American Pie Memories in Florida

Among the many memories, I cherish from growing up in the 1970s was the annual winter trips to Florida to stay with my grandparents who had a winter residence there. 

 I took this picture of my family in front of the Florida Welcome Station in the early 1970s.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

 I took this picture of my family in front of the Florida Welcome Station in the early 1970s.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

Those trips were novelties in my teen years as my family discovered a whole new part of the country. 

The drive itself was an adventure.  It started with a very early wake-up call as we climbed into a car that had been packed the night before.   

When the weather cooperated, we'd zip through the Eastern Seaboard states.  It felt just a little bit warmer at each rest stop.  Our day ended at a motel where the whole family of five shared one room with two double beds and a roll-away bed.

 The next morning there would be another early start.

When we crossed the Florida line, we'd stop for orange juice at the state visitor center.

The days in Florida were filled with trips to the tourist venues, including Cypress Gardens or the newly opened Disney World. 

There were also many activities that were less travel-intensive.  Some days included a visit to a distant relative or a trip to the nearest shopping center to pick up souvenirs.  

Every year, my grandmother would treat us to the novelty of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  

Back in the 1970s, KFC wasn’t known by its initials. It was Kentucky Fried Chicken, it was indeed finger lickin’ good, and whoever was staying with Grandma and Grandpa that week was getting a real treat.

Just about every night, we could count on a game of cards.

 The family dressed up for Sunday dinner at a buffet-style restaurant during one of our trips to visit my grandparents in Florida.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

 The family dressed up for Sunday dinner at a buffet-style restaurant during one of our trips to visit my grandparents in Florida.  Photo:  Newvine Personal Collection

I remember a warm Central Florida winter night in 1972.  Six kids between the ages of twelve and seventeen were enjoying the spring break by playing cards and listening to one particular song on the radio.

The kids were my siblings and the similarly-aged kids of my parents’ friends. The card game was racehorse pitch, the preferred card game of that era. 

The song on the radio was American Pie.

 Bye bye

 Miss American Pie

 Drove my Chevy to the levy,

 But the levy was dry

 And good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye

 Singing, this will be the day that I die

 This will be the day that I die.

That song was the big rock-and-roll hit in early 1972.  It seemed like it was being played every half-hour on the Tampa rock-and-roll station.

I was fifteen years old.  The symbolism did not yet resonate with me.  It was the way the words worked together that caught my attention.  I had little or no appreciation of poetry, but these lyrics were beyond catchy.

 Did you write the book of love

 Or do you have faith in God above

Stanza after stanza, the poem of American Pie fascinated me.  It would be years before I fully understood what singer/writer Don McLean was trying to say.   

To this day McLean doesn't talk much about the deeper meaning of the words he composed. 

He doesn't have to.  This is a work of art that stands just as that.

 I can't remember if I cried
 When I read about his widowed bride

Madonna recorded a cover version several years ago, and it's an interesting interpretation.  The Brady Bunch kids recorded a version that isn't interesting or even an interpretation. It's just bad.

In American Pie, Don McLean is recalling a specific point in his lifetime. Whenever I hear that song, I think of a specific point in time too.  I zero in on the opening words:

 A long long time ago
 I can still remember how
 That music used to make me smile

While McLean was referring to the day Buddy Holly was killed in an airplane crash, I go back to a much happier time.  

I return to a warm Florida evening in February 1972, surrounded by family and friends.

We were creating a memory that has lasted nearly five decades.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

His first book, Growing Up, Upstate is now available for a reduced price at Lulu.com

Remembered on Memorial Day, Corporal Chester T. Dean

The brief life of a soldier killed in action during World War II

He is one of many who has served in our military and paid the ultimate price in defending our nation.  

 

 The Honor Roll honoring those who served in my hometown and surrounding area in Port Leyden, New York.  My great uncle Chester Dean’s name is on this Honor Roll.  Photo by Gerald Schaffner

 The Honor Roll honoring those who served in my hometown and surrounding area in Port Leyden, New York.  My great uncle Chester Dean’s name is on this Honor Roll.  Photo by Gerald Schaffner

Like many of our brave men and women who died while wearing the uniform of our armed forces, Chet Dean’s story remains frozen in time.  Growing up, I recall occasional cemetery visits, especially on Memorial Day.  

