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I canoe–Can you?

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Canoes and I have never had a great relationship.  I must be some kind of a masochist though, because I keep returning to that relationship for more abuse with barely a thought given to our sordid past.

I canoed for the first time when I was 12.  It was the Spring River, and I was assured that it would be a leisurely day of fun in the sun and that I would get to experience God’s creation with my church youth group.  I nearly died.

This was 30 years ago, so the details are a bit fuzzy, but the gist is that we were nearly to the end of this trip down the river and, at that point, had been the only canoe in the group that had not tipped over yet.  We encountered a minor waterfall that was maybe a three-foot drop just before a bend in the river.  No problem, right?  We landed fine, but as we tried to negotiate the bend, another canoe bumped into us and sent us headlong into a dirt bank on the side of the river.  Over we went, and our title as the most reliable boat on the water rushed away in the current, along with our cooler, flip flops, sunscreen, and my favorite hat.  I wasn’t aware at the time that my hat was gone because I was too busy drowning.

My foot got caught between two rocks in the river bed when I went under, and because I was 12 at that time I wasn’t tall enough to keep my head above water.  I began taking water into my lungs and I was in serious trouble.  My youth pastor swam under, dislodged my foot and hauled me to the surface.  I coughed up the water from my lungs and lived to fight another day, swearing I would never canoe again.

I went back the next year.  And the year after that.

I attended summer classes after my sophomore year at Ouachita Baptist University, and someone in one of my classes got the bright idea to blow off a day of class and go canoeing on the Caddo and Ouachita Rivers.  I reluctantly agreed to go, forgetting that I hate canoeing almost as much as it hates me.  I was warned that the rivers could be somewhat angry, so I really dreaded this trip.

There was good news and bad news when we got there.  The good news was, we weren’t going to canoe.  The company was out of canoes and told us our only option was inner tubes.  When I heard that, I figured we would cancel the trip and go back to the dorm.  The bad news was, we didn’t cancel the trip.  The decision was made to inner tube these rivers in succession that day, with our final destination being the OBU dock on the bank of the Ouachita.  Since I didn’t have a car, I had no choice but to participate.

Thinking I was going to die on one of these two rivers, I said a small prayer, mentally willed my meager worldly possessions (three pairs of faded jeans, a Sony Discman, and 200 CDs) to my little brother, and set out on what I was sure would be an aquatic funeral.

The trip was boring.  I mean, soul-crushingly boring.  The Caddo was so low that we wound up walking most of that leg of the trip.  The Ouachita, while plenty deep, was so slow moving that we had to paddle our arms off–in inner tubes–just to move forward on it.  What was supposed to be a 3-hour trip wound up taking 10 hours.  We walked up on the bank of the Ouachita at OBU well after dark, praying we wouldn’t be bitten by snakes.  I again swore I would never travel a river again in anything that didn’t have a motor attached.

If you’re at the Spring River this coming August, be sure to wave and say hello to me.

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A wage more valuable than money

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The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year.  As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse.  I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.

The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple.  I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job.  I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.

He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite.  The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table.  As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him.  His first words were jarring.

“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice.  “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”

Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before.  His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood.  As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.

“Seriously.  What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust.  “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”

He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed.  Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard.  I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.

The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him.  I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit.  By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.

At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left.  My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.

I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone.  In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church.  As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work.  As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.

“Son, I believe in hard work.  Always have,” he said.  “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation.  No matter what job you are given, you owe your best.  All you can give.  That will always be rewarded.”

As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears.  I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach.  He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week.  I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

A truly impressive man

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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 frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Early impressions of single parenthood

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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 frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

True heroes that last

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True visionaries certainly look ahead as they walk through life. They are always thinking of the steps in front of them that take them to their desired destination. The goal, of course, is in front of you, but I submit that looking back can be useful too. While your future is in front of you, the lessons you learned and the people who have shaped you are behind you. They must not be forgotten, as they are vital to the person you are now, as well as the person you strive to become.

I had a ton of heroes growing up, but they were mostly disposable. I greatly admired the football genius of Joe Montana, the fluid poetry of motion that was Ryne Sandberg on a baseball diamond, and the sheer hurricane of personality and brutal ring efficiency given to the world by Muhammad Ali. Those athletes captured my attention, but the one that captured my imagination was Larry Bird. He was all I ever wanted to be…until I grew up and realized that both he and the others I mentioned were limited quantities of contribution to the worlds they represented. In terms of how lasting their contributions to the life of a little boy in Arkansas were, they were indeed disposable.

