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The other night I was driving home and was pretty much blinded by some headlights. The weird thing is – these headlights weren’t in front of me, they were behind me.
As those of you who’ve read my stories before know that I drive a 1968 Saab 96. The ones that came from the factory that year had a mirror on each door and one just above the windshield. The ones built earlier had the mirror actually mounted on the top of the dash. The fellow who rebuilt the car before I bought it put the dash of a ’67 in there, complete with mirror, so now I have a car with a total of 4 rear view mirrors, and I was driving home, at night, in the rain.
It was not hard to see what was behind me in this car.
On this evening, in heavy traffic, a rather wide car had managed to find, and stay in, “the sweet spot” behind me where his left headlight was reflected through my drivers’ door mirror, and his right one was reflected off my passenger’s door mirror, and he was far enough back to where he was hitting at least one of the inside mirrors with both headlights.
Anyone looking at me at the time would have seen two round spots of light (one on each eye) connected with a rectangular one on my face.
It was, if you can imagine, bright, and with all that light in my face, I had to concentrate pretty hard to keep from having what was behind me blind me from what was in front of me. Squinting didn’t work – if I squinted enough to make the lights tolerable, I could barely make out what was in the wet darkness in front of me.
The next day, I was driving someplace else, and was able to just drive – it wasn’t raining, it was daylight, and I, while being aware of the mirrors, wasn’t blinded by them…
Something made me look at the size of the windshield, and compare it with the size of the mirrors. Now even though those mirrors were much smaller than the windshield – the night before they’d gotten most of my attention, in large part because those headlights from the car behind me were positioned just right, and it really was hard to see out the front.
I started thinking about this whole thing with mirrors and windshields and why they were useful and when…
And I was kind of surprised and fascinated by the whole ‘aha’ moment that I came up against…
See, the thing is – most of our lives, okay, all of our lives, we’re travelling through this dimension called time, if you will, forward. My personal vehicle for this travel happens to be an old, simple one that works… it’s not fancy, it’s not fast. It’s loud and occasionally obnoxious, but it – well, it works (we could be talking about the Saab or me – up to you to pick that one out - and the thing is – let’s say I’m driving someplace… I’m going to spend most of my time looking out the front of the car – to places I haven’t been to yet, to places I’ll get to in the future. I can’t do anything about what’s happening in front of me, but I can prepare myself for what happens once I get there. This could mean I speed up, or slow down, change lanes, or even get off the freeway for a little bit. Bottom line is, what’s on the other side of the windshield is important, and like it or not, can affect my life in both good and bad ways.
I did some more thinking…
There are times ahead when there will be signs of accidents that happened before you got there. I’ve seen it before – where I see a long skid mark heading off the road to make a huge dent in the guard rail. That person was lucky, the guardrail kept him or her from going through it.
There will be times ahead when there will be accidents, there will be flashing lights, highway flares, sometimes there will be tow trucks, ambulances, and police officers. As hard as it is not to gawk, I’ve learned to be careful as I drive by so I don’t become a statistic.
There will be times, I’ve learned, when I won’t get any warning and end up having to swerve, or slam on the brakes, or squeeze through someplace just in time to avoid some major calamity…
You get past it, and while you’re still focused on what’s on the other side of the windshield, you do sneak a few peeks back in the mirror, to see if there’s something you can learn from what you’ve just been through.
Sometimes that’s easy to see, like with those skid marks and a crashed car.
Sometimes it’s easy and important to stop and help.
Sometimes you get there and it’s clear that there’s nothing you can do – either because others are already doing it, or because – well – because you’re too late.
At some point, some of you are going to realize I’m talking far less about cars than I am about life – and that’s where I had my ‘aha’ moment, when those mirrors really had more to do with learning from the mistakes, or lessons, of my past than they did about driving down a rainy highway at night.
I learned that if I paid attention to events like this, it gave me a chance to learn from the mistakes of others without having to make them myself. That doesn’t mean I actually did learn immediately, but it was a start, and that was a good thing.
Sometimes, things behind me – like the car that was behind me at the beginning of this story, seem so bright and so important, that I have a very hard time focusing on what’s ahead of me – be that when I’m driving or in life. I find myself focused on what’s behind me because it just seems so important at the time…
“Why didn’t I do this?”
“Why is this happening?”
“What can I do to get away from this?”
