Memorial Time

May 31, 2021

The National Cemetery at Quantico, Va., is a gem of a place, perched on the rolling green hills outside the big Marine Corps base called “Crossroads of the Corps.” And, as at so many other hallowed spots, veterans and their families will gather there today to honor the men and women who have fallen.

The Corps is in charge, all personnel in dress blues. Aging vets from a nearby nursing home are brought over by bus. Officers and enlisted persons of the other services, some finished with active duty, show up in uniform. Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group are always there. 

The ceremony is brief, usually one hour. The Marines parade the colors. The base commander offers his welcome, a chaplain leads an invocation.  Local veterans leaders say a few words.  A retired colonel in colonial garb recites a poem honoring the flag. A federal official gives a keynote. A Corps honor guard fires a salute, a Marine plays a solemn Taps.  

The crowd, mostly veterans, spouses, children, drifts away slowly, as if reluctant to lose their sense of the sacred that is the essence of the place. As they linger, the narrow roads that thread between fields of headstones fill up with the vehicles of those who come to honor the men and women interred on those lush, shaded hills. Volunteers have marked each headstone with a small flag. Families bring flowers. Some kneel and pray. Some cry.

For the first time in many years, we’ll miss the hushed reverence of Memorial Day at Quantico. Meanwhile, the solemnity and timelessness of honoring the fallen has taken a hit. The sense of obligation to country and to those who serve was trashed by Americans who attacked the Capitol on January 6 and wounded 140 police officers in an act of insurrection, some using American flags as spears. Some of the attackers are veterans, some are active-duty. Some of their political patrons pretend nothing very serious happened. Thousands of fake patriots still cheer for overturning the result of the presidential election.

I don’t remember exactly when we started going to Quantico for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The services for both are similar, as to be expected. But it seemed the right place to be, even more appropriate than Arlington, where the president speaks to thousands and lays a wreath in front of cameras.

Sandy and I went to Quantico I guess because of my own history at the base. The Quantico service doesn’t get celebrity four-stars or Cabinet members. It doesn’t get the Marine Band, although some of Quantico’s musicians are there. No U.S. Senators show up, in my recollection. It could be because the Marine Corps is the smallest service with the smallest budget. The Corps donated the land for the cemetery in 1983. Marines are used to doing without big bucks. So the ceremony is, well, austere, in a peculiar way that strips away theatrics. 

So the Quantico remembrance, simply put, gets people who served, former and retired enlisted and company- and field-grade officers and their families. Usually it’s a couple hundred folks. They stand for the colors and ponder the meaning of some reverent words. No show. Lots of gray heads.

I wondered about the impression the Quantico service makes. The tone and content aren’t polished and rehearsed. The people in charge aren’t professional stage managers. The talks come across as spontaneous, heartfelt, but at times a little rough-edged, with a little stuttering, sometimes a tad too long. Maybe they convey for those who served and those close to those who served something true, the truth of service to country, which is, for Memorial Day, the truth of war.   

I missed landing in Vietnam as a second lieutenant by an accident of scheduling. I arrived on Okinawa in September 1972 to join the Third Marine Division, after staying on in Q-town for a three-month tactical communications course.  On getting to Oki, the “Rock,” I met my Officer Basic School classmates who went infantry and shipped promptly to Nam after our May graduation. The Corps then was pulling out of active combat operations and had started transitioning units back to Okinawa.

The Rock then was a rough-edged place, but not nearly as rough as Vietnam, or Beirut in 1983, or any of the other bloody places Marines and the other services have been sent, ordered to do messy, impossible things. Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind. What stayed with us, those of us who came home, was the sense that if Americans are going to have Memorial Days and Veterans Days, let’s not pretty them up with stage lights and professional eloquence. The troops know, after all, that they collectively represent less than one percent of the U.S. population.

