In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Friday, November 27, 2009

Blowing It

I've sold out. Today, after intense lobbying by my wife and elder son, I broke down and bought a snowblower.

The consensus was that I'm too old and decrepit to shovel snow anymore, at least without serious risk of a heart attack or stroke. No matter that I've been doing it the old-fashioned way since the Johnson administration (that's Lyndon, not Andrew), including during and after the "Storm of the Century" (or Great Blizzard of 1993), when I shoveled for two days straight and was piling snow more than six feet high at the end of the driveway. No matter that the shovel and I were still going strong here less than 12 months ago.

My father continued to shovel at my age (54), although he then decided to avoid the shovel/snowblower issue altogether and moved to Florida. I suppose a snowblower would be the cheaper alternative in the long run--although, if I use this thing six or seven times a year (about how often during a season that we have a snowfall really worthy of attack by a snowblower) and hang onto it for as long as 12 or 13 years, I'll still be paying around $10 for every time I use it. Besides, how am I to prove my manhood between December and March? What if they revoke my honorary Amishman's license? I used to be able to stand out in the middle of the windswept, snow-choked driveway for hours on end, hurling shovel after shovel-full into the yard, and feel mighty superior to my wimpy neighbors as they crept out of their comfy dens, pushed their put-puts up and down their driveways a few times, and timidly retreated back inside while I toiled on and on outdoors like a REAL MAN! Now, I'll be no better than they are.

However, I console myself with the knowledge that now my dear wife won't have to confront a snow emergency when I'm not around, with nothing but a shovel in her hand. In fact, now that I think of it, she won't have to do that even when I am around. She'll be able to drive that sucker up and down the driveway all by herself, while I protect my delicate constitution inside, lending her moral support and preparing hot chocolate to keep her going.

Guess I'm still a REAL MAN after all! ;-)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving: We Gather Together

Here it is, Thanksgiving again--and here I am blogging about it again (my very first substantive post was about Thanksgiving)!

As a child, Thanksgiving was my second-favorite holiday, just behind Christmas (of course). First on the agenda, as it was every weekday that I wasn't in school, was Captain Kangaroo. That day's show always had a Thanksgiving theme, as you might expect. What was really memorable about it, though, was that at the end of the program the usual kids' set was replaced with a large dining table, which the cast would set, cover with traditional food, and then sit and PRAY (or at least pretend to pray) over--on national network television! (where was the FCC? where was the ACLU?) While that scene was unfolding, you'd hear a choir singing the beautiful hymn "We Gather Together" (more on that below). Ever after, whenever I hear that hymn, I think of the Captain and that moving scene, and it's become synonymous with Thanksgiving for me (and I'm not the only one who remembers this).

After that, it was several hours of televised Thanksgiving Day parades--Macy's from New York--with the big balloons!--the J.L. Hudson's Parade from Detroit, and the Santa Claus Parade from Toronto. On CBS you got some of all three, winding up with Santa at the end of the Toronto parade. For several years in the mid-1960s, Captain Kangaroo and crew hosted the Macy's Parade. And back then, they were real parades with marching bands and floats, instead of the static stage numbers and remote studio drivel you (not me, as I don't watch it any more) see today. Ah, for the good old days!

And then, in the afternoon, it was off to Grandma and Grandpa's for the Big Event--dinner! Not only our six with them, of course, but you had to add my uncles/aunts and their children, as well as Grandma's sisters and a cousin or two. So, you'd generally have anywhere from 18 to two dozen people there. With extra tables and chairs the "board" stretched all the way across the dining room and well into the living room! I don't think I graduated all the way to the "adult" table in the dining room until the last couple of Thanksgiving dinners there, in the mid-1970s. The turkey, stuffing, squash, and pies (that's a VERY abbreviated list) were always perfect! I can still smell it all in my mind's, ah, "nose."

<Here insert repeated-ad-nauseum story of how I dropped onto the sidewalk Mom's painstakingly-wrought layered jello dessert on our way into Grandma's house one year, while trying to hang onto a stack of books with the other hand.>

Grandma and Grandpa, and a few others of our wonderful old extended family, are passed on now. And we children and grandchildren are now scattered to widely to meet very often at holidays. But we all still gather together, here or from afar, in person or in our hearts, on Thanksgiving.


