Raising our young family in Clovis…

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”   Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

A few months ago I came across this website and found the conclusion VERY affirming about the blessing it has been to live in Clovis, California these past 11 years.  If you don’t have time to read it, the quick summary is Clovis is ranked the #1 town in California to raise a young family!

That discovery is the inspiration for this story in that (1) I haven’t talked much thus far about what I’m doing in the present tense on this blog and (2) I think understanding this particular aspect of my life will put perspective on what you have heard thus far in my past stories.

Why I think Clovis, CA is such a great place to raise a young family…  In late 2002 early 2003,  it was clear I needed a change from my career working for a Medical Device Company in the SF Bay Area.   Amongst the reasons it was time to move on, one of the most pressing was how it had become at increasing odds with my time with my family.  Living in Santa Cruz and commuting each day to San Jose meant I was on the road often as much as 3 hours going to and from work.   As I was typically working 10+ hour days, I found myself often leaving for work before the sun rose and getting home after it had set.

The person who got the shortest end of that situation was Leah.  Though we were at first delighted to be living 5 minutes from the beach in our home in Soquel, during the early years of our daughters Elowyn and Gigi’s life, there wasn’t much time nor was it safe for Leah to be alone with two toddlers down on the beach while I was at work.   Basically, without any family around to help her, Leah felt quite isolated and alone raising two toddlers despite being in a place others might call the most beautiful place in the world.

So… when the job opportunity to work at Community Medical Centers came up in Fresno, Leah’s heart leaped.  She knew there would be family close by to help her.   Her Mom and her Sister and family live in West Fresno.   My Mom, and my brother also live nearby  in Central Fresno, and my other brother and his wife live in the foothills northeast of Fresno.   With so many family members and other old friends nearby, she knew she would have more help nearby if we needed it.   As importantly, my commute would go from a 3 hour round trip to about a 1/2 hour one which would permit me to be more involved in the midday kids activities that I was missing out on due to the distance work was from home.

After the decision about moving back to Fresno was settled (see MY FIRST STORY… for details), it came down to where we might live.   When Leah shared with her longtime friend that we were moving back to Fresno, she told Leah that she should move to Clovis because the schools were really good there.   I would have chosen NW Fresno actually as that is where I grew up but I didn’t really want to come back here originally so it really didn’t matter to me where we landed.  I just wanted Leah to be happy and letting her choose where that would be was my attempt to reconcile not being around much for her and the kids those early years of their lives.

So… I engaged a realtor who was the sister of my CPA and we targeted various Clovis neighborhoods.   Thinking we could get a pretty good deal compared to what our house in Santa Cruz cost us, we started off in the $250k+ as our target cost.    I knew we could afford more giving we owned a home that was half the size of what we were looking at for over twice the cost in Soquel.   I just felt at the time it would be good to save some of the cash we would get from selling our home and we still had it on the market at the time and wanted to ensure we didn’t find ourselves owning two mortgages.   I also knew it was easier to go up in price then down so felt it important to be conservative at what we looked at initially.

The problem was that all the houses we looked at either were a great home but not a great location or great location but a modest home.   So our realtor getting to know what we were looking for had a house in mind for us by the second day of looking and she brought us to it as the last stop of the day.   It was near the Buchanan Education Center which at the time was the most recently built high school in the area.   We both looked at our realtor questioningly as I knew this was going to be more expensive, but we looked at the house anyway.   It was a half-block from the Alta Sierra Intermediate School and even closer to a public park with playground.   The house itself was spacious and had a great room that immediately drew you in as it was so light inside with vaulted ceilings and high windows.   The cost was higher than our original budget range.   Leah thought we can’t afford this but I knew we could.  It was clear she loved the home and location so we chose it and this is where we live to this day.

Selling lemonade at the neighborhood park near our home
Selling lemonade at the neighborhood park near our home

Another great feature of living in Clovis is the number of other larger public parks and biking trails that are intertwined throughout the various neighborhoods making it possible to ride you bike practically to any location in town on VERY safe family friendly trails.   Biking around the neighborhood, has become a favorite pastime for me and the kids to do.   I can see why many families find our town so family friendly when you bike around and see so many parks filled with kids playing safely.   Those who planned Clovis anticipated well how important that trails and parks go together.  Several of the trails were designed with tunnels or flashing pedestrian walkways at busier roads to make travel between parks safe as well.

Gigi next to the Railway Bike Trail Marker near Old Town Clovis
Gigi next to the Railway Bike Trail Marker near Old Town Clovis
Waterbirds of the Central Valley
Waterbirds of the Central Valley
Gigi trying to spot one of the migrating birds on our bike ride...
Gigi trying to spot one of the migrating birds on our bike ride…
Cottonwood Park Entrance, one of a half-dozen parks within a mile of one another
Cottonwood Park Entrance, one of a half-dozen parks within a mile of one another
Clovis Botanical Garden - A Community Garden funded by local benefactors
Clovis Botanical Garden – A Community Garden funded by local benefactors
Clovis - Gateway to the Sierras!
Clovis – Gateway to the Sierras!
Old Town Clovis - A Way of Life...
Old Town Clovis – A Way of Life…
Elowyn and Gigi at a Bike Ride Pit Stop in Old Town Clovis
Elowyn and Gigi at a Bike Ride Pit Stop in Old Town Clovis

With all the amenities of living in Clovis understood, what made the decision such a good one was not just that it was a great location and home, but that it was walking distance to all three schools our daughters would eventually go to, Garfield Elementary, Alta Sierra Intermediate, and Buchanan High.   Garfield is a Blue Ribbon school several times over and to this day have some of the best teachers in the area.   We have been very blessed just how much the teachers have treated our children with such love and expert care and teaching particularly in their youngest years.    Both Elowyn and Gigi have thrived in the schools and have won several academic and extra curricular awards for their various activities over the years.    Leah and I feel truly blessed for what a partnership it has been with all the teachers of all three schools we have had the joy to meet and work with in raising our children.

Typical Garfield Elementary Awards Ceremony. Standing Room only for the parents...
Typical Garfield Elementary Awards Ceremony. Standing Room only for the parents…

Elowyn is now a Sophomore at Buchanan High and Gigi is a 7th grader at Alta Sierra.   When I go to the various events where the kids are getting awards or the parents are getting oriented to different things the schools offer, it strikes me just how engaged all the parents who have children in these schools are.   These events, especially the awards events, are ‘standing room only’.  For example, just a few months ago, Gigi’s Science Fair Project was on display and we went to take a look.   We could barely walk around and get to her display and were constantly having to step aside so other parents could get through the narrow passages where the projects were on display.  It must be heartwarming for teachers to see such encouragement and engagement from the parents of the kids they teach each day.   Likewise, in a virtuous cycle, it is with a real sense of perceived value that us parents see what we are getting from the school system.  When you see the job the teachers are doing, you just know you are giving your children the best shot at making a difference in their lifetime.

Yet, Clovis is not just a place where schools value young families.   We also see that value in the way our young families are sought out by the local church.   Our church, Clovis Hills Community Church, for example, celebrated recently with our young families by holding a ground breaking for our new playground designed to make our church more kid friendly and inviting on the outside as it already is on the inside.   We hope to see the project complete around Easter time when we expect many new families to come visit.  Our church knows that NEW families is what fosters healthy growth to any community and we are eager to ensure that those new to the area know we are here for them.  It is this value on young families, that drew us to Clovis Hills to begin with when we landed there nearly 11 years ago.

Ground Breaking for the new Clovis Hills Community Church Playground, Winter 2014
Ground Breaking for the new Clovis Hills Community Church Playground, Winter 2014

In fact, we found our church only after trying out a couple others that didn’t work out for one reason or another.   Out of ideas where I might take my family, I suggested to my wife we just try the church that met at Alta Sierra Intermediate School gym.  With it being only about a 1/2 block from our house, at least it would be a short walk home if it, too, didn’t work out.   Our community of Clovis is very church friendly with the public schools permitting church plants like ours use to be to meet on their campus on Sundays.   It turned out that moving to our home was most providential for the proximity to what became our first family church; we fell in love with the church the first day we visited it and both kids did as well.  We’ve been attending Clovis Hills ever since!

In 2004, a year after we started to attend, the church acquired and moved on to 40 acres of land across the street from what is now Clovis North High School and the local 2 year community college, Willow International.   They had just completed a large sanctuary and two separate classroom/smaller worship centers for the children’s and youth ministry.   The church is now in the middle of a campaign titled, FOR HIS CHILDREN, and is the source of funding for the playground and renovations of our children’s area.  We also plan to build a shaded meeting area outside our entrance to make it more inviting for visitors to come and stay afterwards.   Clovis Hills is always being innovative in being family friendly.   They hold regular carnivals and festivals for kids of all ages.   They invite Parker, the Fresno Grizzlies AAA ball team mascot, to the campus to promote a Family Game Day at the ballpark.   This coming Easter weekend, they will have a helicopter come by and drop eggs on our campus!   How fun is that!

Parker greeting kids in the Clovis Hills Courtyard
Parker greeting kids in the Clovis Hills Courtyard
Kids painting pumpkins at the Clovis Hills Pumpkin Party
Kids painting pumpkins at the Clovis Hills Pumpkin Party
End of Summer Party Bounce House Extravaganza
End of Summer Party Bounce House Extravaganza
Flyer for the upcoming Easter 2014 Services
Flyer for the upcoming Easter 2014 Services

Beyond these renovations, there is much excitement about what lies ahead for the remaining 40 acres that have not as yet developed.  I’m certain that God has even bigger plans for us now that we’ve landed in one of the more under developed parts of Clovis.   Over the last several years, I’ve served in various volunteer roles for the church to include Family Ministry Director, Trustee and now Elder.   It is exciting to be a part of it all.

I share my story to affirm Clovis as a great place to raise one’s family, and to share my gratitude to The Lord for helping me find such an amazing place for my family these past 11 years.  I don’t know how I could have engineered it better than God did to make it possible for my family thrive.  In fact, I’m reticent to take any credit for landing here so safely in Clovis; after all, as you may have read in my earlier story, I didn’t even want to move back here originally.

Yet God had other plans,… plans to prosper me and my family, and the blessing is He used the love I had for that family to draw me not just back to Clovis but back to Him!

My Family @ Clovis Hills Community Church, Christmas 2014
My Family @ Clovis Hills Community Church, Christmas 2014

Engagement to Leah…

Well, it has been several weeks  since you heard from me on this blog.   It’s been a pretty busy month or two but I thought I would take this moment,  on the occasion of Valentine’s Day, to share how Leah and I came to be engaged and I, thusly, became the luckiest guy in the world…

In my earlier story, How I Met Leah, I shared up through Leah’s first visit to the Naval Academy and our trip back to Fresno during summer before my Senior year.   Over the course of the next year, Leah would came to visit me two more times while I was still at Annapolis, once for Columbus Day, and again for my graduation that Spring.   She would also come visit me in the three duty training stations I had after commissioning.   I’ll leave those visits and experiences for later stories.

