April 26, 2010

“Honor is the subject of my story.”

With those introductory words, Cassius proceeded to coax Brutus into joining him in a conspiracy to overthrow Julius Caesar.  Never mind that Caesar had magnanimously spared the life of Brutus for being against him in his war against Pompeii, and that he had even come to love and cherish his friendship.

Brutus nonetheless proceeded to join in on the murder of his old friend, literally stabbing him in the back.  Then, after Caesar’s death, Marc Anthony, another friend of Caesar, shook hands with the bloody butchers and agreed to be on their side.  But within minutes, Marc Anthony had used his eloquence to turn the crowd against the conspirators and had them run out of town.  At least this is Shakespeare’s account.

Honor should be made of more sternly stuff.  It is a word that has fallen on hard times today.  You usually don’t hear it spoken as part of our vocabulary unless someone is talking about a soldier.  Otherwise, honor has lost some of its message.

The Honor Roll at school has more to do with kids who are smart than with those who are honorable.  The bumper sticker, “My Child is an Honor Student,” actually is referring to children who make good grades.  But making good grades is not a criterion to good character.  If it were, a lot of us dummies would be social outcasts.

I think our kids need to be taught – and taught regularly – what honor means and why the very survival of our civilization as we know it depends upon its practice.  While it is certainly laudable for our youngsters to aspire to be on the Honor Roll, every child should be taught that he or she is capable of being honorable irrespective of the grades they make.  I say that every parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, minister, and person of influence ought to start throwing the word “honor” around a lot more.  And when they do, they should give meaning to it.

Honor is a virtue that has been admired for centuries.  But what does it mean?

I would first go to our Declaration of Independence, upon which a small group of courageous men subscribed their names with “their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honor” hanging in the balance.  For better or worse, these brave men were committed to staying the course.  They were committed to doing what they said they would do.  It wasn’t easy.  Many of these men were once very wealthy, but ended up not so wealthy.

Honor means keeping your word, even if – as my father used to say – “it takes the skin off your nose.”

Honor means showing up at work on time and hustling to do well whatever task or job that has been assigned to you.

Honor means loyalty.  It means sticking by friends, even when their stock is low and they may have been lambasted and forsaken by the community in which they live.  An honorable man does not have to condone poor conduct in order to remain a friend.

Our dear Brutus did not get the memo on this score.  Instead of bearing the knife against Caesar, he should have raised it in his defense.  Then honor would have truly been the subject of that story.

Honor means paying your child support, or to at least die trying.

Honor means defending your neighbor against unsavory and unreliable gossip.

Honor means bravery.  Very few of us have ever had to prove our courage on the military battlefield.  However, most of us have been called upon from time to time to make an unpopular choice and to take the road less traveled when doing the right thing.  Conscience, if not followed, does make cowards of us all.

Honor demands that we be honest.  The most glowing attribute of General Robert E. Lee was not his military prowess, but his character.  When asked about a subordinate being considered for a promotion by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee gave the young officer high praise and commendation.  An aide pulled Lee aside and reminded him that this officer had never passed up an opportunity to berate and undermine Lee behind his back.  “The President asked my opinion about him,” Lee laconically responded, “not the officer’s opinion of me.”  Few of us have this type of honesty.  It is a badge of honor.

Honor means taking full responsibility for your mistakes.  Again, General Lee comes to mind.  This honorable man took full credit for the bloody and catastrophic failure of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.

In short, honor means to win without boasting and lose without excuse.

So I would submit that the term “honor” should be mentioned more than at military ceremonies and homecomings.  Honor might find a place in the classroom – or even the locker room.  I would even like to hear it mentioned in church occasionally.  As the adage goes, it we don’t use it, we might lose it.

Random Acts of Kindness

December 19, 2009

You never know what kindness can do.

One never knows when a random act of kindness can have tremendous impact on people’s lives.  I’m haunted by a story I read about the great number of suicides committed over the years by people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

A suicide note of one of those unfortunate souls was found in his room.  It read, “If anyone speaks to me today on the way to the bridge, I will not jump.”  Tragically, just a simple nod of the head, or some other form of greeting by someone that day, would have saved a human life.

