Travel- Fort Dix, NJ- Dayton, OH

Fort Dix, NJ- March 30, 2015

Intro

I love to drive. I never get tired of it. I’ve crossed the US a dozen times in the last 20 years.

Muna and I drove from Indiana to Fort Dix, NJ this week.

It’s a long trip. We stopped for lunch outside Dayton, OH. We decided to break the trip into two days to see some sights along the way.

Dayton, Ohio

The first big city we came after Indianapolis was Dayton, Ohio. We laughed when we recalled we had just been there last Wednesday.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base- March 23, 2015

Last week on a whim, we decided to spend the day driving to Dayton. Two buddies from the Oregon Army National Guard, Jason and Coop, were at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

We got to Dayton early to see some the sights. I love seeing weird stuff. So imagine Muna’s surprise when I told her I wanted to see the Dayton International Peace Museum.

The museum sits in the beautiful Isaac Pollack House, a 19th century grand, white Victorian home in downtown Dayton. The museum has rotating peace exhibits, and is non-partisan. Volunteers staff the museum. They are incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.

We saw displays about events like the Holocaust and the work of non-violent activists like Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King.

This month’s expo was “The Peace Corps Experience”: 54 Years of Global Service. This exhibit takes visitors on the journey of a Peace Corps volunteer.

The applicants travel to another part of the world and attempt to make a difference. This is tough work for an impressionable 22 year old fresh out of college. Throw in language barriers and culture shock, with occasional hostility and danger.

I left the exhibit with a profound respect for the Peace Corps. The tour guide, a nice lady in the her early 70’s, who forgot the Hippy 1960’s are over, didn’t like it when I said the idealistic young college grads going into the Peace Corps remind me of the brave young folks joining the army.

Next, we hit the National Museum of the US Air Force. The museum sits in four huge hangers divided by America’s wars. It’s one of the world’s largest collections with more than 360 aircraft and missiles on display.

It was impressive and big. Two hours later we only did the Vietnam War exhibit.

That night we had dinner with Coop and Jason. Jason is a former Marine who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s an impressive runner with a dozen marathons under his belt.

Tall with the slim build of an endurance athlete with short, steel-graying hair, he loves to read and talk history. I always learn something from him.

Coop is a man I’m proud to call a friend. Coop is the fittest guy I’ve ever known. He’s lean, with a kind face and ready smile who cuts his brown hair short.

Coop always reminded me of a Louis L’Amour cowboy hero. His values are what he lives. His personal and public face are the same.

He is a kind man, but has no softness in him. His toughness, like his faith in God, is ingrained and deep. Coop is a brave man. He is a sheriff deputy. In Afghanistan, he always walked point.

He taught me the key to fitness is doing something tough and drinking a half gallon of water every day.

It was great to see him and Jason. Seeing old friends is good for the soul.

 

Cowboy Verl

WASHINGTON DC- April 4, 2016

Early day tomorrow. Muna and I are headed home to Indiana. Wanted to get this one done early.

I love western novels. I loved to visit my sister on weekends. My brother-in-law had stacks of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey books on his banged-up yellow Formica kitchen table.

Every few weeks my dad would bring home used, pulp western novels by the bag-full from the flea market. I loved the stories about brave cowboys on the American frontier.

The West

The cowboy is America’s folk hero. He is the embodiment of a valiant anonymous protagonist. He is a legend of the American west.

In cowboy novels the western frontier always moved ahead of law and order. Settlers moved into wide open spaces and had to create their own laws until civilization caught up to them.

In this wild land, brave, armed men made the law with a gun. In my favorite stories a lone cowboy, who is a taciturn, action-oriented hero lives by an unspoken code.

He usually ends up saving some poor schmuck settlers with his fast guns and take no-prisoners attitude.

In the late 1990s I moved to Oregon to be closer to the American West. Along the way I become buddies with a real cowboy.

Verl

Verl is a man out of time. He looks like the gunfighter he might have been if he was born a hundred and fifty years ago. He is a cowboy hero straight out of a dime store western novel.

He even had the prerequisite tough guy sounding name like Jack, Shane or John. Verl just sounds like the name of an armed cowboy on horseback helping lost settlers.

Verl is tall, lean and broad-shouldered with short gray-brown hair. He has the spare, tan face of a man who does hard, physical labor outside. He looked like he could be between thirty to forty years old, it was hard to tell a age on his weather beaten face.

He shook my hand in a firm grip. His hand felt rough from work done outside. He looked me in the eye as he introduced himself.

“Verl,” is all he said. Then he asked me how he could help me. I told him what I needed. His answer was like the man- honest, blunt and straight to the point. “I’d be happy to help you.”

Verl is a quiet, low-key man. He is not a man you would notice unless he spoke. He speaks in a measured, confident baritone. His manner is sober, contained and modest.

He speaks to everyone the same way whether he is speaking to a private or a general-with respect.

When he’s irritated his eyes squint. He’ll slowly put up his hand to stop the person talking to ask a direct question. His quick and supple mind will take in the information as it’s presented.

