The Law is the Law

September 1st, 2019

I was already on edge. I had just received a call from somebody that I love, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I had to walk out of church just before Mass ended to take the call. Now I was hanging out in the narthex (the gathering space) , sucking some old coffee, and trying to make use of  my very limited social skills. At our church, the first Sunday of the month is set aside for Christian fellowship and random schmoozing. I was in the mood for neither. I was content to stand alone.

A young man approached me and smiled. He looked at me and said,

“That’s quite an interesting beard you have there.”

I reluctantly replied, “It’s just a beard, man. I’m Frank. Who are you?”

The young man replied, “I’m Dylan.”

Dylan was remarkably clean cut. If I had to guess, I would have said that he was active military. Dylan was tall, fit, and neatly dressed. He had a crew cut, and he wore a plaid shirt and chinos.

I asked him, “Dylan, what do you do?”

He told me, “I’m a plumber’s apprentice. I get to do all the fun jobs.”

I told Dylan about my youngest son, Stefan. I explained that Stefan was an Iron Worker and he liked to do dangerous jobs. I explained that when I was Stefan’s age, I was flying helicopters for a living, so I understood Stefan’s choices.

Dylan smiled again and said, “Well, you got to do what you love. Right?”

Then he asked me, “So, what do you do?”

I told him, “I don’t earn money any more. I retired three years ago.”

“So, what do you do to fill up your time?”

“I do volunteer work. Mostly, I do stuff with immigrants.”

Dylan seemed curious. He asked me, “Like what? Do you help people come across the border?”

“No, I mostly help immigrants who are here.”

“Why? Do they come here and get into trouble?”

“No, some of them are undocumented. Maybe they were brought here when they were little kids, or maybe they came here before all the rules changed. I don’t know. All I know is that they aren’t legal.”

Dylan sipped his coffee, and looked at me. Then he asked,

“So, do you call ICE on them?”

That stunned me. I asked him,

“Are you serious?”

He nodded.

“NO, I don’t call ICE on them. I’m trying to help them. Why would I do that?”

He stared at me and said, “The law is the law.”

I replied, “Some laws are immoral. Should I follow every law, even if hurts somebody?”

Dylan shrugged and said, “We need laws. They keep order. Otherwise we would have disorder.”

I snapped at him, “Hitler said the same thing.”

Dylan frowned. “I don’t know about that. I mean Hitler went to the bathroom, and we all do that. He was a vegetarian. Should we all be vegetarians?”

I replied, “You’re missing the point.”

He looked at me and asked, “What is the point?”

“The law is hurting people. It is tearing families apart.”

Dylan smirked, and said, “The law is the law.”

I asked him, “Do you know the law?’

He threw that back at me, “Do you?”

“Yeah, some. I took a 40 hour course on immigration law last year. That is probably more than you got. Tell you what, educate yourself, and then talk to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Read some immigration law. Look at some case studies. Find out what is really happening.”

He smirked, “Why should I?”

I asked Dylan, “Do you know any illegal immigrants?”

He nodded.

“Did you call ICE on them?”

Dylan shook his head.

“Why not?!”

He drawled, “It would be too hard to locate him. I don’t know where he is right now. Nothing would really happen.”

“Okay, so what you’re telling me is that ‘the law is the law’, and the law is really important, but you aren’t willing to make any effort to enforce the law.”

He shook his head. “No, I mean a policeman would probably…”

I cut him off. “I don’t care what a cop would do! I want to know why you did not turn in an illegal alien.”

Dylan answered, “Like I said, it’s too hard to find this guy. It’s like if somebody speeds or throws a cigarette butt out of his car window. should I call the cops? They won’t do anything. Now, if I knew that a bunch of illegals are working at a place, maybe where they detail cars, then I would call ICE and let them know.”

“So, you would do that not knowing any of the people working at this place? You would call ICE even if you had no idea what harm would be done?”

