Friday, January 28, 2011

Spelling Lesson

This national spelling bee contests are going on right now. On television I saw a young girl, who lives in nearby Richardson, using sign language to spell words in the local competition.

It seemed odd to see someone using hand signs to spell obscure words. Hand signs are used by deaf people who can not form words vocally. Children who are born deaf and who never heard a spoken word have great difficulty not only speaking, but also reading. Our written language is based on the sound of words. To a deaf person, each word is as puzzling as Chinese symbols are to me.

The child I saw on television was born with cerebral palsy. As a result, she has poor muscular control. Her head wobbles from side to side and she has difficulty walking. She cannot speak. But she has acute hearing and a big vocabulary. She can spell.

I’ve never been a good speller. English, with its “gh” and “ph” and other weird spellings left over from Early English, makes it necessary to memorize lots of words. Fortunately my computer has a spell checker which keeps me out of trouble. Most of the time, except for words I spell so badly that the spell checker can not find them.

Proper names are a big problem. I hear a name on television but have no idea how to spell it. And the spell checker does not help. So I guess – and usually I am wrong.

Which brings me to Iceland, and that country’s peculiar use of names. I finally found the right way to write the name of the capital, Reykjavik. By the way, the real name of the nation is not Iceland, but Island. That’s the way it is spelled on its stamps.

(English speakers have a habit of changing countries names. How about Germany for Deutschland, Hungary for Magyar, and Finland for Suomi?)

Some other things I learned when I went to Island with the stamp collectors:

As I mentioned before, the first settlers could read and write. Iceland still has the highest literacy rate in the World. During the long, cold winters, they read lots of books. Also, they write. A fifth of them have published at least one book.

During the long, dark winters they also drink. Besides having the highest literary rate, Iceland also has the highest alcoholism rate in the World.

Just as they preserve the language of the Vikings in their every day speech, they preserve Scandinavian names: Gustav, Gunar, Eric, Peder. This leads to confusion as the last name changes with each generation. Gustav Gunarson’s son Eric becomes Eric Gustavson, and Eric Gustavson’s son Pedar is Peder Ericson. .

A foreign minister has the improbable name – that is, improbable to Texans – of Bjarri Benedktson.

Every woman is someone’s “dotter.” My father was Byron Pattie, so I would be Ilene Byrondotter. Woman do not change their name when they marry. Many Islanders don’t bother to get married.

With few last names, the Icelanders found a solution in making alphabetical lists. People are listed in the telephone book by first name. You would find Ilene Pattie under “I”.

To me that seems like an excellent idea. I wish we had a list like that here at the retirement home where I live. I know most people by their first name, yet I know few last names.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dear Mr President

Leaving my travels for a day, here’s another rant:

January 25, 2011

Barack Obama, President of the United States
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

No simple answers to complicated questions. But I feel very strongly about cutting the deficit.

To do anything about the deficit, Congress must agree to:

(1) Cut military spending
(If you answer this letter, I’ll have more suggestions about this.)
(2) Raise taxes.
This means raise taxes on the rich (not just eliminate bush tax cuts).
Tax 50% of all income from $550,000 to $2,000,000.
Tax at 99.9% of all income above $2,000,000.
No deductions on incomes above $1,000.000.

It has been demonstrated that “trickle down” does not work. Giving the richest more money does not create jobs. But eliminating enormous incomes for sports stars and movie moguls and stars might result in lower ticket prices. Making things more affordable would increase sales and, therefore, stimulate the economy.

The majority of Americans would back you in such a policy. If Congress does not agree to cut military spending and raise taxes on the rich, it will show the American people that they are in the pay of special interests and are not serious about cutting the deficit

I have had no indication that anyone on your staff read any of my previous letters. When I wrote to Lyndon Johnson, at least I got a pre-printed card thanking me for writing.

Yours very truly,

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Speaking English

I had been in Iceland several days when I stopped a woman on the street and asked where I could find a bus stop. I was not surprised when she gave me directions in perfect English. Most people in Iceland speak English as a second language.

