Friday, May 25, 2012

Things get punchy at the Pentagon

When a push comes to a shove, children get sent to the principal. For nations, when a push comes to a shove, graveyards become crowded.

Each Memorial Day, we gather around flag-spangled gravestones to solemnly honor fallen soldiers killed in battle after a push came to a shove. At some point before or after the shell-casings clank to the ground from the rifle volleys and the hotdogs are digested, parents of young children have the unenviable obligation to sort these mixed messages out.

Hey, good luck with that!

A few years back, I happened to be standing inside the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., at the very spot where at 9:37 a.m., on Sept. 11, 2001, jihadist barbarians purposefully crashed a Boeing 757, killing 184 people. At that very spot where that hijacked plane made impact, Pentagon officials defiantly built a chapel.

Why was I there? A Catholic priest I know, stationed on the campus of the Catholic University of America, had been tapped to become one of the Pentagon's several chaplains. One day during a visit to the city, he let me tag along with him to Mass. 

Father Mark and I meet up at the Metro. On the train, he quietly prepares himself for Mass by meditating on the daily Gospel reading, which he's to preach upon. I soon see him with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, high-octane anxiety broadcast by a face drained of color.

“Everything all right over there?" I ask. He hands me his Bible and points to the Gospel reading from Matthew 5:38-42. If there were a Top 10 greatest hits of the New Testament, Matthew 5:38-42 would be at the top — the "Jumpin' Jack Flash” of the Bible.

In the reading, Jesus says to his disciples, "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.”

Challenging under any circumstances, this reading is exponentially so in the Pentagon of all places, headquarters of the Department of Defense, which is presently charged with executing two foreign wars. A four-star general and other military brass are frequent communicants.

We reach the Metro's Pentagon stop and head up the escalator to wend our way through two security checkpoints. Days prior I had been set up with clearance. We’re soon inside on an unnerving walk within the 17-plus miles of corridors that comprise the spokes and rings of the Pentagon.

Down at the chapel, while Fr. Mark is preparing for Mass, some church-goers linger in the hallway before entering the chapel. I meet Paul Brady, a 40-year employee at the Pentagon who tells me he lost friends in the attack on Sept. 11. Pointing with his cane to the ceiling and walls, Paul helps me imagine how the plane cut through the office space occupied by the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and continued 80 feet into the Navy Command Center, where he works. Another man, John, explains how he took up the task to help procure body bags. He recalls the smoky haze. "It's a smell I'll never forget," he says. "It must be what hell smells like — the jet fuel, the burnt building, the burnt bodies."

Paul admits that sometimes hatred gets a grip on him. He’s not proud of that.

Mass begins at 11:30 a.m. About 50 people are in attendance. After the Gospel reading, Fr. Mark takes a deep breath and says the following:

"The world is a place where evil flourishes. We may wonder, ‘… Can it get any worse than it is now, with all the terror and disorder?’ But the reading from Matthew [teaches] how we are to respond to evil. To not resist it — that means to transcend the problem of evil. We are to fight evil by growing in mercy. As we grow in mercy, we break the grip of evil in our lives. God allows us to transcend the problem of evil in this world — not that we don't fight it. We are to conquer evil with the power of good. Evil is powerless in the face of virtue.”

Father Mark hastens to add, "But evil has its day sometimes."

Inspirational words. Still, I notice even his own rumination on fighting had elements of ambiguity — “… not that we don't fight it,” he had said while talking of turned cheeks and certifiable creeps. I high-five him anyway once we get the heck out of the Pentagon and are certain we aren’t being followed.

On Memorial Day or thereabouts, we have the opportunity to make the unavoidably contorted effort to explain to our children the following:

• Bad guys exist, but love them anyway;

• sometimes you have to put up your dukes, but rage leads to ruin; and

• the glare of righteous victory will never outshine the dignity of the fallen soldier.

In other words, equivocate enough with your kid and you may get the point across.

And yes, my child: If your hands are forced and if a push comes to a shove, may your counterpunch be as powerful as a prayer for peace. And protect your face. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

He'll be sorry now

The heavy-handed imagery ends there. But it would have been really great if a raven looked on from a dead tree branch unable to mind its own business. Better yet, I'd have welcomed helicopters circling overhead, casting searchlights blindly and aggressively.

But we had the fog, the backlit saints and the medieval door that could hold its own against a battering ram, and why ask for more? Really, for parents escorting their 8-year-old boy on a perp walk to his first confession, we had hit the jackpot.

His First Holy Communion is later this month. Confession is a prerequisite. We brought him to our parish church beside a river that swerves out of town like a getaway car. Despite what he might have wished, the white smoke of the chimney-topped town did not signify the election of a new pope who would nullify the requirement of confession.

He was going. That was that.

Up the wintry sidewalk we went, a sidewalk lightly sprinkled with salt. Hey, wasn't Lot's wife transformed into a pillar of salt during the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Can't we add that to the heavy-handed imagery? Yes, of course we can!

All that was left now was for our boy's teeth to start chattering, for the priest to call him into the confessional with a crooked finger and for our boy to be repentant as each of his sins was named and dislodged from his soul like the barnacles of a boat brought to dry dock. Minutes later we'd fetch him and maybe tussle his hair and maybe marvel at his state of grace.

And maybe when we would ask him how it went, he would answer, "Wonderfully. After all, Father and Mother, ours is a God of mercy, and I now fully understand my special covenant with the Lord."

It doesn't work that way, of course. Still, in our preparation for his first confession, a grand opportunity presented itself to give more than passing consideration of our personal favorite of the Ten Commandments: "Honor thy father and mother." He's a thoughtful, loving, funny little widget, but sometimes he's, um, (can I say "a jerkface"? No? OK, then ... ) difficult. I had taken to pulling up an image on the computer of Moses and his two stone tablets. "Look, it's right there," I said to him. "It's a commandment from God!"

