Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another Mission Accomplished

I’ve ridden on 4 Patriot Guard missions so far, two were funerals and two were “welcome home’s”. My second mission was the funeral of a young man who completed 2 tours in the Middle-East, got out of the Marines, finished his training to become a Border Patrol Officer and then died in a motorcycle accident. We provided a flag line at the entrance of the funeral home and another one at the gravesite in the cemetery. There were many young people at this funeral. A few looked like the deceased Marine’s service buddies. I could only imagine what they had been through together. Most of the mourners were probably his family and friends from Tucson.
We did a lot of standing around holding our flags in the hot sun on this mission. Out at the cemetery, it was at least 45 minutes before the mourners showed up from the funeral. I got acquainted with the guy standing across the gravel road from me. He is also a Vietnam Vet and is in a long fight with the VA attempting to get a disability for Post Traumatic Stress disorder. While standing there, suddenly two large hawks collided in the sky above us and clutching each other, spiraled down to the ground and landed in the field not far from the gravesite. I’ve never seen hawks fight before and I braced myself for the feathers to start flying. Then one of the guys down the line exclaimed, “They’re not fighting, they’re doing it.” I couldn’t make out exactly what they were doing, but he was right, they were doing “it”. The fluttering mass of feathers lasted a long time and I felt like a voyeur. Then all of a sudden the two individual birds rose up and flew off in different directions. As we watched them become small specks in the sky, somebody said, “What, no small talk, no cigarette?” We were thankful for the diversion from our standing in the hot sun.
As the cars began entering the cemetery, the Ride Captain announced, “They’re here”, and walked down the line of the flag holders. As he did he looked us over and said, “I’d ask you men to suck ‘em in, but I realize that’s as far as they go.” Sad but true, our average age is probably somewhere in the mid-sixties. Marines in dress blues gave this young Marine a 21-gun salute and then played taps. It was very moving.
Last Friday, the mission was to welcome home two Marines from Afghanistan at the Tucson airport. These welcome home missions are emotional as well, but different emotions. Up until this mission, I didn’t have any identifying patches of paraphernalia to wear. The other guys have vests, jackets, hats and or dew rags with patches and pins all over them. For the first 3 missions, I just stood there in my regular clothes feeling rather plain. So a week ago I ordered some Patriot Guard stuff from a website. I got a hat, a tee-shirt, and a sew-on patch for my jacket. When we met up at the American Legion before the mission, the first thing Sam, the President, and Ride Captain said to me was, “You got the wrong color hat.” It was a green Patriot Guard hat and I was supposed to have a blue one. I didn’t realize that color mattered. I made some excuse like, “It didn’t say anything about it on the website.” and Sam replied, “Yes it did, you just didn’t read it.” I thought the green was a really good color for me. I’m glad I didn’t pick maroon, only Ride Captains wear that color. He didn’t say anything about my new Patriot Guard tee-shirt, so I assumed it was alright.
I definitely needed to get more patches sewn on my jacket, so I decided to study what the other guys had on theirs. When we met up with the Tucson riders at the filing station near the airport, I discreetly checked out their jackets and vests. Except for a few guys who wore a simple shirt with a logo, most everyone else wore leather or blue jean vests with patches and buttons on them. Some were so full, it was hard to focus on individual ones. There were Patriot Guard patches, patches identifying their branch of service, American Legion or VFW Post patches, Vietnam Veteran patches and American flag patches. There were a few patches that I thought were wrong and triggered doubts as to whether I really belonged with this group. For example, one guy had a patch that said, “All I need to know about Muslims, I learned on 9/11.” It reminded me of an old guy in my Veteran support group who every now and then blurted out, “I say kill all those rag heads and let God sort ‘em out.” How do you respond to that kind of comment? I noticed one of the Ride Captains had a confederate flag patch next to his American Rifle Association patch. I was beginning to feel more and more like an underground liberal.
At the airport we rode our bikes right up to the main entrance and the security guy let us park in twos right there along the front. We set up a flag line inside the airport where the passengers are met. I had greeted my sister at that very spot just a few weeks before. The Marine’s plane was late, so again there was a lot of standing around and waiting. At least it was air-conditioned. I was talking to the guy standing next to me and inadvertently loosened my grip on my flag and the tip was touching the ground. All of a sudden a woman across from me yelled out, “Get that flag up off the ground. My husband died defending that flag!” Everyone looked at me and I quickly lifted the flag up and shot her a bewildered and somewhat hostile look.
