The Seiko Watchdog

The casbah of the Ouidayas. Rabat, 1968.

In the sixties, a frequent scam involved an approach by a stranger who offered for sale some precious item that he had found on the beach. Even Peace Corps volunteers, who surely should have known better, were occasionally taken in by the scheme.

One volunteer, in Tangier for training, bought a beautiful Seiko watch, which, not unsurprisingly, stopped working soon afterwards. He took it to a medina shop in Rabat, which serviced watches, and the watch repairman took a look and quickly related the bad news. The watch was a fake.

The volunteer, who had paid good money for the watch, was beside himself. Not able to express himself in either Arabic or French, he began ranting, gesticulating, and jumping about the small shop.

Unfortunately, he stepped on the owner’s dog, which bit him severely enough to draw blood. The watch cost him far more than what it was worth, and he had to undergo a series of rabies shots, to boot!

If this were a Thurber fable, I would have a good moral here. Perhaps a reader can supply one for this true story.

La montagne n’a pas voulu

Au cours de la préparation de ces billets, j’ai eu l’occasion de discuter de certaines aventures et folies de notre jeunesse. Tout dernièrement, Reed Erskine et moi avons échangé des souvenirs de nos tentatives malheureuses d’escalader le Mont San Jacinto dans le sud de la Californie.

 

À l’époque on était une quarantaine de stagiaires, vivant dans un taudis qui servait de camp d’ouvriers migrants. Le Corps de la Paix le jugeait une préparation suffisante pour affronter les rigueurs de la vie au Maroc. À vrai dire, pendant les sept années que j’ai passées au Maroc, je n’ai jamais été aussi mal logé, et, quant à la nourriture, elle était tellement infecte que les stagiaires menaçaient de la boycotter. Par comparaison, manger au Maroc c’était comme monter au ciel.

 

De notre quartier dans la vallée, on voyait clairement la montagne, la deuxième en altitude dans le sud de Californie. Sur une épaule se situe au premier plan Tahquitz Peak, un éperon rocheux, avec en arrière plan la montagne propre, haute de 3300 mètres.

 

Loin de chez eux et pleins d’énergie, une poignée de stagiaires se proposaient l’ascension. Bien que beaucoup moins dramatique, tout ce qui s’est passé me rappellerait plus tard le livre de Saint-Loup, La montagne n’a pas voulu. En effet, Le mont San Jacinto n’a pas voulu du tout !

Le mont San Jacinto (3302 m)

Cette montagne est une des plus élevées du sud de la Californie, et sépare une vallée intérieure du désert. D’un côté, une région agricole, de l’autre le désert, elle est située dans une forêt nationale, par où le sentier Pacific Coast, dans son long méandre entre les frontières mexicaine et canadienne, passe à travers.

Coucher du soleil, vue vers le sud-ouest.

Nous sommes partis le soir, après nos cours, faire du camping près du village de montagne Idyllwild pour être prêts à commencer notre ascension de bonne heure le matin. En arrivant, on a constaté que le groupe avait apporté très peu d’eau. Tant pis, on en trouvera en forêt. La petite carte des sentiers que nous avions apportée n’indiquait pas les points d’eau; c’était à peine une carte, plutôt une représentation schématique, et nous ne nous en sommes pas inquiétés.

Notre « carte »

Elle ne marquait pas fidèlement les distances non plus. Le sommet était distante de 30 km. Notre route devait nous amener à mi-chemin du sommet de Tahquitz Peak (2800 m) . Remplis d’enthousiasme, sinon du bon sens, nous avons entamé notre randonnée de bonne heure le matin.

Le matin, au point du départ.

Au fur et mesure que Le Soleil montait, le manque d’eau se faisait sentir, et encore loin du sommet du Pic Tahquitz, la quantité risible d’eau apportée s’est épuisée. Toujours optimiste, on continuait à monter, et cela en dépit d’un temps de mi-octobre très chaud et sec! Un des nôtres s’est avisé de jouer au cowboys et aux Indiens, courant devant les autres, et disparaissant. Nous le retrouvions toujours, perché sur un grand rocher, jambes croisées, assis à la manière d’un Peau-Rouge de Lucky Luke.

Près du sommet du Tahquitz (2696 m)

Malheureusement, le jeu s’est terminé quant il s’est épuisé à tel point qu’il ne pouvait plus bouger, et, comble de malheur, il n’y avait pas une seule goutte d’eau pour étancher sa soif.

Au sommet, une tour pour repérer les incendies. Cette forêt en a souffert, et plusieurs sentiers sont fermés aujourd’hui.

Nous avons commencé à craindre sérieusement pour sa santé. Un ou deux d’entre nous sont descendus chercher du secours, et sont revenus à cheval, avec le shérif d’Idyllwild. On est descendu, le malade à cheval, les autres à pied. La santé bien rétablie grâce à des boisons gazeuses et des glaces, nous sommes rentrés à Hemet. C’est ainsi que s’est terminée notre première tentative.

Les forces de l’ordre étaient bien gentilles. Nous voilà en bas, avant notre retour au camp, chez le shérif de Idyllwild.

(À suivre)

MOROCCO BOUND

MOROCCO X: PEACE CORPS TRAINING IN HEMET CALIFORNIA

Reed Erskine, author and photographer.

PROLOGUE

In the summer of 1967, gas was 33 cents a gallon. The average annual income was $7,300. A war was raging in Vietnam, its American death toll having mushroomed, for the first time that year, to nearly 1000 American lives a month. Race riots had broken out in Detroit, Newark, Tampa, Buffalo, and Memphis. I was negotiating, in my 20th year of life, the uncertain territory between being a boy and becoming a man.

Fellow baby boomers, including one of my college roommates, had flocked to San Francisco for the first and last “Summer of Love”; meanwhile I was working a summer job at Montreal’s Expo ’67, bussing tables at the India Pavilion restaurant.

At the end of my sophomore year in college, I had applied to the Peace Corps, stirred by the adventurous idealism of a national service founded only six years before, by a president who had captured our imaginations with the possibility of being, in some small way, an agent of peace and understanding.

I had nearly forgotten my Peace Corps application until I got back from Montreal, and heard that the government had been asking friends and neighbors for character references on my behalf. It took a moment to realize that my Peace Corps application was being digested in the bowels of officialdom.

A letter arrived, proposing Peace Corps service in Micronesia. Head filled with images of palm-fringed islands in the sun, I called in to accept, only to be told that the program had been filled. The next program offered a post in Andhra Pradesh, India, but that fell through as well. As I was beginning to reconsider the entire project, I was assigned to Morocco X, an agricultural program.

Looking back over the five decades gone by since that mid-October day in 1967, when our cohort of 43 men and boys came together in Hemet, California, for three months of training, I had come to think that memories of that brief time had been all but lost beneath the accretion of intervening years.

