My First Political Memory

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Jimmy Carter & Gerald Ford

Jon Meacham recently tweeted about his first “political memory,” which he said was watching Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. An apt memory for the young (5 years old at the time) Meacham who would become a Pulitzer Prize winning Presidential biographer.

For me, my first political memory was from the presidential election of 1976. America’s choice was between Gerald Ford (R) and Jimmy Carter (D). I was 11 years old at the time. My father and mother supported Gerald Ford and so naturally I was a Ford supporter. On the morning of the election, I remember standing at the bus stop at the corner of Preakness Way and Edwin Drive, holding up a makeshift Ford sign, yelling “Vote for Ford!” at the cars passing by. My best friend John, the same age, stood next to me waving an American flag and yelling “Vote for Carter!” at the same cars.

At our age, we really didn’t know much about politics, and our minds certainly hadn’t hardened into any strict partisan positions. We still had, for the most part, open minds. We were just having fun. Politics, policy, and the leadership of our nation was going to happen regardless of who won. We didn’t feel uneasy or disturbed about who won. This sense of permanency, of the fundamental decency and stability of the American way of life, was never something we doubted. Like the stars in their courses, it was the law of our mental cosmos. And this was so, in large part, because our society respected and demanded certain norms from our public officials & leaders.

At 11 years old John and I might not have understood what the issues were, but we saw two gentlemen (Ford & Carter) who comported themselves in a manner that showed dignity and respect for the office they sought. Of course, just 2 years earlier President Nixon had resigned in disgrace because he had violated those norms (and the law) and his own party, putting country over party and politics, told Nixon he needed to resign. It was a sad day for the nation, but a victory for the rule of law and the American way of life.

That Kempsville High School Year

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Kempsville High School, Virginia Beach, VA. (Photo by Jeff Wills, October 27, 2017)

At 24 years old I moved from the Virginia Beach, Virginia, area where I was born and raised, to the Washington D.C. area, where I have lived ever since. Of course over the years my wife and I have traveled back a lot to visit family and friends. I’ve always been a sentimental person, and its gotten worse as I’ve gotten older and had children. Time is a curious thing, and like Thoreau, it’s a stream I like to go fishing in.

I took the above picture in October of 2017. So about 9 months ago now. Surprisingly, this view is basically the same one I had every weekday morning during my 10th grade year as I pulled my car into the Kempsville High School (KHS) parking lot. The school year was 1982/83. What surprised me, and the thing that still fascinates me about this picture, is just how little the view has changed in the 35 years since I left KHS and transferred to F.W. Cox High School.

KHS was already 16 years old, and overcrowded, when I arrived in 1982. But here you have it, exactly—or so it seems—as I left it: The same bleached red brick building, without any noticeable exterior renovations, with its trademark covered walkway in front. The view—the reminder of a bygone world—set off a whole chain of related memories.

At that moment, in my mind, I could hear a female voice making announcements on the PA system, then the final bell ringing (7 throughout the day), and I could see the crowds of kids emerging from school, many boarding one of the parked yellow school buses lined up in two rows, paralleling the covered walkway. And then there were those, like me, who drove to school. I could see them emerging from between the buses and fanning out into the parking lot. As I stood there preparing to take this picture with my iPhone, I could see the ghost of my former self walking between the cars in the filled to capacity parking lot, headed to my car, books in hand, fumbling for my keys. Like my fellow teenagers, I was in an upbeat mode. It was the best time of day, because, of course, I was leaving.

I wasn’t a particularly good student in school; in fact, I was pretty bad, owing to a lack of focus and my social life taking priority over my academic one. A typical teenage male problem it seems. I can’t say I have a lot of great memories from that year attending KHS, only that it was a significant memory—9 months worth—of my teenage years. What really makes this picture and the related memories so wistful is how it reminds me of that unique time in my life. I was a teenage boy who’d recently gotten his learners permit and a new car—a 1982 black Ford EXP. Not exactly a posh set of wheels, but a nice new car that I racked up, much to my dad’s chagrin, a lot of mileage riding around looking for friends and things to do. My dad was shocked at how many miles I could put on a car in a year. It was the pre-cellphone era, so targets had to be hunted not quickly acquired via text message.

A car begins a whole new phase in a teenager’s life. My parents were easy going and forgiving and so naturally, being a self absorbed kid, I took full advantage of that and spent a lot of time on the roads and hanging with friends. My grades suffered. The most significant friendship I made from my year at KHS was with an easy going guy named Joe Smith. Yes…that’s his actual name. From Joe’s friendship, I connected with a whole new group of friends and had my first serious girlfriend. It was the best of times, it could be the worse of times, it was a time of growth, a time maturing and trying to find my way.

Back then my dad would often remind me “these are the best years of your life.” He meant that for now (because of him) I didn’t have to worry about paying bills and keeping a roof over my head, I didn’t have adult cares to contend with, I just needed to focus on “getting an education,” and staying out of trouble. Two things that became even more of a struggle from that point on. But the truth is I’d do it all over again. Those really were great times, some of the best years of my life, and it all worked out…thank God!!

Some Flying Memories

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Me on the wing of a Beechcraft Skipper. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1988)

Like many teenage boys, after seeing Top Gun, in the spring of 1986, I wanted to be a naval aviator. The thrill of flying jets, of being a flyboy with those cool Ray-ban sunglasses, wearing those flight suit coveralls, and hanging out drinking and singing at officers clubs with nice looking women, captured my juvenile imagination: “That’s the life! Sign me up!” I mean, what a job!