Driving faster to get away from those headlights wouldn’t have done much good, it wouldn’t have been safe to go much faster – I was going about as fast as I really dared to go under those conditions.
And the fact is, I had to keep driving…
But just like in driving, when you need to take a rest, so in life you should do the same thing. Take that time to look back a bit, in your “mirrors.” –
If you made mistakes, learn from them.
If you hurt someone, make it right and ask for their forgiveness.
If you’re the one who was wronged, learn how to forgive.
And sometimes, the person you need to forgive most…
So how’s all this fit with that whole size of the windshield compared to the size of the mirrors thing I mentioned earlier? Well, I think the windshield’s bigger because you’re heading forward, car, life, whichever.
The mirrors are there to help you learn from what you went through.
Both are necessary, but spending too much time looking forward means you don’t learn from the lessons of your past. Spending too much time looking back (like at the lights of that car behind me) means you can’t move forward with any confidence or accuracy.
So – this Thanksgiving – take the time to pull over, to stop and look back, using the “rear view mirrors” at the past year, be thankful for, the things you’ve been blessed to get through, but also – remember it’s behind you. There’s nothing you can do about whatever smooth road or total wreckage there is back there.
The only thing you can do is hold onto the steering wheel as best you can, whether that’s of your car or of your life, and drive carefully.
Take care, folks, happy Thanksgiving…
“You ought to shoot the EAA airshow, you like planes so much!”
“Heh – did the Yakima airshow once. Flew over there in Fifi.”
And so of course, I had to explain.
I’m an airplane nut, and years ago was a photojournalist, and any time I could put the two together, I would.
There was a time when a B-17 and an LB-30 (non – combat version of the plane most people would recognize as a B-24) would show up at Seattle’s Boeing field, not much of an announcement, they’d just show up. I went down there with a friend and used up a good bit of the week’s grocery money buying a walk-through tour of the planes. It was a lot of fun… I got some nice pictures – and it was fun to watch and hear the Pratt & Whitneys on the one, and the Wright Cyclones on the other rumble to life.
My wife has said I could start a conversation with anyone, and in this case, I did just that, and ended up chatting with the pilot of the LB-30, who happened to be a United Airlines Pilot living just 30 miles south of Seattle. He gave me his business card.
The LB-30 came back two years later – but with a much bigger friend from Boeing, this being what was then the Confederate Air Force’s (now known as the Commemorative Air Force) mighty B-29, with the decidedly un-mighty name of “Fifi”
Since I’d already seen the LB-30, I figured I’d see what the inside of a B-29 looked like, and used up a bigger chunk of my weekly grocery budget than last time to pay for a walk-through tour of it.
The plane, while huge on the outside, wasn’t made for comfort inside, but utility. As I moved through it, I’d find hand-holds exactly where I reached for and needed them. Definite utility – but there wasn’t a lot cushioning of anything, after all, it was a military plane.
…and as I went forward I saw a leather bomber’s jacket on the map table on the left.
Not just any leather bomber’s jacket – but the one that had the name of the pilot I’d chatted with two years earlier.
And thus began one of my “Only you, Tom… Only you…” stories..
See, this plane had come up to Seattle from Salem, Oregon.
The local CBS affiliate, KIRO, had driven from Seattle to Salem.
They’d gotten on the plane in Salem and flown back to Seattle, videotaping the whole flight.
From inside the airplane.
It was considered a major coup at the time. They landed, they drove to the station, edited their stuff, and were on the air.
Needless to say, I was down there at the airport shortly after that.
And with that, a most evil and sneaky plan started festering – no – germinating (that sounds healthier) in my mind.
I found myself wondering what their plans were after Seattle -and it turned out they were going to be part of the airshow over in Yakima.
So the day they were heading over there I went down again, and found the pilot I’d talked to two years earlier…
“Hey, Dick, you got anyone from the Yakima paper covering this?”
(Note: Evil, festering germinating plan being: “I’m planning on doing what KIRO did.” – not because I was brilliant, not because I had permission, but because nobody had told me I couldn’t, and I didn’t know any better than to think I couldn’t just wander down to Boeing field and talk my way onto the only flying B-29 just because I had a camera…)
So I went to the pay phone inside the Museum of Flight, plunked in a few quarters, and called the Yakima Herald Republic, where my friend Jimi Lott had been the photo editor, and asked them if they were covering this. They said yes, they were. So I figured my chances were slim, to none. But about 15 minutes before scheduled takeoff, the photographer still hadn’t shown up, so I called them back and was a little more specific in my question.
