The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Uncategorized

A Genuine Sea Story

Heres a tall tale to get you through the week. But first, some vocabulary words for the unitiated:

  • TLD: thermoluminescent dosimeter. A device about 2” square, worn on the belt, to measure received radiation. All submariners wore them on our belts, to monitor the amount of radiation received. Never, ever get caught without your TLD on. The ELT or Doc will larn you some new words if caught.
  • screw: ships propeller.
  • turn-count: rpm
  • Dunce-cap: a streamlined brass fairing covering the back of the hub of the screw
  • Squid: US Navy sailor

Alrighdythen, are we ready? On to the sea-story:

I was perusing teh Intarwebs last night, when before my eyes appeared a question in a group on the Book of Face, regarding the validity of a story he’d heard about special forces using our torpedo tubes for egress “back in the day”. He was concerned that he’d met up with what is infamously known as the “Sea Story”, a tale so wild no one can believe, told by a sailor who seemed convinced that the mere absence of proof that it DIDN’T happen should carry the day.

He’d undoubtedly met up with one of the “tough guys”.

Well, not to toot my own horn, but seeing he was a naive and believing lad, I laid upon him my own experience with torpedo tubes as just another of the many versatile weapons available to the Steely-Eyed killers of the deep. I hope it helped him confirm or deny his friend’s claims:

Arrrghh, Matey, there we were…

It was, as I recall, the winter of ‘85, (as many of the best sea stories were), while we skulked in frozen places forbidden to be mentioned aloud. At 6’4”, I was one of the tallest crew members. At 160#, I was by proportion the skinniest squid onboard. This point will show its importance momentarily.

The skipper came to me one day, and said, “Roesener, America needs you!”

To which I naturally replied, “Anything for my beloved country, sir”.

He smiled warmly, reassured. “Somehow, I knew I was asking the right man…”

20 minutes later, with nothing on but a pair of khaki shorts borrowed from the ship’s diver, a black web belt with my TLD, and a pair of ill-fitting wetsuit boots with a knife strapped to my ankle, they loaded me into #5 tube, flooded the tube and opened the outer door.

As I swam out into the ice-cold open sea, I immediately saw the problem for which my country’s future rested on my particular set of skills. Naturally, all this is classified, but as long as you promise not to tell anyone…

We had been trailing a Russian Typhoon-class boomer closely for days, but the time had come for us to initiate some shenanigans and take offensive action. Those twin screws, right there in front of me, churning the frigid waters of the Arctic Sea, were my primary enemy. The slow turn count of patrol speed allowed me to overcome the prop wash, and to creep right up on the “Dunce Cap”, which held the screw to the boat. After an epic and mighty struggle, I was able to pry it off with my diver’s knife, allowing the entire megaton port side screw to fall off and sink to the ocean floor hundreds of fathoms below. I watched it slither it’s way into the inky black Deep as the Typhoon, suddenly unable to stay on course due to unbalanced propulsion, had to react. I waited expectantly, until the helmsman, oblivious to the mere possibility of my deed, over-corrected with a fairly aggressive right rudder. I jammed my knife into the rudder mechanism, forcing them into an irreversible , eternal right-hand turn.

Yep, I had em doing circles.

I then came up for a breath of air, as there had been no room for tanks in the tube with me, and returned to my own vessel. I rapped out the secret code against the hull, (“Shave and a haircut, two bits”) and followed the inrush back to the safety and warmth of my own boat head-first. As the tubes inner door opened, I was greeted with a roomful of Huzzahs from teary-eyed grown-ass men. I swelled with pride at the acknowledgement of heroism from these steely-eyed Cold war-heroes that stood about me, clapping and hugging and cheering. I beamed, and when I say I beamed, I’m saying the room began to glow.

Some say the luminescence was the approval of Ye Gods of War.

I humbly thought it was my own irrepressible pride, which naturally I have since managed to stuff back into its proper place in my soul.

Doc spoke out in a loud shushing voice and said it was probably just radiation poisoning from getting so close to a critical Russian nuclear power plant, and demanded I hand over my TLD for a reading.

Regardless, it was in this way that I assured the safety of millions of Americans, and set about a series of events that went on to win the Cold War.

You’re welcome…

The Care Bear Movie

Dateline: 1987-ish
Location: undisclosed submerged area of operations, North Atlantic. …ish

You can mess with a lot of things in a submariner’s life, and he will simply gripe about it and move along. Extend a run by two weeks. We already expected it. Commence field day? Already have a cleaning spot picked out, a plan for a nap. Want to send me up topside in a blizzard? Set fire to the galley? Fry electronics by taking a wave over the sail on the surface? Clog the sanitary systems? Poison the air requiring all hands use emergency air breathing masks plugged into a plumbed network of air lines? That’s what they pay us for. Bring it on.

