A visit to western Montana

I’ve been to Yoknapatawpha County, been baptized in the Southern Gothic, smelt the stench of Addie Bundren, and felt the passion of Atticus Finch. I saw Golding’s boys speak into the Conch and watched as Piggy was erased from time with the passing of the waves. Still, nothing had touched me so closely to the core as Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, until I discovered that a river ran through it.


In the year of our bicentennial celebration, Norman Maclean presented us with a gift – a 


treasure. He wrote a dad burn masterpiece, and I’ve read it a half a dozen times since.

“Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.”

Over the decades, Maclean has garnered somewhat of a cult following among die-hard fly fisherman – rightfully so – but Norman Maclean wrote about so much more than a bug floating upon big trout waters.

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to giveor, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.”

I spent this week wading the rivers of western Montana. I stood hip-deep in awe of the majesty of the Rocky Mountains and Maclean’s words penetrated me.

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

I’d like to say that I waded the same rivers as Norman Maclean, but Heraclitus taught me otherwise. No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Thus, my week on the Big Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork are forever memories, washed downstream through the currents of time – never to be repeated. I’ll cherish them and the words that haunt me.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”

The Roads We Take

I have a large network of business owners and senior executives that I communicate with on a regular basis. Routinely, I send them articles, words of wisdom, or motivational things I’ve run across. From time to time, they send me things. Yesterday, I received a package in the mail from the CEO of an Insurance firm. I had spent a day presenting to a group of CEOs last year and he was among those in attendance. He became a part of my professional network and decided to send me four books that had impacted his life. Today, I read one of the books and it made an impact on me as well.

I want to share a few takeaways from that book with you. The author of all four books is Richard E. Simmons III. If you’re not “religious” don’t be scared by the references. The message applies to all.

First let me share a story with you. As a young naval officer, Jimmy Carter interviewed for a position on a nuclear submarine.

“I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours and he let me choose any subject I wanted to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those things about which I knew most at the time – current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery – and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen. He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold seat. Finally, he asked a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, ‘How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?’

“Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered. ‘Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 820!’ I sat back to wait for the congratulations – which never came. Instead, the question, ‘Did you do your best?’

“I started to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ but I remembered who this was and recalled several of the many times at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, ‘No, sir. I didn’t always do my best.’

“He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget – or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?’

“I sat there for a while, shaken, and slowly left the room.”

What keeps people from maximizing their potential? What prevents them from becoming the person they want to become? We all have good intentions, but at the end of the day, it’s the direction of the path, not good intentions, that will ultimately determine our destination in life.

There is a word commonly used in Proverbs and Psalms. The word is “way.”

Proverbs 4:11 – I have directed you in the way of wisdom.
Proverbs 9:6 – Proceed in the way of understanding.
Psalms 119:104 – I hate every false way.
Proverbs 16:25 – There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.

The word way is derived from the Hebrew word derek, which means “road” or “pathway.” We are being told that each of us is on a road that is leading us in a certain direction.

Each of us is on a path right now, whether we realize it or not. And this path is taking us to a certain destination. The path we are on is not a respecter of persons; it does not care who you are or where you are from. It leads where it leads regardless of one’s talent, wealth, physical appearances, or social status.

Right now, you are on a physical health path and it is taking you in a specific direction. In all likelihood, this path will impact the length of your life and the quality of your life in old age. Likewise, your marriage is on a certain path at this very moment. It will determine the kind of life you will experience with your spouse as the years go by. If you have children at home, you are on a child-rearing path, and that path will determine the types of people your children will become. We are each on a financial path, a moral path, an intellectual path, a career path, and a spiritual path. The paths we are on always determine our end results. Always!

We choose our path by the choices we make. Do you live a life of purpose, or do you react to what life throws your way?

Dreaming and Remembering

From the time I embarked on a journey in the army, I dreamed of a farm that awaited me after retirement. It was not unusual that I would dream such a thing at eighteen. I was always a dreamer. For a long period, I’d ride fence on an old bay gelding and dream of a Rocky Mountain ranch that awaited me. And so, over a thirty plus year stretch, I cobbled images together, building my dream, one vision at a time.

Often, if only in my mind, I’d return to my north Georgia home, to when I was a boy. I’d remember seven acres in Ranger on humid summers days, or a year of uncommon snow. It’s funny how time smooths out the edges. In my dreams, the soil is fertile and rich, the bees don’t sting, the snakes don’t bite but the fish always do. In a sense it was my Big Rock Candy Mountain.