In March 1990,  I was on assigned my first ship, the USS Princeton (CG-59).   Life was good from my perspective.   What Leah and I had was awesome.   I cherished each of her visits and always longed for her whenever we were apart.    One day when I was home for a weekend my ship was in port, my Mom and I had a conversation.   Knowing I was very committed to Leah, she got straight to the point and asked was I going to marry Leah?  Before I could answer, my Mom further emphasized that if I wasn’t going to marry her, I should “…let her go”, as it wasn’t fair to Leah to make her think I was only interested in dating a woman that I had no intention to marry.   To be frank, I hadn’t really thought about the timeline on marriage.   I truly loved Leah and could see us married at some point but I guess I wasn’t aware that I had hit some time threshold until challenged by my Mom in this way.   The best part of my Mom’s question, however, was that I knew at that moment she was blessing the choice of Leah as my wife.  Given Leah wan’t Japanese like her, this was a major milestone for my Mom.

I then began the plan on how I would propose to Leah.   A friend of mine from high school’s Mom was a local jeweler, and I knew they had a pretty classy store over in Fig Garden Village.   I went there and met with her and her expert designer to craft a custom engagement/wedding band for Leah.   To this day, Leah is complimented on how beautiful the ring is.   I wasn’t making all that much money as yet, but I still wanted to buy something memorable and so dipped deep into my savings to buy the ring.

Being the romantic sappy kind of guy I am, my plan was to propose to Leah at Christmas.   Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf, in August of that year and that changed my plans dramatically. My ship, USS Princeton, had been scheduled to have a port visit to Vladivostok, USSR as part of an exchange of ship visits between their ships visiting the port of San Diego, CA.  Upon completion of that visit, our ship was scheduled to visit other countries on the eastern coast of Asia and return back to our home port in Long Beach, CA.   I was calling it “Peace and Love Cruise 1990” as we as a country were enjoying the blessings of the end of the Cold War with Russia.   The invasion of Kuwait changed that plan.   We would cut our cruise after the Vladivostok visit short and then return immediately back to the U.S.  and through the months of  October and November, ready the ship to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm by December.   I share the rest of that story in my earlier story, Princeton Mine Strike

With these change in plans, I had to rush the custom ring I had designed and being made for a Christmas engagement to be ready for a Thanksgiving timeframe instead.   Leah and I had Thanksgiving together with my family and that night after a romantic evening watching Cinderella on on her couch/futon at her apartment, I slipped the engagement ring on her finger.  Of course, she looked quite surprised as I had made no hint about the engagement.  Upon her seeing the ring, I then asked if she would marry me to which she said, “Of course!”   I exhaled with relief… yes, she wants to marry me too!

Our Wedding Bands
Our Wedding Bands

Much has happened since Leah told me ‘Of course’.   I know I haven’t always earned those words during my time as her husband, but I do know that God had a plan in that too.   To this day, Leah is always the person I go to find truth and meaning in my life.    She is both frank and honest yet ever loving and protective of my heart.   I am certain I would not be here writing these stories today if I had not heard the Lord echo her words, “Of course she loves you… just as I do…”

Thank you, Lord, for the example that we don’t always get what we deserve, but what your mercy and grace allows us to have anyways.   Being married to Leah reminds me daily how deep God’s grace truly goes.

…but I’ll leave those stories to another day.

Have a wonderful St. Valentine’s Day!  I pray you get to spend it with your loved one and celebrate the gift she (he) truly is!

A Kairos moment…

At church this past Sunday, our youth pastor, Jon Annin, gave a remarkable lesson on the the two ways we can view TIME.  CHRONOS or chronological is the typical way we view time.  In chronos time, one uses words like “second to second”, “minute to minute”, “hour to hour”, “day to day”, “year to year”, etc. to explain the passage of time.  Another view of time is called KAIROS.   Jon describes kairos time as “… when God infuses meaning into a moment”.   Jon further explains that  “…If you are just trying to get through time, you may miss the moment.”    I’m sure we’ve all had the experience from time to time stopping our busy day long enough to reflect on something that was said to us.   Or perhaps it was something we just read that had some poignant truth to it.   Or maybe it was just a meaningful song that evokes tears or a joyful memory.   Maybe it happens when we have a spiritually touching experience walking in the great outdoors.    On the occasion of Christmas day, I thought I’d share with you a KAIROS moment from my life.

This story goes back over seventeen years ago to the summer of 1996.   I had just turned 30 and was about 3 years into my second career working as an engineering manager for Stryker Endoscopy, a medical device manufacturing company in the Silicon Valley.   Leah and I had been married nearly 5 years, but as yet had no children.   I wasn’t really conscious of this at the time, but this was something that I learned was starting to become bothersome for my Dad.  He so wanted to have grandkids, my Mom would share later.  He particularly wanted grand-daughters and told Mom that whoever of his three sons did that first would get his “inheritance”.   I didn’t quite get why he wanted that so much at the time.   I was in the ‘zone’ at work and found what I was doing there more engaging then the thought of starting a family of our own.  Leah and I seemed to have the ideal work-personal life balance so there didn’t seem to be an rush to have children.   My role had recently changed from supervising in the production area of the facility to some more exciting career opportunities in research and development.   I had the trust and respect of the VP who oversaw R&D and he was not shy about loading me up with increasing responsibility as I took on the supervision and management of the technical staff who supported the rest of his engineers.   I was also just getting to work more regularly on software automation projects which was where my passion was at the time.

With this as a background to this story, I remember spending some time with my Dad one dusk weekend in the summer of 1996 in the backyard at his home in Fresno.   Seeing that I had been working pretty hard on my career aspirations, Dad thought he needed to share his thoughts on making work such a high priority.   He said, “Son, I see you working real hard.   I know you think that will make a lot of difference in your life, but I think there is something you should know…”   My dad had a glass of ice water which he lifted up with one hand and said, “Son, if this glass of water represents your job…”  He then put his index finger on his other hand into the air and said, “… and if this finger represents you…”.   He then put that finger into the glass of water and then pulled it out  and said, “… you’ll notice when you leave work, there is no ‘hole’ left behind.”

He paused after that illustration for effect.  He continued,  “… you know they won’t miss you when you are gone, right?”   I reflected on what he said knowing the question was rhetorical.   Now, I would like to say at that moment, the sun parted the clouds and I had a moment of clarity that changed my life, but that isn’t what happened.   In fact, I felt quite the opposite.  I felt my father was trying to tell me something he himself never practiced.   I remember thinking (but not saying out loud), “How hypocritical!…”  For you see, making work a primary focus is exactly what my Dad had done most of his life (and most of us Dads do if we were honest). Further, I admired him for being as industrious as he had once been.  I would regularly describe to others that my Dad was a ‘self-made man’ and, in that dimension of life at least, I wanted to be just like him.

Like father, like son...
Like father, like son…

Some quick history on my father may help explain this view.  Dad quit school in the 8th grade, then joined the Navy in 1956 at the age of 17.   He was VERY driven to succeed despite all the challenges that not having a high school education makes for someone.   Despite this constraint, I truly believe he became a greater success than many those who did have such an education.   Eventually, he would go back and get his GED and later do some college level work in business to train for his role in managing a district of retail stores that sold auto parts.   Along with working hard, he also played hard.   Dad smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life.  He also had a taste for beer and a habit for having a few to several each day.   Having his first heart attack at age 38 didn’t change that lifestyle.  He ended up having two more minor heart attacks each weakening his heart a bit more than the last.  A year before I went to the Naval Academy, he got a triple bypass and that seemed to help for a time.   Finally after having a stroke about 10 years later when I was 27, he finally figured out that he needed to quit smoking which he did as he also became forcibly retired.  For the next 3 years, he actually began to live what I would call a well balanced healthy life.   He took up the game of golf and played several times a week.  He truly seemed to be enjoying retirement.

Which brings me back to that fateful conversation in his backyard.   For what I didn’t know was that Dad must have been feeling regular pains in his chest because he said things that were uncharacteristic of him.   One conversation was about how I had better take care of Mom when he was gone or else, “… I’ll come back and haunt you”, he emphasized.   I dismissed this talk as just ‘passing time’ that warm summer evening but in retrospect I think these were premonitions of things to come.   A month or so after that conversation, Dad tried to call me at home. In the middle of that call, I received another and told Dad to hold on as second as I clicked over to the other caller.  I don’t remember who I was talking to but apparently it was more important to me at the time, as I forgot Dad was on the other line.   Eventually Dad gave up and hung up telling my Mom I later found out that he was really hurt by my forgetting about him.   Clicking off my Dad on the phone was the last time I spoke to him.  For you see… (forgive me as I wipe away the tears as I write this…)… he would have his fourth and final heart attack later that month, a day before his 58th birthday.

The next several days were a blur.  I rushed home from our Bay Area home when I got word of his heart attack.  He didn’t die immediately, but because too much time had passed before the EMT’s from the ambulance arrived and got his heart beating again, he was in ICU with what was most certainly permanent brain damage.   He was being kept alive through apparatus that breathed for him.   Seeing him like that remains a very difficult memory for me to share.   Unlike the last conversation I had with him, he had nothing but my attention from the moment I walked into his hospital room.  As the rest of my family needed to get some rest, I told them I would like to stay with him overnight and would call them if anything changed.   I sat there besides his ICU bed on a chair until 8am the next morning.  I don’t remember sleeping much that night. When my Mom came back in the morning, she forced me to go back to her home to get some sleep promising me they would call if something happened.  On the way back to the house, they called and said I needed to come back right away.  By the time I got back, Dad had passed away.  Despite knowing this was inevitable, I was still absolutely devastated that, again, I wasn’t there when it happened.

Not having Dad around became a very difficult void to fill in my life.  I did my best to ‘work my way’ through it, by owning all the preparations for Dad’s funeral and follow up memorial service.   I guess I thought If I was busy no one would ask how I was doing or handling all of this.  I remember at the funeral/memorial service several people came up to me and said things that worked against this strategy.   One person said, “… you know he so wanted you to have some grandchildren for him”.   “Really?!  Do I need to have that guilt right now?!”, I thought to myself.  Another said, “you know your Dad told me he learned a lot raising you kids…”   Again, I thought, “Really??  I never remember having that conversation with him. That sure would have been nice had Dad said that to ME instead of just his friends…”   My memory of learning things with Dad was that it was more one-sided meaning I was the one getting all the learning.   That is a lesson I have tried to carry over to my own kids and that is to tell them when I learn things from them so they hear it from me directly.

The biggest lesson from my Dad passing away become a KAIROS moment several years later.  I have come to the realization that Dad was really reaching out to me in a way only his passing shortly after that last conversation could teach me.   If you wait too long to be “in the moment” while you put in “your time” into your job, you risk missing out on the blessings God intended for you.   These blessings can be shared between any two people for a time, but ultimately is ONLY sustainable if BOTH people are committed to the relationship.    My personal experience has been that adding additional loved ones into the mix makes this exponentially more difficult.  My faith tells me that ultimately my capacity to love another can only be sustained if I first have a committed a relationship with Jesus Christ.   Until my Dad died, I would never understand that work would never give back to me in the measure I gave it.  In contrast, Jesus death on the cross gives back to all who believe in Him consistently and immeasurably regardless of their past efforts or their transgressions.   A belief in Jesus then permits me the capacity to love others as He loves me while putting work into its proper place in a well balanced life.   As the apostle Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)

Jon closed his sermon on Sunday with this thought,  “Jesus invites you to take this time and make it a moment”.   Being conscious of being in the moment is a discipline one can hone through prayer and thoughtful reflection on the promises God’s makes to each of us in his Word.   My own father’s passing began the process that has taught me discipline as you have read in “My First Story” in this blog.   I am so grateful to both Our Father in heaven and my biological father for making the sacrifices that made my life redemption possible.  It brings a smile to my face to think my Dad is with the Lord and they are having a nice chuckle together as I share this story with you.   He can’t but be beaming with joy as he too sees the grand-daughters he had so hoped for be the appropriate priority in my life.  I prayerfully work on ensuring my children continue to witness my actions and not just my words alone honors that my Dad’s early passing was not in vain.  I invite you, my dear friends, to hold me accountable to do the same.

