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Clio's Temple


Light under a Bushel

Posted on August 27, 2018 at 2:52 PM Comments comments ()
This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a professional colleague, a man for whom I developed a great personal respect during the years we worked in the same department. After I left the Savannah River Site in 2007, I didn't see him for years afterwards. When I encountered him at a restaurant  in 2013, we chatted as naturally as if we'd encountered each other in the hallway at work.

It was a rude shock to pick up the Sunday newspaper on a recent Sunday morning and see this man's obituary. He was seventy-three, no longer young, but no an old man as we understand that term nowadays.

I already knew that he was trained as a professional soldier, a West Point graduate in the fabled Class of 1966 (h/t: Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line). He did two tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam. Arguably, though, his greatest gifts were as a servant and teacher. Good teachers are, above all else, good servants. My mother was one and I can recognize the characteristics of those who successfully blend both roles.

The associate pastor of the church where the service was held gave a lengthy meditation on how his life embodied the principles of servanthood. But it was the eulogies by his daughter and son that pulled back the curtain on the man's deepest beliefs and actions. The word that kept popping into my mind was "integrity," i.e., wholeness, a personal character in which all the pieces fit together. He was of a piece, whether showing a North Vietnamese prisoner how to eat with a fork, or memorizing a lengthy lecture in Spanish to be delivered to a group of Latin American officers in Panama.

His family hosted a reception at the Rye Patch, one of the historic Winter Colony homes in Aiken. I made my way through a throng of other mourners to speak to his wife and children. When I introduced myself to his daughter, I said, "Your dad was the epitome of 'an officer and a gentleman.' But I can see one fault with him: He hid his light under a bushel.

She smilingly disagreed with me, reminding me that to serve others was her father's way of living up to the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country." He just didn't want to be singled out for praise for living his life in accordancee with his values.

No one could have a better epitaph.

In memoriam, Lt. Col. (Ret.) John M. Jenkins, Sr., 1944-2018

A Disordered Imagination, Part Two

Posted on May 12, 2017 at 6:36 AM Comments comments ()
When my aunt read Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, she asked me, "Where do you get the names of all these people?" In contrast to my story ideas, that answer is easy: Over a forty-year professional career, I met thousands of people, many from other countries. When I need to name a character, I can dip into my basket of memories and scramble the names to create new personas. If you make the proper disclaimers, you can get away with a lot in these arena. Read any of Pat Conroy's novels and you'll see the names of his friends show up (coincidentally) in the names of his characters.

This brings me to the topic of connections. After all, as writers, our craft includes forging connections that may exist only in our minds. Still, there are times when the circumstances of real life suggest connections that can be adapted for purposes of my writing.
My father flew a B-17 in World War II. Very late in his life, I drove him to a reunion of his wartime unit in the Washington area. En route, he told me tales about his comrades-in-arms, stories that lay unsuspected until advanced age loosened his memory. There were people I'd met many years earlier, but who, in his recollections, took on a very different shape from what I'd previously learned about them. I have a novel on the writing schedule, working title Wings of the Storm, based on Dad's experiences. When we cleaned out the files in my parents' house, I inherited boxes of material, some of which he'd kept since the 1940s. I'm positive there are connections in those boxes that will emerge when I start working my way through them.

Still, the recollections of the elderly need to be handled with caution. My uncle ran a contract mail delivery business for thirty years. One of his colleagues got so accustomed to hearing his stories of his early life that he asked my uncle for permission to put these into a book. The book that resulted, From Marianna to Moosburg: One B-17 Crewman's Story of War, Redemption, and Family Reunion contains some fascinating tidbits. This is particularly the case for information about my paternal grandfather, who died years before I was born. But there are a couple of factual errors, pretty inconsequential, but still bothersome, that restrain me from using the book as a source without some cross-checking. It's probably unfair to present the memories of the very old as an unvarnished source of truth. The possibility of inadvertently doing an injustice to real people demands caution in mining these memories.

How many connections are available for our use? We've all heard of "six degrees of separation," i.e., that moving through six levels of connections puts us in touch with a large portion of the human race. I used to tell my students, "If your family has been in this country for a hundred years, you're probably related to someone famous. If your family has been in this country for two hundred years, it's a lead pipe cinch." I gave one class an assignment to locate someone famous among their ancestors and the results were gratifying; two of my students could trace a clear path back to those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Consider yourself. Think of five people you know, or knew, and for whom you have some knowledge of their lives. When you work outward from those five people, you will find that you have something like 5 connections, or between fifteen and sixteen thousand individuals. Obviously, you can't locate any information about all of them, or even a small fraction of them. But there are still plenty of starting points.

Just one example: the head usher (now deceased) at a church I attended was a midshipman about the U.S.S. Augusta in 1941. He was an aide to Admiral King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, later Chief of Naval Operations. In this role, he accompanied King to the Argentia Conference, where FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He personally met all the American Chiefs of Staff, as well as several members of the British high command. From just the contacts on this one occasion, he was connected to movers and shakers whose influence on the world stretches back many generations into the past. Had he lived to be 200, I could never have exhausted the flow of stories that ran through his connections.

Where do your connections lead you?

Brice Alvord, 1946-2013

Posted on October 20, 2013 at 5:31 PM Comments comments ()
We met for the first time during a business trip to New York. I don't remember what I thought about him; he quickly identified me as a young man in love (I had just gotten engaged). He must have seen something in me that I didn't even see in myself, some potential for growth.

Brice treated me like a younger brother. A former Naval aviator and firefighter, I found his stories endlessly fascinating.  We found that we shared some common beliefs. From these grew common bonds. Both of us were natural pranksters, but he was a lot better at it than I was.

Our friendship grew over the next four years from telephone calls and occasional exchanges of correspondence. Mostly, we talked about how tough it was to make the higher-ups focus on the things we thought were important. We took pride in being fellow sufferers.

We next got the chance to work together in 1983. A contractor at the project where I worked had an opening for a training manager; they needed a guy to come in and straighten out a thoroughly bollixed-up situation. I called him and asked if he would be interested in applying for the job. He gave me the go-ahead and I passed his resume on to the appropriate folks. In due course, they brought him on board. Within six months of him arriving at the project, the contractor's program was straightened out and his managers identified him as a go-getter. They tentatively identified him as the guy to go and start up a new business line, operating out of their Denver offices. He returned my earlier favor by asking if I'd be willing to go with him. I gave him an affirmative answer. A change in business conditions scotched that opportunity, but our friendship had bonded both on professional and personal levels.

The ironic thing is that our periods of working together directly only amounted to about three years of the thirty-five that we knew each other. But we had the kind of relationship that we could talk, end a conversation, and pick it up three months later exactly where we left off. When I started my own business, his sage counsel saved me a lot of headaches.

He'd had to slow down in recent years. Diabetes set in. He found himself no longer able to spend long periods on the road. He continued to publish guidebooks for the training business, even after a stroke. His greatest joy, though, was to spend time with his wife Kathy, his kids Ian and Kaley, and his grandchildren.

The news that he was in the hospital suffering from congestive heart failure sent me into a spin. "This can't be," I thought. "Hell, he's only 66." Since both his parents lived well into their 90s, I figured it was just another crisis that he'd pull through. Alas, under the unfair rules of life's lottery, it was not to be. When his heart stopped, a hole opened in the hearts of many of us who knew and loved him.

There's far more to say than I have room for at this point. I'll have to get by without his friendly ribbing which, in an oddball way, was something I really used to enjoy. When I think of Brice, the only words that come to mind are from Chaucer: "He was a parfit gentil knight." Adieu, my friend.