The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Uncategorized

Finding Home On The Range

Hank wasn’t a big  man, and never was. But he didn’t let his size, or lack of coordination dampen his aspirations.  

As a wee lad, figuring out what to do, he decided to try his hand at cow-herding.  It turned out, though, that he wasn’t that good at it.  In fact, he was about the worst cowboy ever.  He’d fall off the horse, couldn’t rope a cactus if it fell on him, his wad of spit always dribbled down his chin instead of lofting into the sage in a graceful arc.  He had none of the traditional skills of a true cowboy.  The trail boss thought his shooting skills seemed impressive at first, until he realized everyone scattered when he pulled out his pistol, and that none of his targets were intentional.  

The final straw came when everyone realized that beans didn’t agree with Hank’s constitution.  It seemed there was not enough prairie in Wyoming to spread the stench around satisfactorily.  And of course, this brings up Hanks inability to remember he had spurs on at critical moments in his daily routine.

But there was one thing he could do.  Turns out ol’ Hank was a bit of a vocalist.  

This isn’t to say he was q universally gifted musician.  He made a harmonica sound exactly like a rampaging screech owl, scattering rodents to their underground hiding spots for miles around (and most of the other cow-hands).  But he could work a bit of magic on the guitar around the campfire, and filled in the sound-space with a tenor so sweet the evening sounds of myriads of insects and frogs would hush, and sigh to themselves.

As nice as this was, the Trail Boss couldn’t have a dysfunctional cowboy on his crew, so he began a withering string of insults every time Hank screwed up.  He’d mock his posture in the saddle, cough and sputter in (only slightly) exaggerated revolt when he broke wind, intentionally assign him to rope particularly ornery cattle and then laugh and slap his knees at the ensuing calamity.

At first Hank was embarrassed.  And then he was depressed.  He flew right past downtrodden on the second week and moped his way into a third.

He didn’t know what to do, he realized he was an abject failure at this line of work, but what else could he do?

He was brooding on this very question one hot afternoon, dust swirling up into his headband, spur puncture wounds stinging from the saddle-sweat working its way into his tender, punctured backside.   His belly was  grumbling, and hands all blistered with rope burns.  It was at this low point that a dust devil suddenly enveloped him.  He choked and gasped, and squinted his eyes to see while the turbulent gust had its way with him.  He nearly suffocated before it was over.  They found him squatted on the ground hacking away, spurs faithfully digging into his backside again while he tried to clear his lungs.  The Trail Boss had a good laugh, but realized quickly this was actually serious.  They called an early day, set up camp and gave Hank an extra ration of water to recover with.

Later that evening, Hank moved sullenly into the warm circle of light around the campfire, despondent as he’d ever been.  The others felt a little bad, even the Trail Boss took on some sympathy for him.  It wasn’t that they disliked him, it was just that… well… he didn’t belong out here.

To. cheer him up, someone brought out the guitar, and said, “Hank, sing us a song”.  He picked up the instrument, plucked at it a few times, and then sat down to see what he could conjure up.  As usual, the spurs got him started into the song with a “ki-yi yip yyeeeeeaaaahhhh!” 

But this time, nothing came out.  His voice, wrecked by the dust storm, could not make a peep.  There was just nothing.  He opened his mouth again, and strummed the intro, but the other cowboys were left hanging, waiting for that melodious voice to fill the evening.

Hank was crushed.  He knew that, other than this minor service he provided the crew he was pretty much useless.  Fighting back tears, he dropped the guitar on the ground, turned his back to the fire, and took a few steps into the darkness to hide his shame and grief.  

Now… those cowboys were rough, and they weren’t given to much sentimental stuff, but seeing Hank bereft of his one and only gift suddenly spurred them ( pun intended) to action.  One pulled out a harmonica, another picked up the guitar from where Hank had dropped it, and as a tune evolved from the instruments, the Trail Boss himself started to sing in a gravelly, trail-roughened growl through 30 years of tobacco.  

It was not especially good music.  But there was an earnestness in their old-school trail songs that touched Hank, that brought him back from the edge of utter defeat.  The old codger sang a familiar song, and Hank turned back to the fire with tear-stains running rivulets through his dust-covered face.  

When they got to the chorus, his countenance suddenly lifted in divine inspiration.  As if the words were scripture written upon the wall, he suddenly knew what he had to do.  the cowboys stopped singing as Hank croaked out unintelligibly in exultation.  They couldn’t understand.

In the morning, they awoke to discover that Hank was gone. Everyone puzzled as to what might’ve happened to him, but clearly he had left of his own free will. With nothing else to be done they continued to drive the herd and hope for the best for Hank.  

