Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tyro's Corporal Parnell

Doug Parnell saw things that no farm boy from Tyro should ever expect to see.

He saw villages and towns laid waste. He saw friends die. He saw the unspeakable horror of a Nazi concentration camp. He saw war.

A few days ago, Parnell, at a remarkably spry 94 years old, told an audience of about 50 mesmerized listeners crammed into the West Davidson Public Library of his experience in World War II.

Parnell was a corporal in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, which was a unit in the famed 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.

Drafted late in 1943 — his two older brothers were already serving in the Pacific theater — Parnell finished his basic training and then embarked for Europe on Christmas Eve in 1944. He was deployed two weeks later with the 36th in early January of 1945, just in time for the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge — to this day the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

Doug Parnell points out where his unit served during World War II.*
Although the war was winding down, there were still battles to be fought against a dangerous, fanatical and tenacious enemy.

As a corporal, Parnell was essentially a squad leader and spent much of his duty on night patrols.

"I guess I was tenderhearted," said Parnell. "Instead of sending these young kids out, I took it on myself when on patrol to go myself as much as I could.

"I knew they were kids and knew more about it than they did," said Parnell. "I knew I'd taken my chances getting myself killed. I was 22 years old and they were calling me "Dad."

He came close to death a few times.

Parnell relates one story when he came under fire, perhaps from a sniper, while climbing an embankment. He hit the dirt, as trained, and lay there. For three-and-a-half hours. Without moving.

"One of the hardest things to do is to lay still for hours and hours," said Parnell. "It finally got dark and I was able to crawl out of there and get back to my outfit."

He also recalls coming under artillery fire and finding relative safety in a foxhole. When the barrage stopped, he found his uniform was bloodstained with body parts. It wasn't his blood. Another soldier beside him had perished as they ran for cover.

One day, while on patrol, Parnell and his squad came across the edge of a town that had been bombed a couple days previously.

"We came up to an electrified fence," said Parnell. There were six or seven people, almost naked, standing behind the fence. I opened the gate, went in and checked for Germans. I went in and jumped over dead bodies. Some (living) people were laying in the mud, begging me to help them, but I couldn't. I didn't know if they were Jews, or Germans, or just prisoners, or what.

"Later, MPs came up and they were able to help them," said Parnell. "But I don't know whatever happened to those people. We were never schooled what to do with them, so I just turned them out until the MPs came up."

What Parnell and his squad came upon was likely a subcamp of the Dora-Mittlebau concentration complex (a part of Buchenwald) outside of Nordhausen. The camp housed slave labor that was forced primarily to work on the Nazis' V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. The 3rd Armored Division liberated the camp on April 11, 1945, a full month before Germany ultimately surrendered.

Parnell, who now stays busy caning chairs with an artful eye in his garage, said the war changed him. How could it not? Death was everywhere.

"I'll tell you how shocking it was," said Parnell. "The first week after I was home, my daddy died. And it didn't mean any more to me than if a dog was laying there because I'd seen so much killing, so many dead people.

"Me and my daddy was as good of friends as a man and son could be," said Parnell. "He was such a good father.

"(After the war) It took a long time for me to get the feeling that I could help somebody," said Parnell, who "confiscated" a tattered Nazi window banner as a war souvenir. "You felt shy to everybody because you couldn't trust them. You couldn't trust the Germans and you sort of got stuck on it.

"But it finally wore off and I feel like I'm the same old man I used to be. Thank the Lord."


And thank you, Doug Parnell, for your service. Thank you for being there, to see things no man should see.

* Dispatch photo by Donnie Roberts

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Living quarters

It's hard for us to believe, but we've been living in our current house for 13 years.

Even our neighbors are surprised by this. You've been here how long?

It seems like it was just yesterday when we were transporting stuff from our house on the south end of town and hauling it to our present location. It's less than five miles between the two as the blue jay flies.

Maybe it's because we lived on Woodsway Drive for 21 years. It was home. We'd put a lot of work into it, did a lot of repairs and landscaping, and turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

Then, almost by accident and without actively searching for a new place to live, we found our current house. So we traded in a 40-year-old rancher for a nearly 100-year-old cottage.

For some mysterious reason that I can't quite explain, our cottage still feels kind of new to us. This, despite the fact, that we've put a lot of work into it, we've done a lot of repairs and landscaping, and have turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

The cottage does have its appealing quirks: We have an outbuilding, where we can store our lawn and garden things; we have a front-to-back driveway, the only house on the block that can connect the street we live on with the alley behind us; and we have a wonderful rose arbor.

