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Monday, July 11, 2016

Sifting Through Memories

We were sitting in the boat together about 100 yards from the shore.  Dawn was just poking it's head up over the mountains and the only thing to be heard was the chirping of the crickets among the rocks.  In my mind we were fishing.  It was a good setting as any to meditate on some memories, a place to work out the conflict I felt within.

"Are you rolling your line or using loops?' Dad asked.

"Loops," I replied.  "It would be too dark to see the hole."  We sat with our backs to each other.  His line was still in the water, his bobber barely visible 40 feet out.   I had reeled my line in and found my hook was gone, probably snagged on a root at the bottom of the lake or hooked on a fish further out.  I preferred using loops rather than rolling the line.  It seemed simpler and worked better in the dark.  But my hands were numb from the cold and I was having trouble finding the center.

"Did you put on your long underwear?"

"Yes." I replied, gritting my teeth.  We had gone fishing two other times in the past week.  You'd think he would trust that I'd remember by now.  I finally got the line laid down the center and pulled the larger loop through the smaller one.  The newer one fit through the eye of the hook and I clipped the extra line.

"Do want salmon or the other eggs?" he asked.

"Salmon."  He handed me the jar and I covered the hook with two eggs.  Pulling the bobber further up, I brought the pole back over my shoulder and cast it out.

"Don't cast over my head, son!" he said.

I bit my tongue, and then replied, "Sorry."  We sat in for a while, listening to the crickets and waiting for the fish to start nibbling again.  There were a couple of other boats out on the water, but they were on the other side of the lake.  I let a few minutes go by then said, "I wonder what it was like for you in the boat away from Mom while you were on active duty." I used "boat" since you never referred to a submarine as a "sub".  "I mean, I know you had those candy-grams and all.  But I had lost my second tooth while you were out at sea.  And you and Mom hadn't been married that long."  In spite of the distance, I heard another fisherman's reel spin as he cast out down the lake.  Dad had lifted his head and looked towards the sound.  "I'm at the point in life where I'm trying to be sensitive to what James and Tessa's interests are.  They're active in sports and have their friends.  But I find myself wondering what went through your head as we kids grew up and chased after our dreams."

He was quiet for a while, then leaned back and said, "Jim, I thought of a fun skit to do with the other Weebolos.  You walk into the room.  Four other boys are following you in while they hold onto a rope.  I'll ask, 'Catch anything while fishing, Jim?'  And you answer, 'No.  All I got was a bunch of jerks!'"

I laughed.  I must have been in sixth or seventh grade when we did that skit.  Reflecting back, I'm not sure how the other boys felt about being referred to as "jerks".  Strange how some memories popped up uninvited.  But the desire for Dad's presence seemed to outweigh logic at that moment.

We sat a bit longer.  "It must have been difficult.  You had work.  You were travelling.  And us kids, we all were different.  You and I were different.  I wonder how you regarded me or thought of my 'exploits'.  I was into music.  You never really picked up an instrument.  You were organized.  I wasn't.  You excelled in sports and school.  I didn't."  The sunrise was lighting up the east.  The air was a little warmer and sounds of campers moving around echoed through the trees.

He spoke softly.  "Jim, your mother and I just want to give you an opportunity to be part of that music group at Mrs. Hatsu's.  There are kids who play a number of different instruments, even a couple around your same age.  We aren't trying to force is on you.  How about we just go over and listen to what she has to say.  I'm not requiring you to be part of the group.  If you hear what it's all about and decide 'no', then that's fine.  What do you say?"

I thought back on the day he spoke those words.  We were driving for an appointment I didn't want to keep.  I had opened the door and sprinted from the car, tears streaming down my cheeks.  But Dad quickly parked, jogged over to me, speaking calmly and listened to my objections.  We ended up visiting the music teacher to see what the program was all about.  And when I made the decision to not participate, Dad backed me up.   "Thanks for being sensitive to my decisions."  I tried to rub some warmth into my hands while holding onto the pole.  The bobber moved back and forth.  "You know, there were other times you seemed distant.  Far off.  You might have even been upstairs in your office working.  Not sure why that keeps coming back to me."

But then I remembered one day when we were working in the garage together.  He had stood over me as I moved the jigsaw along the wood for a table we were making for Mom.  His hand carefully guided mine, and finally he let go as I followed the line to the edge of the wood.  Dad handed me the broom afterwards and I swept up the sawdust.  "I guess I just wanted some reassurance." I said.  I moved my rod a little to the bow of the boat.  "Dad speaking to another dad.  Wondering if I'm going through the same thing you did.  Wondering if you faced the same questions I'm facing now.  Needing to know what was going on inside of you around this time in your life."


