomenon of The Beatles first hand. Grateful, that we were the generation that made a break with the previous generation through music that was uniquely ours. But last night I was joyfully aware it wasn’t just ours anymore.
         “I wonder if today’s kids actually like this music,” my husband said at one point.
         I pointed to a young woman in front of us. Clearly in her late 30s or early 40s, she was dancing and singing at the top of her lungs. Next to her were three boys, doing the same. One boy was about 12, the other two around 8.
         “That answer your question?” I replied, smiling.
          As I predicted, Paul came back for his first encore to sing one of my favorite songs of all time, “Yesterday.” Hearing him sing it, at age 69, made me painfully aware of the passing of time. I couldn’t help but think of John, George, and Linda, the people who were no longer in his life. And of the people who were no longer in mine.
         Paul wasn't alone last night, though. We all sang “Yesterday” with him. It was a moving example of the transforming nature of the music he helped create. Hearing his clear, beautiful voice brought back a bittersweet rush of memories that reminded me how old I had become. 
         And how young I still am. 

Monday, August 1, 2011


                       Loving and Losing Paul McCartney

For our 14th wedding anniversary this week my husband surprised me with tickets to tonight’s Paul McCartney concert at Wrigley Field. It’s more that just the best anniversary gift ever, it’s a sign that our marriage has never been stronger.
You see, my husband and I have always had this standing agreement that he would step aside when Paul McCartney was available again so I could finally fulfill my destiny of being with him. I agreed to a similar situation that involves Penelope Cruz.
Can’t blame him for dreaming.
But I have a history with Paul. Since I was 12 years old, I’ve always known he and I were meant to be together. Curled up on my lavender chenille bedspread, windows opened wide, I drove my family crazy by setting my 45 of “And I Love Her,” on repeat for about a year. Other songs soon were added to the playlist, creating a personalized Beatles soundtrack for the real and imagined memories of my youth.
            Poor Paul. Without me at his side, he spent his idle hours courting models, actresses, and singers. I forgave him his dalliances, knowing how empty and shallow those relationships must have been. I completely understood his need to fill the days until he found me.
            Still, we found ways to be together. He was there the day I got my first kiss, under a crabapple tree in my backyard. Friends tell me it was a neighbor boy named John who sat with me that hot summer day. They insist to this day it was John who kissed me and sang, "If I Fell" to me. I remember it much differently and am still convinced it was Paul who did the singing. And kissing. 
            For years Paul and I carried on like this. When I reached high school, we communicated through art. I painted posters of Paul in his Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band uniform, in his Yellow Submarine, and riding on the Magical Mystery Tour bus. He sent back messages to me through album covers. I knew the waves and smiles on those LP sleeves were meant for me.
Meanwhile, I prepared myself for the day when Paul and I would be together. I ironed my naturally curly hair in an effort to look like Jane Asher, Marianne Faithful, and Hayley Mills. I slathered my lips with white lipstick, rolled up the waistbands of my skirts, and bought a pair of white go-go boots.
            When Paul and the Beatles journeyed to India to meet with their guru, I bought the perfect Nehru-collared Indian print dress. I memorized every Beatles lyric. With a perfectly rehearsed Liverpool accent, I stared into my bedroom mirror and repeatedly whispered, “Hi, luv.” Sufficiently prepared, I was ready to take our relationship to the next level when she came along and ruined everything. . . Linda Eastman. 
            I never blamed Paul, of course. It was obvious that Paul had been nothing more than a pathetic pawn in Linda’s evil, calculating plan.
            Some people blame Yoko Ono for the breakup of the Beatles. Not me. I knew Linda had masterminded their demise. When she picked up a tambourine and started performing with Paul and his new band, Wings, I let him go. There were no hard feelings. I still wished him well. But to watch Paul and Linda on stage together was simply too painful. Paul was a Beatle, not a Wing, and I could never accept the transition.
            And then I waited, convinced the marriage would never stand the test of time. But as the years passed, even I had to accept the fact that Paul and Linda might actually love each other. Practically inseparable, they performed together, traveled together, raised a family and built a life together. They were good parents. As individuals, they continued to grow.
            When Linda’s vegetarian cookbook came out, I received a copy as a gift. Before scanning the recipes, I spent time staring at the smiling face on the cover. For the first time I really saw Linda McCartney. Not the tambourine-playing performer, rock and roll photographer or animal-rights advocate, but Linda the loving wife and caring mother. Standing in her warm, cozy kitchen, she appeared radiant, kind.
            A new emotion filled me; admiration. Linda’s only crime had been falling in love with a man millions of other women adored. It had taken work and perseverance to succeed at such a high-profile marriage. I wondered how she managed to raise such extraordinary children in that environment. Most of all, I found myself admiring her ability to never lose sight of herself.
            The day Linda died, in Paul’s arms, I grieved for them both. An article I read about them said that in all their years of marriage, they’d only been apart a week or two. Everyone should be loved that way, I thought.
            When Paul started dating Heather Mills, I cringed. How could anyone fill the enormous void Linda’s death had left in Paul’s life? Heather looked so much like her, I was worried Paul was trying to resurrect the woman he so desperately missed. And so I tried to be understanding towards Heather, remembering how cruelly Linda had been treated by the public.
            But Heather was nothing like Linda. In the months leading up to their divorce, I listened to her interviews and rants in the media. I really did want to see her side. But the way she conducted herself, the things she said about Paul, gnawed at me. In the end, I had to place my loyalties where they’ve always been, with Paul.
            Walking down the courthouse steps after the final judgment, Paul looked tired, but not beaten. Older, but not old. Dressed in suit and tie, he presented himself to the crowd with warmth and grace. That, I thought, is the Paul I love.
            Now it appears Paul has found love again with his fiancĂ©, Nancy Shevell. I approve. She seems warm, kind, and stable. Okay, she’s also beautiful. And I find myself loving Paul McCartney even more because he hasn’t given up on love even though no one would admonish him if he wanted to do so.
            I'm convinced Linda would approve, too. Years ago, I remember reading a story about Paul and Heather shortly before they were engaged. The author’s concerns were much the same as mine at the time. In fact, near the end of the article, the writer asked, “Paul,what do you think Linda would say?”
            Without hesitating, Paul replied, “Be happy, boy. I know that’s what Linda would say.”
            Me too.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Andrea's Law: A Quiet Girl Update

