Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Visit to the 9-11 Memorial

Today, October 11, 2011, I visited the 9-11 memorial. It is the memorial to the victims of the 9-11 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania as well as those who were lost in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Its design is unique, and although one must traverse a maze of passageways, security and ticket observers, the visit is well worth the time.
Included in the memorial are two waterfall pools approximately thirty feet deep and three hundred feet square, each representing one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The pools are sized to be the exact footprints of each of the towers that fell that fateful day of 9-11-2001. Each pool is built of dark granite sides with light granite tops over which the water cascades in rivulets to the bottom of the thirty-foot fall. In the center of the larger footprint is a smaller, square stone pit into which the water falls and through which the water is recycled into the fountain.
At waist level around the pools are bronze tablets that are hollow etched with the names of all of the victims of the 9-11-2011 and 1993 attacks. Each bronze tablet is assigned a letter and number for identification. The letter signifies the south or north tower, by N or S, and the numbers are consecutive around each pool.
The names are arranged by proximity rather than alphabetical. By proximity, the designers believed it was important to show that individuals were together in offices or the Windows to the World restaurant or other like places; so where there were people who worked in the same office, for example, their names are located adjacent to each other. To locate a specific person by name, electronic kiosks are located on-site to find the specific tablet on which the name has been etched.
I found it humbling to walk around each pool, feeling the name of each person and offering a brief prayer. While I know its not really possible, I hope that death came quickly, and that they did not suffer excruciating pain during this incredible tragedy. I discovered the names of four women who were pregnant at the time and their inscriptions provide their names with the additional wording, “and her unborn child.” I think about not only the life of the mother and the future that she never got to enjoy, but also the life of the unborn child, whose future potential would never be known. God only knows whether a future president, inventor, entrepreneur or peace-maker might have been lost.
One can only surmise the hatred that must be felt by someone who can willingly and without conscience take the life of another person. I can only imagine—never understand--the intense hatred that must have been felt by those who eagerly gave their lives that day in order to destroy the lives of almost 3,000 people.
Throughout the grounds, more than four hundred trees have been planted to represent the new life that is arising from the debris-strewn site. Mayor Bloomberg has asked that we begin to refer to it as “The World Trade Center” and to give it new life as represented by these trees. In the middle of the plaza is planted the “survivor tree.” With its leaves full and plush, even on a mid-October afternoon, it is the only surviving remnant of life from the original site itself. It has been nursed back to health from that day, and it stands as reminder that God always provides a remnant from which he will spring new life and action.
The new 1 World Trade, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, now stands 76 stories and will eventually dwarf all that is around it, finally at 1770 feet high. It is a reminder that our nation is a nation of stalwarts who will not permit tragedies such as Pearl Harbor or even 9-11 to quench its spirit. May God grant us the insight to find the path out of our current morass, the desire to restore the pioneering spirit of America to its people, the wisdom to acknowledge God as the source of our freedom, and the energy and intelligence to recognize and to continue to enjoy the fruits of a nation that is the envy of the world.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun on the Field

As we approach the football season, my mind wanders back to the days when I worked as a high school football official. The life of an official is really not what most people think it is. By mid-summer we were always deep into a rule book that was sometimes convoluted in its explanations, requiring us to interpret situations. Then came time for the annual examination. Yes, football officials must pass examinations before taking to the field. Once the exam is passed, then we could get down to the real business.

Football officials are typically organized into associations. At the college and pro levels the officials are supervised by the conference or league. Our association met each week to review games the previous week and to assign games for the next Friday night.

My officiating days began with me operating as the umpire. The umpire is the official who stands behind the defense and is probably the most vulnerable of all of the officials on the field. More than once I have had close calls with a big offensive halfbacks plunging through the line directly at me. Usually I could side step quickly and get out of the way without injury. However, I do remember once when I stepped the wrong way and the running back hit me head on and put me on my keester.

Because I am not as big physically as many of the officials with whom I worked, I was moved to the outside as head linesman. Much safer! Or so I thought. I remember one night in a game at Gulf Breeze High School, a young man who attended the same church with me was carrying the ball and running full out. Drifting around his left end he crossed the sideline and hit me full force, not because he was aiming for me but because he could not stop his momentum. Hitting me on the lower part of my legs, I was upended and turned a complete flip in the air and landed on my backside, hurting everywhere. He was so apologetic about what had happened, but I never blamed him. But as with all football games, the show went on. I simply watched more carefully during the remainder of the game to ensure that I wasn’t hurt again.

