Monday, September 11, 2017

Sixteen Years Ago

I wrote the following essay as a blog post four years ago.  Never forget the significance of today, nor those who lost their lives on that fateful day.

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Today is one of those days where we remember.  We remember exactly what we were doing on September 11, 2001; we remember those who lost their lives tragically on that day, and we remember those first responders who tried to help and rescue so many.  It will always be a hard day for Americans, as seldom in our history, and particularly in our modern history, have we been attacked on our own soil.  And it changed the way we go about our daily lives.

This is my 9/11 story.  It is hardly a compelling story, nor is it surrounded in tragedy.  It is just the story of how my wife and I dealt with what transpired on that awful day.

It really was a nice Tuesday, kind of warm, and bright and sunny.  We had been having mechanical problems with our Jeep Cherokee, and it was in the shop being looked at.  Teresa, my wife, was going to ride with a co-worker to Mt. Hebron High School, where she worked as a 9th-grade English teacher.  I had gone to work as usual earlier that morning, arriving at 6:30 a.m.  I was a team lead in the central section of the VFR (Visual Flight Rules) Charting office within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in downtown Silver Spring, MD.  We worked on the 3rd floor of a 13-story building, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) complex next to the Silver Spring Metro, the fourth of four high-rises on the southwest side of the tracks along East West Highway.

My boss was out of the office that day, so I was in charge.  I was sitting at my desk talking to one of our IT guys when I received an email.  It was from one of the employees in our airports division, and it stated, "A plane just hit the World Trade Center."  It had been sent out to our entire office.  Almost everyone assumed it was a small plane that must have accidentally hit the building.  I pulled out the New York Terminal Area Chart, a 1:250,000 scale VFR aeronautical chart, to take a look at that area of NYC to see if there was anything wrong with the chart.  At about the same time, one of the guys on the other side of the office turned on a small black and white TV he had in his cubicle, just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.  Word got around the office very quickly that this was no accident.  I quickly sent my wife an email explaining what was happening, that both towers of the World Trade Center had been hit by planes, and that we were trying to figure out what was going on.  She called me almost immediately after she got the message.  I could hear the worry in her voice.  They had a TV on in the 9th grade team teacher's office and were watching what was going on.  We both prayed, said we loved each other, and I tried to concentrate on work.

About that time we received word that something had hit the Pentagon, and mass pandemonium took over.  My boss's boss came rushing past my cubicle and said, "Evacuate the building, let's just get out of here.  Please account for all of your employees."  There were false rumors and stories of bombs going off all over downtown DC, and that government buildings all over the area might be targets for more jets.  I rushed around my office and made sure everyone had a way to get home.  Some offered to take other's home.  There was a great amount of cooperation despite the panic many were feeling.  One of my co-workers lived downtown, and I told her to be very careful.  Very few Metro trains were running into the city.  Most were heading out only.  Silver Spring, being right on the edge of northern DC, was a hot spot of employment in the DC area, but still considered the suburbs.  I called Teresa and told her we were evacuating.  She said that schools were going to release early, and then she would try to get home.  She was still dependent on her co-worker due to her not having a car.  I told her to be careful, and she said the same.  She was very scared.  I said I love you, and started to head for the exit.

Then I saw Greg.  Greg was concerned about how he was going to get home, since he took the train from the northeast Maryland suburbs to Union Station in downtown DC, then he took Metro from there to Silver Spring.  I told him that I doubted he be able to catch any trains running that day, and I offered him a ride.  He took me up on it, and we headed out.

I had parked on the G1 level, which meant I was only one level down from the exit.  NOAA employees had apparently decided at the same time as the FAA to go home, so there was a huge line of cars trying to get out of the garage, and it took us about 30 minutes to get out.  Once on the road, traffic moved fairly well.  Greg lived near and on the far side of Fort Meade, which is also home to the National Security Agency.  We figured that we might want to try to avoid that area since the NSA might be a hotbed of security given what was happening.  I kept the radio on WTOP, the local all-news station, to keep abreast of what was happening.  Greg agreed with my course of action, to take the Capital Beltway over to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, then to Rt. 32 which would take us right to Greg's car, parked in the commuter rail parking lot near Fort Meade.

Traffic continued to move well all the way up the parkway. When we got to Rt. 32, though, it was closed with emergency personnel blocking the exits.  Apparently, we were right about Fort Meade being busy.  So we took the next exit, Route 175, which would skirt just north of the NSA and take us right to the train station.  However, we his our first traffic jam of the trip just after jumping on 175 and we crawled the rest of the way.

The news on the radio was all shock and panic, with both WTC buildings having collapsed.  There were still many bad rumors flying around about incidents in and around DC, which didn't help.  We finally got through the traffic and I was able to drop Greg off at his car.  I wished him well, and he offered me a few tips on alternate ways home.  I lived in Laurel, which was only about 10 to 15 minutes away, normally, but with the traffic around Fort Meade, I had to make a big circle north of Fort Meade, and had clear sailing all the way home.  I turned on the TV and watched countless replays of the towers collapsing, which filled me with awe, but horror as well.  Within the hour, Teresa arrived home, and we hugged for a long time.  We had only been living in our house for a little over a month, so we really didn't know any of our neighbors, and we felt like we only had each other at that moment.  We sat in front of the TV all afternoon watching what was happening in New York, finding out about the other planes, the available details regarding the Pentagon, and the crash in PA.  Teresa made us a light dinner, but neither of us was hungry.

I can't really put into words what we were feeling.  There was this fear that gripped us, and immense sadness about all who had died.  We hoped we wouldn't have to work the following day so we could just be with each other.  We prayed.  We hugged and sat close to each other.  This was an event neither of us had ever experienced.  We weren't old enough to remember when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  The only comparable was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, which occurred when we were in high school.

