Follow The Fence To Safety; Evading the Enemy

I am honored to share this with a greater audience for Veteran's Day. Only in his later years, did my father finally agree to let me interview and record his memories and experiences from WWII....thanks to my kids who wanted to write school reports about him. I have copies of their old papers, the scrapbooks, tape-recordings and notes I made and most recently, the framed display of his medals and citations designed by my brother. This year I am delighted that the next generation....his three youngest great-grandkids....are sharing Grandpa Bickley's story in their classes! 

 On his 18th mission in July, 1944, my Dad's B-17G Bomber was hit by flak while flying over France. He parachuted into a field near Rouen and hid for hours in thick, thorny bushes; evading capture by the German soldiers and holding his breath as they "poked around just inches away."
Taking a chance; he eventually started waving and walking toward a young boy pushing a plow. Pointing and gesturing excitedly, the 12 year-old indicated my Dad should "follow the fence" to the back of a farm in the distance. The farmer's family welcomed him into their home and quickly summoned their neighbor; a Count and wealthy landowner who headed the local French Underground.
The small village of Preaux was ready to do their part; having agreed before hand how it would work if an allied soldier needed protection. With new clothing and a new identity, my Dad lived for two months with various families. He grew a bushy mustache, went by the name of Pierre and quickly improved his high school French.

S/Sgt. Bickley was a turret-ball gunner.
It became a scary "game of hide-and-seek" with German troops searching barns and cellars daily and Dad riding his borrowed bike to a different place each night. When he and I talked about 15 years ago, he told of the relaxed and "homey" meals prepared by the farm wives and how all the kids called him 'mon oncle." He'd acquired the accent listening to his hosts for so long that when he reunited with members of his crew living in the next village several weeks later, they couldn't believe how French he'd become! Perhaps they didn't blend in as well as he did!

 After 70 days, the advancing Canadian ground forces made their way to Rouen. With his altered appearance, clothing and accent, he had to convince them he was indeed an American! He traveled  with the allies through towns and villages celebrating the liberation of France; finally boarding an RAF warship across the English Channel and back to his base in England.

A month later, he was back in Detroit to visit family and see me...his newborn daughter! He continued to serve as a pilot trainer in Texas until his discharge the following year. I never heard him talk about any of this growing up; didn't know a thing about it until the night we had a special visitor. I was 16 and allowed to stay up late! A news team arrived at our house just as my father returned from picking up Count Francois de Boisgelin. It was a big deal; this photo and article hung on the den walls for years; proudly showing off the citation of "gratitude and appreciation from the American people for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers from the enemy." Signed by President Eisenhower, copies were given to members of the French Underground as well as the airmen whose lives they'd saved....but whenever asked about it, Daddy never offered more than we already knew.

 The Detroit News; Spring, 1960

Years went by and bits and pieces would emerge whenever he discussed war-related things with my uncles or my brother after his return from Vietnam. Spending a weekend with me one summer in the mid 80's, we all went to tour a display of B-17's at the local airport. Boy, did he enjoy that! "How did I ever fit into this thing" he repeated over and over. He loved walking through the plane's narrow interior, remembered his cold hands and joked about his buddies! It never occurred to me to write anything down. Luckily, he grew more comfortable sharing as time went on. By the time he agreed to be "interviewed" by me....the family 'historian'....I was ready to record. He never mentioned fear; "we just knew what to do and did it" he said nonchalantly about the moment they were hit. Sweet details like Francois checking on him every week and handmade hand-me-downs that he thought too small, but were in fact just the right size for a skinny guy on the run. 
   In researching details to add to the medal display, my brother found that all crew members had survived the plane being shot down that summer day. It was nice to learn that they'd either been hidden as my dad was or captured as prisoners of war....and all were eventually rescued. I've shared this with various organizations who preserve the integrity and heroics of WWII veterans and I get teary-eyed every time I hear these them referred to as the "Greatest Generation!"

With my parents a few months before he died.

He's been gone 10 years now. Healthy, energetic and always ready to try something new; he passed away a few days after getting light-headed after his daily walk and chores. Yes, he'd had a heart attack at age 50, but as he told me minutes before he died; "I've been thrown a curve ball....they say it's my lungs!"
The WWII Memorial opened that fall; something he'd been looking forward to. My husband and I were among the first visitors; placing copies of these articles and photos along with so many others who'd come to honor their Greatest.

