The Lovers of Valadro

Thoughts from Dr. Joe They died young, probably during late adolescence. However by the looks of it, they were in love. Two 6,000-year-old prehistoric skeletons from the Neolithic period were found locked in an eternal embrace in Valdaro, near Verona, Italy, hidden from the eyes of humanity. It could be the oldest love story. Verona is where Shakespeare set the star-crossed lover’s tale "Romeo and Juliet." Incidentally Verona is the same area where Giuseppe Verdi set the opera Rigoletto, the story of doomed lovers. Archeologists believe the find has more emotional than scientific value. The lovers were adolescents of the Neolithic age, a formative period in the evolutionary development of society. It was during the Neolithic era when religious, societal and emotional sentiments were formed, particularly relative to family and village. Thus scientists and anthropological experts assert that the lovers’ embrace with arms and legs leave little doubt that their final connection was born out of deep sentiment. The remarkable story of the Lovers of Valdaro aligns with the aurora of love. Although we compose music, write love songs, prose and love stories we hardly scratch the surface attempting to intellectualize love’s phenomenology. Subsequently we encapsulate its mystery Read more

Channeling Father Flynn

Thoughts from Dr. Joe I first came face to face with Father Flynn in 1957; I was in the 5th grade. I had to answer for the D’s Sister Mary Judith gave me in behavior. Father told me I would hang from the flagpole at Saint Frances of Rome if I were to continue such antics. For the rest of that fall, I was his indentured servant. My servitude continued well after the fifth grade. I became his eyes and ears in the neighborhood, his muscle, and prosecuted his will in a tough Italian/Irish neighborhood in the Northeast Bronx. I was conscripted for life and couldn’t break the hold he had on me. Although Father Flynn has passed, I am linked to his memory. He was the reincarnation of Saint Ignatius Loyola and Genghis Khan. Saint Ignatius was a soldier before he found the Jesuits; Father served with the China Marines prior to ordination. It was rumored he became a priest to atone for the mayhem he cause growing up Hell’s Kitchen and what he did to the Japanese in the war. He was shrouded in mystery; that’s what made Read more

Thoughts from Dr. Joe

Finding the Spirit of Sacagawea

We broke camp early and headed south following the Yellowstone River.  Then, taking a quick jaunt through Western Wyoming we tacked our ship, pointed it west, and followed the Pacific sun.

This is my last write chronicling this Montana adventure, a class about Lewis and Clark and surviving on the land. I hoped to report back numerous findings; thus, I had scribbled copious notes all of which were inadvertently burned a previous night while starting a fire.

I told my students, a sense of history does not come solely from knowledge.  Sometimes one is guided by intuition. The land has its own mythology; visions come to me by something felt in the wind and something seen in a moving starlight night.

Subsequently I’ve been haunted by Sacagawea.  Her life is a mystery.  In 1800 she was kidnapped by a war party of Hidatsa Indians, enemies of her people, the Shoshone, and taken from the Rocky Mountains to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages in North Dakota. Historians cite that she was a remarkably beautiful woman. Later sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader.  Her only role in life was to bear children, and be an obedient servant to her man.  However, she was about to enter a grandeur stage.

In November 1804, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan village.  The Captains learning that Charbonneau’s woman spoke Shoshone agreed to hire him.  In February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, who became America’s youngest explorer.

In the wilderness, this 17-year-old girl carrying her baby was unaware of the role she’d play in the making of American history.  She quietly accepted her fate; however, she was the miraculous intervention that propelled the journey.  By mere happenstance and a succession of unwarranted interventions Sacagawea moved the journey westward.

Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste signaled peace and protected the expedition from attacks from indigenous peoples.  She taught the men how to find edible plants giving them needed vitamins and nourishment.  She rescued the Captains’ journals that fell overboard from a capsized canoe.  She brought a sense of calm to the Corps of Discovery as she nursed her baby amidst the men.

She knew many languages and customs, and interpreted at important Indian councils.  While negotiating for horses with the Shoshone Indians, the chief turned-out to be her brother.  She pointed out landmarks, which gave assurance that they were on the right trail.  She was the first woman given the opportunity to vote, thus helping the Captains determine where to camp in the winter of 1805.  It would be over 100 years before women were given this right.

Sacagawea died of putrid fever in 1812; she was 24. Captain Clark raised her children Jean Baptiste and her daughter Lizette. They would attend the finest schools in Europe.

