Friday, September 23, 2016

The Honor Flight - The Human Factor

For an overview of The Honor Flight and our experience leading up to takeoff, check out The Honor Flight - a Guardian's Perspective.

For my reflections upon visiting the memorials, got to The Honor Flight - Visiting the Memorials.


At the Quad City International Airport over 2000 people decked out in red, white and blue packed the terminal with American flags and signs to welcome home our veterans. The Patriot Guard and current officers greeted the men and women while a bagpipe player blasted patriotic songs. As the veterans made their way slowly through the throng of adoring fans, everyone reached out to shake their hands and thank them for their service. I wondered: how many people are Democrats, and how many are Republicans? It didn't matter. That crowd proved that although we may be a country divided politically, when it really matters we can all come together regardless of our convictions. What an encouraging and uplifting sight to see.
Photo Cred: Michelle Hughes
Photo Cred: Michelle Hughes
Separated from The Jacks as they rode in front on carts, I made my way behind a few veterans I didn't know. I enjoyed watching their expressions: bewilderment at the throngs of people, then humility as they shook hundreds of outstretched strangers' hands, then overwhelming elation as their family members cried out to them from the crowd. A teenaged girl snapped pictures from the shoulders of her brother, going positively bezerk when she saw her beloved Grandfather. "GRANDPA! GRANDPA!" she shouted. Her granddad, immediately ahead of me, wrapped her up in a huge bear hug, tears streaming down his face. That man didn't likely receive a welcome home like this after his years of service. But this time, he got to return home to his entire, extended family, all there because of the sacrifice he and our other veterans made. He didn't want to continue his welcome home march. He was already home, in the arms of his family.

The real importance of the trip hit me at that moment. It wasn't the memorials. It's not even the veterans themselves. It's The Human Factor. The interactive moments between other humans that bring out the deepest emotion we feel is where this all comes together. And I saw the beginnings of it on our flight home.

Once we all boarded the plane in Dulles, everyone collapsed into their seats in exhaustion. The lights went down, and for the first time since the wee hours of the morning, the veterans and guardians had a moment to collect their thoughts, unstimulated, to reflect. Some slept. Some chatted quietly. Most retreated in their minds to the images and conversations of the day. After thirty minutes though, the lights blasted us awake, and the crew came through the aisle with yet another meal. The quintessential meal probably every veteran craved upon his return home decades ago. The meal that makes America America.

A cheeseburger.

Suddenly the atmosphere of the plane shifted, and the men and women tapped into their reserves, fueling themselves for that remarkable welcome home. The energy grew with each mile we drew closer to the airport. But before we landed, The Honor Flight organization surprised them one last time, with something tangible from the trip that the veterans can hold dear forever.

Mail call.

Imagine yourself away from home, removed from everything you know and love and desire. Perhaps you're in a strange country, struggling to stay alive, when the immediate gratification of instant communication with a loved one did not exist. Mail call had to have been the highlight of their lives, whether they served in-country or thousands of miles away.

Dennis, the Army Veteran who sat to my left on the flight, shared his letters with me. He beamed. I mean, the guy bursted with appreciation for the letters from his wife. His daughter. The parents of the children his wife watches in her in-home daycare. He read each one and carefully returned them to their envelopes, then back into the large envelope they arrived in.

"I will cherish these until the day I die," he resolved, as he patted the envelope lovingly.

I smiled. We both knew his homecoming would prove dramatic, but those letters? They will last forever, reinforcing and cementing the visitation of the memorials that day, and more importantly, the love and adoration of his friends and family for his service. Those letters embody The Human Factor
with heartfelt gratitude and love pouring off the page from every. single. person.

Susan, Floyd's daughter, read my dad a few of his letters on the plane. He asked her to stop as he wanted to save the rest to share with Mom and me over coffee the next morning. In total, he probably received over 20 letters, plus hand drawn pictures from my cousins's entire 4th grade classroom.

The letters from his generation were clear: his peers fully understood most deeply what the Vietnam soldiers went through and how poorly they were treated upon their return home in the late '60s. Their tone and words were all very similar. Here are a few examples:

Mr. Kahling,
We want to thank you for your service to our country. We hope you enjoyed the Honor Flight. Vietnam War era was a difficult time to serve. None of you servicemen got the respect and recognition you deserved. Thanks again.
Norm and Nancy Wirtala
(Parents of Jill Moffitt Patrick, HS friend of your daughter)

Dear Jack,
We hope you enjoyed the Honor Flight to our capital. Washington D.C. is such a beautiful place to see. We are glad that you were chosen to go. We appreciate your service in the Army to help keep us all free.
Sincerely,
Larry and Linda Fehlker (Michele Wells' parents)

The letters of my generation still managed to demonstrate deep gratitude with an acknowledgment that we can't even begin to understand their sacrifices. But we're a grateful bunch of Gen Exers nonetheless, because if they hadn't returned, we wouldn't be here. We particularly loved Rebecca's story:
Some of my other friends thanked Dad. These left me really emotional, and grateful he returned from Vietnam so I could be more than a "gleam in his eye" (a favorite dad-ism prior to my conception) and know such wonderful people.

