Mary Clark, Traveler

Visiting Civil War sites is Essential to Understanding the War

Civil War Canon On Top of Kennesaw Mountain

I am conflicted visiting Civil War sites.  Had I lived then, I hope I would not have owned slaves and would have voted against secession.  Yet, part of my heritage is with the Confederacy.  My grandmother spoke with venom about the deadly prison where her Confederate soldier father endured the war.  Until her death, she still used the word Yankees for Northerners as her eyes hardened.   But a trip through the South requires at least some stops at battlegrounds to give perspective on the terrain, battle tactics and suffering of the soldiers.  We started with the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi.


Vicksburg lies on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, immediately giving the Confederates a ten-fold advantage to control the nation’s biggest river.  The major east-west railroad passed through town bringing to the South badly needed Arkansas hogs, Texas horses, and Mexican and European imports.  Northern General Ulysses Grant had won 10 of his last 12 battles and knew he could cut off the legs of Dixieland by winning Vicksburg.  General John Pemberton realized a loss at Vicksburg would be the beginning of the end for the insurrection.  The battle began on May 18, 1863 and ended July 2nd with a complete surrender by the Confederate Army.

At the large Vicksburg National Military Park, roads wander through hill and dale with markers indicating shifting battle lines.  In 1863, trees would have been leveled to provide open views for snipers.  Today, only part is cleared.  We used Michael Logue, a local guide who provided local commentary as he drove our car through the grounds.  Distances between lines were surprisingly small, indicative of the distance a rifle could shoot successfully.  We learned the difference in a redoubt (square fort) and a redam (triangle fort), both French words from the language used in army manuals.  Local quartz dust soil provided perfect dry conditions for digging trenches, a tactic to be used soon in World War I. When the battle stalled outside Vicksburg’s fort, Pemberton moved his men inside the city walls to weather the coming 47 day disastrous siege.  Some experts (including our guide) consider this battle more important than Gettysburg because of its commercial significance.

Vicksburg’s Park is unique in two other ways.  On the grounds is the remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, one of seven ironclad gunboats built in 30 days by the Union to carry thirteen canons along the Mississippi.  Inside, the boat was so hot only immigrants could be talked into working there.  It had a short life, sinking in 1862 but was resurrected in 1965 and displayed at the park in 1972.  Also scattered throughout the park are 140 artistic monuments honoring every state that fought in the battle as well as individual officers or groups who served.    For years, a reunion of veterans from both sides was held here.

View of Atlanta from top of Kennesaw Mountain

We probably would never have visited the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park if our son were not attending school in Georgia.  It is one of the many “lesser” battles and yet was a part of General Sherman’s famous march to Atlanta in June, 1864.  Kennesaw Mountain was a large, natural barrier protecting the approach to railroads in Atlanta.  The Northern army used maneuvering tactics to minimize an attack uphill and eventually reached the other side.  It is hard today to visualize the battle since nature has filled in cleared spaces but a drive takes you to the top of the mountain to see Atlanta in the distance. 

Locomotive inside Southern Museum of Civil War
and Locomotive History


The biggest surprise of the trip was the discovery in Kennesaw of the excellent Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a member of the Smithsonian Affiliations Program.  That’s a big name for a small museum but this one details the importance of railroads and manufacturing in the outcome of the Civil War. 
After seeing the displayed statistics, I realized the South had little chance to win.  The North had 21,000 miles of railroad – the South 1,000.  The North produced 234,000 tons of rails – the South  26,000.  The North manufactured 2.5 million guns – the South only 250,000.  Food was brought in regularly by rail to Union soldiers.  Southern boys had to forage for nourishment.  And, most crucially, an entire construction corps of eventually 10,000 men under Herman Haupt developed construction techniques to more quickly rebuild Union railroads destroyed by the South and to prevent reconstruction by the Confederacy of their own railroads. 

Judging by exit signs on the Interstate Highways, many Civil War sites have been preserved.  The American Battlefield Protection Program was established to classify the preservation status of battlegrounds.  They had to choose which sites among 8,000 battles deserved protection and rate them according to importance.  Add that to the 135 Civil War Museums in the country, and one could use every vacation reliving our country’s most painful time.  Yet, we should all visit a few of the sites to understand how close and personal this war was.  My conflict from 100 years later is nothing compared to those who had to fight on one side or the other – a choice we are fortunate not to have.

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Linden House in Natchez, Mississippi – Six generations have preserved this beautiful plantation home.

Jeanette Feltus in Linden House, Natchez, Mississippi


View from Veranda of Linden House
“Howdy Do”, Jeanette Feltus called out with a bright morning lilt, taking time out from instructions to the gardener on the need for more moth balls to distract deer from the shrubs.  “How ya’ doin?”  she asked in her bright yellow pants suit, flowered jacket and large costume earrings.  She hadn’t slowed since we met the night before when she dealt out opinions on food, drink and which plantations to visit in Natchez, Mississippi on a limited schedule. Jeannette represents the sixth generation of the O’Connor family living in Linden House and has been instrumental in its survival. 


Grounds of Linden House in Natchez, Mississippi
Natchez lies on a bluff above the Mississippi River contributing to its reputation as a healthy locale where almost all large 19th century cotton plantations owners in Mississippi built majestic homes for their families.  With the largest number of millionaires per capita in the United States at the time, Natchez was the place to be in the 1800s.   Surprisingly, it voted not to secede from the Union.  When the Blue Army arrived from New Orleans, locals chose not to resist strongly,  saving itself from the torched remains of other cities.  Today, the largest array of pre-civil war antebellum homes in the South has found new life with tours and bed and breakfast offerings, including our Linden House.   

