A MAN TO MATCH HIS MOUNTAIN

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

      The Terrifying Cornice Bowl

In 1986 I stood atop the 11, 053 foot Cornice Bowl at Mammoth Mountain, skis strapped to my feet and my heart in my throat.  As I peered down the 2.100 foot drop I was simultaneously petrified and thrilled.  I was in my mid-30’s and I knew that if I was ever going to conquer “The Cornice” the time was now.  So, slowly, VERY slowly, I made my way down.  When I reached the bottom I bent over in relief and was cheered by people who had watched my descent.  Right then I knew it was a moment I’d never forget.  To this day it is one of my proudest achievements. Every year when we visit Mammoth in the summer I gaze up to the Cornice Bowl and marvel that I once skied it.    And I thank Dave McCoy.

 

There are few people in business who devote their entire life to the enjoyment of others, but Dave McCoy, founder of Mammoth Mountain, is just such a person.  McCoy almost single-handedly turned Mammoth, an extinct volcano in the eastern Sierra Nevada, into one of the premier ski mountains in the world.  To me, he epitomizes all that is great about the American Dream.  He was born in 1915 to a somewhat dysfunctional family.  His parents divorced when he was 13.  His mother moved him to Washington but for the next several years he continuously hitch-hiked between there and Independence, California (near Bishop) where he had fallen in love with the scenery and quiet solitude while on vacation a few years previous.  He eventually was hired as a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  His job was to ski the backcountry, measuring snowpack to predict the following year’s water supply. He covered most of Owens Valley sometimes skiing as much as 50 miles per day.  His salary was $4 a day, but the truth is, he would have done it for free.  He just loved to ski.

Dave McCoy in the ’30’s.

In 1935, he and some buddies built the first rope tow out of an old truck frame and engine to haul skiers uphill in Gray Meadows near Independence. They built it for themselves for weekend play but word spread, and others came to see what all the ruckus was about skiing. McCoy charged 50 cents a day to ride it and some days made as much as $6!   It was 1937 when McCoy started the project that would become the largest ski resort in Central California.   Even while he was building the resort from the ground up, McCoy was always skiing. He was headed toward the 1940 Olympics in Japan but because of World War II, no Olympic Games were held that year.  (Later, he would go on to coach 14 Olympic skiers, never charging them for his time and personally paying their entry fees for race events.)

After World War II record high snowfall in the Eastern Sierras served to attract more and more people from Southern California to ski in the Mammoth area.  The Forest Service took notice, asking for bids to develop Mammoth into a ski area. McCoy made his pitch. To his – and our – good fortune, it was the ONLY pitch the Forest Service received.  He took a piece of paper and drew three lines, which were for chairlifts. That was the business plan.  He always said that the only reason he got the bid was because no one else wanted it.

The first chair lift opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1955.  Without a college education or formal training in business or engineering, McCoy spent the next 60 years growing Mammoth. For millions of skiers, it was the place to ski. For thousands of employees, it was the place to work. McCoy was doing the impossible and people wanted to be part of it. He was encouraging, supportive and most of all, his mission was for people to have fun.  The bottom line was an after thought.  He once told the Los Angeles Times, that skiing had been so good to him at Mammoth, he couldn’t help but to return it to the skiers and see that they had a better place to ski.  I can personally attest to his philosophy.  One day almost 30 years ago my husband and I were walking in the Main Lodge after a day on the slopes and we passed Dave on a stairwell.  He stopped us and said, “Well, did you have fun today?”  We assured him that we did.  At the time, I just thought he was some friendly guy but my husband recognized him right off and stood there, stunned, in awe of the man he had idolized for so long.

Dave, planning his masterpiece

Building a ski resort was just a piece of his contributions to Mammoth.  He personally spearheaded the effort to incorporate Mammoth Lakes and attract businesses to the area.  He was responsible for building a hospital in town.  And in 1989 he and a few friends founded The Mammoth Lakes Foundation to be the catalyst in bringing higher education and the arts to the Eastern Sierra. Today, anyone is who has lived in Mono County for at least two years can receive tuition free of charge at the Cerro Coso Community College that the Foundation built.  The town is what is it today – all because of Dave McCoy.

But in 2005, at the age of 90, he had had enough.  The bureaucracy was too much.  He commented that he enjoyed running the business as long as he could do the planning and the building and permits were easy to get. But it got to where there were too many regulations and politicians telling him how to do things.  It was just too much for this entrepreneurial genius.

 

Dave McCoy at 100

There is a wonderful bronze statue of Dave in the center of the Village complex in Mammoth.  Each year I watch people walk by it, not even stopping to read the plaque that graces the base of it.  Little do these people know that but for Dave McCoy, they wouldn’t have the hill they ski, the trails they bike or the restaurants they enjoy in the evenings.  It probably bothers me more than it would bother Dave if he witnessed it.  On the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2015 he commented, “Life is just what you make of what falls in your lap. “Be happy, make the day happy. It’s all in your attitude, the way you open your eyes in the morning. You got to jump up and go do something.”  He’ll be 103 next month and, God willing, this example of the American Spirit will still be doing something.

 

 

 

 

 

WHEW! BOB REALLY IS MY BROTHER

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

             Bob, me and brother Jack

You faithful readers may recall that I had my DNA analyzed by Ancestry a few months ago.  Last week, brother Bob got the results from his Ancestry “spit” and, much to our relief, we actually are brother and sister.  Since we like each other so much we were praying that one of us isn’t the product of mom and the milkman.  But while our DNA proves we’re siblings, it also offered an interesting insight into how different we are.  If you’re like me, you may have assumed that siblings would have the same exact DNA since they have the same parents.  But as I explained in the blog about my test, that’s just not the case.  As a refresher, here’s the explanation:

According to Stanford genetic scientist, Dr. Barry Star in “Stanford at the Tech” website, it logical to assume that brothers and sisters should have the same ancestry background since they both got half their DNA from mom and half from dad. But DNA isn’t passed down from generation to generation in a single block. Not every child gets the same 50% of mom’s DNA and 50% of dad’s DNA, unless they are identical twins. So it’s possible, really probable, for two siblings to have some big differences in their ancestry at the DNA level. Culturally they may each say they are “1/8th Danish” but at the DNA level, one may have no Danish DNA at all.