Welcome Home Hero!
Thank you for your service to our country. You will never be forgotten.
-Jill and Jerome Patrick

Dear Jack,
I worked with your amazing daughter for a few years time. She is one of the best people I know and am so grateful for all the fun times we had. I want to thank you for all the time you served protecting our country. I can't even begin to imagine all that you sacrificed to keep us safe. My brother is a Navy pilot in Meridian, MS now. It truly takes a very special person to do what you did. I am sure you have incredible stories and made lifetime friends from your years of service. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.
-Lisa Slutz

Dear Jack -
Thank you doesn't seem a sufficient enough term for the appreciation for the service and sacrifice you made for our country. You are a true hero! Its been many, many years since I've had the pleasure of meeting you. I had the opportunity to know your daughter her senior year at Fox HS. We were cheerleaders together and I admired her leadership and strong will even then. It is apparent that you are a true man of character and faith to have raised such a fine young lady who I am fortunate enough to still call a very dear friend of mine 25 years later. While you may not remember me, please know that you have been in my continued prayers for quite some time. Especially now as you participate in the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities and visit the memorials dedicated to all those who also sacrificed. May God continue to bless YOU and all the Veterans! Thank you so much for your service.
-Kim Layton

The letters from complete strangers left Dad bewildered. "Why did they write me?" he inconceivably asked. And that's what I love about my dad, even with his damaged brain. Sometimes the simplest questions provide the deepest understanding.

"Because they're grateful, Dad. There's nothing they can do but say 'Thank you,' and mean it. Yesterday you kept saying 'You're welcome.' Sometimes that's the most powerful exchange in the English language."

The closer the letters came to our nuclear family, the more emotive they became. I choked out my niece and nephew's letters, and could hardly read my brother's. Just hearing their voices on paper put us all in tears, as we miss them so much.

I opened my husband's letter, and started bawling before I read "Dear Jack." With kids in summer camp for over 10 years, he never wrote a letter by hand. He always typed them. But he scrawled this letter out longhand and thoughtfully included a color seal of The United States of America and a picture of a Huey helicopter on the page. My dad's shoulders shook with sobs as I read it aloud.

Dear Jack,
First and foremost I would like to say that I could not have asked for a better father-in-law! You have allowed me to become a part of your family and for that I will always be grateful.
Thank you for your selfless service to our country. Without people like you, I would not be sitting here writing this letter. Enjoy your day and feel very proud of your accomplishments.
P.S. Don't let your wife read this or I will have to tell her the BIG secret you told me on my wedding night!
Love,
Tony

His postscript garnered giggles through the tears. That man can bring levity to all seriousness. He left my mother perturbed at the details behind that BIG secret. :)

My punky kids delayed in writing their letters, to the point where I sent scaling texts, threatening bodily harm if they didn't have them to me by 5:00 on the day of the flight. Their letters came through before the deadline, and I scanned them on the bus. My throat tightened so I quickly closed the messages. When I read them to Dad, we all free fell into a sea of tears.

Dear Grandpa,
First of all, thank you so much for fighting for our country. Without you and the rest of the US Armed Forces' efforts, I would not be sitting where I am today as a female college student. You're strength in everything you've done in life (whether I saw it myself or heard in stories from you) motivates me. I am motivated to fight for my education and future success. And I know you'll always be there cheering me (and the Badgers) on. I admire you so much Grandpa and consider you one of my role models, always reminding me to stay strong in the tough times and celebrate the good times. I can't wait for you to come visit Madison and drink a beer with me while watching the Badgers. I love you so much Grandpa, thank you for everything.
Love,
Kahley

Grandpa,
Thank you: Expression. 1) a polite expression used when acknowledging a gift, service, or compliment, or accepting or refusing an offer.
"Thank you for your service."
This does not describe what I want to say to you. What you did for our country cannot be thanked. What you did for our country has no rightful reward. What you did was so great there is nothing I nor anyone else can do to show you what you deserve. What I am trying to say is, for your service, a mere thanks will not suffice for how thankful I am. Without your service I may not be here. It's easy to think your actions meant very little in the grand scheme of things but it didn't. You were beyond helpful in not only the war against communism but in the war for your family. Had you not come back, there would not be six people in this world. I love you, Grandpa. It's because of you I'm alive. It's because of you we are still a free nation and it's because of you this country is so great.
I love you,
Jakob Czupek

I've never been more proud of anything either child has written.

My mom's letter was deeply personal, could be no closer to Dad' heart, and clearly showed the deep love between the two of them. But even though they've been best friends through the best and worst of times, as she said in her letter, their crowning achievement - more than his service - is their family.

The Human Factor. It's powerful.

Please, I implore you all, thank a veteran the next time you see one. Attend a parade, stand as they walk by, and climb a damned lamppost so you can cheer a little more loudly. Tap on their shoulder in the grocery store if you notice they're wearing a shirt or hat with the word "veteran" on it, take their hand in yours, look deeply into their eyes, and express your gratitude.
Because of them, we are still the land of the free and the home of the brave.

XOXO,
Jen


To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."









Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Honor Flight - Visiting the Memorials


For an overview of The Honor Flight and our experience leading up to takeoff, check out The Honor Flight - a Guardian's Perspective.


