Uncle Bob

Uncle Bob Smith was my dad’s best friend. They first met when they lived at the Perry Manor Apartments in the same building as my parents. As life moved on, Karen, Bobby and Cindy Smith became friends with my sister Molly and me and we all went on trips together and had great times at each others homes over all the years. Even though they were not blood relatives, we called them Uncle Bob and Aunt Jean because we all were so close. Basically like family. Karen, Bobby and Cindy were our cousins. Plain and simple.

Uncle Bob was raised by his mother in Lawrenceville because his dad died early. As a city fireman, Uncle Bob’s dad had a hazardous job and one day he fell into an oil tank which was on fire and died leaving his young wife behind, who was pregnant with my Uncle Bob. Growing up in the depression and post depression was not easy for a mother raising a son alone and Uncle Bob spent a lot of time at the local Catholic Church which provided needed resources for a young guy growing up in a tough neighborhood under dire circumstances. Father Jack McDowell took my Uncle Bob under his wing and was, for all intents and purposes, his surrogate father allowing him to work around the church and helping with neighborhood missions directed by Father Jack. Uncle Bob played a lot of baseball in the neighborhood and around Pittsburgh, and eventually became good enough to be drafted by the Chicago Cubs farm organization. But instead of the path to professional baseball, Uncle Bob joined the Navy to better provide for his mother financially and found himself on the USS Copahee, an aircraft carrier deployed to the Philippines and Japan.

Fast forward- I first got to know what a character Uncle Bob was when I asked him to be my sponsor for my confirmation at St. Sebastian’s Parish. The nuns had us all in line and glared at us if any one of us made a move that would somehow ruin the ceremony. As we walked down the aisle, Uncle Bob was cracking jokes to me and I tried desperately not to laugh. When we approached the Bishop, it was a silent, reverent moment until Uncle Bob blurted out” Hey Jack- How the hell are ya?” To which Bishop McDowell, the former Father McDowell from Lawrenceville responded,” Bob Smith you old rascal – what brings you here?” His miter( the bishop’s pointy hat), almost fell off his head as the two of them shared a laugh and the nuns were horrified. I knew how cool Uncle Bob was that day and he became a legend among all my friends from grade school.

Over the years growing up, I shared a lot of laughs with Uncle Bob. His irreverent humor was so funny to me and he and I became close and saw each other a lot in those days. He was truly an uncle in every form of the word and was a mentor to me on how to not take life so seriously.

I attended Uncle Bob’s military funeral this past week at the Cemetery of the Alleghenies. He was 94 and was the last of my dad’s friends to leave this earth. The military service was so moving and the Navy personnel along with some veterans from the local VFW presided.   The flag ceremony along with the 21 gun salute and “Taps” brought tears to my eyes. The Navy personnel presented the flag to Uncle Bob’s daughter Karen, and there was not a dry eye in that chapel. Three shell casings are placed in the flag representing Duty, Honor, Country. All befitting my Uncle Bob who served selflessly in a war far from his home. The World War II guys are leaving fast and soon there will be no veterans left from that war. As I left the ceremony I thought a lot about Uncle Bob and his life in Lawrenceville, and his service to his country. People like him were truly from the greatest generation and I also thought about what Uncle Bob would have said about the current situation in our country. I am sure he would have laughed it off and called a lot of the anarchists a few rude names but would understand that a lot of them have no idea of what it takes to be in the war time military. Education and understanding will do a lot to heal things and Uncle Bob got his education in the streets and hard knocks of life. We all should be so fortunate to have an Uncle Bob who made the best of his situation, helped his neighbors and friends, loved his mother, wife and family, and served his country. Rest in peace Uncle Bob and I will see you on the other side someday. Thanks for reading.

“If You Don’t Know Where You Have Been, You Can’t Know Where You Are Going”

I have always been a history buff, especially interested in the foundation of the country. My first interest was piqued when my folks took me to Fort Ligonier. I remember the day because I had a plaid sport coat on with a bow tie when we visited because we came right from church. In those days, you got dressed up for church and when I got to the famous French and Indian War fort, my dad bought me a tri- cornered hat and I was so proud wearing it around. I learned about the conflict and saw many relics of the period which made history come alive for me as a young lad.

