Semper Fire

At 0615 I stood facing the open gym door at the University of Windsor, Ontario. The affixed sign announced in bright red marker “Moving One Step Beyond Your Fear.” I took a deep breath and propelled myself toward the group of people nervously chatting in the center of the large room.

The Annual Phoenix Performing Arts Ministry Conference attracted a lot of eccentric people with myriad talents. Most worked in youth ministry or at parochial schools across the nation. Priests, monks, nuns, rabbis, ministers and lay educators made up the bulk of attendees. For one relaxing week each year, away from the judgmental eyes of our congregations, we explored the arts under the guise of “enhancing our skills for youth ministry.” Classes included storytelling, clowning, puppetry, dance, magic, group building games, juggling, music and anything else that seemed fun. I taught the tightrope class. But all that paled compared to the one about to begin.

In true artsy fashion, the 0630 class began at 0640. Father Bob Kloos of the Cleveland Diocese gathered us in a horseshoe. He stood at the opening. Near his feet was a lit candle. He picked up a barbeque-tool-sized metal rod by its wooden handle and checked the other end to make sure the white gauze ball wrapped around it remained secure. Then he slipped the ball end into a metal can with a narrow opening, pulled it out slowly and flicked the rod behind him to remove excess moisture. No one spoke as he moved the rod toward the candle. In an instant, the ball ignited, sending a flame almost two feet into the air. As he held the rod straight up in his right hand, he reached into the fire with the fingers of his left. He wiggled them for us to see the flames clinging to the tips, then made a fist. The flames disappeared. Next, he held out his left hand. Gently, he did a touch and go on his palm with the ball. Fire danced for a moment on its surface before he rolled his fingers one by one to cover it. Then he turned his hand over to make sure it was out. Father Bob smiled as we stood awestruck. Bracing his feet fore and aft, he leaned his head back, held his breath, stuck out his tongue and repeated the touch and go there. A small flame flickered until he retracted his tongue to extinguish it. Then, for effect, he swung the flaming implement in an arc behind him. The swoosh of fire cut through the air. In one motion he pulled it forward and up, then turning the torch downward, plunged the ball into his open mouth and closed his lips around it, careful not to touch the heated metal rod. In a moment, the flame disappeared and a whiff of smoke curled through his smile as he removed the torch and raised his head.

“That’s how you do it. And by the end of the week, if you choose to, you’ll do it, too.”

Several people around me headed for the door.

“See you folks at breakfast,” he called after them.

Father Bob divided those remaining into groups of six. A few experienced fire-eaters stepped forward to claim their half dozen, each taking a spot in a different corner of the room. I ended up in the priest’s group.

“Eating fire is really cool, but that is not the sole purpose of our class. We are also here to learn to address the things that frighten us. You just watched me go through fire tricks of increasing difficulty. If I handed you the torch and told you to eat the fireball right now, who would do it?”

No one volunteered.

“The things we fear are like that. If we focus only on the end game, the most difficult part, it will overwhelm us to the point of inaction. But if we break the challenge into manageable steps, we will probably meet it.” Father Bob wet the torch and touched it to the candle. He reached inside the flame, squeezed the ball with his fingers and displayed the flickering tips. “Who wants to be first?”

Two days later, on my 28th birthday, I swallowed the torch. The second-degree burn on the roof of my mouth didn’t hurt until I drank orange juice later that morning. Father Bob called the burn a badge of courage.

“Will I get a burn every time I eat fire?”

“You think I’m a masochist? Of course not. Bumps, bruises, or in this case, burns happen when you do anything difficult for the first time. You are unsure, so you hesitate. You are inexperienced, so your technique is less than optimal. With practice, you will learn to do it well and safely. Then that badge of courage turns into something else.”

“What else?”

“A badge of stupidity, because you knew better, but chose not to do it.”

By week’s end, I mastered Dragon’s Breath, a trick in which one sets one’s entire mouth on fire and lights another torch from the flame. And I no longer got burned.

Father Bob Kloss and my first torch

My next trick was to let my congregation know what I had learned without getting a different type of burn. Since they had approved the conference for continuing education purposes and had no experience with a fire-eating pastor, they responded with amusement.

“Pastor Laura, you will be the entertainment for the senior citizen luncheon next Wednesday, so get your torches ready. We want to see this.”

For a first performance, it went well. Except for the fire alarm, which went off soon after I lit the torch.

“Better do your thing before the fire department arrives,” an octogenarian advised. Since the station was only a block away, three guys in turnout gear caught the finale.

It did not take long for word to get out on the youth ministry circuit about the local fire-eater. I performed for retreats, youth gatherings, even the district conference. The local Sweet Adaline Choral group even convinced me to perform for their circus themed spring concert, although the bright red tights trimmed in silver put me way out of my comfort zone.

“We are in costume. You must be, too,” the parishioner who volunteered me said. She neglected to divulge that she had invited half the congregation. The teasing continued for a week.

When I interviewed a few years later to be the senior pastor of a church twelve miles away, they already knew about my “hobby.” They also didn’t care about the tightrope I rigged in the front yard of the parsonage. We had the best youth group in the area and that brought many new members to the church.

One afternoon I received a phone call from one of those new members. “My daughter is in 2nd grade. She told her class, ‘My minister eats fire, and yours doesn’t.’ The kids didn’t believe her and she came home crying. Would you be willing to do it for her class?” The following week a group of 2nd graders and their families filed into our sanctuary for the field trip to see Emmy’s minister eat fire.

In 1994, the bishop sent me to a church in Connecticut to grow it like I had done in Wappingers Falls. I don’t think he knew what that meant. Shortly after I arrived, a reporter from the New Haven Register contacted me to do the obligatory “new pastor” interview that gets used as fill for the middle of Section 2, next to the worship service announcements. During our meeting, he asked if I had any hobbies. He called the next day to say his editor wanted him to return to take a picture of the “fire eating minister.”

I agreed. If it accompanied the article, maybe people would read about our church and the opportunities for worship and fellowship we provided. He posed me in front of a print of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ. In order to get a better shot, I had to hold the pose longer than I knew I should, and I got a badge of stupidity for my effort.

The next morning, the phone interrupted me as I dressed.

“Is this the fire-eating minister?”

“Spike, you are not funny. I am getting ready for a funeral. What do you want?” Spike was the chair of my personnel committee. He also had a wicked sense of humor.

“This is not Spike, whoever that is. This is W___ and you are on the air.”

“Whoever you are, how do you know I eat fire?”

The announce continued, “Folks, this is great. She doesn’t know yet. Pastor Bender, you are on the cover of the New Haven Register; you and Jesus, and a tall flame coming out of your mouth.”

On the way to the funeral, I stopped at a gas station to buy a paper. There, above the fold, was the photograph with the caption “Holy Smoke.”

“Holy shit!” I got back in the car with several copies in my hand. At the funeral home, I could see another one sitting under the deceased’s son’s chair.

When the service concluded, he came up to me with the newspaper. “Will you please sign this? My Dad would think it really cool to have been eulogized by a fire-eating minister.”

The Associated Press picked up the story. The next morning my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for two weeks. Radio stations across the country called for interviews, a few immediately. Others made appointments to call back for specific times. MSNBC was one of those. They made an appointment, but called back a few hours later to ask if I would mind switching times.

“Fine with me.” This was an odd amusement. I didn’t care.

“Good, because your slot was the only one Frank Sinatra could make. He’ll be glad you were willing to change.” Amusement took a turn for the surreal.

A parishioner on a business trip in Korea called his wife. “What is going on at church? Armed Forces Radio announced that the new minister of Great Hill Church in Connecticut ends every service by blowing fire over the heads of her parishioners.”

She couldn’t wait to tell me and could barely control her laughter as she did. “I told him not to believe everything he hears.”

