The day that angered us, changed us and gave us purpose

In my home, I have a framed fabric flag. The edges are worn and unraveling. The color is faded from its days in the sun.

I purchased it on Sept. 13, 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks, I sat on my couch, unmoved, for two days. I constantly watched the news. I called in sick to work. I was in college at Oklahoma State University then (on the seven-year plan), and I skipped classes that week because I was glued to the coverage. The death and destruction of average people just going about their lives was angering and  sickening. It still was unbelievable, even after the OKC bombing, even as I was watching live coverage as men and women were jumping from the Twin Towers to their deaths.

Beautiful souls with families and life left to live, but the cowards gave them no choice. They already had stolen their futures long before that — the second they decided and planned to use planes as weapons to kill.

Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror with an overwhelming want to pitch in, but I didn’t know how or what to do. On the 13th, I went to Walmart and purchased one of those 10-inch fabric flags on a stick. Since I lived a few blocks from campus in an apartment over a garage, I didn’t have a place to fly a big flag from a porch.

I settled for my little Walmart flag instead. I removed the stick and I stapled the corners of it to the rail of the stairs that went up to my apartment. When I moved to Chicago, it was taped up in the tiny window in my bedroom closet, which faced the courtyard of my building in Wrigleyville. When I moved to North Carolina, it had its own place in my underwear drawer. I framed it when I moved home to Oklahoma, and I am reminded of its meaning every day.

Back then, that $2 flag made me feel like I was doing something to help, or at least to recognize, those directly affected by horrific acts of terror – acts of war.

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A few years ago, I decided to take it a step further and I asked myself, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”

I recalled sitting in an upper-level history class the week after the 9/11 attack. My professor made an announcement. He said he wanted all of us to know that the young man who usually sat on the end of the third row had withdrawn from school to join the Air Force. He went to enlist on Sept. 12. We had a moment of silence to pray individually for him and then all 100 of us sat unmoved for what seemed like forever before the prof dismissed class early with these words…

“Whatever your calling is in life, do it with purpose.”

It took me a few years to establish my purpose. With family members and dear friends who have served the United States in uniform, I figured there was no better way to honor their bravery, and those still sacrificing, than to “adopt” members of the military,

I first chose a group of Texans, because a PFC who was serving as his unit’s liaison wrote a moving care package request to AnySoldier.com that said this:

“It would be nice to read not only things from the national scene, but local things as well. Things like which kid won the area spelling bee, or the 4-H competition. It doesn’t really matter which state or town the paper’s from… any city in America is home to us all.”

I sobbed instantly, and through the tears, I requested that particular unit’s address. Reading that excerpt made me realize I most definitely was doing the right thing by writing to random soldiers fighting for America’s protection. Because, like he wrote in that email, no matter who read my letter, no matter what state or town the soldier was from …any soldier serving America is a hero to us all.

After a few care packages, some correspondence and many thank yous on both ends, the military moved “my” unit to an undisclosed location where it was unable to receive mail. I was worried about those soldiers like I would have been about my own brother or sister. Every time bad news hit about Iraq, I shuddered. I almost was too scared to find out to which unit the fallen belonged. Two months later, I found out my entire unit was resting on America’s shores, safe and sound until its next mission. I was relieved, but I knew there were others out there, fighting in much worse areas of the world, some very remote and practically uncivilized.

So again, I went to AnySoldier.com and scrolled through the list, but this time I just closed my eyes and chose a name. With a click of the mouse, I was new friends with a unit from Virginia serving in Afghanistan.

And the next day I wrote, among other more lighthearted things, this message in a letter:

“…Because I don’t know what information you are able to receive about life back in the states, I feel as though it is necessary to tell you this: I suppose there always will be clashing opinions when it comes to war, but know that everyone I come in contact with and everyone I know has an enormous amount of respect and supports your mission fully. Like you, we all hope that casualties will be low and morale will remain high.

