Friday, September 29, 2017



That remarkable day.

I drove toward town through pre-dawn darkness, eyes fixed on a beginning-to-blush horizon lined with shadowed silhouettes of mountains and pine trees.

I was on a mission. Journey from east coast to west, drive from Seattle to McMinnville, celebrate my Uncle Joe’s life with the West Coasters who loved him. Collect his belongings. Bring him home.

The sun was setting beyond the mountains as I drove out of town - sky bursting with an otherworldly explosion of color and light that demanded I get out of the car. Trucks, cars and cyclists rushed by as I watched the Northwest heavens bid a spectacular farewell to a favorite son. Wind blew, tears fell, sky darkened.

A profound sense of peace and pride was giving way to exhaustion as I pulled my suitcase into an airport restaurant and settled for supper at a table for four. My dinner companions included a flag - expertly folded, tucked into a triangle and secured in plastic, a myrtlewood box, three roses, a tarnished Timex watch, and a glass of Oregon pinot noir.

“Are you waiting for others?” The waiter had finally returned.

“No,” I said, closing the menu. “Here all alone.”

“Should those things be on the table?” he asked, gesturing at the things on the table.

The few patrons in the restaurant were suddenly paying attention. “Yes,” I answered. “Would you care to see the letter I was given by …?”

“No.” He cut me off. “Would you care for another glass of wine?”

No, actually. I cared for another bottle of wine. I had been on the road for two sleepless days. Little did I know how many rules and regulations must be followed so I could carry a loved one’s ashes from memorial out west to burial back east.

The funeral parlor director had warned me hours earlier. Handing me the myrtlewood box, he’d said, “These ashes must stay on your person at all times. Don’t let them out of your sight. They can’t go through security, on a bathroom sink, under a table, or in an overhead bin.” He then gave me the flag honoring my uncle’s military service, and tucked a paper between my fingers - a permission slip, of sorts, stamped and signed at the funeral home. “Give this to anyone who questions you.”

I was trying to remember all the instructions as I left the restaurant carrying the paper, a suitcase, a backpack, a giant green bag filled with Uncle Joe’s stuff, the flag, and Uncle Joe. I was a spectacle, surely. Only a few moments into the trek from restaurant to security to gate, I realized that people were not looking at me because I was a harried, overloaded mess. They were noticing the flag tucked beneath my elbow, and the myrtlewood box in my arms.

A woman nervously looked away. A guy in a suit stared down at his phone and picked up his pace. A gaggle of sorority girls, pointing and giggling, began whispering to each other as I returned their stares. A mom shushed her teenager.

A security guard suddenly stood at attention, raising fingertips to forehead in a perfect salute.
Other passengers took note and stepped out of the way to let me pass.

An elderly man whispered, “My condolences, miss.” 

A pilot hurrying beside me reached out to help. “May I carry something for you?”

“No, thanks,” I muttered with a half-smile. “Rules and regulations.”

It dawned on me after many additional, excruciating moments in the spotlight that some who looked my way and saw the flag undoubtedly thought I’d lost a spouse or child to war. Dismayed, I wished I could shout, ”My 92 year old uncle, a WWII veteran, has died. He was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life. I’m bringing him home. It’s all good!” But I remained silent, deeply humbled as I imagined a similar walk of pain for a grieving military wife or mother.

The flag, and all its power, wasn’t finished with me on that journey.

As I settled into my seat on the plane, a flight attendant walked through the aisle. “That box can’t be on your lap,” she said. “Put it in the bin above.”

Puzzled, the little girl seated to my right looked up from her tablet as I hesitated.  

Flight attendant returned, irritated. “That box needs to be stored in the overhead bin.”

“This explains why I have to hold it,” I said, handing her the funeral director’s note while refraining from snapping out too many details in front of the child.

“We’re ready to pull away from the gate, and cannot move until you put that box in the overhead compartment!” The flight attendant admonished me so sharply and loudly that passengers looked up from newspapers, phones, sleep.

A gentleman behind me spoke out. “Don’t you see the flag on her lap? She has to hold the box,” he chided.

The attendant looked from flag to box to me. “You’d better not drop it,” she said.

The gentle man behind me squeezed my shoulder. ”Thank you for your loved one’s service.”

That walk through the airport on my uncle’s final journey was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I’ve thought about it often; the emotion and commotion, the purpose, grief, and discomfort, the tightness in my fingers as I gripped that myrtlewood box all the way home.

That walk changed me. It opened my eyes to the power of symbols. It deepened my sympathy and empathy for those who lose loved ones in war. It made me see, acknowledge, and try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other.

On that remarkable day, almost four years ago, I carried a flag and a myrtlewood box through a great hall filled with mortals. Some snickered. Others saluted. Some were dismissive. Others offered condolences. Some chastised. Others leapt to my defense.

It felt a lot like this past week when a myriad of emotions and judgments erupted as Americans debated the significance, impact, and relevance of our national anthem - the current symbol in the spotlight.

Had I called my uncle, the soldier, to tell him the positive and negative reactions and comments I received as I walked through an airport carrying a flag that spotlighted both his death and his service to our country, he’d have said, “That’s how freedom speaks.”

