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In Defense of the Marines

Last week, a video was posted on YouTube of some soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses. Here is a clip from ABC News. I posted that link, as opposed to the actual video on YouTube itself because I thought it instructive to see the way it was presented by ABC.

The video shows four young men, probably all in their twenties, or younger, and I remembered being twenty, and in the army:

Shaun Melarvie in basic training

In Basic Training

and, I wonder what I would have done. I’d like to think that I’d have done the honorable thing; but, when you put it in the context of being “in country” for seven months, losing seven comrades and suffering additional non-lethal casualties, I honestly don’t know.

My eighteen years in the Army was most notable for finding a prostatic nodule in a 40yo while doing an over-forty physical exam, which required a rectal exam. It was an exam he would not have otherwise had, and would have likely went on to develop metastatic disease. So, that is the only life I may have saved, that I know of, and that alone, made my eighteen years worthwhile. Nothing heroic, no charging up a hill or throwing myself on a grenade or weaving through crossfire to a fallen soldier, nothing like what we are asking of these young men and the thousands of other men and women serving today.

I have an acquaintance who was in Iraq and heavily involved in combat. He doesn’t talk about it, but when I’d ask him how he did it, he mentions ” I’d just put on my military face…” and that’s pretty much all he’d say.

These men live in brutal conditions, in a constant-threat environment, existing in the reality of kill or be killed that we cannot even imagine.

I would not presume to judge these young men. I will leave that to their conscience and developing maturity.

I do not like that ABC made no attempt to consider their actions in the context of the theater of war in which it occurred–shame on them. We do not send saints to war, we send men; men who are all too human; we send them to make war so that we, ahome and asleep in our beds, might be free.

Pearl Harbor Day

Thank you, Mr. Spude. Thank you, Mr. Kwaterski. Thank you, Mr. Peil. Thank you, Frank. Thank you to all the veterans, past and present, for your service to our great country.

I remember a few years back, one day in my afternoon office, removing a piece of shrapnel from the neck of a WWII veteran. He’d had it all these years, but only now was it bothering him enough such that he wanted it removed. It was superficial, just under the skin, in front of the sternocleidomastoid muscle, about half-a-inch from the carotid artery.

He told me that he’d air-dropped into France in the days after D-day. He and a small group of men became separated from their unit, or weren’t dropped exactly where they should have been. A unit of German Infantry saw them land and started firing. He felt a sting at the side his neck but didn’t realize he’d been hit until later, after he and the other Americans evaded the pursuing forces and re-united with a larger group.

There were two pieces of lead in his neck, one just a bit smaller than a pea, but irregular, and another about half that size. They came out easily enough and I put them in a plastic specimen container. I held them up to the light; two pieces of metal from sixty years ago that came within a finger’s breadth of killing the man in front of me who risked his life for the freedom of his children, and me.

“Thank You,” was all I could say.

Einstein and Jesus

einstein and jesus

Einstein and Jesus


This is what I see everyday. At work. It hangs across from my desk, and as I’m signing records endless times in multiple insignigicant places, reviewing lab and X-ray results, and dictating patient encounters, Einstein and Jesus are always close.

The placard at the bottom of the Jesus-plaque says, “Compliments of Senger’s Grocery, 1953”. My Grandfather used to give these away to his customers in south Bismarck where he had a small store next to the house he built.

The picture that Jesus rests upon is from a small art gallery in Hawaii, the big island. I have to keep it in my office for two years before I can bring it home, but it’s been more than two years and I left it there because I’ve gotten used to it and couldn’t imagine the wall without it, a naked white rectangle absent something meant to be like an angel without wings.


The meaning of Christmas

Wow, it’s not even Thanksgiving, and I’m posting the meaning of Christmas? It seems that way. Actually, it is my December contribution to the NWTC “What’s Cooking Newsletter.” For some reason I struggled with a topic–all I knew is that I wanted it to be “Christmassy.” I had wanted to write a piece of  historical, flash fiction, like maybe about St. Nicholas as a boy, but I couldn’t readily find enough information about his early years to make it historically accurate, but then, I suppose that’s why it’s called “flash fiction.”

As a child, Christmas meant to me; presents, cookies, great TV, sledding, and somewhere towards the bottom of the list I might actually say Christ; although I couldn’t promise you that he figured into the equation except, maybe, as an afterthought during the Christmas mass. Sometime after Thanksgiving, I’d start paying attention to the TV guide. “Is Frosty on tonight?” I’d ask my mother, and eventually, on one blessed night she’d answer, “Why, yes he is.”

