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I always assume the best when I find broken robin’s eggs like this. I imagine a fat baby bird in a nest somewhere, getting stronger each day.

I came across multiple nests this spring. I have learned a few things while watching them. Most excitingly, I can now identify the species of parents of those gorgeous blue eggs with brown spots. All three nests I found belonged to Dark-eyed Juncos. I see the Juncos all the time at my bird feeder. I also learned that Juncos have a habit of building their nests on the ground, and that it is just as bad of an idea as it seems to be.

I told you about the first one: I was cutting very tall grass with the trimmer and accidentally exposed a nest that had been built into a blackberry bush inside the grass. I realized immediately that I had exposed it, and picked up the tall grass and stacked it all around with only a tiny entrance hole. But it didn’t work. Three days later the branch was bent over and the egg was gone. It looked like the work of a raccoon.

The egg I accidentally exposed while working one evening.

Same nest, the next morning. I couldn’t tell if the parent had come back or not at this point.

Next I was pulling weeds by hand beside the house and vaguely aware of an angry bird flitting from the rooftop to the ground, to the garbage can, and back to the roof, all the while chirping angrily at me. The bird was on all sides of me, harrassing. I was getting closer and closer to a great big burst of weeds and tall grass beside my house when the bird finally got through to me, and it dawned on me that I was being scolded for my behavior. I stopped just in time, and peeked carefully into the weeds I had not yet pulled. There was a beautiful nest.

Perfect nest with gorgeous eggs, right next to the foundation of my home.

It was my opinion that building a nest on the ground in this forested area was simply not a good idea. But of course, Mother Nature is most times wiser than me. I gave the spot a wide berth from then on. For the next several days I tried to stay away, but sometimes had to be in the area and that’s when I would see the Dark-eyed Junco fly off the nest and resume scolding me. The Juncos are very common here.

The ground below my bird feeder. Two Juncos are there, with the black heads.

Sadly one day, not even a week later, I saw all the weeds trampled. I hurried over to check and there were no more eggs on the nest. Again, it looked like evidence of raccoon. So sad. I really had hopes for her, or him, whomever had been scolding me anytime I came near.

The worst nest location choice of all was the nest I discovered on the ground while mowing the lawn on my riding lawn mower. I happened to be looking at the ground beneath the mower as I was backing up and turning around in a wide open area. Somehow, I had driven right over the top of a nest twice – once forward, once backward – and it had survived. But now the freshly cut grass exposed it completely.

See the nest in the bottom left, out in the middle of my lawn?

I picked up the nest, trying to decide what to do with it.

There were no trees above that it had fallen from – it had been built right there on the grass. There were no trees or bushes close enough that I was sure the parents would find the nest if I moved it. It was a very bad location with no camouflage. At a loss, I laid the nest back exactly where I had found it. The very next day the egg was gone. I had known it would be.

It’s always a fight out here in the country. We are all battling each other for the same piece of land we believe is our own land.

While everyone else is battling for their lives, I have the luxury to sit here, sheltered from the rain, and think about it.

I’m most aware of my personal battles. I fight the deer that eat everything I plant, the raccoons that eat my chickens, the worms that are building webby nests in my apple trees, the moles that tear up my grass, the rats hoarding chicken pellets, termites in the wood pile. It’s not just me though. All I need to do is look around and see that the fight for a safe and comfortable life never ends. The heron eats the fish in my pond. The raccoons eat the Juncos. Opposums eat the frogs. The cougar eats the deer.

It isn’t personal; it’s just what life looks like.  It’s all about the battle to make a home and keep it. The critters aren’t targeting me, just doing what they can.

Seven thousand military boots with flags representing each of the American service members killed since September 11, 2001.

Heading into Memorial Day weekend, Will and I visited Fort Adams State Park. The timing was serendipitous and we benefitted by being able to see a Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial, put on by Operation Stand Down Rhode Island. As we walked inside the walls of the fort, we saw a memorial display of military boots, each adorned with a name placard and an American flag, honoring service members killed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

I could not walk among the flags and boots for long.

As a result of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since the Trade Towers attacks, around 7,000 American soldiers have died. OSTDI is right to draw our attention in such a dramatic way to those who died. I would like to draw your attention to additional numbers, such as the estimate of around twice as many private contractors who also died while providing support to the Americans. Those private contractors don’t get the honor or the benefits that military people get, though they serve in the same theatres. And if we are kind enough to feel empathy for all of the people who died, then consider that of all nationalities involved, at least 480,000 people have died in these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. And “In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” We could layer boots across the grounds of Fort Adams a couple feet deep, if we were able to honor everyone in this way.

I was drawn to the display immediately, and walked into the center of it, picking up cards attached to each boot, with photos and information about the service members from South Dakota and Kentucky and Ohio who gave their lives to their country and died at age 24, 27, or 19. It was suddenly too much and my chest heaved for breath as tears began streaming down my face. I marched out of the expanse of flags and over to the walls of the Fort. Will quickly followed and helped me get interested in Fort Adams history, in order to let the pain go.

