Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Volkswagen in Italy

I had a good U.S. Army career, all three years of it.  I was in electronics school for almost a year, on the Jersey Shore and in Huntsville, Alabama.  Then, it was the USNS Buckner to Germany.  I was trained on an obsolete missile system and my first duty station was with a unit that operated another obsolete missile system.

1963 VW

1963 VW

The unit was about to go out of business, so they were pretty lax with us.  I bought a car.  A new 1963 Volkswagen, black.  It cost $1389.  I paid cash with 20 Deutschmark bills (about $5.00 back then) in a paper bag.  Freedom!  At least part of the time.  This was unusual for an unmarried junior enlisted man. We also had real jobs doing electronics, so they didn’t mess with us too much.  I could get away evenings and weekends most of the time.  I was stationed in Aschaffenburg,   Bavaria for five months then in Hanau, Hesse.  Something like 28 kilometers apart on the Main river, they were different cities.  Bavarians just seem happier.  Those Hessians were nice people, but more reticent.  Did Martin Luther bring that about?

Palatine Hill, Rome

Palatine Hill, Rome

After I was in Hanau for a few months, two buddies and I did a big road trip to Rome.  What a trip!  We did some of the standard tourist things, but G.I.’s on the loose in Europe see the places from a more earthy perspective.  There was Michelangelo’s David in Florence and the whores on the Palatine Hill in Rome.  2000 lira for us, 1000 lira for a local.  The whole thing was so sordid I could not partake. I liked Switzerland.  Nice people, great scenery, and so orderly.  We partied some in Zurich and got to talk to some of the locals.  Everyone knew we were American soldiers, of course.  The haircuts gave us away.  Then onto a train that carried everyone’s car through the St. Gotthards Pass tunnel to Italy.

Milan Traffic (modern)

Milan Traffic (modern)

We loved Italy.  Beautiful country, from the Alps to Tuscany and Rome.  Wonderful people.  Warm, friendly, helpful, and lots of wine.  The most striking view was approaching the walled city of Siena from the Tuscan countryside.  The most terrifying experience was driving in Milan during rush hour.  We got onto a traffic circle in downtown Milan that had about eight cars abreast, all jockeying for position.  Italians are good, aggressive drivers, and drove those little Fiat 500s like they were Ferraris. We were out of place in that VW.  It just didn’t fit in.  We also had engine trouble.  It would start missing and stuttering until it lost enough power that we would have to go to a shop about every 300 miles.  That is where the language problem really took over.  There was no language problem in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, but the Italians had no English.  The best I could do with Italian was the phrase book and some Spanish. The Volkswagen’s ignition points were burning up.  We could communicate that and get new points, but we couldn’t get across to them that it was a chronic problem.  So, for the rest of the trip it was new points every 300 miles.  The mechanics were all eager to help, but the language problem was too much of a barrier.  Back in Germany, my mechanic fixed it in about 30 minutes by replacing a burned spark plug wire. I learned about having difficulty while traveling and still having a good time.  The car trouble added to the adventure.

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

We were in Rome several days, staying in a Pension not far from the Vatican. One night we hooked up with some local college students who took us to the suburbs, no tourists, and a great time.  Sitting here thinking about Rome, lots of images come up even sixty years later, but the Roman Forum is most memorable.  It was the center of the world for a long time.  I steeped myself in the history. Going back to Germany, when we crossed from Italian Switzerland to German Switzerland, we dropped into a beautiful glacial valley.  At the head of the valley was a Gasthaus.  Wiener schnitzel, pommes frites, and beer never tasted so good after all that tomato sauce and wine. That trip remains one of the highlights of my life.

