Thursday, February 16, 2017

TAPPING INTO THE MAGIC OF MUSIC FROM THE HEART



                        Looking through the notes accumulated over the years in the planning and thinking that go on behind these columns I call “HOME COUNTRY”, several thoughts come into my mind that might be worth sharing with you who are the faceless but ever-present friends who read it. Sitting here at my computer keyboard reminds me that this, the actual writing, is the “easy” part of the job I love. The long and often lonely hours of thinking, weighing and listening for a whisper of inspiration; of fighting the nagging “voice” that tells me I don’t have another story left in me, that the “mojo” is gone. That is what is hard. I was thinking about this exercise when I wrote the column titled Appreciating Moments of Mindfulness back on November 2nd 2015, and the month before with Listening to the Still, Small Voices.
            It is usually in the early morning hours, when it is quiet and peaceful and I can be alone with my thoughts that the “magic” happens; when it does. I was born into and grew up in a home where music was as ever present as the furniture, so I suppose it’s not so unusual that I should often turn to a background of selected song to enhance these searching moments. Not just any kind of music, but notes that speak to me of thoughtfulness, and the harmony of life at its most meaningful; soulful, peaceful and often haunting in its honesty. I confess that in recent months I have settled on the works of a particular composer, arranger and recording artist as a consistently dependable resource of inspiration of the kind that “speaks” to me when my heart is listening.
            Paul Cardall has been writing and performing music for close to twenty years and is well known across the country and especially in Utah and the Rocky Mountain West. He was born with only one half of a functioning heart, one of the 40,000 infants born with congenital heart defects in the U.S. each year. He endured numerous difficult surgeries and then experienced the long anxious wait on that now near- mythical list waiting for a replacement heart, upon whose beating he continues to write, arrange and perform today. Out of this came a unique awareness of the unfulfilled needs of this segment of U.S. health research and development, and the creation of the Saving Tiny Hearts Society the Cardall’s support. Even before I became aware of this charitable part of the artist’s life, I had noticed a quality to his music which imparted a sense of sympathy and appreciation of life that touches the very hearts of listeners. When I seek an hour of careful thinking and considering, I go to one or another of my half-dozen Cardall recordings.
            My favorite for setting a mood level which never fails to carry my consciousness away from the common and mundane and into a world where exposed hearts may be touched is a 2014 CD album titled (not surprisingly) Saving tiny Hearts. Each of the 14 titles which come together in this grouping contains the musical telling of a story, beginning with a personal favorite titled Gracie’s Theme, inspired by the true story of a much-loved little girl who, after all the preparation support and agonizing wait by her family, died during the heart transplant operation. A haunting quality which always speaks to me comes from another selection named simply Voices. The listener can write whatever story one wishes, but for me I always imagine I’m listening to the chorus of  thousands of tiny voices of cheery, happy, hopeful kids who had to leave us all-too-early because of childhood health events for which there is no available answer. Miracles, Our Love and Coming Home are titles on the same disc which tell their own musical stories.
            I and my family will always remember an evening long ago when we knelt together in our living room after being told that our four-year-old son would probably never live a normal life due to a heart defect. Then came our Miracle. Today that son runs marathons, travels the world, and is a grandfather
two times over.
            By the way, you too can help:  www.savingtinyhearts.com

