Tuesday, March 19, 2019

I do not want to visit the South Pole, or its northern counterpart, for that matter.  But getting close seemed attractive.  So last month my wife and I made a trip to Patagonia, timed to match the height of the southern summer. We were very lucky with our companions, our accommodations and the notoriously fickle Patagonian weather.
Although Ferdinand Magellan’s passage early in the 16thcentury and a subsequent navigation south of the continent by Francis Drake opened Patagonia to recorded history, it is only with the entry of English navigators and missionaries in the 19thcentury that a dense description of the area unfolds.  Two voyages captained by Robert Fitzroy, the second with Charles Darwin aboard, described the region’s topology as it charted its waters for commercial navigation.  Anglican missionaries, beginning in the 1860s when Thomas Bridges first settled among the region’s native people, documented their language and lifeways. We found ourselves amazed that humans would willingly subject themselves to Patagonia’s harsh conditions, coddled as we were in the arms of a safe and well-provisioned National Geographic expedition.

Our trip was divided almost equally between ship and shore. A Chilean-flagged vessel, the Ventus Australius, custom-built to ply the shallow fjords and to raise and lower inflatable boats off the stern, ferried, fed and entertained 152 passengers for a week.  The ship navigated parts of the major passages that link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and visited three of the regions major glaciers.  Patagonia holds 15% of the world’s ice, but here, as in the rest of the frozen world, its glaciers are in full retreat.  We marveled at the ice, its monumental volume, varied shapes and multi-coloration.

“Paine” is the Tehuelche word for the color blue which appropriately describes the huge rock outcropping at the center of the park.  The “torres,” a constellation of peaks foregrounded by Lake Balmaceda bears more than a passing resemblance to the Wyoming Tetons, rising from Jackson Lake.  And like the view from Jackson Lake Lodge, the Tierra Patagonia hotel offers a magnificent prospect of the peaks. From the vantage of our room, my wife and I watched the torres each morning and evening as the sun’s light and cloud formations changed the mountains’ mood—bright, dark, hooded, indifferent. We were very lucky.

Fit and daring visitors can arrange to climb several of the peaks or hike the challenging, four-day “W” circuit that reaches the high valleys and glaciers deep inside the park.  Even with this kind of strenuous exertion well beyond our capacities, our group of sixty and seventy somethings hiked briskly across the surprisingly diverse lower reaches of the park where rheas, foxes, condors and guanacos displayed themselves. The guanacos particularly charmed me.  These wild cousins of the llama and alpaca roam everywhere in the park, sometimes in herds of several dozen animals. While the main body of the herd grazes the sparse grasses, lookouts posted on high ground keep watch for predators.  Humans apparently pose little threat in the guanaco’s eyes; here pumas are the enemy. We had the rare privilege of spotting one of these handsome predators when our guide, alerted by a high-pitched whinny sounded by guanaco lookouts across the valley, pointed out a large, golden cat that sauntered out of a patch of grass before disappearing from view.

We all realized our good fortune.  The tour organizers provided comfortable accommodations and smoothed the passage across borders and through airports. But they cannot guarantee animal sightings or control local meteorology. We endured just enough rain and high winds to realize how unpleasant and capricious the Patagonian weather can be.  As I write, temperatures in Punta Arenas are in the 30s with rain and high winds.  We lucked out, for sure.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Heathrow the Horrible

My wife and I recently visited the Christmas markets on the Danube River.  We used London’s Heathrow airport for our European entry and exit and were amazed at how convoluted its intra-terminal transport system is.  Heathrow uses an escalator-elevator-purple bus-safety screening-train-airline check-in desk-bus-outside stairs delivery system.  How long would that take? you may ask.  We arrived in London two hours before our Houston bound flight and were (gratefully) the last passengers to claim our seats.

On the way from the States to the continent, we had a five-hour layover that allowed us to ponder the signage and ask for directions at leisure.  But that experience, and the knowledge that we would be running this gauntlet in reverse in two weeks, made us realize that we would need to put on our running shoes and keep our wits about us to get home without missing our flight.

