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High Flight

As the New Year of 2018 rolls in, I'm working late with the television on, reminding me of childhood days when it was a challenge to stay up late—to watch the sign off. Inevitably, if I could make it, and my parents gave permission, I would be watching one of the video versions of High Flight.

High Flight was a poem written by an American, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Magee had earned a scholarship at Yale in 1941, but instead chose the opportunity to fly with the Royal Canadian Air Force—the United States not yet having entered World War II. Technically illegal, the United States was seemingly indifferent to those who wanted to cross into Canada to help in the Battle of Britain.

Sadly, during training in England, Gillespie suffered a mid-air collision and was killed, just months after having written what would become one of the most famous poems in history. High Flight was composed as he flew in a Spitfire, and today is the official poem of both the Canadian Royal Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. President Ronald Reagan quoted from the poem after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, United States Air Force cadets are required to memorize it, and it is inscribed on countless gravestones from Arlington National Cemetery, to Canada, to England and beyond.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

It is as fine a poem as has been written, and reflects the pure understanding of the 19-year-old pilot, John Magee. RIP

Janice Keck Literary Award

I felt extremely honored tonight as the winner of the Janice Keck Literary award for non-fiction. This has been an exciting process, first writing and editing, then working through design and publication. I'm hopeful the book—"The Battlefield Guide to Life: War Stories and Life Lessons from Julius Caesar to Sergeant York"—will be in print sometime in February.

U.S. Marine - 1917

This is Robert Cecil Williamson of Granville, Tennessee, probably 1917, as he joined the United States Marine Corps. While he hoped to be sent overseas to fight, most of his time was spent in the states, with a short tour of duty in the Dominican Republic. The U.S. was concerned with the Germans using the Dominican Republic as a staging ground for an invasion, and basically took over that island country for quite some time. The U.S. also had other interests in the area, not all of them altruistic. It's a little-told story, but the Dominicans - rightfully tired of American intervention in their government—wanted us out of there. I'm betting this man—my great-uncle—was glad to oblige them. Uncle Cecil came home after the war, a fine man who lived into old age, and one of my favorite relatives.

Battle of Franklin Memorial

(The following is a repost from our Facebook page regarding the memorial observance that took place at the Carter House, Franklin, Tennessee, ten days ago. We had been asked to get the pictures on our blog website, as well, and glad to do so. James)

Hundreds visited the Carter House this evening to memorialize those who fell at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. The 10,000 luminaries represent the casualties from that day. Especially poignant was the light shining from inside the newly restored Farm Office, the most bullet-riddled building still remaining from the American Civil War. Lest we forget.

I bet you've never heard this story!

The best way to experience a museum is to listen to the stories that the objects are telling, to look beyond the "stuff", to hear the tales the curators want you to know. I've been to a lot of museums, but the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona beats any of them as to sheer size. Covering 80 acres with over 300 aircraft stationed in hangars and on the environs of the desert, you'll find yourself wandering, looking, and loving the aircraft. More importantly, enjoying the stories.

F-105 Thunderchief
Recently, as I wandered through the hangars, suffering through the heat of July in a desert, I stumbled across one of the most bizarre moments from history. Here was a P-51D Mustang designed to replicate one of a WWII pilot, Lt. Colonel Louis Curdes. At the end of 1942 Curdes graduated from flight school, gained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, and was sent to fly and fight over Italy and North Africa. Within a month he had shot down an Italian fighter and seven German Messerschmitts, making himself an Ace. He was a master piloting his P-38 Lightning, but his luck would not hold; he was shot down by a German pilot and imprisoned in Italy. Escaping, he was able to work himself back to Allied lines, and soon volunteered for the Pacific Theater.

In the Pacific he found himself behind the stick of a P-51D Mustang, and soon found his mark against a Japanese Zero. Curdes was in an elite club: he was one of only three Americans to shoot down Italian, German, and Japanese fighters. The markings on his Mustang sported the flags of those three countries, but he was soon to add another.

