Fail harder

28Aug16

I read an article a while back about Johannes Haushofer, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who wrote a rather unconventional résumé: rather than tout his accomplishments, instead he listed his failures.

Johannes Haushofer resume BLOG

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible,” Haushofer wrote.

That rings especially true in our age of social media, with its constant stream of images and posts. It’s easy to forget that those posts are highly curated, and that for every beautiful image we see there are likely a hundred crappy ones.

But wouldn’t it be refreshing if we occasionally set aside our polished highlight reels, and shared something a little bit more real?

In that spirit, today I’m abandoning my hand-picked travel photos to show you a shoot that went horribly wrong.

It wasn’t a professional gig, thank God — I simply wanted to make some nice portraits of my friends’ cat Rocky while I was cat-sitting.

I began with the obligatory Google search for “pet photography.” You know, for inspiration.

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Seems simple enough, right? In actual practice, it was much more complicated: ROCKY WOULD NOT SIT STILL.

First, he was twitchy as he stalked the squirrels.

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Then he flopped around on the floor.

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Finally, he got back on the table and threatened me with death.

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And when none of those performances elicited the petting he so richly deserved, Rocky began head-butting my camera.

Bonk.

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Bonk!

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BONK!!

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Covered in fur and cat spit, I finally convinced the animal to cooperate. Alas, even my best efforts fell short of the Googly goodness.

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But you know what? That’s OK. None of us can excel at everything, right?

And anyway, at least one image did spark my imagination to take Rocky’s portrait in a whole new direction.

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The moral of today’s story:

If at first you don’t succeed, FAIL HARDER.


I was going to whine about how busy the past month has been (because it has felt like the writer’s equivalent of a puppy mill). But then I stumbled across this photo I shot in May and was reminded that even when we’re quite literally running from one thing to the next, there’s still beauty and stillness all around us.

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My apologies to all the blog-friends I’ve neglected. I look forward to catching up on your lives and your posts soon!

 


One of our favorite pastimes in Minnesota is talking about the weather. This isn’t because we’re superficial or boring; rather, it’s because our weather is so darned interesting. Last Tuesday is a perfect example.

The day started gloriously, with bright sunshine and blue skies. I wanted to be outside — but since I was already lobster-pink from my adventure on Saturday, I decided instead to spend my rare weekday off at the Como Conservatory.

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I got distracted on the way to the beautiful Victorian greenhouse, though, by the “pollinator garden.”

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Just as advertised, it was alive with the buzzing of busy bees.

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But something else soon drew my eye. A hummingbird?!

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Nope. A hummingbird moth. I don’t know what purpose this mimicry serves, but the illusion is perfect.

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I also found some other bugs we might not usually hail as pollinators. Like this iridescent beetle …

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… and this cheeky little fellow I dubbed “Mister Mephistopheles.”

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Although Mister Meph looked sleek from a distance, upon closer inspection I saw he was covered with tiny hairs to better collect the pollen.

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By now it was hotter than Hades and I was redder than Mephistopheles himself, so I headed home. That’s when I got the updated weather forecast:

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If you don’t talk Minnesotan, this means “We’re all going to perish in an apocalypse of hail, wind, and maybe a few tornadoes.” And soon enough, I believed it as the sky turned an ominous shade of bluish-green.

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Then the wind started, and the rain. (You can watch the video on Facebook  for an “immersive” experience with a shocking ending. Ha ha.)

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It wasn’t until the next morning, though, that I saw the extent of the damage. The sidewalks were littered with leaves and bits of bark, and trees blocked several streets.

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In one spot, sparks from downed power lines had even caused a small fire.

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My mind turned to the little creatures I’d photographed only 16 hours earlier. Had any of them survived? As if on cue, a neighbor’s garden caught my attention. I was relieved (and surprised) to note that even the most delicate flowers were unscathed.

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Then I spotted an eastern cottontail rabbit: She was a bit bedraggled, but none the worse for wear.

