Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thanks, Dad.

PFC Louis W. Kooistra, 18, in 1944

I've been glued to the television set this week from 8 to 10pm, forsaking even my much-anticipated nap before work each evening, so I could watch The War, filmmaker Ken Burns' 14-hour documentary on World War II.

It's been time well spent. It's certainly put the war in a greater context than anything I've come across before, and opened my eye to what "sacrifice" really means. It's also given me a much greater appreciation of what the war meant to people of my father's generation. . . and most importantly, given me a greater understanding of my father's life.

The War views World War II largely through the eyes of residents of four United States cities: Luverne, MN; Sacramento, CA; Waterbury, CT; and Mobile, AL. But the stories and perspectives from these towns aren't any different, the series points out, than those of countless other American cities. . . including Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my father grew up.

Lou Kooistra was born in 1925, just a tad bit too young, thank God, to participate in the opening years of the War. While older able-bodied men and his high-school upper-classmen headed off to war, my father, 16 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor, had to stay behind, finish high school and wait until he turned of age to join the war effort overseas. Wanting to fly planes, he tried to enlist early in officers' training for the Army Air Corps, but his mother wouldn't sign her permission to his early application; when he finally was drafted in 1944, he went into the Army infantry, something that probably saved his life, when you compare it to the mortality--or lack of--among air crews in Europe.

Dad took his basic training in New Jersey, and was set to ship out for the European front just after Christmas, 1944. The Allies had landed in France at Normandy six months earlier, and the push to Berlin was stalled in western Belgium and eastern France. Our troops were being decimated by the heavy fighting that winter, and Dad was being trained as a replacement soldier to shore up our fontal assault.

Dad made a frantic return to Grand Rapids by train while on a weekend pass to see his family for what he assumed would be the final time, barely making it back to New York harbor in time to embark on the Queen Mary for the trip across the Atlantic.

He arrived in Europe and immediately moved to the front line to join Company F, 71st Infantry, 44th Division, 6th Army in the waning days of the Battle of the Bulge in the Sarreguemines region of southeastern France. His company then pushed east towards Germany, seeing heavy action in taking the town of Mannheim, amid sniper fire and small-arms street fighting. Dad in fact, was hit by a sniper's bullet, which gave him cause for concern when he misinterpreted the warm water from his canteen, pierced by the sniper's bullet, for blood as it ran down his backside and leg. Not too long after this, Dad was wounded by a piece of shrapnel from a German grenade, and returned to service. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze star, among other citations, during his time overseas.

Thankfully for Dad, Germany surrended not too long after that, soon after the 44th reached Austria. By late July, after some leave time in France and England (and plenty of chances to get acquainted with the local girls--it wasn't all war!), Dad and his company had returned to the States on the Queen Elizabeth, to await training and reassignment to the Pacific, where the US was preparing a ground invasion of Japan. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened the Japanese surrender, however, and Dad never had to go to the Pacific, much to his relief. He spent much of the next year on base in Missouri awaiting his discharge from the Army.
This is just the barest outline of dad's military career. As he looks back on it now, he recalls the war as being filled with unspeakable horrors; but it also created friendships and memories that have lasted his entire life. In retrospect, he now says he wouldn't have traded the experience for a million dollars, though he certainly didn't feel that way at the time.

At Ease: Austria, 1945

Over a thousand World War II veterans a day are dying off in this country. My dad is 81 years of age, and nearly all of his fellow soldiers from Company F are no longer on this earth. It won't be long, sadly, until all the World War II veterans, Dad among them, will be gone, and then the war will go from an experience shared by the living to the pages of history. It is truly amazing the effort this country took in fighting the second World War. Straight out of a depression, our country wasn't prepared militarily nor economically to undertake such an ordeal, but leadership in Washington "spread the misery"and made this truly a war that everyone participated in, whether they actually fought or not. It was a war the citizens agreed as being necessary and right to fight. And though parents didn't send their sons overseas, many to their deaths, without hesitation, they saw a greater good in the cause.

The war profoundly changed America, the US emerging as an economic and political powerhouse afterwards. The role of blacks and women in American society changed as well, as did the largely agrarian United States population, moving en masse as it did to the city for war jobs and staying on afterwards as American industry reached its zenith.

And my Dad was part of it.

So, before it isn't too late, thanks, Dad, for everything. Thanks for the sacrifices you and your family and your neighbors in Grand Rapids made on the homefront, and for the service you gave to, at least temporarily, eradicate tyranny and fascism from the world. Four years into our nation's little adventure in Iraq, it's clear they don't make wars like they used to. And, as a whole, they don't make Americans like that, either.