Anyway, I was 19 years old, which speaks for itself, and I happened to live in a military town—Virginia Beach, Va. My dad, before I was born, had served in the Navy. The Hampton Roads region had approximately 15 military installations, to include the largest naval station in the world (Norfolk) and one of the Navy’s only 4 master jet bases (Oceana). I’d grown up and gone to school with a lot of military kids. For me, the military option just always seemed a natural one. If by chance that wasn’t going to work, my second option was attempting to swindle my way into a law enforcement job. My uncle and the brother of a former girlfriend were cops, and it kind of had a similar appeal and looked like fun (yeah…I was 19), and so that idea was also floating around. But getting to 21 to get hired for police work was taking too damn long and so Top Gun gave the military idea the momentum…for the moment.

Somehow I was able to talk mom and dad into letting me take flying lessons. Amazing swindle as I look back now. I sold my parents on the idea that if I already knew how to fly—had my private pilot license—my chances of being selected by the Navy after I graduated from college were much better. They bought it. Don’t get me wrong, being a licensed pilot certainly would help in getting picked up by the Navy, but there was obviously a lot more to it than that. My luck here, and thank God for it, was that I had wonderful parents who believed in me.

I can still remember driving over to Piedmont Aviation, which was part of Piedmont Airlines (bought out by USAir in 1989), to check out the pilot training school. Piedmont’s charter division, administrative offices, and private pilot training school, were at Norfolk International Airport, not too far from where I lived in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Piedmont Aviation had its own building and aircraft hangers on the south side of the airport, opposite the main terminals. Pulling up in my car to the Piedmont facility, I remember pausing to take in the word “Aviation” on the sign at the main entrance. My thoughts raced from the image of winning the Top Gun trophy to a ball of flames after slamming into a mountain. Oh, how the possibilities were expanding!

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Piedmont Aviation at the time I was taking lessons there. (Photo by Scotch-Canadian’s, July 25, 1987)

This was a decision that could significantly change my life’s trajectory…or allow it to simply follow its set path, depending on what you believe. I had no idea, still don’t, what the future would hold, but ready or not, I was going to go ahead and nose dive into it. Youth just added a greater level of naiveté, a degree of enthusiastic ignorance, and a bit of angst over making something of your life. Looking back now, and currently having a 19-year-old son, I have a greater respect for the uncertainties and struggles he feels at this time in his life.

Entering the flight school on the 2nd floor, I was greeted by Joe Russo, one of the instructors. He was a tall, medium-build guy with salt and pepper hair and a dark mustache. He had the air of a man determined not to get killed by a student pilot in a fiery airplane crash. He’d spoken to me originally when I called to talk about taking lessons. Joe, as I recall, was a little late coming to the game. He’d started out doing something else, I don’t recall what, but then, say, 10 years into driving an ice cream truck (just joking) he decided he wanted to be an airline pilot. So here he was. For most of the instructors, Piedmont Aviation’s private pilot school was a way of racking up hundreds of flying hours toward the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Of course, surviving all those student pilots was a part of the challenge in getting to the cockpit of that Boeing 777. (Please note that both of my instructors survived and went on to fly for the airlines.)

Joe showed me around the school and discussed what was involved in getting my pilot’s license. At the time I remember thinking it seemed rather easy…yeah, 19 years old.

Joe: So, just to be sure, have you ever flown in a airplane?

Me: Sure. An airliner.

Joe: Did you like it?

Me: Hmmm, it made me a bit nervous.

Joe: So you’re a little scared to fly?

Me: Oh no. It’s not the flying that bothers me, it’s the crashing.

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Me making some calculations during ground school. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1987)

And so it began. I took 1 to 2 lessons a week. Lessons lasted about an hour to an hour and a half and would consist mostly of flying time and/or some ground schooling. The hardest part of ground school was learning navigation. In the air, the hardest part wasn’t actually flying the airplane, it was learning how to land the aircraft. Taking off was nothing. You throttled up the engine to full power, keep the airplane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The airplane would lift off almost effortlessly. After takeoff, you kept the power up, the angle right, and climbed out to your cruising altitude. Not that hard really. But landing was an entirely different story. Continue reading “Some Flying Memories”

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

This post is mostly about my love for history, but it’s also partly about being a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by. 

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.” — Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888

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Looking out across the Fields of Pickett’s Charge from the Federal Army position on Cemetery Ridge

This past October 29, 2016, my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”

Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.

The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:

First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that just for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history and the shape and trajectory of our nation leading up to the present. There are many great books out there, but I suggest you begin with the best. The Civil War historians Bruce CattonShelby Foote, and James M. McPherson have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton, Foote, and McPherson alone.

The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as all history does) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one the best educations about human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble; to be guardians of civilization and civilized values. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.

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Donald S. Fuller, 1981, Kempsville Junior High School

This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped make us who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Donald Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason history has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into.” Don Fuller inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.

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At the Penn Memorial

Secondly, I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.

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Pennslyvannia Memorial

Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).

The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.

While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.

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Atop the Pennsylvania Memorial

We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.

We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack on the afternoon of July 3rd at about 3 p.m. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was comprised of between 13,000 and 15,000 men, mostly Virginians, and was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.

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The “Bloody” Angle

I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide. Continue reading “The Ghosts of Gettysburg”

The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.

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There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.