That’s Life

THAT'S LIFE

While I was trying to find a reprieve from the incessant 24/7 media coverage of the recent Paris shootings and bombings, I chanced upon a PBS show entitled First You Dream  – The Music of Kander & Ebb, a tribute to John Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy-award winning songwriting team whose Broadway shows include Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the irrepressible Flora, the Red Menace, their first collaboration and the show that was the vehicle for Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut.

One of the songs featured in the program was a ballad entitled Life Is from the 1968 Kander and Ebb adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel Zorba the Greek into the Broadway musical, Zorba. The show opens (and ends) with the song Life Is, with lyrics that bolster Alexis Zorba’s credo that one must grab life while one can. (You can hear the song at the end of this post by clicking on it.) One line of the song particularly struck me. A character identified in the production only as The Leader sings:

Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die, /Life is how the time goes by!”

 Perhaps it was because two of my friends recently died that the words of the song really hit me and caused me to mull over the whole question of life and death – theirs and ultimately my own. Perhaps it was the philosopher in me that saw this line as significant. Perhaps I was just ready to hear those words. Perhaps I just liked the song. I don’t know. I only know that I was deeply moved by the song and that it made me think.

What also moved me was an article that I recently read by Michael Gartner about the life of his parents, predominantly, his father. The elder Gartner must have been quite a character and wish that I had known him because I really appreciate his attitude toward life. Gartner writes of the time when his father said to him, “Mike, do you want to know the secret of a long life?”

“I guess so,” Gartner said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

“No left turns,” he said.

“What?” Gartner asked.

“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”

“What?” Gartner said again.

“No left turns,” he said. “Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer.  So we always make three rights.”

“You’re kidding!” Gartner said, and he turned to his mother for support.

“No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”

But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”

Gartner was driving at the time, and almost drove off the road as he started laughing.

“Loses count?” Gartner asked.

“Yes,” his father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”

Gartner couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” he asked.

“No,” he said.” “If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day.”

As I said, Gartner’s father must have been quite a character.

You know, Zorba was right: Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die. The emphasis is on the word “do,” not on “die.” In Gartner’s father’s case, a long life meant making no left turns. Not bad advice, actually. (UPS drivers are directed to make no left turns as well.) Near the end of his long life, Gartner’s dad said clearly and lucidly, “I want you to know that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.” Those would be his last words. A short time later, he died. He was 102. Wouldn’t it be great is each of us could make those our last words.

Almost forty years after the premiere of Zorba, screenwriter Justin Zackham wrote The Bucket List. The film, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, follows two terminally ill men on their road trip with a wish list of things to do before they “kick the bucket,” hence the term “bucket list.”

I believe the message is clear: We should not postpone things that we know we want to do. None of us gets out of this world alive and cemeteries are filled with people dying to get in. None of us will live forever; none of us knows when we will die, or the state of our health throughout our lifetime. Therefore, we should try to live each day as if it were our last, and each day we should try to do one thing that brings us joy.

As I said earlier, the line from the song made me think once again about life. I came up with a few thoughts as a result of that reflection. Since these are my thoughts, you the reader, do not have to agree with them and that is fine with me. Come up with your own thoughts. You will find that to do so is a rewarding exercise. At any rate, let me share with you the fruits of my thinking.

