Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.
Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.
This poem was published at Rose Red Review in the fall of 2016. Unfortunately, Rose Red Review has closed permanently and the website has been taken down. I’m really proud of this poem and wanted it to remain “out there” though, so I’m re-publishing it on my site. This poem will also appear in an upcoming book I’m publishing, Heartlandic.
The Buffalo Return To Illinois René Ostberg
The earth keeps score of what it’s been and who’s its friend. That field
connected to the crumbled lot where a shuttered Shell fed the chevys of Chicagoland getawaying west runawaying north disturbing the dust longsettled on the Illinois blacksoils deep-soaked with Sauk blood and pioneer sins and Potawatomi bones
knows it was once prairie
long ago when it was flush with ferality and friends, a million and many loves cowbirds bobcats kingsnakes coyotes crickets a place unmapped unnamed unforsaken
and it loved nothing so deep and doomperfect as the buffalo.
It remembers the way it liked to lay itself long thick and level waiting its black-bearded beloveds, and the way it trembled when a herd approached hooves shuffling wildgooseneck tails twitching the prairie’s skin itching tickling with the bisons nibbling and calves gamboling young and ferocious chasing extinction out of the milkweed out of the tallgrass away from the purple clover and smoke.
Every night the field calls for its old friends buffalo lover friend dream lost gone buffalo come back into the rumbled wake of auto exhaust putting the rustle of weeds to blame for the racket should anybody ask, or on the gas attendant ghosts and unresolved underearth clashes of white bloodguilt and redsouled resistance.
But weeds or no weeds guilt or no ghosts the field will not speak of those years when the buffalo were hunted away only to tell any other earth corners who’ll listen that as the hunting turned to slaughter and the prairie turned to a killing field it drank the blood of its black beloveds into itself like milk and rain and revenge melting
to raw remembrance.
Tallgrass timberland skinned penny thin Lincoln slim plains scalped fenced farmed within an inch of forsaken
a bo-peep place now bare bisonless
mapped now but missing its mighty herds unknown unloved ununderstood
All it wants is to tremble once again under the weight of a thousand black hooves.
It was a recent October morning. When the field woke to thunder groans and hooves. Two dozen black tongues licking the Illinois air. Black snouts glistening soft like constellations on a fogged-in flatlands night black beards bristling the slickening skin off the gas attendant ghosts. The field wept joy in butterflies and coneflowers welcomed its old friends in rusted meadow murmurs and the buffalo lay their glad heavy heads down to let the old prairie sing a new plainsong of tallgrasses trembling and reclamation.
This is another essay that was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website, which is down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here.
On Inis Oírr, to walk west means to walk towards home or to walk towards the well. By home, I mean America—for me anyway. By the well, I mean Tobar Éanna—the holy well of St. Enda, patron saint of the Aran Islands. On this smallest of the three islands, there are actually a few wells. But it’s only this one, Tobar Éanna, that has the power to heal.
I come from we have no holy wells. America is not a Catholic country, and
Chicago people are not a very spiritual or sentimental lot. If we cry over
anything, it’s things like baseball scores. And if we pray for anything, it’s
most likely “please, God, no more snow” when we’re still shoveling it out of
the way in April. The rest of our emotions, our hopes, our sorrows, our pleas
and praise, we leave to our city’s blues legends to express for us. The average
Chicagoan wouldn’t be moved much by a well, much less bend at the knees at one.
would say maybe we Chicagoans simply take the presence of water for granted,
what with the mighty Lake Michigan bordering the city on the east and a river
running right through downtown. Often the more you’ve got of something, the
less you see it as anything special or sacred. But then again, Inis Oírr is an
island with the Atlantic all around it. And being an Irish island, it soaks up its
share of water from the ever-present rain clouds in the Irish sky. It has its
own lake too, on the opposite end of the island from Tobar Éanna. Though it’s a
small one by the standards of the North American Great Lakes, even if the
islanders do call it Loch Mór.
if water’s not the magic ingredient, what’s so special about Tobar Éanna?
one, the islanders say Tobar Éanna never runs dry. For another, there’s a story
that if you go out to Tobar Éanna, walk around the well seven times—praying the
rosary all the way—look into the well, and spot an eel in the water, you will
be healed of whatever ails you. But only if you see the fish. It’s the eel that
seals the deal. That’s certainly pretty special.
story of the eel and the rounds around the well reminds me a bit of the story
about the church of St. Caomhán in Inis Oírr’s graveyard. It’s said that if you
can figure out the way (and believe me, there is a way) to squeeze through the
tall and very narrow window at the front of the church—going from the outside
in and stepping onto the stone altar—then you are guaranteed to go to heaven
when you die. So, pushing yourself between the stones of a crack in the wall of
a centuries-old church and stepping all over its blessed altar. Well, that’s
certainly pretty special too—and rather torturous if you think about it.
Torturous and complicated enough that sometimes I wonder if all these rituals
and traditions, as told to visitors by the locals, are really the islanders’
way of having a little fun with us “blow-ins.” Besides, I never personally met
anyone who spotted the eel in the holy well, though I have known quite a few
who fit through the window in the church, including myself.
nice to have reassurance that you’ll go somewhere good after you die. But if it
were my choice, I’d rather have the healing here on earth than heaven in the
afterworld. I’d rather have spotted the eel in the holy well than fit through
the window in the church—if only because it’s clear that as tricky as it is to
get into heaven, it’s healing that’s the real trick of life, that’s truly hard
to come by.
