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Archive for the ‘Patriotic’ Category

Sending my love to you, from my heavenly home…

clouds
When you come to the shore on a sunny day…I’ll be the salt in the air, and that seventh wave. The one that’s largest, and makes the most spray.
When you walk where you might, I’ll be the shiny penny there at your feet, the smile on the faces of strangers I’ll hope you may meet.
I’ll be the teardrop that escapes you on a chilled winter noon, when you walk with a brisk Norther at your back, and the warm hearth that calls to you, and makes your steps a bit more urgent to bring you to home a little more soon.
I’ll be a promise not broken, but not quite kept. The clouds in your coffee, after the last minutes of your sleep were best on the cool side of the pillow, and a happy dream that found you as you slept.
I’ll be the silence that sings out to you when you meditate there, in the shade of our tree. The face that’s familiar of a stranger as he passes by. The smile that finds you for no reason whilst you toil through a mundane task and are bored as can be.
I’ll be the melody of an old song, the words of which you can’t quite recall…A twinge that accompanies bagpipes being played that you hear on the breeze, and the strength to keep going, long after you’ve given your all.
I’ll be the warmest feeling, and perhaps, the most desolate too. Like the laughter that erupts while you take in our old favorite movie…the best of your memories, and those not made yet.
I’ll be here loving only you, and I am sorry I had to leave you there alone…but when reveille was called that day as I walked off into the fray, and Lord help me, that proverbial bullet was already waiting for me…and I swear, you were the last thought I had before Taps was blown on that fateful day.
Please, remember me.

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My friend Ben Vegors and me at his chapel in Walla Walla.

I want to talk about my oldest friend, one of my mentors, and certainly one of my heroes.

Chaplain Ben Vegors. Ben is soon to be 90 years old. He still works full time in a vital position at the Walla Walla Veteran’s Affairs facility. He’s the head Chaplain still, after over 50 years. Ben is the oldest full time Chaplain in the United States. He has counseled veterans of every war since the Great War, the war that was fought to end all wars. After serving in WWII, Ben chose to eventually return to service and attend to helping war combatants for the remainder of his life.

I met Ben a few short years ago while I was deploying new computers at the Veterans Affairs facility where he serves. We often shared conversations and came to enjoy each other’s company. I had dropped off a couple of my writings for Ben to read, but being as busy as a Chaplain is during times of war, he initially hadn’t gotten around to reviewing them. As I write, I am trying to recall the piece I shared that he initially read. But all I can recall is that during a visit in his office, after he at last read an offering, he looked at me and shared (in essence) that shortly after he began reading, it occurred to him that I was indeed a true writer, that I wasn’t simply well intended, and that I had a gift and a unique perspective to share.

Ben dressed for business. A grand and handsome gentleman.

After reading a few of my pieces, and sharing many heartfelt discussions, Ben included me as one of his peers, for reasons of merit and shared intentions and abilities.

That single act of acceptance and validation from a career minister has changed my life and my self-perception. And it is compelling me to continue to honor my gift, to not only continue writing, but also to pursue publication…and to do my part to better the world with what he deemed my rare perspectives, and my gift of putting them into words.

I hope I can see that effort to fruition while he is among us to enjoy the achievement with me. Thank you Ben.

Ben’s old chapel at the Walla Walla VA facility

I haven’t worked at the V.A. facility for nearly three years, but I still call Ben a day two ahead of time, and travel the sixty miles to take advantage of an opening he pencils into his nearly full schedule. I love the drive, and the renewal of spirit that fills me before and during, and following a visit with Ben. I usually share a writing or perhaps a few. I always have probing questions about world affairs, about my own life or about some souls close to my heart. I am always gladly surprised by his crisp recollections, passionate opinions, and honest and frank answers. My friend Ben is a wealth of incomparable perspective and experiences.

I’m not here to write a book about my friend Ben. That would be redundant. I only want to share my perception of my friend, to embellish what I know (just a little), and pay homage to not only a great soul, but a true friend of mine. That is all I need share about me. I intended only to share and qualify the relationship I have with Ben.

There are many things from Ben’s substance that make him a special soul, but one the most endearing is his modesty. Even at this advanced age, and in spite of his lifelong dedication to service, to his marriage, his family, to God, and to veterans…Ben is a teacher by example and a healer of souls.

Despite these facts, he is of the opinion that folks are making way too much of a fuss over him. He is a humble man.

US Army Air Corp Sergeant Ben Vegors circa 1942-1945

Ben was born in 1922, on September 25th. In November of 1942 he joined the Army Air Corp and was assigned in Europe as a tail gunner in the Consolidated B24 Liberator heavy bombers. It was the most prolific of all WWII planes with about 18,400 being built.

When one enters a WWII B-24 Liberator bomber, there is no ladder, no stairs. The crew entered the plane through either the bomb bay doors, or lifted themselves through an escape hatch in the belly of the plane at the rear. An airman had to literally hold onto the edge of these openings while pulling himself up into it, much like a move by a male gymnast.

The tail of a B24…rear escape hatch and tail turret. Ben’s home for thirty long missions. God blessed him and his crews.

These planes were instruments of war, tended to by young men comprised of sinew, intense effort, adrenalin, and world saving dedication. Once inside the bomber, an Army airman found zero creature comforts, no amenities or interior paneling to cover all the weapons systems, avionics, mechanical and hydraulics needed to put a flying instrument of destruction into action.