Today people everywhere learn English in order to participate in the global community. I am lucky to be born in the U.S., a citizen of the greatest country in the World. One of the small advantages of this is traveling everywhere speaking only English.

At home we deal with a growing Hispanic population. I feel confident that in another generation they will all be speaking English. Just as the children of immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia did in the 19th Century

Becky tells me her husband’s parents came from Germany. They only spoke German at home when they didn’t want their son to understand what they were saying. He learned to speak German as an adult when stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force.

It was a similar situation in Wally’s family. His parents were from Denmark, but he only spoke a few words of Danish. Skol! He was totally American and obtained a master’s degree in American History.

On the other hand, my great-grandchildren may need to learn Chinese.

Change is constant. Read history. In the 15th Century Spain could have become the dominant country. It owned all of South America and most of North America. Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson also inherited most of the rest of Europe and became Emperor Charles V, controlling Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, part of France, and several duchies in Italy. But the kings of Spain were very conservative. They tried to force conformity on all their possessions. By 1850 they lost it all.

Except Spain itself, which preserves its conservative values, and Spain is, after all, a small country (compared to Texas) with little international influence.

Iceland has always played a small part on the World stage. The island was uninhabited when the Vikings arrived in the 11th Century. Along with the Norse came some Scots; today Icelanders count their ancestry as 20% Scottish. They were mostly pagans, but literate pagans. Iceland is the only country in the World with a written history of its people from its beginning.

They also preserved their folk tales in lengthy sagas. In Norway my daughter Martha studied “Old Norse” and read the Icelandic sagas in the original language. Today’s Norwegians speak a language which is as similar to “Old Norse” as Modern English is similar to the language of Chaucer.

Cut off from the rest of the World for centuries by the Atlantic Ocean, Icelanders still speak the language of the Vikings. No one else does. So Icelanders also speak English as a second language.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Welcome to Iceland

The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, looks like a small town in West Texas, where the settlers have not had time or money to build permanent homes. As in many cases, this impression is deceptive. Icelanders live in comfortable homes using local resources.

Since there is no local timber, one-story houses are built of concrete blocks with tin roofs. Iceland is volcanic, like Hawaii, with thermal springs providing hot water piped to all the houses for radiant heat. A second set of pipes supplies every house with ice cold water from Iceland’s glaciers. Houses have no chimneys. This gives the town its strange, temporary look.

In what otherwise would be a dreary setting, every house is brightened with windows displaying sheer curtains, dazzling white, many with white embroidered borders.

Along some streets there are a few spindly mountain ashes, the only trees I saw in Iceland. Too near the Arctic, I was told, like above the tree line in the mountains.

A few marigolds struggled to bloom in flower beds in front of the capitol. The capitol itself is a white, one-story building about the size of an elementary school. Coming from a state where every little county has an imposing Victorian courthouse, I had difficulty realizing this indeed was the capitol of a country.

One afternoon I waited on the steps in front of the capitol for Wally, who said he would meet me there after a meeting with the stamp collectors. The day was sunny, and my winter coat kept me warm in Reykjavik’s perpetual chill. I am pretty good about entertaining myself, but after an hour I was stiff from sitting on cold concrete.

Some stamp collectors came by and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for Wally.”
“He went with some of the others to look for a wool shop. They went up this street.”

I started walking. I walked and walked. I found the wool shop. Yes, some men had been there, but they left. I was tired. Outside the shop, I stopped a woman on the sidewalk and asked where I could catch a bus to the hotel.

In perfect English, she showed me where to cross the street and pointed out the pole which marked the bus stop. Then she reached into her purse, and took out a bus token.

“You don’t need to do that,” I said. “I have money.”

“You take it,” she said. “Welcome to Iceland.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

My First Trip Abroad

All those years I dreamed of traveling to Europe, I made mental images of standing in Westminster Abby, climbing to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When Wally finally took me on my first trip abroad, we did not go to England, France, or Italy. We went to Iceland and Denmark.


