Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Today's Tidbit - The Christmas Truce

"Peace begins with a smile." (Mother Teresa)

About 10 or 12 years ago, I started writing what I called "Today's Tidbits": little anecdotes and often unknown facts from history that I had learned over time that had always amused me. I wrote a couple hundred of them - usually while I was eating my lunch at school and would then send them to friends and family via email.  I really enjoyed them - but stopped when I ran out of topics. When I began writing my blog, I included a few of them in it, but then stopped because I wanted my blog to include more original writings.

This morning a friend sent me a link to a British produced Christmas ad that is going viral.  It reminded me of one of my most favorite tidbits and stories from history, so I decided to share it. The event happened 100 years ago this December. It is such a good reminder of what we as humanity are all capable of remembering, even in the darkest of moments. And it also reminded me of something else more personal.

Here is the link to the ad. It's well worth watching.

"The Christmas Truce of 1914" TV Ad

And here is the Tidbit I wrote to fill in the history of what actually happened.

As Christmas 1914 approached, World War I had been raging across Europe for 4 months - one million men had already died.  In Northern France and Belgium, British and German troops were deeply dug into hundreds of miles of trenches, separated by a bloody "No Man's Land" which would be a killing ground for the next 4 years.  What amazing event occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914 in this "No Man's Land" where so many had already died, and millions more would die in the future?

Answer:  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1914 saw one of history's most amazing examples of open chivalry and the generosity of the human spirit in what became known as "The Christmas Truce".  On Christmas Eve 1914, British Headquarters sent the following message to all of its units in France and Flanders:  "It is thought possible that the enemy be contemplating an attack during Xmas or New Year.  Special vigilance will be maintained during these periods.".  But no attack came.  Instead, spontaneous, informal truces broke out all up and down the trench-lines, and German and British soldiers who the previous day had been trying desperately to kill each, now joined to celebrate Christmas.  

In most cases, it appears that the German soldiers were the ones who took the lead in making informal contact with the enemy, calling to the British troops to come out and stop shooting.  The Germans had brought Christmas trees into their trenches and decorated them with candles - in some, Chinese lanterns were hung as decorations.  The "rules" of the truce were negotiated by agreement among local officers.  

Christmas Day saw the most fraternization between the two sides.  Groups of 3-4 men on each side would wander out and meet each other in "No Man's Land".  They would laugh and exchange small gifts (cigars, cigarettes, jars of jam, etc.)  In one exchange, when a group of Royal Welsh Fusiliers refused to come out and meet the Germans, the Germans rolled out a keg of beer toward the British trench and said "Here!  We have plenty!".  In return the Fusiliers lobbed tins of bully beef and jam back at the Germans!  One legend of the "Christmas Truce" is that in one spot along the lines, Germans and Scottish soldiers played a soccer match out in "No Man's Land", just outside of Armentieres.  A German officer in the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment describes such a game, following a gift exchange between the two sides (cigarettes, schnapps, chocolate).  The game was played with great enthusiasm (though not a lot of skill!).  The officer says the Germans howled with laughter when a gust of wind blew the Scots' kilts up - and revealed they weren't wearing any underwear!  According to the officer, the game ended after an hour: the Germans won, 3-2.  

As night fell on Christmas Day, the truces slowly ended and the men returned to their trenches.  Soldiers on both sides sang Christmas carols in the night - sometimes the haunting sound of "Silent Night" could be heard at the same time as "Heilige Nacht" echoed from the other side.  At 8:30 pm, a British officer stood on top of his trench and fired 3 shots into the air.  A German captain appeared on the other side, and saluted.  The next day, the war began again.  By the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, approximately 9-10 million soldiers had died in the long, bloody conflict.

Stories like this remind me of how much I enjoyed teaching history: to both learn and share such stories. The best history teachers I ever knew were great "story-tellers". 

It was that talent of theirs that made history "come alive" and inspired a young man to spend 30 years trying to do the same for his students.

Me at my desk on my last day at school - June 2013

That was me. So here's to remembering all the great history teachers who inspired me, and to all those I had a chance to work with at Glencoe and South Medford High Schools. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

¡Hola Paraiso! - Walking El Malecon

"There is no end to the adventures we can have if we only seek them with our eyes wide open." (Jawaharal Nehru)

It was time. We were ready to do some exploring. Deborah and I had soaked up the sun in the cabanas of the Sunset Plaza for a couple of days, but now we were ready to stretch our legs. Whenever we go away, we always like putting on our sneakers, holding each other's hand, and setting off on a long walk to who knows where. We love the exercise, and we love the chance to see something new. So that's what we wanted to do.

