The Dog Days of Winter

I awoke at four a.m. on a snowy February morning dreaming of and missing my parents, while thinking about the Dog Days of summer. If I could explain the workings of the subconscious mind I would do so as I accepted the Nobel Prize for science, but I do not have a clue, only appreciation. Many problems are solved, jangling nerves and emotions soothed by our never off-line mind, courtesy of nature’s sleep mode.

I drifted off the night before knowing I would shovel snow in the morning. Now awake, I struggled to retain my dream before it disappeared amongst bothersome conscious thoughts of the day to come. I pulled on long johns, wool socks and tossed my jeans over a shoulder, then cranked up the thermostat as I shuffled through our dark, Victorian home to the kitchen. Radiators steaming, coffee pot perking, I propped open the back door and released our Sheltie, Sammy. Paws crunching on the white blanketed deck, he scampered to and fro before doing his duty and scrambling back inside for breakfast, gobbling his grub with the intensity of a starving man.

Ah, Dog Days, I thought, my dream rushing to the fore. With a jolt from a stiff cup of Joe, I flipped my mind and laptop on and Googled Dog Days. Beginning with Wikipedia, I switched back and forth between blank mind and snow-white document screen, tracking ever lengthening threads of information and thoughts sparked by my subconscious wanderings.

The Romans, I learned, called the Dog Days of summer “dies caniculares and associated the hot weather with the star Sirius…the ‘Dog Star’ because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog).” On our modern calendar the “Dog Days of summer” follow the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and run from July through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through February in the Southern. Unaware of the original meaning of the phrase, many of us associate Dog Days with the lethargy of domesticated dogs during these blistering months. But, unlike the Romans, we do not sacrifice any of our furry friends in hopes of abating the heat; instead, we retreat to air conditioned rooms or lay in the shade with our pets and take a nap.

Mmmmm, I thought, giving Sammy a pat on the head and with my brain, computer and radiators humming scrolled down the screen, continuing to alternately read and write.

It seems that in the 19th century, Dog Days were thought of as an evil time when, according to John Brady in his book Clavis Calenderia (circa 1813), “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mean, and all other creatures became languid: causing to man…burning fevers, hysterics and phrenises.”  Although not written in reference to the Dog Days, Noel Coward’s lyric “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is the 20th century take on the sultry days of summer. As for 2013, in our anxiety riddled society, the Dog Days are a time to wax on climate change and our impending doom.

This prompted thoughts about my melancholy dream of my parents. Jumping down the screen, the text reminded me that we live in an equally halved world above and below the equator. So, conversely, when the Southern Hemisphere is lolling through their Dog Days, the Northern is experiencing the shortest day of the year around December 20th.

Now, there is no corresponding popular phrase to capture the two months which follow, but they are associated with the winter blues. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine “some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)…and is a type of depression.”

Of course, I thought to myself in the now cozy kitchen, most of us do not go mad in July or August or plunge into a clinical depression in January and February. But as a writer with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring calamities provoked by the slightest of pretenses, it is reassuring to know that they may be due to nothing more than the tilt of the earth.

“You’re just out of sorts,” my mother used to say, “get busy and it will go away.”

And there it was.

I stopped typing, gratefully punched the “saved” button and refilled my coffee cup. I stared out the window, the weak winter sun sparkling off the crystallized earth.

My parents both passed a few years apart at the end of January, their funerals held on harsh, unforgiving days like the one yawning before me.

My father, a decorated combat GI in WWII, received a full honor guard, a line of gray-haired veterans standing at attention, freezing rain soaking their uniforms and streaming down weathered faces.  I have no idea how long they waited in the drizzle before we arrived, but they were ramrod straight and ready for their fallen comrade. It was one of the most moving and reaffirming moments of a depressing day.

Although 82, my mother died unexpectedly. She was in the hospital for minor surgery and choked to death the night before while eating. A classically trained pianist and soprano, her once perfect posture was destroyed by osteoporosis, her internal organs collapsing on one another, and she could not muster enough wind to clear her throat. A nurse discovered her when she came in to pick up the dinner tray.