I never imagined going to Iceland. We went with a group from the Scandinavian Collectors Club of Chicago. Except for a couple of wives (like me) the others were all middle-aged and older men, whose main joy in life was sitting at a table with a tiny postage stamp, held carefully with tongs, in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. The object of the trip to see the International Stamp Exhibition in Copenhagen. Not the jolliest group to travel with, but I was thrilled that Wally was finally taking me abroad.

Our plane landed at Keflavik Air Base, built by the U.S. Air Force during World War II and still used as Iceland's principal airfield. On our bus to Reykjavik the old men talked about the beautiful blond stewardesses who served them on Icelandic Airlines. I was more interested in looking out the window at the Moon landscape. The only place I’d been which was only vaguely similar was when Wally and I drove across the Arizona desert to Las Vegas. No human habitation, just weirdly shaped rock formations. This was not like Kansas – or Illinois or Texas. And Iceland held many more surprises.

The first surprise came that evening. After dinner several couples gathered in our hotel room. The conversation was all about stamps. One couple had driven all over Iceland, an island about the size of South Carolina, searching for remote villages in order to get canceled envelopes from every post office in Iceland. They found one in a home, where a man pulled a hand cancel out of a kitchen drawer; he said his village only sent out letters a few times each year.

I looked out the window, where the sun still glinted on the windows of the building opposite. Then I looked at my watch. “Do you people realize it is 11:30 p.m.?”

It was August, and the sun still had not set at midnight.

A few days later we visited in a Reykjavik home, and I asked about the long, dark days of winter in this land so close to the Arctic. The home owner protested, “People think we don’t have any daylight in winter. We always have daylight, sometimes four or five hours.”

All of us look at the World from the place where we grow up. To him Iceland was the perfect place to live. From his contented smile, I could see that four hours of daylight in winter was enough.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Race in Texas

I digress from blogs about my travels to tell you something I learned when I first met Wally, but about which I did not realize the full significance until 50 years later, when I bought Bob Schaefer’s book about his experiences as a reporter.

Bob is moderator on CBS “Face the Nation” on Sunday mornings. I probably gave away his book, “This Just In”, when I chucked out a lot of things before moving from my house to this small retirement apartment. I can’t quote exactly, but I remember the first chapter is about the riots when James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.

Schaefer went to Mississippi to cover the events as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He said he was more frightened by those gun-toting Southern zealots than he was later as CBS newsman in Vietnam during Vietcom attacks.

Like me, Bob grew up in Fort Worth and attended public schools. Then he went to TCU. In his book he claimed, “I never went to a segregated school.”

I wrote to him, “Bob, you are wrong. You did attend a school with black students. You just didn’t know it.”

I met Wally while he was taking classes at TCU at night under a program sponsored by the Air Force. Wally was from Chicago. He was shocked that in 1951 his black buddies from the air base could not go into a restaurant in Fort Worth. He told me, “There are black fellows going to TCU at night.”

“That’s not possible,” I said. “TCU is an all-white school.” (This was not the first time I was positive about something and proved to be wrong. It makes me more tolerant of other people’s follies, even Republicans.)

I worked at the Fort Worth Press. I went to our city editor and said, “I hear black airmen are enrolled in TCU.”

“That’s true,” Dave Hall said. “They’ve been going there for a couple of years. The Air Force said they would not pay tuition for the white guys unless they accepted black airmen, too. TCU wanted the money. I talked it over with the editor of the Star-Telegram, and we agreed not to print anything about it until someone protested. No one has.”

No white mothers rushed down to the newspaper and screamed objection to their lily white daughters sitting in class next to a young black fellow.

In Mississippi the white “Citizens Council” brought out their guns and created a riot over one black man enrolling in the university. Television and print reporters came from all over the U.S. and from foreign countries to film the mayhem. In Fort Worth the media published nothing, and young black men went quietly to class, working towards their college degrees.