  • Do not waste time. Life is too short to wake up with regrets. Each of us has been allotted 1,440 minutes in a day. That is a rather generous allotment, and those minutes are to be used! We should love the people who treat us right.  Forget about the ones who do not.  If we have the chance, we should take it and if it changes our life, we should let it. As the great Yogi Berra once famously said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I could not have said it better.
  • Be grateful for the time we have. We can lament that our time is finite, or we can rejoice that we have any time at all. It is our choice. We did not do anything to deserve our life. The sequence of events necessary for us to have arisen out of nothing were so unimaginably improbable that we should be stunned that we are even here in the first place. Out of all of the people who could have existed, you and I are among the vanishingly small percentage who actually do. We can complain that we do not have much time, or we can celebrate that we have a lot of time. Again, it is our call. At the cosmic level, our life is an infinitesimal dot between two infinite spans. In the musical Carousel, Oscar Hammerstein II strikes this note when he has Billy Bigelow say to Julie Jordan, “What are we? Just a couple of specks of nothing. Ah, you can’t even count the stars in the sky, and the sky’s so big the sea looks small; and two little people – you and I – we don’t count at all.” That may be true at the cosmic level, but at the human level, a lifetime is long enough to do amazing things – to pursue and master a dozen passions; to build a hundred friendships; to love and lose and love again, and again, and again; to chase our dreams and, if we care enough to work hard, to reach those dreams; and finally, to have an exciting, fulfilling, meaningful, and truly awesome life.
  • Live as long as we can, and stay as healthy as we can. Grasp the branch firmly; do not fall before it breaks. And, perhaps most importantly, help others to live healthier, longer lives as well.
  • Be less self-centered. The idea of an ongoing, constant self is an illusion. The child we once were no longer exists; as we change, we are continually dying and being reborn. As the French say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) This saying makes me think, “Well, what is changing?” It’s a very broad question, but when you think about it, everything is changing all the time – including me. With this frame of mind, what we call death affects only the last of a long series of “me changes,” all of whose predecessors have already passed on.
  • Recognize that we are part of the universe. In the bigger picture, our bodies are on loan from the universe. Our bodies are an incredibly fortunate collection of atoms forged in stellar furnaces and pulled together by gravity or some deeper, hidden force. When we are finished with our bodies, their atoms will be recycled to further move into the next stage of their upward journey toward ever more complex and useful forms. Celebrate that we have been able to participate in such a beautiful process.
  • Live urgently. Trying to prepare for death is largely a waste of time. Once we are living our life we will love every day and will not want it to end. Closure will be impossible. The best we can do to prepare is to do everything we want to do, as often as we can. We should value our time highly and make the most of every day. Recall Hunter Thompson’s words in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
  • Appreciate that our time is finite. Not only is our time finite, but I, for one, do not want to know in advance when my branch will break. There are no guarantees in life including tomorrow. Only a fool makes definite plans for tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come.
  • Do not make a practice of ruminating on our mortality; it is depressing as Hell and thoroughly counterproductive. Factor it into our behavior and then get on with living. We should think about it only to the extent that it improves our life by cultivating gratitude, compassion, selflessness, health, boldness, urgency, and meaning.

No one ever said life would be easy. The only promise we may have is that life most likely will be interesting.

Like Zorba, we should sing and dance while we can. We should tell people how we feel about them, repair regrets, and forgive. And we should not say anything that we would not want to stand as the last thing we ever said to them.

So get started on your bucket list. Add to it often. Make a promise to yourself to try doing one of the desires on your list each day or week.

Remember to not make left turns.

And enjoy life now – it does have an expiration date, you know!

 

 And HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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The Other Terrorist Attack

 

BOMBINGS

Children hold banners during a rally in solidarity with victims of the Paris attacks and Beirut bombings.

Paris was not the only capital city targeted by Islamic State terrorists last week. As the Paris shootings made headlines worldwide, some 1,700 miles away another horrific attack against humanity lost prominence in the world media. This attack occurred in the capital city of Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon is that tiny country that stands between Syria and Israel, approximately 4,000 square miles – roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut in the United States. It might be hard to spot on a map.

The attacks in Paris and Beirut are only the latest in a wave of terrorism that has swept the globe in recent months. Only weeks ago, a Russian airliner was downed near Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort in what has been confirmed as a bomb attack. In July, Egyptian soldiers killed nearly 100 militants in the Sinai during skirmishes there. Meanwhile in the Turkish capital of Ankara, nearly 100 were killed in explosions. All of the attacks were confirmed or suspected of being linked to ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

As the world continues to mourn the deaths of at least 129 people in Paris at the hands of alleged Islamic State militants, a hero has emerged whose actions literally saved the lives of countless people — and he was nearly 2,000 miles away from Paris. Unlike the attacks in Paris, his story and the story of the other terrorist attack last week has received little media attention, so let me correct that oversight.

