Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jack Flak - "3 Amigos"

They came up on him fast - out of nowhere. Jack pulled out his phone, and took the picture. It was clumsy, as he fumbled trying to find the 'camera' feature - "not real convenient", he thought. It may have saved his life - but he couldn't be sure. Jack didn't scare easy, but he liked to know who he was dealing with before a brawl - and he had never seen these guys before. "It would be too easy", he thought to himself - "to take them all - before they knew what hit'em". But he needed to play it cool.

"Hey, you guys look good - hope you don't mind that I took your picture", Jack said as he hit the red 'stop engine' button on the bike.

The three guys just sat there, on their horses, and starred. Jack got the message. They didn't say much, but he got the message. Jack was sitting on a dirt bike - a small bright green Kawasaki. He'd been riding all morning through the brush, around the lake, up and down the muddy paths. Feeling over-confident and adventurous, he had strayed too far from camp - and didn't even know what property he was on out here in East Texas. His camp and friends were back in Mineola - maybe 4-5 miles down the path behind him. He wished they were here now.

Jack was in Wood County, Texas - known for a lot of real old-time moonshining and drug running - and he thought - "you can't make this stuff up" - and smiled a little. "Hey - sorry guys, I must have taken the wrong turn somewhere - actually, I don't even know where I am!" The older guy said - "just move-on buddy, go back the way you came".

Jack was sitting real uncomfortable. His AK-47 (yes, AK-47) was tucked in his belt, under his poncho. The safety was on and it protruded so far up-and-out that it nestled up tight into his right armpit. That's why he knew he was safe - it was a semi-automatic and Russian accurate. The grip was custom made in Israel and the clip was full. He was embarrased a little - having rode out of the Mineola campsite wearing a mexican cape. It was cold that morning, and he wanted to take a ride in the mud, but didn't want to feel constricted or get too hot on the trail. So he thought the cape was a good idea - but not a real tough guy fashion statement. "These guys must think I'm a real freak", he thought.

He wondered if they knew he had it (the AK, or something else), or just didn't suspect anything at all. Jack watched the three closely - sizing them up. He worried about the Mexican-American guy on the left - he never took his eye off him, he was really focused on Jack - and kept sizing him up. The young guy on the right spooked him - big time - he figured he'd seen action somewhere - maybe Iraq or Afghanistan - he looked like a 'military' type - quiet, but confident. Neither one looked like they were packing - but hard to tell. The older guy in the middle was the wild-card. He smiled, just smiled big - and did all the talking. He controlled his horse too well - he was the boss - no doubt.

Still, Jack stayed cool and kicked the bike over. It started up smooth - and he was glad, he didn't want to make a spectacle of trying to start the dirt-bike in the cold, flooding the carb or overchoking it. He wished he was on a horse, like the 3 amigos facing him. That would seem a bit more manly and 'western'. But his bike was faster than a horse, and that gave him some peace.

"Look - I didn't mean any harm - you guys have a great day - don't get too cold out here!" Jack yelled out - and rode off - back the way he came.

Later, at the campfire, Jack shared his story with the other guys. They were all cooking smores and telling weak ghost stories. The lake was calm, still, like glass. The moonlight reflected off the surface - pristine. Grant looked over the lake and thought he saw some movement on the other side. The bushes moved, and he thought he saw figures moving in the brush, under the moonlight. Grant was Jack's buddy who, for some reason, knew and loved firearms. Grant pulled out a scope from a black bag and held it up to his eye. "Shhhhh!". Jack and the other guys fell silent and looked. "It's nothin", Grant said, and put the scope back in the bag. Without letting the others notice, he slid his rifle from under his chair and leaned it up against his thigh. And put another marshmellow on a hanger for his third smore.

While the conversations went from football games, to trucks, to women, to fish - Jack slowly walked over to Grant and whispered in his ear, "keep an eye out - appreciate it buddy". Grant smerked, and never took his eye off the far side of the lake.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jack Flak - "The Wedding"

Monday, October 26, 2009
Jack Flak - Jack's In Trouble Again

"I'm gonna need another towel!" Jack groaned (and cussed a little) as he mopped up the water coming under the door. Lightning flashed again, big, and he could see the outline of the house next door looming over him as he gazed out the laundry room door to the swamp that used to be a yard. He wondered how it was that Noah could build an ark, with tree trunks and tar, five or six thousand years ago, that not only held tight, but held thousands of animals safe and dry, while all the MIT
engineers in the world couldn't design a simple house door that didn't
leak in 2009.