Upon landing at Dulles airport, the veterans were welcomed yet again by adoring fans. Police officers, soccer moms, retired gentlemen, babies, other veterans, and local Honor Flight volunteers all gathered to welcome us to our nation's capital. One woman recognized us as a father/daughter duo, and everyone started oohing and aahing. A young mother stood there, baby in her arms, tears streaming down her face as we strode by, unable to speak. I held back my own tears at the warm, moving welcome.

Our first stop of the day landed us at the National Air and Space Museum. A sweet WWII veteran served as our docent for the tour, his wit and knowledge of the aircraft in the museum uncanny. As we rounded the corner to the Vietnam aircraft, I spied the Huey Helicopter. "There it is, Dad!"
"Yeah, but no," he replied. "It's not the right one."
"What do you mean?"
"That's a Delta."
"And you didn't fly in a Delta?"
"Nope."
"Well, then what?" I asked skeptically.
"B."
"You mean Beta?"
"NO! I mean B!!"

With that settled, he contemplated the next aircraft on the tour, and started laughing.
"What's funny?"
"Aw. Them sumbitches."
"Who?"
"I don't know."

Aphasia is so annoying. If it bugs me, I can't imagine how frustrating it is for Dad. He's got a story to tell. He can remember it vividly, yet his brain can't formulate the words to relay his jogged memory. Encouragement helps.

"Try, Dad," I implored him. "I want to know what you're thinking." I watched his eyes dart back and forth, desperately trying to come up with another way to share his memory. "We were out in that," as he pointed back to the Huey.

"In your B model Huey?"
"YES!"
"On a mission?"
"Yep."
"And something happened with this other plane?"
"Yes. Them sons a bitches were out shooting target practice!"
"With you flying below them?" Suddenly I understood.

Somewhere near the Soc Trang Air Base, Dad took off on a mission probably with a few other helicopters and their crews, just doing their jobs, accumulating "flight pay." Maybe they were looking for something specific, or maybe it was a shoot-anything-that-moves mission. Suddenly a much greater firepower started buzzing shots over Dad's open air penthouse with no warning, likely from a much higher elevation.

"Well that's rather terrifying. What did you do?"

"We got the hell out of there!" he laughed. He looked back at the airplane, clearly so many other thoughts lost in his brain. But that's OK - he told me something new - something I don't remember him telling me before his stroke years ago when we bellied up at a bar and he ripped lose on everything he could remember about the war. That moment in the National Air and Space Museum was golden, and I'll treasure it forever.

As we headed back to the bus, I asked Dad what he thought.

"It was all right."

I'm guessing that's not the ringing endorsement the Honor Flight set out to achieve. At the end of the day though, Jack B. said he most enjoyed the museum. Proof that every stop means something unique to each veteran, and the trip truly provides something worthwhile for all.

After the museum we made our way to the National Mall complements of a police escort. I wasn't sure how Team Jack would react at the memorials. Given that neither man lost close friends during their service, I suspected they'd be more reflective than anything.

The entire group gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a picture, and Dad immediately decided he wanted some photos with the Washington Monument in the background.
Meet Terry, in the blue, also a veteran but acting as a guardian on our trip. He received word the night before that a seat was available on the flight and he joined us to help out with Team Jack.
I wish I would have talked to Terry more throughout the day. I know he likes to play pickle ball, he served in the Marines, and volunteers in the Patriot Guard and the USO. There's so much more to him - and to Jack B. - that I wish I knew. I also regret not having more time to talk to the other veterans throughout the day. I know they all have stories like Dad's about nearly becoming target bait. Or like Floyd's about interactions with civilians, or like Richard's who drove a sergeant in his jeep every day through Agent Orange near the DMZ. I wish I had the chance to talk to every other veteran to learn their story and personally thank them for their service. Like many things in life, the really good moments leave us wanting more, perhaps wishing we could have given more of ourselves. That's how I started feeling in the afternoon. I wanted the trip to last longer, even though that wasn't feasible.

Grateful for Terry's help so Jack B. could move through the memorials at a faster pace, Dad and I took our time meandering through the Korean memorial.
As we contemplated the soldiers in the juniper bushes, their weathered, stone faces representative of the 5.8 million soldiers who fought in the three year war, a man approached us. He had olive-colored skin, a chiseled jaw, and piercing green eyes that unmistakably revealed deep emotion. He wore an army green hat embroidered with "Vietnam Veteran." He stopped in front of my dad, knelt to the ground, took Dad's hand into both of his and drew a shaky breath. "Thank you for your service," he whispered. A phrase we'd already heard multiple times that day, but this time it was different. He studied dad's face, lingered a little longer than usual, then stood up and looked at me. Tears welled in both our eyes, and for the first time mine spilled over. I opened my arms, and said, "Thank you for your service." We embraced, then looked into one another's eyes, studying each other's face.

He walked away. My dad, confused, asked: "Who the hell was that?"
"He was a guy just like you, Dad. Just a guy like you."
As I write this now, the tears flow. That man, that green eyed Vietnam Veteran, made an indelible mark on my soul. Did anyone thank him as he clearly struggled through the memorials that day? Yes, I did, but did anyone else? Did anyone ask him his story? Did anyone make him feel special? Do they still?

