Monday, January 28, 2008

Duty, Honor, Courage - and Sacrifice

Belleau Wood
Wake Island
Iwo Jima
Chosin Reservoir
Khe Sanh
Con Thien (The Hill Fights)
Kuwait City
and 1,000s of smaller battles

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Gunnery Sergeants

I met someone a few weeks ago whose brother is a Gunnery Sergeant in Force Reconnaissance. I was staggered – I’ve never before met anyone (outside of the Corps) with a relative who is (1) a Gunny and (2) in Force Recon. And it turns out he was also a drill instructor. I had a difficult time articulating – even to myself, much less anyone else – why I was so deeply affected. But I was and I am. I think I understand my reaction a little better now.

First, the obvious: The Marine Corps is America’s elite fighting force – warriors whose story will be told for millennia. Force Recon is the elite of the elite – the razor point of a deadly spear. You can go no higher among warriors than this. Navy Seals, Delta Force, and all that are elite, but they (1) are copies of Force Recon and (2) have PR machines cranking away to sell their story to others. Number 1 is a good thing, but there is no honor in #2.

Second, also obvious: There are few Gunnery Sergeants, a rank unique to the Corps. I had two Gunnies. Gunny Evans was beyond words. He had what seemed like supernatural powers – utterly fearless, able to see in the dark, needing no sleep, physically overpowering, and dangerous to everyone. Once at the DMZ I was on the right flank point in a balls-to-the-wall gunfight with an NVA machine gun emplacement when out of the woods to the left of the enemy gun came Gunny Evans, carrying a wounded Marine! How in hell did he get there? The other Gunny I had was Gunny White, who was weapons platoon commander for much of my time with 1/26. Gunny White was loved as much as Gunny Evans was feared. Fearless, squared away, a true warrior, but not dangerous (to us, anyway). Both of these men would have given their lives in a heartbeat for me or any other Marine. Certainly they risked their lives on a regular basis for us – as we did for them.

Third, (I asked myself) what possible difference could it make what someone’s relative does or is? Being a Marine doesn’t just affect the person – it also affects the family. Green skivvy shorts jokes aside, it is not nothing to be a family member in a Marine family – nor easy, I expect. David’s friend Chris is at MCRD, and I sense a change in his mother – a change having to do with pride and fear. Photo: Football player, "It's a war out there on the field." Yeah, I know that's right. This photo from the DMZ, 1966 - nobody was saying, "It's a football game up there on the ridge."

But here is what clarified this for me. This morning at Bible study, one of the men, Rick G., talked about going to the store yesterday evening and being unable to find a parking place. He noticed a lot of preteen and teen girls milling around and he later learned they were waiting for Paris Hilton to show up for a movie event. This from the Dallas Morning News:

“’We love you Paris!’ screamed the tween girls into the cold, dark air outside the Regent Highland Park Village movie theater. Little did they know that it would be nearly another hour before the object of their affection would make their girliest of dreams come true.

That was the scene from the freezing red-carpet premiere of The Hottie & the Nottie, a movie …”

Obviously one wouldn’t expect Highland Park girls to have much of a clue about much of anything, but guess what, they didn’t get that way on their own (and most of them, their freakazoid parents brought them to see Paris Hilton, well-known porn star). We live in a weak, self-indulgent, celebrity worshipping culture that thinks people like Tony Romo, John Wayne, Tom Brokaw, Terrell Owens, Madonna, Paris Hilton, and so on are somehow special, even heroic. Well, they are entertaining, some of them, anyway, but there is no athlete, no entertainer, no celebrity in America worthy of a fraction of the respect due this Gunnery Sergeant – or any other U.S. Marine. So I met someone whose brother is among the bravest of the brave, a warrior among warriors, A Man.

Monday, January 21, 2008

El Ghetto, Hong Kong of course, chair

I wrote a few days ago about various routes I’m taking on my 5-6 days/week walks in the neighborhood. I forgot to mention that 5 minutes toward downtown and on the other side of the Santa Fe tracks there is a barrio. David & I used to ride our bikes over here - there's a good sno-cone place a couple of streets over across the street from Cano's Fruteria.