Adel Termos was his name and yes, he was a Muslim. Termos, a thirty-two year-old car mechanic and a father of two, was walking in an open-air market with his daughter Malak in southern Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh district, when he heard a blast. A bomb had detonated. Glass and debris were flying. There was mayhem. After the blast, Termos phoned his wife, telling her he was going to help the wounded. But before Termos could offer his help, he noticed a second suicide bomber approaching a mosque. Termos made a split-second decision to tackle the assailant. The intervention forced the bomber to detonate his suicide vest. The bomb went off, killing both the bomber and Termos. And Termos’ sacrifice likely saved dozens, if not hundreds of lives.

“He tackled him to the ground, causing the second suicide bomber to detonate,” Elie Fares, a Beirut-based physician and eyewitness reported. “There are many, many families, hundreds of families probably, who owe their completeness to his sacrifice.” He added: “They died because of some demented, twisted politics. Adel is the reason we are not talking about fatalities in the three digits today; he is the reason some families still have their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers; he is a Lebanese hero whose name should be front and center in every single [media] outlet.”

With at least 43 dead and 239 injured, it was Lebanon’s worst bombing since the August 2013 blasts in Tripoli, which killed 47. But if it had not been for Adel Termos, it could have been much worse. It was initially thought Termos’ young daughter, Malak, died, but a picture has circulated on social media showing the little six-year-old girl carrying a picture of her dead father.

A small but growing band has hailed Termos as a hero and has urged people to remember him and the other victims. Present media coverage has largely ignored the attacks in favor of overwhelming coverage of the events in Paris.

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Adel Termos

Basima Atat, Termos’ widow says of her late husband’s actions: “My six-year-old daughter now says Dad is a martyr, a hero, in heaven. Do you know what it means to be a hero? I am alive, and happy, and proud of my husband who held our family name up high and honored us. The kids and I are all doing fine. He made us proud, put our heads up high, what more do I need? He gave me dignity, pride, and respect.”

It has been a week since the bombings in Beirut. Shock at the atrocities has not worn off in Burj al-Barajneh. A loud boom echoes in the distance and conversation stops; people shake momentarily in fear of another blast. Panic recedes when the noise proves to be thunder, but it is always near the surface.

Life continues to go on in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which have endured a series of suicide bombings over the past two years in response to Hezbollah’s forceful intervention in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad. The street where the suicide bombers struck last Thursday is once again alive with traffic, though signs of the massacre remain – smashed windows, closed shop fronts, portraits of the dead, flower memorials, and a shuttered mosque.

But the anger is clear. “These people are not humans,” Bilal Jelwane, Termos’ brother-in-law, said of the suicide bombers. “If you disagree with someone you don’t kill them. Imagine somebody coming to kill innocents in God’s name. We’re supposed to say Allahu Akbar when we are sacrificing sheep, not before slaughtering people.” He added: “The problem is these people think that by blowing themselves up they are going to join the prophet [Muhammad] in heaven. Our prophet is a prophet of mercy, our Islam is a religion of forgiveness, kindness, compassion, not a religion of killings and swords and slaughter.”

Whether it is in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, or New York City, I am reminded that all countries in the world are facing the possibility of attacks and innocent deaths but we just do not always know about them or perhaps we choose to ignore them.

Such occurrences are not just attacks against Paris. They are not just attacks against Beirut. They are attacks against humanity. This is how we should see them. Every day, somewhere on this vast planet, thousands of people are being killed. And still, we divide attacks as if peoples’ lives in Europe or in the United States are more important than peoples’ lives in the Middle East. “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in THOSE parts of the world.”

While some have decried an “empathy gap” between the two attacks, the disproportionate media attention may also have more to do with a sense that the attacks on Paris were more shocking than the attacks on Beirut. That feeling was in part because many news media consumers have come to expect that violence is more or less commonplace in the Middle East.

Unlike Beirut, we do not typically associate Paris with terrorism. Even though Paris is one of the most polarized places in the world, in the mind of many people the City of Lights is romanticized. In this mythical version, Paris is a city of artists and intellectuals, a city of rudeness and masculine weakness, a city adored by students and dilettantes, lovers and honeymooners, a city where the women are beautiful and the men are well-dressed. Friedrich Nietszche said of Paris: “An artist has no home in Europe, except in Paris.” You will never hear such claims for Beirut.