“Do you have anyone in Seattle covering this? Someone who’s going to get on the plane and fly with it, shooting all the way?
Then I got all young and stupid and just about yelled at the photo editor there for not having a photographer ready to fly back there on the plane…
They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this?
They didn’t have anyone in Seattle covering this…
Gad… Didn’t they know what a piece of history this was?
Didn’t they realize they were missing a once in a lifetime event?
Didn’t they -
–the photo editor finally had enough of my attitude and said, “Now what did you say your name was again?”
“Tom Roush…. Jimi Lott’s a friend of mine.”
Jimi used to be his boss.
“Right, so what do you want me to do?”
The light went on…
THEY DIDN’T HAVE ANYONE IN SEATTLE COVERING THIS!
“Well, you don’t have anyone here, right? So here’s what I’m planning on doing… I’m gonna walk out there and see if I can talk my way onto the plane. If I can, I’ll be over there in about 45 minutes or so…. You want color or black and white?”
“Uh… Color, I guess…”
“Right. I’ll call you when I’m at the airport.”
I got off the phone with the photo editor, left the Museum of Flight, and walked out toward the plane, which was surrounded by this teeming throng of people, just in time to hear someone yell, “Okay, where’s the photographer?”
And I, Tom Roush…
…who’d driven down there on a whim, and had just convinced the photo editor of a newspaper I’d never seen to buy a picture I’d only be able to take if I could get onto a plane I’d promised the pilot I’d get onto the front page of a newspaper that…
(yeah, I still have to read that sentence a couple of times myself – still working out the catch:22ness of it all)
…called out, “HERE!”
Moses himself couldn’t have parted the crowd any better.
I waved my hand, and “Fwwwwooomp” – Instant walkway. I walked through, feeling simultaneously embarrassed at the attention, and elated beyond words that it was happening.
I tossed my itty bitty duffel bag onto the plane, swung the camera bag up, climbed up, and in 5 minutes we were gone.
They’d started up this noisy little air cooled V-4 Wisconsin motor like my Grampa had on his hay baler – but this was attached to a honking generator. (If you ever saw the NOVA: B-29 Frozen in Time special, it is this generator that broke free and started the fire.) They used the V-4’s generator to run the starter for the number 3 engine. Once that was running, they used the generator on that engine to start up the rest. I could see the tops of the cylinders vibrating a bit through the open cowl flaps as the propellers blew the smoke from starting those big radial engines away.
We taxied out to the runway, and I was treated to one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever been on.
But we didn’t just fly up to altitude, fly over, land… No, we played tag with the LB-30, buzzed a few airfields, and flew past – not over – Mt. Rainier. I hung out the side bubbles and shot up, down, left, right, directions you simply can’t see in a normal airplane.
There was a little stool that you could sit on that got your head up into another little bubble so you could see out the top of the plane. I sat on that and looked out there for a bit – until one of the crew members asked me to let another fellow up – who’d paid $300.00 for the privilege of this flight.
I’d completely forgotten that this might be something people would pay to do, much less be ABLE to pay to do. I got down and was just amazed at where I was and what all was happening. (remember, I’d gone on that $10.00 tour – which had used up a good chunk of my weekly grocery budget.)
As we came close to Mt. Rainier, I asked the crew back where I was if they could get the LB-30 between us and the mountain. They called up to the pilot, he called over to the other plane, and as he flew underneath us, I got some shots of the LB-30 beneath us with apple orchards beneath it
But then, then I got the shot of the only flying LB-30 in the world, taken from the only flying B-29 in the world in front of Washington’s tallest hunk of rock.
And… and it was kind of special…
The next thing I knew we were on approach to Yakima, and we buzzed the Yakima field once and then came in to land. I hurriedly said my goodbyes and explained I had to make a deadline. I found a huge bank of temporary pay phones (this was BC, before cellphones) and called the paper, got the photo department, and got the photo editor I’d gotten all stupid over less than an hour before.
“Hey, this is Tom, I’m here.”
“Here… Here? Where’s here?”
Billy Crystal couldn’t have said it better.
Which airport – what kind of a question was that? I mean, I’d just talked to him, I’d told him where I was going to be – where did he expect me to be?
“Well Yakima, of course.”
<more stunned silence… >
…and in a voice tinged with resignation, I heard, “I’ll have someone there to pick you up.”