He shrugged again, “The law is the law.”

He went on, “These people, they are taking jobs from young people here that want to work.”

I told him, “That’s wrong. The evidence shows that immigration grows the economy.”

He frowned, “It grows the economy of the old people that own the economy. It grows the economy of the rich. That’s why the young people are dropping out. They can’t find work because of these people.”

I told him, “My two sons have more overtime than they can handle.”

Dylan told me, “I’m sure that they are extraordinary men.”

“Maybe, just maybe, some young people don’t have jobs because they don’t want to work.”

Dylan replied, “Maybe.”

I told him, “These undocumented people are some of the best people I know. They have been here for maybe thirty years. They have families, they own homes, they are a part of their communities. Why would I want to hurt them?”

He stared at me, “The law is the law.”

I stared back at him, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”

He sighed, “I think that you have a very inaccurate view of what is going on.”

“I think the same of you.”

Dylan paused and said, “Well, let’s just say that we both have a unique perspective on the situation.”

“I can agree with that.”

Silence.

He looked at me blankly and said, “I hope things go well for you.” (I am not sure that is exactly what he said. I just remember it as being lame).

I stared at him. Finally I said, “You too.”

I walked away to find Karin. I told her what had happened. Then she had to find her purse.

She came back to me. She said,

“That guy was just sitting there alone, smirking.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Respect

September 1st, 2019

Karin and I have slept in some strange places. I am not saying that we have had unpleasant experiences. On the contrary, we almost always stayed with people who were kind and hospitable. It’s just that in our journeys we have often crashed somewhere new and different. We have grown used to this sort of thing, if it is possible to get used to the unexpected.

While we were participating in the land purification at Ground Zero, we stayed two nights at someone’s home on Poulsbo. On the first evening, we drove at the house with several of the Buddhist monks/nuns. Upon our arrival, the Buddhists pulled out their taikos (small, handheld drums) and began chanting “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” at the front door. It was a greeting and a blessing.

The owner of the house opened the door, and looked at us with horror. She said,

“Oh no, I told Senji ‘no drumming or chanting’. I don’t want to bother the neighbors.”

Wow. What the hell kind of neighborhood was this? Was there an ordinance against chanting? I didn’t see anything posted.

On the second night at the house, Karin and I were getting ready to sleep. Then I heard a loud voice outside of our room. It sounded to me like the person yelling. Somebody was clearly on a roll. I told Karin that I was going out to find out what was happening.

I walked into the living room to find all of the monks and nuns sitting in a circle. An old man was ranting and raving in front of them. The guy had a fringe of white hair around his very bald head, and he wore thick glasses. He spoke passionately and without pause. I caught him in the middle of his talk. He was telling the Buddhists about a conspiracy to kill Robert Kennedy, and he tied it in with other nefarious activities of dark political forces that lurk in the shadows.

I leaned against a wall. I thought to myself,

“This guy is fucking nuts, and these people are listening to him.”

I found out that this man was Jim Douglass, co-founder of the Ground Zero Center, and a prolific author. Jim was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at the land purification ceremony the next day. I could hardly wait.

Jim did indeed speak at the ceremony. He used his eight minutes at the microphone to good effect.

Jim talked about the arson at Ground Zero almost four decades ago. He explained how two Marines from the naval base next door came on to the Ground Zero property and torched a building. Prior to starting the fire, these two soldiers destroyed a statue of the Buddha and a crucifix. The remnants of the statue and the cross fused in the flames of the fire, and are now buried together under the base of the stupa.

Jim went on to say that these two Marines (who apparently were brothers), saw the crucifix and the Buddha as a danger to nuclear weapons housed inside the naval base. He said that it was their duty to protect the bombs on the base, and that they considered it their job to eliminate any possible threat to these weapons of mass destruction. I don’t know how Jim came to this conclusion. I think that he was just making an educated guess as to the motivations and intentions of these Marines. My own guess is that these two knuckleheads got good and drunk, and then decided to do something stupid and destructive. Both Jim and I could be right about this.

