A-to-Z Reveal (2017): Poetry of Words

A-to-Z Reveal (2017): Poetry of Words

I like dictionaries. Did you ever look for dirty words in a dictionary? I am not sure kids still do that. Everything is on line. I still use some of those words; but not today, not in my blog. At least, not those words. I plan to find new (to me) words for this challenge. You may find them interesting. I need one per day. Toss some my way, if ya be so inclined.

Words are the bits, pieces, and colors writers use to craft the art. When we tell it as the writer, we use words. We may enhance words with pictures or sounds, but we write with words.

During April, I want to immerse myself in poetry. I want to read more poetry, learn about writing poems, and discover my inner (wannabe) poet. I want to do that by writing them – to piffle out one poem each day for the month. I’m not (yet) a poet. I’ve never finished a poem that I considered ready for others to read or hear.

To that end, and in typical self-abusive fashion, I’ll write as many poems in April as I’m able. I will then post them for all to see. My goal is one a day for the month. To further ensure my personal embarrassment and pain, I am asking you for feedback – “Don’t quit your day job.” This may backfire, but I want (by example) to encourage others to put their work out there, to take the risk, to allow us to share in their efforts.

For each letter of the alphabet, I’ll attempt to use a word within a poem, or make it the subject of a poem, or I will somehow engage the word with the poem. I’ll create a piece that involves my chosen word (maybe more than one), and then proceed in alphabetical order, beginning on April 1st (Oh dear me, the fool’s day).

I will post every day. I plan to piggyback this A-to-Z challenge with the National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo/GloPoWriMo) challenge. NaPo requires posting all 30 days. I welcome your suggestions. For both challenges, a poem will be posted to my blog and linked to the challenges.

I tend to have logophilia, an emotional attachment to words. My vocabulary is no larger than average, but it should be. My spelling should also be better. I’m not much of an orthographer, but some of my readers are correctors of spelling and grammar, especially mine. Feel free to pile on with them to highlight my blunders so that we learn (my poetic license is up to date).

I want to use this opportunity to learn more about poetry. Will you help me? If you provide feedback comments, other readers see your comments, and thereby grow poetically. I’m willing to hang it out there. You can tell me about it, and we can all learn from the experience — if you share your poetic wisdom with us in the blogosphere.

“A poem should not mean/But be.” ~ Archibald MacLeish

Interdependence, Knowledge, and Belonging

Knowledge and Science

From the tiniest thing to the vast secrets of the universe, what will humans ever know? Will anyone ever correctly proclaim that all knowledge has been discovered and may be known or available to everyone? I doubt it.

Our galaxy – one of many

Science helps us understand our natural world better. But, science provides information only through descriptions from observations. With science, we may understand better what an earth quake is, or how to grow more soy beans, but ultimately the answers we receive from research are observations.

Microscopes, telescopes, laboratories, and other equipment for tests and measurements are among the tools used to make these observations. Yesterday’s scientific conclusions lead us to today’s information, and then to the changes we will read about tomorrow. It was scientific observation that convinced us the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth. It was also science that convinced us that was not the case.

The discoveries of science change. Does truth ever change? When I look around at our natural world, I see is what humans have done. Everything I see, while either part of nature or taken from it, was placed, caused, or permitted by humans—to a point. Other life forms may make their mark, but that will last only if humans permit it. When we don’t allow nature to progress or we interfere, it can be disastrous due to our limited knowledge. It may be science, but we don’t know everything and we can only explain so much.

Sensing and Nature

 

The spectacular trees

While nature is everywhere, my senses respond more strongly outdoors, in unfamiliar surroundings. I notice things less in my usual, everyday world. Change awakens my senses, whereas routine numbs them. Walking along a forest trail during a gentle, but persistent, rain provides stimulation that rejoins my surroundings with my own basic nature. It feels so right.

Seeing the trail, the roots of the magnificent trees, the green vegetation bouncing and dancing with falling raindrops, I feel aware and connected with the essence of life. It’s all here with me: sky, water, rich aromatic soil, and scree giving softness to my footsteps. Nature paints portraits of life and movement. I see how moisture mingles with the soil to send nutrients of life to plants and to quench thirsty animals, of which I am one.