Of course, this was years before the advent of those VHS tapes, and their larger precursors, whose name escapes me now, which allowed the watching of programs ad-lib, and ad-nauseum. Nowadays, you can wirelessly live-stream Frosty from a remote server onto a hand-held device. But, back then, way back in the 60’s and 70’s you could only watch Frosty, and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and Rudolph once a year; so, of course, it was very special. And every year I cried at the end when Frosty turned into a puddle of ice-water. And every year I’d watch, terrified, as Rudolph got trapped in the cave of the Abominable Snowman, not absolutely convinced that he would escape, even though vaguely remembering that he did the year before.

On those special nights, I could eat milk and cookies in the living room while lying on my stomach on the carpet–my favorite was peanut-butter cookies and next was chocolate-chip. I don’t think skim milk was invented back then, so whole milk it was, and towards the end of my stack of cookies the only thing left was a lumpy slush of warm milk and cookie crumbs in the bottom of the glass, which I was loathe to drink because I only liked cold milk, and it didn’t seem natural to drink it warm, especially so, filled with left over soggy cookie-remnants as it was.

I couldn’t say when I stopped watching the annual Christmas programs, but I suspect it was not long beyond the discovery of the truth about Santa—kind of like a Christian Bar-mitzvah, when a boy becomes a man, except that it’s not celebratory, and there’s no formal ceremony. Okay, that’s probably a poor analogy–the point being that there’s a line, a life-line you might say, drawn in the sand of our lives, in which that which came before is different from that which comes after: before, the childhood belief that a jolly man, with a soft white beard, red suit, and black shiny boots leaves presents under a tree for you in the night: after, the realization that the jolly man is a make-believe myth, no more real than a cartooned Frosty or animated-puppet Rudolph.

I can’t remember if it was my father’s or mother’s voice telling me about Santa over forty years ago, “Santa is a fairy-tale, Shaun; but it’s based on St. Nicholas, who was a kind man with a white beard who traveled around the country giving people gifts a long, long time ago.”

I didn’t take much solace then from the reality offered of St. Nicholas, a long-gone relic from some remote past, more than a thousand years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 even. He seemed a poor replacement for a ruddy cheeked, bearded man whose red-velvet lap I could sit on and reverently whisper into an attentive ear all the treasures I wanted that year for Christmas. But what young child could understand the context of St. Nicholas’s life without the gentle interpretation of Santa Claus, Sinter Klaas, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Kerstman, and so on, all around the world.

As an adult, Christmas means to me; Christ, beautiful music, decorating the tree with Sue, midnight Mass, smiles and good cheer, chocolate and other sweet temptations, and towards the bottom of the list I suppose I’d put presents, because they’re always important for the little ones. Christmas has become an immaterial state of mind, as opposed the material world of Hot-Wheel race car tracks, plastic GI Joes, and Tonka trucks of years past, with the in-between times filled with a succession of life-lines marking points in life where nothing was as it was before—points both sorrowful and joyful, each an occasion for growth in this great pursuit of life. What Christmas is, is an annual marker, a season of reflection and appreciation for the year just past; and lastly, a time for humongous, frosted sugar cookies.

Cedar Plank Cooking

My November Contribution to the NWTC Newsletter is below. The “Legend of the Cedar Tree” was only a foggy memory, which I refreshed from Jim Fox (posted on several websites, like this one here) I paraphrased it from this, and my recollections.

I grill whenever I can because it’s easy. I’m outside with a glass of wine, I don’t have to worry about a mess, and there’s a comfortable margin between well-done and rare, so I rarely get into trouble, unless I’m grilling tuna—then I use my watch. Last month, when I opened the bottom drawer to get the wire brush to scrape away the residue of my previous efforts, an opened pack of cedar planks fell out. I pulled out a plank and held it up to my nose, vaguely remembering a clumsy attempt at grilling salmon on a flaming piece of wood.

The smell of the cedar was faint, but distinct enough that it pushed opened a door in some long darkened hallway of memories, and I remembered Ouga. It’s night. I’m sitting around a campfire with the rest of my Cub Scout den. The park ranger, who is part Cherokee, is telling a story from long ago. He’s standing inside the circle of boys, next to the fire, glancing from the dancing flames to the young faces staring up at him, to the night sky, back to the fire, then to my eyes.

Many moons ago, he said, when the Cherokee people were first upon the earth, they thought it would be better if there was no night, and so they asked the Creator, called Ouga, if he would make it day all the time. Ouga heard their plea, and because he loved them, he made it so. Because the day was unending, without darkness, it became very hot, and the forest grew thick, and it became difficult to tend to the crops, and it was hard to sleep, and the people were not happy. So, the people thought how much better it might be if it were to be night all the time and they pleaded with Ouga to make it so. Because Ouga loved them, he made it so.