Breakfast was served promptly at 8:30 a.m.  Around the extended dining room table were three Australian women, two Dutch men, an English couple and a sweet young couple from nearby Ferriday, probably celebrating a wedding anniversary.   I was surprised at the heavy foreign presence, especially in a small town losing population and off the beaten path.  One Australian woman confided they were fascinated by Southern traditions and BBQ and thought its people like our innkeeper were charmingly different. 

Jeanette Feltus giving tour of Linden House
After breakfast, Jeanette gave a free tour of the house built in 1790 and owned by the O’Connor family since 1829.  According to family lore, the first Mrs. O’Connor faced down Union soldiers, threatening to destroy her furniture before giving it over.  Jeanette’s husband, Rufus Feltus, was really the descendant and after buying out four other heirs, the couple restored the home and added air conditioning.    The exterior was just as one would imagine for a southern plantation.  It was the model for Percy Faith’s album cover featuring Tara’s theme song from Gone With The Wind (minus the cobwebs, Jeanette added). 

High bed in Dick’s Room
Inside the house, Mrs. Feltus had a running commentary on each item.  An old coffee maker that works like a still – “I wouldn’t know”.  Painting of an ancestor – “Beautiful painting but ugly subject.”  Genealogy book that traces family back to Alfred the Great – “So they say.  I don’t know.”   There were beautiful oil portraits of her daughters as young women and of her husband but none of her.  Unhappy with the results of her own likeness, she relegated the painting to a closet.   Some rooms had special histories.  Ours was Dick’s Room, named after her father-in-law who was born in that space and stayed there always when visiting. 

Veranda at Linden House, Natchez, Mississippi
Ahead of her time, Jeanette had wanted to be a lawyer but agreed to try teaching history in Natchez first.  Her husband’s family owned successful hardware stores in several states.  Based on that introduction, Jeanette was welcomed into Natchez society.  But she was no idle Southern Belle.  Her home was the center of their children’s social life including ping pong on the veranda.  She participated in the active Garden Club that started the preservation of homes in Natchez.  And she helped organize the Annual Antique Forum now in its 38th year and was quick to point out this is not an antique fair.  Speakers from across the country lecture on sophisticated subjects.  In 2015,  participants will investigate the relationship between the American South and the cultural phenomenon of the European Grand Tour.

Mrs. Feltus candidly admitted concern for the future of the home.  Her daughters were on the “dark side of 50” with no descendants.  Maybe a cousin would step in.  Maybe a foundation could be formed.  This is not an isolated problem for Natchez plantation owners.  With the cost of maintenance and upkeep so high, only six bed and breakfast homes still remain in “the family”.    But I have no doubt Jeanette Feltus will find a solution.  She has the grit of Scarlett O’Hara and the humor of Dolly Parton – a charming combination that guarantees success.  Natchez’ inventory of plantations will need more people like her to survive. 

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Rolling Stones Concert – Fifty Three Years of Performing Hasn’t Dimmed the Excitement

Official T-shirt of the 2015 Tour


After arriving at the nearest subway station, we approached the Bobby Dodd Stadium by foot.  It was early.  Very early.   Summer showers had cleared the air providing a respite from the Atlanta summer heat. A steady stream of fellow earlybirds walked quickly with us, as if the music were about to begin.  The Alabama blues band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, wouldn’t launch the show until 8 with the Rolling Stones due on sometime after 9.   It was only 6:15.
Bobby Dodd Stadium Begins to Fill

Along the way, a single fervent believer read the Bible aloud as we passed.  Another handed out flyers asking if we were saved – probably an appropriate question of this crowd of past prime time rock and rollers.  Ticket scalpers held hands high, flashing coveted tickets.  An occasional one questioned if we had tickets to sell.  Directly ahead a grandfather/granddaughter combo clearly shared knocked knee genes.  It was the first hint of the generational affect of the Rolling Stones and blend of the crowd.  Flip flops joined Birkenstocks headed to the stadium.  Occasional penny loafers walked in with spike heels alongside.  Gray hair dominated

Mick Jagger is 72 years old, Keith Richards 71, Rolling Stones Band 53 – literally a working lifetime of performing.   When they debuted on July 12, 1962, John Kennedy was president.  Eight presidents have served as they played on.   The civil rights movement was in full swing then resulting in a black President today who has sung along with Mick at the White House.  Birth control pills were about to give much needed power to women as the band’s swagger and claim of no satisfaction played to changing sexual mores.  Their unapologetic use of drugs helped launch the now rapid move to legalize marijuana.  They are a half century older but still play to the nostalgia of boomers and attract millenniums whose first memories were of their songs.
Downtown Atlanta in Distance

Inside, fans arrived from around the world.  A British woman had traveled from the Emirates to catch her 26th Stones concert, beginning in 1973.  T-shirts from earlier tours were worn proudly.  In front of us, a young man wore a shirt from the 2014 tour On Fire which included stops in Israel, Norway and Spain. My favorite shirts were those of a couple that demanded, “Keith Richards for President”.   Seated next to me were two who already had tickets to the next concert in Orlando, Florida.  They had even splurged for the second event, paying $1750 per ticket to sit on the floor level.
The talk was of this and other performances.  We were asked what other bands we had seen and had to reach far back to college days to answer.  My husband earned street cred with his Janis Joplin concert at U.T.  I got a nod of approval for the Jefferson Airplane in San Antonio.  We were with serious music lovers who traveled long ways and paid big bucks to relive earlier days.

