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The Pilgrimage

Honoring a Hero.

by Rick Wilson
May 21, 2010

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The Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage, noun:
1. A journey to a sacred place or shrine.
2. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.
I am a person of good intentions who has a bad habit of not following through on them. For example, I've thought about paying for an elderly person's groceries or a needy person's gas. Nice thoughts, but I've always stopped short of such a generous gesture. I just don't feel comfortable doing things like that. Then events happened that have changed my perspective.
James Fredrick Czerny died on February 10, 2010. While that might not have any meaning to most people who read this, his life touched many people. He especially made an impact on my life and that of my family.
Known affectionately as "Chief" to all who knew him because he was a full blooded Cherokee, he had the biggest heart of any person I have ever known. You'd never know it at work. His outer bravado was a means to garner respect from his fellow employees, but I knew the other side of him.
I got to know Chief in 1978 when my father purchased our company back from the people he had sold it to. To say that Chief had a forceful personality would be a gross understatement. He usually said the first thing that popped into his head and sprinkled it with his usual brand of salty language. His first thoughts were usually on track. He had a marvelous sense of right and wrong that he passed onto all who knew him.

When I got divorced in early 1984, it was Chief who helped me move my ex-wife and young son 365 miles away to Jacksonville, Florida. It was a typical divorce. She wanted everything and I gave it to her to get her out of town and out of my life.

We loaded the U-Haul on Friday afternoon after work. When Chief got to the house on Saturday morning for the long drive, my ex was still complaining over the fact that an awful, ugly antiqued yellow bedside table wouldn't fit into the truck. She yelled at Chief and cursed him about not having the brains to get that table into the truck. He came over to me, cocked his head to one side, and said, "Can't you do anything with her?" I told him that if I had that power we probably wouldn't be getting a divorce.

"Mind if I show you how to handle her," he asked with a devilish smile?

"Be my guest," I said. "Just be careful." I stood back, not wanting to be caught up in the violent outburst that was surely heading his way.

Chief went over to that hideous piece of furniture and flipped it onto its top with the legs pointed up to the sky. Then, as my ex looked on in astonishment, he took his foot and broke all the legs off. He then deposited the pieces in various places in the back of the truck and proclaimed, "Let's hit the road. We're burning daylight."
She uttered not one word. I could have kissed him. It was the highlight, other than the birth of my son, of a marriage gone terribly wrong.

I met Jan, my future wife, many months later. It was Chief who helped me move her and her young son into my home. When we went to Georgia to get her, the drive took longer than expected. Chief was always on a mental schedule of some sort. So, Chief being Chief, he devised a plan to speed up the loading of the truck. Since she lived in a second floor apartment, he felt he should be able to stand on the ground under the stoop while his accomplice heaved various items over the edge of the balcony for him to catch. Jan was not pleased. I was frightened, not only for Chief's safety but for mine as well, as my hopefully wife-to-be would be looking to me if he broke anything.

As we progressed through this experience, it reminded me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon when Yosemite Sam would catch stuff thrown to him by Bugs from a second story window. He would collapse into a little flat clump and then spring up and place the piece of furniture on the ground. Chief didn't catch anything as heavy as sofas, although he might have tried had Jan not stepped in, but he did catch chairs, lamps, and assorted boxes. He never dropped one thing, nor did he injure himself, although he did seem compress a few inches as each item dropped.

Chief was a prolific Boy Scout leader. I always assumed it had something to do with his Indian heritage and military background and to some extent it did. He had always had a great affinity for all the things associated with the Scouts and the outdoors. To some degree he liked the regimentation, as it reminded him of the Marines of which he was apart in Vietnam. But mostly, he loved being around the kids and the outdoors. A man of little patience at work, he was a committed teacher of infinite patience in the Scouting program.

Every year he took his vacation time to go with the Scouts to Camp Euchee in Florida. He spent his own time and money to further develop his troop into the type of Scouts he felt they should be. Unselfish is just one word that would describe him. Patriot would be another.

Chief was a former Marine and a Vietnam Vet. During his 4-1/2 tours in Vietnam, he was captured once and escaped. I once asked him why he kept going back. "I just couldn't go home as long as I thought someone else would have to take my place in that hell hole," was his reply.

He never completed his fifth tour. For whatever reason, he lost his temper and hit an officer. His previous four tours of duty had little impact on this Marine. The outcome was guaranteed. He was dishonorably discharged and sent home.

I asked him about it one time. "They were right," he said. "I hit the guy and knew the consequences." Then he smiled. "But I was right too. That stupid bastard needed to be hit."

That was all he ever said to me about the discharge. He never complained about his lot in life. His love of God and country never wavered despite his issue with the military. He accepted his punishment like a man. He accepted it like a Marine.

He had flashbacks at various times during his life. I remember getting a call from a co-worker while I was in Georgia visiting my wife's relatives. Chief had showed up at his house that night and proceeded to get behind the sofa. He thought he was in a foxhole with his buddies fighting the Viet Cong. He was shooting an imaginary machine gun and lobbing hand grenades. He kept screaming for his men to take cover. For some reason he mentioned my name even though I had never served in the military. They just left him to his own defenses as he played out this horrific one man play. Ultimately, he fell asleep and awoke in the morning as if nothing had happened.

