Mine was not to wonder why…

When I think back to my time in the United States Marine Corps, I recall a saying in boot camp when the day wasn’t going our way, “Ours is not to wonder why, ours is to do or die.”

I know now the words were borrowed and then gently mangled and altered from Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, published in 1854 regarding a key battle during the Crimean War.  Strangely enough, as with the original poem, for us the “to do or die” wasn’t melancholy or a death wish, it was merely a matter of fact relating to a sense of duty.

I never saw combat during my six years of service, so I have much greater appreciation for my brothers and sisters who served during war time.  And based on my perception, I haven’t always been comfortable acceptation the appreciation of people thanking me for my service.  As the years have piled up, I am getting better at it, but I still feel more comfortable thanking others.

The path to joining the military is rarely a straight line.  My guess is I was voted least likely to volunteer for service by a number of high school peers, but for others it was no surprise.

I’ve always had an inordinate amount of love for my country. Baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet was all me.  I was a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout, and I grew up in an era when saying the Pledge of Allegiance was said everyday before classes started at school.  My dream job throughout most of my first two decades on the planet was to be President of the United States.  History was my favorite subject and we certainly got a heavy dose of the U.S. narrative in my primary and secondary school years.  Since my family had few financial resources at the time, I considered a path to President for someone like me would require some military service.

However, as high school graduation grew near, my focus switched to education, in particular an eye on English for journalism skills or history for teaching skills.  After signing up for college, the very modest first semester bill in 1983 dollars was 550 bucks.  I had about four hundred in my bank account, which was quite a bit for me from working for my Dad.  I asked him about some college money help and the family accounts were in worse shape than mine.

That fateful graduation weekend, one of my classmates had signed up for the Corps.  And as any smart recruiter knows, where he can find one Marine, there could be more.  Staff Sergeant Swain showed up at my friend’s graduation party.  Beers, ah yes, back in the day of the 18-year old legal drinking age, and hot dogs on a sunny spring day in early June.  He wore his dress blues, and he hit a group of us with the “what’s next?” question.  I didn’t have a good answer.   He tossed me a business card, and by August 8th of that summer, he sold me on joining the finest military organization the world has ever seen.

In other words I had absolutely zero clue what I was in for.

The recruiting posters looked cool, my recruiter had an answer for every concern.  Sign up, go train for three months and attend a vocation school and just like that, I would be a Marine.

At four in the morning of October 10, 1983, my first sleepless training day, I was seriously questioning my decision.  As in, what in the literal Hell was I thinking?

This was after a flight from Denver to Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.  I was told it was a beautiful city, but I didn’t discover the city until decades later.  All I saw of San Diego was the dirt in front of my face.  We boarded the bus at the airport and as soon as the door closed, a Marine Corps Drill Instructor began to inform us about who our asses belonged to.  It was in a booming, command voice laced with finest curse words, and we all pretty much understood and believed completely he would stomp our guts out if we refused to comply.

Once we arrived at our destination a few moments later, we ran off the vehicle and onto the famous yellow painted footprints on the ground to transform us from a mob into our first formation.  And we had ten seconds to comply.  From there, it got a lot more interesting.  We marched into a warehouse, and were then required to ditch all of our civilian clothing into a box.  Standing naked in line for government issued underwear was not in the recruiting posters, but there I was.

Having my head shaved, I knew about that part, the shocker was to see the giant hair piles next to the chairs, no time for clean-up, time was of the essence.  Eventually, my newly issued seabag was full of clothes, and the box of my personal belongings went into storage for the duration of my stay. In those few hours, I wasn’t called Marine.  I was called just about every other bad name or nickname and some I hadn’t ever imagined.

Within a few weeks, a mere flick of a light switch moments before Reveille sounded, and 50 recruits from Platoon 3105 could be up, fully dressed, combat boots and all, inside of three minutes and in a perfect dress-right-dress formation.

Our Senior Drill Instructor was a dark green Marine Sergeant and still one of the humans I respect more than any other.  And by dark green, the USMC is all one color, green, we’re just different shades of green.  Yes, it is semantics, but a good way to ultimately think of the Corps, as one color.  It didn’t make racism vanish, it simply served as a reminder of the importance of the unity of the Corps when race issues flared up.

By the second phase of boot camp, we were occasionally called ‘recruits’ instead of many of the dirty words I would add to my salty vocabulary during my time of service.  I learned how to assemble, take apart and reassemble my M-16 rifle.  I learned how to fire it accurately from 500 yards away.  I learned how to shoot a .45 pistol, and threw live hand grenades.  Then on to live fire exercises, night time tracer round fire, patrols and marching up steep hills with 80-pounds of gear on our backs.  I learned just how awesome the firepower is of a single Marine Corps squad.  It was brutal, but then again, it was getting to be kind of fun.

