Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Daddy's War

Today is Veteran's Day. The first thing I want to do is say thank you for your service to all veterans, reservists, and active duty military personnel. I am grateful for all the blessings bestowed on our country and acknowledge that, without your service, they would not be possible.

I'm going to do something a little different on my blog today. 

My dad, James Oran Skelton, served in the US Army during World War II. Although he was very proud of his service, he rarely spoke of it. I know he talked about it when he was with other veterans, including my brother Charlie, my brother-in-law Mack, and my cousin Rod. But never with us kids.

When we cleaned out my mother's house, we found a file folder that held some of the papers related to his service including his discharge papers. I brought it home, stuck it in a drawer, and promptly forgot about it. I found it again last summer when I was doing my annual sorting and cleaning of paperwork. It looked interesting so I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to sort through it. What I found was a handwritten account of Daddy's service from his induction to his discharge. I believe it was written in the late1960s when he was trying to get some disability through the VA.

I think you might find it interesting, so I'm publishing it today in honor of Veteran's Day. It's kind of long but I wanted to post it all. I did not verify the spelling of the European cities and the grammar is as he wrote it.

I received my draft notice in January 1943 to report to Linden, Texas, on February 23, 1943 for induction into the United States Armed Forces.

I reported to the Induction Center as ordered and there I ceased to be a civilian and became a member of the Army. I will never forget that day back on February 23, 1943. I guess there were close to 5,000 of us boys there. We were sent into a large tin building and ordered to take off all our clothes. Evidently the building did not have any heat because soon after we disrobed we were all shaking from the cold.

We really got a good examination from head to foot. I was found to be in perfect physical condition. They asked me which branch of service I wanted and I told them Air Corps, little good that did for I was sent to Camp Walters, Texas Reception Center where I received my uniforms and vaccinations, and I do mean vaccinations. We would have to remove our shirts and line up and it seemed we got vaccinated for every known disease and some that did not exist, I know I had an awful sore arm for several days.

I left Camp Walters, Texas on March 5, 1943 to go to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I arrived at Fort Knox on March 7, 1943 and was escorted to the barracks of the 740th Tank Battalion just in time to see one of the old dilapidated barracks go up in flames. (I am sure they were condemned in World War I.)

I began my basic training on March 15, 1943 and soon learned the penalties for unbuttoned shirts and un-shined shoes. I also learned to love the Fort Knox weather which read rain, snow, and sleet. Then freeze at night, but if I thought that was bad I had more to learn about it, for when I started driving instructions and had to bivouac in Area 19, I found that it was really rough. I still don’t know why we could not have stayed in the barracks and gone to the driving range each day.

My training instructions went something like this:
  • 5 a.m. Reveille 
  • 5:30 a.m. Breakfast of either burned eggs and raw bacon or raw eggs and burned bacon 
  • 6:30 a.m. Police the area 
  • 7:30 a.m. Warm up the tank 
  • 8:00 a.m. Start driving 
  • 8:15 a.m. Get stuck in the mud and spend the rest of the day getting out of the mud 
  • Spend most of the night cleaning up the tank 
  • Repeat the same operation the next day.

On May 12, 1943 the Battalion was relieved from Assigned to Special Troops Armored Forces, and was assigned to the 8th Tank Group under the command of Colonel Fad D. Smith.

Sometime around the end of May or the beginning of June of 1943, I was hospitalized for what they thought was an attack of appendicitis. I was in the hospital for a few days. I now know that it was appendicitis because I suffered from the same symptoms for several years and then had surgery for appendicitis.

How I lived through basic training I will never know. I worked all hours of night and day in all the bad weather for which Kentucky is noted and believe me a G.I. rain coat was never meant to keep a person dry. We suffered a lot of exposure and hardships in basic training which left us all tired and fatigued.

I completed my basic training on June 14, 1943. The Battalion then entered in Unit Training which in reality is a continuation of basic training. In fact some of the outfits called it Advanced Basic.

On the July 5, 1943 we were in the field as usual, and we underwent a simulated gas attack from the air. Although I had my gas mask it did not keep the gas from getting on my ears, neck, hands, and all the exposed part of my body. I really burned and itched for a while.

During Advanced Basic Training I fired all the small arms, revolvers, rifles, sub-machine guns, 30 caliber machine gun, 50 caliber machine gun, and the 75 mm tank gun. I did well with them all.
While all this was going on someone in Washington was cooking up great things for me. On August 7, 1943 I was granted a furlough, along with half of the battalion. Of course, I am sure if we had known what was in store for us when the furloughs were over, we would probably have told them that we didn’t want a furlough.