It’s mostly houses, most 2 bedroom, 1 bath frame houses – many with add-on rooms and when people inherit a little money they build a brick fence and when they inherit more money they brick up their homes. Many of the houses have fences around the front yards, mostly chain link, some iron, a few picket or brick, usually with pathways worn by dogs into the dirt along the inside of the fence and I’m walking along listening to my iPod kind of keeping an eye on the two mastiff/junkyard dogs standing on the corner kind of keeping an eye on me AH CHA! A dog hits the fence 2 feet from where I’m walking – Bam, full speed, never a sound until he hits the fence then all kinds of snarling and carrying on. So much for walking around here with an iPod distracting me. Lots of pickup trucks, vans, etc. around here – in my mind I can hear the dispatcher saying, “Four Latin males, late teens, 20s, wearing dark hoodies …” Someone wrote in the concrete of the sidewalk, “El Ghetto.”

Leslie asked me the other night after we were in bed, if I thought about traveling as I went to sleep. Of course the answer was yes and when she asked if any place in particular, it turned out my answer was the same as hers: Hong Kong. This despite recent favorite places including Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, Saigon … still Hong Kong, the first place we went in 1978 is the place we think of.

Showing conclusively that this is a personal journal ... The chair - which belonged to Leslie's grandmother - has a Karen (from Burma) textile draped over. On the shelves by the chair, books on travel and backpacking, empty Tabasco bottles and a Koon Yick bottle from journeys past. There are some Cambodian lime boxes, a hill tribe betel box, photos of Vietnam and Cambodia, thanka on one side of the door, Karen fabric on other, two monk’s bags - one from Moulmein, the other (from Lance) from around Battambang, books, a painting of Angkor Wat, more betel paraphernalia, blades (mounted – two khukris and African war blade in center, above are a kris, a Cambodian rice knife, a hill-tribe blade, and a Burmese everyday blade), backpack ready for Big Bend, David’s viola, someone else’s cello. David’s tennis, music, track and fencing trophies, etc. are scattered on the shelves. To the left of the small thanka and partially obscured by the cello is a katha - a Khmer talisman. At the top right corner is a small bottle of black sand from the beach of Iwo Jima. On the two shelves to the right of the thanka are books that I hope David will keep - Dispatches, Street Without Joy, books I've written (Terminal Illness, Refugees & Immigrants, Infectious Diseases), Hell in a Very Small Place, Never So Few, Barrack Room Ballads, Treasure Island, The Stones Cry Out, Monday Night Class, Tom Sawyer, etc. Out of sight to the right of the chair (to your left if sitting in the chair) is a table made from a blue and white Chinese pot we got from my Mom. It has a glass top and inside is a Burmese alms bowl made of lacquer. I don’t recall what’s in the bowl. There is a Burmese lacquer box on the table – inside are some inexpensive jade pieces, some images in a silk bag, a set of Burmese brass weights (in tikals?), vial of patchouli oil, cotton and silk cord that I got at the amulet market in Bangkok and from a place in Chiang Mai. Also on the table is a set of good Tibetan cymbals and a small old Chinese cloisonné saucer used as a coaster.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


When David was about three, he and I were at Sears in the lawn and garden department. I knelt in the aisle to look at a weed-eater box and a moment later realized David was not with me. I walked quickly to the end of the aisle and didn’t see him. I ran to the other end and didn’t see him. My heart was pounding as I ran here and there in a widening arc and I couldn’t find him! I flashed on our having passed some video games at the entrance to the restaurant and ran there and there he was, climbing up the front of a video game machine. I almost collapsed with relief.

David was a climber. He climbed the shelves of the refrigerator. He climbed ladders on the front porch. He climbed the very high iron ladder set into the concrete of the “big black bridge” that took the railroad tracks across White Rock Creek where we went fishing and canoeing. He climbed the steep embankment for the Santa Fe tracks near the golf course – we used to hike along that embankment for a long way through the underbrush, sweating, having a grand time.

Sometimes I would drive my blue Toyota pickup along a dirt road near the lake to the big black bridge and we would hike around the woods there and fish in the creek. One day we were there near the bridge sitting in the truck, having a snack when two men walked up to the truck. It was clear to me that they had evil intent – maybe just my money, maybe more. Fortunately, I had a .357 loaded with high velocity ammo at hand and so we sat there, the men coming to my door (which by now was locked, window cracked) and though it was out of sight, I had the pistol cocked and pointed at them (them bullets wouldn’t even be slowed going through the door). I told them to go away and was so clear and confident in myself that they backed away.

We had a canoe (named Linda) that I’d bought at a garage sale. David and I paddled that thing way past the north end of White Rock Lake and into South Dallas from the south end. One day we tipped the canoe over in some shallow water and when I stood up, I started laughing. David got really angry at me for laughing, but it was too funny, both of us and all our stuff drenched in muddy water.

