Sunday, July 21, 2013

Lessons of life

Over the past decade, I have not only become a "Senior Citizen" and a septuagenarian but intuitively I sense that I may be a more sensitive person than I was in years past.  The very fact that I put that observation on the public table here is probably evidence in itself.  I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or just an inevitable reaction to aging, but it clearly is an observation that those close to me might have seen even before I did — at least one would hope so.  That sensitivity was brought home in a poignant way this weekend as we lost a very close and dear companion.

On Easter weekend of 1998, an emaciated and tick-ridden puppy wandered into our lives.  Only a few months old, she staggered into our carport and decided that was the place she would die.  Doris and I were not ready to introduce a dog into our world, but neither were we willing to ignore the needs of an animal in distress.  To make a long story short, we nursed her, nurtured her and ultimately fell in love with her.   Little did we anticipate that her choice would become reality or the pain that her departure would leave in our hearts.

She was a pure-bred Portuguese Water Dog, a rare breed in the U.S. and not the sort of dog that people generally abandon on a lonely country road.  We named her Pasha, after the high born Turkish rulers of the Ottoman era.  It is impossible to describe the disposition of this remarkable creature.  She embodied all of the positive and lovable traits that one might put on a wish list.  It is claimed that dogs do not "love",  but this one most certainly did and it was contagious.  We were a family that traveled often in those early years and Pasha went everywhere with us.  A more congenial and obedient dog has never been born.  To avoid submitting her to the unpleasantness of a dog kennel, we purchased a motorhome and it became our mobile kennel on many trips across the country—including five 416th Bomb Group reunions.  About five years ago, Pasha became the big sister to a bundle of dynamite that we named Ghazi.  She handled the task well.  When Doris and I went to Ireland a few years ago, our dear friend Norrie Rawdon came all the way from Texas to sit with Pasha and Ghazi at our home in Missouri.  Few dogs have had life better, but even fewer dogs have given so much in return.

Pasha was nearly 16 years old when she passed away quietly at home in the arms of those she loved and who loved her beyond measure in return.  She is interred near the base of a vibrant pear tree here at the place she chose to die.  We are ever so grateful she made that choice and for the many years that we had with her between then and now.  Her life was more than an appendage to our own, it was a lesson that we needed to absorb in our own lives.  I believe that has been the case and we will remember her always with gratitude for it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"This land was your land, this land was my land…"

Wall of the Missing - ABMC Cemetery, Cambridge, England
Woody Guthrie would roll over in his grave if he could see his endless skyway and golden valley today.  Guthrie was an idealist who influenced a pivotal generation in America.  He died in 1967, at what some might consider the beginning of the New Depression.  Raised during the Great Depression of the Thirties, Guthrie reacted to economic and political crises in his popular Folk Music.   By contrast, the Depression that has overwhelmed America since then is one of spirit.  With few exceptions, the trauma of the 1960s has divided and scarred American society in ways too momentous to recount.  The roller coaster of economic prosperity these past 50 years is easily tracked on charts and graphs, but less measurable and certainly more insidious is the steady degradation of the ideals that Americans shared during World War II— ideals and initiatives that led to America becoming the pre-eminent world power that we precariously enjoy to this day.

The pace of life in the 21st century is governed by the technology explosion, but society is not as readily adaptable to change as technology is.  The way people lived and coped with life 50 years ago was far different than it is today.  That's not because the problems faced then were any more, nor less, pressing.  It seems that the prevailing attitudes, about many things, were different and that there was indeed a prevailing attitude.   Not least of the many changes has been our national unity of belief.  During WWII, Americans shared a common purpose and resolve. Today, the country is split almost equally between two diametrically opposed views.  The old jokes about gridlock in Washington are no longer funny.  Gridlock has become a way of life and more people than ever in America lack faith in almost every facet of their existence.  For most, it is enough to simply make it through the day.  One of the real tragedies of this New Depression is that we have abandoned the traditions and social institutions that made America great.   Government is rarely viewed these days as a friend, much less a protector.   Industry and labor are seldom rewarded and entitlement has replaced ambition.

In our post "sixties" zeal for political correctness, we have gradually whittled away the foundations upon which this nation was built.  One of the many examples lies before us today.  As we prepare to celebrate "Memorial Day" it would be hard to find any unity of view on what the day even represents.  The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs well knows that "Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces."  Not veterans who served in war, or peace, but those who "died" serving.   This day of remembrance originated after the Civil War, when 600,000 died, and was called "Decoration Day" until 1882.  For more than a century, Americans made visits on this day to decorate the graves of those fallen warriors, with flags and flowers, to single them out for their gallantry and devotion.  All other veterans are honored on "Veterans Day" in November. 

This day of remembrance was initially established as May 30th, but Congress changed the date in 1971 to the last Monday in May in order to create an annual three-day weekend.  The Veterans of Foreign Wars still oppose this change, arguing that it undermines the very meaning of the day and pointing to the consequent nonchalance of the public about observing traditional ceremonies.  It would be hard to argue that Memorial Day means the same thing to Americans today as it did in 1945.  The three-day weekend is now the most anticipated aspect and is punctuated by auto racing and golf events in addition to a plethora of holiday shopper sales—more like May Day.   The visitation of graves and placing of flowers is still fairly common, but even that has become a generic family activity for many—associated with remembrance of all who have died, not just those who died in service to their country.   While the remembrance of ancestors is an important family activity, the fact that it merges so indiscriminately with Memorial Day is another reason for the vanishing significance of this particular day.