Our next stop took us to the top of D.C. to the Air Force Memorial. I knew absolutely nothing about this monument prior to last Thursday, but this is where Floyd told me about his service in WWII as we looked out at the Washington Monument in the distance. The memorial itself is impressive, and had it existed before September 11, 2001 the Pentagon might have been spared. Jack B. insisted I take a picture from a specific spot in the memorial so I could get the entire structure into my wide angle lens. Smart man.
After the quick stop at the Air Force Memorial we paused for an even quicker stop at the Women's Memorial, then continued into Arlington Cemetery to witness the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns (there's actually more than one unknown soldier being guarded there - fun fact). Vehicle access is not normally allowed in the cemetery, but exceptions are made for Honor Flight busses.

Arlington Cemetery is massive, beautiful, and remarkable.

But guess what? My dad left feeling critical. With some frustration and angst, and despite all the beauty he took in at that cemetery, "General Hill" left him discontented.

"They're all the same. They're all the same!" he insisted. I could tell he was getting emotional about something important to him.

"Who's all the same, Dad?"

"ALL OF THEM!" he hollered.

I searched my brain, worried I'd get fired as his guardian if I didn't figure it out quickly. "You mean all the dead?"

"YES! YES!" he shouted.

"OK, Dad. You excited to see the World War II Memorial?" I agreed with him to quiet him up, then changed the subject.

Later I thought about it. He didn't like the fact that some headstones had three or four stars on them, indicating rank. In his mind, once we're dead, we're all dead whether you were a private or a general. Perhaps there's historical significance in those roles, but once a person's served, they've all served. They're all veterans, and they all contributed to our freedom. While Arlington celebrates all who served, there's a section our bus driver referred to as "General Hill" where larger, non-government issued headstones hold three or four stars to honor the dead buried there, clearly differentiating higher ranking soldiers. That's what Dad took issue with.

I understand his angst better now.

We ended the day at the WWII Memorial, a giant oval constructed out of inconceivable slabs of granite with every state represented in pillars around a Pacific Pavilion and an Atlantic Pavilion. It was my favorite of all the memorials, probably due to the engravings on the walls.
I also loved the open-ness, the fact that it's flanked by memorials dedicated to our to most famous presidents, and how the setting sun provided the perfect light and atmosphere for the last stop of our trip.
A former mason contractor, Dad kept remarking about the giant slabs of stone it took to build the monument. He was tiring out and suggested we head back to the bus. But not before a jogger in a Navy shirt stopped and thanked him for his service. Used to the drill, he said "You're welcome," and I asked the gentleman what brought him to town.

"A conference. I'm special ops out of San Diego."
"You mean, you're a Navy Seal?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," he humbly replied.
"Thank you for your service!" I replied with open arms. No way was I letting that man get away without an embrace. Yep. I hugged me a Navy Seal in the Pacific Pavilion of the World War II Memorial!

On the bus ride back to Dulles, I overheard many of the veterans talking about their favorite part of the day. The Changing of the Guard was a highlight for many. My guess is because it involved The Human Factor. Real people, interacting, up close and personal.

That is my takeaway from the the experience. The memorials are special, of that there's no doubt. But the structures themselves do nothing. It's what happens at those memorials between people that inspire emotion and deep reflection. The veteran who finds his friends' names on The Wall. The child who feels closer to her grandfather at the WWII memorial. The stranger who contemplates the faces of the men at the Korean memorial, wondering what it must have been like for our soldiers to traipse through rice paddies with their ponchos blowing in the cold wind.
The daughter pushing her father in a wheelchair, talking to another Veteran, overcome with emotion. The Human Factor would play an even larger part in our return home. Come back Friday for my final reflections on The Honor Flight.

XOXO,
Jen

To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."












Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Honor Flight - A Guardian's Perspective

On Thursday, September 15, 2016, I flew to Washington, D.C. with the 37th Honor Flight of the Quad Cities as a guardian for two veterans.

The Honor Flight transports American veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to honoring their sacrifices. Priority is given to WWII and Korean veterans, and any veteran with a terminal illness. Vietnam veterans predominately made up the group on this trip for the first time since its inaugural flight in 2008.

Dad fought in Vietnam from 1966-1967 as a crew chief on a gunship.
In layman's terms, he managed the aircraft's maintenance and operated as a door gunner. During missions he fired a machine gun out of the open-air door on the side of the helicopter. Per Wikipedia, popular legend holds that "the door gunner on a Vietnam era Huey gunship had a lifespan of five minutes."

Luckily for me, Dad survived 12 months of missions hanging out the side of his Huey.

Given my dad's current health, I submitted an application earlier this year for him to participate in the flight. Since spouses are not allowed to fly with the veterans, I also submitted an application to act as his guardian because he has difficulty communicating. We received notification in July that we would be on the September flight.

The events began on Wednesday evening with a pre-flight dinner for the veterans. Upon pulling into the parking lot I knew this would be an evening he wouldn't soon forget, as traffic attendants whisked us to a front row spot, a marching band played patriotic songs while the veterans walked up to the doors, and a sweet woman compassionately greeted my dad and humbly escorted him to dinner. Men and women currently serving in our armed forces saluted him as he walked in.


