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Thursday, Jul 10, 2014
Tom Jackson

Military family blooming

Published:

NEWTON, England - Blooming where you are planted is, like most tossed-off admonitions, easier said than done. But for Beth and Lee Sylvester, who consider their house on Grand Boulevard home, summer brings, once more, affirmation to the fields overlooking their current address in the English countryside.

For weeks through spring, the hillside beyond their back door was a waving quilt of sunny rapeseed. Then, with the arrival of the summer solstice, poppies, well, popped, an explosion of blood orange across the seasonal canvas.

The lesson here is the poppies were there all along, of course, but their inching up took patience, persistence and energy.

So it is with the Sylvesters, Beth and Lee, 47 and 49, as well as their four stair-step daughters (ranging in age from 14 to 7): Emily, Juliette, Sabrina and Olivia. Four years into a posting of undetermined length - Lee, twice retired from the U.S. military, is a Department of Defense civilian employee working at a nearby base - the family has made a point not merely of blending in, but of enhancing the local biosphere.

It's not all fish and chips and Victoria sponges, despite settling in an idyllic spot suggesting Milne-meets-Austen. "We're here for a time," Beth says, "and we're going to make the best of it. And if I have to live without Paul Newman's pineapple salsa in exchange for scones, I can do that."

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Going native may be easier for the girls, whose activities are entwined with forces external and inexorable.

Immersed in the local year-round school calendar, they've adopted lilting English accents straight out of "Harry Potter," embraced English sports (Emily excels at rounders, what Lee calls "baseball lite"), and even landed roles in "Sometimes Suicide," a dark but ultimately redemptive 2012 Christmas video by Pink New Dolphins.

By contrast, there is little that is compulsory for the grown-ups, rendering their expanding sphere of influence all the more impressive.

Lee is a member of the Geddington Volunteer Fire Brigade, a men's group that, with the expansion of nearby professional departments, (a) has precious few genuine lifesaving responsibilities and (b) apparently is as hard to join as Augusta National.

The highlight of the group's social calendar is the annual Boxing Day "Squirt," in which GVFB and a rival brigade from the next town suspend a beer keg from a wire over the River Ise and attempt to push it to the other's side using spray from their fire hoses.

"Best of five is about all Queen Eleanor (GVFB's pump truck) can manage," Beth says, "before she overheats."

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All of that makes great fodder for the quarterly tri-village newsletter, which Beth, with a journalism degree from the University of Florida and a handful of years with "Stars and Stripes," took over last summer from the editor/publisher/ad rep who'd run it for 16 years and 125 issues.

Allowing a Yank to assume responsibility for the local news is no small measure of the trust and affection the Sylvesters have cultivated, further demonstrated the morning of July 4 - Independence Day back home - when Beth was greeted by a genial flood of text messages at the rare hoisting of their American flag.

"One said, 'Wouldn't you like to come back into the fold?' " read Beth. "There's plenty of room."

In fact, the grown-wups - at least - concede a bit of homesickness. Even though local supermarkets deliver, Beth misses Publix, especially when you can take what you picked up for an after-work picnic on Green Key Beach, squeezing in a brand new sunset memory before the no-see-'ems begin to swarm.

They also miss good barbecue and driving on the right side of the road and having family nearby, to restore, as Christian Moore, Beth's brother says, "the natural order."

And they miss being able to use their entire house throughout the winter. Except when they're sleeping, from December until the last frost, the Sylvesters seal themselves inside the connecting kitchen and family room of their 600-year-old house, huddled by a Franklin-inspired stove and leaving the rest of the place - including the room where Oliver Cromwell was said to have dined after defeating Charles I in the Battle of Naseby (1645) - to its creaks, groans and, presumably, ghosts. (Search "The Newton haunting.")

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And that, when reassignment comes, possibly to MacDill Air Force Base, is what Lee will miss. "When Americans were celebrating their first Thanksgiving (in 1621)," he says, "this house was already 200 years old. I like that."

He would. A medieval history major at Florida, Lee has used frequent (weeklong) school breaks to take his family prospecting among the English ruins he read about in textbooks.

It's all about having a plan and executing it, a concept that applies equally to expatriates and the resolutely domesticated. Felicitous outcomes rarely just happen, Woody Allen's "90 percent of life" notwithstanding.

Attendance may be mandatory, but committing to action is something else entirely. On that, Henry Percy's example is convenient and illustrative. When Richard III charged Henry Tudor in the 1485 Battle at Bosworth Field, Percy held back, his spectator troops influencing the outcome, the throne and the future of dramatic theater, otherwise Shakespeare may never have written that line about horses and kingdoms.

Genuine accomplishment, then, happens at the margins, emerging as a result of effort, persistence and design.

"You don't want to wake up when you're 45," Sylvester says, "and wonder why you're unhappy, you don't have a job you love, or you're not successful."

Like sudden poppies and perennial American expats, you must bloom where you are planted.

email: tjackson@tampatrib.com

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