But there’s some things they don’t pay enough for. High up on that list is bad or no movies.

This is how the rules read: If you don’t have a genuine emergency, mission, or better idea (read: liberty port) don’t mess with movie night. Do not break the machine. Do not break the film (or tape). Do not turn the mess decks lights on in the middle of the movie.

And above all, do not mess with the movie storage locker or contents. There’d better be a full loadout, functionally watchable, and preferably entertaining.

Now of course, there is a wicked little paradox here: the only thing worse you can do to a submariner than mess with movie night is to make the rule that you can’t mess with movie night.

See, here’s the thing: behind the swagger, lack of decorum, and general sacrilege that oozes from each submariner, and freely flows when there’s a crew of them, their general disregard and heathenish ways only seem faithless to others. The submariner’s creed, “we are the crew, we are the ship” completely excludes reverence for the silly decorum of others. That irreverence isn’t a byproduct. It is a critically functional facet of a mindset formed in an environment unimaginable to most people. “Nothing is sacred” is a sacred codex.

And so the deadly game of survival underwater inevitably requires shenanigans, just to get the irreverence flowing and all warmed up…

The run to our undisclosed location was slow. The operation was mind-numbingly boring to 90% of the crew. And so, the movies began once shakedown, drills, field day, and all the stuff we do getting settled into a deployment is under control.

I remember the exact moment this transition took place. I was basking in the downtime of taking my turn as aux operator in Sonar. We rotated in on the main sonar stack (listening post) periodically, then out to take a little while to rest the eyes and ears. The aux operator was the spare man, the guy free to move about the cabin. The one guy available to fetch coffee while he’s out of the shack. And in this capacity, I had just exited the shack headed toward the ladder down toward the mess decks. The predictable but loud thrum of the inside of the submarine was suddenly punctuated by a peculiarly angry voice.

“The Care Bears Movie?!”

Now at this point I want to acknowledge and guide the two types of people still reading this far: the first type will assume I have reported what was actually said, and that was that.

Why, bless your little ol’ hearts.

The second group will understand, to varying degrees based on experience, that more was said, that it was vulgar, and therefore either needlessly confusing to the uninitiated or fully implied and understood to those who are wise in the ways of sailors.

I’m not saying the feelings being emoted were unholy. I’m just saying I suspect the ensuing Cosmic Blush caused the 400-cycle bus to dip a few hertz in shame, heaving an acoustically-detectable electronic sigh into the Deep.

See, before every deployment, some young buck gets awarded the privilege of anonymously accompanying the Supply Officer to Squadron, where he could help choose the movies we’d take to sea. What was chosen was chosen, there was no arguing the titles once the hatch closed and we submerged into the Darkness of the Big Bathtub. By some sort of cosmic law probably related to penance for our vocabulary, it was understood to be also forbidden to just “not watch” a movie taken onboard for deployment. If one movie were to get watched, they all had to get watched ( you see how that “one crew-one screw theme keeps coming back?).

The outcry I heard was not one of disgust from a qualified Submariner, but one of qualified horror.

Sure enough, our mystery sailor had put the Care Bear Movie into the box with the others. Now, please don’t try to wrap your head around why Squadron had stocked Care Bears in their library. I’m 35 years deep into this bizarre case, and still got nuthin’. It was just there, alright?

And of course, that meant it HAD to be watched.

This couldn’t have happened even two years previous. Up till then, we used the old 16mm film projectors. In the Eighties, this meant a harsh demarcation of available movie titles. On film, we got older movies, lots of B-grade material. On the new VHS Format, suddenly Care Bears was possible.

And now, by virtue of its malevolent presence, required.

Dear friend, we had a term for something tested to extremes, that came from the mechanical type rates. We would say we “Hydro’d” a thing to indicate it had endured extreme testing conditions. In the spirit of what can only be described as rhapsodic resignation, we embraced this Care Bears. It was screened at least twice a day for two weeks.

In recounting this tale, it is at this moment that I suddenly hesitate to bring you, dear reader, further into the ebullient cesspool of Submarine humour. But I can’t leave you hanging either, now can I. I’m just saying Let it now be known that you have been warned.

Our uniform at sea is referred to as a “poopy-suit. A one-piece easy-in, easy-out garment with a single zipper from neck to the netherworld built especially to enable a sailor to quickly go from sleeping to fighting for survival, unhampered by the one thing he never had to begin with, modesty issues. It is equally conducive to the semi-conscious divestiture by an exhausted sailor who has spent the last 3 days in arduous testing, or nail-biting suspense. The last thing a bone-weary sailor needs is complicated clothing.

