Australian journalist Kate Webb, held captive for 23 days during the Vietnam War, honored on a commemorative stamp

Journalist Kate Webb (left), who grew up in Australia from age 8, appears on a new commemorative stamp in Australia. Red Cross worker Rosemary Griggs is in the rear right of the frame. Image from Australian Post via Agence France-Presse.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

On April 21, 1971, The New York Times ran a seven-paragraph article that said Catherine M. Webb, the bureau chief for wire service United Press International in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, was presumed dead.

Webb, then 28 years old, disappeared on April 7, when she and her translator and four others were ambushed on Highway 4, about 56 kilometers (about 35 miles) southwest of Phnom Penh, the capital. They were checking out reports of fighting in the area.

On April 16, a Caucasian body, with one bullet in the chest, was identified by two Cambodian Army officers as Webb’s. It was cremated where it was found, near the site of the disappearance. The body’s remains were transported to a hospital in Phnom Penh.

Her obituary appeared in other media worldwide, and her family was readying a memorial service for the New Zealand native, who was reared in Australia from the age of 8.

But Webb, one of the few women reporting on the Vietnam War and the spillover into neighboring Cambodia, was very much alive.

She was being held prisoner by the Viet Cong deep in the Cambodian countryside.

At the time of her disappearance, nine correspondents had been killed in Cambodia since 1970, and 17 were missing.

Perhaps Webb knew the story of Dickey Chapelle, a ground-breaking photojournalist, who was the first American female reporter killed in Vietnam, while on a patrol with a unit of Marines in 1965. See my post of July 16, 2016, for a discussion of “Fire in the Wind,” a thorough biography of Chapelle by Roberta Ostroff.

Webb, who went by “Kate,” first arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, less than two years after Chapelle’s death. She was hired as a part-timer by UPI, and caught on full time about six months later.

And there’s no doubt Webb was aware of the story of the capture of Elizabeth Pond, 33, of the Christian Science Monitor; St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Richard Dudman, 52; and Mike Morrow, 24, of Dispatch News Service International.

In May 7, 1970, the three had inadvertently broached territory claimed by forces loyal to Cambodia’s deposed leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

They were held for more than five weeks before being released. Dudman wrote a book called “Forty Days with the Enemy,” which was published in 1971.

In “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong” (Quadrangle Books, 1972), Webb describes how she and the others survived, detailing their movements, their treatment and the interrogations by the Viet Cong, who called themselves the Liberation Armed Forces.

Written within months of their release, and based on clandestine notes Webb was able to make while captive, this small volume is a no-frills, in-the-moment retelling of their experience (she never calls it an “ordeal”) and thought processes.

Neither an indictment nor a sympathetic treatise, “On the Other Side” showcases Webb for what she was: a keen, even-keeled reporter, whose quest for the truth behind the story never wavered.

On the day that Webb went out to investigate the fighting, she wasn’t anticipating being gone long from the office. She took no food, water or emergency equipment. Just her camera and a purse.

She was not wearing her usual green drab multipocketed top (United Press International was printed above the left breast pocket on some shirts) and slacks, but was clad instead in white jeans, a blue short-sleeved sweater and sandals.

Another questionable decision: Webb and her Cambodian interpreter, Chhimmy Sarath, left their Datsun and walked to the front lines. With shooting all around, they resorted to crouching in ditches and creeping parallel to the road trying to get to safety.

That lasted about a day before they were seized in terrain controlled by the Viet Cong.

The other four swept up with Webb were Japanese newsreel photographer Toshiichi Suzuki (fluent in Vietnamese); Vorn, Suzuki’s translator; Tea Kim Heang, a freelance photographer; and Eang Charoon, a newspaper cartoonist. The last three men were Cambodian.

All six were forced to give up their shoes, cameras and personal belongings. Their arms were tied behind their backs and they were roped together.

Then, under guard, they began walking, and thinking about survival. Of utmost importance: Convincing the guards and their superiors that all six were journalists. Not spies, especially not American CIA.

Webb says that fear was a constant companion. The six knew they could be shot at any time, but she also realized this was an opportunity to form unvarnished opinions in close-up observation of the VC, and that first and foremost, her reportorial instincts should be utilized.

She says there was no physical abuse, and that the soldiers were well-disciplined and on task. Food, clothing (black, custom-made pajama-like garments) and rudimentary shelter and medical care were provided.

Of note is Webb’s description of repeatedly trying to get across to her interrogators the responsibility of a free press. She was never certain that they understood that as a reporter for an independent business entity, she didn’t work for a government, particularly not the American government.

“ ‘You must be very brave to go down the highway for no reason other than to get the truth. This is hard to believe,’” one interrogator says.

Webb answers: “ ‘I went down the highway because it is the only way to find out what was really happening. How else can I find out?’ ”

“ ‘You can listen to what the government says,’ ” the interrogator replies.

Webb counters: “ ‘The government gives its version, you give yours, so we must find out what is really happening. That’s our job; that’s what we are paid to do. If I did not feel I could do it, I would resign.’ ”

Then, suddenly, on April 30, Webb and the other five were released. Webb, who had contracted two strains of malaria, writes that she never certain why they were let go, other than as “non-military” prisoners, they had no value to the communists.

Webb continued to work for UPI off and on until 1985. She covered, among other stories, the fall of Saigon, and the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia, both in 1975.

She later joined Agence France-Presse, where she reported on the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the transfer of power from the British in Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997.

She died of bowel cancer on May 13, 2007 in Sydney, Australia. She was 64. In 2008, the Agence France-Presse Foundation created an annual award in her name, given for “courageous reporting” under unstable conditions in Asia.

This fall, 10 years after her death, her career was honored by the Australian Post, which put a likeness of her on a stamp for the “Women in War” series. The $1 stamp is based on a photo from her days in Vietnam and Cambodia, and in fact is the one used for the cover of “On the Other Side.”

In the original photo, Webb, facing the camera, is looking intently at her interview subject — nearly out of the frame — and holding a pen in her right hand and an open notebook spanning both hands. Dangling from the chain-smoker’s left index and third fingers is a cigarette. In the stamp’s image, the cigarette has been airbrushed out.

Red Cross worker Rosemary Griggs is also honored, appearing on the stamp’s rear right. The stamps were issued October 6, in time to commemorate Remembrance Day, November 11, in Australia.

Further, Webb will be the subject of a film based on “On the Other Side.” British actress Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound,” “An Education,” “Never Let Me Go”) will portray Webb, and also be a producer on the film. Production is set for spring 2018.

At the end of “On the Other Side,” Webb concludes that in different, post-war circumstances, she’d welcome the chance to meet some of her captors again “over beer, not rifles.”


Japan’s Himeji Castle: Graceful 16th-century fortification illustrates era of shoguns’ power and prestige

Himeji1 3
In the early 1600s, more than 360 tons of wood went into the construction of Himeji Castle in western Japan.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For earlier posts on my travels in Japan, see May 13, August 9, August 15 and August 22, 2016. For Japanese-related historical posts, see September 3, and December 15, 2016. 

A maze of passageways meant to confuse intruders.

Two floors invisible from the outside.

Three water-filled moats.

Massive sloping stone walls.

Hidden doors.

Eighty-fours gates and more than 80 buildings.

Everything about Himeji Castle screams “defense,” though in its 400-plus-years, it has never seen a battle and in fact is one of the few feudal castles to survive the bombings of World War II intact.

During the war, black netting over the structure helped to camouflage it, so that Allied aircraft had a harder time recognizing it from on high.

Himeji is in the western part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

A fortification has stood on this strategic bluff in Himeji since the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that the castle, an acknowledgement of power and prestige in the era of the shoguns, began to take its present shape.

Ikeda Terumasa, son-in-law of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, gained control of the land as a reward for his loyalty to Tokugawa (1543-1616) in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. It took nine years to build the almost 150-foot-tall donjon (keep), and successive inhabitants continued to add to the complex.

When it was finished, more than 360 tons of wood had gone into the construction, with the walls further fortified by plaster. With its gently curved roofs, graceful lines and white color, its architecture has been likened to a heron ready to take flight, thus giving rise to its nickname, White Heron Castle (Shirasagi-jo in Japanese).

When I visited on a rainy Sunday in November 2005, I took a 90-minute guided tour in English which included the donjon, where I peeked into multiple empty rooms with shoji (sliding paper doors) and tatami-covered floors.

