Genteman Farmer

I never really thought much about the land…the land from which we draw sustenance.  I know that most of us have a connection through our ancestors.  Somewhere in our lineage are those who at some time or other have scratched a living from the land, but few of us have actually pulled a cultivator behind a tractor to prepare a field for planting or even mowed a pasture.

Until I retired from the corporate world, my connection to the land was tenuous at best.  As a restless teenager, I used to visit an aunt and uncle in the panhandle of Texas who were honest-to-god cotton farmers. They lived in a small frame house just north of Lubbock; some irrigation wells, a few tired tractors, and a rolling bank loan were the principle assets of their “family farm.”  I remember best that we had cantaloupe with every meal, and that all the males wore overalls.  I discovered the relentlessness of farming by having to change irrigation pipes every four hours throughout the day and night.  The tediousness of the farm was occasionally relieved by driving thirty miles to Lubbock to go to the drive-in movie.  While I enjoyed these brief contacts with the land, I was always more than ready to return to the city.

Then, in one of my college summers, a friend’s father offered me a temporary job on their sheep ranch in west Texas.  It sounded good, even vaguely romantic in the abstract, but the reality was well beyond my worst expectations.  For a few weeks I was a “dauber” on their shearing crew.  As you might imagine, the dauber is the low man on the totem pole of sheep-shearing crews, and I’m pretty sure that sheep shearing, as a whole, is pretty far down the job chain as well.  My job was to daub hot pine tar on the small cuts inflicted on the sheep in the shearing process.  Modesty precludes me from telling you the reaction of a freshly shorn sheep after being so rudely daubed with hot pine tar, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty and was very smelly.  That particular contact with the land did more to increase my motivation to get the sheepskin that comes with a college degree than all the lecturing and hectoring I had endured previously.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I fell in love with a farmer’s daughter.  Well, actually, at first I didn’t know I was in love and I didn’t know she was a farmer’s daughter.  She was just a beautiful girl that tugged at my heart.  Even then, my connection to the land, I mean the-real-honest-to-god farmland, was not only through my wife, but also through my ambition to succeed in business.  Yes, I talked vaguely with my father-in-law about the economics of the cattle business (not very good), and the importance of having roots in the land (very good), but it didn’t seem a part of my world or what I wanted my world to become.  It’s important to note, I think, that my father-in-law never owned more than fifty-seven acres.   I’m absolutely certain he never made more than a few thousand dollars a year, nor worked less than eighty hours a week.  In spite of those facts, he was also amongst the happiest of the human race.  I should have had a clue then, but, of course, I had none.

Fast forward three decades when I came face to face with the rest of my life.  I had, in defiance of fairly long odds, achieved business and economic success well beyond my greatest expectations.  I was faced, in a modest way, with the “man on the moon syndrome.”  That is to say, if I can land on the moon or achieve substantial business success, what then, can follow?  I thrust about for a time, doing this and that, trying to hold on to my past, but finally, with a startling clarity, I concluded that the rest of my life was not likely to be like what had come before. I needed, I wanted, I had to have something entirely different to give the rest of my life meaning.  The options whirled through my mind…politics, public service, charity…all had their allure.  And I got more advice than I could reasonably deal with.

One loose weekend, S. (my darling wife, Sandra) and I visited the old home place.  A kind of “going home” for her and a lost weekend for me.  We stayed at the small ranch house that situated itself where the home place used to be.  I walked the land, all fifty-seven acres of it, remembering the years now gone, the bird hunts, the fishing trips, and the conversations with my father-in-law, Tilt, about the value of the land.  I don’t mean the economic value, but the value that only comes with generations of ownership, and the sweat of honest labor.  I recalled the still vivid memory of my last walk with him over the land.  He was at the end of an energetic life, plagued with a virulent cancer that would end his days within weeks.  As we walked and talked over the land, land that was a part of the original acreage that came to the Lyday family through an 1835 land grant from the Republic of Texas, land that was part of his very being…he confided to me a lie.  His lie, of course, was a lie of circumstance.  My wife, her sister, and Tilt’s wife had all been urging him to sell the land, his land, the land of his fore bearers…in order to defray the expense of his illness and to provide some measure of financial security for his wife when he was gone.  He said to me, “Gary, the women have been on me to sell the land, and I’ve told them I will.  But, son, I didn’t tell them the truth.  I could no more sell this land than I could sell my soul.  I’m not ever gonna sell this land, and I hope, when it’s yours, you won’t either.”  That small lie of Tilt’s made little impact on me at the time.  But, in a way, it allowed me to peek into a window of his soul, and like all voyeurs, I was a bit embarrassed or maybe puzzled by what I saw.  How could a few acres of dirt be so important, so meaningful that he would forego a small measure of financial comfort in the last days of his life and some security for his wife after he was gone?  This question stayed with me, always in the back of my mind.  Only years later did the answer begin to reveal itself to me.  Not arriving in a coherent whole, but in bits and pieces.  A layer at a time, perhaps.