Fast forward, my grandparents knowing my interest, took me to Gettysburg to get another take on local history. Again, I was enthralled with the Civil War conflict and again I got a hat- a Union officer’s hat- which again, I wore everywhere. I vividly remember the tour we took and the views from Little Roundtop, and Big Roundtop and the strategy of the Union and Confederate forces was explained in great detail. Much of it was lost on me until many later visits to the battlefield and an increased understanding of the conflict and the importance of the Gettysburg Address and the resultant emancipation proclamation.

In an effort to pass this on to my son Jack, my wife and I made it a point to take him not only to Gettysburg and Ft. Ligonier, but also to Williamsburg and eventually Washington DC. As a young kid, he complained a little about the mid summer heat in Williamsburg, as I explained to him the significance of the House of Burgess and the freedom speeches of Patrick Henry. It was a little lost on him but I continued during his formative years to explain what the wars were and why they were significant.   You see, where we live in Western Pennsylvania, history is alive everywhere you look. From the blockhouse at Ft. Pitt at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, to Forts Ligonier and Necessity just east of us and further east- the famous battlefields of the Revolutionary and Civil War. We visited all of them and history came alive for Jack and also my wife who was forced into learning about American history because of her marriage to me. LOL!! I can remember the guide putting them to sleep after a 3 hour tour in Gettysburg driving my car, and also me putting them to sleep on visits to significant sites rambling on to them about the particulars of the places we were about to visit.

The final visit with Jack and Janet before he was off and on his way in life, was during a college tour in Lynchburg, Virginia. I took them to Appomattox Courthouse where the armistice was signed by U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee ending the Civil War. We toured the quiet little farm house where the two famous generals met to effectively end the war on paper. Quiet, peaceful, and beautiful, the park is remarkably well preserved. I made it a point to venture out back to the slaves quarters to specifically show Jack the difference in living between the main house and the stark quarters where black slaves were housed to serve the owners of the farm at the time. When you read about the history of slavery on those walls, you get an understanding of the sadness that prevailed in those quarters and the atrocity of treating people differently because of the color of their skin. This was not lost on Jack because he was old enough to appreciate it. I explained to Jack and to Janet that Robert E. Lee went on to found Washington and Lee University whose founding precepts were to foster unity among the divided country. Lee was a reluctant warrior as a West Point graduate , and had no choice but to side with his home state of Virginia. But in later years, he did a lot to foster unity which he is not credited for in many accounts. Grant was the executor of Lincoln’s emancipation and, as President, he was intimately involved in crushing any further insurrection in the south and stopped continuing atrocities on the recently emancipated black citizens by the Ku Klux Klan. U.S. Grant is a hero to the black cause in America not only as a general in the Civil War but as President. Again, not always given the credit he deserves. Why the vandals tore his statue down recently in San Francisco is a mystery to me other than writing it off to random violence or people who don’t know the history of the man.

I think history is important. And it can’t be whitewashed. We have to teach our young people the good and the bad of American history so that we can learn of our mistakes and not repeat them. I can see the argument for not memorializing certain combatants in unrelated places but the battle fields and museums must be preserved to be a teaching vehicle for generations to come. Erasing history in those venues does a disservice to understanding where we have been so that we can know where we are going. The Jewish nation is a good example by their preservation of the concentration camps of World War II. When you visit Dachau, or Auschwitz, you understand the inhumane treatment of German and Polish Jews, and see first hand the evil of the Third Reich. That history should never be repeated and the preservation of those sites is essential to an understanding not only of Jewish culture but German history as well- good or bad.

I read a lot about history and am happy that I was able to at least pass some of that interest on to my wife as well as to my son. This is a good book by the way for anyone interested. I am hoping he will take the baton from me and perhaps make history come alive for his children someday. I would be happy to tag along. Maybe with a tri-cornered hat much to the horror of my prospective grandchildren in the future. LOL. Thanks for reading.

These are the Times

” These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country. But he, that stands by it now, deserves the love and the thanks of man and woman.”

