Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Long Stare

I saw it recently in the eyes of a young boy.
The long stare.
Every single one of us guys wants to be noticed and recognized by older guys.  I contend that a significant part of growing up is being seen as a man by other men.  At some point, we want to be welcomed into manhood by other men.
Ideally, this comes from our Dads, but sometimes that’s not possible.  In such situations, it falls to other men we look up to.  (Aside: I’d love to say that by age 56, this innate desire is gone…but in at least one 56-year-old guy’s case, that would not be true. )  In those settings, there is a huge, pressing need for men to recognize this desire in younger men.  And don’t miss the reality that we will find it somewhere.  Sports, bullying, gang membership, the local bar,…somewhere.  Again, us guys WILL keep looking until we find that validation & welcome.  Personally, I’m SO VERY thankful for older men along the way who filled this need in me after age 15 when my Dad died suddenly.
One guy in particular did this for me in a very big way.  But that’s getting ahead of our story.  Back to the young boy...
He came from a VERY bad family situation.  No Dad present at all, and a Mom who had her own troubles prior to being killed in a car wreck.  This boy was adopted by a couple in his extended family.  He came to live in a small town in southwest Alabama.  The adoptive family are great folks; hard-working country folks, very connected to all of their children, including the new adopted son.  They are faithful to their Lord and thus to their local church.
Shortly after moving to his new home, this boy met a retired teacher & a semi-retired farmer.  (Does one ever really “retire” from farming?  I have my doubts.)  They smiled at him & talked to him.  The semi-retired farmer would smile at him, talk to him, and give him a piece of peppermint or some other sort of candy.
I’m told the boy would get out of the car on Sunday mornings looking around for “Mr. Jimmy & Mrs. Mona.”  Can’t you see it?  I can.  A young boy who was abandoned & cast aside for the first few years of his life…who has been adopted into a great home…befriending a couple who were 60+ years older than he…and coming to REALLY enjoy his chats with Mr. Jimmy.
That welcome to manhood mentioned above?  He found it.  In the smile of a 70+ year old man of not many words.
Which brings us back to the long stare.
Just a few weeks ago, the faith the preacher speaks of in the boy’s church became sight for Mr. Jimmy.  It had become sight for Mrs. Mona a couple of years earlier.
So there we were, standing awkwardly around the chapel in the funeral home chatting about all sorts of random topics, which is what we do at funeral homes.  Death is MUCH too vivid for us to ponder, let alone talk about.  After all, the death of someone we know & love reminds us all of our own mortality.
The boy walked in with his adoptive Dad.  He walked straight to the open casket bearing the earthly remains of Mr. Jimmy.  And he stood there, staring.  He leaned on the casket much like guys lean on a fence when discussing the weather or college football or politics.
And he stared.
For a long time, he just stood there, leaning on his elderly friend’s casket and just stared.  No bogus theological musings as happen at such times & places, no deep questions for his Dad, no idle chatter.  Just the stare.
Only God knows the boy’s thoughts.  But I can imagine some of them.
“So this is what death looks like”
“This is why the preacher & my parents always talk about faith & Heaven”
“Wonder if anyone in this room desires Mr. Jimmy to smile one more time as much as I do, even though he doesn’t have a piece of candy right now”
And perhaps even something like this: “Now who’s going to talk to boys like me & welcome me and give me the manly legitimacy we all desire?”
His folks chatted with the rest of us a bit.  After some time went by, the boy walked over & leaned again as if chatting with a friendly neighbor and just stared again for another long while.
If I could’ve pulled it off without making people look away awkwardly, I’d have done the same thing.  One other guy in the room that night would’ve also.  Mr. Jimmy welcomed us & gave us manly legitimacy over the past three & a half decades.  He was always “Mr. Jimmy” to most, and “Daddy” to his two beloved daughters, and “Papa” to his treasured grandchildren…But to us two, he was our father-in-law whom we both love & adore.  As the boy was chasing his memories, I was chasing mine.
