Saturday, July 20, 2019

"The Eagle has Landed:" Remembering a Little Boy and a Mission to the Moon

I was almost 6. It was hot. It always is in July, back in the Delaware Valley. I was just a little boy then. In a lot of ways, no different from little boys today the summer of their 6th birthday. But in many ways...very different. We were at war. We've been in wars since then, but this war was different.
Vietnam wasn't popular (not that any war is actually "popular" but at least other wars had a clearer provocation and popular opinion was mostly favorable) and instead of the news talking about victories, they talked only of our men being killed every day.
My mother and stepfather knew guys who were over there fighting. I remember them talking about going to the funerals of several of them. My father had served two tours over there and had been injured twice. But at five, I didn't know him and had only met him when I was a toddler and never remembered the visits.
My stepfather and I weren't close. That's me being kind. We didn't do the things little boys like doing with their dads, so I spent a lot of time imagining. I imagined I was a baseball player. I imagined I was a robot. I imagined I was an "army man" (by this time I'd gotten my first GIJoe.)
...and I imagined I was an astronaut.
To be a little boy in the 60's was to be surrounded by, and inundated with the Space Race and the dreams of landing on the moon. I could tell you my favorite baseball players, and I could tell you about the "Mercury 7" and the Apollo teams. I knew what a Saturn V was before I knew what Saturn itself was. I begged my mom for "Tang" because it had been developed for the astronauts.
I'd watched all the previous launches. Dry runs...practice for the real thing. Each mission taking measured, progressive steps closer and closer to the ultimate goal...the Moon.
I'd look up at the moon when I was a boy and wonder what it was like up there. On summer nights, when the moon was full, I'd swear I saw that cartoon image of Jackie Gleason, the famous closing credits shot from "The Honeymooners."
I had a GIJoe space man set, with a real capsule that Joe sat in, and the control panel glowed in the dark. I flew a million imaginary lunar missions with Joe and his space capsule.I launched water rockets that we'd bought at the department store, where you filled the body with water, pumped the handle to build air pressure against the water, then pulled the trigger and watched it lift off. Rockets and space were everywhere, and they were everything.
Apollo 11 had a different feel when it launched. I'd watched all the previous launches and they were special, but when this one left the pad that July morning, it was different. This was "the one." four days later we were sitting in front of our little Sears TV set, rabbit ears covered in tin foil, watching shadows and images that we could barely discern, become the lunar module...inching it's way down to the moon's dusty surface. Then, after a few moments of silence, came Neil Armstrong's first famous utterance: "Houston...Tranquility base here, The Eagle has landed."
Tranquility base was the name of their landing spot and base of operations. "Eagle" was the name they'd given the Lunar Module. Three long hours of waiting ensued. My mom let me stay up to see this historic moment. At 11:23pm, the grainy, shadowy images (the picture we were seeing was actually a broadcast quality relay of what the camera on the Lunar Module was filming. So we were watching a second generation...like someone doing a live feed on their cell phone from a movie theater so you can watch the movie...only the technology was so primitive back then that the images looked grainy and ghostlike.)
I watched in awe as Neil Armstrong navigated the steps in his bulky space suit and then spoke those amazing words. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I couldn't say a word. I don't remember breathing. Those words...that picture was a defining moment in my life. The history of the world broke in two on July 20, 1969...everything would be different after this day. Truly anything was possible.
For a few hours, we forgot about the war, we forgot about the unrest at home, we forgot about the civil rights battles still being fought.
We were all fiercely proud to be Americans. We were amazed at the effort it took. The cost of human life (Three astronauts had perished in a flash fire in the cabin of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee) the brilliance of the scientists and engineers, all combined to get us to this moment.
To be an almost-six-year-old little boy that sweltering July night in 1969 was to live in the most fertile soil of imagination there ever was. This was my generation's "Star Wars" and "Star Trek." In hindsight -and I've never thought about this until writing this just now-- maybe that's why I just never got very deeply into either of those franchises. I enjoyed them both. I have no problem with people really being superfans or whatever. But for me...My Han Solo was Buzz Aldrin. My Luke Skywalker was Neil Armstrong. Men like John Glenn and Gordon Cooper were in their prime when I was a little boy...no movie character could ever hold a candle to these real-life sci-fi heroes.
Thinking about this right now...thinking how fifty years has come and gone since that steamy July night. It makes me glad. Glad that I will have these memories to cherish and that I was alive when this was happening in real time, not just learning of it from a Google search.
And it makes me sad. Sad because it's been far too long since we've had a national dream. A national goal. A national cause that forced us to break the boundaries of what we know, and learn something altogether unknown.
To take a theory on a chalkboard and turn it into two men bouncing across the surface of a celestial body other than the one we live on, and send the images of that back to us down here, where we could all sit in our living rooms and stare in wide eyed wonder. And...in spite of the war being fought, and the unrest in our nation, and the injustice our fellow citizens were fighting against, we could dream our own dreams. We could pick our own moon mission and dream about going after it.
For a while, we were united. We were one nation under God, and we'd just sent two of our own to that light in the night. I wish we could go back. I know people think it's a waste of money and effort. I am certain you only think that because you weren't around when we did this 50 years ago.
I could rattle off the list of things we use every day that came about as a result of this era; from cell phones to velcro and everything in between. But beyond that. Beyond any tangible benefits, stand the intangibles. The national benefit of just watching our best and brightest do something unheard of, something we thought was insane just ten years before...and make it look easy.
Every time I looked up at the moon before that night, I wondered about it. It was romantic and foreign.
Every night after that hot July night...I think about how we sent men up there. Men. Americans. Giant, heroic, legendary, daring, brave men.

