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Friday, May 29, 2009

Paradise Redefined

Wh`y Hawai`i?

Hawaiian flag
The Hawaiian state flag is certainly a curious one for a U.S. state. It’s actually a hybrid of the British Union Jack and the American standard’s stripes, with blue ones thrown in
Until relatively recently, most Americans, including me, have identified our 50th and newest state – if you call admission to the Union in 1959 “new” – as Hawaii.

Nope. America’s most ethnically diverse and distant state – farther from another landmass than any other inhabited place on earth – is Hawai`i.

And yes, what appears to be an apostrophe in “Hawai`i” is facing the wrong direction, according what English-users are used to.

It turns out that the reasons for the distinction – Hawai`i rather than Hawaii – are a lot more complex than I imagined when I began asking about them.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
This is the breathtaking view from Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
I didn’t pay much attention to, or try to make sense of, any of it until the last time Carol and I traveled to the archipelago of eight inhabited Pacific islands a couple of years ago. Then we noticed that these odd words with their backward apostrophes – odd if you’re from Ohio – had sprouted like wild Hawaiian orchids: Pu`u o Kila Lookout and the Nu`alolo Valley on the “Garden Island” of Kaua`i, and Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the volcanic “Big Island” of Hawai`i (like the state), for example.

Wiki Wiki
No apostrophe needed in this commonly seen Hawaiian sign, for a Wiki-Wiki (quick-quick!) convenience store
No longer, in blissfully incurious tourist fashion, could we chalk up all these apostrophes to “local color” and pay them no mind. And here’s what we found out:

Hawaiian – one of the state’s two official languages, along with English – has Polynesian roots, tracing to the settlement of the archipelago by Marquesans and Tahitians from even more distant Pacific islands beginning about 300 A.D. When certain vowels in certain places within certain words bump into each other in Hawaiian, those who are speaking the word take an almost imperceptible breath – something that linguists call a “glottal stop.” You hear it in English, for instance, when one puts a brief, breathy pause in “Oh-oh!”

Vocal chords
The human throat isn’t all that attractive, but as this old Grey’s Anatomy sketch illustrates, it’s functional. The glottis is the expanding and contracting opening leading to the trachea
“Glottal,” in case you’re curious – and even if you’re not – derives from the glottis. That’s the space in the back of the throat that’s created when one’s vocal chords open and quiver.

The glottis produces that slight sound during that ever-so-brief interruption in some
Here’s Arthur Godfrey in 1953, strumming his ukulele. Godfrey was a headstrong fellow who routinely fired others on his show, including singer Julius LaRosa once, on the air!
Hawaiian words. You can almost hear the fleeting exhalation that turns the common English pronunciation of “Huh-wy-ee” into “Huh-WHUH,ee,” with a little puff of air between the “whuh” and the “ee.” Native Hawaiians prefer “Huh-VUH,ee” – with a “v” – but still with the tiny pause toward the end of the word. For those of us long-toothed enough to remember: Arthur Godfrey, the venerable, red-haired radio and television personality who wore a gaudy, floral Hawaiian shirt, didn’t miss the authentic pronunciation by much when he sang about “going back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Huh-vuh,ee” while strumming his ukulele.

Now that you’re up to speed with the glottal stop (aren’t you?), a word about that funny apostrophe. It’s not an apostrophe at all. “Well I’ll be,” I can hear you saying.

That’s the okina key, shared with the tilde (~). Usually it’s overlooked, up there next to the much more useful No. 1
It’s an “okina” – a mark that exists specifically to indicate those glottal stops within a word. Most English computer keyboards do park an okina symbol way up on the far left corner of the “numbers” row, on the key that also houses the tilde diacritical mark (~) , not that you ever notice them up there.

All of this, including the reference to a radio guy who’s been dead for 26 years, would be mighty arcane if it weren’t associated with a highly serious nationalist movement in the Hawaiian Islands. (The adjective “Hawaiian,” by the way, isn’t spelled with the okina – it’s not “Hawai`ian” – because it’s a purely English word; there’s no direct equivalent in the Hawaiian language.)

