Cummer Attractions

In celebration of Pi-Day, Leah and I scored theater tickets to the national tour of Waitress, presenting at Times-Union Center in downtown Jacksonville. Wanting to take advantage of fair weather, and never having seen Jacksonville during daylight hours, we decided to make an afternoon of it by visiting the Cummer Museum of Arts and Gardens located in Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, a short distance from our evening venue.

entry

And it was well worth the trip.

statue (2)

In 1902, Arthur Cummer joined his parents, Wellington and Ada at their St. Johns River homestead, and built a half-timber English Tudor style house for Ninah, his bride. Arthur and Ninah began collecting art soon after.

Only the designated Tudor Room remains from the original house, so “the public at large may enjoy some insight into the personality of the owner.”

Cummer study

A series of interconnected museum wings are separated by a courtyard paved with terra-cotta tiles from the Cummer’s old roof.

courtyard

The original Cummer collection plus acquired collections of paintings, sculptures, and Meissen porcelain fill fourteen galleries, span 3200 years, and range from:

2100 BCE… 

frieze

to 100 CE…

1 AD mosaic

to 13th century…

religious art

to 17th century…

European Renaissance

to 18th century…

GW Gilbert Stuart

to 19th century…

Ponce deLeon in Florida

…to contemporary artists like Harlem Renaissance sculptor, Augusta Savage, whose work is currently exhibiting in the Mason Gallery.

Augusta Sanders (2)

Following Arthur Cummer’s death in 1943, Ninah wished to establish a “center for beauty and culture…[for] all of the people” on the residence grounds.

live oak over gardens

Upon the widow’s death in 1958, the estate and gardens were granted to the DeEtte Holden Cummer Museum Foundation. Soon after, buildings were demolished (with the exception of the Tudor Room) in favor of a state-of-the-art museum that opened in 1961, followed by a detailed restoration of the property’s Italian Garden…

garden under repair

the Olmstead Garden…

English garden

and the English Garden–

English garden1

all of which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 for outstanding “American landscape design in the first four decades of the twentieth century.”

As northeast Florida’s largest and most significant museum and arts education center housing over 5,000 works of art…

archer

the sky is the limit.

BTW…the show was a tasty morsel about a bittersweet topic.

Used Cars

On the third day of a four-day affair, the 1-mile approach to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel was thoroughly congested. In addition to stand-still traffic, an unbroken chain of cars akimbo were parked on both sides of the grassy shoulder.

A steady stream of walkers of all ages easily out-paced my Ford pickup on the way to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, north Florida’s premier destination for car connoisseurs–and in some cases–car collectors with deep pockets. They have come from around the world to claim bragging rights for owning many of the rarest sporting and cruising motorcars worthy of six to seven-figures.

Welcome sign (2)

We mastered the final quarter-mile in 30 minutes. Once past the event entrance, we took a quick right and followed the signs that led us to a string of ad hoc neighborhood parking concessions charging $40 for the day. Fortunately, as I approached the first backyard turn-in, a couple was just claiming their vehicle–leaving an open spot for me.

“Are you kidding?! I’m not paying that kind of money for a parking spot! That’s highway robbery!” announced Leah to me. 

“Is it any cheaper down the road?” Leah called out to the attendant/mansion owner.

“It’s the same, but if you’re willing to walk back about 20 minutes, you might be able to park somewhere for half the price,” he offered, “but you need to make up your mind ’cause there’s traffic piling up behind you.

I turned into the lot.

“Location, location, location,” I declared.

The sunny skies were a blessing and a curse. The weather was perfect for strolling along the 1st, 10th, and 18th fairways of the Golf Club of Amelia Island…

on the fairway

to gaze at more than 400 classic and exotic automobiles.

fountain (2)

However, the owners who were standing guard over their prized possessions were invariably hard at work, answering questions, overstating their cars’ value, and forever polishing away the glaring fingerprints of so many gawkers-turned-touchers.

volvo door style

A full representation of cars from every manufacturer was mostly categorized by brand, ranging from Datsuns…

Datsuns

to Porsches…

Porsche Sea

with occasional support provided by corporate tents and stages…

Rope around the green

showcasing concept cars…

Silver Arrow

Silver Arrow wheel

Prototype 10

Infiniti 10

steering wheel detail

elite production models,

Carrera GT modelCarrera GT

and vintage heirlooms.

Mercedes V10 (3)

BMW 700

There were novelties…

junk in the trunk

coockpit

clean and dirty

steamed-clean engines to admire…

Porsche engine

Bugatti racing engine

1930 Cadillac V12

and glorious paint jobs to behold…

Pink Panther

hexagons

car body

6 lite Porche

But most enjoyable was sitting on the sidelines watching a parade of auctioned vehicles…

antiques

Horch grill

as they were being polished,

yellow

and preened…

1930 Cadillac (2)

by teams of attentive handlers in white gloves…

Chrystler

before facing RM Sotheby’s gavel. According to the auctioneer:

Leading RM’s string of 19 individual million-dollar-plus sales and claiming top honors of the 2017 Amelia Island auctions was a striking 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Cabriolet, one of only three examples sporting rare coachwork by Vanvooren of Paris. Offered for public sale for the first time in its 80-year history, the highly original Type 57S sparkled under the auction lights during Saturday’s sale session, commanding $7,700,000. Just moments prior to the Bugatti’s sale, a well-known 1929 Stutz Model M Supercharged Coupe, one of only three supercharged Stutzes in existence, proved demand remains strong for great American Classics at auction, selling for $1,705,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $1/1.2 million. The strong sales price represents a new record for a Stutz at auction.

Friday’s sale session was also one for the books, with the Orin Smith Collection generating $31 million in sales with a 100 percent sell-through. A wonderful showcase of RM Sotheby’s expertise and capabilities in handling private collection auctions, the sale represented the first time RM has hosted a Friday evening sale at Amelia, and provided a fitting tribute to a man beloved by the Amelia crowd, drawing a packed sales room. The group of 63 vehicles was headlined by a stunning 1936 Lancia Astura Cabriolet Series III “Tipo Bocca” at $2,145,000. Other notable sales included:

  • the 1956 Bentley S1 Continental Drophead Coupe, just two registered owners from new, shattered both its presale estimate of $700/900,000 and the previous auction record for the model at a final $1,683,000;
  • a superbly restored 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Special Newmarket Permanent Sedan soared past its $1,000,000 high estimate at a final $1,237,500; and,
  • 1966 Aston Martin Short-Chassis Volante, the very first example of just 37 built, sold for $1,705,000.

The power of ‘no reserve’ exhibited at Friday’s Orin Smith Collection sale was witnessed again on Saturday with terrific results achieved for a well-known private collection of 10 sporting cars. Highlighting the group, a dramatic two-tone red and black 1956 Maserati A6G/54 Frua Coupe Series III, much-admired by enthusiasts during preview, provided one of the most intense and lively bidding contests of the weekend, eventually selling for $2,365,000 against a pre-sale estimate of $1.6/2.2 million. From the same collection, a 1974 Porsche 911 Carrera RS 3.0 eclipsed its pre-sale estimate of $900,000 – $1.1 million to storm into the record books at a final $1,375,000 (an auction record for the model). Also commanding strong bids were a spectacular 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, which realized $1,358,500, and a stunning 1955 Alfa Romeo 1900C SS Coupe, which brought $1,100,000.

Other noteworthy sales of RM’s 2017 Amelia Island event include:

  • the 5,694-mile 1995 Ferrari F50, originally delivered to famed heavyweight Champion boxer, Mike Tyson, sold for an above-estimate $2,640,000;
  • 1938 Graham 97 Supercharged Cabriolet, exquisitely restored by RM Auto Restoration, set a new benchmark for a Graham at auction with its strong $770,000 final price; and,
  • ending Saturday’s sale session on a fun note, a 1963 Meyers Manx—the original dune buggy—doubled its pre-sale estimate to sell for a record $68,750.

Collective sales for 135 blue-chip entries generated nearly $71M in sales–producing a record high in the event’s 24-year history…

Cadillac hood ornament

…and at prices that would make a hood ornament blush.

