Kneelers, Sappers and “We the People”

I guess I should start by saying what the National Anthem means to me. It transcends politics, rising above our human and national imperfections. It is owned by neither Republican or Democrat. For generations it’s been sung at civic and sporting events. It has tested the vocal range of many a singer. But even during those off-key moments,  we stood, hand over our heart as it swelled with pride, knowing that we were part of something larger than ourselves. We were Americans! Our National Anthem is a celebration, not of political parties or policies, but of, “We the people.”

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is not America. Our senators and congressmen are not America. Our mayors and our alderman are not America. At best they are temporary servants of America’s citizens.

Look in the mirror, look at your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, the people in the check-out line at the grocery store. Look at the people you agree with and those with whom you have differences. You are looking at America, you are looking at, “We the people.”

The last line of each stanza of our National Anthem, ends with this, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Today across America, we saw a rash of professional football players deciding not to stand for our National Anthem. Living in the “land of the free,” they have that right. But as a very small part of America, one little guy in “We the people,” I’m offended. Disagree with policy all you want, if you see injustice, work to see that corrected. That is your right and obligation as an American. But burn our flag or kneel through our anthem, then you have insulted your neighbors, your co-workers and even yourself as a part of “We the people.”

Let me tell you about the “sappers.”

During the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-day, the sappers job after they landed was to charge up the hill to find the land mines and clear a path for their comrades.

Tom Brokaw, in his book, The Greatest Generation, recorded the stories of some veterans who came back years later to visit Omaha Beach, this is what they said.

” … that hillside was loaded with mines, and a unit of sappers had gone first, to find where the mines were. A number of those guys were lying on the hillside, their legs shattered by the explosions. They’d shot themselves up with morphine and they were telling where it was safe to step. They were about twenty-five yards apart, our guys, calmly telling us how to get up the hill. They were human markers.”

They described the scene as calmly as if they were remembering an egg-toss at a Sunday social back home. It was an instructive moment for me, one of many, and so characteristic. The war stories come reluctantly and they almost never reflect directly on the bravery of the storyteller. Almost always he or she is singling out someone else for praise.

2,500 American soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice that day. 2,500 brave individuals would never see their families and loved ones again. They would never again have the privilege of standing when they heard the line, “Oh, say can you see.” They charged up the beach, knowing the odds were not in their favor. They sacrificed themselves for their country and comrades. They knew they were part of something greater than themselves. They knew they were part of “We the people,” … it never occurred to them to “take a knee.”


In case you’ve forgotten, this is the preamble to our constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Remembering Maurice

Mimsy and I went for walk tonight. There was nothing unusual about that, it’s a daily occurrence. Tonight though there was an abundance of thunder and lightning, but very little rain. A big production, lots of special effects, but at the end, nothing of substance. Shakespeare said it best in Macbeth, “sound and fury, Signifying nothing”. Lots of commotion, but very little good came of it.

Tonight in St. Louis we have another round of protests over the not guilty verdict of officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a heroin dealer who was fleeing the police. I’m not here to pass judgement, I don’t know what happened. There are only two people, only one of which is alive, who knew the details of what transpired.

As a 30 year resident of Ferguson, Missouri, this brings back a lot of painful memories. It also brings back memories of Maurice, whom I wrote about in, “Having Skin in the Game.”

Maurice was a young black man who I had the privilege of knowing for a  few moments. The intersection of our lives was brief and I’m pretty sure, I’ve thought about him more than he’s thought about me. When he told me what high school he was entering, I knew what part of town he lived in. I knew the odds weren’t in his favor. Maurice is now at an age to be looking for a job. I wonder if those protesters that are hoping the kill the economy of St. Louis are thinking about Maurice. Are they concerned that Maurice has never been taught how to fill out a job application? Are they concerned that Maurice is more likely to be killed in a drive by shooting than any other cause of death in his part of town?

Whether Anthony Lamar Smith was innocent, I don’t know. I do know that Maurice and others like him are truly innocent. Where is the outrage for the Maurice’s of St. Louis who are trapped in a cycle of poverty? Where are the protests that address the lack of basic life skills being taught to Maurice. Where is the acknowledgement that our economy has changed and that good paying blue-collar jobs are rare? Where is the acknowledgement that Maurice has little opportunity? Where is the national/state/city/individual will to change this?

Protesting is easy, posting on social media is easy, being politically correct is easy, and I’m as guilty as anyone.

Do we have the will to have painfully honest discussions on race? Can we accept that there is enough blame to go around on all sides? Do we really want to solve this?

Mimsy and I head back home, the thunder is crashing, the lightning flashes, but we are barely damp.