Americans.

That mission was everything America is. Bold. Gutsy. Refusing to accept less than excellence. Imaginative.
Exceptional.
I wish we'd go back.
And I wish I could capture just an ounce of the spirit that filled that little boy's heart on that sweltering July night, when he believed -for a while at least-- that anything was possible.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

C-Day: What was it like the night before?


Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of "Operation Overlord" commonly known as "D-Day."

Bedford Va. is home to the National D-Day Memorial and tomorrow a huge gala is planned including a flyover of every plane used in that incredible operation. This week I've been seeing some of them in the skies overhead, I guess practicing for the big events tomorrow.
All this week on the news they have been discussing it. Today, I got pretty emotional thinking about it. Thinking about what June 5th 1944 must have felt like for those guys. Most of them were around 19 years old. They were still kids. I remember when I was 19 and all I wanted to do was cruise Newark De in my Chevelle and hang with my buddies and go to work each day. I never went to sleep, knowing that the following morning there was a nine in ten chance I would die.
How could they sleep that night, knowing that in the morning, they faced insurmountable odds? What kind of letters home did they write? What kind of prayers were prayed? What did it feel like to hear the roar of the machine gun fire and the clank of the rounds hitting the drop gate of the Higgins boat and pretty much assume you were going to die? What was it like stepping over your dead comrades as you dove into the water and made for shore, wondering when the bullet with your name on it was coming? What sort of madness did they see? The sound of gunfire, the explosion of ordnance and shrieks of the wounded. These were just boys. Just out of high school and in many cases having quit school and lied about their age to join. 
I just can't get the thoughts out of my head. The incredible bravery in the face of unspeakable horror. The desire to defeat evil. A desire so strong that you'd charge into the butchery of Omaha, or Utah, or Gold, or Juno, or Sword. 
The only person I ever saw die was my grandmother at 93. It was amazing and beautiful as she literally reached out to Jesus as He came to take her. (It's an amazing story I will share one day) I can't fathom seeing my friend, or my brother die suddenly and violently beside me. And having to stuff that horror down inside me and press on. 
Years ago, in Nashville, I met a man who was 82nd Airborne on that day. He was climbing up the rope ladders they shot up the cliffs at Normandy. Climbing to reach the gunnery nests at the top. He told me that about every 30 seconds, another of his comrades would fall from above him and he'd have to spin himself around and get on the inside of those rope ladders and press himself against the cliff to avoid being hit by the body. Sometimes they were dead already and sometimes they were screaming as they fell. He had to swallow all that and get right back to climbing.
They did all this because there was an undeniable evil at work in the world, and the time had come to put it down. At this point, nobody knew about the prison camps and the ovens and the "Final Solution." That horror was still to be discovered. This mission was about stopping Hitler.
These men ran face-first into hell and punched death in the mouth because it was right, and doing what was right demanded their very lives. 9 out of 10 of the first wave never made it off the beach.
Nine out of Ten.
For me, and for my generation, this is some of what the flag represents. It's why you stand and respect it. America is not perfect. It was probably even less perfect on June 6, 1944. But they didn't fight for a perfect country. They fought for THIS one. They fought for what was right and they did it under that flag. 
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary. 25 years from now, when we memorialize this day again, there won't be one single survivor in attendance to tell us stories of the horror, the battle, or then sense of right that made them rush out the door of those landing craft. They will all have joined their fallen comrades and become ghosts on the beachfront, and names on marble headstones in places like Arlington and Point du Hoc, and Normandy. I have wiped tears from my eyes at various points this week and I've choked back this lump in my throat more times than I can count. 
In another few years none of them will be left to thank. None of them will be around to tell the stories and remember the guy in the boat next to him. 
That's why we stand for the flag and the anthem...because we owe those guys and all the other guys like them from every war we've ever fought. Because if they'd die for the sake of that flag, the least I can do is stand for it.
And if they'd run out of a boat into a hail of gunfire for the sake of what is right...I have no excuses for not defending what is right in the safety and comfort of this country.
If you have a relative who fought in WWII (or any war,) please...tell them I send my eternal gratitude and love. 
God Bless the 4400 who died that day
and God Bless America.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Rick Elias...


