Saturday, May 21, 2005

Armed Forces Day

Today is Armed Forces Day described as "a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country."

Today would be a wonderful day to read Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot: A True Story of the Berlin Airlift and the Candy That Dropped from the Sky by Margot Theis Raven.

The Berlin Airlift is overlooked in the mad gallop through the curriculum that characterizes history education today. There is so much to cover that it is difficult to give events their proper weight and attention in the final weeks of school. A history buff myself, I knew very little about the airlift when I began to share this story with my students.

From June 1948-May 1949, American and British pilots demonstrated extraordinary bravery, stamina and service as they flew the air corridors to Berlin with desparately needed food and fuel after the Soviet Union blockaded that city. They encountered poor flying conditions, harrassing Soviet air craft and heavy air traffic. Thirty one Americans paid the ultimate price for the people of Berlin.

This book tells the true and uplifting story of the American Air Force pilot, Gail Halvorsen, and his gift to the children of Berlin. Young Mercedes lives in a city devastated by war. She takes care of her chickens and watches the planes fly overhead on their way to Templehof airport. Illustrator Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen's paintings depict the rubble of the city. The walls of Mercedes's home have been damaged by shells and are pockmarked with bullet holes.

Her mother reads to her about the American pilot who is dropping candy to children and agrees to take her to the airport where the drops are happening. Mercedes is outrun and outreached by the other children so she writes Halvorsen a letter asking him to drop some candy in her back yard. When Halvorsen gets her letter he mails her a package of treats instead. The close-up picture of her face as she opens the box is one of my favorites. The moving epilogue describes the reunion of Mercedes and Col. Halvorsen years later and his continuing humanitarian work for children in war torn countries today.

The checkout aisles of every store offer countless carbohydrates and calories in the form of chocolate and sugar. The idea that kids had gone for years without candy or a treat of some kind was almost unfathomable to my students.

I was fortunate to have Margot Raven and Gail Halvorsen visit my school library in the fall of 2003. I drove them from the airport and to the hotel. The whole time I kept thinking "You have Gail Halvorsen, hero of the Cold War in your car!" In person Halvorsen is one of the warmest, kindest people I have ever met. He has a spiritual aura that touches the hearts of everyone who meets him. I will never ever forget him.

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