D-Day, In Dad’s Own Words

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In a previous post, I mentioned that I and my sister had a number of stories Dad wrote about his experiences as a paratrooper during WWII.  He jumped over Normandy on D-Day, jumped during Operation Market Garden, and jumped during the Battle of the Bulge.

On the upcoming anniversary of D-Day, here is the story of Dad’s experience jumping over Normandy, in his own words.

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“We landed in Ireland, the month being February. The weather was terrible.  That day we left New York, we sailed out of the harbor in a snow storm.  I did, however, see the grand old Lady before we sailed into the deep sea.  It wasn’t until that moment that I really realized I was leaving and perhaps would never see it again.  Every man on board was looking and during the time, not a word was spoken.  There was just that lump in your throat that made speech impossible.

During the trip, no enemy was encountered.  We were escorted by destroyers, a battleship and two aircraft carriers.  It was the largest convoy at that time to cross the water.

As soon as we sighted the shore of Ireland, I knew that it was all the songs implied.  The first thing that entered my mind was ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’.

From Belfast, we traveled by train to Camp Clandy-boy (Northern Ireland).  It was there that I took long walks on the Clandy-boy (Clandeboye) estate.  I have often wished that I had enough money to buy an estate like that.  To look at Ireland you could never have believed that a war was in progress.  The countryside was so peaceful and the people went about their daily life as they always have and did, years ago.

From Ireland, we split up and went into different groups.  My group went to Nottingham, England.   There, we lived in a park.  Every day, it was crowded with people and finally they had to erect barbed wire entanglements to keep the people from the tents. We stayed here until D-Day.  We started preparing about two months ahead of time.

On the twenty-fifth of May, 1944, we left our base camp in Wollaton Park, Nottingham, England.  We were boarded on English busses with full combat loads and taken to airports.  We, of course, knew that this was the big one.  It seems that we had trained all of our life for this jump.

The airfield perimeter was covered with tents.  Until the night of June 5th, we spent our time getting equipment ready to kill Germans.  The night of June 5th, we were called into the situation room, or ‘War Room’.  We were shown on the map where we were supposed to land.  This was early in the evening.  We were told about what we could expect in the way of opposition. They pointed out the positions of certain units of the German Wehrmacht.  Much of this was guess work on their part.

The “Old Man” of the Regiment made a speech to us before going to the airport.  He told us that we were to take no prisoners and we remembered that.  He just wanted us to kill, kill, and kill.  We were ready.  Our first taste of combat, our first taste of blood.

It’s funny all that I could think about was the news flashes back home:  ‘Paratroopers Spearhead Invasion of Europe’.  I could see the headlines; I could visualize the excitement back in the States.

After the briefing, we returned to our tents to wait.  At 10:30PM, we loaded into the C-47s.  The Co. Commander just looked us all over and said ‘Good luck and happy hunting, boys.’  We all knew that a lot of us wouldn’t be coming back.  We carried full combat load: 306 cal. rifle ammunition in bandoliers.  Our rifles were broken down in order to jump.  We each had fragmentation grenades, one smoke, one gammon and a trench knife.  The gammon grenade was filled with a pound of composition C2.

When we were in the plane and seated, I removed my reserve chute and put it under my seat.  The trooper next to me asked what the hell I was doing.  I laughed and told him that I considered myself to be a fatalist and figured if my main chute didn’t open, there was no need for the second.  After all, we wanted to jump at only a thousand feet or less.

During the flight, some of the boys were able to sleep.  I kept looking out of the window and watching the cloud formations, wondering about home and what everybody would be doing and saying when they got the news.

In only about 2 hours, the whole sky lit up.  Remember, this was about 12:30AM on June 6th.  German machine gun tracers were coming at us like mad.  They had also sent up their flares to make sure they could see us and give us a ‘joyous welcome’.

Just previous to this, the Pilot Jump Master asked us how low we wanted to jump.  Our reply was 800 feet. After we ran into all of that ground fire, we all started hollering and told them to let us jump before the plane was hit.  We all rushed to hook up to the static line and jump.  One man froze in the door.  Needless to say, we pushed him to the front and out of our way.

