Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Voice of Wisdom on Investment Property

That's the new roof on the garage of our lovely rental home in Washington State. Looks great doesn't it? Yea, but there is this problem ...

My friend Lisa has a very intelligent father who has been in the business of developing property his entire life. And Fred is about to turn 91 in October, his entire life has encompassed a great deal. When Lisa told him the on-going fantastic tales of the trials my sister and I have been having with our slums, I mean, our rental property in the Great Northwest, like the Great Buddha, Fred spoke one maxim: "Never own investment property more than an hour's drive from your house."

In our last episode of our Adventures of The Rental Property That Ate Our Savings, my sister and I had fired the property manager whom we felt had been ripping off our father for twenty years. That was even before we saw the disreputable state into which the property had fallen.

In August, we flew to Pine Cone City to meet the new manager we had hired, both almost had heart attacks when we saw the property. Recovered and began to hire people to make the appropriate repairs and flew home, feeling we were on our way to new heights of safe, sane, fair, responsible and intelligent landlordship.


Our new manager just arranged for us to put a new roof on one of the houses, where it appeared the roof on the garage and the house might collapse with the first heavy snow up there. (And it snows up there very heavily each winter.) And instead of making things better, we have already made them worse! Our manager, as luck would have it, hired an unlicensed contractor, who installed an illegal roof without a permit!

I know this, because the inspector from Pine Cone City just called me and said if we didn't make things right we would be subject to fines and probably be sent to prison for life.

I called my sister and conceded defeat.

"How would you feel about calling a realtor and putting these turkeys up for sale?" I asked, knowing how pathetic the sales prospects are in this horrible market.

"I was hoping you would say that," she said. "How soon can we start?"

The moral of our story is that the "property management business" seems to be a euphemism for "stealing money from people who own investment property more than an hour's drive from their homes."

Finding an honest property manager is apparently even harder than finding an honest politician, or an ethical investment banker. Or a Republican journalist.

So I just want you to know that I can make you a very good deal on two lovely, but slightly derelict homes in Pine Cone City, Washington. Fixer-uppers. Handyman specials. All discounts apply. Owners must sell because they are having nervous breakdowns.

Gotta go. Police are at the door with a Code Enforcement Warrant ...

But your honor, how was I to know the Fly-By-Night Roofing Co. had a bad reputation?

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dad's Final Return to Ascension

British soldiers (you can tell by the knee socks and Sam Browne belts) pose at the Command Hill building, October 1943, built by the "friendly invasion" of Americans on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic. Ascension is a British Overseas Territory, but the airfield built there during the war by the Americans continues to be a USAF base. So it was always an interesting collaboration by these two allies, divided, as they were, by a common language.

Today is a wonderful day. The box I shipped of my father's files and papers, scrapbooks, letters, drafts of the many articles he wrote and photographs of his return visits to Wideawake Field, have arrived safely on Ascension Island, whence they were betaken in the weekly USAF flight from Patrick AFB in Florida.

The people on Ascension, that little spot in the South Atlantic between South American and Africa, who are working to preserve the island's World War II Heritage Sites, wrote me a wonderful email which I received this morning:

"Hi Robin,

We received the box yesterday on the plane! Mike, an American who works here on the base (for the last 40 years!) and is very
interested in the WWII history, helped me open it. Thank you so much--there is so much in it!

It is going to take a while to catalogue it all but it is going to be a terrific addition to our collections. Mike remembers meeting your father in 1988 when he was here [on Ascension] for the Command Hill reopening. Those pictures are great as well. I've been looking for some photos to do a display for our exhibit on that & the 1990's visit.

We do have Duff Hart-Davis' book [Ascension: The Story of a South Atlantic Island, Doubleday 1973]. I did notice on our quick look-through yesterday the correspondence between your dad & Mr. Hart-Davis.

I hadn't put two and two together to realize that the "Chapman" pictures in the museum were your father's. I'm thinking that when we do the Heritage board for Wideawake Field that we will try to use your dad's pictures for the most part. It just seems fitting. The pictures are the first part of the collection that we are going to sort through for this reason. And I have loads of reading to do!