Speaking of gathering, I wanted to share a little bit about that ultimate Thanksgiving hymn, We Gather Together. It has a rich and compelling history all its own, as related in this Wikipedia article:
We Gather Together is a Christian hymn of Netherlands origin written in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius (pka François Valéry) as Wilt Heden Nu Treden to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spanish forces in the Battle of Turnhout. It was originally set to a Dutch folk tune. In the United States, it is popularly associated with Thanksgiving Day and is often sung at family meals and at religious services on that day.

At the time the hymn was written, the Dutch were engaged in a war of national liberation against the Catholic King Philip II of Spain. "Wilt heden nu treden," "We gather together" resonated because under the Spanish King, Dutch Protestants were forbidden to gather for worship. The hymn first appeared in print in a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs, "Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck."

The hymn is customarily performed to a tune known as "Kremser", from Eduard Kremser's 1877 score arrangement and lyric translation of Wilt Heden Nu Treden into Latin and German. The modern English text was written by Theodore Baker in 1894.

According to the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, "We Gather Together's" first appearance in an American hymnal was in 1903. It had retained popularity among the Dutch, and when the Dutch Reformed Church in North America decided in 1937 to abandon the policy that they had brought with them to the New World in the 1600s of singing only psalms and add hymns to the church service, "We Gather Together" was chosen as the first hymn in the first hymnal.

The hymn steadily gained popularity, especially in services of Thanksgiving on such occasions as town and college centennial celebrations. According to Carl Daw, executive director of the Hymn Society, the "big break" came in 1935 when it was included in the national hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church.

According to Michael Hawn, professor of sacred music at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology, "by World War I, we started to see ourselves in this hymn," and the popularity increased during World War II, when "the wicked oppressing" were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

This hymn is generally sung at American churches the day before Thanksgiving.

This hymn was sung at the Opening of the Funeral Mass for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Here for your listening pleasure (the "video" is static, but this was the best choral performance I could find on YouTube) is "We Gather Together." The text appears below the video--and let's remember to recite in our prayers that last, stirring line, "O Lord, make us free!"

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!

We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nostalgia Time: Have Gun, Will Travel

Sometimes it's refreshing to turn from great themes and momentous events to things less weighty, yet more entertaining. One of my favorite pastimes is collecting and sharing nostalgia--anything that helps me relive the glorious days of childhood, when every day was full of discovery and devoid of the cares that burden us as we grow older.

My parents would wax nostalgiac about classic radio programs and Saturday afternoon serials at the movie theater. But those things predated me and my generation. We look back on, among other things, the early years of television. And one of the best things on the tube back in the late 50s and early 60s was the western series Have Gun, Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as the soldier of fortune "Paladin." His trademark was a chess knight, emblazoned on his holster and on his "business" card, along with the slogan, "Have Gun, Will Travel."

The web site provides a good summary of Paladin's character:
Paladin was not your normal gunfighter. He was an educated and a traveled man. A West Point graduate, he served as a Union officer during the Civil War. After the war, he went west and became a high-priced 'gun for hire.' He was based at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco and enjoyed the finer things in life. He dressed in fancy clothes, enjoyed fine wine, gourmet food, opera, expensive cigars and he could play the piano. When working, he dressed completely in black including a black hat with a band of silver conchos and a custom holster with a silver chess knight on it. He carried a custom made pistol which was perfectly balanced and had a rifled barrel. He preferred to settle problems without violence whenever possible, but if forced to fight, he excelled.
A Wikipedia article about the show also notes that Paladin "had a thorough knowledge of ancient history and classical literature, and he exhibited a strong passion for legal principles and the rule of law."

I like to think I have some of those things in common with Paladin, although of course I don't have his cojones. Our society would be in much better shape if we had a few more people around like him--cultured and thoughtful, but willing to fight for what's right, when necessary, and win. Those qualities are exceedingly rare among our "leaders" right now, but I think there are hosts of otherwise "ordinary" people who exhibit them. They'll be our salvation by and by.

Amazingly, you can watch all 34 full-lenghth, uninterrupted episodes from the show's first season here. It's great fun!