Our guide, Chiyuki, told my traveling companion and me and a couple from Quebec about the construction, history and castle intrigues — particularly those concerning Tokugawa’s granddaughter Princess Sen — that went on behind the nearly impenetrable walls.

Though she may have been accorded enviable status, in reality, Princess Sen (1597-1667), lived a restricted life. She and the other women were locked into the Vanity Tower each night, with guards stationed outside.

Metal figures of mythical fish perch on roof corners. Go back to the first photo of this post to note how the fish are positioned atop Himeji Castle.

Chiyuki pointed out details, such as the mythical fish figures (called shachihoko) with arched tails, believed to protect the castle from fires, and other disasters, on the corners of the gabled roofs.

The crest tiles, also on the gables, illustrate the families who lived there over the centuries. Ikeda Terumasa’s family crest was a butterfly with raised wings.

Family crests decorate the gables at Himeji Castle. Butterflies with raised wings were the crest of Ikeda Terumasa’s family.

It’s impossible to miss the multiple circular, triangular and rectangular portholes cut into the exterior walls, where archers and musketeers would have been stationed during an attack.

The view from the top floor affords an excellent panorama of Himeji, looking south toward the train station (about a 15-minute walk). The station’s location is the approximate area where the outer moat would have been during the shoguns’ time.

About those “missing” floors: Actually, the second and third floor from the top look like a single floor from the exterior. The almost-impossible-to-scale stone walls around the base disguise the basement.

The tour included quite a bit of climbing on steep wooden staircases. This was done in bare feet or socks, because all visitors must leave their shoes at the castle entrance, as is custom when entering most historic Japanese buildings (and nearly all residences).

In the spring and summer months, Himeji Castle is mobbed. Visitors who want to enter the main keep have to wait in a queue before being directed to ticket purchase. The number of total daily visitors is restricted to 15,000, according to its website.

In other words, get there early.

Himeji Castle is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Japan. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

It’s been a filming location for such movies as the James Bond caper “You Only Live Twice (1967) and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1985).

Fittingly, it had a role in the TV miniseries “Shogun” (1980), starring Richard Chamberlain.

One of the gardens at Kōko-en, ablaze with the colors of autumn in Japan.

About a five-minute walk to the west is the magnificent Kōko-en, a series of nine Edo-style gardens, which opened in 1992 on the former site of samurai residences.

A bamboo grove at Kōko-en, a brief walk from Himeji Castle.

Each garden is the epitome of calm; several feature flowers, pine trees, maple trees and a grove of bamboo. There’s also a tea garden and restaurant.

Sprinkled within the grounds are covered wooden pavilions, a pleasant place for a brief rest, and a perfect setting to contemplate the surrounding beauty.

Quick reference: Visitors can, of course, find accommodate in Himeji, but it’s also only about a 50-minute shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Kyoto, which has so many delightful things to see that it’s a logical base for exploring the region over several days. Himeji is also easily accessible by train from Osaka.

Himeji Castle (2017 information): 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.); until 6 p.m. April 27-August 31. Closed December 29-30. Adults (18 and over) 1,000 yen (about $9), students 300 yen (about $2.70). A combination ticket for the castle and Kōko-en gardens is adults, 1,040 yen (about $9.35) and students 360 yen (about $3.25). Address: 68 Honmachi, Himeji City.

Check the website for its “congestion forecast,” which advises via a calendar the likely busiest days.


A version of this post appeared in the January 29, 2006 Travel section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Frolicking sea turtles and their role in Easter Island mythology and culture

Artistic representations of turtles can be seen at several locations around Easter Island. This multicolored mosaic is from a building’s exterior walkway in Hanga Roa, the island’s only town.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the 10th post about my adventures. See September 10, August 27,  July 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island; and September 26 on San Pedro de Atacama and July 8 about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

On my last full day on Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, I had lunch with the  sea turtles.

OK, that statement might be a bit of an exaggeration.

They were oblivious to my presence as I sat in a restaurant on a spit of land next to where they were swimming, but I like to think they kept me company while I leisurely worked my way through a whole grilled chicken breast served on a bed of lettuce with sliced tomatoes and cucumber half-moons.

About midday, when I walked into Restaurant Playa Pea (aka Pea Restobar) in Hanga Roa, the only town on Easter Island, I had passed a small group of bare-headed surfers in full-length, dark wet suits clustered on the black rocks of a tiny beach.

While I was waiting for my meal to be prepared and staring out the window, I kept seeing something bobbing up in the choppy ocean to my right. Sheets of rain — the second downpour of the day — were also obscuring my view.

At first, I thought the surfers had lost their boards and were swimming back to shore. I did think it odd that I didn’t see the actual surfboards.

Despite the pelting downpour and shooting this photo through a window, I caught this green sea turtle coming up for air.

Then my light bulb finally went on — aided by my camera’s telephoto lens — and I figured out that what I was seeing in the water were instead the bulbous heads, pointed flippers and shelled bodies of large sea turtles.

The small beach is to the right of Restaurant Playa Pea. The dining room juts out over the ocean and affords a pleasant atmosphere from which to watch for surfacing sea turtles and enjoy a meal.

Another tipoff that I was in turtle territory should have been the decorations above the restaurant entrance, in which the aquatic creatures featured prominently.

The small beach is one of the best locations on Easter Island to observe marine turtles, and for divers and snorkelers to swim with them. The species I saw were likely green sea turtles.

After exiting the tarmac, tourists tread across this turtle while heading to Mataveri Airport’s small terminal and baggage claim.

Mosaics and other artwork in several places around the island, including at Mataveri Airport, immortalize these animals, so important to Rapa Nui culture throughout many generations.

The Rapa Nui people believe turtles bring good luck, and are considered fertility symbols. Sailors, especially in earlier times, thought turtles were guides, accompanying visitors toward shore.

Turtle petroglyphs can also be found near Orongo, the partially restored ceremonial village at the southwestern tip of the island. (See post from September 10.)

As to the number of turtle species in Rapa Nui waters, five are mentioned in the scientific literature. Studies cite the green sea turtle as the most-often sighted, followed by the leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley (or Pacific ridley) and the hawkbill turtle, the last being the most recently documented, in 2013.

Lest visitors underestimate islanders’ affection for the marine turtle, look no further than the proposed architectural plans for the new church.

The present Church of the Holy Cross has occupied its in-town site for more than 80 years. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Pea (pronounced pay-ah) Restobar.

The Church of the Holy Cross combines Christian symbols and figures from the island’s Birdman Cult on its facade.

The simple, white rectangular structure’s facade is adorned by a mix of elongated figures from the Cult of the Birdman and Christian symbols. The structure’s stone-like lower exterior mimics a giraffe-skin pattern.

Inside, rows of orderly, plain wooden pews face the large cross at the far end of the sanctuary, and sturdy wooden carvings line the perimeter.

Displayed in a glass case, a scale model for a proposed new church would see visitors entering from the tail end of a turtle-shaped building.

A scale model of the new building is on display in a glass case. Entry into the structure would be up a short flight of stairs through the turtle’s tail end. A thin, curving vertical skylight is designed to perch atop the turtle’s shell almost from end to end.

I asked Peter, my host at Hare Swiss bungalows, where the new church might be built. He said on the plot of land where Holy Cross stands now. Progress and fund-raising toward making that a reality have been slow. It’s also likely that some islanders don’t want to raze the historic church.

An architect’s rendering of the interior of the proposed new church.

The hundreds of mysterious moai are still Easter Island’s most famous draw, luring about 60,000 tourists annually. Diving enthusiasts also come to explore the clear waters, anticipating close encounters with sea life, and an opportunity to examine coral reefs, which are in better condition than in some more well-known underwater spots around the globe.

After tourism, fishing is the second-most important industry on Easter Island. At least 183 species of fish have been identified.

Even with its isolated location in the South Pacific, more than 2,300 miles west of Chile, Easter Island’s marine life faces myriad challenges that accompany surging tourism, such as decreased habitat and pollution.

With an eye toward strengthening its conservation, a 277,994-square mile (720,000 square kilometers) marine park, one of the largest in the world, will be created in the waters around Easter Island.

That announcement was made by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in September, when the fourth International Marine Protected Areas Congress met in Chile, of which Easter Island is a territory.

The new Marine Protected Area will guard against “industrial fishing, mining, and other extractive activities, while Rapa Nui artisanal fishing practices — fishing from small open boats using hand lines and rocks as weights — will be grandfathered in to the management plans for the MPA and will continue to be allowed.”