I get weary of the polite crowd applause for the dozen or so active-duty service personnel given free passes to big-league ball games. They stand and wave, then sit, and that’s that. The rest of the crowd moves on. But I recall my days on Okinawa and my Third Division buddies. It was a different time, close to fifty years ago. The men and women serving today have better equipment. But really nothing has changed. Every day, in every place, they’re looking at the abiding truth of service: things can get ugly quickly, they may never go home.

The quiet rituals of Quantico leave out the hoopla, the parade, the TV cameras. The local folks knew the truth of service better than how to stage a show. In that wooded corner of Virginia they offer the prayers, the callouts to the vets, the moment of Taps. Duty and sacrifice sums it up. Honor the flag and the fallen. Call it Memorial Day.

Customer Service

May 24, 2021

Sometimes I wonder: what was I thinking? Last week was one of those times. It went like this:

“Agent Vishat, are you there?” (Name altered.)

Silence. Or what I think of as silence when the Best Buy “chat” agent signs off without saying goodbye.

It was 7:28 PM. At 7:13 he had ordered me to “Open the tools/app Under Sensors tab, navigate to GPS sensor (if available) and confirm latitude and longitude are being detected.”

I typed, “Where do I find the tools/app?” 


I typed, “Where do I find the Sensors tab? I’m not a computer expert.”

I stared at the screen. Minutes passed. More minutes. I never heard from Agent V again.

He joined a select group, my third chat agent of the day. Earlier I thought I was communicating with Agent Pradack. Just then I noticed the power cable lying on the floor, unplugged. I had jostled the laptop and yanked the cable from the wall outlet. Moments later the battery ran low, the screen went black. I mumbled something. Replugging it, I got back to the chat room and met Agent Vishat, but only long enough for him to disappear.

Before Pradack, I was chatted up by a guy who promised me a call in 38 minutes. An hour passed, no call.

I waited for Agent V for about 15 minutes, then surrendered and shut down the laptop. I guessed he and Pradack were having drinks in a bar across the street from the call center and laughing at my humiliating confession that I’m not a computer expert. 

Those few minutes ended my very strange week in the tech world. I hope it has ended. It started when I tried to navigate to the website of Garmin, the big precision instruments company that about a year ago sold me a GPS watch. Shortly afterward, the watchband broke. I set the watch aside for a few months. Finally I decided I wanted a new band.

I found what looked like the website for Garmin, showing images of watches and other navigation devices. A “chat box” opened. “What is your issue?” someone typed.  I can do this, I thought, and replied, “I’m looking for a watchband for a Forerunner 25.” The typist answered, “A technician will call you in three to five minutes.”

That’s customer service, I thought. The company makes a phone call to sell a watchband?

Sure enough, in five minutes Charles called. “Are you with Garmin?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “I can upgrade your computer’s GPS and apply the upgrade to all your other devices.” I thought well, I haven’t used the watch in a year, it must need upgrading.

“I need to take control of your computer,” he said. He directed me to a link called Ultraviewer and instructed me to select “remote control.” That seemed reasonable. He’ll take care of this, rather than have me attempt to follow his techie instructions. I clicked, he took control of the laptop.

“Uh-oh,” he said. “You have 6,000 foreign intrusions. They are likely from Russia.” He showed me a screen filled with rows of data labeled “foreign.”

That’s awful news, I told myself. What about my anti-virus protection program? “That has expired,” Charles said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get rid of the intrusions and install protection. It will take 30 to 45 minutes.”

For nearly an hour I stared open-mouthed at the laptop screen as thousands of rows of technical stuff flashed by. Is this what computer viruses look like, I wondered. I saw numbers, letters, symbology, as if I had been dragged into some deep technical ocean depth, the Challenger Deep of software. Finally it stopped. Another screen flashed in front of me that resembled the earlier “foreign” stuff. All the rows were gone.

“That will be $299.99,” Charles said. In shock I gave him my credit card number. I wasn’t planning on $300 for computer work that morning. He sent me a receipt from Mysoft Squad.