I spoke to Mom earlier in the day, never thinking it could be our last conversation.

I heard my wife, Yolanda, stirring upstairs and I made another pot of coffee. Sammy, hunger satiated, stretched out near a radiator, sound asleep, his world a place of perfect contentment.

I switched off the laptop, slipped on my jeans, laced up my boots, donned a wool cap, leather coat and gloves and shoveled snow.

It was time to get busy.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Dog Days, Family, February 2013, Greatest Generation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Winter Blues, World War II

What it means to be a Hero

I have been thinking about the word “hero” lately.

One reason is because of Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, two ex-Navy Seals who died defending people trapped in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Woods may have even disobeyed orders to “stand down” and lost his life to do what he believed to be right.

Woods and Doherty’s actions have brought the word “hero” to the fore of my consciousness because as a writer, I take words seriously. I listen for how they are used, abused and overused.

Take “warrior,” for example. It is a word that is so overused in sports that it is a mockery. A professional basketball player being paid millions of dollars sprains his ankle and gets hauled to the locker room, arms draped over two teammate’s shoulders. Minutes later, ankle taped, he limps back onto the court. The fans explode with applause. Inevitably, the play-by-play announcer clears his throat and speaks with the reverence of a TV preacher at prayer as the color commentator nods like an enraptured worshiper: “What a warrior.”

No, I do not think so.

A competitor? Okay.

A tough guy?

When discussing basketball players, who in comparison to football players are wimps, “tough guy” is questionable, but I can live with it.

But a “warrior?”

Lay that on the combat veteran Marine living down the street and see what reaction you get.

“Hero” is another word that gets tossed around in sports for all the wrong reasons. I cite the downfall of every formerly revered steroid juiced jock, Lance Armstrong et al and leave it to fans as to whether the term “hero” has been abused as much as drugs.

Mark Twain said we admire heroes “for great qualities which we ourselves lack.” Yet I wonder if “non” heroes lack such qualities or just have not been called to exercise them. Or maybe they have and nobody noticed.

Woods and Doherty, like many in the military, were athletic. Woods a high school wrestler, Doherty a trainer at SEALFIT, a fitness company run by former Navy Seals.  They were classic heroes. Men of action, distinguished courage and ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities. After all, how many of us, if given an order that takes us out of harm’s way and abrogates us from responsibility, would disobey and risk our life?

Maybe more than we think.

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal on what makes a hero. “The decision to act heroically,” he said, “is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in our lives. It means not being afraid of what others might think. It means not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves. It means not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.” Woods and Doherty serve as dramatic examples of such heroism.

But there is a phrase within Zimbardo’s quote that we may glide past as we focus on “not being afraid” and “putting our necks on the line.” He says “the decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called to make.”

Many of us.  

In my mind, unlike “warrior” in sports, “hero” is a word which we do not apply as often as we should because we associate it with magnificent acts of courage like Woods and Doherty’s.

But what about the guy who tells his son that he will work overtime at his dead end factory job until the day they drag him out so the boy can go to college? I have a friend whose dad told him exactly that.

Not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves.

Or the stocky, 40-year old Mexican immigrant, who lugs around children’s early reader books, faithfully attends his tutoring classes for English after putting in a long day at his blue collar job, covering his face in embarrassment as he erases and corrects his homework, all because he “wants to make a better life for my family.”

Not being afraid of what others might think.

Or the woman who takes a stand on lightning rod political and social issues, knowing it will provoke condemnation from those who oppose her. Knowing some of those people are family and friends, the very folks whose opinions and approval she values most. Knowing she risks being cast out from that treasured group. Yet, she takes her stand.

Not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.

Twain, a supreme observer of the human condition, noted that “one can be a hero to other folk, and in a vague sort of way understand it, or at least believe it, but that a person can really be a hero to a near and familiar friend is a thing which no hero has ever been yet to realize, I am sure.”