Inside the walls of Fort Adams.

Is this a boiler? The remains of the Fort are very interesting and in my mind, beautiful.

Greenery takes over when the soldiers are no longer here to sweep and whitewash.

Fort Adams occupies a peninsula at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. The fortifications in the bay are the only ones in the area to have seen action against an enemy. The first earthen fort was built on this location in 1776 to protect the people who lived on and used the harbor, and also to prevent enemies from using the harbor as a base. Though there were fortifications and cannons placed all over the bay, it was not enough, and in December 1776 the bay was captured by the British. They successfully held off a major, months-long attempt by combined French and American forces to retake the bay in 1778. Then the British voluntarily evacuated in 1779 (like my cat, I guess, it just had to be their idea before they would leave), and the French took over. Put a pin in that, and I’m going to bring it up later. Major Tousard, a Frenchman who had fought there and lost an arm in 1778, was commissioned by the US Army and oversaw restoration of the defense structures. He reopened the fort in 1779 and christened it Fort Adams, after President John Adams. The current structure was completed in 1857.

Outside the Fort we walked to the tip of the peninsula and watched some college sailboat racing competitions.  It seemed too windy of a day for sailing but the water was filled with sails. The teams were 100% women and the racing was so fast it seemed reckless. After completing their loops, they hurtled their boats into the marina and practically skidded sideways up to the docks. I would have thought the speed and daring was dangerous, except that with only a little observing, I could see that these women knew exactly what they were doing. It was not reckless at all. I am impressed.

A tall ship replica.

A pet peeve of mine: when communities decide to approach the litter problem by removing trash barrels.

Will had been trying to introduce me to as much Rhode Island-ness as possible, and thus when we came across a stand selling Del’s frozen lemonade, we had to get some. Other RI traditions he ate while I was there included coffee milk, lobster rolls, and johnny cakes.

The beach at Kings Park. On a warm day with no agenda, I could have so much fun sifting through these shells for hours.

A monument to French nobleman and General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau. Now there’s a mouthful.

At the waterfront of Newport in Kings Park, we found a statue of American gratitude to General Rochambeau, who led the French force that helped the colonies to win the Revolutionary War.

Trusting in a tourist map and a nearby information sign, we hunted and hunted for the next lighthouse. If anyone at home is still playing lighthouse bingo, this is #8! We couldn’t see a lighthouse anywhere, but for the hell of it decided to follow the maps even though it was clear we were only walking out along a pier to the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. It was quaint and interesting, so we ended up wandering around and admiring the place and…guess what?! We found the light! The Lime Rock Lighthouse was renamed in 1924 for Ida Lewis, the lighthouse keeper who became famous for many rescues she managed while working at Lime Rock.

Never would have guessed it without seeing it, but the light is mounted to the back wall of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, above the dining room. I wonder how many Yacht Clubs can claim to also be lighthouses?

Since it was nearby, we also stopped at Goat Island, connected to land by a bridge. Goat Island was the first piece of land purchased for the purpose of building fortifications for defense of the bay. We did not see any remaining defense structures. Today it is a tamed location with a marina, restaurant, and condominiums.

We were after lighthouse number nine, so we went to Jamestown and visited Beavertail Lighthouse next. On the way we made a quick stop at Fort Weatherill State Park. There we got a great view of Castle Hill that we had been so recently standing upon, and a better look at Castle Hill Lighthouse, mentioned in my last post. My apologies for the blurry photos in zoom. For the entire two-week trip I relied only on my iPhone, having left my Nikon at home accidentally. I did remember to bring the Nikon battery charger, but alas, the gesture was entirely inadequate without the camera itself. 😦

Gorgeous coves at Fort Weatherill State Park.

View of Castle Hill Inn and the Castle Hill Lighthouse.

Poor resolution image of Castle Hill Lighthouse that we had spotted earlier in the day.

At the parking lot for the Beavertail Lighthouse, I examined a giant metal ball that looked a lot like a WWII mine. I’ll have to assume that someone has checked it out and it no longer carries a charge. Actually, it’s probably just a giant rusted float. Then we made our way to the lighthouse at Beavertail State Park.

Brave? Dumb? Actually, just convinced that a thousand other tourists stood here first, and if they didn’t trigger it, I wouldn’t.

Approaching Beavertail State Park and Lighthouse.

The Beavertail Lighthouse was first erected in 1749 and was the third lighthouse in the country. That wooden lighthouse burned down. Have you noticed how frequently I’ve mentioned that the first – and usually the second – lighthouses were destroyed, but then the current one has been sitting there for 150 years? I guess everybody figures out right away that to build a lasting structure on the coast, one needs to spare no expense or quality of materials. Anything less will be ruined. The sea isn’t mean, she’s serious, and you need to take her seriously. When you do, the lights are allowed to stand. Anyway, the one here was built in 1856.

