Finding Peace After War

Twenty-four years ago, I served in the first Gulf War. It still amazes me how time can heal wounds—both physical and mental—while smoothing out the sharp edges of painful memories; mental glimpses that have the ability to snatch away any sense of peace.

My writing career actually began as a cathartic effort to heal my soul. In 2001, on the 10-year anniversary of the Liberation of Kuwait, I entered the Rhode Island State House—filled with rage and anxiety—and delivered the following presentation:

“In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with his henchmen, compiling the fourth largest army in the world. The atrocities and inhumane acts committed toward Kuwait prompted support from around the globe. War was declared. The world called it Operation Desert Storm and volunteer soldiers—me and my brothers and sisters—were called to serve out country. Within a few short months, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines arrived in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia, liberate Kuwait and embarrass the biggest bully of the post cold war era. America’s sons and daughters entered a barren wasteland to exact justice. The responsibilities brought to bear, however, were immense, as there was so much at stake. Politically, there was America’s leadership of the free world. Economically, one tenth of the world’s oil resources. Morally, the protection of human life. But silently, there was a rebirth of America’s spirit. The veterans of Operation Desert Storm went to heal our nation from a ghost that had haunted us for two decades; the poltergeist of Vietnam

“In 1991, as a shield was replaced by an angry storm, Saddam Hussein threatened us with the mother of all battles. In turn, President George Bush drew a line in the sand. That line was quickly wrapped around Iraq and used to choke the life out of thousands. Fortunately, due to the heavy debt paid by the veterans of the Vietnam War two decades earlier, military tactics had dramatically changed. Foot soldiers were no longer expected to step on enemy soil until absolutely necessary. As such, 41 days of uninterrupted bombing cleared our way. All that we needed for victory was given: the phenomenal support of a patriotic country, and enough troops and equipment so that backfilling and a war of attrition would never be suffered. We were blessed and knew it.

“Though Hussein swore it would take us months to cross the breach from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, it took only hours. The Allied Forces moved fast, crushing the first of three Iraqi lines of defense. As if they weren’t even there, our American war machine rolled right over them, discovering we’d overestimated the enemy. It was clear: While Hussein chose to sit out the air campaign, the Iraqi people bore the brunt for their ruthless dictator and like all victims of war; they paid with gallons of their own blood. In such a time and place, it seemed necessary. They were wearing uniforms. It was war.

“It took four days, or a mere 100 hours, before the ground war was ceased. History was made. In triumph, Kuwait was liberated, while Hussein was humiliated before the whole world. An unconditional withdrawal was ordered. Politically, the sadistic demon was slain. In reality, unlike thousands of his own people, he still lived. Yet, from our perspective—soldiers who were not tasked to dictate foreign policy, but instead follow orders and proudly perform our duty—all objectives had been met and our mission accomplished.

“America’s moral crusade was complete. On February 28, 1991, ten years ago, Iraq surrendered. Yet, the fighting for many of us was far from over. While America’s technology continued to erase the poltergeist of Vietnam, many of us servicemen and women were invaded with our own ghost of torment. Amidst the daily chaos, we’d experienced the frailties of our own mortality and, unlike CNN’s sanitized version of the desert clash, the realization that there is no glory in war. Then, as a lasting memento, most of us were brutally introduced to ‘The Mystery Illness.’

“Unfortunately, these factors only added up to half of our inner struggles. From many perspectives, Operation Desert Storm became a war of anxiety and rage. Most of us were trained to fight, sent to strike, yet watched as technology did our job. Adding to the frustration, many folks criticized that it was merely a war for oil. Only ignorance would claim that America was not protecting its vital interests in the Gulf region. However, as Hussein displayed the same behavior as Adolf Hitler, that same ignorance might believe he would have never invaded Saudi Arabia, seized its vast oil resources and translated those profits into more weapons. To say the least, it was an honorable and just cause—at least to those of us who served.

“Returning visibly whole to a proud and grateful nation, many of us Persian Gulf veterans reported being violently ill with flu-like symptoms. Immediately, the cruel game was sinful. After the meticulous pre-war exam, most veterans of Operation Desert Storm weren’t even given a token physical examination. The army didn’t even pretend to care. Sharing the same painful tradition as our predecessors of Vietnam, Uncle Sam just wanted us off his menial payroll. After months of selfless service to our country, most of us were dismissed without so much as a proper medical screening. Only months earlier, we—America’s defenders of democracy—proudly answered our country’s call. With honor, we helped free Kuwait from the forces of oppression. Now, suffering from a wide variety of debilitating symptoms, we were never diagnosed or treated for any. Once great assets to our country, we were now considered liabilities.

“In retrospect, there were several likely causes for the crippling ailments. We’d been exposed to radioactive depleted uranium used by the Allied Forces. There were preventive, or experimental, vaccines administered to all American troops. There was also the possibility that chemical agents were used in the many Iraqi Scud attacks. The government offered other potential causes. They claimed the puzzling illnesses could have been caused by microwave radiation, petrochemicals, insect bites, parasites, contamination from oil well fires—even the Allied bombing of specific bunkers storing Iraqi chemical agents. The list grows by the month. They point fingers in every direction but their own. Ironically, the answers needed can only come from the same government that’s always realized some truths are just too big, or too expensive, to tell.

