The World Is Our Classroom

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Florida: the Everglades

Soon we were heading on the road again with my parents, this time all staying together in the camper.  Destination: the Everglades, and then the Florida Keys. But first, two very long days of driving. Day 1 felt long because we had frustrating last-minute hindrances to getting on the road. But due to traffic and back country roads that seemed to stop us at every red light in every small town on the route, Day 2 in particular felt like it. went. on. for. ev. er. 

By 5 p.m., with several hours left to go, I decided to treat the kids to ice cream at a truck stop. 

Go ahead, kids--get yourself some while I run to the restroom. Just go easy on the toppings, ok?

Coming back to find they had just a little too much fun with the topping bar. Yes, there is actually ice cream under that pile of candy.

Literally kids in a candy store. 

So, I called it dinner. 

But once we actually made it down to the campground in the Everglades, we experienced a dramatic difference in congestion:

A view from our campsite. 

Look closely, and there's us.

We knew it was off-season--one of the things I've been purposefully timing around this whole trip, to avoid crowds, tourist traffic, booked campgrounds and higher fees--but didn't expect this complete lack of people. Each of the two nights we stayed there we did see one other person tent camping, but we definitely had all the quiet and privacy we could want.

That first morning we awoke in that still campground I hailed a passing ranger to chat about the area. He said that down there at the tip of Florida the season was truly a season, and most people just don't venture down until the heat and bugs and hurricanes are over. (We had researched and also tried to time our visit to avoid hurricanes, and we succeeded--the weather was hot but really beautiful the whole time we were there. And what's hot? It would have been just as hot staying back at my parents' in Alabama. But not nearly as adventuresome.) Then the ranger told me that usually that time of year (August) we could not even be standing there having that conversation--that the mosquitoes would normally be horrendous, even in the sun, even in the middle of the morning. But he said this year for some reason they were much less prevalent. I know the reason--because God is merciful. Hey, no swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes when & where there usually are?  That's a Blessing and I'm thanking the Good Lord.

Trying out the "beach" there at the very tip of Florida. Eh. Seemed a little smelly and foam-slimy. The kids ventured in but nobody had an urge to swim. 

So we spent that day seeing what there was to see at the Everglades National Park. Which, turns out, wasn't much. I had gone to that park with visions of creepily beautiful mangrove swamp tours and alligators lurking everywhere. Turns out the boat tours were not running, not just because of it being the off-season but because the park has not finished repairing after Hurricane Irma, when all their boats apparently ended up in the parking lot. So our views of the Everglades were relegated to the much less wild sides visible from the visitor centers and the roads.

Being a huge wetland, it looks like a giant, peaceful prairie. Beautiful, but not particularly memorable.

(Embiggen to see the sign that hints of all the wildness that must have been all around us but was eluding us.)

Turns out the animals were having their off season too. Even after walking around the nature viewing areas, the only exotic creatures we had seen that entire first day were beautifully bright grasshoppers:
Lubber grasshoppers

So after a hot and, truth be told, pretty boring experience at the  Everglades National Park, I decided we would have to step up our game if we wanted the kids to glean more of what made that area of our country special. So using the free wifi at the Visitor's Center (side note, but oh, how I have appreciated that at our nation's parks and museums! We're grandfathered into a really cheap phone plan that has very little data, so anytime I could get free wifi on the road to help me plan and meet my family's needs I was so thankful), I quickly researched and booked tickets for us all on a local "Gator" swamp tour. The tours are actually held inside the Everglades National Park by various authorized local tour companies.

The swamp tour started with a wildlife show. Finally, alligators! And American crocodiles! Did you know we actually have both in the US? I didn't!  And the Everglades is the only place where those animals share an environment (alligators live mainly in fresh water and crocodiles mainly in salt, but this unique ecosystem has both).

Yay for alligators!  Even if in cages.

A view of the airboats they use, which are very loud but which will not endanger wildlife, esp. manatees. 

The guide paused the boat for a moment of swamp tranquility.

The kids really enjoyed the boat ride, especially Smiley and Happy--the guide really did a good job of making it feel like an adventure, revving up the engine once we were out in the open and racing through the sea grass, intentionally giving his riders salt spray and thrills.

The boat "path" to and from the open, grassy waterways had a little the beautiful creepy going on. This was the slow, quiet nature-watching part of the boat ride. 

The only creature we saw was a turtle swimming under the water. But still, the whole ride was great for the kids understanding the waterways and natural ecosystem, so they could picture the animals in their habitats even if nobody was home when we stopped by. 

The whole "gator park" experience was definitely the high point of the day, even without any wild gators. A second highlight was stopping for dinner at a local Cuban restaurant--not a fancy gourmet restaurant, but very "home-style" feeling.

I don't remember what all we ate, but I tried to order things that seemed fairly authentic. I know the dish on the right there was fried cassava (yucca), which we all really liked. 

And Cuban black bean soup. Yummy.

