Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Gift of Faith, Magic & Love

The December of the year my son was three years old going on four, I had spent the days leading up to Christmas preparing him for the event.

We made a trip into town to buy Christmas lights to decorate our one story house, which I had been renting at the time. Because of its painted, dark brown shingles, my son had dubbed it The Chocolate House. More like a cottage, it was the perfect place to spark a child's imagination during the darkest months of the year.

Snow had not arrived yet, but the nights were getting colder. When we plugged in the blue lights that we had put up on the front of the house, my son asked if we could sleep outside. I was reluctant at first, but before I knew it, we were setting up the tent inside the cerulean glow that reached across the yard. I went back in the house and got the sleeping bags, pillows and extra blankets.

After a snack of brownies and milk, we washed up, brushed our teeth, and then retired to our tent. Once settled in, I tethered the flashlight to use as a reading lamp. I started by telling my son the story of the first night of Christmas and that what we were doing was almost like what the shepherds were doing as they set watches over their sheep. I then began reading Ezra Jack Keats’ "The Little Drummer Boy," a beautifully illustrated book I had bought him the day before:

“Come, they told me,
Our newborn king to see

However, I wasn't able to read much more than that. He had fallen into a cherubic sleep.

A week later, the snow had finally arrived. With the passing of each night that brought us closer to Christmas day, my son became increasingly anxious.

“Do you think Santa will really stop at our house?” he asked.

“Of course he will,” I had assured him. “You've been good, haven't you?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “But Santa's really big!”

“Yes, he is,” I replied.

My little Socrates continued. “And he's coming down our chimney?”

"Yes,” I said.

“But the hole's not big enough,” my son replied. “If he can't come down our chimney, then will he go somewhere else?”

Not having an answer right away, I said, “Well, I'm sure Santa has some way of getting himself down the chimney. He's been going down all kinds of chimneys for years and years, so I'm sure ours wont be too difficult for him.”

“But how?” my son asked.

After a few moments, I blurted out, “Magic dust, I suppose. When a chimney's too small, he sprinkles magic dust on himself to shrink just enough to go down.”

Knowing my son would look for physical evidence, I bought a bottle of glitter from Ames Department Store the next day. On Christmas Eve, after I put him down to bed and read "The Night Before Christmas,” I sprinkled the “magic dust” from the chimney flue to the Christmas tree.

My imagination, however, didn't stop there. I had to do something more--something special--something other than the glitter, cookies and milk, something that once and for all would convince my son that Santa Claus was real. I went out into the barn and pulled out the scythe I used to whack the weeds with during the summer. I then found a six-foot pole. With a couple of tight wrappings of duck tape, I fashioned an extension to the scythe. I grabbed the ladder, climbed up the backside of the house and went to work.

I positioned myself at the top, being very careful not to break the snow covering on the front of the roof. For the next hour, I used the scythe with the duck taped extension to etch out sleigh tracks. Wanting to make it look like Santa had come in for a landing, I started the track closest to me slightly from the eve, and then I made the next track about three feet in from the other one. I kept both tracks about four feet apart.

Next, I worked on the reindeer tracks, which took more doing than I had thought. After I had finished with that, I guessed the spot where Santa would have exited from his sleigh and made footprints leading right up to the chimney.

When I had finished, I stood up to admire the work I had done. Just as I did, though, my left foot shot out from under me, and the next thing I knew, I was sliding off the roof. I tried to stop, but the scythe wouldn't grab hold.

Realizing I was going over, I chucked the scythe into the back yard as far as I could. I wasn't taking a chance of it landing on me or vise versa. Even with two feet of snow on the ground, I hit hard flat on my back with a thud that knocked the wind out of me. I stood up and walked around gasping for air. After a few minutes, I caught my breath and cursed myself for being so stupid.

The next morning, however, the smile on my son’s face as he woke up and discovered the magic dust, and the marvel of seeing the tracks up on the roof after I carried him outside to show him, had made the entire effort worth it. He believed.

We went back inside. As he unwrapped the toys and books given to him as presents from Santa, I realized I had given my son the greatest gift of all, not placed under the tree, but a gift given from within, a gift of faith, magic and love. After we picked up the wrapping paper, we sat down to a breakfast of banana pancakes and hot cocoa.

