Over the course of many weeks, I’ll be sharing truths from Magnet Ass and the Stone-Cold Truck Hunters––not only the truths that came to me through the book-writing process, but also those that shined through the life of a simple farmer and war hero, who trusted God with all his heart. "Magnet Ass" and Al Milacek are one in the same. He didn't choose the nickname; it was given to him by crew members in Vietnam who often wondered out loud, "How come we get shot at every time we fly with Al?" Leaders and innovators and men and women who hold fast to their beliefs will always attract flak. The truths found in this blog and in the book, will make the journey more bearable. This is “Magnet Ass” explained as simply as I can.
Read other posts in this series: #MagnetAss
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Magnetic Wisdom #2:
Significance has more to do with our souls than our accomplishments.
Magnet Ass got old overnight, and nobody saw it coming. One day, he was six-feet tall, the next he was Yoda, tiny and wrinkled and broken down by esophageal cancer. He wore his age like men wear clothing, unaware of creases and stains. But he never talked bad about the aging process.
Early in the writing of, Magnet Ass, I saw the parallel between the “old man” and his “old plane”, and in my notes I drew stars around the discovery. A model of the C-119 squatted on the hutch in Al’s dining room, just over his shoulder at the head of the table. Thus, when I sat to Al’s left at supper, my views of the dumpy plane that no one liked and the deteriorating colonel whom everyone had forgotten merged into one view and became a major theme in the book. I knew I was writing about more than war. I was writing about the war within––the war between who a man is and who he thinks others want him to be. It is a bloody battle for significance.
The Roman word for significance was “signum ficare”, which means “to make a sign.” We are all sign-makers whether we know it or not. A man speaks, and a sign is erected. He swallows dryly, and a sign that he’s afraid jumps out of his throat. He cocks his eyebrow at a colleague’s comment, and up springs a sign that tells an onlooker he considers himself more clever than everyone else in the room. It is impossible not to make signs–– good or bad–– and, therefore, it is impossible not to be significant. One wonders, then, what all the battling is about.
I’ll try to explain.
A man’s battle for significance began long ago in the Garden of Eden. On the heels of Adam’s sin, God pronounced a curse that has echoed ever since. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” said God, “And all the days of your life it will produce nothing but thorns and thistles for you.” In this curse, we find the genesis of Man’s internal struggle. It was as if God had said to him, “Adam, you used to find all your significance in Me. It was enough for you to walk in the cool of the garden each evening, holding my hand and talking with me. Now that you’ve sinned, you will replace Me with your job and you will try to find your significance in the things you do. Unfortunately, this will leave you feeling dry and thorny, and it will not go as you had planned.” This battle plays itself out every day in the heart of every man who ever lived.
Us men may not care about what we wear, but we care deeply about the work we do, sometimes so much so that we become the work we do. This is a heavy cloak, one that young men can wear for years. Old men, however, have worn it too long and are tired of wearing it. Still, we’re afraid to take it off. To do so would be to undress ourselves in public. We are naked without our work, we tell ourselves. So, we trudge on toward exhaustion, heated up and boiled down by our toil, until we’re barely a recognizable reduction of the men we were meant to be.
Men think of work as if it were a god. We ask much of this god and we toil for its blessing. When work is gracious to us, we rejoice. When work disappoints us, we are angry at it. We detach ourselves, become lazy, apathetic, sullen, even agnostic toward our occupations. Eventually, we seek out new work. Like church-hoppers, we search for the perfect workplace in which to worship our new god. The cycle begins again. All of this is idolatry.
By the time I met Magnet Ass, he had long been retired, his ribbons, plaques, and commendations closeted away in high, dusty corners. He refused to be called, “Captain”, or “Colonel”, or even “sir”. What he wanted most was to be called “Al”, and to be known as someone’s friend or brother. The young fighter pilots who took off everyday from Vance AFB, a few miles north of Al’s farmhouse, had no idea they were flying over the home of a legend––one whose name was on a trophy that sits in the Smithsonian Institute. They couldn’t have cared less. Al could not have cared less either. We were weeks into our quiet conversations by his picture window before he even mentioned the Mackay. As he talked, I listened to the clock ticking, watched the birds coming and going, eyed the fallow field waiting for seed to be dropped into its soft, red belly, and all of this the perfect picture of non-production. We conducted our interviews in splendid anonymity.
The fact I was out of a job when I interviewed Al and wrote Magnet Ass formed the appropriate backdrop to a theme like significance. Had I been employed at the time, unfamiliar with the rasping effect of leisure, I might still have written Al’s story, but it would have been hollow, free of meaning. Only a knife dragged repeatedly across stone will ever drive its point home. So it was with me that I needed to come in contact with sheer boredom before I realized the main point of the story I was writing. And here is the point…
The things we do don’t define us; they reveal the One who made us.
When a man truly believes he is God’s workmanship and that he is created to do preordained works during his life, suddenly everything he does seems significant. From kissing his wife in the morning, to hiring an employee at noon, to paying the bills before he goes to bed, all of this is holy and meaningful. Sometimes the man is rewarded for his work with a raise, or a company promotion, or… a trophy for flying his plane on one wing over enemy territory and delivering his crew members safely home to their barracks. But at other times, the raise goes by the wayside, the promotion goes to someone else, and the plane goes up in flames. The question remains…
When these difficulties become realities, does a man’s significance go up in flames too?
Magnet Ass would say, “That’s nonsense, boy.” Then I would look at the sagging skin on his arms and the age-spots under his puffy, old eyes, and I would see a smile beginning to form at the corners of his once handsome mouth. And it would be a sign to me. And the sign would read…
“You are significant, Will. And I am significant. And this moment we have together right here and now is very, very significant.”
Some signs lead us home.