Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Aging Well

We have just celebrated my mother’s ninetieth birthday.

This singular event has been in the planning for some time, ever since last summer when the family vacationed together, discussing how we might want to recognize this special day. After all, it’s not everyone who becomes a nonagenarian!

For some time now, my brother John, and his wife Lynne, have been vacationing each summer at a cabin in Maine. A number of years ago my wife Isaura and I began making this trip with them. Our sister, Joy, joined us more recently in this trans-continent journey. And, of course, our mother, Christine, would be there, not wanting to miss out on the gathering of her three chicks, not to mention the lobster feasts we would have at the cabin.

We would fly from California to spend a few days in Virginia with my brother before driving to Maine. Admittedly, golf is one of the prime ingredients on such a vacation. It could probably be said with a straight face that John and I would rather play golf than eat. If you are not nodding your head with understanding at this moment then you are obviously not a golfer, and no amount of explanation will suffice.

A few months ago I scanned a lot of family pictures into my computer which I dutifully sent to John and Joy who were working on several ideas for the big birthday. This was also a birthday that was a family “command performance.” This military term means you will be there, period! This meant all grandkids were to escape whatever responsibilities they had and were to make their way to Virginia. Our girls, Laura and Jenny, including Jenny’s fiancĂ©, Josh, flew out with us, followed shortly by my sister’s kids, Holly and Ryan. John’s kids, Abi and Joshua are already close enough. Abi lives in Washington DC, about ten miles from John’s home. Josh is a Marine captain, flying Cobra helicopters out of New River, North Carolina. Mom, who lives in my home in California, had already flown to Virginia in May as part of her bi-annual visits to her eldest’s home.

So, here we were last week arriving at the various airports around DC, descending on my brother’s home. The “adults” stayed at John’s home. This included our mother, Joy, Isaura and me, and of course John and Lynne. The “kids” stayed at John and Lynne’s best friend’s home about a mile from John’s. Larry and Lynne Simmons have a lovely home with lots of room, and a swimming pool. Many an hour was spent lazing around the pool. (I put adults and kids in parentheses because the grandkids are all adults. Jenny is the baby at twenty-three.)

The first of several events was a dinner hosted by the Simmons last Thursday night. It was a delightful evening. It was the kind of evening where you have filled up on hors-d’oeuvres before you ever sit down for dinner! On Friday evening my brother hosted a dinner for family and friends at the Riverbend Country Club. It was here that the biggest surprise occurred. As we were sitting at the dining table on the patio overlooking the first tee box and the ninth green, John stood behind our mother’s chair to make an announcement. Acknowledging her ninetieth birthday, he then introduced a special guest. Walking in from the shadows was Emogene Mize, mom’s first cousin from East Texas. This tiny little lady, using a cane, beamed with joy, and was greeted with great enthusiasm. She and mom hugged, and then were seated side-by-side where they began an endless conversation that continues even as I write this on Monday!

Emogene is five years older than mom to the day. As the story goes, Emogene was having her fifth birthday party in her home in Lone Oak, Texas (there actually is such a town!) while my mother was being born in the house next door. These two precious ladies are the granddaughters of the Reverend Daniel Thatcher Lake, one of the last of the circuit-riding preachers during our nation’s formative years in the last half of the 1800s. I’m presently writing an historical novel about his life.

Not done with all the festivities, Saturday evening was actually the day we’d planned to have the birthday party at John’s home. Friends and family once again gathered for a wonderful time. John’s wife, Lynne, had a timeline banner put together which we hung on a wall which began with 1915 up to the present. Besides the family events, many historical events were listed. It was a great history lesson. Joy had put together a beautiful video tribute to mom which had many pictures of family members living, and those who have passed on. Of course the house was gaily decorated with streamers, paper lanterns and flowers everywhere.