“Together, we were forced to fight again. This new battle, however, would prove far more fierce, with an invisible enemy much better prepared to fight. Now, ten years later, the veterans of Operation Desert Storm are still fighting for the truth; the truth about what the government quickly labeled the ‘Persian Gulf Syndrome,’ or ‘Mystery Illness’—which is never a promising adjective.

“And although most of us Persian Gulf veterans have learned that all war wounds aren’t suffered on the battlefield, the government was generous enough to hand us another dark secret. Not all war wounds are visible either. For many Desert Storm Veterans, although the yellow ribbons and flags were taken down, the shiny medals have lost their gleam and the euphoria of victory has subsided, the war is far from over.

“Operation Desert Storm was completed one decade ago, yet many veterans still embark on a more painful mission. Most have been carried away in the eye of their own storms; the type of storms that rage out of control deep inside, tearing at the spirit; the whole being. Unlike Hussein’s vast army, there are two enemies to fight this time. The first is the U.S. government. The second battlefront, and one far more ferocious, still rages within his heart and mind.

“291 American lives were lost in the theater of operations, while nearly 10,000 other brothers and sisters have died since returning home. Some have criticized the length of the war in which we served, though I sincerely doubt that the families and friends of these fallen comrades have grieved any less. Countless other Persian Gulf veterans silently suffer from an invisible disease that often equates into cancer, neurological diseases, respiratory disease…the list goes on. The numbers, in fact, are staggering. Out of 700,000 troops serving in Operation Desert Storm, with nearly 600,000 being eligible for benefits through the VA, 45% have sought medical treatment at the VA, while one-third of those have filed claims for service-related medical disabilities. These numbers do not even touch on the higher rate of birth defects in our children, the many marriages lost, the careers destroyed and the other hefty prices paid for freedom; many of which are still being paid. So, it has become quite apparent: anything not easily detected by the eye is easily dismissed. We cannot let this happen. We must not let this happen.

“Personally, my experience in the Gulf was, no doubt, quite ordinary. Though I lost my endocrine, or gland system, and have endured many of the symptoms of the Persian Gulf Syndrome, I’ve always known I was blessed and have felt it my duty to give more. For years, I have screamed aloud so that those who suffer silently would have a voice. For those who served in the Gulf, it is important to me that they never feel alone again. It is imperative that they always know there are others who wrestle with the same feelings of fear and rage, who now suffer from the same invisible illness, and who also fight for personal justice with the government. For those who did not serve but might still care to listen, please know that understanding brings about compassion. Without the support of family and friends, the darkness would prove unbearable.

“My message is clear: We were taught to value loyalty above all things except honor, yet those who called us to serve have shown neither. Silence has become our greatest enemy and the truth is no longer for the government to conceal. Though they fear compensation, we seek treatment. Those who served back in ’91 are men and women of honor; not people looking for a handout, but only the truth so that they can return to their lives and take care of their families. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

“Again, the complaint was never in being sent. With babies being tossed from incubators in Kuwait, it was an honorable cause and it was we who volunteered to right that wrong. The complaint lies in the way we were returned; having legitimate issues and nowhere to turn.

“My brothers and sisters of Operation Desert Storm once stood together against an evil oppressor and fought to liberate those who could not free themselves. No one can ask us now to be seated and not stand for what we still believe. So we must stand together again to fight for our own government’s acknowledgement and treatment. We helped to win the war, now we only need to win the peace. Thankfully, not one of us is alone!”

After more than two decades, I’ve learned that—in many respects—war is a state of mind and a person cannot live in two worlds at one time. One must face his demons and call an internal truce before there is ever a chance for peace. And so I did. Through perseverance, I finally received medical treatment through the Veterans Administration. And in support of others who have served, I have used my pen to bring respect to those who have completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as awareness to their post-combat suffering. My latest novel, Gooseberry Island, was written to serve those very purposes.

Sweet 16

When he was born, my son Jacob entered the world with an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was blue—not bluish or kind of blue; he was blue. My knees buckled and nearly pulled me to the hospital floor. The room immediately filled with medical personnel, causing the worse wave of panic I’ve ever felt. But it was their quick response that led to the prognosis, “Your son will be just fine, Mr. Manchester.” The truth of it suddenly hit me and I began to cry. As I started to breathe again, I also realized there was nothing they could do to recover the years that had just been erased from my life.

This past week, my healthy son—for which I still thank God—turned 16 years old. Unlike girls, who revel in the hoopla of extravagant sweet 16 parties, boys are different. Theirs is a much quieter rite of passage. I asked Jacob how he wanted to celebrate. He shrugged. “Whatever,” he replied. Although I usually despise this term of indifference, in this case he was being honest. He really didn’t care how we celebrated the day.

After handing him a mushy greeting card—containing a gift card that confirmed this birthday was different, more special—we ended up at a restaurant that served breakfast food for lunch; it’s a favorite we both share.

As we accepted the giant menus, my only request of him was to bury the cell phone while we were there. No texting or tweeting—just a face-to-face conversation. He respectfully honored the request.

While Jacob began with his usual update—how school was going, what his friends were up to, how he was dreading all the work he faced at school in the coming weeks—I sat back, sipped my coffee and took an inventory. While he talked, I actually found myself taking an account of the most precious task I’ve ever been blessed with—raising this boy.