He studies a problem with care before he answers a question. Patience is his best virtue. Compassion and understanding are his watchwords.

Eastern Oregon

Verl grew up in Eastern Oregon around cowboys and farmers. This formed the backbone of his values and how he saw the world.

As a kid he learned how to ride a horse as soon as he learned to walk. His dad taught him the value of a tough work ethic through wrestling and farm work.

As a teenager was exposed to sunburn, frostbite and windburn from hard, unrelenting work on the farm. He’s worked every day of his life to help other people.

Verl couldn’t be a cowboy so he became a soldier.

The Soldier

Verl came up through the ranks in the Oregon Army National Guard. He was an Infantry Sergeant First Class when he went through Officer Candidate School at 35 years old.

He’s been an armor and military intelligence officer. He’s deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The Man

He is a man of action and few words. He lives by an unspoken code of justice and faith. He is somber and dignified all at once.

He’s got more friends than he does money, and he knows which one to value the most. His humanity and compassion come through in how he helps others.

He helped me when I was in a bad way. After coming home in 2012 I needed a job. Verl got me one working for the Oregon Army National Guard.

When the job didn’t work out I went to Verl to let him know why I quitting. I felt like I was letting him down. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it. I just need you settle back into being home.”

The Mentor

One day at lunch I told Verl a story about a soldier who had made a mistake. Verl leaned back and looked at me for a minute and said, “Always remember, a man lets his actions and work do his talking for him. It’s hard to judge why a man does one thing or another. The best thing we can do is to help him along until he figures out what’s right.”

It was the most profound thing I had ever him say. It was the most I had ever heard him say at one time.

Over the years he has been much more than a mentor. He has been my true friend. He taught me to “Cowboy Up.”

The Lessons

From Verl and countless cowboy stories I learned the ideal of heroic manhood is to be a devoted friend or a deadly foe.

Verl’s unspoken code says that life is full of loneliness, and heartache, but as long as you face with it honor, integrity, and a little toughness everything will be okay.

All of the classic American cowboy themes are represented: honor, loyalty, and standing up for what’s right despite the odds. Two lessons are learned from this:

  1. You can’t choose when you are born or when you die, but you can choose to pass your days as a good man.
  2. In the end, a life well lived is full of love, redemption, and action.

Thank you, Verl. I hope I did you justice in this piece.

It was hard to come up with the words to describe a man who impacted my life in a simple but profound way. I am very proud to call you my friend.

National Monument of Flight 93

Intro

Yesterday Muna and I visited the National Monument of Flight 93. It was a somber monument of a tragic day.

STONYCREEK TOWNSHIP, SOUTHWESTERN PENNSYLVANIA- March 30, 2016

Background

On September 10, 2001, four teams of 19 terrorists gathered near Boston, in Virginia and New Jersey.

Their plan is to hijack four airplanes headed to the West Coast. The goal is to take the fuel-filled planes to use as missiles to crash them into important targets of American imperialism.

The morning of September 11, 2001, is a beautiful, late summer day with clear blue skies. Over the American east coast, four airplanes get hijacked.

At 8:46:30 AM Flight 11 hits floors 93-99 of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. At 9:03:02 AM Flight 175 crashes into the 77-85 floors of the South Tower a few minutes later.

At this point most Americans realize the acts are deliberate acts. At 9:37:46 AM Flight 77 strikes the west facade of the Pentagon. It’s clear the attacks aren’t confined to New York City.

Flight 93

Flight 93 crashed into an empty Pennsylvania farm field after the brave passengers ripped the controls away from the hijackers. Their story is different.

Armed with knives, the terrorists break into the cockpits. They attack the pilots and gain control of Flight 93. Flight 93, now piloted by a terrorist, changes course and heads southeast towards Washington DC.

Over the next 35 minutes, the passengers and crew called loved ones and alert the authorities. After learning about the earlier attacks, they know Flight 93 is part of a larger attack on the United States.

They share information and decide to act.

Fighting Back

The passengers and crew of Flight 93 decide to charge the cockpit. The plane’s “black boxes” record the erratic flight and struggle in the cockpit.

Voices in American English and Arabic yell out with sounds of fighting are recorded before the crash. Muffled shouts with the sounds of loud thumps and breaking glass. In English, “Let’s get them!”

The cockpit recorder captures the hijackers’ decision in Arabic to crash the plane. Just before impact the cockpit voice recorder captures a native English speaking man screaming loudly, “NO!!!”

The Crash

At 10:03:11 AM Flight 93 crashes with the hijackers still at the controls. The plane is about 20 minutes flying time from Washington DC.

The flight hits the ground at 563 mph carrying 5,000 gallons of jet fuel. It explodes on impact. The plane crashes with such force it’s reduced to fragments.

The explosion throws aircraft debris and fuel into a nearby hemlock tree grove. Within minutes first responders find only a smoking crater, burning trees and the ground littered with fragments of the plane.

The pictures taken only minutes after the crash are haunting. The explosion and fire destroyed the plane.

