Friday, September 23, 2011

Sledding, Innocent Beginnings

In my memory, my childhood is broken down into three sections. In many ways, these are three different people that seem almost strangers to each other, yet all of their memories are mine. The first are the early years that ended when we moved to Bemidji. These memories are spotty and disjointed, but the ones I still recall are very strong. The next phase is when we moved to Bemidji the summer I turned five until the divorce when I was eleven. The final stage starts after the divorce in the final months of the 6th grade, until I joined the Army 25 days after I graduated High School.
While the months leading up to the divorce were the worst of my young life, most of my time at the house on Lake Plantagenet was wonderful. We were only about eight miles outside of town, but in the 1970's for a kid under eleven, we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by more acres of woods than we could explore and had a lake and river within walking distance.
What made that time even more special, were my friends. Tom Wilson was a year older and his brother Dan was a year younger. They had two younger sisters, Becky and Sally that we would harass from time to time. The three of us were inseparable and this is a story about one of our favorite pastimes, sledding.
The Wilsons lived right across the road from us. Their house was on a steep hill that overlooked the lake. That hill was perfect for sledding and every winter we spent the majority of our time doing just that.
The bank of the lake was between three and four feet above the water, which made for a cool jump onto the ice at the end of our run. When the snow was thick on the lake, it was like hitting a pillow. When it was wind swept, it felt like our vertebra was being compressing. Of course, that didn't stop us. But as we got older, the hill lost some of it's power to thrill, and the three of us came up with more elaborate death defying games to feed our need for adrenalin. One such attempt was on their long wooden toboggan. It was large enough for all three of us, but it wasn't a sled you could steer. You had to aim it and hope for the best. Under normal circumstances, that would be fine, but of course, that was too boring for us. We took it about one hundred yards into the woods parallel to their house and aimed it downhill. Then we climbed in, said our feeble prayers and pretended we weren't scared so the other two wouldn't think less of us.
I read years later about phenomenon called Groupthink. This was a classic example. We pulled our legs in and pushed off. The sled was slow at first because of the deep untouched snow. My fear turned into disappointment as it seemed we wouldn't even get started let alone get up to dangerous speed. We rocked back and forth, digging our hands into the snow trying to get down to solid ground for purchase.
Without warning, gravity overcame the surface tension, and we went from grunting incremental frustration to an express freight train headed straight for hell via large trees that sprung in front of us so suddenly, we didn't have time to scream.
Tom yelled out instructions from the front and we tried to comply, shifting our weight right or left to avoid a head on collision. We bounced off the side of a couple of larger trees and went straight over the top of some brush all the while picking up speed. I was sure we were dead meat when finally we were through the trees and shooting up the ramp shaped bank. There was a feeling of weightlessness and we all had time to look around as we sailed through the air above the snow free ice.
Tom tensed. He seemed to have figured out what I hadn't. The bank on that section of the hill was a couple feet higher than where we normally sledded, and the solid wood toboggan had no shock absorption. We hit flat and hard on the ice. Pain shot up my spine and I saw stars. Momentum carried us a good twenty feet and then we came to a stop. I fell to my right trying to catch the wind that had been knocked out of me.
Still, we were all smiling like idiots as we stood up and looked back at the path we'd taken. Groupthink or not, we all decided that once was definitely enough.
The rest of the year, we stuck to our normal hill that lead down to where their dock was located in the summer. It was a well-worn path and plenty fast, especially in the early spring when the snow would melt a little during the day and freeze into a nice ice coating as the sun headed for the western horizon. Of course, once the ice started melting on the lake, we were supposed to stop sledding down the hill. After all, shooting down a hill directly toward a receding sheet of ice in March was not safe or particular wise.
Yeah you guessed it. We didn't just try it, but we soon created a sled version of chicken. We wanted to see which one of us could get the closest to the end of the ramp shaped bank without bailing off. To make it more interesting, we were using their metal discs because they were faster on ice and supposedly easier to bail off. It was getting dark and we'd all gone down twice. As you might expect, we ditched very early at first, but then we got gutsier, not wanting to bail inside the last person's mark.
I was wearing a pair of knitted mittens my grandmother had made me. We were all a little soaked from the melting snow, and it was getting cold as the sun sunk deeper. The sky looked like it was on fire as the sun eased behind the lazy clouds that dotted the sky like rows of white puffy tombstones. I gripped the two handles tight and swore I would beat Tom's mark. He'd bailed at the bottom of the hill, right before it started to go up again, barely three feet from open air. I gritted my teeth and shoved off. Each run, the surface became more ice than slush and my run was fast. I figured if I bailed right when I reached the bottom of the hill, my momentum would carry me past Tom's mark. Halfway down, my disc hit a bump and spun me around so I was going down the hill backwards. I couldn't see when to jump off and chickened out. I opened both of the hands and dove to my right.
Nothing happened. I was still sliding backwards and Tom was yelling something. My mittens, so caringly knitted with Grandma love, had frozen together, locking me to the handles. I was going to scream, but then I shot passed Tom's mark and was flying through the air as I had done countless times before. This time however, I didn't land on snow or ice, but skipped across the open water like a rock. One, two, three, then I was submerged as I fell back and the disc filled with water. I had just enough awareness to take a deep breath and I was under the surface and heading for the bottom. The water freed my frozen mittens, but my momentum and weight dropped me like an anchor.
I looked up as I sank and saw I had continued out as I went down and was now well under the shelf of ice. When I hit the silty bottom, I pushed away from the disc and tried to swim up to the surface. My water logged boots and coat held me down. I'd become disoriented and started heading the wrong way but I noticed it was black as death and I remembered the sun. I looked around and saw it was lighter to my left. I started to walk in that direction. I leaned forward and pushed with my legs as hard as I could, digging into the muck with my hands.
After an eternity, I was out from under the ice and there was light and open water above me. It was hard to think, but I knew I had to keep moving. A few more steps and my head broke the surface and I blew out hard and then sucked in the fresh sweet air. Tom and Dan were there to help me up the bank. I sat down to catch my breath.
"I'm sorry I lost your disc."
They weren't worried about the disc but we were all worried about getting caught. How in the hell were we going to hide this? I told them I would just head home and chances were good I could get past my mom and dad and into my room without being seen. Most times, I could do it. Dad would be watching TV and Mom would be making dinner. Half the time they never turned around when I came in. I thought my odds were pretty good. Tom and Dan looked dubious, but I was determined, so I started up the hill. From the edge of the lake to my front door, was about four hundred yards, mostly uphill. By the time I got to the end of the Wilson's driveway, I wasn't cold any more. I was sleepy, but not cold. It was full dark and my clothes had frozen hard. I couldn't bend my knees anymore and was forced to just shuffle ahead.
When I got close to my house, our front door opened and both my mom and my dad ran out toward me. I'd been in trouble before, but my dad had never run at me in order to give me a whipping. Instead of swatting my ass, he scooped me up like a sack of potatoes and took me inside. They were both chewing my ass but they also seemed scared. I'd never seen them like this and I thought I should be scared too, but I just didn’t care.
They finished stripping me naked and then they shoved me into a bathtub of what I thought was boiling hot water. I screamed and thrashed, begging them to let me out. My dad held me down. There were tears in my mom's eyes.
After another eternity of agony as all my nerves felt like they were on fire, they finally let me out and wrapped me in towels and rubbed me hard until I was completely dry. They explained that the water was room temperature. My dad had learned about frostbite and hypothermia in Kodiak Alaska when he was in the Coast Guard. Then they put me in bed with an electric heating pad and extra blankets. It was strange, but with all of those blankets and the pad, I felt cold for the first time since I'd left the lake. I shivered so hard I was sure I would shatter my teeth. It felt as if I would never be warm again. Sometime later, my dad said it was ok to let me sleep. I didn't think it would come, I still shook, but eventually it did. Before I drifted off, I heard them talking. Dad didn’t think I would lose any of my fingers or toes, but he would know for sure the next day if any of them turned black.
I dreamt of black, dead fingers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Billy and the AC, an EOD Adventure

