The hardest part about being a commander in any war situation is that moment when you have to tell a soldier’s family that they have been killed in action. It’s even easier to tell them that their soldier is missing, because at least then they have hope. The only thing that could possibly be harder than telling a soldiers family that they have been killed is to tell sibling soldiers’ family that they have been killed. That is the lot that fell to President Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, on November 21, 1864, except it came to him in spades. On that day, Lincoln composed a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow and mother of five men, all of whom had been killed in the Civil War. It was a completely tragic state of affairs, and so made national news when a copy of the letter was published in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25. It was signed by “Abraham Lincoln.” Oddly, the original letter has never been found, so it continues to be “legend” to this day.
After expressing his condolences to Mrs Bixby on the death of her five sons, who had fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War, Lincoln goes on to express his regrets on how “weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” He then continued with a prayer that “our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement [and leave you] the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”
Historians continue to debate the authorship of the letter, and the authenticity of copies printed between 1864 and 1891. Nevertheless, at that time, copies of presidential messages were often published and then sold as souvenirs. Many historians and archivists agree that the original letter was probably written by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. As to Mrs Bixby’s loss, scholars have since discovered that only two of her sons actually died fighting during the Civil War. A third was honorably discharged and a fourth was dishonorably thrown out of the Army. The fifth son’s fate is unknown, but it is assumed that he deserted or died in a Confederate prison camp. The facts in this case seem to show that sometimes Presidents are given misinformation, resulting in heartbreaking mistakes. If Mrs Bixby did receive this letter, it is my opinion that she quite likely fainted on the spot, and then to find out later that the president had been given wrong information that caused him, gentle man that he was, to feel the need to write this particular letter himself, rather than letting the commanding officer be the bearer of such bad news.
I’m sure that upon finding that there had been an error, President Lincoln was appropriately appalled, but at that point there was not much to do about it. The letter had been sent, and to bring up the additional facts, especially the son that was thrown out of the army, would have only made matters worse. In addition, they did not know where the missing son was, and possibly didn’t know for sure where the others were either, so it made sense to leave well enough alone. Still, I’m sure their mother would like to have known where her sons really were. While this situation was possibly, or at least partially, an awful mistake, it is still the hardest part of the job of commander, and one that is usually felt very deeply by those who have had to write such a letter.
The Mary Celeste began its fateful voyage on November 7, 1872. She set sail with seven crewmen and Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs, his wife, Sarah, and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter, Sophia. The 282 ton brigantine battled heavy weather for two weeks to reach the Azores. It was there that the ship logged its last entry at 5am on November 25, 1872. The rest of the story of the Mary Celeste remains a mystery, although the ship was found in good shape and completely sea-worthy.
I find it strange to think that in the middle of the ocean, something can happen with little or no warning, that either takes the lives of people onboard a ship, or results in their disappearance. I understand mutiny, but then that does not leave a ship abandoned. So if not mutiny, how is it that the occupants of the ship did not see the other ship approaching? I know that pirates often overtook the ships, but the occupants of the ship were usually killed in a bloody battle. The people onboard did not just disappear. Nevertheless, something happened on the Mary Celeste between that final message on November 25, 1872 and December 5th, 1872, when she was spotted drifting along, in the Atlantic Ocean…empty.