Guys, what younger man—or not-so younger man, for that matter!—is looking to you for validation as a guy?  If you’re a boy’s Dad, I’ll answer the question for you decisively: your son!  If, like me, your son is grown & out of the house, that may still actually be the answer.  If you’re not a boy’s Dad—or even if you are—look around.  We have an enormous crisis in America right now that cuts across racial & economic boundaries, in that we Dads are either asleep at the switch  or are not present in our sons’ lives.  Who do you have regular contact with who needs your acknowledgement?  Who needs you to notice them & talk to them?
And who will fix the long stare when you pass into eternity?
Thanks, Papa, for loving on William & me and for welcoming us into your family.  Thanks for showing us how to be men, for we both have needed that for years now for different reasons.  Thanks for the smiles & laughs & memories & stories.  Thanks for raising your baby girls the way you did, for they are now the wives William & I have loved for 30+ years now.  Thanks for growing in your faith such that you hit the finish line running.  Thanks for loving us.  See you soon!  By the way, say “Hello” to my Dad, will you?  In a BIG way, you helped fill the giant crater in my life created by his own faith becoming sight.  The boy?  I can nearly guarantee that decades from now he’ll still recall you & your impact on his life.  I like to imagine him as a grown man seeking out younger men of whatever age and building into and encouraging them just like you did for him.  On behalf of all us lost boys, thanks for that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Behind the parades & fireworks...

(adapted & updated from an earlier entry from a few years back)
6/25/1950 - North Korea invades South Korea.  A small conflict in a rather remote corner of the world...
Meanwhile, at a junior college in MS, this handsome young man with blue eyes & a great smile was arriving from Choctaw County in SW Alabama to go to school, and to play football on a pretty good JC team.
I believe it was the following summer that the entire football team--that's the entire team!—were activated into the military.  (They were all in the Reserves; full scholarships didn’t really happen back then).  They volunteered their services to go take a stand in South Korea because their country thought that was worth doing.
The details of that conflict & the countries who participated's motivations are murky.  Which is OK, as this is not a geo-political analysis of that war.  Or any war.  Today, 60+ years later, the Korean war has never officially ended.  There's a line of demarcation that's guarded on both sides, and official hostilities have been at a cease-fire for some decades now.
Back to the point of this entry: The young man from Choctaw County & his teammates scattered to various branches of the service & various training centers.  He trained to be a combat medic.  His training would unfortunately come in quite handy in the months to come in the combat-laden frozen wasteland that was much of the Korean peninsula, ca. the early 1950s.
He survived, thankfully.  (I say "thankfully" for reasons that will become clear shortly)  To his dying day, he was still a tough guy physically & emotionally.  Mentally, his mind began slipping gears during the last couple of years of his life.  Courage beyond what I can imagine, both during wartime and after coming home.  Worked building airplanes in Mobile, AL, before a hearing problem ended that job for him.  Married.  Had a couple of children.  When the hearing problem kicked into high gear, he moved his family back to Choctaw County.  He built the house they lived in on a pretty spot of land that he cleared off to raise cows & have a few horses for fun.  His youngest child "helped" him build, since she wasn't in school yet.  Ever met a softie who's worked with cows & horses for much of his life?  Me neither; they don’t exist.  I recall going to feed the cows with him some 25 years ago.  I was in my 20s, he was in his 50s...he tossed a big 100-lb sack of feed over each shoulder & away he went.  I tried to toss one over one shoulder; it didn't go well, & I was actively lifting weights at the time.  As I say, he was a tough guy.
I knew him pretty well for the last 35 or so years of his life; 31 of those as his son-in-law, who married the younger daughter who helped him build the house.
She has the same gorgeous blue eyes as her Daddy, plus the same hard work ethic.  She loves the land like he does.  She is as close to a Daddy's girl as a tough cattleman/soldier will ever have.  This particular cattleman/soldier was just crazy about his grandchildren, who added a dimension of tenderness to him during his last 30 or so years.  They, in turn, dearly loved their "Papa."
All of that said to say this: it's Memorial Day, a day on which we honor our military, as we should on a daily basis in my opinion.  But my challenge to each of us is to take the time to ask questions along the lines of "so, what was it like?" and then shut up & listen.  Or perhaps a step back from that emotional brink would be just to say "thank you" to them. 