Ten minutes later, a white Toyota, driven by the same photo editor I’d been talking to on the phone, arrived to take me to the paper, where while we chatted, the film was processed, edited, and then, with a press pass to the airshow, returned to me.
I didn’t really know what to do after the paper went to the printers – so I found a hotel, a Super 8, I think, for $35.00, had some dinner at a nearby restaurant, and went to bed.
The next morning I walked to a nearby Denny’s where I found a whole bunch of Air National Guard photojournalists who were covering the airshow sitting at a table looking at the front page of the local paper.
A picture of an LB-30 in front of Mt. Rainier.
The picture had made page 1.
We talked and laughed and told war stories to each other over coffee, and they, realizing that my car was about 150 miles away, kindly invited me to ride out to the airshow with them. They gave me a press pass, too. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store. I could go anywhere I wanted. I could get photos of planes I’d never seen before, or since. I could watch the aerial demonstrations of the A-10 Warthog, I could watch things blow up, and I could do it all from in front of the front row.
There was NOTHING between me and the airplanes – in fact, anyone taking pictures of the planes got the back of my head in the bottom of their pictures.
How unutterably cool.
I shot and wandered, and wandered and shot, got sunburned, had a cheap hot dog and chatted with pilots and crew and just had the time of my life, and when they started firing up some of those big engines to leave, I knew it was time for me to head out, too, so I walked into the terminal, found the Horizon Airlines desk, called Jimi to see if he could pick me up at SeaTac, and then bought a ticket back to Seattle for $45.00.
As we flew back, I saw the same scenery as I’d seen coming over, but it was different, and I was different.
Jimi came to pick me up when I got to SeaTac, and we talked and laughed as he took me back to Boeing field and the Museum of Flight where I’d left the Saab the day before. In a few days the paper sent me a check for $35.00 (the same that the Super 8 motel charged me.)
For the price of a flight back and a couple of phone calls, I’d had a weekend to remember, and the experience of a lifetime.
In this blog, I’ve been trying to write stories that have been “baked” – where I’ve spent the time over the years getting to that “aha” moment, where the laughter, the lessons, the tears have been learned, and I can share them with you.
This post is a little different.
I’ve been asked by a number of people to give “hankie warnings” on some of these stories, and in honor of that request, please consider yourself warned.
This post is a little more personal than the others, and it’s a number of stories, kind of intertwined.
As I write this – November 8th, it will have been 10 years since I spoke the words below, in front of a well-dressed, somber group of people who listened, who laughed and who cried.
I had been in that last category for ten months, and on November 8th, 2000, these people joined me there.
It was the day we buried my dad.
He’d been in the Air Force. He’d done his time in many countries. It was his time in the Air Force that had him meet my mom, that gave him stories of far-away places to tell, and that shaped my childhood. Some of those stories I’ve recalled in past posts, some are still, as it were, baking, and will be written when they’re ready.
I was at work on January 10th, 2000, when I got “the call”. Those of you who’ve been through this will understand what that means. It’s actually hard to describe the feeling to someone who hasn’t been there, but when I got “the call” – my heart froze, and given where I was, I did the only thing I could do…
…and then I wrote.
I didn’t know whether I’d ever get a chance to tell dad all the things I’d wanted to say over the years – and it seemed that if I was ever going to take the chance, that right then would be that chance, instead of saying all the things I wanted to say to him in a eulogy where he couldn’t hear me, and the words would be empty.
So I wrote a note to him that January afternoon. It’s included in what’s below – which, ironically, is the eulogy I gave for my dad, 10 years ago today.
= = =
That’s what it says there in your program that this is going to be.
But how do you put into a few words the life of a man who was a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a father in law, a grandfather, a teacher — and all those countless other things that a man is in his life?
I’m not going to go into the history of dad too much, you all can read that on the backs of your bulletins. We tried to get as much in there as we could. We’ll also have some pictures going in the fellowship hall so you can see a little more about who dad was.
But right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit about who dad is.
By now most of you know a bit about how this all came about, and for a number of you, the last time you saw him was in this very church on January 8th of this year at Tom McLennan’s Memorial Service.
Dad went into the hospital that night, stayed in ICU at Madigan until May, during which time he had a stroke and some other complications, and later was taken to Bel Air Nursing home in Tacoma, where he died last Friday.