It has been 21 days.
     Three weeks exactly to the day. Three weeks, and this is the first time I’ve considered writing about it. I’ve talked about it a bit. I’ve lamented it. But it’s remained buried beneath a hardened carapace of denial, grief, and sorrow. This empty, vacuous hole. This invisible, heavy weight.
My friend Rick is gone.
     Three weeks ago, today -April 2, 2019— my friend Rick Elias opened his eyes to see Jesus at last. The journey was hard, and wearisome, and difficult. He fought bravely. He fought the monster of glioblastoma that hid itself in his brain…and he fought the monsters who keep it company; fear, doubt, sadness, regret, sorrow…
     I have wondered why this has not broken me more than it has. I wondered if it’s because, from the moment he called me last August, to tell me of the diagnosis and the terrible prognosis, I knew this was going to be the outcome. So far, the score is Glioblastoma 1- humanity 0 for all of history. Nobody survives this one. I knew this last August. I wept at my desk after I got off the phone with him. I went home that afternoon and listened to his music and wept some more. I wept a lot in the early days and months. I have wondered if I grieved it so much before it happened that I was a little numb to it after he left us. Maybe. I don’t know.
     But this morning, sitting at my desk getting ready to pray and then go to my work day, it hit me again, and I finally wanted to write about it. Rick once told me, and told others quite often, that writing -for him—was like prayer. Something internal took place when Rick began writing a song and it was sacred. I understand it now that I write. This is the gift God implanted in my soul when He knit me in the womb and when I do this thing I am treading on sacred ground. Preachers must feel this when they stand in the pulpit. Doctors must feel this when they are in surgery.
Rick felt it when he gave us incredible songs. Incredible, honest, transparent, catchy, memorable, enjoyable songs.
     I’ve always listened to great music and wondered, sometimes, at what I was hearing. I always listened to them and thought how this was what was living in someone’s soul for days or months or years and this is what came out. I’ve listened to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album and marveled how all sound lived in the heart and mind of a 25-year-old young man from New Jersey. I've had tears in my eyes at the beauty of some of Little Steven Van Zandt's music (especially with Southside Johnny) and been amazed that all those sounds came out of one man's heart. 
     I’ve listened to John Hiatt and been amazed that a seemingly simple guy could hold such beauty in his heart and manage to get it out on paper. I’ve sat slack-jawed at Stevie Ray Vaughan and realized all that amazing music had been swimming around in the heart of a sometimes-tormented little kid from the poor side of Dallas who couldn’t even read music. Yet he managed to make some of the best music this world has ever heard.
     The same things would happen when I would listen to Rick’s music. And maybe it’s because I knew him well and called him friend, or maybe it’s that his style was exactly what I loved in music and it grabbed me so tightly from the very first note I ever heard. Or maybe it’s both of those things coupled with the fact that this was a large, remarkable person who left such a giant void in this world that most of his friends remain speechless still, three weeks after his leaving us.
     Things lived in Rick’s heart that spoke so clearly and so loudly that I wondered how he contained them. Rick wrestled with religion, but he loved Jesus deeply. One can’t write a song like “Man of No Reputation” and not love Jesus deeply and be well-acquainted with who He was. Rick could rail at a theological point he disagreed with, with the force of a hurricane and the venom of a cobra. And then sing about the Jesus he trusted in with a passion and honesty that goes missing these days, among the current crop of CCM “stars.”
     Rick was far from perfect. But Rick never lied about his imperfections. His friend and band-mate Mark Robertson said it so perfectly; “Rick was just like you and me…only way more.” And he was.
     When he was happy, your sides would hurt with laughter. When he was cynical and sarcastic, you would laugh until you had tears in your eyes, so long as sarcasm and cynicism were your cup of tea. When he was angry…God help anyone on the wrong side of that topic. But when you were his friend, you were his family and he never stayed mad for long. Not if he really loved you. And thankfully…Rick Elias loved me. Our last eight months of conversations were peppered with “Thank you’s” and “I love you brother’s”