Most of the Corps disappeared into obscurity.  John Colter became a mountain man, along with Jean Baptiste; Joseph Whitehouse and Patrick Gass joined the army; John Ordway became a farmer; York eventually got his freedom; George Shannon became a state legislator; the Blackfoot killed George Drouillard; Alexander Willard became a gold prospector, and Charbonneau an interpreter.

Captain Clark lived an esteem life and died an old man; Meriwether Lewis suffering from manic-depression and took his own life in 1809.

On the way home I thought of Jefferson’s words “…the work of Lewis and Clark was done for posterity…those who come after us will fill up the canvass we began.”  He did it!

Sacagawea was the miracle that promoted the deeds of worthy men.  The Captains found the Passage to India through her.  There are more schools and parks named after Sacagawea than anyone in American History.  But she lies somewhere in an unmarked grave, and mystery still defines her.  All I know is that we are better because she passed this way with the Captains.




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Finding Comfort in Yarnell Arizona

I find it odd that in the wake of the tragedy in Yarnell, Arizona where 19 hotshot firefighters lost their lives trying to protect property the world continues like nothing happened.  Although the flags are at half-mast and the communities of Prescott and of fire fighters mourn, we should take notice and light a candle and cry out to those who suffer, “You are not alone.”

The real tragedies with their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, and their absurd want of meaning remind us of the sheer brute force of life.  Subsequently we continue with our lives as a means of self-preservation.

In seeking the truest definitions of heroism we look to the actions of these men who ran toward a raging wildfire and who will never again return to their families.  They were individuals driven to extraordinary lengths to preserve the lives and property of their fellow citizens; they understood that every mission might be their last.

Members of an elite unit, they were trained to hike for miles across remote, difficult terrain with 40 pounds of gear including shovels, hoes and similar implements to the edge of the fire to try to establish cleared lines that will stop the fire’s spread. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were caught by an advancing wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona the town they were trying to save, when flames overran them. It was mass entrapment of an entire Hotshot crew.

What did they die for?

Hotshots put on a yellow shirt, carry 40 pounds of gear and put themselves on the flank of a fire where no one else will go to save the place you love.  They are trained to be the best of the best and are not supposed to take their last breaths inside the oven of a foil shelter, facedown on hot ground, gasping through the roar of a blowup.

But relative to the question as to the why of their deaths, every homeowner whose homes they went to save owes these fallen men an answer. More than ever, wild land firefighters die for people’s summer homes and year-round retreats. They die protecting property, kitchen views, dreams cast in stucco and timber.  The Hotshots were sent as the advance guard of a tricky fire to protect a former gold-mining community that had become a haven for retirees.

No one should die to save a house!  These men should not have been put in that position.  Yarnell had already been evacuated; the hotshots were lost trying to save not lives but houses. Homeowners living in wildfire-prone areas shouldn’t expect their highly flammable properties to be rescued during extreme fires.

I see parallels in Yarnell to the Vietnam War.  The insane rules of engagement, putting young men in harms way for misplaced motives, and the 19 body bags draped with American Flags remind me that young lives are never expendable.

I read Norman McLean’s, “Young Men and Fire.”  It chronicles the 1949 Mann Gulch wild land fire in Montana where 13 hotshots perished.  Wagner Dodge one of the survivors commented, “The fire exploded, forming itself into whirls sounding like a freight train coming out of a tunnel.  The wind created spinning fire funnels, it was a blowup with a solid front nearly 300 feet deep and 200 feet tall, a roaring 2,000-degree monster chasing the men up the mountain with the speed of a tornado.”  The men died by suffocation as it burned all the oxygen out of the air.

I went to Mann Gulch years ago and all that remains are concrete crosses where the men died.

The older I get the more difficult it becomes to understand the occurring tragedies of life.  But I know the 19 hotshots killed last week are with the Lord and all their tears have been dried, and I pray that their families are given comfort and grace.













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An Amazing Girl At Starbucks

Bethany Smedley was a little girl when she turned the cover of “Chasing The Dragon,” by Jackie Pullinger.  It’s the story of Jackie’s travels to Hong Kong to become a missionary.  Inside of Hong Kong was the infamous Walled City, Kawaloon. Strangers were not welcome there. Police hesitated to enter. Prostitution, pornography and drug addiction flourished. Pullinger had grown up believing, if she put her trust in God, He would lead her. When she was 20 years old, God called her to Kawaloon. As she spoke of Jesus Christ, brutal hoods were converted, prostitutes reformed, and heroin junkies found power freeing them from the bondage of drugs.

