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.