When I discovered David Brooks’, “The Morocco That Was” blog, I was moved to revisit my own Morocco X experience, and, in rummaging through my meager memorabilia , discovered a cache of correspondence and journal entries that offered a few vignettes of our time in Hemet. I am setting down this account in the hope that those who were part of our shared experience might add their own memories to this blog, and help fill the remaining gaps in my recollections.

THE PLAN:

Morocco X was conceived as an ambitious agricultural project, intended to aid and expedite a U.S.A.I.D. Program to introduce a new and improved strain of wheat, known generally as “Mexican Wheat” to Moroccan farmers.

We volunteers were to be stationed at the numerous centres de travaux, small agricultural extension offices scattered across rural Morocco. Often sited in remote locations, the “C.T” were staffed by extension agents who dispensed aid and information to small family farms. The agents distributed seed stock, introduced modern techniques, pesticides, fertilizers, and provided access to modern, labor-saving machinery, such as tractors, plows and combines to farm communities, who were still relying on methods little changed since the Middle Ages.

Our mission, as volunteers, would be to coordinate with our USAID and Moroccan counterparts to get the new Mexican Wheat to our centres, set up demonstration plots, and introduce an agricultural revolution that could dramatically increase yields by eliminating two devastating problems facing wheat growers.

Wheat “rust”, a parasitic fungal infection on the stem and leaves of the plant, weakens its host, reducing quality and yield. As if the threat of “rust” was not enough, “lodging”, the tendency of the ripe wheat to fall over before harvest, leaving large swaths of wheat fields flattened to the ground, could also jeopardize the success of an otherwise abundant crop.

An Iowa farmer and plant pathologist, Norman Borlaug, had begun, in 1944, to find a solution to wheat rust infestation. For the next decade, he and his colleagues cross bred thousands of wheat strains from around the world to create a rust-resistant wheat. The resulting hybrid was still vulnerable to toppling under the weight of its ripe heads, until Borlaug crossed it again with a Japanese dwarf strain to create a short-stemmed, semi-dwarf wheat, resistant to both lodging and rust.

Borlaug’s genius and dedication won him a Nobel prize in 1970, and should have provided Morocco X with a seminal role in the great endeavor of thwarting the dire Malthusian prediction of mass starvation, as population growth outstripped agricultural output. This heady prospect, that might have cast us as servants to the survival of the human race, was, like so many hopes and dreams, on a collision course with the ultimate reality of our mission in Morocco.

PEOPLE & PLACE:

On a warm mid-October afternoon in 1967, 43 prospective volunteers for the tenth Morocco Peace Corps program, having passed initial application and vetting processes, arrived in Hemet, California. Most of us came from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Lower 48, with a few from the Midwest, and at least one, that I can think of, from the South. We ranged in age from 19 to 38. An overwhelming majority came armed with undergraduate degrees, a few having pursued or obtained post-graduate degrees. One or two of us had less than four years of college. No one had, as far as I could tell, any agricultural background. Without exception we were white Caucasians which, in 1967, was not surprising.

Hemet was, in those days, a nondescript sprawl of a town, set in a semi-desert valley just beginning its evolution from a patchwork of irrigated alfalfa fields and orchards, into America’s first planned retirement community, which offered mobile home sites in a subdivision zoned for residents over the age of 55.

Sierra Dawn Estates, promoted by Art Linkletter, had preceded our arrival in Hemet by only a few years. Its wide, straight streets, bordered by tidy, double wide mobile homes, fronted by startlingly green Sta-Rock “lawns”, had just begun to transform the “Grapes of Wrath” desolation of Hemet into a working-class, suburban Valhalla.

Hemet’s role in the American dream went unnoticed by us new arrivals. We were billeted at a desolate migrant labor camp in an abandoned pecan grove on the ragged edge of town. We remained largely unaware of the Hemet or its inhabitants, whose population would not exceed 10,000 souls until the 1970 census.

The migrant labor camp was U-shaped, with staff quarters on the left, showers at the end, and volunteers’ quarters and classrooms on the right.

Our initial concern was adjusting to our spartan accommodations, a one-story line of dormitory rooms on a concrete slab, separated by a dirt courtyard from an identical set of rooms, which served as classrooms and mess hall. Both residential and classroom wings were bridged at one end by a shared bath facility. We were four to room, in each corner of which we found a steel frame cot and thin mattress. A door and two windows completed the decor.

A cot in a corner. Each room had four. There was no heat.
The main classroom. The languages classes were in other smaller rooms.

Our other concern was the punishing curriculum, 28 hours a week of immersion language classes, 15 hours a week of basic agronomy, and 12 ½ hours a week of something called “Area Studies”, which consisted of instruction in the essential aspects of Moroccan customs and etiquette. Beyond the classroom, there were field trips to olive groves, date plantations, and the irrigated, industrial-scale agriculture sites of the Imperial Valley.

Behind our barracks were a few acres of open field, where we were assigned individual irrigated plots to plant and cultivate. Our education included instruction in the production of adobe bricks, and rammed earth wall construction. Our six-day weeks, with morning, afternoon and evening classes, made for a grueling schedule, but we were left to our own devices on Sundays and holidays, which included, in our case, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the arrival of the New Year.

The days got shorter. Our struggles with an incomprehensible language, trying to find warmth enough for slumber under thin blankets through bone-chilling nights, as roommates snored and mumbled in their dreams, plus the seemingly random attrition of our numbers, all conspired to sap morale. We were becoming a brotherhood of shared hardship, but our camaraderie was, by necessity, tentative, as we were soon to be dispersed either by dreaded “de-selection” from the program, or when we were to be dispatched to solitary assignments across rural Morocco.

Trainees and two of our trainers in a moment of contemplation.

A palpable sense of shock went through our ranks when one of us was drafted out of training. While education was an acceptable grounds for draft deferment, Peace Corps deferments were up to individual draft boards, who didn’t always view trainee status as entitled to deferment. A few trainees left the program early for personal reasons, and a case of pneumonia sent at least one trainee home for medical reasons. By the end of training, our original 43 trainees had become a contingent of 30 volunteers, who, having endured the rigors of training, might succeed the ultimate test of surviving, and hopefully thriving, on their own in Morocco.

PAINS & PLEASURES:

Our 12 weeks of training in Hemet have left a few memorable impressions intact to this day, basic sustenance being one of them. The food provided by the training organization, the anonymously titled “Development & Resources Corp.”, was so bad that two months into training, it nearly provoked a mutiny. In one of my letters home, I described it as 40% fat and 50% carbohydrates. The cost of our upkeep, per head, was rumored to be $3.50 per day. After all, the more D&R spent on us, the less would be left for the company. On the bright side was the mid-morning visit by the Taco Truck, whose coffee and crunchy fare were often the high points of our day.

A giant plow with an opposed pair of blades in the Imperial Valley.

Language training, all 336 hours of it, was brutal, but our Moroccan teachers were tireless, effective, and patient. In retrospect, it must have been much harder for them than it was for us. We spent hours on the pronunciation of sounds that don’t exist in English: glottal stops, unfamiliar consonants, tricky vowel sounds, and extravagantly rolled R’s.

