All Is Not Broken

At 1230 p.m. on 27 March 2011 Mr. Edward Schulken, a Navy Veteran, was laid to rest in San Diego California with full military honors. His flag draped coffin rested just in front of a pulpit where a Navy Chaplain spoke fondly about a man he never knew.  In his eulogy for the stranger, the chaplain could only note that, “ours was not to judge.”

The group of men that had come to say farewell to Ed sat, heads bowed, in silent reflection. Many of them had long hair, grey beards, and bifocals. Some wore leather vests and had driven to the service on their Harleys. Like the chaplain who spoke so eloquently before them, they did not know Mr. Schulken either.  Still, they listened somberly.

After the short service, two veterans stood at each end of the coffin, raised our nation’s flag from its lid, and folded it with the care and skill of craftsmen. When they were done a ship’s bell rang, Taps played, and honor guards fired rifles into the air.  After a moment of silence those that that had come to pay their respects formed a line, came forward one at a time, and laid a violet on Edward’s box.  As this happened, one older gentleman wearing a VFW hat sat quietly in his seat – weeping. Perhaps his tears were for Ed, and perhaps they were not. They were tears nonetheless.

After the ceremony, the men gathered outside the chapel and continued to talk about the man that they did not know.  Many had tear filled eyes, and referred to Ed using terms like brother, hero, and patriot.  When everyone departed, Edward Shulken took his last car ride to a local veteran’s cemetery where he was laid in the ground and covered up forever.

Edward’s family and friends had not been at the memorial service, because he had none.  Truth be told, Edward had lived the last years of his life homeless, alone, and forgotten in the streets of San Diego.  No one will ever know what misfortune or poor personal choices led to Ed’s demise, but among the group of men who had assembled to wish him farewell, no one really cared. All that they knew (and had to know) was that Mr. Edward Schulken had served honorably in the United States Navy and was a brother-in-arms. All that mattered to them was that when our nation called, Ed stood to be counted in a rare group of men and women who would willingly sacrifice everything for her.  To those who had come to pay their respects, this stranger was family.

The men who buried Ed were Veterans from the Dignity Memorial Group.  According to DMG, there are over 150,000 homeless veterans across the United States, and they are dying by the dozen every day.  So these men and women do their best to do the right thing.  They collect funds, reserve plots in the ground, and when these homeless Veterans are found dead in  alleys, dark corners, and forgotten places, they bury them honorably.

Edward Schulken’s name will likely never be spoken again.  The grass on top of his grave will be neatly mowed however, and every Veteran’s day someone will place a small American Flag by his headstone to acknowledge his Service.  Though it is likely that no one will ever weep over his grave, many will come and honor what his resting place represents.  They will weep over their own loved ones, and in doing so… in some small way…will remember Ed too.  He will be surrounded by his brothers and sisters-in-arms for all time, and they will lay together as they once stood together.  In death, Ed has finally found his home and his family.

Over the next week, as you listen to stories about nuclear meltdowns, economic collapse, war, suffering, and political turmoil, take a moment to say a short prayer of thanks for the men and women that brought Edward Schulken home.  As long as there are people like this among us, we can all take comfort in knowing that all is not broken.

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The Contract

I am not a cat person, but I did have a cat once…or maybe he had me.   He had come with a house that I was renting in Bainbridge Georgia, and made it clear early on that we were going to be roommates.  His name was Badaz which was Christian for Bad Ass. It wasn’t really a proper name, but it was an accurate description.  One afternoon shortly after I had moved into my home, a friend of mine and I were standing in my driveway drinking beer.   As we were chatting, my neighbor’s hound dog came trotting over to my front yard to have a poop.   My yard was his favorite “number 2” spot, and he stopped by to make a deposit two or three times a day.  As I was contemplating what rock I was going to throw at him,  a panther-like creature appeared from out of nowhere and latched itself onto the dog’s backside.   It dug in its front claws and started biting the, now terrified, hound on the base of its tail.   The hound tried to shake the creature off, but its claws were dug in too deeply.  So, off it ran yelping and howling with the black demon still clinging to its posterior.  “Man, is that your cat?” my friend queried in awe of what we had just witnessed.   “No,” I replied, “but I think that this is his house.”  As we stood there reflecting on the altercation, I felt something rub up against my foot.  The black dog eater had returned to his layer and was now head butting my leg and purring like a 1967 Volkswagen.  “That  is one bad ass cat,” my friend opined.   “I don’t think that old yellow hound is going to be crapping up your front yard anymore.”   He was right, and the name just sort of stuck.

