Life Stories and Beyond

Our Bodies. Our Families. Our Lives. We all have stories we should share. We're more alike than we know.

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From Buzz Cuts to Bombs: Innocence Lost and Secrets Kept (A Classified Incident Declassified)

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

I remember finding the tiny manila envelope, tucked under a blanket in the trunk of your Oldsmobile eighty-eight. When I discovered the black and white military photos inside, I was both shocked and thrilled. Seeing you and your army buddies with a couple of tiny-waisted ladies sporting floral summery dresses, I wondered if one of them was the French girl you befriended that cost you the corporal stripe.

I felt like I’d uncovered a different man, leading a different life. So surreal compared to your life as Mr. B, the ladies’ retail salesman, devoted husband and father. You wore a confident, almost cocky, “I can conquer anything” expression. Youthful and handsome as they come, in one picture you were the centerpiece, standing between bookend pals, one with a hand on your shoulder and the other with an arm wrapped around your back. And that cigar in your mouth. What was that all about?  Were y’all posing for the ladies?

This must have been before. Your hair, long and wavy on top, was not the buzz cut you so despised. You told me that the hardest indignity about the enlistment process was losing your pretty hair. I think you said it took three trips before it was cut as short as the Army required. Since your hair had time to grow, this picture must have been after boot camp. In the states or where? Tents in the background look like those in old war movies. I imagine they smelled musty as a tobacco barn at curing time, and were just as hot at bedtime. Perhaps you were too exhausted to care. D01A3847-9DA1-45EC-88C0-25A62B82A11B

This must have been before the foxhole, you three, with those good looks and clean uniforms, full of mixed feelings of pride and unacknowledged fear; leaving loved ones wondering if you’d ever return. It must have been before the bullets whizzed by your head as you tried to radio in about the Germans just over the hill. This must have been before you prayed harder than you ever had, when the radio went out and then you switched to prayers of praise when the radio repair guy came into your bunker. I still wonder how he got there, with all those whizzing bullets.

Was this before you fired your sixty-millimeter mortars and wondered how many German men you’d hit? You said men, not soldiers. You shared that thought in a moment when you let your guard down and told me some of your experiences. There were stories you couldn’t tell.

This picture was before the classified incident which soldiers in the 66th Panther Division were forbidden to discuss. The one that must have eaten at you or been smothered, shoved down to depths too deep to revisit.

These smiling young faces didn’t yet know about the classified incident to come. The torpedoed ship that you nearly boarded. Weren’t you one of the last ones to get on the SS Cheshire? So tired from Christmas Eve KP duty in Southampton, England, up since the middle of the night peeling all those potatoes nobody ate, when the call came to load the two ships. It’s no surprise you rested on your pack while waiting on the dock and fell asleep. The miracle is that you woke up in time to load the troopship, the SS Cheshire and not the former passenger liner repurposed as a troopship, the SS Leopoldville on December 24, 1944. Divisions were separated in the hasty boarding to cross the English Channel to the shore of Cherbourg, France, on the way to the Battle of the Bulge.

What must it have felt like, watching the explosion and fire when the two torpedoes from the U-Boat hit the other ship, knowing but not registering the atrocity, while switching to survival mode; you told me your ship zigged and zagged to avoid another torpedo, trying in vain to contact help from nearby ships, communications and decisions hampered by Christmas revelry on the shore. Allied forces celebrating with their own Christmas dinners a mere five miles away failed to mobilize in time to rescue the victims.

You must have mourned in shock. Your fellow soldiers and friends, your innocence, and even the anticipated Christmas turkey dinner more than fourteen hundred men would never smell cooking while thinking of home. A horrifying total of 763 soldiers and 56 crewmen perished either in the blast or in the frigid waters of the Channel a mere five and a half miles from shore. The uneaten Christmas meal is easier to mourn than all those young lives lost, young people hoping to save the world from evil. Is it wrong to wonder what happened to all that food?

When the incident––“The Sinking of the Leopoldville”, as one survivor’s book called it––became declassified in 1996, you and your fellow survivors could finally open up and let the pain pour out. A painful stench of memories and visions trapped within your minds’ wall like a dead rodent, inaccessible yet a constant reminder of the rot that shouldn’t be there?

I saw your smile widen, although I never knew it was incomplete, when your lips were freed from government-imposed bondage, fifty-two years later. Why so long? I’ll never understand. I heard there were threats of losing GI benefits as civilians if anyone spoke of the sinking.

But the truth came out. In 1984, when divers discovered the shipwreck, the story was freed from the bottom of what had remained silent as a secret grave. You survivors finally shared your stories with your families and friends, with each other at that long overdue memorial ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia. Some wrote books, and some, like you, told your story to historians, wise enough to salvage such events while the survivors could still tell the tales so long silenced.