By the end of the three month span, I had missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.  I understand other branches of the military allow for time off during their initial training.  For us, one of our favorite USMC among acronym adjustments was ‘U-Suckers-Missed-Christmas’.  Another all time favorite of mine was Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children.

There really is something inherently misguided to go through what Marines choose to go through.  The crazy bond that begins in boot camp, continues on to the next job, and I imagine the next war, next battle, next horrifying experience.

I didn’t see combat, but was always certainly ready to go.  Peacetime war-games were silly, and most of us enjoyed mocking the process.  They were more like sleep deprivation drills and cold field showers.  But earning that title of U.S. Marine certainly gained a brotherhood that has had my back since the day I signed up.

The hardcore mentality of the Corps invites a number of challenges from civilians who love to find out how tough Marines ‘really’ are.  One night out on the town, I was hanging with a buddy and five drunk kids decided they were going to teach us something.  Instead, a group of Marines from across the bar, guys I had never met or seen before, escorted our new friends outside of the establishment.

There were a few of those cliche off duty violent moments that I don’t recommend, yet somehow added valuable life experience.  Including what places not to go, what not to drink and adding diplomacy to some conflicts is actually a real option.

I’ve avoided legal trouble twice, due to the fact I was a Marine.  As someone in military intelligence (yes, yes, everyone’s favorite oxymoron), a single arrest, regardless of the outcome would result in me losing my job.  Instead, I was given some lovable extra chances due to working for Uncle Sam.

Being a Marine is now a part of my DNA.  I grumbled and complained about the hurry up and wait world, bad chow and sleepless nights, but I ultimately loved my time in uniform.  To quote a line from the violent war film Fury, “Best damn job I’ve ever had.”

My time in was during relative peace. I’ve never been more proud of the current volunteers who become Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, as the world is far more dangerous than ever before. Good people continue to step up, sign up and serve.  The Veterans Administration is unable to get close to serving the physical and mental needs of our combat wounded, the suicide rate for veterans is 22-per day or one every 65 minutes.  If you are a Vet who is struggling in any way or you know of one in trouble, please contact Veterans Crisis Line.

I’ll always be grateful when people thank me for my time in service, it was something I think I was born to do. My heroes are the wartime and career service members, like my brother Jeff, a U.S. Army, Iraq War veteran.  Hug them all if you can, or remember them well this Veteran’s Day.

The Genius of Charles M. Schulz

I love art.

And I really love art that makes us think.   After watching the new Peanuts movie over the weekend, I was reminded of all the little things I enjoyed during my life of reading the five decades of comic strips created by Charles Schulz.

Really good art reflects something of ourselves when we see it.  In the adventures of children and their dog, a number of complex ideas were thrown at the audience on a daily basis in a very innocent and simple looking format.  The kids hated homework, Mondays and being told what to do, but they also dealt with failure, depression and overcoming adversity.

The genius of Mr. Schulz is, the topics were realistic enough and at times escapist enough that people could take from Peanuts whatever they needed.  If you were having a bad day, and Charlie Brown just had the literal football pulled away from him again, you could relate to that.  Conversely, on a good day and you saw Snoopy doing his happy dance, it certainly added a smile to your face.

What I found fascinating when I went to read reviews about the new movie with all the classic characters jumping around in 3D computer animation, is not everyone likes the Snoopy happy dance, or Snoopy in general?

That’s a tough planet.  Who could possibly have a problem with Snoopy?

Apparently, for some hardcore Peanuts fans, the dog with the imagination ruins the chemistry of the ensemble cast of kids dealing with more realistic human drama.  So even a comic strip runs into the difficulty of being just one flavor to entertain a specific group of readers.

The beauty of the comic strip is it could be all things to all readers.  If you’re a glass half empty pessimist, and I’ve been there too — then the kite eating tree is a key element to that world.  A tree that destroys the potential happy kites of Charlie Brown.  However, if you’re a bright eyed optimist, you cheer for Chuck each and every time he is determined to try and fly that kite again, no matter how many times the tree wins.

When I was younger, the blahs an blue sad days for the kids, or a good Schroeder eye roll when Lucy was leaning in on his toy piano was my favorite stuff.  The bad advice from Lucy for a nickel when you wanted a solution.  The general apathy that can be found in the mundane cycles of working and living was found in those nooks and crannies in between panels of Peanuts adventures.

However, some level of wisdom kicked in during my aging process and the joy of following Snoopy guide Woodstock and friends on a scouting adventure, the happy dance, the next great “Dark and stormy night” story or a duel with the undefeated Red Baron reflected my growing optimism for each and every day.

Beyond the excellent comic strip, the animated features and the newest film, I find the balance of struggle and overcoming adversity more fun than ever.  And to ‘hear’ Snoopy laugh on the big screen, well, it makes my day.