What struck me was that Jim showed a remarkable amount of sympathy toward these arsonists. He was really trying to understand their perspective, twisted as it may have been. He made the comment that it was essential to have “mutual respect on both sides of the fence”. Both the military personnel on the base and the Ground Zero folks had to respect each other. I admired what Jim was saying. I seldom hear people recognize the humanity of their opponents.

Jim is not nuts, and I listened to him.

 

 

The Shine of your Japan

August 30th, 2019

“Bodhisattva, would you take me by the hand
Bodhisattva, would you take me by the hand
Can you show me the shine of your Japan
The sparkle of your china, can you show me?”

from “Bodhisattva” from Steely Dan

Karin and I spent the day prior to the land purification helping the monks and nuns get things set up. Actually, most of the time, I just acted like I was helping. There was an excess of labor available at the Ground Zero site. Remembering back to my Army days, I made every effort to at least look busy. Sometimes, I failed to even do that.

When I went outside after breakfast, I found Toby, a monk from Massachusetts, on his hands and knees. He was scrubbing the pavement around the stupa with a wire brush. Why? I don’t know. The concrete looked good to me, but I guess it wasn’t clean enough for the ceremony. I asked Toby if he wanted help. He did, so I took over from him.

What is a stupa? Well, in this case, it is sort of a monument. In the center of the concrete pavement is a massive base made of large stones. On the top of the base is a tall granite slab. The slab has Japanese writing inscribed on opposite sides. The phrase “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” is written in gold paint. Buried under the stupa are the remnants of a crucifix and a statue of the Buddha. These fragments were fused together in a fire started on this property by two Marines from the neighboring naval base. The arson occurred thirty-seven years ago.

Kamoshita, a young monk from Okinawa, was standing on top of the base of the stupa. He was washing down the large, upright granite slab. The hunk of stone was taller than Kamoshita. He stood on a ledge and diligently cleaned the granite.

Several people were raking the dirt around the site of the soon-to-be-erected peace pagoda. The site was circular and looked like a moon crater. Inside of the crater were concentric rings etched in the soil. There was some steel rebar sticking up in the very center of the circle.

Other people were working on the altar. It had three levels, and those would eventually be covered with flowers, and food offerings, and a statue of the Buddha. Flags were being set up near the altar. Post holes were dug in order to set up artificial trees with paper flowers.

Karin was inside the Ground Zero building. She was there with Takashi and some other folks. They were polishing brass bowls and ornaments. Denise was placing vegetables into a bowl and trying to make it look something like a flower arrangement. Other food offerings were already set up. There were pyramids of oranges. Watermelons had somehow been made to stand upright. There numerous vases filled with flowers and ferns. Most everything was going to stay inside until the next morning, and then the altar would be decorated prior to the land purification ritual.

Udae and Ben were in the kitchen cooking. I steered clear of that. Udae was like a whirlwind, in constant motion. He knew exactly what he as doing, and he didn’t seem to need any extra assistance.

Work continued throughout the day. I’m not sure who was in charge. Maybe nobody was. It was hard for me to tell because often the people were speaking in Japanese. I felt kind of lost. I guess that was okay, because everything got done.

 

 

 

 

 

Judge Not

August 30th, 2019

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Luke 6:37                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The night after the purification ceremony was confused and chaotic. Karin and I had thought that we might be able to sleep in the temple at Nipponzan Myohoji. Senji told us that was not to be the case. We were not going to sleep in the hondo, the sanctuary. I was a bit disappointed by that news. I really wanted to sleep at least one time in the temple. I often have nightmares, and I thought that maybe a night in the hondo would keep my demons at bay. I guess I will never know.