For most heroes there are no cheering crowds or pontificating announcers to proclaim their deeds. But it is that deafening silence and lack of recognition that make two honest-to-God warriors like Woods and Doherty all the more heroic. In a different way it also applies to the factory worker, the Mexican immigrant and the principled woman. Disregarding orders to “stand down” they have done what they believe to be right, unafraid of the fallout, what others may think and willing to put it all on the line.

That is what heroes do. It is not so rare. Look some place other than the game on your television. Heroes abound. There may be one closer than you think.

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Filed under November 2012

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.


Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

And for God’s sake…Clean your room!

It can be a battle cry or a plea, a conversation starter or killer, the opening ante or the last card played in high stakes parent/child “it’s our house/my room” poker. Sure, I know there are families where kids’ rooms are well-kept, but I have never lived in such a house.

I could Google the topic to find statistics and studies to determine if there is a correlation between neatness, character, academic achievement and all-round “great kid” status.  But in this election year where we are inundated with polls and prognostications, I have no desire to research another flash point issue in which an expert shrugs his shoulders and says: “At the end of the day, it’s anybody’s guess.”

No, this is one topic where we can rely upon anecdotal experience to yield unreliable results.

My oldest brother, Scott, was a hall of fame slob, the color of his carpet unknown until he moved to college and the debris field cleared. He was also class valedictorian, varsity basketball player and trumpeter in the band.  After he graduated from college and got his own apartment I was stunned when he scolded me for putting a beer bottle on his coffee table without a coaster.

My other brother, Tim, was a Boy Scout and National Merit Scholar who vacuumed his carpet and made his bed every morning, without Mom asking. In my book, and Scott’s, Tim was a traitor.

I do not recall whether my sisters, Amy and Holly, rooms were orderly. But that being the case, they must have been acceptable.

I was not a tidy kid.  But I was child number four and Mom was running low on energy by the time I reached my teens, closing the door with a groan more often than engaging me in debate.

One day, however, she reached a breaking point and rolled in the big gun: Dad.

Now, in general, Dad displayed little interest in housekeeping. He kept the TV room and the area around his easy chair organized. Lucky Strikes and stainless steel Zippo lighter squared against a chrome ashtray, remote or, in the prehistoric days of my early childhood, one of his five kids within range to change channels. That was about it.

But he lived in Mom’s house and she had spoken, so the order was issued: “Clean your room.”

Skeptical of my return minutes later, we marched upstairs for inspection. Seeing the bed made and floor rubble free, Dad strode toward the closet.

“Dad,” I blurted.

Dirty clothes, empty boxes, stinky sneakers and a basketball spilled on top of him.

“Nice try,” he said. “Now clean your room.”

Like his uncle Scott, our son Michael has morphed into a respectable housekeeper. I spent a week with him this summer at his apartment and was amazed by stacks of washed dishes, folded towels and clean sheets.

Our daughter, Anissa, has not reached this point. Mainly because she has never met a hangar, hook or organizer she liked.

Upon entering the house her shoes go one way, purse another, jacket a third. Car keys have been located under seat cushions, on bathroom shelves and beneath her bed. Dirty clothes are abandoned in the laundry room, languishing until dresser drawers and closets are bare.

Last week we moved Anissa into her dorm room. Excited, she flipped off her Birkenstock sandals and went to work. Later, we prepared to run her and her roommate, Stephi, to Target for supplies.

“Where’s my Birkenstock?” Anissa said.

We all stared at her bare left foot.

“Where’d you take them off?” I foolishly asked.

My wife, Yolanda, sighed. Anissa shrugged, her palms up.

We shifted suit cases and boxes, propped up the futon, checked under both beds. Nothing.

“Well,” Anissa said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Stephi, filled with the fearlessness of youth, attacked the futon like she was wrestling an alligator. She flipped it to the floor, peeled back the fitted sheet and shook it until it coughed up a Birkenstock.

“I knew it had to be here,” Stephi said, eyes shining.

Hours later, as we drove home, a picture of Anissa’s made bed and well-organized desk glowed from the screen of Yolanda’s Android.