I suppose this is why I used to walk out to the holy well quite often, far more than I did to St. Caomhán’s church, hoping that today would be the day I’d catch the well in one of its miracle-giving moods. Don’t even ask what I needed healing for. If it means experiencing something magical, I’ll force an injury if I have to—drop a stone on my shoe, chase a bee, stare into the sun until I go blind, break my heart over an islandman, whatever it takes. I usually went walking in the afternoon, in between work shifts at the island hotel, and sometimes at sunset to watch the sun falling on Inis Meáin on my way to the well. I’d start by the beach, walking up the road to the pier, past Tigh Ned, up a curve by the Fisherman’s Cottage, past an old pier half-sunken in waves and strewn with rotting fish bait and stinking lobster cages, then past what seemed to be a quarry (never mind that building a quarry on the Aran Islands is like installing a Jacuzzi in the ocean), and finally straight on to the well, with stone walls built up by the islandmen on my left, stone piles built up by the sea on my right, all the final way.
There were no signs pointing the way to the well. It was a matter of just walking until you stumbled across it. It’s a small island after all. You’re bound to find what you’re looking for at some point. The only way I knew I had reached the well was the sight of a distinctive-looking boulder—shaped almost like a giant egg—that was set on a high stone wall by the path that led to the holy well. I counted on this big odd stone. It always led me to the well. Except once, when I went walking out to Tobar Éanna and walked and walked and never sighted the stone nor the path. I ended up walking all the way to the back of the island, then retraced my steps up and down the road. It was all just walls, with no openings or paths or anything. I finally headed back to civilization—i.e., the “beer garden” in front of Tigh Ned. I told one of the islandmen, a big fella who ran a B&B and hostel and who was chatting with an annual English tourist, what I had seen, or rather, not seen. “Do you think it’s the fairies playing a trick on you?” the islandman said to me. There was a long pause of silence between the three of us. I sensed something of a challenge in the quiet. “Maybe,” I said. The islandman answered me with a solemn nod—and then a shadow of a smile. He left us after another few minutes of conversation, and the Englishman immediately leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have said that in front of him,” he said to me, in the tone of a concerned father. “He’ll go out tonight and tell everyone about the daft American who couldn’t find the well and blamed it on fairies, and they’ll all laugh about it.” Bless this Englishman. He meant well. But this happened perhaps the third summer I spent on Inis Oírr and he was far too late to save me from a reputation.
Maybe the same could be said for Tobar Éanna. A holy place, a healing place, but not powerful enough to turn back the hurtful tides of time and talk. A humble place too—just a small natural spring a foot or so deep, protected by stacks of thick flagstones and dug smack in the middle of a stony field dotted with tiny white daisies and yellow buttercups. If you could touch a wand to it and turn the well into human form, of the medical persuasion, it’d transform into a midwife, a trusted local nurse, an old wise woman with a store of healing lore in her head—certainly not a world-famous surgeon, puffed up with importance and arrogance and the gleam of new technology. There’s no special halo-glow to the place, despite its supposed sacredness. Yet it demands and draws respect from a visitor, by its spareness, isolation, and come-as-you-are—whole or hurt, damaged or daft, hopeful or just curious—character. A bit like the island it lives on.
worth the walk anyway, worth a little dip of the hand into the water, a sign of
the cross, a simple request to whatever powers-that-be in the holy spaces of
this world to “give me a little help or relief here, will ya?” No real need to
go round and round the thing seven times—unless you’re up for some exercise or
some eel hunting.
And maybe it’s a blessing to never spot the eel in the well, to never be granted the gift of a miracle healing. To be healed would mean to never need to return to Tobar Éanna, and never need to return the place that gives it shelter—Inis Oírr. And for a girl from Chicago—where there are no magic wells, no mischief-making fairies, no miracles of any kind—that would be the most unwelcome wound of all.
This little essay was published a few years ago at the Aran Islands Info website. Their blog seems to be down these days, so I’ve reposted the story here. Enjoy.
“Fish, fish, fish,” says Tomas, as he dangles a fishing line over the side of his small, white boat and into the Atlantic Sea. He gives the line a wiggle, throws a wink to me sitting up at the bow, and repeats the magic charm. Me and my friend Angela, balanced on the edge of the boat at the stern, wait in silence and watch the line.
Nothing. Not even the mirage of a tug. “Sometimes it works,” says Tomas with a sheepish smile. But today the fish aren’t buying any Irish charms.
Angela and I are lucky, even if we have been out on the water half an hour without catching anything. Not only are we getting a private tour with a local around Inis Oirr—the smallest of the three Aran Islands that lurk off the west coast of Ireland—we’re also getting a lesson in fishing superstitions of the islanders.
Angela and I are working for the summer in Inis Oirr’s only hotel—a small, family-run place with 15 rooms, but no Room 13. Instead, the numbering goes 11, 12A, 12B, 14…. On a day off we’ve finally managed to nag Tomas, a local fisherman and friend, into taking us out in his boat. It’s an adventure I’ve been after since working here the summer before, but with little luck—and luck is just the problem. Western Ireland abounds with superstitions about red-headed women, an unfortunate club to which I belong. Sure enough, the fishermen of Inis Oirr think no good can come from bringing a ginger woman out in the boat. I’ve already been blamed for one fishing mishap. A couple weeks ago two brothers took me out in their boat for a short spin one morning to check their nets, only to find their motor broken down later that same day. “Can’t figure out what’s wrong with it,” one of the brothers said to me, his eyes taking on a glint of suspicion as they drifted off my face to my strawberry blonde locks. “It was working fine when we took you out a few hours ago.”
But Tomas either has more confidence in me or less in the power of superstitions. Perhaps it’s because he and another fisherman took me out on the sea on a previous occasion, with some actual success. Or maybe it’s because he’s heard I’m really a brunette who colors her hair. In any case he agreed to meet Angela and I at the slip by the beach this afternoon, and now for the first time we’re really fishing—and not just along for the ride.
