Thursday, July 10, 2014

SOME THINGS I LOVE









I’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of we decided on Emporia as a place to retire. We’d gotten fed up with the corporate grind of Memphis and decided it was time to begin living a sensible life. After ruling out Florida (too many retirees wearing seersucker for our tastes) and Taos, New Mexico (too new age), we sank our roots down here.

Nancy wasn’t so sure of Emporia at first. In her mind, Emporia had seen better days back in the 70’s when she was attending Emporia State. But once we plunked the money down for our home/money pit, she was fine.  I think it was the challenge of making something beautiful out of nothing.

That was fifteen years ago and we’re still here, still hanging in.

There’s a lot I love about Emporia. I love sitting on my front porch in the evening and saying “Hi” to neighbors as they pass by. I love being part of a gritty, non-traditional church. I love the comfortable, protected feeling I get when I come home from Kansas City and see that Taliban vintage tank guarding exit 130. I love long morning walks with Nancy. And, I love the vastness of the Flint Hills and the sense of smallness I feel whenever I have the opportunity to stop at some strategic point on the road and ponder my place in this vast universe.

Several years ago, on my way to Wichita, I stopped and penned a bit of metered prose that expressed why I love the Flint Hills and the life Nancy and I share here. I’ll close this column with those words:

It’s the cusp of dawn.  I’m chasing Orion’s Belt and bull-haulers down the Kansas Turnpike. At mile marker 109, about a furlong or two south of the cattle pens, I stop.

The occasional rush of southbound traffic breaks the dawn silence.  Like a general poised in his appointed place, I review the early morning parade.  Saints and scoundrels, gospel singers and politicians, truckers, ranchers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, mothers, fathers, children, all pass by.  Problems and opportunities wind their way down the highway with them.

I touch the highway sign.  Mile marker 109.  I feel the bits of rust creeping up on the metal.  It’s man-made, temporal, placed on the edge of the eternal.  It speaks.  “This is where you are.”  It speaks of commerce and progress passing by.  It speaks of cattle and concept drawings on their journeys past a solitary milepost planted on the edge of eternity.

I turn, take a step, and cast my gaze across the prairie.  Like the storied astronaut of my youth, that one small step transports me from one world to another.  Thoughts pass by.  Some pass quietly, humming like the Toyotas and Fords on the highway.  Others I hear in the distance.  Their low, grinding hums become roars as they draw near, like the Peterbilts and Kenworths hauling their precious cargoes from Chicago to Dallas or the Twin Cities to San Antonio.

While the darkness has not yet surrendered to the day, there are hints of color along the rim of the eastern sky.  I sense that they carry the faint whisper of an announcement of the millennium to come.  The ageless ritual proceeds, moment by moment.  Light overcomes the darkness.  The unbroken sky and the endless sea of grass now join together in a hymn of praise.  The morning breeze caresses the tallgrass.  The blades of grass, in turn, wave gently to and fro, worshippers caught up in the glory of this moment.

Thoughts glide effortlessly through the air, then stop to gently kiss the earth.  The earth gratefully receives the kiss from above and pleads, “Maranatha…..Maranatha.” 

A hawk circles above, wings outstretched, reaching for an unseen spire.  As he circles, the dawn sun touches him, revealing his priestly robes and eyes of fire. 

I sense that I’ve entered a great cathedral.  I’m overwhelmed by my own smallness.  I fear.  The hawk descends slowly, gracefully and speaks.  “You are indeed small.  But, fear not.  You’re known…..You’re known.  This is where you are.  Mile marker 109.  This is the place where the line between now and forever is drawn.  Here you own nothing, but are given the grace to be a part of everything.  The language of the world you left is ownership.  The language here is stewardship.  This is the place where moth and rust do not corrupt.” 

His appointed ministry complete, he now lays hold of the morning currents and moves effortlessly off to the east.

