Firing from the Lip

A collection of thoughts, stories, tall tales, half truths and opinions from the Heartland of America.

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Location: Missouri, United States

An irreverent but loving grandfather of five and father of three, I enjoy writing of family, love, life, and the never ending fascination of it all.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wine With Patton; Near The End With The Third Army In Europe

During the push of the U.S. Third Army across Europe in the closing days of World War II, the war-weary troops of General George Patton began to allow themselves to dream of the end of the conflict.

The Germans fought desperately, knowing defeat was all but certain. Caught in the bloody pincer of the Soviets on one side and the Americans on the other, they were like “a mad dog trapped in a corner” according to Sgt. Marvin Cook. Mr. Cook said the worst fear he had was dying this late in the game, with victory so close at hand. It was a “bitter and hard-fought” end to the Thousand Year Reich.

Even in the heat of those last terrifying days of World War II in Europe, American servicemen found reason to smile at the antics of their brothers-in-arms. Mr. Cook had a friend, a Corporal named Al from New York City, New York that Marvin claims could “find a bottle of wine in Hell.” It seems Al was adept at finding the only surviving bottle of booze in a bombed out village. It was a talent greatly appreciated by his squad, but one the officers were less enamored with.

One memorable day, as Al climbed out of a cellar strewn with bricks and timber from the shelling carefully shielding a crock of wine, the soldiers got an unexpected surprise. After a cursory glance around to make sure no officer was looking, the boys popped the cork and took the chance to taste it. “Damn good stuff, we were so happy to find it and pass it around that we didn’t notice the jeep until it was too late.”

“My heart fell plumb to my stomach when we saw the flag on that jeep. The flag of a General Officer named George S. Patton.” It was the first time Marvin had ever spoken to General Patton, and the exchange between this legendary General and a dogface Sergeant is both comical and telling of both men in extraordinary circumstances.

“What the hell are you men doing? The goddam Germans are that way, and you’re standing here with your thumbs up your asses?” Sgt. Cook, being the highest ranking NCO standing there, was the one to offer the explanation. “Sorry, General. We were just having a quick smoke and talking about going home, sir.”

“Home? Why you ignorant sonsofbitches are going to get killed standing here gawking! What the hell is that bastard hiding behind his back?” “It’s a bottle of wine, sir.” “Wine! Where the fuck did you find wine? Never mind. Don’t just stand there, Sergeant, bring it here.” “Yes, sir!”

Sgt. Cook took the crock from Al, and walked to the jeep to hand it to Patton. He expected to see the General throw it to the ground and proceed to tear into them for drinking. He got a shock when this feared General popped the cork and took a healthy drink. “Jesus! I can’t believe my men are drinking this piss!” Replacing the cork, Patton tossed it back to Sgt. Cook. “Take one drink each, bust that damn bottle, then get your asses in gear. We’ve got a war to win.” “Yes sir, thank you, sir.” “If you find any more goddam wine, if it’s better than that crap, let me know.” “Yes, sir.”

Yelling at his driver to pull out, Patton stared at the men of Sgt. Cook’s company as they moved away, and Cook said he had a smile on his face. “That was my only run-in with that crazy bastard, and I’m glad. He was a tough bird, but we would have followed him into Hell. No, that’s wrong, son. We did follow him into Hell, and he brought us out the other side.”

Two men, a famous General and a tender-hearted, soft spoken, future high school teacher and piano tuner, shared a moment of their lives in a war-torn Belgian village. General Patton probably wouldn’t have remembered it today, but a Sergeant from a small Missouri town will never forget his one face-to-face meeting with “Old Blood and Guts.”

Monday, November 27, 2006

Madness 101; Holocaust Archives To Be Opened

The numbers are staggering to consider. Stored in a German archive so vast there are nearly sixteen miles of corridors, crammed onto floor to ceiling shelves, over fifty-million files giving mute testimony to the savagery and inhumanity of the Nazis during the Holocaust await their long overdue release to the public.

The archival evidence of Hitler’s mad Final Solution is irrefutable. Page after page of death, torture, inhumane medical experiments, and fear. I wish the records had been opened long ago, before so many survivors desperate for information concerning the fate of their loved ones had passed away.

It’s difficult for me to imagine what it must have been like during that time for the ‘undesirables.’ The Jews, the gays, the blacks, the gypsies, and anyone else Hitler decided had no right to live. It is far more difficult to imagine myself as one of the perpetrators, killing women and children indiscriminately, without remorse, and considering it my duty to do so. I doubt I will ever understand the collective madness of that time in history, and I am very glad that I don’t understand it. I’m glad that I can’t find anything within myself that would make my participation acceptable.

