Memorial Day 2013

R-03-Simon-03I received this message earlier today:

Hi Luanne, I just read your Veterans Day. It was very nicely done. My father, Lt John E Drilling, replaced your father as the Bombardier in the Simon Crew. He survived the crash near Rostock, Germany on August 25, 1944. My brother and I are going to Rostock on August 25, 2013 to attend a special memorial service for Lt Simon, Lt Dzanaj,Lt Barkell, and Sgt Saint.  Jim Drilling

I was so moved to receive the note, all the more so because it arrived on Memorial Day weekend.  Although I've never met Jim Drilling, we are members of the same "Band of Cousins."  Our fathers served in World War II--flying with the Simon Crew at different times.  My father trained in the States with these men.  With John Simon as pilot, they trained in B-24 Liberators, then shipped overseas to North Pickenham, England, and flew many missions together.492bgb24-harrington air_liberator47 Northpickenham-31jan46

My father and these men had gone through so much from the very beginning, and when he was transferred to a different lead crew, he refused to leave them until his new crew forcibly carried his belongings to their Nissan hut on the air base.

R-03-Simon-02 R-03-Simon-02aOn one of the next missions Lt. John Simon and his crew were shot down.  My father went through life believing all his friends had been lost.  The story is more complicated than that.  Rolland Swank, a researcher who works mainly through the U.S. Army Air Forces website, recently contacted me.  He has been working with  Lutz Müller, a teacher in Rostock Germany, to help Mr. Müller and his students uncover information about this and other WWII crashes.  Rolland gave me this information:

When the 492nd BG was broken up, the Simon crew went to the 446th Bomb Group.  They were a lead crew with two new members, John Drilling the new bombardier and Frederick Colligan the radar operator.
 
The Simon crew flew perhaps two missions with the 446th.  The last mission was to Rostock on August 25, 1944.  The 446th lost two planes on this mission. The first plane was lost over the North Sea on the way to the target.  All crew members of that plane are still MIA.  The Simon plane, however, flew all the way to the target.  Exactly when they left the formation is still not clear, but they left the formation with two engines smoking either just before the target or at the target.  Once the Simon plane left the formation, they flew north to the Baltic Sea with the intent of flying to Sweden.  At some point perhaps just as they started across the Baltic, they turned back and flew right along the coast just west of Rostock.   You will see some maps on the Drive where we have tried to figure out their exact route.  
 
The plane flew west then south as the crew bailed out until only the pilot and copilot, Simon and Dzanaj, were left in the plane.  At that point the plane was virtually uncontrollable.  We believe Dzanaj then bailed out and Simon went down with the plane and was found in the wreckage.  Barkell, the navigator had drifted just offshore after he bailed out, and we have located a witness who saw him shot in the water by some locals who rowed out from shore in a boat.  His body came ashore many days later and was buried at Warnemunde.
 
Two other crewmen were shot by local Nazis and their  bodies where buried in a sandpit.  Later members of a local church at Steffenshagen dug up the bodies and reburied them as unknowns in the church cemetery.   We believe those two were Garnett Saint, the nose gunner, and John Dzanaj, the copilot.  
 
After the war, four bodies were recovered from the area.    Simon is still listed MIA and we suspect his body could not be identified.  One of the hopes of our investigation is to figure out what happened to Simon.
R-03-Simon-01 R-03-Simon-01a
Memorial Day 2013: I am thinking of my father, who survived a different crash with a different crew, and who came home at the end of the war but still died too young--age 57, in 1978.  And I am thinking of the men he flew with and those he did not, and all the men and women who have died serving our country.  Sending love to all of them, and to Jim Drilling and his dad Lt. John E. Drilling, Ernie Haar and his family (including my Facebook friend Cris Haar Payne); Ed Alexander and his family; the late Lt. Charles Arnett and his family Anna, Paul, David, and others; the beloved Norma and late Lt. Bill Beasley; all the 492nd; and the Band of Cousins including Brian Mahoney, Pat Byrne, and everyone I've met and haven't yet met.  
Thanks also to my sister Maureen Rice Onorato and our cousin Thomas Brielmann, for his constant encouragement and following our father's B-24 story so closely.
[the photo at top of page shows Lt. John Simon pinning a medal on my father, Lt. Thomas F. Rice.  Going down the page, photos of B-24 Liberators, the air base at North Pickenham, and the Simon Crew with notes penned on the back. So painful to know John Simon died soon after this photo was taken.  Love to him and his family.]