I absolutely considered Charlie Brown a loser at one point.  I didn’t mock the poor kid, I just felt bad for him because he was a loser.  And the new film beautifully destroys that ancient sentiment I had for a long time.  Charlie Brown is us.  More stuff goes wrong than goes right, but he still reaches for the baseball, the kite, and tries one more time to kick that damn football.  A lesser being, real or imagined, would likely give up at some point.  Not our guy.  Chuck Brown never surrenders, never stops trying and holds on to hope in the most amazing and defiant ways.

And if Snoopy gets to have most of the fun, don’t forget, it doesn’t always work for Snoopy either.  The Red Baron generally gets the best of the beagle.  The thoughtful dog helps the kids and his best pal Woodstock every chance he gets, imagines great adventures and again, gets to be the happiest one in the strip.  I’ve met dogs almost as smart as Snoopy, I don’t thing the Flying Ace destroys the realism of the disappointments the other characters face – he is the escapist option we all have on a tough day.  We can daydream, dance with birds or run at full speed and try to pull the blanket away from Linus.  Joe Cool is on the case. Better yet, let’s fire up the Sopwith Camel and take to the skies.

There is genius in the simple line work of the artist, Charles M. Schulz.  From his pencil and pen to our hearts, we can see it in those kids experiencing unpleasant setbacks adults understand all too well.  The genius is how it reaches so many humans in so many different ways.

Ultimately, if you’re having a bit of a blue Monday, perhaps the the pragmatic Lucy van Pelt may assist you from her Psychiatric Advice booth, “Snap out of it!”

Good grief, she may be on to something.

Or not.

But at least it only cost us a nickel.

Best Day Ever in the Underwear Department

So one of the coolest moments in my existence was also the most awkward.

I met one of my childhood sports heroes.  And I met him in the underwear sales section of a department store.

Wait.

We’re going to need some context. And maybe a robe or something.

First, the who. The best pitcher in the history of baseball is Jim Palmer.  He had 268 career wins, a lifetime ERA 0f 2.86, first ballot Hall-of-Famer with 92.6 percent of the vote, 6-time American League All-Star, four Gold Gloves, eight 20-game winning seasons,  THREE time CY Young Award winner (finished second in the voting twice and third once as well), and THREE times a World Champion with the Baltimore Orioles.

The other who in this story is me, of course. Born in Maryland wearing an Orioles T-Shirt.  It is a medical miracle to jump out of the womb wearing clothes.  Superman had that famous red blanket he turned into his cape.  My superpower was fandom.  A gift of Orioles fandom handed down from my grandfather.  I use my powers, primarily for good, unless it involves the Yankees.  I get pretty nasty when the pinstripes of the evil empire are near.

Mr. Palmer made his Major League debut 10-days before my orange clad birth.  We’ve been pals from afar ever since.  Well, not much contact beyond that magical meeting, but I do get to see his broadcast work on television, via the the unique powers of satellite technology.

On a visit back to Maryland to visit family, I got to see him pitch at the venerable Memorial Stadium against the Bosox.  My Birds lost 1-0, the only run a sacrifice fly by the Yaz, aka Carl Yastrzemski.  Another weird day of no run support for the future Hall of Famer, but it was still glorious to see my pal pitching extremely well.

Our one and only meeting happened by chance.  Pure luck.  I was attending college classes in downtown Denver after some active duty time in the Marine Corps.  I don’t recall the exact day, but it was a whirlwind of activity.  I was standing in line for lunch on campus.  I happened to be wearing an Orioles replica jersey, nylon with no number on the back, and honestly, not one of my favorite bits of Bird clothing.

Suddenly a voice from behind me said, “So, you going to the signing?”

I looked at this stranger and replied, “What signing?”

“Jim Palmer. Downtown.”

“When?”

He glanced at his watch. About an hour.  You better hurry, it is only supposed to last two hours.”

“Wow, I had no idea, thanks man!”

I sure should have known about it.  There was little time to punish myself for ignorance, I had to hustle.  Yes, I own a Jim Palmer rookie card, but no, it wasn’t on me.  I probably should have done the Bob Costas thing and always had my favorite player card in my pocket all the time.  Again, not much time to prepare.

Next up was skipping lunch and ditching my next two scheduled classes.  That was an easy call.  The next thing was walking about a mile downtown to the department store.  The good thing about department stores in the 80’s is they had everything.  I went to the sports department and bought a baseball.

I then asked the cashier where the signing was.  It was not in the sports department.  He handed me a flyer.  It was a black and white photo of an athletic dude standing with just a smile and his underwear.  Oh that. The Jockey underwear campaign.  It was kind of a big deal for the time, the ad was in every magazine and on billboards everywhere.