And that, dear readers, summarizes exactly the results that Bob and I got.  While he is 22% German, I am only 3%.  I am 41% British but he’s only 6% Stiff Upper Lip.  I am immensely jealous that he is 36% Irish/Scotch, while I’m a paltry 19%.    And while my DNA is 21% Scandinavian, he is just 11%.  We also both have a smattering of French, Russian and Iberian Peninsula (which I learned while in Ireland is a result of the Spanish Armada invasion of Ireland in the mid-16th Century).  In actual fact, history would tell us that our Scandinavian DNA is also due more to invading marauders in Great Britain and Ireland than to ancestors from those countries.  I’ve researched our family tree back hundreds of years and the closest Scandahoovian relatives we have go back at least 15 generations.

                           Happy Irish!!

Given our differences I got to wondering what part, if any, our DNA plays in our personalities.  Turns out, that’s a controversial topic, with scholars on both sides arguing divergent facts to prove their point.  So I decided to Google what the generally accepted traits assigned to our ethnic backgrounds are to see if I could discern if our inherited cultures influence us in any way.  Bob is mostly Irish/Scotch – they are known for strong family values, penetrating wit and laid back lifestyles (which I think is a nice way of saying they spend a lot of time at the pub).  I couldn’t describe him more accurately if I tried.  He also has a strong German component and they are known for being punctual, efficient and well-organized.  The study I read also said they were known for their sense of humor.  Wow.  Not sure I have met any Germans with a great sense of humor.  Then again, Bob is one of the most humorous people I know so perhaps if we can overlook German behavior over the entire 20th Century we can find their funny bones.

          Greta Garbo

My mostly British DNA did not surprise me since we have several ancestors who came to the US directly from England.  In fact, I’m more surprised that Bob didn’t have more British DNA.  The British are known for good manners, witty sense of humor (I think it’s an acquired taste), pride of country, love of a good gin, and friendliness.  I think that could describe me pretty well except for when I flip off weaving, texting drivers.  Not sure all my British great-grandparents would approve of that.  My Scandinavian heritage is the yin to my British yang.  Although they also love to drink, Scandinavians are not social, they are in love with “middle of the road” for any decision and their home is their temple.  They are perhaps best exemplified by Greta Garbo’s quote, “I want to be alone”.  Fits me to a “t” on any given day.  I can be a real homebody, perfectly content to curl up with a book, my knitting, a good movie and, of course, Dash the Wonder Dog.

I found our results illuminating.  Whether DNA really makes a difference in our personalities may never be conclusively determined in our lifetimes but it’s fun to speculate.  Now all we need to do is get our brother Jack to spit into a tube.  If he comes back as our sibling at least it will let mom off the hook for any rumors about her fooling around with the milkman.

WITHER COMMON SENSE?

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about common sense, mostly because there seems to be such a staggering lack of it.  So I decided to take a closer look at a phrase that is ubiquitous but not really well understood.  As far back as the early Greeks philosophers people were trying to define behavior or reasoning that society in general could agree was “common”.  But as Voltaire concluded, “Common sense is not so common”.  Merriam-Webster defines it as, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.” Thus, “common sense” equates to the knowledge and experience which most people have, or which the person using the term believes they do.

And therein lies the problem –  the words “most people”. Until the past decade or so our society has been able to broadly agree on behavior or actions that would be acceptable to “most people”.  A few months ago I read an article (author’s name has escaped my memory) arguing that the divisiveness that we are experiencing on a grand scale these days has eroded our common sense because we have less and less in common.  I think about that article when I turn on the news at night. I sure don’t know how we got here but I did receive an email the other day called “An Obituary for Common Sense” that’s been around a while but I found some portions worth sharing:

“Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don’t spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge). Its health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

It is survived by his 4 stepbrothers:

I Know My Rights
I Want It Now
Someone Else Is To Blame
I’m A Victim

Not many attended its funeral because so few realized it was gone.”

I thought this article was pretty entertaining, but there are a few trends I’d like to add:

Participation trophies

No income verification mortgage loans

Low flow toilets

“If it only helps one person…”

“Safe spaces” preparing students for real life

Tattoos.  One look at Lady Gaga’s arm tattoos and one can only imagine those arms at 65.  I hope I’m alive to witness it.

Clearly Common Sense, if not dead, is on the decline and I have a theory why.  For generations Americans worked hard to figure things out –  using logic, reasoning and common sense to make decisions.  Now, every answer is literally in our hands.  Too many of us aren’t learning how to gather facts and come to a logical conclusion because Google does it for us.  Too many people rely on social media for their research and news, following the herd right off the end of the cliff.

I’m not sure I’d get a lot of support for this but maybe we should give up the phones and go back to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE MYSTERY WORKOUT

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

reading on treadmillI’ve never loved exercise.  Gym class in high school was an ordeal, made worse by having to wear a “onesie” that rode up on my rather sizeable thighs.  The wearing of the outfit only got worse as the school week wore on.  By Friday, when we were required to take our gym clothes home for washing, it was so odiferous that it would have repelled a magpie off a sewage truck.  That said, all through my life I’ve endeavored to do some sort of activity to stay in reasonable shape.  And, to be honest, so that I can consume the occasional piece of cake.  After my recent indulgence in Guinness I knew that I had to figure out a way to drop the three pounds I’d gained in Ireland.  It being summer in Arizona, long walks or hiking up the nearby mountain trails was just not an option. Then I came up with a novel idea – reading on the treadmill.

