Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Climbing the Family Tree

Genealogy has been an interest of mine since a college history class. We lived in Michigan at the time, and frequently drove back to Green Bay. My family humored me by stopping in Milwaukee so I could look through birth, marriage, and death records at the court house. (This was before genealogy became such a booming hobby, and I had ready access to the records, unlike today.) I also visited the Brown and Manitowoc county court houses, and filled a notebook with names and dates.

One of my great-grandmothers displays her hourglass figure.

These days, finding ancestral clues is easier with online genealogy sites and networking. In recent weeks, I’ve come in contact with two distant cousins.
My ancestry is three quarters German, one eighth Dutch, and one sixteen each Belgian and French Canadian. For the longest time, my Dutch line dead-ended with my great-great-grandfather, Gerhard Vogelzang, known in Wisconsin as George Vogels. My new Dutch contact clued me in to the Dutch website, where my Dutch ancestry has burst into bloom. I now know who my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandparents were. That equals some of my German branches.

My gr-gr-grandfather (lower right) was killed in 1925. He was struck by a car while bringing home ice cream.

Despite its small fraction, my French ancestry traces back the farthest. Many of my French ancestors arrived in New France in the mid-1600s. Many of the men were soldiers, come to guard French interests in the New World. In order to maintain a presence there, the king sent marriageable women, including several of my foremothers. Upon arrival, they paired off and married within weeks.
As I enter their names in a family tree on ancestry.com, I’ve been struck by the high number of babies these women bore. And lost. Ten to fourteen children was common, as was losing more than half of them. Many of them, men and women, could not read or write.
My Belgian ancestors continue to elude me. My great-great-grandmother Josephine Dennis is listed on the 1860 census as a 12-year-old, Belgian-born domestic living with a 45-year-old Belgian man and a 17-year-old French male. Where were her parents? Her mother may have died and her father parceled out his children, but what kind of life was that for a young girl in a strange country? All too common, unfortunately.

My only great-grandparent still alive when I was born. He always had pink and white mints for my sister and me.

Many of my books’ characters bear my ancestral names. In Friends & Enemies, there’s Paul Braedel and Heidi Steinhorst Wetzel; in No Neutral Ground, Rafe Martell; and in Soar Like Eagles, Chet Vogel and Carol Doucet. Amazingly, in my next book, no one has an ancestral name. What was I thinking? Hmm, I can still change that.

Paul says in 1 Tomothy 1:3-4, “You may command certain men not to teach…endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” Do you think this applies to the hobby of genealogy?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Remembering My Mom


My last book, Soar Like Eagles, is dedicated to my mother, Carol Wangard. I wrote, “My mother had the gift of serving. She would have made a fine Doughnut Girl.”
Why do I think that?
From my elementary school days, I remember Mom working in the kitchen of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin, mixing Kool-Aid and preparing snacks for Vacation Bible School.
I remember the birthday parties she organized for me. We’d play the party games like dropping clothes pins into a bottle and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. And there’d be a cake she baked.
She sewed clothes for my sister and me, and for our Barbie dolls. The day before I started my freshman year in university, I’d tried to sew a new top to wear. The sewing machine and I never became friends, and that evening, I left in frustration for a department get-together, sure I’d have to wear something else. I came home to find Mom had finished it for me.
She held a variety of church offices through the years. When my dad opened his own real estate business, Mom got her real estate license and served as receptionist and salesperson. When my sister and I had out-of-town swim meets, Dad volunteered to drive one of the buses for the Green Bay YMCA swim team, and Mom came along as unofficial den mother
The Red Cross doughnut girls left home and served in some difficult situations, in all kinds of weather extremes. They had minimal comforts. (Read Soar Like Eagles and you’ll get an idea what their lives were like!)
No, I doubt Mom would have enjoyed washing her hair in a helmet, freezing her hands preparing the dough, or using a slit trench. But the combat troops didn’t have an easy life, and Mom would have seen the benefit of boosting their morale. Serving was her gift.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Calling All Space Addicts

Who else always gravitated to the television when NASA launched a space shuttle? Who didn’t thrill to the majesty of the thundering launch? Who didn’t wish for the opportunity to look back at the earth from on high, seeing the earth’s curvature, and sunrises and sunsets every ninety minutes?