A while back, I listened to some tell their stories on the radio while I was driving home; at times, it was rather hard to see.  (Must've been rain or fog or something...or something...)  One of the radio stories was another guy who was in Korea & as squadron commander ordered his best friend from back home to go do some recon; several months later, the guy found his friend about to die in a Chinese P.O.W. camp.  He buried his friend (& fellow P.O.W.) just minutes later on a hillside there in North Korea.  Another guy was just back from Iraq a few years back, where he was at the proverbial end of the spear, doing necessary-but-regrettable things outside the wire at night with his unit.  Some jackass HS acquaintance said to him shortly after he returned, "So, you're like a certified baby-killer now, huh?  What's that like?"  (If "jackass" is offensive & not the right word, there are others that are more offensive and perhaps more appropriate...)
Papa's Korea stories unfolded over several decades now, in small bits & pieces.  It seems that once he had a grandson, they unfolded a bit more rapidly & freely.  They were buried deeply within his memory, locked away until that glorious day when the swords are hammered into plowshares & spears into pruning hooks, at which point the stories will no longer be needed.  But they did spill out every now & then.  Mostly around Christmas.  Especially if Christmas is a cold one.  "I remember that Christmas we spent in the field in Korea..."  Usually a quick, short piece of a story, occasionally adorned with a picture or the worship bulletin from the Christmas Day service there.  Just little glimpses into the unspeakable horrors that we all (understandably) blow past on holidays like Veterans Day.  "I remember going around from sleeping bag to sleeping bag in the morning & checking to see who was still alive & who had either frozen to death or suffocated when the snow covered their face"..."See this little guy from the Phillipines in the picture?  I've seen him stack up North Koreans like rats using just his bayonet & knife"..."I remember seeing Chinese troops line up across the valley from us & just walk toward our lines, getting mowed down by our fire.  They figured we'd run out of bullets before they ran out of soldiers”…“I remember our unit’s machine gun barrel starting to bend due to excessive heat caused by shooting boxes of shells non-stop…”
I love the parades & the pageantry of Veterans Day.  I'm descended from a long line of patriotic types, in the best sense of the word.  And I married into that too.  As we shake hands with those who came back & have a moment of silence for those who didn't & as we celebrate victories they won...PLEASE take time to try to listen to them if they'll talk about it.  (I know others who won't; I certainly am not going to insist that they go back in their memories to the darkest days of their young lives!)  Try to fathom what seeing & experienced things like this small-town boy from Choctaw County AL experienced when he was in Korea does to one's soul & psyche.
I close with this.  A pastor I know in small-town north MS told me that when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out, he had several of his salt-of-the-earth tough guy farmers with families & homes & such come to his office, & sit just weep about memories they had locked away, never sharing them with anyone.  Not even their brides of 50+ years.  Seeing "Saving Private Ryan" triggered those memories & brought them to the surface.  My pastor friend said, through his & my shared tears, one guy who's a deacon @ his church & a very quiet, gentle, hard-working farmer shared that every Christmas, every birthday, & every family gathering of any kind brought clearly to mind the faces of German soldiers he killed in Europe in late 1944 & early 1945.   The guy said it always bothered him greatly that those young Germans would never experience marriage or family or owning a home or children or grandchildren...
That, ladies & gents, is so very often what's behind the sober salutes & pinning on of the medals & attendance at the squadron reunions & the faraway stares today.
>>Take 3 & 1/2 minutes<< & be humbled, blessed, & broken as today's soldiers honor their predecessors with a LONG overdue welcome home.
Thank you, Father, that you raise up men & women who put on a uniform & take an oath & undergo tough training in order to be willing to ship out to places like Normandy...North Africa...Saipan...Iwo Jima...Korea...Viet Nam...Afghanistan...Iraq...
Thank you for the freedoms we have, which have NEVER been free. 
Thank you especially that you've promised that day...that GLORIOUS, AMAZING day...when they will all hammer their swords into plowshares & their spears into pruning hooks & they shall remember war no more.  Until then, may we as a nation honor them and be as thankful for them collectively & individually as I am for Jimmy Mixon, "Papa" to me & my children.  Grant them all peace today, Father.
Gratefully & humbly,