Walk Like a New Yorker

 "Why are we the only ones saying excuse me?" I wondered out loud as we made our way to dinner our first night in New York City. I was carefully noting the numbered streets and avenues at each intersection while trying to avoid people bumping into us or quickly pushing by. "They're all in a hurry and very rude!" my granddaughter said righteously.

We finally found the lovely Joe Allen restaurant; walking down steps into linen-tablecloths, celebrity photo-covered walls and a menu with eye-widening prices! Toasting each other with a Shirley Temple and gin and tonic, we hungrily ordered chicken Caesar salad and an Angus burger...perfect meals after a long, snacks-only travel day. The only kid and grandma duo among the suits and theater-going couples; the servers were eager to welcome us and offer fun suggestions.

Over dinner, we discussed the people in the streets; they think we're 'just tourists' said my sweet girl with teenage sarcasm.There seemed to be a method to their madness I they just barge along and others know enough to dodge them? How annoying we were stopping for photos; in awe of skyscrapers, bright lights, piles of trash and people cutting in front of moving vehicles.

The next morning we headed to Pier 83 in rainy, chilly wind. As we politely lifted and shifted our umbrellas so as not to poke anyone...while getting poked and dripped on ourselves...she figured it out!  "It's like dodge ball" she announced. Watch this! And she quickly walked ahead, zigging and zagging to avoid those coming toward us as well as those following behind. Me...not so much.

 Trying to control my umbrella, holler don't go too far ahead and not  bump anyone...I wasn't catching on at all. Why don't people stay to the right like suburban malls, walking trails and airport terminals? On the Lady Liberty cruise she chastised me for not seeing how easy it was. "Don't be so nice, don't keep saying excuse me, Grandma! Just go!" Not my style, darlin', I tried to explain. Walking back, head down against the wind and chilled to the bone, I suddenly didn't care if I stepped in someone's way. Enjoying hot chocolate and a cupcake at the Cake Boss CafĂ©, I was congratulated with "you did much better, Grandma!" Oh no!  Was I setting a bad example by praising her hustle-bustle street smarts; showing my age fretting about manners?

We walked everywhere the next few days; from 5:30 AM through empty streets for the Today Show to the late evening theater crowds around Times Square. But it was the mile-long walk from our hotel to the Empire State Building when "walking like a New Yorker" finally kicked in. I watched for openings and darted to the left or right, scooted around strollers and luggage-pullers, crossed against lights, quickened my pace passing slow walkers and never once excused myself! But I smiled a lot! Smiled and people smiled back. They respected me and understood I knew what I was doing... at least I like to think so! I had the confident stride and knowledge of where I was going. (A straight shot down Fifth Avenue!) I let her go ahead, saw her glance over her shoulder with pride as she checked on me.

 What easy freedom it is to walk the City streets when you know how it works. You feel the energy of aliveness and purpose and realize those who live and work in the city are just decent, caring people going about their business; hoping the next visitor figures it out sooner rather than later!

Advice For a College Bound Daughter

I have the letter my mom wrote to me and left under my pillow that first night in my college dorm room after the family had moved me in, hugged me goodbye and driven away. I gave it to my daughter the day she moved into her college dorm room....only I handed it to her and told her to read it after I'd left for home. I will give it to my son's daughters when they're off on their own; and hopefully my daughter will give it to hers when the time comes. It is the kind of letter that says exactly what every girl needs to read, to know and to feel at this moment in time....and my Mom said it best.

Mom and I saying goodbye as I begin my college years

I was off to Western Michigan University to become a teacher in the fall of 1962.  Just 18, the oldest child of four including the 'little kids' ages 3 and 5; moving two hours away from my Detroit home to live and learn in Kalamazoo was a big deal! Mom depended on me, so letting me go was hard for her. She knew I was excited and we'd had all the talks; but mostly....she understood this was a great leap of faith and growth for me. Her letter was perfect comfort and confidence in knowing I'd be okay.