Hey, the guy has got bills to pay, right?

I pushed beyond the inherent weirdness of walking around with a photo of a near naked man.  Truth be told I ditched the flyer, I didn’t need that signed.  I was on a greater mission.

I got upstairs, but could not get near the underwear department, the line went on as far as I could see into the men’s section of unmentionables.  And the line was well over 100 women who were happy and giggling.  There were a few of us male baseball fans, but it was clear we were out of our league.

Some of the women were dressed to the nines, they were going all out to meet my pal.  I noticed a couple baseball fans about ten women behind me.  A father and son going through a huge pile of baseball cards, deciding which ones to get signed. I politely asked the woman behind me if she could hold my place in line for a moment.  She agreed, and I asked the tandem if I could buy a few baseball cards from them.  All I had was three bucks, but they were cool, and gave me a few cards and essentially took the rest of my lunch money.

The line moved slowly, but eventually the world’s greatest pitcher came into view.  I could tell, even for a fairly famous dude, the attention he was getting was a little overwhelming.  How overwhelming? He was very happy to see me, even in the ugly nylon jersey.

And thank the heavens, to the disappoint of many of the women in line, they allowed him to be fully clothed for the promotion.

“An Orioles fan, then?” he checked.

“Born that way, Sir,” was my happy retort.

“It is really nice to see some actual baseball fans today.” He glanced left and right, and added, “Crazy, huh?”

“Very crazy,” I replied.  “I don’t care that it took this particular campaign for a chance to meet you. Thanks for all the hard work and all the great wins.”

He signed the brand new baseball, and the random baseball cards.

“You’re welcome, have a good day,'” said my hero, Jim Palmer, best baseball pitcher, ever.

Good day? No Sir, it was great.  It was one of the best days ever.  There were fate questions that needed to be answered.  Yes, I had a lot of non-Oriole clothing, but why was I wearing my jersey that day?  Who was the mysterious stranger informing me of the signing?  There are only about five O’s fans out here. How does an Orioles pitcher land in Colorado a mile from college?

Orioles Magic, maybe? Or underwear glory taken to new heights?

I’ll never have all of the answers, but I certainly realize it was the best day ever in the underwear department.

The Butterfly Kid

I loved coaching kids.  In all I think it was about 25 teams over a 20-year span, primarily football and basketball in both Colorado and Wyoming.

It wasn’t completely altruistic in giving back to the communities who took me in as one of their own.  The joy of building something from nothing, watching someone’s eyes light up when they learn and overcoming adversity as a team is about as fun as it gets.  I was thanked a bunch for volunteering my time for free, yet I’m still grateful for the vast majority of those moments.

Several of the kids I coached ended up in college athletics and one made it to the National Football League – but there is catch, I coached him in hoops, not on the gridiron.  He was a force of nature, no amount of coaching credit could have blocked his path.  That and no could ever block him one on one.

I think I can also blame my own little league experiences.  I was fortunate to grow up in an era before kids had to start specializing at five years old.  I didn’t have to pick one sport to play all year long.  I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track and cross country, intramural volleyball, softball, flag football, wrestling, golf lessons as a teen and a forced assignment to a swim team to learn how to swim.

I was always competitive, and a will to win without a lot of natural, speed, size or agility.  Slow and small are a bad combination for my very favorite sport of football.  Lucky me, I was in a very small town and with only 14-15 kids on the roster, I had the opportunity to play nearly every play at just about every position in two seasons.  And the league we were in was overwhelmingly unfair, as most of the teams we played had at least two times as many kids, it was often three times the size of our roster.

League play become a fascinating baptism of fire, getting run over by bigger, faster kids on a routine basis.  The cool part was, our little crew never surrendered.  We would find ways to score.  We had to get creative to make some plays.  I learned quite a bit about myself and life overall facing such odds and two losing seasons.

The happy memories from those lopsided losses made my initial decision to coach pretty easy.  Those memories and my five year run of youth football ended my sophomore year in high school.  I had moved to a much bigger football town. That size and speed thing caught up with me the day I looked over the depth chart, five name deep at each position and I wasn’t on the list.

Those who recall the youthful me, whining was something I was also very good at. I loudly lamented missing the gridiron, and one of my pals told me to go help his dad’s little league team as an assistant coach.  So I did.  And it was a blast.

So I did it again.  After a couple years of military active duty service kept me away from the fields, I returned as a head coach or as a co-head coach with that same pal, Steve, who gave me the gentle shove into coaching.  We developed a pretty good two-coach system where I mostly led the defense and he the offense, with each of us offering help to the other with plays and formations that didn’t work for us.

Our first couple years reminded me a lot of my own little league days.  We had small, but brave teams that got run over a lot.  Great kids, great times, just not enough experience or talent – sidelines included.

