Saturday, November 30, 2013

Not-So-Traditional Thanksgiving 2013

It was a year ago that we visited the Big Apple for my wife's 40th Birthday and a year ago we booked the same hotel across the Hudson River from Manhattan for Thanksgiving 2013 and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

If you recall, the weather didn't look so good across Pennsylvania just before Turkey Day as two storm systems headed towards each other. We kept to our plans, though, and hit the road on Turkey Eve for the 6 1/2 hour trek across Interstate 80. Amazingly, we made great time and never hit any weather despite the dooms-day predictions. Arrived: Edgewater, NJ...and the illuminated Empire State Building in view across the river.

Thanksgiving morning arrived via alarm as we heard about the need for arriving along the parade route early. We caught the New Jersey transit just a few blocks down the road that took us to the Port Authority at Times Square. This right here is THE way to do NYC with kids. We stayed at the Homewood Suites in Edgewater, NJ that gave us a mini-kitchen, private bedroom, pull-out sofa bed for our kids, free parking, free hot breakfast, and a view of the NYC skyline. That bus stop is the icing on the cake.

Arriving in Times Square, we began our trek north towards Central Park to find a place to view the 87-year-old parade watched by America. The estimates predicted that 3.5 million people were expected to crowd NYC this morning. As we got close and navigated through rude crowds, we found a spot one block south of Central Park...a TIGHT spot. Thanks to the winds and tunneling effect between the buildings, we expected the huge balloons to be kept low...and they were. This was perfect as it gave us a front-n-center view of it all. Despite some very bitter and angry people around us, we had a great time...a frozen great time but a fantastic time, regardless. One Bucket List item checked off the list for my wife. :) Here are some great photos I took which will show you the parade in a whole new light. Enjoy them!

Afterwards and the crowd dissipated, we navigated back to the USO which is located inside the Port Authority. Any military family visiting NYC should keep them in their back pocket when visiting. Discounted tickets, advice, and free snacks to load up with. Priceless, really. One thing they told me a few weeks ago was of a free traditional Thanksgiving dinner from 12:30-3:30 for all veterans at the Soldier, Sailor, Marine, and Airman Club on Lexington Ave., a good walk from the USO. Once we got there, we were so glad we did. Imagine a very old, historic building in NYC with relics covering decades and generations...and a sit-down, traditional Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, rolls, and pumpkin pie. Oh and white wine, too. I sat next to a Korean War veteran who, like many older veterans I come across, want to talk, talk, talk about their time serving Uncle Sam.

I sat there looking at my wife and thankful. They are truly what I am thankful for. Thanksgiving is not defined by where I am nor what I do...but whom I share it with and what I am thankful for. On this Thanksgiving, it really couldn't have been more perfect. They are all I have!

Not too much later, we had walked through Grand Central Station en route to Radio City Music Hall where we had tickets for the Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes. Of course, we strolled slowly up Fifth Avenue to check out the many decorated windows for Christmas...the best being Saks Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center. The show was amazing and we had perfect, centrally-located seats on the 2nd mezzanine which gave us a view to see it all and miss nothing. Zero regrets and highly recommend! The live nativity and celebration of Christ's birth at the end was the cherry on top. Not too long after the show, we headed back across the Hudson...still full from that turkey feast.

Day 2, aka: Black Friday, also started early as we wanted to photo-bomb the Today Show at Rockefeller Center. Well...we did!!! Friends from home took photos of their TVs and I got on camera twice in the background. Honestly, I looked much more like a freaky creeper than a Today Show fan. (Pictures on Facebook) We even got a photo op with the real Santa...I think. His beard sure was real.

We made our way north towards Central Park with a stop at FAO Schwartz and me drueling as we passed on by the Apple Store...or glass cube. In Central Park, we all ran about 20 feet then I proclaimed "We all just ran in Central Park!!!" see, Central Park is a runners' mecca so we just "had" to run. "Check!" Fun times.

One of the highlights of our trip followed: ice skating in Central Park. While unplanned and unknown, we decided to let the girls skate under sunny skies on Trump's Ice Rink for an hour. There was an intangible joy to watching the girls laugh together, hold hands, and just love on each other out there. Had it just been my bride and me, I would've taken her hand for an hour myself and gone all "Sleepless in Seattle" on her!! (Or was it "Elf"???)

