Thursday, September 26, 2013

Understanding The Meaning of a Bumper Sticker and The Vietnam War

    In the '60s during the height of the U.S. troop escalation in the Vietnam War, my father placed a big bumper sticker on the front storm door of our Pottstown home with the following words - I SUPPORT THE TROOPS IN VIETNAM.
     It didn't say he supported the war or the politicians whose bidding these drafted soldiers were sent to do. It simply stated he supported the troops. My father was ahead of his time in this way. Many people around the country blamed these men and women for the battle they were told to fight. But the servicemen performed their patriotic duty and came home to a boiling society that wouldn't allow them to return with the dignity they deserved.
     My father was a career soldier who fought in World War II and Korea. He was in the Army reserves at the end of his last year when the fight in Vietnam was raging.  One of my older cousins and a U.S. Marine told me that my Master Sergeant dad couldn't lead any more young men off to war. So he retired in 1967. He served more than two decades and within a year he died at the age of forty-six.
     I looked at that sticker every day when I walked into our north end home wondering what it meant. And I'd think of the war protestors on college campuses trying to put the pieces together. How does my dad support these guys when everyone else seems to be at each others throat.
     Several of my friends had older brothers who went off to Southeast Asia. I remember talking to them and how down they were when the one they looked up to had to leave home with a duffle bag hanging from their shoulder. They were proud and afraid at the same time. I never saw a protest in Pottstown as a kid, there may have been one but people in this blue collar area were busy making a living at one of the many factories in town trying to pay the bills more than to make a political statement. I'm sure there was talk and fear but people had to keep on working.
     After the death of my father I'd accompany my mother to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville on a weekly basis. At times my brother Gary and sister Lisa would be along. I saw the wounded suffering from amputations and other serious injuries.
     When you are born into a culture as an army brat, you are part of a family that extended far past your own. I could walk down the halls of the army hospital alone, without fear. These hurt men waiting in the halls to see a doctor would look up at me a twelve years old and say a couple words and give me a smile. And I'd answer them back as best as a preteen could. I never witnessed the worst of those who suffered but watched some who were recovering hobble by on crutches or sitting in wheelchairs wearing those baby blue colored pajamas.
     We'd go into the commissary and my mom would buy groceries or other goods at the Post Exchange. There were always soldiers around us. We went as a family to see the doctors for inoculations or dental checkups. I spent many days at the post in my youth. I liked being there and around those heroes.
     Every visit before heading home, I'd ask my mom to drive over to the landing pad to watch the military helicopters bringing in the wounded. They were transferred to a hospital truck with a big red cross painted on the side. My mom never hid this from me. It was part of the real world growing up in a military family.
     Seeing this would get to my mom, but it wouldn't stop her from taking me there. We'd sit in the car quietly together and took it all in. I'm not sure how I felt watching the injured carefully tended to by other soldiers and nurses. But I now understood the meaning of the sticker on the door.
      The Vietnam veterans weren't welcomed home after their days of combat were over. It took years for that to happen. The first time I photographed Vietnam vets at home was in Reading, Pa. 25 years ago this month when thousands lined the streets for a welcome home parade and then dedicated a new memorial in a city park.
      I've had the honor of accompanying them to The Wall in Washington, D.C. The bus was silent on the way, veterans deep in thought. There were hugs and tears shed and flowers placed on graves. But it seemed like a healing process that day as the ride home was filled with loud chatter and laughter.
     The dedication of the statue and memorial in Pottstown's Memorial Park was a great event back in 1989. I shot one of my favorite photos of an Airborne Ranger who had fought in Vietnam shaking the hand of the soldier statue. Sadly this veteran passed away last month. I knew him since I was a boy growing up in the same neighborhood.
      They came home changed men forever, some were okay and got back to work while others continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I've gotten to know the local veterans from all wars and have the privilege of telling their stories working for The Mercury.
     This past week was the latest welcome home held in Pottstown with veterans opening up about their daily lives fighting in Vietnam. Warriors Watch Riders motorcyclists made their way down High Street to show their respect along with the speeches, hand shakes and thanks to the men. It was a long time coming for some of these guys.
     I will continue to cover the services and homecoming for veterans past and future because they deserve our thanks knowing we are behind them no matter our personal feelings. And I will support the troops wherever they go.
     Because that is what I have learned after looking at a bumper sticker placed on a door forty-five years ago.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Canning Fresh Vegetables by a Kid Who'd Rather Eat a Hot Dog