Hearing the rain mesmerizes me as it falls where it will, on the leaves of trees and brush, onto the boulders and earth, and into the growing puddles and flowing streams. This is the sound of natural life – earth as it should be. The rustling sounds of birds and animals is alerting, as life deals in with nature’s wet gifts. And the rain. The glorious rain.

Feeling the soft, spongy earth beneath each step, I look down to see how the lovely wet soil now clings to my touch. I feel the rain pecking at me as it does upon the flowers. Animals respond to the natural bathing as a refreshing cleansing.

Touching the soft moss on a tree

My touch to the soft moss hugging tightly to the trees is a pleasant reminder of life on life, the natural interdependence within nature’s home. Against my face, and over my entire body, the rain penetrates cloths to caress my skin. I become one with the flora. I am refreshed, another being, pleased with our universe.

I can taste the freshness of the day. While rain on my head and face washes into my eyes, other drops find their way to my mouth, adding salt to the taste – the salt of the earth. I belong here.

A forest petrichor is the most pleasant of scents following rain. As the sounds and sights change with the gradually ceasing rain, and the forest begins to release the magical and glorious aroma of nature at work; life flourishes. If there is a heaven, it’s right here, right now, with me. I feel completely connected to nature. I yearn for this life, as it should be. I know this is life.

Awareness of Belonging

I become aware of the cosmic interconnectedness of everything. I know I have my place, fitting in with everything in the universe. The vastness of the cosmos finds the path and weaves its pattern through space, through time, and through me to the tiniest speck of galactic dust.

While science can provide words, descriptions, and explanations for everything that I sensed during my inspired walk in the forest rain, nothing can explain the deep, soulful feelings I experience when the vastness of nature communes with me. Conscious awareness.

Our senses perceive the environment as we discover nature and life.
Our sixth sense is that of belonging to the Universe.
Look both ways, discover the gaps, feel where we fit in.

Battling Bastards III (Ben Steele)

Battling Bastards III (Ben Steele)

Reading or writing about events like Bataan, we often focus on man’s inhumanity to man – that dark side of our nature, which we often shun until memoir time. Throughout known history, our capacity for cruelty is well-documented. Genocide (killing to eliminate a group, race, ethnicity, religion, or language) is too common. While respecting victims of atrocities, I want to focus on survival, with one survivor in mind.

Ben enjoying it.

When survivors tell their story, they become windows to history, guiding and motivating our chant of never again. From their dark stories, we learn to prevent future atrocities. On the bright side, survival stories are inspirational. What others endure, survive, and subsequently achieve are symbolic of human resilience: that remarkable human physical and spiritual asset.

I discovered Benjamin Charles Steele long before I met him, as I was feeding my curiosity about Bataan by reading books. I only read five. “Only,” because so many books and articles have been written about the Death March, many by survivors or their families.

 

One of those books, Tears in the Darkness by Michael and Elizabeth Norman, focuses on Ben’s story. While the Normans included much more within the pages of their ten-year project, they trace Ben’s life experiences, particularly during the war years. I recommend it.

 

My signed copy

Born in 1917, Ben Steele grew up on his parent’s Montana ranch. The family lost the ranch during the Depression Years, when he was about 15. Ben continued to work as a ranch hand, which interrupted his education several times before he finally graduated from high school in 1939. The following year, Ben joined the Army Air Corps. Eighteen months later he was a prisoner of war (POW) in the Philippines.

Ben may have developed a passing interest in art when had delivered art supplies. But, he had little exposure, and no formal training. Ben received his formal art degrees after the war.

For much of his early POW time, Ben was ill (Beriberi, dysentery, pneumonia, blood poisoning, and malaria). He worried about adding mental illness to the list, as so many others had. So, he began to draw. Risking severe punishment or death to stay sane, Ben started a self-prescribed therapy to fight off life-threatening melancholy. He had seldom drawn anything during his life.

Feeling guilty about my unused art supplies.

Unknowingly, from his sick-bed in the wretched Bilibid Prison, he was launching a seventy-four-year, successful art and teaching career. This late high school graduate, Army enlistee, and future college professor, was barely hanging on to life. While starving and hardly existing in some of the bleakest living conditions imaginable, Ben used charcoal and sticks to do his first primitive drawings.