He’s steered the boat to places on the sea where the seagulls have been circling overhead and floating along with the waves. “Look for the birds. That’s where the fish are,” he tells us. Once he stops the motor, he takes up the oars and rows us out a little farther and then lets Angela and I have a go at the fish. We use a long line with a small weight at one end and several bait hooks. More than once I get excited when I think I feel a tug on the line, only to have Tomas take the line and tell me it’s got caught in the rocks underwater. Angela, meanwhile, becomes more interested in steering than fishing. Tomas restarts the motor and lets her guide us where the sea is deeper, where there’s less chance of our line getting caught up in rocks, and where we can see puffins bobbing on the water. There’s a large colony of them living amongst the cracks and crags of the mighty, moss-covered Cliffs of Moher, just a few miles from Inis Oirr on the mainland. Today is a classic Irish summer’s day—some sunshine, some clouds, some gray skies, some blue—but the wall of the cliffs is so massive that even the gray moments can’t dull the bright green of the cliffs. From the edge of Inis Oirr the cliffs look like a giant green flag, rippled by the wind.
When Angela stops the boat, Tomas pulls out another Irish charm for fishing. “Has anyone been to mass lately?” he asks us. Angela hasn’t been in ages. I’m a hit-or-miss mass-goer myself, but I did make it out of bed to the island’s one small church a couple Sundays ago. “I’d say we’ll have some luck so,” says Tomas and hands the line over to me.
Sure enough, in a few minutes I’m feeling a tug—the real deal. Tomas helps me pull up the line, where a pollock has met its fate. I snap a picture of Tomas holding up my prize. Angela takes the line then for a short while and lands a tiny baby of a fish, not much longer than a cigarette. Before throwing the baby back into the sea, Tomas shouts, “Photo! Photo! Get the camera!” “Well I caught one anyway,” says Angela, not able to hold back a proud smile.
Tomas lets Angela console herself by taking over the steering again. We end up going for a trip around the whole island, only 4 square miles and nearly all limestone, just a big floating chunk of the stuff. The day brightens as we pass around the coast of the island where, across from the Cliffs of Moher, an old, hulking wrecked freighter rests—The Plassey, stuck there since a bad storm in 1960. We go on past a lighthouse and the uninhabited back of the island, where the sea has pounded and eaten away Inis Oirr’s limestone into large, step-like columns and slabs fit for a giant’s tread.
Three-quarters around now, the island’s coast is all tumbled-down boulders. I spot a small, rusted vessel marooned on the rocks. Tomas says it’s a boat that drifted up onto the island during World War II. Inside was the body of an American soldier, never identified. His grave is a little farther inland from where his boat landed. The islanders buried him there, not far from a holy well, or natural spring, dedicated to the Aran Islands’ patron saint, Enda. “Why didn’t the islanders bury him in the cemetery?” I ask. All of Inis Oirr’s other dead lie in a graveyard built around the remains of an old church on a high dune off the beach. Tomas explains that since the islanders didn’t know who he was, they had no way of knowing whether he was Catholic or even Christian and didn’t want to risk burying a “heathen soul” in consecrated ground.
When we get around to the front of the island, Tomas takes over the steering and guides the boat past the pier and up to the beach. He gets out of the boat—his feet protected from the waves running up to shore by a pair of wellies—and pulls it up onto the sand. Angela, in bare feet, leaps from the boat onto the shore. I’m more hesitant, worried about getting my shoes and socks soaked. Tomas notices, tells me to wait where I am, and wades over to lift me out and carry me farther up shore where I’m safe from getting wet. He then takes our big haul of one pollock, guts it for us, and washes it clean in the sea. Even with that head start it will take Angela and I, city girls both, a Dubliner and a Chicagoan, well over half an hour to figure out how to further dress the fish for dinner.
In the evening, after a feast of fresh pollock, potatoes, and carrots, Angela and I meet Tomas in the hotel pub to hear the locals play traditional music. Tomas has beaten us to the chase for rounds and already bought us each a drink. But once that round is nearly done, I run up to the bar to buy a pint for Tomas. “That’s for carrying me out of the boat today,” I tell him, setting the pint down in front of him. For a moment he looks politely modest and surprised. Then he reaches behind his back and fakes a look of agony. “How about paying the doctor’s bill for me broken back?” He beats us to laughing at his own joke. Then the music starts up and drowns out any more jokes and laughs. It’s been a lucky day.
This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.
A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.
Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.
A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.
Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.
Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.
Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.
You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.
Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.
It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.
She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.
I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.
On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.
St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.
Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.
As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.
Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.
How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.
Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off? I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.
When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.
Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.
There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.
Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”
I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.
Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.
I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.
Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.
Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.
It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.
There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.
I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.
Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.
Dad’s first homecoming as a war veteran was in March 1953, two years to the month after he was drafted into the army for the Korean War. He arrived home to the U.S. at Seattle, to a port with a small crowd of civilians and a sign reading “Welcome Home Defenders of Freedom.” He’d been overseas since September 1951, entirely in Korea except for two weeks extra training at a naval academy at Etajima, Japan.
From Seattle, Dad traveled with other returning soldiers by Pullman train to Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. The Pullman was a step up from the slow-moving, no-sleeper troop train he’d rode when he was inducted in Chicago and sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 1951—a step up in comfort, at least, if not in service. Soldiers were entitled to a free dinner on Pullmans, which didn’t please the porters working for tips. “If you want your dessert, put some money on the table,” the porters told the soldiers. “If we don’t see any money, you don’t see any dessert.”
Port of Seattle, March 1953.