My interaction with the land, if you can call it that, began with a search.  I wanted more from what had been a very good life.  And in my search for something more, I wanted to see if the land could provide for me what it had provided for Tilt and so many others.  S. and others who know me well say that I am merely restless.  Never satisfied with what I have now or know now.  And they are right.  At my core, I believe that there are only two states in life.  One is either growing or one is dying.  The status quo is no damn good, and I wasn’t ready for dying just yet.

On the other hand, I believe that the first and maybe highest obligation of wealth is to preserve it and use it for the benefit of one’s own family, and if possible, share it with others wisely.  I’m not inclined to risk it all on a toss of the dice, but a bit of risk makes life a lot richer.  Let me fast forward to a recent conversation. When I’m in Dallas, I invariably join a group of friends for an early breakfast at Dallas Country Club. The talk runs the gamut…sports, politics, family, and business. I  was talking about my efforts to make the farm a paying business proposition, and one of the group asked about my financial objective for the farm operation. I replied that I thought I could get it up to about $500,000 per year in about three years if things went right . He chuckled a bit and retorted that I could probably do that playing gin rummy at the club and with a lot less effort.  I thought for a moment before answering, then explained that it wasn’t really how many zeros followed the significant digit, but the importance of there being a clearly measurable goal, and being involved in something that had meaning to me now and in the future.

So I started buying land (without regard to ultimate purpose) to add to the fifty-seven acre “home place” that S. had inherited.  My only guidelines were that the land I bought should be contiguous to the land we already had…and, ideally, it would be a part of the same land that the Republic of Texas used to woo Sandra’s ancestors.  There was no business plan, there was no conservation plan.  My only plan, if you could call it that, was to get as much land as I could and then figure out what to do with it.  The results were predictable.  I got the land I wanted and had no idea what to do next.  Raise cattle?  Plant a crop?  Buy a horse?  Get a tractor?  Well, I did all of those things and, over the years, I sorted it all out.  What worked and what didn’t.  What we enjoyed doing and what was plain drudgery.  Within three years, I had zeroed in on breeding Egyptian Arabian Horses, growing hay, and preserving the natural habitat.  I had even been recognized as Farmer of the Year by the local chamber of commerce…but perhaps their selection was influenced more by my donations to the chamber rather then my perspicacity as a farmer.  Along the way I planted hay fields, bought tractors and assorted other farm equipment, bought and sold cattle, built barns, built lakes and roads, fenced paddocks, stocked farm ponds, and met and learned to appreciate others who did this for a living and did it well.  I’ll paraphrase the old saw, “The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large fortune.”  I was well on my way to that “small fortune” in farming.

What I had not anticipated was that I really, really enjoyed what I was doing.  I commented to another of my DCC coffee klatch colleagues that, “Getting on a tractor and baling hay, or performing any of the other seemingly mundane tasks of farming, was one of the few things I had ever done where I could look look behind me and see exactly what I had done and how well I had done it.”  I’ve known others of my ilk who experienced the same thing…leaving the race and stress of the office behind, rushing to the farm/ranch/acreage  in a three-piece suit, mounting the brand new Kubota tractor and attaching the bat wing shredder, then mowing a seven-acre pasture.  Is it the smell of the just mown grass?  Or is it the sense of doing something outside of our comfort zone and doing it well?  Maybe it’s just the personal satisfaction of connecting with the land as our forefathers and their fathers before them had done.