Billy was his name. Come to think of it, Billy is still his name. A couple of years ago we reconnected on Facebook and I was shocked that he was still alive. He was a few years older than me and made partying a lifestyle. In an Army full of people one bubble off center, he was bat shit crazy. He was a musician, an orthodontic technician and several other things that I can't discuss due to statute of limitations.  I'd hoped he was still alive, but considered it a low probability with prison being a strong second to organ failure.
Billy Hays started sometime around 1986 at the 6oth EOD at Ft. Dix, NJ. We were told he was our clerk. He was a bit more, but that is a much longer and different story. He was also one of the most unique individuals I have ever met in all my days.
I haven't seen him except in photos since 1988, so my description may be a bit off. That's okay, because this blog is about memories, not exact facts. I remember Billy as being about 5'6", thin and wiry. He chain smoked as if he needed them to survive and drank beer like it was water. Billy was and still is from Mobile, Alabama.
Before I reconnected with him, my strongest memory was his laugh. It was infectious. He truly loved life and wanted to share the joy as often as possible. We hit it right off.
The 60th EOD had a maximum number of 14 members, and I think we often had only 12. There were only 3-4 of us single guys and we were all on the first floor of the same building. Army barracks are Spartan. These were brick cinder block, painted some baby puke yellow and had no light fixtures. The only light in those rooms came from lamps plugged into outlets. There were bunk beds and two lockers per room, though over time, I ended up being the only one with a roommate, despite the fact that I was a sergeant. Of course Specialist Billy fucking Hayes had a private room across the hall.
The Army is a strange place. They have rules that defy logic and in some cases seem to be created intentionally to contradict logic. One such rule dealt with heating. There was no air conditioning in the barracks, but there were heaters. Regardless of what the weather conditions were, the Army in its infinite wisdom decided they would set dates for when the heat came on in the winter and when it turned off in the summer. It didn't matter to the officers in charge that it often got extremely cold before the start date, any more than it mattered that often times in the spring, it would get too hot outside for boiler operated heaters to continue to run. The dates were the dates, period.
The lack of air conditioning was especially cruel in the months of July and August. One of Billy's favorite stories of me was when he found me one day, sitting in front of a computer in my underwear, dripping sweat into an increasingly large pool on the floor. I was playing one of the first PC computer games and I was hooked. I had the window wide open and a fan going full tilt, but 95 degrees with 90% humidity is going to just plain suck.
One day that first summer, I heard from another soldier that he'd been to a place about an hour away that sold used air conditioners for less than fifty bucks. I asked Billy if he wanted to come along. He said sure and off we went. About ten minutes into our trip and I heard the very distinct sounds of a bottle being opened. My head spun hard to my right and there was Billy, drinking an ice cold bottle of beer. He looked at me and smiled.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"Drinking a beer, Gus, want one."
"No, I don’t fucking want one. I don’t drink and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it in a moving vehicle in the state of New Jersey."
We then got into a debate over the legalities and I informed him that not only would I lose my license, but I would then get busted down to slick sleeve private.  He considered the people that made such laws "savages". At that time, drivers in Alabama and Texas could have beer in their hand as they drove, with a rifle on the rack behind them.
He finished it fast and chucked the empty out the window.
"What am I supposed to do with the rest of them?" He asked, displaying three more bottles, the amount he estimated needed for the one hour round trip.
I told him to hold on to them and we would put them in the trunk when we got to our destination. He then proceeded to take out a cigarette and a lighter.
"Nope. Not in my car you don't."
"Jesus Christ, Scott. First I can't drink, now I can’t smoke? What the FUCK?!"
He only called me Scott when he was pissed, all other times, I was "Gus". I gave him the stink eye, and he rolled down the window. I wasn't sure what he was going to do, but I wasn't prepared for him to lean out at over 60 miles per hour and smoke. Sure, it took him awhile to light it, but he managed. I wasn't sure if he was really that angry, or if it was just the wind disporting his features, but either way, he didn't look happy. From that day on, if we went somewhere we took his car.
We got to the place just as a column of vehicles was leaving. All the drivers had Ft. Dix stickers on their windshields and they had picked over the less expensive inventory. Only two larger and more expensive units remained. I looked them over and asked the man how much they were. $65 bucks for either unit was the answer. I had exactly $50 dollars left until payday, which was only a two days away.
"Billy, do you suppose I could borrow $15 dollars from you."
"Sorry Gus, no can do."
I told the man I'd have to pass and without skipping a beat, Billy said, "I'll take one!"
He broke out a wad of cash and paid the man. The window unit was almost as big as Billy.
"Do me a favor, Gus and help me load this big mother into your trunk."
I was too stunned to react, so I picked up the other end and loaded up the unit. We couldn’t close the trunk and had to tie it down. We got back to the barracks and he needed help getting in the room and into HIS window. I went back to my room that was even hotter than when I left and stripped back down to my undies, sweat dripping into an ever growing pool.
About two hours later, there was a knock on my door.
"Jesus Christ, Gus, it's cold in there. Can I borrow some long johns from you? You could hang beef in there. I don't even need to ice my beer."
It was times like that that allowed me to live with the guilt of duct taping him a foot off the ground to a pole in the boiler room that was situated facing the street out from of the 60th EOD. What are friends for?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lemon Bars, A Tale of Misspent Youth