B24 Liberator Heavy Bomber

I’m going to be frank for a few paragraphs. The lion’s share of WWII war planes were pure hell to occupy and operate. Cabins weren’t pressurized, so all breathing had to happen through oxygen masks. Whatever the temperature outside happened to be, so too was the temperature inside. There was no severe cold weather gear from Gore-Tex, no Northern Outfitters, and no Cabelas. There was wool underwear, leather and sheepskin. It was “we’re doing our best” military issue flying gear. There was “do what you can” for a place “to go”, such as in an ammo can. Twelve hours is a long flight.

The delivery of destruction on the ground, and deliverance of Ben to a life of service…

If someone was maimed by flak or gunfire, the resultant splatterings remained in and behind parts and pieces of the cramped and utilitarian bombers. All this primitive existence in a bomber resulted in a foul stench especially when the temperature outside went up.

Looking back into Ben’s “office” in the B24 Liberator.

The planes were noisy with wind, with engines and propellers, with gunfire and exploding flak, with hydraulics and mechanical operations, and with the dropping of bombs. They were made of metal, and were hard on the bodies of airmen and were strictly a means of delivering bombs. There was nothing glamorous about duty in these planes, and the occupants were generally scared and cold from the second they entered the craft till the moment the plane was safely stopped on the home runway. And a great deal of time, that last part didn’t get to happen. According to my research, over 18,000 B24’s were put into service, and more than 3600 were lost during nearly 227,000 sorties flown between 1942 and 1945. So in fact, fear was justified and it still haunts the men who flew in these planes in any capacity. And the anger towards our enemies still resides to some degree in the hearts of the men who were dragged from their lives at home in the States and anywhere our allies originated.

Ben’s place and function in the bomber was in the tail section, a lonely distance away from other crew members. The turret was tiny, even for a man of small stature like Ben. He described the discomfort of being limited so tightly for a half a day in the turret and not even being able to reach back to scratch the back of his own shoulder. Freezing cold, cramped, and scared most of the time. Angry at the reasons one was up there. It was a position in the plane and function of his preference. But his was also one of the most dangerous and vital positions on a WWII bomber.

A B24 tail turret in Tucson AZ air museum. I would not fit into the tail gunner’s position. Cramped quarters.

Beginning in late September of 1944, until late April of 1945, Ben hoisted his 22 or so year old frame up and into that inhospitable and perilous place some thirty times. Twenty eight bombing runs into Germany, and two more over Austria.

Bomb payload on its way to a target in Germany…destruction on the wing…

I mentioned to Ben that his was the place for a man with strong faith. A tail gunner had to possess a great confidence in the rest of the crew to the front of the plane. There was to be considered; faith in the navigator to keep a flight on path. Faith in the pilots to deal with the often longer than twelve hour flights. Faith in the bombardier when he took over the flight of the craft near the bombing target till the bombing run was complete, when the bomb load was on the way to the ground target, and a now much lighter plane’s controls were handed back to the pilots.

B24’s at work wreaking havoc in Germany

Ben had to have blind faith in the forward crew. He had no forward vision. Only a view to the rear and sides at the inevitable approach of German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes, that were sent to pick off the heavily bomb burdened B24’s before their loads were dropped on targets and afterward as well. Ben was the last defense of his plane, and two fifty caliber automatic guns had a lot to say regarding approaching flying henchmen and their bad intentions at ending the bombing run’s success and were intent at ending the lives of Ben and his crew. And should the parachute of an enemy fighter pilot have blossomed in Ben’s sights, that enemy pilot would never see another flight or threaten the likes of Ben and his counterparts again.

Ben had to have faith that his crew and God would see to it they found their targets and prayed clouds were absent over the intended place. That “bombs away” was accurate and then all the powers in the universe safely managed the newly lighter and more nimble return flight to the home base. And the entire rest of crew had to have faith that God and Ben would protect them from death approaching from the rear.

There was a great deal of faith being carried on these heavy bombers, along with fuel, weapons, gun rounds, bombs, and crew. Evidently faith and prayers proved lighter than air on Ben’s flights as all thirty remained aloft and mostly whole long enough to deliver plane and crew to safe landings in the English countryside.

And although Ben had no specific religion prior to the war, he did have spiritual beliefs. It is evident that none of the thirty flights Ben was a part of were shot down or otherwise terminated. That is not to say none of them weren’t marred by damage, partially crippled and left in a dire need of divine intervention to prevent a bad end. On three occasions, other crews took planes up that Ben’s crew was originally scheduled to man. And on all three of those flights, luck eluded those men, as they and the planes were to perish.

A lot of frightened young combatants surely made promises of future dedication to serving God if they could be snatched from deliverance at heaven’s door when flights went very wrong. And after most of them escaped the worst, they simply passed the promise off as the mortality and urgency of the moment having caught them off guard.

My friend Ben was faced with such moments, but one in particular was the most telling and influential…One that lasted for many long minutes, enough to make up near to an hour. Perhaps it was more than an hour. I understand that such moments whether seconds in length, or days in duration, can cause a person to reflect, and influence a man to spend many decades dedicated to making good a promise made to God in the heat of battle.

More than once I’ve heard the recollection of one such seemingly doomed flight Ben endured and survived. I will never be able to fathom what it would have been like to be in a formation of over a hundred B24’s, nearing a target area while taking tremendous flak fire from many German cannons on the ground guarding the targets chosen by the American Army Air Force to be destroyed that day.

Not to forget the Messerschmitt fighters flying nearly twice as fast as the heavy bombers and threatening every one of them.

A Messerschmitt Bf109 hunting B24 Liberators…

And not unlike the forces today, many of these brave crewmen were in their late teens and early twenties. At home, most would still be a bit wet behind the ears, attending college or working in a mill…Just being young men.

