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Ann Kathleen Otto

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Sacrifices on the Western Front

February 12, 2018

The next stop on our World War 2 tour takes us through the Voges mountains to Lorraine’s American Cemetery in St. Avold, one of many French, German and American cemeteries on the tour. It also provides excellent historical context to this period of the war. Linden trees line the avenue leading up to the visitor building.

Moselle River to V-E Day

The 10,487 buried at St. Avold were involved in battles surrounding the Mozelle River from September 1944 to the European victory, V-E Day, in 1945. American flags are highly visible. Large concrete "walls of the missing" display the names of another 444 missing in action. Above the entrance, a tall statue of St. Nabor blesses those resting here.

The cemetery is beautifully laid out and landscaped. At one end the ground rises to a knoll with an overlook from which you can see the entire cemetery and the countryside for miles—the countryside that these men fought to protect.

We are the only ones here except for maintenance workers. It provides a feeling of solitude. No one speaks. We quietly walk the rows of markers, and then walk up to the overlook.

Two large, glazed ceramic maps on the chapel’s south wall show military operations in western Europe, including fighting in the St. Avold region. These troops, including African-Americans, pursued German forces across eastern France beginning in early September 1944 when the US Third Army’s Fifth Infantry Division crossed the Moselle River near Dornot. By late November, the Third and Seventh Armies had liberated Sarrebourg, Metz and finally St. Avold.

On December 19, the Third Army, including Dave’s father Dick, left, moving north toward what would become the Battle of the Bulge. March 9, they crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim, reaching Frankfurt on March 26. The war ended when the Seventh Army entered Munich on April 30. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7 at Reims, and V-E Day was May 8.

One of the most interesting experiences is hearing from a St. Avold citizen who was nine years old during the months when war surrounded the town. He described daily living conditions—and fears—during that fall, and the lasting memories those in St. Avold hold for the Americans who came to their rescue. He also reminded us that for the children, there was some levity as well. There was no school.

On to the next stop on our tour. For that, we go underground.

Next time: Fort Hackenburg on the Western Front

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohio siblings relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at http://www.ann-otto.com.  Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals.  She loves speaking with groups about all things history; writing; and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel, Little Diamonds, about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s, and preparing for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or https://www.goodreads.com/author/dashboard..

 

Back Roads to Ulm and the Black Forest

January 24, 2018

Traffic on the German autobahn is challenging today, so to get to the next stops on our World War 2 tour,  the driver chooses to take country roads, which turns out badly for him, but good for us. It’s especially helpful for me to see the type of terrain that soldiers traversed in World War 1, which plays a role in my next book.

Highest German Spire

We can see Ulm Minster from a distance. The highest spire in Germany reminds me of the grandeur of other inspiring cathedrals I’ve seen, such as Salisbury in England, except that Ulm now sits in a crowed downtown area.  The first large, venerable cathedral I ever saw was York Minster while on a trip with my son years ago. Inspiring religious sites are my favorite on any trip, whether in Gaudi’s 20th century Barcelona or ancient Luxor in Egypt.

Ulm Minster was developed over many time periods. The first plan for the church was in 1377, and it was consecrated, uncompleted, in 1405. What makes it unique for me is the work of Jorg Syrlin the Elder from 1469-1474. The master carver lined its choir with an elaborate set of eighty-nine wooden stalls. Ninety busts of male and female saints, sibyls, Old Testament figures and classical thinkers adorn the benches, the wall revetments and the overhanging canopies.  The north side wall depicts men, women the south wall, with one of my favorites, the sibyl, Hellespontica.  Syrlin was aided by a team of sculptors and joiners. At the end of each group of stalls are fully carved busts of sibyls (south) and scholars (north). The choir stalls reflect the collective wisdom and faith of classical, Jewish and Christian people. (The Web Gallery of Art). 

Ulm’s old town near the Danube is beautiful. We walked with other tourists along the ancient buildings mixed with new, residences and shops.  It's a Monday in late September and you can hear a pin drop. So different from busy Salzberg the day before. We eat lunch at an outdoor café along the water, surrounded by colorful flowers. (below right)

Rommel’s Heritage

The afternoon is dedicated to sites in remembrance of German general Edwin Rommel, known as “The Desert Fox.” The home where he lived during the war years is in a lovely section of the small town of Herrlingen. We are told the story of how Hitler lost trust in Rommel, assuming him an instigator of one of the assignation plots against the Fuhrer.

One day, SS troops came to Rommel’s home and took him to a nearby forest. His option: his family would be protected if he would commit suicide. Germany would be told that their hero died of complications of a surgery he recently had. Even the Furher was afraid of public repercussions if the famous Rommel, beloved hero of two wars, was murdered by the party. Rommel did what was asked. We visited the site where it occurred. A large rock in a natural setting marks the spot.

Our next stop was at Rommel’s grave and marker in a small cemetery. We are surprised that this is the extent of tribute to someone so loved by the German people. However, he was a Nazi, so in the cultural climate since World War 2, it’s understandable.

Edge of the Black Forest

Road closures make for a very long drive to our hotel. The detours bring us to Bad Herrenalb on the northern edge of the Black Forest, part of Baden-Wurttemberg, where Dave and I both have roots. The town is so small it is hard to find on a map. And we are again transported back to another time, centuries ago. The town was founded in 1148. Much of the reason that foreigners choose to travel Europe is historic preservation. We’re just beginning to appreciate that in our own America.

 Next time: World War 2 Fort Hackenberg and the Lorraine American Cemetary in St. Avold, France

Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohio siblings relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals.  She loves speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel, Little Diamonds, about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com. 

 

Salzburg and the Eagle's Nest

January 7, 2018

A main attraction for David on our World War 2 memorial tour was a visit to Adolph Hitler’s tea house atop the rocky summit of the Kehlstein peak near Berchtesgaden in the German Bavarian Alps. His father visited the bunker at the base of the mountains and possibly Hitler’s hideaway as well.

An Infamous Meeting Place

The tea house, thousands of feet above the town of Berchtesgaden, was a meeting and entertainment site for the Nazi elite. Hitler became chancellor in 1930. In 1936 an eighty-building compound was fenced off in the Berchtesgaden area, fifteen miles from Salzburg and three miles from Obersalzberg, the “cradle of the 3rd Reich.”  In 1939 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party presented Hitler with the Kehlsteinhaus (now known as the Eagle’s Nest) for his 50th birthday.  

 

We often see the same newsreel of him there with Eva Braun and friends. Why usually only that one? According to travel guides, he only visited the Nest fourteen times. He was claustrophobic and afraid of heights. The newsreel shows large black cars delivering dignitaries up the four-mile road to a cliff-side turn-around point. We take special tourist buses. After walking through a dark ¾-mile tunnel (left), we reach the brass-paneled elevator and ride the same distance vertically to reach the Nest.

One can understand Hitler’s hesitancy  in visiting.   The Eagle’s Nest is now the responsibility of the Berchtesgadener Landesstiftung, and with the local tourism association, the trust leases the Nest to a concessionaire as a café and restaurant. The three large rooms are filled near lunchtime on this Sunday afternoon. We go out the back door and see the path leading straight up to the mountain tip. The walk up is not for the faint-hearted (above), but we take it. Black birds circle continuously in the skies above. Below, we see the houses of key Nazis which David’s father visited in 1945. The underground bunker, with its four miles of tunnels, built in 1943 after the Battle of Stalingrad, is closed today.