Oh sure, I’ve been reading on a treadmill for almost 25 years – usually either a magazine or whatever novel I was reading at the time.  It became infinitely easier in 2010 when I bought a Kindle, which eliminated the necessity to break the spine of every book just so it could lie flat.  But usually my mind would wander or some tidbit of news on the TV screens up on the gym walls would catch my attention and my workout either slowed down or stopped altogether.  Again, I am not a committed exerciser.  At a friend’s suggestion I tried listening to audio books but that only led me to discover that I might be suffering from a slight case of attention deficit disorder.  Every shiny object diverted me away from the story and by the time I was actually listening again I had completely lost track of the characters and plot.  I find this true of audio books in the car as well.  Every time I get distracted by a three-legged cow or a giant ball of string I completely lose my “place” in the book.

working outIn any event, three weeks ago I once again committed myself to losing weight and eating well.  At the time I was reading a good mystery novel that was hard to put down.  When I began reading it on the treadmill 45 minutes passed without me realizing it.  Maybe I was on to something.  I repeated it again the next day and have now done it every day for the past three weeks.  Since I’ve read most of what’s been written by the most popular authors of the genre I have been seeking out new ones. I love authors who write a series of books with the same protagonist and have found several. For those of you who also like mysteries or want to spend more time on the treadmill the authors are Melinda Leigh,  Scott Pratt, Robert Dugoni and Matthew Fitzsimmons.

I think the secret to the “mystery exercise program” is that I don’t allow myself to read these books except when I’m on the treadmill.  So if I want to find out who murdered Colonel Mustard in the Library I have to haul my butt up to the gym to find out.  And as an unintended consequence, my arms are also getting some exercise these days. When I’m not on the treadmill I’m reading “Hamilton”, the 817 page tome that inspired the Broadway hit. I always buy history books hardbound so the simple act of lifting “Hamilton” has done wonders for my biceps.

I think I’m on to something. I wonder if LAFitness would be interested in a partnership?

THEY WERE SOLDIERS ONCE, AND YOUNG (2018)

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This is my annual Memorial Day piece, written in remembrance of the boys from my high school who died in the Vietnam war. After I first published this in 2014, I heard from many people who related similar stories about the loss suffered in their home towns – or worse – their families. So this weekend, as you commemorate the holiday, please take a moment to remember all of the brave young men and women we’ve lost in conflict.

Five boys from my high school were killed in the Vietnam War. For a small town like Novato, that was an enormous number. We were such a close-knit community that even if we didn’t know one of them personally, we knew a sibling or friend. So on my trip to Washington D.C. last month I scheduled time to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see their names on “The Wall”. To refresh my memory I pulled out my high school year books and found them all – smiling for a formal portrait or posing for a team picture. Each image reflected a boy, fresh-faced and full of hope, his life stretching out before him. I looked at those young faces and found it hard to believe that their lives ended so shortly after the bucolic days captured in the photos. None of them reached the age of 22. While we, their classmates, lived long enough to enjoy the internet, smart phones and streaming movies, most of them didn’t live long enough to see a color television. I reflected on the stories I’ve read of WWII vets who speak so reverently of the “boys who didn’t come home”. As I perused the yearbooks I finally understood their sentiment. It is only when looking back through a 50 year lens that one can appreciate just how young these soldiers were and how many of life’s milestones they missed. So on this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute to “The Boys from Novato”.

 

Robert Johnson

Bob Johnson joined the Army in the fall of 1965, in what would have been his Senior year in high school. I remember him as a quiet guy, but very nice. Before he enlisted he asked his high school sweetheart to marry him – it would give them both something to hang on to while he was gone. His entry into the service occurred just as the war was escalating. He was sent to Vietnam in March of 1966 and three weeks later he was killed by enemy gunfire during “Operation Abilene” in Phuoc Tuy Province. As his former classmates excitedly anticipated prom and graduation, Robert had already made the ultimate sacrifice. In the 1966 yearbook, where his senior portrait would have been, his mother placed this photo of him along with a tribute. He was the first Vietnam casualty from Novato.

 

 

Mike Tandy

Mike Tandy graduated from NHS in 1965. His sisters, Sue and Sarah, also attended NHS. Mike was very smart and participated in the first swim team our high school fielded. He was an Eagle Scout and according to his friend Neil Cuzner, “he was highly intelligent, a great guy and an excellent scout. He was in the Senior Patrol and a young leader of our troop. He lead by example”. After graduation Mike joined the Marine reserves and was called up in January, 1966. He was sent to Vietnam shortly after that. On September 8th he was on patrol in Quang Nam with another soldier when his footfall detonated a landmine. He was killed instantly. He had celebrated his 19th birthday just five days prior. His classmates had moved on – either to college or working – but the Tandy family was left to grieve the loss of their son and brother. In 2005 Sarah posted to the virtual Vietnam Wall: “Thanks to all of you who come here and remember Mike. All of our lives were changed and I thank you for not forgetting.”