I recently had the wonderful experience of driving through part of our land with my daughter and two of my granddaughters.  I was showing off a bit I guess.  I wanted them to see and appreciate the work that S. and I had done to create a “wildlife management area.”  We had cleared the land of the scrub brush and invasive trees.  We planted native grasses, pollinating plants, legumes, wildflowers and flowering trees.  All designed to make our land a hospitable place for the local fauna and flora.  For the deer, wild turkey, butterflies, birds of all kinds and even the bobcats and raccoons who populate the area.  I had my wildflower photo portfolio with me and was able to name most, if not all, of the wildflowers in bloom.  My granddaughters were pleasantly curious and asked polite questions.  My daughter, however, was frankly surprised.  Surprised that I had the interest and knowledge to create something so inconsistent of her image of me.  To her I was the business guy in the three-piece suite, always on the way to a meeting or the airport. She asked how and why I had become interested in this nature thing.  I didn’t have a good answer.  But now, as I think about it, I suspect the seeds of a relationship with the land is somewhere deep within all of us.  Some are precluded from realizing it due to the circumstances of their lives.  Others like me, at some point in their life, have an opportunity to make a connection on some level, long hidden, to nature’s world.

As I make my way through my eighth decade, I am delighted to continue to discover other dimensions of my connection the land and to nature.  Planting and watching a field of wildflowers grow, or harvesting my own mess of purple-hulled peas, or watching a newborn colt take it’s first uneven steps, or baling a few bales of hay from a pasture you planted.  I believe that’s what my father-in-law was trying to tell me when he said, “Son, I’m never gonna sell this land.”


On Writing

The urge to write has always lurked in the recesses of my brain, and at various times manifestited itself in different, even unusual, ways. My first writing outputs were of the write-on-command type. You know the kind. Five hundred words on the Ural River Valley, or an essay on the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The subject, form, and length determined by someone else. I wrote because I was required to in order to satisfy some other requirement, such as a class assignment. Indeed, I got pretty good at it… not only for myself, but for others as well. I found I could knock out a paper on almost any topic (typed, double-spaced, with one carbon copy) at five bucks a page. Footnotes were extra. That may not seem like much, but then again it didn’t take much time, and very little thinking, and as a struggling college student, I needed the money.  BTW, it didn’t hurt that I was an enthusiastic, if not great, typist.

I didn’t write much during my time in the Army.  Hell, I didn’t even think very much.  One of my buddies was the head of the Officer Records Unit and, as such, had responsibility for awards and citations. One little known fact is that almost everyone who serves time in the military as an officer gets some kind of medal for something, whether or not it is deserved.  The key is finding someone who can write the request in the way and the vernacular the Army demands.  My buddy had been a football player in college, so you can understand why he needed help getting these things written using the militarily approved words and phrases which would virtually assure approval.  That’s where I came in.  I could, and did, pitch in to write Requests for Award that would almost certainly result in the approval of award for, say, a Good Conduct Medal.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t even charge for this writing (if you can call it that) service.

In the early years of my business life, the only writing I did was technical documentation of computer programs or systems.  This was truly a horrible experience.  If you have ever read any of this genre, you’ll agree that the only worse form of writing is that contained in small print in insurance polices or directions on how to set the time and date on a Japanese digital watch.

Thankfully, I wasn’t a very good technician so I was moved into sales and thereby my first introduction to writing fiction.  I guess it really wasn’t fiction except in the sense that very little written in most sales reports or proposals is fact based.  Ultimately I found myself in the lofty environs of the executive suite, and my writing began to take on a different, more serious form.  I was, for the first time, expected to communicate matters of some business import in a clear and concise way.  Something, which I was, at this point, wholly unprepared to do.  I wrote memoranda by the bushel, business letters, strategy documents, and assorted other matters of little consequence.  Remember now, this was in that long ago era before Twitter and even before email, and although Al Gore might not admit it, it was before the internet.  Stenographic ability was one of the primary attributes that I sought in hiring for my office.  Does anyone do shorthand anymore?  I guess you could call this writing from need.  It was part of the job.  I still have some of the letters I wrote during this period of my life, and they are indeed, perfect specimens of the ilk.  One of the principles of business writing, I was taught, was to avoid adjectives at all costs, and never, never allow a superlative the light of day.  Try writing anything without adjectives and see what you get.

