Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Wonder Years

This morning Sarah grabbed my hand and held it all the way from the car to the school and then all the way to her classroom.

The Student of the Month Ceremony was scheduled to take place in the gymnasium twenty minutes after school started. Sarah eagerly told me that because she was one of the award recipients, she would be allowed to sit with me during the ceremony. Then she added: "So don't sit in the top row!"

So I sat in the first row, and when her class entered the gym she spotted me and ran over and jumped into my lap. Only when I explained that I needed my hands free and my view unobstructed, in order to film the part of the ceremony during which her name was to be called, did she acquiesce to sitting beside me instead of on me.

Naturally, I was proud when she got her certificate and her teacher's words were read aloud: "Sarah is an amazing girl who works her hardest every day. She is meticulous and always striving to learn new things. I am so glad to have Sarah in my class."

But mostly, I was struck by a bittersweet sensation of happiness and sadness mashed together. Happiness from the fact that Sarah is meticulous and striving, to use her teacher's words -- and sadness from the knowledge that the days are surely numbered when she will hold my hand all the way to the classroom door and sit on my lap in front of her friends.

Lately that sensation has been clinging to me a lot. Two weekends ago I took her to see Mirror Mirror and it was a perfect Daddy-Daughter Day. And yet, sitting in my mind, not far enough back to be ignored, was the realization that before long she will want to go to the movies with her friends instead of her father.

Maybe I am thinking too much. Or maybe it is good that I realize how finite the wonder years always prove to be, since that awareness makes me appreciate them while they last. I just don't know.

What I do know is I dread the thought that there may come a day when I lose Sarah's hero worship for good. I know I can't stop it, and I know the odds are strong for us to remain close in deeper, more important ways in the future. But that doesn't make me feel any better when I look at my girl who I fear is seven going on seventeen...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day

Memorial Day exists not to honor our armed forces personnel in general, but to specifically honor those who have died while carrying out their duty to defend America.

From the first person who perished on Lexington’s village green in 1775 up to the most recent fatality in Afghanistan this very month, the list of the fallen is long and venerable. To observe past Memorial Days I have published letters that were written by soldiers during wartime. Here they are again.


This first one was from Sullivan Ballou, a major in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, to his wife. He was killed in the Battle of First Bull Run one week after writing it:

July 14, 1861

Camp ClarkWashington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly I would wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights…always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou


This next letter was written by Arnold Rahe, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, with instructions that it be delivered to his parents if he did not survive. He was killed in action shortly thereafter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Strange thing about this letter; if I am alive a month from now you will not receive it, for its coming to you will mean that after my twenty-sixth birthday God has decided I’ve been on earth long enough and He wants me to come up and take the examination for permanent service with Him. It’s hard to write a letter like this; there are a million and one things I want to say; there are so many I ought to say if this is the last letter I ever write to you. I’m telling you that I love you two so very much; not one better than the other but absolutely equally. Some things a man can never thank his parents enough for; they come to be taken for granted through the years; care when you are a child, and countless favors as he grows up. I am recalling now all your prayers, your watchfulness -- all the sacrifices that were made for me when sacrifice was a real thing and not just a word to be used in speeches.

For any and all grief I caused you in this 26 years, I’m most heartily sorry. I know that I can never make up for those little hurts and real wounds, but maybe if God permits me to be with Him above, I can help out there. It’s a funny thing about this mission, but I don’t think I’ll come back alive. Call it an Irishman’s hunch or a pre-sentiment or whatever you will. I believe it is Our Lord and His Blessed Mother giving me a tip to be prepared. In the event that I am killed you can have the consolation of knowing that it was in the “line of duty” to my country. I am saddened because I shall not be with you in your life’s later years, but until we meet I want you to know that I die as I tried to live, the way you taught me. Life has turned out different from the way we planned it, and at 26 I die with many things to live for, but the loss of the few remaining years unlived together is as nothing compared to the eternity to which we go.

As I prepare for this last mission, I am a bit homesick. I have been at other times when I thought of you, when I lost a friend, when I wondered when and how this war would end. But, the whole world is homesick! I have never written like this before, even though I have been through the “valley of the shadows” many times, but this night, Mother and Dad, you are so very close to me and I long so to talk to you. I think of you and of home. America has asked much of our generation, but I am glad to give her all I have because she has given me so much.