The transit in three stages.
Stage one: follow the purple arrows from the arrival zone, down two escalators, to a waiting area that led to a bus that ferries passengers from one terminal to another. My wife asked the gate attendant, who had a curiously North American accent, if we would need to pass security at the next terminal. “Probably,” she said.  The answer should have been “you betcha.” Intra-terminal movement at Heathrow relies on a road and tunnel network that serves passengers, food services, maintenance vehicles and small, British Airways vans.  All of these conveyances bob and weave through a traffic system guided by stop and yield signs and an opaquely- acknowledged hierarchy of right of way.

Stage two: from the bus stop ride escalators from ground level to the second storey.  By this time we were getting anxious, and we were not alone.  Just as we boarded the stairway, a group of young women clad in spandex and carrying backpacks sprinted past.  Although it was not immediately clear at this point, we were all headed for a British Airways security position.  In preparation for the metal detector, I removed my iPad from my carryon, took off my belt, and put cell phone, wallet, and loose change into my jacket.  I thought that I was clean for scanning, but no. I had not removed my pocket handkerchief and had to go through a body scanner. 

Stage three: As we hoofed toward the train, I held my coat, my carryon, my belt and my pocket handkerchief.  I tried to reassemble on the run until my wife muttered “I don’t care about your damned belt, hurry up.”  An elevator dropped us at a train platform where we boarded a vestibule that stopped at the range of gates that included ours, and we hopped off.  At some point during the train ride British Airways changed our departure gate, but, luckily, my wife spotted this, and we did not have to travel far out of our way.  As we puffed up to the ticket position, the attendant welcomed us and said that she was just about to announce that we had forfeited our reservation.  All we had to do now was descend to ground level, board another bus and climb an outside staircase to the airplane cabin door.  

Everything turned out for the best, I suppose, and as it turns out, we could have been routed through Gatwick, where rogue drones had grounded all flights for the day.

To learn more, a YouTube video, “The Horrors of Heathrow: a short history,” might be a good place to begin.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ghosts Rising

Montgomery, Alabama, seems such an unlikely spot for a recognition of our country’s relationship with African Americans. So the news that Montgomery is now host to an installation dedicated to the legacy of slavery and lynching in America came as quite a surprise and made the desire for a visit irresistible.

Montgomery is a town of ghosts.  Not a ghost town, like Selma has become, the Alabama state bureaucracy insures the city’s survival. But phantoms lurk everywhere in the city.  And now after ignoring its ghosts for decades, Montgomery has begun to bring them into the light.

The town rose to prominence after 1830 as a center of the domestic slave trade.  A slave market functioned at the spot now occupied by the city-landmark Court Street Fountain, a location contiguous to both the river port and the railroad. Several warehouses, recently repurposed for retail purposes, once served as slave “depots,” a term that unnaturally sanitizes what were barracoons for human cargo. Alongside the depots stood buildings occupied by the slavers’ financiers, among them Lehman Brothers, now a ghost itself.

Relics of the Civil War, whose fury scarcely touched Alabama, stand prominently in downtown Montgomery. The Confederate “white house,” where Jefferson Davis took his oath of office and where Robert E. Lee’s birthday is celebrated annually, functions as a museum documenting antebellum life. The nearby Winter Building is now occupied by a law firm, Balch and Bingham, but it once housed the Southern Telegraph Company from which the Confederate Secretary of War telegraphed the order to fire on Fort Sumpter.

Jim Crow cast a long shadow over Montgomery. Its legacy is only now being recognized.  The recently restored S.H. Kress building provides insights into the separate facilities afforded black and white citizens throughout the South.  An elaborate facade on building’s Dexter Avenue side welcomed white patrons to the store; African Americans came in the back entrance from Monroe Street and were funneled into the basement.  But nothing documents segregation policies more graphically than the restored building’s engraved marble slab that once proscribed the use of water fountains by “White” and “Colored.”

Montgomery figured prominently in the Civil Rights movement. On Dexter Avenue-- heels pointing toward the Alabama River-- toes pointing toward the State Capitol, enormous brass footprints serve as monuments to the marches that African Americans undertook to abolish Jim Crow.  A walk in the direction that the toes point passes the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. led services from 1954 to 1960, and ends at the capitol steps that George Wallace refused to make available as a podium for Dr. King’s speech that kicked off the march to Selma in 1965.

