Eques In Sempiternum

While sitting with his children and grandchildren at a family event, a grandfather was asked the following question: “Using just two words, Grandpa, what advice can you give on living life to the fullest?”  After a moment’s thought, he answered simply: “Don’t blink.”

The reasoning behind that response was not complicated, of course, for we know that life – from the standpoint of a youngster – seems to move at a snail’s pace.  From the perspective of the “senior citizen,” though, life passes by in an instant. 

For me, those “sands through the hourglass” thoughts have taken on special meaning of late, as the members of my graduating class from the New York State Police Academy met recently for a 50th Anniversary reunion.  And while an event such as this is, naturally, laden with nostalgic memories, my overwhelming feeling has been more along the lines of … fifty years?  Fifty years??  How, on earth, did that happen so quickly?

As one might imagine, the sixteen-week basic Academy course my colleagues and I underwent some half century ago could be characterized as a “formative” event in our lives.  With a curriculum consisting of academics, running, pushups, physical training, pursuit driving and firearms … among other things … the days were full and (intentionally) stressful.  And did I mention the running and pushups?

Naturally, the hoped-for outcome of a rigorous program of this sort is that those who graduate will be prepared to perform their duties in superior fashion, and I would like to think our class did exactly that.  Over the course of our careers, we worked in various areas and assignments around the state of New York, and though some classmates may have crossed paths over the years, our reunion marks the first time we will have gathered and celebrated together.

Our group numbered 100 on the day we entered the Academy, and we graduated 89.  Of that number, 15 (that we know of) have passed away with one, tragically, having been lost in the line of duty.  When we gathered we, of course, remembered those colleagues who are no longer with us.  In addition, we presented a commemorative plaque to the Academy; that gift, incidentally, marks an important distinction … ours was the first class to have begun and finished our training at the “new” Academy which, like us, is now fifty years older.

The United States Marines’ mantra of “Every marine is a rifleman” is a historic and symbolic acknowledgement that every member of that very special branch of the military has been trained in the rigors of front line combat, and steeped in the traditions of the Corps.  In like fashion, every member of the New York State Police, regardless of rank or position, shares a similar bond forged through the training and tradition of that proud organization.

I like to imagine that at some point in the future, a young member of a recruit class walking through the halls at the Academy will take a moment to stop and look at the plaque donated by our class.  When she does, she will notice a Latin phrase engraved upon it: Eques In Sempiternum.  In tracking down the English translation of those words, she will find that they capture the very essence of what it means to be a member of the New York State Police:

Forever a Trooper

What’s Next?

In the 15th Century, an Italian physician and lawyer by the name of Hippolytus de Marsillis wrote about a form of punishment known as “Chinese Water Torture.”    Characterized by slow but constant dripping of water on the forehead of a prisoner, the process caused fear and mental deterioration, especially when the droplets fell at random or unexpected times.  Often, the process would drive the victim insane.

Today, we are immersed in a world that de Marsillis would understand.  Daily, events find us navigating assorted threats to our health and well being while, at the same time, trying to understand and comply with often-contradictory guidance and mandates from those in authority.  This process seems relentless … new edicts issued hourly … different threats arising daily.  Somewhere, de Marsillis is watching and smiling.

For us, the modern-day equivalent of medieval torture can be seen in the fitful way we have been urged to deal with COVID … wear a mask … you don’t need a mask …it is safe to be out in public … but avoid large crowds.  And at long last, when it looked like we might be getting our hands around the whole pandemic thing … the “Delta Variant” made its presence known.  That, of course, was not sufficiently maddening … we soon learned that there is something called the “Lambda” permutation circulating out there as well.

Like many folks, we try our best to adapt and stay safe.  Preparing for a recent quick trip to the grocery store, for example, we went through our customary checklist … hand sanitizer … face masks … credit cards so we don’t have to touch actual cash.  Then, just before heading out the door we were stopped in our tracks … a news bulletin announced a new menace in our midst called “Monkeypox!”  Yes … MONKEYPOX!  In a year of medical angst, this virus – similar to smallpox – had somehow made its way from central Africa to Dallas, Texas.