But back in the sky and in the cold…perhaps fifty below zero, with dangerously close red flashes of the flak ordinance exploding with dire possibilities and certainly bad intentions. As red hot shrapnel made its way through the thin aluminum skin of B24’s and into the vitality and well-being of our flyers and their machines…

On a mission in German skies, that very flak had its way with the two outermost engines on Ben’s plane. The two inside engines were still operable, but the B24 was handicapped sufficiently that the pilot had to leave the protection of the large bomber group.

A bad day in the skies of Germany…hit by flak.

This was akin to a single zebra falling behind a herd of fellow zebras on the African plain. A pride or even single lion or leopard…any big African cat will key in on the weakest, the oldest, the injured, the young, and vulnerable. And generally this is the last few moments of the straggled…suffice to say I could sense the potential hopeless essence and gravity of this very long moment as Ben recalled it some seven decades later…

With a feeling of resignation to either perish or live to become POW’s in a German camp, the plane and crew were forced to separate from their friends there in the sky. They lost the heavenly protective group along with altitude.

At this point on a normal faltered and wayward flight, the Messerschmitt Bf 109’s would close in and mercilessly kill the floundering plane. There was no doubt during those fateful long moments, in that cold, noisy, stinking, shaking and shuddering, albatross of a plane, that minutes ago had been a bird of prey…a crew of terrified and justifiably, there were some freshly religious and praying young men.

Ben would have been somewhat isolated from whatever lay in front of the plane, not privy to the view the rest of crew was likely seeing…And so I imagine he prayed, and huddled down even tighter in his would be coffin…and I imagine he talked to the man upstairs, about seeing the sunrise, about touching the face of his future bride and imagined their unborn children. He may not have put it into so many eloquent words, but he did in fact make a deal to be at the beckon call to God for the long run…if wheels touched friendly ground and a free and healthy future was still in the plan. Ben made a midair dedication to serve God, in exchange for a place to land and embrace the broken earth waiting there. It was a promise to be “his” for the duration, plain, honest, and simple.

I expect they waited for the German fighters to end them. To use their four automatic machine guns to fire bursts of lead to perforate, aerate, and dismantle that once proud Liberator.

Without explanations, the Bf 109’s never closed in for the kill, the rounds never fired, and the Grim Reaper didn’t visit that spot in the sky that day.

But in those long desperate and confusing moments, the front crew of that bomber lost their bearings and their direction for a while. Gathering his wits and know how, the navigator soon found that with the use of a sextant, they were at least heading West, toward kinder air…toward the English Channel. But now perhaps to an end by ditching and drowning. But splashdown never came, and the cold dark water eventually gave way to mother earth once more…

And desperately searching eyes were soon served up with the ultimate answer to the many earnest prayers…a landing strip out there in the distance. A pitifully small strip meant to cater to much smaller planes than this lumbering and wounded heavy bomber.

Unbeknownst to the grateful crew, the landing strip in Belgium had recently been liberated from and abandoned by the Germans. However, liberating the strip had called for a lot of bombs that had pretty much redesigned the runway…big bombs that left big holes. Craters more than large enough to have caused the tired bomber to tip and catapult…cartwheel, and break apart with lethal and fiery results…

But somehow in the dwindling light, none of that occurred and the plane and crew stopped short of the end of that abbreviated runway. And even better yet, they were miraculously greeted by friendly faces, and ushered to a somewhat cozy hangar to sleep in.

A hangar perhaps like the one Ben and his crew found refuge after their near miss with death over Germany.

Overnight, the expired engines were replaced, and patches were placed over assorted holes through the skin of the kindly spared and newly revived Liberator. Both craft and crew were warriors no doubt, but had more than a flock of guardian Angels keeping it all aloft and spared from a fateful end that day.

And for Ben and his thirty flights; against all conventional odds, all days were to end safely. Hallelujah…

After Ben was finished with his commitment to the war and duty in his gun turret, he made good his wartime promise to God. Ben attended Multnomah Bible College in Portland Oregon, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth, nicknamed “Betty”, and he graduated in 1949. The two of them were married and started a church in Astoria Oregon. Ben was a minister for about 20 years. Ben and Betty parented two sons, David and Peter, and eventually settled in Walla Walla, Washington.

In the 1980’s, Ben heard a calling to focus some of his attentions on bettering the world of folks behind the Iron Curtain. After making blind donation shipments of bibles to Eastern bloc countries (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland), Ben was invited by the leader of the European Baptist Fellowship to tour behind the Iron Curtain as a guest minister there. Ben used his own funding and three week vacation periods to make a yearly journey there for the next eleven years.

Ben has shared with me that the people behind that curtain tended to be desperately poor, and mostly had just each other and very meager means to stay alive. He also shared that they were the most faithful and inspiring people he had ever met. That they needed no specific denomination, no fancy building, or organization. He said simply, that their church consisted of people, their love for each other, and abiding faith. The spirit of those souls in light of such poverty still lifts him to this day.

Example of a wooden church in Ukraine where Ben served as a guest Minister in the 1980’s.

On a personal note; It is amazing to me how universal the statement made by too many souls around us that, “one person can’t make a difference”…Ben (and I) know that to be a falsehood and go about at least trying to affect a positive ripple in our daily efforts and projections regarding everyday life situations. One person can be very effective. People are seeking hope and the good in the world. One person can very much provide that light.

I have been privileged to have had Ben share his opinions, his life experiences and efforts with me. His perspective is tempered by having been drawn into a world war and having had his youth interrupted, inconvenienced, and ultimately and ironically, had the course of his life positively focused by and because of that awful war.

