Stopping Traffic

This past summer, I described my experience with an overzealous TSA officer at the Detroit airport. It seems someone has decided that soft goat cheese is a dangerous substance that cannot be allowed on board an aircraft, and the officer had been on the verge of confiscating the stuff in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, after my explanation of its origin (and a chat with his supervisor), they agreed to make an exception. By way of update: My cousins thoroughly enjoyed the cheese when I shared it at our family gathering in Seattle, and we all got a good laugh from the story.

I had a different, and probably more memorable, encounter with a TSA officer last weekend. This one had nothing to do with cheese, goat or otherwise.

My son (almost ten) and I had traveled to Arizona for a few days, to visit my folks. It’s getting more challenging for them to come out to see us, so bringing the grandkid to them seemed like a natural solution. He got to experience all kinds of things he doesn’t usually get to see and do here in Michigan, like a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an attraction I cannot recommend highly enough, BTW), attending All Saints Day Mass at his grandparents’ parish, riding around in Grandpa’s golf cart, and swimming outdoors in November. (Not to mention riding on an airplane, with a window seat.) Most of all, I enjoyed watching him get to spend a lot of solid one-on-one with his grandparents (as his siblings had been able to do more often, when they were younger). We made some wonderful memories; he doesn’t know it yet, but he will carry these memories with him the rest of his life.

There is one detail, however, that I will probably remember for much longer than he will: our interaction with a TSA officer in the Phoenix airport on our way home. We’d just dropped our luggage, and were making our way to the security checkpoint. To my relief, it was wide open and virtually empty. (Early Saturday morning is a great time to travel.) I presented my ID and our boarding passes to the first agent, a youngish and friendly-looking woman, expecting the usual cursory inspection like we’d had at DTW.

To my surprise, the agent did more than just compare me to the photo and check the names. Turning to my son, she clutched the boarding passes and said, “Okay, I have a few questions for you. Alright?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“What is your name?” she asked.

My son smiled and told her.

“And what’s your dad’s name?”

He hesitated for a second, like sometimes happens when you’re asked a question that is too obvious (and that no one has ever asked you before). My heart skipped a beat. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Then it came to him. “Chris Blunt,” he said, to my great relief.

“And where are you and your dad going?” she asked.

Again, a moment’s hesitation (or so it seemed to anxious me), before he told her “Detroit!”

The TSA agent returned my documents with a smile, saying something about how we can’t be too careful these days.

“Trafficking?” I asked.

She nodded, and related a couple of quick examples of terrible things that’d happened in the area recently. We were in no hurry, and the checkpoint was still empty, so she and I chatted for a moment. I asked if it was a special problem for Phoenix, perhaps due to their proximity to the border. She replied that, unfortunately, it was becoming a problem in every place.

I mentioned that the agent in Detroit hadn’t given us any extra attention on our way out. She shrugged and replied, “I always ask. You never know.”

I thanked her, and told her I appreciated her vigilance. My son and I sailed through the rest of the checkpoint, boarded our plane, and enjoyed a completely uneventful flight home.

The flight gave me a lot of time to think, however. Human trafficking is an issue I’d heard about and read about, but I hadn’t previously met anyone on the front lines of it. Was I a bit annoyed about being questioned, and treated (if only for a minute, and only by implication) with suspicion that I could be a trafficker? Of course. But this annoyance faded quickly. She had no way of knowing he was really my son, or if he was really the boy whose name appeared on the boarding pass. He doesn’t have a photo ID (but I’ll probably get him one before he takes his next flight). What if he, or one of my other kids, had been taken and moved somewhere against his or her will? Wouldn’t I be grateful for an alert officer, on the lookout for something that seemed out of place?

Which gets us to something obvious (but that hadn’t occurred to me immediately): my son does look out of place with me. We look absolutely nothing alike. Longtime readers know that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is of African descent, so all five of our kids are melanin enhanced. Some more than others, but none more than Kid Number Four. It wouldn’t surprise me if this had something to do with why we were asked a few additional questions. Not to mention the fact that he and I were traveling alone.

