AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.
If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.
The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.
It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.
The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.
What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?
There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?
When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.
Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?
Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.
Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.
Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.
This is the first summer I really don’t care about growing things.
I’m tired of growing things. Tired of trying to keep the weeds out, worrying about pests and infestations, Japanese beetles, poor soil, mockingbirds and towhees that fight over the blackberries, and possums that come to watch the ripening of the muscadines. Do you know that I have old pantyhose hanging outside on the blackberry vines next to my fence? Yes. I do. To scare away the birds. I didn’t pick enough berries this summer to make a cobbler. The birds got them all. And last night when I took Heidi out before bedtime, there was the possum sitting on the second shelf of the baker’s stand on my deck, as he did last year, come July. He tried to hide his head behind the church birdhouse he was kneeling beside.
I’m tired of fighting nature. You can’t win. Things are going to grow where they are not supposed to. And things that are supposed to grow, don’t. I look at the six tomato plants I set out in April. There’s not one single yellow bloom. The pole beans are running amuck and flowered out in red and I’ve harvested one bean. I’m too old for this. And too tired.
I clear the weeds out of the beds, and they’re back in a week. I can’t get a grip on this. And the Bermuda grass—that awful spreading stuff—will eventually cover the whole house. I just know it. I can’t tame my yard. I just can’t. Not anymore.
This is the first summer that in June, I’m ready for winter. I look out at my yard and think only of preparing it for cold. Defining the flowerbeds in a downtime when things don’t grow and take over. Fresh mulch to sit under snow. No vegetables to wrinkle up and host bugs and mold and leaf rot.
I’m ready to ditch it all.
Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
I hiked two miles yesterday on the freshly mulched trails of a Class II Natural Area, saw native wildflowers in white, pink, and purple, saw birds, frogs, turtles lined up on logs in the lake, snakes swimming, and chipmunks jumping around. The color green across the forest floor was new, fresh, and yellowy. The pitch of bird sounds was high and expectant. It is newly spring, when cycles begin again. Life comes around every year.
The last short segment of the hike was on an old road, closed to driving and crumbling at the edges into the lake. The center line spoke to me, and I snapped a picture.
Old road surface, rough, hard, harsh, cracked, hidden under thick trees, away from sun and light, always dark there, always, no light gets through, not ever. Yellow line at the center of the path to follow home. Straight, unlike life. And jagged, winding cracks have opened up all down the line splitting the yellow paint, itself marred and chipped away. Life finds a way up through the openings in the gray. Tender new green, fragile, flowering, pink, finds a place in the hard, cold road. Keeps doing it every year, coming back, coming back, coming back. Even blooming.
Why? What is the purpose? I wonder when it will tire of this.
I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.
On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.
I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.
I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.
Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.
A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.
I own that gully now.
I slipped away from work in the middle of the day and went to see the movie Hidden Figures. I splurged—got popcorn, diet cherry Coke, and peanut M&Ms. After all, it was lunch, too. I found an aisle seat and settled in. I kind of knew what to expect from the movie, but it was way more than what I expected. It was set in my time of growing up in the South. My children have no idea what it was like, and my grandchildren certainly have no clue.
It was 1961-62. I was a girl, in junior high, trying to step up from girl to teen. It was the year of the black leather jacket—if you didn’t have one, you were out. It was the year I had a royal blue knit outfit—tight skirt and matching top. I wore it with royal blue Piccolinos. Piccolinos were like little fairy shoes—flats with severely pointed toes and a whole lot of toe cleavage, and this was so long ago, you can’t google and find a picture of them, but all the girls had Piccolinos in every bright color. It was also the year that girls teased their hair. Even Barbie had a bouffant.
It was before Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came, before Vietnam was a living-room word; it was the year James Meredith integrated Ole Miss with the help of the National Guard. It was on the cusp of outward racial turbulence and the fight for civil rights, because in this free county, black people had no rights. They had separate public bathrooms and water fountains, separate schools, separate beauty shops and funeral homes. They could not use public libraries, and they did not vote. People had to pass a test and pay a poll tax to vote back then.
It was also the time of an intense race for space—outer space, that is. President Kennedy wanted a man on the moon during the decade of the 60s, and we couldn’t seem to get a man off the ground and into orbit. But the Russians could. Their 1957 Sputnik 1 was the world’s first satellite to orbit the earth. They were far ahead of us in science and technology. With their early Sputnik launches, they proved 1) they were winning the Space Race, and 2) they had rockets capable of launching nuclear weapons right on top of us. So the next year, 1958, NASA was formed, and the US committed men, money, and technology to competing and winning the Space Race. And IBM developed a mainframe computer that NASA installed right at the time of our first manned flight into orbit to compute the needed mathematical data. All these issues collide and overlap in the movie.
Before IBM’s involvement, all the math by NASA to figure launches, trajectories, and splashdown coordinates was done by human “computers,” or mathematicians. The movie is about a group of female Colored Computers, and it focuses on the stories of three African-American women. Hidden Figures is a true story about 1) women, 2) black women, and 3) black women in a world of white men / engineers only, giving viewers complex and complicated layers of issues to understand and follow. These three women cross all gender, race, and professional barriers as they dream big and push forward to go where no one else has ever gone.
Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson step up to the task, each in their own way, but all beginning as Colored Computers at the space flight center who commuted to work together. At the leading edge of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, they rise in the ranks of NASA along with the country’s greatest minds, tasked to calculate the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guarantee his safe return. [Spoiler Alert] Katherine was assigned to the room of flight engineers who did the launches of Atlas Friendship 7, the moon launch, and the later space shuttles. It was her calculations that got Glenn safely into orbit and safely home. Dorothy realized her job was going to be taken over by a computer, so when she wasn’t allowed to check out a library book on computer programming, she stole it (she paid taxes!) and became the expert and trainer on NASA mainframes. Mary became the first African-American woman engineer by going to court and getting permission to attend classes at an all-white school.
These women are real American heroes and an inspiration to all, regardless of gender, race, or profession. It takes a special kind of person to stand up, step up, speak up, trust herself to go into the unknown, and push herself to make history.