My wife asked me a while ago how I was doing. It was a beautiful summer day and I was at the grill flipping burger and cooking brats. I didn't put a lot of thought into my answer but I meant what I said.
"Baby, as long as there aren't wheels on my house or crackers in my burger, I'm good."
That sums up my view of success. I want to make sure my children are never hungry and they have a stable home with stairs on the inside and no wheels on the outside.
After my parents divorced, my dad moved to the south side of town and we moved to a trailer court on the north end of the lake. My mom knew that she would be trapped working crap jobs the rest of her life unless she got a degree, so she went back to school. She also worked a crappy job. I was a latchkey kid at 12 before I'd ever heard the term.
Money was very tight. Paydays happened, as they often do, every two weeks. By the end of those two weeks, there were times when the cupboards were bare and the fridge was empty. We were around $5,000 under the poverty line and one day my mom sat me down and asked me if I thought we should take welfare. We could get money and food stamps. I could tell that she hated the idea and even though I was not quite a teenager, I had been raised by a man that didn't believe in asking for help to do things you could do for yourself. I told her no. I told her I could work and she seemed relieved. She also told me it would be hard. She was right.
There were two exceptions to our decision not to take a hand out. The first was free lunches at school. I got a pink meal card instead of the blue ones other families bought with cash. During the school year, that one meal made a huge difference and I would often stay late and take advantage of the seconds that were offered at the end of mealtime. Most often these seconds were burgers or pizza, and on rare magical days, there were pizza burgers.
The other exception was butter and cheese. This was a program started by Reagan. The cheese came in five-pound blocks, and the butter in one-pound squares. Each family that qualified got one of each per month. I would like to believe that their choice of distribution locations was unconscious. I would like to but I just can't. They handed out the free cheese and butter at a building right next to Paul and Babe. We waited in a long line that stretched into the parking lot next to the main road that ran north and south through the town. People that didn’t need the free dairy handout would stare and sometimes honk, pointing. I hated that line, but I loved the cheese. I still have occasional cravings.
For those of you that are too young to remember, the recession back in the late 70's and early 80's was a real ball buster. We also had gas shortages and a long line of cars at the gas station was a common site, even in Bemidji. Those were scary times in America and the first major wake up call we'd had since before WWII.
That summer, I got my first job. It was at a restaurant washing dishes. I started off working mostly weekends, but got up to forty hours a week by the time I was fifteen. They didn't have a machine, and all dishes had to go through three large stainless steal sinks, the first with a harsh cleanser, then a rinse and finally plain water. My hands peeled down to the meat from the cleanser and I always smelled like a combination of detergent and grease. I would get a meal and minimum wage, which wasn't too shabby.  Still, there were times, especially during the week in the summers, were food got a bit scarce.
Those were the days when I would visit Bill's house around lunchtime. Bill's was a regular hang out regardless of the time of day and I don't remember ever making a conscious choice to go to Bill's in hopes of being fed. It wasn't a plan or a strategy. Or perhaps, I just wouldn’t admit it even to myself at the time.
There were no wheels on their house. It even had stairs, both up and down. That vision of "home", has stayed with me for the rest of my life and it is what I have tried to replicate for my family. We fall short of course, we aren't like Bill's mom, but even close is good enough. Bill's mother is one of the kindness, most generous women I have ever met. Her house was always meticulous and the overall sensation of her home was like being wrapped in a warm blanket of love. In retrospect, it's obvious that she knew about my situation. There are no secrets in a town like Bemidji, but she never let on that she knew and I'm pretty sure she never said anything to Bill.
It seemed that she was always baking or had just finished baking. There were always leftovers in the fridge along with fruit, snacks, cold cuts and Cranapple drink. The pantry was stuffed full of pasta, soups, crackers, cookies and chips. Bill's mom was always smiling, always welcoming and always offering me something to eat, especially her world famous lemon bars.
There was one small problem. Bill was not exactly appreciative of his friends coming over and eating his food. You see I wasn't the only one. Jason would also show up at opportune times. We seemed to be able to sense or perhaps we could smell the lemon bars from miles away.  Bill loved those bars more than life itself, as did we all. Resentment began to build, though it was never malevolent. Bill's mom insisted that he be a generous host even if she wasn't around, but she never said he couldn't play dirty. We all loved games, war games especially, and at some point, Bill invented his own game. The goal was simple. Find something that Jason and I didn’t like to eat. This wasn't a fast game, oh no. This was a strategy game that spanned years.
While he mounted his campaign to find food we would refuse, he tried to achieve smaller victories, some that succeeded and some that failed. It was common for him, to hide the tray of lemon bars. Like bloodhounds though, Jason and I could track the scent and find the tray. His love for Cranapple drink was legendary, and there was always a gallon jug in the refrigerator and a back up in the pantry.  His mom made it clear that he couldn't refuse our requests to share the tasty beverage, but she wasn't always in the room with us, and on those occasions, he would pull out a juice glass so small, that it was just the next size up from a shot glass. Then he would fill it just over halfway.
In the larger campaign, Jason was the first to fall. His Achilles heal was Raman noodles. Bill was not put off by his earlier failures. Instead, he evolved his tactics. He read the ingredients to Jason. They included pig intestine. Jason said "No thanks." And Bill smiled. Every time Jason came over near a mealtime after that, Bill made Raman noodles. He'd won his first round and I could tell by the look on his face the next time I showed up that he was sure he had the magic bullet to take me down too. I hadn't heard about Bill's victory and came over while he was preparing the noodles. He asked if I would like some.
He smiled and read the ingredients.
"Sounds yummy, serve em up."
It was a small loss, but he took it well, sure he was only one or two food choices away from finding my weakness. Two years later, and it was the summer after our senior year. I'd forgotten about the game and my mom and I were doing better financially. We still qualified for welfare, but we had figured out how to make ends meet and how to stretch the food budget. Our meals were basic, with cod and rice being a staple. When we splurged on burger, it was what is now called 80/20 with a higher fat count and even then only when it was on special. Those were also the days of cheaper generic brands and our house was filled with them, which is one of the reasons I love the 1984 movie Repo Man. A half-pound of burger, mixed with a lot of generic brand crackers, stretches into a pounds worth in size if not actually by weight or substance.
The point was, that I had made a tactical mistake in a strategy game that had lasted more than five years. I literally wasn't as hungry for victory and I'd gotten lazy to the point where I believed I’d already won the game and it was over. But it was never over for Bill. It was a day much like other days, except that I had about a month before I went off to basic training. It was lunchtime and with a resigned sigh, Bill offered to share his tomato soup with me.
"No thanks, I can't stand tomato soup."
He smiled, and there was a look in his eyes that I didn’t recognize. That is until I came over two days later. He offered me some lunch as a gracious host does, as his mother insisted that he always did. He offered to share, his tomato soup. The look was there and this time I recognized it. It was victory.
He'd bested me at last, and just in time. He savored his victory as much as he savored his soup that he ate with brand name crackers. Right then, in that kitchen a month before basic training, I knew.
Most times we don’t appreciate what we have when we have it, especially in our youth. I was as guilty as everyone else for most of my youth, but at that moment in time I knew I would miss that kitchen. I would miss the love and the smells and the comfort. I would miss watching Bill practice the piano while I waited impatiently to hang out. I would miss listening to Garrison Keillor and The Doctor Demento show on the radio. I would miss his basement and the games of chess, miss making his normally reserved father laugh out loud and miss his mother's beautiful smile. I would miss feeling like I had a brother and was part of a family where the mom and dad were still married.
And I would miss the lemon bars.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Way Home, a DLI adventure

