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After Remembering, Memorial Day is for Fun

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All Things Considered reports on some of the more unusual events taking place around the country on this Memorial Day. Melissa Block talks with Gwen Gillen, sculptor of a bust of Michelle Witmer. She was a specialist in the Wisconsin National Guard killed in action in Iraq. She also speaks with people celebrating the holiday in California, Iowa and Massachusetts.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today Wisconsin's Department of Military Affairs dedicated a memorial to the 38 Wisconsin citizens who've died in military service since 9/11. Part of that memorial is a bronze bust of Army National Guard Specialist Michelle Witmer. Witmer and her two sisters were serving with the Wisconsin National Guard in Iraq when Michelle was killed in an attack on her Humvee in April of last year. She became the first woman in the history of the National Guard to be killed in combat and the first Wisconsin National Guard member to be killed in combat since World War II. Sculptor Gwendolyn Gillen created the bust of Michelle Witmer.

Ms. GWENDOLYN GILLEN (Sculptor): I had this sort of idea of her being a--this proud young woman with a serious expression on her face. And that all changed when I met her family and was given just a ton of photographs of her, both from home and from Iraq. She was constantly smiling. She had this great toothy smile that was just--you know, you just sort of melted away.

BLOCK: I guess that would be a challenge when you get a job like this? How martial do you make them...

Ms. GILLEN: Well, I think...

BLOCK: ...and how human a face do you put on them?

Ms. GILLEN: You figure there's so many military sculptures out there, and they all have the sort of same feeling to them as far as being honorable, country, duty, serious. I mean, it's not a light subject, but you don't see many of them smiling. And it's not made up something--it's not something--`Well, I want to put a smile on her.' She constantly had a smile on her. You've got young people that are dying in this war, and young people don't go around with these serious expressions on their face.

BLOCK: What did her family say about the expression that you gave her?

Ms. GILLEN: They're very pleased because--and they know her. They know what she was like, and that was her. That was Michelle. So I was very happy that that happened that way because then I was comfortable with it. When I found what she was really like, it made it much easier to work, much easier to work on. It wasn't such a sad thing to work on because it was such a happy face.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Gillen, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. GILLEN: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Gwendolyn Gillen's bust of Michelle Witmer was unveiled today at the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs in Madison.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: There are, of course, many ways of marking Memorial Day. It's a time both to honor the war dead and also to come together for community fun. We're going to hear about a few celebrations now around the country, and we start on the water. This year marks the 34th sailing of the Figawi race, a regatta between Hyannis, Massachusetts, and the island of Nantucket and back. This morning we reached Charlie McLaughlin by cell phone on his 36-foot sloop Allura.

Mr. CHARLIE McLAUGHLIN (Sailor): We are about a mile and a half north of Nantucket Harbor. We're heading back towards the mainland of Cape Cod. Absolutely beautiful day. We've got Senator Ted Kennedy about a half a mile to the east of us.

BLOCK: He's gaining on you?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: No. We're leaving him behind. This thing is being driven by a bunch of Republicans, so it--so we're moving along nicely and quickly.

BLOCK: And how long do you figure it will take before you get back to Hyannis?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: We're guessing probably about three hours. It's about a 22-mile course. We're banking through the water at about 6 1/2 miles an hour.

BLOCK: Are you a contender to win this race?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: As I'm looking around for this particular leg, we will be in the running certainly. We won it last year going over to Nantucket. We did not do as well this year. So another view I'm just looking at--we've got the old 12-meter sailboat out of Newport, American Eagle, right now just going through the fleet, almost like a hot knife through butter. It's an absolutely beautiful sight.

BLOCK: Why is this race called the Figawi?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: It had to do with the fact that it started off in heavy fog, and people couldn't find out where they were, so you can draw the conclusions from there.

BLOCK: OK. Well, we'll try to deconstruct that in the privacy of our own homes. Thanks so much.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. Right.

BLOCK: Well, enjoy the race. It sounds like a great day to be on the water.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: Thank you now. Bye-bye.

BLOCK: Charlie McLaughlin talking with us from his boat, Allura, in the midst of the Figawi race off the Nantucket coast.

In Northern California, a race of a different sort altogether. It's the three-day Great Arcata to Ferndale Grand Championship Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race, and Randy Frost is the course director.

Randy, I'm out of breath, and I'm not even in the race.

Mr. RANDY FROST (Course director): (Laughs) Well, I'm really impressed that you got the name right and complete.