 

 

A Walk in the Garden

Leah and I awoke to an overcast day. The forecast promised more of the same, which was fine with me as long as it didn’t rain. We spent the morning searching for a new destination to stretch our legs–maybe find a bike trail, or at the very least, a walking trail not too far from home.

After a late breakfast, we headed south toward Flagler Beach, a salty seaside community with orange sand from crushed coquina…

dunes and beach

midway between St. Augustine and Daytona. We were in search of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve, a cache of 217 acres of marsh and mangroves tucked beneath the Highway 100 causeway,

causeway

and bordering the Matanzas River.

Matanzas River

A mile or so of boardwalking through the salt marsh was pleasant though unremarkable. However, it offered me time to play with my newly acquired 1.7X tele conversion lens (see Zoom!).

egret takes off

avoiding the wake

Anticipating a loop around the preserve, we were surprised that the trail dropped us at a different parking lot annexed to the town’s public works complex that was surrounded by dilapidated residential trailers planted only blocks from the beach.

cistern1

And so we continued our tour of all things industrial and commercial, until we returned to the preserve entrance.

bridge piers

Feeling underwhelmed by our walk-around, I opted for the slow road home, following A1A North on a prayer that the seaside scenery might somehow improve on a somewhat lackluster afternoon.

We passed through nothing of consequence: nondescript shops and eateries, assorted bungalows, big machines for county road repairs, and mainstream subdivisions along the way. But when we reached Palm Coast, the road opened up to a dense maritime hammock of hardwood trees to our left, and I felt compelled to u-turn for a closer look.

We turned into Washington Oaks Garden State Park,

National Register

and heard from the gate attendant that the azalea blooms had just reached their peak, and that was enough to pique my interest.

gazebo and fountain

As we completed a self-guided tour of the grounds…

Washington Oaks Historic District

I felt relieved, knowing that our Sunday excursion had been rescued.

mask

The formal gardens were beautifully unusual,

live oak

lushly carpeted,

green garden grasses

and precisely manicured.

garden path

We left the area under partly sunny skies…

marshian sunset

knowing that we would return another day to devote more time to the miles of trails through the hammock.

And weather permitting, we will cross the highway to follow the coquina rock formations that line the Atlantic side when the tide is nigh.

The Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Tequila!

There was a time when slamming back Jose Cuervo tequila shots defined my notion of drinking socially and irresponsibly. When attending college mixers and parties, it was the perfect way to act cool and behave stupidly at the same time. The time-honored tradition of licking salt before swallowing a rim-topped shooter glass and finishing with a limon bite was a pattern of behavior that I remember clearly, but can’t recall with any accuracy.

empty glasses (2)

It was also my surrender to the fiery pepper that typically accompanied the alcohol. While the raspa would rocket through my gastric canal, I often wondered how I survived the taste of jet fuel laced with vanilla extract. But those negative thoughts always melted away after the third shot. That’s the magic of tequila; sometimes it makes you question your own sense of reality.

As we aged, so did our palettes. Drinking buddies flush with more disposable income succumbed to the lure of unblended Scotch or reveled in the crisp bite of French vodka. But not me. I saw no reason to search for a better bitter. It seems I was too emotionally attached to tequila to switch to a competing liquor.

shooter girl (2)

My mission was to find a tequila that didn’t taste so nasty. Move over Jose Cuervo, and say hello to Patrón.

Apart from all the trusted distilleries in Jalisco, Mexico, the one tequila that resonated in America debuted in 1989, and soon captured a coveted 30% market share–not because of Patrón’s unique flavor profile or quality control standards, but because shampoo mogul and co-founder, John Paul DeJoria positioned Patrón’s top-shelf status through its hand-numbered bottles, silk ribbons, and round-top corks. Late-show tequila was now dressed up and ready for prime-time.

It wasn’t long before other celebrities jumped on the brand-wagon to use their cache to cash in. While Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo supported the aging baby boomer sub-culture, George Clooney’s Casamigos courted the endless summer sect, and P. Diddy’s DeLéon catered to the crowd behind the velvet rope.

Tequila’s makeover has generated record-breaking sales since 2012. According to the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS):

…tequila volumes [in the U.S.] have grown by 121%, at an average rate of 5.8%. In 2016 alone, 15.9 million 9-liter cases were sold. What is even more impressive is that while the volumes of value and premium tequila grew by 93% and 72% during the aforementioned time frame, those of high-end premium and super-premium shot up by 292% and 706%, respectively.

And spirit producers are betting big that the current wave continues. Last year, DeJoria released his remaining 70% of Patrón shares to Bacardi for $5.1bn, and Diageo secured Casamigos from Clooney for $1bn to stand beside its Don Julio brand acquired from Jose Cuervo in 2014.

With my head spinning from all the stats, I needed a drink…or more. And I needed clarification and historical perspective to make sense of it all. Fortunately, when at our resort South of the Border, Leah and I were introduced to Socrates, our waiter at Vidanta’s La Cantina on the Riviera Maya, who was eager to share information about his culture, and the connection between tequila and Guadalajara, his family’s home for the past 200 years.

mixing worm salt

Ordinarily I’d order a margarita before my meal, like so many times before…

margarita

but on this night, Socrates offered me a turn at the tasting table…

smooth fire (2)

and a briefing on the distillation process of tequila and its significance to the Mexican economy.

“Tequila has been produced in Mexico since 1726, but mezcal has been distilled by the Toltecs in clay pots for special ceremonies since the year 600. My family has been growing blue agave and producing spirits before my abuelo was walking,” stated Socrates, “so it is my honor to present you with our wonderful heritage and the drink of my people tonight.”

He continued, “Tequila is a very special drink that requires lots of patience–from the ten years the agave tequilana plant grows to maturity in the sandy hills of my country–until it is harvested. Once all the leaves are stripped from the agave plant, the piña is roasted, and the juice is released by running the tahona over the piña. This is true for all the varieties of tequila you will sample tonight.”

“What makes it clear and what makes it golden-colored?” I asked.

“Ah, that is all about the aging,” replied Socrates. “Silver tequila or blanco is tequila in the purest form with the most natural taste after the distilling process–a little bit of sweet with a taste of citrus and pepper. It is preferred when making margaritas.

“And the golden color?…” I reiterated.

“That is the color from the barrels to age the tequila. Usually 6 months resting in an oak barrel, sometimes already flavored from bourbon or wine, and we call it tequila reposado. The taste is a balance between the agave and the wood–more smooth with hints of caramel and spice,” Socrates continued.

“But for me, the real tequila is the sipping tequila called tequila añejo. This is tequila aged for at least one year in the barrel, which now darkens the tequila to an amber color. It is very smooth like fine wine or whisky, and is to be enjoyed at room temperature,” he concluded.

I pointed to the tequila table. “But there are bottles that are marked ultra and extra añejo. What about them?”

“That’s the newest tequila category that’s been added since 2006,” remarked Socrates. “It refers to tequila that’s been aged more than 3 years. So it tends to be darker still, unless the color has been filtered out, and looking like a blanco. But what’s left behind is tequila that is incredibly smooth and complex and rich, with very little alcohol taste.”

“How rich?” I asked.

“This tequila can cost over $300 a bottle,” he exclaimed.

Dinner was served–chicken fajitas for Leah…

chicken frajitas

and lobster tacos for me.

lobster tacos (2)

The food was delicious, but the tequila…

sipping tequila.jpg

OMG!…and worth every peso!!

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Ancient Light

The day in St. Augustine started out dreary, with passing drizzle and smoky cloud cover, but with the polar vortex finally loosening its grip on the Midwest, and the California coastline bracing for epic rain and mud, the local weather seemed well within the bounds of “I can’t complain” conditions for a Florida weekend.