I wrote him a note on January 10th, when things looked pretty bad, his heart had stopped the night before, and we didn’t know what was going on, since he’d walked into the hospital the night before that, and I tried to tell him what he meant to me. I’d like to read part of that note to you, because in a lot of ways, it tells a bit about the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the legacy that he left behind.
1:45 PM 1/10/00
It’s Monday, you’re in the hospital right now, and I’m praying for you.
I have to tell you a few things, just so you know them.
I love you.
– this is so hard to write…
I don’t want this to be the time to say goodbye, but I need to say a few things so that when the time comes, I can say goodbye knowing I’ve told you what I need to tell you.
You know as well as I do that there were a lot of things in our lives that haven’t panned out the way we’d planned.
Because of the time you spent away from the family in the Air Force and at school, I didn’t get a chance to have you around when I really needed a dad.
This doesn’t mean it was easy for you, in fact it was hard. I know now it was very hard for you as well.
But I want you to know that good has come out of that.
I try to spend time with my little boy now as a result, and I’m glad I was able to get my schooling out of the way before I became a papa.
Because you went away to school to improve yourself, I learned that sacrifice is sometimes necessary for future growth.
And good has come out of that.
I learned how much a son needs his father, and I try to be here for my son. So even though you felt very much like you were a failure, you weren’t. You taught me a valuable lesson, one that I will treasure always.
Because of the time you spent fixing things (and the time I spent holding the flashlight for you*)
*He’d ask me to hold the flashlight for him while he was working on something, and being a kid, my attention span was about as long as a gnat’s eyebrow, and so I’d be looking all over, shining the flashlight to what I wanted to see.
I learned how to fix things I never thought I could.
I also expanded my vocabulary during these times.
Because of the way you showed us responsibility, I was able to get a paper route and learn responsibility early, on my own.
Because you helped us deliver those papers on weekends sometimes, I learned that sometimes helping your kids to do the things they’re responsible for doing is a good thing.
Because of the way you told me to take things one step at a time, I was able to build pretty big things at Microsoft when I was there,, one step at a time.
And because you made things for me (like a train table)
and read to me (from Tom Sawyer)
and told me stories (like Paul Bunyan)
and sang to me (The Lord’s Prayer)
and took me to work (where I spun the F-4 Simulator)*
* — in the Air Force Dad was a flight simulator technician — he fixed flight simulators, and one time he took me to work, I think I must have been 5 or 6, and there was this whole line of these simulators — all just cockpits of airplanes, and he, as fathers are known to do, picked me up and popped me in the driver’s seat. I sat there, my eyes huge, as I saw all these dials and gauges in front of me, and it was just so cool and so complicated. — And there was this big stick thing in the way, so I pushed it off to one side so I could get a better look at the dials. I didn’t know that the simulator thought it was flying, and by pushing that stick over I made it think it was corkscrewing into the ground, and all the dials and gauges started spinning and I got so scared, I thought I’d broken it, and I looked out at him — he was standing right there, talking to someone else, and with fear and trepidation said, “Daddy?” — he turned around, took one look at what was happening, reached in and fixed it. Just like that. He fixed it. I hadn’t broken it. But he just reached in, and with one touch, he fixed it.
and showed me things, (like Wolf Spiders)*
When we lived in Illinois, we discovered that the spiders there are significantly bigger than spiders here in Washington.
So one time Dad was in the basement, doing something, and he called me down. He wanted me to see what he’d found under this can. So, being a kid and being curious, I squatted right beside it, and then picked up the can — to find the biggest, hairiest god-awful ugliest wolf spider I’d seen in my entire life. I jumped up and screamed, and dad was over there laughing so hard. I didn’t think it was funny then, but for years all we’d have to say was “wolf spider” it would bring the whole thing back, and we’d have a good laugh over it.
and surprised me with presents (like at Christmas in 1971 when you told me to clean up a pile of newspapers, and you’d put a bunch of toy trains underneath them)*
*He kept asking me to clean up the papers, but there was always another present to unwrap, another toy to play with, another cookie to eat — and finally, when the Christmas eve was finally winding down and we were cleaning up, I remembered the newspapers and started to clean them up — and underneath was a train set he’d gotten from somewhere, on a set of tracks, just waiting for a little boy to play with them.
and provided for me (helping me get my first Saab)*
*Many of you in this church may remember praying for that very car…
and went out of your way to help me (when that first Saab broke down)
– and the second Saab, — the third one (the fourth one’s out there, it runs fine)
and drove all the way up to Seattle to SPU when I was a student one Christmas to bring me a present — a radio controlled Porsche 928) when you knew it was the only thing I would get.
and visited me at work when I was able to show you where I worked and what I’d become professionally
And supported me in your thoughts and prayers as I became a father in my own right.