When we returned to Fort Knox after our furlough, we found that we were again to undergo a change. Our battalion had been chosen to participate in one of the Army’s most closely guarded secrets. Because many of the boys could not pass security checks, there were considerable changes in our personnel. I received my top-secret clearance and moved from the main post to “Area X” where we were confined. We were, you might say, prisoners of the United States Army.

The thing we were to train with was so secret that we received no orders through the mail; all were brought by special carrier directly from Washington.

No one was allowed to leave “Area X” for any reason for fear that somehow this closely guarded secret might leak out.

During the time we were receiving Technical Training at Fort Knox “Area X” a group of high Army Authorities were in Arizona to set up a camp for us to train in. They chose a valley about 10 miles wide and 40 miles long, completely surrounded by mountains.

No man having joined up with our outfit could be dismissed for any reason so there had to be a hospital constructed along with our camp so it took some time to get it set up.

We received orders to leave “Area X” Fort Knox and go to train to Bouse, Arizona, but when we reached the railroad station there was no train ready for us, so we bivouacked near the Gold Vaults for about 5 days, until we could secure transportation.

We boarded the train on the October 12, 1943 and arrived in Bouse, Arizona on October 15, 1943. Trucks were waiting to carry us to camp; this was my first introduction to the desert of our far West. I was soon to learn that everything had a sting or bite to it. The area was filled with such things as rattlesnakes, sidewinders, Gila monsters, tarantulas, and scorpions.

On my way to camp I passed an ammunition truck which had blown up, and scattered duds for about 200 yards in all directions. I began to wonder just how realistic the desert training was to be. I was soon to learn that it was to be plenty real.

I still suffer from the hardships I went through in desert training. Prior to the time I was in Arizona, I had never been bothered with hay-fever. Now I have it all the time. It was caused by so much dust.
While in the desert some of our restrictions were lifted. We were allowed to go to town once a month, but there was a catch to this, we had to go five on a pass. All of us had to stay together and watch each other so there would not be a chance to make a slip as to the kind of training we were getting. I still cannot reveal the training or what it consisted of. Although it was never used, it is still top secret, and will probably revolutionize tank warfare if it is ever put into use.

On March 15, 1944 we received orders that we could no longer draw supplies from the desert training center, so we would have to look elsewhere for clothing and equipment to fill our overseas quotas. By this time we had completed our training cycle so all that was left for us to do was police the area and salvage as much of the camp as possible, and then go to Fr. Knox, and draw clothing and equipment in preparation for the excursion to Europe.

We bade goodbye to the jackrabbits and rattlesnakes and on April 24 we boarded the train for Fort Knox, Kentucky.

When we left the desert we knew that we were scheduled to go overseas, but as we neared Fort Knox we wondered if the orders would somehow be changed and we would sit out the war in the “Headmasters Office.”

We arrived at Fort Knox on April 28, 1944. It was standard operating procedure at Fort Knox to entrain and detrain in the rain and our unloading process did not violate the regulation, we were soaked to the skin when we reached our quarters, which by the way, turned out to be the same old dilapidated barracks which we had occupied during our first stay at Fort Knox.

We expected to be in Fort Knox no more than two weeks but it stretched into several before we left and as usual we spent most of our time in the field.

Although we were far from combat zones, we got a taste of what it would be like when one of the boys picked up a 37 MM dud and brought it to Observation Point 6, where our company was taking instruction. He began hammering it on a rock and it exploded killing three men, and wounding nineteen others. I was lucky I was not wounded, but my nerves were shot to hell. I will never forget that day, June 6, 1944.

Finally we received orders to arrive at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey not before July 20 and not later than July 21, 1944. On July 19 we boarded the train for Camp Kilmer. Needless to say it was raining.

At Camp Kilmer we were given another physical examination for overseas duty. We left Camp Kilmer on July 24 and by noon we were aboard the USS General William Mitchell. On the morning of the July 26 we sailed from New York. A few miles out of the harbor we joined a convoy of 15 other troopships and 16 fast tankers. At last we were off to war.

The USS General William Mitchell was a new type ship, she had no port holes and we soon found out, no ventilating system. It was stiflingly hot and everything smelled so bad. I was really seasick all the time. The ship although new, left a lot to be desired.

The only excitement during the trip occurred one evening. A small speck appeared off our left on the radar scanning disc. Everyone thought it was an enemy submarine. The fact that we were in “Hell’s Corner” which is about a day’s run from Northern Ireland added to this belief. We were really relieved when it was discovered to be a school of fish.

We landed at Liverpool, England on August 6, 1944. At 3 o’clock on the August 7, we left the ship and boarded the train for Glynderwen, Wales.

We arrived at our new Camp Rosebush to find it nothing more than a windswept side of a rocky hill. When it wasn’t raining, the wind was blowing and most of the time it was doing both. There we became a part of the 9th Armored Group.