On Thursday, July 21, 2011 Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law House Bill 263. The law, called Andrea's Law, will go into effect on January 1, 2012. It will require all murderers in Illinois to register with the state and be placed on a murderers registry for 10 years following their release from prison.

It is a victory for anyone who has watched the murderer of a loved one exit prison and dissolve back into society. Most of all, it is a victory for all who knew, loved, and supported the family of Andrea Will, of Batavia.

In 1998, while attending Eastern Illinois University, Andrea was strangled by her ex-boyfriend, Justin Boulay, who had followed her to the university and was living in an apartment near the campus. On a cold February night, Justin called Andrea and pleaded with her to come to his apartment. The lure was that he simply wanted to talk and give her a birthday present.

There was no present.

What Justin presented instead was a phone cord which he wrapped around Andrea's neck and tightened for four and a half minutes. After a valiant struggle, Andrea died of strangulation.

Convicted and given 24 years in prison, Justin was freed after serving just 12 years in jail due to a flaw in the state's laws at the time. For every day of good behavior Justin served, a day was taken off of his time. The flaw effectively cut his sentence in half. Released in November of 2010, Justin now lives in Hawaii with his wife Rachel, who is a college professor on one of the islands.

If you read my posting of November 9, 2010, you know that this story hits close to home for me and my children. They were both classmates of Andrea's. At the time of Andrea's death, my son was dating her best friend and cousin, Stephanie. Although I never met Andrea, she is often on my mind. I will never forget the night she died and the lasting impact it has had on this community.