Also while growing up, a family member might recall a story involving Chet as a boy, adolescent, or young adult.  But as the years pile on, the memories faded.

But I will recall his life and his sacrifice again on this Memorial Day.

Here’s what I know about my great uncle Chester Dean.  

Born in 1922, he was the brother of my grandmother, Vera.  In addition to Vera, he had four other sisters:  Mary, Vaughn, Myrtle, and Viola (known in the family as Peachy).  

Chester had two brothers:  Charlie, who was serving in the Army Air Corps in Italy at the time of Chet’s death, and Harry who was living in upstate New York.  

The Dean children were a big part of my growing up experience.  

Harry passed away before I reached school age, but the other Dean adult children were truly part of our family.  My family was always spending time with the Deans playing cards, dropping in for coffee, or helping out on a house project.     

You name it and we were all part of it.

The newspaper article in the Lowville Journal and Republican reporting the death of Corporal Chester T. Dean

The newspaper article in the Lowville Journal and Republican reporting the death of Corporal Chester T. Dean

Unfortunately, no one in my generation would know Chet.  He went into the armed forces in 1942, did his basic training at Camp Rucker, Alabama and was then transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky before being sent on for desert training in Arizona.  

He was sent to Wales in April 1944.  

While soldiers were dying every hour during World War II, it’s reasonable to assume Chet was doing his duty and looking forward to life with his new wife once the war was over.  

Little did he know of the events that were about to happen.  

In just two more months, the landing at Normandy would take place off the coast of France.  Chet, now Corporal Dean, remained in Wales for training that would likely lead to action on the field of battle.

Just two days after D-Day, he was training in Wales on June 8, 1944 when an explosion occurred. Chet suffered concussion and shrapnel injuries.  

These injures would prove fatal.  

His wife Shirley got the news in the form of a telegram.  According to an account of Chet’s death in the Lowville (NY) Journal and Republican newspaper, the telegram was very brief.  

It stated that he died on June 8, 1944.  The telegram concludes with the words:  Letter follows.

Chet’s widow Shirley wanted more information about her husband’s death.  She wrote to the war department on July 10 asking for confirmation and more details.  

On July 27, 1944, just seven weeks after the training accident that would claim Chet Dean’s life, Shirley got a letter with the additional details:

"Dear Mrs. Dean

I have your letter of July 10 and want to thank you for writing me concerning your husband, Cpl Chester T. Dean. It is true, Mrs. Dean, that your husband is dead. The war department did not make a mistake.

I buried him with the ceremony appropriate to military funerals and then in addition to that, we had a memorial service in the company for him. The entire company was present, together with others from the battalion. The battalion commander was present. There were some beautiful tributes paid to your husband.

I only wish I had them recorded to you could hear what they said. But, knowing him to be the man that he was, you do not need them, do you? We held you and other loved ones before the Throne of God in prayer. And Chester's good life and devotion to God has been an inspiration to many others since that service to a closer walk with God. He was always in my services as often as duty would permit.

It was an unfortunate accident that caused his death. More than that I cannot say. But it was very encouraging to hear the company commander say that he was one of his very best men and that he wished he had a whole company of men like him. We all felt the same way.

His last hours were not spent in suffering. He died an easy death. We did all we could for him."

Chet Dean was born in northern New York, died in Wales, was married, served in the military, and paid the ultimate price. His brother and sisters kept his memory alive by tending to his gravesite in my hometown of Port Leyden.  

My father and my uncle see to it that his grave marker is kept clean and place flowers on that grave as well as many other graves of family members every year, especially on Memorial Day.

I never got a chance to know this man.  But I will take comfort from the words the company commander used that were included in the letter Chet’s widow received:  “he wished he had a whole company of men like him.”  

By knowing Chet’s surviving siblings, my family did have a group of people just like him.  Vera, Mary, Vaughn, Myrtle, Peachy, and Charlie were caring people who loved their families, and who enjoyed a good hearty sense of humor.  

That’s a pretty good legacy.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

His book Finding Bill, is about his uncle who served in the US Army during the Vietnam War.  

