Mom organized a military memorial service for Uncle Ken, who passed during Covid 2 years ago… and it all went down last week in NJ.
I decided to drive up with Olga and Vlada.
Our first stop was South of the Border, a money laundering operation on the South / North Carolina border.
Vlada wanted to pet an alligator and handle some venomous snakes.
There are a million different businesses at South of the Border, and they spend a gazillion $$$ on billboards up and down rte 95, yet the place always looks deserted, hence my money laundering theory.
The reptile house was worth the visit, only $8 per person!
Next day we saw DC:
That night we finally reached NJ and Uncle Ken’s service was the next day. It was nice to get everyone together, the six of us live in 3 different states. Mom arranged for a nice lunch after the service, but 2 of my Dickhead Uncles blew it off.
They don’t read… this blog, or anything else.
My 73 year old mother moved Heaven and Earth to get everyone together, because she values family and she knows we’re all getting older. She might not get too many opportunities to see her brothers again… but they don’t really give a shit… so….
The cool folks went to lunch.
Nice pic with Mom and Dad.
The 4 siblings… George finally smiled.
That night I took Olga and her daughter to the Ocean City boardwalk.
I used to hang out in Ocean City in my teen and college years. It was a lovely Friday night, the view from the Ferris wheel was lovely.
The next day I took the Ukrainians into Philly to have a cheesesteak at Pat’s.
Cause yo, that’s how you do Philly.
That afternoon Andrea hosted a big get together at her house.
Vlada bonded with Henry the pug.
The next day we drove 2 hours north to see NYC. We started with the 9/11 Memorial.
Everyone should go see this. Very moving.
We drove uptown to see Times Square. It was hot and dirty and crowded. Pics look better than the reality. I’m not a huge fan of crowded and expensive cities like New York City. The roads and tunnels look old and torn up, 30 minutes of parking cost me $45…. I think people glamorize places like this when in reality New York CITY is a stressful place.
We got on the road that night and headed back South. We stopped in DC to have dinner with Olga’s friend from Kyiv who now lives in DC.
Lotsa Ukrainians are spread out all over the world since the Russian invasion.
They were lucky to get out alive.
Olga has friends that stayed in Ukraine who have been missing since March.
Nice thing about a road trip is the ability to stop anywhere on the way home, on Monday we had lunch in very pretty Charleston, SC.
I’ve never been, Charleston is a lovely town on the South Carolina coast:
Charleston is an hour’s drive east of rte 95, with Civil War era buildings and lotsa really good restaurants.
If I wasn’t keen to get home we would have stayed longer…
Our LAST stop was Buc-ee’s.
Biggest gas station in the Universe !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
80 cars can gas up at the same time!
Pulled pork sammitches!
I’m back now, writing this on my home computer, so don’t try to rob my house.
I don’t have a good pic of my Dad in my computer, but here is a pic of me and Claire instead…
She was 8 here? Not sure. Claire is 24 now, all grown up.
I wanted to sit down and write a handwritten letter to my father this morning, but then I thought it might be better if I posted it right here for the entire world to see:
Today is Father’s Day, and I’m tremendously grateful to see you and Mom at church this morning, then later today for dinner.
You and Mom are an energetic 73, another thing I’m very grateful for!
You and Mom are such a huge blessing in my life, and I’m glad you live right here in Florida so that we see each other frequently.
Now that my own girls have reached adulthood and are successfully “launched” I’m even more appreciative of what you and Mom did in raising 4 children to adulthood…. and beyond.
None of us were charged with a felony!
It’s not easy, and every stage of parenthood has unique challenges. You and Mom raised an FBI agent, a Registered Nurse, a Fashion Designer…. and whatever the heck I turned out to be!
I know I was wild teen and a huge pain in the ass, but you both supported me when I went to Taiwan, started a goofy balloon business, and more recently went to Ukraine. You both put up with a LOT, most of which I will not detail here due to federal secrecy regulations.