The character of Paladin is perfectly captured in the magnificent song "Ballad of Paladin," sung by by Johnny Western (something tells me that wasn't his real name). They sure don't make 'em like that any more!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welcome, Sarah!

Today former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin swung into Rochester, New York (the closest city to my home in Brockport) on her national book-signing tour. The excitement, and controversy, have been building around here for days. This was Mrs. Palin's only stop in New York State, so people downstate who wanted a chance to see her--yes, there are some--had the unaccustomed burden of traveling all the way up here to commune with a star. The line started forming yesterday afternoon at Borders Books & Music, and hundreds of people spent the night waiting to get one of the 1,000 wristbands that would get them into the signing, which didn't start until 6 p.m.

UPDATE 11/22/2009: The Rochester book-signing was a huge success! As reported in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Mrs. Palin signed twice the 1,000 books originally expected. Attendees report tat she looked everyone in the eye, shook their hands, and greeted them warmly. But the really exciting thing about this event was that Sarah's parents, as well as Piper and Trig, were there too! What a special gift to all those people who traveled far and braved the damp and chill to camp out at the bookstore for 24 hours or more for a chance to meet Mrs. Palin! Now I really wish I could have been part of that wonderful experience. I was there in spirit, anway.

What's so refreshing--and politically astute--about Mrs. Palin's tour is that it ignores big cities and the other usual venues of power, concentrating instead on the smaller cities, towns and nearby military bases where she can connect directly with the grassroots ordinary Americans with whom she's most concerned (a strategy that's been referred to as "an open slap to liberal America").

Moreover, everyone who wants to meet her has to stand in line, big shot or little shot; there are no VIP receptions or photo-ops with the politically connected. It's just about her and her people, and the things they believe in together. It's a block party in flyover-land, and we're all just neighbors.

A gentleman at the Grand Rapids, Michigan tour stop explained: "She's one of us. . . . We're hard-working, 9-to-5 Joes and like her we didn't go to the elite universities that other politicians went to. She understands real life and she understands America." A teenage girl at the same event said that Mrs Palin was her hero. "She's shown me that I can achieve anything, and be anything I want to be." A Canandaigua, NY resident waiting in line at the Rochester event observed: "She's like us . . . You insult her, you insult us."

And that, I think, sums up why Sarah sends a shiver down the backs of the political and social elites that despise her so. They have little to fear from her personally--she lacks an impressive resume, has no particular wealth or inside connections, is not a profound thinker or a great orator. What they're really appalled, and feel threatened, by is the growing influence she has over the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, who daily grow more determined to replace the prevailing culture of moral and political corruption with the kind of faith, honesty, initiative, resilience, and patriotism that Sarah Palin embodies. They know that she's one of "us," as her admirers everywhere stress, and it's an aware and aroused "us" that they fear most.

The elites' never-ending obsession with Sarah Palin, and their hysterical efforts to destroy her and blunt the movement she represents, are growing truly pathetic. For example, a full year after the general election and three years before the next one, the Associated Press assigned 11 reporters to "fact check" all 432 pages of her new book, Going Rogue: An American Life--although they'd done no fact-checking at all of books by Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Bill or Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama (AP was sharply criticized for the move by the Columbia Journalism Review). Newspaper editorial pages still sprout tired-sounding denunciations of her--usually by local Democrat politicos or assistant poli-sci professors--as "ignorant" and "divisive," whenever and wherever Mrs. Palin appears in public. On the one hand they airily dismiss her as a transparent fool who appeals only to a narrow, marginal class of "extremists." In the very next breath, they warn in dire tones that she's "dangerous" and that the "hateful" hosts she commands threaten to tear apart the very fabric of American society. But they long ago shot their bolt, and are now squirming helplessly because their calumnies have no more effect than water off a duck's back.

I love watching Sarah drive liberals and stuffed-shirt Republicans insane! I revel in their apoplexy as her popularity grows with every interview and whistle-stop (47 percent favorable in a recent Fox News poll) while President Obama's approval rating steadily falls (down to 49 percent in a recent Gallup poll). It warms my heart to contemplate their anxiety as she upsets the status quo, rewrites the political equation, and exposes the establishment elites for what they are. Mrs. Palin's detractors in the media/entertainment complex, academia, and "mainstream" politics are going to realize, if most of them haven't already, that their libel campaign has only made Sarah a martyr in the eyes of millions of Americans, and that they're alienating more and more of the very people whose votes they may need to stay in power.

