Thursday, June 26, 2014

Promoted to Flag Rank

I am now an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Today (June 26, 2014), Texas State Rep. Jim Pitts, on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature, presented me with the honorary title of Admiral in the Texas Navy during the Waxahachie Rotary Club's weekly meeting. What a tremendous honor from my adopted state. I am indeed humbled and greatly honored. Thank you Rep. Pitts, Gov. Perry and to everyone involved for making this honor possible. As U.S. Navy Capt. Pat Merrill said before presenting me with my first salute, it's rare that a Petty Officer becomes an Admiral, even an honorary one.


Monday, June 23, 2014

The story behind Crosswinds

Life is a journey.

A good friend once told me that we fill our basket with the experiences that are shared by those we encounter along the way.

The story behind the story of Crosswinds actually began on a crisp fall afternoon in southern Wisconsin in 1994. I was working as the city editor in the newsroom of a daily newspaper when a call came in from an area farmer wanting to know if we wanted to write a story about the white buffalo calf that was born on his farm.

It was just after 5 p.m. and my buddy Rob and I were the only two in the newsroom. I offered the assignment to Rob, but he had dinner plans with his wife that night and passed. So, I took the assignment sheet from the editor, grab my camera bag and headed out the door. During the 20-minute drive to the farm, I realized I knew nothing about buffalo -- only that a white buffalo was rare. I thought the story had a shot at making the front page of the next day's edition, and with a little lucky, might be picked up on the state wire.

I had no way of knowing that one assignment would change my life. The story not only made the front page, it was picked up on the international wire. I spent the next two years covering this story. Almost all of the stories I wrote about the white buffalo went international.

Because of this story, I met people I never would have chance to otherwise meet. I also learned a lot about the world, and a lot about myself.  And on that 30-acre farm along the banks of the Rock River, while observing, watching, listening and learning, I discovered the seed of spirituality that had been waiting for just the right moment to emerge into the sunlight and grow.

I found my voice as a writer on that farm. My stories sold out. I remember there being many editions when there were people lined up around the paper to pay 25-cents for a copy of one of my buffalo stories because the paper had sold out.

One of the stories that impacted me most was the one I wrote about the day the bull that sired the white buffalo died. I received a frantic call early in the morning from the farmer that his bull had died and I needed to get the to the farm as quickly as I could. When I arrived, he was waiting in the driveway, pacing back and forth and shouting comments about a "crazy Indian" and what he was going to do if he found out that someone had messed with his bull. After getting him to calm down, the farmer told me he had walked out to the pasture that morning to feed his herd and found the dead bull. He said the Saturday before, he had received a call late in the night from a man claiming to be the chief medicine man of the Lakota Sioux saying he had a vision that the bull would lay down its life for the white calf. He also said after he called me that morning, he had called a veterinarian to come out to do a necropsy on the bull to find out what had happened and if foul play was involved, well, let's just say he was pretty upset. The farmer had also called an Oneida elder from northern Wisconsin who had visited the farm several times since the calf's birth. When they spoke that morning, the elder asked the farmer if he would wait to bury the bull until he could arrive from his home eight hours away so he could perform a burial ceremony. The farmer agreed.

The vet arrived about an hour later. The farmer had placed a small, plastic snow fence around the bull's carcass and within minutes after we had stepped into the confines of the snow fence the entire herd circled us -- with only the small plastic separating these large, snorting, stomping animals from us. I watched as the vet cut into the bull's chest cavity and examined the heart. "Heart's fine," he said, matter-of-factly before turning his attention to the lungs. "Lungs are fine," the vet said, quickly taking his scalpel and cutting into the bull's abdomen. "First stomach is fine," he said. "Second stomach is fine." "Third stomach is fine," he said, routinely moving to the animal's fourth stomach. "Woah!" the vet shouted. "Here's the problem right here," he said, reaching into the animal's stomach and pulling out a softball-sized gelatin-like blob. "It's fourth stomach was blocked," the vet said, as I turned to look at the farmer, his jaw was nearly hitting the ground and all of the color had drained out of his face. I knew immediately something was wrong and I asked what was bothering him, knowing it was the necropsy because I knew the farmer harvested animals all the time. "Neal," he said to me, talking very slow and shaking his head at the same time. "It's just like that Indian said it would be on the phone when he called me Saturday night. He said he had a vision that the bull would lay down its life for the white calf. When I asked him what the hell he was talking about, he said 'I see a black blockage.' When the vet reached into the stomach and pulled it out, it was just like the Indian described it on the phone. I thought he was drunk. Now my bull's dead and, well, I don't know what to think anymore."

