Kindred Souls

Some people in this world are larger than life and my Uncle Bob was one of them. I was only six years old when he died at the age of thirty, but he had left an impression on me than never faded. He and my father had met in Corpus Christi, Texas when they were in high school and along with a third friend named Lloyd they became like the Three Musketeers, eventually attending college together at Texas A&M University. To everyone’s delight when my Uncle Bob met my mother’s sister, Claudia, the two of them fell in love and married. That’s how my father’s best friend officially became my uncle.

Uncle Bob was an athlete who played tennis and climbed mountains. When World War II broke out he enlisted and became a bombardier flying missions over Germany. When he returned from battle he completed a degree in Geology from Texas A&M and found love with my Aunt Claudia. Together they were a stunning couple, young and beautiful and brilliant.

Uncle Bob next enrolled in the South Dakota School of Mines to earn a masters degree in Geology. Before he had finished his studies he was diagnosed with cancer that required the amputation of one of his legs. True to his unflagging spirit he never missed a beat, studying during his recovery and graduating on time with the other members of his class.

After graduating he and my aunt returned to Corpus Christi where he landed a job in a small oil and gas company. At first his bosses gave him a desk job due to his disabilities, but he was itching to work in the field and finally convinced his superiors to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his prowess. He proved to be quite capable of doing the sometimes strenuous work at drilling sites, often being more adept that those without the constrictions that he bore.

Uncle Bob and my dad were quite the pair, two highly intelligent young men with big plans for the future. I remember them laughing together and enjoying each other’s company like two brothers. I loved the times when he and my aunt would stay at our house during their visits from Corpus Christi and we in turn often found ourselves traveling to Uncle Bob’s home which was filled with a museum worthy collection of rocks and minerals as well as his paintings of places he had been. 

Uncle Bob was planning to enter a program for a doctorate when he was once again diagnosed with cancer. This time he endured surgery to remove one of his lungs and was quite sick. While he was in the hospital in Houston my parents were visibly upset and our home was uncharacteristically in a state of turmoil. My mother had just given birth to my youngest brother and my aunt was also expecting her first child. There was a great deal of furtive whispering in those days which culminated in my being quickly enrolled in first grade at the age of five. The adults seriously thought that I had no idea of what was happening, but I was all too aware that my Uncle Bob was not doing well. He had already prepared me for such an eventuality during one of his visits when I discovered him attaching his wooden leg. He treated me with so much respect when he told me about his cancer. I loved him for his honesty and his understanding.

After Christmas of my first school year Uncle Bob died. My parents attempted to shield me from what was happening so I did not attend any of the memorials or funeral events, but I knew all too well that I was never again going to see the remarkable man who had so enchanted me. I also noticed a profound change in my father who would grieve for his friend for what ended up being the rest of his own short life.

My family moved on just as people always do after such tragedies, but in my heart there would forever be a special place for my Uncle Bob. My image of him never grew old, but remained frozen in all the glory of his youth. It was only when I began tracking my ancestry that I began to learn even more about my incredible uncle, and only recently I uncovered a newspaper article about his father that touched me to the very center of my heart.

I never knew anything about Uncle Bob’s childhood or his parents, so I was stunned to learn that before moving to Corpus Christi he had spent much of his boyhood in Chicago. There his mother became ill and died while he was still rather young. Like him, she too had cancer that ended her life far too early. Nonetheless he was the apple of his father’s eye, an only child who brought great joy to the man who guided him through his childhood.

Uncle Bob’s father was a machinist and was apparently rather skilled in his trade. At one point he created a unique steam engine for his son’s train set. He used scrap metal from junked cars and dental tools to build tiny parts that made the details of the model realistic. Over the years the man had kept the treasure which had been loved by his son. When the father was in his seventies and retired he decided to donate his creation to a museum, and the local newspaper ran a featured article about his work.

As I read a copy of the piece I felt a tinge of great sorrow for my Uncle Bob’s father. There was a look of sadness on his old face and the story of how he had worked so hard to please his little son was filled with so much pathos. There he sat gazing wistfully at his creation and possibly thinking of all of the might have beens. Somehow I felt a deep connection to this person whom I had never met because I knew that he had loved Bob even more than I did.

I suppose that there is nothing quite like losing a person who seems far to young to die. The pain never really heals because of a lingering sense of unfairness. I would eventually undergo the even more sorrow only two years later when my father died, and as a young mother I would see my Uncle Bob’s daughter, my cousin Sandra, die at the age of sixteen. Somehow I feel as though these three souls and that old man are linked with me in a primordial connection. I am now a seventy year old like Uncle Bob’s dad was in the article that so touched my heart, and I sense an unexplainable closeness with him. Somehow we are linked as humans through our spirits, kindred souls wandering through life’s experiences. 