About 142 marine species, including 27 facing the possibility of extinction, will be sheltered in this zone, roughly the size of the Chilean mainland.

The new MPA is certainly a positive development, not just for future generations of sea turtles, but for all of Easter Island’s marine life.

A delectable potato, mushroom and onion pie for your holiday table

Three-layer Parmentier Pie elevates mashed potatoes, two types of mushrooms, onions and leeks to a sophisticated level.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Behold the humble, rough-skinned potato: It is your pliable, willing kitchen plaything.

Which might be why, even though it is an unfussy staple in many cuisines worldwide, the potato probably doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

You can bake potatoes, mash them, fry them, mold them — and that’s only the start.

Opt for the very simple — mashed, with just salt, pepper, milk and butter — or put together something more complex, adding such spices as curry, cumin and cayenne pepper (not necessarily all at once).

Inexpensive and readily available year-round, potatoes are high in potassium, low in sodium and rich in vitamin C and B-6. They’re also a good source of fiber, and in moderation, carbohydrates.

Blame the extras — sour cream, butter and cheese — for their bad rap. They’re the culprits that ramp up the calorie and fat numbers and leave potatoes with an “unhealthy” tag.

Immersing them in a vat of oil to make french fries or potatoes chips doesn’t help their reputation either.

To enhance the flavor and keep the fat in check, you can marry potatoes with classic partners such as leeks and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil. Sandwiching savory ingredients between layers of mashed potatoes produces a palate-pleasing pie worthy of your holiday table, served beside your turkey or ham and other favorites.

Crisscrossed lines and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese put the finishing touches on Parmentier Pie. Bake until the top is golden brown.

I’ve had the following recipe for Parmentier Pie for decades. I cut it out of a magazine and unfortunately didn’t note the writer or the source. I think it may have been from Bon Appétit.

The pre-recipe chatter talks about how the pie is a heartier riff on potato and leek soup, and also pays homage to Julia Child’s enduring cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”


Preparing Parmentier Pie is more time-consuming than making mashed potatoes, but the sophisticated result delivers much more depth of flavor. The pie is especially satisfying on a winter’s day accompanied by a bright garden salad.

If you want a richer potato pie, substitute cream for the milk.

Make sure the leeks are well-cleaned. Trim off dark green leaves and root end. Lengthwise, slice the leek in half from top to bottom. Holding one end, splay the layers as you wash them under cool running water to dislodge any dirt. Repeat from the opposite end. Wash again if any dirt is detected. Place cut-side down on paper towels to drain.

This is also an opportunity to get out your prettiest fluted pie plate. Mine is a gold-rimmed, fine porcelain dish from Royal Worcester’s Evesham oven-to-table line. (The company calls it a flan dish.) This pattern is no longer in production. There are, however, sites online that still sell pieces of it.


Assembly is quick once the mashed potatoes (left) and onion-mushroom mixture are prepared. The pie plate is from Royal Worcester’s Evesham fine porcelain line. The pattern, however, is no longer in production.

Parmentier Pie

Hands on: 60-90 minutes


Total time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours

Serves: 6 to 8

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

4 small Idaho potatoes (about 2 1/4 pounds), peeled and quartered

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons warm milk, divided

1 teaspoon salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

3 small leeks (white and tender green), thinly sliced in half-moons

1 medium onion, diced (I use mild Vidalia onions)

1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons white vermouth

1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or substitute 1/8 teaspoon each of marjoram, oregano, tarragon and thyme)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a large Dutch oven of salted water to cover, cook the potatoes over medium heat until fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Drain well. Return the potatoes to the pot and shake over low heat for about 30 seconds to dry them out.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, gently simmer the dried porcini mushrooms in 2 cups water over medium heat until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid. Rinse the mushrooms, making sure to get off any clinging grit. Cut off and discard any tough pieces from the mushrooms. If the mushrooms are large, cut them in half. Strain the liquid in a fine mesh sieve. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mash the potatoes until smooth. (A food mill or ricer comes in handy here, if you have one.) Mix in 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup warm milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and pinch of cayenne. In the bowl, use a spoon or knife to divide the potatoes into two equal portions. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large skillet, heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add leeks, onion, button mushrooms and garlic. (The skillet will be nearly full. Don’t worry, the vegetables will cook down.) Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft.

Mix in the reconstituted dried mushrooms and 1 1/2 to 2 cups of their liquid. Continue stirring occasionally until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 8 minutes. Add the vermouth and cook for 1 minute more. Season with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, cayenne and herbes de Provence. Mix and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

A level layer of mashed potatoes covers the bottom of the pie dish. Add the onion-mushroom mixture and smooth gently and completely over the mashed potatoes. Top with the remaining mashed potatoes in a last even layer.

Lightly oil bottom and sides of a 10-inch pie dish. Spread half the mashed potatoes evenly over the bottom. Smooth with a small offset spatula or the flat bottom of a small measuring cup. Place all of the mushroom mixture on top of the potatoes. Spread evenly to edge of pie dish.

For the top layer, make a wide ring with the mashed potatoes from the edge inward. Continue working inward toward the center to spread the rest of the potatoes evenly over the top of the mushroom mixture. Smooth again with small offset spatula or flat bottom of a measuring cup until layer is level. (A slight dome is OK.)

Lightly brush the top with 3 tablespoons of milk. Using the tines of a fork, gently make a crisscross pattern on top of the potatoes. (Make all the lines in one direction, then the other.) Sprinkle all over with Parmesan cheese.

Bake in the top third of the oven for 30 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. The pie will puff up a bit — not as much as a soufflé — but will deflate as it cools.

Cool on a rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut a slice as you would a pie. Use a pie server to loosen the outer edge and slide it all the way under the lower potato layer, removing the three-layered slice in one piece.

Use plastic wrap to cover any leftovers. The pie will keep three to four days in the refrigerator. Reheat to serve, although it’s good at room temperature too.

In ‘Endurance,’ American astronaut Scott Kelly captures the exhilaration — and gravity — of 340 continuous days in space

A spacewalk is always risky business. American astronaut Scott Kelly undertook three of them during his nearly yearlong mission on the International Space Station in 2015-2016. NASA photo

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text. All rights reserved.

“Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery” by Scott Kelly, with Margaret Lazarus Dean (Alfred A Knopf, 2017, $29.95)

Never doubt or underestimate the power of the written word.

In retired astronaut Scott Kelly’s case, a book he read as an unmotivated teenager not only put him on a path to a specific goal, but opened him up to a galaxy of possibilities.

Disinterested in academic achievement and more often staring out the window when he should have been paying attention and taking notes, this self-proclaimed “terrible student” came across “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979) in a campus bookstore.

He devoured and digested the content — about the early days of America’s space program and NASA’s legendary Mercury astronauts — and rapidly adjusted his attitude and outlook. The college freshman still had a lot to learn and a vast amount of catching up to do, but now Kelly knew where he was going — hopefully to the stars — and plotted an ambitious course for how to get there.

Traveling this road would take decades, but as one success led to another, Kelly’s aspiration of becoming an astronaut not only materialized, but presented ample opportunity for personal growth.

endurance-jkt“Endurance” is an engrossing, often humorous, in-depth examination of his 340 days spent living on the International Space Station, including the extensive pre-launch training in the United States and Russia, and the countless hours of study, practice and task repetition instrumental in completing a successful mission.

In alternating chapters, he delves into his formative years, from risk-taking son (along with his twin brother Mark, who also became an astronaut) of an alcoholic father, to college in New York, to Navy fighter pilot and test pilot. His mother knew a thing or two about accomplishment: She was the first female police officer in West Orange, New Jersey, sworn in in 1979. His father was also a cop.

That he chose “Endurance” as his book’s title is not an accident. It’s an acknowledgement of the fortitude it took physically, mentally and temperamentally for Kelly to live on the ISS for nearly a year, and also a tip of the space-suit helmet to British explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose 1914-16 expedition to Antarctica in the ship Endurance could have had a tragic ending. That all of Shackleton’s men survived after the wooden vessel was trapped in the ice — and then crushed by it  — stands to this day as a testament to Shackleton’s leadership, ingenuity, courage and perseverance.

As you go about your normal day, pause for a moment and think about all the stimulating sights, sounds, colors, smells and human interactions (physical and emotional) that you take for granted. That you can wash your hands or take a shower (or bath) any time you want. That when you put something down on a table, it’ll stay where you placed it. That if you want to go outside for a run or a bike ride, or drive a car, all you have to do is open the door.