It wasn't so much the bad architecture that bothered Jack tonight. His daughter was getting married in a week - outside - and if the weather didn't clear in the next day or two (at most) - it would be the biggest mud fest in Texas. Normally in Texas, if you could wait five more minutes, the weather would change. Not these days. It was the wettest fall in decades. It never seemed to stop. The lakes were filled to the brim, neighborhood lawns were green and lush, backyard pools never
needed to be filled.

This long awaited wedding was the event of the year. Everything was in place, or about to be. A tent needed to be erected, tables and chairs were being delivered. From food to lighting to music - it was all waiting to happen over the next week. But it was happening outside -out there - where the fish live.

Jill was putting the finishing touches on the brides dress - hemming it to the proper length. As Jack peaked around the corner to the sewing room, he envisioned the white dress covered in mud and thought about the potential memories. It wasn't good, but it put a fitful smirk on his face. Anything that costs that much shouldn't stain too bad, hethought, and he smiled big.

"The Ranch", belongs to some good friends who kindly offered to host the wedding. Of course, this was back in the dog days of summer when the only water to be had was bought at 7-Eleven and came in a bottle. No one would have believed that the ground could get this wet, and stay for so long. You don't think about wet mud in June or July. It's likebuilding a snowman on the beach - it never crosses your mind. And mudis different here in this part of Texas. It's dark, deep, and wide. Mud here is like the clay you use to make pottery - only it's black like oil and dense like rock. When it gets into your fingernails you need a dremal to get it out. The ranch isn't so much a 'ranch' as it is a home, with horses, a big yard, big trees and a couple pastures with a pipe-n-cable fence. It has a clear view to the Texas big sky, perfect for sunsets. Perfect for a wedding.

Jack thought about the possible options at hand: One) cancel the wedding. Two) delay the wedding. Three) move the wedding. Four) just go with the flow and hope for the best.

Jack was in trouble. Rain kept falling through the night and the temperature was dropping.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Jack Flak – Jack Wakes Up

Jack woke early the next morning. The sun wasn't up. It took a full three minutes for Jack to hobble from one side of the room to the other, muscles that weren't cooperating and needing some persuasion to move - partly attributable to a hard life as a cowboy on the national circuit, and partly attributable to the stress of the week. After a hot shower and a quick shave, he emerged to see a miracle. The sun was shining bright, the sky was blue. The rain had stopped.Driving to the office he stopped at the first light. In spite of the cold - he dropped the top, to feel the wind and watch the blue sky - a rare and welcome occurrence these days. The light turned green and Jack took it as a sign - that the wedding was a 'go'. "Just five days, just five days of sun and wind to dry the place out", he said. But what was he forgetting?Then he remembered - before falling asleep the night before, he prayed for sun. It was at the prodding of Jill, to 'believe that God has it under control'. Jack was a cautious optimist, which meant he wasn't really a big-time optimist. What he tended to expect was a mix of good and bad - a cautious optimist. To others this usually translated to something akin to expecting not the worst, but a close second. He didn't doubt the power of prayer, just that God might have something else in mind that would trump him, regardless. But last night he said "what can it hurt", and gave it a shot.He remembered what he had forgotten. Now was the time, to give the thanks for answered prayer. Jack remembered - it was less about the result, and more about the acknowledgement to the One who heard and answered. So he did that straight away and went ahead and asked for even more sun - 'why not Lord, pour it on, this is Texas, right?'.His cautious optimism came back as he glimpsed a cloud or two on the horizon. But for now - he'd stop for his morning grande drip at Starbucks and plan for a great day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Jack Flak and Joshua

"Joshua really was a bad-ass" said the pastor. Completely agreeing (though somewhat startled by the pure honesty of the statement), Jack Flak agreed with a hearty nod and added - "he was one bad dude - for sure". It was 6:30 am at the coffee shop where a select group of guys met on Wednesdays to walk through the Bible together. This pastor never pulled a punch, just one reason Jack admired him.