Sunday, February 5, 2017

REACHING OUT TO JENNIE



            I met Jennie three years ago, on our annual trip to the Oregon seashore.  We enjoy the transit of the awe-inspiring Columbia River Gorge so much we usually stop only once, and then not until we reach The Dalles or Hood River.   On this occasion the old Cadillac slowed for an exit I hadn’t planned to take. I nonchalantly picked a convenient service station brand as I tried to explain to my passengers that we didn’t really need gas, I just thought we should stop.
            Oregon is one of those states where you don’t get to pump your own fuel, so accordingly a young attendant approached my door. I watched her remove the adjacent pump handle as she acknowledged my instructions. Probably no more then 18, her need for lots of dental work was a major “giveaway” for one so young. Despite an eager smile and an obvious will to make a good impression, I could see that she possessed a sweet nature, but was burdened by serious cares. Unless you knew one of my inner- most weaknesses, you would never have guessed that this brief interchange would mark the beginning of a hopeful but sad three-year relationship.
            As I pulled our car away from the pump and watched as the girl swirled away on a five-minute break, I said to my family something like, “that kid has big problems; I have to park for a minute.” Inside, I found the station manager, an overworked late middle-age lady who was about to become a special kind of personal friend. After assuring herself that my intentions were sincere, Mary Baker took me aside to talk. “You’re right on,” she said, “when you see the sweetness in that girl, and you are right about her troubles. She is one of these teen-age single mothers who come back to us after running off to California chasing a ‘big new life’.
            Getting to know Jenny took the help of Mrs. Baker – one of the few people the girl trusted. Even then I had to learn a lot about the wandering and damaged mind of a long-time meth addict even to survive a five-minute long --distance conversation. My family tried to discourage me from trying to help from the outset, but I couldn’t forget about Bella, the five-year old daughter whose father I would later learn was serving time for murder. If there was one motivator left in Jennie’s bifurcated young life it
was Bella.  After a number of moves and changes, “Jen” lost the ability to work 
once again along with the use of a borrowed (and illegal) car for commuting. Because of the immense distance between communities in her remote area, employment was problematic at best in her situation.
            I tried to regularly send her caring, encouraging personal email messages between phone calls and in return she would tell me the current length of her sobriety. I would occasionally slip a greenback into a greeting card and envelope but remained careful to never let it become an established practice.  With the approach of Christmas, I used the opportunity to talk with Jennie by cell phone about the kinds of gifts which would bring joy to her little girl, and then went on a story-book buying hunt. Shortly after that she had a change of address, and her life began what I had to conclude was another downhill slide.
            For a long time I listened to the sad “goodbye” signals of an inactive cell phone; a wavering farewell from one of God’s daughters I would have given anything to help. Reaching out is not always painless.
            I remain in email-touch with Mary Baker, and stop at the Oregon service station to wish her well each year, but as with me, she too has only a tear and a memory of a sweet young girl we once shared a piece of our hearts with.

Monday, January 23, 2017

WHEN AMERICA AND FRIENDS SAVED RUSSIA



            Confident that he had neutralized Stalin by signing a non-aggression pact with Russia and offering to share ownership of a large chunk of recently- conquered Poland to boot, Hitler was ready to proceed with the next step in his plan for the conquest of the entire European Continent.
            On June 22, 1941 a Nazi army of 3,200,000 invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa piling up massive casualties in their wake as they sped to the very gates of Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad. Realizing the gravity of his country’s situation and knowing that Britain and her allies were already in retreat almost everywhere, Stalin appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States for war supplies and food for his people.
            The United States was still a neutral country (Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future,) but Roosevelt had found a way around a strict observance of neutrality with his “Lend Lease” agreement with Britain, and the U.S. had been massively supplying the Defense of Great Britain since 1939. Churchill – an ardent foe of communism and no friend of Stalin – quickly agreed with the need to support Russia, seeing any chance of stopping Hitler slipping away.
            An immediate challenge was the availability of sea-going cargo vessels, and the great distance over the world’s worst shipping lanes to open Russian ports, to say nothing of the ferocious activity of German U-boats which were already exacting a heavy toll in the “Battle of the Atlantic”. Waiting in the wings of history was another American innovation – the Liberty ship – an ugly duckling of a sea-going freighter which would be assembled from pre-produced sections which would be welded together rather than riveted in weeks rather than months. The SS Robert E. Peary would be finished in 4 days, 15 hours and 30 minutes and sail 3 hours later! (The author would cross the Pacific in one of these “moth-balled” veterans in yet another war.)
            The Russian ports chosen for this budding enterprise were in the Soviet Union’s far north including Murmansk, Archangel, and Kola Inlet on the Barents Sea, a world of floating ice floes, gale force winds, high seas and freezing rains capable of covering a ship with tons of ice faster than crews could chop it away. Patrolled by wolf packs of U-boats stationed at strategic target locations and homed in by “mother” subs and aircraft, the track the Allied convoys were forced to transit was a veritable
gauntlet.  The deadly route became known as the Murmansk run, a 14 to17-day voyage of deadly boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.
            The convoys were usually made up of several dozen fully-loaded cargo vessels accompanied by escort destroyers, corvettes and maybe a tanker for refueling and commanded by an officer known as the Commodore. Except for the Navy and Coast Guard crews on the warships, these crucial supply “sea-trains” were in the hands of the merchant marine, civilian sailors who drew no “combat-pay” or insurance protection, enjoyed little recognition, and were paid about $2,000 a year. Their work was some of the most dangerous of the war – especially on The Murmansk run.
            One of the most noted of these precious supply trains was Convoy PQ          -17 attacked by air and sea in August, 1942 – a voyage Winston Churchill called “one of the most melancholy episodes of the war.” Of the 37 cargo ships that left Iceland, 24 were sent to the bottom along with their crews and $700 million of supplies.
            Somewhere on the sea bottom in Russia’s arctic north there are 5,000 tanks, 7000 aircraft, and 200,000 tons of other war materiel. More tanks were lost on the Murmansk run than in any battle of WWII. In 1942 there could be no more dangerous place to be than aboard an Allied tanker carrying 100 octane aviation fuel between the U.S. and Europe. Respective of how their governments might argue with each other, the everyday people of the United States and Russia should be proud to have been united by so great a cause in our recent past.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