Deciding, nonetheless, to chance a run for bread and milk, we ventured out.  Returning home unscathed, we breathed a sigh of relief, removed our protective gear, and settled down to watch the local news.  Any hopes for a relaxing evening were immediately dashed, though, when the broadcast led off with a report that the mosquito-borne disease known as West Nile Virus had not only shown up in our area, it had claimed its first life of the season. 

Set in a New York Police station, “Barney Miller” was a popular television show in the 1970’s and 80’s, with an outstanding cast.  One actor, Jack Soo, played the part of Detective Nick Yemana, a character known for sage and witty observations, including one that seems appropriate to the times in which we are living:

Many things look bleak at the moment of occurrence, but at least we ain’t got locusts.

We can hope that Yemana’s optimistic comment will hold true but, just in case, I am heading to Home Depot to see what they might have on hand for dealing with locusts.

Cache Us If You Can

By early 2021, we had reached the breaking point.  The seemingly endless pandemic-induced lockdown had long since lost its survivalist charm.  We had assembled (and reassembled) a plethora of jigsaw puzzles, fallen asleep while trying to find something new on Netflix, and engaged in the occasional squabble about what day of the week it was.

Clearly, we needed a breather and, since people were starting to venture out in public, we decided to “mask up” and take some cautious steps off the front porch as well.  We didn’t want to dive into the deep end right away, of course, so we looked around for something that would get us out of the house, involve some physical activity, and keep us away from crowded places.

For us, the solution was a simple one … we decided to join the multitude of others playing what amounts to the adult version of hide and seek.  Known as Geocaching, this rendition of that venerable childhood game is equal parts treasure hunt, problem solving, and outdoor exercise, and it has become our “go to” weekend pursuit.

Geocaching, as an outdoor activity, took shape in May, 2000, when  24 previously secure global positioning satellites were made available for civilian use.  With that change, folks could locate items anywhere in the world based solely on their GPS coordinates and, without a doubt, they have done so … there are now more than 3 million active geocaches hidden in 191 countries on all seven continents (even Antarctica)!

The “caches” we search for are generally small capsules or containers holding a piece of paper that, when signed, will register your find.  And though there are varying degrees of search difficulty one can select, we lean toward those that are relatively easy to locate without a great deal of extraordinary effort.  But be warned … people who hide these things can be very clever … we have found caches among the branches of trees, under rocks, and hanging from fence posts.  That, of course, is part of what makes this such an enjoyable activity.  

The process for tracking down a cache is simple: (1) check the geocaching.com web site for caches hidden in a particular area, (2) select the one you would like to look for and, (3) follow the directions on your phone or GPS device.  This will bring you very close to your goal and, usually, it is then only a very short walk (and search) before locating the cache.

In addition to the obvious benefits of being outdoors engaging in physical activity, geocaching has taken us to beautiful and unusual locations we had not previously visited, and immersed us in the fascinating history of the areas we have explored.  In short, we are smitten.

And if you are looking for us next weekend, you know where we will be.

Spam … Wonderful Spam!

Growing up, Spam was a regular part of our family cuisine.  Spam sandwiches … spam and eggs … and on special occasions, my mother would dress up a chunk of Spam with some cloves and slice of pineapple before tossing it in the oven.  When that delicacy showed up on the dinner table it was, for me, the culinary equivalent of a hickory-smoked spiral-sliced ham with all the trimmings.

Today, though, the word “Spam” has become shorthand for, among other things, the relentless barrage of unsolicited emails stretching the capacity of my inbox while offering everything from financial advice to Russian brides.  On the other hand, a recent proposal from a Nigerian prince looks promising … he promises to make me wealthy if I will just help him transfer a large sum of money out of his country.  I will let you know how that turns out.