I feel the warmth of a tear as it drifts slowly down my cheek.  My epiphany’s complete.  I turn back and take another small step, returning to the world I left moments before.  I take my place in line with my fellow travelers, the builders and dreamers, the movers and shakers, the commerce and the concepts.  Our daily procession has taken us past this sacred place…..mile marker 109.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

THAT SINKING FEELING









The news coming out Middle-East is painful to watch. As I watched the C.B.S. Evening News last night, I was stunned by what I saw. And Islamic terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. The swiftness of their success was mind-numbing, but even more mind-numbing was the complete collapse of the Iraqi army. As of this writing, ISIS, armed with captured military hardware and hundreds of millions of dollars looted from banks, has vowed to march to Baghdad.

It brought back bitter memories of April, 1975 and another catastrophe.

When I arrived in Vietnam during the fall of 1965, there were less than 100,000 U.S. troops in country. When I left in 1966 there were over 200,000. By the end of the war, there were over a half a million.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pledged “we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” When he signed the Paris Peace Accord on January 23, 1973, he declared that America had won “peace with honor.”

As I watched the reports of North Vietnamese tanks advancing south toward Saigon, with the remnants of South Vietnam’s rag-tag army fleeing ahead of them, my heart sank. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. “How could this be?” “How could it all come to this?” “How could this be considered peace with honor?”

Within days, North Vietnamese tanks were rumbling through Saigon’s wide boulevards. South Vietnamese loyalists were desperately climbing the U.S. embassy walls, hoping to escape the Communist onslaught. Then, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter and the last Americans left Vietnam. The war was over.

For months after the fall of Saigon, thousands of desperate South Vietnamese civilians boarded flimsy junks and cast themselves out into the South China Sea. Some were rescued. Many died at sea.

My memories of the fall of Saigon go back even further, to 1965 and 1966. The human memory can retain powerful sights and sounds. I can still feel Vietnam’s oppressive humidity and smell the stench of death that hovered over my body like grave clothes. Once in a while I can hear Charley Bock, our squadron court jester, plunking away on an old beat up guitar and howling, ‘The money makers are makin’ more money all the time,” while the rest of us hooted and applauded in response. “Give ‘em hell, Charlie…give ‘em hell, buddy!” I can still see images of the 5 ton army cargo trucks carrying stacks of metal caskets and the boots of fallen Americans to a warehouse at Tan Son Nhut. As was our custom, we’d salute in homage to our fallen brothers in arms as the trucks rolled by. My daily duties would take me past the base mortuary. I remember once seeing one of the morticians standing next to the mortuary door, vomiting profusely. I remember the strange, beautiful orange glow of the napalm and the magnesium flares that lit up the night sky. I sometimes dream of listening to the kettle drum-like thumps of bombs from B-52’s raining down on Viet Cong positions to our north.

One night years after the fall of Saigon I penned a crude sonnet to commemorate the pain of loss so many of us who served in Vietnam felt. The last three lines, a few lines past the turn, went like this:
“Oh Saigon, bitter Saigon, please restore my youth unseen
For I’ve cast my life as pearls before the swine
Whose the dying now, oh Saigon, yours or mine?”

There are 58,286 names inscribed on a black granite wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve occasionally wondered how they would have felt about “peace with honor,” had they lived to see North Vietnamese tanks rumbling through the streets of Saigon.

Vietnam had its signature slogan. Iraq has also had its share – the “mission accomplished” banner, Joe Biden’s 2009 pronouncement that Iraq could be “one of the great achievements” of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the President’s declaration that we were leaving a democratic, stable Iraq.

One of the profound tragedies that came out of Vietnam and Iraq is that the sacrifice so many made in the cause of freedom was undone by the incompetence and the empty political slogans of our leaders.

I wonder how the brave men who fought house to house in order to liberate Fallujah or those who fought at Basra, Najaf, Mosul, and the Karbala Gap must now feel as they watch ISIS marching toward Baghdad in captured American tanks and Humvees. Do they see it as one of the administration’s “great achievements?”  Are their hearts weighed down by grief? How deep is the pain of loss they must feel?

