In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day: I Vow to Thee, My Country

Last night my son Colin and I attended a performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Holst's The Planets. This is one of those breathtaking pieces that can only be fully appreciated in a live performance, and the RPO delivered a great one, as always.

During that section of the piece entitled Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, I suddenly remembered that the stately portion in the middle of that movement was the musical setting for one of the most moving patriotic hymns ever written, I Vow to Thee, My Country. The text was written by British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice in 1908 and amended by him in 1918 in the wake of World War I, and describes how a Christian owes his loyalties to both his homeland and the heavenly kingdom. It was set to the music from Jupiter in 1921, and since then has become associated with Remembrance Day ("Veterans Day" here in the U.S.) services all over the British Commonwealth. It was a favorite of Princess Diana's, and was sung at both her wedding and her funeral.

Ever since I first heard this hymn during television coverage of Diana's funeral, I've thought it should be a standard work at Memorial Day services in this country. What it says about the faith and sacrifice of those who have given their lives in service to their homeland is just as true and powerful for Americans as it is for the British peoples. I can't hear it--especially the last verse--without choking up.

Here is a moving performance of the hymn by Rachel Landrecht at a televised memorial service in 2005 for Ernest Alvia ("Smokey") Smith, the last surviving Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. The respect paid him by his fellow veterans is the perfect setting for the hymn. I've reproduced the full set of lyrics below the video. As you listen, say a prayer for all those heroic men and women, American and Commonwealth, who paid the ultimate price for the freedom we all enjoy today.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

And there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
P.S. The graphic at the top of this post is a cropped version of a photograph of the very flag flying in front of our house on Memorial Day 2009. Pretty cool, huh?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tom & Melany's Excellent Adventure: Ch. Four

On Tuesday, April 21 my sister Patti joined us at Mom and Dad's after breakfast, and after our usual interminable discussion of how to spend our day, we (me, Melany, Pat and Mom; Dad had to work) decided to drive down to St. Augustine, which is 20-25 miles south of Mandarin. St. Augustine, which is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States (founded on September 8, 1565), is a fascinating town, especially for history lovers. It's one of my very favorite places, and someday in the not-too-distant future I'll post more about it. But on Tuesday we only had time for a little taste, so we picked a place there to visit that Melany and I had never been to before.

That place was the Mission of Nombre de Dios (my sister Patti has some better pictures and descriptions of this place on her blog). Here was celebrated the first Christian worship service (a Roman Catholic mass) held in a permanent settlement in today's continental United States, by Spanish settlers under the leadership of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles--on the very day they set foot on American soil and before they even started to build shelters for themselves. We didn't have time to explore the entire grounds; among other things we missed (and which I want to see on our next visit) are the Prince of Peace Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine. But we gazed upon the breathtaking Great Cross, made of stainless steel and rising more than 200 feet above the grounds of the Mission.

We also paused to say a prayer at Our Lady of La Leche Shrine, the first shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother in the United States. Here and on the surrounding grounds one can feel the happiness of a place dedicated to mothers and children; there are reminders of it everywhere--a statue of Jesus embracing the children, and even a memorial to innocent victims of abortion (this last really moved me). We also I look forward to visiting the Mission again.

While in St. Augustine we also stopped to view a place I'd passed many times on previous visits and was always struck by: Flagler College. The architecture is stunningly beautiful, and just breathes "Florida." The centerpiece of the campus is Ponce de Leon Hall, built in 1888 as a luxury hotel by Henry Morrison Flagler, a great industrialist, oil magnate and railroad pioneer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more awesome views of the campus. This is another place I'd like to tour at leisure on a later visit.

Then it was back to Mandarin. We drove around this lovely residential community for awhile, which includes everything from very modest dwellings (OK, "shacks" might be more descriptive, but not many of these) to beautiful, stately homes that some might characterize as "mansions"--mostly older places, it seems, not the gaudy mini-castles being thrown up along the Intercoastal and in other new developments. What makes them all so striking is that the roads are lined with live oaks laced with Spanish moss, so that there is generous shade everywhere.