“The space is just barely big enough for me and my sleeping bag, two laptops, some clothes, toiletries, photos of Amiko and my daughters, a few paperback books,” Kelly writes about his crew quarters on the ISS. NASA photo

None of this was possible on the ISS, where there is no running water and urine is reprocessed and purified for astronauts to drink. And where anything not anchored or attached to Velcro will float endlessly until it’s corralled.

For Kelly, then 51 years old, to go “outside,” i.e., on a spacewalk (always done in pairs), it took hours to put on the required equipment (with help), and check off the safety steps to ensure both the well-being of the astronauts and the ISS, which travels at 17,500 mph and orbits the Earth every 90 minutes (16 sunrises and sunsets a day).

The reality of the threat of death was never far from his mind. He’s candid about this, and about the many less-appetizing aspects of being confined to a sophisticated, high-tech series of connected pieces of metal that measure a total of 357 feet from end to end (almost the size of an American football field). Being able to compartmentalize, a skill he honed in the Navy, served him well when particularly dangerous or difficult tasks needed laser-like focus.

Equipment can break down and often did. Kelly and the other jack-of-all-trades crew frequently had to repair malfunctioning machines, inside and outside. Two of his spacewalks were scheduled. A third became necessary after he improperly secured a “mobile transporter rail car” hugging the ISS exterior, and this had to be remedied because it was blocking where the all-important resupply rocket containing fresh food, clothing, science experiments (and personal items sent by loved ones) on Earth was to dock.

Kelly (left) and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko mark their 300th continuous day in space. Each man would spend more than 11 months on the ISS. NASA photo

A veteran of two space shuttle missions, and in 2010 a 159-day stay on the ISS, Kelly knew the perils presented by 340 uninterrupted days in space. The length of the mission was perhaps not the biggest challenge. For the most part, he enjoyed the work, the rotating international crew members and the limit-testing challenges. (Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko also spent 340 days on the ISS with Kelly, launching in a Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan on March 27, 2015 and landing in Kazakhstan on March 1, 2016.)

Expedition 43 Preflight
Kelly trains in a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in March 2015 in Star City, Russia. NASA photo

He deftly explains to the reader each assignment he undertakes and why. He’s complimentary of the wide-ranging talent and competence of everyone he interacted with — not just the team on the ISS but the hundreds of technicians, computer experts, engineers, staff at mission control in Houston and many others around the world that keep the ISS space-borne and humming.

A weekly ritual was Friday night dinner, always convened in the Russian module. Everyone contributed to the meal — the Russians often supplied that most elegant of delicacies, caviar — and a convivial atmosphere reigned. Special occasions such as birthdays and holidays also called for celebration. These gatherings served to underscore the value of collaboration, cultural exchange and international cooperation.

But he occasionally chafed at NASA’s exacting procedures, especially when the vital machine that regulates the level of carbon dioxide on the station repeatedly needed time-consuming attention. This isn’t the type of problem that the astronauts can let ride, because a buildup of the odorless gas can be deadly.

This is one of Kelly’s favorite views from the cupola of the ISS: The turquoise waters surrounding the islands of the Bahamas. “The sight always reminds me to stop and appreciate the view of the Earth that I’ve been given the privilege of seeing,” he writes. NASA photo

And though he was able to regularly call his friends and family, engage in video chats and send and receive email, he understood the great sacrifice these significant people made while he was continually orbiting the planet. If the separation was occasionally stressful for him, it was even more so for his longtime partner, Amiko, who not only provided emotional support from afar but was holding down a full-time job at NASA and running a household.

One of the key objectives for scientists of Kelly’s near-year in space was to assess the physical toll that lengthy exposure to radiation, prolonged weightlessness and the wasting of bone and muscle mass can take on the body. And how quickly it can recover. Fluid shifts and how they affect vision and eye structure were also being investigated.

With Scott’s identical twin, Mark, back on Earth as an obvious control subject, the brothers comprise the Twin Study, an ongoing program that may provide crucial data for the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars. The brothers, who both beat prostate cancer, will continue as guinea pigs for the foreseeable future to advance the cause of space exploration. The findings have started to trickle out, with more scientific information expected to be released next year.

Kelly holds the record for single longest mission for an American astronaut. But Peggy Whitson, who recently returned from the ISS after a 288-day stay, holds the record for cumulative time in space for a U.S. astronaut: 665 days.

So, if you were deprived of nearly everything from your normal life for a year, what would be the first thing you would do when you finally got home?

For Kelly, it was to walk through the front door of his house in Houston, continue out the back door, and jump into his swimming pool, fully clothed, in his flight suit.

Very few Earthlings will ever have a chance to go to space, so many thanks, Scott Kelly, for taking us along on a thrilling roller-coaster ride.

Quick reference: Scott Kelly is on a months-long U.S. media blitz promoting his book. Check his website,, to see if he’s heading to a location near you. Or, if you’re traveling yourself, check airport terminal newsstands. He’s been stopping to sign copies of “Endurance” as he makes his way around America.

In some TV markets, PBS will show a two-part film, “Beyond A Year in Space,” beginning at 8 p.m. November 15. Check your local listings.

For information specifically about Kelly’s near-year mission:

To check in on the current ISS crew, their scientific work, and all things space, go to


In Chiang Mai, Thailand: Paper lanterns, floral floats and the annual Loi Krathong festival

Helping hands are welcome by those attempting to light a heat source at the bottom of a paper lantern (woman in green top at lower right) at the Yee Ping festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Picture, if you will, thousands of unadorned white cylindrical lanterns, illuminated from the inside, rising silently ever higher, set against the backdrop of a full moon beaming in the autumn night sky.

Bobbing on the river’s surface are several thousand plant- and flower-laden small floats, each sporting several thin sticks of incense and a flickering candle, all being swept away by the water’s current.

Lights drifting above, lights twinkling below, it’s festival time in Chiang Mai, Thailand. One of the country’s most enchanting events is being celebrated this week, Loi Krathong (sometimes spelled Loy Krathong).

The festival occurs in the 12th lunar month, and is also observed in some other Asian countries. This year’s celebration is November 2-4, so preparations are in full swing, ramping up shortly after the end of the year-long mourning period for long-reigning King Rama IX, also known as Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at age 88 on October 13, 2016.

When I visited Thailand with my friend Susan in 2011, the festival fell a week later in November. I had read a little about it in my guidebook, which noted that Chiang Mai was one of the best places to watch and participate, so I made sure our itinerary placed us in the northern Thai city to coincide with the festivities.

Loi Krathong takes place at the end of the rainy season, when the rice harvest has been completed. Thanks are conveyed to the Water Goddess for the fruitful bounty, while at the same time responsibility for polluting the water is acknowledged.

The origins of the festival are unknown, but some sources say it can be traced to 14th- or 15th- century India and the worship of Brahmin gods. Another possibility is that it is a Thai twist on ancient Buddhist rituals.

Holding his krathong, a young man waits his turn to place his float on the river. He’ll light the candle before doing so.

The symbolic floats are meant to cleanse the owner of anger and grudges, banishing the past year’s problems. Some people place a fingernail or a lock of hair on their float, to signify releasing a darker part of one’s self. Including a coin is also seen as an offering.

It’s believed that if the flame is still alight when the owner loses sight of it — among all the other flickering lights — then a year of good luck will follow.

Other components of the three-day festival include a parade with full-size floats being ridden by people in traditional costumes, a beauty pageant, folk dancing and blessings at the wats (temples).

A woman in our hotel made these krathongs from banana leaves and flowers.

At our city-central hotel, a dark-haired woman was sitting at a table in the lobby, cutting banana leaves and flowers, then attaching them to a round base. Some of the leaves had been elaborately folded and braided, like doing origami with plants instead of paper. The small-scale arrangements were lovely, showing off the lush tropical materials in their best light.

While sightseeing and browsing at fair-trade shops, we saw other people making krathongs, as the floats are known. Many were for sale.

An industrious young man has everything he needs to construct floats, which he’ll later try to sell to residents and tourists alike.

One young man was sitting cross-legged on a red mat in an empty space in front of a shop, engrossed in folding a leaf and surrounded by his supplies. To his right was a pile of shiny green banana leaves of various widths and lengths. In front of him were several prepared round bases, and to his left were white, blue and pink flowers balanced horizontally on a white bowl.