“How long do you think it’ll stay that way?” she said, gazing wistfully at the photo, saving it in her gallery.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” I said.


Filed under 21st Century America, August 2012, Brothers, Empty Nesters, Family, Housekeeping, Small town America

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Dream a Little Dream

“What’s the skinny guy sayin’?”

Jake Plotner plopped on the bar stool next to mine in the cool darkness of the American Legion.  Jake’s a sixty-something fireplug with blue eyes and white flat top who claims to be the small town cousin of the late, great Chicago columnist Mike Royko’s alter ego Slats Grobnik. I cannot confirm the identity of either fellow, but they both enjoy a good conversation over a cold beer. Some say Jake retired from a local factory where he ran a press that punched tin can lids. My son Michael worked a similar machine one hot summer.

“Toughest job I ever had, Dad,” Michael said, this from a kid who detassled, painted barns and shoveled soybeans and other things for farmers since the age of fourteen.

Jake punched that press for forty years according to local legend.

Without a word the blonde bartender handed Jake a beer and the three of us stared up at the TV.

Thanks to the proliferation of 24/7 news channels Americans have a choice in how the events of the day are presented on TV. We have networks that lean conservative, liberal and the one that’s in every airport which appears to be simply dazed and confused at this point. But the channels do share a few things in common like banner headlines signaling “Breaking News: Kim Kardashian Divorcing after Seventy-Two Days of Marriage,” a plethora of “buy gold” commercials and talking head “experts” who seem to have so much time on their hands that they do not work a day job. Or maybe being an “expert” is their day job.

Give me a steaming cup of Joe and the morning paper.

I gestured at the flashing screen.

“He says since Congress hasn’t acted on comprehensive immigration reform he’s not enforcing the law to deport illegal immigrants under the age of thirty who meet certain requirements,” I said.

“It’s good to be King,” Jake said. “But heck, his party had control of Congress for two years and never did nothin’ about it. What’s ‘Mister Gentleman’s Quarterly’ got to say?”

A news ticker ran along the bottom of the TV highlighting civil war in Syria, Iranian nuclear denials and the announcement that a Reality TV couple was having a child. GQ appeared on cue, square-jawed with every black hair in place, sixty-something like Jake but not showing the wear and tear of forty years in a factory. He said something about not necessarily disagreeing with the idea of not deporting young illegal immigrants who fit the criteria but objected to the skinny guy’s unilateral pronouncement. GQ also called for comprehensive immigration reform.

Jake and I swigged our beers. The blonde wandered to the end of the bar.

“So they agree?” Jake said blue eyes wide. “We need new rules on this whole deal, right?”


Jake brushed his flat top and shifted to face me.

“This is crazy. These guys agree we need to secure the border, be reasonable about the folks already here and set up a new system to make it fair for everyone who wants to come to the U.S. That’s what they’re both sayin’, right?”

“You’re correct, my friend,” I said.

“Then why the hell don’t they get it done?”

“Devil’s in the details, I guess. But some say it’s not good politics.”

“Come again,” Jake said leaning on the bar.

“Stirs the pot.  Fires up each party’s base. Helps get the vote out. It’s not about governing or doing the right thing like both sides claim. They don’t want to make proposals that the other can criticize and turn against ‘em.  It’s all about winning elections.”

“Geez,” Jake said, rubbing his chin, “with all the problems this is causin’ for all sorts of people, it’s hard to believe that even politicians can be that cynical.”

Our eyes met and we laughed.

“Another round,” Jake called to the blonde. “And for Pete’s sake…change the channel. I’d rather watch the Cubs lose than listen to any more of this.”

The screen glowed with green grass, blue sky and a Cub batter kicking the dirt after a swing and a miss.

“Hell, at least he’s swingin’ the bat,” Jake said, raising his glass. “At least he’s swingin’ the bat.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs, Corrupt Politicians, Exploitation, Immigration Reform, Institutions, July 2012, Mitt Romney, Newspaper, Small town America

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.


Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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