The local Episcopal priest called next. “Paul Harvey talked about you on today’s broadcast.”

“What did he say?”

“You probably don’t want to know.” I agreed and thanked him for the heads-up.

A few radio stations wanted me to eat fire on the air. That’s like mime on the radio. I refused those silly requests. One station in California pulled it off in jest, though, and it was funny. It aired on the San Francisco “Drive by the Bay” morning show. A friend who lived in the area recorded it for me.

One morning I received a call from an administrator at Yale Divinity School. “We at Yale have been trying to get Jesus on the cover of the newspaper since 1701 and you’ve accomplished it. Brava!”

Another call came from the Activity Director of a nursing home. “My seniors saw your photo in the paper and have been bugging me all week to call you. They want me to invite you here so they can see a young woman eat fire.”

“I’m not that young.”

“They are all in their nineties.”

“Okay, I’m young and I’m game. When do you want me there?”

The first thing I noticed when I entered the lounge area where the seniors were waiting was the sprinkler system. “I’m not sure I should do this. If I set off the sprinkler, you’ll get wet.”

The Director shrugged her shoulders.

A gentleman sitting in a wheelchair to my left spoke on behalf of the group. “Listen, honey, we didn’t get to be this old by worrying about a little water. Just do the trick.”

As I set up my gear, he spoke again. “We ain’t gonna be able to see it done from that high up. Can you do it on your knees?”

Although I had never tried that, I agreed. At least I would be farther from the sprinklers. Around me, twenty wheelchairs formed a tight circle as their occupants leaned forward to peer down my throat. Thankfully, the only thing that doused the fire was my spit.

A woman who hosted a television show at a Hartford, CT contacted me. Would I give an interview and then eat fire on her program? I agreed, but on the drive north from my church, I had misgivings. If she wasn’t as nice as she seemed, she could make me look quite foolish, and this interview was local enough for my parishioners to see.

For forty-five minutes, the interviewer, who turned out to be a devout Jew asked me questions: What are the educational requirements for United Methodist Clergy? What college and seminary did you attend? Tell me about the ordination process. How are clergy assigned to their churches? Tell me about your current congregation. All the questions presented me as an educated professional. She ended with, “I understand you have a unique hobby which has served you well, especially in youth ministry. Would you mind showing our audience?” The interview made my parishioners proud.

*          *          *

Shortly before I turned forty, I left parish ministry and join the Navy. Report time was 1700 at Naval Base Newport, Rhode Island. At 1630 I stood in front of the open door of King Hall. Inside I could see a group of clergy nervously chatting. First step: walk through the door. Second step: Introduce yourself. Third step: Follow the directions given to you. Don’t think about the enormity of this life decision. That would be overwhelming. Just take the next step.

In true Marine fashion, Gunnery Sergeant Johnson arrived at 1645. At exactly 1700 he shouted, “I am a United States Marine. My job is to kill people. Your job is to take care of me. If that bothers you, now is the time to leave.”

No one moved. “Alrighty, let’s get you signed in.”

A few weeks later, the Course Director at the Chaplains School stopped me in the passageway. “I hear you are a fire-eater. I’ve arranged for you to do it for a gathering of the Naval Academy Prep School students on Sunday. You have your gear with you?”

“My torches are in the trunk of my car so I don’t have to explain them to Gunny during room inspection.”

“Good planning. You just might make in the Navy.”

Note to self: Never tell a secret to another chaplain.

At Guantanamo Bay High School

A few years later, as I was checking in to my second duty-station, my sponsor informed me our CO required all his officers to give him a bio, including both personal and professional details, for his review. Since the CO was about to retire, I figured this was a formality. He would never read it. So, before I hit print, I added “Hobbies: Genealogy, fire-eating and cross stitch.”

Early the next morning I stood in front of the CO’s desk explaining what this “fire-eating thing” was.

When I finished, he smiled. “My grandchildren would love to see this. Would you do it at my retirement party?”

Every officer in our command attended the shindig at the CO’s house. Many senior officers from around the base attended, as well. When it was time, they pressed into one side of the living room to give me space to “entertain the children.” After lighting my torch for the first trick, a voice from the crowd called, “Hey Laura, what fuel do you use?”

I gave my standard answer. “Fire-eating is dangerous. I don’t want you to try this on your own. If I told you what fuel I use, I’d have to kill you.” Hearing no other comment, I completed my routine.

Afterward, General Mike Lehnert came over to tell me how cool he thought it was. “Sorry I asked about the fuel in front of the kids. So, what do you use?”

“Sir, I can’t tell you. The real danger is not burning yourself but setting your lungs on fire. Without training, you could kill yourself. I promised my instructor I’d never to tell anyone.”

“Good on you, chaplain.”

And that is how I survived threatening to kill a Marine Brigadier General.

It would have been fine if the issue stopped there, but it didn’t. My new CO called me into his office. “I was at a meeting with General Lehnert. He recognized me as your CO. Then he told this story:

Chaplain Bender was in Guantanamo Bay when I was Commander of the Joint Task        Force in charge of the terrorist detention camp. If I had known then she was a fire-eater, I  would have asked her to meet every plane full of detainees and eat fire in front of   them. Then I could have said, ‘This is what my female chaplain can do. You still want to take on my Marines?’”

My CO could barely control his laughter as he spoke. I couldn’t control my grin. I’d been playing with fire for years, but really, it had been playing with me. In a career filled with helping others through sadness, pain and difficulty, it had been the rare amusement that had helped me move one step beyond it all and connect with my quirky side. Some days that is enough.

At a Vacation Bible School in North Carolina

Copyright © 2021 bendertales.com

Touching Steel

The offices of the World Trade Center Tribute Center occupied an upper floor in a building across from Ground Zero. When I arrived, Lee and Jen met me at the door. A retired career firefighter, Lee lost one of his two firefighter sons in the towers on 9/11. Jen, a local resident, had volunteered soon after, assisting those awaiting news of their loved ones’ fate. A well-organized and gracious force-for-good, her work blossomed into the 9/11 Families Association, and together with Lee, they founded Tribute. After exchanging hugs, we walked to the conference room to chat.

“Come see the progress made on the site since you were last here.” Lee moved to the large window overlooking Ground Zero and pointed toward the vast construction area. I joined him, fascinated by the view below. “They’ve been building on the west side consistently; the foundation is finally above ground level. Closer to us on the east side, there are still a few damaged structures to raze. Once those are removed, construction can begin there, too.”

“That backhoe is enormous, it should be able to remove those sections of building easily.”

“Yes, but they have to dig cautiously. We are still finding human remains.”

“From eight years ago?”

“Yes, and when we find them, we take them to a repository at Arthur Kill on Staten Island for DNA sampling and relative notification.”

Jen leaned toward the window and pointed. “That muddy area is giving up more than just remains. In order to stabilize it, they’ve had to dig deeper than for the initial construction in the 70s. A few weeks ago they found the wooden sewer pipes built by the Dutch in the early 1700s. More recently they found a sailing ship that sank before the land had been extended beyond the original shoreline. Analysis of the wood showed that it had been built in the mid-1700s near Philadelphia.”

“A ship? Under the towers? That piece of earth has incredible stories to tell, from every generation that called this place home.”

“That reminds me. I have something for you.” Lee scooted over to his office and back. “Put out your hand.”

I did as he asked, and Lee placed a smooth stone in my palm.

“This is from the stream running under the towers. They found it while excavating. It’s likely been running there since your ancestors lived in New Amsterdam. I thought you might like it.”

I rubbed it. “I would never have expected a stream of living water to be flowing underground in that place. Just think what this stone has witnessed. Thank you, Lee.”

“That reminds me what I need to ask you,” Jen said as she motioned for us to sit. “The steel from the towers has become a treasured item. I know we got a large piece to cut up for the crew’s plank-owner plaques, but is there anything else you would like for the ship that could be made from the steel? It’s being regulated now to keep it from becoming an eBay hot-sell item, so we’d have to get it for you.”