Because of his ongoing involvement with members of all branches of the various services, Ben did share an observation with me. He said that regardless of the era, those young combatants are from, that he can always identify a true warrior. That over the decades, the makeup and attitude of a true natural warrior doesn’t change. There are young men (and women now) that have the internal stuff that makes for a soul having what it takes to carry the battle to our enemies. Some folks are just meant for the stuff that wars are made of.

He also understands that a true warrior might have issues with integrating back into everyday dealings here at home, and with being separated from their brothers and sisters in arms. There is an array of baggage that may and can accompany a service member home from the duty on the battlefield, assignment to a field hospital, and various other support roles near to the front.

No matter what Ben shares with me, there is always an air of decisiveness, and an abundance of hard earned knowledge of the adversaries that good people face. He has a quiet determination and a long kindled proverbial “fire in his gut” regarding injustices and evil doings.

I also have noted another trait I will call a great quality about Ben. In all our discussions over the years, he displays the most incredible dedication and passion in his every endeavor. Ben has a compassion for people in general, but especially for the fighters of wars.

In reality, Ben is among a dwindling few remaining members of the greatest generation. I meet some of them in my town on a regular basis. I usually come to recognize them by the sighting of a baseball cap sharing their membership in a branch of a service involved in WWII. I will regularly stop that individual and thank him for his service and attempt to strike up at least a short conversation. These voices should be heard, and will soon all be silenced when they are called on to their rewards, and possibly to reunions with buddies lost in battle sixty some years ago.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOKERA:  KOREAN WAR/AID & COMFORT

Most members of that war have until recently been tight lipped about what they did and witnessed in the course those awful years. Most moved on to civilian lives and never looked back at the interruption to their young lives. There has to be a prevailing pride and sadness that accompanies those having been a part of that war. Ben has never really turned away from that war nor those that followed. He has supported members fighting wars in our history, leading to the aggressions that are current today. He has had no reprieve, or break from the horrors of war in near to seventy years.

He reflects sadly on a more recent trend of wars and warriors. The involvement of women in war zones in both support roles and combat positions. That war is hard on any individual is a given. But that war should be harder on the women members of various service branches who regularly become victims of assault of many kinds, at the hands of male members of their own units is a crying shame. The daughters and sisters and mothers of fellow citizens are suffering through despicable events and the consequential demands for silence and tolerance from the victims. This trend really angers and saddens Ben, as well it should. It is hard enough to add support to the members of returning members of combat units suffering with the residual effects of war in general terms. But chauvinism and sexual assault ought not to be among the causes of ill effects of our female volunteers. I too reflect the shame and disgust Ben feels regarding such matters.

In my daily dealings and later regular visits with him, Ben always said the same thing at the close of an afternoon. “I have to get home to Betty. She needs me more every day”.

Late in 2010, Ben lost the love of his life, Betty, to a sudden illness. This was in addition to having lost of his son, David, 44, in 2003.

old grave

Like my father, Ben had just one lady in his life. Each had but one girl, later to become his wife. My dad and mom were together for over fifty years, Ben and Betty for over sixty. These are good old fashioned men with the right to say they are still there for their women even after death did part them.

After the loss of his wife, Ben stayed home from work for a few weeks to deal with the usual things that go along with such an event. But he reflected after returning to the Chaplain position and his duties, that while being home, he had begun to lost lose track of time, of the days of the week (and I think perhaps a lack of purpose in life.) He knew he was needed back at the VA Hospital, and that should he choose to not return to work, that he would simply soon perish.

Ben is still a popular guest speaker much in demand. His schedule is mostly full, and he still travels and drives on his own. His son Peter lives in Arizona, and receives visits from his father whenever Ben has the time to break away from work. Such a rare and remarkable man, my friend Ben.

I wrote the following essay to honor Ben, and indirectly my father too. Both men will spend their twilight years without their late wives, and both appreciated the piece and reflected on the sentiments I penned.

For my good friend Ben, whose blushing bride recently went on ahead of him after six decades at his side…

After sixty one years, the life that accompanied mine no longer shares the morning coffee, the news of the day. She no longer stirs the pot I momentarily forgot…fills the ice tray I left nearly empty. She is no longer the soul breathing quietly there on the pillow next to mine…nor a conversation long after the day has passed.

I’ll still talk to her, and reach for her hand when I stroll. I’ll still snatch a rose from a bush down the way; sing her a line from a special song. I’ll stir my coffee quietly, and tuck my shoes away…just in case she is still lingering somehow…

kicks

I’ll want to always please her, to take away the evening chills…to find a way to kindly tease her…I’ll still keep my promises, and after sixty one years, my vows still remain. My attentions and intentions are the same. I have often said I’d like to live yet another eighty eight years. I have a feeling I will be re-living the last sixty or so every day from now on…The thought of her still makes me smile, still makes me proud, and still accompanies my thoughts from the waking moment to the midnight’s dreams…

I’ll breathe in her essence, and exhale her laughter…again and again…until there are no longer moments…no longer breaths. Till there are no more promises left to be kept, no more roads to follow, no songs left to sing…And then, and then, and then…she’ll fill my cup, and my hand…with hers, my heart with her pulse, my mind with her poetry and prose…my eyes with the creations and senses there in the canvas, parchment, pen and ink, palette and brush…And from her imagination…

And from across a crowded room, I will again seek her warmth, her steps softly accompanying mine…And again there will be tears, but of joy this time…And while others bid adieu to he who has been missing her, I will be looking again into those eyes, listening to the quiet welcoming behind those familiar sighs… We will again be young…and old all at once. Familiar, yet fresh and full of youthful anticipation…I will finish saying what you begin, and as before…I‘ll cling to your every word. For now, I’ll keep you close in my heart, until again you’re close at hand…

two old hands

Matthew Landsman 6/20/11

I treasure every moment he chooses to share with me when I call him, or make my way to Walla Walla. I cling to his every word of advice, of his vivid recollections, and of him inviting me join him in spreading infectious optimism. I celebrate our friendship, and treasure his encouragement for me to continue writing and to find a larger and larger audience, so that I might make a difference in the word, as he has. I marvel at his nearly 90 years of honorable and rare dedication, but mostly I just love him as a treasured friend.