Our lazy, middle-of-the mouth, American English was no match for a language that demanded agility from the tip to the root of the tongue, lips and deepest recesses of the throat. We learned just enough darija, as Moroccan dialect is called, to learn some more. Our crash course in the language endowed us with the gift of comprehending, if only a little, the complexities of life in a culture very different and distant from our own.

In spite of our six-day work weeks, Sundays and holidays provided free time for all kinds of recreation, as long as it didn’t involve spending money. I’m not sure when our $75 a month salary kicked in, but our circumstances were, at the time, necessarily miserly and monastic. After weeks of admiring Mt. San Jacinto, rising to nearly 11,000 feet above the Hemet Valley, a small group of us decided to make the ascent. We were mostly naive easterners, and set out traveling light, without much food or water. It didn’t take long to figure out the error of our ways.

We ran out of water well before arriving at the summit, where the lone occupant of the Forestry Service fire lookout station studiously ignored our parched entreaties for water. Not all of our number succeeded in making the descent unaided, and our group had to separate, hoping to summon aid when one of us got to the town of Idyllwild at the foot of the mountain. Fortunately, another group of visitors, descending single file on a bunch of sturdy saddle mules, happened on our exhausted comrade and delivered him to the trail head. It was a sobering reminder, that despite our youthful energy, there were limits.

The program included, inexplicably, two horses, corralled in a small enclosure behind our barracks. They seemed to share the boredom of our long days off, and I found that the old gelding, Bub, enjoyed excursions in the sandy dry river bed that ran along the San Jacinto foot hills. It became a solitary source of joy to bridle up Bub, straddle his wide warm back, and set out for nowhere in particular. He was capable of a sweet rolling canter, but had an alarming tendency to stumble. Riding bareback, thin winter sunshine casting our long shadows on the valley floor in the cool waning days of 1967, was a singular pleasure.

Bub and his friend.

On a less pleasant note, were the visits to the local doctor’s office, where we lined up to be injected with an endless variety of immunizations and vaccinations, each with” its own level of discomfort. The last of these puncture parties featured the dreaded Gamma globulin shot, 5 cubic centimeters of thick amber liquid with the consistency of motor oil, delivered to the gluteus maximus. This slug of extra antibodies rendered us temporarily impervious to all manner of pathogens.

“Deselection” was the official euphemism for being rejected from training, which could happen at any point if the staff determined that a trainee was lacking in either the aptitude or attitude for two years of service in Morocco. The most dreaded kind of deselection could occur at the very end of training, leaving the rejected volunteer to pack up his hard-won education and move on.

For some reason we trainees were asked to assess our peers, as if we could judge each others’ chances of success going forward, but ours was not to reason why. On the last day, one of our more flamboyant and likable trainees, a California dude, was sent home, which left us in a state of sadness mixed with relief at having gotten through the ordeal, anticipating a return to the comforts of home and family for three days before convening at JFK, at last, Morocco bound.

POST SCRIPT:

Arriving in Morocco, we had two more weeks of training and orientation before heading out to our assigned posts. One of our assignments involved trying out the most basic of Moroccan agricultural practices, guiding a traditional wooden plow behind a mule. It was a humbling experience. The only metal part of this ungainly tool was a flat iron blade that scratched a shallow furrow into the earth. We had brought with us a brand new iron moldboard plow. Its curved blade, first designed by Thomas Jefferson, and later patented at the turn of the 19th century, not only cut a furrow, but turned the soil over like a breaking wave.

The traditional Moroccan plow was about two centuries behind the times, and the improvement, in our eyes, was striking. We proudly presented the new plow to the farmer who had participated in the demonstration. He seemed mildly appreciative, but somewhat nonplussed by this newfangled gadget, just as his American counterparts had greeted the introduction of the same newfangled moldboard plow with equal skepticism 167 years earlier.

Morocco X, was never to realize its potential. The Mexican Wheat, and the USAID Program to introduce it was delayed. Our volunteers in the field became redundant onlookers in a bureaucratic system that was barely functional to begin with. Our language skills, while appreciated, were inadequate in an administrative environment that relied heavily on the French language, as Morocco had only gained independence from the French protectorate in 1956, eleven years before our arrival.

A kindly Belgian agronomist in the Taza Provincial office offered me a place as his assistant in a UN Funded program to introduce modern techniques of bee-keeping to farmers in the Rif mountains. Honey was a popular commodity, and valuable cash crop. Apiculture was a good option for farmers who lacked enough arable land to provide for their families. After a month of training with an old Belgian pied noir, who bellowed “praise God” every time I was stung by the ferociously aggressive African bees, I finally had a mission whose only drawback was its seasonality. To fill in the winter off-season, I became an English language teacher at the local Taza Lycée.

Morocco X was officially disbanded at the mid-service conference. Some volunteers who had found work at the more active provincial agricultural centers, or other more specialized areas of endeavor, would stay on to finish their two year term of service, or even extend for a third year. The rest were offered a plane ticket back to the States or transfer to other programs.

An “Evaluator”, sent from Washington to ascertain the nature of Morocco X’s thwarted ambitions, observed, in a moment of candor, that he had never seen such a promising group of volunteers so poorly tasked or deployed.

As the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The Morocco X experience may have been an exercise in blind optimism, and the futility of good intentions, but for many of us the struggle to start life from scratch in a foreign culture demanded an intensity of self-examination and self-realization that gave us the will and the way to a larger sphere of life, “lived forwards”.

For some of us the experience was a gateway to careers in education and international development, for others the experience opened the door to experiencing a world we could not otherwise have imagined. Morocco X, whatever its faults, changed each of us in profound and simple ways that have resonated throughout life that “can only be understood backwards”.

 

Authored by Reed Erskine, Morocco X Volunteer

Khadija

In the middle of the first snow storm of the winter, with the temperature near or below 0° F and wind chills 20 or 30 degrees lower, every reason to stay indoors is a good one, though I did walk to the road to get the Sunday morning newspaper. Niagara County has issued a traffic advisory, counseling drivers to stay off the roads unless it is absolutely essential. Even Lucky, our male cat, who normally demands to be let out early so he can pad around, sniffing out the intruders of the night before and marking his territory, only went out once. The snow was deep and very cold, and when Lucky ran back in after five minutes, he never asked to go out again. As storms go, this was a good one, but we have certainly seen much worse. Our driveway has been plowed for us, so we are not housebound except by choice. These few days of winter are ones that one enjoys best inside. Winter has settled in for awhile, so why shouldn’t we?

We subscribe to a number of magazines, and often they go unread, piling up in unvisited corners of the house. I try to keep them as long as I can, imaging that I will find some time to read them, but I often end up only skimming them or tossing them unread.