 

 

St. Joseph College graduation

It rained, but the day was beautiful, filled with celebration.  How moving, to be at St. Joseph College in West Hartford CT, my mother's alma mater with friends and family, and how honored I felt to receive an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, along with the inspiring and lovely Kerry Robinson.  Laurette Laramie, my beloved friend and high school history teacher, a distinguished alum of St. Joe's, was instrumental in my receiving this degree--I was so thrilled to spend the day with Laurette.  We share a special love for Breakfast at Tiffany's, so she wore pearls, and we listened to Moon River on the way to the college. My sister Maureen Onorato drove up with Olivier, and we walked around Mercy Hall--our mother's dormitory--and felt her spirit with us.  Molly and Alex Feinstein, our niece and nephew, took a day away from GoBerry in Northampton MA (best frozen yogurt in New England, actually, the world, I'm serious, you have to try it,) to be with us.  And my fellow writer and member of the family and movable feast, Colin McEnroe, got up early after a night of jazz to be with us.  Later, after the graduation, he blogged about two artists with whom we're both a bit obsessed.

I thank President Pamela Trotman Reid--extraordinary, radiant, an inspiration in all ways; Sister Patricia Rooney--awesome Sister of Mercy, a wonderful woman and spiritual powerhouse, I loved her instantly; the Board of Trustees; and, especially, Laurette Laramie--the best teacher in Connecticut-- she is an angel on earth, a scholar's scholar, a singular teacher who sees the huge picture and introduces the students to their own vision; and the late Kathleen Stingle, a champion of goodness and kindness, always advocating for those who need it most, for making yesterday possible.  Love to you all.  And thanks, Mom.  I know you were there.

Here is my graduation speech:

 

Greetings and congratulations, Class of 2011!

 

You have worked and studied so hard to get to this moment in your lives, and here you are today, graduates of St. Joseph College.  You join the ranks of many wonderful, brilliant, creative, metaphysical, caring, scientific St. Joe’s alumnae, including three of the women I love most in this world: my mother, Lucille Arrigan Rice, class of ’46, Kathleen Stingle, class of ’58, and my dear friend and teacher, Laurette Laramie, class of ’60.  I am grateful for my honorary degree, and proud to be among you.

 

You have learned so much on this beautiful campus, in these brick halls.  Your time here has readied you for today and tomorrow and tomorrow—your college experience lives in you now, in your heart and soul and bones, not just in your intellect, or in the observable details of your lives.  St. Joseph College is now part of you, and you of it, and will be forever.

 

Your education has helped you to grow and change, but as you go along, life’s alchemy will work not only on YOU, but on this wonderful education, and IT will grow and change along with you.  At each step going forward, you will regard everything you’ve learned from a new perspective, and it will deepen exponentially so you can better understand yourself and the human condition, which, as you probably already know, are one and the same.

 

I never graduated from college.  I dropped out for reasons tragic and absurd, all of which contributed to why I became a writer.  Although I’m not sure one becomes a writer—writing summons one, much in the way of a religious calling, and once that happens the writer really don’t have much choice.  Plus it’s the only “job,” and I say that in quotation marks, that is best done in pajamas, on a couch, living in the imagination, surrounded by cats, and I really can’t complain about that.

 

You will go forth from here and do extraordinary things—every single one of you.   That is a given.   Some of you have jobs lined up, or have been accepted into graduate school.  Some of you have a game plan, and some of you may not—yet.  You’re all dreaming, and some of those dreams may be clearer than others.   No matter where you fall in the day-of-graduation planning stage, remember: nothing is set in stone, and as long as you keep your heart and mind open, anything is possible.

So.  With “anything is possible” as our north star, I’d like to share some truths that have helped me most along the way.

 

Let’s start with “nothing is set in stone.”  That idea used to terrify me.  I wanted solidity, permanence, reassurances that each choice I made was the right one, and that the results would last forever.   I am here to report that life is more like a river than a rock, that it flows and changes constantly, and carries us along in an ever-transforming way.   So be in the flow, don’t be afraid of the rapids, and enjoy the mad adventure.

 

Listen to yourself.