I opened my eyes.  Thoughts of fishing faded to the present-day surroundings.  The white headstones aligned the ground in perfect formation.  The sun was quietly dipping down against the western hills.  I looked to my right.  A middle age man in Honor Guard uniform with a black beret stood four feet away, hands at his side.  He had a salt and pepper mustache and dark sunglasses.  "I was on my way out, sir.  I couldn't help but notice that you had been standing there for some time.  Just wanted to see if I can offer any assistance."

I stared at him, then glanced down at my watch.  7:35 p.m.  Annie would be bringing the kids home from swimming any minute now.  I cleared my throat.  "  Thank you.  I must have not noticed the time."  I looked down at Dad's headstone.  "I guess I was sifting through the past for some answers.  Sifting through some memories while trying to hold onto his presence."  I turned and peered at his flags.  Colonel.  I looked into his eyes.  "I suppose some questions are left unanswered."

He glanced down.  "Relative?"

"Yes, sir.  My father."

"Which branch was he in, if I may ask."

"Navy.  He became commander when I was young, served in the reserves, then retired after 30 years."

The colonel smiled.  "That's quite an honorable service."

"Yes.  My mother tells me that at times he would take an assignment without pay just to finish his years."

He stood in silence for a moment, then said, "Sounds like he was committed to his dream.  Some kids join, serve their term, then leave for other endeavors."

I nodded to his pins.  "Looks like you were committed as well, sir."

"It didn't start out that way.  I was a rascal in my teens.  My father worked at a factory in Detroit.  Would come home and give me the third degree for getting into fights or getting low grades in school.  Told me to do something with my life.  So I joined the service.  Worked as Airman up to First Lieutenant, and finally finished out at Colonel."

"I'm told the service teaches you a lot about respect."

He took a deep breath and replied, "True.  I certainly learned manners.  And even discipline.  But it was my father that taught me to work hard and be there for one's family.  The bond I forged with my outfit and friends...I first observed in my father."  He looked down at Dad's grave, then looked back at me.  "Sometimes our father's actions speak louder than words, and their presence creates the example we long to follow."

I felt a lump form in my throat.  "Yes, sir.  That's certainly true."  A little silence passed between us before I spoke. "I suppose that example can be stronger than any differences we may have had."  I stood there, fidgeting a little with my hands, then said, "I appreciate your time.  Thank you for your words."

"My pleasure.  None of us fathers are perfect, except for one."  He gave a slight nod towards the sky.  "But the time we spend with our loved ones speaks volumes."  He extended his hand and we shook.  "God bless you, sir.  May you find peace."  I thanked him, turned and walked slowly back to the car.  As I drove towards the cemetery's exit, I glanced back over my shoulder one last time.  The soldier was standing erect in front of Dad's graveside.  He sharply raised his hand up to his beret and saluted.

I turned back forward and had to strain through the tears to see the road.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Eagle Scout

   I know a man who spent his life obeying the Boy Scout law and following its creed.

   We were walking down that wilderness trail together when I was young.  It was a gorgeous day.  Beautiful!  Trees and bushes and rocks aligned the path on both sides. The leaves were so bright and sharp with color. But I guess that's the way it is in one's memory, isn't it?  And Dad stopped me suddenly, lifted his hand high, pointed up at a clearing and said, "Look, son!  Look!  Do you see that eagle there?  Do you see him soar?  Isn't he magnificent?  Wow!  He knows each feather on his wings.  If he bends one wing one way, he flies to the right.  If he bends another, he goes the left.  And did you know of their keen eyesight?  Eagles can see their prey from way up there in the sky.  And because he knows his abilities, and because he can see so far, he can soar anywhere he desires.  He's master of the skies, and commander of his destiny.  Oh, what a feeling that must be!"  And Dad looked down at me with a spark in his eye and an excitement glowing on his face for that adventure ahead.

   Further down the trail, we saw some boys with their fathers to the right.  So we pulled over to the side.  Dad stuck a feather in his band and I stuck one into mine, and we were Sequoia and Onnaweata.  And we sat in a circle with the others at night, talking about respect for life and obeying authority and telling stories of our ancestors.  And Dad and I built an incredible Teepee.  OK...Mom sewed it together.  But Dad and I drew some really neat pictures on it.  He was by my side during the hikes and the camp-outs.  And I swear that old Indian chief made rain pour from a clear sky one night!