I never got to attend a manned spaceflight launch, but did an unmanned launch a few years ago.

Do you remember what you were doing when you heard Challenger had exploded seventy-three seconds after launch? I’d been listening to the countdown as I drove to my library job in Fullerton, California. I arrived at the law school before the launch took place, so it wasn’t until I went out to the front desk later that morning and a law clerk asked if I’d heard. I rushed back to workroom and asked our student assistant if he knew anything about the explosion. I’ve never forgotten his dumbfounded expression.
How about Columbia’s last ill-fated flight? My mother and I had been downtown running errands and heard the news at the post office. I remember a sick feeling.
Before the shuttle, the Apollo flights mesmerized me. Imagine, flying to the moon. I’ve read nearly all the astronaut memoirs. So maybe you can imagine my pleasure at receiving an advance copy of Jeffrey Kluger’s Apollo 8, which releases next week.

I have a NASA print, Earthrise taken by Bill Anders on Dec. 24, 1968, hanging on my wall.

The crew of Apollo 9 consisted of Commander Frank Borman with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Busy training for their earth orbital mission at the Rockwell plant in Downey, California, Borman was abruptly called to Houston. Apollo 8 was to test the new lunar module, but the LM was delayed. NASA decided on a bold, audacious stroke. Switch the crews around, and send Borman and company into lunar orbit.
So far, Apollo had been a failure. The crew of Apollo 1 had been killed in a fire during training. No Apollo spacecraft had yet flown. The first manned flight, Apollo 7, was still to come. It would be followed by Apollo 8. To the moon.
Imagine the thoughts of Susan Borman, Marilyn Lovell, and Valerie Anders. Mrs. Borman asked Chris Kraft, NASA manager, what her husband’s chances of returning home were. Fifty-fifty, he told her.
Apollo 8 was a thrilling success. While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, the astronauts read from Genesis to a listening world. Said Bill Anders, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
How can anyone not take pride in our accomplishments in space?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Berliners love zoos

The Berlin zoo has been popular in Germany since its opening in 1844. It stimulated their intellectual curiosity about the broader world, lands and peoples beyond their borders. Unlike other zoos in Europe, the Berlin zoo was open to the public.

Overview of the pre-WWII zoo.

A zoo in the nineteenth century was much different than today. Folks went there for society: concerts, restaurants with 5,000 tables, evening strolls away from the urbanization of the city, and to see animals. In Through the Lion’s Gate, author Gary Bruce shares another quirky attraction: Berliners were excited by the prospect of smoking at the zoo, an act banned since 1787 on streets and squares.

The Predators House

People were less concerned about the welfare of animals than the need for educational and scientific goals. One of the founders, Martin Liechtenstein, was aghast that visitors put lit cigarettes in the hands of monkeys, but also promoted social dinners serving surplus zoo animals.
Animals were captured in the wild by hunters killing the mother and capturing the baby. Dominating nature and imposing man’s will on the animal world were the themes of the nineteenth century.

The Elephant House. Buildings visually signified the lands from which the animals came.

People were also displayed in the zoo. Inuits from Greenland, Nubians from northeast Africa, Mongolian nomads, Chileans, Lapps. As late as the 1920s, human exhibits were common. The people demonstrated their hunting skills, wedding traditions, and dances. This may sound similar to today’s living history museums, but in at least one instance, when an Inuit didn’t do what the sponsor wanted, he was whipped with a dog whip.

The Antilope House.

In the twentieth century, a new emphasis grew to save animals rather than hunt them into extinction. Animals’ lives, freedom and happiness are more important than dominance. During the Nazi era, nature conservation and animal protection were big themes. The Berlin zoo was implicit in identifying with Nazi racial policies, and tried to whitewash its past. At the outset of the war, the zoo had over 4,000 animals. At war’s end, only ninety-one had survived. Despite towering piles of rubble and make-shift shelters among the ruins, the zoo reopened two months later. More than a million Germans visited the zoo in the year after the war.