 

There’s a voice inside you, wiser than the voice of anyone you will ever meet.  People may try to sway you, to convince you of their way of thinking, cause you to doubt yourself.   They might mean well, and love you.  That is not the point, and can sometimes, in fact, confuse the situation.  Support and good guidance are most welcome—I always run decisions past my trusted inner circle.  But when it comes to the actual making up of your mind, trust your own inner voice.   Learn how to listen for it, and know it won’t let you down.

 

To thine own self be true.  Trust your own goodness and wisdom.  If you do what is right for you, with a good motive, it is right for everyone else.  This is not being selfish.  It is honoring your own beliefs and desires, acknowledging your own wisdom, having compassion for yourself and others.  One of my patterns as a young woman was reading people and giving them what I thought they wanted.  In doing so, I prevented myself from being authentic.  It’s taken time, but I’ve outgrown that behavior, and I daresay it’s better for all concerned.

 

Make mistakes.  Make a lot of them.  Don’t try to be perfect because a) perfection is really boring, b) it’s impossible anyway, and c) mistakes can be fun, enlightening, and turn out to be the best thing you’ve ever done.

 

Remind me to tell you about how leaving Zurich one time I missed a turn on the autobahn and ended up in Brussels instead of Paris, randomly having a drink in the lobby of a venerable hotel that had once been a prison with a stranger who said she was a black market diamond merchant from Amsterdam—and why would she make that up?—but was also a computer expert, and this was long ago when few people had computers, and I had just written my first novel in longhand, and yikes, revising was a bear, you can’t imagine, and this diamond merchant convinced me that a computer was the way to go, and, being that the hour was late and I was too tired to drive to Paris—I checked into the hotel with my Scottie dog Gelsey, and the next day drove to the IBM store on Avenue Louise to buy an ordinateur, that’s “computer” in French, one of the languages spoken in Belgium, and wound up spending three months writing Crazy in Love in a tiny garret overlooking the Grand Place, and, wow, was writing and revising so much easier on my IBM ordinateur, first-generation laptop, than with the old fountain pen and legal pad, and let me tell you that’s a wrong turn and mistake I’ve never regretted.  So—make mistakes.

 

And let others make theirs.  You can’t change anyone but yourself.  If you love someone and you think they’re going down a bad road, know it’s their bad road.  Everyone deserves the dignity of her own life.  There’s a difference between love and control.  It’ll save you a lot of pain if you learn to distinguish between the two.

 

Try not to compare yourself to anyone.  Stay focused on your own celestial navigation, and don’t worry that someone else might seem to be happier, thinner, more successful, with a nicer car and/or a cuter boyfriend.  Everything is relative.  Wish everyone the best, root for them, hope they gain their heart’s desires.  Also, you’re thin enough.  Trust me on this.  US Weekly has a lot to answer for.  They make us all feel as if we should be size 2.  When I was your age, size 2 didn’t even exist—it was size 6 or maybe even 8.  You are beautiful the way you are.

 

Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.  I did not make that up.  Neither did my grandmother, though she used to say it all the time.  There is nothing more precious than a good friend.  Keep the ones you’ve loved forever, but don’t be afraid to open up to someone new.  Surround yourself with the best people you can find, ones that tell you the truth and are inclined to take your part in a positive way.  If you have doubts about whether someone is good for you or not, here’s the test that works for me: how do you feel right after you say goodbye?  If you feel uplifted and good about yourself, say yes to the friendship.  If you feel down, full of self-doubt, or with any hit to your self-esteem, the unfriend button is there for a reason.

 

Reality television is stupid.   I encourage you never to watch it.

 

Read as much as you can.

 

Television, Twitter, and Facebook don’t take the place of books, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer.  Reading gives you time away, time with yourself.  Let yourself be still and quiet as often as your busy life will permit.  Write.  Have opinions, and find beauty in language.

 

Read poems.

 

Of anything I could tell you, that might be the most important.  Poems can soothe your soul, heal your heart, inspire you to greatness.  I’d like to close with a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, and I hope you’ll pay special attention to the last line.

 

 

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean--

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

 

Thank you.