Writing because I wanted to write came upon me slowly, and the urge tended to be stronger on a long airplane flight after a couple of glasses of wine.  I experimented with haiku on the fourteen-hour flights to Tokyo, and sonnets on the DFW-LHR run.  I even struggled to emulate e.e. cummings on my periodic coast-to-coasts.  Nothing quite stuck, although I still have some notebooks with evidence of my puerile efforts.  I tinkered with descriptive writing for a while.  You know, How to Pour a Root Beer Without the Fizz  Overflowing.  In vain, I tried character sketches.  Yikes!  And finally I wrote, ad nauseum, numerous, mostly boring, monologues about business meetings.  Yep.  A very odd subject, but that’s what I did then.  I attended business meetings.  Wow.  That had to be high on the list for the most uninteresting stuff ever written.  It was not fun to write and certainly wasn’t fun to read.  So you can see that my writing resume was more than a little spotty.

I had always traveled a lot.  Business and pleasure.  Alone, with colleagues or with family.  I usually kept a sort of travel journal.  Nothing formal, just notes on my observations and questions.  I still have them all, taking up most a shelf in my home office. But when Darling Wife S. and I undertook our long delayed trip to the Golden Triangle of India in January of 2007, I sought to memorialize my observations and to inform friends and family about our travels there.  I published a series of ten pieces about various aspects of this wonderful journey.  Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing them, and delighted that they seemed to be appreciated by those who read them.  This reaction caused me to attempt my first non-travel blog in February of 2007.  At the time, I was using a standard piece of software from Apple, which only required that I select a template and start typing.  And type I did.  Only later did I migrate to the more sophisticated realm of Word Press, themes, and plug-ins.

As I now look at those early pieces, I can see that I was searching for a style that fit both my interests and capability.  It turned out that I loved the research required to write about a location or a subject of interest about which I knew little.  And it seemed my best and most interesting writing was not straight prose, but prose with a strong dose of satire with a lot of tongue-in-cheek.  I found that when I tried for humor, humor eluded me.  It only came when I wrote as I felt.  At one point I started to worry about grammar and sentence structure.  Perhaps the best writing advice I got was not to worry too much about split infinitives or beginning my sentences with a conjunction, but to write more or less as I spoke.  I also developed some of my own rules.  Always double-check sources.  The tendency today is to rely solely on Wikipedia or other such web-based, free-content, collaborative sources.  Unfortunately, I found they could be wrong or misleading too.  I also became a stickler on attribution.  Oddly, it’s okay to steal someone’s idea, but you just can’t steal their words.

I’ve wondered if I could write if I had too.  You know, to earn a living.  I doubt it.  I write because it gives me pleasure. I love the process of winnowing ideas to find the ones I want to write about.   I love the research to get my facts. I enjoy the struggle to present the facts in an orderly, but interesting way.  I love setting the historical context.  And finally I love the idea that I’m communicating with people who may or may not know me, or I them, about things that have meaning to me.

And finally, I think, I love to write because it is a time-tested way to leave a personal record of what I thought about and how I thought about it.  Those of us in the final quarter (if not the two minute drill) of our lives, often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking to rationalize our existence.  To justify our time on this planet.  For me, writing is the perfect remedy.

I think I’ll start on another blog right now.

My Lover, My Friend, My Wife

My Darling Wife, Sandra Faye Fernandes, nee Lyday, was born on September 1, 1942 in Port Arthur, Texas.  Almost a year before my birth.  I, of course, have relentlessly reminded her of her age seniority to me, saying that she fit right into my penchant for older women.  I don’t think she ever thought it was funny.  Still doesn’t.  Her father, James Tilden Lyday, called “Tilt” by all, and his wife, Faye, had reluctantly left their farm in Fannin County, Texas for the promise of a high paying and patriotic job in one of the many petrochemical plants in South Texas supporting the war effort.  That didn’t last long, but there Sandra was born.  Tilt just couldn’t stay away from the rich, black soil of Northeast Texas and the somewhat mythic rewards of encouraging the earth to produce a crop, so they returned to the small frame farmhouse where she grew to womanhood.