Her commanding outburst brought up all sorts of feelings. My first thought was, why do I want to hang out with these right wing assholes? But I didn’t want to dwell on it or have it get the best of me, so after I calmed down, I decided to talk to the woman who yelled at me. I went over and asked her about her husband. She said he had been a Marine and was killed in Danang in 1970. I told her I was stationed not far from Danang and that I went on R&R with a bunch of Marines from Danang. She seemed surprised to learn that I was in Vietnam. I suppose I didn’t have on enough identifying patches and buttons. She had on a vest covered with them and one of them represented her late husband’s unit, a Marine recon unit. When she told me about him, she teared-up and then apologized for yelling at me about the flag.
Finally the two marines came down the hall and everyone burst into cheers. They were a young woman and man, possibly married. They thanked all of us flag holders as they walked by and I noticed the young woman Marine had tears in her eyes. They were clearly grateful and moved by the reception. After they passed by, we quickly rolled up our flags and exited. Sam said we needed to remove our bikes from the front of the Airport as soon as possible. We stashed our flags in the back of the truck, hopped on our bikes and took off. As they say in the Patriot Guard, “Another Mission accomplished”. Maybe I like being part of this group after all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Sunshine Cake Moment

The last five years of my counseling career, I facilitated a therapy group of combat veterans. The members were all Vietnam veterans with the exception of two Korean War vets. These two men were older, one in his 70’s and the other over 80, were both Marines and always sat together. The older man, I’ll call Jack, was born in France. At the age of thirteen, he and his mother fled Nazi occupation. He joined the American Merchant Marines and sailed back over to Europe, transporting material in the war effort and witnessing much death and destruction. After leaving service in the Merchant marines, still a young man, he joined the Marine Corps and was sent to fight in the Korean War. I’ve worked with many veterans over the years and Jack, hands down, experienced more threatening and dangerous situations and did more actual fighting than any veteran I’ve ever worked with.
He was a gentle, sensitive man who empathized with others. He had an open heart and often became tearful when group members talked about their experiences. He often said that the Marines turned him into a “killer monkey” and even though he wasn’t suicidal, he welcomed death because it would finally give him piece.
One day in group he referred to an experience shared by another group member as a “Sunshine Cake Moment”. None of us knew what that was, so I asked him to explain and he told the following story. When the Chinese communists entered the war, Jack was with his unit in the northern part of South Korea. At that time in the war, waves of Chinese soldiers were pouring over the border to aid the North Koreans. The battle was intense, non-stop and lasted for days. Finally after a horrendous night of fighting, the battle over, there were hundreds of dead bodies strewn all over the hills. It was early morning and Jack was in his foxhole. He discovered a few bits of food rations and put together a little desert the soldiers called a sunshine cake. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. He had survived the long battle and felt more alive than ever. He described a sense of peace that transcended his life circumstances. He had no past and no future, only the warm sun, the cool air and the delicious sunshine cake.
The other group members related to his story. Some told similar stories, none quite so dramatic, but all having the same theme, an extreme sense of peace and heightened awareness in the present moment. I thought of a time in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood. It was the middle of winter in the Ozarks and we were out for the day of training. They marched us everywhere for miles and miles and I remember feeling exhausted most of the time. On one particular day, after marching for hours, we came to an open field. Our packs and rifles were heavy, my shoulders and feet hurt, and my legs were tired. The Drill Sergeant stopped the column in the middle of the dirt road and yelled, “fall out, smoke em if you got em and go ahead and suck on your canteens.” We all knew we would be able to rest for a short while.
Each of us found a place in the field. Some guys lay down on their backs, resting their heads on their packs. I sat on mine. Removing my boots, my body relaxed from the day’s activities and weeks of deprivation and abuse. I remember the warm feeling of the sun and the smell of dry grass. The sky was deep blue with a few puffy clouds and the winter air was clean and cool. I was at peace and totally free. It was a “sunshine cake moment”.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In Search of “The Thing?”

