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Bletchley Park : Britain’s Best Kept Secret

Can you keep a secret? In today’s social media culture, many people can’t. Try to imagine not discussing any information about your work with fellow employees and immediate family members for thirty years.

Welcome back to my D-Day Anniversary Tour. This summer my husband and I took a Viking Cruise which included Normandy, Paris, and London. I was impressed by our time spent at Bletchley Park, located outside of London in Buckinghamshire. The estate was the home of Sir Herbert Leon until 1938. Then it became one of the most important centers of British intelligence during World War Two.

“The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”—Arnold Dahl

The British government purchased the serene fifty-five acre country estate because it afforded privacy and security. Nearby transport links to Oxford and Cambridge connected the estate to academia. Bletchley Park had its own power and water supply which guaranteed safe drinking water at all times.

No one in the surrounding community knew what was really going on at Bletchley. High chain link fences were erected around the perimeter. Neighbors thought it was a lunatic asylum. This impression was reinforced at the local pub, where brilliant and somewhat eccentric codebreakers spoke to each other in Ancient Greek. Ordinary folk who lived around the secret base were baffled by the unusual people in their midst.

Why so Secret?

The mission of Bletchley was to intercept, translate, and decrypt German communications and notify Allied troops of Nazi battle plans. Any breech of information that might get back to the Nazi’s would be disastrous. At the peak of its operation nine thousand employees worked here. All of them were asked to sign the Official Secrets Act of Britain. The penalty for careless talk could warrant imprisonment. Signs like the one posted below encouraged workers to not talk about their work. This pact of secrecy was enforced until the mid 1970’s.

A reminder to the Bletchley workers to not share information.

Of course not all nine thousand employees worked in the beautiful Bletchley mansion. Huts were erected on the property where most of the codebreaking occurred. The huts were dark and hot inside. All windows were covered with black blinds to keep staff from knowing what work was being done inside the neighboring hut. German messages were passed from one hut to another via a makeshift wooden tunnel.

After a ten year restoration project, the huts were opened to the public in 2004. No photographs existed of the buildings. All were restored by volunteers advised by veterans who worked here.

Cracking the Nazi Codes

Nazi communications were written using the Enigma. This machine looked like a typewriter except it substituted one letter for another creating an encrypted message. When an encrypted message was received by another Enigma, the operator would retype the gibberish and decode the actual message. A British mathematician at Bletchley, Alan Turing invented the Bombe, a machine that cracked the encrypted Nazi’s codes, and speeded up the process.

A replica of a Bombe machine.

Several Bombes were located in Hut 11 and were operated by members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service. (WRNS) The women worked eight hour shifts six days a week . Many of them were young, in their late teens and early twenties. The work was noisy as the rows of drums revolved. The smell of hot oil emanated from these machines. The women had little or no understanding of the importance of their work, but knew they had to keep each machine running. The Bombes of Hut 11 enabled the decrypting of three thousand German messages a day. Throughout the war and for years afterwards the women kept their contract of secrecy.

The work performed at Bletchley Park is thought to have shortened the length of the Second World War by two years. Winston Churchill thanked the (WRENS) for “laying the golden eggs without clucking.”

Our Viking Cruise through Normandy

“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” —Henry Rollins

Bonjour mes ami! This summer I learned how much the French people appreciate politeness. Did you know it’s considered rude to ask a direct question without first speaking a proper greeting? This is just one of the many tips I picked up from one of our Viking excursion guides. No wonder so many Americans, myself included, tend to get off on the wrong foot as tourists.

Yes, in some places, Americans are considered uncultured, rude, and self-centered. However, I discovered the people of Normandy are willing to overlook our faults. Many of them remember the D-Day Invasion of 1944. During our visit to Normandy I appreciated being greeted by scores of American flags. I saw flags displayed outside homes, on fences, or strung from rooftops across city streets. Our Viking cruise focused on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. In this post I will share how beautifully the Viking staff developed this theme through excursions and onboard lectures.

Our Excursions

My husband and I boarded our Viking longboat outside of Paris on June 4. We cruised on the meandering Seine River until we disembarked at Rouen. Then we traveled by bus to the American landing sites of Point du Hoc, Utah Beach, and Omaha Beach. Thousands of Allied ships comprised the largest amphibious invasion in history, known as “Operation Overlord.” In the wee hours of the morning on June 6, 1944 wave after wave of troops were cut down by German defenses perched high on the cliffs above Omaha beach. However, a few American soldiers managed to scale the cliffs shown below and by the end of the day an 80 mile stretch of land along the Atlantic coast had been breached by the Allies.

Two thousand American soldiers lost their lives at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Nazi gun embankments controlled the high cliffs above the water.