An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands
This is a 1778 illustration, “An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands,” by Andrew Middleman. Cook made three trips to Hawai`i. He was killed in a fight onshore after the third one
This all goes back to the islands’ colorful history. They were ruled by one Polynesian monarch or another until British naval captain James Cook “discovered” them in 1778 and named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. It wasn’t long before other European ships stopped there on voyages to and from the Far East. They brought wondrous new goods, Christianity, and diseases that killed a huge proportion of the indigenous population.

King Kamehameha I – Kalani Pai`ea Wohi o Kaleikini Keali`ikui Kamehameha o `Iolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea in Hawaiian – whom Hawaiians consider a founding father equivalent to the first U.S. president, George Washington – unified the islands in 1810 into a new and independent country, and his descendants and their families maintained control for a century.

Pineapple harvest
This view of a Hawaiian pineapple harvest was shot about 1920. The backdrop is beautiful, but the work was grueling
The 19th century also brought foreign “investment” to Hawai`i in the form of vast sugarcane and pineapple plantations, owned and run by whites, and worked largely by a steady stream of imported Asian immigrants. Remember, the Hawaiian population had been cut to one-sixth its original size by disease, and most of its survivors preferred the traditional life of subsistence farming and fishing to backbreaking work in the steamy sugar and pineapple fields.

In 1893, a revolution led by American pineapple baron Sanford B. Dole deposed Queen Liliuokalani and brought forth a short-lived Hawaiian Republic.

Three guesses as to its president.

You got it on the first guess: Sanford B. Dole.

This takeover, more than a century ago, infuriates Native Hawaiians to this day. To them, it represented a theft of their kingdom, their lands, and their identity. That identity is re-emerging, at least symbolically, with the appearance of so many Hawaiian word forms in official parlance.

In 1898, 11 years after King Kalakaua had given the United States exclusive use of Pearl Harbor as a naval base, the American Stars and Stripes replaced the Hawaiian flag when the United States, with President Dole’s blessing, annexed the islands as a territory.

Another guess: Who was the first territorial governor?

My, you’re a sharp one: Sanford B. Dole.

Sanford Dole takes the oath of office as territorial governor of Hawai`i in Honolulu in 1900

The islands have a rich 20th- and 21st-century history, too, of course, notably including the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that
Pearl Harbor
Fireboats pour water onto the U.S.S. West Virginia, burning at Pearl Harbor following the surprise attack by Japanese planes on Dec. 7, 1941
brought the Americans into World War II, and a different kind of explosion – of the tourism industry around Honolulu’s Waikiki beach and beyond. For Native Hawaiians, the indignities of life at the bottom of the archipelago’s economic barrel only intensified as prosperity for others swelled. On islands so far from Asian and continental-U.S. supply lines, life is inordinately expensive, even for the handsomely employed. Haoles (Caucasians, who constitute 25 per cent of the population), those of Japanese origin (16 per cent), ethnic Filipinos (15 per cent), and people of mixed race have cornered the lion’s share
Dancers entertain at a luau on Maui, known as the “Valley Isle” or the “Magic Isle.” It’s the archipelago’s second-largest island, after (of course) the "Big Island"
of good jobs, including federal government positions that make up one in eight jobs in the islands. So prevalent are low-level tourism gigs – as waitresses, busboys, porters, luau hula dancers – among full-blooded and part-Hawaiians that many have moved to what some call “the ninth Hawaiian island” – Las Vegas, Nevada, deep into the U.S. mainland, to find better jobs in casinos, and more affordable housing.

Even though full-blooded and part-Hawaiians now make up only 6 per cent of the state’s population, their nationalist movement, embodied in the prideful expansion of the Hawaiian language into official commerce, has grown many tentacles.

Native Hawaiians have so far successfully fought off court challenges to their Kamehameha School program – a system in which money from lands once ceded to private interests, such as big hotel chains, is set aside for excellent private schools exclusively for Hawaiians.

At one Hawaiian-rights protest, “Mele Welte, a former Kamehameha teacher, carried a placard reading, ‘Honor, preserve, protect and celebrate the Hawaiian people,’ as she gave a mini lecture to a couple of tourists,” the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper reported. “’I feel that people who attack Native rights need to consider the diversity of our country,’ she said.”