I am now a man in his 40s with a family, a job, and bills to pay. Every hero I had growing up is either retired or dead now, and while I can still relive their former glory on the internet, they simply have nothing further to offer that is of any use to me. I came to a point in my life where I began seeking heroes with a more lasting influence, and I have been blessed to find them. Here are just a few:

Bishop Imad Al Banna was the acting archbishop of Basra Province, Iraq when I served there in 2009. Needless to say, it took a lot of courage to be a Christian of common stature in a province that borders Iran to the east. Al Banna was a very public figure there, as he was not only the priest for that area, but he also owned two pharmacies and a school that provided services to the entire population, which is 97% Muslim. The previous archbishop fled Iraq for fear of his life at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but Al Banna resolved to stay no matter what and provide the services and ministry to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Though he endured much personal tragedy as a natural course of being who he was in the place he was in, he never lost his smile or his resolve to serve the people of Basra.

Pakistani Recycling Christians: I was tasked with doing a journalistic piece on the burgeoning recycling program in central Iraq, and I made the mistake of trying to conduct the interviews on a Friday, which is the Muslim day of rest. The day was not a complete loss, though, as I was able to meet with the director of the plant (an American). As we were talking, I noticed that there were four gentlemen who were clearly not American that were attending to the office that day. One approached me and, as he spoke absolutely no English, flashed me a 1000-watt smile and began making hand motions toward his mouth as though he were drinking something. The director grinned at the puzzled expression on my face and let me know that the gentleman was offering me a cup of hot Chai tea. He also warned me that it would be culturally rude for me to refuse, so I readily accepted. As he and the other three men were frantically bustling about, preparing my tea and cutting into a pound cake, the director told me their backstory.

“These four men are from Pakistan,” he said. “They were forced out of their country and found refuge—and a job—here.” I asked why they were exiled from Pakistan, and he said, “They were lucky. By all rights they should be dead right now for the ‘sin’ they were forced out for. That ‘sin,’ mind you, is Christianity.”

I was bewildered. I said, “I may be completely uneducated on this subject, but I was under the impression that there weren’t any Christians in Pakistan.”

“Well, there probably aren’t now,” he said. “Because these guys are here.”

They were not only living their faith in Iraq, of all places, but they were also working hard to improve the environment and enterprise of recycling programs of Iraq—and making American soldiers feel welcome in their area.

All of these men are heroes of mine. I have never seen them again since I left Iraq in 2009, but I will never forget the courage, resolve, and joy they all contributed to the world around them.

Athletes entertain us and amaze us with their physical gifts, but those perish over time and the people that had them fade into the collective memory of websites devoted to reliving the past. People like Bishop Al Banna and the Pakistani Recycling Christians, however, have given something to this world that can never perish: they have given inspiration.


Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com
. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

A Soldier’s (Spouse’s) Life

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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.

 

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

My view from the cheap seats

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I went to a concert recently that I had been dying to attend for years. When I found out they were coming here, I told my wife that we have to go. She wasn’t nearly as excited about this idea as I was, but I told her this really sad sob story about how I’ve been trying to catch them live for 25 years (which was absolutely true), but something always got in the way. Once I had permission to shop for tickets, I attacked the internet in search of the best seats I could find — for the price limit I was granted, that is.

I found what looked like the perfect seats. The website assured me that it was in the middle concourse, and a quick glance at the seating chart seemed to confirm that we were going to be in great shape. I couldn’t believe the deal I was getting for such a — well, such a sort of reasonable price. I bought those tickets, stuffed them in my Apple Wallet, and began wetting myself with excitement.

We arrived at the stadium on the night of the concert, and the place was packed. I hadn’t done my homework on this group’s history with where I live, but I figured there would be a decent turnout. Decent was a gross understatement. As we made our way to our seats, I noticed that we just kept climbing and climbing and … yeah. Turns out we were not in the middle of the arena. We weren’t exactly in the rafters, but I could hit them with a rock from where we were. I began complaining immediately when we reached our seats. My wife just rolled her eyes and went to sleep on my shoulder.

Funny thing about concerts: turns out you can hear them just as well from any seat in the arena. The concert was fantastic, and honestly, what made it even better was the fact that I could not only see the band from where we were sitting, I could see almost everyone in the arena. Seeing everyone having such a great time actually made the experience better.

My life has always been kind of like that. I didn’t grow up with much, which set me apart from most of the people I grew up and went to school with. It felt lonely much of the time, but looking back on it now, I realize that I had an advantage many of them don’t. Not being accepted actually afforded me the opportunity to take in the world from outside of it rather than having to figure it out from within.

I have always been in the cheap seats of life — mostly because that was all I could afford. Now I can do better, but I choose to take in the world from outside because honestly, the view is so much better up here.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.