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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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.