Goodnight, dear Mother and Dad. God love you.

Your loving son,
(Bud) Arnold Rahe


God bless them all, and may they never be forgotten.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Taste of Paradise

Erika and I made last weekend a long one by taking a Thursday through Sunday jaunt to Key West with some friends and family. Though I will be publishing several posts about that tropical isle on my travel blog, I want to share a few things here as well.

Living in the same state as Key West does not necessarily make it easy to get to, since it sits at the remote end of the Keys’ archipelago and is closer to Cuba than to Miami. From my home, the drive there is an hour longer than the drive to Atlanta, and it turns up some scenery that is surprisingly interesting given the land’s flatness. A section of I-75 known as “Alligator Alley” cuts straight across the Everglades, and if you look out your car windows you will be struck by how vast and wild that part of America is:

The southernmost 105 miles of U.S. Highway 1 travel from island to island, crossing bridge after bridge, and are collectively known as the Florida Keys Scenic Highway. The mainland breaks up gradually and it is not easy to discern when you actually leave it behind…but you will know you have arrived on the Keys when you see a sign announcing that you are on Key Largo.

The next large key is Islamorada, where we stopped to browse through World Wide Sportsman (a saltwater-focused branch of Bass Pro Shops) and enjoy an early lunch at the Islamorada Fish Company. Our table was outside, facing this view that put us in a vacation kind of mood:

On an interesting note, Western novelist Zane Grey must have lived in or frequented these parts, because an upstairs lounge in the store is named after him; and framed in the men’s restroom is an inventory of his fishing gear, written in his own hand.

But getting back to our destination, I feel compelled to say I believe the common view of Key West being a seedy place with a libertine culture is not warranted. I have been there more than once and find that libertarian is a much more accurate description.

One of the gripes conservatives have about liberals is that liberals are extremely intolerant of opposing views, despite the fact that they are constantly telling everyone else to be tolerant of them. In Key West, that kind of hypocrisy is simply not seen. Every sort of lifestyle and personality is on display here, including the traditionals, yet those wide differences seem never to lead to any bitterness or lashing out.

I saw no anti-Romney shirts for sale when we were there, but did notice that several shops were selling those shirts that show George W. Bush’s face over the caption “Do you miss me yet?” And I saw the shirt below being sold right on Duval Street, which, in case you don’t know, is basically the Bourbon Street of Key West:

Liquor and beer flow freely, and I saw one business whose signage about the services it offers left me thinking that it absolutely has to be a bordello. But many of the most beautiful buildings on the island are churches. The next photo shows Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, which was established in the 1830’s and has been in its current building since 1919:

From the back deck of the townhome we rented, we could see the twin spires of Saint Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Every hour on the hour, its bells ring out the time. One morning I was sitting out back by myself, drinking coffee without having bothered to check the time when I rolled out of bed, and I enjoyed counting the chimes to learn whether it was eight o’clock or nine o’clock. It felt like I was in a Longfellow poem, even though it is not 1862 but 2012, and even though I was not in New England but at the southernmost edge of the continental United States. Anyway, here is a picture of Saint Mary’s:

As you probably know, Ernest Hemingway spent approximately a decade in Key West, imbibing at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and churning out such stories as A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. God only knows how many tourists go to Sloppy Joe’s thinking they are following in Hemingway’s footsteps.

If you really want to follow those footsteps, however, you should steer clear of Sloppy Joe’s and visit Captain Tony’s Saloon, one block away. This is because for all except the final days of Hemingway’s time on the key, Sloppy Joe’s was not at its current location, but at the place Captain Tony’s now occupies. A sign outside says as much:

And the scene inside embodies the Bohemian decadence you would expect Hemingway to have enjoyed:

The real Captain Tony was one Tony Tarracino, a bootlegger’s son, boat captain, gun trafficker, and raconteur who was born in 1916 and opened the saloon in 1961. He ran for mayor four times and was elected on his third attempt, when he was 73 years old. Tarracino fathered thirteen children with eight different women, only three of whom he was married to -- but he remained married to his final wife for 38 years, all the way until he died in 2008, at which time his oldest son was 72 and his youngest was 22. Along the way, Tarracino became friends with Jimmy Buffet and was the inspiration for Buffet’s song “Last Mango in Paris.”