It seemed trivial - but when it came time for prayer requests, Jack asked the guys to pray for a warm sun until Sunday. Right now, it looked good out there and they prayed that it would continue and that the wedding would be a complete success.

The night before, Jack and Jill made a quick run to the local Tractor Supply store for a new black Justin cowboy hat for Jack to wear at the wedding. Not much for wearing hats, preferring to feel the hot sun on his face, he clumsily tried on a few and made his choice. Jill swooned at his natural good looks under the brim of this particular hat, so that was the one he picked. He'd wear this new hat at his daughters wedding Sunday.

Jack's job at the paper mill required his attention all day. Following the early morning study of Joshua, he drove off to fight his own battles and stare at computer screens while running the numbers and playing at corporate politics. All Joshua had to do was conquer cities and kill every living thing in sight. He thought to himself, that would be easy if God was telling you what to do, everyday, every step, audibly - "that would make it so much easier", he mumbled under his breath. Battles today aren't like battles back then. Or are they.

By midday the sky was darkening - the clouds were rolling back into North Texas, and Jack's 'cautious optimism' was starting to creep back into his thoughts. He needed to check on the status of the circus tent being erected on the ranch this afternoon, and he needed to help with the laying of massive plastic sheets to protect the still drying pasture. How would this wedding ever happen - where was God now?

Fear gripped Jack as he recalled a verse from the mornings study in Joshua 23: 'as sure as the Lord your God has given you the good things he promised, he will also bring disaster on you if you disobey him'. What did this mean now, today?

"Don't read too much into it", he thought. But he couldn't stop reading too much into it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009
Jack Flak - Get out of Dodge?

"When I miss my forecasts, I take a major beating. I mean, my butt actually gets smaller with so many people chewing me out. When the weather 'person' screws up, they just move on to the next story, like nothing happened, and they smile with those fake smiles - all happy and bright", Jack told the three finance guys sitting in front of their laptops, not even listening to his ranting-and-raving fits. Jack was just tired and frustrated with the weather. Last night was a tough one, as he and 9 others laid tarps and plastic sheeting over about an acre of land - in the dark. If it worked, the plastic would help to keep the already saturated lawn from getting more water. This outdoor wedding on the ranch has been a challenge - to say the least. And it was all weather related.

At Joe's Bistro last night - after the 'laying-on-of-plastic' (as if to 'heal' the land), the team laughed and celebrated a job well-done. They shared stories and pictures and talked about the final phases of the wedding. It was now just 4 days away, and in spite of the weather setbacks, things were looking good - sort of. Even the bride and groom had been working hard, along with parents and friends. Everyone knew that in spite of the work, within a week, it would all pass, regardless, and be but a faint memory. So now was the time for memory making - seizing each moment.

The hostess of this event, the ranch owner, known to Jack as 'Ms. It'll-All-Be-Ok' (the consummate optimist) was up to her usual antics with her power-of-prayer and positive-thinking attitude. By the time Jack was checking emails this morning, Ms. It'll-All-Be-Ok had fired off another positive message: "sometimes the only thing left to do is press on", and of course she backed it up with scripture. Jack's first knee-jerk reaction was to mumble under his breath - "sometimes the only thing left to do is to get out of dodge". It was those knee-jerk reactions that haunted Jack. He knew better. Getting out of Dodge was never an alternative. Dodge was just fine. "This life passes too fast" he thought, "too fast".

Jack Flak wasn't a runner anyway. A true Texan, he made others run. He would face whatever was set before him - straight up - surrounded by family and friends, how could he lose?

Ready for another cup of coffee, he got up and walked to the window. It was raining - again.

Friday – Saturday, October 30-31, 2009
Jack Flak - Jack is Back

It was straight-up, twelve noon, and Jack Flak stood motionless in the middle of the pasture - with water up to his ankles. He imagined a possible movie set where he faced-off with a fast-draw gunman twenty yards from him. He needed this to clear his head. The Texas sky had been brilliant blue for a few hours. Not a cloud in site. The prior night took a heavy toll on the ranch, the horses, the barn, and the dampened spirits of everyone he knew. The rain could be measured in inches. The wind had whipped through the place like an unholy spirit at Pentecost. It was a miracle that the white wedding tent was still standing strong. Jack untied the tent flaps to let the sun run through the hollow structure unabated.

