Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

2014 Grand Marshal

              Here in Ripon, California (there are three other Ripon’s around the world – England, Canada, and Wisconsin) we hold an annual Almond Blossom Festival every February, sponsored by the Ripon Chamber of Commerce. A variety of activities take place leading up to the festival, not the least of which is the Almond Blossom Banquet in January which officially kicks off the activities.

The evening is filled with various presentations by folks all having to do with the festival in one manner or another. However, the primary focus is on the half-dozen or more candidates espousing to be selected as the Almond Blossom Queen. One of those candidates is Jessica Carmona who was assigned to do her speech on Mr. Manuel Luis, selected as this year’s Grand Marshal.

What follows are portions of the speech which highlight Mr. Luis’ life, and his dedication to Ripon and our community.

“Tonight it is an honor to speak of an individual who is undeniably a great role model and member of our community. Born and raised in Ripon, Mr. Manuel Luis has made notable contributions to our town. Starting in high school, Mr. Luis was involved with FFA (Future Farmers of America) and football, while taking over his family farm when he was only 14 years old. In addition to the impressive dedication to his farm, Mr. Luis has shown the same amount of effort and commitment to the Ripon Grange. With service as the County Grange President for 25 years, it is easy to say that Mr. Luis has been more than an active member. He became the Deputy State Master, serving for 35 years, where his responsibilities were to oversee all nine of the subordinate Granges in San Joaquin and Calaveras Counties.

“Additionally, Mr. Luis has been involved with all four levels of the Grange: local, county, state, and national. He takes pride in the activities affiliated with the Ripon Grange, including all of the community service organizations such as various scholarships, Ripon High’s FFA Club, 4-H, Boosters Club, and support of local athletic teams.

“He serves as the root and foundation of his family, having raised three kids who have all followed in their father’s footsteps in a spirit of giving back to the community in one way or another. Not surprisingly his family is highly involved with the agricultural and farming aspects of Ripon. Membership in the Ripon Grange in the Luis family can be traced back to Mr. Luis’ mother. Today each member of his family, including all seven of his grandchildren, is a member of the Ripon Grange.

“It is no surprise that Mr. Luis was selected to be the 2014 Grand Marshal. He is a graduate of Ripon High School - 43 years ago. This humble family man, and proud farmer, is one “Riponite” who is an excellent choice to serve as our Grand Marshal. He will be featured in this year’s 52nd Annual Almond Blossom Parade.”

As you can see, Mr. Luis is well-respected and loved in our community of Ripon.

America is made up of solid citizens like Manuel Luis who are the “salt-of-the-earth” in communities all over our nation. I know it can be disheartening to watch the news and figure our nation is imploding morally, spiritually, ethically, and in every other way imaginable. But then I hear about people of substance and character who go about living their lives, raising wholesome families, making solid contributions to their communities because they want to and they are committed to making a positive difference in the world.

I’ll be the first to point out that our nation needs to experience a revival where the hearts of the American people are changed by a move of God’s Holy Spirit across this land. But when I’m feeling most discouraged with the conditions in our world, it’s as if the Lord is showing me people who are immoveable and stalwart in living out the best in human character, and they live right down the street.

Thank you, Mr. Luis, for reminding us that ours is a great country and it’s a place to raise future generations of hard-working, god-fearing, Americans.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Four-Part Harmony

              Hobbies are wonderful diversions. One of my favorite hobbies is singing in the uniquely American musical style of Barbershop music. The official organization that carries the banner for this wonderful music form is endowed with a rather long and cumbersome name. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc., is usually referred to by its acronym, SPEBSQSA.

So why such a long acronym? It was intended originally to be a spoof, lampooning the presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal policies. There were an excessive number of government agencies (figured at 100+) which the FDR administration established, creating a veritable “alphabet soup” of national and federal organizations, all identified mostly by their acronym. However, the use of SPEBSQSA was never intended to be the official title, nor was it considered acceptable to attempt to pronounce the acronym. The name was changed in 2004 to the Barbershop Harmony Society. The ladies of Barbershop singing have their own organization known as the Sweet Adelines International (SAI).

The Society, as it is more commonly known today, was formed in 1938 by Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “As of 2012, just under 25,000 men in the United States and Canada are members of this organization whose focus is on “a cappella” music. The international headquarters was in Kenosha, Wisconsin for fifty years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007.”