But here’s the thing: the racial aspect doesn’t bother me in the least. MYF and I actually find this sort of confusion a bit amusing. We compare stories, and laugh. She used to get asked if she was Kid Number One’s nanny. I was once asked if Kid Number Two (almost as melanin enhanced as Kid Number Four) was my foster child. And so on. Families like ours are more common than they used to be, but still unusual enough for people to have questions. I get it. I simply choose to be understanding, and not to be surprised or taken aback when confusion arises. But I will say this: we actually draw a lot less attention than I initially thought we would. My classic car probably gets more “looks” and turned heads in one trip to the grocery store than our family has in all the years we’ve lived here.

Getting back to the Phoenix airport: I didn’t catch the name of the TSA officer, but I do want to give her a shout-out for being on the ball and bringing a sense of mission to her job. I’ve done my best not to think about human trafficking, or to worry that one of my kids could fall victim to it. It’s certainly never occurred to me that one of the adults on a flight with me might be trafficking a child. I’m just glad somebody is thinking about it, and doing something to interrupt it. If that means my son and I have our trip interrupted for a moment, to answer a few questions, I don’t mind the inconvenience.

Just leave my goat cheese out of it!

Classic Month

The First of August is here at last! I celebrated by taking my 1975 Fiat 124 Spider out for a long cruise on country roads this morning.

What’s so special about August in Michigan? And why celebrate by driving to nowhere-in-particular in a classic car? The short answer: because I can. Legally.

But I owe you more of an explanation than that. So, here goes:

Most people with classic cars don’t drive them very much. Even if our cars aren’t show-stoppers or in perfect condition, we want to save them and enjoy them. For those of us in this situation, the state offers a couple of money-saving alternatives to standard vehicle registration: an Historical Vehicle plate, or an Authentic plate.

The Historical option is a plain, current-production, white plate that costs $30 and is good for ten years. No annual renewals, so the cost of registration essentially works out to about three bucks per year. (If you still own the car ten years later, you have to buy a new plate.)

The Authentic plate option is much more cool, and a better investment for those of us who plan on owning a particular car for the rest of our lives. If you can find an actual Michigan license plate that was issued in your vehicle’s model year, you can put it on your classic car and use it. In addition to buying the plate, there is a one-time registration fee of $35 — and it’s good for as long as you own the car.

Whichever option you choose, however, the same restrictions apply. You can’t use the vehicle for general transportation. You can’t use it to commute to school or work, or even to run to the store. You’re only allowed to drive the vehicle to car shows, exhibitions, club events,  parades, and so forth.

Except [drum roll, please] … in the month of August! A special provision of the law allows a vehicle with an Historical or Authentic plate to be driven as much as the owner likes, in August.

I kept a standard registration plate on my Fiat for a long time, because I wanted to be able to drive it any time I wanted. I was also kind of proud of the fact that it was a “driver,” and not relegated to a limited-use category. However, as the years went by, and I got the car increasingly cleaned up and refreshed, I found myself driving it less and less. It wasn’t just a question of not wanting to risk “breaking” it. With the arrival of Kid #4 and then Kid #5, I was taking at least one small child (often two) with me on most errands. And even if I were inclined to hook up a car seat in the Spider, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer would strongly disapprove. The car has no roll bar, and no safety features other than lap belts (and it doesn’t even have lap belts in the back seat).

So, last Fall, when I was preparing to put the Spider away for the winter, I decided it was time to get an Authentic plate. I did some research, and learned that my vehicle would’ve used a dark blue plate that was produced between 1973 and 1975. The plate had a “73” embossed on it. Vehicles from model years 1974 and 1975 would need a year-specific sticker added to it.

But how to find one? There are websites that specialize in Michigan plates, and have a nice selection across many years; one in particular that stands out is Mad Max’s Authentic Plates. Of course, eBay also offers a wide range of older license plates. I ended up scoring a really beautiful set of 1975-stickered plates on eBay for about $26, delivered.

When the plate arrived, and I put it on the Spider, I immediately knew I’d made the right decision. Especially with a chrome frame, it completed the vehicle’s “look” perfectly.

