Death and Life in Exeter

We had talked about it. With my parents aging and me leading a tour of Europe every year there was always the possibility that something would happen while I was away and that I simply would not be able to be there, that I could not leave forty people to fend for themselves across Europe no matter how well organized things were. We had talked about it, and we were all agreed that it would be alright.


My son Mark and his wife Stephanie are here in Exeter, England. Mark is pursuing his graduate studies in Staging Shakespeare. This year’s travel plans were to have me leaving a few days before the group and stay with Mark and Stephanie in Exeter, and see a play that Mark produced and acted in. Before I left my dad had a difficult day, but seemed to be alright. Just a lot slower. He and I sat out on his front deck for a while the day before I left. We argued a bit about him not driving anymore – of course he did not want to hear that – but most of the time we just talked. Before I left I told him not to check out while I was gone. As I walked down the path I called back over my shoulder that I’d see him later. He said “yup.”

I arrived in Exeter yesterday, after a delay at the Dublin airport, to news that my dad was in the hospital and that it was not looking good. I took that news with me to Mark’s play, Swift as a Shadow (short as any dream). It is a play that Mark and a colleague produced and directed and acted in that used Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets as an exploration of, “the moment of death itself – the instant between life and death, as it were . . . indeed, this play takes place within that instant, exploring a swift and dreamlike glimpse into the mind of a dying man.” from the director’s notes.
I was caught up in Shakespeare’s moments of death and love and dying as I thought about the passage my dad was at that very moment preparing for. It was surreal, it was sad, it was happy, it was thoughtful. It was full of death and it was full of life. I think the instant of death is just that, death and life all rolled into an instant. Half a world away by good dad was lying in a hospital bed approaching that moment at the same moment I was vicariously on a similar journey. You can’t write this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Today, Sunday, June 6, 2010 we went to church at the Exeter Ward and to Evensong at Exeter Cathedral. After a pleasant walk in the sunshine we came back to a message that our family was gathering and that the moment for my dad was near. Mark called Holli at the hospital, and just six minutes ago my dad had slipped peacefully away.
June 6th. My dad was always very patriotic. He is a veteran of the Army Air Corps and was very proud to have been part of “The Greatest Generation.” His love of country was part of what interested me in American history, an endless subject I voraciously read about. Dad and I had talked about D-Day, and I had read a lot about it. Some years ago on one of my Europe trips I talked the group into a day trip to Normandy and Omaha Beach, site of the difficult American invasion of Nazi occupied France that had taken place on June 6, 1944. It was an overwhelming experience, and I wanted so much to share it with my dad. I borrowed my coach drivers cell phone and called him – 5:00 A.M. his time. I told him where I was, and then I choked up. I could not speak. We were both silent for minutes. Then I heard him say through a cracking voice that he understood. That was it, but I had been able to really, truly share that overwhelming moment with him, something I knew he would appreciate. It now seems quite fitting that he should leave on the anniversary of that great and terrible day.
So what we had talked about, my dad and mom and me, has come to pass. I am over here and they are over there. I will stay, and meet my wonderful tour group in Rome in a couple of days. I will show them the absolute wonders of Europe as we travel through Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and England. In a couple of weeks, as we all stand on the beach at Omaha, and as I tell them of all that happened there 66 years ago, my dad will be at my shoulder and we will again share that moment together. I love you dad.
Death and Life – it is all one.
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The King is Dead – Long Live the King

I suppose you are wondering why this blog, ostensibly about a King of some sort, starts with a rather unsavory picture of a swollen, red ankle! Let me explain. The ankle pictured above belongs to our traveling friend Tyler Priest, and it took on the dimensions and hue you see above during our last night in Venice, when a companionable spider of some nasty sort bit Tyler during the night and injected his ankle with its venom. By the time we arrived in Oberammergar his ankle was as you see it, and he was not feeling all that well. Our jokes about Captain Ahab were funny at first, but as the day wore on the humor lost its appeal.

Well, amid all the uproar about health care reform in our country and the constant comparisons of our system to the supposed inferior systems in Europe, allow us to share the rest of Tyler’s story.

By the time we had arrived in Oberammergau Tyler was not doing all that well. He felt lousy, and the swelling and color of his ankle was getting to be a real concern. When we got to the hotel I asked the clerk if we might be directed to a doctor. It just so happened that there was a doctor’s office just a block away. The clerk called, and the doctor said to come right over. The doctor and his aid took Tyler right in to an examining room, looked things over, ascertained that there was no indication of the spread of an infection, applied a local antihistamine, and gave him an injection, with orders to rest and an appointment to come again first thing the next morning. Tyler rested well, and at 8:00 A.M. we were again ushered right into an examining room, Tyler was looked over, a final injection was given, and a prescription to be filled at the pharmacy down the street. No waiting, no paperwork hassle, grand total of $40, and by the end of the day Tyler was feeling on top of the world! His comment to me was that if this had happened at home he would have waited for at least an hour in a reception room before seeing a doctor, and it would have cost him a whole lot more that forty bucks.

