Month: May 2019

Kilts, bag pipes and drums

Against machine guns and poison gas

After dinner here in Oban, our gang walked back to our B&B along the water front, past a small, grassy square.  There were about 20 men and women with bag pipes and drums, playing, marching and rehearsing for what, I assumed was an upcoming competition or festival.  Only one man was dressed in full Scots regalia, kilts, knee-socks, codpiece, the works.  Why everyone else was in street clothes, I can’t tell you.

My wife, who’s half Irish and half Italian, always starts quietly sobbing when she hears bagpipes fire up.  Not quite sure why.  Probably a combination of the weird, mournful wailing and memories of her long dead Irish grandfather, Jerry.  And, particularly, the way Jerry became a near second father to her brother, Cliff, Jr., who was killed by friendly fire shortly after he was drafted and shipped over to Vietnam.

According to schedule

It’s gotten to the point where bagpipes often have a similar effect on me: a catch in my throat, at the least.  I might even have to wipe away a tear or two.  Why?  Similar reasons.  The mournful wailing.  And death.  But not for a relative.  It’s for what happened to Western Civilization in the blood soaked trenches of World War I.  France.  England.  Russia.  America.  Germany.  Italy.  The list goes on.  They all lost their collective minds.   Nearly 40 million dead and wounded, military and civilian.  The U.S. was a bit player in terms of casualties-but it played a decisive role in turning back a nearly successful, final German offensive that resulted in that nation’s exhaustion and defeat.

World War I has been called the “Timetable War” because of the limitations of the rail systems that were required to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of troops in the lead-up to the plunge into the abattoirs.   When that volume of trains are set in motion in such a compressed timeframe, they basically become one-way vehicles: they’re very difficult to turn around and there aren’t any passing lanes.  Once the order to go to war was given, the various hostile powers couldn’t reverse it without running the risk that their cross border enemy wouldn’t do the same.  And leave their own forces trapped in trains in a hopeless traffic jam.

So the flower of Europe’s youth perished-way ahead of schedule.

They’re everywhere

Here, the reminders of death are everywhere.  Stop in any of the little towns we’ve gone through and you’re almost sure to see a war memorial inscribed with the names of the dead from history’s bloodiest century, the 20th.  World War I.  World War II.  Korea.  But in the towns we’ve been through, WWI was by far the bloodiest for Britain.

But it’s not just the lives that were lost.  Or, as awful as it sounds, perhaps even the most important thing that was lost.  The bloody Napoleonic Wars had come to an end about a century earlier in 1815.  In the 100 years between the end of those wars and the start of WWI, Europe and much of the rest of the world largely enjoyed peace.  And relative prosperity.  Britain played world cop.  Western Civilization flourished.  They call it Pax Britannica.  

But it all came crashing down on July 28, 1914.  And since World War II was really just a continuation of World War I’s bloodletting (except on steroids), the fighting didn’t really end until the atom bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo harbor on September 2, 1945.  Western Civilization still hasn’t recovered its sense of optimism and self-confidence that was lost in the madness of supposedly “advanced” societies tearing at each others vitals like rabid dogs.  

The Pals

The next morning, I looked to my right down the Oban waterfront.  There, several hundred yards away was a column.  I walked down and, sure enough, it was a war memorial.  Rough hewn and rustic, there were dozens and dozens of names.  Although all of the 20th century’s wars were represented, overwhelmingly the dead were from “The Great War.”

To encourage enlistment, the British military established “Pals” battalions.  This allowed young men from the same town or school to enlist with their friends rather being randomly assigned to units full of strangers.  The Pal system worked-with often horrifying consequences.   In the 1916 Somme offensive, of 700 Pals from the small town of Accrington, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded in the space of 30 minutes.   

Were the many Scottish soldiers whose names were etched on the Oban memorial Pals?  Did they “go over the top” behind wailing bagpipers in tartan kilts?  I don’t know.  But one of the soldiers at the top of the memorial has on a stone kilt.  And, more importantly, who can think of this madness and not get a catch in their throat?  And utter a prayer that we won’t repeat the insanity.  And that, by the grace of God, Western Civilization might someday come to a recognition that it has a great deal to offer a world that still needs what it has.  At least when it’s at its best.