My wife and I made a trip to Montgomery last month to visit the much-publicized National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Unaware of the memorial until it was reviewed in the New York Times, we wanted to see what seemed to us glorious monument in an unlikely place. (We found that the Memorial was not so well known in Alabama.) The installation approaches the legacy of white supremacy with powerful images that remind visitors of the twin horrors of the African American experience, slavery and lynching.  Slavery finds its most poignant expression in statuary.  At the entrance a group of five figures enchained appears: male and female, old and young; such fear, such defiance. Further on an array of 800 rust clad metal cubes— coten steel according to the Memorial’s web site-- suspend from the ceiling of a huge veranda. Each cube represents a county in the United States where a documented lynching took place. Each county is incised with names of the victims, more than 4,000. (My boyhood home, Cross County, Arkansas, has a cube with two names.)

We learned from one of the docents, a young African American man from Pittsburgh, that museum executives have invited each county represented in a hanging cube to take possession of the duplicate that lies like a grave marker on the grounds of the Memorial.  To date only a single county, one in Minnesota, has expressed interest.  

Ghosts still lie under Montgomery’s soil, but they are coming to life.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Route 83

Route 83 from Abeline to Taos

477 miles, 5,480 feet altitude gain

National Center for Children
Pump jacks in cotton fields
Gigantic wind farms
BNSF railroad—coal cars and petroleum tanks moving east, boxcars moving west
Sky-scraping concrete grain silos
Buddy Holly Museum
Grazing beef cattle
Penned dairy cattle
Hay fields studded with round bales
Fields of corn and sorghum
Rolling irrigation systems, quarter of a mile long
Llano Estacado
Exotic road kill
Tumbled-down gas stations
Mom and Pop motels
Snow in the Sangre de Cristos
Taos Pueblo

And on the last night we were treated to a sunset worthy of Van Gogh himself-- crimson sky, with spiral clouds and pin wheeling wind turbines.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


My father, Dave Block, Jr., died in 1993.  He was the third generation, and the last, of his family to work out of the same office in Wynne, Arkansas.  Among the archived business papers, I discovered correspondence that documented attempts to provide a bequest to a French ancestor in the years immediately following World War II.  Those letters set off a slow and sporadic search for Block ancestors in western France.

In 1870 my great grandfather, Rafael Block, left Alsace for America.  A century later a namesake, my uncle, visited the ancestral village and copied Rafael’s birth certificate, showing that he was born in 1853, the son of Herman Block and Rebecca Feist in Trimbach, Bas-Rhin.  

(As an aside, this would have made Rafael seventeen years old at the time of his emigration, an age ripe for conscription for service in the Franco-Prussian War.)

In 2009 my wife and I made a trip to Trimbach to see if we could discover any traces of Rafael’s family.  We located the village cemetery, adjacent to the parish church, and walked through the headstones.  A woman from the village—I assume she was local; she was placing flowers at a gravesite—sensed our purpose and asked for our family name.  My first answer employed an anglicized pronunciation. “No one by that name buried here,” she said.  Another attempt, that changed the vowel sound to a long “o”, made a better impression.  “Were they Jews ?” she asked.  “Then you want to visit the Jewish cemetery.”

She told us to drive south on highway D-104 and look for a wooded area on the west side of the road.  After a bit of searching—there are several wooded areas—we spotted a pillar standing at the edge of cultivated fields.  That five-foot obelisk marked the north entrance to the cemetery.  Our efforts at exploration were severely handicapped by a tangle of trees and vines that covered most of the plots and by the Hebrew inscriptions on most of the tombstones that we could reach.  I took photographs of some the inscriptions, and we drove on to Switzerland.

On our return to the States, I sent images of some of inscriptions to my nephew, Sam, who had recently studied Hebrew for his bar mitzvah.  Nothing ever came back from Sam, but our 2009 visit verified that there was a Jewish cemetery in Trimbach and sparked hopes that exploring it might turn up markers of our ancestors.

Although my sisters and Block cousins greeted reports of our trip warmly, several years would pass before we followed up.

At the end of 2016, the descendents of one branch of the family agreed that the time had come to return to Trimbach.  Cousin Diane began to search the copious genealogical information now available on the internet and turned up several possible leads. I made contact, in Google Translator French, with the Trimbach City Hall and received an immediate response promising access to village archives.  Searching for someone to decipher the Hebrew inscriptions proved more of a challenge.