On a dreamy summer day, I’d stop staring the tip of a fishing rod, lay back in the clover on the bank of our pond, and build a ranch that would only ever exist in my mind. A herd of angus cattle, a solid string of quarter horses, a couple of loyal dogs, and wildlife helplessly attracted to the sweetness of the grass.

The end did eventually come. The soldiers marched off the parade field. The band stopped playing and I fell back into a family that was happy to have me – a blessing beyond measure. We found a few small Tennessee farms for sale, not the Rocky Mountain Ranch, but realistic stretches of dirt, yet for myriad reasons were not able to close the deal on any of them. We wound up in a convenient neighborhood, but weeks ago the dreams returned with renewed clarity. We decided it was time to find a more comfortable spot to park. The search began.

Today, I woke to a steady rain and in the blink of an eye was back in Ranger. The horses stand with their feet close up under them in a steady rain. A German Shephard is curled up in a damp ball by the carport door, smelling musky. The bluegill pop the surface of the water as they swallow bugs knocked from the willows in the downpour.

After a soaking rain the worms, who fled their holes in the flooded earth, squirm on blacktop, and the horses stand broadside in the emerging sun to dry. Our pond holds tight to a bank of fog emerging from the surface, and it’s quiet – utter silence – until the locomotive passes through Ranger. The lonesome whistle echoes through the valleys until the vigor of the sound is consumed in space and time, and I realize that my daydreams have become memories.

From the time I was a small boy, I dreamed of a life and ranch in the future – one I made up. Now, in my fifties, my dreams have become precious memories. The perfect farm is still only a figment of my imagination, but instead of a vision of the future it’s a memory – one I’ve edited.

My memories force me to realize just how much I noticed. I suppose that’s the so what of it all. At a time before cell phones, personal computers, internet, and cable TV, I was forced to take note of the world around me. And so, I remember how excited I was every year when a pair of Canada geese would land on our lake and rest for a couple of days as they made their way south. I remember the lone squirrel that made its nest in a cedar thicket behind our home. Desiring to store as many hickory nuts as possible for the winter, he’d sprint as hard as he could across our pasture to the hickory tree out back. Then he’d stuff his mouth and jaws as full as possible and make another run, back across the danger of an open field, to his den.

I hope the noise and static of an infinitely connected, perpetually active world has not deafened our children to the natural world that surrounds them. Spring is a mere six-weeks away. Color is on the horizon, and somewhere there is a small piece of Tennessee land eager to be noticed.





Hide ‘n seek Hairdryer

Seems this life

Just kinda chose me.

Livin’ in a hotel

sea to sea.

Flying on an airplane

and riding in a car.

Eating in a restaurant

and sleeping five-star.

What in the heck

are you doing to me?

Housekeeping service

can’t you leave me be?

Don’t mind huntin’ glasses in the other room,

but hide ‘n seek dryer

makes me howl at the moon.

Hair started growing,

so I let it go.

Fades and tapers

I’m a’wearing no mo’.

Damp and tangled

It’s a great big mess.

Straight as an arrow

that suits me the best.

Nice warm air

makes it fluffy and light.

Whole lotta body

makes me feel so right.

What in the heck

are you doing to me?

Housekeeping service

can’t you leave me be?

Don’t mind huntin’ glasses in the other room,

but hide ‘n seek dryer

makes me howl at the moon.

Deep in a closet,

nowhere near me.

Can’t you put it in a drawer,

where I can see?

Sometimes it’s a’hangin’

on the back of the door.

Other times it’s hidden

on the closet floor.

Need a lot of product

to tame my mane.

Tools of the trade

should remain the same.

Pomade hair jelly

can’t be beat.

It ain’t even smelly

and it stands the heat.

What in the heck

are you doing to me?

Housekeeping service

can’t you leave me be?

Don’t mind huntin’ glasses in the other room,

but hide ‘n seek dryer

makes me howl at the moon.

The Day it all Began

Up at 4:00a.m. organizing files on hard drives and ran across this speech. I have not seen it since I delivered it just over ten years ago. I gave this speech in the dead of night, standing in a hangar on Campbell Army Airfield. It was delivered to the cavalrymen of Task Force Pale Horse the night we walked out the door and began a year in Afghanistan that would forever change our lives. Knowing what I know now, knowing what was to come, it is surreal to read this. I thought I’d share. Again, this was delivered to the soldiers and their families who came to see them off.16251633_1771551293171658_5772999683964906689_o

I’d like to begin by thanking the families who stand behind the great men and women of this Task Force. My remarks might appear to be directed at the Soldiers on the surface, but I hope you know that there is not a man or woman wearing the uniform that does not have a family or friend that enabled them to stand proudly here today to answer our nations call. I haven’t the words to express my gratitude for the humbling opportunity to serve as your Task Force Commander.