Let me know when you get the booklets about the heritage sites: they went out on this morning's aircraft. I hope you get a good idea of the heritage boards we are creating from the booklets I sent.

Thanks again for remembering about us when sorting through your father's cherished possessions.

Take care,


My father in 1984, in front of the Command Hill building after it had taken forty years of battering in the South Atlantic. It was made of cinder blocks the Americans produced on site (lots of cinders on a volcanic island.) The roof tiles came from Brazil.

This is the Command Hill building on Ascension in 1988, when my father returned again for the re-dedication of the newly rehabilitated structure. These are the kinds of photos, that will help historians in the future as they write their works on the Allied effort in WW II.

Dad at the Command Hill re-dedication. Mom was with him this time and the event was official so that's why he's wearing a tie and looking so spiffy.

It is so much fun for me to have found a use for all this stored up energy my father expended on this fascinating chapter in his life-- that none of us had shared with him. Most of us in the family, me included, had grown weary of the tales of this place that we hadn't visited and the charm of which we couldn't quite grasp.

When he died I gathered up the detritus of this huge effort he had made over the years to write about this place t, correspond with his friends who had been there with him, write articles about his adventures there, collect photos, etc. and I stuffed it all in a box because I couldn't bear to deal with it. At that point, I found myself angry, and wishing he had spent half as much time thinking about me, his daughter, as he had about this stupid island.

Of course, what I was really angry about is that he had died.

As the months have passed I have begun anew to see how interesting this experience was for him, and see it through the eyes of the 21-year-old kid he was when he arrived there. Islands always have a magical attraction for people, and thus it was for Dad and Ascension.

And when I decided to contact the people on Ascension at the US AFB there, all the angst I had felt about his passion for a place I had never much cared about fell from my shoulders. The Heritage Society on Ascension could use his papers! My father's love for the island could live on in the history archives of this strange and wonderful place--so essential during World War II, but, for him, such a lucky assignment, because no battles were ever fought there.

The most dangerous things about the island were two: it was so remote, the American fliers had to hit it or forget it, because if they missed it, they were done for, as there was no other land for thousands of miles. "Miss Ascension, and your wife gets a pension," was the black humor of the day from navigators who worked without GPS.

The other dangerous thing almost took my father's life: the sea. Ascension experiences what are known as "rollers"--a long series of giant waves that just pop up out of nowhere--and swimming off the beach there can be dangerous. He didn't know this and went for a swim one day and the rollers came in, slammed him on the beach and dragged him back out to sea repeatedly until he became exhausted and couldn't fight it anymore. His friends saw he was in trouble, and linked arms in a human chain and he finally caught the arm of the last one and was pulled from the sea exhausted.

In any case, now my father's things are making their own final journey to the island he loved. Having done my own historical research for various projects I know how much they will help someone some day. They were doing nothing sitting in a closet. Dad's joy and engineer's fascination with a successful project will now be shared. His young man's dreams have gone back to Ascension Island. I think that's a terrific outcome for everyone.

(By the way, I have repeatedly tried to find Ascension on Google Earth, and Google Maps and was not successful with "Ascension Island, South Atlantic" or "Wideawake Field" or "South Atlantic British Overseas Territory" but I finally found the key: you have to type in "Royal Air Force Base, Ascension Island" and Google Earth will know what you're talking about. I thought it was a USAFB, but anyway, that's what works with Google, in case you want to look for this obscure little place.)

Wideawake Field, under construction in 1942. To me this looks like a big bunch of dirt, going near which would require me to shower and re-do my hair. But to my father it was engineering and as such an absolute barrel of fun.

Click Here to View the Ascension Island Web Site

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Monday, September 27, 2010

When Red Wind Comes to California

A movie poster from one of Raymond Chandler's best-known detective stories. It has an incomprehensible plot, but who cares?

California has had a cool summer, weatherwise, which has been a lovely thing. It has been sunny and bright, but the thermometer has rarely gone above 80 ℉ degrees.