“Is it possible to make religious symbols for the ship’s chapel? I’d love to see a cross, a Star of David and a crescent hanging on the bulkhead, so when the crew came to worship, they would have a tangible reminder of what matters, a silent memorial of all for which they sacrifice and serve.”

Jen looked over at Lee. He nodded. “We can do that.”

On my next visit to New York City, the symbols were ready. Lee unpacked them one by one and laid them on the table. “A Muslim artist forged the Star of David and the crescent, and one of our fire fighters made the cross. Think these will work?”

“They are perfect.” I reached for the Star. “And very heavy. It will be fun getting them back on a commercial flight.”

“You’ve got muscles, you can do it.” Jen laughed.

“I don’t think the carrying part will be the biggest problem. TSA is going to love this challenge.”

Lee and Jen both laughed.

“Don’t worry. All will go well.” I could always count on Jen for a positive word.

I arrived at LaGuardia Airport well ahead of my flight. After the ticket counter, my next stop was the baggage inspection area.

“You can just leave that here.” The TSA agent must have said that phrase thousands of times each shift.

“Thank you, but I think I should stay.”

“Suit yourself.”

The agent lifted my small but heavy bag onto the conveyor. When it reached the x-ray, the belt stopped, reversed, and then moved forward before stopping again. The woman running the machine called over the man loading the bags. After a quick conversation, they pulled mine out and motioned for me to meet them in the inspection area.

“We have to look inside your bag. Is there anything you want to tell us about the contents? You’ve got some oddly shaped, very dense metal in there. What is that?”

 “It’s steel from the World Trade Center.”

 “Wait, a minute.” Soon three other agents appeared around the table.

 I pulled out my military ID. “I am the chaplain on that new ship, USS New York.”

“The one they are building with steel from the towers?”

“Yes. 7 ½ tons of it is in the bow stem. And there is more in my bag. When you open it, you will see religious symbols forged from the steel. They are for the chapel.”

The agent carefully unzipped the suitcase. Inside were three heavy paper bags, each holding a piece of steel. She lifted out the first and removed it from its cover. Finding a cross, she gently placed it on the table. For a moment, we stood in silence.

“May we see the others?”

“Certainly.”

She unwrapped the Star of David, followed by the crescent, and placed them on the table next to the cross.

One of the three agents, who had walked over to support the inspection, cleared his throat. “Isn’t that a Muslim symbol? Why would you put this on the ship?”

“Because some of those murdered in the World Trade Center were Muslims.”

“You mean Muslims killed their own people?”

“Yes, they did. Our ship’s motto is ‘Never Forget’ and these three symbols will help us remember.”

One by one, the agents placed their hands on the steel, a sacred moment for all.

“You are carrying precious cargo. I’ll mark it special handling so it gets to its destination safely.” The agent wrapped up the symbols, placed them into the suitcase, and after zipping it closed, she attached a sticker to its surface. Jen was right. All did go well, all the way to the ship.

* * * *

 In November 2009, USS New York arrived in Manhattan and docked at Pier 88, a cruise ship terminal across from the Intrepid. The next morning, we began providing ship tours for the thousands of New Yorkers lined up for blocks along West Side Highway.

“Chaplain, we have a problem. We are only two hours into the tours and already we are finding memorial stuff being hidden around the ship. These people are slipping funeral cards, fire department patches, and God knows what else into crevices and behind pipes.” The bosun shifted from foot to foot, waiting for me to help.

“Why are you telling me?

 “You’re the commissioning coordinator and a New Yorker. You have to know what to do with these people.”

 “Ah, a miracle. Aye. I’ll get right on that.”

 “And we have another problem.”

“Oh, two miracles. If I can pull off both, maybe the Catholics will make me a saint. What’s the other one?”

“People are getting testy because they thought they would be able to touch the steel in the ship, but the only way to do that is to float them in a small boat to the bow so they can place their hands on the stem. We can’t do that.”

“Okay, give me a minute, I’ll see what I can do.” I wandered off to find RP1 Eddie Garrett, my talented assistant.

“You up for some miracle work?”

RP1 and I spent the next half hour setting up the portable altar at the entrance to the Marine Corps’ static displays of weapons, vehicles and gear. Over the plastic altar’s surface, we placed a white cloth and on it, the three religious symbols which, in predictable Navy fashion, had not yet been affixed to the bulkhead in the chapel. Within minutes, a crowd formed.

“Is this WTC steel?” a woman asked? I nodded. She placed her hand on the cross for a moment, closed her eyes and blessed herself. Seeing her, others did the same. Several others confidently touched the star, but only a few made contact with the crescent, and those mostly with just a fingertip. It was as if they were wrestling with its presence on a ship that memorialized the events of September 11th.

When the display seemed to manage itself, RP1 and I headed to the chow hall for lunch. Upon our return, we found our symbols had collected a few companions. A fire department had left steel in the shape of the firefighter’s Maltese cross, with two bars representing the towers. Another framed bar, with police shields pinned around it, had been left by the Midtown South Detective Squad.

Throughout the afternoon, other items joined the steel: Prayer cards with names of the dead, personal notes and patches from Police, Fire, Port Authority and EMS. People left photos, poppies, books, and even a red, white and blue live flower arrangement. Covers, pins, collar devices and other items belonging to or symbolizing the deceased were also placed on the altar. 

By day two, it was obvious the First Responders and 9/11 Families had passed word things could be left on the ship, because items arrived that required more planning: Framed photos and artwork, small statues, articles of unit clothing that had belonged to the deceased, even two six-foot-wide displays of patches representing all the fire companies. We set up a second table, then a third.

One afternoon a firetruck double-parked on West Side Highway. Its occupants ran into the ship’s vehicle deck in turnout gear, stood in front of the altar in a circle with their arms around each other’s shoulders, and cried together for ten minutes. Then they retrieved their truck and went back to work.

Another afternoon, three fire fighters stopped by to present a statue on behalf of the SSGT Chris Engeldrum FDNY VFW Post #12033. That post is unique because its members must not only be current military or veterans but also active or veteran New York City fire fighters. Since they had called ahead, RP1 Garrett and I met them on the pier in front of the bow stem as they had requested so they could take a photo with the ship. Two gentlemen held the heavy statute while the other removed the velvet bag they had placed over it.

The statue’s base was wooden, and each of its four sides had engraved plates bearing the names of members of their VFW who had lost their lives in combat. Instead of giving their military ranks, they were listed simply as FF and their name. Fire Fighter. Above the names on the front side, the VFW had inscribed these words: To the Crew of USS NEW YORK (LPD 21) In Glorious Memory Of The NEW YORK CITY FIREFIGHTERS Who Have Made The Ultimate Sacrifice While In Defense Of Our Great Nation. Extending upwards from the base was an expertly cut and etched piece of WTC steel in the form of a battle cross with the rifle pointing downward and an FDNY helmet on the top. Where the rifle barrel met the base, four items had been affixed.

“What are these pieces at the foot of the cross?” I leaned in to see better.

“This is a piece of cement. That might seem a common thing, but most of the cement was pulverized. This is one of the bigger pieces we found.” It was only 4 inches wide. “This piece is a bolt that held the steel girders together. And you see the one that looks melted? That’s from a firetruck. One of our guys was driving south toward the Trade Center along West Side Highway. As he neared the towers, it got too smokey to see, so he radioed dispatch to help him find his way. Dispatch asked him where he thought he was and he told her, ‘On West Side.’ She responded, ‘You can’t be there. That section is gone. The tower just fell on it.’ No one heard from him again. The truck was found 100 days later, 60 feet below ground where it had melted because of the fire raging under the surface. This is a piece of the truck.”I placed my hand on it gently. “I’m sorry about your friend.” We stood in silence for a moment. Then I moved my hand to the last piece. “What is this one with the rivets?”

