Memorial Day Walk with Heroes – Respect Their Sacrifice and Each Other

Memorial Day Honoring Tuskegee Airmen
Memorial Day Honoring Tuskegee Airmen

I just finished watching my favorite annual show – The National Memorial Day Concert.  But this year it was different.  Unlike other years, the show was not live in front of a large crowd because of the current pandemic.  Despite being apart, the stories, speeches, and songs of the soldiers that sacrificed their lives for this country served to unite.  And served to remind us we are all in this together.  Also, how important it is to respect the sacrifice of our fallen by being kind to each other and working together to defeat today’s silent enemy. 

I believe one of the most improbable goals in human history was undertaken by our founding fathers and mothers when they established this country.  A country formed for the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But the experiment is fragile.  Too often in today’s time, we do not listen to our fellow Americans.  To see their side and to honor their equal right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.  Indeed, there is too much me and not enough us.  And it is a disgrace to the sacrifices that these brave service men and women gave.  They gave all for us.  Can’t we honor their memory by at least listening to the ideas of our fellow Americans and engage in Civil Discourse?

We all must endeavor to see in shades of grey.  To listen with open ears and understand what the other side is saying to honor the memories of our fallen.  Indeed, it is fitting that the uniform of the United States Military Academy is Grey.  Life is seldom Black and White.  It is grey!  And it is our responsibility to diligently discern the grey by nurturing this fragile dream of democracy and listening to our fellow Americans.   To hear a compelling podcast on this topic from a guy pleading to you as I do, listen to Dan Carlin’s Common-Sense podcast linked here Common Sense – Shades of Grey.

A few years back, I walked 50 miles in honor of Veterans.  It at the time seemed an “improbable goal”.  But what is more improbable, is that a citizenry of people of every creed and race giving their lives for a single idea.  So today as a plea for all of us to get along and work together to defeat this pandemic, I take you through a virtual 50-mile walk with each 10-mile marker in honor of the fallen in the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

Mile Marker 0 to 10.  Army.  Col. Richard (Dick) McEvoy.   I will start with the person that I know best.  Richard (Dick) McEvoy, USMA class of 1980, was KIA in Afghanistan on August 22nd, 2015 while training the Afghani police. He was a contractor with DynCorp after serving 28 years in the service. Col McEvoy (then Captain) and I served together. He was the epitome of the USMA motto: Duty, Honor, and Country. He was the S-3 and I was the S-2. I also worked with him when he was the Commander of A Company. His company always got the highest scores in inspections and had astounding Esprit de Corps. I looked up to Dick and he was a role model as a calm, no nonsense commander that balanced mission and troops.  He went on to train other soldiers as the Commander of the National Training Center.   Here’s more about Col. McEvoy here McEvoy Memorial

Mile Marker 10 to 20. Navy. LAUREL BLAIR SALTON CLARK, M.D. (CAPTAIN, USN), NASA ASTRONAUT.  Service is not confined to battle in wars, but also advancing the cause of freedom through the courageous act of exploration.  Captain Clark perished in Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003 while reentering the earth’s orbit.  I remember it like it was yesterday since she perished near Palestine, Texas where the Space Shuttle broke apart upon reentry.  She advanced the US Space mission by conducting over 80 experiments.  She also had a distinguished career in the Navy prior to her mission.  Her squadron won the Marine Attack Squadron of the year for its successful deployment.  She represents the brave women that defend our country and advance the cause of freedom.  Nearly 200 women have been KIA in Afghanistan and Iraq alone.  Read more about Captain Clark here Captain Clark

Mile Marker 20 to 30. Coast Guard. Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Brandt Bruckenthal. The Coast Guard is a crucial branch of the Armed Services. They defend our country and embark on humanitarian missions that serve our country and advance our image. Petty Officer Bruckenthal was a damage controlman, who with two U. S. Navy sailors were killed in the line of duty while conducting maritime intercept operations in the North Arabian Gulf.