Instead, Senji told us that we would be sleeping in the house at Ground Zero. Actually, that was not at all a bad gig. There was a queen size bed in the attic, and that was just right for Karin and myself. We shared the attic room with Utsumi and Denise. Both Utsumi and Denise were Buddhists from the Atlanta temple, and they are currently  building a peace pagoda in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Utsumi has a rough voice, reminiscent of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”. He seems to be ready for anything. Denise is a gentle and sensitive woman, a good listener. We were all settling down to sleep when we heard voices from the floor below us.

Two visitors had arrived. I knew nothing about them except for the fact that they were loud. Ben, who apparently is the unofficial ambassador for Ground Zero, welcomed them into the house. I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to see who the newcomers were.

Ben was in the kitchen, cleaning up dishes. One of the visitors was with him. I greeted the stranger. The person wore Buddy Holly glasses and a Michael Jackson perm.

The person’s first words were, “Hi. I’m León. I’m trans. Do you know what that is?”

I replied, “I’ve heard about it.”

I was tired and not on top of my game. The visitor had a Latin accent, but I couldn’t place it. I tried to make conversation, but I didn’t get very far.

The other visitor came into the kitchen. I’m pretty sure that she was from New York. This woman was not shy at all. Somehow, she knew Senji and Jun Sen and some of the other Buddhists. She was more than willing to provide us with her trendy, progressive credentials. I mentioned to her that I had been with the Indians on the Longest Walk last year. She made it clear that she had deep connections with indigenous peoples. I was using the wrong words to describe the Native Americans, apparently.

Ben asked me a question,

“Frank, your son told you that this might be a good time for you to try weed. You want to smoke some?”

Note: I have never tried marijuana. I don’t know why. It just hasn’t happened.

Before I could answer Ben, the New Yorker blurted out,

“I don’t smoke anything!”

Good to know.

I told Ben that I wasn’t interested in weed right at that moment. However, I would be willing to sample a glass of red wine. Ben was good with that.

I tried to resume the conversation with the New Yorker. I told her,

“I’m former military.”

Bad move. Very bad move.

She gave me a hard stare and said,

“Well, thank you. And I am sorry (for you).”

I replied, “I’m sorry too.”

She got onto her soap box.

“I am opposed to ALL types of violence!”

“And you think that I’m not?”

The woman paused momentarily, and said, “I don’t know you. I can’t judge.”

I said dryly, “You’re right. You don’t know me.”

The conversation aborted then and there.

Ben and I drank some red wine, and then I went back to the attic.

Karin and I settled into bed, and Ben came upstairs to talk. He noticed our situation and said,

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll come back some other time. Sorry.”

Last year, I spent some time with a Cherokee warrior who held court in his bedroom (with his girlfriend beside him). The guy had a bad back, and had to lie down frequently. Karin had met both of them (in their bedroom). It seemed like it was our turn to hold court.

I told Ben, “Hey, come on in.”

He said sheepishly, “I wasn’t sure if you all were decent.”

I replied, “Even if we were naked, we would still be decent.”

He grimaced, “Now I have an image in my head of you being naked.”

“Sorry, man.”

Ben went on, “That thing downstairs…I’m sorry about that.”

“I made a bad first impression.”

Ben said, “Well, the woman basically told you that you had joined the military because you liked to kill people.”

“You think?”

Ben replied, “That’s what I heard. She pushed one of your buttons, and I think she was surprised when you pushed one of hers.”

“Yeah, I think so too.”

Ben left Karin and me. I laid in bed and thought.

The woman had said that she could not judge me, but she had been doing that ever since the moment she first laid eyes on me. The truth is that I had been doing the same thing. I was judging her, and I am still doing that.

Everybody on the group, including the two newcomers, went to the Olympic National Park the next morning. The New Yorker lent Karin her scarf when Karin was cold on Hurricane Ridge. That woman is a good person. I know that. However…

we will never connect.

I don’t know why. It just is. Shitty karma. Stupidity on my part. Whatever.

