Archive for May, 2015

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Remember

May 21, 2015

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Memorial Day weekend is upon us once again. For most, it is a long-anticipated weekend to relax, have a backyard barbecue, or maybe even go to the beach for the first time of the summer. However, for many Americans this weekend can never simply be one of carefree pleasure, for they have lost someone to war.

Sometimes the casualty statistics appear in the news during this time as a reminder — 58,209 dead in Vietnam, 4,488 in Iraq, 2,229 in Afghanistan — and staggering as these figures should be, their impact is often lost, for they are only numbers. What we tend to forget is that each of those numbers represents a real person — someone’s parent, child, spouse, or friend — and in turn each of those had family and friends who were deeply affected by their loss. For these people Memorial Day became a time dedicated to reflection, sorrow, pride, and sometimes even anger.

I am not suggesting that we dispense with the pleasurable indulgences of this weekend. However, we do need to take the time to think about these Americans even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and never returned. We need to think about those they left behind.

We need to do this because the reality is that there are always wars — as Americans, we have never known a generation without one — and there are always fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and friends who don’t come back. We owe them that much, to pause and think for a while about the sacrifices that were made in the past and unfortunately will continue to be made. It may not have affected you directly yet, but some day it very well may. It doesn’t matter where the war is or why it is being fought or whether you even agree with it. The results always bear a terrible human cost in lives lost and its outward ripple effect on families, communities, and our nation as a whole.

The letter below was written by a mother who lost her son in the Vietnam War. She left it under his name at the base of the shiny black wall that forms the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Please take the time to read it. Think about what she said, how she felt. Think about Memorial Day and what it really means, even if just for a few moments. And most importantly, remember.

 

Dear Bill,

Today is February 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam.

And as I look at your name, William R. Stocks, I think of how many, many times I used to wonder how scared and homesick you must have been in that strange country called Vietnam. And if and how it might have changed you, for you were the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world, hardly ever sad or unhappy. And until the day I die, I will see you as you laughed at me, even when I was very mad at you, and the next thing I knew, we were laughing together.

But on this past New Year’s Day, I had my answer, I talked by phone to a friend of yours from Michigan, who spent your last Christmas and the last four months of your life with you. Jim told me how you died, for he was there and saw the helicopter crash. He told me how you had flown your quota and had not been scheduled to fly that day. How the regular pilot was unable to fly, and had been replaced by someone with less experience. How they did not know the exact cause of the crash. How it was either hit by enemy fire, or they hit a pole or something unknown. How the blades went through the chopper and hit you. How you lived about a half-hour, but were unconscious and therefore did not suffer.

He said how your jobs were like sitting ducks. They would send you men out to draw the enemy into the open and then they would send in the big guns and planes to take over. Meantime, death came to so may of you.

He told me how, after a while over there, instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs. Each day the streak got bigger and the men became meaner. Everyone but you, Bill. He said how you stayed the same, happy-go-lucky guy that you were when you arrived in Vietnam. How your warmth and friendliness drew the guys to you. How your [lieutenant] gave you the nickname of “Spanky,” and soon your group, Jim included, were all know as “Spanky’s gang.” How when you died it made is so much harder on them for you were their moral support. And he said how you of all people should never have been the one to die.

Oh, God, how it hurts to write this. But I must face it and then put it to rest. I know that after Jim talked to me, he must have relived it all over again and suffered so. Before I hung up the phone I told Jim I loved him. Loved him for just being your close friend, and for sharing the last days of your life with you, and for being there with you when you died. How lucky you were to have him for a friend, and how lucky he was to have had you.

Later that same day I received a phone call from a mother in Billings, Montana. She had lost her daughter, her only child, a year ago. She needed someone to talk to for no one would let her talk about the tragedy. She said she had seen me on [television] on New Year’s Eve, after the Christmas letter I wrote to you and left at this memorial had drawn newspaper and television attention. She said she had been thinking about me all day, and just had to talk to me. She talked to me of her pain, and seemingly needed me to help her with it. I cried with this heartbroken mother, and after I hung up the phone, I laid my head down and cried as hard for her. Here was a mother calling me for help with her pain over the loss of her child, a grown daughter. And as I sobbed I thought, how can I help her with her pain when I have never completely been able to cope with my own?