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A Hard Headed Bunch

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I truly enjoy talking with young people. They are filled with high energy, adventurous spirits, and a sense that anything is possible. Today’s youth are attuned to the environment, justice and a sense that change is not just inevitable, but something very good for all of us. They think about the world at large, not just the tiny corner in which they live. They are worried about the future and dedicated to improving it. They are anxious to get started, ready to demonstrate that they’ve got the chops to take on responsibilities. I love their enthusiasm and I remember when I felt their way.

I’m slower than I once was. Most of what I will accomplish in this life is behind me. I am in my golden years when I have time to think deeply and critically rather than to react. I have years of experience under my belt that have taught me to be cautious before proceeding with any plans. I analyze and search for unintended consequences. I still have ideas and things to say, but I am less certain that I have all the answers than I once was. I’m not yet ready to simply sit by the wayside and hand over the running of things to another generation, but I understand that it’s time to begin the process of doing so little by little. There is a time and a season for everyone, and I know that the young folk will soon be running the show, and deciding how things are going to be. It is the natural way of things that has been moving history forward since the beginning of time.

There has always been a tension between the young and the old, the future and the past, change and the status quo, the progressive and the conservative The differences sometimes appear to create a dangerous gap between generations into which much anger is hurled.

I was on the precipice of my adult journey at a time filled with excitement and promise, but also war and uncertainty. I leaned toward radical thinking about how to fix problems and run things. I was ready to make sweeping changes that I felt were necessary in a time that still seemed so old fashioned. Some of my elders called me and my peers by names meant to be insulting. To this very day we bear the weight of the negativity of the labels meant to define us. Our young men were sent to war, but we were not supposed to have any say in why and how that was happening. We were deemed too young and ignorant of the way things work to be worthy of a hearing. In our youthful exuberance we made mistakes that have been held against us to this very day. The term “baby boomer” is almost an insult to some, meant to define an entire generation of people as somehow selfish and ridiculously inept.

Of course in our hearts we know that such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, and yet we continue to look at our youth and attempt to categorize them without ever having taken the time to consider their points of view, to think about the way that the times and the society has molded them. We wave off their concerns and laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of their ideas, rather than congratulating them on taking the time to consider solutions for problems that they see. Some among us saddle them with tags that are meant to disparage them and stuff them into square holes in which they rarely fit. We interrupt them in mid sentence to insist on the ridiculousness of their thoughts, after all they have no experience at living so how can they possibly know what we all need?

Few of us are well enough versed in history to know that with the exception of a few men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, our Founding Fathers were relatively young men, some of them barely in their twenties. They were bristling with a sense of injustice and filled with revolutionary ideas. It was in fact their youthful points of view that concocted a whole new way of governing. It might be true to say that the thought of a rag tag group of people taking on the might British Empire was both audacious and absurd, and yet with a firm determination they somehow became victorious. They were left with so many questions, so many ways to make mistakes that might cause their creation to tumble down before it ever got started. Indeed the imperfections of what they had done were soon apparent and yet the crux of their idea has endured.

History is in many ways the same song with endless verses. We change and modernize but return to the identical themes, the recurring refrains. Many of the young want to revolutionize the way we live and to do so quickly. The older among us are more cautious, wanting to take things slowly. They see problems and often suggest that doing nothing may in fact be the best alternative, Why change?

We are at one of those watershed moments in which one group thinks that we are doomed if we do not move with speed and another insists that things are mostly fine and hardly in need of an overhaul. One side feels a sense of urgency and another is worried that we will wreck everything if we throw caution to the wind. In such environments there tends to be more shouting at one another than listening and considering differing points of view. Historically wars have sometimes begun this way.

There is usually genuine sincerity in both sides of a disagreement, good points to be made all around. A gifted leader knows how to accommodate as many ways of thinking as possible. Everyone gets a bit and we all mostly win. Such political genius is difficult to find, but when it is present mankind gets to the moon in a few short years, people work together for a common cause.

An image from my youth often comes into focus in my mind. The war in Vietnam is raging. There are so many questions about why we are there and what we hope to accomplish and how we will do it. Young people are protesting what they see as injustice. They are camped at the Lincoln Memorial when the President of the United States comes to visit them. He is wise enough to ask them what they are thinking, but then he virtually ignores what they have to say, arguing more than listening. They too don’t seem to realize that this man is making an effort to come hear them out. They turn on him with blinders and an unwillingness to give him the benefit of the doubt or to learn about his point of view. There is an impasse.

