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.
That mission was everything America is. Bold. Gutsy. Refusing to accept less than excellence. Imaginative.
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.
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Saturday, July 20, 2019
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
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
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…
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