Enter At Your Own Risk/A Thanksgiving Recap by Bill Pike

The pre-Thanksgiving invasion was broken down into four phases.CautionRisk

The first phase occurred on Friday, November 17, when my wife, the Commander Supreme, returned from Connecticut with my mother-in-law, the Senior Warden.

Phase two took place on Saturday morning. It involved the always enjoyable drive up I-95 to Reagan National to fetch our oldest daughter, Lauren, her husband, Doug, and their two year old daughter, Caroline.

The third phase took place late on Monday afternoon when our youngest daughter, Elizabeth, drove in from Raleigh.

And the final phase was completed by midday Tuesday, when our son, Andrew, his wife, Kathryn, and their five month old daughter, Josie, survived another I-95 excursion from Arlington.

Just recanting the invasion arrivals makes me weary. Family invasions are not for the faint of heart. If you want to stop reading now because your anxiety levels are exceeding normal medication stages, I understand.

Our son-in-law’s year has been challenging. Doug and his sister, Pam, sadly lost their parents. With that in mind, my wife and I agreed to watch Caroline from Sunday until late afternoon Tuesday. Let me correct that. The Commander Supreme agreed to watch Caroline. So that Lauren and Doug could get away to New York City.

Surprisingly, Caroline managed pretty well. I only noticed one slight quivering of her bottom lip when she saw a photograph of her mom one morning. But, it can be easy to forget about Mom and Dad for a few days when your grandmother is spoiling you at every waking moment.

Two year old Caroline and five month old Josie were quite a contrast. Josie during her waking time was fairly quiet and exceptionally attentive to her new environment. Her clear, curious eyes constantly scanned her surroundings. Occasional smiles, and happy sounds on her toy mat mesmerized the adults around her.

All parents worry a bit about the “terrible twos”, but Caroline never displayed a total meltdown during this visit. At times, she was fairly consistent with the words “no” and “out” when her space was invaded a bit.

By Wednesday, the final assault of food preparation for Thursday was being put into play by the Commander Supreme and her mother, the Senior Warden. The pursuit of meal perfection raises the stress levels in the house. In those moments, it is best to stay out of their sight lines.

With the pursuit of perfection meter rising, I think about putting a sign on our front doors stating: Enter At Your Own Risk*. The asterick is an extra warning of sensitivity to Caroline and Josie’s schedules, and that no offense is intended if Caroline’s first words to you are “no” or “out”.

Some how, we made it to 1:30 p.m. on Thursday for the big meal. We had one small glitch in the kitchen, the gravy boiled over.

There were 14 of us around two tables. This included Betsy’s brother, Ken, his wife, and their three children. And one more invader, Elizabeth’s friend, RH, who had driven up from Edenton, North Carolina.

Before we dug in the food, the first thing I did was to toast the Commander Supreme. Then I offered a prayer. It wasn’t the prayer I wanted to say.

As I looked around those two tables, my internal pondering was thinking I don’t have a clue about thankfulness. I take too much for granted.

Never in my 64 years has a Thanksgiving meal been in doubt for me, nor anyone around these two tables. And yet, across America today organizations of all types work to insure that a plate of turkey plus the trimmings are provided for those who have not been as blessed as me.

My prayer opportunity about thankfulness and taking too much for granted was missed. If I’m around next Thanksgiving, I promise myself to prayerfully make those points.

Time always flies when families gather.

The day after Thanksgiving, on a frosty Friday morning, I found myself driving Lauren, Doug, and Caroline back up I-95 to Reagan National. It was a quiet drive.

Only one cabbie impatiently beeped at me. To the best of my knowledge, I was in the correct lane. Oh well, maybe someone ate his extra piece of pumpkin pie.

We scrunched our way to the departure point, put on the flashers, and unloaded. Car seat, stroller, luggage, camera bag, backpacks, and the most important piece, little miss no, Caroline Louise, were carefully placed on the curbside.

All along the departure area, family and friends were in the same ritual. Bags pulled from cars, followed with words of thanks and affection, and finally quick hugs.

My leaving was christened with a high five and a blown kiss from Caroline.

I’m a worrier, and on the ride back to Richmond, the worrier in me kicked in about Thanksgiving. I wondered what future Thanksgivings might be like for Caroline and Josie.

The Thanksgivings of my youth are gone.

Simple times. A large family gathering.

The meal made from scratch, no ordering from a grocery store.

One midday football game, the Packers and the Lions played outside.

No constant media bombardment about Black Friday super sales.

Just before, we served ourselves the meal, there was always one final ingredient—prayer.

We gathered in a circle grasped the nearest hand for a heartfelt prayer of thankfulness, a prayer from a family that understood the hardships and recovery from a real Black Friday.

I think my worry is that we are losing our way.