As it turns out, John had planned for Emogene to fly out several days earlier, staying with her granddaughter Christi, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. Christi and her two kids, Jason and Stephanie, came to the party on Saturday. (Husband Ken, was not able to make it but we’ll hook up another time.) We’d never met them before. In fact, I didn’t know we had cousins here. My wife, Isaura, is Portuguese, so she has a firm grasp on family relations, such as second and third cousins, etc. I’m lost once you go past first cousins. If I have it right, I’m Emogene’s second cousin. Her kids would be my third cousin, making Christi my fourth cousin, and Christi’s kids my fifth cousins which would mean my daughters are sixth cousins to Christi’s kids. I may have this all wrong, but we’re related.

Regardless of what number cousin we are, it was all great fun and a blessing to meet family which was previously unknown to us.

Proverbs says, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged.” I’d have to conclude that mom’s ninetieth birthday is a testament to the importance of family and raising your kids well.

Happy 90th Birthday, mom! Let’s do this again in ten years.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Golden Rule

It has been with a great deal of interest that I have been following the back and forth debate over the alleged abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and Guantanimo Bay, Cuba, shortened to “Gitmo” by those in the military.

The debate rages today both in the media and on Capitol Hill over the reports of the Koran being flushed down toilets in Gitmo, along with mishandlings of the Koran by military guards. This particular accusation is a no-win dilemma. Because Muslims believe our guards to be infidels, merely touching the Koran is tantamount to mishandling the Islamic holy book.

The arguments in defense of these allegations run the gamut.
• “We’re the ones who give them the Koran.”
This is true. We provide each prisoner with a copy of the Koran if he so wishes. We have even sent some of our Muslim military chaplains to provide spiritual counsel and comfort. We provide the prayer rugs required for their daily prayers. We even make sure they have an arrow placed in their cell pointing toward the holy city of Mecca so they will be able to bow in prayer five times a day pointed in the right direction.
• “We feed them foods in keeping with their religious dietary requirements.”
We make sure these men do not eat anything that would violate their religious teachings and sensibilities. They are provided televisions, fresh bedding, and clean clothing on a regular basis. Yes, they have it a lot better than they did in Afghanistan, or wherever they came from.
• “We don’t behead our enemies and make a public display of them on television.”
This is also true. Such behavior is barbaric to the extreme and would not be tolerated by the American people. It has even been said that we might just as easily have killed these terrorists on the field of battle and nothing would have been said. They were taken as prisoners because we do not wantonly kill enemy combatants.
• “The mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is as harmless as college Fraternity pranks.”
That we humiliated Iraqi prisoners is inexcusable. The news media claims they broke the story about prison abuses, but the truth is our own military became aware of this problem eight months before the story was reported. We had already investigated the incidents and had taken appropriate measures to bring to justice those who were guilty of this reprehensible behavior.
• “These terrorists certainly do not respect or honor our religious beliefs.”
We already know that treatment of captured American service members and civilians is likely to end in their death. Terrorists in Bethlehem destroyed many of the icons and bibles sacred to Christians. I don’t recall an outcry from our media or politicians about these violations.

All such arguments are irrelevant. The reason they are irrelevant has to do with a basic tenant of our nation. As Americans, our ethos was established on the teachings of the Bible. Principally: the Golden Rule. This teaching comes directly from Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount where he said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

It is this principle that has been the cornerstone of the American concept of fairness. It is also the basis upon which our judicial system was established. This explains why our military treats its enemies with respect. This also explains why the anomalies of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo do not set well with us as Americans. We expect better from our fellow Americans. No amount of justification will excuse the poor treatment of prisoners, whether Saddam Hussein or some fifteen year old insurgent recruited from Yemen.

Jesus said to treat others the way you would want to be treated. This is the very foundation of all that the Bible teaches. The Law of Moses and the words of the Prophets are the bedrock of all other teachings in the Bible. Coupled with the Golden Rule is the Law of Love: “Love the Lord your God,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The crown of these teachings is, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

We live by a higher standard. Therefore, we must treat others the way we would want to be treated, whether they treat us that way or not. To do otherwise is to cause our concept of who we are as a people to be seriously eroded in our own minds, and invites the criticism of those who are only too happy to point the accusing finger at us.

We would all do well to return to the teachings of the Bible and put it into practice in our daily lives. Our enemies may never respect us for holding to such lofty ideals. But at least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing the right thing.