 

 

 

Allan Nelson

Allan Nelson played football at College of Marin with my brother, Bob. Allan’s sister, Joanne, was in Bob’s class and his brother, Steve, was in mine. So we were well aware when Allan was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in July, 1966 at the age of 20. Five months later, on December 1, we were devastated to learn he had been killed by gunfire during a battle in Binh Dinh Province. I still remember the day Steve came to school after Allan’s death; red-faced with tears streaming down his cheeks. He had always been such a happy guy but was now changed in ways that were hard for 16 year-old kids to understand. As I look back now, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to go home from school each day and face parents who were shattered by grief. Joanne posted the following on a memorial page and perhaps sums it up the best: “Allan was my brother, not just a brother, he was my best friend. All I know is December 1, 1966 was the saddest time for me and my family. My family loved each other so much, but when Al was killed the joy died in my family. Allan had his whole life planned. He had just turned 21 on Oct. 20th. When we were young, he couldn’t wait to be 21. I am so sorry for all the families that lost a son and a brother. It will be 33 years in Dec. The everyday sad feelings of loss are gone but on special days it still hurts.”

Jim Gribbin

Jim Gribbin graduated from NHS in 1966. He was on the football team and very active in school clubs. His brother, Dennis, and I were in school plays together and my mom and his mom, Molly, were friends. Jim was well-liked by everyone who knew him. He joined the Army Reserves and when called up, became part of the Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Captain. He served two tours of duty in an elite MIKE unit. In March 1970 his unit was on a night defensive mission in Kontum Province when they were ambushed by enemy troops. Jim sacrificed his own safety by running into open territory – twice – to aid and retrieve wounded soldiers under his command. He was shot both times and taken to a rear medical facility where he died from his wounds. Ironically, for this affable Irishman, he succumbed on St. Patrick’s Day. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for Valor. Jim’s dad was a veteran of WWII who died in 2011. He requested to be placed in the same grave with Jim, with his name and vitals carved on the back of Jim’s headstone. One can only imagine the grief that he carried all those years. Hopefully he is at peace now that they are forever reunited. (Update 2018: to read about a wonderful tribute paid to Jim this past March on the date of his death you can read my post about it here: http://fromabirdseyeview.com/?p=7111 )

 

Wayne Bethards

Wayne “Ed” Bethards was in my graduating class, but I didn’t know him well. His family moved to Novato just before the start of our senior year. His mother, Betty Bethards, was the author of the international best-seller, “The Dream Book”. Again, Neil Cuzner has provided a bit more insight: “Wayne was a good person. He had a great love of baseball and had actually started a small league while over in Nam. He was sharing his love of baseball with the Vietnamese children.” Cuzner went on to say that Wayne was a religious person and did not want to kill anyone; he struggled greatly with his deployment. He was drafted into the Army and was sent to Vietnam in October of 1970. In January, 1971, he was killed while on patrol by the accidental detonation of a mechanical device in Quang Tin Province. He was the last boy from Novato High School to die in the war.

 

Jerry Sims

Update from 2017: In April, 2017, I heard from a former schoolmate, Dennis Welsh, about Jerry Sims, a boy who died in the conflict whose hometown was listed as Novato. I found in my research that sometimes the Novato “hometown” designation were for those affiliated with Hamilton Air Force Base, not graduates of Novato High School. Since there were no records of Jerry at NHS I assumed Jerry was from Hamilton, but that was not the case. Dennis told me that Jerry moved to Novato from Texas in the Spring of 1966 to live with his sister. He tried out for the football team during spring training and made the squad. But despite that automatic inclusion into a social group, he nevertheless was unhappy living in California and being the “new kid” going into his Senior year. Dennis said that he never saw him again after football tryouts and didn’t learn of his fate until he spotted Jerry’s name on “The Wall”. The fact is that Jerry left Novato and joined the Army in June, 1966 and was sent to Vietnam in November. On February 13, 1968 he and several others in his unit were killed by small arms fire in Gia Dinh province. Jerry was 19 years old. His former platoon leader said this on his memorial page: “I was Jerry’s platoon leader on the day he died. He didn’t have to be there, since he had a job elsewhere in Vietnam, but he requested a transfer. He had already spent a year with the Wolfhounds, but for reasons all his own, he wanted to come back to this unit. He died doing his job as a squad leader in my platoon.” It would seem Jerry finally found his home – and some peace – with his Army brethren.

 

A Kingston Trio memento

I found all of the boys from Novato on “The Wall”, each name etched in granite. I thought about all of their families and the sorrow they endured. It was overwhelming to realize that same sorrow had been replicated 58,286 times. Each of the names on that black, shiny surface represent a family forever destroyed. As I walked along the pathway I looked at all of the mementos that were left as tributes to the fallen – notes, flowers and flags mostly. But then I spotted something different – a tribute from Jim Dart to his brother, Larry. It was a Kingston Trio album (pictured left), along with a note about the good times they shared learning the guitar and singing songs together. I was overcome with emotion reading Jim’s note. My brother, Bob, owned that same album. He and his best friend, Don, often entertained our family playing their guitars and singing songs from that record. Bob was a Naval officer in Japan during the Vietnam war and was safely returned to us. I wept as I stood looking at the album, realizing that but for the grace of God – and military orders – how easily it could have been Bob’s name on that wall and me leaving a Kingston Trio album in his memory. I can’t imagine what our family would have been like without him. I ached for Sue and Sarah and Joanne and Steve and all the other siblings who never got to see gray hair on their brother’s head; their family gatherings forever marred by a gaping hole where their brother should have been. When I stooped down to take the photo I noticed that several other visitors had stopped to look at it too. As I glanced at those who were of a certain age I could see my own feelings reflected in their eyes. We know how much of life these boys missed. We mourn their loss – and ours

CASTLES, CUISINE, AND A CAUTION

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

muckross

Muckross House

All good things must come to an end, as some wise person once said.  But that doesn’t mean that they can’t come to an end in style.  As we departed Killarney we headed off to Dromoland Castle, where we planned to live like the princesses we are on our final night in Ireland.  Dromoland, however, was not the only castle that we saw on our trip.  In fact, like most countries that have a long history, Ireland is full of castles.  Most of them are ruins and we saw many instances of crumbling rock.  But there were a few exceptions worth noting.  First off, is Muckross House, which technically is not a castle but did house Queen Victoria for a couple of nights in 1861.  It has spectacular grounds and gardens, sitting right on the lakes of Killarney.  Our guide, Jack told us that in the late 1850’s the owner of Muckross House, Henry Arthur Herbert, spent a fortune prepping the house for Queen Victoria’s visit on the implied agreement that he would receive a Dukedom for his efforts.  Unfortunately, the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, died just three months after her visit and she forgot entirely about Herbert.  By 1897 the estate was in financial ruin that is partially attributed to the money spent on the Queen’s visit.  I guess even then it paid to get things in writing.