A quiet day of national thankfulness appears to be slowly eroding.

I sense we are more willing to enter retailer doors (sometimes with risks) to secure a great deal than we are to truly appreciate the merits of a national holiday. Just consider how many retailers are now open on Thanksgiving day.

In my old mind,Thanksgiving is as important as any of those great deals.

Perhaps, I need to remind myself about Caroline’s favorite word when it comes to all of the non-Thanksgiving encroachments—no!


Thanksgiving Characters

In the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I was enrolled in a biology class. The professor, Dr. Kemper Callahan, was a legend in the science department and on campus. His appearance alone signaled toughness: crew cut, square jaw, broad shoulders, and a chest like a stout oak tree.Dr. Kemper Callahan

I started out strong in the class, but by Thanksgiving break, I was struggling, and he sensed it.

Since I lived in North Carolina, I didn’t cut his class on the day before Thanksgiving. I was looking for brownie points, but I don’t think Dr. Callahan believed in them.

Dr. Callahan’s lecture that morning was on one level a chewing out for the poor performance on the second round of testing, but the other part of the lecture was a timely brain shaker about Thanksgiving.  In his own unique way, Dr. Callahan helped me to realize some things about Thanksgiving that I had always taken for granted.

The lecture focused us to think about all the people who are working behind the scenes to make a Thanksgiving meal happen for our families.

He started with farmers, and a simple statement: no farmers, no Thanksgiving. Next, he referenced the labor it takes to harvest, prep, and transport these food items to market, and the connection to all of the personnel in the stores and markets where our purchases are made. Finally, he affirmed our families, and the hands that prepare the food with just the right seasonings.

In less than an hour, Dr. Callahan had informed our class how lucky we were to have the things that we take for granted at Thanksgiving. And as he finished, I clearly remember his parting shot to the class, “Now get out of here.”

As a former high school English teacher, I had the privilege of sharing with my students the O’Henry short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” As an author, O’ Henry, developed a reputation for stories with an unexpected twist at the end.

In this story, the main character, the Old Gentleman, has established a tradition of making sure a less fortunate person in this case, Stuffy Pete, has a full Thanksgiving meal. For nine Thanksgivings, the Old Gentleman encounters Stuffy Pete and walks him to a restaurant and watches him shove in the food.

For this Thanksgiving, upon the conclusion of the meal, Stuffy Pete thanks the Old Gentlemen, and they go their separate ways. A few hours later, unbeknownst to each other they both end up in the hospital: Stuffy Pete from overeating and the Old Gentlemen from not eating for three days.

Filmmaker, John Hughes, captures the struggles of two businessmen in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles who are trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Neal, portrayed by Steve Martin, and Del Griffith, played by John Candy, are linked to a series of travel snafus that put these two opposite personalities together in the quest to reach Chicago.

It is quite a road trip for Neal and Del, but a very revealing one for Neal who finally realizes that Del has no family and no place to be for Thanksgiving. So Neal returns to the train platform where he left Del, and Neal invites Del to come home with him for Thanksgiving.

I often wonder what pushed Dr. Callahan to lecture us about the people who really make Thanksgiving happen. Perhaps, O’ Henry wanted to illustrate to his readers the sacrifice one character was willing to make for the benefit of another. With Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, maybe John Hughes was attempting to demonstrate how our encounters with strangers have the capacity to transform.

Each Thanksgiving, Dr. Callahan’s lecture rattles in my brain, my willingness to assist others increases, and I tend to be more sensitive to the needs of strangers.

Perhaps the real question for me is why can’t I be all of those things year round, not just at Thanksgiving?

Well, I think the answer is my heart needs more transforming, like the change found in Ezekiel 36:26: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

I Can’t Imagine

On a perfect October afternoon, I finally had an upclose view of the office, my mother’s brother, James Samuel Harrod, occupied during World War II. Sam’s office space was the tail gunner position on an US Army Air Corp bomber, the B-24.

Courtesy of the Collings Foundation, a P-51 fighter, and three bombers, a B-17, a B-24, and a B-25, had been flown into the Chesterfield County Airport. This was a part of the 2017 Wings of Freedom Tour.

Started in 1979, the Collings Foundation is a nonprofit. Their goal “is to organize and support “living history” events and the presentation of historical artifacts and content that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.”

As soon as my 86-year-old neighbor, Tiff Graham, a Korean War Navy veteran, and I arrived at the airport, and I saw those planes parked on the tarmac— I knew we were going to learn a lot.

At the gate, we were greeted by members of the Wings of Freedom Tour, where we paid our admission. Also, sitting at the gate was my church friend, Bill Owen, who had served his country in World War II learning to fly the P-51 and the B-25.