In the end it doesn't really matter if she runs for or is elected President in 2012. If she helps bring legions of Americans into the camp of limited government, individual freedom, and traditional values, she'll have a positive impact far beyond that of a Presidential term or two. This is the real danger Mrs. Palin poses to the liberal establishment and their fellow-travelers. Right now she's turning legions of otherwise politically inactive people (i.e., those who haven't the time, resources, or inclination to be politically active) into a real, passionate, vocal grassroots movement. She gives them inspiration, hope, a symbol, a voice--and the determination to make that voice heard loudly in the halls of power. Who was the last conservative to do that?

For now, we can all bask in the friendly sunshine brought down here from Alaska by one classy hockey mom!


ONE MORE THING: I don't know what Newsweek thought they were pulling when they recently put on their cover a picture of Sarah Palin in modestly abbreviated running garb. Maybe they thought it made her look ridiculous. Sarah herself complained that it was "sexist." Well, Sarah, for once I have to part company with you--I thought it was flattering! You look young, feminine, fit, and all-American. Yet another attempted slam on you turned into a positive!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day: Last Post

Earlier I posted about the American observance of Veterans Day on November 11. The same date is known as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Like the original holiday here in America, it was established to commemorate the Armistice ending World War I and the servicemen who fought and fell in it. In contrast to our more casual observance of Veterans Day, however, Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion apparently participated in together by most people in the countryside, in villages and towns, and in the great cities of the Commonwealth. Church services, tolling bells, and moving ceremonies are held, which in London include the Queen and other members of the Royal family, military and civilian leaders, and especially veterans of all units and branches of service. Poppies (or pins resembling them) commemorating the fallen are commonplace (this tradition began in the USA in 1918 and was adopted in England in 1921--read the story here). Two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. ("the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month") are observed everywhere.

Watch a BBC video here of this past week's Remembrance ceremony at Whitehall in London, to see just how reverent an occasion this is!

Why can't we celebrate Veterans Day in America this way? Aside from the dignified pageantry of the Whitehall ceremonies, I'm most impressed with the way in which this day seems to be observed by the British (and other Commonwealth) people together, as a great family. There are certainly some who don't participate, but I sense that this day is much more prominent in the lives of most than is Veterans Day among Americans. Perhaps it's because the Great War, which prompted this day, is carved so much more deeply into the psyches of the British and Commonwealth peoples than ours has been etched by any conflict Americans have been part of since at least the Civil War (more than one million dead, over 2 percent of the entire British and Commonwealth population, in four short years). Just from what I've seen remotely through the Internet and otherwise, Britain seems to be crusted over with plaques memorializing those who fell in WWI and II. And how close Britain came to national extinction in WWII is still a vivid memory for millions of English men and women. We Americans can thank God that we haven't had to suffer quite so much loss, collectively, as have our brethren in Europe. But the "United" States could surely use a reverential national observance to bring us fully together as a people, if but for a day.

To this observer, the crowning moment of any Remembrance Day ceremony is the playing of the Last Post. Originally a bugle call used in British Army camps to signal the end of the day, the call is now used at Commonwealth military funerals and ceremonies commemorating those who have fallen in war. It thus has a similar origin and current use as Taps here in America. However, while Taps is very simple and becalming, Last Post is more complex and includes rousing as well as reverent passages. At the risk of indulging in too much of a good thing, I'm going to treat you to three renditions! The first is played crisply on a single bugle, with appropriate military tribute scenes.

The second version of Last Post is played in a slightly more stately fashion by the Royal Marine Buglers at the 2008 Remembrance service at Whitehall. This gives you a sense of the call's majesty when played by massed bugles as part of a most solemn ceremony.