We also made some team policies that the kids really seemed to appreciate.  Every kid, regardless of skill had a starting position.  With a roster of 16-20 kids it was easy to set up, and every player had a stake in the fate of each game.  It wasn’t always easy to find a spot for everyone, we had some players who felt like they had better things to do.

Kind of like one of my all time favorites, The Butterfly Kid.  As all things placed on the Internet seem to be on here forever, I’ll leave out his real name, in case he doesn’t like the designation.

Practice started in August with summer in full swing, and as such, there can be distractions.  In the middle of an intense tackling drill, a voice chimed in over the sound of crunching shoulder pads and helmets.

“Hey, look coach, a butterfly!”

And he was right, there was an awesome looking butterfly right there, and the team stopped to observe for a brief moment.  Coach Steve diplomaticaly agreed with the observation and it certainly wasn’t an offense worthy of taking a lap.  We just knew at that moment we were going to have a problem finding our happy go lucky Butterfly Kid a starting position.

It was our best team so far too.  We had a great running back, a decent line, and we did a nice job of adapting the Ace back offense of the Washington Redskins of the time, a system they built around John Riggins, for those hardcore fans in the audience.

Ultimately, we found a spot for our Butterfly Kid on defense.  We placed him at the cornerback spot.  In a run first league, there were not a ton of passes for him to cover, but he loved the position.  He asked questions.  He asked us if he was in the right place at the right time.  He was learning faster than we realized.

Of course we had rivals in our league.  In particular, there was another coaching tandem who considered me and Steve far too young to be coaching football.  This was my third season.  I was 21-years old at the time, and of course, I still knew everything.  So did Steve at that same age.  Those old dudes can go screw themselves was our unified response to their criticism.

Then they absolutely schooled us and thrashed us in league play.  They noticed our weaknesses in the secondary and passed for a couple scores on the way to handing us our worst loss of the season.  Maybe the old dudes were on to something.

We got better.  We recovered.  The kids were resilient.  And we saw our rivals once again in the semi-finals of the playoffs.  Normally, we simply wanted our kids to play their best and whatever happened, happened.   This was really the first time we wanted to thump somebody.  We did our homework, we adjusted our game plan and it was an amazingly competitive game.

Late in the game, holding on to a precarious lead, our foes looked once more to the sky with their passing game and began driving down the field.  In a tense moment, in the key play of our season, a little kid of ours intercepted the ball, ran it back ten yards and sealed our victory and a berth in the championship game.

Crooked helmet and all, we could see his smile from thirty yards away.  The Butterfly Kid saved the day.  And it was the same smile that discovered that butterfly, but watching how happy he was to contribute to the win is worth it all and still makes my heart swell to this day.

Ultimately, if a coach is doing it right, it is for those moments when kids feel good about learning and doing something cool.  In a win or a loss.  A good block, or a good tackle, or the glorious game winning interception from a kid who wasn’t much interested in catching a football to begin the season.

We didn’t coach for the appreciation, although it was always nice to run into players years later to discover we made a positive impact on their lives.  Ego is always in play, so we did enjoy winning more than losing, but it was really for the kids who had the most to learn and wanted to play the game.

As it turns out, every player should have a starting spot, because every roster potentially has a big hearted Butterfly Kid waiting in the wings.

All-Time All-Pro Grandfather

Not me.

Technically, I’m mathematically eligible to hit the grandfather zone.  My brother is already and one of my good pals has the grandpa thing down cold.

But I am at a point in life when I’m flat out amazed of the influence on my existence based on one incredible grandfather, the artist formally known as Myers Steele Hastings.  More specifically Granpop.  I think it is an east coast distinction.  One set of grandparents are Mommom and Poppop and the others win the the Grandmom and Grandpop distinction.  I’m not sure I ever enunciated the ‘d’ so Gran’pop was his official pronounced title.

If Myers Steele sounds like two last names, you would be right.  He was named after the two doctors who delivered him into the world.  The Hastings family on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has been around since the 1700’s, and they even featured in James Michener’s book Chesapeake.  Yes, a book of historical fiction, but based on some real folks.  All farmers in the Hastings family, so no super famous outlaws or politicians on my Mom’s side of the family tree.

However, if you’re on the Eastern Shore and you see billboards advertising for Hastings Farms, that is a distant cousin or two making money.  Tell them I sent you, so they can look at you funny about a tractor rental.

Anyway, a lot of us in the world have fun grandfather stories.

Mine was from that generation of people who could do anything.  They grew their own food, sewed their own clothes, built their own houses, repaired their own cars, rode horses and other cool things I like to read about as a modern spoiled brat.

How cool was Gran’pop?

I hit him in the head with a baseball bat and he didn’t flinch cool.

Yeah.  I did that.

