formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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June 26, 2018 Who's Boss?

The Liberty Gazette
June 26, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: Carlos was hurrying through his sandwich so he could make his reserved time slot to fly a glider at the Soaring Club of Houston. He asked about our latest trip to Eastern Europe—which countries we visited, how we liked it, etc. I had noticed his t-shirt when he first walked in the clubhouse. I wondered if he knew much about the person whose name he sported: clothing designer, Hugo Boss. So I responded, “Interesting that you’re wearing that shirt. It’s relevant to our trip.”

Having taken the private military history tour on the island of Vis, off the Adriatic coast of Croatia, I knew who Hugo Boss was. So I told Carlos about how we crept inside the dark tunnels used by the Yugoslav People’s Army. Amid the billions of mosquito-looking bugs that didn’t bite but were thick as grease in the air, and the bats chasing them for a feast; amid the dank underground maze were remnants of the Cold War. A pair of shoes, left just as they were when Yugoslavia collapsed and everyone abandoned the nuclear hide-out. Also left, still resting on a hanger in an officer’s quarters, is a molding army uniform jacket.

Nano, our guide, pointed his flashlight toward the uniform and quizzed us. “What do you think that is? Doesn’t it look like a Nazi uniform?”

It did.

“But it’s not. It’s the uniform of the Yugoslavian army. Made by Hugo Boss. He made the Nazi uniforms too, so they look really similar.”

Carlos was immediately skeptical of my information and retrieved his phone from his pocket for quick research. “Yep. You’re right. Hugo Boss, designer of the Nazi military uniforms.” While he didn’t tell me his thoughts at that moment, his expression seemed to convey a bit of discomfort at the realization of the history represented on his shirt.

Mike: Hugo joined the Nazi party in 1931. After WWII he was stripped of his voting rights and could not own or operate a business in Germany. Years later, that decision was commuted when officials believed he was just a follower rather than an activist and beneficiary. But that probably meant little to Hugo, who had died in 1948. The Boss company ownership was passed to Hugo’s son-in-law and later taken over by grandsons who commissioned a study into the company’s past.

In 2010 the company issued a statement of regret and apologized for participating in the production of military uniforms for the Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s army of killers. But they also argued that their grandfather was not the designer. Rather, his company was one of fifteen thousand small manufacturers supplying the German army, possibly by force or threat.

Regardless who designed it, the tattered glob of fabric hanging in the dingy bunker on the island of Vis, a hundred and eighty feet below ground, does look similar to a Nazi uniform coat.

It is not for us to say what was in Hugo Boss’s heart and mind, but it’s a reminder to consider how we spend our money.

June 12, 2018 Vis, an Important Island

The Liberty Gazette
June 12, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: “Whoever controls the island of Vis controls the Adriatic,” explained Nano, our private military tour guide.

My eyes were still adjusting to the bright sun as we emerged from a tunnel into a rubble-strewn area that overlooked the gently rolling sea. I was careful not to trip on the corroded circular metal pad bolted to the cement floor and its rusting metal sleeve that protruded upward, the remains of a mount for heavy artillery. I’d seen similar bunkers at Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach in Normandy. But those didn’t require navigation through hundreds of yards of dank-smelling tunnels.

“This island never was occupied by Germany like the rest of Yugoslavia,” Nano pointed out. “Italy held it, but gave it up.”

Linda: The remains of over thirty separate military installations are still on the island. Nano, a native of Vis, drove his Land Rover along rugged roads to show us bunkers, barracks, and a sunset from the second highest point on the island. The highest point is still military-occupied. Some centuries-old ruins are crumbling. Others, built during WWII and the Cold War, we explored by flashlight. We dodged bats and bugs through the dungeon-like maze.

Italy abandoned the island when they surrendered in September, 1943. This allowed the Yugoslav Partisan resistance to move their headquarters here, where they added a hospital and an airstrip.

