Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sweat and Blood

Sweat dripped down my back steadily as I focused my gaze strait forward into the field directly in front of me. The largest fly I have ever seen was buzzing disturbingly close to my right ear; I tried not to flinch. We stood like statues in the short grass: four Americans in red berets and crisp ACU uniforms standing at Parade Rest. It smelled like hay and horse manure and my feet felt numb.

The man at the microphone, standing next to a granite grave stone, stood refined and elegant in his tan dress uniform decorated with medals I will never know the names of. At first site, as he shook my hand and said, “Welcome my American friends,” he reminded me strangely of Uncle Kelvin.

Then the music started, blaring from a speaker somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize the song, but I quickly understood the meaning as the Lithuanian lieutenant next to me spoke firmly yet softly.

“Attention!” and then, “Salute.”

I slowly raised my right arm to a 90 degree angle and brought my hand upwards till my index finger touched the edge my beret.  I looked across the small field and could make out 12 retired Lithuanian Navy officers, all far past their prime, raising their wrinkled hands in salute with me. An old retired army general, probably over 80 years old, had managed to feebly stand from his wooden chair, leaving his crutches lying in the grass. I am an American, but a sharp twinge of emotion shot through my heart as I held my salute knowing what these men stood for. Engraved on the granite stone that stood just to my left were these words:

Kardo Rinktines Partizanas

Pranas Koncius 1965.07.13

Zuvo Kiliskes

drungilu sodyboje

The marker stands where the last resistance fighter in our quarter of Lithuania was shot and killed inside his farmstead home in 1965. His name was Pranas Koncius. He resisted communism.  He resisted the Soviet Union. He resisted to his death the forces that were taking his liberty and country. He was the very last one.

The song ended and I lowered my salute. The man in the tan uniform continued. He was the Lithuanian Minister of Defense. He spoke in Lithuanian for a time, and then without warning broke into almost perfect English.

“And to my American friends,” he said, the small crowd listening intently, “We thank you. Thank you for coming here to our country, to train with us and stand with us. We have fought together in Europe and Afghanistan and we stand together now.  This is exactly what we hoped for and what we need. Thank you.”

I don’t know very much about why I train from day to day in the sun—letting sweat soak my back—and risk my life jumping out of airplanes and desperately miss my dear wife and children, but I know that standing with those men on the grass in Lithuania that day means more to these Lithuanian people than I can possibly understand.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Lenin Lying down and the Ghost of Klaipeda

I know what you’re thinking. You're thinking there is more to that story, that maybe I should tell you about how I landed after jumping off the helicopter and how I shook the hand of the President of Lithuania, Dalia Grabauskaite. I might save that for another day. Tonight, its history and ghosts. Make sure you leave the lights on.

After getting home from jump day, I was exhausted. I barely remember my head touching the pillow. My body hurt all over. I blinked and it was morning.

For the first time since coming to Lithuania, the whole Troop got out of the barracks. We headed to old town for a guided tour. Our bus stopped just outside the old square and we all spilled onto the cobblestone streets like the bunch of soldier we are. And there was our tour guide: a tall slender woman in her 50s that wore white parachute pants and a matching button shirt. Her English was workable, although heavily accented. It took effort to listen, but it was worth the extra work. It turns out, there are sorts of things about this part of the world that I never knew. Surprise!

Imagine this:

You are born in a country that is no longer your own. The city that you live in was once grand, but now it is mostly rubble. The shell of a burned out church—its steeple a pile of loose bricks—is all that remains of the beacon that shone like a lighthouse for sailors searching for shore.  Instead of pleasant homes and rolling countryside, austere apartments, colored dead grey, mark every block.  Soldiers march through the streets wearing soviet uniforms. If they catch you speaking your language, you might go to jail or worse.  If you can’t speak Russian, you have to work the underground market to get your food and water.  It was communism at its finest.  This was the life of our tour guide as child living in occupied Lithuania.  Her name was Anita.

If those circumstances were not enough, the occupying Russians set up a huge statue of Vladimir Lenin in downtown Klaipeda.  It replaced a smaller monument that portrayed a little girl in a Sunday dress.  But Lithuania’s innocence was stolen by a deadly master.  Lenin watched over the broken town of Klaipeda with an ever present gaze.