The view looking east from our hotel room. Downtown Puerto Vallarta is off to the right
Our destination would be Puerto Vallarta's famed "El Malecon" boardwalk. Everyone said "You must go and see it!" It had quaint shops, cobblestone lanes, street art and performances, food, history - all the culture you could want, and beautiful beaches too. All "just" 2-3 miles from our hotel - at least that didn't seem far to us! We've hiked further in the woods of Lake Tahoe, along the streets of Florence, Italy, and in the neighborhoods of southern California. Pshaw! "A piece of cake!" So, off we went that morning.

The first mile of our walk was uneventful; just walking along side the busiest thoroughfare in the city. Dieselly buses clanked and stank as they rattled by; motorcycles and sedans swerved maniacally around them, and the sidewalks soon filled with people all walking to work. Life like in any other city on a Friday morning. But there were differences. No one was in a suit and tie. We passed some magnificent buildings (like the Sheraton Buganvilias), but right next door to it was a vacant concrete shell of an empty building. And as we got closer to downtown, we began to see more and more people just standing around, looking at us as we approached.

Oh yeah. And it was hot. And humid. And we were sweating. And sweating. Our hands were slippery with moisture, even though we had only been walking for about 20 minutes. The funny thing was that we seemed to be the only ones sweating - none of the Mexicans we passed seemed to be bothered in the least by the weather... sheesh!

We had begun to enter Old Puerto Vallarta, and now the main street was lined with shops and flags.

And the people just standing around began to come to life. "Hey, senor! Come and see what I've got! Good stuff here. Come take a look!"... "Hey, senorita! Take a look - you never know what you'll find! 1/2 price today!"... "Buenos dias, senor...come have a free shot of tequila and look around!". We had entered another Mexican "gauntlet" - just like the time share reps at the airport. The only difference was these people were selling blankets, earrings, hats, and tacos instead of a resort. They were very sharp sighted too. One guy saw the bracelets we were wearing that were our identification at the resort and yelled to us, "Hey! We met at the Sunset Plaza! Don't you remember me? Come over here!"... Clever!

Just when we were beginning to think we had made a mistake coming here and having to wade through all of this, we turned a corner, and there it was: the entrance to the Malecon, The cacophony of the vendors died down a little bit as the sea breeze took its place....beautiful...

There were statues every where along the way.

There were street artists, like this man sculpting a sand Virgin Mary.

And then there were the Birdmen of Papantla. We had heard of this daily act, and there they were right in front of us. 4 brightly costumed acrobats climbed to the top of a 100 foot pole and then leaned back and slowly fell to the earth, twirling to the sound of ancient pipes and drums. An incredible show!

We were grateful for the show, but I was even more grateful for the rest. I was pooped after only 40 minutes of walking (and so were all the other tourists who had plopped down around us to watch the Birdmen!).  It was time to go find something to eat...and a margarita to boost our spirits a little bit.

Too tired to resist, we were "shanghaied" by another friendly sidewalk barker who shuffled us upstairs into a nearby restaurant: The Bar Oceano. We enjoyed the view, the margaritas, and the fajitas. In just an hour and a half, Mexican culture had washed over us like a wave. We laughed at how much we had seen and experienced in so little time. How much more did we have the energy for?

We got up and continued our stroll. We saw more shops - Deborah stopped and bought a beautiful "peasant" dress from one very excited lady who fussed and fussed over her as she tried it on. Then when we left, eagerly looked out the window, hunting for the next "catch".

We finally came to the Malecon's most famous landmark, its Arches. These Arches are part of an amphitheater next to the Naval Museum there. We stopped for a picture.

There was more of the Malecon to walk - the "Zona Romantica", Viejo Vallarta - still lay ahead of us to wander around. But the weather had gotten the best of us. All we wanted to do was go back to the hotel, change our clothes, and dive into the pool. We could return to finish the "Malecon Mile" another day.

We turned around at the arches and started the steamy slog back to the resort. We walked by the city's famed Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with its distinctive crown-shaped dome, but didn't stop for long.

We walked through a couple of more of the city's flea markets, but had little stomach for more haggling, and for carrying anything else with us on our trek back.

We could've hailed a cab. A number of drivers slowed as they neared us and offered us a comfortable return to home. But we were stubborn. We had walked down here. We were going to walk all the way back. An adventure begun must be ended properly. It was a looong ways back, but we would do it.

Looking back to our hotel from the Malecon. Our hotel is the tiny orange one way far away!
"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." (Neale Donald Walsh)

By 4 pm, we were back at the Sunset Plaza - exhausted, but glad we had gone on our journey.  It was a unique experience to walk around a city in a lesser developed country and experience all that we did: to see the contrasts of riches right next to sheer poverty, to feel the persistence of the vendors whose lives relied on their ability to attract customers without making them feel like "marks", to savor the cool sea breeze at the same time as the sun steamed our necks, and to wade through all that was vibrant and alive.