I know that this deployment is difficult for many of you. To say goodbye as your loved ones depart for a year into harm’s way is in no way an easy task. In some ways this is one of the most difficult things we do. I do not claim to be able to make those emotions go away, but I do hope to give you some sense of perspective of the mission upon which you are about to embark.

At 8:46 a.m. Eastern Standard Time Tuesday, September 11, 2001, America as we knew her changed in the twinkling of an eye, when American Airlines flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, thrusting us into a Global War on Terrorism.

At 9:02 a.m. United Airlines flight 175 ripped into the south tower of the World Trade Center and 35 minutes later American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon; 27 minutes later United Airlines flight 93, hijacked and bound for the National Capitol Region crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. In a mere 90 minutes 3,222 American citizens were killed. The fires around ground zero burned for 99 days while our nation mourned.

On October 7th, 2001, operations began against Al Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Since that day 4,683 U.S. military service men and women have lost their lives and countless others have been wounded in the war against those who have sworn to extinguish the light of America.

Our generation has witnessed more American deaths, on American soil, in one day, than any other generation since the battle of Antietam, which took place in September 1862 – 139 years ago.

We must not underestimate the gravity of the task that lies before us. We are wise to expect many disappointments, and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the capability or determination of our nation, our Army, and our Task Force. We are a generation of Americans ready to meet the task which lies before us.

Many critics argue that we should turn our backs on this war and come home, but to quote the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, “We may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.” This war must be fought. The enemy has already made a decision so we are now faced with a choice; to seek them out and fight them in places like Tikrit, the Korengal valley, Jalalabad, and the Konar or to wait here for them to come to us. Can you imagine a life where you are scared to let your children go to the mall or a baseball game? I was recently asked what my thoughts were on this war and, among other things, I said, “I believe every child should begin their day by standing beside their desk, placing their hand over their hearts, pledging allegiance to our flag and singing the national anthem. Then I think they should bow their heads and pray to their God, whatever they call him, and thank him/her/or it for the freedoms they have in this great nation and for the men and women who ensure those freedoms.” Your presence here demonstrates that you have made the choice to take the fight to the enemy and to stand as sentinels for America’s freedoms.

This is not a question of fighting for a third world country whose business is not ours. Make no mistake; we go to the Pesh, the Korengal, and the Chowkay to fight for Clarksville, Oak Grove, and Hopkinsville. We go to fight an enemy that would change our way of life in small towns all across America, and we fight to save the whole world from the pestilence of radicalized Islamic tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war of imperialism for material gain. As Winston Churchill stated on September 3rd, 1939, “It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.”

Like the Pearl Harbor generation before us, 9/11 is a day that will live in infamy, a day we will always remember, a day that will serve as a constant reminder that freedom is never free and that the price of our way of life will demand that, as George Orwell wrote, “rough men stand ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” – that there may always be a land of the free and a home of the brave.
Now, let us go forward to the tip of our nations spear and write another chapter in history; a chapter that will forever note the good deeds of great men and women who had the courage to answer our nations call at a time of great turmoil and war; a chapter titled PaleHorse!
Death Rides.
* Photos by Russell Klika17017056_1771553446504776_7375433966070902664_o

When We Were Boys

When the bluegill went on bed and they’d bite a bare Eagle Claw hook. When our blistered skin stung and sweat burned our eyes, we’d lay on our backs and dream of 4-wheel drive pickup trucks and blue-eyed girls- blackbirds sat on cattails and witnessed it all.

When the winds turned cold and a flannel shirt felt good. When maple trees blushed for attention and the days drew short, we’d curl up in a pup tent and tell ghost stories – a screech owl perched on an oak limb witnessed it all.

When snow fell, and a blue jean jacket was no longer enough. When the butterflies vanished, and the geese showed up, we’d sit back-to-back in a cedar thicket debating which shift would be best if we wanted to hunt, fish, and chase a girl now and then – a squirrel lay curled in a nest and witnessed it all.

When a piece of tin intended for a barn, that was never more than a daddy’s dream, was the best sled we could fashion, we’d bend it up at the corners, shoved off, and leave the rest in God’s hands – a possum in a briar patch at the bottom of the hill witnessed it all.

When we lay on the ground naming a litter of pups and then sat on a mare that didn’t mind as long as we scratched her back, my daddy took an out of focus picture, so we’d never forget. We didn’t have much, but we had each other, and man, we were good at being boys.