May 26, 2009

A Summer on the Riviera...

The Italian Riviera

In the summer of 1961, I was scheduled to go on my senior Midshipman cruise.  Standard practice was that the Navy would send a "shopping list" of available billets to each NROTC unit.  The top-ranked Midshipman would get first choice, the second-ranked would get the next choice, and so on.  I was the third or fourth to make my choice.  I remember being torn among three options -- a submarine cruise (tempting, since I was considering sub school), an arctic cruise on an icebreaker, or a mediterranean cruise on a destroyer.  I chose the third option and chose to go to France and Italy.

We left Norfolk, Virginia, on the USS James C. Owens (DD-776) and spent a couple of weeks getting to the Straits of Gibralter.  On board the Owens, we had about twenty midshipmen, some from the Naval Academy, and several from NROTC units.  I recall that Rochester, Villanova, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Iowa State were represented.  When we arrived in the Med, 10 of us were transferred to the USS Robert L. Wilson (DD-847), which at that time was the flagship of Destroyer Squadron 32.

U.S.S. R.L. Wilson (DD-847)

Capt. Isaac C. Kidd, Jr., USN, in 1961
As the flagship, she had the Squadron Commander and his staff embarked.  The recently-appointed squadron commander (addressed by the honorary rank of "Commodore") was Navy Captain Isaac C. Kidd, Jr.

The Commodore, who was known to his friends and colleagues as Ike, was born into a Navy family in Cleveland and had graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1942.  His father, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd Sr., was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard his flagship, the battleship Arizona.  Admiral Kidd, Sr., was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Shortly after we arrived on board, the Commodore announced that he wanted one of the midshipmen to serve on his staff.  The fellows from the Naval Academy were tripping over one another trying to figure out a way to be selected.  Isaac Kidd was extremely well known and was assumed to be a shoo-in for Chief of Naval Operations in the future.  Ultimately, the Commodore's Flag Lieutenant drew a name from a hat.  I was the lucky selectee.

I became the "Flag Midshipman" for the duration.  Essentially, I became attached at the hip to the Flag Lieutenant.  I even dined every evening with him and the Commodore.  It was a wonderful assignment.  The Commodore was a passionate military man, very disciplined and expecting the same from those around him.  He clearly loved what he did.

Soon after we reported to the Wilson, the ship pulled into Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France, where we celebrated the 4th of July.  I took a bus to visit Monaco.  I had just finished reading James Michener's "Hawaii," and I visited the Oceanographic Museum in Monte Carlo that was described in the book.  After we left France, the next several days were filled with multiple-ship exercises involving carrier operations and anti-submarine warfare.  Admiral George W. Anderson, Jr. was the 6th Fleet Commandant.  As a long-standing friend of Isaac Kidd, he sent several challenges to our squadron.  Ike Kidd relished every one.

At one point, a submarine periscope was sighted in the wake of the USS Wasp (CV-18), the carrier that we were following close aboard in "plane guarding" station.  We broke away from the carrier formation to pursue the sub for the next thirty-six hours.  We recorded Russian language conversations when listening to the submarine on our passive sonar.  Ultimately the submarine surfaced.  It was American!  Admiral Anderson had planted it, along with several Russian-speaking officers, as a challenge to our Commodore.  We had passed the challenge by not losing track of the unidentified submarine.

I learned a great deal.  For a few days, we participated in the filming of producer Darryl Zanuck's "The Longest Day," a film about the Normandy invasion.  (We actually "invaded" a desolate part of Cyprus that had terrain similar to the beaches and cliffs of Normandy.)

And then unexpectedly, we developed some serious boiler malfunctions and had to enter port for repairs.  I was initially very disappointed.  We anchored at the newly-reconstructed Italian naval base at LaSpezia, on the eastern end of the Italian riviera.

The La Spezia Naval Base

Commodore Kidd called me to his stateroom the morning of our arrival.  He pointed to the hills overlooking the city.  He informed me that he and his wife owned some property and might retire to this area some day.  He was a man who appreciated places of great beauty.

Then he made an interesting proposal.  He suggested that it would be a shame for a young Midshipman like myself to remain on a ship under repair when there was so much to see in Italy.  He informed me that his wife was having a marble table top made in a shop in Pisa.  If I was interested in seeing Italy, he suggested that I go on shore leave and asked only that I pick up the marble table top on my way back to the ship. He also advised me that when I returned I would be responsible for coordinating the air transportation that would carry all the midshipmen in the Mediterranean back to the US.

