Nolan Travels -- Happy trails from Lewis & Betty Nolan
Travel by Lewis & Betty Nolan
Anne Frank House
Lewis near Anne Frank House
Nolan Getaways – 2005
By LEWIS NOLAN
Somber Tour of Amsterdam’s
Anne Frank House
March 14, 2005, Monday – In Amsterdam, The Netherlands
After another excellent breakfast buffet at the Carlton Hotel (my usual bacon and ham on coarse bread with a Coke Light and for Betty fruit and pastry with coffee) we discovered that our contemplated daytrip to Brueggge, Belgium would require a train ride of about 3 hours, 35 minutes each way. The cities of the Low Countries are close together. But after checking a map and schedule taken off the Internet by an exceptionally bright and helpful desk clerk at the hotel (the young woman's home was in Chechnya, a war-torn country that was once part of the Soviet Union), we saw that it is a roundabout ride by rail from Amsterdam to the medieval town of Bruegge to the south. Had it been a straight shot, the distance would have been cut in half. We regretfully decided to scrub the excursion. It was a shame because we had heard Bruegge is very scenic and an important center for handmade lace, one of Betty’s favorite fabrics for home decoration.
We decided to regroup and consider a day trip by train to Delft, a thriving Dutch city perhaps best known for the centuries-old manufacture of its signature blue-and-white pottery. Our main event for today is a tour of the Anne Frank House, one of the most visited places in Amsterdam.
I learned that a nearby, hole-in-the-wall liquor store, which literally is dug into a Flower Market wall like a bomb shelter, is closed today. It was one of the few closed stores we saw even though the guidebooks warn that much of Amsterdam shuts down on Mondays, like in France. We made a quick visit to a huge Internet café a block or so away from the hotel and paid €1.5 for an hour’s connect time to the Internet. With a click of a mouse on the appropriate flag, customers can get their Internet service in American English, British English, German, French or Dutch. The café offers several hundred computer screens; it shares space with a sublease that sells music CDs and such.
Young people take universal Internet service for granted, which is probably a good thing. I still marvel at how rapidly such ease of communications is shrinking the planet. My grandfather was born at a time when a lot of domestic mail went by a fast horse; international mail went by a slow ship. It is a wonder how quickly and cheaply we can send and receive email to friends and family back home from just about anywhere in the world. A year ago during his MBA graduation trip to Peru, our son saw Internet cafes in remote Andean mountain villages.
We caught Tram No. 14 at a stop near our hotel and rode perhaps one mile to one of Amsterdam’s busiest areas, called "The Dam." It is where the Dutch blocked the Amstel River with a "damme" and created a small village called "Amsteldamme." Always referred to as "The Dam" but locally pronounced "dom" to rhyme with "tom", the huge square is the historic center of the old city. It is ringed with natable monuments and buildings, including the Royal Palace, and is a very busy area.
A huge ice rink was in the process of being dismantled on this day – probably because the daytime temperatures are warming well above freezing.
We briefly stepped inside a cathedral-sized, stone building known as Nieuwe Kerk, or "The New Church," for directions. It is a onetime Roman Catholic cathedral that was gutted and vandalized during a riot during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Now 600 years old, the church is where the monarchs of The Netherlands are crowned, wed and buried. (The monarch lives in Hague, which is really the capital of the country and where most government is based.)
The historic church has a tower that is 290 feet high, which served as the first sighting of home for returning sailors. It is not to be confused with the "old church," which is nearby in the Red Light District and was built a century earlier. We walked about 300 yards to an American Express office, where we cashed some checks and changed most of our dollars into Euros at about $1.35 per €1. I think the precipitous drop in the value of the dollar against European currencies (mainly to finance an unnecessary war in Iraq and to reduce the taxes of the super rich) is a disgrace.
We reboarded Tram No. 14, paid our €1.60 fares (a basic ticket is good for one hour on as many trams as you care to ride) and rode a mile or two to the stop near the Anne Frank House, one of the most visited locations in Amsterdam. It is there that Anne and her sister, Margot, and their parents plus four others hid from the Nazis for two years. They were ultimately betrayed and all but Anne’s father died in concentration camps.
The "Diary of Anne Frank" is one of the most read books ever published. It has been printed in 64 languages. The story of Anne Frank is one of the most important stories of the 20th Century. Joseph Stalin, the evil and murdering dictator of the Soviet Union, once callously said that a single death can be a tragedy but a million is only a statistic. I don’t think the human mind can comprehend the totality of the cruelty visited upon European Jews and others during the 1930s and 1940s by the Nazis. There were 6 million Jews killed. There were 20 million Russian deaths. There were hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors, Marines and untold numbers of innocent civilians killed and maimed during World War II.
The gripping story of Anne Frank is a story the mind can grasp. It is a somber reminder of the almost limitless nobility - and cruelty - the human spirit is capable of reaching.
The guidebooks say the wait to tour the house can be a long one during the peak tourist season in summer. But this being mid-March, there wasn’t much of a line. We had plenty of room to move around inside the cramped rooms of the house.
Anne’s family had lived in Frankfort, Germany, where she was born in 1929. Her father, Otto, owned a successful, international business that dealt in pectin and spice mixtures used in the preservation and canning of fruit. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Frank family decided to move to Amsterdam, which was a safe haven for Jews until Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Anti-Jewish decrees grew ever more harsh.
"Jews must wear a yellow star. Jews must hand in their bicycles. Jews are banned from streetcars. Jews may not visit Christians. Jews must go to Jewish schools," Anne, 13, wrote June 20, 1942.
