Two Fathers, Two Sons

May 15th, 2022

There is an old man who comes to the synagogue. He always sits in the back row. He must be in his 80’s, but he is surprisingly vigorous for his age. His face is deeply lined, but it is still strong and alert. He looks like a man who has been though a lot, but he isn’t quite finished with life yet.

I stood near him after the Shabbat service. We were sharing a drink during kiddush. He saw that I was wearing a t-shirt with some writing on it about veterans. The old guy was from Ukraine, and he came to the U.S. many years ago as a refugee. He asked me with his heavy Slavic accent,

“You, you are a veteran?”

“Yeah.”

“What service were you in?”

“I was in the Army, the American Army.”

He nodded gravely, and asked, “So, what you do in Army?”

“I was a helicopter pilot, an aviator.”

The old man nodded approvingly, and said, “My son, he too is a veteran. He went to Soviet radio school, like I did.”

I replied, “My son is a vet. He served in Iraq.”

The old man looked at me and started talking. We weren’t really having a conversation anymore. He wanted, or needed, to tell me a story about something important to him. He just wanted me to listen. He asked me to give him a ride home. As I drove, he spoke about his son.

“My son, he was in the radio school. He graduated with honors. They sent him to a military base in Kyiv in 1981. He would write us letters. Then, no more letters. For three months, we hear nothing from him. No letters. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“We write a letter to his commander. The commander, he writes back that my son is on “secret military assignment”. We don’t know where. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“After six months, we hear from our son. He was in Afghanistan with Soviet Army. He was at radar station. The Muslim fighters, they were shooting rockets at his base. These rockets, back then they come from here, from America. You understand?”

‘Yeah, go ahead.”

“The army have trucks there. The Muslims have put in the ground mines. Not just one or two; they put in many mines. My son was in second truck. The first truck hit a mine. Nothing left of it. Not even metal. Nothing! You understand?”

“Yeah, where do I turn?”

He pointed in my direction, “Make a left here.”

Then he continued, “My son, his truck go over a mine. Big explosion. He is thrown from truck. He is hurt bad, remembers nothing. They fix him in hospital. He got two artificial ribs! You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Soviet Army discharges my son. They just send him away. No pension, no money. Nothing. They need him no more. They just used him.”

I could taste the bitterness in the father’s voice. I told him,

“The Army did the same with my son.”

He asked, “American Army? They do that?’

“Yeah.”

The old man shook his head. He asked me,

“What happened with your son? Was he in Afghanistan?”

“No, he was in Iraq.”

The man nodded, “Yes, you said this before. I remember now. He was in Iraq.”

I continued, “He got hurt. He got shot once. He killed a guy. He stabbed him to death.”

The old man asked me,

“How old is your son?”

“He’s thirty-five.”

The man replied, “My son is sixty-two.”

The father thought for a minute. Then he told me,

“My son, he wanted to be aviator. But the Soviet aviator school did not allow any Jew to come. I told my son that he is wasting his time with tests for that school. They never let him in. Why? Because he is a Jew!”

There had been anger in the old man’s voice. He continued, now sounding sad,

“My son, he went to the radio school, like I did, like my father did. My father was a colonel in the Soviet Army.”

The old guy said, “My son, he has PTSD. Your son too?”

“Yeah.”

“Your son drink a lot?”

“Yeah.”

The old man said, “My son too.”

Then he looked up and said, “That is my house. There. Stop.”

He asked me, “You got card with your name and phone number?”

“No, but I can write it down.”

“Do that.”

I wrote down my contact information, and he then wrote down his.

The man looked at me and said,

“I think we be friends. Not just in the synagogue. You understand? I think we have similar experience. You understand? I think we be friends.”

He shook my hand. He said again,

“You understand?”

“I understand.”

Reading the News

May 13th, 2022

“I read the news today, oh boy…” – John Lennon

Yesterday, among all of the breaking news stories, there was a brief video clip on the Internet showing the Ukrainians blasting a Russian helicopter that was flying over Snake Island on the Black Sea. I was an aviator back in the day, so the video intrigued me. I clicked on it. As I watched the drone blow up the Russian aircraft I thought, “Wow! Good job!”

Later, I thought, “How many Russian soldiers got killed in that attack?”

I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for looking at the video clip. It was like I had been watching porn. I had viewed the killing of several human beings. Granted, I had only seen the helicopter explode, but there had been people on board, certainly the pilots had been. They probably had families. Somebody somewhere would miss them.

How did that video even qualify as news? What could anybody possibly learn from watching it?

I don’t watch the news on TV. I don’t listen to talk radio. I read the news on the Internet, and even then, I do it, with some reluctance. There is no such thing as objective news reporting. There probably never has been.

The coverage of the war in the Ukraine bothers me. The media seem to be nudging us closer and closer to war with Russia. The Russians are consistently portrayed as the bad guys, and for the most part they are. They are the aggressors in this war, and they make no bones about it. However, there are little things that I notice when I read the descriptions of the war that disturb me. When the Russians lose people or weapons, that makes the headlines. Seldom do I read about the Russians killing Ukrainian troops or destroying Ukrainian ordnance. I read article after article about the Russian soldiers refusing orders or sabotaging their own equipment. I never read about low morale with the Ukrainians. According to the news, the Russians seem to be committing war crimes continually. Are the Ukrainians ever involved in atrocities? If so, nobody mentions it.

The media have sucked us into wars in the past. Look at our country’s involvement in the Spanish-American War. Yellow journalism was utilized before that war to increase readership. “Remember the Maine!” was the rallying cry in the Hearst newspapers. The media in 1898 convinced the American public that the Spanish had blown up an American ship in the Havana harbor. The country went in a war frenzy, and suddenly Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were fighting in Cuba. The media at the time convinced us that we were liberating Cuba, but 120 years later, it doesn’t look like that’s what really happened.

I want the Ukrainians to win this war. They are defending their homeland. However, I feel like the media are portraying the Russian soldiers as negatively as possible. Most of these troops are not criminals or monsters. Most of them are ordinary people caught up in events over which they have no control. They are to be pitied, not hated. I don’t want to feel like cheering when I see an image of a Russian tank or helicopter being obliterated by weapons we gave to the Ukrainians. I don’t want more people to die, whether they be Ukrainian or Russian.

When I read the news, I have the suspicion that I am being manipulated. I don’t like that.

Roe Versus Wade

May 10th, 2022

I want to write about abortion, but I am reluctant to so, basically because I am a man. I don’t know what it is like to be pregnant, because I can’t know. By the same token, I cannot know what a woman feels when she gets an abortion. So, whatever I say may seem inaccurate or misguided. That being the case, if you choose not to read this essay, I understand. Go ahead and click on something else.

Thirty-two years ago, my wife developed intense abdominal pains. We went to her gynecologist, and the doctor determined that she had an ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg was growing in her fallopian tube. The physician recommended immediate surgery to remove the embryo. My wife was shocked by the diagnosis, and she wondered if there was a way to save the unborn child. There wasn’t. The doctor told her that if nothing was done, the child would die, and she would die.

My wife had the laparoscopic surgery. It saved her life. Because my wife had the surgery and survived, our daughter was born a little over a year later. Because our daughter was born, my wife and now I have our toddler grandson, Asher, running around the house, simultaneously bringing us blessings and chaos.

My wife had an abortion. It can be argued that the unborn child would have died anyway. It can be argued that, if we had done nothing, my wife would have died along with the baby, and I would have become a widower to care for our oldest son alone. However, we did in fact consciously choose to destroy the fertilized egg.

Even after all these years, we grieve over this event. We would not make a different decision now, even if we could. We did what had to be done. It still hurts. It will always hurt.

When I think about women who consider having an abortion, I think about my wife. I think about the trauma and the sorrow. I think about the years required to have the wounds heal.

I think about having compassion and empathy for suffering that I can never understand.

In Another Life

May 2nd, 2022

I have a friend who is an Afghan refugee. He and his family fled Kabul shortly before the city fell to the Taliban. They are safe now in another country thousands of miles away from their homeland. My friend was trained by the United States to be a helicopter pilot, which explains his abrupt departure from Afghanistan. Recently, he sent me a photo of himself sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft. He is wearing his reflector shades, so he is barely recognizable in the picture. I think he intended it to be that way.

I decided to return the favor. I dug through my archives and found a black and white photo of my flight platoon when I was stationed in West Germany back in the early 1980’s. The picture is four decades years old, and I sent a copy to my friend, asking him if he could pick me out of the lineup. I haven’t heard back from him yet.

I posted the photo at the beginning of this essay. Go ahead and look at it. I’ve been looking at it, and I’ve been remembering.

There is no date on the picture. I am guessing it is from late 1982 or the beginning of 1983. That’s forty years ago. The Black Hawk in the background must have been brand new at the time. Our unit was transitioning from Hueys to Black Hawks at the time. We were also transitioning from a Corps level unit to an aviation company belonging to the 3rd Armored Division. Our equipment was changing, and our mission was changing. Everything was changing.

On a global scale, things were in flux. Brezhnev died about that time and the Soviet Union was in the midst of a leadership struggle. Reagan was ranting about the “Evil Empire”. The Cold War was very real. We were all waiting for Armageddon to start.

I was section leader in my platoon. I think that I had just become a 1st lieutenant. I never really understood my duties as a section leader. I don’t think anyone else did either. I was kind of superfluous. If I had questions, I was told to look in the unit’s SOP. The book of the SOP (standard operating procedures) was usually either missing and/or being revised. There wasn’t any kind of mentoring system as far as I could tell. I was on my own, so I drifted.

The Army at that time was trying to reinvent itself. There was still a hangover from the Vietnam years. The military was slowly purging itself from the drugs and the low morale. The Army was now a volunteer force, and nobody seemed to know how to deal with that. There were more women in the Army, and more minorities. Sexism and racism had to be confronted somehow. Oh, and it was also peacetime, albeit an edgy sort of peace. What does an army do during peacetime? What was the mission?

My commander had a poster in his office from Afghanistan. He was a big fan of the Muhajideen. I think he had actually been in Afghanistan briefly. That was back was when the Soviets were in that country, and we were rooting for the Muslim insurgents to drive out the invaders. It seems ironic now.

God, I was a fucking idiot during that time. I was bored. I had a purpose when I was flying on a mission, but otherwise, I was just looking for something to do. I hung out with the pilots. Sometimes we trained. Sometimes we just killed time. In my free time I got drunk…a lot.

I am surprised that I didn’t get into any serious trouble. I was certainly looking for it. I remember going to the red-light district in Frankfurt with a couple guys on Christmas Eve. We went to some brothel. Even now, the memory of that night depresses me. We got the come on from the whores. It was all a sales pitch. It was sex without love, purely a business transaction. One of the guys made a purchase. I didn’t. It was profoundly disturbing.

I was intensely lonely. It was difficult to connect with the other people in the unit, most because it was transient population. People were constantly coming and going. By the time I could make a friend, they were getting ready to make a PCS (permanent change of station). Most of the people in the photo were to a large extent strangers to me. I don’t remember their names, and I doubt that they remember mine. There are two pilots in the picture who I still count as friends. Even after all these years, we still stay in contact. I am grateful for that.

I didn’t know German will enough at that time to feel at all comfortable among the locals. I rented an apartment from an elderly German couple. I used to drink with the old man. He showed me pictures from his youth. I remember one photo of him smiling. He was in his uniform with a swastika armband. That guy had been a Nazi, a real one. Most of the time, it seemed that I wandered through German towns alone. Even when I was in a crowd, I was alone. Ever since that time, I have felt a deep sympathy for migrants. It is hard to be among strangers in a strange land.

The German locals had a schizophrenic attitude toward the Americans (the Amis). They tolerated the American troops. The Germans made money off the GIs, but they really didn’t want them around. The Germans from my generation were often leftwing pacifists, and they considered us to be an occupying force. In a way they were right. We were had been on their turf for almost forty years at that time, and we weren’t leaving. I remember seeing graffiti on a brick wall in Hanau that said,

“Amis raus!” (Americans out!)

I enjoyed it when we had interoperability exercises with our sister unit from the Bundeswehr. We used to fly with them when we still had the Hueys. It was through the guys in the Fliegende Abteilung301 in Niederstetten that I met my future wife. How I met Karin is long story, and I won’t go into it here. It’s odd. I seldom had a strong relationship with my American comrades, but the Germans pilots took care of me.

I look at the photo and I find it difficult to recognize myself. Who was I then?

That was another life.

Commitment

April 29th, 2022

Last week Karin and I attended Father Richard’s funeral. He was our parish priest years ago. We sat in a pew with our little grandson, Asher, while Father Richard’s family members wheeled the casket into the sanctuary. Archbishop Listecki presided over the funeral Mass. There were at least twenty priests in attendance, most of them dressed in their vestments. As the archbishop began the liturgy, three things were placed on top of the coffin: a chalice, a crucifix, and the Book of the Gospels. Those objects represented the essential aspects of the life that this priest had chosen.

I looked at the priests gathered at the side of the altar. A phrase popped into my head”

“A band of brothers.”

I know that the term is usually used in a military sense, but I think it also applies to the priesthood. All those priests had committed themselves to a life of obedience and chastity. Through their training and ordination, they had become connected to Christ and to each other in a way that outsiders can never understand.

Forty-two years ago, I was taking a management class at West Point. The instructor told the class,

“I am going to describe an organization to you. I want you to tell me what it is.

In this organization people often wear uniforms. There is a rigid hierarchy and rank structure. A member of this organization can be ordered to move at a moment’s notice. Promotion, if it happens at all, is slow.”

Some of my classmates quickly raised their hands, and said, “The Army!”

The instructor shook his head.

I raised my hand and told him, “The Roman Catholic Church.”

He smiled and nodded.

The Catholic Church and the military share much in common. They are both authoritarian in nature. This fact sometimes offends the democratic sensibilities of our culture, but it is so. I remember when I was on the parish council and Father Richard was our pastor. We, the members of the council, were trying to decide on a policy change for our church. The proposed change was divisive. After a long discussion among the council members, we decided to take a vote. Father Richard looked at all of us and said,

“Go ahead on vote on this, but remember that my vote is the only one that counts.”

A priest is essential to the Catholic Church. A priest, through his ordination, is authorized to celebrate the Mass and consecrate the bread and wine. No lay person can do that. The center of the Catholic tradition is the Mass, and the beating heart of the Mass is the Eucharist. Without a priest, the bread and wine cannot be transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. Catholicism can’t exist without that transformation.

Years of formation and the sacrament of Holy Orders make a priest qualitatively different from other people. That doesn’t mean that a priest is necessarily better than others in a moral sense. We know for a fact that is not always the case. However, a priest is not one of the boys. He can’t be like everyone else. He is set apart from the rest of humanity, except for his brother priests.

A priest is a pastor, a shepherd of souls, and is often a CEO of a small corporation, the parish church. At least, that is how it works in America. Father Richard was good as an administrator, but his heart was in his spiritual work. He took pride and pleasure in providing the sacraments to his parishioners. He was called to guide the members of his flock to God. His purpose was to serve.

Does a soldier serve? Is a member of the military set apart from the rest of society? When a veteran dies, is his or her funeral the same as everyone else’s?

It is said that a priest receives an indelible though invisible mark upon his soul at his ordination. The person is fundamentally changed. When a person becomes a soldier, are they not also changed in a profound and permanent way?

Thirty years ago, I went on a religious retreat. During a counseling session with a Jesuit, the priest told me,

“You will always be a soldier.”

He was right. In a way, I will always have that mark on me. I will always be a bit different from the people who surround me. I will always need, at times, to find solace in the company of other vets.

Priests and soldiers have starkly different missions in life. However, both soldiers and priests make open-ended commitments to a greater cause. That makes us counter-cultural, and therefore we are set apart from the majority of people.

Father Richard was a good man and a good priest. He did his duty, and he did it with love.

“It is accomplished.” – Jesus

You’ll Figure It Out

April 21st, 2022

“I hope I die before I get old.” – The Who

I spent some time yesterday afternoon with an old friend from work. We are both retired, and we meet once a week to talk and share a couple beers. We reminisce briefly about our days (and nights) at the trucking company, but we aren’t really nostalgic about that time. The years that we worked together are gone now, and we are glad to be done with that part of our lives. Neither of us has any desire to go back to that chaos. Our work was a means to an end. It paid the bills and allowed us to raise our families. That’s all it really was.

Mostly, we talk about our adult children and their struggles. It’s a strange topic because what these young people are experiencing is often alien to us, but in some ways their lives and ours are very similar. Things seems to change, but they don’t. Our kids have the same hopes and fears that we had, just placed in different settings. It’s like variations on a theme in classical music.

My friend and I recognize that there are things that we cannot adequately explain to our children. There are things that they can’t really explain to us.

For instance, my kids make fun of me because of my ignorance with regards to technology. It’s not that I can’t understand all the workings of a smart phone. It’s just that I don’t care to learn. I read about things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality and my spirit rebels. It all seems dystopian and more than a little creepy to me. It’s like watching an episode of “Black Mirror”. My children are enmeshed in cyberspace, and that is a world that has no appeal for me.

On the other hand, my friend commented to me about how difficult it is to get a young person interested in the idea of saving up for retirement. His words made me think back to when I was several decades younger. When I was young, my father encouraged me to buy U.S. savings bonds. He said that my employer could purchase them for me, taking the money directly from my paycheck. That’s how his generation salted money away. It was like a prehistoric 401K. My father’s generation bought bonds because they prized security above all. He still had a hangover from his childhood in the Great Depression. Bonds were safe. Despite my dad’s advice, I never bought a bond.

My friend and I both pumped money into our respective 401K’s, and that worked out well for us. My friend has spoken to his kids about starting to save money now. They understand that concept. Young people aren’t stupid. However, I remember that was I was their age, I could not visualize getting old. For me, retirement was a dream that might never occur. Our children are the same. They are overwhelmed with all the things that young people have to do; find a partner, raise a family, start a career. If they do ever think about their golden years, their thoughts are fleeting. Whenever they eventually decide to plan for their future, they will most likely do it in a manner that I cannot imagine. They will find a new way. They will find their own way.

I try not to give my kids advice. They usually don’t want it, and quite often my ideas are not relevant to their situation. Yet, sometimes, they come to me with their problems. I listen, and I try to assure them that my wife and I have their back. Generally, when they talk to me, they have already made a decision. They are not seeking my guidance. They are mostly looking for my blessing. Regardless of my thoughts on their course of action, I give that to them.

If they have a dilemma, and they are at a loss, I still shy away from telling them what to do. I hear them out, and tell them,

“You’ll figure it out.”

They do.

They’re All Damned

April 15th, 2022 (Good Friday and the beginning of Passover)

A long time ago, my wife and I regularly attended a Bible study group. We met at a member’s house almost every Saturday afternoon to discuss the Christian gospels. We went to these sessions for years. Most of the participants were Evangelicals. Karin and I were often the only Catholics in the circle. The discussions were usually passionate but respectful. Occasionally things got tense. We all became friends over time.

I remember once there was conversation about the Jews. One of the people in the group blurted out,

“They’re all damned!”

I was a bit shocked by that comment. I think I was more concerned by the fact that nobody there really contradicted the speaker. The assumption seemed to be that the Jewish people were not saved. Period.

A few years after we stopped attending these Bible studies, I started going to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. I wanted to learn what Judaism was about, and I needed to be with Jews to understand the tradition. Now, after thirteen years, I still don’t completely get the picture, but I still spend time with the folks from that shul. I have grown close to some of them, and we have strong ties of respect and affection.

Today I think about that blanket condemnation of the Jews by the person at the Bible study. Where did he get the idea that all the members of a religious tradition were going straight to hell?

I don’t know about the teachings of other Christian denominations. I can only speak about what I know as a Catholic. The historical fact is that, especially on Good Friday, the message to the Catholic congregation was antisemitic.

There are four gospels. One of them is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The crucifixion story of John’s Gospel was and is read in its entirety during the Good Friday liturgy. John’s Gospel is unique in that the opponents of Jesus are always referred to simply as “the Jews”. This a bit odd since Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all of his followers. Regardless, in this particular Passion narrative, the bad guys are “the Jews”. The implication, intended or not, is that the entire Jewish nation was responsible for the execution of the messiah. This interpretation of the gospel can be seen to have been responsible for centuries of pogroms against the Jews throughout Christendom. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Holocaust has some roots in John’s Gospel.

Then there are the prayers that are said after the gospel reading. One of the petitions has traditionally concerned the Jews. Prior to Vatican II, the prayer was recited like this:

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts 2 Corinthians 3:13-16; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. (‘Amen’ is not responded, nor is said ‘Let us pray’, or ‘Let us kneel’, or ‘Arise’, but immediately is said:) Almighty and eternal God, who does not exclude from your mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of your Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That’s a little harsh.

After Vatican II, the prayer was changed to this:

Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. (Prayer in silence. Then the Priest says:) Almighty ever-living God, who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants, hear graciously the prayers of your Church, that the people you first made your own may attain the fullness of redemption. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

That’s a little better. That is the prayer that Catholics use today.

I think about my friends who are Jewish. They are serving God in their own fashion, and in many ways their tradition is the foundation of my own. They are my older siblings in faith. I don’t often talk to them about Jesus. They have already heard enough about Jesus. More to the point, they have seen what the followers of Jesus have done to them during the last two millennia. They don’t really have much against Jesus personally, but they are very gun-shy with regards to his adherents.

I cannot imagine any of my friends being damned for being good Jews. That makes no sense to me. A God who is loving and just would not punish anybody that sincerely seeks Him.

Honestly, if my Jewish friends can’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go either.

Training

April 12th, 2022

My son, Stefan, talked to me several days ago. He was upset. He was telling me about his new position as a “connector” at the construction site. Stefan is a journeyman in the Ironworkers Union. He has already done a lot of different jobs while being an Ironworker. He’s tied rebar, he’s walked on steel beams high above the ground, he’s learned a variety of welding techniques. He’s done most everything except be a connector. So, when his foreman asked him if he wanted to do that job, Stefan jumped at it.

According to Stefan, a connector is the guy putting the steel puzzle pieces together when a building is going up. The connector is usually high up in a lift. The crane operator “flies” each piece of steel to the connector, who has to catch it, and then attach it to the existing structure. The job is fast paced, complex, and occasionally dangerous. Stefan considered that to be the most badass job at the construction site, so he wanted it.

Stefan was frustrated because after two days his boss told him that he wasn’t keeping up with the workflow. The foreman explained to Stefan that, if he couldn’t keep pace with the other guys, they would need to find somebody else to be the connector. Stefan did not take the criticism well. Stefan is a clever young man, and he learns quickly. He has generally been successful with anything he tried to do. His boss’ comments hurt his pride in a big way.

Stefan told me, “They gave me two whole days of training, with two different guys. The guys who were teaching me have been doing this shit for ten years, and they didn’t slow down at all for me. They expect me to do the work just like them after only two days!”

I listened to Stefan and thought to myself, “I bet they do. That’s how it is.”

Stefan made me remember some things. When I was in the Army, all we did was train people. I was the operations officer for a helicopter company, and we trained each and every day. We had an annual budget measured in flight hours. “Flight hours” consisted of the all the money needed for aircraft maintenance, fuel, training, and whatever. I remember very distinctly that we were supposed to use up all the flight hours in the budget. Near the end of each fiscal year, I was told quite clearly, “Fly!” My experience from the military was that training was everything.

I got out of the Army and went to work as a supervisor for a trucking company. I quickly learned that the corporate world regards training as, at best, a necessary evil. Money spent on training, at least in the short term, does not increase profitability. Ultimately, the goal in any business is to hire somebody who needs no training at all. Those people are hard to find.

I was hired by the trucking company to run an early morning dock operation that was at least three times the size of anything I had handled before. I think that I had two weeks of training, and then I was on my own. My first day solo was a disaster. I couldn’t keep up with all the things that were happening. Like Stefan, I got the talk from my boss that suggested maybe I wasn’t cut out for the job. I felt just like Stefan felt. It stung.

After a few truly ugly days, I got the hang of the position. It was a stressful job, and nobody in management offered to help me out. In fact, management pushed me hard, and I did the same with guys working for me on that shift. There was no slack in the system.

We had a lot of veterans working at our company. Trucking seems to attract vets. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we wore uniforms. Maybe it’s because the chain of command was very clear. Maybe it’s because the instructions were pretty much black and white, no grey areas. Maybe it’s because employees were expected to get the job done with minimal supervision.

The company liked to hire vets. It wasn’t because management was particularly patriotic. I think it was mostly because of the vets’ work ethic. The vets were very mission oriented. Get the job done, whatever it takes. Everybody bitched and moaned, but that was just like being back in the service. People generally worked as a team. Unfortunately, sometimes we got a vet who had been traumatized by his wartime experiences, and that person had difficulty playing nice with his coworkers. A veteran like that didn’t stay very long.

Everybody who got hired by my firm had a trial by fire. I regret that I often increased the level of stress for the new guys. I was an asshole. They had to work fast, and they had to work safely. I was run over by a forklift once. I had my lower right leg crushed. Especially after that unpleasant event, I was very strict about safety. I remember having numerous conversations with inattentive forklift drivers that started with me saying,

“Listen fucker, what did I just tell you?”

From what Stefan has told me, the Ironworkers sound a lot like soldiers, or like my dockworkers. The people who work with Stefan expect him to be as good as them, regardless of his level of experience. They expect him to be efficient and safe, and they are not shy about letting him know that. It’s probably not fair, but that’s how things are.

I asked Stefan yesterday how things were going. He told me that it’s better now. There isn’t so much anxiety. He is still not quite as fast as the old-timers, but he can keep up most of the time. He’s over the hump.

He will be an excellent connector.

Making Sense of Lent

April 5th, 2022

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

When I was a boy growing up in a Catholic family, the adults would ask each other that question just before Ash Wednesday rolled around. Usually, they would say that they are giving up sweets or some other snacks. A bold few would promise to stop smoking, or maybe even drinking. It always sounded to me like some kind of spiritual endurance test. Each person was going to white knuckle it for forty days. Then they would all go back to doing whatever they liked to do until the next season of Lent.

It seemed to me that whatever sacrifice they made was an act performed solely out of a sense of duty. They were fulfilling a requirement, and often doing it grudgingly. I never got the idea that they were giving something up in order to help somebody else. It was just something they did to satisfy the perceived demands of God and the Church.

A few days ago, I wished some Muslim friends, “Ramadan Mubarak”. That phrase means a “Blessed Ramadan”. The Muslims are fasting from dawn to dusk every day for a month. No food or water until after sunset. That’s pretty hardcore, especially in comparison with how I might fast during Lent. I told my friend, Mohammed, that I would never be able to do what he does.

He just shrugged and said, “You’d get used to it.”

He’s probably right.

My wife, Karin, commented that it seems like all religions have periods of fasting. I think she’s right. I know that my friend, Ken, who is an Orthodox Jew, has several days of total fasting during the course of the year. That’s a bit rough on him. He’s eighty years old.

So, what is the point of fasting? What is the reason for giving something up?

Years ago, Father Richard gave a homily at church about this topic. He told the congregation that if we give up something, it should be in order to better give to somebody else. In essence, I give up something I want so that I can give another person what they need. That makes total sense to me.

Making a sacrifice of any kind should increase the amount of love in the world. If I give up something, that act needs to benefit others. It doesn’t need to be a sacrifice of heroic proportions. Every small act of selflessness makes a difference, sometimes a surprisingly big difference.

What am I giving up this Lent?

Well, I am giving up the same thing that I have been offering up for months now. I am giving away my time.

Karin and I care for our toddler grandson fulltime. We give him our time whenever he needs it. Our schedule is his schedule. When Asher needs a new diaper, I stop what I am doing and change him. When Asher is hungry, one of us feeds the boy. When he cries, Karin or I hug him. Right now, Karin is putting the lad to bed. Before I finish writing this essay, Asher will have interrupted me at least half a dozen times.

That’s okay. We are giving up our time because we love Asher. Karin and I also give away our time to each other, so one of us can rest. We do that because we love each other. We make sacrifices for love.

Love of God and love of neighbor are two aspects of the same love. Giving up something for love of neighbor is the same as sacrificing something for love of God. I find it hard to love God as God. It is easier for me to love Asher or Karin. I have to love God through them.

At the end of Lent, I won’t stop giving up my time. Asher will still need me to do that. Karin will too. That’s okay. When I make a sacrifice out of love, then it really isn’t Lent anymore.

It’s already Easter.

Edging Toward War

April 4th, 2022

“I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.” – Bob Dylan

The news is all about Ukraine, unless of course it’s Fox News, then it’s all about Hunter Biden. However, in most cases, in most of the media, the latest events in Ukraine dominate. The eyes of the world are focused on the war there. There are other wars being fought in other places, but the struggle in Ukraine is the one getting all the attention.

Why does the war in Ukraine get more scrutiny than, say, the war in Yemen? Well, it’s being waged in Europe, and the inhabitants of that continent somehow thought that they were done with war, despite the localized nastiness in the Balkans back in the 1990’s. There are very few Europeans that have any recollection of World War II. The slugfest in Ukraine is bringing back all those bad memories and long-forgotten fears.

The current war between Russia and Ukraine is also bringing back some ugly Cold War vibes. Granted, it is Ukraine and Russia that are doing all of the shooting, but to some extent this war is a proxy battle between Russia and NATO. Nuclear powers are involved in this struggle, and possibility of a nuclear confrontation tends to make people sit up and take notice.

Putin has been labelled as the bad guy in this drama. He is. The Russians invaded a sovereign nation that had done them no harm. They are killing civilians without hesitation or remorse. The West has rallied, for once, to oppose this aggression. Why hasn’t rest of the world done the same?

The West has skin in the game. For the members of NATO, Yemen is some small, remote country that they can safely ignore. NATO cannot ignore Ukraine. Ukraine is part of the neighborhood. The chances of violence spilling over into Poland or Estonia are pretty high. The West needs to be involved for purely selfish reasons.

The rest of the world has its own priorities. The freedom of Ukraine is not one of them. It doesn’t do any good for Joe Biden to brand Putin as a war criminal, although he is one. We, as Americans, really don’t have any moral high ground in this situation. After all, we just left Afghanistan, a sovereign country that we invaded and occupied. The rest of the world also remembers our invasion of Iraq. As far as most people on this planet are concerned, if Putin is a war criminal, then so is George W. Bush.

Even within the United States, there is not complete and total support for the Ukrainians. Once again, that has something to do with our nation’s recent exploits in the Middle East. Americans have notoriously short memories, but we can still remember that nightmarish withdrawal from Kabul last August. We don’t mind giving weapons to the Ukrainians. The United States is always quick to pull out the national credit card to pay for a war, especially somebody else’s war. But establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or putting U.S. boots on the ground in that country…we need to think about that a bit. I see plenty of Ukrainian flags flying proudly near my house, but I have yet to hear anybody say, “I want my kid to fight against the Russians!”

My kid fought in Iraq. He got wounded, and he killed people there. He came home damaged. There are serious costs involved with any war. We need to take a deep breath and ponder how far we want to go in Ukraine. Things are bad, but they could get far worse.

“It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”