Memorial Day: Sacrifice and Celebration

My…err…late thoughts on Memorial Day:

So, Memorial Day got me to thinking…which, I guess, is what it is supposed to do…

Given that Memorial Day is a holiday to honor the fallen, is it truly a time to be quiet and sad?  Or is it a time to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of those who gave so much?  To celebrate all they accomplished, and the triumphs they won?

Do I place a flag on a grave  in wordless silence?  Or do I shout from the rooftops everything those fallen soldiers — known and unknown — did to change the world?

Is it both?  Crap, can it even be both?

*sigh*

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to my musing, let alone a correct one…

An example, from the Naval History side of my life:  the various land and naval battles of Guadalcanal.

To the almost hundred thousand men who fought at Guadalcanal — counting both the ground and naval forces of the US and Japan — the place, and the battles that took place on land and sea, was nothing less than the most miserable, ass-end of the universe imaginable.  It was Hell on Earth…and it changed the outcome of WW2.

Look, we in the US often talk about the Battle of Midway as the turning point of the war, but that’s not strictly true.  Midway broke the Japanese momentum, true, but all that victory truly accomplished was to put things in tight balance between the USN and the IJN.  It was victory in the miserable, muddy, shitty, violent, and deadly hell of Guadalcanal that gave the US the momentum and initiative that she held throughout the rest of the Pacific War.

On the US side, roughly 1,600 Marines and 5,500 sailors died on that island or in the waters surrounding it.  On the Japanese side that number rose to well over 30,000 dead.

There is a lot to mourn there.  There is far too much blood and sacrifice, far too much bravery and cowardice, far too much….war…to sum up in one short blog post.

Those men, on the Godforsaken island, thought at the time their lives meant nothing.

for years afterwards, they thought the deaths meant nothing.

Hell, even now, even 75 years later, the US Marines still blame the US Navy for many of those deaths…just as the US Navy still performs full military honors when a warship passes over the dozens of wrecks littering the floor of Iron Bottom Sound…

A lot to mourn indeed…but there is a lot to celebrate, as well.

Had the US lost at Guadalcanal — had the Japanese commanders and forces there won that battle, and moved on to fight elsewhere — the entire war would very likely have ended differently.  In that instance, the odds of the entire Pacific War ending in a negotiated peace that left a large part of the “Greater East Asian Co-Propserity Sphere” intact and under the domination of the Japanese Army* would have grown astronomically.

*For the unhistorically minded, the Imperial Japanese Army was the driving force of Japan’s militarism and the ruthless dominance with which the conquered territories were ruled, while the Navy was the more professional and moderate service…

The men at Guadalcanal men suffered and died.  They died of bullets.  They died of malaria.  They starved to death.  They drowned.  They burned to death.  They died in every shitty, painful, horrifying way you can imagine…but they died for something.

Their sacrifices call for quiet, and for tears, yes…but they call also for celebration.  They call for honor and for pride.

And that is the heart of my question.  Look, I’m a historian by training and outlook, so how can I overlook the consequences of death and sacrifice?  How can I only mourn when I know to what outcomes those sacrifices lead?

I can, by the way, change the example of Guadalcanal for just about every nation and war in history…

The blood spent at Sekigahara made modern Japan…

The blood at Teutoberg…

The blood at the gates of Vienna…

The blood at Stalingrad…

Antietam…Leipzig…the Somme…Waterloo…

We mourn those who fell, and we should.  But we should celebrate, as well.  Celebrate all that they were.  Celebrate all that they gave.  Celebrate, when you get right down to it, all that they meant.

father-told-once-honor-duty-kia-military-army-demotivational-posters-1409196587So, to all those who gave so much — both the living and the dead — I say this: Happy Memorial Day.

Cockeyed

My life is cockeyed.

No, really, I’m being serious here!  The RV site Yellowstone gave me is all packed dirt.  Well…what happens when massive amounts of snow melt right across all that dirt?

Yep, you guessed it: it’s mud season for me.  The sad, unexpected (by me, anyway) outcome of this mud season is the fact that the blocks leveling my trailer are…well, they’re doing their best Titanic impression right now.