Weeks later, they arrived at the ranch without further incident, having nearly forgotten Hank.  But when the herd was brought in and secured, and the rancher’s wife had finished setting up for their celebratory dinner, suddenly there was Hank.  In his arms was cradled a Corgi.  He cradled that little pup like it had been handed to him by an Angel of Light.  His voice was healed -as healed as it would ever be anyway.  The Trail Boss, having spent many an hour wondering if his callous treatment had sent Hank over the edge, approached him with relief and hinted the beginnings of an awkward apology.  Hank smiled, gestured to him to stop, and said, “think nothing more of it.  You gave me the answer to life that I was searching for.”

A quizzical look clouded over the grizzled face.  Hank continued, “it was when you sang in my place that last night.  Suddenly everything made perfect sense.  I realized what I had to do from the words of your song.”

Stumped, the old man just looked at him.

“Your song spoke of the things a cowboy must do.  I couldn’t do any of them as a cowboy.  But there was one thing I could do.  I couldn’t herd, I couldn’t rope, i couldn’t shoot, I couldn’t even eat beans.  But there was one thing about being a cowboy I could do”

Unable to contain his curiosity, the Trail Boss finally asked, “and what is that?

Hank held up the Corgi, “ I could get a long little doggie”


On another hot summer day, long ago:

It was, in fact, a glorious day to be on a motorbike in the mountains of Oregon. I was feeling it all: the vibrance of spring, the joy of wind, the snarl of a V-Twin, the bright warmth of the returning sun. I was on my third day of wafting around behind the pleated skirts of the Great State of Oregon, hiding from strangers and seeking solitude. It had been a bit since I had smiled at anyone – nor indeed had someone to smile at – for quite some time. As tired of humanity as I had gotten over the previous months, I was in no hurry to re-engage.

Funny how Fate likes to pick at your scabs!

I saw my first person as I crested a rise on a two-lane country road. I didn‘t know her, but there she was, and I slowed the bike. Maybe it was the glazed look in her eye in the hot sun, or maybe that she was holding a big pole with a “SLOW” sign on one side, and “STOP” on the other. I realized with an inward smirk that Fate had decided I was gonna need a sign in order to be human again.

I have a habit, on the bike, of making eye contact and recognition to certain people on the road; Other drivers at intersections where they‘re stopped, forklift drivers at the mills I visit, and yep, flaggers.

They often nod at me, these people I see, so I assume it is a thing to do. I suppose it could have just started with some random tow-truck driver and a pernicious mosquito just up under the beard, misinterpreted as a gesture that just grew from assumption, but then again! Eye contact with another of your species is an awakening thing. Just one human to another, it is written deep within us to hear and speak through our eyes. And using this makes communication possible when voice is of no use.

But I‘m getting ahead of myself – back to the road!

So I looked this flagger in the eye, and nodded to her before moving through. As I did, I saw an unusual thing. The woman had been very preoccupied staring off past me seemingly. But as I nodded, she came back to the moment, and even managed a bit of a smile before I rumbled by.

And I was reminded of this crazy skill we have, and use all the time. And yet, somehow we don‘t know we have it. We don‘t even know when we‘re using it.

There is just something warming about friendly silent recognition. Not the false smiles of extended conversations, or strained polite smiles. Not the sappy, venomous smiles of the opportunist.

Nope, just the freely-offered recognition that respects the commonality of being human.

In places where people meet, and know each other inside their community, it seems more common to have some respect for each other‘s humanity, regardless of other differences. The speaker can simultaneously speak with voice, and listen with their eyes.

I thought about that moment for quite some time, all through the next day and then home. I thought how it‘s effect, practiced every day by more people with the ones they‘re around, how much stronger we could hold on to the weak amongst us, whose minds lose their clarity and wind up doing horrible things. Maybe there wouldn‘t be so many of those people pushed beyond what they can bear.

And perhaps this is what I do, as a biker, there with my bright red helmet with moon-eyes on it. I see you. I see you standing at the crosswalk, or on the side of the highway. If you need help, you know instinctively how to say so. I see you, driving a semi in the other direction, trying to stay awake and pay the bills. I see your children, oggling out the backseat windows at the spectacle that is a biker. I see you, standing by the excavator with a shovel, trying to survive the summer sun, dreaming before I was there of your own bike, and the thirsty look when you first lay ears on my engine. I see your life, within you, trying to shine.

I would tell you more if we talked maybe. But then again, maybe today you just need someone -anyone – say, “I see you.”

We are both human, you and I. I respect you as an equal human. Now we can start!

Let It Flow

Christmas was cancelled by the gubmint this year, if you haven’t heard.

Gatherings are banned. Its a sign of the impending Apocalypse. Go home, hug your wife and children, and prepare for The End.

And that’s just the start of it, right? The godless “Festivus” has perverted our celebration. Secularist celebrations have become a bastion of rebellion for disaffected, unapologetic sinners and unbelievers. Pandering to all of these are the thieves of body and soul – cultural consumerism and greedy opportunists of every kind. The Spirit of Christmas is under a full-time assault.

