On December 14th, I wrote a blog post titled Great Men. It began this way:
"This isn't a post about global great men. It is a post about a few of the men who have been instrumental in my life (And, yes, there will be a comparable Great Women post in the Norman Rockwell series).
This is the Great Women blog I promised.
First, a disclaimer and then an explanation of the order of appearance of the women in my life.
The disclaimer is I believe the most misunderstood and least explored area of human life is gender difference. I could write volumes on the subject and still not come to any noteworthy conclusion beyond this: a man should never, ever, under any circumstances, tell a woman, "I know how you feel." We don't know. Now, if you are a woman, and that makes you feel a bit smug and maybe a little bit superior, forget it. You don't know how a man feels any more than he knows how you feel.
So, here's a suggestion. The place to begin exploring the great gender unknown is not with "I know how you feel," but rather in the land of "Tell me how you feel." For most, that's a foreign land, one that can be successfully explored only by listening, seldom, if ever, by talking.
The explanation is I'm going to arrange my Great Women in the order they have appeared in my life, with one exception. The first woman, Christina Carson, appeared later than most on the list. She has stayed longer than everyone on the list, and she will be with me until the end.
That said, here they are, the most influential women in my life.
Christina Carson was dragged, by her boss, to a Friday evening workshop I co-facilitated in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. After the workshop a number of participants went to a nearby coffee shop. Christina and I sat across from each other, at the end of a long table. We drank coffee, talked, and gently explored the land of "how do you feel," that I mentioned earlier.
I had told a few Vietnam stories during the workshop so that became the door to "how do you feel land." I wasn't surprised to discover that she had been in Canada over twenty years, moving there in protest to Vietnam. It wasn't a simple move, or one embarked on impulsively. She gave up her family, her doctoral program at Berkeley, and for the years she spent with her husband, Fred, a thousand miles north of the U.S./Canada border, she damn sure gave up warm weather.
As I listened to her, I realized that she had more conviction about the war in Vietnam than most of the men I served with there. One of the last things I told her that evening was, "You were right, you know." Later she told me that no one had ever told her that before. The following day, she attended another workshop. From that unplanned beginning, we became pen pals, ultimately filling seven large journals with our correspondence. In the process we each came to an understanding regarding how we felt.
When my marriage experienced its final explosion, I asked her if she'd like to move to Alabama and marry a Redneck. She didn't hesitate in agreeing to the proposition. Once again, she gave up everything to cross the border. This time, though, it wasn't in protest but rather in love.
Right now, as I write this, she is also writing. I'm not sure what her project is today: it could be another great novel, an inspirational blog post, an insightful reply to an email or blog comment. Whatever she is writing, I want you to know how magnificent it makes me feel to have her writing it here, with me. No one has ever been there for me the way that she has, and, best of all, I know she always will be.
Zelda Carson, of all the women in my immediate family, which includes my mother, two grandmothers, and six aunts, is the only one who I will mention in this blog. Aunt Zelda showed me what love looked like. We didn't spend more than four hours in one-on-one conversation, but I can still recall every word she said to me. I can remember her putting her hand on my cheek and saying, "Pete, you are a wonderful boy and I love you." I can remember the tears that ran down her face when she saw me a few days after I returned from Vietnam, and I remember thinking, she's the only one who cried, and I remember her words in that moment, "Pete, tell me how you feel." And I remember her holding my hands as she looked in my eyes and hung on every word. Aunt Zelda had seven children, yet she made me feel like I was her only child.
Miss Tillman - My beloved first grade teacher, brought me through a difficult transition - school. I wrote about her in this blog series, December 20th. If you'd like to read that post, click here
Mary Louise Thomas - Mrs. Thomas was my high school English teacher. She made me memorize about 10,000 lines of The Ancient Mariner, and she introduced me to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and she inspired me to research and write two long essays - the first about the Ku Klux Klan and the second about Satan, two topics that I thought about a lot. And then, wonder of wonders, in private conferences, she told me how great both of them were. How effective is sincere praise? Well, over fifty years later I'm still basking in her words. Mary Louise Thomas loved teaching and she loved her pupils. I'm pleased that I was one of them.