After nine days at Camp Carson, Dad finally made it back to Chicago. He wanted to get home soon as he arrived, but my grandmother had other ideas. Proud of her only son and happy to have him back healthy and whole, she and my grandfather and my aunt June (my dad’s only sibling) headed to the lakefront to take pictures with my dad still in his uniform. My grandparents and aunt were in winter coats (March in Chicago demands them), but my dad had only the lightweight Eisenhower jacket he’d been given by the army. When my dad sees those pictures today, what he remembers most is the wind and cold coming off Lake Michigan that day.
My father, Jack Ostberg, with his parents, Irene and Trygve, in Chicago, March 1953.
Perhaps the cold winter welcome home was only fitting—the war in Korea was one of the first major conflicts of the Cold War, after all, and a cold war was what soldiers in Korea found themselves literally engaged in, battling through an especially harsh and deadly winter in 1950-51. My dad’s service was in the second and third winters of the war, and he was farther south in the fighting zone, in lower mountainous areas than the first winter’s troops. Still, he spent his first winter sleeping in a Quonset hut, the second sleeping on a cot on the floor of an abandoned schoolhouse. Of the two, he preferred the Quonset hut. It was drafty, but it kept in the body heat better and made the freezing nights a little more tolerable.
My father in Korea, Quonset huts in background.
My father (center) just arrived in Korea, at a replacement depot.
Thankfully, Dad’s second homecoming as a war veteran was in warmer days—in August 2015. He had a bigger crowd too—including his wife, six children, and several grandchildren—and a full motorized escort in the form of a bikers club all the way back to Chicago from Milwaukee Airport. This time around, the homecoming was from Washington, D.C., where my dad went with 45 other veterans on an Honor Flight organized by the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. Dad was part of a group representing veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War and from all four branches of military service—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as the Women’s Army Corps. There were three women veterans, including a former “Rosie the Riveter” bomber aircraft worker, and one father-and-son duo, a man who’d served in WWII making the trip with his Vietnam veteran son. The veterans ranged in age from 65 to 96. Their Honor Flight trip lasted three days, and less than three weeks after their return, one of the group would pass away. This is the story of their Honor Flight and homecoming.
Dad first heard about the Honor Flight program in 2011, when a friend and former co-worker of his signed up in Chicago. Harold, my father’s friend, was 92 and a WWII vet who spent the last months of the war as a P.O.W. in a German stalag. More than 60 years later, Harold still carried bullets from enemy machine-gun fire in his back, a “souvenir” of his service that had caused a lifetime of health problems. His Honor Flight was a one-day trip, the standard length of most Honor Flights. He was accompanied by his daughter, who served as his guardian (usually a family member or friend assigned to the traveling veteran to help him or her during the trip). After the trip, Harold didn’t live long enough to tell much about it—he died the day after his return. His story, though, was covered by a few local news outlets, and my dad was impressed by what the experience had meant to Harold’s family.
In 2013, Dad finally applied for his Honor Flight with the same hub Harold had gone through. But Dad did not serve in WWII, and despite his age (he was born in 1928) he was waitlisted. The hub he’d applied with has made WWII vets their first priority, and until all vets from that war have gotten their chance for an Honor Flight, Korea and Vietnam vets remain on a waitlist, with the exception of any who are terminally ill.
This is standard policy with many of the 130-plus Honor Flights throughout the U.S. Indeed, the network’s founding mission was to transport aging WWII vets to D.C. to see the National World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004. The first Honor Flights were made in May the following year, when Earl Morse, an Ohio-based veterans’ physician and former Air Force captain, offered to personally escort a number of his patients to see their new memorial before failing health made it impossible. Then in 2006, Jeff Miller, a North Carolina dry-cleaning businessman whose father and uncle had served in WWII, began an organization called Honor Air that borrowed from Morse’s idea but figured out how to use commercial airlines to escort the veterans and fund their trips. By 2007 Morse and Miller had merged their programs to form the Honor Flight Network.
Since that first Honor Flight in 2005, the network has brought over 145,000 veterans to their national war memorials. James McLaughlin, current chairman of the network, says in 2014 alone over 21,000 vets and over 18,000 guardians visited D.C. With an estimated 514 WWII vets dying each day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the focus remains on bringing veterans from that war to their memorial. But with Korean War vets reaching their 80s and even 90s, some hubs have begun opening up applications from veterans of Korea and Vietnam. A few hubs have even sprung up that are reaching out exclusively to Korean or Vietnam War vets (as well as hubs exclusively for women veterans). On my father’s Honor Flight, there were 23 Korean War vets—the largest group out of the three wars represented. Meanwhile, three of the eight Vietnam veterans on the trip were already in their 70s.
This wasn’t the first time the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois, the hub my father finally went through, took Korean and Vietnam War veterans on its Honor Flight. An official Honor Flight hub since 2010, the Veterans Network Committee (VNC) opened up its trips to post-WWII vets in 2014. One of the vets on that trip was a terminally ill Vietnam vet, but the committee’s founder and president, Randy Granath, reckoned it was time to open up to Korean and Vietnam War vets anyway. After this year’s VNC Honor Flight, when I asked Granath about the limitations some hubs still impose, he brought up the fact of people getting cancer in their 50s or dying of a heart attack in their 40s. “Who are we to say who can’t go?” he says, adding that he hopes to keep doing this long enough to include Gulf War vets on the VNC Honor Flights.
Granath is a Vietnam vet who’d been active in veterans groups in the 1980s. He wasn’t planning on becoming involved with a veterans organization again in more recent years, until his son, Kyle, entered the military. Kyle had been in the ROTC at Ball State University in Indiana when 9/11 happened. He was called to active duty in 2002, ultimately serving nine years in the military and completing five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Kyle was in the service, Randy and his wife, Pattie, became frustrated with the lack of support and resources for current service members and their families and with what they felt was a gap between the civilian community and veterans. Eventually the Granaths decided to build a new local veterans group, and the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois was born, with five initial members, in March 2010.