Bruckenthal and six other coalition sailors attempted to board a small boat near the Iraqi Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal. As they boarded the boat, it exploded. Bruckenthal later died from the wounds he sustained in the explosion.  Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guard member killed in action since the Vietnam War.  His service as well as others in the Coast Guard such as our family friends the Lawrence’s advance the cause of freedom by defending our coasts.  Read more here about Petty Officer Bruckenthal here Petty Officer Bruckenthal

Mile Marker 30 – 40.  Marines.  Ira Hayes.  Ira Hayes was a Pima Native American who was immortalized both in the statue in Washington as he lifted the flag on Iwo Jima during WWII but also in one of my favorite songs by Johnny Cash called the Ballad of Ira Hayes linked here Ballad of Ira Hayes.   Ira did not die on the hills of Iwo Jima but back in the country he defended.  He represents all the Veterans that defend us with all their hearts, guts and souls but when they return we do not care for them adequately or honor their sacrifice.  He is memorialized in a statue; let us remember him in our hearts and our actions as we care for the cause of the Native Americans.

Mile Marker 40 – 50.  Air Force (Army Air Corps).  The fallen of the Tuskegee Airmen.  The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name of a group of African-American military pilots (fighter and bomber) who fought in World War II. They formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces.  They have been immortalized in the movie Red Tails and they went on to produce 3 Generals in the Air Force – Daniel James was appointed a brigadier general by President Nixon for keeping his cool in the face of Qaddafi’s troops, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the original commander of the 332nd Fighter Group and the first black general in the U.S. Air Force and Lucius Theus, who retired a major general after dedicating most of his 36-year career in the Air Force.  They were one of the most decorated units in WW II and had an amazing record against the German Luftwaffe.  This group of the first African American Aviators fought valiantly in WW II even though they did not have rights in the Jim Crow South.    66 of the 450 Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in WW II, dying for a country that did not accept them in some areas.  Read more about the importance of memorializing these great Americans and others on Memorial Day here in a letter from the Tuskegee Airman Institute President Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Letter.

Our journey of 50 miles on Memorial Day demonstrates the resilience and sacrifice of the men and women of this nation.  Immigrant or native, white or black, men and women -each gave the ultimate sacrifice.  The least we can do on this Memorial Day is to listen to one another with respect and support this fragile goal of Democracy!  We are all brothers and sisters with one idea – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  So, the least we can do is to love and understand one another!

Washington’s Rules of Civility Revisited for Today

George Washington when he was 16 wrote out 110 rules of civility to guide his life. Washington originally wrote down the rules presumably as an exercise in penmanship but later committed them to practice and memory. They helped develop the decorum, civility, and courage that guided Washington through war and the birth of this nation. You can read the Washington’s Rules of Civility here Washington’s Rules

The rules originally composed by French Jesuit priests in 1565 range from the practical to the profound.  At the root of the rules is respect and civility toward friend and foe.  Rule 1 lays this idea out perfectly with the words:  “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present”.  Many currently in the public sphere would do well to take this rule to heart!

Most of the rules have application today.  One of them that I found particularly compelling is Rule 18:  “Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unasked also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.” 

The letters, books, and papers in Washington’s time are the cell phones, twitter feeds and social media today.  Here is a brief update of Rule 18 refined for today’s technology.  “Do not look at your cell phone or multitask while in the company of others, whether it be in person or Zoom.  Put your cell phone in silence mode and only look at it in an emergency after asking permission.  Do not stalk or gaslight your colleagues on social media.  If your opinion differs, comment in a civil tone grounded in fact!” Let’s break it down further.

1.  Put Your Cell Phone Down.  We are tempted to pull out our cell phones at the drop of a hat.  Many of our conversations become nothing more than a battle of dueling cell phones.  With information at our fingertips, it is even more important to listen with full attention to your colleague, instead of trying to one up them with the trending twitter feeds.  Washington knew the importance of being attentive even when the equivalent to today’s social media posts were the dueling pamphlets of competing patriots!