Prophetic words from Thomas Paine, one of the Founders, which rings true today. We are all in a position to come together – although not physically with the “stay at home” rules, but mentally, in communication with each other, and prayers to the Almighty in these trying times. With social media, I-Phones and technology, we can stay in touch, communicate, send pictures, work from home and call and talk to each other. We can have some semblance of normalcy if we band together to beat this virus or at least stem the tide of its advancement.


Looking at pictures of our groups, we can remember good times and look forward to good times ahead. When you view a picture, sometimes you can see someone who you have not talked to in a little while. Text them. Email them. Call them. Ask them how they are doing in these unusual times. In many ways, that is the service to your country. It pales in comparison to military service or perhaps the service of our many first responders, nurses, hospital workers, but in many ways- bonding together even virtually for a time is service to us all.

Janet and I are trying to do our part by being responsible. Yes, I am getting outside but not in big groups. Most often by myself on the trails just to get some exercise and fresh air which is encouraged by the stay at home edict. Janet walks in the neighborhood and greets the neighbors from an acceptable social distance. We are trying to avoid large groups. Shopping when necessary but trying to keep Janet’s 89 year old mother safe. She lives with us and is most vulnerable.

So sure- we all are beginning to have some cabin fever. We need to return to some kind of routine with work, social life, restaurant outings, and in general an active lifestyle again. It will come. It may take a little bit but with some patience, understanding, generosity, and compassion and not being selfish, we can get through this. Stay in touch with your family and friends. Write an encouraging email, text or better yet- make a phone call. So important in these days of isolation.

We will get there again. Say your prayers, be kind and generous with others. Short and sweet but thanks for reading and ……….wash your hands.

Out of Disaster Comes New Life

I finished a book recently which told the story of the Big Burn forest fire that occurred in 1910. Three million acres were burned in Northern Idaho, W. Montana, Eastern Washington, and parts of Southeast British Columbia. Aside from the devastation to forest land, Timothy Egan tells the story of the origins of the US Forest Service. I am always interested in seeing the backstory on things and this book tells it.   The interesting tale related was how much the sitting President, Teddy Roosevelt, had valued conservation along with his associate Gifford Pinchot. Mr. Pinchot spent his whole life dedicated to the establishment and preservation of the National Parks and National Forests under the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Timothy Egan spins an interesting side tale on the personality of Pinchot that is  worth reading.

Egan goes on to point out that the large forest fire and the resulting inquiries into the efforts of the rangers under the US Forest Service, were combative. Similar to today’s politics, there was national interest in conservation and the support of the USFS. The  opposition saw the USFS as a waste of time and government money.  In the opposition camp, were congressmen and senators who supported large scale logging and pillaging of the American West. Roosevelt fought hard against these lobbies and along with Pinchot, who later became Governor of Pennsylvania, kept the fight for conservation alive. In the end, the Forest Service was funded handsomely by congress and the lumber lobby eventually gave its support if only to keep the potential harvest in tact.

The compelling result of the fire, establishment of the US Forest Service and final support, let to the continued development of the National Parks Service and the continued development  of the National Forests and Monuments. The difference between a National Forest and a National Park is that the National Forests encourage use by the public to include skiing, mountain biking, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. The National Parks are somewhat limited to public use other than observation with strict regulation of activities within the Parks. A little more stringent but a different ethos in preserving the pristine environment. However, with the foresight of people like Teddy Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, we have these national treasures which are available to all of us.

I have had the good fortune of visiting Yosemite National Park with my wife and son a number of years ago and along with yearly trips to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area within the Inyo National Forest and visits to the Tahoe ski areas within the Tahoe National Forest,I am always impressed with the beauty and immense wilderness that is preserved. Janet and I also make use of the Allegheny National Forest near our home here in Pennsylvania along with use of many State parks along the way.

Recently I had the great experience of riding mountain bikes in the Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Oregon and was amazed at the quality of the trails and the maintenance of miles and miles of trail systems through this national forest. A lot of this maintenance in the national forests could not happen without the efforts of volunteers who preserve and develop trail systems for multi- use.