Akino Falls
Water drops 134 meters (440 feet) down Akino Falls on Hawai`i’s Big Island. This is the island from which lava flows spectacularly into the sea from one of many active volcanoes
In 1997, the University of Hawai`i Hilo, in the Big Island’s largest city, established a College of Hawaiian Language. “`O ka ‘ōlelo ke ka`ā o ka mauli,” reads the first line of the online description of the program. “Language is the fiber that binds us to our cultural identity.”

And as a result of recent amendments to the Hawai`i state constitution, Hawaiian-studies programs are proliferating in lower schools and government departments as well.

This was considered an “Eskimo” family when this photo was taken in 1929. Now these Alaskans’ own word for their people – “Inuit” – is preferred
These developments dovetail with those by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks among the Inuit people – also called Eskimos, though activists in the population consider the term, applied by outsiders, to be insulting – by the University of Montana and Montana State University among other western American Indian tribes, and through worldwide higher education programs called WINHEC – the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, based at Sámi University College in Norway. Its charter reads:

“We gather as Indigenous Peoples of our respective nations recognizing and reaffirming the educational rights of all Indigenous Peoples. We share a vision of Indigenous Peoples of the world united in the collective synergy of self determination through control of higher education. We are committed to building partnerships that restore and retain indigenous spirituality, cultures and languages, homelands, social systems, economic systems and self-determination.”

Ice fishers make a good haul of muikku – a small but tasty variety of fish that they bake, fry, or pickle and eat whole – in the Lapland region of Norway
Sámi University College, in frigid northern Norway where the Sámi people, once known as Lapps or Laplanders, have hunted, trapped, fished, and herded reindeer for centuries, has developed a Sámi-language preservation program, just as the University of Hawai`i Hilo has done on the temperate coast of the Big Island, 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away.

And Carol and I could not help but notice another of the world’s notable and impressively successful language-preservation efforts on a trip that was closer to Norway than Hawaii – back to my ancestral home in Wales. There, Welsh names and signs and language courses are everywhere, not just as a matter of pride, but also as government policy bent on saving the difficult language at all costs.

Did I say difficult? Let me tell you, a few sprightly okinas stuck into prominent words in Hawai`i are a piece of cake to comprehend, compared with what those Welshmen have going. Try this one on for size: “Cynhaliwyd Eisteddfod Genedlaethol yn Llanelwedd.” I have no idea what that means – and no clue how to pronounce a single one of those words – but it has something to do with the town from which the first bunch of American Landphairs came: Llanfair-ym-Muallt.



A postscript

You might think that most Hawaiians would be pleased, or at least benignly tolerant, of the renewed emphasis on the Polynesian-based Hawaiian language. It’s still easygoing Hawai`i, after all, fifty years into statehood, where, as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song” reminds us, “Blue skies of Hawai`i smile” and “Clouds won't hide the sun.”

Because of its multiethnic population, Honolulu, on the Island of O`ahu, is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities
But as I noted, many ancestors of the islands’ current population emigrated from Japan, the Philippines, and other Pacific destinations. More than twice as many people of Japanese ancestry, and twice as many of Filipino origin as well, live in Hawai`i than do Native Hawaiians. These citizens of Asian extraction, whom Native Hawaiians call “Asian settlers,” argue that while the Polynesians got there first, everyone who arrived on the uninhabited islands and stayed was an immigrant, and that immersion schools in Japanese and Tagalog (the most widely spoken Filipino language) ought to be offered along with lessons in Hawaiian.

Especially, they argue, in one of the world’s most multiracial crucibles, where official discrimination based on race or national origin has long been unfashionable. Just ask U.S. President Barack Obama, now the world’s most famous Hapa (Hawaiian of mixed racial ancestry). Son of a black African father and white mother from the American heartland in Kansas, he was born in Hawai`i, returns whenever possible, and considers himself very much a kamaaina – a native or local.


