Month: November 2018

Join the army. Go to distant lands.

5280 Magazine cover

Making War Cool

Meet exotic people. And kill them.  Even for women!

5280 magazine is the cool magazine for Denverites. Which, if you believe our press clippings, is among the coolest cities in the nation.

The magazine’s usual beats are Colorado’s pricey ski resorts. The latest and greatest on Denver’s foodie scene.  All things culture.  The groovy health trends. The best Colorado workouts (and those are different from the best Iowa workouts how?).

But, because I tend to come down on the cranky, old curmudgeon side, I usually don’t pay much attention to the publication when I see it in the checkout line.

But the November cover picture made me take a second look.  An attractive woman, in full battle rattle, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her helmet tucked under her arm.  The headline?  “On The Front Line:  Embedded With American Female Combat Soldiers In Afghanistan.”  And, even before I’d read the first line of the article, I picked up a copy.

Why we fight.  Who knows?

9/11.  Does anyone besides me have trouble remembering the third two numbers in that now talismanic combination of digits?  They’re 01.  Or, to put it in plain English:  September 11, 2001.  That’s nearly 20 years ago.

And still we fight on in Afghanistan.  The human toll is staggering.  Over 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers.  (And, as of a few of days ago, 3 more.)  More than 20,000 maimed and wounded.  Countless others dead by suicide as a result of the mental trauma of war.  Who knows how many families shattered by repeated deployments.

And dare I mention the toll on the Afghan people? While estimates vary in the fog of war, the number of killed or wounded Afghanis ranges in the hundreds of thousands.  And we wonder why so many Afghans have made common cause with the Taliban?

Making war cool

So now 5280 puts out a puff piece that makes this conflict look like the latest front in a noble struggle for equal rights for women.  Rather than a ruinous war that will, at some point, inevitably result in this country finally admitting that the conflict can’t be won.  And, like the Soviets once did, coming to our senses and leaving.

It’s astonishing that in this lengthy article there is only the briefest mention of what these women, who serve in an artillery unit, actually do:   [Her] “greater concern had less to do with gender and more to do with the actual job she was carrying out: She was killing people.”  This particular woman reconciled herself to this grim reality with the thought  that, “If I didn’t like the idea of killing people I shouldn’t have joined the Army-because that’s what the Army does.”

So, join the Army and grow to like killing people?

Bleeding Air Force blue

Picture of Mariah

Making War Uncool

While writing this post, I happened to meet a young woman named Mariah.  Twenty seven years old, her appearance reminded me of the woman on the cover of 5280: striking red hair pulled back in a severe bun.  But while she also shared the military background, the rest of her story is anything but cool.

A self described “Air Force brat,” her dad put in 30 years in the service.  While she was still an infant, the family was transferred to Buckley airbase in Aurora, where she grew up.

Her dad was deployed repeatedly.  “Which,” according to Mariah, “was pretty negative; my mom had severe abandonment issues. However,” she continued, “it was a also a benefit because there was no abuse at home while dad was gone.”   Domestic violence, as is well known, is a risk of multiple deployments.  So is divorce; Mariah’s parents separated after 30 years of marriage.

To escape an intolerable home life, Mariah enlisted in the Air National Guard after high school; the Guard provided her with the financial resources to make the break.

But as her LinkedIn profile reveals, it’s been anything but a smooth flight.  While she’s earned an I.T. degree and become an articulate writer, she’s also flirted with suicide.  And had a run-in with the law.  Which resulted in a seven month jail sentence; something to do with sending an ugly email to a counselor that violated a restraining order.  Which, in turn, caused her to lose the V.A. benefits she’d been awarded as a result of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) she says she suffered at her father’s hands.  An appeal’s pending, but with the V.A.’s enormous claims backlog, who knows how long it’ll be before her case is resolved?

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow

And now, with winter closing in, homelessness.  How she manages is hard to fathom.  Crashing on friends’ couches some nights.  Sleeping in her car others.

I’ve suggested several possible resources in the Christian community with which I’m familiar.  Also some in the secular world that I became acquainted with during my service in the legislature.  Do they have room for her?  Has she applied to get in?  I’m not sure.  At one point, she described the shelters with which she’s familiar as “sketchy.”  That’s easy to believe.