     We spent time trying to laugh at as much of this final act as we could, all the while knowing that both of us had read the last scene and knew how this was going to end. Once in a while, Rick would break down a little. He was worried about his wife Linda. His kids. His granddaughters. His friends. He was worried about what they were thinking and feeling and whether they would be okay after he was gone. He didn’t have any concrete answers about those things and that troubled him.
     Maybe his biggest frustration, outside of his family and their comfort with this, was his entire inability to play anymore. Rick was a musician. He was a musician. This was his life. This was his heart and his soul and his best ability to communicate all that his giant, mysterious heart contained. The location of the tumor made communication a chore. Words were forming in his head as rapidly as they always had but there was a disconnect between the mind and the mouth. He would stumble to say what he was wanting to say, or he’d forget what he wanted to say or which word he wanted to use, and the frustration would eat at him.
     Early on in this diagnosis he had fallen and broken his middle finger on his left hand. It was so bad that they were talking of amputating it, but they managed to keep it. But it was frozen in a three-quarters-extended position, unable to bend, like Rick was giving the finger to the world for the rest of his days. If you knew Rick Elias…this was perfect.
     Aside from being grotesque and comical at once, it was heartbreaking. Because the frozen middle finger prevented Rick from playing guitar anymore and this broke his heart. The last lengthy conversation we’d had, back in March, was about this. He said he felt like Job. Like God had stripped him of the very thing he had identified himself with for his entire life. He couldn’t play. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t even remember the words to all those songs he’d written.
All those songs.
All those wonderful, amazing, incredible songs.
     A few days after that conversation, I called him and told him briefly; “Man I don’t think you’re living “Job” (Rick had written an album based on his readings of the Book of Job and had, at one point, told me he felt like now God was making him live out the lyrics) I said “You’re living out “Stripped.” Stripped was the last song on his first album. A song about a man who stands before God, broken and humbled by his seeming continuous failings and faults, and yet who finds out that being stripped of all the pretense of correct Christian living and standing “naked, humbled, but not betrayed” was actually where the freedom was found. It’s where the love of God was most clearly pronounced. I told him that I felt like God had permitted the loss of his music for the final months of his life, because He’d wanted these months to Himself. Just Him and Rick. Getting things right, getting things out in the open…
…coming home.
     In the end, I think that is what was happening. Rick was coming home. He limped his way back to the front door, his armor dented and a bit rusty, his battle gear broken and held together with bailing wire and duct tape, but with some amazing stories from the field, and the contented look of a warrior who had enough of battle and was laying down his weapons to sit by the fire for a few last days.
     Rick Elias is gone. And the hole he left in my heart is so big, so deep, so uncharted, that I might never -this side of Heaven—understand how big it really is. I know it’s big enough that it hurts this much. I know it’s big enough that it will never be covered over, not with all the hallowed ground of his music or the memories, or the pictures in my heart. I’m only now beginning to feel the depth of this loss and I fear that there will be days when I descend a little too deep and the weight will crush me, and the tears will flow like a river.
     I miss you, dearest friend. I miss the laughter and the anger. The sacred and the profane. The way we could be so mad at each other about something so inconsequential, and then laugh about how stupid it was that something so innocuous came between us, and all would be right again. I miss the incredibly intelligent commentary on life, that you brought. Even if I disagreed sometimes, it was still incredibly thought-out, incredibly spoken, and incredibly funny.  I miss the songs. I miss the stories. I miss the big softy that lived inside that cave-man that you showed the world. I miss your love for Linda and for your kids and for those granddaughters, and for your friends.
     I’m building some birdhouses in my basement, because I know you loved them. I needed something besides music to remember you by and to honor you with. I decided it’ll be bird houses. And a fire pit. And love for my friends. And love for Jesus.
…and your music.
I love you brother
We’ll see you soon