Headquartered in Cary, a town about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, today the VNC is a full veterans organization with 140 members and 13 programs offering assistance to veterans and their families, one of which just happens to be the Honor Flights. Its other programs include support groups for veterans, food deliveries and assistance to homeless or disabled vets, care packages for overseas military, and a Memorial Day “Field of Honor” display in which more than 325 U.S. flags are planted in public sites around Cary to commemorate the Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a vets’ organization, the VNC is unique in that non-veterans are welcomed as charter members. It’s a way to create awareness and promote community involvement by including people who may not have served in the military themselves but who still have “skin in the game,” as Randy calls it—such as the parents or spouses of soldiers on active duty or the children of war veterans. Granath describes the VNC’s structure as like an accordion, gesturing as if he’s holding one in his hands. “We have the Honor Flights for the older vets on the one end and the Field of Honor for the younger generation on the other end, and they function like bookends and bring in all the rest of the programs together.”
The Honor Flight, however, is definitely the VNC’s most time-consuming program, requiring at least six months’ preparation, from the fundraising that begins in March to the actual trip in August. The VNC’s Honor Flight is a 3-day trip, rather than the standard 1-day event of most other hubs. While this limits the VNC to only one Honor Flight a year, Granath points out there’s more time for the veterans to get to know each other on their trip and bond over shared experiences. Granath doesn’t come out and say it, but there’s a clear therapeutic element to the VNC’s version of an Honor Flight. Not just a way for old veterans to see their war memorials or for civilian Americans to say thank you to veterans, the VNC’s Honor Flight allows for whatever emotional needs the veterans may be seeking to be met—whether that’s bonding or respect, validation or closure. And it’s an element that becomes even more apparent during the homecoming portion of the VNC’s Honor Flight.
What Dad wanted from his Honor Flight was a chance to see some of the memorials in D.C. He had donated to the fund for the Korean War Veterans Memorial back before it was built but had yet to see it since it opened in 1995. He was in his 60s when the memorial was being built—he’s in his 80s now and suffered a heart attack in the time between. Until he got accepted for the VNC’s 2015 Honor Flight, he was still being waitlisted at the original hub he applied with back in 2013, and he only heard about the VNC Northern Illinois hub through a chance conversation with the VNC Honor Flight co-chair at the local American Legion.
One of his first actions after getting accepted was picking a guardian. He chose his eldest son, Dan. There are six children in our family, and of course any one of us would’ve loved to have gone with him. But Dan happened to be there when Dad got word of his acceptance, so he got the job of guardian. Dan has no military experience, nor have the rest of us in the family. Dan grew up during the Vietnam War, but the draft ended shortly before he turned 16 and mandatory Selective Service registration ended nine days after he turned 18 in March 1975. (The war ended another month later, on April 30th.)
No one in our family since has come as close to military service, mandatory or voluntary. But for a few generations we had a run of warriors in our lineage, a family tradition of “skin in the game” that we know goes as far back as the Civil War, when a great-grandfather of my mother’s served on the Union side. A 40-something emigrant from Ireland, he likely signed up for the cash bounty that enlistees were offered during that war. In World War I my maternal grandmother’s cousin was killed in France only 11 days before the Armistice. My paternal grandfather, who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Norway as a child, also fought in World War I. He was drafted, yet as a foreign-born citizen he was also required to sign a loyalty pledge to the U.S. In World War II one of my uncles was drafted into the Navy and another uncle enlisted in the Army at age 17 at the end of the war. The latter uncle, Daryl, was still in the service and stationed in Germany when the U.S. entered the Korean War. He was sent immediately to the front lines in Korea where he served as a rifleman and endured that first brutal winter of the war, a winter so cold that dead soldiers were routinely stripped of their cold-weather gear by opposing forces.
This uncle never spoke of his war experiences—until 9/11 and the run-up to the war in Iraq, when all the talk of war and terror in the news must have finally brought up some long-buried memories and emotions. As the U.S. was gearing up for war, he had a rare conversation about Korea with my father one night, where he admitted, in the understated way of Midwesterners and men of the Greatest Generation, that he’d been terrified when he got to Korea (“At first I was afraid I’d turn chicken…but I guess I made it through alright.”). The conversation turned to Iraq and my usually conservative uncle surprised my liberal father by strongly objecting (as my father did) to President Bush’s call to war. It wasn’t right to be sending our young people there. It wasn’t going to do anything but put them in harm’s way.
After the conversation, my aunt and mother—both of whom had been listening quietly—were a bit mystified as to what made my uncle start speaking so much about Korea so suddenly. In 50 years of marriage this was the most my aunt (who’d met my uncle at a USO right after his return from Korea) had ever heard him talk about the war. Later that night he had a nightmare of some sort that awakened and physically distressed him to the point of breaking out in a heavy sweat and requiring a trip to the hospital and made him momentarily confused about what year it was and even who and where he was. This was also a first.
Despite the Honor Flight Network’s original mission of getting all WWII vets to their D.C. memorial, neither of my uncles, though still alive, is able to go on an Honor Flight. Lloyd, my Navy uncle, is literally bent over in half by Parkinson’s, and Daryl currently undergoes kidney dialysis three times a week. I don’t know if they’d want to go even if they could. Perhaps they would, perhaps not. As I’ve learned from my dad as he’s mentioned other veteran friends of his, some veterans simply aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to revisit the past, or maybe they don’t like to travel. Or maybe they don’t want to deal with another lengthy application. To go on an Honor Flight, both veterans and their chosen guardians are required to fill out extensive paperwork, covering everything from medical history and needs to travel identification clearance. The VNC’s application arranges for the veterans to get TSA clearance ahead of the trip to save time and help things run more smoothly at the airport, which Granath says often results in some comical misunderstandings. Instead of supplying an official photo ID for TSA purposes (as explicitly requested in the application), the vets will turn in sentimental shots of themselves from their last vacation or their grandkid’s wedding.
