Author: Spencer Swalm

Christian. Colorado native. Husband to Marleen. Father of Byron, Lauren and Jocelyn. Grandfather to Bridget, Lucy and Caroline-hoping to have more on the way. Former member of the Colorado House of Representatives. Retired employee benefits broker.

It’s just one damn thing after another.

And then you die?

Did you see the recent stories and pictures of climbers stuck in a human traffic jam trying to get to the top of Mount Everest?  I saw them while on my recent trip to Scotland and England.

At least 11 people died attempting to scale Earth’s highest peak this year.  Some of the “mountaineers” clambered over dead bodies in their desperate attempt the “bag” summit.   I hesitate to describe all of these folks as mountaineers because I’m convinced that at least some of them pay tens of thousands of dollars to be largely dragged to the summit by their Nepalese guides.

One of the casualties, an Austrian, was survived by his wife and children.  Another, a 62 year old Coloradan, died on the way down from the top.  He thus became a short lived member of the “7 Summit Club”-a group who’s members have scaled the highest peak on each continent.  Surviving family members were uniformly quoted as saying that the deceased “died doing what they loved.”

Adventure?  Or mere dilettantism?

There can’t be much question that climbing Everest is an “adventure” in the dictionary sense:  “a bold, risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome.”  But is that really enough?  Is it really enough just to be frightened half to death?  Or even fully to death?  Doesn’t  real adventure require that there be a higher purpose?  A reason other than cheap (or very expensive) thrills?

It’s not, after all, that Everest hasn’t been climbed before.  What’s going on there now isn’t remotely connected with “boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before”.  Since the first serious efforts to scale the peak were made in the early 1920’s, over 300 people have died on its slopes.  Which means who knows how many thousands of others have successfully or unsuccessfully made the attempt-but lived to tell the tale.

Real adventure

By contrast, think, for example, of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Yes, Huck had his share of heart thumping, life threatening adventures rafting down the Mississippi.  But it became more than that; it was a quest for nigger Jim’s freedom (don’t blame me, blame Mark Twain).  Think of Harry Potter.  Or the Biblical accounts of Abraham or Moses.  Or Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey.  Jesus.  The list goes on and on.  Sure, plenty of narrow escapes.  And sometimes lethal failures to escape.

But success or failure really isn’t the point.  To put your life at risk, shouldn’t there be something really important at stake, a quest?  Adventure for it’s own sake is just amusement.  Go to Disney World for tittilation; it’s a lot cheaper and you’re not going to leave behind a widow.

“But,” you might ask, “how can someone like me get involved in real adventure?”

Well, try this.  Join the Army or Marines and volunteer to go to Afghanistan. I’ll bet you’ll get to see and do some things that get your adrenaline going.  And, depending on your point of view, you’ll be involved in a something that has a higher calling.

Or how about this?  Some old friends of ours, Roger and EvaJean Dockum, have been missionaries with tribal people in Bolivia for many years.  Some of their predecessors, a group of five men, pioneered the work in Bolivia with what they knew to be a dangerous and virtual stone age tribe in the 1940’s and ’50’s.  During one of their first encounters, there was a misunderstanding and the five men were murdered.  Like the Everest climbers, they left behind wives and children.  But their calling was much higher than a mere mountain top.  

Education?  Or amusement?

Of course, this was all brought to mind by my recent trip to England.  “What,” I asked myself, “is the point of a trip like this?”

First, let’s be honest, this is nothing more than amusement.  Sure, we went to museums and saw ruins beyond counting.  We dutifully read many of the countless explanations of the displays we saw on exhibit.  Hadrian’s Wall.  What’s left of the Roman Baths in Bath.  Bewildered and overcome by the sheer volume of information, I listened to the audio guide of Windsor Castle.  (Where I was dismayed that I saw exactly none of the Royals!)

But educational?  Sorry.  I ain’t buyin’ it.  You might as well claim that the best way to build a strong body is to do nothing but eat.  And never work out.  Sure, you’re going to build flab.  But muscles?  Not unless you somehow make the information your own.