LESSONS LEARNED IN A LAND FARAWAY



            As I sit here at my writing desk today in the midst of what we call the “digital age,” I am in touch with part of my extended family – my son and daughter-in-law and part of their family – as they travel across Japan together. My grandson Jake served his church as a missionary in that land (as did also his younger sister) in recent years and now he is sharing his memories of that experience with his parents and young wife. I only wish Shirley and I could be with them although much of my Japan is no longer the way it was more than six decades ago when I experienced it. For me it was a life-changing experience in ways I might never have expected and in which it continues to define me and who I am today. I was barely 20 years old at the time, and already familiar with death and war, but otherwise still a “work-in-process”.
            For three young airmen accustomed to tents, cots, sleeping bags and old musty-tasting water from “Lister” bags and canteens, white sheets, dinner napkins, polished silver and tasty meals served by pretty waitresses were like a taste of heaven after eight months of the former. .. . and worse. Rather than follow the more clandestine “week-away” preferred by many of our comrades, Pennington, Smitty and I elected to enroll with the Military-sponsored R&R Service. We were assigned a third-floor room in the former Gaijo-in-Kanko Hotel in the Shinagawa District of Tokyo, formerly known as the capitol city’s “Waldorf Astoria” now operated by the U.S. Army for Korean combat veterans, (or U.S.A.F. pilots and aircrew with family visitors.)
            In addition to interiors finished in “mother-of-pearl” and hand-cut stone artwork, there were outdoor gardens and walkways with waterfalls, caged bears and exquisite topiary.
            One month previous to our Tokyo visit there had been a tragic C-124 transport crash (still historically notable) in which 120 R&R veterans died, leading to a cancellation of such traffic for some weeks. With the help of a collaborating Sergeant-friend in Group Headquarters, we three were “sneaked” onto an “unofficial” Tokyo flight before the ban was lifted. We found ourselves the only G.I. guests in a hotel staffed for 1200, with a dozen waitresses rotating service in order to take turns at out dining room table! (How could they resist!)
            For us, this was like a visit to a candy factory. We made it a habit to learn the name of every staff member, from elevator operator to doorman and to always address them that way; and to bow with respect when appropriate. Our “houseboy” spent more time visiting with us in our room than attending to other duties (quickly learning how to play a winning hand of poker.) The Post Exchange operated by the Army along with a full-time Post Office in the basement was like a magnet for us; it seemed that every young Joson working there must be some kind of a Japanese “beauty queen” and it was easy to spend hours “shopping” there; seems one of us was always running low on shaving cream, tooth paste or chewing gum. You could lay away a world class, hand-made bamboo fishing rod or order a 1952 Ford convertible for stateside delivery. My wife Shirley still displays a set of Noratake china sent to her by a certain Sergeant who had to explain why it was an important part of ambassadorial duty to dance on four nights in a row with a 4.5 foot tall girl named Kazuka Itabashi. (Still not a popular subject.)
            The dance band that played on the hotel’s roof-top “garden” every night was in fact one of our main drawing cards at the Gaijo-in. They played flawless Glen Miller arrangements without a piece of sheet music anywhere in evidence; we had discovered them practicing the day we arrived, and it was love at first note.
            The whole point of this story burst upon us at the time of our departure, just as R&Rs opened up and hundreds of new arrivals swarmed the hotel. We tried to find all of our “new friends” to say THANK YOU and GOOD BYE! We found them all, lined up in the lobby waiting for us; dozens of everyday Japanese menial workers with tears in their eyes, whose homeland had been at war with us just a few years before. At the head of their line was the U.S. Army hotel manager who addressed us: “I have managed this hotel for 24 months, but this is the first time I have seen anything like this happen. Whatever the three of you have done, you have made these people love you. They each want to say their own personal Sayonara.
            And they did: a deep, formal bow from the waist, a touching of hands and an obviously heartfelt, even teary-eyed arigato and farewell. Finally, the manager whispered to us: . .if you can get back over here again, you can have our finest suite, you will not have to sign in, and there will be no record of the service you receive. I only wish our country had more ambassadors like you!
            What had happened back there we asked ourselves. All we had done was treated those kind and delightful people the same as we would have, had they been the friends and loved ones we had been missing for so long?
            Go figure!