It’s a shame, and I feel bad about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Jewelry Bag

August 30th, 2019

We were almost home. The train had just stopped in Columbus, and we seemed to have no concerns. We had our bags packed, and it was only an hour to Milwaukee.

Karin looked into her handbag, and became agitated. She said,

“I can’t find my jewelry bag!”

I rolled my eyes. Karin often cannot find her things. We blame it on ADD, which seems to be the flip side of creativity. Karin is endlessly inventive, and she can never locate her car keys. It is not unusual for her to lose something. Fortunately, it has (so far) never been anything really important.

I waited for a moment until Karin had searched our entire sleeper room. Then I asked her,

“Did you forget it in the shower this morning?”

She immediately replied, “No! I had it here when we went to breakfast.”

We sat across from each other for several minutes, as the train roared through the corn country.

I asked, “What does the bag look like?”

Karin answered, “It’s just a little bag, like a purse with a clasp. It’s colorful.”

I asked her, “Do you want to ask the attendant to look for it for you? We could ask Donald to check around for it.”

Karin shrugged.

Then she said, “There isn’t anything really valuable in the bag. It just had some earrings that you bought for me. That, and a ring from Oma (Karin’s mom). And a bracelet.”

Karin tried to keep a brave face, but she failed to do so. I had bought the earrings in Arlington, Virginia, at an immigration conference. The earrings were from Guatemala. Karin was right. Nothing in that bag was valuable in a monetary way, but everything meant something to her. Everything was somehow irreplaceable.

Neither of us spoke. We just looked out the window.

The train pulled into the station at Milwaukee. We grabbed our belongings and found our Lyft ride.

We never talked about the little bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stories

August 29th, 2019

“Don’t give me answers or I would refuse
‘Yes’ is a word for which I have no use
And I wasn’t looking for Heaven or Hell
Just someone to listen to stories I tell”

from “Stories I Tell” by Toad the Wet Sprocket (a really good song, by the way)

I tell stories. I’m good at that. It is curious to me that, as I tell stories, the emotional impact for me diminishes. I read once that we initially remember actual events, but later we only remember the narratives that we have created around those events. I think that is true. Often the actual events are too traumatic or confusing to describe. So, we make up a story, something that makes a bit of sense, to explain what happened. The story may or may not have anything to do with an objective reality. However, the story is the only reality that we can tolerate.

It was the morning after the land purification ceremony. I was just hanging around the Ground Zero house, waiting for breakfast to begin. I sat next to Sawada, a Japanese monk who currently runs the temple in Los Angeles. We hadn’t really spoken before, so we haltingly tried to get to know each other.

We sat, and we talked about languages for a while. I told Sawada that I had learned Arabic in the Army. Then I told him about how our son, Hans, had gone to Iraq to fight. Sawada nodded, and said,

“Yes, I read your letter about ‘Memorial Day’. It was very good.”

Then he placed his hands together and made gassho.

I talked about Hans and the war. I started telling Sawada the old story about what had happened to Hans. It was like a recitation for me. I was telling the monk a story that I had told many people many times in the past.

Then he put his hand on my knee.

That move was the emotional equivalent of getting stuck with a cattle prod.

My mind shifted abruptly. I was no longer telling Sawada a story. I was back in the story. I was back in a small room, talking with Hans on the phone. I went back ten years ago, listening to Hans tell me things that I never wanted to hear. In a way, I was no longer with Sawada.

I lost track of my words. I shook my head and told Sawada,

“Uh, well, then I asked Hans if he had shot a man in Iraq…”

Sawada looked at me intently, and nodded for me to continue.

I bit my upper lip, and then I said,

“Hans said ‘Yes’, and then it was quiet.”

My eyes misted. I told Sawada,

“I asked Hans if the man died.”

Sawada stroked my shoulder with his hand.

Then I said, “Hans told me, ‘Yeah, I guess so. I pumped thirty rounds into him.’ He said that so calmly.”