Beavertail Lighthouse, built in 1856.

Remember how I said that the “British voluntarily evacuated in 1779” up above? Well, history of Beavertail Lighthouse website mentions that while the British were leaving the bay in in 1779, the lighthouse building was damaged. No further information. But doesn’t that make you wonder? Where is the rest of the story? If the British left their occupation of Fort Adams because they had made a strategic decision, then did that decision involve damaging structures on the way out? Were the Americans confused about what was happening and fire on them on their way out? Was there a battle? Was there an accident? Oh, History. There is so much you continue to hide from me.

The foundation of the original wooden lighthouse, erected in 1749, still stands.

Will and I kept noticing rocks and wished that Tara was with us so we could ask geology questions.

A fisherman stands alone and fishes off Beavertail Point, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

Then we found a classy restaurant in Newport for dinner and still the night was not over. Will had a surprise, but he wasn’t sure if I was still game. Should he tell me? No, I love surprises! Lead on! The last thing we did that night was private dance lessons, followed by an hour of group dancing with beginners. Oh gosh it was so much fun. I know nothing about dancing but I’ve always wanted to learn. Though one night of dancing is certainly not enough to know how to dance, I did discover that when put to the test, I still want to learn to dance.

Ok, seriously. Can you believe all that was in one day? My last post plus this post? Wow. Maybe I’m not old yet after all.

I’ve been reading through old emails this morning, looking for some details from my time in Japan back in 2012. I came across the following email, describing a meeting I had earlier in the day. While in Japan, my job was to actually meet with people all day long, whereas here in the states I typically only see their paperwork. During that temporary job assignment, I was reminded that I have a gift of being able to connect to people. I can put them at ease even when they have to talk about something difficult. That gift was finally put to use during my 2012 tour. This story is an example of why it is an honor to be able to serve my customers.

 

“Sometimes my job socks me in the gut. It’s the side effect of working with military people. There are some real, live, fucking heroes out there, and never an adequate way to say thanks. In this case, acknowledging the Sergeant Major would have been the worst possible thing to do. So I nodded, and said, “Uh huh. Ok.” and scribbled on my pad of paper. And I told myself to hold it together. Hold it together. Stop thinking. Turn your head to what you need to help this man. Facts. Law. Explanation of procedure. Acknowledgement. Respect. Confirmation and affirmation for him. Total brutal coldness and move on…

 

I had asked a question I always ask when I see in their medical records a Pre- or Post-Deployment health assessment. I asked the intentionally vague question, “Did anything happen during your deployment?” It’s in the context of making a list of health problems. I have all kinds of tricks to get people to remember stuff that’s bothering them. Sit somebody in a room, say “List all your health concerns,” and they’ll come up with about half of them. So I help. Deployments are a good one, because they’ll go “Oh, yeah, there was that time I banged my head on the turret without a helmet on,” or whatever.

 

He stutters just a little. “Well, a lot happened.” I can tell he’s answering me in a totally different way than I expected him to answer. He’s answering me literally. “I lost a lot of people. There were so many of my guys… I mean, you don’t want to hear this probably,” he looks at me to see if I want to shut him down, and I keep my face completely blank. He looks at the floor, “Well. It was bad.”

 

Sergeant Major was in Afghanistan and lost or sent home injured 70 men. Seventy. He said he wrote it all in a journal, to help himself deal with it. He told me he wrote their names in his journal, and wrote what happened, and what it meant to him at the time. He downplayed himself as though he wasn’t even there. Brought up his Combat Action Ribbon (major award) as though he was forced to mention it in order to explain something else. What he was explaining was this one time he was in a convoy and one of his kids – he stops to explain, “My kids. I call them my boys…the Marines under me, not my own kid.” – stepped on an IED. But he was lucky,” he tells me. “He only lost his leg. He was lucky.” I ask casually, “how far away were you from the blast?” “8 meters.” (fucking close) “And, did you have any loss of consciousness? Bang your head or anything?” He laughs, “Oh no, I’m fine. I was fine. Good body armor. I felt the concussion waves. Everyone did. But there was no damage. Yeah. It’s not like I earned the Combat Action Ribbon. The paperwork was done, and I had so much going on, I just accepted it.”

 

Fuck. I am reeling as he’s telling me this. Eight meters from an IED blast. He watches his own guy get his leg blown off. He loves them so much he calls them his kids.

 

The meeting goes on as we discuss other health concerns. He doesn’t sleep at night. Can’t explain it. “I get around 4 hours of sleep a night, but it’s not all together. It’s ok. It’s been going on so long I’m used to it now. I think the Marine Corps teaches a man how to live on less sleep. It’s not like anything’s wrong.” And his wife tells him he’s lost his interest in things he used to like. “Japan‘s a really safe country, as you know,” he says. “But even though I know that, I can’t help it but get uncomfortable in a narrow alley. I know it’s safe, but there are windows sliding open, with rifles coming through. It’s just not safe.” He lapsed seamlessly from Japan to Afghanistan as he was talking.