You told me that because your 66th Infantry Division called the Black Panthers was at half strength, your destination, which was The Battle of the Bulge was diverted. For supper the night of the sinking of the Leopoldville, you survivors dined on English candy instead of turkey and all those peeled potatoes. I don’t allow myself to think of the possibility that none of our family would even exist if you’d gone to the Bulge or boarded the other boat.

You often said, “My little mama was at home praying for me and my brothers, all four of us boys across the ocean fighting that war. She must have had some powerful prayers since we all made it back. I felt those prayers. They kept me going.”

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I’ll never know why you stored those photos in your trunk. At the time I thought it was because you did not want Mom to see the women in a few of the pictures. You eventually told me they were just some girls y’all met on leave in Florida, so there was nothing to hide from Mom. I assume it was easier to bury that part of your life by hiding the photos so that conversations about the war would not arise, those conversations that you were forbidden to have.

Your little mama prayed for the boy in the picture––still innocent and handsome. Her baby turned into a man, on loan to her country. A man who would someday hold back stories and hide photos. A man who would bury parts of his life to honor his country and protect his family’s innocence.

 

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Chewing Dogs Pretend They’ve Outgrown It: Don’t Believe It

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

I saw my shoes by the front door when I left the house for writing class. I thought to myself, Tucker, our sweet grand dog seems to have outgrown his chewing phase. I won’t be gone long. Surely they’ll be fine.

Yeah right. I am such a sucker for some big beautiful eyes. So much for those prescription orthotic innersoles that have helped relieve my planter fasciitis so nicely. So much for the doggie doo plastic bags on his leash that happened to be lying within his reach somewhere. And just moments ago I heard a strange noise out on the front patio, a clicking sound. Checking that out, I found a planter chewed in half and it’s former contents, a Clematis, tossed aside with its naked root ball exposed.

Let this serve as a warning. Once a chewer, likely always a chewer. Stay vigilant. Keep your guard up. Dog proof your house and your yard. When something gets chewed up keep in mind that it must be your fault. And if you have any doubt while you’re scolding your dog, look into those eyes and you’ll start to feel guilt. Don’t believe it. Your dog may be yearning for you to leave.

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There’s an Empty Bowl in the Empty Nest: When a Furbaby Passes On to Glory

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

This week, after losing our floppy-eared hound, Single Stare Sadie, our empty nest became extra quiet. Sadie was the life of the party. She could howl like a master coon dog, chase squirrels in complete glee, and pose royally like the queen of our menagerie.

I’ll speed through this so I won’t mist up. Six months ago, Sadie survived kidney cancer surgery and months of chemo as we watched her progress in utter amazement . She was the perfect, perky patient. At only eight years old, we figured she’d be with us for years to come.

Suddenly last week, she started sleeping more and losing control of body functions. Her ability to walk came and went, sometimes picking her feet up like a Tennessee Walker, not her normal gait. Other times she fell uncontrollably, drunk-like, but remained determined to get back up. She was first treated for pancreatitis and perked up with IV fluids, entertaining people at the animal hospital with her “I feel better” howling. Once home, she ate as normal but went to bed soon after. I checked on her an hour later and, again, she couldn’t lift her head nor walk. I assumed it was a stroke as her body was completly out of control.

After many trips to and from the hospital, the vet said it was most likely a stroke or cancer metastacized into her brain. Sadie passed away in our arms in the most peaceful manner possible before sunrise. In a softly lit room, on a fluffy blanket with folks who love her, she was at last comfortable.  At the animal hospital, the “Comfort Room” as it’s called, provided a perfect place for easing all of our pain.

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As I said, our nest became quieter. Sadie’s bowl and bed, empty reminders of who was missing. We’d grieved her situation while she was alive and I thought I had nearly used up my tears. I was wrong. Our other two dogs missed Sadie also. Things were different during naptime without her lying against her border collie-Saint bernard sister, Mandy, or outside chasing squirrels with her sheltie brother, Remy.

Our empty nest could have been unbearibly quiet except for our granddog, Tucker, who came for an extended visit the day before. Surprisingly, the timing of Tucker’s visit has been a God-send. He is sweet and goofy and a welcome sight to his best buddy, Charlie, our other granddog who came for a visit on our first night without Sadie. The busy little puppy who used to chew up everything in his path, has matured and is now content to snuggle, chase his blue ball, and chew his bones instead of the furniture.

Sadie can never be replaced, no matter how many dogs we love. She was a one and only. I must admit, having Tucker around keeps me busy and helps dull the sadness with his smiles and energy. He got to say goodbye to his pal, Sadie, who was one terrific friend. I’m so grateful for the time we got with our sweet girl and miss her dearly. I’d better go now. Tucker brought me his ball.