While in England, I had the misfortune of getting my ring finger, right hand, almost cut off. I was inspecting Tank Guns on M-3 Tanks. Someone had left the spline shaft out and the breech block fell on my finger causing a compound fracture. I stayed in the hospital for several weeks. I am still bothered with this, as it did not grow back straight. It also caused me considerable embarrassment the rest of my Army time, because it was impossible for me to salute properly. It took lots of chewing outs because of it.

We stayed in England until the 29th of October 1944, I will never forget that date when at Waymouth, England we loaded on the L.S.T. boats and crossed the English Channel. It was a rough passage.

We landed on Utah Beach on the 30th of October 1944. It was raining and sleeting. We bivouacked for the night and soon learned we had no orders for our movement East. Believe me, Utah Beach left a lot to be desired in the way of cleanliness, comfort, and facilities. It was an expanse of mud which had been churned into a fine soup by thousands of vehicles.

We left Utah Beach on November 2, 1944 and bivouacked that night in a field near Brecy, France. As usual the bivouac area was knee-deep in mud and it was raining.

We resumed the march the next morning to Brecy, St. Hilaire de Harcourt, Sees, Maulins le Marche, St. Anne, Longny, Leferte, Vidame, Senouches, Chateauneut, Maintenon. We bivouacked for the night at Maintenon, went through the outskirts of Paris the next day and bivouacked that night on the Eastern edge of Paris at Clichy, Sous, Bais. We again resumed the march on the 5th of November and followed the “Red Ball” route.

I can’t remember all the towns we went through, but I do remember that it was just one big rain storm. I think we spent more time pushing trucks out of the mud holes than we did riding in them. It was awful cold.

We finally arrived at Neufchateau, Belgium which was to be our headquarters for a while. The camp consisted of an apple orchard in which we pitched our pup tents.
By this time winter hd really set in in Europe. We really suffered as each man had only two blankets, one for a bed and the other for cover.

It was here that I got my first taste of the German V-1 flying bomb or Buzz bomb as we called them. Shortly before dark, one came over at an altitude of about 300 feet and the engine cut off directly over the camp. Boy was I scared, it landed about one-half mile from my tent. After the bomb had crashed we really enlarged our foxholes or “wells” we called them because they were always full of water.

The first night at this camp there was at least 50 buzz bombs passed over our heads. Apparently headed for Antwerp, Belgium. Our camp was directly in line with Antwerp which was the target.

Later in the month when the Germans attempted to destroy Liege, Belgium with buzz bombs a good many of them malfunctioned in flight and landed quite close to camp. Some days we counted 103 buzz bombs. Today, looking back on what I encountered during the war, I still consider the buzz bombs as one of Hitler’s most terrifying instruments. In addition to its destructive power, the noise it made was very deafening. It also had a habit of playing tricks such as passing over the camp and them make a complete turn, dive, and then explode. I still think that perhaps the Germans had some kind of control over them and was trying to bomb our camp. If I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll never forget Belgium and the buzz bombs.

While at this camp we turned in all our tanks to the United States Army Reserve. We spent most of our time day and night patrolling the area and hunting out German Paratroopers which was being dropped behind our front lines. We captured quite a few.

On the 17th of December 1944, we received orders that the Germans had made a breakthrough and that we would probably be called on to fight with what weapons we had. This consisted of our personal weapons which was mostly of 45 automatic pistols, with a few carbines and sub-machine guns. We really felt let down as we were tankers and not foot-soldiers and had never had the fundamental training of a foot soldier.

On the 18th of December our Battalion received orders to send a company to an Ordnance Vehicles Depot at Ayniaille, Belgium and draw any kind of vehicles we could and then get into combat. The company I was in was chosen, “Company C.” When we reached the Ordnance depot we found that they had very few tanks which were suitable for combat and none had combat loads. We worked all night and finally pieced up about fifteen tanks.

We entered combat the 19th day of December. It was really rough, I remember that I got very sick just from seeing the dead and wounded soldiers along the road. I think I vomited up most of my insides that first day. I’ll always remember those men begging for help that we just had to pass on our way to the front.

We were attached to the 119th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division. In our first thirty minutes of combat we knocked out three German tanks and killed many German infantry boys.
We had stopped the German breakthrough, better known as the Belgium Bulge, but could we hold them back? We had been well trained and were too scared to retreat. We dug in for the night and moved out the next day.

The Germans had regrouped during the night and we really caught hell the next morning, but we continued to advance.

At about 4 o’clock on the evening of the 20th of December the tank I was riding in ran over an anti-tank mine. It stopped us cold. It split the tank bottom from end to end. I was blown against the top of the tank and rendered unconscious. I don’t know how I got out of the tank. I came to at an aid station where I was treated for a head wound. My ears hurt very badly and I was nearly dead with a headache and my lungs felt like they would burst.