It was after dark when the Oneida elder arrived to conduct the ceremony. The farmer wanted to bury his bull on top of a hill on the edge of his farm. It was a moonless night. There were no street lights, no stars in the sky, just a couple of flashlights to guide our way as the farmer and his son hoisted the bull's carcass onto an end loader and began driving up the hill -- me walking on one side of the machine, the Oneida elder on the other. We were in the pasture with nothing separating us from the buffalo herd. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them snorting in the distance, just a few yards away as the end loader began making its climb up the hill. To be truthful, I don't know what I was more afraid of; the end loader tipping over on the hill, or the buffalo deciding they wanted to charge.

About halfway up the hill, the skid came off the end loader. Now I was petrified. Decided I was more afraid of the buffalo, I clung tightly to the tipped end loader as the farmer and his son worked to repair the skid. At this point, not only could I hear the buffalo getting closer, I could feel them. I had done a few dangerous, some would even stupid things in my career to get a good story. But that night, clinging to a broken end loader with a dead buffalo hoisted on the front on the side of a hill in the darkness of a moonless night surrounded by buffalo, well, I was thinking at that particular moment might have pushed the envelope just a little too far. About 20 minutes later, the farmer and his son had the skid repaired. The farmer climbed in the seat and started the machine while his son walked in front with the flashlight to guide the way. As the son raised his flashlight to guide the path, I immediately noticed a wall of glowing red eyes blocking our path. As he intensified the beam of light, we could tell the entire herd had gathered in front of the end loader, making a barrier between us and the top of the hill where the farmer wanted to bury his bull. I was frozen with fear. I didn't know what was going to happen next. But I had covered the story long enough to learn that buffalo could be very violent animals and you didn't want to piss them off. I don't recall seeing the Oneida elder walk in front of the end loader, but I vividly remember seeing the back of his body in the light of the flashlight and watching in amazement as he stood just inches away from the buffalo, speaking to them in his native Ojibwa. I don't know what he said. I didn't understand a single word. It seemed like he talked for an hour, but I'm sure it wasn't more than a minute or two. When he finished, he turned around and we all could clearly see his face in the flashlight's beam. "It's OK," he said to us. "They know what we are going to do. They will let us pass. We can proceed now." Before the last word had left his mouth, we could see in the flashlight's beam behind him the herd parting into two columns, clearing the path ahead of us. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I never would have believed it.

That is of scores of similar experiences I shared during the two years I covered this story. I learned the Sioux legend of the White Buffalo Calf Woman and the sacred pipe that reunited nations and the spiritual pipe that has been passed down for millennium from one generation to the next. I even met the current keeper of the Sacred Pipe. I learned about the prophesy foretold more than a century ago about the return of the white buffalo calf and why its return help spiritual significance to the four tribes of man who were entrusted to care for Mother Earth.

One fall afternoon in 1996, near the end of my coverage of the white buffalo story, I was sitting on a picnic table with the chief medicine man, the same man who had called the farmer in the middle of the night to tell him about the vision that his bull would die. He told me he had another vision earlier in the week. He told me that in his vision, he saw giant, towering buildings falling from the sky and crashing down to earth with thousands of people running to escape the rubble as the buildings fell. And then he saw great seas washing over the land sweeping buildings and cars and people out to sea as the tide returned to where it came from. Then he told me about the fires and how he saw large forest burning freely for as far as the eye could see with nothing to stop their path. Chills went up my spine as he continued, telling me about the famine, and the hardships and the wars that would follow. That was in the fall of 1996.