 

“When you’re over there, you’ve got to turn it off,” he tells me. “It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way you can do it. Turn it all off. Then when you come back to the states, and …well, normal things aren’t normal anymore. Nothing makes sense. Does that make sense? A guy here on base steps off a curb wrong, hurts his ankle, and there are 7 different documents written up on him, the incident, and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re spending our time worrying about stuff that small? Stuff that doesn’t even matter?’ It’s also a factor of coming from Camp Lejeune, say, it’s a ground base, where everybody is on the ground. The ‘real Marines.’ And now I’m here at an airbase, and it isn’t the same. The people here don’t… Their mindset isn’t… This is not Afghanistan.”

 

He isn’t being eloquent, though this is a very intelligent and eloquent man. And yet, I feel as though I know exactly what he’s saying to me. I tell him he is describing classic PTSD to me. He blinks and looks away. “I’ve made peace with that. I’ve made peace with the idea that it’s probably PTSD. I’m not asking for anything.”

 

The way I deal with it is I flip through the pages of his medical records, I bring up something else, “Here it says there was an abrasion to your eye?” and distract the conversation. Let it cool down, then I pull it back later for an important detail. “So you did receive a Combat Action Ribbon? That will be reflected on your DD-214?” I pull out more details from Afghanistan, talk about something else for awhile, then pull it back to the repercussions of the desert. What’s going on now that he is not quite linking to his heinous deployment yet.

 

It’s worse because he’s in charge here. The Colonel’s right hand man. Sergeant Major is in control here, and I’m listening to him tell me what a mess he is inside. And I know he’s going to suffer from it his whole life. He’s young, handsome, has been married a good long time and his youngest is a senior in high school. He should be looking forward to retirement, and I won’t tell him his retirement could very well undo him. At least…from what I’ve seen in other people’s medical records.

 

Then I get reassurance that being cold was the right move, when he tells me once he went to talk to a doctor here on base about his symptoms of anxiety and trouble sleeping. He started to tell her about Afghanistan, “And she just got all upset, and started crying, and she left the room! She just left. I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be my rock, and you leave.’ So then I found this other doctor over here. He was in Vietnam. He knows. I guess he’s the kind of guy who tells it like it is. I don’t think everybody tells the truth. This doctor said, ‘It’s never going to go away. You’ll always have those memories. What we have to do is figure out a way for you to live with it.’ All the other people tell me ‘It’s gonna get better. It’ll all be ok.’ But I think… I think I’ll have to believe the doctor. He was in Vietnam.”

 

I think about what he said for several seconds, trying to decide where to go with that. “I have no medical training,” I start with. “All I can say is what I see in the medical records I read. And when people are young like you, it’s easier to manage. But when you’re 65, or 72, you are at a higher risk for having a harder time dealing with these symptoms. I don’t know why, but it seems to be harder for older people.” “Funny you should mention that,” he says. And tells me what his step-father told him just a little while ago. Another Vietnam vet. Never had a problem at all till he turned 55 when suddenly his Vietnam memories start bothering him. I try to give Sergeant Major hope instead of despair, “Well, look. I also see the opposite. I see guys who find themselves a distraction. A hobby. For example, a guy takes up fly fishing and he can stay happy.” “Well, I took up drinking,” he says. “That was my hobby. But I had to stop. My wife begged me.” I let out some air, disguised as a laugh, “Yeah, that’s the wrong hobby. Pick a different one.”

 

Anyway. He takes off. I address some email. Pack up my gear. At 4:30 I head home, and halfway back to my room I started crying. I knew immediately what it was. When those guys are in the desert, they have to turn it off 24 hours a day. They have to turn it off till they come home. But me, when I get to my room, I’m safe. So I only need to turn it off during business hours.

 

I’m sad. I’m aching for him. I want so badly to talk for six hours and give him hope, give him tools, tell him how grateful I am that people like him are out there having their lives ruined on my behalf. I want to talk to his wife, and tell her some things to help her understand, to help her have patience and to be strong. And tell the kids too. He’s a powerful, self-confident, fucking baddass war hero, and he was in my office scared. Scared of the future. Of what his mind is going to do to him. That sucks.

 

I’m still crying. Sometimes my days are like this in the VA. I am glad it’s so real for me. The war is never far away from me because of this. I’m just more used to seeing it in typed records and handwritten letters, not looking into a man’s eyes as he tells me how he wrote the names of his kids in his journal when they died.”
17

flags of power

I am not the only one shaking my head in disbelief over the official outcry from Washington about Russian President Vladimir Putin taking unilateral military action in Ukraine. Yes, what Putin has done is wrong: sending troops into a nearby country without threat of imminent attack. But the big news story is not Russia! It’s the U.S. pretending to be outraged.