The P-51 was our first stop. Gleaming in the warm October sun, this single engine fighter looked sleek and powerful. Decorated test pilot, Chuck Yeager, flew the P-51 in World War II. The cockpit area had been retrofitted with a narrow passenger seat behind the pilot. This allows Collings’ pilots for a fee to take a person up into the wild blue yonder.

Next was the B-17, a massive plane called the Flying Fortress. There was a line waiting to tour the interior of the B-17, so we admired its exterior features and strength. Four barrel sized engines with large, perfectly milled propellers made up its wing span. One of the B-17s from World War II was nicknamed the “Memphis Belle,” and its crew’s journey into the war was twice made into movies.

A shorter line was assembled outside the B-24 so we walked over.

Built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, the B-24 Liberator, was also a workhorse. Designed with a wingspan of 110 feet and powered by four Pratt and Whitney 1200 horsepower engines, the B-24 was no pushover. It carried a crew of ten with eleven .50 machine guns.

The contrast in design between the B-17 and B-24 were clear, but both were built to deliver a punch, and they did.

Tiff and I surveyed the exterior of the B-24, and although still nimble at 86, he opted not to enter the narrow confines of the plane.

Prior to my walk through, I had looked carefully at the tail gunner’s position. At the back of the fuselage tucked between two tall stabilizers was the space for the tail gunner. For sure it was a strategic point of protection for the B-24.

From this perch, I imagine the tail gunner had a spectacular panoramic view. But that view was quickly forgotten during those intense encounters with enemy fighter planes and heavy artillery firing from the ground.

I entered the plane and took a few steps toward the back where the tail gunner was positioned. That section of the plane had limited access. I was not able to walk further into the plane for a closer look of where Sam was stationed. But I can report this, getting to the glass enclosed area was extremely narrow, and it was amazing that he could squeeze his body into the turret.

Like his mother and two sisters, Sam was short in stature, but big in heart. I remember he had a wonderful sense of humor, an incredible work ethic, and a silent fortitude. I think his resilience came from how his mother reacted to her children being deserted by their father in Mississippi. Like the heartwood from a persimmon tree, that desertion created in Sam an unspoken toughness.

My mother and grandmother never allowed me to talk with Sam about his experiences with the B-24. In fact, I checked that with my cousin, Sam, who was named after his father. My cousin confirmed there was no conversation about World War II, and upon reflection, Sam thinks of his father as “the greatest man I never knew.”

Following my experience seeing the B-24, I alerted Sam and his sister, Pam, that the Wings of Freedom tour was headed to Burlington, North Carolina where we all grew up. They were able to make it to the airport for a tour.

For my cousin, Sam, the viewing and walk through was very emotional. This too was his first visit with a B-24.

As he studied his father’s position, his first thought was “the tail gunner was a sitting duck.” This visit answered a question about whether the tailgunner stood or sat, and in this case he sat. The longer he inspected the interior of the plane, the more my cousin marveled that the plane and personnel survived their missions.

Sam revealed that his father had kept a diary for each of the 35 missions that his plane flew in the Pacific. We know he was in the 868th Bomber Squadron H. This squadron had the nickname of “the snoopers”, and the plane depending upon handwriting interpretation was named either Lady June or Lady Jane.

The diary captured much detail including flight times, how many rounds Sam spent firing at the enemy, bombs dropped, and a bomb dropping mistake. While flying over the Makassar Strait, a submarine was sighted, a bomb was dropped, and sadly it was an American sub.

The US Army Air Corp set a requirement for heavy bomber crews to complete 25 missions. After reaching that goal, crews were eligible to return home.

My uncle’s diary clearly states he completed 35 missions aboard a B-24. According to my cousin, his father attributed this extension to backed up paperwork. Backed up paperwork or not, extending the risks associated with 10 more missions only serves to remind me this was truly the “greatest generation.”

As I was leaving the tail section of the B-24, a grandfather and his grandson were ahead of me. There was a narrow gangway to walk on through the bomb bay section of the plane.

As the grandfather was helping his grandson to carefully navigate the gangway, one of the engines on the B-25 bomber was fired up. The B-25 was further down the tarmac. A mechanic was trying to make adjustments to the left engine.

This sound startled the youngster with fear. He thought one of the B-24 engines had been started. The grandson was in panic, he cried assuming the plane he was touring was about to take off. His grandfather attempted to reassure him, but he had been unnerved.

And speaking of nerves, I don’t know how the crews of these warplanes did it. They knew what a mission entailed. Yet, day after day, they climbed in, took off, fulfilled the mission, and if they were lucky returned to their bases.

I can’t imagine what was going through the crew’s minds, nor can I imagine being a parent back in the states.

My uncle Sam survived the war.

And it is probably good that I never had a conversation with him about his office space in the B-24. He kept those stories humbly tucked away, and that was the right thing to do. Even now as an adult, I’m challenged to fully comprehend what Sam experienced.