Bobby Dodd Stadium fills
Crowds continued to flow in until the sold-out stadium filled.  I had just commented on the lack of smoking around us when the lights went out.  For one brief moment all was quiet and then Keith Richards’ lone guitar could be heard prophesying the coming of “Start Me Up”.  The audience arose with a shout, smoke of all kind went up,  three huge jumbotroms  flashed on and Mick, Keith Charlie Watts and Ron Wood roared to life.  Most fans never sat down again. 

Surprisingly,  the songs I danced to at the Plainview YMCA fifty years ago are still on the play list.  With the exception of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, members of the band have come and gone but the music remained constant.    Judging by the remarkable energy of Mick and smiles of Keith, they still love to perform.  Richards stopped dying his hair in 2008 and proudly wears his long, grey curls.  Even with his dyed hair,  I was sure Jagger’s age would show itself somehow.  But his strong voice, large strides across the stage, skips down the platform, and jumps to the beat masked his years.   Only the creviced face revealed the toll of a long life.

They played over two hours without a break.  Mick had funny local comments.  He introduced all in the band.  He remembered their previous performances in Atlanta, claiming we were the best audience on the tour.  And, he made sure the crowd sang, clapped and danced along to Gimme Shelter, Honky Tonk Women, Satisfaction and many more.  It was easy for us to join in with the strong beats, familiar lyrics and constant refrains. 

Over the last fifty three years, The Stones have played concerts in dozens of countries and sung from their fixed repertoire thousands of times.  Their lives have had a fair share of tragedy with notable public disagreements.  But they have survived.  They still project a bad boy image that’s been copied by youth 50 years their junior while delivering philosophical and driving songs.  It was simply impressive.  The best.  Contrary to the song, we got what we wanted and needed.  

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McAlester, Oklahoma Deserves a Stop

Masoni Temple’s large auditorium where Plays of Initiation are held




  Two highways skirt the edges of McAlester, Oklahoma, 100 miles north of Paris, and few travelers slow down except as required by stoplights.  Yet, this town of 18,000 inhabitants owns a surprising history full of railroad construction, Indian Territory rights, coal mines, Masonic presence, Italian immigrants and even the beloved Will Rogers.


Backdrops at Masonic Temple in McAlester

It’s the hills of downtown McAlester that surprises visitors first.  Atop the highest one is the tallest structure in town – the McAlester Scottish Rite Masonic Center.   Due to Masons’ prominent past when 10% of the men in the U.S. belonged,  Masonic Lodges and Temples abound across the country and this one is impressive.  The McAlester branch has had so many members in the past, its building was enlarged more than once ending with construction of the second largest Masonic stage in the U.S. and a 3100 pipe Kimball organ.  The Temple is appropriately proud of the world’s largest scene backdrops designed by prolific artist, Thomas Gibbs Moses.  These enhance the moral lessons acted out for each of the 32 degrees. 

Props used in plays at Masonic Temple
Painting of member Will Rogers


A painting of former member Will Rogers is displayed in the palatial lobby along with a donated Frederick Remington statue.   Upstairs, the beautiful Egyptian themed auditorium is still used for the morality plays but also for local concerts and events.  Behind the scene are prop rooms filled with heavy silk and satin costumes, shelves of crowns, sandals, wigs, and swords. 

Chapel contains a Koran, Bible and Torah

The dining hall can feed 500.  In the small chapel, a Bible, Koran, and Torah are open on an altar emphasizing the Mason’s requirement of a belief in a Supreme Being but without a commitment to a certain religion.  Our guide emphasized no alcohol, political talk or religious persuasion is allowed in the center.  At one end of the building, a childhood speech disorder clinic operates as one of over 100 that have been begun by the Masons.  Its commitment to public education was also emphasized as well as transport of area children to the great Shriner and Masonic Hospitals. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the largest fraternal organization in the world, a tour of this beautiful building is a great way to get started.


Ceremonial Hall at International
Headquarters of Rainbow Girls

Down the street is the headquarters for the International Supreme Assembly of the Rainbow for Girls, a noble name for a Masonic organization started in McAlester to provide some of the benefits of their tradition for girls.  Truthfully, I was shocked to discover Rainbow Girls still existed.  Begun by the Rev. William Marks Sexon in 1922 in McAlester,  its heyday in the 40s and 50s saw chapters chartered across the country, including my hometown of Plainview, Texas.  I joined for a brief time, mainly to see what the initiation rite was all about.  Today, it still has a Supreme Worthy Advisor with about 10,000 members in the U.S. and several foreign countries.   If you’re nostalgic about the organization and its ceremonial hall or if you want to step back into the 50’s, visit this well preserved museum of a building.


Signs of McAlester’s history play out in the town beginning with its name.  J.J. McAlester used his knowledge of nearby coal reserves and his wife’s Native American heritage to purchase land.  He then convinced the railroad to build the track from Kansas to Texas through his holdings.  The town was later named for him.  In the Old Town section to the north of downtown McAlester, his original Mercantile Building still stands and houses the popular Whistle-Stop Bistro that deservedly does a booming lunch business.