I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with me, but after the most monumental life achievements, have always been followed by a hallow feeling. This was never truer than when I finally graduated from the Russian basic course at the Defense Language Institute. The battle was won, honor regained, but now the question loomed. What next? This was especially true because the outcome had been so unsure. I didn’t expect to graduate any more than I expected to fail. I knew I had to try and I hoped I would succeed, but I was realistic enough to know that the odds were against me. I knew going in that it would be hard, though even then, I underestimated the difficulty.

Just to be clear, I didn't dominate at Russian language school. I scrapped by in the lower third of my class, my fate in question every one of the 52 weeks including the last. I am not a gifted linguist. In fact, my learning disability inhibits my language abilities, specifically in the case of rules. Grammar rules as well as mathematic rules that are required to solve equations starting in algebra. My specific disability is that the neural pathways that people build up over time through rote memorization in the area of mathematics and language simply don't hold for me. If I manage to keep at something like language, where it’s an immersion course as the one at the Defense Language Institute, I have a chance. I can maintain the pathways with daily work. Once abandoned, even for a short length of time, and they degrade.

I knew this going in, though I didn’t fully understand it the first time I went to DLI in 1984. Even with this obstacle, I managed to survive for 5 months. The second time, in 1991-92, I crossed the finish line just before they took down the tape. Was it vanity that drove me to try again? I've asked myself why many times, before, during and after. The answer that I came up with was this. I felt as if I needed to correct a mistake. I wasn't prepared the first time to meet the challenge. This was my fault alone. I screwed off in high school and failed to learn English grammar because it was hard for me. Before I returned in 1991, I’d finished two years of college and learned what I needed to know. I went back, prepared. I needed to right a wrong I had done to myself. I’d damaged my confidence in myself and needed to get it back. Not to feel as if I had gained or accomplished something great, not to boost my ego, but simply to get back to a state of even. To be able to start fresh without the shame I felt for the initial failure.

After walking across the stage in Monterey in the spring of 1992, I drove back home to finish my Bachelors degree in Russian Area Studies and hopefully move on to a rewarding career. Two things about my trip home were very different than my trip out a year earlier. First, I decided to take the safer southern route as to not temp fate in the mountains again, and second, I wasn't alone. A good friend of mine had been to DLI a few years before and a friend of his had road tripped back to Minnesota with him. He wanted to pay that favor forward by traveling with me. He had friends and family in California so he got a one way ticket and after his visit, I picked him up and we headed home via the southern states.

This trip was going to be different. No blown tires, no deadly mountain passes, no 1,000 mile days, just a leisurely cruise home with a stop off to see the Grand Canyon. The Camaro of Death had a sweet sound system to entertain us on our journey. I had an Alpine tape deck/radio with one of the first 6 disc CD changers in the trunk, 6x9's in the back and an amp under the passenger seat. The sucker would shake the whole car and couldn't be played at full volume without ear protection. Mark had come prepared. He brought a lot of great tunes that I’d never heard before, my favorite being "Jesus Built my Hotrod" by Ministry. We stopped when we wanted to and did take a side trip to see the Grand Canyon. It was a canyon and I guess it was grand, but without the time to really explore, it only added to the anticlimactic funk I was in. Only seeing home again would buoy my spirits, so even though I had the time, I picked up my pace and focused on eating away the miles.

We followed a simple path, staying on I40 until we hit Oklahoma City, then we swung north on I35 all the way home. After our side trip to the Canyon, we spent the night in a cheap motel in Flagstaff, under the names Harry Canyon and Peter Schlen. Schlen being Russian slang for penis and Harry Canyon was a character with a funny sounding name from the movie Heavy Metal. We left the following morning after a greasy truck stop breakfast, and it wasn't until that night when I popped out my contacts that I realized I’d left my glasses at that motel.

Somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, I got caught behind a convoy of truckers. After watching Burt Reynolds movies, I thought truckers pushed the speed limit, but these boys seemed hell bent on going about five miles under the limit in multiple lanes. When I got an opening, I moved to pass the flat bed. Just as I got close, a large chunk of 2x4 came loose and landed right in front of me, too close to avoid. I could see the nails that decorated the wood and prayed my tires would miss them.

No such luck. I guess I should be grateful that it wasn't a blow out like my trip to California the year before. My rear tire was punctured, but managed to stay inflated as long as I was moving. We pulled off at the next exit. Luck was with us, since not all exits are equal. We pulled into the first store, one of the many variations of Gas and Go's that peppered the landscape. I could just make out the sign of a real garage a few blocks away and went to work jacking up the car to remove the tire. Mark went in for some pop, or soda as it's known in other parts of the country. He came back and it was my turn to use the restroom and clean up a little.

Halfway to the door, I was blocked by a group of five Native Americans. They seemed friendly enough and asked if I had any spare cash. They said they needed some gas money to get back to the reservation. I didn’t hesitate or even give it much though, I just reached in my pocket and pulled out a five dollar bill that was left over from my last purchase and handed it to man that spoke for the group. I went inside, cleaned up, grabbed some road food and went back to the car. I caught the last part of the conversation where Mark was informing them that he was sorry, but he didn't have any cash. It was true and for that matter, I had just barely enough to make it home and cover gas and cheap motels. The group voiced their disbelief and unhappiness with Mark for not donating. The mood was getting ugly until I came up to stand next to him. I hoped the fact I had given them some cash and Mark and I were riding together would be enough to take away their steam. It didn't. They started to get very aggressive and began to threaten us with bodily harm. The trunk was still open and I reached in and pulled out my S&W model 645 and handed the .454 casull revolver to Mark. That was enough to make them leave, but we were pretty sure they would be back.

I got the flat off, tucked my auto in my waistband and rolled the tire down to the garage. It was a sidewall leak and the mechanic didn’t want to patch it, but I begged him. He told me it wouldn’t last for the life of the tire and there was a danger of a blow out. I assured him it would be fine and he did the job in about ten minutes. I could just make out Mark keeping watch at the car. He was still alone when I rolled the repaired tire back as fast as I could and pulled pit crew record time getting that sucker back on the Camaro. I started her it up and aimed for the highway entrance ramp.

Just as we left the quickie mart parking lot, we spotted two pickups approaching fast on a dirt back road that ran behind the main drag of the exit.  Each truck was loaded with at least five shooters in the back, all carrying rifles. Our welcome had expired and I leaned on the small block 350 and launched onto the highway. I exceeded posted speed limits and didn’t let off until a hundred miles later when I was sure the two trucks were no longer in pursuit.

The rest of the trip was uneventful with the exception of some negative physical reactions to truck stop chili. A week later I got a small package in the mail. It was addressed to Peter Schlen and contained my lost glasses from the motel we'd stayed at in Flagstaff. I was home, and I was whole again. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fork You, My Beef with Mr. Hammer

This is a tale of my misspent youth.

I had a beef with my former teacher, Mr. Hammer. I say had because I think I’m finally over it.

Mr. Hammer was my social studies teacher in the 9th grade. He’s been dead now for almost twenty years.  I think it’s time to forgive and forget.

There was no particular incident that caused the rift. It was more of an understanding. We took an instant dislike to each other and we both did things to reinforce that dislike as time went on. Up until now, only one other person knew the whole story, my best friend, Dan Barter. But it’s time I lanced this wound and moved on.

I want to make it clear that I was a horrible student. There are a lot of reasons, but it was no ones fault but my own. I wasn’t a victim. Sure, some of the reasons are good ones, but I could have decided to over come those set backs and become a good student. Instead, I used them as excuses and coasted through school. I never studied and never took a book home. But despite my status as a slacker, I hated bad teachers. They offended me. I was forced to be in school, a political prisoner, but they were getting paid to be there. I considered Mr. Hammer one of the worst. He wasn’t stupid like a few others; he just didn’t seem to care.

He would fill the blackboard with notes and then leave for up to 30 minutes while we were supposed to transcribe them for later study. My handwriting was and still is horrible, so even if I had been willing to study, my notes would have been of little use. He was also the first teacher to use a brand new technology to grade his tests. The computer (pause for ooo's and ahhh's). We used a #2 pencil to fill in A through D. We’d never seen this before and he was the only teacher I had in Bemidji that used it. I thought it was lazy and impersonal.

His last crime was just plain creepy. He would arrange the seats of the most attractive and well-endowed girls so they were in the second and third row and in the middle of the room. When he did grace us with his presence, he would always leave a seat in the middle of the front row open so he could sit on the desk and look down at us, but mostly down the shirts of the large breasted girls. For those of you that remember him, think hard before you dismiss this claim. I had occasion to discuss this with other classes, both ahead of us and after us, and it occurred to consistently to have been accidental.

These crimes may seem fairly benign, especially for the 80’s, but as I said, we didn’t like each other from the start. I had beef, and I did something about it. Actually, I did several things about it that I will list here for the record.

It wasn’t my idea, but I won’t rat out who thought of this. I will say I crossed the line. We would take a few blank computer cards and make up fake names and fill out fake tests. We were sure we would get busted, but the first test went by unnoticed. The names were goofy, but not obscene. When Mr. Hammer failed to notice there were 2 more tests results than he had students, my loathing for him grew. The following week we took it up a notch by choosing more risky names and making cool looking patterns with the answers. This went on for over a month until the other students started laughing out loud at the answer key with the foul names we had come up with. Finally, he noticed. He stared at me with undisguised hatred. I returned the look.

Over the next year I: Switched a cassette tape for a filmstrip (really old school tech, look it up), with a Van Halen  tape and cranked the volume, turned a film upside down and backwards, shot spitballs into his coffee cup (which he drank), took a months worth of nail clippings and put them in his desk (this is where he kept his, so I doubt he noticed), and stole all of his caulk. That is all I can remember, I’m sure I did more. It was the chalk that set him off. He couldn’t spend the first 15 minutes of class writing notes and then leaving for the next 30 without chalk. He came up and asked if I had any chalk on me. He loomed over, trying to intimidate me. I told him I had a lot of other school supplies, but I was fresh out of chalk. It was stuffed in my pants and even my socks. The man had a LOT of chalk. If he’d searched me, I would have been done. He didn’t.