Hope was returning to the wedding team. It was the kind of hope a ship-wrecked sailor has, clinging to the single remaining plank from the deck of his massive boat, being circled by sharks - as he catches a glimpse of a sandy beach just below a line of palm trees on the horizon. Hope, just the same. And sometimes a glimpse of hope is all you need.

The loud hum of 3 wet vacs could be heard all over the property. Plastic was being drug, carefully, so as to not let the water escape into the saturated soil. Removing the last pieces of tarp and plastic, you could almost hear the earth exhale with relief. It was starting to dry out.

By 4:30 the entire wedding party was on the property for the rehearsal. Jack thought to himself, "no one even knows what we've been through out here". It was relatively transparent to the outsiders. Though wet, it wasn't what it was, or could have been. It looked good and as the sun continued to shine, and the practice session continued - the wedding appeared real for the first time. It was going to happen. But Jack thought of the odd resemblance to real life: the trials we all fight through the week, the giants we face, the mountains we have to climb. And then we make 'nice' with the people we know that don't have a clue of what we've been through. "Real life happens", he thought, "and only the guy living the life knows what really went on - or cares". Jack looked deep into each face in the crowd and tried to imagine each of their 'real lives'. What storm were they fighting right now? Would they make it through?

There were too many people to thank for their hard work today, and over the past week.

Later that evening the wedding party met at Nicola's, a swank Italian joint - appropriate for the Sicilian 'Malazzo' family. With some sort of natural instinct, Jack kept watch of the front door all evening, expecting at any moment for gun totting mobsters dressed in black suits to walk slowly through the door to make a 'delivery'. The 'don' Malazzo, the grooms dad, always 'knew someone'. It didn't matter what you needed, he knew someone who had it or could get it. Nonetheless, they all survived without incident and Jack was just a little disappointed that he didn't need to step in to break-up a brawl - something he was well adapt at doing.

The next day was Saturday, and it was the big push. A full day to wrap-up loose ends, which were many. The glorious sun was shining bright and there wasn't a sad
face in the lot. The wedding party was out much of the day enjoying golf and hair and nail sessions - what the wedding people do the day before. But they would all be back later to finish the work that needed to be done. Just when Jack thought he was out of the woods for any more hard labor, his task master Douglas - the king of perfection, quality and ingenuity, put him to work laying wood and carpet over the remaining mud. Douglas was born to tie-up loose-ends. He was a maker and a fixer - the go-to guy - the man. Egypt had its Pharaohs, and the Pharaohs had their Douglas'. Nothing was ever accomplished without him - from design to implementation to tear-down. The whip would crack, and things got done, people moved and landscapes changed.

Jack typically questioned everything and everyone, but Jack rarely questioned the wisdom of Douglas. No point - futile. His vision and clarity was unmatched. Jack would lock arms with the guy anywhere, anytime, and if a bullet was to ever fly, Jack would gladly jump in front of it. It saddened Jack to think that so many people in the world didn't have a 'Douglas'.

It was midnight - and it was Halloween. The wedding was now just 14 hours away, give or take the hour they gained or lost for the annual clock turning that night. The sleep depraved crew argued over the direction of the clock - which only heightened the joy, and laughter, and sweet expectations of everyone there.

Jack decided to get some sleep-eye. Tomorrow was the big day. He was giving away his daughter.

It was beginning to settle in, and he wasn't taking it lightly. Fear once again gripped Jack's heart and squeezed.

Monday, November 30, 2009
Jack Flak – Purpose

Jack was beat down. While in Starbucks, he had made his daily list of things to do – and while the list wasn’t so long today, he felt that something was out of control. It might have been the newspaper or the radio that dimmed his spirits – he wasn’t sure. He hoped that the paper mill would be quiet today so he could close his door and just think – uninterrupted - and get back on course.

Driving, Jack glanced at his watch and saw “Nov 30” - just one month left in the year, and that realization might have been the culprit of Jack’s morning shadow of gloom. He thought of a favorite Bob Dylan song that went: “it’s not dark yet (but it’s gettin there)” – and the words of that song just kept playing in his mind as he drove to the office. He wondered what his purpose was.