Don’t go just yet.  I didn’t mean to hit him in the head so hard the bruise started bleeding.  He kind of volunteered for it.  Not the bash on the noggin, but he signed up to be my baseball coach.  My Mom had yet to meet my future step-Dad, and we were living with my grandparents in Colorado at the time.

Which was another amazing thing, my grandmother up and moved to Colorado and Gran’pop followed along and started life over at the age of 50 in a new state way far away from eight generations of Maryland life.

Anyway, Gran’pop had raised his three kids and now he had a pile of four screaming boys — well, three screaming younger brothers of mine and me.  I didn’t scream so much.  But I wanted to on that fateful day of baseball practice.

If you know anything about me, I love baseball.  Thanks to Granpop, who was a long time umpire and fan of the game.  He took over as coach of my team when no other parent stepped up to do the job.  He coached us for two seasons, and he did a great job with the tiny team in competition against much bigger towns.

His worst player?  Me.

I could field several positions really well.  I ran the bases like the wind.  However, I couldn’t hit a curveball to save my life.  Once the other team knows that, they only throw you curveballs.  I had a decent eye at the plate, I led the team in walks and stolen bases.  But the hits just didn’t happen.

One day in practice, I was stepping out of the batter’s box with my back foot.  In my mind, I was setting up to hit to the opposite field, but Granpop determined that move was killing my chance to get the bat on the ball.  He told me, I tried to mentally adjust, but the bad habit kept happening.  He set up as the catcher and with his left hand, he held my foot in.

I swung as hard as Babe Ruth going for the fences.  I missed the ball, and cracked Granpop on the skull.  The sound was horrifying, and the little kid in me immediately reached toward the wound.  He simply pointed me back toward the pitching mound for more swings.  I got a couple practice hits.  And I apologized a few dozen times on the ride home.  He took the blame, but I felt really bad.  At least until that Saturday when I hit a double back up the middle.

The next batter on my team hit a single and I scored from second base.  The look of pride on a grandfather’s face as I ran by toward home plate, his expression complete with a band-aid on his healing head, is something that stays with a kid forever.

Raising grandkids on the side, working his way from nightshift supervisor to Postmaster inside of five years is one thing after a life of farming.  But taking the time to coach me in our favorite sport, that is special beyond my ability to express.

I miss holding the hammer or other tools he would need next when building something.  I miss talking baseball with him, although I still tell him the scores when our Orioles win.  I miss playing chess against him.  He never let me win, and made me a much better player.  I miss watching John Wayne movies with him.  Like all of the John Wayne movies.

Ultimately, I’m a better person for knowing him and that makes life better now.  Passing on the echo of the laughter he shared, the pure joy he routinely expressed and going above and beyond for people you care about makes for a pretty good example.

Thanks to my all-time, all-pro Grandfather, Mr. Myers Steele Hastings.

Stuck in the Middle With You

Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.

Ah, yes. Lyrics from the the classic old tune by Stealers Wheel.  I used to sing it out loud during especially frustrating moments at various jobs through life.  And then these same words washed over me the other night watching current political news the other night.  I’m sure I’ve lost some of you right after the last sentence.  Politics is already dominating the daily news fourteen months in advance of the next Presidential election.

And, I generally avoid the major elements of political discourse here.  But honest writers understand their perceptions of the world enter into any creation, including the freak show that modern American elections have become.  Fictional character interactions are sometimes less entertaining than the actual words emanating from today’s politicians.

However, today is an opportunity to change the focal points.  After all, today is September 11 and most of us will take at least a little time to reflect and remember the same day from 2001.  It may be more important than ever before to maintain the memory of those lost during that horrifying day.  And not merely to honor those who fell, but to recall how unified we all were after the literal dust settled at ground zero.

I had never been to New York City before, however, this summer I was able to travel there twice.  The first trip was a few days to try and absorb the scale and scope of the amazing city that never sleeps.  My wife mentioned the 9/11 Memorial and museum, but I shook off the suggestion like an unhappy pitcher atop the mound in a key baseball game.  I didn’t think I was ready to review the devastation of that day.  Fate would return us back a month later and this time I thought it important to try to go.

Improperly dressed for the rainy weather, we stood outside the museum getting cold and wet, waiting for our chance to get inside.  A complete stranger witnessed my miserably drenched visage and he pushed his umbrella in my direction to give me a brief respite from the downpour.  I must have appeared surprised, and he merely smiled and said, “It looked like you could use it more than me.”

A random act of kindness I very much appreciated just before we moved inside.  The remnants of the twin towers offered shelter from the storm, while preserving the powerful memories of the tragedy.  I held up fairly well moving from piece to piece, haunting photos, and reminders of what happened there.  At least until I stood before the hull of a destroyed NYFD fire truck.  “Ladder 3” was painted across what was left of the vehicle after the buildings fell.  At that point, it was if a piece of those buildings emotionally fell on me.  It hit me that none of the heroes from that fire truck survived the day.  And a former Marine cried among strangers, unable to take my eyes away from the truck.