2.  Do not stalk, talk.   It is easy today to form a preconceived opinion of someone from stalking their social media feed or what others say about them online.  It is also possible to ruin a person’s reputation by adding fire to gossip or rumor.  Instead of forming an opinion from second-hand thoughts or unclarified comments, build your judgement of a person’s thoughts and character through direct dialogue. Peering into one’s media presence out of context is like ‘looking nigh when another is writing a letter’ in Washington’s time.  Look not nigh, look them in the eye!

3.  Guard Your Opinions with Reason and Civility.  It is easy to react with emotion when someone writes something you disagree with on social media.  Resist the urge to do so.  If you feel you must post your opinion, do so factually and civilly.  Better yet, pick up a phone or meet the person you disagree with to understand the context.  I recognize there are times when the other person may have not acted with respect or is gaslighting you.  Resist the urge to fight fire with fire.  Instead dowse the fire with the cool water of reason and civility.

Rule 18 is just 1 of Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility.  Most still resonate today.  For example, just think how better off some politicians would have been if they followed rule 2:  “2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.”  Some of them may be of a bygone era but not many!  I encourage you to read Washington’s Rules of Civility.   What the world needs now is more civility, respect, and courtesy.

Elvis and the Pandemic

Two songs sung by two Elvis’s are my go-to’s during this Pandemic. Both speak of driving through hard times with hope around the corner. They acknowledge the pain while seeking the future.  And my favorite part.  You can belt them out with a beer in hand after a hard day.

The first one is from that other Elvis, and truth be told my favorite Elvis – Elvis Costello.  Unlike his other hits, he did not write this one (Nick Lowe did) but Elvis does the best rendition – “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” . For you have not hear it, here is the official version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ssd3U_zicAI.

I once listened to this song on repeat at least 20 times after a hard week.  The first verse and the chorus tell the story:

“As I walk through this wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, “Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?”

And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?”  Lyrics Nick Lowe

Every time I read a friend attacking another friend on Facebook in some political fight or hear about the loss of another brave soul I ask myself the same question in the first verse. But then catch myself and realize that the peace, love, and understanding lies within me. Our soul longs for peace. We just need to cling to it and understand that everyone carries pain. It is up to you to bring inner peace, to show love to your friends and enemies, and understand the pain and hope of others. Rise to the occasion, extend a hand and be the peacemaker.

The second song is by the THE Elvis – Elvis Presley. This song was sung for the first time in Elvis’s Comeback Concert in 1968 at the end.  It was written by Walter Earl Brown and came 2 months after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  It also contains some MLK quotes.  Only 5 at the time, I still remember it.  Here are some of the words. 

“There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true,

Oh why.

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear

We’re lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We’re trapped in a world
That’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly”

The Elvis’s sang the truth!  What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?  Absolutely NOTHING!  Is there a light shining brighter somewhere? It is in our grasp.  If we choose to live, love, learn and lead!  

Here is my attempt at channeling Elvis.

Not Elvis but maybe not bad. Be the brighter sun! 

NYPD Blue

23 died when the towers fell,

You left your families, walked through hell,

For a cause both righteous and true,

Selfless sacrifice of the NYPD Blue.

42nd street was a mess,

And so was Times Square,

In the eighties,

Before order was there,

You built back a city,

Where dreams again flew,

You restored it,

The officers of the NYPD Blue.

The whole world took notice,

At the work you had done,

And sought to learn,

How the streets were won.

How soon they forget,

What is undeniably true,

New York is not New York,

Without the NYPD Blue.

Hope in Hamilton!

I have hope in Hamilton! I have hope in humanity! I have hope in the USA!

This July 4th I watched patriotic, uplifting musicals from dawn to dusk.  Hamilton, followed by Sound of Music, followed by Hamilton, followed by Yankee Doodle Dandy, followed by Hamilton yet again. Then I read on CNN an opinion piece that Hamilton did not age well.  In my best Lin Manuel during Cabinet Battle #2 “Are you out of your ### #### mind”.   Here are five reasons Hamilton is quintessential American, quintessential human, and resonates and resounds.