Carl Albert Freeway is named for the hometown boy made U.S. Speaker of the House.   It is no surprise then that McAlester is home to an ammunition plant and center.  You probably wouldn’t want to be here during a war, though, as most of America’s bombs are made nearby.

Storefront for Lovera’s Italian Grocery Store

The small town of Krebs borders McAlester’s east city limit and is well known in the state for its Italian restaurants.  Italian immigrants came in the late 1800s to work in the dangerous Indian Territory mines.  Oklahoma’s worst mining disaster occurred in Krebs in 1892 when 100 miners died.  As coal played out, some immigrants opened restaurants which still serve traditional pasta dishes and a local favorite – lamb fries or fried sheep’s testicles.    The biggest surprise is the small Lovera’s grocery store established in 1946 that is filled with Italian favorites such as dried pasta, chocolate, biscotti, homemade Italian sausage, cheeses, and, of course, lamb fries.  It was quiet the morning we visited but apparently, busloads of tourists will drop by for this authentic Italian experience.

McAlester will never be a major tourist destination but its proximity to Eufala Lake brings in enough visitors to support a nice variety of experiences.  It’s definitely worth a turn off the major highways.

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Update on Area Restaurants in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma

Inside Liefie li Vine Restaurant in Winnsboro, Texas



Over the last seven years, I have written of “things to do” in Paris, Mt. Pleasant, Sulphur Springs, Greenville and other close-by communities.  A few eating suggestions were included but now I have discovered some new eateries of note – all within driving distance for lunch or dinner. 


Exterior of Thai Lanna’s
Inside Thai Lanna’s in Mt. Pleasant

On the exterior,  Thai Lanna’s is as indistinctive a restaurant as one would ever frequent.  Located on the access road to I-30 in Mt. Pleasant and next to a Super 8 Motel, it’s easy to miss.  But inside is a beautiful, clean space with freshly made Thai food to order.  Owner Kanyasiri  “Jeed” Castle closely supervises the kitchen and often delivers dishes directly to a customer’s table.  Her mango and sticky rice dessert charmed even my chocolate loving husband.  If you’ve never experienced Thai cuisine or if you’ve been missing it, try this nearby locale.  Just don’t expect fiery.


Downtown Sulphur Springs continues to improve with a completed square renovation and updated, landscaped side streets.  As so often happens, restaurants follow improvements.  In addition to previously recommended Lou Viney’s Restaurant and Pub and the Pioneer Café, Cajun food is now available at Bayou Jack’s Cajun Grill on the square.  Their gumbo was authentic and shrimp salad satisfying.  The lunch crowd of working men seemed to appreciate the portions.  Save dessert for the Idzi Bitsy Bakery around the corner. 

Lobby of Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx
Inside Texan Theater in Greenville, Tx.

A very recent addition to downtown Greenville is the stunning Texas Theater, a former Opera House that had been shuttered since 1975.  Native Barbara Horan took on the challenging project of renovating an old theater and the results are spectacular.  In the lobby is a sleek coffee shop where a very decent cappuccino can be had as well as breakfast and lunch offerings.  Inside, tables seating 120 face the stage and are placed on several levels.  Recent performers have included Rick Springfield, Jimmie Vaughan, David Alan Coe, The Mills Brothers and Jeremiah Johnson.  Prices for tickets are high but include a four course meal, all drinks, tax, tip and the show.  It’s amazing to have this offering within driving distance.


Dipping south a bit to Winnsboro is Liefie li Vine, a South African themed restaurant owned by the Styrdom family.  Few know what to expect on first visit but waiters and owners are ready with explanations of anything on the menu.  Many American favorites such as prime rib are offered but it’s the ethnic offerings that are most intriguing.  Flat iron steak comes with a splash of traditional  monkey sauce .  I leave that to you to get an explanation.  A covered patio in the back makes for a relaxed evening.  My favorite part was the opportunity to sign up for a safari as you entered as well as the African gift shop.  This place is very popular.  Try going early and visiting downtown Winnsboro before dinner.

Shannon Mitchell’s Grateful Head T-Shirt

Back north of the Red River are some relatively new restaurants in Broken Bow.  One stands out – Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Taproom – named after the owners’ favorite band.  This popular pizza place has had to expand 5 times and now includes its own gift shop.  I realized it had been discovered locally when I saw a Grateful Head t-shirt on a Lamar County Clerk’s employee.  Shannon Mitchell declared the restaurant her family’s favorite and we compared pizza choices.   By internet standards, the Funky Chicken pizza appears to be most popular but Shannon and I preferred the Tree Hugger.   Best time to go is in the evening when live music is available.  You may even catch Lamar County Deputy Reggie Daus playing in the Krissy Green Band.


I don’t want to forget recent additions to the Paris scene, especially downtown.  Perry’s Off the Square describes its offerings as “elevated comfort food”  – translated as favorites with a twist.   The decor is lovely and hopefully, we can dine outside soon if the weather would stay cleared.  107 wishes the same thing.  On nice evenings, this open air bar is wonderful for a cold beer and light dinner.  According to friends, nearby Phat Phil’s serves up good BBQ, coleslaw and potato salad from a trailer near Market Square.  And, Paris finally has its own Louisiana fare with Cajun Moon Grill and Bar on the west side of town – a welcome addition to an area with few food offerings.  Families, couples, and singles like this lively restaurant.  It works for lunch or a Friday night celebration.