Nevertheless, every man was needed for combat. On the morning of the 21st we continued in combat and I continued to feel worse.

On Christmas Day 1944, we were trying to cross a railroad. The Germans had it zeroed in so we called for Air Support to knock out the German tanks so we could get through the underpass and continue our attack. Some way or other they got us mixed up with the Germans and bombed hell out of us.

When it was over we found that out of a Company of Infantry boys that was with us, only 19 were able to fight and out of seventeen tanks we only had five left. When the US planes started bombing us, we had all left the tanks. I don’t know how, but somehow I swam across a river which was nearby and got up against a cliff. I was wet all over and it was so cold my clothes froze on me. Somehow I recrossed the river and rejoined my outfit.

We really sweated that night because we knew that if the Germans realized how few men we had left we would be overrun.

My head and chest still bothered me. I had heard of blast concussion but I did not realize it was so bad. My throat felt dry and sore and I had begun to talk with a hoarseness.

We continued in combat day and night. There was no such thing as sleep while in combat. By this time I was really fatigued and under a great strain. I felt weak all over. I did not know it then, but I did not have many more days left in combat. Somehow I managed to keep going until the 4th day of January 1945. By then my throat was so sore that I could not talk, my ears so bad I could hardly hear, and my head hurting so badly I could hardly tell what I was doing. I don’t remember going to the hospital. I have been told that elements of the 82nd Airborne picked me up and took me to the hospital.

I must have gone through several field and station hospitals, but the first I remember was in Paris, France. I don’t know how long I remained there, but I was sent from there to England. I was not able to be flown to England because of my ears, so I had to go by boat. I had pneumonia, bronchitis, laryngitis, and fatigue. I know now that it was caused by the blast I received when my tank ran over the mine. I am still bothered with my head, ears, throat, and chest. Before concussion I could holler as loud as anyone. Now I can’t. I have spent several weeks out of every year since then not being able to speak above a whisper. From the first cool weather, my voice bothers me most of the time until warm weather the next Spring. My neck and head hurt all the time.

I did not see any more combat, as I stayed in the hospital until about two weeks before the end of the war in the E.T.O. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was sent back to my Company. I was on my way back, at a replacement center in France, when the war ended. That was the happiest day of my life.

I don’t know just when I rejoined my company but it was two or three weeks after the war was over. After the war, we more or less relaxed. Of course we still had duties such as guard and check points to perform, but we were not under the strain we had been during combat.

I came back to the United States in December of 1945 on the USS Cald Dail Victory. The voyage was quite different from the one I spent going over, although I did get seasick. My head, throat, ears, and chest were still bothering me but by now I had accepted the fact that I would have to live with it.

I landed in New York and went to Camp Miles Standish. From there I was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas where I received my discharge. While there I did not make an application for compensation as I wanted to get home as soon as possible.

During the time I was in the Army I received the following awards, American Theater Campaign Ribbon, E,A,M,E, campaign ribbon with three bronze stars, Good Conduct ribbon, two overseas service bars, and the Distinguished Unit Badge, (Presidential Citation) Go 9 Hq. 740 Tank BN, and the Purple Heart.

I received my discharge on the 9th of December 1945 and returned home. Soon after my discharge I found that I was so nervous that I had to have treatment for nervous indigestion. Every year since then I have had to have treatment on my throat and chest.

I have held down steady employment since my discharge with liberal sick leave and annual leave being used when I have had the winter attacks. Until April 29, 1960, when I became so ill with the same symptoms as I have had for the past 15 years that I have been unable to work most of the year. I spent from April 29, 1960 until June 13, 1960 in hospitals for treatment for my head, neck, and ears and from August 12, 1960 until September 12, 1960 in the hospital for headache, neck and ears, which I believe is caused by post-concussion.

As I write this my neck and head hurts to bad that I can hardly stand it.

I certify that to the best of my knowledge that this is a true history of my Military Service as a soldier in the United States of America’s Army.

That's my dad's story. I know there are millions more like it.

Out of curiosity, I did a web search for Bouse, Arizona. I had never heard of it and did not know anything about it. There is not a lot of information about it, but I found this. I could not find anything about what my dad called Area X in Kentucky.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Anniversaries, Birthdays, Dirty Dancing, Cathedrals, and The Saga

On Saturday, Patrick and I celebrated our 39th Wedding Anniversary. We celebrated by spending the weekend in San Antonio. We didn't really have any plans except to attend the matinee performance of Dirty Dancing on Sunday afternoon.

On Friday evening, Ezra and June went to parents night out at Junie's day care center. That gave us the opportunity for a grown-up dinner out with Katy and Travis. We ate at Tong's Thai which is near their home. I had Honey Pecan Shrimp. It was absolutely delicious. I would order it again right now. Patrick had Pad Thai which he said was delicious too. After dinner, we went with Katy to pick the girls up from Night Out. I love walking in and watching them interact with the other kids and waiting for them to notice us.