The fact that this situation is nothing new for historic Lithuania is the saddest part of all.  First it was the Vikings, then the Teutonic Knights, then the Germans, then the Russians, then the Nazis, and finally the Soviets. Each group laid claim to Klaipeda backed up by the sword or the gun.  But Lenin would fail, communism failed, and in 1992, Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to declare independence from Moscow.  Lithuania was free.

While we walked down the cobble-stone streets with Anita, you could almost feel the torture that Lithuania has endured.  Anita, with her country, is recovering—as if from an abusive or dysfunctional home.  She works in London and comes back home to Klaipeda for the summer because she loves her homeland.  The economy still struggles with chains of a terrible history. 

“You can see the buildings on this street,” she said to me in her thickly accented English, “When I was a child, all of these buildings were grey.  Tanks drove through the streets and bomb shelters marked the street corners.”  Everyone from her generation speaks Russian. It was a matter of survival.  Still, despite all efforts to destroy the Lithuanian language, it survived. Proud of that survival, Anita beamed as she continued.

“You see these nice buildings?  Everything is changing in Klaipeda. 10 years ago, these streets were ugly and run down.  Whore houses were turned into coffee shops and night clubs became industry.  The port was rebuilt and Klaipeda is becoming a city again.”  You could feel the optimism behind her words.  Then we reached an empty lot marked with short hedges in a rectangular patter.  “In five years time,” Anita told us, “the people of Klaipeda will reconstruct the old Lutheran church that stood as symbol of Klaipeda for so long.  Sailors will once again see the light of the steeple piercing through the coastal clouds out into the Baltic Sea.”  She wasn’t finished.

We walked from the old church site to a small square on the south side of old town.  The buildings surrounding the square were plain. Nothing special. 

“When Lithuania declared independence,” Anita said, the Soviets left 4 tanks to guard Lenin’s statue day and night.”  She wasn’t angry; she spoke her words precisely, keeping her emotions at bay. “They wanted to provoke an incident, an excuse to reoccupy our country.” It never happened.

In 1993 the tanks left, the last communist foothold in all of Lithuania.  The citizens of Klaipeda let out a long sigh of relief and headed for the square.  Down came Vladimir Lenin, with his ever watching gaze; down come communism, never to rise again.  They dragged his statue into the square where we stood, on the south side of old town, and left him lying down.  For an entire year, People from all over Lithuania made the journey to Klaipeda, walked through old town to the square, and looked at the lifeless statue of the communist supreme leader: Lenin lying down.


I almost forgot about the Ghost of Klaipeda!  The legend goes something like this: a long time ago in old town Klaipeda, the soldiers and sailors of Lithuania were spending a day off in town.  Sometimes on the coast, the fog creeps up onto the docks and into the streets of the city.  Back then, the lamps lining the streets would only burn into the night so long before darkness had her way.  One soldier, walking near the harbor, noticed something strange out in the water.  As it rose up, it began to take shape—almost human but with no face or legs.

The figure slowly emerged out of the water and climbed up onto the docks, water dripping from a dark cloak hanging about its strange shape.  The soldier was terrified. The thing began to speak.

“Soon there will be famine in the land,” it said with a hiss. “Prepare, prepare for the day when food will be scarce.”  Then, without further adieu, the ghost slipped off the dock and back into the water. The soldier, horrified, ran to the church inside of town and told the priest everything he had seen.  The priest believed him and the town was saved from a long famine the actually did plague the land for a time.  Although the statue that now sits on the dock in Klaipeda is a little creepy looking, they call him “The Good Ghost of Klaipeda” for saving the town. 

So sleep well tonight knowing that ghosts, at least on this side of the Atlantic, are as good as gold, and the real monster of Vladimir Lenin and communism has yet to recover from his place lying on the ground.




Friday, July 4, 2014

Jump Day

***This is not a story, this is my life.  My only hope is that the words I write will help draw those I love closer to our Father in Heaven through showing how truely merciful He really is.***


My whole body was shaking from my helmet down through my boots. Even the ground shook with deep vibrations that seemed to shake my inner soul.  The chute on my back tugged at my spine, my shoulders burned from the pain of the harness digging into my collarbones.  I looked over at Johnson and grinned. 

“Did you ever think you’d grow up and jump off a helicopter into a Lithuanian swamp?”  He smiled and shook his head. I could tell he could barely hear me over the sound of the spinning rotor.
“No, Sir,” he said, “never.”