Our roses add a nice welcoming touch to our house.
I'm not sure what kind of roses are blooming on the arbor. They're salmon in color and don't have much of a scent. but there are six or seven blooms on the vine and they're absolutely gorgeous. That's especially true when held in contrast with our Peace Yellow paint scheme.

We've been training this arbor for years, and sometimes it actually listens to us.

We trimmed it back last fall because it was getting a little unruly, but with the mild and moist spring, it's been on something of a growth spurt. The arbor climbs one pillar of our house and is reaching effortlessly toward the pillar on the other side of our front steps. It'll get there soon enough, I suspect.

We love watching the gold finches chow down.
 Kim will occasionally feed it rose food, whatever that is, but mostly I've been throwing banana peels at it. It seems that bananas might be a good source of potassium or whatever it is that roses like and it may be another reason why our arbor appears to be thriving.

We've also tried to turn our backyard into a bird sanctuary with a stand of feeders. I've always been a sucker for birdwatching — a trait inherited from my mom, I think — so one feeder attracts sparrows, hatches and thrashers while the other feeder, filled with thistle, beckons gold finches.

Kim also has a hummingbird feeder hanging from our kitchen window and it's great fun to see those little fellows flitting around. My cat and myself are greatly entertained by these guys.

The finches, I've found, can be very particular. If you let their feeder run out of food, they might disappear for weeks before they return.

Well, when you think about it, Kim and I go to different restaurants all the time.

To be truthful, the cottage actually felt like home the day we moved into it, even though there was a lingering veneer of newness to it all these years.

But it's also home, and home is where the heart is.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


I'm going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that the above photo, snapped in July 1950, was never intended to be caught on the World Wide Web.

It's a picture of my parents, Charles and Carol, on their wedding day.

They'd just gotten married. Dad is wearing his ring.

They don't look old enough to get married, yet Mom had just turned 22 and Dad had just turned 21. I love this photo — I think they were in the back seat of their 1946 Plymouth — precisely because it's such an intimate moment. I guess it could have been posed, but they look pretty involved with this eyes-shut kiss. I kinda want to shuffle my feet, mumble "Whoa," and look away for a moment.

But I can't.

I am mesmerized. That picture is my future. It is also my past.

And it tells me that this young couple is about to create a family built on a promise of love. I like that. Sixty-five years later, it still gives me a feeling of contentment. And a model to follow in my own married life, even to this moment.

With Mother's Day upon us, this picture gives me pause to reflect. As the youngest of five children herself, Mom was already the recipient of some serious and time-tested child rearing. A legacy of Kessler family values were already instilled in her and were ready to be passed on.

I'm here to say that I think she did that admirably. I learned the difference between right and wrong (I've managed to stay out of jail to this point). I acquired a measure of patience (she served time, after all, as a minister's wife). She gave me a sense of humor that could, at times, be subtle (she did, after all, live with Dad). She loved to read. She loved her pets. She loved music and could sing with a beautifully harmonizing alto voice (I sing with a one-note scale, but I can listen to music with the best of them). She had a talent for painting pictures. She was a great cook. She enjoyed and appreciated her friends.

Interestingly enough, Dad, the minister, had written down something for his wife years ago. It was on one of the blank opening pages of a Ryrie Study Bible, which I assume was a gift to her. All he had written was "Proverbs, 31:10. I have. Thank you. Love, Charlie."

The passage was meant for his wife, about his wife. But the sentiment is also something a child might express for its mother.

And the passage?

"An excellent wife (woman), who can find? For her worth is far above jewels."

Thanks, Mom.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Family tree

The other day I went on Facebook to see what's going on in the world: Underhill Rose, my favorite band, is touring the United Kingdom; one of my friends posted a picture of a cake she baked; another friend posted a picture of a cake he ate.

Big stuff.

Then I scrolled down and saw a fuzzy color picture of me. Actually, it was of me, my brothers and my parents, and in the "What's on your mind?" box, my youngest brother, Scott (the poster), had written "This might be the last photo of all of us together, c.1982."

Long ago and far away...

Because Scott had shared it on my Facebook wall (as well as on our brother David's, who lives in Alaska), the photo was collecting "likes" as fast as the city collects parking tickets.

The photo was snapped by my wife, Kim, in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, where Dad was the pastor of the Moravian church there.

