Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Christmas Miracle

My grandfather passed away two months ago.  

I have wanted to write a post about him ever since, and there are a thousand things I want to say in that post, yet it remains unwritten for one very unmovable reason:  I have no idea where or how to start saying those thousand things.  When a man lives 81 years, has 39 direct descendants, and impacts not only his family but countless other people as well, how can you sum up his life in a handful of paragraphs?  You can’t. 

But I do not have that problem when it comes to writing about Granddaddy and Christmas, after the way they converged three years ago. 

Granddaddy’s love of God, family, and country; his zeal when talking about those things to anybody with whom he came into contact; his faith in the perfectibility of man; his irrepressible Scotch-Irish mischief; his unsurpassed diligence in everything to which he set his mind or his hands – those qualities will all be written about in time, but for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that in the last few years of his life they were cruelly stolen by Alzheimer’s disease. 

His mental sharpness started to dull about five years ago.  In 2005 his memory faded as well, and the fading was fast.  He carried on conversations with Nana without realizing it was her.  Remembering how she looked in their youth but not in the here and now, he said things like “I wonder when Peggy’s going to come home” while looking into her very eyes. 

When he and Nana arrived at our family’s 2005 Christmas Eve party, nobody expected to be recognized by him.  Because I did not want to confuse him by addressing him in a way that would suggest he was speaking to his grandson, and because I knew his recollections of battling the Nazis remained vivid, that night I simply called him “Corporal.” 

He asked if I was in the Army like he had been, and I told him I was not because of my diabetes.  I told him that we nonetheless had some similarities, because just like him, my last name was Stanton and my blood carried Scotch-Irish genes.  He nodded and said it was good to meet me.  He said I should come around again sometime. 

Everyone at the party walked a tightrope, balancing holiday cheer on one hand with the sadness of loss on the other.  The man we loved, who had known each of us by name just a year earlier, had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist. 

But as the night started to grow long, something sparked inside Granddaddy’s mind.  When most of us were assembled in and around the kitchen, he “addressed the room” and said it was great that we were there.  He did not specifically acknowledge that we were all family; however, when he looked at my Aunt Sharon, the third of his five children, a glint appeared in his eyes and he spoke the word “daughter.” 

He and Nana stood on the driveway as the party wound down.  I stood there too, as did several others, hoping to give Nana some sense of normalcy.  But it turned out that our presence was not needed, for while Venus shone brightly like the Star of Bethlehem, Granddaddy came back as if by magic.  Looking up at the Milky Way, he spoke to Nana by name and said:  “Peggy, I’m trying to remember the night we got married.”  Some minutes later, when he said goodbye to each of us, his face bore a look of recognition and for that moment it no longer seemed that there was a stranger trapped in his body. 

As his wife of 59 years drove him back to the house they had called home for 53 years, they talked about their life and their family and it was as if the dementia had never been.  After finishing that 45-mile excursion from rural Hernando County to urban Tampa, they sat up late into the night conversing and reminiscing and sharing life’s small but inimitable joys.  They lay down in bed like they had done so many times through the years, and for that one holy night Granddaddy was Granddaddy again:  John Stanton, Jr., child of the Great Depression, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, pastor, proud but humble, flawed but good.

When the sun rose, the dementia was back and my grandmother's husband, as she knew him, never returned.  But they had gotten that one last night together on Christmas Eve, and had gotten it after everyone assumed it was not possible.  As Nana said:  “That was my Christmas miracle.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice

Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold:  Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Couldn't Resist

I know that when it comes to my skepticism about global warming, I recently said “I’ll try to set this topic aside.”

Well, I couldn’t pull it off because one week after it snowed in New Orleans, it snowed in Las Vegas. In case you missed it, 3½ inches fell on the city between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, piling up on the strip itself.

Although snowflakes are not unheard of in Vegas, accumulations average just ½ inch per year and this week’s snowfall brought the heaviest single accumulation since 1979.

To quote myself from my November 18th post, all I ask is that global warming’s believers stop acting as though its skeptics are a bunch of closed-minded n’er-do-wells whose opinions have no basis in evidence.

Now, I will try again to set this topic aside.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Carol Born

When it comes to carols, I have always found “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to be especially poignant (if you're not familiar with it, you can listen to it here.)

It did not begin as a song, but as a poem written on Christmas morning 1863 by America’s greatest poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. At that moment in time America was torn apart and battling itself in the Civil War – a war that still stands as the one in which more Americans died than in any other.

When dawn broke that morning, Longfellow was despondent. During the war his son Charles had been horrifically wounded when a bullet passed through part of his spine, leading to a long and excruciating recovery. And as if that wasn’t dark enough, his wife Frances had died as a result of burns sustained when her clothes were set on fire by dripping sealing wax, which she was melting with the intention of using it to preserve some of their daughter’s trimmed curls.