One of my most memorable experiences occurred while officiating a game in Jay, Florida. Jay is a small farming community in northern Escambia County where, in the 1970s oil was discovered. Overnight Jay was transformed from a sleepy rural community to a place where numerous multi-millionaires lived in comfort. In one case, the first item a farmer friend of mine bought was a luxury tractor, complete with air conditioning, AM/FM radio, CB radio and any other trinket he could imagine. In the early 1970s that was luxury extraordinaire. They loved their Friday Night Lights.

On one rather drizzly Friday night, Jay was playing and the game was close. Both teams played well and the score remained close in spite of the numerous penalties assessed to both teams. One particular penalty that I called was a major setback for the Jay team and probably contributed to its loss that night. As I was leaving the field—under police escort—an old lady, probably in her 70s came onto the field, umbrella in hand, shaking it at me and threatening to hit me with it because of my “horrible eyesight and the way I called the game.” Fortunately, the police intervened and escorted me to my car, and I left rather in a hurry. I shall never forget the look in that lady’s eyes. I had harmed her favorite team, and she was ready to fight me. While I laugh at this incident now, it was really not funny then.

After ten years of officiating football both in Tennessee and Florida, I left that part of my life behind. But I can say without equivocation that it was one of the most fun times of my life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Father's Day 2011

Father’s Day is upon us . . . a time to remember those fathers who played so vital a role in our lives. My father was no different.

Herbert Jackson (Hub) Taylor was born to a poor farm family at Canoe, Alabama, a few miles east of Atmore, Alabama, in Escambia County. The only boy in the family, he left his formal education behind in the 4th grade to help out on the family farm, never to return to the classroom. Daily he attended to his chores with the animals or in the fields, so he would return home in evening too tired to pursue knowledge on his own, and his family had neither the background nor the inclination to motivate him toward educational pursuits. Besides, in 1910, there would have existed in a small Alabama town such limited resources as to make it impossible to improve one’s education on his own.

He and the family lived on a farm in a typical southern “shotgun” house. I remember visiting there as a child and smelling the coal burning fireplace, the wood burning cook stove and the wonderful meals that my grandmother prepared. She seemed “old” when I first met her, and I did not know her for very long because she died. I do not remember the cause.

My grandfather, a stout, time-worn dirt farmer with a bright white mustache, was always a jokester. Even in his latter years when he worked at the stock yards in Atmore, he was always telling jokes, resulting in raucous laughter by him and those around him. As long as I can remember, he walked with a cane, a cane that I still possess to this day.

My Dad met my Mom and married her when he was well into his 30s. By now he had taken up the craft of carpentry and moved to a small house on Blount Street in Pensacola, Florida. He and Mom mortgaged that house in full for $3,000.00. But it was to stand more than 60 years until Hurricane Ivan destroyed it in 2004.

Dad joined the Carpenter’s Union so he could have more opportunity for work and better pay. And each day I would see him, lunch pail in hand, drive off in our old car to labor in the Florida sun. Never a complaint, hardly ever sick, Dad accepted his lot in life and his responsibility to his family with grace and contentment.

My sole sibling, my brother, Jack, died at the age of 10 when I was just 3 years old. I remember the sadness of my father at Jack’s death, so sudden and unexpected. (He had died of leukemia.) So Dad put all his efforts into making the life of his remaining son a happy and content one.

Sometimes he worked two jobs to make sure that the family had what it needed to get by. With income from my mother’s work, the family, although not prosperous by today’s standards, always had food on the table and clothes to wear. I have often said that, as a teenager, I wore blue jeans when they were not at all fashionable and drove an old beat up pickup truck to school when many of my classmates drove fine, sleek cars.

My Dad loved to fish. It was not unusual for him to wake me at 5:00 in the morning on a Saturday, gather the fishing gear and head to the beach for some salt water surf fishing. I don’t remember actually catching many fish on those expeditions, but the fun we shared and the time spent with Dad were worth more than money could ever buy.