James Igoe Walsh, a professor who studies the relationship between terrorism and the media at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said: “Whereas [in Beirut] that sort of fits in with their existing conceptions of what happens in the Middle East.” Walsh also noted that Paris, more than Beirut, is a place that many in America have experienced directly or through its cultural products. The American media may feel a connection to the attacks on Paris and therefore followed those assaults more closely than those that shook Beirut just the day before.

“There’s a lot more media people in Paris than there are in Beirut, so even if the [Western] media had wanted to cover the Beirut attacks as intensively as they did the Paris attacks, it would be logistically a lot more challenging to do and probably a lot more expensive,” Walsh said.

Scientifically, it is also true that there really is only so much tragedy a person can process and care about. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warns that demonizing people who express real empathy for another country in need is not necessarily a great idea. He says, “Expressions of empathy of others can be wonderful, and it’s certainly not something you criticize. What becomes problematic is when it’s so unequally distributed. If people don’t seek out news about the suffering of other groups, they might get a perception that they’re the only ones who are suffering.”

“And there is hope,” he adds, “that our brains will always be so geared toward supporting those who have the same colored skin as us. Our brains are incredibly flexible – Americans can feel like the French are an outgroup if they do something that opposes our policy goals.” (Remember the political euphemism, “Freedom Fries” rather than French Fries during the Bush years in response to France’s opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq?) Bruneau concludes, “But at a time like this we feel like they are our deepest compatriots. So this is of course, the great hope, that we can always change who we are and how we think.”

We should understand that the innocent people who died in Paris are just like the ones who died in Beirut and in any other country facing terror and violence. This one single night attack in Paris has been a constant norm in Beirut, Lebanon for the past thirty years. All lives on this earth count. Every country that faces a tragedy must have an “I am Safe” option on Facebook. Every innocent life that is killed should earn a hashtag. People should not be indifferent to any death. We should mourn every human being dying in an attack. No exceptions. No excuses.

So, by all means pray for Paris, but also pray for Beirut. In fact, pray for the whole wide world. See each person as an equal human being. And if I may paraphrase Pope Francis here: “If you can’t or don’t pray, at least send good vibrations in their direction.”

Je suis Paris (I am Paris).

أنا بيروت (I am Beirut).

I am, we are – the world.

bombings2

People light candles during a vigil at the site of the two suicide bombings in Beirut.

 

 

What a Hero Looks Like

Yesterday was Veterans Day. This post is dedicated to all who have served their country in the United States military, and in particular to one who, by his service, can only be called a hero. It is not often that one knows a bona fide hero, but I am one of the privileged few. This soft-spoken man with an easy wit, was a member of a parish I served in Laurel, Maryland. Here is his awesome story.

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Rascon

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Rascon

With his Army uniform aglow with ribbons and his eyes trained on the floor, Alfred “Doc” Rascon seemed embarrassed to be at the White House on that Tuesday in 2000, receiving lavish praise – much less receiving America’s highest military honor.

Only after President Clinton draped the Medal of Honor around his neck did a smile play across Rascon’s face. He had glanced at the men he covered with his body in a Vietnamese jungle thirty-four years earlier to absorb grenade blasts and shrapnel that would have killed them and most assuredly killed him.

“The honor is not really mine,” Rascon said. “It ends up being those who were with me that day.” Rascon, forever affectionately known as “Doc” to his fellow soldiers, in an Army dress uniform, asked his eight platoon mates at the ceremony to stand, and several responded with a misty-eyed, thumbs-up salute. “What you see before you is common valor that was done every day,” Rascon said. “I’m deeply grateful to be here.” The former Army medic then accepted his medal and smartly saluted the commander-in-chief who presented it.

It was a glorious moment, long denied to Rascon, the son of Mexican immigrants, who joined the Army out of love for his adopted country. He was not yet a United States citizen when he went to Vietnam, but when he returned to Vietnam later in the war, it was as an American citizen.