The Golden Rule is never old fashioned or out of date.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Cinderella Man

A few nights ago I decided to go to the movies. This is a rare event, since I usually find nothing worth my time and effort. In the last several years I have been to the movie house to see: My Big Fat Greek Wedding; The Passion of the Christ; and now, Cinderella Man.

I’ve been in Yuma, Arizona for the past week with one week to go, thus satisfying my military requirements for this year. Since my evenings are usually free while away from home, RP2 Kevin Rodgers and I decided to catch a show. He is a Star Wars junkie, and I had not seen the latest (and final?) episode of this saga, so after dinner at Chili’s we headed for the movie house. This is one of those multi-plex theaters so commonly found in large malls today.

Standing in line to buy tickets I noticed that Cinderella Man was also showing. So I suggested we see that instead, especially since Kevin had already seen the Star Wars flick. I had read a review of Cinderella Man recently, which stars Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. The reviewer said this was the “must see” movie of the year. Well, I’ve heard that before. But what got my interest was 1) Ron Howard is the director, 2) Russell Crowe is a terrific actor, his off screen behavior not withstanding, 3) it is a true-life story, and 4) it’s about boxing. I love boxing! I boxed a little myself many years ago. In fact, I had a promising career. I had only one problem: I discovered I had an inate ability to block any punch with my face!

So anyway, we watched the movie and I must say, Kevin and I agreed it was outstanding. The reason it was outstanding is because of the values that are so clearly taught. This is the story of a light-heavyweight boxer in the late 1920s by the name of James J. Braddock (played by Crowe). His rise to the top of the boxing world was curtailed by a persisten broken right hand. The Great Depression reduced him to working the docks of New York City for day wages, if work was even available. He, his wife and three kids lived in the squalor of tenement houses. Unable to pay the electric bill, with little money for food, the family struggled. His wife, Mae (wonderfully played by Renee Zellweger), took in ironing.

What stands out in this movie are: strong family ties; a solid work ethic; and the determination never to quit, whether in the boxing ring or in life.
The relationship between Braddock and his wife is warm and genuine. They are committed to each other and their family, though not without struggles, and enduring the poverty that was visited upon them through no fault of their own. They conduct themselves with honor and dignity. Mae always supports him in his boxing career even though she doesn’t like the sport.

One scene was poignant in its portrayal of the eldest son (about ten years old), who had stolen a bologna sausage from the local deli. The mother had the boy wait until the father came home. Braddock took his son back to the deli to return the sausage. As they left the deli, the father explains to the son that no matter how bad things may get in life, you never do the wrong thing. Then he asked his son to promise never to steal again. The son promised, but through his tears expressed his fear that if the family didn’t get enough food to eat, the kids would be farmed out to relatives like some of his friends had experienced. Braddock realized his son’s fear and assured him that he would never break up the family regardless of how desperate things might get. You’ll need a tissue for this scene!

Also, Braddock demonstrated enormous character throughout. At one point he had to seek financial assistance from a government agency in order to feed his family. After he had his opportunity to fight again in 1934, from the fight purse he earned from the win, he returned the money he’d previously received from the government agency! When asked why he’d done this, he explained that he didn’t need the money any longer, and figured someone else probably did. When’s the last time you saw this characteristic portrayed in a Hollywood film?

James J. Braddock got his “cinderella” chance to fight the then heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer. The odds were clearly against Braddock surviving the first round, let alone going the distance with Baer. But to win the fight on top of that? Impossible! Yet, that’s what happened in June 1935. Braddock held the title for two years before losing it to an up-and-comer by the name of Joe Louis, known to fight fans as “The Brown Bomber.”

With the money he earned from his win over Baer, Braddock bought a home for his family in North Bergen, New Jersey. He retired from boxing in 1938. When the United States entered WWII, he joined the Army. He was then thirty-seven years old. He and his wife, Mae, lived in their modest North Bergen home the rest of their lives.