There's quite a story behind the third rendition. Since 1928, Last Post has been played every evening at 8 p.m.--that's 365 days a year, rain or shine--by buglers of the local Last Post association at the war memorial at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, known as the Menin Gate. This is done to commemorate the British Empire dead at the Battle of Ypres during the First World War, and to express the gratitude of Ypres citizens towards those who gave their lives for Belgium's freedom. The only break in this tradition was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944, when the ceremony moved to Brookwood Cemetery in England. On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres during WWII, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, even though heavy fighting was still going on in other parts of the town. Here is one evening's performance, recorded in 2006:

MAGNIFICENT! The veterans of our British and ANZAC allies will indeed never be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Veterans Day: Mansions of the Lord

Wednesday, November 11 is Veterans Day in the United States, honoring all men and women who have served in our Armed Forces in peacetime and in all our wars. It was originally known as Armistice Day, commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I. In 1953, an Emporia, Kansas businessman named Al King launched a campaign to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans, not just those who served in World War I. A bill for changing the holiday to "Veterans Day" was passed by Congress, and President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law in 1954.

Though most if not all school children have the day off, I doubt many of them even know why. How many school assemblies will there be, featuring patriotic music and addresses by men and women in the armed forces explaining what they and their forbears bought for this country with their time, fortunes, blood, and lives? Some, perhaps, but not many. Also rare will be church services honoring our heroes in uniform, past, present, and future. Government offices will be closed, but most businesses remain open. Most workers won't notice what day it is unless they stop some store's "Veterans Day Sale" on the way home. Years ago aging veterans, probably most of World War II and Korea, used to sell commemorative poppy pins on street corners in downtown Rochester. They're probably all passed on now, or discouraged by people's indifference.

It's not quite this way in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries like Canada and Austrailia. As I'll explain in my next post, "Remembrance Day," as they call November 11, is a solemn occasion for most people. Church services and moving ceremonies are held in London and across the UK, which include the Queen, military and civilian leaders, and especially veterans of all units and branches of service. Poppies (or pins resembling them) commemorating the fallen are commonplace. Two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. ("the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month") are observed everywhere.

This is how Veterans Day should be observed in this country--universally, and with reverence. We do have Memorial Day in May, but that's officially devoted to those service members who died in war (and that holiday isn't taken much more seriously by most people than Veterans Day). Think how much we owe to everyone who has served in uniform, including those who came home and those on their way to posts all over the country and the world! How many returned service members, even those who haven't been wounded in battle, must deal with emotional or physical scars that may plague them all their lives? Think of all the separation, anxiety, and privation that military families endure to defend our country and civilization! We all owe them a debt that can never be repaid, except in respect and support.

Melany and I are both so proud to be children of veterans!--her father Charles D. Spendlove, of the United States Army, and mine John W. Fleming, of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Thank God both those wonderful men came home and were able to raise good families! Melany is especially lucky also to have a veteran brother, Michael D. Spendlove, of the United States Air Force.

So, sometime on Wednesday, ask yourself this: have I hugged a veteran today?

And now, a tribute to our veterans that brings home, more powerfully than anything else I've seen or heard, the awful sacrifices that our warriors and their families are called upon to make. The hymn is called Mansions of the Lord, as sung by the West Point Glee Club at the end of the great Vietnam War film We Were Soldiers. This hymn also served as the recessional in the 2004 funeral of President Ronald Reagan. The text follows the video below, and you can download the original music for free, in .mp3 format here.

I guarantee that you'll come away from this with teary eyes, and a deeper appreciation for what it means to serve our country.

The Mansions of the Lord
Words by Randall Wallace

To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord.

No more bleeding, no more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just divine embrace, eternal light
In the Mansions of the Lord.

Where no mothers cry and no children weep,
We will stand and guard though the angels sleep,
Oh through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord.

Below is the solo voice portion, an excerpt from "Sgt. MacKenzie" by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie, as sung in a Scottish dialect and with a "translation" to standard English:

Lay me doon in the caul caul groon
Whaur afore monie mair huv gaun
Lay me doon in the caul caul groon
Whaur afore monie mair huv gaun

Ains a year say a prayer faur me
Close yir een an remember me

Lay me down in the cold cold ground
Where before many more have gone
Lay me down in the cold cold ground
Where before many more have gone

Once a year say a prayer for me
Close your eyes and remember me

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Leaf Me A Lawn

Before the crisp, golden weeks of autumn merge into the cold, gray months of winter here in Western New York, a solemn ritual must be performed by almost every homeowner: the Raking of the Leaves. There are those in contempt of virtue who have turned it into the Blowing of the Leaves or the Mowing of the Leaves, but they aren't worthy of attention. The rest of us measure our manhood in barrels or bags filled, or tarpfuls hauled, and in this department at least I can stand with the best of any half-acre man. This year I got almost the entire job done in one weekend, thanks to the efforts of my lovely assistant Melany.