It all came together for me when I read this book ” The Big Burn” and realized that there was a lot of time, effort and anguish, in the establishment of national land and the need for preservation and conservation facilitated by the USFS. Not every available piece of land should be deemed for development. There has to be recreational opportunities for our children and grandchildren and I am grateful that men like Pinchot and Roosevelt, back at the turn of the century, had that same vision. If you get the chance to ever visit a State Park, a National Park, or National Forest, do it. You will see how a disastrous fire back in 1910 led to the conservation efforts which have served all Americans for well over a century. Hooray for Teddy Roosevelt- Bully!!!!!

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” And that’s the way it is……..”


” You are traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. Next stop…..The Twilight Zone.”

So, I am sitting at the OTB Cafe at the Boathouse in North Park the other night, eating a turkey burger and sipping on a Pinner, when this guy sits next to me with his lady and he begins to talk about the television reporting. It was a ” Twilight Zone” moment for me because he sounded just like me talking. His thoughts were mine and he verbalized them just like me. He was talking to the television at the bar and not me. We eventually conversed. It was freaky – just like an episode in the Twilight Zone. For those of you who remember the classic TV series by Rod Serling. This guy was younger than me by about 30 years and I was amazed that a guy of his age saw things exactly as the 62 year old kid. He was lamenting the current state of journalism.

As I continued to work on the burger, my mind drifted back to being with my grandfather- John Reynolds.

No matter if we were together in Pittsburgh,or on a fishing trip, or anywhere else for that matter, my grandfather had to be seated in front of the TV at 6:00 PM to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

Whenever we watched Walter, it was a respected and fact filled experience, with no editorializing or political spin whatsoever. Walter reported the news accurately and when he finished with his classic, ” and that’s the way it is, (insert date), this is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, Good night”, you felt that all is well with the world even though there was news that was indicative to the contrary. I clearly remember his reporting of the events of the Vietnam War, and I never will forget watching his reporting of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, wiping a tear away facing the cameras. A memorable impression on a young boy at the time. He was sincere, he reported the news factually, and became an icon to me in the world of Journalism.

I never knew, until I read his book and watched some post retirement interviews, that Walter Cronkite was an avid sailor and accomplished navigator.

He spoke with great passion about his sailing, and I also never knew he tended to be left of center in his political views until I read the book and watched the interviews. He never indicated to his audiences his personal views on political topics and felt that journalism should be unbiased and not editorial unless it was specifically indicated.

No matter what your political views are, I think most people would tend to agree that journalism has slipped in our generation. There is no” fair and balanced” reporting in cable news or mainstream media . There is an agenda and personally, I yearn for the days when I could hear reporting that was fact based. In those days, you would also see a retraction if there was something that was reported in error. I could go on and on, but I never want my posts to be political or controversial. I am simply stating an opinion and a longing for a day gone by.

As I finished my burger, the guy next to me says ,” Nice to meet you Pat.” He remembered my name and was very polite. As I said last week, you never know about people. He and his girlfriend left the OTB and as I walked to the parking lot, I also left the Twilight Zone. Thanks for reading.

The Age of Dissent

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Watching all the news lately, takes me back to a time in my life when I first became acquainted with dissent in this country on a personal basis. I had seen the disruption of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 on television while I was in high school and the protests to the Vietnam War. chicago8 I remember registering for the draft and getting number 11. Had the war continued one or two more years, my life would have changed immensely.

I remember guys like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffmann and wondered, in a high school way, what this was all about and how it applied to my life. Fast forward to college, my room mate and I became friends with a girl who was studying Native American Affairs and invited us to spend the weekend at the Seneca Corn Planter reservation up near the New York State border. We learned a lot about how the federal government had relocated their reservation due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam and how the spartan concrete block residences had replaced their native habitat on the original reservation. I chuckled when one of the older tribesmen offered to play Native American music for us. We were excited for the show only to be treated to an hour of listening to a reel to reel tape. But the old guy was sincere in entertaining and educating us. The younger folks observed us with a wary eye and as I bought some bead work necklaces in the store, I was told that not many white people were allowed to buy things in that store. I was polite in my appreciation. That weekend opened my eyes to a situation in which I started to take great interest.