But despite that sorrowful backdrop, as Longfellow sat in his Massachusetts home on Christmas and heard the ringing of local church bells, his faith in divine promise started to stir and he was moved to put pen to paper. The resulting poem was transformed into a hymn nine years later, when John Baptiste Calkin composed the music to which it was set.

The poem’s words absolutely speak for themselves. Since some of them are excluded from the carol we normally hear this time of year, here they are in their entirety:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Had to Mention It

Here and here I gave reasons why I am not on on the global warming bandwagon. Then, it snowed in New Orleans last Thursday and broke the city’s record for earliest snowfall by 11 days. That is especially notable when you consider that New Orleans has a subtropical climate and sits below sea level in a place where the white stuff is extremely rare: In the 158 years prior to Thursday, it had snowed just once every nine years on average.

While I’m at it, I might as well add that I have now scraped ice off my Florida windshield six times in less than two months, and since the beginning of November I don’t remember a single week when my car’s on-board temperature gauge did not record outside temps in the 30’s at least once on my way to work.

And did I mention that winter still hasn’t started?

Now, I’ll try to set this topic aside.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nothin' Could Be Finer Than To Be In Carolina

Two months ago I said I had taken “5 days of much needed R&R in the mountains” and would “soon (be) writing about those mountains and how they’re good for the soul.” So I guess it’s about time to follow through.

To make a long prologue short: Back in April me and some friends went backpacking on Georgia’s Pine Mountain Trail, as a precursor to greater things to come, and in July we decided to take another precursor trip in October. We decided we’d go to North Carolina and stay at my family’s cabin the night before hiking, which would save us the expense of renting a place the night before (hey, it’s a long drive from Florida so you have to spend a whole day commuting and start hiking the next).

Not long after that decision was made, we called an audible and decided that because there was no cost for the cabin, we would skip the backpacking part of the trip. Instead, we would go on long hikes every day but always return to the cabin to grill out and have a real roof over our heads.

Unfortunately, as October neared, overextended vacation time prevented several people from coming. Our party of five shrunk to a party of two, but my friend Mike and I were not to be deterred. We set off at 4:00 on a Wednesday morning and were on the other side of Atlanta by lunchtime.

In a stroke of genius, we stopped in Sylva, North Carolina, to down a few beers. A little less than an hour from the cabin, Sylva has a picturesque downtown situated below this courthouse:

Relaxed by the beers, we left town, stocked up on groceries, and arrived at the cabin before dark. Among the most important groceries were these:

The next three days brought absolutely perfect weather, with daytime highs in the upper sixties, nighttime lows in the fifties, and barely a cloud in the sky. On Thursday we conquered a rewarding stretch of the Appalachian Trail by climbing from the shore of Fontana Lake to the top of Shuckstack Mountain, where a fire tower allows those who brave its rickety steps to view a panorama that really is breathtaking. In this south-looking photo, everything on the far side of the lake is in Nantahala National Forest and everything on the near side is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

A rocky bluff about 10 or 15 minutes below the summit offers a fantastic view looking west. This picture of it should give you a sense of how small and insignificant we are in the world’s grand scheme:

I have to point out that the local animal life must be respected on this section of trail. For one thing, we both got stung by bees. For another, here is the sign that was at the trailhead:

Following that leg-scorcher of an undertaking, we decided to take it easy Friday and drove to the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a lunch of chili and beer. Afterwards, we sat on the deck of the cabin, surrounded by leaves that were starting to turn, facing a gorgeous mountain view, and spent the entire afternoon drinking beer and reading books. For dinner, we gobbled down leviathan-sized steaks. Mike aptly described the day as having been “glorious.”

We quickly realized that as much as we like the adventure of hiking, the trip’s main purpose was to relax. Work had been especially chaotic and burdensome for each of us, and unplugging from it was a relief, so instead of spending Saturday tackling the 12-mile hike we had planned, we opted to duplicate the glories of Friday.

Which is not to say we sat on our asses all day. We located a spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses narrow Upper Tuskegee Road, and walked it to Cable Gap Shelter and back for a round-tripper of just under 2 miles. Along the way, we got stung by bees again – the bastards! Here is a picture of the shelter, along with an old-timer and his dog who were resting there after having made the walk themselves:

Once that walk was over, we were back on the cabin's deck drinking beer and reading books and soaking up the postcard quality of early fall. For dinner, we ate steak yet again.

On Sunday we loaded the car, left the mountains, and returned to the uninspiring flatness of Florida. Though we didn’t like going back to Florida per se, we were happy to see our families again and very happy to be in a rested and rejuvenated state of mind when we did. It’s important to decompress, and if you haven’t made time to do it in a while, I encourage you to.