Adventure.  Without leaving home.

One of the ways I tried to make things my own was by attending church services.  See how people in England worshiped.  Or, even better, meet some of the locals.

We attended an Evensong service at the ancient York cathedral.  But my sense was that most of the other attendees considered it yet one more stop on the de rigueur tourist circuit.  I got a similar feeling when I attended mass beneath the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London.  Both structures spectacular.  Both services solemnly beautiful.  But with tourists wandering around, chattering, and snapping pictures on their cells, something, including anything like a true “local,” was missing.

But that wasn’t the case in the lovely little town of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds where, one Sunday morning I attended a service at the Campden Baptist Church.  They meet in a school gymnasium.  No, the building wasn’t ancient and beautiful.  In fact, it was nondescript.  But neither were there tourists wandering around yakking and taking pictures.  Instead, I met locals whose hearts were in the service-and who seemed to be pleased that I was there.  The sermon was something I needed to hear:  “Pray as you can, not as you aught.”  I met a guy who’s a shepherd and his young family.  And a CPA on the side.  Don’t ask me exactly how that works.  But that’s my story-and I’m stickin’ to it.

Campden Baptist has a great history.  In the ’70’s, the “congregation” had shrunk to three elderly folks sitting in a chilly back room praying for new members.  But, as James puts it, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  Now, the church has grown to three different locations.  And for my money, that’s a real quest.

On the road again?

So, would I do a trip like this again?  Probably not-and certainly not for three weeks.  Too many museums.  Too many ruins.  Too many sheep.  Too many miles.  Too much living out of a suitcase.  Too many undigested experiences piled on too many undigested experiences.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s’ not as if there weren’t positives.  It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a very different perspective.  And, on a few occasions, to write about them.  But, for this dreadfully slow writer, it was like drinking at a fire hydrant; heck, here we are two weeks out from jet lag and I’m still pecking away!

But, I promise, you’ve heard your last about “This Scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The more things change: Scotland

The more they stay the same:  Palestine

Our intrepid Gang of Seven tourists is now down in Bath, England.  But I’m still catching up on our trip through the narrow byways of Scotland.

There, forbidding, windswept peaks rise out of gorse covered moors that plunge into a restless North Sea.  On the Isle of Sky, more sheep than humans.  And, of course, we sample the wares at the island’s only distillery, the Talisker.

Bonnie Prince Charlie versus the “Butcher” Cumberland

But if it’s Tuesday, this must be when we visited the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.  Although not much to see now, this lonely Highlands plain is the site of a brutal battle that also marks the beginning of the nearly as ruthless suppression of Scottish national aspirations that followed.

Like most European conflicts of this era, it’s complicated and, in the end, is a squabble between the French and English monarchs.  For our purposes however, it’s enough to know that Bonnie Prince Charles was a surrogate for the French crown.  He managed to persuade some Scottish clan leaders to support his claim to the British throne.  Naturally, the British king, George II, objected.  And it was game on.

With his Scottish clansmen allies of 7,000, Prince Charles enjoyed some initial success, at one point even threatening London.  But faced with unrest among his own troops, Charles retreated north toward the Scottish highlands.  Pursued by English forces under the Duke of Cumberland, the opposing armies clashed at Culloden.  The clansmens’ primitive ardor and arms proved no match for English discipline and superior weapons; in the space of an hour the Scots suffered a crushing and bloody defeat.

After the battle, Cumberland ordered that no quarter be given to survivors.  The killing of wounded continued for two days after the battle, for which action Cumberland earned the sobriquet “The Butcher”.

Ethnic cleansing

But the war on Scot nationalism didn’t end there.  Fearful that rebellion would again rear its head, the English initiated the policies of clearances and transportation to, as Scrooge notoriously put it, “decrease the surplus population.”