Settling in with the storm, I picked up the latest issue of the New York Review of Books,which had just arrived. The first article was a review, by a Mexican writer, of Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, Roma. If you are a fan of the movies, you will probably have noted that this autobiographical film, about the life of a nanny in a middle class Mexican household, has garnered critical acclaim, and is an Oscar contender. The reviewer related her own life directly to the movie: she had grown up in a similar situation. Indeed, it was common for those who could afford it to take on nannies and cooks from impoverished rural areas. These women ended up as primary caregivers to children of others, while sometimes their own children lived far away in their native villages. This was the best they could do. They traded abject poverty for meager positions where loneliness and mistreatment and neglect were common. Any love they gave and received was often only from the children for whom they cared. This is one of the themes of Roma.

For Americans, the live-in nanny is an unusual profession, and only wealthy Americans can afford one. I grew up in a generation of stay-at-home moms, but today two-wage earner families are the norm, and childcare is a common problem. With mobility often a requirement for employment, Americans change residences frequently, and often live far from their own parents and other relatives. Daycare and more makeshift arrangements are expensive, and many parents look forward to time when their children finally begin school, when the need for day care is reduced to a few after school hours. In Europe au pair girls often fulfill the role of the nanny, trading pay for a chance to learn a foreign language and culture, but, like nannies, au pairs in America are expensive and rather exotic.

In poor societies, lack of employment means that women will often take jobs as domestic servants. This was the case in Morocco, even though there was a strong bias against work outside the home, and women who did it were looked down upon. Rules of modesty were necessarily abandoned by a woman working outside in another’s home Sometimes a poor country relative was taken in, and often treated much as a Cinderella. Many of the French coopérants hired bonnes, maids, to help them. Working for foreign, non-Muslims didn’t help a woman’s status, but it was better than nothing. In France, having a bonne, was perhaps more common than for an American woman to have hired help, and the word maid, in American English, certainly has strong associations with upper-class living.

Khadija

When I began my work at a primary school chicken cooperative in the Habouna neighborhood of Sefrou, I replaced two volunteers who had employed a young woman to clean for them. Her name was Khadija, and she came daily. At the end of the summer of that same year, another Morocco X volunteer, Gaylord Barr, proposed that we rent a house in the medina, the old walled part of town. He moved out of a small European style house high above the ville nouvelle, the French-built new town. It was a long, steep walk to his house, and the house was far from everything. I moved out of the little block building in the yard of the school garden, a dwelling that I can easily say, had the least privacy imaginable outside of a bidonville or a medina tenement. It was coveted by the chaoush, and, in the end, he got it. In addition to better housing, both of us looked forward to living within the medina walls. At the time, we naively thought of that as being in the authentic Morocco. In fact, it was the Morocco of the poor. Today, the medina of Sefrou is degenerating into a slum, and there have been calls to preserve it.

The Sefrou house was the last door on the left. Khadija is standing in the street. The gate pierces the city wall.

With the two of us in a substantial house, we needed help, and, with two Peace Corps allowances, modest as they were, paying for it was not difficult. So Khadija came to work for the two of us. Hiring help was not an uncommon practice among volunteers, but not every volunteer had a maid to clean and cook, nor did everyone want one.

Gaylord, Samira the cat, on his shoulder, Khadija. Looking toward the street side.

I never asked Khadija how old she was, and though she had an identity card with a birthdate, it might have been wrong. I think she was about my age, or possibly slightly older.

Poor Moroccan women tended to age quickly. She was not an old woman in any case. Her surname was Demnati, which suggests that her family was from the place of that name. I remember her husband, Ali, talking about the famine in Marrakesh, and Demnat is not far from Marrakesh.

Khadija and Ali

She did not speak Berber, as far as I know, though she would not have had any occasion to do so in our house. Ali had served in the French army in Vietnam, and sympathized with American soldiers at the time. Indochina was not a fond memory. He lived on his military pension, and it was not much, so Khadija’s wages contributed substantially to the family income. He had been married before, because he had a son, Mohammed, who lived with them. The three of them shared a house in the medina, with two or three other families. Khadija had no children of her own.

Khadija and Mohammed

Khadija had no formal education, and could not read or write, which was not unusual considering her generation and social class. She had no trouble with arithmetic or handling money, however. Since Khadija spoke no French, her employment was limited further, but the volunteers of Morocco X were trained in dialectical Arabic, so Khadija’s daily language was fine for us, and speaking with her gave us constant practice, as well as information about what was going on in the world. We never attempted to teach her English.

Khadija’s duties were limited, though it might not seem so as I list them. She would shop, bake bread, cook, do laundry and clean house.

Lunch on the roof

She made lunch, and there was usually enough for dinner in the evening. She usually arrived about 8:00 in the morning. Once I began working in Fes, I would only see her on weekends or on holidays, but I knew there would be food waiting when I arrived home, often at seven or eight in the evening.

If we had guests, she would work extra time. When Khadija needed time for something personal, she was always able to take it.

From the point of view of a Moroccan domestic, she had a good job. I think we paid more than the going rate, about $20.00 per month, and we were not demanding. When she made bread for us in the morning, she made her own bread, often, I suspect, with our flour, but that was okay with us. When there was extra food, she could take it home for her family, and we gave her things we did not need and took her to Fes to the dentist and doctor when needed.

In a new dress.

She in return did us favors. When we had women visit, she would take them to the hammam (the public baths) or to fortune tellers or whatever women’s activity they were interested in.

With Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson’s press secretary, and Carpenter’s daughter

She also took care of the numerous pets: cats, doves, canaries, tortoises, hamsters. Changing the cat litter, which was straw, was a nasty job, although the cats eventually helped out by using the roof of the room on the terrace, to which there was no easy access, as a giant cat box!

Washing dishes on the roof.

Khadija did laundry (and rugs) in a large galvanized tub, on the roof, where the laundry was also hung to dry. Gaylord and I sometimes used this tub to take baths, when we couldn’t get to the neighborhood hammam.

The neighborhood hammam. The left side was reserved for women.

It was just large enough to sit in, if you crossed your legs. I’d put a couple of kettles on the stove, drag the tub to the bathroom, which was the only room on the ground floor, and mix the hot and cold waters. The house had no hot water, and I don’t recall anything in the bathroom except a Turkish toilet, though there was probably a tiny wash basin. After a bath, you just dumped the bath water into the toilet hole. You were warm as long as the water in your tub stayed warm, and until the kettles ran out of fresh rinse water.

Khadija cooked from the room we called a kitchen, though it had no running water. The water was on the landing, at the main level of the house, that marked the division between the stairs that led to the roof and those that went down to the bathroom and front door. This was where dishes were washed though I think there were sunny days when pots and pans were done on the roof.

Washing clothes on the roof.

Since the stove sat on a cupboard, the food was cooked standing, but much of the preparation was done as Khadija sat on the floor. As a poor woman, her cooking repertoire was probably limited, but I have never eaten as well since, and she could make all the standard Moroccan fare.

Preparing couscous. It didn’t come out of boxes.