A little over a year later, I was recruited to take over the newsroom of another paper in Texas, and my life, well, I began a new path on my journey. Life happens. Things change. Our paths somehow move us in directions we could have never predicted.

In the fall of 2001, I was working in the newsroom when I received a call from a reader urging me to turn on the television. We had an old set that we used to watch college football games with on Saturdays. I turned the set on and watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center Tower. A few hours later, my entire staff was huddled around that set as we watched the two towers crumble to the ground and what appeared to be thousands of people running down the street to escape the rubble. I know all the color left my face because my staff asked if I was OK. It was just like the medicine man had described. Later on, I would also see as the news unfolded before me that he was also right on the mark about the tsunamis, the wildfires, the famine and the wars. For much of the next decade, hardly a week passed that I didn't recall that day on the farm and wonder, "how could he have know?"

There were so many stories to tell. So many messages, especially the most important message of all and that is the significance of the white buffalo calf's birth and what it means -- not just those hold dear to aboriginal spirituality, but to our species. Because, we all have a stake in this. We all have flesh in the game and most importantly, our future is dependent upon the outcome.

For years, I have "felt" this story more so than actually visualizing it. Certainly more than writing anything down. Life happens. I had a new job. New responsibilities. New commitments. New problems. Yet deep inside, I felt this "old story" still burning within, waiting for something -- what I didn't know -- but something to tell me it was time to take the next step.

That next step came in the fall of 2011 when an old friend from high school called me up out of the blue. "So what?" you're probably thinking. Well, for me, it's a pretty big deal. I grew up the son of a career soldier in the U.S. Army. I went to high school in West Germany. When our father's tour of duty ended and they were transferred to a new post, we were scatter to the four winds of the earth, most often, not having any way to stay in touch. This was long before the Internet or Facebook made convenient, if not simple, to reconnect with lost friends. If we knew anything at all, it was only the base our father's were being assigned to. Until they arrived and received housing, there was no forwarding address and no phone number.

When my friend called, she said she had been on the Internet and came across one of the stories I had written about the white buffalo. Taking a shot in the dark, she looked me up and gave me a call. We caught up, as old friends tend to do. She said she had decided to reconnect with her heritage and had moved back to the reservation where her father had grown up. She was a scientist and was working to get kids involved in the sciences, yet her biggest challenge on the reservation was just getting kids to graduate high school as the dropout rate and poverty level was astronomical. I told her about a project I had been involved in since 2006, when I was asked to serve on a committee to create a new high school in my community. It was unlike any high school I had ever seen or heard of. It is structured around project-based learning, with teachers working hand-in-hand to mesh classwork from one subject seamlessly into the next. It's primary focus is on math and science and the kids are doing college-level coursework while still in high school. I told her that while the school has no athletic teams and very few extra-curricular activities, the students show up at 6 every morning and every evening the teachers literally have to tell them to go home because they love going to school there.

Over the next few months I helped my friend put together a pilot program for students on her reservation. It was exciting. Along the way, we continued to catch up on what had happened in the decades since high school. She asked me if I was happy. I had to admit, at that particular point in my career, I was frustrated with the rapidly-changing newspaper industry and a career that I was beginning to feel had already peaked. She asked me what I wanted to do. I told her I had always wanted to write books. She asked why I haven't. I had a long list of reasons: Life happens. Bills to pay. Responsibilities. It's impossible for new author's to get published, etc., etc. She called "bull shit" on my answers. The next spring, as she secured funding for the pilot science project on the reservation, she invited north me to her house in the great woods near a wide river. While not working on the high school pilot, she told me I would have plenty of time to write. So I went.