Nevertheless, taking a chance on an outdoor activity seemed risky. So Leah and I hedged our bets and we traveled to St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, where $12.95 will buy a St. Johns County resident general admission for one year. We figured that we could always duck the rain…

Parabolic view

by browsing the Keeper’s house,

containers

and following the marble tiles to the landing anchorage.

approach

Then it’s 219 steps to the top.

signs 2 (2)

Congress authorized new construction in 1870 to replace the fading “Old Spanish Watchtower” by the shoreline, that’s evolved since the late 1500’s.

$100,000 funded three years of construction.

signs 1 (2)

Tourists have been climbing the corkscrew stairs since 1910. The Philadelphia iron works…

stair risers

hug the walls of the 165 foot Alabama brick structure,

signs 3 (2)

occasionally interrupted by keyhole glimpses of life…

looking out.jpg

until the stairs reach an opening…

looking up

to a 360-degree lookout… 

lighthouse view2 (3)

that’s capped by 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter.

difracted fresnel

The original lens was restored in 1992 because of vandals, 

The Fresnel Lens (2)

and re-lit by a 1000-watt bulb the following year.

difraction close-up (2)

Today, the tower represents the oldest brick structure in St. Augustine, and shines a bright light on a community that preserves its heritage, protects through its presence, and invests in its future.

lighthouse overview

 

 

The Other Side of Cozumel

My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.

My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.

The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.

In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.

As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.

We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.

After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.

At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.

We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.

With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.

I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.

My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.

My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.

Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.

Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.

Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.

For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 down the road.

Otto’s Collections

The former Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine, FL was originally built by Henry Flagler in 1888…

The Alcazar from the Ponce (2)

as an adjunct to the Hotel Ponce de Leon (see The Poshest Campus in America) to accommodate overflow patronage and provide recreational facilities to his guests. Built in the style of Spanish Renaissance Revival with Moorish overtones, the Alcazar was patterned after its famed royal palace namesake in Seville, Spain.

tower

The Alcazar enjoyed a storied history, hosting society’s gentry throughout the winter months, and at one time housing the world’s largest indoor swimming pool…

bathing-pool-casino_0 (3)

until the Great Depression forced the hotel to shutter its doors in 1930. The Alcazar remained uninhabited for the next seventeen years, and sunk into ruin.

Enter Otto C. Lightner, a Chicago editor and publisher who purchased the property in 1947 for $150,000…

portrait

and began an extensive restoration campaign in anticipation of moving his massive Victorian era arts collection from Chicago into a proper facility worthy of its size and stature.

formal portrait

Today, this National Register Historic Landmark features an elaborate courtyard with a stone arch bridge…

gardens

over a koi pond.

koi

koi frontal

The first floor of the museum simulates a Victorian street emporium showcasing shop front window displays of assorted paraphernalia,

eggs

pocket watches

porcelin-heads.jpg

shave-mugs-3.jpg

spectacles

spoons

toys

beer steins1

Industrial Arts inventions,

toasters

mechanized music machines,

Victrola speaker

and curiosities, like an Egyptian mummy and an aboriginal shrunken head.

shrunken head (2)

The second floor features the remnants of Alcazar’s Turkish and Russian baths…

bath plumbing

offering vaulted views across the courtyard.

circle window

Access doors to the baths stand at opposing sides the gallery vesibule.

2nd floor

Continuing on, the gallery boasts a prodigious collection of Victorian cut glass beneath a Tiffany chandelier,

glassware

The third floor exhibits fine furniture,

chairs and horn table (2)

relevant fine art oil paintings from the Renaissance,

Cimon and Pero.jpg

and additional collections, from match boxes…

matchboxes

to cigar bands.

cigar bands1

The Lightner Museum represents Otto C. Lightner’s legacy of collecting.

He endowed his collection to the city of St. Augustine upon his death in 1950, and continues to keep a close eye on his Chicago treasures from the courtyard, where his remains are buried.

Trump’s Folly

Photo credit: (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
A political song parody…
It’s a catchy tune, so why not sing along!
(Intro)
Critics are falling on my head,

From too much rain to bother honoring the dead.
I don’t give a shit.
Those…NATO allies that I dread–

keep me bawlin’…

So I just did me some talking to my sons.
And I said, “I didn’t like the way Dems got things done–
Winning at the polls.
Those…losses are falling on my head,

they keep fallin’…”

But there’s one thing…I know.
The Blues they sent to beat me
Just defeat me.

It won’t be long,
Subpoenas now step up to greet me.

(interlude)

Democrats keep falling on my head.
But that doesn’t mean the House will soon be turning Red.
Winning’s not for me,
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the wave with complaining.
I’ll cop a plea.
It terrifies me.

(interlude)

It won’t be long ’till prison opens up to greet me.

Bad vibes keep falling on my head.
But that’s just karma coming ‘round on me, I dread…
Mueller’s got the key.
‘Cause, I’m never gonna stop the probe by complaining.
I’ll drop a tweet,

’cause I’m President Cheat!

Thanks to Original Songwriters: Burt Bacharach / Hal David

Southern Fortitude

It was a bad day for Col. Charles Olmstead and the Confederate Army on April 10, 1862, when Capt. Quincy Gillmore’s Union artillery attacked Fort Pulaski from the northwest beachhead of Tybee Island, forcing its surrender thirty hours later,

direction dial

and proving that a seemingly invincible coastal fortification that required 25 million bricks, 18 years, and $1 million to build could never catch up to evolving weapons technology.

Overview

Even 7½-inch-thick mortar walls were insufficient to protect the Fort’s garrison from the explosive bombardment of Gillmore’s experimental rifled cannon fire from one mile away.

gate

Construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829 as part of the Third System–in defense of Savannah’s 20,000 citizens and dynamic seaport–adopted by President Madison in response to the War of 1812.

Gorge Wall

With Fort Sumter under Confederate control by Christmas, 1860, Gov. Joseph Brown ordered state militia to seize Fort Pulaski–still unoccupied by Federal troops–on January 3, 1861…

Demilune

…and transferred ownership to the Confederacy following Georgia’s succession on January 19, 1861.

the yard

It was a controversial gambit that ultimately escalated into eleven States joining the Confederacy–spiraling the South into Civil War by April 12, 1861.

spiral stairs

The Poshest Campus in America

In 1888, Henry Flagler of Standard Oil fame opened the Hotel Ponce de Leon (a.k.a the Ponce) in downtown St. Augustine to the delight of many fortunate Northerners, who eagerly took up tropical residency in one of 450 rooms during the winter season.

Ponce de Leon Hotel panorama

The elaborate Spanish Renaissance design was designed by the renown firm of Carrère and Hastings, with terra-cotta flourishes provided by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray.

exterior detail

Construction consisted of poured concrete over a coquina base–a new-fangled technique that laid the groundwork for future prominent buildings throughout the country.

Hotel explanation

Louis Comfort Tiffany and Company was responsible for the interior design, using the ballroom ceiling as an inspired palette for his signature “Tiffany blue”,

Mantle (2)

and an anchor for a complement of Austrian crystal chandeliers.

Parlor Chandelier

For three and one-half months and the princely sum of $4,000 ($100K by today’s count), Flagler’s pampered guests enjoyed uncommon luxury for their time, which included private bathrooms, building-wide electricity supplied by Edison’s on-site DC dynamos (another first for a hotel), gourmet meals, and nightly entertainment.

Upon entry through the Beaux-Arts gateway,

entry and statue

guests would cross the courtyard gardens past the playful sundial fountain

sundial fountain.jpg

adorned by twelve spitting terra-cotta frogs.

spitting frog fountain (3)

Guests would continue through the hotel doors…

entrance (2)

to gaze at the legendary rotunda:

The grand entranceway of the historic Ponce de Leon has been called the most elegant room in St. Augustine. The ornate Rotunda has captivated guests and visitors since the debut of the hotel on January 10, 1888. Richly decorated, the three-and-half story dome displays spectacular murals by George Willoughby Maynard and brilliant gilding that warms dimly lit spaces.

The Rotunda is the pivotal point of the Hotel Ponce de Leon’s floor plan, the crossing of the main north-south and east-west axes. In this central location hotel guests arrived, departed, socialized, waited for their carriages, or strolled to other areas of the hotel complex. The Rotunda linked the private guest room wings…to the public spaces of the hotel.