During spring break, my step son and his family came down from Seattle to visit us. Fleeing the cold, damp weather of the Northwest, they reveled in the sun. Our seven-year- old grandson happily wandered up and down the sidewalk outside our condo, singing to himself and occasionally kicking a rock. The whole family went to the pool everyday, fitting it around our various trips and activities.
The thing sign We went hiking in the Chiricahua National Monument, a park in one of the most beautiful and unusual mountain ranges in southern Arizona. On the drive over to the eastern side of the state on Interstate 10, somewhere between Benson and Willcox, we began seeing signs that posed the question, “The Thing, What is it?”. We could find out the answer, we were instructed, by getting off at Exit 322. We had no plans of doing this, because we all knew these signs were a come-on gimmick for some cheesey souvenir shop and that “The Thing?” more than likely was a disappointing artifact that served as a hook to draw people in to shop and eat. As we flew past Exit 322, I noticed a group of buildings including a service station and a Dairy Queen. The main building sported a sign in giant letters, “THE THING?”.
Once in the Chiricahuas we hiked the Echo Canyon Loop on a well maintained path, a total of about 3 miles. It led us through amazing rock formations called hoodoos,which appeared to be stacked by a kindergarten class of giants. The grandkids had fun identifying various animals in the rock shapes. During the hike, my eleven-year-old grandson and I began wondering about “The Thing?”. He thought it might be just the name of the souvenir shop, but I felt certain there was an unusual artifact inside that they were calling “The Thing?”. We talked about the possibility of a two-headed animal, or maybe a mummified creature from the past. The more we talked, the more we knew we had to stop on the way home to satisfy our curiosity. We were traveling in two cars, so after the long day of hiking and driving, it was sort of a big deal to have to stop. I suggested that if “The Thing” was really lame, at least we could get an ice cream at the Dairy Queen next door.
I thought about all those times back in the’50s on family vacations, when on a whim, my Dad would take a detour to see a giant ball of twine or a vortex where things rolled uphill or a giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. When my two step sons were young and then later with our son, Ben, we used to love to visit Ye Olde Curiosity Shop down on the wharf in Seattle. It was and still is a bazaar museum with shrunken heads, mummified creatures and fleas dressed in clothes that you view through a magnifying glass. Right next door is an Ivar’s Fish and Chips restaurant . We ate our clam strips and chips while sitting under heat lamps, watching ferries sail in from the Islands on Puget Sound. Wanting my grandchildren to have memories like these, I pushed to stop and check out “The Thing?”.
The gift shop was neat, clean and orderly, and even though the merchandise was mostly a bunch of cheap, fake looking tourist stuff, all members of my family seemed to find something interesting to look at. The seven-year-old bought a bag of polished rocks, enjoying picking out each stone with great care and the older grandson bought a small canteen in a fake leather pouch with a picture of an Indian in full head dress. He happily filled the canteen with water, slung the strap over his shoulder and carried it around on other adventures throughout the week.
the thing
The door to “The Thing?” was in the back of the shop. The admission was $1.00 for adults and $.75 for children. We paid the lady at the counter who told us “The Thing?” was in the third building, “Just follow the big yellow foot prints.” The first building contained a variety of extremely dusty artifacts from the past, including a few cars and tractors in ill repair, some buggies and a covered wagon. One of the cars was a 1937 Rolls Royce with a sign saying Adolf Hitler MAY have previously owned it. I had my doubts. Several mannequins were inside the car and sure enough, there in the back seat with his signature tiny mustache,  Adolph Hitler sat slumped against the window. Further along was a section of cages filled with wooden dummies in various positions of agony brought on by ancient torture devices. I didn’t get a close look at this exhibit because our daughter-in-law made sure we all passed through this section quickly.
In the second building on either side of the walkway, were smaller antique artifacts behind glass. The old rifles from the 17th and 18th century were mildly interesting. One display sign announced an old and modern telephone. The old telephone was one of those big wooden boxes with the mouth piece sticking out front, a crank handle on the side and the ear piece hanging on a hook on the other side, the kind the Waltons used on TV. The “modern phone” was a black rotary dial phone that looked like it was from the early fifties. To my grandsons, this was an exhibit of two old phones. I had to ask myself, how much time and trouble would it have taken someone to remove the rotary phone and chuck in a used cell phone?