This is a “must see” movie. There is some use of foul language, but only what you would expect from those involved in so violent a sport as boxing. And the fights are raw, bloody events. It all fits together and is well worth your time. You’ll come away feeling good about life again.

And wouldn’t that be nice for a change?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

We're Winning

Two years ago this month I left Kuwait and Iraq. I was being reassigned to a new base in the small, and little known country of Djibouti, Africa. I was asked to establish a long-term command religious program for this new base. I spent the next six months there.

The other evening I was spending some time with my friends who all share the same hobby. We sing barbershop. Between the “ringing of chords” (glorious!) one of the men asked me a question, sort of in a confidential manner, a feat not easily accomplished with thirty-five men all around you. He said, “Tell me, are we doing the right thing over there? Should we be there?”

These and questions like it are directed at me with some frequency. I’m not an expert on this war, or any war, for that matter. I have served in two of our nations wars: the War on Terrorism, and the Vietnam War. Because I have “been there, done that,” it is often assumed that I am something of an expert. At best, I am an observing participant, looking through a very small lens on the larger scene. This being said, I do have a perspective that I believe is accurate.

I keep in touch with people in our military who have recently been “in country.” Or they are there now. Or they are soon going back. Then there are those who are doing the same thing I do that I keep in touch with. The message is the same: We’re winning.

For those who think I’m just being a jingoist – think again. In fact, I expect more from the party whose views to which I’m more closely aligned. Therefore, I expect more from that party. When they fail to deliver as they should, I let them know. At times, I don’t like either party very much.

But when it comes to our military, they are the best in the world, bar none. This is not even arguable. I have seen how they perform. They are intensely patriotic, while at the same time extremely compassionate. My favorite picture is of a Marine, in the midst of a firefight, doing the fireman’s carry for a wounded Iraqi soldier (on the March to Baghdad), bringing this man to our military medical folks for treatment. That is the picture of our young men and women in uniform.

“Yeah, but what about Abu Ghraib?” some may ask. Okay, fair question. This disgusting incident was an anomaly. This is more indicative of poor leadership within that command than behavior endemic in our military. What many people do not know is that this incident took place in the fall of 2003. The military was aware of the problem and was taking the appropriate measures when the media caught wind of it in the spring of 2004. The way the media presented it, made it appear as though they had been the ones to break the story, implying that the military was covering this up. Not so. The investigation was ongoing, and those who were responsible were being disciplined through the military courts martial system. The military takes care of its own business without fanfare and finger-pointing. The guilty will be properly dealt with, of this you may be sure. We wear the uniform of our nation with pride. We don’t like having one of our own throw dirt on it.

“But are we winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?” Yes. We are. They are tasting freedom for the first time in their lives. Freedom takes some getting used to if it has never been available to you before. Allow me to make a comparison.

Our own American Revolution began in 1776. Things were very bleak. Many of our forefathers were torn between loyalty to the British throne, and loyalty to their new land, America. We didn’t have a Constitution until 1787. Our first elected leader for president was George Washington – in 1789. It was not until December of 1791 that the Bill of Rights was ratified to the Constitution.

Now, let’s compare that to Iraq. Since these folks had the abusive yolk of a tyrannical dictator lifted off of their necks in April of 2003, they have held open and free elections, June 28, 2004, to establish an intermediary government; they have held open and free elections, January 30, 2005, to vote in leadership for the nation. They are in the process of formulating their own constitution. I’d be willing to bet it will not be the monolithic document presented to the European Union recently that was several hundred pages long (obviously put together by a committee). Our original Constitution is little more than a page long. Add the amendments, including the Bill of Rights, and it’s not much more than two pages in length.

Industry, commerce, schools, utilities, and oil production are up and running. Yes, there are car bombings, drive-by shootings, and other last-gasp terrorist gyrations. Most insurgents come from outside Iraq. Those Iraqis committing terrorist acts also had it good working for Saddam. Now they have to work and pull their own weight. They liked it better under the brutal dictator. Too bad. He’s gone, and they soon will be.

Twenty years from now, let’s take a look back and see if this wasn’t one of the greatest liberations that has taken place since God delivered the Israelites from Egypt.