Physically, Jake is tall and lanky and he weighs much less than he should (as such, we ordered extra pancakes), but he’s discovered that he’s best suited as a runner—which I’m proud to say that he trains and competes hard at.

Jake’s a smart kid. In fact, he thinks he knows much more than he does. Fortunately, I’m not too old to forget I wasn’t all that different at his age. The good news is: coming from his technology- savvy generation, he’s proven resourceful enough to find answers when he doesn’t actually know them. This ability has always been important to me.

As we ate and, one topic led to the next, Jake informed me that it’s not considered disrespectful to return a phone call with a text message. Although this remains a hotly debated topic between us, he was being truthful; communicating online is precisely how his Smart phone generation communicates—period.

Jake’s a gentleman, a trait that I insisted he possess. He recently went to a movie with a girl—“as friends”—and paid for her ticket. I discovered that he even opened doors for her. Thankfully, he’s learned that while some people claim chivalry is dead, a man’s true character still means everything.

As I sopped up yellow yolk with an English muffin, I smiled at my son, realizing: Jake’s kind without bring frail, something I’d like to think he learned by example. He cares about people much more than things. For the most part, he’s polite—at least in my company. He’s not afraid to stand up for his beliefs and can even get loud when he feels passionate enough about the topic at hand. And he’s thoughtful, considerate—as much as he can be for his age.

I’m not delusional. I know my boy’s not perfect. He’s a work in progress, requiring a few more coats of polish. But I also know that a solid foundation’s been poured; a base strong enough to frame a good man.

Nearly two hours had passed before I paid the bill, left a tip and we started for the door. “Thanks for everything, Dad,” he told me. I shook my head. “Thank you, Jacob,” I told him and meant it. You see, I’ve always believed—from that awesome and terrifying day 16 years ago—the true success of my life will be measured against the man he becomes.

We got back in the car and I had to smile. The doctors were right, I thought, Jake turned out just fine. “Where to next?” I asked him. There was silence. I looked into the rear view mirror. He was already back on his cell phone, both thumbs tapping away at an impressive rate—getting caught up on all that he’d missed during his birthday lunch. Maybe I should just text him? I thought, before heading off to our next adventure together.

A New Member of the Family

My baby sister, Jenn, is having a baby- a boy named Jack William. Baby Jack’s due to come into the world on April Fool’s Day, so we’re hopeful he’s already been blessed with a good sense of humor. Although my sister is understandably nervous about the process, I have to wonder what the miraculous experience will be like for my little buddy, Jack. It brings me back to a short piece I wrote some years ago. Sometimes, changing one’s perspective can shed an entirely different light on life…




It was like heaven, or at least as close to heaven as I could have ever imagined. Life was so simple back then and unbelievably kind. My room had plenty of privacy and not a soul bothered me. I basically stayed to myself for that period of my life. I suppose some people would say it was, “A time to find myself.” For me, it was actually just a wonderful time of personal growth.


Each night, the soothing sounds of waves crashing into nearby rocks gently lulled me to sleep. It was warm- like a summer night after a much-needed rain shower. And I can’t even remember feeling the thirst or hunger pains that I’ve felt since. At times, from a distance, I could hear the foreign tongue of a woman singing the sweetest notes I had ever heard. That was my favorite!  She had such a lovely voice and there were many nights her soft melodies put me to sleep. She must have kept to herself because I never saw her face. Even so, I knew she was an angel and quickly came to rely on her to quell my smallest worries. It really was a heavenly time.


And then it happened! I can only hope that time will erase the memory from my mind…


I was waking from one of my afternoon siestas when a time of sweet dreams suddenly turned into a horrifying nightmare. All at once, the walls felt like they were closing in all around me. I didn’t know whether it was my imagination, a bad dream or just something I wasn’t ready to face when I heard a distinctive pop. The waves that usually brought on serenity began to rage out ferociously. Instinctively, I closed my eyes, while my head began to throb. As if it was placed in some invisible vice, the pressure was so great that it made me want to vomit. For whatever reason, the world had abruptly turned to confusion. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew it couldn’t be good. For the first time in my life, I was paralyzed with fear.


An incredible force pulled at my tense quivering body, drawing me in one set direction. At first, I fought desperately to go back. And then I saw it. It was a light; a bright light that came from a door I never even knew existed! To my own bewilderment, I was strongly attracted to the light and for more reasons unknown, I began fighting to reach it. My breathing quickened and my heart felt as if it would beat completely out of my chest. Still, I forged on.


Searching for that gentle voice that always calmed me, instead, I heard the most horrid screams coming from the other side of the door. Just then, the whole world began to shake and tremble and I knew I was not the only one in trouble. There was pain everywhere; in my body, my mind, my heart. The screams outside the door were far worse than anything I could have attempted. That alone scared me close to death. Still, some powerful force pushed and pulled me forward. I probably should have pinched myself, but the longer the experience lasted, the less it felt like a dream. Without knowing why, I went with it. The half of me that never wanted to go eventually gave way to the braver half. Call it curiosity, fate, whatever- something beckoned everything inside of me to go. So I did.


What a mistake! No sooner did I have my head outside the door than I knew it was a mistake. The light, that had attracted me so strongly just moments before, was now the most intense, obnoxious glare. It burned into my pupils and made my sweating head pound harder. I also remember the cold. No, not cold…it was freezing.


