It makes even a stoic cry

I handle bad news relatively well. My exuberance over good things isn’t excessive – unless of course, you’re talking about the winning shot hit by my child or grandchild. Those who know me might call me stoic.

But, sometimes, I find belly laugh humor in the simplest things like word play and irony. And then, out of the blue, an item will reach out from a page or conversation, or television commercial with such poignancy it strikes every raw nerve in me and makes me blubber like a baby denied its lolly. Such as, a McDonald’s commercial around Olympics time, showing a dad teaching a little girl to swim, then showing that same dad cheering on his grown daughter in the Olympic pool.

The tear trigger probably depends on an aggregation of what I’ve been doing and reading and experiencing and all the right elements coalesce to strike an emotional nerve. It happened today at lunch.

Reading in the September Reader’s Digest about teachers who changed lives, I came upon a story reprinted from 1991 about a sweet natured, but very talkative boy named Mark Eklund and his teacher who was struggling to get across a tough math concept to her junior high class. When students wouldn’t settle down, she had them write on a sheet of paper every class member’s name. Then, they were to write the nicest thing they could think of about that student – for every student – and pass the list back to her.

On Monday, she distributed their classmates’ comments to each student and heard them murmuring as they read what others said about them: “I didn’t know others liked me so much,” or “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone.”

The boy grew up, as boys do, and one day the teacher’s father said, “The Eklunds called last night.” She immediately recalled the talkative bright, polite boy and asked how he is.

“Mark was killed in Vietnam,” the father said. “The funeral is tomorrow and his parents would like it if you could attend.”

At this point, I had to pause reading because all the pain, disgust, frustration and rage I generally keep tamped down relating to America’s gross, blind, selfish, lying, cruel relationship with Vietnam burbled to the top and leaked out my eyes.

Resuming the story, teacher Helen Mrosla stood at the coffin when a pallbearer asked her if she was Mark’s math teacher. When she nodded, he said, “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral Mark’s mother pulled a piece of paper out of the wallet that was on Mark when he was killed. “I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him,” Mrosla wrote.

One by one, each of Mark’s classmates from that year showed their former and favorite teacher the paper she had returned to them, folded and creased from many readings. When she finally sat down and cried, it was both in appreciation for finally knowing what that little gesture had meant to so many so long ago, and in frustration and anguish over Mark’s totally unnecessary death.

And I cried reading it, for the utterly wasted life of Mark Eklund and the other 58,208 American soldiers who died there, and the 2 million others on both sides. Youcan say these “lives”weren’t wastedbecause these men and women accomplished other things with their lives, made babies,influenced siblings and friends, bought carsto keep the wheels of American industry turning. But their lives were wasted because the war was a hopeless exercise in political overreach that never had a chance to achieve its stated purpose.

And what made my tears well up and wash down my faceand my guts clenchwasrememberingthat the politicians who prolonged the war KNEW it. They knew it for years. President Johnson couldn’t withdraw troops or he’d lose the election in 1964; Nixon sabotaged peace talks in 1968 so he could beat Hubert Humphrey.

According to a story by Bob Fitrakis in Common Dreams, Henry Kissinger, then Johnson’s adviser on Vietnam peace talks, secretly alerted Nixon’s staff that a truce was imminent.

Nixon calculated that peace in Vietnam just prior to the election would put Johnson’s VP Humphrey in the White House, instead of him. Revelations from President Nixon’s papers showed that he dispatched Anna Chennault, his liaison to the South Vietnam government, to convince the South Vietnamese to back away from the peace talks, promising a better deal when he was elected president.

Chennault was successful. South Vietnamese’s corrupt leadership backed away from the peace talks and we spent another 20,000-plus American lives and 100,000 wounded in the next five years. And in 1973, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.

And I weep.

I weep to think of the promises, shenanigans, falsehoods and power of the military industrial complex that keeps America engaged in conflicts around the world. We are the most war mongering nation on earth. In the 243 years of our history, we’ve only been at peace for 21 years. We’ve been at war for 93 percent of our history.

It’s so common we don’t even think about it, unless you’re a parent, child or spouse of a soldier deployed.

When dealing with other nations who we perceive to be acting in a way contrary to our best interests, we rattle our sabers and say “every option is on the table,” meaning that we’re not above or beyond engaging our belts of military might to spank you into submission.

Depending on which source you quote, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 7-12 nations combined. Yes, that includes Russia and China.

In the incredibly illuminating HBO special Chernobyl, radiation was so high that no machinery could operate to clear debris.Radiation killed operating systems within moments. So, the Russians used “bio-bots” and shovels. Yes, bio-bots – humans who were not told of the danger into which they were thrusting themselves.