This is typical of all of the medical encounters I have had in Europe during 22 years of travel. I am sure people have their horror stories, just like we have our share here in America, but from my experience I have concluded that we can all just knock off the bashing of European style health care as we try to fix ours. End of soapbox. And thanks to Tyler for the cool picture of his ankle!

Now back to the King!

From the looks of things it must be good to be the king! This is the Palace of Linderhof, residence of the last King of Bavaria, Ludwig the II. Bavaria was one of the last independent states of modern Germany, comprising some of the most beautiful country in all of Southern Gerrmany. Ludwig was King of this region from 1864 until the 13 of June 1886. He is often referred to as the Mad King, largely due to his reclusive personality (always dined alone, slept all day and stayed up all night, watched operas as the only spectator in his private theatre) and lavish expenditures on this palace and his castle of Neuschwanstein. Linderhof is a miniature version of the glories of Versailles, the great palace in France of Louis XIV, Ludwig’s hero. Ludwig adored the Sun King, to the point that on the ceiling of the entrance to Linderhof there is a giant sunburst with Louis XIV’s head in the middle, with the motto scrawled beneath: Nec Pluribus Impar — I Am Without Compare! Megalomania’s own!

The palace is exquisite and the grounds very French in their order and color.


Flowers and fountains adorn the grounds with color, movement, and gold. It is kingly in all respects, and set in the mountains as it is Linderhof is delightful. A bit over the top in its Rococo interior (Ludwig had his dining table on a dumbwaiter where it was lowered to the basement, set for his dinner, then raised up to his dining room so that he could eat without ever having to see anyone!) with gold, crystal, ivory and porcelain everywhere, as well as the ever present portraits of French royalty.

Perhaps the craziest part of Ludwig’s life was his love of the operas of Richard Wagner and his construction of an underground grotto for the production of those operas with himself as the sole member of the audience! A pleasant but steep stroll up from the palace takes you to this underground marvel, a monument to Ludwig’s narcisistic ways.

It is an extraordinary place, with a stage, orchestra pit, lake, and boat that Ludwig could be rowed about in as the opera played out upon the stage in front of him. All this for one guy! Wagner’s operas are, of course, about Norse mythology, and Ludwig fancied himself a part of that world. In fact, his last great building, the castle of Neuschwanstein, is lavishly decorated with scenes of these myths and Wagner’s operatic themes.

Neuschwanstein is iconic, and Walt Disney had this place in mind while designing his Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland. Ludwig spent plenty of money on this place, never finishing it, and living in it for just over 100 days before important people from Bavaria who had had enough of Ludwig’s expenditures, reclusiveness and politics, had him arrested here and taken away. A few days later he and his physician were found drowned in Sternberger lake a few miles away in only three feet of water. Hmmm . . .

The castle itself is fantastic, but my favorite view is from Mary’s Bridge behind the castle and stretching over a beautiful waterfall that must drop several hundred feet right below the bridge.

So Ludwig was finished off on the 13 of June 1886, in part at least for spending vast sums from the Bavarian treasury on his lavish palace and castle. Isn’t it ironic that the very buildings he was killed for now bring vast sums of money into the Bavarian treasury as hoards of tourists from all corners of the globe come to see these fairytale places, set in the mountains of perhaps the most beautiful region of all Germany — Bavaria. Long live the King indeed!

By the way, the villiage of Oberammergau where we stayed is a small town delight! Old homes covered in the traditional frescoes of saints, fairy tales, and labors of the people, and their love of flowers, makes Oberammergau a beautiful oasis in a hectic tour of Europe.

And then there is the village church with its little village cemetery, and wandering though it one year I came across a poignant reminder of the price we pay for wars in the world. WW II is a war we all know much about, and we are all aware of the price Americans paid in blood and treasure to win that war. But we often forget the the sword of war cuts both ways, that our gold star mothers have their sisters on the other side of the conflict. This was all brought powerfully to mind one year as I came across this grave in the little village cemetery in Oberammergau.

They are the Schneller brothers, all three of whom died fighting for Germany during WW II. I’ve no idea how committed they may have been to the Nazi program — chances are that in this small town they were very unwilling conscripts — but I do know that they had a mother, that she lived into the 1970’s, and that she suffered as only a mother can when a child, in this case three of hers, were lost in that awful conflict. A mothers pain is a mothers pain, regardless of the side you may be on. God rest her soul, and the souls of her three young sons.

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