FROM HERE TO THERE, THE LONG WAY HOME ~ T. E. Stephens
WWII, The Italian Campaign
“One seems to learn fast, and we’re bound together in the knowledge that nowhere else does a man learn to trust his fellow man. The weakness of one man may cause the death of others. Out of all this comes the strength, the pride, and trust of one another. Some of the men may have hid their fears by talking a lot, others making wisecracks and jokes, while others just kept silent. I guess I tried to hide my fears by just smiling.”
In the early 1980s my grandfather, Timmie E. Stephens whom we lovingly called ‘Pop Pop’, bequeathed his brief memoir of World War II to our family members as a surprise Christmas gift. Until that time, I had only thought I knew the man.
Pop Pop’s memoir chronicles his service as a soldier during the Italian Campaign, from Anzio to the Po Valley, with the 135th Infantry. Short stories are scattered throughout his reflections and include: arriving in Casa Blanca, the Anzio landing, hand-to-hand combat with a lone German soldier, several trips to the Evac Hospital, a buddy going AWOL, rescuing an unknown G.I., finding a wine cellar in a vineyard and singing to the men as they got blisteringly drunk, holding-up with Italians in the countryside, singing gospel songs he wrote to his buddies as they sat around their foxholes and watched phosphorus shells bursting overhead, the barrage of messages from Propaganda Sally, seeing Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he toured the Italian front near Rome, the letters from home -the stories go on and on.
My grandfather’s account of his time on the front came to an end as his unit moved into the Po Valley. Here, he was severely burned and sent to the hospital for almost a year. While there, he witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and later, returned stateside on the John L. Clem, U.S. Army Transport and Hospital Ship. After several stays at intermediate hospitals, he was admitted to Northern General Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama which at that time was the world’s largest burn hospital, specializing in skin grafts. During this time he was recruited by the government to participate in a War Bond Tour, which put him right back in Gadsden, Alabama speaking before friends and family.
As children, my cousins and I didn’t see the wounds. We saw things clearly, people clearly, the way children do. We saw our Pop Pop for the man he was, radiating goodness and joy from within some inner, ceaselessly brimming, well.
Memories can be funny things, but those of my childhood remain clear. Our grandfather was a good man. He radiated unfettered love like the sun relinquishes its heat out into the world. Pop Pop taught us young’uns (his word) about God. He taught us when we stood beside him, following his movements as he grasped handfuls of white bread and held it up into the air. We stood beside him in the knee high water of the murky Coosa River and waited for the ducks which must have watched from overhead for this old man who beckoned daily. And down they would come in swoops so close that we trembled in fear at the onslaught of such undisciplined beasts.
Bird in the brush, tune in your heart; life was pure and simple in his eyes. Hard work and pleasure went hand in hand. He would call us to him, show off his newest creation -a miniature water wheel in the front courtyard; a sunken porcelain claw foot tub filled with fresh dirt, compost, and red worms for fishing. He taught us about the fruits of the Catawba trees -you know, it’s worms! The fish we would surely catch filled our dreams, and his.
The knowledge he shared, the lessons he taught, are the things I still believe. They are the way I see the world. And through his appreciative eyes the world is beauty all around. Never will I forget his influence on my young life, the pride I felt when we listened to him quietly play his guitar in church, singing a hymn he had recently penned. Never will I forget sitting near as he shared his stories of Anzio and the brave men he called ‘buddies,’ nor the sacrifice he so willingly made for our country.
Now Available On Amazon!
CENTIPEDE is the story of an eleven year old child, who when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, survives and succeeds in obtaining the life every child deserves.
Willa Cather Jennings, who detests her given name and therefore goes by Willie, is the lone survivor of her family’s harrowing murder. Consumed with emotion, she finds herself traveling with Thomas, the manic depressive stranger, who stepped in to save her.
The two travel together through North Alabama, the Appalachia to the Outer Banks in North Carolina before arriving in Savannah, Georgia where they join his sister Jane. Along the way, Willie’s dependency on Thomas turns to trust; he, in turn, finds new meaning in life through his friendship with the child.
In Savannah, Willie -who grew up in a fragmented and impoverished family -finds comfort, happiness and belonging. But, just as she comes to terms with her past and embraces her future, Thomas returns to Alabama seeking vengeance and Detective Nicholas Cox, an old friend of Willie’s mother who has been searching for the missing child, pieces the past and present together.