for you and D, K and B. Maybe we haven't always done things wisely, but all that we have done is because of our great love for you kids. Looking back, there were things that would have made your life happier, I'm sure, but you have had a wonderful life as it is. Do you understand what I'm trying to say my darling? I believe with all my heart that you're going to do wonderful things someday and you will learn best by living the best life that you can.
                                        Joanie, you are going to run into many different kinds of situations and temptations of which you have no knowledge; but we have enough faith and love in you to know that you can and will handle them all to the best of your ability. Remember time and again of why you are and where you are, and what it means to all of us. We will miss you, but if you are happy then we won't mind so much.
                                           Do what is right for you; weigh your decisions, then be happy with your choice in what ever you do. Pray to God each night Joanie, and give thanks for everything as I pray each night thanking him for giving you to us. We are very proud of you and know you will do everything to make us keep on being so proud.  We are always here whenever you need us.
                           Goodnight my darling, sleep tight and give thanks.
                                                         All my love always,

In just two more years my oldest granddaughter will head to college; I'm confident these words....with her name inserted.....will be just as appropriate and meaningful as it was for me fifty years ago! 

10 Ways to Find Your New Comfort Zone

It was the worst of times....losing my husband just about a year ago. My perfectly happy comfortable life melted away in a matter of minutes. I look back now and believe it was the worst time in my life....but not the worst year. Grieving and growing for 12 months has brought challenges, surprises, discoveries and highlights that have created a new comfort zone; a new kind of happiness and a whole new me. 

                                       This is what I found:
  1. Weight loss is a good thing. My recent check up showed I've lost 12 pounds since last summer. My clothes are too big; but my aches and pains are gone, my lab results were excellent, I have more energy and my eating habits are green, clean and lean. If I use the hot cycle on the washer and dryer, I can shrink an outfit a bit and wear it once.  I took a few favorites to the alteration lady and discovered pants in the junior department fit best right now. Thanks to my sister, my nutritionist and online fitness blogs, I've leaned how to buy fresh farm-to-table-food and prepare healthy meals with little cooking!
  2. Strength is not just for men. I needed to do the heavy lifting, hauling, pushing and pulling weight training took on a different meaning. I am so.much.stronger! I actually see a little definition in my arms.....but that underarm jiggle is there to stay at my age. Planks and bridges are great for your core....and fun to do with little ones. Having my weights on the living room floor and music always playing means I can do a few sets here and there all day long.
  3. I look at overall fitness differently more Zumba and Pilates just for the fun of it.  I work my butt off to stay alive and well. Walking, swimming, spinning, yard work and floor play are all part of active aging. 
  4. Patience.  Be it spiritual, common sense, everyday hassles....I'm growing less anxious and more accepting. My husband constantly reminded me not to fret; not to sweat the small stuff. Even in girlfriend gatherings, someone would remind me not to fuss, worry or try to take care of all the details. When I accidentally switched my iPod to shuffle I had an "aha"'s okay to not know what's coming. Acceptance and patience are peaceful.
  5. Living in the in the moments around you. What better place to learn this than on water with boats and geese and paddle boarders floating by and you're lost in serenity and aloneness. I listen to my breathing, laugh at the cat more and delight in walking to the end of parking lots to my car because I find coins. This week I found 47 cents! I find happy moments everywhere just looking and listening. I had to give it a go on purpose at first; now it happens naturally when I'm out and about. 
  6. Friendships new and old. I am lucky to have so many villages full of friends. It did take all of them to give me strength and support in the beginning.....but now I treasure each and every one who has stuck by me. The ones that knew I could do it....and who cheer me on as I evolve. Family, forever friends, neighbors, colleagues and my online pals......thank you.
  7. I'm still working on financial awareness, but it's getting better. I've become more frugal, stopped more services and taken advantage of lower rates by refinancing the house again. Remember I was spoiled and I'm cautious and annoying; "don't waste a french fry" I say to the grandkids. "Grandma can't afford it" I remind them when they want to hit the mall or a local restaurant. But they understand and hopefully learn from it. Someday I will take each one on that vacation of their choice we promised years ago.
  8. Writing opportunities are out there and I have great mentors. But I don't have the same discipline or the drive to strive for compensation. There was another writer in the house in my old comfort zone; perhaps I'm leaning toward a new avenue or passion. But you know I will always write. I'm still a work in progress, where are you?
  9. Ask and you shall receive. I have become more comfortable asking for help and advice when I need it. Whether phone calls, store personnel, neighbors or needing a place to stay....I know I'll learn through others' thoughts and suggestions. Kindnesses that I'll pay forward; this too grows a better me.
  10. Self image and confidence. I never thought I'd manage without my cheerleader. I didn't think I'd move forward let alone on my own. But my soul inside is resilient and less vulnerable. Or maybe it's more vulnerable but in a good way. I know I'm looking and feeling good. I'm making good decisions and showing my children and grandchildren how to live life as it comes.  This makes me comfortable and happy with myself again. 

