A Special Day………….

September 12, 2012

Four days ago the question arose from a little four year old….”Why is Freedom so important to you?”

I have spent most of today trying to answer that question. It is 9/11/12 the 11th anniversary of that tragic day in our history. I look at the names on each flag and the yellow ribbon. I try to find a connection between them. and those we lost on that day in New York. I come to the conclusion that it is the spirit of we Americans.
A spirit that we inherited. There is a core value in us all, one that is indisputable. I may be naive in saying this but I believe we all genuinely care for each other. Remembering the pictures of firefighters amidst the rubble, of people rushing to the aid of those in the towers and those on the ground. We respond without hesitating. Lives are sacrificed to save others.
I was in a gymnasium in Decorah, IA on this 11th day of September. A gym filled with 600 students. In unison they raised their right hands. Their first finger and little fingers rose to signify “11” and the repeated these words in a stunning tribute…

We Care. We Believe. We are Generous.We Respect. We Sacrifice. We are Honest. We are Thankful. We Love. We Listen. We Learn. 

We Remember……………………………..

Sunday Morning and Soren

September 3, 2012

Gordon, WI is a tiny town just off US 53. My day ended here yesterday afternoon and there is a certain amount of joy when I end at a gas station and find chocolate milk in great abundance. It is like Christmas morning and if there is ice cream, well lets just say I can embarass myself. It was here in Gordon that my day began today, Sunday September 2. A car pulled up alongside and I was asked if I would mind some company for a few miles. I always like company. I have someone to talk to instead of my own reflection in the mirror. Steve, Mike and Yvonne join me for a lengthy stretch. I learn that Mike and Yvonne are new parents, that their six month old son, Soren is along for the ride. I was struck by their spontaneous decision to “lets just go” when pondering whether or not to make the hour and a half drive to run with me. Ahhh yes, today people. Thats what I like, was my first thought. We talked and the miles slip by. The road begins to undulate beneath us, rising slightly and then falling. The oak and maples whisper to us. Steve tells me of how he felt he was a great deer hunter. That they could not hear him sneak up but he could never figure out why he did not see anything. It was then that he realized his hearing aid was bad…go figure. It reminded me of my Uncle “Turtle” suffering from Parkinsons, he once shot a monstrous buck by, in his words, “I pulled the trigger between shakes”. 

Traffic is virtually non-existent this early. As we place flags Yvonne makes a remark of wanting a picture taken with Soren so he can one day see what this day was like. When Mom and Dad explain what they were doing on a Sunday morning on this stretch of peacefulness. It is ironic. This small baby boy, blonde hair and eyes of wonder in a world that he has inherited from generations before. Names on flags. Character and integrity and heroism that have provided him a safer world to live in. Their generation and time now gone yet not forgotten and his, just beginning. Like Soren they were full of wonder and amazement and needs so simple, carried dreams that pulled them through each day. Soren will harbor dreams just like them. A product of two great people, Soren will add richness to the world, of that, I am sure. It is like this on the road. You have a brief encounter, a speeding moment in time that pauses and you interact and then say goodbye but something goes with you….. So it is today, on US 53……………….

Minnesota Moments…..

August 31, 2012

It has been a week now since this run has begun. A week of moments that are to numerous to remember, to vibrant to even explain. So how do I begin? Perhaps at the beginning is best but better yet I will throw them out there like the endless rumble strips I encounter on MN 53 as I head into Duluth.

International Falls…a 92 year old woman singing “God Bless America”, “Taps” being played as I took the first few steps. My wheel touches the river and waters mixed with the Canadian border. Young High School Cross Country Runners join me and take their turns placing flags. Don’t be so hard on todays youth, they remember every name. Long quiet stretches of highway and dead skunks. Gas stations and chocolate milk. A town called Little Fork and the most beautiful little 4 room hotel attached to the cafe. People take pride in their establishments up here. They honk and give a wide berth to the stroller. Shaila rides 10 miles and tells me how it feels to be a military wife. The difficulties, the absence, the worry and dread while her husband is away. Beautiful lakes and 2 nights in resorts along the shores. Loons and sunsets and genuine hospitality. Two hulking brothers on Harleys stop and tell me of their trip to see “Sarge”, their father, who is buried nearby. He was a WWII Vet and his name is emblazoned on a gas tank of one of the bikes. They place a flag and then roar off on an 800 mile trip back home. I stop and salute as “Sarge” passes. Loneliness is now non-existent. I have my company in my tray. They talk and I listen. Entering the town of Orr, Boy Scouts escort me to the hotel. A color guard is waiting for their fallen comrades. A twenty one gun salute, “Taps”…a small town shows their gratitude. I sit on the dock and see a sunset. Watch reds and orange dance across the lake, knowing I shall not pass this way again. In the morning I eat at the Patten Cafe “Home of the Big Donut” and it truly is, the size of my head and more remarkably, home-made as it has been for 35 years.
At a bait store called Grumpy’s is a cooler that is home to 48 different kinds of root beer. Fact. I counted each one. Matthew the manager, survived Afghanistan, his friend Scott Lundgren did not. We place a flag in the flower bed and I move on and on and on…