With the help of several of his Dutch employees, Otto built secret living quarters in a connected annex above his warehouse and office at 265 Prinsengracht, a four-story building alongside a canal. From the street, it looks like just another multi-story townhouse, one of thousands in Amsterdam. In July 1942, the Frank family (Otto, wife Edith and daughters Anne and Margot) decided to go into hiding inside the annex rather than turn Margot over for a "work force project" in Germany.
Otto had already registered one of his non-Jewish employees as a director of his company, preventing the Germans from routinely seizing the business. He handed over the keys to his Aryan colleagues, sent a final postcard to relatives, gave the family cat to a neighbor, spread rumors the Franks were fleeing to Switzerland and prepared his family to "dive under" (onderduik as it was called) into hiding. On July 6, 1942, the Frank family put on extra clothes to avoid carrying suspicious suitcases and disappeared into the Spartan suite in the upper back part of their building. Colleague Victor Kruger concealed the annex entrance with a swinging bookcase full of business files.
A week later, Herman and August van Pels and their son, Peter, joined them. Three months later Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist and family friend, moved in. He shared Anne’s small bedroom that she decorated with movie-star pictures clipped from magazines.
The bedrooms and sitting areas of the seven-room, secret annex were sparsely furnished. There was a single bathroom serving eight people. The Delft-style commode was not flushed during the day for fear of alerting the warehouse workers beneath that people were living upstairs. The Nazis, aided by Dutch auxiliary police and informers, regularly swept through suspected hiding places to round up and deport Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were captured and sent off to camps in Germany and other Nazi-conquered lands. A book on display carefully lists each name of the 103,000 deportees, 90 percent of whom were gassed, tortured or starved to death in the camps. The mind can’t comprehend the terrible suffering of those people; they were less than 2 percent of the total who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
With the non-Jewish office staff secretly supplying those in hiding with canned foods, vegetables and other supplies, the Franks and their friends managed to live a cloistered but somewhat normal life behind drawn curtains. They never went outside. When the weather was right, they would open a hidden roof vent after dark to breath fresh air. At night, they would sometimes go downstairs into the office area and listen to a shortwave radio. Otto kept a map showing the German retreat movements after D-Day.
Days were spent quietly reading. The children studied their schoolbooks and did their lessons. Anne wrote her diary, noting in one May, 1944 entry that "my greatest wish is to be a journalist and later on, a famous writer. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex. . ."
Following are some poignant excerpts from Anne’s diary, which are taken from an excellent brochure that comes with the €7.50 admission.
"We have to whisper and tread lightly during the day, otherwise the people in the warehouse might hear us. . .We’re very afraid the neighbors might hear or see us." – July 11, 1942.
"Last night the four of us went down to the private office and listened to England on the radio, I was so scared." – July 11, 1942.
"Margot and I have declared the front office to be our bathing grounds. Since the curtains are drawn on Saturday afternoon, we scrub ourselves in the dark, while the one who isn’t in the bath looks out the window through a chink in the curtains." – Sept. 29, 1942.
"Countless friends and acquaintances have been taken off to a dreadful fate. Night after night, green and gray military vehicles cruise the streets. It’s impossible to escape their clutches until you go into hiding." – Nov. 19, 1942.
"Our own helpers have managed to pull us through so far. Never have they uttered a single word about the burden we must be." – January 28, 1944.
"As of tomorrow, we won’t have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine. Lunch today consists of mashed potatoes and picked kale. You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old!" – March 14, 1944.
"But, still, the brightest part of all is that at least I can write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate." – March 16, 1944.
"One day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we will be people again and not just Jews! We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever. We will always be Jews as well. But then, we’ll want to be." – April 9, 1944.
The hiding place was betrayed on Aug. 4, 1944. The Frank family and their friends were arrested in their refuge of 25 months and soon deported. Two of Otto’s employees who had helped keep them alive were also arrested.
Museum signage and brochures state the identity of the informant is not known. I have a tough time buying that assertion. But I think I can understand why it was made. If this former newspaperman’s suspicions are correct, there must have been a very good reason why a police record has not been found about the rat or why somebody has not come forward. There are hints within Anne’s diary that speak for themselves.
Glass cabinets throughout the annex display various Nazi documents that were later retrieved about the Frank family, their deportation and identity papers. The Germans are among the most meticulous record keepers in the world. The Jewish survivors of the concentration camps – and their descendants and relatives – have combed through German records with a vengeance for more than a half-century. With all the native intelligence, education and resources at their disposal, Jews have tracked down and brought to justice Nazi criminals in all parts of the world. It is hard for me to believe that the record could not be found that would identify the Gestapo informant that betrayed the Frank family. Maybe somebody has decided it is better than the world not know.
The family spent a brief time at a holding facility at Westerbrook, a town near Amsterdam. They were put aboard a train for the dehumanizing ride to Auschwitz, where the family was forcibly separated and the horrors worsened. Records also disclosed that there were 1,019 on the last train to leave Westerbrook (498 men, 442 women and 79 children). There were 549 helpless, human beings immediately gassed to death upon arrival. Anne and Margot were evidently young and healthy enough to be transferred to a work camp at Bergen-Belsen. Margot died first, in March 1945. A few days later, Anne died of typhus and deprivation – just two months before the camp was liberated. One of her former neighbors talked to her through a camp fence near the end and reported that the teenager "didn’t have any more tears."
Researchers have found Nazi records that reveal that all but one of the original eight who hid for over two years were gassed or died in the camps.
Hermann van Pels was gassed in Auschwitz in September or October 1944.
Fritz Pfeffer, the middle aged dentist and Anne’s resented roommate, became sick and exhausted and died Dec. 20, 1944 in Neuengame.