Five years later, he was dead from the prostate cancer that had found its way to his bones. He was only 58. Mom passed away four years after that from breast cancer. That simple family picture is now worth more than gold bars to me.

Anyway, within a half hour of posting the family photo, Scott went on a genealogy jag, posting picture after picture of not only the Wehrles, but of the Kesslers, too. The Kesslers were my mom's side of the family, and suddenly, aunts, uncles and cousins were showing up on Facebook as fast as Scott could post them.

And I mean real cousins, not just pictures. Cousins Deb and Char started leaving comments under the pictures, and so were their children. Scott, David and myself responded to questions with questions of our own.

Uncle Eugene, holding Scott, with Deb and Char. Dave is too cool to touch.
Suddenly, we were having a cyberspace reunion. Oooing and ahhing all over the place. The conversation went on all morning, and into the next day. All that was missing were the hot dogs and beer.

It's kind of amusing to think I haven't touched base with Deb and Char in decades — probably not since we were kids ourselves — and now suddenly we were having extended and informative Facebook conversations.

I always thought Char, incidentally, had an interesting name: Charmayne (Shar-maine). It would be the best name in the family tree, if not for her mother, Adelaide.

 At any rate, there is some discussion about having a what's-left-of-the-family reunion. That would be cool. We think it should be in Bethlehem, PA., where both the Wehrles and the Kesslers originally germinated (or, if your prefer, German-ated, what with last names like those).

It's been a tasty couple of days. It's even been better than cake.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Shag lessons

A couple of weeks ago Kim had the bright idea that we needed to take some shag lessons.

She gets this idea every 15 years or so. This time, she learned that lessons were going to be given by Mark Tuttle at the Davidson County Recreation Department and wouldn't it be fun if we got our neighborhood friends together to take lessons with us?

Yeah, sure. Whatever.

I mean, we'd taken shag lessons twice previously in our married life together. The first time was about 20 years ago, and the second time was about 10 years after that. We'd learn a couple of nice moves, practice them, and then promptly forget them.

Don't get me wrong. I like to shag. It's a beautiful dance when it's done correctly and the music is spectacular: Miss Grace. Carolina Girls. Myrtle Beach Days. Stay. The list goes on and on.

Kim sent out an email to our friends about the lessons, but most were busy raising their own families (most are considerably younger than us wrinkled old codgers) and one by one had to decline the invite. Oh, well.

Anyway, I said, sure, let's go, it'll be fun.

Except about three days before the one-hour weekly lessons were to begin, I pulled a muscle in my left gluteus maximus while working out at the gym. I had a bum bum, and it was killing me. But I soldiered on.

The one thing that I'm not nuts about when taking shag lessons is that I quickly lose my intended partner. I feel most secure when I'm learning my steps with Kim, but every instructor we've had insists that we change partners halfway through learning the step. I'm not quite sure why this is because I'm pretty sure when I do learn the dance, Kim's pretty much going to be my permanent partner anyway.

So, whenever Mark shouted, "Men, to the right," I'd hobble over to my new date, grimacing the whole time. I hoped that my new partner didn't think I was grimacing at her, but how do you tell a woman — a total stranger at that — that your butt hurts?

Then the music would start and I'd soldier on.

We just completed our four hours of beginner classes and Kim signed us up for four more intermediate sessions. So far, we've learned the lead in, the basic steps, the Female Underarm Turn, the Belt Loop, the Chase, the She-He Turn (which has nothing to do with HB2) and the Cuddle. Coming up next are steps like the Sugar Foot, the Sugar Push, the Belly Roll (sounds like a bakery run) and Swagger.

I'm still not sure how proficient I want to become at this. I don't want to end up wearing gold necklaces and bracelets, but being a passable shagger would be good.

The video below is of Charlie Womble and Jackie McGee, legends in the World of Shag. If there's a Shag Hall of Fame, I think they're charter members in it. They look like they're dancing on ice. What they do is ridiculous to us normal humans, but it gives us novices something to aspire to. Sit back and enjoy:

Sunday, April 10, 2016


I love watching The Masters on television.

Part of that is because as a (horrible) golfer myself, I can empathize with some of the story lines falling over themselves this week at Augusta National. I mean, what duffer can't relate to Ernie Els penciling in a 9 on his scorecard after the first hole on Thursday? Heck, I do that at Lexington Golf Course all the time.