But the passing of Andrea's Law gives me hope. From across the country and beyond, people extended their hearts to Andrea's family when Justin Boulay was released early from prison. Moved by that injustice, Andrea's sorority sisters, friends, family, and countless others mounted the massive effort to craft Andrea's Law and get it passed.

While the passing of this law is a victory, it cannot bring Andrea back or ease her family's loss. Yet in the face of injustice, through their grief, those who loved Andrea found a way to make her memory live forever. Like the proposed Cayley's Law, named for Caylee Marie Anthony, Andrea's Law is designed to protect the innocent.

It is easy to be cynical and disillusioned in a world that appears increasingly rigid and bigoted, violent and apathetic. It is hard to look beyond the ugly and sensational headlines. Hard to trust that there are more people in the world who are caring and just than the news would have us believe.

But there are. The passing of Andrea's Law reminds me of that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Excerpt from my Novel

Since my last post a dear friend and Icelandic military historian, Ragnar Ragnarsson, has passed away. His death reminded me how short life is and what is important. My main thrust now is to finish my novel, set in WWII Iceland. The idea for the novel came from photos I found after my father died. He was a Navy Photomate stationed in Iceland during WWII. I had always hoped Ragnar would give my novel its final edit. Somehow, I think he still will. Here is a chapter from the novel. 