Go west, young woman. Go midwest

She expressed her determination to move to the midwest, where the cost of living is lower.  Given Denver’s fevered economy, it’s not difficult to imagine that a place like Des Moines would be cheaper.  But I had to ask: “Does it really make sense to go to an entirely strange city to start over?”  She had a ready answer: “I can’t take the chance of running into my dad. And,” she says, “the criminal justice system in that part of the country tends to be more lenient than it is here.”

So, just another chapter in an old American story?  The one about those who are sufficiently adventurous (or sufficiently desperate), to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.

Or something more sinister?  A tale about yet another desperate attempt to escape the pity of war.

Bud’s Warehouse: Rebuilding lives

750x450 buds

How we do it

Bud’s Warehouse is a Christian ministry helping individuals rebuild their lives from prison, addiction and homelessness by providing entry level jobs and discipleship.

Largely self sufficient financially, Bud’s sells gently used, donated construction materials out of our 30,000 square foot retail space a few blocks west of I-225 at Mississippi.  A favorite donation are kitchen cabinets being changed out in a remodel.  As we like to say: DON’T PUT ‘EM IN THE LANDFILL.  DONATE ‘EM TO BUD’S!

kitchen cabinets recently sold at Bud's

A set of kitchen cabinets recently sold at Bud’s

What was meant for evil, God used for good

You wouldn’t guess Pat Stewart’s rough past if you ran into him at Bud’s.  At least, I didn’t.  Always ready with a broad smile, he does customer service with a will.  And pretty much anything else that needs to be done around the place.

In high school he excelled at sports, playing defensive end and kicker; also a Golden Gloves boxer.  He earned the cuddly sounding nickname, “Papa Bear.”  But don’t let that fool you.

Born under a bad sign

He grew up in Denver in a normal family:  father, mother, brothers and sisters.

But at age 11, he went to a nearby park with some buddies and, without really understanding what was happening, he found that he had suddenly become a member of Denver’s notorious “Bloods” gang.  The initiation process?  Getting “beat in.”  When I asked, “What’s that?”,  I learned it’s like it sounds; Pat woke up in a hospital.

The initiation continued with him taking occasional pot shots at rival gang members.  “I didn’t hit anyone,” he told me.  “Almost impossible to hit someone with a pistol.”  Especially for an eleven year old kid.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

450x450 Pat

But while Pat wasn’t a great shot, he had a knack for making enemies.  And they were better shots.  “I was shot twice,” he says, “and died twice on the operating table.”

A few years later, Pat’s “luck” ran out during a drug deal gone bad.  To even the score when a customer failed to pay him for some drugs, he burst into an apartment, gun drawn.  He didn’t have much success getting back either his money or drugs.

But he did succeed in bringing the police down on his head.  For an eighteen year old, the charges were pretty impressive.  Robbery.  Firearms.  Home invasion.  Drug possession.

The sentence was equally impressive: eighteen years.  He served six years, followed by three years of parole.

What’s it take to change?

But as is so often the case when God steps in, what Pat thought was rock bottom, was when the Lord finally got his attention.

It was the death of his mother.  Or as Pat puts it, “The Lord had to take the biggest part of my heart to let me know that I had to trust and believe in him for the rest of my life.  So that’s what I did.  And he’s blessed me abundantly.”

Taking a chance.  Transforming lives.

Pat is the kind of person for whom Bud’s exists:  taking a chance on hiring a him-or her- when no one else will.  And our investment in Pat has paid big dividends.  Spiritually and otherwise.

“When,” as Pat relates it, “I came to Bud’s, I couldn’t read a measuring tape.  But,” he continues, “I wound up leading the New Beginnings Custom Woodworks cabinetry operation.”

From a man whose life was in tatters, he now mentors others with daily Bible studies.  “For me,” he says, “it’s Jesus every day.”

So, come on down.  Say “Hi” to Pat.  Learn about the other businesses that we’ve started which, yes, make a profit (not a bad word for us), but, just as importantly, transform lives.  And where, of course, we get by with a little help from our friends:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And, while you’re at it, pick up one of those whatchamacallit construction thingamajigs you know you need.