When I was working in Sugarloaf, Maine after graduation, I learned that our friend Debbie was working for Ted Kennedy and was involved in the Passamaquoddy Indian Trial in Maine. I had read ” Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown and was familiar with Dennis Banks and the American Indian Movement. dennis-banks_2nr7jdownload As it turned out, Dennis Banks and Russell Means were in Maine for the trial in full native attire and Debbie invited me to see the proceedings. She told me I would have to sit in the balcony with the AIM protesters and that I should say that I was a journalist. She said some of the protests had become violent and wanted to warn me, but I was excited to see the proceedings in light of my experience with the Cornplanters and my interest in history. However, I got a call in the morning from Debbie who said not to come because a couple of  the AIM protesters had beaten her attorney and the trial was cancelled until further notice. Again, I was kind of wide eyed at the whole protest movement and kept in touch with Debbie on the status of the trial and whether the Passamaquoddy tribe had any rights to retake large portions of the state of Maine.

Growing up in the 60s, I became familiar with dissent and protest in this country. Being a history buff, I know that protest has been a hallmark of our free society since the origins of our country. From the Boston Tea Party organized by Samuel Adams in 1773 to the Whiskey Rebellion here in Western Pennsylvania protesting what was seen as an unfair tax on distillers in the region. 438448_v1

Personally, I think it is healthy to have discussion, debate and discourse on subjects that affect all of us as Americans. I know that protest has historically become violent at times to promote the cause but I do have a hard time recognizing what I see as random violence like smashing windows and burning vehicles. I guess that is where I tend to draw the line- anarchy versus protest. I am still coming to terms with that.

I never wanted to get political in my blog or Facebook pages and the intent here is to continue that protocol.250px-bury_my_heart_at_wounded_knee_cover But I know there are always two sides to every story. I have my personal beliefs, but in this day of great polarization in our country, I think it is important for all of us Americans to discuss, debate and not personalize the differences with name calling and vitriol. Thomas Jefferson once said,” Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principal.” I believe deep down that most Americans recognize that we live in a great country and are blessed in comparison to most places in the world. Our differences can be discussed with civility as we are all Americans united in continually trying to improve our country and our government. Dissent is nothing new and can be healthy as history has proven. Thanks for reading.

The Return of a Classic Ski Area

I have skied a lot of areas in my time and most of them were in New England where there are the giant, corporately run areas and the smaller privately held areas. The smaller areas always held my interest because they had a sense of tradition and a feel of skiing in another time. Recently, in our neck of the woods, down here in the Banana Belt, Laurel Mountain came to life again this year. It went from being one of the lost ski areas to a vibrant, resurgence of a classic ski area reminiscent of those areas in New England. In fact, there is a tie to Mt. Cranmore in the Mt. Washington Valley of New Hampshire. Apparently, when the Mellon family first had the idea to develop a ski area in 1939 for the members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, they hired Hannes Schneider to lay out the trails. Hannes Schneider was the ski school director at Mt. Cranmore who was brought to the US from Austria by the industrialist Harry Gibson, a friend of Richard King Mellon. Schneider is widely acclaimed as the father of ski instruction in this country. newaerial

When you first pull past the stone entrance hut on the mountain road, you feel as if you are driving back in time. The parking lot is never full and as you make your way to the top of the mountain lodge which has been recently refurbished, you can relax in an Adirondack chair by a roaring fire and put your boots on. img_1263 You can then take your brown bag lunch inside or take advantage of some good comfort food in the new bar area in the base of the lodge. The picture windows look out on the whole Ligonier Valley which is not only scenic during the day, but a sight at night if you choose to night ski. The refurbished snowmaking by HKD and the new Pistenbully groomer make the Wildcat slope a delight to ski and it is known to have the steepest vertical in the state. img_1266

I remember skiing Laurel when it was run by the state and had some amazing powder days there with Frank Pipak, a friend who took the PSIA exam the same year that I did. Although, I spent the winter prior to that exam in Sugarloaf, Maine, I often credit my runs down Lower Wildcat with preparing me for the steeper terrain that was utilized in the exam. My friend Hiller Hardie always says, ” if you want to get your legs ready for the western trips, lapping Wildcat at Laurel will put you in good form.” Your legs get a work out on lower Wildcat with the steep vertical pitch. img_1265