“A piece of one of the planes.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I lifted my hand like I had just been bitten. “Isn’t this evidence?”

“Nah, they got lots of it. It was just lying around in bits and chunks.”

“How about I find the Commanding Officer so you can present this to him properly?”

“That would be good.” They followed me into the ship carrying with them the most disconcerting thing ever brought onboard.

On the last day for tours, a man entered the ship with his three young sons. He stood near the large shrine that had formed over the week, shifting from foot to foot. He had something in a bag under his arm.

“He doesn’t look right.” RP1 Garrett, who had done combat tours in Al Nasiriya, Fallujah and hotspots in Afghanistan, always kept a keen watch for anything suspicious. He walked directly to the man. “Can I help you with something?”

“I, um, I have this thing I found in the rubble at Ground Zero. I didn’t know what to do with it, so it’s been in my locker at the fire station for, um, eight years. I think I’d like to leave it here.”

 Praying it was not a body part, I moved closer to the man. “Are these your boys?”

 “Yes. I want them to see the ship, but maybe I want them to see what I brought, too.”

“What have you got there?”

He reached in the bag to pull out a triangularly folded piece of cloth. “I found this in part of a file cabinet that must have blown out a window. It was folded then, and I’ve never undone it.”

“A flag is a wonderful thing to show your boys. Would you like me to help you?”

“It still smells like Ground Zero.”

“That’s okay. If we open it and let fresh air touch it, that will slowly clear away.”

I held the loose end as the man turned it again and again. Soon we had a length of cloth between us.

“I think this is a New York State flag. Look boys, look what your dad found.” As we continued to unfold it, his sons took hold, too. We stretched it up and out like a flag should hang. The man took a long look and breathed deeply. “It’s all here. It’s complete. It survived.”

Around the gentleman and his three sons, born post-9/11, a crowd formed. Cameras caught the moment, then together we refolded the flag. The children placed in on the altar, then taking their dad’s hands, pulled him toward all the cool stuff the Marines had on display.

During USS New York’s visit to New York City, 80,000 people toured our ship.

They came to remember and honor those they lost on September 11th, 2001.

They came to see and honor who they had become in the aftermath.

80,000 survivors.

Copyright © 2021 bendertales.com

Never Forget

On September 11, 2015, students and staff at the Nuclear Power Training Command gathered to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Truth be told, only the staff could really remember since most of the students that year had been in kindergarten in 2001. I was asked to speak at the event. Here are my remarks:

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the September 11th attack on the United States. Like this morning, that Tuesday morning began bright and clear, without a cloud in the sky. Passengers boarded planes in Boston, Washington, and Newark headed for California. Workers commuted to their jobs at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People sipped their coffee, sat in traffic, changed into their uniforms, scanned their emails, greeted coworkers, rode the subway, bought a newspaper to read on the flight, dropped their kids at school and kissed their families goodbye. It was a normal day.

It was a better-than-normal day for me. Having worked through the weekend visiting Marines standing watch in the guard towers along the Cuban fence-line and also leading worship and other activities at the chapel in Guantanamo Bay, Tuesday was my day off. I settled into my recliner with a bowl of cornflakes and turned on the Today Show to spend an hour with my fellow New Yorkers. When Matt Lauer’s visage turned grim and they cut to a live camera shot of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, I was stunned. A plane had hit the building—an enormous plane. A jet. Not a misguided thrill seeker with a small plane or anything else one could imagine. A commercial jetliner.

This was not a mistake. I had lived around the New York flight patterns for many years, and I knew this could not be an error. I tried to call my parents in New York, but the call would not go through. Thinking the issue was with my phone, I called a friend elsewhere in the US and she answered.  This worried me because that meant the problem was with the New York phone system. Anxious, I hung up and dialed my mother at work. This time the call went through: “United Methodist Church, how may I help you?”

“A plane just hit the World Trade Center. Go home and stay there.”

“Oh, a Cessna hit the Empire State building when you were a baby. Don’t worry about it, your dad and I are heading to the city on Saturday. We’ll take a look then and tell you what happened.”

“Stay away from the city,” I demanded. The second plane hit soon after I hung up.

I’m not sure what happened for the next few minutes as I stared at the TV screen. Everything seemed muddled. Between what was going on inside my head and the confusion from the commentators, it felt to me like what happens to a ceiling fan when you flip the switch to make it turn in the opposite direction. There is a slowing, followed by a complete stop, and for a moment you wonder if it can or will start again. Then it does, slowly, but not in the way it went before the switch was flipped.

9/11 was that moment. It was the stopping point at which the world started going in another direction. We were being attacked. It was intentional. Soon there was word of a plane hitting the western facade of the Pentagon. Then a newscaster announced that a plane had hit Camp David. Soon that was changed to somewhere in a field in PA, a place we now know was Somerset, a rural farming community.

My phone rang. It was a call from the chapel telling me about an emergency meeting at 1400 and that one of my neighbors wanted me to visit her. When I walked outside my townhouse, I could see that our world was already changing. Down the main street that ran the length of the base, the Marine re-act teams were already setting up concertina wire and check points. We were at Threat Condition Delta. I cut across the field to my neighbor’s house and we spent the next hour glued to the TV and weeping. Then we prayed, composed ourselves, and went bravely about doing what needed to be done.

A few months later, construction began on Camp X-Ray, the detention camp for captured Al-Queda, including those believed to be a few of the “9/11 masterminds.” It was so near my home that, when the detainees were being held there, I could see them in their orange jumpsuits from my bedroom window. In January 2002, I was assigned as chaplain to the Fleet Hospital where they received their medical treatment. Part of my job was to mitigate the anger of their caregivers who were deployed from the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune and their guards who were activated reservists whose previous assignment had been to comb through the rubble at the Pentagon. I remember the first time I saw a detainee, a man our nation called an enemy. He was lying on a stretcher on his way back from receiving care at the main hospital. He looked young, scared and weak. I guess that since he was our enemy, I had expected him to look evil. He looked like us.

Within a year I was in Kuwait with another medical unit, waiting to invade Iraq. When the war finally started, we followed the Marines on their northward trek toward Baghdad. Our job was to pick up the pieces. Literally. Wounded, dead and dying Marines, Iraqi Republican Guard, civilians, children. Trust me, the only people who glorify war are those who haven’t seen it. And why were we there? Because September 11th, 2001 had changed everything.

I remember visiting a neighboring Cobra helo unit and seeing the names of New York City Firemen or military members killed in the Pentagon written in Sharpie on the missiles they carried. And I remember that so many of our corpsman, and most of our Marine wounded, could be counted among those courageous post 9/11 patriots who joined the military in response to the attacks.

In 2002 the Navy honored those who died on 9/11 by naming three LPDs for the places where the attacks had occurred: USS NEW YORK, USS ARLINGTON and USS SOMERSET. In 2008 I had the privilege to be the first chaplain assigned to USS NEW YORK, which was built, in part, with steel from the World Trade Center. I also served as the ship’s commissioning coordinator. In that capacity I acted as a liaison between the ship and various New York City entities such as the World Trade Tribute Center, the 9/11 Families Association, the fire and police departments, the mayor’s office, even the NY Jets. And everyone had a story to tell.

Here are a few of them:

The owner of a popular pub, located a block from the Twin Towers, took my husband Ken and I up on the roof of his building. Pointing toward Ground Zero, he told us that on the morning of 9/11 he had gone up there to see what was happening at the North Tower, when suddenly a deafening roar overwhelmed him. He looked up just as the second plane flew over his head and into the South Tower.

