Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

With Thanksgiving

             Thankfulness is truly a human trait. It often evidences itself as an emotion that bubbles up from deep within the human spirit. A near traffic accident might cause even the most calloused of people to utter a brief word of thanks to whatever entity or deity exists.

So what is it that brings out an attitude of thankfulness from the animal class in the world known within the scientific community as Homo sapiens? Homo sapiens is Latin for “the wise humans,” or “the clever humans.” Well, I would suggest that thankfulness is a divine quality that emanates directly from God. He is the one who made us so that we can experience the full range of senses and emotions that are intended to round us out as human beings. In fact, a person who lacks this quality is considered to be seriously deficient in their character. Typically a person who fails to demonstrate thankfulness is regarded as self-centered, a bore, and is probably someone who lacks the capacity for caring and being compassionate.

As you are reading this in the paper you are preparing to enjoy the pleasantries of a sumptuous feast tomorrow, no doubt to be enjoyed with family and close friends. Many prayers of thanks will be offered over golden roast turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes, bowls of beans, heapings of stuffing, generous slices of pumpkin pie with a healthy daub of whipped cream, accompanied by a freshly brewed cup of coffee. It is factored that you and I will consume roughly 3,500 calories in this one meal on Thanksgiving Day.

What were the original pilgrims thankful for way back in 1621? The main emphasis of thanks on the part of those first settlers on America’s shore was that they had managed to see some of them through a very cold winter with little in the way of food and clothing to fight against the oppressive elements. In the spring of 1621, Indians (Native Americans) approached the greatly depleted pilgrims and offered to show them how to properly plant corn and other successful agricultural methods. Later in the fall after bringing in an abundant harvest, the pilgrims invited the Indians to join them in a Harvest Celebration. The food most likely consisted of deer meat, wild turkey, and a mash of vegetables. Games and feats of skill were entered into with great relish. Settler children and Indian children taught each other the games they often played. The feasting and celebrating continued for many days, and a good time was had by all.

However, the one overarching thought on the part of the settlers was their attitude of thanks toward God for seeing them through these early challenging months in the New World. Many of the pilgrims survived the arduous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower, only to succumb to disease or illness in what was one of the coldest winters on records in 1620 at that time.  

In addition to being thankful for their lives being spared, they were beginning to enjoy the reality of being a free people. They worshipped as they chose without the ever present Church of England spies reporting them to the authorities. This liberty was intoxicating, and coupled with the drafting of the Mayflower Compact by Governor William Bradford, this document was the genesis of what was to become the United States Constitution some 160 years later.

As you can see, the pilgrims were thankful for a whole different set of circumstances than we might be today, although in either case the thanks should be directed to God. The Bible instructs us to approach God always in an attitude of thanksgiving. Even in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of 1913, the definition for Thanksgiving is, “A public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness; also, a day set apart for religious services, specially to acknowledge the goodness of God, either in any remarkable deliverance from calamities or danger, or in the ordinary dispensation of his bounties.” This definition seems to have had the pilgrims in mind.

It was in 1777 that General George Washington and his army were on the way to Valley Forge. They stopped in blistering weather in open fields to observe the first Thanksgiving of the newly established United States of America.

When you gather around the table consider this poem, Thanksgiving Observance (unknown author). “Count your blessings instead of your crosses; Count your gains instead of you losses. Count your joys instead of your woes; Count your friends instead of your foes. Count your smiles instead of your tears; Count your courage instead of your fears. Count your full years instead of your lean; Count your kind deeds instead of your mean. Count your health instead of your wealth; Count on God instead of yourself.”

And everyone said – Amen!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Life Lessons

             The other day I was thinking about a special time that occurred in the summer of 1991. For my youngest daughter, Jenny, it became one of those life lessons that would be character forming.

I had just finished a year of study on my doctorate when the family and I flew to Alaska to spend some time with my brother and his family in Anchorage. We had lots of things planned during this visit. We spent several days at Denali Park camping out and hiking through the spectacular terrain around Mount McKinley. But the trip that capped it all off was a five-day hike on the Resurrection Pass Trail.

My brother, John, had been helping with the youth group at his church, and every June they would take this 39 mile jaunt down the Resurrection Pass Trail North, camping each night at a predetermined location. During this hike the elevation changed from 500 to 2600 feet above sea level. Each person packed their own stuff, which included clothing, bedding and food.

The church youth group consisted of about a dozen or so high school kids. My brother’s son, Josh, was in high school, but his sister, Abi, and my girls, Laura and Jenny were several years younger. The question was, could our girls hang with these older kids on a very challenging trek through this rugged wilderness area. Laura and Abi were twelve with Abi celebrating her 13th birthday out on the trail. Jenny, on the other hand, was nine. We discussed all of this with the girls and they said they wanted to go.

