Halycon Moments Amid World War II

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 25, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

Last week as I was going through some old family photographs, I came across several taken at the Pacific Front during World War II. My attention was especially drawn to a shot of a group of American soldiers in battle helmets, taking a break in an area which looked totally shelled out by enemy artillery, stripped of all vegetation, bare tree trunks, some standing, some lying on the ground. The GI taking a drink of water from his canteen was my Uncle Joe (well, he became my Uncle Joe, after the War, when he came home and married my aunt). The photo, which I posted on my Facebook Page, “Ray Spitzenberger, Author and Artist @WendWriterWhittler,” brought back childhood memories of that War. I invite my readers to “like” my Page if you want to see the photo and other pictures and ponderings.

            World War II was traumatic for everybody, especially for a child; I was 5 years old when it began in 1939, and 11 when it ended in 1945. The thoughts and feelings about this terrible conflict in my memory-bank continue to motivate me to write about the War. Perhaps experiencing that difficult era as a child and seeing it through a child’s mind make it impossible to capture what’s inside you and to share with readers. Other people my age have expressed somewhat the same feelings about this second major world war, which began not too long after World War I (ironically called “the War to End All Wars”) ended.

            Of course, we weren’t bombed, we didn’t have to run to air raid shelters as folks in England had to, and our beautiful land was not shelled into deforestation as the Pacific islands were. Our trauma was more subtle, — we missed our fathers and uncles at the Christmas dinner table, cherishing their letters which brought tears; we listened to the radio every day with great anxiety, hoping the War news would be better than the day before; we grieved with those who received “killed-in-action” telegraphs or letters; and, willingly sacrificing, we bought food, gas, tires, and shoes with limited war ration stamps and raised “Victory Gardens.” We were proud of our soldiers fighting for us, and our greatest solace was God and our church.

            It’s almost impossible to express the importance of our church to those of us living in our rather isolated little rural town of Dime Box. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were active members of this “Center” of our lives, my mother serving as church organist and playing an old pump organ, pumping air with her feet to activate the sounds. My poem about the War and our little rural church, “This Easeful Hour Made Halcyon,” was published recently in the Bellville Poets Society’s Chapbook. I want to include it here, because it comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible:

THIS EASEFUL HOUR MADE HALCYON

the time, childhood

the church, rural

the moon, large,

lighting up the outside

the gasoline lanterns, pumped,

lighting up the inside

the wheezing sounds

of the old pump organ

commence vespers with plainsong

mama, the organist,

pumping and playing,

her fingers and feet

temporarily

freed of rheumatism

by the music

sifting through her mind and heart

the kindly old pastor,

in cassock and surplice,

slow-moving and serene,

lights the candles himself

this easeful hour

made halcyon

by homily, hymns and prayers

in the midst of bellicose news

from the blood-stained trenches

of a world at war

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of It Must Be the Noodles.

The Benefits And Joys Of Doing Puzzles

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 18, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

There’s something about a human being that likes to solve a mystery or a puzzle. Mystery novels and spy thrillers are probably the most widely read books in the country. As kids, my brother and I used to love to read the Hardy Boys series, as these teenage detectives solved mystery after mystery, so even as children we were turned on to mysteries. Coupled with that is the insatiable human demand for puzzles, — puzzles of all kinds, from crosswords to Sudoku, jig saw puzzles to electronic iPhone puzzles.

            Most historians of trivia agree that the most popular of all the many different puzzles, worldwide, is the jig saw puzzle, which was invented in 1760, — I don’t know which was the most popular before the 18th Century. The largest jig saw puzzle available today was made by Ravenburger, with 40,320 pieces. The smallest jig saw puzzle, according to trivia experts, was created at Laser Zentrum Hannover, and is the size of a grain of sand (now I’d have to see that to believe it). My wife and I, being avid jig saw puzzle doers, prefer puzzles made by Ravenburger, though there are three or four other companies which make well-fitting puzzle pieces. Nothing is more annoying than trying to build a thousand-piece puzzle with the pieces constantly coming apart!

            The good brands of jig saw puzzles, like Ravenburger, are quite expensive, but puzzle addicts solve that problem by buying used puzzles or exchanging them with friends who share the same passion for doing puzzles.

            Nobody seems to know which puzzle is the second most popular puzzle in the world, and there are many, many different ones, including these: Rubik’s Cube and Soma Cube, Sudoku, Slitherlink, Kakuro, Number Link, Masyu, Shikaku, Scrabble, connect-the-dots, cryptic crosswords, get-through-the-maze, and many more. Educators tell us that they favor using puzzles with kids, because there are great benefits, — they help improve cognitive skills, promote problem-solving, foster fine motor development, and improve hand and eye coordination. Some people even believe that doing puzzles helps to prevent the onslaught of dementia.