Sounds of Music

We travel back down the Kehlstein for a short drive to Salzburg. We visited here two years ago with a tour guide and saw the castle level, the ministry, and the Sound of Music park where the von Trapp children sang in costumes made of curtain fabric. This time, we are able to use our free time to blend in with the community.

 

 

A large festival is going on throughout the city: nostalgic and beautifully crafted carnival rides; crafters; and lots of food and drink, especially beer vendors in tents and beer halls. Their version of Octoberfest. To avoid the crowds in the last half hour of our visit, we stop for wine and hard cider at an outdoor café at the edge of town center.

Dinner in a small village on the way back to Kufstein is memorable. Our plates are small, round wooden cheese-boards. The main course, ribs, arrives ceremoniously on a long wooden plank with glittering sparklers on top. The large wine and beer pours are appreciated after a long day.

For more on the Eagle’s Nest, visit https://www.obersalzberg.de/obersalzberg-home.html?&L=1

Next time: Ulm Minster and the Black Forest 

Dachau and Munich

December 12, 2017

The next stops on our memorial tour are contrasts in setting—one for solemn reflection, the other for hedonist celebrations. Welcome to Dachau and Munich.

Dachau

We enter the gate that reads Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”), which appeared on entrances to Auschwitz and other concentration camps like Dachau. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the center of the courtyard and the breathtaking sculpture known as the International Monument (right). Hitler established this first camp in 1933 for political prisoners. I’d expressed concerns about visiting this site on the trip, remembering sorrowful feelings after touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Group members who have visited Dachau before say that this was a political camp, not a death camp. I can’t fathom the difference.

Several buildings remain as museums. Commanded by the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel, or “Protective Echelon”), over 200,000 prisoners from throughout Europe were imprisoned in the twelve years that the camp was open, and one in five prisoners died. The camp was liberated by the Americans on April 29, 1945. While Dave visits the crematorium area, I visit the nearby Russian Orthodox church, one of several religious monuments on the grounds.

Unlike many sites visited on our trip, everyone, youth included, are silent and well behaved. We walk through buildings where prisoners slept and ate, tables and chairs just as they left them. One locker remains open so we can see how sparingly they lived. We return to the bus, still in whispers. We are glad Dachau is still here to archive and educate future generations.

October in Munich

It’s the opening weekend of Octoberfest in Munich for us—and three million others from around the world. For Germany, that means plentiful beer and food. Dave and I have German roots, and his are around the Munich area in Bavaria. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when we hear the logistics of getting to the official Octoberfest grounds and the crowds expected, we decide not to join the dozen of our group who chance it. The brochure isn’t encouraging, either. If a tent is full (which most would be), you can’t enter, and you can’t purchase anything, including the € 11 liter of beer, unless you have a seat. You are “permitted to dance on the benches, but it is not permitted to stand on the tables.” Probably difficult to control given the inebriated consumers. We wouldn’t have survived.

Downtown Munich was also beyond crowded with cheerful Tyrolean peasant-dressed visitors everywhere.  We attempt to go to the famous Hofbrauhaus (right), but no empty seats remain in the great hall or any of the other eating areas. These are the tourists waiting for evening to join the annual festivities. We walk a block down the street and find a corner café with outside seating, lovely sandwiches, and coffee. We’ll save the wine and beer for evening. We shop in the pedestrian-only streets and admire the squares and the Cathedral. Munich has charm. We decide to return—but not in October.

After Munich

At the end of the day, we are relieved to travel through small villages in Bavaria and Tyrol toward the small city of Kufstein for the night. The citizens are cleaning up from a day celebrating their own small Octoberfest. From our hotel window, we look directly above us to the fortress that has watched over the city for eight hundred years (left).

A perfect spot for the night. It was a very long day.

Learn more about Dachau at  the official site:  https://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/index-e.html

See more photos of Dachau, Munich and Kufstein at the Yours in a Hurry Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/YoursinaHurry/

Next time: Salzburg and Hitler’s hide away, the Eagle’s Nest

The Road to Nuremberg

November 21, 2017

Our Memorial Tour starts in Frankfurt. It’s the fifth largest city in Germany and has Europe’s busiest airport. You hear a lot about German efficiency. That isn’t our experience.

German Efficiency

Two large flights arrive at the same time, and we are in the under-staffed and uncontrolled customs line for about an hour. Soon after our bus enters the autobahn on way to Nuremberg, traffic stops—and remains stopped for five hours. As we watch from the bus, some people get out of cars, sit in lawn chairs, and read books. School children see friends in neighboring cars and start playing. The busload of Americans can’t help thinking what would happen on one of our expressways in a situation like this. Heads would roll! Later we find out that two large trucks collided in a narrow construction area.

Once beyond the stop, we pass many exits on this new roadway that looks American with most of our fast food chains represented. Our guide tells us that McDonald’s, known as “The American Embassy,” is very popular.

The Nazi Parade Grounds 

The next morning our tour starts at the Nazi Parade Grounds. You’ve probably seen photos of this site your whole life, in history books and in historical film footage, with Hitler speaking enthusiastically to thousands of Germans, their arms raised in unison in a “Heil Hitler” salute. (photo right) Aside from the main structure where Hitler stood, a guide must describe what the rest once looked like. He directs us to large photos covered in plastic. Now it’s deserted, crumbling in areas and overgrown with weeds, except for a few tourists and joggers. We speak in quiet tones. Standing in this spot, I see ghosts. There were so many. They must be here. (photo below)

While here, we learn that there’s talk about beginning to acknowledge those who fought for Germany during World War 2. It’s been frowned upon so long, this history. Maybe bring the Parade Grounds back to its former glory, they say, or better preserve it as a tourist attraction.

As we leave to visit the site of the Nuremberg trials, it feels like preservation is a better idea.

Palace of Justice

From fall of 1945 until fall of 1946, the International Military Tribunal convened in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice to try individuals responsible for war crimes. The site was chosen because of the large space in the building, including many offices and the eighty courtrooms. The building was spared during the war, and a prison was part of the complex. 

The twenty-four Nazi leaders were tried on four points: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; panning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. The Tribunal opened in Berlin, but moved to Nuremberg on November 20, 1945. The trials lasted 218 days, with testimony from 360 witnesses, and more than 1,000 personnel assisting in the trials. The verdicts were announced on September 30 and October 1: twelve sentenced to death by hanging, seven sentences of life imprisonment, and three acquittals.

The courtroom has been remodeled, even more since we were last here several years ago. (photo right) The museum upstairs is spacious and describes the history well. What happened here may be one of the best examples of the quote attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As we leave the site, Dave asks one of our new travel mates, “Was your father in the war?” “Yes,” he replied, “but on the other side.” Hans, an American veteran post-World War 2, was orphaned at birth. His father was in the German navy and died when the German ship Bismarck sunk. His mother later brought her young son to America. We realize that the trip has a special meaning for Hans and his family, just as it does for Dave. 