The next day I felt uneasy, although the computer seemed fine. I wondered about Mysoft Squad. I looked it up and found a Better Business Bureau link filled with angry complaints about scams by ripoff artists who target people looking for GPS products and software upgrades, in many cases from Garmin, and sell them fake services. I was directed to file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Friends and family advised me to get the computer checked. I dragged it to Best Buy, they did their standard sweep, found nothing wrong.

I wanted my money back but the credit card company won’t dispute a claim unless you tell the vendor you don’t want his product or service. The last person I wanted to talk to was Charles.  Did he actually do anything in his hour controlling my laptop? I described the rows of data that flashed across the screen to the Best Buy rep. “All that stuff was fake,” he said. “The website was fake, too.”

I wanted some assurance that the GPS, wherever that is, was okay. So I called the chat line and met P, V, and the first guy whose name I never got.

It’s now a cliché: technology has transformed life. Many, maybe most of us use computers to get through the day, every day. Intrusions? Viruses? Who but a trained computer engineer really understands what they are?  As with other things in life, when we want new tech stuff, or to fix broken things, we look for someone who says he’ll help us right now. Someone like Charles.

We did cancel the credit card. Garmin is warning customers not to be snookered into buying GPS upgrades or other products by phone. The FTC warns that “many of the targets of these scams are vulnerable elderly people.” Well—thanks for that, FTC.

The Do-Over

May 17, 2021

The Grandview Lodge is tucked away on a quiet road that leads from Waynesville, N.C., up steeply onto the eastern edge of the Great Smokies. Across the road, a fast-moving stream rushes down the mountain. The walls and floors have been finished with a deep dark stain. The walls are decorated with fading decades-old black-and-white portraits of local folks. The lobby was furnished—littered—with odd antique household items. Classic hit tunes echoed faintly from an old stereo. A stack of dog-eared novels that were popular ten or twenty years ago sat on the front desk next to a sign that reads, “Forget your book? Read one of ours.”

We got to the lodge a week ago Friday, making several wrong turns, it’s well off the beaten track. The place is run by a husband and wife, who live with their children on the property. It was quiet when we arrived in early afternoon. The husband showed us the spacious dining area and a wide porch, furnished with old rocking chairs, that wraps around the house and looks out at the road. He named several local restaurants. The wife, in blue-jean overalls, showed us our room, more dark wood, austere but comfortable. I asked about morning coffee since we weren’t staying for breakfast.

When we returned in early evening I drove past the lodge and continued a couple of miles up the road, which twists higher and steeper. We both got nervous as the grade grew sharper. Looking back, the Smokies rose in the north just beyond town. The peaks are green only as high as spring has crept, then winter-brown to their summits.  As night fell they glimmered faintly blue-purple as a gentle mist engulfed them.  

Back at the lodge we saw a few more guests, but the place still was peaceful. We walked out to the porch and tried the rocking chairs. A chill was moving in, we didn’t stay long.

The lodge summoned for me images from odd bits of history I’ve read about those parts. Generations had passed since the place was built, likely as a stout bulwark against Cherokee and Choctaw war parties. Two centuries ago western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee was a violent wilderness. Scottish and Irish farmers, traders, and down-and-outers poured over the Appalachians to fill in the rough boundaries of the Mountain South.

We were there partly to reprise our ambitions for our 2018 road trip along old U.S. 66 halfway across America. As in this rustic spot, at all our stops we wondered what happened before we arrived. Our thinking, our priorities, our plans have changed, turned upside down since then. Sickness, the pandemic, and our move South have done that. But we still feel the spark.

But the reminiscing was a distraction. The main event of this two-day junket was my Black Rock mulligan, my do-over of the mountain climb (March 29 post) that I attempted with old friends, mostly other former Virginians. I fell short on that chilly mid-March Saturday.