Rotunda

At the first floor level, eight caryatids (robed figures of women) carved in oak support the 80-foot dome and shape the octagonal plan of the Rotunda. Around the ornate wooden pillars, mosaic tile floors, marble and dark oak baseboards, large fireplaces, and gilded walls create the exotic atmosphere of this room. Hidden from view is a structural dome piercing the rooftop that shields a solarium. Originally balconies accessed from the solarium hosted tropical roof gardens and a breathtaking view of St. Augustine. In 1893, lion heads with electric lights were added at the mezzanine level.

carved column

On the plaster walls of the dome at the second floor level, noted muralist George Maynard painted eight elaborate female figures representing the four elements – Fire, Earth, Air and Water – and the four stages of Spanish exploration – Adventure, Discovery, Conquest and Civilization. Around these principal figures are many layers of symbolism, rendered by Maynard in meticulous detail. In 1897, ten years after their completion, Maynard reproduced these murals in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

Rotunda explanation

Presently, the ballroom at the west end serves as an orientation facility for guided historic tours and a ceremonial setting for faculty,

parlor left

but also houses a selection of relics from a bygone era in an adjoining parlor,

Parlor right

with an emphasis on fine art,

mural

and family life.

Flagler family

At the north wing of the hotel, the cavernous dining hall commands attention for its opulence and splendor.

Dining room panorama

Ten barreled bay windows are panelled in Tiffany stained-glass,

Dining Hall explanation

and believed to be part of the world’s largest private collection–making it worthy of safeguarding by forming a sandwich of bullet-proof glass on the outside,

Tiffany window

and unbreakable acrylic on the inside.

[Diners sat beneath a quad of]…graceful angels that represent the four seasons, and a majestic Spanish galleon under full sail–an artistic rendition of the ship that brought Ponce de Leon to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.

Dining room ceiling

[Again], the majestic ceilings were the work of George Willoughby Maynard, the nation’s foremost muralist of the time. Full-length female figures were the focal point of this room. The ceilings hold Spanish crests and coats of arms intermingled with colorful proverbs.

DR ceiling detail

The hotel was commandeered by the federal government during World War II, and used as a Coast Guard training facility. When the building was decommissioned by the Coast Guard after the war, hotel operations resumed, but sales and travelers were never as robust as before.

The Ponce made history again on March 31, 1964, when the dining room was chosen by black students from Richard J. Murry Middle School as the site for a mass sit-in, which ended in police violence and arrests, ultimately resulting in Senate passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Ponce closed its doors in 1967, only to reopen the following year as the centerpiece of the newly endowed Flagler College, where the newly restored Ponce continued its service to historic St. Augustine as a residence hall and campus cafeteria for freshman girls.  

Flagler College (2)

Presently, tuition, room and board totals $30,000, which in the scheme of things, seems like an unlikely bargain at today’s prices for yesterday’s glamor. 

(The building was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and was awarded National Historic Landmark status on February 21, 2006.)

 

Old Bagelsides

While enjoying my morning breakfast, and catching up on some classic poetry, I decided on a mash-up, which seemed entirely appropriate at the moment.

Inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Old Ironsides*

So, eat my toasted bagel now!
Soon may I reach thru wrap.
‘Cause many a tooth awaits to chew
this morsel from the sack;
Inside, I whiffed the buttered carbs
And yearned the content’s nut;–
But the paper bag in my eager hand
Revealed a tear somewhat!

My meal, once hot from oven’s heat,
Which baked the risen dough,
Where yeast was bubbling through the mix,
And grains were ground. Ergo,
Constant kneading the rubb’ry mass
And proof the crusted skin,
The bagels of the batch shall rise–
The essence of a win!

Oh, woeful that my ragged bag
erodes against my touch;
Construction dooms my marv’lous meal,
And so, becomes my crutch;
Drops through the rip, my toasted roll
Damn every filthy crime!
And gift it to the trove of germs—
The goodness and the grime.

*

 

Old School

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It’s my understanding that there’s an outstanding stand-alone wooden schoolhouse still standing in the middle of St. Augustine’s historic district, that by today’s standards, stands to be the oldest wooden schoolhouse in America, notwithstanding the claims of contenders with similar standing, which stands to reason.

panoramic exterior

For instance, the Voorlezer House is an ancient clapboard-framed structure located in Staten Island’s historic Richmond Town. It was built in 1695 by Dutch settlers as a church, school and residence for the voorlezer (one whose semi-official duties included local law, education and religion). By virtue of its vintage, it gets high marks as the nation’s “oldest school house”.

Voorlezer's House (2).jpg
Voorlezer’s House, December 1938 (credit: Museum of the City of New York)

However, naysayers may say its multi-purposefulness disqualifies its “oldest school house” credential, while other “arcaneologists” would point to percentages of original materials retained as the gold standard for proper certification.
Nevertheless, St. Augustine, by virtue of its “first city” status, arguably possesses a legitimate rite for rating rotting relics, and maintains that the honor of “oldest wooden school house” resides at 14 St. George Street.

Certificate

At the very least, this much I know to be mostly true with questionable certainty:

Welcome

Upon close inspection, the main building has been wrapped in a rusted iron chain since 1937 to keep it from blowing away in case of a hurricane. An anchor was added in 1939 for added insurance.

The one-room classroom was originally accessed from street level,

classroom

where stairs led to the School Master’s private residence one floor above.

parabolic upstairs

Primitive behavior modification techniques took place under the stairs, in what became know as the school Dungeon,

i am inocint

where recalcitrant children found themselves quarantined for an assortment of offenses.

no smoking

Yet despite the occasional unruly student, the clapboard walls around the room offered strong evidence of learning…

lesson plans (2)

math lesson

achievement…

Class of 1864a (2)

discipline…

Rules for Teachers (2)

and dedication.

Teacher's Prayer

Located around the back,

school garden

the detached kitchen offered healthy school lunches…

kitchen

…cultivated by kids…

kids rock

…from garden to table.

monumental tykes

Also in the schoolyard stands the rebuilt potty house–perfect for serious homework.

potty

And when the last bell tolls and class is finally dismissed,

school bell

it’s reassuring to know that when kids learn their ABCs, regardless of schoolhouse pedigree, it can ultimately result in a lifetime love of learning.

reading bench

Uncertainty: Chapter Sixteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Sixteen

Frohe Weihnachten, Oberpräsident,” echoed Max, with a doff of his cap.

“And a Merry Christmas to you as well, Herr und Frau Köhler,” greeted Terboven, while keeping his horse on pace with the wagon as it rolled toward the Bahnhof entrance. “And what business brings you to town on such a fine morning?”

“I’m surprised you need to ask, Herr Terboven!” I asserted. “One only needs to look at this magnificent Tannenbaum on the platz as an answer to your question.”

Aha1! he exclaimed. “I have to agree with you. I too am drawn to it. It fills me with a great sense of Stoltz2 whenever I gaze upon it. In fact, it transcends its simple purpose of being a tree among trees in a forest that few would ever notice, let alone appreciate. But out here, on the platz, it becomes a sacred symbol to our Fatherland. This splendid tree personifies the strength and perfection that is Germany, and stands as a testament to the powerful bond that exists between the citizens of Germany and their love of Führer. Heil, Hitler!”

I sensed Terboven waiting for the requisite “Heil, Hitler” response, but he was met with uncomfortable indifference.

“Wouldn’t you agree, Herr Köhler?” he asked, looking miffed and wanting more than a tacit understanding. Max pulled the reins on Shaina Maidel and slowed the wagon to a full stop. Terboven circled around the wagon, and pulled his horse up beside Max.

“Forgive me, meine Oberpräsident, for having a wandering mind, but when I look upon this mighty tree, all I can see is eighty years of slow and steady growth cut down in fifteen minuten3 by your men. If I close my eyes, I am left to imagine the tree still standing in the feld. But in reality, there is a gap in the landscape that matches the hole in my heart from the sadness I feel.”