My painful memories of the fall of Saigon still linger as I watch the tragedy of Iraq unfolding and I ask myself. “Are there new sonnets on the horizon for the veterans of Iraq?”

Probably so.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

LESSONS IN HONOR







Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor
          - British poet James Addison




At the Sunday morning service before Memorial Day there was a brief ceremony honoring veterans for their service. Our music team led the congregation in singing “God Bless America” and the American flag was presented. Our pastor then asked all veterans to stand to be recognized. It was a kind gesture, but I felt a bit awkward about it. Nancy saw this and prodded me to stand.

Why the awkwardness? First, because I believe the altar is solely God’s domain.  I’m a loyal citizen and always will be, but I believe there are obligations that are even higher than those conferred on me by citizenship. My faith obliges me to be a good citizen, but there are times when my faith requires me to listen to a Higher Voice.

That doesn’t put me at odds with my country.  I’m very fortunate to live in a country where my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are deemed to be God-given, unalienable rights. I’m glad our Founders had the wisdom to enshrine our most important rights, particularly our right to freely “exercise” our respective religious faiths. It took considerable wisdom and courage for them to do so. Allowing a nation’s citizens to practice their beliefs freely can sometimes be dangerous to entrenched political interests. That freedom gives us all the right to say, “No! That’s powerful stuff.  

I was awkward for a second reason. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 8 ½ years. I did my duty. I served “honorably.” I went where I was told to go. I did overseas tours of duty in Panama, Newfoundland¸ and Vietnam.  I obeyed the orders of my superiors to the best of my ability. But, I bear no lasting scars of war. I never won a Purple Heart. I simply did my duty, that’s all. I left the Air Force in 1969. I didn’t expect a lot in return. I went to college and graduate school, thanks to G.I. Bill education benefits I’d earned for my service. I bought my first home with a V.A. loan, another earned benefit for my service. Until a few years ago I’d never claimed any medical benefits for my service. Now, I get an annual physical, flu shots, and low cost medications. I’m also entitled to a limited number of medical procedures.

I don’t get to the Topeka V.A. center often, but when I do I always make it a point to wander around and see how my fellow veterans are doing. I’d like to be the bearer of better news, but that wouldn’t be true. Many of them bear the physical scars of their service. There’s an over-abundance of artificial limbs. Some walk with canes; some sit in wheelchairs. Some tremble uncontrollably. Many of them shuffle from place to place with faraway, haunted looks in their eyes. I suspect it’s because the memories of the past are so painful they refuse to go away even after forty, fifty years, or seventy years.

I get the chance to occasionally talk with them. They sometimes complain (it’s the G.I.’s privilege), but I’ve never heard one ever say he wouldn’t serve again. They never ask for much. They just want to be treated with dignity and respect.

You’d think that would be easy for a grateful nation to do. But, tragically, it’s not. We’ve all read the horror stories of secret waiting lists, bonuses for bureaucrats, and veterans dying because they couldn’t get an appointment to see a doctor.

The more I think about it, the more my blood boils. I’m angry. I’m not angry for myself. I’m doing fine. I’m angry for my fellow veterans. I’m angry with the entire chain of command, including our Commander in Chief.

The injury inflicted on our veterans has been bad enough, but events of the past week have added insult to that injury. Like most veterans, I’m glad that Bowe Bergdahl has been repatriated. Perhaps now he’ll come home and start to learn the true meaning of honorable service.

But, Bowe Bergdahl is only the tip of the iceberg.  When an administration becomes so cynical that it conducts a Rose Garden news conference with Bergdahl’s family and then parades Susan Rice before the media with the proclamation that Bergdahl has served with “honor and distinction,” it’s a slap in the face of every veteran waiting in a long, long line for treatment.  It’s a slap in the face to all those who currently serve and for those who searched for Bergdahl. It’s a slap in the face to those who died looking for him. It’s an insult to their families.