Edith Frank, Anne’s mother, died of disease and exhaustion Jan. 6, 1945 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
August van Pels, Hermann’s wife, was dragged from camp to camp and died sometime between April 9 and May 8, 1945, in the vicinity of Theresienstadt.
Peter van Pels, their son, died May 5, 1945 in the camp infirmary at Mathausen.
Only Otto Frank survived. He spent months traveling from camp to camp and to repositories of German records in a vain attempt to find his family. He returned to Amsterdam June 3, 1945 in desolation. A letter soon reached him that was written by a nurse at Bergen-Belsen, who said she had witnessed the death of his two daughters.
Anne’s diaries – which were written in German in three lined notebooks that have been preserved and are on display – were left behind in the Secret Annex when her family and their friends were hauled away. Two of Otto’s employees – secretary Miep Gies and office worker Bep Voskuijl – gathered up the notebooks plus 300 loose pages. Miep saved them and gave them to Otto once he got the confirming letter about the deaths of Anne and Margot.
He organized Anne’s writings and turned them into what became one of the most important books of the 20th Century. In 1979, he wrote, "I can no longer talk about how I felt when my family arrived on the train platform in Auschwitz and we were forcibly separated from each other."
The Anne Frank House has obtained much film taken by the Germans. Monitors in several of the rooms run non-stop reels showing Nazi round-ups of the Jews, transportation in the pitiful railroad box cars, camp life and camp death. Some of the footage is beyond gruesome. There are also various possessions and memorabilia of the Frank family that have been preserved, including a yellow Star of David that had to be pinned to clothing. It is a powerful but deeply troubling series of exhibits that doubtlessly leaves a great many viewers with precisely the feelings of anguish that the designers intended.
Primo Levi, a writer and survivor of Auschwitz, wrote a searing comment in 1985 about the importance of "Diary of Anne Frank." He said, "One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live." I was pleased to purchase a copy of the latest edition of the book at the Anne Frank House bookstore plus pick up several self-guiding brochures for friends back home.
After reflecting over several weeks on what we’d seen and learned in the Anne Frank House, I arrived at a deeper understanding of Jewish people and why many are so profoundly influenced by what Hollywood calls "the back story." I also have a fuller appreciation of our too-brief friendship with an older Jewish couple.
Betty and I were befriended by this couple, Sol and Erna Stern, when we moved to Memphis in the summer of 1970. They had hid out during the Holocaust and World War II in a small farming village in France because of the bravery and kindness of a French couple and their neighbors. We were neighbors of the Sterns in an apartment building at 1220 Overton Park and were privileged to hear their story.
We were a young couple then, relatively naïve about the cruelty of the world and largely ignorant of the horrors the Jews faced during the war years in Europe. I now wish we had listened closer and asked more questions of the gentle, soft-spoken Sterns.
They didn’t talk much about those terrible years and we didn’t want to pry. They did tell us they had worked as housekeepers and cooks for the family that took them in. I don’t remember from whence or how they came to that particular village or even its name. Nor do I know how they made their way to Memphis. (There is probably a record of it somewhere in the local Jewish archives.) The Sterns told us that neighbors of the couple who hid them as well as other villagers knew about the secret arrangement and alerted them to hide when German troops were in the area.
I recall Erna confiding in us that she and Sol held each other in bed and cried every night over not having children. They were the only ones in their family to survive the war. Their brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, nieces and nephews perished at the hands of the Germans. Their concealment from the Germans came during Erna’s prime fertility years. They didn’t want to risk having children – or to expose the family that sheltered them to any increased danger. Betty stayed in touch with Erna until Erna’s death. She was told that Erna and Sol had received a Germans reparations payment of about $70,000 in the late 1970s.
Betty and I also got to know two brothers who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Abe and Mike Kalmo. Their original last name was Kalmowitz, which was shortened when they came to the United States and started a business in Memphis.
Abe and Mike were outstanding tailors. Their skills saved their lives. When the Nazis learned of their expertise with a needle and thread, the teenage boys were put to work making uniforms for the camp commandant and other German officers. When not sewing, they told me, they hauled bodies of gassed Jews to the ovens. I learned about their ordeal during my occasional visits to their clothing store, Imperial Clothiers, on Union Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s.
Back in those days, I bought most of my suits and sports coats at
Imperial. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of their most important
customers was Abe Plough, a great man and founder of the giant
pharmaceutical and consumer product company where I later worked,
One day I was in the Kalmo brothers' store and mentioned that I had read in the paper that an expert on the Nazi concentration camps was about to speak at a local event or perhaps on television. Abe Kalmo, the older of the two brothers, angrily shoved up a sleeve of his shirt to reveal a telltale number tattoo on his forearm. He exclaimed that he didn’t have to listen to anybody about it because he and Mike were survivors of Dachau. Once he calmed down, he gave me a quick version of how they had survived.
The store closed in the mid-1990s and the brothers moved from Memphis, to Florida I think. Their children had all done well.
I think the horror and shame that flowed out of the camps into the world at large repressed a lot of public discussion about the plight of the Jews when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. There was a vague awareness among us non-Jewish kids of the concentration camps. But the national focus during my teen years in the 1950s (when schools in Sacramento, Calif. had regular bomb raid drills) was on the dangers posed by the Russians, the ChiComs and the ComSymps. Even a decade after World War II, many veterans wouldn’t talk about what they had seen.
I’ve read that many Jews suppressed memories and public discussions of the Nazi exterminations because of a strange feeling that their people had not fought the Nazis hard enough. That reticence changed over the years as the Jewish nation of Israel took form, the Arab world focused hatred on the new state and more and more information about the German atrocities became public. I don’t want to over-simplify a very complex dynamic about the great awakening in the West about what had really happened to the European Jews; I hope that people everywhere will look into the extensive writings and scholarship dealing with this topic.
I toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, not long after it opened in the early 1990s. I, too, experienced the emotional sledgehammer and felt a second-hand but nonetheless unfathomable grief when I learned about the unspeakably cruel murders of millions of innocent people. I believe the Nazi’s cold-blooded dehumanization and genocidal extermination of the Jews was the greatest crime perpetuated in the history of mankind. To this day I have haunting memories of two exhibits in the Holocaust Museum.
One is a multi-story gallery of photos taken by a single photography firm that worked in an obscure village in Poland that was wiped out by Nazi troops in reprisal for an act of resistance. Every man, woman and child was killed. Negatives taken by the family photography business of virtually all the 200 or so residents somehow survived. The Museum obtained the negatives and made prints of photos taken during birthdays, weddings and other family portrait occasions. They are framed in the style of the times and are mounted on the walls of a living room sized gallery that is perhaps three stories high. Staring down at Museum visitors are photos of dozens of innocent faces enjoying family togetherness during happy times of their lives. I wept.
Another exhibit that still bothers me is a modest plaque perhaps 5 feet wide by 4 feet tall. On it are inscribed the names of perhaps 4,000 non-Jews. That was the total number of gentiles in Europe that researchers determined had taken significant actions at some personal risk in order to shelter, protect or help Jews to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
I presume the names of several of Otto Frank’s employees are on the list. I was amazed and am still troubled by the widely believed myth that a great many Germans, French, Dutch and other Europeans risked their lives to hide or otherwise the Jews. With only a tiny number of exceptions, the Jews were abandoned and left all alone. It is well documented that even the Catholic Pope and the American President (FDR) failed to intervene when they could have made a difference. The French Vichy government’s cooperation with the Nazisand tolerance of the forced removal of Jews from France was a shameful abdication of responsibility that is conveniently ignored today.
Despite the nascent nastiness of the neo-Nazi movement, the German government and public have been far more proactive in accepting Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust than have other governments. Recently, a new memorial to the Holocaust opened in Berlin and a much-expanded one opened in Israel, the Yad Veshem museum. Prime Minister Sharon used the opening as a forum to rightfully shake his finger and scold the rest of the world for ignoring the plight of the Jews in their darkest hours of need.
In an earlier travelogue, I chronicled our journey of discovery along Ireland’s famine trail. The abandonment by their English masters of the Irish to death by starvation in the 19th Century has many parallels with what has happened to the Jews over the centuries. I do not believe the Irish will ever completely forget nor forgive the English for that genocidal inaction. Likewise, I do not believe Jews will ever forget nor forgive what happened to them when the world idly stood by while the Germans made them suffer and die so horribly. I’ll never forget.
I was 61 at the time of our visit to the Anne Frank House. I was a toddler during the time when her family hid in the house, were discovered and all but one died. The family’s story - as told in Anne’s book and subsequent movies and other presentations - should help keep the memory alive. I hope so.
It bothers me that the collective memory of history's dark sides often fades when the generations that lived through them die. When we visited the American cemetery overlooking Normandy’s Omaha Beach on a previous trip to Europe, we were told that not nearly as many Americans come there anymore now that the World War II generation is all but gone. The East Tennessee Park and restored home of Sgt. Alvin York, probably the greatest American hero of World War I, gets little traffic. The name Robert E. Lee has been dropped from a lot of American history books used in public schools, even in my native Southland.
Feeling somewhat shaken by what we had seen in the Anne Frank house, Betty and I rode the tram back to our hotel, where we had a takeout lunch of "broogies," Dutch for sandwiches, and Coke Light (the European name for Diet Coke). I wanted something stronger to drink. So we walked around the Rembrandt Square area of canals, shops and office buildings and found an open liquor store. I paid €13 for a bottle of medium-priced, Dutch gin. The brand was Ketell, recommended by the store proprietor.
A Dutch professor of medicine, Franciscus Sylvius, has been credited with inventing gin in the 17th Century. He distilled juniper berries with grain-based spirits to make an inexpensive medicine having the diuretic properties of juniper oil. It was called "genever," from the French word for juniper berry, "genievre." But the English improved it, to my mind, after their soldiers were exposed to the low-cost alcohol in the Low Countries, brought it home and called it gin.
Netherlands gin is made from a mash containing barley malt – augmented by juniper berries - that produces an alcohol content of about 35 percent. English and American gin is further purified to produce an alcohol content of 90 per cent or more. This is reduced by distilled water, augmented with more flavor and then distilled again to produce a dry product with an alcohol content of 40 percent (80 proof) or more. Each distiller adds a secret combination of botanical ingredients that includes juniper berries and possibly orris, angelica and licorice roots, lemon and orange peels, cassia bark, caraway, coriander, cardamom, anise and fennel.
The Commercial Appeal, the Scripps-Howard newspaper in Memphis where I worked as a reporter and editor 1969-84, put together a blind tasting panel to test gins a few years ago. Surprisingly, one of the lower priced gins – Ashby’s London Dry Gin, a product of Kentucky – out-pointed most of the expensive imports from England. It was named the best value by a wide margin. It’s what I buy when I’m in Memphis and often carry with me when I travel.
With our legs tired from all the walking the last two days, we decided to forego walking to a restaurant. We had a satisfying, takeout dinner from McDonald’s across the street from the Carlton Hotel. The chicken Caesar salad was much better than those served at home. It cost more but the portions were larger.
- Written May 5, 2005, ironically a Holocaust Remembrance Day
Slow Day at Old Waverly Golf Course
March 25, 2005 – To Old Waverly Golf Club at West Point, Miss.