 

 

 

 

On the water front

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The Lord still inhabits the praises of his people

Last winter my sister, Linda, and her husband came to Colorado for a visit.  Don’t ask me how, but they managed to wedge it in amongst all their other globe girdling trips.  As I’ve said of them before, throw a dart at a map of the world.  And they’ve probably been there.

Over dinner, they mentioned that they were going to Scotland and England this spring with a group of friends.  I took the opportunity to invite myself along.  Graciously, they didn’t let the opportunity go by.  Even though she introduced me to her friends as “my brother who tells corny jokes.”

So here I am in Scotland in the little seaside town of Oban, staying at the Alltavona B&B. My hostess tells me that in Gaelic the name means “beside the water.”  Which is appropriate; I’m watching the ferry go by no more than 200 yards from my window.

Today, however, I’d had enough of the “cozy” 8 seater van, counting sheep and lochs, tasting whiskey, eating bangers and mash, and watching three thousand foot peaks go by that are all above timber line because we’re so near the arctic.  So I stayed behind while the rest of the gang jumped on a small boat to go to an island to see puffins.  Not my thing.  It’s time for me to fire up the blog and reflect on the trip.  Not to mention that I consider sea sickness, to which I’m so prone, a fate worse than death.

Rosary beads aplenty

I asked our hostess about an internet cafe.  She was puzzled, “We have internet here.”  I assured her that I preferred to work in a coffee shop.  “Well, in that case, why don’t you try the chocolate shop?  It’s just down the way.”  So I walked down the bay, crossing the street a time or two, trying to avoid getting run over by looking the wrong direction.  And there it was: the Oban Chocolate Co.   The coffee was good.  So was the scone and jam (too early for chocolate).  But the internet connection was terrible.  So, after some futile fiddling, I headed back to the Alltavona.

Halfway there, the bells of a squat, stolid church began clanging; it’s Wednesday morning here and time for mass.  Even if far from musical, the bells were, at least, the real thing.  I walked up a few stairs and went through the doors behind a couple of elderly ladies.  Finding a place to sit was absolutely no problem.  To describe the interior as austere is an understatement.  Roughly quarried from the grey, volcanic rock of ages that underlays so much of this part of Scotland, the charcoal stone was only broken by the white lines of mortar that bound the structure together.  Sun streamed through simple windows, faintly stained rose.  The church had been built during the lean days following the end of World War II.

The tiny congregation in the cavernous structure was just finishing the rosary as I sat down.  Several participants fingered their beads from where they prayed on wooden kneelers.  Soon, a priest began saying the mass.  His homily was brief.  And even forgettable.  But it was a welcome sabbath from days of restless movement, of random historical fact strung on random historical fact.

Brendan and Kenneth

I paused for a few minutes to read about the church when the service was over.  The bells that had summoned me to worship were good Catholic boys: Brendan and Kenneth.  The church is named after St. Columba, the Irish evangelist who brought Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century.

Christianity’s never been a popularity contest.  Consider what they did to its founder.  But no more could it be extirpated by hanging Jesus on a cross than it could be stamped out by a scant attendance at a Wednesday morning mass.  Like the resurrected Christ himself, the Church is built for the ages.  And the long haul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romancing The Stone . . . er, The Tom

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Stock photo of turkeys

Getting under the hood

My son, Byron, and I went turkey hunting a few weeks ago in central Nebraska a couple of miles west of the little town of Wolback (population 257).

It was a guided trip with Gobble and Grunt Outfitters.  While by no means cheap, for city slickers like us a guided trip represents the best chance to get one of these gorgeous, tasty critters.  And also get a peek under the hood of a rural way of life that we, otherwise, have become almost entirely disconnected from.

Let’s cut to the chase

Might as well get right to it:  I got one bird; Byron got skunked.  But only because mine was the only bird we saw that we could legally take.  Mike, the owner of G&G honored their guarantee and invited Byron back, gratis, later in the season to try again.

Toward the end of the first day, our guide, Nick, set us up  in a “double bull” blind about 10 yards away from our three decoys on the edge of an alfalfa field.  After the obligatory crow calls to see if we got a quick response from a nearby tom, the three of us climbed into the blind. Where Nick then started using a mouth and slate call to imitate a hen and attract a love struck gobbler. 