The good news is the independent restaurant explosion in the U.S. has moved into our territory.  Chains are no longer our only option.  We just have to drive a bit to sample them all and this summer would be a good time to start. Bon appétit.

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A Peace Corps Family

In front of church in Antigua, ,Guatemala

School event in Chimazat, Guatemala

 I’ve never been in the Peace Corps.  It was tempting but my oldest brother beat me to it, getting posted to Ecuador in 1973.   A niece joined in 2004, our son in 2006, another niece in 2008, and the first niece again in 2015.   It became almost a rite of passage for our family and provided interesting places to visit.


The program has beckoned to altruistically inclined college graduates since its beginning in 1961.  At the time, a commitment of two years to a distant country guaranteed a degree of hardship.  When my brother left for Ecuador, we hoped to see him once in the next 27 months.  He trained for three months in Puerto Rico, theoretically learning the language, and was dispatched to Agato, Ecuador, an indigenous village outside of Otavalo, a town two hours north of Quito, the capital. 
We had only the Peace Corps post office address for him and he had no phone.  As the town’s first volunteer, Mack had to find accommodations.  A second story floor was put in a barn which kept him dry but all had to duck under the large wooden beams to move about.  No electricity or running water was available.  He  built his own outhouse.  Fortunately, the community well was close and water could be hauled in large buckets.  Propane fueled his lanterns and stove.  Evenings ended and mornings began early.

My family visited Mack in 1974.  We stayed “in town” in Otavalo and quickly came down with amoebic dysentery.  Yet, I fell in love with the country and when a teaching job in Quito became available, I stayed for 15 months.  With the Peace Corps office near my home, I often stopped by as a kind of volunteer wannabe.   The volunteers were an independent lot, seemingly capable of putting up with anything.  Those posted to Quito had an easier time of it but the ones in the countryside had better stories. Mack liked it so much, he stayed an extra year.

At Lindsay Clark’s home in Honduras
Lindsay’s kitchen in Honduras

Fast forward 30 years to Honduras where our niece, Lindsay, was sent.  After she picked us up at the Tegucigalpa airport, we stopped by the Peace Corps office.  Times had changed but the laid back, open door, notices on the bulletin board environment had not.  As we drove to her small town, Lindsay calmly recounted stories of persons killed by machetes in her community but then with the usual Peace Corps odd juxtaposition of experiences, we joined her friends that night for a family birthday party with music and dancing.  This trip was cut short because of my sudden appendicitis.  Fortunately, the Peace Corps emergency number guided us to an appropriate hospital for surgery.






At Walker Clark’s home in Chimazat, Guatemala
Two years later, our son joined.  He could have gone to an Eastern European country a year earlier but waited to get posted to Spanish speaking Guatemala.  Walker was also sent to a small town where strawberry farmers hoped he could instruct on how to grow those big strawberries sold in the U.S.  He knew nothing about strawberries, an initial disappointment to all.  In the end, he helped organize a co-op with marketing techniques for their product.  He also stayed a third year.

One year later, a second niece joined and was sent to western Ukraine, a country already split between two cultures.  None of the clothes Elizabeth brought were warm enough for the winters and a fur coat was her first purchase.  She lived in a city and taught English while learning the very difficult Ukrainian language.  Elizabeth has been our go-to person for context in the current Ukraine/Russia face-off.

This year, niece Lindsay joined the Peace Corps a second time with her husband.  They had just been posted to Vanuatu, a tiny country of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when Cyclone Pam slammed it.  Peace Corps chartered a plane to evacuate their volunteers before the storm arrived.  Lindsay and Sean waited in Australia until word came they were returning to Vanuatu to serve as emergency care workers. 

The Peace Corps has adjusted with the times.  Countries have come and gone according to political situations.  No driving is allowed but cell phones are – a godsend for those left at home.   Rules for drinking have been tightened.  Safety is the number one concern.  And it now offers a college program for returning volunteers, a benefit all our recent family members have used. 

Town home in Xela, Guateamala
A common topic in our family is whether the Peace Corps is that helpful for the locals.   All agree the greatest benefit is to the Volunteer who returns more confident and realistic about the world.  After my brother helped build a water line into his village, he became a water expert for the state of California.  As a nurse, Lindsay has often used her Spanish proficiency.  From Elizabeth’s experiences, she recognized the need for smart fund raising and now does that for Habitat for Humanity in Chicago.  And our son continues to use his fluent Spanish with his beautiful Guatemalan wife and son – the best argument of all to continue the program. 

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Easter in New Orleans

Trinity Episcopal Church
Garden District of New Orleans

Millions of revelers flow through New Orleans for Mardi Gras at Lent’s beginning but far fewer join festivities when the penitential season ends at Easter.  Yet at the Pasqual celebration, weather is better, gardens fuller and a different kind of hat rules – the Easter bonnet.  It was the perfect time to revisit New Orleans after a 35 year absence.