 Mike: In 1944, the RAF stationed two squadrons of Spitfire and Hurricane fighters at the newly-built air base. The United States Army Air Force also placed a group of mechanics on the island to repair war-damaged bombers. The hospital was busy treating wounded crew members.

“The air base here was one of the most important in the Adriatic. When bombers, damaged while attacking German targets in the Balkans, couldn’t make it back home to Italy, they came here.” Nano slowed his vehicle to show us a marker. The inscription reads: "In Proud Memory of the Men of the Royal Air Force who lost their lives while operating over Yugoslavia 1944 through 1945," except someone has scratched out “Yugoslavia” and replaced it with “Croatia,” a sign of continued internal struggle.

One day in 1944, thirty-seven B-24 Liberators either landed at or crashed on the short runway. To clear the overtaxed field for more landings, crashed airplanes were chopped up with axes. Several aircraft crews bailed out nearby or had to ditch in the blue waters surrounding the island.

As Germany retreated farther north in 1945, the mechanics and squadrons of fighters were moved to an airfield in Zadar on the Yugoslav coast. At the end of the war, the island air base was closed and the land returned to use as vineyards. But buildings still have signs that say “Aerodrome,” and old pilots have returned to remember friends both saved and lost.

At war’s end, 218 aircraft were saved and over 1,000 airmen owe their lives to the little airfield and its hospital in the middle of the Adriatic.

June 5, 2018 Mostar's Tower of Hope

The Liberty Gazette
June 5, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Toys came from weapons for children of the basements. After each round of bloodshed, exploded artillery created pieces in interesting shapes. Rubble from bombed or shot-up buildings added variety to the newly-fallen toy box.

Rockets and grenades came from the top of the hill, blowing up neighborhoods.

Formerly a very nice hotel.

“We’d wait fifteen seconds and then we’d all run outside and grab as much as we could. We used our imagination, playing with shrapnel and debris. Our games were collecting as many different pieces as we could, then comparing, and trading for more cool-looking pieces. But we all grew up together doing that—we were Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. Although we were of different religions, we got along just fine. Together, living in our basements, we faced attacks by Serbs and Croats.”

Those are the words of Admir, who served as our guide through Mostar, Bosnia. The closest he came to identifying himself with any particular religion was when he said, “My mother gave me a Muslim name.”

I knew the integrated city of Mostar, the most heavily bombed in the Bosnian war, would be an interesting study in humanity. What I came to see was a building that the government “discourages” people from visiting. It’s fenced off pretty well, stories of people falling and dying are spread probably to create fear, but access is only a slight challenge if you know where to get in.

Near the front lines—a four-lane boulevard—the National Bank of Yugoslavia had been hit by mortars and rockets shot by the invaders who surrounded the city from the mountain tops all around. The 1990’s war in Bosnia was complicated. In Mostar, the Neretva River divides the city; Muslims on the east side, Croats west. The ten-story bank, only its concrete structure remaining, became the ideal location for Croat and Serb snipers to shoot citizens. They picked off ordinary residents walking along the sidewalk below or perhaps stepping out on their patio to hang the laundry to dry. The building became known as Sniper Tower.
Neretva River, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovenia

Former National Bank of Yugoslavia, a/k/a "Sniper Tower".

Art on the walls of Sniper Tower

Messages in Sniper Tower

Wall on the way to Sniper Tower

Wall on the way to Sniper Tower

It wasn’t the evil of men’s hearts that drew me here. It was the display of art—how people survive and try to heal from atrocities—that made me need to be in this ruin.
Half-way up Sniper Tower
From our research we had learned of the paintings that now cover most of the concrete on every floor. Painted over bullet-ridden walls are portraits of loved ones, messages of peace, statements of pain and searching for hope. A blue painting with white stars declares we all live under the same sky. A painting of several pairs of sunglasses says point-blank that we choose how to see the world, “Pick your glasses.”


Elevator shaft

We explored every floor of the bank-turned-weapon on the way to the roof, considering the art that expresses the depths of human searching. Alongside us, Admir added context with his childhood memories, his family among the targets.