The British brig Dei Gratia was about 400 miles east of the Azores on December 5, 1872, when crew members spotted a ship adrift in the choppy seas. Captain David Morehouse was shocked to discover that the unguided vessel was the Mary Celeste. It had left New York City eight days before him and should have already arrived in Genoa, Italy. He changed course to offer help. Morehouse sent a boarding party to the ship. When they went below decks, they discovered that the ship’s charts had been tossed about, and the crewmen’s belongings were still in their quarters. The ship’s only lifeboat was missing, and one of its two pumps had been disassembled. Three and a half feet of water was sloshing in the ship’s bottom, but the cargo of 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol was largely intact. There was a six month supply of food and water…and no one to use it. So, the mystery began, and it has endured as one of the most durable mysteries in nautical history…What happened to the ten people who had sailed aboard the Mary Celeste? Over the many years since the discovery, a lack of hard evidence has only created more speculation as to what might have taken place. Theories have ranged from mutiny to pirates to sea monsters to killer waterspouts….some of which are completely ridiculous, but in the absence of evidence, people will speculate.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1884 short story based on the case posited a capture by a vengeful ex-slave, a 1935 movie featured Bela Lugosi as a homicidal sailor. Now, a new investigation, drawing on modern maritime technology and newly discovered documents, has pieced together the most likely scenario…which had nothing to do with Bela Lugosi. In fact, while it is unproven, it is thought that something a simple as coal dust could be the culprit. The idea is that the coal dust from a prior voyage filtered into the ships pumps, causing them to quit working. Then, it is thought that the captain, fearing that the ship would sink, ordered the passengers to abandon ship…well within sight of land at Azores. Anne MacGregor, the documentarian who launched the investigation and wrote, directed and produced The True Story of the ‘Mary Celeste,’ partly with funding from Smithsonian Networks. MacGregor learned that on its previous voyage, the Mary Celeste had carried coal and that the ship had recently been extensively refitted. Coal dust and construction debris could have fouled the ship’s pumps, which would explain the disassembled pump found on the Mary Celeste. With the pump inoperative, Briggs would not have known how much seawater was in his ship’s hull, which was too fully packed for him to measure visually. Of course, this is still speculation, because the ten people onboard were never heard from again, so the mystery continues.
Imagine a people so dedicated to bringing their people home to be given a proper burial, that they would search for 31 years for a submarine that went missing with its 69 crew members, all considered lost sons of a nation. I know that many people wait years and never give up hope for the return of the remains of soldiers lost in battle, but this was a little bit different. The meant extensive searches and great expense…nevertheless, it was considered worth the cost. Imagine such a nation. Who would you think of? The United States maybe, or England? No, it is Israel.
The submarine, INS Dakar was originally known as HMS Totem. It was built at the height of World War II by H.M. Dockyard in Great Britain. It was commissioned as the HMS Totem by the British navy in 1943. After the war ended, the submarine was modified, adding 12 feet to its length and removing some of its gun decks. The submarine was then sold to Israel along with two others in 1965. On November 10, 1967, the Israeli Navy officially launched Dakar. The submarine was tested in Scotland, and scheduled to go to Haifa, Israel for an official ceremony in early February, 1968. The crew had been ordered to check in daily, and they followed the orders implicitly. On January 24, 1968, Dakar passed the island of Crete and radioed its position for the last time. One additional signal came from Dakar just after midnight on January 25, 1968 and then…nothing. That was 48 years ago today.
Israel launched 25 search missions over the 31 years following the loss of Dakar, but to no avail. The only sign of the submarine was one of her locator buoys that washed ashore off the coast of Khan Yunis a year after Dakar’s disappearance. Using that clue and the technology available at the time, those search missions resulted in the search of most of the Mediterranean Sea. The odd thing was that the searches never included the actual route that Dakar would have taken to Haifa. When the buoy was discovered, it was estimated that Dakar was 50 to 70 miles off course…hence the searches in the wrong places. Then, on 9 May 1999 two charted sea vessels arrived to finally search area along the original route. The designated search frames box area was approximately 60 nautical miles long, nearly 8 nautical miles wide and contained 16 search lanes. With a speed of 2 knots per hour it takes between 30 to 40 hours to monitor the sea bed of each search lane. Searching was conducted using the AMS-60, a wide-swath sonar and the REMORA 6000, a remotely operated vehicle equipped with both video and still cameras. On May 24th, in the evening, sonar detected a large body on the sea floor, along with several smaller bodies nearby. They launched the ROV at 7:00 on May 28th, after 3 days of weather delays, and finally found the Dakar four hours later.