Nuremberg 2017

I can't leave Nuremberg without commenting on what a vibrant city it is today. These photos show the multiculturalism (yes, that's a shushi stand outside Nuremberg cathedral). We also got a taste of what we'd experience on our next day. Many German towns and villages were celebrating the beginning of Octoberfest in Munich that weekend with their own local festivals, and Nuremberg was no exception.

             

Details on Nuremberg war history can be found at https://museums.nuernberg.de/nuremberg-municipal-museums/.

Send your World War 2 stories to ann@ann-otto.com.

Next time: Dachau and Munich

Two Wars in Perspective

November 9, 2017

“My travels taught me that there was no area of Europe free from the memories and monument of the First World War.”  Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History

I echo Gilbert’s comment. We saw these memorials in our travels, too. You can find  small monuments to military leaders and battles in cities and small villages throughout Europe that were ravaged in two wars. An  example below is the one hidden in Germany's Black Forest area, a tribute to Erwin Rommel. It's close to his home, and unlike the more formal monument near his grave, this is at the site of  his forced suicide by the Nazi regime.

I found Gilbert’s book when doing research for my next novel. He also wrote a book on World War 2, and he has a way of connecting events and individuals that helps us understand how history can take societies in directions both planned and unplanned. Most of the politicians and commanders involved in World War 2 participated in some way in the Great War. That’s why Gilbert’s books are considered good ones to start with if you’re interested in reading or studying either of these wars. 

Only an Intermission                                                     

The root causes of World War 2 began with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. The process of developing that document ruined American President Woodrow Wilson, and it changed much of Europe and the Middle East—but particularly Germany. As the world economy worsened after the Great War and reached its nadir in the 1929 depression, Germans became increasingly angry, and it was easy for someone with a promise of national renewal and revenge to develop a following. Scapegoats—such as Jews, Poles, and Socialists—provided common enemies on whom to vent frustration and anger.

Many see World War 2 as caused by one man’s insanity: Adolph Hitler. What we saw at Dachau makes one wonder about man’s inhumanity toward man—and how one person could have such an effect. I haven’t read much about the German psyche during this period, and it’s hard for me to understand. But our tour guides along the way explained much about the French during the occupation and why more didn’t join in the resistance. Some feared for their lives if they didn’t accept Nazi rule. Others felt that the Germans were sure to win the war and wanted to position themselves for that eventuality. Add these perspectives to the Germans’ feelings of being punished into a deep depression after the Great War, and one can see why few of them resisted. 

Ironies of War

Gilbert reminds us that more soldiers were killed in the Great War than any other war in history—8.6 million—a fact that many Americans forget given our brief time in that war in comparison to our losses in World War 2. During that war, Americans lost 48,000, not counting the 62,000 who died of influenza.

The American cemeteries in Europe for the two wars are pristine, like the American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, pictured. Ironically, many of the Great War’s cemeteries were being formally dedicated in the summer of 1937 while Hitler was moving into the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. On Easter 1939, survivors of a British Gun Corp met in Albert, a small French town, to dedicate a plaque commemorating their service and lost comrades in the Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months in 1918. Less than six months later, the Germans would come again. This time they would stay for over four years.

I hope you read Martin Gilbert’s works. If you are interested in the Great War, I recommend M. K. Tod’s website, A Writer of History. Her historical novels are well researched, and you can read blogs concerning the wars, some of which involve her family’s letters.

Next time: Nuremberg

Tracing History

October 28, 2017

Have you ever wanted to dig deeply into an ancestor’s past? I did that for some of my family members for Yours in a Hurry. Now it was my spouse’s turn. This is a first in a series of blogs reflecting on a recent World War 2 Memorial Tour. If you follow my site, you know that history is a family passion: we read it, and we visit and support museums, historical societies and sites, and libraries. In addition to wanting to revisit my family history, I wrote my first novel because I’m interested in the early 20th century.

A Father's Untold Story

Why a nearly three-week World War 2 tour? Dave’s dad was in the first wave at D-Day with the 29th Division. Like most of those veterans, he didn’t talk much about his experience. After this tour and reading more about what we saw, I can understand why. Who would want to relive the horrors, even in the mind?

Dave has read a lot about this war and others. He wanted to trace what he knew of his father’s path across Europe—St. Mere-Eglise, Bastogne, the Eagle’s Nest. We finally found a tour that did that and more. After seeing some locations, such as Nuremberg and the Remagen Bridge, on an earlier river cruise, we wanted a more in-depth look at Europe’s history at that period.  

Learning From The Past

The tour included World War I stops, and one was the site of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest US engagement of that war. Some characters in my work-in-progress, Little Diamonds, are World War 1 veterans, like Danny, a Meuse-Argonne survivor with post- traumatic stress syndrome. I started writing the novel before we knew that the site of that offensive would be part of the trip. I felt I was fated to be there, and couldn’t believe the similarity of the forests there to those of rural southern Ohio, the Little Diamonds setting.

Future novels will cover other aspects of World War 2, especially life on the home front for gold star mothers. Reading about this history is one thing. Seeing these European locations and hearing from individuals who were children at the time of the war made me aware of the extreme losses for two generations in the countries we visited—France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—as well as the United States.  

Search for Answers

Were Dave’s questions about his dad’s war record answered? Yes and no. For instance, after the occupation he was at Himmler’s house, and we could almost see it from the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s hideaway in the Alps near Salzburg. But Dave came back with has as many questions as answers. Some of his father’s comments of where he was after the occupation don’t fit. That’s a project for this winter.

Please join us on this journey, and share your family stories about this historical period. I’ll be glad to share them.

Character and Craft

September 17, 2017

I just finished reading Characters and Viewpoint (2010) by Orson Scott Card, one of many books on writing I’ve read the past few years while developing my writing skills. This is one of the best, not just because it deals with character building and emotions, but because Card is an author and teacher, and he uses books and films to highlight points on effective writing. The art of writing fiction includes being able to create the visual on paper for the reader, and Card caused me to think about some works I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Transferring Thoughts to Paper      

Card’s impressions of the complex plot structure and characters in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, both in the novel and film, led me to finally read the book. Some of those elements are successful by using the ploy of a “story within a story” and a comedian’s device of “doing a take”—stepping out of the story and speaking directly to the audience. Think: TV’s Dobbie Gillis; Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop; and Jack Benny or Woody Allen—anytime. If these aren’t familiar to you, visit your local library and borrow some examples. The trick is, how can a writer capture these great types of action on paper?

Characters are Key to the Action

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings creates a world of Middle Earth and populates it with a social stratum of memorable representative characters. For instance, the character Sauron appears only once, but readers remember him because of how Tolkien depicts him. We may not like certain characters, but as Card notes, the author needs them to be memorable. One of Card’s favorite films is Far from the Madding Crowd, and I love the latest version. It’s the characters, their personalities, and the choices they make that are riveting.

Stories can have a strong effect on us. Card mentions Stephen King often. In King’s stories, such as The Dead Zone and Misery, the main character usually experiences both physical and mental pain, often unbearable to the point that we suffer with them. Sexual tension—with positive (as in the 1939 film It Happened One Night) or negative outcomes (unrequited, as in The Elephant Man)—affects us, too. The same occurs when characters experience moods, as when the ark of the covenant opens in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or when storms rumble across the moors in Wuthering Heights.