I suppose the only real explanation for participating in the slaughter of innocents was the fear of what would happen if they refused. I doubt the Nazis would have hesitated for a second to shoot down the conscientious objectors to the Holocaust. I believe there were very few ‘true believers’ in the Final Solution, but they were vicious and heartless in their application of madness on a grand scale. I hope I would have had the courage to refuse. To choose an honorable death over a life of shame and grief. I know I could not have participated and lived with it. I would have ended my own life and gone gladly into hell to escape hell. There are things worse than death.

The pages of the archives can tell us what happened to the victims. Who died, when and where, and in many instances, how. But they can never reveal the true horror of what happened. Pages cannot cry out in fear, they can’t beg God to save them, and they can’t spend the last moments of their lives desperately trying to save their children. Paper can’t feel pain, it doesn’t bleed and it doesn’t scream when it’s cast into a fire. The people murdered by the Nazis did.

We owe it to them to remember what happened, and we owe it to ourselves to live up to the promise of ‘never again.’ Our world has witnessed what happens when humanity is sacrificed at the altar of ideology and hate.

My next door neighbor, Mr. Marvin Cook, fought his way across Europe with Patton during World War II. He speaks hesitantly of those sad and lonely days, but he reserves his deepest emotions for his stories of the U.S. Army finding the death camps of the Nazis. It’s hard to listen to this old man talk about it, to see his pain and sorrow still keen after all these years. He told me of his platoon sergeant, a man he calls the “meanest sonofabitch in the U.S. Army,” a ferocious fighter and a hard man. Mr. Cook said he saw this man cry only one time, when they stumbled onto a concentration camp the Nazis had fled in a panic before their arrival. He told me of his platoon sergeant staring around the camp saying, “Oh My God! What are they doing here? What the hell are they doing here? Sweet Jesus, what are they doing.” Mr. Cook told me “a lot of tough boys cried like babies that day. Me too, hell, there was no way not to cry at what we saw.”

The opening of the archives will be painful for many Holocaust survivors and their families, but they have to know what happened. They have to discover the fates of their loved ones. They have a right to know, and very little time left.

As for the rest of us, I hope we will realize the importance of containing madness before it’s too late.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reflections; Lunch with a World War II Marine

I had a lunch date yesterday with an old friend. Norman is eighty-two years old, a wonderful, wise, sentimental, old man that longs for his late wife and despises growing old. He told me he never thought he’d live as long as he has, and talked of his days in the Marine Corps during World War II.

A hell of a time to be alive, is how he put it. He talked of flying in bombers over Japanese held territory, looking down to see the anti-aircraft defenses firing and wondering if he would survive another moment? He remembered the beauty of the sea carrying vast armadas of warships bearing down on those islands, and he spoke of his brothers aboard waiting to go ashore.

The names are known to us all. Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan. The bloody island-hopping campaign of the Marine Corps in the Pacific during WWII. They are chapters in history books to me, places and events difficult for me to imagine. To him, they are all too real.

“It was so odd, to look down over the ocean, how beautiful and peaceful it seemed from great heights, and reconcile that beauty with the utter devastation all around us. The Japanese we hated, we had seen what they would do to prisoners, we knew they wouldn’t surrender, and God help me, I didn’t want them to. I wanted to kill every one of those sonsofbitches for what they’d done to my brothers.” My brothers. Not my ‘fellow Marines,’ or ‘my buddies,’ my brothers. This is how Norm remembers his friends.

A part of him feels guilty for surviving when so many didn’t. He spoke of the hardest thing for a man to admit, abject terror under fire. His eyes still fill with tears as he relates hearing screams from other crews as their planes went down and they couldn’t escape. “They all cried out for God, son, but there was no God in that hell hole. It was the Devil’s playground and he had a field day with us.”

Despite the carnage and death all around him, he loved to fly, to soar above the clouds, and for a few brief moments, put the fear aside and be moved by the immensity and beauty of the ocean. “I had a hell of a vantage point,” he laughed. “I was the belly-gunner so I could see everything unobstructed. Too bad I was such a damn inviting target though. Japanese pilots liked to shoot belly gunners. I guess we were just such damn easy pickings they couldn’t resist. Lucky for us, our escort fighters seemed to take it personally and did their best to shoot em’ down before we had too do it ourselves.”