I have much more to say on this. But for now, I’ll simply say: We’re winning.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Days of Summer

I lived to play baseball.

Growing up in New England, I had several professional baseball teams to choose from. We lived close to New York City. In those days, the New York Giants were still there at the Polo Grounds, as were the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. And of course, there were the dreaded New York Yankees at the original Yankee Stadium, called “The House that Ruth Built.” Just up the coast were the hapless Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. I was a die-hard Dodgers fan. There were no New York Mets then.

I had accumulated a sizeable baseball card collection. I had Nellie Fox, Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowrun, Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, and the list of my boyhood heroes goes on. No doubt you have all heard folks like me intone a lament with hang-dog face that goes something like this: “If I had those baseball cards today . . . . I could retire!” I’ve been heard to say the same thing about my childhood comic book collection.

The first of June was always very exciting for me. There were so many wonderful experiences to be enjoyed in the next few months. Memorial Day Parade. School would be letting out in early June. Little League was in full swing (pun intended). Flag Day. The Fourth of July. The All-Star break came in July. To be perfectly honest, I could hardly sleep at night knowing I would be joining my buddies the next morning to play baseball.

Anybody could play. Living just outside New York City, we had kids from every ethnic group, background, and belief system. Dominic, Frankie, and Ritchie were Italian-American. Seymour and Mitch were Jewish. Arthur and Terry were Black. Johnny, Gene and Peter were Irish-American. None of us cared about all that. We just loved to play baseball.

If there weren’t enough guys to play a game, we’d play “Flies Up.” This was great fun. It was actually called, “Three Flies and You’re Up.” What this meant is you stayed in the batters-box until you had hit three fly balls that were caught. Then the next guys would step in to bat, and you would grab your mitt (short for mitten) and head for the outfield. We would play for hours. After my step-father came home in the evening, we’d play “catch” in the backyard. I loved that.

As you have undoubtedly surmised, I’ve been reflecting on those days recently. They are warm, comfortable memories. I can still smell the linseed oil we used on our baseball gloves to keep them moist and supple. We’d tighten the leather thongs that held the various oversized fingers together. Then we’d place a baseball in the palm of the glove and curl the glove around the ball, using rubber bands, to create the “perfect pocket.”

We didn’t have much money, and baseballs were expensive, something like $1.50 to $1.95 each. So, after we had hit a ball until the leather cover was ripping off, we’d grab a roll of black electricians tape and wind it around the ball which would last us for a few more days.

My Dodgers won the World Series in 1955. It was glorious! It was especially sweet because the Yankees didn’t win it for a change. Just in my brief life the Yankees had won the World Series in 1949, 50, 51, 52, 53, 56, 58, 61, and 62. In fact, they have won the World Series twenty-six times. It was about time my Dodgers, known then as the “Brooklyn Bums,” won the big prize. Even today, I still don’t like the Yankees! I root for any team that is playing them.

Probably the saddest day in my life in those years came in 1958. I kept hearing that the Dodgers were going to move to California. What? How could this be? The world as I knew it was about to change – forever. I remember asking my step-father about this. He was a long-suffering Red Sox fan. How he would have loved to see his Red Sox last fall destroy the Yankees on their way to becoming World Series Champions after an 86 year draught! Anyway, I said, “I’m hearing that the Dodgers are moving to Los Angeles. Is this true?” He said it was. I said, “Can they do that?” He assured me that they could.

I was stunned. The universe was out of alignment. The earth was knocked off its axis. Stars plummeted from the sky. I fell into a blue funk.

The “Bums,” indeed, moved to Los Angeles. The Giants moved to San Francisco. Why couldn’t the Yankees have moved – to the dark side of the moon?

My baseball days died an ignominious death two summers later when my step-father, venturing into a new business, moved the whole family to Paris, France. I packed my glove and favorite black baseball bat. I needn’t have bothered. The French don’t play baseball. I reverently placed my bat and glove in the closet, and learned to play soccer. My mortification was complete. I was now a lost soul.

Those summer days in the ‘50s were good days. I miss them.

Psalm for the Day