Woman takes chance as a father seeks a handout

I wrote this a long time ago. It first appeared in the Westchester Opinion section of the New York Times. Although little Tommy is all grown up, I wouldn’t say my point of view has changed very much.


By Jacque White Kochak

As I wove through the crowds in Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work one day, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, and her white shirt stuck out below a red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.

The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”

I don’t deny that I was a perfect mark. I have three children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of Tommy. A picture of homeless children in a newspaper is enough to set me sobbing. I have a soft spot for children, of course.

I can also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had had five children, all born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance. I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight.

I’m from Kansas, so New York-style poverty is alien to me. But once, when I read about a young couple with their children living out of a dilapidated car as they chased chimerical jobs across the Southwest, I imagined how easy it might have been to slip between the cracks.

So, I followed the man, through the crowds, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said.

I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again. I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs.

Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.

“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.

I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.

I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who make a living begging. They find a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They bring along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.

And I have dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dress them in rags and send them out to beg. The parents keep out of sight; they know that the children will be more effective alone. The money the kids collect goes for liquor.

But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.

What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Tom. And really, a dollar is such a little bit of money.

And then I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 10, 20, even 100 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.

I prefer my gamble, thank you.

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A general’s spiritual journey

On the occasion of retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s death, I am re-publishing an article I wrote about him several years ago. This surprising portrait of a complex and interesting man was first published in The Auburn Villager.


 

By Jacque White Kochak

Retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore of Auburn is best known as the man who led 450 soldiers into the valley of death at Ia Drang in 1965. His unlikely victory over some 2,000 Vietnamese troops was chronicled in first a book and later a movie starring mega-star Mel Gibson.

At the time this article was written in 2008, Moore had just been chosen by Armchair General Magazine as one of the 100 greatest generals in history. A second book about his adventures called We Are Soldiers Still was set to be published by Harper-Collins that September. Like Moore’s first book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book was co-authored by journalist Joe Galloway.

There’s another side to this stern warrior, though. Moore stays after Mass every Sunday morning at Auburn’s St. Michael’s Catholic Church, on his knees praying for every man he lost. Their names are alphabetized on 3 x 5 cards.

Sometimes, Moore attends daily Mass, spending three hours a day praying for the men who died in his command.

“At the age of 86, I realize I’m not long for this planet,” he said. “I want to stack the deck so I’ll make the cut for eternal life.”

This complex man’s spirituality isn’t something new, though, occasioned by fear of impending mortality. Moore’s long spiritual journey, beginning when he was just a boy in Kentucky, has now been chronicled in yet another new book by, of all people, a local man we’ll call The Driver because he has asked not be identified, in the book or in the press.

When Moore lost his beloved wife, Julie, in 2004, his friends around the country feared Moore would give up and pass on, too. They asked The Driver, who lived in Auburn, to keep Moore company and redirect his thoughts. Besides visiting with Moore, The Driver started acting as an unofficial chauffeur. And over four years’ time, on long excursions to the airport or to the cemetery at Ft. Benning to visit Julie and his men, Moore started talking. The Driver listened, and went home to recount the stories to his wife.

“You have to write this down,” she said.

THE DRIVER

The Driver approached the general about writing his stories, only for his family and close friends. Moore agreed. The Driver wrote for a month, and presented a draft for Moore’s approval.

“Why would you think I would deserve this? This may be the greatest thing I’ll ever leave my children,” Moore said when he saw the draft.

As it turns out, more people than just Moore’s children are now reading the modest treatise, entitled A General’s Spiritual Journey. After it was written, a group called Operation Gratitude requested 70,000 copies to be included in care packages going to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Carolyn Blaschek, founder of Operation Gratitude, said she was just looking for a letter from someone prominent to include in the care packages. Armchair General Magazine put her in touch with Moore’s representatives, and she heard about the book.

“I thought, Omigod that would be amazing,” Blaschek said. “I said, I need to have those books, not just a letter.”

The books were printed by another of Moore’s friends at Wild Goose Ministries in Colorado. The ministry agreed to print 90,000 more copies, and at the time he was interviewed Moore had received perhaps a thousand e-mails and letters from soldiers and others touched by his thoughts. Chaplains around the world had asked for copies, and Moore had been asked to appear on the Catholic television network EWTN as well as Larry King Live. The book is about spirituality, not a particular religion. Although Moore is Catholic, Blaschek is Jewish and the founder of Wild Goose Ministries is Baptist.

“What I am learning from this book is reconciliation, reintegration and renewal,” said one correspondent. “I feel like I am fighting the toughest battle of my life right now with grief. Grief of great loss is worse than my falling on a grenade in Vietnam and losing my legs and one arm. If Hal Moore can do it, I can do it!”

Neither Moore nor The Driver sought compensation for their effort. All proceeds from all of Moore’s books, as well as the blockbuster movie, go to the Ia Drang scholarship fund to educate the children of the men Moore lost in Viet Nam.

WILL GOD FORGIVE ME?

“Gen. Moore once asked me, ‘Do you think God will forgive me for all the men I killed?'” recalled The Driver. “When he goes to the cemetery, he goes to every tombstone of every soldier who fought under him, and tells me something about each one. He ends up at Julie’s headstone.”