Sitting in a rocking chair by a wood-burning stove with an old cat perched on the backrest of the rocker, I opened my laptop, stared out the window at the eight feet of snow on the ground and began writing. I had no idea what to write, where to begin or even what direction I wanted to take the story. I only knew there was a story inside of me waiting to be told. I remembered when my father first became sick, flying home to South Carolina to be with him. More times than not, I would fly through Charlotte Douglas Airport and there was a bar and grill that still allowed smoking. I also remembered my time in the Navy, especially when I flew to the Philippines to meet my ship for my first duty station after A School. I was nervous as all get out. I had a four-hour layover in St. Louis and I called an old friend to see if he could meet me. He did. I had taken leave and hadn't been paid in a month. I was flat broke. As I recall, he bought me something to eat and loaned me some money to buy a pack a cigarettes. I started thinking about those memories and the next thing I know the first chapter of Crosswinds had written itself. And then the second chapter. And then the third. And the fourth and even the fifth. And then my week-long writing  sabbatical was over and it was time to return to the real world. Life happens. Crosswinds sat on the shelf for nearly 18 months until one day I came home from work and said, "I'm going to finish this."

I spent the next two months reworking those first five chapters and continuing the story. I was on a roll. And then life happened again. I received a promotion at work. More responsibilities. More commitments. More everything but the time to I needed to write the stories and the characters that were coming to life inside my head. Although I wasn't writing, it doesn't mean I stopped thinking about the book. Far from it. I would have conversations in my head with the characters. In my mind, I could picture them -- their mannerisms, as well as how they thought and the quirks that made them unique. I had the "Willie" chapter written in my head for three months before I ever typed a single word. I know everyone at work got tired of hearing me talk about "Willie," because every idea that popped into my head I wanted to share.

But it didn't stop with Crosswinds. Crosswinds is only the first part of the story. In fact, it doesn't even get into the story -- it just sets up the story. While the writing part of the book was on the shelf, the project itself wasn't on the shelf. I was jotting down notes like crazy. Not only had I outlined the remaining chapters of Crosswinds, I had complete drafts for the next two books -- Wind Speaker and the final book in the series, Wind Shear.

Everything became clear to me. For the first time, I could conceptualize the "feeling" that had been burning inside me. Not only did I know what story I needed to tell, for the first time, I knew how the story should be told and the characters that would tell that story.

Crosswinds is about two characters, Jack and Bobby, who meet by chance in an airport bar and grill while all flights have been delayed by a storm. Jack is nearing the end of his journey. Bobby is just beginning his, on his way to join his ship on his first duty station overseas. During the 18 hours they spend together while waiting out the storm, Jack changes Bobby's life, proving the point that there are no "fluke winds" that blow us off course. Everything God does is for a reason, we just need to keep our eyes open and recognize what that reason is.

I finished writing Crosswinds in December 2013 and spent much of January 2014 polishing and editing before sending it off to a publishing house, fully expecting to receive a rejection letter several months down the road. No one was more shocked than I when Next Chapter Publishing put together a surprise party to announce they wanted to offer a contract to publish my book. Two edits (one extremely painful) later, I still can't believe this is really happening. On July 2, the publishing house is going to reveal the cover. I've waited my whole life for this moment and it seems so surreal. I catch myself daydreaming and have pull myself back to reality. I know the odds are stacked against first time authors. Heck, just getting published is a major milestone. As difficult as that may be, I know it's nearly impossible for a first-time author to breakout of the pack, especially when there are more than 1 million new books being released every year. Without question, I want my book to be successful. I want it to be read and I hope, appreciated for the story and the characters who tell the story. Most of all, I want it to pave the way for Wind Speaker and Wind Shear, because that's when the story really takes share and the message of what I learned during the two years I covered the white buffalo is presented in a way that, if I do my job right, will touch the life of every human on this planet.

I want to share that story.

As Crosswinds enters the final phases of production before its release, I'm a few chapters into the writing for Wind Speaker. While I loved writing Crosswinds, I feel I'm really hitting my stride with the second book. It begins four years after Crosswinds ends. Bobby's ship is in Diego Garcia and he's a few weeks away from getting out of the Navy when learns his buddy on the ship has been killed while on a temporary duty assignment. His buddy's last request to Bobby is that he make a stop in Oklahoma and visit his wife, who is expecting their first child. In my writing, I've just gotten to the point where Bobby arrives on the reservation and is looking for his friend's wife.

To be continued ....