Turning point

What most of all hinders heavenly consolation is that you are too slow in turning yourself to prayer.
Thomas a Kempis

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(detail of a pinecone / Julie Cook / 2014)

As a tale-end Baby Boomer and child of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the USSR, The Federation of the Russian Republic or simply Mother Russia, has always been an uncomfortable shadow over my shoulder, just as it has for most everyone my age and older. The enigma known as Russia, who most graciously hosted the world last February for the Winter Olympics only to turn around and shock us all a few months following with the “invasion” of Ukraine, has remained a conundrum for the free world since the Russian Revolution of 1917 which gave way to birth of Communism.

When I was in high school, which seems to be many lifetimes ago, I had the good fortune of taking a Russian History course—with the most memorable experience being of my introduction to the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I had the good fortune of reading several of his books. . . One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward.

Now all these many years later I find myself drawn back to the writings and words of Solzhenitsyn, of which I find more prophetic than I had ever imagined.

For those of you unfamiliar with Solzhenitsyn, in a nutshell, he was a Russian soldier (WWII), Gulag prisoner (for nearly 10 years), writer and novelist, historian, Soviet dissident, Nobel Prize recipient and finally, again, Russian citizen.

As a life long member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Solzhenitsyn was guided by a deeply spiritual moral compass. He was a very loud and vocal opponent of Totalitarianism, of which expedited his forced exile from the Soviet Union, yet he could also be equally critical of the West and its obsession with Capitalism, Consumerism and Materialism. All of which reminds me of the chastisement the West often received from Pope John Paul II, as well as Mother Teresa—as perhaps those who have suffered more grievously under the Socialist and ultra Nationalistic Regime of the Nazis and then that of the Communist Soviets, have perhaps a clearer perspective of our often blind view of what we consider to be “the good life”

I am poignantly reminded of Solzhenitsyn, his words and wisdom as well wise counsel and rebukes of those who have witnessed first hand the sinister wiles and atrocities of Evil, particularly during this time of year as it seems the world always appears to crescendo to a heightened sense of madness–just as the holidays come into focus. I don’t know why that is except that as the world seems to not only witness an abundance of joy and goodwill, there seems to be an equal measure of evil and chaos. Perhaps it is because Christians are drawn to the birth of the Savior and Jews begin the celebration of the miracle of light and the rededication to the Second Temple– a time of a tremendous pull of people toward God—as it seems Evil must have its share of the pie by unleashing its part of unimaginable pain and suffering in order to create some sort of sadistic counter balance.

Perhaps our senses are on hyper drive this time of year as we keenly feel the highs of Joy and Wonder along with the bottomless pit of despair and suffering as they each roll in to one. These thoughts reverberate in my mind just as Sydney, Australia was held hostage Monday by a radical Islamist madman leaving 3 individuals, including the gunman, dead. Then on Tuesday, Pakistan witnessed an unimaginable attack on a school leaving 132 children and 9 adult staff members dead all at the hands of the Taliban.

We currently have a menacing cyber attack taking place at Sony as North Korea is suspected to be retaliating to the release of a tongue and cheek movie which sadly mocks an attempted assassination of an, albeit, unhinged world leader. Sometimes I think we, those of us in the West with our often sophomoric entertainment industry, have lost our sense of what is considered off limits or morally wrong when it comes to the exploitation of movie making and entertainment—but I suppose a moral compass would be needed in the first place in order to be reminded of such. . .

We have just marked the tragic anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre as we continue reading headline after headline of local, national and global tragedies. Just as the world tries to come together in some sort of unity marking two very sacred holy times of the year as well as the secular merry making of Santa, Papa Noel and Kris Kringle’s arrival.

In reading Solzhenitsyn’s book Warning to the West, which is actually a brief composite and compendium of the texts to three separate addresses made in the US in the late 1970’s, it is startlingly frightening noting the parallels of then verses now. I am keenly reminded of the relevance of Solzhenitsyn’s words which were uttered almost 40 years ago as they could very well be spoken on the world stage today regarding today’s global state. I will leave you with a few pieces of his excerpted texts in order to ponder and ruminate the relevance and warnings which echo across our prosaic landscape as we wrestle to make sense of the tragic events which continue to unfold before our very eyes this holiday season. . .

