My wife and 12-year-old daughter and I had to make a quick strategic decision this week. Faced with a compressed amount of time in Washington, D. C., we had to choose which of the many historic sites we could visit.
Luckily for us, and the word “lucky” may sound strange in this context, but we visited the Lincoln Memorial and all of the war memorials – WWI, WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam. We ended our visit at the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. You could easily make a case that the reminders of assassinations and of the toll and horrors of war would be depressing. I found them, instead, inspirational. The stories they tell are of high ideals and lofty goals, victory in the face of – at times – almost certain defeat such as at the Battle of Midway, of the unstoppable courage and grit of Americans, and of the reasons we remain the greatest nation on earth. We never give up.
Adversity challenges us and brings out the best in us. This was a week when we all needed signs that throw off light, not darkness, on life. The visit to these memorials was sandwiched between the twin tragedies of the week, first in Boston and then in West. It hit at a time when it’s necessary to be reminded of precedents in this country to fight back and believe in the promise of a brighter tomorrow even when all around us is bleak.
I’ve run two marathons, although never in Boston. My first was with my friend Tim McKinney, president and CEO of the Tarrant County United Way. The second was with my oldest daughter. Both were in New York.
McKinney was my banker at the time and is a former armed services navigator. He’s a man of precision to state it mildly. My lackadaisical and unorthodox training methods drove him crazy but he was my inspiration to run New York with him because of our friendship.
McKinney and I ran in 1988. Not one to mince with statistics, he says we finished in 4:04 but would have broken four hours if I had not stopped for a bathroom break. That seems reasonable to me but maybe, in recollection, not a good excuse to him, given the tone of his reply to me this week. But friends stay with friends.
That race paved the way for me to run my second with Christy in 1990 when she was a senior in college. That’s a day I will never forget and I owe both Tim and Christy so much for those memories. She later ran her second in New York with her husband, Bob. My wife and I were at the finish line to greet them.
So, we’ve had loved ones waiting at the finish line and we’ve waited at the finish line of marathons. They were always such special moments of accomplishment and joy. We always managed great, fun, family dinners after each race. Recalling those times and then reading and watching of the horror in Boston with the blast at the finish that killed three spectators and injured 170 sent my mind and emotions reeling. There were no celebratory dinners following this race. The bomb exploded 4 hours and 9 minutes after the start of the race.
What time did we finish I asked in an email to my daughter? “Around 4 hours, 20 minutes,” she wrote back.
Both times perilously close to the time of the bomb explosion in Boston, I thought. Chilling.
And if this was not enough to contemplate all week, we then find ourselves in the midst of learning of the horror in West with the explosion of the fertilizer plant. The number of dead was initially reported at between five and 15 and the injured at more than 170. My mind raced to my friend and one of our state’s great editors and now journalism professor Mike Blackman, former editor at the Star-Telegram. He had attended Baylor and knew the stops along Interstate 35 from Fort Worth to Waco. When he and I began working together at the Star-Telegram in 1986 he immediately drove me to West. “Sulaks,” he said as he nosed the car onto the interstate and headed south. “One of the best steaks you’ll ever eat.” I knew that was saying a whole lot from a guy raised in Texas. The boy knew his steaks. Blackman also had a favorite Dairy Queen on the way to Waco. There, he dined on steak fingers and gravy. As much as I immediately fell in love with those delicacies – at least to a Yankee boy – I was suspect about his restaurant recommendations, but you know what? The boy knew his steak. Let’s just leave it at that.
After my first visit I would sometimes drive all the way to West – 40 or 50 miles, I’m guessing, by myself just to have one of Sulaks’ steaks. They oozed grease, butter and garlic. There was no way to imitate the taste or experience.
Many years after my first visit to West, my wife and I never passed West without stopping at the convenience store and kolache bakery to pick up a homemade coconut cream pie. It had no equal. Sometimes we had to buy two because we ate the first in the car on the way home.
Did Sulak’s survive? Was it even there anymore? What happened at the convenience store just off the interstate? What happened to the customers who were surely there last Wednesday night getting food and gasoline?
Those questions and then the memories began to flood and I volleyed back and forth between current sadness about these tragedies and happy times I had experienced.
What have you been thinking about since the deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon or the explosion that blew apart West? Clearly at times such as this we think about the preciousness and fragility of life. We never know what natural or man-made disaster might strike next or when. And we now live with danger of anti-American attacks by terrorists on U.S. soil.
The Boston bombing brings with it the renewed awareness of the constant state of danger in society today. How could any of us ever imagine the type of mayhem and tragedy that awaited those in Boston?
We couldn’t, and maybe even despite the photographs and video and the truth, we still can’t believe this could happen in America. Many of us have probably taken an extra, long look at our children or, if they are nearby, given them an extra hard hug.
The boy killed in Boston had just hugged his father who was standing next to him. Moments later the child, Martin Richard, was dead. He was 8. My granddaughter is 8.
And you wonder what do the children think about during these times?
Here’s what my 12-year-old said aloud at the dinner table almost as if she was directing it into thin air and not at either my wife or me. “So, let me get this straight,” she began. “You go to a movie and you get massacred and you go to school and you get shot and killed. And now you run in a race and you get blown up.”
Life was not always like this, we said. We could not exactly answer. Why?
Then two days later we learn of a community where children were playing in their back yards or finishing up their homework or getting ready for bed when their town blew up.
Actually, we said, life has always been like that. Disasters occur constantly. People die unexpectedly and in unfathomable tragedy. And so, luckily, we could look back at three hours in Washington and the war memorials. We could look at the photos we took of the poetic and inspirational words written and spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and now reproduced on the wall of his memorial. We could reflect on the brave soldiers who have defended our values and our country.
And we could tell her that at times such as this we have to recommit ourselves to values and trust and faith and hope. Things will get brighter and better if you vow not to be defeated and to never give up.
Contact Connor at email@example.com