On Aid es-Seghir we would visit her house to break the fast. One year we joined in buying a sheep with her for Aid el-Kbir, and it was kept on the roof. We called it Messaoud, an ironic name, and for the several months it lived above us, I could hear the the patter of its hooves.

With Messaoud.

It was playful, too, and would chase you if you encouraged it. After keeping it a couple of months, it was almost like a pet. If it were possible to later describe your pet as delicious.

A sad end, but Messaoud was sacrificed in remembrance of the sacrifice of Ibrahim.

Khadija was really a kind of nanny. She took care of us in good health and in sickness, and did her best giving advice about dealing with the life about us as well as the supernatural. Moroccans, often superstitious, worried about the evil eye and malicious spirits. Khadija warned us about pouring hot water down the drain (it would anger the jinn that lived there) and leaving our clothes in disarray when we went to sleep (jinn would wear them and bring illness to the owners.)

She was an intermediary with our neighbors and shopkeepers, too, and I am sure she helped us develop relationships with some of them. I don’t know if Khadija loved us with the love the nanny in Roma had for her employer’s children, but the affection she showed was real, and we often treated her more as a friend or a parent than as a servant. I sure she was often exasperated, too, by the stupid things we did.

With me in 1970, at the Fes airport.

I left Morocco in the late summer of 1971. Gaylord had reenlisted for another year of teaching at the Lycée Sid Lahcen Lyoussi. Returning from Tunisia, he contracted typhoid, and had to be evacuated to a U.S. military hospital in Spain, where he spent a couple of months. During that time, Khadija watched the house and took care of the pets. Before Gaylord left in July 1972, he used some of the money he had saved to invest in a business in which Khadija would be co-owner, but, according to Khadija, her partner absconded with the stock and she ended up with nothing. It was tough for a woman to enforce her rights.

In 1973 I returned to Sefrou for a few months, and rented a place to live. I hired Khadija again. Gaylord visited Sefrou in the late 1990s, and saw her again, too. She was working for a French national in the ville nouvelle, and hoping Gaylord, on his way home from Saudi Arabia, would give her money. He was put off by her behavior, and complained bitterly about it to me in his description of his visit. I was frankly surprised.

Looking back, I wish I had got to know Khadija better. She might have had it easy working for us, but she had a hard life, as most of the people of her social status did. I felt for her then as I do for her now. If I had planned to be an anthropologist, I would have had four years to document her life. In retrospect, I marvel at how little I knew about her. I never learned how she married, who her friends and relatives were, and how she practiced her religion. Gaylord knew her far better than I, but he has sadly gone. I also would have liked to help her more than I did, but when I left Sefrou that chapter of my life ended. There was no easy way to stay in touch with someone who could not read or write, and the computer era had yet to dawn.

Toubkal 50 ans plus tard

Toubkal au coucher du soleil

Environ une semaine avant Noël, un article sur le tourisme a paru dans le Washington Post (Tourists are ruining these destinations. Here’s where you should travel, instead) offrant des possibilités de voyages moins courus en remplacement de certaines destinations très populaires qui sont de plus en plus coûteuses et bondées. On a proposé, par exemple, un autre site au Pérou pour remplacer Machu Picchu.

Au cours des cinquante dernières années, l’expansion du transport aérien a rendu accessibles et abordables des régions autrefois éloignées des sentiers battus. La mention de Machu Picchu m’a rappelé un souvenir.

Au milieu des années 1960 quand j’étais à l’université, Chuck, un étudiant: dans la chambre attenante à la mienne dans Cutter Hall, avait été au Pérou. Il se peut que sa famille y restait. Les visites au célèbre site inca étaient moins fréquentes et plus difficiles que de nos jours. Il m’a raconté comment lui et un ami sont arrivés tard à Machu Picchu, ont regardé l’arrivée de la nuit dans les montagnes, et ensuite se sont installés dans leurs sacs de couchage. Tout seuls au milieu des ruines, « la cité perdue des Incas » leur appartenait. L’expérience était presque spirituelle et ils attendaient impatiemment l’aube.

Un thuya en route vers Tazaghart

Quand ils se sont réveillés le lendemain, par contre, l’aube ne leur a pas apporté ce à quoi ils s’attendaient. Dans un vacarme considérable, une équipe de cameramen préparait un tournage, Le secret des Incas, mettant en vedette Victor Mature, acteur de films de série B, dont la notoriété reposait sur les rôles qu’il jouait dans des films bibliques des années 1950.

Or, en toute honnêteté, je n’ai pu trouver un film de ce titre mettant en vedette Victor Mature; il s’agissait peut-être de Le secret des Incas avec Charlton Heston ou même d’un autre navet encore plus insignifiant. Quel que soit le film qu’on tournait lors du réveil de Chuck et de son ami, Machu Picchu s’est avéré tout sauf « une cité perdue ».

J’aurais préféré que ce soit un film de Victor Mature. Cette star américaine avait une réputation d’acteur médiocre à tel point qu’à l’université Harvard, les étudiants lui ont décerné le prix de Pire acteur de l’année, et ce plus d’une fois. Bon prince, Mature l’acceptait de bonne grâce. Une fois en Californie il avait fait une demande pour devenir membre dans un club de golf, demande qui a été rejetée « parce il était acteur », ce à quoi il a répondu avec indignation : « Je ne suis PAS acteur, et j’ai soixante-quatre films qui le prouvent. »

Dans la liste de nouveaux sites à visiter, se trouve le mont Toubkal en remplacement de l’Everest. Le camp de base du mont Everest est devenu une destination très fréquentée par les randonneurs. Autrefois le simple défi de se rendre à la base des montagnes constituait l’un des dangers et l’une des difficultés de l’ascension des 8 000 mètres des sommets himalayens. Les récits des premières ascensions témoignent des difficultés des approches, et racontent des histoires de porteurs qui abandonnent, de passages à gué dangereux et de forêts de rhododendrons infestées de sangsues.

Maisons typiques dans la région du Toubkal

De nos jours, quiconque qui jouit d’une bonne santé et a les moyens de payer le billet d’avion, peut trouver le moyen de s’y rendre à pied et ce n’est donc pas surprenant que certaines parties de l’Himalaya soient débordées. En Europe pour les pistes populaires, les alpinistes doivent faire la file et la France vient d’annoncer des limites (200 personnes par jour) pour ceux qui veulent grimper au sommet du mont Blanc.

Or, le Toubkal se situe à une tout autre échelle que celle de l’Himalaya et présente des paysages différents. Le sommet du Toubkal est des milliers de mètres plus bas que le camp de base de l’Everest et, si vous voulez voir de la neige au Maroc, il faut y aller pendant une saison autre que l’été. Ceci dit, une visite au Toubkal coûte relativement peu cher et, se trouvant à une courte distance de Marrakech, est d’accès facile. Ayant passé du temps dans cette région du Haut-Atlas, je n’hésiterais pas à en recommander les paysages. On peut se rendre facilement à la base du Toubkal à pied ou à dos de mulet, en quelques heures plutôt que jours, et la plupart des randonneurs peuvent composer avec l’altitude modeste du Toubkal.