            Of those puzzles mentioned, the one I have always enjoyed as much as jig saw’s is the crossword puzzle. No doubt as a former English teacher, wordsmith, and dictionary nut, I would be attracted to a puzzle which calls for synonyms, though I may have caught the crossword bug from one of my aunts, who worked through an entire book of crossword puzzles each day. She had stacks and stacks of crossword puzzle books by her living room couch, and since she did them in pencil, would allow me to erase them and do them myself (this was subject to cheating because the answers were not always thoroughly erased).

            Most of my life I was too busy working at some job or other to finish a whole book of puzzles a day, so my habit was to do the daily crossword in The Houston Post or (later) The Houston Chronicle after supper. As a school teacher, I never had time to do it before breakfast. My puzzle-doer aunt was a stay-at-home homemaker, who, I’m afraid did more crosswords than homemaking. Back in those days, people believed “a woman’s place was in the home,” – apparently, I guess, whether you baked, sewed, canned, cleaned house, or worked crossword puzzles, it mattered not as long as you stayed home. She did have a sharp mind and wrote a column for the local newspaper.

            My mother, on the other hand, had no use for crossword puzzles, but enjoyed putting jig saw pieces together, thus kindling my interest in jig saw puzzle building.

            Mama loved maps, globes, and geography, which is a bit odd since she was terrified of traveling anywhere outside of Lee County, Texas. No doubt her love of geography was her motivation for buying “geography puzzles” for my brother and me. My favorite puzzle as a child was a map of the United States, so, even before I went to school, I knew the names and locations of all the states (at that time) in the Union. We also had a World Map puzzle which was more difficult for us. When you haven’t gone anywhere outside of Lee County, it is difficult to envision the world and match the pieces.

            My wife loves Sudoku and iPhone puzzles, but some of the most enjoyable days in the winter of our life are those days when we do a huge jig saw puzzle together.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor and is the author of It Must Be the Noodles.

For The Love Of Cedar, The Godly Wood

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for July 11, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

   A few days ago, I received a belated birthday present, — a T-shirt depicting a couple of wood-carving knives with the caption: “THE BEST WAY TO CARVE WOOD IS WHITTLE BY WHITTLE.” It’s a perfect gift for me, as I have argued many times, “I am not a wood sculptor, I am a whittler.” When folks ask me about my wood art, I tell them, “I don’t sculpt, I whittle.” In fact, when I began doing wood art some years ago, because of my love of the beauty of wood, I bought an expensive set of blades, chisels, scoops, etc., but after a few months, tossed them aside and started using my 19th Century pocket knife (from my father-in-law’s father). They don’t make knives like that anymore!

            Just as many women I know love fine China, dainty porcelain, and arty ceramics, a lot of men I’m acquainted with have a passion for working with wood, making everything from chicken roosts to step ladders out of planks of white pine or whatever their favorite wood happens to be. And the old-timers like my father and grandfather just loved to whittle with their pocket knife, making useful items like wooden spoons and paddles. Some even liked to do arty things, but each one had his favorite wood. My daddy’s favorite wood was cedar.

            Maybe that’s why my favorite wood to work with is also cedar. When you slice off a piece of cedar and sand it, the grain is splendid-looking, almost an object of art in itself. But then I grew up with cedar, there being many cedar brakes in the woods around Dime Box. My grandfather used cedar trunks as fence posts, convinced they didn’t rot as easily as other woods and sure of their insect repellent properties. In those days, every young woman had a cedar chest made by their father or an uncle, an excellent moth-free “hope chest.” At our church in Dime Box, a parishioner hand-made the baptismal font out of some beautiful cedar wood. Someone (probably my father) made a jewelry box for my mother, with hand-cut metal decorations on it. In Lee County in the good old days, cedar wood was highly regarded even though it was plentiful.

            There is a centuries-old Sumerian myth that speaks of the “wood of the gods,” which, of course, was cedar, the legend telling about how the demigods fought a great battle with humans over the cedar groves in Mesopotamia. I’m not sure who won, but I’m guessing it was the demigods.

            What was/is so great about cedar? In much of ancient history it was the most valued of all woods, — the Cedars of Lebanon are famous and are mentioned in the Bible. Egyptians used cedar for ship-building, and the Ottoman Empire did major construction projects with it, desiring it above all others. Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon to build his Temple, the only wood suitable for God’s House. If it were the only wood good enough for the Temple, then it was surely a Godly wood. Maybe the parishioner who built our baptismal font with cedar in Dime Box had that in mind.

