Sunday, September 15, 2019

Then and Now

Omaha Beach looking west

Our last nights in France were spent in Normandy so we could visit the D-Day sites at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Fittingly this happened just six weeks after the 75th Anniversary celebration of the Allied assault that changed the course of World War ll. From our base in the gothic town of Bayeux we drove 15 bucolic miles to Omaha Beach. We arrived in early morning as a squall blew in off the channel. For nearly an hour the rain came down in buckets and wind drove the torrent in horizontal sheets.

Sulkies at the surf line

We donned our foul weather gear and I ran toward the beach. I saw two sulkies cantering in the foam. It was an incongruous scene that looked like it could be a hundred years ago. We guessed that the riders were training their horses in the soft sand. A sulky is an ultra-light horse drawn carriage without a body but with a simple seat for the driver. It's most often used in harness racing today but originated in England the early 1800s as a vehicle for country doctors making their rounds. The term sulky is derived from the notion that the single passenger buggy was for folks who prefer their own company.

Harness racing in the United States was brought from England in the mid-19th century and is a popular sport in Normandy to this day. The Prix de Sainte-Marie du Mont in nearby Cherbourg and the Prix de Normandie in Honfleur are races in late spring that draw thousands of French fans.

From a bunker above Omaha Beach

Beside a concrete bunker with a sweeping view of the landing area

The brooding weather made the scene more poignant. One could imagine jumping from a landing craft into the boiling surf and slogging through chest high water to reach the beach only to face German guns on the hillside that overlooks the strand. Gun emplacements, part of General Erwin Rommel's Atlantic Wall that stretched from the Cape of Norway to the Spanish border, provided a commanding view of Omaha Beach. It was a shooting gallery where machine guns and heavy artillery slaughtered 238 soldiers and wounded 2,000 more on that singular day. Yet when you consider the German's advantage of fortifications on high ground and the Allies’ absolute lack of cover it seems a miracle that so few were lost of the 32,500 soldiers who attacked Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The scale of the onslaught is unimaginable.

Monument commemorating the First Army Division's casualties

By the time we walked up a grassy slope to a memorial obelisk the sun began to break through the gray and we looked down on the serene beach. Then we walked west along the crest of the hill toward the American Cemetery, past cows grazing in a pasture with the steeple of the church in Colleville sur Mer in the distance. I can't imagine a more tranquil scene. The irony of our sunswept July 20, 2019 and the cacophony and carnage that visited this place on D-Day was wrenching. It was hard to see this radiant place as the killing zone it was.

We’ve all seen photographs of the marble crosses perfectly set on the manicured lawns of the American Cemetery. They don’t do it justice. You have to be there to feel its power. If something manmade has achieved perfection, this may be it. This resting place of 9,400 American fighting men and women reaches into your soul and assures you'll never forget what happened in this hallowed place. It's pristine order lies in such contrast to D-Day that it's the perfect tribute. I am awed.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Faces from Keremma

Jan Norsetter from Verona, Wisconsin
Ellen Howard of San Francisco

I photographed the painters in Brittany as they created their art on the beach in Keremma, in the villages of Plousecat, Brignagon, Moguériec, Roscoff and on the charming Isle de Batz. Out of many, many photographs these were worth sharing. Three of the artists wanted professional head shots and I didn’t step up. I'm a little embarrassed that I didn't but I was doing what I wanted to do each day. I'm like that. I was governed by whim and setting up proper portrait sessions wasn’t something I wanted to do. If we convene again I’ll come prepared to make it happen, perhaps put up a backdrop, some lights and photograph the whole crew. Or not.

Houston's Krystal Brown

Vared Pasternak, an Israeli now living in Miami, was the most insistence so I did do something approaching portraiture when the sunset provided its soft glow as it dropped into the sea at 10PM.

Vared Pasternak from Miami

Richard Lindenberg from Marin County

The others are candids. Sometimes my victims caught me in the act like with Jan from Wisconsin up top. Other times I was supremely stealthy. All but the one are of my American compatriots. Below is an elegant Keremma woman who brought her family to our show and sale for the benefit of local arts programs.