They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years, from the Vietnam War.

But this I know. I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all.

Mom

(from Dear America:
Letters Home from Vietnam, Bernard Edelman, ed.)

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Old Stuff

May 17, 2015

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I am addicted to old stuff. Not just any old stuff, like that which one can find at flea markets and garage sales. My old stuff. I can’t seem to part with it. This of course causes both great clutter in my basement as well as consternation on the part of my wife (she likes to throw things out). For me, every trip downstairs to do a load of wash or get some paper towels can turn into a protracted trip down memory lane as I get distracted by a box of old stuff.

I have a hard time letting my old stuff go because it is imbued with emotional significance. This is the history of my life, the artifacts that mark the passage of my time on this Earth. I am aware that this particular old stuff is of absolutely no interest to anyone else. These are not items that will increase in value some day; no priceless antiques or collectables here. Those who would hope to find some rare baseball card or vintage superhero toy in its original box shall be sadly disappointed. My old stuff will merely become someone else’s burden some day, just a basement full of crap to dispose of. That is a harsh reality, and I accept it.

But I still can’t get rid of it.

Here is, in part, what would be found: various Boy Scout neckerchiefs and neckerchief slides and badges from different camps and activities; assorted arts and crafts made in my early school years (usually as gifts for my parents) including a clay dinosaur, candle holder, and ashtray (I liked clay); my report cards — a complete set — from kindergarten through high school; most editions of my high school and college newspapers; knickknacks sent over from my relatives in Sweden; a sewing box full of buttons that I treasured for some strange reason as a little boy; a plastic case of Viewmaster discs along with a nonfunctioning Viewmaster; the contents of my desk drawer from my childhood bedroom; bronzed baby shoes (do people still do that??); souvenir match boxes from assorted bars in Hong Kong and Manila; every letter or postcard ever sent to me.

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I made a valiant effort to eliminate some of my old stuff the past few summers which was only partly successful. The main accomplishment of this attempted purge was to organize everything in boxes, so now at least the clutter is somewhat orderly and geometrical. This made my wife happier because it looks like less stuff.

I know that I am not alone in this affliction for several reasons. First, during the summers of my college years, I worked as a meter reader for Public Service Electric and Gas Company. That job brought me into countless basements throughout northern New Jersey (who knows — maybe I was in yours). I observed that more than a few of them were subterranean Museums of Personal History in various states of disarray. Second, I have seen reports on TV, notably by Steve Hartman on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, that featured others of this bent. And third, the fact that today, May 17, has been designated by Those Who Should Know as Pack Rat Day. How much more legitimate can that be!

So tomorrow morning when I go down to do the laundry, don’t be surprised if I don’t answer your phone call. I’ll probably be downstairs lost in the past as I look through some part of my somewhat dusty but still precious collection of old stuff.

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Slow Train

May 9, 2015

 

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Welcome to the Philippines National Railroad!

Americans are quite spoiled when it comes to transportation. We expect to get places quickly and efficiently, and any delays that confront us (rush hour traffic, signal problems on the train) are usually met with a great deal of impatience. The majority of us take it as one of our inalienable rights to be able to go anywhere at any time without restriction.

During my time living overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I discovered that this is most definitely not the case in the developing world. Ease of individual mobility is by no means a given, and the very notion of quick and efficient travel is rendered absurd by the conditions in these places.