I am not convinced that Admir’s dream of peace will come true in this life as we know it, but the yearning for it captures my heart.
The Old Bridge, Stari Most

Stari Most


At the Crooked Bridge

Powerful Reminder; Notice shrapnel on top of the rock

This boulevard was the front lines of the war.

At the front lines here you can see two monuments. The one on the right is for "Yugoslavians."
Someone has tried to destroy it.

Side by side: a lovely dignitary's house and the former city library, still bombed out rubble. Read on...
The former city library is a mess. They do not wish to rebuild it, according to Admir, our guide, because this is where the intellectuals meet - and it is they who cause all the trouble.
Inside the former city library.

Beautiful old stone buildings at the base of the Old Bridge, Stari Most.

Lovely flowers on someone's balcony in town.

The beautiful riverfront restaurant, Divan.

The view from Divan, where we had dinner one evening.

Yas's wonderful coffee shop.

Yas's wonderful coffee shop.

Yas preparing coffee for us.

May 29, 2018 Soaring the Alps

The Liberty Gazette
May 29, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Last September’s Hurricane Harvey interfered with our anniversary vacation plans and “Vacation Croatia” turned into “Vacation Rodeway Inn, Humble, Texas.” Fortunately, all involved refunded our paid expenses and we put off the trip to former Yugoslavian states along the Adriatic Sea for another time.

That time finally came for the long flight aboard a United Airlines 767 from Houston to Munich, then Croatia Airlines into their capital, Zagreb. We’d start there—and it’s a lovely city with fascinating, complex history—but I think we both were most looking forward to the chance to log recreational flights in a foreign country. Not just any: we’d fly over the southern tip of the Alps, over Slovenia.

From the capital, Ljubljana, we drove northwest about an hour to Bled, where I’d rent a Cessna 172 and take Mike for a photo flight. Before that, however, he hopped in a glider and went soaring for over an hour above some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Mike: Hunting the air’s thermal activity that will lift this glider higher, we’ve found a pocket of cooperation. We’re now live entertainment for the family outside on their deck as we drift by. I’m wondering how they built that a house on such a steep mountainside. Moments earlier, our pass was much lower and I was looking up at them. Now, we are at eyeball level and close. We reach the edge of the mountain ridge where turbulence and downward sink suggest we turn our glider around and pass by the chalet again.

Clouds billow above and around us masking the higher peaks in pillows from multiple shades of grey to blazing white, reflecting the sun’s rays. Jagged streaks of crystalline snow appear from the cloak to cover the upper elevation. We were not supposed to be able to do any soaring today; the forecast for Bled, Slovenia was rain. Still, Linda and I had ventured to this picturesque little town with a church on an island, in the middle of a lake, and a castle standing guard from the top of a hill overlooking it all. The weather broke just enough so that now, I am able to go soaring in the Julian Alps.

German glider pilots hang out here at the Lesce Aerodrome at Lake Bled because the soaring season starts earlier in Slovenia than in their country or nearby Austria or Switzerland. They didn’t think there was much hope of staying aloft today. But Milan, the local pilot I am flying with, has been soaring here forty-two years and knows all the best places to find updrafts.

Effortlessly, we sweep past the A-frame again. This time the people on the deck are below us. This moment, silently soaring above snow-capped Alps, I am on top of the world. The chalet couple snuggles close and eagerly waves to us, their entertainers in a quiet, graceful sky dancer who smile from the romance in the air. 

May 22, 2018 McCulloch's London Bridge

The Liberty Gazette
May 22, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: On one of our gypsy trips out west we took off from Boulder City Municipal Airport and flew south over the Colorado River where it splits Arizona from California. Over Lake Havasu City the mid-morning sun’s reflections shimmered from the windows of houses below. I nudged Linda and pointed out the landmark. “That’s the London Bridge.”

She looked at me funny and asked, “What do you mean?”

“You know, like the song, London Bridges falling down…” but I don’t sing that well so I stopped there.