Another postscript

Or “p.p.s.,” as I sometimes write at the end of my long letters, never having checked “Miss Manners” to see if there really is such a thing:

If you can’t get to sleep at night, worrying yourself sick wondering whether there’s a connection between the Earl of Sandwich of Hawaiian Islands fame and the everyday bite or two that we call the sandwich, there is!

At least according to legend. John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), was a gambler so inveterate that he did not want to step away from the action for a heavy, time-consuming British meal. Kidney pie, potatoes and a pint, and all that. Supposedly he asked a waiter to bring him a hunk of roast beef stuck between slices of bread, so he could balance this edible in one hand while holding his cards or rolling the dice, grease-free, in the other.

Voila! The sandwich!

As to which child in which country first corrupted this into wanting a “sammich,” you’ll have to do your own research.

Good life
This photograph, by Carol, of Hawaii’s “good life” has nothing to do with sandwiches. But I had to include it somewhere to illustrate, yet again, the beauty of this Pacific paradise
It’s a good thing for Sir John’s legacy that he ordered a snack. Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, in the late 18th century, when Britain lost its American colonies in our revolution, and he was assigned much of the blame. Better to be known for roast beef on a roll than as the fool who lost New England. (I threw in the American Revolution reference to give his story a skosh of Americana so you’d not think this was Ted Landphair’s British Empire.)


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Crucible. In concrete terms, a crucible is a strong vessel, often made of porcelain, in which materials can be combined and melted, even at extremely hot temperatures. Metaphorically, one who is thrown into a crucible, say a roiling controversy, had better be ready for some heat as well.

Gig. As I’ve used the word in a mention of Hawaiian entertainers, a “gig” is a job, often in some form of show business. The online “Word Detective” notes that “Every job is a ‘gig’ today. Calling your job a ‘gig’ is a way of saying ‘I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.’” “Gig” also has many other meanings. It’s a small spear used to snare fish, for instance, and it was once an object that spins, such as the child’s toy called a “whirligig.”

Luau. A Hawaiian feast, originally named after one of the dishes served there: chicken wrapped in Taro leaves and baked in coconut milk. Guests who arrive are often greeted with leis – necklaces of flowers or shells. One of the traditions at touristy luaus, in addition to the strumming and singing of soft Hawaiian melodies, is the dangerous fire dance, borrowed from the Samoan Islands.

Skosh. A dab, a touch, a teeny bit. People often ask their tailors for a “skosh more room” around the waist, for instance, when getting fitted. (I know I would if I could afford a tailor.) Skosh, pronounded "SKOHsh," is one of a few English words borrowed from the Japanese, where sukoshi means “little.” Supposedly, United Nations troops heard the word while on leave in Japan during the Korean War of the early 1950s and mangled it, and the shortened version of the word became part of military jargon.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Remembering the War to End Wars

In 1917 and 1918, many ordinary Americans and most soldiers heading off to fight on the European Continent in World War I crossed the country by rail. And those who passed through Kansas City – once a brawling cowtown on the wide Missouri River that had grown into a brash city of a quarter-million people run by the Pendergast political machine – detrained into a magnificent new, Beaux-Arts terminal, the third-largest in the country.

This is a recent photo of Kansas City's Union Station and the city skyline, taken from the top of the Liberty Memorial. Closed for awhile, the station again serves Amtrak passengers and is full of shops, restaurants, and a historic museum

Directly across the street to the south, they first beheld a steep rise leading to an ordinary rock outcropping above Penn Valley Park, beyond which automobile enthusiasts had set up a campground at the time. Across Main Street, they saw rows of decrepit buildings and billboards touting cheap bourbon and cigars, moustache waxes, nickel-beer joints and the like.

But that hill in Penn Valley Park would soon be the site of something special, unique in fact, worth a long look on Memorial Day weekend in 2009.

Worth a second look, too, because of what has happened there recently as well.

I should begin with an explanation of Memorial Day, which to the average American, regrettably, has become less a tribute to fallen servicemen and women in America’s wars than the unofficial kickoff to summer and the beach season – another three-day dispensation to eat, drink, relax, shop, and make merry.

