Thursday, May 28, 2009

Memorial Day: the reason for it is unchanged

This column ran in The Lebanon Democrat this past Monday. I did raise my flag and think of friends, personal heroes, and all of the others who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, our freedom.

Memorial Day: the Reason for it is Unchanged

SAN DIEGO – This past week as usual, I received emails relating to Memorial Day.
Retired military officers send each other missives honoring our late comrades-in-arms around this holiday. But many of last week’s emails came from friends with no military service.
This increased interest in honoring our patriots who died in defense of our country gives me a good feeling, especially considering how it used to be.
As a junior officer, it seemed I carried some stigma because I wore the Navy uniform. It did not bother me personally, but I did feel separated from society, particularly my age group.
It also incensed me when protestors took it out on personnel returning from defending their right to protest. Regardless of the political posturing, those who received the abuse were no more responsible than me.
In my youth, I was awed by the World War I veterans honored at the various parades. I read enough to know of the horrors of trench warfare.
About two years ago, my oldest daughter gave me a copy of The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. The poems are brutal and describe the gore of that war in grisly detail. Although some of the poetry is darkly beautiful, the overall effect makes one wonder at the logic of war.
Sassoon’s poetry confirmed my feeling about our heroes from that war.
The Second War
Born during the Second World War, I grew up respecting the previous generation’s sacrifice. I have studied pre-war history and am amazed so many can forget so much about where isolationism and non-intervention can lead. I wonder how many United States citizens might not have died had we joined the Allies earlier.
We do not learn from our historical mistakes.
World War II cemeteries across the nation and throughout Europe with thousands and thousands of crosses in military formation and the United States flag flying over them are testament to the honor we bestow on those military dead.
It became my generation’s turn. Initially as I was going through Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, I was too busy learning steam engineering, small boat operations, ship handling, deck seamanship and damage control to be very much aware of what was going on the other side of the world.
But before I went to OCS, I learned Parks McCall, my big brother as a Kappa Sigma pledge at Vanderbilt, had been killed when his aircraft was shot down in Vietnam.
Later while at home after Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer training and en route to my first ship, the U.S.S. Hawkins (DD-873), I found out Bobby Bradley was killed when his A6 with Bobby flying as Naval Flight Officer (NFO), crashed in the Atlantic.
Bobby and I played baseball together and were good friends for as long as I could remember, but I remember him most for volunteering to go on a five-mile hike with me so I could get a merit badge to advance from the Boy Scout’s tenderfoot classification.
Sacrifice hit home and my service took on an entirely new meaning for me.
Remember the Heroes
Over the course of twenty-one years in the Navy, there were very few incidents when I stepped into harm’s way. When I did, I remember them clearly. But overall, it was not much more dangerous than crossing a street in downtown New York. Others from Lebanon, like Bobby and Jim Harding, served in real danger.
Wikepedia, the on-line, open contribution encyclopedia, states General John Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization, issued General Order 11 in 1868. The order designated May 30 as Decoration Day, which evolved into today’s Memorial Day.
So for almost 150 years, the citizens whom we honor for dying in defense of our freedom have grown astronomically. Even though more folks are honoring our heroes more than in my early Navy days, Memorial Day ceremonies compete with car races, picnics, and backyard barbeques.
But this morning in the Southwest corner, I will go to the top of my hill and raise my flag at 8:00 a.m. along with all of the ships in the harbor, and I will pause and remember my friends who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, for me.
I hope you do something similar. Those heroes earned this much.

Monday, May 25, 2009

This is an article i wrote for the Wilson County Post in 2004. It was written for Father's Day, but i think it captures my feeling about my father and others in WWII as well as the other conflict when citizens took up their arms and lost their lives in defense of our flag, our freedom. May all of us enjoy Memorial Day and remember those for whom this day was created: those who have died in defense of our country.