Ja, but it is a noble sacrifice for the Reich, Herr Köhler. Is it not?” baited Terboven.

“It is, Herr Terboven,” I interjected, “and I have brought my beautiful nieces–who happen to be hiding in the back of the wagon–to show them the beauty that Gott has created, and the precious gift their Onkel has given to the town.

Max turned in his seat to roust the girls under their blanket. “Are you ready for your surprise, meine darlings?” he called out.

Berte and Eva slowly revealed themselves–lifting the blanket from their huddled mass–and carefully pulled themselves up to face the Tannenbaum directly.

“There it is, girls! What do you think?” Max asked, grinning.

Onkel Max, it’s so beautiful,” gushed Berte, to the edge of exaggeration.

Wunderbar, Onkel Max! It’s the most beautiful tree I think I’ve ever seen,” Eva overstated.

Bitte, can we get a closer look, Tante Ilse?” begged Berte.

“Can we?” chimed Eva.

“Where are your manners, children?” I scolded. “How do you address this fine officer?”

Frohe Weihnachten, sir,” curtsied Berte.

Frohe Weihnachten,” mimicked Eva, clinging to Berte.

Heil, Hitler,” chirped Terboven, with a tip of his hat.

I signaled my approval. “Much better, girls,” I lauded.

“Now climb down from there,” I advised, “and be very careful not to catch a nail with your fancy new Christmas outfits.”

_________________________

My heart was racing. With everybody watching, I approached Shaina Maidel, wanting to say goodbye without arousing suspicion, but I couldn’t find the right words.

“Thank you for taking me to the Bahnhof,” I whispered.

Hauptbahnhof postcard (3)

I gently stroked her muzzle and looked into her deep brown eyes. She nuzzled against my shoulder in response, and nudged the paper sack in my hand.

“I know what you want,” I predicted. I opened the sack and withdrew an apple for her to see. “Is this what you want?” I teased.

Shaina Maidel tossed her head and whinnied. I took a bite and offered her the rest. The apple was gone in a flash, but she was back to nibble at my palm.

“You’re welcome,” I offered, and walked back to Tante Ilse. A wave goodbye to Onkel Max…

“I will wait for you on the south side of the station,” he announced,

…and the three of us walked to the Bahnhof, arm-in-arm. Gott sei Dank, our backs were turned, because I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.

_________________________

“Ride with me, Herr Köhler. I will escort you to the other side,” I offered.

Essen-Hauptbahnhof_von_Süden_um_1920 (3)

It was better for the horses to be on the other side of the Bahnhof and away from the pedestrians and automobiles that were constantly in motion on the north side. Besides, there was something that was bothering me about Max Köhler’s attitude and answers that demanded more time to assess. Perhaps, a few more questions were in order to satisfy my curiosity.

“It’s really unnecessary, Oberpräsident. There’s no need to go out of your way. I believe I’ve already taken up too much of your time,” he indicated.

Unsinn5!” I replied. “It’s no trouble, I assure you. Besides, I have an hour of time to kill before my wife and daughter return from the holiday performance under Ihre Tannenbaum6.”

“Very well…if you must,” remarked Herr Köhler.

_________________________

Children of all ages and levels of anxiety were being processed alphabetically at a long table inside the terminal staffed by Kindertransport agents. I directed Berte and Eva to the P-Q-R-S line, where a volunteer was waiting and eager to assist us.

“Family name, bitte,” she requested.

“Strawczynski, S-T-R-A-W-C-Z-Y-N-S-K-I,”provided Berte.

“Given names?” she asked.

“I’m Berte, and this is my shvester, Eva,” reported Berte.

The agent sorted through stacks of name cards with hanging string, conveniently organized in boxes under the table, until she came across the two designated for Berte and Eva.

“Are you the girl’s mother?” she asked, pursuant to releasing the name cards.

Nein. I’m the Tante,” I lied.

“Do you have travel papers for the kinder?” she inquired.

_________________________

While in transit to the south side, I attempted to manuever around a menacing squad of Hitler Youth–intentionally crossing in front of Shaina Maidel with designs on annoying her–but the moment they spotted Terboven, their behavior was beyond reproach. They quickly filed past the wagon and aligned in a perfect row with arms extended in a synchronized salute. “SIEG HEIL!”

“What a nuisance,” I spoke under my breath.

Terboven dutifully returned the salute. “What wonderful kinder we have in the service of the Reich,” he boasted to me.

“May I see your papers, Herr Köhler?…Just a formality,” explained Terboven.

“If you must,” I accepted without objection.

I rummaged inside my coat pocket until they were available, and handed them over. After a cursory examination, Terboven held them up to the light, and returned them intact.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked, innocently. My response was intended as a rhetorical question, but I think it may have come across sarcastically.

“I see you have no children, Herr Köhler. Why don’t you tell me about Frau Köhler, bitte,” he directed. “And tell me when you discovered she was a Jüdin!”

_________________________

“Oh meine Gott! What are you doing here?” I couldn’t believe my eyes, I was so ecstatic. I surrounded Toni Ehrlich and Sully Greenberg with both arms. All of us came together for a group hug, but found the hanging  name cards to be an annoyance around our necks.

“You have no idea how much I missed you!” I sighed.

I sensed Eva was feeling left out of our close circle, until she spotted Sully’s shvester, Rosa in the background, and the two of them enjoyed their own special reunion.

“Where have you been?,” asked Toni. “Sully and I were so worried about you.

“It’s true,” sounded Sully. “It’s as if you and your mishpucha disappeared.”

“We did,” Eva broadcasted, still locked in Rosa’s embrace. “We were in hiding.”

“Eva! You  promised Eema that you’d never tell!” I admonished.

“But these are our friends, Bertie, and I’ll bet that we’re all traveling to Holland together,” she predicted, which spurred all of our friends to nod in agreement.

“Don’t you see, Bertie? This is Abba’s final surprise!”

_________________________

I spotted Tante immediately from her red beret, but I wasn’t sure if she could see me. She was weaving through the crowd on the platform like a ballet dancer, gracefully dodging the grown-ups who were frantically searching the long line of railcar windows for a final glimpse of the other half of their heart. We exchanged a wave when our eyes finally locked, and her face quickly changed from sad to glad.

I followed Rosa Greenberg to car number three, where the seven and eight-year-olds were sitting. At first, I thought it unfair to be sitting with the younger children, since I was almost nine, but after Bertie and I were sorted by age, and separated at boarding, I was delighted to sit with my friend, Rosa.

We found seats together by the window facing the platform, where I could see Tante standing with scattered groups of moms and dads united in their grief, and fighting to grapple with sending their children off to an uncertain future. I could also see Onkel Max in the distance. He was standing on the wagon, wildly gesturing to the officer on the horse who appeared to be pointing a gun at Shaina Maidel.

_________________________

“What are you doing? What do you want?” I implored.

Terboven’s weapon was drawn, and pointed directly at Shaina Maidel.

“I want the truth…” insisted Terboven. “…but all I get is Lügen8!

As Terboven’s anger was building, his volume increased. “I ask about Deine Frau9, and you lie. I ask about the kinder, and you lie. I ask about your allegiance to the Reich, and you lie! Lies, LIES, and more LIES! WHEN DO I GET THE TRUTH!”

“But I’ve been telling you the truth,” I cried.

_________________________

Gotteniu10! Onkel Max is in trouble,” I blurted. The steam whistle blared and the railcar lurched forward. I never heard the shot, but Shaina Maidel crashed to the ground, tipping the wagon and throwing Onkel Max off-balance, and flying through the air.

I remember screaming, but I don’t remember anything after that…

…until I woke up in Holland…

…without my coat.

The End of Part One



Part Two: Holland


1Of course!
2I see!
3pride
4minutes
5Nonsense
6your fir tree
7Jewess
8lies
9your wife

10Oh God!