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And while this little fellow looked perplexed by his new split-level squirrel condo, he too seemed otherwise unfazed.

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By the end of my walk, the only creature I was worried about was my clueless neighbor.

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Although I admired his skill in lifting the fire tape above his car as he circumnavigated the fallen tree, I also couldn’t help cringing.

“Did you notice you just drove over a bunch of power lines?” I asked him. “Oh really?” he replied. “Oops. But that sure was one helluva storm …”

In the end, no tornadoes materialized in the Twin Cities — but there was widespread wind damage, and five days later the clean-up continues in some neighborhoods.

Like I said: It’s never boring here!


It’s been a terrible week, full of senseless and tragic killings. A few of them happened in the United States — one of them in my home state. I can picture the spot where Philando Castile was shot; I’ve driven past it many times.

But what can I add that hasn’t already been said? I have no words to describe how heartbroken I feel for Phil, his friends, and his family — or for the police officer who shot him. And anyway, my heartbreak is useless.

I’m trying not to surrender to hopelessness, though. I’m trying to remember that the good people (whether in uniform or not) far outnumber the bad. I’m trying to believe that the week’s tragic events will somehow spur positive change. And I’m daring to hope that my fellow Americans will weigh their reaction — and that they’ll choose love, wisdom, and compassion.

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In Minnesota we have two seasons: Winter, and road construction.

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Welcome to Minnesota. Enjoy our orange cones!

But sandwiched between them every year is one single, glorious day we call “summer.” Summer really does feel that fleeting here, perhaps because the winters are so memorable.

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Proof that Mother Nature is trying to kill you.
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This is my neighbor Norine, casually stopping by to say hello.

But on that rare day when the prairie grasses sway in the breeze like an inland ocean and the sky turns a deep cerulean blue, I forgive nature for the months I’ve spent as a purple popsicle.

Today was one of those rare and glorious days.

I’d made plans to spend the morning with my friend Carol, who lives near the town of Stillwater. She knows all the meandering back roads and scenic spots — including this public dock on the St. Croix river.

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Carol also has a great eye for architecture, though, and today she gave me a tour of the Jackson Meadow community in nearby Marine on St. Croix.

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Part of the idea behind the development is harmony with nature, so the yards and public grounds are planted with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. I loved how you could hear birds everywhere, and the buzzing of bees.

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The light was so intense that the colors almost looked fake.

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But Carol was there; she can vouch for me.

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And I can vouch for the fact that there’s no better way to spend the rare Minnesota summer day than with a dear friend. Thank you, Carol.


I may have emitted an involuntary little squeal last month when I happened across this scene in Paris: a Citroën deux-chevaux in front of the Place des Vosges. Could it get any more classic?

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But that wasn’t the first frame I shot.

My first frame was an unimaginative, wide-angle snapshot. I take a lot of these as rough drafts, because sometimes I’ll notice things in a photo I didn’t see with my eyes.

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To capture as timeless an image as possible, I decided to keep these distractions out of the frame. And that meant trying different approaches.

This one’s OK, I guess — though the Place des Vosges is completely absent. Next!

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And while this shop-window reflection shows all of my intended elements, it’s not really about the car or the place. Next!

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Then I tried to squeeze the full car and façade into the frame, but the composition was a little off. And anyway, now there was a SCOOTER in my frame. Aaarghhh. Next!

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So I approached it from an angle …

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… and knelt on the ground …

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… and moved in closer …

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… aaaand maybe a little too close …

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… before I noticed the time, and ended up running through the streets of Paris like a deranged person.

I almost missed my breakfast date, but at least I got my shot. And I must say I like it even better in black and white!

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The moral of the story is that, while Photoshop can be useful for cloning out unwanted elements from a photo, sometimes the best approach is still to use your feet.

 

 

 

 


I take a lot of crap about my note-taking. Constant scribbling is so central to my persona, in fact, that one colleague recently expressed concern during a meeting when I wasn’t taking notes. “I forgot my pen,” I shrugged.