I pray this Christmas day that my story may also help some of you find your own KAIROS moment this holiday season…

Merry Christmas!

On a journey…

Last month, over fifty men from our church, Clovis Hills Community Church, participated in the annual Hume Lake Men’s Retreat.  There were over 700 attendees from 26 churches from around the state of California there with us.   Our church this retreat each fall either a Hume Lake or Wonder Valley since I began attending in 2003.  The first retreat I attended was in October 2003.  As I reflect on the seven retreats I’ve attended over these last ten years, I realize how much my view of this event and my life in general has dramatically changed. Each year I go, I return charged up again to meet the challenges of the world that await me as we return “to the valley” from being “on the mountain”.  On this Thanksgiving Day, 2013, I want to share with you this story about my first retreat I attended to express my deep gratitude for how much the Lord has blessed my life since that time.

This story picks up where my FIRST story in this blog left off.  Though it was a huge burden lifted off me that my wife had found The Lord at the same moment I had recommitted my life to Christ, I still felt unsettled.  Knowing the amount of time I had been away from any church influence had been roughly 20 years was very convicting.   I never felt more isolated and alone those first 6 months living back in Fresno.  As most all of my closest friends at the time still lived elsewhere, it just seemed like I didn’t have anyone to share my burdens with besides Leah and by this point she had grown somewhat weary of my neediness for comfort and reassurance as I adjusted to my new career in a Healthcare IT role in Fresno.

My work situation in Fresno was becoming increasingly stressful as I knew I was not as much a fit in the specific role I had been hired for.   My role with my prior employer in San Jose grew to involve my managing engineers, machinists, technicians, networking specialists and other skilled engineering support staff involved in medical device and software development.  In my new role in Fresno, I was now managing very seasoned caregivers (nurses, therapists) who were assigned as Information Systems Analysts to ensure our systems considered how clinicians worked not just those who had saavy info-tech skills.   The types of temperaments between my prior work and this group and the work each did were considerably different and I was having difficulty adjusting to leading this team.   It was a trying time for my new direct reports as well as they adjusted to my style of management honed over years of working for a for-profit medical device company and prior to that as a US Naval Officer.  Yet, I attribute this misalignment to be all God’s plan in that (1) I would not have moved back to Fresno EVER if I waited for a Medical Device or other engineering role to open up there and (2) He had plans beyond simply carrying my own sense of self reliance / self worth in work that I had developed in my past two careers.

I had been going to Clovis Hills for nearly 3 months by the time I recommitted my life to Christ.  The church met in the gym at the middle school we lived near which was in part one of the reasons we had tried it out.  I liked to “hide” in the bleachers as to avoid being spotted by someone spotted me from my past.   I forecasted being asked “… where have you been???” and then find myself having to explain the long neglect of my faith.  Even after God restored me and my wife through the acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ, I still had this haunting sense that I had to make restitution for my past neglect.

In this context, my life came to a pivotal turning point the week after that Sunday in October over ten years ago.  Knowing I was feeling isolated from my former friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, Leah suggested after church that I consider going to the church’s Men’s Retreat to meet some NEW friends.  As I was still feeling apprehensive about meeting anyone I might know or worse exposing my sense of vulnerability to a bunch of men I didn’t know, I meekly acknowledged her counsel saying I would check into it at the retreat info table outside the gym.

Checking out the materials on the retreat felt akin to being in the self-help section of a book store where you hope no one would notice you standing there.  It turned out there was a gentlemen behind the table who would not make this experience just a self guided one.  While looking at the brochures and the information at the table I tried to look like I didn’t notice him.  After a moment of silence, he asked the inevitable question, “… so what is your name?”   “Jerry Dickerson”, I answered sheepishly, expecting a cordial if predictable, “Well, it’s nice to meet you…”   Instead, his answer was a very emphatic, “… THE JERRY DICKERSON?!” indicating surprise that someone he knew so well went to church here.  I looked up and realized it was Phil Dodd, the father of a longtime school friend, Patrick Dodd.   Patrick and I had attended the same churches through much of my junior and senior high school years.  In fact early in my faith journey, Patrick and I played church basketball together.   Knowing Patrick was a young man of great faith during those years, I naturally remembered that having much to do with the influence of his father.   And here was Phil at that very moment recognizing me when no one else had for nearly the entire time I had been at Clovis Hills thus far!

This was a providential moment as my drift from faith began my senior year in high school.   My not having a regular mentor to hold me accountable as I went on to the Naval Academy, however, was a big reason I stopped viewing that going to church as important.   In fact, I started to coin the phrase “… MY church is wherever I go…” to suggest I didn’t need to be at a single church to be faithful.  I think this is a trap that most college age Christians fall into.  At this age, we tend to think our ability to reason things out amongst our intellectual peers is indicative of “enlightenment” and that “religion” is for those who have less capacity to think things out for themselves.   The way we rationalize (read ‘rational lies’) during these early college years is a subtle but common tool that Satan uses to encourage our self-deception thus making us less impactful to the Kingdom of God for this period of our lives.  Worse, not only does our self-deception hinder our own spiritual growth, it influences those who once looked up to us for our faith in God.  I personally know of several friends who observed my walking away from faith my senior year in high school as in part a rationale for their own drifting.

… yet God had a plan even in this!   For the moment Phil Dodd saw me at the Men’s Retreat table that fall Sunday afternoon, I felt “found again”.  For such a Man of God to still recognize me had to be God’s hand!  For the next half hour or so, Phil and I talked about all sorts of things.  He showed genuine interest and compassion for me personally and spiritually, something that I hadn’t felt for some time.  He never judged me for the past as I had feared might happen and in fact made me feel like it was just yesterday the Patrick and I had just graduated from high school.  As I reflected on the profound spiritual influence he had on Patrick and the reality of the loss of my own father seven years prior to that meeting that afternoon, I immediately viewed Phil as someone who could mentor me in a father-like way.   Longing for the conversation not to end, I helped him pack away the Men’s Retreat table materials and talked with him all the way back to his car long after everyone else had left church.    He had clearly made it seem very reasonable to get over my apprehension about going to the Men’s Retreat and so I signed up that afternoon!

At the Men’s Retreat the following weekend, I spent the couple days trying to meet and get to know other men who went that year to Wonder Valley.   This is where I met Patrick Vance and Doug Griffin, two great Men of God, and in a later Retreat, Tim Henry all of whom would later have great influence in my spiritual walk.  The main friendship that was deepened that weekend, however, was with Phil.   It was an experience I will always mark as the ‘low water mark’ in my descent into spiritual irrelevance and a deep depression about a life that seemed to have become inconsequential.  Feeling my life was ‘in the weeds” and very vulnerable, I asked Phil to help me find what purpose God had intended for my life going forward.   I did this in writing on a feedback card I think was meant to give to the Men’s leadership team for the retreat but I chose to give it directly to Phil instead.   He kept this card in his Bible and showed it to me again later this card as I think he cherished the sincerity in which I wrote it.

Phil’s response to my card was to invite me to go “…on a journey” together using a study called Operation Timothy (OT) as our guide.  Phil had been inviting many men on such a journey successfully in the past though I was unaware of it at the time.  He was known around the church as “Obi Wan” after the Jedi Knight who mentored Luke Skywalker from Star Wars.  I could not have chosen a better partner for this study as it turned out that Phil was the ministry leader of OT with 85+ men he’s taken through it to date!  He holds the title of “Elder Emeritus” for Clovis Hills Community Church having helped the Senior Pastor, Steve Davidson, along with their wives found the church over 20 years ago.  Phil was Steve’s original high school church teacher and mentor in Dos Palos many years ago.   Like me, Steve sought out Phil’s mentoring early to start the journey they are on together at Clovis Hills to this day!

Operation Timothy is a study designed to take two people through a spiritual walk together with the intent to have the typically older and wiser ‘Paul’ disciple the typically younger ‘Timothy’ much as the original two apostles did together helping plant churches along the way.  When I accepted Phil’s invitation to go on a journey with him, he became my ‘Paul’, and I became his ‘Timothy’.   For the next 18 months, Phil stepped me through each of the four books of the study, each going succeedingly deeper into scripture and how to apply it in one’s life.

During this 18 month journey, I began the transition out of the work role that was not working out and into my current role of Project Manager (PM), a role I truly God designed me for.   Fortunately, God was also looking out for me in my work setting for he brought around me a couple very capable executives who had tremendous capacity to mentor me professionally, David and Darrick.   Both of these men had served in Chief Information Officer roles prior to coming to Community Medical Centers.  They both saw I would be a far better fit as a PM then a manager directly of Clinical Analysts.

David at the time had been a contract Project Manager himself, taught me how much more influence one can have through projects without necessarily having the authority one has with Direct Reports.   I am very grateful to David particularly for having taken a chance to hire me out of a Medical Device engineering role straight into Healthcare IT largely on the basis of finding out I had graduated from Annapolis.  It turns out David, a former Army officer himself, lived and commuted from Annapolis, MD each week in his contract role with our hospitals.  He not only admires the Naval Academy for what it produces in future Naval Officers, he also sponsors midshipmen to visit his home as part of a program to give those far away from their families a home away from home.   It is by God’s hand I am certain that I met David, as I’m sure anyone of faith knowing my story would agree that my resume would have likely been overlooked if David specifically not made that connection.

Later, I met Darrick who took over as the Director of our Clinical Systems team and became my Manager as David returned to the Project Management role he was originally hired for.  Darrick, a man of faith and deep conviction himself, had a long successful career in Healthcare IT and helped me adjust to this new role of Project Manager.  I am very blessed to have had his support during this tumultuous time in my life.  His affirmation was a huge reason I didn’t simply give up and quit during this transition.   Between Phil’s spiritual mentoring and the professional guidance of these two men at work, I have landed well in my work, ministry and other roles in the community.

In quick summary of these past ten years, I found work life balance at last which in turn has permitted me to focus on my marriage and my role as father to two daughters who have personally witnessed my life change in becoming a dedicated disciple and follower of Christ.   I view the life change of my wife and daughters, in turn, as the VERY BEST demonstration of God’s plan to redeem my past life.   For you see, God has purpose even in our deepest most troubling times in life as evident when you see those you love come to find the same hope you have in Christ.  My return to Christ is living proof that fathers/husbands can and often do have the greatest influence in the spiritual walk of the rest of their family.

This story of the prodigal son is a timeless one and I believe my story is a retelling of it.  I saw recently a post by a dear friend who shared a link about why millennials are leaving the church in increasing numbers.  The statistics are pretty sobering… Over 90% of our youth leave the faith for a time as I once did.   Fortunately a similarly high percentage ultimately return to that faith.  This return happens at some time in life… some sooner, some later (… after 20 years in my case), but the key is that it happens quite often as Grace makes it all possible.  We are all in need of a Savior who doesn’t care as much where we’ve been but where we are going.   Fortunately, Jesus Christ came to save the world not condemn it (John 3:17 NIV).