Jackie prayed, “Lord, it would be worth my whole life to save just one of them.”

Bethany paused; put her book down, and experienced an epiphany.  “I’m going to be that girl,” she said.  She answered what philosopher, Joseph Campbell called the “Heroes’ Journey.” Bethany, know as Smedley accepted the challenge and became the heroine of her own story traveling to Taiwan, Burma, Thailand, Mexico, and Costa Rica embracing the challenge that John Kennedy proposed, “Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

After traveling throughout Asia ministering to the spiritually inflected, the drug ridden, the politically and socially oppressed, and the sexually abused, Smedley is back home working and raising the funds necessary to support another mission.  She works at Starbucks in La Canada.  She’s the girl with the big eyes and the beautiful smile.  She’ll pour your coffee and make you feel like family.  She says, “Working at Starbucks is fascinating; everyone has a story.”  You ought to hear her story.  Next time you are in Starbucks, ask for Smedley.  Ask her about her story!

As a little girl, Smedley began proselytizing under the guise of her parents Jim and Karen, seduced by the Jesus movement of the 60’s.  Standing on the corner of a Hollywood intersection passing tickets out for God she would remark to the pedestrians, “Jesus loves you!”  Her message is not trite.  I have to tell you; during my darkest moments in Vietnam I found hope in the love of Christ.

Smedley became involved with ‘Youth with a Mission,’ studying Discipleship, Leadership, Liturgy, Evangelism and Ministry Development there-by receiving credits for a degree at the University of Nations. There she met the Free Burma Rangers who risk their lives traveling into the interior of Burma, passing out bibles, medicines, and supplies.  “I wanted to do something bigger.  I want to be a Superhero to save others.”  Her passion to serve was solidified.

Smedley learned what we should learn.  We are larger than we thought we could be and that following a quest gives us experiences that enlarge our humanity.  We are all called to a life larger than the one we are in and when we answer it we follow the heroes journey.

Bethany spoke of people eating out of trash dumps and living in squalor, girls being raped and families being persecuted.  “Life is short; there is so much need in this word; I want to leave my mark. I never felt more alive when I was ministering in a refugee camp or digging a hole for a latrine,” she said.

Her break was over; she had to resume her duties as a barista.  As she left she said, “I love living on the edge; riding on the back of a truck and staring at the endless rice paddies.”  I got it!  Thoreau said, “I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”  That’s what Smedley was doing!

I’ll leave you with a quote from King Solomon’s Mines, “If love leads you, and you hold your life in His hand, counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or to lose it as Providence may order, you can climb any mountain.”


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Preparing to Meet Grandfather Spirit

I’ve often remarked in Thoughts from Dr. Joe, “That life’s a dance and you learn as you go.”  Therefore, the simple act of paying attention enables one to learn, the greatest schoolmasters are the daily serendipitous occurrences that befall us.

Sergeant Winston taught me a valuable less when I was an Officer Candidate trying to survive the brutal reality of what it takes to lead men in combat.  He taught me, success in any endeavor requires more than praying the rosary, it requires preparation.  His lesson is reminiscent of the old Bedouin saying, “Trust in God but tie your camel.”

Sergeant Winston believed, “Preparation is an equalizer.” Success within the nuances of the Corps takes more than physicality and metal clarity.  There is a causal relationship between preparation and success; the best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today.

Sergeant Winston taught an unconventional methodology.  The way to prepare is to think negatively.  Consequently when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worse case scenario. If I do something, what is the most terrible thing that can happen?  What makes it possible to be confident is having a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose.  Thus there are many things I don’t worry about because I have a plan in place if they do.

By the time you read these words, I’ll be heading to Northern Montana with 12 students to canoe the Upper Missouri River following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.  This is my 31st year teaching western history, Native American Mythology, wilderness philosophy, and how to survive on the land.

It’s the consummate adventure! However, before I take the first step I remind myself that preparation must be done bit by bit. Nothing that means anything happens quickly.  Drawing back a bow and sending an arrow straight into a target takes only a split second, but it is a skill many years in the making.