Linda: Having had four children, and now with eight grandchildren, even if you don’t count all the times I sang the nursery rhyme as a kid myself, I’d still bet I’ve recited it a few hundred times. “Wait. The London Bridge is in Arizona?”

Mike laughed and explained its history, and the man with the far-out plan.

Mike: London Bridge connects the island in the middle of Lake Havasu to Lake Havasu City. It’s not actually the one the song is about—London had another bridge hundreds of years before.  This bridge was built in the nineteenth century to replace the original. But in 1968 the city of London wanted to tear it down and build a new one.

With a drive to preserve history, and maybe a little eccentricity, Robert Paxton McCulloch bought the bridge at auction and had it shipped to the Arizona desert.

Linda: Why? This London Bridge that had spanned the River Thames between the City of London and Southwark from 1821 to 1967 would be such a unique attraction that people would flock to his new development—Lake Havasu City.

Mike: Rumor has it McCulloch spotted the lake while flying around looking for a location to test outboard boat motors. You needed a Jeep, a boat, or an airplane to reach the place. Many thought he was off his rocker when he landed on the island’s dingy little fishing camp airstrip and bought 13,000 acres of barely accessible land on the spot.

Best known today as “the chainsaw king,” McCulloch envisioned a city. He relocated his motor manufacturing plant along with 400 workers from Los Angeles. He also expanded the airport. He built a terminal and lengthened and paved the two dirt runways.

He bought six Lockheed Constellations to bring in prospective lot buyers. Later, eleven Lockheed Electra turboprops replaced the Connies. By the end of 1978, an estimated 137,000 people had been carried on more than 2,700 flights to visit McCulloch’s desert paradise.

I landed at that airport many times, mostly on the last day of holiday weekends, to enjoy the serene, deep blue waters of Lake Havasu after the crowds left.

The bridge stands as a symbol of McCulloch’s most endearing achievement, a city built where nobody thought it could be.

Lake Havasu City’s population is about 53,000, and following the Grand Canyon, McCulloch’s London Bridge is the second largest attraction in the state. That’s pretty impressive for such a far-out idea.

May 15, 2018 Southeast Asia Wrap - Imagine (part XVII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 15, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: Along the coast of Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, in a pedestrian section of cute boutiques is the Edmonds Bookshop. On our post-coffee shop stroll, we stepped inside to browse. Several titles interested me, but one stopped me in my tracks. A black and white hardback faced me from the top shelf. The cover art depicts a young woman looking out large windows onto the ramp of a major airport, jets taxiing and parking at gates. The picture grabbed my attention. The title made me curious: Imagine Wanting Only This*. I had to know, what did the woman in the airport want?

Sixteen days in Southeast Asia netted sixteen condensed stories, from the unsurprising diversion of our flight avoiding North Korean air space to stories of healing and discovering our sameness with people of different cultures.

Shortly after returning, we began planning our next trip –Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. This was similar to the trip we booked when Hurricane Harvey drowned more than our plans. At some point it hit me: I’ve never set out to visit all the places of genocide, but I can check many off the list.

Imagine being forced to leave your home, wanting only to go back to the way things were. You may know this yearning if your home was destroyed by Harvey. Home, as it was. Life, as it was, before tragedy upended your world.

The author is young and in a different place in her journey, yet I relate to her wish that cannot be. After the death of a close family member, she was drawn to places of pain and uncertainty. Many of the same places I have been. In her grief she replayed memories, coming to grips with the fact that things would be different from that moment on.

Like the people of Cambodia who suffered grisly tortures and death at the hands of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge communist gang; like Laotians whose lives were mutilated at the will of the Pathet Lao; like the good people of Saigon whose own countrymen, and sometimes own family members, forced communism and death upon them.

When survivors returned to Phnom Penh, they began to rebuild. The arts community led the way in healing. They taught their traditions to a new generation to keep their culture from extinction.