License Plate.jpg

And as for the restricted driving? It hasn’t bothered me. In fact, because I’m driving the Fiat less often, I’ve come to appreciate it more when I do have an opportunity to get behind the wheel. It’s also made me more attentive to the schedule of local car shows, cruise nights, and club events. For example, in May, I spent a Saturday cruising rural roads around Ann Arbor (and getting lunch) with a few dozen other Italian car enthusiasts; it was an absolute blast. As Spring progressed, and turned to summer, I discovered all kinds of other shows and events within a reasonable drive of home. As a bonus, Kid #4 is now old enough to go with me to these events, and we’ve both appreciated having that time together.

The bottom line is that I’ve still been getting plenty of time to drive the Spider, and I’ve been enjoying those drives more.

And I’m especially looking forward to these thirty-one days of August!

The Great Cheese Plea

This may be the first post I’ve made from an airport. I’m sitting at the gate at DTW, waiting to board a much-anticipated flight to Seattle. After a four-year layoff, I’m at last able to make it out for the big Seattle-to-Portland bicycle ride. (This is of course the event at the center of my novel, Full Cycle; this Saturday will be the first time I’ve been able to participate in STP since the novel’s publication.)

As much as I’m looking forward to the big ride, I’m especially happy to be able to see friends and family while I’m out there; it’s been way too long. Tonight, I’m having dinner at a cousin’s house. My contribution to the evening: a nice container of goat cheese from our farm.

Or at least that was the plan, until TSA intervened. At the checkpoint, my backpack sailed right through the security screening — but my bag of food was yanked for further inspection. The agent took a look at the cheese, in its plastic container, and said it wasn’t allowed. It’s too soft, he explained. Can’t have anything spreadable.

I replied that I had no idea I couldn’t bring it; I thought all food items were acceptable. I would’ve put it in my luggage if I’d known.

And then I rolled the dice and played the Farmer card. “It’s homemade goat cheese, from our own goats. My daughter made this. I’m supposed to be taking it to dinner tonight at my cousin’s house.”

He looked at the container more closely. “Your own goats?” he asked. It wasn’t so much incredulity; it was more a tone of “Yeah, nobody could be making up a story like this.”

I could sense him hesitating. He stepped away for a moment, and conferred with another agent. The only words I picked up were “homemade cheese” and “own goats”.

He returned with the cheese after that brief conversation. “Okay, we’ll allow it this one time, if it passes the surface test,” he told me. “Next time, check it in your luggage.” He swabbed the surface of the cheese container, inserted the swab into some sort of machine, and got the test results.

Satisfied, he returned the cheese to me. I smiled and gave him a heartfelt thank-you, and then packed everything up and cleared the security checkpoint.

I’m not sure what it was about my Great Cheese Plea that changed his mind, but my sense is that most people have a special appreciation for food that’s crafted at home on a farm. Who could bring himself to toss in the trash something that’d been put together with so much care and attention? Perhaps he sensed that saving my cheese was some small way he could participate vicariously in the life of a farm. I don’t know. I’m just really thankful that someone appreciated our farm produce enough to give that extra consideration. We will certainly remember his kindness tonight at dinner!

Who Says You Can’t Go Home … To the House at Pooh Corner?

A fantastic new movie opened this past weekend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: Disney’s Christopher Robin. Take a look at the trailer:

The film is essentially a spin-off from the classic stories by A.A. Milne. As you probably know, these stories were inspired by the imaginative games that his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, played with his stuffed animals. These stories were among my favorites as a kid, and I always sensed a special bond with the main character because we shared the same first name. It was lots of fun to read all twenty of the stories again about a year and a half ago, with my own son (then aged seven), and watch him enjoy them as thoroughly as I had. I’d add that the more recently you’ve read the classic stories, the more you’ll appreciate some of the references in the movie.

The “Christopher Robin” in the stories was of course a fictionalized version of the real-life boy. The film takes the fictional Christoper Robin (note that “Robin” is his surname, not a middle name) and shows what happened to him after the conclusion of the final classic story, when Christopher Robin must leave his animal friends behind in the Hundred Acre Wood.

[Warning: minor set-up plot spoilers, mostly fleshing out the trailer, ahead.]

Twenty years or so pass fairly quickly; we see him attend boarding school, fall in love, start a family, serve in World War II, and come home safely from that war to his wife and young daughter.