When I felt the opening shock, I knew that my chute had opened and that I would land unless I became entangled with another trooper.  During the short descent, it seemed that every damned German tracer bullet was aimed only at me.  The Germans were firing everything they had:  machine guns, rifles, anti-aircraft guns.  The whole world was an inferno.  Dante should have been there; perhaps he was.

At a time like this, there is no time to think of anything except self-preservation.  With the German tracers coming at you, your only thought is to land and to hope you don’t set down on a bunch of Germans, because this was a time of no prisoners on either side.  This was understood before we jumped.

I landed knee-deep in a swamp with my chute draped halfway up a tree.  I stood there and looked up at my chute and thought ‘My God, every German for miles can see the damned thing.’

Before I could defend myself, I had to put my rifle together.  Until I did, all I had was my trench knife.  While I was fumbling to get my rifle together, I heard someone sloshing through the water toward me.  The figure coming toward me whispered the password we had all been given.  Needless to say, I was damned well happy to see a fellow trooper – John Lensey – from my own company instead of a German.  After I had reassembled my rifle, Lensey and I started wading across the swamp, waist-deep in water.  I might mention here that the swamps were created by the Germans as anti-paratroop obstacles.

As Lensey and I crossed the swamp, we met two troopers of the 505 regiment.  I should perhaps explain that the regiments and companies were scattered from hell to breakfast.  No one had dropped where he was supposed to.

The four of us came to a road.  Not being sure of anything, we were cautious and laid by the side of the roadbed to listen for a moment.  A Jerry (German) on a bicycle came by, just as if nothing was taking place.  My only reaction was to kill, so I stood up and shot him. I often wish that I hadn’t.  I have never heard such a blood-curdling scream in my life; he must have been hit in the throat.  After that, I started shaking like one with a bad chill; it wasn’t from the cold – I had killed a man.

All four of us were standing.  About 10 seconds after the shooting, all hell broke loose.  Across from us, a German machine gun opened up.  We all hit the ground, but Lensey had been hit; they must have riddled him.  ‘John, I’m hit’.  I rolled him on his back and he informed me that he didn’t hurt but that he couldn’t move.  He had been hit and was paralyzed.  We could hear Germans in the darkness but we couldn’t locate them.  Lensey told us to leave him a canteen of water and to get the hell out.  We should have stayed with him and fought it out, but we didn’t.  I knew when we left that the Germans would kill him and it was my fault. I know that in war, men are killed.  But this one was on me and I’ve had to live with it; I should never have left him.

The three of us left the roadbed back into the swamp with only our heads above water.  It seemed an eternity, but as daybreak finally came, we saw that we were approaching another road.  As we were wading up the road, we saw some of our own troopers.  There were five of them and they gave us a hearty greeting.  It was a cloudy day and we were soaked and the first thing I asked one of the dry troopers was ‘Do you have a cigarette?’

I should mention that I had jumped with two bandoliers of ammunition across my shoulder, but I also had a bandolier of cigarettes on me.  The swamp had taken care of that.  To this day, 60 years later, I have never had a better cigarette than the one the trooper gave me.

There were eight of us now.  We were from different outfits; we were, indeed, a mixture.  As we went down the little road, we ran into more stragglers and an officer.  It was morning and we could see the German and American fighter planes in dog fights.

As the day wore on, we ran into more troopers until we numbered about fifteen.  We didn’t run into any Germans except one time we heard German tanks ahead of us.  This was hedge row country.  There were hedge rows on each side of the road and across all of the fields.  We hit the hedge rows at the side of the road and waited for the tanks.  Luckily for us, they didn’t come our way.

As we went on, we saw the bodies of our troops hanging from trees.  The Germans just shot them hanging there, they didn’t bother to take them down.

That evening late, we left the road and went into a field for quite a way.  The officer had a detailed map of the area.  We did not dig in because we knew that we would be moving the next day.

The next morning, we had our meal:  a cup of water and a D bar.  As the day progressed, our troop strength increased.  You have to remember that this was still a mixture of different companies, battalions and regiments.  Over a period of several days, Company C – my company – had a total of one officer and eight men.  Then there were other companies that gained men and officers and as they did, each officer took over what he had of his own troopers.