His favorite kind of fishing was fresh water. He often took me to “”Yankee’s Pond” in Cantonment to fish for the day. There his carpenter buddy, Yankee, owned some land and had created a lake and stocked it many years before. Dad and I would spend the day at the pond drowning worms and crickets in an attempt to catch blue gill and bream. It would not be unusual for us to bring home 40 or 50 fish from a day’s outing. At lunchtime on those days, we would go up to Yankee’s house, share a sandwich and listen to stories he and Yankee would tell about the times they worked together. Then it was back to fishing. I can see that pond to this day.

I suppose you would call Dad an outdoorsman because next to fishing he enjoyed hunting, especially quail. Our household never wanted for a supply of quail, dove or squirrel. Dad always kept a couple of hound dogs penned in the back yard where he cared for them as though they were family. He also took careful pains to train his dogs to hunt quail, and every Saturday during hunting season, when we were not fishing, we were in the woods with those dogs hunting quail. Sometimes, in the off-season, Dad would take those dogs out and just let them run, hunting quail for the fun of it.

By the standards of today, my Dad would never have been considered to be a success. He never made a lot of money, but he was a man of honesty, integrity, compassion and faith. His word was his bond, and one never needed his “signature” to know that he would keep his word.

For as long as I can remember, he was a man of faith. He saw to it that the family attended church every Sunday and every Wednesday. He could not carry a tune in a paper bag, but he sang in the choir for a period of years, always singing the melody, according to him, even though it likely was only close to the melody.

Each morning the three of us gathered around the table for breakfast. I don’t mean for just toast and coffee, but a breakfast complete with eggs, bacon or sausage, grits and homemade biscuits. At the table Dad made sure that we had a devotional time, reading Scripture, sharing concerns and praying. Although he could not read very well, he would struggle to get the words out on those days when it was his turn to read the Scripture.

Among the humblest of men, my father exemplified the character of the ideal dad. When Jesus speaks about the Heavenly Father, I can remember my Dad as an example of what the Heavenly Father must be like. Never wishing for the limelight, possessing the noblest work ethic, compassionate, unselfish with what little he possessed, poor in worldly goods, my father died in 1970 the richest man in the world.

In November 1969 my father was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. He lived for only three months before succumbing to the disease. Missed by all who knew him, he had lived a life of faith, and, I am certain, that Jesus was waiting to welcome him to his new home. I can only imagine the smile on his face as he met Jesus and began to stroll those golden streets. He has been sorely missed by those who knew him best, but most of all by me.

Dad would have been 111 years old this year, but my memory of him lives on. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jim Lovell and Apollo 13

My work, over the years, has allowed me to meet with numerous famous people. Some of them are or were genuine celebrities, others politicians and high level government or military officials, still others names that have made history. I’m pleased that God has allowed me to become acquainted with these people; I even count some of them among my friends. Such is this story.

It was July 28, 1992. I was serving as Director of Development for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and conducting a $13.5 million capital campaign. I had planned a fund-raising trip for me and Rear Admiral Skip Furlong to Chicago to meet with several high net worth prospects on behalf of the capital campaign. Doing my usual networking, I called Dick Joutras, one of the Foundation’s Board members and asked him about meeting while we were in town. He graciously agreed, and we set dinner for the night of the 28th. During our conversation, he asked if we minded that he bring a friend with him. Of course, we agreed.

On that evening Skip and I arrived at the Drake Hotel just a few minutes before the appointed time. We were directed to the fancy private restaurant and quickly spotted Dick Joutras at a table for four. After being seated, he apologized that his guest had not arrived but would be there shortly. Menus stowed on the table, we waited and chatted about nothing in particular. After about five minutes, a gentleman whom I recognized immediately as Jim Lovell strode to our table. He shook hands with Dick and thanked him for the invitation. Dick then introduced him to Skip and me, telling him a little about each of us.

Needless to say, I was in awe. My mouth was open with surprise, eyes wide, enthralled that I simply had the chance to meet this man.

How gracious he was as we talked about the Museum, why we were in Chicago and a little about what he had been up to since leaving the astronaut corps. After our meal, none of us was in any hurry to leave; after all it was to be an evening of pleasantness and relaxation.