Now that we've passed the autumnal equinox, the heat has arrived. (Editor's note: I just spoke to my friend Phyllis in Santa Monica where on 7/28/10 the thermometer rose to 111 ℉, so I'm feeling kind of lucky not to live there!) In Southern California, when I went to school down there, I learned that such weather is called the Santa Ana winds. The name likely comes from the fact that when it is especially hot on the coast, it means the hot, dry, wind is blowing over the Santa Ana mountains from the California desert. But, some believe that instead, this is simply a mispronunciation of the murmurings of our original Spanish settlers, who were saying "santana" winds, which meaning winds from the devil.

I prefer the latter. And so must have the writer Raymond Chandler, who, in 1946, wrote one of his best stories about murder and mayhem in Los Angeles in the heat and titled it Red Wind.

In this story's opening lines he sets the scene: "It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curls your hair and makes your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Chandler was a wonderful writer and a bit of a strange duck. A product of the English public school system who wore a tie when he sat at his typewriter, he found his life's work writing hard-boiled detective fiction in America. He also drank to excess and managed to work in a few screenplays between books and binges, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951), the last for Alfred Hitchcock. In addition, lots of his stories have been made into films, including The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, Murder My Sweet, the Lady in the Lake, and the Long Goodbye, many of them featuring his private eye, Philip Marlowe.

He was known for collecting metaphors and similes in a notebook, and then sprinkling them throughout his stories. Nowadays, so many mystery writers have copied him that this style has become a cliche, but Chandler started the whole thing. "The kid's face had as much expression as a cut of round steak." (Red Wind) "He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck." (Farewell My Lovely) "She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don't care much for kittens." (The Lady in the Lake) "Soundless as shadows on grass." (Farewell My Lovely)

I often think of the story Red Wind when it gets hot in California. None of his story is literally true to life, but it feels as if it ought to be. And that is what great writers bring to us.

The story also involves a lost aviator and a missing string of pearls and lots of fights. No matter what the weather or location its a good story to sit outside and read on a summer night under the light of the moon, just for fun.

And don't feel too sorry for us when the devil winds hit California. It is supposed to be 90 ℉ degrees today but just now, at 10:30 a.m., it is 73 ℉ and I'm sitting outside with my MacBook as I write. And the low last night was 52 ℉. Much too cool to tempt me to look from a carving knife to my (ex) husband's neck. For the moment.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on Electric Cars

When Henry Ford built the Model A like this one, he built it to run on the petroleum that was in abundance in America at the time, and was a fuel that was convenient to deliver to and use in cars. Something will probably replace the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine. But what? This car, by the way, once belonged to the novelist Irving Bacheller, and was restored by my friend Ken Kraft. The photo was taken by my friend Thad Seymour, in Winter Park, Florida. Wasn't the rumble seat a cool idea?

Is there an engineer out there who can help me? I need someone who knows how to draw up a nice big fat equation.

If everyone in America with a vehicle run by an internal combustion engine, suddenly took it to a junk heap and bought an electric vehicle, where would all the power come from to run all these new millions of electric cars? How much wattage would it take?

We have coal fired power plants, and oil fired power plants, and out here in the West we have some hydro power from dams. Not one of these kinds of power plants creates power without some kind of environmental impact and many people oppose building more of them.

Nuclear power, which is the cleanest form of power we can produce (that's debatable I know, but let's say it is the cleanest to the air you breathe) is no longer a factor in the U.S. It takes years and years and years to get a nuclear plant approved and constructed and billions and billions and billions of dollars, and none are in the pipeline that I know of, in spite of President Obama's guarantee of more than $8 billion dollars to jump start the process. We could debate why this happened (I think we can blame a confluence of factors from Jane Fonda to the environmental movement's confusion of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons: but that, as they says, is another story.)

The point is, we are where we are with regard to power plants in the U.S. Thus, I would very much like to know where all this electric power is going to come from to operate all these wonderful electric cars we are supposed to drop everything and design-build-drive, and how the power generation it will take to do this will impact: 1) the air we breathe; 2) the surrounding environment; 3) the electric bills we pay, which are already quite high; and 4) the power grid, which is already working at pretty close to capacity.