We went to bed that night knowing we would be working the next day, and it would be a challenge to try to attempt anything normal.  We didn't want to be apart, but we also knew we had to work.  We prayed for so many that night.  And then we tried to sleep.  I don't know what time it was when we finally fell asleep.  It was pretty late.  I just kept praying to God how thankful I was that my family was all accounted for and okay.  And I prayed that God would bless America.

Hug and kiss your loved ones tonight, everyone.  Make sure they know how much you love them.  You can't say it enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Solitude and Engaging Others

Sykesville Railroad Tracks

I had quite an action-packed couple of days this weekend, which seems to be the story of our summer.  After quite a bit of travel since mid-June, the last few weeks seemed to quiet down a lot, at least for me (my daughter continues to wander all over the East Coast with her grandparents).  But I fell into a normal pattern of work, wrapped around a lot of time as a solo act.  

The melancholy tends to overpower me at times when I'm alone, and this time was no exception.  I battle with depression, and there are many days when it's difficult to even get out of bed, or get off the couch.  That's when I force myself to do things, as much as I don't want to.  So, this weekend, I was intentional about getting out of the house.

I am fortunate to have a dear friend ("Zippy") who cares about me enough to put up with my "melancholicness," and we lean on each other for advice and sincere mutual support.  She invited me to her house on Friday to see her basement, which she is renovating into an apartment.  This woman is more talented than many contractors, and the work she is doing is very impressive.  Not only did she do all of the framing, she took a jackhammer to her concrete floor to put in a drain for a full bathroom, and she is installing cabinets and appliances for a full kitchen, too.  I'm blown away by her talent with this stuff.  And she's licensed, too.

Anyway, after the tour of her home, we went to dinner at Beck's in Sykesville, which was delicious, then we walked around Main Street of this quaint little town, right on the border of Howard and Carroll Counties.  It was a warm, beautiful summer evening, and I'm so thankful for my wonderful friend.  Zippy is the epitome of confidant, best pal, kindred spirit, buddy, homegirl, and best friend, all rolled into one.  She's the type of person who you wouldn't mind being stuck with on a little boat in a big ocean, which is what life feels like at times.  I'm thankful that God brought her into my life.


Saturday morning, Faithful Pup Scout woke me up at 6:30 am, and since I was up, I decided to take a little road trip.  My goal was to run my little car, my 2007 Mazda MX-5, which I seldom drive anymore, and head into the mountains of West Virginia.  It promised to be a beautiful day, and running the two-seater with the top dropped seemed like a sure-fire way to break me out of my mood.

I left the house at about 7:30, and I made a stop for breakfast at my favorite local Chick-Fil-A on Johns Hopkins Road near Maple Lawn.  The people who work there are so friendly and full of energy.  Anyway, after loading up on coffee, I headed down US 29 to the Capital Beltway, headed west to I-66 in Virginia, and came to a crawl as the typical northern Virginia traffic reared its ugly head.  It cleared a bit as I bypassed Warrenton, and, thinking on the fly, I decided to alter my plan.  I was skirting through Front Royal and decided a drive down Skyline Drive might be in the cards.  I needed to fill the gas tank, and not finding my brand of gas, I kept going west and south on US 340, thinking there would be a gas station right around the corner.  I don't know why I didn't just head back to Front Royal, but before I knew it, I was two-thirds of the way to Luray.

I gassed up and re-thought my plans.  I decided to enter Skyline Drive at Thornton Gap, near Luray, instead, and drive north back to Front Royal.  This worked well for me since, as I moved up the road soaking in the ambience (and the sun), there were many more cars heading south than going north.  I had much of the road to myself.  I stopped at the Visitor Center at Dickey Ridge for a nice break, then continued into Front Royal.  Once there, I found a deli for a sandwich, and I got some much-needed sunblock.

I then continued my love-hate relationship with my GPS.  As a cartographer and avid map-reader, I prefer an atlas that I can hold in my hands to my GPS, though I understand the benefits of the technology, and it has helped me out of jams often, particularly in unfamiliar cities.  I knew I should start driving back towards home, but I didn't want to go the same way  I came, meaning I wanted to avoid all of northern Virginia in the DC Metro area, particularly the traffic.  So I plugged into my GPS on my iPhone and figured out a possible route.  I was already a few exits east of Front Royal, and the GPS pointed me north towards Brunswick, MD, which would allow me to miss the bottleneck around Harpers Ferry, WV, too, and I could head north to Frederick, then east on I-70 back to Howard County.

What I didn't realize was just how many back roads I was about to encounter.  I ended up on little Route 713 in the middle of nowhere, followed by Route 611, then 287, which took me into areas of Virginia I would never plan to drive through, and likely never see again.  I was soon back in Maryland and on my way towards Frederick.

Then I got a text from my daughter.  I knew it was from her because it popped up on the screen of my phone, which was mounted hands-free on my dashboard.  I decided to call her so I didn't have to stop to text.  She wanted to know if I wanted to have dinner with her and my mother-in-law, but I instead invited them to join me at church Saturday night.  They agreed.

I rushed home and grabbed a shower.  I also realized just how sunburned I got before I applied my sunblock.  Fortunately, it was confined to my forearms.  My hat had saved my scalp and face.


And then I had a wonderful evening with my daughter and her grandmother, with a typically great Saturday night service at Grace Community Church, my home church in Fulton, MD, where we heard a fantastic first message by our new Small-groups Pastor, Seth Rumsey.  Pastor Seth challenged us to engage with other people, not only within Grace Community, but also in other areas of our lives, particularly on the heels of the terrible violence brought about by a hate group in Charlottesville, VA, last week.  Following church, dinner was at the relatively new Steelfire Kitchen and Bar, in Maple Lawn.  What a great couple of days!

