The little boy puffed his chest out and drew up to his full 49 inches in stature. Today was the day. Nothing would stop him from conquering The Beast. He considered the idea of climbing this 30-foot wall before, but passed on it. He kept promising himself he would do it someday. At last, someday had arrived.
He strapped into his safety harness and tugged on the attached emergency line to test its strength. Before he began, I warned him not to look up or down as he climbed, but to stare straight ahead at the next hand hold on his path of progress. He nodded his head, slapped me a high-five, and fixed his icy blue eyes on the coarse, abstractly-shaped wall. With no hesitation, he began his attack.
He shot up that wall so fast I couldn’t get a good photograph of him. Notch after notch, handle after handle he climbed, never pausing to consider how high in the air he was or what it would take to get down. He was about a foot from the very top when I made a serious mistake. I began cheering for him, which caused him to break eye contact with the wall. As he swung his head around to look at me, his eyes dipped straight to the ground as though an irresistible magnet were pulling them down. The moment he saw how high he was, he panicked.
“Come on, Zach, you’re almost there!” I shouted. “You can do it, buddy!”
From 25 feet beneath the soles of his shoes, I could see his thin body tense and begin to tremble. He had two handholds clutched in a white-knuckle grip, and one slipped as his palms filled with sweat. He cried out to me in a shrill panic that turned my blood cold. I knew he was safe in his harness, but he didn’t know that and he began to cry.
“Let go and slide down, Zach!” I encouraged. “Nothing will happen to you, son. Your harness will keep you safe!”
He began to cry louder. He was completely frozen with fear and unable to move. I knew he wasn’t coming down with me standing there telling him to. I had to take action.
I was wearing flip-flops that day, but I knew I had to get up there somehow to bring him down. I kicked them off, strapped to a second safety harness, and began climbing that wall barefooted. I ignored the pain in my feet and scampered up that wall as fast as my limbs would carry me. My child was in trouble. All I cared about in that moment was getting to him.
I pulled up next to him on the wall and when he saw my face, he began crying harder. I tried to soothe him and reason with him, but he was too far into his own head to hear me from where I was. I began shimmying sideways to draw closer to him.
“Son, I cannot take you down this thing myself,” I said. “You have to let go and slide down.”
“I can’t!” he wailed through his loud sobs. “I can’t let go! It’ll hurt me if I do!”
I realized in that moment that he was holding on to that wall because he believed he had no other option. He was afraid of letting go because he thought it would be the end of him.
I put my arm around him, leaned in to his ear, and whispered, “My son, I would never do anything to hurt you. You are safe with me here and the equipment I gave you for this experience. Please trust me and just let go. I promise you with all that I am that you will not die. This experience will only make you stronger.”
His crying subsided at these words. He fixed his eyes on mine, relaxed his body, and pushed off the wall. My beloved son trusted my words and let go. He slid harmlessly to the ground, unsnapped his harness and stepped out, and threw his arms around me.
“Thank you for trusting me,” I said.
“Thank you for being there to protect me, Daddy.”
Sometimes, letting go is all you can do.
Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy Award- and AP Media Editors Award-winning writer and columnist who loves to describe his view of the world from the cheap seats. A 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Frank has traveled the world and experienced many different cultures. He is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. and the Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade, Md., where he received training in journalism and public relations.
The man’s eyes darted around the room as he settled down at a table in the McDonalds on Saint Louis. Every tiny sound made him jump, which was the only interruption to the constant shivering from deep in his bones. His fingerless gloves were a punchline to some cruel joke about avoiding frostbite, and his tattered overcoat was a sieve for the unyielding frosty wind swirling just outside the door.
I asked where his home was and he favored me with an ironic grin. His food sat in front of him untouched as he pondered how to answer my question. At last, he plucked a steaming hot fry from its sleeve and considered it briefly before cramming it in his mouth.
“You mean right now?” he asked. “You’re looking at it.”
My confusion must have been apparent as I processed this statement, so he held up one hand and said, “I don’t have one. Home is wherever I am when someone asks.”
He told of walking most of the way from Kentucky to Arkansas to collect on what he believed was the promise of a job at a local horse farm. When he gave me the name of the person he spoke with, I suspected right away that something was not right with this story. After speaking with that person privately, it was confirmed that there was no job offer and I knew this situation had to be handled delicately.
I encountered dozens of indigent persons in my role as the chaplain for the Independence County Sheriff’s Office, but this encounter initially tripped my danger alarm. After making sure he was not a fugitive from justice, I arranged to give him shelter outside town for a couple of days. A local business donated some food vouchers, and the person he came to apply for a job with anonymously donated several hundred dollars to clothe him.