October 21, 2018
lisakunk

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Lessons From The Empty Nest: Toenail Wisdom From One of The Visiting Birdies

A6D3EC0B-0E95-4034-A535-E86DAE14B757By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

I’m delighted to say, I have neglected my blog lately. Yep, happy because I’ve been busy spending time with those kiddos who fluttered out of the nest. We’ve either visited them or they’ve visited us. It’s been so fantabulous. We’ve gotten our baby bird fix and even learned a few things.  I’ll share a bit of that wisdom now.

I decided to stretch my readers’ minds by showing ya’ll how to cut your toenails inside the house without shooting them all over the room. Our oldest (by one minute) son Joe came up with this idea in a mere instant. He was headed to scoop his cat’s litter box and decided to use the bag as a toenail catcher first before becoming a feline poo recepticle.

Now you see why I’m so proud of my birds. They come up with innovative ideas and then teach their father and me how to use their newfound skills. (My dad taught me to sit on the back steps outside to cut my toenails. Sometimes it was too doggone hot or cold. Sorry Dad.)

I hope you will employ and enjoy7EDADC90-450C-4F4B-B15C-5682A405632C this useful life hack. Now clip those nails without leaving a trace of evidence you’ve been there. Carry on.

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Using that Hurricane Water Once Again: Thanks to Hurricane Florence

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

Following Hurricane Matthew, I wrote about reusing our bathtub filled with emergency, hurricane water to wash our hound dog, Sadie.A Bathtub of Hurricane Prep Water? This year, we filled pots and pitchers with water in preparation for the very devastating Hurricane Florence that hit the Carolinas and Virginia.

Not wanting to waste the remaining water, we used it to refill the dogs’ water pot, for washing dishes, and for boiling eggs.

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First, I used the water for the “float test” to determine if the two dozen expired eggs in the fridge were ok. This time, our electricity was only out briefly from the storm; otherwise, there would be no need to test the eggs. If you’re not familiar with the “float test” it is simply placing eggs in water to see if they sink or float. If they float, don’t eat them. They’re better in the compost pile than in your belly. Here’s a brief video of the process.

 

July 30, 2018
lisakunk

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Long Live Mr. Treehouse: Only Now He’s Mr. Bridge Patio Thingy Over the Stream

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

After seeing our empty-nester treehouse come down last week, many people from all around shared how they felt the pull of childhood fun coming to an end. End? Never! Transform, yes. We live by rules such as Waste not, want not and all kinds of cliches like that. As we will one day transform like a twinkle of a star, so did Mr. Treehouse. Thanks to Dan the man and his buddies, John and Zane, within forty-eight hours, Mr. Treehouse became a new plaything for young and old alike. He is now useful for woods-walkers who no longer climb like squirrels. On morning walks, I’m sure we’ll enjoy parking on the planks to watch nature more often on Mr. Bridge than we would in Mr. Treehouse. Just because we used-to-could, doesn’t mean we should, right?

So now, for your viewing pleasure, meet Mr. Former Treehouse Now Bridge Patio Thingy. Yes, that’s a long name but just go with it.  We look forward to many years of lounging, dancing, camping, and picnicking on his new form. It’s almost like he had plastic surgery, only for free and without pain medicine. It’s all good. Don’t be sad. He’s pretty happy with his new snazzy self. So are we. Picture lying on a sleeping bag, listening to crickets, frogs and the stream running underneath you. Sounds delightful. The adult kids may never sleep inside again.

July 27, 2018
lisakunk

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Empty Nest Flutterings: Come on Down, Mr. Treehouse

 

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

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There comes a time, when the nest is empty, we push back the tears and make room for other things; like hammocks and memories. Today’s the day. Once a sturdy sight for kid’s eyes. Barn red siding, climbing pegs, and a yellow slide, you were a group project and a work of art. A tree house for people and squirrels. Now you’ve done your job, and it’s time to rest. Come on down. We’ll share our memories in the shade of the very same young trees that both supported and later stressed your floorboards, as they grew tall. Welcome to a new season.

 

Don’t worry birdies, if we ever need another tree house, we can build a new one.

To be continued…

 

July 5, 2018
lisakunk

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Shelling Out Wisdom From the Beach: Hints for writers, parents, or anyone who enjoys playing

 

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

 

As a writer and parent, I know the importance of inspiration for new ideas. For me, nature and especially the beach are where my five senses heighten like hair standing up in gooseflesh. Thoughts flow in faster than I can put them into long-term memory. Taking photos helps me save those treasured tidbits until I can jot them down.

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We realize you kids know everything but right now you just sit there and listen to older and wiser heads.

 

My latest thoughts whirled around how much the shoreline is filled with diversity. Various colors, shapes, conditions, sizes, and ages of shells, serve as perfect analogies of human lives. On my latest beach trip, I filled an empty trail mix bag with sand and brought it home to use as a backdrop to my seashell wisdom ideas. It was too darn hot for straight thinking, playing in the hot sand in a heat wave, so I opted to play in our air conditioning instead.