Writing to The Rescue...and Other Writing Process Tips

 Asked to contribute my thoughts on Writers Writing, the Blog Hopping author tour that's taking place all over blogland these days;  I had to think about why and how I actually write.  I know it makes me happy and has always been a part of my life. But this is the first time I've actually considered what it means to write.  According to my old diary tucked away in a drawer, I've been writing down stuff since I was 10 years old.  Over the years I've had the privilege to write for various publications and to teach writing skills to children, teachers and college students.  It doesn't matter whether I'm reading someone else's work or composing my own piece...the written word never fails to thrill! 
                                                                                                                                      Joan Stommen

Whether relief from worry or a release of joy…writing has always helped me...even rescued me at times from whatever life presented. But the one time writing couldn't rescue me was when my husband passed away. He laid down for an afternoon nap exactly 9 months ago today and never woke up.  

                                                            I could not write.

Losing him after 47 years of marriage was the final blow that destroyed my cocoon. You know; that place that insulates, envelopes and embraces us from birth. I had it all…happy childhood, wonderful husband and the joys of being sandwiched between my parents and grandchildren into my 60’s.  The death of my folks in recent years was hard, but not as devastating as losing my guy. My cocoon was suddenly gone and I was a hesitant butterfly with wings unprepared to fly alone; to find my way into an unknown future. I couldn't write for a very long time. I was afraid to write about death, sadness, pain, guilt and fear.

                                               Mostly, I was afraid to write alone.

He was a writer and editor, a guardian of language and my cheerleader. Earlier that day I took this photo in his office and added the quote he was so fond of. It reminded me how we spent our mornings in retirement; sharing our excitement and joy of the written word over coffee…me from the  op-ed page of our local paper, he chuckling over an article in Sports Illustrated.  I love how much our reading/writing connection kept us close all those years. He proofed every piece I wrote and gave me the go-ahead to publish. More time went by with me filling drafts and notes with random words, but I had no voice with which to use them.

                                           And then I did it…I wrote.

 Putting bits of my usual happy into the terrible sorrow of my heart, I managed to create Till Death Do Us Part. I put in a disclaimer that it was done with no sounding board or editorial check; worried I’d embarrass myself with errors and typos.  I felt both relief and release as the words poured out and made sense; a kind of peaceful  strength when it was accepted. Finally expressing these feelings about loss helped move me forward, helped me begin to heal. 

                                        Writing rescued me after all!

 After six months, I wrote about the things I'd learned and managed on my own in Becoming a Widow. Little did I know that finally sharing my thoughts and experience would not only bring responses of welcome back or well done; but an outpouring of gratefulness for putting into words what others will someday need to know.

                                           Writing became the breeze I needed.

I’m growing more confident with writing now; contributing to blogs and websites and working toward eventual publication of my Dad’s WWII experiences. Somewhere along the way I reached down deep and found that my parents and husband had been preparing me all along in those happy-go-lucky cocoon years. I feel their presence at times with warm, fuzzy feelings of accomplishment or that inner voice that whispers ‘proofread one more time’…definitely my husband!

                               He equipped me really well to fly alone...

 but I’m never far from hands that lift me up on this writing journey. Amazing writers and authors like my mentor Kim Jorgensen Gane at Gane Possible and our colleagues on Midlife Boulevard continually offer me encouragement and guidance as I learn to soar alone.  It’s not a cocoon, but a tribe that embraces me just the same.

 Here is what I've discovered about my writing:

 1)  What am I working on/writing?  I have my parents’ love letters from the WWII years 1943-1945 and I’m pulling bits and pieces of them together for their memoir….or maybe it’ll be mine since they reflect the beginning of me! I have notes and tapes from interviews with my Dad about his experiences as a B-17 bombardier; his tales of being shot down, parachuting into enemy territory, hiding in bushes until he was discovered and hidden by local members of the French Underground for 70 days. I’ve had all this for 3 ½ years…when I said “I want it, I want it all”  as my siblings and I cleaned out the family home after Mom died. It’s overwhelming and time consuming trying to narrow down, connect threads…weave something interesting for my family….for history. I’m also gathering old letters, news clippings and magazine articles about my husband to show my kids and grandkids what a respected, accomplished man he was. Will I stick to the facts with this project…as he always preached...or let the spotlight shine on my voice a bit too?

