W – Wilkes-Barre’s Deer (NaPoWriMo #27)

The deer statue has been resting on the Luzerne County Courthouse lawn, in Wilkes-Barre (pronounced berry), PA, since 1909. However, it was first placed in the city’s central area, where the old courthouse was, in 1866. That was a year after President Lincoln was assassinated, the Civil War ended, and Walt Whitman wrote the poem, Oh Captain, My Captain (all in 1865).

I wrote this poem from the persona of the deer, who never seems to complain. Since home cameras and photography became popular, people have been taking pictures of friends and family sitting on the deer. The photo I used is of my mother holding me on the deer, circa. 1947. Thanks to Sue for tweaking it to look mo’ betta here.

 

 

***

I Knew You When…
by Bill Reynolds

Oh, deer me! As you can see,
my time here’s been so long.
The Civil War was in the past,
all memories aren’t quite gone.

One year after Whitman wrote
his poem of woe, his poem of hope,
I came to this city, I thought quite pretty.

On Public Square, I stood so proud,
for twenty-four years, I knew that crowd.

In nineteen-oh-nine, to a new home I moved,
to guard this lawn where I now stand.
O’er a hundred years, as I’ve now proved.

Six generations I’ve watched them grow,
grands both ways I got to know.

Been standing here without a sound,
through floods and droughts upon this ground,
storms and disasters all around.

I’ve felt your touch and bore your weight,
There’s more to come, so here I’ll wait.
Bring your camera and your smile,
for here I’ll be yet quite a while.

I was here, you all should know
the day yer granddad stood so near.
I’m sure we’ve met, but before I go,
It’s me they call the Court House Deer.

***

Remember the past, look to the future, live in the present.
Mind the gaps and be well.

NaPoWriMo #16 (No AtoZ on Sunday)

This poem is about underground coal miners – people who did, or do, very dangerous work. My father and grandfathers were three. This is also about life in our home when Dad still worked in the mines.

During my early teens, the mining business shut down in northeastern Pennsylvania. This was due to the Knox Mine Disaster in the late 1950s and the easy, cheaper, and cleaner use of oil to heat homes. Today, most coal mined in the USA is exported, but the industry continues to decline. Only 30% of electrical power in America is produced by coal.

Old coal mine entrance. A dark abyss.

Nearer My Hell to Thee
By Bill Reynolds

Before leaving the daylight, and going into the pits,
They look deep into the ground, to the soul of the abyss.
The blackest of blacks, the darkest of darks, and danger,
The dank abyss peers back as men descend into nature.

Far below ground, the mine was there lurking, waiting;
That dangerous, disgusting damnation of sound,
For some small wages, they go into that hole far underground.

Deadly it was and deadly it is, they never know when…
Many wives cried at the loss of their men,
Who died in the gut of the deplorable depths.

It was frightening work miners chose, those jobs that killed.
Black hard hats on heads, mining lamps on to cut the dark,
But still never safe. In denial or not, it was dangerous work.

Blackjack and Brass Knuckles same as my father had.

Father was, and so were both grandfathers, miners all.
Walking home through muddy fields and dark alleys,
Dangerous on pay days; all cash in their pockets,
With blackjacks and knuckles, maybe a gun.

He’d push open the gate, then let it slam with a thud.
Dad would stomp up the stairs and in the back door,
It was always the back way after a day’s work.

Covered with coal dust,
The sweat of the labor, and the stink of the mines;
Smoking his Camels, always coughing and coughing.
But he was my Dad, and it was always like this.

I remember Dad much blacker.

Everything filthy, his clothing all rotting,
Black on his skin, and in his gray hair,
He didn’t know about the black in his lungs,
the deadly back dust was glued on hard, but not to his soul.

White at his eyes and over his lips,
he’d set down his lunch pail. No hugs, no kisses,
just “hiya,” and not much of a welcome.

His coat and his cap, and his boots all come off.
Trounced upstairs to the bath, footsteps pounding the way,
Transformation, about to take place.

In cold water each day, he washed coal dirt away,
From his face and his hair, his neck and his chest,
From his waist to his feet, but not from the rest.

Nothing could wash the coal miner away.

Not the water, the union, the beer, or smokes.
Not on the inside, from his throat nor deep in his lungs.
Black dust in his body and in with his blood.

In a coal mine.

It was always the same, until the disaster.
Miners to work, to suffer and die.
Returning to homes, dirty but to homes they came.

Then one day, the depression set in.
The mines all shut down, proud miners, no work.
One day it all ended and everything changed.

Miners laid off, the mines were all closed.
Oil was king, and nobody noticed.
No more abyss, just a new kind of dark.

If you not yet sufficiently depressed, watch this.

Mind the gaps and look both ways.

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

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.

This Atheist and Jesus….

I was asked a good question. This is my response, which is based on my religious views and my personal version of atheism. I cannot speak for any other atheists. The person asking was sincerely curious.