In John le Carre’s spy thrillers, the characters aren’t heroes, just ordinary people. But George Smiley becomes more interesting than much of his literary competition. The same with Agatha Christie’s protagonists.

Creating Believable Characters

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Thomas Gavin’s The Last Film of Emile Vico are offered as strong examples of fictional memoir. Walker tells her story, in part, through letters from one person to another. Gavin’s 1930’s mystery involves a cameraman writing a memoir about the disappearance of a friend—whom he may have killed. How the authors pace the story and develop the characters is key.

What book you’ve read or film you’ve seen has really moved you, made you think about the book or screenplay, thinking “Wow, this is great writing!”?

                                                         Orson Scott Card is also the author of Ender’s Game (1985), which was made into a film in 2013, and numerous other best-selling novels http://www.hatrack.com/ .     

 

A Passionate Request

August 28, 2017

At the recent 109th Annual Hartle Reunion a family member presented me with a letter dated November 17, 1909. It was written by my grandfather, Thomas Purl, to a man who would soon be a relative. Unlike the one postmark used today, this letter is stamped by five postal services beginning at Fort Monroe, Virginia, before reaching its destination. Six red two-cent stamps with George Washington’s profile are atop a beautifully written ‘Special Delivery’. No street address or zip code, just:

Mr. Milo Sanford.                                                                                                                                                                              Marseilles. Ohio.                                                                                                                                                                       .       Wyandot. Co.  

When my relative presented the letter, he smiled and said, “Look what it says. He’s asking for money.”                                      

“What would you expect,” I replied. “He’d lost everything.” Purl had a hard time of it early in life. If you haven't already, you can read about it in Yours in a Hurry. The young soldier was abrupt: “I will write to you at once and tell you what I want,” he began. He’s written Mr. Sanford, father of the groom, Harry Sanford, who is marrying Purl’s sister, Mary, on November 30. I can’t imagine my grandfather being so abrupt, but it’s obvious by the rest of the letter that there is a pre-wedding dinner on November 25—only eight days away—that he wants badly to attend.

A previous blog explained Purl’s circumstances. He lived in various family homes after his parents died. He lost his inheritance shortly after getting it, and joined the army. His seven siblings, including Mary, safely guarded their inheritances.

His war record is sketchy due to the July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center that destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, so I didn’t know about his brief stay at Fort Monroe, Virginia, that first year.; or, that he’d gotten any leave that early in his military career. This would have been a great letter to to include in Yours in a Hurry. It describes Purl's situation at the time well.

I was glad to get one of his early letters. Even in later years, people marveled at his beautiful script (at right). He was supposedly an impulsive child, but he and all his siblings were well taught. Their older sister, Anna, was a school teacher. Purl worked as a railroad depot clerk until he retired. I’m sure they appreciated his 19th century calligraphy.

Have you ever uncovered a surprising letter from the past? What did it tell you? 

Worth a Thousand Words

August 3, 2017

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Looking at a family photo can give hints as to why some things turn out the way they do. Body language and facial expression tell a lot. In this photo of my mother and her siblings circa 1926 (right), William, standing at left, looks disturbed about something. Suddenly, memories of the siblings later in life come back to me.

The Twins

The twins are around three at the time. I’m pretty sure that my mother, Edith, is the one looking at the camera. Ellen, who went by Jane, was always looking for fun and taking greater risks. They were a surprise to grandma who had them when she was 42. Financially it was a burden. Now grandpa was a clerk for the railroad depot with six children. And grandma couldn’t say no when any neighbor or passer-by was on hard times and needed something. She was a dedicated member of the Pilgrim Holiness church down the street, and the children belonged until they were old enough to make their own decisions. At that point, they left. But that meant that the teen-aged twins had to sneak out of the house to go to the movies or wear make-up. As a child, I wasn’t permitted to wear shorts to grandma’s. She didn’t approve.

The girls married ex-service men and had families. Edith moved out of town and always missed the family.

Addison, Alma and Robert

Addison (middle rear in photo) and Robert (front right) served in World War 2, and then came home and raised families. Ruby (back right) had a mental disability. Back then she was labeled ‘slow’. She was grandma's special child. She may have been slow, but she could memorize the Bible. Everyone in the family loved her. She died young of leukemia. My mother always had a special place in her heart for those with disabilities because of Ruby.

William

William’s story is different- and heartbreaking for his mother. He was described as stubborn and moody. Grandma was the only one he cared for. He married shortly before going to war. His wife had a baby, and the family became close to little Patty. His wife worked at a bank, became involved with her boss, moved to the big city, divorced William, and married the banker.

Rumor has it that William started drinking when he lost his wife and child—but it could have been earlier. Grandma didn’t believe in divorce, and he knew he’d let her down. He’d never gotten along with grandpa who was very loyal to grandma. After this, he and grandpa never spoke. William moved out west and never told anyone where he was. Every few years he’d slip back home to see his mother.

I only saw him once. When I was about three, I was sleeping on my grandparent’s living room floor late at night and can remember the front door opening. I woke up, startled, but not afraid. A tall, thin man was equally as startled seeing me. He didn’t smile or speak, merely walked toward the back of the house. Shortly, my mother came and took me upstairs. I didn't see him again; he was gone the next morning.

The family had difficulty tracking him down after grandma died. They only knew that he was working as a migrant farmer in Washington state. His then-current partner convinced him to respond to a registered letter that finally reached him. William said he didn’t want anything from the family, and never wanted contact with them again. I found his death on Ancestry.com many years later.

I’ve often wished I’d known more of William’s early story. But the family rarely spoke of him. What or who was he looking at in the photo? Was it  his father? Maybe he just didn't want to be in the photo. Why? The family loved William’s first wife and child, so I can understand his need to get away from that situation for a while, but his life decision was drastic.

Alma

Someone is missing from the photo. My mother was always sad that grandpa never included Alma in family photos. She remembered Alma always standing off to the side. Grandma was a widow when she married grandpa, and Alma was her daughter from the first marriage. Grandma was older than grandpa, and Alma was older than the siblings. Maybe that’s why. A few years later, Alma had a daughter out of wedlock. Grandma knew that Alma had a harder time than the others, so she made sure that the family came together and embraced the daughter, who became one of the most loved family members until she died a few years ago. We have photos of her when she was young. It would have been nice to have photos of Alma when she was younger.

Care to share?

Have you ever looked at a photo and wondered what was going on in that instant?  If you have and would like to share, please email me at ann@ann-otto.com, or post  them via this website or on my Yours in a Hurry Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YoursinaHurry/ .

 

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Sacrifices on the Western Front

February 12, 2018

The next stop on our World War 2 tour takes us through the Voges mountains to Lorraine’s American Cemetery in St. Avold, one of many French, German and American cemeteries on the tour. It also provides excellent historical context to this period of the war. Linden trees line the avenue leading up to the visitor building.

Moselle River to V-E Day

The 10,487 buried at St. Avold were involved in battles surrounding the Mozelle River from September 1944 to the European victory, V-E Day, in 1945. American flags are highly visible. Large concrete "walls of the missing" display the names of another 444 missing in action. Above the entrance, a tall statue of St. Nabor blesses those resting here.