Keremma gentry

Sunday, September 01, 2019

La Valenciana

A lot happened fifty years ago. Much of it bad. The late sixties were a period of tumult and change. They were the defining time of my generation. I’ve written about the early years of my marriage in Los Angeles and a career just starting to blossom, of watching Bobby Kennedy speak at the Hollywood Bowl the night before he was assassinated and of picking up the LA Times the next morning to see a picture from the Ambassador Hotel of Rosie Grier, the Rams lineman, holding RFK’s head in his huge hands. And being in Chicago during the riots at the Democratic Convention stays with me. Innocence was gone. A pointless war continued and the nation came apart.

But on a trivial note as I was running Thursday morning, it dawned on me that the La Valenciana guitar I bought in Tijuana was fifty years old. Realizations happen a lot when I run. And since I run at the speed of walk, I have time for unimportant thoughts. It’s a good thing the old axe came to mind since I had no idea what to write about this week. Felíz Cumpleaños, mi guitarra.

Mi guitarra que tiene 50 anos.
El logo de 1969

One weekend in 1969 we drove from our house in Van Nuys to Tijuana. Buying the guitar is all that I remember of the trip. Avenida Revolución was chock-a-block with shops selling the likes of switch blade knives, cheap pottery and Oso Negro vodka. But there was one reputable guitar store amidst the tchotchkes. I know that because it’s where I spent the entire afternoon playing classical guitars, the ones with nylon strings. I may have been too enthusiastic because I popped the bridge on guitar numero seis while playing La Bamba. Understandably the proprietor was not pleased when I broke the guitar, but he still let me play guitarra after guitarra till the La Valenciana stole my heart like a ten-dollar hooker. I’m guessing it cost $35. 

Today Paracho guitars run from $100 to $10,000 as the small city evolves from making low-end consumer instruments to world-class guitars handmade by one of its the 2,000 luthiers. Reportedly half of Paracho's economy comes from guitar making. High end custom guitars can take more than 75 hours to complete. Many craftsmen are fourth and fifth generation guitar makers who oddly enough don’t play. In fact, there is no significant music culture in the town. Which is strange.

I knew a little about Paracho’s fabled guitars when I bought the La Valenciana. In 1960 during my ill-fated attempt to play in folk music’s big arena I ran into singer and guitarist Travis Edmundson on the Sunset Strip. Travis, of the recently disbanded folk duo Bud and Travis, told me that he had all his guitars made in Paracho and that he had his favorite luthier there copy the legendary Ramirez guitar from Spain using the same Alp Spruce for the top and Honduran Mahogany for the sides and bottom. He claimed the Mexican version was the equal of the Ramirez and was a quarter of the price. That may still be the case today.

John Ellsworth, my singing partner for six years, and I covered all of Bud and Travis’s songs and had opened for Travis in Phoenix after he went solo. Many of his sets included Mexican songs he had learned across the border from his hometown of Nogales, Arizona. Among them was Malaguena Salerosa that he called the most beautiful love song in the world. Naturally, it became part of my act when I still had a falsetto. Like John and me Travis had attended the University of Arizona though a decade earlier. His kind of playing required a classical guitar a nylon string guitar for its percussive tone and easy action. Hence my Goya G-7 which was stolen from Lynn Quayle’s Triumph Spitfire in 1965 and the La Valenciana that I bought in Tijuana in 1969.

Inspired by these memories I picked up the guitar Friday. Even played a little. It was the first time in years. I often joke that, “I play once a decade whether I need to or not.” I was more than rusty and the little guitar showed its age. It was tinny sounding and had an annoying buzz on the A string at the second fret. I’ll restring the guitar and see if that helps. I have two unopened packs of strings that could be twenty years old themselves. One set, the one I’ll probably use, are La Bella Folk Singers which were always my favorite for their ring and brightness.

La guitarra ahora
El logo hoy

Then I Googled Paracho and La Valenciana and to my amazement the guitar maker is alive and well. Little has changed. The picture of one of their guitars on their website is very similar. The logotype is unchanged though the owner today is Casa La Valenciana and it was La Casa Veerkamp half a century ago.

I think I’ll start playing again. Maybe reconstruct my ten song set from 1962. That material is so old it'll be new. It’s been on my mind for years. I’m feeling the need for a pursuit that stirs my soul. Change it up. I'd even consider a trip to the Mothership but Paracho's in the heart of cartel country and the police department is known to be complicit at best.