This war against Christmas is, itself, a pandemic threatening to ruin us all. The early church compromised to integrate with pagan traditions to ingratiate itself to the ruling gentiles (Something about a dislike of being fed to lions). A materialistic society has institutionalized the annual fleecing of we, their consumers. Through these our Christmas Spirit has been infected and threatened for nearly two millennia. And it is taking a toll. Evil has infected everything. It would seem perhaps to the devoted Christian that we should be mourning, not celebrating. There is no hope for mankind.

Or! is there? The way I read all my holy books, and see no command from the One I serve to celebrate his birthday. I see no institutionalized prescription for “putting Christ in Christmas”. Indeed, nowhere in his recorded words did he tell us to keep throwing a birthday party for him every year, let alone how to do it.

What Jesus, the basis for Judaism and the foundation of the Christianity, did say, over and over, was “love your neighbor”. He only had to say it, because we already weren’t doing it. “Love your enemies”, because we had amassed a lot of them, and weren’t managing them well.

“Love one another”. He said it over and over. Its like he was planting an ear worm.

There were, long before Christ‘s time, liars and cheaters of every kind. There were systemic abusers from the very top of society and government on down. Murderers of body and soul flourished, and He landed in an obscure country to the reigning Empire, to as humble a beginning as can be imagined, to tell us to love each other. Many and vocal are those who insist it WAS imagined. Why would a God do that? How is love going to fix what clearly requires power to control others?

But yet, every year starting in the late fall, something magical happens. The entire world changes from its usual business, if only a little in some places. Strangers greet each other in a small but different way. Children learn how good it is to receive, and this grows into an empathetic adult tradition. It grows over the course of a month or two to a crescendo, until it is heard around the world. These children, so often the focus of our holiday, are taught how good it can be to receive joy, and become parents and aunts and uncles and! well, sometimes just friends, who give because they remember the inherent love they received. Commerce pauses – if no other time of year, than at least this one day. People spend time and effort to look around for joy, and to make some of their own, taking blessing from the imparted happiness to others. Through masks, and distance, through health-driven ordinances and isolation, people have found a way this year to love each other. On battlefields, soldiers have paused to celebrate life. In hospitals, in prisons, in the dark alleys and slums of society where suffering is rampant, the glow of what we call humanity is found. But what is “humanity” if not love?

It seems to me the Spirit of Christmas IS an infection. We may guard our bodies from death with masks, gloves, and distance. But rather than nitpick over the human failures of spirit, let’s spend a day rejoicing over the pandemic invasion of Love, regardless of what name we know it by. Spread it by whatever means you find available. Be infectious with love.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is the Spirit of Christmas. If you call it by another name, so be it. It still is what it is, infectious goodness

Let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow.

Tacked Man

I looked up on a cool spring day, but the sun was nowhere to be seen.  In its place, sat a round steel hatch, closed and latched against the world above.  

Had I been on the other side of that hatch, I still wouldn‘t have been able to see the sun, though I would be beyond any man-made structure.  400 ft of seawater still would lay between me and the rays of light, and the air my life depends on.

Suddenly, that thick steel hatch seemed a rather frail defender.

Nonetheless, my face reflected a defiant confidence, an unspoken ease born not of safety, but of knowledge, and faith.

Under my uniform, a silent twin trickle of blood seeped into the cotton of my undershirt.  It was hidden by a slightly bent and battered set of Dolphins, the measure and mark of the Submariner.  Pinned to my chest scarcely an hour previous, blood trickled from the holes in my chest where the backing pins had been hammered into my flesh by my shipmates congratulating my passing the last of the rigorous benchmarks to qualifying as a full-fledged member of the Navy Submariner.    I felt no pain, though the next day would reveal a deep purple around the imprinted marks I would prize for the rest of my life.

I gazed intently at that hatch in triumph.  I had beaten its intimidation.  I was no longer a prey of the Sea.  I was a hunter in my own element.

This last weekend, I have once again stared into the eyes of some of those men with whom I served 30 years ago.  We greeted each other, spoke, laughed, almost cried at times as we engaged in unsupervised shenanigans, reminiscing, tales of hilarity and horror common to our experience.

But behind each pair of eyes, whether in somber remembrance or the hilarity of jokes only we together would understand, each man present bore the same marks of the Sea, of the knowledge of what always (usually) lay beyond that hatch.  Over that awareness, like a cloak against the cold of night, lay an icy confidence in each other, in a knowledge put to the test in that steel crucible, in an unbreakable brotherhood, rested a smile reserved for that other common brother of our our craft, death itself.

There is a look, a presence in the eyes, that to those who have not looked upon the thousand hazards, the subtle, deadly details of submarine world, utterly unrecognizable.  But to we who have seen the inside of submerged, closed main hatch, it is forever unmistakable.  

Oregon Fires

The winds have shifted.