“You’re a brave man, Norm. I’d have been scared to death.” “You think I wasn’t? Hell, boy. I was scared out of my wits half the time, but we had a job to do and we did it. The really brave men were the grunts. The ones that had to wade ashore. God, what men they were. Tough as nails and hard. They were the ones with guts. I flew above them and I saw what they went through. I don’t see how any of them survived, but they did. God, they were the best Marines I’d ever seen. I was damn proud of them, I still am.”

Talking with Norm gives me an appreciation for this land and her people. He has also convinced me of one thing. They were indeed “the greatest generation” of Americans. They are leaving us quickly now, and if you are fortunate to have one in your life, please talk with them. Learn what they want you to remember, and let them know you appreciate their sacrifice. That’s really all the old warriors need to know, that they are appreciated.

Someday soon I’ll lose my old friend to the passage of time but I’ll never forget him. I’ve treasured our time together. The lunches, the jokes, the easy camaraderie of two people that enjoy each others company. Norm is one of my heroes, and in getting to know him I’ve been blessed.

For his part, Norman is comforted in his old age, far from his family, by the knowledge his friends will look out for him. That he won’t be alone, and that he won’t simply go to his rest and be forgotten like too many others. My task, when he’s gone, is to keep a fresh Marine Corps flag on his grave. He’s asked me to do that for him, and I was moved that he trusts me not to let him down.

I am a better man for having gotten to know him, and I am so grateful to him and his brothers of that war, for protecting our freedom when it mattered most. God Bless all of them, always.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sex Education, Dad Style

My father was a man of many talents, explaining the "facts of life" to his young son was not among them.

I always laugh when I recall Dad’s attempts to prepare me for my grand entrance into the world of sex. It was riotously funny, informative, and quite useful in the long run. I was worried, knowing my dad, that I’d be the only guy in the world that knew less after "the talk" than I did before.

I went to Dad when I was thirteen-years-old, I walked into his shop and stood around for a few moments, trying to decide on how to broach the subject. Pop gave me a curious glance a time or two, and finally asked, "what’s on your mind, Luke?’ "Pop, I’ve got questions." "Oh God, I knew it." My poor Dad’s face got red, and he didn’t say anything for a few moments, but when he began to talk, it was worth the wait.

"Ain’t you a bit young to be thinkin’ about sex, boy?"
"I don’t think so?"
"I’m sure you don’t. So, you got somebody special in mind?"
"Pop! I ain’t telling you that!"
"Yeah, I thought so, I’ve seen how these little neighbor girls act around you. Up to sparkin’ are ya?"
"Oh, God! I should have asked Mom!"
"Sit down, boy. Well, I guess I can give you the basics, but there’s a lot you just have to learn on your own, son. You’d be better off to just wait a spell. It ain’t somethin’ to take lightly."
"I know that, that’s why I’m asking you, and I don’t want to wait, I’ve waited long enough! Most of my friends have already done it."
"Bullshit, most of your friends are too dumb to jack off, son. Speaking of that, I guess you know how to do that, huh?"
"Aww, geez! I knew this was a bad idea!"

Laughing, my father sat me down on one of his little work benches and pulled his own up to me. "I’m sorry, baby. I shouldn’t have laughed at you, I know it’s hard to ask the kinds of questions you want to. I’ll just tell you a few of the things to watch out for, ok?" Finally, we were making some headway. When the old man said he’s start with the basics, he wasn’t kidding. Even a thirteen-year-old boy isn’t completely ignorant!

"Well, son, women are different than us."
"Yeah, Pop. I had that part figured out."
"Shut up and listen, smart ass."
"Yes sir, sorry."
"Well, Donnie, I guess I’ll just tell you how things work, and then we can talk about anything you didn’t understand, okay?"
"Sure, Pop, that will be fine."

Looking around his shop, Pop saw what he was looking for on his workbench, and walked back to me carrying a ratchet and a socket. "Well, son. It’s like this here ratchet. See how the socket fits on it? That’s pretty near how a man and a woman go together." Huh? Was he serious? I had to be the only guy in the world that learned how men and women went together from his old mans socket set! Good grief!

Pop thought it wise to tell me about a woman’s menstrual period as part of the basic course. I had an idea something crazy went on once in awhile with women, but I damn sure hadn’t known they bled like that!

