Country Road

October 28, 2019

We took the long way down to Virginia Beach Friday morning, U.S. 17, avoiding the construction gridlock and speed maniacs on I-95 and I-64. We weren’t in any hurry, my young second cousin Kasey’s rehearsal dinner was not until evening. After a wrenching week of medical stuff, including a setback in getting over surgery, I was set on going. It felt good to pull out of the driveway.

We spent a couple of days in Virginia Beach back in April just to get out of town (this blog, April 8). We’ve done the trip dozens of times going back many years, when the kids were little and so was Kasey, who grew up there with her mom, my cousin Kathy. Later, I drove down many times for conferences and to visit the Norfolk Naval Base. I went to sea a few times on Navy ships, once sailing up to New York aboard the cruiser USS Anzio. Great fun.

img_20191027_135856187_hdr7808134978762325381.jpgThis time it’s about a happy event, the wedding of an accomplished young couple, the joy due their hard-working parents, and a reunion with family members from New York and Florida. We’ve been mostly far apart for years, preoccupied, like everyone else, with our own lives. So it matters to see them.  But the trip—the travel—also matters. It’s been years since we ditched the interstate because, after all, the purpose of the car trip is to arrive as soon as possible, right?

Not always, not this time. Highway 17, starting in Fredericksburg, takes you on a quiet tour of the austere, nearly flat eastern shard of the state. Sandy is driving. We leave Fredericksburg, heavy with memorials to some of the Civil War’s cruelest engagements, and cruise into the eastern piedmont, the highway nearly empty, bordered by wide expanses of dried-out cornfields and vegetable patches killed off by the lingering drought. The brilliant fall foliage of northern Virginia fades in the temperate, humid piedmont climate. We pass through Port Royal quickly, then reach the hamlet of Tappahannock, overlooking the wide Rappahannock River, which flows down from the Blue Ridge. The high river bank is lined with ostentatious homes that prompt me to wonder what I don’t know about the town.

We stop for a short lunch at Shoney’s in Tappahannock. The restaurant drops hints of the Deep South, which has lots of Shoney’s, although the chain disappeared from northern Virginia decades ago, no doubt for good reason. We hurry on through desolate country, so it seems to me, although that may just be the sickness talking. The scrub woods and sparse truck gardens partly conceal occasional battered farm buildings and goodwill stores but little else. “Where are the schools?” Sandy asks.

img_20191027_133951683_hdr5911835747744212416.jpgWe stop for a restroom break at Glenn’s Food Mart. It resembles a thousand other food marts: a few shriveled corn dogs are turning on a rotisserie. A forlorn-looking line of folks are waiting at the register to buy beer and groceries. Five senior citizens are sitting at slot machines. We’re on our way to a wedding and family reunion, but here we’re in a strange world, one we’ve seen before elsewhere, many times on road trips, but one that now, for reasons I don’t grasp, makes me impatient, anxious to move on. It prompts me to recall stories of U.S. 50 in Nevada, called America’s loneliest road. This road is not that lonely, but it’s close.

I take over driving, anticipating the Hampton Bay Bridge Tunnel, which Sandy refuses to attempt. The brown fields and empty warehouses fall behind us as we approach Gloucester, replaced by familiar stripmall sprawl. We cross the broad York River and enter Yorktown, heavy with history. It was at Yorktown that the colonials, with help from the French, outmaneuvered the British and ended the War for Independence. Eighty years later, from March until May 1862, the Peninsula Campaign unfolded between the York and James Rivers. Union General George McClellan sailed down Chesapeake Bay with a huge force to attempt an attack on Richmond from the southeast. He landed south of the York, but the Confederates were ready. The Yanks engaged smaller rebel units in a series of inconclusive engagements, until McClellan pulled back, allowing the rebels to withdraw to defend Richmond.

img_20191027_133052479_hdr-12397540241152611894.jpgFrom Yorktown suddenly we’re on I-64, driving with the maniacs again. I push towards the bay. As we’re about to enter the tunnel a Navy destroyer slides past in the channel above us, heading for the naval base. Rising out of the tunnel you can see the silhouettes of three aircraft carriers tied up at the base, then the busy runways of  Naval Air Station Norfolk. In twenty minutes we’re in Virginia Beach, surrounded by familiar, comforting shlock, the tee-shirt and boogie-board and postcard shops, the bars where happy hour is all day, the Miami Beach wannabe pile of high-rise hotels along Atlantic Avenue. We get out of the van and breathe deeply.

