Saturday, June 27, 2015
A parade is always better if the drums can be heard even before the marchers come in sight. Even better if it's the home town all-class alumni marching band.
The all-class high school reunion is in full swing in the little mining town of Kellogg, Idaho. The main street is crowded with alumni from out of town, peering at each others' name tags and screaming in recognition, while twenty-somethings rescue toddlers from the middle of the street as the marchers advance.
The all-class band sounds good after only one night of practice together. The drums give an introductory roll, the band members lift their instruments and erupt into the Wildcat Fight song. A dozen lithe and long-haired cheerleaders form a human pyramid and then tumble into a series of cartwheels, while a gray-haired drum majorette from the class of about 1963 struts her stuff ahead of the musicians, faultlessly twirling her baton. The first verse ends and the cheer leaders face the crowd, pom-poms held high. KAY! EE! DOUBLE-ELL O! GEE GEE KELLOGG! GO! GO! GO!! and the band crashes into the second verse, turning the corner to march down the hill. The drill team of a decade ago marches proudly by, followed by truckload of four and five-year-olds wearing Wildcat sweaters with the logo "Cheerleading Clinic 1995."
Each class has been told to get a car of its own vintage, and they have outdone themselves. The Class of 1924 has an old red roadster with two elderly, barrel-chested men holding a banner, "State Football Champions, 1924!" A muddy jeep bears the announcement "No cars made in 1943." 1941 alums ride in a gleaming black hearse with the slogan "Always Prepared!" And as always in any parade, the Fire Department has an entry: old Engine Number One, its 70-year-old motor puttering softly and smoothly.
A police car brings up the rear of the thirty-class procession, its driver announcing over his loudspeaker, "This is the last parade vehicle. Please return to the sidewalks to make way for following traffic!" But this is a small town and we all overflow back into the street, greeting people we haven't seen in years as we make our way up the block to get coffee and pie at the P.E.O. booth, to hold us over until the barbecue tonight at the football field.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
1995 Alpena, Michigan
No stirring music announces the approach. No Seventy-Six Trombones, nor Stars and Stripes Forever that used to thrill my children and me as the bands and flags passed by years ago.
Only a slowly moving police car sounding its siren periodically, followed by a car towing an oversized rigid American flag on a trailer. Silent.
Then a dozen men in battle helmets and camouflage. Desert Storm, I think at first, but no. As they come nearer, there is no parade formation, no marching step; no banner or label. Gray-painted faces, blank expressions, large automatic weapons held loosely, some with infra-red scanners attached, one man festooned with machine gun belts. They walk along slowly, seeming uncertain, surrounded by a crowd like this. As one young soldier half turns toward a cluster of small boys, his automatic weapon inadvertently points into their midst. A nearby soldier growls a command, and he sheepishly raises the muzzle to point skyward and moves along. Silently.
Now World War II veterans are passing by with their battle flags, and the crowd applauds the elderly men and women who fought fifty years ago. But I gaze thoughtfully after the silent, camouflaged men. I am a stranger here, and I wonder what I am getting into . . . . try to recall which Michigan town has the militia. Are these gray-faced men defenders of America, or of some private political credo? I don't know whom to ask. Keep silent. Watch the parade.
Children scramble into the street for the candies tossed from almost every vehicle. Here is the parade marshal in a car far back in the line; there comes a beauty queen, young and serene on her float. Pre-teens in motor-powered go-karts spurt back and forth with a roar, looking back over their shoulders at friends in the crowd, oblivious to the children scurrying for candies. Only one woman restrains her grandchild until they pass.
And here, can it be – yes – finally a real live marching band! Raising their trombones and trumpets to the sun, the lone drummer rapping out a catchy marching rhythm in counter-point to the music. Then they, too, are gone – the only real band to march in the entire hour-long procession. We are back to fire engines, trucks advertising local businesses, boat safety organizations, children's bicycle groups, all of them throwing candy. Finally, two police cars end the procession, followed by campers and RV's reclaiming the highway, and the crowd breaks up.
Old folks with their folding chairs, young families with baby strollers swirl around me as I stand people-watching on this fine summer day. What sense of heritage would my own children get from this parade if they had been here? What would I tell them about what it takes to make a nation? A partial answer, at least, came from an unexpected direction. For there was a second parade soon afterward, at the edge of town. The Vietnam veterans held their own procession, perhaps still searching for an identity from an ambiguous era. Maybe reminding us of a task done for small thanks. Or expressing bitter grief for companions who did not return.