I couldn't believe it!  I countered with a request.  One of the other midshipmen spoke fluent Italian, so I asked the Commodore if that gentleman could accompany me.  He agreed without hesitation.  That is why for the next week and a half, Nick Valenti and I went to Pisa and Florence.  The plan was to continue on to Rome and then go to Venice and then back to Pisa to retrieve the table top.  But Florence proved so enchanting that we couldn't leave it.  We ran into some teachers from Kansas who were on their way to Egypt to teach in a military school.  We spent every day, accompanied by our new friends, sightseeing and visiting art galleries and eating marvelous Italian cuisine.

I returned to the ship in one piece along with Mrs. Kidd's table top.  I followed the Commodore's career in the years that followed.  He never did become CNO, but I believe that was all about politics.  Coincidentally, he headed the investigation into the Liberty incident, which I have cited in this blog.  He did become Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, Commander in Chief Western Atlantic Area, Commander in Chief Atlantic and Commander in Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet in 1975.  He retired in 1978 with over 40 years of naval service.  The Commodore who treated me so kindly passed away in 1999 at the age of 79.

May 22, 2009

Musical Weekend...

In 1996, a gentleman named Steve Masterson started hosting a music event in his front yard.  He lived on top of a large hill near Hayden, Alabama.  The area on one side of his home formed a natural amphitheater.  He did what anyone who loves music would do -- built a stage and invited a lot of people to come and enjoy some music!

For the last thirteen years, Memorial Day weekend on Mr. Masterson's property has been known as the Acoustic Cafe.

I have had the pleasure of participating in this musical extravaganza for many years.  He has hosted some well-known performers over the years -- Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, the Redstick Ramblers, John Hartford, Dread Clampett, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Butch Baldassari, the list goes on.

This year's lineup will include Scott Ward, The Mayhem String Band, The Brickroom Boys, Dread Clampett, The Herb Trotman Band, Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall, and the John Cowan Band.  One of the pleasant surprises every year is that Steve Masterson has "discovered" another incredibly good band or individual musician that we've never heard of.

It's one of Alabama's best-kept secrets!  Mary Ann and I will be there, along with several of our friends.  A little rain may dampen the proceedings, but we'll have our ponchos and umbrellas.  

May 13, 2009

Interesting Connection...

While driving to work this morning, I heard some news on the radio about the Pope's visit to the Holy Land. According to one of the Internet news sites, "Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Jesus' traditional birthplace for a one-day visit Palestinians hope will draw attention to their suffering under Israeli military rule. The pontiff's motorcade drove through a crossing in Israel's towering West Bank separation barrier Wednesday to reach the cradle of Christianity. He was greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  Later, he is to tour the Church of the Nativity, and will visit a Palestinian refugee camp."

It reminded me how long some Palestinians have been in those camps. The reason I am aware of this has a very interesting connection.

In about 1951, my home church, St. John the Evangelist, got a parish administrator, Father Arnold J. English. The Pastor, Monsignor John J. Finn, had become somewhat senile, but was loved by many parishioners. Because of his popularity and immense political influence in Schenectady, the Bishop saw fit to send an Administrator rather than replace him. It didn't work as planned, since Monsignor Finn resented Father English and barely spoke to him for many years. Father English eventually became the pastor.

Father English had been a Marine Corps chaplain during World War II and had served with another battle-decorated chaplain named Joseph T Ryan. Father English was originally from Troy, New York and Father Ryan was from Albany. They became very close friends in the military and remained so throughout their lives.

In the mid 1950's, Pope Pius XII became alarmed at the plight of the Palestinian refugees and established a Pontifical Mission to Palestine. He contacted Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and said he was looking for an American priest who could effectively manage the difficult job of getting aid -- food, medicine, and shelter -- to the Palestinians. Cardinal Spellman also served as the head of what was then known as the "Military Ordinariate" that coordinated the military chaplaincy for the US armed forces. Because of this role, he was very familiar with Father Ryan and was confident that Ryan could fill the bill. Soon, Father Joseph Ryan was on his way to the Middle East as the Pope's personal envoy to the Palestinian refugees. He served in this capacity for about three years and then returned to Albany. While Father Ryan was in the Middle East, he corresponded often with Father English, who was like a member of my family. We heard endless stories of Father Ryan's activities and challenges. Thus it is that I was made aware of the Palestinians' difficulties some 50 years ago.