Preparations for the trip first centered around restaurant reservations.  Two months in advance were not enough to secure a table for some NOLA traditional establishments.  Arnaud’s website warned they were booked until May.  Commodore’s Palace wouldn’t allow online reservations and a call confirmed they were completely full for brunch on Easter Sunday.  Amelie’s, a small venue in the French Quarter, apologized for its capacity crowd and could only offer to put us on a waiting list.  Fortunately, finding a good restaurant in the Crescent City is easy and I could relax a bit with a confirmed brunch reservation at Coquette’s in the Garden District.  It seemed prudent to firm up eating arrangements for other nights of our trip and those came more easily – Bayona on Saturday night and August, a Josh Besh restaurant, on Monday evening.

For accommodations, we used Airbnb for the first time.  Our go to favorite home/apartment rental company had been VRBO – Vacation Rental by Owner.  But younger friends promoted Airbnb as it advertised not only full apartments and houses but also single rooms or even a shared room.  Prices can be as low as $30 a night in the Seventh Ward or $155 a night for a two bedroom spot in the French Quarters or $355 for a four bedroom house in the suburbs. 

We booked half of a shotgun house on Magazine Street in the Garden District, complete with front porch for easy street scene viewing.  Donuts and coffee were one block to the east and a neighborhood bar one block west.   Our landlord lived next door and had coffee, water and cold beer awaiting our arrival.   He knew the local scene and could suggest many music venues and local food choices. 

Diners at Commodore’s Palace

With Catholic and Episcopal churches within walking distance, we enjoyed our stroll on Easter morning.  Men in white and cream colored linen suits and women with large brimmed hats carried on an old Southern tradition.  Boys in jackets and girls in pastel dresses skipped into church.  A cross covered in wire greeted families who brought flowers from their gardens to fill its spaces – a tradition I remember from my childhood.  It felt a step back in time.


Strawberry shortcake with mint ice
cream at Coquette’s in Garden District

Easter Brunches are serious business with most restaurants overflowing.    At Coquettes, a three course, fixed priced menu offered unusual Easter choices such as lamb stew with potato salad or crawfish salad but included a traditional strawberry short cake.  Well dressed families filled the two stories throughout the day.  A stroll through the Garden District took us past Commodore’s Palace, a New Orleans classic with its odd blue and white striped exterior.   We watched guests arriving in sleek black cars, exiting in high heels and flowered patterned attire.  Inside a jazz trio played. 


Lafayette Cemetery #1

Across the street,  Lafayette Cemetery#1 was open and beckoned to those passing by.  New Orleans cemeteries are unique with family crypts holding generations of the departed.  Names of the departed dated back into the early 1800s.  At one monument, a feral cat relaxed and two strands of black and white beads were draped over an urn.  As a walking tour passed by we overheard the guide explain the need to live in a “good cemetery” neighborhood – a concept new to us.


If Mardi Gras parades seem excessive, an alternative is the Easter parade.  Three were available in the French Quarter with several neighborhood ones nearby.  Bourbon Street Club owner, Chris Owens, was the Grand Duchess of her 32ndannual “patriotic” Easter Parade.  Stuffed bunnies are tossed as well as the ever present beads.  Another favorite family activity appeared to be picnics in the beautiful Audubon Park and then just cruising St. Charles Avenue with windows open. 

New Orleans for the traveler has the feel of a foreign country as well as living in a time capsule.  Much of the city has completely recovered from Hurricane Katrina and it has almost recouped its population loss from the storm.  Despite recent crime surges due in part to a 30% vacancy rate in the police department, the city feels safe, friendly, and walkable.  It certainly was on a beautiful Easter Sunday.

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9/11 Memorial and Museum Gets It Right

New One World Trade Center and plaza

Original slurry wall holding back Hudson River

No memorial has ever tried to accommodate so many opinions and needs as the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Its slow progress and occasional retreats were well chronicled in the news. Survivors, victims’ families, rescue workers, neighbors, local, state and federal government – all had input, many with strong opinions.  Designs came and went.  Size and depth were debated.  Since memorials and museums have inherently different goals, the decision to separate them allows the emotional and historical objectives to be met.  Planners used guidelines developed for the Oklahoma City Memorial where those lost in the 1995 bombing are remembered with empty named chairs and the adjacent museum records the events and significance in history.


Debate in New York included which victim names should be engraved – only those lost from the Twin Towers or all from 9/11 or add those who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Gratefully, all are listed and grouped with those who died together. What to display in the museum generated the strongest feelings.  Many of the artifacts were too personal such as recordings of last conversations.  Yet, emotional intensity was desired and even factored in.  In the museum, early exit doors are available for those overcome by memories.
Footprint Pool at 9/11 Memorial

Names of Victims carved on parapet surrounding pool
Thirteen years after the event, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum finally opened on May 15, 2014.  It is already the number six item of top 20 things to do in New York City on Trip Advisor.  A million visitors have come to pay homage.  We approached the scene by foot, passing through the white oaks and sweet gum tree filled plaza until reaching two enormous pools outlining the footprints of the lost towers. The depth of the pools gave a true sense of the size of the lost Towers.  Leaning over the four foot parapet walls, I watched water fall 30 feet (three stories) into a square shaped fountain.  Titled “Reflecting Absence”, the black granite walls encouraged somber thoughts for this appropriately named architectural piece.  Names of all who died were carved on the parapets, some with flowers laid across or a single rose inserted.  I felt sad.

Original Steel Beams in Museum Lobby
Elevator Motor from Twin Tower


Nearby is the 9/11 museum.  Everything about its open areas is large.  The lobby’s long escalator descends past two giant, 70 foot steel beams, with forked tops pointing skyward. Further down, in Foundation Hall, the last standing 36 foot tall column anchors this enormous Hall that is supported by the original slurry wall holding back the Hudson River.  A circular elevator motor stretches 6 feet in diameter and a river water valve reaches 5 feet.   I was awed by the dimensions.