Bad Ass was a “to himself” type of cat. He didn’t really like houses and stayed clear of most people.  He came to me when he wanted something, but pretty much kept his distance.  After sizing me up for a couple of months however,  he decided it was time to kick our relationship up a notch.  One evening I heard a scratching on the back door.  I opened it up and Bad Ass trotted into the kitchen as if he owned the place.  After a couple of hours, he had sprayed pretty much everything I owned, shredded a curtain, spread the kitchen garbage evenly across the floor, and built what can best be described as a tiny brown log cabin in the middle of my living room.   It became clear that, if this relationship was going to develop, it would have to develop itself outdoors.  So, I lured him back outside with a small plate of fried catfish and looked on as Bad Ass gulped it down, trotted across the street, and disappeared into a thousand acre soybean field.

Over the next several months, we developed somewhat of a routine together.  Every morning  Bad Ass would meet me at the back door, and I would feed him the scraps from the previous evening’s meal.  He would eat it without complaint and then curl up on a blanket by the door to watch for dogs.   In the evening, I would pull into my driveway and find him patiently waiting, green eyes glowing in the beams of my head lights.  I would let him into the house for dinner and, after a while, he even began to jump up on the sofa for a few head butts and some ear scratching.   When he was ready to leave, I would open the door for him and he would head straight for the soybean field where he clearly had important cat business to take care of.

Bad Ass didn’t really meow in the classic sense.  It was more of a gravelly “workin’ cat”  belly yrrowwl.   It was kind of a cross between a Harley Davidson starting and Louie Armstrong singing Wonderful World.  One thing was for sure though, you knew when Bad Ass was happy.  He had a purr that sounded like a single piston air compressor.   On his rare sofa visits, he would hop up onto my chest, start the compressor, and smack his head right into mine.  It was kind of a cat handshake I suppose.

Soon it became clear to me that Bad Ass and I had established a contract with each other.  The agreement was simple:

I agreed that:

1. Bad Ass could come into the house whenever he wanted, and leave whenever he wanted.

2. Nobody owned nobody.

3. I would always make sure he had two squares a day.

4. I would provide ear scratches and head butts on command.

In return, Bad Ass would:

1. Keep my yard varmint free.

2. Deal with my neighbor’s hound dog as necessary.

3. Happily consume whatever I fed him.

4. Wait until he hit the soybean field before spraying his territory.

Things went on this way for about a year without event.  We not only had a contract, we had become friends.

One evening I got home late from work and noticed Bad Ass laying in the center of my driveway. As I pulled up to him he did not move.  I jumped from my car and walked toward him calling his name.  In the glow of my headlights, I could see his wiry black fur matted and glistening with his own blood. I could also see that both of his hind legs appeared to be badly broken.   There was also a deep gash on his hip from which a thick and steady stream of  blood was oozing.  Not sure what to do, I took off my windbreaker and covered him.  He looked at me and managed a raspy yrrowl.  I could only guess, but it sounded like he was asking for help.  We both knew however, that saving an old field cat’s life was not in our contract.

I carefully scooped him up into my arms and placed him on the passenger seat of my truck.   As I drove toward the town’s only all night veterinary clinic, I noticed that his breathing was becoming more labored.  It was clear that Bad Ass was slipping into shock and would not be with me much longer.   “It’s OK buddy,” I reassured him,  “we are going to get you to the doc, just try not to die on me.”  I reached over and found a dry spot of fur behind his right ear and scratched him softly. There was no purring this time however.

It was clear what had happened. Bad Ass had finished up his chores in the soybean field right on schedule that evening, and had attempted to cross the road for our regular rendezvous.  Unfortunately, in his zeal to get across the small two lane country road that separated my house from the field, he had not noticed an approaching car.  Judging from the absence of skid marks on the street, the driver had not seen him either.  Mortally wounded, Bad Ass had then pulled his broken body the rest of the way across the street to the safety of my driveway. Most animals would have died where they lay, but Bad Ass had used every bit of his remaining strength to get to the safety of my yard.  He wanted to live, and knew that I was his only chance.   I reached over and scratched his ear again.  It felt cold.

The vet’s office was about 20 miles from my house, and I really had not expected to make it there before Bad Ass passed. Luck was on our side however, and he was still breathing when I pulled into the parking lot.  “I need help here!” I yelled as I burst into the waiting room carrying my bloody bundle.  An older gentleman walked up to the counter. “My buddy has been hit by a car and I think he is about to die!”   He opened up the bundle to see for himself,  and then hurriedly took  Bad Ass from my hands and disappeared into the back.

A few minutes later a middle-aged woman with black horn rimmed glasses called me to the counter. “Sir, the doctor is working on your kitty right now,” she said reassuringly. “Now, if you don’t mind I need to get a little information from you. First, what is your kitty’s name?”

“Kitty?”   Bad Ass wasn’t a kitty.  He was a hound dog fighting, varmint killing beast!  He was king of the soybean field for crying out loud! How could someone call him a “kitty?”

“Sir?” she queried again breaking my trance.

