Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Remarks for Ross Zeiger's Eagle Scout Court of Honor

Remarks for Ross Zeiger's Eagle Scout Court of Honor
Hans Zeiger
May 19, 2009

It’s a pleasure that Ross asked me to speak. He and I happen to go way back. We shared a bedroom for two years after he was born, and he would rise every morning and crawl out of his crib and summon me to prepare his bottle of milk, warmed to just the right temperature in the microwave. Ross would help to let in Sammy the cat and together we would feed him. And then we would begin the descent down to the basement TV room, where, for fear of embarrassing Ross, I will not mention the name of the show that he watched. I will only tell you that it featured a purple dinosaur. I will also tell you that for many years Ross’s nickname from Grandpa Ed was—Barney.

Now the color purple is significant because as you know, Ross is a Viking at Puyallup High School, where the colors are purple and gold, and since he was a very small boy he has been determined to become a Washington Husky. Gold is also significant, I should mention. Ross has been scheming to become rich also since he was a very small boy. A few weeks ago, a crowd of kids had gathered around Ross here at the church, and Katherine Stone asked, “Ross, what do you want to be when you grow up?” “A billionaire,” he replied.

And in that sense, Ross Zeiger will not be living up to his name. To our ancestors in Germany, I understand that the word Zeiger meant a homeless person who sat beside a signpost outside of a tavern to beg for the leftover food. I assure you that Ross will not be living up to his name. He will be a millionaire before long.

Also, he will spend his millions, which is not a Zeiger thing to do either. From our great, great grandfather Wiley back in Illinois we inherit a famous trait of frugality, most notable today in the person of Grandpa Ed. Ross, a passionate connoisseur of all the latest technologies and gadgets, did not inherit that particular family trait.

But all along he knew what was truly important. One morning as we were driving to church, Ross was about two or three, and he was learning a children’s catechism question. As a reward for memorizing the catechism, he would get a piece of candy. Well, the question was the very first question of the children’s catechism: “Who made you?” “God,” he replied. Mom’s arm reached back and deposited a lovely little candy into Ross’s hand, which he quickly inserted into his mouth. After he had chewed on it for a moment, he uttered back to Mom, using his very best manners, “More God, please.”

Well young Ross was out at Ocean Camp and Meeker Lakes with Dad and the Scouts years before he himself was a Boy Scout. He had probably finished all the camping requirements for First Class and induction into the Royal Order of Siam by the turn of the millennium. And then, over the course of his Scouting career, Ross proceeded to achieve a long string of extraordinary feats. After Joe had recently posted a list on Facebook of “25 things you don’t know about me,” Ross, not to be outdone, followed with his own list. They included, I think, reaching the top of Everest, winning several Olympic events, and curing AIDS, which I think was his Eagle project.

Well Ross has exerted a profound influence on the culture of Troop 174 these past several years. He has added character—as well as mischief. There are generational cycles in a Boy Scout troop. I remember hearing how good and well-behaved we were back in my day. Ross’s day—is another story. If there was a microwave in an abandoned ski lodge, or a fire extinguisher in a bulldozer on a backwoods fire road, or a phone number on a billboard on a roadtrip—you can bet they found a use for it.

But there was one occasion, well-enshrined in the Troop 174 folklore, when Ross and his Scouting buddies seemed to be saints. It was when we went to Maupin Oregon for a 50-rafting trip on the Deschutes River. We were camped in a public campground, next door to a family of angry drunks with a flea-ridden mangy dog named Kelly and a parrot on one side, and a convention of a hundred drunken college students on the other. Well, that night, the Boy Scouts were exemplars to the world around them.

And Ross is an example to the others. He is the sort of guy who is roundly admired by all of his fellow Scouts. Sometimes I noticed certain mannerisms and ways of talking that they would copy from Ross. They admire him in part because he is an imaginative and playful little man. Two summers ago, we were on a 50-mile hike between Crystal Mountain and White Pass. Ross and Chief and Justin created a new philosophy of life complete with its own confessional statement and hierarchy. They also schemed to take over the entire Cascade range and subdue certain forest creatures in their service. They maintained a steady denial of certain important outdoor truths, such as the existence of bears and the incidence of rain. Therefore they refused to put up a tent. They did not encounter any bears, but as they laid out under the clouds they did claim to see a white cheetah leaping over them, and then it began to rain. Ross, oblivious to such things, slept soundly at first, and then they all moved into Carlson’s tent.

Well, if you truly want to honor somebody, especially if you want to honor somebody who has yet to go into the thick of the fight of life, you honor the people who have gone before him who he will hold up as heroes. In Ross’s case we do not have to look far.

The Rosses of Scotland came from a place called Ross, and no one quite knows where it is or what happened there, but whatever it was, it was very important. I imagine the Rosses as a strong, colorful people with a sense of humor and a love for freedom, and one of their American manifestations was our great grandmother Jewell Ross, who married a Westward-bound banker named Charles Greening. There were three children. The first was Shirley. The baby was our grandma Virginia. A few years ago I was with Ross and some of his friends, and I asked them to name the people who they look up to. And the person who Ross named was his beautiful grandmother Virginia, who is with us this evening. I’ve never met the Rosses of Scotland, but if our Grandma Virginia is anything like them, I may have to consider going back to the old country.

Well, Grandma Virginia’s brother was the Rossiest of them all. He took his name from his mother’s maiden name, and so he was Ross Greening. He was an artist. He painted beautiful things all his life. He was a pilot who crashed his first plane in a Puyallup Valley berry field at the age of 13. And he was a character, a charming and fun-loving human being, and also a very great man, one of the very greatest who ever lived in Tacoma, Washington.