1. Hamilton is a work of staggering genius!  I love anyone who can take a tome like Chernow’s Hamilton and turn it into a work of artistic genius.  Do not get me wrong.  I read Chernow’s Hamilton from cover to cover and as a history buff, I loved it.  But how Lin Manuel could turn that book into 20+ songs ranging from rap (Hamilton, Not Giving Away My Shot, etc.) to ballad (Quiet Uptown, Burn) to Pop Song (Helpless, Schuyler Sisters, Wait for It), to Broadway classic (All King George songs) is beyond me.  And just so you do not think I am confining to my enthusiasm to this blog.  I stood up at the beginning of intermission at Hamilton and embarrassed my kids by shouting “This is a work of staggering genius!”.  This got some head turns but mainly high fives from those around me.  Lin Manuel is a modern-day Shakespeare!  So, take that CNN!

2.  Immigrants, we get the job done!  This country was built by immigrants.  Hamilton is the prototypical immigrant, who built this country.   He was young, scrappy and hungry, and refused to give away his shot! My Great Grandfather Charles Henry came here during the Irish Potato famine and built a life in the US.  He built a life by the sweat of his brow and love of this country.  One thing I will always remember is he tried to enlist at the age of 50+ during WW II and was denied due to his age!  My great uncles fought with Patton in WW II.   We are a country of immigrants that get the job done!    Read my blog from a past July 4th on the topic here: America the Beautiful But Broken: A Prescription and a Promise (Re-post)

3.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I get the gist of the CNN critique of Hamilton.  Yes, the founding fathers punted on the question of slavery.  But I do not agree that they should not be celebrated.  Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and others set in motion this fundamental truth.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  They were men of their times but had the moral courage to set in motion a belief that resounds through history.   We as humans are fallible.  But as humanity we progress.  Only when we forget the creator, and the fact that there is something that bonds us together beyond the color of our skin do we diverge from the arc of justice. Fight for the arc! Bend, love and do not break.

4.  Diversity in opinion, breeds innovation and progress.  One thing that really resonated in Hamilton was the diversity.  The play had diversity of race, but I am talking about the diversity in opinion of our founding leaders.  I absolutely love the diversity expressed in the Cabinet Battles and the whole play.  We are free to express our divergent opinions in the USA.  They drive us forward, even at times we may take a step back.  But please in Civil Discourse not in duels. Barbara Jordan taught me Civil Discourse Ms. Jordan’s Lessons on Civil Discourse  No more Quiet Uptowns.  Let us resound the valleys and peaks with liberty and love!

5.  Last reason is personal.  I love Hamilton.  I love the genius of our nation.  That despite the fallibility of human nature, that we progress.  We love.  We wallow in angst but lead.  I love this country with all its flaws but most of all its genius.  I HAVE HOPE IN HAMILTON!!!!!!

Love this Country!

I love this country,

more and more,

From the Rockies’ peak,

To Grand Canyon’s floor!

I love this country,

Yes, it’s true!

Whether in a Red state,

Or one that’s Blue.

Watch West Side Story,

Or Hamilton.

Let’s pull together,

And act as one.

March the streets,

Have your say,

But let’s come together,

At the end of the day,

And love this country!

Love it true,

And wave it proudly,

The Red, White and Blue.

Don Grier, July 2, 2020

The Lessons I Learned When Running Away

Some of the most important lessons we learn from our Fathers are those during time of conflict.  It is inevitable that a son and his Dad will have a confrontation as a son grows to a man.  A good Dad  turns that confrontation into lessons that the son takes with him for a lifetime.  On this Father’s Day, I recall one confrontation and what my Dad taught me.

When I was 16, I made the rash decision to run away.  I was distressed that I was moving away from my home in New Jersey and losing my friends.  It was understandable in some respects.  I was half way through my junior year and was tied to my school and in particular my first girlfriend.  I thought the world was ending but really it was only beginning.

I remember the day as it is almost yesterday.  My Dad was a bit steamed after my Grandpop, Uncle, Aunt and cousins came over to wish us off.  As to be expected, everyone was sad to see us leave and a lot of tears were shed.  I remember my Dad saying something to the effect that he could not take another person crying (my Mom’s family was Irish and as the stereotype goes a bit emotional).  I just got upset and belligerent after hearing that.  I told him “Well, I am half my Mom’s side and I am not crying and promised to take off.”  He half dismissed it but I did not.  At that moment, I decided to run away.