On several occasions, firemen related to me what had happened to their chaplain, Father Mychal Judge. He had been with them at the Control Center set up in the base of the North Tower when suddenly the sky began to rain people. Father Judge ran over to pray for the jumpers as their bodies hit the ground. It was then that the South Tower collapsed, causing an enormous dust and debris filled shock wave. As those in its path who survived, struggled to get their bearings, two firemen came across Mychal Judge as he was taking his last breath. Not able to leave their beloved chaplain lying there, they gathered up his body and carried him a block away to St. Peter’s Church and placed him on the altar before turning back to their gruesome work. Later, when the coroner was assigning death certificate numbers to the deceased, Father Judge was issued number one. I was told it was because thinking of him leading the way for those they lost gave them great comfort in the midst of tragedy and chaos.

A fireman shared with me what it was like to hear jumpers hitting the pavement and another, what it was like to hear the floors of the Towers impact on each other as the buildings came down. I learned that as horrific as it is to imagine your loved one jumping from that height, their bravery gave their families an unexpected gift, evidence of their death. Those who died in the towers and were compressed between floors left no trace. Of the 2,749 people who died at the WTC, 1,123 just disappeared.

My husband Ken and Mickey onboard USS NEW YORK

One night, while walking near Ground Zero, I met a former fireman named Mickey. On 9/11 Mickey was one of those heroic men who headed up the stairs while everyone else headed down. On the 23rd floor of Stairwell B, he and his partners came upon an older woman named Josephine who had gone as far as she could when panic and her limited physical condition overwhelmed her downward trek. Refusing her requests to leave her, Mickey and another fireman found a chair, placed her on it and, surrounded by several others who had slowed their descent to encourage them, continued on their way. Just as they reached the 4th floor, they heard slamming, screaming and a deafening roar as tons of steel and concrete plummeted around them. Then there was silence. It took Mickey and the other survivors three hours to find a way out of that small section of stairwell, which was all that remained of the North Tower. Had those 14 people chosen to leave Josephine as she had requested and run to safety, they would have been outside on the concourse when the building collapsed. Saving Josephine saved them all. 

Three firemen from the only VFW in the country to require its members to be both New York City firemen and combat vets told me about one of their friends who had been driving a fire truck down West Side Highway when he radioed back that he was lost in what seemed like falling debris. When he told the dispatcher his approximate location, she responded that he could not be there because that stretch of roadway was gone. That was the last anyone ever heard from him. The search for the truck lasted 100 days and when it was finally found, it was 60 feet below street level, and had been turned into dripping hunks of metal by the fires that raged underground until Spring of 2002. After telling me this story, one of the firemen opened the velvet bag he was carrying and took out a battle cross fashioned out of WTC steel at whose base was a piece of that truck. I placed my hand on it reverently.

“What’s this other piece with the rivets?” I asked as I moved my hand on top of it.

“That is a piece of one of the airplanes,”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and a chill ran down my spine.

Together we carried these disparate fragments enshrined at the foot of a battle cross aboard USS NEW YORK, where they remain today.

One evening after the World Trade Center Tribute Center at Ground Zero closed for the day, I sat with my friend Lee, a retired firefighter who is its founder, in one of the museum’s rooms.  The room was papered floor to ceiling and wall to wall with each 9/11 families’ favorite photo of the one they lost.  In the semi-darkness, Lee pointed to one smiling face after another. “I went to that man’s wedding… I pulled what was left of that man out of a pipe in the wreckage… that young lady’s mom gives tours of Ground Zero. It helps her cope. This man’s dad and I spent months in the rubble looking for our sons. He never found his.” On and on the stories poured out of him. On the other side of the wall in the adjacent room, Lee’s son Jonathan’s fireman’s turnout gear hung in a display case. Only 174 intact bodies were recovered at the WTC. Lee’s son was among them.

Lee and his younger son Brendan onboard USS NEW YORK

A steel worker stopped me in the street to tell me how he had helped build the towers in the 1970s and how awful it was to be among those shifting through the rubble looking for bodies. He, like many I met, talked not only of the disappointment of finding so few human remains but also about the skin lesions and breathing difficulties which were ongoing health concerns for those working in the debris.

A 9/11 family member sent me a Christmas card. In it was a map of Ground Zero that had x’s for the 8 locations where they had found her son’s DNA. A wife told me that after the second DNA finding for her husband, she requested they not call her with any more evidence so she could finally find some closure. By the way, the last reported human remains were found in 2013 in the mangled 1.4 million tons of WTC rubble which had been transported to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to be sorted.

During Fleet Week 2009 I attended a Yankee Game. As I was leaving the stadium in my summer whites a woman walked up to me. “You are the NEW YORK’s chaplain, right?” she asked. Before I could respond, she removed the bracelet from her arm and clipped it on mine. “Please wear this when the ship is commissioned,” she said, as her eyes welled with tears. I looked down to read the name.

“Who was Paramedic Carlos Lillo?”

“My partner. We had worked together for years. We parked our truck near the Trade Center that morning, and we split up for a moment in the chaos to figure out where we were needed. I turned to the right. He turned to the left. I never saw him again.”

I wore the bracelet to the commissioning, and every Patriot’s Day since.

On my other arm is a bracelet for two brothers, John, who was a fire fighter and Joseph, who was a police detective. Their parents gave it to me as I led them on a tour of USS NEW YORK. Their father, John, was a former Marine, a retired FDNY captain, and one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history. He and his wife had come on board that day with the youngest of each of their sons’ children because they felt it was the proper place to tell the children about their fathers who died saving others at the World Trade Center.

A farmer near Somerset, PA told me she had been outside in her garden when a flash of light cut across the sky. It was followed by a loud boom. Soon after, scraps of mail floated into the trees near her house. The local volunteer fire company was called and one truck responded. It drove out to a field to find a smoldering cut in the earth. That was all there was to be seen of Flight 93.

My friend Barbara worked in Protocol and Public Affairs at Arlington Cemetery. She was walking a distinguished visitor through the graveyard up toward the Custis Lee Mansion when the Pentagon was hit.  She remembers being momentarily shocked by that sight, then politely excusing herself from her guest and running as fast as she could down the hill, past the graves, down the roadway and over to the Pentagon Parking lot in heels because her daughter was in the Pentagon’s day care center. When she arrived, she saw that the Marines had already brought all the children outside, with their cribs, which they had circled up like a bunch of wild west wagons. The children had been placed in the center of the circle so they could not escape, and the Marines were standing guard on the outside of the circle to protect them. Her daughter was safe. Not long after, Barbara left Arlington Cemetery and took a job working at the Wounded Warrior Regiment, the unit responsible for caring for wounded, ill and injured Marines.

One last story, a personal one, from the morning of 2 November 2009 when USS NEW YORK, with 7 ½ tons of World Trade Center Steel in her bow, sailed into New York harbor for the first time:

It was cold and windy on the weatherdeck. Already many of our crew had begun to man the rails. Finding a spot near the bridge, I assumed parade rest and waited. None of us will ever forget this day, I thought as I looked around at the gleaming faces of those with whom I stood—Sailors and Marines, most of whom had joined the military post-9/11.

Along the shore I could already see the twinkling lights of police cars positioned about two blocks apart. Just before we passed under the Verrazano Bridge, we were joined by police boats, which looked tiny, compared to our 684-foot-long vessel. Smaller still were the Coast Guard RHIBs—inflatable rubber boats with mounted weapons. Off our starboard side a diminutive barge displayed a huge American Flag hung like a curtain through which the rising sun was beginning to shine. Above us flew a host of police and media helicopters, and around us sailed a collection of bright red tugs. But the most impressive of all were the fireboats shooting streams of red, white and blue water 200 feet into the air. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty and there before us sat lower Manhattan, glowing in the reflected early morning light.

It was almost time. As we approached Ground Zero, instinctively conversations came to a close. Then a whistle sounded. As one, we raised our hands in salute.  Our ship, USS NEW YORK, with its bow stem made from World Trade Center steel, slowed and then stopped in the water.