The year ended and grades were sent out. I got an F in his class. He had the last laugh. Or so he thought. I was ashamed, but I never paid attention to how I did throughout the year and even though I didn’t think much of him as a teacher, it never occurred to me he would lie. Those were different times and I was na├»ve. I was sent to summer school to make up the credit so I could move on to my sophomore year. My mom was angry and possibly more ashamed than I was.

Bemidji is a big town as far as northern Minnesota towns go. Still, I thought I knew all of the students by sight even if I didn’t know their names. I was wrong. I didn’t know one other student in summer school, and all of them were hard cases. I always had a lot of respect for kids like Brian Lofgren. He was tough. A teacher once slapped him in 5th grade and he just glared at her. I would have busted out crying, but he just wanted to get even. These kids were like Brian. I was out of place so I kept to myself and hoped none of them would decide I would be fun to pick on.

Summer school was set up self-paced. We were all at different levels and grades all in one class, so we all had a set number of assignments we were supposed to complete in the 8 weeks. I didn’t know the teacher, but it was clear he was thrilled to be there. We had no homework, just the assignments. I focused on them and not my surroundings. After two weeks, I was done with eight weeks of work. The teacher was confused and suspicious. He questioned me about why I was there. The next Monday, I was sent home as soon as I showed up. My mom was home waiting for me. She’d got a call from the school apologizing. Apparently, my real grade had been a B, but Hammer had given me an F for “attitude”.

I wasn’t the only kid that disliked Mr. Hammer. I wanted to get even, and a friend who will remain nameless, came up with a brilliant idea. Now there have been recent articles about similar events occurring in the Twin Cities, but I am positive, that my nameless friend, back in 1981, was the originator of the idea to fork someone’s lawn. His reasoning was that you couldn’t rake up plastic forms, but you had to pick them up individually. We rushed to the grocery store and bought around 500 plastic forks. We picked a night, snuck over to his house, and covered his lawn.

This went on for years after. We once tried spoons, and then started spelling things with all three plastic utensils. Mr. Hammer moved, but I followed. Long after my friends had grown tired of the game, and after I got out of the Army, I forked his lawn at least once every couple of years. Judge me harshly if you want, but the last time I forked him was on his grave. Just to remind him I hadn’t forgotten.

Do you think that crossed the line? So do I in retrospect, but allow me to give you some missing back-story on why being sent to summer school hit me as hard as it did. It’s all about self-confidence, or in this case, my lack of. In elementary school, I needed tubes in my ears. My canals were small and clogged and it went on for a couple of years unnoticed until I had only 10% hearing capacity. In that time, I had slowly withdrawn from class and into myself. I also failed to learn how to pronounce hard consonants, especially R. It was the “baby” talk that finally tipped the adults off. Once I got tubes, I was put in a class for two hours a day for speech therapy and to relearn how write and try to catch up on what I had missed. I was behind at least a full year of class and missing two hours a day in fifth grade set me back farther.

In 8th grade, they noticed my grades were barely passing. They put me through a battery of tests. It was determined I was in the 98th percentile for intelligence. They also discovered my learning disability. It's in the area of language, which also covers math. They explained that the mylar sheath in most people builds up over time. Repetition increases the thickness of the sheath allowing people to retain what they've memorized. For me, the area of my brain dealing with math and other languages didn’t build up regardless of repetition. I was left confused. Was I really smart or was I stupid? They answered the question by putting me in a special ed class in 9th grade. That’s right, the same year I had Hammer. If you knew me then and I seemed stressed out and sometimes avoided telling you what my next class was, now you know why.

The class was one size fits all, not specialized to meet the needs of each student. No class could help me since the learning disability I had was physical. There was nothing to over come, but it took me years to understand that. I learned near the end of my freshman year, that they had needed one more student, or the program would have lost funding. Those teachers would have lost their jobs and the kids that did need help wouldn’t have received it. I was furious at the time and felt betrayed. Whatever chance I had to my academic life back on track was mortally wounded then and the coup de grace was summer school. Now, with years of life experience and perspective, I think it was worth the shame and damage to my self-confidence to keep that course in place. 

So you see, receiving an F and being sent to summer school when I didn’t deserve it was something I couldn’t forgive. Later in life, I discovered that 98th percentile is the minimum level to become a member of Mensa. I took their entrance test when I was 32 and have been a member every since. Being in Mensa doesn’t make me feel smarter or better than anyone else. I will always have to struggle with English grammar and I will always make stupid mistakes with contractions, synonyms, homonyms and all the other dirty little nym bastards. It’s just the way I am.

A lot of writers take pride in their command of the English language, and they should. Many rail against those who transgress. I’m guilty of many such transgressions and I do feel bad for some of the editors that have had to struggle with my mistakes. Please understand that I do care and I do try. I go though at least 10 drafts before I send a story off, but some of the mistakes are simply invisible to me. 

As for Mr. Hammer, I did have a beef with him, but finally, I’ve put those feelings to rest. I’m happy and content with who I am. It’s time I forgave Mr. Hammer and let go of my beef.

R.I.P. Mr. Hammer, we’re good.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Shoulder to Cry About

I've noticed that the most popular posts are about stories where I was in a lot of pain. This is a story of the time I tore my shoulder up and the aftermath. Enjoy.

I'd done a LOT of stupid things when I was a yute in northern Minnesota, and later while I was in the Army and Army Reserve. Many I have and will continue to document on this blog. Some of those things should have killed me, while others should have at least maimed me, yet I was never severely hurt and to this day have never broken a bone or been on deaths doorstep.

In 1989, I played a game of racquetball with a friend and coworker. He was very good and very tall with long, almost simian arms. Paul kicked my ass. I was frustrated not just with him, but with my own play, since I had played some in the Army and wasn't that bad. To be clear, Paul would still have kicked my ass, but the score should have been closer. The last game, I got reckless. He'd been burning me on the same shot and I was sick of it. I saw it coming and charged for where I knew the ball would be. I dove and reached and managed to hit the ball and make it die in the corner, ensuring I would only lose by eight points. I rolled onto my back and slid across the floor on my sweat soaked shirt, savoring the shot.