Girl Scouts salute at a Memorial Day gathering in Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1943
As you’ll read later, the holiday traces to tributes to the fallen that began in the somber days that followed America’s bloody Civil War almost a century and a half ago. Interest in the tradition surged again half a century later during the conflict that the world idyllically called “The Great War” – four years of carnage now barely remembered and rarely commemorated.

German troops get a break in their trench near St. Michel, France, about 1915
It was the same war to which American “doughboys,” pausing at Kansas City’s Union Station, were heading in 1917 and 1918. A war of barbed wire and mustard gassings, hand-to-hand combat and tank attacks in the stagnant trenches and deadly “no-man’s lands” of Western Europe. This was to be the War to End All Wars but instead spawned the conditions for a deadlier spate of conquest, destruction and death two decades later.

Kansas Citians were front and center when it came to supporting war-bond drives during the Great War
Patriotic fervor for the Great War effort swept the Kansas Cities – for there are two separate and distinct ones: the larger, citified hub in Missouri and a smaller satellite city across the Missouri River in Kansas. Kansas Citians, who lost 441 of their neighbors in the European fighting, gave bountifully to war-bond drives and remained in a thankful mood when an armistice was declared at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The following year, in a span of just 10 days, even more remarkably while an influenza epidemic was sweeping the city, 83,000 contributors – about one in every four persons in town – kicked in $2.5 million for an amazing tribute to the nation’s war dead. That’s about $30 million in 2009 dollars.

The fund drive’s slogan: “Lest the Ages Forget.”

Kansas City outdid itself with its Liberty Memorial, which towered over any other structure in town
With the money, the city demolished a few houses and mangy trees up the hill in Penn Valley Park and erected Liberty Memorial, a 66-meter (216-foot)-high limestone shaft that dominates the city’s southern skyline to this day. Designed in the Egyptian Revival style by New York architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, who won the commission following a nationwide competition, the memorial features four stone guardian spirits – representing courage, patriotism, sacrifice, and honor – sculpted by Robert Aitken. (He is even better known for his “Equal Justice Under the Law” pediment above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington.)

And the great tower is further protected at its base by two giant stone sphinxes. One, facing Europe, is shielding its eyes from the horrors of war. The other, facing the opposite direction, also hides its eyes, but from the unknown future. Given the events that followed World War I, apparently it knew something that the world did not.


These are models of Robert Aitken’s guardian spirits that appear facing each direction of the compass at the top of the Liberty Memorial

Among Kansas City folk, the memorial is most appealing at night, when a series of pipes carries steam from a subterranean boiler up the tower and past a series of yellow and red lights. The long-range effect is that of a flame rising into the sky, and it takes $65,000 to pay the utility company to produce it. That’s why there is now a “Save the Flame” campaign for financial support to keep the steam rising.

The tower is fully accessible, by the way. An elevator whisks visitors to a floor near the top; 45 steps later, they are standing on an observation platform, gasping at one of the most spectacular skyline views in North America. There’s no fear of scalding from the steam! It doesn’t start spouting until dark, after closing time.

This is Washington State’s inspiring, but modest in scope, World War I monument outside the capitol in Olympia
The Liberty Memorial is not America’s only monument to those who fought and died in World War I, but it is the most prominent. Many of the nation’s cavernous old “memorial stadiums,” including Soldier Field in Chicago, were named in tribute to service in the Great War, a fact that likely escapes most modern-day sports fans.

The intent and scope of Kansas City’s memorial, however, were unmistakable. Architect Edward Durrell Stone, who designed Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other acclaimed buildings, called the Liberty Memorial “one of the country’s great memorials, in a class with the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.”

Just look at the throng that turned out for the Liberty Memorial dedication in 1921!
A crowd approaching 200,000 people, including American Expeditionary Forces commander John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and military leaders from four other Allied nations, packed the grounds for the groundbreaking ceremony in 1921. And a like number returned to hear President Calvin Coolidge speak at its dedication five years later.

Today, in the words of writer Michael Braude of the Kansas City Business Journal, the Liberty Memorial “stands as a proud symbol of human dignity and the love of liberty for all.”