As the date of the Honor Flight nears, there are orientations for the vets and their guardians, and family members are asked to write letters and cards for their veteran, which is unbeknownst to the veterans themselves. As the family, all we’re told is that at some point on the trip the veterans will be presented with our letters and cards, something like in their service days when the mail arrived with cherished letters from home. For some reason the idea of a veteran with no family not getting any mail worries my mother. (I chalk this up to her own childhood wartime memories. She had a sister who spent World War II writing to soldiers overseas and collecting their photos, something like the Marty Maraschino character in “Grease.”)
When the first day of the Honor Flight finally comes, Dad and Dan head out early to a local school where all the veterans, guardians, and VNC volunteers are gathered to make their way to Milwaukee Airport by coach bus. Milwaukee Airport is about an hour away, but it’s something of a calmer leaving point than the Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports. Considering there are 46 veterans, 46 guardians, plus volunteers and VNC members, as well as a wheelchair for each veteran (for health and insurance reasons, regardless of whether the veteran has mobility difficulties), the smoother the check-in and boarding process can be, the better. The group will be flying into Baltimore and checking into a hotel with a group dinner in the evening. It’s at these airport procedures, both in Milwaukee and Baltimore, where the veterans start to experience their first surprises, their first public gifts of appreciation and honor. At the airports are active military members and glee clubs who applaud and cheer on the veterans as they wait for their flights. (“It was kind of embarrassing,” Dad says later of all the unexpected attention. But my brother laughs and says, “Yeah, Dad was holding his hands out on both sides giving everyone high-fives, the whole time I was pushing him.”)
My brother Dan and my father, beginning of Honor Flight, August 2015. Photo courtesy of the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois
Their next day is a full one visiting up to 11 memorials in D.C. Along with the memorials dedicated to the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are memorials to the Navy and Air Force, the battle at Iwo Jima, and women in the military. They also visit the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. Each memorial has been included on this trip because each has its own meaning to every veteran. There are three women veterans in this group—a member of the WWII Women’s Army Corps, a woman who worked on aircraft bombers during WWII à la Rosie the Riveter, and a Marine who served in Vietnam. At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, there’s a chance for the women to register their experiences and draw up their service records on a computer. When one of the women, Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, draws up her record, complete with a photo of her younger self in uniform, a volunteer puts it on a giant screen for everyone in the room to see. In pictures from that day, Rose beams alongside her record of service, looks thoughtfully at the image of her 1940s self, and sits patiently under the giant screen as the other vets and guardians and volunteers take her photo. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial my dad gathers for a group photo with the other Korean War vets around the stainless steel soldiers in the center of the memorial. In the pictures, the pale green statues appear nearly bleached white by the midday sunlight, and it looks nothing like the kind of weather my father and the other vets of Korea remember.
It’s such a full day for the veterans and their guardians, back home we don’t get many updates other than the occasional text or photo from my brother. After their memorial visits, they have another group dinner ahead of them on their second night. Meanwhile, we’re preparing for the homecoming for the next day, making signs and planting little American flags around the house and yard. On the third day of the trip, the group is scheduled to get back to the Chicago area around noon, and the families are to head over late morning to the local school where everyone gathered the first day of the trip.
It’s on this last morning, on the flight back to Milwaukee, when the veterans get mail call. The VNC volunteers walk up and down the aisles of the plane delivering packages to the vets—for each, an envelope filled with letters and cards. My dad’s envelope is stuffed with letters from my mother and all his children and grandchildren, as well as cards from schoolchildren who’d been asked to write the veterans so that every vet has something, everyone gets mail. For my father there are drawings of rainbows and blue houses and even a detailed depiction of one child’s classroom, with messages like “I hope you are having a little fun!” addressed to “Dear Vetaren.” On the plane my brother sits next to my dad as he quietly reads his mail. Afterward Dan will tell us Dad became visibly emotional while going through all his letters, more than at any other time on the trip.
Back home the rest of our family arrives at the school for the homecoming ceremony. The school entrance is lined with flags—national, state, military, P.O.W./M.I.A. There are elderly color guard soldiers gathered near the curb and teenage naval cadets huddled beside the side door, and a few pre-teen scouts weaving through it all. Inside the school the auditorium is set up with a few hundred folding chairs, more flags and bunting, donated food and drinks, and a long table at the back with information about the VNC and the Honor Flight Network. At the front of the auditorium, a big band plays Glenn Miller and other swing-era oldies, with a few recent-ish selections from the Blues Brothers (no, we are not in Chicago city limits, but we’re close enough).
The mood is festive and Fourth of July-ish. My family and I sit on some lower bleachers as updates from Dan come in about their journey from Milwaukee Airport. I recognize a couple faces from the local American Legion and note a number of exceptionally calm, golden-coated dogs wearing camouflage vests and American flag bandannas around their necks. These are comfort dogs, raised and trained by veterans to serve and help other veterans at home or at VFWs, VA hospitals, or trauma care centers and such. Each dog has a veteran owner, and when one of them catches me trying to take a quick photo of his dog, he hands me a little trading card of sorts. I look at the card and see a puppy version of the dog in the arms of the same man talking to me. Underneath is a pet’s name (Blitz) and a human name (Bob). “He’s named after a military dog from Vietnam, one of the K9s. All the dogs are,” says Bob, who also served in Vietnam. One of the other men hands me his card, and before I know it I have four comfort dog trading cards.