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

The towering Tannenbaum on the snow-dusted platz was a magnificent specimen to behold. The balsam fir rose twenty-five meters to the heavens and stretched fifteen meters across the plaza to form a perfectly proportioned arrow. All its weighty boughs pointed upwards, carrying full and fluffy branches, making it a remarkable holiday centerpiece for the city plaza from any angle–especially the approach to the Hauptbahnhof. However, the Tannenbaum, despite its natural beauty, was infected with garish red lights and glistening Nazi ornaments from bottom to top,

Nazi ornaments

and crowned with a giant Germanic sun wheel–transforming the setting into a propaganda postcard.

Tragically, the accompanying nativity scene of baby Jesus and the Magi was replaced by a winter solstice display of heather, hay and holly, with candles arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. Boys from Hitler Youth and girls from the League formed an outside circle around the tree, serenading family, friends, and bystanders with their harmonious rendition of Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was a disgrace.

There was a time as a young boy, when my favorite holiday of the year was the day before Christmas. Papa always waited until the day before Christmas to cut down a tree of our own, because “the customer always comes first!” he would say. On the day before Christmas, I would wake early and wait for Papa to walk with me into the wald, although I was usually one step behind him, struggling to carry an axe as tall as me.

We would cross the empty patches of forest together in search of the perfect tree that would satisfy Mama–not too big, and not too small. If I came upon a tree that I liked, I would drop the axe and run to it. “Is this the one, Papa?” I’d ask. At which point, Papa would indicate his answer with either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”

I figured Papa to be a very particular man, because most of my early choices were often rejected. But he taught me what to look for when selecting the perfect Tannenbaum. Papa would eventually approve my pick of tree, and always gave me the first whack at it with his axe–although in the beginning, I hardly ever made a dent in the bark.

When we got the tree home, the house would smell just like a Bäckerei1, because Mama was usually in the middle of baking her special Bethmännchen2. But she always stopped whatever she was doing at the time to evaluate our selection and deliver her ruling, even though she always awarded Papa with a “thumbs up.”

Once Papa secured the tree, he could retire to his chair by the fire for a snooze, while I sipped hot cocoa and glazed the cookie tips with shokolade–deliberately managing to get my fingers as dirty as possible, just so I could lick them clean. Then it was time to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries together until my fingers were sore from being pricked so often.

An hour before dinner, Papa was usually awake, which gave our family plenty of time to trim the tree. When the last ornament was hung and the final garland was draped across the tree, it was my job–sitting astride Papa’s shoulders–to place the Star of Bethlehem atop the tree.

After enjoying Mama’s amazing Christmas dinner of roasted squabs stuffed with apples, dates and sausage, and served with giant helpings of sweet red cabbage and spaetzle3, we would attend Christmas Eve vigil at St. Lambertus, where I was an altar boy, and sang carols in the choir. And when we returned from church, Mama would serve her Christmas Stollen4 with spiced cider for dessert, and I would open presents.

But today it’s completely different–to the point where I no longer crave the need for a family tree–realizing that the sanctity and meaning of Christmas has been replaced by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Collectively, the Aryan nation has effectively and systematically stripped Christ from Christmas. For Christ’s sake, they even rewrote the words to my favorite and most sacred Christmas hymn:

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight,
Watches o’er Deutschland by day and by night,
Guiding our nation aright.
Guiding our nation aright.

“That fir may have come from one of Papa’s earliest seedlings,” I lamented to Ilse.

“If he only knew what the Nazis have done to his finest tree, he would roll over in his grave,” answered Ilse.

Heil, Hitler!” I heard from behind.

Riding horseback and approaching on my right was Oberpräsident Terboven, astride a stunning black gelding with an oversized swastika button on its bridle.

Ilse greeted him with a cautious nod. “Frohe Weihnachten5, Herr Terboven!”


1bakery
2marzipan cookies
3dumplings
4traditional fruitcake
5Merry Christmas

Uncertainty: Chapter Fourteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Fourteen

The wagon wheels traced two perfect lines in the snow as we rolled along the country road. Once the flurries had stopped, and the wind had died down, the crisp air had lost its bite, and riding in the back of the wagon with Eva became more enjoyable. Nevertheless, I was ever so grateful for the double clothes under my coat.

I thought for a minute about what Abba and Eema had sewn behind the buttons of our coats, and massaged one of them through my mittens, but felt nothing out of the ordinary, which made me wonder if anything was even there.

“How’s everyone doing back there,” Onkel Max called out.

Alles gut1,” I answered back.

“I have to pishn2, Onkel Max,” shouted Eva.

“Really Pony? We haven’t been on the road for more than fifteen minutes,” I asserted.

“But the ride is bumpy and my insides are nervous, Bertie.”

“Is it an emergency?” I asked.

“That’s a silly question,” she shot back.

“We have to stop for a minute, Onkel Max,” I yelled.

Perfekt3!” he responded. I detected the resignation in his voice.

If anybody had passed us on the road, they would have noticed a middle-aged woman standing beside a horse and wagon, holding Shaina Maidel’s red blanket in stretched out arms. But on the other side of the blanket there was Eva and me, creating two yellow circles in the snow. 

All things considered, we were back on the road in no time at all, and with plenty of time before our 10:00 a.m. departure, provided we didn’t have to stop again for Eva.

“We are approaching the town road, so it’s time to cover up,” instructed Onkel Max.

I pulled the red blanket over our bodies which magically made us invisible to the rest of the world. Occasionally, a burst of sunlight would bounce around inside our igloo world, washing Eva’s face with streaks of red light, and then she’d turn invisible again.

“Are you nervous, Bertie?” asked Eva.

“About what, Pony?” I considered.

“About taking care of me,” she answered. I thought I saw a glint of her sly smile.

“Should I be?” I was getting nervous.

“Well, Abba thinks I’m a handful,” she boasted.

“For me, it all depends on what’s inside your hand,” I suggested. “For instance, if your hand is filled with dirt and worms, then I guess I’m a bissel nervous. But if your hand is filled with shokolad4 and raisins, then there’s nothing to be nervous about.”

“What if my hand was filled with shokolad worms?”

“That’s a silly example. Who doesn’t like shokolad worms?”

Eva cracked up and so did I. I think that being outdoors for the first time in a month probably made us a bit giddy.

“I can hear you from out here,” shouted Tante Ilse. “You will need to keep your voices down since we’re approaching der platzin eine Minute6.

“Okay, Tante Ilse!” shouted Eva.

I shook her leg to get her attention. “Remember. You’re a handful of shokolad.”

“And now it’s all melted and gooey,” she claimed, and mimed a hand smear on my coat.

“Not another word!” I hissed with an edge.

“Okay. I’ll stop.” she said abruptly.

After another flash of light under the blanket, I caught a flash of Eva zipping her lips.


1All good, just fine
2pee
3perfect

4chocolate
5square
6one minute

Uncertainty: Chapter Thirteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve


Uncertainty: Chapter Thirteen

On this white and wintery Christmas morning, Eema helped us dress for our journey by layering two of everything under our dress coats, including underwear. Eema was very specific about what to take with us. “No suitcases,” she cautioned. “It’s got to look like a day trip.”

We could each carry a small rucksack, but only if everything inside was approved by Eema. I packed a nightshirt, some toiletries, my new hairbrush, and Abba’s siddur. Eva also packed a nightshirt and toiletries, but inside her bag was a copy of “Emil and the Detectives,” and a new sketchbook with a fancy box of color pencils that Tante Ilse and Onkel Max gave her for her birthday.

“Be mindful of your coats, girls, because they are special,” warned Eema. “Your Papa and I sewed something very valuable into the lining behind every button in case of an emergency. So make sure you are wearing them at all times until you get past the Nazis.”

Abba continued the appeal, now looking directly at me. “And when you arrive in Holland, and finally meet the authorities in charge of your welfare, you will offer them two of the buttons to help pay for your living expenses. Farshteyn1?”

Farshtanen2!” I announced, and Eva saluted.

Gutt3! Now come give your Papa a hug until next time,” invited Abba, with opens arms.

Eva was drawn in like a powerful magnet. “But aren’t you taking us to the Bahnhof?” Eva asked during her embrace.