BLOCK: Thank you, thank you. Well, where are you, and what do you see where you are right now?

Mr. FROST: At the moment I am at the base of Fernbridge, which is the--this year the final length into Ferndale, where the finish line is.

BLOCK: Well, describe these kinetic sculptures. Are there any boundaries to what can qualify here?

Mr. FROST: One, they have to meet highway rules, which, you know, gives you the basic dimensions of height and width. After that they just have to be human-powered and relatively safe. So we're looking at art sculptures that range from--well, really, some of them aren't even artistic. They're--I saw one yesterday out in the bay that was nothing but two-by-fours and empty pastry-filling buckets latched together and then a seat and a bicycle crank and a few wheels. That was about it. Then we get into the big ones, like, oh, about a 25-foot-long giant cat that appears to be quite frightened and will lift its tail and spray at you as it goes by if it's frightened enough.

BLOCK: (Laughs) Don't get too close.

Mr. FROST: No, no, not to that one. Then there--probably the oddest one this year: "Extreme Makeover;" has about seven eyes, three noses, very odd jagged teeth. And nobody gets close to it. Children run behind their parents when it comes by.

BLOCK: Well, what are the prizes here?

Mr. FROST: Trophies. We also have the Dinosaur award for the first person who breaks down after crossing the starting line.

BLOCK: (Laughs)

Mr. FROST: We have Dishonorable Mention and the award everybody wants, Mediocre. The person...

BLOCK: The Mediocre Award.

Mr. FROST: Yes, Mediocre. You know, it's really hard to be dead middle. The person who comes in dead middle in the speed standings wins a car.

BLOCK: A car.

Mr. FROST: Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: That's not bad.

Mr. FROST: This year it's a well-dented and slightly rusted 1982 Toyota Celica. It's actually left over from last year. Last year's winner wouldn't take it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like a great time. Enjoy the rest of the race.

Mr. FROST: Oh, I will. And you have a great Memorial Day.

BLOCK: Randy Frost, course director for the Great Arcata to Ferndale Grand Championship Cross-Country Kinetic Sculpture Race.

And, finally, to the Taste Louisiana Cajun and Zydeco Festival held this weekend at the Amana Colonies outside Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fred Goldman has been burning up the dance floor there. He's a doctor at Children's Hospital at the University of Iowa.

And, Mr. Goldman, I take it when you go Cajun, you take on a different name altogether.

Dr. FRED GOLDMAN (Children's Hospital, University of Iowa): Oh, that's true. I try to sort of go undercover, so I've got to use a stage name. And that's Freddy Fontinau(ph).

BLOCK: That's a good Cajun name.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: You know, I'm a veteran of more than my share of Cajun and Zydeco festivals, and I know that it's not a good festival unless there's just a huge amount of sweating going on.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah. Actually those of us who like to dance, we have to bring out our black shirts and dry fits because it gets very hot out there, and people are sweating and dancing.

BLOCK: And what was the other thing you said? Black shirts and...

Dr. GOLDMAN: Dry fit shirt.

BLOCK: A dry fit shirt.

Dr. GOLDMAN: Dry fit. That means a shirt that dries very quickly. It's like a special polyester. And women don't like kind of grabbing on to you when you feel like a wet fish.

BLOCK: Well, I bet the food is great. What's the longest food line?

Dr. GOLDMAN: Well, the longest food line today looked like it was for the alligator bites, although I think the crawfish was probably--well, actually I think it was the crawfish was the longest line.

BLOCK: Are they boiled crawfish?

Dr. GOLDMAN: They're live-boiled crawfish. I know...

BLOCK: Not live anymore.

Dr. GOLDMAN: ...they boil a thousand pounds a day. And then there's a crawfish-eating contest, where five people get up in front of the whole crowd and try to eat as many crawfish as they can in one minute.

BLOCK: Have you entered yourself?

Dr. GOLDMAN: Well, I needed to give some other people a chance this year, you know. I've won it a couple years in a row, so it really wasn't fair.

BLOCK: How many have you eaten?

Dr. GOLDMAN: I think I...

BLOCK: What's your record number?

Dr. GOLDMAN: ...ate 35 in one minute, and that was about 15 more than the next closest.

BLOCK: That's pretty good. Well, Fred, thanks so much. Enjoy the festival.

Dr. GOLDMAN: OK, Melissa. Thanks.

BLOCK: Fred Goldman at the Taste Louisiana Cajun and Zydeco Festival at the Amana Colonies in Iowa.

(Soundbite of Zydeco music)

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