We never caught much in the way of fish, but we always had a good time.

I’ll never forget one day we were sitting on a log in the wild forest near the lake and I told David the Holy Grail story. He was entranced – I’d never seen him like that before. It was a deeply magical day.

For years there were several acres of woods and small meadows at the end of our street. David and Leslie and I spent many many hours down there hiking around, tunneling through the thickets, making campfires and cooking things, and having a grand time. A quarter mile away from there was the Santa Fe railroad tracks. (The trains stopped running 8-10 years ago, though the track bed remains.) We’d hike along the tracks or in the underbrush a little farther away, sometimes with a neighborhood child named Sean a year or two older than David; and when Leslie was there, sometimes with an older child named Rosalee. Rosalee’s favorite line was, “Just one more thing” – which it never was – there was always just one more thing.

Sometimes David, Sean and I would build a dam across a small rivulet running alongside the tracks. As fast as we would build the dam, the rivulet would fill the dammed basin, so as the pond got bigger the dam had to get bigger and then the water would wash out underneath the dam. It was all pretty grand and good for endless hours of fun. Photo: Christmas 2007

There was a cottontail bunny in the field at the end of our street and one day Sean’s father shot and killed the bunny with an arrow – just to kill it. I remember that Sean had a look of sick fascination when he told us. I don’t remember if David realized what had happened – I know I was sickened. My recollection is that was basically the last time we did anything with Sean. I don’t remember there being a decision that we were done, but we were (and I never would have trusted David alone with him anyway).

David and I found a big and very sturdy cardboard box maybe 4x4x8 behind an appliance store. We put it in the living room, cut a door and some windows in it filled it with pillows and the like and there we had a fine little house.

I had a half a yard or something like that of sand delivered and dumped in the alley. It was a huge amount of sand and I spent many hours wheel-barrowing loads into the sandbox. It was a big sandbox – 8x12 and dug out more than a foot deep and the sides were 2x12s and the sand was piled up above the sides. David spent a lot of time there and so, actually, did I.

Later David and I built a tree fort over the sandbox. Chuck M. helped. The floor/platform was about 10 feet off the ground and there was a fence around the platform and a roof over that. To keep the little children out I made it so that it was difficult to get into – the children had to climb a jungle gym, get across the bars and then through a small opening in the side. We had pulleys to bring a bucket up and down. Leslie would fix food and whoever was up there would haul it up. We’d take tennis balls up into the fort and throw them for Goldy to chase. She would bring the ball right up to the bucket and we’d be saying, “Put – the – ball – in – the – bucket” but she never did.

One Christmas I made a rope slide that the children would hold on to a wheeled thing starting about 14 feet up and zoom to the corner of the yard – great fun.

The first day of kindergarten David met a boy named Chris and Leslie connected with Chris’ mom, Shirin. His dad, George was a pulmonologist, and we got on well. David and Chris played together a lot. In our yard they liked to make mud pools and slop around in the muck. They liked for me to build a fire in the yard and then they would feed it endlessly.

When David was born our back yard had a good cover of St. Augustine grass. The fires, the mud pits, the Christmas tree forts, the dogs, the children … the yard still hasn’t recovered.

Every Christmas we would have a Christmas tree fort. The first year we did this there 10 or so trees gathered from 2-3 blocks around our home. The next year there were more, gathered from a wider area and the next year more and the next year more until we had these massive piles of trees , gathered from all over, including Christmas tree lots (one 15 foot tree makes an excellent wall and add more on top …). I wish I had some photos of these edifices. They had “rooms” and tunnels and children swarming over them, rearranging, crawling through, building the walls higher and higher and Goldy and Judo into it too, and the children trying to build the forts to keep the dogs out and everyone sticky with pine sap.

We’d start driving around a few days after Christmas, filling the truck with just the right trees. On the way back home we’d be cruising along the street with David and Chris in the back of the pickup truck, buried under trees with their arms sticking up, holding on to the top trees. One day when Jeff was visiting we had an absolutely total load and on the way home saw an excellent and very large tree (we were experts on which trees were the best) on a median strip. We couldn’t get it on the truck so we tossed one of the lesser trees that we had to the ground and picked up the good one – all the while laughing hysterically at what it must have looked like to the people in the house and what they might have said to see someone come along and exchange discarded trees.