To any parents out there taking notes, this tactic has its most powerful positive impact when coupled with a shrug and saying, "Hey, I'm with you, good buddy. This isn't my idea, this whole thing about honoring our fathers and mothers. It's kinda stupid, huh? But a rule is a rule, right? And there's always the other option of burning in the fires of hell. Anyway, you want ice cream?"

Other than the Fourth Commandment, he earns passing grades on the other nine. (He hasn't revealed any signs he's a budding criminal mastermind. For one thing, he leaves his fingerprints everywhere. The only thing he's killed is his Blue Bear. He certainly doesn't covet his neighbor's goods. The only goods his neighbor has worth noting is a gray-haired golden retriever named Nelson, and Nelson is an idiot. And I'll ignore those two days when he continually marveled at how "Cheez-Its!" sounds so incredibly like "Jesus!")

Last Wednesday evening was D-Day. He had memorized the Act of Contrition. He had plenty of things to confess. God, his mother and I had him surrounded. And, not for nothing, he's always been intrigued by heavy-handed imagery.

"You're going to tell Father Murphy everything, right?"


"The yelling at Mommy?"


"And you saying that you want pasta and being served pasta and not eating the pasta and getting mad about the pasta?"


"It's the yelling at Mommy that drives us bonkers."

"I know."

"We love you."

From the church vestibule we stepped from darkness to light, from coldness to warmth, from metaphor to metaphor. He lined up with his classmates. One by one they visited with Father Murphy. One by one they exited and solemnly returned to the pews, knelt and prayed. When our boy emerged from the confessional, he looked at me squinting and with a goofy half-smile that seemed to say, "Are you pulling a fast one on me?"
Still, he knelt and prayed with the rest of them.

Mission accomplished.

The helicopters now circle the sins of the father.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The pull to leave and the pull to stay

While many merely try to keep themselves together in an uncertain economy, here’s a man attempting to molt, to move away, to perform a five-member family makeover.

He’s already snapped the chalk line from A to B, from Massachusetts to Montana, from hardpan to greener pastures. But before cutting his way westward, he has to sell his house first.

Maybe this, a tavern with testosterone on tap, is no place to talk of alienation and dreams that are no cinch. Maybe it’d be better if we were around a kitchen table that he hopes to dismantle soon and load onto a truck, a kitchen table scuffed up by the silverware of a feeding family.

But anyway, here we are tucked into a booth in a tavern where deals are being made or undone, conversations lurch from surety bonds to bail bonds, and guys at the bar talk trash about Derek Jeter's gender preference.

I rub my eyes. Kent rubs his hands.

His house has been on the market, officially, for two hours. We order a couple of pints. We clink glasses and contemplate the wild braid of superior resistance that tethers some of us to the ground beneath our feet and pulls others across long distances, like free-range tribes of old, roaming, wily and foraging for a future.

His soul has felt the pull, its reflected light blocked by the orb of an oppressive mortgage payment and dried-up job prospects. The corners in his life no longer are weighted down with commitments, a feeling equally euphoric and frightening. He envisions hoisting it all – everything that’s meaningful -- like a sacred icon in a Rosary procession, then placing it all down carefully, elsewhere, far away and intact, in the name of a father, and his family and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Patrons are tucking Reubens into their countenances. Canoe-topped out-of-towner cars are doing a conga line down Main Street on their way to the hills. Kent has another set of hills in mind, in Montana -- for family reasons  (he wants his three daughters to grow up knowing their grandparents); for political reasons (he's decidedly right of center ... picture “Right,” then take about 30 steps further to the right); and for political reasons (did I already say that?).

“Montana is not a miniature socialist/communist state with high taxes where personal freedoms are dwindling year by year,” he says. “Plus, it's drop-dead gorgeous, and a person can still have some elbow room. There are so many zoning laws here. You know I can't even have chickens? How crazy is that? We live in the so-called 'country' and I can't have chickens?”

Chicken sandwiches will have to suffice until the house sells, a chicken parm and a chicken club, made from chickens whose molting days are long come.

"Any takers on the house yet?" I ask.

“Shut up,” he says.

He wants to buy five to 10 acres. He wants his young daughters to have horses. He and his wife home school, and in Montana home schoolers aren’t looked upon with suspicion. Kent says he'll look for work doing anything -- construction, buffing floors, whatever.

Families with young children begin entering the joint. The men at the bar yield to the changing demographic and behave themselves.

“So you’re going to be another friend moving away,” I say.


“If the house sells.”


“I hope it all works out as you hope it will, just as long as what you hope doesn’t include joining a militia.”

I don’t want him to go. I feel like an Australian shepherd these days trying to round up my wayward pack, protect them and guard them and demand from them time and attention. Friends keep leaving – for greener pastures whose residents may well be dreaming of greener pastures in places whose residents may well be dreaming of greener pastures. And all the while, the greenest pasture may well be a kitchen table scuffed up by the silverware of a feeding family, provided you can keep them fed.

“I’m not joining Facebook,” I tell him.

“Neither am I.”

“If you get to Montana and join Facebook, you’ll destroy the romance and heroics of your new life.” It’d be like the Apollo 11 moon landing broadcast in high-definition color rather than in the mysterious monotone of a grainy signal.

“I’m not joining Facebook.”

“Good. Send me presents.”




We're both whupped. Our respective braids are tugging at us. All the words in our repertoire wish to go home and bed down and dream in foreign languages.

A portrait of Babe Ruth hangs over our table. Babe, another man with a rebellious streak, once said, “I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big, or I miss big.”

Kent's swinging with everything he's got. If he connects, it’ll be big. If he connects, like Babe, I suppose he’ll find himself rounding a bend and heading for home.