 **Rick's battle left some large medical expenses. PLEASE consider helping the family by donating here:

Rick's Medical Fund

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Beth Moore and her "Sorry" drummer


Dear Beth,
     I’ve kicked this around for over a week now. I thought maybe I just didn’t care about you, or your BS ramblings and misandry enough to respond to your kneeling-drummer trick. But I thought about it and decided I needed to vent. Men are under attack these days and sadly, you’re leading the charge.
     I’ll spare you a lot of bible verses about men and women and the way God ordained the relationship between the two. I mean it’s not like you care very much what the Bible says about that stuff. You’ve picked and chosen what to obey and what to ignore and made quite a cottage industry out of it. You’ve made a boatload of money for yourself and for Lifeway, which is -as we all know—what really counts. You must be “anointed” otherwise your materials wouldn’t sell like they do. In the evangelical world, we know that pastors with big churches and authors with big sales numbers achieve these things only because God blesses them. It’s a sign of His hand upon them, right?
     Let’s skip all that and talk about that emasculated drummer of yours, and this rampant man-hate thing you have going on. That and the “But Ricky…I’m a victim tooooo! Waaahhhhh!” that you’ve served up as a narrative for the last three years or so.
     When I heard that your drummer – an alleged male of the species—dropped to his knees and “apologized on behalf of all men…” I vacillated between wanting to vomit and wanting to find that little candy-xxx and punch him in the throat. All men don’t owe women an apology, princess, and it’s best you realize that and stop milking this school of thought to sell more books.
     Let me tell you about one such man.
This guy was deeply in love with his wife. They were married three years. Almost to the day. She divorced him, not because he abused her, not because he had affairs or didn’t go to church or didn’t show her enough attention. He adored her. He set aside every dream he ever had, (except, of course, the dreams of a wife and family and a home and a fiftieth wedding anniversary) and he devoted himself to making her dreams come true. And if it meant that none of his did, then he was okay with that, so long as her’s did.
But she got better offers from wealthy doctors and eventually she left with the highest bidder.
      This guy was devastated. They had an eighteen-month-old daughter who he absolutely adored. He was a devoted father. His daily life that once revolved around his little princess was reduced to once a week and every other weekend.
     Without his family he was lost. He roamed his house like a ghost. He would wake up many nights in the fetal position on the living room floor, with his fingertips bleeding, because he’d fallen asleep there, after sobbing for hours and clutching the carpet fibers so tightly that they cut into his fingertips. He sat alone in church every Sunday, feeling as if everyone was staring at him and yet not even seeing him. There were support groups for the women going through divorces, but not for the men. He was relegated to the shadows. He wore his sorrow like a trench coat.
     He endured almost yearly court battles because his wife, who remarried after a few years and was making plenty of money, would take him to court for increased child support if he showed even the slightest hint of success. The judge who heard each case, was herself, a five-time divorcee. Five times. Yet nobody dared question her objectivity. They didn’t dare. She ran her courtroom like a dictator and jailed any man who dared speak up.
     There were no books in Lifeway to help him find his way across this lonely sea. None. Not one. Nobody in Christian publishing cared about his plight, because men don’t buy books the way women do, and even though there is a screaming need…a dollar is a dollar.
     His ex-wife’s new husband was a drug-addled monster. He attacked their daughter in vicious, cruel ways. He killed one of her pets. He destroyed her property. He tried everything he could think of to come between my friend and his daughter. Yet my friend endured, because he loved his daughter and because that’s what good dads do. His ex-wife sided with her new husband, even to the point of siding against her own daughter. My friend lost his job in 2008 when the market collapsed. He tried to find work but could not. He could not move to a city where employment was better because his daughter was at risk. So, he stayed, even though that meant living in his car.
     By 45 years of age he was homeless. He shivered in the winter and sweltered in the summer. Six years of this could not dim his love for his daughter, or his fierce determination to remain in her life. He protected her from the deepening horrors at her mom’s house as best he could. Finally, when his little girl could not take it anymore, and her mom finally saw things for what they were, she let him take their child and move to another state.
     He’s been a single dad for almost five years now. He has lost many a night’s sleep over the pain his little girl has been suffering. He thought he was going to lose her about two years ago. He has shelved all his own dreams and accepted a job that pays not nearly enough, but it provides her college tuition and so he endures every day and works a side job in virtually every spare hour, just to make sure she has enough.
     He does this willingly, because that’s what good men, good dads, do. It was nine years before his ex-wife would even admit to her sins that led to their marriage dissolving. He held no grudge. He speaks no ill of her to their daughter, even though there is ill to speak if he wanted to. He chooses to show her respect.
     In the twenty years since they divorced, he has never had a woman over to his house. Never dated seriously. He chose to remain single because he knew his daughter needed to know that at least one of her parents was going to put her first. He did it because he was afraid a woman would not understand his devotion to his child. Most of them did not.
     He has never left his daughter home while he spent the night with a woman. Even though she is almost 21 and could certainly stay home alone. He has never allowed another woman to intrude on his ex-wife’s sacred motherhood. (Even though for so many years she did not return this courtesy.)
     This man has always treated women with respect. He did this for his daughter. He did this because he is a man.
     By now, Beth, you’ve likely guessed that this man is me. I endured homelessness. I sobbed many nights on my living room floor because my heart was shattered. I sat alone in church every Sunday, because nobody knows how to reach a man in the midst of a divorce…and they don’t care.
     If anyone wanted to play the victim card, I certainly could. If anyone wanted to develop a severe case of woman-hate, I could have. Maybe even should have. But I did not. I behaved like a grown-up and refused to affix blame to all woman.
In view of this, where your beta-male drummer and his embarrassing “apology for all men” is concerned…count me out. I don’t owe you any apology. I don’t owe you sXXX!
You’ve grown amazingly wealthy playing this victim card of yours and writing book after book teaching other women how victimized they really are too. You’ve developed your own army of brittle, bitter Bettys who refuse to drop their claim of victimization and relinquish their man-hate. To do so would require them to grow the hell up and God knows we can’t have that. God knows we can’t put that stuff behind us, because we might actually be forced to be responsible for our actions…you know, like big people. Then who would you sell books to?
     Your drummer owes me an apology. He doesn’t speak for me and to lump me in with abusive men…to lump any other men in with abusers, is an outrage.
Until you address the sins of woman with the same outrage and venom that you do the alleged sins of men, you have no validity. None.
     Your drummer was wrong. And whatever “fell on you” at that meeting was not the Holy Spirit. The truth is that women wound men at least as much as men wound women. To say otherwise is to lie. To perpetuate your man-hate issues and teach them to another generation is a sin.
Where’s my apology?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I Still Cry. 9/11--seventeen years later