Here’s the thing: I have a terrible memory — so if I don’t write it down I’ll probably forget it. My notes help me remember. (In fact, research shows the physical act of writing itself seems to help us remember.)

But the scribbling hadn’t crossed into my personal life until this spring, when I went to New Orleans with my husband and our friends Liz and James. I expected our days to be so full of sightseeing that I left the laptop at home, and instead brought a little journal so I could jot a few notes on the fly.

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I ended up filling the entire notebook.

I loved that it weighed nothing, fit in my purse, and that I could whip it out in an instant — no booting-up or internet required. I also loved that the quality of my handwriting itself reflected how I was feeling. But most of all, I loved the tactile experience of putting pen to paper.

We’ll skip over the part where I develop a full-on obsession with that tactile experience, and start making my own notebooks out of onionskin paper — or the bit in which I dig out an old fountain pen, retrofit it with a super-fine Japanese nib, and try a parade of inks that leak, dribble, and sputter until I’m a literal ink-stained wretch.

The important thing is that soon I had the pen and notebook of my tactile-experience dreams … and I was writing reams. I don’t know how many pages exactly, but certainly 200 in the past three months.

Over the past three months my hand-writing habit has helped me grieve a dear friend, rediscover sketching, and mark a family milestone.

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This is “sketching.” Thankfully, the family milestone featured far fewer insects.

My trusty pen and notebook have also helped me reconnect with a writing process I’d long since forgotten: Sit down. Think. Write.

It may sound simple, but the ripple effects have been profound.

I’ve become better at focusing since I started writing by hand. Partly it’s because hand-writing takes more time and energy than typing, so I’m motivated to be concise. But it also forces me to slow down (since my thoughts can only flow as freely as my hand does). In this way, writing has again become a form of meditation for me.

Here’s one of those particularly meditative moments — the start of a pilgrimage — which I stumbled onto in Paris last month:

I awoke at 6 a.m. to what sounded like a manif [protest]: One man speaking short phrases into a bullhorn, and the murmurs of a crowd. I made a mental note as I got dressed. “Avoid the Hôtel de Ville.”

My intended destination was the Marché de la Philatelie, which the TimeOut guide said opened at 8 a.m. But I was distracted on my way to the Métro by the throngs of people milling about on the sidewalks. The [Quai Montebello] was choked with parked cars.

The crowd grew thicker still as I approached Notre Dame, where two guys were guarding the entrance to the parvis [courtyard]. “C’est pourquoi ?” I asked. “It’s the beginning of the pilgrimage to Chartres,” one guy replied. “May I pass, to get to the Métro ?” I asked. They nodded and let me in.

But of course I dawdled and watched and took photos. Most of the pilgrims were kids, dressed in matching outfits according to their affiliations: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Germans, school groups …

The main, central doors of the cathedral were open to welcome them. As they began their procession, the sound of the majestic organ burst through and subdued the bullhorn and the murmuring and the sounds of traffic. And as if by instinct — of maybe generations of conditioning — the crowd responded in song.

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I’ll be back soon with some more of these stories. Thank you for stopping by, and for taking the time to read.

 


“You’re going to Paris again?” The annoyance is palpable when friends ask that — and it’s a fair question. There are so many beautiful places in the world, so many interesting cities besides Paris. “Don’t you get bored, seeing the same stuff?”

I’m always tempted to reply:

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This quote came to mind last month in Paris’ Place des Vosges. I love this enclosed square both for its historical significance and its beauty, but I’ve explored it only in passing.

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What this means photographically is that I’ve shot only what immediately grabbed my attention each time. Looking back, I’m struck by how differently I’ve “seen” the same place during those visits.

2007

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2008

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2010

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2011

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In this case I wish I could have a “do-over.” (Poor pigeon!)

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2012

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2013

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2016

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There are no profound lessons here, save one: To fully capture the Place des Vosges, I think I will always need to go back at least one more time.