Later that day, we met with the remnants of our regiment, the 508th.  We set up our defenses on the immortal (Hill 30).  There, we held off for five days under constant German attack. On Hill 30 there were eight of us left from C Co.  From then on, it was patrols and attacks.

About the 14th or 15th of June, we were advancing along a road into hill country.  Our sergeant and two men were walking ahead of the column when two mortar rounds came in.  The third round hit them.  The two men were killed and the sergeant was wounded; it’s been too many years and I can’t remember his name.  Anyway, they gave me a hedge row map and told me I was to take his place.

From there, we fought through small hamlets and over hedge rows.  At one point, we ended up on the bank of the Merderet River, west of Ste Mere-Eglise.  We couldn’t cross the river by way of the La Fiere Causeway because the Germans had the other side.

At this juncture, there was only one officer and seven of us from C Company.  Mendoza and I went down towards the river, where we dug our fox holes.  The others dug in at different locations.  Periodically, the Germans on the other side would open up with their artillery.  The Germans were good with their 88mm guns.  They would shell our positions for 30 minutes or so, then quit; two or three hours later, they would shell us again.  It was during one of the lulls in the bombardment that I decided to scout the vicinity.

There was a deserted house with barns in the back of us.  Believe me, we were natural scavengers, always on the lookout for something worthwhile to pick up – especially a bottle of booze.

The house didn’t have much left inside that was worth salvaging.  I then went into the barn; there was a pile of hay along with some miscellaneous equipment.  I noticed something shiny in the hay.  I started digging and found a stack of bottles of wine.  Hey, that was like finding a million dollars.  I grabbed four bottles, two under each arm, and started back to mine and Mendoza’s foxhole.  Before I got there, the German artillery came in again. It seemed that every damned German gun was aimed at Mendoza and me.  I had only one thought:  I was not going to drop my wine.  To hell with the Germans.  I made it back to my foxhole and fell in, protecting my wine.  Mendoza had been out and around also; just about the time I fell into my foxhole, Mendoza fell on top of me.  We were both out of breath.  But when Mendoza could talk, I will never forget it.  He said with his Mexican accent ‘Johnnie, I think we should go take those son of a bitches out.’  I do believe if I would have said ‘Let’s go’, Mendoza would have gone with me, against the whole German army.

We waited there until the 8th Division came in to relieve us. We had about two days of waiting, which we didn’t mind. The 8th Division boys had never been in combat.  They were as fresh as we were before we jumped.  I should be ashamed of myself, but I had to do it.  There were about six of the 8th Division troops sitting around in one of the small rooms of the farmhouse.  I dressed in a German officer’s uniform, which I’d found.  I put on the boots and the works.  I had a German pistol which I had confiscated.  I walked in on them and proceeded to use a few German words and words that sounded German; there are always some funny things to come out of a war.  The look on their faces, I could see as if it was yesterday; they thought that their time had come.  They froze, then stood with their hands up.  I started laughing and told them I was an American paratrooper.  I have never seen such relief.  They were too relieved to get mad.  Besides, my men were in the next room.  I can look back now and see how foolish that was.  I could have been shot, but I just had to do it.

Out of 144 men that jumped in our company, we came back with 17.  Many of the boys were killed before getting out of their chutes.  We were scattered all over the place and our fighting had to be done in small, individual groups.  We can say, however, that we took our toll of Germans and didn’t take prisoners.

After we returned to England, it was never the same.  Not one of the boys I ran around with came back.  You walked down the street and a lot of the English girls would stop and ask where so-and-so was.  Then you would have to tell them and of course, they would start crying and you would end up feeling like a damned heel.

Not long after getting back, we started preparing for a jump in Belgium in conjunction with a drive by Patton.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This ends Dad’s account of his part in D-Day.  His next story is of Operation Market Garden.

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The Summer Essential Guide – National Parks Traveler

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I made the front cover *and* back inside page of the latest Essential Guide published by The National Parks Traveler!  Click on the photo to be taken to the article where you can click on the guide to read it (so many clicks, I know).