In the past, I could count on the "help" of my children: in their younger years, mostly to jump and roll around in my piles to make sure they didn't get too tall, and as teenagers to grumble and amaze me with their magical vanishing acts (which is why I have no photographic evidence of their help in those years).

(UPDATE: The picture of Colin (left) and Robert immediately above has been added so as not to exclude our beloved youngest son from our leaf-raking memories--the leaves around that swing certainly needed raking!)

Then the children left the nest and I faced this enormous task all by myself (except for the aforementioned efforts of my lovely assistant Melany). But this year, I had help from a new source: Frank the Tank, Greyhound Extraordinaire! Melany brought him outside where I was raking in the front yard; he took one look at the blue plastic tarp I was raking leaves onto, and knew in his heart that we had put it all there just for him. Into the pile he dove, thrashing about in delight, and flashed me a look that said, "Try to get me out of here and I'll bite your arm off."

So, we let him stay and even rubbed his belly as he rolled around in the leaves. Just like the children, he lost interest after a little while, and I was able to finish the front yard.

Today, Melany let Frank out in the back as I was dragging myself through the last part of The Struggle. He took one look at the small mountain range of leaf piles I had built up in the empty lot beside our house, and tore into them like a cannon ball--then jumped, rolled, and buried himself in them for a good five minutes before charging out again and shaking off the bits clinging to his coat. It was so hilarious, Melany decided that we should try to "videotape" the scene with our digital camera, if we could get Frank to do an encore performance. After calling my son in Buffalo to talk me through how to do this, we coaxed Frank back into the leaves. Of course, he now adopted a coolly indifferent air as you might expect from a teenager, and contented himself with burrowing into the nearest pile and letting us heap more leaves on him. Perhaps it was just as well that he didn't play about more vigorously, because one viewing this my very first video recording would think we were in the middle of a 9.5 magnitude earthquake at the time. I'll let you judge for yourself below, and enjoy the antics of our latest four-legged "child."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer

That's how it was for me returning from Florida on Monday. Well, how about two wings and quite a few prayers? As I said earlier, I hate to fly. On this trip, however, I found it a very mixed experience--and learned a few things that may help me cope with flying in the future.

While trying to eat breakfast about 6:45 a.m. and 30,000 feet above someplace between Rochester, NY and Atlanta, I spilled a drink onto myself and the passenger immediately to my right. In the process of frantically trying to clean us up with napkins and my handkerchief, my cap fell off into a puddle and I knocked my breakfast from the tray onto the floor. I amazed how well my fellow passenger took being doused. I didn't take it all nearly as well; after calming down I ruminated there in thirsty, hungry, humiliated silence, concluding that incorrigibly clumsy people like me should be forced to live in isolation booths where we can't harm others or ruin their day. In the Atlanta airport I had to take a subway train from my arrival gate to a departure gate several concourses away, dangling from a ceiling-mounted handstrap that would have been comfortable for someone 6+ feet tall (I'm barely 5 and a half feet). Between there and my gate a pushy Delta employee accosted me and tried to get me to fill out a survey form in exchange for a cheap plastic travel mug that said "Sky"--something on it, which almost caused me to be late for my connecting flight. But I did board in time, wondering what the next disaster would be.

From that point, though, my Florida adventure got steadily better. No problems between Atlanta and Jacksonville, and the visit with my family was GREAT! I hadn't seen my brother and his wife (who live in Norfolk) since they were married two and half years ago. I saw my parents and sister and her family (all of whom live in Jacksonville) this past April, but one can't get enough of their company--they're all such generous, fun-loving people! We had a tailgate party at my parents' house during the Florida-Georgia football game on Saturday, attended Mass and went out for breakfast Sunday morning, and had a cookout at my sister's that evening. In case you couldn't tell, eating--as well as joking around with each other--are our favorite family activities.

