Walking Amongst Giants

Many of you who have kept up on my blog posts and who have gone further to check out my website, www.patriotimages.org, know that I am now heading into the second year of a project titled, “Faces of Veterans.”

The project, now turned into more of a journey, is focused on traveling across New York State and photographing as many of the 838,000 military veterans living within the state. Last year, over the span of ten months, we traveled to nine different NY counties and photographed approximately 1300 veterans and their guests. It has made a tremendous impact not only on the veterans and their families, but on me as well. So much, that I decided to pick it back up in 2020 and label it “Season Two.”

During Season Two, I am taking some of the feedback I received in 2019. Many viewers of the project expressed their interest in getting to know the veterans more personally. So this year, through the use of audio and video interviews, as well as photos, I am focusing on the more personal side of veterans and their lives.

Today was the first of what I hope to be many interviews. I met with a ninety-six year old WWII veteran named Mario in Lake George, NY. Mario was drafted after Pearl Harbor and became an Army medic. He spent eleven long months in Germany before returning home to his family. One of the things that I took away from today was his statement about why he joined.

“After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we had to do something. We couldn’t let this happen again. There wasn’t a man in my age group at the time who didn’t want to do whatever they could so this wouldn’t happen again.”

Mario “Doc” Mazzeo, WWII Veteran, United States Army

We live, breathe, and walk amongst giants. Mario’s generation, coined “The Greatest Generation,” is sadly a generation of brave American men who are passing away. There aren’t a lot of them left. Just several weeks ago, fighting infection, Mario was sent home from the hospital under hospice care. Thanks to his family by his side, his strong will to keep going, and his perseverance, Mario was full of energy and humor this afternoon when we spent a few hours together in his home.

Mario (left) and myself (right)

May God bless our men and women in uniform. May we never forget their sacrifices and their service to this great nation. May we honor them, their legacy, and forever remember that freedom is always a generation away from extinction.

Thank you Mario and family for such a great afternoon, for allowing me into your home, and sending me home a rich man with a full heart.

What is, a “Traveling Man?”

“One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more.”

Thomas Jefferson

I, like most people, enjoy traveling. Since my days in the military, I haven’t traveled to a foreign country; but I enjoy traveling within the United States, and even here at home within New York State. I enjoy traveling with my family, but there’s something about traveling alone that really clears the mind and refreshes the soul.

Most of the local traveling I do is during the months when snow and ice isn’t slowing me down and limiting me to distance. I enjoy driving up into the Adirondack Mountains, taking a scenic drive along Lake Champlain into Ticonderoga, along the back roads of Saratoga and Washington Counties, and occasionally crossing the border into neighboring Vermont. If it’s a nice cool day, I enjoy the windows down and breathing in the country air.

Many probably come to this site because they’re looking for travel photos and a blog about traveling to different destinations. Oh, but a man or woman can be a traveler, even if they never board a plane. You can be quite the extensive traveler and never leave your own home. Destinations don’t always have to be places that flash across a screen in an airport, or cities and towns printed on a sign on the side of a highway. They don’t have to be white, sandy beaches or snowcapped mountains.

I travel on a weekly basis and seldom leave my local area. Sometimes the most worthwhile trips are the ones where I’m alone. Many of my greatest trips where I discover the most, are done without leaving my house.

Like Thomas Jefferson stated, one who journey’s alone spends more time reflecting. I spend a lot of time in thought; thinking about the present and also the things to come. While I believe I have no control over tomorrow, I am convinced there are things I can do to help shape it. I can do my best this very moment to live a decent life, to love those around me, to be kind to both stranger and friend, show compassion, be humble, and more.

What is, a “traveling man?” In my case, it’s a person who is always exploring; not just the world around them, but also within themselves. It’s a person who is always moving forward, never desiring to go backwards and having to retrace their steps. It’s a person who is on a constant journey to be better tomorrow than they are today.

Travel wisely my friends.

Friends

“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.”

Dalai Lama

It’s been somewhat of a rough start to the new year. I am sure many can relate because life continues and things happen, regardless of the pages of a calendar turning. As I have written in previous posts, you can’t experience true joy unless you know true sorrow.

I have been trying to think over the past several days on how I was going to write this. I’ve laid awake in bed, wishing I could fall into a deep sleep, but continuously reminded of past memories; many of them 20+ years old. I lost a friend last week. Sure, I’ve lost many people in my life over the years, but this one just feels so much different. Taken too soon for many of us here left behind, God must have considered his work here complete and called him home. The death of my friend is a harsh but valuable reminder that life is so short and we only have one shot to get it right.

I want to talk about Matt a little bit and share some memories. When I have been laying in bed unable to fall asleep, scrolling through social media and seeing a photo of him and his wife, or just thinking about his untimely death, I am reminded of so many funny memories. I’m reminded of how we used to bike ride around the area we grew up, he would stop and show me all the local “haunted” houses. We would stand there on the side of the road hoping that something creepy would happen. It never did and on we went. I’m reminded of the trails we use to cut in the woods, and how he once pointed out an American Indian burial ground. I remember watching professional wrestling with him and we would pretend we were the wrestlers. I recall his love for CB radios, how he introduced me to them, and how he took me to meet people I only knew from the airwaves. One of the funniest memories I have is when he went camping with my Dad and I in Indian Lake, NY. In the middle of the night my Dad woke us up and said there was a black bear outside the tent. Matt woke up startled and shouted, “Ooooh! Ooooh! Ooooh!” I don’t know if he thought there was a bear in the tent.