In the Philippines where I lived for two years, expecting to wait for great amounts of time to get somewhere was a way of life, especially if traveling by train. The railroad line through the Bicol Province where I lived had been built back in 1938. It was a rudimentary single track system that had not changed much since its completion. However, in a Third World country that lacked a widespread modern road system, it served as the principal means of overland transportation, one that I had to depend upon to fulfill my duties. The lone track traversed the bottom section of the capital L that formed the main island of Luzon. Small towns dotted the rail line as it made its way southeast towards the provincial capital of Naga City. The town in which I lived, Pamplona, was on that line, and that pretty much fated my use of this means of travel. And thus the waiting began.

I needed to make periodic trips to Manila, and these could be accomplished in three ways: plane, bus, or train. Clearly the plane was the fastest of the three. However, because of the prohibitive cost (especially considering my $75 monthly salary) and logistical problems getting to the tiny local airport in Pili, this became the least preferable of the three. The bus ride involved a torturous journey of twenty-plus hours on a crowded old open-air bus over poor bumpy roads in tropical heat and torrential downpours. I tried this only once.

The "airport" at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

The “airport” at Pili; yet another reason to take the train.

Actually, a fourth means of transport existed, a homemade contraption called a “skate” that operated all along the train track. Run by entrepreneurial daredevils, it consisted of a small wooden platform mounted on wheels (usually skate wheels, hence the name) with a hand pump propulsion system. As these rickety vehicles rolled down the line, each vegetation-lined low-visibility curve held the possibility of a surprise encounter with bandits, or worse yet, an oncoming locomotive. Needless to say, I avoided these like the plague.

That left the train. On the positive side, the ride was smoother than that of the bus and afforded better protection from the elements, and it had a vastly lower ticket price than the plane. On the other hand, it did have quite a few drawbacks. The railroad cars were old, not air-conditioned, and extremely crowded with people, packages, and assorted small livestock, especially in the economy class cars where we traveled. The “toilet” consisted of a hole in the floor through which one could watch the railroad ties pass as one heeded nature’s call. Worst of all, the delays were both brutally long and inevitable.

The causes of the delays varied, including anything from storms to mudslides to water buffalo blocking the tracks to derailments. But the single track line itself caused the majority of these delays. When the northbound train left Naga City, it had a scheduled time and station where it would pull off on a side rail to let the train from Manila go by. However, all too often the southbound train, thinking its timing off, would pull over further up the line waiting for the Manila-bound train to pass first. This left both trains sitting, sometimes for hours on end, waiting for the other to go by. Since the relatively primitive communications system usually malfunctioned, neither side would be aware of the situation until some local on a skate would happen along and clue the station in. Then, the train would move out at a snail’s pace (as opposed to its normal donkey’s pace) in case of faulty information. This resulted in a trip of about 230 miles taking up to twenty hours, a stupefying pace of twelve miles an hour.

Greg, my teaching partner and good friend, lived farther up the line in a small town named Ragay. We teamed up to deliver workshops to far-flung school districts in the province. Most of these required train travel. Greg and I developed expertise at timing our arrivals at mutually accessible stations so we could travel together. The two of us became somewhat of a local legend through our “traveling road show” along the train line, particularly when we became the main tourist attraction during our delays in remote towns.

"Americano! Americano!"

“Americano! Americano!”

At each station stop, vendors, many of them children, hawked all manner of goods to please the weary traveler. One could purchase water by the bottle (as in refilled coke bottle) or the glass, cigarettes individually, and portable climate control units (otherwise known as fans). All manner of snack foods were available from peanuts to fruit to the local delicacy called balut (a fertilized duck egg, embryo within, for your dining pleasure). Best of all, following a night of fitful and sweaty dozing, we’d pull into Lucena City at dawn, and the coffee vendors would enter the cars selling the black, sweet, syrupy concoction which by then seemed to us like the nectar of the gods. It woke us up and made the world right again.

"Hey, Joe, you buy egg?"

“Hey, Joe, you buy egg?”

Two of these countless train rides stand out in particular, though. The first started out as a comedy of errors for Greg and I which, fortunately, the kind hand of fate managed to salvage. When our second December in-country approached, we hatched a plan to use our accumulated leave time to travel to Hong Kong. As part of our Christmas present to ourselves, we splurged on airfare for a flight to Manila.