In the third building was a glass topped casket containing a dirty, fake looking mummy. There were other old dirty artifacts in this building and after a few moments of confusion, we assumed the mummy must be “The Thing?”, but we weren’t sure. When we re-entered the gift shop, I asked the woman at the counter if the mummy was “The Thing?”. She and a few others shushed me, I guess my voice was too loud and god forbid if the big secret got out. She softly replied, “yes, the mummy was it”.
There are huge gross signs all along the highway asking the traveler to ponder “The Thing, What is it?” so I had to ask her, “After all the hype, why isn’t there a sign that identifies ‘The Thing?’.” She answered in a matter of fact way, “ Someone stole it and they haven’t been able to find it yet.” I had a number of comments and acute observations to share with this woman, but my wife, Katie, nudged me, which I took to mean, “Leave it alone.”
With the exception of the person who stole the sign, it is obvious to all weary and curious travelers that the museum hadn’t been touched in decades. I researched the origins of “The Thing?” and found out that it was originally owned by Thomas Brinkley Pierce, a Phoenix lawyer. In an NPR piece about it, Rene Gutel interviews a distant relative of Homer Tate, who was also from Phoenix and made gaffes(weird creatures and artifacts) for circus side shows. It is suggested in the interview that Homer was the original creator of “The Thing?”. Pierce first displayed it as a roadside attraction on highway 91 between Barstow and Bakersfield. After he died in 1969, it was purchased by Charles Bowlin, who owned a string of travel centers in New Mexico and Arizona. Bowlin Inc. has been a family business since Claude Bowlin began trading with the Indians of New Mexico in 1912. Charles died in 1972 and the Bowlin Travel Centers are now run by his son Michael L. Bowlin. It says on the web site:
“Our company shall always strive to maintain the pride and tradition started many years ago - carrying first-rate merchandise and offering first-rate service to the traveling public. Our mission statement says it all, ‘Bowlin Travel Centers shall continue to grow and serve our customers in our long standing tradition of honesty, integrity, and hospitality by providing high quality products and services at competitive prices, while providing financial stability and a reasonable return on equity for our stockholders, and compensation in excess of market along with a satisfying work environment for our employees’.”
So here is a message to Mr. Bowlin, who undoubtedly reads my blog: It sounds like your company is growing and making lots of money for you and your stockholders by selling your “first-rate” and “high quality” merchandise. But when you say you take pride in your travel centers, perhaps you weren’t thinking about “The Thing?" museum on Highway 10 between Benson and Willcox.  I think you need to come over and take a look. When you come, be sure to bring a dust cloth and a spare cell phone.  And while you’re here you might want to push Hitler up out of his slump. And oh yeah, bring along a piece of cardboard and a magic marker, it seems someone stole one of your small but important signs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The American Legion Breakfast

Last Saturday I helped serve morning breakfast at the American Legion. This is the duty of the legion Riders twice a month. The Legion riders are guys who ride motorcycles and belong to the American Legion. It’s mostly men, but there are some women. The morning breakfast duty lasts about 4 hours. The actual breakfast is from 8:00-10:00, it’s open to the public and we served over 90 customers.
Sam, the Legion commander always comes in early and preps. I’m not sure what all he does. He probably turns on the burners and gets out the various ingredients. The breakfast menu is always the same items: scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, bacon, blueberry pancakes and biscuits with or without gravy. One of the tasks I do know Sam does before the rest of us arrive is to prepare his special gravy for the biscuits. Rumor has it that he puts in chopped Sirloin, but nobody knows for sure. By the time I arrive at 7 a.m. he’s already busy cooking the scrambled eggs.
In typical military fashion, each member is assigned a specific task. One guy makes the pancakes, another guy is in charge of cooking the meat and tending the warmer trays. There’s a guy who makes coffee and keeps the coffee pots filled and there are two dish washers, one guy to wash the dishes and one to take the dirty dishes from the bus table back to the sink and replace the clean ones on the shelves. It all runs like a fine machine. When someone is getting overwhelmed and needs help, someone else will pitch in, whether it’s their assigned duty or not.
