Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Foreign Family

After my technical training, the Air Force asked for my three top choices for permanent assignment. I marked Barkesdale, North Little Rock and some base in Mississippi on a pro forma form. But when my orders came out, I was assigned to APO 109. I came to understand that the needs of the Air Force far outweighed personal preference.
Having no idea what APO 109 meant, I asked an airman first class in the office that issued the orders. He said, “Man, you are going to love Hahn Air Base!” He went on to explain that it was in Germany. Growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood played war and Germans were always the enemy. Even though in 1959 we were well beyond occupation, I thought going to Germany was probably a bad thing.
When I told Mother on the phone that I was coming home for 30 days and then shipping out for Germany, she was somewhat alarmed, but ended the conversation by saying, “Well, son, John Henry is over there and he likes it.” He was a master sergeant and my first cousin, an older and wiser member of the family, who was married with two children, living in base housing at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, a compound some 50 miles from my future home at Hahn. I did not know John Henry very well, having only seen him at annual family reunions two or three times when this “career man” was home on leave. But, somehow it gave me comfort to know that someone in my family would be relatively close.
I arrived at the olive drab and quite remote air base in Germany on a dank and foggy autumn evening. Everything about the place was colorless. I felt as if I were in a black-and-white film set in the 30’s. I had been there about a month, learning my job of moving stuff around on paper and on a truck, when someone came into the barracks one Saturday morning looking for Danny Ford. I went by Dan in the service, so I figured it was John Henry and it was. I was glad to see him, a casually rotund smiling man in slacks and a cashmere sweater.
John Henry and his little family were in a 1951 Mercedes. The kids let me in the back door that opened opposite of the way American doors opened, front to back, and we were off to a quaint German restaurant where I experienced my first wiener schnitzel. It was love at first bite, having grown weary of the mess hall fare. I ordered an orange drink to go with my meal. John Henry said, “You can order beer if you want to. I won’t tell Aunt Pearl.” Not having developed a taste for hops, I declined, and that did not bother him.

That family was very good to me for as long as they were stationed there. I visited often, both when they came and got me and when I managed to get a ride to Bitburg. We played Monopoly, Crazy Eight, flew kites and even went camping in the beautiful countryside around the Mosel River. Family is important everywhere, but especially in a foreign land.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Magazine Article


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wise Old Man on Ebola

“What do you think of the Ebola crisis, Sir?” I asked the wise old man this morning. Interestingly, he said he had just been thinking, along with the Historic Washington State Park Interpreter, about the yellow fever scare of the 1870’s. He replied, “It does not seem to be a crisis as serious as the yellow fever outbreak of the 19th Century.”
“This thing is deadly, Sir.”
“I know,” said the wise old man. “It is a very dangerous disease, but people around here were just as nervous, if not more so, about yellow fever in the mid-to late 1870’s. They did not have all the media attention about the disease, but when a Washington, Arkansas resident arrived on the train in Hope with the disease, people in his town were justifiably terrified. Their confidence level in the doctors was not as high as ours is today.”
“Sir, surely you don’t think our confidence level is high concerning the CDC and the country’s medical professional’s ability to protect us from Ebola?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. But, in a way, I think we understand precautions against disease better than our forebears. When that man that arrived ill in Hope died, citizens were careful to purify everything he touched, even though they knew very little of how such a disease was transmitted. The local Board of Health met regularly, blaming the railways and the river boats for not screening their passengers. So, there is nothing new there.”
“If I may say so, Sir, you sound like that commentator on Fox, what’s his name, Shepard Smith, who claims the Ebola crisis is trumped up.”
“No, I don’t think it is trumped up, but there is a lot of suspicion that the government is ineffective on any number of issues and people do not feel very protected these days, do they? Competence is in doubt perhaps. For example, I had occasion to be in an emergency room in another state one day last week and, while people were there wanting help, some seemed skeptical of the process or even the possibility of receiving it.”
“Don’t you go to the VA for your health care needs?”
“Yes,” the wise old man replied. “I was at the emergency with another person. I have been very satisfied with my care at the VA, even though they have really received some bad press recently. That’s what I mean. For whatever reason, there is a lot of suspicion that government cannot sufficiently care for people medically. But I have found the VA quite effective, courteous, kind, respectful and diligent.”
“Back to this Ebola thing, Sir, are you of the opinion that it is not a serious issue?”
“No, it is serious, no doubt about that. But, I don’t think it should be characterized as an outbreak, do you? People should be more concerned about the flu and get the shot protecting them from that right away. And, if you suspect someone has Ebola, stay away from any of their fluids.”
“I sure hope you are right, Sir,” I said. “We will see how this thing plays out. My own fear is that it will become widespread here in our country. We should learn now how to take the right precautions.”

“Yellow fever it is not,” the wise old man said as he walked away.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gratitude is Golden

I went on a long walk through the woods this week after a good rain. The woods were cool, aromatic and quite fresh. I offered the trees a little carbon dioxide as I exhaled and they accepted it, giving me abundant oxygen in return as they swayed under clearing skies. As the fellow says in Dances With Wolves, “Good trade!” I would trade breathing out waste air for breathing in the wonders of fresh air any day.
And I traded other things on the walk as well. I swapped some stress and tightness for relaxation and refreshing. I offered exertion and received a moving panorama of fecundity as I reflected upon the great generosity of nature. Farmers and foresters are very well acquainted with the tendency of nature to be extravagantly generous. The forest floor was strewn with hickory nuts, more than scores of squirrels could gather. And even though it is only early October, the color show has begun. Some leaves are bright red, others bright yellow and there is a lemony cast to several low bushes. Sassafras and sweet gum trees are always unpredictable, but I saw a few purples and oranges among them along the edge of the pines.
I paused and reflected on the annual change of color for quite a while. A scientist friend of mine explained to me once that those beautiful fall colors are the “true” colors of the leaves and these amazing colors show up when chlorophyll breaks down in the coolness and allows this hidden vibrancy to burst forth. Perhaps in some ways we human beings are like the leaves. In hardship, our true colors come through, don’t they? Each of us responds a little differently to the problems and challenges of life but all of us show glimpses of our character in our responses. Often the difficulties we go through result in strength and resolution so that we grow. It is a bit like exercise advocates say: “If it does not kill you it will make you stronger.”
Problems notwithstanding, there is something about a walk in the woods that clears the mind and allows thoughts and ideas that may have been below the conscious level to break forth. Many of us have experienced going into the woods confused and coming out with clarity. Perhaps that is what makes hunting so popular—it is an activity that helps us work things out more or less passively, or at least in ways that seem passive.

On my long woods walk this week, the best thing that happened was a new awareness of all I have to be thankful for, such as simple things like good health, food, family and friends. I cannot lie to myself in the woods. There is something about nature that makes us face ourselves for who we actually are, without pretense, without posturing, without smoothing anything over. This radical honesty of the woods carries over into life and shows us the great value of gratitude. Gratitude is riches of the greatest kind. Gratitude makes our true colors golden.