Not many spectators stay, only one or two deep along a couple of blocks on a cross-street. Some of them attracted by the “Traveling Wall” replica of the Vietnam monument in Washington, featured this week at the town's museum near by. A bearded man near me in the small crowd wears the legend “Vietnam Veteran” on his cap, and under those words a row of campaign ribbons.
The parade is not long. Police car and rigid flag-on-a-trailer again. Then massed flags, borne by a truckload of disabled veterans whom I feel moved to salute.
Then a platoon of middle-aged men and women marching to a traditional cadence chant. The tenor voice of a sergeant sings a phrase, the response from the ranks full- throated and firm:
Sound off! ONE, TWO!
Sound off! THREE, FOUR!
Bring it down! ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, ONE TWO - THREE-FOUR!
If I die in Vee-et nam . . . . IF I DIE IN VEE-ET NAM!
Mail my body home to Mom . . . . MAIL MY BODY HOME TO MOM!
Pin my medals to my chest . . . . PIN MY MEDALS TO MY CHEST!
Tell my girl I did my best . . . . . TELL MY GIRL I DID MY BEST!
The sound gradually fades as they march on: Sound off! One-Two! Sound off! Three-four!
Bring-it-on-down-now! One-two-three-four one-two – three-four! . . .left. . . left. . . left . . .left . . .
A woman breaks ranks and runs up to the man in the veterans cap, standing next to me. “Pete, they want you to march with them!”
He shakes his head. “No . . . I don't want to . . .”
I want to ask him about it; want to get his story. But something in the mixture of emotions on his face tells me this is a private moment.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
What I remembered most about ninety-year-old Ila Mae Wild at her funeral today was her faith one week in 1995, when her then-20-year-old grandson, Marine Lance Corporal Zach Mayo, was reported missing from the aircraft carrier America in the Arabian Sea at night.
On a Saturday afternoon, marine officers visited his parents' Idaho home to report that after an unsuccessful search by four helicopters and two escort ships, Zach was missing at sea and presumed dead.
It was grandmother Ila who quietly but firmly maintained that Zach was not dead, and she prayed for his safety during the next four days. Even after a return visit from the marine officers on Tuesday brought no news except to confirm Zach was lost at sea, Ila still said Zach would be OK.
On Wednesday Zack's father's phone rang at 4 a.m. (in western USA) It was the American embassy in Pakistan, who put Zack on the line to tell his father of his rescue by a Pakistani fishing boat after 36 hours of treading water.
The national newspapers the following day were full of his story. According to the Chicago Tribune, Zach, an airplane maintenance expert, had gone out on deck to get some night air, and an opening door had brushed him into the sea. He followed marine training and tread water while fashioning make-shift life preservers by trapping air in his shed pants and shirt. The fishing boat found him a day and a half later and took him to the small seaport of Gwadar in Pakistan. It took a while to find an official who spoke enough English to connect him with the American embassy.
I talked with Zach today, now a 40-year-old civilian, at the reception after his grandmother Ila's funeral. Asked him how he had felt after treading water that long. “Very tired” was his sober response, “I was unconscious when they lifted me into the boat.”
The miracle was not only his endurance, but that anyone happened to spot him at all in the vast Arabian Sea. I have witnessed faith many times in my medical practice, but have never seen faith to match Ila's assurance that, with God's help, her grandson was safe.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Dahlbergbooks.com has been on the Internet for about sixteen years, ever since Judson Press published the first edition of my father's biography. At the time, I had just published my first novel, Flame Tree, which required a lot of research on Burma in addition to my own experiences during five years there. Burma (now Myanmar – two syllables, silent ' r ') is changing. The military government has mellowed somewhat but still maintains tight control. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and is an active member of Parliament.
My original URL was hosted by an outfit that no longer functions. Its successor still carries the site, bills me every year, but rarely answers phone calls or emails, and seems unable to update content. I can access each page, and connect with updates of existing links and my blog (a different website), but I can't enter anything about my two more recent novels or the book to come.
The local techie at the computer shop assures me my physical house network is connected right, and a friend with more cyber-expertise than I is building a new URL for me that actually works, and allows reader input.
Meanwhile my new collection of people who successfully accomplish their goal is starting to come together. Some interviews need updating, and in a couple of instances, I must be careful not to encroach on books they are working on. But it's fun to be back at work.