Until I hit the wall with my right shoulder. The pain was severe and it just felt wrong. I sat up and you could see the end of my collarbone through the skin. The game was over and Paul drove me to the nearest hospital, leaving the Camaro of Death in the parking lot. Paul had to get to work, so he left me in the hands of the ER staff.

It was determined to be a separation, but I was assured it was only a level 1, which was a mild strain. Level 4 was a complete tear. I was given a sling, told to take it easy and sent home. Problem was, my Camaro was 15 miles away and I didn't have any money on me and no credit cards. It was also one of those rare weekends when my friends and family were out of town. The hospital was about three miles from my house through the worst part of East Side of St. Paul, so of course, I walked.

I was wearing sweat pants and because my T-Shirt was soaked, I wore the hospital gown to cover my torso. I had my gym bag slung over my shoulder and I have to admit I was a little out of it. You see, another doctor told me a few days later, that it was actually a level 4, complete tear, so I was a little shocky. Apparently Steve Martin was right, no one messes with a crazy person, because my pale white ass made it all the way home without incident.

I was operated on a few days later and two pins were pounded through the ball of my shoulder into the collarbone to hold it in place while the rewired and repaired ligaments healed. It wasn’t that bad really, except that a week after the surgery, the two pins popped through the skin. I called the doctor in a panic, and he said it was normal. “Just keep it clean.”

Sure. I had a hole in my skin, held open by two pins, but all I had to do was work, go to school and not let any foreign bodies get in the gaping hole for four weeks. What could possibly go wrong?

I managed it for a week. Then one morning, I woke up at 3:30. Again, I had that feeling something was very wrong. Before I even moved, I just knew. I was covered in sweat and when I tried to feel my forehead, my shoulder sent a signal to brain informing me that moving it was a BAD idea and to cease and desist. It felt like someone had stretched the hole open and shoved a pound of broken glass inside the joint. Even the smallest motion was agony. I made it to the phone (no cells back then), and called the hospital where I’d had my surgery. They paged my doctor and he called back a few minutes later.

He told be me it was probably infected. He asked if there was anyone that could drive me on by so he could take a look at it. I was fevered and a bit disoriented, so I said sure thing and hung up. Once I found some clothes and figured out how to get my shirt on without screaming, I remembered that there was no one I could call. Mother, Father, close friends (I had two at the time), were all out of town. Again. Taxis were not prevalent in the Twin Cities, and it didn’t occur to me to call an ambulance. I got in the Camaro of Death and headed for the hospital. Not the one 3 miles away, but the one across town where I had found one of the best orthopedic surgeons that had saved my shoulder.

That’s not an exaggeration. If I had listened to the first doctor, I would have rested the shoulder for a few weeks and in that time, the ligaments would have atrophied. The level 4 tear I had was a total disaster. The only thing that was holding my arm on to my body, was skin. The surgeon had drilled a hole on the collarbone and re secured all the ligaments back to hold the shoulder joint back on. He claimed if I took care of it and did my physical therapy, I would get back 99% of my strength and mobility. Without him, or if I had waited even a week, I would have been hosed. As it is, my right shoulder has never given me a problem since.

That morning though, I was considering cutting it off and learning to live life as a lefty. I was grateful that morning that the Camaro was an automatic. I was aware enough of the situation to not go on the highway. Passing out at 55 miles per hour would not help my recovery. So I took city streets from St Paul, though Frog Town and Midway until I got to the clinic where my surgeon worked. Every bump was agony, and I came way to close to clipping parked cars a few times when I blacked out. I woke up in the parking lot of the clinic. I remember wondering how I had got there and if the Dr. was in yet? Should I wait? It was only around 5:30. I was thirsty, so I walked into the clinic. I got a drink from the fountain and sat down in the lobby.

This is another time I’m glad people didn’t have cell phones with cameras. I caught a glimpse of myself in the aquarium they had in the lobby. I looked like hell warmed over. I took a little nap and was awakened by my Doctor. It’s never good when they look worried. My shoulder was swelled up like a balloon. He did his best to rush me into an exam room and didn’t even try to remove my shirt he just cut it away. I saw him stick a needle into the mass. He said it was Novocain for the pain. Before I could ask what pain, he slashed me with a scalpel.

This is not an exaggeration or a fever induced vision. I saw his had raise up, saw light glint off of its edge and watched him slash down at my shoulder with the thin blade. A gout of blood and puss erupted from my flesh. At least of cup of hot fluid shot out onto the floor and ran down my arm. The pain I’d been in since I woke up two hours earlier was suddenly gone. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Thank goodness that was over. I thanked him and made to leave. He pushed me back down.

“We need to get those pins out, the infection could spread.”

I wanted to object that if the pins were pulled out, wouldn’t the infection be able to get into the bone through the holes? I just didn’t have the juice, and I was glad to be rid of those damned things, so I lay back down and waited.

“This might hurt a bit.”

I’ve mention before that doctors are masters of the understatement. If they say it will be ‘a little poke’, it’s going to hurt. If they have the balls to tell you it’s going to hurt, you better brace yourself. He grabbed a vice grip and started jerking on the pin. It was funny at first. I felt like a fish. He was twisting and jerking and finally had to call in help to hold me in place so he could get more purchase. I’m not sure why or how he got a professional wrestler to work for him, but a mountain of a man came in a held me down to the table. It was all completely surreal and ludicrous until that pin slid through two bones on its way out.

I’ve never felt that kind of pain before. Saying it hurt seems inadequate. It felt wrong. If I’d had anything in my stomach, I would have puked. As it is, I just turned even paler and went into shock. The giant let me go and my shirt was instantly soaked with sweat. I may have tinkled, just a little bit.

There are things people say that just stick with you forever. Years later, the doctor that did my vasectomy would use a similar phrase.

“One down, one to go.”

My response was similar years later, but I was a bit less polished at 23.

“FUCK YOU! Cut the end off flush and leave that cock sucker in there.”