"This is all for me?" he asked bewilderingly.
"All for you, sir," his escort warmly replied.

I choked back tears. There's something so incredibly respectful about a military salute, especially when it's aimed at your 72 year old terminally ill father, limping into dinner with his wife of 50 years by his side.

Dinner exceeded everyone's expectations. A week before the flight I received notification that I would also be guardian for Jack Bullard, so I immediately coined our little group "Team Jack." Jack B. served in the U.S. Navy from 1960 to 1963, and his job was to chart navigation as his amphibious ship searched out unknown islands in the Pacific, in addition to remaining on standby during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, listening to our National Anthem (everyone stood) and praying (yes - to God), we enjoyed a hearty midwest meal and a dessert that left the men and women talking the next day about the smorgasbord put before them. Major General Edward Daly provided some kind remarks and thanks to the veterans, and the Bettendorf Concert Choir entertained us with patriotic songs honoring all branches of the armed forces.

It was all very heartfelt and moving. Everyone bid one another good night, and we headed home to rest up for the big day.

That night excitement trumped melatonin. I slept like crap. So did Dad. So did every other veteran I talked to on Thursday, but it didn't stop anyone. Dad and I arrived at 5:00 a.m. to the little Moline airport that buzzed with excitement. News crews set up all over the terminal, and volunteers directed us efficiently through the check-in process.
In the check-in line, a spry, bright eyed gentleman stepped up behind me. "HI!" I greeted him, probably a little too enthusiastically. "What's your name?"

"I'm Floyd," he replied with a huge grin, just about to jump out of his shoes in joy. "What's your name?" Floyd trumped me on the gregarious scale. I mean, he was physically oozing 'thrilled to be here' juju.

"I'm Jen. Floyd, thank you for your service."

He hugged me, hard. Then proceeded to tell me that he's a WWII Veteran, couldn't wait for the day to launch, and was so happy to be there. Floyd's daughter also flew as his guardian, and I had the pleasure of meeting her later in the day. Floyd is full of stories about his time spent in Germany. While hanging out at the Air Force Memorial, he told me that he was a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

I just smiled and nodded, my ignorance evident. People, that's the Air Force before the Air Force existed! Prior to 1941, the Air Force as we know it today was called the Army Air Corps. This man fought in the Second World War in hostile territory so I can sit here today and type words onto a computer screen. So we can all go pay $5 for a crappy cup of coffee at Starbucks. So we may come home at night, kiss our family, and fire up the grill to roast pork chops and sweet corn.
Floyd, thanks again for learning how to fly on a wooden 2x4 from German civilians as they launched you off a mountain on a glider. You're a charmer and I will remember you, your hugs and kisses, and your entertaining stories for the rest of my life.

The efficiency and organization with which this flight is run is remarkable. The volunteers have pre-flight logistics down to a science. We all grouped up accordingly and walked through active military tunnels to the gate, where we enjoyed coffee and donuts before boarding the plane, with additional handshakes and gratitude for service from the active personnel.
Those young men and women in fatigues...they get to me. Emotions soared every time one of them took my dad's hand in theirs, looked deeply into his tired old eyes, and thanked him for his service. How many people - total strangers - stopped to thank Dad when he returned home from Viet Nam? Or Jack B. when he returned from the Pacific? Not many. Not many at all.
"Team Jack"
The final thank you came from the Major General himself. Clearly every veteran appreciated his words. He made every person feel special - even the guardians. Proof that no matter who you are or what your title is, a little personal thank you goes a long way.
The flight crew thanked the men and women for their service...clearly a common theme for the day but one that never grew old or tiresome. During the flight the guardians sat with veterans other than whom they spent the day with - another brilliant move by the volunteers organizing the event. I sat next to Dennis from Reynolds and Richard from Moline - two Army veterans - and I enjoyed asking them about their service, their current lives, and their families. They both lit up talking about their children and grandchildren.
Richard to my right, Dennis to my left. Both American Heroes.
Once we lifted off the ground and achieved cruising altitude, I remarked to Richard how beautiful our country looks from the air. The fields below, nearly ready for harvest, reflected purple and yellow hues of the rising sun promising a beautiful summer day. We both appreciated the grid-like formations from above. The captain played a familiar tune over the speaker and my throat tightened while the waterworks threatened.

"If tomorrow all the things were gone
I worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
I thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can't take that away
And I'm proud to be an American
Where at least I know I'm free
And I won't forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I'd gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
'Cause there ain't no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A."

Throughout the day, the veterans received rock star treatment. A police escort through one of the busiest cities in the United States will do that, as will personalized tours through one of our country's greatest museums, volunteers dedicated to making wishes come true, and a bus driver who cracked the best military jokes I've ever heard.

They felt appreciated. Acknowledged. Special.

Come back tomorrow for some more reflection about our experience visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Memorials, and Arlington Cemetery. There's much to say about this humbling and life-changing experience.

XOXO,
Jen

To find an Honor Flight near you, visit www.honorflightnetwork.org.
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit www.honorflightqc.org and click on "donations."

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Letter of Advice to my College Freshman

Kahley -

Today's the day.