Had I called my uncle, the navigator, to ask his opinion of players who kneeled to peacefully protest an anthem that represents a government which increasingly challenges its declaration that all people are created equal, and defies many of the ideals, laws, and freedoms protected in its constitution, he’d have said, “Democracy sometimes gets knocked to its knees. We need to lift it back to its feet.”

Had I called my uncle, the patriot, to help me try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other, he’d say, “Americans often lose sight of the fact that all of us are ‘We The People’. Together we rise, because ‘Divided we Fall’ is unthinkable.”

The impact of symbols like a flag or an anthem is stunning. Wrapped in emotion and perception, symbols can inspire, unite, enrage, divide.  

It’s increasingly difficult for We the People to choose inspire and unite, as our Commander in Chief disparages and divides. Yet I keep reminding myself that beyond the symbols and rhetoric, we are all citizens, neighbors, friends. If we can walk through the discomfort of our collective emotions and experience, listening and lifting, we’ll rise.

'Divided, we Fall’ is unthinkable.

Friday, August 18, 2017


In order to sit on the seat where he sat, and view the sky as he viewed it, I had to step past the crew's rickety red bench and frayed seat belts; past rotating machine guns, ammo belts, and bombs; beyond black box radios, oxygen tanks, and fire extinguishers. 

Brown foam bulged through torn leather seats. Daylight peered through holes in the metal body of the plane.

I crossed the slender beam that connected the belly of the Flying Fortress to the pilots' pulpit, trying to imagine ten soldiers at work in this small space; men in the throes of aerial combat. 

The windows beyond the pilots' control panel tilted toward blue sky. Searching for a space that looked fit for a navigator, I could see only the dark shadow of propeller blades beyond plexiglass.


"The entrance is there, beneath the pilots' seats," the guide said from behind. "You  have to crawl through that tiny rectangle to get into the nose. Or scoot on your bottom."

Seventy three years ago, my Uncle Joe worked in the nose of a B-17 bomber. Seated at a tiny desk in a plexiglass bubble - dressed in electric underwear to help endure temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, and often breathing through a fitted oxygen mask - he'd routinely look through the window beside his desk at swastikas on rudders and black crosses on wings of German aircraft sent to shoot his plane down.

A twenty-two year old navigator, Joe crunched numbers, read compasses and searched the stars; directing his crew through calm and chaos to ensure their safe departure, flight and landing.

To ensure his crew's lives.

My cousin, Vincent - an Air Force veteran - best described our uncle's routine ten-hour work day aboard the B-17, writing: "Hours of boredom, with moments of sheer terror and panic... being completely exposed and at risk, and still doing his job, his duty."

Last weekend, as I excitedly knelt in the nose of a restored B-17 Bomber, seeking to better understand Uncle Joe's WWII experience, American Nazis marched on the streets in Charlottesville, seeking relevance. As I photographed a technological marvel that helped win the war against Nazism and fascism, white nationalists carried semi-automatic weapons through the streets of an American city, armed more heavily than police. As I spoke to 90 year old veterans about their experiences in WWII, white supremacists shouted vile, racist and anti-Semitic chants to all who would listen. And as I watched the propellers of a B-17 sputter to life, smoke circling steel, an alt-right criminal shifted his car into reverse and plowed through a street filled with anti-protesters - killing, wounding.
Leaving a Flying Fortress that led the WWII bombing campaign against Nazi Germany's industrial and military targets, I had just begun scrolling through pictures on my phone when I learned that my country was in crisis; confronting the hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and entitlement of an enemy within. Days later, this enemy still seethes and plans, emboldened by the President of the United States - who has condoned the immoral and endorsed the unthinkable. 

As America holds its breath through these unprecedented events, I can't stop thinking about my uncle - the navigator - who, like all soldiers in the Allied forces, considered it his job, his duty to defeat Nazis and fascists in WWII. He never thought twice about sacrificing his life to protect his country, his world, and the basic tenet of democracy and morality - that all people are created equal.

In the wake of Charlottesville, when we need a 'National Navigator' - an indispensable leader who will think, plan, and work to ensure the safety of our people and the sanctity of our democracy - we are governed by a National Instigator. An incompetent, delusional, defensive and dangerous Emperor of Emptiness.

Rather than despair, I'm looking to the example set by my uncle, and all Americans who endured the Great Depression, poverty, racism, discrimination, war, and the rebuilding of a world knocked off its axis by the Axis of Evil.

Remarkably, these Americans remained people of hope.

People of courage.

People of action.

History is surely watching - as deeply, but far more sternly than it did 70 plus years ago - because of the blood shed, the sacrifices made, the terror long perpetrated in foreign lands and on American streets, and the progress our nation has made, so slowly but certainly.

For Heather Heyer, murdered by a Nazi on a Saturday afternoon in America, for the police officers who died monitoring the riot, for millions who have lost their lives to murderous mobs at home and abroad, for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have fought against tyranny and died for our freedoms, for all who continue to fight, accepting even death for our freedoms, we must work harder than ever to be the United States of America.

There is no navigator in The White House, or Congress.

Exposed and at risk, it's up to us. We, the People.

To remain people of hope. Of courage. Of action.

It's our job and our duty.