While today, Sunday, was spent resting and running errands, tomorrow brings a different kind of adventure.  I get to put the Engaging Others message to the test with an event that takes me out of my comfort zone.  I'm an introvert down to my core, and meeting with strangers, even if I've engaged with some of them in cyberspace, is very hard for me.  But the community of Howard County bloggers has a gathering tomorrow evening hosted by Bare Bones Grill and Brewery.  I haven't been to Bare Bones in many years, not since my wonderful wife, Teresa, was teaching at Mt. Hebron High School.  She loved that place, and had many lunches there back in the late 90s and early 00s.  So I'm going, and looking forward to it as much as I'm dreading the social aspects.

All that said, I'm truly thankful for the fantastic weekend.  My faith continues to be my rock and foundation, and Jesus my Lord and Savior.  And it's through Him that I'm able to do the things that I do.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What's Up Now?!?

I finally completed my travelogue about my Big Road Trip from last summer just in time to share THIS summer's big road trip, and while I don't want travel to totally define my relationship with my wonderful daughter, Melody, it is certainly an important aspect of our lives.

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In the past month and a half, since school let out for the summer, we had a quick musically themed adventure to Ohio, which included an incredible twenty one pilots concert we attended in Columbus; a stopover in Chicagoland for G-Fest XXIV, the largest annual gathering of fans of Giant Monster movies in North America; a weeklong road trip in the Pacific Northwest, which included Olympic National Park, the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge, Portland, Seattle, and Mount Rainier National Park; and, inserted in between, I took one of my numerous business trips to Oklahoma City.  In addition, Melody attended a week at music camp, and a couple of weeks at Grace Adventures Day Camp.  And, of course, we rode a bunch of roller coasters at Six Flags Great America just outside of Chicago.

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As if all that wasn't enough, while I've been working around the house doing some renovations, Melody was invited to take an epic trip to New York City with our good friends from Grace Community Church.

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Along with all of that, last night was my first opportunity to attend Grace after what seems like a month on the road, and it was incredibly stirring to witness seven individuals publicly proclaim their faith in our Lord by getting baptized!  The stories they each shared were very emotional, and left me teary-eyed.  It was a memorable evening.

My daughter is putting the finishing touches on the Ohio trip report, which I'll share here on the blog.  In the meantime, I'm working on a series of entries about the big Northwest adventure.  I don't think it will take all year to share, like the last one, because I'm anxious to write more often than I have over the past few years.  Life moves pretty fast, and I love writing about it.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everyone!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 16: The Last Leg of the Journey

The last few days of our trip are a bit of a blur.  After the accident the previous day, we were anxious to get home, even though we had a lot of things still to see, and a fairly long way to go.  We hit the road early, heading north out of the Shreveport area.  Almost immediately, we were surrounded by a driving rain that stayed with us for most of the morning.  This wasn't a surprise to us:  we had experienced at least a little bit of rain every day of our trip.

We took brand new Interstate 49 north and very quickly crossed into Arkansas, another first-time state for us.  Soon we found the little town of Fouke, brought into the national limelight due to a cult-70s horror-documentary about a hairy, bipedal, Bigfoot-like creature that roamed the swamp around the area, called THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK.  The B-movie was shown at drive-ins all over the country, and I remember going to see it with my parents and sister when I was a kid.  It scared me then, though I don't know why.  It's a terrible movie.

Anyway, the town gained notoriety whether it wanted it or not, and while it was a long time ago, and excitement has certainly died down, at least one little store continues to capitalize on its fame.  So, of course, we had to stop.  The Monster Mart has a great deal of merchandise and tacky souvenirs, as well as photo-ops with stuffed sasquatch statues.  We got a couple of t-shirts and stuff for Mom & Dad, then we were back on the road.



We were quickly back on the road and heading north.  It continued to rain for miles.  We finally drove out of it somewhere in the outskirts of Little Rock.  We lunched at a Cracker Barrel, of course, and continued on towards Memphis.  Our next stop was Graceland, Elvis Presley's famous home.


We entered Tennessee, then headed over to Graceland.  It was funny to see about 90% of the businesses named in some way to connect with Elvis and Graceland, which appears to be the major industry in the area.  We arrived at Graceland to a full parking lot, even though it was almost 4pm.  What we didn't know is that reservations for tours are mandatory.  There was nothing left for the day, and on top of that, the whole place shut down at 5pm.  Also, the house itself required a tram ride to a different location, so there was no way to check things out on your own.  There was, however, a very well-stocked gift shop, which allowed us to get a bunch of souvenirs, a restaurant/diner, and an ice cream shop.  We took a few pics, got some ice cream, and, though disappointed we wouldn't be seeing Elvis's home, decided to head into Memphis for dinner.


First, though, we took a detour and headed south to enter Mississippi for the first time.  While we weren't there more than ten minutes, it was kind of cool to know that we had now been to all of the Southern states.

We were hungry, so we headed to Beale Street, in Memphis.  It was a very colorful, touristy place, and had a great Blues vibe.  We couldn't decide on where to eat, so we compromised and ended up at the Hard Rock Cafe.  This was our ... Hard Rock, having eaten at the ones in Baltimore, DC, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Gatlinburg, and Las Vegas.

After a very good meal, we walked around Beale Street and soaked in the atmosphere.  It was a really cool area of the city.  We left just as it was getting dark, and we headed north as far as we could before I was just too tired to continue.  We stopped at a hotel in the far southern suburbs of Nashville.



While we really wanted to do a few touristy things in Nashville, we continued to feel the tug of home, so, with rain coming down heavily, we skipped it completely (which is actually the second time we've done that, having traveled through the area several years ago and deciding to come back another time).  So we continued into Kentucky.  The weather quickly cleared out, and we soon stopped for lunch.  We decided on a place we had seen several times, but had never tried:  Rooster's.  It was much better than expected.