We are in Madison, WI with the contents of your entire life packed into the back of the Denali, dropping you off at college. We planned for, prepared for, and saved for this moment since the day you were born. And now it's here.

Leading up to this, I experienced little emotional distress. Maybe it's because you're SO ready to move onto the next phase of your life. Maybe it's because Dad and I know first-hand the fun and excitement that await you. Maybe it's because you attended overnight camp ten years in a row, and we adapted to not seeing you for weeks on end every summer so we know what to expect.

I suspect it's a combination of all of the above, in addition to a great deal of confidence that we've raised a responsible, well adjusted, mature adult.

As you know, I get emotional when you're hurting, or when you're struggling, and currently you're thrilled. So I am too. But you know what I've thought of constantly over the past few nights? Your hair.

I know. It's weird.

I keep wanting to just hold onto your hair, brush it, braid it. That's why last night I suggested we watch Bachelor in Paradise. Not for the guilty pleasure of watching desperate single people drink too much and hook up while we rip them unmercifully, but so I could hold your hair in my hands one last time. And you unknowingly melted my heart when you asked me to braid it this morning.

Naturally, I can't send you off without a few pearls of wisdom. Some of these I wish I had known when I was a college freshman, some are common sense, and some are just good ol' reminders about living life. These aren't necessarily hilarious - for the funny, go to your Tip Jar advice.

Believe in yourself, Kahley Ann. You'll do great things.

1. Go to church, early on in the semester. The sooner you go, the more likely you'll return.

2. Smile. Everyday, to everyone. It makes you feel better, and the people around you happier.

3. Plan ahead, but realize this: all good plans are flexible. Be OK with changing the plan, or bagging it all together. Sometimes the greatest joys in life happen spontaneously, when you stop trying to control every step in your plan. Read Proverbs 16:9.

4. Be confident. Yes - for the first time in your life you're surrounded by smart individuals. Remember that you're smart, too, and you belong here. You worked hard for it, and you earned it.

5. When things seem impossible, ask yourself: "Is anybody going to die as a result of this situation?" Then reassure yourself it's not as bad as you think.

6. Try something new, at least once per week. Try a new food. Visit an art gallery. See a play. Meet someone new. This will be easy at first, but you might have to practice it as time marches on.

7. Be humble in all you do.

8. Jealousy is a weed that will grow uncontrollably and cloud out kindness. Pluck it out.

9. When in doubt, overdress. You'll look far sillier wearing yoga pants in a room filled with suits than you would in a dress.

10. Practice a positive attitude, even in situations that suck. Humor helps.

11. Listen to and process criticism and negative feedback. Realize that the person dishing it out is not attacking your character; rather, they're addressing your behavior. Learn from it. Get better as a result.

12. Surround yourself with like-minded individuals, but conscientiously seek out and befriend those who oppose your belief system. You'll either see things in a different light, or you'll deepen your own convictions. Maybe both.

13. Take calculated risks.

14. Everyday, take 15 minutes (minimum!) to do something you love.

15. Always ask for help when you don't have the answer after trying to figure something out. Don't waste time for the sake of your pride.

16. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.

17. You don't have to be best friends with everyone. Find a few good ones who will:
  • Make you laugh
  • Listen
  • Thoughtfully advise
  • Challenge you intellectually
  • Dance with you
  • Look up to you
  • Like to party
  • Prefer to stay in and watch movies
  • Shop with you
  • Be brutally honest
18. Exercise a minimum of three times per week for 30 minutes, even when huge tests loom. 

19. Be kind to everyone. You never know who will be in your next group project. 

20. Guys make great friends. Find a few good ones. You'll always appreciate the honest male perspective.

21. Resist the urge to achieve perfection. You won't. When something is 90% complete, it's done. 

22. Over the next four years, you will fail multiple times. It's not the end - it's a bump. Learn from it.

23. Drink water. Eat vegetables. Brush twice a day. Floss. Never go to bed with makeup on. Moisturize. Your 30 year old self will thank you.

24. Think: Would my Mother approve? If not, neither would your future employer. So don't do it.

25. Have fun. Seek it out even when you're in the midst of something crappy. Fun is always around the corner. 

And finally, call your mother at least once per week. No text or snapchat can substitute the sound of your sweet voice.

Despite being bored out of your skull with all of your friends already settled in at their prospective schools, I'm selfishly happy we had you all to you ourselves this past week. I enjoyed spending time with you every day. My favorite moment happened yesterday when we walked out of Panera and I said, "Watch out!" as a car came barreling through the parking lot. You grabbed my hand, like a kindergartner, as we crossed in front of the impatient driver. You immediately recognized the irony. "Mom, I leave for college tomorrow. Why did I just hold your hand to cross the street?"

We both giggled. But sweetheart, you can hold my hand for the rest of your life. I will always be here with mine outstretched, ready to take yours into it, to cross whatever road lies ahead. 

Come home anytime. I love you.