We rose as dawn broke and drove west to the trailhead near Sylva, 20 miles past Waynesville. There I met up with a new friend, Mike, who gave up his competitive position in the Black Rock field that day to help as I turned hypothermic. He drove out from his home near Asheville for what for him was a conditioning climb he really didn’t need. I was counting on him to bail me out of my failure to achieve something I knew I could achieve.   

We scrambled forward up over the first climb, kicking rocks, then up a long straightaway. We slogged onto the switchbacks, up, up, then farther up, as the peaks to the west fell away below. We felt faint sunshine as the trail wrapped the mountain’s south side, then a bracing chill when we turned north. In just over three miles, at nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, we reached the break in the underbrush that opened to the final one-third-mile-long single-track chute trail, 650 feet of climb to the base of the summit. Mike pointed to the turn, which winds up nearly out of sight.

We pushed into the chute, searching for footing with each step, grabbing for roots, branches, rocks, finally stepping out to the highest point I had reached that March day. The rest is pure climbing. We tiptoed up and around and over house-sized boulders until we could slither onto the final not-quite flat surface of the top of the mountain.

We sat at the top for 30 minutes, stunned at the vastness of the green-blue peaks surrounding us that stretch across parts of three states. Far below us, eagles glided on updrafts. The air was still and silent, not a branch stirred. We picked out the specks of buildings bunched together in Sylva, five miles away. We bumped fists. Then we slid off the rock and down through the chute. I checked the Black Rock box.

As we drove home that afternoon I wondered why I bothered. Why does anyone, after missing the brass ring, reach for it again? In my memory the mountain stared at me. Wat does failure mean? Who wants to live with it? Mike and Sandy were willing. With a few tweaks I could climb Black Rock. I missed it once. So I went back.


May 10, 2021

The little house in which we landed here in the Upstate has too-small closets, oddly placed light fixtures and switches, a creaky, paint-chipped deck. That is, it has character, which is what we looked for, instead of a sleek new-build shell in a treeless subdivision. Three weekends in, we did without hot water for three days when the water heater failed. Our first new home in 33 years has rewarded us as we hoped it would, but still challenges our modest management skills. Except for the water heater, that means ignoring the nits or pushing them into the undefined future.

None of the rough edges, the ones we could see, mattered much in February when I first saw the house. It has a backyard—rectangular, uniform, level. Half the area then was a mix of dead grass and weeds. But the other half is set off by a border showing that someone at one time had planted a garden. Then I knew I wanted the place.

People in great cities grow vegetables, fruit, flowers. Affluent and low-income neighborhoods nearly everywhere are home to people who find joy in planting, cultivating, harvesting, often for the benefit of others. City governments encourage community gardens, which by midsummer may explode in colorful bounties of produce. These may be islands of civility, calm, peace, often in wider spaces of chaos. The labor of growing things that are good for people is itself a virtue.

Our idea was to plant a garden. We recalled the success of our Nashville garden, where the soil was black and rich and everything grew, tomatoes, green beans, squash, okra, even melons. When ripe the veggies fell off the plants. Occasionally I worked it, hoeing and pulling weeds, but not much. Sometimes we harvested enough to give away.

I tried again at our Virginia home, but the soil there is poor and filled with chunks of waste concrete buried by construction crews decades ago. The yard is shadowed by huge trees that block sunlight, but don’t ease the jungle-like humidity and heat of the Potomac River basin in summer. I gave up on gardening early.

When I was a kid my parents had a garden in their New Jersey backyard, I recall giant tomato plants. Gardening in the South, though, prompts my imagination of lyrical and mysterious, poignant, even ghostly things. It was to these parts and others that before the War for Independence rich growers pushed poor or unlucky folks west, out of the fertile Virginia and Carolina coastal lowlands to make room for tobacco, rice, and indigo. They were forced to scratch out a living in what then was wilderness. They horse-plowed the tough red clay found everywhere around here to plant subsistence plots. Small, isolated backwoods communities were pocked with poverty and hardship, feuding, and violence.