Spam phone calls are, of course, a major problem as well but, for us, the remedy was simple … we cancelled our land-line phone.  Not only did that decision save us some money, we are also spared the deluge of political campaign calls that crop up every election cycle.  We now rely upon our cell phone caller ID which allows us to answer when we recognize a name or number, while ignoring those without an identifier.  That way, if someone wants to talk to us they leave a message and we call them back.

There is, by the way, an interesting back story about how annoying calls and emails came to be named after the famous canned meat product.  In a 1970 sketch from the Monty Python comedy series, a waitress reads aloud a menu in which every item but one includes Spam, while a chorus of patrons drown out all conversation by repeating “Spam, Spam, Spam … Lovely Spam!  Wonderful Spam!”  Thereafter, the term was adopted to describe abusive users in early chat-rooms who would flood the screen with the word “Spam” or other annoying text to drive away newcomers or prevent rival groups from chatting.  

Some clever “home remedies” for dealing with Spam calls have evolved, including one senior citizen with a talent for making his voice sound like Donald Duck.  The YouTube video of him using that famous cartoon character’s voice to talk with a Spam caller is hilarious, especially when it results in the telemarketer, in frustration, finally hanging up on him!

That priceless bit of video shows that we can have a bit of fun while deflecting nuisance callers.  To that end, I am perfecting my imitation of Woody Woodpecker in anticipation of the next person who interrupts my dinner to talk about my car’s extended warranty.

Shaking the Family Tree

If you are like us, navigating this past year has required imagination.  We have assembled a lot of jigsaw puzzles, watched hours of Netflix, caught up on our reading, and enjoyed day trips to lovely and interesting areas around North Texas.

One activity that has really captivated us, though, has been the exploration of our family trees.  An ancestry.com account has proven to be a worthwhile investment, for it has allowed us to unearth old and obscure pieces of family history, and bring renewed focus to many vaguely remembered people and events.

Fortunately, we possess a number of family genealogical documents, written records and even an oral recording of my beloved grandmother relating stories that would otherwise be unknown.   When we were able to add the trove of information from ancestry.com … photos … immigration records … grave registries … the results were fascinating.

As strong supporters of our military, we are pleased to report that men – and women – in our family have served honorably in every conflict since the Revolutionary War; sadly, some were lost in battle.  And sprinkled, liberally, among our forebears are postmasters, judges, educators, clergy and politicians.

I would like to be able to report that our ancestors descended directly and unblemished from royalty, but, unfortunately, such is not the case.  Like many families, there are a few individuals whose names, understandably, do not come up at family reunions.  And for those rascals who thought their misdeeds would remain forever hidden, well, ancestry.com and the Internet have lifted the veil. 

For as someone once said: Every family tree produces some lemons, some nuts and a few bad apples.

Step Away From The Donut!

For the youngster heading off to college for the first time, one of the perils of on-campus life is something called the “Freshman Fifteen.”  This, of course, refers to the extra weight the student can expect to pack on during that first year away from home.

That said, it seems being housebound these past twelve months has affected me in similar fashion … I am referring, unfortunately, to my newly acquired “Pandemic Poundage.”

Looking back, I know some clues were missed.  For example, with limited social interactions over the past year, my wardrobe has consisted of rotating the same four t-shirts; I now know their increasing snugness had nothing to do with our brand of laundry soap.

In my defense, I have tried to remain disciplined about my diet.  But then the doorbell rings with a kind neighbor dropping off freshly baked banana bread or an extra piece of chocolate cake.  And even a trip to the market poses a dilemma as I am forced to walk (unsuccessfully) past Girl Scouts selling cookies.  Sadly, in the face of these temptations my resolve falls by the wayside. 

Recently, the extent to which I have lost control of my diet was made clear.  Stepping on the new talking scale I received as a Christmas gift, I heard a mechanical voice warn: “Stop … One Person at a Time, Please!

Ski Texas!

When discussing March weather, we often use lighthearted wildlife references … “it came in like a lion, and went out like a lamb” (or vice versa).  This is, of course, a popular old maxim but, given that I live in Texas, a different meteorological animal has been on my mind of late … Punxsutawney Phil who, on February 2, predicted “six more weeks of winter.”

