Thursday, November 16, 2006

Loving Lampwick Larry

Before getting to the point a little context might be nice. I live, work, and worship in Savannah, Georgia. My home is modest, my employer gigantic, and my church small. It is within the confines of the latter that this story takes place.

As is the case with most churches in America, people attend for a variety of reasons. And like most churches in America, those reasons are sometime noble, sometime ignoble. For many of our young people their reason for coming is because Mom makes them. Not Dad...Mom! I hate to say it but the church at large seems to be severely lacking in male attendance and influence. I am speaking of real men, men who are neither cavemen nor croquet players; strong, caring, tender warriors. So, many young people come to church at the behest of their mothers and generally act as though, on the Personal-Agreeability-Scale, the entire affair is on par with sifting cat vomit through their fingers. Our church is no different. For the most part, the young people sit as close to the county line as possible so as to avoid actually hearing the sermon or understanding the songs. And they do their best to talk in muffled tones, attempting to walk the line between disturbing others and actually paying attention. A while back, one young man caught my eye.

Larry* appeared to be a young man of great potential. His smile was wide and infectious. Like most 13 year old boys he had trouble looking people in the eye and speaking up. Nevertheless, for some reason or other, I found that I liked him. Perhaps it was that he constituted something of a challenge for me. He stretched me. Whereas I come from a fairly squeaky clean middle class world, Larry lives in the projects. His father is in prison. He step father can’t decide if he wants to live in the same house as Larry. He dreams of becoming a construction worker or video game programmer but has no real prospects of reaching those dreams. His mother and grandmother exert the major portion of godly influence in his life. They faithfully bring him to church hoping something will grab his attention, but nothing does. Thus, aside from quietly hoping for success, they have no real plan and no real help in seeing this young man down the straight and narrow. And besides, they are women. Larry has no man in his life to mentor, direct, coach, or discipline him. I truly believe that his ideas about God and his future will be shaped by the male leadership he finds, or doesn’t find, in his life. Currently, when he looks around he sees a mom, a grandma, and a church that are uncertain as to how to best deal with him. It seems the best they can do is to hope and pray. I, of course, am all for hoping and praying, but action must be taken sometimes. So a while back, Larry caught my eye, and I began to act.

Larry was headed toward becoming the local Lampwick by dragging the other boys toward their doom on Pleasure Island. So over the course of many moons, anytime I saw those boys talking and I would politely but sternly ask them to be quiet. I would see them moving around during service and sit with them to ensure their respect for the house of God. Once I caught them playing cards and threatened to confiscate them if that immoral and appalling activity did not cease and desist immediately. I played the nice man that will give you a good talking to if you’re not careful. I tried and tried to influence them without driving them entirely out of the church or offending the adults that dared to claim them. But, there was never any real change in their behavior. Nice wasn’t working. So a few weeks ago, my teapot began to whistle.

It was “Homecoming” Sunday when all the old timers and previous pastors return for a celebration of epic proportions. Larry and the Lost Boys took up their usual positions in the very last row and service began. Attendance was high so mobility was limited. However, the ability of this small group of boys to get under my skin wafted unfettered through the sanctuary. It shouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that I was entirely unengaged from the rest of the Homecoming Service and focused almost entirely on those boys, especially Larry. So as soon as the service was over I quickly walked over to Larry, threw caution to the wind and ensuring that all the other boys could hear me I said, “Larry, I love you. I think you have tons of potential and I believe God has a plan for your life if you’ll let him do what he wants to do with you. However, if you don’t start behaving during church, one of these days I am going to drag you outside and beat your ass!” Well, you can imagine the reaction that got from them. I assume they had never heard, nor expected a chaplain to talk like that. Larry froze while the other boys scattered like frightened cockroaches. I got his attention! At the first possible opportunity, Larry slithered away to lick his pride and try to regain his glorious leadership. This being a special Sunday, we engaged in that time honored church tradition…the Potluck. As we ate, I approached Larry’s mother and grandmother and, wanting them to know my heart, told them EXACTLY what I had said to their boy. I kind of expected them to be upset. Grandma looked at me and said, “Thank you. He needs that.” Then his mother told me that he was on parole for taking a knife to school and that his parole officer had mandated that he link up with a mentor of some sort. Imagine my surprise when she asked if I would fulfill that role. We talked a bit and I noticed that Larry was nowhere to be seen, so I went looking for him. I found him a short while later hiding behind a brick retaining wall in back of the church. Understandably he was not in the mood to talk to me…but too bad! I sat down in the dirt in front of him and engaged him. He said he was mad because I had “cussed” at him and embarrassed him. “Good”, I thought. Upon further interrogation he told me that in his 13 year old world right and wrong are defined by what is fun. So if it’s fun…it’s right. I explained that I really did love him…too much to stand by and watch him do wrong and that I would drag him into the octagon if necessary to keep him from running head first into the arms of hell. And it wouldn’t be fun!