First we each planned to take the train from our respective towns to Pili, the stop after Naga City, and then meet at the airfield. We had provided plenty of extra time, knowing the trains as we did, but forgot to factor in the hordes of other people who would also be traveling for the holiday. My train ran so late that when I arrived at Naga, it made no sense to even attempt to catch the plane. I plopped myself down on the platform amidst the swell of humanity around me and resigned myself to facing the odyssey of a solitary train ride to Manila.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, Greg chugged along on an even later train than mine. He too disembarked in Naga knowing he couldn’t make the flight and figured he’d simply go to Manila by train. As Greg made his way through the crowd, he saw me, hunched over sitting on my luggage, looking as dejected as him! He told me he couldn’t remember ever being so happy to see my shaggy face. The normal lengthy, delay-filled trek ensued, but our trip to Hong Kong more than made up for all the misery we experienced on the journey there.

The other happened to be my final train trip of my two-year stay in the Philippines. On the designated day of my departure, I walked to the small Pamplona station as the evening light faded carrying all of my belongings in a duffel bag, surrounded by an entourage of friends, local dignitaries, and teachers. The scheduled seven o’clock train would have me whisked out of their lives as suddenly as I had arrived two years earlier. As the appointed time approached, we exchanged many emotional farewells. Seven o’clock arrived; the train, however, did not. Nervous jokes about Filipino time followed along with more emotional farewells, but still no train. As time ticked on, the entourage melted away one by one into the sultry tropical night until I was left standing alone with my nanay, who by now felt a bit uncomfortable at the unceremonious sendoff and tired as it now approached ten o’clock, well past her bedtime.

“It’s okay, Nanay, I can wait by myself,” I assured her. “You go home to sleep now.”

She agreed, gave me a motherly kiss goodbye, and left me in the dim light of the lone lantern. Soon another light appeared in the distance. The train had finally arrived. When it came to a halt, I hauled my bag up, found a seat, and then watched as my home away from home faded into the moonlit rice paddies. I was on my way home.

This particular train, a local, made every stop, so I prepared myself for a long night. It must have been around midnight when the train lurched to a stop in Hondagua. By now the car had been filled to standing room only capacity. Just then, at the door by where I sat, a terrible scene unfolded. A father struggled through the entrance carrying his teenaged son wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket followed by his tearful mother. I overheard another man accompanying them relate what had happened. During a dispute of some sort, an older teen had stabbed him in the side. The dark color of the blood prompted speculation that the wound had involved his kidney. Getting him to a hospital quickly would be paramount, but there was no hospital in Hondagua, and the only way to get to one was the train. This train. The slowest of the slow.

As the train began to move, the father stood helplessly in the aisle laden with that tender burden in his arms. I got up and offered him my seat. Ordinarily because of our perceived difference in stations in life, he would have refused, but he sat with a grateful look in his eyes. Hours passed, though it seemed like an eternity, and finally the train arrived in Lucena City where medical help would be found, though I feared the worst, for the ghastly pallor of the boy didn’t bode well. I spent the remainder of the ride reflecting on all the differences that the accident of one’s place of birth could cause in one’s existence and the dire consequences — such as the one I had just witnessed — that could result.

After my return to the United States, I continued riding the rails, both locally in New Jersey and New York as well as on subsequent travels through Europe, but it was nothing like those train trips of the Philippines. Though they were slow and difficult, I appreciate them now, for they taught me about how my capacity to endure discomfort and adversity is much greater than what I had thought possible. In the end, I came away with a much greater appreciation for what I have here, minor delays and all. But most of all, I they taught me patience.

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The Curious Incident of the Ninja Turtle in the Daytime

May 5, 2015

I first noticed him in the hallway in his fourth grade class line on the way to or from gym or the library. It was not easy to miss him. He was two heads taller than his classmates and probably twice as heavy. His clothes were an odd mix and match of tie-dyed t-shirts or flannels and corduroy pants pulled up too high, his hair an uncombed bush above his chubby face.

