Most of these chapter headings have no sub-titles to guide me. I am on my own and I hate nothing more than a blank page, so I will fill it as quickly as I can! To start, some more about the three experiences with which I ended the first chapter: Amsterdam, Hadrian’s Wall and Trinity Church. All happened within nine months: Autumn, 1967 into Spring, 1968.
We got off the plane from NYC in Amsterdam rather than in Luxemburg, a great inconvenience to those with connections to Frankfurt and elsewhere, but for me, at 19, it was all a part of the adventure. I made the acquaintance of a French Catholic priest who had been on the same plane, on his way home to Strasbourg, that Alsatian city which had been French and then German, back and forth, depending on the winner of the last war. We walked quickly through the sodden streets of rainy Amsterdam toward the railroad station. In his limited English, the priest assured me if I made the right changes from one train to another, they would get me to Switzerland eventually. After a quick, train-station meal – no telling, after crossing the Atlantic by plane, which meal it was – we boarded the same train and headed south and east, toward the French-German border.
The overwhelming moment I fixed on in the last post was one I had when I first came out onto that first Amsterdamer street. It was old brick or stone; it’s hard to remember now. As I stepped onto the pavement, I sensed a thrill of connection with everything I knew about Europe, with my own varied and many European ancestors and with many more recent passings over those stones: Allied passings and Nazi passings and so many other people over so many years. I was suddenly connected to them all, just by stepping onto that street: I was frightened, intimidated, elated, anxious and full of joy. This was not a book; I was not reading about the place; I was there, present! Cherish is a word I would use to describe that feeling and that moment.
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England
Stones, chiseled and laid down as a wall, and as a road along its south side, one thousand, eight hundred years before. Walking on that wall was a very similar experience to that of my first steps onto a European street, but this time I had an entire family with whom I could share the moments.
I had met the Reeses through a fellow student in Switzerland. David was a year younger than I. He had a younger brother and a mum and a dad. We all piled into their family vehicle one day, traveling from their home in Luton, Bedfordshire, about sixty miles north of London, on our way up to the city of Newcastle Upon Tyne a university town near the North Sea. David had completed his six-form A-level exams at the end of the British equivalent to U.S. High School and he was interviewing to matriculate at the University of Newcastle in an undergraduate program.
For the Reese family, this trip was a major excursion. Indeed, I was told when we left the old cathedral city of York, about a third of the way to our destination, we were right then passing north of the farthest distance these originally Welsh folk had ever been from home. After York, it was all new to us all. The day was so fine for late March that after dropping David at his interviews, we all piled back into the car and drove the short distance to the beaches at Tynemouth, right on the North Sea.
Eventually, after picking up David, we headed west. Having come so far north, over 260 miles, we were going for broke. We were going to travel another 35 miles west into the hills called the Cheviots, to a site where Emperor Hadrian’s old wall remained intact. Begun in AD 122, the wall originally stretched 73 miles across England’s two most northern counties, Cumberland and Northumberland, west to east. The original wall actually went through Newcastle, which was itself originally a Roman fort, but only a few miles of the wall had survived, its midsection, in the sparsely populated hill district.
I do not know what it is like now but in 1968, the approach to the wall was not “touristy” at all and we came upon it, following signs, all by ourselves, with no one else nearby. I remember the five of us talking together in hushed tones about this solemn and ancient place, a symbol of Roman conquest as well as of the empire’s ultimately limited resources. After-all, the wall on which we walked that day represented the northern-most extreme of the empire, a power which would extend itself no farther. Just typing this out brings the experience back, and a melancholy as well, a sense of limit and a fear of inevitable loss. I cherish that amazing memory.
The Bricks of Trinity Church, Wall Street, N.Y.C., New York
I do not remember exactly when I found myself first tugging at a huge red brick on the fascia of Trinity Church, Wall Street. It has happened several times, indeed it happens most times when I visit NYC. I used to think of one of those bricks as mine. You see, the whole island was purchased, fair and square (?) from the Manhattan Indians by Willem Kieft, the first Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam. Subsequently, Anneke Jans (once believed to be the illegitimate daughter of the King of Holland) came with her husband, Rudof Jansen in 1633 to New Amsterdam, where, after he died, she married Edvardus Bogardus, the pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, who owned some 62 acres on the island, some of them on the East River, near Hells Gate and (eventually) the Gracie Mansion and some at or near his church building just inside “the wall.”
However, our (huge, extended) family long believed Eddie and Annie had owned most of what would become the entire financial district of Wall Street. Indeed, many great-great-great grandchildren, long after Richard Nicolls and 450 British troops seized Anneke’s farm, tried to get the U. S. government to pay reparations for the seizure of “their” property. In the 1920s, it was ruled they were entitled to reimbursement by the Federal Government, but before the case could proceed, the heirs were told they had to locate all the heirs of Anneke Jans. This proved impossible, but moreover, the claimants discovered the prolific Anneke and all her prolific off-spring had so diluted the claim that each heir would, by then, be entitled to the value of approximately “one brick from Trinity Church.”
As an heir of Anneke Jans, I have been back to claim my brick many times but so far, no luck. (P.S., in honor of our ancestor, I have a beautiful granddaughter whose name is Lindsay Annika James!)
All the Cherished Experiences
It is impossible to devote space to more than a few cherished memories. My wife Karen and I have so many cherished times in so many places that we long ago claimed the song, Cherish, by “The Association” as one of our only two special songs. I could tell you about a few times but again, I would be accused of “over-sharing.”
I have had a life worth living. True enough, I had some rough years in the middle, some times of chronic anger and frustration. Those times are long past. Three events within one decade turned me around, at least three which I can credit at this moment. In the midst of my angry time, a dear associate named Tom Amundsen challenged me to keep a log every day in which I wrote six things for which I was thankful, then three concerns for others, then three concerns for myself. I began doing that, not every day, but five days a week at lunchtime, at work. The six thankful things were very hard at first. It was especially hard to not repeat anything, all week, but I did that week after week, for years, from 1985 – 1990. The discipline of thankfulness changed my life for the better.
The second “cherished” time was Karen’s cancer. She is now a twenty-year survivor, but for a while I was very much afraid I would lose her. Since her recovery, I have come to see everything in a new way. Although it was always so, I now truly see every day with her as a true gift from God.
The third event, two years after Karen’s illness, Karen and I “made” our Cursillo weekends. The fire hose of God’s grace which I experienced on my weekend, and have continued to experience since, turned my life the rest of the way around. Life began all over for me in late 1994! Memories all, to cherish and live out of.
I am a grateful man whose life, legacy of many past generations, blessed by many times and friends, has become a gracious gift.
Next Post? Liberating Ideas!