And one more thought…When I do see Ben at the VA facility, I often walk with him to his appointed duties on my way to my car. Ben is nearly 90 and I am just 53, and I cannot keep up his walking pace without effort, even with my much longer legs. Ben has not slowed down over the past few years, so I expect he will be taking care of struggling veterans and looking forward to our visits for years to come. God Bless you Ben, and yes; that is a redundant thing I say.

I gifted this writing to Ben, in honor of his 90th birthday on September 25, 2012.

away

…But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep…
(Robert Frost)

Matthew Lyle Landsman, September 2012.

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Memorial Day…

It’s just a piece of paper, folded several times. Containing a few well thought out words, written over time. Times when things were quiet, sometimes by flashlight, moonlight, others; the light of day.

ww2-soldier-writing

One carries that paper till it’s ragged and tattered, nearly confetti. But one carries it close to the heart. And hopes it stays there till a guy or gal is home, unpacked, reunited, well fed, hugged and reassured by a night of quiet sleep in an old familiar bed.

Even then, the letter is tucked away, like a faded photograph or a misty memory.

But for now, the world is on fire, and the days all blend together in a nightmarish collection of close calls and cold sweats and all the “things I haven’t done yet…”, moments of lucidity, and others of utter chaos.

Then comes a fateful moment, a flash, a thud, a struggled breath, a pool of blood. A brilliant light, and a pair of reaching hands…one taking the letter carrier away to a celestial muster…And another to seek out the pocket where such letters are customarily stored.

marinecasket

 

There will be a flight, a Freebird home, and a gathering…where a tattered letter will accompany another typed on finer paper, with signatures and sincere thanks from a grateful nation. And too, a folded flag.

condolence

That tired piece of paper folded several times is now carried next to another heart, stained in tears and holding a new meaning and stark reality…all the things that could have been.

Look to the sky and give thanks… Happy Memorial Day.

boots

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I’ve combined my thoughts from yesterday together for you on this Veteran’s day, 2010

You may have noticed I have been paying tribute and giving thanks to Veterans and current members of the military all day. You can go to my profile and see them all there.

Don’t forget to pray, and say thanks every chance you get folks…

If you choose to learn a language, or join a friend at their church next weekend, remember this: That you choose to learn German, Japanese, Italian, Russian or any other tongue. If you want to worship Buddha, the Koran, the Bible, Jesus, Jehovah, Satan, or nothing at all…remember, the only reason you have such choices, is because of young volunteers (and former draftees) in the military defending those rights.

Last Christmas, I traveled to the house of a friend and her son Austin. This spring when he graduated high school, Austin left for Marine Boot Camp. He is currently training in Twenty Nine Palms, California. I never looked on this young guy as a potential hero when he was 10 years old and playing paintball. But in light of becoming a Marine in the midst of two current wars, I can only look on in awe and say thanks. Thank you Austin.

Because I served only vicariously, (as a friend and writer many who did serve have shared with me their experiences)…When I lay down at night, I will recall their generosity, but I will share no common dreams with them. My four older brothers all served in the army while I was in high school and told me they had, so I didn’t have to.  Today, and all days I have a lot of veterans and active members to thank.

I am good friends with an elderly Chaplain who was a tail gunner on a B24 bomber for 30 bombing missions over Germany in WWII. I am also friends with an 80 something year old veteran of WWII who was in the German army as a 15 year old. He believed in the cause, until he found out it was unjust and un-winnable. His friendship is as true as the other. Good men in a bad moment.

I love them both. Both taught me about forgiveness. Both taught me about the horrors of war. Both taught me to not forget. But mostly, they both helped me to heal the angers and fears I was brought up with…They need to meet, and one day shall…where there are no judgments to endure…and they will embrace, and find other; better things to talk about. That is what they taught me…

If you have a memory that haunts you from time to time, a moment that wakes you in a cold sweat from a life event…stop and think about our veterans and current members of our military that have years of such horror to live with and carry around for the rest of their existence. And know too they can only truly relate to those others who went through it with them, and that many of them were lost in the midst of it all.

When you’re on your boat, burning all that gas and just soakin up the suds and sun, remember there are and have been military folks at sea for months on end, being tossed by relentless wave and wind. They have superiority of the ocean and air, but at a huge risk to life and craft. Their days are nearly without end, smiles from loved ones are but memories…All so you can spend carefree days in the sun…

If there is warm sand between your toes, and you’re enjoying it…keep in mind there is a member of our military, man or woman, in the heat of a desert far from home with combat boots in hot sand, with hot rounds coming and going all around ’em. They are not having fun, nor are they aware of your bliss…but still they continue to do what they do, so yours is safe and without fear…

Matthew Landsman…Your humble scribe… Thursday, 11 November 2010armyboots

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I recently drove to Walla Walla, Washington, from my home some sixty miles away, to visit with my oldest friend, an eighty seven year old Chaplain at the Veteran’s Affairs Facility. We became friends this year while I was filling a six-month contract to deploy new computer equipment in the offices and medical facilities on the campus there.

