Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Great Debaters

I am very wary of recommending movies for others to see.  We all have such different tastes and sensibilities.  If I recommend a movie I think is great and you watch it and think to yourself, "Boy, old Jack has finally lost it," it just makes me feel badly.  Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I am going to skate out onto thin ice and recommend a movie I have seen a couple of times.  Each time as it comes to an end, I have tried to get out of my wheelchair and give those around me a high five.

The movie I am referring to is "The Great Debaters" released in 2007, starring and directed by Denzel Washington.  I am sure that many of you have already seen it. The film, based on a true story, revolves around the efforts of debate coach and poet, Melvin Tolson, (Denzel Washington) at historically black Wiley College to place his team on equal footing with whites in the American South during the 1930s, when Jim Crow Laws were common and lynch mobs were a pervasive fear for blacks. In the movie, the Wiley team eventually succeeds to the point where they are able to debate Harvard University (Actually Hollywood felt a debate with Harvard would be more prestigious than the one that actually took place between the Wiley team and the debate team from the University of Southern California, the reigning champion debate team in the United States in 1935.)
The movie also explores the social milieu of Texas during the Great Depression, including not only the day-to-day insults and slights African Americans endured, but also a lynching. Depicted, as well, is James L. Farmer Jr., who, at 14-years of age, was on Wiley's debate team after completing high school at that tender age, and who would go on to be a powerful figure in the civil rights movement during the 50s and 60s. [The information cited above is from Wikipedia]

Although they were not necessarily the focal point of the story, I was most impressed by James Farmer Sr. and his son James Jr..  James Farmer Sr. was born on June 12, 1886 in North Carolina. After graduating from the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida, he came to Massachusetts on foot to attend college. In 1918 he earned his Ph.D. from Boston University, becoming one of only twenty five African-Americans who held Ph.D.s at the time.  He was the first African-American from Texas to earn a Ph.D. Farmer could read English, Aramaic, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.  He was a good, moral man as well, and tutored James Jr. to follow in his footsteps.  [Information from Wikipedia]

To me, the highlight of the story was the often repeated advice James Farmer Sr. kept giving to his son, James Farmer Jr. when he was tempted to not study or give his best effort as head researcher for the debate team because for many months during 1935-36 James Jr. never had the opportunity of actually engaging in a debate, which was his dream and passion.  In those moments of discouragement his father would say to him, "We have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do!"

For some reason I can't get that statement out of my mind.  It just rings so true and is very important to me.  "We have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do!"  So many people, both young and old, have dreams of doing great things -- things they want to do -- but are unwilling to pay the price and do what they have to do each day so they can eventually do what they really want to do.

For example, I suppose every missionary that has had to learn a foreign language can hopefully identify with that statement.  About a hundred years ago when I went to Central America to serve a 2 1/2 year mission, there was no MTC or language training.  We were told to buy a good Spanish College grammar book and bring it with us.  I had visions of speaking fluent Spanish and communicating effectively with the people -- this is what I wanted to do.  To get from where I was to where I wanted to be was a long arduous journey.  Each day I had to do what I had to do to become fluent in a foreign language.  By rising each day between 4:30 and 5 a.m. for months, conjugating verbs, memorizing vocabulary, and spending hours reading out loud from the Spanish Book of Mormon, alongside the English Book of Mormon as well as the Bible, after many long months I was able to do what I wanted to do and dreamed of doing.

This truth of course applies to so many aspects of our lives.  I believe one of the great lessons we hopefully learn early in our lives is that we have to do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do -- or more importantly become who we want to be.

My son John is an ER doctor.  He truly did not like his first two years of medical school at USC.  It was all theory and little or no hands-on work with patients that had health problems.  I know there were times he wanted to throw in the towel and maybe do something else with his life.  Finally however, after doing for two years what he had to do, he finally was able to do what he wanted to do -- be a doctor and help people.  He is currently a critical care doctor flying wounded troops from Afghanistan to Germany and after they are sufficiently stabilized, flying them from Germany to Walter Reed Hospital in the United States.  What satisfaction this must give to him to help keep these special people alive so they can get the help they need to improve the quality of their lives.  Had he thrown in the towel prematurely, and not done what he had to do when he had to do it, he never would have been able to do what he really wanted to do with his life.

I'm going to tweak the James L. Farmer philosophy just a bit, but I think in an important way.  My life has taught me that "We must do what we have to do so that we can do what we may have to do."

Life being what it is, full of bumps and detours and curves that we never expected to see, some of us may never really get to do what we wanted to do and dreamed of doing.  However, if we have consistently done what we have had to do, we will be prepared to do what we may have to do when life introduces unexpected, difficult, and mostly unwanted circumstances to us.
Good movie!  Important philosophy!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blood for an Enemy

"Blood for an Enemy"

Our son, John, is an ER doctor. The Air Force paid for his education and he agreed to serve in the Air Force for the next three years blessing wounded troops with the skills he had gained in medical school and his residency.