We ended up at the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Here you can find exhibits detailing Mandarin's impressive history, including the residency there for many winters of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, beginning in 1867. Also at the museum is a marvelous exhibit on the Union army steamer Maple Leaf (about which I've written in detail here), which struck a Confederate mine or "torpedo" and sank in the St. Johns River in April 1864, just off Mandarin Point behind the museum. Included in the exhibit are several items recovered from the boat, including glass bottles, bullets, and some shirt buttons, and an exact-size replica of the mine that sent the Maple Leaf to the bottom--basically, it's little more than a handmade wooden cask filled with gunpowder!

The Museum also has a detailed model of the Maple Leaf--smaller than the one at the Jacksonville Maritime Museum, but including miniature men and horses so you can get some idea of the boat's size.

A boardwalk begins behind the museum and takes you through the lovely overarching trees and moss to the edge of the St. Johns River, and winds around to several other historic buildings on the property in the process of restoration, including the home of a Union army officer who took up residence here after the Civil War.

That was the fourth day of our Southern excursion on April 21, 2009. Next up: we travel to Savannah, Georgia on Wednesday!

One more thing: THANK YOU for your patience as I work my through this saga, especially given the long time between posts. Everyday life is so demanding of one's time, attention, and energy, and there doesn't seem to be a lot left for blogging. But I do want to share with you all the joys and adventures of our lives (as well as my pet peeves!), as and when I can get it done. I only wish that could be more often!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fourth of July on the Eighth of May!

So I'm sitting here at the computer about 9:30 this evening, balancing my checking account, when the air outside is suddenly split by two tremendous explosions! It took me a few moments to realize that they weren't from bombs or an industrial accident, but probably fireworks--and then, after a couple of more, smaller bursts, it dawned on me: tomorrow is Graduation Day at the SUNY College at Brockport just half a mile down the street! I dashed out into the backyard and stood there in the darkness, with one of the longest and best fireworks displays I've ever seen igniting the sky right above the trees fringing our property! The finale was unforgettable!

I LOVE fireworks, the more and bigger the better! I've loved them ever since my childhood, when Mom and Dad packed us four kids into our pajamas and then into the car, every Independence Day evening, and drove out to East River Road on Grand Island, NY, where we (and everyone else on the Island) would sit on the bank, munching popcorn that we brought in big paper shopping bags, and watched a tremendous fireworks display shot over the Niagara River. I've relived those wonderful times every Fourth of July, when the Town of Sweden puts on an excellent show above an open field a couple of miles from here.

But in recent years, the College has put on an even bigger, better show every Homecoming Weekend in the fall. Now, maybe they've added Graduation Day to the tradition. How blessed can a kid-at-heart be than to see big-time fireworks three times a year, with two of the shows right over top of his own backyard?! God Bless America!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tom & Melany's Excellent Adventure: Ch. Three

As usual, I've been up to my eyeballs in other chores the last few days (lawn mowing, spring cleaning, etc.) and haven't had time to keep this blog properly updated. I've been home today to shampoo carpets after our dog Frank's semi-disastrous intestinal "eruption" two nights ago (believe me, you don't want to know the details), so at least I have a few minutes' extra time to post another installment of our April vacation saga. Bit by bit, your patience is being rewarded with an opportunity to share that delightful experience with us!

On Monday, April 20, we (me, Melany, Mom & Dad, and my sister Patti) spent some time in the morning on a search in the countryside south of Mandarin for the old Oesterreicher home featured in the book Pioneer Family, which included a small map indicating the property's location. Unfortunately, since we couldn't find any trace even of the old road that once led to the place, it seems likely that the explosive development in that area over the dozen years since the book's publication has erased it, or at least any feasible way to get to it. "Progress"?

We then stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant called Barbara Jean's in Ponte Vedra Beach, on the Intercoastal Waterway between Mandarin and St. Augustine. I don't know too many places up North here where you can get a broiled catfish sandwich! Patti's already done a great post about our visit here, so I'll just send you there.