Following lunch, we traveled up to Mammoth Cave National Park.  It's a beautiful area, but, really, compared to some of the sites we had seen in Colorado and Arizona, it was hard to get too excited.  We stopped at the Visitor Center, and that's when we realized any tours of the caves required tickets and reservations, and we just didn't have that kind of time.  We were able to walk down to the opening of the cave, and we did, but that was it.


Since Kentucky is the Land of Lincoln, just like several other states, we visited one of the newer National Parks, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park.  There are several units of this park, representing different stages of Lincoln's life, but we first went to the site of his log cabin birthplace.  It's guarded continuously inside a very ornate memorial.  Unfortunately, we arrived with only minutes to spare before they closed for the day.  About 20 minutes away is another unit of the park, Lincoln's boyhood home.  It, likewise, was closed, but I took a few pictures from the parking lot.  


Our GPS took us from there into some fairly remote areas of Kentucky, and we needed gas for our Jeep, so I started to get nervous.  As a cartographer and avid map-reader, I'm reluctant to give up total control of the navigation, even though I know how convenient a smartphone can be.  And I sometimes get lazy and don't look at the whole route, and trust the GPS to get me to my destination, which then makes me uncomfortable when I don't know exactly where I am.  I trust my instincts more than a computer.  In this moment, though, I let the computer do the heavy lifting, and I didn't exactly like the direction we were going.  We were on nothing but backroads.

Anyway, we were soon on the outskirts of Lexington, KY, and we found fuel and an old favorite for dinner:  Frisch's Big Boy.  We basically had breakfast for dinner, and the very young man who served us tried his darnedest to make sure we had a good experience when it was clear none of his co-workers were in the best of moods.  I got some coffee to go, and we were soon on the interstate again.

I had already made a reservation for the night, near Charleston, WV, but we had a long drive ahead of us that would take us into some late hours.  This was fine as long as the roads were relatively flat, but soon we hit more mountainous areas, and it was just us and the trucks sharing the highway.  With the memory of the accident from a few days before still very fresh in my mind, I started to get nervous again, and that made for some stressful driving.  The trucks were driving out-of-their-minds fast through the mountains, and I was having trouble maintaining the speed limit.  Then it started to rain again, and I found myself praying that He would keep us safe and my reflexes remained sharp.  I was so relieved when we reached our exit, which was literally on the side of a mountain.  It was late, and I was exhausted.  We found our hotel, checked in, and turned in immediately.


Knowing that this would be our last day on the road, we were anxious to get going, but we took our time, eating a decent breakfast.  Then we were ready to go.  We would be going through the mountains of West Virginia and western Maryland for much of the day, and it made the journey slower than we wanted, but I was still stressed with all of the trucks.  But we made decent time and soon found ourselves in our home state of Maryland.  This was very familiar territory the rest of the way, since I have been traveling on this stretch of highway since before I was born.  Dad grew up in nearby Uniontown, PA, about 30 minutes west of the PA-MD border along US 40, the National Road.  Interstate 68 is a very scenic highway through the mountains.

We made one more stop, at the same restaurant which was our first stop of this massive trip, at the Park N Dine, in Hancock, MD.  We each had the same meal we ate when we were here 17 days ago.  The rest of the trip went by very quickly, and we soon pulled up in front of our house.  We were HOME, and it felt good.  Final mileage was almost exactly as I planned.  I said 6000, and we ended up at 5912.8.

We said a little prayer thanking God for keeping us safe, healthy, and happy.  It was a fantastic trip.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 15: An Accident in Texas


We left the congested Arlington, TX, area and headed east towards downtown Dallas.  We wanted to see the touristy stuff surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, but the highways in the Central Dallas area were under a major construction project and our GPS just couldn't handle the mixing bowl of road work.  So we just headed on out of town on Interstate 30, then working our way over to I-20 East, we continued our journey.

We were near the little town of Lindale on I-20, coasting over a rise, when traffic slowed ahead of us.  I slowed down and moved from the right lane into the left, because there was a tractor-trailer in the right lane.  There was a Subaru wagon in the right lane that continued on at full speed, at least 70 mph, never slowing down as it slammed into the back of the 18-wheeler.  It was a tremendous impact, sending pieces of the car in all directions.

I drifted to a stop, halfway on the left shoulder, and stared, trying to register what had happened.  Traffic behind us stopped, as well.  I asked my daughter, Melody, if she saw what just happened, and she said no, that she was looking at some pictures on my phone.  I asked her to take a picture of the vehicles, just in case it might be important later.  I realized no one was doing anything, and there was no life from either vehicle.  I decided to move just ahead of the truck and park on the right shoulder and see if there was anything we could do.


As I drove past the accident scene, I saw the driver's head sticking awkwardly out of the shattered side window, and I knew he was dead.  I told Melody not to look.  I was concerned about the car catching fire, so I moved the Jeep to the far side of the impact area, just to be safe.  I parked, and started to suggest that Melody try calling 911, but given that I had no idea exactly where we were other than on I-20 East in Texas, I didn't know what other identifying information we could provide.  Melody instead called my parents, and I'm really glad that they could keep her occupied while I turned my attention to the accident.

I started to run towards the truck, but remembered that I had a fire extinguisher that I had just purchased before the trip, and I quickly retrieved it.  I approached the truck driver, who was still in the cab of his truck, and asked him if he was okay.  He didn't seem to understand at first, but I asked again and he nodded.  I ran to the back of the truck, and before I could do anything else, a man ran over to me and grabbed the fire extinguisher out of my hands.  Apparently, the car was on fire, and a couple of guys were attempting to put it out.  They were successful putting out the fire, and I found out that the two men were truck drivers heading west who saw the accident scene and stopped to help.  They had both used up their fire extinguishers, so my arrival with one was timely.