For most of the United States, that venerable groundhog’s forecast likely provoked little more than a smile.  The state of Texas, though, seems to have heard Phil’s prognostication less as a prediction and more as a challenge declaring: “Six weeks is for sissies!  Here in Texas we are going to compact those six weeks of winter into a mere six days!  Just watch us!”

And, as we all know, the stretch of Arctic-like weather that descended upon the Lone Star State was one for the record books!  

Power outages … frozen water pipes … impassable roads … food shortages … temperatures below zero!  And while some may have flashed back to the 1968 movie “Ice Station Zebra,” it wasn’t long (thankfully) before the snow melted and the shorts and sandals reappeared.

While those frigid days were daunting, they served to remind me why my family moved here from the Northeast more than thirty years ago.  Simply put, anybody who has lived in upstate New York knows something about cold weather … the four seasons in those parts are: …  Almost Winter …. Winter … Still Winter … and Road Construction.

Making the Family Proud

Anyone with children has undergone the rite of passage of a youngster who, with a roll of the eyes and a barely suppressed sigh, stalks away from the parent in utter embarrassment.  Usually this teen-aged behavior is brought on by the parent having said or done something the child is certain will cause lasting shame for him or her (not to mention the family).  And it doesn’t take much to bring about this sort of crisis  … a mistaken observation about a current teen idol … wearing clothes deemed too old fashioned … or even emphasizing that: “be home by 10:00” means “be home by 10:00.”

Luckily, these sorts of teen-aged behaviors are transitory in nature.  Most often, the youngster comes to understand that Dad and Mom are okay after all, and that they do not present as much of a threat to one’s dignity as originally thought.

This all changes, of course, when pictures of Dad appear in the national media showing him strutting through the United States Capitol carrying a lectern purloined from the office of the Speaker of the House.  And, let’s face it, dinner table conversation can be difficult when Dad tries to explain why he lost his job as CEO of a digital marketing firm after being charged with a Federal crime.

Following the outrage in Washington on January 6, a number of individuals have been arrested, while many others, no doubt, wonder if they will be the next taken into custody.   As things continue to unfold, though,there has been a shift in tone of social media posts by some who took part.  One real estate agent, who initially described the rally as a “prelude to war” while vowing to “break windows,” has more recently said she thought she was going to be taking part in a peaceful political march, while condemning the violence that occurred.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of federal agents knocking on the door can focus the mind wonderfully.

When facing difficult choices, it is always useful to ask oneself a simple question: “How will I feel if my actions are exposed to the light of day?”  In other words, will I be able to defend my actions if others learn what I have done?  Can I explain my decision to my family?

For those already arrested, the process of having to explain one’s choices before a judge has begun.  There are many others, though, whose actions were recorded on January 6, but who have not yet been identified or taken into custody.  For them, one can only imagine the difficulty of explaining to a child why he just saw his parent’s face among a crowd of individuals committing criminal acts at the United States Capitol.

As one business executive said following his dismissal for taking part in the outrage in Washington: “This was the single worst decision of my life.”

Indeed.

Speaking Truth to Power

Kudos to Rev. Jim Gigliotti of St. Andrews Catholic Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

During a sermon in early November, 2020, he made his views on President-elect Joe Biden abundantly clear, referring to him as a “man without value.”  Pointing out that Biden is pro-abortion, Gigliotti reminded us that this stance is in direct opposition to a fundamental teaching of the Church.  He went on to describe Biden as “not a good Catholic.”

Sensing that not all in attendance would agree with his position, Gigliotti underscored that it was his responsibility as pastor to speak clearly and forcefully about a basic Catholic belief such as abortion, and that he was doing so with the understanding that it might upset some people.  To that end, he said, he was prepared to “let the chips fall where they may.”