Inside one of the city wall’s brick gates, we took pictures among the decorations, such as big-as-life cloth-covered white elephants, and other hanging lanterns. Vendors were setting up stalls selling a variety of food — many of them colorful rice dishes — and handicrafts made from materials such as silk and wood.

Displays celebrating Thai traditions are set up in the city center. Elephants are an enduring symbol in the country’s culture.

We had discussed if we should buy our own krathongs, and decided this would be best done in the late afternoon. But we got a wonderful surprise back in our hotel room: Two identical krathongs had been left for us.

After dinner, with daylight fading, we walked east toward the Ping River.  The beauty pageant was in full swing, with entrants parading across a raised stage, festooned with flowers, and white fabric draped across the front.

We navigated through the crowds, gingerly holding our krathongs, not wanting any decorations to be jostled or dropped off. The closer we got to the river, the more krathongs we saw for sale, some of them stacked two or three tiers high, overflowing with thin fronds and lotus flowers. These more elaborate creations may have been entrants in a contest vying for best krathong.

Full-size floats take part in a night-time parade.

At the river, we made our way down a rickety platform that jutted out into the water, where we waited in turn to move to the end of the bamboo ramp, bend down and place our krathong on the surface. A young woman helped me send mine off, while Susan did a better job of launching her own.

Many people were holding flat circular objects that looked like collapsed lamp shades. These were, in fact, the lanterns, made of thin paper supported by a bamboo ring. In Chiang Mai, the paper lanterns are considered worthy of their own festival, called Yee Peng. Like the small floats, the lanterns also embody the idea of casting off the ills of the past year. A wish is supposed to be made before sending one skyward.

The heat source used to inflate the lantern reminded me of a small can of Sterno, like you would use for a camping stove or under a chafing dish on a buffet.

Timing seemed crucial to lighting the unfurled lantern, and best done with at least two people, each holding a side, and a third trying to ignite the heat source. For some, the release appeared equally as tricky, with two sets of outstretched arms trying to coax the hot-air lantern aloft in the soft breeze. Some lanterns never took proper flight, destined to plummet stubbornly into the river.  But judging from the number of lanterns overhead, success was far more prevalent than failure.

The liberation of lanterns and floats continued long after we left, until nearly midnight, if the printed scheduled was accurate.

Back in our hotel room, gazing skyward from our small balcony, we could see countless dots of light as more lanterns headed for the heavens. Unfortunately, incessant noise from street-level firecrackers was adding an unwelcome soundtrack to an otherwise magical evening.

In Dresden, Germany: Resplendent church, rebuilt from ashes of World War II, again dominates city skyline

Stones from the ruins of the original Frauenkirche were used in the reconstruction. Though darkened by age and war damage, the stones were cleaned and repaired and fitted among the new sections, giving parts of the facade a patchwork look.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.

House of worship, war monument, giant jigsaw puzzle: Over several centuries, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, Germany, has been all three.

From its completion in 1743 (after 17 years of construction) as a Lutheran church, to its collapse near the end of World War II, to its reconsecration in 2005, the Frauenkirche has long had a special place in this medieval city.

In Dresden’s heyday before the war, visitors ventured to the city to see world-class art museums, and revel in its baroque architecture, opulent palaces and manicured gardens. They avidly attended classical concerts or an opera at the sumptuous Semper Opera House. After indulging in calorie-rich cuisine and fine German wines, they often took a leisurely stroll down the city’s wide boulevards or along the bustling waterfront.

All these attributes earned the city the nickname “Florence on the Elbe,” and its beauty was immortalized in oil paintings by famous 18th-century artists.

Much of that splendor and those recreational pursuits were lost in the destruction wrought by WWII. Further complicating the city’s recovery was the descent of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War — Dresden was in East Germany — effectively shutting out much of the world for decades.

But with Germany’s reunification in 1990, and vast sums of money pumped into the re-creation of the city center, millions of tourists began once again flocking to Dresden. In 2008, I was among them.

The rebuilt pink sandstone church is a natural magnet, celebrated for its elegance and for its spiritual component. Its doors are open to the faithful, who come to worship and light candles, as well as the curious, interested in seeing what a magnificent job was done in the reconstruction.

The new organ above the richly ornamented altar in the Frauenkirche has more than 4,800 pipes. Some of the pieces from the altar were salvaged from the rubble and reused.

Many sit quietly in the cushioned maple pews for a few minutes, craning their necks to admire the New Testament scenes expertly painted on the dome’s ceiling, or swivel from side to side taking in the circular upper galleries decorated in pastel yellows, pinks and blues. Or they marvel at the baroque altar and the organ with 4,876 pipes. At capacity, more than 1,800 can be comfortably seated.

The more you learn about the church, the more impressive its renewal becomes.

In the late 1930s, Dresden, the capital of Saxony, had a population of more than 600,000, making it the country’s seventh-largest city. But political, social and economic upheaval was afoot, with consequences that would reverberate for the next decade and beyond.

Throughout Germany, the Third Reich was robbing Jews of their rights, property and livelihoods, including the 6,000 Jews who lived in Dresden. Deportation — and far worse — awaited at concentration camps in Nazi-occupied lands.

During the war, Dresden was an important communications and transport center. It housed military installations and became a manufacturing hot spot for munitions and armaments, fuses and bombsight optics.

The city, which had been bombed twice — in October 1944 and January 1945 — was to become a target a third time, with what happened on two dark winter nights remaining controversial to this day.

On February 13, 1945, nearly 800 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers and Mosquitoes left England in two waves. The onslaught on Dresden began around 10:15 p.m., and within minutes, the central part of the city was in flames. A second wave of aircraft was overhead about three hours later. In total, they released more than 2,500 tons of bombs and incendiaries.

“We saw from a distance of about 30 kilometers a fire-lit, red night sky reflecting the raging firestorm that destroyed this great jewel of a city in one of the most catastrophic bombing attacks of World War II,”  Dr. Günter Blobel, a 1999 Nobel Prize-winning scientist, would later write in a short autobiography on “It was a very sad and unforgettable day for me.”

Blobel was 8 years old and fleeing Silesia (in what is now Poland) from the advancing Russian army. He and his family had driven through Dresden days before the bombing, and Blobel recalled “its many spires and the magnificent cupola of the Frauenkirche.” Years later, while a professor at an American university, he would help to raise the more than $210 million that was needed to rebuild the church.

The destruction of Dresden continued the next day, with two waves of U.S. B-17s releasing more than 1,250 tons of bombs.

For two days, the sturdy stone of the Frauenkirche, with its heavily wooden interior, burned. On the morning of February 15, the church’s dome came crashing down as did most of the rest of the building. Only two sections remained standing, and they were badly discolored from age and the intensity of the flames.

Though the statue of Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, survived, it toppled from its plinth in front of the church, coming to rest staring at the sky.

Estimates from most credible sources put the death toll at about 35,000 to 40,000.

Less than three months after the bombing, the war in Europe was over.

This August 1949 photo shows much of Dresden in ruins. The open space at left, with the lone statue, is where the Frauenkirche once stood in the Neumarkt area. Photo from the Dresden Treasures from the Saxon State Library via the Library of Congress

The task of rebuilding Dresden, where almost 80 percent of the structures had been damaged, would prove to be enormous. The need to construct housing quickly was the priority, not restoring the Frauenkirche.

Also, as long as the church was in ruins, Communist East Germany could exploit it for political purposes, and rail against the “evil” capitalist West. By the 1960s, East German state representatives were placing wreaths at the site on the anniversary of the bombing runs.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification, attention turned in earnest to the church. In the early 1990s, planning and fund-raising began. In 1993, volunteers and others started to clear the rubble, which was piled almost 43 feet high. Clearing the site took 17 months.

This section, above and around entrance E of the church, is one of two that survived the 1945 bombings. It was reconstructed and cleaned before retaking its place in the spot where it has stood for centuries.

The intent was to use as many of the original stones as could be cleaned and repaired. The stones were cataloged and stacked on metal racks in the Neumarkt, where the church would rise again. Computer programs would help fit the patchwork of darker old stones among the the new, which were hewn from sandstone from the quarries of an area nearby known as Saxon Switzerland.

On June 1, 1993, the crew was astonished to find the badly burned tower cross in the rubble. It had fallen more than 300 feet from its perch atop the cupola, but it was intact. Today it is mounted at ground level on the south side of the church’s interior.

Less than a year later, on May 27, 1994, the first stone of the new Frauenkirche was laid. The original plans left by master carpenter and architect George Bähr were followed when possible (his grave in the cellar was also located and restored), re-erecting the octagonal lower structure and its seven doors. On the next level up, four towers adorn the corners around the bell-like dome, which is topped by a stone lantern.