The Christmas tree fort days came to an end when I told someone at the Dallas Morning News about the fort. He did a small article on it and the next day the Dallas Fire Department showed up to close us down as a fire hazard. David was in the 5th grade by then, so the CTF days were limited anyway – but still, it was a blow to us. The city arranged for a special pick-up of the trees (it took more than one dump truck to haul them away) and I hired a man to help and we hauled trees endlessly to the median strip.

As I write and reflect on these things I am reminded of the many many good times David and Leslie and I had. There were several factors in this: First there was the great love we have for one another. There was the parenting role model that Leslie was for me. She truly showed me the way to be a good parent – because I had very little experience with good parenting. And I wanted to be a good parent – and strangely enough, really did not know how. Another thing was the guidance given by one of Leslie’s child development specialist friends who said, every moment a child spends watching TV or otherwise disconnected is a moment forever lost to your relationship with your child and your child’s development – you’ll never get it back. And finally and far from least is the fact that from the beginning, the three of us have worked together to be a good family.

It's the middle of January

Dee, in my Bible study group said to me yesterday, “I consider you a close friend …” – which touched me – he is a close friend. I’ve been in this weekly group, meeting every Wednesday at 7am, for at least 10 years. Among other things it’s a touchstone, a reference point for the week. When I joined, teaching was handled by the founders, Jim C. and Chuck H. Later we shifted to rotating leadership. Little by little it seems I’m learning something about the Bible and this faith. But for me – and this is difficult to put into words – the primary benefit seems to be general – kind of a midweek grounding and fellowship in a religious (and sometimes spiritual) context. Photo: Most of the men in our Bible study group, 2007 at Bryce's ranch

When I realized sometime in September that I wanted to get back into the mountains I began walking 4-6 days/week. I’m definitely getting stronger and in better condition. And I’m enjoying the walking here in Old East Dallas. In one direction there is a somewhat wooded area down by the Santa Fe RR tracks. Near there is Hollywood Heights, an area of gem-like tudor cottages, many with wonderful landscaping – including some with cottage gardens (part of the inspiration for my cottage garden). In another direction is the area where we first moved to this part of town in 1968: Oram, LaVista, lower Greenville – still hip after all these years. There are at least some hills or inclines in every direction and in every direction there is something new.

Something new? This is an amazing thing about Old East Dallas. After all these years, there is always something I haven’t seen before – a small stained glass window in a door, a beautiful arch, a craftsman detail – even an entire house I’ve not noticed. It’s the same for Leslie – and both of us look all the time, too. We live in a fascinating part of town, where most of the homes are 60-90 years old, so are well-crafted, unique and graceful. Alas, the developers are buying up old structures and building new homes – heavy structures, at best marginally appropriate to the community, and sometimes (you cretins) actual snout houses with garages fronting onto the street. Argh. Our immediate neighborhood has been successful in achieving a protected status. Thanks especially to Karen C., Ed M., and several other activists. Developers out!

One snowy, icy day before Christmas (around 1970) Leslie and I drove in our little yellow VW bug to the Ross Avenue Sears to get a Christmas tree. It was a bitter cold “snow day” when most businesses and schools were closed and we were so happy to be off work. We got a great tree and drove back home with me holding on to the tree so just the trunk was dragging along the icy street.

We’ve had a lot of good snow days in the years of our marriage.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In Memory

So here we are in a memorial service for Meredith, a woman who died way too young from inflammatory bowel disease. Her parents, Marcus and Pat are in my Sunday school class. Some of the class stalwarts are on these several rows where I’m sitting: Jim and Adelle, Chuck and Roselynn, Carol, Liz, Jim and Jane, others across the way on both sides of the sanctuary.

Ahh, a baby girl with rosy cheeks is across from me.

I wonder why I feel so sad? I didn’t know Meredith and am not close with her parents – we sit near one another in our 300 member class and I’m always happy to see them - they seem to be fundamentally nice people. That’s all and I guess it’s enough. Of course it’s The Great Sadness.

There are 5 or 6 goths, wearing black, pale and pierced on the back pew. I hope they’re connecting with this …
Come to me,
all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.

Spiritually these are desert days for me – I have nothing left to give except to those I love. Otherwise I’m kind of going through the motions – just doing what I do – I’m tired.
I am tired
I am weary
I could sleep for a 1000 years

The baby girl has a big voice. Fat little legs. Rosy cheeks. She’s got it all. If there’s a baby (God willing) at my funeral, babbling, fussing, doing all that baby stuff, then don’t take her out (and none of those don’t interrupt me looks from the minister – give me a break – he doesn’t get it, does he!?) – let her babble and fuss – give you joy.