I rode with my best golfing buddy, Curtis Downs, in his car for the 150-mile drive from Memphis to West Point, Miss., to play golf at the fabulous Old Waverly Golf Club, which is rated one of the top 100 courses in the U.S. and is a regionally celebrated, private club where both of us have been members for a decade or more. Unfortunately, my stomach was upset and we had to make several bathroom stops during the drive and while on the course.
Despite taking eight Pepto-Bismol tablets and a couple of shots of gin, I was miserable the whole day. Worse, the course was soggy and slow from heavy rainfall earlier. Even though we were among the few golfers out, the round lasted 4.5 hours – about 1 ½ hours longer than normal. I hit a few decent drives. My irons were erratic. My putting was okay, but I missed several shots by a half inch or so, in part due to the wetness of the greens making for some slightly bumpy conditions. Through the front 9, my score stood at an awful 51. Curtis was playing pretty well, shooting a 47 on the front 9 and a 43 on the back side. Despite the lack of ball roll due to the wetness of the fairways, he was driving very well and hit quite a few very long shots. Due to my stomach distress and poor shooting, I gave it up after the 17th hole, in a rare abandonment of a round.
I skipped our customary dinner in the clubhouse after the round and I took in some more gin and a tablet or two of Vicodin pain reliever, which somewhat eased my stomach distress. A lesson learned on this long and unsatisfying day was that in the future, when faced with stomach distress I should move the golfing venue to Galloway Golf Course near my home rather than "tough it out" with the long drive to Old Waverly.
None the less, I enjoyed the conversations with Curtis during the long drive. It was the first time the two of us had played since last Thanksgiving when we both took our wives for a long weekend getaway in Tubac, Ariz.
Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity reunion in Lodi, CA
March 31 - To Sacramento and Lodi, CA
I got out of bed in my Memphis home at 3 a.m. to give me plenty of time to eat some breakfast and make it to the Memphis International Airport for the 5:30 a.m. Delta flight to Sacramento, Calif., my boyhood home. I wanted to visit my two younger brothers, Patrick Thomas Nolan and William Ray Nolan, see a few old friends and attend a reunion of my college fraternity. My first of several colleges and universities I attended was Sacramento State College (since renamed California State University at Sacramento).
While at Sac State I was an enthusiastic and rowdy member of the campus "jock house" fraternity, the Gamma Nu Chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi. The chapter is now defunct, having been booted off campus for engaging in a food fight in the lunchroom in the late 1960s – long after I was gone. I was one of several members of the college’s swimming team who were members in the early 1960s but we were a small minority compared to the several dozen football players, track team members and other athletes. I had transferred to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), then to East Central Junior College in Decatur, Miss., and finally to Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss., while my fraternity brothers soldiered on at Sac State.
In preparation for the fraternity reunion after many years of absence, I had been working with other onetime brothers for months. A website I developed based on much information supplied by guys now in their late 50s and early 60s (update3030/siggyraider.html) contained a lot of updates on the brothers and information about the reunion.
I was driven to the airport in the pre-dawn hours by my wife, Betty. Our pet greyhound, Dickens, rode on the back of the station wagon. We arrived about 4:30 a.m. and quickly learned that my Delta flight had been cancelled due to bad weather in Atlanta. This was a helluva way to start I trip I had really been looking forward to since I had not seen my fraternity brothers in decades and I was excited about the prospects of sharing my successes with them and hearing about theirs. Making it worse was the fact that I was planning on flying for free due to frequent flyer miles accumulated at Delta’s codeshare partner, Northwest.
Delta tried to oblige and booked me on a better schedule than Northwest had available, which connected to an American flight through Dallas. So Betty left me at the airport so she could go on to her school, Northwest High School where she teaches Culinary Arts. I waited for three hours for my flights to Dallas and Sacramento, but at least I had an aisle seats on exit rows and the extra leg room such affords.
I picked up an Avis rental car at the Sacramento airport and drove to a Larkspur Hotel suite by 1 p.m. It was a nice place at 555 Howe just off Fair Oaks Blvd. (an extension of the capitol city’s "J" Street thoroughfare, a mile or two from Sac State by the American River. I stopped a grocery store and bought a dozen red roses to place of the graves of my mother, Garnett Elizabeth Nolan, my brother Bill’s late wife, Anna, and at the crypt of my dear friend and fraternity brother Peter Lenhart Siller, who was killed in Vietnam while serving the U.S. Marine Corps. All are interred at East Lawn Cemetery, about two blocks from my late mother’s home at 1517 41 Street where I did most of my growing up.
It had been seven years since my last visit to the cemetery, when I attended the funeral of Anna.
I noted while visiting Pete’s crypt that his mother (who died in 2001) and his father (who died in 2004) had been interred adjacent to the fallen Marine. It was a very sad moment for me and somberness engulfed me as I drove around the old Nolan family neighborhood. I stopped to take some pictures at 1517 41st Street, at the rebuilt David Lubin Elementary and Kit Carson Junior High (now called Middle) Schools, at Sac State campus, Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, the old Crockett Dance Studio (the now closed place where I took dancing lessons), McKinley Park, McKinley Library, the site of the old Sacramento County Hospital (where my late father served as Pathologist and I used to hang out) and the onetime homes of classmates Pete Siller and Bob Zanders.
I suppose the wistful feelings of what was and perhaps what might have been that washed over me during my revisit to the bittersweet days of my youth are fairly common among people like me whose fortunes have taken them far from their homegrounds of their youth. I think I got out when the getting was good for me and am grateful for my great marriage to a truly wonderful woman, Betty, and the extraordinary prospects of our terrific son, Casey. The successes I’ve enjoyed in life give me much satisfaction and I have no regrets, but returning to my old haunts at least gave me the opportunity for self-assessment and some useful introspection.