We seem to have rotated into a time during which all sides cling to their preconceived notions and ideas with little hope of respecting one another. We prefer confrontations to conferences, arguments to discussions. We slap epithets on people and refuse to allow them to be more complex than our simplistic classifications. We worship cults of personality rather than ideas. We’ve been here before, and often such atmospheres of disagreement don’t end until we have grown weary of hurting each other. We humans can be a very hard headed bunch.

It remains to be seen how we will eventually proceed. Somehow the future keeps repeating our past.

The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.

Hearts Bigger Than Mouths

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There are a number of celebrities who are finding themselves in deep trouble these days. It almost seems as though they believe that they are somehow immune from the rules that the rest of us have to follow. They operate from a different point of view inside the bubble of their wealth and fame. There are others who are constantly giving advice to the rest of us as though they somehow believe that their wisdom is more profound than ours. Then there is actor, Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. I fell in love with the character that Mr. Sinise played in that movie but knew better than to attribute the fictional characteristics to the real man. Over time I’ve realized that Gary Sinise is perhaps one of  the finest men in Hollywood and perhaps even the whole country.

Gary has already set records for his new book Grateful American but most importantly he has proven to be a man who demonstrates his gratitude for his own good fortune by helping the members of the military and their families. He has invested countless dollars and hours in helping wounded warriors, gold star families, and those serving our country in war zones. He is a genuine hero in his own right, someone who is quite modest about the wonderful things that he has done for our armed forces. While others are tweeting and inciting anger, he is actually doing something positive, not to ingratiate himself with his fans, but because it is the right thing to do.

In many ways Gary Sinise reminds me of Jimmy Carter, another truly loving human who has spent his retirement years building homes for those who might otherwise have no place to live. People like Sinise and Carter have the right idea in doing positive things rather than always whining about our society and our country’s faults. They have answered the cry, “Well what are you going to do about that?” 

It’s easy to complain and to cast aspersions, but too few people actually attempt to right the wrongs that they see. They seek attention from social media or hurl insults during interviews on television, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to digging in to do the hard work. They think that just writing a check is all that they have to do to look and feel better, even if that check is to wrongfully pay for someone willing to cheat to get their children into prestige universities or if it is used as hush money to cover egregious acts. They are actors even in the realm of real life, playing a part that they believe we want to see, but rarely taking real action.

I’m also a fan of Glen Close. She is not only an extraordinary actress who probably should have won an Academy Award this year, but she is also an unrelenting advocate for the mentally ill. She is unafraid to weigh in on a topic that still has a strong element of taboo associated with it. We are so far behind in our treatment of those with mental illnesses that it is both a national tragedy and a shame. Ms. Close’s honesty and understanding regarding her family’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder is helping so many who deal with similar issues to come forward and seek help.

Instead of using their money and their influence for Prada shoes or Gucci purses those who have reached the heights of fame and fortune might emulate those who find joy and purpose in helping others. If more people would follow the lead of Gary Sinise or Glen Close or Jimmy Carter many of the ills that we face might at the very least begin to fade. It’s up to each of us for that matter to find a cause and then do our best to contribute our time and our talents.

It only takes a few hours a week to mentor a student who needs either academic or psychological help. Just providing a bit of wisdom and compassion goes a long way in helping a young person to navigate the minefields of want or neglect. There are children who benefit from the attention of a coach or a leader. I recall a very nice man who took the time to help one of my brothers with his pitching and served as an advocate for advancing my brother’s talent. This man brought so much joy to a young man who never knew what it was like to have a dad.

I recently watched an episode of Frontline that reported on those with severe mental illnesses who are attempting to live independently. Sometimes they need to know that someone is watching over them, checking in regularly to make sure that they are doing well. My brothers and I did that for our mom but all too often mentally ill persons are abandoned by frustrated families and doctors who grow weary of their noncompliance with treatments. They need the type of kindness that my mother’s neighbors and coworkers always showed her. She would never have survived as well as she did without a village of people quietly acting as her guardian angels.

I know sweet people who regularly visit elderly relatives or family members, bringing sunshine into other’s somewhat dreary lives. There are others who answer every call for food, every request for support for a team or a cause. They don’t just look the other way. They regularly spend their vacation time on medical missionary tours or working in clinics that serve the underserved. We rarely hear such people boasting or complaining because they are too busy getting things done.

I’ve got a hero list and it is comprised of such individuals. Some of them are famous like Gary Sinise. Others are folks that nobody has heard of save their friends. All of them have hearts that are bigger than their mouths, generosity that is selfless. We could certainly do with more of that.

When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now.