My chest heaved. Fuck, that hurt. Goddammit.

Sawada nodded again.

I got up. I needed to get away.

Sawada stood up with me.

He hugged me. He hugged me like he would never let me go.

I cried.

Eventually, we came apart. He smiled at me and said,

“Thank you so much for your words.”

He bowed and made gassho.

I went outside to pray.

 

 

 

 

Blackberries and Atom Bombs

August 29th, 2019

The land surrounding Puget Sound is remarkably vibrant and beautiful. Even now, in the dry season, almost everything is still lush and green. Last week, Karin and I were on a small piece of property owned by Ground Zero near Poulsbo, Washington. This lot, like most of the land around it, is mostly covered with towering Douglas firs and cedars. The underbrush consists of ferns, rhododendrons, and blackberry bushes. There are lots of blackberry bushes.

The blackberry bushes would probably be considered an invasive species, if they were anywhere else. The bushes have thorny canes that reach out to cover almost all objects blocking their  way. Fresh shoots from the bushes find new paths wherever and however they can. If left unchecked, blackberries can take over everything, and it seems that they often do. The saving grace of these bushes, at least in August, is that the berries are ripe and sweet and always within reach. It required literally no effort for me to feast on the blackberries.

Karin and I were staying at Ground Zero in order to help with the land purification ceremony that the Japanese Buddhists (Nichiren order) were preparing. The ritual was to be performed in anticipation of the construction of a peace pagoda on that spot. The people affiliated with Ground Zero are adamantly opposed to the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Ground Zero’s property is adjacent to the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine base at Bangor, Washington. Ground Zero and the Navy are uneasy neighbors. It’s more than a bit ironic. The Buddhists had attempted to build a peace pagoda right next to the naval base almost thirty-seven years ago. Their efforts were interrupted when two Marines from the base burned the original structure to the ground. It is only now that the monks and nuns are ready to resume their work.

I had some free time while I was hanging out with the Japanese monks and nuns. I used some of that time to go for long walks. Ground Zero is on the Clear Water Creek Road. After going along that road in one direction, I walked onto an overpass that was very close to the entrance of the naval base. Clear Creek Road rose high above the street that led to the military base. From the bridge, I watched the cars go into the base, and the cars that left from it. It all seemed so mundane, so ordinary. I just stood and watched, and watched.

I was in West Germany during the Cold War. I was an American soldier there. Every day I woke up wondering if we would go to war with the Russians. We didn’t, but that thought was always in my mind. Always. I was always conscious of the fact the end of the world was nigh. Now, people don’t think about a nuclear holocaust. I don’t understand why that is. The end of the Cold War did not solve the problem of nuclear weapons. We simply chose to ignore the problem. The nukes are all still there. Waiting.

As I stood on the bridge, I had time to think. I thought about the fact that a number of Trident submarines are stationed at the Bangor base, and that each of these subs carries ballistic missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. Each of these submarines has the power to destroy millions of people, almost instantaneously. I also considered the fact that Bangor is certainly a target for any enemy of the United States. This facility, along with anything within hundreds of miles of it, would be obliterated in a war. This lush, fertile land would become like Sodom and Gomorrah. All that I could see and hear and feel would be gone in a flash.

I saw blackberry canes coming through the cracks in the concrete at the side of the overpass. They found paths through even the tiniest spaces. There were some ripe blackberries available to be picked.

I reached for a berry and pricked my hand on a thorn. It hurt. I swore to myself and pulled my hand away. I ate the berry, and then I looked at my hand. My fingers and thumb were stained with the juice of the fruit, and there was also a bit of blood mixed in with it. I wiped my hand on a concrete slab.

I turned to look again at the gate to the naval base. I couldn’t understand. I can’t wrap my head around Armageddon. It’s just too hard. I can’t imagine everything dying.

Even the blackberries.