After skating, we took our one and only subway trip all the way south to the Financial District with plans to take the Staten Island Ferry around the Statue of Liberty for free. However, it was early afternoon and we still had to walk through Chinatown and 40-some blocks all the way back to Times Square so we decided to skip it and start walking. Walking we did!!! We found Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, and eventually Union Square where a Holiday Market was super busy with lots of vendors of every flavor. No doubt, the girls' legs were aching and cold, but we kept on hustling, risking our lives now and then across intersections, and never letting go of each others' hands. I threw in a few acapella solos and dance moves along the way to keep them thoroughly amused and embarrassed. "Seriously, Dad? SERIOUSLY?!?!?!" :)

Back at 42nd St and Times Square, we took our Times Square family photo and headed back to the Port Authority and our bus stop. Back at the hotel 30min later, we relaxed at a great new restaurant we found called BareBurger. SO good! With no alarms set and no plans for when we'd be departing the area on Saturday, we all were sound asleep by 10.

We had a lot of fun on this trip. While I have been raised around the traditional Thanksgiving dinner table at home, things change as do relationships and what brings joy to my family and happiness. We don't know what next Thanksgiving will bring but we will be sure to keep each other in mind and keep creating memories with each other. So what am I thankful for? I am thankful for the breath in me to live each day for my Lord, my wife, and my girls. I am thankful for the strength to keep doing it and for the guidance He gives to help me navigate the ever-changing path. That is just a snippet of what I'm thankful for....there is SOOOOOO much more!

So there you have first full length blog post typed entirely with my thumbs while cruising west across a frozen Pennsylvania. Happy belated Thanksgiving, friends! 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

16 Years

November 13, 2013 = 16 years as a sailor. That pretty much blows my mind. I don't want to say a whole lot today about the past 16 years but thought I'd share just a slice of it with you. It's been an interesting path, for sure, and one probably not repeated too often. Let me see if I can sum it up in one discombobulated poem....deep breath....

Wiping tables at Mickey D's
17 years old, not idea what to do
A recruiter stopped me, that spot remembered today
"Come take a test...come see me, ok?"

One test then a second test
Off to boot camp in 1991 I went
Naval Nuclear Power School, hardest school the Navy had
Got mono, passed out in the shower, but graduated still

Trained on a submarine in Charleston, SC
Then reported aboard a nuclear guided missile cruiser
Her name was "Virginia"...the USS Virginia CGN-38
Drug ops in the Caribbean, a crew of 500

I decommissioned her, her days were soon over
Off to a brand new ship, a brand new aircraft carrier
The namesake a senator, his name was John C. Stennis
From an old ship to a new ship, "plank owner" on both

Diagnosed with vasovagal syncope after passing out one night
Flew me off on a helo, my wife awaited ashore
Limited duty at the Red Cross, but soon returned to service
Another carrier, south of Iraq, her name the George Washington

It had been 8 years now, it was time to serve ashore
Working on fast attack submarines was my new job, for sure
It sucked, it was miserable, but I didn't go to sea
I finished, at last, my college degree...for free

10 years done, one child born to us
I said "goodbye, Navy"...our days are done
A few moves across the country, but ended up in our hometown
Two children in tow, the need to serve continued to grow again

It was 2007, I had achieved my graduate degree
The Navy, a commissioning program, I raised my hand again
A Supply Corps Officer I became, wearing a butter bar on my collar
The Reserve, a "part time job," I was a sailor once more

Some four years later, the butter bar turned silver
I said my goodbyes and this sailor went to the desert
Afghanistan is not pretty, it's ugly in fact
So very poor, so much hate, so much American blood shed

I saw those 30 Navy SEALs go home in flag-covered caskets
I was on the front line, holding a salute I'll never, ever forget
Loaded on C-17s, a Heroes Flight like none other
" just have no idea what is going on over here."

Home at last after the longest 7 months of my life
Reintegration was interesting, a struggle to say the least
Back to my "job," never the same like before
My desire to serve grew once more

Deeply integrated into my Supply Corps community
I love the relationships I've built within it
Close, mentor-like, a bond like no other
I love my Navy, I love being a sailor, I regret none of it, ever

Today, I recruit my relief. Yes, I am a Navy recruiter
Yet integrity remains the bedrock of all I am
I recruit pilots and every other flavor of Naval Officers
There is no better job for me, in uniform..for my family...for my country

So 16 years are now behind me
I have no idea where it will ever end
20 years? 25 years? 30 years, perhaps?
Only God knows, only God leads the way

It was two short days ago, Veterans Day 2013
I spoke to little kids, about 500 or so of them
Their faces, lit up, I asked them to raise their hands
If they want to serve, would they volunteer, does our country have a chance?