I personally know of a random act of kindness that liberated an entire family from Communism.  When I was in Vietnam, I got to know a young Vietnamese girl by the name of Qui Guyen.  She worked for the military there as a civilian secretary.  Qui was pretty and petite, and had an infectious laugh and wonderful personality.  Her ambition in life was to go to college in the United States some day.  Through the years, soldiers had promised her that if she received a scholarship at some American college, they would chip in and help pay her way to the states.  Over the years, GI’s would come and go, but she never gave up hope.

When I met Qui and learned of her ambition, I decided to take a shot in the dark.  I wrote a letter to Dr. Harry Sparks who was then President of Murray State University.  I outlined Qui’s story to him, and her dream of coming to the United States some day to attend college.  I then inquired as to whether Murray State could offer her any assistance.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from President Sparks with fantastic news.  He advised that Qui would be given a full scholarship – a full ride – if she wanted to come to Kentucky and study at Murray State University.  Needless to say, this young Vietnamese girl was ecstatic.

About this time, I got shipped to other areas of Vietnam and lost regular contact with Qui.  Periodically, when communications got through, I learned that she was frantically trying to get together the airline fare to come to the United States.  Then the end of the war came, and I was sent to Korea.  However, I managed to meet up with Qui in Saigon the night before I left for Korea.  With her typical energy and diligence, she advised me that she had managed to contact enough Vietnam Veterans – some even still in country – to come up with the total cost of her transportation to the United States.  All she needed was a sponsoring family, and, of course, I willingly obliged and assured her that my family would be hers once she came to the states.

I was in Korea when Qui arrived at Barkley Field Airport in Paducah, Kentucky on a hot August day.  Members of my family later laughed and told me that Qui got off the airplane wearing an overcoat.  In Vietnam she had heard how cold the United States was.

Qui became part of my family.  She enrolled at Murray State University and immediately became a big hit.  Her freshman year she was nominated Homecoming Queen, and over the next four years she was one of the most popular students on campus.  She graduated with a degree in accounting, but not before a very traumatic event transpired in her life.

In May of 1975, Qui and I sat forlornly in front of the television set and watched North Vietnamese Communist troops invade her hometown of Saigon.  (It will never be Ho Chi Minh City to either Qui or me.)  We silently watched the tanks clamoring into the downtown area, and the Communist conquest of not only that city, but all of South Vietnam.  There was also a dreadful air of uncertainty in not knowing what would be the fate of all those people – including Qui’s family – who had been friendly to the United States’ forces there.  Concentration camps, summary executions, torture, and other possibilities all loomed in both our minds during those dark hours.

For a long time, Qui did not hear from her family.  She proceeded to get a job in Ohio, and then moved to California.  She eventually received news that her family was safe and doing as well as could be expected.  Over time she began to receive regular communications from them.  Qui had a large family – her mother and father, several brothers and sisters, and their spouses and children.

Finally, Qui learned that her father had died from natural causes.  Then Qui set out on a great plan.  She determined that she was going to work and make enough money to legally bring all of her family – every single one of them – out of Communist Vietnam to America.  Over the years, Qui worked long hours – saving every nickel and dime that she could.  Not only was she was able to purchase a large house, but she also provided the cost of rescuing every single member of her family from Vietnam and bringing them to California.

In total, there were eighteen men, women and children.  Today, these people have successful lives, businesses and careers of their own.  They have become Americanized.  Qui’s great quest has been accomplished, and all her family members are now successful and happy American citizens.

Qui deserves the lion’s share of credit for this monumental success story.  However, the late Murray State President Harry Sparks also deserves special recognition for his random act of kindness.  The day he received Qui’s letter he might have given it only a few minutes thought.  Undoubtedly, much more pressing problems associated with running a large university were raining down upon him.  Budgetary woes, a potential uprising among teachers, perhaps a difficult meeting coming up with the Board of Regents, or maybe a heating unit malfunction in Richmond Dorm, might all have been typical issues he was dealing with on that particular day.  However, whatever segment of time that it took, the minutes that he gave to the request of this young Vietnamese girl thousands of miles away changed not only her life, but the lives of her entire family.  And no one knows, but from within those lives now flourishing in southern California may come future scientists, doctors, teachers, or simply ordinary contributing citizens who will make life better for all of us.