He set out on foot a couple of days later headed north. I got a call from him several months later and he reported that he was settled in Missouri—at a horse farm of course—and he had worked steadily for two months. He had a place to live, a little car to drive to and from work, and he was attending church. He needed one more favor from me, though.
“I have never had anything in my life,” he said with a cracked voice. “I was homeless most of my life and wasn’t sure whether I should even keep living when I got to Batesville. Now I have a place to lay down at night, food to eat, and clothes to wear that I can be proud of. But there’s still something missing.”
I tensed as I tried to guess where this was headed. He choked back a sob and continued.
“Several people in Batesville showed me a kindness and generosity that no one else ever has,” he said. “I was always the poor, dirty bum and most people wouldn’t give me a second look. Now that I have a solid job, I want to do something too. Can I send you some money to help the next person that wanders into town? It isn’t much, but I want to give what I can.”
I gave him a P.O. Box address, and three weeks later an envelope came that contained three $20 bills. That afternoon, I got another call from the Sheriff’s office that someone needed help.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I met an impressive man once under a cloudy sky in New Orleans. He was humble, quiet, and unassuming, yet he was followed by a throng of people who attended to his every need. His intelligent eyes examined every person in his path as he walked the trail of post-Katrina destruction.
After his tour, he stopped at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station to thank the military service members who were mobilized to help bring some sense of order to the fear and confusion gripping that city. A veteran himself, he displayed a swelling heart of pride and admiration for all of the uniformed personnel he came in contact with. His eyes moistened as he listened to the story of a young airman who, in the midst of escaping the ravaging floodwaters in her neighborhood, had to tie her dead mother to a corner of her house so she could return after the waters receded to claim her body. He hugged her before turning to the next person.
He settled into an outdoor picnic area for lunch with some of the personnel there, but seating was limited. The rest of us had to stand back a distance and try to capture this event with low-resolution cell phone cameras that were standard fare in 2005. As he ate, he laughed heartily at a comment made by one soldier sitting across from him, patted the shoulder of another sitting next to him, and seemed genuinely interested in the conversation going on around him.
As he got up to leave, I noticed a cordoned-off path leading from the picnic tables to a building. I assumed this would be the path of egress for this gentleman, so I walked over to one side of it and waited to see if he would come by. He rose from his table, collected his trash, and took it to a bin himself. I remember being surprised he didn’t have someone take it for him, and I was struck again at the humility that seemed out of place for a man of his stature.
I guessed he would quickly pass by and on to the next thing on his undoubtedly tight schedule, so I readied my cell phone in the hopes of catching a picture of him passing by. By this time others had joined me and I was sort of pressed against the tight rope outlining his path. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry though, as he slowly made his way up the walkway, pausing to shake hands along the way. He wasn’t running for office, so this was not the typical sprint-paced grip-and-grin.
As he made his way toward my position, I tensed in the hopes that I would be favored with a handshake as well. He stopped a few feet from me to shake another hand, and as he turned to walk again, he stopped in front of me. His eyes regarded me for a second and I was frozen in place. He flashed me a grin that had served him well throughout life, extended his hand, and said, “George Bush. The older one. Thank you for your service, son.” I managed to stammer out a “thank you, Mr. President…” as he turned to walk away. Mine was the last hand he shook in that place.
I have always lived by one governing principle in regard to other people: I am never as impressed with anyone as they are with themselves. What I saw that day was a former U.S. president touring a ravaged city and loving on the people who suffered, as well as those who were there to help. I was not impressed that day with the office he once held. I was deeply impressed with the man that he is.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I was the child of a single parent for the first eight years of my life. Being a child, I naturally could not understand why my dad was always tired, frustrated and easily irritated. I couldn’t capture the challenge of our situation from a real-world perspective because I was looking at life through the eyes of the innocent—the inexperienced.
I have been around single parents my whole life, and although the math in my head certainly told me that one person doing the job of two must be difficult, I couldn’t really capture the feeling of being singularly responsible for other lives. All I knew was that I was determined not to find out the hard way what it feels like. Then the Army happened.
I am now two weeks into being a “single parent” and I am quite certain I have learned some lessons from this experience, but if you tied me to a chair and shined a light in my face I don’t think I could honestly say what they are just yet. I’m still processing through the lessons, but here are some of the circumstances I have faced so far:
First, there just aren’t enough hours in a day. I have a 12-year-old who is in constant need of—stuff.
