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A Little Silent Night

Copyright 2014, Susan DeLay

A foxhole is a terrible place to spend the holidays. But on Christmas Eve, 1914 in Flanders, Belgium it was especially miserable. The temperatures dropped below freezing, even in the mud. It was the first year of World War I and the players were Germany versus the Allies: Britain, France, Scotland. (The U.S. would not join in until 1917.)

In both camps, troops started fires in an effort to keep warm. Then the British noticed something odd—an unusual amount of light generating from behind the German lines. 

A Curious Christmas

Curious, the British soldiers peeked out from their trenches to see what was the matter. The Germans were lighting candles and raising them up on the bayonets of their weapons.  The enemy was clearly visible—a prime target. British sentries held binoculars to their eyes and observed a few of the German soldiers holding small Christmas trees illuminated by candles tucked into the branches. (This was before the government had passed strict regulations prohibiting the use of open flames on Christmas trees. But back then, electricity was in its infancy, so there weren’t many strands of electric lights.)

Weapons drawn, the stunned British troops held their fire and studied the men they’d been shooting at for months. It appeared that the Germans, who celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, were sending an invitation to their enemy: Just for tonight, let’s call a truce. And while we’re at it, why not celebrate the birth of the Christ child–together.  Then we can get back to the business of killing each other.

Sainte Nuit. Belle Nuit.

The Germans began singing Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. The words were unfamiliar, but the Allies immediately recognized the melody.  Silent Night. Holy Night.  Sainte Nuit. Belle Nuit

Gradually, the Allies started to sing along—in English. In French. In Scottish–which is actually English, but instead of “mother and child,” it’s “mammy and bairn.” So, on a battleground in the middle of a war zone, both sides sang together about a holy night almost two thousand years earlier when all was calm and all was bright. 

History calls it the Christmas Truce.

But wait.  It gets better.  

Beer, Buttons and Football

Still singing, soldiers on both sides set their weapons aside, crawled out of their trenches and, hands held over their heads, they stepped onto the muddy no man’s land, cautiously venturing toward each other. 

Then they did what guys do when they get together to hang out. They drank beer. Fortunately, the Germans had plenty and the Brits were grateful. They’d been sucking down French beer, which in their eyes wasn’t fit for human consumption. Everyone knows the French do wine really well, but beer should be left to the experts, who just happen to be German. 

As every second-grader knows, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a gift exchange. The enemies began giving each other whatever small gifts they had to offer—bits of chocolate bars, tobacco, tins of potted meat, even buttons. (Hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

Before long, the men settled around their campfires to sing, swap war stories as best they could what with the language barrier, and share snapshots of their families. The ground between two fox holes became the playing field for a pick-up game of football, which in that corner of the world is soccer. 

Generals hate when that happens. Get to know your enemy, and the next thing you know, you just can’t bring yourself to fire a bullet between his eyes.

Back to Our Regular Program

No one was foolish enough to think that a battlefield truce would end the war. On December 26, the war would resume and everyone would get back to the ugly business of killing, wounding, and maiming. The war would last four long years before an official truce was signed. But on that Christmas Eve more than 100 years ago, these men took it upon themselves to insert a silent night between the non-stop cannon blasts and artillery fire. 

For one night, mortal enemies proved the peace of Christmas was stronger than the hatred and destruction of war. 

It’s amazing what a little silent night can do. 

 

 

copyright 2016, Susan DeLay

Every time the ASPCA commercial for shelter dogs comes on TV, I have to change the channel. I can’t watch the forlorn, unknown-1frightened eyes of abused puppies while Sarah McLachlan sings “Arms of an Angel.” It gets me every time, and if hadn’t started changing the channel, my home would resemble a kennel and kibble would be a line item in my budget.

The ASPCA must have spies who know what that commercial does to me because they’ve started sending me mail. They’re soliciting my donation to make the horrible cruelty to animals stop. ASPCA will be among the organizations I consider when I make my yearend charitable contributions.

‘Tis the season.