Despite all the pseudo patriotic jibberish slobbering from elected officials, they see our soldiers as bio-bots. Don’t like Saddam Hussein? Make up a justification to send our bio-bots to Iraq and take him out. But don’t touch Saudi Arabia, the hot house from which 9/11 was hatched, because they buy billions of dollars in weapons.

We know that no matter when we leave Afghanistan, things will return to the tribal antagonisms and violence that have been a way of life there for centuries. The “peace” our bio-bots enforce is temporary and fragile and will never be permanent. The administration knows it but hey, there’s always another election around the corner.

We treat the sale of weapons as if they were tractors, or computers or cars. Just another manufacturing product, when in fact, weapons produced in the U.S. supply antagonists in conflicts raging around the world. Our bio-bots are being shot at by guns made in the good old U.S. of A.

“Quite frankly,” says Danny Sjursen, US Army strategist and historian, in a story in The Big Think, “Selling arms is one of the last American industries that’s left. It’s one of the last things the United States does well, that we’re still No. 1 at — No. 1 at dealing arms in the world.”

Military gets big increases in the budget while education and innovation get slashed. The biggest “welfare queens” are corporations that make billions and pay no taxes. We’re lobotomized by daily news’ fascination with sexploits, celebrity and kittens. And somehow a prominent pastor in Dallas says the president would have biblical backing to launch a nuclear war.

Dear God, on what planet am I living? Hand me a handkerchief.

There are no old windows in Mainz

During a special anniversary trip to Europe this spring, we visited the ancient German town of Mainz. As with all excursions from our riverboat, we connected with a local guide glad to share his encyclopedic knowledge.

As he led us to the Mainz Cathedral, we entered to admire this gorgeous, active and functioning worship center on which construction started in the year 975. For those of you scoring at home that makes the cathedral 1,041 years old.

It stood during the Crusades. In fact, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa officially announced his support of the Third Crusade from this cathedral in 1188.

Surely the building buzzed with the excitement of Columbus’ discovery of a new world, and it was 500 years old at the Reformation started by Martin Luther.

Just saying that reminds me of how I laughed when President Reagan hosted an international economic summit in 1983 in what was continually referred to as “historic Williamsburg” Virginia. Some of the European attendees worked in office buildings older than Williamsburg.

Moments like these, embraced by walls that hold the secrets of 1,000 years, make travel an extraordinary experience.

We visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum, honoring the Mainz native who invented moveable type, and viewed some of the most valuable and historically important books in the world.

But Mainz is more than the cathedral, museums and history. During WWII it was an industrial center producing war material for Germany. Because of that, allied bombers tried to turn it to dust.

The war ended for Mainz in March 1945 when the Third US Army occupied it without a fight. Eighty percent of Mainz had been destroyed.

Consequently, as our guide said, “There are no old windows in Mainz.”

That line stuck with me ever since.

Our guides in Germany talked about the war in matter-of-fact tones. They didn’t apologize, justify or defend Germany’s aggression that plummeted the world into war. Simply, “when the war was over” the industrious residents of Mainz understood their city was blown apart. Few elements remained of its life, identify and character.

Everything fragile was gone. There are no old windows in Mainz.

They understood that rebuilding their city was a chance to start over. And starting over meant deciding what to keep, what to restore, what rubble to haul away, what remnant to patch.

They knew that the part of their history created long before there was clearly a Germany or a France was the core of their identity. It was to be the magnet for visitors – like me – to come and marvel at the majesty of the ancient. Their restoration of center city reflects Mainz as it was long before German aggression rained destruction on it.

Today Mainz is a modern economy, centered on tourism and industry once again. It thrives because people are attracted to its core.

No one wants his or her life to be blown apart. But sometimes, exterior circumstances, decisions made by others, mistakes and bad choices of your own cause everything that’s fragile in your life to shatter.

When the majority of everything you’ve known has been blown to dust, but yet you live, you rebuild. Those elements of your life that were fragile are gone, and only the core remains. Is your core strong enough to become the base upon which to rebuild?

Is there a cathedral at the center of your life that stands tall and strong in whatever chaos rains around it? Or have you spent too much time installing glass windows, and putting on display fragile things that will not stand when bombs fall?

Identify your core before the wars which will come. Strengthen it. And when the dust settles, you’ll be standing, still.

Building for the past

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France.  This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again.

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining vestiges of the earnest effort.

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies and munitions moved through the mile long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere belowground inhabitable.

There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars.

The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating WWI. But the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment.

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through a break in the line through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered.

French intentions were right. Their execution was good. But they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.

This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense.

American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas.

Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

Are you crouching behind a Maginot Line at work, clinging to former processes, staffing and equipment, while competitors punch through your product line with better tools and innovation?

Is your church trying to defend itself from the perceived threat of its surrounding culture while young people who easily learn to navigate the culture are finding your bunker increasingly irrelevant?

Those who build to defend against a past threat will be overwhelmed easily by the real challenges of the future.