A total of 3,539 repaired stones from the original church were incorporated in the more than 500,000 new pink stones that completed the exterior. Tightly fitted together, they present a striking contrast, honoring both the church’s history and the days yet to come.

Modern conveniences such as an elevator were incorporated to take visitors partway up to the dome.

A wide circular incline and narrow metal stairs wind the rest of the distance to the stone lantern. Once outside on the viewing platform, a splendid panorama of the Elbe and Dresden’s skyline awaits.

The Frauenkirche once again is the focal point of Dresden’s skyline, as viewed from the north side of the River Elbe. To the left, the glass-domed structure with a bronze angel on top is the art academy. In the mid-1700s, the city was a favorite subject for Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto, who was among the royal court’s painters.

In the 10 years that it took to reconstruct the exterior, several international groups were formed to raise funds and to publicize the effort. Among them was the Dresden Trust in England and the Friends of Dresden, founded by Blobel in 1994, in the United States.

The British, whose own 600-year-old cathedral in Coventry, England, had been destroyed by German bombers in November 1940, contributed the new 24-karat gilded tower cross and orb, an exact replica. Leading the work on the cross in London was master silversmith Alan Smith, whose father, Frank, was a pilot with the first wave of Royal Air Force bombers.

A closer look at the cross and orb that master silversmith Alan Smith, son of a Royal Air Force pilot who bombed Dresden in 1945, made for the new church. It’s an exact replica of the original.

“At first I didn’t tell anyone what was motivating me,” Smith said in remarks on the church’s website. “When it became known that I, the son of a bomber pilot, was creating the cross for the church, there was a big rush for the story. Initial amazement gave way to a very positive reaction. Even the war veterans from my country who had served alongside my father gave me a slap on the back and told me a lot about the past, about the war. They had kept silent about it for so many years.

“I have worked with gold, diamonds and gemstones, created jewelry for royal households and Arab rulers, gifts of state for the highest dignitaries in the world,” he continued. “But this 7-meter-tall gilded steel cross is the pinnacle of my career. It was like putting together an extremely complicated puzzle in which the past and the future neatly fit into one another.”

From the American group, Nobel laureate Blobel contributed the majority of the almost $1 million award to the church. A portion also went to the New Synagogue nearby, replacing the Semper Synagogue that was demolished by the Nazis in 1938.

Finally, on October 30, 2005, one memorial bell and seven new ones rang out to begin the reconsecration service. Visiting dignitaries, politicians and early arriving Dresden residents packed the church, while the crowd outdoors, possibly numbering 100,000, watched the ceremony on a giant screen.

Once again a house of worship, the Frauenkirche then added two more lines to its résumé: “symbol of peace and reconciliation” and “tourist attraction.”

A version of this post appeared in the Travel section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Travel section on August 31, 2008.

Quick reference: Visitors are welcome 10 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Weekend hours are worked around scheduled activities and religious services. Free, but donations are welcome. You can join a guided tour, helpful if you are interested in an explanation of the interior religious iconography. Audio guides are available for a 2.50 euros. A guided tour to the dome, generally in the evening, is 10 euros. This is in German, but you can request your language when you make a mandatory reservation. One-hour organ concerts are given at 8 p.m. on select Fridays. Check the website’s calendar. 10 euros. A 25-minute film, in German, screens during the open church hours. 3 euros. Contact the church for times the film screens in English.

In the basement is a small exhibition that tells of the fund-raising effort, the excavations of the rubble, and original documents from the church.

The Frauenkirche also has an active schedule of concerts and musical programs. Check the website.

Frauenkirche, Georg-Treu-Platz 3, Dresden, Germany.

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Brave and resourceful townspeople confront the aftermath of three days of battle in July 1863 during America’s Civil War

A reproduction of Lincoln’s handwritten Gettysburg Address is on the smaller rectangular monument in front of the centerpiece Soldiers’ National Monument at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in southern Pennsylvania. Lady Liberty stands atop the monument. Ringing the second tier are the figures of “War,” “History,” “Plenty” and “Peace.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

When the carnage ceased and the forever-changed Union and Confederate armies marched away from the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the monumental task of dealing with the dead, dying and severely wounded was just beginning for the overwhelmed townsfolk.

The cascade of casualties on both sides was staggering after the three-day series of battles, the bloodiest of the Civil War, waged in this south-central Pennsylvania town. Union General George G. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, 93,000 soldiers strong.

A total of 3,155 were killed, 14,529 were wounded and 5,365 were captured or missing. The tally of injured may have been higher, because in those days, the wounded were counted as such only if their care required a doctor.

“The Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama is an oil painting that measures 377 feet around and stands 42 feet high, about the height of a four-story building. It depicts the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge, on July 3, 1863, when Confederate forces attacked Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. It was completed in 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and is housed at the Visitor Center of Gettysburg National Military Park.

On the Confederate side, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia’s troops numbered about 70,000. Unfortunately, an accurate accounting of Lee’s losses do not exist, so historians have put forth these estimates: 3,500 killed, 18,000 wounded and 6,500 captured or missing.

The population of Gettysburg was a mere 2,400. Many of its residents were farmers, their fertile land overrun by the military clashes of July 1-3, resulting in a turning-point victory for the Union Army. The trim and neat homes and businesses in the center of town were largely undamaged by the fighting, and in the aftermath, some of the wounded crawled to these dwellings, begging for aid.

By the third day of battle, more than 100 buildings — public and private — were housing the wounded. Field hospitals, with surgeons on both sides doing the best they could with limited resources and supplies, were set up in tents and barns and under shade trees.

In addition to the soldiers in dire need of attention — many in great pain crying out for help — thousands of dead horses littered the landscape, as did broken wagon wheels, cannon shells, jagged fences and abandoned rifles and other equipment.

July Fourth — the 87th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America — was a rainy day, muddying the ground, and hampering burial progress.

The fear of the spread of disease and the awful stench of decomposing bodies scattered across 25 square miles of open land were among the most pressing problems, soon to be exacerbated by the stifling summer sun.

This is when the capable people of Gettysburg mobilized their efforts to great effect — burying the dead. Union and Confederate soldiers had started the process, excavating shallow, temporary  graves for their comrades where they fell. It was a hurried effort; limbs and hands protruded from some sites (even months later), lending a ghoulish air to an already morbid undertaking.

When the armies withdrew, thousands of dead men were still above ground.

The identity of some soldiers could not be determined.

Identification was also a challenge. Neither army wore what we know today as dog tags. It was, at that time, the soldiers’ responsibility to leave proof as to his name and other personal details. In some cases, burial teams found letters or photographs in a man’s pocket to provide clues. Better yet was a diary or Bible, where the soldier had written on its flyleaf his name in full, and the regiment and company in which he served.

Soldiers who had the heartrending chore of burying their friends could in many cases identify them, then leave a list of names written on hastily made headboards to cover a group en masse.

Among the heroines of this part of the story was a German immigrant named Elizabeth Masser Thorn (1832-1907). She lived with her three sons, all under the age of 10, and her parents in the gate house at Evergreen Cemetery.

Elizabeth’s husband, also a German immigrant, was off serving in the Union Army with a company in Virginia. Before the war, the couple were caretakers at the cemetery, the only public burial space in Gettysburg.

“The Thorn family was accustomed to death,” said Caitlin Brown, a National Park Service ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park during a free morning tour I took in mid-September. “They dealt with it on a daily basis.”

For the fateful days of combat, the Thorns were displaced. The Union “high command” took over the house, and soldiers camped around it. “They tore down fencing in order to mount a better defense against the Confederates,” Brown said.

The Thorns fled a few miles south of Gettysburg to stay with friends. When they returned home on July 7, the horror was nearly indescribable.

“Utter destruction was everywhere,” Brown said. “Ten soldiers were in a mass grave at the water pump. All the windows were gone. Gravestones were blown to pieces.”

Worse yet, there was no organization in place to bring order to the surrounding chaos.

Elizabeth looked to her community. “ ‘The Thorn family is suffering, but so is everyone in Gettysburg,’ ” Brown said, paraphrasing Thorn. “ ‘ We need to work together to restore Gettysburg.’ ”

Which is what came to pass. Volunteer nurses stepped up to administer to the needy. And Elizabeth, technically Evergreen’s sole caretaker in her husband’s absence, was six months pregnant. Swollen ankles and an aching back didn’t deter her from digging mass graves for soldiers. She is credited with helping to lay 91 men to rest.