“I used to sit there day after day. I thought I’d lose my damn mind. I wanted something to do, so I started drawing with anything I could find to draw with. I’d draw on walls. People around me said, ‘Why don’t you draw the guys? You know, there are no photographs taken of this stuff.’ So, I started drawing stuff around the camp and sketches of people and portraits as close as I could. I wasn’t very skillful.” ~ Ben Steele

Eventually, Ben was moved to mainland Japan where he worked as slave labor in coal mines. The only two of his original drawings to survive the war were done there. The original drawings he did in the Philippines were in the possession of a fellow prisoner, catholic priest, and army chaplain, named Father Duffy. When the ship Duffy was on sank, the drawings ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, as he recovered in a Spokane, Washington, hospital, Ben reproduced his lost drawings from memory (part of his therapy).

When the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Ben worked 75 miles south. He heard the blast. Soon the war ended. Ben and others were on the road home and toward recovery from the three-and-a-half-year ordeal. Ironically, some survivors eventually fell victim to mental and emotional problems resulting in suicide, death from substance abuse, or other such maladies. However, most survived, and I was fortunate enough to meet some of them.

Once a cowboy….always…

When Ben’s art was displayed in a building on White Sands Missile Range in 2011, I was there for my last Death March. By then I’d read Tears in the Darkness, and other books about Bataan. So, I knew Ben’s story.

When I went to see the art the day before the March, Ben was there. His daughter was escorting him in his wheel chair – he was 93. We shook hands. He signed my book about his art and we talked, mostly about his life as an artist.

I immediately knew I was talking to a Montana cowboy, who happened to have been a POW, college professor, well known artist, an American hero, and a witness to much about life’s realities.

At his core, this happy man who was pleased with life and was the same cowboy who joined the Army Air Corps 71 years earlier.

“Little things that probably bother a lot of people don’t bother me. I figure I’m probably living on a little borrowed time, and I’d better enjoy it!” ~ Ben Steele

Another WWII veteran I knew, Joe P., said virtually the same thing to me last year. Both men died in 2016, in their late 90s after living full and happy lives. Perhaps their life choices were reflected in the last three words I quoted from Ben, “…better enjoy it!”

Life has its ups and downs; reality in art, literature, history, and personal stories enable us to look both ways, to the dark, or to the light. Enjoy life, but mind the gaps.

Faces in the Mirror

What would it be like today, if I could see all the faces that you have reflected? You only reflect me the way I look today, older and very different than when we first saw each other. I don’t recall that day, because it was almost 70 years in the past. Before that, you had reflected many other faces for as many reasons.

Since before I was born, you always had your place in our home, on the west wall of our dining room. There, you were centered on the wall, above the old sideboard buffet, which was also a permanent fixture. As anyone walked past you going to, or returning from, the kitchen; you reflected their profile. Before leaving home, we all stopped and faced you for your final review and blessing as we took one last look. Mom and Dad used you to check the look of their hats reflected in your glass.

Since your total viewing area is only one foot by a yard wide, you never revealed much about us below the neck and shoulders. Yet, you remained our primary, go-to mirror even after several full-length mirrors were installed. I recall the day my brother stood staring at you when he pontificated, “You know, Billy, you’re only as good as you look.” I never agreed with him. Did you? I suspect that how people look is important to you. It’s your purpose.

Every year, on Palm Sunday, someone would change out the palm frond strip hung prominently across the top of your frame, where it would remain for the year. That was sort of the family way of dressing you up for Easter Sunday. It was always the same.

The only time you, or any of those items around you, were moved, it was for painting walls or changes to the floor coverings. But you, the mirror, and below you, the side board, were always restored to your rightful, prominent places. Mom and Dad did not change furniture often, but they never booted you from your space.

How many photographs, cards, messages, and notes were stuffed between the edges of your glass and your frame? What did they say? Were they important?

You are in old pictures from my grandfather’s house (the one my mother grew up in), taken long before my birth, showing you along with two side sconces, both long gone. I never met any of my grandparents, but you did. I’m sure my Mom’s father looked at his reflection in your glass. Maybe her mother, too. I can envision him holding his young daughter up for you to see. Who else saw themselves, and the reflection of others, in your glass?