Malheureusement, peu de temps après la publication de l’article mentionnant le Toubkal, deux jeunes femmes scandinaves qui faisaient du camping près d’Imlil ont été brutalement assassinées. La police marocaine a rapidement mis la main au collet des suspects et, selon la presse, certains des responsables impliqués avaient prêté serment à l’État islamique.

Depuis une vingtaine d’années, le Maroc, à l’instar des autres pays du Maghreb, a vécu des attaques terroristes, mais elles ont été peu nombreuses. Le tourisme constitue une source de revenus importants pour le pays et la protection et la sécurité des visiteurs étrangers a toujours été une préoccupation prioritaire du gouvernement marocain.

Vue vers l’est à partir du chemin Tizi-n-Test, Angour et Tazaghart

J’ai vécu au Maroc peu de temps après son indépendance de la France. À cette époque, la tolérance religieuse envers les non-musulmans était variable et dépendait de plusieurs facteurs, mais peu de Marocains avaient des croyances comparables à celles des islamistes radicaux de nos jours. Les Marocains, à l’aise dans leurs convictions et dans leur religion, abordaient les non-musulmans avec confiance. Après tout près d’un demi-siècle de régime colonial et des siècles de conflit avec des puissances chrétiennes et musulmanes, des conflits qui avaient plus à voir avec la concurrence relative aux terres et au commerce qu’avec la religion, les Marocains s’étaient forgé une identité propre. Les Marocains plus jeunes et mieux instruits que je connaissais semblaient moins religieux que leurs aînés et se moquaient souvent des croyances populaires, mais ils étaient tout de même convaincus d’avoir la véritable religion, à part quelques athées autoproclamés qui prenaient soin d’en parler tout discrètement. Pendant les sept ans où j’ai vécu au pays, j’ai été témoins de bien peu d’incidents de préjugés religieux. Celui dont je garde le plus vif souvenir est arrivé au Jbel Alam pendant le moussem de Moulay Abdessalem ben Miechich, quand une jeune femme a fait exprès pour s’en prendre à moi et à un ami. Elle trouvait que nous n’avions pas d’affaire là et elle l’a dit avec force, mais ses sentiments n’ont pas trouvé d’écho chez les centaines d’autres participants et finalement elle a été emmenée par ses amis ou par sa famille.

Chemin menant à la base du Toubkal à Aremnd

Il se peut que les Marocains soient devenus plus conservateurs depuis les cinquante dernières années. L’Arabie saoudite travaille fort pour exporter sa version de l’islam partout dans le monde musulman et, à grand renfort d’argent, a connu du succès. Les Saoudiens que j’ai rencontrés quand je voyageais en Arabie saoudite ne cachaient pas leur mépris pour l’islam marocain qu’ils considéraient infesté de magie noire, de sorcellerie et de vénération de saints. De plus, ils dénonçaient l’attachement des élites marocaines à la langue et à la culture françaises.

Vue d’Akioud à partir de la partie occidentale de la crête du Toubkal, tard dans la journée

L’islam radical offre un débouché séduisant aux pauvres, désenchantés et sans emploi qui ne peuvent autrement exprimer leurs opinions politiques. Un terme ironique en langue arabe, « armée des oisifs » désigne cette source de recrues jeunes et vulnérables prêtes à tout sacrifier pour des causes spéciales.

L’islam est une religion politique et dans les pays musulmans, la séparation de la religion et l’État n’existe pas. Il n’y a pas de pays musulmans laïques. Par contre, il existe bien d’autres façons d’aborder l’islam à part celle des Saoudiens. Le Maroc, quels que soient ses défauts, a toujours fait preuve de modération et de tolérance.

Vue donnant sur Tachdirt lors d’une journée enneigée en mars.

Durant le protectorat, le Club alpin français a construit des refuges de montagne dans la région du Toubkal. Au fil des ans, le tourisme s’est développé et plusieurs compagnies privées, généralement françaises ou britanniques, offrent des excursions et des randonnées, non seulement près du Toubkal, mais aussi dans d’autres pittoresques régions montagneuses de l’Atlas. Grâce au tourisme étranger, Imlil s’est développé et a prospéré.

Refuge de Lépinay en face de Tazaghart

Si vous prévoyez un voyage au Maroc, je vous encourage à y aller sans souci. Mon seul bémol : pour de jeunes femmes, où que ce soit dans le monde, faire du camping seule constitue un risque. Je conseillerais aux femmes de voyager accompagnées de compagnons masculins, en groupes organisés ou bien de rester dans un refuge de montagne. Coucher sous une tente seule peut s’avérer dangereux. Ceci dit, depuis quelques années il y a eu plus d’attaques terroristes à l’intérieur des États-Unis qu’au Maroc; les incidents récents ne devraient pas vous dissuader d’y faire une excursion.

Treq es-slama! (Bon voyage!)

Crête de Tsoukine au coucher du soleil

Toubkal 50 Years Later

Toubkal as the sun sets.

A week or so before Christmas, a travel article appeared in the Washington Post (Tourists are ruining these destinations. Here’s where you should travel, instead) that offered less crowded travel alternatives for some very popular, and increasingly pricey and crowded, destinations. For example, another Pre-Hispanic site was proposed as a replacement for Machu Picchu in Peru.

Over the last 50 years, the growth of air travel has made many formerly remote areas both accessible and affordable. The mention of Machu Picchu brought up a memory.

When I was in college in the mid-sixties, Chuck, the student in the room adjoining mine in Cutter Hall, had been in Peru. Perhaps his family lived there. Travel to the famous Inca site was less common and more difficult than it is today. He recounted how he and a buddy arrived late, watched evening arrive in the mountains, and then settled into their sleeping bags. Alone among the ruins, they had the “lost city of the Inca” to themselves. The experience was almost spiritual. They could hardly wait till dawn.

A Thuya, en route to Tazaghart.

When they awoke in the morning, however, the dawning day was not what they had expected. With considerable commotion, a film crew was setting up for a movie shoot, The Last of the Incas, staring Victor Mature, a B-film actor whose claim to fame was his role in the biblical epics, popular in the 1950s.

Now, in all fairness, I couldn’t find a film of that name with or without Victor Mature in it, so perhaps the movie was the Secret of the Incas with Charlton Heston or something even more forgettable. Whatever the film being shot when Chuck and his friend awoke, Machu Picchu was a long way from being “a lost city.”

I wish it had been a Victor Mature movie. The American star, Mature had a reputation as a mediocre actor, and at Harvard, the students fêted him with Worst Actor of the Year Award, more than once. He took this all in good humor. He once applied for membership in a golf club in California, and was rejected “for being an actor.” His indignant reply was: “I am not an actor, and I have sixty-four films to prove it!”