Finally managing a squint, I spotted the faces of strangers who didn’t look at all friendly. Some poked me, others prodded and then I looked down and saw it. It was blood. There were puddles of blood everywhere. “Oh, God,” I thought, but it was too late. Someone lifted me in the air, turned me sideways and slapped me. I screamed bloody murder. What injustice! I’d done nothing to deserve that!


And then I heard her. It was the gentle voice that had always sung me to sleep. She was back and at a whimper, she announced, “It’s a boy, Herbert, and he’s so beautiful. Light hair, blue eyes, ten fingers, ten toes…” but she couldn’t finish. She was crying and it made me feel horrible. Then she pulled me to her. At that moment, no matter what we’d just gone through, I knew everything would be fine.


As if breathing for the first time, I was laboring for air when I heard another familiar voice. This one was deeper and not as compassionate, but I still knew it. I shifted on the woman’s chest to listen.


The man said, “He looks like either a Jack or a William to me.”


My new lady friend began crying again, but eventually responded, “Then Jack William Fazzina it is!”


And as they say, the rest was history in the making. I was born and the journey had begun…

American Sniper: A Soldier’s Perspective

Living just south of Boston, we’ve spent the last few weeks shoveling out of one blizzard after the next. Every time I tried to shake off the cabin fever and get out to the movie theater to see American Sniper, I was swept back into the icy vortex. I wouldn’t have cared—except I really wanted to see the film and couldn’t seem to get there. Instead, I heard (and read) a multitude of mixed reviews—most being positive. “Bradley Cooper was amazing!” “What an emotional ride.” “Clint Eastwood really outdid himself.” And then there were the negative remarks. “It’s a shame how Hollywood glorifies war…that they’ve portrayed a man, with 160 confirmed kills to his name, as an American hero. These were human lives he erased from the earth and no one should ever be honored for that.”


The snow finally let up and I made it to the theatre to see the film.


For me, it was everything the hype had promised. Bradley Cooper was amazing and Clint Eastwood really did outdo himself. As far as the negative feedback, I’d like to respond from the perspective of a soldier who has experienced war—certainly not a fraction of what Chris Kyle experienced, but enough to understand the mentality—and set a few things straight.


In most cases, men and women join the military to fulfill a purpose greater than him or herself. At 17 years old, my best friend and I joined the US Army National Guard on the buddy system. We graduated from basic training and Military Police School in Alabama, and were assigned to a unit in our home state of Massachusetts. One year later, however, my best friend committed suicide and terminated the buddy system contract. I was devastated.


Almost five years to that horrific day, in August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with his henchmen, compiling the fourth largest army in the world. The atrocities and inhumane acts committed toward Kuwait prompted support from around the globe. War was declared. The world called it Operation Desert Storm and volunteer soldiers were called to serve their countries. Within a few short months, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines arrived in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia, liberate Kuwait and embarrass the biggest bully of the post-cold war era. America’s sons and daughters entered a barren wasteland to exact justice. The responsibilities brought to bear, however, were immense. My unit was activated and called to serve.


In 1991, as a shield was replaced by an angry storm, Saddam Hussein threatened America with the mother of all battles. In turn, President George Bush drew a line in the sand. That line was quickly wrapped around Iraq and used to choke the life out of thousands. Though Hussein swore it would take the Americans months to cross the breach from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, it took only hours. We—the Allied Forces—moved fast, crushing the first of three Iraqi lines of defense. As if they weren’t even there, our American war machine rolled right over them, discovering we had overestimated the enemy. It was clear: While Hussein chose to sit out the air campaign, the Iraqi people bore the brunt for their ruthless dictator and like all victims of war; they paid with gallons of their own blood. In such a time and place, it seemed necessary. They were wearing uniforms. It was war.


It took four days, or a mere 100 hours of hell on earth, before the ground war was ceased. History was made. In triumph, Kuwait was liberated, while Hussein was humiliated before the whole world. An unconditional withdrawal was ordered.


During that brief but traumatic time, here are just a few things I learned: Military men and women do not start wars; we are trained to protect our country, given orders and sent to strike. Our government leaders decide when and where. Military men and women do not question orders, as this could easily prove fatal to all involved. We are trained to move and act as one; like a vast machine that depends upon each working part. And when we hit the ground—the battlefield—we fight for our brothers and sisters who stand beside us. This warrants repeating: in combat, we fight for each other—and that’s exactly what Chris Kyle did.


Chris Kyle believed in his purpose—to protect his country from terrorism, as well as his brothers and sisters on the ground. As his father had taught him, there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. Chris was a sheep dog, destined to protect the flock. His confirmed enemy kills—160—more than likely helped to spare at least that many American lives. It was war and, for those who have never experienced it, Chris’ kill count must seem demonic. But again, the rules are simple and clear: kill or be killed. Had I served in Afghanistan at that time, I would have thanked him personally for providing the cover he did.


Taking 160 human lives does not make the American Sniper a hero. In my opinion, that just means he was better equipped—with a very specific skill set—to successfully do his duty and accomplish the mission set before him. What does make him a hero is the fact that he stood up and made a conscious decision to serve his country; he dug down and found the courage and commitment to put himself in harm’s way while sacrificing time away from his family—just like every man and woman who stepped onto the same plane heading toward hell.