“Is it possible or impossible to transmit the experience of those who have suffered to those who have yet to suffer? Can one part of humanity learn from the bitter experience of another or can it not? Is it possible or impossible to warn someone of danger?
How many witnesses have been sent to the West in the last sixty years? How may waves of immigrants? How many millions of persons? They are all here. You meet them every day. You know who they are: if not by their spiritual disorientation, their grief, their melancholy, then you can distinguish them by their accents or their external appearance. Coming from different countries, without consulting with one another, they have brought out exactly the same experience; They tell you exactly the same thing: they warn you of what is now taking place and of what has taken place in the past. But the proud skyscrapers stand on, jut into the sky, and say: It will never happen here. This will never come to us. It is not possible here.”

“In addition to the grave political situation in the world today, we are also witnessing the emergence of a crisis of unknown nature, one completely new, and entirely non-political. We are approaching a major turning point in world history, the the history of civilization. It has already been noted by specialists in various areas. I could compare it only with the turning from the Middle Ages to the modern era, a shift in our civilization. It is a juncture at which settled concepts suddenly become hazy, lose their precise contours, at which our familiar and commonly used words lose their meaning, become empty shells, and methods which have been reliable for many centuries no longer work. It’s the sort of turning point where the hierarchy of values which we have generated, and which we use to determine what is important to us and what causes our hearts to beat is starting to rock and may collapse.
These two crises, the political crisis of today’s world and the oncoming spiritual crisis, are occurring at the same time. It is our generation that will have to confront them. The leadership of your country, which is entering the third century of existence as a nation will perhaps have to bear a burden greater than ever before in American history. Your leaders will need profound intuition, spiritual foresight, high qualities of mind and soul. May God granted that in those times you will have at the helm personalities as great as those who rested your country . . .”

(excepts taken from a speech delivered in New York July 9, 1975, at a luncheon given by the AFL-CIO)

An overdue thank you to P.O.W. Lt. Col. James Young

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I am a tail-end baby boomer. Seems as if most people 45 and up equate their existence with being some sort of post war child…. be it WWII, Korea- as in my case, or Vietnam. An entire new generation will, no doubt, look to Desert Storm and the continued “wars” on terror as defining birthing moments of their own.

I grew up in the shadow of a deepening Cold War which helped to spawn the Korean War—oh, let’s not forget to call it by it’s politically correct name shall we…”Police Action”…hummm…a war is a war is a war…. no matter how you try to paint it, but there I go digressing…
Which then spawned the Vietnam War; oh pardon me, Vietnam Conflict…and so forth and so on…

When I was in the 6th grade, it became a popular trend for us (as I suspect it was for the adults) to all buy and wear POW bracelets. The one pictured above is mine, the one I wore for almost two years—never taking it off. If I remember correctly, one could pay $3.00 (I found the receipt for my bracelet in the box mementos…it was $2.75) to whom and where the money went evades this memory of mine—- in return you would receive a stainless steel “bracelet” / band engraved with the name of a serviceman who was currently being held captive by the North Vietnamese. You might have received the name of a POW or the name of a serviceman who was currently MIA / missing in action. It was just kind of the luck of the draw as to the serviceman’s name, rank and branch of service you received.

I received the bracelet of a Lt. Col. James Young who had been a prisoner since 1966, taken captive just two days following the 4th of July—already imprisoned 6 years when I received his bracelet. To me and my young mind, the best way to comprehend that length of time was to think of how many Christmases he must have missed being from his family…. which was something, to me, absolutely inconceivable—a true affront to all I considered sacred—Christmas with your family. How dare they keep our American soldiers like that!! It truly struck a chord deep in my young impressionable heart.