And sure enough, there came the unmistakable “oble, oble, oble” behind us and to our left.  At which point Nick really got after it, yelping, purring and cackling to signify an amorous hen.  And a then switching to the frantic gobble of a strutter angry that a rival was muscling in on his harem.  As the responses drew closer and closer, time seemed to stand still.  Although my heart certainly didn’t.  Until, finally, what looked like a gaudy bowling ball appeared no further than 10 feet to our left.  Strutting like a little Napoleon, he turned to the right straight in front of us and sashayed forward to challenge our tom decoy.  Where he met his Waterloo.  See the instant replay above.

Country kitchen

We got back to the “hunting lodge” as the sun sank into a reddening western sky.  The home of Mike’s parents when it isn’t being used for guiding, the walls were covered with the heads and racks of huge white tail deer. Side tables displayed monstrous, stuffed gobblers.

Ray, the cook, lives in Wolback.  Apologetically, she told me that her grandfather was a “moonshiner” in town back in the ’30’s.  And about a tragic night years ago when her dad, and a sizable percentage of the town’s youth, were killed in a car wreck caused by the kids drag racing down the highway.

Of German stock, she’s a firm believer in carb loading.  Dinner that night was mashed potatoes and noodles garnished with a smattering of cubed beef and thin, gray gravy.  And some very tasty home-grown sweet corn that Mike’s wife raises and freezes.  Don’t let me forget the dinner rolls.  Or sheet cake dessert.  Did I mention the tossed salad sitting next to the Dorthy Lynch dressing?

Roger and his son, Hunter, a couple of good ol’ boys from Arkansas, shared our dinner table.  After hearing how their guide had driven nearly 400 miles that day in a monstrous Dodge Ram crew cab to get them three birds, I asked Roger, “what do you guys do?”

“We do baseole.”

“I’m sorry,” I responded, “what did you say?  Base hole?”

“No.  Base OIL.  We reprocess used OIL.”

“Oh.”

The Wicked Witch

After dinner, all 8 or 10 of us went out on the south facing front porch where more big pickups occasionally roared by on Highway 22 before they crested a rise and slowed into Wolbach.  Every room in the cabin was wired for radio. Occasionally the country western music and ag reports were interrupted by severe weather warnings about a storm cell boiling up to the west.  Coming from our right, lighting brilliantly flashed time and again, making the the branches of the bare, early spring trees in the front yard stand out in stark contrast.  And the black clouds overhead swell white.

I looked, but never saw Dorothy’s Wicked Witch of the West riding by on her broom.

Grease.  And gumbo.

The heavens opened that night.  And reduced the majority of the back roads we used the next day to a vicious combination of grease.  And gumbo.

Our guide, Nick, also piloting a huge pickup, was a last minute addition to the guiding crew because two of Mike’s regulars had medical emergencies.  Responding to an SOS sent out over Facebook, Nick applied, got the gig, and drove nearly straight through from his usual happy hunting grounds in New Jersey.   He only made it to Nebraska a couple of days before the season opened.  Which wasn’t enough time to really get the hang of the back roads that ran like rat mazes through this vast, rolling country.  Especially when Nick had to keep us on greasy roads and steer clear of ditches and deep ravines with one hand.  While holding his cell in the other.  And stealing looks at its GPS maps.  My seat belt remained buckled, my knuckles were white.

By the end of the day, the mud was caked on so thick I expect you’d have to take a hammer and chisel to it.  Before you went to the car wash.  But for all that, we never saw a bird we could shoot.

Strange fruit

We came up empty again the next day.  But it was at least under sunny skies and roads that were slowly drying out.

That afternoon, Nick set me up in the blind on the edge of a field of cut corn with a line of trees to my back.  He and Byron took off on foot to see what they could scare up in a heavily wooded ravine to the west.  Just emerging buds shrouded the tree tops in a faint green mist.

Time moved at a different pace.  During the three or so hours I sat out there in a folding chair, my shot gun pointed out over the field, maybe four cars went by on the dirt road to my left.  Traffic isn’t measure in vehicles per hour.  It’s per day.  And your average kindergartener could count that high.  A squirrel’s repeated “chrrrrrrs” was big news.

Several weeks before, record rain on top of a heavy snow pack had turned usually placid creeks into raging torrents in that part of Nebraska.  The evidence was plentiful on the far side of my field that ended at a row of trees before plunging into a stream that, again, was scarcely more than a trickle.  Trees from upstream that had been uprooted and swept away were piled up, helter-skelter, against the trees that were still standing.  Ten feet up in those branches, and who knows how much farther above the stream bed below, shreds of plastic fluttered in the gentle evening breeze.