The cemetery is beautifully laid out and landscaped. At one end the ground rises to a knoll with an overlook from which you can see the entire cemetery and the countryside for miles—the countryside that these men fought to protect.

We are the only ones here except for maintenance workers. It provides a feeling of solitude. No one speaks. We quietly walk the rows of markers, and then walk up to the overlook.

Two large, glazed ceramic maps on the chapel’s south wall show military operations in western Europe, including fighting in the St. Avold region. These troops, including African-Americans, pursued German forces across eastern France beginning in early September 1944 when the US Third Army’s Fifth Infantry Division crossed the Moselle River near Dornot. By late November, the Third and Seventh Armies had liberated Sarrebourg, Metz and finally St. Avold.

On December 19, the Third Army, including Dave’s father Dick, left, moving north toward what would become the Battle of the Bulge. March 9, they crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim, reaching Frankfurt on March 26. The war ended when the Seventh Army entered Munich on April 30. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7 at Reims, and V-E Day was May 8.

One of the most interesting experiences is hearing from a St. Avold citizen who was nine years old during the months when war surrounded the town. He described daily living conditions—and fears—during that fall, and the lasting memories those in St. Avold hold for the Americans who came to their rescue. He also reminded us that for the children, there was some levity as well. There was no school.

On to the next stop on our tour. For that, we go underground.

Next time: Fort Hackenburg on the Western Front

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohio siblings relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at http://www.ann-otto.com.  Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals.  She loves speaking with groups about all things history; writing; and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel, Little Diamonds, about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s, and preparing for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or https://www.goodreads.com/author/dashboard..

 

Back Roads to Ulm and the Black Forest

January 24, 2018

Traffic on the German autobahn is challenging today, so to get to the next stops on our World War 2 tour,  the driver chooses to take country roads, which turns out badly for him, but good for us. It’s especially helpful for me to see the type of terrain that soldiers traversed in World War 1, which plays a role in my next book.

Highest German Spire

We can see Ulm Minster from a distance. The highest spire in Germany reminds me of the grandeur of other inspiring cathedrals I’ve seen, such as Salisbury in England, except that Ulm now sits in a crowed downtown area.  The first large, venerable cathedral I ever saw was York Minster while on a trip with my son years ago. Inspiring religious sites are my favorite on any trip, whether in Gaudi’s 20th century Barcelona or ancient Luxor in Egypt.

Ulm Minster was developed over many time periods. The first plan for the church was in 1377, and it was consecrated, uncompleted, in 1405. What makes it unique for me is the work of Jorg Syrlin the Elder from 1469-1474. The master carver lined its choir with an elaborate set of eighty-nine wooden stalls. Ninety busts of male and female saints, sibyls, Old Testament figures and classical thinkers adorn the benches, the wall revetments and the overhanging canopies.  The north side wall depicts men, women the south wall, with one of my favorites, the sibyl, Hellespontica.  Syrlin was aided by a team of sculptors and joiners. At the end of each group of stalls are fully carved busts of sibyls (south) and scholars (north). The choir stalls reflect the collective wisdom and faith of classical, Jewish and Christian people. (The Web Gallery of Art). 

Ulm’s old town near the Danube is beautiful. We walked with other tourists along the ancient buildings mixed with new, residences and shops.  It's a Monday in late September and you can hear a pin drop. So different from busy Salzberg the day before. We eat lunch at an outdoor café along the water, surrounded by colorful flowers. (below right)

Rommel’s Heritage

The afternoon is dedicated to sites in remembrance of German general Edwin Rommel, known as “The Desert Fox.” The home where he lived during the war years is in a lovely section of the small town of Herrlingen. We are told the story of how Hitler lost trust in Rommel, assuming him an instigator of one of the assignation plots against the Fuhrer.

One day, SS troops came to Rommel’s home and took him to a nearby forest. His option: his family would be protected if he would commit suicide. Germany would be told that their hero died of complications of a surgery he recently had. Even the Furher was afraid of public repercussions if the famous Rommel, beloved hero of two wars, was murdered by the party. Rommel did what was asked. We visited the site where it occurred. A large rock in a natural setting marks the spot.

Our next stop was at Rommel’s grave and marker in a small cemetery. We are surprised that this is the extent of tribute to someone so loved by the German people. However, he was a Nazi, so in the cultural climate since World War 2, it’s understandable.

Edge of the Black Forest

Road closures make for a very long drive to our hotel. The detours bring us to Bad Herrenalb on the northern edge of the Black Forest, part of Baden-Wurttemberg, where Dave and I both have roots. The town is so small it is hard to find on a map. And we are again transported back to another time, centuries ago. The town was founded in 1148. Much of the reason that foreigners choose to travel Europe is historic preservation. We’re just beginning to appreciate that in our own America.

 Next time: World War 2 Fort Hackenberg and the Lorraine American Cemetary in St. Avold, France

Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohio siblings relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals.  She loves speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel, Little Diamonds, about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com. 

 

Salzburg and the Eagle's Nest

January 7, 2018

A main attraction for David on our World War 2 memorial tour was a visit to Adolph Hitler’s tea house atop the rocky summit of the Kehlstein peak near Berchtesgaden in the German Bavarian Alps. His father visited the bunker at the base of the mountains and possibly Hitler’s hideaway as well.

An Infamous Meeting Place

The tea house, thousands of feet above the town of Berchtesgaden, was a meeting and entertainment site for the Nazi elite. Hitler became chancellor in 1930. In 1936 an eighty-building compound was fenced off in the Berchtesgaden area, fifteen miles from Salzburg and three miles from Obersalzberg, the “cradle of the 3rd Reich.”  In 1939 the National Socialist German Workers’ Party presented Hitler with the Kehlsteinhaus (now known as the Eagle’s Nest) for his 50th birthday.  

 

We often see the same newsreel of him there with Eva Braun and friends. Why usually only that one? According to travel guides, he only visited the Nest fourteen times. He was claustrophobic and afraid of heights. The newsreel shows large black cars delivering dignitaries up the four-mile road to a cliff-side turn-around point. We take special tourist buses. After walking through a dark ¾-mile tunnel (left), we reach the brass-paneled elevator and ride the same distance vertically to reach the Nest.

One can understand Hitler’s hesitancy  in visiting.   The Eagle’s Nest is now the responsibility of the Berchtesgadener Landesstiftung, and with the local tourism association, the trust leases the Nest to a concessionaire as a café and restaurant. The three large rooms are filled near lunchtime on this Sunday afternoon. We go out the back door and see the path leading straight up to the mountain tip. The walk up is not for the faint-hearted (above), but we take it. Black birds circle continuously in the skies above. Below, we see the houses of key Nazis which David’s father visited in 1945. The underground bunker, with its four miles of tunnels, built in 1943 after the Battle of Stalingrad, is closed today.

Sounds of Music

We travel back down the Kehlstein for a short drive to Salzburg. We visited here two years ago with a tour guide and saw the castle level, the ministry, and the Sound of Music park where the von Trapp children sang in costumes made of curtain fabric. This time, we are able to use our free time to blend in with the community.