            As far as whittling is concerned, I don’t find cedar difficult to whittle on, and can shape it easily. I actually prefer it to driftwood, though driftwood rivals its beauty, because most driftwood is very hard to carve, and requires a really sharp knife. I tend to use cedar for flat art and driftwood for 3-dimensional designs. The two woods don’t look good together. But driftwood created by the ocean and the sun from different kinds of wood has many different colorations and textures, often quite spectacular when sanded and shellacked. These different colored and textured woods look good together.

            You can buy slices from a cedar log, with beautiful grain variations showing, and these slices can be used very effectively in creating one-dimensional art, — it’s kind of like painting a picture with cedar wood, and is by far my favorite method of creating wood art. Some cedar slices have much more beautiful wood grains than others, and part of the artist’s job is to find the most exquisitely beautiful ones, which are certainly fitting for religious art. As September and our church auction grow closer, I hope to create some wood art out of this “Godly wood.”

-0-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of It Must Be the Noodles.

Freelancer’s Saga About Creating A “Page”

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 27, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

When I served as pastor of a church, we had a “Website,” overseen by a Webmaster who knew how to perform all of the complicate maneuvers necessary to post items on the Site. We, who try to preserve our Wendish history, have a “Website,” wendishresearch.org, and a very gifted Webmaster. The one time I attempted to post something on our Website at the church (our Webmaster said it was “easy’ to do), I deleted everything else on the Site. Ever since that point in time, I have stayed away from trying to post on a Website, someone has to do it for me!

            Because of the mess I can create with a computer, I have, at times, vowed to stay away from computers entirely. But, being the incredibly stubborn German Wend that I am, again and again, I kept attempting new maneuvers on the computer, my first victory years ago being to discover how to post photos on Facebook! Learning by trial and error is obviously the hard way to learn, but, again, being an incredibly stubborn German Wend, I refused to take computer lessons or even read the instructions! After all, I keep telling myself, my mother taught herself how to read notes and play the piano, so why not be able to conquer a computer!

            So I have created a new “Page” for myself via Facebook! Several years ago, I was attracted to the much touted simplicity of creating a “Page” with Facebook, and convinced that Websites were beyond my aged brain, I tried to create a Page, which turned out to be such a disaster, I got hacked four or five times. Deleted the Page! But, being the stubborn you-know-what, it wasn’t long before I tried another Page, which I deleted soon after I started it. Wanting to promote the sales of my book, It Must Be the Noodles, I attempted a third Page. By then, I seemed to have made all the mistakes you can possibly make in doing a Page, so my Page sailed along rather smoothly. Until I started “boosting” certain posts and letting Facebook promote my Page, not realizing that was costing me money. Frugal as well as stubborn, I killed that Page, too.

            That brings me to my current Facebook Page, which is going well, which I am enjoying, and which hasn’t cost me anything. Just when I had come to the conclusion that I would permanently avoid doing Pages, as well as Websites, I viewed and “Liked” a Page, entitled “Lone Star Back Roads, Photographer.” I enjoyed reading and seeing (the photographs) so much that it became my favorite thing to visit regularly. Over a period of time, I became acquainted with the Page “photographer,” Jeremy Clifton, who to my great surprise was also the Webmaster of our wendishresearch.org website! To make a long story short, through his inspiration and suggestions, I was able to go forward with my Page, maintain it in a semi-professional manner, and really come to enjoy posting to it every day.

            Hoping to write and publish another book, doing other free-lance writing every day, planning wood art projects for our church auction, and continuing my pen and ink sketching, I wanted a name for the Page which would reflect all of those things. The word “author” and/or “writer” would cover both my prose writing and my poems, the word “artist” would cover both pen and ink drawings and watercolor, but what about the wood art? It would be an exaggeration to say I am a “Sculptor.” Aha! What do I do? I whittle! That did it! I entitled my Page, “Ray Spitzenberger, Author and Artist @WendWriterWhittler.” I couldn’t resist the alliteration, and the Page title seems to work, because many people seem to be attracted to it. I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Jeremy.

            I enjoy posting to my new Page, because it’s not just for the purpose of enticing folks to buy my book or the magazines in which my poems are published, or purchase my art (I donate most of my art projects to the church auction and I get no money from the poetry magazines), but it’s about reminiscing and sharing history and old photographs and Wendish stuff and about joy and kindness — the sorts of things I enjoy writing and posting and (hopefully) the kinds of things those who “Like” my Page want to read. After all, if my ambition were to make a lot of money, I would never have become a school teacher, preacher, and writer/artist!

-0-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of It Must Be the Noodles.