The expense of war is sometimes paid once all the fighting is over. I know. On February 28, 1991, Iraq surrendered. Yet, the fighting for many was far from over. While America’s technology continued to erase the poltergeist of Vietnam, many servicemen and women were invaded with their own ghost of torment. Amidst the daily chaos, we experienced the frailties of our own mortality and unlike CNN’s sanitized version of the desert clash—the realization that there was no glory in war. Though I’d only spent months in the desert, it seemed like forever. I saw things that nobody should see. I watched children die, men leave their brothers for dead, land mines claim victims—the list is endless.


Returning visibly whole to a proud and grateful nation, my entire body was consumed with pain. And I couldn’t seem to pick my spirits up. The depression engulfed me and though I fought it, my body was just too tired. My every waking moment was spent in a vice of anxiety, or all-out panic. Like clockwork, each night, my restless sleep was interrupted by severe panic attacks or demented, life-like nightmares. Each time, I awoke and tried to find the difference between the hellish dreams and my actual life. The answer was simple. There was no difference. My life was the nightmare. I was merely replaying the torment during my sleep.


Chris Kyle had also learned that not all war wounds are visible. Embarking on his final mission, he was carried away in the eye of his own storm; the type of storm that rages out of control deep inside, tearing at the spirit; the whole being. Only through the support of family and friends, and the willingness to reclaim his life, was he able to completely return home. In the end, war is also a state of mind and a person cannot live in two worlds at one time. One must face his demons and call an internal truce before there is ever a chance for peace. Chris Kyle was finally able to do just that.


U.S. military men and women are taught to value loyalty above all things except honor. They are taught to do whatever is necessary to carry out their mission. Yet, those who call them to serve, as well as those who enjoy the protection they provide, often criticize them for the very things they’ve asked them to do.


Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, did exactly was he was trained and ordered to do.

Grampa’s Final Gift

From my earliest memories, I could recall the echo of my late grandfather, “If you help dig someone out of their troubles, you’ll always find a place to bury your own.” He was a simple man, the salt of the earth, but he possessed a wisdom unknown to most. He spent his last moments on earth at the Rose Hawthorne Home; a health care facility for terminally ill cancer patients. I was sixteen when I began visiting him. Through the exploring eyes of a child, I quickly discovered he was not the only person to enjoy such precious knowledge.

No different from other nursing homes, the Rose Hawthorne was a safe haven for the elderly. Its suffering patients were soothed by the gentle hands of a caring staff, while the home depended on community donations of food and money. During my visits, however, I also found that there were other compassionate souls willing to give something far more valuable. They gave their time, volunteering to help in the fight against another devastating disease called loneliness. The exchange between the patients and volunteers was both touching and humbling. To my surprise, I couldn’t tell who benefited more.

Within The Rose Hawthorne, there was a peace most people could have only dreamed of. Removed from the rat race of society, the tranquil surroundings were absolutely breathtaking. Hundreds of green plants filled the ward, while a handful of birds chirped in harmony. The sun’s rays engulfed the interior of the building and the same sweet melody seemed to play over-and-over on some hidden hi-fi. Sometimes, while my grandfather snored, I listened carefully. There were always the muffled sounds of laughter.

Although torment loomed over each bed and death lurked behind every corner, I discovered a silent bliss. Each patient had reached the end of their life’s path and most were finished with the denial, the negotiating with God- the anger. There was no battling the inevitable. Instead, the snickers of a friendly card game could be overheard, or the whispers of some treasured conversations detected. Armed with decades of experience, peering into the patients’ eyes was like gazing into a history book. For those who dared to open the cover, lengthy discussions usually revealed years of hard lessons and the wisdom achieved. The teachers were old. They were sick and tired, but they had more to offer than anyone I ever met. Unfortunately, in the Western Hemisphere, the elderly were often cast aside as nuisances. Even at sixteen, I knew it was an ignorant assessment.

As the weeks progressed and my grandfather got worse, I introduced myself to many of his neighbors. Some spoke of their children and of the generations to come.  Most, however, preferred to dabble in the past. I enjoyed those talks the best. I learned so much about life at the turn of the century:

One frail woman, each winter, strapped on ice skates and commuted across the Taunton River to work every morning. Her brother, during the Great Depression, kept his family alive on a staple of potatoes. One of the quieter men boasted of the fortune he made during Prohibition, while another reveled in the memory of the hurricane of 1938.  As if he could still see it, his eyes went wide, “Many a homes were wiped out back then, but the folks in the North end came together like nothin’ I ain’t ever seen since!”

From bed-to-bed, there were endless stories of WWI and WWII. The graphic and brutal details of combat actually caused me several sleepless nights. Awestruck, I also learned that the families who remained on the home front suffered terribly in their own silent ways. Every soul shared in the war effort and the labor was considered hard, but righteous. Occasionally, even politics were brought up. The consensus was, even years ago, integrity was never considered an actual criteria for the profession.

Some spoke of the day-to-day life. There were trolleys that ran from one side of the city to the next and boys who thought nothing of stealing a free ride. There were steamboats that paddled down the river, while horses transported those with land legs.  All meals were cooked at home and children never dared disrespect an adult, while expecting to keep all their teeth. And speaking of teeth, “The dentists and medical doctors back in them days were no better than the vets that castrated bulls.”