                                                                    
     Seventeen years ago, I was sitting in my office in Franklin, TN. I was a single dad, two years into a painful divorce. My office had become my refuge on those days when my daughter was not with me. I spent a lot of time there, waiting for the next Thursday visit, or “My weekend” in the every-other-weekend carousel.
     That’s where I was on September 11, 2001. My morning routine was to get up at 5:30, go to the gym, and then be at my desk at 8:15. I had forty-five minutes to prepare my day, review the current files, and my sales plan, and be ready for 9 a.m. when the underwriters began their day, and the banks opened, and I discovered which fires needed to be put out, and which ones needed to be lit.
     I was watching the headlines on my computer when the first plane hit the tower. That’s all they said at first…that a plane had hit the tower. Nobody said whether it was a commercial jet, or a Piper Cub. Being a history buff, I instantly recalled that a B-25 had hit the Empire State Building in 1945, so there was a precedent for this being an accident.
But it wasn’t.
     While they were still trying to sort out the details and figure out what happened in the first crash, another plane hit the other tower. This time I saw it in real time. We all did. There was no mistaking it. The stress load on the wings as the demonic hijacker veered the craft into the building at high speed was ominous. This was no mistake. This was hitting a target.
     Before I could blink, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine in town who immediately said, “Jesus…we’re under attack.” I’d already thought the same thing but couldn’t put it into a sentence. We’re under attack. Once I’d accepted this, I knew who it was who’d done it. They’d already tried this eight years earlier, and these particular devils aren’t the kind to give up easily. They are pure evil. You hear that term a lot…”pure evil,” but you don’t see it as often. Manson was pure evil. Hitler was pure evil. The Muslim attackers on 9/11 were pure evil.
     I sat there at my desk, in a trance. “The people,” I thought, “All those people.” I thought of the people in the buildings. I thought of the people on the planes. How horrifying were their final moments? How much pain did they feel? What about their children? Their families?
     I called my ex-wife and talked to her about what we were going to do about our daughter. She is a nurse and worked at a hospital at the time. She told me they were already on lockdown, that there had been rumors of threats in Nashville as well. I told her I would sit tight for another thirty minutes to see what was happening and then if I needed to, I’d go get Daisy at the day-care. She agreed and we hung up.
     My attention turned back to the screen. I sat there in tears, watching two iconic buildings burn. I prayed for my country, through those tears. I prayed for the victims and their families. Then the horror got even worse. At first I thought they were pieces of the building falling to the ground. Then it became clearer, and the commentators confirmed it: those were people. People jumping from the windows of their offices, because they would rather fall to their death than burn.
     I remember rocking back and forth in my chair, sobbing now. Thinking about someone’s daddy, making that terrible choice, maybe calling to say goodbye first, and then leaping to their death. Or someone’s mom. Or someone’s fiancĂ©, or son, or daughter.
     It was hitting me full force now. These were my family. By right of their citizenship in the US and further…by their very humanity. Those were my brothers and sisters, hurtling to their death, because to not do so was to suffer an even more gruesome end. Twenty minutes later, the scene exploded into a nightmarish, twisted, surreal vision of ash, and glass, and molten steel, and fluttering papers, raining down on white-faced survivors fleeing for their lives, and brave first responders, running the other way, into the danger, to do what they do willingly.
     The first tower collapsed in forever-slow-motion. I can still see it in my mind. I’ll never stop seeing it in my mind. Never. I can feel the temperature of the office I sat in, the warmth of the sun on that picture perfect morning, flooding my office with a light that suddenly didn’t seem to be appropriate.
     There was no chance now. No chance for survival for the thousands in that building. I knew it as I watched. And I sobbed again. “What are they doing to my beloved country?” I thought. “Is this happening anywhere else? Are we safe here in the South?” By the time news broke of Flight 93 missing in Pennsylvania, and the plane hitting the Pentagon, I’d already decided to go get my daughter. “Maybe they’ll target daycare centers” I thought. “These people are animals, really. They want to inflict maximum pain. What would be more painful than attacking children?”
     I was already in my car and on my way to my daughter’s daycare when the second tower fell. I heard it on the radio. I could barely see to drive, for the tears. I called Daisy’s mom on my way across town and told her I’d have her with me, and we’ll coordinate later. Again she agreed. She was scared. The hospital was a rumor mill and she’d heard them all.
     I called my family to check in. Everybody was okay. All accounted for. I turned into my daughter’s daycare and saw the line of cars. I parked in the lot and walked to the front doors. I punched in the special code and walked in the lobby. The same fear and anger and sorrow I was feeling was on every face. The moms and dads who, like me, had decided that the best place for their kids was with them, protected and safe, all had the same look in our eyes. “What in Hell was happening?” That wasn’t a figurative or a colloquialism. It was what we really felt. Only Hell itself could have cooked up a plan like this. Were they done? Was there more?
     I walked toward the big room where the 3 and 4 year old kids played together. My little girl was three-and-a-half at the time. The apple of my eye. I paused outside the room as other parents went in. I spotted my daughter in the corner, playing with some of her friends, oblivious to what had happened.
She was still just a child.
     I waited. I watched her playing. Something deep inside told me to let her play just a few more minutes. The other parents instinctively knew not to mention what was going on and not to scare the children. We all put on a smile and pretended that we were just there to pick them up for a special day together. I let Daisy play for maybe three minutes or so…while I thought.
     I thought about the world she was now living in. How in one ten minute span, her entire future was changed. I didn’t know just how much, but I knew that after today, things could never be the same. And I cried again. I cried because I knew that somehow, the childhood I’d dreamed of giving her; the one I was working for, and planning for, was not possible now. This evil monster would always be there. From now until eternity.
     I finally walked in the room and she ran to me as she always did. Because she was a daddy’s girl. I scooped her up and hugged her as tightly as I could. I was trying to shield her. To block the evil from affecting her life. Like maybe if I squeezed her enough, the morning would be undone and she could just have a normal childhood. But that could never be.
     The day was a blur after that. We went to get breakfast and then we went grocery shopping. I called her mom and she talked to our daughter for a minute, just to hear her voice. We went to my home, which was ten minutes into the countryside, where we felt like it was safer. But was it? She played outside in the sunshine oblivious to what was happening, while I listened to the radio and pushed her on her swing.
     By the end of that long day, with the sky empty of planes, except for the occasional military jet, patrolling, and with the stunned sorrow beginning to turn into righteous rage, I wept again.
     I thought of my grandparents. Was this what they felt on December 7, 1941? Was this how it felt that Sunday evening, after the smoke had settled and the body counting had begun?
     I cried a lot more the next day, seeing the smoke and fire where to works of art in building form had been. When the reports came in of the brave 343 first responders who willingly ran into the buildings and died when they fell.
     Seventeen years later and I still can’t see those pictures. I still can’t see the stills of the ones who chose to jump. I still can’t see the flag, flying from a mast still attached to a piece of the building now laying in the street. I can’t see any of that without crying. In fact, I think that if I ever relive that day in my mind and don’t cry, I’ll question my own humanity, my patriotism, and my compassion.
     When I see people who don’t get emotional it angers me. When I see that in some pockets of this country, people who openly espouse the kind of sick evil are actually running for elected office –and in some cases winning—I am sickened and seething.
I will never fully trust those who belong to the sect who did this to us. Sorry…that’s life. That’s what happens when you attack us. There is going to be a bit of guilt by association and you had better just understand it. You’d better just understand my distrust and my holding you at arm’s length and you’re having to prove yourself to me and to my country.
     Because I still cry.




Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I Was Here...Saying a long goodbye to a dear friend


     This is a hard week. It’s been a hard few months, bookended within a hard year. Just hard. I turn fifty-five this week. It’s been hard for me. It’s not the number…it’s the regrets.
I hate my birthday. I think I always have. There are reasons why and I won’t go into them here. But by the time I was thirty, I stopped celebrating my birthday at all. I just chose to go to work or school and act like it was just another day, until it finally became just another day.
     But this week is hard. Harder than usual. In the midst of my usual self-assessment and subsequent sadness over all that should have been, might have been, and probably never will be, I’m also now forced to begin the grieving process for one of the dearest friends I have ever had.
     My friend Rick has terminal cancer. I can’t even look at the words as I type them. I can’t accept this and I can’t believe it. Rick has been my friend for almost thirty years now. He was a Christian musician and I began as just a fan, met him almost by accident, and we became friends. I am the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother. But I had Rick.
     I am watching him fight bravely. Fight the disease and fight the prognosis, and fight the sadness and the unrelenting assault of the illness. Cancer doesn’t have a game plan. It has no time limits. It can move slowly or invade like a lightning strike. It doesn’t care. It’s just a bunch of unfeeling cells with only one thing programmed into its code.
     My friend is doing his best to refuse surrender. He will find ways to make me laugh when I call. He’ll joke about his plight. He’s good at this…good enough that I can’t tell if he’s just being brave for everyone else, or if he’s really this hopeful. Like maybe he knows something we don’t. Like they found a cure and it’s being rolled out thirteen days from now and he is number three on the list and everything is secretly going to be just fine. Like he’s just holding this card close to his chest until a day or so beforehand and then he’ll tell us all, and we’ll go have dinner together and celebrate.
     I know none of this is true but Rick’s humor and ease makes me wish, and believe just a little. I’m in denial. I know it. But I can’t bring myself to accepting this. I can’t grasp a world without Rick Elias and the music, and the conversations, and the Christmas Party, and the Superbowl commentary. (Rick’s father-in-law was an NFL coach and his wife can take over a football viewing party like no other woman)
     There is a certain self-satisfaction with being a fan of someone who exists slightly on the outside of a genre. It’s like a badge of honor that tells the world that your tastes are a little more discriminating. My musical tastes were always this way. My record collection was, for the most part, made up of names you know, but you don’t know any of their stuff. I reveled in converting my friends to the sounds of Southside Johnny, Little Steven, Willy Deville…and Rick Elias.
Usually the first response was “That’s Christian music? That’s way too good to be Christian music.”
And it was. It was because, for the last twenty years or so, especially since the plague of “praise and worship” took over everything on the airwaves, Christian music has been horrible. Horrible like “I’d rather hear the “Brady-Kids-singing” horrible. The last record I cared about was Rick’s “Job” album and before that, “The Jesus Record” which was Rich Mullins’ posthumous masterpiece. I stopped listening to the genre…then I stopped caring about it. That’s sad. And that’s why we needed Rick in the first place.
     This is weighing on me as I have dealt with this terrible illness that my friend has and with the inevitable goodbye, and with the gaping hole in my heart, and with the snapshots of all the moments we’ve shared. I can’t stop the movie that plays in my soul, and I don’t want to. But sometimes watching it hurts even more.
     Three weeks ago I wrote him a letter. I debated sending it because I was afraid it was sounding like I was eulogizing my friend before he was gone. Like I was giving up. But I wanted…I desperately needed, to know that he heard my words sooner, not later. I wanted to be certain that he knew I loved him. That I was honored by his friendship. That I bore witness to this life of his. That someone stood up and said “I see you.” That he knew that others knew he was here.
     That’s really the point of this piece today. Because Rick is facing something that ultimately we all face, and for me it has only served to emphasize the internal wrestling I’ve been experiencing for over a year now. I’m getting older. Certainly not old, but I’m older. And I wonder, as fifty-five approaches in a few days, did anyone know I was here?
My daughter knows, of course. A few of my friends I suppose. But otherwise I wonder about the value of the life I’ve led so far. If I was somehow undone from history, what would the world look like?
     I’ve walked most of this walk of mine alone. That’s simply a fact. I didn’t grow up in a home where I was valued very much and I learned early on to just make my own way. That’s great for survival, but in the long term, it doesn’t lend itself to the feeling that somehow, someone in the crowd of six billion humans saw you. I’m questioning this now as I turn fifty-five, and as my friend faces eternity. Who saw me? Who saw Rick?
     I wrote him that long letter and sent it last week, after a few days of debating it in my heart. I hoped he would understand what I was saying, and what I was not. I wanted him to know that I saw him. That I see the footprints of his life and his work and some of those prints are on the sacred ground of my own heart. I saw the man he is and the dad he is and the husband he is and the Christian he is. I’ve seen the good and the bad and the in-between. And I stand as a witness to a life well lived. A job well done. A body of work that is superior to many who have achieved more fame, on far less talent.
     He’s been my friend. My friend when I was flying high and when I crashed on his couch. My friend when we disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and my friend when we were in complete unity. He read my writing and laughed at my jokes. He’d send me an email with a new song inside. “Don’t share this yet, but what do you think?” or he’d call me and ask me to come over and just hang out, because he knew I was a new divorcee, and I was his friend, and his friend was hurting.
     I am angry with myself that I have not learned this lesson already by now. This lesson of telling people you love them while there is plenty of time for them to accept it, and process it, and live in the truth of it, and let it inspire them. Rick and I –thankfully—kept short accounts. Twice I remember us disagreeing so passionately that we stopped speaking. In both cases the silence ended fairly soon and we were sorry it happened at all.
     My friend’s life and death battle has taught me, reminded me really, that nothing is forever and nothing should be taken for granted. If you love someone…tell them. Whether you love them as a friend or romantically or whatever, tell them. Tell them what they've meant to you, and why. Tell them how bland and boring life would be without them. Tell them what they've added to your life. Give examples. Remember moments. Thank them for making your life better. Hold on tightly. Laugh at yourselves. Tell them you love them. Make sure they know. Make sure they know how invaluable their life was to yours. How flavorless your banquet would have been without the dish they brought. Go ahead and cry. It's in those tears, and in that brokenness that the love you hold for them can escape the bonds of safety and propriety, and you can feel it in all its depth.
     Say it. Go ahead and SAY IT! I love you, my dear friend. You have meant more to me than all these words of mine can ever express. You have brought me laughter, tears, joy, depth, anger, connection, hope, despair, a glimpse of the Holy, the faint scent of the profane, and the soft flutter of the occasional angel wing. The steps we took together covered more ground than all my steps alone ever could.
     Hold nothing back. Because ultimately, in this crowded world of six billion people, it’s hard to be seen. Hard to be recognized. Hard to feel that someone, anyone, can pick your face out of the maddening crowd.
     Friends are that for each other. The witness to the life each other has led and the chronicler of the victories and defeats and the ground gained and lost. I am determined, more than ever now, to not let even one of my friends go through this life without them hearing me tell them I love them. And why. And what that love has done in this hard heart of mine.
     Maybe in that way, this long goodbye I am saying to my dear friend Rick, will have meaning and purpose that extends beyond his life, and into the concentric circles where his life and mine have overlapped.
     That, and the wonderful music he has bestowed on us all, will keep him fresh in my heart, painful as it will be, until I see him again.
Tell them you love them