“Dad, I need burgundy jeans for a party this weekend. Oh. And by the way, there’s a party this weekend.”
She’s also at an age where school projects are becoming a regular thing, so…you know that school supply list they hand out at the beginning of the school year? Yeah. No one told me there would be supplemental lists every other week throughout the year as well. She wears school uniforms, and in the infinite wisdom of the school she attends, the embroidered-logo polo shirts they wear are white. WHITE. Seriously?! So those have to be replaced about every other month and, of course, there is only one place to get them and they have to be pre-ordered.
My two-year-old is a human wrecking ball. Besides being roughly twice the size of a normal kid his age, he is also right in the jet stream of his Terrible Twos, which means I clean the house top-to-bottom, only to discover 10 minutes later that it looks like Fallujah in 2003 all over again. He is also in the beginning stages of potty training, and I admit I have no idea what I am doing with THAT.
So much to do and so little time.
Second, there isn’t enough energy to maximize what precious time I do have. I hated going to school when I was a kid, but as a parent I realize what a God-send it is. Daycare, too. Someone else takes care of my kids while I go to work and try not to fall asleep drooling on my keyboard in the middle of a teleconference or long chain of emails regarding some facet of my job. I love my children more than my own life, but I get a little anxious when it’s time to pick them up because I know the whole tornado of life circumstances will blow in again as soon as they are in the car. I also hated going to bed when I was a kid, but again, as a parent, I absolutely LOVE bedtime—for them.
Finally, the circumstance in all of this that grips me the hardest is fear. Fear that something will get missed and my kids will suffer for it. Fear that I will make bad decisions and we will all pay the price. Fear that I will let them down somehow by succumbing to my own fatigue and stress and act in a way that they observe and store in their memory banks for future use in their own adult lives. I know they are watching my every move and depending on my every action, and if I get something majorly wrong, what am I shaping them into?
I am not sharing all of this as a means of complaining about my life. I’m merely sharing what I have experienced so far (and it has only been two weeks!) as a way of saying…thank you.
To all of you single parents out there who are really working your tails off and doing your absolute best, thank you. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for working hard. Thank you for loving your kids enough to lose sleep, sacrifice personal desires and ambitions and life goals to make sure they have everything they need. Thank you for being the model of responsible adulthood that our children so desperately need to learn from.
I also want to say, don’t worry. You will make mistakes, you will falter and doubt yourself from time to time, and you will be hard on yourself. But don’t worry. If you are there for your kids and truly love them more than yourself, then you are already on the right path. Never forget that you are important and valued, and never forget that your children will always know who was there for them.
God bless you.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I have served in the U.S. Army for the past 22 years, and in that time I have deployed to Iraq twice and mobilized to Louisiana in support of relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I am used to saying goodbye to loved ones and getting on a plane to go do stuff for my country. I am saying goodbye again this week, only this time I’m not the one leaving.
We are still at war. We have soldiers deployed all over the world for various reasons, the most auspicious of which is the ongoing effort to defeat global terror. Our troops have been in Afghanistan for the last 15-plus years. We were in Iraq from 2003-11, but then left, only to return. There are many other places in this world our troops continue to serve in, including the place my wife is leaving for as you read this.
We attended a Yellow Ribbon Program event this past weekend, which provides soldiers and family members all the information needed to cope with difficulties of extended separation and deployment. The Army hosted the event at a hotel in our region, and all of the deploying soldiers wore their Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) while being accompanied by their spouses and children during the weekend of briefings. For the first time in my career, I was sitting in a room full of soldiers who were preparing to go do their thing in an operational environment, yet I was wearing khakis and a polo shirt.
I know the operational side of these things. You show up when you’re supposed to show up, you make sure you’re in the right uniform and that you have all of your gear ready to go, and you train for the environment and the mission that you are moving to. As a senior noncommissioned officer, I usually have the added responsibility of making sure the soldiers in my charge do all of the above and that they don’t get into trouble. I try to foster an environment that makes me accessible to them when they have emotional reactions to the separation from family and the fears about the job ahead. Yes, even the world’s most well-trained and battle-hardened warriors experience these emotions.
This time I could only sit helplessly and watch the range of emotions scroll across my wife’s face as each briefing passed this weekend and the seconds ticked away until she says goodbye to me and our children. I was sad, fearful and, honestly, a little mad even though I’ve done the same thing several times.
Mostly, though, I was proud of the strength and dignity that she has shown through this whole process. How hard she has worked to take care of her troops and get them prepared for what lies ahead. How they come to her with respect and depend on her to lead them.
