Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

David called this week and said, “Mom, I’ve been looking on the internet for your blogs which mention taxis. You’ve told a couple of stories with taxis in them, but I can’t find them.”

“I told you those stories,” I said, “but I never posted them on a blog. Neither had anything to do with Denmark or any of my travels.”

“Please post them anyway,” David said, “I want to see them in print.”

One of these stories was about Colonel Faith. I never knew him, doubt I ever heard his first name. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor after the Chinese overran his unit during the Korean War. This Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to remember him.

Col. Faith’s youngest brother, Ed, a slim, white-haired man who looked younger than his 80 plus years, sat next to me at lunch at the senior center in Albuquerque. Despite looking healthy, Ed had a heart condition; tubes in his nose pumped oxygen 24 hours a day.

Ed’s father and his three brothers all served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Ed’s father was a general. The colonel was the eldest of Ed’s brothers. The middle one was a captain. Ed was drafted but was discharged after a few weeks of basic training because of his bad heart. Amazing: he still was alive and coping with a fragile heart 50 years later.

After their father died, their mother had a large monument erected over the general’s grave in Arlington Cemetery. She added the eldest son’s name, as Colonel Faith’s body was never recovered.

“When my remaining brother and I die,” Ed said, “our names will be added to the monument, too. Then it will list General Faith, Colonel Faith, Captain Faith, and (for me) Private Faith.”

Several years after his brother’s death, Ed was in Washington, D.C., attending college and working part-time as a taxi driver. One day a man got into his cab. Looking at the name on the visor, the passenger said, “Are you related to Colonel Faith?”

“He was my brother.”

“I wouldn’t have gotten out of Korea if it hadn’t been for him.”

In all wars men die. Some die to achieve worthy goals. Others die needlessly in accidents or due to the stupidity of commanders. Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam in a war we never should have fought. Iraq and Afghanistan are also wars we could never win.

Some receive medals that are undeserved. Lyndon Johnson did not deserve a medal for flying to Vietnam to inspect the troops. Many true heroes are never recognized.

That day in the taxi Ed learned his brother died enabling others to live. The passenger in his taxi validated his brother’s life. Col. Faith deserved the Medal of Honor.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Surprises in a Chapel

Our trip to Denmark was full of surprises. The chapel in Fredicksborg, Christian IV’s summer palace, surprised me with its high baroque decor. Life-size statues of half-naked nymphs popped out of curling scrolls on the ceiling. Wally and I had a close-up view from the balcony which looped above the nave. I could almost reach over the railing and touch one of those big, full breasts.

The Danes have a casual attitude toward religion. There was nothing Christian about Christian’s church.

Wally and I tore our eyes away from this Baroque extravaganza and turned around to look at rows and rows of little shields. When Christian IV came home from visiting his sister Anne and her husband James I in England, he established the Order of the Elephant, the Danish version of England’s Order of the Garter. This chapel was the counterpart of the Garter Chapel at Windsor.

Wally and I walked all around the balcony looking at shields with coats of arms for each knight awarded the Order of the Elephant from the beginning to the present day. I stopped, surprised by a shield emblazoned with the Nazi Swastika.

A guard was standing nearby. I greeted him in Danish and, gesturing toward the hated Nazi symbol, asked, “Why this?” In English he said, “The German Commandant during World War II,”

“The King gave him the Order of the Elephant?” I said, giving up on trying to speak Danish. I’d heard that King Frederick protested against an Nazi order for all Jews to wear the Star of David by coming out of his palace and walking about Copenhagen with the Star of David on his jacket.

“Because of the Jews,” the guard said. He explained, in English and Danish, with hand gestures. The Nazi ordered the Germans patrolling the Sound between Denmark and Sweden that when they heard little boats, they were to aim their guns high. “The commandant’s order allowed our Jews to go to neutral Sweden. If he had not given that order, none of our Jews would have escaped.”

Of the thousands of Jews living in Denmark before the German Occupation, only a few were caught and sent to Nazi death camps.

Then he asked me, “How did you learn Danish?” (Very few Americans speak Danish. Wally, all of whose ancestors came from Denmark, could not even pronounce his name in Danish.”
“From records,” I said, turning my hand like a disk on a record player.
“I try to learn Japanese,” he said. “I have a book, but it is difficult.”
“Try to get some records,” I said. “The records help, but I still wish I could speak Danish better.”
“Denmark is a small country,” he said. “We have many Japanese tourists here. I want to help my country by greeting them in their own language. I want to help my country any way I can.”