And today the smoke from the fires in the western hills and valleys has turned back towards us here in the high country. The clear blue of this morning was gone by 3pm, replaced by an ever deepening yellow pall.

And now, under what should be the brilliant desert starlit sky, not one speck of discernible celestial bodies. Instead, the ashen tears of the heart of Oregon drift onto my upturned glasses for some time before I realize why I can‘t see.

To old Oregonians, these tiny towns that have burned the past few days mean far more than their products, or reputation. Few have ever lived in these places, but we have passed through them on our way anywhere worth going since we were old enough to read the signs on the road – the ones we‘ve always joked about not blinking lest we miss. Towns of only a few souls have been indelibly carved on our childhood memories of camp, of retreats and hikes to the mountains, or to the coast. For those of us also from rural towns, these were sisters to us. Their names have bound our memories to a way of life that crosses the distinctions between logging, farming, conservation, and harvest, living in a unique and practical connection with nature.

And now, they‘ve burned. Detroit, Blue River, Vida, Phoenix, and Talent. Otis. Gates. Tiny places all. But our places. The places visitors to our state don‘t know.

We knew them. We knew these places as part of us, and it hurts. It hurts to think we‘ve lost them. It hurts even more to think, so close to home, of our family‘s pain and loss – those who‘s lives and livelihoods are gone.

And here, by the Back Gate, its ash falls on my upturned glasses, and on all of Oregon. The night is quiet and still, receiving the haze like a somber funeral procession. Everything seems close, like loved ones who‘ve set their differences aside to come together.

The battle is nowhere near over. Even tonight, firefighters race to lay down firebreaks, to try and guide the fires into dead-ends, or back on itself to starve. Unbelievably, law enforcement is not just enforcing evacuation orders but stopping looters. Relief workers are feeding and housing evacuees. Families all over the state are opening their homes and pantries to their own whether they know them or not.

We are Oregonians. We know natural disasters, we know how to heal. We know how to plant, and how to grow back. We know when to pray, and when to act in practical terms. We will do all of those things in their time.

But as we fight tonight, and in the morning, and again the next day and the next until the threat is extinguished, it will be with a heavy heart.

The Joy of Life

Saturday night here in PineHelm, on a Labor Day Weekend.

Its easy to forget how many neighbors – those living close enough to be able to disturb me if they crank up their Hi-Fi – we have here. Naturally, equipment selection adds a dynamic to my “Neighborhood”, thus defined. In other places I’ve lived, I’ve had “neighbors” three quarters of a mile away, and I‘m absolutely positive we could have doubled that distance. But here, in the midst of The Pines, the forest filters its domain to its own purposes. People are not yet that big here. And I like it that way. I like my quiet.

And so here tonight, I hear the strains of some music, some distance off, and realize that this is the weekend for all the visitors – filling all the rental cabins that take up much of what is usually quiet woodland. The music is garbled, vaguely familiar, but at home in the woods. Children run rampant in another direction, squealing in distant, freshly unbridled delight at the sounds of their own car doors slamming shut! without them inside. Mothers bark instructions. Dogs bark, just to help. people call out here and there, a coyote calls out, and both people and coyotes reply immediately. It is a delicious cacophony of release.

And the wind sighs like a contented mother through the trees in the background, unheard by most, I expect. There is a Campground atmosphere to the neighborhood this night. The usual barriers of silence and distance are checkered cloths laid upon the ground softening the hard edges of existence with something greater than safety and security. Something in the air has called us out of ourselves.

And I, sitting here by the Back Gate with the dogs? Uncharacteristically, I don’t mind.

Celebration is in the air. No, that‘s not quite right. Life is in the air. I don’t know why, but it’s there. It is here. It is good, on this day, to hear joy in humanity.

It is most welcome to hear Joy in the air.

The PNW (as I see it)

Had an interesting friend request on Facebook yesterday – someone from Germany wanting to know about the PNW (Pacific NorthWest, for the uninitiated) with an interest in moving here.

It was odd, and normally I‘d dismiss it as a scammer. But something about the profile and initial conversation caught my attention. Ive noticed that many Germans don‘t have the same social paranoias we have here in the US, so maybe, I thought, it was genuine.

So I answered.

And then I thought! dang, that was a lot of writing to just tell one person. So hey, if you want to know my take on the PNW, as told to a possible immigrant, here it is.

Its long.

They‘re probably in an information overload coma right now:

“The questions you ask don‘t have a single answer. But I can give you an overview of the region, as I‘ve lived here in various places and climates.

Oregon and Washington have a clear ecological, and cultural transitions due to two major north-south mountain ranges that come up from California, and independent ranges in Canada.

The west coast is a rain forest. It is wet, and the vegetation is lush. Trees are big, and the communities there mostly evolved from logging, fishing, and farming. Tillamook is famous for its cheese, and we lived on a farm there for several years.