Most of my donations will go to pay for my exorbitant health insurance premiums. Although I did see a man standing near an intersection and holding a cardboard sign on which he’d written, “Will work for insurance.” But let’s not go there.

I will have a few dollars to divide among favorite charities. It’s a ritual. Before New Year’s, I turn on the Hallmark Channel, pull up my online bank account and watch sappy Christmas movies while sending out checks to nonprofits. It’s a beautiful thing, especially if there is hot chocolate involved. With marshmallows.

The Snowball Express turns 11

The nonprofit that caught my eye this year is Snowball Express. I’d never heard of the 11-year-old organization until a friend told unknownme about her neighbor whose Marine sergeant husband was killed while serving in Afghanistan. A few days before Christmas, his vehicle rolled over a land mine and no one in the jeep survived. He is survived by his wife and two daughters, both under the age of 10.

For the past six years, they have boarded the Snowball Express and headed to Dallas, Texas for an all-expenses paid trip where they spend a few days with other children and surviving spouses of fallen military heroes.

It’s for the children

Snowball Express honors America’s fallen military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice since September 11, 2001 by connecting the families who are going through similar circumstances. While they are enjoying special activities during the event, they are building friendships rooted on common ground.  To participate, children must be between the ages of five and 18. Many of these heartbroken kids have found best friends among those who also lost a mom or dad.

According to some, Snowball Express was named after the 1972 Disney comedy of the same name. The hero of movie overcomes insurmountable difficulties with the help of family and newfound friends. That’s where the similarity between Hollywood movie and real life ends. The Disney character’s struggles are over in 93 minutes. Children who lose an active duty parent face ongoing struggles that can last a lifetime. Snowball Express offers a little joy, friendship and healing, giving many of the kids a chance to feel normal for the first time. They realize they’re not the only ones who’ve experienced the same kind of loss.

American Airlines, the official airline of Snowball Express, provides most of the travel accommodations for these Gold Star families, arranging air transportation on charter and regularly scheduled flights. In 2016, more than 1,800 children and spouses representing all branches of the military, attended the event.

Volunteers do the work

Because more than 90 percent of total contributions go directly to support the Snowball Express programs, most of the work is carried out by volunteers.

Celebrities like Dick Van Dyke, Tony Orlando and Gary Sinese pitch in to raise awareness. Gary Sinese, who has supported Snowball Express since it began, closed the 2016 event with a concert by his Captain Dan Band.

Volunteers who work for the airline gather at departure and arrival gates to send off the children, and later to welcome them home. Because they’re employees, they have no trouble getting through security clearance at the airport, despite the red and green striped tights and jingle bells. American flight attendants and even the captain and first officer have been known to don Santa hats for the festive flight to Dallas/Fort Worth.

I saw pictures of Santa placing a little boy into the overhead bin of an aircraft. The boy was giggling and laughing all the way. Ho…ho…ho. The only thing missing was Rudolph and the rest of the reindeer, who were probably busy helping the pilot with preflight checks.

Snowball Express is a charity I plan to support this year. If only I could figure out a way to give each of the 1,800 family members a shelter dog.

Sunday, December 7, 1941. It’s gone down in history as a “day which will live in infamy.” But it isn’t just a day. Instead, it is the “date” that will go down in infamy. At 7:48 a.m. Pacific Time, the first torpedo planes from Japan’s Imperial Navy attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Two hours later, more than 350 fighter, bombers, and torpedo planes with the red circle of Japan’s Rising Sun emblazoned on their wings, had sunk four US battleships (including the Arizona) and had damaged four more. They destroyed more than 180 US military aircraft, killed 2500 Americans and wounded nearly 1300.

But this post isn’t about the attack. It’s about a seven-minute block of time that happened the next day.

Pearl HarborOn December 8, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress with a seven-minute speech he wrote himself. History records it as the “infamy speech.” Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) deliberately chose the word “date” instead of “day” because December 7 was the anchor point, not the day, which happened to be a Sunday. No speech has ever been so intentionally worded, crafted, and delivered to rally people to a cause.