People say to me, “I don’t need to travel. All I need to know I can learn in Texas.” I tell them, “Go to foreign countries. Talk to people. You’ll learn a lot that’s not in books or on television. In Denmark I was surprised by naked women on a church ceiling and by an English-speaking palace guard, who wanted to learn Japanese.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Christian IV's Palace

Before I went to Denmark I knew little about the history of this small Northern European country, but as soon as Wally and I arrived in Copenhagen, I heard about Christian IV, King of Denmark from 1603 to 1648. In his homeland, he is their most famous monarch.

Christian’s sister Anne married King James VI of Scotland. When Elizabeth I died, Anne’s husband became James I of England, uniting the two kingdoms. He authorized a new translation of the Bible – hence the “King James Bible”.

As a young man, Christian IV visited his sister Anne and her husband in England. The King and Queen entertained him at Hampton Court Palace. (Is that where to “entertain someone royally” comes from?) Christian was impressed by this magnificent English palace, with its many large, extravagantly decorated rooms. Nothing like this in Denmark, where kings still lived in that gloomy Medieval Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. Christian went home and built Fredicksborg, the fairy tale castle where Wally and I picnicked with the swans.

Next time you are in England, go to Hampton Court. You’ll be impressed, too. Christian IV went home and tried to outdo the English in building new palaces. Billionaires now build megamansions all over the U.S., but so far nothing to equal the royal palaces in Europe.

In Copenhagen, Christian IV built Christiansborg Palace. Two hundred years later the English destroyed it, along with the rest of Copenhagen. That put a temporary strain on British-Danish relations. The Danes rebuilt Christiansborg, with those beautiful floors of hardwood from America.

Fredicksborg Castle, Christian IV’s summer palace, looks just as it did the 1600's. It is a Baroque extravaganza, only a bit smaller but equal in lavishness to Hampton Court and Versailles. As the Michelin Guide says, “Worth a Visit”. Especially on a sunny summer afternoon.

You and I may not be kings or queens, but commoners, like you and me, can tramp through their palaces and gawk at their fine rooms, even their bedrooms, any day of the week. All you need is air fare to go to Europe.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Picnic in Denmark

Do you ever find yourself driving the car on automatic pilot? You go the same route every day, then on Saturday you find yourself turning onto the freeway as if going to work, when you really intended to stop at the neighborhood supermarket.

While you may not remember brushing your teeth this morning, you have, locked in memory, certain events which are part of your past but which may not have meaning to anyone else.

Days that I remember include big events: graduating from college, birth of my first child, the day John and I were married. For me the most poignant memories are of ordinary days which turned into something special: John inviting me to tea at the Ritz-Carleton in Chicago and an unexpected opportunity to hear a Dvorak opera in the ornate opera house in Prague. One of the best days was a picnic with Wally in Denmark.

After the philatelic exhibition closed, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Copenhagen. One day we lingered over a breakfast of Danish pastries and coffee before leaving for an all-day excursion to the north of the island of Zealand.

About noon Wally parked the car on the street across from Fredicksborg Castle, King Christian IV’s summer palace. I walked across the street and into a small shop where I faced a delectable assortment of small sandwiches and delicate pastries. I could not resist filling a large box with treats, which I carried back to Wally.

Under the shade of large trees, we sat facing the palace, rising before us like a castle in book of fairy tales, especially when right in front of us two white swans came floating slowly in the moat.

Wally was in a good mood. This complicated man, very intelligent and well-read, hiding a basic insecurity, always on guard to cover up his poor background. His mother spent her early childhood in Chicago in the Danish orphanage, like something out of Oliver Twist. After the third grade, Jeannette was forced to quit school and go to work in a boarding house. She had boarding house manners and the outlook of the underprivileged. She knew no better.

Wally was the first of his family to go to college, the first to have a “white collar” job. As an adult he learned manners and how to dress and conduct himself as a young executive. He never seemed truly comfortable except when we were alone.

In Denmark Wally returned to his roots. He relaxed as we sat on the grass nibbling on little open-faced sandwiches. What were they made of? Can’t remember. Probably pate and/or shrimp, surely some delicious Danish cheese, each garnished with a bit of olive or cucumber or something pretty.