I am VERY blessed that I re-learned the nature of my personal relationship with Jesus.  To prove that HIS Grace was real, I truly believe He arranged the circumstances which I would not only recommit my life to him but that I too would be refound by my friend and mentor Phil Dodd.  “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV).

Phil remains my mentor and dear friend to this day.   Each year, we take a driving trip to either one of the wildlife preserves on the valley floor or to the foothills near Fresno in the early Spring to reflect on what God has done in our lives the past year.  Seeing the birds thrive in the wetlands, the flowers bloom and the normally brown foothills green at this time of year is a great reminder that our Lord grows things quite well after a long cold winter.  There are other stories of my desire to ‘press on’ that stem from this providential meeting with Phil at the Men’s Retreat Table in October 2003… but I’ll save those stories for later.  Until then, I encourage you too, to reflect on what you are most thankful for and PRESS ON…

Patrick Dodd and me c. 1978 on the Northwest YUG (Youth Under God) Church Basketball Team

Patrick Dodd and me c. 1978 on the Northwest YUG (Youth Under God) Church Basketball Team

Phil and I "birding" at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in January 2009

Phil and I “birding” at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in January 2009

Phil Dodd, Tim Henry and me at Hume Lake Men's Retreat,  October 2010

Phil Dodd, Tim Henry and me at Hume Lake Men’s Retreat, October 2010

Phil and I on our continued journey in the Foothills near Hensley Lake, March 2011

Phil and I on our continued journey in the Foothills near Hensley Lake, March 2011

Princeton Mine Strike…

After celebrating Veterans Day 2013 yesterday, I thought it apropos that I would share one of my own ‘veteran stories’ from my days serving in the U.S. Navy. First let me say this story as really not something on the order of a Battle of the Bulge, Midway or D-Day or anything of that sort, but for me at least, was as exciting a time as I’ve ever experienced during my five years of active duty service as a commissioned officer after graduating from the Naval Academy.

You will see after reading this story that I have the unique distinction to have served onboard one of two ships that was struck by mines during the Gulf War in 1991 while participating in Operation Desert Storm.   My ship was the USS Princeton (CG-59) and the other ship that struck a mine was USS Tripoli (LPH-10).  This story will give you the reader the first person’s perspective of what it’s like to operate a ship in “harms way” which is what the US Navy was and remains designed to do in defense of our country’s national security.

The mission of the US Navy is “…to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.”  An application of that mission came to bear during the Gulf War in 1990-1991.   Our ship was one of the latest of the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruisers at the time, and was assigned the Air Warfare Commander role in the northern Persian Gulf in support of the pending ground war with Iraq.  This particular cruiser was equipped with vertical launched surface to air missiles housed in silos on the fore and after part of the ship that could all be simultaneously launched if needed. These missiles would be controlled the then state of the art air/surface radar system employing steerable beam tracking that permits the ship to actively track hundreds of airborne contacts and engage  incoming hostile aircraft or missiles to include low flying surface to surface ones if necessary in full “automatic mode”.  As this made us the most capable Anti-Air warfare platform in theater, we were particularly well equipped to handle practically any kind of shipborne, air or land based attack by the Iraqi military forces. Thus the decision by the fleet commander to  assign us the mission to provide air warfare protection for the over 30 ship Amphibious Task Force operating off the coast of Kuwait and Iraq in support of the Theater Commander, Norman Schwarzkopf’s strategy to deceive the Iraqi military commanders into thinking we planned to amphibiously land on the beaches of Kuwait.   The strategy’s intent was to force the Iraqi military to stay locked down in that locale while permitting our ground forces to do an “end-around” into Iraq directly and trap those forces in a pincer movement that turned out to work perfectly.

I thought I would first share some background leading up to the events that make up the main story.   In August 1990, the USS Princeton was en route to visit Vladivostok, USSR.   We were one of two ships, the other being USS Reuben James (FFG-57), to visit this port since before World War II (1938). As the war with Japan and later the Cold War with USSR precluded our US Navy ships to visit this strategic Russian port, this was quite an exciting historical milestone to be part of.  The year prior to this visit, the wall between East and West Berlin was tore down symbolically representing the end to this Cold War between our two nations and the start of the “Glasnost” era that began toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency who worked closely to achieve this “detente” with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian premier. With this as a historical back drop, our ships visit was part of an exchange visit with Russian vessels visiting San Diego similarly to help further the new found peace between our two nations.

Unfortunately, in the midst of our visit symbolizing the end of this near 45 year stalemate between our countries, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, decided his own country would annex the nation of Kuwait, an oil-rich country near the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia and just south of their own Iraqi port of Basra at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf. The United States having strategic economic interests in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait immediately took Saddam Hussein to task for this invasion as an act of war on a sovereign nation. The United Nations agreed with then president George H.W. Bush and gave him the authority to put in immediate economic and military sanctions on Iraq as what became known as Operation Desert Shield. That Operation which lasted until January 15, 1991 had the main purpose to provide ample time for the US and her allies to build up military ground, air and sea forces in the area to first be able to defend Saudi Arabia from being invaded and later to then forcibly remove Iraq from Kuwait if other economic sanctions did not succeed in getting Saddam to leave Kuwait.

Rather than cancel our visit to Vladivostok, the 7th fleet commander, Admiral Charles Larson, who was traveling with us on USS Princeton chose to complete this historic visit.   Admiral Larson still had the task to then ready us and the rest of the Pacific Fleet to support our preparations to support Operation Desert Shield and later once the air war began Operation Desert Storm. We finished our landmark visit of Vladivostok then quickly returned to the United States to ready our ship to be deployed back to the Persian Gulf by year end. In that time, the crew of USS Princeton had to take care of personal business and ready themselves for war. On December 7, 1990 our ship got underway from her home port of Long Beach Naval Station and began the cross Pacific transit to the Persian Gulf. After a brief visit to Subic Bay, Phillippines for the New Year, we steamed at top speed to enter the Persian Gulf on January 13, 1991, two days before the beginning of the air war and the official start of Operation Desert Storm. For the first 3 weeks, we steamed closely behind USS Midway (CV-41)  on assignment to provide air guard duty.   Midway was launching and landing aircraft nearly continuously for these first few days of the air war and we kept close astern of the carrier in case one of the aircraft were to ditch upon launch or landing.   USS Midway was one of two aircraft carriers operating in the Persian Gulf launching aircraft attacks on Iraq (the other was USS Ranger (CV-61) who we had steamed across the Pacific with en route for the Gulf.   The aircraft aboard these carriers along with those the Air Force stationed in Saudi Arabian bases were used to methodically destroy all the above ground radar, anti-air SAM and gun emplacements for this phase of the air war against Iraq.   Our other role was to ensure Midway was protected from any air attack by Iraqi jet or land based missiles. With warnings that Iraq had at its disposal chemical/biological weapons, I remember this being a particularly stressful time and we did several drills where we practiced donning chemical protection suits and discussed how we would self administer antidotes to any kind of biological weapon like anthrax should Iraq choose to use such weapons.  Also during this Air war phase of the Gulf War, our ship was ordered to launch three Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise missiles on Iraq.

The air war, though quite effective at neutralizing any Iraqi Air Force threat, did not succeed at convincing Iraq to exit their ground forces from Kuwait, so by mid February, plans were made to begin readying for a ground offensive. Our ship was reassigned to the aforementioned Amphibious Task Force under the direction of the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), the command ship in charge of overseeing the “feint” amphibious landing of Kuwait being planned. On February 18, 1991, three days before the ground war would begin, knowing we were the ship most ready and able to take an incoming missile attack, and given there were intelligence reports indicating that some surface missile batteries had gone active on the Kuwaiti coast, our Commanding Officer (CO), Captain Ted Hontz, directed our ship to operate as close to the coast of our Kuwait that are operating box would allow us to be.  Captain Hontz was well aware that if one ship could react and engage an incoming threat it would be Princeton with its sophisticated suite of Aegis radar and surface to air missile systems.  Given the relative vulnerability the balance of the amphibious ships were to such an attack, Captain Hontz view was both quite brave and the most practical use of his command.

It was in this tactical situation, that I found myself, the Officer of the Deck (OOD) coming on watch at 7am in the morning of February 18th. As OOD, I am accountable directly to the CO for directing the watch team on the bridge to maneuver the ship per the CO’s orders. I had been OOD qualified since we first came into the Gulf and was accustomed to being in charge on the bridge when the CO was not there, but this morning was different.  Captain Hontz was already on the bridge, and as I was coming up to the bridge to stand my watch, I learned why.  Before taking the watch, I made my standard visit to Combat Information Center (CIC), the compartment just below the bridge where one gets the tactical situation based on the various radar systems and other intelligence available.  That particular morning, I found out that the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) had been struck by a submerged moored mine just below the waterline punching a hole in her hull. Though there was flooding on the ship, it had been contained and so they were still operational if somewhat compromised. The disconcerting part of this information was that Tripoli was 10 nautical miles further out from the Kuwait coastline then we were.   Our location was consistent with the CO’s orders to be closer to the known threat of surface missile batteries becoming active on that coast. Basically, that meant we, like Tripoli, were in the middle of a minefield…

So, as I came to the bridge to take the watch at 7am, the CO was on the bridge. It was clear to everyone the risks were high and so we were only moving at a minimal 3 knots to keep from drifting while still giving us maximum opportunity to spot any other mines under the surface akin to what hit the Tripoli. After I assumed the watch, the CO knowing we were as close to the edge of our operating box as he was permitted to bring us, commanded me to bring the ship around on an easterly course about 180 degrees from the direction we were heading.   When a ship is traveling this slow, it is equally slow to come about, so to speed our turn, I ordered the conning officer to back the starboard (right) engine 1/3 while forwarding the port (left) engine 1/3.   What this does to a two propeller ship is to cause it to pivot in place rather than actually turn through the water. Given that we wanted to proceed cautiously to avoid mines, this maneuver made quite a bit of sense.   In fact, that decision may have very well have saved the ship.

The problem was that we were actually unknowingly between two submerged Italian made “manta” mines that were lying on the bottom of the water which was roughly 60 feet in the area we were operating.   This type of mine is not set off by contact but by pressure typical of a caveating propeller or bow wave caused by a ship moving through water.   The closer mine was off our port quarter and as we pivoted our stern in the direction of that particular mine, the pressure wave caused by our propeller detonated that mine and began to lift our stern out of the water.  That mine set off a second mine off our starboard bow sympathetically and caused us to rock vigorously back in the other direction.   The combined trauma to the ship severely damaged the stern of our ship and one of the propeller shafts thereby making us dead in the water.   Additionally, several pipes internal to the ship burst and we eventually had to secure air conditioning which meant a temporary shutdown of our air defense radars and thus missile systems.  In sum, we became a big metal sitting target and extraordinarily vulnerable to missile attack.  Further, three of our crew on either end of the ship were thrown around quite violently and had to be airlifted off the ship for medical treatment.   Why I said above that the decision to pivot might have saved the ship was that these mines had they been set off amidships (center of the ship), we might have been completely lifted out of the water thus breaking our keel in two and thus sinking rapidly.  Rather, we ended up only turning into the mine rather than going over it and so the damage was thus deflected.