I marveled at the raspy whispers of Lizzie Borden and her infamous axe. Many of the patients still regarded her as the Devil incarnate. Yet, when I asked, “Do you think she did it?” I received only grins for answers. History disclosed that Old Lizzie was found ‘not guilty’ for the gruesome hacking of her parents and the crime was never solved. Looking past the grins and into the eyes of those I asked, however, it was almost as if they knew the truth and weren’t talking. Then again, with a deeper look, it was as if they knew the truth about everything.

Afternoon conversations included the value of the dollar and all one could buy when, “It was worth something.” Verbal pictures were painted of men peddling their goods. Blocks of ice, vegetables, everything was bought and sold in the street. “Shoot, you could get your scissors sharpened, buy a new set of flatware or a Sunday hat without ever leaving your doorstep,” one woman bragged. Radio programs left more to the imagination than the invention of television. Most could even remember exactly where they were when the Titanic sunk or Elvis Presley gyrated his hips for the first time.

After three months, I considered each one of them a genius.

It was a cold March morning when my grandfather decided he had endured enough pain. Two days before his departure, I visited for the last time. While making my rounds, many of the patients thanked me for my time and compassion, as if they knew they would not set eyes on me again. It seemed silly. If I’d done anything, then I had already been paid back tenfold. Though there was no exchange of money, the gifts I received each visit were worth so much more. If time was all I needed to give, then it was the best investment I’d ever made.

I bid farewell to my grandfather that afternoon, never realizing that it was actually goodbye. Stepping into the brisk sunset, I had no doubt that my grandfather was right.  It was so clear. From here on, any time I was in search of answers, I needed only to visit a haven for elderly souls. Although the teachers of forgiveness and acceptance dwelled within the company of angels, they were equally happy for the company of youth and the opportunity to share their knowledge.

My grandfather’s final gift was so valuable it could have never been wrapped. He had introduced me to the greatest natural resources on earth. Each time, when I’d found one of the teachers generous enough to reveal their thoughts, I considered myself fortunate. Better yet, when I’d found another kind enough to open their heart, I considered myself blessed.

I might have lent a helping hand to some, but it was the stronger, gentler hands extended back to me that would have shocked the world.

1st Prize

After ten years of working for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, I felt the need to pass on my brutal experiences to those who needed to hear them most- troubled children. In the meantime, the time I spent trying make a difference in their lives helped to cleanse my soul. I’m still not sure who has received more.

Through the Straight Ahead Program, a Christian-based Ministry for children confined to lockup within the Department of Youth Services (or DYS), each month, I pulled into the parking lot and stared at the eerie building. The brick fortress was built in the late 1800’s. It was surrounded by concertina wire and steel fence. Black bars, mesh and grilles covered the filthy windows, while shadows moved behind them. These dark glimpses were the little people who blamed their entire existence on everyone but themselves. There were some tough cases; young boys who’d been abused and neglected in every sense of the words. Products of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, oppressive property, welfare and similar systems that didn’t foster healthy self-esteem, most could blame the world and be justified. Yet, I understood that for the nightmare they were headed to, this attitude wasn’t going to help at all. The only chance they had now was to shoulder their circumstances and start making choices toward changing their own bleak realities.

Each month, I sat in the lot and watched as the boys played a violent game of basketball. Each one cursed and acted tough, doing everything I would have done, had I been thrown into the same hellish environment. It was important to remember that. Most nights, it was the only good reason not to drive away and never look back. They were a pack of tough cases; the whole lot of them. But, they were scared and they needed help.

My lecture always started in prayer and was followed by two hours of harsh

reality. I did everything I could to paint an accurate picture of life behind the walls. I detailed rapes and murders, and did all I could to scare them into re-thinking their futures. At the same time, I also did everything I could to show them that they were still loved. When I wrapped up, there was always applause. Yet, month after month, the same faces returned to hear my same spiel. And, month after month, I gave it, hoping that I might offer something that would save them from the hell I knew they faced.

“If I can save only one,” I’d think. At the parking lot, I usually looked back. Most nights, through the grimy, barred windows, I could vaguely make out the shadows of several of the students beating the hell out of each other. “We’ll try again next month,” I always sighed, and drive away.

After two years of volunteering my time, I was seriously starting to question my impact and actually considered calling it quits. But it wasn’t to be! The mailman delivered a package that would change my heart forever.

I opened the thick envelope. Eric Ryan, the night councilor at the Howland Detention Center, D.Y.S., had hosted an essay contest. The assignment: Write one to two pages explaining how Steve Manchester’s presentation on adult incarceration has impacted your life. He sent me copies of the end results. Through surprised, misty eyes, I read one wonderful example after the next:

…My fists were clenched tight of fear from Steve’s horrific real life stories about life in state prison. He told stories about people getting raped, killed, and getting the shit kicked out of them and it made me scared to go to prison. Steve also taught us that we still have time to change our lives around…

…Steve’s stories really made me think of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life. I hate the pain I’ve put on my family and friends. I’d like to thank Steve for inspiring me to change and believe in the power of hope.