John and his friend Matt Mecuro, as 16-year-olds, were body surfing with me that fateful day when I had my accident and were able to get me onto the beach and basically saved my life. John was very involved in my care until he left on his mission, and through it all gained a desire to study medicine.

His home base is in Las Vegas, Nevada, at Nellis Air Force Base. Each year, he is deployed somewhere in the world to practice ER medicine as needed. His first deployment was a big army base outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. He and two other ER doctors managed the ER unit 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Part of their duty was to take turns going out in helicopters to pick up the wounded.

I thought you might enjoy hearing about John’s first helicopter experience and about what took place. What follows is his e-mail to me.

"Hey Dad and family,

"So things are going well here. I went on my first helicopter mission a few days ago. It was pretty exciting. We had to go pick up an enemy combatant who was shot while trying to set up an IED (improvised explosive device). We flew about an hour to where the patient was being held. He was shot in the bottom while bent over setting up a bomb, but the bullet went into his stomach and hurt his intestines and nicked a big artery in his pelvis. By the time I saw him he had already gone through 11 units of blood, which was the entire supply of blood at that base. Throughout the chopper ride back, I had to monitor his vitals and had to keep giving him drugs to keep him sedated. He kept waking up and looking at me, so I kept giving him drugs to knock him out.

"We flew really close to the ground, about 200 feet. The surrounding area is really pretty and you would never know there was a war going on. There are a lot of rivers and farms, kids playing soccer, etc. In the helicopter was myself, 2 pilots, and 2 soldiers looking out both sides of the helicopter for possible enemies on the ground. Behind us we had a big black hawk helicopter loaded with guns that was covering us incase we came under fire. I was a little nervous on the flight to the get the patient, but on the way back I was so busy keeping him stabilized that I didn't have time to think about the dangers.

"Its pretty amazing the effort we make to take care of the enemy. I don't think they would do the same for us. I mean the guy got all the blood at that one base. If one of our soldiers had gotten hurt, there would not have been any blood for them. Also just think of the risk involved in just going to pick the wounded enemy up. When we arrived with the patient, we discovered we were also out of B- blood and we actually had to get volunteers to give their blood to this guy who was essentially trying to kill us. I think it says something really special about this country that we would put so much effort into saving people like this."

I don't know about you, but reading John's e-mail made me feel proud to be an American. Imagine risking your life to save the life of an enemy who is seeking to take your life -- even giving him your own blood. We do value human life and freedom in this country!

I believe that many of the pundits in Washington, DC could benefit from reading John's simple little e-mail. I know many are opposed to what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and maybe President Bush got us into this war on terrorism in Iraq prematurely -- who really knows? But isn't it refreshing to know that we really are trying to do something very good in the world and that we place such a high value on human life, dignity, freedom and liberty.

There is a spirit of pessimism and negativism abroad in the land. Ten years ago President Gordon B. Hinckley described it as follows: "... there is a terrible ailment of pessimism in the land. It's almost endemic. We're constantly fed a steady and sour diet of character assassination, faultfinding, evil speaking of one another. Read the newspaper columnists. Listen to the radio and television commentators. The writers of our news columns are brilliant, the commentators on the electronic media are masters--but they seem unable to deal with balanced truth, notwithstanding their protests otherwise. The negative becomes the stuff of headlines and long broadsides that, in many cases, caricature the facts and distort the truth--at least the whole truth." [CES fireside, March 6, 1994]

President Hinckley, in that same CES fireside talk, also said while speaking of the United States of America: "I know that she has problems. We've heard so much of these for so long. But surely, my brothers and sisters, this is a good land, a choice land, a chosen land. To me it is a miracle, a creation of the Almighty. It was born of travail. The Constitution under which we live is the keystone of our nation. It was inspired of God. Of it the great Englishman Gladstone said, "As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from . . . progressive history, so the American Constitution is . . . the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man" ("Kin Beyond Sea," North American Review 127 [September/October 1878], p. 185).
Since 9/11 we feel we have truly been put upon as a nation. Can you even imagine what it would have been like to have been living in England at the beginning of World War II when Nazi Germany had already overrun most of Europe and was threatening to invade England as well? Thankfully for Western civilization there was a Winston Churchill, who like President Hinckley, was the essence of optimism and courage. He rallied the people as no one else could in that dark and desperate time. In speaking at Harrow School which he had attended as a boy he significantly said: "Do not let us speak of darker days; let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race." [Address at Harrow School, 29 October 1941]
And then Churchill spoke the following stirring words to his countrymen after the disaster at Dunkirk when the prophets of doom were prophesying disaster and the imminent demise of the British Empire: "We shall not flag or fail. . . . We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." [Speech on Dunkirk, House of Commons, 4 June 1940]
I believe we need the spirit of a Winston Churchill today in this country. Our way of life, the way of life that inspires us to give our blood to the enemy to save his life, must be preserved at any cost. Whatever your feelings about the war on terrorism or about President George W. Bush, don't you believe we have just begun a battle to the death with a very evil ideology that would rob us of everything we hold dear?
Thank you John, for reminding us that we do belong to a pretty special country!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Precious Present

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven..." [Ecclesiastes 3:1].