Beginning in the 1920s or 30s, every member of my family must have looked at you. When did you come into being? Every friend who ever visited our house saw their reflection, and probably that of others, when they looked at you.

You have survived the Great Depression, the FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years, World War II (and possibly WWI), several rough moves, and whatever untold disasters that occurred during your 44 years in my parents’ home. For the past twenty-five years, you’ve been undamaged by my hauling you from one end of the country to the other.

Your ornate frame has a few nicks and scratches revealing hints that the wood beneath your gilded frame’s lamination is red. The corners of your frame are secured with two wooden dowels each, all attesting to the creativity and craftsmanship of an earlier time, when some master mirror maker worked magic.

While you’re a handsome and distinguished antique, it’s not you the mirror that provides the mystery and intrigue. It is the many thousands of faces that underwent self-examination as you watched, the hundreds of times a tie or hat was straightened with your approval, or when an Easter Bonnet was set to one side, and then given an approving nod.

Oh, mirror on my wall, holding the history of thousands of changing faces within your glass panes, do you remember their smiles and their tears. What do you remember? What secrets do you hold? Will you show me those reflections so that I may see whose lives you’ve shared? I recall with fondness and sometimes sadness, the pictures in my memory of the many times I stood nearby, and watched, as others used you to reflect a special moment in time. Show me their faces today, so that we might name the names.

When you look in a mirror, wonder.
Who else has looked this way? Who will?
Look! But, look both ways, and mind your gap.

The Battling Bastards, Part II

This is based on my experience with the Bataan Death March Marathon. It is the second of three posts on this subject. To read the first, click here. The next post in this series will focus on Ben Steele, Bataan Death March survivor, Montana cowboy, and artist.

Why Do This?

The doctor looked at me, with my wife listening, “You can get all the cardio you need walking. If you were on active duty, I would profile you so you could not run. I suggest you stop marathons, and consider not running at all. You will not have a heart attack. With this problem, you will likely be dead before you hit the ground.”

Before that, between ages 59 and 65, I’d completed 15 marathons. Four of those, I walked. Each took me about nine hours to finish, in the Chihuahua Desert, north of El Paso, Texas. Training for such endurance events is hard. Participating is fun, but demanding. I discovered the Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon when l was searching for an off-road, full marathon for walkers. About 85% of this “March” participants walk it.

In early March of 2008, we flew from San Antonio to El Paso, rented a car, and drove 45 miles north to the US Army post at White Sands Missile Range in southeast New Mexico. I checked in at registration, looked around the base, then drove 17 miles to Las Cruses for the night.

Well before dawn the next day, my wife took me back to White Sands and stayed with me as a hoard of 5,000 marchers and runners, plus many friends, and event staff descended on the large outdoor breakfast area, next to the starting-line assembly corral.

The Emotional Start

Sunrise and the start are at about 0600 hours. Everyone arrives long before dawn. After we parked, drank coffee, juice, and I scarfed up whatever I could eat, marathon ritual requires queuing up at one of the numerous port-a-potty toilets. I watched as some male participants strolled over to the golf course to give it a watering, I would have too, but they were run off by staff. It was dark, their backs were to us, it made the loo lines shorter, and the area had little grass. I didn’t see the problem, but dropped the idea.

Greeting Survivors at Start

The opening ceremony at sunrise was the most patriotic and emotionally stirring that I ever witnessed. I was in the starting corral by that time, and being surrounded by my tribe added to my feeling of being part of something special. After few short speeches, accolades, and expressions of gratitude; a low altitude, noisy flyover of fighter jets from Holloman Air Force Base marked the final countdown to the starting gun. The crowd got quieter as the excitement and tension grew.

Greeting Survivors at Start

Greeting Survivors at Start

We were startled by a loud, unexpected blast when the starting gun was a thunderous, awakening, cannon blast. This was an Army post, so of course. As we slowly worked our way through another narrow gate and into the crowded final corral, a marching band of kilted drummers and bagpipers led the parade of 5,000 hopefuls through the 15 feet wide, by 50 feet long, starting area. Lining the sides of the narrow start area, the Bataan Death March survivors, most sitting, old and frail former POWs shook hands and spoke with as many participants as possible. Since the Bataan Death March is 75 years old now, few, if any, actual survivors remain.