         The musical term, a cappella, means, “In the manner of the church.” More specifically, it refers to singing without the use of instrumental accompaniment. “Voices only” best describes a cappella singing. This is where four-part harmony comes in.

         One of the unique aspects of Barbershop music is the appeal to the average man. Well trained virtuoso voices are not required. Instead, the four parts that make up the classic Barbershop sound are well within the range of the average guy.

Typically, when people hear someone refer to Barbershop music they immediately think of a quartet. That’s okay because at it’s very core is the harmonic sound of the four parts. At its inception, Barbershop singing consisted of a First Tenor, Second Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. Later it was changed to Tenor, Lead, Baritone, and Bass.

The range of Barbershop harmony is very manageable for most men. The bass is not so very low, nor is the tenor particularly high as you find in Gospel music, for instance. It is the blending of these four parts and what we in the Society call, “Ringing a Chord,” that thrills barbershop singers and aficionados alike. Usually this chord comes at the end of a Barbershop song that “rings” when the four parts hit their notes just right. The perfect blend of the four voices creates an overtone, or a fifth note, that can be heard as well as felt. It is truly magical!

I first fell in love with Barbershop music when I heard the Buffalo Bills, the 1950 International Barbershop Quartet Champions, sing in the 1962 musical, The Music Man. I loved the harmony and thought it would be loads of fun to sing like that.

It was not until early in the 1980s that I actually had a chance to get involved. I soon discovered that the Society had these men’s choruses all over the United States. I was pastoring my first church in Fresno, California in the early 80s. My parents decided to buy my wife and me tickets to the annual show put on by the Fresno Gold Note Chorus. I only had a few months to sing with them since I was about to be commissioned as a Navy chaplain, and I had no idea where I would be in the coming years.

In 1988 I was stationed at the Naval Communications Station in Stockton, California where I joined the Stockton Portsmen chorus. I had a blast! So many fun and wonderful guys. After a couple of years there I was sent to Post-Graduate School with a follow-on tour in Naval Station Rota, Spain. It was in Spain that I formed a singing ensemble of men and women in the Barbershop style. Once I settled back in the U.S. in the mid-90s, I joined the newly formed group, the Golden Valley Chorus (GVC). I sang with them as a lead until I was called up for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). While assigned to our counter-terrorism base in Djibouti, Africa, I formed a quartet which was made up of Special Forces guys. In the brief time we had, I taught them the “Barbershop style” of music, or at least enough so they learned to sing a classic, “My Wild Irish Rose.” I was gone for two years, and once I returned home I simply did not have the time to rejoin the GVC until last summer.

I had not realized how much I enjoyed Barbershop singing, and also how much I had missed it during those eleven years I was away from it all.

Glad to be back and to be around some of the finest men I’ve had the pleasure to know. It’s great ringing chords again.

If you’d like to check us out, we meet every Tuesday night at 7:00 in the Mancini Hall, 718 Tuolumne Street, Modesto, California. For questions, call or email Stratt Riggs at, 209-524-6139.

 Come on out and ring a chord with us! You’ll love it!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Over There

              This man left an impression on me. I never met him, but I sure wish that I had. I don’t even remember his name.

The year was 1983. Early in November I received a phone call from a funeral home in Fresno. I was the pastor of a small church in Fresno then. The funeral director asked me if I would be willing to officiate at a funeral for a former Marine. Absolutely I would! Then he said the family wanted a military funeral. I told him I was not a military chaplain, although I was to be sworn in as a Navy chaplain the next month, in December. He said, “But you’re a Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, aren’t you?” I said yes, but that did not authorize me to perform a military funeral. He said, “I think the family will be fine with the fact that you are a Marine.”

I met with this man’s two daughters (I’ll call him “Mac”), one in her late 50s and the other in her early 60s. They produced an old scrapbook filled with very old black-and-white photos of their father. I was completely taken by the pictures. Yet it was the stories the two daughters told me about their father that totally captivated me.

This man, Mac, this former Marine, had lived quite a life by the time he was 20 years old. Born in 1897, he joined the Army about 1915. He was assigned to the cavalry. When the border wars with Mexico heated up in 1916, he found himself attached to General John J. Pershing’s expedition of 4,800 men which was assigned to pursue the notorious Poncho Villa into northern Mexico with orders to bring Villa in, dead or alive.