The Buckner Banner


USNS Buckner

USNS Buckner

One of my first literary adventures was as editor of The Buckner Banner, the ship’s newspaper on the USNS Simon Bolivar Buckner,  a troopship sailing from New York to Bremerhaven, Germany.  It was 1963, and the U.S. Army was shipping me to Europe.  Just out of technical school, I had one skinny little stripe on my sleeve. I must have been chosen as editor by some random process, as I had no experience.  I guess that has always been the Army way.  The Banner ran a news digest from the radio room every day, and had a lot of canned content used on every nine day voyage.  My job was to come up with some original content. I had a crew of clerk typists who made mimeograph masters we ran off every morning.  The most valuable thing I learned as editor is to listen to your people.  One of the guys suggested we serialize a Sherlock Holmes novel. The passengers on the ship were a lot of GI’s headed to their first real duty station in Germany, stacked four deep in bunks in the cargo holds, and a large number of dependents, family members of career Army personnel.  There were daily movies and a library, but little else for people to do.  The Banner was a major defense against boredom. That Sherlock Holmes novel was a big hit.  The mimeographed paper was hard to read.  The machine was worn out, and the reproduction quality was terrible.  We made no effort to make each paper entirely readable, so the passengers were forced to share their copies in order to be able to read every page.  A detective novel became a shipboard community building event. People loved it, and I got a lot of compliments for someone else’s idea.  I also had the run of the ship as the editor and got to explore the entire vessel, from the heads in the bow to the fantail.  I was also exempt from all the nasty little jobs the Army gives troops to keep them busy.  I was on the same ship on the way home, and knew all the places to hide. Mostly, the voyage was routine.  There were stories about previous trips with bad weather.  Those cargo holds full of troops had waves of vomit sloshing back and forth as the ship rolled and pitched.  Then it had to be cleaned up.  The most excitement we had was the lifeboat drill the first day out.  The dependents lined up behind the lifeboats.  All the GI’s in their life jackets lined up facing the water.  We used to joke that part of the Army nomenclature for us was “expendable, non-returnable, with cover”. There have been some interruptions in my literary career, such as as the need to make a living, but the Army gave me a start.

Book Review: Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier


Here is a book review I wrote for the Overland Journal, the quarterly magazine of the Oregon California Trails Association.  I am Vice President of the Colorado Cherokee Trail chapter of the organization.  The review is the reason  for a delay in getting a post up.  I had trouble with one section of the book which has poor graphics and some errors, although it is important research.  It took weeks of ranting at people about it until I was able to calm down and include a short paragraph pointing out the problems.  Maybe next time I won’t get so personally involved in someone else’s work.




Edited by Ronald K. Weatherington and Frances Levine

Norman:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014

248 pp., photos, maps, illustrations, extensive references, index

Paper, 5” x 8”

Battles and MassacresBattles and Massacres is a book that looks at several battles or massacres in the mid-nineteenth century from the perspectives of historians and archaeologists.  This is important because the historical record is usually written by one side of the conflict.  The archaeological record does not engage in cover ups, obfuscation, or have a political agenda.

The book examines four nineteenth century events in the American southwest involving Native Americans and Euro-Americans and the conflicts rising from westward expansion.  The encounters are the Battle of Cieneguilla in New Mexico, Adobe Walls in Texas, the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah.

The first three were direct conflicts involving Indians and soldiers or buffalo hunters.  Mountain Meadows was between Mormons of Southern Utah and a train of emigrants headed to California.  Some Paiutes acted with the Mormon militia.

This book is important in illustrating how modern archaeological methods can apply objective information to a historical record that can be essentially accurate, as at Adobe Walls, or what amounted to a cover-up at Cieneguilla.

Adobe Walls was a trading post in the Texas Panhandle occupied by a number of hide hunters engaging in killing as many Bison as possible for profit, while destroying the Native Americans livelihood.  A large group of Cheyenne warriors, believing that their medicine would protect them from the hide hunter’s bullets, attacked twenty-eight men and one woman.  The medicine did not work.  The big buffalo rifles were able to outrange the attacker’s weapons and many Indians were killed.  Three of the defenders were wounded.

The archaeological data showed that the majority of the Indian weapons were relatively short range rifles like the Henry and Spencer carbines, easily outranged by the big Sharps rifles of the hide hunters.  There were bullets from muzzleloaders and steel arrow points as well.

The recent archaeological investigations at Sand Creek have established the actual location of the massacre and validated the conclusion that there was a slaughter of people who were not able to effectively defend themselves, believing that they were under the protection of the U.S. Government.  Almost all of the recovered artifacts were from Army weapons.  The massacre was the result of John Chivington deciding that the Indians should all be killed.

Mountain Meadows is different, mostly Euro-Americans killing other Euro-Americans.  The essay in this book is unusual in that it comes from a Mormon Church historian and places culpability on the Southern Utah Mormon leadership for the massacre.  Given the tensions prevailing between the Utah Mormons and the U. S. Government, it was understandable there would be some conflict between the Mormons and a wagon train from Arkansas, but how it escalated into the slaughter of all the migrants over seven years old remains obscure.