The Pipes and Drums Lead the Way

We heard a distinctive beep as each marcher walked over the starting strip. That sound is an electronic signal from a timing chip attached to a shoelace. I noticed a barefoot participant, who tied it to his ankle. I would see him two more times; once, struggling in agony just past the 10-mile marker. I notified the next staff member I saw. The next time he was riding on the back of a golf cart on his way to a medical tent. Since then, footwear has been required. The military is good at making rules for common sense. I’ve seen barefoot marathoners before, but they ran on paved roads. This was a rough desert environment.

Those wishing to run fast were out of the corral immediately after the band. Last to start were the “heavy” military and civilian groups, with each person carrying a 35-pound backpack, plus water and other consumables for the course of the day. The pack must weigh at least 35 pounds at the start and finish.

A Killer Experience

More Death March survivors were stationed along the route. The idea was for marchers to meet the survivors, shake hands, talk briefly, and then move on.

Meeting Death March Survivors

It normally goes like this as I take his outstretched hand, “Howdy, Sir. My name is Bill Reynolds. Thank you for serving our country and winning the war.”

Then, he might say, “Hello, Bill. My name is John Richards. Thank you for marching to honor me, my friends, and what we did.”

I always wanted to stand and talk longer, but others were lining up behind me.

Marathon Smoke Breaks?

While this is no race for a best time, top finishers within each category receive awards. Only a small percentage of participants run all 26.2 miles, and none of them run their fastest marathon. This event is a patriotic history lesson, a physical and mental challenge, an amazing sight to see, and a motivating experience. Most of the course is on Jeep trails more suitable for tanks. The ubiquitous sand mixed with irritating gravel and scree finds its way into all shoes and boots. Gaiters helped a little.

18 Miles Done

The six-mile, 1,200-foot climb to the half-way point, 13.1-miles into the march, is on Mineral Hill at 5,397 feet. It’s notorious for ending many a marcher’s day. By that time, dehydration, bloody blisters, twisted ankles, sun burns, human exhaustion, and all manner of mental and physical maladies are screaming at marchers to give it up and ride the golf cart to the finish line, which about 15% must do, if they’re not taken away in one of the many ambulances that continually haul off the more seriously ill and injured. Even the young and fit fall prey to this challenge when they fail to pace themselves, especially if they neglected training.

 

I had read about the infamous Sand Pits, which we descend into just after completing 20 miles. These arroyos are 15 to 20-foot deep ditches, lined and filled with several feet of washed-in, soft sand that made walking even more demanding.

Sand filled arroyo

These pits alone are a challenge to walk through, but after enduring six hours of arduous walking, it’s agony. The subfreezing morning high-desert temperatures were long-past, yielding to the sun and its rising mid-day heat, making those arroyos The Pits of Misery, indeed. I used my hiking poles as I felt my exhausted, 61-year-old aching body, painful feet, and stabbing blisters demand that I end this insanity.

Warriors

Many other marchers were combat veterans and wounded warriors, some who had been seriously injured. Seeing men and women with all sorts of physical and mental war injuries, many wearing various kinds of prostheses, some blind and being assisted by guides, but all doing what I was doing; I was emotionally moved, and I hushed the objecting voices in my head. I may have had more than 30 years on most of those folks, but I did not have to carry a spare leg in my backpack, in case my prosthesis broke or malfunctioned. I didn’t need a guide because I had been blinded by an IED in a foreign country.

Comrades

After 21 miles, my emotional state totally changed. I became weepy, extremely happy, and excited simultaneously. I felt honored and privileged to be where I was, doing what I was doing, and being with the people I was with. I felt guilty for complaining internally about my plight. Then, considering that the Death March survivors I had met faced 65 miles as POWs, starved, thirsty, beaten, and guarded by an enemy solder more than willing to kill them, I found the strength to put my burden behind me and finish this.