We get word from my brother sooner than we expect that the VNC buses are only a few minutes away. He mentions they have an escort, but none of us realize what that means until they arrive. Everyone has gathered outside and lined up along the curb when a rumbling is heard and begins to grow louder. There are sirens too—police escort vehicles—but it’s the rumbling that takes over the neighborhood. Suddenly an army of motorcycles swings around the corner, growling past us for a good few minutes. Some of the bikers have a person on their backseat or riding shotgun, and I’m momentarily confused and worried in thinking these are the elderly Honor Flight veterans. But finally two coach buses come around the corner, to much cheering and applause, before parking in front of the school entrance.
The veterans are let off one by one. Each one gets a walk or wheelchair-escort of honor with his or her guardian up the pathway into the school, passing all the families and cadets and color guard soldiers and the line-up of flags and homemade welcome-home signs. This is the point when it becomes hard not to be affected by this event. For most of us there, this is the first time we get to see all the other veterans besides our own. Some of them are very frail, some cannot sit up straight anymore, a few salute with a visible hand tremor, most smile and wave, and a couple look unexpectedly overcome by the welcome home, their caps pulled low to cover the emotion in their eyes. My dad does not spot us in the crowd as he makes his entrance. He salutes the color guard and the cadets, and my brother smiles big behind him. Dad is wearing a Korean War vet cap and has sunglasses on, so it’s a little hard to see his face and reaction, but we, his family, can see he is fighting back tears. We’ve known his face all our lives, so we just know.
Video of VNC Honor Flight 2015 homecoming by The Arlington Cardinal
Back inside the auditorium, the vets sit up on the stage facing all the audience. It takes a while for everyone to calm down—so many families keep running up to their fathers and mothers and grandparents there on the stage, as if they haven’t seen them in years and can’t stand to be separated from them much longer. I have a memory of a picture I saw in a school textbook when I was a teenager, of a young woman running across a tarmac to greet her father upon his return from Vietnam. It seems a silly comparison to make now, since these war veterans have been gone only three days—but the picture flashes in my brain anyway, for the first time with an emotion I can feel along with it.
The crowd eventually situates itself and settles down, and soon there are songs and speeches by Randy Granath and the other VNC organizers and the mayor. The guardians have joined the rest of us among the folding chairs and bleachers, and as each veteran is introduced on stage, my brother supplies information here and there, pointing out which guys our dad bonded with the most and telling us about the father-and-son veterans on the trip. The oldest of the group is a WWII vet named Walter, his son Ben is a Vietnam veteran. One lives in northern Illinois, the other in Colorado. But the VNC arranged it so they could do the Honor Flight together, each with his own guardian.
At the homecoming, my father (right) and his eldest grandchild, Shane.
In between the speeches and commentary, the veterans are presented with gifts. This year, for the first time for the VNC, a group of women quilters in Huntley, Illinois, have made a quilt for each veteran. The Quilts of Valor project began in Delaware in 2003 by a former Peace Corps worker and nurse-midwife whose son was deployed to Iraq. The project spread to Huntley in 2011, when the Gazebo Quilters Guild began making quilts for local amputees who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each quilt is unique with an entirely hand-stitched front, taking over 100 hours of individual labor, and the names of the women who worked on the quilt sewed into its bottom corner with a message of gratitude. They’ve even made one for Randy, the founding organizer, a father of a veteran, and a veteran himself. And Randy returns their favor by taking his quilt and wrapping it around his body, modeling the women’s arduous and beautiful work for everyone in the auditorium.
Next the veterans get another gift from the motorcycle crew, and we finally learn who these bikers who brought the veterans all the way non-stop from Milwaukee to Chicago are. The Warriors Watch Riders are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, many of them also war veterans, with local crews who provide escorts for military events such as homecomings, funerals, and Honor Flights. They look like you’d expect a group of bikers to look—leather-clad, tough and tattooed—so it’s all the more touching to see them approach each of these old veterans with respect and a sense of protectiveness. They present each veteran with a coin with military and motorcycle symbols on it and a striking message: “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored.”
After the homecoming, rather than rumbling off right away, the bikers stick around to shake the hands of the veterans, giving each one personal thanks for their service. All the families mill around the auditorium and the school entrances, taking pictures or thanking the VNC volunteers and meeting the new buddies their veteran made on the trip. In the meantime, the big band has hit it up again and a few folks show off their swing moves at the front of the auditorium. With Dad, my family returns to my parents’ home, with its front yard decorated with flags and welcome-home signs, and we spend the rest of the afternoon hearing about the trip and eating homemade chocolate cupcakes topped with American flag picks.
VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with quilts and roses. (My father is 2nd from right.) Photo by The Arlington Cardinal.
VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with audience. Phot0 by The Arlington Cardinal.
In the days and weeks to come, there are a lot of memories of the trip to sort through for my dad. So many pictures and videos, cards and letters, and questions and congratulations from those of us who stayed home. I live with my parents and help my dad edit his pictures and order print-outs from the local drugstore. Eventually I meet with Randy Granath to hear more about the VNC and the Honor Flights. The homecoming celebration is what sticks in my mind the most—perhaps because that was the only part of the experience I and the rest of my family were a part of, but also because of all the work that went into it. I was struck most by what incongruous groups the homecoming brought together: therapy dogs, a ladies’ quilting club, a biker gang. Yet undeniably they all share an underlying purpose of not only respect for war veterans but also comfort and protection. Before the homecoming I’d been expecting more jingoism at the event, and though there were American flags all over the place (as well as all over our front yard) and there was a singing of the national anthem of course, there was more attention to the kind of healing this entire event could bring to veterans than I’d anticipated. And cutting through all the celebration and bunting and big band tunes was a clear demonstration of what the community can do to contribute to our veterans’ healing, of how the gap between the civilian community and the military and veteran communities might begin to close itself up.