Clearances resulted in the eviction of many Highland farmer tenants to make way for landlords to more profitably graze sheep and cattle.  While it’s true that the marginal soil and harsh climate of the Highlands made farming a chancy proposition, pushing people off the land caused widespread misery, famine, and the forced emigration of Highlanders over the entire globe.

Penal transportation to British colonies, such as Australia, was also widespread as a way of subduing the Scots.  It was liberally used against any who had the remotest connection with “the ‘Forty Five,” as the uprising of Prince Charles became known. While more humane than the former practice of capital punishment for even petty criminal offenses and unpaid debts, it nonetheless had the same net effect: breaking the Highlanders’ spirit.

Palestine: Repetition with variation

As I walked over the battlefield, it was difficult for me to figure out exactly what happened where in what is largely a featureless sea of thatch and gorse.  And the recently constructed visitors center, with its “360-degree battle immersion theater” didn’t help much; true, there was plenty of sound and fury, but the flickering images signified little for me.

But taken together, the day reminded me that history, like art, often repeats itself-but with variation.

And so it was that I thought of Palestine on the field of Culloden.  Again, it’s complicated.  And the details remain controversial.  But for our purposes, from 1947 to 1949 Palestinians and Jews fought a bloody war that led to the “clearance,” or, more conventionally, “The Exodus” of more than 700,000 Arabs from their towns and homes.  Four hundred Arab towns and villages were “depopulated” and the homes of many displaced Arabs were taken by Jews.  About 10,000 Jews also fled their homes as a result of the war.

While they agree on little else, historians on both sides reckon that more than 20,000 died, Arab and Jewish, military and civilian.

Known by Arabs as the “Cataclysm,” Jews refer to the conflict as the “War of Independence.”

As at Culloden, there were no shortage of atrocities in Palestine.  Again, while the facts are disputed, the weight of historical evidence indicates that the majority of massacres were perpetuated by Jews.  Arabs contend that the atrocities were part of a Jewish plan to force them to leave their homeland.   The Israeli government, of course, denies this.

The victors write the history books

Again, I’m no expert. But here’s what I find persuasive.  In the 1980’s both Israel and Great Britain (who had unsuccessfully tried to maintain peace in Palestine after WWII under a United Nations mandate), opened their archives to historians on the whole vexed topic.  A group of Jewish researchers, who became know as the “New Historians“, examined these materials and then recast the traditional, heroic vision of Israel’s founding and the Palestinian Exodus in a light significantly less favorable to Israel.

Which, still, can be dismissed as a case of “he said, she said.”

But not this.  While the New Historians were initially dismissed in Israel as cranks, their views were widely considered legitimate by the 1990’s.  At which point the government reclassified as Top Secret” accounts of Israeli “expulsion[s] of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment.”

What could be more convincing proof of putting inconvenient facts down the Orwellian Memory Hole?  And then trying to keep them there.

The similarities only go so far

While I was on my Scotch odyssey, I re-read Arthur Herman’s informative history, How the Scots Invented Modern World.  For a small, impoverished land, the Scots punched far above their weight intellectually and in trade.  Their contributions in science, medicine and business began in the Scotch cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but were rapidly spread world wide by the Scottish diaspora that grew out of the clearances and penal transportation.

Which raises the question:  what have Palestinian Arabs done since the 1948 exodus, their Cataclysm?  Unfortunately, and in comparison with the Scots, not much.

Much of their energy has been devoted to largely futile efforts to undo the Cataclysm.  Despite repeated wars with Israel and diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations and other forums, there are over 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in squalid Middle East camps.  There, they ceaselessly lobby for the Right of Return to the homes and property that they lost in their various conflicts with Israel.  While it’s true that Palestinians also have a significant world wide diaspora-and notable figures have emerged from it-one wonders what Palestinians could achieved had they been less focused on “what could have been.”

Is demography destiny?

By population and land mass, Israel is a tiny nation.  Swimming in a vast ocean of Arab Muslims.

Of Israel’s 9 million inhabitants, about 75%, or 6.7 million, are Jews.  Most of the rest are Arabs.

