1942 – The Penny Dropped & Stargazing

Over Labor Day weekend I stopped at our local coffee place one morning. I used the drive-through, and while I was waiting in line I watched the person ahead of me pay by phone. I thought to myself we don’t touch many things anymore – paper, money – everything is on a screen. When my turn came I paid by cash and was handed two pennies. I rarely look at coins, that too is of the past, but one of the pennies look old and worn from time. And it was – it was minted in 1942. Pretty amazing that it was still in circulation these 76 years. I started thinking and realized it was about then that the US entered World War II.

Such a long time ago, and hardly anyone left from that time. I put the penny on the console of my car and kept it, thinking about how far it had traveled and how many hands had exchanged it. I enjoy seeing it there, in its little place of honor, every morning when I get into my car.

A few days after I received my window into the past, I decided to do some stargazing. It was a prime time to see shooting stars and a number of planets were visible in the night sky. I was looking at them from my deck and the view was fine, but there is so much “light pollution” that it is hard to compete. The next clear night we took the truck and drove inland about 10+ miles to woods and fields. Off road we went and there it was – the glorious starry night sky. I couldn’t find the old binoculars which worked so well, so I used the zoom lens of my camera for a closer look. I saw shooting stars, and what I think was a dancing star. Not sure. I should read up on astronomy, and while I’m at it pick up an old telescope at a yard sale because now there’s an app to see stars.

About a day later, the penny dropped as the saying goes, and I made the connection between the penny and looking at the stars. I remember my father telling me about his grandaunt Celeste, which oddly enough means heaven in Latin. I vaguely remember her; she was very old when I met her and I was little, but I recall she was an incredibly loving, affectionate, welcoming person with a wonderful sense of humor. She died shortly after; I don’t know how old she was. The details are lost since there is no one left to ask.

I thought of my great-grandaunt Celeste, “Celia” for short, and remember her remarkable story. She was a young widow when the war was going on – perhaps in her mid-30s. Her husband had left her a farmhouse in Tuscany which was unoccupied. Celeste decided, to the shock of her family I would imagine, to leave her young daughter in the care of her sisters, and boarded a ship to Italy, traveled to Tuscany, opened the house and moved in. Right in the middle of the war. She had gone to help with the resistance, and she spent the ensuing years smuggling American soldiers on their way north to battle that would eventually end the war in Europe. It’s quite a story and all true. My father said at the end of the war she was bestowed with medals from General Eisenhower and General Montgomery of Britain.

After the war she sold the farmhouse, came home and resumed her life here. I have seen photos of her – a pretty woman with a mass of lovely hair and a beautiful smile. There are pictures of her with a shotgun on her shoulder – she had a lot of land in the country. There she lived out her days and passed away surrounded by the many friends and family and people who loved her. 

Why didn’t I write down the salient details of this story as it was told to me? Oh well, I’m afraid it’s gone, and my imagination will have to do. As I looked at the night sky I thought of her all those years ago – almost a century. How remote and isolated Tuscany must have been, no wealthy tourists buying up and renting out renovated farmhouses for the summer. She was alone in that house, waiting for friend or foe to arrive. I imagine her looking up at the night sky which must have been crystal clear in those days. Was she afraid? She was risking grave danger: possibly rape, torture, execution. And, as she looked at the sky and heard a branch snap or a rustle of leaves, did her heart skip a beat as she went to the door and saw the relieved and grateful face of a young soldier?

Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams captivated me when I read it. There’s a chapter – and I know I’m getting this wrong – where all events in time are still occurring; we just can’t see or access them. So, when I look up at the stars and the heavens I think of Celia, young and idealistic, looking up at the same night sky, and I hope and pray that her spun silver courage, her sense of adventure, her belief in what is right, reaches into and lives in me.

In loving memory,

Clare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plastics!

As I wrap up my graduation tour I’ve had time to ponder the current state of affairs for those who are about to enter the job field. While I was listening to one commencement speech – which I was called upon to “script doctor” – my mind wandered away to my undergraduate commencement speech and speaker. It wasn’t that long ago, at least not by my reckoning, yet it seems that even in the last five to seven years “life” has changed drastically.

The speech I was not listening to, because I knew what was coming, was somewhat cliché and self-congratulatory. I did my best to eliminate the “reach-for-the-stars- follow-your-dreams-you-can-do-anything!” triteness, with marginal success. At the same time, it would not have worked if I turned my hand to it more, which would have resulted in the speech sounding like Evelyn Waugh and T.S. Eliot ghostwrote it.

Back to my graduation speaker. In my case the speaker was an alum of distinction. She came from a prominent American family of long pedigree, but she did not rest on those laurels. She has written seminal and acclaimed books on politics and history and has ventured into dangerous war zones to do so. Her words to us were powerful – they were only slightly congratulatory. This was a college that actually required hard work. All the more reason, in this woman’s estimation, that the privilege we had just been afforded required a greater responsibly. It was a rousing exhortation to all gathered that we had social, moral and ethical obligations to try in our way, large or small, to contribute in a worthwhile manner to the betterment of humanity and the earth. It was and is a tall order – a life-long duty and I applaud it.

Back to the present day where every “accomplishment,” however inconsequential, is celebrated. To be sure, there were many grads who did extraordinary work and overcame truly horrendous obstacles. Most are “dreamers” which is the only new word in the American lexicon that I like – amid all the ugly horrid ones. I’d like to think we are all dreamers. The word makes me think of the John Lennon song “Imagine.”

Of this current group of grads, as well as the teens I spoke to, their preeminent concern is getting a job after graduation. Teens are worried and they haven’t gotten there yet.  One reason, surely, is that college is so costly – even an organ donation won’t cover it – that the expectation must needs that employment immediately follow. This, sadly, turns college – in my view – into a technical school. Going to college to become educated, to have a “gentleman’s [or woman’s] education” is a luxury that is beyond most. When I talk about it people look at me like I’ve lost my mind.

Those grads who I know were fortunate to land jobs straightaway – all in STEM fields. Commendable to be sure, and I have no doubt they will do great things. But where, oh where, are our new crop of artists, poets, writers, dancers, musicians, sculptors, et al.? Will they be forced to forgo their creative bent and work for a Fortune 500 company that guarantees you some financial stability but kills your soul? Okay, that might be a bit much, but I’m campaigning for the “B-word” – Balance!!!

I had a professor, at this same college, who posited that the greatest ages were those where the sciences and the humanities were equal – e.g., the Renaissance, the 19th century. I suspect the 21st century will not be included on this list. The scale is tipped to science.

So, to recall a line from the enduring film The Graduate, plastics was the future. Fast forward 51(!) years, and we have this: 

Now the wave of the future is: Science, Technology, Engineering Math – STEM: the siren’s call to lucre, upward mobility, keeping up with the Jone’s, mortgages, 401Ks, debt. The American way.

Welcome to the machine.

 

 

 

 

Clare Irwin