Moore admitted that people who read the book seemed to be surprised that a general officer had deep spiritual beliefs, but he pointed to Gen. Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur as other examples, although he didn’t count himself in their company. He agreed the book might not have had the same impact if written by an insurance salesman, because generals are looked on a little differently than businessmen. He said he believed, nevertheless, that many presidents of large corporations cared about their employees as much as Moore cared about his men. They just don’t make the news, and they don’t lead men to their deaths.

“I did my duty,” Moore said. “My proudest accomplishment is that I never left a man on the battlefield, never a prisoner of war, never missing in action.”

In 1993, Moore returned to the Ia Drang Valley with the Vietnamese commanding officer against whom he fought. The men were stranded for the night in the remote valley in the central highlands, some five miles from the Cambodian border. When a shower of shooting stars illuminated the black sky, they stood mute.

“I never saw such a phenomenon,” Moore said. “It crossed our minds that these could well be the spirits of men on both sides who fought and died, spirits coming back to tell us hail and farewell, we’re with you one last time on this night.”

That familiarity with death, the awareness that each of us is balanced precipitously on the edge of forever, may be part of Moore’s intense spirituality.

“I never thought about it, but probably subconsciously that was in my mind,” he said. “It’s just a crapshoot whether you get shot or struck in the helmet by a bullet.”

THE BACKWOODS OF KENTUCKY

Moore was born in the backwoods of Kentucky, in the little community of Bardstown. Bardstown was the first Catholic community west of the Alleghenies, settled by pioneers from the Catholic colony of Maryland. His father was Catholic, but his mother was Methodist. She agreed to raise her children in their father’s faith.

Sometimes, Moore’s mother went to both Catholic and Methodist services, and during the wars in which her son served she visited the local cathedral almost daily to light candles, their smoke wafting her prayers to God.

“Most other religions believe in a supreme being,” Moore said. “I certainly do, and my mother did. During battle, I would pray that I would prevail with the least loss of life and get guidance from above.”

Moore’s father attended daily Mass, slipping out at 6 a.m. while the rest of the family slept. The boy attended a Catholic grade school, continuing his education at a high school run by the monastery where the famed Thomas Merton lived. Moore tried to read every book in both school libraries, he said.

Moore recalled that he always wanted to be a soldier, though, partly because he loved the outdoors. He flirted with the idea of being a priest, mainly because he wanted to be a military chaplain. He attended West Point, where Moore said he was smart in English language and history, but not so good at math, physics and chemistry courses. That was tough, he said, since West Point was an engineering school. Moore graduated in 1945, just as World War II was ending.

“I personally knew upperclassmen who were killed in action,” he said. “We were under no illusions what we were headed for. I probably would have been killed jumping into Japan, because everyone had been issued pitchforks to attack paratroopers.”

Moore said West Point left its mark on him; he took seriously the honor system requiring cadets not to lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who did. He attended Mass almost daily, and when he graduated Moore spent the weekend at a silent retreat.

“I trusted in God,” he said. “I raised my right hand and took an oath to follow orders. It was as simple as that.”

BLOOD AND GUTS

Moore served in Korea, and by 1965 was a lieutenant colonel. He and 450 men parachuted into the Ia Drang Valley in Viet Nam, only to discover they were surrounded by some 2,000 enemy troops. Ia Drang was the first major battle of the nascent Vietnamese War, and the battle that made Moore’s reputation. He lost 79 men, but the Vietnamese lost a thousand.

“Is he the blood and guts General Patton we need in Vietnam?” one headline asked afterwards.

“To his soldiers, he is Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, James Bond, Teddy Roosevelt and William Tecumseh Sherman all rolled into six feet of bone-hard Kentuckian,” the author said. “The Vietnamese feel the same way. He is one of the few American officers who is greeted on the street with traditional Asian half-bow, from civilians as well as local officials and troops.”

Moore was welcome in the inner sanctums of the powerful Buddhist monks,and enjoyed the same closeness with Christian leaders as well.

“Both spiritual groups say, ‘He has won our understanding,'” the article said.

“In the battles I was in in Viet Nam, I was always the first man on the ground, in the lead helicopter,” Moore said. “The officer is always the first man out the door.”

When Julie died, Moore turned his attention to an organization called The Public Trust, signing on as founder. He spent much of his time traveling to speaking engagements, accompanied by The Driver. In A General’s Spiritual Journey, the last section was devoted to “unfinished business.” He considered that little book part of his unfinished business, Moore said.

“When I make talks, I emphasize the brevity of life on earth when compared to eternal life,” he said. “I’m hoping to reach younger people, because they look on life as unending.”

He didn’t try to impress his particular religious beliefs on others, however. One has to arrive at those beliefs on his or her own, he said.

As for The Driver, he visited Moore daily, often taking supper. He took him to the cemetery to visit Julie and his men, and to the airport for his speaking engagements.

“It was a privilege for me to be in the same space,” said Moore’s unofficial chauffeur. “I was Hal Moore’s driver, and you didn’t have enough money to take my job.”