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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Time With the Boys

There’s no doubt that Father God has a sense of humor. One sure sign of this is the fact that I was blessed with twin sons at the age of 44 years. Having lived a rather rowdy existence I was somewhat “stove up” yet still full of spit and vinegar and  quite capable of the physical trial that lay before me. I can sometimes be more than a little cranky about the whole affair though.

They are 14 years old now. Often I find that I am somewhat critical of what I perceive to be their lack of a work ethic and a general teenage aversion to chores and the duties of life.

School is out and their mother needed the house for a client so I offered to take them to work with me. I figured I would teach them a couple of things and let them experience the down and dirty trench warfare that self employed entrepreneurial endeavor can encompass. I also figured that I would get little accomplished during this educational experiment.

As I showed them the ropes I noticed they were calm and absorbed seeming to take it all in. It was 95 degrees of oppressive heat so of course I would have enjoyed a little more enthusiasm but I could in no reasonable way complain.

Eventually we took some photos and loaded them to the hard drive of my computer. As I went to explain they would complete the tasks before I could finish. At one point there was a mistake where I would usually begin all over and go through and entire process. They quickly resolved the issue and moved on. One wise sage of the two can seldom fail to remind his “Pops” that only dinosaurs struggle with such evolutions and that their abilities are simply par for the modern course.

Their mother came and picked them up at mid-afternoon. After they left I was a bit chagrined and found myself yearning for their presence. I reviewed the half days work and realized that though a little behind I was by no means lacking in the days work needs and that they had been quite a bit of help. They had also learned at a remarkable clip though an employee had suggested I was giving them too much information at one time.

I sat at my desk looking out the window, as I am periodically prone to do and found that I was in an emotional state. Memories flooded my mind’s eye as I bathed them in their basinet and swung them in circles grasping under their armpits. We would laugh insanely as I placed them on their tiny feet and they would careen into a face plant onto the soft summer grass.

I pushed the small bicycles with training wheels hoping and praying they would not fall and get a nasty strawberry as a result of Daddy’s insistent encouragement. I watched them toddle onto the huge orange bus, more backpack than child, in the early dark of pre-dawn and remembered feeling much the same way that I feel in this moment staring out the window.

Yeah … old Father God sure has a sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder what his next joke’s going to be?

Saturday, June 25, 2011


There’s a macramé piece of art on my office wall. It was given to me years past by a young woman I had befriended. I had originally met her at work when she bounded out of her compact car clad in the remnants of a clown outfit. She still had on the colorful polka dotted jumper with its frilled collar and blousy legs. She was barefooted as she loped through my asphalt world. She worked for one of those companies that send “happy grams.” That is to say, an actor will sing a song or read a card like the strip-o-grams without the stripping. Her shtick was the “clown thing.”

Lori was an artist of sorts. She had a predominantly American Indian heritage and much of her art was native. The piece on my office wall was somewhat more eclectic and fascinated me. It is three masks in a simple frame on a faux granite background. They remind you of the actor’s guild symbol with the two faces … yet they are more enigmatic. Each has a jewel at the forehead. Two small ones have a pearl and a turquoise respectively. The largest consist only of the eyes and nose like the masks that women held up at masquerade parties in the 16th and 17th centuries. It sports a red star with golden beams rising out of it on the forehead spot.

At first glance I saw myself in the work. Two faces representing the good and the evil: the dark and the light: the sun and the shadow: happiness and sadness. The third is freedom. It is the rising up out of our conflict into a new awareness: the truth of ourselves if you will.

I was so taken with the piece that she took it down off her wall and gave it to me. I barely knew her … but then in some unspoken way … I had known her forever.

We became friends from a distance. She was in and out of my life for one reason or another for many years. Eventually she became friends with the girl that became my wife. I tried to do business with her once. When I wouldn’t toe her demanding line she told me “So you’ve sold out have you?” I resented it and disagreed at the time.

Lori and I had come from a generation and culture that wanted to “burn down the mission” and start again. The industrial military complex was the enemy and it was our job to resist the capitalist narrow-minded dogma of the previous generation. Needing to provide for children (Lori didn’t have any) I suppose I had cast aside many of the idealistic convictions of my younger years.