I can tell you that DAILY, I pray for peaceful resolutions and the safe return of all the men and women who are on foreign soil. I try to say a silent “thank you” often. And, in case you are wondering, I am not even close to being alone in doing so. I hear so many people talk about how proud they are of those who are showing such courage. It makes me think about how wonderful God is, in that there are so many people suited for so many different things in life, but He made the hearts of soldiers so large that they are willing to protect people they don’t even know. American people. Iraqi people. Afghans. People all over the world are on the receiving end of your courage, and they live better lives for it. I am not sure of your religious beliefs, but I do know that the Lord is protecting you, just as you protect complete strangers.”

I received a heartfelt email response from the unit’s 1SG (typos included):

“Dear Ms. Ball,
Thank you for your support of the troops. The letter you wrote made our men and women tear up and even smile. They are soldiers and trained well but the appreciation shown by civilians like you are what keeps them goin. Words cant express what it means when these soldiers receive a letter from the states. i believe that the Lord will bless you in your life because of the kindness you have in your heart.

The hunting and sports magazines and newspapers you sent are a good distraction. The women are thankful someone thought to send a Cosmo or two. They were fighting over them!!! It is nice to take a break and read things like magazines and books and pretend that there isn’t a war going on and it’s nice to remember that there are people back home who depend on us and who appreciate the sacrifices our men and women are making everyday. Please pass this along to all of your friends that we hope they will keep praying for us all!!!

Sometimes its tough but I guess the thing that gets most of us by is that we know that a few months of danger for us means lord willing many years of safety for our families and our country. Life here for me isn’t really so bad. Im proud to be here and proud to serve and i miss my wife and girls, but i belong to my country and i am proud to be here helping guide these young soldiers in their paths. Things could be worse and for some of these guys it is. One of the men here just found out that his wife back home in South Carolina has cancer. When i start to feel sorry for myself in this hell hole -I think about him and how strong he is to be here and be so far away from his loved ones and how strong his beautiful Chelsea is to be going through her illness alone right now. Soldiers like that are everywhere here and they just get up and keep going because they feel like they have a purpose.

please keep the mail coming, because they need all the morale boost they can get. mostly everyone is focused and keeps up their spirits, but this is a rough country and sometimes we spend weeks in places you would not dream about going but we’ll get through and be better people because of it. Hopefully we’ll have a better country because of it also.

Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. We look forward to your next package. We enjoy the things you sent and if they’re donations please extend thanks for us. You don’t have to send things but we sure do appreciate it. sometimes a nice letter is enough.

God Bless you and God Bless The USA.”

And I sobbed again. That was not my first correspondence with a soldier in battle, but it’s something you never get used to. It still is mind-boggling to think there are people out there who care so much for my freedom, my safety, my corner of the country… that they would put their lives on the line.

Sure, we hear that every day. Soldiers are heroes, yada, yada, blah, blah. People sometimes say those words with such ease that I wonder if they even understand their depth. But I urge you — the next time you say them — think about it. Really, really think about the power behind those words and try to picture, for one moment, what a day in the life of a military member in time of war would be like.

And think about “my” First Sergeant, who had the right to ask his fellow Americans for anything and everything he wanted. He, and thousands like him, gave up their own lives because they felt a calling to protect us. He could have asked for ANYTHING and he should have.

But instead, he simply said, “a nice letter is enough.”

That little worn-out flag stapled to my staircase in 2001 made me feel as though I was doing something to help. And now, I suppose this blog post is my way of helping. Please utilize the AnySoldier.com service. Do it with your children. The idea of it is decades-old, dating back to when Americans would address a handwritten envelope to “Dear Any Serviceman,” and send it abroad during World War II. Now you can use the Internet to narrow it down to hometown kids or people from your state. There also are sister organizations: AnyMarine, AnySailor, AnyAirman, AnyCoastGuard.

If America is to succeed in suffering as few casualties abroad as possible, it really does begin with support on the homefront.

I didn’t pen this post looking for a pat on the back for what I’ve done in this regard, so please, no thank yous to me are necessary.

But a simple thank you card sent to “Any Soldier” could be your little worn-out flag moment.

Like the young man at the end of the third row — whatever your calling is, do it with purpose.

 

 

Silly girl, tears don’t put out wildfires

My family always has been my refuge.