You showed me love.
And because you told me, I know you love me.
I love you too.
I read this note to him several times, never being quite sure whether it got across to him. In August, at the nursing home, I read it to him again, and he looked at me very intently while I read it, and as I finished, there was this look on his face, of peace, of contentment, of, “My job is done.” and for a split second, the stroke seemed to be gone.
He then took the note from my hand and read it himself.
And I know that he knew when he left that he was loved, he was cared for, he was appreciated, and that he would be missed.
We rejoice for him, we’re happy, for him, that this ordeal is over, but we’re sad for us, for the big, dad/Gary/grampa shaped hole he leaves in each of our lives.
– I was thinking the other day about the things I’d miss about him, and I’m sure there will be many to come, but the things that come to mind right now are the little things — and it’s always the little things, isn’t it?
The fact that he’d say “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” so often that we didn’t realize how important it was for him to be able to say that, and now, how important it was for us — the whole family to have him as a cheerleader in the background. There were times he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to do for us, and in his mind, he always wanted to do more — and the fact that he’s no longer in the background, just being there cheering us on — I’ll miss that. We’ll miss that.
I miss his meow — for those of you who don’t know, he had this way of meowing like a cat so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It drove us nuts — and we miss it.
I miss him greeting Michael and me with, “Hello Sonshine”
I miss seeing him snuggle my little girl Alyssa, in his lap, reading any of a number of books to her, and the look on her face that told me of the security she felt in those arms.
I miss him standing with mom, waving good bye to us as we left after a visit. — and no matter where we were, when we got together, he’d always thank us for taking the time to do that, to get together as a family, and to include him and he would always remind us, “You are loved.”
We miss him telling us “Remember, a fat old man loves you.”
I miss him yelling at us to shut the living room door. That’s the sound we grew up with. We’d run out, be halfway up the stairs, and hear, “SHUT THE DOOR” — of course, he hadn’t done that for years since he put a spring on it so it’d shut itself. But I miss knowing I won’t hear it again.
I miss him calling me up at night to tell me there was something interesting on Channel 9 that he wanted to share with me, even though we couldn’t be together, we could see it at the same time.
When I was growing up, and I’d be upstairs brushing my teeth late at night, I’d hear dad snoring downstairs, — a gentle snore (at least from upstairs) and I knew that that meant all was right with the world.
I’ll miss that, too.
And even though there are many things we’ll miss about him, I know he’s better off now than he was for the last 10 months.
Some time ago I had a dream — a dream of him essentially dying, and it didn’t look as bad as we all generally think of dying.
In my dream, he was laying there, his body all there, but kind of gray, and damaged. It looked like dad, but suddenly he broke free of that body, and he just kind of came up, there was this whole, healthy copy of him, in living color that kind of came out of him like a butterfly comes out of a cocoon, and he was free, he was whole, and he flew away, leaving the gray, damaged body behind him.
After Dad died, Petra was doing some thinking about what his death was like for him, and the image she came away with was this, that dad was in bed, in the nursing home, having just been sung to and prayed for by the love of his life. She laid down on the bed next to him to rest, and dad, who had had his eyes closed, suddenly could see her.
The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore.
His mind was clear, not muddled by a stroke.
His heart didn’t struggle.
His feet weren’t cold.
We imagine he looked around, saw the things we’d brought in to make him feel at home, saw his beloved wife laying there, who’d been with him for 41 years, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and with his new, whole body, then left the presence of his wife to be with his Lord.
During dad’s life, we all knew that no matter where we went or what we did, dad loved us, and I am convinced that up there in heaven, he loves us still.
When the service was done, we headed to what would be dad’s final resting place, and on that cold, clear day, the wind blowing the oak leaves around the cemetery, our family gathered around dad one last time as he was given a military funeral, with an Air Force Honor Guard from McChord Air Force Base, a flag, and a rifle salute.
We shivered as we took our places in the chairs under the portable gazebo they’d set up for us, with mom sitting in the front row. I walked away for a bit to clear my head as the ceremony started.