Kansas City’s devotion to preserving the memory of the First World War was all the more impressive to Carol and me because we have visited, and she has photographed, so many magnificent war memorials here in Washington and elsewhere. Indeed, visitors to Washington’s National Mall will find spectacular and moving monuments to the fallen of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War; and the city is replete with stone and brass tributes to Civil War heroes and battles.

Bright sunshine and a pretty snowfall spruce up the drab World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., built in 1931 as a bandstand
But the only nod to World War I hereabouts is a small District of Columbia Doric temple, dedicated in 1931 and now nearly hidden in the trees of West Potomac Park. The monument’s peristyle, or ring of columns, encircles what was designed as a bandstand, not that very many people know there were concerts there or, indeed, even know there’s a World War I monument in town at all.

The neglect of this once-handsome structure “is due in part to the fact that its history had been forgotten by most, both by the federal government and local D.C. citizens” according to The National Coalition to Save the Mall preservationist organization. “The memorial has no signage or explanation except for that carved in the white marble. Part of the problem was that until recently, it seemed unclear who was responsible for maintaining the structure . . . . The [National Park Service] felt it had responsibility for the grounds, but not the structure.” Only after a park service cultural resource specialist examined early records was it determined that the nearly hidden memorial is that agency’s responsibility.

‘Over There’ Over Here!

Neglect of World War I and its everyday heroes is certainly not the case in Kansas City, where, you’ll remember (won’t you?) that I mentioned that something else quite special has happened on that hill above Union Station.

Directly below the Liberty Memorial, in fact.

That soaring memorial was built upon a flat stone deck, next to two small, bunker-like buildings. One became a meeting place, and the other a sort of “relic room,” crammed with World War I souvenirs that soldiers and their families had sent in.

This shot by Carol gives you a good look at the Liberty Memorial, the supporting platform, the two sphinxes, and the old buildings that once housed Great War artifacts

Over the decades, the mementos kept coming and coming as Great War veterans died, to the point that Kansas City found itself holding the nation’s largest Great War collection. Too much stuff, and much of it too enormous, to fit into a single, drab room. Meantime, stonework on the tower’s support deck deteriorated to such an unsafe level that the platform had to be fenced off in the 1990s.

What had been a Kansas City treasure became an eyesore once again.

Repairs were urgently needed, but, true to its gung-ho spirit, Kansas City did not stop there. Citizens approved a sales-tax increase that raised $106 million to fix the memorial and build an entirely new, dramatic museum underneath it.

A lovely reflecting pond, out of sight from a distance, graces the below-ground entrance to the National World War I Museum
So impressive was the result, designed by Ralph Applebaum, who also drew the plans for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, that Congress designated it as The National World War I Museum. Yet its opening in December 2006 came as a surprise to many Kansas Citians, since it’s only when you’re upon it that you realize there’s something deep in the hillside, hidden down a long ramp beneath the great memorial.

Inside, its story begins with two movies, one an orientation and one that explains why the United States was drawn, most reluctantly, into the European conflict. After all, President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

The museum offers several timelines to help modern-day visitors grasp the increasingly horrifying events of almost a century ago
Exhibits trace the story from the war’s precipitating event – the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Boznia-Herzogovena – through the early years of the conflict among European Great Powers, to the impact of U.S. involvement, beginning in 1917, at home and abroad.

These are sort of “living exhibits” at the museum – volunteers dressed in 1915 German and French infantry uniforms, respectively
There is a host of other things to learn beneath the Liberty Memorial as well. A haunting factoid, for instance: One of three Frenchmen ages 18 to 30 died on battlefields of World War I.

Poignant quotes, too, greet many a step through the exhibits. Here’s just one, from Ernst Bergner, a German infantryman:

The Western Front was a living hell of artillery barrages, machine gun bullets, and sniper fire. Quiet sectors existed, however, where units on both sides, either through exhaustion, poor leadership, or apathy, tried to avoid conflict. ‘Live and let live,’ a phrase coined by a British war correspondent, took a variety of forms. Troops in the frontlines would sometimes refrain from firing at mealtime or on holidays. . . . Night patrols would spot each other in no-man’s land and quietly move away to avoid an encounter. Commanders detested ‘live and let live’ and took various measures to stamp it out.