Feeling Small

At age 23, I pretty much knew everything. At age 63, I believe a few things with certainty, but many other things have fallen into areas that I question. I don’t think this is a sign of weakness, a lack of faith or early dementia., at least I don’t want to believe that.

I have become wary of people who are sure about everything. I am wary of people (and politicians) who only see things along party lines. My guard goes up around people who are sure that God is on their side, whatever side that may be. To be honest, I don’t trust them. Life is not that simple. Life is complicated.

I came across this great quote by Paul Tillich,  “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

I didn’t get that at first, then I started to understand. God is not threatened by our questions or diminished by our doubt. But our certainty, our smugness can keep us from approaching God. Why do we need God when we know everything, when we need no answers, when we are certain, when we rely on ourselves.

Commander Randy Bresnik, who is currently on board the International Space Station, took this photo of hurricane Irma from 250 miles above Earth. I look at this and I’m feeling pretty small. I don’t know what the next few days will hold but if the forecasts are true, they will be days that test our faith.

Bad things will happen, good people will suffer, I know this for certain. Why does this happen, why does God allow this … I am uncertain, I don’t know.

What do I know? I am certain for a while we will forget who is a Democrat or Republican, we will forget who is black or white, who is Christian, Hindu, Muslim or atheist. At least for a few moments, we will forget who has offended us on social media.

I know that selfless acts of heroism will be performed. I know that the willing will carry the weak through floodwaters. I know that our focus will be on families and loved-ones and not on the material. I know that those not directly affected will give generously to those who were.

I also know that after this crisis is over, we will return to bickering, we will have the luxury of pettiness once more. We will again see people as members of political parties, religions, races, factions and forget we are all children of God.

This I know.

God have mercy and never let me be certain.


Late Night Porch Meditations

It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend in famous Ferguson. The temperature dropped and I took the opportunity to retire to the front porch after dinner. The katydids, crickets and tree frogs were in fine form, serenading me with the background murmurs of the cars running up and down Elizabeth Avenue. The air had a hint of autumn, a foreshadowing of seasons to come. The trees in our neighborhood had long abandoned their frivolous bright green hues of spring and donned more somber shades of deep green with hints of brown. The maids of May Day had become dowagers in just a few short months.

Earlier that day, I sat on the same porch, finished reading a book and laid it on the table in front of me. It was Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. When I decided to change the focus and name of this blog to “Poppy Walks the Dog”, I thought the least I could do was review some real writers who had a focus on dogs.

James Thurber was the first to come to mind, His “Snapshot of a Dog” remains one of my favorites. If you are not familiar with Thurber, check out his writings and cartoons.

Steinbeck was next on the list. It has probably been 25 years since I first read, Travels with Charley. It recounts Steinbeck’s 1960 lap around America, with his dog, Charley. The motivation was in Steinbeck’s words, “To find our what Americans are like today.” Like many of Steinbeck’s writings, it is both melancholy and hopeful. His journey was around the edges of the United States and encompassed nearly 10,000 miles.

What are Americans like today?

As one little guy sitting in the heartland, with my own perspectives and prejudices, I’m not qualified to answer that. We are certainly more diverse than we were in 1960. Our technology has certainly changed. We are blessed/cursed to have the internet and social media. We have the ability to be petty much more efficiently than in 1960.

Are we more divided? The media keeps telling us how we are such a divided nation. We are certainly just as political. Part of Steinbeck’s journey took him back to his hometown of Monterey, California, where he had time to spend with his sisters. This was against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential election, pitting Kennedy against Nixon.

Civil war is supposed to be the bitterest of wars, and surely family politics are the most vehement and venomous. I can discuss politics coldly and analytically with strangers. That was nor possible with my sisters. We ended each session panting and spent with rage. On no point was there any compromise. No quarter was asked or given.

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other. “John Kennedy was a so and so …”

“Well, if that’s your attitude, how can you reconcile Dick Nixon?”

“You talk like a Communist.”

“Well you sound suspiciously like Genghis Khan.”

It was awful. A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country.”

What are Americans like today? Are we better or worse than in 1960?

I believe the answer is a resounding, yes! We are better and worse than in 1960. Part of Steinbeck’s lap of America took him through the deep south at the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Many of those affairs make the recent Charlottesville events look like a Sunday School picnic. We have made a lot of progress since then. We are not perfect, but we are certainly moving in the right direction.

As a race, we humans are fundamentally flawed. We will never be perfect, hate will always be a force to be reckoned with. It won’t matter who we elect or what laws we pass, utopia will never be achieved.

But for tonight,  I’m just a guy sitting on his front porch on a Labor Day weekend with his dog and I’m okay with that.