I’d seen the airman with his trumpet, trying to keep his mouthpiece warm on that cold day, and I knew he was going to play Taps – which I’d learned to play when I played the trumpet in junior high school, but I’d never had to play when it counted.
Taps, originally used to signal “lights out” in the military, eventually became the bugle call played at funerals, where it signaled – or symbolized – a final “lights out” for an individual.
I’d heard it played when my friend Bruce Geller died in 1978.
I’d heard it played when I, as a photojournalist, was covering the funeral of Lee Stephens, a sailor from the USS Stark that was hit by a missile on May 17th, 1987, and each time I’ve heard it, it has been like a knife in the heart for me.
It is a symbol of the end of a life, and of a loved one, where they make that transition from living in your life to living in your memories.
I remember, as I shot the funeral of Lee Stephens, how I wanted to honor the grief and sorrow his family was experiencing, but at the same time, I wanted to tell the story that this young sailor, from a small town in Ohio, who’d graduated just a few years before, had people left behind who still loved him.
I remember seeing, through the viewfinder of my Nikon, through a long, long telephoto lens, the look on this sailor’s mom’s face as the sergeant of the honor guard handed her the flag. It was a photo that, while it was “the” photo from a photojournalism point of view, I did not take. The moment was too intimate, the grief was too raw.
I remember her eyes, simultaneously exhausted, numb, disbelieving, and utterly spent as she accepted a flag from an honor guard member, “…on behalf of a grateful nation…”
In walking away a bit, I had unconsciously recreated the view I’d seen through that camera, the photo I didn’t take in 1987 at that cold cemetery 13 years later, and I was not prepared to see that look on my mom’s face and in her eyes
But I’d seen that look before, and knew what it meant.
We’d had 10 months to prepare for this moment, but the fact is, we all know we’re going to die. Being faced with it as “sometime” in the vague future is one thing. Seeing it in front of you in unblinking reality is something else entirely.
I saw the honor guard fold the flag as precisely as they could fold it
But this time, I wasn’t hiding behind my camera, trying to insulate myself from the pain of a mother who had lost her son.
This time, while I wasn’t a mother who’d lost her son, I was the son of a mother who’d lost her husband.
This time, I was a son who’d lost his father.
I understood things a little more clearly now.
I understood a little more about how much it means to sit in that chair, and have someone hand you a flag, in exchange for someone you love.
As if that wasn’t enough, it was then that they did the rifle salute. For those of you who have not experienced it, it is very much like a 21 gun salute. Retired military members who have served honorably receive a 9 gun salute, a volley where 3 soldiers fire off three rounds apiece. It is done as a sign of respect, of honor. For those not prepared for it, it can be shocking.
The call was made,
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Three fingers squeezed three triggers.
Three firing pins hit three cartridges.
Three cartridges fired and were ejected.
The honor guard was called to attention, and the command “Present Arms” was given so precisely – they all moved as one. Those without rifles saluted – those with rifles held them in the “present arms” position.
As the three shots echoed away, the only sound left was of those leaves, the movement of cloth, and the click of rifles being presented.
There was a moment where this was all we heard. Leaves rustling, coats flapping, and the stunned silence of those still not ready to let go.
It was then that the bugler, who’d clearly kept his mouthpiece warm, played Taps. He played it solemnly, clearly, and with the respect and honor due.
– and through the wind, I heard the sergeant’s words I’d heard years before, “on behalf…of a grateful nation…” drift across on the wind as he solemnly handed the folded flag to my mom.
And at the end of the day, as I watched them drive off, I found myself, in spite of the fact that I had my own family, a job, a mortgage, all the trappings of being an adult, I found myself crying, because underneath it all, I was a little boy who’d just lost his daddy.
I cried for the fact that much as I’d wanted to, there were things left unfinished.
I cried for the relationship that had at times been rough, but had started to mend.
I cried for the relationship that, like it or not, mended or not, was ended.
It is Veteran’s Day as this is published…
For those of you out there who are wearing the uniform, or for those of you who have worn it, with honor, you have my greatest respect.
For those of you who’ve lost your sons – like Mr. and Mrs. Stephens, who lost their son Lee, and so many others, and for those of you out there who’ve lost your daddies, my heart goes out to you.
For those of you who are still daddies, remember your kids only have one of you, and they only have one childhood.
It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing.
Take the time to be there for them while you can.
Love them. Hug them.