It all started with an old record. Jalal Aro wanted to hear it, but couldn’t — not without the right machine. The quest to find that machine sparked a love affair that has bloomed into a business, and one of Paris’ most fascinating private museums.

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I visited Jalal recently with my friend Des, author of the marvelous Soundlandscapes blog. As we walked along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, Des pointed to a succession of shops devoted entirely to musical instruments and sound recording.

It was a fitting location, Des explained, because this used to be one of Paris’ biggest entertainment districts. Looking at this mainly commercial street I struggled to imagine it full of cabarets and theaters, music spilling into the streets. But a quick Wikipedia search confirmed the boulevard’s pedigree: It was home to Rodolphe Salis’ famous Chat Noir cabaret, among many others.

Théophile-Alexandre_Steinlen_-_Tournée_du_Chat_Noir_de_Rodolphe_Salis_(Tour_of_Rodolphe_Salis'_Chat_Noir)_-_Google_Art_Project
Théophile Steinlein’s original advertising poster for the cabaret, via Wikipedia.

I felt a twinge of nostalgia when I considered how much Montmarte has changed since those wild and heady artistic days. But that colorful past hasn’t entirely vanished, I soon discovered: It’s still very much alive again inside Jalal’s Phonogalerie shop.

At first glance it looked a bit jumbled, as if I’d stumbled into someone’s attic.

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But after a moment a sense of order emerged. One room contained shelves full of records, all alphabetized in neat rows. Other shelves housed antique cylinders, while another room seemed devoted almost entirely to amplification horns. Amid it all were dozens of old recorders and players of various vintages.

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I asked Jalal where he got these old machines. “Many from collectors,” he said. Collections are being broken up as a new generation inherits them and doesn’t know what to do with them. A few phonographs end up in flea markets; others at auction.

“And what do you do with all these machines?” I wondered. Some he lovingly restores to their original condition for sale or display in his museum. Others he rents out as film props, Jalal said. (You can spot a couple of Jalal’s machines in Midnight in Paris and Inglorious Basterds.)

“But for me it’s not just about the machine,” he added. “It’s about the complete experience.” That means also listening to the music, as well as collecting the posters and memorabilia from the earliest years of recorded sound.

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You can have that “complete experience” for yourself right around the corner from Jalal’s shop, in the Phono Museum. Here you’ll find some of the best specimens Jalal has collected and restored from every era — in total, more than 250 machines representing 140 years of recorded sound. AND EVERY SINGLE DEVICE WORKS.

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Looking at the sheer variety and complexity of the machines, it boggled my mind that Jalal would know how to fix them all. The ingenuity of some of these devices was dazzling!

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For institutions and individuals alike, the early phonographs represented a significant investment — so they were crafted to last, with the same standards you’d expect of fine furniture. Many were outright works of art.

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But the real thrill for me happened when Jalal’s wife Charlotte fired up the first machine — a double-needled contraption intended for use in a music hall. I smiled when I imagined couples, dressed in their Sunday best, dancing to this frenetic music. It must have seemed like magic at the time.

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It still seems like magic, in fact. It’s magic to be able to hear some of the first sounds ever recorded on an original Graphophone.

Or to hear music amplified on a paper speaker.

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Or to listen to an original recording of Enrico Caruso’s voice. This last one moved me particularly after Charlotte explained how the recording had been made: Caruso had literally leaned into a cone that captured the vibrations and translated them into grooves on a disc. Only a few copies could be made during each session, so he had to sing the same song over and over to mass-produce discs.

In all, he made some 260 commercially released recordings between 1900 and 1920, to such success that he became one of the first global musical celebrities. And all of this history was encapsulated in this single, shining moment:

I could go on about the edible chocolate records …

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… and the thrill of seeing the RCA Victor dog “live”…

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… and the cool neon jukebox …

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… and the world’s first talking doll. All of which still work!