The grass below me withered and danced against the hurricane force winds that blasted from the chopper and I suddenly realized I was very, very cold.  My uniform was wet from the rain and the single strap that stretched across the door holding us in was sopping wet.  My arms were soaked. 

My feet, dangling out the side of the bird, suddenly felt a shift. Then lift off.  The ground sunk below us as if in slow motion.  I could see the other Blackhawks getting smaller—we were the first chalk—then the tops of the trees--then we were off. 
The jump master yelled over the sound of the bird: “We’re going to do a dry run.”  I nodded in response and tried to adjust my chin strap that holds down my ACH (combat helmet).  Somehow while boarding, my strap had become crooked; I worried that when I jumped, I’d lose the helmet altogether.  At one thousand feet, child like awe took over my whole being.  The Curonian lagoon, stretching south towards Kaliningrad,  was separated from the Baltic sea by only a thin peninsula.  It had a deep green/blue sheen, reflecting off the water.  The Baltic sea, from the angle I was at, rose seamlessly into the clouds, as if the sea stretched into heaven. At 1500 feet I could see Klaipeda, with all of its seaside cranes and soviet era apartments. About half-way around the DZ (drop zone), I heard the jump master again.

“6 minutes!” he yelled.  The jumpers echoed his words.

“6 minutes!”

I gave a thumbs up to SGT Rakas, the Lithuanian recon scout sitting on my right.  He spoke decent English, but over the constant thumping of the aircraft, I was certain he wouldn’t hear me.  He returned my odd American gesture with a wide Lithuanian grin. 

“1 minute,” yelled the jump master. 

My heart was pounding.  I could see little white specs on the lagoon.  What are those?  Are they ducks?  People?  Geese.

“30 seconds!”

There was a small boat.  Only one.  They would pick us up if the wind pushed us too far west on the DZ. 
“Sound off for equipment check!”
I went through the routine, the same as I have done a hundred times.  *Helmet*, *chin strap*, *chest strap*, *left and right leg strap*.  I touched each one as I said the words to ensure the harness was still adjusted correctly on my now aching body.  I put my hands palm down on the floor to prepare to jump.

“Get Ready,” said the jump master, then,  “Stand by!”

Suddenly I saw it, a huge orange ‘H’ marking the edge of the DZ actual.  I heard the jump master yelling behind me as he reached out and hit each jumper's helmet. 

I saw Rakas push himself up and out of the bird, his body falling quickly down and away, out of site.

“Go!” said the jump master as he hit the back of my helmet.  I lifted my body, with all of my attached equipment, off the floor of the Blackhawk and thrust myself forward—out—into the air. 


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Summer of the Dragon

An entire summer has passed and the time has come for me to go home.  China has been so good to me, changed me, made me a better person, a better man.  The picture here is the last I have from Beijing.  I wonder when I will see Beijing again and under what circumstances.

And so to China, to her people, and to Beijing, I bid thee farewell until the time comes that I will return.  Maybe next time it will be for more than a summer.  But as for this summer, it truly has been the Summer of the Dragon.

Journey On

I remember one year pulling out of the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho feeling happy that I would finaly be able to take a real shower and wash the sticky sand off of my sunburned body.  But as I started deflating my boat and wrapping up the straps, I looked out over the river, with its never ending current flowing ever onward towards the sea, and wished it would never end.  I feel a little like that in Beijing right now.  I'm packing up my bags and looking out over the city from my hotel room wondering where three months have gone...seeing the current of 20 million people flow down the busy streets.  There is so much to tell you.

云南(Yunnan) is a beautiful place!  The rivers are huge and the mountains are even bigger.  I can't wait for you to see the pictures.  Yunnan actually means "Cloud South," or--more accurately--the "colorful southern clouds."  One of the first things you will notice about China is the red: The houses are red, the clothes are red, the signs are red, everything is red.  In Yunnan, however, everything turned blue, even the roof tops.  That was a nice change and a welcome site for red-sore eyes.  The first night we went to a performance in 昆明 (Kunming), the capital city.  While we think of Chinese people looking a certain way, there are actually dozens of minority groups in china, many of which live in 云南。The performance was a way of looking back to honor the culture of three of these minority groups.  One of these groups captured my attention: the Free and Bold "Yi" people (彝族)。 They are 6 million strong and live mostly in Yunnan province, but what is most peculiar about them is their old title: "the free and the bold."  This one line has changed me...