On this Memorial Day, I personally will be honored to pay my respects to those fallen members of the 416th Bomb Group who, like Bill Cramsie, died between 1943 and 1945 in service to our country.  They were among the best of America's youth and they left us a tremendous gift.  We should take this occasion to rededicate ourselves to making a difference in the future of this country so that it will continue to be "my land and your land" and will lead the free world by example as those before us so admirably did.  It is our duty and our privilege to preserve, protect and nurture their legacy.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

And the wheel goes round and round

I woke up this morning at 9:00 AM when the cell phone rang six inches from my ear and Ghazi jumped over top of me landing on the floor with a thud.  It's not that I'm an especially late sleeper, but somehow the curtain of bliss had blessed me with an extra couple hours.  Ghazi, a young and aptly named Black Lab / Border Collie mix, wasted no time heading for the front door as dogs are prone to do.  That caught the eye of Pasha, our 16-year-old Portuguese Water Dog who is hard of hearing, sees poorly and barks loudly when reminded that the world is still turning.   I expected the call to be from my wife Doris, who is on her way back home from a family emergency in Arkansas.  Instead, it was someone else near and dear to my heart—the IRS.  The potential for bliss to turn on a dime into chaos was definitely there.  Maybe it was just the startled awakening, but I thought I heard a deep soothing voice saying "It is not your time". The call was from my IRS advocate.  Yes, I am awake now and yes I do have an advocate at the IRS.  Never heard of such a thing?  Neither had I until I was assigned one.  Ironically, the U.S. Government employs a corps of agents to advocate for citizens who have found the IRS to be overly complex or unresponsive.  I don't know how many of these advocates are on the payroll, but I do know that they are well schooled in the nuances of bureaucracy—and dealing with the public. 

Seven years ago,  Doris and I were introduced to (and embraced by) the remarkable extended family of the 416th Bomb Group.  The veterans of this WWII combat unit have held annual reunions in one form or another virtually since the war ended.  We hosted a couple of these reunions at Branson, Missouri and will host the 2013 reunion in Gainesville, Missouri this coming October.  At one of the Branson reunions the topic of historical preservation came up.  There really was not any active repository for the treasured memories and memorabilia of these veterans.  The issue had become pressing due to the fact that many of those veterans had passed on and their spouses sometimes were faced with difficult choices about disposing of photos, documents, letters, diaries, etc.  As an interim measure, we agreed to store any of these objects that families were not prepared to retain themselves.  

Not too long after that, the local "City Hall" in Gainesville was listed for sale when the city government moved into larger quarters.  The old facility was built from hand-cut limestone in 1935 in the style of many WPA buildings of that era.  Doris and I purchased the building and began an extensive remodel and restoration.  Although privately owned, this building soon became the home of the 416th Bomb Group Archive.  The Archive has been registered with the State of Missouri as a non-profit corporation with a Board of Directors and survivorship provisions.  In October of 2012, the Archive filed an application form (and $400 fee) for 501c3 tax exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.  The form instructions optimistically tell the filer to call the IRS if a response is not received within 30 days.  The time passed and the call was made.  The IRS agent contacted was polite but seemingly unconcerned.  He stated that the application was being held up because more information was needed.  When asked what information was required, he could not provide that information.  When asked who could provide that information, he stated that the application had been assigned to "someone" who would contact us in this matter.  The winter came and went and the IRS remained silent. 

After several months had passed, we appealed to Senator Blunt's office for assistance in resolving the issue with IRS.  It was because of this appeal to the Senator that the IRS assigned an Advocate to us.  Since this application is really a formality, and there is no significant monetary impact on the U.S. revenue system, one would think that it would be less expensive to find the paperwork and approve it than to hire an advocate and perpetuate the paper trail with added human resources and further delays.   Instead, the advocate asked that we provide essentially the same justification that we did in the initial application as well as income/expense statements and impact statements—which we did.  The purpose of the call from our advocate this morning was to advise that our information had been received and would be forwarded to the IRS department responsible, but that "Expedited" action by the IRS was not likely.  Say What?  The U.S. government has been sitting on this application for seven months and it would take "Expedited" action to approve it?  My blood pressure was beginning to rise, but the disarming nature of the Advocate diffused what could easily have become a melt-down (not that a melt-down would have done any good).

The whole point of requesting 501c3 status is to facilitate federal tax deductions for donations made to the Archive.  Since the Archive pays no rent, has no paid employees, no compensation for directors and no expense accounts for managers, there can be little confusion about where the income from donations goes.  It is used entirely for operational support.  The Archive website at is one of the most comprehensive resources and valuable online research tools of any WWII combat unit.  The Archive Facebook page has drawn together 416th family and friends from across the country and even from England and Europe.  The Archive video taping program has preserved more than 50 hours of interviews with 416th veterans.  The black granite Wall of Honor at the Archive has some sixty names of veterans already engraved and more to come.  The Archive digital and original copy files already include tens of thousands of pages of directly related historical documents and new accessions are constantly adding to that resource.

When will the IRS see fit to approve the 416th Bomb Group Application?  That's a question for the ages.  Rest assured it will not be this week as everyone is on holiday celebrating the contributions of these same veterans.   It reminds me of the old folk song about the "Man who never returned".  Meanwhile, the uncertainty does little to encourage growth and the window for capturing memories of these WWII veterans is rapidly closing.  Fortunately, we have an advocate on our side.  What might the situation be without this government generosity?

Have to run now, the dogs are at the door barking to get back in.