But that, perhaps, is not the real issue.  The greater Arab world extends all the way across North Africa and through the Middle East.  It has a combined population of over 422 million inhabitants, most of whom are under 25 years of age.

It’s true that Muslim nations in the Middle East are notoriously fractious.  Conflicts between them are rife.

But what are the odds that, eventually, they will effectively unite with their co-religionists and successfully take on Israel?  Maybe not this year.  Maybe not in the next ten years.  But in the next 100 years?  That’s a long time.  And Israel has sewn the wind in the Arab world.  How long can the whirlwind be delayed?

Maybe Israel is counting on it’s obedient lap dog, the United States, to continue to meddle in the Mideast and provide it with the latest and greatest weapon systems.  And most of the money to buy them.

But how long is that going to continue?  Judging by my admittedly unscientific polling, not forever.  The great majority of Americans that I’ve talked to have had a bellyful-and more-of bloody, endless, costly and futile war in the Mideast.

And now our Washington war mongers are beating the drums for taking on Iran?  In my humble opinion that’s the perfect illustration of insanity: doing the same thing over and over.  And expecting a different result.

Do they really think that Americans are going to get on board for yet another Mideast war?  I’m betting no.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gonna’ take a sentimental journey

750x450 sleeping in airport

A sentimental journey home!

Cruise the blogosphere for for any length of time and, count on it, you’ll come across a bunch of sites devoted to travel.

Love Travelling.  Dan Flying Solo.  A Broken Backpack.  The Path Less Pedaled.  Nowhere.  The list goes on and on.  And for those of you who just can’t get enough, check out Top 10 Travel Bloggers You Should Already Be Following.  How dare you be so late to the party?

Now, I’ve done a bit of traveling.  And a bit of blogging.  After all, I’m retired.  But I’m bush league compared to these guys.

It just comes with the territory

Nonetheless, I just got back three week trek through Scotland, England and London with my sister, her husband and some of her equally Allmon Brothers-esque, “Ramblin’ Man” companions.  And trust me, “Lord, they were born ramblin’ men.” And women. Definitely, more so than I.

But when I got this email from my sister late the other night (I had taken a different flight and was already home), I doubt that even she and her husband realized what a trip ending “adventure” they were in for:

I’ll bet you’re home; we’re in the Boston airport having been rerouted after our flight out of London was delayed so long that we missed our connection in Reykjavík to Denver.

We spent the night on the floor in the Boston airport waiting for employees to show up so we could get our boarding passes for Denver. In about an hour we’ll board a plane for Denver, check again for our bags when we get there, (our bags didn’t make it to Boston—don’t know why; they may be in Denver🙏) and then head for ABQ.

We should be home by 4pm-ish. That’s enough to sour one on ever leaving home again!
Sure hope you didn’t have to play ring-around-the-rosie to get home.
All in, she later reported that the trip home took 36 hours!

But I wonder

Do I follow all, or even a few, of these travel blogs?  Not really.  But I have written about a few of the mostly U.S. road trips that I’ve taken over the years; that’s probably how I got on the radar of some of these travel bloggers.

Which means that I have no real idea if the type of scenario described by my sister and which illustrates the dramatically less glamorous side of travel-and which is a loathsome fly in the ointment of that more glamorous side-ever makes it into the hip travel sites.   You know, the type of travel blogs gorgeously illustrated with photos of drop dead beaches.  And stunning mountain vistas.  And exotic city scapes.

But, on reflection, these travel snafus almost certainly do make it on to the pages of the tourist blogs.  And, if they don’t, how could they lay claim to even a modicum of authenticity?  Hey, even my flight home from London was delayed two hours on the tarmac when a baggage door was dinged during loading.  As the pilot told us, it was about 30 minutes to fix the ding.  And 90 minutes for paperwork.

The bottom line

So, yes, the trip was interesting.  And-wait for it-I’ll milk this trek for another post or two in the next several days.  But are they the kind of posts loaded with those glamorous photos that are likely to make you pack your bags and take your chances with the airlines?  Don’t hold your breath.