Hands up everywhere, excitement was in that small crowd
Yet 1%, only 1% of our country serves today
It is an be part of that 1%
To be a sailor, to serve my country, to wear my country's cloth

I'd be a great failure if I didn't close out today
Without saying "thank you" and "I love you" to my bride of nearly 21 years
"Babe, you've stood beside me through thick and thin,
You are but 50% of my service to my country.

Wind beneath my wings? Wind in my sails?
A reason to get up? A reason to keep moving forward?
I love you with all my heart, I love serving together.
'A Navy Wife,' you hate that phrase, but this sailor's wife you are. You are my wife, my bride."

Never short-winded, always too much to say.
I love my country, I love my U.S. Navy.
Never forget those serving today, the Navy is on watch 24 hours a day
Honor, Courage, Commitment, they ARE the Navy way.
May 2011, Camp Mike Spann in Northern Afghanistan with Afghan soldier

Beneath F-15 Strike Eagle at Bagram Air Field, northern Afghanistan

F-15 Strike Eagle on flight line at Bagram Air Field in northern Afghanistan

USS George Washington, CVN-73, my 3rd ship

USS Virginia, CGN-38, my first ship but now decommissioned

Add caption

USS John C. Stennis, CVN-74 during sea trials which I was a part of. Nothing like standing in the hangar bay and seeing ocean out one side and the sky out the other during maneuvers like these. Great times!

Today: I've got the watch.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

Another November 11th has arrived. A day where no veteran should EVER go hungry! Started years ago by Applebee's, there are now countless restaurants throughout the country offering veterans, regardless of time served, a free meal. The list seems to grow every year. For me, I've been invited to be a keynote speaker to about 500 elementary kids in a school north of where I live. I've been struggling with "What do I say to kindergarteners?" ... until this morning while I was out on my run.

3 days ago while my bride and I were en route to a marriage retreat in Ohio's Amish country that we were leading, we stopped at one of our favorite eateries for lunch. Outside the window were the rolling hills and many trees sans leaves any longer. But across the aisle from us was a man, I'm guessing in his early 60s, having lunch with his wife. They weren't talking much and he had little expression. He wore a hat commonly seen in our society, that being of a "Vietnam Veteran." Those along with Korean War Veteran hats are the ones I see most. I'd imagine in several decades, those will be replaced with "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and "Operation Enduring Freedom" hats...and maybe even I'll wear the latter.

Near the end of his lunch and ours, his wife excused herself and he sat there alone, not looking around or anything...just sitting there. My wife also excused herself and I walked over and extended my hand to shake his and only intended on saying "Thank you for your service...and Welcome Home." Not only did he grab my hand, but he nearly knocked over his chair rising from his seat. He mentioned how he saw my haircut and thought maybe I was in the military. (I just got a high-n-tight haircut for Veterans Day) He immediately started to talk as if 40+ years evaporated. He had been drafted at the ripe young age of 18 and was assigned to a landing craft in Vietnam. He talked about how they had to scavenge for scrap wood to build shelter where they'd sleep and how they had "professional thieves" who were fellow soldiers. They'd come back in the middle of the night with needed supplies simply to survive or maybe some "creature comforts." He served two years and never served stateside or wore a "fancy Army uniform" as he called them. As he talked, my wife came back and he continued to talk while his eyes reddened and he fought back the tears and his story turned to talking about his return home to the USA. "Back then," he said, "you didn't dare tell anyone you were over there." Vietnam vets didn't get the Heroes Welcome Home like many of us get today. In an environment of violent protests, serving wasn't looked on favorably at all. After about 20 minutes, we said our goodbyes and I wished him Veterans Day once more.

Those hats...they're everywhere, friends. Can I encourage you to take the initiative to do what I did the next time the opportunity presents itself? It may VERY well happen today...Veterans Day 2013. Today is a day to honor those serving, those who have served, and those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

Before I close today and share the 2013 Veterans Day poster which I do every year, I'd like to express my gratitude to my church. It's a hit-n-miss environment these days when it comes to military and churches. Some draw the line and forbid it claiming the "separation of church and state" while others welcome it in. Yesterday, we began our service by saying the Pledge of Allegiance then my daughter sung the National Anthem all by instruments or anything. Just her and her beautiful voice for the first time ever. I was so proud of her. After that, fellow veterans gathered up front simply for a word of thanks and prayer. It was a great morning with my church family.