Okay, so it’s not the worst problem in the world.  It is, in fact, pretty much the very definition of “first world problem,” to be honest.  I mean, crap — no one’s shooting at me, I have all the potable water I need, I have heat* and electricity, I have a “pantry” full of food…if the worst problem I have is that shit rolls off my counter from time to time, I’m pretty sure the world ain’t about to end.

*Screw you Big Sky RV, and your cheap lie about filling my propane tanks!!

But it does get you thinking…

Well, it gets me thinking, anyway.

My life has been cockeyed for a very long time.  One could argue, I suppose, that all writers’ lives are at least somewhat cockeyed and out-of-kilter.  Shit, what insane idiot would choose a life where fulfillment and happiness are driven by words and sentiments that you basically have to prostitute your soul to make a buck with?

I don’t how many others out there share this experience, but for me that lack of balance, that skewed vision, is what makes it all work.

I was balanced and even as a sales monkey.  I was locked firmly in the glide-path for the standard, traditional American life: a nice house, a new(ish) car, a comfortable retirement account…

And I was miserable as hell.

I had six weeks of “vacation” every year from my company, and every year I used every single second of that.  Partly because — as you know from reading this blog — travel and adventure are the most fulfilling things in the Universe to me, but mostly because I hated that which gave me that vacation time.  I hated the drab, tan-and-grey corporate decor … I hated the unending meetings that bred faster than any rabbit could dream of … I hated the pretension and hypocrisy of the company, of many of my coworkers, of many of our clients … I hated, when you get right down to it, every single day that I had to put on a mask and pretend to be someone I was not…

As I wrote once before, a few years ago: the clothes I wore didn’t fit my soul anymore.

In between then and now there is a great deal of water, and quite a few bridges…some of them burning, and some still beckoning to cross back.  There is a failed business — and all the problems and heartache and exhaustion that you can imagine that comes with that — there are failed relationships, there are personal problems, financial problems, problems of every stripe…

And then there are my friends.

More specifically, there is the suicide of yet another friend.

I have stood in front of far too many caskets, said goodbye to far too many friends “too young to die” to not be changed by it.  One is far too many, and I’m way above that number.

The last of those was after the failed business, after the failed romances.

I asked myself, finally, in front of my friend’s coffin, just what the fuck was I doing?

Why was I putting off — denying — that part of my life, of myself, that lay at the core of everything?

Why was I living someone else’s life, someone else’s dreams?  Why was I working so hard to follow the roads so obviously laid out for me?

Why was I keeping the words to myself, the emotions and meanings and realities?

Why was I not being me?

Robert Frost famously wrote about the road less travelled.  For me, it is the last two lines of that poem that really says it all:

I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

My life is cockeyed, and I like it that way.

No, that’s not quite right — as hard as it can be for family and friends to understand, I need it that way.

God Speed, Captain

I put-off typing this post. I put if off because I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it — I wasn’t sure it was any of my business, just as I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to what has already been written.

In the end, however, the subject is a nexus of two of my interests.  The subject is someone too important to me to ignore: John McCain.

It’s worth the time, I finally decided, to write a few hundred words…especially when the immature and petulant partisans on both sides have come out of the woodwork to add their acid, hateful comments to every story and eulogy about Senator McCain.

It is especially worth it when the current occupant of the White House is the most petulant and immature of all. He hated McCain, I get it…but, Mr Trump, maybe it’s time to grow the hell up and at least try to act like someone worthy of respect.

Enough of that. I don’t want to dip any deeper into the sleaze of our current politics, I want to honor a man I respect…a better man than I could ever be.

I do, however, have to start with politics.  Politics were not just important to the Senator, they pretty much defined the last 40ish years of his life. So, from the start, let me say this: More often than not, Senator McCain gave me a headache…a big, splitting, miserable, political headache.

But…

character-war-soldiers-character-military-demotivational-posters-1313084604ButCAPTAIN McCain earned the right to give me that headache. Captain John S. McCain, as a matter of fact, earned the right to do whatever the hell he wanted.

If ever you want to question his dedication and courage, if ever you want to question the heart and soul of Captain McCain, just go back and read the words of his fellow “guests” in the Hanoi Hilton. Even the commandant of the camp — the man who tortured the prisoners, lest you forget — commented after the war on McCain’s courage and commitment.