Over a six-month period, beginning in early spring, I drove the stretch of two lane blacktop between the gap at the Wallula Junction and through the winding hills along Washington State Highway 12. This stretch of road is about thirty miles long, cutting a picturesque path through rolling hills and rocky outcroppings along the way.

This is historic country, settled long ago…explored by the likes of Lewis and Clark. The land is used for winter wheat, vineyards, cattle-grazing, horse pasture, and some row crops. Many dozens of old family farming operations mark the divisions of ground with fence lines. Some are new and painted while others are simply weathered post and rusted wire.

This is Americana in the West, the sort of setting described in a Louis L’Amour novel. Today, blacktop leads to gravel roads, streams lead to small rivers…America at its finest in a quiet evolving painting through the four seasons.

This road is kissed, sometimes beaten down by swirling winds that seem to come from several directions at once. I drove the road beginning in early spring, when there is little vegetation on perennial trees, few objects provided in nature to indicate the presence of a wind at all. Driving this piece of history some days became a bit of an adventure, when the prevailing winds were invisible to the eye while I drove. I often had to stop and open a door to see if either I had a low tire or if, in fact, the wind had cropped up from the Columbia River Gorge coming from the direction of Portland, Oregon to the west and out of the Blue Mountains nearby.

The ridges along this road are marked by many dozens, hundreds in fact, of huge windmills to generate power for the regional grid. But on a very windy day, the mills are shut down as the speed of the turning blades can’t be moderated after a certain point. So I might be driving in a gale with no real indication of wind at all, other than the adverse effect it may have on the handling of my lightweight car.

Over the course of weeks in early spring, as I drove this road, my writer’s mind had plenty of scenery to take in, many tales to extract from the farms and old buildings in towns with names such as Touchet, and Lowden. Wooden grain elevators and long ago abandoned buildings– that once housed stores, shops to repair tractor and plow, dry goods, a post office and bus stops– mark the way.

There was one thing sorely absent on the horizons, in yards of homes, businesses, shops…anywhere that patriotic souls reside, work, and gather along this historic stretch of western heartland…Flags. Visible from the highway I am able to count maybe a dozen good old American Stars and Stripes being displayed to mark pride and support of a nation at war for a decade now.

Solitary sentry in the wind…

This road leads to a campus that consists of buildings that existed since the late 1800’s as a military support facility. Fort Walla Walla is also in the vicinity…And now the facility cares for and counsels members of the military from every era beginning with World War II.  Americana is at its finest here…with little display of our country’s symbol to be found on the main road leading up to it.

While looking out over the countryside for indicators to help me gauge the wind as I drove, I was compelled to feel in fact that winds of change have led many of our citizens to inexplicably fold and store away the flags that once marked community far and wide, during times of both war and peace…Peace being earned during times of war…and sacrifices being made by so many to wage war and to preserve peace.

Since 9-11 occurred in 2001, our country has been involved in military operations abroad, attempting to root out the perpetrators of terror and discontent both here and at its source…Hundreds of thousands of military personnel have been shipped out, and into harm’s way, for the better part of ten years now.

I cannot understand why the flag has vanished from sight. I have no clue if folks are less patriotic, scared of our enemies, unhappy with the current political climate, or just too busy to remember to raise the flag…no matter I guess. So I drive with no traditional indicator of the speed and direction of winds outside my car, and the winds of change leave me wondering at the direction and speed of the state of our community and union here.

There are several irrigation pivots used to water various crops along this road. I see each pivot has an American flag mounted atop of it. This is a nice sight for a couple miles near the crest of a stretch of road known as Nine Mile Hill. About a half dozen of these circles are marked by the flag, and I am sure that along with a farmer’s patriotic stance, there is an operational reason for the flags being strategically placed there. It’s nice to see them displayed at the sight of a western extension of the American bread basket.

Nine Mile Hill irrigation circle…

Along this road, I met a recently retired U.S Marine. He was about ten years younger than my fifty years. He’d spent twenty years of his youth serving our country. In those two decades, I imagine he’s been called upon to serve in the first Gulf War, and perhaps the current involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, to live away from family, and from friends–other than his brothers and sisters in arms. I can guess he’s been deployed to lands where foreign tongues and traditions prevail. I would further venture that a lot of the places and people he gladly protected and defended could have cared little, or not at all, of his sacrifice in their land so far from his home. Still, for twenty years he served, stood in harm’s way for strangers both here at home and abroad. That is after all, what American military members do in this world…

This handsome young Marine had a family too–a dedicated wife and two children, both a daughter and a son. In the midst of his time serving our country, he was busy also living the American dream…All the while, he selflessly stood ready to preserve our right to the American dream…and the dream to provide some semblance of peace, civility and a human dignity in any number of inhospitable places around the globe. That is what our Marines do…what young fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, nephew…and their female counterparts do in this great patriotic country. And today, all are volunteers from day one.

How did I meet this recently retired Marine, along this stretch of road in the middle of a historic piece of America here in the Pacific Northwest?

He and his family were stranded on the side of the road. They were within sight of several of those American flags atop the irrigation circle pivots. It was 107 degrees outside. I was sweating in my car even with the air conditioning laboring on high settings. There was no breeze, no clouds…Just the unrelenting sun. Even the buzzards were grumpy on this day…

I could see, for quite a distance, the back of a somewhat tired Ford Explorer with its hood up. I could see a couple hay stacks several yards off the side of the road. I could see two children in what shade a stack could provide…sitting atop a couple of stray bales off to the side, perhaps set there by dad. I could see a man and a woman several feet away from the kids, between the hay and the stricken car. I could see their frustration, the effect of the late afternoon heat and the fact they had no doubt been out there at the crest of Nine Mile Hill for quite some unforgiving time.