Last – but far, far from least – here is that cabin my father bought in 1984 and which I have always considered my home away from home:

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Never Forget

Pearl Harbor Day is upon us, so let us recall what happened 67 years ago. The day after the bombing, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress on December 8, 1941, to request a formal declaration of war. His speech was simulcast to the country at large via the radio. In it, he said:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack…

Yesterday the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island.

And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island…

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves…

Always will be remembered the character of this onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

Pearl Harbor was attacked because it was where the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet was headquartered. The bombing, which killed more than 2,400 people, began shortly before 8:00 on a Sunday morning.

Five of our eight battleships were sunk, the other three were badly damaged, and multiple other naval vessels were destroyed.

The majority of the American war planes based in Hawaii were destroyed as they sat on the ground.

In addition, most of the American air forces based in the Philippines were destroyed during the nighttime attack on that nation, which FDR also mentioned in his speech.

By crippling our Pacific defenses, the December 7th attack left us extremely vulnerable in the face of an aggressive enemy to our West – an enemy that had signaled its intent to rule the entire Pacific basin by subjugating other nations to its will.

This came at a time when we had not responded to the fact that Nazi Germany to our East had already declared war against us, had already brought most of Europe under its thumb, and had signaled its own intention to rule the world by way of an Aryan resurrection of the old Roman Empire.

Such circumstances would have spelled doom for the vast majority of countries throughout the course of history. With their foundations based on the accidents of ethnicity and geography, most countries would have simply surrendered; or, in a distinction without a difference, entered into “peace” negotiations under which they would have to accept the aggressor’s terms and after which the lives of their citizens would most certainly change for the worst.

But the United States is a nation based on ideals. Our foundation springs from the knowledge that there are things greater than us, things which are greater than the transient circumstances which exist on any given day. We have always found strength in the conviction that our nation exists to support and advance those greater things, to the benefit of people all over the world, and this sets the United States apart from all other nations in all other times.

Taking heed from FDR’s appeal to “righteous might,” reflecting what Abraham Lincoln earlier referred to as the “faith that right makes might,” the American people of 1941 summoned the invincible courage to rebuild and fight at the same time they were under fearsome siege. They did this despite the fact they were still suffering through an unprecedented economic depression that had started more than a decade before.

Let us pray that those qualities – that will to power and that unwavering belief in the sanctity of human freedom – have not been lost as new generations of Americans take the baton from the great ones which came before. For as has been said, those who forget the past will be forced to repeat it.

It would be shameful if history were to record that we failed to transfer freedom’s blessings to our descendants.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Updates, Predicitions, and a Clarification

In my very first post I wrote about brutality in Zimbabwe leading up to a sham run-off between dictator Robert Mugabe and would-be reformer Morgan Tsvangirai. Though the two later agreed to a power-sharing deal, Mugabe, from what I can tell, is not living up to it. Meanwhile, inflation has reached 231 million percent, a loaf of bread costs two million Zimbabwean dollars, and lack of sanitized water has triggered an outbreak of cholera that is now spreading to other countries while we fiddle. And about those two million Zimbabwean dollars: That amount is equivalent to just one dollar in America.

In August I wrote that Russia’s imperialist impulses are reawakening, Soviet-style. Since then, Russia’s navy has conducted joint maneuvers in the Caribbean Sea with Venezuela’s navy, marking the first time the Russian Navy as been present in that part of the world since the Cold War ended. And just today, Russia announced that one of its destroyers will sail through the Panama Canal for the first time in more than 60 years and dock at a former U.S. naval base in a symbolic show of power. Can anybody say "thirteen days?"

Last month I wrote about a few of the reasons I am, to say the least, skeptical about the notion of global warming. In that post, I mentioned that twice recently I had scraped ice off my windshield, despite living in Florida with Thanksgiving yet to arrive. Well, it has happened two more times since that post, including this morning, when the ice was so thick that my sunroof and one of my rear windows would not open – and the beginning of winter is still more than two weeks away!

Who will win the SEC Championship Game? Alabama. They play strong, straight-ahead, power football, whereas Florida seems to place too much focus on schemes and formations. The old smashmouth style has always tended to prevail against newfangled ones, and I think this year will be no different.

Who will win the Big 12 Championship Game? Oklahoma. It’s tempting to predict that Missouri will upset them when you consider that the success of their season depends on it, and when you consider Bob Stoops’s tendency during the last half-decade to fall flat once the regular season is over. However, this year’s Oklahoma squad looks to be for real, and I think Stoops will prove that his old nickname – “Big Game Bob” – still applies.

Three days ago, I wrote that the SEC is a better conference than the Big 12 for one reason: They play better defense. I want to clarify that the difference between the two conferences is so razor-thin that, were it not for the sole issue of reliable defense, I would place the Big 12 well ahead of the SEC this year. Frankly, there are more teams in the Big 12 that deserve national rankings than there are in the SEC; however, I just can’t get past those high-flying scores that remind me of WAC games from the 1980’s.