He is indebted to the website http://russpickett.com/history/nylewis.htm for providing many of the details in this column.  Research was also done on the archives of the Lowville Leader and Lowville Journal and Republican newspapers through nyshistoricnewspapers.org

Making a Journey of a Lifetime Possible

Los Banos Future Farmers of America raises $20,000 to help send veterans to Washington, DC

Los Banos FFA leaders and other current and former citizens from the City prior to the start of the April 14 Fresno State/Air Force Baseball Game.   Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

Los Banos FFA leaders and other current and former citizens from the City prior to the start of the April 14 Fresno State/Air Force Baseball Game.   Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

This is about two Central Valley organizations doing a lot of good in our community.  

Central Valley Honor Flight has made it possible for dozens of area veterans to see the memorials in Washington, DC that recognize their service to our country.  

By arranging these cross country trips, Honor Flight mobilizes hundreds of volunteers to send the veterans off at the beginning of their special journey, and to welcome them back upon their return.

The Los Banos Chapter of Future Farmers of America, like many FFA organizations, nurture the passion young people have for agriculture and leadership.  

We see them in their blue jackets with gold embroidery at the Merced County Springtime Fair and at other events.

In the fall of 2016, chapter members and their adult leadership were in Washington for a conference.  At the same time, Central Valley Honor Flight was there taking veterans to various military venues.  

Chapter leaders changed their schedule so they could meet up with the veterans.  The Chapter paid for a wreath that was laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

According to Paul Loeffler who works with Central Valley Honor Flight and is the radio host of Hometown Heroes, a program where many veterans share their stories,

“The kids were really moved by meeting our vets.”

That DC connection between the teens from the Central Valley and the veterans would change a lot of hearts, and motivate many volunteers to raise money for future Honor Flights.

“Watching those kids meet up with the veterans really moved us,” FFA adult leader Jim Orr told me.   

After hearing a volunteer talk about how Honor Flight would continue providing trips as long as it could afford to, Jim and others came to a realization.  

 “Getting back on the bus that day, we thought about what that volunteer said.  That’s when we decided we had to do something.”  

Members of the Los Banos FFA, area veterans, & Central Valley Honor Flight representatives at the Fresno State/Air Force baseball game where the $20,000 donation was presented.  Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

Members of the Los Banos FFA, area veterans, & Central Valley Honor Flight representatives at the Fresno State/Air Force baseball game where the $20,000 donation was presented.  Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

Working with the area Veterans of Foreign Wars post, the local American Legion post, and other community volunteers, the FFA helped sell eighteen-hundred tickets at ten dollars apiece for a drive-through pasta dinner held in February.  

With one-hundred percent of the dinner expenses donated by local businesses and community members, coupled with some cash donations, the dinner pulled the community together to raise twenty-thousand dollars for Central Valley Honor Flight.  

Jim says it was great to see everyone pulling together.  

“Veterans, high school ag kids, teachers, and parents were all working in one direction.”

The money will be used to help pay for the next mission to take a jet full of area veterans and their volunteer “buddies” to see the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War memorials.  When time permits, other venues fill out their time in DC.  

The veterans are thanked for their service.  For many, this is the only period in their lives that anyone took the time to show appreciation for the sacrifices made to defend our nation.

Prior to the start of the Fresno State/Air Force baseball game, players from both teams welcomed the veterans and FFA members.  Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

Prior to the start of the Fresno State/Air Force baseball game, players from both teams welcomed the veterans and FFA members.  Photo provided by Los Banos FFA

Raising twenty-thousand dollars was a monumental task for the Los Banos FFA chapter.  

But like the many challenges in farming, group members broke down the over-arching goal to manageable smaller tasks.  

Little by little, this volunteer effort did the job and knocked the goal out of the park.

Honor Flight continues to draw more attention to the sense of gratitude many are trying to install when it comes to our military.  

Recently, an episode of the popular CBS television series NCIS focused on an Honor Flight participant.  The episode ended with information on how a viewer can support the national organization.

Central Valley Honor Flight focuses on regional veterans.  The April 2017 trip features six Merced County veterans.  Three are from Merced, two are from Livingston, and one is from Los Banos.   

$20,000.00  is a lot of money.

But it takes a lot of money to fly these veterans across the nation.  

A medical professional accompanies the group.  Hotels, ground transportation, and meals all add up.  The cost is about two-thousand dollars per person.  

While each veteran is accompanied by a “buddy” who devotes his or her time exclusively on a particular veteran, the buddy is expected to raise enough money to cover his or her own trip costs.