Just a few miles inland, the coast range traps the weather as it comes in off the Pacific, which creates the climate for the Pacific Northwest rain forest. In Oregon, the coastal mountains aren‘t that tall, but the northwest corner of Washington has the Olympic Mountain range, quite tall, imposing, and beautiful. And the places west of it can get over 200 inches of rain a year.

Moving eastward, which is how everything is thought about here, a long valley reaches from about the middle of Oregon (Roseburg) all the way to Seattle. This is the cradle in which most of the Oregon/Washington community has evolved. Rich farmland, mild weather, easy terrain and access to wilderness recreation within easy driving distance make it a perfect combination of living conditions, and most of the population of these two states resides there.

The Cascade Mountain range is a rugged volcanic range that divides the states physically, environmentally, and culturally. To the west, the culture comes from a life of easy abundance, tech and manufacturing industry, and social activism, (which if I might inject a personal opinion, has become a contest to see who can be the weirdest). I am no lover of cities in general, but I used to love Portland. It has changed in recent years though – not for the better. Too many people. But it still is a beautiful city, as is Seattle for Washington. Each is the predominant political power, as it holds a majority of the citizens.

The mountains themselves are not conducive to large-scale settlement, so much of it functions as recreation wilderness or home to a certain breed of individualist.

To the east of the Cascades, the climate is desert-like. We have two kinds of deserts in the American West – Desert, and “High Desert”. As opposed to the coastal regions, the living regions of Central Oregon are at a bit of altitude – 3-4000ft – and is largely classified as High Desert. It is comparatively dry, though pine trees abound around its fringes, sage brush dominates much of the landscape traveling eastward and southward, dry climate conifers dominate further north in the east.

The people here in Central (and eastern) Oregon are often ranchers of cattle, sheep. A lot of hay is grown, supplying much of the state and beyond. In Bend, the biggest of the small central Oregon cities, the economy is controlled by ranchers, and people connected to the recreation Industries of skiing, biking, hiking, and river sports like kayaking and fishing. Recreation is a big deal there. The confluence of ranching and recreation is a constant source of strife, but we try to get along. Mostly.

The eastern part of the states have different mountains. The Blue Mountains, for example, are not all that tall, but manage to collect quite a bit of snow. There is a LOT of wide open space, and to me, a biker, the back highways are a gigantic playground.

Politically, there is a strong division between Urban, progressive believers who envision a better world and rural, conservative voters who wish government would leave us alone – liberals and conservatives as the two groups have come to be called. The city folk think of everyone else as backwards, uneducated simpletons and the rural folk see the populous cities as festering with fantasy-thinkers whose social theories have built unproved premise on unproved premise until their sophisticated, complex mechanisms fall prey to circular, overthought fantasy, whose self-delusion prevents an understand how things really work.

!Not to put too fine a point on it.

This difference of opinion, and the regional influence on thought, creates a fair amount of tension and animosity, something that has grown in recent years.

British Columbia shares more similarity than difference to the two states. Its differences are perhaps the comparative freshness of its history. Much of the province is still pretty raw, physically and culturally. Central and eastern regions were settled by a rough crowd that still remain – ranchers, and miners and loggers. All three still carry a strong influence from those days. People often say it would have made more sense to divide the two states and province up on north-south borders instead of east-west. It would have made for more uniformity of state cultures I suppose, but our differences have always been our strongest quality, Ive always thought.

The thing that makes our region most interesting is the still-evident signs of the settling of the land here. Our pioneers, in many cases, remain in living memory. Museums to logging are common, fields have horse-drawn implements – plows, rakers, mowers, etc – still visible and rusting. Recent human History is very much alive if you look for it.

Geological history is evident too – the Columbia Gorge is like a book of the centuries that you can read, if you just know how. The weather is notoriously predictable, everyone knows that what it does is going to be surprising, it will probably change in 15 minutes, and except for the population centers, will probably be extreme in some way (which is probably why so many live in the relative safety of the City. But then it floods there.)

I could talk all day about this place, because I love it. I am not an Oregon Native, moved to the Pacific Northwest at about age 12-13 (can‘t remember which), to Tillamook. After 10 years in Navy Submarines, I moved back with my wife and kids, and have lived in all four areas described above. The Coast was my first and remains my favorite place. The “Valley” is how we refer to the primary population centers, which in Oregon is the Willamette valley. When referring to both Oregon and Washington, we call it “the I-5 Corridor”, a reference to the north-south interstate highway connecting Portland and Seattle to California supply lines that passes through the Willamette Valley. This was our home directly after the Navy. I went to College in SE Washington. And now, we live in an out-of-the way spot in central Oregon, nestled up against the eastern side of the Cascades, away from cities and closer to the large national Forests. Much of my love for Oregon comes from a thirst for wild places, and when I am angry or defensive of it, it is because of the gradual loss of those places as population grows. When I cross the border back into my home state from travels, I always smile. It is a complex, half-wild land that whispers possibilities and freedom of expression. It invites – no, it insists that a dedicated person think hard about how its wealth of resources are used. It wears its heart on its sleeve, whether for good or ill.