Kristen Turk is 21 years old. She works a day job at a Super 8 motel. She studies online to get accepted into Dental Hygiene School. Army Sergeant Brian Hobbs was 28. He was from Mesa, AZ. For a brief moment in time they are connected. She walks a short distance with me. She holds his flag. She has dreams as did he. Delicately she places him high on a mileage post. A spot she will drive by many times. Her connection to the Project is cemented in time with his. The miles come and go. The thought again creeps into my mind. Why? Why do I really do this? I never have a clear answer. I just run. I breathe the air of freedom. Freedom to live where I can do this and not have a fear of repercussion. Freedom to do exactly as I want for those who can’t. Freedom is often taken for granted and it is sacrifice that cannot be forgotten.

At mile 201 tomorrow the flags of 19 Navy Seals will begin to be placed. A tremendous loss for their families, for their comrades, for this country. I think of  Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson, 3 Seals who died on the ground. I only know what I have read. I wish I had known more. I wish for just a minute with them. What could I tell them? Thank You is the only words I have.

Thank you for the life I have. Thank you for allowing me the honor to honor you.

“Age shall not weary them,
 nor years condemn
 for with the setting of the sun and in the morning,
we shall remember them….”

Onward evermore…..

A Champion………….

August 9, 2012

The sun sinks lower in the west over this lovely Idaho town. The coffee shop is quiet and yet my mind is full of chatter.  I do not actively seek out family or friends of those we have lost in Afghanistan however I made an exception today. Maybe it was to remind me of why. Why do what I am doing? Maybe its to hear firsthand how someone touched the lives of those around them while they were here.

Jake Plummer took the time out of his day to sit with me and to write the name of his close friend Army Corporal Pat Tillman on a yellow ribbon that will go on Flag #126.. They were both teammates throughout college and the NFL and I asked Jake what it was he remembered most about his friend. “He was a champion” a term that Tillman himself used to describe those that he was thoroughly impressed by, was the one Plummer used to describe his friend. Pat Tillman had a way of showing his genuine concern,interest and care for his friends. As Jake talked about him I could see the light in his eyes as he talked about the gift of knowing someone like Tillman. People said Pat was to small, to slow to be an NFL player. He listened and it drove him to succeed. People discouraged me from running. “You will never win anything.” “Your wasting my time” a coach once said. “We don’t want you” said the Army. I listened also and it has driven me. The negative was our positive.  He told me that Pat Tillman would have called me a champion. Not that I sought such approval but hearing it made me feel good. Made me feel like he was listening, watching somewhere over us…. I feel a lot closer now. Closer to the day I begin this last journey. Closer to the names I will remember. Closer to leaving more to this world than I have taken. The gift of generosity, from the heart, is a great gift to spread and maybe just maybe if  we can be generous in this world, with our time and our actions then we too, can also be champions.

The Road is Calling….

July 22, 2012

As I sit here on the porch of our home in northern Idaho, I look at the gravel road that lies below us. In doing so I wonder how many people have traveled that road over the years. Families, children on bikes, farmers pulling hay wagons, horses and pickups. The roads across the country call us. They tell stories, they lead us. They are the connective tissue that joins our homes and towns. They are the lifeline to us all.

It is time to run the roads of America again. There is one job that is left to finish. One stretch of this country that is 2100 miles long, one stretch that will bear 2100 flags of 2100 of our heroes and 2100 salutes to those whose lives enriched so many around them. This run isn’t about sorrow or pain. It isn’t about right and wrong or political views. It is about giving back. It is about remembering.

I was given the gift of freedom. The gift to travel many roads. Ones that took me all over the country and allowed me to live in many beautiful places and share it with many wonderful friends. Roads that brought me here on a Sunday morning to absorb the beauty of blue skies and a still peace. So I choose to give a gift back to those 2100 from Afghanistan. A gift of thanks. When this wall of flags is done it will represent over 6500 lives who gave us all a gift of service. It will be a road that connects their memory to us and knowing that there is a place each mile that they stand over is a comforting thought..