Mom




Wednesday, August 17, 2016

End of Summer Melancholy

I ride my bike one last time down the road. This time though, I'm keenly aware of everything. I feel the warm, late-summer wind against my bare skin and through my hair, flying behind me. My legs burn as I pedal uphill, then rest easy as I coast along and spy the chestnut mare out in the field, lazily grazing, happy that black fly season is over. In the distance I hear the familiar sound of a chainsaw hard at work, but not before freshly cut pine meets my nose as I deeply inhale. The pine mixes with warm woodsy earth and fresh air to envelop me in my surroundings. A deer darts out in front of me, and after both our heart rates accelerate we slow to inspect one another. She remains in the brush, curiously staring me down, before nodding and continuing to munch on her midday meal. I pedal on. Back toward the lake a loon calls out eerily, it's minor tune matching the one in my heart.
That was last week. It's now August 17th, which means I'm in the throes of a melancholy that will last through the end of the month. It happens every August, and the feelings of sadness multiply year over year. It used to be that I anxiously awaited the advent of fall and winter, and while I still do, I now mourn the end of summer. So for now I memory-bank. I do all I can to identify every moment for what it was - a miraculous moment in God's daily art show - so I can uncork it in the dead of winter when 4:00 sunsets dictate we move things indoors.

June is our favorite, when on the cusp of summer all things promise warmth, lazy days, and good times ahead.
In a weak moment, I agreed to host a small tribe of sixteen year old boys at the cabin for a day.
I jest - they were perfect gentlemen - and actually required less effort than girls of their age. Except when it comes to food. I'm afraid I didn't do so well in feeding such a small army, so I kept pushing watermelon at them.
They also tolerate negative pictures, and could care less about their hair or posing in small groups for photos. One and done, man. I kind of love it.
They didn't come back. Next time I promise to up the food game, boys, and cook seventeen chickens to feed you all.

Mr. Musky's assessment? He wandered downstairs to say hello, then came back up with a profound revelation.

"They stink."

***

Then like a whirlwind, July madness descended upon us. We hosted guests for eighteen days straight, starting with this gem who I met my senior year of high school.
Hollie, her two little kids, and sweet husband Sam came for a visit. We aren't used to littles - Summer is 10, and Peyton is 7. Mr. Musky channelled his inner freak and scared the poop out of those poor kids. He regaled them with stories about our basement below the basement through a scary door next to the bathroom and donned the Chuckie mask while playing bear snorts and wolf howls on the speaker. His efforts resulted in this...
...a Mama Bear who threatened to dismember anyone who scared her kids further.

In the end, he made peace with them, and Summer even cozied up to him, despite her constant reply of "Really?" to every statement he made. The skepticism runs deep in that one.
The Schmidts enjoyed our northerly paradise, happy to escape the oppressive heat of South Florida in the summertime.
We enjoyed having them, despite a little mishap toward the end of their stay.
We may not have hurricane strength winds in the Great White North, but we can certainly give those southerners a run for the money when it comes to downed trees. In the middle of the night a storm ran through, and at one point I grabbed Mr. Musky's hand and held on tight as the entire cabin shook. Unable to sleep, I awoke in the early morning to a minor disaster.

TREE DOWN! Lady Luck swirled around with that storm though. The downed tree rotted from the center out, something we would have never realized. As it fell during the storm, a pine tree diverted its path, saving our dock and boats from disaster. The power was out, so we all channelled our inner pioneer and humped water from the lake in order to flush toilets.

Despite the severity of the storm, we were able to call in the professionals. They arrived the next day and cleaned up the rubble in no time. I have a newfound appreciation for arborists.
And their tree hugging, daredevil ways.

***

Things calmed down a bit after that, with the arrival of Mama and Papa Kahling. They had but one item on their agenda: Relax.
They're overachievers, that pair.
I helped get Dad off the boat and into the water one day, and he summed it up Jack Style with one word.
"Perfect. This is Perfect."
And his bride concurred.

Next up - our dear friends, Rob and Kara, who also took the art of relaxation very seriously.
I had some other "stuff" going on during their stay - icky stuff - that I'm not going to get into here. It was multifaceted and upsetting, leaving me an uncharacteristic wreck. Every good couple out there needs another couple who lifts you up when you're at your worst. Rob and Kara did just that, even if their dog ran off into a bog and they traipsed after him, swearing a bit, vowing to never bring him back.
Poor Murphy. Lucky for me, he has good humans who love me when I'm at my worst, so I know they forgive him for snarking around in a spongy bog.

***

And that about covers it, with the exception of two quick day trips to Ontonagon, Michigan. With a population less than 1500, don't blink or you'll miss this sleepy little town at the top of the Upper Peninsula. We love it for escaping the heat in the Northwoods (which happens maybe twice per summer) and for the pristine beaches on the shores of Lake Superior. If this Great Lake ever beckons you, go.
 The sound of the waves meeting the shoreline mesmerizes me into a near catatonic state.
The impeccable coastline reminds us how a true natural state should appear,
despite its eerily empty ways.
We always leave this spot re-energized, but our selfie game?
It's most certainly off point.

If I were melancholy when I started this post, now I'm depressed. In two weeks we ship our oldest off to college, and while I am mentally ready for that, I still don't want to call it quits on our summertime paradise. But like many things in life, I have no choice.

Onward!