Daddy and the War

He gave me the small box when I was back home on a business trip in June 2004.
It is a 1940's vintage "Johnson & Johnson deluxe Baby Gift Box." the size of a large novel with a baby blue and beige motif, now faded. The baby gifts have long been gone. I wondered if they might have been for me or my sister. In the place of the gifts are photos and a few letters.
They were his pictures and he passed them to me.
Mother has been in charge of our pictures, and they are proudly catalogued and labeled in album after album in a chest designed to hold those memories.
But these are his pictures and stored in his box. They are pictures of his war. Many can't be shown to polite company because they show the grisly side of that war in the Southeast Pacific. There also is some dark humor that should remain inside the box.
There are some wonderful pictures there also, several sent by my mother to him while he was half a world away, and I, unknowingly, was in my mewling baby stage. There a couple of the chubby bald and toothless baby grinning into the camera – some things do come back to roost -- and some of my mother, lovely ones and those which show her carrying me, which she sent to Gulfport, Mississippi, where he trained before boarding the liberty ship to head west, so far west that is called East. There is one of him in his Navy blues, holding his newborn. I guess it was when he bordered on AWOL to be with her while I was born: Poignant stuff.
But at the bottom of the box was a 5 X 7 inch photo. The paper is fading but the photo remains clear. When I first saw it, I somehow connected to the final scene of "Field of Dreams."
An old Navy friend called me "a sentimental old fool" when he read my last weekend epistle on growing up and sports in Lebanon. George is right, of course, but he is an old boatswainsmate, and I have found old boatswains mates nearly always right. Yet even though I knew my feelings, when I looked at the photo, danged near smacked me on the head with sentimentality, I didn't care.
He was a fine looking young man sixty-one years ago. He stands next to his buddy, and stares straight at the camera. He is almost at attention, and he is solid. A bivouac tent, palm trees and the mountains of the Philippines are in the background. It is a good picture of a good man.
He is a fine old man as he rolls on toward ninety-one this September. He is his own man, confident enough to joke about himself, still standing tall and supple like in the picture, a rather amazing physical specimen and even more of an amazing human being. He is about the nicest man I know. Pound for pound, he may be the strongest. I brag about him all the time.
I am proud of him for what he did back in that picture time. I'm even amazed at what he and all of those other men did in those perilous years, yanking themselves away from little places like Lebanon, Tennessee, from which they had not traveled far in their lifetime, training for a brief time like he did as a Navy Seabee, and then leaving budding careers, wives and children or children to be, and sailing half a world away to live in heat and humidity that makes the summer South look like an autumn in the Canadian Rockies.
There they fought, and others like them all over the world, fought and died and lived next to death until it was over. And they fought for a country and its constitution and the freedom of their countries and other countries. They fought for the idea of freedom. Pretty impressive stuff.
I have done a bit of traveling myself in the defense of my country. But I started when I was too young to know and looking for adventure. Career, wife, kids had not shown up on my radar scope. I was having fun. With those guys, it was different. They went to war and the outcome was not close to certain. They may have been our last of true civilian soldiers.
I also am proud of him now. So proud, it makes my buttons burst. I don't know if I will live as long, but I'm pretty sure I won't live as well. I wish that I could bottle him and capture all of his stories. He's only told me a few and I've forgotten some of those, but he captures the warmth and humor of his times when he tells them. There are some wonderful tales that everyone should hear. I fervently hope that I can tell my stories half as well when I close in on his age. Of course, he could well be there to critique me.
Recently, I was putting the box away after showing the pictures of him, my mother and my infancy to some folks out here in San Diego. It occurred to me that I wanted to share a piece of my dad with the Post readers around Father’s Day, share this good man with the good folks of Wilson County where he and his wife remain solid citizens.
So sentimental or not, enjoy a moment and a man eons away from today. He is a good man and the times will never change that.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Two poems

The first poem is short and was written this year. The second is my longest and was written when i was back in Lebanon after going for a walk/run past Cedar Grove Cemetary where i dug graves in the summer during high school.

Git out.
Git up.
Git going.
Git a job.
Get real.

Bonita, California
January 21, 2009

Cedar Grove

dawn passed the old Leeville pike
where further west in Leeville proper,
the faded yellow, wood-slatted depot the size of a three holer
stood forlornly on the old railroad bed turned pike
until it was sold to be a cleaned-up trinket in Fiddler’s Grove,
the historical,
version of the past
at the county fairgrounds, also moved to bigger accommodations
across town from when I grew up and out.

thunderheads rolled around the heavens to the east;
cool for June;
turning left on South Maple with
Murfreesboro Road running the other way
where the road to Chattanooga had been “thank-you-ma’ams,”
back toward town was Cedar Grove,
the cemetery
across the road from the county memorial park,
a bunch of acres dedicated to history and death
where both cemetery and park
brought any north-bound, cow-counting, road game
to a tie.