When FDR entered Congress at around noon on December 8, he brought with him an important guest—former First Lady Edith Wilson, widow of Woodrow Wilson, who had asked Congress to declare war in 1917. Her presence drew a subconscious parallel to the last time America went to war. Dressed in uniform, Roosevelt’s son James, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, escorted his dad to the Capitol and sat behind him at the podium.

Moral of the story? Real persuasion requires more than words. Sometimes it needs props.

Congressional representatives filled the chamber hall of the House of Representatives early to await the arrival of the President. Lobbyists, aides, reporters, photographers, and guests packed the gallery. And Americans in 81 million homes, the largest radio audience in history, adjusted the dials and tuned in. At 12:38 p.m., America held a collective breath waiting to hear what the President would say about the attack on Hawaii, which wasn’t even a state. Yet.

Most writers and editors will caution people to use active voice 99 percent of the time. Active voice inspires action—because someone is doing something. (Japan attacked Americans.) In grammar world, passive voice—when something is being done to someone—is considered “wah-wah.” But there are times when passive voice packs a punch. And in the case of the “infamy” speech, it worked. Roosevelt said, “The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” He went on to remind the people that until December 7, we had been at peace with Japan and their premeditated actions not only damaged America’s military, but cost American lives.

Taking a pause before he continued only served to push listeners in the chamber and at home to the edge of their seats. Roosevelt wanted to make sure he had everyone’s full attention before announcing Japan had not stopped their killing spree in Hawaii. They had engaged in equally surprising attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway. Clearly, they were on the offense and the people of the United States were in danger.

From a grammatical standpoint, the speech was passive, but there was nothing passive about what FDR wanted. He wanted war.

One of Roosevelt’s advisors wrote that contrary to most of the President’s appearances before Congress when applause came primarily from the Democrats, on this date in history, applause “came equally from both sides.”

Thirty-three minutes after the infamy speech ended, US Senators and Representatives took action. They declared war on Japan in what would have been a unanimous vote if not for the sole “nay” vote cast by Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana and the first woman elected to Congress.

The declaration of war represented a nation undivided, unity behind a common purpose, and a determined commitment to fight an aggressor.

Since it was long before email, thousands wired telegrams to the White House praising the President for his actions. Young men poured into recruiting stations to enlist in the armed forces. Anti-war sentiment lost its allure and the voices of pacifists were drowned out by the rallying cry du jour: “Remember December 7th.”

Seventy-five years later, we still remember the date that went down in infamy.

Copyright 2016, Susan DeLay

Election. When people hear the E word, they roll their eyes, groan, and engage in other melodramatic responses like crying or swearing. Or both. Yeah, I’m glad it’s over, too, but elections do have silver linings.

When elections end, so do the ads. Sure, it will take time to remove all the yard signs and billboards, but the TV ads that go bump in the night are outta here. Now we can relegate the name-calling, finger pointing and mudslinging to where it belongs—on the Jerry Springer Show. And wouldn’t it be a win for everyone if we could leave it there?

A lot of writers find gainful employment during campaign season. They’re hired to write slogans, ads, press releases, Facebook posts and tweets. When the election ends, they are out of work, but don’t feel sorry for them. After all that time honing their skills, they’re fully qualified to get jobs as scriptwriters on any of the Real Housewives franchises. Oh, you think reality television isn’t scripted? Hmm. Then perhaps you’ll believe I’m just one tanning session from looking like Beyoncé.

The campaign trail in the U.S. lasts about 597 days, which is only slightly shorter than the 22-month gestation period of the elephant. So between the time candidates officially announce they intend to seek the highest office in the land and the time concession speeches are over, a newborn has become a toddler, a student has framed a two-year degree, and a soldier has fulfilled his or her active duty requirement. In 597 days, Denmark, which restricts campaigning to three weeks, could have elected 28 presidents.

Countries all over the world look to America’s Constitution as a model. But no one seems interested in modeling their election system after ours. How can that be good news? For one thing, we get to know our candidates really, really well. Okay, so that may not be good news. But think of the economic stimulation. CBS News reported that in 2016, American candidates poured $6.8 billion into their campaigns. To put that into perspective, we spent $6 billion a year on cereal, $5.4 billion on pet grooming and $5.4 billion on legal marijuana. That’s a lot of cash flow.