Cheers,
Jen



Monday, June 13, 2016

Prom, 2016

Let me start by acknowledging that yes, these pictures are long overdue. With sister-in-law's baby shower, followed by prom, then by graduation and the party, then by a little Indy 500 get together, we threw four parties in one month.

I don't think we hosted a single party in the last year, so Mr. Musky is gnashing his teeth. And me?

I just enjoyed a week filled with solitude and no work. Yep - I took an entire week off of writing, photography, cooking, cocktailing, and even moming. I just sat, all by myself, and let be. One day last week I took the art of slugging out to a whole new level, only moving from the couch to eat something or visit the bathroom. I highly recommend this version of sloth for a little soul restoration. Take a day off work, tell your people to fend for themselves, and do nothing. Hell, eat a bon bon. Your body and mind will thank you.

In the midst of all the Mayhem in May, we hosted prom pictures. Which isn't that big of a deal, considering the kids all show up for about an hour and a half and then they leave. BUT - it was Kentucky Derby day, so some of the adults hung around for a bit.

First I must introduce some new friends: Kahley's boyfriend Nick, and his parents Jackie and Ray.
They are some of the best people we've met. We hit it off immediately, and saw them socially at least three more times in May. They're the type of people you know for certain are genuine - my favorite kind.

On Prom Day? My model, er, daughter, looked gorgeous.
So super grown up, with hair and makeup to die for.
But mothers of younger daughters, beware. The beauty never comes without drama. Her makeup appointment began 45 minutes late, causing undue stress about not showing up on time for her own party. Her friends could have cared less. They just congregated in the backyard and started snapping pictures on their own. Mr. Musky tended bar for the adults. I put out food for the teenagers, and all was right with the world. 
Her dress was killer, but again, not without angst. At the checkout at Peaches in Chicago, with the dress rang up and the earrings picked out, we were told that someone else attending her prom already bought the dress, and they couldn't sell it to us. Apparently our sales person forgot to check the system before bringing the dress out for Kahley to try on. She felt horrible and it was an honest mistake, but certainly didn't help the anxiety level of dress shopping.
So we broke the rules and bought it online. Kahley never did see the matching dress at her prom given that over 1000 students attended, so problem solved. 

Now is probably a good time to state the obvious.
I love my girl to no end, but man. I sure am glad my next go-around with prom-going involves a male. I've asked around, and it has its own set of challenges with the picking up of the tux the day before the event, but my son will be mysteriously sick during lunch the Friday before prom next year to avoid chaos.
Bottom line - lesson for moms of daughters - start dress shopping in January. I'm not joking or exaggerating in the slightest. Then in February, schedule a hair appointment for the day of prom at 10:00 am. Allot for two hours, if your girl has a thick mane like mine.
Then, if she's having her makeup done, plan on another two hours for that. Schedule that appointment in February as well, and count on things to run behind.
You need another hour (at least!) for her to arrive home, get dressed, and hopefully eat a little something.
And then...
At least an hour or more for pictures. For those who are counting, you need to leave the house by 9:30 in order for your princess to be ready for the paparazzi by 3:30. That's six hours. SIX HOURS! And we aren't even the Kardashians.
By the time she finally linked up with her boyfriend,
all was right with the world and her heart rate returned to normal.
One thing I have to say about Plainfield East High School...
...they DO IT UP RIGHT for Prom.
Last year a chartered Metra Train rolled them into Union Station for dinner and dancing.
This year, chartered busses departed the school at 5:45 pm for Navy Pier.
I love that the transportation to the venue is non negotiable (people who miss the bus, miss the prom),

and that dinner is included at such awesome locations for a memorable night. 
These two sadly parted ways last week, as Kahley returned to Chippewa Ranch Camp to run the riding program and continue working as camp counselor for the summer. They are attending separate schools in the fall, and are going to try the long distance thing for awhile.
One of my favorite things about prom pictures is the girlfriend shots, and reminiscing about how much these lovely ladies have grown over the years.
I know some of these gals more than others, but they all have one thing in common: 
respect.
Every one of them made it a point to say hello, thanked us for hosting, and impressed me with their overall maturity.
Not to mention their taste in fashion. Oh my - the dresses!
I will miss so many of these gems who lifted Kahley up when she needed it over the past four years.
This gal and her mama...wow. 
Kahley picked a gem for a best friend. I adore her mom and love hanging out with them both. Their extended family is fairly hilarious, too. 
The rest of the photo session pulled small groups of kids together while the parents stood back and snapped away.
I won't lie - I started peeking at the time,
ready to move on and go sip an apéritif with the adults. We had horse bets to make and sangria to drink!

Kudos to Kris, the other mama above with me, who came up with the idea for the kids to hold up their college logo. There's a whole lotta girl power going on here!
Go forth and rule the world!
The gents aren't too bad either.
Phew. Time for that adult beverage.
Enough of prom ad nauseam. If you're still reading this, you are either:

a. My mom. Hi Mom! Love you!
b. One of the individuals in the above photos. Good luck to you all this fall. Make good choices!
c. Nick's mom. Hi Jackie!
d. A female of any age, sticking with me because you love looking at all the dresses.
e. A creeper. Which is a little weird, but hey - thanks anyway for reading.

XOXO,
Jen