Or consider the case of Vietnamese who lived north of Saigon. When their families were allowed to leave the north, many had to rebuild their lives from nothing. Much of what we saw in Saigon was born out of desperation, compulsion to create something new when going home is not an option.

As Kristen traveled in search of meaning, she observed the phenomenon. People would rise again, build, start over, and live however they could manage. But behind them would always be those memories of the time before it all happened. And she imagined wanting only to come home again, as it was. An apropos wrap for our Southeast Asia series.

*Radtke, Kristen. Imagine Wanting Only This. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017.

May 8, 2018 Living in Vietnam Today (part XVI in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 8, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We’ll be wrapping up our Southeast Asia series soon, but first we have an exclusive; a powerful story from a young Vietnamese willing to share their reality with you. Here are his words:

We went through a lot of things after the Vietnam war. My dad worked at the Da Nang airport as a helicopter mechanic. He was trained in the U.S. When the war was over we did not have many options. We followed the new government’s direction to move to an area in the central highlands. We did not know we were actually being moved to an undeveloped piece of jungle.

My parents had two small children and no idea about the term, “new economic zone,” that the communist government used for moving city people who did not support the Viet Cong or who had been involved in the war.

Most southern army officers went to jail, or as the commie people call it, “re-education camp.” It’s nothing different than hard-labor prison for former soldiers. They brainwash those soldiers and make them fear to death so they won’t be a threat against the new government when they get released. My uncle who was a navy officer spent almost three years in a re-education camp.

My dad did not go to jail because he worked in an office. We just lost our house as did many city people after that fateful day in 1975. We were moved to the new economic zone in 1976. I was born there two years later.

When people arrived there they did not want to get off the bus because there was nothing there. They cried a lot and asked drivers to take them back to their city, but it was too late. Little did they know they were on the one-way ticket bus and the government had tricked them. Government people showed photos of the “imagined” new economic zone with farms, farming tools, and houses. But when they arrived at the economic zone there was nothing.

We struggled there for more than three years. My dad helped the government officers with their documentation and paperwork because a lot of them actually came out of where they wanted to send us and did not have proper education.

That was a real problem with Vietnam back then, when the well-educated people were shipped to the government’s farm and work was “ruled” by the poorly educated commies.

My dad found that since moving there we had lost thirty percent of our people to diseases like malaria and jungle yellow fever. Sometimes just a regular infection was deadly because there was no health care available.

So he decided to bribe the government officers he knew to get a ticket for the whole family to leave. There were checkpoints everywhere and it was almost impossible to buy a bus ticket if you didn't have connections.

We still don’t have freedom of speech here, and we don’t really know if we disclose too much information about their dictatorship regime.

May 1, 2018 Sophie's Art Tour (part XV in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
May 1, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Our entry and exit to Southeast Asia was through Saigon. The morning before boarding EVA Air’s 777, we had one more thing to do. We had saved something special for last: Sophie’s Art Tour. Our understanding of Vietnam was like a picture-less frame we did not know how to fill. Our guide, Stu Palmer, breathed life into the jig-sawed history of Vietnam through the art made by witnesses to conflict and members of poverty.

Vietnamese art has long been molded by the party in power, whether insiders or outsiders, yet the artists have strived to retain their cultural identity, and sometimes their very lives. You may know Vietnam’s history, but you might not know the art it inspired. Understanding the context, the art is captivating.

Stu had us meet him for coffee at the Gao restaurant, where we’d begin the tour. We joined him at a table the stunning glass-walled room that was once the courtyard of a French colonial style mansion. This was the home of a rubber plantation owner who worked for Michelin during the French Colonial era. Stu pointed behind us to the massive ornate wood door, itself a work of art. Imagine, he said, the proprietor walking through the courtyard right where we sit, going in and out through that door. He did! And this is where we began a comprehensive introduction.

On his iPad, Stu introduced and summarized the four chapters he would cover on the tour, examining with honesty how Vietnamese artists portrayed life through drastic changes imposed on them.