We now live almost exactly where Sandra spent her early childhood on what we call the “home place.”  She recalls with the clarity that only age can bring, laying on a pallet under a majestic pecan tree with her sister, Gail, while her mother, Faye, and Tilt worked the cotton patch that surrounded their house.  If they were lucky, they would make enough cotton to fill out the few bales they needed for cash for the necessities of life that the land could not provide. The spoils of small black-land farms were physically meager, but provided just enough for them to survive.  A garden provided fresh vegetables in the summer, and just enough excess for canning to last through the winter.  A ham always hung in the smokehouse for that special meal.  And chickens, of course, provided eggs…and when they reached a certain age, became provender for Sunday dinner.

Their farmhouse was set back about a quarter mile from the main road, and when the winter rains closed in, Tilt would load Sandra and her sister onto an old mare and walk them down the dirt road to the sturdier rock road where the schools bus could reach them.  Not surprisingly, they didn’t miss many days of school, but a lot of what she learned didn’t always come from textbooks.  Growing up in rural Texas was, in itself, a relentless teacher of what one needed to know in order to succeed in life.  And she was a good student. She and her mother gleaned the cotton fields for the few extra pounds of cotton that provided the store-bought cloth that became her dresses.  I asked her once if she thought of herself as being poor then, but I already knew the answer.  In small town rural Texas there were few class distinctions, but she was indifferent to those that may have existed and thought herself the equal of all.

She was active and popular in high school, being selected, in fact, as Most Popular in her senior class.  She was Band Queen, head majorette, even first chair trombone in the band, and although I hate to think about it, I’m sure she was highly sought after by the male of the species.  I know I would have, sought her, that is – and indeed, later I did.  She, like I, became a first generation college student, and while she had the capability to succeed in any school in the land, she headed twenty miles down the road to East Texas State College. Her parents, who had wisdom if not education, insisted that she live on campus even though that added to the cost that they could not easily afford. Their banker, who financed Tilt’s farm needs between crops,  summoned Sandra to his office and told her that he knew she would succeed in school and that he would make sure she had the money when needed.  And so he did.  Sandra became a college student and a good one at that.  If you asked her today, she would tell you she could have done better, grade-wise, but, nevertheless, she graduated in three and a half years, worked thirty hours a week in the college library, still achieved a grade point average that I could only aspire to, and had an active social life as well.

Six months after she graduated, we were married, and I wasn’t even old enough to buy beer yet.  She was a case worker at the Methodist Children’s Home, and I was sacking groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, struggling to make my grades at Baylor.  We had nothing in the way of physical possessions, but we were young, desperately in love and had nothing but hope for our future together.  Looking back now with the perspective of over fifty years of life and living together, we had it just right.  We trusted each other and we trusted in our ability to make our future together.  I’d like to be able to claim equal credit, but I can’t.  I often wondered what my life might have been like without Sandra., but, truthfully, I can’t even imagine it.  She has been my true north when I was at sea.  She provided balance when I was awobble.  I could always look to her for the truth I needed when deceit or a lie might have been more convenient.  Just think about that.  Okay, maybe an unconscious little fib every great while, but about the important things, only the truth.  She has been, in every way, authentic to herself and those around her.

I remember with great clarity a conversation I heard her having with the four-star Admiral, then Chief of Naval Operations, at a fancy dinner table at a Washington soiree.  As I strained to listen in, I heard her ask, “Now tell me, what exactly is it you do as Chief?”  He spent the next twenty minutes telling her of his whole career including his time as commander of the USS Enterprise.  Only Sandra.  She treats everyone around her, high and low, with the dignity that everyone deserves but seldom gets.  She always gives far more than she gets.  And yet, she is always at home with herself wherever she is and whoever she is with.

She has taste, style and grace that is both innate and acquired.  She has an open mind to everything around her and has never ceased learning about the world and the people in it.  She is equally at home in our garden at the farm or at the Tullierie Garden in Paris.  She can do a chicken fried steak at Doc’s Cafe great justice, but will never pass up foie gras when it graces a menu.  She can still quote from memory Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” in its entirety and enjoy reading a fantasy novel her son recommended to her.

Okay, she isn’t perfect.  There are a few idiosyncrasies that should be disclosed.  She has never yet put the top back on the toothpaste.  She has far too many pairs of shoes she has never worn.  Her make up drawer is littered with old receipts blotted with lipstick, and she has been known to hide her purse so well it will never be found.  But these are small potatoes in the grand scheme of life and living together.  Of course, we both struggle a bit now with those issues that confront those of us lucky enough to have a long life, but we confront them gladly…together.  As the fellow said, it’s far better than the alternative.