By S. L. Cunningham

Published in The Village Soup Citizen, 12/14/05: 27

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

'Restrepo' gives unvarnished look at war in Afghanistan

By Marion Tucker-Honeycutt

Mark your calendars: Monday, Nov. 29, 9-11 p.m., National Geographic will be airing the much-acclaimed documentary, "Restrepo," the war movie of one platoon filmed by embeds Sebastian Junger, (author of "The Perfect Storm") and Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist from Great Britain.

Junger and Hetherington spent a total of one year embedded with the now renowned platoon, 2nd-503rd, Battle Co., of the 173rd Airborne, on their 15-month deployment in "The Valley of Death," the Korengal Valley in the Kunar Province of northeastern Afghanistan.

"Restrepo," a raw, unvarnished, as-it-happens film, is a no-holds-barred, no Hollywood stars, no political agenda, no "brass" input, movie that puts the audience "boots on the ground" with our soldiers who do the heavy lifting. The movie won the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, at the Sundance Film festival in January, was shown in select theaters across the country this summer and fall, picking up many more prizes, and has just made the cut for the short list at the Academy Awards.

Sgt. Michael T. Cunningham, of Battle Co., grew up in Morrill and Belfast, attending area schools. In the movie, he has what his "brothers" call the funniest scene, in keeping with his upbeat personality. Cunningham kept a low profile during filming, as he knew, unlike most of the company, that he would be going back to Afghanistan for another deployment. Face and name recognition is not a good thing to provide the enemy. (Cunningham just returned to his home base in Italy after that second deployment.)

The cameras did catch him sleeping, however, and came up from behind him while he was manning a machine gun placement, looking off into the valley. He has a cheery conversation with the cameraman where he jokes about one thing that keeps him going — a ranch back in Texas (his grandfather's) where it's peaceful.
Battle Company was isolated on a rocky perch high up on a mountainside overlooking the six-mile-long, Taliban-infested Korengal Valley, a two-hour mountain hike with full gear from the nearest KOP. They were sent out to establish a fire base between the Taliban and the rest of military. They would be "the point of the spear."

The Taliban was not happy. The Americans came under immediate fire. They would pickax all night to build cover and be engaged in firefights almost every day. (They would "engage" in more than 1,000 firefights in that 15 months.) They named their little perch Restrepo, after one of their buddies, Juan Restrepo, one of the first killed in the Valley.

They would be ambushed on patrols and engaged in some of the heaviest battles of the war, losing many of their men. So isolated was the fire base, they had no running water, no power, no hot food, no showers, no computers — as Junger described it: "We were, essentially, on Mars."

Battle Company, a handful of men out of the 70,000 soldiers in country, were to go through 20 percent of the fighting. They began to be noticed. Admiral Mike Mullen himself, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted on going there to present a round of medals in person — one of them to Cunningham. ABC's "Nightline" did a documentary on them, Vanity Fair did two features and the New York Times Magazine did a cover story on them. They were on CNN and MSNBC.

And then Junger and Hetherington wrote and directed the movie, using their film footage. Their theme was simply to show what war is like for the soldier on the ground, as it happens. No script, no plot, no theme. Just war as it is, from firefight to firefight, from isolation, deprivation, boredom to raw emotions and losses that most of us will never know.

Junger's book, "War," that corresponds to the movie, hit the shelves an instant best seller in May. Hetherington's book of photos, "Infidel," is now out. (The soldiers could often hear the Taliban soldiers, on their radios, referring to them as the "infidels," so they adopted the name.)

National Geographic bought both the film and broadcast rights. The airing Monday night will include the movie and a followup: "Where Are They Now," as well as piece on Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, 1st Platoon, who was just awarded the first Medal of Honor for a living soldier since the Vietnam War. He earned it during one of the fiercest battles in the valley, "Rock Avalanche" (featured in the ABC documentary and available on YouTube and DVD). He is, as America is seeing, an example of the stuff of which these soldiers are made. Be proud, America.

Thank you for your service, Battle Company, and welcome home. (Those still serving in the unit are now at their home base in Vicenza, Italy.) National Geographic's DVD is available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released soon.

Article first appeared in the Village Soup Republican Journal, November 24, 2010

Marion Tucker-Honeycutt is a resident of Morrill. Sgt. Michael Cunningham is her grandson.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The mystery about lightning

Whether for lack of common sense or for sheer excitement, I decided to venture off on my Sunday walk through the hiking trails of Memorial Park as a thunderstorm started to loom over me with thick, roiling black clouds. As I entered the trail head, a loud peal of thunder cracked above me. Two more bangs quickly followed, and then the sky opened up. As the rain began to move through the trees, the din became louder and louder. I opened my umbrella and stood underneath a clump of cross vines straddled between two pines.