 

 

 

 

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

750x450 Scotland

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

750x450 turkeys (1)

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still coming home

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Fiddling while Rome burns

I spend many hours blogging at my local library.  They regularly host events on a wide variety of topics.  I rarely take one in; its tough enough for me to keep on track without one more distraction.

However, recently a program called “Still Coming Home” caught my attention-so I attended.  Organized by the Colorado Humanities council, it was billed as a program featuring veterans reading what they’d written about their war experiences.

In a small, dimly lit auditorium, the barrel chested first speaker read his account of a drunken brawl he’d been involved in after Marine basic training at Camp Pendleton before he shipped out to Vietnam.  The second, also a Marine and a Vietnam vet, read his account of how he, again drunk, had taken down and properly disposed of a giant but tattered American flag that was being used as a mere advertising device by an auto dealer on Havana Street, one of Denver’s main drags.  The third, this time a younger Marine and vet of one of our current, perpetual wars, read about how his experience had led him to enroll in a Catholic seminary.

But what about . . .

The was a brief time for questions and answers after each speaker.  Before asking mine I waited till everyone else in the audience had their chance.  And, to be frank, the questions from other audience members were softballs; about writing style and whatnot.  So then, a bit nervous, I asked each speaker in turn, “What’s your opinion of the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria?”  Then I shut up.

To a man, they opposed them.  But the last speaker-by then he knew what was coming-asked me a question: “But what’s your opinion of the wars?

“Well,” I responded, “initially I was an enthusiastic supporter.  But now I’m completely opposed.  After nearly 20 years, I can’t see that we’re doing any good.  As far as I can tell, about the only thing we’re doing is making a bunch of defense contractors wealthy.”

At that, one of the previous speakers, exclaimed, “Amen!”

I didn’t, but wish I had added, that Israel is probably the main beneficiary of our wars because they do such a great job of deflecting Muslim anger away from the Jewish state. And turning it on us.  Oh well, this won’t be the last time I suffer from delayed intelligence.

Whatever happened to “Peace Now!”

I came of age during the 1960s, the height of the Vietnam War.  The country bristled with anti-war rage:  kids burning their draft cards on college campuses, protest marches, riots, rock concerts.  And the protests played a big part in bringing our involvement in Vietnam to an end.

So, 20 years on in our current perpetual wars, what’s changed?  Why have we become a nation inured to war?  It’s certainly not that the death and misery have gone away.  Either for us. Or, for that matter, our enemies a half a world away.  And these wars are every bit as futile and costly as Vietnam ever was.

But here’s one thing that has changed: the draft is gone.  Sure, they’re still protesting on college campuses.  But not, as far as I can tell, about our endless wars.  Instead, college students are fiddling about “big” issues-like the largely imaginary slights to the LBGTQ community.  And the countless other whiney groups that indulge in identity politics.  While their largely white country and urban poor cousins join the Army, travel to distant, sandy lands.  And get their legs blown off.

And, as far as I can tell, things aren’t likely to change so long as things don’t change.

 

 

 

 

Project Sanctuary Redux

Project Sanctuary Bus at Snow Mountain Ranch

What is impossible for man is possible for God

Well, here I am again.  At a Project Sanctuary retreat, the only organization designed to serve the entire military family, helping them reconnect after a member returns from one of our perpetual wars.  Except it’s winter this time and we’re at Snow Mountain Ranch, a YMCA camp just over the Continental Divide from Denver.

Much is the same.  Lots of hyperactive kids who, before the week is out, have made some new buddies.  Plenty of opportunities to unwind:  ice fishing on Grand Lake, snowmobiling on the Continental Divide, a trip to the Fraser Rec center for the water slides or flips off the tramp into the foam pit.  Like last time, I’m sous chef for Tom who, despite laboring under the handicap of institutional raw materials, manages to whip up pretty tasty meals that satisfy the whetted appetites of everyone from kids in high chairs to their parents.