III. The Communion of Saints.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Past.  Present. And FUTURE.

Hit the rewind button.  Again.  Back to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore for a couple of nights at the beautiful State Game Lodge.  I stayed there as a kid with my mom and brother on two trips we made to visit her relatives in far southeast North Dakota.

The Lodge seemed huge then; small now.  One night, my brother and I sat out on the big front porch, watching a fierce storm, the lightning bolts turning the surrounding hills white before they were plunged into an even greater blackness.  Thunder claps coming from just over our heads and then tumbling down the valleys, the rain sluicing in curtains off the roof in front of where we, mesmerized, sat.  The show was over too quickly.

Those were lean times for our family; my dad had gone from driving big Cadillacs with those outrageous tail fins to a little VW bug with faded, orange paint.  But it did the trick, laboring up those long grades in Wyoming, getting us to mom’s relatives’ farms in southeast North Dakota.  Those farmers-those relations-are mostly gone now.

Angry hornets.

Custer State Park is something like a beekeeper’s veil:  it keeps at bay the annoying swarms of tourist traps that would otherwise overwhelm Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Badlands National Park.

Mount Rushmore in a driving rain, sleet mix is less than ideal.  But look on the bright side-I pretty much had the place to myself.  And the weather did nothing to deter those stoic, gray figures, their faces wreathed in mist, gazing out towards the horizon.

Crazy Horse Monument

Crazy Horse Memorial

Persistence and determination are alone omnipotent.

A few miles down the road, it was the same story at the Crazy Horse Memorial, where the massive sculpture pranced in and out of the clouds.

In 1939, Lakota Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to the well known Polish-American sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, asking him to create a monument so that “the white man would know that the red man has great heroes too.”  Although Ziolkowski answered in the affirmative, the start of the work was interrupted by the sculptor’s WWII Army service; he was wounded at the Omaha Beach landings.

The first blast on the sculpture didn’t come until June 3, 1948.  The work hasn’t stopped since.  Not by Ziolkowski’s death in 1982.  Nor his wife Ruth’s death in 2014.  It’s now carried on by their 10 children and even grandchildren.

When I first visited Crazy Horse with my mom and brother back in the early ’60’s, you had to have an active imagination to have any idea what was taking shape on that distant pile of rocks.  No longer.  Crazy Horse’s face is finished, even though it will be years, if not decades, before the entire sculpture is.  (This glacial pace of progress has been the object of some criticism and charges of family nepotism.)

Why has it gone so slowly?  It’s all been done with admission fees and private donations.  When federal aid was offered, Ziolkowski and the tribes he worked with refused.  When I asked one of the museum attendants, “Why?” he answered, “The federal government took our land.  We’re not going to take money from them.”

Past. Present. And future.

When Monique Ziolkowshi, Korczak’s daughter and now CEO of the undertaking, is asked when the sculpture will be finished, she replies, “I’ll be dead before it’s done.”

Is this monument, which this woman will never see completed, a strange project to devote one’s life to?  Maybe.

But isn’t it a sort of picture of how life should be lived?  Hopefully, our ancestors have bequeathed something to us we consider worth preserving.  A tradition, or, as Burke had it, a “prescription,” that we carry into the present.  And that we, in turn, live, move and have our being in such a way that makes “the Permanent Things,” as T.S. Eliot described them, beguiling to our descendants.

 

 

II. The Communion of Saints.

big boy locomotive

Big Boy Locomotive

Past. PRESENT. And Future.

Fast forward to the present.  And Cheyenne, Wyoming.  On the map, the drive from the Adams Bonanza Farm was pretty straight forward.  Southwest to Pierre, the capital of South Dakota and where I spent a night at The Hitching Horse Inn B&B, a few blocks from the Missouri River.  Then, west to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for a couple of a gray days; I hadn’t seen that country since my mom took my brother and me there as kids.

From there, south to Cheyenne, Wyoming and a night at the Nagle Warren Mansion B&B. It’s part of “Cattle Baron Row” and was a short walk through the drizzle from downtown.   A few blocks in the other direction, there’s a park with the Union Pacific’s “Big Boy” locomotive is on display.  As a kid, I remember watching it belching black smoke as it thundered across the purple sage of Wyoming and we raced it in our car on the way to summer vacations in Boise.