We were off to a bad start. So far, I’d discovered nothing, except that women bled on a regular basis for some God-awful reason that was a mystery to the old man. It wasn’t exactly reassuring when he said, "you don’t need to worry about that, unless they don’t bleed, then you’re up shit creek without a paddle."
"Why’s that?"
"Oh, Jesus Christ, son. That means they’re pregnant. The rabbit done died, and you, my boy, will be tee-totally screwed if that happens! Not to worry, I’ll buy you some rubbers to wear. Don’t even ask how they go on, sonny. There’s a picture on the box."
"Yes, sir. So, these rubber deals will keep me from getting a girl pregnant?"
"Damn right, as long as you use them every time! That don’t mean get a boner and forget every damn thing I’m telling you, do you understand?"

I was getting a headache by then. I just sat and stared at Pop as he grinned like the Cheshire Cat and shook his head. I think the old man was feeling better about things. It was obvious I was dumber than a stump on the subject of sex. For some reason, he seemed to find that reassuring.

We sat and talked for a while, and Pop taught me a lot, in his own way. His methods weren’t impressive, but they were effective. "You ever heard of VD?" Yes, I had. "You don’t want that. It’ll make your thing fall off." Fall off? Sweet Jesus! I hadn’t known sex had so many potential disasters involved. Pop just laughed, and told me the rubbers he’d buy would stop most of that stuff as well.

Dad explained that some folks liked it a bit different than most. By that he meant homosexuals, and his talk on this point was short and sweet. "Some things are meant to go in a mans mouth, a penis ain’t one of them. And there ain’t nothin’ on God’s green earth made to go up your butt. You understand that, I guess?" After I’d picked my jaw up off the floor, I just nodded to let him know I understood. He said homosexuals had it rough in a lot of ways, and that was sort of silly to him. "They’re just people, son. They’re different from me and you in some ways, but they’re no different from us in any way that matters. Do you understand what I’m saying." Yes, I did. My Dad was telling me to treat them as he’d taught me to treat anyone else, with respect for the person.

My introduction to sex education, Pop style, was funny and open. He pulled no punches in telling me what could happen if I was irresponsible. He was straightforward about venereal disease and my need to understand the risks. He was dead serious when he told me if I ever got a girl ‘in trouble’ I’d take care of it, or I’d be the sorriest boy alive. He was worried, but he was glad I’d came to him, that I’d trusted him.

My father knew I was embarrassed to ask about sex, and he used humor to make me feel comfortable, but his answers were serious, and he did his best to explain it in a way a young boy could understand. I appreciated that, and I walked out of his shop that day confident that I knew how to protect myself, and the girl, and that was important to me.

When my own sons came to me with their questions about sex, I had his loving, if confused example, to go by. I was as open and honest with them and he’d been with me. A bit less graphic, but just as effective. Pop asked me how I’d handled it later. I said, "I didn’t use a damn socket set." My dad laughed all day.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Holiday Traditions: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This article was a Editors' Pick of the Week!

I have a confession to make. I love Christmas, I always have and I always will. It was a special time when I was young, full of love, laughter, and family. At this time of year, the little boy inside me fights his way past the gruff, shaven-headed and goateed, middle aged man and takes over for a few weeks.

I love seeing my grandchildren, wide eyed and smiling at the Christmas displays, the bright lights, the trees, Santa Claus and his elves, and reindeer. They love the story of a very special reindeer, the one who led Santa’s sleigh and saved Christmas during the Big Storm. The misfit who turned out to be the most important one of all despite his odd red nose- Rudolph!

The Rankin-Bass classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is my favorite Christmas program. I suppose there is a bit of the misfit in all of us. We’ve all been teased and picked on at one time or another. We’ve all had dreams, some came true, some didn’t, but we had them. There was always someone who scoffed at us for dreaming at all. I emphasized with Rudolph as a boy, and I loved it when he said he was "independent." I felt much the same, but I was too young to put it into words.

I remember running around my mothers kitchen pretending to throw my pick in the air as I screamed "silver, gold," only to pick it up, give it a lick, and pronounce I had "nothin." I was Yukon Cornelius, and my mother would laugh and tell me to keep trying. Someday, I’d find my gold or silver if I didn’t give up. She was right, I did. My family is my treasure, and in them I’ve found all the gold and silver of my young hearts desire.

I loved Yukon, the big, gruff, but loving man. The loyal friend with the mismatched team of sled dogs always made me laugh. He was a bit loud for most people, but he was someone you could depend on. I’ve known a few Yukon’s in my life, guys who always seemed to have a plan, no matter how doomed to failure it was, who never gave up, and were always there for a friend.