On Saturday, we had a family luncheon for my sister Kay. Besides being our wedding anniversary, it was Kay's 65th birthday. We met at Chuey's for a long, family lunch.  We had so much fun, Bylinda brought Kay and two of her teenage grandchildren, McKinzey and Connor. Her son Zack also came. Katy's family and Patrick and I made ten of us. We ate and talked and, instead of cake, we had sopapillas with honey. Yum! Kay had fun and we sat and visited for more than two hours. It just proved that we need to get together more.

Saturday night, we didn't have any plans. Travis went to his monthly poker night and we decided to go downtown to the Main Plaza at San Fernando Cathedral to see one of  San Antonio's newest attractions, San Antonio/The Saga. This is a video art installation by French artist, Xavier De Richemonte. It is AMAZING! The 25-minute show is free and plays at 9:00, 9:30, and 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

First, a little bit of history about the Cathedral which serves as the "screen" for the show. The San Fernando Cathedral was built between 1738 And 1755 and is still an active Catholic parish. It is the oldest operating sanctuary in North America. It faces the Main Plaza which is one of only four colonial plazas remaining in America. We have attended Mass in this cathedral several times. It is known as the burial place of the heroes of the Alamo. The remains of Davy Crocket, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie are interred inside.

On Saturday night, we paid $1.80 for a parking place about two blocks from the cathedral. We took lawn chairs and blankets along with mugs of hot chocolate.  There was not a large crowd. I would guess less than 150 people were there. There was a wedding party exiting the cathedral just as we arrived. As you might imagine, Our Little Princesses were very excited to see the bride and groom.

The show is accompanied by music and a little narration. It is fast-paced and bright and will hold the attention of any age. Every one of us enjoyed it. Our 3 and 5 year olds loved it and sat attentively on our laps for the entire show.

My new camera takes most excellent nighttime pictures so I snapped a bunch. Enjoy.

On Sunday we were treated to a matinee performance of the Broadway Road Show of Dirty Dancing at The Majestic Theater. My friend Heather bought the tickets and then wasn't able to use them, so she gave them to us. The show was awesome, one of the best I've seen. The singing and dancing was outstanding. It was a great show with a great cast. If you are a fan of the movie, you will definitely enjoy the play.

San Antonio is such a great city to visit. We love it for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that Our Little Princesses live there.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

11th Annual Valenta Family Golf Tournament

The family golf tournament has become a tradition and a fun family outing. As I told you in an earlier post, for the second year, the tournament was at Lost Pines Golf Club in the Bastrop State Park.

The tournament is officially known as AVAT which stands for the Adolph Valenta Annual Tournament. It was named in honor of the family patriarch. It is mostly a family fun day. There are a few serious golfers in the family, but far and away, most family members are not golfers. The purpose of the tournament is just to get the family together and do something fun in memory of Grandpa. He would have loved it.

Uncle Johnnie, Mike, Gary, Uncle Paul
Pictured above are the people who are most responsible for starting the tournament and keeping it going through the years. Mike and Gary are first cousins who handle all the logistics of the tournament every year. Uncle Johnnie and Uncle Paul presented them with the first Adolph Valenta Memorial Award. The presentation honors someone each year who embodies the spirit of the Valenta family.

Individual awards are given for closest to the pin and longest drive.
This year's tournament had approximately thirty players. Some of the teams had four players and some had five. Many of the players are beginners and it's all in fun anyway.

The tournament is a scramble and teams play best ball, best position. I'm pretty sure that the scorekeeping is creative. Once again, the point is to spend time with family and to have fun.
As you can see, players come in all ages and sizes. Everyone is welcome regardless of skill level.

Those of us who don't golf just cruise from hole-to-hole visiting and taking pictures. We all enjoy it, especially Our Little Princesses.

We end the day by gathering at the picnic area for sandwiches and chips followed by homemade cookies and rice krispy treats.
Then awards are presented.

I would be remiss if I did not share with you my single favorite moment of this year's golf tournament. There is a gas station that sits just across the highway from one of the holes. We were there taking pictures when Chase and Thomas realized that they could buy beer there. That's exactly what they did. The allowed the next team to play through and they made a beer run ... literally. Here is photographic proof.

I thoroughly enjoy each year's golf tournament. It gives us an opportunity to spend time getting to know each other. It seems like life goes so fast and we live so far apart that time gets away from us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Weekend in the Lost Pines

The last weekend of September, we made our annual trip to the Valenta Family Golf tournament. Two years ago, the tournament moved from Bluebonnet Golf Course in Navasota to Lost Pines Golf Club in Bastrop. Lost Pines is actually located inside of Bastrop State Park. After our first visit there last year, we decided that this year we would rent a cabin in the park and make a family weekend of it.