It was sad and amazing all at the same time.

The important visit reminded how sad and amazing the entirety of our country was in the days that followed.  There was no extreme political left or political right, or blue or red states it was just us.  Us united as one, to rebuild, to restore and, yes to revenge as well.

Those random acts of kindness and the feeling of unity was the reaction to sadness of those attacks against us.  And I would hate to think another massive tragedy is what it would take to bring us back to the middle again, but it does feel like.

Most of us are the middle most days.  If we consider the vast majority of issues we agree on, such as education, jobs, safety, wellness, freedom, roads, travel, national parks — all things we tend to enjoy together.  Clean air should be one we agree on, but not always.  Laws we like, but it seems like some reform there could be helpful to reduce some of the swelling prison population.  It is a world record we shouldn’t have.  The extreme elements of society then appear to be focused on just a handful of issues – women’s health/right to choose, the death penalty, guns and the definition of religious freedom (i.e., freedom of religion or freedom from religion).

The great political wedge, focused intently on by left and right media is what makes it tough to turn on the radio or television.  Fear sells.  It sells tickets, books, commercials and fear flies off the charts among political machinations.  Fear of losing jobs, rights, retirement funding — it is all about what the opposite “side” will take away from you.  Fear is for sale in the U.S. of A. and business is frighteningly good.

For those of us who silently suffer in the middle, we know better.  We know the differences can go away in a moment.  We know we all share more in common than the handful of divisive issues that are constantly thrown in our face.  We know it is possible to both support the vast majority of amazing police officers and be against acts of police violence.  History tells us we’re a nation of immigrants and there are reasonable solutions to help people find a legal path to join us.

Common sense should replace fear in the media and the political stage.  That’s my crazy dream.  No grand speeches here, folks can either be kind or cruel. Understanding or indifferent.  I kind of like the dude with the umbrella that day in the rain myself.  I’m aiming to be more like him.  I’m happily stuck in the political middle with most of you.  I’d much rather us find united once again without an attack on our soil, but until that day then:

Clowns to the left,  jokers to right, here I am…

I’m not Batman, but I could be Eggman…

The first comic books I flipped through were around the age of five.

Richie Rich, Archie, Sad Sack, Uncle Scrooge were among some of those first four color titles that added to the world of being a kid and showing off some early reading skills.  The stories were colorful, the art was fun and who wouldn’t want to dive into huge piles of gold coins in Uncle Scrooge’s money vault?

At that point I understood the nickname funny-books and why some folks referenced comic books that way.  When I was eight, my family was a world away in South Korea, and comic books were very much a slice of Americana.  No television set in that house, and so I read some superhero comics to my little brother.  Superman, Action Comics, the Amazing Spider-Man and an occasional Batman, Detective Comics or Marvel Team-Up among the reading choices during my six months there.  My little brother, who couldn’t quite read yet, demanded these adventures be read aloud.

It was no bother, I really enjoyed reading comics to my brother.  It added to the few children’s books we brought with us and whatever stories I could make up to entertain when the lights were out.  Which was quite often in Korea in the early 1970’s.

His favorite was Spider-Man and I understood why.  The stories were truly written for all ages then, so adults could enjoy the subtle complexity as much as younger readers. Some of the stories were actually quite dark.  As with Amazing Spider-Man #121 when Spider-Man’s girlfriend dies in the arms of the hero trying to save her.  Too much drama is what many modern parents would contend, but real life is always harsher than our fiction.

They were powerful stories.  And they really stayed with us, as there were consequences for decisions characters would make, unlike the dumbed down all ages material kids are exposed to these days.  But as writer Peter David might say, but I digress.

Batman comics of the 70’s returned the character to the darker, back alley tales of his Golden Age origins, pushing away from the campy POW, BANG, BOOM days of the wacky, but fun television version of the Dark Knight.  Some of those Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams classics continue to haunt the edges of my consciousness.  Good stories, great art and a healthy reminder, even the superheroes can’t fix everything.  We all have to make good choices to make life better.

An evil step-dad of the day threw all of those adventures away into the trash, just as we were set to return home to states.  The books were gone, yet, the imagination continued to thrive.  I wrote and drew my own comics for a time.  And then that one neighbor kid moved in behind my grandmother.  The kind of kid who likes a lot of stuff you like, the one you could talk sports, or bad teachers or even comic books all day long.  It was like winning the neighbor kid lottery.

Our families were fairly strict, so not a lot of goof off time, other than being allowed to hang by the fence and talk, once our homework and chores were done.  I knew he liked comics, I didn’t know he had a room full of them.  One day he handed me a comic sans the cover in between the chain links. Because the book lost the cover, he had no need of it.  It was a copy of Thor #258.