Hermey, the poor little elf that wanted to be a dentist, was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I felt for him, because I was a walking contradiction myself, and still am. I wear leather and bandanas and ride a Harley, but I’m just as content lying under an old Oak tree with a good book and a cup of coffee. In a family where only Dad and I were avid readers, this was odd behavior.

While most of my family entered military service and did well, I had to find something else due to a serious injury as a child. A severely broken leg that prevented me from following them. I felt left out and sad, but my Dad took me off to the side and told me God had a purpose for me, that I was special, and that whatever I did with my life, he would be proud of me. I never forgot those words, and I’m grateful to my father for realizing how alone and disappointed I felt, and for doing something about it. I recognized myself in Hermey as well, good-hearted misfits, he and I found a way to fit in.

Rudolph, the scrappy button buck with the red nose and big heart who lit up the world and soared on the wings of love, the poor little guy who desperately wanted to please the father ashamed of his ‘imperfection.’ Teased and tormented, feeling he had nothing left to keep him at home, Rudolph set out on his big adventure in a harsh world. Along the way, he faced danger, made friends, found his place and his purpose, and told a generation of kids it was okay to be a little different, and that just one good friend can make the path a lot easier.

I look forward each year to watching Rudolph and his friends triumph once again. To seeing Yukon and his team, the abominable snowman, Hermey, Clarice, the wonderful vocal talent of Burl Ives as the snowman, Santa, and the rest of the family of friends. It’s a joy to watch with a small, loving grandson next to you. I look at him, hear his laughter, and I know just how he feels.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Blues Legend: Robert Johnson

"You may bury my body down by the highway side
Baby, I don't care where you bury my body when I'm dead and gone
You may bury my body, ooh down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
" — Me and the Devil Blues ©(1978) 1990, 1991 Lehsem II, LLC/Claud L. Johnson
Administered by Music & Media International, Inc.

A young man walks slowly down a lonely dirt road in the delta region of Mississippi. Without a soul for miles around, and near midnight, it’s an eerie place - A place where the imagination runs wild and anything is possible. "Damn," he curses to himself, ashamed of his fear for starting at the hoot of an owl nearby, "ain’t nothin’ here, it’s just a damn old wives tale, is all."

Legend has it, if you go to the crossroads at midnight you can get your hearts desire, for a price. All you have to do is step out into the crossroads and wait for your guest to arrive. If you’re lucky, he won’t come. If he does, you’d better be sure what you want is worth the cost. The devil only wants one payment, and there’s no going back on the bargain. Don’t bother praying to God for help, your soul is no longer His concern.

Welcome to the legend of Robert Johnson. No personality in the long and colorful history of the blues has fired the imagination more than he does. Rumored to have sold his soul to the devil for his musical ability, Johnson made the most of his talent, beginning a musical legacy that would last long beyond his short years, and ensure he would never be forgotten.

Adding to the mystique surrounding his purported arrangement with Beelzebub was Johnson’s physical appearance. He was a handsome man, very popular with the ladies, but he had unusually long fingers and a cataract in one eye. Some said it was his ‘evil eye,’ a reminder of his crossroad meeting with old Scratch.

Johnson was known for odd behavior while performing. His habit of turning his back on his audience while he played made some uneasy. He was also known to get upset. He would simply walk off the stage and leave if someone got too curious about his technique. Such behavior wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but in Robert Johnson’s era it was unusual for a performer to behave as he did.

Robert Johnson lived the blues man lifestyle to the fullest. A traveling man, he didn’t like to sit still. He loved being out on the road, playing his music and women - all women. He had an interesting way to insure he’d be well fed and cared for in the towns he played in. He’d find the homeliest woman he could and sweet talk his way into her good graces. He thought this was the safest way to go. Chances were, if she was homely she didn’t have a man, and she wouldn’t mind taking good care of a traveling blues man if there was a little romance in it for her.

This worked out well for Johnson in his travels, and perhaps, if he’d have stuck to that tactic he would have lived longer. In little Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson struck up a relationship with the wife of a roadhouse owner. None too subtle, Johnson didn’t make an effort to hide the fact he was sparking the lady, and before it was over he got a case of strychnine poisoning from a half-full bottle of whiskey he was handed. The strychnine didn’t kill him, but it weakened him badly and he succumbed to pneumonia a few weeks later, August 16, 1938.

Robert Johnson was buried in a simple wooden coffin by the county at Little Zion Church, just north of Greenwood, along a stretch of highway locals call the ‘money road.’

As for the devil, no one knows if he collected his debt, but the root of that legend was a comment by Son House, another famed blues man, who said, “He sold his soul to play that way.”