The Longest Three

Then, 23 miles in, the last big medical tent appeared as I managed to climb the hill out of the sand pits. The base was in sight. The finish line would be there. The final three-mile hike was on a long, flat, dusty, dirt road. It was hot, dry, and slow going. Eight hours had passed since the starting cannon was fired. I was walking on near-zero energy, constantly glancing up hoping to see some sign of the finish line, but I was only able to see the same view, with the now onerous Organ Mountains to the right.

Medical tents were busy

As I was dragging my old ass along, a young lady in full army combat uniform greeted me with encouraging words as she passed. I was thinking that her 35-pound pack must be more than 25% of her total body weight. Most of my pain numbed, but with every step I knew I had blisters.

Blister Treatment at Aid Station

After my first Death March, I discovered that I had the biggest blisters I’d ever seen on the bottom and top of both feet, four black toe nails (one would fall off), and sore heels. I was exhausted.

 

Going Home; I Shall Return

Over the following years, my motivation continued to grow as I learned more about the events of 1942, and the perils of the men and women who surrendered on Bataan and Corregidor. I’ve read on-line accounts and at least five books about the experiences of the survivors. I became an amateur expert of sorts, drawn to something that had occurred several years prior to my birth, but affected my life in ways that I still cannot explain, 75 years later.

Nine hours Later

The next day, at the El Paso airport, Death March Marathon participants are quickly spotted in two ways. First, while active duty military are in Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU), many others wear the distinctive tee-shirt given to each participant. The second give away is the distinctive Death March limp. In my case, it was both.

Overcoming the challenges and obstacles of life is difficult, not impossible.
In the process, always look both ways and mind the gaps.

The Summer of ’59

Facing the Dark Side

When I was in the sixth grade at my Catholic school, I dreaded being promoted to seventh grade. Sister Mary Scary taught seventh grade. That nasty creature who floated around Saint John’s wearing Rome’s version of a burqa, but used a white frame to emphasize a face that was perpetually angry, who posed as a Catholic nun but was really the Wicked Witch of the West. That daughter of Satan himself, would have complete control of my life from eight to three every weekday, plus an extra hour at church every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, when I would be forced to sit, kneel, or stand to watch men and boys dressed in feminine garb prance, kneel, sing, pray, and read in a dead language of which I understood nary ten words.

Saint John's Church and School

Saint John’s Church and School

Mom and Dad were delighted in June of 1958, when I handed them my report card with that depressing word emblazoned on the back cover: “Promoted!” To me, it said, “sentenced to nine months of suffering in Purgatory at the hands of evil.”

I worried all summer. My friend, Jimmy, who was a grade ahead of me reported the horrible carnage that he and others had endured at the hands of Lucifer’s daughter. Whatever the version of depression a 12-year-old boy could encounter, I’m sure I had it. Never, have I wanted a summer to pass more slowly.

My parents always supported authority over me. The nun, teacher, priest, cop, drunk adult, irate neighbor, or neighborhood tattle tale was always right. Ok, occasionally, they really were right. But from my point of view, my parents should have supported me – their son who they claimed to love. I could not discuss my fears about the nun with my parents.

My siblings had the “we survived, but you probably won’t” attitude and said as much. However, my older brother, Danny, did have some advice for me. “Be an altar boy. They like altar boys,” he said. That made sense to me. I would play their game to survive.

Survival

I worried enough about Sister Scary that I managed to get through seventh grade with minimal physical damage and mental distress. I passed academically, and I was home free. This time I was even more pleased than Mom and Dad that I was not held back. I had not shed one tear. I was doing well. My eighth-grade teacher was to be Sister Mary Wonderful, who was also the school Principal. Life was good again.

Toward the end of seventh grade, I was finally approached to join the exalted and glorious ranks of the chosen ones. I was asked if I wanted to be an Altar Boy. All my friends were becoming Altar Boys, and I wanted to be one, too. My brother, Danny, had been one, and it was what good Catholic boys did.

Altar Boys

Altar Boys

I accepted the offer from the Father O’Burts, logically assuming my parents would approve. I started learning the Latin prayers and talking to other boys about the process and the job. I was happy about it. My plan for eighth grade was to be one of the chosen. I even signed up for the school basketball team. I didn’t play well, but I was the tallest boy in my school. I began to look forward to my final year at Saint John’s.