For me, the worst part of this scandal is that it appears the President did it all for the optics, hoping that the return of Bowe Bergdahl would make the V.A. scandal magically disappear. Those currently serving and the veterans who served before them deserve far better.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

HOPE FOR THE VAST WASTELAND









About the only American-made TV shows Nancy and I watch these days are the ones that aren’t dependent on good writing or compelling stories. Every once in a while we try to test the waters, but we’ve learned that the search for good, solid American made drama is like careening through a field full of Don Quixote’s windmills. As Newton Minnow put it over fifty years ago, television is “a vast wasteland.”

Thankfully, I’m not at the point of despair. The British have rescued me.

About four years ago, Nancy kept prodding me to watch a P.B.S. series called Lark Rise to Candleford. I resisted. I grew up immersed in muscular westerns like Shane and High Noon and it seemed to me that a British drama would move too slowly for me. But, once I started watching I was hooked. The episodes, based on Flora Thompson’s trilogy about life in two adjacent British villages during the Victorian/Edwardian eras, focused on human interaction, family, faith, and love. The dialogue was simple, yet also profound. There was no violence. The American obsession with sex was refreshingly absent.

It was the beginning of what has become a very satisfying journey. After the last episode of Lark Rise to Candleford aired a couple of years ago, I graduated to Downton Abbey. I was about to despair when Downton Abbey’s season ended. But, the British rescued me again; with a series titled Call the Midwife.

As it was with Lark Rise to Candleford, Call the Midwife has wrapped love, beauty, simplicity, grace, and the pains of everyday life¸ into exquisitely crafted packages that have not only engaged my mind, but also my gut.

The series is based on British author Jennifer Worth’s trilogy about her experiences during the 1950’s as a midwife at Nonnatus House, a convent/care center situated on London’s east end. The cast is ensemble, which means that the audience can focus on the story. While I’ve grown to admire each of the characters, my favorite has become Sister Monica Joan. She’s the oldest of the nuns at Nonnatus House. At times she’s scatter-brained, but there are times when she’s the focal point of wisdom for the midwives and her fellow nuns. She’s suffering from dementia, but somehow manages occasional bursts of creativity. One minute you’ll hear her muttering incoherently. Then, at the perfect moment, wisdom comes flowing out in torrents. In a recent episode, one of the midwives asks her if she took up the nun’s life because she loved the work. “Of course not,” she snapped.  “Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through His grace come to love His people.”  

Each episode revolves around the miracles of birth and the crises that often come with them. As with the cast, I’ve loved all the stories, but there’s one in particular that reached deeper into my gut than I thought was possible. It’s the story of an expectant mother and her fisherman husband. She’s already lost one child and the fear of losing another weighs on her like a funeral shroud. The child is born and all seems to be well. But the mother develops a postpartum psychosis, believing that the only way for her to protect the child is to commit suicide and take the child with her. After a harrowing rescue, the young mother is institutionalized. The doctors decide that the only cure for her is shock treatment. As the scene depicting the treatments began to unfold I wanted to turn away, but couldn’t. I began to sob uncontrollably, thinking about the ordeal my mother went through after my father died. The weight of being the sole care-giver for three children, compounded by the fact that she was barely literate, was too much for her. She had a complete nervous breakdown. For almost two years the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tinkered with her. The shock treatments took an enormous toll. On the day she was discharged from the hospital she weighed less than 80 pounds.

For the rest of her life, she fought with every ounce of strength she could muster to keep her family together

I’ve occasionally asked myself how or why my mother could endure such pain.

In the episode’s final moments the young mother is seen at home with her child and husband. The long road to reconciliation has begun. A voice-over concludes, “It’s love that gives us the strength to endure the pains that life often dishes out.”

Love truly is the only answer that makes sense.

Newton Minnow was right. When television is bad, it’s a vast wasteland. But, when it’s really good it gets into your gut and teaches you what it means to be fully human.

I’m grateful to the cast of Call the Midwife for that wonderful lesson.