It takes courage to speak out publicly – to speak truth to power – when a leader fails short and, for that, Father Gigliotti deserves our praise and admiration.  In his widely publicized remarks, he left no doubt that, in his mind, Biden’s beliefs – at least on the topic of abortion – deserve only scorn and repudiation.

That said, it occurs to me that in addition to abortion, there is at least one other issue within the Catholic church that Gigliotti might consider addressing with equal force: the multitude of children who, for years, endured sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Clergy.  In his sermon he could also articulate and deplore the continuing abject failure of Church leaders to deal effectively with this scandal, and the horrors inflicted upon our most vulnerable.

Clearly, it is time for another of Gigliotti’s “scorched earth” sermons.  And while he hesitated not a moment in directing his recent scornful remarks at leaders in Washington, this time he ought to identify and excoriate failed leaders in another important location … the Vatican.

At the end of his recent sermon in Fort Worth, Gigliotti expressed his airy willingness to “let the chips fall where they may.”  In applauding his willingness to speak out as he did, though, one is left to wonder whether he would be equally cavalier about the manner in which critical remarks about the Child Sex Abuse Scandal might be accepted and responded to by Church hierarchy.   

If past history is any indication, the outcome would not be pretty.  

The Man Next Door

Our new neighbor seems nice.

He appears to be of retirement age and, though he moved in about a year ago, he keeps pretty much to himself.  Somebody said he came here to the Midwest from one of the New England states, and that he had spent a number of years in the Navy.  He lives alone.

A large American flag flies over his front yard, and he is frequently seen in his garage working with his large collection of tools.  He doesn’t socialize much, but he has a couple of buddies with whom he goes golfing and boating.  It’s nice to see retired guys enjoying life.

He must be a religious sort, for there is a statue of Jesus on his front steps and a sticker on his car reading: “I’m Catholic and I Vote.”  He volunteers at a nearby convent where he drives ailing nuns to medical treatment, and he recently began working with a local community theater group offering programs for adults and young folks.

There are many kids here on our quiet cul-de-sac, and we parents keep a close eye on them.  Our own children are well-mannered … when they are playing outside, they wave at our neighbor and say: “Hello.”  He always waves back at them.

We don’t know much about this fellow, but it doesn’t seem like we should be concerned about him.

Should we?

This “new neighbor” is not an actual person.  Instead, he is a composite of details unearthed by the Associated Press (AP) in a recent search for 1,700 disgraced former Catholic clergy living clandestine lives in unsuspecting communities across the United States.

In their exhaustive October, 2019, report, the AP located fallen clerics employed as school teachers, sex assault counselors, nurses and volunteers working with at-risk children.  Some of these individuals lived near playgrounds and day care centers and, since leaving the church, many have been charged with crimes including sexual assault and possession of child pornography.

And, most distressing, these individuals … each of whom had been removed following credible allegations of sexual abuse … were living in unwary neighborhoods absent supervision by the Catholic Church or notification to any government entity.

When asked about this sad state of affairs, Church leaders maintain that once a priest is dismissed there is no way to keep track of him.  But this is simply not true.

In November, 2018, for example, the Archdiocese of New Orleans released the names of 57 clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors over the years in southeast Louisiana.  In revealing the names of the abusers, the Archbishop said surviving former clergy on the list were notified that their names were about to be made public; he went on to note that efforts were undertaken to notify family members of deceased former religious as well.

It should come as no surprise that other Dioceses and Archdioceses have that same ability.  Consider, for example, the many accused clergy who continue to receive pensions or health insurance from the church … it has been suggested that dioceses should devise a system making those benefits contingent upon defrocked priests self-reporting their current addresses and employment

No longer can we allow Catholic leaders to assert that fallen clergy removed from ministry are not their problem.  The failure to monitor predator priests and report their presence in our communities is inexcusable for, as American author Dean Koontz warns:

Evil is no faceless stranger, living in a distant neighborhood. 

Evil has a wholesome, hometown face, with merry eyes 

and an open smile. Evil walks among us, wearing

a mask which looks like all our faces.