We, as taxpayers can be part of that magic. We can direct three whole dollars of our federal taxes to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Every four years, the fund distributes the money to eligible candidates to use in their campaigns. So while we can’t deduct the contribution, at least we can contribute four dollars to the whole painful process. And that is what I call scraping the bottom of the silver linings bucket.

The best part of the election for me on Tuesday morning when I went to vote. I walked behind an elderly couple, slowly making their way to the door. They were holding hands. He wore a black ball cap with a triangle insignia in blue, red and yellow that said 6th Armored Division, WWII. Like my Dad, this military veteran served in Patton’s Third Army. As the couple approached the double doors of the building, a young couple wearing “I Voted” stickers pushed through, then stepped aside to hold open the door. I heard the young man thank the elderly veteran for his service. These two men—one old enough to have seen 18 or 19 presidential elections and one looking so young that he may have cast his very first ballot for president a few minutes earlier—looked at each other just long enough for a current of understanding and respect to pass between them.

Without another word, the young man straightened to his full height and saluted his elder. The man looked up at him, did his best to straighten his hunched frame and saluted back. These two men are among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have fought to protect our right to vote our conscience.

Even if it takes 597 days to get there.

 

Basement of the Dead

copyright 2016, Susan DeLay

After friends begged, cajoled, threatened and mocked me about my fear of haunted houses, I gave in and went with them. Naturally it was a dark and stormy night and a full moon made an appearance from behind the clouds. It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill haunted house. It was the Basement of the Dead. Nothing good happens in a basement.

What was I thinking?

Dressed in comfortable clothing and running shoes, I tucked a flashlight, matches and a silver cross into my pockets. You can’t be too careful. When I noticed a few elementary school-age children in line, I felt better. How bad could it be if innocent children were there?

The ticket taker reminded us that once inside the Basement of Dead, we were on our own. We were lone wolves who could trust no one. I believe at that point he twirled his Snidely Whiplash mustache and I immediately started sizing up the people around me, looking for the best human shield.

While we waited to enter the basement, two zombies with chainsaws chased a couple of cocky teenaged boys through the yard. A bloody creature on stilts, who moved faster than I do in running shoes, terrorized a group of girls. Let the screaming begin.

Finally, it was our turn. We entered the house and began our descent down the creaky, wooden stairs and into the Basement of the Dead. (Cue organ music.) This was a time to remember a key lesson from kindergarten—hold hands and stick together.

As we made our way through the basement, we entered a round room with mirrors covering the walls. We’d been advised not to look into mirrors because they are gateways to another world. Vanity tempts most to look, but I had no problem obeying the rules. For decades, I’ve been avoiding mirrors the way I avoid cameras.

The basement hall of mirrors led into a dark room that was at least 10 degrees colder than the mirror room. It was a cross between an old-fashioned hospital or morgue, and equipped with every medical torture device known to man. Plus creepy creatures to operate them. More screaming.

From the hospital, we entered a maze filled with animatronics that flew out at us, startling noises and the occasional blinding light. We stayed the course, maneuvering through giant spiders the size of pumpkins. While I had become somewhat desensitized to the screaming, it didn’t mean I wasn’t looking for an escape route. Turning back wasn’t much of an option. People behind us seemed to be moving as one and clawing my way through the mass of terrified visitors seemed scarier than finishing the journey.

The young children of the misguided parents, who thought a visit to a place called Basement of Death was a good idea, started crying. Did I say crying? It was more like screeching. And I knew how they felt.

The haunted basement hires actors to portray bloodless zombies who have suffered a grizzly death and now wander the earth wielding axes and seeking revenge. Other actors dress as ghosts, goblins and ghouls. I’m not sure the difference between goblins and ghouls, but now was not the time to pull out my smart phone and look it up. The only thing that would make the Basement of Death worse was if there were marionettes, which are second only to clowns on my list of scary creatures.