A life changer.

I’ll grant the story was not exactly Shakespeare, but no one need apologize for it.  In essence, the protagonist was on a mission to find his lost father.  Along the way, he is attacked by a base villain who threatens to kill his beloved if he does not comply.  We’re not talking about a regular comic or standard back alley brawl.  It is on a ship, in deep space, and the caption of the Viking boat is the Norse god of thunder.  Of course, Thor could make short work of the bad guy, in this case, the Grey Gargoyle, who turns his foes to stone — but no harm to his gal or his crew and he would surrender. That was a book displaying absolutely anything can happen in the space of 22-pages.

That was it.  A standard cliffhanger comic book ending, that would leave the audience begging for answers in a mere 30-days.  Of course, my next door comic guru did not have the follow-up issue or any of those life or death answers.  Luckily, my aunt and my mom took me birthday shopping a few days later and we discovered a specialty comic book shop in Boulder, Colorado.  Mile High Comics.

Crammed into that tiny retail space were thousands of comics, books, graphic novels, posters and well, let us just call it what it was, a slice of heaven on earth.

Oh, I found my answers, and a pile of Thor adventures, and the Avengers, the Justice League of America, Green Lantern and X-Men, oh my.  I was 12 at the time and life was instantly made better.

I returned to making comics, but my neighbor pal wanted in on the deal, so the partnership was called R&D Comics.  The letters simply representing Rob and Don.  But we made a cool logo and went to town telling stories and drawing them out on paper.  Our little brothers jumped on the creative bandwagon.  However, we are talking ‘little’ brothers here, so clearly their inventions could  not be as ‘cool’.

I returned my first ever character I made, Eggman, and I brought him back to life for R&D Comics. My invention was inspired by a number of existing heroes.  An alien, in a giant egg shell – which acted a lot like a turtle shell for protection, who had to travel to earth with no place to go.  Top that with a utility belt of specialized eggs, like force field eggs, explosive eggs, net trap eggs, etc., and you have hero who could hold off both Batman and Superman at the same time.

Yes, I understand other people have created their own versions of Eggman over the years, but mine was first drawn in 1972, my brother may still have the poster as proof of my very cool.  He used a science fiction like projector technology to make himself look human, so he could work and walk among us.  If the projection system was bumped too hard, it would scramble (get it, scramble) his appearance and give away his secret identity.  He had several close calls.

I had a society of superheroes he hung out with, Birdman (not the Michael Keaton one), Lightning Bolt, and Solarr (two r’s for the cool) among others, teaming up to save the world as needed.  Eggman’s arch enemy you ask?  Humpty Dumpty.  He did get put back together again, but when he was reassembled, he wasn’t right in the head.  He was kind of scary.  Humpty creeped me out.

All this imagination and creativity from reading a few funny books.

I collected for many years, loved the adventures, the incredible art and then started to look at the amazing talent creating all of those stories.  I wrote for a couple fanzines, interviewed some of those writers, artists and editors.  I went so far as to generate an online revival for The Comic Reader magazine for a year or so.  The hardcopy magazine was supposed to follow along with the online work, but it blew up on the launchpad with three issues in the can.  It was around the time of all the dot.com bubble bursting, including Stan Lee media, and the investors my business partner found had run away.  Not quite as sad as the death of Gwen Stacy, but it hurt a bunch to not be a part of celebrating the comic book art form.

So, I did what a lot of folks do who love comics; I hung around a comic store so much, they hired me to work there.  Then I bought in as a partner a few years later.  There was no money in it then, actually quite the opposite, but love of the game goes a very long way.  The store lives on, and even makes money for my former partners in crime, in Northglenn, Colorado, aptly called I Want More Comics!  The relaunch of that store also inspired by another heroic store, Time Warp Comics in Boulder.  Sometimes there are happy endings.

A few humans still miss the boat on comics, but it is a fantastic way to enjoy a story.  Incredible art, great writers and some fascinating characters.  As with books, plays, music and movies, there is plenty of art that misses the mark, yet a great number of memorable creations as well.

Appreciators of the art form quickly point to quality works like Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ The Watchmen.  And it is worth the dozens of literary references and allusions in a complex epic of what people of power might choose to do or not to do living among humanity.  However, some gentle readers here may not know non-hero works have inspired some quality film as well, such as The Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, 300 (the greeks with the great abs), Sin City, The Crow, and one of my personal favorites, the less known and very funny Scott Pilgrim.

Comics are cool.  If you’re cool, you already know that, but if you’re not, there is still hope for you.  Run, don’t walk to your nearest comic book store, operators are standing by.

Tell them Batman, no wait — tell them EGGMAN, sent you!