Departure day had us all gathering at a remote location where the trail began. There was nothing else around. After taking pictures of the whole group, we said our goodbyes to our wives and waved as they drove off. The teens immediately took off running down the trail. Jenny slipped into her backpack and started walking. I knew that the two of us would be bringing up the rear, so I was in no hurry. I noticed that after about 50 yards Jenny had stopped. As I walked up to her she looked at me with a look of consternation. “Oh Daddy,” said wailed, “this pack is so heavy!” “Well,” I said, “you’ll get used to it. Let’s go.” I made like I was going to continue down the trail, but Jenny wasn’t having any of that. “Oh Daddy, it’s so heavy!” she moaned. “I’d be willing to trade backpacks with you,” I said, “but yours weighs about 25 pounds and mine weighs about 70.” Tears were forming in her eyes, so I stopped and said, pointing back to the parking lot, “Your mother and aunt just drove back to Anchorage going that-a-way. We’re hiking this-a-way,” pointing toward the mountains in the opposite direction. “When we get to the end of the trail in five days that’s where your mother and aunt will be waiting to pick us up.” “But Daddy . . .” she pleaded. I said, “If you like, we can just sit down here and wait with the hope that someone will come along and rescue us, or we can hike this trail and catch up with the rest and have a good time. I’ll let you decide.” And I sat down on the trail to wait. After a bit she realized I wasn’t kidding, so she mumbled, “Okay,” and started down the trail.

The rest of the morning was a constant complaint of the pack being too heavy, and the trail is rough, etc. We arrived at our first camp in time for lunch. Jenny saw the kids running around and playing so she dropped her pack and joined in the games. After lunch we headed out again. The moaning began once again and lasted throughout the afternoon until we broke for dinner. She played with the kids again before we hit the sack, only to start the process all over again the next morning. “Oh Daddy . . .” it began and lasted until our noon break. At that point she seemed to realize she wasn’t going to die out here, and she decided this was kind of fun.

While we were plodding along we were coming through what is known as “The Devil’s Pass.” The wind was blowing very hard and it was cold. Then we were pelted with hail. Since Jenny and I were still pulling up the rear, we decided to sit down and take cover until the hail stopped. John wandered back down the trail to check on us, but we were fine and enjoying the whole experience.

A special moment was when John baked a birthday cake over an open fire for Abi. It was something you had to see, but it worked and everyone helped polish it off. Delicious!

On the final day we stopped for lunch alongside a river with a cascade of waterfalls creating a pristine setting. But we had about five miles to go to reach the end, so we stepped out smartly knowing Isaura and Lynne would be picking us up soon. Jenny took off at a run trying to catch up with her sister and cousin. She suddenly stopped. I noticed the pack was hanging off her shoulder. The strap, which attached at the bottom part of the pack, had detached. I fiddled with it and finally jury-rigged it so Jenny could carry it, albeit, awkwardly. But she soldiered on without complaint.

The trail ended in a series of switch-backs through trees down into a parking lot. When Jenny saw that parking lot she took off running down the trail. As I watched her I also saw Lynne and Isaura drive into the parking lot. Fortunately, Lynne had the presence of mind to grab her camera. She took a picture of Jenny just as she broke out of the trees racing full tilt toward the car.

It was a wonderful experience for all of us. But what made it so special was the lesson Jenny learned. Since that day she has never hesitated to tackle difficult challenges. Today she’s married with two kids, and she is in a business partnership. And in her spare time she runs half-marathons!

That’s my girl!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Free Speech Zone

              A local radio talk show host has been using as one of his promos the line, “Free Speech Zone? Free Speech Zone? The whole country is a free speech zone!”

Even though the guy was stating the obvious, it begs the question: Why did he feel the need to make such a statement?

Allow me to offer some thoughts on this. The United States Constitution establishes for all Americans rights that are inherent to living in America. The Bill of Rights were written to insure that we the people would be guaranteed these rights in the eventuality that someone, or some entity, would come along and attempt to alter, restrict, or remove this right. The Constitution was officially ratified in 1787, but it was four years later that the Bill of Rights was ratified and attached to the Constitution. These rights were hewn out of the life experiences these Founding Fathers had already lived.

Once Christopher Columbus opened the way to the New World, those nations which were historically monarchies jumped on the bandwagon by expanding their reach and power around the world. The big dogs in this race for power and expansion were England, France, Spain and Portugal. There were others, but they were relatively minor, particularly in their influence in the Americas. Spain gobbled up almost all of South and Central America including a significant portion of the Western United States. France primarily grabbed Louisiana and the Mississippi River spreading out through what is “Fly-Over Country” in the U.S. today, plus a significant portion of Eastern Canada. Portugal was a lesser player, but they managed to snag a prized section of South America: Brazil, which is the largest country in South America encompassing the Amazon River.

Britain wound up being the top dog by having control of the Eastern U.S. and the majority of Canada. Here’s where the trouble began. The monarchy of an English king ruling over the colonies in the New World by fiat was increasingly onerous to the colonists. They were treated like second class citizens, and increasingly taxed without anyone acting as an advocate for them in the halls of the English Parliament. Thus the phrase many of us learned in school about our American History, “No Taxation Without Representation!”

But remember that the original colonists coming to America in 1607 was to escape religious persecution and manipulation. England had devolved into a single religion nation. If you did not openly embrace the Church of England, you were persecuted, intimidated and generally harassed by the monarchy and the Church. Church attendance was required. An itinerant English street preacher in the mid-1600s, John Bunyan, was arrested and imprisoned for many years for preaching the Gospel. Little wonder that the colonists penned the First Amendment as they did! No establishment of religion (i.e., a state run religion); and prohibiting the free exercise thereof (i.e., worship as your conscience dictates).