As testimony that the Church took care of its own, in 1966, Father Ryan became the first Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska. He later became the first Archbishop for the Military Services when the Military Ordinariate became an Archdiocese.

Father English died in 1988. I was able to visit him in 1987 as his health was deteriorating from the effects of cancer. Father Ryan lived until October of 2000. They were both terrific men, and dedicated, decorated marines to the end.

May 10, 2009

The Latest Project...

A few weeks ago, Mary Ann and I received an email from our musician-friend Microwave Dave Gallaher. He mentioned that Alabama Public Television was going to be airing a show called "Songs Inside the Box" on April 14th. The show would describe cigar box guitars, one of Dave's specialty instruments. We watched the show and really enjoyed it, although we didn't think it included enough time devoted to our friend Dave.

After the show, I got curious about these cigar box guitars (CBGs to afficianados) so I started my searches for information. Believe me, there's a huge amount of activity, creativity, and information available. I began searching eBay for cigar boxes. I'm now the proud owner of six prime guitar candidates -- Cohiba, Macanudo, Punch, Kristoff. After all, you've got to have just the "right" box for the job.

My first creation is well on its way. It will have three strings. I've completed the neck and all the fret work. I used a piece of cherry for the neck that's about thirty years old, nice and stable, and with luscious grain. After a little searching I was able to locate a gentleman, Bluesboy Jag, who sells handwound magnetic pickups for 3- and 4-string instruments. So this first attempt, which is already designated as Mary Ann's, will be a hot, electrified blues-generating machine!

I can't wait to get it finished...

May 1, 2009

The Chestnut Man...

Jim and Caroline Walker Shelton's family
Standing by a Chestnut Tree, Circa 1920, Tremont Falls, TN

According to Wikipedia, "The American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) is a large, deciduous tree of the beech family native to eastern North America. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease, it was one of the most important forest trees throughout its range. There are now few if any mature specimens of the tree, except where it was planted in blight-free regions distant from its original range." To give us an idea of the magnitude of loss caused by the blight, the author continues, "It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut. The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 cm (24 inches) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100." And this incredible loss of timber all occurred in about thirty years, beginning in 1904 after the damaging fungus was brought in on some imported Chinese trees.

A few years ago I was visiting my good friend and fellow luthier Keith Young. He showed me a couple of instruments he had made from what he called "wormy chestnut." "Wormy" chestnut refers to a defective grade of wood that has insect damage, having been sawn from long-dead blight-killed trees. Even this kind of Chestnut is difficult to find, although I have bought a few individual boards on eBay.  With its tiny worm hole traces, it is a very beautiful wood for either furniture or musical instruments.

As Monty Love and I were on our way to Merlefest this past weekend, we were near the town of Sugar Grove, NC, when we saw a small sign at the end of a driveway, "Wormy Chestnut for Sale." We noted a couple of landmarks and decided to stop there on our return trip. So it was that on Sunday afternoon we pulled into the driveway of Mr. Bill Harmon, who says he is known around those parts as "The Chestnut Man." And it's no wonder!

American Chestnut
Mr. Harmon took us on a tour of his lumber collection. There was a mountain of reclaimed chestnut, wormy and otherwise, from barns and cabins that he has salvaged over many, many years. He has boards and logs stored inside a couple of very large barns as well as out in the open. For a fellow who has paid as much as $60 for a single board on eBay, you can only imagine the sensory overload I was experiencing! And then there were the other varieties -- black walnut, aromatic eastern cedar, black cherry, poplar. Everywhere he took us there was another treasure.

And he was a real gentleman. He related a heartwarming story about Doc Watson's service to the small churches in the area. Doc hails from Deep Gap, just a few miles down the road.

I told Mr. Harmon that I was looking for a few boards with no nail holes that I could resaw to make dulcimers from. He informed us he had some boards that had been cut by a lumber mill in the 1940's and never sold! I bought a ten foot long board with gorgeous grain. Mr. Harmon cut it into lengths that I could fit into my truck. We thanked him and left, but we shall return...

A Galax-style Wormy Chestnut Dulcimer
Made by Ben Seymour of Tryon, NC