Monday, November 9, 2015

Debbie's Story

Larry and I pulled through the gate of  Woodlawn National Cemetery and drove by the rows of white tombstones that spread out on both sides of the drive.  We were meeting with the family of the recently deceased, a veteran of the United States Navy, for interment.  It would be a small gathering, just a few family members and us.

It was a beautiful October day,  I had gazed out the car window the entire way, taking in the oranges and golds of the leaves that were still clinging to the branches, silently hoping they'd not let go quite yet.  I love the Autumn in New York, it's always been my favorite season.  But she is like the perfect guest who comes for a short visit, and despite all your imploring, never stays long enough. I hated to see her go.  

There was a cold breeze as we joined the others beneath one of the hardwoods that lines the driveway there.  I shivered and wished for a moment that I'd worn a warmer coat.  Two gentlemen in suits presented Debbie with the cinerary urn holding her father's ashes and then proceeded to lead our small procession out from under the trees into the sunlight and onto a pathway through the cemetery towards the columbarium, a bordering wall that harbors hundreds of niches holding the remains of service members who have gone on before. We stopped and stood quietly as the container was placed into its vault. Scripture was read, a hymn sung, prayers spoken, a few memories shared.

I'm sure those two men in suits standing to the rear of us wondered at the message of forgiveness that filled the conversation in those final moments.  But that is the theme of this story, one that tells of a little girl living an unhappy childhood with a physically and emotionally abusive father.  But grace came visiting when she was still a child, and she was rescued by another Father, the one who had created her and loved her unconditionally.

Many years later she would travel with her husband across several states to bring her father, now very old and sick,  back to her home in New York. Giving up her home daycare, she devoted her time to care for the one person in her life who probably deserved it the least. But because forgiveness has been the theme of her story, the same loving Father who had rescued a suffering child many years earlier mercifully reached down and rescued that child's father in his old age.  

The air seemed warmer when we walked back towards our cars and the colors of the trees appeared more vibrant than ever. The chorus to that old Fannie Crosby hymn was running through my mind as we drove back through the gates towards home.  This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.  This is my story....

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Here Lies Mark Twain. And Cecil Bullock.

Our friend Cecil was buried a few days after Thanksgiving.  There were only eight or nine of us at his graveside that day as he had no family and very few friends.  Larry and I had gotten to know Cecil and his ever-present dog Petey when he was attending the church for awhile.  He was odd, amiable one day and difficult the next. He'd been beaten years earlier, had suffered severe trauma to the head and was never the same after that.  But as unpredictable as he was, he could also be generous and hospitable. On those occasions when he knew that he had been particularly offensive,  he would apologize by leaving a gift at our door as a peace offering.   I could never stay mad for long where Cecil was concerned.

We were stunned to hear that he had died.  He was in his fifties, pretty young by today's standards.   A friend had invited him to Thanksgiving dinner but he never showed up.  Two days later that same friend found him in his apartment, his little dog Petey close by.  There would be no autopsy.  No funeral. No fanfare.  

Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York
There was quite a noise in Elmira recently over a missing plaque stolen from that same cemetery. Stealing from a grave is pretty despicable, but this was especially egregious, considering whose plot it was taken from, Mark Twain's.  Yep, the one and only.  You'd think he would have preferred burial in Hannibal, Missouri or somewhere else along the Mississippi.  But nope, he's buried here along with his wife, daughters and extended family. The thief helped himself to one of the plaques that was mounted on the monument that marks the very spot.  By the way, it was eventually found thanks to a little detective work and a thief who couldn't keep his mouth shut.
This was big news in Elmira

The plaque before the theft

Mark Twain is written all over this town, his name is everywhere. There's the Clemens Parkway, for example,  which goes right by the Clemens Center, a beautiful theater for the performing arts.  Hal Holbrook, the actor best known for his flawless portrayal of the man, comes back every two or three years and does his show there. Elmira College has a study program on Mark Twain, and the little octagonal study where he wrote most of his work sits on the grounds there. So naturally when we have out-of-town guests, it just seems right to ask them if they'd like to visit Mark Twain's grave. They always say yes. After all, he is one of the most celebrated authors in American history.

Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) in his later years
Of course he is not the only notable person to be buried at Woodlawn. There are others with markers pointing the way to their graves. Perhaps they're not quite as famous as Mr. Twain, but they are celebrated as well. Ernie Davis,  the first black Heisman Trophy winner and Hal Roach of  Hollywood fame both have road signs. 

There are politicians, historical figures and others of prominence, all at rest beneath the sod of Woodlawn.  Some of them are not so familiar, but the mausoleums set into hillsides and the many monuments engraved with family names speak of power, prestige and position, a reminder of what Elmira used to be.   