Not Another Fall Day

November 1, 2011

His name was Don Wood.
A kind man, a good man.
He lived in Lower Waterford, Vermont not far from the highway I ran down as I headed for Maine last fall.
His home sat tucked off the road amongst trees that are turning gold and crimson ever more each morning.
A short distance away you can see the Connecticut river flowing slowly…sparkling as it winds away.
It is a beautiful place to be.
We talked the other day on the phone and I knew his health was failing.
Our conversation was fairly brief but I wanted Don to know I wished him well in his last few days and my thoughts were with him.

The leaves are turning here in Idaho outside my window.
A sign of the seasons ending.
It is also ironically a sign of a life passing.
Sometimes we are given the opportunity to be touched by people and to touch them if only for the briefest amount of time in our life.
Don was one of those opportunities.
He was a great family man, a loving husband and I knew this because I could see it in his eyes and those around him during the short time I stayed with he and his family.
Don lost his grandson, Lt. Joseph Fortin, in Iraq.
Joseph lost his grandfather today.
William Wallace once said:
“Men will always die but not all men really live.”
Don Wood lived…..
A great, great life.
He was loved and loved those around him even greater.
There are many things we never learn about those we meet but I do not assume the goodness Don Wood brought to the world, I am quite certain he gave more goodness than I could ever imagine.
Thank You Don…………

Three, Two, One…….Done

October 19, 2010

Time does not forgive, nor is it lenient as we progress through each day. Time moves forward relentless in its unique way. Time has pushed me forward 4 days from that finish in Rockland, Maine, on a stormy Friday morning when the winds blew and the rain pummeled a small group of us as we ran slowly towards the shore. It has taken me 4 days to come up with the words and to remember………………..

My son is a great  man. He works hard and raises 2 children on his own at the young age of 26. I admire and respect his devotion and dedication to his son and daughter. His path in this world could have taken him in many different directions and the one he is on today with me, will lead him to the placing of  the 3rd flag.  He reads the name of Marine 2nd Lieutenant Therrell Childers who was 30 years old. I watch my son. His face his hidden under his hat. The rain runs down his nose. Around us, all are quiet as he  places it in the ground next to a small aspen tree. He places his hand over his heart and I salute. That could have been his name there on that flag. I am fortunate that it wasn’t. We are linked in this moment together and I see that it means so much to him to do this for a Marine who is gone, to have a connection.

Now there are only 2 miles left and time seems to be moving even faster. The wind picks up, the rain falls harder as we make our way through the neighborhood to a spot on the corner where the one ways begin in downtown. The wheels on this stroller have seen the entire country. They have rolled from the Pacific to the Atlantic through the Columbia River Gorge, the mountains of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. They have carried these last 2 flags across the stifling heat and never ending expanse of the Midwest. How many revolutions? That is one statistic I have not determined. Through the rolling, colorful hills of New York, Vermont and Maine. Through snow, wind and rain. Through dirt, gravel and pavement and now just a short mile to their final destination, a small boat ramp in a small harbor.

My daughter is a great woman. She is only 20 and yet, is wise beyond her years with wit and intelligence and beauty to match. Like her brother, her path in life brought her to Maine to run 6 miles with her dad and plant her connection, Marine Captain Ryan Beaupre who was 30 years old. The roads divide here and we stop. Under a large Maple tree she place his flag. She is alone. Her black rain jacket whips in the wind, its hood is pulled tightly around her auburn hair and blue eyes. His name is read and she places her hand over her heart and I salute from a few yards away. She pauses then and I look at her and it is a moment frozen in my mind. Her hands are clenched up under her chin and tears are streaming down her cheeks. Her body is shaking and she sobs. She cries for this Marine, for a soul in heaven,  for eyes that can only watch from above. For the freedoms in life he has afforded her. She stands alone and her connection is buried in her thoughts now. Thoughts and emotion that are only hers but are reflected in those tears.

I move on and in this last mile to the last few yards, to the last few feet, to the moment I touch the water I am still not alone. The presence I have felt from the start of this run is now almost gone however , it lingers over me and I know Major Jay Aubin is watching and smiling.  As eyes watched from above, as names were remembered, they took their spot along the roads of America to watch over and protect their mile until there was only one. I salute the heavens. I am done.