“On that distant day, in that faraway place, this man gave everything he had, utterly and selflessly, to protect his platoon mates and the nation he was still not yet a citizen of,” President Clinton said. The President continued, “You have honored us by your choice to become an American…Thank you for reminding us that being an American has nothing to do with the place of your birth, the color of your skin, the language of your parents, or the way you worship God… it comes straight from the heart,” Clinton said. “And your heart, sir, is an extraordinary gift to your country. Under any circumstances, a Medal of Honor ceremony is an event of great importance,” Clinton told the East Room audience packed with military leaders, Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress, as well as Rascon’s wife, Carol, and their children, Amanda and Alan. “Today it is especially so, for the rare quality of heroism on display that long-ago day in 1966 [and] for the long, patient wait for recognition.”

Alfred Velazquez Rascon, now a retired United States Army lieutenant colonel, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico on 10 September 1945, the only child of Alfredo and Andrea Rascon. The Rascon family, in search of a better way of life, imigrated to the United States. They settled in Oxnard, California, where Rascon received his primary and secondary education. There was no money for college, so Rascon badgered his parents to sign an age waiver and let him enlist in the Army at seventeen. Though not citizens, Rascon and his family were legal permanent residents, and he had always thought of himself as an American. This was how he could pay his country back.

After finishing jump school and being trained as a medic, Rascon was sent to Okinawa in 1964 to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade, created the previous year as a fire brigade for Southeast Asia. In May 1965, it was the first Army combat unit sent to South Vietnam.

For Rascon – at nineteen, a kid like the other paratroopers – there was no foreboding, only excitement. Almost immediately, the 173rd was engaged in deadly search-and-destroy missions, and Rascon’s unit – the reconnaissance platoon for the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Regiment – was in the thick of it.

In March 1966, the 173rd was launched on Operation Silver City, a helicopter assault aimed at clearing the enemy from an area near the Song Be River in Long Khanh Province in South Vietnam.

The platoon awoke March 16 to the sounds of a massive firefight in the distance. The brigade’s 2nd Battalion had been surrounded by a reinforced North Vietnamese Army regiment and was being attacked from all directions. The fighting was desperate. According to some accounts, the North Vietnamese Army chained machine gunners to trees to ensure that they would fight to the death.

The 1st Battalion was sent to assist, and the recon platoon hurried toward the battle. After several hours, Ray Compton, the squad sergeant and point man, brought the recon platoon to a halt. Through the thick jungle, he had spotted enemy soldiers about twenty yards ahead, nearly close enough to shake their hands. They were North Vietnamese Army regulars, wearing dark green uniforms with khaki pants and pith helmets. Compton reported the possible ambush to the platoon commander.

Pfc. Neil Haffey was ordered to fire his grenade launcher at the North Vietnamese Army position. The North Vietnamese responded with a ferocious barrage from machine guns and rifle grenades. To Haffey, it looked like it was raining fire.

Rascon could hear cries for a medic from up front, about twenty-five yards in front of the main body of the platoon. Rascon started forward and kept going despite calls from Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Cooke, the platoon commander: “Stay down and keep out of the way, Doc, or you’re going to get killed.”

As he edged forward, Rascon saw that Pfc. William Thompson, a machine gunner, had been hit and was lying exposed on a trail next to his M-60 machine gun and two boxes of extra ammo. Rascon reached Thompson and lay behind him, unable to get to his wounds. He could feel Thompson quivering as he was hit again by enemy fire.

Rascon crawled over Thompson, putting his own body in the path of the incoming fire. Almost immediately, Rascon was hit by shrapnel from a grenade. Then he felt a stinging pain, as if someone were slapping him. A bullet had hit him in the hip, ripped through him parallel to his spine and come out by his shoulder blade. Rascon dragged Thompson off the trail, but by the time they reached the cover of the jungle, Thompson was dead.

Behind him, Rascon could hear Pfc. Larry Gibson, the other machine gunner, yelling that he was running out of ammunition. Gibson was bleeding, and Rascon crawled over to check him. “Get the hell out of here, Doc. I’m okay,” Gibson said.