“It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty and not unilateral force that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” Kerry said, after accusing Vladimir Putin of 19th Century behavior.

Secretary Kerry, for all your intelligence, you are not thinking! It was as recent as September 2013 when you were championing Obama administration’s proposed unilateral military action in Syria, whose government was not threatening attack on the U.S. You thought that particular 19th Century behavior was justified.

“We’ve also seen an acknowledgement from the Foreign Secretary about the United States’ right and ability to make our own foreign policy decisions that are in our national security interest,” said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, August 30, 2013. It’s an argument that the U.S. has the “right” to make our own decisions and take action. Even with no support, not even from our closest allies, the British.

I remember how angry Putin was with the U.S. at that time. Isn’t it obvious – dare I say predictable – that Putin would do the exact same thing in retaliation when he got a chance?

And the 800-pound gorilla in the room: March 19, 2003 we invaded Iraq. We went to WAR unilaterally. How can Secretary Kerry publicly imply that we wouldn’t take unilateral military action and therefore can cast judgement on those who do? Well, how can he say such things and not feel ashamed, I should have said.

Hypocrisy.

When my own country’s leaders are as oblivious as that, when all they can think is that the U.S. is always right and everybody else is always wrong all the time no matter what the question is, then they lose my respect. They lose a little more of my patriotism. They lose a little more commitment. My country started off with a devoted fan, and lose me a little more all the time. I am disgusted. Again.

It’s been 26 years since I registered to vote in time for the 1988 Presidential election. I could have been successful at any University at the time, I had great grades, involvement in a dozen clubs, awesome SAT scores, but out of patriotism I joined the Air Force to serve my country instead.  I’m crazy about the U.S.A. This dang country can be so embarrassing and arrogant…and yet I still keep loving it.

The decision-makers in D.C. are not learning, not growing, toward being a better nation, nor are they interested in real solutions. The very top people in government are obsessed with the wrong goal: finding more effective ways to win the game of power. I know a lot of cynical wisecracks might come to mind, but it’s actually pretty dismaying to discover that.

Someone said it really well in a recent BBC World Service podcast (4 March 14 pm). That someone was Putin. Struck so close to the truth I nearly flinched. 

Questioned about recent talks with world leaders, Vladimir Putin responded through a translator: “We are often accused of carrying out illegitimate actions, and I asked the question, ‘So, you think everything you do is legitimate?’ They say ‘Yes,’ and I have to remind them of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Our partners in the United States have clearly defined their own geopolitical interests. If you follow what they say, carefully, they use a framework of ‘those who are not with us are against us.’ This forces the rest of the world to align themselves accordingly. Those who refuse get badgered. And more often than not they get badgered into submission.”

Let me be clear: I understand that Putin is a sneaking, conniving, power-monger like all the rest of them. But these words above are true. It tells us that those countries who have the ability to badger the others are the ones who win the power game. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it works. (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” said President Bush)

Stinking ugly hypocrisy. Putin called it right.

Most of the time there is so much good in the United States government that I am able to forget the idiotic moments. I never have to pay bribes. Nearly everyone on the highways behaves as I expect them to. Same sex couples kiss in public. Immigrants are CEOs of major companies. If I am hurt, I will get treated at any hospital emergency room I go to. My own job is taking care of military veterans – what other country on earth cares for veterans like this? No one! Not even close.

Despite all the good it does, I can’t help but be astonished when my government shows that its primary goal is to maintain power. Not to take care of me. Not to be honorable. Not to do good with all that power, but only to use it to get more power.

Weird moment this morning on the bus:  That peculiar Jew guy got on, and I made room for him to sit by me. Because – and here’s the weird part – I was thinking, “‘Cause he’s Jewish; he’s from my tribe. He’s like me.” Huh?

I am not Jewish.

He’s socially awkward, with a chafing, too-loud, high-pitched voice, saying, “Hi, hi, thank you, hello.” and bobbing his curly dark hair to everyone at 5:57 a.m. when all of us on the bus are actively trying to avoid acknowledging anyone else in the world exists because we aren’t quite ready to begin the day yet.

The bus was unusually crowded this morning. A rumpled group of groggy-eyed city commuters interspersed with the strangling reek of chain-smoking addicts heading for the methadone clinic. This funny guy gets on and I saw there were barely any seats left. He’s one of the usual riders, so I am used to seeing him get on, and I know he’s different. I worried that others who recognized him might be less likely to scoot over than me.

It came as a complete surprise to me when I realized that I was feeling responsible for this man; this stranger. I have never spoken to him, never even made eye contact, and yet I’ve always thought of him as Jewish, based on looks alone. I could be totally, completely wrong, but there it is. Perhaps you can forgive my stereotyping. And, well, I earned my degrees at Brandeis University, surrounded by Jews, and I love and admire my Jewish Brandeis friends, and think of them as “my people.” And, though no one explicitly invited me, I consider myself welcome in their group. And thus, if this weird guy on the bus is Jewish, then he is “my people” too. And that means I have to be his people. And scoot over to give him a place to sit.