I don’t like the word atheist, but I know none better. So, I’ll roll with it. We have varying concepts and definitions of what an atheist is and what one believes or should think. That’s why I’m writing this explanation. Those differences aren’t going to change soon.

I was asked because I had linked to a song in last week’s blog on questions. The song was Spirit in The Sky by Norman Greenbaum. (Linked again here.) It’s tied to my answer to “What happens after we die?” (Answer: I don’t know.)

atheist and jesus

I enjoy spiritual music and I’ve liked this song since first hearing it in the 70s. It’s uplifting and has a lot of hand-clapping and singing about what happens following human death. All of that is good, based on the song. However, there’s a condition.

The lyrics say I “gotta have” a friend to intervene for me if I plan to make a deal with the spirit in the sky.

Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky

Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky

My friend asked, “How does being a friend of Jesus resonate with an atheist?”

Resonate means “to attach particular meaning or importance for someone, or to affect or appeal to someone in a personal or emotional way.”

I can’t say that Jesus or an afterlife resonate with me. My personal belief is that when we’re dead, we are simply dead and gone. There are no fires, no trials, no judgements, no hooking up again with the old bod – it’s simply over. If there is more to it, as with my answer to the question, I’ll have to wait to find out. I’m in no rush to learn the answer.

To be clear: I am an atheist, Norm Greenbaum is a Jew, Jesus (actually Yeshua) was also a Jew.

Now, consider these three points of view.

  • Atheists do not believe in any gods. Any belief in a historical Jesus is personal. And for an atheist, that is only a belief that the man existed. Any opinion or judgement of that man is also a personal opinion.
  • Most observant Jews (that I know of) do not believe that Jesus was the messiah, or is God. Yet, one of them wrote and sang this song – Norm Greenbaum.
  • Christians seem to believe Jesus was the messiah prophesied in scripture for the Jews. They also seem to believe that Jesus was, or is, the Son of God. Thus, as the second person of a holy trinity, also God. But, this is about me, not Christianity.

Notice anything? I never said that Jesus never existed. I never said he was not a nice guy, or a great religious prophet and leader, or a Jewish Rabbi. Simply not believing that someone is a god isn’t as negative as some folks may think.

It is what it is

It is what it is

Jesus also allegedly said and did a lot of cool things that I, and many other atheists, do agree with. Whether Jesus existed or not, I’m not, and never have been, anti-Jesus just because I don’t think he or anyone else is a god.

Richard Dawkins wearing my shirt

Richard Dawkins wearing my shirt

Besides, if Richard Dawkins supports Jesus’s philosophy (contrary to what many Christians may think), I certainly feel comfortable plugging songs that may include the name of Jesus.

I’ll not dismiss music simply because it uses his name, is religious in nature, or invokes any other god. I may for other reasons.

Here is another great Jesus song I like: ‘Jesus is Just Alright,’ covered most famously by the Doobie Brothers in the early 70s. It’s not much for lyrics, but was an upbeat hit.

I neither hate nor love Jesus. I accept that he probably lived about 2,000 years ago and he may have been one of the world’s first hippies (something I like). If so, I also think he is long dead.

May we unite in love and friendship. Let’s end dividing into tribes and against each other. Would Jesus want us to join our humanity together with peace and love in our hearts? May we acknowledge what we need from, and share with, each other. And, let each of us also be true to ourselves.

 

Atheist and Jesus4

Butt Man Bill

But man2Two memories from my youth relate to this post. I recall my mother frequently telling me that I was contrary. She would say, “Now Billy, stop being so contrary.” She could have chosen from many words: obstinate, difficult, stubborn, negative, or silly. Actually, that’s not true. She used silly a lot, as in, “Silly-Billy.” I actually liked being called silly and still do. Today, such a fun-loving attitude coupled with silly behavior would prevent a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).

But man6As a youngster, I did have more than my share of confrontations with adults, especially those in positions of authority. I admit it. Mom was right (aren’t they all?). I was often contrary and many synonymous terms applied equally well. I confess that I enjoyed being difficult, most of the time. Sometimes, I paid for it. Some say I never outgrew my contrarian attitude.

But man5The other memory comes from the time of my early to mid-teens. I don’t know where if came from, but we adapted a phrase for a while that was intentionally meaningless, but we said it – a lot. It was kind of an early version of whatever! We would say it to each other and often to adults. We always knew exactly what the adult retort would be. The locution was Yeah, but, or yeahbut. Today, the Urban Dictionary says yeahbut should be followed by f**k, but we seldom used those words in combination.

Most often, but is used as a conjunction to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned. Adults insisted on asking, “But what?” We knew we were pushing buttons when we looked them straight in the eye and answered, “Yeahbut.” Silly kids, right? I confess to deliberately irritating adults given any opportunity.

 

But man1However; yet, nevertheless, nonetheless, even so, still, notwithstanding, in spite of that, for all that, and all the same; I do like butts. Some more than others.

