Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Paying it forward

I was taught at an early age, even though the terms didn’t come along until later, “pay it forward if you can’t pay it back.”  I’ve been trying to do this all my life.  It’s not always as easy as it sounds though.  Sometimes the road is rough, filled with obstacles to overcome.  But, for the most part is has been truly rewarding. 

Last night, at our Council’s annual Winter Camp, I helped put on a Native American style powwow.  This one was as much “edutainment” as it was a traditional powwow – we want the audience to come away from the event better informed and more aware of other cultures when they leave for the night.  For many years in the past I have danced in the Grand Entry at this event.  This year, however, I opted to be the MC and not dance.  This allowed me enough time to ensure the greatest number of dancers were dressed and ready to dance, as well.  And it afforded me one less stressor during the dance.

There are a lot of people who attend our Winter Camp, usually around 1500 people.  Despite the 7.5 inches of rain we received which immediately preceded the temperature dropping to the freezing point, people left their campsites to come be in the heated dining hall and learn what they could about these Native American traditions.  And to stay warm.  But, mostly to learn about Native traditions. 

We had a Grand Entry wherein the US flag and the state flag were escorted by a group of veterans who helped out.  We had many, but not all of the military branches represented.  And I really appreciated the willingness of all those folks who helped out, especially since they felt honored by being asked to help.  I just wish there was more I could have done for them or said to them to indicate how much I appreciated them escorting our flags in to the arena. 

But, the important part was that the boys I am helping teach were able to dance, get some more valuable time in their outfits, practicing the new skills they are learning, and fellowship with other like-minded individuals.  We had Southern Straight dancers, Northern Traditional dancers, Chicken dancers, and Grass dancers represented from the men, and from the beautiful ladies in attendance, we had both northern and southern cloth styles represented.  And all of them danced well and beautifully.  And we were able to exhibition each of those styles for the guests in attendance.

Then another man took the mic from me.

I gave him that time, since he is the adult in charge of the Winter Camp program in its entirety anyway.  I am also training him to take my role as the Dance Team Advisor – so I can focus on teaching dance while he handles the running of the program.  He doesn’t really need my instruction, actually.  He was a senior enlisted man in the Marines.  He has run his own business.  He’s been a Scoutmaster – anyone who has will tell you that is a feat in and of itself.  He is very organized.  When you want something done, he is one of the guys who can help you get it done.  Period. 

So, when he asked for a couple of minutes to say a few words during the dance, I didn’t think anything of it.  Then he asked me to step onto the arena floor from my perch on the dais at the microphone.  And he asked the Head Singer, another very good friend of mine, to step up as well.  And he had a couple of items in his hand.  He said some nice, encouraging words.  He told the audience he valued what the two of us had done for our lodge’s programs, by constantly being willing to help where needed, teach, and handle all the little details we handle on an ongoing basis – and there are many.

Then he presented each of us a Swagger Stick.  Many of you readers won’t know what that is.  But, in days of yore, leaders obtained or were issued these sticks like a badge of office.  In medieval ages, Marshals of armies were issued rods or batons of office denoting their rank or title.  Depending on the service the individual was in, this could take the form of a short cane or a riding crop.  In some services, it was more like a shillelagh. 

The ones he presented are made from an oak tree from his home.  He had them turned by another friend, a former lodge advisor.  It was then stained with 4 coats of stain, lacquered with 10 layers of protectant, and had several coats of wax over that to bring it to high-gloss shine.  He obtained a .50 caliber round for the butt end from another friend who sings with us at the drum.  For the head of the stick, he used an armor-piercing M-1 Garand round that he chambered in the rifle and ejected without firing.  He had yet another friend make bags to keep the swagger sticks in as well, to protect them.  He told the audience this was something he wanted to give to people he respected and appreciated highly.

And for a few minutes I was speechless.  I wasn’t a high-ranking Marine.  I didn’t serve overseas, I never saw combat, or any special duty like Recruiting.  I was ‘just a guy’ in an artillery unit, who was trained to be a forward observer.  I just did my job like so many others.  But, to be awarded a symbol of leadership, based solely on respect for the job I do in teaching and coaching young people, is, well, daunting to me.  I guess I’m not a boastful person, I try to be humble.  But, it is still nice to be recognized for what a person does.  And I couldn’t talk for a bit.

It took me a minute.  Or three.  My wife said I ‘did that thing with my mouth’ I apparently do, when trying to not be emotional.  Then it hit me.  These folks in the audience needed to know the reason behind the award.  So, I laid it out for them.

I told them about my grandfathers, blood-family and adopted, I told them they taught me to pay forward what I could not pay back.  And since they taught me so well, I can only hope to emulate them in what I am doing.  I let the audience know that we love what we do.  We love singing, dancing, seeing the light of accomplishment shining in the eyes of a young man who realizes he’s having a great time, despite the temperature, weather, or amount of work he’s actually doing.  To be issued a swagger stick in recognition of a job well done, while doing something I love to do, is just a bonus.  It’s the icing on the cake, the whipped cream on warm apple pie, the bow on the present Christmas morning.  It’s… well, it’s nice.
And I get to share my upbringing, my teachings, my stories with people who want to listen and learn.  And I am left speechless by the love of friends and family. 

In honor of how they feel about what I do, I will continue to pay forward the teachings I was given by my elders when I was a small person.  And hopefully, someday, my legacy will be the same as theirs.  Some grown man, who will have been a young man when I taught him, will continue to teach young people what he learned from me.  He will continue to educate himself and immerse himself in a culture that maybe he wasn’t born to, so that he will better understand how that culture and his interact and grow together.  And, unlike Robert Frost’s poem about two roads diverging, maybe this man will be able to walk two parallel roads, one red and one white, and be a bridge between people. 

And pay it forward.