 

 

A large festival is going on throughout the city: nostalgic and beautifully crafted carnival rides; crafters; and lots of food and drink, especially beer vendors in tents and beer halls. Their version of Octoberfest. To avoid the crowds in the last half hour of our visit, we stop for wine and hard cider at an outdoor café at the edge of town center.

Dinner in a small village on the way back to Kufstein is memorable. Our plates are small, round wooden cheese-boards. The main course, ribs, arrives ceremoniously on a long wooden plank with glittering sparklers on top. The large wine and beer pours are appreciated after a long day.

For more on the Eagle’s Nest, visit https://www.obersalzberg.de/obersalzberg-home.html?&L=1

Next time: Ulm Minster and the Black Forest 

Dachau and Munich

December 12, 2017

The next stops on our memorial tour are contrasts in setting—one for solemn reflection, the other for hedonist celebrations. Welcome to Dachau and Munich.

Dachau

We enter the gate that reads Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Sets You Free”), which appeared on entrances to Auschwitz and other concentration camps like Dachau. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the center of the courtyard and the breathtaking sculpture known as the International Monument (right). Hitler established this first camp in 1933 for political prisoners. I’d expressed concerns about visiting this site on the trip, remembering sorrowful feelings after touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Group members who have visited Dachau before say that this was a political camp, not a death camp. I can’t fathom the difference.

Several buildings remain as museums. Commanded by the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel, or “Protective Echelon”), over 200,000 prisoners from throughout Europe were imprisoned in the twelve years that the camp was open, and one in five prisoners died. The camp was liberated by the Americans on April 29, 1945. While Dave visits the crematorium area, I visit the nearby Russian Orthodox church, one of several religious monuments on the grounds.

Unlike many sites visited on our trip, everyone, youth included, are silent and well behaved. We walk through buildings where prisoners slept and ate, tables and chairs just as they left them. One locker remains open so we can see how sparingly they lived. We return to the bus, still in whispers. We are glad Dachau is still here to archive and educate future generations.

October in Munich

It’s the opening weekend of Octoberfest in Munich for us—and three million others from around the world. For Germany, that means plentiful beer and food. Dave and I have German roots, and his are around the Munich area in Bavaria. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but when we hear the logistics of getting to the official Octoberfest grounds and the crowds expected, we decide not to join the dozen of our group who chance it. The brochure isn’t encouraging, either. If a tent is full (which most would be), you can’t enter, and you can’t purchase anything, including the € 11 liter of beer, unless you have a seat. You are “permitted to dance on the benches, but it is not permitted to stand on the tables.” Probably difficult to control given the inebriated consumers. We wouldn’t have survived.

Downtown Munich was also beyond crowded with cheerful Tyrolean peasant-dressed visitors everywhere.  We attempt to go to the famous Hofbrauhaus (right), but no empty seats remain in the great hall or any of the other eating areas. These are the tourists waiting for evening to join the annual festivities. We walk a block down the street and find a corner café with outside seating, lovely sandwiches, and coffee. We’ll save the wine and beer for evening. We shop in the pedestrian-only streets and admire the squares and the Cathedral. Munich has charm. We decide to return—but not in October.

After Munich

At the end of the day, we are relieved to travel through small villages in Bavaria and Tyrol toward the small city of Kufstein for the night. The citizens are cleaning up from a day celebrating their own small Octoberfest. From our hotel window, we look directly above us to the fortress that has watched over the city for eight hundred years (left).

A perfect spot for the night. It was a very long day.

Learn more about Dachau at  the official site:  https://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/index-e.html

See more photos of Dachau, Munich and Kufstein at the Yours in a Hurry Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/YoursinaHurry/

Next time: Salzburg and Hitler’s hide away, the Eagle’s Nest

The Road to Nuremberg

November 21, 2017

Our Memorial Tour starts in Frankfurt. It’s the fifth largest city in Germany and has Europe’s busiest airport. You hear a lot about German efficiency. That isn’t our experience.

German Efficiency

Two large flights arrive at the same time, and we are in the under-staffed and uncontrolled customs line for about an hour. Soon after our bus enters the autobahn on way to Nuremberg, traffic stops—and remains stopped for five hours. As we watch from the bus, some people get out of cars, sit in lawn chairs, and read books. School children see friends in neighboring cars and start playing. The busload of Americans can’t help thinking what would happen on one of our expressways in a situation like this. Heads would roll! Later we find out that two large trucks collided in a narrow construction area.

Once beyond the stop, we pass many exits on this new roadway that looks American with most of our fast food chains represented. Our guide tells us that McDonald’s, known as “The American Embassy,” is very popular.

The Nazi Parade Grounds 

The next morning our tour starts at the Nazi Parade Grounds. You’ve probably seen photos of this site your whole life, in history books and in historical film footage, with Hitler speaking enthusiastically to thousands of Germans, their arms raised in unison in a “Heil Hitler” salute. (photo right) Aside from the main structure where Hitler stood, a guide must describe what the rest once looked like. He directs us to large photos covered in plastic. Now it’s deserted, crumbling in areas and overgrown with weeds, except for a few tourists and joggers. We speak in quiet tones. Standing in this spot, I see ghosts. There were so many. They must be here. (photo below)

While here, we learn that there’s talk about beginning to acknowledge those who fought for Germany during World War 2. It’s been frowned upon so long, this history. Maybe bring the Parade Grounds back to its former glory, they say, or better preserve it as a tourist attraction.

As we leave to visit the site of the Nuremberg trials, it feels like preservation is a better idea.

Palace of Justice

From fall of 1945 until fall of 1946, the International Military Tribunal convened in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice to try individuals responsible for war crimes. The site was chosen because of the large space in the building, including many offices and the eighty courtrooms. The building was spared during the war, and a prison was part of the complex. 

The twenty-four Nazi leaders were tried on four points: conspiracy to commit crimes against peace; panning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; war crimes; and crimes against humanity. The Tribunal opened in Berlin, but moved to Nuremberg on November 20, 1945. The trials lasted 218 days, with testimony from 360 witnesses, and more than 1,000 personnel assisting in the trials. The verdicts were announced on September 30 and October 1: twelve sentenced to death by hanging, seven sentences of life imprisonment, and three acquittals.

The courtroom has been remodeled, even more since we were last here several years ago. (photo right) The museum upstairs is spacious and describes the history well. What happened here may be one of the best examples of the quote attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As we leave the site, Dave asks one of our new travel mates, “Was your father in the war?” “Yes,” he replied, “but on the other side.” Hans, an American veteran post-World War 2, was orphaned at birth. His father was in the German navy and died when the German ship Bismarck sunk. His mother later brought her young son to America. We realize that the trip has a special meaning for Hans and his family, just as it does for Dave. 

Nuremberg 2017

I can't leave Nuremberg without commenting on what a vibrant city it is today. These photos show the multiculturalism (yes, that's a shushi stand outside Nuremberg cathedral). We also got a taste of what we'd experience on our next day. Many German towns and villages were celebrating the beginning of Octoberfest in Munich that weekend with their own local festivals, and Nuremberg was no exception.

             

Details on Nuremberg war history can be found at https://museums.nuernberg.de/nuremberg-municipal-museums/.