There has been much speculation as to what caused the sinking and inevitable implosion of Dakar. Some say it was a small leak that made control become impossible, but one Egyptian admiral has a different story to tell. Mohammed Abed el-Majid Azeb told various Egyptian sources that his crew identified the Israeli submarine during a training exercise. He decided to attack the vessel, which was in Egyptian territorial waters and and declared war on it. According to the report, Egyptian military commentators have suggested that the submarine was damaged by an Egyptian depth-charge and had to submerge, which could have been the leak they experienced. It’s hard to say after all these years, and we may never know, but I find it very interesting that the Israeli government would not give up until it could bring those lost sons home for a proper burial.
Every year, my mom’s family gets together to celebrate Christmas as a family. Of course, it isn’t on Christmas, but rather a couple of weeks ahead of Christmas. They get together to stay close to each other and to honor their parents’ wishes that they not drift apart. My mom, Collene Byer Spencer, like her sisters looked forward to that party every year. She planned the little gift that she would make for each of her sisters. She worked on them with great care, planning every detail, so they were just perfect for each of her siblings. There was always that special moment when the siblings would gather at one of the tables and exchange those precious little gifts that showed how much they loved each other. It was always such a sweet thing to watch. It was never about the gift they received, but about the love they all had for each other. I felt a sting of sadness, because Mom and Aunt Evelyn weren’t there at that precious moment of sisterly love. Nevertheless, I was happy for Aunt Virginia Beadle, Aunt Bonnie McDaniels, Aunt Dixie Richards, and Aunt Sandy Pattan, because they still had that precious time together.
As the years have passed, fewer and fewer of the siblings remain, and this year, we lost two more of the sisters, my mom and my aunt, Evelyn Byer Hushman. Everyone felt the sting of those new absences, and my aunts tried to console us and we them too, but it really didn’t do much good. We simply cried together, because we missed them so much. Sometimes, when we are caught up in our own grief, we can forget that there are others who loved our loved one too. I somehow hadn’t grasped that thought before, but while talking to my aunts, I realized that they are grieving as much as we are. These were their sisters, who they had known all of their lives, and they missed them too…very much.
This Byer Family Christmas Party was different in several ways, but it was also the same in many ways too. The same people that usually come, were mostly there this time too. These are the family members who have embraced Grandma and Grandpa’s dream of a continuing close family. These are the ones who have strived to keep the future generations of the family close too. We have a wonderful heritage in our family. Our grandparents left us a legacy of love. Those connections warm our hearts with every party or picnic. We are all busy, and seeing each other every day…other than on Facebook…is very hard to do, but these precious family gatherings will always keep the legacy of our grandparents alive.
As I walked around the room, talking to the different family members and taking too many pictures to possible show here, I could hear the echoes of those aunts and uncles who are in Heaven this year…Aunt Evelyn Hushman, Uncle Elmer and Aunt Deloris Johnson, Uncle Larry Byer, my mom and dad, Collene and Allen Spencer, and Uncle Jack McDaniels…and of course of Grandma and Grandpa Byer. It was as if they were there in spirit, celebrating the family with us. I could hear some of the things each one had said over the years. I was thankful that many of their family members were there at the party, because even though they are in Heaven now, we are all still part of this wonderful family, and we belong together celebrating this family and the legacy our precious grandparents left behind.
As the fourteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approached, movies that had been filmed following those horrible events began to show up on television again. I think I’ve already watched each and every one of them, but I always feel compelled to watch them again. It isn’t out of a morbid sense of curiosity, but rather as a reminder that there are people out there who are so evil that it is beyond our ability to comprehend. It is also a way to remind myself that there are heroes out there who set aside self, no matter what the danger, in an effort to save others.
I like to hope that I would be one of those people who come together to save others, but I don’t think that the average citizen really knows what they would do, until they are placed in that position. Our flight instincts seem to be based on just how big a danger we perceive ourselves to be facing. I don’t think that I could leave someone in trouble, but I don’t know how I would feel about actually running into a building like the World Trade Center on September 11.