The government also offered contracts for bid to engage burial crews. Some of those were led by free men of color, who, like all workers, had to learn to properly handle the fragile, disintegrating bodies so as not to cause further harm.

Elizabeth’s husband, Peter, survived the war. The middle name of their baby daughter, Rose Meade Thorn, was a tribute to the Union general.

An informational board tells visitors about the history and layout of Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

A second individual important to Gettysburg’s recovery was attorney David Wills. His three-story brick house on what is now Lincoln Square, in the center of town, took in wounded and served as a depot for supplies. He also received letters from families desperate to locate their dead sons and take them home for reburial.

Wills is credited with putting forth the idea of a national cemetery. Appointed to proceed by Governor Andrew Curtin, Wills was instrumental in guiding the purchase of the 17 acres of battlefield land adjoining Evergreen Cemetery that would become Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

More than 3,000 Union soldiers were eventually reinterred there, under flat markers with their names, if known. Over the years, about an equal number of Confederate soldiers were disinterred and reburied in cemeteries in the South.

Many markers say simply “unknown,” or in some cases the number of deceased in a mass grave are noted and whether they were Union or Confederate troops — if that could be determined.

United States President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery,  delivering his two-minute Gettysburg Address. This statue of him is outside the Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park. 

The Thorn family themselves were buried in Evergreen Cemetery, but it has another huge claim to fame in American history: It is where Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, delivered the 272-word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. The night before the dedication of this “hallowed ground,” he stayed at the Wills home, which opened to the public in 2009.

The formal invitation for Lincoln to participate at the dedication was not issued until November 2. Was Lincoln’s attendance an afterthought? Some experts think so, considering that Edward Everett agreed to deliver “the Oration” in September. Others believe that Wills was just tardy in sending a letter, and cite the fact that he also extended his personal hospitality to the president.

The Brown family mausoleum occupies the very spot where Lincoln gave his address in Evergreen Cemetery, which is separated by a metal fence from Soldiers’ National Cemetery, the acreage that was dedicated on November 19, 1863. 

A mausoleum for the Brown family was erected on the exact spot, and there is no plaque that reveals that this was where Lincoln stood for the two minutes he spoke to the crowd of about 15,000. A metal fence separates Evergreen Cemetery from the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, but visitors need only exit one site to get to the other on foot.

Lincoln was the second speaker on dedication day. He followed politician, pastor and orator Everett of Massachusetts, who droned on for two hours presenting his 13,000-word opus.

Five manuscript copies (with subtle phrasing variations) of the Gettysburg Address exist. Two are held by the Library of Congress; one by the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; one by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and one resides in the Lincoln Room at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Soldiers’ Memorial Cemetery was closed to burials after the Vietnam War, accepting only spouses and children of those already interred.

Silenced cannons intermingle with monuments throughout Soldiers’ National Cemetery. 

It is a beautiful, peaceful setting now; a fitting, final resting place for every soldier who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the United States of America.

Quick reference: Most of the sites at Gettysburg National Military Park are free and open to the public. Rangers give talks on battle-related topics, and guide visitors through the expansive fields and woods where the fighting took place. The one I attended was called “Four Score and Seven Years Ago: Lincoln and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.” Rangers distribute maps, and pamphlets called “Today at the Park,” which contain the talks’ titles and schedule. The cemetery is open dawn to dusk.

If your interest in the Civil War is high, you’ll want to budget two to three full days (or more) in Gettysburg. I spent a full day on the battlefields and about four hours in the museum. I didn’t have time for the 24-mile, 16-stop self-driving tour and saw only a tiny fraction of the 1,400 monuments and memorials. The driving tour takes a minimum of three hours, more if you read everything.

Summer can be hot, humid and above all else — crowded. Plan accordingly.

Gettysburg National Military Park, museum and visitor center: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1-October 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 1 to March 31. Closed Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. There is a fee for full access to the museum’s 12 galleries, film and cyclorama painting. Backpacks are not allowed in the museum and there are no lockers to store them in. In other words, leave everything locked in the car trunk. Visitors can carry in a water bottle. 1195 Baltimore Pike;

For more information on the Gettysburg Address:

In the northern Chilean desert, San Pedro de Atacama’s artists draw inspiration from landscape and wildlife

A tile mosaic on the side of a one-story building in San Pedro de Atacama captures the animals and scenery that visitors will see around this small town in northern Chile. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the ninth post about my adventures. See September 10, August 27, July 27, June 17, April 10, March 6 and February 12, 2017, for earlier posts about Easter Island, and July 8 for one about the El Tatio geysers in northern Chile.

When I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, artisans were about halfway finished installing a tile mosaic on the front of a one-story building in this dusty small town in the Chilean desert.

The mosaic illustrates the natural wonders that draw tourists to this region: a snow-capped Andes peak, rendered in shades of blue, tan and white, capturing the slanting play of light on the mountain; long-legged, black-tailed pink flamingoes; furry tan vicunas, members of the camelid family; and green cacti reaching skyward on a reddish-brown mound of sand, signifying the desert.

I think the left side may have been portraying the ragged cliff and rock formations of the Valley of the Moon, an evocative, close-by destination perfect for a challenging hike.

At the top, in a deep blue sky, was a Gaviota Andina, a black-headed gull, white wings spread in flight. Below, the sky gave way to a wide, lighter blue panel.

The lower half of the mosaic was yet to be completed. Stacks of colorful tiles, cans of adhesive and a wheelbarrow were among some of the tools and supplies on the sidewalk in front of the artwork.

The building was about a five-minute walk from the hostel where I was staying, and so over the four days that I called San Pedro de Atacama home, I passed it about eight times as I made my way to and from the center of town.

Every day, a bit more work was completed. It was beginning to look like I would get to see the mosaic in its entirely before I departed.

San Pedro de Atacama predates the tourist boom, its surrounding acreage rich in copper and quartz. Nowadays it’s abundant lithium that’s drawing multinational mining corporations to this South American country. Yes, the lithium that powers your smart phone batteries and so much more.

For visitors, the scenery and wildlife are the attractions, and many of the 4,000 or so residents have some hand in the tourism industry. They might run a hostel or hotel — or work in one; they might give tours out to the national parks’ salt flats, where the flamingoes play; to the stark landscape of the Valley of the Moon; or drive the predawn mountain run so passengers can catch the El Tatio geysers spouting off at sunrise (see July 8 post).

Earth tones and brighter colors often combine in tapestries, table runners and woven tote bags made by local artists. I bought a small, supply-laden llama figure like those on the second shelf at left. 

Or they might be craftsmen or artisans, making a living selling their brilliantly colored cloth wares and pottery. In stalls and markets, hand-woven fabrics and spools of yarn, covering the spectrum of the rainbow and then some, provide a glorious contrast to the white walls and red-brown clay adobe architecture.

When the sun is as bright and unrelenting as it is here, it’s best to harness it, as one craftsman was doing in front of a shop. A piece of multicolored striped cloth was draped over his head and shoulders, completely shrouding his face.

No high-tech equipment for this artist, who was making the most of the sun’s rays to burn a decorative lizard into plank of wood.

He was sitting, bent over a long, thin plank of wood, with just his hands and heavily tattooed forearms visible. (If not tattoos, then tattoo-like sleeves covered his forearms.)

In his right hand he held a large magnifying glass horizontally over the plank, concentrating the powerful rays to burn the lines and curves of his design into the wood. At this moment, he was forming the tail of a crowned lizard, splayed at the top of the plank.

With his left hand, he was grasping the plank between his thumb and fist, steadying it, balancing it across his blue-jeaned knees.

On the ground to his left was a sign written in Spanish. Coins were tossed atop it, obscuring some of the words. Mostly likely it said something about donations being welcome.

The afternoon light shining through the wooden slats made a pleasing geometric pattern on the ground at a small craft mall near my hostel.

At one of the smaller craft malls between the center of town and my hostel, the sun again played an ornamental role. In a large open space, horizontal and vertical lines composed a geometrical pattern on the ground, the shadows cast from the overhead wooden slats lining the top of open metal framework.

Caracoles Street is the busiest in town, with shops, restaurants and lodging nearby, if not on the street itself. The small church, the Iglesia San Pedro, was touted in guidebooks as an oasis of white in a sea of adobe. That description was off the mark.