The heart of the story takes place in the late 1940s, with the daughter not much older than Christopher himself was when he left for boarding school. He’s now a workaholic who’s managed to claw his way up to middle management at a luggage company in London. He rarely makes it home for dinner with his family. The Hundred Acre Wood is long forgotten.

The key conflict arises when Christopher’s upper class twit of a boss informs him, on a Friday afternoon, that he must come in to work all weekend. The problem is, Christopher and his wife had longstanding plans to take their daughter on holiday in the country that weekend. He must choose … and he senses he doesn’t have any real option other than to stay.

Christopher’s wife seems unsurprised by his decision. She and the daughter (who had been very much looking forward to spending the weekend with her father, and is of course devastated by this turn of events) go to the cabin in the countryside by themselves.

As we watch Christopher trudge through a Saturday full of paperwork, we want to reach through the screen, shake him by the shoulders, and shout: “Look at yourself! What’s happened to you?”

We, of course, can’t physically reach Christopher. But a Bear of Very Little Brain might just be able to do it. Back in the Hundred Acre Wood, a crisis has arisen — and Winnie the Pooh (fantastically animated and voiced, by the way) thinks Christopher Robin is the only one who can solve it. He goes looking for his long lost friend, and through a miracle of fantasy stumbles upon a one-way portal to London.

The movie trailer implies that at this point, Christopher sort of drops everything and runs off to the Hundred Acre Wood to save the day. Without giving any spoilers … his transformation is more gradual. I thought the pacing of his change was realistic – and perfect. Along the way, we realize that the Silly Old Bear’s real mission isn’t to save his friends back in the Wood. It’s to save Christopher Robin – in more ways than one.

Kids will enjoy this movie a lot. My eight-and-a-half-year-old son certainly did, and so did the other kids at the theater. The CGI animals are a delight (I particularly enjoyed Eeyore).  It’s a fun story, and the collision of the animals with the outside world is especially so. Don’t be concerned by the PG rating; apart from the brief wartime scenes and explosions, which might frighten the youngest kids, there really isn’t anything inappropriate for older children. The rating seems due more to the nature of the story; some kids may need some “guidance” in understanding why Christopher Robin spends so much time at work and so little time with his family, or what the conflicts between his boss and the employees are all about.

And that gets us to something larger: as much as kids will enjoy this movie, it really isn’t a “kid movie.” The true target audience is middle-aged folks. Especially parents, and especially men. The struggle to balance professional responsibilities with family responsibilities is a tough one, especially for those of us who are self-employed and find it nearly impossible to completely disconnect.

And, yes, sometimes work does have to “win,” particularly if we have a known busy season. Hay really does have to be made while the sun shines. The harvest does have to be brought in when it can be brought in. And it’s not just farming. My father ran a retail clothing store when I was a kid; between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, we rarely saw him. That was tough on all of us, but we always knew things would slow down and we’d get Dad back. My own family has come to understand the same thing about public opinion research consulting; September and October can be a blur, but things quiet down after the first-Tuesday-after-the-first-Monday in November.

The problem is when work becomes something we habitually choose to immerse ourselves in, to the detriment of family, and to the point where we can’t say “no.” Work often provides tangible rewards and (especially) recognition more immediately than spending time with family does. That can become alluring. It can also ruin what’s most truly rewarding about life. Sometimes, what we really need is some time away in the Hundred Acre Wood.

I was surprised at the depth of emotions this movie stirred in me, and how thoroughly it stirred them. From conversations I’ve had with others, I know I’m far from alone. Don’t be afraid to take a handkerchief, and don’t be afraid to use it. I walked out of the theater feeling emotionally spent — but in a deeply satisfying way.  The story had taken me to a place which, like Christopher Robin, I had forgotten even existed: that enchanted place on the top of the Forest (and in my heart) where a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I hope the story takes you there as well.

Christopher-Robin-Movie-Review-2-Disney

One Week. Two Babies

I don’t simply dislike celebrity culture. I actively avoid it. Award shows, Oscar nominations, celebrity deaths, celebrity scandals … I can’t change the channel or click off the page fast enough. I even try to pick the lane at the grocery store with the fewest tabloids displayed.

That said, I confess there is one young celebrity to whom I pay attention, whenever he happens to be in the news. I became interested in him purely by an accident of timing, and in a sense against my will. But because of how that initial interest came about, I’ve subsequently found him difficult to ignore.