Send your World War 2 stories to ann@ann-otto.com.

Next time: Dachau and Munich

Two Wars in Perspective

November 9, 2017

“My travels taught me that there was no area of Europe free from the memories and monument of the First World War.”  Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History

I echo Gilbert’s comment. We saw these memorials in our travels, too. You can find  small monuments to military leaders and battles in cities and small villages throughout Europe that were ravaged in two wars. An  example below is the one hidden in Germany's Black Forest area, a tribute to Erwin Rommel. It's close to his home, and unlike the more formal monument near his grave, this is at the site of  his forced suicide by the Nazi regime.

I found Gilbert’s book when doing research for my next novel. He also wrote a book on World War 2, and he has a way of connecting events and individuals that helps us understand how history can take societies in directions both planned and unplanned. Most of the politicians and commanders involved in World War 2 participated in some way in the Great War. That’s why Gilbert’s books are considered good ones to start with if you’re interested in reading or studying either of these wars. 

Only an Intermission                                                     

The root causes of World War 2 began with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. The process of developing that document ruined American President Woodrow Wilson, and it changed much of Europe and the Middle East—but particularly Germany. As the world economy worsened after the Great War and reached its nadir in the 1929 depression, Germans became increasingly angry, and it was easy for someone with a promise of national renewal and revenge to develop a following. Scapegoats—such as Jews, Poles, and Socialists—provided common enemies on whom to vent frustration and anger.

Many see World War 2 as caused by one man’s insanity: Adolph Hitler. What we saw at Dachau makes one wonder about man’s inhumanity toward man—and how one person could have such an effect. I haven’t read much about the German psyche during this period, and it’s hard for me to understand. But our tour guides along the way explained much about the French during the occupation and why more didn’t join in the resistance. Some feared for their lives if they didn’t accept Nazi rule. Others felt that the Germans were sure to win the war and wanted to position themselves for that eventuality. Add these perspectives to the Germans’ feelings of being punished into a deep depression after the Great War, and one can see why few of them resisted. 

Ironies of War

Gilbert reminds us that more soldiers were killed in the Great War than any other war in history—8.6 million—a fact that many Americans forget given our brief time in that war in comparison to our losses in World War 2. During that war, Americans lost 48,000, not counting the 62,000 who died of influenza.

The American cemeteries in Europe for the two wars are pristine, like the American Cemetery in St. Avold, France, pictured. Ironically, many of the Great War’s cemeteries were being formally dedicated in the summer of 1937 while Hitler was moving into the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. On Easter 1939, survivors of a British Gun Corp met in Albert, a small French town, to dedicate a plaque commemorating their service and lost comrades in the Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months in 1918. Less than six months later, the Germans would come again. This time they would stay for over four years.

I hope you read Martin Gilbert’s works. If you are interested in the Great War, I recommend M. K. Tod’s website, A Writer of History. Her historical novels are well researched, and you can read blogs concerning the wars, some of which involve her family’s letters.

Next time: Nuremberg

Tracing History

October 28, 2017

Have you ever wanted to dig deeply into an ancestor’s past? I did that for some of my family members for Yours in a Hurry. Now it was my spouse’s turn. This is a first in a series of blogs reflecting on a recent World War 2 Memorial Tour. If you follow my site, you know that history is a family passion: we read it, and we visit and support museums, historical societies and sites, and libraries. In addition to wanting to revisit my family history, I wrote my first novel because I’m interested in the early 20th century.

A Father's Untold Story

Why a nearly three-week World War 2 tour? Dave’s dad was in the first wave at D-Day with the 29th Division. Like most of those veterans, he didn’t talk much about his experience. After this tour and reading more about what we saw, I can understand why. Who would want to relive the horrors, even in the mind?

Dave has read a lot about this war and others. He wanted to trace what he knew of his father’s path across Europe—St. Mere-Eglise, Bastogne, the Eagle’s Nest. We finally found a tour that did that and more. After seeing some locations, such as Nuremberg and the Remagen Bridge, on an earlier river cruise, we wanted a more in-depth look at Europe’s history at that period.  

Learning From The Past

The tour included World War I stops, and one was the site of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest US engagement of that war. Some characters in my work-in-progress, Little Diamonds, are World War 1 veterans, like Danny, a Meuse-Argonne survivor with post- traumatic stress syndrome. I started writing the novel before we knew that the site of that offensive would be part of the trip. I felt I was fated to be there, and couldn’t believe the similarity of the forests there to those of rural southern Ohio, the Little Diamonds setting.

Future novels will cover other aspects of World War 2, especially life on the home front for gold star mothers. Reading about this history is one thing. Seeing these European locations and hearing from individuals who were children at the time of the war made me aware of the extreme losses for two generations in the countries we visited—France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands—as well as the United States.  

Search for Answers

Were Dave’s questions about his dad’s war record answered? Yes and no. For instance, after the occupation he was at Himmler’s house, and we could almost see it from the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s hideaway in the Alps near Salzburg. But Dave came back with has as many questions as answers. Some of his father’s comments of where he was after the occupation don’t fit. That’s a project for this winter.

Please join us on this journey, and share your family stories about this historical period. I’ll be glad to share them.

Character and Craft

September 17, 2017

I just finished reading Characters and Viewpoint (2010) by Orson Scott Card, one of many books on writing I’ve read the past few years while developing my writing skills. This is one of the best, not just because it deals with character building and emotions, but because Card is an author and teacher, and he uses books and films to highlight points on effective writing. The art of writing fiction includes being able to create the visual on paper for the reader, and Card caused me to think about some works I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Transferring Thoughts to Paper      

Card’s impressions of the complex plot structure and characters in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, both in the novel and film, led me to finally read the book. Some of those elements are successful by using the ploy of a “story within a story” and a comedian’s device of “doing a take”—stepping out of the story and speaking directly to the audience. Think: TV’s Dobbie Gillis; Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop; and Jack Benny or Woody Allen—anytime. If these aren’t familiar to you, visit your local library and borrow some examples. The trick is, how can a writer capture these great types of action on paper?

Characters are Key to the Action

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings creates a world of Middle Earth and populates it with a social stratum of memorable representative characters. For instance, the character Sauron appears only once, but readers remember him because of how Tolkien depicts him. We may not like certain characters, but as Card notes, the author needs them to be memorable. One of Card’s favorite films is Far from the Madding Crowd, and I love the latest version. It’s the characters, their personalities, and the choices they make that are riveting.

Stories can have a strong effect on us. Card mentions Stephen King often. In King’s stories, such as The Dead Zone and Misery, the main character usually experiences both physical and mental pain, often unbearable to the point that we suffer with them. Sexual tension—with positive (as in the 1939 film It Happened One Night) or negative outcomes (unrequited, as in The Elephant Man)—affects us, too. The same occurs when characters experience moods, as when the ark of the covenant opens in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or when storms rumble across the moors in Wuthering Heights.

In John le Carre’s spy thrillers, the characters aren’t heroes, just ordinary people. But George Smiley becomes more interesting than much of his literary competition. The same with Agatha Christie’s protagonists.