Has anyone thought of this, of is it just me? I mean, sometimes in the East, when the summer is really hot and everyone is running his air conditioner, they have rolling brown-outs. How will the grid handle all these cars charging all the time? Power isn't generated out of the air, unless you have a wind farm and the one on the hills just above San Francisco Bay would, as I understand it, charge up about one car.

It would seem someone who knows how to do these kinds of equations could take the number of cars in the U.S., take the number of miles driven by those vehicles, and take the comparable electrical needs of one electric-car-mile, and figure out how many more kilowatt hours of electricity we are going to need to power the vehicles of 300 million Americans, and where oh where we are going to get it.

But these are just my thoughts this morning, on reading Tom Friedman's latest column about how far behind the Chinese we are in the development of the electric car. I'm always amused when he compares us unfavorably to China, a nation run by dictators who throw anyone who disagrees with them in prison; with a nation like China which is so polluted, Olympic athletes going to Beijing had to bring their own oxygen; with China, whose rivers are so filled with sewage that diners visiting China regularly return home with hepatitis.

China is a nation with no environmental laws, no labor laws, no minimum wage, no OSHA laws, and health care that would not meet our minimum standards. Comparisons between the U.S. and China are ludicrous. We could certainly "compete" on any level with China if we wanted to be like China, which thank goodness we do not.

So, I hope someone out there will help me with this equation I need. How many more power plants would it take? And how long would we have to wait to bring them online? So that each of us could then be patient enough to wait around for our cars to charge up so we can drive another 100 miles and wait all over again.

This s why Henry Ford tossed out the electric car idea a hundred years ago. It wasn't practical. And it isn't practical now.

I have a niece who has a hybrid vehicle and some very good friends who have one too and the idea behind the hybrid is fantastic. The hybrid takes the convenience of petroleum power and stretches it further by having the vehicle charge its own battery, which is then used to get the maximum miles out of one gallon of gas. Ingenious. Not one extra power plant needs to be built for this and each hybrid on the road reduces vehicle emissions by a measurable amount.

You can always save fuel by motorcycling. But ever since my friend Steve almost died on one of these things I am not as fond of them as I used to be.

I believe it will be just such an innovative idea that will lead to the next advancement in the mass-produced personal vehicle. Not an idea from the past. But an idea for the future. And where do really good ideas come from? They come from places where they have always come from: places where a free market rewards creativity and encourages the free exchange of ideas. This would not be China.

And if you don't believe me, just picture everyone on your street, in your town, in your state, in your nation, on this planet, arriving home one evening and plugging in their automobiles simultaneously on the first full evening of electric-vehicle-commonality. The sound you will hear will be the sound of this planet's power grid crashing, a sound that will make traffic noise in Rawalpindi sound like music to the ears.

Click here for a good piece about what killed nuclear power in America

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Four Poster Bedroom Takes on New Hue

We've only finished the first coat, and the closet doors haven't been painted yet, but it appears Behr Paint's "French Castle" is going to be a tidy neutral background for the fabrics, art, and furniture I plan to add to the sunny room.

Living as I do, with a used furniture and knickknack store in my garage, I won't have to do any shopping to accessorize the Four Poster room, which faces east and gets soft light all day through the pink leaves of the Japanese maple outside its window.

Just using a piece of my favorite raspberry check with the stone-colored background gives you an idea about how reds and pinks and purples work well with this new paint and the freshly rehabilitated red oak floor.

My feeling is that painting and papering in a house, are so disruptive to one's life, one should try to do them as infrequently as possible. You don't have to move out of the room, for example, just to change the drapes or the rugs.

So that's where we are: waiting for the painter to finish up in the next couple of days so we can scrounge around the Echo Drive On Site Antique Mall for the decor necessary to turn the empty room into a cozy nest.

My mother chose to do the opposite of what I'm doing and that is a perfectly good philosophy too: she used a bold, bright paper on the walls, and made everything else in the room quiet and neutral.
My niece as a child in the Four Poster room with the old, bold look

I'm going neutral on the walls so that I can bring bright colors into the room through fabric, rugs, and art and textiles. I confess that this is the part I like best and I can't wait to get to it.