It pleased me to see that the old Nolan family home on 41st Street has a new shake roof and sidewalk in the front yard around a huge American Plains tree that I used to climb. The door on the big garage at the rear of the property has been replaced and some bricks have been put down on a patio face the street. The tudor-style timbers embedded in the stucco are now painted tan rather than black and the home where I lived from the early 1950s until I went away to college looks very nice.
A young woman who lives there said the going price for a house such as it in the neighborhood is $700,000 and up. My brothers and I sold the two-story, four-bedroom, two-bath house for $150,000 in 1984, after our mother died.
That evening, I enjoyed dinner with my brother Pat at the Monterey Bay Canners, a restaurant near the hotel, likely a sister to the place where I ate with Betty and my old friend Bob Reid when in Sacramento some years ago. I had some very good mahi-mahi.
On Friday, April 1, I had a light workout in the hotel’s fitness center, which was fairly well equipped. I walked for a mile and cycled for 5 miles and did a little work with weights before driving around some old haunts before checking out of the hotel. I drove about 45 miles south to Lodi, Calif., home of several of my onetime college fraternity brothers and heart of the biggest wine producing area in the U.S. It’s not well known for it, but it produces more wine than the combined production of Napa and Sonoma Counties. I checked into Lodi’s Comfort Inn and had a comfortable room upstairs.
Driving thru Dixie
July 1 - 15
We had long wanted to visit Savannah, Georgia, one of the crown jewels of the Deep South, even before we saw the movie, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, sparked a landslide in tourism and a boom in business to support it. The movie is a dramatized version of a true story based on the best-selling book by the same name. The book by John Berendt was published in 1994. I read the book but think the movie is more entertaining.
Much of the action and drama in both the book and movie occurs in a grand home called Mercer House. The home was built in 1860 by the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer. The movie about a wealthy art dealer’s mysterious killing of his homosexual companion made Mercer House one of the most visited places in the city’s Historic District.
Fodor’s guidebook says Savannah is four hours southeast of Atlanta, but a world away that is "wrapped in a mantle of Old World grace. Established in 1733, the city preserves its heritage in a 2 ½-square-mile Historic District, the nation’s largest urban landmark. Here 1,000 structures have been restored, and families still live in the 19th Century mansions and town houses."
The historic district is laid out on a grid pattern. Victorian-era homes surround most of Savannah’s 24 "squares," each a park-like area 75 yards or more in both length and width. Massive oak trees shade the squares. The squares also contain hundreds of azaleas and other shrubs, walkways and inviting park benches. In the center of each is either a fountain or a historic monument. We were reminded of our walks through residential sections of Paris.
The squares make wonderful venues for relaxing, people watching and chatting with neighbors. However, they make it all but impossible to drive in a straight line through the Historic District. Many of the streets are one way so traffic has to wind around the squares in British roundabout fashion.
The squares make Savannah’s Historic District a visual delight and offer a civilized lifestyle reminiscent of European cities even if the traffic flow is quite slow and inefficient. It is obvious that residents are happy with the tradeoff. Demand for housing in the district has sent real estate prices and rents into the stratosphere.
We stayed for two nights at the 1895 Inn, an establishment rated by Trip Advisor as Savannah’s most popular B&B. We agree with the Internet service’s accolade. Betty and I thought it the nicest B&B that we had ever visited.
The proprietors are Ed Bryant and Bob Ray, who like to entertain and
who wanted a place to display their collections of antiques and art. They live on the ground floor of the Queen Ann style, Victorian home
1895 Inn exterior they purchased several years ago.
The first floor contains an elegant dining room, a comfortable living room and a modern kitchen. The two floors above have a total of four spacious and lavishly furnished guest rooms (each with a huge bathroom that includes a shower/tub big enough for an NBA player). Also upstairs is a guest lounge/study equipped with leather couches, a library of books and DVDs, large screen TV and a refrigerator stocked with complimentary soft drinks.
The 1895 Inn is at 126 East Oglethorpe Avenue, one of the main streets through the Historic District. A wide median strip holds towering Live Oaks and azalea beds and separates the traffic lanes. The inn is a short walk from downtown shopping, dining, tour locations and entertainment. Among our fellow guests were two women who had flown in from Texas and did not think it necessary to rent a car for their weeklong stay.
We arrived about 4 p.m. and were immediately checked into the "Sovereign Room" by our charming host, Ed. His partner, Bob, was out of town. Our third-floor room has a queen-size, four-poster bed with an oh-so-comfortable mattress 12 inches thick. The room is equipped with a TV and DVD player, which we took advantage of to re-watch one of the library’s two copies of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Complimentary wine and cheese is served to guests from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the living room. We took advantage of the hospitality hour on both nights of our stay. Getting to know Ed and our fellow guests and hearing about one another’s adventures of the day was most enjoyable.
We followed Ed’s suggestion and walked two or three blocks to the Six Pence Pub near Chippewa Square (which commemorates the bravery of American troops in a War of 1812 battle). We had a light supper of sandwiches and salad at the English-themed restaurant, which served one of my favorite beverages - Harp beer on tap from Ireland.
Later, Betty enjoyed some of the complimentary tray of freshly baked deserts that Bob sets out nightly in the lounge/study.
July 13, 2005, Wednesday – In Savannah
Ed took over partner Bob’s customary cooking responsibilities and prepared and served a gourmet breakfast at 9 a.m. It was served on English bone china, fine crystal and one of several sets of sterling silverware they own. The meal included an apple/blueberry dish; blueberry French toast (looks like bread pudding and was so good that Betty got the recipe); fruit cups; juices and a big plate of bacon.