In time, as I reflect on what has transpired,  the value and meaning of these last 6 months will become even more apparent to me. I discovered that impossible is only a word and that the heart can surpass so many boundaries. I discovered that we are a strong country when being strong is the only option we have. That despite what we hear and read and see we are the greatest country in the world with the greatest people. I saw it in the faces of America. From store clerks to Veterans to schoolchildren and farmers and highway workers. The people I came in contact with added so much to my life and to the memory of the flags that were carried. The wall is complete now. It spans our great land and even though the permanence of a small flag may be blown away by winds and weather in time, the permanence of the moment it was placed, the honor bestowed upon that spot will remain forever……….

One Fall Day……..

October 11, 2010

Fall in Maine, like many of the New England states, is an extremely colorful affair. The maples burst in brilliant reds and orange and yellow. Leaves tumble and swirl and find a final resting place on the ground turning it into an animated assortment of beautiful piles.  St. Johns Street is a quiet street in a quiet town called Skowhegan. A town famous for its shoe mills and a few years ago, the filming of the movie, Empire Falls. It is also a town that bears the ghost of a little boy. On this street I stand alone and stare at the 2 story cream colored house sitting across the lot from where I am staying. I close my eyes and hear the laughter of boys back in the mid-70s. They are playing football. In the huddle they draw a play in the dirt that was once green grass now worn down by endless games throughout the summer. They range in age from 8 to 16. It is a time when the neighborhoods were tight in this town. A time when everyones doors were open and most of the time their refrigerators too. Grandma T., lives in the house I am staying in. On Saturdays she would bake cookies and pies and cream puffs. The boys would partake in these delicacies. The little boy who was 8 at the time would follow his siblings and devour many a baked good from Grandma T., but only under one condition and it involved drinking a glass of milk with their cookie or cream puff or pie or cake. Back to the game of football they go. The little boy, with his baggy Levis and red and white Dukes of Hazard t-shirt lines up next to the ball. The play begins and a mad scramble begins….

The cream colored house sits alone. It is bordered by trees whose shade is welcome in the summer.  Second story windows have white blinds pulled closed to keep the afternoon sun out. The tin roof glistens.  It has a steep pitch so that the winter snows will slide off. It is snow that would be shoveled off the porch steps by the little boy even though he would struggle at times with the weight of the wet snow and an over-sized shovel.  He worked hard doing that and in the summer mowing the grass. In time he would grow bigger and stronger and more athletic.

Back to the game……..a pass is thrown, caught and then the ball pops loose and squirts along the ground right to the little boy who scoops it up and runs……he runs as fast as he can…this is his chance, his glory……he darts left then right then back. He stops and starts and fools the older boys with his quickness.  He only needs to get past the maple tree. With a final 8 year old burst of speed and a brilliant move he breaks the imaginary line in an imaginary stadium and scores in front of a hundred thousand imaginary people. Yes, yes, yes.

I open my eyes and look at this yard. The wind blows softly and whispers to me. The home I am looking at and the yard where this game was played is the home of a little boy named Jay Thomas Aubin.

I will be placing the very last flag at the waters edge in Rockland, Maine. It is the flag of Major Jay Thomas Aubin.  He died in the pre-dawn hours of March 21st 2003 on the border of Iraq, piloting a helicopter. He would be one of 6 to die that first day of the war but there is no glory in being number one when it is only for numbers sake. I chose to place him last because finishing in Maine I felt it appropriate.

As I look at his home, his street, his yard, I see him as a young boy. I feel the exuberance of his life, I feel the tremendous potential in his future, I feel his presence. Grandma T., remembers him fondly as she does most boys from the neighborhood. Jay Aubin would become a great man.  A great father with 2 children and the rare breed of Marine who rose up through the enlisted ranks and then became an officer. Grandma T., remembers his smile.  As I stand here alone, the sun pours through these remarkable colored trees and I feel the warmth of that smile from the blue sky above.

Yes Jay Aubin you are not forgotten,  I traveled across this country, running the miles with you and so many others and we will play a football game in the heavens one day……..

Winding Roads and Winding Down….