The zoo director, a close friend of Herman Goring, kept him supplied with young lions from the zoo, retrieving them when they got too big and dangerous for the field marshall's private residence.

A devoted population saved the zoo many times, as they did during the Berlin Airlift. Zoos are expensive, and the people gave money to the zoo even when they had little.
After the war, the first female director discontinued public feeding of the animals, which led to deaths through overfeeding or intestinal infections. A polar bear died after being fed salt herring.

Through the Lion’s Gate by Gary Bruce releases in August. It offers an engrossing history of Berlin’s zoo.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Milkweed Pods

Remember playing with milkweed pods as a kid? If you weren’t careful picking them, you’d get that sticky white sap all over your hands. We’d open the pods and release all the fluff into the wind.


All that fluff was valuable to make life jackets during World War II. The floss was used as a substitute for kapok, which could no longer be imported from Indonesia.


School children in the Midwest collected pods. Five thousand bags of pods were collected in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The bags were sent to a pod separation plant in Petosky, Michigan. It took eight hundred pods to fill a bag, and two bags per life vest.

Who knew that stuff could save lives? Now you do.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Sad Queen

If you’ve read No Neutral Ground, you may remember the role played by the Queen Mary. The luxurious ship was stripped of its fancy furnishings and transported troops to the battlefields.

The Queen Mary as the Gray Ghost during WWII.

Since 1967, the ship has been in Long Beach, converted into a floating hotel. Now it’s in serious trouble. A small news item appeared in the newspaper:
Price for Corrosion Repairs on Queen Mary Nears $300 Million
Say what??
A single paragraph explained:
“The Queen Mary is so corroded that it’s at urgent risk of flooding or collapse, and the price tag for fixing up the 1930s ocean liner could near $300 million, according to experts. It would likely take five years to rehab the ship, a tourist destination docked permanently in Long Beach Harbor south of Los Angeles. The hull is severely rusted and areas, including the engine room, could be prone to flooding.”
How could this have happened?


A very many years ago, I toured the Queen Mary during a visit to California. Like so many other places I’ve visited, I had no idea I would one day write a book featuring the Queen. Now I appreciate its history and wish I could remember that visit. But the only thing that comes to mind is dark paneling.

Have you visited the Queen?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The World Remade


After reading the new book, The World Remade, I realized how little I knew about World War I. Woodrow Wilson is lauded as a man of peace, but he was a self-righteous fool. He believed he was always right about anything. If anyone disagreed with him, that person was not only wrong, but morally wrong and forever scorned. Wilson refused to consult with his cabinet, Congress, anyone but his pal Edward House, who knew how to manipulate him with effusive praise. He was so intent on creating his League of Nations he allowed France and Britain to write a horrendous peace treaty.
The British manipulated Wilson (and America) from the beginning: severing underwater cables so only their propaganda got through, collaborating with Wilson’s pal Edward House to write America’s responses to British atrocities, setting a precedence for the future. Britain had been in decline since 1870, while united Germany grew industrially. Britain’s resentment of Germany was a significant reason for going to war. Wreck the upstart rival and reassert their global supremacy.
Germany had been the last European nation to mobilize. The others had mobilized on the basis of false reports. When Russia and France mobilized, Germany was motivated, not by the desire of conquest, but fear of being crushed by its neighbors.
Innocent little Belgium was not so innocent; rather, it was a junior partner with Britain and France, secretly planning for war with Germany and receiving British aid.
Britain decried Germany’s U-boats, but actually had more subs than Germany, preying on Baltic Sea shipping lanes. London’s censors created stories of German “frightfulness” with their U-boats to divert attention from their own transgressions—an illegal blockade of Germany and denying neutrals the right to trade with anyone Britain didn’t want them to. Britain ruled the waves and waived the rules.
The U.S. should have maintained strict neutrality, not supplying the Allies and giving them credit, and should not have intervened. The warring nations would have soon exhausted themselves.

Recommended: The World Remade by G.J. Meyer, Penguin Random House, 2017