The night came. It grew very cold and the crops stopped growing. The people couldn’t see in the darkness to hunt, and without food from hunting or harvesting, there was a great hunger, and many people died. Those that survived gathered together and cried out, “Forgive us, Ouga. We have made a mistake. You had already blessed us with the perfect balance of light and darkness in the beginning. Please make it as it was before, when day and night lived side by side. We beg you.” Because Ouga loved them so, he forgave them, and made it so, returning the sun to the day and the moon and stars to the night.

The people grew strong again, and many in number. There was food to eat, and life was good. Ouga was happy to see his children happy, but he was sorry that so many had perished during the long, cold night; and so he gathered up their spirits and placed them in a newly created tree. He called the tree a-tsi-na-thu-gv, the cedar tree.

The park ranger walks through the ring of boys to a near-by cedar tree and cuts of a small limb with his knife. He walks back inside the circle and holds it up. He says, when you experience the aroma of the cedar tree, you are experiencing the ancient ancestors of the Cherokee people. He passes the branch to the nearest boy who smells it and passes it on. The branch is in my hands. The course, scaly foliage tickles my upper lip and I breathe deeply in. Fresh, sharp, fragrant; let there be light, separate the night from the day, and it was so, life everlasting in the aroma of cedar.

Forty years pass. I’m on my deck holding a dried plank of cedar in my hands, still with the scent of ancient ancestors past. I yell though the screen door to Sue, “I think I’m going to grill salmon tomorrow, on cedar planks.”

“Better soak it this time.”

“Yeah. I think I’ll soak it in wine.”

Chainsaw for sale

Last week we had strong winds, which actually sounds kind of cool and exotic, on top of the hill with tree-tops swaying and leaves rustling to and fro; but, there are consequences.

strong wind+tall, dead tree=big mess for me

 The tree missed the house by two feet, and that’s only because it wasn’t tall enough. Remember the philosophical argument that goes “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears if fall…” Well, I heard this one fall, so I guess it really did. It was early morning, and I was laying in bed, listing to the exotic wind-noise, thinking that I’d better get up and get to work when there was a sudden significant sound, kind of like a “ka-CHUNK.” I didn’t say anything to Sue, as I tend to minimize noises in the night, realizing that it was actually morning-time.

“Did you hear that?” She asked.

“Yeah, probably one of the rocking chairs blew over.”

“I don’t know, it sounded louder than that.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll check it out, I have to get up anyway,” I sighed, throwing my legs over the side of the bed, sore ankle and all.

In the bathroom, I looked out the window towards the pond and saw a flower-pot tipped on its side–sure enough, “it was a flower pot,” I yelled into the bedroom.

“Flower-pot…? I don’t think so.”

“Well…surprise, that’s all I see.” I stumbled woodenly over to the sink, revved up my Oral-B ultrasonic toothbrush and started doing the business. As is my habit, I looked out the side window, at the Lord Baltimore’s, in full bloom, and then I saw it. “Holy Shit!”


“It’s a big-ass tree. It almost hit the house.”

She didn’t even say I told you so, even though I deserved it.

Today, being Sunday, and not raining, was my day to dispose of above tree. I hauled out my Husqvarna 55 Rancher, kevlar chaps and gloves, a helmet with ear covers and eye screen, a container of gas mixed with oil (like it’s supposed to be), and a jug of chain-bar oil. It took me half an hour and several F’in-heimers to start the dang thing; and then, it didn’t cut, the automatic break/stop thingy didn’t work, and it smelled like something was burning. It seemed so much more difficult than three or four years ago when I used it last, and it was new. According to my way of thinking; there were two obvious solutions: 1) buy a new chainsaw, or, 2) call an expert.

I chose option number 2.

“Sorry to bother you on a Sunday Andy–thought I’d just be leaving a message,” I explained when he answered.

“No problem. What can I do for you.”

“Well,  one of those dead, standing pines fell down in those winds last week. I know that doesn’t narrow it down much.” There are numerous tall, dead, standing pines around my house. “But, it’s pretty obvious because it’s angled out over my fire pit. I couldn’t get my chain-saw…”

“Uh…Doc; you shouldn’t be using a chain saw,” he interrupted, “you should leave that to me.”

“Yeah, I know, but it seemed like the manly thing to do. I actually got it started, but then things kind of went down hill. Half the time, I can’t start it; and the other half-the-time I do, I’m afraid I’ll cut off my left hand.”

“I’ll take care of it for you,” he said.

“That’d be great.”

Today, two hours ago, I pulled my last chainsaw pull-cord–the motion pretty much identical to the “elbows-out, lawnmower” P-90X, exercise that’s part of ‘Back and Biceps’. As a matter of fact, I would make an excellent ‘chain-saw, pull-cord puller’, but it stops there. Once it’s all vibrating and rattling with it’s jiggling, sharp iron teeth–I’m outa there.