The Los Banos chapter of Future Farmers of America takes their pride for these veterans seriously.  Plans are already underway for the 2018 dinner.  

These young men and women have a real appreciation for farming.  But they also have a true desire to help others.

And that’s exactly what they did by helping Central Valley Honor Flight.

Hometown Heroes is a weekly radio show honoring veterans.  

You can search their interview website at www.HometownHeroesRadio.com

For more information on Central Valley Honor Flight, visit http://cvhonorflight.org/

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

His book Finding Bill shares his search to better understand the military service of his uncle who served in Vietnam.

 

 

A Place of Reverence- San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery

It is a quiet place.  It is a place of reverence, respect, and remembering.

San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, Santa Nella, CA.  Photo by Steve Newvine

San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, Santa Nella, CA.  Photo by Steve Newvine

There are people who have a soft spot in their heart for cemeteries.  Growing up, I remember my grandparents and parents were always making sure we paid our respects to family members who had passed.  

Gravesites were well maintained.  Flowers and plants were placed around the markers all the time.  When visiting the places where close family members were laid to rest, we often took the time to say a short silent prayer.

I thought my family was a little different from others in regard to their feelings about these hallowed grounds.  

That was until I talked to other adults over the years.   

One friend told me that she would take a bag lunch to the family cemetery and spend an extended period of time there.  

When the Merced Cemetery Association asks for volunteers every Memorial Day weekend to help place crosses on graves, they are overwhelmed with people wanting to do something to help make our local cemetery look nice.

Merced County can claim some truly sacred ground in the over three-hundred acres that form the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella.  

The highest peak in the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery offers a wide vista of the Valley.  Picture: Steve Newvine

The highest peak in the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery offers a wide vista of the Valley.  Picture: Steve Newvine

If you haven’t been there, you should consider going.  If you have been there, you will likely never forget the experience.

Two friends of my wife and I are buried there.  

For well over a year, we had been meaning to take the ride out from our home in Merced to the Cemetery.  It finally happened for me on a sunny late winter day.

From the north or south, signs on Interstate 5 let you know that the Cemetery is off the Santa Nella exit, and smaller signs take you from the exit ramp to the road that leads there.   

You think twice when you see there are another three miles to go, but as you pass a massive solar panel array and come upon the grounds, you instantly realize these extra miles off the beaten path of I-5 is worth the effort.

The Administrative Office is the main structure on the property.  Inside during business hours, a staff person can assist by telling you exactly where the grave you are looking for is located on the grounds.  

But there’s much more going on at this Cemetery than the over thirty-thousand graves.

From the Observation point at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery.  Photo:  Steve Newvine

From the Observation point at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery.  Photo:  Steve Newvine

The highest point on the grounds is the observation point.  From here, you can see the entire Cemetery with the added bonus of an incredible vista of the San Joaquin Valley.  

The land for this final resting place was donated by a ranch company in 1989.  Agricultural land and a solar farm surround the Cemetery footprint.

The Californian Korean War Memorial lists the name of every soldier from California who served in that war.  Picture:  Steve Newvine

The Californian Korean War Memorial lists the name of every soldier from California who served in that war.  Picture:  Steve Newvine

Closer to the Administration Building, there’s the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  The circular stone tableau lists the names of twenty-five hundred soldiers: every soldier from California who served in the Korean War.  

Like many of the memorials on the grounds, funds were raised by veterans groups, clubs, corporations, and individual donations.

A memorial to sixty-five submarines lost in battle by the US during World War II.  The trees line the road median coming into the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery.  Picture:  Steve Newvine

A memorial to sixty-five submarines lost in battle by the US during World War II.  The trees line the road median coming into the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery.  Picture:  Steve Newvine

Dividing the roadway heading to and from the Administration building is a line of trees.  This line of sixty-five trees represents the United States Veterans World War II Memorial.  

Each tree represents a submarine lost in action during World War II.

Across from the Administration Building, there’s a statue representing the Airborne Soldier.  The brass base of the statue reminds the visitor of the “unsurpassed courage” of these soldiers.

I thought I’d spend ten minutes on the grounds.  I would pay my respects to the two friends whose bodies are buried there and then head back on the road.  

I stayed for about a half hour and promised myself to spend more time on a future visit.