When I returned home from the initial combat phase of Iraq in spring 2004, I was overwhelmed with expressions of gratitude for my service. My uncle gave me this huge speech about how he was treated when he returned from Vietnam and how he was actually grateful that we were being treated very differently.
I will admit that at times it got a little embarrassing, but after a while (and that stern speech from Uncle George) it became easier to appreciate the Thank Yous and Atta Boys that never seemed to stop.
Our troops certainly deserve our appreciation for all they do to serve our country and defend both it and our way of life. I have that perspective locked in firmly after all the trips I have had to take in this uniform.
However, this time I am gaining a whole new perspective on the sacrifice our nation calls on its citizens to make, because this time I am experiencing what this means to the families of the service members who have to go away to do their jobs.
If you make a point of thanking our troops for all that they do, please also remember the spouses and children who are sacrificing during that same time. If you see a service member out with his or her spouse, please remember to thank both of them for all they do.
It is easy to identify the heroes who wear combat boots. Please don’t forget the ones who don’t.
I’m going to ask you to do something that many people consider hard — sometimes even impossible. I’m going to ask you to take a look at the world that exists outside of the 3-foot radius around you.
We travel through this world with to-do lists rattling around in our brains. We have people to take care of that we call “family” and we have responsibilities such as paying bills, feeding the kids, showing up for work, gassing up the car. Life can get so busy that we sometimes forget that, besides our immediate families, there are also, like, 7 billion other people on this planet.
I went to the grocery store yesterday because my family needed to be taken care of. We already had a houseful of groceries, but what we did not have was liquid dish soap and laundry detergent. Since this was a quick trip for two items, the decision was made that I could be trusted with this task, so off I went. I hate going to the grocery store, especially when I only need a couple of things. I’m not sure if this is company policy or just the way things usually shake out, but the store around the corner from my house is usually packed wall-to-wall with shoppers all trying to negotiate two checkout stands with baskets full of …whatever they came to get. Sure enough, I walked in the door and the roiling sea of humanity in that place slightly nauseated me.
Because I am no good at shopping, it took me something like 10 minutes to find the aisle that contains the household items I came to buy. It took me another few minutes to wedge my way between the shopping carts randomly — yet impressively — arranged in the aisle in a crude herringbone formation as their operators jostled around each other to reach this thing or that. I made my selections and turned to go to the express checkout lane in the hope — futile, it turned out — that I could sail through there and out the door before the turn of midnight. That line was backed up from the front of the store to the dairy section in the back, so I guessed this was not going to be a good afternoon for me.
I almost did the typical guy thing, which is putting the items back and just telling my family they were out of luck on cleaning the kitchen for at least another day. This little voice (that sounded curiously like my wife’s) demanded that I continue this mission if I knew what was good for me. I chose a shorter line, albeit one in which the people had baskets overflowing with — I don’t know. Everything in the store? I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
As I stood there hating life, this lady in front of me with a full basket turned, saw me holding a bottle of liquid dish soap and a jug of laundry detergent, and frowned. I tensed up, thinking her facial expression was about to bring a world of pain between us. She moved a few inches to her right and motioned me to go in front of her. That move was so unexpected that I froze, not knowing what to do. I just stared at her, mouth slightly agape, and she motioned again for me to move in front of her. I looked behind me as though someone back there could tell me what I was supposed to do next. She sighed with the full weight of someone who is used to doing nice things for people and not being appreciated for it.
“Sir, you have two items and I have about 50. Please go in front of me.”
The sound of her voice restarted the feeling in my legs and they slowly began moving forward on their own. As I passed by her I mumbled a quick “thank you” that must have sounded like a smooth blend of confusion and shame.
Shame? As I trudged to the car after spending less than three minutes in a mile-long checkout line, I wondered why I felt that at all. Was I ashamed that I beat the system? No. I was ashamed that I did not take more opportunities to do for others what that lady did for me. She likely has no idea that her seemingly random act of kindness would appear in a weekly column the next day. I don’t know who she is or what has shaped her personal moral code, but I do know I have a lot to learn from her. I may never see her again, but I will never forget her.
My mission now is to make sure others benefit from her simple gesture in a grocery store checkout line. She did little more than expedite my afternoon and cure a simple bad mood. Someone else may need a kind word, smile, or simple assist that might make their lives a little easier — or perhaps save it.
The next time I have an opportunity to help someone in even the simplest way, I will remember this scene and pay her act forward. Will you join me in this effort?