U.S. 17 still looks good for the drive home. The happy occasion of the weekend rouses me from my annoying habit of looking back instead of forward. Seeing family fortifies us for the trip through that peculiar strip of a richly varied state—alien territory, unless we welcome it as an adventure. I’ll get over the dark pettiness. One more time, I remind myself that health complaints can taint the rest of life, if we let them. That’s when we call on faith. Time to bear down, and overcome.


October 21, 2019

Forty-three years. That’s forty-three: General Jim Mattis’s service to the United States as a U.S. Marine. He added nearly two more as Secretary of Defense, resigning in December 2018. His departure followed President Trump’s announcement that he intended to withdraw from Syria a U.S. force that acted as a buffer between Turkey and the Kurdish forces that fought with the U.S. against the terrorist group ISIS.

In his resignation letter Mattis wrote that “Because you have a right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours … I believe it is right for me to step down.”

Earlier in his letter Mattis wrote that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive systems of alliances and partnerships. … I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. … My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

He closed with: “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.” At that time Trump backed away from pulling the U.S. force.

As the whole world knows, two weeks ago Trump attempted to appease the president of Turkey by withdrawing the U.S. contingent from Syria, over strong objections from his advisers and Congressional Republicans and Democrats. The House of Representatives, split between impeachment-pushing Democrats and Trump-groupie Republicans, still came together on October 16 to vote 360-60-4 to condemn the Syria pullout. After being reminded by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer that Mattis had warned that “ISIS would resurge” in the absence of a U.S. force, the president called Mattis “the world’s most overrated general,” adding that “I captured ISIS in one month.”

img_20191019_1028021691459328841186796574.jpgTrump looks at U.S. Mideast policy and sees not a commitment to stand with allies against aggression by authoritarian regimes and the ravages of extremist factions and terrorists, but a hot campaign issue: a promise to end “endless wars.” Instead, his action of backstabbing the Kurds invites endless war, as Turkey’s powerful military destroys Kurdish towns, the Kurds ally with the bloodthirsty Syrian regime, and ISIS fanatics execute civilians. But his shtick about “endless wars” sounds like a winner among the Trump cult, his so-called “base.” They still show up at those MAGA rallies, and they love those cracks about “fake news” and “do-nothing Democrats.”

What they don’t care about is character, for example, the character of Mattis, who devoted his life to defending America and American allies in bloody places in Afghanistan and Iraq. His mission was leadership and the teaching of leadership in brutal combat environments. He often has been quoted as saying, to Marines in Iraq, that “whenever you show anger or disgust towards civilians, it’s a victory for al-Qaeda and other insurgents,” and “every time you wave at an Iraqi civilian, al-Qaeda rolls over in his grave.”

Character yet again shone through Mattis’s refusal since he left office to join many deeply worried Americans in criticizing the charlatans and amateurs now running U.S. foreign policy.

Instead, he maintained the personal dignity—the bearing—he had honed over those 45 years, offering only that, “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.”

Others differ, saying those people have had their chance and failed, that Mattis should speak up.

Early in his career Mattis served at Marine Corps Base Quantico, the “Crossroads of the Corps,” going through the Amphibious Warfare School and Command and Staff College. After promotion to lieutenant general he returned to Quantico to head up the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, or MCCDC, which develops Marine Corps tactics and strategy.

When I finished my Marine Corps service in the mid-1970s—a lifetime ago—I left D.C., where I had worked as a communications-electronics officer at Headquarters Marine Corps, after a year with the Third Marine Division on Okinawa. Sandy and I moved back to northern Virginia a decade later. In my civilian work life I returned many times to Quantico and MCCDC.

In terms of facilities, Quantico is far different from when I was there to attend Marine Officers Basic School and Officers Communications School. But Mattis left his mark. His philosophy is indelible. It starts and finishes with development of character in defense of sacred values. Rather than tolerate ignorance and political opportunism in defense policy, he resigned, reinforcing those values. He gave the nation 45 years of character. The nation is left with: Trump.