We tossed our crumbs to the swans before starting on the pastries, little tarts filled with fruit and whipped cream, maybe little eclairs or creme puffs. That’s when the swans decided they wanted to share our feast. They came up out of the water and waddled across the grass, honking and pecking at us, demanding more food. That’s when I jumped up and headed for the car.

But it had been a magic half-hour when the swans were still in the water, and Wally and I enjoyed our picnic together, sitting on the grass in that dream-like setting in front of a fairy-tale castle.

After the swans, deprived of any more treats, swam languidly away, we crossed the marble bridge with statues on the balustrade and entered the castle, where another interesting encounter awaited us.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Living in a Castle

One afternoon I took a city bus from the ranks in the plaza in front of city hall. It was a short ride – but too far for my weary feet – to the Medieval castle where Danish kings lived for many generations.

Castles were built for defense. Inside a brick tower I climbed the steep, stone stairs which coiled steeply to the living quarters. Old castles never had open stairways as pictured in movies, like the one where Erroll Flynn slashed swords up and down the steps against the villain in “Robin Hood”

At Rosenborg Castle I stepped into a big square room with plain plank floors, no furniture, and dark portraits of dead kings. Maybe it looked more like a royal court when decorated with colorful carpets and handsome furniture when King Christian IV sat on a throne to receive his subjects there.

I went inside King Christian’s private office, a little room, about the size of the small living room in my apartment in this retirement home in Garland, Texas. Maybe the king liked to get away from the crowd and hide in there. Or maybe he went there to keep warm. Denmark has bitter cold winters, and castles did not have central heating.

On the other side of great hall was the royal bedchamber, where kings and queens snuggled up in the same bed. No "king-size" bed would fit in that small room. During the reign of Christian IV’s great-grandson, Frederick V and his Queen Louise of England, had a corner of the royal bedchamber taken for installation of the first indoor bathroom and toilet in Denmark.

Castles were not great places to live. Little spaces hollowed of the thick walls had seats where a person could sit to defecate into a hole. The contents would drip down the outside wall into the moat. Ugh!

In “the old days” kings protected themselves from the public by living in castles protected by high walls and moats. When today’s royals leave their palaces, they are constantly hounded by photographers. But they can retreat into palaces with central heat and indoor toilets.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Royal Danes

We Americans are nutty about British royalty. I include myself in that “we”.

The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton played over and over on television last week. Americans, especially women, couldn’t get enough of it.

Most Americans don’t even know that the Danes also have a royal family. We don’t see them on television, the way we see English royals.

Like England, Denmark’s reigning monarch is a queen. Queen Margrethe’s is descended from a line of kings going back as far as Queen Elizabeth II’s.

The English and Danish royal families intermarried many times. It is too complicated to unravel it all here. Suffice to say, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are both descendants of both England’s Queen Victoria and Denmark’s King Frederick VIII, whose daughter Alix married Victoria’s son, who became King Edward VII.

I saw Queen Elizabeth in London in 1980. She waved to me as she passed in front of me riding in her golden coach on the way to open Parliament.

I saw Denmark’s Queen Margrethe in Chicago. I was working for The Billboard in Chicago’s Loop. On my lunch hour I walked down Randolph Street to the civic plaza, where I watched the queen, a pretty, slim young woman who towered over the short, rotund figure of the first Mayor Richard Daley, as they walked in front of that ugly big bronze Picasso figure (Is it a woman or a vulture?) to lay a wreath on a small memorial, right in front of the fence where I pressed my gawking face. What does the Queen of Denmark look like now? At age 71, is she overweight and gray-haired like Queen Elizabeth – and me?

Wally’s ancestors were from Denmark. Not royalty. He learned a little from the pictures of battles and faces of famous men and kings on Danish stamps. I knew nothing of the small country’s history until I went to Denmark with him for the international philatelic exhibition.

To see where the royal family now live, I went to a square with twin white marble palaces. After Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered, his mother, another daughter of Denmark’s Frederick VIII, and two of the Czar’s sisters escaped to Denmark, where her brother, King Christian X, gave them one of the twin palaces as a refuge.

In the movie “Anastasia” Ingrid Bergman makes a trip to Denmark to see “Granny”. The interview in “Anastasia” is one of those fictions which people see in movies and believe. It never happened. The woman, whose story was portrayed in the movie, later was proved by DNA to be Polish without a drop of royal blood.