Lately I have entered a state of life that leans more toward contemplation and less the material. I chased a dollar for many years with an unflinching zeal until I began to feel empty.

How easily we embrace our shadow. It takes so little for us to cast aside our ideals for the sake of material comfort. Many years now the masks have graced the wall over my shoulder as I work. Every now and then I lean back and look up at them. I had thought that I had reached the awareness of the “shooting red star”.

Today I have begun to question that awareness. Do we as working units in a capitalist structure grow up, earn a living … rise to adult awareness; or are we just putting on blinders so we can justify the casting off of youthful conviction?

I suppose in the end, like so much else in life it’s just a matter of perspective … or is it? When we vote do we use our convictions or our need? When we teach our children do we err on the side of idealism or acquisition … achievement? I would like to think that Ihave been true to the desire to rise above the material focus of the generation before me. Then I look at the masks … and I can’t help but wonder

Monday, June 20, 2011

Father's Day Reflection

Father’s Day I sat and watched the ending of a movie from ten or so years back. “Tombstone”. It is a stylistic interpretation of the adventures and life of Wyatt Earp. Earp is played by the Disney icon of my childhood Kurt Russell that psychologically and emotionally adds a layer of identification.

These men are tough; hardened by the environment and the loose society of mostly men who seek out these rugged untamed places in mid 19th century America. Many fall to their basest animal instincts. Those who would settle and bring civilization … the money require that the animal be controlled; “Stage front” … the lawmen of the Wild West.

I can’t help but see this scenario as symbolic of the struggle of modern man. Instinctually we would grasp what we need and want and wrest it from the wilderness that is our environment. Civilization has it’s rules though so we learn to play within those rules like a helmeted warrior on the football gridiron or and agile dancer on the stage at the Met.

In the movie we are gifted with periodic peeks at the inner tenderness that is at the core of most men. We see that the beauty that comes to visit their harsh world softens them. We clearly recognize their loyalty and yes their love of one another as brothers in combat yet there is more.

To love another man is to know beyond any doubt that you can count on him. These men live in a world where should anyone falter in the support and courage that carries the unit forth … all may well fall. Here we see the symbol of man’s fall from grace. To give up … to lie down is to fail not only yourself but also your fellows.

The bible tells us “greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his fellows.” Here lies the only gift of war. Here lies the only gift of violence. Here lies the deepest truth of what we demand of our men.

Yet we ask them to be gentle. We ask them to bring forth vulnerability that in the world of men can bring the fall that these same men so desperately fear. So in “Tombstone”, in the end we see these men stand as the dust settles. Good has ultimately won and as they depart the brotherhood of battle one “gristled compadre” utters, “I just ain’t got the words to say, Wyatt.” Wyatt intones from glittering blue eyes and that walrus mustache of virility … “It ain’t necessary Bill.” The other man standing there meets the eyes of Earp, nods knowingly then turns and walks to his horse.

At last Earp is free to follow the love that wells up from the tenderness he has so long denied. He goes east and finds the beauty that had floated through his violent world so briefly yet had left possessing his heart.

This is a symbol of today’s modern man with his family. This is where we are required to bare our hearts in the vulnerability that so threatens who we are. If you can … forgive us; if you can give us room to learn each day who we are and where we belong, if you can love us then we will not falter.

If not … know this. We would be gentle but there are forces that strike at the core of our being. Our first job is to be warriors; to protect and defend and provide.

“Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his fellows.” These “fellows” are not only warriors on the field of combat but our family and our church … our coworkers and those less fortunate who need our help.

Let us though not lose sight of the fact that each man … each day struggles to balance the “beast and the beauty.” It is only through God’s love that we know the difference. It is only through God’s love that we persevere.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Gift

I had only known my mother-in-law, Becky, for a short time. It was obvious from first blush that she was a warm and “easy to talk to” lady. Actually she never stops talking but that’s a good thing when you’re the new guy and terribly uncomfortable.