When Seven Springs Mountain Resort decided to bring Laurel back to life this season, along with the DCNR of the State of Pennsylvania, it was time to promote it. I have told a lot of friends about my good times at Laurel and how they must try it. Like my two snowboarding friends, Tina and Mark Sauers who were totally enthralled with the area and the family feel to the place. img_1262

We have some challenges down here in the banana belt with the weather being on the edge of rain and snow. But credit Laurel with good snowmaking and grooming to make it possible for enthusiasts like me to get the most days out of rather dismal early winter conditions. I have a lot of good memories of skiing at Laurel back in the day including fun times with my son Jack and our visits to Fort Ligonier and the Pie Shop in Laughlintown at the bottom of the mountain. IMG00117-20100116-1123

Two years ago, Hiller, John McWilliams, Jeff Balicki and John O’Toole and yours truly used our snowshoes to hike into the closed area and after unloading our packs, took two runs down Lower Wildcat. Four hours plus of hiking for two runs was “having to have it” and it showed our devotion to an area which we all loved. It is so nice now to have Carl Skylling’s new Sky Trac chairlift instead of bootpacking to claim our vertical. IMG_1574photophotophoto

So if you are a local, get over to Laurel. You won’t regret it and if you are visiting, check it out. Lower Wildcat will surprise you even if you are a veteran of steep skiing from points beyond. I am so happy it is back. Hannes is probably up there smiling at all of us. Thanks for reading.

A Colonial Christmas

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I am a history nut and particularly the history of the Revolutionary days in this country. We here in Western Pennsylvania are fortunate in that a lot of the events that took place to shape the direction of the new nation took place right here in our region. I often daydream of what it would have been like to be an 18th century man. At this time of year, that daydream turned into a bright vision as I walked down the Duke of Gloucester street during my visits to Williamsburg, Virgina. 6c3139f39b95ad590a6b9fe3fffca04e

Wiliamsburg just might be one of the nicest places to visit during the Christmas season. Not only is it rich in history dating back to the 17th century but the reconstruction of historical sites make it seem like you are walking back in time. There were many nights when it was colder and  I walked the streets and talked to colonial dressed people standing beside an army stack of firewood burning brightly and warmly on the street corner. Their discussions of topics of revolutionary times not only made it seem real, but for visitors like me, it gave me great pleasure to see how it might have been had I lived in those days.
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Williamsburg is also famous at this time of year for their decorations on the doors of the shops and pubs and the Christmas decorations in general are exceptionally well done especially with a dusting of snow on the buildings and the streets. 605fd664dfc5584d478748da52c67ef3

One of my more vivid memories of those visits was to take in the Candlight concert series at Bruton Parish Church which was founded in 1674. When you come in from the cold and are greeted by candlelight and a choir from a visiting town, you can really get into the Christmas spirit absorbing the atmosphere and listening to the harmonies and the musical excellence of the chamber orchestras.

During warmer visits, I took my mountain bike and joined the evening rides with the shop guys from Bikes Unlimited ( 757-229-4620). You can call them for the ride schedules and can be treated to trail rides on the William and Mary campus trails as well as the Chambrel trails near by. The rides are always followed by a gathering of riders at the local Panera. These trails are twisty, turny, singletrack and although there are no measurable hills in the Tidewater region, they are challenging enough with the meandering trail construction. It is interesting to take a break on the campus of William and Mary and be facing a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Knowing that he attended here as a student and looking at his countenance was a treat to this history buff.

Sometimes history is lost on people. I had my family in Williamsburg one summer when it was 100 degrees. As I was extolling the virtues of Patrick Henry to my son as we heard his speech done by an actor, my son looked at me and said,” Hey dad- where is the pool.” Now there were no 18th century pools available but he eventually soaked his hot little bones in the hotel pool. My wife was looking for relief as well but all I could think about was ” give me liberty, or give me death.”