You both provided me an example of what it means to embrace responsibility, love your family and also serve the community, especially your work with our local school and in our church community.
You stayed together in your (53 year!) marriage, even despite challenges.
Now that I’m 48 I’ve come to realize that the BEST men in our society do what you did; accept responsibility, work hard, and love your family.
You went to church to support Mom, even though you were not a very churchy type of guy.
Over 53 years that amounts to 2,756 Sunday services!
That’s a whole lotta Sundays! You must love Mom a lot.
You also earned good money, kept the house nice, and took care of Mom.
A real man takes care of his wife and kids, even if it means waking up at 5AM and driving to a nuclear power plant in a Toyota Corolla with a gazillion miles on it.
You’re still working now, as an unpaid maintenance guy at Harvester Methodist!
There are men in my generation who did not have fathers, or grew up in the turmoil of divorce. Those men did not have the benefit of the example you provided for me, and they are worse off for it.
As Greg the Famous Prison Guard once told me:
“All the guys in my prison had ONE THING in common: no fathers around.”
Dad, you were always around, working 2 jobs sometimes… my entire life.
So on this Father’s Day I’m thanking you, publically…. right here on my blog.
When I booked my flight to Warsaw back in March I had no idea what might happen when I got to Ukraine. Fly there April 3, fly back home April 30th. Everything between those 2 dates was pure potentiality, random occurences, and more than a small amount of risk.
I wanted to take ACTION, but I had no idea what might result from booking that flight.
I just FELT that I had to go there, in my gut.. and in my heart as well.
When I got to Lviv and met Pastor Prokip I had no idea we would raise $12,400 to help purchase a much needed van for his church, with help from the generous folks at Harvester Methodist back home in Land O Lakes :::
And if helping my friend Volodymyr Prokip was the ONLY outcome of this trip I’d be very happy, very grateful, very BLESSED to have this opportunity.
I’d be grateful just to have MET this man, and the folks at St. John in Lviv.
I took a step in FAITH to go seven times zones east, and if I had NOT followed that instinct I NEVER would have met Olga and her daughter Vlada:
I went to Europe as a single Dad, NOT on any dating apps at all, just writing my 3rd book plus a crazy desire to volunteer and just Do Something Helpful.
But how can a guy like me meet a gal like Olga (also single….) and NOT ask her out for dinner?
On our first date we had a great time, Olga thought I was totally insane, but she went on a 2nd date anyway… Thank Goodness!
Olga has worked for the last 2 decades in the shipping business, so she’s smart, speaks English fluently, and I made her laugh…
Olga is also an active member of the Kyiv Rotary club, and I liked that about her.
I knew that I was flying back to the States on April 30th, so we went on a few dates, we felt a connection… but the future was a big looming big question mark.
Olga’s daughter Vlada is 15 (she turns 16 next week) and she reminded me of my daughter Grace: smart, quiet, and plotting Eventual World Domination. We included Vlada on our outings, and we all got along well.
Vlada is a nice kid, she’s a credit to her mother, for sure.
She’ll probaby grow up to become President of Ukraine someday, so we’ll be able to say we “knew her back in the day”…
Olga and I both knew the visitor visa requirement to come to the USA was complicated, so I came back to the USA not sure if we would see each other again… unless I flew back there.
That same week US Immigration came out with the Unify Ukraine visa, a program that allows Ukrainian citizens to come to the USA for 2 years, AND let’s them work here… the only requirement was that I fill out a form (the I-134) saying that Olga and Vlada could stay with me and that I’d help them out when they arrived.
I filled out the form, thinking it would take immigration 6 months to process everything… and our application was approved in less than a week!
I have a 4 bedroom house… just me here since Claire moved out 5 months ago.
Claire even took the cat.
Ms. Lemonssss………… noooooo…………
Olga and her daughter flew here three weeks ago. Before they arrived I took the all the stuff out of my 2 spare bedrooms and repainted both rooms, bought a dresser at IKEA, bought new bedsheets, etc.