None of us ever questioned what caused these awful moments. We were told by his psychologist to leave him alone. If he wanted to talk about it, he would. He never did.

Back in 1989 he found out I was going to Washington, DC to do some lobbying for the foundry industry. I asked him if he wanted anything while I was there.

"Put a hot longneck Budweiser at the wall," he said. "That's what we drank in Vietnam and I want my friends to have one on me. And bring me a picture of it at the wall if you don't mind." I said I would.

Well, I did it but I lost the film that had the picture on it that I had taken for him. I always regretted that I didn't get him that picture. It was another well intentioned task that I failed to complete.

Chief was sitting with his wife Shirley one Sunday morning in February as they planned their day. They would be going to church after breakfast. Chief got a banana and started eating. Suddenly, he stopped. Shirley called an ambulance and he was taken to a local hospital. In serious condition, he was transferred to another hospital 60 miles away in Pensacola, Florida. He had been diagnosed with a massive stroke.

His wife sent word to me that he had some response and it looked better for him. I needed to go see him the next day to talk to him. I wanted him back at the plant giving me the devil and calling me "kid". I wanted to hear him curse me and mark my face with grease. I wanted him to hear it from me.

For some reason I decided to go see Chief and Shirley in the morning before a previously scheduled doctor's appointment rather than later in the day. As I walked into the waiting room for the intensive care unit, I saw Shirley sitting in the corner with a friend. She came over and gave me a big hug.

"He's not going to make it, Rick," she said as I looked at her stunned. "I'm going to have him disconnected from life support this morning."

"What happened," I asked?

"He had another stroke. There isn't any brain activity," she said matter-of-factly. "Would you like to see him," she asked?

"Sure, let's go," I replied.
In the sanitary environment of an intensive care room, nothing seems real. Chief laid there with his mouth open, breathing deep, inconsistent breaths. I knew when I saw him he was gone. I don't know why. Call it a sixth sense, but the man we knew had died. His body just hadn't realized it yet.

A nurse came in and asked Shirley if she would mind going to another room with her to discuss what was going to happen to Chief over the next 24 hours. When she left, I leaned over and began talking to Chief. I told him many private and personal things. I told him I truly believed that if he asked for forgiveness of his sins, that God would take him to Heaven. I told him we would make sure that Shirley was taken care of. I told him I loved him and would miss him.

Shirley came back and we hugged one last time. I gave Chief a kiss on the forehead and left, knowing I had spent my last minute with him. He died the next day.

Before his funeral Chief's family came by to get his things from work. In a box were his personal effects and his tools. Sticking proudly out of the box was his American flag that he displayed at his work station in the plant. He was a patriot to the end.

His funeral was in a small white country church. It was standing room only. We learned a lot about the man that day. Relatives recalled how Chief had called on Shirley on horseback when they first started dating. There was much laughter among the tears. His son gave a moving tribute to the man he had the privilege of calling his father. A group of Boy Scouts recited the oath as a final tribute to their long standing leader. Then it was over.

I couldn't get it out of my mind how I had never really completed the one task Chief had asked me to do. I had to go back to Washington to finish the job. I just had to find the time to get that picture.

Then in May I was scheduled to be in Washington, DC on business. It was a very busy trip with many meetings but I was going to make time for one stop before I came home.

My wife was with me as I went to a liquor store next door to our hotel and bought a longneck Bud. I knew that unopened bottles left at the wall were taken to an undisclosed location and cataloged, along with anything else left there. Then they are placed in an archive forever. Vietnam hadn't killed Chief, but it had tormented him for the rest of his life. His name, while not on the wall itself, was going to be part of it on this day because he deserved his spot with his friends and comrades. It was the least I could do for my friend.

In the hotel I had written out a note that I taped to the bottle. I wanted others to know his name and what he stood for in one simple sentence. For some reason it came effortlessly to me.

I placed the bottle at the foot of the wall in a little trenched area specifically designed for such articles. I stood back and watched as people stopped to read his name and what I had written. 

One family, a mom, dad and their two children stopped at the note. The father read the words aloud as I listened. The boy asked, "I wonder why this is here?" I had to walk over to answer the question his father couldn't. As I approached the young family, I asked the father if I could explain the purpose of the beer and the note. He said to please tell my story.

I placed my hand on the young boy's shoulder and told the story of a wonderful man, an unsung hero that needed to be remembered. Unplanned, unrehearsed and from the heart, my words flowed easily. As I talked, my memories filled my eyes with tears. My voice quivered as I praised James Fredrick Czerny on this sacred soil and I stopped in mid-sentence. I never finished what I wanted to tell this father's young sons. I couldn't. I simply squeezed his shoulder, turned, and walked back to my wife. I overheard the father tell his son that I was "crying as a tribute to a hero." He was right.

Jan held me as we consoled ourselves over the loss our dear friend. We watched the procession of people walk up to Chief's small monument, his wall, and read aloud my simple words that I hoped summed up his life. Their respect for this small testament was heartfelt and sincere. I was proud of this Marine.

I hope that somewhere up there Chief knows I finally fulfilled my promise, my debt, and my pilgrimage. Semper Fi.

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