Original WWII flight patches
While circling a downed pilot just off the coast of the Philippines, Curdes spotted an American C-47 transport plane, probably lost, headed toward a landing on the Japanese-held island of Batan. If the transport landed in enemy territory, Curdes realized, it would mean certain death for captain, crew, and passengers - he had to stop the plane from landing on Batan. First, he attempted to radio the pilot - no luck. He then crossed to the front in an attempt to wave it off. Still no luck. In an act of desperation, he took the only - the last - option remaining. He flew his Mustang - Bad Angel - to the rear of the C-47, took careful aim, and with a quick burst of his machine gun shot out its starboard engine. Crippled, the transport turned away from its approach, toward the sea. Curdes then took out its port engine, forcing it to ditch into the Pacific near the pilot he had previously been observing. The transport pilot made a controlled landing and Curdes saw that all aboard were able to evacuate to life rafts.

P-51D Mustang, painted as that of Lt. Colonel Curdes
The next morning Curdes guided rescuers to the site, where his fellow fighter pilot and a dozen people from the transport awaited help. Curdes was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, though historians disagree as to whether he earned it for shooting down his own plane or for prior service in the Mediterranean.

But no one would disagree that Curdes had a bizarre sense of humor. Elevating himself above the other men with markings of kills from three countries, Curdes added a fourth to his Mustang: the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Thanks to the Pima Air and Space Museum for telling this great story. One more thing: he later married one of the nurses on board the C-47 he shot down. What a story.

Stuck in a rut? Ask for help!

A few weeks ago I went home to the family farm to help my dad check on cattle. Spring calves had started to arrive and we needed to match cows and calves. Matching is a simple process, determined by seeing which newborn calves are sucking on which cows. It’s important to know, something that couldn’t be put off.

As we started to leave for the farm, we realized that Dad’s truck had a flat tire. We needed to get to the cattle while it was still early, so, contrary to the thoughts of my father who still likes to drive on the farm, we hopped into my Xterra. It’s a good 4WD machine, and since I’ve been four-wheeling for decades my only worry was its worn tires. The farm is a quick five-minute drive from his house, so we arrived quickly.

Dad opened the gate and we drove in, splashing through a water-filled mud hole. It had recently rained and water was standing in places, a slight concern with my old tires. We needed to “salt” the cattle, pouring mineral salt into troughs, but the road to the troughs was through a hayfield. That dirt road, in the same location as it has been for the past 40 years, rises and falls on the gently rolling hills of the farm.

About a hundred yards into the hayfield I found myself trapped in a rut of the road, with a significant amount of water in front of me. I needed to either go forward, try to drive out the sides, or back up. My dad laughed, said he’d noticed my tires, and jubilantly asked me, “What are you going to do now?!” I told him that I figured I’d just drive on through, that I knew what I was doing.

I locked my truck into four-wheel drive, backed up a little so that I could get speed, and started in. Daddy joked and said he’d walk with me to get the tractor if I got stuck. Deal. I laughed, fishtailed a little, and made it through with no problem. He told me I got lucky, with my response that I had learned from the best. That made him happy, no doubt.

We repeated that a couple more times, the worst place being right before we got to the troughs. Daddy opined that he thought the ruts in the road were like life, that it’s important to take them on. Have the guts to drive forward when you should be able to make it, but don’t be embarrassed to stop and back up when that’s the obvious choice. When you get stuck - and we all get stuck - don’t be afraid to ask for help from the fellow that will walk with you to get the proverbial tractor.

My dad has never been a philosopher, but now on the cusp of 80 years old he’s beginning to sound a lot more like the man who gave me advice when I was 16. Back then he wanted to get me on the right track, now he wants to affirm that I am. I think I am. I know when to accelerate, when to back up, and how to rock a truck when I get mired. But if I do get stuck - and I’m certain that I will again - I’m not afraid to ask for help. We all get stuck in the ruts of life, though we’re usually able to work ourselves free. But when the problem’s bigger than you alone can handle, reach out. Don’t be silent and stuck. Ask for help.

Keep those resolutions!