I hope this helps you. Thanks for asking.”

Grief and gratitude

For most of us, when some tragedy enters the news cycle we read it, and before long we move on.

ARA San Juan, S-42

And that is how it should be, I suppose.  We can‘t all embrace the totality of traumatic impact.  It would be good to let these things go, to relegate that knowledge to the bin of things about which we simply say, “but life goes on”.

Healing matters.

But that doesn‘t mean we should adopt an inward indifference to the trauma around us.  Because many of the people around us cannot, even if they wanted.  And this affords us, the distant observer, to use our UN-traumatized abilities to do some small thing to ease the journey of the hurt ones, whose remaining life experience is unwillingly colored with painful memories, or dysfunctional processing of the world around us.

I would imagine most of us have some thing that has happened that gives us the ability to empathize to some small degree, if we wish to.    And in empathizing, we can open the door back into society for people who suddenly don‘t feel welcome there, who can‘t fully understand what has gone wrong with themselves, who are embarrassed and ashamed sometimes by their own odd behaviours and reactions.

It would perhaps seem odd to suggest that an average person could empathize with those things connected with the loss of a submarine.  To be able to feel the tension of losing the means of returning to the surface – no propulsion, no hydraulics, and conditions that prevent using the emergency blow system – if you haven‘t been there, the imagination has a hard time recreating that feeling.  A few of us have, and can.  But there are still aspects that anyone can relate to in some degree.

The ARA San Juan, S-42, of Argentina was lost two years ago about this time of year, under mysterious circumstances at the time, without notice, without message, without a trace.  44 men and women seemed to the rest of us to have just ceased to exist.  But those 44 people were not islands to themselves.  While the news focused on the search for a few weeks, most of the world went back to doing what they were doing after the search was called off.

But down there in a remote part of the world, 44 families – mothers and fathers, children, brothers and sisters – all still proud of the accomplishments of their sailor – looked in vain at the place where a face should be, and was not.  Perhaps they always will.  A community of consummate professionals will always see an empty spot on the pier where a boat should be pulling in and out periodically, a blank spot where something about the skills and efforts of their profession failed, a little patch of doubt that niggles in the back of the mind, and at test depth rattled like a saber.

And across the globe, there are other families of other nations doing the same thing.  Children going through life with an unspecified fear of the unknown, communities stained with loss, and doubt, and a sense of failure.

It isn‘t important that this be about submarines.  There are as many types of tragedies as there are people, I suppose, each with something unique in their patterns of grief and trauma.  But the more we can observe and remember, the sooner we can begin to see ways to connect in the common things, to reassure those uniquely hurt that there is still humanity in them. We who can respond without being overwhelmed can offer an acceptance back to humanity for those who struggle.  Regardless of the nightmares that yanks them awkwardly awake from their sleep, despite the unnatural reactions to daily life that confuse and sometimes hurt those around them, despite the guilt of having lived by virtue of luck, or the shame of some small factor that suddenly seems like the one mistake – something that should have saved them – we can offer the promise that they are still human.

Here in America, we have a day to relive the joy of Thanks.  We get out of practice, so it is good to remind ourselves of our humanity.  It started as little more than nervous smiles of survivors, celebrating little more than another breath, another heartbeat, another sunrise.  And perhaps that‘s all this Thanksgiving of ours should be.  In the midst of feasts, and the touch of family, maybe the real celebration should be had by exposing ourselves to the host of traumas we have shared as a species.  Maybe we should take a moment to gaze into the eyes of a troubled child, or a haunted soldier, to hold the hand of a terminal old codger staring into the grave, to see through their eyes what brings them fear and self-doubt, and lift them back into their humanity.  We should do this not to gloat about our own relative comfort, nor to brag about how much we may have experienced, but to reconnect mankind in whatever small way we have been afforded, whether it be by circumstance or providence.

We each here are survivors of something.  

A friend of mine has set up a means of doing just that.  When the San Juan went down, and was given up as lost, he and others responded to the grief of the families with empty places in their Christmas celebration by holding a fundraiser for Christmas toys for the children of the lost crew. This has become an annual tradition.  There are many ways you can touch someone who feels the loss of family – this is an easy one. There are many other ways, with both your resources and your heart. I regularly communicate with family of the Scorpion tragedy of 51 years ago, and can attest that the pain of loss never goes away. But sometimes it can be transformed. And the transformative catalyst is your humanity.

Find something, and do it.  We are given two hands for a reason:  one hand to lift another up, and one hand to take the hand extended to us.  These are both things we do in giving thanks.

Speaking to that of God in everyone:

At the front of the restaurant where I take my usual breakfast while in Washington, there is a landing at the top of the stairs to the front entrance.  It‘s big enough for maybe a couple people to stand and look down at the parking lot, or out across the way to where the cars and trucks are speeding up and down the freeway north and south.  It‘s a fine place to bask for a moment in the afterglow of a full belly of good breakfast, before taking your leave and diving into your day.