I believe she would tell you, if asked, that she has had a busy and fulfilling life with more to come.  A childhood in the arms of a loving family and friends, an education that she worked (and I mean worked) to obtain, a marriage that has endured, a short but rewarding professional career, motherhood to three wonderful children who have produced eight even more wonderful grandchildren, living and traveling around the country and around the world, and now time and capacity to enjoy it all.  Yes, I would call that both busy and fulfilling.

We now spend virtually all of our time together, but we know to accord each other the private space we need.  We talk, we reminisce, we look to the future.  And from time to time, we still hold hands when we walk.



God’s Reward

Yes, they are.  God’s reward, that is.  Grandchildren are god’s reward for not having killed your own kids.  I posted a piece called “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This,” on August 5, 2007, which was something of a paean to the joys of grandparenting.  Upon rereading it recently, I’m prepared to double down on everything I said or tried to say then.  I’ve also alluded to traveling with grandchildren in a series of posts in 2012 under the rubric of “Europe with the Grandkids,” wherein I referenced our familial policy of undertaking a major travel outing with each of our grandchildren on or about their 12th birthday.  It’s lost in the fog of a successful history how this practice came into being. Personally, I think I should take most of the credit for it, as it is my wont to credit myself with all successful things having to do with family.  On a deeper level, I know this to be not entirely true, but I do it here to remain within form.

In a posting entitled “Why 12?,” written during the above referenced European trip, I gave an abbreviated explanation on why age 12 was ideal for multi-generational travel, at least as we practiced it.  I said then and repeat here: “At this age (12) they know everything and they know nothing.  They are impatient with our frailties, but attentive to our needs.  They are desirous of everything they see, but conscious of their own desire to please us.”  Yep, I’m still convinced it was exactly the right age, teetering as they are between childhood and adolescence.  We proved it six times over.  Now some of you already know that Darling Wife S. and I have eight grandchildren, so there is more to the story on why we took only six trips.

These excursions took place over a period of time (approximately ten years), during which, for S. and I, time did not stand still.  The world continued to turn and we continued to grow older, both physically and in disposition.  When we traveled with grand-twins Max and Mercer to Alaska (our last of these trips), I could no longer even aspire to following them down a zip line as I had done with Logan in Costa Rica.  When we traveled with grandson Tilt to New York, I could no longer tolerate missing my afternoon nap as I had done with granddaughter Annabel in the Galapagos Islands, where every minute was packed with a new and exciting activity. I suspect that Georgia and Hudson on our trip through Europe, and even Sophia in Panama got the worst of it.  S. and I had not yet arrived at the understanding that we could not do it all, i.e., everything they wanted to do and still maintain our… well, sanity.

There was always some discussion about destinations.  My public position was that the kids got to choose, but I will admit here that this was never fully true.  As certain politicos today might say, that was an alternative fact.  In general, each trip was planned around a ten-day period during which they could be pried away from their parents and the kaleidoscope of activities that engulf kids today.  The sweet spot for our travels seemed to be sometime between spring break and early summer, but not always.  We gravitated to warm weather locations that we didn’t wear ourselves out getting to.  I also leaned toward places I either hadn’t been (Galapagos, Panama) or places to which I wanted to return (London, Paris).  Of course, the kids had input, but if I did it right, I correctly employed the power of suggestion to the point where each kid thought it was their idea, or they at least had major input.  Well, maybe Panama was an exception. There was never fooling Sophia. So here’s the complete list:

2008 Logan McGill – Travel throughout Costa Rica

2010 Annabel McGill – Quito, Ecuador then cruising the Galapagos Islands

2011 Georgia McGill and Hudson Fernandes – London, Paris, and the Chunnel Train

2013 Sophia Fernandes – Panama City, the Canal, and the Panamanian Highlands

2014 Tilt Fernandes – Washington DC, New York City, and the Acela Express Train

2016 Max and Mercer Fernandes – Vancouver, Canada then cruising the inside passage of Alaska.  Alaskan train to Anchorage. On the cruise we were joined by the boys’ father, Caleb.