Today a beautiful memorial rises out of the water to symbolize the courage of the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate France. “Les Braves” was created by Anilore Banon and presented as a gift from the French people on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

“Les Braves”

The sculpture represents three elements: The Wings of Hope and the Wings of Fraternity stand on either side. The center of the work is called Rise, Freedom and inspires the world to stand strong against all forms of inhumanity.

Onboard Lectures

Our program director expanded the travel experience by inviting local guests on board to speak. While we were docked in Vernon, Monsier Castreau shared his memories of living in Vernon as a teenager. He experienced first hand the horrors of the Nazi invasion, the Nazi occupation of his community, and the eventual liberation by Americans. He remembers feeling hungry because the Nazi army ate most of what food was available. Monsier Castreau expressed his heartfelt appreciation for America. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience, many of whom were the sons and daughters of American soldiers who fought in France during the war.

I was honored to meet Monsier Castreau, who experienced life under the Nazi occupation of France.

Further upstream, at La Roche Guyon, we heard a presentation by Magali Clemencon, author and lecturer. Magali’s grandfather was a member of the French Resistance. Magali has interviewed and documented the testimony of 24 survivors of the Montluc prison, where the Nazi’s housed anyone deemed “undesirable,” like members of the Resistance, Jews, and Gypsies.

Author Magali Clemencon

Magali made a comment I will never forget. “It takes forty years for anyone who has experienced a deeply tragic event to be able to talk about it.” She shared that many survivors of World War II were unable to talk about their experiences with their children. For some, they could only speak about their past a few years prior to their death. Those who committed heroic deeds all say the same thing, “I only did what anyone in my position would do.”

I hate to imagine what the world might look like today if it were not for ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These special guests made history come alive to me. Through the eyes of strangers I came to know America in a different light and I gained a better understanding of my country’s contribution to freedom.This 4th of July take a few moments to reflect upon the freedoms we enjoy and the sacrifices of those who made it possible.

Utah Beach

In closing, I wish to thank Lionel Auber, our Viking Program Director who coordinated all excursions and onboard activities.

Many thanks to Lionel Auber for a memorable travel experience.

Our Free Day in Paris

“Repetition doesn’t create memories, new experiences do.” —Brian Chesky

Herb and I turned the faded pages of an old photo album with pictures from our trip to Europe in 1979. I pointed to a picture taken in Paris. “Look at us. We were just kids then. It’s hard to believe we backpacked through Europe for six weeks. We were brave.”

Herb nodded. “Let’s visit some of these places when we go to France next month. Most of our time is scheduled with Viking excursions but I’m sure we can arrange to have one free day.”

Earlier this year we booked a Viking River Cruise to visit the D-Day landing sites on the beaches of Normandy. This would be our first trip abroad in forty years and I was unsure of what to pack.

“I’m wearing the same sweater and jeans in most of these pictures,” I laughed. “I must have thrown them away when we came home. All of my clothes had to fit in one backpack. Now I’m having a hard time limiting myself to one suitcase.”

We talked about how different everything was in 1979. Forty years ago we didn’t have cell phones, navigation systems, or digital cameras. We used film to take photos. As newly weds, our tight budget constrained us. Whether or not to buy another roll of film was a big decision.

We pulled out our map of Paris and made a list of three places we wanted to revisit. I couldn’t wait to go. Everything fell into place and we selected June 5 as our special day to travel in our personal time machine to the year 1979.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame, 1979
Notre Dame, June 5, 2019

From this angle the iconic belfry towers look almost as they did in 1979. The church is under a huge reconstruction project as a result of the terrible fire in April. The entire area nearby the church was closed. The rainy weather added to the despair of the scene. For the latest on the reconstruction effort click here.

Luxembourg Gardens

Luxembourg Gardens 2019

On September 17, 1979 we celebrated our second wedding anniversary by getting dressed up and asking a bystander to take our picture. Herb must have carried his tie in his backpack. We didn’t see much of the gardens this year since we were in a hurry to meet our shuttle back to the Seine River to meet our Viking longboat. After snapping the shot on the right, we darted away to our third stop.

Hotel Gay-Lusac

We stayed here in 1979 because of the hotel’s proximity to Luxembourg Gardens. Here I am wearing my “uniform” and carrying my backpack. I used to cover my head with a scarf on bad hair days. Today the street is under construction and not nearly as romantic as I imagined.

My opening quote says it all. Repetition doesn’t create memories. It’s impossible to relive the past. You can’t recreate the magic because nothing is the same. Memories are better appreciated when they are kept in photo albums.

Stay tuned for future posts about the experiences we enjoyed and new memories we made in Europe this year.

The Coyote Comeback

Coyotes are on the move and coming to your backyard.

When I was growing up, my first encounter with a coyote happened while I watched TV. Like most kids during the fifties, I enjoyed Looney Tunes cartoons. One of my favorite shows starred Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner.