As we reached the end of the basement maze, I relaxed a little. I thought we had made it to the end of the journey.

I thought wrong.

We were propelled toward a second house and handed blacklight flashlights, which would allow us to experience more terror, but this time in 3-D. When I say terror, I mean it. This house was the abode of evil clowns. Lots and lots of clowns. The live ones remained motionless so we couldn’t tell which ones were props in make-up and which ones were alive until it was too late. They quietly followed us, waiting to sneak up and shorten our lifespan.

The entire event took less than 30 minutes that I’ll never get back. As soon as I got home, I turned on all the lights, and left them on for two weeks. I turned television to Seventies’ sitcoms because if mysterious noises started coming from my basement, I wanted to be able to ignore them.

No more haunted houses for me. I’ll save my money and use it for therapy.

Copyright 2016, Susan DeLay

My friend Mary has been a member of Weight Watchers since 1994. For 22 years, she has paid the organization’s monthly fees (more than $10,000+ over 22 years), recorded in her diet diary every single bite and laced up her sneaks to get in a 30-minute daily walk, accompanied by the family dog. Most recently that has been Sadie, her rambunctious terrier mix, who also gives Mary an upper body workout since Sadie does not know the meaning of the word “heel.”

Mary checks off the glasses of water she is supposed to drink in order to be in compliance with the rules; she counts points or points plus—whatever the calorie calculation du jour happens to be. When Oprah became a stakeholder in Weight Watchers World and declared her love affair with bread, Mary brought her long-standing affaire de coeur with 10-point Ding Dongs out of the closet and into the light.

 

She joined Weight Watchers with a desire to lose 31 pounds and get into the size three skinny jeans she was wearing when she met her husband. She was 19.

Even though she follows the rules with the devotion of a Pharisee and would no more miss a weekly weigh-in than a former prisoner would miss a meeting with his or her parole officer, Mary still has 31 pounds to lose. She says at this point, she’d settle for getting into a pair of size 10 relaxed fit Levis.

How can she be so devoted to dieting, exercising and weigh-ins, and not lose weight? Mary blames it on holidays. She’s never met a holiday she didn’t like. Whether it’s Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Valentine’s Day, she loses control when it’s time to celebrate. I suspect there aren’t enough bonus points to keep up with all the holidays that populate the American calendar.

I sat next to her at a luncheon this week and accidentally knocked over her shopping bag. Scrambling to pick up the spilled contents, I noticed a two-pound box of assorted Godiva chocolates and kidded her that someone was getting a very thoughtful gift.

Turns out the candy was for her, but she wouldn’t be breaking the cellophane seal on the box until October 15, which is National I Love Lucy Day. Mary goes all out to celebrate with a nod to the show’s iconic episode where Lucy and Ethel go to work in a candy factory and end up eating the chocolates speeding along the conveyor belt.

August 30 was National Toasted Marshmallow Day. She married each gooey toasted marshmallow to a layer of chocolate and sandwiched them between graham crackers at a cost of six points each. She ate the whole bag. I didn’t want to suggest that it was not National S’mores Day. That was August 10.

When more than one holiday falls on the same day, it creates quite a conundrum. For instance, on July 29, Mary was faced with National Chicken Wing Day and National Lasagna Day. She sent her husband to KFC for chicken wings (five points each) and whipped up her world-famous homemade lasagna, which weighs in at 32 points per serving. No wonder it’s delicious.

On weeks when food isn’t a big part of holiday events, Mary does well at her weigh-ins. On National Hammock Day, which butted up against National Summer Leisure Day, she spent the afternoon enveloped in the comfort of a backyard hammock, and enjoyed reading Girl on a Train and drinking a gin and tonic. On Global Running Day (June 1), she and Sadie jogged on their morning walk. Mary lost two pounds that week.

Weight Watchers says you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all at once. I think Mary missed that last part.