He had no reason to be down. The past weekend was Thanksgiving and the excitement of so many events for Jack and Jill was breathtaking – from running a ‘Turkey Trot’, to watching NFL football from a million dollar suite (that belonged to a friend of course), to catching up with his college son home for the weekend, to playing golf with old buddies, to hanging the Christmas lights in the front yard, and then celebrating a birthday with the best of friends.

Yet, for Jack, the business of life wasn’t leaving enough time to accomplish what needed to be done. But it was that sense of not knowing just what needed to be done, that haunted Jack. There was a wind blowing, a change in the air.

All told - the year had been a good one. Just 4 weeks ago Jack let go of his daughter Jorden, and she landed in a great place. She and Jeremy had been to Mexico and back – and settled into their new home up north. As Jack reflected on the wedding, and the events that led up to it, he had to smile.

Douglas and Debra had recuperated from the ceremony at their ranch. Vowing to “never do it again”, there was a twinge of doubt in their promise. With neighbors asking for rates and available dates, combined with the prospect that one day their own son might tie-the-knot, Jack and the rest of the wedding team sensed that it could, in fact, very easily happen again. For Douglas, it would be just another big project with a start and end date and all the details in the middle. It’s what he did, it was his DNA to pull-off the impossible. For Debra, it would be something more than that and it would take a lot of arm-pulling to do it again. Her emotions ran deep on these matters, and it wasn’t her unwillingness to host another wedding: it was her skepticism that it could ever have the same meaning, or that it could be accomplished with the same degree of passion. She told herself that it would have to be extraordinarily special, strangely special, to tackle such a task again. But she knew in her heart that it was inevitable – something big was inevitable. Change was in the air. The year was winding down and they both knew that next year was going to be incredible. To what degree they didn’t know.

Jack pulled into the garage at the paper mill. Thousands had arrived before him, as shifts ended and others began. This mechanical changing-of-the-guard reminded him of how we fill our days with the urgent – putting the important stuff aside. It doesn’t happen just occasionally, it happens every day and the days fill the weeks and the weeks fill the months, and so on. Time goes by, and our own big plans for a greater life, tend to fade away, as we tackle the thousands of small urgent matters of each day.

Across town, Tomas was pulling fresh orders off the fax machine in the kitchen. “We’ve got eight more!” Tomas shouted to Jane as she made the coffee. She let out a sigh of relief knowing that with each new order for iron works, her boy could stay in college. Their home business kept them busy and this Monday morning was no different than any other – except that they too sensed a change in the air as the month of November was coming to an end. Where had the time gone. Only a few weeks ago they were working day and night helping their friends make the wedding a big success. With no apparent emotional tie other than pure friendship, they had sacrificially stuck by Jack, Jill, Debra and Douglas – to the end. At times, they had let the business slide for a day or two, just to give a helping hand for the wedding. It wasn’t easy, but there was a sense of accomplishment that went along with balancing ‘work’ with making someone else’s life easier. The only real reward was the satisfaction of knowing that there’s more out there than the day-to-day business. And, with two boys who will one day be married themselves, maybe they could learn a thing or two from Jack and Jill – and what NOT to do.

There was a heightened sense of awareness for everyone.

In that same hour, on this same Monday morning, as Jack walked into his office, Joey Malazzo (“The Sicilian” as Jack called him), had arrived at work and was pondering the month that was about to end. He remembered digging-in deep (literally) to make the wedding a success for his boy and his new ‘daughter’. He reflected on the odd relationships between Jack, Jill, Douglas, Debra, Tomas and Jane. He was the outsider who had been let in the door to see the inner workings of his daughter-to-be family and friends. And he thought about the time traveling at the speed of light – and where it had gone. He had two more sons and a daughter – what would there weddings be like? How much time was left before he said goodbye to them too? Then Joey thought of the impending year end, and the start of another decade, the second decade in this new millennium. “What was his true purpose?”

Simultaneously, from the four corners of this city, they all thought the same thing. And they thought about their relationships.

Jack got a refill on his coffee from the break room. He closed his door and reluctantly opened his Oswald Chambers daily reading – not really in the mood. November 30: “There is only one relationship that really matters, and that is your relationship to your personal Redeemer and Lord. If you maintain that at all costs, letting everything else go, God will fulfill His purpose through your life.”

Jack was back.