There were 26 essays altogether, and each proved another lesson in hope. I finally got to the contest winner’s touching piece. It was written by a loud-mouthed 12 year-old named Raul. There were two ink stamps on the copy. One read: I’m PROUD of YOU! The other: If you can DREAM IT, you can DO IT! It read:

Well I never thought about jail like that until Steve came in. I always thought of jail totally different then what he said. I never thought that they had people with aids and people like Laferty. After that group I started feeling sad just thinking about what my brother must of went through. All the things that I heard from Steve wasn’t so nice. He got to my head so good that it made me think twice about life. It made me think how my future is gonna end. Following my brothers path like I’m doing or get my shit straight. Steve whenever he comes back he will have my full attention again, cause this guy knows what he’s doing. When he first walked in I though that he was just another guy talking about things he knew nothing about. But he proved me wrong. He totaly blew my mind. Every body always told me about jail but I didn’t care. I didn’t think about it like Steve made me think about. I believed every word that came out of his mouth. He’s worked there for a long time. I always told people that I’m not scared to go to jail. After this with Steve it realy had me thinking. I don’t want to go be some place where I’m always watching my back, always worried about who wants to mess with me. I wouldn’t make it in there. Always thinking about something. And if it comes down to a fight, you’ll realy be in trouble cause you could get extra years in there. And me in the hole for two-three months, I’ll go nuts. I don’t wanna have that type of future. I have a loving family who is there for me. I got a little brother to look out for, and right now I’m not setting a good example for him. My older brother didn’t set a good example for me and look what I’m doing. The same thing he was doing. He used to call home and regret that he chilled with his boys instead of listing to my mothers advice. But now its to late for him to chang. To me I think this group is realy helpful. It realy made me think twice about life. I already told my mother that I would not end up like him. I don’t want to call my mother some day in the future when it is to late to turn back. That’s why I have to make a chang in my life now that I’m young. Thanks Steve. The end.

I drew in a couple deep breaths, picked up the telephone and dialed. Eric Ryan answered. “Eric, it’s Steve Manchester. I just wanted to thank you for sending along copies of those essays. I just got done reading them.”

“You’re very welcome, Steve.”

I grinned. “So…what did Raul win for placing first in the contest?”

There was a pause. Eric spoke softly. “From the look of his essay…I’d say his adult freedom.”

I choked back the ball in his throat. “Let’s hope!”

The Best Christmas Ever

A few years ago, I was reading the local paper when a story entitled “Helping Hands” jumped right out at me. It was a heart-wrenching story about a family in need.

After settling into my office, I contacted the Salvation Army to inquire about the family.

“This one’s a bad one,” the woman on the phone told me. “The mother was raped a month ago, the father’s no where to be found and the two little boys are in God’s hands.” There was a dramatic pause. “Except for a tree already donated, they have nothing!” The old lady sighed.

I glanced down at the paper and caught a quote from the older of the two boys. “The only thing I wish for is to have Christmas dinner with my Mom and little brother.” It was signed, Michael Joseph, 8 (my own son’s age). I checked the calendar. There were seven shopping days until the big night. As if my life depended on it, I promised, “We’ll make sure they get their dinner, and then some!”

The kind woman said she’d check with the mother and get right back to me. She did. I received an address, a telephone number and the clothes sizes of the boys.

The telephone hadn’t rested in its cradle for more than a minute before I began recruiting like a dictator preparing for war. Priorities were changed and my day planner was immediately altered to include shooting emails, posting flyers and bouncing from cubicle to cubicle in an attempt to wake the walking dead. Most agreed it was a noble cause and promised to lend a hand.

Within the first two days, neatly wrapped presents were being stacked on the threshold of my office. The cardboard box converted into a food bin was quickly filling. Someone even donated two brand new winter coats. The entire experience touched me more than anything had in decades. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I was pleasantly surprised to witness one human being after another rushing to the aid of those who desperately needed it. It was both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

When I finally got in touch with the mother, she was a babbling mess. In the midst of her heavy sobbing, we confirmed a mutual time to drop off the goodies. “How will I know it’s you?” she asked.

“I’ll be the fat guy in the bright red suit!”

She was crying even more when I hung up.

The morning of the big day, I watched as my wife filled two giant red stockings with plastic airplanes, Matchbox cars, various action figures and enough candy to disturb any dentist. When she thought I wasn’t watching, she also stuffed several wrapped presents into Santa’s bulging sack. I secretly checked the labels beneath the red and green bows. They read: “For Mom.”

Even the office pulled together like nothing I’d ever seen. It was absolutely magical. My one simple idea had snowballed into the common cause of many. It was amazing!

I pulled into the office parking lot and insured the entire rented suit was intact. I knew I was about to embark on a journey that would change my life forever.

Seconds ticked away like hours until three o’clock rolled around. As I headed for the bathroom to get changed, Danny Calis and Brad Cowen approached. “If you don’t already have some,” Danny said, “we’d like to play your elves and give you a hand carrying these things.”

“That would be great!” I told him. Time was the hottest commodity amongst my co-workers. Folks rarely volunteered for anything.

The caravan rolled past the graffiti-covered and charred dumpsters until finally halting in the heart of the housing project. I checked my white beard in the rear-view. It was already so tangled and matted with saliva that it made me gag. As my heart pounded out of my chest, Brad shoved the jolly fat man out of the van.

The self-contained neighborhood was desolate with the exception of three youths standing on the corner. As if they were dancers, they shuffled their feet in an attempt to keep warm. They heckled me once, but when I looked over they only smiled. There was nothing to worry about. I was Santa. Nobody was naughty enough to mess with Father Christmas. “A Merry Christmas to you, my friends,” I called out with a wave. They laughed.