   But after a while, we traded our feathers for sashes.  And Cub Scouts turned into Webolos. And Webolos turned into Boy Scouts.  And I remember we were setting up a tent one afternoon when Dad pointed to some scouts who were building a fire and said, "Look, son.  Look!  Do you see those scouts over there?  See how they're prepared?  They planned ahead.  They secured the area for safety.  They defer to one another out of courtesy.  But look at their faces.  See their looks of satisfaction?  That's because they applied their skills and took the time to do a good job. Find satisfaction in all the work you set out to do."  Some scouts began to gather around him to listen, and Dad admonished them to do their duty to the troop, to push forward to be leaders in their community, and carry a reverence for all living things and for God above.  "Come back again, sir," the scouts replied. "We would hear you speak further on this." And Dad became a mentor to Scouts across the country.

   He turned back to me and continued. "It doesn't matter if it's studying for a test in school, or painting fire hydrants for the firemen to see, or even baking a meal for a sick friend...find that satisfaction in a job well done. Create a vision for yourself.  Invite others to be part of that vision.  The most wonderful person I have alongside me is your mother.  And by the way, son, wonderful job on your band concert. You're a terrific trumpet player. I wish I was as good at music as you are!"

   Although his hands never picked up an instrument, they were never idle.  They were riddled with calluses after yard work. One moment they would be stained with ink after drafting a speech for the Board of Directors, the next they would be measuring a board to create a new table for his wife. "Measure once, then measure again for accuracy," he would say. "Line your numbers up evenly when balancing the checkbook. And mark on the calendar not only the due dates for your bills, but for writing to your grandparents."

   It wasn't just his hands, either.  His voice would command military officers. Business men would find themselves stammering in his presence when their projects weren't up to par.  His voice would carry over the waters during the crew races and ring out loudest throughout the house during the Christmas parties.  He once pulled me aside while the guests were serving themselves food one evening, pointed to a group of people and said, "Look, son! Look!  See those men over there? I know each one of them.  It's simple to attend a party and laugh and joke.  But a man should never walk alone. I have your mother. She's the most honest, hard-working and loving wife there is.  We share the laughter, the work and the joy of raising a family and walking through life together. And remember, when it comes to your friends: you don't find time for make the time.  Let loyalty and adventure be the banner for you and your compadres.  Extend kindness to them at all times. And son, Julie's a wonderful woman. You're lucky to have her."

   There were times when he seemed distant, times when work would call him away. And when he left, I would call out, "See you later, alligator." He would always reply, "Off a while, crocodile!"  And it would be a little while. A few days, a week, a weekend.  And the piano music would echo down the long halls during his absence.  But he would be back and we would continue that adventure down the trail together.

   We walked further down that trail, and heard a rustling in the bushes. We crouched down together, and Dad pointed to the noise and whispered,"Look, son! Look! See those key executives hiding over there? Oh, they think they're so sneaky! They play with numbers behind their backs thinking that no one is the wiser. But they'll receive their just reward. Never seek after a profit for money's sake. The material can be there one day and gone the next. But value integrity. Honesty. And be sure that the investment is in people. Let those who hear you benefit from your words. Become a mentor to those under you in the company. Seek peoples' trust and admiration not by exalting yourself, but by demonstrating the values of dedication, responsibility and respect towards others. You could be a sailor on a nuclear submarine, the Secretary of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or an engineer of a power plant. It wouldn't make a difference in your position.  A janitor, who puts in extra hours to get his children through college, can be as highly esteemed as the CEO who ignores the elevator and chooses to walk up 20 flights of stairs to get to work each day. It's not the position but those honorable values you hold true and live out that counts.  And son, I know it's tough working two jobs, but good job being responsible. You're taking care of the family"

   After a while...his steps became slower. His back stooped a little more.  Dad stopped by the side of the trail to lie down for a rest. He looked up at me and said, "Look, son. Look. Do you see this man? It's been a long walk. And it took me far. It hasn't always been smooth sailing, but I worked as hard as I could and tried to take advantage of the opportunities that lay before me.  But my greatest love has never been my work, but my family.  I hope that hasn't been lost on you "

   And I replied, "Dad, perhaps your sight has faulted you a little. For I can confirm that there is no other man that I would trust more for the safety of my children than you.. And the other day, I heard a voice behind me say, 'Let's run those numbers, and then check them again for accuracy.' I turned around expecting to see you there, but it was my son encouraging his partner to review their Power Point project. You should have seen the look of satisfaction on my daughter's face after finishing a game of two-on-two on the basketball court. She took the time afterwards to confront one of the other players for unsportsmanlike conduct. Perhaps students going through the Harvard Business School should heed the example of one who has so effectively modeled integrity and responsibility, and who's shadow stretches over the world of corporations and utilities.  And if I may say so, sir...I'm most beholden to you."