We would learn pivot points in the intertwined dance of art and history, beginning with written language, followed by visits to the private estate collection of the Duc Mihn Gallery, the amazing Nguyen Thi Hein Gallery, and the edgy Craig Thomas Gallery. The art would cover the periods of colonialism, war, reunification, and the new era. We would see how art was used by the government as a tool to change public perceptions.

One might say that art began with cave drawings. But we would be remiss to ignore the significance of the introduction of the Romanized version of the Vietnamese written language. Vietnamese life was posed for pivot in 1651 when French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes wrote a tri-lingual dictionary in Vietnamese, Latin, and Portuguese. He compiled a catechism, replacing the traditional Vietnamese chữ Nôm script with his new Latin-script alphabet. Chữ Nôm had up to 20,000 characters and was very difficult to learn. Rules of pronunciation were inconsistent, and the rules for writing were arbitrary. When the French arrived they supported the easier script to make reading more accessible to the masses. Around 1900, de Rhodes’ new script was refined as chữ quốc ngữ, which is used today.

With more literate people came a new educated, intellectual class. This wider ability to read and share ideas marks the point of departure from traditional Confucian belief to developing more modern thought, formulating and feeding politics and art.

So there we began in the restaurant Gao as Stu explained the importance of literacy in developing art and culture.

Nam Son was a young artist who helped Frenchman Victor Tardieu lobby the French government to support the Superior School of Fine Arts in Indochina, modeled after the French schools. Opened in 1925, Tardieu’s influence on Vietnamese art grew and showed the impact of colonialism on the culture. Moving away from their folk art, the Vietnamese began employing French art theory and techniques: perspective, Impressionism, oil paints. Thanks to Stu, their world opened to us and we could imagine living in a time when emotion was discouraged, and therefore unfamiliar, and suddenly being introduced to a whole new life. How their art changed when they could paint what they wanted!

We toured the private collection of these students’ Impressionistic work owned by Mr. Duc Minh. He began collecting their work to support them, his heirs now owning a substantial gallery full of work from To Ngoc Van, Hoang Lap Ngon, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Bui Xuan Phai and others.

However, Vietnam wanted independence. For Chapter Two, Stu acquainted us with the outcome of war for independence from France, and then what they call “the American War.” Together, these Indochina wars produced great tumult, out of which came propaganda and combat art – deceptive depictions of agrarian bliss created because the reality of hungry Vietnamese or emotional expression was not allowed. Artists were sent to the front lines to portray strong heroes for the people back home. They even held gallery showings for the troops, hanging their drawings by clothespins along wire stretched from tree to tree. Sometimes their art was used to identify bodies. Propaganda art showed support of Russia and China, both with strong power to influence.

How would you represent life if you were under so much stress? Imagine the risks they faced: losing their sense of identity, their very existence as a culture, and the fear that the powers allow little to define who you are.

During the war against the spread of communism in Vietnam a young artist named Nguyen Thi Hien began to make a name for herself. In Hanoi she painted portraits of officers, and the elite, ambassadors and counselors of foreign embassies. She also painted what she saw as the beauty of her countryside, and the life she knew in North Vietnam.

Now in Saigon, her world-famous gallery appears as an unsuspecting small shop on “Antique Street”. It looks like all the other shops on the street, open at the front, the dirt of Saigon air doesn’t know to stay away from her storefront. Our eyes adjust from the bright sunny outdoors to the darker interior of the old building crammed between other old buildings. Stu points to paintings on the walls and tells her story. The daughter of a writer and musician, she’s energetic and sometimes she could get herself in trouble, which we’ll understand shortly. No one has come to claim the painting up high on the right. It’s a portrait of a Russian officer. He would have paid her up front for her work. She’s kept it for him all these years. All the others picked up their portraits, many wanting to be closer to her than the artist-client relationship. Surely her husband appreciated her turning down the abundant marriage proposals.