We began to assist one of the car's passengers, a little girl, who was in the backseat, yelling and crying for her daddy (apparently the now-deceased driver).  Paramedics showed up to take over and they helped get the young girl, who we later found out was 9-years old, out of the car.  We also later read that she suffered two broken legs in the impact.  While she was loaded into an ambulance, another paramedic asked me if I knew what happened, and it became clear that, of those who stopped to help, I was the only one who witnessed the collision.

The other truck drivers who stopped to help began to direct traffic, as a large backup had formed on the highway behind the accident.  Passersby were taking cellphone pictures of the driver of the car, given how gruesome it looked, and someone asked if we had a blanket or towel we could place over the body.  I ran back to our Jeep to get a blanket, and to check on Melody.  I gave her and my parents an update on what happened.  Melody was pretty shook up, but I am so glad that my parents stayed on the phone with her to keep her calm.  I told her to keep praying.


One of the paramedics returned from the ambulance and told us that there was another person in the vehicle, the young 8-year old brother of little girl.  He was in the front passenger seat.  We quickly looked and it was clear that he didn't survive.  He had been decapitated, and I noticed for the first time pieces of flesh strewn across the side of the car.  It really shook me up.

The driver of the truck involved in the accident kept his distance from the rest of us.  He took a lot of pictures, and was on the phone the whole time.  A fire engine arrived, and the fire personnel took over.  Since the other truck drivers who stopped to help weren't needed, they left.  But they both shook hands with me, and offered words of condolences before they left.  I had to remain since I had to give statements to the police.


I described the accident from my point of view to one of the fire personnel, then to a sheriff's deputy, and then to a state trooper.  We were there for over an hour.  I kept going back to our Jeep to check on Melody.  Finally, we were cleared to leave, but it was at least another 20 minutes before I was calm enough to begin driving.  It was a horrific experience.  All we could do was pray.

Melody and I talked quite a bit about it all.  I was careful about what I shared with her, but I wanted her to understand that these things happen.  It brought back a lot of memories of a major car accident my family had experienced back when I was 18, in which my grandparents were killed.  I'm so thankful for the personal relationship I have as a follower of Christ, and the promise of eternal life with Him.  It provides some level of comfort after a traumatic experience like this one.

We continued a few miles down the road, then exited to get gas, use a rest room, and get snacks.  While we were on this break, I started to reflect on what happened, and I got very emotional.  I thought about the night my wife, Teresa, went to be with the Lord, and the flood of memories brought tears to my eyes.  Melody was sympathetic, and gave me a big hug.

Returning to the highway, we decided that we didn't want to keep driving given how shook up we were.  Our intent was to get closer to Little Rock, Arkansas, for the night, but I found a hotel for us just outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, and made a reservation.  It was about an hour ahead.  It was also my first time in the state of Louisiana.


There was a Cracker Barrel right next to the hotel, so we got some dinner, then crashed (bad pun) for the evening.  We prayed a lot that night.  I didn't sleep well, either.

It was tough to get going the next morning, but we got on the road kind of early.  Right after hitting the road, it started to rain, and it rained hard for the next few hours.  It kind of fit our mood.

I didn't want to focus on the negative, but this incident marred much of the remainder of our trip.  We were still a few days from home, and there were many sites we would still see, but we really just wanted to get home.  There was also some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which impacted me as I drove.  I hated driving around trucks, and I had a hard time maintaining my speed on the interstates.  I was so afraid of losing control of our Jeep.

As we celebrate our country today, please take care in all you do.  Stay safe, enjoy your time with loved ones, tell them how much you love them, and have a wonderful day!


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Teresa Shirlen Freed


My wonderful wife, Teresa, was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School, in Ellicott City, MD, through the 2002 school year, starting her teaching career upon graduating from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, in 1994.  She made a lot of friends and impacted hundreds of students over the years, just as she was impacted by them.  She loved teaching, she love her students, and she loved the literature she helped the students experience as the 9th grade English teacher of gifted and talented (GT) freshman.  She also taught a public speaking elective, and sponsored the speech and debate team.

She was a tough teacher, but, as the school year progressed, the students appreciated her style and passion for the books, novels, and Shakespearean plays she taught, realizing how much she cared. Her absolute favorite book was "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee.  Teresa also got to know her students.  She wanted to create a bond with them in order to understand them, and creating an environment of trust within the classroom allowed them to be comfortable enough to share the best of themselves as they learned the rich curriculum she taught.

Many of her students were involved with the youth program at Grace Community Church.  In fact, Teresa told me that she knew which students were in the program because of the way they behaved and carried themselves, and she even got to know the church's pastor and his wife, Mark and Lu Norman, because their children were students at Hebron, and she taught several of them.  Mark has said that it gave them comfort to know there was a Christ-follower teaching their kids.  At one point, her students who attended Grace attempted to play match-maker by setting her up with the, at that time, single youth pastor.  But she never followed through with their requests to meet him.


I met Teresa on April 4, 1998, after being introduced to her by my cousin, Dan, who attended Montrose Baptist Church, the same church as Teresa and her family.  We soon were dating regularly, and our relationship progressed quickly.  The Class of '02 was witness to Teresa's stories of our dating escapades, as she shared with them the details of our storybook romance.  We were engaged on February 13, 1999, to much hoopla from the kids in the classroom.  I was not aware of just how much she shared with the students, and am amused to find out what they knew about me.  We were married on July 24, 1999, in a wonderful, Christ-centered wedding in front of over 200 of our family and friends.  It was one of the greatest days of my life.


The students continued to be regaled by Teresa telling stories about our life together, including when we added to our family with our Maltese pup, who Teresa named "Scout," after the little girl in "To Kill A Mockingbird," naturally.  We moved to Howard County in August 2001, since we wanted to be closer to her place of employment, but also because we wanted our children to attend Howard County Schools, which, in our minds, are the finest in the country.