The list of spots featured in the article included Mt. Toubkal as a replacement for Mt. Everest. The Everest base camp in Nepal has become a popular trekking destination. Part of the difficulty and danger of climbing 8,000 meter Himalayan peaks had once been simply getting to the base of the mountains. Early ascents certainly attest to the difficulties of the approaches, and accounts were sprinkled with descriptions of porters quitting, dangerous river fords and leech-filled rhododendron forests.

Typical houses in the Toubkal area.

Nowadays anyone fit, and with the airfare, can find a means to hike in, and it should come as no surprise that parts of the Himalayas have been overrun. In Europe climbers have to queue up on popular routes, and France has just announced limits on those climbing to the summit of Mont Blanc.

Now Toubkal is a different scale altogether from the Himalaya, with a different kind of scenery. The summit of Toubkal is thousands of meters below the Everest base camp, and, should you want to see snow in Morocco, you had better visit in a season other than the summer. That said, a Toubkal visit is relatively inexpensive, and it is a short ride from Marrakesh and quite easily accessible. Having spent time in that area of the High Atlas, I would not hesitate to recommend the scenery. Getting to the base of Toubkal is easily done by foot or by mule, in hours, not days, and most hikers can deal with the modest altitude.

Sadly, within a week or so of the article mentioning Toubkal, two young Scandinavian women camping near Imlil, were brutally murdered. Moroccan police quickly captured suspects, and, according to press reports, some of the perpetrators involved had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

In the last 20 years or so, Morocco, like the other countries of the Maghreb, has experienced terrorist attacks, but these have been few and far between. Tourism constitutes a major source of revenue for the country, and the safety and security of foreign visitors has always been a major concern of the Moroccan government.

Looking east from the Tizi-n-Test Road, Angour and Tazaghart.

I lived in Morocco not long after its independence from France. In those days, religious tolerance of non-Muslims varied depending on many factors, but few Moroccans held beliefs comparable to today’s radical Islamists. Moroccans, secure in their faith and comfortable with their religion, dealt confidently with non-Muslims. After nearly a half century of colonial rule, and centuries of conflict with neighboring Christian and Muslim powers, conflicts which involved competition for land and trade far more than religion, Moroccans knew who they were. The younger, more educated Moroccans whom I knew seemed to be less religious than their elders, and often poked fun at folk beliefs, but there was no question in their mind as to the true religion, apart from a few self-proclaimed atheists, who would only talk privately and cautiously. In the seven or so years I lived there, I experienced few incidents of religious prejudice. The one I remember most vividly was on Jbel Alam, during the moussem of Moulay Abdessalem ben Mechich, when a young woman went out of her way to attack me and a friend. She did not think that we belonged there and was vocal about it, but her shouted sentiments were not echoed by the hundreds of others on that crowded mountain top and she was led away by her friends or family.

Route to the base of Toubkal at Aremnd.

Moroccans may well have become more conservative over the last 50 years. Saudi Arabia has worked hard to export its own concept of religion around the Muslim world, and, with an abundance of money, has had success. The Saudis I met while touring Saudi Arabia made no secret of their disdain for the religion in Morocco, which they saw full of black magic, witchcraft, and saint worship, and disparaged Moroccan elites for their attachment to the French language and culture.

Akioud. Late in the day, from the west ridge of Toubkal.

Radical Islam offers a tempting outlet for individuals, often poor, disenchanted, and unemployed, who really cannot otherwise express their political opinions. The “army of the idle”, an ironic Arabic term, is always there, a wellspring of young and impressionable recruits for special causes.

Islam is a political religion, and in Muslim countries, there is no separation between religion and the state. There are no secular Muslim countries. On the other hand, there are many other ways to view Islam apart from that of the Saudis. Morocco, whatever its deficiencies, has traditionally exemplified moderation and tolerance.

Looking toward Tachdirt on a snowy day in March.

The French Alpine Club built comfortable huts in the Toubkal region during the Protectorate. Over the years, tourism has grown, with many private companies, usually French and British, offering excursions and treks, not just around Toubkal, but in other scenic mountain areas of the Atlas. Imlil has grown and prospered with the foreign tourism.

The De Lépiney hut, facing Tazaghart.

 

If you are planning a trip there, I encourage you to go without worry. My only caution is this: young women camping alone anywhere in the world involves risk. I would suggest traveling with male companions, an organized group, or else staying in a mountain hut. Tenting alone may invite trouble. That said, there have been many more domestic terrorist attacks in the United States over the last few years than in Morocco, so don’t let recent events put you off of a Moroccan excursion.

Treq es-Slama! (Have a safe journey.)

A ridge of Tsoukine, at sunset.

Traducteur : Jim Erickson

Remembrance

I just came in from helping my wife spread mulch around her young arborvitae trees. Arborvitae are a species of Thuya, a genus also found in the Atlas Mountains. In the United States, they are often referred to by the Latin name, given to the tree by Jacques Cartier, the early French explorer who explored the St. Lawrence River, and gave Canada its name, too. His sailors, sick, possibly from scurvy, drank a tea made from the branches of the plant. The tea brought them back to health, so Cartier named it arborvitae, the tree of life.

The sky is overcast and dark, and, as I was finishing my task, snow began to cover the yard. Despite major snowfalls and bad weather along the East Coast, we are just getting a dusting here. In November, snow falls regularly, but we seldom have snow cover till around Christmastime. Just south of us, along the Pennsylvania border, the higher elevations receive much more, a boon to skiers and hunters. The ski stations need the colder weather more than snow since they utilize snow making machines; there is no sense making snow when it just melts. For hunters, snow makes the woods quieter, and once an animal has been shot, snow makes it much easier to track.

In Sefrou, it only snowed a couple of times during the four years that I lived there, but a couple of thousand feet higher, snows were common, and heavy snowfalls occasionally blocked the main road south, which was known as treq es-sultan, the Sultan’s road, the route connecting Fes with the Tafilalt. Really heavy snowfalls often resulted in trucks sliding off the road. The trucks seldom had snow tires, and their drivers did not always know how to drive safely on the snow covered highway. I am sure that they thanked God, every time they passed safely through the mountain snows.

Path from Sefrou to Bhalil on a rare snowy day.

Thanksgiving is next week, a holiday celebrated to give thanks for the blessings of being an American. The early settlers, called Pilgrims in New England, faced a harsh winter and, having survived, thanked God for his grace and mercy. The tradition I was taught in elementary school emphasized the role of the Native Americans, some of whom kindly helped the Pilgrims, who were unfamiliar with the plants and animals of the New World. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Native Americans did not perceive them as a band of asylum seekers, greet them with hostility, and send them back across the Atlantic. The United States has always depended on immigrants to fuel economic growth, and has a long history of welcoming immigrants, with the shameful exceptions of the Chinese and Japanese.