Blue Tile Wall with colors of the sky on 9/11
Symbolism surrounds you.  A blue tile wall reflects all the colors of the sky on that brilliant day.  The ramp leading down 7 floors (the depth of the debris) follows that used by construction workers. A mangled TV antenna tower represents the end of communication from those at the top.  The aluminum wall surrounding the underground pool symbolized the silver of the original towers.   I was moved by the attention to detail.

Fire Engine that was crushed on 9/11
We were reminded of what went right that day.  Fifteen thousand people got out of the buildings before the collapse.  Injuries were minimal.  I watched a map of the United States go dark as every lit location of airplanes in the air disappeared within hours of the tragedy.  Firefighters worked regardless of whether it was their shift and first responders dug heroically that day and later to be sure all survivors were out.  I felt pride.

In the memorial section, it got harder.  Many of the mementos recovered from the scene are displayed – police helmet, Fireman memorial patch, briefcase used to protect from falling glass, passenger window from the plane, a sign in the Pentagon for Deputy Undersecretary of the Army International Affairs, children’s clothing, telephone, rolodex, clock stopped at 9:37, woman’s black stilettos, dusty tennis shoes, and bicycles.  A photo of abandoned baby carriers in Battery Park captured the panic of the moment.  Newscasts from around the world were available, reminding us of the 90 countries represented in the 3000 that died.   I felt surrounded by sympathy.

This is truly a national memorial as most Americans vividly remember that day.  Patricia Cohen in the New York Times wrote that “reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialize heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise.”  The ability of the Memorial and Museum planners and designers to make those needed decisions really reflect what is good about America – the coming together of different backgrounds, economic levels, nationalities, and skills to create a place to remember and to learn.  Our guide noted that when asked what they remembered that day, many New Yorkers mention the color of the sky, the dust and the kindness on the street.  Incredibly, I was nostalgic – not for the tragedy but for the solidarity.

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“Visit Hasidim” – A Personal Story of Life in Williamsburg‘s Hasidic Community

Freida Vizel, tour guide of Visit Hasidim

 I had seen members of the easily identified Hasidic community strolling in Central Park in Manhattan.  A flight on El Al to Israel was filled with the faithful.  Thousands live in Jerusalem where we tried to engage their children in play but were shooed aside.  And in “The Chosen” and “The Promise”,  well regarded author, Chaim Potok, revealed the inner life of this most private sect of Judiasm.  I knew of them but had never met a member – until our “Visit Hasidim” tour of the Hasidic Community in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn. 

Synagogue with Separate Entries for men and women

This branch of Orthodox Judaism was founded in the 18th Century by Baal Shem Tov in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe.  Rebbe Tov was a sincere and simple man who believed that an ordinary person who prayed from his heart could be acceptable to God even without being versed in all the Jewish laws.  His mystical approach appealed to the poor and was immediately embraced.  Most of the followers were killed in the Holocaust of WWII but survivors immigrated to Israel and New York and have established a strong presence in various parts of Brooklyn and the New York environs.

Our guide, Freida Vizel, was the 5th of 15 children in her family.  She grew up speaking Yiddish in Kiryas Joel, a thriving Hasidic community north of NYC.  They would often visit her grandmother in Williamsburg .   The family had no radio or TV and only a Yiddish newspaper to bring word of the outside world.  She never saw the  planes slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11. 

Toy store in Williamsburg
Today, Freida provides a walking tour through the Hasidic community of Williamsburg  which appears rooted in the 1800s.  As this branch of Judaism aged, rules set in again.   Men must wear long black coats, white shirts, fur hats, large beards with side curls, and black shoes.  The women have some more flexibility in dress but married women must shave their heads (so that not a strand of hair can be shown to the public) and wear a scarf, hat or wig.  Since the rabbi must consent to the use of birth control, large families with eight children are common. 

Internet Cafe in Williamsburg
As we walked, Freida revealed the nuances of this life.  She pointed out the synagogue with separate entrances for men and women who sit apart,  a linen store selling single bed covers as husband and wife must sleep separately,  a men’s tailor shop with a selection of only white shirts,  and a school bus with Hebrew lettering for transporting children to yeshivas or schools.  Boys must study the Torah and only receive one-half day per week of secular studies that include science and math.  Girls, surprisingly, get one-half every day in those studies.   Behind one storefront door was an Internet Café with cubicles where the Orthodox could use properly filtered internet.   Surprisingly, Email is allowed.
School bus to transport children to yeshivas

Freida’s story was most compelling.  At 18, her parents paid a matchmaker $2,000 to find a husband.  Matchmakers consider family compatibility, looks, economics, and personality.  Both families will be given a name and they have an opportunity to “view” the prospective bride and groom.  To accomplish this, Freida was taken to Wal-Mart by her mother who told her to look straight ahead.  Suddenly, it was over when a person quickly walked past.    With both parties liking what they saw, the couple met alone in a family living room for 20 minutes.   When they exited the room, they had to say “yes” or “no”.  Freida knew it wasn’t right but all she could say was “I can’t say no”.  She couldn’t go against her father. 