After his two-year enlistment was up, the young soldier got out of the Army so he could join the Marine Corps to go fight the Germans “over there.” President Woodrow Wilson had finally agreed to allow American troops to enter into World War I. Now a Marine, Mac found himself sailing to France on a troop transport. That could not have been much fun, either. A couple of years before I met another veteran of WWI who described the 19 day transit across the Atlantic. He said he was sea-sick for all 19 days!

A game reserve not far from Paris became one of the most famous battle sites in Marine Corps history. It is known as the Battle of Belleau Wood. So much took place during this month-long battle in June of 1918 that time and space confine me. Let me give you a thumb-nail sketch of this battle.

When the Marines arrived in France they marched to the front which wasn’t very far off. The German army had advanced dangerously close to the capital of Paris. French units were mostly in retreat mode. One classic remark that lives in Marine Corps lore occurred when the Marines were marching to the front. French soldiers were straggling back to the safety of the rear, all the while telling the advancing Marines, “La guerre est fini!” (“The war is over!”). Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines responded, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”

As the battle of Belleau Wood raged on, the Marines constantly found themselves facing a determined German army which was laying down a withering assault of machine-gun fire and artillery barrages. Marines were dropping all over the place. The German’s were faring no better. Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daily, already a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, jumped out of the trenches and shouted to his Marines, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” At times the Marines were reduced to fighting the Germans with bayonets and fists in hand-to-hand combat.

The story also is told, though it is not verifiable, that the German soldiers were in such awe of the ferociousness of the Marines that they gave them the name, Teufel Hunden, which means, Devil Dog. This is a term Marines today typically use with each other (“Hey, Devil Dog, how’re you doing?”).

Every Marine knows these stories. They have become a part of who we are as Marines.

The German army also used a lot of mustard gas which was new in the art of warfare. It has since become commonplace on the battlefields of today.

So when I was asked to bury Mac in November of 1983, a man who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June of 1918, later renamed by the French, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” (“Wood of the Marine Brigade”), I was genuinely humbled.

My conversation with Mac’s daughters was rich in history, especially since one of my duties was to teach Marine Corps history in my reserve command. Their father, they told me, was shot twice at Belleau Wood, and then woke up in a field hospital with one lung destroyed by mustard gas. He came home, married, raised a family and even outlived two wives.

I wish I could have gotten to know him personally. I’m told he was a first class gentleman.

 Semper Fi, Mac.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Weather or Not

              Yes, I was intentional in my use of the word “weather” in the title of this week’s article.

Living in the Central Valley of California, a.k.a., the San Joaquin Valley, which runs from Bakersfield to Sacramento, is the bread basket of the United States, if not the whole world. A drive along Interstate 5 or Highway 99 will amaze you with the vast acreage of produce and dairy that spreads out in all directions. In the area where I live almonds are king. Blue Diamond is just a few miles from my home. Walnuts are plentiful, and so are grapes for the several wine producers in this part of the Valley.

Farmers rely on a significant amount of rainfall during the cooler months of November through March. With the Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range running north and south alongside of the Valley, it is imperative that there is a substantial snowpack each year in order to have a steady supply of run-off for the reservoirs, rivers and canal system.

For a good number of years there has been an ongoing battle between the needs of the farmers for water rights and government intervention in how much water the farmers may use. Frequently the farmer is denied the amount of water needed for crops because the environmentalists have convinced those in government that salmon or some other critter might be in danger if the water is syphoned off to the farmers.

The Stanislaus River runs just behind my home, and at times I see the water level at maximum height. This often occurs in the middle of the summer when it’s very hot in the Valley, usually hitting 100+ for days on end. I’ve been told that the fish need this water. My question has been, “Since we’re running water from our dams in such volume, does someone in authority have a guarantee that we will have a significant amount of rainfall in the winter?”

So here’s the predicament. Last year, the winter of 2012-13, we had next to nothing in rainfall. This winter we have had the grand total of one day of rain. The water table is being depleted at a fearful rate. The snowpack is diminishing, and the river is running low.

I am not a meteorologist, so I have no idea what we can expect in the weeks ahead regarding rain, but the prognosticators of our weather patterns predict no signs of moisture coming our way anytime soon. I have a number of farmers in my church, and they are now quite concerned. The Annual Almond Blossom Festival in Ripon is held toward the end of February. It’s scads of fun and a great time is had by all. However, the lack of rain may affect the flowering of the almond blossoms, casting a damper over the festival.