A fine place for brief meditation.

As I swung the outer door open into the wet grey morning, an older man stood at the handrail looking out, his countenance fixed far beyond the stream of distant traffic.  It struck me that he wasn‘t looking at a place, but at a time.  Wherever and whenever he was looking at struck me as being a melancholy thing, a bitter-sweet memory.

And maybe it was the presence of so much transportation going on at once here, maybe it was my breakfast conversation with Al, a man I wouldn‘t recognize if he wasn‘t on the fourth stool in from the left, but whom I feel I know more about than some of my own kin.  Al was a truck driver, and an ace mechanic, and spent time as a crewman for funny cars.  We talk a lot about these things.  Or maybe it was having talked last night online with a bubblehead friend of mine who restores old cars, especially classic muscle cars.

Maybe it was just a compendium of all the conversations I‘ve had over the years, about love and loss, both personal and…well… not to over-dramatize it but…machines.  I don‘t know for sure. These things just come to me.

But as this stranger stood there, not even flinching as I burst out of the doorway behind him, I felt moved to speak.  I sidled on up beside him, joining in his gaze, trying to see what he saw.

“She‘s not coming back”, I said after a moment with that finely honed surety that complete strangers always use when they haven‘t a clue what‘s going on.


I picked a muscle car out of recent discussion memory, “that ‘71 GTO… it‘s not coming back.”

I spoke with the special reverence that longing for the past always requires.

I don‘t know why I speak to strangers this way, but it means I meet some nice people.  Their reaction to the oddity tells me a lot about them, I guess.

He stood silent for a few seconds, measuring no doubt what the heck was happening, but a a slow nod came to him – I think I felt it rather than saw – and he drew a breath to speak.  I expected… I don‘t know, I expected a confused answer, to which I‘d smile and chuckle, and after a greeting be off to my day of shenanigans.

But instead, he drew a breath, turned to me with a wizened face marked everywhere with life and experience, and said in a solemn “rest her soul” tone,

“‘64 Peterbuilt”.

And we smiled a warm smile at each other.  The fondest memories inside each of us, entirely different in technical detail but exactly the same memories of busted knuckles, wild rides, and intricate skill – teamwork between man and machine that ties them together forever – these swirled behind our eyes and communicated with the other.

It was a long conversation of maybe 20 seconds.  We closed it with a mutual chuckle, he going in for a meal, and I descended the stairs into my day.

My dad tells me stories of Great-Grandpa Sutton, and his driver, Ring Schneider.  Grandpa liked to build race cars.  A machinist by day, he would through the winter months keep himself out of Grandma‘s hair by building cars, and racing them in the summer season.  Ring was his driver.  My dad as a boy would watch them work.  Seldom would they speak, and yet, inexplicably, each would know what the other was doing, one-word answers served as technical discourse.  They trusted each other enough to not have to ask questions constantly, if the other spoke, it was as if each themselves had spoken what the other did not explicitly say aloud.

And their bond was forged out of earned trust, into the mutual respect of men who knew what they were about.  

It is the same bond that men who have sailed beneath the Sea.  Or on the battlefield.  Or in the air, where mistakes cost lives, and the survivor‘s stare into another time, at some distant morning outside a breakfast cafe, and understanding one another without the interruption of words.

Talk, as opposed to, say, money, is sometimes valued inversely proportional to its quantity.  A man who can say a lot with few words is rare thing, but as beautiful a phenomenon as any of the intricate relationships in nature.

This Veterans Day, you may feel the urge to say “Thank You” to some old codger with a ball cap from an old boat, or from an old war.  The response will very possibly be awkward.  What he says back may sound like a practiced platitude, or a gruff push back.  Don‘t be put off by this.  By no means let it stop you from saying it this once, or again to another veteran.  If you aren‘t a veteran yourself you aren‘t likely to be able to speak on his frequency, but the acknowledgement still means something to him.  It lets him know that his time spent was relevant, that his work, while unknown to you, earned the recognition every human strives for, even if that work is as foreign to you as Space Flight.

And yet… perhaps it isn‘t so foreign.

Perhaps it is, at its core, no different than driving a ‘64 Peterbuilt on logging roads in the mountains.  Or a mother wrestling 3 rambunctious toddlers through a grocery store week in and week out.  Or talking an irate customer back down into sanity.  If you do something, and do it well, there is at least one thing you have in common.  Find a way to connect and let that old guy know that as distant as his experience is from your own, it is a human experience.

Sometimes we just need a reminder that our inhuman experiences, sometimes atrocious memories, and skills that seem to have no relevance in the modern world, have not really rendered us inhuman. Perhaps that bit of us that is “of God”, as George Fox referred time often, is what we also call humanity, the thing that remains when all our deeds have been done, things have passed into memory, And we look to our Creator for a little feedback on our work.