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But instead I’ll suggest that if you’re ever in Paris, you visit the museum for yourself. Seeing — and hearing — so many of these machines together is a one-of-a-kind experience, and not to be missed. It truly does transport you back to an era when music was magic.

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The man behind the magic: Jalal, right, shows a museum visitor how one of Edison’s original batteries worked.

One final note: The Phono Museum is self-funded, so its existence depends on admission fees and donations. If you can’t go but would still like to contribute, you can do so here.

My enormous thanks go out to Des for arranging my visit, and to Jalal and Charlotte for their kind hospitality.

IF YOU GO:

Phono Galerie
10, rue Lallier, 75009 Paris
Open Thursday through Saturday, 2 – 8 p.m.

Phono Museum
53, boulevard de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris
Open Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, 2 – 6 p.m.
Saturday 2 – 7 p.m.
Concerts on first Sunday of the month, open 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

“Sound tour” admission is 10€ for adults, 5€ for children ages 6 – 15 (under 6 is free).
Contact the museum for special group rates.

MORE, FOR MUSIC FANS:

In keeping with Montmartre’s live music tradition, Jalal has also begun organizing concerts at the museum on the first Sunday of each month. See who’s playing next.

Are you a collector, or a music fan? See what’s available for purchase at the Phono Galerie shop.

Jalal has written a brief history of recorded sound (in French), which you can read here.


Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. — a day to remember and honor those we’ve lost to the senseless tragedy that is war. Here’s one story, about a distant relative, I first published in 2014. May Doug and his sacrifice never be forgotten.

On September 27 1942, Douglas Albert Munro sacrificed his life in the Second Battle of the Matanikau on Guadalcanal.

MONRO - FOR RELEASE

A Signalman First Class in the U.S. Coast Guard, Doug was in charge of a detachment of 24 boats that landed some 500 U.S. Marines on Point Cruz, along the Matanikau river on Guadalcanal.

But almost immediately after he dropped off the Marines and returned his boats to their assigned position, he learned that conditions ashore were different from what had been anticipated: The Marines were seriously outnumbered and needed to be extracted.

Doug volunteered for the job. Under heavy enemy fire, he led five boats to shore and began to evacuate the men on the beach. But complications arose when a few Marines still remained, and Doug realized they were in grave danger.

He placed his boat directly in front of the enemy to cover the remaining Marines as they headed for the rescue vessels. His shipmate Ray Evans remembers that

Doug was facing forward, and I was standing up by the coxswain looking back. I saw this line of waterspouts coming across the water, and I yelled at Doug to get down, but he couldn’t hear me over the engine noise, and it hit him. It was one burst of fire. And that’s how he died. That’s how it happened.

Doug’s last words were, “Did they get off?”

When he was told that all of the 500-plus Marines had been safely evacuated, Doug smiled broadly and then died.

I first heard this story during the 2010 [Scottish] Clan Munro Association gathering, where we attended a ceremony at the Washington State Capitol to honor Douglas Munro.

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But it wasn’t until later that I learned my family’s connection to Doug.

In late September 1942, the phone rang at my grandparents’ house in San Pedro, California. The caller was a U.S. Navy signalman who said he was shipping out the next day, and wanted to spend the evening with family. But because he couldn’t be with his parents in Washington state, he’d looked up the nearest Munros in the phone book.

My father was only six years old then, but he still remembers the polite and affable fellow who joined my grandparents for dinner. Only many years later did my father learn that this young man would go on to rescue 500 Marines — and to be the only U.S. Coast Guard member ever to receive the Medal of Honor (posthumously).

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Doug was only one of untold thousands who selflessly sacrificed their lives to save others, of course. But his story is especially touching to me because of how deep an impression his visit made on my father more than 70 years ago.

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Want to know more about Douglas Albert Munro? I recommend this 30-minute video documentary, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s wonderful archive of photos and documents.

U.S. Navy Press Release Regarding the Combat Death of Douglas Mu




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