But the wounded medic moved forward to Thompson’s dead body. Rascon grabbed two bandoliers of machine gun bullets from Thompson’s chest and brought them to Gibson, who was able to resume life-saving covering fire.

As Rascon searched for more soldiers to treat, a grenade exploded in front of him, throwing shrapnel in his face. Seconds later, another grenade ripped his mouth open.

“Oh, my God, my face is gone,” Rascon thought. He could see blood spurting out, and it scared him. But he calmed himself. “You’ve got to take care of your people,” he thought.

Rascon saw Haffey get hit, and then several grenades landed near him.

Haffey saw the grenades, too, and resigned himself to death. Then he felt a body on top of him. It was Doc. The grenades exploded, and Rascon took the blast. Rascon could hardly walk, and the pain was intense, but it seemed irrelevant. He began treating Haffey’s bullet wound. “Neil, you’re going to be okay,” Rascon said. “Everything’s fine. We’re all going to make it.”

Compton had seen Rascon jump on top of Haffey and catch the blast. He knew they both must have been killed. But suddenly Rascon was next to him, examining Compton’s wounds. Then he felt Rascon’s weight on top of him, knocking him to the ground.

Rascon had spotted another grenade coming in and had jumped on top of Compton. The medic had lost his hearing and was bleeding from the ears and nose. Rascon started to check Compton’s condition. The sergeant was incredulous. “Get your ass to the back, Doc,” Compton gasped.

Rascon instead turned to Thompson’s machine gun, still lying in the trail with two boxes of ammunition. North Vietnamese Army soldiers were inching toward it. Haffey saw a blur run by; it was Doc. He was back on the trail, exposed to enemy fire, dragging the machine gun and ammunition off the trail so another soldier could take them. With the additional firepower, the tide turned. The North Vietnamese Army broke off the fight, and the jungle grew quiet again.

Rascon treated the wounded until others forcibly dragged him back. They reached a clearing zone, where the wounded and dead were being flown out in helicopters. Rascon’s arms were draped over the shoulders of two soldiers. Rascon noticed a photographer coming toward him. He did not want to be embarrassed. “I’m going to walk,” Rascon told the soldiers. Rascon walked two or three steps, then fell back in the arms of his fellow soldiers.

Specialist Alfred Rascon (center) who was hit four times saving the wounded men of his unit, is helped toward a waiting helicopter. [photo: Tim Page]

Specialist Alfred Rascon (center) who was hit four times saving the wounded men of his unit, is helped toward a waiting helicopter. [photo: Tim Page]

“Common valor was a common-day issue there every day, especially on that day,” Rascon says.  “Everybody was a hero, because everyone was doing whatever they had to do to try to save their friends. It has nothing to do with me. It’s just a matter of me doing what I had to do that day, like any other day. It just so happens it was a bad day,” says the quiet-spoken hero.

But those who saw Rascon’s actions that day had no doubt that he merited the Medal of Honor.

“It did not surprise me, because that was Doc,” said Gibson. “What surprised me was that he lived through it.”

Compton recommended Rascon for the medal within days of the action, but in the confusion of the escalating war, it was not advanced up the chain of command. Instead, Rascon received the Silver Star.

Rascon was evacuated to Japan and underwent months of treatment for wounds that pain him even to this day. In May, 1966, he was honorably discharged from active duty and placed in the Army Reserves. The next year, he became a Naturalized United States Citizen.

He went to Officer Training School, earning a commission as an officer, and rejoined the Army in 1969, volunteering in 1972 for a second tour in Vietnam as an adviser. After leaving the Army, Rascon settled in Laurel, Maryland in 1983 and began a law enforcement career with various Justice Department agencies. It was not until the early 1990s, when he began contacting his old platoon mates, that Rascon learned he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor.

During a reunion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Rascon’s comrades discovered that he never received the Medal of Honor. His former platoon members Ray Compton, Neil Haffey and Larry Gibson, whose lives he saved, sought to correct the oversight and renewed their efforts for of a Medal of Honor for Rascon. The Pentagon would not reconsider Rascon’s case because so much time had elapsed. Rascon’s comrades then sought the help of Congressman Lane Evans from Illinois. In 1997, Evans delivered to President Bill Clinton a packet containing the information about Rascon. The President then convinced the Pentagon to reopen the case.