Bastrop State Park has thirteen cabins that were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The entire park has been awarded National Historic Landmark status because of the landscaping and enduring craftsmanship of the CCC. (Source) We were right in the middle of watching Ken Burns' documentary mini-series, The Roosevelts, on PBS. So we had just been brought up to date about the CCC. That made it all the more interesting.

You may remember that in 2011 the park was ravaged by the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. The fire came very close to the cabins and the stand of loblolly pines which gives the park it's name. They were saved by the hard work of many firefighters. Today, you can see the stark remainders of the trees that burned; but you can also see that recovery is underway.

Bastrop State Park has partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Texas Forest Service in the Bastrop Lost Pines Forest Recovery Campaign. I am also proud to say that our Aggies from Texas A&M University are lending a hand with replanting in the park. You can read about their efforts here.
We were lucky enough to rent Cabin #12 which sleeps eight, so we could all stay together in one cabin. The cabin has central heat and air, four bedrooms, two baths, a common room with a dining table that seats eight, and a kitchen with a refrigerator, stove, and microwave. You have to bring your own kitchen utensils and coffee pot. The furniture in the cabin was built on-site by the CCC using local resources. Outdoors is a picnic area with two tables, a barbecue pit, and a fire pit.
We all took the day off on Friday so we could arrive early and have plenty of time together. Check in time at the cabins is 5 o'clock, but if no one else is using the cabin, you can check in early. We all arrived around noon and were able to check in early. Pop-Pop bought cane poles for Our Little Princesses and he took them down to the lake right away for a little fishing.
On Friday night we had tortilla burgers for dinner. Nick grilled the burgers and tortillas outside while Katy made the refried beans and did all the prep work.

On Saturday morning, it sure was nice to be able to get up, have a leisurely breakfast, and be at the golf course in just a few minutes. In previous years we had to drive an hour or more. (There will be a separate post about the golf tournament later. I have lots of pictures to share.)

Saturday evening, Travis manned the grill and we feasted on ribs, potato salad, and lots more. Then we stayed up late playing our family's favorite card game, Shanghai.

It was a beautiful night and we sat outside around the fire pit just enjoying the time together.

I want to share a quick tip that you might find handy if you have kids and plan to be in the great outdoors after dark. Any time they're going to be outdoors after dark, whether they're camping or at a festival, Katy brings glow-in-the-dark necklaces and bracelets. She gets them at the dollar store, so they're cheap. As soon as it starts getting dark, she gets them out and puts them on the girls. It makes it so much easier to keep up with them after dark and they love them.
I love sitting by the campfire at night. I also love mornings at the campsite. Both mornings we were there, Our Little Princesses were up early. Katy and I took our coffee out to the picnic tables and the girls had hot cocoa. She came prepared with watercolors, markers, and artists tablets and the girls painted for a while, while some of the family chose to sleep in a little.
All too soon our weekend camping adventure was over and we all headed back to our separate homes. We all agreed we will do it again next year.

On the way out of the park I snapped a few pictures of the other cabins. I love how they just blend in to the forest.
It really is a great park. I wish I had visited it before the fire.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Grams Camp - Session 2 - Especially for Ezra

I am so far behind on my blogging that I may never catch up. So please bear with me while I finish my summer posts.

The second week of Grams Camp took place way back in mid-July. This year we decided to do separate weeks of Grams Camp for two reasons. First, I thought it would be easier for me to have them one at a time. Second, Ezra has been asking for almost a year now if I would teach her to sew. I knew that those lessons would be easier in a one-on-one format. She has stayed with us many times, so there was no reluctance or trepidation on her part. She was very excited.

The first thing she wanted to do was make a pom-pom wreath just like June did when she was here. So, we made a trip to the Dollar Tree and bought pom-poms and glue. My friend Janna had given Ezra some very cute little felt decorations which Ezra also wanted to put on her wreath. Naturally, she chose the pastel pom-poms instead of the deeper colors that June had used. If pink is one of the options, I guarantee that she will choose pink every time. Here is her wreath.

Katy and I decided that we would split the wreaths. She took one home to hang in the girls' room and I kept one for their room here. Ezra was a little bit sad that I kept the one she made and June got to take hers home. This one looks great in their room, which continues to evolve from Uncle Nick's room to the Princesses' Room. The colors match the rug I have in their room. I think she'll be happy when she sees it hanging there.

I decided to wait until she asked to tackle the sewing machine. At 5 years old, I think she's a little bit young for my electronic machine. I really wish I had my grandmother's old treadle sewing machine. It's what I learned on and they were so much simpler and slower. Instead, we started with a little hand sewing. I showed her how to thread a needle and gave her some fabric to make some practice stitches. She was very patient and worked on hand sewing for quite a while.