On our 2009 visit, my wife had the presence of mind to annotate our guidebook with the address of the synagogue in Haguenau, located on the Rue Rabbi Bloch. (We thought the name might be providential.)  And using that address, I wrote a letter (ink on paper; I could not locate an e-mail address) explaining our purpose and need.  I have no idea of how many hands that missive passed through subsequently-- the Haguenau synagogue is now closed-- but in four months a representative of the Jewish community in Strasbourg e-mailed to say that he had located a person willing to accompany us to Trimbach and interpret the headstones.

Six months later nine of us-- Blocks, spouses and offspring--converged on Strasbourg from Santa Fe, Houston, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Prague.  After a couple of days spent comparing notes and enjoying ourselves, we decamped for Wissembourg, our base camp for exploring the cemetery.  Our interpreter, Yanir Ritter, arrived the next day, and with the corps of discovery now complete, we set off for Trimbach, twenty kilometers away.

 According to Wikipedia, Trimbach, Bas-Rhin, has a population of 462  (seems about right). There’s city hall (mairie)-- open Tuesday through Thursday-- a Catholic Church, and the Boulangerie Pâstisserie La Minzbrueck.  It’s the kind of place where locals notice strangers.  So with only a little effort, Diane made a contact, which led to another contact and through them we learned that the location of the Jewish cemetery was quite well known; it appears on the map displayed prominently on the Rue Principale.  And an added gem, Madame Reine Birie had taken particular interest in it.  At 10:00 the city hall opened, and we were invited to review the documents stored there.  We, and especially Diane, were disappointed to learn that the birth certificate we already had in hand exhausted the traces left by Rafael Bloch.

A little before noon we left Trimbach for the cemetery. One of the villagers alerted us to watch for a large poultry farm across the road.  Sure enough there stood the pillar, but where were the woods?  Something had changed.

Working from memories of conditions in 2009, I advised everyone to carry work clothes, gloves and heavy shoes.  At one time we considered buying garden tools capable of clearing at least our relatives’ plots.  In the end we settled for a pair of hand clippers bought in Wissembourg.  To my surprise, and our delight, advanced planning went for naught.  Sometime in the recent past, a work party had cleared away the undergrowth and righted most of the gravestones, making our search much easier.

Turns out that there are several Blochs buried in Trimbach: Nanette who died in 1899, Emmanuel (d. 1892) and Babette (d. 1909).  The inscriptions on their markers offered no additional information, and the Hebrew characters, citing passages from the Old Testament, were likewise unrevealing.  None of these Blochs matched the names and birthdates that Diane had discovered. 

But there was one other Bloch plot in the cemetery.  And this one held the remains of a Rebecca, neè Feist, died 1855.  This was Raphel’s mother who died when he was only two years old.  We all rejoiced; Diane called it the happiest day of her life.

On the second day Reine Biri joined us.  She brought along a wealth of information about the cemetery itself and about its clearing in 2015.  The cemetery dates from the mid 19th century and served as the resting place for several small communities in the area.  The last burials date from the mid 1930s, just before the forced evacuation preceding World War II. Diane copied it all and is working on a compilation.

So ends our America to Alsace. If nothing else, the trip to Trimbach furnished time to share meals, drinks and family stories. Perhaps it will provide an impetus for additional research and travels.  Where is Herman?

Friday, October 6, 2017


Some things are ubiquitous in France: glorious food, traffic circles, toilettes. Let's start with the last. The country's infamous street facilities, useful only in the direst of emergencies, have largely given way to single-occupancy cabins connected to municipal sewer and water systems. From the outside the installations resemble toadstools, or, perhaps, gun turrets on the Maginot line. A control panel indicates four possible statuses-- "vacant", "occupied", "wash cycle", and "out of service." From the vacant status, pressing the open button retracts an elegantly curved door to reveal a stainless steel toilet bowl and two ceramic basins. For males requiring only basic service, the choice is clear. Women, or men in need of something more complicated, will require suspension. My wife described two positions; others are, no doubt, employed.

Post processing services include paper, soap,  water, and an electric hand dryer. These are unpredictably available, but voilà

The cabin employs a button marked with the industry standard <|> symbol to exit, but this is not always clear to the user. I once tried to depress a lever attached to the door, thinking that it would release the latch and set me free.