This cartoon was set in the Southwest American desert. In each episode Wile E. Coyote tried to catch Roadrunner, but was never successful. Wile E. built complex contraptions to try to catch his prey. His contraptions always failed, and Wile E. was the one who is injured. There was no dialogue between the two characters. The Coyote only communicated by holding up a written sign. The Roadrunner always raced by and said, “Beep Beep.” My siblings and I laughed at the slapstick humor.

My parents told me television could influence a person’s thinking. Because of this cartoon, I imagined coyotes only lived in the desert, and weren’t very smart. Both assumptions are false. Today I’ve discovered coyotes are very intelligent. In fact they are one of the most skilled survivors in the animal kingdom. (After all, no matter how many times Wile E. Coyote’s master plans failed, he always lived and returned for another episode.)

In a similar way, coyotes have made a huge comeback in America due to their adaptable behavior. Despite human efforts to eradicate them, coyotes have learned to live in a variety of habitats, from snowy mountain ranges, to big cities. In fact they are now found in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

Recently many coyotes have been sighted in Orlando. Early one morning in April, Herb spotted one walking down the street. He kept a tight hold on Buddy’s leash while the large animal ran to a nearby retention pond. Buddy froze and stared, but did not make a sound. Perhaps he considered Mr. Coyote a distant cousin since they are both members of the dog family.

This spring several coyotes have also been sighted in the park area around Lake Baldwin. My neighbor saw one a few days ago and shot this picture.

Over the past month, there seem to be fewer and fewer rabbits running through the marshy areas around the lake. Coyotes love rabbits but will eat anything, including pets. You can imagine the raised eyebrows when somebody’s cat didn’t come home one night.

It seems like there is nothing we can do to get rid of these unwelcome visitors. The local wildlife commission has no plan to remove them and only advises pet owners to keep their pets inside or on a short leash. Attempts to trap and remove them to other locations have failed to keep the rising population under control.

A dog park is located on the opposite shore of Lake Baldwin. People let their dogs run free on the property because it is fenced. Be on the alert dog owners. Coyotes can swim. There is nothing to stop one from entering the dog park.

All is not lost, friends and neighbors. At least coyotes are very clean animals. They actually bury their excrement. So if you discover a pile of poop on the sidewalk, it was probably Fido’s and left behind by a human.

I have to say I am somewhat alarmed that a pet eating mammal roams through our neighborhood. I’m also concerned that we are expected to accept the idea that “coyotes are here to stay.” Wile E. Coyote has triumphed at last. He may not have outsmarted Roadrunner, but he has outwitted man.

The Love Bug Picnic

Last week my brother Terry and his wife, Mary Ann, camped with Herb and I at Colt Creek State Park. It was a special trip since they live in Arizona, and drove their RV to Florida for a visit. We invited other members of our family to meet us at the campground for a picnic lunch.

The day of the gathering, Mary Ann covered the table with a colorful cloth. I helped her set out the traditional picnic fare. In addition to potato salad, coleslaw, and chips, we included a variety of toppings for hot dogs.

All of a sudden scores of love bugs descended on the table. Mary Ann was quick to cover the open deli containers with clear plastic shower caps. How ingenious, I thought, certainly that will keep the pesky insects out of our delicacies. I was glad she had a lot of shower caps, because the moment I opened a jar of pickle relish, a pair of love bugs landed on the inside of the metal lid. Yikes! In the blink of an eye, another pair dropped inside the jar.

Our picnic table with unwanted love bugs.

While I busied myself scooping the bugs out of the relish, Mary Ann noticed a pair had attached themselves to a hot dog on the grill. Needless to say, these pests succumbed to a fiery death.

The bugs weren’t the only living things having difficulty with the heat. This is the hottest May I can remember, with temperatures rising to nearly ninety degrees every day.

Back to the food, Mary Ann and I stood guard over the table to defend our lunch from the invading bugs. I gently lifted the shower cap from the potato salad just far enough to spoon out a serving before any more bugs could crawl inside. Mary Ann scraped the dead bugs from each hot dog before placing it on a plate. Believe it or not, no one got sick.

Once served, each picnicker hurried back to their chair which we had positioned under huge beach umbrellas. Everyone kept their eyes on their lunch as they ate. Although we were kind of miserable, we laughed because we had never experienced a picnic like this before. It was like no other. No matter what, we were all happy to be together.

One day later I found a screened-in picnic shelter by the lake. Although we took advantage of this new location for our second picnic lunch, the rest of our family had already gone home.

Facts about Love Bugs

This is an unusually bad year for love bugs in Florida due to increased rain. Although they are harmless and don’t bite or sting, the bugs stick to vehicles during highway driving. Unless they are washed off, they can eat the paint of a car.

Love bugs are usually found in pairs and can fly and crawl while mating.