And so it was, on 8 February 2000 – thirty-four years after that fateful day in 1966 – President Bill Clinton finally bestowed upon Rascon the Medal of Honor in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House.

Part of the citation for Rascon’s Medal of Honor reads: “Specialist Rascon’s extraordinary valor in the face of deadly enemy fire, his heroism in rescuing the wounded, and his gallantry by repeatedly risking his own life for his fellow soldiers are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”

Colonel Alfred Rascon, every American should salute you. I know that I do. You are truly an American hero. You are what a hero looks like. I am deeply honored to know you.

A Four-Letter Word

four-letter3When I was teaching an English 101 course at a local college, one of the exercises I went through with the class was the use of language. I would ask the class: “Who can give me a four-letter word that ends in “k” and means “intercourse?” There would be a hushed silence as well as some nervous snickering. No one wanted to answer the question, yet all thought they knew the answer. “Come on,” I would urge the class, “surely, you know the word.” After what must have seemed a lifetime, I would break the silence and say, “Alright, if you won’t say the word, I will. The word is – (I would allow a very long pregnant pause here) – the word is ‘talk.’” (What? You were thinking of that other word? Shame on you.) There was an almost audible sigh of relief that filled the classroom. What a tremendous build-up for such an equally enormous let-down!

I apologize in advance for the four-letter words toward the end of the following story. I would have deleted them, but the story would not be the same without them as you will see.

Joe and Mary were just married and went on their honeymoon. When they returned home, the bride immediately called her mother.

“Well,” said her mother, “how was the honeymoon?”

“Oh mama,” the new bride replied, “the honeymoon was wonderful! So romantic…” Suddenly she burst out crying. “But, mama, as soon as we returned, Joe started using the most horrible language – things I’d never heard before! I mean all these awful four-letter words! You’ve got to take me home!! PLEASE MAMA!”

“Mary, Mary,” her mother said, “calm down!  You need to stay with your husband and work this out. Now, tell me, what could be so awful? WHAT four-letter words?”

“Please don’t make me tell you, mama,” wept the daughter. “I’m so embarrassed, they’re just too awful! JUST COME GET ME, PLEASE!”

“Oh, my darling daughter, you must tell me what has you so upset. Tell your mother these horrible four-letter words.”

Sobbing, the young bride said, “Oh, Mama….he used words like: DUST and WASH and IRON and COOK…”

“I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes,” said Mary’s mother.

There are many four-letter words in our language and we may laugh at that old joke, but there is another four-letter word that needs to be added to the above list. That word is LOVE.

To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what I am talking about here. I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. No. What I am talking about is what Joseph Campbell meant when he said: “I think of compassion [love] as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

I believe that the most important dimension of love is something that one does. In my lexicon, love is a verb, not a noun. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to do some love. To demonstrate love and compassion is what marks each and every one of us as truly human.

It is what Albert Camus, the French existentialist and author had in mind when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”

In addition to Camus’ weighty words, I believe that one of the most moving statements concerning a person’s humanity is spoken by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s former business partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley has been dead for seven years to the day when his ghost appears to Scrooge on that fateful Christmas Eve in the story. In that encounter, Scrooge, trembling with fear, says to the ghost: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” Upon which Marley’s ghost cries out in anguish: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

These words stand as an eloquent expression of our human responsibility to one another, suggesting that it is our inner thoughts and feelings, our motives, and our priorities that contribute to making our lives either empty or full. What we are in our whole being is so much grander than anything we can measure by surface values. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put forth this idea so succinctly when she wrote: “Where there is love, there is life.” It is as simple as that. Gandhi is suggesting that the “comprehensive ocean,” of which Marley’s ghost speaks, implies that there are vast spiritual resources that each one of us has, whether we recognize them or not. From this perspective, our routine activities in and of themselves are but a “drop of water” compared to our total “business” of being caring and compassionate human beings.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “If you want the world to look different the next time you go outside, do some love.”

What a challenge that is for each one of us!