Black Women -Unconditional Love - On August 15, 2011, I posted this blog. In it, I mention seven amazing women. They all have a place in this post, so I've linked that post to this one.
Claudia Moody - In the early seventies I worked for Ryder Truck Rental, in Jacksonville, Florida. I wore a lot of hats in those days. I was the Rental Manager, the One Way Dealer Manager, an Account Manager, and for almost two years I was the Safety Manager. As Safety Manager, I tested every tractor-trailer driver. That's where I met Claudia. She was the first woman truck driver we had in the entire district. When I tested her, I knew before we traveled two blocks that she was one of the best drivers I'd ever tested. In spite of that, I had her drive the full ten mile route. Not because I questioned her driving skills. I wanted to know more about the battles she had fought to become an over the road truck driver. Claudia gave me my first insight into how difficult men have made women's lives. She was also funny. I once told her that I supposed she had developed the sense of humor to get her though the rough road she had traveled. She laughed and replied, "That's part of it, I guess. Of course, the fact that I'd rather have a Harley between my legs than any man I've ever met, is what really keeps me going."
Claudia, I know you're still out there, going up and down the road. Wherever you are, I want you to know I'll always treasure our long, late night conversations, as you opened my eyes.
Lacy J. Dalton - A year or so after I organized Vietnam Veterans Southern Command, I was watching the Johnny Carson Show. I like country music, but I'm not a rabid fan, so until Johnny introduced Lacy J. Dalton, I'd never heard of her. She sang two songs that night. I don't remember the first one, and I'll never forget the second one -
Little Boy Blue
a ballad she wrote for her son. I bought a copy and played it at the next meeting of the group. If you've never seen a group of men crying you won't understand what happened next. We all sobbed, and I decided to write Lacy J. and tell her how we felt about her song. She answered by return mail and told me that her son was grown now so he no longer needed the song so she was giving it to Southern Command. She enclosed three dozen signed photos, each with a personal message regarding her gratitude for us. That's why Lacy J. is on my list of Great Women.
Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer - The Colonel and I have a couple of things in common; we were both born in 1942, and we both served in Vietnam. She befriended me when I contacted her to let her know that Vietnam Veterans Southern Command supported her and her friends in their quest to construct the Vietnam Women's Memorial. It was our pleasure to be present for the dedication of the memorial. The night before the dedication, she invited my friend, George Jackson, a veteran of three Vietnam tours to join her at a meeting of the organizers of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project. Former Corporal Jackson never tired of telling us about his meeting with the Colonel, and the time they spent together, and we never tired of hearing it. In fact, that meeting inspired the last scene of my book, Maddog and Miss Kitty. Colonel Cammermeyer is an awesome presence in the world, and I'd like to use this post to congratulate her - read this excerpt from her blog and you'll know why:
"9 December 2012: Married in Washington State. Finally we are a legal family after the legislature, governor and citizens voted for an approved marriage equality. We were like young kids sitting in our sports chairs outside the government offices until the office opened. We were the first in line in Island County to receive the license and then married in a wonderful setting on the first possible day 9 December 2012 in home."
AdrienneWall, our friend and partner. In eleven years of speaking and almost four more years as a minister, I had a lot of people tell me they'd do anything to change their life, to know the truth, to move to a place of peace and joy. Adrienne never said any of those things, she just did it, and it's been my good fortune to watch it happen. And in spite of the fact that on more than one occasion she has told someone that I was her great-great-grandfather, I enjoy her company and rejoice in her life.
My first thought, as I planned this blog, was how will I come up with enough women to complete it. Now, as I wrap it up, I realize that women have influenced my life far more than men. Every woman who has ever shared her feelings with me left her mark, and I'm a lot better for it. The truth is I can't imagine life without a single woman who has been part of it.
Now take a minute or two and leave a comment about your Great Woman (or Women).
Tomorrow I'll post the twenty-first blog in my Norman Rockwell inspired blog series. I call it Facts of Life and I'll illustrate it with this Rockwell painting.