Not to mention, the houses's second bath can soon come back out of its temporary isolation.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More Found Art at Fort Chapman

After our garage sale a few months ago, I was looking up in the rafters of the garage and saw something quite remarkable. I called my sister. "It looks like there is a four-poster bed up there in the eaves. Do you have any idea where that came from?" I asked her.

She said she thought our mother had cut down the posts on several other beds and what I was looking at was the residue.

I couldn't stand not to know so I had my friend and neighbor Mickey climb up on my ladder and hand all the pieces down to me. It was not residue after all. It was a lovely four-poster in cherry or walnut (I'm guessing), stained a nice rich mahogany. Just in time for me to use it in the bedroom I'm re-doing!

Living on Echo Drive is like having a furniture and knickknack store at one's disposal at all times. My cup overfloweth.

Where the heck this bed came from I can only speculate. At one point in my youth my mother bought an old set of furniture from a neighbor up the street and used some of it in the room my sister and I shared. Did it include this bed, and was this bed up in the eaves for half a century? We will never know. But it is a lovely find and I intend to use it in the guest room, now to be dubbed the Four Poster Room.

I have also finally found a color I am going to use on the walls of the room--a Behr Paint color called French Castle (more about the French later in this report!), that is a taupey/grayish/pinkish putty color. With spiffy white glossy woodwork it will look ab fab.

I used a similar color to this one in the living room of my cottage in Winter Park, Florida and called it British Khaki. Add fabrics of white damask, soft pink and bright raspberry to the room--with a dash of green--and it creates a look that is warm and serene, just the way I like things.

I have used the term "found art" a lot on this blog because I have found so much stuff in the caverns of this home and have used pieces of it here and there as "art." You remember the chair pieces I used on the cross beams of the kitchen, don't you?

These were part of two chair backs I found in the garage that had no seat or legs. So I took a hammer to them and put the carvings up in the kitchen. They are just the kind of quirky things that remind me of Mom.

I realize now that I have been using a slightly wrong term for these things. I was watching a program on African Art this week and the expert mentioned that the painter had used object trouvé in his work. That's French for "found art" and as you know, the best terms for everything are all disguised in French. So, object trouvé is what we have a lot of here at my house.

And I trouvéd even more of it up there in the eaves!

That's me photographing my latest object trouvé aka a mirror. I propped it against the car because it appears the mirror has gone milky and I'll need to transport it to a glass place and have a new mirror put in the lovely frame.

Up there with the four-poster, covered with a filthy, dusty plastic tarp, was this old mirror. It came attached to a swivel that one is supposed to then attach to a dresser, but I unscrewed it from that because that isn't a look I like (too faux Victorian) (faux being the French word for "false" by the by, and you have to say faux, when referring to art or style, or no one will know what you mean, as "false" sounds just too too much like you got it wrong by accident.) Once I get the glass replaced, I'm going to hang it on the wall of the Four Poster Room. I especially love the carved bow at the top of the frame.

I wish I could tell you I had reached the bottom of the object trouvé mine shaft at this house, but I have to say there is still a lot more stuff here and there that I have not yet gotten to. My father's only curse words were said when he was periodically required to climb a ladder and store this stuff out of sight against the day these things might be needed. That day has finally arrived, Dad! And all that stuff you stored for Mom? Some of it is absolutely junque, it is true. But the stuff that isn't, I am using, because it has a certain je ne sais quoi and thus, fits in perfectly with the rest of the I-don't-know-what I'm using in decorating your old and wonderful home, which will forever remind me of you.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Fall, Pumpkins, and Mom's Shoes

Dad in 2001 with his pumpkins.

Fall is in the air out here in the West, and this year it is making me think about last September and October. My Mom and Dad were still living at home then, something mysterious was gnawing on the pumpkins in their last summer garden (I have since learned that the culprit was likely the Echo Drive Yard Bunny), and a big storm gave California its first dose of rain.

I can look back, now, at the pumpkin photos from the various years in the 21st century and see that Dad was growing more frail with each new crop.

Dad in 2002 with his largest pumpkin ever and his granddaughter, just back from service in the Peace Corps.

Dad the following year, beginning to show the signs of his illness, and looking much too thin.