My idea was a garden, not a farm, to pretty up the yard by planting the brown, bare back half quickly before it was overrun with weeds. My daughter recommended a soil test, they sell cheap ones at Lowe’s. The “pH” looked good for tomatoes, a few other things. I commenced digging holes for three tiny plants, quickly hitting the concrete-like clay. I leaned on the shovel, panting and gasping, then stuck the plants in and sprinkled them with Miracl-Gro. Within days one withered.

I envisioned an Eden-like kaleidoscope of floral color and planted sunflower, marigold and zinnia seeds, nixing the already-started beds. Nearby I stuck in basil, sage, cilantro, and okra seedlings to jump-start a green look. In the plot along the back fence I planted beans, squash, cantaloupe, lettuce. Every day for a week in the warm Carolina sun I hacked away at the clay, scraping long trenches with the pick the former owner had left us, then bending double to spread the seeds and water them. Each morning afterward my back ached and throbbed.

I glanced only briefly at the instructions on the seed packages. I didn’t pay much attention to the intricacies of exactly when in springtime to plant, or how deep or how far apart the seeds should be sown. Still, each morning I looked out impatiently at the yard.

A week or so after I finished, in late April, the TV weather lady warned of an approaching freeze. “Cover those new plants,” she chided. I either didn’t take her seriously or didn’t want to bother. Sometimes, as we know, these TV weather people try to scare you. They call for snow in your town, it doesn’t snow. They predict sunshine, it’s chilly and overcast.

This time she got it right. The mercury sank to 30 F, maybe lower. I looked outside, the leaves of my okra and sage were withered and dead. At Lowe’s Garden Center an indifferent or overworked staff had left the outdoor beds uncovered. Row after row of tiny plants were killed by the cold.

I surveyed my backyard garden, brown and bare, my silent spring. Only the sunflowers were timidly emerging. The dirt stared back at me, the sticks I used to mark my planted rows tilting forlornly where I had inserted them in the soil, marking only the faint imprint of my spade. I watered yet again. Within days the two plots were faintly dotted with green as the long-established weeds, the clover, chickweed, buttercup, and others I didn’t recognize surged to the surface. The stuff I planted, still no-shows.

I tramped back to Lowe’s and bought more seeds: spinach, onion, peppers, more beans, more squash, more marigolds and zinnias. Grinding my teeth, I scraped new rows, planted and watered the seeds, threw the hose down and stomped into the house. I wondered: what’s wrong with my soil? Excess lime? Toxic chemicals? Do I know what I’m doing? I bent over and glared at the surface. Weeds, then nothing.

Since then the days have grown warmer. I’m still watering, but not as often. I’ve quit with the Miracl-Gro, wondering if I overwhelmed the seeds. I’ve learned to relax. I see us still getting our vegetables at the Food Lion all summer then next fall and winter.

Then the other day I saw something. Tiny sprouts had emerged, a fraction of an inch long, about where I had planted the beans. I could see microscopic, bright-green leaves peeking out where I thought I had sown the lettuce. An irregular row of inch-long seedlings was visible where I left the zinnia seeds. I then spied the tiny, bent leaves of a squash plant about where I had planted it.

I stepped back, from ten feet away I saw only the weeds. But Spring was breaking out in my garden. The seeds I bought and planted apparently were alive, after all. Well, some of them. So far, just tiny bits of green, no promise of bushels of ripe vegetables by late summer. We’ll still be waiting in line at the grocery or farmer’s market. But something is out there.                

Chimney Rock

May 3, 2021

We headed north towards the North Carolina state line, starting from the burbs on the usual route up U.S. 25. My daughter Marie drove, the two boys were in their kid seats behind us. The destination was Chimney Rock, maybe an hour southeast of Asheville. She cut onto I-26 just south of the border then abruptly onto U.S. 64 east, which took us quickly into the mountains. Just after passing through Bat Cave, N.C., we craned our necks to look up at the peaks, which seems to rise suddenly from the fast-flowing Broad River.