* If you would like to help my friend Rick and his family please consider giving here:
Go Fund Me for Rick Elias

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Birthday America...


I never met either of my paternal grandparents. Both were long deceased by the time I came along. But I do know that they were both immigrants to this wonderful country. My grandfather Joseph, lied about his age and stowed away aboard a freighter and wound up outside of Philadelphia. My grandmother and her family all came here together and wound up in South Philly. My mom's father was born on the boat on the way here from the Ukraine. My mom's mother was the only one of my grandparents born on US soil, but even that only by a year or two. Her parents emigrated from England and Holland not many years before she was born.
My maternal grandfather was a SeaBee in WWII in the Pacific Theater. I have a picture of him as a very young man, posing with to fellow sailors in New Guinea around 1942.
Maybe that's where I get it from...my love for this country. My heritage is found in countries not nearly as wonderful or blessed as this one. Not that those nations aren't wonderful themselves...but they aren't America. I've heard the stories -some first hand and some second hand-- about the hardships they faced and how much this country meant to them. Among my grandparents, on either side, there was not a handout to be found. Not a government gift or a social program freebie. They came with nothing, they worked hard, and they became parents, business people and homeowners. They weren't perfect, by any means. They were rough, somewhat uneducated because of their standing in society, maybe rough around the edges. They were also hard working, people of Faith, good neighbors, good citizens, good people.
And they were AMERICANS.
From what I understand, my grandfather didn't bother teaching Italian to his children. Because they were "Medicones." Not that they didn't pick it up along the way, but his first command to them was that they were Americans and would behave like Americans.
They were proud of who they had been, but far more proud of who they were. Americans.
I've always been a history buff and always an unabashed Yankee Doodle Dandy. But as I've gotten older, and more worn by the years, (and hopefully wiser) I am even more so. I didn't know about my Italian heritage until I was 21 and didn't meet my family until 2007 at age 43. There was a period, when that was new and exciting, where I was self-hyphenating. I was Italian American or American Italian, depending on how you divvy up the whole percentages thing. But in the last eight or ten years I stopped doing that. I am fiercely proud of my Italian heritage and especially of my family and our story. The longer I've known my cousins and siblings the more I've grown to really love them, and I hope they feel that way about me. I'm LUCKY to be a Daliessio.
But I'm far luckier still -blessed by God in fact-- to be an American. My heritage on either side takes a backseat to my citizenship and birthright as an American.
As years pass I've grown more and more sentimental, more unashamedly patriotic, more fiercely loyal and protective of this land of mine. There are place in this world I want to visit...but none as much as the wonderful places inside our own borders. I want to go to my grandfather's hometown of Montecassino someday. But probably not until I have seen more of OUR mountains. Or met more of my fellow Americans. Instead of backpacking across Europe, I dream of traveling this country, without a roadmap or an itinerary, and just see what is out there.
If it were possible, I would find the center of this great land...the place where her heart is...and fall on that sacred ground and pull her to my chest. I love her that much. She has given me and my family everything...by giving us nothing more than a chance. 242 years ago, 56 great men closed out this day by signing a document that got this all rolling. Their signatures almost invariably guaranteed their own personal ruin. Less than a third of them would survive the Revolution with their fortunes, or their lives, intact. But that was a sacrifice they were willing to make for the sake of the promise that this new country held. If The United States of America could take root. If she could survive. Then the promise of her founding would be there for the children and grandchildren of these noble men, and that was enough for them to risk it all.
I just can't look at a sacrifice like that and simply go on about my day. I owe them. I owe them diligence and vigilance. I owe them my best, to keep this nation always functioning at IT'S best. I owe them my best efforts at being a great AMERICAN citizen, a great neighbor, a great friend, and a great patriot.
I'm trying. Every day.
Happy Birthday America.
God Bless you still