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Distance (And Death) Don’t Matter – Closeness Is An Affair Of The Heart

After Babys Bath

I’ve been noticing my Facebook friends posting photos of their mothers as profile pics, and I just finished reading a blog post by Life In The Boomer Lane about LBL’s own mother.  This, in turn, brought up thoughts of my own mother, who recently passed away in mid-February of this year.

Here in the U.S., we celebrate a holiday (not one that companies give to their employees as a day off) known as Mother’s Day.  This year, Mother’s Day is going to be a little more difficult for my sister and I; we’ll remember Mom with much love and a little sadness.

Mom was one of the nicest people I ever knew.  She was nice to everybody – even those people whose foibles may have annoyed her a little (sometimes, that included me).  She was the eternal optimist.  She loved hugs, soothed over worries, cooked our favorite foods, and always tried to please.  She never ever complained – even during the dark days of Dad’s drinking and her final days laying ill in her hospice-provided hospital bed.  Her’s really was an unconditional love.

I always had flowers sent to Mom.  Because she’s not around this Mother’s Day, I’m having flowers sent to my sister instead – a mother, herself, of 4 boys who have grown up to be awesome men (although we all did wonder at times about the twins ever making it to their 21st birthday).

If you have a mother who is still alive, I urge you to reach out to her.  Call her.  Visit her. Do what you can for her while she is still living.  Don’t ever wait until she is gone and then have regrets.  Give her flowers now while she can enjoy their beauty and fragrance; don’t wait until she is dead and then put flowers on her grave or urn niche where she may or may not enjoy them (depending upon your religious and metaphysical belief system).

Wish your mother a happy Mother’s Day.  And remember:  no matter how far away you may be from your mother, closeness is an affair of the heart.

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How It All Started For Me – Photography In The National Parks

The View Along Lost Mine Trail

The National Parks Traveler has just published my latest article on their site.  If you are interested, then click on this link.

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A Photographer’s Stay in Denali National Park

The National Parks Traveler has just published my latest photography article.  Click on this link to go check it out.

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From Tanks to Paratroops – In Dad’s Own Words

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My father fought in WWII as a paratrooper in the 105th Infantry of the 82nd Airborne.  When he first joined the Army, though, he was in the Armored Division.  He never spoke of his experiences except on rare occasions; usually it was when he was drunk.  About 7-8 years ago, though, when he was in his 80’s, we convinced him to start writing about his war experiences.   This particular story he was addressing to my sister.  I have kept Dad’s wording but tried to correct spelling where I could.  As for the names he mentions in this story, I hope I’ve spelled them correctly as sometimes his writing was difficult to decipher.

– – – – – – – –

“When I first went into the Army, my mother (Granny) would not sign my release if I wanted to join the paratroops.  So, I settled for the Armored Division.  I found myself at Fort Knox, Kentucky, at basic training.  Back in that day and time, a PFC was a general.

I finished the 13 weeks of basic and then was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division.  My first Sgt. was an old-time regulation Army soldier.  He was what we called Top Sgt or Top Kick.  He was an Old-Timer and even told the Lts. and Captains what to do.  He had a lot of power.  He was an old bugger and we were afraid of him, but he knew his business.  He must have liked me because he gave me a light tank to drive.  In fact, I drove it so well, I “cowboyed” it.  In other words, I drove it as fast as it would go over rough terrain.  He put me on 2 days of KP for this; I had to wash dishes and peel potatoes for 2 days.

He (the Sgt.) seemed to like me, however, and so did the Captain.  We went onto the firing range to fire rifles.  I ended up making the best score of anyone.  The Captain asked me where I was from and my answer was Texas.  He said ‘I thought so.  Go show these other bastards how to shoot.’  I got my first advancement from this.  He made me a Corporal.  From there, I made a Sgt. as Tank Commander.

I should say here that I thoroughly enjoyed driving the light tanks.  They were small and not worth a damn in combat but would attain a speed of 48 – 50 mph and I always kept them at top speed.  We later went to what we called a medium tank:  the old Sheridan Tank.  They were much slower but much more practical for combat.

We moved our unit, the 2nd Armored, from Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Camp Polk in Louisiana.  I called your mother (Edna) one night and asked her to marry me.  She said ‘yes’ and she met me in Lake Charles (Louisiana).  We were married there by some preacher with Eula Roberts as witness.  She was an old friend of Granny’s (Dad’s mother).  We then went to Camp Polk to live in an apartment.