An adult love bug lives only three or four days and those days are filled with mating. Love bug mating season occurs twice a year during the months of May and September. They feed on nectar from flowers and like other pollinators actually benefit the environment. Contrary to local legend, love bugs were not created by the University of Florida as part of an experiment to control mosquitoes. The insects migrated to U.S. from Central America in the 1920’s.

Love bugs are active between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This is something I want to remember when scheduling our next family picnic.

Combatting the Crisis in Literacy

Leslie Williams helps children love reading.

If you can read this, you are probably not among the 32 million adult Americans who can’t. Adults who read at less than an eighth grade level, have difficulty understanding essential information to function successfully in society. Low reading skills result in lower incomes, lower quality jobs, and low self esteem. But literacy is a journey that starts when adults are young. If children fall behind in elementary school, they never catch up.

Leslie Williams volunteers with first graders as part of the Read2Succeed Program in Orlando, Florida. The program is sponsored by the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools. Volunteers work to improve reading comprehension by building vocabulary.

Leslie introduces three new vocabulary words to her first grader each week. She reads a picture book aloud and her student follows along and highlights the words in the text. Together they craft a sentence using one of the new words. Then the child illustrates the word in his journal. At the end of the session, the picture book goes home with the student. This process is repeated for twenty-four weeks. By the end of the school year the first grader receives a total of thirteen picture books.

“I believe Read2Succeed is a huge benefit. The program gives them one on one attention, and they feel special. This is my fourth year as a volunteer and I love working with the kids.” Leslie commented.

A retired teacher who comes from a family of teachers, Leslie has fond childhood memories about reading. “My siblings and I always got a book from Santa every Christmas. My mom read books to us every night before bed. Charlotte’s Web was her favorite book and became one of ours as well.” Today, Leslie considers herself a reading advocate. She belongs to a book club and reads at least one book a week.

I asked Leslie if she felt if ebooks would make printed books obsolete someday. “Gosh, I hope not,” she responded. “Nothing can replace the look and feel of a new book.”

Leslie agrees the internet and social media have shortened our attention spans for reading. “My daughter teaches first grade and complains that it’s hard for books to compete with video games. However, when she reads aloud to her class the children are engaged because she includes sound effects.”

May is “National Get Caught Reading” month. Many classrooms display posters of celebrities reading a book to encourage students to read for pleasure. This post acknowledges all those who make a contribution to further the goal of literacy. I am thankful for teachers who impacted my life and the many volunteers who work with children.

People Who Can Read, Should

Take time this month to enjoy a good book. Reading is a great way to unplug and relax. Leave a comment and share some of your favorite books.

In Search of Fannie Farmer

“Precise measurements guarantee success.”

Thursday is waffle day at our house. It began when I gave my husband a waffle maker last Christmas. Over the years I’ve noticed Herb always orders waffles whenever we eat breakfast out. In fact, he always chooses to make his own waffle at any hotel with self-serve breakfast buffets. I thought I was so clever to give him something he would really appreciate.

Of course, I knew I would still need to be involved in the waffle making process. Christmas morning I announced I would mix up the batter every week, but the actual baking of the waffle would be his job. After all, he had more experience.

Our first few attempts at waffle making were very successful. Then all of sudden something went wrong. The waffle stuck to the waffle maker. Finally, Herb managed to scrape the waffle from the grid piece by piece.

Our waffle disaster!

To this day I’m not sure what went wrong. Since I cut the recipe in half, I may not have added the right amount of oil to the batter. My math skills might have let me down. What is on half of one third cup? We started over again, and our second attempt came out great.

The waffle disaster peaked my interest in Fannie Farmer. Did you know Fannie is called “the mother of level instruments?” As the author of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (1896), she made a more scientific approach to cooking popular. In her day cookbooks included recipes which called for “a handful of flour” or “a pinch of salt.” Fannie believed scientific cookery would elevate the human race.* Her cookbook encouraged all cooks to purchase standardized utensils to measure ingredients accurately.

Fannie’s Bio

Unlike many people who lived in the 1850’s, Fannie’s parents wanted her to attend college. At age sixteen a stroke left her paralyzed and she was forced to stay home. By age thirty she recovered and enrolled in the Boston Cooking School. The school emphasized laboratory precision in the kitchen, especially regarding measurements. Fannie excelled and eventually became principal of the school.

After Fannie Farmer wrote and published her cookbook, she became a culinary celebrity. Later she founded a cooking school that bore her name, lectured widely, and wrote food columns for women’s magazines. One of her main interests was the preparation of food for invalids, born out of her own experience of being bedridden for years.

By the time Fannie died in 1915, over 350,000 copies of her book had been sold. Continually revised, Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook can still be purchased. What a legacy!

Have you experienced any culinary disasters? Leave a message and tell me about it.

(Additional Reference: *Discovering America’s Past (1993)The Reader’s Digest Association.)