He wandered to the back of the bus, then came back, and yes, sat next to me.

That is exactly what “Community” is all about. That is why humans are drawn together at an instinctual level. Because together we are a force to be reckoned with. In our communities we look out for each other; we give and then take.  The larger my community, the more people have got my back.

Together we are powerful. We do great things as groups, even though individually we can be pathetic and weak. That is how we are able to love the people in our family who drive us crazy. And, that is how we are able to work toward peaceful goals with people who are really different than we are: because we allowed ourselves to get close, to feel a bond, to see them as though they are like us.

I recalled a time, last September, a little over a year ago. We were the first to set up our tents in an unfamiliar campground and I was full of anxiety about being in this place with other campers sure to move in as the day progressed. I get nervous around too many people. Then, a Chinese family moved in smack on top of us, practically. We were two large groups and were assigned adjacent campsites. And, though in theory it was precisely what I had worried about, I was so relieved. My thought, strangely enough, was the one I described above, “Ahh, it’s ok. These are my people.”

I am not Chinese.

See, in my neighborhood in Montavilla, I am surrounded by Chinese. They are my neighbors, they are the kids who bounce basketballs on the side of the street, waiting as I slowly glide past in my car, they are the ones who tell me my cat is not lost, but in their back yard, and who take turns hogging the street parking with me.

How remarkably simple it is to feel like family with people who are so different. All one has to do is be around a stranger for awhile, and that stranger becomes my neighbor Perry, or his brother David. And from there, it’s not much of an extrapolation to believe that Perry and David probably exist in every country in the world. Why can’t the whole world experience this little delight, and realize how lovely it would be to think of strangers as “our people” rather than hold them in suspicion at an arm’s length?

Nagasaki City Peace Hall viewed across the reflecting pool of the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial

My brother Ian and I agreed that Nagasaki was on our list of things to do. Friday I was free to spend the whole day out touring with Ian, so we made plans to take the train south along the western edge of Kyushu and see the famous city.

Rain crashes onto the train that will take us to Nagasaki

We were up early (Ian assisted by vestiges of jet lag), but we lagged in preparations because it was raining pretty hard outside. We went across the parking lot to the Harbor View Club for breakfast, but the rain continued. After some discussion, we agreed that rain or no, today was the best day to see Nagasaki.

Boy howdy, did it rain! We stopped first at the NEX (Navy Exchange) to buy umbrellas (I think I own six umbrellas now, since I kept getting caught without one). We slogged through the downpour to the train station. We bought tickets and climbed aboard absolutely soaked through.

Part of the Huis Ten Bosh European theme park

Japanese houses in the rain

Rice fields mature beside the tracks on our way to Nagasaki

The small train went slowly to Nagasaki. After an hour and a half we had arrived, and the weather had improved dramatically by the time we arrived. What a relief. Ian proved resourceful, and while I was still trying to think through how we should begin getting around, he found information on how to get an inexpensive day pass for the streetcars. We found maps of the city in English at the Information shop where we purchased the pass.

entrance of the train station

one of the streetcars that took us around the city

First stop was the atomic bomb museum. I was eager to compare this one to the one I had seen in Hiroshima. (Please see my blog post from my first visit to Hiroshima Peace Park.) Many people had told me they preferred the Nagasaki peace park/ museum complex. It is less polished than the one in Hiroshima, and for some that makes it more real.

twisted metal {click to enlarge}

from the church

I found myself less distraught at the complex in Nagasaki. Perhaps because I was with my brother and made an effort not to let myself get too emotional, whereas in Hiroshima I was with Tara, and we are comfortable crying together.

ruined bowl

What struck me the most in Nagasaki was seeing how much of their Christian community had been destroyed. Of course, Nagasaki was a wonderfully diverse city at that time, and contained worshippers of multiple faiths, but before this summer I would never have guessed how many Catholics were there. I wonder how many Americans knew about this after the bomb: we hadn’t vaporized alien beings, but Christians, and sacred Catholic churches and artifacts. This realization was consistent with the little bit of Japanese history I learned this summer when I read Shusaku Endo’s compelling book, Silence, about Jesuit priests that snuck into Japan in the 17th century to minister to the faithful who had to worship in secret under penalty of death if discovered.

melted rosary {click to enlarge}

Information board at the museum:

The Urakami district of Nagasaki was the site of Christian missionary work from the latter part of the 16th century. The people of Urakami suffered persecution constantly from 1587 when Christianity was outlawed until 1873 when the ban was finally lifted. Over the course of 20 years, these faithful people built a church, laying one brick upon another. Their labors were rewarded in 1914 with the completion of the grandest church in East Asia. The church’s twin 26 meter high spires were completed in 1925. But the explosion of the atomic bomb blew the spires down and reduced the church to a hollow shell of rubble.

inside the atomic bomb museum

Another very compelling sight was the famous image of the man and ladder “burned” into the side of a building at the instant of the deathly bright flash of the bomb burst, and also the image similarly captured by vines on a wall. These things make it very real: the tragedy, the instantaneous destruction, the power of the bomb.