By the Official Manual of Uniform Regulations, beneath the poopy suit was to be worn a white tshirt and underwear. By the Eighties, the tshirt was often a printed shirt, a personal and as vulgar a message as the times allowed. Of course, no one knew whether you had a plain white tshirt or not unless you zipped down the poopy suit a bit.

As the hydro-testing of the Care Bears exuberantly continued, there came a point when things suddenly went from darkly hilarious to diabolically collaborative. And it all started with Pink Floyd.

As many qualified, off-duty submariners as could were lounging Conspiratorially on the mess decks for screening #45 of “A Care Bear Movie”, when someone up front suddenly had an epiphany. As behind him Care bears were glowing a rainbow beam at some evil-doer meany-doo-doo-head, he seductively unzipped his poopy suit in front of us down to his navel. He stretched it aside to reveal his Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” prism tshirt. It was perfect. How perfect? Well I’ll tell you. In two watches, a matter of 12 hours, we went from a boat-full of submariners obsessed with Care Bears to actually believing we WERE Care Bears.

We all had different names and powers though. In addition to “dark side of the moon” beam, there was AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, Rolling Stone’s giant Tongue, Cuervo Gold, Jack Daniels, Triumph motorcycle on a highway way… you get the idea. Things with a hint of being worthy of becoming a “Stare” came out from the woodwork. These became our mythical superpowers. We would unzip and expose our tummies at hilariously awkward conversational moments. Passing each other in the passageways, which required the two parties turn sideways and slide past, became fodder for coy, often lewd insinuations based on our particular hidden “Stare”. It evolved into a friendly challenge – woe be to you if you were caught in a challenge with a plain white tshirt. Well, until one guy turned it into “Blinded by the Light”. That was a stroke of genius right there.

But as childishly silly as most of it was, there were other moments. One torpedo man had a flag shirt – just a simple one mind you, nothing garish. We would kazoo-choir our way through a shortened rendition of the star-spangled banner, suddenly a little awkward and maybe a little moved at the displayed patriotism. An ET had a print of John Holland, an iconic image of the inventor and founder of modern submarines. His “stare” was generally met with a respectful grunt of acknowledgment, as if his opponent was grudgingly acknowledging having been trumped.

Mine, or at least my favorite of what I had available that run, was a “Keep on Truckin’”shirt. Whenever space allowed, I’d always strike the pose, yaknow, one foot impossibly extended forward creating the illusion of a giant step being taken. That was my Stare, and it was used to convey reaching a little further than you thought you could. I didn’t mean it to be entirely serious, but the element of genuine encouragement stood fast. By the time we stationed the inbound maneuvering watch, I had it perfected.

And so it came to be on a cool September morning as we were bumped and nudged and coddled up towards the pier by the tug, all the aft line-handlers, yours truly included, greeted and encouraged our pier-side counterparts with our new communication skills, successively beaming them our particular “Stare”. I even struck my most dramatic “Keep on Truckin’ pose yet, what with not being inside the boat and all, but yaknow, they just weren’t pickin’ up what we were layin’ down.

We finally gave up, to attend to that which stood between us and getting off the boat and off to our families or, well, wherever the boat wasn’t. We reminded ourselves a little, but not terribly too late, that when in the sunshine, we had to at least try to act like the other sun-walkers. We ahemed and coughed our way back in juvenile seriosity to a modicum of decorum just in time for the colors to shift from the bridge to the aft deck where we stood, as the final act of transitioning from underway to officially in-port.

As we all snapped to salute the colors, wouldn’t you know it, there stood our torpedo man, giving his surreptitious stare with one hand exposing his Care-Bear Stare chest flag, eyes locked straight into the eyes of the Ship’s stars and stripes. It was in that beautiful moment that I realized that the warped, defiant, oppositional and sometimes arrogant mind of a US Submariner is a National Treasure, capable of Care-Bear Staring down the Enemy and the Sea he tries to hide in, armed with nothing but a tshirt and a poopy-suit to load it into for launching.

You cannot win against this.

Happy Veterans Day, ya cocky bastards.

On A Personal Note

For the past year we planned. For the last two weeks, we’ve traveled across the country. Finally yesterday, we reached the Florida Keys, the location of a Dolphin encounter especially for our son. It was the highlight and purpose of our trip. We didn’t know entirely what to expect, whether he’d be overwhelmed and want to bail out, or if weather or other factors might get in the way… all sorts of possible spoilers lurked in my worrying mind. My wife and I talked as we traveled, and were prepared to just accept it, should something come up.