Not only was he a member of what has been called the greatest generation, but he is the kind of man who many others of that generation regard as their hero. He assisted Col. Jimmy Doolittle in the secret preparations of America’s first raid over Japan on April 18, 1942 and piloted plane #11 off the deck of the USS Hornet in what is known as the Doolittle Raid. It was thought to be a suicide mission, but Ross and his crew bailed out over China and made it to safety. He was reassigned to North Africa and there conducted 26 bombing runs over Italy before he was shot down over the volcanic cone of Mount Vesuvius. When he came to consciousness, he had broken his leg, and fascist soldiers carried him down the mountain to a prisoner of war camp.

Ross spent the next few months there, slowly recovering from his broken leg and painting pictures for the camp commandant in return for extra food that he delivered to the sick men in the camp. When the Italians capitulated, the Nazis rounded up the prisoners and loaded them onto a train bound for the north. American planes bombed the train, allowing Ross to escape into the Italian countryside for the next seven months, where he met up with New Zealanders and made a home in a cave high in the Italian alps.

When they were recaptured in the winter of 1943, the Germans took Lt. Col. Ross Greening to Stalag Luft 1, a POW camp of 15,000 Allied men on the Baltic Coast. There he was the American commandant for a quarter of the camp, leading art and morale programs and himself painting the war experiences of his fellow prisoners. Later those paintings and his memoirs were published under the title Not as Briefed.

He was the organizer of the multi-city POW Exposition after the war, which drew 8 million people. The Air Force made him Air Attache of Australia. He was known by one of his biographers as the Man the Axis Couldn’t Kill, but he had a weak heart that cut his life short after the war and he died in 1957. And yet as Grandma Virginia would tell you after he passed away, there are some things bigger and better than this life itself that remain with us. These are what the Book of Revelation call “the things that remain.”

Here tonight, Uncle Ross’s legacy continues in the life of his great nephew.

That inheritance began in a remarkable way. For my own part, I was in Karshner Elementary School on November 12, 1991 when a call was placed through the intercom to Mrs. Adams’s first grade class. It was my mom calling to say that I had a new little brother. And he had come at just the right moment, you see, because November 12 was also the birthday—of Ross Greening.

I should mention one more thing about that moment in 1991, because it was also a remarkable moment in the history of the world. It was a moment of profound transition when scholars were proclaiming that history itself had come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the promise of globalization and liberal democracy. On October 29, 1991—just two weeks before Ross was born—a new word appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and that was the word “internet.” Soon it was available for commercial use, and so Ross never knew a world without it. As a matter of fact, Ross was almost tech savvy before he could walk or talk.

And yet there were also storm currents in the deserts of the Middle East, and cultural wars across America, and history was not over yet. It will continue, Ross, and you must study it, and you must prepare yourself to be a part of it. There is a lesson in the title that Uncle Ross chose for his memoirs, “Not as Briefed.” Life takes turns that we cannot anticipate. It points to the lesson of the Boy Scouts, to “Be Prepared.” It points finally to the truth of Scripture, to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”

As a Boy Scout, you know something about paths. As an Eagle Scout, you must also know something about flight. At my own Eagle ceremony several years ago, I read from the Prophecy of Isaiah, that those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles. It is fitting that your Uncle Ross was a pilot. As an Eagle, you must try to emulate him.

But there’s more to your name that we need to talk about. Ross is not just Ross. He has a middle name, Edward. Now all of you I’m sure are wondering where in the world that came from.

Well, I will tell you that it came from the highest geographical point in Puyallup, known since Ed and Wilma came here in 1952 as Zeiger Hill. Back then South Hill was less populated than it is now. After the Zeigers set down roots, they effectively doubled the population.

There was a time when Ross was three years old when the family came together for a gathering and as all of our gatherings go, there was some evidence that the Zeigers had taken the command seriously to be fruitful and multiply. And when we had gotten in the car to leave, a small voice arose from the car seat, addressed to the parental department up front: “Who were all those people?”

Well, I can tell you that a Zeiger family gathering is almost another way of saying—a Troop 174 meeting. Cy, the youngest grandson, will be the seventh Eagle Scout in the family someday.

Grandpa has been involved with this troop for more than four and a half decades, and with Scouting for much longer. If you had to summarize his life, you might do it in the words of the Scout Oath or the Scout Law. He applied them to his work as a teacher and principal at Maplewood, Firgrove, Stewart, Wildwood Park, Pope, Sunrise. He exhibited them in his role as a community servant, a coach, a Kiwanian, a church elder. And most of all, he taught them to his children, and now to his grandchildren.

No sketch of Grandpa Ed would be complete without mentioning Grandma Wilma. They were married right out of high school. She was a graceful lady. She passed away in 2004. And over her headstone at Woodbine Cemetery there is an engraving of a daffodil. But that’s not all. There is a place beside it for Grandpa, and it too contains an engraving. I only mention it because of what it says about him: it is an engraving of the Boy Scout seal: a fleur de lis—and an eagle.

And so, as I said, we are here not just to honor Ross, but to honor the heroes for whom he is named. A moment ago I mentioned that Ross shares the birthday of his namesake. Well, there is another birthday I hadn’t mentioned yet. It is not a coincidence that Ross chose to schedule his court of honor the day before Grandpa Ed’s 80th birthday. As much as I hope it is a gift for Grandpa to have a sixth Eagle Scout in the family for his birthday, it does greater honor to my little brother, and to all of us Zeigers who have been Scouts and Eagle Scouts, that he is presenting this award. And before he does that, will you join me now in singing happy birthday?