I’m always assigned to work in the dining room, either bussing or waiting tables. The kitchen duties are for the more experienced guys. These tasks are all interconnected, and require team work and multitasking. But there is one exception. One guy’s total job is to ladle gravy onto the biscuits. That’s all he does. While everyone else is running around performing a variety of tasks, this guy stands in front of the big pot of gravy waiting for biscuits to be held in front of him. He’s standing there every Saturday morning when I come in. You have to ask yourself, what’s with this guy?
Working in the dining room has its challenges as well. Two weeks ago I bused tables and helped with the blind vet’s, who are transported down from the VA in Tucson. Last Saturday my job was waiting on tables. The tables were divided between two women and myself. I was assigned just two tables. One of the women is very controlling and bossy. She is small and thin and rides a Honda Shadow like myself. Most everybody jokes around as they go about their duties, but she is “no nonsense” and “all business” all the time. I certainly didn’t want to get in her way, so like the gravy guy, I stood glued to my two tables with pad and pencil in hand waiting for customers to sit down.
I did a lot of standing around and got to know the other waitress pretty well, the non-bossy one. She looks like someone’s grandmother, in fact she is a grandmother. She told me she and her husband, who was bussing tables, love to ride together. They each ride their own Harleys. She said she started ridding in her late 50’s. She also said she has ridden over 150,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles on a Harley. She was a very sweet lady, but after talking with her, my macho motorcycle image became a little tarnished. I’ve been riding since the 1970s and haven’t ridden nearly that amount of miles.
One of the scandals of the morning was when the bossy, uptight waitress took an order from the Harley riding waitresses tables. How dare she, especially after making the rule and enforcing it on the others. Well the Harley riding grandmother waitress said she was not going to let this get to her. But later I saw her saunter over to one of the bossy waitress’s tables and take a man’s order. When the bossy waitress returned from the kitchen and realized what had happened, she shot a look that could kill over toward where we were standing. I guess they were working things out in their own way. I continued to stand there, minding my own business glued to my two tables.
After the breakfast is over, it’s time for us volunteers to eat. I’d never tried Sam’s famous gravy, so I decided to throw all caution to the wind and had eggs, sausage, hash browns and biscuits and gravy. They were right, the gravy was delicious. There were a bunch of us eating together at one of the large tables. The other guys finished eating and went back to cleaning up leaving me sitting alone with the gravy guy. I was tempted to ask him if the reason he never left his post at the gravy bowl was because he was afraid of the bossy waitress, but I didn’t. He began telling me about his golf cart and some of the modifications he’d made to it. I shared an idea I’d had for making money: buying used golf carts, fixing them up and painting them bright colors to sell to the boomers who are moving here in increasing numbers. You can’t beat the golf cart for cheap transportation around Green Valley. But the gravy guy just looked at me like I was nuts and so I decided to go help break down tables.
For the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, I felt sluggish and tired. Why did I eat that “heart attack on a plate” breakfast? But I survived to write about it. Sometime in the near future I expect to graduate from the dining room to kitchen duty. These are the crucial jobs that make or break the American Legion breakfast. Well except for the gravy guy’s job. What’s with that guy anyway?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The 2011 Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books is an event that I look forward to each year. I attended with my wife, Katie, and my sister, Karen. Just like last year, the event did not disappoint. We went both days, Saturday and Sunday March 12-13. When we lived in the Seattle area, every year we went to the Northwest Book Fest and learned early not to waste time wandering around looking at the various booksellers and publishers’ booths, but to attend as many authors’ talks as possible.
I’ve always admired writers. One of the women authors on one of the panels asked aspiring writers in the audience which they liked best, the idea of being an author or the act of writing itself. She followed this up by saying you have to be passionate about writing to be a successful writer. I had to admit, I’ve always liked the idea of being a writer more than sitting down and writing. I pictured myself living in southern Europe or Mexico or some other exotic place, writing by day and in the evening strolling into the local village for a drink and lively Hemmingwayesque conversation with the locals. I never pictured myself at home at the kitchen table. In retirement, however, this is changing. I am rediscovering the creative flow of writing which adds immeasurably to the quality of my life. When I write regularly, I cultivate an artistic attitude that positively alters my view of the world and my day to day life.