Creating Believable Characters

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Thomas Gavin’s The Last Film of Emile Vico are offered as strong examples of fictional memoir. Walker tells her story, in part, through letters from one person to another. Gavin’s 1930’s mystery involves a cameraman writing a memoir about the disappearance of a friend—whom he may have killed. How the authors pace the story and develop the characters is key.

What book you’ve read or film you’ve seen has really moved you, made you think about the book or screenplay, thinking “Wow, this is great writing!”?

                                                         Orson Scott Card is also the author of Ender’s Game (1985), which was made into a film in 2013, and numerous other best-selling novels http://www.hatrack.com/ .     

 

A Passionate Request

August 28, 2017

At the recent 109th Annual Hartle Reunion a family member presented me with a letter dated November 17, 1909. It was written by my grandfather, Thomas Purl, to a man who would soon be a relative. Unlike the one postmark used today, this letter is stamped by five postal services beginning at Fort Monroe, Virginia, before reaching its destination. Six red two-cent stamps with George Washington’s profile are atop a beautifully written ‘Special Delivery’. No street address or zip code, just:

Mr. Milo Sanford.                                                                                                                                                                              Marseilles. Ohio.                                                                                                                                                                       .       Wyandot. Co.  

When my relative presented the letter, he smiled and said, “Look what it says. He’s asking for money.”                                      

“What would you expect,” I replied. “He’d lost everything.” Purl had a hard time of it early in life. If you haven't already, you can read about it in Yours in a Hurry. The young soldier was abrupt: “I will write to you at once and tell you what I want,” he began. He’s written Mr. Sanford, father of the groom, Harry Sanford, who is marrying Purl’s sister, Mary, on November 30. I can’t imagine my grandfather being so abrupt, but it’s obvious by the rest of the letter that there is a pre-wedding dinner on November 25—only eight days away—that he wants badly to attend.

A previous blog explained Purl’s circumstances. He lived in various family homes after his parents died. He lost his inheritance shortly after getting it, and joined the army. His seven siblings, including Mary, safely guarded their inheritances.

His war record is sketchy due to the July 12, 1973, fire at the National Personnel Records Center that destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, so I didn’t know about his brief stay at Fort Monroe, Virginia, that first year.; or, that he’d gotten any leave that early in his military career. This would have been a great letter to to include in Yours in a Hurry. It describes Purl's situation at the time well.

I was glad to get one of his early letters. Even in later years, people marveled at his beautiful script (at right). He was supposedly an impulsive child, but he and all his siblings were well taught. Their older sister, Anna, was a school teacher. Purl worked as a railroad depot clerk until he retired. I’m sure they appreciated his 19th century calligraphy.

Have you ever uncovered a surprising letter from the past? What did it tell you? 

Worth a Thousand Words

August 3, 2017

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Looking at a family photo can give hints as to why some things turn out the way they do. Body language and facial expression tell a lot. In this photo of my mother and her siblings circa 1926 (right), William, standing at left, looks disturbed about something. Suddenly, memories of the siblings later in life come back to me.

The Twins

The twins are around three at the time. I’m pretty sure that my mother, Edith, is the one looking at the camera. Ellen, who went by Jane, was always looking for fun and taking greater risks. They were a surprise to grandma who had them when she was 42. Financially it was a burden. Now grandpa was a clerk for the railroad depot with six children. And grandma couldn’t say no when any neighbor or passer-by was on hard times and needed something. She was a dedicated member of the Pilgrim Holiness church down the street, and the children belonged until they were old enough to make their own decisions. At that point, they left. But that meant that the teen-aged twins had to sneak out of the house to go to the movies or wear make-up. As a child, I wasn’t permitted to wear shorts to grandma’s. She didn’t approve.

The girls married ex-service men and had families. Edith moved out of town and always missed the family.

Addison, Alma and Robert

Addison (middle rear in photo) and Robert (front right) served in World War 2, and then came home and raised families. Ruby (back right) had a mental disability. Back then she was labeled ‘slow’. She was grandma's special child. She may have been slow, but she could memorize the Bible. Everyone in the family loved her. She died young of leukemia. My mother always had a special place in her heart for those with disabilities because of Ruby.

William

William’s story is different- and heartbreaking for his mother. He was described as stubborn and moody. Grandma was the only one he cared for. He married shortly before going to war. His wife had a baby, and the family became close to little Patty. His wife worked at a bank, became involved with her boss, moved to the big city, divorced William, and married the banker.

Rumor has it that William started drinking when he lost his wife and child—but it could have been earlier. Grandma didn’t believe in divorce, and he knew he’d let her down. He’d never gotten along with grandpa who was very loyal to grandma. After this, he and grandpa never spoke. William moved out west and never told anyone where he was. Every few years he’d slip back home to see his mother.

I only saw him once. When I was about three, I was sleeping on my grandparent’s living room floor late at night and can remember the front door opening. I woke up, startled, but not afraid. A tall, thin man was equally as startled seeing me. He didn’t smile or speak, merely walked toward the back of the house. Shortly, my mother came and took me upstairs. I didn't see him again; he was gone the next morning.

The family had difficulty tracking him down after grandma died. They only knew that he was working as a migrant farmer in Washington state. His then-current partner convinced him to respond to a registered letter that finally reached him. William said he didn’t want anything from the family, and never wanted contact with them again. I found his death on Ancestry.com many years later.

I’ve often wished I’d known more of William’s early story. But the family rarely spoke of him. What or who was he looking at in the photo? Was it  his father? Maybe he just didn't want to be in the photo. Why? The family loved William’s first wife and child, so I can understand his need to get away from that situation for a while, but his life decision was drastic.

Alma

Someone is missing from the photo. My mother was always sad that grandpa never included Alma in family photos. She remembered Alma always standing off to the side. Grandma was a widow when she married grandpa, and Alma was her daughter from the first marriage. Grandma was older than grandpa, and Alma was older than the siblings. Maybe that’s why. A few years later, Alma had a daughter out of wedlock. Grandma knew that Alma had a harder time than the others, so she made sure that the family came together and embraced the daughter, who became one of the most loved family members until she died a few years ago. We have photos of her when she was young. It would have been nice to have photos of Alma when she was younger.

Care to share?

Have you ever looked at a photo and wondered what was going on in that instant?  If you have and would like to share, please email me at ann@ann-otto.com, or post  them via this website or on my Yours in a Hurry Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/YoursinaHurry/ .

 

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Hi Linda. I know Carolyn. Are you the person who was presenting on Clara in our area about one year ago? If you are ever around here, I'll try to attend. I'm not writing about Clara, but about another Ohio family of the same era (as you can see by the many posts about the book in my blogs) who left and went to California. Echo was nice enough to correspond with me. I used some ideas about how she set her book up to help me with mine.
Best,
Ann

Anne, I am Clara Wolcott Driscoll's 4th cousin (related to Carolyn Mackey in addition to a plethura of other Wolcotts across this country). And I do presentations about Clara - have done 87 of them so far in the past 8 years from upstate NY to Palm Beach. Someone said you were writing a book about Clara? Echo Heron and I are friends and she said she had communicated with you. Just curious what you are doing.

Yes, and I've seen her present. Also loved Girl With the Pearl Earring.

i see you like Tracy Chevalier. Have you read Remarkable Creatures? a historical novel about two women archaeologists.