Through the valiant reaction of a well trained crew on damage control, the ship’s air conditioning and thus defense systems were restored and we were able to resume Air Warfare Commander role for approximately 30 hours until were relieved later by another cruiser in the area, USS Horne (CG-30).   Until then, without the ability to turn our port shaft/propeller, we had to await to be pulled out of the area by a salvage and rescue ship, USS Beaufort (ATS-2) preceded by a mine sweeping ship, USS Adroit (MSO-509), who ensured the area around us was cleared of any other mines.  It was a pretty stressful time as I remember being in a modified General Quarters status for all that time living with the very real threat that we actually might still lose our severely damaged stern and possibly sink.

Fortunately, we were safely towed out of harm’s way and eventually found ourselves in Bahrain where we were provided sufficient repairs to continue our journey further south first to Jebel Ali to offload our weapons and then on to Dubai, UAE to a dry dock for further repairs for an additional 8 weeks.

In late April, we were finally back underway under our own power again after being awarded the Combat Action Ribbon for our wartime action.  En route back to the Long Beach, we made a trip down below the equator after passing Singapore so we could hold a Shellback ceremony, then stopped again in Subic Bay Philippines, Hong Kong, and then Pearl Harbor Hawaii where we picked up family members for a Tiger Cruise which included my Dad, a former Navy veteran himself.   When we arrived back in Long Beach, we received a hero’s welcome that I’m sure seemed well deserved to those who greeted us upon arrival.   Despite the earned accolades, it still seems to this day humbling to those of us on the crew knowing we had simply heeded the call to serve our country during wartime and had in fact encountered military action.

Though it was a harrowing experience to hit a mine, none of us went into this thinking we would be heroes.  Mostly we were grateful that we were able to serve our country and return safely to our loved ones.   I am in particular grateful to have served alongside all the sailors and officers of USS Princeton and will remember fondly the time I called these men my shipmates.   We have plans as a crew to have a twenty-five year anniversary reunion on February 18, 2016 to memorialize the events that day we struck the mine.  I am looking forward greatly to seeing these shipmates once again!

Persian Gulf showing path Princeton took from mine strike to dry docking in Dubai UAE
Showing approximate location of Princeton mine strike relative to Kuwaiti/Iraq Coastline
Steaming near USS Midway (CV 41)
Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile launch on Iraq!
View of Port stern where steel girders were welded to support heavily damaged fantail
Picture of superstructure cracked by the violent trauma to ship by two mini strikes
Starboard side view of buckled deck near fantail
View of Mine Damage from fantail showing metal rope welded to superstructure and deck to further support heavily damaged fantail
Dad and me in Pearl Harbor as we pull out of Port for the last leg of the trip home...
My wife Leah crying tears of joy upon my safe return to Long Beach
Welcome home sign for me and my Dad who joined me for the last leg of the cruise from Pearl Harbor back to Long Beach...
Welcome home sign for me and my Dad who joined me for the last leg of the cruise from Pearl Harbor back to Long Beach…

ADDENDUM:   February 18, 2017… on the occasion of our 26th anniversary of the mine strike on USS Princeton.   A year ago we celebrated our 25th anniversary by visiting our ship homeported in San Diego.  We were blessed to have the chance to visit her current crew and get a VIP tour of the ship we once fought to keep afloat and ready for combat during the ongoing Gulf War.   I share here the memories of that visit and the reunion last year on this NEW Princeton Mine Strike Crew Website where I hope we get to share many future memories in the years ahead.  

How I met Leah…

On occasion of our 22nd wedding anniversary this past weekend, I thought my next story would be how Leah and I came to be a couple. As you begin to learn more about me, you probably are starting to see I’m a bit of a sentimentalist. Leah describes me as much more romantic than her. Well, you all that know her, do you blame me? … and those who don’t know her, well, if this sappy intro hasn’t dissuaded you otherwise, I invite you to read on…

I met Leah in December 1986 in Fresno at a mutual friend of ours Greg Bear’s Christmas party while I was back home from Annapolis. I remember her being very smartly dressed in a jacket with the sleeves rolled up halfway.   She was quite attractive, a quality about her that remains with her to this day…. As a true blonde, she stood out as at the time many of Greg’s other friends had dark and generally jet black hair, dyed or otherwise. It so happens that I’ve always had a preference for blondes and so I was admittedly very attracted to her from first seeing her that night. Being that I was home from Annapolis, I felt a bit of an outsider at Greg’s party.  Most everyone else were amongst his circle of friends from Fresno City College.  Being that I’m less than comfortable in situations where I don’t know people in the room, I was mostly quiet that night, something Leah would share with me that she noticed about me.   She would also share later that there was something different about me then the other guys I hung out with that gave her a sense that I could be trusted.  In retrospect, I attribute that to here seeing Christ in me.  Despite my not making Him the center of my life and increasingly becoming more self-willed, I believe the 6+ years of being a Christ-follower through High School is what Leah saw in me at the time.   I’m absolutely certain that God had a plan in this, I just was oblivious to it at this point in my life.   I just found her to be VERY attractive and that needs no further explanation…

For what I will share was a motive to see if I could get to talk to Leah at some point, I hung out later than most did that night albeit I never had the courage to introduce myself to her. In fact, we both ended up crashing there (… ok friends think PG not R please). It was just a wise thing not to be driving that late and so it was purely a means to end the night safely. Girls in one room, Boys in another. In fact, I remember I got the easy chair in the living room as my place to crash. In the later morning, the 6-8 of us hold-outs started to congregate together in one room as each us woke up. It was during that small talk that I think Leah and I made eye-contact and it did seem like she noticed me. I thought, “YES!” to myself, “…maybe it was ok to be the only one with a military style hair-cut in the room!” I don’t know if I actually ever really said anything specifically directed to her, but I was truly hoping she didn’t write me off as too “conservative” for her tastes given most of her and Greg’s other friends didn’t seem at all to relate to me.

The morning ended and we all dispersed. The next chance to meet Leah occurred a day or two after Christmas. I was hanging out at Greg’s house again, and Leah decided to drop by. She sat near me and we made small talk. I noticed she had a “menthylyptos” kind of fragrance to her and so I boldly asked her what that was. Leah then flirtatiously blew her breath my way explaining it was a cough drop as she was getting over a cold. Later she would share that was basically trying to make sure I knew she was interested. Well… friends, it worked!

Later in the week, my friend Greg suggested that we double date.  He was going out with another girl at the time and suggested that maybe I ask Leah out.  I was very excited about the chance to date Leah, so jumped on the opportunity to give her a call.  Unfortunately, it turned out that Leah had other plans already the evening that was suggested, something at the time I took to mean she was really not interested after all.   Though she consistently reminds me to this day that she truly had committed previously to attend a friend’s farewell party, I tease her to this day that I was expecting the next excuse to be a “… I have to wash my hair” tonight.

All was reconciled a few days later on New Year’s Eve.   I was invited to a New Year’s Party and I was hopeful that Leah would be there.   When I arrived, I went to grab a beer from the keg that was in the kitchen and low and behold there was Leah.   We saw each other and it was clear to me at that moment she was truly happy that I made it.   We basically made a connection as I poured her a beer and we’ve been inseparable ever since.   “This Buds for you, Jerry”!  It was raining that evening and at the stroke of midnight we decided to get a moment alone outside to bring in the New Year.   Leah remembers that the song, “The Walk” by the Cure was playing earlier that evening…

I called you after midnight
Then ran until my heart burst
I passed the howling woman
And stood outside your door

I kissed you in the water
And made your dry lips sing
I saw you look like a Japanese baby
In an instant I remembered everything

… and so we kissed for the first time out in rain in the middle of the street.   I was in heaven if for just a moment.

With my flight back to Annapolis was scheduled for January 4th, we spent the next three days together nearly non-stop.  We had our first real date together for lunch at The Golden, a chinese restaurant in the Tower District in Fresno, a place we go to this day on occasion where our anniversary lands on a weekday that I’m at work downtown.   We also went to Roeding Park to just spend the day in each other’s arms.   It seemed much too quick when it came time to pack my bags and head back east to school for the Winter/Spring semester.  I promised Leah I would see her again that summer when I was back in town and we said our good-bye’s.

Now I know most would not believe this, but it is a matter of record that Leah will affirm to this day that she fell in love with me over those three days in early January 1987.  I know this because it was something she wrote and told me in a letter after I returned to Annapolis.   I wasn’t expecting this, so I was quite taken aback by her taking such a risk emotionally only having just gotten to know me over such a short period.   I’d say something self serving now like, “… what’s not to love?”, but those who  know us both and would quickly remind me that I was truly the lucky one.   Maybe I could have taken advantage of that situation, but it actually made me quite beholden to Leah that she trusted me that much to tell me that in a letter so boldly and matter of factly.

We called one another frequently those months during the winter. With each call, I began to feel the same about her that she did about me and eventually I decided to ask her to come visit me in Annapolis and be my “Ring Dance” date.   This event is when Juniors at the Naval Academy become Seniors as the graduating class get their diplomas and commissions in the US Navy.   At that point, the new Seniors get to wear their class ring and the christening of that moment occurs when each midshipman brings a date to a dance and they both dip the ring into a brass bowl filled with the waters from the Seven Seas.   It’s a ceremony rich in tradition and is one of many events that make going to Annapolis a very special experience. I gave Leah a week to think about whether she was up to coming and during the following week’s call, she said she would love to come.   I told her I would arrange for the flight and we could split the cost.   Feeling bold, I suggested that maybe to save the cost of the return flight, that maybe she would consider driving across country with me?   I had purchased a 1981 Corvette and planned to drive it back home that summer and it seemed a perfect opportunity to do this with Leah.   I again gave her another week to think about it and hoped that she would take a chance on me… She apparently asked Greg about me and he apparently endorsed me as someone he trusted… thankfully!   When I called back, I was elated to hear that she accepted that invitation as well.

Leah came out in May 1987 for Commissioning Week.  We had an awesome time with all the graduation week festivities including the Ring Dance.  I took her out to dinner that evening at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.   She stayed at a “drag house”, the name of the places where dates of midshipman stayed when they were in town.   The owner of the house she stayed out was an elderly couple who themselves dated when the husband went to Annapolis.   It was truly a very special week and I have very fond memories of the time and how beautiful I remember Leah looked in her Ring Dance dress.

Leah and I in front of a replica of a class ring with Naval Academy crest shown.  Leah is wearing my class ring around her neck.
Leah and I in front of a replica of a class ring with Naval Academy crest shown. Leah is wearing my class ring around her neck.
Leah sitting pretty on the grass watching the Blue Angels during Commissioning Week
Leah sitting pretty on the grass watching the Blue Angels during Commissioning Week

After graduation week, we began our journey back to Fresno by car.  We took the highway out of Annapolis heading west through Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia eventually getting on Highway 40 which we took the rest of the way across the country.   We stopped at my grandmother’s house and my uncle’s as well in Carthage, Tennessee where my Dad had grown up.   When the weather permitted, I took the T-tops off the corvette and we enjoyed feeling free as the wind blew by.   What an awesome trip that turned out to be.   We both agreed that we must have been destined for each other, because after a 5 day trip where there was just the two of us 10-12 hours a day driving, we figured we would really be anxious to get home if we found out we weren’t really all that compatible.  It turned out to be quite the opposite as neither of us can remember an awkward moment or time where we didn’t feel like the trip didn’t go perfectly.   The only anxious moment I had was arriving in Fresno wondering how my Mom was going to react to my being on the road with this woman who she had never met as yet…  My mom being Japanese, I feared, would not take kindly to Leah a blond american.   It worked out after all and so I was relieved.