Abba kneeled to Eva’s level. “Sadly, there’s no room in the wagon for Mutti and me, so Onkel Max and Tante Ilse will ride in the front; you will hide in the back with Berte; and Shaina Maidel will carry the wagon to Hauptbahnhof,” outlined Abba.

“But who is going to take care of us?” asked Eva.

I was wondering the same thing, but I was too hesitant to ask.

“A representative from the Red Cross or a Jewish Services volunteer is certain to meet you in Arnhem when you arrive at the Bahnhof,” he asserted with confidence.

“But how will we ever find you in Holland?” she persisted.

Oy gevalt! So many questions again! You’re such a nudnik5! Leave that to us. We will find you…I promise, one hundred percent. Now say goodbye to your Mamelah4.”

Eva pecked at Abba’s cheek. “I love you, and thank you for all of my early birthday surprises” she said with a squeeze.

“I love you too, my Pony,” sighed Abba.

“Look at my girls…so sheyne6 and so grown up,” gushed Eema, her hands clutching Abba’s handkerchief tightly to her chest. She was an open vessel for Eva’s embrace after Abba released her from his bear hug.

Then it was my turn to say goodbye. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard, but it was.

“I’m going to miss you more than you will ever know,” he whispered in my arms.

“Me too, Tatti,” I whispered, fighting back tears.

We lingered in our embrace. “I know it’s not fair what I’m asking, but I’m depending on you to protect your shvester,” he requested.

“I will, Abba. I promise, one hundred percent!”


1Understand?
2Understood!
3Good
4Mother dear
5pest

6pretty

Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

Uncertainty: Chapter 11


Uncertainty: Chapter Twelve

I gently guided Eva into the kitchen. “Promise to keep your eyes closed tight until I tell you,” I warned.

“Oh, Bertie! Can’t I peak just a little bit?” she contemplated.

“Absolutely not! And ruin your…”

“!!! SURPRISE !!!” in our loudest voices.

______________________________

I opened my eyes and I couldn’t believe it! Everyone was standing around, and there was a birthday cake in the middle of the kitchen table for me.

“Make a wish!” everyone yelled out together.

I closed my eyes and immediately wished for the Nazis to go away and leave us alone. The ten candles were no match for my powerful lungs. I wound up, and took in a deep breath, and blew so hard across the cake that a couple of the candles fell over and melted some of the chocolate icing.

“!!! APPLAUSE !!!”

“It was a pretty good performance, so perhaps that will help make my wish come true,” I told myself.

My family broke out in song, with an enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday, which Bertie turned into an audition for the Berlin State Opera.

“This is amazing,” I announced, “but it’s not really my birthday. It’s not for another week.”

“That’s true, Pony…,” answered Berte.

(Sometimes Bertie called me Pony, after Emil’s little cousin, because when I was little, Abba and Eema often took turns reading “Emil and the Detectives” to me.)

“…but everybody here agreed to celebrate your birthday early,” she finished, and then she turned to Abba for guidance.

“But why, Abba? We always celebrate our birthday together!” I asked.

He stepped up to me, took my hands in his and crouched down to meet my eyes.

“Were you suprised?” he asked, and I answered with a nod.

Fantastish1! And I have an even bigger surprise for you tomorrow. Do you want to open your presents now?” he coached.

“Menil! Is that all you have to say to Eva?” teased Eema.

“But I promised not to give away the big surprise until tomorrow.” pleaded Abba. 

“Is there something you can tell her without giving away the surprise?” bargained Eema.

“Please Abba. Give me one clue, like Emil and the Detectives.” I begged.

Okay. But you can’t ask for more clues. Agreed?” he brokered, and we did a pinky swear on it.

“So, here’s your clue,” he continued, “You and Bertie are going on a special adventure tomorrow, and to prepare for your adventure, your mother and I have some special gifts for both of you. Would you like to see your presents now?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck to thank him, but then I remembered, “Abba, you never answered my question,” I told him in his ear.

“And what question was that, meyn lib2?” he wondered.

“Why are we celebrating my birthday one week early?” I wanted to know.

“No, siree! We did a pinky swear. Not another word from me,” he said abruptly.

Eema squatted behind Abba to meet my eyes. “Your Tattiand I believe it’s not safe in Germany anymore, so we made arrangements for you and Berte to take the train to Arnhem in the morning while it’s still possible.”

“Is it because of what happened on Hanukkah?” I guessed.

“Ah gezunt ahf dein kup4I’m so proud of you.” praised Eema, and she kissed the top of my head.

I tried to smile, but I could feel the tears building up inside me, and then I heard my voice quivering, “Why can’t all of us go together?”

“We already tried that, Pony. Remember?” she Bertie prompted.

I composed myself. If I was turning nine, then I needed to act like a grown-up. “What kind of arrangements, Eema?” I sniffled.

“There goes the surprise,” lamented Abba.

Eema pretend-cried to get my attention. She reached between Abba and me, and pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket to pretend-dab her eyes, and then she dabbed mine. That put a smile back on my face.

Tante Ilse took over the conversation. “Your Mama und Papa discovered something important called the Kindertransport5. It’s an organization that is rescuing Jewish children trapped in Germany–like you and Berte–and taking them to England for safety. But in order to participate, the parents must surrender their kinder, and also understand that legal adoption is possible in England.”

“Is that what we’re doing, Eema?” Bertie asked.

Eema slowly got to her feet by leaning on Abba for support. “I believe your Tante is right as usual–with one important exception…” Eema expressed.

“Which is?…” Bertie interjected.

“You have to promise me first!” insisted Eema.

“Promise what, Eema?” I asked, drawing the attention back to me. After all, this was supposed to be my party.

Eema’s mood suddenly turned serious.

She turned to Bertie, firmly stating, “Promise me…under no condition are you to ever separate from your sister. Do you hear me?”

“I promise,” Bertie pledged like a girl scout.

And then she turned to me, firmly stating, “Promise me…that you will listen to your shvester at all times, and you will stick to her like glue. Do you hear me?”

I gave Eema the same salute as Bertie.

Abba pulled himself up using Eema’s arm for leverage. “B’ezrat HaShem6, all of us will soon reunite in Holland,” he sighed. When he got to his feet, he lightened the mood again. “Can we open presents, now?” he called out. “And no more surprises for the day!?”


1Fantastic!
2my love
3father
4A blessing on your head
5Children transport
6God willing

Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven
Uncertainty: Chapter Eight
Uncertainty: Chapter Nine
Uncertainty: Chapter Ten


Uncertainty: Chapter Eleven

“My name is Menil, and I am a simple man, one hundred percent. There is not much to my story with the exception of three evident truths…”

“For one, I am neither German or Polish. I am ‘stateless’.”

“I earned this elusive title nearly twenty years ago after crossing into Germany to avoid conscription in the Polish Army. My decision was guided by my faith in Hashem, and grounded in my need to escape further anti-Semitic prosecution. Consequently, I forfeited my Polish citizenship, and automatically became a political refugee. While it was difficult starting out with so little in a new country with Rochel, my bride, it never deterred me from achieving my dream of building a prosperous business and raising a beautiful family. With Rochel by my side, we were unstoppable…until the Nazis decidedly interfered with our plans.”

“Another thing about me…I am neither a resident or a citizen. I am considered an ‘undesirable’ and ‘enemy of the state’.”

“I’m told by the Third Reich that my very existence is a direct threat to the government, and Hitler’s notion of Aryan perfection–along with anyone else who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, a homosexual, a gypsy, or a mental patient. As an ‘enemy of the state,’ I must surrender everything that I have ever worked for, and I am to be treated as a common criminal. And what are my choices for committing racial treason? Either I hide underground like a rat or face the likelihood of prison…or worse.”

“Lastly, I am no longer a tailor or a businessman. I am just a humble Jew, meyn Got.”

“When the Nazis see me, that is all they can see. After the Reichstag1 enacted the Nuremberg Laws on September 15, 1935, I became a stranger in a strange land. The Nazis could no longer see me as a man of substance or purpose. All they see is a Jew, nothing more: someone who is defined by the heritage of his parents and his parents’ parents; someone who is worthy of only ridicule and hate; and someone who is an age-old scapegoat for Hitler’s propaganda machine.”