His name? George Alexander Louis, AKA “Prince George of Cambridge.” With the start of school this past week, he’s been back in the news — and back on my mind.

But why? Why would The Yeoman Farmer be the slightest bit interested in a toddler on the other side of the world? A toddler whom his family will never meet?

As I said, it was an accident of timing.

Our youngest daughter, “Little Miss Sweetness,” was born in mid-July of 2013. She arrived nearly six weeks early, and was immediately transferred to the NICU for observation. That afternoon, a test revealed she had several holes in her heart; these would require open heart surgery in a few months to patch. The hospital ran this test because they strongly suspected our daughter had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), a diagnosis which was later confirmed with further testing, and heart defects are common in newborns with DS.

As none of these issues had been detected prenatally, or even previously suspected, to say we were in shock would be an understatement.

While we were still processing these twin bombshells, the next day we learned she had an even more immediate problem: duodenal atresia, or a blockage of the connection between her stomach and intestines. As with heart defects, it’s also common in newborns with DS. She was immediately scheduled for gastrointestinal surgery the next morning.

The procedure went perfectly, but required a nearly month-long stay in the NICU for recovery. This was obviously an extremely stressful period for our whole family, with many emotional ups and downs. Longtime readers may remember the article I wrote about the experience (Stage Six: Joy), and the follow-up article (Breaking the Circle of Sadness) I wrote a year later.

That month also included even more long hours of doing nothing but waiting, and watching television. One of the biggest stories of that slow news month came when Little Miss Sweetness was just a week or so old: the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, third in line to the British throne. With nothing else in the news, coverage of the event seemed unending — particularly after the royal family returned home and this official photo was released:

Prince_George_best_2013

Meanwhile, back in Michigan, even being able to hold our newborn required a major assist from NICU staff (on account of all the lines she was hooked up to). On virtually the same day the above photo was taken, this was us:

BabyAtHospital July 2013.jpg

As I held my daughter in that windowless cell of a hospital room, I couldn’t help sensing the enormity of the gulf between our situation and that of the royal family half a world away. It wasn’t a feeling of sorrow at what we were going through. It was more an overwhelming sense of distance between the Perfect Royal Baby, object of the world’s interest and acclaim … and our Little Miss Sweetness, greatest shining treasure of our family, but an absolute zero in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. (Or even less than zero … as you might imagine, the recent reports about Iceland boasting of eliminating babies like our daughter hit particularly close to home.)

It would’ve been easy to have sunk into self-pity, or even jealousy. Instead, as I contemplated the gulf between “the world’s” values and the little person who was of so much value to our family, it only made me all the more fiercely devoted to that little person. I wanted to pour out all the more of myself for her, and give her all the more of my time and attention. I didn’t think it was possible to love her any more intensely than I already did. But that’s precisely where the celebrity news out of London ended up leading me.

And that’s why I still pay attention to news about this one particular London celebrity, and why I’ll probably always have a soft spot for Prince George. Every story about him takes me back to those weeks which were so critical for the life of our own family. Every story about him reminds me of that long-ago coverage, which led me to an even greater devotion to Little Miss Sweetness. And all those reminders help make me all the more devoted to her even now.

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Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The longer we live on the farm, the more we learn the truth of certain expressions and cliches. In this case: you really do have to make hay while the sun shines. If the stuff gets rained on after it’s been mowed and allowed to dry in the field, you’re at serious risk of losing the whole cutting. You may be able to flip it over and let it dry again, but if you rake it too many times it may begin to crumble. And if the rainy weather continues for too long, the whole thing could rot in the field.

It’s really remarkable just how many people have been bringing in hay around here the last couple of weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect for it, and we’ve seen one field after another get cut, raked, baled, and hauled. On our long bicycle rides on quiet country roads, my daughter and I have had front row seats to the action. And I must say: there are few aromas as wonderful as that of freshly-cut alfalfa, drying in a field.

Our hay field is only about four and a half acres. When we have a year of good harvests, it supplies enough for our sheep and goats to make it through the winter. When the harvests haven’t been so great, we’ve had to buy some additional hay from others. And sometimes, we’ve bought some additional hay just for our own peace of mind; you really can’t have too much of it, and the worst time to fall short is in the dead of winter.

