Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bearing the burden

I got the news via e-mail. The son of a close friend and former navy colleague had been killed in action near Kandahar in Afghanistan. The stark message shattered my emotional defenses utterly. Gravity suddenly seemed overwhelmingly powerful. I put my head down on the desk as grief and memories washed through my mind and heart.

I remembered a little tow-headed boy running around at squadron picnics and softball games. A happy little boy, somehow in love with stock car racing at seven and filled to bursting with NASCAR facts, figures, names and places.

The little boy was 28 when he died. Twenty-eight? The juxtaposition of memory and reality rocked me with perspective. Twenty-eight with a wife and two young daughters. The sudden, savage grief I felt for a little boy of memory and a family I had never met was wrenching, to say the least.

I thought about the boy’s mother, who I served with on and off over a dozen or so years in the 1980’s and 1990’s. We were, and remain, great friends. I could scarcely imagine the shock and grief she and her family were experiencing. Years of closely held memories played across the big screen of my mind as a bittersweet admixture of joy and pain flowed through my heart.

Gradually I began to wonder about the power of my own shock and grief. I had fooled myself, I realized, into thinking I could shield myself emotionally from the consequences of our now decade-long war. During my time of active service I lost far too many friends and suffered more than my share of grief. I’d done my bit and had the medals and scars to prove it. I told myself that it was someone else’s turn. Intellectually I supported our fighting men and women and their mission absolutely. But emotionally – emotionally I would sit this one out. I’d done my part.

I raised my head from the desk. Hours had passed, night had come, my house was dark. I realized then the terrible truth. In attempting to shield myself from emotional pain, I had turned my heart away from my fellow warriors just when they needed me the most. It was an act of utter cowardice. The realization burned like fire.

Jumbled words from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address tumbled through my mind. I quickly pulled up the text of the speech on my computer.

“…We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights…to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship…to assure the survival and success of liberty.

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

“Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

in your hands...

summoned to give testimony...

to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…

I thought back to the sacred oath of service to country I took so many years ago, when I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, and that I would bear true faith and allegiance to the same. That oath, it occurred to me, had no expiration date. That I am not presently called on to fight is irrelevant. My sworn duty remains. I swore to bear true faith and allegiance to the constitution, to that founding document which explains in simple and majestic terms the idea of America. The idea I believe in with all my mind and heart, not because someone told me I must, but because I realized even as a young man the truth and the power of those words and in that idea.

Just as I had shamefully turned my heart from my fellow warriors, so too had I turned my heart from true faith and allegiance to America, turned my heart against my own sacred oath.

I had gone far off course, I realized, and I knew that the path of brutal self-honesty was the only way forward. Seeing and understanding the stark reality of my failure allowed me clearly see the path I must take to regain the road of true faith and allegiance and service to America. More Kennedy:

“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger…The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

 “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

 “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

 “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

One of the things I can do for my country – one of the many but perhaps one of the most important – is to turn my heart back to my fellow warriors and to this nation. To bear the burden of grief, to pay the price I swore to pay so many years ago. This I have done, and strangely, while my heart is heavy with grief, the fear which prompted me to hide in cowardice is gone. I have been summoned once again, as Kennedy put it, to give testimony to my national loyalty. I nearly failed the test, but in the end I did not fail.

There’s an old saying that when a man or woman joins the military, they are signing a blank check to the government for the amount of up to and including their life. This saying is essentially true, but in reality, they are signing those checks not to some nebulous “government,” but to me and you and every citizen of this nation. We’ve each of us been cashing those checks for the last decade. We are each of us faced with a choice, a choice no one can make for us. We can either bear the burden of cashing those checks or we can turn away from paying such a heavy price. But turning away comes with a cost, too. Freedom isn’t free. Not for any of us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chokecherry time

The chokecherries were ready. As I stood there on a shelf of rock above the bottom of the canyon and looked around, I saw hundreds – maybe thousands – of twisted, almost ratty-looking branches hanging heavy under the weight of fruit.

These wild, canyonland chokecherries are always a surprise to me. Their shrubby forms grow in the most improbable places – some are anchored in bare inches of soil layered over solid rock, and some, many of the best it seems, have sprouted directly from fissures in the bare rock.

In the dry years, the bushes produce only a few berries each, and these are quickly consumed by birds and deer and other wildlife. In the good years, however, years like 2011, their prolifity is astonishing.

At first glance, the bushes look anything but promising. They live in a tough neighborhood where the yearly arctic winds constantly try to scour them from the canyon. Few grow to more than five feet in height, and their stubby branches are sparse but substantial. In the spring their foliage is a deep, radiant green, but by chokecherry time the leaves have lost much of their color and are quickly fading to brown.

Western chokecherries (Prunus virginiana demissa) shine in the late summer sun on the EJE ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
In a year like this one, the wonder of the tangled, unattractive mass of bushes is the sheer volume of fruit clustered on those spare, twisted branches. Each cluster contains a dozen or so fat little berries, each about the size of a pea, and so darkly purple as to be black. At first you spy one or two clusters, but then, in that lovely bit of prairie magic, you look just a bit more closely, and dozens, hundreds, thousands of fruit clusters snap sharply into view.

The chokecherries on the EJE Ranch are likely a western variety of the chokecherry native to North America, possibly Prunus virginiana demissa. Western chokecherries are adapted to a more arid climate than their eastern counterpart, the bushes generally smaller in stature, and tolerate colder winter conditions. Their fruit is distinctively darker, and according to many, more sweet.