Among the memorials at the Cemetery, there’s a piece of granite with the words of a poem that honors those who have passed.  

Part of it reads:

"Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not here.  I do not sleep.

I am the thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow."

Cemeteries can have a calming effect on us.  

They are peaceful, quiet, and at times even prayerful.  

At a visit to Arlington National Cemetery a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by the sense of pride I felt for the way we honor those who served in the military.  

The San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery matches that same feeling.  

As we honor those who paid the ultimate price in protecting our freedoms later this spring, consider spending part of a day at this very special place.

It is a place where you can listen to your heart.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.  

In the spring of 2017, he is once again presenting classes on soft skills to participants in the Love Plus skills and mentoring program sponsored by Love INC of Greater Merced.  The classes are based on his book Soft Skills for Hard Times.

The Soundtrack of our Future on the UC Merced Campus

Construction Project is Well Underway

On any weekday at the University of California at Merced Campus, there’s a distinct sound in the background.  It’s the noise from construction equipment moving earth and creating the long awaited 20/20 building project.

The 20/20 Construction Project at the UC Merced campus.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The 20/20 Construction Project at the UC Merced campus.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The sound is what you might expect from any construction site.  It can be the “beep-beep” of a heavy-duty truck backing up.   Or it could be the grinding of earthmovers as they carve into this one-time farmland.   

Way off in the distance, you might hear construction workers shouting directions as they guide the machines to the right places.

These are the sounds of an active construction site.  But for the students and staff at the UC campus, it is just another day.

“We hardly notice,” one student told me when I asked whether the noise bothered her.  Another student responded, “Until you mentioned it, I wasn’t even aware of it.”  

From the third floor of the UC Merced Engineering Building, the vastness of the 20/20 project becomes very real.  Photo by Steve Newvine

From the third floor of the UC Merced Engineering Building, the vastness of the 20/20 project becomes very real.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The 20/20 Project was approved by the local governments shortly after land use, annexation, and tax sharing agreements were agreed upon.  

As the sign along the walkway to the main campus spells out, the project will encompass one-point-two million square feet, include three new research laboratory buildings, seventeen-hundred new beds of student housing, fifteen-hundred parking spaces, a conference center, wellness facility, recreation field, and a new entrance at Bellevue Road at Lake Road.  

The buildings will be built to one of the highest energy efficient construction standards.

A construction fence keeps debris and dust from a busy walkway on the UC Merced campus.  Photo by Steve Newvine

A construction fence keeps debris and dust from a busy walkway on the UC Merced campus.  Photo by Steve Newvine

 

The project cost is one-point-three billion dollars.  The first phase is slated to be opened in the fall of 2018.  The second and third phases will open in succeeding years.

From the perspective of the students attending UC Merced, the timeline could look like this:  a freshman entering next fall (2017) could possibly go to a class in one of the new structures by the time he or she becomes a sophomore.

That same student will enjoy the results of most of the full three phases of this project before he or she graduates in 2021.

 The pastoral landscape off Lake Road will continue to change as the 20/20 project moves along.  Photo by Steve Newvine

 The pastoral landscape off Lake Road will continue to change as the 20/20 project moves along.  Photo by Steve Newvine

In addition to the work on the Lake Road main campus, downtown Merced is experiencing one of the largest construction projects in its history.  

UC Merced’s new Downtown Center is adding nearly seventy-thousand gross square feet of office space to the area across the street from City Hall.  

The three-story building is slated to open later this year.  

It will consolidate leased office space from around the community under one roof.  Conference and seminar rooms are part of that building plan.

Back on the main campus, the magnitude of the 20/20 project is stunning.  On a recent visit to UC Merced, I was taken aback by the sheer size of the construction footprint.  

It looks as though a second campus of the same size as the current one is being created before the eyes of everyone who takes in the view.  I was not in the community when the original campus was under construction, but this new project can give one the idea of what it must have looked like as machines ruled over the land and the buildings and infrastructure were constructed.  

Steve Newvine

Steve Newvine

It’s much like it must have been back when the campus was new- only this time there are thousands of students and hundreds of staff members around to see and hear it.  

And that takes you back to the sound:  the din of graders, bulldozers, and backhoes making progress at our UC Merced.  

Some would call it the sound of progress. Others might call it the soundtrack of our future.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced