Mother Rucker

November 2nd, 2020

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Almost forty years ago, I went to the U.S. Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Good old Mother Rucker. I think about it now because a neighbor of mine is going through Marine basic training, and he has been writing to me. Dylan’s reports remind me of things long past, but these are things that somehow don’t seem to be part of the past at all.

I was almost twenty-three years old when I started flight school. I was a second lieutenant and I knew next to nothing about the world. I still don’t know much, but at that time I was profoundly ignorant. Perhaps it was better that way. If I had known then how crazy and dangerous my path was going to be, I never would have followed it.

The first type of helicopter I ever flew was a Hughes TH-55 Osage. It was basically a tricycle for new aviators. The aircraft was a bare-bones type of machine. It looked like an orange with a pencil stuck into the back of it. The cockpit was little more than plexiglass bubble. We generally flew without any doors. The helicopter was powered by a reciprocating engine with a throttle, like on a motorcycle. The instruments in the cockpit consisted of an altimeter, an air speed indicator, a compass, and a fuel gauge. There was also a communication radio.

My first flight instructor was Mr. Fred Vernon. Was a retired Marine. Mr. Vernon had flown missions as a fighter pilot in the Pacific during World War II. He must have been in his sixties when I met him in 1981. He wore his white hair in a crewcut, and he had an ugly scar on the bridge of his nose where a surgeon had removed some skin cancer. Mr. Vernon worked for some government contractor that provided aviation instructors for the Army. As far as I could tell, Mr. Vernon lived on coffee, cigarettes, and bourbon. Being as he was former military, that made complete sense to me. That kind of unhealthy lifestyle was standard back then, and it really hasn’t changed much since.

There were three students assigned to Mr. Vernon: Padraic O’Brien, Joe Miller, and myself. We were all fresh-faced lieutenants, eager to learn, but not quite quick enough for our instructor. Mr. Vernon was in a hurry to get us all flying solo, and he could sign us off after a minimum of ten hours in the air. The instructor pilot had the responsibility of deciding when to send each of his students up alone. The I.P. had to determine when the new guy was capable of flying solo for two hours, without killing himself or rolling the helicopter up into a ball. Mr. Vernon was not the kind of man to hold somebody’s hand. We were pushed.

Hard.

I remember when I flew with him to a training field to practice hovering. Mr. Vernon took the controls and brought the helicopter to a perfect three-foot hover above the tarmac. The aircraft didn’t move at all. It was as steady as it would have been sitting on the ground. He handed the controls over to me and said in his raspy, smoke-hardened voice,

“Here. You have the controls. Try to keep it in Alabama.”

I took that as a challenge. The hardest part of hovering in a helicopter is over-controlling. Hovering requires a delicate touch, with only the slightest of movements on the cyclic control stick. I found out what happened if you get too involved in the process.

Initially, I held the helicopter steady. Then it drifted a bit to the right. I adjusted the cyclic to move it to the left. I adjusted too much. The helicopter slid left and turned a bit. I tried to turn it back. Once again, I made a movement that was excessive. Then we went up too far. I tried to come down. We turned again. We shifted right again. We went up and down and left and right and back and forth. This all took place within a minute or two.

Mr. Vernon snarled, “Give me the goddamn controls!”

I let him fly. Instantly, the aircraft was rock steady again.

He looked at me severely and said, “Pathetic. Try again.”

I did. It was a long training session.

Prior to me going solo, we mostly worked on emergency procedures. The main exercise was how to react in an engine failure. This was a big deal. If the engine quits, a pilot has one, and only one chance, to land the helicopter safely. Even that one chance is kind of iffy. In an engine failure, the pilot has maybe a minute or two to find a landing space, keep the rotor rpm’s up by taking all the pitch out of the blades, and then, at exactly the right second, bring the pitch back into the rotor system to provide a momentary cushion of air to prevent a fatal crash.

Good times.

I went one morning with Mr. Vernon for a training flight. The sky was full of other student pilots. Mr. Vernon wanted me to fly at a thousand feet, and go to a nearby stage field to practice maneuvers. Remember that the TH-55 has a throttle to control the engine. There is a failsafe mechanism that prevents a pilot from turning the engine off in flight. However, a pilot can turn the engine down to idle, which has the same practical effect. By that I mean the helicopter falls out of the sky when the engine is operating at idle. Helicopters have the glide path of a refrigerator: straight down.

I was flying toward the stage field; fat, dumb, and happy. Mr. Vernon was chain smoking Lucky Strikes, lighting one off the other, and tossing the butts out of the aircraft. Then he shouted at me over the headset,

“Don’t you see that aircraft at 2:00?!”

I looked to my right to find the mystery helicopter. At that moment Mr. Vernon cranked the throttle down to idle.

A lot of things happened at once. The engine suddenly got very, very quiet. A number of red lights flashed in the cockpit. A loud beeping sound from the headset pounded my eardrums. The helicopter started to drop, and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. The rotors turned ever more slowly.

Mr. Vernon yelled, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! Do something!”

I pushed the cyclic forward to get more airspeed. I slammed the collective stick down to take the pitch out of the blades and get the rotor rpm back up. I looked frantically for a landing space as the ground rushed up. I could distinctly make out the individual leaves on the trees closing in on us.

Mr. Vernon, “Give me the controls!”

I did so gladly.

He cranked up the throttle, got power to the rotor system, and pulled us up and out of the tree line. His motions were smooth and assured.

Once we got back up to altitude, he said,

“You have the controls.”

I replied, “I have the controls.”

There was a momentary silence. He lit up. He took a long drag. Then he said,

“We all would have fucking died. What am I going to do with you?’

I had no answer.

A few days later, when I walked into the briefing room, Mr. Vernon looked up from his coffee.

He tossed me the aircraft keys.

“Here. Bring it back in one piece.”

I did.

A Little Boy

October 27th, 2020

“Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye

I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say”

Mike Rutherford (of “Mike and the Mechanics” and “Genesis”)

I had been walking with Weston nearly each day that I was visiting him down in Texas. Weston is twenty months old. He doesn’t talk much, but he communicates quite well. He understands what other people say, even though he can’t often give them a verbal reply.

Weston is Hans’ son, and Hans is mine. I enjoyed walking outside with Weston. We went far from his home on our journeys. Sometimes, the two of us wandered for ten blocks, almost half a mile. I let him go wherever he liked, as long as he stayed out of danger. Weston wore me out. It wasn’t so much the distance traveled that tired me; it was more the constant vigilance required to keep a nearly two year old boy from getting hurt. He never wandered into traffic, but he was sometimes unsteady on his feet. It was not unusual for him to get ahead of himself, and then do a lip stand on the asphalt.

If Weston fell, he cried for a moment, but only for a moment. Then he would struggle out of my arms to continue his safari. He’s a very resilient boy.

Weston is a sturdy lad. He is solidly built, with a large head. He has reddish blond hair of an extremely fine texture. His hair covers his head, but it seems almost translucent in the sunlight. Weston has a prominent forehead and eyebrows that are almost invisible. He has skin that will never tan. His eyes are dark grey, like the color of stormy weather on the horizon. He has a small nose and chubby cheeks. Weston always has a look of fierce concentration on his face. He seems serious beyond his few years. He is capable of smiling, but he doesn’t do it often.

Weston is curious about everything. That is appropriate for his age. He is intent upon exploring his world, and woe to those who would keep him from doing so. He likes to have tiny conversations with himself as we walk together. He often points to something, and then he makes comments that only he comprehends. Or, he will point and loudly say, “Ha!”, as if he were telling a tree or a dog something profound. Weston is very observant of his surroundings, but he also seems to have a very entertaining interior world.

Yesterday, on our last walk, Hans joined us. Hans is tall and lanky, and Gabi (Weston’s mom and Hans’ wife) is convinced that eventually Weston will also be that way. Hans is a head taller than I am. I am not sure why, but it is so.

As we started our walk, I grabbed Hans’ shoulder, and I told him,

“You’re a good daddy.”

Hans shrugged. “I haven’t done much.”

I told him, “You’ve done what you need to do.”

I looked closely at Hans. He’s been through a lot. War. Violence. Physical pain. My little boy is long gone. I had to look up to meet the eyes of a stranger. Maybe that’s not quite right. I was gazing at a man who I know better than almost anyone else, but who is also is a riddle to me.

The three of us didn’t talk much as we strolled along. Weston would grab my pinky with his little hand as we came to a curb. He needed my hand for balance as climbed up to the sidewalk from the street. Hans watched his son carefully mount the next obstacle.

Weston stopped to watch a mail carrier fill up the post boxes at an apartment complex. The boy was fascinated. He stood there with his hands folded in front of him as the woman put letters into the holes. The Black lady smiled at Weston. He didn’t smile back. He was too interested in her work to exchange pleasantries.

Weston stopped to watch the local dogs and cats. He became uncommonly interested in an old car parked on the street. He occasionally looked up at me. He was ever wondering, ever in motion.

Weston did not want to go back, even though he was growing weary.

I said to Hans, “He’s stubborn. He gets that from me.”

Hans chuckled, and smiled at me. He made no other response.

It was hard for me to look at Weston and not have twisted memories interfere with the experience.

I told Hans,

“I can’t remember if you were like Weston when you were his age.”

Hans shrugged again, and asked me,

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember how I was either.”

I did remember other things: a man’s voice screaming threats. There was the sharp impact of a slap or a kick. I knew again the feeling of terror in the pit of my stomach from many years ago.

Weston was getting hot and tired. His face was flushed and he was irritable.

Hans lifted him up. Weston relaxed in Hans’ strong arms. The boy rested his tired head on his dad’s shoulders.

Hans said, “C’mon, Weston. Let’s go home.”

“Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms” – Peter Gabriel

The Virus (and Race) in Forrest City

October 20th, 2020

I drove for eleven hours yesterday, and at the end of the ride I could feel the road weariness. Fatigue has a way of sneaking up on me. I was okay while I was behind the wheel, mindlessly cruising along I-40 in Arkansas. It wasn’t until I dragged myself out of the driver’s seat that I realized how tired I really was.

I found myself at a hotel in Forrest City. It seemed to be all right as far as hotels go. Karin, who had made a similar journey in August, had encouraged me to go with more upscale type of lodging. I took her advice. I went into the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express and I asked the lady behind the Plexiglas if they had any rooms.

The woman told me that they had a few rooms left. I told her that I was looking for something cheap and simple. She frowned a bit and said that they were rather full. However, she could offer me a suite, if I wanted that.

I shrugged.

The lady told me the price for the suite. I cringed.

She looked at me with sympathy and asked, “Do you still want it?”

I shrugged again in defeat and told her, “I’m not driving any more today.”

The woman filled out the paperwork and had me sign whatever needed to be signed.

I asked her wearily, “Where can I buy some beer?”

She said gently in her southern drawl, “Well, the Shell station across the street sells beer. You can get it there.”

I did. Blue Moon Belgian ale.

Note: This hotel employee was white.

After going to the gas station, I went back to the hotel and found my suite. It was both spacious and uncleaned. That confused me. I thought that maybe I hadn’t understood the check in times. In any case, I dumped my belongings into my new digs, and waited to see what would happen.

Nothing did.

I roused myself to go outside my room and talk with one of the women who were cleaning the hotel rooms. I asked one of them about my accommodations.

The woman, who was Black, became visibly upset. She asked me,

Who gave you Room 224?”

I answered, “The lady at the desk.”

The cleaning woman replied, “That’s my room. They weren’t supposed to rent that one out. I ain’t even come close to cleaning it yet.”

I told her, “It’s okay. Get to it whenever you can. I’m okay in there. I just wanted you to know that nobody has been in there yet.”

The woman was still edgy. I had hurt her pride, and it showed.

I went back to my suite and I cracked open a beer. The woman came into the room shortly thereafter. She ignored me. I tried to ignore her. It was awkward. The maid did her job quickly and efficiently. She asked me,

“It going to bother you if I vacuum?”

I told her ‘no’.

She cleaned the carpet, and then she walked out. I thanked her for her work. She ignored what I said.

I had some quiet for a while.

Then I got hungry.

I ventured forth into the pandemic wilderness of Arkansas. My choices for food were very limited. I had had two beers, so I didn’t want to drive at all. I decided to wander down to the local Wendy’s to grab a burger. It seemed like a simple enough decision.

I walked into the Wendy’s with my mask on. I looked at the menu for a while. Then a very tall Black man confronted me. He said,

“This dining room is CLOSED. You need to go in the drive through.”

I answered, “I don’t have a car. I walked here.”

The man was unperturbed. He told me,

“Well, y’all just go in the drive through line. It be okay.”

I did.

It wasn’t okay.

I felt like a damn fool standing in the line where there were only other cars. I stood in front of the call in box, and I tried to give my order.

“Hi, you hear me?”

No answer.

“Anybody there?”

Dead silence.

I was ready to walk away. Fuck this.

As I moved aside, a Black man in a battered minivan talked to me. He was in the line behind me. He said,

“Hey man, you trying to order? Let me pull up closer, and then you try to order again.”

He drove up. I tried again. It worked. I asked for a double burger; no fries, no drink.

It continued to be weird. I walked to the next window to pay for my food.

The tall man walked out of the front door and yelled to me,

“Hey, you order the burger?”

I shouted back, “Yeah.”

He said, “It’s coming up. Wait here for it.”

I told him, “I still got to pay for it!”

He nodded and went back inside.

I got to the little window where money changes hands. A chubby white girl in the window wanted my cash. I asked her,

“Can I pay for the guy behind me in line?”

She smiled and said, “Sure.”

I pulled a twenty out of my wallet.

The girl took my money and gave me change. She asked me if I wanted a receipt for the other guy. I told her no. I told her to give him his own receipt.

I still didn’t get my burger. This bothered me since I was hungry.

The man who had offered me help got to the payment booth, and was immediately confused. Good. No good deed goes unpunished.

He drove past me as I was impatiently waiting for my meal. He yelled out the car window,

“God bless you , brother!”

I said the same to him.

I grew weary of waiting for my food. Then the tall Black man shouted at me,

“Hey! Come to this window! We good!”

I went back to the payment window.

The tall man handed me a bag with my burger, and a portion of French fries, and a soda that I had never asked for.

He gave me a serious look, and then he nodded.

I left very early the next morning.

The Black girl at the desk asked me how my stay was.

I asked the girl to do me a favor.

“Please tell the woman who cleaned my room that she did an excellent job. Tell her that.”

The young woman smiled and said, “That would be Miss Savannah. I will definitely tell her.”

Stephen Kelly, S.J.

October 16th, 2020

Yesterday, Father Steve Kelly was sentenced to 33 months of incarceration for his part in a protest at the Kings Bay nuclear submarine base in Georgia. The act of civil disobedience occurred on April 4th, 2018 (the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King). The seven people involved in this protest against nuclear weapons illegally entered the Naval base and vandalized some property (cost estimated at $30,000, according to the Navy), They also put up antiwar signs and banners. The protesters were charged and convicted of Conspiracy, Trespass on Naval Property, Depredation of Government Property, and Destruction of Property on Naval Installation. For a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Kelly’s sentencing was pushed back until yesterday, even though he was convicted on October 24th, 2019.

Father Steve probably won’t do any more jail time in Georgia, seeing as he has already spent thirty months in the Glynn County Detention Center. With time off for good behavior, Father Kelly should be out of there shortly. However, he will be immediately taken to Tacoma, Washington, where he has an open warrant for the same sort of offenses. He’s not free yet.

Why did Father Kelly sit in the slammer for two and a half years? I was just informed recently that Father Kelly was not offered bail due to his outstanding warrant in Washington State. It seems ironic to me that he was not given the opportunity to go free, at least temporarily. In way, it would have been of benefit to the government to get Father Kelly out of jail, and out of the spotlight. Perhaps, Father Kelly would have chosen to remain in jail regardless. By staying in jail, Father Kelly is not forgotten. Nor is his cause forgotten. The man seems to be a truly selfless individual, so I don’t think he cares much about his notoriety. However, Father Kelly does not want the threat of nuclear war to be forgotten.

It’s a curious thing. We are obsessed with so many issues: the pandemic, climate change, the nonsense that constantly flows from Trump’s mouth. We have forgotten about the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Somehow we don’t have the time or energy to remember that there are still thousands of missiles ready and waiting to annihilate all human life.

I have only been involved in civil disobedience one time. The consequences for my actions were barely a slap on the wrist compared to what Father Kelly has experienced. I would be very reluctant to do the things that this priest has done. I don’t think that it is because I am a coward, although that is possible. It’s more the fact that there are costs involved that affect people besides myself. If I decided to break Federal laws (which is a serious move), then I would have to expect to be incarcerated for a long period of time. During that time, I would not be able to help the people on the outside who I currently help. In short, an intense act of protest, like that of Father Kelly, would not just inconvenience me, it would also cause suffering to others who are innocent.

I have been writing to Father Kelly for the past six months. I have been required to use prepaid postcards from USPS to communicate with him. Those are the rules of the Glynn County Detention Center. I couldn’t even send him a real snail mail letter. Father Kelly has dutifully answered me with his own cards. He has tried to cram in as much information as possible on to every scrap of cardboard. I have to literally use a magnifying glass to read his microscopic handwriting. I don’t know how many cards I have sent to the man. I know that I have ten cards from him.

I have often written to people in jail or prison. They are usually good correspondents. Inmates appreciate mail. One of the worst things about jail or prison is the sense of isolation, the feeling of being forgotten by the rest of humanity. I remember a similar kind of feeling when I was in the Army. When somebody is far from the people they love, letters and cards are like gold. They are a lifeline.

I have never met Father Kelly. Maybe I never will. But I have ten cards, and those I will keep forever.

How Do You Turn This Thing Off?

October 8th, 2020

“I daresay some would never get their eyes opened if it were not for a violent shock from the consequences of their own actions.” – George Eliot

Yesterday, Hans was on the phone telling me about an unpleasant incident. He said,

“Yeah, I was driving in the middle of the night, and I made this turn. Then I see this crackhead pushing a shopping cart in the middle of the street, right in front of me. I damn near hit the guy. He yelled at me. I yelled back. I called that crackhead a ‘cunt’ and I told him if he was going to be pushing his cart in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, he better wear something reflective, or have a light on him. Stupid fuck.”

Hans sounded tired. He usually sounds tired. The man does not have a regular work schedule. He goes to pump concrete at an any hour of day or night. He’s often worked shifts that last eighteen to twenty-four hours in length. At the job sites, he lives on caffeine and nicotine. He is chronically sleep deprived.

I’m certain that when Hans suddenly saw a homeless man looming in the darkness, it freaked him out. Hans was overtired, so I think the near miss put the fear of God into him. Well, maybe not the fear of God…but definitely some serious fear.

Hans is a man living on the edge. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

Hans went on to tell me about another unpleasant incident. He got into an intense argument with another guy while standing outside of his house. It isn’t necessarily relevant for me to say who this person was, or why they were arguing. The main point is that Hans was ready to deck this guy, and that is why Hans wanted to talk to me.

Hans said,

“I was about ready to put him down. I told him to get the fuck off of my property. I haven’t been mad like that in years. The bad thing was that I was stone cold sober when this all happened.”

Well, maybe it was not a bad thing.

Hans continued to talk to me about the argument.

“I thought I was going to ‘zone out’. You know what I mean? It was like back in Iraq. You don’t think any more. You just do it.”

I tried to understand what Hans was telling me. I thought about the times when I was really angry, when I was completely enraged about something. I sort of knew what Hans meant. I was so angry at times that later I couldn’t remember all that happened while I was upset. Sorting through the memories of an truly intense emotional episode is like picking up the pieces of a shattered mirror: they don’t fit together well, and the edges are extremely sharp.

Hans went on, “One time I came out of ‘the zone’, and there were three guys on the floor around me, bleeding and crying for their mamas. That was not a good thing to ‘wake up’ to, if ‘wake up’ is the right word. Man, during that fight, I broke eight pool cues. I don’t remember too much. I know that I picked up a cue ball and used it. You know what I mean? You grab it in your hand and swing your arm around as hard as you can. I didn’t try to punch with the ball in my hand. I didn’t want to break my fingers. I guess I was thinking that much. I just had my arm stretched out, and I swung the ball into the guy’s head.”

I heard a counselor talk about addiction once. She said that it was like turning on a switch. Once you turn it on, you can never turn it off again.

I think violence is like that too. When you send somebody into combat, you turn on a switch. You enable a person to do something that they would normally be incapable of doing. When that person returns from the war, the switch is still in the “on” position, and maybe it can never be turned off again.

Did Hans always have the potential for violence? Probably. He had seen raw anger in his youth. Hans told me once that, after growing up with me, Army basic training was a letdown.

How do you control violence once it has become unconscious? How do you stop it once reason and logic have been left behind?

How do you turn this thing off?

Working at Home

October 6th, 2020

“Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store”

“Sixteen Tons” – Tennessee Ernie Ford

The pandemic has forced millions of people to work remotely, often from their homes. I think this was a trend that was already becoming more common prior to the COVID outbreak, but the virus put this development into overdrive. One estimate, from June of this year, stated that 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home. That percentage has probably changed in the last few months, but I suspect that it is still incredibly high. Many of these workers have not gone back to their offices. Many of them never will.

There are plenty of jobs that cannot be done online. Our two sons both work in construction. One is a welder, and the other pumps concrete for a living. They both have to go somewhere to build things. They make good money and they have good benefits. However, they will never be able to work from home. The same goes for nurses, plumbers, airline pilots, soldiers, and any number of other workers. The people who venture forth into the world every day have no choice but to do so. They cannot provide the services we need if they are at home.

I’m retired. For nearly twenty-eight years I was a dock supervisor at a trucking company. I spent most of my hours on a computer, but I also had to physically inspect the dock operation. I could not effectively do my job of planning and organizing on a screen. I had to be where the action was. I had to interact with the guys driving forklifts and moving freight from trailer to trailer. It was impossible for me to be a virtual supervisor.

I suppose with advances in technology a person could someday run a dock operation from a remote location. However, I suspect that things would be missed. I know that the human element would be missing. Workers are not just ciphers. Crunching numbers only gives a boss so much information. There is such a thing as “managing by wandering around”.

There are apparently many advantages to being able to work from home: flexible hours, no commute, no need to dress for success, etc. I wonder about the downsides to this way of working. I think that there are some.

When I was working, whether my shift lasted ten hours or fourteen, I knew that at the end of it, I could go home. There was a clear delineation between “work” and “home”. When I left the dock, I was done for the day. I often had a blessed form of amnesia as I walked across the parking lot to get into my car. The act of commuting home was actually therapeutic in a way. I needed that physical distance between my work place and my living space. I needed that separation in order to relax and regroup.

How does a person who works from home unwind after a stressful day? That person is still in his or her work environment. Nothing has materially changed in that respect. How does a person who has had “a rough day at the office” relax when he or she is still sitting in their “office”? How does a person recreate when the work is still there, and the shift never really ends? Do flexible hours mean that a worker is always on call? When is it time to work and when is it time to play?

I see us entering a brave new world, to use Huxley’s phrase.

I’m just glad that I’m retired.

Marine

October 2nd, 2020

“He said son, have you seen the world?
Well, what would you say if I said that you could
Just carry this gun, you’ll even get paid
I said that sounds pretty good

Black leather boots
Spit-shined so bright
They cut off my hair but it looked alright
We marched and we sang
We all became friends
As we learned how to fight

A hero of war
Yeah that’s what I’ll be
And when I come home
They’ll be damn proud of me
I’ll carry this flag
To the grave if I must
Cause it’s a flag that I love
And a flag that I trust” – Hero of War by “Rise Against”

There is a family at the end of the street who I barely know. They have lived in the corner house for years, but I never connected with them. We would wave to each other on occasion, but I seldom talked with them. They put a sign up in their front yard at the end of the school year to announce that their son was part of the graduating class at Oak Creek High School. A lot of people had signs like that this year, seeing as the pandemic prevented the school from having a physical graduation ceremony.

Then, about two weeks ago, they put up another sign in their year. This one said:

“I’ve Got a Marine in the Making”

Uh oh.

A few days ago, I was walking past their house. I saw Phil and Mary sitting in front of their garage. I stopped to say hello. My greeting started a long and challenging discussion.

Phil and Mary told me that their son, Dylan, had joined the Marines, and that he was currently in boot camp in San Diego. They are both proud and worried. Phil was never in the military, but he has relatives who were. Phil and Mary came of age just before 9/11, so Phil would have been involved in the very beginning of the War on Terror, if he had decided to enlist when he was Dylan’s age. He and Mary have friends and family that did enlist, so they has some idea of what can happen once a young person signs up.

I told them that I had been in the military for ten years (1976-1986) I was four years at West Point, and then served six years as an Army officer/helicopter pilot. I also told them about our oldest son, Hans, who joined up in 2009. He went to Armor school, and then went to Fort Hood, Texas.

I explained to Phil and Mary that I had lucked out. I had been stationed in what was then West Germany from the end of 1981 until early 1985. I served there for three years at the height of the Cold War. Nothing bad happened, although I expected that every day would the day that we would have to fight the Soviets. While I was in Germany, there was always a sense of dread. It was always “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. But I got home okay.

Hans was not so lucky. He went with 1st Cav to Iraq. He got shot, and he killed people. He stabbed a guy to death. When Hans was deployed, bad things did happen. The effects of those bad experiences still echo in his life. Hans is damaged; in soul, mind, and body.

I tried to explain to Phil and Mary that Dylan will come back to them different. I think that they understand that intellectually, but they won’t grasp that idea fully until Dylan comes home and they realize that a stranger is standing in their living room. I made it clear to them that they were not getting their little boy back. That kid is gone.

I remember the times when I came home on leave. My father would be alternately proud of me (I gave him bragging rights at the local tavern) or infuriated with me. He would get angry when I went out with my buddies and came home good and hammered. Somehow, my dad had forgotten what he was like when he was in the Navy back in the 50’s. One morning after I went out carousing, he raged at me:

“I thought they were going to make you an officer and a gentleman!”

They made me an officer. A gentleman, not so much.

It was the same when Hans came home to visit us. He was a changed man. He was a little crazy. Hans lost his faith while he was in Iraq. He couldn’t square what he had experienced in the war with the notion of an all-loving God. Hans was much more mature than he was before he enlisted. Maybe he got old too soon. Hans told me that he had to grow up quick in Iraq. I believe him.

Phil and Mary told me that Dylan had just finished “swim week”. I didn’t ask them what that all entailed, but I can easily imagine what it was like. When I was a plebe at West Point, 44 years ago, I had to take “survival swimming”. It was a mandatory class. We learned how to swim while wearing fatigues and boots, and while we were weighed down with a backpack and a rifle. I spent a lot of time under water. On the last day of class, each of us had to jump from the diving platform. The platform was ten meters high, and the pool was eighteen feet deep. It was like jumping off of Mount Everest in to the ocean. I’m sure that Dylan got to enjoy a similar experience.

Mary and Phil also told me that Dylan was going to start rifle week in boot camp. I remember doing that sort of thing too. Back in 1976, the Army taught me how to shoot an M-16. I can still smell the acrid gunpowder smoke, and I can hear the tinkle of the hot brass shell casings falling to the ground. Shooting was fun, even though the Army did its best to make it a pain in the ass.

Phil told me that Dylan needed structure. He would have been lost in college. Phil is probably right. He knows Dylan and I don’t. The Marines will definitely provide structure for that young man.

Karin and I never wanted Hans to join up. He knew that. He did it anyway. Maybe he needed structure. Maybe Hans needed to prove himself. Maybe he needed to have an adventure. Maybe he had to see the world, or at least a new part of it. Maybe he needed to show me that he was his own man. Years after Hans went to war, we talked about his enlistment. He smiled at me and said,

“That was a big fuck you, wasn’t it?”

Indeed it was.

I asked Phil and Mary f I could write snail mail letters to Dylan. They gave me his address. I wrote to him two days ago. He might write back. I don’t know.

Why did Dylan join the Marines? His parents don’t really know. Odds are good that even Dylan doesn’t know. He just did it. He made an enormous, life-changing commitment. He signed a blank check, and made it out to the United States of America. He swore to defend and uphold the U.S. Constitution, with his life if necessary.

That’s a gutsy move.

He’s a Marine.

Two Pieces of Paper

September 26th, 2020

“Why would an economist be embarrassed to be seen at a voting booth? Because voting exacts a cost–in time, effort, lost productivity–with no discernible payoff except perhaps some vague sense of having done your ‘civic duty’. As the economist Patricia Funk wrote in a recent paper, ‘A rational individual should abstain from voting’.”

from Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

A ballot is a strange thing.

On the one hand, it is only a piece of paper, just like the thousands of other pieces that flood my mailbox over the course of a year. On the other hand, it is a legal document, and it is my one and only way to choose the people who will represent me in our government. A ballot carries an enormous amount of emotional baggage. Carl Jung would have probably said that a ballot is “numinous”, that is, “having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.” A ballot is an integral part of America’s secular religion. Voting is one of our tradition’s sacraments.

Most of us believe in America. That belief can take all sorts of different forms, but we somehow have faith in our democracy. The U.S. Constitution is our sacred text. It’s our Bible, our Koran, our Sutras. We consider our vote to be sacred. We believe that our vote makes a difference and that it counts.

Does it? The authors of the book Freakonomics make it clear that it doesn’t matter, or maybe it just doesn’t matter enough to bother with it. They contend that we would be better off playing the lottery. My vote, lost among millions of other votes in the coming election, will not decide the future of this nation. It can make a difference, but that difference will be infinitesimally small.

I got my ballot in the mail on Thursday morning. I had requested it several days ago. I asked a young woman who is living with us to watch me fill out the ballot (while somehow not noticing who I was voting for), and then watch me place it into the prepaid, pre-addressed envelope that was provided to me. Then I signed the outside of the envelope. She did the same thing, and she also wrote down her home address.

She asked me, “Do I need to print my name on the envelope?”

I told her that I didn’t think so. There was nothing in the instructions to indicate that the poll workers needed her name. However, I took the time to email the city clerk about the matter. A few hours later, I got a reply stating that the witness needed only to sign the envelope and write down their address.

I felt good about completing the ballot. I told Karin what I had done.

Karin looked up from her knitting and asked me, “Can the witness be a felon? The young woman has a felony conviction, and she can’t vote.”

Hmmmmm…

I sent yet another email to the city clerk (I imagine that poor woman spent all her time answering questions from ignorant voters). She replied that the eligibility of a person to vote is of no importance with regards to whether they can act as a witness. Good to know.

I mailed the ballot yesterday morning. That’s done, and now I can consider whether or not it was worth all the trouble. I think that it was worth it. Even knowing that my one vote won’t change the world, I still think that filling out the ballot was of value. Why? Because I believe that my vote counts. It is an act of faith.

Yesterday evening I received an award from Voces de la Frontera for my work with immigrants. I have spent the last few years teaching the citizenship class, and the people at Voces decided to recognize my efforts. I really didn’t want the award. I don’t teach the class because I might get a pat on the back. I do it because I want to help people to become Americans. I feel good doing that. I like it.

I got the award during Voces’ gala. The gala is the organization’s annual fund raiser, and it is usually a party as well. This year, due to the pandemic, Voces de la Frontera put on a virtual gala. That was pretty weird. The event was about as festive and spontaneous as a space shuttle launch, but what else could Voces do? The organizers had it completely scripted, and I was scheduled to receive my award at exactly 6:26 PM. Actually, I received it a couple minutes later due to the fact the Mandela Barnes, the Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, called to say a few words of political propaganda during the program. In any case, when my moment came, I stood up, was presented with a framed piece of paper, and told to get moving. I was not allowed to say anything. The show went on.

I showed Karin my award, my new piece of paper. She asked me where I was going to hang it.

I told her, “Downstairs next to the water heater.’

It was probably best that I did not have the opportunity to speak. I would have babbled. I did give the organizers a written copy of what I would have said, if I had been able to do so. It is as follows:

“When I was teaching the citizenship class, I spent a lot of time going over the 100 civics questions that the students need to be able to answer during their interview. The students were usually good at memorizing the approved answers to the questions, and they could spit them back out at me when they needed to do so. However, often the students did not really understand the answers that they were giving to me. I tried to go deeper into the questions and answers, because I really wanted these people to know what America is all about. 
One of the questions asks the student how they, as citizens, can participate in their democracy. There are multiple answers to that particular question. A citizen can run for office, write a letter to a newspaper, join a political campaign, or call their elected officials to bitch. I would discuss these options with the students.

Then I would ask them:


‘What is the most important way you can participate?’


Usually they knew what I wanted to hear. They would say to me, ‘Vote?’


I’d tell them, ‘If somebody wants to tell me their political opinion, but they don’t bother to vote, I don’t listen to them. Voting is the minimum requirement. We don’t have to do a lot for the country; just pay taxes and be on a jury maybe. So, we can at least vote. We can do that much.’


They would nod their heads. I would tell that I want them to be involved citizens.

They are choosing to be Americans. They want this. They might as well do it right.


I would ask them, ‘Will you do something for me when you are a citizen?’


They would nod again.


‘When you are a citizen, vote. Just vote.’ ” 

When I think about it, I have been involved in a patriotic type of religious education. I have been a catechist. I have been teaching these green card holders to trust in our republic. I have been telling them to put their faith in our quirky democracy.

The first line in The Godfather is when Bonasera says to Don Corleone,

“I believe in America.”

What can be more American than The Godfather?

An Ungodly Trend

September 24th, 2020

“I see a bad moon a-rising
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin’
I see bad times today

Don’t go ’round tonight
It’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise”

from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Now that we have six months of the pandemic under our belts, it’s time to take stock of things. Where are we now? Where are we going?

Karin and I went out for coffee on Tuesday with a friend of ours who is a missionary for an Evangelical organization. He used to be very active in a local Bible-based church. Dan is back home for a couple weeks. Then he will return to his work in Germany. The three of us sat in the café and talked about religion. What else would we be talking about? The conversation drifted to the topic of church attendance during the pandemic.

The upshot of the discussion is that attendance at religious services currently varies from poor to non-existent. That seems to be across the board. Karin and I go to Mass at our Catholic parish three mornings per week. The number of people going to the weekday liturgies hasn’t changed much. Attendance at Sunday Mass seems to be much lower. It’s hard to tell, but there are Sunday mornings when the population looks to be half of what it was prior to the arrival of the virus.

Dan commented that the attendance at his old church is significantly less than before the pandemic. His religious community, Elmbrook Church, is a mega-church. It’s enormous. It has a parking lot that is big enough for a pilot to land a Cessna in an emergency. In the past, Elmbrook expected to see thousands of people at the Sunday services. Now, according to Dan, the church draws only several hundred every weekend. This is a bit disturbing to that congregation.

Non-Christian traditions are also struggling to maintain their communities. I belong, in an unofficial sort of way, to Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee. There hasn’t been a minyan assembled since early March. Last Sunday the rabbi invited members of the shul to meet outside the synagogue to hear him blow the shofar for Rosh Hashana. Everybody had masks and stayed six feet apart. That was the first time I saw some of my friends in 3D in almost half a year. The synagogue is closed for regular services, and there is no telling when they will resume.

Another example is the Great Lake Zen Center, where I have been going for meditation practice for the last fifteen years. We closed up shop. Last month we took everything out of the Zen Center and put it all into storage. There is no longer a physical location for the sangha to meet and sit together. We meditate using a Zoom format, which is really not much different than meditating alone. Will the Buddhist sangha find a new home and start practicing together again? Maybe. Who knows?