Day Two there in the Everglades National Park we spent time learning at the different welcome centers. I really appreciated this display, that discussed water issues in the state of Florida and gave voice to the different perspectives involved, such as farmers, developers, tourists, environmentalists, fishermen, etc.

The kids and I also took a short hike on a trail specifically designed for viewing Everglades "jungle" and the beautiful snails that live there.

They are Liggus snails and they were intriguing enough to prompt additional research when we got back to AL. Anyone studying genetics in populations might find this article interesting!

So the first half of our Florida trip was not quite what I had expected--but it was still fun and interesting, and we were all eagerly anticipating what would come next.

Monday, September 17, 2018

AL: Random Summer Moments

Papa and Smiley resting.

Trying on super high heels, just for kicks.  Wow, those heels were gorgeous. But how does anyone actually walk in them?!

Smiley and Happy with a blank map of the world and google--figuring out which countries they each wanted to have in their personal empires once they take over & divide up the world. 

I walked up to the attic room one afternoon to find this cozy gathering of books and siblings.

Another day I walked in to find another relaxed social gathering happening. . . 

Just a bunch of friends hanging out. In more ways than one.

Putting together a model car--and figuring it out all by himself. Opa would be proud. 

In preparation for our upcoming trip to Florida, the first time my parents would travel with us in the trailer, my dad built a new bed over the dinette for Smiley.

Just a few snapshots of summer here in Alabama, where there is never a dull day.

AL: German POWs and Snagboats

After church with Cousin Margot, center.

My mother's Cousin Margot came to visit all the way from Iowa, on her way to Florida, and while she was here we took a little day trip that my parents had been wanting to do with me and the kids--down to Aliceville, AL, which was the site of the largest German POW camp in the U.S. during WWII. The camp was one of a system of camps built throughout the US, mostly in the South & strategically away from cities, where there was plenty of open space, where the land was cheap, where it would be cheaper to house POWs, and where the prisoners would be more isolated. 

The POWs who first came to Aliceville were actually not our prisoners, but those of our ally Britain. Specifically, they were members of the elite forces who had been fighting in North Africa under their beloved Desert Fox, Field Marshal Rommel. As the war went on, and we started to get POWs of our own, our government started to segregate German POWs by rank (by the rules of the Geneva Convention, officers could not be forced to work, and those who could not be compelled by rewards were a negative influence on the rest of the camp labor forces, so were separated into "no work" camps) and by fanaticism (hard core Nazis would intimidate other soldiers from complying with their captors, even murdering fellow POWs who seemed too friendly with the Americans, so were removed and grouped together in special higher-security camps). The Aliceville camp became home to non-working officers. 

Some things we learned that I found really interesting:

--When the German POWs first arrived in NY and then traveled by train to get down to the camp in AL, they were astounded to find American cities intact and life going on so normally; they had been told by Nazi propaganda that NYC and other major cities had been bombed. 

--One German POW related how some of them thought that the Americans were having them travel in circles--they could not believe how big our country was. They also thought the Americans were intentionally driving the same cars past the train over and over, again to trick them--they could not believe there were so many cars in any country.

--When the first POW train arrived in Aliceville, the military police and local authorities told all the townspeople to stay at home, indoors, while the prisoners were being unloaded and walked from the train to the camp. Instead, the entire town turned out to watch, lining the sidewalk like it was a parade, teenage girls sitting up on a rack of lumber at the nearby sawmill for a better view. (All this is documented in photographs.) This mix of curiosity and flagrant disregard for authority (stemming from stubborn independence and an assurance that nothing bad would befall them for their civil rebellion) strikes me as uniquely American--I can't imagine the same thing happening if the culture roles had been reversed.  The POWs reported that they expected to be yelled at, despised--but the Americans watching were quiet, just curious and even respectful. The Aliceville residents interviewed make comments that point to awareness of shared humanity, and even sympathy for those tired and sick POWs (who had been on a long journey from Europe and who had not necessarily been treated well during captivity by the British, who had greater grudge against them). Somehow this, too, strikes me as an American response. (Later on, after Americans had lost more to the Germans perhaps the response was different--and I'm wondering if different parts of the country had different responses to the POWs arriving.)

--Some of the Aliceville residents grew to resent the good treatment of the German POWs, since by Geneva Convention rules they had to be fed the same caloric value as our troops received. That meant that Americans were scrimping and often hungry, while the POWs were well fed. But the US government thought it was important to treat enemy POWs well so that they would be more likely to treat American POWs well; near the end of the war, as it came out how American POWs had not at all been treated well, certainly not in accordance with the Geneva Convention, the US government changed its stance and the POWs had much more meager rations. 

--But also part of the US government strategy in treating the POWs well was the awareness that they had an opportunity to change the minds of these Germans about America and its values and culture. So for most of the war, those German POWs had access to free college classes, many of them earning credits for advanced degrees!  As the war neared its close, the US used such education to prepare these German officers at Aliceville for helping lead and rebuild Germany after the war. Wow. That struck me as very far thinking, and very wise. And I think it worked, too--all the POWs that were interviewed for the book and museum displays spoke very well of their time as prisoners in the US, and especially of the people they interacted with. 