Dad and E. and I.--two boys enjoying the freedom their Grandfather fought for.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Trolley Buff

End of the line: West Village at City Place, car 636, a former Dallas Railway car built by Brill, is reflected in a puddle of rainwater.

Perhaps no two words are more derisive to the hard-core railfan than to be called a "Trolley Buff." Maybe "Fan Living With Mother (or 'flim')" is just as damning, but not by much.

My experience trackside the past 30 years is that those of us heavy-haul "true believers" dismiss railfans who have an interest in trolleys, trolley systems, and light rail as being lower on the railfan caste as those whose primary interest is big-time freight railroading. Trolley fans? Ha, they sniff. Somewhere between tourist line buffs and bus fans. What a bunch of poofters!

Back in the barn: Car 369, a Melbourne, Australia car named "Matilda" ties up for the night at the trolley barn on Bowen street.

Melbourne car Matilda on Bowen Street. Lights from a nearby Shell Mini-Mart seem to be quite well balanced for daylight temperature!

I can see their point. Standing trackside alongside a mountain railroad as 18,000 horsepower of SD45's digging for all they're worth up the grade, sanders wide open, turbochargers wailing in pain is an experience tough to match. Certainly it's got it hands down over trolley cars. But there's something to be said for being open-minded about all forms of rail transportation. In the coming years, it will likely be the need to haul people that will drive much of the development of our nation's rail system, and on a most basic level, people hauling will come down to a proliferation of light rail systems. It's happened in cities like Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, and even Dallas. And they all owe a tip of the pantograph to their predecessor systems, the streetcars.

In Dallas, a small group of largely volunteers keep alive the tradition with the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority, a heritage trolley operation in the streets of Dallas's Uptown district. The 3.9 mile system has gradually expanded over the past decade, drawing support from local businesses who find neighborhood trolley service is good for business. A big chunk of the MATA's funding comes from DART, who subsidises service on the line 7-days a week, from at least 10am to 10pm daily. During peak periods, three vintage streetcars roam the line; during off-hours, at least two cars operate. And there are plans to expand the railroad further, into Dallas' rapidly-developing West End.

Motorman lowers the trolley on the 636 car at the Bowen St. carbarn.

Cars 369 and 636 inside the Bowen St. carbarn.

I hauled out-of-town visitors Steven and Joe--both of whom had spent considerable time living in the DFW area previously, and neither of whom would confess to having photographed the operation before--downtown last night to take some night photographs of the operation. Now, I'm not sure I convinced either one of these chaps about the legitimacy of trolley photography as a portion of their railfanning diet, but I do know they kept pretty busy photographing the two cars operating as they returned to the carbarn and were put to bed.

I'd been wanting to get back to Dallas for night shots most of the summer, and I'm damned glad I had the opportunity to do so. The cars are photogenic, the ambient lighting is quite nice, and the volunteer operators are most accommodating. It's definately worth the couple of hours investment in the experience, if only to get an idea of how people once got around the big and not-so-big cities in our country.

Meanwhile, I'll try to keep it our little secret that Joe and Steven spent a late night photographing. . .trolleys!

Motormen and car 369 at the Trolley Barn.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Cowboys 45, Giants 35

Or, as the headline on MSNBC said this morning: "Cowboys Hit Stride in Victory over Giants."

Huh? Giving up over 400 yards and 35 points to New York is NOT hitting your stride. Thank God the offense--especially QB Tony Romo--was firing on all cylinders last night, because that vaunted "Phillips 3-4 defense" wasn't getting it done. Did safety Roy Williams spend the ENTIRE game attempting to run down New York recievers? I'm sure Dallas offensive coach Jason Garrett is hoping that head coach Wade Phillips isn't expecting his squad to put up those numbers every week.

I'm no Cowboy fan, but when you walk away from the television for 10 minutes to take a shower and each side has scored a touchdown while you're away. .well, that's just some sloppy defense, by both teams.

It should be an interesting season, I suppose. I wouldn't imagine the NFC East is the feared division it used to be, however.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Meet the New Neighbors!

Would you mind if I borrowed a cup of sugar?

I suppose plastic surgery in Texas has gone mainstream. I mean, if you aren't getting a boob job or liposuction, well, you're probably in the minority around here anymore. Tatoos? I read somewhere that 60% of the population under 35 has em now, and the majority are found on folks who are in the upper half of the economic scale--they just aren't for sailors anymore, of course. Then there's the piercings and brandings, etc.

But these folks really take it to an extreme.

"Hey, honey, did you meet the new neighbor? Ron's an interesting guy. Insurance agent. Has 3,000 piercings, and, hey, did you check out those horns he had inserted under his skin?"

I'm more liberal-minded than most, but what am I supposed to think of folks like this?