Tell a veteran tomorrow that they are, and always have been, human. It is the most important thing we can be.

The Last Gas Station

“Yaknow, for a place where you’re lucky to see more than one car for every 10 miles of road on the surrounding highways this gas station sure got busy all the sudden”.  

I spoke from behind a gas nozzle, seated on my Road King at a pump that had been empty of waiting cars when I had arrive just a few minutes ago.  Now, three cars waited behind me, and two on the other side behind one filling opposite the divider.  He was filling both the tank and the extra in the bed of his pickup – this might take a while. Five pairs of eyes burrowed into the back of my skull.

“It’s the only pump in town”, injected the man with the other nozzle, wide-brimmed straw cowboy hat pushed back on his head while he looked down into his rear tank.

“I think it’s the only one in the county”, chimed the passenger, standing behind him, elbows resting on the pickup bed side-rail.  “Isn’t that right, Bob?!”, he hollered back towards one of the waiting cars.

The door to an aged 60s El Camino opened behind them in their line.  Dust, rust, and a flattened can of Hamm‘s announced the debarking of a grizzled, bent codger held together by nothing but boots, hat, and a belt.  Against long odds, it was all bound up in a bundle with a streak of orneriness sticking out like an unkempt shirt tail.

Bob struggled up out of the drivers side.  The thirty seconds it took him to exit, walk around, and hold his peace till he arrived on station felt like a time warp.  My gas meter clicked off, but I was duty-bound to give the man the time he needed for a question I had instigated, but was now inextricably bound to.  

My head had been full of highway-speed just a few minutes ago, and it screamed to be back to it.  I watched those boots slowly shuffle up, drinking in fully the juxtaposition to my road-rushed state of mind.

I took a deep breath, and accepted the moment.  I immersed myself in the slowest shamble I had ever witnessed.  I embraced it.  I vowed to myself to learn the secrets of this wondrous tool, this terrible weapon.

“Isn’t that right, this is the only gas station in the county, isn’t it?  Elbow-resting Passenger repeated himself as he stood up respectfully, giving the Village Elder space to step through.

I surreptitiously slid the expended nozzle back into its holster while the old man got his speaking voice warmed up, and reviewed his memory of 7 decades occupying the region. Briefly he began to speak, but then went back to his sagacious reverie.

I imagined him driving, in his mind‘s eye, to different stations that may have been open at one time around the sparse county.  They seemed to briefly flashed, one by one, expressed beneath the deep bushy brows that loomed over his eyes.  His gnarled hands fumbled for his pockets, and he shifted gradually from pedestrian to orator.   

Bob himself had only started using cars when he had bought the El Camino, and couldn‘t recollect any stations before that.  But he did remember the birth of one of the future owners of a gas station to his own nephew back in ’57 he could recall,  and then an untimely death and the closing of the station in ’86.  There were two brothers some miles out who thought they’d have a go at running a pump up at the county line, but ranchers couldn’t get up there in winter, and locals never traveled that way normally, so it too had shut down oh, heck, sometime before Bob‘s wife had passed 20 years ago.  

All the facts were there, they just needed a little chronological sorting.  And maybe a push start.

I glanced over during the recitation at the lifted pickup behind me carried a strapping young man and his girl, towing a horse trailer and unable to squeeze in on the other side even if they wanted.  Anywhere else that face would be flushed and angry, the girl might have been hurling unladylike expletives at the holdup.  But not here – not now. The stout man behind Them in the big Dodge with an ATV in the back sat patiently while Bob worked it out.  

He made a final conferral with his inner self, agreed, and drew himself up to the task of speaking.

“Yep”, he rasped in the strongest voice his aged body could work up.  He swung his head, neck, and body around towards me for a moment, in a stiff nod of acknowledgement that I was the instigator of this speculation.  

“Yep”, he reaffirmed thoughtfully, “I think that’s right”.  And so it was a consensus.  All agreed that if Bob couldn‘t remember any other gas stations in the county, then by golly there were none to be found.

I glanced up the street at the dilapidated tire store across the way, still announcing tire brands from 30 years ago.  What with the line behind me, I changed my mind about leaving the bike clogging the lane to the pump.  A sarcastic statement about the condition of the town urged me to speak it, mirth all around its edges, goading me into a smile.   Almost a smile. 

Instead, I mashed the helmet back on my head as Bob worked his way around to his car door.

“I guess it’s a good thing I stopped, then”.  I filled in the remaining empty sound-space with the machine‘s engine.  I nodded to the two men still pumping diesel, smiled and nodded again to Bob, and pulled back onto the highway to lose myself again in the wide landscape of Montana.

To the good people of Jordan, Montana, I apologize for what I almost said, but didn‘t.  It would have been rude.  

Funny, but still rude.