Danny grabbed the food box and grunted with each step. It weighed over a hundred pounds and contained enough food to last three weeks. Brad took the two bags of clothes that were collected and I shouldered his heavy sack of toys. I was already sweating.

My white gloves hadn’t knocked twice before a young woman fumbled with the lock and slowly opened the door. She was crying and I knew right off that we’d found the right apartment. “Boys,” she squealed, “look who’s here!”

“Ho. Ho. Ho,” I pushed from the base of my diaphragm. One step in and everything turned to a blur. I tried to stop it, telling myself, “Santa Claus doesn’t cry.” It wasn’t so easy.

The living room was decorated to the taste of someone who had nothing. Still, it was spotless. There was one armchair, with strips of gray tape holding back the stuffing that fought to escape. There was a small TV, perhaps even broken, sitting atop a scarred wooden stand. A sad green tree was propped up in the corner—in terrible need of ornaments and lights. And there was a long brown couch with two little boys sitting right in the middle of its old lap. I think I actually gasped when I saw them. In a display of good manners, they both held their folded hands in their laps. Their eyes made me lose my breath. There was excitement, disbelief and overwhelming joy—all at the same time. I dropped to one knee. My plastic spectacles were fogging up and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Looking to his mother for permission, the older one finally stood, confidently walked over and wrapped his arms around me. Like his mother, he was weeping freely. I fought to be strong. Breaking the embrace, Michael ran to his mom and hugged her. As if the words had been sifted through a wad of cotton, she exclaimed, “See…what did I tell you guys? If you believe hard enough, anything you wish for CAN come true!”

I struggled for air when I looked up to find the smaller boy standing two feet from me. I watched as his eyes danced from excitement to curiosity to doubt, circling back to excitement. I grabbed the little tyke and pulled him close. Just then, the tiny voice asked, “Are you da real Santa, or a fake Santa?”

I eased away. “What do you think?”

Again, those big eyes traveled a path that could only be described as heavenly. Finally stopping at a place called faith, his entire face lit up. He screamed, “You da real Santa!” Jumping into my extended arms, he turned his attention toward his brother and screamed again, “Mikey, it’s da real Santa!”

“I know, Robby,” a voice mumbled. Michael was still swaying in his mother’s arms.

I finally stood to catch Brad wiping his eyes and Danny straightening out the crooked tree. Reaching for my sack, I placed present after present—the love and compassion of nearly a hundred people I knew—beneath the evergreen. As I handed the red stockings over to the boys, I spoke slowly, “Michael, Robby…Santa’s very proud of you for the way you’ve been good for your mom. I want you to remember, I’m always watching and your mom’s right. If you believe hard enough, anything you ever dream for can come true. You just have to believe!”

There were more hugs from the boys. As I prepared to leave, I presented their mom with the lovely gifts my wife had packed. “Merry Christmas,” I said with a hug.

“How can I ever thank you?” she sobbed into my shoulder.

“You already have,” I told her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in Santa Claus. Thank you for that!”

The ride back to the office parking lot was driven in silence. There truly were no words to describe the magic we’d just shared. After bidding my elves farewell, I stripped out of most of the sweltering outfit and started for home.

It was the best Christmas ever.

The Rockin’ Chair is released on June 18th!

A rich portrait of a family at a crossroad, The Rockin’ Chair has been called my most heartfelt and emotionally engaging novel to date. If family matters to you, it is a story you must read.

Synopsis: Memories are the ultimate contradiction. They can warm us on our coldest days – or they can freeze a loved one out of our lives forever. The McCarthy family has a trove of warm memories. Of innocent first kisses. Of sumptuous family meals. Of wondrous lessons learned at the foot of a rocking chair. But they also have had their share of icy ones. Of words that can never be unsaid. Of choices that can never be unmade. Of actions that can never be undone.

Following the death of his beloved wife, John McCarthy – Grandpa John – calls his family back home. It is time for them to face the memories they have made, both warm and cold. Only then can they move beyond them and into the future.

 Early Reviews include:

The Rockin’ Chair is a heart-rending story of a family, separated by pride and ambition only to be brought together by the strength of their ability to grow emotionally and spiritually. Manchester’s flawless dialogue, warm characters and compassionate wit all service a moving story. He reminds us that simple sentiments are often the truest. His contrast of the permanence of the landscape with the transience of human life leaves us with a feeling of wonder long after the final page is turned.”  - Corinna Underwood, Reviewer, Publisher’s Weekly

 “The Rockin’ Chair is a tightly knit tearjerker.” – Jon Land, NYTimes Bestselling Author; The Walls of Jericho

“In The Rockin’ Chair, Steven Manchester has created a book that can change the world. If only everyone would listen to Grampa John and express their love for each other, what a different world it would be.”  - Heather Froeschl, Book Reviewer,

2013 Book Awards

The results are in for the 2013 National Indie Excellence Awards:

Twelve Months- Finalist (Death & Dying category)

Goodnight, Brian- Finalist (Inspiration category)

The results are also in for the 2013 International Book Awards:

Twelve Months- Finalist (Spirituality: Inspirational)

Goodnight, Brian - Finalist (Fiction: Chick Lit/Women’s Lit)