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A Visit to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans

The National World War II Museum is in New Orleans.  It’s a fantastic complex with exhibits, movies, and live shows.  Recently I was lucky enough to do a signing of Home Front Girl there.  It was a wonderful experience!

My family met my Swedish relatives in New Orleans for 4 fun-filled days.   Joan’s father, Werner Wehlen, left Sweden at the age of 16 in 1913. Werner was the eldest of all his siblings.  His youngest brother, Nils-Erik, was born after Werner left.  They never met.

Nils-Erik had several children we have met a number of times.  Lars is the “baby” brother!  Lars is Joan’s first cousin and Gerd is Lars’s wife.

National World War II Museum in New Orleans

This building has the exhibits, book shop, and gift shop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  This addition is under construction. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I took this photo from the top of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the fabulous museum Gerd and I visited that is connected to the University of New Orleans.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Susie at the National World War II Museum
Susie at the National World War II Museum, in a photo taken by Gerd.


After these photos were taken, I went to sign books for a couple of hours. It was so fun!  Everyone who is at the museum came because of their interest in World War II.  All photos taken in the museum were taken by Gerd, the wife of Joan’s cousin.  Thanks, Gerd!

In the National World War II Museum Gift Shop, preparing for the signing

In the National World War II Museum Book Shop, preparing for the signing

Preparing for the day.

Preparing for the day.


At the signing

Hard at work signing.

Hard at work signing.

Gerd sat with me for over two hours.  We chatted with museum goers about the book.  It was a lot of fun!

One sweet customer, Be'la

One sweet customer, Be’la

With a young customer and reader

With a young customer and reader

After the signing, Gerd, John and I saw a movie at the museum, narrated by Tom Hanks, called Beyond All Boundaries.  You can play the trailer here.  The movie is in 4-D!!!  Gerd, who is Swedish, thought it “very American.”  John said it was “Awesome!”  I think they are both right!  Do go!

With Jim, Sarah and John by a lovely corn stalk iron fence outside a hotel in the French Quarter

With Jim, Sarah and John by a lovely corn stalk iron fence outside a hotel in the French Quarter

With Gerd at Cafe du Monde

With Gerd at Cafe du Monde

John enjoying beignets at Cafe du Monde

John enjoying beignets at Cafe du Monde





Invictus: Uncovering my grandparents’ grave markers–in the snow!

In March 2013, my family and I visited Chicago.  This is where my mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison, grew up and where she met my father, Bob Morrison, when they both studied at the University of Chicago in the early 1940s.  As a girl, we children visited the Windy City about twice a year to visit my grandparents, Werner Wehlen and Neva [Levish] Wehlen.

Werner immigrated from Sweden at the age of 16 in 1913.  He never went back.  In fact, he never met his youngest brother who was born after he had left!  But that brother, Nils-Erik, had a number of children–all of whom we have met and continue to meet!  Such is the miracle of life.

My children, Sarah and John, had never visited Chicago before.  Nor had they seen their great-grandparents’ gravesites.  I insisted that we go pay our respects at Rosehill Cemetary, just north of the Swedish part of Chicago–Andersonville.  Very charming people at the cemetery helped us with two maps.

Plan of Rosehill Cemetary, Chicago, Illinois

Plan of Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

My grandparents are buried in Section 9, Block Sub. 1, Lot 18, Graves 4 and 5.

My grandparents were somewhere in the yellowed in area!!!

My grandparents were somewhere in the yellowed in area!!!

Now was the hard part:  we got to Section 9 and even this little area marked in yellow above.  But my grandparents did not have gravestones that stood up vertically; they had grave markers that lie flat.  How would we ever find them in beautiful but snow-covered lawn!!!  And it is fitting that they are buried under snow.  Both stem from ancestors used to snow.  My mother, Joan, writes on January 30, 1939, about her best friend’s father, Mr. Love, who has just died and been buried on a frosty Chicago day,  “Mr. Love has a warm blanket now above him. I’m glad the snow is clean and fluffy.”

You’ll notice Werner’s grave marker has the word “Invictus” at the top.  It means “unconquered” and is the title of one of Werner’s favorite poems by William Earnest Henley.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

This poem epitomizes Werner’s philosophy of life.  And my pure coincidence (?), John studied the poem in Social Studies class after our Chicago trip.

After we paid our respects, we headed for Andersonville and the Swedish part of Chicago.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ann Sather is where we used to eat a delicious Swedish smorgasbord.