Edna left when I went on maneuvers in Louisiana.  I took lessons and was trained to be an umpire.  It was quite an experience.  We fought all over the Louisiana woods; red and blue armies. Before I left for maneuvers, I had put in for a transfer to the paratroops.  It seems I wasn’t liked by our Col. of the division.  Every time I turned around, he was there to give me hell.

One time, I was taking my crew to the motor pool to clean our tank.  I was walking them down and old Col. Yale came up in the jeep to ask me why I wasn’t marching them to the motor pool.  I replied that I didn’t think it was necessary since we were not on parade.  He didn’t like this reply and told me to double time up the small hill and back.  We did this and came back and saluted the old bastard.  This was not the first run in that we had, so I got damned tired of it; I wanted out.

Lt. Brendigan was my company commander.  The First Sgt. there – I can’t remember his name – but we had a good rapport.  Anyway, before I left for maneuvers, I went to personnel and put in for the paratroops.  When I returned for a leave from maneuvers, I was told to report to the First Sgt.  He saw me and shook my hand.  He said ‘John, you made it, you are going to be a paratrooper.’  I have never been so happy.  Lt. Brendigan told me that Col. Yale had given him hell for letting me get out.  Brendigan grinned from ear to ear.  He took me to the train in his jeep and wished me the best.  Brendigan told me that before I left, the old col. tried to pull some strings to cancel my transfer but failed at that because they needed paratroops for the Normandy invasion worse than they needed tanks at that time.

I got on the train with all of my service records.  I could have gone AWOL and no one would be the wiser, but that was the furthest thing from my mind.  My only thought was:  go to Fort Benning (Georgia) and be a paratrooper.  I had been smoking, but when I got to Fort Benning, I stopped smoking.  I knew that I was in for some rough training.  I was in good shape and could run with the best of them.

I’ll never forget the first time we rolled our own chutes to jump the next day; we were to make four daytime jumps and one night jump.  Our forth jump was a nighttime jump.  Our last jump was a daytime jump.  After this last daytime jump, we were to have a graduation parade.

I will never forget when I was released from the parade, I looked up and saw Edna standing there.  She had traveled all the way from Texas to Georgia to see my graduation.  We were invited that day to eat at the officers’ table. I was embarrassed.  I was not used to this type of attention.  After all, I was just a poor old enlisted man.”

– – – – – – – –

One day, Mom told me the story of her going to see Dad graduate.  I can totally understand why she and Dad were invited to eat at the officers’ table.  She told me she was the only woman there, and from seeing photos of her when she was so young, I knew she was an absolutely adorable little thing.MomDadWarPortrait_0001

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Feeling “Off”

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Everything feels “off”.  By “off”, I mean not only as in “powered down” but also off as in “off kilter” or “askew”.  I go home to my apartment and it doesn’t look or feel the same.  Naturally, it wouldn’t look the same because it’s a total pig sty right now, complete with undusted surfaces, unwashed dishes in the sink and stacks of boxes filled with items taken from Mom’s home.  Those boxes are in every room of my 2-bed, 2-bath apartment.  I have no idea where I will put everything, but I’ll handle it because those items are now all that are left of my mother and father.  Those items are all that I wanted to keep. The rest have either gone to my sister or they are to be sold in the estate sale this coming week or will be donated to charity.

My 89-year old mother passed away in early-mid February, a little less than 5 years after my 86-year old father died.  She was in the hospital for a week and then I and my sister took her home to care for her with the help of Hospice.  After Mom’s death, my sister flew back to her home and family in the Pacific Northwest and I began the duties as Executrix for my mother’s estate.

This has been one of the hardest, most physically- and emotionally-draining things I have ever done in my entire 53 (almost 54) years of life.

In addition to my full-time job, I am handling Mom’s estate.  All by myself (ok, I have the attorney working on probating the will, but you know what I mean).  And my sister and I are sooo very thankful that Mom had the means to pay for everything and that she had the foresight to put me as a signer (signor?) on her checking account.

You see, here in the U.S., you can’t die for free.  Not unless you are totally indigent, I guess.  Mom was not indigent, so of course there was a fee for the cremation, and another fee for interring her ashes in a little niche at the local cemetery.  Then, there’s the filing of the income taxes.  And the costs for probating her will.  Plus, I can’t do much of anything without the Letters of Testamentary (part of the probate process) but that will only occur after the 10-14 day waiting period while the Court publishes notice of the probate in the local paper to let any creditors know of Mom’s demise.  Luckily, Mom’s house and car and everything else were all paid for.  Nonetheless, I can’t sell her car or the house or get the taxes done or do any other of the myriad tasks dealing with Mom’s death without those Letters.

I wrote the obituary.

I informed people and agencies of Mom’s death.

Everything I have done is a reminder of the demise of her existence.

I talk to my sister on a daily basis – sometimes more than once – particularly if there is some sort of emergency (which there usually is).  I, who never wanted any more responsibility than that of work (which is why I have not yet ever remarried, why I never wanted to buy a house or why I don’t even own a pet) now shoulder more responsibility than I sometimes feel I can handle (but I’m an Aries, so you can damned well be sure I will handle the responsibility and I’ll handle it successfully).

I have very little vacation time left for this year, and it’s only March.  Most of my free days were spent caring for Mom or attending to her estate matters.  I will have to take a day off to attend court in order to get the Letters Testamentary.  I will have to take a day off to go to the local Social Security Office in order to inform them of Mom’s death and get a tax form to take to Mom’s accountant for taxes.  I’m sure I’ll have to take another 2 or 3 days off regarding other estate issues, as well.  I *am* taking a couple of 3-day trips during national holidays (Memorial Day and Thanksgiving) to spend time with my sister and her family; which reminds me, I still need to find out if United Airlines will allow me to carry the cremated remains of my father in checked luggage since I want to leave them with my sister for a future trip with her to Montana to spread Dad’s ashes over his favorite place there.  Thankfully (right now, anyway), I also have enough time left to take a 10-day trip (including weekends and holidays) to London in December to see the Christmas lights and to watch the New Year’s fireworks over the London Eye and to just escape from everything I will have had to deal with over the year.  I want to recharge my photography (’cause I haven’t felt like taking photos at all and still don’t feel like it) and I want to explore that wonderful city.  Who knows – maybe I’ll meet an awesome Brit of my dreams there …. Stranger things have happened, right?

In the meantime, though, I feel sad and lonely and a little out of place.  I get teary often; I was never one of those sentimental, sappy kind of people, so this teary thing is a nuisance and an emotional drain all at the same time.  I miss Mom.  I keep feeling like I should have / could have done more.  I’m always exhausted.  I’m still sick with a lingering cold.  I’m now dealing with the wet carpet in the sunken living room all by myself; heavy rains and a crack (or two) in the foundation slab contributed to the issue and the house now smells while the carpet dries. I need a hug and there is nobody here to give me one; actually, I could use lots of hugs.

Everything just feels off.

I walk through Mom’s house, checking on the damp living room carpet to see how much more it has dried, looking at all the things set up by the estate sales agent in preparation for this weekend’s sale.  It doesn’t feel like Mom’s house anymore because Mom’s not there any longer.  It’s just a house now filled with loads of stuff collected over a lifetime of 89 years for Mom, and 86 years for Dad.  And I feel empty.  I know things must be “off” if I feel like going in to work is the same thing as taking a vacation.

I guess the best thing that can be said is that I am busy.  I am busy with work (bless my co-workers for being so patient while I take off days here and there to handle this stuff), I am busy with the estate, and once all of this is over with and done, I will be handling my own messy apartment and initiating the process of researching places to live around and within Houston, much closer than where I currently reside (moving won’t happen until 2016).

Before all of this occurred, I was rather emotionally detached.  Now, I find that I am sympathizing more with people and their situations – especially if they are going through similar experiences.

Right now, it all sucks but I know that this, too, shall pass.  I know that somewhere at the end of this long, narrow tunnel there is a pinpoint of light; I don’t see it yet, but I know that it’s there.

Mom-Kath-Becky-Hats_U9A4160

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