It was also at this time that the long-time principal at Mt. Hebron, Dr. Addie Kaufman, left the school to open brand-new Reservoir High School, in Fulton, MD, just down the street from our new home.  Addie quickly talked Teresa into coming to Reservoir, making her one of the first hires of the new school, due to open in the Fall of 2002.  While she had only ever taught at one school, and she hated to leave Hebron, she was excited by the opportunity to open a new school, especially since it was so close to where we lived.  It was kept a secret for some time, but there was quite an outpouring of disappointment among the Hebron community that she was leaving.  She finished up the school year in June 2002, and made the transition to Reservoir.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2003 and we found out that we were expecting.  Teresa and I were excited and intimidated by the prospect of being parents.  There's nothing to prepare you for it.  But while we stayed excited, the reality of it all kept us grounded and we prepared for this incredible change to our lives.

At around this time, we began looking for a new church home.  We wanted a church that was closer to our community, and after trying several different churches, Teresa recalled Grace Community Church.  We visited in the Summer of 2003 and knew immediately that this was the church for us.  Mark Norman's messages spoke to us, and while we already knew about the youth program, we quickly learned that the children's program was also pretty awesome.


Melody Grace was born in the Fall of 2003, several months into the new school year.  And she did change our lives.  She was so beautiful!  And Teresa loved being a mom!  Our little family now complete, we moved into a new phase of life.  We also had some decisions to make.  After much conversation and prayer, we decided that Teresa would take off for the rest of the school year.  This allowed for Teresa to spend every day with Melody, and we didn't have to consider finding daycare, at least not yet.


April 19, 2004, was a beautiful day.  We grilled burgers and corn on the cob, and had a nice dinner, then we decided to go out for a ride.  It was too nice to stay home and inside.  We drove out to Clarksville with little 5 month old Melody and Faithful Pup Scout, and got some ice cream.  Then we drove up to Reservoir High School to see if maybe there was a game being played that we could watch.  Teresa saw that Addie Kaufman's car was in the parking lot, and we decided to go over to the window of her office.  I was carrying Melody, and Teresa had Scout on her leash.  I stayed out on the sidewalk, while Teresa knocked on Addie's window.  Then she suddenly collapsed on the ground.  I had no idea what happened, and ran over to her. I watched her eyes glaze over and close, and her lips fluttered as the air expelled from her mouth.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

Addie opened the window and I asked her to call 911.  She did, and she also made an announcement for anyone who knew CPR to please come to the front of the school  While we had taken an infant CPR class, I wasn't able to process what to do, so I was relieved to see a woman show up who did (she turned out to be a registered nurse).  Addie came out and took Melody, who was crying loudly, so I could devote my attention to Teresa.

The paramedics soon arrived and they took over.  The police questioned me well away from Teresa.  It took the longest time, but they finally loaded Teresa onto an ambulance.  I wanted to ride with them, but they wouldn't let me, and instead I was led to a police car for the ride to Howard County General Hospital.  I didn't know it at the time, but because I was the only witness to what happened, I was being considered a suspect.  Addie said she would take care of Melody, and one of the school custodians took care of Scout.  Then we headed for the hospital.

I called Teresa's parents, Jim and Lynda, but couldn't reach them.  I called my parents, and couldn't reach them, either.  They finally called me back and I told them what happened.  The Shirlens called back and I told them what happened.  Everyone was en route to the hospital, but I knew it would be 30 minutes for them to get there.  I asked the police officer if he was a Christian.  He said he was Catholic.  I asked him to please pray.

Once at the hospital, I started to rush towards the ambulance bay, but the police officer led me instead into the main Emergency entrance, where I had to wait until cleared to go into the ER.  But instead of being allowed to be near her, I was led to a little room with a small table and several chairs.  There was a Bible on the table.  I thought to myself that this was a room where they give you bad news.

I prayed.  It was all I could think to do.  I asked God to please bless Teresa, to be with me, to be with little Melody...  I still believed that she would be okay.  I didn't want to think of the alternative.  It seemed like a long time, but, finally, a man with a lab coat came in, along with a well-dressed woman carrying a clipboard.  They joined me at the table and told me that they did everything they could, but there was nothing that could be done.  Teresa had died.  I was devastated.  It was just a nightmare.  (Days later, we got the coroner's report saying that Teresa died of a massive heart attack.  She had Mitral Valve Prolapse complicated by an enlarged heart.  She was gone by the time she hit the ground after collapsing.)

Later that week, at the funeral home, we were met by so many current and former students from both Mount Hebron and Reservoir High Schools.  It was an incredible turn out.  And they told so many stories about their teacher.  There was so much sadness over the whole thing, but we found comfort in sharing those stories.  It was about the best thing for me, given the circumstances.


In the days to follow, I fell into a deep depression.  I'm so thankful for so many who helped us through that terrible time, from my parents and in-laws, so many friends, Pastor Mark and Grace Community, Reverend George Aist, my colleagues at work, teachers and staff at both schools...there was no shortage of prayers and support.


And then there were the students.  I was told that both schools wanted to start scholarships in Teresa's name.  In addition, Reservoir collected money for a college fund for Melody.  Such wonderful gestures, I was and still am amazed by the generosity of so many people impacted by our loss.  Mount Hebron had an essay contest in order to give out a one-time scholarship award to a Class of 2005 student, from the last class Teresa taught at Hebron.  Reservoir had a self-sustaining annual scholarship in Teresa's name, and allowed the family and several students and staff to establish the criteria for the award.  In addition, a memorial garden was set up in the front of the school, with a plaque on the outside wall of the school with names of community members who have passed on.  Teresa's name is the first one listed.  And to this day, the garden is a wonderful sanctuary to her memory.