The Heart of the Matter

But while my drive was linear, the listening wasn’t.  It was The Heart of the Matterby Graham Greene, considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a self described “Catholic agnostic.”

The novel captures the ambiguity of living on the evanescent bubble of the present.  Loosely based on Greene’s life, the setting is a west African British colony during World War II.  It’s the story of a hapless policeman, Henry Scobie. Tormented rather than comforted by his Catholic faith, he’s a trapped, despairing, and disillusioned man.  His career is going nowhere.  A loveless marriage is made unbearable by the death of his one daughter.  An affair with a younger woman is not just unsatisfactory, the church teaches that it’s a mortal sin.  Suicide, the only apparent way out, piles eternal damnation on mortal sin.  Not to mention to the human wreckage Scobie believes his death will leave in its wake.

Needless to say, the book didn’t become a near instant best seller on its 1948 publication based on its happy subject matter. My review?  It made the nearly featureless miles of the Wyoming outback melt away.

The scandal that keeps on giving.  And taking.

On Sunday morning I enjoyed breakfast with several other guests around the large table in the dining room.  On line, I’d seen that the main Catholic cathedral for Wyoming was nearby.   I asked our host, Jim, to point me in the right direction and I walked to the early service.  

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary is regal.   Very different than the evangelical, Protestant sanctuaries I’m used to and which, so often, are only a step or two up from unadorned shoe boxes.  The priest was from India and his thick accent rendered the homily largely incomprehensible.    (Catholic homilies, even when comprehensible, are usually a step or two down from the Protestant sermons I’m used to.  Well, guess you can’t have it all.)

As the homily drifted over my head in Cheyenne, my thoughts wondered back to a Mass I’d gone to at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church several weeks before in Silverthorne, Colorado.  I happened to catch Our Lady at the height of the sexual abuse scandal.  There, amidst the crying babies and fidgety kids, the minister read a letter of apology from the Archdiocese.  The stained glass windows shimmered as I blinked away tears.

But why should I be surprised?  I’ve been a Christian nearly 40 years.  During that time, I’ve been a member of four Protestant churches.  In three of the four, church leadership got tangled up in some kind of sexual misconduct.  While not excusing it, I’ve come to believe that it’s nearly an occupational hazard.  What are the chances of a pastor effectively counseling parishioners without being open and transparent?  About zilch?  But those are the very same qualities that can open the door for inappropriate intimacy.  Would the anonymity of the confessional booth help?  Not sure, but might be worth a try.

An uncivil war

A final Catholic story.  For at least 30 years, I’ve made silent retreats at the Sacred Heart Retreat Retreat House just west of Sedalia, Colorado.  Wonderful place-they welcome all comers.  Need to get away?  Forget Southwest Airlines.  Head down to the Retreat House.

Last time I was there, I read a few articles from Commonweal magazine, a Left of center Catholic publication.  Fits right in with my Jesuit friends at Sacred Heart.  But, figuring I could use a bit of leavening from the political Left, I sent away for a subscription.  While the relentless Trump thumping has given me serious second thoughts-even up to the point where I may not renew-a recent article on the church’s horrific sex scandal came as a revelation.

The article, entitled Time to Leave?, is largely about how the sex scandal is seen by the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic church.  Paul Baumann, the magazine’s senior writer and a card carrying liberal, denounces the card carrying conservative Catholic journalist, Damon Linker, for leaving the church.  Baumann contends that the scandal is largely behind the church at this point and that to keep stirring the pot is primarily a symptom of conservative distaste for Pope Francis.

Linker explains his decision to leave the church in an article, The Unbearable Ugliness of the Catholic Church.   While the article is worth reading, you can pretty much get the gist of it from the title alone.  Linker argues that the scandal is anything but ancient history.  And that it’s a cancer continuing to gnaw at the church’s vitals.

So, ancient history?  Or torn from today’s headlines?  How’s an outsider like me to really judge?

But, to steal a line from those well known observers of all things Catholic, The Grateful Dead, “All a friend can say is, ‘Ain’t it a shame.'”