Here we are in the first week of 2017, when the new year is pure and inviting and capable of anything. Our resolutions are fresh and unbroken. My friends have told me their resolutions, and they're the same as you would expect: lose weight, pay off bills, travel some, find that dream job, and so forth. I think most of us should add one more resolution. We need to resolve to keep our resolutions.

Battle of Crecy - 15th century depiction
There are at least three important things that are key to successful resolutions. The first is to set specific goals. Don't say you're going to lose weight, or travel more, or be a better person. Say to yourself: I want to lose 20 pounds, I want to go to a Broadway play in New York, I want to save $3,000 toward a new car, I want to take a photography class, I want to (fill in your own goal). Second, set no more than just a couple of goals - they must be realistic and attainable. Achieve those goals, then feel free to set more in midsummer. Third, approach your resolutions with real resolve. You must say to yourself, "This is something I want, and something I will work and fight for."

It's a lack of time that usually holds me back from my resolutions. At other times it's been as simple as not knowing where to start, a lack of true commitment, or maybe the unwillingness to take a risk.

The Battle of Crecy - the first major battle of the Hundred Years War (1346) - is famous for three things. First, the English used the longbow to tremendous effect; second, it was the first European battle with a practical use of cannon; third, the Black Prince earned his spurs, and his reputation. To me, though, the most intriguing story from the Battle of Crecy is that of King John of Bohemia.

Monument to King John of Bohemia
King John found himself on the battlefield of Crecy as one of the leaders of the French side. Edward III had placed his English army at the top of a slight hill, his archers on the flanks, waiting for the opportunity to unleash their arrows. The French knights and men at arms were exhausted, having marched for many hours to the battlefield; yet they were ordered to advance up the hill, which is never an advantage for cavalry. King John was 50 years old and had been blind for a decade, yet he insisted that he be a part of this battle. He had resolved that he would contribute to the cause, and he would not be denied. He inquired of his compatriots as to the whereabouts of his son, and was told that he - Charles of Bohemia - was fighting elsewhere.

The French were losing the battle, yet King John requested of his men that they help him to the front so that he could strike a blow against the English. In an act that, to me, defines what it meant to be a knight, they lashed their bridles together so that the king could come forward without losing their guidance. He requested, simply, that they ride forward with him to the point where the battle sounded loudest, and that they allow him to strike one blow with his sword against the English invaders.

I love that story, and it's long been an inspiration to me. The key to life isn't blowing out the candles on the cake and waiting for the wishes to come true. The key is to set that goal and tell yourself - if you really want it - that you'll work to get it. Steel yourself with resolve, grit, and the willingness to keep working for what you want. Failure is temporary - a learning experience - and is nothing to fear. Set those goals, make them realistic, and see what happens.

L'eglise Saint-Severin - Crecy
The morning after the Battle of Crecy, Blind King John of Bohemia and his trusted knights were all found dead where the front lines of the English had been. Their horses were still tied together, and evidence showed that King John had struck the blow - and more - that he so wanted to strike. His resolve had been tested, and he had firmly met it. I want to do the same. So do you. No time for excuses, no time to be afraid.

Do you really think you're stronger now?

There's an expression that's floated around a lot these days: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. The quote is the corruption of a line by Fredrich Nietzsche from his book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. The line from the book is actually, "From life's school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger." To an extent that's true - I get the point of the expression.

Fredrich Nietzsche
I think I would have loved the chance to spend a day with Nietzsche, because I'd certainly have learned a lot. I also know I would have disagreed with almost everything he believed, and especially that little maxim. Nietzsche was plagued with poor health most of his life, and certainly wasn't a poster boy for such a thought. At the very least he was not proof of concept. The reality is that while some people may benefit from a little stress and adversity, too much is usually harmful.

There's a military expression called "The Thousand Yard Stare." It describes a soldier who's had too much of that stress and adversity that Nietzsche thinks would have made him stronger. Thousands of soldiers have come home from war and dealt with the unimaginable. They've used a type of compartmentalization to separate themselves from what they've seen and done, so that they can deal with life moving forward. But they're never the same as they were before.