Forewarned that the 1895 Inn does not serve bread with the meal, I had purchased a bagel the previous night at the nearby Parker’s Gourmet Quick Stop and 24-hour BP station. That name is for real. It’s a locally celebrated hotspot that sells a full range of delicacies from the deli staffed around the clock. It also offers fancy packaged foods at fancy prices plus The New York Times and other things targeted to the Historic District’s upscale residents and tourists.
Betty loved the fruits and sweet dishes that Ed served for breakfast. Trying not to stray too far from my low-carb eating regime since
going on the Atkins diet two years ago, I stuck to the bacon and my carry-in Bagel. Afterwards, Betty poked around the beautiful neighborhood that includes the nearby Colonial Park Cemetery, which dates to 1750 and is the final resting place of one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence. I stayed back to contact the property and rental managers for our condo in Gulf Shores, Ala. Happily, I learned that our place had received only a glancing blow from Hurricane Dennis, which slammed the beach town of Santa Rosa, Fla., near Pensacola. I was told our condo development had a small storm surge that left about 11 inches of sand in the parking areas under the buildings plus the front swimming pool. Compared to the near total ruin of our condo’s interior that we sustained Sept. 16, 2004, that’s just a nick.
We are relieved that our plans to spend the first week of August in Gulf Shores have not been interrupted – yet. We were there for a week in June, working like beavers to get the place refurbished and back in top condition following the devastation of Hurricane Ivan last year. We want the upcoming visit to be one of relaxation, not work. But never far from our thoughts is the expensively learned awareness that Hurricane season on the Gulf of Mexico is just getting started.
We drove Mustang Sally a few blocks to Forsythe Park, the 20-acre, southern anchor of the Historic District. It is noted for a century-old, magnificent fountain carved of white marble. Its powerful water jets shoot sprays and columns in every direction. Another feature of the park is a fragrant garden. Unfortunately, the city had to enclose the special planting area with decorative, wrought iron bars to keep vagrants from turning it into a campsite. Similar treatment was given to the park’s restroom facilities. Evidently the homeless are attracted to Savannah because of its favorable climate and the hordes of tourists that sometimes are easy touches for a handout.
Nonetheless, it is obvious that Forsythe Park is a popular location for wedding photography, for painters and for people of all descriptions who enjoy sitting on a park bench to read and contemplate the lush beauty of Savannah. The park is also the site of a soaring monument to the Confederacy and two of its heroes, Generals Lafayette McLaws and Francis Bartow.
Savannah was spared torching by Union General Sherman because the Southern city gracefully and wisely surrendered in the face of overwhelming force.
The Green-Meldrim House - about five blocks from Forsythe Park - served as Sherman’s headquarters during his "March To The Sea." Sherman’s troops burned, plundered, robbed and raped their way through Georgia in probably the most barbaric assault ever conducted on American soil. It is bitterly remembered in Georgia and other southern states. Today, the Green-Meldrim house serves as rectory to the adjacent St. John’s Episcopal Church. It faces Madison Square, named for President James Madison.
A short distance from Forsythe Park is Monterey Square (named for the capture of the city by General Zachary Taylor during the war with Mexico) and the famous/infamous Mercer House that faces it. Much of the "Midnight. . ." movie was shot in and around this location. We demurred on paying $12 to enter the house just to see the parlor, movie or not. We did enter the gift shop located in the Mercer House’s carriage house immediately to the rear. We were surprised at the paucity of merchandise, given the numbers of people attracted to Savannah by the movie. A clerk professed not to know what the offered price of the house was before it was recently withdrawn from the market.
A half-size, fiberglass replica of the bronze "Bird Girl Statue" is priced at $399. Similar replicas of differing sizes – presumably sold under license from the statue’s creator – are available at several tourist shops around town. Betty and I have not one, but two fairly crude, concrete "knockoffs" of Bird Girl at home. One is in the back yard and is used to feed breadcrumbs to the birds and squirrels. The other is in a flowerbed in our front driveway where a white oak once stood until Hurricane Elvis brought it crashing down in August 2003.
We drove Sally to the northern anchor of the Historic District, the touristy River Walk along the Savannah River. We parked in a high-rise garage and walked to busy Commercial Street, which seems to be the main drag of downtown. It is lined on both sides by offices, banks and retail stores. One of the neat, old buildings on the street once housed the Cotton Exchange, which set worldwide prices in the 19th Century until the Memphis Cotton Exchange ascended with more trading and pricing for the spot market. Also on Commercial is a set of cannons of incalculable value that were used by General Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Just a few steps off Commercial Street is an elevator that takes visitors from the busy sidewalk on the river bluff down a steep grade to the brick walkway below. However, the elevator was out of service on this day so we
had to gingerly descend perhaps three stories of uneven, stone stairs. The walkway is broad and nicely landscaped. Shops, restaurants and bars are on the town side. Several hundred yards of wharf are on the river side. Tied up are various tour boats, yachts and working boats. It is quite picturesque.
Our host at the 1895 Inn had recommended that we have seafood at River House. He also suggested we be on the lookout for a sidewalk shill and take advantage of the offered two-for-one coupons for lunch specials. We did and the very large portions were excellent. I had crab cakes and Betty had a shrimp and oyster combo. Being in the air-conditioned restaurant for a leisurely meal was a welcome escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of Savannah in July.
Despite the beauty and charm of the Historic District, walking around during the sweltering daytime was no fun. We decided we’d had enough heat. We reclaimed Sally, cranked up the AC and drove a few blocks to the Telfair Museum of Art, an unheralded gem.