Now it is Christmas time for the second time in this war. Along the front line all is quiet, only some rifle bullets are crossing the air like lashes. It is three o’clock in the afternoon. I have to look for a Christmas tree. Without a tree, there is no Christmas.

This flag, displayed at the museum, flew over the U.S. Capitol on the day of the nation’s declaration of war against Germany, on April 2, 1917
The opening of the nation’s new World War I museum fueled thousands more donations – 3,200 in the first 29 months alone. “One person gave us his entire hand-grenade collection that he had been amassing his entire life,” museum vice president Denise Rendina told me. One specimen is a British rifle-fired grenade with a cloth “ballerina skirt” that helped guide it aerodynamically. Another gift, Rendina says, “was pieces of fabric that people had put inside cigar boxes, denoting flags from all the nations participating in the war. Someone had taken those and quilted them, and they had been in their family for generations, and they just gave them to us. Both are examples of the personal way in which people experienced the war.”

At some point, museum officials must tell veterans and their families, discreetly, that they have reached a limit on certain kinds of gifts. Rendina wouldn’t specify, but I’m guessing it has all the helmets and buttons, belt buckles and certain uniform patches that it can handle, lest this sweeping museum turn into a crowded “relic room” once again.

This is the “good side” of the prized, French-made tank – the side that’s still intact and doesn’t have a gaping shrapnel hole
The National World War I Museum does occasionally purchase an item, such as its one-of-a-kind, two-man, camouflage-painted Renault FT-17 tank – notable for the huge shrapnel hole on one of its sides. And it didn’t come cheap. The museum paid a collector in Montana a quarter of a million dollars for it.

In just over two years, more than 300,000 visitors, including about 35,000 school kids, have toured the museum. “A lot of them knew next to nothing about the Great War,” Denise Rendina says. “I see people moved to silence, because of the horror of this and all wars, and because of conflicts around us right now.”

This is Frank Buckles next to an ambulance inside the museum a year ago. We should all look so good at 107!
One visitor who arrived by special invitation last Memorial Day.: Frank Buckles, now 108 years old, is the last known living American veteran of the War to End All Wars. Buckles enlisted at 16 – lying about his age– and drove ambulances and motorcycles in the conflict.

Entirely cognizant, he remarked approvingly about the museum’s collection. There was little time to dwell on most of the 52,000 objects, but he was impressed with the re-creations, stretching into several rooms, of the crowded and shell-pocked trenches in which so many of his comrades lived, and lost, their lives 90 years ago.

Naturally, Buckles liked the museum’s ambulance and motorcycles, too.

More About Memorial Day

There are varying explanations as to the origins of Memorial Day, which used to be celebrated in the United States every May 30th. Since 1971, the holiday has been observed on the last Monday in May, whether or not it falls on the 30th, in order to create a three-day holiday weekend. This year, it falls on Monday, May 25th.

The main federal observance of Memorial Day is held at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The president or his designate places a wreath of flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns, honoring all of the men and women who have died in America's wars. There’s a celebrity-studded Memorial Weekend concert, too, and a Memorial Day parade, featuring patriotic floats and helium-filled balloons, up Constitution Avenue.

The Grand Army of the Republic, a unit of which is seen here parading up Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue in 1865, was enormously influential
It’s generally accepted that Memorial Day dates to just after the Civil War, which ended in 1865. According to one of many versions, the tradition was established when the people of Waterloo, New York, gathered at the local cemetery the following year and placed flowers on the graves of local men killed in the Civil War. Later, the Grand Army of the Republic – or G.A.R – an organization of northern veterans, endorsed ceremonies that honored the dead and suggested that its members take up the practice. In 1868, General John Logan, a former Union army general who commanded the G.A.R, designated May 30th as the day to decorate graves.

Indeed, the holiday was long called “Decoration Day.” Even before the Civil War had concluded, women’s groups in the South were laying flowers below their loved ones’ tombstones, and an 1867 hymn, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

This was actually an Independence Day parade in my current hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, in 1922. Decoration Day festivities had the same corny trappings
Eighty years later, as a child far to the north in Cleveland, I was festooning my bike or my wagon with crepe paper streamers for the neighborhood Decoration Day parade.