     Canning vegetables was an annual ritual for my wife Deb and me every fall buying boxes of tomatoes, corn and other vegetables at a good price.  And doing the work yourself gave you the satisfaction that on a cold winter day, cracking open one of the mason jars would give you a taste of all the fresh vegetables from summer. We haven't canned for a dozen years.
     For me eating fresh vegetables as a kid was an acquired taste. I grew up an army brat and everything came in a can from the Army post commissary. My mom made her own soups and was a great cook baking fresh pies weekly, but for some reason we ate vegetables out of a can. Annually we grew a couple of stringy tomato plants in the back yard but I got accustomed to the bland taste of store bought canned goods. And besides like most kids, I would have rather just eaten another hot dog than vegetables.
     When I met Deb, her late father was a gardener or should I say more like a farmer. He had a huge garden behind their Stowe home and was constantly pulling weeds or turning the soil planting and replanting. And at harvest time I was on hand at dinner to try the fresh veggies.
     I can eat a majority of anything fresh out of a garden but, I still can't eat fresh green beans. I look at Deb, smile and say these taste way to green! Funny, but the taste is still to strong to like. I can eat green beans pickled in a jar or cooked in with a ham and cabbage but I won't eat them unless they are boiled to death. The only vegetables I ate when I was a youngster was corn, waxed beans, apple sauce (yes I considered that a vegetable) and potatoes.
Deb working in her kitchen.
     With Deb's family, I was introduced to everything home grown from carrots, radishes, beans, cauliflower and broccoli, cabbage and tomatoes of all varieties. Peppers from mild to the set your tongue on fire types. Cucumbers, lettuce, squash, rhubarb, peas (no I won't eat these either) and kohlrabi. I looked at that green little thing and said to myself what the hell is a kohlrabi. I found out its a bit like a turnip. I never, ever in my life ate a turnip especially one called a kohlrabi. But when my father in law started mixing in all those leftover vegetables at the end of the season to make chicken soup on a cold fall day, I munched down those kohlrabi's along with all the other stuff. He made the best soup, just ask my daughters who still talk about how they miss not having a big bowl this time of the year.
     Deb's brother Joe also has a garden and cans some of the best vegetable concoctions I've ever tried. We were over recently and he had us try some home canned spicy hot asparagus and the taste was amazing. If I don't like something I'm not eating it to be polite. I could have eaten an entire jar and I'm not a big fresh asparagus eater. That ranks up their with the green beans. But pickled in a brine and adding in a couple of hot peppers gives it a flavor I go for. We ended up leaving with jars of some of his latest canned goods.
     And that got us thinking why not put up some jars for the coming winter. Yes it's easier to buy food at the grocery store, no mess, no time involved.  But being a vegetable convert, I have seen the light of eating home grown veggies, we decided to dust off the Victorio strainer, washed and sterilized our boxes of old mason jars and got to work.
     The first two projects were to make tomato sauce and the other was to make a salsa. I drove to several local farm stores and road side vegetable stands and bought a couple of big boxes of Roma variety tomatoes along with a bunch of onions, peppers and other vegetables requested by my wife.
     We skinned the tomatoes cut up the vegetables in large pieces. From here Deb took over to make her salsa. She has a processor that pulses them into small little pieces in seconds. It seemed to take a lot longer when we cut everything up by hand years ago. What a time and labor saver. From there we ladled the contents into a pint jars, sealed them up and boiled the jars in a hot water bath to kill off any remaining bacteria.  It was a lot of work to get fifteen pint jars of salsa. We chilled one down and tried it later that night, and I'm not exaggerating, it was the best salsa I ever had. Our kids agree as we are down to less than ten jars left and we haven't had a frost yet.  A second batch is schedule though I'm not sure we will be able to duplicate the taste. It had to be beginners luck.
     Next, we washed and cut up the remaining tomatoes in quarters and I ran them through the strainer to separate the juice and pulp from the skin and seeds. This hand operated little marvel doesn't miss a drop which is then mixed with spices and boiled down.
 I bought 75 ears of corn at another stand so that Deb could make a picked corn relish.  First we husk the ears, then blanch them. After the ears cools for a minute I take a sharp knife and cut the kernels from the cob.  By the time I get finished two large bowls are filled with corn. Deb mixes in her spices, vinegar and other secret herbs from her recipe and we again fill several dozen jars.  We will have enough to last a year. What was left over we froze and will be able to use over the winter. This was pretty cost effective and it was definitely cheaper to make than to buy in the store.
     We are looking to buy a bunch of vegetables for the next canning. Deb wants to make chow chow. I call this the hodge podge of home canned goods. Whatever is left after the smoke clears in the kitchen and wasn't used is stuffed together in a jar. So we will be hunting down the last of the fresh vegetables at the end of a good season.     But, I will tell you this, there won't be any kohlrabi added. I'm drawing the vegetable eating line.