The fridge in my kitchen went from empty to filled up with all the veggies and healthy food that it takes to sustain 2 Ukranian ladies and a goofy American.
I still like my instant coffee, but Olga conviced me to buy an Espresso machine.
I’m taking Olga and Vlada all over Florida… last weekend we visited Miami.
Yesterday we took an hour drive down to Sarasota, visited the Ringling museum, swam in the ocean, goofed off a bit….
For some reason I make Olga laugh, often. The last few months of her life since the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been tough. Several of her friends are missing, presumed gone. She still has an apartment in Kyiv, but until this conflict is over it is not safe for her or her daughter to go back.
A Russian missile could kill anyone in Ukraine right now, randomly and without mercy nor logic.
A few days ago Olga told me this is the first time she’s felt peace in months.
We laugh often, and this is the best thing I can give her.
Olga encourages me to eat more vegetables. We hit the pool together most mornings.
I say goofy stuff and Olga laughs.
Vlada is in tennis camp up at the Land O Lakes rec center… in addition to her Secret KGB Training.
As I write this in the early hours of Father’s Day I’m looking forward to going to church with Olga and Vlada this morning.
We’re going to my parent’s house for dinner tonight.
Grace is somewhere over in Australia, but I’ll see my Claire tonight.
I don’t know what the future holds for us, after the war Olga and Vlada might want to go back to Ukraine, but for NOW I’m glad they are here.
Back in March I booked a round trip flight to Warsaw, from April 2 to April 30th.
I had no plan, but I wanted to volunteer in Ukraine, so the plane ticket was the first step.
A few days later I found a video on Facebook, an interview with Volodomyr Prokip, a young pastor leading up the Methodist Church in Lviv, in western Ukraine. I called him up, he was housing displaced people at his church, and helping others get to the Polish border, to safety. I asked him if he needed help, he told me “Come over, we can use help, bring gun holsters, medical supplies and kneepads for the local territorial defense brigade.”
I reached out to the folks at my church here in Land O’ Lakes, spent some of my own money and got many donations.
A few days before I left this was the dining room table in my home:
Some people in my life (like my daughter Claire) thought I was nuts to go over there. I knew that going to Lviv was NOT as dangerous as other parts of Ukraine (like Mariupol) but there was certainly a risk in going over. Weird thing is that when I woke up on the morning of April 2nd there was a bible verse going through my brain;
“This is the day that the Lord hath made, we shall rejoice and be glad in it!”
Mom and Dad took me to the airport… total weight on my baggage was 80+ pounds.
I flew to Poland because there are no operational airports in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
I don’t speak Polish or Ukranian, but during my time in Europe there was always someone around who spoke basic English… thank goodness!
I landed in Warsaw around noon on a Monday, so I took a cab over to the bus station and bought a bus ticket (for $32) that would take me east to Lviv, just across the Ukranian border.
I was the only American on the bus, many of the folks on the bus were Ukranians who had fled west to Poland in the previous month and were now deciding to return home in April. In early April western Ukraine was safer than eastern Ukraine, fewer incoming Russian missiles, but of course this changed later in the war…
The bus left Warsaw at 4PM, slowly plodding east to the Poland / Ukrainian border. There was a woman on the bus who worked in Ukraine as a high school English teacher, so we talked a bit and got to know each other.
In both Poland and Ukraine there is standard English instruction in middle school and high school, so most young people speak enough English to help a clueless American like me.
Whenever I met Ukrainian people and told them I was there to volunteer with the church I would always get a warm response… I grew to love the people of Ukraine in my time there.
About 2 hours into the long bus ride an older woman sitting behind me got a phone call and she started crying with tremendous sadness. Other people got upset as well so I asked the English teacher “What is she so upset about?”
That woman had just learned that her son, in the Ukranian Army, had been killed on the eastern front.