Fast forward again to several weeks ago.  Daughter Melody, now 13 years old, is involved in that same youth program at Grace Community Church that had impressed us all those years ago.  Melody listened to one of the youth counselors, Greg Murach, share that he was a teacher at Mount Hebron High School.  Melody, who is not nearly as out-going as her extroverted mother, approached Greg to tell him that her mother also taught at Hebron.  He asked her name, and Melody clarified that he was probably too young to remember her, but when she said Teresa Shirlen Freed, she told me that Greg just stared at her for the longest time.  Of course he knew her.  He was one of her students!  After the service, I went over to the Warehouse and met Greg, and we shared several stories over the next hour.  It was so cool to hear him talk about Teresa, and I think we were both astounded over this coincidence.  Even more, we realized just how much God had a hand in what was happening, and how much Teresa had played a role in us meeting at that moment....


Teresa had taught at Mount Hebron High School, impacting and being impacted by students, particularly those who were in the youth program at Grace Community Church, including a young Greg Murach.  Teresa and I later meet, get married, and begin attending Grace because of the wonderful experiences Teresa had with the students there.  Melody is born, and once old enough, begins attending that very same youth program, where she meets Greg, who is not only a youth counselor, but a teacher at Mount Hebron.  And the circle is completed.  God is so good!

Yesterday, I received an email from Greg asking if I would be at Grace last night, that he had a gift for me.  He approached me during the service and handed me a large photo album.  He warned me not to look at it until later, because he was emotional after looking through it.  The album contained so many letters written by Hebron students addressed to Melody, telling her about what her mother, their teacher, meant to them.  Most were written only days after Teresa's homegoing.  They were compiled and being held by one of Teresa's colleagues from back in the day, and it was only because Melody approached Greg that they were brought to light.  What an amazing, precious gift!

It was like opening a time capsule.  Melody and I spent the whole evening laughing, crying, and discussing so many of the little stories captured by the students.  I don't have the words to describe how appreciative I am for this incredible gift.

Teresa was an amazing person.  I loved her so much, and I miss her every day.  She was an amazing teacher, friend, daughter, mother, wife, and companion.  I look forward to our grand reunion some day, but I'm thankful for the gift of eternal life that can only be found in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I know Teresa is in the arms of God, and that helps me get through each day, just as my wonderful, beautiful daughter, Melody, reminds me of just how precious life is.


Have a wonderful evening, everyone!


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 14: Six Flags Over Texas

Up kind of early, we checked out of our hotel and made a supply run to the local Walmart.  We were soon on the road, headed southwest out of Amarillo on US 287.  The drive was uneventful.  Texas is fairly flat, and it seems to take forever to get to where you're going.  There were no real highlights, either, except the experience of traveling through small-town Texas towns.  I love getting off of the interstates.  It's one thing to hurry from destination to destination, but sometimes it's nice to just soak in the local atmosphere, and the smaller roads provide that.

We stopped to gas up in one of those little Texas towns, but did not make another stop other than for quick restroom breaks.  We had a late lunch just outside of Wichita Falls at a Cracker Barrel, then continued on into the Fort Worth-Dallas metro area.  We arrived just at the start of rush hour, and encountered quite a bit of traffic.

Soon, we arrived at our Sleep Inn in Arlington, TX.  We were located right across from Six Flags Over Texas, and one of the roller coasters ran past the hotel parking lot.  From our room, we could also see the Dallas Cowboys immense domed stadium, and the Texas Rangers ballpark.  We cleaned up, then headed back out, deciding to walk over to the amusement park.


We arrived just as it began raining, which, unfortunately, because there was lightning, shut down every ride in the park.  Our plan had been to grab dinner first, but because all of the rides were stopped, every guest seemed to have the same idea.

I'll interject here one of my pet peeves regarding Six Flags parks.  I hate to make a generalization, but cleanliness is not their strong suit.  Neither is the food.  My daughter and I have visited many amusement parks over the years, and I guess we're just spoiled.  Busch Gardens, in particular, is the nicest, cleanest park in the USA, by far, in my opinion, and they have excellent food at all of their eateries.  Six Flags, on the other hand, has mass-produced, very bland tasting meals that are, frankly, poorly prepared.  Finding a clean table is also an issue, and on this evening, I actually had to find an employee to wipe down the only free table we could find.  Anyway, it wasn't a good experience.


Fortunately, the rain let up and the rides started running again.  We were able to get a nice number of rides in before the park closed for the night, including the New Texas Giant and Titan.  Both were excellent!  We also rode Mr. Freeze, which was a nice respite from the immense heat and humidity.




We crashed for the night, but decided to go back the next day.  So, after a good night's sleep, we ate a quick breakfast, checked out, and drove over to the park.  We arrived just as they opened.  It was really hot.  I had been warned by colleagues who work in Oklahoma City that the Texas summers were hot, but I really wasn't prepared.  Daughter Melody and I made a pact to drink plenty of water as we went along.



The park was not crowded, at least initially, so we were able to walk on to many rides.  One favorite was Runaway Mountain, an indoor coaster.  It was nice and cool inside the building, and we rode it twice.  We rode a few more coasters, but the heat began to get unbearable, and with the increasing crowds and the drive ahead, we decided to leave the park at around lunch time.  We were happy and satisfied with the experience, and left happily.



We did a quick search, and found a nearby Chick-Fil-A, the only fast food joint that we patronize regularly.  It was crowded, but we ate a nice meal.  We also changed clothes since we were drenched from sweat after the morning at the park.  Then we were back on the road, headed towards Dallas.

Have a great day, everyone!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Big Road Trip, Part 13: Santa Fe and the Big Texan

I awoke much earlier than daughter Melody, so I got ready and began exploring the beautiful old El Rancho Hotel, located in Gallup, New Mexico, a sleepy town in western New Mexico with a large American Indian population.  It is supposedly known as the ceremonial capital of Native America, with large numbers of Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi Tribes.