To my right, seven guns shot once. Twice. A third time. As I gazed across the water, I could see formations of First Responders in full their dress uniforms, arms raised to return the salute. Around them flickered the emergency lights from ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Families and friends held up signs with the photos and names of those who had died. “I pray they can see this,” I whispered. After a long silence, a bagpipe band began to play. Strains of America the Beautiful blended with the sound of the lapping water. Tears flowed down my face.

The World Trade Center, transformed, had sailed home.

I will never forget that day. I will never forget 9/11, and I will surely never forget what I learned from it and the events that followed, about humankind’s capacity for evil, hatred and self-centeredness. But I will also always remember, that even in the midst of such devastation and horror, even as the events were unfolding, immediately, there were those who responded with passion and resolve; who put honor, courage and commitment above self and answered the call to serve; and by so doing taught us profound lessons about humankind’s capacity for incredible acts of love, kindness and self-sacrifice. As we pause today to remember 9/11, it is my hope that these heroic individuals be the ones we remember, that it be their stories we tell, and that it be their lives we emulate.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Look at the Fish

My windshield has been the recipient of some of the foulest trash talk imaginable, and I make no apology for it. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, home to the world’s longest parking lot, laughably named the Expressway, I was predisposed to such behavior. I apprenticed in the passenger seat of my mother’s Mustang, watching her middle finger ably signal everyone she felt deserved to see it. Her mastery of the many nuanced intonations of the word “asshole” was equally impressive.

When I got my driver’s permit, all I needed to learn was how to handle a vehicle. I was already well skilled in the fine art of relating to others with whom I shared the road. Not a fan of hand signs, my concentration was in verbal styles of communication, my New York accent only enhancing my delivery techniques.

“I’m driving here, shithead. Stay on your own side of the road… You want to tailgate me? Watch how slowly I can drive… Listen asshole, your turn signal is not optional equipment… Don’t you even think of pulling in front of me (said as I adamantly maintained the required ‘bumper to bumper’ distance in heavy traffic.)

I continued to perfect these skills until I finished my Master’s Degree and began my professional career. Soon after starting my position as a United Methodist pastor, I realized that there was a level of disconnect between my verbal driving techniques and the public’s opinion of behavior behind the wheel for someone with a clergy sticker on the bumper. It was, however, not too difficult to morph my talents to meet expectations. Since I was then able to afford a car with an air conditioner, I merely rolled up the windows so my verbiage could not be heard outside my vehicle. I also then responded to every “F Bomb” floated my way with “Oh yeah? Well, bless YOU.”

This worked well until I joined the Navy as a chaplain. Being in the military, I could keep my New York driver’s license, as long as I still used the number of expletives required each month of all New York drivers. But that also meant that since most of the people with whom I shared the roads on base knew I was a chaplain, I had to actually become a bit more gracious. Still, it was not a problem as I was able to fulfill my state mandated quota of vulgar commentary by taking long drives away from the base while on liberty.

Then I was sent to Iraq for the invasion in 2003. Although I never drove a vehicle there, I soon learned that the irritation level attainable in traffic was not limited to being in a car. A combat arena is able to bring out the asshole in many a frightened, tired and frustrated person just like what happens during an evening commute, only more so. And unlike a commute, which ends in an hour, that ever-vigilant environment goes on for months without pause, keeping stress hormones raging until they become a person’s new normal. I had no idea the profound affect it all had had on me until I returned home, got back in my car and tried to drive as if nothing had changed.

To say that my New York edginess had made a turn for the worse is an understatement. What used to be an almost comic monolog about shitty drivers became pure road rage that even I found frightening. No longer did I yell in response to a dumb maneuver in the road around me, now I screamed at every little thing. I thought my outrageous behavior would pass with time, as I settled back into a routine, but it didn’t. Moving to a new duty station with a much shorter commute didn’t help, either. I began to think that perhaps I should give up driving altogether, but how does one do that and still maintain the ability to live and work without public transportation?

Thinking a vacation might help, my husband Ken and I decided to take leave in Cancun, Mexico. Although fresh air and ocean breezes wouldn’t fix my problem, having a bit of time to relax couldn’t make it any worse and for a week, at least I would not be driving.

Since Ken is a scuba diver, the plan was that he would make a dive each day, and while he was out, I would sit by the pool and calmly read a book. On the first morning we were there, I grabbed a novel and headed over to find a shady spot under a palm tree. I settled in to the lounge chair and opened the book. I was barely a page into the story when I noticed Ken standing at the foot of the lounger.

“Your dive lesson begins in 10 minutes. Close the book and follow me.”

“But I…”

“No buts. Your lesson is paid for and you are taking it. Besides, it’s only in the pool. Since I dive, you should at least try it.”

Realizing it was futile to argue, I followed him. For the next hour and a half, I learned all about dive gear – how to wear it, how to use it, even how to clear a mask underwater and recover my regulator should it get bumped out of my mouth. That last bit was rather easy for me, since I had had to use a gas mask many times in Iraq, even donning one from a sound sleep when the chemical sensors buzzed.

Being underwater was strangely peaceful, especially since I could be there for an extended period without the need to surface. All I could hear was the rhythmic bubbling of the regulator as I slowly inhaled and exhaled. For the first time in a long time, I felt calm.

When the lesson was over, Ken was waiting for me. “Well, how was it?” he asked.

“Better than I expected,” I replied and began to tell him what I had learned, but he stopped me mid-sentence.

“Glad you liked it; your first open water dive starts in 45 minutes. Let’s get you into a wet suit and get sized for a weight belt.”

“But I…”

“No buts,” he replied.

My open water instructor’s name was Manuel, a very pleasant and competent gentleman from Cuba. I could tell right away that he expected me to follow his orders to ensure a safe diving experience, and I was grateful. Before we got into the boat, he reviewed what I needed to know about the gear, the gauges and how to exit the boat and descend along a rope. Since Ken was an experienced diver, he was going off with other divers and a guide. Manuel and I would be dropped in the ocean and they would come back to get us. As the small boat headed out to an area over a reef known as the Aquarium, Manuel gave me one last instruction.

“Since we cannot talk underwater, we will have to rely on hand signals. Thumbs up means you need to surface right away. Hopefully you won’t need that.” Forming a circle with his right thumb and forefinger, he said, “This is the okay sign. Periodically I will ask if you are okay using this sign. But before you answer with the same sign, I want you to do three things. First, look at your air gauge to make sure you are not running out of what you need down there to keep you alive. Second, check the rest of your equipment to see if anything is amiss. And third, look around to see if there is any potential danger, like a speedboat, a torpedo or a shark.”

“A shark,” I stammered. “There could be sharks?”

“It’s the ocean. There could be sharks.”

“What if I see one?”

“Try not to annoy it.”

I laughed, trying to control my fear in a situation I was not sure I wanted to be in, in the first place.

“Let’s go over this again,” Manuel insisted. “I give you the okay sign as a question. What do you do?”

“Check for the immediate threat of lack of oxygen. Then check for the pending threat of equipment malfunction. Lastly check for a potential threat like a SHARK. Shouldn’t I check for the shark, first?”

“You won’t get away from him if you don’t have any air,” Manuel replied with a smile. “And if all those threats of yours are, how do you say, ‘neutralized,’ then what do you do?”

“I signal back with the okay sign, not the thumbs up, right?”

“Right.”

When we got to the drop spot, with fear and trembling I fell backwards out of the boat, letting my heavy air tank lead the way. Then I followed Manuel as together we descended the rope almost forty feet to the ocean floor, stopping periodically to clear our ears.

I had never seen anything like it! There were fish. Lots of fish! Iridescent ones, spiny ones, blue, pink, silver, striped fish, blowing sand off the sea floor, hiding behind coral, slipping past my face mask fish. There were fish everywhere! I understood at once why this area was known as the Aquarium.