We drank a toast to Neva and Werner at a bar he used to take us to:  Simon’s.  It’s no longer quite the dive it was, but everyone was so friendly and it’s a great place for a drink!


Simon's Tavern is at 5210 N. Clark Street.  A great place for a drink and a toast!

Simon’s Tavern is at 5210 N. Clark Street. A great place for a drink and a toast!

Skol to everyone!

“Isn’t life strange?” Meteors, Calamities, and Memories

The meteor striking the atmosphere over Siberia on February 15, 2013, was, of course, not the first such disaster to strike the region. In 1908, an asteroid struck Tunguska, Siberia, ramming into the earth with power 1,000 times that of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, saw that explosion when he was twelve years old on his parents’ farm near Sundsvall, Sweden.  Only when he was 83 years old, after he had immigrated to the United States and settled in the Midwest, did he learn what it was he had witnessed that summer day 70 years before.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

Trees knocked over in the blast from the 1927 expedition.

As he told his story in his lilting accent, “Last week I went to a lecture given at the University of Chicago given by a famous astronomer from Harvard.  He told about a new theory they have now; that a tiny particle of antimatter–something very dense but very small–passed right through the earth in 1908. It left a big circle of wreckage in Siberia and it came out somewhere in the South Atlantic.  There was a flash of light seen over northern Europe at the time that it was supposed to have hit.  As he was talking, I remembered seeing such a flash, sitting in my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy.  It was so bright it took the color out of everything, even though it was daytime when I saw it.

“After the lecture, I raised my hand and told the astronomer I had seen that light.  He became very excited and asked me where I was when I saw it and what year it was.  I was able to date it pretty exactly, because it happened at about the time of the death of a cousin of mine.  The astronomer wrote down my name and the place I lived in Sweden.  Then he told me I was lucky, because I was probably the only person in the room to have seen that flash.  In fact, I was the only person he had ever met who had seen it.  Most of the other people in the lecture room were young students, and the astronomer himself was only about forty years old.

“Just think. I had seen that flash from my farmyard in Sweden when I was a boy, and I had to wait till I was eighty-three to learn what it was.  Isn’t life strange?”

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

My grandfather, Werner Wehlen, in 1984 at age 87 after his first airplane ride.

For my grandfather’s generation, waiting a lifetime to find out about a scientific or environmental calamity, would not be unusual.  Now, videos of catastrophes are uploaded on YouTube filmed by dashboard cameras and shared with the world almost instantaneously.  Isn’t life strange?

Sometimes stories don’t have an ending for decades, as my grandfather sensed with this event, tying his youth to his old age.  His story was recorded for American Mosaic, a book co-written by my mother Joan Wehlen Morrison.  My mother felt that everyone has a story, one that may not yet be apparent. As she writes at age 18 on October 19, 1941, “to understand one’s story is to weep with pity.”

Joan also writes about the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity.  On Thursday, January 26, 1939, at age 16, she writes about the death of her best friend’s father.

“Gee, I came home and Mom told me. I used to play cards with him and tell jokes and I saw him last Saturday and today he is dead and the Spanish Civil War is over and the Chinese War is going on and 8,000 people died in the Chile Earthquake and people all over the world are eating their suppers and doing their homework (as I shall) and laughing and reading and moving about in lighted rooms and a man I know is dead.

"El Mirador Alemán", in Concepción, after the earthquake.
“El Mirador Alemán”, in Concepción, after the earthquake.

It’s funny . . . coming home on the elevated train tonight I made an equation—a geometric equation to prove that Life cannot be cancelled.

Matter + Energy + X = Life

Matter and Energy cannot be cancelled.

Therefore: you cannot cancel Life.

But I don’t know. I will not be speaking to my friend’s father any more.

I feel low to be eating and writing in here and doing my homework when someone is dead . . . but someone is always dead. . . . 8,000 people that other people knew are dead in Chile. Barcelona fell to the Rebels and a war is over and I talk thus.”

The actual death toll in Chile was much higher, estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000.

50th anniversary  of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

50th anniversary of 1939 Chilean Earthquake Commemoration placard

My grandfather, on learning what he had seen in the “old country,” asked, “Isn’t life strange?”  Now we know that an object half the size of a football field narrowly missed the earth on the same day that another object –thankfully, much smaller – slammed debris into it.  Life is strange—and precious.  All we have—the dashboard cameras, the YouTube videos, the farmyards, the diaries, the memories—could disappear in a flash.

A flash that may be remembered by someone decades hence.

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