Memorial Day: What’s to Celebrate?

Author’s Note: Re-posting from last year, because some messages don’t change.

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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 traveled 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 in battle, 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.

Story of a Story: Caged Sparrow Announcement

It’s hard to say when Caged Sparrow became a book.

The Event occurred in Buffalo, NY in the late ’70s, when Joseph Tuttolomondo was convicted and sent to prison for a crime he did not commit.

The idea to write about it began even earlier, when he and his wife started collecting newspaper accounts of his arrest and recording details of his story in case “one day” ever came.

He thought “one day” had arrived many times, but the timing was never right, so he got on with his life. Then he met someone named Linda at a dinner in Florida. Linda, a writer, showed an interest in his story, but biographies were not her genre.

A year later, Linda met me, by chance, some would say, at the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference in Asheville, NC. I had been trying to tell people about my writing projects, hoping to find some backing. The conference was nearly over. I’d given up telling people I write contemporary parables and sat moping in a lobby area of the hotel, thinking the entire week had been a bust. It didn’t make sense, considering how many people were praying for me to find my direction. I had a whole team of friends praying, because I’d honestly believed something was going to happen at the conference that would enable me to quit my “day job” and write for a living.

Linda sat down across from me and just started talking. “And what do you write?”

A harmless question. I’d answered it many times that week. I didn’t know her, and I didn’t particularly want to chat, but manners suggested I should at least be polite.

“Personality stories,” I answered. Where did that come from? I’d not written personalities since my Marine Corps days, when I wrote for the base paper. They’d always been my favorite assignments.

“Oh, you do?” She beamed. “I have a story for you!”

Next thing I know, I’m flying to Naples, FL to meet quite possibly the sweetest, most humble man I’ve ever known. He told me his fascinating story and I brought it to Virginia as a box of letters & documents, and about 12 hours of recorded interviews.

I quit my day job.

Since then the project has gone from data to text, to chapters, to completed story. It became a proposal a year ago, and was picked up by a wonderful agent. The agent tried for months to find a publisher for it, to no avail. Undeterred, I decided to publish it myself. After many revisions, this month I uploaded it into a template and received a proof copy of what it will look like. I will make one final revision, after I hear from Mary, a friend and editor who is reviewing it for grammar and flow.

So, is it technically a book? I think so. Although you can’t order it yet, the critical elements are all there: Story…check; ISBN…check; author bio…check; UPC code…check; and, to my absolute joy, an incredible cover…CHECK!!!  Here’s where I give a shout out to Anthony Cash, who can hear pictures and transform them to paper. He listened to Joe’s story and made the most remarkable cover anyone could hope for.

Next week will mark two years since that day in the lobby. I estimate it took about a year longer than necessary because of all I had to learn along the way. Then again, I think the timing is perfect. I hereby announce that Caged Sparrow will be available for purchase June 15, via a link on this website and as many other venues as I can find.

But for now, I’ll give you a sneak peek at the cover…

Sparrow in prison book cover

Coming soon!

My Ship Will Float, as Long as I’m Listing

I have a love/resent relationship with lists. I love them because they keep me on track—help me prioritize. Without lists I’d fall completely apart, and I’d have to change my standard salutation to “I’m so sorry…”

The resent side I’ll explain later.

Scattered through my home are myriad notebook pages, index cards, junk mail envelopes, and napkins, all bescrawled (sure, it’s a word) with reminders. I carry some from room to room as I work; others are actually filed. Filing is on my Saturday list.

Of all my memos, the most important is my daily “Priorities” list. I start this at the beginning of every week, optimistically attaching a huge “Monday” label to the top, which I then replace with a smaller “Tuesday,” and an apologetic-looking “Wednesday” as the week progresses. By Thursday, I usually have to start over because I’ve added and crossed off too much to make sense of it any more. I’ve never crossed off everything on the list. Well, I could, technically, so let’s say instead that I’ve never actually completed every task on a list.

Aside from my daily list, I keep lists of tasks other family members have to accomplish…particularly my teenager, whose most common query response is, “Sorry, I forgot.” This paper is usually left on the kitchen table so it can be easily spotted by said teenager. Somehow though, it often disappears.