What I saw was a family, stranded in 100+ plus degree heat, many miles from shelter, water, help, safety…I had no clue if they had help on the way, if they were suffering from heat related issues, or of any other issues that might need tending to, in the middle of nowhere, on a God forsaken day. I couldn’t pull over directly because of the speed of my car and the quantity of traffic in the area, so I drove to a safe spot a little way up the road. I turned the car around and drove back to them. When I emerged from my much cooler car and into the heat, I waited to jog across the three lanes of highway there. I could see the tired look of gratefulness and frustrated resignation on the faces of the couple as they walked to greet me near their slumbered Explorer…I inquired into their condition, if they had water, a cell phone. I asked if they had help on the way…how long they had been waiting there stranded. We three adults peered under the hood of the car, discussing the state of repair, the symptoms of disrepair…the usual conversation when a family is stranded with a dead vehicle on a hot day.

I noticed then that the father/husband figure there in front of me wore a ball cap with markings to signify he was a retired Marine. I asked about his service. He replied, “recently retired…put in my twenty…” I shook his hand and thanked him for serving. I acknowledged the sacrifice he, his wife, and young family had obviously made while he served.

For a moment, I discussed the irony of his willingness to serve anywhere and any time since he was barely out of high school…for two decades. He discussed the fact that no less than a hundred and fifty cars had passed by this stranded family, without as much as slowing down. He did say I was the lone soul outside a State Patrolman to stop…but he quickly added the officer was “paid to stop”.

I was shocked and in utter disgust at the scenario I was a part of. I can’t imagine what excuse anyone would have to ignore what was obviously a family of four suffering on a hot day in the midst of little else other than haystacks, a few irrigation circles in the distance…with American flags at rest on a breezeless day…and miles of little else.

I mentioned the irony of his career and his service and his willingness to defend, to the death, total strangers in strange lands, at virtually any time, under any conditions…yet there he, and that beautiful young family, sat in the middle of his homeland, among those he fought to protect for all of his adult life.

The same country that sacrifices life and limb for sometimes unappreciative strangers, appears to be either afraid to stop and help a family today, or uncaring enough to not bother to step out into the heat, or even stop and crack a window to simply inquire as to the state of well being, safety, thirst, and rescue, of a man and wife and their two young children.

I thought about a lot of things in a few minute’s time…about the last six months of travel up and down this stretch of road. I felt my heart get heavy as I walked across the road to my car. Then I turned around and returned to the couple. I shook his hand again and apologized for the state of his country despite his twenty years to preserve our freedom here.

And before I turned away and walked away for the last time…I engraved the scene and moment into my heart and slightly saddened mind…and added a parting thought to the young couple’s memory of the day…I said, (and I said it in good humor) “In case you’re wondering about who stopped to help you in the middle of the heartland of Western America today…always remember…it was a Canadian…”

Matthew L Landsman

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When I was a kid, some summers I was hired by a neighbor to house sit for them while they ventured out of town, state, or the country, on vacations, charitable missions, etc.

It didn’t matter to me the reason for their leaving; I made sure their place and property were safe and secure. They were neighbors, practically family, and worthy of my best attention and intentions.

I have a family of my own now, and a home. With the same intentions of looking out for my neighbors and community on a larger scale, I joined The Guard. To be sure, there were both civic pride and some perks involved.

Then came the call, the leave from my job, from my family, my home, my neighborhood,my community…eventually my entire country. I am not complaining about serving and the general duty I signed up for. We gotta stop them where they are, so they won’t come where my family lives and assert their less than ideal ideals on me and mine. I’m all for preserving liberties at home.

We live in a modest house, drive a modest car, and live a modest life back at home. I ain’t asking for anything extra. But the pay from my hard earned career ended the day I was called up, and that little stipend from Uncle Sam is, well, little.

I remember when the Apollo 13 astronauts were stranded in space, they were granted a grace period in which to file their income taxes. They were looked out for while in peril during their service to our country. I too am far from home, and in peril, in service for my country. And I’m not alone here in my situation. I’m surrounded by thousands that are willing to take a bullet to protect me. And they all left family back home too.

But back in the world, there’s trouble at my home. While I’m here doing whatever it takes to preserve life there for the masses, my wife has an empty pantry, an empty bank account, no insurance on a barely running car, and an empty feeling inside.

She doesn’t want to distract me here, to make me less attentive and cost me lost sleep, lost attention to the dangers around me. She’s gotten food stamps, bus passes, and calls from creditors over the basic necessities. Last week they shut off her power in the middle of a cold snap and she and the kids got to “camp out” in sleeping bags till she was able to use the neighbor’s phone to call and beg for help from the PUD.

I’m in the middle of a hostile desert serving my country, while some in my country show their appreciation and patriotism by seeing to it my family stands to starve and freeze in their own home.

Although our little fixer-upper house is yet to be fixed up like we planned, she’s being told that may be the least of our worries, as the numbers are becoming a little more than we can handle. She may have to move in with her folks so some banker can see to it that some opportunistic soul will pick up the note on our home (after that same banker takes it out from under us).

This, while I serve to protect that banker’s right to drive a car worth about as much as the home he’s taking away. So much for returning the favor and house sitting for this soldier’s family while he’s away.

I have no doubt the sons and daughters of bankers aren’t likely to be serving in this war, nor would their families ever be put out in the street so daddy could foreclose on their bungalow in the Hamptons. No other way to put it, my life back in the world is being looted while I protect strangers, a world away, from being looted by their neighbors and their own flimsy government.