I used to think this was an example of how the media can inflame the public. Surely we saw examples of that in the last election. On the other hand, I now wonder if there was a difference in attitudes towards race in these two Southern states, Mississippi and Texas. A few years after the airmen started attending TCU, Fort Worth public schools were integrated without incident.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Meeting the Dane

Young people are advised to plan ahead, to save for retirement, to acquire skills to prepare for the future. They don’t know. Life has a way of socking you in ways that are impossible to anticipate.

Your entire life can change in an instant. Mine did. Several times.

The first big change in my life came during a break in a night school class, when I walked out into a corridor at TCU and faced a tall young man drinking coffee out of a styrofoam cup.

By 1951 my life reached a stalemate. Instead of becoming the intrepid reporter I envisioned in journalism school, at age 22 I was a low-paid writer on the society desk at the Fort Worth Press. I could see no future except at age 40 becoming a spinster still writing little notices of other young girls’ weddings. I applied and was accepted by Columbia University. Surely in New York I would find a more exciting life. I enrolled in night courses at TCU for additional credits before leaving for graduate school in New York.

At the first class in Modern Drama as Literature, this clean-cut young man sat in the chair across the aisle. Then, at the break, he waited for me in the hallway. He was tall – at 6'1" a foot taller than me – nice looking. His round face made him look very young. He invited me to go to a local bar after class, where he ordered a coke after I asked for Dr. Pepper. That night I learned some things about this good-looking young man – but only the superficial things that young people look for. .

Wally was a 21-year-old corporal, stationed at Carswell Air Force Base. He joined the Air Force Reserve to avoid being drafted during the Korean War. Two months later his unit was called up. His best friend, Rodney Lowell, was drafted and fought on the front lines in Korea. Wally served the entire Korean War at a typewriter in Company Headquarters at Carswell in Fort Worth.

He had fair skin but dark brown hair. He called himself “a black Viking.” His strange last name -- Gaarsoe -- was Danish. His grandfather changed the name because there were too many other Sorensens in business in Copenhagen. His grandfather still lived in Copenhagen. I thought it sad that Wally was 21 years old, had never been abroad, had never met his grandfather.
His parents were from Denmark, but he grew up in the Chicago area. His father died just after Wallace completed his first year at Northern Illinois University. He was earning credits for his second year by going to night school. His goal was to become a college professor. He remembered the comfortable life of his teachers in the little college town of DeKalb, Illinois.

A year later Wally and I were married. Instead of New York, I went with him to Chicago. Our plan was for me to work while he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, then we would spend a summer in Europe, meeting his grandfather and having a second honeymoon in Paris.

All this changed. In graduate school at Northwestern, Wally discovered that graduate degrees required more work than he wanted to do. He gave up all plans for teaching in college, and we became parents of our first child, Karl.

It would be more than twenty years before we made our first trip abroad. We went to Denmark. But not to Paris.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remembering Summer in Winter

When I went downstairs for lunch today, I bundled up with a sweater under my heavy jacket. A slick of ice coated the sidewalk where I usually cut across the courtyard to the dining room; I took the longer walk around under the protection of the covered walkways. The weather is dark and dreadful, with sleet and snow coming down and melting into puddles in the grass.

Now I am in my apartment, snug for the rest of the day with my new “Tiffany style” lamp casting a warm glow on the table beside my chair. Charlie didn’t even ask to go out and play. He climbed into my lap and purred as I stroked his ears.

With snow still coming down outside my window it is hard to remember those miserable hot days of summer. People who live in milder climates can not imagine Texas weather. This August we had over 20 days when the thermometer registered over 100 degrees. I avoided heat the same way that today I escape the cold: by staying indoors. Ah! That wonderful invention of a thermostat where a flip of the switch changes the hot air of my furnace into the blessing of air-conditioning. In Texas we sometimes need both in one day.

