For the 51st summer, Westport welcomed United Nations diplomats, staff members and their families. Our jUNe Day guests enjoyed soccer, swimming, tennis, and visits to spots like Earthplace and downtown.
Every year on jUNe Day, flags of visitors’ nations replace the American flags on the Post Road’s Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.
So who was Ruth Steinkraus Cohen?
The founder and — for many years — guiding spirit behind the annual event.
There could be no better tribute — and no finer day for our guests.
Charlie Colasurdo is a Staples High School sophomore. He’s a longtime Wakeman Town Farm volunteer, online features editor for the school newspaper Inklings, and a talented photographer.
Last week I posted a story on Nora Kubach, a Staples grad finishing up a film about Americans whose fathers were killed in action there, and children of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who died in the same war.
Charlie read it, and emailed me — from Vietnam.
That’s where he was spending April break. I invited him to share his unique vacation with “06880” readers when he returned. Here’s what he wrote — along with photographs he took.
I was incredibly fortunate and excited to spend 10 days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. Because I visited a family of expats who had lived there for 5 years, I got to explore and experience Saigon in a very nontraditional way, and to photographically document the people, places and rich culture that the city boasts.
Charlie Colasurdo, and Ho Chi Minh.
Just weeks before I left, I watched “Last Days in Vietnam” in Mr. Drew Coyne’s US History Honors class. The movie showed Saigon at the end of the war, as Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were evacuating from the besieged city. Mr. Coyne and I agreed that revisiting those scenes on the historic avenues of Saigon was an excellent way to connect my trip to what I learned in Westport.
I found the city itself to be stunning — a unique juxtaposition of traditional Chinese, colonial French, and high-rise, modern architecture sprawling over several districts, or “quậns.”
The streets are overrun with motorbikes (almost 6 million!), which makes for interesting street crossing!
Venturing away from the more touristy areas of downtown, we took self-guided walking tours of the crisscrossing alleyways of Chợ Lớn, Saigon’s Chinatown. It’s where the majority of the working-class Saigonese live, away from the noisy main streets. Tucked away down these narrow alleys, vibrant markets sell everything from towers of just-picked coconut, purple basil and mint, and freshly picked mangoes to still-swimming fish to sweet sticky rice balls, which you can buy for 20,000 dong apiece (90 cents). It was a far cry from the Westport Farmers’ Market!
Learning about the Vietnam War from the comfort of Westport, I was never able to get a complete idea of its scale and effects on a country 9,000 miles away. The War Remnants Museum was a necessary but difficult stop, featuring disturbing photo galleries of the atrocities of the war (or as it is referred to there, the “American War”). Despite this one reminder of a darker time, the Vietnamese people I encountered were cheerful and friendly to me as an American, and clearly desired to move on towards a brighter future.
Another highlight of the trip was a photography tour of Saigon’s hidden gems with Tanya Olander, who created the fantastic daily photoblog “Somewhere in Saigon,” featuring street photography throughout the city. My favorite stop was at Tao Dan Park’s “Bird Café,” where Vietnamese hang up songbirds in ornate cages and enjoy the morning songs with a coffee or cigarette.
While there, I discovered how much more a vacation could offer than sitting on a beach or skiing down a mountain. In Saigon I was able to eat like a local, ride motorbikes through the city’s narrow alleys, and meet wonderfully interesting and colorful people, like the market vendors who had very little, and yet nearly always wore smiles.
In 1886, Staples’ 1st graduating class consisted of 6 students — all girls.
All the guys had dropped out. Their families needed them to work on farms.
More than 125 years later, Westport boys still work the land.
Quite a bit has changed, of course. They drive (or are driven) to farms. They have to learn how to farm. And they’ve got an “06880” blog to tell their story.
Charlie Colasurdo is a rising 8th grader at Coleytown Middle School. Here’s what he says about his work at Wakeman Town Farm:
My interest in farms goes back as far as I can think. I always was fascinated by the idea of farm life, even though I live in a suburban town like Westport.
Charlie Colasurdo (right) takes care of younger farmers — and young farm animals.
Since I was 6 I bugged my parents to sign me up for farm camps. I went to places like Sport Hill in Easton all the way up to Shelburne Farms in Vermont, so I could feel like I was part of farm life — feeding chickens, getting into the dirt and learning about everything from heirloom seeds to animal husbandry to organic gardening.