 

Lucille and Charles

When my mother came to Paris for her chemotherapy, it was her very first time on a plane.   The trip was full of meaning.  Lucille Arrigan Rice, my mother, was one of the greatest readers ever to live.  She had been born and raised in New England and never traveled beyond Washington DC to the south, Quebec City to the north, and New York City to the west.  Her reading had taken her everywhere in the world so perhaps she hadn't felt the need to visit places other than through literature.  The cost was also an issue; it wasn't so uncommon for teachers, typewriter men, and their children, to think flying was only for the Air Force and rich people.

I was living in Paris and couldn't bear not being with her during her treatment for a brain tumor, so I arranged for her to have chemo at the American Hospital in Neuilly.  She loved Paris immediately; she'd felt a bond with the city since, when pregnant with my youngest sister, she'd spent labor reading Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris goes to Paris, and eventually the baby grew up to marry a Frenchman (here is the baby and her husband, Maureen and Olivier Onorato, in Arcachon, France, where they lived their first year of marriage many moons ago.)  (Photo by Amelia Onorato,)  Anyway, the Gallico book is a magical reference tool in our family, so my sister's marriage, and now my mother's visit to Paris, all seemed quite blessed and cosmic, but that is another story.

My mother was enchanted by Paris but wanted to go to England.  Her grandmother, Gertrude Gibson Harwood Beaudry, was English, so we'd grown up with teatime, silver spoons commemorating Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and a habit i shared with my sisters of practicing English accents while walking on the golf course, pretending it  was the Yorkshire Moors.  I also invented an imaginary English family, wherein my father was the fabulously dashing Max Gardiner, I had nine brothers and no sisters, and my own bay thoroughbred, on whom I rode hunt seat jolly well.  But that too is another story.

Flying across the Channel, my mother was moved to remember my father's service during WWll, how his squadron had given air support to the troops landing on Normandy beaches on D-Day.  During our London stay we would visit places my father had stayed on leave from the base at North Pickenham, including a Catholic church hit by a buzz-bomb while my father was at Mass.

Upon landing in England, my mother's smile grew huge, as if she had finally come home.  We took a taxi to the Basil Street Hotel, where we had a tiny suite and our own butler.  My mother tired easily, so she had to drink bouillon in bed and sleep a while before we could set out to see London.

I had planned an itinerary that I thought she would enjoy, but it went out the window as soon as she woke up.  "I want to go straight to Doughty Street," she said.  "What's there?" I asked.  She looked disappointed in both herself and me, as if she'd failed me in my education and I'd failed myself by not enquiring further.  "Charles Dickens' house," she said.

We went straightaway.  Dickens had lived in the Georgian terraced house at 48 Doughty Street for two years: he and Catherine moved in right after their marriage in April 1837.  Home to the Dickenses and the three eldest of their ten children, two of their daughters were born there.  The family moved to larger houses as Dickens became more successful, but none of those other residences survive.

The interior was Victorian, and we wandered--my mother blissfully--through the morning room, drawing room, and brilliantly scholarly library.  The house contains the most comprehensive collection of all things Dickens, including first editions and a painting, Dicken's Dream, by R. W. Buss, the artist who'd illustrated The Pickwick Papers.

I was overjoyed to see early editions of Dombey and Son, a novel my sisters and I loved for its own merit but also because in Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger, it was the novel Zooey was reading at the kitchen table when Jesus appeared and asked him for a small glass of ginger ale.  A small glass, mind you.

My mother adored Dickens.  Not just as the literary giant he was, but also, simply as an avid reader, because he wrote such engaging, addictive stories.  My mother said, "He wrote such cliffhangers.  The books would be published in serials, and readers would be waiting at the loading dock to pick up the next installment."  It thrilled her to know that he had written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and part of Barnaby Rudge while in residence there.

After reluctantly leaving as the house/museum closed for the day, we went to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was both charming and incredibly touristy, because a woman in the museum had told my mother that Dickens had frequented the pub.  My mother couldn't eat, she was too sick, but she leaned back and soaked in the atmosphere, imagining Dickens at the next table--perhaps writing, perhaps thinking of his latest chapter.

Our next stop, the following day, would be at Samuel Johnson's house, as she was quite obsessed with Dr. Johnson and was, back in Connecticut, caring for a stray tiger cat she'd named Boswell after the diarist and author of The Life of Samuel Johnson.  But today, in this post, I savor that memory of my mother and our visit with Charles Dickens.  It is, after all, Dickens' birthday...  Lucille would be the first to bake him a cake.