2018-05-03 13.09.02 (Small)

Bunratty Castle

On our way to Dromoland we stopped at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park.  The ‘folk park’ part of the title should have been our first clue that the fine people at Bunratty have figured out how to make a buck.  I wonder if they’re Americans?  The original castle was built in 1277 but the structure that still stands is a relative newcomer, erected in 1455.  It is said that William Penn‘s father defended the garrison in 1646 as William lay in his crib inside the fortress.  Who knows where Pennsylvania would be today if his father had been defeated?  The folk part consists of many structures that were chosen from many different areas of Ireland to form a collection of typical 19th century buildings including the School, Doctor’s house, Pub, Printworks, Grocery, etc.  It was enlightening to see how primitively they lived – two rooms for a large family with more room for the horses than the children set aside within the house.  The gift shop at Bunratty is a money-maker – really one of the nicest gift shops we saw so we all were calculating just how much more we could squeeze into our suitcases.

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The bar at Dromoland Castle

Finally we arrived at Dromoland Castle, our lodging for the night.  The castle grounds have been the home of castles for centuries but the current structure was built in 1800.  It has been preserved with little change since the mid-19th century. In 1962, Donough O’Brien, the sixteenth Baron Inchiquin, sold Dromoland Castle to American Bernard P. McDonough who converted it into a luxurious hotel.  The luscious green gardens and golf course line the entry and we looked forward to exploring the pathways that meander throughout the property.

Dromoland dinner

The Last Supper

Unfortunately our Irish luck on weather that had blessed us all week let us down – it was pouring rain.  The weather, coupled with the fact that our room wasn’t ready, led us to repair to the lounge where they provided us with coffee and pastries.  Once settled into our beautiful room we hoped for sunnier skies but, alas, it was still raining so…what’s a girl to do? We checked out the bar.  It was everything an elegant bar should be and was the perfect setting on a gloomy day to continue our lager/Irish whiskey taste testing.  Dinner was in the Earl of Thomand dining room, again elegant and intimate with service beyond compare and delectable food.  What a way to end the trip of a lifetime – beautiful scenery, wonderful cuisine and lasting friendships.

The next day we left for the Shannon airport at 6 a.m. and from there flew to London.  Twenty-one and a half hours later I was greeted at my front door by Dash the Wonder Dog.  Ireland was great, but so was coming home.

I know several people going to Ireland this year so in the spirit of sharing, here are my recommendations:

The Killarney Park Hotel:  This hotel is the only five-star hotel in Killarney and it’s easy to see how they gained their reputation.  The friendliness of the staff is beyond any I’ve ever experienced.  By our second day there they knew us by name and always went out of their way to help us.  The food and grounds are also magnificent.  You cannot go wrong at this hotel.

Killarney Tour and Taxi:  Jack Hayden is the owner of this business and his five stars on Trip Advisor are well deserved.  He is humorous, knowledgeable and a native of Kerry so he really knows his stuff.  He figured out very quickly that we did not want to see every church and cliff so he would slow down, we’d open a window, snap a photo, and off we went.  At times he insisted that we visit some historical sites and afterwards we were always glad he had. Besides his knowledge and humor, how can you go wrong with a guy who played “Red Solo Cup” so we could sing along?

Guerin’s Path to Cliff Walk:  As mentioned in my first Ireland post, Martin Guerin is a farmer who owns land that includes the visitors path at the Cliffs of Mohr.  Read my first post to learn more about it, but all I can say is his personal tour beats the Visitor’s Center hands down.

The Celtic Whiskey Bar and Larder and Sheehan’s Pub are both terrific places to visit.  If you are lucky enough to be in Sheehan’s on a Saturday night you will most likely experience several “hen parties”, which only add to the experience.  Irish people are friendly and like to drag us into their shenanigans!

Mobile Passport App:   We were advised by our travel agent to download the app and it was some of the best advice we got.  We had pre-loaded it with our passport information and once we were taxiing to the gate in Phoenix we activated the passport clearance feature and we were through Passport Control in less than a minute.  It also came in handy as we passed the Gestapo agent at customs.

Diet:  Okay, not really a recommendation but more of a caution.  I was horrified when I got on the scale the day after my return.  Unfortunately, my eating and drinking in Ireland closely resembled the hog we saw at Bunratty Castle.  Oh well, I’ve got all summer to work the Guinness off my thighs.