Nephro Time

October 14, 2019

Our son Michael and daughter Marie traveled long distances this weekend to spend many hours in my beige-blazoned hospital room, as I heaved and gasped with the aftermath of my “nephroureterectomy” which, to keep this relatively at a layman’s level, involves the removal of several body parts. I went through it Thursday. The other two girls called the hospital over the weekend.

It’s not over yet, as I took a couple of wrong turns on my nicely crafted recovery plan, which called for me to be out of here yesterday. Instead I’m waiting for results of an all-upper-body x-ray while staring at the overwhelming beigeness and, out the window, at the tops of trees, now tinted by fall, above this massive hospital’s parking lot. Friends stopped by yesterday for warm-hearted visits. Sandy and the kids are gone, partly because of their schedules and partly at my urging, since I know, having done this before, that hospital patients quickly run out of ideas for playing host to visitors. Haven’t eaten solid food for four days, but now, Sunday evening, I’m well enough to sit up in the bed.

img_20190421_1344480296689041894964698607.jpgThis being Sunday, a guy came by from our parish to distribute communion. I couldn’t take it because I couldn’t say I could keep it down, which hints at my morning. But he read today’s Gospel. We talked a bit about his time at the Naval Research Laboratory and my time at the Office of Naval Research, which funds NRL. Funny coincidence. He left with good words, “God will help you beat this.” Always helps to hear that.

Life will be curtailed when I get home. I’ll be dragging around a catheter for ten days, so no trips, no visiting, no yard work–except brief walks up the block, nothing that involves movement. After that, camping on the couch. Then a follow-up appointment to this adventuresome weekend. The catheter comes out. Then another visit to the oncologist who’s coaching this little enterprise to discuss what comes next. There will be another scan. I’m still wearing the medi-port in my chest.

That will get us into November, which means Thanksgiving, which means Christmas will be blowing in. We’ve already been talking about the THuG running group’s annual Christmas dinner,  probably the group’s only event in which I’ll participate. Sandy will be seeing a neurologist and a cardiologist. So a busy season ahead. An uncertain season.

What I remember, what I always make a point of remembering, are the kind words, even those casual kind words that sign off casual conversations. They gain intensity in late fall as we relive our progress through the year, and that of family members and friends. I hear from time to time of good things people I know are doing for others less fortunate. We may be bewildered or outraged bystanders to the direction the nation is taking.  But maybe our personal efforts are redoubled to do good things, or at least to try to do good things. The Holy Family food pantry where I once worked still is operating.  Others I know are doing important, similar things.

Here at the hospital, these images come together, even on the weekend, when the docs are playing golf or watching football—whatever they do on weekends when they’re invisible at the hospital. The senior RNs, “nurse charge practitioners,” charge nurses, the student observers, are kind and good-hearted and enthusiastic, jumping in not only to take vital signs and administer drugs, but also to change linens, empty various unpleasant things, and take notes from cranky patients.  They smile and wish you well.

If the future is set in the past, the fall is set in the late summer. This one ends for me with a bang, or with a snip—several snips. But we’re stepping out, planning Thanksgiving, maybe something else to look back on happily. But it ends. Then the memories emerge.

The Island

October 7, 2019

We learn, eventually, that memory impels us to act. The memories that matter force us to step forward to discover why we treasure them. Decades ago, early- to mid-1960s, during a half-dozen summers—maybe more—my parents took our family: me, two sisters and two brothers, for two weeks from our northern New Jersey home to eastern Long Island for my dad’s vacation. I marked the location as roughly 130 miles east of New York City. We rented cottages in the East Hampton suburb of Amagansett, about 15 miles from Montauk Point, the tip of the island. The cottages were a hundred yards from the beach—and still are, I discovered.

Montauk Point lighthouse

Early this week Sandy and I drove up there, a good eight-hour haul. We stayed not in Amagansett but in the humble village of Montauk, which abuts the Point on the bay side, near the harbor that opens to the sea, and where my dad took me fishing from the rocky jetty that protects the harbor from ocean swells. At least once during those vacations we got up before dawn and drove to Montauk to board a party fishing boat that twice daily took a couple of dozen amateurs like us out beyond the Point to bottom-fish with rented poles for whatever was biting.