Veteran’s Day, 2010
A couple of things have happened recently that help me realize that you can’t make progress – in anything – unless you let go of something..
Two wildly divergent examples…
Some time ago, in Church, Pastor Dan told the story of another pastor who was baptizing a couple of boys, about 10 years old. The first boy got in, the pastor said the things pastors say at these kinds of events, he then supported the boy as he dunked him in the water.
That boy got out, there was applause, and then the minister looked to the other 10 year old and did this amazing double take, followed by said 10 year old doing a cannonball into the baptismal font, getting water all over the few parts of the minister that had remained dry after baptizing first boy, over the carpet around the baptismal, the microphone, the camera – everywhere.
There was no question as to whether this boy was going to be baptized, and like it or not, he was planning on taking a few people with him.
You know, in this instance, there was nothing wrong with that.
Now – shift gears for a moment – double-clutch, if you must… (this is going to be like going from 4th to reverse, at 55 mph).
At work I use a software program made by a little company east of Seattle that’s occasionally had a little trouble with the law back in the ‘90’s. I’ve used this program, or a very close variation of it since about 1998. That version of it fit me like an old slipper, or an old, very comfortable coat.
It was also woefully out of date.
It had been replaced by another version that, to be honest, I didn’t like. It was harder to use, it was cumbersome. Some people said it was fast, but it was just hard to use, and I didn’t like it…
To be honest, I went kicking and screaming into using the new version of the program.
I had both the new (icky) and the old (ahhh) versions of the program installed on my machine at work, and for some reason, the old one started throwing errors. And the thing is – they were the kind of errors that ended with some flavor of “contact your administrator…”
Unfortunately, that was me.
Seriously – I’m the guy people come to when there are errors like this – and they expect me to fix them… When it’s MY machine that’s throwing errors, it’s known, in technical terms, as “A bad thing.”
I was going to try to fix it by reinstalling it – which sometimes fixed things like this, but this time, it didn’t – and then I realized something that the second boy being baptized clearly had a grasp on.
I had to let go.
I had to let “it” go.
As long as I had that older program (my favorite), honestly, I was never going to learn the new one. I was always going to have an excuse to use the old one.
And if I didn’t learn the new one, I couldn’t move forward.
And so I uninstalled the old version, removing all shreds of its existence from my machine.
Back to young master Cannonball.
If he’d held onto anything – he couldn’t have made it into the water.
If he hadn’t made it into the water, he wouldn’t have been baptized.
And if he hadn’t been baptized, he would not have been able to move toward his goal, which was moving forward in his walk with Christ.
And thus… the cannonball.
Me? Well, my situation involved a lot less water, and a few more electrons.
Just in the first few days after I forced myself to let go of that old program. I learned so much.
I mean, in spite of how bad the User Interface (the part of the program you see and interact with) for the new program was, I could still write code for it like I was used to writing. When I say “writing code” – it’s computer programming code – for databases, not code as in “secret code” – and while it can be complicated to understand, the way you get it into the computer is just typing. I just had to get used to some of the new things you could do with it, or new things I could type.
It turned out that the new version of the program could indeed do new things, or old things in new ways. This was good, but it meant that code written in that new way wouldn’t run on the old version of the program.
With what I learned, I wrote smart code, so it would check to see what version of the program was on the machine it was running on (we had many machines with this program on it), and then run the code that was appropriate for that version (new or old). It was amazing. By doing that, I could learn the new code, let go of the old, but still keep the old machines running with this new, flexible code. I could write good, flexible code once, and then use the very same code to run on any of the machines we had, regardless of the version of the program that was running on it.
It was like learning a new language, but still being allowed to use the old one when you needed to.
I made progress in ways I would never have if I’d stayed in that – that very comfortable old coat.
It got me to thinking, how many of us hold on to what’s comfortable when we would be better off letting go of things that we don’t need anymore, or that we’ve grown past.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I completely suck at letting stuff go (one of the reasons my car is getting letters from the AARP)
This whole letting go thing? It’s an active thing, and there has to be wisdom involved (which I’m still learning about), but bottom line?
We have to actually do it.
In order to grow, to learn, we must learn to let go, while thoughtfully discerning what we must let go of, whether it’s old habits, grudges, material things, or sometimes even relationships that clutter our lives and hinder our growth.
Sometimes it means doing something fairly dull, like using a new program at work.
And sometimes it means doing something dramatic, like doing a cannonball into a baptismal font.