The Williamsburg Inn is the hallmark location to stay in the village. images-1
This is a beautiful hotel with first class amenities but the Williamsburg Lodge is another option if the budget for the Inn is not there. 806309_44_b

If I were to offer a suggestion, I would still stick by my recommendation for Williamsburg at Christmas time. If you get lucky with some snow and winter weather, you will really feel the colonial ambiance. Take it in and take a walk back in history. Thanks for reading.

A Real American Hero

I always respect anyone who is serving in the military. I have always respected and admired veterans who served in the armed forces and the sacrifices that they made to ensure our way of life here in the United States. As a history buff, I also value the place in our past that is reserved for veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice or those whose actions merited historical significance. There are many of these stories in our history and I wanted my son Jack to be aware that there was one of these stories right within his own family.
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One day, a few years back, there was an event at the Allegheny County Airport here in Pittsburgh where one could actually view and tour a B-24 bomber from World War II. My son and I stopped to pick up my Uncle Jack and when my son introduced himself and said, ” Hello, I am Jack McCloskey,” my Uncle responded ” No you are not, I’m Jack McCloskey.” My son giggled as we asked Uncle Jack or “Handsome Jack” as he liked to call himself how he was doing? He replied in his usual comical way,” First class, first class, at least that’s what the girls all say.” My son Jack giggled and off we went to the airport. slocum-b24-diamond-lil-up-close-2013-copy

When we arrived, my Uncle, who was in his 80’s, jumped up into the cockpit of the aircraft like he owned the plane. I asked Jack to keep an eye on him and don’t let him fall, but young Jack had a hard time keeping up the the old fella as he made his way through the plane explaining to everyone who would want to listen about the features of a B-24 bomber used in the Great War. You see, my uncle was the pilot of one of those planes and this is his story.

After flight school in the Army Air Corps, Handsome Jack became a pilot of a B-24 that provided support to the ground invasion of Italy during the Anzio Beach campaign. I can remember my uncle relating the tale of his 52 missions over the area returning to base every night with extensive flak damage to the fuselage caused by anti-aircraft gunners of the German Army. Imagine a young guy, I believe around 21 years old, being shot at every day and limping back to base awaiting repair of the aircraft only to fly out again the next day on another bombing mission. When I was 21, I was looking for my next cheeseburger. Times were different then and boys became men in a real hurry. Shortly after his 52nd mission, Handsome Jack was sent to his first mission in Rangoon, Burma and took Japanese anti aircraft fire and the plane was in peril. He assembled the crew and told them to prepare for bailout and as they all parachuted out of the burning craft, the B-24 hit the trees and exploded. My Uncle and his crew landed in the tall trees of the Burmese forest and made their way down to the base of the trees with my uncle breaking his back and his ankle. The Japanese were there waiting for them and immediately took them prisoner.

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The long and the short of it was that my uncle spent a year as a prisoner of war, keeping the crew’s spirit in tact by singing Irish songs and Christmas songs with his beautiful Irish tenor voice only to personally and eventually bury all of his crew. The British eventually bombed the camp and as my uncle fled for his life, waiving at the RAF frantically, they realized he was one of the prisoners and rescued him after a year in excruciating conditions of captivity. He made his way back to Bellevue, Pa., his home, much to the delight of my grandparents, my dad, and my aunts, who had given him up for dead. What a homecoming he had consuming a dozen eggs as his first meal back home with his family. Handsome Jack received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart for his heroism under the most grueling conditions. His positive attitude kept him alive not only during his Anzio campaign, but in the bowels of a Japanese POW camp in a remote part of the jungle.
As young Jack led Handsome Jack around the restored aircraft that day, I couldn’t help to think to myself that my son was witnessing history in the making. My uncle was in my mind, a real American hero. I was so glad that my son had the opportunity to meet my hero as his kind are leaving us rapidly these days with each passing year. My Uncle is no longer with us, but his memory is kept alive with every Irish song I hear and every tale I read about the bravery of our veterans in World War II. If you see anyone who has served in the military, take the time to thank them for their service.They will appreciate it. Thanks for reading.