These pesky colonists in America were ignored in their attempts to gain the attention of the monarchy. The king and the Parliament were content as long as the supplies of tobacco and cotton kept coming into English ports. This growing discontent on the part of the colonists ultimately brought about a need to “Put up, or shut up.”

The American Revolution was inevitable due to the English royalty’s disregard for the plight of their charges in the Americas. It is often believed that all the colonists were in favor of revolution. This was not the case. It has been speculated that as much as 1/3 of the colonists were opposed to war with England. Mostly they were successful businessmen, tradesmen, and farmers who were still making a profit despite the increasingly oppressive taxation being levied against them. “Don’t upset the apple cart,” would have been their mantra. Leave well-enough alone. Or as we hear today, “You go along to get along.”

The reason I have taken the time to give you a thumbnail sketch of the historical events leading to our American Revolution is so that you can once again appreciate the reason the Founding Fathers made sure we the people would have rights available to us that were so blatantly ignored previously by high-brow elites in Europe. This is why the First Amendment is so crucial, and it sets the stage for the other rights drafted in that 1791 document.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So, yes, the First Amendment is crucial to all our freedoms. Never surrender this right! America is a Free Speech Zone because of the Bill of Rights. And for that, you should thank God.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My Heroes

              Growing up I remember reading about heroes. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, Paul Revere, Molly Pitcher, Sergeant Audie Murphy, Sergeant Alvin York, Harriet Tubman, Davy Crockett, Ira Hayes, General Jimmy Doolittle, and Jackie Robinson, to name a few.

Let me ask you: Have you heard about any heroes lately? You see, I’m very careful of who I regard as a hero. There are numerous definitions for hero. However, the definition I choose to use is, “A hero is a person who performs extraordinary deeds for the benefit of others.” Now add this as part of the definition: “a very brave person, one who has committed a courageous act.”

So, with those definitions, let me state what I do not think merits hero status. First: athletes. Particularly, football players. I may get in trouble with my barbershop pals because we just performed our annual concert in which we sang a song entitled, Football Hero. But seriously, playing football, even if you’re the best at what you do, in no way raises you to hero status. It’s a game.

Second: movie stars. John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart are actors – not heroes. I love these guys as actors! They frequently played the roles of real-life heroes. And unquestionably they are great actors. But they are not heroes.

Third: politicians. There is far too much self-aggrandizement, egotism, and personal advancement in the halls of government at all levels. Some of their adherents will blindly follow their rise to power believing these elected officials are above reproach. They may be well-intentioned, but they frequently delve into sycophantic patterns willingly embracing political and philosophical tenets that they previously opposed. These politicians may attempt great things, but they are not heroes.

These three categories are not the only groups that I find unsuitable for heroes to emerge, but it will suffice for this article.

The folks that I find to be in the hero category are more likely to be unknown, rarely becoming a household name. In recent years I would add the name of Todd Beamer to my list. Couple that with firemen and policemen who charged into harm’s way knowing the dangers they faced. They went anyway. Hundreds lost their lives on 9-11.

Since then, I have been humbled by the courage and commitment of our young men and women serving in the best military in the world. They are not driven to serve by political ideology, or religious zeal, like so many of our nation’s enemies are. They simply love America, and believe she is a nation worth fighting for up to and including the laying down of their lives if need be.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and typically they are self-effacing. They do not believe they are doing anything extraordinary. They are convinced that anyone in their shoes would do the same thing. Just listen to the remarks made by the recipients of the Medal of Honor. There is no attempt to credit themselves for their recognition. In fact, most would say something like, “The real heroes are the ones who didn’t come home.”

Besides those I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my heroes today wear, or have worn a uniform: law enforcement, fire, and military. My brother, John, tops the list. He was a Marine helicopter pilot. He flew the CH46 Sea Knight in Vietnam in 1967 when Marine 2nd Lieutenant helicopter pilots had a 2 minute life expectancy in a combat zone. Despite that he racked up more than 220 combat missions, earning 11 air medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). After completing five years of active duty he remained in the active reserve for the next 28 years, retiring as a colonel.

In my role as a Navy chaplain during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was my responsibility early on in that war to greet the planes bringing back our first wounded. Then, for those capable of continued service, I made arrangements for their reintroduction to their units once they were cleared. In all that time, not once did I hear a young sailor or Marine complain about what happened to them. In fact, many of them were anxious to rejoin their units and reengage in the fight. You won’t ever know their names. And truth be told, I have forgotten the names of most of them, but their attitude, their commitment to preserving our freedom, and their willingness to place on hold their futures so you and I can be secure in our homes is what makes them heroes to me.

November 10th is the birthday of the United States Marine Corps, and November 11th is Veterans Day. Take a moment to pray for our troops. And if you run into someone serving, or having served, just tell them “Thanks.” They will probably be embarrassed and not know what to say. But they will appreciate it more than you could possibly know.

You see, they are my kind of heroes.