Also in the performance were a few lines of brief clarity, some of them poorly translated, but nevertheless poignant.  "If you do not sing with your mouth, life is meaningless," said one.  Another ancient Bai proverb said, "The sun can rest from its work and the moon from its labor, but a woman may never rest.  Without women mankind would never exist"  How true.

East of Kunming we went to a cave that was cut out by a river.  The river actually cut through the mountain.  It was a small river, just wide enough for a paddlecat and just crazy enough for a Nickle.  The pictures didn't turn out well, but the cave was pretty cool.  You could pay two little Chinese guys to carry you on a litter through the cave if you felt lazy.  I just walked.

I feel like there is so much to say and not really enough time to say it.  I took tons of pictures--hundreds and hundreds.  From Kunming we went to 大理, Salt Lake of China (my name because of the huge mountain range on the one side of the city and a lake on the other).  In Dali I took some pictures of the mountain that are absolutely fabulous.  It was hard to believe what I was looking at sometimes.  Tiger Leaping Gorge, for instance, had the biggest rapid I have ever seen.  No matter how crazy us Nickle's get, I think I'll be leave that rapid for a true nut job...Nickle nuts still choose life. From there our journey took us further north to 丽江 (Lijiang) which is a place I could see myself living in.  The city is something like 8,000 foot above sea level, yet the mountains around it tower many thousands of feet higher.  One peak, most often covered in the famous clouds of Yunnan, was over 16,000 feet.  It was snow capped, even in August.  Unfortunatly here, we all got food poisoning--at least that's what we think it was.  I like to call it Mao Ze Dong's revenge.  It was a horrible day.  I thought I was going to die.  Montezuma has nothing on Mao.

We drove further north the next day further up into the mountains.  I was thoroughly amazed that after reaching a plateau, another higher mountain range would spring up.  We'd climb that one to the next valley and an even higher one would appear.  Finally we got to UM creek--I mean 香格里拉 (Shangri La!)  Ok, so this is a funny thing.  I've always wanted to live up there along the Upper Meadows Creek in Danish Meadows or the Black Flats.  I could have sworn that the city and national parks around Shangri La were right there on top of Fish Lake mountain.  The only difference is there are a lot of Chinese and Tibetan people who live and work there.  This city is at 10,400 feet and the mountains surrounding the city are much higher.  It was beautiful, and a part of my own journey that I will never forget.

In Shangri La there is a hill inside of old town that boasts the largest Buddhist prayer scroll in the world.  A prayer scroll is like an upright cylinder that spins on a sort of axle.  Inside the cylinder there are written prayers and every time you spin the cylinder your prayer goes up to God.  In Tibet and northern Yunnan, there are thousands of these prayer scrolls everywhere you go.  They are as small as your finger, or sometimes even a few feet in diameter.  The prayer scroll in Shangri La is different.  It is probably 3 stories tall and at least 150 feet around.  We climbed the hill and grabbed onto the bar and turned it with our might.  Some of the Tibetans joined in and with all of our might we turned the prayer scroll many times.  It was a really interesting feeling and it got me to start thinking about prayer.  This giant prayer scroll, obviously housing important prayers, could not be turned by a single person: it was far too heavy.  Instead, it took a group of at least 10 and preferably 30 or more to turn the thing even for a single rotation.  The minute you stop, so does the prayer scroll.  How does our faith work and what is the work in faith?  Don't we put names of people on the prayer rolls at the temple and even fast as families and as groups to unite our faith.  I've never really thought about what that meant until I was turning that prayer scroll with those people on that hill in old town Shangri La.

We flew into Beijing last night, arriving back at the hotel at about 2am.  I had the intense feeling of coming home (my China home). The air is thick with pollution and the rank smell of the city streets burned my nostrils, but I was glad to be back in Beijing.  Tomorrow I am headed back to Gao Bei Dian, where this journey began.  Its a long trip to the other side of the city, but I feel like I need to complete this circle, to end where I began--on the stone streets of Gao Bei Dian.  I feel like I have only scratched the surface of China, yet I feel like I have seen so much.  I have not changed China, but China surely has changed me.  The essayist Martin Buber said that, "All journey's have destinations of which the traveler is unaware."  There have been so many of these for me.