Leah at I at the rim of the Grand Canyon on our way back from Annapolis
Leah at I at the rim of the Grand Canyon on our way back from Annapolis

There are many follow up stories to ‘How I met Leah…”, ones I’ll save for another day.   As you read in my inaugural story, God had a much bigger plan in bringing Leah into my life than I would have ever imagined.   SHE would later bring me BACK to HIM in a way only the one who truly loves you can.   So I’m eternally grateful to HIM for bringing HER to me, a woman that only GRACE could explain why she would find ME as lovable as HE did… and like HIM, I would die for HER as my partner, my best friend, and most of all my first love in this life.   (Ephesians 5:25)

My First Year at Annapolis…

My oldest daughter, Elowyn, is a Sophomore this year at Buchanan High School. I had the joy this past summer of starting the journey with her deciding where she will eventually choose go to college. If you follow me on Facebook, you know I’m quite proud of Elowyn as she is an incredibly gifted artist.  I view it as important that she explore where she might best thrive with this and her other God given talents. To this end, in August, we visited California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, a beautiful school nestled in the hills north of Oakland. This past week, we also attended a Christian College fair at her high school, and because of her passion for the Arts, we narrowed the choices to those schools whose Art programs are a clear emphasis.  We now plan to visit each of these and other campuses where art is also an emphasis in the coming year so she will know and thus own the choice of school she will ultimately go to.

USNA  Class of 1988 Crest  "Sibi Aequum" - latin for  "To Thine Own Self Be True"
Class of 1988 Crest
“Sibi Aequum” –
latin for
“To Thine Own Self Be True”

My own journey in selecting a college began in 1983.   My father encouraged me while I was a Junior in high school to apply to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Up to that point, I frankly hadn’t put much thought as to where I might go upon graduation. First, let me say, I consider it a great privilege and honor to represent my home town of Fresno, California in having attended Annapolis.  Just this month, many of my classmates got together for our 25 year graduation reunion.   Although I was not able to attend this reunion, I am proud to call myself a fellow ’88 Classmate and consider many of them amongst the finest people I have ever gotten the privilege to study and later serve alongside in the US Navy as commissioned officers. It is fond memories of my classmates who have been quite active on Facebook this past reunion weekend that inspired me to make my second story to be about the events that led up to and got me through my first year at Annapolis.

I received my appointment to the US Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1988 while completing my senior year at Bullard High School in 1984.   I first learned of my appointment in February when I got a call from the USNA Admissions office.  Though quite excited (and anxious) about being selected, I was also quite quite surprised.  I did have the Academics, SAT Scores, and other community activity involvement to qualify for admission, but I was absent any Varsity Sports participation, which 9 of 10 appointees have.  Because of the quality of the Academics and the fully funded nature of the Education, Annapolis is amongst the most competitive and selective schools in the nation. Each applicant must get a congressional nomination and less than 10% of applicants are ultimately appointed each year. Given this, I just presumed that being passed over for appointment was probably very likely (and deep down, at least at the time, I would not have minded that outcome).

Graduation Night -  My Bullard High School Diploma in Hand,  I'm ready for the world or so I thought...
Graduation Night –
My Bullard High School Diploma in Hand,
I’m ready for the world or so I thought…

So… when the person from the admissions office called to tell me I had been selected for appointment, I was floored.  I just hadn’t planned on this happening and was more counting on other colleges that I was awaiting to hear from.  In fact, I later received an acceptance letter from UC Berkeley,  a Navy ROTC scholarship option to USC, and acceptance to the local university, Fresno State.   Of the options I was considering, UC Berkeley was my preferred choice.   As you learned from my first story, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, was a highly desirable outcome for me.   Interestingly, living in the Bay Area is now my daughter Elowyn’s first preference after visiting CCA.  In my case, I had the dilemma of having an appointment to the Naval Academy, a place I had not visited to compete with Berkeley, a place that I had.  There had been the opportunity to visit Annapolis the summer of my junior year in High School, but because of a scheduled open heart surgery for my Dad, we couldn’t afford me to go. This made the choice to go to Annapolis one I would have to make based on faith alone without any meaningful experience with the place.  Because of this personal experience, I’m being much more purposeful today in helping Elowyn’s choice of college be HERS and not mine.

To best understand why I made the choice I did, I need to describe a bit of my Dad’s history.   Dad was from Carthage, Tennessee.   He had quit school in the 8th grade and joined the Navy in 1956 at the age of 17 because he wanted to get out of his hometown to see the world. He was a Navy sailor through and through and rose to the rank of Senior Chief Petty Officer before a heart attack forced him to retire.   I respect my Dad a great deal. He was a self-made man that I truly admired for what he was able to accomplish even though he never finished high school. [Nov. 18, 2018 Addendum: I shared the rest of my Dad’s story in Ode to GMCS Robert A. Dickerson, USN]  My Dad, conversely, had a lot of respect for those who graduated from Annapolis and so strongly encouraged my application there.   When the choice came to the Annapolis or Berkeley, the capital of the liberal world that my politically conservative father so disdained, my Dad made it pretty clear if I chose the latter, I’d be on my own.   Even if I put his influence aside, it would have been pretty hard to turn down a fully funded four year top-notch college education like Annapolis particularly knowing we were of limited means to afford me to go to UC Berkeley without a scholarship. For those reasons, despite my anxiety of not knowing fully what I was getting myself into, I made the decision to accept the appointment to the Naval Academy.

I arrived in Annapolis on July 5th 1984, a day before Induction Day.   When I stepped off the plane at Baltimore Washington International, it was a hot humid summer that day in Maryland.  The terribly oppressive humidity had me second guessing immediately if I was going to be able to handle  the climate change.  I had not been on the East Coast since I was first born in Portsmouth Virginia at the Naval Hospital and so was use the very “dry heat” I had grown accustomed to in the California Central Valley.   And it got worse… when we arrived, we were given a pre-Induction briefing about the campus and what to expect.   The person briefing us, a First Class Midshipman, shared some bad news. “Sorry, but the Air Conditioning is not working here today… “, he explained then paused for that to sink in.    He continued, “…actually it hasn’t been working for about 140 years since they opened the place.”   The subtle biting humor was a clear hint of the mind games to be played on us later that were yet to come.   On top of the climate change, the anxiety of the hazing that would follow induction made it difficult for me to sleep that first night in Annapolis.  The next morning, I woke up with eyes bloodshot.  This being noticed by those checking in the incoming Plebes, I was escorted over to the Brigade clinic for a check-up.   I remember hoping that the problem was in fact an incurable medical problem, and thus would disqualify me from attending. I guess I was looking for an honorable way out of a decision I wasn’t all too sure about, but it turns out it was just what it seemed, a young nervous Plebe that didn’t get enough sleep.  I wasn’t going to get out that easily…

Plebe Midshipman taking their Oath of Naval Service on Induction Day
Plebe Midshipman taking their Oath of Naval Service on Induction Day

Sure enough my anxiety was well founded…  After swearing the Midshipman’s Oath of Service to the US Navy along with my other 1350+ classmates, we all said our good byes to our loved ones (well the rest of my classmates did, I came to Annapolis alone actually).  We then hurried back to our assigned rooms knowing the hazing by the “Firsties” (First Class Midshipman or Seniors at the Naval Academy) on Plebe Summer detail would begin as soon as we got there.   As a newly appointed Plebe, we had completely given up all the things one would normally call rights only to receive them back one at a time as privileges over the next four years as midshipmen.   We are called “Plebes” as freshmen as a reference to a “Plebian”, or the ancient Roman term for a person of low rank.   The yelling began even before we could get back to our rooms.   No one was immune.   Every Plebe was a target and there was no where to hide.   The first several days was a blur.   I remember not being able to do anything except urinate when I went to the bathroom for nearly a week.  Leaving your room made you target of opportunity and so you learned to remain unnoticed whenever possible.

Plebes in fomation studying Reef Points
Plebes in fomation studying Reef Points

Wherever you went as a Plebe, you spent every spare moment memorizing your rates from “Reef Points”, the collection of all the Navy trivia/facts you had to know verbatim and be ready to rattle off to a Firstie whenever they might ask you them.   If you didn’t do so successfully, it was an invitation to be singled out and yelled out all the more.   Every meal, we were also required to do “chow calls” where we had to stand outside our room or at the end of the hallway to remind the other midshipmen that it was nearly time for formation (essentially a time to check in and be accounted for) prior to every meal. We had to rattle off the menu for that meal else face the wrath of those listening carefully to ensure we got it right.

Morning PEP
Morning PEP

Every morning that first summer would begin at 5:30am with an hour of PEP or Physical Training (PT).   I was probably less prepared for this then most of the other Midshipman. This was because in addition to not being much of an athlete prior to arriving at Annapolis, I had developed a bad habit of smoking clove cigarettes my senior year in high school, a habit that switched to regular cigarettes later.   This made me all the less physically prepared for the rigorous PT that all Plebes were required to endure.   For the first week, because I struggled to keep up, I was put on the ‘sub-squad’ and forced to wear my PT shirt inside out until I could get in good enough shape to keep up with the others, something I became highly motivated to do.   It is amazing what a week of being singled out in such a way can do to make you work toward getting in shape.

Plebe Summer Parade
Plebe Summer Parade

Much of the summer indoctrination focused on making us disciplined in preparation for becoming officers in the US Navy or Marine Corps.  We learned to march, sail, prepare our rooms and our uniforms for inspection and many other things one that separate you from being a civilian.  Though we could “drop on request” at any point, one thing they made clear was that quitting during the first six weeks of Plebe Summer, that it would still require that you stay on the campus “mowing lawns” and other busy work while you watch the classmates you left behind continue to strive on.   In the end, most Plebes decide to hang on.  I had one roommate that first week of Plebe Summer, however, who decided it wasn’t worth it and so rather than simply quit, he indicated to the Firsties in charge of us that he was planned to kill himself with his bayonet.   We were issued these dulled blades as part of our summer parade gear which included an old World War 2 vintage M-1 rifle that had the firing pin removed. Both these weapons were meant purely for show and had no military value whatsoever, though my roommate thought differently about his bayonet that day.  He just wanted out and felt that was the quickest way to go about it.  It worked, we never saw him again. I’ve heard they stopped issuing these bayonets in recent years. I am guessing other Plebes have threatened themselves over the years similarly…

One thing you learn when you lose all your rights to as a civilian, is to depend on your classmates who are all persevering through the same hazing with you.  There were roughly 36 other Plebes in my company and we were all getting yelled at collectively.   We learned to look out and when possible defend one another as the only ones you can count on which is exactly one of the primary purposes of Plebe Year. With exception of my one roommate, the balance of my classmates and I made it through the rest of that first summer, the toughest 6 weeks of the first and toughest year at the Academy.   One of those classmates in my Plebe company, Al Perpuse, who survived this year with me, later become one of my best friends once we graduated from the Navy, a story I’ll share in a future story.