This summer in Houston has been HOT. Second hottest summer since 1932 according to Channel 11 news. I don’t know about that, but it certainly has been the hottest since I moved here from Maine in 2006. And as I found out by eating breakfast at the House of Pies on Friday a few weeks back, Texans are as good at telling jokes about the heat as New Englanders are at telling jokes about the cold: “Been so hot here lately that the farmers are having to feed their chickens chipped ice to keep them from laying hard boiled eggs.”

Not that I haven’t experienced hot weather before. Spent a couple of summers in Wichita, KS where 100 plus degree temperatures were not uncommon for August. But it was a dry heat. Houston, though, the humidity makes taking the heat a real challenge. A 100 degree day with 70% humidity can make it feel like 112. As Leon Hale put it in his column in today’s Houston Chronicle, you have to be a “heat lover” to enjoy being out in that kind of weather.

As I stood there with the rain misting around me, a couple more loud crackles of thunder went off. Then the rain really started to come down. A bright flash sizzled through the trees followed by a loud boom. That was close, I said to myself. Really close. I started having second thoughts about venturing out on my walk today. It’s one thing to enjoy a storm sitting next to a window inside the comfort and safety of your home, and an entirely different thing to be outside in it. The mystery about lightning is that you never know when or where it’s going to strike.

Such was the time I was at a Boy Scout summer camp in W. Lee, Mass. when we were enveloped in total blackness from clouds roiling in from the west. The rain fell so hard that you couldn’t see more than three feet from outside your tent. We were in one of those big miner tents that had four bunks in it—two to each side. I was sitting on the far bunk down from the camp counselor who was sitting on the edge of the bed facing toward me. He was a Bee Gees fanatic and was nuts about their new release: “I’ve Got to Get a Message to You.” With his GE am transistor radio tuned into WBEC, he was trying to sing along with the Gibb brothers, but was having a hard time trying to get good reception with all the static that was crackling through the speaker. He picked up the radio to see if could find a stronger signal with the antenna.

No sooner than he did, zap, a sizzling, white hot lightning bolt struck the tent pole, exited into the antenna, blew through the radio and struck the counselor, knocking him a clear five feet outside the tent. The tent pole and radio were smoldering. One of the scouts from the tent next to ours ran out to check on the counselor. I was stuck on the bed, still blinded from the flash. The scout that went to help the counselor yelled for me to come help him. I stood up and noticed I was shaking all over and it seemed to take me forever to finally get my feet moving. I wasn’t hurt, but for a second after the flash and the enormous bang that followed, I thought I had died.

We both rolled the counselor over. His color didn’t look very good, and his breathing was shallow. I ran off to the administration building to find one of the scout leaders. The counselor was eventually carried off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance, and was taken to the hospital. We later learned he had suffered second to third degree burns on both his hands, and that he also suffered burns on his stomach and back. As bad as it seemed at first, though, we were told he was going to be OK.

The rain started to let up. I closed the umbrella and as I did, I noticed a squirrel on the pine tree to my right peering down at me. Except for a few small twitches of its tail, it almost looked frozen. Maybe it was the umbrella that had drawn its curiosity. I could imagine if I were a squirrel, I would be puzzled if I had come across something like that. Although I couldn’t imagine what the squirrel could have possibly thought what an umbrella might be. A giant black mushroom, perhaps, the biggest black mushroom it had ever seen. It twitched its tail a couple more times and then turned and scurried back up the tree.

As I made my way toward the back part of the trail that wraps along the edge of the Buffalo Bayou, I found out I’d have to take a different route. The back part has quite a few knolls that are fun to run down and up on. Not so fun, though, after it’s rained. Soil here in Houston is mostly clay, and after it rains, it feels like you’re walking on Crisco.

When I came to the first knoll and stepped off, I slid down like I was on a nice ride at a water slide park. With my right hand, I stuck out my umbrella to break the slide, and with my left hand faced palm down, I broke my fall. I almost went down again when I tried to stand up, but with the support of my umbrella, and a tree branch hanging close by, I finally pulled myself back up. My walking shoes were globed in a thick coating of mud that became heavy with pine needles and leaves as I started to walk along an alternate trail.

The rumble of thunder could be heard again in the distance. Only it was not from the storm that had just passed. I walked to a clearing and looked to the north, the sky a purplish black. I decided I had enough adventure for one day, and headed back to the car.