We arrived mid-afternoon. After checking into the motel we walked on the short stretch of beach next to the harbor and watched the gentle bay surf roll in. Fishing boats puttered on their return to the harbor, trailed by gulls looking for a meal. A few other tourists milled around Gosman’s, the famous, and famously expensive seafood place that my parents remembered affectionately for years.

We strolled a bit farther, the dock area was quiet. A few souvenir shops and restaurants still were open, most had closed for the season. We found a place nearby that served a passable seafood dinner. Unfortunately, two elderly couples a few tables away competed to shock each other with details of medical close calls. Not surprising, not really. For some of us, that’s the excitement left to life. We finished quickly and headed to the motel and turned in.

The next two days were full of meaning. We drove back to Amagansett and walked along Atlantic Avenue and gawked at the two little houses where our family had stayed. They stand side by side. I was shocked that they remain nearly the same as when we rented them more than 50 years ago. One has new siding, the second is utterly identical to my memory of it. The lifeguard station is intact, although it now houses a snack bar. The dune grass swayed in the wind.

img_20191002_083700388_hdr7857425613931576929.jpgWe walked on the beach and watched the waves crash where my brothers and sisters and I had jumped through the breakers. A blustery wind pushed the water up the beach strand, the surf was too rough for swimming. A few sunbathers sat, staring skyward. I said hello to an older couple and a cyclist, explaining quickly why I was there, they nodded politely and looked seaward, away from us.

We putzed around the town of East Hampton a bit, just to say we did. Main Street now accommodates a Starbucks, of course, also a Polo Ralph Lauren, Nili Lotan, Citarella Gourmet, Sotheby’s International, and other places where we don’t do business. Over the years people like us drifted away from East Hampton and were replaced by caricatures of Tom Wolfe’s masters of Wall Street and other sleek places where money apparently is no object, pushing the nightly rate for a local motel room, off-season—that’s a motel room—into the $450 range. We headed east again and snapped some photos of the historic Montauk lighthouse. That evening we broke down and got dinner at Gosman’s–$60 for some fried calamari, a cup of soup and a salad. Oh well.

Thursday morning we caught Mass at St. Therese of Lisieux parish, which sits above the village of bars and tee-shirt shops. I noted the cornerstone, 2006. In my family’s time, the church’s site was a scrub-covered hillside. The design is one of simple, elegant beauty.

A congregation of about 20 showed up, our age group, as usual. I heard the priest, many years younger, speak of joy and perseverance in the faith—but couldn’t help watching the rapt faces of the others. We left, heartened and sustained.

At that moment the memories clicked, things fell into place. I knew why I had come. We no longer needed to be there.

Jean, North Shore

The rest of trip was a happy visit with cousins Eugene and Jean at their home in mid-Island, not far from where they both grew up. Eugene briefed us on his two-day overnight deep-Atlantic tuna-fishing trip, when he caught the ingredients for his personal sushi recipe. The next day he and Jean took us on a bracing sail on their fast—very fast—outboard-powered fishing boat through the chilling swells of Moriches Bay. That afternoon we drove to the North Shore, where angry waves of Long Island Sound crashed on the beach. Jean, just retired after 30 years of teaching high-school physics, guided us on a drive through the huge but now-shuttered Grumman Corporation Calverton assembly site, where she started her career as an engineer and where the company, now Northrop Grumman, once built Navy combat aircraft. The buildings have been handed to local businesses but are mostly empty, the test runways now sprout weeds.

F-14 Tomcat, Grumman park, Calverton

Back at their place we took pictures, shared more memories—some hilarious, some sobering, traded stories about family, careers, experiences, our kids and theirs. We played with their dog, ate delicious meals, slept soundly, got up early. Then suddenly our uncompromising schedule reasserted itself. We packed, promised to do it again—Florida, maybe?

Surgery this week. The message from St. Therese, joy and perseverance, tagged along on our journey home–and, we hope, into the future.