I used to go occasionally to the Sikh Temple. I stopped at the there this morning to meditate. It was my first visit to the temple since early in the spring. The place was practically empty. Back in the day, the temple would be quiet during the week, but there were always some old guys hanging around the office, watching Bollywood movies and hiding from their wives. Today there were just the two priests, and me.

I haven’t been to a mosque in months. My understanding is that they are open, but social distancing has cut back the attendance quite a bit. My Syrian friend, Hussein, told me a while ago that people had to make reservations for Friday services at his mosque. The bottom line is that some folks can’t worship in the mosque with everyone else. Before the pandemic, both the mosques and the Sikh Temple tended to be packed solid with people during their weekly prayer gatherings. That’s done. There are no more crowds in these places.

Will things change once there is a vaccine? Will people go back to their places of worship? I don’t know about that.

A couple weeks ago, I had a phone conversation with my old rabbi. He told me that, since the pandemic has stopped people from going to services at the synagogue, they have filled up that empty space in their schedule with other activities. Are these people going to jettison their new interests in order to return to the synagogue for prayers on Shabbat? Maybe. Maybe not.

I suspect the same thing is true for followers of other faith traditions. Some of the people who filled these houses of worship are not coming back. Ever. They are done with it, for a variety of reasons. Some of them won’t return because they are afraid of contracting the COVID virus, and they don’t care if there is a vaccine. They aren’t willing to take the risk. Some have simply lost interest in their practice. Some people came to religious services more for the sense of belonging that a community offers, than for the actual worship. The pandemic has destroyed much of that feeling of fellowship, and those folks who wanted it now have no compelling reason to stay with their tradition.

It is interesting to watch how different denominations are trying to luring members back into the fold. Our local Catholic prelate, Archbishop Listecki, has basically tried to strong-arm people back into the pews. He said that Catholics who continue to avoid going to Mass are in danger of committing a “grave sin”. Really? He also stated that fear of being infected by the COVID virus is not a good enough reason for missing Sunday Mass. Really? Since the archbishop made these comments, I have seen zero increase in participation at the liturgies.

A non-religious person might think to themselves, “Who cares? That doesn’t affect me.”

That might not be quite true. Religious communities often, but not always, contribute to the well being of the larger community. If these congregations collapse because of a lack of members, that will hurt the secular world in which we all live.

What’s in a Name?

September 23rd, 2020

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” – Confucius

“It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty for giving lovely names to things.” – Oscar Wilde

The girl we love has picked out a name for her unborn son. This is exciting for the young woman, and for Karin and myself. I suspect it doesn’t mean much to her kid, at least not yet.

A while ago, at a Zoom meeting, Zen Master Dae Kwang spoke to the members of our sangha about names. I am not probably not quoting him correctly here, but he said,

“The sky doesn’t call itself “sky”. Things don’t have names. We give them names.”

He’s right. Things, and people, do not automatically come with names. We give each of them a name, or names. A name is not the thing itself. A name is just an idea. However, it can be a profoundly powerful idea.

I think about my name, Frank. Does the name actually mean anything? Is it just five letters put together in a random way? What difference does a name make?

My name means “free”, but that can be ambiguous. I was actually given the legal name of Francis, which derives from Latin, and means “Frenchman”. I’m not French, as far as I know, and being called “Francis” made my childhood more interesting than it needed to be. My father named me Frank/Francis because it was a family tradition. Every first born son in the family, for five generations, has been named Frank. That shows a complete lack of imagination.

The name has baggage beyond just the family tradition. Historically, there have been famous people bearing that name. St. Francis of Assisi is a case in point. My name has echoes from his life. In fact, my family went to Assisi in 1998 to visit the birthplace of St. Francis. Our current pope consciously picked the name Francis, apparently hoping to channel some of the saint’s love and compassion.

In Holy Scripture a lot of ink is used to record the names of people. In fact, the writers of the Bible often take the time and effort to explain why somebody is given a particular name. For example, in Genesis it says that Eve had a third son “and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” Later in Genesis, Sarah laughs when she is told that she will have a child in her old age. Hence, her son’s name is Isaac, which means “laughter”. In Jewish history, and probably in most of the ancient world, names meant something. They were important.

Why?

Going back to Zen Master Dae Kwang, he stated that the name is not the person. But maybe it is. Perhaps giving a name to a baby is an intuitive recognition of who that child is, and of who he or she will become. Does the name describe the individual, or does the person eventually become that name? Does a name change our perception of a person? Does a name change a person’s perception of themselves?

There a verses in the Bible that indicate that God knows our true name. For instance:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” – Isaiah 43:1

In a way, a parent acts a bit like God when he or she names their child. The parent is saying, “I know you”. This may not be at all logical, but I think it’s true. The name given by the parent might be more a reflection on the adult than the child. In a sense, the parent may be naming themselves as much as they naming the baby.

The girl we love is naming her son “Asher”. That’s a good Jewish name. It means “Happy” or “Blessed” in Hebrew. A friend of mine from the synagogue mentioned that, depending on the pronunciation, it also sounds like the Hebrew word for “I sing”. Considering all of the trials and struggles this young woman has already endured in her life, the name seems very appropriate. She deserved to be blessed, and so does her little boy.

The Zen Master is right about names, but I feel in my gut that names also have a strong and subtle power. I can’t explain it. I just know that they make a difference.

Asher’s name will make a difference in his life.