Let us also live free and bold--

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Rain, The Mountain, and The Sewing Man

I am constantly impressed with the passage of time.  I feel like I am grasping at wisps of life as they scatter past me, trying desperately not to let the important memories escape my capture.  We are so blessed to live!

Last night there was a torrential rain; all of Beijing climbed inside shelters and waited for the beautiful morning that would surely come.  But you all know me!  I put on my shoes and rain coat, grabbed Ian (my room-mate) and headed out into the rain.  There is, of course, that super cliché saying, "you only live once," but for me I think Steve Jobs expressed this thought more exactly:

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

So we went out in the rain...and it was so fun! A Chinese girl curled up under an umbrella stopped briefly to say in her broken English, "you are so cool!"  I hope you like the pictures; I thoroughly enjoyed the rain.
We decided to go play in the rain
We decided to go play in the rain2
the beautiful lights in the rain
The overflowing sewer
This is a major street... in the rain
Chinese Characters

Ian in the storm

a main street next to campus

Ian sliding in the rain

me playing in the storm

me running and sliding in the storm

minivan driving down the flooded streets 

playing in the rain

river or road? 

running down a flooded street

I climbed another mountain.  There have been a few of those over the last months--you should see my quads!!  Today was the perfect day to go because the sky was a deep blue allowing the entire city of Beijing to unfold below us.  Its a huge city--and I will miss it.

While climbing the mountain today (it was called the "Fragrant Hills" west of Beijing) I was struck with the idea of the "Mountain of the Lord," which, as you know, plays a key roll in our understanding of God and His house.  The Chinese are almost obsessed with mountains and the idea that a person's journey to the top is important to his life experience.  Thats why they have all those stairs.  I started wondering today about my personal mountain---the Lord's Mountain--and where I am in my journey.  I'm on the China stair case now, and glad for climb.  "I do not know what lies ahead of you," Elder Maxwell said in his last General Conference address, "...but my advice would be to fasten your seat belts and hold on firmly to your principles!"  The view from the top was fantastic.

Tibet is closed, and I am sad about it.  It doesn't make sense to people like us, born and raised in a land of liberty.  "Tibet is closed." That's like saying, "Sorry folks, Montana is closed for now.  No visiting until next year."  Except Tibet is more like the size of Texas and has the tallest mountain range in the world running it.  This is China though, and the political turmoil in the region has prompted the government to close the gates; even the Chinese are prohibited from entering.  So we are going to Yunnan!

"Yunnan" you say, "where is that?"  I'll tell you:  I don't know.  At least I didn't know until I looked it up on a big map of China.  Yunnan is just to the east and south of Tibet and nearly the southern most region of the country.  The south part is semi-tropical and there are monkeys; the north part has a plateau that is over 9,000 ft above sea level with mountain peaks that have yet to be summited.  6 Japanese climbers tried one last year: they were found dead the next spring.  Supposedly we are going to "Shangri La,"--a sort of Garden of Eden in China.  We are also headed to the Tiger Leaping Gorge--a canyon housing the Yangtze river that is so thin (according to legend) that a tiger can leap across it.  So am I excited?  I am completely thrilled.  I'm sorry to Elizabeth's boys though.  I will not be able to bring a rock back from Everest.  I will, however, bring a rock back from the Garden of Eden in China!

Finally, I took a walk a few days back down a Chinese market street.  My backpack was tearing along one of the seams and I wanted to find someone to fix it for me.  I found a man on a short three legged stool sitting in the street with a hand operated sewing machine.  He looked up and me and I mumbled something off in Chinese that he understood clearly, but he still corrected my grammar!  Then, for about 75 American cents he sewed up my backpack with one hand and turned the wheel with the other.  He wished me to "go slowly on my journey"--as the Chinese always do, and I and thanked him the best way I know how.  非常感谢您啊! I think America could do with a few more people like the sewing man.

From the China's rain, to the Fragrant Hills, to the man on the stool--If there is anything I want to say here, it is to please remember how merciful the Lord has been.  He truly has been merciful to me.

Love to all.

More Just Pictures

Chinese market
Chinese people love taking pictures with blonde people, it happens all the time.

A few of us at a military museum

me and some Chinese tanks

super cute little girl2 
super cute little girl on the subway

Beijing skyline1

Beijing Skyline2 
Beijing Skyline3

Marco Polo Bridge

Now if I can just find the wire that goes to my house...

old stone streets from 700 years ago

yangtze river (its huge)