And, again, more of the darker aspects of a Project Sanctuary retreat.  The Post Traumatic Stress workshops.  The “Reconnection With Your Family” sessions.  The presentation from the Cohen Veterans Network on how to access mental health care for service members when, as is too often the case, the VA system falls short.

A Well Oiled Machine

Since I was there a couple of days longer this time, I had the opportunity to get to know a few of the families better than last time.

One of those was the Johnson family.  The husband, Jeremiah, is a military nurse.   His wife is Felicia.  They live near San Antonio, Texas.

My acquaintance with the Johnsons began when I sat on a bench next to an older daughter, Toby, looking across Grand Lake where one of the P.S. kids squealed with delight as he pulled a trout through a hole in the ice.

“So,” I asked, “what grade are you in?”

“Well,” she replied, “I’m in about 11th grade.  But my mom home schools us.”

“That’s nice; home schooled kids usually do very well.  How many brothers and sisters do you have.”

“There’s 8 of us, the youngest is 1, the oldest 20.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, looking over at her dark eyes under the Prince Valiant haircut.  “And you guys all drove up here?”

“Yep,” she said, “all except my oldest sister. She lives in Colorado Springs.”

“Amazing.  And what do you think you want to do when you’re done with school?”

“I want to be a farrier.  We have a horse and I like to work with them.

“Not easy work,” I said.  “Is that why you have that splint on your wrist?”

“No,” she replied, “I’m accident prone.  I cut myself.”

But wait.  There’s more.

That evening I got the chance to speak briefly with Toby’s mom as we stood in line for supper.  

“Toby,” I began, “tells me that you guys have eight kids.  And that you have a blog.  How in the world do you do it all?”  

Without skipping a beat, and holding the one year old on her hip, she pointed upward and said “We get some help from up there.”

“I have a blog also,” I said.  “What do you write about? And how often do you post?”

“It’s about Christian homeschooling.  And I post once a week.  Here’s my card.”

“The ‘Zoo I Call Home,'” I read.  “That’s a good one.  I’ll definitely take a look.  Here’s the card for my blog.  With all your spare time,” I concluded, as a little boy in boots that looked like they’d been through several kids before him began tugging at her, “maybe you can take a peek at mine sometime.”

Life with an open hand

In the “liberated” ’70’s, when I was a new believer and a student at C.U. Boulder, I knew a guy named Mike McElroy.  He ran the Christian bookstore on The Hill.  Mike was a brilliant, thoughtful guy who had a way of forthrightly challenging my comfortable assumptions.  I’m sorry I’ve lost touch with him.

Mike and I both attended the Hillside Church of the Savior, a Protestant church that met in the home of Gene Thomas and had a vibrant outreach to college kids.  

Once, for reasons that I’ve entirely forgotten, we got into a discussion about sex, contraception, and children.  Mike’s opinion was that the Catholics had it right.  And Protestants had it wrong.  “Catholic doctrine forbids the use of contraception.  And it’s not because the Pope wants us to procreate like rabbits.  It’s because sex without contraception is to be open to how God may want to intervene in our lives.  Contraception is our way of saying “No” to that intervention.”

Mike’s argument impressed me.  But it wasn’t something we adopted for our marriage; I had my tubes tied after our third child.  The prospect of the financial burden of having more kids frightened me.  And a good case, of course, can be made that fear is the opposite of faith.

I didn’t ask, but given that they live smack dab on the buckle of the Bible belt, I’d be stunned if the Johnsons are Catholics.  But regardless of their denomination, the Johnson’s, with their 8 kids, took a different path than ours.   One that, at least from the perspective of an outsider, is driven by faith.  One that’s radically open to how the Lord might choose to disrupt their lives with little ones.  A life that puts up with cars that have 350,000 miles on them.  A life that grins and shrugs when a hand me down boot has a hole worn through the top.  But one that that allows the Johnson’s to know, first hand, the promise and, no doubt, the challenges of Psalm 127:3:

“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” 

 

The cry baby channel

My guilty pleasure

I’ve mentioned my personal trainer, Charlie, before.  Between the beat down sessions he inflicts on me, I enjoy trying to give him a bit of his own medicine-at least verbally.  A sort of pay it backward for all the cans of whup-ass he’s opened on me.