The El Rancho Hotel became to "Hotel of the Stars" because so many Hollywood movie stars stayed here while filming movies in the American Southwest.  Pictures of many celebrities from the early to mid 1900s adorn the walls in the gorgeous lobby, and each of the hotel rooms is named for a celebrity, including Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Lucille Ball, Doris Day, John Wayne, Jack Benny, Kirk Douglas, Jane Wyman, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan ("The Presidential Suite"), and the Marx Brothers.  Melody and I stayed in the W.C. Fields room.  When I stayed here back in 1997 during my solo cross-country trip, I stayed in the Joel McCrea room.


I took lots of pictures around the hotel, then checked back in to find Melody was ready to go.  We checked out, then grabbed a nice breakfast at a nearby Cracker Barrel.  Then we returned to the downtown area and did some window shopping, admiring the Native American-crafted jewelry, blankets, and furniture.

Today was a catch-up day, since we didn't make very good progress the day before.  My goal was to have dinner in Amarillo, TX, by evening.  So we hit the road and did a lot of driving, basically bypassing most of the towns in New Mexico and pushing ahead to Santa Fe.  When my wife, Teresa, and I passed through Santa Fe in 2000, we were unable to make the visit to the Loretto Chapel, home of the Miraculous Staircase.  I wanted to rectify that by going with Melody.

We arrived in Santa Fe right at lunch time.  The downtown historic area was very busy, and on-street parking was difficult to find.  We finally found a spot several blocks from the Chapel, right on old historic Route 66.  This gave us a chance to walk around a bit and take in the ambience of Santa Fe, with its adobe architecture and Native American culture.  It is such a gorgeous city.


We found the Loretto Chapel, right at the end of the old Santa Fe Trail.  The Chapel is part of the Academy of Our Lady of Light, founded by Catholics in 1853.  The Chapel was completed in 1878, and features the St. Joseph's Staircase, referred to as miraculous because it makes two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall, and has no center support, resting solely on its base and against the choir loft above, and constructed with only square wooden pegs with no glue or nails.  The Chapel is gorgeous inside, with features such as a Gothic altar and the Stations of the Cross.



After taking lots of pictures and getting souvenirs, we headed out, looking for a place to eat lunch.  Everything was so crowded, and knowing we needed to get on the road, we trekked back to our Jeep and headed back out of town, looking for something quick to eat.  We ended up getting some really bad gas station pizza, since there seemed to be no chain restaurants in the immediate area.

We headed south on US 285 towards Clines Corners along a beautiful landscape, watching as a thunderstorm brewed in the distance.  We finally ran right into it as we reached I-40, and it rained like cats and dogs for the next several miles, until we were able to get ahead of it.  We kept up our pace and raced through the rest of New Mexico, somewhat regretting that we were going to miss a few sites, but anxious to make up for lost time.


We jumped off the interstate just west of the border between New Mexico and Texas, and drove through the ghost town of Glenrio.  Putting down our windows, all we could hear were the wild dogs that roam the once-busy town on Old Route 66, which began it's slow decline after being bypassed by the interstate.  We took a bunch of pictures of the practically abandoned town (I've read that there is one occupant still living in the town, serving as sheriff, mayor, and keeper of the flame).  Of particular note is the old "First in Texas-Last in Texas" gas station.


Returning to the I-40, we entered Texas, a first for Melody.  We continued to head east at a pretty good pace, anxious to get to Amarillo before dark.  We had to make a stop at the legendary Cadillac Ranch, however, just on the outskirts of Amarillo.  It's a rite of passage to visit this shrine along Route 66, home to "public art" in the form of ten old Cadillacs (models from 1949-1963) buried nose-down in the dirt, supposedly at the same angle as the Egyptian pyramids.  It's a rite of passage to mark the cars with your own artwork, and many bring cans of spray paint to decorate them as they desire.  Melody and I brought Sharpies, and we placed messages on one of the cars, took a few pics, and returned to the road.


We soon entered Amarillo, and I headed straight to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, a highlight of both of my previous stops in the Texas Panhandle.  The Big Texan is a noteworthy restaurant with good western-style meals, and features the epic 72 ounce, eat-it-in-an-hour-and-it's-free, steak.  The cavernous dining room has hundreds of tables, including a balcony, and a large stage right in the middle where patrons desiring to try the 72-ounce contest sit, for all to see, as they attempt to finish not only the steak, but a baked potato, salad, roll, and shrimp cocktail, all in under an hour.  Here are the official rules:

  1. Entire meal must be completed in one hour...
  2. Before the clock starts, you are allowed to cut into the steak and take one bite to make sure it tastes good and is cooked to your satisfaction...
  3. Once you start, you may not stand up, leave the table, or allow anyone else to touch your meal...
  4. You will be disqualified if anyone assists you in cutting, preparing, or eating  your meal...
  5. You don't have to eat the fat, but this will be judged...
  6. Should you become ill, the contest is over and you lose...
  7. You are required to pay the full amount up front, and will be refunded 100% if you win...
  8. You must sit at a table that we assign....
  9. If you do not win, you are welcome to take the leftovers with you...
  10. No consumption or sharing of the leftovers is allowed in the restaurant once the contest is over...
  11. If you fail to complete the challenge, you must pay the full $72.
There have been well over 9500 winners to the challenge, but success rate is not high.  The ultimate champ is a young lady who ate one of the steak meals in under 5 minutes, and ate 3 total in under 20 minutes.  That's a lot of steak!


Melody and I enjoyed our steaks, then we checked into a nearby Sleep Inn for the night.  We were tired, having spent most of our day in the Jeep on the road.  But we were still having a blast!

Have a great day, everyone!