I was blessed with good examples. As a child, I was blessed with food on my plate and parents who insisted we eat a home-cooked supper together, at the kitchen table, every night.

I was blessed with a roof over my head.

I was blessed with a grandpa and daddy who built that home with their blood, sweat and tears.

Five years ago this week, however, the tears falling were mine.

I leaned against the end of the house, in the driveway where my brother learned to ride his tricycle and where my sister and I practiced our dribbling drills and cheer routines and would wave at high school boys driving past on the county road.

I leaned against the garage. And I cried hard.

Then I heard my Grandma Peggy’s loving and wise voice:“Brandi Lynn, it doesn’t do any good to cry. Now straighten up and quit it. You quit that right now.”

She handed me a box of items my mama wanted to save and told me to take it to the car.

She was right. Tears weren’t productive. The flames in the pasture across the road were nearing the neighbors’ house and moving at a rapid pace toward us.

As my brother was climbing on my parents’ roof and wetting it down, it seemed like we were up against Goliath. A little garden hose against a merciless opponent.

I felt defeated.

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As a journalist, I try to have the utmost sensitivity for the people I write about. I’ve lost sleep over other people’s struggles. I’ve taken notes as I watched people sift through soot or tornado damage as they searched for heirlooms. I’ve sneaked into a newsroom bathroom stall and wept after talking to someone about their mom’s cancer battle. I have sat shaking in my car after interviewing someone about brutal domestic abuse. I’ve sobbed alone because I don’t want to have to write about someone’s crime or bad decision.

And when interviewing a mother who lost a daughter to a tragic accident, my wall of professionalism fell. Instead of retreating to privacy, I just cried alongside her. Still, every Labor Day weekend, I remember Jen’s family.

For about 15 years or so, I’ve helped report the news. From Big 12 Championship games to school board meetings to murder trials, I have been busy scribbling shorthand, detailing life as it happens to everyone else.

But on that day of the 2011 wildfire, neighbors were praying, firefighters were against all odds, and my extended family drove from more than an hour away to help.

News helicopters circled overhead. Fellow reporters stood at the property’s edge.

I was in the story and not writing it.

As much as I pride myself on being a compassionate journalist, it’s much different when your pains are first hand instead of second hand.

It may be only a house. It may have insurance and it may be replaceable. My parents may be able to carry on just fine if a fire were to destroy it.

While material things aren’t important, the experiences are.

As the blaze danced on, I had a flashback to times I’d deliver water jugs or sandwiches out to daddy and grandpa or sat on a sawhorse and dangled my legs as I watched them work harder than I’ve ever seen any two people work.

I thought about how my parents would time our sibling leg races or watch us catch fireflies or play with us in the yard — made-up games or real ones — every night like we were a chapter in an Ozzie and Harriet biography.

It was the house that daddy and grandpa built, but it also was the house that built me.

Watching the fire rage out of control, a pit in my stomach increased as it crept toward a poor and unprepared defense. For a moment I leaned again — on a tree. I remembered when I was a kid and daddy brought home what seemed like a billion trees for our new 3-acre yard, which at the time really was an extension of our pasture and in need of a lot of TLC.

It was raining that day, but we had to plant them before they would die. Rain coats and galoshes in the mud, we planted those suckers all day, and I thought it was the most horrible experience of my short, little life. I muttered under my breath.

Torture to a preteen.

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But as the fire grew five- or six-stories tall just 200 yards away from the house full of my memories, I leaned against that tree and nearly lost my legs from under me.

I cried thinking about how I hated planting it years ago and how I didn’t want it to burn.

I thought about how I would plow over the little runt tree on the southwest side of the house every summer when I mowed the yard to earn my allowance.

“Bubba, do you ever pay attention?” daddy would ask me what seemed like every week.

On that day five years ago, ash raining from the sky and heat radiating off the prairie as the flames raced across it, I was paying attention.

The grass wasn’t in need of a lawn mower. In fact, it was so dry, brittle and brown it could have been December instead of summer. The Oklahoma drought was a monster, and the blades of dead grass were eaten alive instantaneously by growing fire, likely caused by the careless toss of a cigarette.