A sensor, perhaps at the threshold, closes the door and starts a minute-long wash cycle that cleans the bowl and floor and resets the "available" indicator.  Your Euros at work.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Near Home

One of the many perks of my marriage is the right to a once- a- month reservation at  “The Property,” her family’s house on Galveston Bay.  An hour from Houston, and a long way from its hustle and bustle, the house offers ample space for holiday reunions and a site for solitary idylls for the rest of the year.  I write with the Memorial Day get together fresh in my mind.

In the early 1970s my wife’s parents located the site and built a house with an unoccluded view of the west bay and adjoining marshlands, a glorious prospect, especially at sunset.  Upon their deaths the deed passed to their four children, who equally share rights and responsibilities. The original house was severely damaged by Hurricane Ike, so much so that rebuilding seemed preferable to reconstruction. My brother-in-law, a talented designer, oversaw the project, making it larger and more hurricane resistant and incorporating a number of improvements to the original floor plan.  One of the many first cousins did the construction. So now we have great views and deluxe accommodations, and the cousin has a chunk of change.

Photographs taken over the years document changes to the marsh and to the neighborhood. Like a receding hairline, the marsh has slowly lost ground to the bay.  A futile attempt to impede erosion left behind undulating segments of a breakwater fashioned from a cloth-lined tube stuffed with earth.  Birds and intrepid anglers sometimes perch on its slippery surface. The spit of land that includes The Property has seen subdivision of some of the original lots and increasingly dense occupation, with one fortuitous exception.  A prosperous neighbor to our east bought and leveled a house that once stood between our property and his. This provides us additional privacy as the prosperous neighbor is seldom in residence.

In an elegantly written  history he calls The Gulf, Jack Davis recounts human depredations of marine resources in the "fishy sea."  We have played bit parts. Twenty years ago family weekends always began by laying crab traps in shallow water.  Sometimes we dragged the bay bottom with a twenty foot net deployed over the side of our power boat.  The haul, not always carefully culled for juveniles and females, filled our plates.  But our improvidence contributed to a sharp decline in the crab population, and the onset of old age has diminished our zest for fishing.  We no longer own a powerboat, and our kayaks often rest peacefully in the garage. Luckily a seafood market has located nearby, and my wife and in laws are excellent chefs.  The holiday routine revolves around cooking, eating, drinking and getting ready to repeat the cycle.

An interest in birdlife has offset our decline as watermen.  On the bay brown pelicans, black skimmers, laughing gulls, and several species of terns demonstrate their hunting skills.  Skimmers, as their name implies, fly close to the water, their lower mandibles extended just below the surface to vacuum up small fish. Pelicans and terns dive from the sky, the former making a loud splash, to capture prey from above and then swallow it whole.  We are sometimes lucky enough to see osprey, an eagle whose technique is to snatch fish near the water surface before butchering them on a safe perch.  Gulls scavenge, grabbing flotsam from the water, pestering hunters for part of their catch, or demonstrating remarkable aerobatics chasing bits thrown into the air by our delighted nieces.

Marshlands provide cover for shier, less agile fliers.  Herons and egrets wade through the shallow water searching for fish and crustaceans that they spear with their long, sharp beaks.  My wife and I recently saw a giant blue heron with a large, wiggling snake at the end of its bill. Roseate spoonbills are unmistakable in their deep pink plumage, especially striking during mating season, and their characteristic feeding behavior, swinging spatulated bills back and forth to capture small animals and insects from the shallow water.  Birds heard but unseen include the American bittern and the Clapper rail, the latter prized by our expert bird watching friends.

Galveston Island, although small, low, and close to the Texas mainland is an important stopover on the biennial bird migration to and from the neotropics.  Two years ago we witnessed what birders call a “fall out.” Songbirds had exhausted their energy reserves flying across the 650 mile-wide Gulf of Mexico, and the headwinds from cold front forced them to land abruptly. Baltimore orioles, Prothonotary warblers, painted and indigo buntings, ruby throated humming birds, arriving in singles and pairs, dropped almost simultaneously one afternoon and immediately grazed watered lawns and oleander hedges.  It’s hard to conceal bright orange, indigo, and red against brown and light green cover, so the birds moved in plain sight.  They sucked up nourishment and hydration as we looked on in delight. But it was only a pit stop; the next day none remained.  

We anxiously await another fall out at The Property.