Beyond Dustan having a good time however, it never occurred to me there might be something deeper to experience for me. But, with my son beside me, when together our hands passed over that smooth, rubbery body and Santini the Dolphin looked up at me with that curious, expressive eye from out of her underwater world, I felt as though a master painter had added a subtle, finishing stroke to bring extraordinarily disparate experiences together to create a picture of such harmonious clarity of purpose it nearly overwhelmed me.

To explain, we have to go back to 1981.

My chosen major in College was Biology, specifically Marine Biology. Factors unrelated to the world of Science pushed and pulled me away from that goal, leading eventually to an accidental career as a submarine sonarman. My profession’s motto, as expressed in the US Navy Sonar School creed, was “Sagire, Classis, Destructum” – “Search, Classify, Destroy”. And I was a pretty good Sonarman.

But as fate would have it, a big part of my work was differentiating between enemy threats and the natural underwater world required knowing more than a little about sea creatures. And dolphins are ubiquitous in the sea. Over the years in and out of ports around the world, in remote corners of the deep, in wild storms and the tedious boredom of calm, the songs of dolphins were a near-constant companion. I’m not the first sailor to romanticize this relationship, nor will I be the last. I learned to recognize the call patterns of pods close to my home port, and when I heard them, I listened in private bliss while they seemed to welcome us home with their boisterous, untamed songs of joy at simply being.

At first I envied their dedication to “simply being”. As I learned more about them, that envy became by stages a yearning, an understanding, and eventually a deep respect for the philosophy their example described.

But that was decades ago. I settled into post- Navy terrestrial life, and left the singing of dolphins for others to hear.

Until today.

Being this close to these socialized dolphins, hearing them call and chitter, occasionally breaking out into exuberant squeals, I was transported back 30 years to my sonar shack. And then, in touching and being touched by one of them, actually being in their presence, I was drawn out through the pressure hull of my mind that always kept us apart. I was set free of the cage that had always protected me, from the weight of duties that had demanded – always demanded – a part of my attention. For a moment, all the walls were down, all the shields up, while an emissary of their world met with me, and we exchanged an understanding of gratitude in each other’s existence.

And when the moment passed, and I had a little time to reflect, I realized that the best times in human life come when we can share in equal measure gratitude for each other’s existence.

We knew

We didn’t come here to die. We didn’t go down to the Sea to be killed by it.

But we knew. And still we went.

We knew the enemy, who wished to kill us, and rule our people. We knew the Sea, and its penchant for imposing death on the careless, the nonchalant, the clumsy and inexperienced.

We knew. And yet we went.

We knew we were hated by the enemy, who feared our silence. Our strength was in surprise, and stealth. Our weapons destroyed whole ships. We knew the Sea, and its cruel impartiality. There was no mercy to be found in the dark waters of the deep.

We knew, And yet we went.

We knew that our vessel was only as good as its builders, as its officers, and its crew. We knew humans could be fickle, awkward, often mistaken. We knew that courage – that one element that could in the moment of peril make the difference – was hard. We knew that the training, and practice, and dedication to our craft was not always enough in this hostile world we entered.

We knew. And yet we went.

We went, and we met the enemy. Sometimes in peacetime, other times in war, we went and kept the line of freedom strong. We met those who would exploit our weakness, and matched them. We met other country’s enemies, and fought them. We met our own enemies, and demanded respect. We met the Sea, in all its terror and splendor. We engaged, and either vanquished all of these, or died trying.

We knew. And yet we went.

We went to the Sea silently, unknown to most of the world, knowing that our work was best done in the shadows, in silence, without glory. Our stories were short: “We were never there. It never happened” was the uncomplicated version of “I can’t tell you without endangering my shipmates”. The cramped, isolated, unnatural submerged life – sometimes for months at a time – tore at our minds. It wore on our bodies. And we replenished ourselves with little more than the knowledge that the crew we served with shared the privation, a poor explanation we clung to when rational thought insisted we were insane.

We knew. And yet, we went.

And crew by crew as one, many of us died. Sometimes it was our own failure. Sometimes it was misfortune, an act of the Sea, a failed component, a miscalculation. What it was didn’t matter to the water that poured in and crushed our bodies.

So many of us no longer have a place among the living. But our Living, those we left behind, have their freedom, and that will have to be enough. It has been preserved by our fight.

We knew it had to be this way. And that’s why we went.

-Painting by John Groth/US Navy, a dramatization of the sinking of USS Squalus, in 1939

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”

Visibility

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.