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And my brother, with his measly garden hose, was climbing on the back porch and wetting down the house while other relatives used the sprayer on the tractor to add a moisture barrier to the ground.

We didn’t stop. The firefighters, who were dwarfed by walls of towering flames that were engulfing cedars and bales of hay in nanoseconds, didn’t stop either.

We all kept on trying to outsmart the Goliath standing in our midst. We kept working diligently — not with tears, but with hope and lightweight garden hoses and a barren pond. We did it all while praying for heavenly reprieve. A shift in the wind, some rain, something.

We got a little of both in the knick of time.

The firefighters were able to stop the inferno mere feet from the neighbors’ house, and the house across the street, the one that built me, was saved.

As everyday struggles of all types continue to come in this life, sometimes I catch myself leaning and crying. Sometimes I feel helpless to the roller coaster. Confused. Alone. Mistreated. Outmatched. Smaller than David with a slingshot.

But then I straighten up, determined not to give up, and I go after those giant flames with my puny garden hose.

I pray.

I rise from the ashes.

Then I become the fire.

The shift in the winds of circumstance surely will follow.

 


(This column also was published on Aug. 10 in my hometown newspaper, The Cleveland American, for which I often report as a special correspondent.)

 

 

#OKLegacies: The standard of grace and hope

It’s time for another anniversary of a dark day.

“The Oklahoma Standard” has guided me in many things throughout my life. Most of all, it has taught me that if you look really hard — grace floats to the top of the depths of pain.

Below is an editorial I wrote for the Cleveland American three years ago, a day after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The Oklahoma Standard sort of took over my mind that day, so I started writing.

Watching the news come out of Boston served as a reminder of OKC. It was a reminder of hopelessness and of pain.

But even though grace is tough to come by during times of confusion and anger — the 168 souls that perished on April 19, 1995 still teach us grace every single day with their brave Oklahoma spirit still very much alive in the loved ones they left behind.

And the countless compassionate people who led our state through the tunnel and toward the light — then and now — keep our eyes focused on carrying that grace forth.

Here’s that column on Boston from three years ago, which I think is fitting for us on this anniversary of when Oklahoma City was terrorized by cowards.

God bless the 168.


Rescue hope by choking out the hate
By Brandi Ball

Published: 4/17/2013, The Cleveland American

What happened in Boston on Monday rocks my soul.
Bombs placed in a crowd of people, only to incite death and destruction?
I heard someone say afterward: “Bad has always existed. It’s not hard to believe this happened. It’s actually pretty easy to believe it. People are just evil.”
While evil is a concept that dates back almost to the inception of good, I still gasp with disbelief when things like this happen. Because no matter how much tragedy is in our world, I still believe in the good.
I believe that kindness and love reign on this Earth, no matter how much evil tries to encroach.
McViegh blew up OKC, bin Laden blew up NYC, and people all over this world are killed by hate every minute. There are unfeeling people and racists and bullies and people who live to see others suffer.
And, yes, even knowing all of that, it still jolts my soul when an intentional act does harm to others.
Perhaps that’s just my hopefulness taking root, but I always want to be stopped in my tracks with a “this is unbelievable,” look on my face when it comes to seemingly malicious matters. Because the minute I become accustomed to an idea that evil acts inherently occur in my world, that is the moment goodness begins to lose the battle.
I don’t ignore the bad. I’m very aware of its existence. But when we find it easy to believe people can callously take another’s life, that is the moment we feed oxygen to the fire. When evil becomes routine instead of anomaly, that’s when evil begins to take bigger breaths and grow and reproduce. And that’s happening right now, this week, while folks’ hearts are hardening, because constantly being on the outside looking in on tragedy is getting too painful.
My heart is hurting. I overwhelmingly trust in good and believe, on all levels, that it outweighs evil. But some days, in some places like Boston, it wasn’t strong enough. My heart is shattered because I’m disappointed brotherly love can’t always be the victor.
Instead of choosing hatred for those who do evil acts, let our hearts be softened by the heroism performed by clergy, first-responders, police, doctors, nurses, volunteers and even innocent children who are dropped to their knees in prayer.
Why? Because the alternative is too risky.
The only other option will ensure we become caught in raging flames of those evil fires. We can’t be trapped in the backdraft.
Through all the noise, never forget that things of beauty and acts of understanding and kindness are happening in all corners of this Earth. In every country. In every city. In every village. And no matter how many times evil happens this world over — no matter if it’s women being persecuted in the Middle East or genocide in Africa or murderous drug lords in Central America or dictators stealing the dignity of their countrymen or guns being shot at innocent schoolchildren or theater-goers or bombs being set off in a cheerful Boston crowd or an Oklahoma City daycare — I will still be in disbelief, time and time again.
It’s OK to be sad. I am, and deeply so. But take solace in knowing that for every one hateful coward, there are a million-plus good shepherds of society… male, female, young, old, black and white and every other shade of complexion.
We outnumber them.
When bad happens, my heart still will waver in its beating upon the announcement. My soul still will search for a way to write it off as a dream, even though it isn’t possible or logical. And my eyes always will search for those who, instead of flippantly saying, “people are just evil,” are already at work trying to choke out the hate and water the garden of kindness.
Good will win. Honor will prevail over grace.
We can’t succumb to a belief that hate cannot be overcome.
Love is alive.
But we must keep nourishing it or else we also are guilty — not of murder or of evil, but of apathy.
We will be guilty of allowing people to die in vain, all because we forgot the strength of goodness and hopefulness when they stand together as one.
Never forget to look for the grace.

