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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Honoring Uncle Max on a long, difficult trek through the desert
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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Honoring Uncle Max on a long, difficult trek through the desert

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Cindy Lange-Kubick has loved writing columns about life in her hometown since 1994. She had hoped to become a people person by now, nonetheless she would love to hear your tales of fascinating neighbors and interesting places.

Crystal Olsen does a practices walk near her home for the upcoming Bataan Death March Memorial marathon.

Steve Loftis set off with Uncle Max early Thursday morning.

The Lincoln man left his home on Jade Court at 5 a.m., wearing combat boots and camo and a weighted rucksack, the start of a 26.2-mile trek along south Lincoln trails in honor of Max Lockhart, the uncle he never knew.

A mile away, his neighbor and training buddy, Pat Driver, waited in the dark with a cowbell and a blast of ’80s rock to send him on his way.

He was back on Jade Court at 10:46 a.m. with that bell, ringing Loftis home.

Six months of training and another Bataan Memorial Death March marathon in the books — this one virtual — in memory of Pfc. Max Lockhart, forever 23.

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* * *

Loftis grew up in Tekamah, like his Uncle Max before him.

It was a patriotic town, the 69-year-old said Monday. A proud American town.

Loftis believed in serving, too. He joined the Air Force after high school. He became an Army helicopter pilot. He spent four years in active duty and served for more than three decades afterward, mostly in the Nebraska National Guard.

“The military has more to do with who I am than any other aspect of my life,” he said. “And as I developed my military understanding, Max became more of a question mark in my history. Who was he? How do I get to know him?”

The VFW in Tekamah is named for Lockhart and a pair of classmates who joined the Army and shipped out to the Philippines after basic training.

Three Nebraska soldiers out of more than 60,000 American and Filipino troops who were captured when the Japanese took the Bataan Peninsula on April 9, 1942.

The soldiers were forced to march through the jungle in the stifling heat to prison camps 65 miles away.

Many died on the days-long march, sickened by malaria, beaten by the Japanese, a torturous trek that would earn the title Bataan Death March.

Hundreds more — including Lockhart and his Tekamah classmates — died in Japanese POW camps.

Loftis heard about the memorial march at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the early ’90s.

But he was busy then. Being a dad, working his civilian job as a comptroller and serving in the guard as command chief warrant officer.

Then, in 2009, he retired from the military and three years later, he retired from his civilian job and put on a rucksack and started to train.

He’d long been a marathon runner. He helped start the Nebraska Guard involvement in the Lincoln Marathon and served as team captain the first two years.

He was naturally competitive. A guy who liked to push himself and his body.

And he knew a little about Lockhart, his mother’s brother.

He knew Max came from a big family. He knew his loved ones called him Sam, although he didn’t know why. He knew his uncle had played high school football. That he was strong. And he guessed that times were hard in Burt County when he enlisted in the Army.

“I’m suspecting he joined because there was no other way to make a living.”

Loftis spent the fall and winter of 2012 training for his first march.

He found a photograph in his aunt’s family album. Max, the high school senior, smiling for the camera, his head tilted, wearing a white shirt and a polka-dot tie.

He digitized it, made a copy, pinned it to the back of his rucksack and set off for New Mexico.

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* * *

He kept going back.

Two years ago, shoulder surgery stopped him.

And last year, the pandemic canceled the march altogether.

Loftis competes in what’s called the heavy military division of the march, making the 26.2-mile trek in full combat gear, carrying 35 pounds on his back.

Training starts in October, six months before the early April event.

He’s out the door at 5 a.m., wearing long, khaki pants, something on his head, gloves, combat boots.

He’s getting his feet ready. Strengthening the muscles, building up calluses.

He starts with an empty pack and an 8-mile walk down Old Cheney Road.

He slowly builds. He adds miles and weight to the rucksack. Clothing and water bottles. Lead weights.

He cross-trains. Swimming, weightlifting, running. If it’s icy, he heads to Madonna Proactive to work out inside.

He prefers the fresh air.

“Four or five hours on the treadmill is deadly,” he says.

Seven years ago, Driver, his neighbor with the cowbell, started training with him.

“I remember thinking, ‘You’re walking a marathon? What’s the big deal?'” Driver said. “Biggest understatement on the planet.”

Eventually, they traveled to New Mexico together, competing in their age divisions. Sometimes winning them.

He understands the physical challenge of carrying that pack, trudging in those boots through the desert.

And he’s in awe of his neighbor, a generation older.

“He’s a testament to what a lifetime of physical fitness can do,” Driver said. “And more than anything, he has conditioned his mind to overcome what his body says it can’t do.”

In 2019, when Loftis was sidelined by shoulder surgery, Driver went alone, Uncle Max on the back of his pack.

This year, organizers offered a virtual version.

It was lonely those first miles, Loftis said

A buddy from Madonna — 77-year-old Dick Waller — joined Loftis for the final 12 miles.

His wife, Linda, was there to greet Loftis at the end of the march — a personal best time of 5 hours and 46 minutes in the relative ease of the Nebraska plains.

“I had the whole day ahead of me.”

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* * *

Uncle Max urges him on.

“Max always helps me through the last few miles in New Mexico because they are tough. We’re a team, and knowing he and I are doing it together helps.”

It’s hard to explain, he says.

The same way it’s hard to describe the memorial march.

The temperature in the desert. The pre-dawn cold, followed by oppressive heat. Relentless sun.

The terrain, most of it sand, sometimes deep. Steep inclines and treacherous downhills. Fierce winds.

The reason that thousands travel to the desert.

“After I did that first one in March 2013, that’s when Bataan really embedded itself in my brain, and I could appreciate the role Max played in that event.”

The march is just a piece of the three-day gathering in New Mexico. There are movies about the war and the death march. Question-and-answer sessions. Survivors from all over the country, fewer and fewer each year.

Loftis has met some of them.

“They could have been the last handful of people who ever knew my uncle.”

It’s a great history lesson, Loftis says.

“I’d like to see more people know about it. It’s good for people to remember that the sacrifices that people made so we could have the existence we have now.”

Driver felt it, too.

On the morning of the march, there’s a 30-minute pre-race sendoff.

The sun is rising, and the desert is still.

Soldiers are standing at attention. A Filipino delegation is there. American soldiers, too. Wounded warriors.

Young soldiers, veterans.

They start to call roll. Survivors. Those who perished.

He can see his friend and neighbor in the throng. Wearing his heavy pack with a black-and-white photo attached to the back, showing its wear after so many miles.

“He’s standing in front of me at attention, and he’s honoring his Uncle Max.”

Cindy Lange-Kubick: ‘What’s worse, dying of COVID, or dying of loneliness?’

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK

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Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick has loved writing columns about life in her hometown since 1994. She had hoped to become a people person by now, nonetheless she would love to hear your tales of fascinating neighbors and interesting places.

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