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Nothing like a little grit with your sweet and salty.

 

I collected shells of all descriptions. Nearly perfect and broken, old and not so old, plain and colorful. A cross-section of mankind.

 

Back in the cool air, playtime began with a cookie sheet full of sand, the perfect sandbox for shell play. Believe it or not, this sandbox kept my husband and me occupied for quite a while arranging and rearranging our pretend humans in the form of shells. I didn’t tell him it felt like playing with our kids again, making up stories for their dolls or GI Joe’s to act out. Only this time it was with my idea man of a husband.

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No sass needed. Come under the umbrella before you have a heat stroke.

 

I’d arrange the shell people and ask what he thought was happening. Our ideas were often very different which suggests this activity may serve as good prompts for writers or parents. These photos and captions represent only a few of the scenarios we developed.

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I like your natural gray. I wish I had the nerve to go natural. Ready to play Bunco?

 

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Okay you can go in the water but only an inch deep. And you girls hang onto the twins.

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Why do we have to put on more sunscreen?

 

For parents and writers who need to get in out of the heat or stimulate some new ideas, setting up an indoor sandbox is simple and effective. It’s also easy enough to sweep up the wayward sand, so no need to fear a big old mess.

On my morning beach walk, I met a delightful new friend who shared her own shell analogy. She said,”I’ve noticed how even the beautiful, complete shells still have grit inside. I rinse them and it reminds me of how baptism can make us grit free.”

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Morning shelling is relaxation at its best.

 

I’d love for you to share additional caption ideas for these photos or let me know if this spurs your own creativity.

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Seeing our similarities shouldn’t be so hard. We’re all solid citizens and live on the same beach.

 

June 29, 2018
lisakunk

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Dead Fish or Brunch?

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

An imperfect circle of dead fish littered the beach near the water’s edge. How sad. I asked another morning walker, “Do you think they were discarded by a surf-fisherman who was using them as bait?”

 

He lifted his brows while widening his eyes and said, “Either that or some sharks were out there having a good time.”

 

“I’ll go with my theory, but thanks for that,” I said as I smiled, turned, and continued my stroll. Beach walkers are such fun folks.   IMG_1302

On my return trek toward my shady umbrella site, I could see from a distance, three seagulls enjoying a fish bait buffet. My smile flattened, as I witnessed a photographer get too close and off they flew. He took his camera and left. That’s what your zoom lens is for, Buddy.

 

I stayed back a ways and watched as one little white gull returned and snagged a bite, only to be scared away by a pack of runners pounding the sand. Poor little gull waded about eight feet away to wait out the traffic.

My mom would say, “Somebody left the gate open,” meaning traffic was heavy. Each time he got up the courage to move in for a taste, another runner zipped by. He retreated again to his safe spot in the shallow water.

 

I wanted to toss him a couple of slimy morsels but he would have flown for sure if I strode that close. The tide was going out but one rogue wave fell just barely far enough to pull back a few tiny, iridescent fish for him to snag and munch on. Nature ruled once again. The fish didn’t die in vain and the little gull had a lovely brunch. I wonder if his buddies were watching.

 

June 26, 2018
lisakunk

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Distractibility at Its Finest: If You Give a Writer An Idea

 

By Lisa Batten Kunkleman

Distracted as usual from my to do list, I spend far too much time on line reading other people’s blogs and enjoying chats with some of those bloggers. Those conversations, often spur me on to write more blog posts, which is a good thing. I figure I should do so while the ideas are on top of my memory file. Was that clever or confusing?  Blogging would be a good way to spend my time now, except I’m hibernating at the beach for a few days, to work toward finishing my ever-pending book within this decade. Actually, I’ll finish sometime this year if I learn to concentrate.

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“Hey Squirrel, what’s in that feeder?”

 

There is a constant influx of captivating topics that swirl around in my head like clippings under a lawnmower, flinging toward the chute. They have to escape or the machinery becomes clogged. I have to launch that idea out into the grass. I mean the world. Hopefully you get that I’m attempting to make an analogy. Here’s an example of how my blogging mind works.

 

If you give a writer an idea

She’ll need to chew on it

If she chews on it

She’ll need to write it

If she writes it

She’ll need to edit it

If she edits it

She’ll need to share it

If she shares it

She’ll need to monitor it

If she monitors it

She’ll need to respond to responses

If she responds to responses

She’ll get another idea

If she gets another idea

She’ll need to chew on it

 

Now that I got that out of my head, I’ll get to work on the book. Until the next idea takes hold and distractibility wins over.  Then there’s that crowded beach beneath my tenth floor window.  I see one good empty spot near the water where my chair and umbrella would fit between the sea of umbrellas like a puzzle piece.

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