Me and Mom outside of Chauvenet Hall during Parent's Weekend
Me and Mom outside of Chauvenet Hall during Parent’s Weekend
Me In the Lobby of Mom and Dad's Hotel during Parent's Weekend
Me In the Lobby of Mom and Dad’s Hotel during Parent’s Weekend
Me and Dad outside 7th Wing of Bancroft Hall during Parent's Weekend
Me and Dad outside 7th Wing of Bancroft Hall during Parent’s Weekend

The first 6 weeks took a toll on me physically and mentally.  By the time Parent’s Weekend came around in mid-August, I had lost roughly 15 pounds.    I was already quite slim to begin with so by the end of Plebe Summer, I looked somewhat like I had endured a trial in a concentration camp.  When my parents came to visit, I think it must have been frightening for them to see how pale and thin I looked.  I think about my Mom seeing this dramatic change and how much she must have been brokenhearted for me, I being her youngest son.  [Addendum – 5/14/2014] On the occasion of Mother’s Day 2014, I thought I would amend this story to include my Mom’s perspective on what I went through this Plebe Summer. She wrote a poem I titled, “An Ode from Mother to Son” and shared it with NHK, a Japanese TV station that broadcast this poem and my Mom’s feelings about what I was going through. It was touching and so I thought I would share it with her and now you all so you can see what a mother goes through when her son goes off to ‘Military School’…

Her heartbreak, in turn must have taken a toll on my Dad as well. By that weekend in August, after enduring many a call home from me about how rough this place was, he offered that I could come home indicating there would be ‘no shame’ if I did.   I had thought about quitting every day that Plebe summer and I must have made that clear to him on those phone calls. Between the fact they wouldn’t just let you leave those first six weeks, and watching my roommate try to leave in the way he did, somehow by the grace of God, I was able to endure that challenging first six weeks..   Now that my Dad gave me that option, however, the irony was that was the day in their hotel room, I somehow found the courage to commit tearfully to them that I was going to make it NO MATTER WHAT they would do to me.  I rationalized that if I had made it this far, and that was supposedly the hardest part, I can certainly make it to at least Christmas.  Besides I didn’t want the decision to have quit haunt me the rest of my life.

I think I earned a lot of respect from my Dad that day. They hugged me and said goodbye at the end of that weekend knowing the next time they would see me was that Christmas. Some particularly cruel upperclassman on campus during the summer played “… I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” by Bing Crosby on their stereos with their speakers blaring out into the courtyard for all of us sobbing Plebes to hear as our parents dropped us off. It’s kind of hilarious recollecting now that they did that although I’m sure it seemed much less funny at that moment.

Thus, by the end of Plebe Summer, I had hit the bottom point mentally and emotionally, and from that day forward it was all a slow steady climb persevering through the rest of my Plebe Year.   The rest of the Brigade returned shortly thereafter for the start of the Fall Semester. Instead of having only a few Firsties on Summer Detail to yell at you, you now had the all the Seniors and Juniors (aka Midshipman Second classman) to haze you as well. The Sophomore Class, also known as ‘Youngsters’ are assigned to help you through that first year having just recently been Plebes themselves.   The Juniors were called “flamers” and were particularly charged to carry on the hazing on the Plebes through the Academic year. I lost another roommate that Fall semester as he concluded it wasn’t worth it and dropped out. Offsetting the intensity of the first 6 weeks of Plebe summer was the rigorous course work during the academic year. The upperclass were required to leave the Plebes alone after 7pm when study hour would begin and end at 10pm when it was lights out for us. This is one of the few times in life when I could remember actually looking forward to homework and studies at night.

Despite the stressful first year challenges of Plebe year, there were certainly highlights worth noting.   We were assigned “sponsors” in the Annapolis area as many of us being from all parts of the country did not have any relatives nearby. My original sponsors were from Severna Park, Maryland and they would come by on Saturday to pick me up so I could get a respite form the yelling and stressful environment in the dorms. They were truly a blessing that first year as they did a good job being proxy parents/guardians to us in that vulnerable first year at Annapolis.  I am grateful that the Academy offers such a program.

Then there was Navy football. One VERY memorable game that semester was played in Annapolis in mid November pitted Navy versus South Carolina, at the time the #2 ranked team in the nation. As usual, our upperclassman insisted we bet on Navy and give them ridiculous points spread. In my case, I gave the second class “flamer” in my squad South Carolina and 14 points. If he won, I would have to do chow-calls outside his room for the following week. If I won, he would have to do the same for me. Of course, with South Carolina being 9-0 and on track to go to the Orange Bowl for the National Title game, the chance of my winning were the same as a snowball’s chance in hell. But somehow that ‘snowball’ made it through and Navy won that game 38-21 upsetting the Gamecocks chance at a national title something that they remember us for to this day. I made the most of the week of payback to the second class being able to yell at him for the week outside my room. I believe my ‘chutzpah’ actually earned their respect from the upper class for rubbing it in that week. Though that ended up costing me a lot of his own payback in the weeks that followed, it was well worth it.

Army - Navy Game in Philadelphia.   Plebes from both Army and Navy lining up to bring in their team
Army – Navy Game in Philadelphia. Plebes from both Army and Navy lining up to bring in their team

Then there was the annual Army-Navy game in December when the upperclassman laid off the yelling as we all rallied around beating the Army football team in this annual classic.   There are many spirit related activities that week to include putting up ‘sheet posters’ with slogans like “Beat Army!”, “Go Navy!”, and having a huge bonfire the Thursday night before the big game. Though we lost that first year I was there to Army, it was still a pretty special experience to be part of the Brigade of Midshipman to include marching onto the field at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, something I would repeat doing all four years I attended Annapolis.   Every year, during this one week, we midshipmen all became equals as all of our energy was focused on beating the Army opposition. It’s a fun week to be at Annapolis realizing what a rich tradition you are privileged to be a part of.  This is a tradition, that many who know me well, lives on to this day.   Every December, I make it known my allegiance to Navy remains as strong as ever as I share a bold “Go Navy! Beat Army!” to all around me the week leading up to the game and generally host a party at my house to watch the game with friends and family.

Me in my Service Dress Blues and Dad pose at home during Christmas.  I gained much of my weight back.
Me in my Service Dress Blues and Dad pose at home during Christmas. I gained much of my weight back.

I received many letters that first year from my friends from Fresno.  Their encouraging words went a long way to making that first semester bearable.  Another key highlight was coming home for Christmas. It was pretty cool that my best friend from high school, Michael Ringer, insisted I keep on my Service Dress Blue uniform I was required to wear traveling home that first night I got back into town and we went to hang out with our other friends.  It was almost like he was as proud of me as much as anyone else.   It was both sobering and rewarding to hear from some of my other friends who said they were surprised I made it, as they had thought I would have likely quit at some point.   At that point, I knew I still had another semester to back to but more than ever, the worst seemed to be behind me.  I really had learned to handle a huge amount of stress albeit I wasn’t really sure that I always had a healthy attitude about it. I had felt I had given up so much and being away from the stress began to make me long for being free of persecution, something that would drive me to work harder than most around me.   This work ethic began to shape me in ways that you know from my original story and testimony, would eventually become less than healthy. For the moment, however, I became increasingly self-confident and that was what got me through that first year.

Plebe Herndon Ceremony
Plebe Herndon Ceremony

Second semester of Plebe Year seemed to go faster than the first and before I knew it Spring Commissioning Week was here as the Firsties finished up their last classes and qualified for their diplomas and their commissions into the Navy as Ensigns or the Marine Corp as 2nd Lieutenants. The kick off of Commissioning Week starts with the “Ain’t No ‘mo Plebes” ceremony as we as a class take down a “Dixie Cup”, our plebe year blue rimmed hat, off the Herndon Monument and replaced it with our normal midshipman cap. The monument is greased up with Crisco making it all the more difficult to scale. A funny fact is that our class had the worst record for length of time it took to remove the cap (over 3 hours and 12 minutes) until the class of 1995 topped our infamous time by clocking 4 hours to complete their ceremony. Regardless, we finished that task and became that day upperclassman ending for me what was the most physically and mentally demanding year of my life.

Though I would have had harder times emotionally and spiritually as my first story on this blog attests, I will always remember this milestone as a huge challenge that I endured, persevered and ultimately conquered.  If you read my first story, you know I have in the past 10 years, recommitted my life to Christ.   I made that decision after 20 years of having falling away from my original commitment to our Lord Jesus.   That 20 year journey “into the wilderness” began where this story began, my last year in High School.  Though I tried unconvincingly to keep my faith in Jesus Christ a priority at Annapolis that first year, I found  it difficult to share that faith while being surrounded by those who either had a goal to “break me” or those like me who learned to depend on themselves or one another.   It just became easier to skip going to Church and seek out other Believers as I developed a stronger belief in my own abilities.  I do NOT account for that decision to anyone but myself as I know there were other Midshipman who did not lose their faith along the way as I did.   I share this near the end of this story to explain that falling away from faith at this point was a part of what defined the path I chose to take and I am fully accountable for that decision.   But I’ll leave the rest of that story for another future post…

Though finishing up the remaining three years at Annapolis and graduating is a more rewarded and recognized milestone by others, surviving Plebe year I attribute as an accomplishment born more solely of my own self will to NEVER EVER give up.  Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and I learned to believe this was true having survived Plebe Year.  Though I would learn that there were clear limits to this belief later (Nietzsche was a theologian that lost his faith while I would refound mine…), this commitment to persevere through all hardship set me on a course of increasing self-reliance that would propel me through my remaining 3 years at Annapolis and the following 15 years of my work career and life.

My First Story…

I have been contemplating the last several months that I might start a blog to share my story – a journey that has taken me from the Central Valley of California where I grew up most of my childhood life to many places around the world as an adult.  As to why I’m writing this story now… Perhaps I’m feeling my age?   Maybe I have some wisdom to share?  …or maybe I just have too much time on my hands?   Well, whatever the motivation I invite you to read on….

Actually, I had been toying with blogging under the title “…A Story Worth Telling” for some time. The spark that made me decide it was time to publish this blog happened during LABOR DAY weekend after I came across in my readings an article from Harvard Business Review titled, “Please Stop Complaining How Busy You Are.”  While the article talks about good “time management” skills, I concluded that the claims people make of being “too busy” spoken of in the article actually mask our true priorities in life.   The fact is that when we tell people we are “busy,” what we are really telling them is how important our personal priorities are, and by inference, that they and their time aren’t one of them.  I have to admit I have said I’m busy for this reason many times throughout life.

The message and conclusion I invite you to draw from this?   I think it is healthy relationships with God and people and NOT just our jobs that are the primary outcome of good time management…

My most important relationship is the one I have with God.   This is a relationship made possible only through His Grace in that he allowed his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for each of us even though we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). My relationship with the Lord has been a story of personal redemption that transpired over a 26 year period of my life.  To keep this first post to just the specifics to my redemption and to entice you come back from time to time, I will leave out many parts of the rest of my story for future blog posts.