Not So Fast

Then, as the skies darkened again, I had the familiar bad feeling. As September and the start of school approached, there was a shockingly frightful rumor. Sister Wonderful was being transferred, and Sister Mary Scary, the evil antagonist of my short life, was being promoted to school principal and would be moving up to teach eighth grade.

Oh, dear God, No! I was supposed to be done with her. But as every dependable source, including the church bulletin, soon validated, ‘twas da troot. The second coming of the Inquisition had been promoted to Principal of Saint John’s elementary school, and would teach 8th grade to my class. I knew that I could not survive another year. My only solace was knowing that, except for a few favored girls, the rest of my classmates were as upset as I was. The Altar Boy gig became critical.

Say What?

So then, still expecting them to be pleased with the news, I decided to tell my parents that I was to be an Altar Boy. I expected them to be proud, if not overjoyed.

I was happy when I walked into the kitchen and sat down for dinner. She was at the sink behind me. “Mom, guess what? Fadder O’Burts as’t me ta be an altar boy. And I’ma gunna do it, too.”

I turned to look at Mom, smiling and all full-of-myself, at first. Then, severe shock set in when she turned and said, “No yer not!”

Dad looked up and added, “Like Hell, y’are! Yeh kin get dat idea outa yer thick skull right now.”

Dazed, I needed something quick – a prayer, to get sick, perhaps a deadly disease, anything. Desperation was overcoming me.

I was unaware that when Danny had been an Altar Boy, it was not a good experience. The logical consequence, of course, was that I was not permitted to follow, and my parents did not give one inch. Nor did they tell me why I was being denied my only hope to survive nine more months of the Black-veiled Horror. Today, I am glad that I was not part of that Altar Boy thing, but at the time, it was the worst possible news.

Option Two

Quickly, I changed the subject. “Mom, Coughlin is 7th through 12th grade. Can I go there for 8th grade? I’ll be starting there fer 9th grade and high school the next year, anyway.”

She didn’t even look at me. “Now, Billy-boy. Why’d ya do dat? Jist graduate St. John’s then go to high school like your brother and sister did. After I see ya graduate Saint John’s, the Lord can take me. It’ll never happen again.”

“I will graduate from Coughlin High, Mom. And probably college too. So, the Lord can wait.”

With that, the food in Dad’s mouth came spewing out. He was choking and coughing and wheezing and trying not to die while laughing at my confidence. My wonderful summer was ending in embarrassment and darkness. I became angry and depressed again.

Blues Brothers

Blues Brothers

As It Happened

I was right. Eighth grade was worse than seventh for exactly the reasons that I had predicted. Even our basketball team suffered from the curse of the cruel Head Demon. Sister Mary Scary controlled every aspect of student lives – thus influencing their spiritual growth or decline. She and I were in constant struggle to have all of Hell on our side. That nun and I never had one good day. Eventually, we developed a healthy fear of each other as my size and strength worked to discourage many of her thoughts. Sister Scary promoted me to high school and out of Saint John’s. To this day, I’m certain that neither of us wished to deal with the other any longer than necessary. I was neither the first, nor that last, to be moved along to become someone else’s problem.

Age and experience change how we see our world.
Look both ways and mind the gaps.

The Battling Bastards

Poem
We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.
And nobody gives a damn.
Nobody gives a damn.
~ by Frank Hewlett ,1942

One Survivor’s Story

I was fortunate enough to meet Professor Ben Steele on the day before I completed my fourth Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon: 26.2 miles through a portion of the Chihuahua Desert located in Southeast New Mexico. On 26 March 2011, Ben signed my book of the drawings he had made as a prisoner of war (POW), following the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in 1942. I shook Ben’s hand and we talked about his art.

Three Parts of the Story

This is one of three blog posts about our two journeys that converged when I met this heroic Montana cowboy and historic American icon. The first post is about the war, which the US entered immediately following Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. The second attack, which followed within hours of the first, was the invasion of the Philippines by Japanese military forces. It happened about four years prior to my birth, but Ben was there.