We walk past the antiques on tables, toward the stairs in the back. Upstairs we are privileged to enter the gallery of one of the most highly regarded living artists in the country. She was the first Vietnamese artist to exhibit in Spain, and people came from all over the globe for her show. When they asked the prices of the 50 paintings she’d brought, she had to admit she hadn’t thought about that. Eventually, she came up with prices, and sold pieces for as much as $150,000. The organizers begged her to stay on another month in Spain and to make her exhibition an annual affair.

Stu showed us one of her “controversial” paintings. A thin mother is looking down at the infant on her lap. She isn’t smiling, and appears to not have food for the baby who is clutching at her breast. This portrayal of Vietnamese life was unacceptable to the government. But the paintings of Hien’s youth reflect the beauty she knew, the sorrow she saw, and the hunger she felt. Sometimes, her only canvas was a board pulled from the bottom of a desk drawer. She often painted on both sides – why waste an entire canvas when material is so hard to come by?

Ms. Hien isn’t there when we visit, but her daughter who runs the gallery sits quietly at her desk and smiles warmly for her guests. Nguyen Thi Hien’s work spans three of the four periods on the tour: wartime, reunification, and post-1986.

Chapter Three covered a brief period – 1975 to 1986 – in a study of the communist win they call the “reunification of the country” sunk deep in us. The TET Offensive, planned in Saigon a Viet Cong supporter’s Pho Binh noodle shop in 1968, changed the course of the war. Many Americans and South Vietnamese were killed. Art was destroyed because it was a threat of evidence that could be used for retribution later.

By 1975 Saigon had fallen. Communism would rule with an iron fist. Artists were to be monitored, disciplined if necessary, because art is powerful, and universal. Art speaks and motivates. It communicates, which is something communists worry about, especially those who lust after greater thought control. So freedom of expression was again censored.

Chapter Four begins in 1986 with its crumbling economy forcing Vietnam to open its doors to the world.

In present Saigon, although we know the rulers impose communist ideals (foreign teachers are forbidden to teach art theory or critique in Vietnamese government schools), we see it juxtaposed with consumerism, entrepreneurism, with people working and creating.

Representative of this period, the Craig Thomas Gallery courageously exhibits pieces that surprised us, some depicting communism as the free world does. Thomas focuses on new, emerging artists. His desire is to promote art and young artists in a country that still does not applaud freedom of expression.

In fact, Vietnam’s Ministry of Leisure and Culture will decide if an exhibition is approved for public display, so private showings are not uncommon. In an exhibition at Sàn Art, an independent contemporary art organization, video documentation questioning ideas of psychology and treatments of associated illnesses was censored, shut down just before the show. Patrons arrived to an unplugged TV.

In today’s bewildering free market the same communist party still rules, yet the people seem so much like us.

Vietnam’s history is complicated. Stu seeks to untangle it. Employing Sophie’s Art Tour philosophy, as though he was showing us his vineyard, Stu planted artists’ personal stories within the larger field of history. He brought us to the places where we could almost touch life as it was through the hearts and hands of artisans, a painting for our frame.

April 24, 2018 Coping (part XIV in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 24, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

We had arrived in Luang Prabang on one of Lao Airlines’ turboprops, an ATR-72, and departed for the country’s administrative capital, Vientiane, on an Airbus A-320.

Vientiane has much to offer. We had too little time to take in everything. The city is busy as one would expect, with heavy traffic, but also great coffee shops, and a mix of old and new architecture. As we did in Cambodia, we stayed in a traditional wood house. We had asked around, what kind of wood is this? Mahogany? Rosewood? People replied, “Something like that,” but no one recalled the names of the rich native timber used for building houses that last over a hundred years. So we looked them up: sokrom, kokoh, koki, sroloas and beng. The trees are lovely. The landscape is stunning. It’s a beautiful place to have a war.

Here, recovery is still a current event. We are drawn to how healing comes. Throughout much of Cambodia we learned the vital role of art in helping generations deal with genocide. In Vientiane, we discovered the hope that comes from C.O.P.E.—Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, dedicated to helping people move on. This locally run non-profit works with partners to provide rehabilitation service for Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) survivors across Laos. They make prosthetic legs and custom-fit arms and hands.