Then we moved on to the sewing machine. First I had her practice straight line sewing on a scrap of fabric just to get the feel of the machine. I sat next to her and used hand-over-hand to help her learn to guide the fabric while keeping her fingers out of the way of the needle and presser foot. I sat with her and let her play with the fancy stitches for a while and we changed the colors of the thread a couple of times, just because she wanted to.

Then we graduated to some dot-to-dot follow the number sewing sheets that I downloaded from Skip to my Lou. She really liked those because it felt like she was making something. I liked them because they helped her learn that she needed to sew slowly and deliberately. They also helped her learn to turn corners by lowering the needle, raising the presser foot, and pivoting the fabric. You can see in the photo below that she signed her work. I will be framing this dot-to-dot and hanging it in their room.

She really loved using the sewing machine, but she wanted to actually make something. I thought that was important too, so the next day we went to the fabric store and I let her choose two different fabrics and coordinating ribbons. We decided to make magic wands.

I printed out a star pattern and showed her how to pin and cut the fabric. Then we sewed the star leaving one side open. I helped her trim the seams, turn the fabric, and stuff the stars with polyester fiberfill. Then we inserted a bamboo skewer which had the pointed end coated with hot glue so it would not be sharp. I secured the skewer inside the star with hot glue. After it cooled, Ezra used her hand stitching skills to close the opening in each star. Then we added ribbons tied into bows. I think they came out really cute and she loved them too.

We also had plenty of time to relax during Ezra's week of Grams Camp. We watched Mary Poppins and I introduced Ezra to Shirley Temple's The Little Princess. She also spent one day playing video games on my Kindle. One day was enough of that for me, so after that day, I restricted her access to the Kindle and we read books, cooked, and watched movies. Here she is on my bed playing with my Kindle Fire. In the second photo you can see her long, long legs. She's definitely going to be tall just like her mom.

We would go outside early in the day or just before dark. There was very little outdoor play because it was extremely hot. We've had heat index readings well over 100 degrees for days on end.

I think two weeks apart from each other was good for both the girls. It was really fun to have some one-on-one time with each of them. It also gave each of them one-on-one time with their parents. In between the two weeks, I spent almost a week at their house while their dad took a canoe trip. That was fun too.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The First Day of School

Today was the long awaited first day of school for Our Little Princesses. Ezra started kindergarten and June started a new day school where she's in the Pre-K3 group. They were both very excited. 

Here's Ezra this morning at home and then in her classroom.

And here is June all ready to go to her new school.

Katy said that they both did great and didn't have problems with being in a new place.

Years ago, when Katy started kindergarten, her transition was not smooth. I did all the things I thought I needed to do. I took a day off of work and took her to the school for a tour and to meet the principal and her teacher. She had been in day care for three years already, so I thought this would not be a big deal. I was wrong. She really, really hated going to kindergarten and it did get better, but she never really got comfortable at that school. Thank God, the next year our neighborhood was assigned to a different school that she liked a lot better.

I was delighted to hear that Ezra's new school really has a good plan to help ease the way for kindergartners. On the Friday afternoon before school starts they held an open house. The parents and students got to see the classroom and meet the teacher. Then on Saturday morning, especially for the kindergarten, they had a play date on the playground at the school. Each student got a color-coded name tag. The color of their nametag identified the students who will be in each class. They played together and had bottled water and popsicles for a couple of hours, basically just getting to know each other. The parents came too, so it was also an opportunity for the parents to meet each other and visit for a while. I think it's an absolutely brilliant idea.

We're going to Skype with the girls in a few minutes, I can't wait to hear about their day. But here's a preliminary report. The first picture was tagged "5 minutes after I picked her up." The second picture came a little later.

It looks like the day started good and ended great with a little nap in between. It doesn't get any better than that.

Special thanks to Katy and Travis for snapping the photos and sending them to Grams.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grams Camp - Session 1 - Just for June

One of the things that has been important to us since Our Little Princesses came along is for them to be comfortable staying with us. They live about two hours away, so it's pretty easy to get them for a weekend.

Ezra has visited us alone many times, starting well before she was a year old. But, as the second child, June has never been to visit us alone. This summer, Ezra is five and June is three, so I thought this might be a good time to split Grams Camp into two separate sessions. Towards the end of June, Omi had invited Ezra to go to vacation bible school, but June is not quite old enough yet. Katy and I decided that would be a good week to have June come for a solo visit.

Katy and Travis came and brought both girls for my birthday weekend. When they left on Sunday, June stayed for the week. Katy had tried very hard to prepare her for staying alone, but it was clear that she was feeling a little uncomfortable about the rest of the family leaving while she stayed behind.