It was over all too soon, and I had to fly back to Rochester. No problems before or on the flight from Jacksonville to Atlanta; the seat beside mine was empty--that almost never happens anymore (or maybe my reputation as a spiller preceded me?). At the Atlanta airport I hung from the ceiling again on the subway and then schlepped myself and bags down to the farthest gate in the farthest concourse, as my ticket told me to do (in the process finding the answer to the ancient explorers' question, "What lies at the edge of the world?" -- "Gate T-10."). I had a well-deserved rest and a bit of lunch there before realizing, maybe 20 minutes before scheduled departure, that I still had that gate all to myself. Only when another confused-looking guy wandered in and looked up at an electronic sign over my head did I think to do so, whereupon I discovered that my departure gate had been moved several gates back up the concourse, without any other notice to me (you'd think that they could have announced that by loudspeaker, as they do incessantly for things you already know, like that you may not smoke in the airport). I was able to drag myself and stuff back down the concourse just in time to board the plane for Rochester.

This was where the flight experience began to take a positive turn for me. Up to this point I had spent most of my time in the air feeling lousy, as after the drink-spill fiasco, or in a semi-comatose state from tiredness. This time I was alert, but strangely relaxed. Perhaps it was because I now had a marvelous visit with my family to look back on, and had three-quarters of the flight business behind me. The plane was less crowded than before, and two small, impossibly cute, children were laughing and playing together nearby. The sun was drizzling gold on the puffy white clouds floating by outside my window, and I'd be back home soon. By and by I donned my iPod and put on a collection of hymns and classical pieces that I had added before my trip. As the plane sailed far above the earth, with the sweet strains of Nearer, My God, To Thee sounding in my ears, I felt an indescribable serenity within. Even when we encountered turbulence and the plane seemed to lose some altitude pretty quickly, I felt no fear--instead, I seemed to be held lovingly in God's arms, and knew assurance that whatever might happen would turn out happily. In my mind's eye I envisioned myself and my family soaring together like angels above and below the clouds, hand in hand, beholding the wonder of our Father's creation. For the first time in my life, I somewhat regretted the flight coming to an end. As a good old friend of mine commented on my previous "hate to fly" post, "you really are in the hands of the Maker! He carries you on eagles wings--metaphorically!" Amen.

Maybe I've conquered at least some of my anxiety about flying--or rather, have learned how to overcome it by putting my life in the Lord's hands. I wouldn't have grown in that way had I stayed snugly within my comfort zone. My next challenge will be to figure out how to cope with getting stranded, alone, in an airport far from home. I haven't actually had that experience yet (my children have, all too many times), but I think I fear it as much as being stranded in a tin can miles about the ground. I pray He'll find me in that hour of need, as well.

* * * * *

While we're on the subject of a Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, here's a delightful rendition of the World War Two song of that name (1943), by Harold Adamson and Jimmie McHugh) inspired by the true story of a heavily damaged B-17 limping back to base from a bombing run over Germany. The video is a great tribute to the thousands of men (boys, really) who flew into mortal danger in defense of civilization, and those who kept them in the air. They had a lot more to fear about flying than I do!

Monday, November 2, 2009

For All the Saints

I've returned whole from my brief jaunt to Florida, despite an occasionally harrowing airline experience (more on that in a coming post). One highlight of my visit was attending Mass with my family on All Saints Day (November 1). An excellent sermon on what it takes to become a "saint" was preceded by the rousing and inspirational hymn For All the Saints, with text published in 1864 by Will­iam W. How and music arranged by the great English composer Ralph Vaugh­an Will­iams. This work is a fitting tribute to all those--ancient and modern, prominent and obscure--who have labored long in service to God and fellow man. May we emulate their example.

The selection below features a beautiful rendition of this hymn, although the "video" is static, being a detail of the painting Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven by the 15th century master Fra Angelico. The great music is enough this time--I hope it arouses you as it did me! The text appears below the video.

(I know this is three hymns in a row, but I haven't had time enough lately for all the research and extended commentary that normally go into my more "news"-worthy posts. I hope to make that up soon!)

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!