“About 4.4 kilometers from the hypocenter. A lookout was exposed to the flash of the atomic bomb explosion after coming down from the roof of the Nagasaki Fortress Headquarters. The tar exposed directly to the flash burned and disappeared but that in the shadows remained.”

wood burned by flash of bomb, but protected where the vine grew

live vine

There are other things to see on location, so after the museum, we toured the Yataro Noguchi Art Museum. Works in the small museum were primarily by the named artist, but we found paintings by other artists that impressed us more than the impressionistic paintings of Noguchi.

mahjong

Then we walked through the Nagasaki Museum of History and Folklore.

Finally we found the entrance to the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. The hall is underground, and the entrance is through a water sculpture that creates a reflecting pond on the surface. Water only about an inch deep covers 70,000 tiny fiber optic lights representing the 73,884 deaths attributed to the atomic bomb and the nuclear fallout.

remembrance hall atrium

The underground peace memorial hall was cool, modern, peaceful. It is built for prayer and reflection and remembrance. Architect Akira Kuryu did an excellent job of creating the right kind of mood down there. In the main hall atrium, there are 12 lit green pillars that soar upwards to a skylight. At one end of the row of pillars is an equally tall column holding shelves with cards, each card containing the written name of a victim. There is a book for people to write in, on a table that also holds dedications. These often consisted of folded paper cranes for peace. The paper cranes are found all over the site here in Nagasaki, as well as in Hiroshima.

Our wanderings led us up and out of the complex after that, and we wandered back into the city to look for more sights to see and hopefully some food, as well. Sadly, we did not realize that the bomb hypocenter was very close to us, though hidden behind trees. Thus we did not make our way to that final sobering memorial.

please click image for source

I came across this classroom assignment I wrote in 2006 for an International Mediation course I was taking at Brandeis University. The first third of the paper is a tidy re-cap of the traumatic battle surrounding the discovery of a 9,300 year old human skeleton beside the Columbia River. The remainder is obviously student-speak designed to answer the many questions put to us by our professor, and designed to prove that we had read all the texts assigned.

Pursuing any current and relevant news, I found an article in the Tri-City Herald noting that ancient human remains were again found in the area. Startled, I read on to discover that the bones, estimated to be 300 to 350 years old, were handed over to the Tribes claiming them by the US Army Corps of Engineers. No fuss, no scandal, no lawsuits.

Painful as it is, the truth looks ugly. Scientists, arguably among the most intelligent of us, appear to be using only their empirical data in these two cases. Inciting war in the first, and granting peace in the second. They apparently have decided that Indians have the right to claim 300 year old remains but not 9000 year old remains. Yes, I see the difference on the surface. But ideologically, what is the difference? Why does one group get to draw the line, and where exactly is it drawn, and why?

My apologies if I lost you, because this stuff is so central to my core that I find it hard to express to someone else. But let me try: Indians claim that ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors because their oral traditions (i.e. their religions) tell them so. Scientists track ancestry through DNA samples, and many believe that there are multiple lineages that populated North America. Thus, any kinship ties could only be proven through meticulous scientific study.

The fact that no ownership war began over the 300 year old remains says to me that scientists are willing to agree on kinship ties in that case. But NOT because they respect Indian religious traditions, but because it happens to be in line with their own religion of science. This stuff makes me furious. 1) If your scientific point is that DNA is required, then why not battle with equal ferocity over the 300 year old remains? 2) Why do the scientists get to set the terms? 3) If 9000 years old is clearly not an ancestor, and 300 years is clearly an ancestor, can we please have the exact year that delineates? (ok, yes, that was sarcasm)

Multiple parties were (and are still) passionate about those particular human remains called both Ancient One and Kennewick Man. Opinions vary on how they should or should not be handled, stored, examined, discussed, or buried. Millions of dollars and millions of hours were spent to make a decision on whether American Indians who claimed ancestral ties had the right to dispose of the human remains as the Tribes saw fit; or, whether anthropologists should be allowed to study the remains for the benefit of adding to our human knowledge base of early versions of our species.

My take was that, had the situation been handled properly, there may have been a way to satisfy some of the needs of both of these parties (as well as the needs of other parties also involved, to include the US Army Corps of Engineers and the intriguing Asatru Folk Assembly).

Again I fear that this is evidence that minority parties rarely get respect or validation. It is depressing and heartbreaking, not to mention frustrating when groups of stereotypically “intelligent” people such as scientists are the ones furthering ignorance, discrimination, and destructive hegemony.