So, I’m not quite sure what came over me last week when I started off a discussion with, “Now, if you ever mention this to Dianne or any of the other lady trainers around here, you’ll never see my face again.  But, I’ve pretty much become a Hallmark Channel addict.”

“Yeah,” he answered, as we both began dissolving into uncontrollable laughter, “Beth likes it too.  Whenever she turns it on, she has a box of Kleenex beside her. She calls it the Cry Baby Channel.”

I’ve seen this movie before

“Yeah,” I said, still trying to stifle my guffaws, “you don’t even need to watch the show to know what happens.  There’s some guy from the city who works at a ruthless real estate investment company that likes to go into a small town, buy it up for development, and ruin it.”

“Yeah,” continued Charlie, his face covered with mirth, “then he bumps into some cute young woman who runs the town coffee shop.  And who’s the daughter of the guy who owns the beautiful, local vineyard who’s decided it’s time to cash in his chips and sell out.  Because he doesn’t know that his daughter would really like to take over the winery.”

“Yeah,” I reply, now wiping the tears of laughter from my face, “then the city slicker and the beautiful coffee shop girl bump into each other and get into a squabble.  Before they eventually team up and turn the coffee shop into the next Starbucks, fend off the nasty real estate company and manage to keep the vineyard in the family’s hands.  And then finally getting married in the old barn that they completely renovate over the course of three days.  All while the city slicker makes a clean break with his icky, former girlfriend.  And then, after the show’s one modest kiss at the wedding ceremony, settling down happily ever after in a rustic log mansion beside the vineyard overlooking the lake.”

Make fun if you want

It’s probably not a coincidence that I happen to be listening to English philosopher Roger Scruton’s book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.  In this intellectually dense work, Scruton makes the case that true beauty, whether in art, literature, or music is a reflection of the divine and so invites us to participate in that divine life.

But, Scruton continues, “beauty” has been turned on its head and corrupted in two ways by what passes for “art” in our age.  First, and probably most obviously, by the desecration of art by way of pornography, violence, and the postmodern rejection of all value and meaning.

Scruton, however, goes on to decry “kitsch” as the reverse side of the pornography coin.  Defined as “something tawdry . . or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste,” there’s little doubt that the Hallmark Channel churns it out by the boatload.  And it’s far from beautiful.  Saccharine sweet, kitsch is grist for overactive tear ducts.  Agree with him or not, Scruton argues that no more than the sleazy film, Pretty Woman, does kitsch invite us to genuine participation in the holy.  

But there’s still a difference

Now, far be it from me to argue with Scruton, who’s written over 50 books on aesthetics and political philosophy-but I still say he’s missed the mark on this one.  Yes, kitsch might not do much to raise our sights to the heavens.  But that’s a far sight from pornography’s invitation to lower our sights to the fetid mire-and then get down and wallow in it.

A plea for attention

You probably remember the storm of controversy that arose from Piss Christ, an alleged “work of art” that depicted Jesus on a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine.  No doubt, the “artist” achieved his objective with the display:  for one brief moment, the art world turned its brightest lights on him.

How pathetic, then, that Psalms tells us that there’s no place where we aren’t eternally at the center of attention of the only One that really matters:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

Now, it’s a fact that being at the center of the Lord’s attention isn’t always comfortable.  And you know what I’m talking about.  But you’d better get used to it.  And make your peace with it.  Because we’re going to be there, for better or worse, for a very long time.

And what better time to get all that figured out than Easter?  When we celebrate the One who gave his all on that crucifix to allow us to forever enjoy a peace that passes all understanding at the very heart of Beauty.