Here is the 2013 Veterans Day poster and below it is a screen shot of the posters back to 1978. To see them closer, follow the link below the image.

Happy Veterans Day, friends...and thank you if you have worn the cloth of our great country. It is because of you that I can serve today freely and worship Whom I wish freely, without the fear of persecution. THANK YOU!

Click here to visit image website

Monday, November 4, 2013

M-Cubed for 11.4.2013

M-Cubed (Monday Morning Musings) for November Fourth, Two Thousand Thirteen...a random smattering of thoughts that end up here on Monday morning.

- Brrrrr....28 degrees this morning when I woke up around 3:45am but not a cloud in the sky. Nothing but stars and a beckoning to join them on the roads this morning. A cold but perfect way to kick off the work-week.

- It was only one year ago that we brought Bristol home. She is our rescue dog from the Tuscarawas County Humane Society. She's a bunch of breeds: per the DNA test we did long ago, she's a Staffordshire Terrier crossed with a Great Dane...mixed with a bulldog mix. Go figure, right?! Anyway, we love her and she likes to run, too. On November 1st, we had our own 1 year celebratory run together for 7 miles on my country route. Near home, I stopped for a kiss and captured this priceless photo. Pretty much sums her up!

- Yesterday was my 2 year anniversary since stepping off the plane from Afghanistan. "Day 208" as I know it. I have decided that this will also be the last time I refer to those "days" in a public forum and just let it be. I'll keep my blog journal posted but that's all. Last night, I had the benefit of a mini-date with my youngest daughter. While we sat in the drive-in burger joint, Swenson's (her choice!), I read Day 208 to her. Since she played a starring role in it, I thought she'd enjoy it which she did. She remembered that night well. If you want to read Day 208, the final post of my journey, you can read it here.

- November has started quite well in the running arena. No races on my calendar but I'm loving this cool weather. Since I see a few days off around Thanksgiving this year, I'm trying to be very faithful in getting out there while I can. I got in 7 with Bristol on the 1st and 10 miles each for the past two days. I know snow and ice are around the corner so I'm gobbling up these cool, brisk mornings. It's really my cup-o-tea when it comes to running. Yesterday, I had a great 10 mile sunrise run. From First Light to the sun high in the sky. I captured several photos, too, given all the color out there. See them at the bottom of today's M-Cubed post.

- It was about a year ago when we led our first marriage "conference" which is really just a Friday night and half of Saturday. We had about 5 couples. We're leading another one in our new church home and have quadrupled the number of couples! As we lean towards that getaway (in Amish country, this time!), we are really excited to see what God has in store for us and all of them.

Click on it to see better/larger detail
- I'm a sucker for home-grown, local races that just simply give back. Enter the newest half marathon on the block, the Medina Half Marathon, to be held on May 31, 2014. It's now been added to my growing list of 2014 races. If you're considering running your first half marathon or 100th or whatever, I highly recommend it. Not only is it supporting an organization like the Patriot Runners but it has a kick-butt medal for finishing which my wife is a sucker for...and it's a cheap 40 bucks to enter.  You can learn more here but here's the medal to help entice you as well. :)

- Veterans Day is only a week from today. If you are one or know one, please pass this link to them. LOTS of restaurants offering free meals (which I'll partake of, of course!), retailers offering a plethora of things, and other misc. deals. For me, I'm a big fan of the local Applebee's who basically fathered the "free meal for veterans" movement. The local one really gets behind it, is excited about it, and lots of vets much more "aged" than me show up. I love it! Here's the long list to share.

- Ever want to get rid of "stuff" around the house you know you don't need? Well, here is a challenge for you and it's not too late to begin. Basically, you find one item in your home based on the day of the month...for one month to get rid of/donate. So on November 1st, you need to find one item. On November 30th...30 items. In all, you'll have 465 items. We're doing it and I know it's going to get challenging but we'll see it through. We have talked a LOT lately about minimalism, downsizing, selling the house, etc. Nearly 21 years of marriage has accumulated MUCH! Today, the overwhelming majority simply doesn't matter to us any longer. We instead focus on creating memories, building relationships in and out of the home, and fostering community building...and we also want to model that for our kids. If our "stuff" doesn't mobilize us/enable us to achieve these things, then it needs to go! Curious? Read about how it works here. Go on it and consider!

- Time for pics! I captured these with my iPhone 5 yesterday. I really, really love the one over the personal favorite. Have a great week, everyone and Run Happy!