The North Vietnamese knew what they had in John McCain — they had not a prisoner of war, they had not a pilot, they had propaganda gold. The commander of US forces in the Pacific happened to be, erm, close to John McCain. It was, after all, not every newly promoted Lieutenant Commander who received a congratulatory note from a four-star admiral signed “Love, Dad.”

That was the gold, that was what the North Vietnamese wanted to use: the son of the commander-in-chief of all US Pacific forces.

Special treatment, McCain was offered. Release after just a year in the Hanoi Hilton, he was offered. All to embarrass his father, and to discomfit and demoralize the US Navy.

McCain refused.

When others were using every excuse in the book to dodge the draft, from “student deferments” to “bone spurs”, McCain answered his captors with one simple word: No.

After that one word, he suffered four-and-a-half more years of torture in that camp.

How many of us would do the same?

How many of us would have the courage, or the commitment?

How many of us would be willing to pay that kind of price for honor and loyalty?

The US Navy teaches its sailors and officers many things, but it all starts with a simple phrase, a mantra really: ship, shipmate, self. Those are your loyalties, in that order. You focus on saving your ship first, then you focus on saving others, and only after that do you think about saving yourself.

Captain John Sidney McCain lived that credo. Every single minute of his life after that one simple “No” was the very essence of that credo.

McCain’s father and grandfather were heroes in their own right. They were men who paid the price in blood and service for the rank and honors that were theirs. But it was Captain McCain who was the true hero of the family.

C9C7B5E7-9108-4CB5-80AB-9CEE9ABAFDA2So, as often as Senator McCain gave me a headache, to Captain McCain I can only say: fair winds and following seas, sailor.

Another Titan is Gone

A conversation came up a few days ago, one about old-school comedians and those who have truly stood the test of time. Now, that conversation may have simply faded into the background, never to be remarked upon nor even remembered, had the real world, and yet another death, not intruded.

Aretha Franklin was one of the all-time great talents. There is no limiting her to a specific genre or style, no limiting her to “great female performer” or “great black performer.” She was great. Period. Full stop. She was a performer whose impact and legacy will rightfully be felt long, long after her passing.

This post started solely as a tribute to Ms Franklin, and a recognition of her passing, but then the little wheels of my brain started turning. I started to think about the all-time greats, about those who will truly live on past their deaths, and about how far above the rest they truly stand.

Whether singer, painter, writer, or any other form of artist, the ultimate achievement to which we can aspire is to leave behind something that matters.* Aretha’s position in history is solid and secure because of her influence, and the works she has left behind, but how many others can honestly make that claim?

*As ever, there’s a song for that: Chuck Ragan’s “What We Leave Behind.”

How many singers today will have their music and talent live on for decades, if not centuries? How many writers, or actors, or — indeed — comedians, will influence those who follow anywhere near as much as Aretha Franklin?

Two decades ago, Jerry Seinfeld was praised as the greatest comedian of the age. Today, how many truly look to his show, or his performances, as one of the greats? How many would honestly rank that show with M*A*S*H? Or Seinfeld himself with someone like Bob Hope?

As I mentioned in the intro, Aretha’s death brought back to me that conversation I had about comedians — and about what, and who, we consider great. What sit-com or show today can stand against Monty Python’s Flying Circus? When I look back, there really are only a handful of shows on that short list: I love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers…

Whether or not you were even alive when those were made, they stand the test of time. I know kids and young teens today who still crack-up at the Three Stooges, and who would rather watch them than anything on TV or NetFlix.

You can make that list for just about anything, by the way. You can make it for actors, or for writers, or directors or painters…or for singers.

I may have my current fixation and passion for bluegrass- and folk-influenced rock, yes, but not even my favorites can stand up against the true greats. Gaslight Anthem versus Aretha Franklin? Mumford & Sons versus Billie Holiday? Chuck Ragan versus Otis Redding? The Avett Brothers versus Robert Johnson? Those aren’t even contests.

In honor of Aretha Franklin, then, and the other titans we have lost, take some time over the next few days and weeks to return to the works of those you consider truly great. Listen to their albums, watch their movies, read their books…

If, as Chuck Ragan said in the song I linked, “all we are is what leave behind,” then those few are the best of us. Return to them, not just to learn but also to enjoy…and to acknowledge true greatness.

IMG_0720And, as a final thought: Rest In Peace, Aretha.  All the respect in the world is yours…