The best time to make a purchase is immediately after harvest, when loaded hay wagons are coming out of the fields. The farmer can then deliver it straight to your own barn, without having to unload it into his own barn (and then load it back up again at some later date). And the best way to learn of farmers who have some extra hay they’d like to sell straight off the wagon? Word of mouth. Put the word out that you’re looking for a hundred bales, and you’ll learn of someone who’d be happy to supply it.

Fortunately, it looks like we won’t be having to make any purchases this year. Our field was overdue for fertilizer, which we finally got applied this spring. Our local grain elevator / feed store contracts with a laboratory to test soil, so we submitted a sample from our hay field (drawn from many small test holes dug all over it). The report came back with recommendations, which we were of course able to buy from the same local grain elevator. We had a local farmer apply those tons of fertilizer using a spreader pulled behind his tractor.

That same farmer is the person we’ve hired to do our hay since we moved here. For an operation as small as ours, it hasn’t made sense to buy our own tractor and haying equipment — not to mention the time and practice it would take to learn how to use that equipment properly. It’s a classic example of the value of the division of labor. It makes much more sense for us to hire someone who’s already invested in that equipment, and who has years of experience providing this service for other small farmers in the area.

Back to the fertilizer: it really did its job. We got an explosion of growth, and the grass was thick on the ground after our guy cut it late last week. He returned to rake and flip it, and with the hot weather it didn’t take long to dry.

But what about the final piece of the puzzle? We still needed to get the hay baled and brought into the barn. Neither he nor we like to do work of any kind on Sundays, but this time it didn’t look like we had much of a choice. He had another field that absolutely had to be baled on Monday. I had a commitment for work, with a hard deadline, on Tuesday (today). That left Wednesday — but the forecast was calling for rain before then.

Sunday it would have to be. He came by very early in the morning, before church, to rake the hay one more time. Then, in mid-afternoon, he returned with everything needed to bale it. He and an assistant drove the tractor and piled bales on the hay wagon, then towed it into the upstairs portion of our barn. While the three oldest Yeoman Farm Children and I stacked all those bales, he and his assistant returned to the field to begin loading another wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hay harvest

Bringing in hay is among the toughest jobs on a farm. The bales are heavy and scratchy, usually have to be hefted high into place for storage (note the stack in the photo above reaches higher than the basketball hoop), and almost by definition this all has to be done while it’s really hot outside. When we finally got the last of the 330 bales put up, just ahead of the sun sinking into the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and satisfaction. It’s one of the most thorough and gratifying feelings of exhaustion a person can experience. And, of course, there’s nothing quite as nice as going out the next morning and looking out on a perfectly clean field, illuminated by the rising sun, and remembering that it’s all finished. At least until the next cutting, later this summer.

Clean field

As much as I dislike having to do this kind of hard work on Sundays, I suppose the experience did bring one benefit: it helped me appreciate the degree to which Sunday has become a true “day of rest” for us to enjoy with family. The first several years we were married, we didn’t really treat Sunday much differently than Saturday (other than going to church). Then, after a time of reading and discernment, we realized that we needed to make a radical change. Due much to the initiative of Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, we “took back” Sunday for the family. Unless there were some truly urgent necessity, there would be no shopping. No professional work for my clients. No garden work. No butchering animals. No other hard work around the farm. It has been incredibly liberating, and brought tremendous good for our family. Having to disrupt that routine this weekend, to bring the hay in while the sun was shining, reminded me what a treasure the rest of our Sundays are.

One More Pearl Harbor Story

With today being the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, you’re no doubt reaching overload on stories commemorating the event. I’m hoping you can indulge me for a few minutes while I share just one more: our family’s.

My grandfather, Philip Gerhing, was a career Navy man. He enlisted in 1931, shortly after graduating from high school, remained on active duty until 1952, and then worked for the Navy as a civilian until his eventual retirement in the early 1970s. Growing up, my grandparents’ house was a trove of artwork and knickknacks that he’d brought home from all over the world (especially the far East).