While I struggle to preserve my life in a war zone, my life at home is being allowed to be taken away from me and mine…

And I hear an echo from 1969, Woodstock, another war, and another anthem of the time…Country Joe and the Fish…”and its 1, 2, 3…what are we fightin’ for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn. The next stop is ‘IraqistNam’…”

I’m not stranded half way to the moon, but I may as well be. At least those boys could see home from where they were perched. I feel as if I, and mine, have been left hung out to dry, and that my home might not be there when, and if, I do get back.

I know my neighbors at home are busy covering their own asses, but hey, we’re hanging ours out here in a big way… and promises are evaporating like a puddle of water in the desert wind. Far as I know, one of my ‘neighbors’ there may very well be the one taking away my home while I serve to protect his rights and his home.

What the hell is wrong with this picture?

MLL Summer 2008

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Oh to step back, past that moment in time, when freedom was much freer…and those mighty towers still cast shadows and defined the profile of that city…when tomorrows were just the days after this one, and not just so many days or weeks; some measure of time since 9/11/2001.

wtc

On September tenth, there was merely the anticipation of autumn…simply the fading of summer’s embers, but the shadows were still long.

It was about looking forward to ‘’The Series”, debating who would go the yard…and who might fall victim to a slider going 98 and dropping like a rock.

September tenth was the day before my father was born…at least 68 years earlier
something wonderful had happened on 9-11.  They were hard times to be sure, but simpler and more innocent times as well.

Since 1992, the World Trade Center was but a wondrous place that I had visited, and I had stood on the roof of one of the twin icons. Movies based in modern New York City always featured the towers in that distinctive skyline. After that September 10th, any movies that included the towers were instantly dated as “pre 9-11.”

sept11lights

On September tenth, a line in time had yet to be drawn. Like the sixth of December in 1941, the tenth was but a prelude to another day that would change our world forever and redefine our entire existence. But in 1941, our enemies were more clearly defined and not too hard to find. Indeed, I long for the simplicity that prevailed still on September the tenth of 2001…

Then, we still slept soundly at night, not yet needing to know who had stolen away our naïve sense of trust and security…our knowing that tomorrow will be just another day. Memories of scud missiles, Desert Storm, the unbreakable coalition, stealth fighters and the last “just war” with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ at the helm, were nearly fading from our immediate memories.

On September tenth, we were oblivious to upcoming new buzzwords, like Flights 11, 77, 175, and 93…There was no ground zero, no mention of a north and south tower. Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden were minor players; irritants at best…but still in the wings, not yet the epitome of evil reincarnated.  The armor worn by our existing heroes showed a little patina; their deeds were a little dusty and the tales of those heroics had not recently been retold.

It was good… to be complacent and free of drama, fresh news footage, of a running total of sorties flown, of the billions approved by congress, of bunker busting behemoth bombs, of cadaver dogs, of no more survivors…images we could never have fathomed…of a loss of certainty in the world around us.  It was a simpler time…

On September the tenth, we were bored; we were anticipating the turning of the leaves, the last good days for boating, the return of Monday night football, and of kids returning to the halls.

And perhaps we took for granted the knowing we all would be coming home at the end of the day, maybe neglecting a parting hug, the obligatory peck on the cheek. And the uttering of a simple “I love you” might have been a little hollow, a little bit routine.

We weren’t as close to our neighbors on the tenth, as quick to notice a passing stranger and to smile at one another, eager to embrace the day.  We weren’t as apt to fight back tears when the flag was unfurled and a voice bathed the crowd in the beauty of the words of Francis Scott Key.

I still loved you on the tenth, but I might not have felt compelled to say so. It just never occurred to me that once I laid my head on the pillow, it would be the last night I would close my eyes without the possibility of visions of events of that day, and those that followed, filling my weary mind…of those stark surreal images that will mark this generation from that day forward.
On the tenth, our villains were whoever had taken our parking spot… the cop who cited you for going ten over while you hurried, nearly late to work… the team that’d last defeated yours. Our villains could still be easily found among us, as petty bickering and dissent among the ranks prevailed. On that tenth of September, we weren’t as united, not
as much in need and appreciation of one another as we soon would be.

And on that morning I didn’t wake you when I’d slipped out quietly on my way to work. While you lay there sleeping, I neglected to touch your cheek, to kiss your hair and went off not knowing that I would already be missing you five minutes down the road. The day that followed gave that gift back to us, and to me.

I had never uttered the words “nine-eleven” nor imagined the sight of tear-streaked ashen faces…or the “confetti of the anti-Christ,” as countless reams of paper took leave of the stricken buildings through shattered window panes, marking the end to peaceful sleep as it came fluttering down ultimately to street level in an agonizing confusing descent, dragging our hearts down with it…a metaphor of biblical proportions left to linger in mid-air, along with the accompanying dust and smoke, long after the sight of those blazing towers had become a part of the horror there on the ground…then a part
of the ground itself…a would-be grave in wait of the coming fill.

paper
On the tenth, I was a little euphoric and foolishly feeling secure. I didn’t love as deeply or unconditionally as I soon would. Nor did I notice as readily the good in the world that still prevailed. I was more at ease, but not as good a person, friend, neighbor, brother, or son, as I soon would be. I never wanted what happened next, but I am a more complete and worthy soul because of, and more importantly, in spite of the cumulative effects of the next days of events.
You might actually say, the day after the tenth found us scattered and nearly shattered by the work of the devil himself, but we were quickly gathered once more by the need for one another as we huddled together in disbelief…bound together again by the grace of God…mercifully lifted up as one in our hour of dire need.
I miss the bliss that came along with the tenth of that September, but I like camaraderie and oneness that found the collective lot of us in the days that followed.

Matthew Lyle Landsman

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