Then there’s the “Some Day” list, which consists of all my promises to myself and others that I truly intend to get to, but…well, you know. This list survives on the premise that one day I’ll get to the end of my daily list and wonder what I should do next. Research phone plans? Make an eye appointment to see whether I need glasses? Visit that web page someone told me about? Spray the couch with fabric guard before it’s—what? That thing is five years old? Well then, I can cross that off the list. The good thing about the Some Day list is it kinda self-regulates that way.

I keep my Prayer List in a prominent place on a neon yellow card. Those of you with ADD know that a neon yellow card will not be ignored. I try to look at a different name each time the card catches my eye. Most days, I get through the entire list. If you’ve asked me to pray for you, know that I’m praying for you.

My “books I want to read” list gets longer every day. I rarely update this because I like remembering those I did read, and I jot notes beside them: Unbroken—highly recommend! Brave New World—good read but disturbing; Sweet Potato Queen’s Book of Love—not for me, thank you. (Which reminds me to ask you: I’m always looking for humorous books, and I’m SO often disappointed because humor requires more than a funny title…what hilarious books have you read lately?)

And yes, of course I have a bucket list. At the top is my hope to go a week without my lists. Just below that is the experience of seeing my book on a store shelf—and not because I put it there…

I also have lists of blog ideas, short-story ideas, potential publishers and magazines I’d like to check out, birthdays (a list I always seem to look at after someone’s birthday), quotes that touched me, and dogs I’d consider adopting when I one day move to a house with a huge back yard…I don’t think you should tell my husband I’m keeping that list.

So, what’s the down side of keeping lists? For one thing, I become dependent on a piece of paper I cannot always find. For another, it’s difficult to bend when a new item wants to not only work its way onto the list, but be seated at the top. And finally, some days I wonder whether I’m using the lists or they’re using me.

This past week was particularly busy, with my husband leaving for a trip that required some administrative and logistical assistance; a neighbor who left town and asked me to feed and walk her dog; a teen staring at SOL tests for which he’s woefully unprepared; doctor’s appointments; funky car noises that must be addressed; oh, and I work.

Interestingly, to me anyway, I felt peace as I worked through the lists. I was busy, and tired at the end of each day, but at peace. It was, dare I say, a fun challenge.

List of tasks

Sometimes you just have to walk away from the list…

With obsessive focus and a lot of prayer, I made it until Thursday before my ship started listing (see what I did there?). Then a sweet friend reminded me about something that should have been on my list but wasn’t, which needed to be done that day. As she was talking to me, I remembered I hadn’t picked up my son’s completed physical form from the base clinic, and that they’d said they would hold it only 10 days. I tried to focus on her words as my brain tried to calculate whether this was day 9 or 10. ADD will not let go at times like this. Nor will that voice that tells me I’ll never get it right. I went to my car and allowed myself a brief sob.

My sobs turned to prayer, as they often do, and I prayed for the peace I’d felt at the beginning of the week. Immediately I thought of my friend and former boss, Carrie. One reason I love her is because whenever someone pointed out a mistake her editors might have made, she’d respond with, “and how many words did they get right?”

She gets it. Instead of focusing on the …wait while I add ‘em up…FORTY-SEVEN tasks, responsibilities, and promises I made good on, I let myself melt into a woe-is-me puddle of self-proclaimed inadequacy over two I’d forgotten. In reality, I’m doing pretty darned well, thank you very much.

Long story short, it was day 9, and I did get the task accomplished, but not before accepting that none of us will ever get everything done. When I shed this temple and start on my Kick the Bucket list, I will leave behind many uncompleted tasks. As long as everything I do here, I do for the King, I’m doing just fine.

Ha. The devil thought he had my number…but it’s unlisted.

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“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” 

–Colossians 3:24

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May’s Christmas Year-round Suggestion

Invite a neighbor or two to your home for an evening, particularly some you don’t know. An evening can be so much more relaxing when it’s not one of many seasonal engagements. I recommend you nix the eggnog, however.