On her March 20 birthday, which wouldn’t be a birthday without chocolate cake, she also honors National Alien Abduction Day, National Ravioli Day, and National French Language Day. Mary indulges in ravioli, thanks the waiter with a polite “merci” while she accepts a glass of French champagne and blows out the candles on her must-have cake as her family wishes her “Joyeux Anniversaire!” I didn’t bother asking what festivities accompany alien abductions. I didn’t want to know.

Mary writes a blog about national holidays and says she has to experience them in all their fullness in order to do serve  readers of her blog–all three of them.  She says she celebrates every possible holiday because she wants her two daughters to grow up celebrating life.

Even if she has to do it in size 16 pull-on jeans with an elastic waist.

 

Copyright 2016, Susan DeLay

Which is scarier?

  1. A) ISIS throwing a pillowcase over your head, putting a revolver to your temple and shoving you into the backseat of a 1994 Ford Pinto.
  2. B) The Gestapo jackbooting their way onto your front porch in the middle of the night and demanding to see your papers.
  3. C) A phone call from the IRS threatening to sue you.

The ISIS threat is unsettling, especially the part about the ride in a 22-year-old Pinto. But it’s unlikely. The Gestapo disappeared 70+ years ago and left their jackboots behind because what kind of a fashion statement do jackboots make?

The scariest threat is a phone call from the IRS. I know because I got one. A woman with a heavy accent left a message saying this was the seventh time and last time the Internal Revenue Service would try to reach me. They were filing a law suit against me in federal court. Yikes.

The call made me a little queasy even though I was 90% sure the call was a scam. The IRS does not connect with tax payers via telephone. They’re kinda old-fashioned and prefer snail mail. I did the right thing and reported the incident on the IRS.gov website. Then I tried to forget the whole thing.

But I couldn’t.

Since 2013, Americans have been scammed out of more than $44 million by these ruthless criminals who aren’t choosey about their victims. They cast a wide net and many of their prey are senior citizens, which makes my blood boil, or at least simmer.

A couple of hours later, still stirred but not shaken, I decided to call back and see how this multi-million dollar scam worked. A woman answered and immediately confirmed my phone number—and my name. (A little unsettling.) She said she had dispatched the authorities to my home to arrest me and they were on their way. (Oh my. Were they going to tie my hands behind my back and throw a pillow case over my head?) In a shaky voice, I played the part of a pigeon and told her I didn’t want to go to jail. Wasn’t there something I could do?

Well, as a matter of fact….

She told me I owed the government $7,054.19 in underpaid taxes and penalties. I don’t, but I offered to write a check and send it immediately. But no. It was too late for that. Once the police arrested me, I would be thrown into prison for seven years. No lawyer. No trial. No reading of my Miranda rights. No passing GO. No collecting $200 ever again. The fake IRS does not have to abide by the court system. They have the power to lock me up and throw away the key.

But wait. There’s more.

Because she said she could tell I was an honest, law-abiding citizen, as big favor, she would call off the cops, even though it could get her into trouble. (What a pal!) I wondered if a strong-armed pitch to buy a timeshare or a used Ford Pinto would come next, but what I got was her simple solution to my dilemma.

She would stay on the phone with me while I drove to the bank and withdrew $7,054.19. Once I had the cash, I was to go to the nearest drug store and purchase iTunes gift cards and load them in increments of $500 each. It appears the fake IRS is not authorized to accept cash, checks or money orders. They want to be paid in iTunes gift cards.Believe it or not, this scam has bilked unsuspecting people out of millions.

At that point, I told her I knew this was a scam and I had already reported her to the real IRS. That’s when things got ugly. She again threatened me with prison, which automatically comes with an orange jump suit. I would lose my job. My bank accounts would be frozen. My family would be humiliated. My children would grow up without me because I would be warming a cot in Cell Block D. Never mind that I don’t have children. I was about to become a real-life character in Les Miserables and would probably be bitten by a rat and die of the Bubonic Plague.

Please say it isn’t so. Especially the part about the orange jump suit. I do not look good in orange. It’s why I did not go to college at the University of Tennessee.

When she’d hurled the last threat, I thanked her, told her to have a nice day, and said I’d wait for the police to arrive.

With or without jackboots.

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