IRISH DREAMS – PART TWO

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Carol Feller and her Groupies

Carol Feller and Groupies

Our visit to Ireland made clear why Irish eyes are smiling – friendly people, a pint of Guinness and perhaps a tot of Jameson’s gives the world a roseate hue.  We experienced all of that during the second part of our trip which focused on knitting – a passion we all share to the point of needing a 12-step program.  After our evening at the Celtic Whiskey Lounge and Sheehan’s Pub we sobered up the next morning for our class with Carol Feller.  As I wrote in my previous post, Carol Feller and Kieran Foley (more on him in a moment) are the equivalent of playing golf with Rory McElroy or Padraig Harrington.  I should note here that the Killarney Park Hotel was truly one of the finest hotels I’ve ever visited.  They are five star not only for their accommodations and food, but for their outstanding service.  On the morning of our class they provided us with a cozy room with a wood-burning fireplace and brought coffee for our enjoyment – all free of charge.   Carol spent more than three hours with us and was not only informative, but charming as well.  It seems to be an Irish trait.  Most of us have been knitting for decades but Carol provided us with some new tips and techniques, proving that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Some of our group had pre-ordered yarn from her while others said they would abstain.  After three hours with Carol everyone ordered mounds of yarn.  So much for willpower.

            The Dingle Peninsula

The following day we climbed into Jack’s van and embarked on a tour of the Dingle Peninsula.   The scenery, like everything else we’d seen in Ireland, was spectacular. The little town of Dingle is touristy and quaint at the same time.  It was here we experienced more Irish hospitality.  One member of our group stumbled and skinned her knee so we sought out first aid materials.  The local pharmacist didn’t just sell us the bandage and antibiotic ointment, she took it upon herself to clean and dress the wound herself.  Heck, I can barely get the staff at my local Walgreens to point me to the bandaid aisle. The waters surrounding the peninsula are crystal clear and the hillsides verdant, as one would expect in Ireland.  We had the opportunity to stop and pet some newly-minted lambs but, cute as they were, we declined.  I was struck by the many historical churches that remain along the route.  One is the Gallarus Oratory, a simple dry-stone structure built in the 12th century that  has remained waterproof and in near-perfect condition to the present day.

     Kilmaekeder Church and graveyard

Just as interesting is the Kilmaekeder Church, built in the mid-12th century on the grounds of a previous structure built in 636.  A stone from that period still sits on the alter.  The church grounds are filled with gravestones, some ancient and some rather recent (in fact one poor sod hadn’t actually been buried 6 feet under yet as the family was waiting for the headstone).  There were tributes to Irishmen killed by the English during The Uprising as well as markers for whole families that included listings of those who went to America and were lost at sea.  Once back in Killarney we traipsed over to dinner at the Ross Hotel’s Lane Café Bar.  The service was slow but the food was delicious.  I’d recommend it if you’re not in a hurry.

                  Us with Kieran Foley

The following day was our “marathon” day to Dublin.  The kind people at the hotel had a bag of pastries and fruit waiting for us as we left for the train station at 6:10 a.m.  The train service to and from Dublin was wonderful – clean, fast, and quiet.  Once in Dublin we headed for The Constant Knitter shop where we had a private trunk show with designer Kieran Foley.  Again, he was as kind and generous a person as one could hope to meet.  Are there any crabby people in Ireland????  Kieran brought out an array of his designs which are so complicated and intricate that I’d only contemplate starting one prior to entering the insane asylum.  Each piece is reminiscent of an Oriental carpet or fine piece of fabric.  We left him inspired to “up our game”.

After buying scads of yarn we we went in search of a great spot for lunch…and beer.  We ventured up to the Temple Bar area of Dublin (the featured picture this week) which is a hopping place, full of tourists and locals alike.  There is no end to the dining possibilities but we chose Boxty, which received rave reviews on Trip Advisor.  Once we were sated with Smithwicks lager and fish and chips we ventured to This Is Knit yarn shop. The store is elegant in design and content, located in the Powerscourt Townhouse building, a former mansion that has been transformed into a fabulous shopping center with a central atrium and boutique shops.  We bought more yarn, despite our resolve to be on a “yarn diet”.  From there we walked 40 minutes back to the train station for our return to Killarney.  When we dragged into the hotel at 8:30 p.m. we were greeted by hotel staff inquiring about our day and asking us about what we saw in Dublin.  I’m not sure they are used to anyone making Dublin into a “day trip”.

           We can smell the banana

Morning came too soon when we once again traveled in Jack’s van to Kinsale and Cork.  Kinsale is a darling seaside village, filled with cute shops and an outdoor market.  We could have spent several days there. We ambled in and out of the stores, buying knick knacks and two people bought beautiful leather purses fashioned by a local designer.  We relied on Trip Advisor again and ate lunch at Fishy Fishy, where we continued our quest of the perfect pairing of lager and fish and chips. Next we headed to Cork to visit Hedgehog Fibers.  Hedgehog is a very popular yarn, more so in the States than in Ireland.  In fact, we learned from all our Irish knitting contacts that the Irish like to spend money on food and drink, but not on yarn.  We bought MORE yarn (by now we were contemplating buying extra luggage) and then headed out to the Jameson Whiskey Distillery.  We decided to go for broke, splurging on the premium whiskey tasting.  It turned out to be a wise decision.   We were taken to a private room where a young woman gave us the particulars of each whiskey we sampled.  I was tempted to chug one down but she instructed me that I needed to savor the banana, oak, berry, vanilla, honey, etc.  Geez, it all just tasted like whiskey to me.  I don’t think I’m sophisticated enough to taste premium whiskey.  As we finished up she kind of chuckled and said, “I’ve worked here four years and have never had an all-woman group before.”  So…I guess we broke the glass ceiling for whiskey tasting!

Next week – castles and some final recommendations.  Slainte!

IRISH DREAMS – PART ONE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

A beautiful start!

”Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking.  I apologize for the late departure but this aircraft came from London and we’re missing one of the engines”.  MISSING AN ENGINE???   How do you misplace an engine? This was not the start to our Ireland trip that I had imagined.  But apparently it was “only” the tail engine so across the Atlantic we went.  Of course, I didn’t sleep a wink, despite the lovely bed and a rather good glass of red wine.  While my fellow slackers in the upper deck slept, I was on alert all night trying to detect further engine issues.  At last, after too many hours to count and a second flight from London to Shannon, we arrived just in time for the spectacular sunset pictured (left).  As we stopped to take the photo a Irishman commented, “Oh, that’s a good omen for your holiday.”  And so our wonderful time in Ireland began.

Martin Guerin

Jack, our tour guide for the week picked us up the next morning for a drive to the beautiful Cliffs of Moher.  In my previous post I spoke about Jack and the rave reviews he receives on Trip Advisor and this first outing proved why his reputation is so good.  Rather than taking us to the Cliffs’ visitor center, filled with SIXTEEN tour buses and too many cars to count, he escorted us onto a private drive and introduced us to Martin Guerin.  Martin and his family have farmed their land adjacent to the Cliffs for generations but have just recently started their touring business, Guerins Path (http://www.guerinspath.com/).

Martin’s photo of us on his property at the Cliffs

There are several benefits to viewing the Cliffs with Martin.  The first is Martin himself, who is as charming and knowledgeable a person as one could hope to find.  He gave us great insight into the history of the local area, including the legends of the Lost City of Atlantis and Hag’s Head, as well as describing the unique Liscannor stone that the region is famous for.  Second is that he has given right of way to the visitor center for the path along the Cliffs, but he still owns it.  So walking up the trail on his farm one ends up at the most spectacular spot on the whole of the Cliffs.  It would be a 20 minute uphill walk from the visitor center to get to this spot. The third benefit is that if the weather is inclement or someone in your party is unable to walk up the trail, he can drive right up to the path.  I can’t recommend him highly enough so if you’re planning on visiting the Cliffs of Moher, avoid the throngs of camera-clicking tourists and arrange a tour with Martin.  You will thank me for it, trust me.

After visiting the Cliffs we were ready for some lunch and once again, Jack proved his worth.  As we drove into the cute town of Doolin, we passed several bus loads of people lined up at restaurants.  Jack drove us a few blocks further where we lunched with locals at McDermott’s Pub.  The food was delicious and plentiful and it was here that I learned my travel mates love beer.  I tried Guinness for the first time and fell in love with its dark, smoky flavor.  I did recall someone told me that there were as many carbs in a pint of dark stout as a whole loaf of bread but I chose to chalk that up to an old wive’s tale.

The Kerry Woolen Mill

Saturday morning Jack took us on a tour of the Ring of Kerry.  Knowing his audience, he first stopped at the Kerry Woolen Mills, who have been spinning yarns for over 300 years and are one of two remaining woolen mills in Ireland.  We loved the tour, which took us from the raw shearing to beautiful cones of yarn.  They do custom weaving here as well and each piece was a work of art.

Jack finally dragged us away from the yarn and we continued the tour.  The scenery around the Ring of Kerry is spectacular, which is why it is such a popular tourist attraction.  There is nothing like it in the world.  We stopped for lunch – and more Guinness – and viewed the Skelligs Islands, which were featured in the last Star Wars movie.  The highlight of the afternoon was a stop at the Skelligs Chocolate factory where we felt it only polite to sample and purchase their wares.

Finally, back in Killarney we cleaned up and then walked to the Celtic Whiskey Bar and Larder for dinner.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions we made – great food, great whiskey and beer sampling, and good people watching.  And then on the way home, we just happened to stumble into Sheehan’s Pub where an Irish group was playing and the crowd of locals was welcoming.  We sang and laughed with abandon for an hour.

Finally back at our hotel I had one thought: It should be illegal to have this much fun.

BACK TO THE OLD SOD

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

2017 was a hard year – friends died, good buddies moved away, and I didn’t lose the five pounds I so optimistically recorded on my New Year’s resolutions.  So when I saw a sign in a gift store that said, “Life is Short.  Take the trip.  Buy the shoes.  Eat the cake.”, I took it to heart.  In fairness, I’ve never had an issue with the cake part of the affirmation.  In fact, eating cake is right in my wheelhouse.  But I’m not a good shopper and my travels are limited to occasional trips with my nieces and our summer road trips.  As a life-long knitter I’ve always dreamed of going to the British Isles or Ireland but year after year I put it off.  Until I read that sign.  Exactly a year ago this week I asked a few friends if they would like to go on a knitting trip to one of my dream destinations.  They all responded a resounding “YES!” So next week we’re embarking on a nine day trip to Ireland, which we have dubbed the “Irish Princess Tour”.

Why ‘Princess?’  Because we decided that if we’re going to go, we’re going to go in style.  We are flying from Phoenix to London on a British Air 747 in the Upper Deck.  Riding “upstairs” has been on my bucket list for a long time.  I recall many years ago flying from San Francisco to New York on a 747 but I was “stuck” in business class down below.  This time, I was going to make it to the upper deck or bust!  We also decided that we would rather stay in one location rather than constantly pack and re-pack our bags.  After all, the weather this time of year is still a bit chilly and rainy so numerous layers, requiring lots of clothing options, are required.  We concluded that Killarney is centrally located, has good restaurants, and more importantly, plenty of pubs.  So we selected the Killarney Park Hotel, which I discovered after the fact, is the same hotel brother Bob and his wife Linda stayed in when they visited Killarney.  Apparently the KPH is a Sparrow tradition!

My husband helping me get into the spirit – or spirits.