Every night, for what seemed most of my young life and of the memory of that time, as we ate supper, we watched a small black and white television set perched in our kitchen of the nightly news conducted by the deans of nightly news, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Those were the days of real news and real reporting…none of this stuff of today’s biased argumentative dribble passed off as news—no hokey sappy feel good “anchors” who seem more concerned with lifestyle choices, entertainment and droll government bickering than what truly constitutes real news. It was delivered professionally and basically unemotionally. Eric Severid or Charles Karualt would report from Vietnam.

The journalist would give the number tally of the day. Staggering numbers, unheard of numbers, the numbers listing each day’s deaths, those taken prisoner, those simply missing—ours, theirs, both. By the time I was in the 7th grade the newspapers were running the lists of names of those killed, wounded, or missing. Each day of our 7th grade year we would all scan the newspaper in search of word of our “soldier, airman, marine or sailor”—I suppose our teacher saw this as what is known as a “real teaching moment” something far more lasting than the lesson at hand, as she allowed us the time to scour a paper, to hope and perhaps even mourn.

I can remember very clearly, as if I am back in that classroom standing over the desk pouring over the paper, the day my friend found the name of her “soldier” on the list of those declared deceased by our government. We were all of the age of 11 and 12 and yet we felt a tremendous burden—a heavy sadness—rooting and cheering for men we had never met and most likely would never know personally, and yet how devastating it was to “lose” them to a death that was so foreign to us– as this drama played out so very far away from our sheltered world. The bracelet would then come off.

I also remember most vividly the day it was announced that this “war” was declared “over” and a peace accord was being signed by both our country’s two governments. On Valentines Day, most appropriately, 1973 the many American prisoners, many wounded and on stretchers, would slowly begin to transition from captivity to freedom, being loaded in batches of approximately 40 or so onto air force transport planes which were to carry them all, finally, home. Seven years just past the first day he was taken prisoner, Lt. Col. James Young headed home.

Warm tears are welling up in my eyes as I type this recalling, all these many years later, these most heartening of events. The bitter sweetness of the moment still very real, very palpable, very emotional. Coming home.

Our teacher checked out a television from the library, the ones perched on top of carts pushed to the room by the boys who volunteered to go get the carts long before this practice was deemed unsafe. She set the cart in the front of the room so we could all see the special news reports of those first prisoners landing at Clarke Air Force Base. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, Capt. Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr., the first POW to disembark the plane—his wife and daughter running, arms outstretched, to embrace him as he made his way down the ramp–now home on American Soil.

My POW, Lt. Col. Young, also came home—home to his family in Hollywood, Florida. Once he had returned, I wrote to Lt. Col. Young and his family. I can’t remember how I found his address. I in turn received two letters complete with pictures of Lt. Col. Young and his lovely family. His eldest daughter, Carrie, who was in her early 20’s when her dad finally returned home—she was but my age (at the time) when he was captured. She asked if I could have my name engraved on the bracelet that I had worn those two years, sending it to them as they were going to make a plaque of his bracelets.

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My mom took me to a jewelry store where I had my name engraved besides the name of Lt. Col. Young. I placed the bracelet in a zip-lock bag, writing one more letter. However at the last minute, I just couldn’t mail it. Something inside my young heart wanted to hold on to this tangible reminder of what this war had meant to me—a young 7th grade girl in Georgia.

All these many years later, I still have the bracelet, always knowing where it is. I recently did a Google search, attempting to discover where Lt. Col James Young was now—Sadly I learned that he had passed away a few years ago, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. A tortured prisoner of war, Lt. Col. James Young had seven years of his life stolen, only to lose his final battle to a cruel and unseen enemy. Life never seems quite fair.

On this 4th of July, as this country of ours has troops spread out all over this globe, risking everything they have to protect, defend and serve each of us here back home…as we enjoy a slice of watermelon, swimming or watching baseball, spending time with our families, enjoying the fireworks this evening—may we all give pause this day in order to say a silent prayer for their safety, for the comfort of their families and a grateful thanks to all the veterans, past and present, who have sacrificed so very much for the one important thing that makes us who we are—our Liberty.

Thank you Lt. Colonel James Young.

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