But it was not his physical attributes that set Jonas apart. He would be in another world even as he stood amongst his classmates in the noisy bustle of the school corridor, his eyes looking off to an unknown destination, his hands moving as if conducting some invisible orchestra, quietly talking or humming to himself.

He seemed to be a harmless gentle soul, kind of a giant lost puppy. I did not know at the time that he was autistic, but when I learned that fact, I was not surprised. However, there was nothing particularly eventful about his presence until Halloween.

The school day Halloween is celebrated — a Friday, in this instance — is one of the greatest days of all for an elementary school kid along with Christmas and the last day before summer. The air of excitement is palpable the whole week before with parties to be planned (who’s bringing in the cupcakes? the popcorn? the drinks?), tissue ghost decorations to be made, and costumes to be decided upon. Being in an upper grade class with the adolescents who were now too cool to be bothered much (on the outside, at least) kept me a bit insulated from the festive atmosphere, but when the younger ones were about, the mood was contagious.

Walking back to my room after lunch on the Big Day, I rounded the corner to see Jonas facing the wall and wailing uncontrollably, his face beet red. He was gasping for breath from crying so hard, tears virtually shooting from his eyes the way they do when small children bawl. He was rocking forward and back in his agony, hands flailing about wildly.

It stopped me in my tracks, so heart-wrenching was the scene. He was surrounded by several teachers, kind and caring ones I was glad to see, who were trying their hardest to soothe him.

“Don’t worry, Jonas, maybe we won’t have to serve detention today.”

“Everything will be all right. Just breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. It’s okay.”

The nurse arrived, and the last glimpse I had as I retreated down the hall to my waiting class was Jonas being led down to her office.

The school’s Halloween parade was scheduled for one o’clock in the playground, an annual affair accompanied by parents with faces buried in video cameras and “Ghostbusters” and “Monster Mash” blasting from the speakers brought out for the occasion. The upper grade teachers led their jaded teens to the perimeter to watch the proceedings. Try as they might to hide it, they too got into the spirit as the little ones came prancing out grade by grade: Power Rangers and Little Mermaids and hobos and Barbies and even a few homemade creations (a laundry basket, a milk carton).

I saw one of the young teachers who had been trying to help Jonas, and I went over to her to ask what had occurred. She told me how in his excitement about the imminent festivities he had misbehaved in his regular class and got his Name Put on the Board. In his mind he thought it doomed his participation in the much-anticipated afternoon, and he reacted accordingly. I asked if the crisis was resolved and if he felt better, and she reassured me it was and he did. Any lingering doubts I might have had about her assessment disappeared immediately, for at that very moment, out came the fourth graders, Jonas in the lead.

It just so happened that the line stopped for some group singing and photo ops right in front of my class. Jonas’s beaming smile reflected his unrestrained joy as he looked about him, oblivious to the program, just basking in the moment, standing there swaying to the music in his jumbo-sized Ninja Turtle costume as if it were all the ecstasy one could hope for on any given day. As his peers sang along, he would contentedly look at his costume, poking the Ninja padding on his arms as if in disbelief that he could be so lucky to be thusly attired. The huge smile never once left his face.

His emotional resurrection so filled my heart, I had to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes. As the line of children resumed their march and wound their way back inside, I thought of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his desire to protect the children from harm as they played in the field wandering in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff. I wanted Jonas and all the vulnerable and the innocent like him protected in the same way, impossible a task as it may be. I thought of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and the pain that autism and circumstance had inflicted upon him as well as the tenderness of those who watched over him. And I was glad that there really do exist such people who actually are real-life catchers in the rye, compassionate and smiling-in-the-face-of-adversity angels like those teachers in the hallway with Jonas that morning. I hope they are always around, just when they are needed, for there are so many Jonases in the world. Who else will give them comfort in their times of need? It is my prayer that one will always be there, just in the nick of time.