In 1860 Sir Richard Burton, famed British explorer, departed for Africa to discover the source of the Nile. In his biography, The Collector of Worlds, Burton speaks to the unimaginable discoveries and experiences that he had garnered through exploration. However he proposes that without meticulous preparation such wonders would not have materialized.

Hannibal crossed the Alps.  Marco Polo left for China.  Magellan sailed west.  Huck Finn headed down the Mississippi. Amundsen raced for the South Pole while Perry went north.  Successful expeditions have one thing in common, preparation.

I worship at the alter of ritual and before each adventure, I undertake a succinct methodology.  I begin with myself, preparing both physically and mentally.  I study the saga of Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Lewis and Clark’s journey, and my account of leadership principles learned in Vietnam.  I am convinced that the success of any journey is predicated upon a prepared, spirited, committed, and competent team.  It’s teamwork! We leave our individuality in La Canada.

I test the ropes, the knots, the stoves, the tarps, the first aide supplies, and then I test them again.  And after that, I test them a third time. It is a meticulous attention to detail that enables us to walk the razors edge of an adventurous pursuit.  I don’t want to be caught on the Missouri River frantically searching for a lifeline that wasn’t tied properly.

They say no land remains to be discovered. But the whole world is out there, waiting, just waiting for me. “I expect to make great discoveries,” said Meriwether Lewis. I feel similar since my confidence is aligned with my preparation. If all goes as I predict, next week I’ll tell you about the ‘Grandfather Spirit’ in the Upper Missouri River in northern Montana.

Mohammad Ali once said,  I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.”




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In The Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

The journals of Captains Lewis and Clark are the most prophetic narrative of American History.  Thomas Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis to keep an accounting of all discoveries made on their trek up the Missouri River.  Jefferson was a visionary; consequently he taught Lewis to write with the poetry of imagination to insure their journals would be literary masterpieces.  On this Montana adventure they are my bible.

We put into the River at Coal Banks landing; the boat crews had methodically loaded the equipment to insure a perfect balance as we shoot the current of the Missouri.  I told my students that having balance is a lot like life; the Eastern mystics call it center.  It’s what Siddhartha searched for on his quest for the divine.  He didn’t realize that he already had it.

Prior to shoving off, I read the words of Lewis, “We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width.  The good or evil it has in store for us was yet to be determined, yet entertaining as I do the most confidant hope of succeeding in this voyage.  I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”

My students are pensive of leaving terra firma, but nevertheless we head for the center of the river. The current immediately takes us and swings us North.  All we hear is the rhythmic sound of the paddles as they dip and with a backward swing they dip again.  After an hour the sounds of laughter begin to emanate from the boats. Anxiety is a natural suppressant causing us to overcompensate in our focus.  However, confidence is gained through preparation, competence, and repetition.  By the late afternoon our crew is worthy of the Captains.

The Missouri is a river that speaks to the traveler, “I am a grandfather spirit; I have a life.”  It was the grandfather spirit that brought the Captains into the interior of North America.  If you listen close enough you can hear the river saying, “Follow me; great discoveries await.” Lewis and Clark, on the bidding of Jefferson and on behalf of America, headed up the Missouri on a vision quest.

The Corps of Discovery’s purpose was to proceed on with undaunted courage and face whatever challenges came their way. But a metamorphosis ensued where as the expedition members were transformed by the adventure and, through their encounters with their discoveries, the land became truly American. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s poem “The Gift Outright,” Lewis and Clark opened up an artless, unenhanced, and un-storied country and gave of themselves “outright” so that Americans could realize that the land was ours and we were her people.   In short, the expedition was nothing less than a holy act of national transubstantiation.

On our first evening I sat on the River bank, adjacent to a Lewis and Clark campsite listening to the sound of a crackling fire.  We were burning the dead fall of cotton wood trees.  They were the decedents of the same trees that kept the Captains warm back in 1805.   I watched the river flow toward the Mississippi and then to the Gulf of Mexico. We were at, ‘Hole in the Wall,” the very same spot where Lewis proclaimed the White Cliffs of Montana to be “Scenes of Visionary Enchantment.”  Almost to the exact day of our presence there, I read from the journal of Lewis.  “This immense river so far as we have ascended waters one of the fairest portions of the globe.  Nor do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country.”

The embers of the fire lost their glow and I crawled into my sleeping bag.  Tomorrow will be a new day with new discoveries as we continue in the footsteps of the Captains.






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