As I was watching the movie, I was reminded that there were a number of people who were simply never found at the World Trade Center site. Never found!! In fact, there were over 1000 people who were never found. It was like they were simply vaporized. Of course, there might be pieces of them in the many, some small enough to fit in a test tube, pieces of human remains that have not been identified. It is shocking and sad to me to think that there are actually people who have never been given closure concerning their loved ones. All they know is that their loved ones were killed on September 11, 2001. They don’t know if they suffered, or if it was instant. There is simply no way to know. And that is horrifically hard. I don’t mean to sound morbid, but I have a really hard time when I think about the fact that in just a few hours, more than 1,000 people simply disappeared. In our world of DNA matches and so many other methods of identifying people, and so many pieces of bodies that have been found, I just don’t understand how those people could simply be nowhere, but they are. I think that true closure often comes from being able to view the body, and have a funeral using the real body of the loved one. In the absence of that body, the mind plays tricks on us. We hope that maybe they somehow survived and simply have amnesia or something. Even though we know that is probably wrong.
As this fourteenth anniversary of that horrible day arrives, I pray for those who lost loved ones, and those who will never know what happened to their loved ones. I pray that they are able to have emotional closure, even if they can’t have full closure. For the rest of us, I hope that we will never forget what happened that day, the people who died, and the people who did this. Terror and terrorists continue to exist in our world, and they don’t care if their victims were tolerant of their beliefs or not. They have one agenda, and one agenda only, to kill all infidels, because in their minds, that is their obligation and their right. We must stay alert, lest we find ourselves open to another attack.
When we think of family, we don’t always think of pets, but to pet owners, their pets are as much family as their siblings, parents, or kids. My daughter, Corrie Petersen and her family have two dogs and two cats. With four people in the family, it would seem that each one would have a pet that was their own, and in most ways that is exactly what happened. Molly is totally my grandson, Josh’s dog. If Josh isn’t there, Molly isn’t happy. Missy is my grandson, Chris’ cat…period!! Zoe, the cat, is the most flexible of all the pets. She likes my daughter, Corrie and son-in-law, Kevin, and Katie is totally Kevin’s dog. For the most part, Katie and Zoe do pretty well if Corrie and Kevin are there or not, but Molly and Missy are two very different stories.
Basically, Molly thinks she should never have to walk anywhere…at least not if Josh is around. Josh is pretty much the “she needs me to carry her” type of kid. He loves his dog and packs her around everywhere. She sleeps on his bed, and even goes to visit family with him. And if Josh goes somewhere, like camping and doesn’t take Molly, you had better believe that Molly is mad at him for a while when he gets back. There are rules to this whole game you know, and Molly can’t seem to figure out why we don’t understand that Josh is missing, and we should find him. Then when he comes home, she figures he had deserted her for a while, so maybe he just needs the cold shoulder treatment for a while so he learns not to do this again. Molly even gets a birthday gift, because she is…special, after all!! And by the way…today is Molly’s designated birthday. They weren’t sure of the exact date, so they picked the 6th of September, because it falls half way between Kevin’s and Josh’s birthdays. So Josh made sure I knew that this was Molly’s day.
Missy…my grandson, Chris’ cat…is having a very difficult time right now. She is suffering from depression and grief, and quite frankly, she is just a little bit stunned that no one else in the family seems to realize that Chris is missing. Missy knew something was going on in the days preceding Chris’ move to Sheridan for college. She was confused about all the boxes, and tried to pack herself up to go too. Unfortunately, Chris couldn’t take her. Their goodbye was hard on everyone. At one point Missy put both of her paws on Chris’ chin as if to say, “I love you so much!! Please don’t leave me!!” Nevertheless, he had to go. After Chris left, the whole family was quite sad, but Missy went and hid to suffer through her grief…alone. When she finally came out early yesterday morning, Kevin tried to pet her, but she kept backing away. He tried again, and she backed away again. In the end, she led him to Chris’ room and got on the bed. She looked at him as if to say, “Don’t you know he isn’t here?” I think she somehow thought that they had not even noticed that her person was missing, and that they needed to go find him. She misses Chris so much. I never really saw a pet in grief before, but Missy is definitely there, and that breaks my heart. Yes, Missy…believe me we know he is missing, and we are sad too.