                                 The Moment You See 

          Three days out of Newfoundland the gale hit. For three 
more, the Iceland bound convoy fought the North Atlantic's 
100-knot winds and monolithic swells. Sheathed in a ghostly shell 
of sea-ice, the cutters, destroyers, and transports struggled for 
ballast under their cadaverous weights. Weights that threatened to 
roll them over, taking all hands to the bottom of the sea.
        Aboard the repair ship Vigdis, the men were operating on
depleting reservoirs of adrenalin.  Until the storm ran its course 
there was little for Johnny, a junior officer and naval photographer, 
to do but wait. Wait, while the ship took her blows. Wait, while the 
crew chipped away at the ice with chisels and hammers. Wait, as the 
sea shellacked the weary men and ship with more rime and hoarfrost.
The squall’s unholy howls rang in his ears while the deafening laments of writhing steel echoed around him. Sounds so mournful, it seemed as though the ship itself was crying out in pain. Eating had lost its appeal, barely tolerable with the constant stench of dirty men and farm boys' stomachs hanging in the stale air. Sleep, once a welcome escape, eluded him.  
He wasn’t alone. A week of turbulent sea was exacting its toll on all the men. As the storm raged above them, a human maelstrom was gaining force below decks, kicked up by men forced into tight quarters for weeks. By fear, fatigue, and frustration. By the relentless waiting. 
          Restless, Johnny grabbed his camera. Behind the eye of his 4X5 Speed Graphic he felt a measure of control.  Winding through the ship, he zeroed in on the faces of country boys barely out of high school and wise guys from tough cities. 
          Focus. Snap. Repeat.
          He took shots of men playing cards and craps. Rereading letters from sweethearts. Men absorbed in the pages of their Armed Services paperback novels. Smoking cigarettes. Trying to sleep. All thinking the same things Johnny was thinking: Where am I going? Will I make it? How long before I can go home again?
           For Johnny, home lay near the shores of Long Island Sound. A peaceful place awash in dappled slate-blue light. A place where life made sense to him. Where a dark-haired girl still loved him. Where it was almost time for supper. 
In the row house on Madison Avenue in Port Chester, New York, Mama would be in the kitchen, clanging pots and banging drawers; making soup. Closing his eyes, he could almost smell the onions, garlic, and dill. See, under the strain of her furious chopping and stirring, Mama’s silver-streaked blonde hair slowly unravel from the knot atop her head. As a child he’d called the unruly mass that fell around her granite eyes, Mama’s soup hair. He'd teased her about it, telling her it stank of onions and garlic. In truth, it smelled of safety, comfort, and love.
        Johnny longed to be in her kitchen now, drinking in the heady perfume of her Hungarian cooking. Expelling the retched odor of unclean and seasick men from his nostrils. Throwing his arms around Mama, pulling her close, and waiting for her to initiate the start of their favorite childhood game.
       "Mama! I’m home!”   
        She greeted him at the kitchen doorway. Bent down and hugged him tightly. 
        Suppressing a giggle, he scrunched up his face. "Oh, Mama, your hair smells so bad."
        Johnny nodded. 
       "Ah, but smelly hair mean good soup, Janos.” 
       "No, Mama. It's too stinky."                                                       
        Scowling, she returned to the stove and dipped a finger in the pot to taste her creation. Feigning grave disappointment, she slapped her forehead and rushed up to Johnny. Scooping him into her arms, she headed back to the stove. “How stupid I am. I forget secret ingredient.” 
        Wriggling free, Johnny scrambled from her and ran to his room, laughing the whole way. At his heels was Mama, yelling,  “Come back, secret ingredient! I need you!” 
        When Papa came home he would head to his reading chair in the living room. Spectacles low on the bridge of his nose, he’d soon be lost in the evening paper. It was Johnny’s job to pour him a small glass of Slivovitz before supper. He loved to watch Papa slip the cordial’s delicate rim under the canopy of his thick, grey mustache. Listen to him sigh, as the velvety plum brandy trickled down his throat. Then, smiling, he’d put down his paper as Johnny begged him for a story.                                                                       
        "So, my son. Which one will it be tonight?”         
        Papa knew. They both did. The only stories Johnny ever wanted to hear when he was a child were those of a young Wilhelm Loring, thundering across foreign fields astride a jet black mount. Tales of Papa, clad in a Prussian cavalry officer’s uniform, cutting down the French, the Russians. All who dared lay claim to his Teutonic homeland.
        They were exciting stories of honor and courage told to a child who didn't understand the complexities of warfare or its costs. Told long before Johnny learned Nazis and Prussians shared the same bloodline and borders. Long before Adolf Hitler made being German a dirty word. Before Johnny enlisted in the Navy and realized the enemy was a relative.
Does it bother you, Papa?”
           “What, Jani?”
           “That I might be fighting . . .”
         Papa cleared his throat. “Hitler and his Nazis are not Prussians, son. I am proud you will be fighting them. Very proud.”
        That is the father he missed now. Not the dashing officer of his childhood fantasies but the steady, hardworking immigrant who chauffeured the people on the hill in their Packards and Hudsons. The man who had given up so much to come to America. Make a better life for his family. Papa, sitting in his comfortable chair, wearing his worn woolen sweater, reading. Always reading.
        "Remember, son, what you put in your head no one can take from you."
 Returning to his quarters, Johnny found the copy of Life magazine Papa had given him. The one with the photo of Goebbels, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He flipped to the infamous shot of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister. Staring into the Nazi’s dark, brooding eyes, Johnny was filled with awe at the photographer’s mastery of his subject. In one split second, Eisenstaedt had captured on film the visceral hatred on Goebbels’s face as an aide whispered to him that the photographer was a Jew.
            "The photographer is also a Prussian, Jani. A Prussian you can be proud of.”
             Eisenstaedt’s gift for capturing his subjects at precisely the right moment reminded Johnny of something a photography instructor had once described as, “the moment you see.” Johnny believed he had learned that lesson. Knew when to turn his lens on the sea, ships, and men. Get the shot.  
 But it was a lesson he had yet to master when it came to the one subject he’d photographed more than any other. The subject that mattered most to him.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frank Buckles and The Brave Among Us

                                                     (Number One) 

