Memorial Day: What’s to Celebrate?

How do You Celebrate Memorial Day?

That was a trick question.

Across the country, folks are firing up those backyard barbecue grills, stocking the beer coolers, brewing sweet tea, and hunting through the garage for the horseshoes and lawn chairs. Company’s a-comin’ and it’s sure to be a day of fellowship and relaxation.

Partiers and politicians alike will make mention in their toasts and speeches of “those who died in defense of this nation” as if it’s a public service announcement. Something to check off  on their “to-do” lists for the day.

But there are also people across the land who are hurting today, for whom this day intensifies the memories of loved ones who didn’t come home. A folded flag presentation. A stone marker in Arlington or any one of the nation’s 131 veteran’s cemeteries. An empty seat at the picnic table.

It’s a little different for me. The day brings back myriad interviews I’ve been honored to have conducted with men who fought and survived. Some were such great storytellers I can still envision what they saw in battle.

I once had a conversation with Haddys B. Hixon, a true Teufelshunde (Marine Corps Devil Dog) whose memories of the fighting in Belleau Woods, France during World War I were so vivid he didn’t speak of the war until he was in his 80s. At 84 he travelled with his son back to France, where he was able to stand in the same fox hole he’d fought in all those years ago. He could still picture the Marines who had died beside him. He could recite all of their names.

Ira Hayes' grave in Arlington

It’s about people, like Ira Hayes, who, even if they didn’t die, were never the same again.

The surviving members of Edson’s Raiders used to meet annually at Quantico, until there were too few left for a reunion. I met with them many times and listened to their stories. They always made sure to tell me about Smitty. He had been wounded on Guadalcanal during heavy fighting, and they’d been forced to leave him propped against a tree so they could continue the advance, but they promised to get him on their way back. They never saw him again, and they never learned what had happened to him.

In Yuma, Arizona, I met Delbert “Sparky” Sparks, a submariner who had been captured on Mindanao in The Philippines and was forced to make the 80-mile Bataan Death march, during which more than 15,000 civilians and military personnel died from the brutal treatment by their Japanese captors. Sparky was one of only 510 prisoners in his camp who survived until they were liberated by Army Rangers. He waited more than 40 years to tell his story, and to receive his Bronze Star and POW medal. There were some parts of his story he refused to share.

History books and visits to our national battlefields and monuments have also put pictures into my head. I’ve stood at the Alamo and wondered what it must have been like for the fewer than 200 men, after holding off the first two waves of Santa Anna’s nearly 2,000 men, to watch that north wall come crashing down and know they were in their last minutes of life on this earth.

I’ve looked over the sunken road wall in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Confederate Army Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland spent a long, cold December night listening as hundreds of wounded Union soldiers on the other side lay dying, crying out for help. I wondered what he thought as he leapt across that wall, armed with canteens, and tried to dole out that last measure of kindness to his Union brothers.

And I’ve read with awe, the accounts of heroes like Marine Lt John Bobo, who, while fighting in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, had his right leg severed below the knee. Knowing he could not survive, he used his belt for a tourniquet and jammed the stump into the dirt to stem the bleeding. Then, ordering his men to safety, he laid fire at the enemy until he was overrun, but not before his men were able to safely reposition to a place from which they launched a successful attack and repelled the enemy.

LCpl Thomas Julian, USMC

High school friend, LCpl Thomas Julian, who went to Beirut Lebanon in 1983 and never returned

People, with names and faces. Selfless acts of gallantry. Pride in this nation and her ideals. Our country lives on and its people are free because of its legacy of heroes. This is not Thank a Veteran Day, although it is always appropriate to do so. This is Remember the Cost Day. When you hear the Rolling Thunder bikers parade past, consider the Prisoners of War for whom they ride. When you lift your toast to those who served, say a prayer for those who will never be the same because of what they saw, or because of their injuries. Reflect a moment about the freedoms we still enjoy, and honor the sacrifice that made them possible. Learn their stories; teach them to your children; don’t let their names fade away.

How do you celebrate Memorial Day? You don’t.

 

Faith, Hope, and Love: Will it Land Me an Agent?

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. –Proverbs 16:9

 

It’s been a year since I attended the 2013 Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference in Asheville, NC.

Back then, I was just a government employee who loved to write. I arrived at the conference with a fist full of short stories and an idea for a book, hoping to find someone who would, well, recognize my incredible untapped potential and launch me to stardom with a multi-book deal and million-dollar advance!

…Or at least look at my book proposal.

But there was none of that.

They liked my writing well enough, but weren’t looking for what I was peddalin’ if you know what I mean.

On the final afternoon of the conference, I sat down in a common area to take stock of the good things that had happened, and to thank the Lord for the people I’d met and the terrific classes I’d attended. I remembered, somewhat remorsefully, that I’d told God I’d let Him set my agenda and arrange my appointments. He hadn’t done a very good job, in my opinion, but I choked out a “thank you,” and contemplated skipping the closing banquet in favor of a good night’s sleep.

That’s when fellow writer Linda Rondeau sat herself down beside me and asked, “So, what do you write?”

“Personality features,” I replied.

I’m still not sure why I said that. I’d been touting myself as a writer of contemporary parables throughout the conference, although I really do enjoy writing about people. [Lesson one: Be true to yourself.]

She nearly danced with excitement, and said, “I know someone with a great story you might be interested in!”

And that’s how I first heard about Joe Tutt.

Long story short, I went to the banquet, learned all I could about his story: Good cop, framed and found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, sentenced to prison with nefarious characters, some of whom he’d arrested during his nearly 20 years on the force.

What’s not to love?

Four weeks later I was on a plane to Naples, FL to hear his story first-hand.

Joe turned out to be quite charming, and his story was even better than the banquet-table version. I took the task and started writing immediately. Over the next few frustrating months, I tried to balance a full-time job and family PLUS writing in my “free time,” which didn’t work at all. [Lesson Two: Ya gotta sleep.]

So I quit my job and spent the rest of the year on this book, and today, as I peruse the nearly completed project, I think it’s got a shot—if I do say so myself.

Now here we are, one year later, and I’m heading back to the conference Sunday, this time as a full-time writer. I carry with me a completed proposal, business cards, “one sheets,” an elevator speech to practice, and a giant sack of hopes and dreams…and I’m frightened out of my wits.

But do you know what propels me forward?

You do.

The Portrait Writer logo

A gift from my former co-workers. Aren’t they the greatest?

Over the year, as I’ve chronicled this journey and shared my doubts and short-comings, I’ve received so much encouragement and support on FB, on my blog, and in personal emails, that I can’t imagine NOT going. From my writers’ group friends who spurred me on nearly ten years ago to get going, to the gang at the office who practically kicked me out the door (not because they wanted me gone, but because they want to see me succeed) and even designed a logo for my new business, I’ve been blessed with the best friends anyone could hope for.

I may not come back with an agent or a publisher, but regardless of my success there, I’ve learned more in this year about writing and publishing than I could ever have hoped. Writing is my calling, and I’m sticking with it. Thank you all, for helping me to take the leap.

Watch this space next week as I learn where my next steps will be heading…