In other words, Captain Tony was precisely the kind of carefree swashbuckler you would expect to make his home on this remote outpost that sits in a sea that is not qute the Gulf, not quite the Caribbean, and not quite the Atlantic. It is God’s job, not ours, to determine whether the totality of his life made him a scoundrel or a saint. We should all simply appreciate that there are places like Key West, where the motto “live and let live” is taken seriously and every person is free to march to his soul’s own drummer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Past to present to posterity

In last Thursday’s post I gnashed my teeth over the fact that U.S. citizens celebrate Cinco de Mayo when it has nothing to do with the U.S. And over the fact that those same people believe it’s a Mexican holiday when, in reality, it is observed in only one of Mexico’s thirty-one states. I suggested that if Americans want an excuse to imbibe on May 5th, they should say they are celebrating the anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space.

That bit of kvetching has gotten me thinking about the deplorable state of our schools when it comes to teaching American history.

To be sure, it is bars and beer distributors, not teachers and principals, who are responsible for most of the hype surrounding Cinco de Mayo. But the education establishment is responsible for the fact that most Americans are more likely to know Mexico’s military once won a battle on May 5th than they are to know who Alan Shepard even was -- much less that May 5th was the day of his seminal achievement.

In President Reagan’s farewell address he said: “So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important…If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of that -- of the American memory -- that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

As is often the case, I agree with the Gipper, but in this lone blogpost there is neither the time nor space needed to recount the grand sweep of American history. Still, I figured this is as good a place as any to mention some of the major events that rarely get discussed these days, much less commemorated. So here they are:

January 1st: In 1914, the world’s first commercial airline flight took place when Tony Jannus piloted a Benoist XIV biplane from St. Petersburg, Florida (my home town!) to Tampa, Florida.

January 16th: In 1938, members of Benny Goodman’s band performed onstage at Carnegie Hall with members of Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s bands. It was the first time that elite white musicians and elite black musicians played together in such a high profile, public venue, and a recording of the concert became the first double album in world history.

March 23rd: In 1983, President Reagan went on TV and announced the Strategic Defense Initiative: a far-sighted plan to use ground- and space-based systems to defend the U.S. by identifying enemy missiles and shooting them down before they could reach U.S. soil. Although the initiative was lampooned as a fantasy by critics who referred to it as “Star Wars,” ex-Soviet officials have confirmed that it played a key role in the downfall of Soviet Communism.

April 9th: In 1865, the Civil War ended when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

April 18th: In 1775, under cover of night, Paul Revere left Boston on horseback to warn Massachusetts colonists that British forces were invading the countryside.

May 8th: The Nazis surrendered on this day in 1945, brining World War II to an end in Europe. For years afterward it was universally known as V-E Day (for “Victory in Europe”) but now that phrase is rarely if ever heard.

May 10th: Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, with the hammering of “the last spike” at Promontory Summit in what would later become the state of Utah. The track connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for the first time in history

June 3rd: Ed White (who graduated from the same high school as me!) became the first American to walk in space on this date in 1965.

June 6th: In 1944, U.S. and Allied forces stormed French beaches in the invasion known as D-Day. Commencing a sustained and ultimately successful attack against the occupying Nazi military, D-Day hastened the end of World War II in Europe.

June 7th: In 1942, precisely six months after Pearl Harbor, U.S. naval forces thoroughly defeated Japanese naval forces in the Battle of Midway. Referred to by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” Midway proved to be a key turning point in World War II from both a tactical and psychological perspective.

June 12th: Speaking at the Brandenbeurg Gate in 1987, President Reagan exhorted Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” 29 months later the Berlin Wall did fall when East Germany’s government succumbed to pressure and opened its gates.