Another reason I like watching The Masters is because I've actually been to Augusta National. Twice. And not as a member of the media, either.

The first time happened about 25 years ago. That's when Gene Klump, then the athletic director at West Davidson High School, organized annual bus trips to Augusta to watch a Masters practice round. So I hitched a ride. Bucket list.

My prized Masters souvenir key fob
That was awesome. What sticks with me about that trip is that as we approached the golf course, we drove through one commercial district after another. Restaurant Row. Belly Boulevard. Sidewalk vendors. Parking, $50. Then we made a left-hand turn, went through a gate, and suddenly, in the midst of all this... this... stuff, we had entered a patch of heaven.

Voices became hushed. The rowdy bus riders had become reverential. I almost crossed myself, and I'm not even Catholic.

We were pretty much allowed to go wherever we wanted on the course (within bounds), just meet back at the bus at 3 p.m. So enjoy yourselves. And I did. I walked hither and yon, taking in sights I'd only seen on television before this, not quite believing where I was.

I needed something to remember this by, so I bought a key fob with The Masters logo on it. It's the only thing I could afford. To this day, it's a cherished possession. It's been restitched twice by a leather craftsman and it may need another visit soon.

My next visit to Augusta happened about eight years ago. My friend Chris had gotten hold of a pair of practice round tickets, and he'd give me one if I did the driving. Well, let me think about that for a min... OK, I'll drive.

Standing on the 11th fairway at Augusta National.
 So off we went. The weather was a little cooler this time, but the azaleas were in bloom and the course was in immaculate condition.

The commercialism still surrounds the course — at one point, we saw John Daly's RV parked just off Washington Road, selling golf stuff within sight of Magnolia Lane. I wondered if it was his personal golf stuff.

Nevertheless, once we got on the course, Chris and I walked everywhere. Even though this was my second visit, I was surprised by how hilly the course was. You don't really see the hills on TV, except, perhaps, for the 18th fairway.

So there it is. Somehow, I managed to get to Augusta National twice in my life. I don't know if that's a common thing, or not. I suppose the farther you live from Augusta, the more difficult the journey becomes.

But whenever I watch The Masters on television, I just kind of sit back and smile because, you know, I've seen heaven.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

It happens every spring

When I was a preteen, back in the early 1960s, I remember watching a Ray Milland movie titled "It Happens Every Spring."

It was a baseball movie, made in 1949, that was usually broadcast on our reliable black-and-white Motorola in time to herald in each new baseball season. It seems "It Happens Every Spring" actually happened every spring (for a few years, at least).

It was a fantasy flick about a college professor (Milland) who accidentally discovers a formula that makes objects repel wood. What you could actually use such a formula for in real life — even in 1949 — is beyond me. But Milland soon discovers that baseballs coated in this stuff will hop over wooden bats. So he becomes a baseball pitcher.

See It Happens Every Spring trailer here

It makes for an amusing little movie. The special effects used to make a baseball-like object jump over a swinging bat and then continue its trajectory straight into the catcher's glove were astounding for a 10-year-old like myself. It's CGI before there was CGI.

And it's still astounding, now that I think about it. Especially with Milland's throw-it-like-a-girl pitching delivery.

I guess this flick actually helped promote my love for baseball, and I often wondered why some genius somewhere couldn't actually invent a formula to make baseballs leap over bats — as if sliders, curves, knuckleballs, cutters, splitters, changeups and screwballs weren't enough to confound hitters.

So here we are: Opening Day. Upper case. The two best words in the English language. You can smell the optimism mingled with the newly mown grass. Yeah. Optimism. That's what baseball is. It's a hot dog with mustard and relish and the crack of the bat as a ball sails to the gap in deep left center — is it out of here?

Sports Illustrated delivered its baseball preview issue this week and the magazine that has gotten only one world champion prediction correct in the last 20 years (hey, I'll take those odds) is predicting Houston and Chicago (Cubs) in the World Series, with the Astros (who used to be in the National League) as the eventual champs.

Hmm. I like the Cubbies and I think their time has come. The Astros might be more of a stretch, but we'll see.

The team that I've pulled for my entire teenage-to-now life is the Philadelphia Phillies. They seem to be in a franchise-long rebuilding process (despite World Series titles in 1980 and 2008) and are coming off a 99-loss season a year ago.

Some nice draft picks, farm development and trades do offer some optimism, but a no-name pitching staff is still cause for concern.

I think they're still looking for a guy with a little hop in his pitches.