This FIRST story begins with my accepting Jesus as my Savior 36 years ago, in August 1977 when I was in grade school in Fresno, California. Things started out well enough. I didn’t seem to have much to be redeemed for at age 11, although I’m sure I was on track to need that Grace — even at that tender age. My family didn’t go to church regularly, so it was providential that I ever found the Lord at all. My brother became a believer a year before I did and because of witnessing his life change I decided I wanted what he had — a joy and peace I had never seen in him beforehand. His mentor, Bob, who led him to Christ, became my mentor as well.  One summer night after dropping off my brother following a Bible study, Bob invited me into his pick-up truck. He shared the gospel with me.  It seemed the “deal of the century!” God’s grace was free and I get redemption and peace that my brother had all by simply accepting that Jesus died on the cross for me? That’s a no-brainer!   I accepted Christ that night and it changed my life forever! I was so overjoyed that I ran into the house, told my Mom what I had done. My Mom is Japanese and was raised as a Buddhist so didn’t really understand the nature of grace;  As I explained what just happened to me, she said she wanted the same “deal”, so I led her to Christ that same evening!

The next several years were generally good as I did my utmost to honor my commitment to the Lord. By age 17, because of Bob’s influence, I was leading small group Bible studies in my home. I felt like I had a good handle on life and was on track to graduate with good grades and SAT scores. I had several college options and I ultimately chose the appointment to the Naval Academy as a member of the class of 1988.

Knowing the honor that comes with attending the Academy and being a family of limited means, my Dad (a retired Navy Senior Chief himself), pushed me strongly to apply.  Being the obedient son, I dutifully complied.  I began this process during the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. Knowing my life was going to change dramatically in the coming year after high school graduation, especially if I got into Annapolis, I decided I should “live it up” while I had the chance. At this point, I remember telling people my goal in life was to work hard so I could “do what I want, where I want, whenever I wanted to do it”. In the process of achieving that goal, I slowly became “too busy” for Church and what God called me to do as a witness to the salvation he freely gave me. My church attendance became sporadic, whereas nights out partying with my friends began to take its place.  When my appointment to Annapolis came in February of 1984, my sense that “time was short” increased dramatically.  I got more adventuresome in trying NEW things I would have normally said ‘no’ to before.  By the time I graduated I had stopped going to church altogether.   This became the start of my 20 year journey into the “wilderness” where my love affair with work and what I wanted to do became priority over my relationships with friends, family and practically everything else.

My Dad use to encourage me in my youth by saying “… anything worth having is worth working for” and boy did I buy into that concept.  By applying this work ethic to the extreme for these ‘wilderness years’ of my life, I found that work did prove to be means to get the ‘good things’ in life or so it seemed.   Many would describe me as a success, at least by the world’s measure during this time.  After graduating from Annapolis in 1988, I had a successful five-year career as an US Naval Officer.   This included wartime service aboard a Cruiser operating in the Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.  While in the Navy, I married Leah, and after finishing my second tour aboard an Aircraft Carrier stationed in Alameda, I resigned from the Navy and we relocated to San Jose, CA.   A productive 10 year career followed as Engineering Manager with a leading Medical Device Manufacturer in the heart of Silicon Valley.  While in the midst of my civilian career, my Dad had his third and last fatal heart attack in July of 1996.  Prior to his death, I truly believe my Dad had his own reconciliation with God about his own busy career in the Navy and civilian life. He tried to help me understand that work would NOT miss me someday.  It had forgotten him after he had a stroke three years prior and was forcibly retired.   He saw me repeating many of his same mistakes about putting work first over everything.  I was in the “zone”, however, and failed to see the wisdom of his words until nearly seven years later. I’ll share the rest of that story, too, in a future post…

Fast forwarding to 2003… In March, I had a fateful conversation with my wife during which Leah challenged me in a way that only she could. Leah is a person who I know truly loves me unconditionally and understands me better than anyone else I have ever known – she is my best friend and life partner. At that particular moment, I was at a career crossroads and I knew I needed her support – what she gave me was perspective. We both knew I clearly needed to find a better work-life balance; by this time we had two pre-Kindergarten daughters — Elowyn and Gigi – who were both suffering from my neglect, a neglect birthed of self-centered ambition.

At Leah’s encouragement, I interviewed for a job in our hometown of Fresno, where we both had family who she felt she could lean on when I was busy at work. While the interview went well and they offered me the position, I really didn’t want to move back; I felt like every time I saw someone I knew, I‘d be seen as a failure. So, ego firmly in hand, I told Leah I wanted to see how I would fare with other interviews I had lined up. The one position I really wanted was located in Oakland, CA. I enjoyed the Bay Area lifestyle and the feeling of significance that goes with living there, not to mention the familiarity that came from having lived there for more than a decade.  My still misguided instinct told me I needed to keep my work and personal network intact rather than go to what appeared to be career-ending isolation in the Central Valley.  That day in March, my wife had other plans as she gave me an ultimatum that day I desperately needed to hear.  She said, “I’m moving back to Fresno; it doesn’t really matter where you are, because you’ll be at work anyway…”  She further added, “… and I would rather see you work in a ‘gas station’ in Fresno than anywhere in Oakland.”

Her words had done it – I realized finally just what an obsessive and self-centered relationship I had with MY work. That obsession was akin to one with a ‘cruel mistress’ always wanting to know “… what have I done for her lately.” and yet it was never ever enough. In a moment of clarity, I saw something years of being a “closet Christian” had blinded me to:  True LOVE – meaning how God LOVES us — is UNCONDITIONAL.  It is NOT earned by what we DO, but rather is the gift of His Grace ALONE (Ephesians 2:8).  Leah’s words, though bitingly honest in her tone, said something I became deaf to from hearing from God — that SHE loved me for ME and not for what I DID for her. Amazing is a God who will use who WE love, regardless of where they may be at in their relationship with Him, to remind us of HIS love for us.  Valuing Leah more than anything else in my life, I agreed to take the job in Fresno and move our family back to my home town.

Though I finally put work behind my desire to restore the relationship with my wife and children, I felt constantly reminded of just how much I had lost. Those first six months back in Fresno saw me sink into a deep depression, like someone who had lost the most important thing in his life which for me, was my work career in the Bay Area. I began to strategize and even fantasize how I might get back there while my skill set as a project engineer/manager was still relevant. I would describe the experience as the equivalent of an alcoholic convinced he can have one more drink, or an addicted gambler who wants to play one more hand of poker.  As the chance of my getting my old “work groove” back faded, I sank deeper into depression — I was “stuck” in what seemed like professional purgatory in Fresno.  As it seemed that my colleagues at other companies continued to thrive professionally, it made my lost sense of self-worth all the worse. For awhile, LinkedIn seemed a tool my “cruel work mistress” used to torment me with what I lost during this time particularly given my only LinkedIn colleagues were from my former company.

Fortunately, in another moment of clarity, at the same time we returned to Fresno, I felt called to bring my family back to the Church. I figured, at the time, it was perhaps too late for me but at least my kids could find the hope I had encountered back in my youth.   Of course in retrospect, I can say that God had greater plans than just my kids.   Having avoided church since getting married 12 years earlier, however, I definitely felt apprehensive about the idea of going back to church.  I just was not ready to feel judged any more than I was already judging myself. Nonetheless, Leah, though not yet a Believer in Christ, was agreeable to the idea of finding a church for our family.  We tried out a couple of churches that for one reason or another didn’t work out. Then, we saw that a church was meeting down the street from our home   That church turned out to be Clovis Hills, which until 2004 met in the Alta Sierra Intermediate school gymnasium, less than a block from our house. We went as a family and we were smitten by the church the very first Sunday.

The first sermon series we heard that summer in 2003 was given by the teaching pastor at the time. The theme for the series was “Performance”.  The sermons included the premise that we all seek to outperform to impress others so that we can somehow overcome the sense of inadequacy in our lives.  Knowing just how obsessed I was with work, the topic seemed God-ordained. I began the slow painful process of overcoming my “grief” listening to the message of Hope each Sunday   My grief, however, was less about my lost father and more about my lost career (…grieving my father’s loss is a story for another day).  First, there had been denial and isolation as I tried to get my resume back out in the Bay Area believing I still had time to reverse the decision. I would even skip church several weekends and make last-minute plans to visit the beach in Santa Cruz near where we use to live just to feel “normal” again.  Anger and bargaining followed, as I tried to convince myself that bringing my family back to church would somehow earn me back God’s good will after years of neglect. When that didn’t work, I fell into a deep depression that I shared with very few people. Leah was the only one who could carry that burden with me and thankfully she loved me enough to see me through this very dark time in my life.

By October 2003, about 6 months after relocating back to Fresno, things had come to a head; work wasn’t going well, and a change was increasingly looking inevitable.  By then, the clarity from hearing the gospel over and over again at church each Sunday provided a window of hope for me. Then it happened.  It was the 17th of October.  As I reflected on a very moving testimony of a woman who had lost her baby due to miscarriage, I felt the Holy Spirit descend on me, calling me back into relationship with Jesus.  And as I finished that prayer, I looked to Leah and asked her a question for which I already knew the answer — she had prayed that prayer with me! Suddenly, years of not making Christ the center of our relationship was over! The burden I carried for 12 years of marriage of not professing my faith in actions or words was lifted!  With the help of Leah and several key men who entered this phase of my life, I began the slow steady climb out of a pit of despair that brings me to where I am at today, a redeemed and absolutely committed follower of Christ!

So, this past Labor Day 2013, I came to the decision that I would tell you this story of my work-life reconciliation as the first of hopefully many stories, mine and others, on this blog, A Story Worth Telling.  As you see now, my story worth telling is one of lasting redemption only available through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Though the details of my situation are perhaps unique to me, it is my hope that it is similar enough to many to be meaningful, particularly men, who face a similar idolatrous view of work and one’s own personal effort .  I suspect all of us can relate in some way to making something or someone a priority over a relationship God offers to each of us.  This relationship comes at no personal cost to us because He paid a price we could not afford to pay through his Son’s death on the cross.  I hope my willingness to share my own “too busy” for God story will encourage some own personal reflection?

Epilogue:  Much has happened since that day in the fall of 2003.  I am grateful to the very strong Executive management team’s support at my current employer as they helped me transition to my current role as Project Manager in a Healthcare IT department at Community Medical Centers.   This is a role I feel God designed me for.  Though proficient at what I do as a Project Manager, I value less the work I get to do and more the worthy purposes and the wonderful people I get to do these projects with and for.  I am especially blessed in that I found work-life balance that permits me to have time with my family that I neglected in my kids early years.   These are all stories for future posts and will commonly point to the day I recommitted my life to Christ I finally understood that:  Work, much like money, is NOT evil, but it is the love of them that is.   Our Lord wants a relationship with us, not with our job or other priorities.  It is these idols that we put before Him that keeps us from knowing his true nature.

Colossians 3:23 says that “…Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men”. When I got over my obsession with work, this aspect of my life was restored to its proper place.  Work is now just another means to demonstrate that I love and worship an all-powerful God who wants all of me, not just my productivity. Fortunately, God chose my wife to teach me that I am loved even when I didn’t love who I had become myself.

Hoping you had a relaxing Labor Day last week and maybe the opportunity to have been reflective as well!

Remember not to work too hard out there and become “too busy” to reflect on the gift of relationship that God offers you freely through His Son Jesus directly as well as through others who truly love you for you and not what you do for them!