June 26th: On the second day of fighting in 1876, the U.S. 7th Cavalry, commanded by General George Armstrong Custer, was completely wiped out by combined forces from the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indian tribes in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Not a single U.S. soldier survived in what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

July 21st: In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

August 7th: In 1998, 223 people were killed when terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden simultaneously bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Before that, bin Laden was almost unknown to the American public.

August 15th: Japan surrendered on this date in 1945, bringing all World War II hostilities to an end in what for years afterward was known as V-J Day “for Victory in Japan.” As with V-E Day (see above) the importance of the date has ceased to be noted on calendars.

September 3rd: The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War and officially ensuring the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain.

September 17th: The Battle of Antietam took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland in 1862. That Civil War confrontation caused more casualties (22,717) than any other in U.S. history.

September 23rd: In 1955, nine black students known as the “Little Rock Nine” entered previously segregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Racist violence ensued, and on the following day President Eisenhower deployed military forces to escort the students onto school grounds and ensure their safety. This proved to be a seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

September 30th: In 1935, with most of the construction already completed, Hoover Dam (then called Boulder Dam) was ceremoniously dedicated by FDR. It paved the way for prosperity in the Southwest by providing Arizona, Nevada and California with massive amounts of hydroelectricity as well as irrigation water for farms and municipalities.

October 14th: On this date in 1947, piloting an experimental plane, and in pain from two broken ribs that he kept secret for fear of being taken off the project, Chuck Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound.

October 19th: Following the Battle of Yorktown, British forces led by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American forces led by George Washington in 1781. This helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War in favor of the American colonists.

December 1st: Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger: an act of rightful defiance which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and became a rallying point in the Civil Rights Movement.

December 7th: In 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, seriously crippling the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet and officially drawing the United States into World War II.

December 17th: In 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the world’s first controlled, powered airplane flight at Kill Devil Hills, close to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Of course there are many other significant dates. And they connect all American generations to each other in a shared striving for freedom and excellence. Let us see to it that our story story is never forgotten and our circle is never broken.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

et ceteras

Saturday is Cinco de Mayo, which means it is a source of irritation for yours truly. This is the United States, not Mexico, so why do so many of us celebrate a battle between Mexico and France that happened 150 years ago? Even in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is observed only in one part of the country, namely, the state of Puebla...but here in the U.S. of A. it is celebrated in all fifty states even though it has nothing to do with us.

I know, I know. Americans don’t really observe Cinco de Mayo, we simply use it as an excuse to get drunk. But seriously, folks, if you want to get drunk do you really need an excuse? Just do it. If it makes you feel better to have an excuse, use a better one by saying that you are celebrating May 5th because it is the day Alan Shepard became the first American in space.

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Saturday is also the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, the one horse race everyone wants to watch even if they know nothing about the “sport of kings.” I have a time-honored tradition, dating back to my teenage years, in which I not-so-scientifically pick my three favorite horses based solely on what I think are the coolest names. I have yet to see a winner come out of my top three, though I have had some come close. If you care to know, my favorites this year are Sabercat, Liaison, and I’ll Have Another.

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Plus, Saturday is Revlon’s annual Run/Walk for Women, whose goal is to find a cure for women’s cancers. If you haven’t already done so, please consider making a donation to the cause by going here. The page belongs to my high school friend Candi and her sister Dana, who are participating in the event for the 14th consecutive year.

If you donated to the March for Babies, in which I participated last week, your support is very much appreciated. The team started by my friend Andrea, in honor of her late daughter Elizabeth, raised more than $8,000.

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Some people have always thought Barack Obama is a petty, petulant, dishonest gasbag. Others lapped up his fuzzy “hope and change” rhetoric of 2007 and 2008 for no other reason than they wanted to. I was recently caught by surprise over the fact that several media figures from the latter category have seemed to switch to the former. For examples go here, here, and here. Just be forewarned that the last link has lots of colorful language, in case you are offended by that sort of thing.

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Lastly, do you know that terrorists launched missiles into southern Israel this week? Probably not, because the MSM has not bothered to cover the story, but here it is if you care to read up on it. Which you should. Our media’s silence when it comes to one of the freest, most moral nations on earth being attacked by barbarians is, to put it mildly, shameful.