Over 100,000 people attended the festival this year and all of them got hungry at the exact same time I did. The lines at the food booths were so long that by the time I would have gotten my food, my next venue would have been over. So I managed to find a junk food machine in one of the buildings, which I hit repeatedly between talks, receiving needed sustenance: chips, granola bars and bottled water.
This year we managed to attend 7 different author panels. You can’t attend them all, because there are too many happening simultaneously. Like last year, there were more than 400 authors and we managed to see about 20. Choosing which venues to attend is the biggest challenge.
The first panel I attended was called Borderlines and all 3 authors had recently written books that take place near the Mexican border. The authors were Thomas Cobb, who wrote Crazy Heart and Shavetail,  Phillip Caputo, A Rumor of War and 11 other books, the latest being Crossers,  and Margaret Regan a Tucson journalist who wrote The Death of Josseline.   Margaret Regan’s book is about a 14-year-old Mexican girl who dies in the Arizona desert. She and her brother crossed over into the US on their way to reunite with their mother. She became sick and the group they were traveling with decided to leave her behind. Regan’s story gives a human face to the immigrant problem. I noticed that the two male authors treated her with respect and admiration even though this is her first book. She exemplified the potential of a creative writer to affect public opinion concerning a misunderstood and sensitive issue. I hope her book is widely read.
Jeff Guinn was on another western theme panel and  talked about his current book, The Last Gunfight about the OK Corral, Tombstone and the Earp brothers. I saw him last year when he talked about his book Go Down Together, the true story of Bonnie and Clyde. There are so many books written about the west and its characters and most perpetuate a romantic myth. I like the western romantic myth as well as the next guy, but I am most interested in the characters of the west from a more accurate and truthful standpoint. Many of the real heroes don’t get much attention. Either they weren’t self promoting like Wyatt Earp or they don’t neatly fit into our preconceived ideas about the west. Characters like James Hume, the Wells Fargo Detective, and Robert Paul, the Pima county sheriff. These two guys were life long lawmen who hunted down and captured or killed numerous bad guys. But few people have even heard of them. Everyone has heard of Wyatt Earp, but was he really a hero of the west. Jeff Guinn did extensive research and said his book destroys many of the myths about that time and place in history. Someone in the audience asked him what he thought about the current town of Tombstone and their shameless promotion of the western myth. He humbly said that he realizes the town has to bring in the tourist dollar to survive, but added if the residents take the time to read his book, there probably will be another lynching and he’ll  be the victim. After he made that statement, I knew I wanted to read his book.
The most unusual panel I attended was called “Right on, Far out, Looking back at the 60’s” All three authors books take place during that time. One was Mark Rudd, a former leader in the SDS at Columbia University and co-founder of the Weathermen. Even though the two women authors on the panel were not as active politically, the questions from the audience mostly had to do with what happened to the sixties’ activism and what  the panelists thought of the country’s current state of affairs. I always have mixed feelings when boomers start to romantically remember the good old days of activism. Not one of the panelists ever mentioned the fact that a huge number of us were forced into the military and had to participate in the war they were protesting against. And they also failed to mention how they treated us after we returned home. So while they were waxing poetically and triumphantly about how they changed the country and how exciting and exhilarating it all was, I was sitting there thinking “Fuck You”. How’s that for poetic
There was however one moment during the question and answer period when our differences melted away. Following a bunch of serious political questions, a shy young woman came up to the microphone and apologized for what she knew would be a trivial question, “I was curious if there was a certain song that really captures the times and stands out in your memory.” All three of the panelists’ eyes lit up. It was obvious that they didn’t think this question was trivial at all. The SDS/Weathermen guy chose an unusual song for his favorite, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. It’s a great song, but hardly captures the times. One of the women authors chose “Get Together” by the Youngbloods and the other “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish, two great choices. I wished they would have asked me that question, and since this is my blog, I will answer it. My choice is “The Times They are a Changin’”, by Dylan.
There were other interesting authors and panels I haven’t mentioned, but I am well over my self imposed 1000 word limit. I’m looking forward to next year’s Tucson Festival of Books. If you’re in the area don’t miss it. PS, bring a sack lunch.