We pulled into the village just outside the Rock, gaping at the sheer bare granite wall that we learned was formed before the Cretaceous Period, and now looms above the river and nearby Lake Lure. Chimney Rock became a state park in 2006 when the state purchased the 1,000-acre tract from the family that established it and opened it to the public in 1902. You can walk 449 stairs from the parking lot to the observation tower or take a 26-story elevator ride. At the summit the visitor stands before a panorama of the valley and the lake that extends 50 miles or more to the hazy eastern horizon. You then can teeter up a narrow walkway to the top, where the rock tower has separated from the mountain. There’s a railing, some folks venture close to the 2,280-foot drop. I kept my distance, yelling nervously at the boys, who showed no fear.  

The place is one of those phenomena of God’s creation that seizes the visitor’s emotions. Nearly everyone has had the experience somewhere: the humbling recognition that something before us, something we may have stumbled on, not only takes our breath away but also demolishes our presumption that we’re too smart, too world-weary, to be awed.

The Grand Canyon would be another such place, among countless others. As we crossed a stone bridge to Chimney Rock, watching the Broad River rush almost in anger over giant rocks took me back, the way old guys get taken back. I was on a bus from the Bozeman, Mont., airport to the hamlet of Big Sky for some now long-forgotten conference.

From the bus window, as we left the Bozeman suburbs and entered thick evergreen forest, I watched the road curve close to the rushing Gallatin River. The white water slashed in torrents through narrow gorges, announcing that I was in a different world. The dark, wild river spoke of the creation of beauty in that faraway, alien place.

That bus ride now was nearly forty years ago, the early 1980s. I got off the bus and let that unsettling impression form in memory. Soon afterward I reoriented to office life, staff meetings, and tamer bus rides along city streets and interstates at the less-than breakneck pace of the bureaucrat-commuter. But the images remained, along with the certainty that that brush with the unrestrained, indifferent power and loveliness of the natural world can transform human souls.

That lesson, which seemed insightful and complicated when it occurred to me, actually is simple, childlike, crystal-clear for anyone who ventures outdoors and looks around. I felt it elsewhere, on rough hikes in Virginia mountains, on wide beaches, but also on urban streets and sidewalks where men have succeeded in creating beauty and grace.

After escaping the unearthly Chimney Rock tower we settled at a picnic table for our peanut butter sandwiches. Marie noticed an older guy wearing a Tennessee Vols cap seated nearby. We chatted, I mentioned we lived in Nashville years ago, he asked where. “Near Vanderbilt,” I told him. He said he’s from Clarksville, up near Kentucky; he had ten years on me. His wife had passed, he’s now dating a woman from Knoxville, his high-school sweetheart, who also lost her spouse. Unlike us, they walked the 449 steps. I told myself I’ll try that if I can last ten more years.

We walked the winding two-mile Hickory Nut Falls trail to the base of the falls, which tumble 2,580 feet to a rocky pool then cascade on to the river. The observation platform wasn’t enough thrill for the boys, they hustled down over the wet, slippery rocks where the exploding water bathed us in spray. Finally we retrieved them, the younger one ran back down the trail ahead of us. As we walked to the car the Tennessee couple passed us and waved. On to their next four-score years’ adventure, I guessed.

Outside the park we walked down to the river, which curls through the little town and watched the blue-green water crash over giant boulders. As the kids waded in the shallows and threw rocks, I recalled that day I watched the Gallatin in Montana, also lined with deep mountain forest but 2,000 miles away, in a different mountain range, history, and culture, replicated here in this rough and beautiful eastern wilderness.

We thought we should get on the road, but others passed by and chatted a bit, about what a pretty place this is next to New Jersey—why do they pick on Jersey? We let the kids play along the river a bit longer, getting some extra time in that mountain woodland, maybe creating their own memories of a few hours in touch with the serenity of God’s natural world. Maybe when they’re in their thirties or forties, even later, with kids of their own, they’ll think of that day. And maybe remember that grandpa was there.