My father’s family origins are in 18th century England, but my mother’s are much more recent. Her parents, Frank and Anna Cortese, had emigrated separately from the Mezzogiorno near the end of the nineteenth century. They did not seek asylum, just a better life and opportunities for their family. He was from Calabria, she, from Abruzzo. Sometimes when they argued he would call her a peasant. He came from a region with cities and thought Abruzzo was backward. She took that as the worse of insults, and got really angry, but most people remember her as a sweetheart.

Anna and Frank Cortese and Aunt Pat, Uncle Frank’s wife, about 1950.

They met in Philadelphia, early in the twentieth century, married, had children, moved to Western New York, and had still more children. A set of twins perished during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, another child died as an infant, but eight others, four brothers and four sisters, survived to become adults.

All four brothers fought in the Second World War. The brothers in order of birth were Frank, Anthony, John, and Alfred, the baby of the family.

Article from the Niagara Falls Gazette.

Al, despite his short stature, was also quite the athlete.

Al, the whirling dervish.

Frank was the senior brother, and already fairly old when the war began. He had helped raise his siblings, and was still unmarried. He joined the army as a construction engineer, and was sent to North Africa.

Frank, with buddy, in Oran or Algiers.

Anthony joined the army but left shortly due to sickness. He died of cancer in 1952.

Anthony, on left, with his mandolin.

John also joined the army and became a medic, and he, too, was sent to North Africa.

John wasn’t an officer. Either Morocco or Tunisia.

Alfred joined the Navy, and was assigned to a ship in the Pacific theater. He enjoyed a good joke. One of his first letters home, while still in training, contained real “fake” news.

Frank knew that his little brother, John, was in North Africa, and he tried for a long time, fruitlessly, to find him. His rank wasn’t high enough to get the military brass to pull strings, and wartime censorship made communication almost impossible. In the meantime, John was wounded in North Africa and received a Purple Heart. Frank and John finally met up in Italy toward the end of 1943.

John and Frank in Italy. 1943.

Both could understand Italian, but probably spoke a broken, amalgam of dialects that their uneducated parents used to communicate with in America. Having visited Italy, albeit under the clouds of war, their experience made them happy to have been born in America.

The brothers dutifully wrote their parents and sisters, and supported the family with their military salaries. I believe that my uncles supported their parents from the time each was able to work. My grandfather’s occupation was listed in the census as shoemaker, and I doubt he made much money during his lifetime.

Grandpa with his dog, Brownie.

The sons’ letters are full of questions about family and friends and what was happening in Niagara Falls. Frank asked, among many things, about the family dog, Brownie.

Humorous postcards were common until the men went overseas. On the back of this one, John apologizes for not writing as often as he wished.

The letters contained virtually nothing about their experiences in the war. Happily, they all returned home safely, married, raised families, and enjoyed civilian life as grown men, older and wiser than the boys who had gone off to war.

Most of the letters were addressed to their sister, Grace, who lived with her parents. Grace was third of the four Cortese sisters.

A letter from training and a V-Mail. V-Mail was heavily censored, and contained little news, just reassurances that they were alive.

Grace’s older sisters, Philomena (whom everyone called either Mamie or Jenny) and Mary, were already married in 1941. Her younger sister, Rose worked at Bell Aircraft making P-39s. Rose was my mother.

Frank Sr. was illiterate, so Grace was the translator and interpreter. Grace worked at Kimberley Clark during the war. She was outgoing, athletic, someone who seemed to know everyone, everywhere.

Grace in the 1940s.

Not only did she she write her brothers all through the war, she maintained an extensive and steady correspondence with many other local servicemen, and kept voluminous scrapbooks of clippings from the local newspapers with every mention what of a seviceman from Niagara Falls, whether she knew him or not!

A sample page from Grace’s scrapbook. Most pages were not as sad as this one. Many contained marriages.

Going through her scrapbook pages the other day, I noticed she also included among all the war materials, a few articles on murders, presumably by organized crime. The Italian community no doubt knew the victims as friends or neighbors or maybe even relatives!

The immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe faced considerable discrimination from other Americans, including the descendants of Irish and Germany immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century. Until the second half of the twentieth century, for example, Italians in Niagara Falls were excluded from elite clubs and organizations to such an extent that they banded together and formed a club of their own, The Century Club, named because every member contributed 100 dollars for its creation. Today it is gone, demolished, and the Niagara Falls Country Club will happily accept applications from anyone who can afford the entry fee!

An assiduous correspondent, Grace kept up the morale of those she wrote by filling them in on what was happening in their hometown. Who could do it better than Grace? Grace was a bit of a gossip and busybody, but she had a heart of gold. The brothers sent letters and cards while in the States, but once overseas they had to rely on heavily censured V-mai.

Eventually my Aunt Grace married one of them, Peter Lozina.

Pete is in the first row, extreme right.

Peter was the son of Croatian emigrants who kept a tavern on old East Falls Street in Niagara Falls. Pete enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to Tyndall Field in Florida to train as a gunner for the B-25 medium bomber.

For years, a plaque hung on the wall of their dining room, thanking Pete for his brave service. As I child, I saw it everyday, but never really understood what it meant.

An official commendation.

Uncle Pete had flown 70 missions over Italy, and returned safely. Uncle Pete never talked about his war experiences. Years later, having read Catch-22, I finally began to appreciate what a hero he had been. 70 missions was not uncommon for B-25 crews, but it was nothing to sneeze at either. The B-25 was a medium bomber, and most of its missions were short range, and often lasted less than an hour.

A B-25 bomber. Note the turret and guns. Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.

On the other hand, B-25s often flew at lower altitudes, making them vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. Uncle Pete was a gunner. He never talked about it, but he was shot at.

Frank and John passed through North Africa on their way to the invasion of Italy, and, Pete probably did too, since France was occupied and Spain neutral. Before I left for Morocco in 1976, I spent Christmas Eve with my relatives at the house of Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary. Until it became too much for them, Bill and Mary would host a party, which during which seven fishes would be served, a southern Italian regional custom. People would gather at their house for drinks and Christmas cookies, and the few, who were religious, would cross Military Road at midnight to attend mass at the Prince of Peace church. Often there was a poker game, because many of the relatives loved cards, but most of all everyone just enjoyed eating and talking and being with family and friends. After midnight, people ate and presents were unwrapped and little by little the guests departed.

I remember talking with my Uncle Frank. He had been impressed by the modern design of buildings in Oran, and didn’t remember North Africa as poor or backward. However, the interaction of military forces with local people was limited. I remember reading Carlton Coon’s recounting of his exploits as a member of the OSS, and thinking to myself that North Africans were simply not part of the narrative, except for some Rifians with whom Coon dealt. In much French and English literature, North Africans appear much in the same way as they do in Camus’ novels, shadows in the background. It is much the way blacks are treated in pre- war literature.

Americans celebrate Armistice Day as Veterans Day, a day dedicated to all who have served in the nation’s many wars. My uncles and aunts are all gone today. All that remains are memories of them. Children of immigrants, they served their country bravely and with honor.