The name chokecherry is derived from the tannic, highly astringent taste of the ripe fruit. As I stood there on my rock shelf and contemplated the chore of picking and preserving, I reached out and plucked a fat, ripe berry from the nearest cluster and popped it in my mouth. My taste buds erupted with delight. Astringent – yes – but so very sweet. Probably the sweetest chokecherry I’d ever tasted.

To work, then. The sun was well up in the afternoon sky and the day was pleasantly warm with a slight northwest breeze. The breeze was welcome, because chokecherry picking can be sweaty work. It can be a bit hazardous, too, as wild canyonland chokecherries grow where the footing is often treacherous and where rattlesnakes prefer to live, among the sharply fractured siltstone of an actively eroding prairie canyon. An hour’s worth of picking yielded two gallons of chokecherries, and during that hour I moved less than 10 feet from my starting place. Buckets filled, I called it a day. Besides, I’d have helpers in a couple of days, two young ladies from the big city of Omaha who were excited about visiting the ranch and looking forward to some “country” experiences.

When the weekend arrived my helpers were primed and ready for some chokecherry picking. Grace, my niece, had visited the ranch many times but had never picked chokecherries. Myah, Grace’s friend from Omaha, had never picked “…any berries or cherries or anything.” She hastened to add that while she lives in Omaha, she’s not “city.” She’s visited a farm in Iowa many times.

 Myah smiles in the midst of a chokecherry thicket last weekend on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Being a bit more experienced, and with a bit less talking to do, I quickly filled my pail with dark, fat chokecherries. I climbed to the top of the canyon wall and found a good rock to perch on, then just watched the girls as they picked and gabbed away. They were clearly having fun and occasionally remembered to pick some fruit. As they moved back and forth among the uneven bushes I could hear their non-stop conversation, though I couldn’t make out any of the words. What do 11 year-old girls talk about, I wondered? None of my business, of course.

Grace (l) and Myah pick chokecherries last weekend on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
As I sat there in the warm sunshine and watched the girls and enjoyed the hint of breeze, my mind turned back to chokecherry picking when I was 11. I’d like to say it’s a great memory for me, but it’s not. I thought it was a crashing bore. Why not go to the store for jelly? But the memory is precious in another way – I was picking with my grandfather Wilbur, and neither of us knew how quickly the clock was ticking for him.

Tired, sweaty, covered in dust and leaves and cobwebs, the girls finally emerged from the canyon, pails brimming with chokecherries, faces glowing with big grins. Almost immediately Myah caught a small horned lizard and decided to take him home and make him a pet.

Together we harvested enough chokecherries to put up 32 pints of jelly, a not-inconsiderable accomplishment. The jelly is made and stored away now, and it’ll taste especially good on cold winter mornings – a taste of sweet, late-summer sunshine when the arctic winds are howling just outside the door.

But best of all, at least for me, will be the memory of precious time spent with two lovely young ladies as they enjoyed a chore that few youngsters get to experience these days.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Last year I was gathering a few cows that needed moving back north with the rest of the herd. I was working by myself on the four-wheeler. River was with me, though, so I wasn’t really by myself. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending…

The cows were bunched loosely in the northwest quarter of the pasture section, and I wanted to pen them in the corral down on the south side, so River and I got ‘em headed that way and enjoyed the day as we trailed along behind ‘em.

Soon enough we came to the drift fence and the cows ambled along toward the corral and started in through the west gate. They still had calves at their sides and were acting a little skittish. A half-dozen broke off at the gate and headed south and I quickly looked around for River. Nowhere to be found. Blast that dog! Probably off rolling in something dead, I thought. What’s the use of having a working dog if she’s never around when you need her?

I zipped around and steered the balky cows and calves back into the corral and got off the four-wheeler to shut the gate, satisfied with a job (the first part of it anyway) well done. It was then that I noticed River sitting there on the east side of the corral, guarding the open gate. The gate I remembered closing a few days before, and had (as usual) assumed to be still closed.

I smiled and shook my head. So much for the superiority of the highly developed brain. But hell, who needs to check the gates when you’ve got a fine working dog who knows more about what you’re doing than you do?

River helps move a bull on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Once river caught on to her job, when her grown-up herding instincts overcame her puppy-like chasing instincts and she started figuring out what moving cattle was all about, she became a valuable asset to the operation. She wasn’t perfect by any means, and sometimes she’d get too excited or put herself out of position or let a bull buffalo her.

She was also prone to sticking her face into a porcupine from time to time, and never seemed to learn the lesson, which always seemed a remarkably human trait to me.

But mostly she was a good solid working dog, filled with enthusiasm and energy, and if you took the time to watch her work you could learn a few things about moving cows.

River plays with a new puppy last autumn on the EJE ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
River whelped nine pups earlier this year, her first litter, and handled her new job with ease. The fat little puppies grew like weeds and were soon up and about, learning how to use their new bodies and new senses and busy exploring their new world.

River died last Friday. She was only five years old, and as full of life and energy as on the first day she came home. Then she was gone in an instant, leaving a surprisingly painful hole in our lives.

Being ranching folks, we’re able to put her loss in a reasonable perspective. We miss her and our grief is profound and real, yet we live close enough to the cycle of life to know that her life and our shared experiences were far more important than her passing. We’ll all make a similar journey one day, a fact which gives life its incredible beauty and sweetness.

River is gone but her very existence added a special richness to my life. She’ll live on in my mind, and in my mind’s eye, she’ll always be sitting in that open gate, holding a pen full of cattle, seemingly saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”