    On February first, Frank Woodruff Buckles, of West Virginia, 
celebrated his 110th birthday. He wanted to live to age 115 and 
see a national monument to all WWI veterans put in place in 
Washington. Before that dream could be realized, Buckles 
passed away just after midnight on February 28. He was America's
last surviving veteran of World War I. 
     At 16, Buckles lied about his age, enlisted in the Army, and 
became a Doughboy. Serving in France, he drove ambulances loaded 
with the carnage of trench warfare. After the Armistice, he helped 
transport German prisoners of war safely back to their homes. 
     Twenty-five years later, in 1941, Buckles was working as a civilian 
aboard ship in the waters near Manila when WWII broke out. The 
Japanese captured his ship and threw Buckles in a Japanese POW camp 
for the next three and a half years. 
     Buckles had fans from around the world. Each year he received bushels
of birthday cards from veterans and others who admired his lifelong 
work in helping us remember the sacrifices of WWI. A beautiful tribute to 
him can be found on his Web site:
     Retired, out of uniform, Buckles was only one of the brave among us.
With barely a whisper, many more slip back into society. Go on with their
lives. Unknowingly, I pass them on the street each day. In uniform, they 
grab my attention and admiration in airports, shopping malls, and at parades. 
Moved, offer them my thanks.  
     But I know it isn't enough. 
     Most veterans say they don't want to talk about their war experiences. 
Yet I know those memories are ever present. As they were for the roofing 
contractor I employed one summer. 
     Over late afternoon beers, he opened up and told me about his first months 
home from Vietnam. For six months he couldn't sleep in a bed. The only place 
he felt safe was on the floor,  ear to the ground to listen for footsteps. Aside from 
that, he thought he was coping fairly well, until the day his mother asked him 
repeatedly to take out the trash. 
     Snapping, he screamed back, "Garbage? You  want me to take out the garbage 
when I was blowing people's heads off last week?" 
     Years ago, another veteran suddenly opened up to me at a dinner party. He'd 
been a Navy Seal in Vietnam. The experience that still haunted him, he said, was 
being dropped by helicopter into Cambodia on a covert mission with three other 
     "We disavow any knowledge of this operation. Be here in three days, in this 
exact location, or you are on your own," the helicopter pilot told the men. 
     In the kitchen, his wife turned to me, shaking her head. "He's never told that 
story before. Never." 
     Another story hits closer to home for me. 
     It's the story of a skinny kid from Port Chester, New York. He's the one on the 
left in the photo above. It was taken in 1942, in Iceland. The skinny kid weighed 
just 117 pounds when the photo was taken.  Shot nerves and exposure can do a 
number on your appetite, I've learned. 
     That skinny kid is my father, Navy Photomate Fred H. Melull. 
      Next week, Dad would have been 97. He died in 1999, without my ever 
completely understanding all the sacrifices he made while serving in Iceland and 
the North Atlantic during WWII. All I remember is that he was forever cold and 
liked to nap in a pool of sunlight on the radiant-heated floor of our family room. 
Downed in an aircraft in Iceland's interior, he suffered frostbite on his feet. 
     My brother tells me our mother routinely pulled shrapnel out of my father's 
back with a tweezers when it worked its way to the surface and snagged his 
t-shirt. That I don't remember. But I will never forget the story I overheard when 
neighbor girl interviewed Dad for a school paper. 
     "Now, this is classified. You can't talk about this to anyone," he began. 
      Listening out of sight in the back hall, I heard my father tell the girl how he'd 
been at sea when his ship came across the wreckage of a troopship sunk by a 
Nazi U-boat. On board there had been women, soldiers, and not enough 
lifeboats to go around. Because of the desperate need for soldiers in Europe, the 
order was given to save the men over the women. By the time my father's ship 
arrived on the scene to help with the rescue few women were still alive. 
      "I don't know, now, if they were nurses, or WACS, or WAVES. I don't 
remember. But I could hear them out there, screaming. God, I'll never forget 
that. And those poor bastards who'd been told not to pick them up in their 
lifeboats. . . they were a mess. It's not the natural order of things, you know? 
Who let that happen? Who told those girls it was okay to be out there, to come 
to war?" 
     Choking back sobs, my father repeatedly told the girl, "Now you can't write 
about this. This is classified. It's classified."
     I've never been able to verify this story. All records of troopship crossings 
were purposely destroyed by the government after the war. Still, the veterans 
and researchers I've spoken to tell me to believe in my father's story, regardless 
of whether I ever find hard evidence of it. 
     I do.