Matt was always a bit crazy. He was fun to hang out with. Matt was also one of the only friends I’ve ever had growing up that would give you the shirt of his back. Yeah, we all know nice people. Generous people. Matt went beyond that. He was genuinely a nice person.

A couple of years ago when I retired from the Air Force, I moved back to my hometown, and Matt and I connected a few times. Busy schedules and families of our own didn’t allow us the time to see each other often, but when we did, it was like I had never left the area. We had grown up but there was always the silly jokes and phrases we used to say as teenagers. One night when my wife and I were having dinner at a local restaurant, Matt walked in to pick up dinner for his family. He saw my wife and I sitting there and paid for our entire meal. That’s just who Matt was.

I had the opportunity to take family photos for him within the past couple of years. As you can imagine, from what I’ve already written, the shenanigans continued for two and half hours while taking his family’s pictures. It was a great time and good for the soul. That’s who Matt was.

Matt passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-two.

Fly high Matt. Thank you for your friendship, the laughs, and great memories you left so many with. You will be missed and I look forward to seeing you again.

Who Am I? Part 1

Sitting in church recently, the pastoral staff spoke about identity. Some of the examples they gave sent me wandering down a rabbit hole of thoughts as I wondered who I am. What is my identity in this life?

We know life is short. Our childhood years pass by so quickly, and then we are thrust into the world of a young adult; going to school or working (sometimes both), and then BOOM!, we are adults with responsibilities. We quickly find ourselves with families, full-time jobs, bills, struggles, and serious decisions with serious consequences attached to them. For most of our lives we get into a rhythm of going to work, managing a home, raising a family, and the years fly by. By the time it is all over with and we realize how quickly it all seemed to come and go, we find ourselves with gray hairs (or no hair), a body that creeks and cracks with every step, and we are planning our final years of life. Life is short.

Who am I? That’s the question I have asked myself so many times before, but as 2020 approaches, I ask myself again; this time more seriously. Who do I really want to be as I go into this new year? I realize on February 1st, I will turn that age that most people (including myself), cringe at. The big 4-0. I’m not looking forward to it and it is a big reminder that life passes us by so quickly. Will it bring a midlife crisis? Who knows. But what I do know is that it is causing me to think deeper into many things. Who am I?

Last year I was on the brink of beginning a new adventure that took me through nine different New York State counties, where I photographed over thirteen hundred military veterans along with their families and/or guests. It was a journey that put me on the front page of a couple local newspapers and in front of television cameras. It was an adventure that was not only therapeutic for me, but for so many people I met. It’s an understatement for me to say I met some of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Here I am however on the eve of a new year and I am thinking what adventures will take place this coming year.

When I go certain places, I am often met by comments like, “Hey, you’re that guy traveling New York and taking pictures of veterans,” or, “Hey, I saw you on television.” How do I want to be greeted this new year? When I sit here at this computer a year from now, Lord willing, what incredible journey do I want to be writing about? With as much control as I may have over this next calendar year, what do I want to seal in the history books of my life? Ask yourself this same question today. This is the final day of 2019 and a new year will begin as a new day; inevitable and with a clean slate.

As far as my answer, you’ll have to wait until next year. See you tomorrow for Part 2!

What is Your Life’s Motto?

I have been thinking about this recently and asking myself this exact same question. Truthfully, everything I have written about up to this point, is straight from me and my thoughts. Continuing on with that trend, I must say that I spend a significant amount of time reflecting on life and the people in my life. How can I be a better husband, a better father, a son who makes his parents proud, a better friend, a better photographer, and an all around better person? These are all things I brainstorm quite often!

What is my life’s motto? What will be written, visibly or invisibly, on my tombstone? When I was in the military, we were always told to leave our current duty station “better than we found it.” It always sounded so cliche when I heard it, but it really has taken on a lot more meaning to me personally; more than it did the dozens of times I heard it in the past.

My goal in life is simple. Leave this earth better than I found it. Leave my small community better than I found it. Leave my friends and family better. Every single day, strive to end the day better than I started it. Is it that simple?

I stumble a lot. It happens. I mess up, fall into a ravine of self pity, and eventually climb and pull myself out. Of course it isn’t simple, but it’s not unattainable. I pick small things, like writing a blog or making a podcast, that somehow might impact someone else. I give a photo away that means a lot to me but more to others. I send a message to someone that might feel abandoned. We have all been there. I choose to respond with kindness to those who may not deserve it in that moment. We have all been there as well.

Bottom line, I make a conscious decision daily, despite my own shortcomings and failures, to make today better than yesterday. To be a better version of me than I was yesterday. To make those moments of reflection moments I can smile about and not moments I’m ashamed and afraid to confront.

I just try and be better and hold myself accountable to that.