My great idea was I would run as fast as I could the 5 or 6 miles to Yardville to my Uncle Johnny’s house and hide out in the woods.  Then when my family left for Texas heartbroken, I would have my cousin bring me food while I lived out in the woods behind their house (I said the idea was rash!).  Just to show what crazy things teen age love can do, I decided then and there to take off.  I ran with all my might and with the stuffed toy Dog (Little Rascal) my girlfriend gave me.  I set off to Yardville to hide out in the woods.

Back then I could run fast.  I ran out of Crosswicks out past Ocker’s Barrel where my Dad worked when on strike (which you see below).  I got 4 and a half miles and was just about to turn off the main street to my Uncle Johnnie’s house when my Dad in the car caught up to me.

Ocker's Barrel
Ocker’s Barrel as I ran past

I do not know how he knew where I was going.  I will never forget it.  He told me that he was sorry and that I and all of my Mom’s side were tough.  He then explained that we needed to move to Texas to make a better life.  Part of the steel mill was moving down South and as a result he was not reelected as union Vice President.  He got an offer in Texas for his work and we needed to move to make a new life.  He then hugged me and I got in the car.

My brothers and my sister (although she was a bit young) can attest that I was not a happy camper on the way to Texas.  I sat sullen and made sure that I never took a turn in the middle seat.  My brothers adjusted better.  Each chance I could I would either write or try and call my girlfriend.  Let’s just say I was not a happy camper.

But I should have been!  Texas turned out to be a great place to complete my High School years.  And we literally were still in Jersey (not New Jersey but Jersey Village, outside of Houston)!  I learned four valuable lessons on my attempted run away and capture:

  1. I was self-absorbed. Yes, I lived 16+ years in New Jersey but my Mom had lived 38!  She was leaving the family and friends she grew up with for the family she nurtured and loved.  I still remember my Granpop’s hands shaking and my Mom tearing up on the day we left. My Dad, although a Texan by birth, was also leaving behind more. He had lived in New Jersey for 20 years and was now had ties as deep there than in his native state.  Known as Big D, he was leaving his friends, co-workers and the community where he was the coach of the Red Sox, the Cubmaster of Pack 55, and institution at NBC wresting matches and football games.
  2. Moving to a new place meant new friends. After a few months adapting (boy the football coaches had fun with me and my brother’s accents!), I met new friends, dated new girls and created lasting relationships that still endure.
  3. I learned a lesson that I covet as a Father. Sometimes when you are providing for your family you have to make a hard decision.  My Dad would have liked nothing more than to stay in New Jersey where he built so many bonds.  But the steel mills were moving South (and later off shore).
  4. The last lesson from him is the power of apology.  I should have apologized to him not the other way around! I will never forget when he caught up to me in the car and took me home.  It takes a big man to apologize to angst filled son!

American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise

I turned off the news yesterday because I just could not take it any more. Whether you watched CNN, MSNBC, or FOX, it was all the same. People pointing fingers. People shouting at people and not listening to each other. And much worse than that. As I shut down the vitriol on my TV, I asked how has this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.

It was not always that way.  We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together.  I think the late Charles Krauthammer who both served as Walter Mondale’s speech writer and conservative commentator, said it best: “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”

We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us.   We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life.  We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.

The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks.  My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation.  In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community.  Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise?  What caused the demise of the democracy?  Simply this.  When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter.  But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.

Picture of Crosswicks

So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart.  And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations.  It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people.  Let me talk about three of them:

  1. Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together.  I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game.  The whole community came together to watch the teams compete.  There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community.  I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization.  But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
  2. Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun.  Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved.  We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races.  We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges.  As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group.  You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength.  I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
  3. Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library.  In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas.  It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion.  All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills.  In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.

These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks.  I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn.  Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together.  Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!