 

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My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s. Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.

Birthday Presence: 37 things I tell myself about life


This week marks the passing of 37 years that I have been blessed with breath in my lungs.

I am not one for wanting a big to-do on my birthday. Kind words and thoughtful best wishes are gifts enough. That’s not because I am scared of growing older, nor am I someone who declares to be forever 29.

To me, the value in marking one more year is powerful in a quiet way. I have seen lives end much too young. Becoming wiser, maturing through mistakes and celebrating milestones is not a destiny afforded to all.

So we have to take it. Run with it. Love it. Live it.
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The time my hair fell out and I grew a pair of wings

Because sometimes the inspiration to rise from the ashes, squeeze lemonade and soar like eagles comes from the unlikeliest of people and places.

I posted on Facebook this morning about my “bad hair day.”

I did it mostly because I don’t mind making fun of myself. In fact, that is one thing I can say I am good enough at doing I should be earning a professional paycheck for it.

We must try not to take ourselves too seriously.

I was given a boost from some construction workers this morning. Keep in mind those guys were working in Tulsa, where they have so many potholes to fill, they likely won’t have time to look at women for the next 25 years.

The potholes basically worked as beer goggles as I went by, my hair a nest under my disguise of a ball cap.

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Fighter. Champion. Ironman.

Dear Baby Brother,

You have trained for this moment for seven years. We all have loved you and believed in you for the nearly 25 years since you took your first little breath.

As you prepare this morning for the biggest challenge of your life and to reach a level only the most elite of athletes attain, know these things and meditate on them.

The nervous moments ahead of competition are normal, even for Olympians. It’s OK to have them, just don’t allow them to win over precious space your head. Nervous moments mean you understand the adversities. They mean you not only want to slay the beast, but also that you respect it.

As our man Rocky said: “That’s how winning is done.”

Because you are ready. You are prepared. Say that to yourself as you walk to check in.

“I am ready. My body is ready. My mind is ready. I am prepared. My body is prepared. My mind is prepared.”

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She even giggled through cancer

It has been said about many people after they pass away.

But when I say my aunt Pam was one of the nicest people on this Earth, it’s because I’m not sure if there’s life on other planets or she’d be immediately upgraded to the nicest person in the universe.

Pam giggled freely and had a childlike spirit about her.

She really did see the good in things, even when her body was being attacked by a horrible disease. She seemed grateful for every day, even over the course of the eight years of tests and medications and chemotherapy and surgeries and weeks and weeks and weeks in the hospital.

But she never stopped giggling. Continue reading