~Several years ago, my students asked why I had not written a book for them; it was then that the idea for Centipede was born.
As a teacher, the majority of my time is spent with children. At the end of the day, many return home to ideal family settings; many more do not. There are some who rarely see their parent or guardian and so they’ve learned to fend for themselves. Willie is one of those children. You know the kind -the kid who is self-resilient, who harnesses the magical power of imagination to make it through the especially rough times.
Many children live in a low socio-economic area; the poor are quietly poor. When I read parts of Centipede to my students, I saw recognition as they acknowledged the similarities between the heroine’s life and theirs, and how her indomitable spirit mirrors their own.
I hope you enjoy the novel!
For my dearest Anderson, the darling daughter who complains so loudly, stirring praise of CENTIPEDE as she scolds her mother for never mentioning her favored book.
CENTIPEDE is dedicated to my sweet granddaughters~ Bug, Goose & Duck-duck. I pray they are always as fierce and loving as they are now.
Please join me in the introduction!
CENTIPEDE is available in both paperback & Kindle.
Available on Amazon.
I hope you all have a happy & productive Monday!
In the mornings, as I am getting ready, I listen to audiobooks -the classics. Between writing, work, family and daily reading… it’s just something I need. I’ve been listening to John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra. This morning I had to turn it off.
You see, the need to roam is cutting deep.
The women of my family always taught to mix both work and pleasure into my day. Both, because they each provide the soul with something it needs -accomplishment, pleasure, appreciation.
So today, I will work on a query letter for the novel I’ve just completed. I will find something in the house that needs organizing and cleaning. I will read a little, take a walk between storms if possible, watch an old movie.
And, I will dream about returning to Key West, soaking up the hot sun and sounds of happy people. I will read about the lobstering towns along the coast in Maine and make notes for ‘someday’.
I will hear John Muir’s wistful words, his reverence and love of the Sierras in my mind!
I hope this day finds you all happy and healthy. And, I hope you find joy in it as well.
As I walked in the rain this early morning, I paused, looked about appreciatively at the gray skies, raised my face to the cool breeze. Everything was fresh and clean. And as so often happens, with each step my mind held to the places I still long to see- Japan, France.
Immediately, within my mind I saw the places of my reading; how sadly the pragmatic in me pushed against my dominant romantic self, reminding that things are not as they once were.
And yet, I wonder.
When I visit these places – because you see, I am sure I will -will I find the glimmer of times past, old ideals lingering there?
Often these days I look about filled with disdain and long to seclude myself and wander alone, hold tight to my peace and appreciation of what beauty in the world remains.
I know that just as places must change, so too must the people. We are not the same as we were 10, 30 years ago. Individuals have changed; society has changed.
While I know this, my romantic heart longs for truth in man, loyalty -the soul which holds tightly to ideals of family and home. But, I am afraid these things are like spent leaves of last season, clinging to the relenting branch.
Yet, I must believe we can take heart, thank God that the time will come again -the seasons will change and the green of youth, the unfurling of the bud and leaf, admirable ideals -all will be reborn and flourish again.
This morning, I dropped my granddaughter, Bug, off in Gadsden. She was with me for two evenings and a day. I am specific about the time, because the time is so precious –Every Minute Counts.
Our first evening, as we sat on the front porch together, I asked: “What do you want to talk about?”
“Well, let’s listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and talk about what we are gonna cook tomorrow!”
I listened. And realized that when Bug said she wanted to cook dinner, and wanted to bake a pumpkin pie that that was exactly what she meant. It was really how she wanted to spend our time together.
Though we have often baked together, we have never prepared and cooked an entire meal. So, I explained it would take up a great deal of our day. Bug said she didn’t care and got busy creating the menu: BBQ chicken, (No surprise there. I remember when she was four and decided it was to be breakfast; and it was.), mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, and garlic/cheese biscuits. And, let’s not forget the pumpkin pie.
And you see, it was with the pumpkin pie that I almost messed up. I almost acted like an adult and suggest a more seasonally appropriate dessert. You know –lemon icebox, key lime or a cobbler. Thank goodness I paused and realized this was not about food, this was all about her –and she had suggested pumpkin because it was what she had set her heart on!