Marines Call it That 2,000 Yard Stare by Thomas Lea
Last week I was talking with a buddy who was dealing with a lot of personal things in his life, and the duties - for lack of a better word - of Christmas had just overwhelmed him. He had that Thousand Yard Stare, but I don't think he realized it. In fact, as I looked around during the week before Christmas, I saw that emotion - or lack of - in checkout lines, in parking lots, and in the little notes friends were writing on Facebook. More than ever I recognized frustration, despair, and loneliness in people who were trying to do everything, and to be everything. I even saw a couple articles suggesting people abandon social media for a few days, because it's easy to come under the impression that all our friends are living perfect lives - judging from their Facebook posts and Instagram pictures.

Don't put too much pressure on yourself, and don't think you can do it all. The perfect Christmas gift for the kids, that morning run with your buddy, the boss's artificial deadlines, the date for New Year's Eve, the perfectly spotless house for your friends, the Christmas card you needed to send, the call to your mom, that blog with no misspellings or improper use of adverbs. It can be too much, and too many of us suffer, striving for some impossible point of perfection. We're usually our own worst critic.

If it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger? Nope, not true at all. Just do your best, and be satisfied in that.

You should know the true value of time

When I turned 16 my grandmother gave me the pocket watch that had belonged to my grandfather - the man for whom I'm named. It was a gold watch, but didn't have a cover, and wasn't rare or particularly valuable. But it was the most important thing in the world to me, because it had been given to my grandfather by his parents as he turned 21, and he had wanted me to have it. When she gave it to me he was still a distinct memory, having passed just six years earlier. His initials were engraved on the case in the fanciest of scripts - JDH, for James Douglas Holleman - and the quiet but efficient ticking of the gears inside enamored me. I'd never held anything like it.

My grandmother explained that the watch must be kept wound, so that it stayed properly lubricated inside. Yet she also cautioned me on over-winding, and explained to me that the watch was somewhat like life - that there was a fine balance between too much and too little.

About seven years ago I was digging around in my safe, looking for some insurance papers that had disappeared, and was upset and frustrated in general. But in one of the back corners, underneath the kids' birth certificates and my old passport, was that watch. I hadn't wound it in years, but was excited at the opportunity, anticipating that perfect mechanical sound of wheels and gears in motion. Nothing happened. I smacked it gently, and still nothing. I hadn't kept it wound, and though it looked perfect from the outside, it needed help. I took it to a jeweler here in town and they were able to get it lubricated and back in running shape. Then I got that old passport renewed, realizing that I was becoming like that watch - OK on the outside, but lacking on the inside to some things that really mattered.

I count that watch as one of my most prized possessions, along with my first pocketknife and some carvings my grandfather gave me. As I look at it today I'm reminded of the true value of time, and that while time can be measured with a watch, it can also be measured in more important ways. More than ever I feel like that watch, with time ticking, and realizing that time is the most valuable thing I have. There are things in this world that I want to do - and accomplish - and now is the time.

This blog entry will post automatically for me, on a schedule, as they usually do. But this one is a little different. It will post at 1:00 PM on December 22, just as we begin funeral services for one of my favorite uncles. I'm honored to have been asked to serve as a pallbearer for his service, an honor that seems to come too often these days. Johnnie Turner passed yesterday at 90 years of age, and if anyone ever made good use of their years it was him. But I know it went fast for him, as it always seems to for me, and surely does for you. I know that now's the time to do the things I want to, because time is ever-fleeting. If there's anything more valuable to me than my grandfather's pocket watch, these days, it's time. If there's anything important that you're not doing because you "just don't have time", please do your best to find the time for that goal. Don't procrastinate on that trip, that book you're writing, that old friend, that thing that really matters to you. There's an expression that time sneaks up on us, and it's true. Make every minute count, because the true value of time can never be counted. Life is the watch that never stops ticking.

When Santa Claus met General Lee

First appearing in 1867 as part of "Mrs. Louise Clack's Christmas Gift To Her Little Southern Friends", this wartime exchange between General Robert E. Lee and three young girls became a Christmas tradition for Southerners.