Honor Flights began as a response to the unsettling fact that every day our country loses hundreds of World War II veterans, members of the Greatest Generation who helped fight the Allies to victory and usher in an era of prosperity in the United States. But that’s just one of many unsettling facts about our veterans that need addressing.
Episodes like the one my uncle had 50 years after his war service may have been rare for him, but they aren’t rare for war veterans in general. Not now, not ever. Not even for the supposedly stoic Greatest Generation who we’re told simply “got on with it” after the war ended. In his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, war reporter and former Marine David Morris notes a 1951 study of 200 World War II vets that found 10 percent of them still suffered “combat neurosis.” Subsequent studies in the 1980s recorded continuing high PTSD rates among WWII veterans, especially among Pacific theater P.O.W.s, 85 percent of whom suffered from PTSD forty years after their service. But few Americans heard or took much notice of these findings. While many soldiers of WWII received a hero’s welcome on their return home, neither the government nor the public were interested in giving much attention to the veterans’ post-war psychological condition.
In Korea, American soldiers endured brutal weather conditions that left many of them with long-lasting health problems caused by extreme cold exposure. After the war they came home to much less fanfare than the World War II veterans had gotten, to national indifference by most accounts. (Dad came home to a port with some bunting and some family picture-taking by Lake Michigan.) The U.S. lost at least 36,000 soldiers in three years of warfare, but down the road the Korean War would become known as “the Forgotten War” by historians, and its warriors’ sacrifices and stories would get shuffled aside by the controversy over another brewing conflict in Asia.
The Vietnam War brought the first wide-scale awareness of PTSD and its prevalence among war veterans to the American public. But many veterans of that war still found themselves coming home from a military battlefield to an emotional one, as public opinions and disagreements about the war itself often took precedence over how to welcome home and honor its soldiers and foster their readjustment to their communities. There are arguments to this day over whether Vietnam veterans were treated with as much disrespect on their return home as national memory claims. (Were returning Vietnam veterans really spit on and called horrible names, or is that just a myth? What emotions and experiences prompted the Warriors Watch Riders, many of whom are of the Vietnam generation, to come up with the motto “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored”?) But these arguments miss an important point, which is whether our nation was ever much effective in figuring out how to reintegrate veterans into American life after their war service, in acknowledging veterans’ ordeals and experiences and providing them with the resources and respect they need (and explicitly ask for) during their readjustment to civilian life.
Statistics from recent years show we’re still failing our veterans. According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, at least 22 veterans and at least 1 active duty soldier die by suicide per day. The VA also estimates the rate of PTSD among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranges from 10% to 20%. Meanwhile, every few years scandals involving VA and military medical centers recycle themselves, exposing the life-threatening delays, neglect, shoddy conditions, and malfeasance at some of our official veterans facilities. Our warriors continue to return from battlefields abroad hurt yet determined to heal, but the society that keeps sending these men and women to war continues to fail at addressing their hurt and helping them to heal.
It’s the veterans themselves who have consistently responded to these failures by organizing, by creating public rituals and building monuments that will force communities to remember and pay proper respects. And many local communities are trying to meet their veterans more than half-way in whatever ways they can. Honor Flights are one such attempt to make up for our long-standing national disregard and ignorance. The Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois is another such attempt, a local grass-roots group of vets and citizens with “skin in the game” that painstakingly plants a flag for every Illinois soldier sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan every year, that provides care and assistance in the form of holiday turkey dinners and overseas care packages and support groups to struggling veterans and distant active-duty soldiers, that crafts a three-day adventure to our nation’s capital for our aging warriors, complete with time for bonding and reflection, a bikers’ escort, a big-band serenade, and handmade quilts with over 100 hours of respect and gratitude sewn into them. Not that an Honor Flight for every American veteran is the answer to our country’s bureaucratic problems—in some ways an Honor Flight is just a gesture really. But it’s a gesture that involves a great deal of planning, and of listening and paying attention to veterans, as well as tremendous local and volunteer efforts. The big official veterans organizations might learn from these local efforts, from the grass-roots groups like the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. So might a few of our politicians—from all points of the political spectrum. Because if local communities and volunteer-run non-profits can organize so well and give so much, what’s keeping the government from doing better?
Only a few weeks after my dad’s Honor Flight, we got word that one of the other vets on the trip had passed away. Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, the one who’d had her military record put on a big screen at the Women’s Memorial. Randy Granath would tell me when I spoke to him a couple weeks later that this is fairly common with Honor Flights. They almost always lose one or two veterans right after the trip. Sometimes it’s expected, sometimes not. Maybe some of them would’ve died even sooner if they hadn’t had the last few months of preparing for their trip to keep them going a little longer. My dad’s friend Harold, the first friend of his to go on an Honor Flight, died only a day after his return. At the very least, he and Rose and all the other vets who pass on go out with one more item crossed off their bucket list, and their families can say they know their veteran got the local respect and honor they deserved.
Dad, meanwhile, took time writing thank you notes to everyone he could—thanking all the people who thanked him for his service. He sent one to my mother, to my brothers and sisters, to his grandchildren, to me, to Randy and the VNC, even to the quilting ladies. He wanted the quilting club to know how much he appreciated their beautiful handiwork, and how he wished he could have had a quilt just like it in his army days, to protect him against the cold in the warzones of Korea.
My father with his mother at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1951, shortly before his deployment to Korea.