Awestruck that I was in the company of this incredible man, yet exhibiting my Type A personality, I said to him, “I know you’ve been asked this question a million times, but I feel like I have to make the request. Tell me the story of Apollo 13.” Pretty bold, huh? But I felt this would be my one and only chance.

During and after desert and coffee, for the next two hours, Jim Lovell told us the true story of Apollo 13. As riveting as it had been portrayed to be, I found a faith in this man that I had not observed in some of the other astronauts with whom I had become acquainted. He described their feelings at the time of the explosion, noted the fear that they all seemed to feel not knowing exactly how serious the matter was or how to remedy it if it, indeed, was serious. His telling of the story kept me on the edge of my seat. I’ve never had two hours pass so quickly.

Since that time, I have been with Jim on numerous occasions. Only a couple of years after the release of the motion picture, Apollo 13, I met Jim again at a function for the Museum. During the course of that meeting, I asked him how closely the movie portrayed the actual event. He was quick to say that it was pretty accurate; in fact, he had been a consultant on the movie, and I’m confident that he was going to assure that the movie was accurate.

I don’t see him as often now as I did when I worked for the Foundation, but I still consider him to be a friend. I have called for his assistance on several occasions, and he has graciously helped when he could.

I consider Jim Lovell a genuine hero, but not just a hero, also a pioneer, a selfless, courageous aviator who was willing to sacrifice his life for the exploration of space. He is a devoted husband, having been married to his wife, Marilyn, since 1952. I count it a privilege to know Jim Lovell.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thoughts on the End of Life

Recently, my son asked me a question with respect to how I felt about dying. With so many of my colleagues passing away and so many others my age who have faced the finality of life, he wanted to know what my thoughts might be about the inevitable journey that all of us will take.

Although I read the accounts of the deaths of friends, family, colleagues, classmates and fellow church members, I must admit that I have not frequently or deeply contemplated my demise. I remember the joke frequently repeated in which the preacher in the tent revival asked, at the invitation time, if there was anyone who wanted to go to heaven. All raised their hands except for one elderly man seated on the third row. “I see, sir, that you are not raising your hand,” said the preacher. “Do you not wish to go to heaven?” “Oh, yes, I want to go to heaven,” replied the man, “but I thought you were getting together a group to go right now.” I suppose those are my sentiments at the present time.

Life is a gift for which we all should be grateful. How we handle that gift composes the verses of our lives. And then there is that inner being, perhaps our conscience or the object of our faith that comprises the chorus of this song of life.

I really dislike hearing the excuses so often verbalized today as a means of not accepting responsibility for actions. If a car accident, the person at fault might say someone else cut him off. When someone gets in trouble or is involved in a crime, it’s always that “I was abused when I was a child.” Or the excuse that one came from a poor family and didn’t have the opportunities provided by a financially secure family. Not very beautiful verses in the song of life, is it?

I, too, was the son of poor parents. I recently chatted with a friend who also was a child of poor parents, but he said, “I worked hard to get through school and worked at manual labor to get through college.” The verses of these lives are composed of enduring hard times, working hard and a determination that will not allow a “give up” attitude. After all, life is like a diamond. When extracted from the ground, a diamond is a dull, irregular stone. But in the hands of an expert cutter, it becomes a beautiful work of natural art. But in order for it to become that work of art, it must be cut, not once but many times. When we face the cutter’s tool, we can be formed into a beautiful work of art, or we can allow the pain of the cut to weaken us and cause us to break, much like the diamond might crumble at a weak point.

According to Psalm 90:10, I have already reached the number of days accorded mankind. My hope is that God will permit me to live a long, happy, faithful and prosperous life, but I live, not by my own desires but His. Am I afraid to die? The simple answer is a resounding “NO!” I am not afraid to die; I AM afraid of the process.

God has not promised endless days. My most fervent wish is to be ushered into the presence of God in a peaceful and dignified manner and finally to meet him face to face.

I end with the history and lyrics of one of my favorite songs: “Goin’ Home.”

The opening musical lines are from the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's famous "Largo" theme from his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Op. 95. His symphony was composed while he was in America and was first performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893.
It has been said that Dvorak's themes in his symphony were inspired by American folk melodies, especially Black American or American Indian. But his themes are just as similar to Bohemian folk music.