As I mentioned earlier, following World War I Congress set aside May 30th as a day to honor the dead from all American wars. That was the war in which a Canadian field artillery surgeon, John McCrea, wrote the moving poem “Flanders Fields” at a burial ground near Ypres, France. It reads, in part:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Two days before the armistice quieted the fighting, Moina Michael of Athens, Georgia, a Civil War veteran’s daughter working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ office in New York, got an idea. She had long treasured the last line of McCrea’s poem – we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields – and when she saw the poem once again, she sat down and wrote a short verse of her own:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

A member of a Veterans of Foreign Wars delegation pins a poppy on the lapel of President Calvin Coolidge in 1924
Moina Michael vowed to wear a red poppy in memory of Flanders Field each remaining day of her life, and the idea of marking Decoration Day with the sale and display of red, paper poppies soon spread among the former Allied nations. In Britain, Australia, and Canada, the poppies appear on Armistice Day in November. Less so, any more, on November 11 in the United States, where the holiday has been broadened into “Veterans’ Day.”

On the days that I was whizzing down Winton Avenue on my dolled-up bike each Decoration Day, nearly all the cheering adults along the way proudly wore red poppies. Now, as my cynical friend and colleague Art Chimes points out, a poppy in one’s lapel might be viewed suspiciously as some sort of homage to the opium trade.

This is the poppy field at the National World War I Museum
Poppies have their day at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City as well. Just inside the door, one crosses a glass bridge over an entire field of red, paper ones – 9,000 of them: each representing 1,000 combat fatalities. No doubt only a few of the older folks who visit, and perhaps some history-savvy students, know why poppies were chosen to tell this story.

Looking Sharp

Everything really is, as the song goes, “up to date in Kansas City.” Carol and I couldn’t believe the difference between this vibrant, clean, architecturally exciting city and another U.S. city of almost identical (475,000) population: my tired, sad-looking hometown of Cleveland, which, you may recall, we had visited a few weeks earlier.

How’s this for funky? It’s one of several giant badminton shuttlecock sculptures outside K.C.’s dynamic Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza district, with its Spanish-inspired architecture, brims with activity – shopping and dining, mostly – day and night. Besides the remarkable World War I museum, one can find delights like the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues baseball museum, plus the astounding new Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, whose eerily illuminated façade shimmers at night. I can’t rave too conspicuously, though, about “K.C.’s” famous barbecue, having waxed so lavishly about the barbecue that they cook up in North Carolina, half a continent away. (But the heartland variety is pretty good.)

Refreshing, eh? Through this fountain spray, you get a glimpse of a tower in Kansas City’s genteel Plaza shopping district
One delight from our Kansas City visit wasn’t exactly up to date, since most of the city’s 200 or so fountains – more than anywhere outside Rome, it’s said – go back a ways. The first, built for the locals’ horses and dogs and for wild birds, was erected in 1899. And I learned something about the early fountains: the reason one sees water flowing from nymph and lion and fish figures high above the fountains’ pools was a sanitary one. Animals drank from the reservoir; humans could dip their hands or cups into fresh, clean water streaming from those figures before it fell to the fountain’s floor below.

Today, there’s an unwritten policy in town that a fountain be incorporated into the design of every significant new public or commercial building project.

In fact, one might say that Kansas City is a “font” of such good ideas.

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(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Doughboys. American infantrymen in World War I. There is debate about the origin of the term. One theory ascribes it to the doughy white clay that soldiers used to clean their white belts. Another states that it was other Allies’ derogatory term for U.S. forces, who were said to be “soft” for showing up late to the war. The term had been used (sparingly) in other conflicts and may also have had its origin in cavalrymen’s contempt for ordinary foot soldiers.

Mangy. Worn or threadbare. The word is often applied to a pitiful animal’s coat, or to a carpet or bedspread.

Sphinx. In ancient Egypt, a sphinx was a tactile representation of a sun god, often in a lion’s shape and wearing a headdress of the pharaohs.

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