Dad with his Great Pumpkin of 2004, now looking even more fragile.

I was there at Christmas, 2004, just recovering from my own surgery and through the eyes of the love I felt for him I was unable to see that he was failing. My sister and I were too close to it and, like all children, believed our parents had supernatural qualities that would allow them to live forever.

Robin with Dad's harvest in the Fall of 2004.

But, by last September and October, I had moved back to California because I knew neither of my parents was well. Yet the two of them were so tough, and so determined to stay in their home, that even then I was unable to foresee that I would have them in my life for only just a few more months.

It was in October of last year that Dad went into skilled nursing care in Los Altos Hills. It was beautiful place and the food was great and Dad ate everything in sight and thought he was on vacation at some kind of a resort. He leaned over and asked me quietly at lunch one day if we could really afford "this place."

Mom, meanwhile, was devastated that he wasn't at home anymore. And though I tried to involve her in his care up on the hill, she grew less and less interested in everything, including her own life.

But, we did have a few last, lingering moments of fun. When the storm hit last October, she reached up in her closet and brought out The Oxfords. She wore them every year for storms and any other kind of outdoor activity for which she felt her Formal Shoe Collection was not appropriate. I have since sorted through a lot of photos in their house and have found evidence that The Oxfords go back to the summer my father and mother were dating! I knew the shoes were old, but, until this year, I didn't know they were that old!

I took the photo, at right, of Mom in The Oxfords, last October.

I now have evidence of her wearing them on a picnic at Loon Lake near her home in Spokane, the summer she met my Dad.

That is my mother in the center of the photo, in the summer of 1944 with some her friends and some of the men in my father's Army unit. Check out her shoes!

This was taken another day at the lake in 1944. My father is having a great time, Taking Care of Business with his arms around my mother, and she appears to be filing her nails! And check out the shoes again.

Mom and Dad finally married and in the winter of 1944-45 they had time for a snowy honeymoon before he headed off to the Battle of Okinawa. She has The Oxfords on again!

I saw it as a good sign that Mom went to the trouble to make The Oxfords part of her rainy day outfit on that wintry day in October 2009. I did not see how much she had lost when my father had to go into nursing care. She lost her routine. She lost her best friend. She lost her partner. She lost her excuse to eat. She had lost everything. Even though Dad was still alive and kicking he wasn't at home and that was not the way she wanted things. He was, in the end, much more adaptable than she was, and though he was much more ill, she died just six weeks after the October storm and he lived on until spring.

But for that one stormy day, we had a few bright moments. Mom had her funny shoes on. And I when I drove her up the hill to the nursing home, Dad sparkled when he saw her. I was happy to see them both happy. These are the memories that come back to me this September as the seasons change again out here in the West.

I didn't get a garden in this summer so the Yard Bunny and I have had to do without our usual pumpkins treats.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Color my World--Please!

I've tried all of these colors and so far have not found the one that is right for the room.

Lots of you have written to ask how the floor refinishing came out. It came out great. I had just forgotten to write about it because as soon as I could walk into the room I started trying to figure out what color to paint the walls. Perhaps there is a reason the word "pain" makes up so much of the word "paint." Working with color is difficult.

The red oak floor, in contrast, was a snap. The first day was the longest with the crew here to sand and repair any damage they could find. After that it was about an hour a day for three more days. The results are superior.

None of the boards in the floor had to be replaced. This is one of the original 1951 floors in the house and (if the creek don't rise) it should be good for at least another sixty years.

Wall color, on the other hand, is much easier to change and much more difficult to settle on. I started with the idea that this sunny room would look good with soft gray walls and white trim. But all the grays looked too blue and cold to me and now the entire thing has begun to get out of hand.

I'll probably have to start again with warmer, lighter colors. I have learned that in a room with lots of sunlight--and this room is one of those--you have to go softer and subtler on the color because the sunlight, instead of washing out the color in a room, actually makes it pop.

I'm sure I should hope this is the worst problem I ever come up against. But at this moment I am tired of seeing those guys at the paint store and asking for yet another quart to add to my growing collection.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

No Man is An Island

William Ashley Chapman when he returned to Ascension Island in 1988.