The kid knocked dinner out of the park! It was amazing. But, it was the time we spent together snapping the beans, peeling the potatoes, and baking the pie that I will never forget. I hope she doesn’t either. It was simple, and it was sweet -a summer memory wrapped up in preparing and enjoying a meal together.
The second part of the Romania lecture on WE SHARE THE SAME SKY was to expound how WE tie our memories to emotions; emotions that are most often linked to people, places and food. Because I’ve opened by sharing the recent cooking experience with Bug, I will skip the introduction and jump to the excerpt.
From WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, a memoir NYC 2007
Last year, when I began planning this trip, I purchased three guide books of the city. While mapping out Chinatown, I was surprised to find that there are almost 300 restaurants within the neighborhood’s boundaries. Some sounded better than others, and although I had my list of wants written out well before I left home, I have found that once I get into an area several things tend to dictate choice. The first two are my mood, and the prolific bragging of locals. Often as not, however, I choose a place to dine based on nothing more than the way a place feels.
Today, I am looking for an eatery called Sweet-n-Tart Cafe. My new friend Karen suggested I try the congee, a type of rice porridge. In the South, there is a particular fondness for a dessert that is also considered a staple. In our home that staple was rice pudding. It ranked right up there with the various biscuit topped cobblers: blackberry, peach or sweet potato. Rice pudding even held its own at the table when presented along with butter pound cake. All these family recipes were handed down over the years. Along the way, others crept in. Some were come across accidently and yet others long searched for -like the recipe for Lillian Carter’s Peanut Butter Pound Cake.
Rice pudding back home is a buttery, dense pudding loaded with vanilla, sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. The overall consistency can be described as velvety. Usually it arrives at the table crusted with a browned sugar and butter topping. It is wonderful hot from the oven, at room temperature and even straight from the fridge, ice cold. Like banana nut bread, rice pudding is a staple breakfast food as often as it is dessert.
During my childhood, rice pudding appeared most often when times were lean. Those were the days when a summer evening meal consisted of fresh scrubbed vegetables from the garden and fish from the trotline. Lean dinners in the winter were often bowls of pintos and cornbread or skillet fried potatoes with onions. As the seasons changed, fish gave way to game: fried dove or quail with gravy, braised rabbit, smoked turkey or venison. All of these could be taken within a five-mile radius of our home. The variety may not have been great, but there was usually plenty. Biscuits with butter, cornbread with sorghum, molasses or honey -these were present at almost every meal. Other times, they were the meal. More staples. How often I sat at the kitchen table during the late evening with Grandpa, feasting on only this and black coffee. I wish I could remember the things we talked about and the stories he told as clearly as I remember the food. Just as there was always Grace before dinner in one grandparent’s house, there were always stories in the other. Rice pudding, however, was common at both dinner tables.
Cash Only is posted on the door to the tiny restaurant. As of yet, this has been the hardest adjustment I’ve had to make in the city. Thank goodness the guidebooks warn tourist up-front. If not, it would probably be as close as you could get to having a Southern woman in true distress. At the counter, I order the Congee with Hong Dou. “Good for you,” says the man nodding his approval and making a circular motion with his hand around the stomach.
“Thank you,” I tell him. It is all I know to say.
Congee is made by cooking rice with water until it breaks down into a porridge- like consistency. It is usually flavored one of two ways: salty and robust with flavorful meat, or glutinous and sweet with red beans, dates and palm sugar. I am in want of the latter.
The congee arrives and the serving is more than I anticipated. It is a meal and has the wet consistency of porridge rather than the thickness I associate with rice or bread pudding which, when scooped, holds together. I have to admit to being somewhat put-off by the addition of beans. Trying it though, I am pleased and notice a chewiness that regular rice pudding does not have. It is warm, sweet and heavy, very much a comfort food. Admittedly, it is probably healthier than the rice pudding I grew up on because it is cooked without butter and cream.
Rice and water- potato and water-
Pasta and water-
These were the things of their dinners on
Nights when I was not well.
My dinner was the water-
Not rich, nor thick; not warm nor cold.
“It will make you better,” they said.
“Drink it. Drink it.”
All those smells -the aroma of the feast-
Filled the air and the sounds of their
Happy voices and excited fragments of
Floated down to my room
And under my door
Where I sat propped upon pillows,
Muscles filled with intangible aches
From lack of work or movement in play
And I listened idly to a word here or
Hoping for some form
To be a part of things -their thing again.