It was the first Christmas at their house for me. Christmas … and it was 75 degrees in Jacksonville, Fla. I had been working in the cold rain all month in North Carolina. Becky had called one day and asked how I was doing. I said that I was wet, cold and busy. “I really don’t have time to talk right now, Becky”. I don’t think I was rude but as can be my way, especially when working, I was, no doubt a bit brusque.

Fast forward to the following Christmas morning as wrapping paper flies everywhere. Each person eagerly explores his or her Santa Claus booty.

“OOOhhh. …. AHHH … Just what I wanted! Thanks Grand Ma … Big Daddy.” Over to the side, I was busy extracting a black raincoat with a red flannel lining from a tissue filled box that had been carefully wrapped in red and green. I seem to remember holding it up with both hands and having to consciously close my gaping mouth as I gazed up at it in the glaring light.

For some reason I was somewhat confused. The only thing I knew to do to show my appreciation, other than mumble, “Thank you”, was to try it on. The moment I donned that flannel-lined jacket over cargo shorts and tank top, I started sweating like a pig. I was red faced and a little perplexed that this petite and yes, somewhat aggravatingly eccentric lady had gone searching for a warm raincoat in the tropical Jacksonville heat.

I could just see her padding across the sweltering black asphalt of the mall parking lot. The fact that in order to accomplish her goal she had considered me, even though we barely knew each other, working wet and cold was what stuck somewhere inside me.

I wore that raincoat out. It still hangs in the closet at work. It’s all torn up so I don’t wear it anymore. I’ve had it in my hands with other stuff headed for the trash can but I never could bring myself to throw it out.

Every now and then, on a cold rainy day … I’ll pull open the closet door … stand there … and just look at it for a moment or two.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Place In the Heart

The store is in a slightly seedy streetcar suburb built in the forties. Out front are two display windows framed by shiny black tile. On the tile are painted in crisp clear script of multiple colors many names like GE, Singer, Pfaff, Lewyt, Kirby, Eureka and such. The display window on the left is chock full of vacuum cleaners of all shapes and sizes, uprights, canisters and the old style tank types that look like some Buck Rogers rocket ship. In the other window stand a white washer and dryer with vacuum cleaner accessories lying at their feet.

When you push the door open the bell jangles obnoxiously. The hydraulic hinge, at the last second slams the door shut so it rattles the plate glass. The floor is brown and black tile and you can tell the building is long and deep as soon as you enter. Rows of vacuum cleaner bags are neatly arranged on the pegboard wall to the left. Refrigerators of various colors line the right hand wall; side by sides, “over/unders” and twenty year old Frigidares with rounded corners and chrome lever handles like a fifties car door.

Washers, dryers and stoves of white, harvest gold and olive green form a back-to-back center aisle. At the rear of the room is a waist high glass counter filled with out of date sewing machine parts. In it are plastic cogs for decorative “zig zag” machines, spindle bobbins no longer in use and antique boxes of needles. When you step behind the glass counter you have to turn right then quickly left like some little Alice in Wonderland trick to make way into the bowels of the old building.

The smell is musty with dust, buffing compound, sewing machine oil and aerosol paint. Two large workbenches line the wall on the left. They are covered in a low pile carpet stained with age and sweat. Large mounted vices stand prepared to grip and hold firmly. High shelves with many drawers and cubbies hold screws, nuts, bolts, needles, more bobbins and electrical connectors. Everywhere the eye travels there is an endless myriad of sewing machine, vacuum cleaner and appliance parts. Repaired items stand tagged and ready like a testament to diligence and resourcefulness: a product of a man’s hands and mind, like some kind of mini autobiography.

You continue past the benches to an eight-foot tall door covered with a cracked and aging mirror. When you push it creaks and moans opening smoothly on well-oiled hinges. You can hear its weight when it slams back shut bouncing a little as you walk up the concrete ramp into a huge and dimmer space.

