On the seventieth anniversary of D-day I thought I’d share a war story.
My dad was on Normandy beach so long ago. He rarely spoke about it, but I remember him telling that the waves crested pink with blood. In his Higgins boat of the 49 soldiers he was the only one to reach shore alive.
But the story I have is one about sugar and cake. Just before the invasion, my dad was stationed in Torquay. Just 19 years of age, he and his fellow soldiers in a strange country were a confused mixture of amazed and homesick. England at that time was under harsh rationing, and the Americans had money and access to supplies that were rarely seen.
One day my dad is leaving the base when a Brit approaches him saying “sailor, sailor, have you got your ration ?”
Dad warily replied he had when the fellow offered “If you’ve got sugar, we have the rest. If you just come home with me my wife can make us a cake.”
I don’t know if they were young or old, but I recall Dad telling us how excited they were, and how she mixed things up and soon that had a cake to share.
This is one of my favorite war stories, where in the shadow of a great darkness people find comfort in a shared piece of cake.
Some day I think I’ll take a trip to Torquay and maybe have a piece of cake.
Farther from the city the canal trail is not so well maintained. One of the aqueducts has collapsed leaving the canal a “tadpole puddle”. Some places it’s full of sediment, and trees 30 feet high grow there or people mow the grass in the canal behind their homes like it’s a play-ground for their kids.
It’s hot, over 90 degrees ( 32 c ) and the trees give shade, but the large waterfowl are gone. We hear birds singing around us, but they are deep in the trees. At one section, the sticks ahead of us suddenly wriggle away, turns out they are snakes sunning.
This is like where I grew up, small town America – wave at everyone, don’t have to lock your doors. Kids smile and wave at us, and one family is playing with their pet goat. We meet a guy who has ridden many trails, over a thousand miles all with his two buds.
We pass Seneca, a little town where a brick making company is still going strong after starting in 1835. They sit right on the canal and I wonder how many of Chicago’s fine brick homes were build on bricks fired there. During the potato famine in Ireland over two million people died or left the country in a great diaspora. Many found their fortunes here, and many their ruin, for malaria and dysentery claimed a toll. The workers believed that whiskey would prevent malaria, and so held out to ensure that their weekly pay included a ration of whiskey.
It’s too hot for snow, but the cotton-wood seeds drift down like snow and later we pass a golden meadow.
We ended at mile 83 in Ottawa, the Indian word for trade, at the conflux of three rivers the French had been trading for furs since the 1600’s. Ottawa hosted one of the Lincoln presidential debates, but now is just a quiet place. When Illinois was nearly broke in the 1840’s they had to borrow 1.6 million from investors to finish the canal. What’s was a dollar worth in those days? The workers digging by the canal by hand received one dollar a week and their whiskey ration.
We were left to turn around and head back the 25 miles, once more moving through time and we returned to the car. One more ride ahead of us to get us to mile 96 and the end of the I&M canal.
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My dad learned to drink in World War II. He left a young boy and in the combat of Germany and the Pacific Islands he became a man.
After the war he taught, and while I don’t recall him drinking on school nights, when he drank, he drank hard. Each year he would give up the sauce for a month, just to prove he could do it. It was always February, the shortest month.
May you get through the hard times as lightly as possible. Sometimes that’s were change starts.
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