As the evening shadows stretched across the field, I heard that “oble, oble, oble” again, to my back and up a woody draw.   My heart raced.  I strained to get a look.  But never saw anything. Byron and Nick walked up to the blind and we packed up.

Time to head home.

 

 

The Pity of War

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Old Beyond Their Years

I met Forrest and Lakin Huckabey at the recent Project Sanctuary Retreat where, again, I did K.P. duty.  And trust me, I’m not complaining.  Before the week was over, I got to know the couple well enough to ask if I could interview them for my blog.

When I called Forrest, all I got was a monotonous beep.  When I tried Lakin’s cell, she picked up.  “Yes,” she said in answer to my question about whether she remembered me, but, “Forrest is out picking mushrooms with the boys.  This spot in our home is about the only place around here we get cell reception.”  Before we’d hung up, we’d set a time to try again the following day.  I didn’t get through then either and even when we did finally connect a few days later, the reception was terrible until I called from our second floor bedroom.

Ranging in age from ten to one, the Huckabeys have five kids, all girls except four boys.  And you wonder why Lakin is studying to be a social worker?  Pregnant with their first child when she and Forrest were 16, they married when they graduated from high school.  Two of their children were born to his sisters who, according to Forrest, “are both junkies.”  The family lives lives 5 miles from Independence, Kansas, a slowly shrinking town of 10,000 tucked away in the far southeast corner of the state.  So, while you may not be exactly in the middle of nowhere from the Lakin’s front porch, you can see it from there.

A Soldier’s Story

Slight of build, Forrest signed a four year contract with the Army when he was 19.  Basic was at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  By age 20 he was at the front edge of a year long deployment to Afghanistan; click here to see Forrest as a young trooper.  While he was “down range,” another child was born.  Because of “shitty leadership,” he didn’t get a two week leave to be with Lakin when the baby was born.  Between deployments and training, he was rarely home with the family.

And then things really started going to hell in a hand basket.  While walking down a narrow alley in an Afghan village, “a grenade sailed over the mud wall next to me.  There was an open door nearby, but the platoon medic got to it before I could.  When I was 5 feet away, the grenade exploded.  My right side, including my elbow, was peppered with shrapnel.”

“Did you go to the hospital?”

“No.  I finished the patrol.  But I still have carpel tunnel.  And shrapnel kept working its way to the surface for weeks.  When it poked through my skin, I’d just pull it out.  And then,” Forrest continued, “there was the time a couple of weeks later when an RPG hit the other side of the rooftop parapet I was on.  I was out cold for a while,” he told me over the staticky connection.  “In total, I served two deployments.  During the second, I was a sniper.  But in the end, I had both PTSD and TBI.  I was finally given a medical discharge.”

A quality decision

What do you do with a story like this?  Told, at least as far as I could tell, without so much as a trace of self pity.  For my part, I changed the subject.

“How did your and Lakin’s marriage survive?”

“We saw what was going on all around us.  We saw all the marriages falling apart.  But we made a commitment to stick it out and not get a divorce.  We also found out about Operation Heal Our Patriots.  We applied and got accepted.”

“What’s Operation . . . ?”

. . . Heal Our Patriots.  It’s a ministry designed specifically for wounded vets.  It’s run by Franklin Graham and it tries to help the marriages of people like us by getting God into their lives.  We started with a retreat in on a lake in Alaska.  Since then, we stay in touch regularly online.  And have face to face meetings 2-3 times a year.”   (A high percentage of those pictured on the website’s photo gallery are either using canes or have artificial legs.  And those are just the visible injuries.)  

“The Army’s individual counseling just isn’t helpful,” Forrest told me.  “Those counselors don’t know what guys like me have been through.  And local churches?” Forrest said, “We’ve tried them. We’d like to be part of one.  But the several we’ve gone to just seem to be after your money.”

The conviction of things not seen

It wasn’t comfortable, but I did it anyway.  I asked him his opinion of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dragged on nearly 20 years.  With no apparent end in sight.

“They’re tragic,” he answered.  “But they’re necessary.  I wanted to do what I could to help the kids and the women and the elders.”

And who am I to argue?