Here the ceilings are twelve feet high or more with unpainted and exposed rafters. The temperature has risen noticeably. Cinder block walls stained with mildew house transom windows way up high. A row of eight to ten old Singer treadle sewing machines waits incongruently in silent patience on the left wall. The aged oak cabinetry contrasts in a somehow pleasant way with the decorative satin black wrought iron base and treadle. Ten-foot high wooden shelves like an endless world of pathways are spilling over with even more parts stored in drop front cardboard boxes and neatly labeled. These shelves are lined up thirty feet wide and fifty feet deep like some child’s haunted dream of a high walled maze.

To the right is a work area with a drain and a bare light bulb hanging down to illuminate the labor of him lying there under a washing machine tilted back, leaning precariously. He is reaching into the guts of the machine, concentrating and biting his tongue while peering over the bifocals on his nose. He wears a denim apron with shined black shoes. I continue down the narrow passage created by this menagerie towards the back doors. They are two large wooden affairs that you pull inward stepping out onto the small concrete loading dock on the alley. You can feel and smell the urban history here. The winos always gather under some bushes behind the restaurant four doors down.

Sometimes they will see him taking a break while he smokes a cigarette. When they approach he will give them one of the cigarettes and maybe a little change from his pocket. His voice will change like he is talking to a child. They’ll respond with heads humbly bowed as if they somehow believe in him. Then each will turn back into their worlds somehow knowing something that is forever left unsaid.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The "Buddy Plan"

  At eighteen I joined the Navy to keep from “ground pounding” in the jungles of Viet Nam and get the GI bill for college. My best friend came hollering one night at the loading dock where we toiled. “I know a way we can go to Hawaii free!” Randy was excited. I was reticent yet willing. We thought we were going to freeze to death in Great Lakes, Ill. during boot camp. One subfreezing day he laughed at my misery as we all stood in an outside chow line for over two hours with no cover on our ears.
  Arriving at the ship we had been assigned to we trudged wearily … thin and heavily laden with canvas sea bags down a darkened and huge concrete pier during the first hours of night. Monsters loomed about us. Up the gangplank and we peered into the red glow of cave like entryways at metal and machinery. There was a steady hum emanating from everywhere.
  As deck seamen we discovered that we had joined a cadre of sea faring men who knew secrets of ship and sea and of far away places. The wind angrily howled in our faces. Mother Sea sprayed us with her salty breath, as young boys became hardened creatures.
  We were “deck apes” and knew violent grinding and banging … heaving, splicing, cutting of line and dangling from precarious heights. We lived within the history of men at sea and our lives were forever bound in the toils and tales of pollywogs become shellbacks upon crossing the equator. We could clearly see our place on the face of the earth. We smelled the sweet stench of the mysterious and ancient Far East. We caressed the fair skin of almond-eyed ladies with distant and troubled hearts.
  I’ll never forget the horrible explosion of metal as that gargantuan anchor and chain escaped the rusty bowels to secure our fate in the dank and deep sea. You could taste the metal in the air. Our hearts racing, our eyes meeting as we yearned for port; haven of excitement, world of foreign and obscure depths, portentous and ancient cradle of man.
  My friend lives each day now as if it will be his last. He struggles with profound kidney disease. Last I saw him he seemed angry at his fate. We were boys once. Then we were China Fleet sailors. Now we are middle-aged men with memories of a briny and eternal sea. We are forever bound. Someday I will see him again across the deck of an ethereal vessel of knowing.