Amidst all of this concern for rain here in the Valley, I see on the news that enormous rain and snow storms, accompanied by sub-zero weather, are slamming great portions of the United States. Odd!

Well, I don’t know what to make of all this peculiar weather business. This much I do know. God is in control of even the weather. It is my prayer that during a time like this that we as Americans will turn to the Lord and rely on him for what we need. In the book of 1 Kings we are told that the prophet Elijah was instrumental in helping bring an end to the drought that was devastating Israel and that entire region. There had been no rain for three years. As the man of God, Elijah was instructed by the Lord God to rid the nation of Israel of their sinful activities and their worship of false gods. In obedience, Elijah did as the Lord commanded. Once the sin that plagued the people was eradicated, God caused it to rain once again.

So, I guess the question could be asked, “Is God withholding rain from the Valley because of our sin? Are we neglecting to honor him with our lives? Have we forgotten the blessings of God?”

 I don’t know about you, but as for me, I’m going to go before the Lord in prayer. I invite you to join me. Let's clean up our lives, and then perhaps God will have mercy on us for having taken him for granted. Perhaps we will yet have showers of blessing!

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year Reflection

              I was working on my final sermon of the year for December 29. The passage of Scripture I chose was from 1 Samuel. As a prophet of God Samuel was a unique character. He was a transition figure in the history of Israel. He was the last of the Judges, and the first of the Major Prophets. But what set him apart was his role in representing God in anointing the first two kings to rule Israel: Saul and David.

The following paragraph is part of Samuel’s farewell speech to the people of Israel from chapter 12.

“Now here is the king you have chosen, the one you asked for; see, the Lord has set a king over you. If you fear the Lord and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God—good! But if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.”

This got me to thinking. The United States came into being because a group of Christians from England longed to be free to worship God in their own way. One hundred and fifty years later the Founding Fathers of our nation won an unlikely war against the most powerful army in that day. And the leader, I believe, was a man of God’s choosing: George Washington. If you want your heart stirred, and your appreciation for our beloved country renewed, just read any of the innumerable books that have been written about this exceptional man. Washington was a man of deep faith, who knew that if this rag-tagged band of farmers and merchants, known as the “Minute Men,” had any chance of defeating the superbly trained British Army, God was going to have to perform some miracles. And that’s just what God did.

Over the 237 years of our nation’s history we have enjoyed the blessings of a republic, allowing us to vote into office those who would represent us in the halls of government. Early on the majority of those serving as our representatives were strong believers in Jesus Christ as their Savior. The laws they enacted, along with the formation of the Constitution, laid the foundation for the path our nation would pursue. These laws reflected their faith in God and His Word, the Bible.

Even the travesty of slavery had its death knell written in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “All men are created equal” was the first shot fired across the bow of slavery.

What has happened over the years is a gradual shift away from faith in God as the provider of the freedoms and liberties we enjoy as Americans, only to be replaced by an ill-placed faith in men who have served as president of our country. The thinking goes something like this: Regardless of political persuasion, the next election always offers hope in bringing about the necessary changes in leadership so your guy and your party will either retain or regain control. So let me ask you: Where is God in the midst of all this political shuffling for ascendency and power?

We would do well to look closely at the words offered by the prophet Samuel. “If you fear the Lord and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God—good!”

These words could well apply to us today. We need to look to the Lord God for salvation, courage and strength. And we need to elect those who know God personally and will do what he says based upon the Bible. God is under no obligation to bless any one person or us as a nation if we do not willingly walk with him. And if we continue to elect presidents and other officials to office who do not honor God with their lives, then we will continue to get the mess we find ourselves in at present.

So, what’ll it be? A heart dedicated to God, trusting in the One who made us and loves us? Or the path of self-determination where man sets his own agenda for the course of the world?

Have you ever asked yourself why earlier times in our nation were so different? Why you could leave your doors unlocked? Why a person’s word on a matter was his bond?

When Christ is invited into your heart you are a new person. You want to walk the way Jesus walked, and be like Him in every way. America used to be like that. People respected the rights and properties of others.

It can happen again. It begins with you. Give Jesus your heart today! What a great way to begin the New Year!