UXOs still litter the countryside as a result of U.S. and Laotian bombing to rid the world of the evil Pathet Lao. This year, hundreds more Laotians will be killed or injured by UXOs left behind forty years ago. Most are farmers plowing and children playing. They live in rural areas without emergency care. Funding from countries and companies throughout the world, including the United States, covers the cost of travel, accommodation, and treatment for all patients who come to any of C.O.P.E.’s five rehab centers.

In the visitor center and museum we learned their perspective of the history of bombings and resulting disabilities. We walked through a mock-up of a typical family’s house, with pictures on the walls and all the comforts of home, except this mock-up also included all the dangers of a home in this area. We read the stories of survivors and the stories they told of those who didn’t survive. In a tape-recorded interview, a kindergarten teacher recounted losing one of her students who was playing in the dirt and dug out a UXO. She couldn’t stop him in time. A film documentary introduced us to one of the thousands of people born long after the war, caught in crossfire that lay dormant for decades—a young farmer now surviving without arms.

C.O.P.E. is one of the most highly rated attractions in Vientiane, with five stars on every travel site. Each star given speaks to the preciousness of life.

Ten to thirty percent of the two million tons of bombs dropped on Laos did not explode. Teams from several organizations are moving through the country, finding and detonating them. But for those innocent victims, there’s C.O.P.E.

April 17, 2018 Mount Phou Si (part XIII in a series)

The Liberty Gazette
April 17, 2018
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Last week we shared our amazement at the storytelling talent in quaint Luang Prabang, Laos. They told of myths, legends, and folktales of kings and monkeys; of fruit from trees with magical powers; of villains and heroes, threat and beauty, comic fantasy and triumphant goodness.

One of the best loved tales of Laos is about Mount Phou Si (“sacred mountain”), which we climbed. Twice. It’s only about 328 feet tall, topped with a temple, Wat Chom Si, and sits right in the middle of the city, facing the Royal Palace (now the National Museum).

Uneven, somewhat-crumbly stone stairways are on two sides of the mount. Around lunch time we scaled 328 zig-zagging steps originating on the northwest side for the famed panoramic view. One of us was satisfied with the rewarded exercise.

The second time we abused our quads (355 steep and uneven steps on the southeast side, by the Nam Khan River) was because one of us had this brilliant idea to go again in time for a photo opportunity at sunset. Great idea, but not original. It turned out that about 500 of our closest strangers shared that brilliance.

While space was crowded at the top, sharing the moments with people from all over the world was actually quite fun. We took pictures at 5:36 p.m., 5:37, 5:38… When that last little pop of brightness was sucked down behind the mountains, all those stranger-friends with whom we now had something magical in common let out one big collective “Awww…” of jesting disappointment, and then, applause! We looked around at the happiness on every face.

With our new friends we would make it back down to the busy night market just getting set up. The main street between Mount Phou Si and the National (Royal Palace) Museum hosted the nightly event. Streets closed to vehicular traffic filled with local craft makers and sellers of popular authentic souvenirs. We also found the vegan buffet an English couple had told us about in a riverside café the night before. Vegan buffets are rare in any country. This solo chef was tops. We piled our plates, picking from about 30 options. The chef then heated our choices in his wok and we savored our meals in the fresh night air.

One of the dishes was mushrooms, which takes us back to the tale of Mount Phou Si. According to lore, the queen woke one morning craving mushrooms and sent the monkey king to gather them. The problem was that she wanted one specific type of mushroom, but she expected him to read her mind. He made several trips up and down the mountain, and each time she scoffed because he brought the wrong fungi. Finally, Monkey King had enough. He ripped the top off the mountain, brought the whole thing to the queen and told her to pick her own mushrooms. This explains why the mountain sits in front of the palace.

We didn’t see any ‘shrooms up there, so maybe drama queen finally found them herself.