As part of the preparation, they had watched the episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood that teaches that grown ups come back. The episode is titled Daniel Goes to School. We ended up keeping that handy and watching it a couple of times during the week.

Overall, she did great. The secret was keeping her busy. It was really fun to spend one-on-one time with her. When you get her alone, her personality just shines. She's much quieter when her big sister is not around. I was also impressed with her attention span. For a three year old, she can focus on a project or craft for quite a long time.

We started with a trip to Dollar Tree where we bought some crafting supplies and some paint with water kits. I bought two kits for a total cost of $2. Each kit had several pages similar to the ones you see in these photos. Each kit also came with a set of markers and a couple of printed pictures to use them on. She painted these for a little while almost every day she was here. I definitely got my money's worth with these. I will say, the markers were kind of messy, so I threw them away after the first or second day.

The other thing we got at Dollar Tree was the supplies to make a wreath. For the base we used a straw wreath out of my craft closet and I bought eight packages of pom-poms and four bottles of glue for a total of $10.

I moved the kid's table into the living room and covered it with newspaper which I taped into place. We used plain old white school glue which I poured into a disposable bowl so she could just dip the pom-poms in the glue and stick them onto the wreath. It worked perfectly. She loved creating this project and it kept her busy for several hours. Part of the time I worked with her and part of the time I did other things in the room. I did have to help her fill in the inside of the wreath and I helped her fill in some of the blank spaces she left between the pom-poms. When it was finished I added a ribbon from my craft closet and hung it on the door of the Princesses' room.

We really had hoped to be able to go swimming a couple of times during June's visit, but the weather did not cooperate. We had thunderstorms and rain almost every afternoon while she was here so we had to otherwise occupy ourselves.

We got a lot of mileage out of the pom-poms. There were quite a few left over from the wreath project and she played with them a lot. I have a big can that I normally keep colored pencils in. She emptied the pencils into a plastic basket and used the can to hold her pom-poms.

I have a ceramic teapot and two cups sitting on my coffee table. I've never used them, I just thought they were pretty and bought them from the silent auction at the family reunion last fall. She filled them with pom-poms and played tea party with them off and on all week. So on Wednesday afternoon, when it was raining yet again, I decided we should have a real tea party.

One of my fondest memories is tea parties with my Granny. She would make grape Kool-Aid and let us serve it out of an old aluminum teapot. She always had homemade cookies to serve with it. We would spread a blanket out in the yard and have an afternoon tea party.

I let her choose a tablecloth for her little table and we added a mason jar of flowers so we had a centerpiece. I let her brew the tea using my Keurig coffee maker. I didn't have any cookies, but we had cheese and crackers with fresh strawberries.

Since she was here during the week of my birthday, she went along when Patrick took me out to dinner to celebrate. She also got treated to frozen yogurt one evening after dinner.

In my absolute favorite moment of the week, on one of those rainy afternoons, we were watching a movie when she climbed up on my lap and this happened. Only the two of us were at home, so I picked up my cell phone and snapped this selfie.

There is nothing better than spending a quiet couple of hours cuddling your sleeping grandbaby.

On Thursday evening, we drove to Three Rivers and met Katy and Ezra for dinner. Both of the girls were so excited to see each other and June was particularly happy to be back in her Mommy's arms. She was very clingy all through dinner. I don't know if we'll get her to visit alone again any time soon.

She wasn't weepy or upset at all the entire time she was here. The only problem we had all week was getting her to go to bed at night. We finally ended up putting her in her car seat and driving until she fell asleep every night. Some nights it worked quickly and some nights we drove for a long time.

Next week, I'll spend the week at their house to take care of them during the day while Katy works. Travis is going on a canoeing trip. The week after that, Ezra will spend the week with us for her week of Grams Camp. She wants to learn to sew, so I'm working on a project that might be simple enough for a five year old to work on. She's very enthusiastic so I want to make sure we capitalize on that and don't frustrate her. I'll be telling you all about it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

When I Wasn't Blogging

While I was absent from my blog life went on, I just didn't write it down. Honestly, I feel the need to bring you somewhat up to date.

When I was not blogging, I had a birthday. Not just any birthday, but one of those milestone birthdays. On June 22, I turned 60.

I celebrated with my great-neice, Sway, who turned one the same day. She let me borrow her birthday crown.

Our Little Princesses came to celebrate with both of us. It was so much fun to have them all together for a little party.

As you can see, they had a great time.

Now, there is one more thing I must show you from my own birthday. My husband got me the most hilarious birthday card ever. It looks so innocent and sweet from the outside. Then I opened it and realized that even in his sixties, that 8th grade boy is still alive and well.

I had a great birthday. It was especially nice that Katy, Travis and our Princesses came to celebrate. While they were here, we also went to the beach. There's another blog post coming about that trip.