In the weeks that followed, I continued to ride Larry, asking him to sit with me and my family during church, talking to him about school, and trying to get him to look at me when we talked. Then yesterday something happened. My perfect wife picked Larry up after school and dropped him off at my office and for the next two hours I introduced him to the military, the vehicles, the helicopters, the weapons, the pluses and minuses. Not in an effort to recruit him, but to show him that the world is bigger than the projects and that it’s all available to him, should he desire to work for it. And that recalcitrant, rebellious, angry young man walked and talked with me and never stopped smiling. It was amazing. The veneer cracked. Finally I took him home and walked him to his door in the projects, knowing he was afraid to walk alone. After I got in my car I looked toward his apartment and noticed him in the window…waving…smiling…and looking me in the eye.

* Larry’s name has been changed to protect his anonymity and my fanny!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Coffee: Bringer of Joy

I just love coffee in the morning.

Today after dropping my kids off at school, but before actually arriving at the office, I made a quick pit stop at the nearest Starbucks for a morning cup of Guatemala Antigua Coffee, which is probably grown somewhere in Ohio. I arrived to an unusually empty store. There were three employees and me. I casually approached the counter with my pre-purchased, Venti-sized, thermal, Starbucks mug and placed it on the counter whereupon I requested a fill-up of said Guatemala Antigua Coffee. I had not met the young lady behind the counter on any of my previous incursions to this particular coffee house. She smiled and as she was entering the order into her computer / register she said something to me in a tone that was inaudible to my aging ears. I politely asked her to repeat herself whereupon she said, "Could you please remove your top?" I paused for a moment and said, "I assume you're talking about my cup!" She didn't respond but her friends did, with taunts of "Stripping for Coffee" and the like as I laughed my way out of the store.

I just love coffee in the morning.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Falling...With Style

One of the greatest things I get to do is jump out of various aircraft. I absolutely love it! The moments leading up to actually stepping out into the open sky are tense and exciting. Then the green light comes on, the Jump Master says “Go!” and everyone shuffles toward the door and in an instant you are airborne! The next 6 or 7 seconds are somewhat violent as the wind races past you and your chute opens causing you to decelerate from 90 knots (103.7 MPH) to zero knots (0 MPH). Then just as quickly, searing pain and mental anxiety give way to peace and calm and the “slow” decent to terra firma begins. The rate of descent is a bit deceiving at 1000 feet above ground level. You think you’re just kind of hanging motionlessly under your canopy, while in reality you are dropping at about 17 feet per second. It’s not the speed of sound, but it’s moving pretty fast. So you begin looking for a nice soft place to land and attempt to “steer” toward that spot. After “floating” earthward for a few moments the ground begins to appear to accelerate toward you. “Don’t look down! Don’t look down!” you repeat to yourself. Suddenly, you hit the ground with the violence of Hurricane Vito Corleone, you roll, release your canopy to avoid being dragged by the wind over your nice soft landing site, and it’s essentially over. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

Early in my Army career one of my Executive Officers told me, "Training is everything, and everything is training." Today I did some real training. I trained in the fine art of what can go wrong and the roll I play in the demise of the perfect jump.

Everything mentioned above went as it should, right up to the point where I steer toward a nice soft landing spot. The wind had other ideas. The location of our jump today was a small “mom and pop” airport in rural Georgia. The runway is surrounded by nice soft, just harvested peanut fields and we all wanted to land in that soft dirt. And we all did. Except me! The universe conspired to move me to the place where I would be most likely to get hurt. So as I descended and attempted to hit the dirt, I simply drifted toward the concrete landing strip and kept saying to myself, “This is gonna hurt!” And guess what? It did! It hurt a lot! I hit the edge of the concrete strip drifting backwards and instead of doing a proper parachute landing fall (or PLF) I hit my feet, my fanny, and my head.