"Goin' Home"was actually written by one of Dvorak's pupils, William Arms Fisher (1861-1948), who adapted and arranged the Largo theme and added his own words. This is part of what Fisher wrote in the published sheet music of his song, "Goin' Home" (Oliver Ditson Company): The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak's own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man's bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his "spirituals." Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words 'Goin' home, goin' home' is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.

Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a goin' home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home.

It's not far, jes' close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin' to fear no more.

Mother's there 'spectin' me,
Father's waitin' too;
Lots o' folks gather'd there,
All the friends I knew,
All the friends I knew.
Home, I'm goin' home!

Monday, March 14, 2011

What I Learned from Wash Pots

Recently I drove with a friend to view a new piece of property he had purchased. On it he had situated a travel trailer. He had also built a stand-alone bathroom/storehouse. The place is an idyllic getaway for him and his wife. He loves to hunt, and it is in the middle of prime deer territory. Quiet, peaceful, all natural--a little piece of heaven on earth.

Both of them have taken pains to decorate around the site, making it livable, warm and friendly. Old fashioned dinner bells hang from several tree limbs. A couple of feeders hearken to the birds to come and enjoy a feast. It is simply a place where they can relax, get away from the pressure of a job and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

As we walked around the site, I noticed two decorations that were among the many on the grounds. Curiously, I asked my friend if he knew what one of them might be. He ventured a guess that it was an old cast iron pot that was used outside to cook stew or prepare chitterlings. I told him, “No,” but these kinds of pots had been employed for those purposes as a secondary use. Then I had the chance to show my age.

I explained to him that it, indeed, was a cast iron pot, but its original purpose had been to wash clothes. I explained how a fire would be prepared under the pot so as to heat water into which a family’s clothes would be placed. There, they were boiled with a strong detergent like Oxydol, Duz or even a homemade detergent containing lye. After boiling the clothes, they would be placed in a galvanized tub of cold water to rinse the detergent from the fabric. After rinsing, they would be carefully and methodically hung on a clothesline where they would be dried by Mother Nature.

Then I told him how I knew about this process. I grew up in a rather poor family. I often tell people that I wore blue jeans and drove a pickup truck when neither was fashionable. My family could not afford a washing machine or dryer, so they resorted to the cast iron wash pot. I still have my family’s wash pot to this day as a reminder of my roots.

I vividly remember during my junior high school and early high school days, that one of my chores for the week was to go out in the morning before going to school and to chop wood for our maid to use for the wash pot fire. She was paid a fairly meager sum, certainly far less than it would have cost to purchase a washer and dryer in those days. I mean, after all, gasoline was $.10 or $11 per gallon, and the price did not fluctuate from day to day like it does in our time.

Sometimes, when I might have a washing day off from school, I’d watch our maid do our clothes. This allowed me to learn how she got such a wonderful, straight, and lasting crease in my blue jeans.

After rinsing my blue jeans, she would lower them into a tub of prepared starch. I don’t know what the ratio of starch was to water, but I can tell you that, when complete, the jeans could stand up on their legs. She would swirl the jeans in the starch, slip a wire frame through the legs of the jeans and open the spring that stretched the pants legs. The frame also put a stiff crease in the front and back. She would then hang them on the line with the remainder of the clothes and allow them to dry. No one else in my school had such highly creased blue jeans.

We’ve come a long way from wash pots to washing machines. For those who enjoyed the luxury of washing machines early in life, you are to be thankful. For those of us who did not, we learned a valuable lesson—convenience is not always a good thing. It often suppresses gratitude so that we become cynical, ultimately believing that we are owed such luxuries. For those of us who grew up in the post-war era, hard work and the absence of many luxuries in life have instilled in us an appreciation for all that we are and have.

Since those days, God has blessed me more than I could have ever imagined. Would I want to go back to those days—yes and no. No, in the sense that life was hard and often unforgiving. Yes, in the sense that life was simpler, less complicated, and thus could be lived out more honestly.

I hope you, too, can look back on your life and acknowledge that you have learned from all of your experiences, good and bad. For in it all, God is preparing you for something much greater.