But this is about me being a but man. As I said, but is usually used as a conjunction. It is also used as a preposition (anyone but him), an adverb (to name but a few), or a noun (no buts, you’re buying). Add a t and it becomes slang for a body part. But is a useful word.

It is also a word that I overuse. In my writing and speaking, I am rightfully criticized for saying but too often. Twenty-one times out of 350 words so far in this post. But, it is the subject, after all (22). When I edit, I look for the buts and remove or change as many as I can. But not in this post. At the beginning of a sentence, that is most often when it is there, it changes nothing in terms of meaning. My use is not always as a contrasting conjunction. But there’s more.

But man4

I am a quiet, introverted man by nature. I’m not very shy. The larger and less familiar the group, the quieter I will be. I am happy to let anyone banter endlessly about virtually any topic with no sound from me. I listen closely and analytically (Usually – some might say I don’t listen at all). At some point I might say it. In one-on-one conversations; especially the heated, no attributions kind we have with trusted friends, I will eventually say something. My comments in such environs are often preceded with facial expressions and perhaps a raised eye-brow or two. Then out it comes.

“Yeah, but….” (or just but). Sometimes I fancy it up with things like however, on the other hand, consider this, did you know, or maybe so, but…. I can also be passive aggressive with things I learnt from the younger folk like whatever, ya think?, really?, or my personal favorite: No shit? I like to add Sherlock to that last one, but only when it wouldn’t be offensive (accidentally).

A couple of weeks past, I got to listen to my middle child (now 42) recite a verbal rampage on his view of politics and life, with all the arm waving and facial expressions to have gone viral, had I recorded and posted it.

I really enjoyed listening, even though I couldn’t get a word in until he finished. It was an enjoyable banter, indeed. To be fair, I could see myself. When he finished, I smiled at him and said, “Wow!” and tried not to roll my eyes. I decided that if I said ‘yeahbut’ I would have turned the page to the next chapter of his ranting objections to life in this real world. Sometimes, we just need to sit on our butts and keep our buts to ourselves. Yeahbut moments should be carefully chosen.

Yeah, but.

Yeah, but.

Frat Friday with Thomas Merton

Frat Friday with Thomas Merton

Disclosure: I do not practice or align myself with any religion. I have in the past, I no longer do. This blog is not about what I do or don’t believe.

I’ve never known when someone would come into my life and make a difference. There have been many, both good and bad. Many have shaped who and what I’ve become. Such influential encounters have happened more times than I can remember. One of those people is the subject of today’s Frat Friday blog.

I’ve never met this man. He was accidently killed in 1968 during my sophomore year in college. At that time, I had never heard of him, and if I had, I would’ve had no interest in him, his life, or his outlook. I discovered Thomas Merton in the late 90s, almost 30 years after his death. I was inspired and intrigued by his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. Through his writing, I met the right person at the right time.

As I see the man.

AS I PICTURE HIM – REAL

Thomas Merton was one of the most prolific spiritual writers of the 20th Century, a Cistercian Monk, and a mystic. In 1915, he was born in France of a New Zealander father and American Quaker mother, both artists. His mother died in 1921 and he was raised by her family. Merton wrote and published more than 60 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice, and pacifism. He wrote many essays and reviews. Another 30 (or so) of his works were published posthumously and many other of his writings have been released to the public.

Merton1What impressed me about this man was his complexity, his courage, and what I see as his wisdom. His life journey and the decisions he made will likely prevent him from ever being canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. Yet those foibles are exactly what attracted me to him twenty years ago, and continue to influence my thinking. The man was a real person – a human being who behaved like one. If they did make him a saint, I think he would be among the most human of that group.

In the early 1940s, Merton went to a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, knocked on the door, and told whoever answered that he wanted to be one of them. Trappist Monks are strict aesthetics and followers of the Order of Saint Benedict. Merton chose this life and lived it until his death. The Frank Sinatra song, I Did It My Way, comes to mind despite the obedience pledge of Trappists.

Beginning about 1937 during his conversion to Catholicism, Merton was fascinated by what he learned about the eastern religions. From then on, he studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sufism.

Thomas Merton with Dalai Lama

THOMAS MERTON WITH THE DALAI LAMA

His primary interest was in Zen, particularly as it applied to Christianity, from his point of view. Within limits, Merton supported interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with the likes of the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, the Thai Buddhist monk Buddhadasa, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Many of Merton’s books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism are still in print.

 

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” ~  Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

My favorite description of him was by Paul Hendrickson in the Washington Post on December 22, 1998: “Thomas Merton: that bohemian and poet and extreme sensualist, lover of jazz, prolific man, traveler of the new idea. A 20th-century prophet and mystic. Not a theologian so much as a kind of freelance spiritual thinker.”

While I can’t honestly say that Merton makes as much of a difference in my life today, he did at a time when he was the right person with the right thinking. He had prepared for me, fifty years before I needed it. I am not sure exactly what it is that still holds my admiration for and curiosity about him, but I suspect it is how he lived within his human condition.