After lunch Melany and Patti headed off to the Sloans' for an afternoon of sewing, while Mom & Dad and I headed into downtown Jacksonville and the Museum of Science and History (known locally as MOSH). For years, MOSH has been the home of the largest collection of Civil War artifacts ever recovered from one place--that is, the hold of the Maple Leaf (read about her here, here, and here), the Lake Ontario steamer-turned Union Army transport that struck a Confederate mine and sank in the St. Johns River in 1864. We found out at the front desk that, incredibly and most disappointingly, the exhibit was closed just a few months ago--boxed up and sent away to Talahassee, where it sits in storage! This definitely calls for an angry letter to MOSH and the State of Florida!

However, our afternoon wasn't a complete waste. For one thing, I got this great picture of the downtown Jacksonville waterfront!

And, just a few yards from MOSH on the edge of the St. Johns is the Jacksonville Maritime Museum, a small but fabulous collection of ship models, artifacts, and other displays focusing on the maritime history of Jacksonville and Florida's northeast coast. Among the models (see a few of them here) on display was an incredible one of the Maple Leaf, handmade in natural materials by Dennis Cannady of Beaufort, South Carolina--1/48 scale measuring 46 inches long and 30 inches tall. Below are several shots of the boat from various angles, which provide a good impression of its original size (look at the doorways, etc. and fit a man into them in your mind) and construction.

Another interesting exhibit at the Maritime Museum was a small collection of artifacts purportedly from the USS Columbine, another Union side-wheel boat sunk in the St. Johns River in May 1864 by a cavalry detachment under the command of Capt. J.J. Dickison, the legendary "Swamp Fox of the Confederacy." Interestingly, rosters of his unit include one "E.J. Hull." We have an ancestor named Ezekiel Josiah Hull who served as a Lieutenant in Co. G, 8th Florida Infantry until his medical discharge in April 1863. Could he have re-enlisted later and served under Capt. Dickison? That's one big question I hope to answer one day--if I ever find time for the research!

Also on display at the Maritime Museum was an impressive model of the famed USS Constitution, launched in 1797, which (the real thing, not the model!) we toured while in Boston 3 years ago.

After our Maritime Museum visit, we returned to Mom & Dad's for dinner (I think I grilled hot dogs) and rest--and I was happy as a clam!

Well, that's all for now. Stay tuned for the next episode of "Tom and Melany's Excellent Adventure," coming soon to a blog (namely, this one) near you!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tom & Melany's Excellent Adventure: Ch. Two

Continuing with our Southern Saga:

On Sunday, April 19, we arose early and got ready to go to church with Mom and Dad and my sister Patti Sloan and her family. Before we left I went out into Mom and Dad’s back yard and snapped a picture (below) of the quiet lake on which their home is situated.

Theirs is such a beautiful and peaceful place! Below is a Google Street Views look at the front of their house; drag the image about for a look at their neighborhood!

View Larger Map

Another interesting thing about Mom & Dad’s place are the cute little lizards crawling about on the screens and siding. Be nice to them, and they might give you a free rate quote on your car insurance, in a quaint British accent!

We met Patti, her husband Jason, and their son Jonathan at Assumption Catholic Church in Jacksonville. It’s a beautiful place, and the traditional Mass was a dignified, comforting experience. There was an especially serene place off to the side of the church that I noticed after Mass, and took a picture of it (see left).

We returned to Mom & Dad’s after Mass, and on our way to the Sloans’ in the afternoon took a drive through Jacksonville Beach. We stopped at the beach for a few minutes and watched the surfers, and were invited to a baptism in the Atlantic Ocean (we watched from a distance). I got a picture of Mom and Dad--don’t they look great?

From the beach we went to the Sloans’ for a cookout. We brought some authentic deli hot dogs from New York, and Jason made his awesome signature hamburgers! Jason’s parents, Tom and Ivy, were there, too--what fun folks!

The Sloans’ delightful pooch B.B. was a little standoff-ish from Melany at first. Then Dad suggested that she might warm up if she were given a little liquid refreshment. After that, B.B. was Melany's best friend (and no, that’s not Melany’s bottle!)!

After dinner, our nephew Jonathan gave us all a special performance on his guitar (mostly Jimi Hendrix, and some other “high-spirited” numbers)--he’s awesome! Somewhere a band is missing its lead guitarist!

That wraps up Sunday--could it really have been almost two weeks ago? How I wish we could relive it all again! Hang in there for the next installment of our vacation saga!