There is a 45-foot smoldering crater with an eerie black shadow impression outline of the wings, tail and engines. Debris is all that’s left.

The Memorial

On a 1,000 acres in the Pennsylvania countryside is the Flight 93 National Memorial. On a small overlook is the stark, austere white marble wall standing 20 feet tall engraved with the names of the 40 passengers and crew members killed in the attack.

Their final resting place is marked with a large, brown sandstone boulder.

The last decision of the men and women of Flight 93 prevented an even greater loss to the nation. Their actions were heroic and noble.

The Result

In less than three hours, nearly 3,000 Americans are killed.

Within hours, the inspiration and cause of the hijackings are known to the world. Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts awakened a sleeping giant. It set the stage for the American experience in Afghanistan.

By labeling the new war, “The Global War on Terror” the White House wanted to create an ideal to rally the nation in a time of tragedy and crisis.

The Global War on Terror is a unique case study.

It’s a war without borders, a war that has continued for the past fifteen years without an end. A seemingly endless conflict.

America is at war with an ideology of hatred against the ideals of Western Democracies, not a country or easily identifiable enemy. Think of men with beards in caves on mountaintops sitting around fires plotting to kill Americans. These are non-state actors not countries.

Three weeks later the US entered Afghanistan to finish Al Qaeda.

The Impact

The terrorists reached across oceans thought to insulate the United States. 9/11 made terrorism awareness a part of our daily life. We lived a “new normal” of taking our shoes off at the airport for security checks.

An ordinary field in the rolling hills outside of Pittsburgh is a quiet testimony to the courage of 40 brave people and a reminder to a nation at war.

 

 

Driving East- Fort Dix, NJ

SOMERSET, PENNSYLVANIA- March 30, 2016

Muna and I’ve been traveling this week. We started our trip from Indiana early last Tuesday morning.

Heading East

We got as far as a small town called Somerset, PA about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. It was a beautiful little town set in the Allegheny Mountains, also known as the Alleghenies. It’s a mountain range found within the much larger Appalachian Mountain Range of the eastern United States.

I have a special love for this part of the US. My mom and dad were both from Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh, but left when I was a baby. Every other summer or so I headed back and see my grandparents.

I always felt at home here. I don’t know why. I was raised in Chicago and South Florida. I have no real memory of the place. I only know it through family stories and a few scattered moments, but it feels like home.

It always feels like a homecoming of sorts when I am in Pittsburgh. After 40 years, it feels like I just left.

I love to drive through this corner of southwestern Pennsylvania. The mountains here aren’t big, but they are constant. The skyline on a clear, sunny day is filled with green mountains that almost look blue in the distance.

In the middle of a green farm field is a brown cabin and a red barn. It’s a beautiful sight in a unique setting that only exists in this part of America.

The weather was a brisk 65 degrees outside with a light breeze and blue skies when we saw the Flight 93 National Monument and Eisenhower Farm at Gettysburg.

As we finished out Pennsylvania and headed into Fort Dix, NJ, the weather got a little cooler as dusk settled in.

Fort Dix

When most people think of New Jersey they think of landfills and Tony Soprano, not Fort Dix. Fort Dix is a historic army base 25 miles east of Philadelphia.

During the Cold War the post expanded. During Vietnam more than half the soldiers in the army did basic training at Fort Dix. In 1995, the post made the BRAC closure list. For the past 20 years it’s been an Army Reserve and National Guard training post.

Fort Dix is an army post that time forgot. The post is surround by small towns and lots of farmland.

Wrightstown, New Jersey, the little town just outside the back gate, is a typical army base town with bars and strip malls filled with liquor stores, adult movie shops and check cashing scam joints.

Alongside Dix is McGuire Air Force Base that supports a huge number of aircraft that spend the day practicing take offs and landings. The bases combined in 2009 with the Lakehurst, the navy base.

Muna immediately notices how much nicer McGuire is compared to rundown, second hand Fort Dix. We decide to stay on the McGuire air force hotel.

You’re probably figuring out by now I love history. My favorite haunts are museums, libraries and old bookstores. I am endlessly delighted to find a new place to visit.

I found one at Fort Dix.

U.S. ARMY RESERVE MOBILIZATION MUSEUM- JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NJ- April 1, 2016

The museum sits in an old cream colored one-story cement barracks on a lonely road just right of the main gate. On display are photographs, uniforms and equipment that are artifacts of America’s wars.

Outside the museum are military trucks and tanks even an old train. They sit as silent monuments to the military might of America.

The simple museum is free and is well-researched by an enthusiastic staff of historians and part-time volunteers.

Scattered along a twisting storyline the displays make you lose track of time as you read the plate cards giving you a window into the past of Fort Dix and America’s military history.

The jewel in the crown of the collection is the storyline of mobilized reservists, citizen-soldiers, who first came to Fort Dix in World War I.

A hundred years and countless military campaigns later Fort Dix is still busy helping citizens make the transition into soldiers.

On early Sunday afternoon we headed south to see some old friends in Washington DC.