You can see that we doubled up with Hudson and Georgia who are the same age, and Max and Mercer who are not only the same age, but are fraternal twins. Actually, it wasn’t an easy decision in either case.  The unstated, but deeply felt, intent of these trips was to give us the opportunity to not only get to know each child on a more personal level, but also to create the enduring bond which often occurs through shared travel.  We wondered how this would play out traveling in pairs.  But it was the right decision in both cases.  Georgia and Hudson got along famously, even conspiring to confront me on my aggressive scheduling of uninteresting (to them) activities.  Max and Mercer together dominated (in a very nice way) all other kids on the cruise ship by organizing them into posses of constantly active, happy kids doing all those things that kids do.

It’s impossible to recount here everything we did on these trips, but there are certain things that are indelibly imprinted in my memory.  The sight of Logan zipping down the zip line in Costa Rica while hanging upside down and backwards.  She also informed us one evening that she thought it would be interesting to join the salsa dancing class (which clearly was not intended for 12-year-olds), and so she did.

I still remember with some degree of horror trying to keep up with Annabel swimming with sea lions, using my modified dog paddle.  And later that same trip, Annabel stunned and delighted us, along with the cruise staff and a lounge full of passengers, by giving an extraordinary rendition of Abba’s Thank You for the Music during karaoke night.

I can still see Hudson and Georgia with arms akimbo, waiting in the world’s longest and slowest moving line to get in the Musee d’Orsay, and the family consultation at which we all agreed to bypass one of the world’s best art museums in favor of an early morning pizza.  And I aIso recall with pride the comment of the owner of a French/Vietnamese restaurant who said as we paid  the bill, “Monsieur, these are the most polite American children I’ve ever seen.”  A bit left-handed but a well deserved complement nevertheless.

And dear Sophia, who showed sophistication and patience beyond her years as a river guide tried with to get me the perfect position to photograph the iconic Harpy Eagle, while she wondered aloud, “What are we doing here?” This same worldliness also showed with a million questions as we transited the Panama Canal, and then there was her adventurous zip line experience as well.

Tilt loved it all and impressed me with his knowledge of the airplanes on the aircraft carrier in New York.  Tilt also became fast friends with everyone he met, including  our bicycle guide in Central Park and the docent at Mt. Vernon who wanted to adopt him.

Many of my memories involve what I call the food challenge, which, with our kids, wasn’t really much of a challenge.  Well, maybe Georgia, who ate steak frites in Paris for seven consecutive meals.  Tilt was the most adventurous foodie of the group.  I think our first meal was at a gastro pub in Alexandria, Va. where I noticed fresh oysters on the menu.  I asked Tilt if he liked them and he responded that he did. I thought he ate them with a relish, so I continued to order them at every chance for the next eight days, until he finally confessed that he really didn’t like oysters very much.  He more than made up for that at our Korean dinner in a very chi-chi Korean place in mid-town Manhattan.  I can only say, he ate it all and then some.

We set a new standard with Max and Mercer when S. and I realized that the limitations of our physical capacity might not stand up to the potential rigors of entertaining the twins.  Their energy level and ours had clearly gone in different directions.  With only little effort, I persuaded their father, Caleb, to join us and perhaps take on the heavy lifting of some of the more adventurous excursions in the wilds of Alaska.  Which he did and to good effect.  I’ve already mentioned their leadership of the kids posse on board the ship, but I also should mention that the M boys charmed and beguiled every adult they came in contact with…from the crew member that was supposed to organize kids activities, to the maitre d’ at every restaurant on board.

I guess one might say, we’ve experienced an embarrassment of riches in exposing ourselves to our grandchildren through shared travel.  Seldom do we now spend time with any of them that some travel memory is not exposed.  I wonder how long it will be before we have great grandchildren.  Let’s see…Logan is 21 and Annabel 18…  Nah.  Far better for us to spend our senior moments cherishing what we’ve already done.  It doesn’t get better than that.



The Battle of Grenada

Just to be clear, it is Gra-nAY-da, not Gra-nAH-da.  When you’re there next, I don’t want the locals thinking you’re a rube.  And I, of course, will not admit to having made this egregious mistake during my stay here.