Recently, the Army began issuing a new kind of ballistic helmet. It’s known as the ACH – Advanced Combat Helmet. But most guys call it the Mitch Helmet (I have no idea why or even who Mitch is). One of the nice things about the ACH versus the old style helmet is that it has very soft gel filled pads that can be moved inside the helmet to make it fit better and remain more comfortable while maintaining maximum protection for the wearer. Unless I’m the wearer. See, those nice gel filled pads need to be positioned properly. I neglected to do this. As a result, when I landed and smacked my head on the runway with approximately one million PSI my head received only partial protection. The not so partial part was that one of the pads (being improperly placed by me) did not cover one of four large bolts that connect the chin strap to the helmet. The bolt in question is about 1-2 inches behind and a little above my right ear. So when I hit, that lovely bolt sank into my head instead of the pad I should have covered it with and cut me like a pig being slaughtered.

The next few moments were kind of confusing as my noggin had been rattled quite severely. I remember warm blood running down my face and dripping all over the ground. I also remember releasing one side of my canopy but not the other (which I did). And I remember removing my helmet and grabbing my head only to find my hand baptized in my own blood. What I don’t clearly remember is being dragged across the runway by my chute (although the huge “raspberry” on my shoulder indicates that I was). Everything else is kind of in a haze.

So the afternoon went something like this…Take off, jump, enjoy the scenery, notice runway approaching fast, smack said runway with improperly set up helmet, bleed, bleed, and bleed some more, try to remember who I was and where I was, attempt silly things thinking they were the right thing to do (onlookers clued me in later) and then discover I was in an ambulance enroute to the hospital.

It bears mention that once at the hospital my doctor / torturer for the day scrubbed my wound with hydrogen peroxide and what felt like a large wire brush, then proceeded to give me 4 staples without using any anesthetic…at all. And just for grins, removing one of the four because it wasn’t in the right place after all.

I can’t wait to jump next month!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Removing a Blockage

I wouldn't say I'm experiencing writer’s block, but I'm certainly experiencing some kind of blockage. I'll call it gratitude block. It happens all the time. Usually like this…

First you travel to a war-torn Middle East country. Then one day you are minding your own business and people you don't know start lobbing mortars in your general direction in a concerted effort to separate you from the physical world and force you to assume room temperature. Later, in an effort to ease the severe shakiness that comes with an extreme adrenaline overdose, you sit down and write about it in your blog that gets approximately 6 hits per month. Then the whole world starts logging onto your blog within .005 microseconds of Hugh Hewitt reading your post on his nationally syndicated radio talk show. Then you begin to panic because, come on, look at all those hits! After a while people begin reading your other posts and notice how one time you mentioned that you have the world's coolest wife. At this point Judy from Sunshine Quilts sends you a note and says, "I'd like to make your wife a quilt!" So you correspond a bit about colors and textures and the extreme coolness of your wife and Judy says, "I'll get back to you". After several months you get a small package from FedEx. That's when you remember that Judy forgot to mention that she is the Michelangelo of the Longarm. The next thing you know you are overwhelmed with the perfection of the quilt that she made by hand for your marvelously cool wife and despite your best efforts to sit down and write a note of thanks, you can't because of gratitude block. It usually happens like that.

My wife received this quilt just last week and I am dumbstruck at the beauty of it. It is the perfect combination of colors and has some absolutely magnificent stitching in it. Probably the most amazing thing about this quilt is that Judy made it as a gift for someone she doesn’t even know and asked for nothing in return. James said that true religion is to care for widows and orphans. I’m glad to say my wife is not a widow and my kids are not orphans. But Judy saw my little family, noting that I could not be present, and reached out to them. If I understand things correctly, that is almost exactly what James was talking about.

Please go to Judy's blog or check out some pictures of her work and drop her a line. Tell her you saw my beautiful wife's quilt and that I think it's incredible. Thank her for using her gifts and talents to serve our country. Then start looking for ways to serve others as well.

Thank you, Judy. You have a talent for blessing. You've blessed my family more than you can imagine.