This conflict suddenly felt that much more real to me, the Russian Invasion was no longer something far away on CNN, it was right there in the bus, in the sound of a Mother weeping, in the faces of the other people comforting her. I began to cry, because I couldn’t imagine getting a call like that, about my own children….
The bus was delayed for about an hour at the Ukranian border, the border officer looked very closely at my passport and I explained to him how I was going to Lviv to volunteer with the church. I showed him a printout with information about Pastor Prokip and the address of the church in Lviv.
The slow bus arrived in Lviv at 1AM, and martial law was in effect so the pastor could not drive to pick me up without risking arrest. I looked at the GPS on my phone (which was at 10% battery) and decided to hike the 2.5 kilometers to Pastor Prokip’s apartment.
Both duffels and my backpack topped 80 pounds, so there I was, walking in the cold through a Ukranian city in the middle of the night with 2 heavy bags that made my arms ache.
I made the decision to go there, but I remember talking to God on this long walk, asking him if I was supposed to be there, in that moment, stopping every 300 feet to set the bags down and take a break.
I think I was meant to be there, walking along that street.
When I finally reached the apartment building I took this picture to remember that moment:
I’m amazed that Pastor Volodymyr Prokip welcomed a total stranger into his home (a crazy American), but we quickly became friends in the following weeks.
This guy is only 32 years old, yet he heads up a church that houses displaced people, and he helps everyone who comes to his church, no questions asked. When I got there in April he had already sent his wife and 2 sons to the Czech republic to get them out of harm’s way.
Here are some of the young people staying at the church, many of them lost their homes in eastern Ukraine due to Russian shelling:
My first full day in Lviv we helped a family move out of their apartment and pack up their belongings to move to Canada. I watched Pastor Prokip trying to move people to the border in a tiny 4 passenger car, so after a few days of working with him I called Harvester Methodist back here in Florida and we started a fund to raise money to help buy a van for the pastor’s church.
It took a month, but we raised $12,000 that is now being sent to Ukraine as this is being written.
There was also a large volunteer center in Lviv, so on days when Volodymyr did not need my help I would go there and volunteer:
One of the first people I met there was a high school kid named Vika, she spoke fluent English, I would see her every time I went there, and I predict she will be President of Ukraine one day:
Vika reminded me of my daughters back home, and I admired how she was always there volunteering and giving of her time.
Vika… when you run for Presidente I will return to Ukraine to be your campaign manager!
This retired gentleman was also at the volunteer center on a daily basis:
Right before I went to Ukraine I bought a new Samsung S21, all these pictures were taken on that phone.
Sometimes when I was done working for the day I would walk around Lviv taking pictures of the many churches and lovely buildings in this 800 year old city:
Lviv was part of Poland before WWII, then part of the USSR from 1945 until Independence in 1991. The entire city is full of lovely buildings and squares and hidden spots with quaint restaurants and places to see. There was an 8PM curfew, so the entire city closed early, but everything was open during the day.
There were many times when the War seemed far away and non-existent.
In mid-April of 2022 there where not that many missile attacks… but the air raid sirens were pretty common, this is what they sounded like:
For the rest of my life I’ll never hear this sound again without thinking of all the Ukrainian people who died in these senseless attacks. It’s a haunting sound, especially when 4 or 5 sirens start sounding off in the distance… echoing off the buildings.
Putin is a real bastard, and I hope him and his military leaders die a horrible death for what they’ve done to the innocent civilians in Ukraine and Syria.
There will be a reckoning.
Lviv is in Western Ukraine, 40 kilometers from the Polish border to the west. For this reason Lviv was safer then the cities in the eastern part of the country like Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson or Mariupol.
When I got to Ukraine in early April the Russians had already been pushed out of Kyiv (the first true Russian defeat) and the atrocities of Bucha were revealed in the days that followed.
Any student of history knows that Russian soldiers raped and murdered German civilians after Germany lost WWII, and the sad thing is how the Russian military leadership encouraged their soldiers to do the same in this conflict, even awarding medals to soldiers who committed war crimes in Bucha.