“Your kitty’s name?”

“Oh, well, I suppose it is Bad Ass,” I replied feeling kind of like a kid cussing to his mom.  Her face flushed with shock. “Honey, you can’t call  your cat that,” she impugned.   I paused trying to come up with some way to justify it.  “Well, he seems to like it,” I replied sheepishly, “and if you knew him like I do, you would agree that it fits pretty well…”  Waving her hand in the air she cut me off in the middle of my feeble explanation.  “Sweetie, I am a Christian woman, and I will not write that name on this poor kitty’s record jacket.”

There it was again….kitty.

“You are just going to have to think of a better name for your poor little fella.”

Realizing that she had the Lord on her side, I decided to avoid a fight.  “Ma’am,” I conceded, I am very sorry if I offended you.”  I thought for a moment.  “Could we call him Badaz?” I asked.  “It is not profane, it describes his disposition pretty well, and it sounds a lot better than kitty.”  Her face scrunched in frustration. She was clearly not impressed with the new name.   To my surprise however, she relented.  ” I reckon that will do sir,” she sighed as she began to fill out the form.  “Do you want that with one or two z’s?”

It was official, Bad Ass had a Christian name.  Now all he needed was eight more lives.

We finished the paper work and I took a seat in the waiting room.  After what seemed like an hour, the doctor emerged from the back wiping what looked like blood off of his hands. “Sir,” he spoke softly, “I am sad to say that your cat has suffered a serious trauma. We have got him stabilized for the moment, but, I need to tell you that both of his back legs are broken badly and he is going to need pretty extensive surgery.”  He paused to look at his note pad, and then started reading me a list of defective cat parts that, quite frankly, I never knew existed.  One thing was clear though,  Badaz was going to have more sheet metal in him than 1976 Ford F-150.  “Son,” the doctor  continued, you have got a decision to make here.”  He paused for a moment, but I knew immediately what he meant.  “Son, this is an old cat and there is no guarantee that surgery will even work. You are looking at somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred dollars here, maybe more.  If I were you, I would seriously consider just putting the old boy out of his misery.”

As I listened to the doc, I felt my face begin to burn.  How could I do that to my friend after he had pulled himself off of the highway to ask for my help?  He had always kept his part of the contract. My property was perfectly varmint free, there wasn’t a dog within three counties brave enough to set foot in my front yard, and I really hadn’t liked those curtains in my living room anyway. Now he was asking me to add one other item to my list of obligations. He wanted me to save his life…just this once.  I knew what I had to do.  Badaz and I were a team, and I was not about to let him kick off.  Besides, who knows what important business he had left unfinished in that soybean field.  “Doc,” I said firmly, “I want you to fix him -whatever it takes.”

“Its a lot of money for such a tired old cat,” he protested.

“Just do it.  Do whatever it takes and I will figure out the money part.”

The doctor shrugged in resignation.  “OK son, I will give it a try, but I cannot promise anything.”

Two weeks later, Badaz and I were back in the car, but this time we were headed home.  He was bandaged from head to toe, and heavily sedated.  “Well buddy, it is going to be a while before you are huntin’ hound dogs again,” I mused, “but I sure am glad you are coming home.”   I reached over and scratched his one exposed ear.  From underneath the bandages I heard the air compressor kick in.  Yep, Bad Ass was still down in there somewhere, and he was going to be OK.  “Welcome home ole’ buddy,” I whispered, “welcome home.”

Over the next three months, the bandages came off one at a time, and pretty soon Bad Ass was roaming the house as if nothing had ever happened.  I took him in for his final check-up and the doc gave him an all clear to return to business as usual.  “You must sure love this old fella,” he sighed as I handed him his money. “It’s not really love,” I explained, “it is more of a mutual agreement.”  Bad Ass had been left with a noticeable limp, but he was as alive and fearless as ever.  The surgery had ended up costing me about eight hundred dollars,  as well as an additional fifty dollars to stitch up a gash in my hand I had received while trying to change Bad Ass’s bandages.  I would be eating peanut butter for a month or two, but it was worth it. I had my buddy back.

The evening of his final vet visit, I opened the door to let him out.  He dashed down the driveway without hesitation, and disappeared into the soybean field across the street. I could only assume that some heads were going to roll now that the king was back.   The next morning there was a familiar scratching at my back door.  I opened it to find Bad Ass sitting proudly with a dead rabbit laying at his feet.  “Yrrowwl!” he bellowed with delight.  It was clearly breakfast for two.  I picked up his offering and set down his breakfast. He dug into it  like he had not eaten in a week, purring like a jack hammer with every bite.  “I guess we will be having rabbit for dinner tonight,” I said scratching him on his ear.  He pressed his head against my hand purring even louder. Apparently Bad Ass had added another item to his part of the contract as well.

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