Oh God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Be Thou on guard while life shall last
And our eternal home

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Like a Rolling Stone

When I was in high school there was a small record store in the little strip shopping center near my home off Walnut Hill and Marsh Lane. In those days record stores had little listening booths for people to check out records. Somehow, maybe through the woman who owned the store guiding me, I found the first Bob Dylan album. It was a whole new dimension from the “baby, I love you” that was the only popular music option at the time and it had a profound, but indefinable effect on me.

A year or so later I left home, hitchhiking first to Grand Saline, then to Baton Rouge, where I ended up in jail for “investigation” – described in another unposted document and then working for months as a cook in a Toddle House at the bottom of the bridge that people would take going from Baton Rouge across the Mississippi River to the honky-tonks on the other side and coming back drunk, "Yeah, let's stop at the Toddle House." From Baton Rouge I went to Colorado where I moved around among Estes Park, Boulder, Fort Collins, Georgetown, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Utah for about a year and a half over two years. I was rock-climbing and hanging around with other climbers and various drifters. I recall being in a bar on the main street in Estes and hearing Like a Rolling Stone on the jukebox. Once again it was a completely new thing that spoke directly to me – in terms of my general and specific situation and circumstances at the time …
hanging out
… scrounging your next meal

How does it feel
To be on your own
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone
Whew! All those things were happening with me – hanging out, scrounging meals, on my own, anonymous, Like a Rolling Stone. And it was fine.

Some of my friends and I had long hair before very many people had long hair - other than the slackers hanging out at The Sink in Boulder. One of my climbing partners, Bob B. and I were called, “Buffalo Bill (Bob) and his Indian Friend (me)” because of our long hair and general appearance. There was a documentary on Bob Dylan (No Direction Home) that came out a year or so ago. Looking at him singing Like a Rolling Stone I was amazed at just how hip we really were.

For a few months one winter Bob and I lived in a tiny cabin on the edge of Georgetown. The cabin had no electricity or running water and was heated with a coal-burning stove that the one time we used it, produced terrible noxious smoke, so that we never lit it again. There was a permanent “glacier” we called it on the floor between the bunks where we slept in our sleeping bags. The ice was about an inch thick in the middle.

Bob’s girlfriend was Toby T., who had gone to my high school in Dallas. She was a year or two older than I and I think had been popular in high school. In Colorado she was hip, kind of a drifter herself and probably drank too much. She was really sweet and kind. Sometimes she would stay with us in the cabin or sleeping in the place where we worked.

We worked in a restaurant called the Holy Cat. Bob was the bartender and I was the waiter. The owner was a fairly nice guy and I’m sure we were a burden to him – but we were who was available to work in his restaurant. I think we got maybe a dollar an hour, if that, tips, lift tickets for Loveland Basin, and room and board. Sometimes we would just sleep on the floor of the bar in front of the huge fireplace. Climbers and others passing through would stay there with us. Judy C., later a famous singer stayed with us one night and we sang the night away. It was a good winter, but we lost our jobs when Layton K. came up from Boulder and said, “Come on, we’re going to climb in the desert” – and away we went to Arches National Monument and Fisher Towers. That was the first time I'd slept in the desert - in the winter, cold, stars in billions. Photo: Me, Kor, Bradley on the summit (first ascent) of the Argon Tower in Arches National Monument - we're perched in the tiniest space imaginable with 400-500 vertcle feet falling away on all sides.

Only a few years after I left Colorado I learned that Toby had died – so young.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

First posts in this blog

Our local slick, upscale magazine, D Magazine had a cover story titled "The Mexican Invasion." I wonder if they'll print my letter to the editor:

Mexicans. Today I was at the library and ran into a young Mexican woman I know. For more than a year she volunteered at the mission clinic where I also volunteer. She told me she got married a few weeks ago. Her husband is Mexican – and he is a Marine, back from Iraq and headed for Afghanistan. It reminded me of when I was in the Marine Corps long ago and learned some serious lessons about honor from a man named Cruz – a Mexican Indio and a man among men.

I went to the big immigration march in 2006, carrying my Marine Corps flag in honor of Cruz and all the other Mexican Marines. A young man, also a former Marine invited me into the Cathedral Guadalupe.

All this self-righteous, deeply offended blathering on about, “But they’re illegal,” makes me sick

2008 began with a great 3.5 day backpacking trip to Big Bend National Park with Jeff - and more (God willing) to come. Photo: Pinnacles from Boulder Meadow, Big Bend