2)  How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre? I write about family, life and love as others do….but probably much more gushy-mushy, sensitive and emotional.  For many years I was a two-faced writer; news articles for my husband…who weeded out my fluffy, wordy details…and creative journaling in my classroom.  This was where my penchant for over-sharing, over-stating and over-doing colorful sentences really blossomed.  Somewhere along the line he acknowledged this and occasionally turned his weekly column over to me. I was thrilled to add these bylines to my scrapbooks. With a lifetime of diary entries, essay-length letters to family and friends, attempts at poetry and grab-your-attention hand-outs for my staff development workshops; writing a blog was a natural fit for me. However...blogging has its own set of instructions. I learned by reading other blogs and asking questions.  This wealth of knowledge plus continually polishing my own writing finally gave me confidence to join bigger avenues. I was a guest blogger for other sites, had some pieces accepted by More magazine’s ‘My Story' online blog, and was interviewed about writing memoirs for a senior living community. As I grow along….I learn more each day and no longer worry as much about genre or messing up. 

      3)  Why do I write what I do?  I think of my writing as an outlet, not an obligation.  I write because it helps me organize and analyze my thoughts and feelings. I’ve always expressed myself better through writing than speaking. Those elusive connections and words that don’t always pop out automatically in conversation come easier for me through the back and forth process of writing. I’m a memory maker, a Kodak moment kind of girl….so I create windows to look back through….to remember things, savor them, share them.   
Sometimes, like Flannery O’Connor, I don’t know what I think or feel till I write it down.  I like feeling that “aha” moment when the right words come together to say it well. If I can paint a picture with my words and weave stories out of sentences about my family and my life, I am happy. I love how words go together…the rhythm and rhyme of words. I know all words have been written before, but composing them into my own creation defines what is mine.

      4)  How does my writing process work?
 I have unfinished drafts, notes lying around here and there and entries in the journal I use at bedtime; so I guess that’s my start. Sometimes my words flow together smoothly, other times I stumble with word choice; or I fumble with descriptive details when a short, punchy phrase would work better.  My third grade grandson, completing a writing assignment, explained this to me about adjectives: “Describing words can ‘up’ or ‘down’ the you have to use wow words to up it.”  Pretty cool!  I go back and reread constantly, visualize and rephrase. It’s all reaction and that’s the key. I’m a fan of the old sloppy copy...get it all down, then go back and react and edit for the technicalities! This is what my husband handled, so now proofreading is a big deal for me. If my son or daughter are around, I ask them to have a read. I send off copy with permission to edit/revise as needed. I’m getting better, but what matters most is if my voice can be heard.  When I covered news events years ago, I worked on deadline. But I don’t really like writing on demand. Writing this today meant it had a due date!  I’m more comfortable writing when I’m in the mood, when I have a fun adventure, strong emotions or trying to figure things out.

Music and standing up are important as well. Since becoming more health conscience and physically fit the past few years, I’m aware that too much sitting is harmful.  My laptop sits waist-high in front of a window where I can see my side garden and neighborhood beyond. With music playing I stretch, wiggle, do leg raises and strengthen balance by standing on one foot. This helps me focus for a couple hours, keeps me limber and makes me happy. Maybe it was years of TV sports talk coming from somewhere in the house...or the Broadway show tune CD's he loved; but the house is too quiet here alone. I listen to Zumba class routines, movie soundtracks, current tunes and my all-time favorite oldies!

I am pleased to pass the torch on how and why Writers Write to another blogger who will share her personal story on growing, creating and becoming. Read Crystal Ponti's bio below and watch for her post next week!

Crystal Ponti is the founder of Blue Lobster Book Co.; a full-service, self-publishing boutique. Before launching her own business, she worked for many years in community management, working for and consulting with some of the largest sites in the world including and Google. Prior to working at Answers, she spent a number of years as a business and marketing consultant helping entrepreneurs plan, launch, and grow their businesses. Since then, she has focused on book marketing. Most recently she served as Managing Editor, Contributing Author and publisher of the book The Mother of All Meltdowns, a tell-all collection of moms' finest (worst, completely awful) moments. She also blogs at MommiFried, an outlet for her creative writing and a way to share her later-in-motherhood experiences with all women and parents, and is a regular contributor to Felicity Huffman's site What the Flicka? and Business @ Community.