Several years after my accident, I was sitting in our dining room waiting for Jo Anne to go somewhere in our van. Sometime before, she had prepared a collage of pictures of me interacting with members of our family on different occasions before my accident. It was in a nice frame and hanging on the dining room wall. For some reason I rolled my chair over to the collage so I could see it better. There was a picture of me with my arm around my oldest son at his high school graduation; another with me sitting at the side of my oldest daughter at her wedding reception. There was a picture of me with my arm around my daughter Rachel just prior to baptizing her and another with me holding my oldest grandson in my arms shortly after his birth. There were a number of other similar kinds of pictures.

As I sat there looking at those photographs a very strong feeling came over me. I wouldn't describe it as a feeling of sorrow, unhappiness or depression; nonetheless it was a very sobering kind of feeling. It was as though a voice was saying to me, "Jack, you really didn't fully realize how good your life was during all those years. You took so many things for granted. What an absolute joy it was for example, to carry your little children upstairs, pray with them, and sing to them and put them to bed. Think of all the basketball games out in the driveway with your sons and the neighborhood kids. What a blessing to be able to sit down at the piano and play and sing the hymns and to use those same fingers to work at the computer." On and on came memories of experiences flooding into my mind that maybe I did not value as I could have at the time.

As I sat there I realized how important it is to enjoy the moment -- "the precious present" -- and to not live so much in the past or in the future. We need to be grateful for the particular season we are experiencing in our lives and not be in such a hurry to just get through it.

A while back we had "Dumpster Day" in our little community of Tustin Meadows. Large dumpsters are brought in and on the designated day we can take all our junk and deposit it in one of the dumpsters. Jo Anne looks forward to "Dumpster Day" like most people look forward to Christmas. As the great day approaches she can be seen searching through the house, with a gleam in her eye, looking for anything of no value that is just sitting there gathering dust. Any possession not carrying its weight by serving some utilitarian purpose is going to end up in the dumpster. I became very nervous as it seemed to me she was spending an inordinate amount of time in my office. Each time she would look longingly at me I tried to say something somewhat intelligent which is difficult, blink my eyes, and give her my most endearing smile. I did not want to end up in the dumpster with the rest of the dust gathering stuff!

The morning of "Dumpster Day" she was in my office and I saw her eying the shelf where my journals are kept and finally, in a panic, I convinced her that they don't eat anything and I would pay rent on the space they occupied if she wouldn't throw them out. At length I convinced her, and in the process we read some interesting journal entries I had made just before I had my accident.

The following are my last two journal entries before being injured.

June 30, 1989, just one month and one day before my accident I wrote: "... being stake president is a wonderful privilege. I value this calling and try not to take myself too seriously while taking the calling very seriously. The Lord has blessed me tremendously and my heart is filled with gratitude when I think of the many blessings we enjoy as a family. The new grandchildren, Mike soon to be in law school, Rich on a mission, John (age 16) having a full-time job and learning some things about life and work. The little girls are so precious to me that I can't even express myself regarding them. Life would be so empty without these special people. What can I say about Jo Anne? Life would be no good without her. I love her more now than I did 25 years ago."

My last journal entry was recorded July 26, 1989, just five days before the fateful trip to Laguna Beach. "Jo Anne and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary last week. We went to the Los Angeles Temple to do a session. As we walked into the hallway that leads to the ordinance rooms, one of the workers asked Jo Anne and me if we would be the witness couple. It made this session so special for us... to be the witness couple on our anniversary. Anyway, it was just very special to be in the Temple with Jo Anne and to contemplate the things that have happened in 25 years of marriage. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't want to change a thing."

And then suddenly, we began a new season of our lives. Truthfully, there was a long period of adjustment, but with the Lord's help the adjustment was made, and this new season of our lives has been remarkably wonderful and fulfilling. I believe I have learned a great lesson and I try hard to no longer live so much in the past or in the future, but strive to enjoy the "precious present." Each day is a gift to be valued. I am afraid that one of the most frequently committed sins -- at least in my life -- has been the sin of ingratitude. We just take so much for granted so much of the time. I think we must be very careful to always express our appreciation to a loving and kind Heavenly Father through our prayers and our actions. He is the source -- the fount -- of all of our blessings, both spiritual and material. To recognize this fact daily is perhaps the wisest and most important thing we can do to keep life in proper perspective.

"And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments." [D&C 59:18]