Both BBC and CNN had very accurate coverage of this conflict, with reporters on the ground in very dangerous places across Ukraine. Certainly this conflict has been recorded extensively, by drone cameras, by victims, by soldiers and the news media as well.
My plane ticket to Warsaw spanned April 3 to April 30th, so I decided to visit a friend over in Germany for my last week in Europe. Pastor Prokip drove me to the Polish border, and on that same MORNING Russian missiles fell on Lviv and killed 7 people. The area that was hit was on the same street I would use to walk to the volunteer center every morning….
This church was very close to the missile attacks.
Sunset over the Lviv train station… another site that was bombed in the weeks after I was there.
Other than raising the $12,000 for the church van I don’t know that my trip made any difference whatsoever, but I’m so glad I went there, I’m grateful to have become friends with Volodymyr Prokip and the people in his church, I’m glad I met Vika and the other folks at the volunteer center…
My parents and the folks at Harvester Methodist Church prayed for me, and I think that helped.
When I got back it was amazing to see everyone again.
I felt grateful to be alive. I trusted God, and He brought me back safe, to share this story.
It was a leap of Faith to step away from my work for a month and go to Ukraine.
We are so fortunate to live in a country that is safe and insulated from war.
I felt called to go, and it was the right thing to answer that call.
Before I went to Ukraine I was writing my 3rd book, and going there and having this experience helped me develop some of the ideas for that next project. If I don’t write much on this blog in the next few months, it’s because I’m using that material for my book.
I had some adventures in Poland and Germany, but that is for another blog post yet to be written!
All that mileage on the tires is really starting to show… my chassis was stamped in 1974…..
Got three solar appointments today, 2nd appointment is out in Highlands County FL…. way out in the boonies. Most folks take off on their birthday, but I like selling solar and fer sure I’m closing at least one deal today, making a few shekels.
I like to work. Being productive makes me happy.
Mom and Dad are having me over for dinner, and I’m fasting all day, so dinner will be awesome… my brother George (newly retired from the federal government) will be there, along with his son, a track star down at University of Tampa.
I’m proud of my brother, for his successful career… and also for the fact that he raised a son who is an accomplished athlete, great student, and all around nice young man.
If I had a son I would have wanted him to turn out like my nephew.
God forbid if I had a son and he was a maniac like me…. oy!
A week ago I was watching some news about the Ukraine invasion… so I bought a round trip ticket to Warsaw and decided to volunteer with the International Red Cross.
Still working out the details on this trip, but the first step was to just take action and buy the ticket.
My daughters are grown up, I got no pets, no wife… and the Navy SEAL who runs Tampa Bay Solar, Steve Rutherford, has given me his blessing.
When I told him about the trip he said “You’ll have plenty of work when you get back.”
That’s all I needed to hear.
My daughters are mad at me for putting myself in danger, so I have to get back home safe to them, and I will.
Perhaps they don’t understand that I need to do this, on many levels.
I can’t imagine staying home, just selling solar, knowing that I could have gone over and contributed, in some way.
I’ll write about the experience, of course.
Got a brand new Samsung phone that takes stellar pics, so there’s that.
Back in 2018 I bought a cheap phone with a crappy camera… this new phone is a huge leap in technology, the camera is just astounding.
I’m finally slogging through my third book, the Ukraine / Poland trip might just be a chapter in the book… or it might be an entire book on its own. Like the first 2 books I’ll self publish. I just got a royalty check from Amazon for $13!
I have no idea who is buying my first 2 books.
That’s my Claire on the cover of my first book, she was 14 at the time… the little girl is the daughter of the local photographer who took the pic.
Sometimes you have to go where you feel called.
In 1995 I booked a one way plane ticket to Taiwan and everyone in my life thought I was nutz, but I came back in one piece… and Claire and Grace would NOT have existed if I had not gone there, met Rachel, etc. etc.
God has a plan here, I have no idea where this will lead.