With Manuel leading the way, we swam in, under and around the reef. At every turn there was something to see. At one point, a large eel slipped out of his hole to see us. I stopped dead in the water. Eels look like thick snakes, and I am not a fan of snakes. I began to look around with a more critical eye. If there is one eel, there could be more of them. Perhaps other dangerous creatures are lurking nearby. Maybe even a shark. I am down here with a person I don’t know well, in an environment I don’t really understand, using equipment that is unfamiliar. I froze. Manuel looked in my direction and I guess he saw a look of panic in my eyes. He gave me the okay sign. When I didn’t immediately respond, he pointed to my air gauge. I looked at it. I had been breathing so calmly up to that point that I had lots of air left. Then I felt around my gear. Everything was in place and functioning. I looked up. No torpedoes, speedboats or cruise ships. I looked around. The fish were still swimming around my head with no sense of urgency. Everything was just as it should be. I gave Manuel the okay sign. Looking at my eyes, he could see they were wide and staring inside my face mask. He pointed at me and gave me the okay sign again. Quickly, I did a second inventory. All was well. I okayed him back. Then he took his forefinger and middle finger and pointed them at his eyes, then turn his wrist and pointed them away. We hadn’t covered this sign, but I knew it meant look. Then he put his two palms together and wiggled them. He then repeated the two signs, to tell me to “Look at the fish.”

In my panic, I had forgotten to do that. I had stopped looking and reverted to merely seeing. As we continued our dive, I tried as best I could to regain the fascination I’d had when we first descended, but it was difficult. Now that I was looking for danger as well as beauty, it was hard to relax. For a moment, Manuel swam away from me and when I looked to see where he had gone, he was floating next to a large nurse shark. Putting his hand on the shark’s side, he used the other to beckon me forward, but I was already swimming backwards as fast as I could to put distance between that big fish and me. I don’t know where I thought I was going, but eventually Manuel was beside me again. Thankfully, it was time to surface. We had gone full circle and were back at the rope. It took all the strength I had to stop and clear my ears as needed instead of shooting straight for the surface and away from any other threats.

Back in the boat, Ken wanted to know how it had gone. Before I could say anything, Manuel said, “Your wife was a little nervous, but she’ll fix that on her next dive.” Then, as Ken went off to tend to his gear, Manuel pulled me aside. “Diving is about wonder and beauty. It is an opportunity to relax and enjoy the environment. It is not an exercise in how well you can control panic. You need to dive more. It will do you a world of good.”

On that trip, I did seven open water dives and two cave dives. Over the course of the week I got more familiar with the equipment and ever more fascinated with the diversity of life on the reef. Again and again, Manuel gave me the okay sign until I could do the three checks automatically. Do I have what I need to sustain life where I am? (Oxygen). Is what I rely on functioning? (Gear). Is there a potential problem I can foresee? (Anchor dropping on my head). If all is well, then look at the fish. Just look at the fish. Appreciate them for all that they are. That is why we are here.

On the first day back to work after Ken and I returned from Cancun, I again had to face the horrific just-over-one-mile commute that had become so unbearable. And wouldn’t you know it? A driver cut me off.

Automatically, I took a deep breath, mumbled, “Well, nothing happened to my car,” glanced at the other drivers around me and said out loud, “Wow, the trees are already budding. Those pale green baby leaves are so pretty.”

Without thinking, I’d done the check and moved on to appreciating the world around me, a world sometimes in need of laughable, somewhat vulgar commentary, but never anymore rage.

Many thanks to Manuel Mola, my patient instructor, who thought he was just teaching me to dive, but taught me so much more.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Semper Fire

At 0615 I stood facing the open gym door at the University of Windsor, Ontario. The affixed sign announced in bright red marker “Moving One Step Beyond Your Fear.” I took a deep breath and propelled myself toward the group of people nervously chatting in the center of the large room. The Annual Phoenix PerformingContinue reading “Semper Fire”

Touching Steel

The offices of the World Trade Center Tribute Center occupied an upper floor in a building across from Ground Zero. When I arrived, Lee and Jen met me at the door. A retired career firefighter, Lee lost one of his two firefighter sons in the towers on 9/11. Jen, a local resident, had volunteered soonContinue reading “Touching Steel”

Never Forget

On September 11, 2015, students and staff at the Nuclear Power Training Command gathered to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Truth be told, only the staff could really remember since most of the students that year had been in kindergarten in 2001. I was asked to speak at the event. Here are myContinue reading “Never Forget”

Crumbs to a Beggar

For nearly a year between college and seminary, I was employed as a live-in companion for a 90-year-old woman.  My job was to cook and serve her meals, see that she took her medication, run errands, and help her with activities of daily living. This was not always easy, for Mrs. L. was in the process of stubbornly living out her days.

Dinner could only be eaten on fine china by candlelight, and only if she were attired in a proper evening gown. Because of a hiatal hernia, she spit up a lot, and her aim was not particularly good, so often she had to go back upstairs to switch gowns in the middle of a meal. All this formality and costume changing caused dinner to go on for an inordinately long time each evening. It would have been much easier on Mrs. L., who was rather feeble, and on me, her caretaker, had she had a simple meal and been done with it, but she was insistent. And her evening meal was merely one example of her stubbornness.

Mrs. L. believed that one must spend at least one hour outdoors each day. In pleasant weather I couldn’t agree more, but Mrs. L. didn’t care about the weather.  She had been outside one hour every day for 90 years.  My objections could not stop her.  When it rained, she donned a raincoat, hat and galoshes, sat in her lawn chair and covered herself with a plastic tablecloth.  When it snowed, she’d send me to shovel a path to her chair and out she’d go, all bundled against the cold.

It has been said that the difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will and the other from a strong won’t.   Mrs. L. was both obstinate and perseverant, and I admired her ability to be both.

Mrs. L. has been gone for many years now. I can’t say I miss her because we were never really friends.  But now and again I remember some bits of wisdom I’d heard her speak to herself; wisdom I received as crumbs to a beggar.  “All sunshine makes the desert,” she’d say as she’d hobble out the door for an hour of sitting in a rain storm. Or “never watch anyone out of sight.”  At 90, it was quite possible that when she said goodbye to someone at the end of a visit, it could be for the last time. So instead of ending a pleasant social call with a sad thought as their car pulled away, she would turn on her heels and head into the house, muttering that phrase under her breath.  “Never watch anyone out of sight.”

There was something else she whispered regularly, too, but I can’t tell you what it was because I never heard it.  All I can tell you is that she’d say it each night on her knees with her head bowed and her hands folded on her bedcovers.  Then she’d climb into bed, calmly close her eyes and go right off to sleep.

I wasn’t there when Mrs. L.’s life finally ended.  I was away at school, getting my life started.  But I will always remember that headstrong old lady whose days were filled with tea parties and visitors, fresh air and faith in God.  A woman who, right to the very end of her life, stubbornly maintained her interest and enthusiasm for living.

Not a bad idea for the rest of us.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

Look at the Fish

My windshield has been the recipient of some of the foulest trash talk imaginable, and I make no apology for it. Growing up on New York’s Long Island, home to the world’s longest parking lot, laughably named the Expressway, I was predisposed to such behavior. I apprenticed in the passenger seat of my mother’s Mustang,Continue reading “Look at the Fish”

Harmony

The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with theContinue reading “Harmony”

I Remember You

Names carved in granite, Neatly, in rows, Ordered by date of death. “I remember you,” I mutter, as my fingers read a section. For a short moment my mind races back to body bags, opened in search of dog tags listing religious preference. A bullet hole in the spine, just below the skull. Searching throughContinue reading “I Remember You”

Harmony

The first time I heard “Blue Moon” it was sung, not by Frank Sinatra, but by the two Zulu men I was sitting between on a makeshift seat in the front of an old van. Okay, so it was probably not the first time I had heard that song, since I was familiar with the tune, but I did not know the words any better than they did. “Blue Moon… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da da… da da da da da da dah.” They kept singing it over and over.