Freida always knew she was different.  She had a typewriter and had written since a child.  Thirst for knowledge and experiences eventually caused her to leave the community.  Being an obedient wife and mother were no longer enough.   When Freida withdrew four years ago, her husband did not join her and they divorced.

Gottlieb’s Restaurant in Williamsburg
During the tour, we stopped at two delicatessens.  In the first, a low wall separated men from women and children.  We had one man on the tour and no one seemed bothered by his presence on the women’s side.  Freida chatted with the owner and brought us hot chocolate.  At tour’s end, we visited Gottlieb’s restaurant where only men were eating.   Working hard to maintain good relationships, Freida again visited with the owner who brought us an array of traditional Jewish dishes. 

This was Freida’s opportunity to ask us questions.  She wanted to know how we would have approached living in her community.  Had we ever self-isolated ourselves?  The women present were sure we wouldn’t have lasted long in such a restrictive environment.   Yet, Freida clearly appreciated her family and respected her former community.   It just wasn’t right for her.  We were lucky to have such an articulate and knowledgeable guide and as my sister-in-law said, “Can’t wait for Freida’s book.”

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A Tale of Two Manhattan Museums – The Frick and The Tenement


The Henry Clay Frick Home that now houses the Frick Collection                      

Henry Clay Frick was a very wealthy man.  As one of the “robber barons” of the Guilded Age in the 1880s,  Mr. Frick’s close circle of friends included Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon.    He accumulated his large estate through the mining of coal and production of coke used in steel manufacturing.  His company, in partnership with Carnegie Steel, was the predecessor of United States Steel.  With his earnings, Mr. Frick indulged in his favorite pastime of collecting art – especially Old Masters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler, Vermeer and El Greco.  This premier collection is housed in the 1912 New York City Upper East Side home he had designed to display his art with the intent that it be the showcase for the Frick Collection.   

Since 1935, the public has been able to view the beautiful art and stunning home setting that Mr. Frick bequeathed to the people of New York City.  Sculptures of marble, bronze and terracotta fill hallways,   natural light from 5th Avenue streams in and benches beckon all to rest and gaze.  If you’re lucky, an organ master will be practicing for a concert on the hidden Aeolian-Skinner Organ, the same fine company that built the organ at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Paris.  Our two hours hardly seemed enough. 

A very different museum building was constructed as Mr. Frick accumulated his wealth.  Located seventy blocks south on the Lower East Side, the contrast between the Tenement Museum and The Frick was stark.  In 1863,  a five story apartment building was built at 97 Orchard Street, originally populated with German  immigrants.  Over seven hundred beer halls filled the streets.  As  Germans moved out, Eastern European Jews and poor Irish took turns filling the apartments.  

By 1935, as the Frick Collection was opening, seven thousand tenants had occupied this building compared to only two at the Frick mansion.  It is believed the landlord boarded up the building that same year rather than upgrade according to newly developed code.  When reopened and inventoried in 1988,  the Orchard street property was a treasure trove of every day tenant life.   Developers of the museum researched specific families who had occupied the rooms and created tours with their stories.  Of the tours offered, we selected “Sweat Shop Workers”. 

As we entered the dingy building,  light from a single overhead lightbulb gave us the first glimpse of an immigrant’s life.  In the 1880s, the Henry Levine family lived in three rooms where a full scale garment sweat shop employed the family and 3 to 4 more.  Heat, poor ventilation, and work for 14 hour days/7 days a week contributed to high death rates.  Population density in the area equaled 2,791 persons per square block, the highest in the world at the time.  Today, it is only 400. 

Most touching were the mementos found in the apartment.  As our guide noted, “Rats’ nests are great archives.”  A set of girls jacks, large garment scissors, admission ticket to the synagogue,  box of Kasha, a Russian cereal, card for an overdue library book and a Kosher cooking jar all made the Levine family more real.

A second apartment revealed much of the lives of Abraham and Fanny Rogarshevaky in 1911.  Sweat shops had shut down after new regulations limited their viability and large factories opened.  Because women were paid less and Jewish men often were required to study their faith, the daughters of this family worked at a garment/shirtwaist factory. With high ceilings, bright light and ventilation, the factory was an improvement for workers.  But they could also now meet and compare stories of working conditions.

And, this is where the stories of our two museums meet – in the often violent atmosphere of the birthing of the American Labor Movement.  Henry Frick hated labor unions.  He fought them tooth and nail, including hiring hit men to attack strikers at his Homestead Plant and erecting a solid wood wall around the premises.  He thought nothing of hiring scab workers and making offers below the workers’ existing salaries.

Across town, female workers at the Triangle Waist Company were submitted to one humiliation after another – clocks purposefully slowed to require more work, being searched as they left to be sure they carried nothing home, 14 hour work days and working above the regulated 7th floor limit in case of fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire at the company trapped many workers as the door were locked from the outside.  Until 9/11, it was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC with scenes of women jumping out windows to their deaths.  The disaster galvanized women to join union and socialites  to join the fight leading to improved work conditions.
A good museum teaches, engages, and makes the past personal.  Mr. Frick’s home exemplified the Gilded Age, life of the elite, and the power of money to surround oneself with beauty at the expense of the other 99%.   At the Tenement Museum, it was made clear we owe a great debt to that 99% – immigrants who lived under painful circumstances but persevered so that their descendants could do better.   Thanks to them, we have.

 Frick Collection website                                                                                                                                                   

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