Archaeological investigation at Mountain Meadows is difficult because of repeated disturbances over 150 years and the resistance of the Utah political leadership.  A study that was halted by the then Utah Governor, a descendant of one of the attackers, did provide forensic information that reinforced the conclusion that the emigrants were disarmed and slaughtered.

The studies of the battle of Cieneguilla in 1854 illustrate how an archaeological survey can refute the historical accounts dating from the time of the battle.  Of sixty troopers of the First Dragoons led into battle by Lt. John Davidson, twenty four were killed and twenty three wounded by about 100 Jicarilla Apaches.

The official report by Lt. Davidson is a story of a gallant attack by Dragoons against a superior force.  In fact, the troopers, after leaving their horses in a canyon bottom, attacked uphill and were outflanked and hunted down by the Apaches as they tried to retreat.  A Lt. Bell attempted to correct the report, but never received a hearing and was subsequently killed in action.

While the Cieneguilla study is important, there are some flaws.  The archeology is well done, the maps are not, making it difficult to visualize the entire battlefield and the movements of the combatants.  In addition, both essays explore the Battle of Cieneguilla, but fail to mention that what was Cieneguilla in 1854 is now Pilar, not far south of Taos.

The real tragedy of Cieneguilla is that the Apaches were then hunted down, starved, and sent to a reservation.

Overall, the book does an effective job of showing how history and archaeology can come together to provide a more accurate picture of events that occurred more than 150 years ago.

College Towns


I have lived in college towns for most of my life.  They tend to be more liberal, have a vibrant cultural life, and steady infusions of young people having some of the best years of their lives.  The energy inspires me.

Grand Junction, Boulder, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, even Greeley are all good college towns.  Here in Denver we live near the University of Denver.  I drink coffee and write in a coffee shop near the campus.  I write mornings, and the shop has a rush every hour when classes change.

We go to concerts at the Newman Center on the DU campus.  The student productions from the Lamont School of Music are always a lot of fun.  The musicians are excellent, and the operas are good, but the student voices are not always top quality.  I always want to hear Baroque music, and we go to concerts put on by Friends of Chamber Music.

The Newman Center also regularly presents professional artists from most everywhere.  Most notable recently are Cameron Carpenter, a wildly flamboyant and talented organist.  We just saw The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a post-modern dance group from New York.  I was entranced by the dancers and the music, performed by Lamont students.

I am a little sad because Carol now refuses to ever see The Nutcracker again, and this year she would not go to see Oklahoma!  I just don’t know what is wrong with her.  When we lived on Capitol Hill we went to some productions at The Denver Center of Performing Arts, but the events at DU are less expensive and the Newman Center is one of the best venues anywhere.

I am not much for sporting events, but DU’s Lacrosse team is good and I have seen several games.  It’s a good game, fast, with more scoring than soccer, making it more fun to watch.  The crowds are fun as well, with a lot of youth lacrosse players watching the college boys.  There are always some fans of the other teams as well, because Denver draws people from all over the country.  It is also good that DU dropped football in the1950’s.  I used to watch Colorado College hockey when I lived in Colorado Springs, but haven’t been to a DU game yet.

Denver is a big city with several colleges.  Some of the colleges have neighborhoods that are part of the big city but qualify as college towns.  The area around DU is an example.  The Auraria complex has CU Denver, Metro, and Community College of Denver, with many more students than DU, but the area is a downtown complex, with most of the students commuting.  There is no college town feel there.

Washington Park

Washington Park

Capitol Hill has some of the feel, with a young population and a diverse, eclectic cluster of communities, but no college of any size.  DU, however, has dorms, lots of apartments, rental houses, and fraternities and sororities.  A real resident population, much like Boulder, Greeley, and Fort Collins.  People walk, go to events, party, and hang out in bars,restaurants, and coffee houses.  I didn’t know how much I missed all that until we moved into the neighborhood.  Evans Avenue, University Boulevard, Old South Pearl, Washington Park, and Observatory Park are places that tie the community together, with a fine University at the center.  I lived near Colorado College in Colorado Springs that had much the same feel, just on a smaller scale.

College towns, my favorite urban settings, I want to live in them always.