Mrs. Clack's children's book contributed quite a bit to the post-war impression of Lee's character, going beyond his already well-known military genius and demeanor. The story was never intended for profit, and all the royalties went to the orphans of the South.

Is it a true story? I believe in Santa Claus and the Christmas Spirit, and I know that it is.

Merry Christmas!

James K. Turner
Franklin, Tennessee

                                                                   General Lee and Santa Claus
                                                                    by Louise Clack

When auntie finished the locomotive song, little Minnie jumped up and said: " Auntie, oh, auntie, I have thought of something we children can do before we give the book to Santa Claus. Let us write to General Lee, and ask him if Santa was our friend; and if he says yes, then we will give him the book, for the little Confederate children. So the auntie sat down and wrote the following funny little letter to General Lee, at the children's dictation:
Dear General Lee:

We think you are the goodest man that ever lived, and our auntie says you will go right straight to heaven when you die; so we want to ask you a question, for we want to know the truth about it, and we know that you always speak the truth.
Please tell us whether Santa Claus loves the little rebel children, for we think he don't; because he did not come to see us for four Christmas Eves. Auntie thinks you would not let him cross the lines, and we don't know how to find out unless we write and ask you. We all love you dearly, and we want to send you something; but we have not any thing nice enough; we lost all our toys in the war. Birdie wants to send you one of our white kittens - the one with black ears; but Auntie thinks maybe you don't like kittens. We say little prayers for you every night, dear General Lee, and ask God to make you ever so happy. Please let us know about Santa Claus as soon as you can; we want to know for something very, very, very particular; but we can't tell even you why until Christmas time, so please to excuse us.

Your little friends,

Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie 

The above letter was sent the following day, and in about a week the answer was received:
My Dear Little Friends:

I was very glad to receive your kind letter, and to know by it that I have the good wishes and prayers of three innocent little girls, named Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie.
I am very glad that you wrote about Santa Claus for I am able to tell you all about him. I can assure you he is one of the best friends that the little Southern girls have. You will understand this when I explain to you the reason of his not coming to see you for four years.
The first Christmas Eve of the war I was walking up and down in the camp ground, when I thought I heard a singular noise above my head; and on looking to find out from whence it came, I saw the queerest, funniest-looking little old fellow riding along in a sleigh through the air. On closer inspection, he proved to be Santa Claus.
Halt! Halt!, I said; but at this the funny fellow laughed, and did not seem inclined to obey, so again I cried Halt!. And he drove down to my side with a sleigh full of toys. I was very sorry for him when I saw the disappointed expression of his face when I told him he could go no further South; and when he exclaimed, Oh, what will my little Southern children do! I felt more sorry, for I love little children to be happy, and especially at Christmas. But of one thing I was certain - I knew my little friends would prefer me to do my duty, rather than have all the toys in the world; so I said: Santa Claus, take every one of the toys you have back as far as Baltimore, sell them, and with the money you get buy medicines, bandages, ointments, and delicacies for our sick and wounded men; do it and do it quickly - it will be all right with the children.
Then Santa Claus sprang into his sleigh, and putting his hand to his hat in true military style, said: I obey orders, General, and away he went. Long before morning he came sweeping down into camp again, with not only every thing I had ordered, but with many other things that our poor soldiers needed. And every Christmas he took the toy money and did the same thing; and the soldiers and I blessed him, for he clothed and fed many a poor soul who otherwise would have been cold and hungry. Now, do you not consider him a good friend. I hold him in high respect, and trust you will always do the same.
I should be pleased to hear from you again, my dear little girls, and I want you ever to consider me,

Your true friend,

General Lee

Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!" cried all the children when their auntie finished the letter; " hurrah! "Santa Claus is a splendid old fellow. And was not General Lee good, to think to do all that for the brave soldiers? Let us call our book 'General Lee and Santa Claus,' and let us say, 'God bless both forever!!'"
                                                                                                                           The End