“And what’s my take on all that I am? I ask because by looking at me, no one could ever predict these details about me. I certainly don’t appear ‘stateless’. My German is impeccable; I once owned property in the center of town; and I had the respect of the business community and the congregants who davened with me in shul.”

“No one would ever confuse me for an ‘enemy of the state’. I’m not an activist like some of the Zionists I know. I never go to meetings, and I don’t protest in the streets or sign petitions with my real name.”

“Most interestingly, I don’t particularly look Jewish. At least I don’t think so. My pale skin, green eyes, moderate nose and thinning hair makes me more likely to be mistaken for a goy. Berte, too. Her looks definitely come from my side of the family. Her blond hair and blue eyes alone have made her the envy of every Aryan parent. Eva, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. Her alluring looks come from Rochel’s side: black hair and dark mysterious eyes–the kind that draw you in.”

“Rochel has always hocked2 me that I’ve been living in denial, but there is no denying these three facts about me, one hundred percent. And regardless of how I present to the world, the Nazis have managed to remind me of ‘what’ I am on a daily basis. Of course, one needn’t look any further than my identity papers.”

“Passports are curious things. As an official travel document, it reveals our personal information: name, birthdate, country of origin, and a photograph of our likeness. To the average yutz3 or shmo4, a passport is a certified registration of identity and nationality for the primary purpose of international travel, but to a Jew, it’s meaningless and a curse. So there can be no confusion, all Jewish passports have been stamped with an identifying “J” in red letters.”

German Passport (2)

“In August ’38, the Reichstag passed the “Executive Order on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names,” which now requires Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt additional names: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women. So now, I’m officially Menil “Israel” Strawczynski. How do you like that?!”

“Naturally, all of this nonsense is beside the point, because leaving Germany by normal means of passport and visa issuance is nearly impossible following the horror of Kristallnacht. Already, most countries around the world no longer want Jewish immigrants or refugees inside their borders–which they’ve made very clear by tightening entry regulations and keeping the numbers down for people like us.”

I shrugged. “Unfortunately, it’s much too late in the day for Rochel or me to formally cross the border to Venlo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t send the kinder ahead of us…We just have to figure out a way we can all reunite on the other side.”

Shaina Maidel whinnied and shook her head. She nudged my shoulder.

“I apologize. I don’t mean to kvetch5, but you’re such a good listener!”

I picked myself up from the bale beside the stall opening, and brushed the hay from my tush6. I grabbed the lantern and an apple to feed her from a nearby bushel basket.

“You’ve been very helpful,” I offered with the treat, and she snatched it from my palm.

“Now I understand why Bertie loves you so much. Good Night, Shaina Maidel.”


1Parliament of the Third Reich
2nagged
3fool
4jerk
5complain

6buttocks

Uncertainty: Chapter Ten

Uncertainty: Prologue
Uncertainty: Chapter One
Uncertainty: Chapter Two
Uncertainty: Chapter Three
Uncertainty: Chapter Four
Uncertainty: Chapter Five
Uncertainty: Chapter Six
Uncertainty: Chapter Seven
Uncertainty: Chapter Eight
Uncertainty: Chapter Nine


Uncertainty: Chapter Ten

Menil and I huddled under the blankets for warmth and held each other close. Yet we froze in fear of being discovered like two teenage lovers in the backseat of a Duesenberg automobile. We had heard a loud noise, and instinctively clung to each other in the back of the van, reacting to the present danger with the same heightened awareness as if we were hiding under Ilse Köhler’s kitchen floor. 

An hour earlier, we thought we had found the perfect spot to find some alone time…away from the kinder. But leave it to Berte to pick the same place at the same time as Menil and me. Vey iz mir!1 We lay very still and quiet on our mattress of worsted wool–eavesdropping on Berte’s confession–until I could’t bear another minute of her unhappiness, and thought I would plotz2. It broke my heart hearing Bertie pouring her heart out to Shaina Maidel.

We held our breath as she dragged her feet past the van, and we let out a collective *sigh* the moment we heard the barn doors close behind her.

Gottenyu!3 I don’t think I could have gone any longer,” I confessed to Menil.

“Me either,” he snickered. “That had to be the most uncomfortable half-hour of my life.” He took back his arm and flexed it back and forth, trying to restore some feeling.

His nervous laughter reminded me of the time he accidentally pinned Dr. Krupp’s hoyzen4 legs together while marking a cuff, and the steel scion nearly broke his neck trying to step off the tailor block.

I jabbed him playfully with my elbow. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it! Your tokhter5 is struggling, and all you can do is laugh!?”

“Of course she’s struggling. We’re all struggling, Rochel! Because none of this makes any sense!” he stated. “This is all my fault. I should have listened to my shvester6 from Pittsburgh in ’35, when she said to me, ‘Menil, it’s not getting any better. You need to get out while you still can!'”

“She begged me to leave, and I wouldn’t have any of it. She could have sponsored all of us in America, and I was an idyot7 not to listen to her.”

I tried to reassure him. “Menil, it’s not your fault. We both agreed to stay here as long as we felt safe.” I hugged him tight so he would know.

“I wanted to believe our life in Essen was a blessing, and we were deserving of it after the way we struggled in Lodz. Gott sei dank!8, we have a successful business, and a beautiful family, and we can raise our girls to honor HaShem’s9 commandments. Even with the meshugenah10 Nazis in Essen, was our life so terrible?”

“Of course not!” I declared. I ran my fingers through his thick sandy hair and kissed him deeply. When I pulled away, I noticed that his smile and his swagger had returned.

“You see! So I was right!…Back then, there was no good reason to leave all of this behind. And for what?–an uncertain future in America?” he questioned.

However, in 1937, anti-Semitism intensified in Essen. Hitler Youths were constantly marching in the streets; more Jews were being beaten and harassed for being Jewish; and more laws were enacted that discriminated against Jewish merchants, doctors, lawyers and teachers. It became obvious to me and the girls that things were getting worse, yet whenever I often brought it up to Menil, he always thought things would eventually return to normal.

I’d tell him he was living “in denial,” but he always answered back with, “I have no immediate plans of moving from Essen or Egypt.”

The final affront for me was on September 27th that year, when Mussolini and Hitler rode down the center of town in his motorcade. Thousands of cheering people lined the street and saluted “Seig Heil”11 and “Heil, Hitler.”12 

Berlin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler

I was standing at the cross walk with Berte and noticed a frail woman in a wheelchair who failed to salute the Führer13 when he passed. That’s when a marching Brownshirt broke ranks and humiliated the old woman, forcing her to raise her arm. And when she couldn’t, he forced her to support her arm with the other arm. And when all strength failed her and her arms collapsed, he beat her and her attendant to the ground with a rubber truncheon while others looked on indifferently.

Maybe that’s when Menil finally came to his senses. We planned and practiced for the eventual day when our mishpocha could start over in the Nederlands. But we missed our one chance to cross the border together when it mattered, and now we’re in the van inside the barn at the farm, waiting to come up with another solution, because the Nazis are becoming more serious with each passing day, and it scares me.

“Max and Ilse have been telling us that people we used to know around our neighborhood are quickly disappearing. Families are being arrested and deported to concentration camps, and all the Jewish-owned shops are now reopening with Swastika flags flying on the outside. I feel like our life here is over…” 

Depression took hold, and grief overcame me. I buried myself in Menil’s arms. “…after all the hard work we put into it,” I sobbed. 

Menil consoled me, stroking my arms and back with his strong and nimble hands. “It’s all going to work out, Rochel. You’ll see. Bertie’s absolutely right. There’s no going back, and there’s no future staying here any longer,” he said with a hint of resignation. “We need to find another way out of Germany, but I’m not so sure we can do it as a family.”


1Woe is me!
2overcome by strong emotion
3Dear God!

4pants
5daughter
6sister
7idiot
8Thank God!
9The Lord
10crazy
11Hail Victory
12Hail, Hitler
13Leader