On the optimistic side… there is a chance that I just witnessed an evolution of another kind. Can it be that we have learned lessons over here in the Pacific Northwest, and applied them successfully?

If you love the people giving their lives into service for our current Administration (even if you don’t agree with the current Administration), here’s a way to send a personal Thank You!

Go to Let’sSayThanks.com and Xerox Corporation is sending personalized postcards free of charge to servicemembers currently in the war.

The cards are all designed by kids and are pretty impressive. It’s fun, quick, and easy.

…and as a prior servicemember, let me assure you that receiving mail is almost a better morale booster than food, when you’re in the military! I’m not even exaggerating – all mail is a gift – so send some!

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

Dressed in my blues, sometime in the Spring of 1991. Just after the swift conclusion of the first Gulf War.

It’s sad to admit, but I was almost going to leave out the “Gulf War” part of the title, because I didn’t want to trigger any negative responses. The word veteran is pretty easily used among my friends, and we say how proud we are of veterans. But “that damn war” is a different topic altogether.

Of course, no one blames the soldiers. They are the ones dying. And their families are the ones suffering for the loss of the youth and strength of their loved ones. As one friend reminded me, the ones who don’t die have a more difficult battle: coming home scarred. Missing limbs, unexplained ailments from the desert, gone wrong in the head. There is radiation poisoning from depleted uranium that gets passed down to their kids. There is traumatic brain injury.

This does not describe every veteran. Many odd vets are like me. I don’t have physical scars, yet I’m burdened with conflicts. I am proud to have served my country. Proud to have sacrificed some comfort and some personal freedom in order to be at the President’s beck and call to answer some future unknown summons and do the job I was trained to do. It’s a proud calling. It’s just that, among civilians and military both, my calling was support staff. I wasn’t in the battle. I worked in weather, ensuring that the aircraft could take off and land safely. A critical part of every operation is support staff…but support staff (in any possible meaning of the word) are rarely lauded as they deserve to be.

Out of frustration of the pressure of this social inadequacy, I and other members of my unit volunteered to be sent directly to the desert sands, at the onset of Operation Desert Shield in August of 1990. Our offers were rejected because our mission at that time was too important for us to be let go. We were in Alaska, and our mission was support of the Star Wars program (it has since been declassified, so I can tell you and I don’t have to take you out, heh heh).

But the thing that sticks with me is the idea that our image of ourselves: “defenders of the country,” prompted us to volunteer to be sent directly into battle, rather than stay safe in Alaska. Isn’t that curious?

Then there is the civilian side of it. I just came from years at a University: not the best place for solider support. People asked me how I could agree to become a soldier when it meant that I could have to kill others. People asked me how I could agree to support the Air Force when I believed that war didn’t solve problems. Didn’t I ask all these moral questions of myself before I joined?

Well, actually, no. I believe in my country. I had committed myself to the support of my nation, and committed myself to obeying orders as I was trained to do. I didn’t think about politics, or morals, or peace tactics vs. war tactics. It was simple and elegant: I wanted to give of myself to the country I loved and was proud of. I left it up to my superiors to decide what should be done with me.

I did not ask moral questions when I volunteered to join the Persian Gulf conflict. I was a member of the US armed forces. My country was at war. I saw myself as a warrior, and I felt impotent while stuck in Alaska observing weather for secret spy missions to Russia. The mindset is hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself.

McCormick & Schmick’s is a seafood restaurant that – at least locally – offered up free dinners to veterans last night. My partner and I went to sample the fare, but sampled more of the atmosphere than we were expecting. The place was jammed with members of the 187th Helicopter Company, Vietnam Vets and their spouses. I met a woman with the 187th group in the bathroom who was visiting from Texas. I asked if she was a veteran. “No, I’m with my husband-” she began. Then she said, “Yes. I am a veteran. I stayed home all by myself and raised 5 kids!” I saw her point. “You served your time,” I affirmed.

I am glad that our nation stands behind our soldiers now better than we did during the Vietnam War.

It feels like there is a persistent collective recollection of how we further injured returning Vietnam Vets by taking out our political frustration on them. Americans are careful not to do it openly anymore. But… I can see the confusion lingers with us still. While we do not spit on vets any more, many of us have unvented anger. Many Americans are frustrated about the war, and have no one else to engage with. Washington authority is this Wizard of Oz idea, mystical and powerful and unattainable. Returning vets ARE attainable, sitting in a University class for example.

My message here is getting to be about as convoluted as my feelings. But the final point I’ll come back to is this: aside from all the anxiety I feel about the war we are in that I don’t believe in, and aside from the strange sense of shame I feel for having been a soldier but not having been in a battle, and aside from the pure anger I feel about how our military is a perfect hegemonic weapon to keep the weak and poor down while buoying the strong and rich, I am proud to have served. I am proud to have been a solider who supported Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I love my country fiercely, and I have done something about it.

One of my many guises

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