Several guidebooks I’d read before my trip indicated that the wall around Iglesia San Pedro and the building itself were totally painted white. As you can see, that wasn’t what I found.

It’s in a small plaza, just to the north, of the western side of Caracoles, closer in fact to a street called Padre la Paige. I don’t know whether some sort of renovation was under way, or the townsfolk decided they just wanted a change. But not a speck of white paint remained on the exterior. Just adobe, adobe, adobe.

The tree-lined plaza was decorated with balloons and signs noting that it was hosting a “Mountain Do” event, three simultaneous trail runs of 42 kilometers, 23K and 6K, from town out into Valley of the Moon. I met a man from Brazil who was visiting specifically for the race, and he competed in the middle distance.

One of the few tree-lined spots in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama.

San Pedro de Atacama in looks has much in common with the American Southwest of the 1800s and early 1900s — from the mostly one-story adobe buildings to the wind-blown tumbleweeds, to the cloudless azure sky to the unsparing sun. Some November mornings can be blessedly cool, but by early afternoon, knee-baring shorts, ample shade and a cold drink are in order.

Yes, I got to see the finished mosaic. Green shrubs sprouted around and under the hooves of the vicunas, against the white-rocky terrain in the foreground. The flamingoes were given a blue lagoon, their habitat in the national reserves. At the bottom edge, a pretty border of light gray and tan separated the art from the sidewalk.

Quick reference: Latam has many flights from Santiago to Calama, the closest city of size to San Pedro de Atacama. At the airport, several companies offer minivan transfer to San Pedro. The ride is a bit over an hour on a national highway that was in excellent condition when I visited.

San Pedro has a wide range of accommodations. The closer to the center of town you stay, the more you’ll pay. I stayed at Hostal Solar, Volcan el Tatio No. 737, Licancabur, San Pedro de Atacama. It is about a 10- to 15-minute walk to town (website has a map). It has only 10 rooms. I made the reservation online; the site was mostly in Spanish, but it has been updated to include English. My en-suite room (very small bathroom) had a queen-size bed. Towels were provided. Remember, you are in the desert: Rainfall is rare. Therefore, take very quick showers. No television or radio. A small interior courtyard ringed by the rooms is a gathering place for guests. Made-to-order breakfast is included. Most days it was eggs, bread and cheese, served with good, strong coffee. A full-size refrigerator is in the entryway, provided for guests’ food and drink. The refrigerator by the breakfast room dispenses cold, filtered drinking water. In the evening, thermoses of hot water, cups and materials for tea and coffee are available in the entryway. No staff are on the premises overnight, so guests have keys to unlock the hostel’s front door in addition to their room keys.

Two quick-and-easy recipes to help get an impromptu party started

Three-bean chili and corn muffins will put some heat into your next gathering. 

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Did September sneak up on you? Did the summer heat and humidity make you long for cooler temperatures and keep you out of the kitchen except for the most basic preparations to feed your family?

Now that standing over a stovetop for more than 10 minutes isn’t so taxing, are you eager to get together with friends and watch some football (or your favorite sport)?

With these recipes for vegetarian chili and corn muffins, you can prepare both and be ready to eat in less than an hour. Get the chili going first, then turn your attention to the muffins.

Buy (or make) your preferred appetizers, put the beer, soft drinks and water on ice, and get cooking! (Have your friends bring dessert.)

This vegetable chili might become one of your favorites, based on its simplicity and depth of flavor. Aside from dicing the vegetables, it’s really just opening a series of cans. Purists can rehydrate their own dried beans overnight, of course.

This also works nicely as a last-minute weeknight meal, served with a mixed green salad.

My Southern friends might be appalled that the corn muffin recipe doesn’t contain lard or anything else that unhealthy. And they may well consider it blasphemy that the cornbread isn’t prepared in a cast-iron skillet.

But as I’ve said in this space before, all recipes are suggestions. It’s up to you to tailor the basics to your palate. So … sometimes I make this cornbread as muffins, sometimes in an 8-by-8-inch well-greased glass dish.

I always have powdered buttermilk on hand. I like Saco Cultured Buttermilk Blend in the 12-ounce round container, available in Walmart, many grocery chains and online. It keeps for months in the refrigerator. Directions for substituting  powdered buttermilk for liquid buttermilk in recipes are on the container’s label.

King Arthur Flour also makes dried buttermilk, sold in a 16-ounce bag. I’ve never tried it, but the company’s products enjoy a solid reputation. Its website says that the reconstituted powder is not for drinking out of a glass. That likely applies to the Saco brand also.

If you don’t have powdered or liquid, don’t worry. You can make your own “sour” milk. Put 1 tablespoon white vinegar or 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice in a measuring cup. Add regular milk (I use 1 percent) to 1 cup mark. Allow to stand for about 5 minutes. Stir lightly. Use as directed in the recipe.

Now, you are ready for some football — not to be confused with soccer, as our British friends would say.


I use light red kidney beans, black beans and cannellini beans, but feel free to substitute your favorites.

Vegetarian Three-bean Chili

Hands on: 10-15 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes, longer if you like thicker chili

Serves: 4-6

You’ll need a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven to make this chili, and if you are doubling the recipe, either a huge Dutch oven or two on separate burners. As with all chili, if you like toppings such as sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese or onions, by all means, let your guests add them at the end.

I’ve also made this chili with bite-size pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast. But I prefer it without the poultry.

If using dried beans, reconstitute enough so that you have 1 3/4 cups of each type. Any three types of beans can be used in the recipe, not just the ones in the ingredient list. Canned beans range in volume from 14 ounces to 16 ounces. Size variations are acceptable.

If you like a very tomato-e sauce, used 2 (8-ounce) cans of tomato sauce and reduce the vegetable stock or water to 1/2 cup.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup onion, cut in dice (I prefer Vidalia onions)

1 cup red bell pepper, cut in dice

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped (optional)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 cup vegetable stock, or water

1 (16-ounce) can cannellini beans (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 (16-ounce) can red kidney beans (light or dark), rinsed and drained

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (28-ounce can) diced tomatoes (with juices)

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (unthawed)

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (optional)

1 tablespoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper and jalapeño, if using. Cook vegetables, stirring frequently, for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until they begin to soften.

Add cumin, oregano, coriander, cayenne pepper, chili powder to the Dutch oven. Cook, stirring constantly, to allow the spices to bloom, about 1 minute.

Add the stock or water, the three types of beans, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and juices, and corn. Add the sugar, which will help cut some of the acidity from the tomatoes.

Cook over medium-low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir often, scraping the bottom, to make sure the chili doesn’t stick or burn. If the chili seems too dry, add 1/2 cup water and cover the Dutch oven.

Add salt and pepper. Restir and taste. Adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Serve in large bowls, with optional toppings, and corn muffins.

Leftovers can be refrigerated, up to 5 days, in an air-tight container, or kept frozen for about 3 months.

Adapted from “The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and a Healthy Planet” by Myra Goodman with Pamela McKinstry, Sarah LaCasse and Ronni Sweet (Workman Publishing, 2010, $20.95)


Using paper liners in muffin tins makes clean-up a breeze.

Basic Corn Muffins

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 30-35 minutes

Makes: 8-9 large muffins, or about 15 regular-size muffins

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter or margarine

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon granulated sugar (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk (see note above)

1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (unthawed, optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a microwave-safe container, melt the butter or margarine. Set aside and allow to cool. I use a large glass bowl for this step.

Grease muffin tins or line with paper cups (like you would use for cupcakes).

In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Mix lightly with a fork or whisk.

In a small bowl, whisk egg until smooth. Add buttermilk and whisk to combine.

Pour buttermilk mixture into the cooled butter or margarine and whisk to combine. (Make sure it is cool; you don’t want to cook the egg at this point.)

Gradually add flour mixture from the medium bowl to buttermilk mixture, stirring until evenly moistened. Do not overmix; it “toughens” the muffins. The batter may have small lumps. That’s OK, but if it bothers you, mix a little more. Add kernels, if using, and mix.

Fill muffin cups three-quarters full. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. The tops will be golden when baked.

Allow muffins to cool completely, if you can wait that long. This step helps the paper liners to peel easily from the muffins.

Serve with butter, jam or honey. Or your favorite chili.

They’ll keep for about 5 days in the refrigerator. To rewarm, lightly toast before serving. They also freeze well. Wrap them individually for best results.

Adapted from “The Totally Muffins Cookbook” by Helene Siegel and Karen Gillingham (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1995)