Prisoner's of War - Bataan Death March

Prisoner’s of War – Bataan Death March

Next Tuesday, a second post will be about my experiences with the Bataan Memorial Marathon, an annual event that takes place at White Sands Missile Range, near Las Cruces, NM. It’ll cover that part of my experience as a 65-year-old runner, in way over his head, leading up to my meeting with Ben, then age 93.

If you’re a marathoner/runner/endurance walker, or even a wannabe, registration signups for this annual patriotic event close on March 5th. The marathon will be on Sunday, March 19th starting early in the cold of the high desert military post, located just east of the breathtaking Organ Mountains. For the link to the web page and instructions, click here. You need be in good physical condition, but not all are. This thing is a rigorous challenge for the average person, and the “casualty rate” is high. The good news is that 85% of the participants walk it – as I did four times.

One survivor would turn 100 this year.

One survivor would turn 100 this year.

The third post will be about the man I met and his experience. He and others were survivors of the Bataan Death March, and long-term confinement into slave labor. He was a POW survivor, an artist, and a Professor of Art at Eastern Montana College: Benjamin Charles Steele.

The Death March

As we should know, on December 7, 1941, Japanese military forces attacked the USA by dealing a devastating blow to our forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Few know that ten hours later, the Japanese attacked the Philippines. The Philippines Campaign (Filipino: Labanan sa Pilipinas), or the Battle of the Philippines, raged from 8 December 1941 to the fall of Bataan on 9 April (105 days), and the following surrender of the island of Corregidor on 8 May 1942.

The Japanese military conquest of the Philippines may have been the worst military defeat in United States history. 23,000 US military personnel, and another 100,000 Filipino soldiers, were killed or captured.

Death March route. Train portion was more nightmare.

Death March route. Train portion was more nightmare.

Bataan is a peninsula on the southwest end of the large Philippine island of Luzon. As the battles raged on, General MacArthur’s forces retreated to Bataan and the small island of Corregidor. Due (in part) to the breakdown of supplies and logistics (in my opinion), the Americans and Filipinos began to lose strength. Following the decision to surrender, the Japanese were overwhelmed with POWs. A torturous and deadly forced march of 65 miles by approximately 75,000 sick, injured, and defeated Filipino and American troops to prison camps ensued. The march took about eight days.

While the exact death toll on the march is uncertain, credible sources report that casualties prior to reaching their destinations were from 5,000 to 18,000 Filipino deaths, and 500 to 650 American deaths. Marchers reported severe physical abuse and wanton killings. The Bataan Death March was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a Japanese war crime.

On January 27, 1944, the U.S. government informed the American public about the march, when it released sworn statements of military officers who had escaped.

My first assignment following Air Force basic training in 1964 was to Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. Over 30 years later, I lived for three years in Albany, Texas. It was not until years later, when I started reading and learning more about the Death March that I learned about Lieutenant Colonel William E. Dyess. Dyess Air Base was named after him, and he was from Albany, Texas (population ~ 2,000).

Dyess was a Death March survivor, and one of the few officers who escaped the Japanese POW camps in the Philippines. Following his return, Colonel Ed Dyess wrote extensively about the March and the prison camps prior to his death in an airplane crash in late 1943.

The drawings you see in the following video are Ben Steele’s. The survivors pictured in wheelchairs are at the starting line of the marathon.

Never Ending Wars

Japan formally signed to surrender on September 2, 1945, ending World War II. After 14 years of war, “nearly three million Japanese were dead, many more wounded or seriously ill, and the country lay in ruins,” most Japanese (not to mention those who had suffered at their hands during the war) saw the end of hostilities as a blessing. The USSR and China suffered the greatest loss of life during WWII – in the tens of millions, mostly civilians, who were killed due to brutal war crimes.

There is no shortage of stories about man’s inhumanity to man, particularly in time of war. The Bataan Death March, and the subsequent treatment of prisoners, was one example. Knowing these realities, meeting those who experienced them, and listening to or reading their stories should serve to teach us the truth of what General Douglas MacArthur said, “In war there is no substitute for victory.”

Life is good and it can be better. But, pay attention.
Look both ways and mind the gaps.
It will not happen again unless we allow it.