Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Touring Japan

From our very first season when the Harlem Ambassadors performed at Beale Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base in California, the Harlem Ambassadors have been committed to entertaining our men and women in uniform and their families too. Twelve years later we can proudly say that the Ambassadors have performed over 300 shows at more than 125 different bases in all service branches.

That commitment has taken the team to a wide variety of installations scattered around the world. We've had our team entertaining deployed forces in Bosnia and Kosovo during the Balkans conflict. They have been to forward camps along the DMZ in South Korea. We've had our training camp at 7,000 feet at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) in the high Sierras and then entertained the Marines who were stationed there. The Ambassadors have made multiple appearances at remote and isolated installations such as Clear Air Force Station in the middle of Alaska with the temperature a balmy -40 when we showed up in December. We've also played at Naval Station Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Missile Range Facility located in Hawaii.

The Harlem Ambassadors have made six different visits to Japan and I had the privilege of accompanying the team on a tour of five bases in early December. Actually I only went to three of the performances in the Tokyo area (Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Camp Fuji USMC, and Naval Station Yokosuka). After we left the tour, the team continued on, travelling to Misawa Air Base in the northern part of Japan and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in the south.
There is a lot of history with all these bases in Japan. Atsugi has been in U.S. control since August 30, 1945 when General Douglas MacArthur landed there in preparation for the September 2, 1945 formal surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri docked in Tokyo Bay. Yokosuka, strategically located just inside Tokyo Bay, was brought into United States control the very same day, August 30, 1945. Today, over six decades later, it remains a very active base for both the Japanese and United States' Navies.

I had been to both Atsugi and Yokosuka on a previous tour back in 2000, but it was my first visit to Camp Fuji. Situated at the base of Mount Fuji, lies Camp Fuji, a USMC facility with a rich and abundant history that represents the culture of its host nation. The ground adjacent to Camp Fuji was used for training samurai warriors long before the Marines arrived. As far back as 1198 AD, the Kamakura Feudal Government trained more than 30,000 Samurai warriors on the same ground where Marines and other US forces train today.

It is uncommon to have clear days at Mount Fuji in December. We were told by locals that the 12388 foot peak is usually covered in clouds at that time of year. We were blessed to have a beautiful day as our bus made the two hour drive from Atsugi to Camp Fuji and were able to get great photos of the mountain.
But even more meaningful than the breathtaking close-up views of Japan's sacred mountain was the opportunity to entertain the US Marines training at the Camp Fuji base and meet them up-close and personal. They are all fine young men and women, professionally trained, serious about their mission, and willing to serve.

On December 1, President Obama announced his Afghanistan plan of sending an additional 30,000 troops in the next few months. When we were at Camp Fuji on December 4, these Marines already knew that they were part of the 30,000. Next stop Afghanistan. With that reality in the near future, the Marines were excited at any opportunity to take a break from training and cut loose. Their team was an eager and enthusiastic opponent, making up with fitness for anything they lacked in talent. The stands were packed with Marines who had a ball cheering and laughing at the Ambassadors antics. Lade Majic is so experienced at working with military crowds and made certain that everyone had a smile on their face.

Those youthful faces are fixed in my mind. They are so darned young! You can see in the picture. I had a similar experience a few years ago when we were training at the aforementioned MWTC. There was a batallion of Marines up there who had just come back from Iraq. These men and women were lean, mean, fighting machines, with not an ounce of fat on them. But again, so darned young!
It brings to my mind the poem "Two Sides of War" by sportswriter Grantland Rice that I heard recited by legendary basketball coach John Wooden.

It reads:

"All wars are planned by older men
In council rooms apart,

Who call for greater armament

And map the battle chart.

But out along the shattered field

Where golden dreams turn gray,

How very young the faces were

Where all the dead men lay.

Portly and solemn in their pride,

The elders cast their vote

For this or that, or something else,

That sounds the martial note.

But where their sightless eyes stare out

Beyond life's vanished toys,

I've noticed nearly all the dead

Were hardly more than boys."

As we enjoy our holidays and our freedoms that we have in this country, never forget the young men and women who willingly volunteer to stand in harms way on our behalf. Lift them up in your prayers, do something for them or their families. And if you ever get a chance, look into their youthful faces ... and say THANKS!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marion Jones and Basketball

Just as we were leaving for Japan (more on that to follow), it was announced that Marion Jones has been working out in hopes of making a sports comeback with a WNBA team.

The public is quick to bury the disgraced and it seems that people forget that Jones was on an NCAA championship basketball team when she was a two-sport performer at the University of North Carolina.

I remembered Lade Majic describing playing against her, so I asked her to share her thoughts. Here's what Majic said:

"She was, and is probably still a world class athlete. She used poor judgment in her decision to use banned substances and paid the penalty for it. I'm paraphrasing but, "She or he without sin, cast the first stone." I don't believe anyone in this world is "perfect." We all make mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I played against her when she was still playing basketball at NC and she made me work extremely hard on defense and offense. We went into overtime and my team finally won. Did I mention this was a pickup game in Manhattan? Not only was she a great athlete, but she was also a great person. Anyway, she's a great competitor and deserves the right to move forward with her life. I pray that everything works out for her. I believe she'll win "this" race, bring home the gold and stay on the right track. God Bless her."

I agree!