My friends in New York had been afraid I’d encounter Zulus ever since they’d seen the newspaper headline: “African National Congress and Zulus Clash in Downtown Johannesburg.” The story had been dreadful enough, but the accompanying photo had shocked everyone, even me, although I did not want to admit it. Yet who could ignore a picture of dead bodies on a sidewalk in what looked like an upscale shopping area, especially since one of them had a spear sticking out of him? “Don’t go to South Africa,” was the consensus expressed as my phone rang off the hook the day before I was to leave. But despite my friends’ guidance and my own unspoken fears, I went anyway.

The unrest leading up to the first fully democratic election in April 1994 made it necessary for the multi-ethnic clergy group with whom I was traveling to pay extra attention to security issues. We were especially cognizant of this when we arrived at the Methodist Church in the center of Johannesburg and found policemen removing concertina wire near the front door where the ANC/Zulu clash that had made those headlines had taken place. We were there to attend voter registration training and a peace rally.

That this had already been the site of extreme violence was unnerving, but I tried to be brave as prospective voters came in to learn how to cast their ballot for the first time. It must have been even scarier for them, knowing that there were those willing to do bodily harm to disrupt their right to vote.

Between the training and the peace rally, we paused for dinner from the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant down the street. Over the shared meal, a few representatives of local factions joined us for more intimate conversations about the upcoming election. Afterwards, we moved to a spacious auditorium on the church grounds for the rally, which took the form of a concert, featuring a musical group from each political faction or tribal entity. Although the participants were deeply committed to conflicting visions for the future of their country, in music, they found commonality, and for a moment, a sense of much needed peace.  

Then an announcement was made that the next group, the largest of the evening, represented the Zulus. I squirmed in my seat as flashes of that spear photo coupled with clips from the old movie Shaka Zulu raced through my brain. Were we about to be attacked by wild men whose accomplices had, just a few days ago, killed their political opponents outside this very building? That’s how the media had portrayed the Zulus in their vivid and shocking headline news article that had made it all the way to New York. So what else could I expect?

I hunkered down, hoping to become invisible, and braced myself for what might happen. Simultaneously, the doors at the rear of the auditorium opened, and the Zulus entered… singing.

What? That was not the war cry of a primitive people about to wreak havoc upon their audience. It was… it was… barbershop music. As the chorus of almost one hundred tuxedo clad barbershop singers made their way down the aisles to the stage, the melodious tones of complex harmony began to fill all the empty places, both in the room and in all of us. It was enchanting.

So, when a few of the Zulu crooners, who we met over coffee after the rally, offered to give a bunch of us a ride back to the retreat center in their van, we were delighted to accept their kindness.

“Blue Moon…” Even though none of us knew the rest of the words, the harmony was unforgettable.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

How to Prepare for Reassignment

* Dedicated to military members, clergy and anyone else who gets moved around for work… whether they like it or not.

Pretend it is not coming. Continue to think of yourself in this place with these people forever. Whine over the same daily annoyances as if they are permanent problems.  Tell no one you are leaving.

Receive email from your relief.  Treat it like an intruder. Wait three days before replying and blame your lateness on “network problems.” Make ominous remark to him about how he’ll have to learn to put up with that, too.

Read and reread his email. Be sure they will like him more. Get depressed. Remember past difficulties with colleagues. Present these to yourself as evidence that it is really time to leave. Completely ignore all information that does not support this thesis.

Pick a fight with a staff member or policy. Get worked up over it. It is easier to deal with anger than sadness.

Do something that you know will be “the last time in this place.” Feel melancholic. Tell no one.

Announce that it is Spring. Clean the junk out of your office. Pretend not to hear someone whisper, “Isn’t she leaving soon?”

Mention matter-of-factly over lunch that you have heard from your relief. Be glad when surprised colleagues ask, “You’re leaving soon?” Brag about new assignment.  Keep fingers crossed under the table.

Refuse to call person you are relieving.  Fear that “something will go wrong” and you won’t get this assignment if you call. Google new job and gather outdated information.

Tell colleagues nice things about your relief. Begin to pave the road for his success because you care about these people. Once you have convinced yourself about the goodness of your relief by the recitation of his attributes, call him and begin a proper turn over.  Laugh a lot during the conversation. Look forward to meeting him. Really. Hope things will go this well when you contact the person you are relieving.

At staff meeting, listen to litany of upcoming challenging work requirements. Remember you are leaving soon. Smile.

Remember you are leaving soon. Panic! Force yourself to call the person you are relieving. Pray he does not answer the phone. He does. Know that he is as conflicted over leaving his assignment as you are over leaving yours. Be nice. Ask lots of questions. Take copious notes. Thank him for his good work. Congratulate him on his new assignment.

Get excited! Make plans. Change plans. Hurry. Wait. Panic. Get frustrated. Be sad. Say goodbye… cry, but don’t let anyone see.

Say hello! Be brave… keep breathing … find your way… business as usual.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

At the American Cemetery in Normandy

On Memorial Day 2014, the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment visited the American Cemetery in Normandy and with a student group from an American college provided evening colors. As we remember the 76th Anniversary of D-Day this year, here are some photos from that visit and the prayer I offered during the ceremony.

Almighty and Merciful God, we are gathered on this hallowed ground made sacred by the presence of our forebears-in-arms who gave the last full measure of devotion on the shoreline below us.

Standing among so many graves, we are reminded of the cost of war and the sacrifices that have been made throughout our nation’s history by those who have answered the call to protect and defend. Some are known to us as father, grandfather, distant ancestor, close relative, neighbor or friend. Others have stood beside us on the field of battle. Most we know only by their devotion to duty and their physical and moral courage which has preserved for us a just and free nation.  With honor and fortitude, they made their stand against all enemies to alleviate tyranny and oppression, build up civil society, provide humanitarian assistance, defend the constitution, uphold human rights and dignity and work toward that glorious day when at last there shall be peace.

And so, O God, in their honor and memory we pause to offer to you a prayer of thanksgiving as we remember them silently in our hearts:

Let us pray for those who fought and died…

Let us pray for those who fought and lived…

Let us pray for those who, through their support, care and love for those who fought, have faced their own battles…

Let us pray for ourselves, that we continue to do all in our power to stand against those who oppose freedom, democracy and the establishment of a just and lasting peace…

O God, may we always remember the patriots upon whose shoulders we stand and may we as a nation always be worthy of those who defend us.

In your most holy name, we pray. AMEN.

Interfaith Chapel

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com

I Remember You

Names carved in granite,

Neatly, in rows,

Ordered by date of death.

“I remember you,” I mutter, as my fingers read a section.

For a short moment my mind races back to body bags, opened in search of dog tags listing religious preference. A bullet hole in the spine, just below the skull. Searching through a journal for a name, when other ID was missing. Deep screams filling the tent as death came painfully. The sound of my own voice singing hymns to a Baptist as he silently moved closer to heaven, his brain death preceding his last breath by hours. A Buddhist? Did I say the right prayer? God, I hope so.

Enough.                                            Enough.

“I remember,” I say again, my voice hoarse from cheering for the team.

Across the parking lot athletes are leaving the gym,

Two hours of seated volleyball and wheel chair basketball only invigorating them.

They move quickly on prosthetic legs worn proudly with shorts.

A few, with scars on their heads, search for the bus.

These warriors wear their memorials, tattooed on existing limbs, telling the story of how they came to be wounded, who they lost and why it matters.

My tattoos are in stone.

Copyright © 2020 bendertales.com