Friday, May 14, 2010

Oh Shenandoah, I Long to Hear you, Away you Rolling River...

The beauty and wonder of the world surrounds us at every turn if we are but willing to pause along our journey and see with the eyes of our hearts. I have been keenly reminded of this truth during these past few days. It is always there, waiting for us to stop and see it.

I have been posted at the WWII Memorial twice in the last week. As has oft been the case, I was blessed by the opportunity to speak to veterans and to help make their visit more significant and enjoyable. Two stories stand out as especially moving for me. The first involves a man who landed in France shortly after D-day and served during the remainder of the war as a tank commander, leading a squadron of Sherman tanks through the hedgerows of France and forests of Germany. He spoke of the awe-inspiring power of the German .88 and that we had nothing in the American arsenal to match it, so we simply threw more and more sherman tanks into the fray and ultimately the sheer numbers prevailed. 

As then as I sat inside the kiosk yesterday a man walked up to me and asked for a wheelchair. He had brought his 91 year old father across the country to see the memorial, a dream very literally coming true. I helped him with the chair, but then had to leave them in order to go and give a talk. As I neared the starting location for my talk I was approached by a teacher who asked me if I could come and speak to their school group, which consisted of about 130 5th graders. So I brought the other visitors that were interested with me and walked down into the center of the memorial where I miraculously held the attention of these kids for more than 15 minutes as I painted a picture, not only of the memorial, but of the significance of the war on the lives that they were living today. As I spoke I told them that this was not simply a chapter in their history book, but the story of real people, and then went on to tell them that one of the men who had actually fought in the war was in the memorial at that moment. As the group dispersed throughout the memorial I became engaged in a series of conversations with several different visitors, but about ten minutes later I was able to continue to walk around the memorial where I discovered the men I had spoken to earlier, surrounded by about 20 of these 5th graders, in rapt attention as the seated veteran spoke to them of his experiences and showed them a card he carried with him denoting him as a Pearl Harbor survivor. 

It turns out that this man was actually in the army air corps and had, indeed been present at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, stationed at one of the airfields as they were bombed. He went on to fly bombing missions of his own throughout the pacific as the tail gunner of a B-17. He spoke of the fear of being surrounding by flak and the hail of enemy bullets as he fired back with his twin .50 cal machine guns, and of how he would bring his canteen with him while on missions so that it would freeze and he would have a cold drink of water when they got back to the ground. 

His son saw me and came over to me with tears in his eyes and told me that his father had never been thanked for his service before and how meaningful and touching it was to have these kids come up to him, thank him, and want to hear about what he had done. That is why I love this job. I was blessed indeed to simply be present for such a moment, much less to play some small part in helping to make it possible.

Last Saturday I donned a different uniform, that of a Colonel in the Union Army as I spoke to visitors about the ultimate triumph of the better angels of our nature over the hell of war as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I didn't have as many people interested in hearing my whole formal program (about 35 minutes) as I was hoping, but I had no problem finding people to talk to, who wanted to know more about Chamberlain, about the war, or at least why there was some guy in a Civil War uniform on the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial! For a first attempt at doing a living history program, it went pretty well. I will be doing it again on May 22, this time with my coat and boots, which just arrived in the mail, a bit too late for the first program!

I took a special bike training class on Wednesday which will now allow me to go on bike patrol around the park, which is exactly what it sounds like, riding a bike around the park and talking to visitors wherever you might find them. In order to take this class I had to shift my days off to Monday and Tuesday at the last minute, which meant I had time off when I wasn't expecting it. So I decided to take advantage of that and drove to work on Sunday so that I could leave as soon as I was off to drive out to Shenandoah National Park, where I spent all of Monday and Tuesday exploring a small percentage of the 500 miles of trails winding through the blue ridge mountains.

As I drove into the park along skyline drive I came to an overlook just in time to stop and watch the sun setting behind the mountains over the Shenandoah Valley and the river snaking below me. I slept in my truck that night because it was quite cold and I didn't get to a campgrounds until after 10:00.  The next morning I climbed to the top of Old Rag, which offered me inspiring views of the entire valley and surrounding countryside of Virginia. It was indeed majestic. That night I enjoyed a campfire while watching the sky fill with stars that I have not seen since camping in Utah in November. I awoke (this time in the tent) Tuesday morning to find an overcast and cloudy sky, which began to drop water upon me as I was cooking breakfast. So after hurriedly breaking camp I had to make a decision; should I get out of the rain and go back home before it got worse, or go hiking anyway?

Being me it wasn't even really a question, clearly I had to go exploring! So I hiked one loop of about 4.5 miles that took me by two water falls including Dark Hollow Falls, which is the iconic waterfall of the park. But it was not just the falls that were impressive, all of the mountain streams are filled with one cascade after another in a symphony of beauty and majestic sounds that inspires the soul. I was entirely alone for nearly the entire time as most sensible people had headed out of the mountains. That meant I got to really experience the forest the way it actually is and not as a tourist attraction. It also meant I nearly ran right into an owl who was sitting on a branch of a tree ahead of me on the trail. 

As I neared my truck once again the skies opened up in force, dumping so much water and so many layers of fog that I could not see anything at all from the overlook where I was parked and my windshield was itself a river. Once again I could have left, but there was another trail I really wanted to journey down so I decided to hike anyway, despite the rain. I waited until it appeared to be slackening and left my truck. About 30 seconds into the hike the rain returned and did not leave again until I approached the outskirts of DC later that night. So it was a rather wet trip, but the rain brought out a different aspect in the forest that I might not otherwise have seen.

I lost the path at one point when it crossed a river without denoting this fact to unsuspecting hikers like myself. After about a 1/3 of a mile of bushwhacking, rock climbing, and hanging onto the edge of slippery rock faces as I tried to find the trail I finally went up as high as I could, discovered a decisive lack of a path, so headed all the way back down to the river. As I descended I noticed a lack of foliage in a particular area on the opposite side of the river and became suspicious. So I crossed the river and climbed up the opposite bank and confirmed these suspicions when I once again found myself on the path, now with a much greater appreciation of the value of such things whilst hiking in that type of terrain in the rain! 

I saw at least 8 waterfalls on that hike, or at least sort of saw them. By the end they were so shrouded in mist that I could but make out the slightest hint of the falling water, but it was still beautiful and inspiring. It was quite the hike to get up the slippery rocks leading back out of the canyon that I had descended into, but well worth the journey through the rain and the mist despite my cold and exhausted body struggling to return to the safety of my truck as I approached the final miles of the journey. 

And then last night when I went to the discussion group that I have become a part of I was greeted by a special guest speaker, a gentleman by the name of Bob Goff, a name many of you Loma-ites know well. He spoke to us of the importance of doing, of taking action and simply doing. Don't sit and wait, don't think too long, but do. He is a wonderful storyteller and he had some powerful stories to tell, stories of changing the world we live in through the loving touch of Jesus. And as I sat there last night, I was reminded once that the beauty and wonder of the world surrounds us at every turn if we are but willing to pause along our journey and see with the eyes of our hearts.

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