Hong Kong Harbor

  It was a dismal day as we entered the harbor at Hong Kong. I was 20 years old serving aboard the USS Blue Ridge. Seas were casting about before a squall. We had been held off outside the harbor on the previous day due to bad weather.
  As we were lowered in the “small boat”, which in this case was the “Captain’s Gig”, I had cast a questioning eye towards the bearded and grizzled coxswain. He only raised his bushy eyebrows at me, stood his deck and began to gauge the sea below. We crashed into the water and were banging dangerously into the ship when he called to “cast away”. The heavy metal hooks danced around our ducking heads as the twin inboard Chrysler engines growled their watery complaint into the maw of dark and foamy sea. We circled starboard and around to the front of the ship where the anchor chain dangled; a light gray hulking shadow against a leaden sky. Each link weighed sixty pounds. We were to connect the chain to a pad-eye at the bow of the 22 ft. gig we rode and tow it to the buoy that rocked and pitched with alarming violence in the misty harbor before us. The visible part of the dark charcoal colored buoy was about the size of a UPS delivery truck.
  We were all clad in the blue chambray and denim of sailors. We wore dark blue wool baseball caps with the Blue Ridge embroidered in gold on the front. As seamen we wore leather holsters attached to our belts like seafaring gunslingers. A buck knife and marlinspike rested in the holster slots for quick access. Everyone looked heavier than they were in the orange life vests that were required. Petty Officer Second Class Wrigney stood with me in the bow. He had the honor of rigging to the buoy. His job was to jump from the gig to the sea slippery metal buoy and attach the anchor chain we had released to the pad-eye there. I was too busy maintaining my station and watching for hazards in the angry water to be afraid. I would be releasing the chain from the gig as others pulled attached lines from two other boats to assist Wrigney in his task.
  In the distance stood the city of Hong Kong. As will happen in times like these my mind began to review visions of the past several hours. We had steamed into the harbor as a 747 was taking off from Hong Kong International. The runway ran horizontal to the right of the city proper along a mountain range. As the huge jet lifted off, she banked, showing us her silver back, powering toward the open sea. Skyscrapers of white concrete, glass and mirror stood sentinel over a bustling metropolis of grays and greens in this hazy world of foreign aromas. There was an ever-present odor of fish and something akin to mold. Flashing neon contrasted sharply with the dank surroundings. The mountainside behind the skyscrapers seemed to be plastered with thousands of unpainted wooden hovels barely clinging to a tenuous purchase on the rocky outcroppings.
  In the harbor, Chinese junks with sails that appeared to be made of bamboo and wood, plied the tossing waters; bobbing rubber ducks in an excited child’s bathtub. Huge ocean liners lay like beautiful arrogant women seemingly untouched in their hugeness by the tossing seas. Barges lumbered their way heavy-laden with barely a wake at their flat bow. Small ferries made you think of water trollies on a network of unseen rails, just beneath the surface, as they motored back and forth from ship to shore. As we had slowly cruised our way into the harbor, rickety vessels of all description and size, spilling over with wares and people of myriad costume, had drawn precariously alongside. A cacophony of shouting had ensued, “Hey Joe … you want good time?” “Watches for sale! Jewelry!” “You need a ride? You see ME at the dock. I show you veddy good time.”
  I was jerked back to reality as we were suddenly to the buoy and Petty Officer Wrigney crouched at the bow of the gig, legs bent at the knee, arms spread like a blocking basketball player, ready to dive for the swaying, bucking, barnacled monstrosity. As the bow of the gig reached its height, he released himself like some Neanderthal primate. The boat’s upward momentum seemed to eject him up onto the buoy where he grabbed hold of the metal handles that resembled bent rebar that were provided there. For the next few moments there was hectic maneuvering, pushing, pulling and great grunting. Our world swirled crazily in water all round. We were tossed and banged like so much flotsam. I felt a sharp pain when I slipped and struck my hip against the gunnels. Quickly I regained my footing and renewed pushing the heaving chain so Wrigney could attach it to the pad-eye. He slammed home the shackle pin as he held fast with his other hand. Wildly he launched himself back toward us and landed smack in the middle of one square foot of white fiberglass cabin before jumping on a slide into the teak decking of the gig. I pushed with all my might with a long wooden pole with hooked metal end called a bow hook against the tossing buoy. Once again the great motors growled their stubborn intention as we pulled port away from the clanging chain and mooring buoy. Above the fray we could hear the capstan “cank, cank cank” as it drew the slack from the chain and pulled the ship taut against its gargantuan aft anchor that already tugged at the deep bottom below.
  We were drenched through and through, water dripping from our faces, as we looked askance at one another, in a state of controlled shock. We cleared the area and suddenly, as if on cue, the tension seemed to dispel and we were slapping each other on the back and “high fiving”while crowing our pleasure and relief at the wind and sea for a job well done. We were comrades in an ancient dance as old as mariner tales from the days of canvas and wind. We were men of the sea and the deep mysteries of an Asian port lay teeming before us.