October 8, 2010

As I run these last few miles through the northeast, history has unfolded before me. In many places there are plaques and signs depicting old meeting halls or courthouses or homes of prominent citizens. Vermont has been warm and welcoming and its people so gracious. Near St. Johnsbury the Academy cross country team joins me as we approach town and head for the city park. It is there that I see a small crowd of people gathered. They are there to honor those from Vermont that have died in Iraq or Afghanistan and I am told, to see this guy pushing a stroller and planting flags. I am often put on the spot for speaking so what I say is often what immediately passes through my mind in no random order. In the background a lonely bagpipe plays as the names are read. It is a sobering sound. That night I would spend the evening with the family of 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Fortin. His parents and grandparents and sister gush with the love and memory they have of their Joseph. His widow and I talk alone and she tells me what she remembers most and misses is his smile. Maybe we should all smile more because if we do then we will leave those we touch with a warm memory and a picture frozen in time. At the Waterford School I am greeted by 150 children (kindergarten through 6th grade) they have formed a corridor of flags and tiny bodies for me to walk through. Such a pleasure to see those excited little faces waving their flags. After a short talk from the top of a picnic table, I follow the colors of the leaves and head for New Hampshire and am greeted at the border at the Connecticut River, by a small group of well wishers. On into Bethlehem and at a small ice cream store named Rennells, I meet Maryanne whose son was the 4000 fatality. I placed his flag in Dayton, WA back in May and ironically, my stroller bears the names of two Iwo Jima Veterans who had signed it way back when I passed through their town. We chat briefly and Maryanne makes me the best banana split I have ever had….fact. I have but 2 nights in New Hampshire and my last is in the town of Gorham. Mount Washington looms nearby shrouded in fog and a light rain is my companion for most of the afternoon. Roy is a kind, gracious man and a gentle New Englander. His health is fragile but perhaps this visit has given him a lift to carry him a few more years. We go to dinner at the Legion Hall, a small, quiet affair with his family. Chicken pot pie, steaming and piled high, blurs my vision. It is no wonder I have only lost 3 pounds in these past 5 months. I leave knowing well that in a few short miles I will cross the Maine border, my final state, knowing that Rockland and my last flag is very, very close. The attention has grown. Legion riders, Sheriff escorts and numerous vehicles lead me to Bethel, Maine. People are standing along the road. Bethel lost one of their own, Army Private Tyler Smith who was only 22 years old. A grandfather stands off to the side and he motions me over. He had lost his grandson and had driven a good 5 hours to see me and give me a picture and a copy of his grandsons dog tags. This is what this week has been like. Much like the past few months but more intense and more frequent are these random visits. The miles and roads are winding down. There are but a hundred and fifty left and then the Atlantic will lie before me and the winds from heaven will carry the voices of those who are there, watching and smiling and the sun will warm us all with their love from above because they truly know, a country has not forgotten……

A Step At A Time….

September 28, 2010

It is 6:00 a.m. and my internal clock says it is time. Like every day for the past 143 days I rise up with no hesitation. There are no thoughts or consideration of that matter. One cannot open the door of doubt because if you do it will never be shut again. The clock is running. My day has begun. It is normally a short breakfast of either oatmeal and toast or french toast with maple syrup, after all it is New York. I am driven out to my start point which is my end point from the day before. A few words are exchanged with my host, a handshake a hug and then goodbye. What I will miss the most is the visiting with my friends who have so graciously taken me in. We have a few hours at night to share stories and such about our lives over dinner and then the next morning I am gone, most likely to never see them again and yet their part in this run is of such importance that I am humbled by their hospitality. The first flag of the day and the first mile come slowly as my body is a bit slow to warm up. As the sun rises and my attention is drawn to my surroundings the miles pass quickly. Normally by mile 5 I have found my first coins of the day which I will send home to add to the jelly jar that is filled with $16.73 of money from America. It has actually taken me 3775 miles to find my first dollar bill. At gas stations I will stop for a Starbucks Mocha Frappaccino of which I have now consumed over 133 bottles. Yes, that along with the 35 gallons of chocolate milk has me thinking I may have an excess addiction. Another mile, another flag, a farm, glass on the road, cows, a hill, another one, another one, trains, a river. I have noticed that the locusts are now gone and that the crickets are silent too. I think of Cooperstown, NY. They race giant pumpkins on a lake. Actually paddle them in the water and I thought Nebraska had the blue ribbon for floating in horse tanks till I saw that. I think of my friend Dick who gave me 4 sheets of paper last night over dinner. It was photos and signatures of 14 German Officers put on trial after WWII in Nurenberg for War Crimes. Dick was a Sergeant of Guard for the prisoners and had acquired all the signatures. A piece of history, however cloudy it was. I think of an older gentleman who hugged me this morning and said goodbye with tears in his eyes. He said he had lay awake most of the night thinking about what I was doing and wished he could do the same thing. He told me I had squeezed a lifetime into one summer. I think of my friend Bob who ran with me a few days ago. He is 64 and never had run more than 13 miles and yet he did 30 that day. Kudos Bob, your company and conversation were great. I pass through the Mohawk River Valley and realize that there is more to New York than just the city, come and see. Another step, another telephone pole, another mile. Shoes are done. Cut the laces and tie one on my handlebars….17 pairs so far. There is my host. A smiling face welcomes me. The day is done…….