   And now, that scout walks that wilderness trail with another companion. And his Savior stops him suddenly, lifts a nail-scarred hand to the sky, points and says, "Look, my friend! Look! Do you see that eagle, scout? Look how he soars. Look at him fly. He uses all his skills and abilities to find that joy of flying. He's certainly commander of his destiny." And He looks down at Dad and adds, "That's quite a feeling, isn't it?" And Dad gazes up at his Lord... with a spark in his eye and excitement glowing on his face for that adventure ahead.

In memory of Denton Louis Peoples
December 3, 1940 - May 24, 2016


Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Meeting

I had a dream last night.

I dreamt that I was walking down the John Muir Trail, just out of Tuolemne Meadows.  Somehow or other, I had been separated from the group.  We were headed to Mount Whitney, and had three weeks to do it in.  I was a little worried.  Not for the amount of time I was separated from them, but because I had the food for the night's meal in my backpack.  But I knew I would catch up.  I had the sense that I was on the correct path.  Plus, it was lovely out.  I'd hear some chirping every now and then, and the switchbacks weren't that sharp.

A few miles into the hike, I spotted a figure walking towards me.  He had a scouting uniform on him, and seemed strangely familiar.  We met and began conversing with one another.  After a while, I remarked on his attire.

"Why are you carrying a fishing pole, friend?"  I always addressed new people as "friend" to relax the mood.

"I carry it so that I will teach my children to make a living for themselves.  I'll take them to work, teach them how to change a tire on the car, and how to be diligent and dedicated to their job."

"Why did you choose those hiking boots?  I've never seen a sturdier pair!"

"I wear then because I intend to do a lot of traveling with my wife," he replied with a smile.  "Wherever life takes us, we'll walk together.  I'll never love another, and I'll trust her like none other.  We'll give our time to each over, love one another, and explore together.  In fact, there won't be another couple that will compare in fellowship, joy nor family!"

I glanced down at his belt.  "What strange designs!  They look Indian.  Why does it say "TRUTH" on the front."

His visage became stern.  "One needs to live and work with integrity.  I've seen fools in high school who don't care a bit about what kind of future they're building.  I've heard of criminals running companies and not being held accountable.  But for me personally...I see a future built on integrity and perseverance.  Where workers actually trust the management and people are held accountable for their mistakes.  No one is perfect, and I don't doubt I'll make some mistakes.  Hopefully, I'll find others who will carry a vision for building this country on honesty and hard work.  Something that will be competitive with other countries and make us proud."

I laughed a little.  "You're right.  Nobody's perfect.  I hope you find the future you're looking for.  It sounds very ideological.  But I suppose we need people like you.  I'm just trying to survive high school without being bullied or getting into any fights!  Say, isn't that a bible in your hand?  I pick it up myself from time to time."

He shrugged.  "I believe in God.  I also believe in respecting every living creature.  We have to work together, and we're all part of this beautiful world."  He glanced around himself for a turn, and then added, "And it is beautiful.  Look at that view.  Think about what Muir experienced when he first came out here.  Very few trails, maybe some rattlers.  But the fresh air...the incredible view...I bet it hasn't changed much since John Muir.  Hopefully, there were fewer bears!"

We laughed a little and he replied, "I suppose we just need to stick near to our friends and not let those unruly bring us down..  By the way, what do you like to do?"

"I enjoy the outdoors.  And I enjoy music."  We talked a little about our favorite country singers, and then I asked, "Is that why you wear that cowboy hat?"

He gave a little chuckle.  "No.  The hat's to keep the sun out of my eyes."  We talked a little more, and then continued on our way...him hiking one direction and I the other.  And a midst seemed to cloud my mind.

But I never forgot him.  And I still carry something of him with me wherever I go.  I'm sure that one day we'll meet again and hike that trail together.
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