When I turned 10, I heard that Wakeman Town Farm was reopening. I was excited to work in their Junior Apprentice Program. I did a 4th grade farm presentation. From there I was invited to the Board of Finance meeting to speak about why I thought preserving the farm was important.
Shortly after that, I was invited to cut the ribbon at the grand opening at the farm. I was thrilled. I got to meet Mike and Carrie Aitkenhead, the farm stewards, as well as the many people who helped make the farm a possibility. I still know many of them personally.
Wakeman Town Farm thrives today.
I went to many of the workshops offered the first year of Wakeman, like Seed Starting and Chicken Keeping, but in the beginning there were no programs for kids my age. I started a 2-year apprenticeship at Ambler Farm in Wilton, the closest farm I could find, going after school and on Saturdays. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot more about the ups and downs of farming.
Then I heard that Mike and Carrie were removed from their positions as farm stewards…right before I was old enough to work at the farm. I was heartbroken, and wanted to help get the farm back on its feet. My family and I got involved. My mom joined the board and I joined the Middle School Apprentice program in 6th grade.
The first year was incredible. We got Mike and Carrie back by having the 1st Pancake Breakfast. There were 800 people instead of the expected 100. We built from there, with fundraisers, family programs and events.
Charlie Colasurdo photographed these baby lambs at Wakeman Town Farm.
As an apprentice I helped side by side with Mike, doing everything from turning compost to planting and building raised beds. I watched and helped as the farm grew from just some raised beds and a few chickens to a place with 3 large gardens, 16 chickens, a fruit orchard, and so much more. Wakeman even inspired me to get my own farm animals, a flock of 6 heritage ducks we will be using for eggs.
Every week, I look forward to the Apprentice program at Wakeman. A few weeks ago, I rode up to Lyme with Wakeman chair Liz Beller to pick up 2 young sheep, joining the farm’s new pair of goats. What I have taken away from the program is a better respect for our food, our farmers, and our environment, as well as many new friends who share common interests.
Not to brag — well, okay, I will — but I’m pretty good at trivia. I even won a few thousand dollars once on the History Channel’s low-rent version of “Jeopardy.” (It would have been $25,000, but I got tripped up on a question about the Pathfinder mission to Mars. Who knew Nissan sent an SUV into space?)
Yet I would have been humiliated had I been at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History Museum recently. The event was the 14th annual Paleo-Knowledge Bowl, and I am definitely not as smart as 20 teams of 4th through 6th graders.
Especially the Wilton Library team, which included Westporter Charlie Colasurdo. And which won the entire shebang.
The day-long event includes questions about paleontology that Ph.Ds would stumble over. It begins with a written exam — say, “Name the 2 Connecticut dinosaurs known from skeletons that were discovered in a Manchester sandstone quarry in the late 1800s”* — but that’s not even the most fun.
Charlie Colasurdo, with his way-cool trophy. (Photo/Josue Irizarry)
Throughout the day the 20 teams are whittled down to 16, then just 3. Each question is read twice. Team members confer, and announce their answers in front of a live audience.
For the final round this year, a Yale proctor wheeled out a Deinonychus skull. The judge asked why its antorbital fenestra — that’s the skull opening between the eye and nostril, dummies — was particularly large. He read off a battery of possible answers.
Charlie and his teammates conferred. They were excited — because, unlike you and me, they knew that orbital spaces helped the dinosaur see at night.
Still, the team — competing in its 1st-ever Paleo Bowl — was surprised to win the whole shebang.
“We couldn’t believe that all our hard work got us to the final round,” Charlie said, channeling his inner Super Bowl athlete. “Some of the questions were tricky, but our team was really well prepared by Mr. Fennell.”
For the past 5 months Darrell Fennell, a volunteer coach, and his daughter Katherine — along with the Wilton Library staff — coached the team for several hours a week. They explored dinosaurs, fossils, paleobiology, geology and more, through presentations, discussions and demonstrations. There were even field trips to the Peabody.
In addition to a behind-the-scenes peek into Peabody’s vertebrate paleontology collections, the winners walked away with a trophy, family memberships to the Yale Peabody Museum — and a special prize of rare fossils.
After my own experience with the History Channel quiz show, I’ve set my sights on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
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