Savannah’s famous hospitality was on display by the Telfair entrance. A polite security guard was watching over a half-dozen or so free, reserved parking spaces in a shady area just a few steps from the door. Admission was $12 each. The tightness of our schedule precluded purchase - for an additional $4 – of admission tickets to the Owens-Thomas House Museum, which came highly recommended by our host at the 1895 Inn.
The Telfair claims it is the oldest art museum open to the public in the U.S. The mansion that houses it was built in 1818-19 for Alexander Telfair, son of Georgia Gov. Edward Telfair. It was a family home until 1875, when the last Telfair bequeathed it to the Georgia Historical Society. It has been an art museum since 1886.
Even before the hotness of the day made a visit to the coolness of an art museum so attractive, we had wanted to visit the Telfair. It has been entrusted with the display of the "Bird Girl" statue, a cemetery artwork made famous by the "Midnight . . ." movie. Officials at Bonaventure Cemetery feared the sculpture would be stolen. The original, bronze depiction of a slender young woman holding two shallow dishes is about four feet tall. It had decorated a tomb for more than 60 years, largely unnoticed until the movie made it famous. Now, the coveted statue is under the watchful eye of a museum guard, who enforces the "no photography" rule.
"Bird Girl" now appears on copies of paintings, official photos, book covers, movie memorabilia, refrigerator magnets and other
merchandise sold at Savannah’s tourist shops. I was reminded of the Elvis souvenirs sold in Memphis.
The Telfair offers visitors much, much more than "Bird Girl." It has an impressive collection of second tier paintings by first tier, American artists of the 19th Century including George Bellows and a smattering of celebrated European painters of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The art is handsomely displayed in ornate rooms with highly polished wooden floors. The Telfair is well worth a visit of an hour or two, a welcome alternative to the huge museums that can turn a visit into an endurance contest.
Oddly, the Telfair has no snack facilities, cold drink machines or even drinking fountains. But a gracious lady at the reception desk made us feel most welcome. She pointed out a floor AC vent that blew out a delightfully cool stream of air and gave directions to a shop across the street that sells bottled water. She proved to be a great source of local history and urged us to come back to Savannah in April to see the city blazing with azalea blooms.
During our visit, there was a glorious, temporary exhibition of Depression era art by American painters. I found it to be one of the most powerful traveling shows I have ever seen – evocative of the societal divide between the "have-a-lots" and the "have-nothings." I fear our country has rapidly moved back toward that grand division in recent years, as taxes have been cut for the ultra rich even as government services have been cut for the most needy. Aggravating that dysfunction of fair play have been stratospheric increases in executive pay at major corporations even as workers have fallen farther and farther behind in inflation-adjusted income.
Several dozen paintings from the Schoen Collection in Miami were loaned to the Telfair for this exhibition. They superbly capture the pain, the hopelessness and the bottomless agony of poverty, deprivation and abuse suffered by millions of Americans in the 1930s. I don’t recall seeing any signage naming any Fortune 500 companies as sponsors of the traveling show.
It was near closing time so we repaired to the 1895 Inn to enjoy some Chardonnay and cheese with Ed and several guests. After the huge lunch we had at the River Place Restaurant, we were content to wait out a horrific thunderstorm in our room during dinnertime. The street below our window was covered by four-to-six inches of flowing rainwater.
About 7:30 p.m., the rain let up so we walked back to the Six Pence Pub. I had a bowl of good clam chowder with half a tuna sandwich.
Betty went for onion soup with half a corned beef sandwich. We stopped at Parker’s Gourmet Quick Stop and BP Station on the way back to the I895 Inn, where I bought some sliced ham and a small loaf of delicious, seven-grain bread for the next day’s lunch on the road.
We had no sooner gotten back than another deluge accompanied by thunder and lighting re-flooded the streets. Two of our fellow guests had gotten drenched while taking a "ghosts of Savannah" tour in a hearse with an open roof. At least they got their money back.
July 14, 2005, Thursday – To Memphis
With his partner Bob still out of town, Ed cooked another gourmet breakfast. Using a Dutch oven, he fried red potatoes that had been cubed, using olive oil. He seasoned the potatoes with salt and pepper only. They were delish. Also served were several sweet dishes that Betty enjoyed, lots of fruit and a big plate of bacon
We filled our drink coolers with ice from the inn’s big refrigerator and hit the road at 10 a.m. We at first thought we would stop for the night somewhere in Middle Tennessee. But driving conditions were excellent and we pushed it all the way to Memphis in 10 ½ hours. By ignoring the most direct route on secondary roads, we added a great many miles to our trip but were able to travel at speeds over 70 mph almost all the way. We stuck completely to the Interstate highway route through Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and finally Memphis.
(Postscript: We were relieved that our condo at Gulf Shores Ala., was spared from the damaging winds and storm surges of Hurricane Dennis plus a tropical storm that had us nervous the whole trip. Two weeks after our return home, we loaded up one of our station wagons and our pet greyhound, Dickens, and drove to Gulf Shores. We spent a week there in early August 2005 putting the final touches on the near complete renovation and refurnishing of the unit. The restoration was required following the near ruin of the interior on Sept. 16, 2004 when Hurricane Ivan peeled off the roof and the place was flooded by rainwater.
(Well, déjà vu came around again on Aug. 29, 2005 when Ivan’s murderous cousin, Hurricane Katrina peeled our roof again and opened the interior to widespread water damage. We are thankful that our losses can be re-repaired, unlike the tens of thousands of residents of New Orleans and coastal areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana who lost everything and in some cases their lives.)
Continue with Getaways 2004 - Nova Scotia, St. Louis, Arizona, Mexico