On May 14, 1989, my uncle left this world bound for another flight in the wild blue yonder. That day, the ride was a lot calmer, and the good Lord knows he earned.

This Veterans Day make sure you take the time to thank a Veteran.

And hold close to your heart these words from Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”



Humbled In Red

33A few years ago, my college roommate who is a minister told me about the Alban Institute. Now a part of the Divinity School at Duke University, I subscribe to Alban’s weekly e-newsletter. This newsletter does exactly what their website proclaims: leaders connect and learn from one another by sharing practical wisdom, stories of thriving congregations and transformational models of ministry.

Earlier this spring via Alban, the following headline caught my attention: Interested in writing a better 1000 word personal essay? Register for How to Tell Your Story. This was an on-line class offered by the editors of Faith and Leadership’s e-magazine.

Over the last several years, I have been devoting more time to tinkering with words. I enjoy writing, and this class was designed to help individuals take their writing to the next level.

For me, this meant learning how to improve my very limited publication success. I wanted to see if my skills had the potential to push beyond my current threshold. So, I registered for the class.

Soon orientation information arrived about the technology we would be using. I found this to be a bit of a challenge as my computer skills are very basic. Additionally, we were asked to reach out to our classmates in a “getting to know you” session.

During the month of May, our class met on Wednesdays from 1-2 p.m. Each session was led by two editors from Faith and Leadership. Topics were linked to the class goal of helping us to craft our own 1000 word personal essay.

Also, we had the opportunity via technology to ask questions, and interact with the leaders and classmates. A weekly assignment was posted with a deadline. Included with these assignments were some required reading with the focus on writing styles and how an article/essay comes together.

As we worked through each class, in quick succession came the framing of our essay topic, writing of the first draft, and assignment to an editor.

My work with editors has been limited. Nothing in-depth, even though I had found success in being published in the Upper Room, The Virginia Advocate, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Aside from the Upper Room, feedback and suggestions to rewrite or rework a submission have never happened. Well, that was about to change.

I posted my essay draft and submitted it to my editor.

I was nervous as I awaited her response. Initially, when the essay was returned to me I felt pretty good, but then I figured out how to apply the embedded technology links, and I was mortally wounded.

Sherwin Williams should create a new color name for their charts and call it Raging Red.

Nothing was spared. I felt like the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey carved to the bone not even a sinew of meat remained anywhere.

It was if I had been flattened by a road paver, there was nothing left, not even a shred that could be peeled off the pavement.

At some point, I communicated to a couple of the editors that I felt like road kill, road kill that had been plucked clean by a turkey vulture.

A friend from the YMCA who is a professional writer told me that editors are “mean” and I guess humorless as well!

I could find nothing to redeem in this deconstructed scarlet autopsy. My confidence level was sub-zero.

So, I started over. I wrote from my heart, not that I hadn’t previously. Took an entirely different approach, and resubmitted a draft.

We were coming down to crunch time for the final posting. My editor returned the rewritten essay, and again raging red was the dominate, reoccurring theme.

I wanted to wave the white flag, but knew I couldn’t quit. Per recommendations, I reworked again this mutilated essay and posted it.

The affirmation for my writing that I was hoping for from working directly with an editor didn’t happen.

I told my senior pastor that I had been critically wounded by an editor. He quoted me Friedrich Nietzsche(Nee ch): “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

So, I thought to myself, ok, stop whining about being splattered in raging red by an editor. After all you are still breathing, and as Coach K would say you need to “move to the next play.”

And as I figure out that next play, I will ponder these words from Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

If I want to mend my “cut heart”, my response to “what should I do” needs to be grounded in this quote provided by one of the Faith and Leadership authors, from Augusten Burroughs:

“The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It’s not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work.”

Let us pray:
Heavenly father, as we figure out how to regroup from one of life’s disappointments, help us to know that our hearts can be mended by letting you guide us back to work. In your name we pray, Amen.

To Blog Or Not To Blog

As soon as we launch this blog, I’m sure the nano second world of technology will have something better than a blog. I’m a technology turtle. Need proof? I still own a flip phone!

Over the last several years, I’ve developed a passion for tinkering with words. My realm of success in finding outlets for my work to be formally published has been itty-bitty. While I will continue to explore options for publishing, I thought it seems reasonable that I could share my musings on a more frequent basis, thus a blog.

I’ve written a lot of pieces that focus on family, friends, life, and how in all that mix I might be able to find a slight theological connection without becoming a hell-fire and damnation, fist pounding, red faced, huffing and puffing, _________. (“e” word completes this sentence, I struggle with the “e” word!).

With this blog, the writing will continue to focus on themes surrounding family, friends, and this seemingly endless story bank, we call life.