In December of 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor and serving as a “pharmacist’s mate.” My understanding is that he worked in the base hospital, assisting those who ran the pharmacy. He and my grandmother had three kids at the time: my mother (a few months shy of her fourth birthday), and her two brothers (aged five and two-and-a-half). My grandmother and the kids were living on the base with him, having come out to Hawaii on a civilian passenger ship to join him in early July.

Shortly before 8 am, seventy-five years ago, my grandfather had just finished an overnight shift at the base hospital. He was waiting for a shuttle to take him home, when he heard the drone of a large number of low-flying aircraft. He looked up, and said his first thought was: “Somebody sure did a sloppy job of painting those planes!” Of course, a moment later, when the bombs began dropping, he realized that the “sloppy paint” patterns were Japanese rising sun emblems.

GATHERING OF EAGLES '86

Given that he was on his way home, and home wasn’t far, he continued on. He stayed at the house for just long enough to make sure his family was alright — and then went straight back to work. He seldom talked about what he did the rest of that day, but it generally involved assisting the medical staff in treating the wounded. My mother recalls him talking about being inside, and looking up, and noticing that large chunks of the building were missing.

Meanwhile, back home, my grandmother had three small kids to protect — plus some neighbor kids, who happened to be over. She pushed a large sofa in front of the window, and tried to keep the children entertained in the midst of the attack. Bombs were falling all over the neighborhood, as the family housing units were literally right on the base. Had so many of the bombs not been duds, the civilian death toll would have been much higher. One bomb in particular landed on the house next door to my grandparents’ house; had it gone off, there was apparently enough ordinance to level the block.

One thing that both of my grandparents told me: the Japanese planes were coming in so low, they could see the faces of the pilots. By far the most disconcerting part is that many of the pilots were looking down at them and smiling as they dropped their deadly payloads.

My mother, being just three years old at the time, has only hazy memories from that day — and my grandparents didn’t talk a lot about it. But for me, while growing up, having had family at Pearl Harbor personalized the event in a way that a history book could never do. And what’s really cool is that when the attack was over, my grandparents gathered up a collection of small artifacts (mostly shrapnel and parachute fragments). My mother had a small box with these historical souvenirs, and as a kid I remember being in awe every time she would bring it out. I became a junior Pearl Harbor buff, and read everything I could about the event.

There’s another chapter to the Pearl Harbor story, which is seldom discussed: what happened to the servicemen’s families afterwards. With a war now underway, and with the assumption that Hawaii itself would be a battleground, the Navy wanted to minimize the number of civilians in the area. In the weeks after the “day which will live in infamy,” the women and children  were loaded on passenger ships and evacuated to the mainland. The journey took upwards of a week, and for my grandmother it was a nightmare. Their ship was packed with women and small children, beyond its typical carrying capacity. The kids had very little to do, and the mothers were afraid to let them simply run around; it would be too easy to get lost or fall overboard. My grandmother ended up tethering her three kids together, so she could keep better track of them.

I never got all the details from her, but by all accounts it was an absolute nightmare of a trip. What made it even worse was the sense that they were sitting ducks, alone on this boat out in the middle of the ocean, days from anywhere. There were no naval escort ships. There were no patrol aircraft. The passenger ship of course had no anti-aircraft guns or other defenses. Everyone was fully expecting Japanese forces to materialize on the horizon, and send them to the bottom of the ocean.

This article has a nice summary of the civilian evacuation. What’s interesting is that the ship mentioned in the article, the S.S. Lurline, was the one my grandmother and her kids sailed on to get to Hawaii six months earlier. (I know they weren’t on it with the subject of this article, going back to the mainland, because they had no destroyer escort like is mentioned in the article.)

As a palate cleanser, I’ll leave you with this wonderful human interest story, about the oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor who was on active duty that day. He’s 104, and a couple of years ago resolved to keep himself in good enough shape to not only live to see the 75th anniversary, but to be strong enough to make the trip to Hawaii for today’s ceremonies:
http://www.nbcnews.com/widget/video-embed/825436739652

He’s two years younger than my grandfather. Grandpa kept himself in incredible shape, and didn’t pass away until a few months short of his 95th birthday, but to my knowledge never went back to Hawaii for any of the commemorations. However, I’m sure my grandfather will be there in spirit with everyone today.