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
John Donne 1627

I have been boxing up my father's memories and his extensive correspondence and photos of his first years of World War II. I will be sending them to the Historical Society of Ascension Island, the British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, where they will be a part of their archives and where some of the photos will be displayed in the American Room.

Ascension Island 1942. Work on Wideawake Field was difficult as the island is solid volcanic rock, so it took repeated blasting to construct the runway.

I've written many times about my father's work with the 38th Engineer Combat Regiment on Ascension Island during the war. His two years there were austere but fascinating--islands are almost always interesting--and his work there was the part of the war he loved to remember best. First of all, this kid who had just graduated from Auburn University had his first role in management: at the age of 21, he was an officer with a company of other young men for whom he was now responsible. And then, this engineering student who had only read books about building things, got to build an airport! What fun!

It may just look like a bunch of dirt to you and me, but this airfield handled twenty-five thousand planes in World War II and is still in use today. Wideawake Field, 1942.

On Ascension, unlike Okinawa where he was near the war's end, there were no civilians behind barbed war, no American cemetery with daily services for men killed in combat, no POW camps, no daily bombings, no daily terror.

Wideawake Field on Ascension is still in use and is still an American airfield on a British Island, so it has a few USAF staffers stationed there along with a small contingent of British civilians who work at a BBC relay station. In the last few years I've been in contact with Shari, a USAF non-com on the island who, in addition to her many other duties, works to maintain the American Room at the Historical Society.

The 38th Engineers built the building behind these men. My father isn't in the photo but wrote on the back: "Command Hill building 1943. It lasted because we built it of cement-cinder blocks which we made. The tile roof came from Brazil."

The Command Hill Building on Ascension Island today.

When my father died, I couldn't bear to read all the many files he had kept about Ascension. He had gone back there at least twice (perhaps a third time too, though I'm not quite sure of that) and near the end of his life he told me many times, "I wish I could take my whole family with me back to Ascension." Oh I wish I could have gone too! When he was able to go, unfortunately, he didn't ask my sister and me to come with him, and, since transportation there had to be on a USAF plane, perhaps it was only possible for him--a retired Colonel--to take our mother with him. But it did make me sad that when it was far too late, he wished we could go with him.

As the months have gone by, the pain has grown less, and I contacted Shari again and asked her if she could use Dad's archives. She answered right away with a happy "yes" and this weekend I sorted through the box on Ascension and was able to get it ready for shipping.

This is one of the photos in Dad's files. It shows his first glimpse of Wideawake Field out of the window of the AF plane that took him back to the island after forty years. The runway is that straight line you can see across the upper right of the photo.

I've done research for three small books as well as for a history research grant I received in Florida, and that work taught me the value of the things people save and donate to libraries and archives. Letters, diaries, papers and photos all become gems to a researcher. Since I had that experience, I realized how valuable both of my parents' things might be to history archives.

William Ashley Chapman on the edge of Wideawake Field, forty years after World War II.

Not only do I want them to be remembered, I want to help historians of the future know more about the part each person played in our country's history: the war against the Axis Powers, the founding of a suburban village, the life of post-World War II families. All of these things will be details writers will thirst for a century from now.

So, I am determined to sort through the things my parents left in this house--and holy cow, they sure left a lot--and make sure the good stuff goes to their college libraries, our town archives, World War II museums, and, to Ascension Island.

Because as the poet John Donne wrote so beautifully, we are each a "piece of the continent, a part of the main." Each of our lives has meaning. We are the rich tapestry of America.

My father is the skinny kid at left with his shirt off at ROTC camp 1940. Two years later he would be at war.

My father with his fellow company commanders on Ascension Island: top row, Gaston Holliman, Harry Tufts, WAC. Bottom row: Ray Kidd (KIA, Ie Shima) and Herb Schiff.

My father, home from Ascension on leave in Homewood, Alabama, with his sister Helen.

My father's contribution to World War II was small, as was the contribution of Wideawake Field. Many soldiers and many families made much greater sacrifices. But each was a piece of the whole. And each part that can be, should be remembered.

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