When I was a child, the only place with air-conditioning was the movie theater. Today mostly young people go to theaters; old folks sit on the couch and watch re-runs on television. But in the depth of the Depression, my Daddy found the cash to take the whole family – wife, grandma, and kids -- to the movies at once a week. It didn’t matter if it was a gangsters or comedians flashing in black and white on the big screen; it was delightful sitting in the cool darkness.

Everything changed when summer brought polio epidemics. Children were not permitted to go anywhere, not to play outside or swim in the park, not go to the movies, not even go to church.

What could a twelve or fourteen-year-old do while confined all the long, hot summer to the house which was like a prison? I read. In my parents’ bedroom was a bookcase with all the National Geographics dating back to 1926, three shelves of the lurid yellow covers with black letters on their tattered spines.

I sat in my great-grandmother’s rocker beside the back window, hoping to catch a cool breeze (which never came) and reading old Geographics. World War II was raging. Europe was blowing up, burning down, cathedrals and cities disappearing under heaps of fallen bricks and twisted steel. I turned the pages of the old magazines and dreamed of Hungarian folk dancers twirling to lift their white skirts like parachutes above knee-high red boots.

Reading to escape reality, with bombs still falling, I planned a trip starting in Paris and circling Spain, Italy, and Greece and up through Germany, ending in Amsterdam. Silly child, what was I thinking?

Forty years later I went to Europe. I saw cities rebuilt as if the war never happened. Not exactly the Europe I imagined looking at pictures in old magazines. But the Europe I found in the ‘80s and ‘90s was endlessly interesting, with new discoveries every place I went.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Beyond Texas

We were in exercise class. As we sat on our chairs, nine old ladies waving our arms about and making circles with our ankles, we talked about beautiful places we had been. Daisy took a cruise to Alaska. Renee had seen the mountains of New Zealand. I told about my day on the mail boat going up the Sonja Fjord in Norway.

Nellie is the most enthusiastic member of our group, the one that stretches her arms towards the ceiling, the one that kicks highest. Nellie said, “I don’t want to go any place beyond the borders of Texas. Texas is the most beautiful place in the World.”

Of course Nellie, at age 75, has never been beyond the borders of Texas. She refuses to think there could be any place better.

Nellie and I are both “children of the Great Depression.” That was a time when everyone was poor. Daddy worked at the First National Bank in Fort Worth. It did not pay much, but he was lucky to have a job. With 20% unemployment among other workers, he had a job with two weeks of paid vacation!

Usually our family spent my father’s vacation at my uncle’s ranch on the flat plains of West Texas. Talk about beautiful Texas! I hated the ranch, surrounded by endless sands with no other human habitation within sight and a house with sand on my pillow and no electric lights in the bedroom, no water in the kitchen sink, and no indoor plumbing. As a child I dreaded going to the outhouse, where there was a very real possibility of rattlesnakes and coyotes lurking in the dark.

In 1938 we took a real vacation. Daddy piled us all into the old Hudson, and we headed east into Louisiana. My brother Lyle, 8, and myself, 9, poked at each other and bickered in the back seat, while in the front seat our little brother Don, 2, sat on Mother’s lap or stood between Mother and Daddy. (In those days no one imagined a law requiring buckling children into kiddie carriers.) Every time we saw water, Don begged to go “twimming.” As we headed south from Shreveport we saw lots of water.

All afternoon on the bumpy, two-lane road, I admired beautiful blue flowers standing proudly among dark green leaves, completely covering the waterway beside the highway. Such a lovely sight! Later I learned water hyacinths were a pest, chocking and destroying all the bayous, swamps, and tributaries along the South Coast. This was my first experience in learning to look behind the obvious, to question everything I saw or heard for unexpected or hidden consequences.

Then we came to New Orleans. I was enchanted by the French Quarter with its quaint streets and elaborate iron railings and balconies. People told me New Orleans was a European city in America. I determined to go and see the original template for myself in France.

At nine years old I discovered a different World beyond Texas.