And most of all, it made me more appreciative of all that Deborah and I had back at home. That would be a thought that would come to us more than once as our vacation here in "Paradise" continued.  We had stepped out of our "comfort zones" just a little by coming here to Mexico - it would've been easier to have just gone someplace that we had always gone to (Lake Tahoe, the Oregon coast) - and we would've settled comfortably into what we liked, seen what we've always seen. But in doing that, we would've missed a valuable gift.

"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." (Henry Miller)

This trip was bringing us closer and closer together. Through its challenges and new experiences, we were feeling a greater appreciation for all that we already had...and most importantly, for each other.  Gracias to Puerto Vallarta for that special gift... it has anchored us ever since!

There is more to tell about this trip...but I'll save that for that next chapter... Adios, amigos!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Time's Changing Treasures

"The years teach much which the days never knew." (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I saw a picture recently - I don't remember where - but it's stuck in my mind for days.

It was a picture like the one above; a pair of old hands, tenderly holding a worn book. Though both the hands and book are weathered - worn and wrinkled by life - there was something about the photograph that stirred me.

I could tell that the book was special to the person holding it. Who knows what gifts those tattered pages had given the person who now so gently cradles the leather volume? Some bits of wisdom? Words that inspired or consoled? Tales of journeys to distant lands? Or precious memories held dear? But one thing I could tell was that the book was a treasure cherished. Though both it, and the hands that so lovingly held it had been battered by time, they both radiate beauty: a beauty that only the burnishings of time could produce.

Funny how a simple picture could stir so much. I'm sure that when I was younger - even just a few years ago - I wouldn't have even noticed this picture. Would've sped by it in a blink, racing on to something more newsworthy, more dynamic, more "Wow!". But getting a little older has taught me gradually the value of slowing down, just a little.

And when I did the thought came to me that the things we treasure change as time passes. What we treasure in our youth and as young adults is different from what we treasure as we grow older (and hopefully wiser!). So I asked myself: What do I value today? How have my "treasures" changed over the years?

"The best thing about getting old is that all those things you couldn't have when you were young you no longer want." (L.S. McCandless)

  • "The Next Thing to Get" vs "Glad To Let That Go": It seems that when I was younger, I was always pursuing "big things":  my 1st "real" job; getting that college degree; my 1st new car; seeing my name and picture in the paper after a coaching achievement; my 1st trips to foreign lands, etc.. Life was all about acquiring and advancing; crossing accomplishments off an inner checklist and storing away all my "trophies", whether they were the things gotten, photographs taken, or memories tucked away. But I could see in looking back, that despite all that I had done, and all that kept me busy day after day, my life still felt empty. I was just "filling time". Today it seems I treasure more the "letting go" of all of those things. And in return my life has become more rewarding. A simpler life has become infinitely more richer for me; I value more what seemed before to be "the empty spaces"- the quiet moments. I also know that giving up much of what I pursued for so long also left space in my life for something very special.  I met, fell in love, and married Deborah - and learned the "magic arithmetic" of Love: the more you give away, the more you're given in return.
  • "Little Things" are Big:  The older I've gotten, the more I appreciate all those "little things" that I know I rarely noticed when I was younger: the beauty of a single tree in the fall, standing nobly resplendent; the gentle sound of rainfall at night, a single unexpected act of kindness (like Deborah surprising me with a hug as I sit here writing!). A walk around the block on a fall morning with our dog Izzy gives me as much pleasure now as a "road trip adventure" once did. I'm learning that pleasure can be found in every little task done, if I'm present to myself doing it.  Learning to slow down helps open up a whole world of beauty and value: whether I'm just sitting and looking out the window, raking the leaves in our yard, scrubbing my bathroom, or trying to thoughtfully craft each of these words. Some may say "slowing down" is just a natural consequence (and disadvantage) of growing older. I'm beginning to see the beauty and wisdom in doing so.
"The sun shines different ways in summer and winter. We shine different ways in the seasons of our lives." (Terri Guillemets)

I know that there's more that I could perhaps discover about how my "treasures" have changed. I'm sure I've just scratched the surface. But that's enough for now. Clarity will come with time. Writing the "perfect blog" the first time is something else I'm trying to learn to let go of, in exchange for simply enjoying the time I've spent doing so.

At our last class, Guy Finley said something that I thought was inspiring, yet I think rarely believed.

"All of Life's timeless qualities: Strength, Beauty, Kindness, Compassion, Nobility, etc - are meant to be strengthened by the passing of time, not diminished. Life is continually perfecting them, and herself." 

I think it's easy to think that as time passes, it's somehow "taking away" treasures that we once had. It isn't. It's just asking me to exchange the treasures of the past for new ones - for more lasting ones.

I hope to remember all of this. That would be a real "Pearl" of value as time goes by.