The island country of Grenada – self-monikered “the spice isle,” nutmeg specifically – seemed a cut above the other Caribbean islands we’ve visited so far, but is still a long, long ways from a place I would put on my top ten list. Part of my problem is that while driving around with our taxi/tour driver, I kept thinking of the virtually inexplicable action of the Reagan administration, when he ordered the 82nd Airborne and others into full scale attack mode.  In Grenada.  In October 1983, we attacked this small Caribbean island, population 91,000 with the full force and fury of the United States Armed Forces and approximately 8,000 of our finest because…well, there’s the problem. The because was really hard to figure out then, and it’s virtually impossible today.

I’m not going to spend your valuable time recounting all of the facts and circumstances leading up to our “invasion.”  Suffice it to say that after parsing through it all, I conclude that it was another instance of terrible decision making rooted in our irrational fear of the dreaded “commies”… particularly those commies that were fellow travelers of that most-notorious-of-all-western-hemisphere-commies, Fidel Castro.

Just a few facts to set the context. In the months before our invasion, a far right wing hard nose, whose name is not important, led a coup to depose and then execute the somewhat left wing leader of the country. His name was Maurice Bishop. I only mention it because the airport still bears his name. In any case, for some reason, the local nabobs thought this would threaten the stability of the area, and besought our man Reagan to intercede. Granted, Fidel had inserted a few of his own military types to watch after his interest on site. If you can figure this out you’re a far better master of intrigue than I. But certainly it was not enough to create a threat. Let’s see. We’re afraid of the commies, a few of Fidel’s best show up, a left leaning, semi-dictator is overthrown by a right winger, instability ensues, a ruckus is raised, and we attack. That’s about it as far as I can figure.

Oh, I forgot the medical students. Yep, someone in the propaganda office of the White House figured we needed a good story for the peeps on main street, and decided that the safety of our citizens who had repaired to the somewhat shady medical school in Grenada to get their Caduceus was just the thing. There were 600 or so of them who evidently had whiffed the medical school tests in the US of A and figured studying in the warm climes in the shade of the palm trees was a better deal. Now, who knows if the right wing nut case who had taken over the Grenadian government was actually a threat to those 600 striving for the right to be compensated for life by the health insurance companies, but, seen from this perspective some thirty years later, it seems a little flimsy. What do you think?

Actually this story is a bit of a precursor to our later invasion of another small country in our neck of the woods. I gave you my view on our invasion of Panama in my post of June 7, 2013, “Panama: The Middlings.”  No, I don’t expect you to reread that piece. I’ll just remind you that we had an equally hard time coming up with solid justification for that action as well.

In the case of Panama, at least, we were able to throw Noriega in the slammer, and then create the conditions for Panama to become a major money laundering center for the region.  It only cost a few bucks, and, oh, I almost forgot.  Operation Just Cause (the invasion of Panama) resulted in 25 US soldiers losing their lives and several hundred wounded. Accounting of Panamanians who lost their lives is a little shaky, but the range is from 500 to 1000. One punter, even more cynical than I, opined that the real reason for Operation Just Cause was that it was a test bed for much of the US high tech arsenal that hadn’t yet been used in combat conditions.  A silver lining, the whole thing was over and done with in a couple of weeks.

In Grenada, it took longer… 25 October to 15 December, 1983… about seven weeks.  But we only suffered 19 killed in action and just over 100 wounded. We also managed, in addition to the few Cubans we routed, to kill 45 Grenadian soldiers as well as 24 civilians, including 18 in a mental hospital that we bombed “by mistake.”  This action was labeled Operation Urgent Fury. There is no mention of why it was urgent or why we were furious.  Just as the cynic cited above in the case of Panama, I have my own theory why we needed to invade Grenada.  In the aftermath of the invasion, the US military establishment saw fit to award medals for valor to 5000 of the 8000 we sent to fight the good fight. We were just short on cases for which we could award medals and needed to create one, I guess. Okay, I know that’s a little far-fetched, but both cases go to show that we should never underestimate the capacity of the military to make themselves invaluable to our politicians.  BTW, George H. W. Bush was at the helm for this particular military adventure.

I don’t know if these two aforementioned actions are now studied at the Army War College, or wherever we teach military strategy, but it does clearly underscore the need for our political and military leaders to fully appreciate the value of and the responsibility for the extraordinary asset we have in our military forces and to use them wisely. I’m not at all sure we did in Grenada.