People get ready, there’s a train to Jordan
Pickin’ up passengers coast to coast.

long before Memorial park,
the good citizens,
fully aware of growth and potential,
moved Cedar Grove too,
or rather,
moved the cemetery, bodies, caskets, monuments to Cedar Grove
with intendment
for the former graveyard
to become a church of christ
until it was intendment again
for the congregation to move
College Street Church of Christ
west to Hickory Ridge,
changing the name to College Hills
as if that made it
right with the lord.

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.

in the mid-June early morning
ancestors lay in repose:
ordered rows of marble and concrete above, grave below,
adorned with plastic flowers, long term reverence,
but no less heartfelt
than in the Coolidge years when they rolled
the monolith of granite on logs,
pulled by mules and horses
from the railway for six days.

General Hatton eulogized with
the stele of marble at the head of his grave
near the other marble tower honoring
Confederate dead
to complement Hatton’s statue in square center,
built over a creek and a spring.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is stamping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath were stored.

I knew these ancestors
from pushing mowers over the graves,
trimming around the edges,
even digging their graves
in the summer heat.

Sleep in heavenly peace;
Sleep in heavenly peace.

my ancestors are here too:
kith and kin,
generations of father’s folks
are up in Statesville
behind a church
in a family plot
where Father triangulated the hills
from a photograph of his father and uncles
to find
his grandparents’ graves
to place
the headstone he had ordered;

in Cedar Grove, up gate three
lie Mother’s folks, grand folks, and assorted kin
in a rectangular plot curbed off from the rest;

across the road:
later maternal and paternal kin
lie near;

Friends lie amongst the kin:
parents of a close friend
are honored with a big monument
at the front of the memorial park;
does he, dying foolishly in a car crash,
lie close to his mother and father?
lord help us.

I heard the wreck on the highway,
But I didn’t hear nobody pray, dear brother;
I didn’t hear nobody pray.

It is a quiet place with scarce visitors,
a place to contemplate old relationships
and what was
and what will be
and what won’t be,
and where,
in the middle of the day in the summer heat,
cheating men and women found
a haven for illicit affairs,
from which we quickly learned to steer
our mowers, clippers, and lively lads
far away if no one emerged from the car
to visit a grave:
there was another kind of visiting going on.

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world;
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight;
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

I cannot stay long as I have duties to tend;
leaving, I notice they have torn down
the small clapboard-sided house
north of Cedar Grove on South Maple
where the old man,
mostly toothless, tobacco chewing,
slobbering the dark brown juice
down his jowl,
would sit on the porch
in the rocking chair
next to the RCA Victrola
listening to the White Sox
before he would cajole me
into taking him to town;
he knew the people and the plots
when the records burned
in the attic of the courthouse fire
so the city kept him on the dole
well into his nineties,
letting him stay in the house
so he could tell us gravediggers
where to dig,
not missing more than once or twice
when we would strike the side of a casket,
having to refill and start over
a couple of feet away
for Christ’s sake.
he is probably now somewhere
in Cedar Grove himself
with the records straight from computer technology
where no one will strike his casket
digging in the wrong place.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

on South Maple heading south
before the Leeville Pike
is a stone house set back
from the road with outbuildings,
a truck with a crane
beside the sizable vegetable garden
with corn, tomatoes, beans, onions
in not quite straight rows,
much like the obelisks and headstones
in Cedar Grove,
but growing in the brown soil,
green shoots of life
while the rabbit and the cardinal
nibble at the opposite ends of the garden:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the son of god discloses;
and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own.

Though i have placed
the planks to set their graves.
cut the sod,
dug through the clay with pick and shovel,
filled their graves with clods,
i am a wanderer among them;
i worship them, feel them,
but do not feel belonging.
on the east side there is a plot
where my buddy came home:
a sailor gone west to adventure;
i arrived first to find nickels on his eyes in
Rosarita Beach, Baja California, Mexico,
helping his widow get the body
back home
to lay beside his father:
he came home,
but i do not quite feel i belong.

The chariot has swung
And it was low
And it has brought them home.

The cumulus clouds hover around the horizon;
mid-afternoon remains cool for June;
the funeral procession turns off Leeville Pike
headed north down Maple Street
to turn left into the memorial park
while the residents lie silently on
both sides of the road.
The tent is set;
i know the ritual well,
i will not be a part of this burial
to stand, cap in hand, on the road side
as the hearse with headlights on
rolls on by.

Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whenever we hear that glorious Word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

Lebanon, Tennessee
June 22, 2008

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Notes from the Southwest Corner:
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Jim Jewell

SAN DIEGO – One evening last week, I fired up our patio chimirea as the “May Gray” marine layer rolled onto shore.
The offshore wind swirled and blew the smoke into my face. I sputtered and recalled a song, which brought memories of back home.
From the fourth grade through junior high, Mrs. Tassie Gwaltney gave me piano lessons.
Mrs. Gwaltney would spend about a half hour with me and my sister each week. I was not a virtuoso by any stretch of the imagination. My sister, Martha Duff, was good and taught piano later in her life.
Not realizing it then, my faults were evident from Mrs. Gwaltney always telling me I had a great touch. I believe she was really thinking I did not have an ear for music and my mechanics were lousy. But I had great touch.
My mother didn’t exactly show patience, but she was thorough in making me practice every day. Daily, I sat on the piano bench for thirty minutes. This worked okay when I hit upon something I liked such as “The Bumblebee Boogie,” but a great deal of the sitting time was spent dreaming about what adventure I could pursue after practice.
Piano Competition
I eventually became pretty good at a couple of classical pieces. Mrs. Gwaltney thought I had advanced enough to go to Nashville for a competition at George Peabody College. I was awed by the formality and the majesty of the auditorium. In my recollection, I was not intimidated nor remember being nervous.
I do not recall the piece I played, but I think I only messed up once or twice and covered it up pretty well.
Mrs. Gwaltney was a kind lady throughout her ordeal with me. But she most impressed me during our ride back from the Peabody exhibition. She turned on a rock and roll radio station, which was playing Elvis Presley. Elvis songs dominated the ride back to Lebanon. Unexpectedly, she praised Elvis, noting he had an exceptional voice. I was taken aback. I could not imagine anyone of her generation liking Elvis.
One of my favorite songs I learned to play for Mrs. Gwaltney was Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I loved the melody and the words. It occupied a great amount of my piano practice even when I was supposed to be working on other pieces.
Perhaps I didn’t recognize how limited I was in musical talent, but I was never missed Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour,” early television’s precursor to today’s frenzied media goliath “American Idol.”
I wondered how I could make it to the “Amateur Hour” without interfering with sports and play. The show impressed me. I watched when Pat Boone debuted. I was more enthralled with his relation to Daniel Boone and being from Nashville than his singing. Obviously, I never followed in his path.
When I wasn’t practicing piano or over at Henry and Jim Harding’s house on South Tarver, I was playing with neighborhood friend Bill Cowan, who lived on Castle Heights Avenue before moving to West End Heights.
Bill and I began playing with R Townley Johnson. Even then, Townley showed musical talent. As we entered junior high, the three of us decided to start a band. We would practice several hours each week on songs. Bill was pretty decent on the guitar and Townley played a great saxophone even then. My piano playing was not quite there yet. The band did not last past the initial practicing stage.
But before we disbanded, I recommended to Townley and Bill we should include “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in our repertoire. They scoffed and discarded the idea because the song was too old fashioned.
Shortly afterwards in 1958, The Platters released the song and it climbed to number one on the Billboard charts. Although I was proven right, I don’t think we would have ever made the charts with our version.
Bill died in a car wreck many years ago. I lost track of Townley after he became the Drum Major for Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band. He eventually returned to Lebanon and died several years ago.
Sitting in the Southwest corner evening watching the fire die down, I remembered them and thought of the last lines in the song: “…Tears I cannot hide; so I smile and say when a lovely flame smoke gets in your eyes.”

Monday, May 18, 2009


i am a time traveler in my mind.
Crystal illusions on the waterfront,

Sail and red checkered table cloths.
The problem is i do not know
who i am at what time i am whomever i am.

Spackle of grey clouds allows the sun
to dart between, glare at the sea gulls flapping.

i keep these secrets with me,
not knowing who i am, when, and mostly why.
I cannot tell any one,
especially those who have come to know:
no political correctness here,
just concern for all of those,
just not me.

Old world harbor town gasping hard against
the new world up and coming.

Responsible resistance to secret revelation,
a yearning emptiness of sweetness.

It is a secret
Which i wrestle with like a bear
With no resolve as to how much, when or how
i should tell to whom;
…and the world goes round
While people do foolish things,
i among them.

old man nodding, smiling at the beauty,
the symmetry of it all
while the city structures loom
silhouettes of the times:
those which are,
those which never will be.
Smile Mr. Fitzgerald,
Another day for Gatsby has arrived.

Bonita, California
October 12, 2006