Ernie had a movie made about his life

Mr. Roach went to Hollywood and produced "The Little Rascals"
We had a bit of trouble finding where Cecil's service was to be held that day in early December.  We spent several minutes driving the winding narrow roads past numerous grave sites and had just passed Mark Twain's marker when we saw some activity up ahead.  There was Cecil's name marking the spot with a blue casket directly behind, ready to be lowered into the earth.  I was grateful for those who had come out on this chilly day to remember the man.  The proximity to the most famous of monuments was not lost on me.  Imagine that.  Practically neighbors with the Clemens clan.     

Cecil's graveside service
Cecil still has no stone on his grave.  It's been a hard winter, but spring is approaching and the church will take care of ordering one and having it placed there. We've done this before.  Christopher Jensen, also without family, had suddenly passed away and the church took up an offering to ensure that he would not be forgotten either. He lies in Woodlawn as well, not too far from the famous Mr. Roach. 

Neither of these men will have signs pointing to where they now lay, nor will they have monuments that speak of earthly fame or fortune.  But in the end, it doesn't really matter whether it's a simple granite stone or monument or mausoleum that holds the name.  They all attest to the same thing. Mark Twain and Cecil Bullock and Christopher Jensen all lived for a time.  And then they died.  And that is worth remembering.          

The sign pointing the way  

Monday, January 12, 2015

It Happened at Legion Field

Zac warming up the Packers before a game

It was a year ago in January that Zac resigned from his position as Assistant Strength Coach with the Packers. He had been offered the opportunity to work with his former coach, a close friend and mentor, and to become Head Strength Coach at his Alma mater back in Alabama.  The Blazer football program had not done well over the past several years, and the school was ready to make some changes.  He was up for the challenge.

And there was something else.  He had seen and understood the pressures put on professional athletes unprepared for the accolades, the money, the fame.  Even prior to his time in Green Bay, while working with athletes at a sports' complex in California, he had approached the owners on more than one occasion about including a program that addressed these very concerns.  They expressed some interest, but in spite his efforts, it didn't happen.

Zac's job as a strength and conditioning coach is to get the players physically prepared for the football field. But the desire to mold lives, not just bodies, never went away.  So when the opportunity came to do both at the university level, it didn't take long to make up his mind. He met with the Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy and asked to be released from his contract.

Zac back at UAB

On Valentine's Day the newly assembled members of the  UAB football team gathered on Legion Field in Birmingham and began running up and down the bleachers of the stadium as part of a conditioning drill. Except for one, Tim Alexander, who sits in a wheelchair. An auto accident while he was still in high school cut short his aspirations to play college ball.  But he had approached the previous coach, Garrick McGee, asking if he could work out with the team. His infectious, positive spirit convinced the coach and he was welcomed, even getting his own locker and number.    

Zac looked down at Tim, now alone on the field. Upper-body workouts were one thing.  He did push-ups and leg lifts everyday and could bench press right along with the rest of them. The guy was strong. But he'd never have the chance to run those steps with his teammates. Something stirred inside of Zac.  "Do you want to go up to the top?" he hollered down.  Tim didn't hesitate.  "Yes sir!" At that, Zac lifted him onto his back and began the long climb up the steps of the stadium.

This was no small feat.  Tim is well over six feet tall and weighs no less than 250 pounds.   Legion Field is a large stadium that holds more than 70,000 spectators.  The stands rise high. After a few minutes Zac began to feel his legs shake. But he continued on, hoping and praying he could finish what he had started.  And then it happened. Tim's teammates began to converge on them, surrounding them, doing what they could to lighten the load as together they continued to move forward.  Upward. To the top.

Zac carrying Tim on his back up the steps of Legion Field
The team knew that something extraordinary had taken place that day in Legion Field.  Their new strength coach had unintentionally demonstrated through this one selfless act what they as a team could accomplish as they endeavored together, unified.  There, gathered with those who had carried him, Tim movingly spoke the mantra,  "One team-one goal."  The process of molding had begun.

Life has a way of throwing things at us when we are least expecting them.  The UAB team had made tremendous progress.  Physically, the team was bigger, stronger.  The Blazers had become competitive, playing their best football in a decade, and were in contention for a bowl game.  To realize that this had been accomplished in less than a year makes it all the more amazing.   But then the unsettling rumors began. There was talk of shutting down the program.  Permanently.

Consoling Tim
Eventually that would be the outcome. Some said it was the money.  Others said it was politics.   But Zac would stand with his boys, march with them, even go before the Birmingham city council, fighting for them to the end.   And then when it was inevitably over, he would grieve with them.

This past weekend Zac received word that he has been recognized as the top Strength and Conditioning coach of any university in the country. The press release calls him the heart and soul of the program and goes on to say that Zac physically transformed his guys, making them bigger, stronger, more competitive.  He also inspired them to believe that they could win, that they were made to be champions.  But most importantly, he showed them what it is to come together and help carry a brother.  It happened that day in Legion Field.