Once we had our plane and hotel reservations we began to work on what would occupy our time.  Here is where another good life lesson was learned.  There is a very famous knitwear designer, Carol Feller, who lives in Cork, about an hour away from Killarney.  She does many large group classes for the Irish Tourism Board tours and we were a bit disappointed that we could not join in the tour’s classes.  Mustering up my courage, and on the premise that the worst she could say was “no”, I emailed her and asked if we could visit her studio and have a private class for the five of us.  She emailed me back within hours to say not only would she do the class, she will come up to our hotel to do it.  Armed with my newfound confidence in asking strangers for favors, I emailed a yarn store in Dublin that we’re visiting and not only did she respond that she will greet us with tea and biscuits, but that she’s arranged for Kieran Foley to give us a private trunk show.  Okay, by now most of you have glossed over Carol Feller and Kieran Foley so let me put it in terms you might relate to: it is the knitting equivalent of a golfer getting a lesson from Rory McElroy or Padraig Harrington.

One of the wonderful aspects of this trip is that there is another Type “A” on it!  While I arranged the knitting end of things, my friend Patsy worked on many other aspects, most importantly our touring agenda.  We knew that big bus tours are not for us – we’ve all had the experience of people in a group that are so annoying that you spend half your time ducking them.  Patsy did some research on Trip Advisor and found Jack at Killarney Taxi and Tours.   Jack, it turns out, is a treasure.  It’s little wonder he gets rave reviews.  Not only does he have wonderful recommendations, he acknowledged that we might want to spend a “wee bit of time in the pubs” AND he’s taking us to the Skelligs Chocolate Factory.  I love this guy already.

To top it off, well be spending our last night in Ireland at Dromoland Castle.  Yes – a real castle for fake princesses!  At the time we made the reservation the exchange rate between the Euro and the dollar was much better.  If it keeps climbing at the current pace we may be Princess Dishwashers.  Finally, I got my Ancestry DNA results in last week and I’m 20% Irish.  More about that after my brother gets his results and we find out if we’re really related.  In the mean time, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to  be 100% Irish, visiting its wild coasts, singing “Ireland’s Call” at a few pubs and paying homage to my ancestors.  I’ll keep you posted.  They do have bail bondsmen in Ireland, don’t they?

WHY WE WRITE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Capt Jim Gribbin and a Vietnamese soldier

People frequently ask me why Bob and I write this blog every week.  I’m not sure whether the emphasis is on the “why” but I’m choosing to believe that they are just interested in our motivation.  After all, we have been posting something weekly since August 2012, without missing a deadline and we have received exactly $0 for our efforts.  Sure, some posts are better than others (Bob’s trips, for example) but we have yet to resort to reporting on our root canals or colonoscopies.  The truth is that both of us love to write. We also love each other and this weekly exercise requires that we stay in frequent contact.  To us, that’s reason enough to pound something out on a regular basis.  But two weeks ago a third reason unveiled itself in the person of Bridget Lesnick.

I received a Facebook Messenger note from Bridget saying that I don’t know her but that she had read my blog about the boys from Novato High School who died in Vietnam and she wanted to ask me a few questions.  I was instantly on alert.  After all, Facebook is not exactly the most trusted company these days and I had visions of a Nigerian prince asking me for money.  But Bridget went on to explain that she was participating in a GORUCK endurance event honoring members of the Special Forces who had died around the date of the event.  She had selected Jim Gribbin, one of the boys I write about each Memorial Day, who died on March 17, 1970.  She reached out to me in hopes of learning more about him so she could tell his story to her fellow endurance participants.

Before I answered her message I decided to look up GORUCK to see if it was really a “thing”.  Sure enough, it not only is a thing, it is quite a remarkable thing.  The GORUCK company manufactures military-quality gear for civilian use.  It was founded by Jason McCarthy, a man who enlisted in the Special Forces as a result of 9/11.  His is an inspiring story that you can read about on the company’s website here: https://www.goruck.com/our-founders-story/.

Bridget’s GORUCK starting line

Jason has enlisted what he refers to as “the Cadre”, made up of former Special Forces members, to lead GORUCK events across the United States aimed at helping individuals and teams overcome adversity and lead active, empowered lives.  The events range from Light to OH MY GOD WHAT WAS I THINKING? (my term, not theirs).  Every event entails moving with weight on your back, combining strength and cardio.  Each team is expected to organize itself and choose a cause that makes their community a better place in which to live.

So…once I learned about GORUCK I responded back to Bridget, with a renewed sense of respect.  I told her a bit more about Jim and sent her photos from our high school yearbook of him in his football uniform and as an officer of a service club that was raising money for a poor village in Mexico.  Looking back, and knowing that Jim would eventually succumb to wounds suffered trying to rescue his squad, it seemed his desire to serve and protect others was a life-long trait.  I asked her to let me know how it went and last Friday I heard back from her, complete with photos.

Bridget with her ruck and photo of Jim

She said that the event was great – she actually completed TWO events that spanned 17 hours and covered 25 miles of New York City. She said that she proudly wore Jim’s photo on her ruck and honored him in the best way she knew how.  Her ruck weighed 30 pounds and she wore it the entire – freezing – night.  She started the first event at 7 p.m., finishing up at 6:30 a.m.  She then took a breather and did the second event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Every person in her group had selected a member of the Special Forces who had died within the dates of the event and they all wore a photo of the person on their ruck.  I can barely get my 10,000 steps per day completed so to say that I was impressed by Bridget and her team’s accomplishments is a vast understatement.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about GORUCK or their events.  I now know a bit more and my gratitude and admiration are endless.   I admire Jason and his team for their work in our communities.  Oftentimes we don’t hear about the “good” news going on everyday by ordinary people who do extraordinary things.  I am especially heartened by Bridget and all those like her that care enough to remember those that we’ve lost in war.  I wish that Jim’s parents were still alive so they could see that their son’s memory is being honored in this way, 48 years after his death.  But for now, it’s enough for me to know that one of my high school mates is remembered and that this blog, in part, has helped in that.