I can't even begin to share all that I learned from the museum, its friendly director, and the book I read about the camp, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire. But it was fascinating. Not because it was a dramatic piece of our shared history--no, the museum is small and modest, and the book long and even a bit slow, but both in their humbleness manage to capture how the interactions between POWs and the Americans of towns like Aliceville were so. . . ordinary. Relatable. Human. That's what I love about history--the human stories behind objects and places, and I was fascinated by these two worlds colliding in the backwoods of Alabama. 

There are no ruins or rebuild structures of the camp to still see--all was dismantled and sold by the US government to Aliceville locals after the war ended and the POWs were repatriated (well, after they were handed back over to the British, who then kept them in the UK and France working to help rebuild, so that many of the German POWs did not get back home until almost 2 years after the war had ended). And the little museum does not allow photography inside, out of respect for the people who had donated what might be very personal items to the displays. But I'm not sure a photograph can accurately convey the spirit of the museum anyway, which is one of finding belonging and friendship even in the midst of war. Hand carved wooden pieces, some utilitarian, some clearly showing skills learned a longing for home. Portraits and paintings made by prisoners of the camp and the Americans they interacted with. Photos of camp life and the shows, concerts, competitive sports and other things the POWs did to keep themselves busy and positive in their captivity.

But the most striking thing to me about the museum was its stories, both in the past and ongoing. That this little museum exists in a podunk, backwoods Alabama town. That some of the German POWs have come back for reunions, and even stay with Aliceville locals, who are now friends. That now children and grandchildren of the POWs will often show up at this little museum in the middle of nowhere, wanting to know more about their father or grandfather's experience during the war. That the families of these POWs donate things to this little museum--that they care to keep the stories alive. That there is a little tree in the museum courtyard that was given to the museum and planted by former German POWs, as a symbol of continuing peace between our countries. 

A statue in the courtyard of the museum, made by a German POW during his captivity.

Another thing that really struck me about our visit to the Aliceville POW Camp museum--the small-town hospitality. When we arrived at the museum it was just before noon, when the posted hours stated the museum would close for lunch. But the courteous historian/curator, the only person working at the museum, told us to go ahead and look as long as we wanted--he'd just postpone his lunch break until we were done. 

Then there was a really cool moment that also stemmed directly from the curator's generosity; when he unknowingly answered a longing of my heart. It wasn't a big thing, but it turned out to be one of those times God uses a little thing to show His big love. You see, way back on the trip out when we stopped at the Minuteman Missile Museum in South Dakota, there was a piece of the Berlin Wall that museum-goers could touch, as part of the Cold War displays. Since we have been studying that part of history as a family, I tried to make sure everyone saw it and touched it, who wanted to. (And who didn't?! Cool piece of history!) Well, turns out one kid didn't notice the display, and so missed out--my eldest, Sunny. When she later found out what she had missed she was really bummed, and even mentioned it weeks later later as a major disappointment of the trip. So I started hoping there would be some other opportunity on our travels--maybe in New York, who knows?--for her to see or touch a piece of the Berlin Wall. That sounded pretty far-fetched of a dream, but for my daughter, I was hoping.

Well, there in the Aliceville POW museum, I saw a chunk of concrete in a display case labeled as--you know it--a piece of the Berlin Wall, gifted by one of the German POWs to the museum. So I hunted down the friendly curator in his office to ask if there was any chance he would be willing to let Sunny touch it. (The museum was very clear about not touching items on display, let alone in cases, so I knew he might well say no, but it didn't hurt to ask.) He thought for a moment, and then said no. But, he offered, she could hold another piece of the Wall he happened to have on his desk.

Sunny, thrilled that she isn't just touching, but actually holding a piece of that history.

That moment felt like an affectionate little gift from a loving Heavenly Father.  

The museum also has the only intact Coca-Cola bottling assembly on display in the US, leftover from the post-war heyday of the town. 

After that lovely learning time at the Aliceville museum, we headed over for a picnic lunch at the nearby Tom Bevill lock and dam, which is one of four on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

Watching a barge come through the lock.

There is a small museum there, in a planation-style house built and run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who maintain the waterway. 

Ship's bell in the museum, which we were encouraged to ring. It was loud!

Very top floor, basically a landing which had great views of the river. . . 

. . . and terrifying views down to the bottom floor.

A model of a snag boat. . . 

. . . and the real deal outside, waiting to be explored!

Again, we had been encouraged by the secretary at the museum to explore and try things out--including the ship's horn!

So. Very. Loud.  (And so very cool when the nearby lock station blasted their horn back at us in friendly acknowledgment!)

We were all enamored with the small bedrooms stuffed with bunks. Apparently we love cozy little bed spaces. 

And I was enamored with the kitchen. So vintage! So tiny but completely utilitarian! 

The snag boat's enclosed "porch," complete with rockers!  Ah, we had fun exploring it all by ourselves and imagining living and working there. 

Just an example of some of the fun learning we are doing even while at home base.