I got up to leave and Mr. Mountain collapsed on me again, pinning me to the table like a contender in a WWF championship match. I tried everything I could to squirm out from under that man, but I was helpless as a babe. My surgeon, Dr. Hippocratic oath, came at me again with those vice grips. I’m not sure if it was the anticipation or if the second one really did hurt worse, but I whimpered as he started jerking on it. I would have confessed to the Lindbergh kidnapping, killing Hoffa or told him any or all of my personal secrets to escape the next two minutes. Think what you want of me. I’ve always thought I was pretty tough, but when that second pin broke loose, I passed out.

A few minutes later, I woke up while the giant was tugging down my pants. I had a moment of prison terror, but then I saw the doctor with the syringe. He explained that I needed antibiotics and gave me two in the ass. I had to wait make sure I didn’t have a reaction to the penicillin. Sometime while I was out, he had irrigated the wound and stitched me up. He told me to come back in a week to have him remove the stitches. RIIIIIIIIIIGHT.

I got the hell out of there and drove myself back home. I crawled back into bed and stayed there for the day, sleeping through the night and into the next day. A week later I pulled out the stitches myself.

For the last four years I’ve been dealing with pain in my other shoulder. I’ve had some of cortisone for the pain, but I’ve known the whole time it was something more than bursitis. Something that will require a scalpel. My current doctor wants me to take an MRI. Great, I can’t wait. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Frisbee Fun, an EOD adventure

This is another tale from my time as an EOD tech at Ft Dix, New Jersey.
It was summer and we had to perform range clearances. There were many different kinds of ranges, each set up for firing a different kind of ordnance, from 40 Millimeter grenades that are fired from a tube under some M16's called an M203, to 155 Millimeter Howitzer shells. On that day, we had to clear the LAWS rocket practice range. Instead of shooting actual rockets, for training purposes, they shot these little blue tipped rockets to save money and reduce the amount of damage done to the range equipment. The equipment was an armored vehicle that was towed back and forth on a set of railroad tracks.
They were small, but still had a small explosive tip and need to be handled with respect. The Render Safe Procedure allowed them to be moved, so we spread out in a line and picked up the duds as we went, collecting them in a pile. After a few hours of this, we'd scoured the entire range. I won’t name names, but in the end there were two others there with me. An officer that was new to the company, and another sergeant.
I don’t recall who came up with the idea. I only remember talking to the other sergeant and thinking it was a fine idea if we stacked all of the practice rounds inside the armored vehicle, along with the entire case of C-4 we'd brought to ensure total destruction. We had some Flex-X as well to maintain explosive continuity. We strolled up to the new officer and asked him if it was okay. He didn’t even hesitate, just told us to get it done. We giggled like school boys all the way back to the armored vehicle.
Once we were done setting everything up, we pulled the two initiators and shut the back doors. We'd set the charge for fifteen minutes, plenty of time to stroll back to the burm at the front of the range and then climb up the fifty-foot ladder to the observation tower. We sat there with or new officer trying to look nonchalant.
The charge went off right on time, blowing one of the back doors open and throwing the other at least sixty feet into the air. It hung there like a bloated kite, then fell back to the ground and sliced through the two rail lines like a hot knife through butter. The sound was muted from distance and being partially contained which made it seem less real. We'd just registered the damage to the vehicle and tracks that we would have a tough time explaining, when we heard the sounds of something cutting through the air. The noise was getting closer, and we all spotted it at the same time. It was the six in thick, armored hatch from the top of the vehicle, and it was coming directly for us as if it were nothing more than a Frisbee, tossed by some child.
A 400 pound Frisbee traveling at about thirty miles an hour.
There was nothing to do but watch it come. We were fifty feet up in a range tower that sat on a berm that was thirty feel above the level ground. When it was less than three hundred yards away, it started to cant to our right. I still thought it would cut through the tower's support and we would all be going on Mr. Toad's wild ride, but it canted even further until it passed us and shot into the trees next to the entrance road. There was a crashing noise, louder than the initial explosion and two pine trees were cut clean through before the damned thing imbedded itself into the New Jersey sand.
The expression on the young officer's face can best be described as a combination of surprise, relief and the haunted look of one that knows his ass will be grass. It was time to leave, and we broke speed records for ladder climbing, berm running and sand sprinting. We hopped in our truck and flew out of there without so much as a glance back for fear we would see someone witness our escape.
The next day, calls were made, asses were chewed and a new officer had been broken in right.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Levity, a DLI Adventure

In Road Trip, Parts 1 & 2, I described my drive to DLI in the spring of 1991. This is a story of my time at DLI and I think it sums up the reason why I didn’t re-enlist again, and why the Army was likely very happy I didn’t. It's easy to blame my active duty experience as an EOD tech, for my difficulty in adapting to the real Army. After all, as a good friend recently reminded me, EOD units back in those days didn’t act, feel or were treated as if we belonged in the regular army. We were not only encouraged to be unconventional; it was a necessity for survival

Yes, it would be easy to blame my military upbringing, but there was more to it than that. The fact is that while I was always good and sometimes great at whatever job I did in the Army, I had little patience for the Army. I have no idea what a day in the life of a soldier is like today, but back in the Cold War 80's and post Desert Storm 90's, it was populated with people intent on making your life unpleasant for no other reason than they were bored and had the power to do so. There was a lot of bullshit, not for the sake of readiness, but for lack of purpose. Nowhere did this occur more often, than in training schools. Basic training is designed to break people down and then build them back up the Army way. I understood that going in. I also recognized that everything the cadre did was per plan and for a specific reason. They didn't just mess with us for kicks or to abuse their authority.

Unfortunately, once you left Basic Training where the cadre was trained specifically for this task, you went to other training called AIT, or Advanced Individual Training. In these schools, soldiers with experience in that job, or Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), were in the role of instructors and sometimes company cadre. After all, you still needed a sergeant to march you to and from class and tell you what do outside of class. The unfortunate part was that these people never received training beyond instructor courses. They had been through basic training and remembered it was miserable, so they assumed their job was to make the soldiers in their care miserable as well. 

Not all of them were like this, and each school was different. I've heard that now, it is common for Drill Sergeants that are properly trained to hold these positions in all AIT schools, and for better or worse, it makes sense. When I got to DLI in 1991, I'd been an E-5 sergeant for five years. My platoon sergeant was an E-7, Sergeant First Class and a complete bastard. Let's call him sergeant Douchebag. I reported properly, conducted myself professionally, yet he pegged me as a shitbag. Shitbag, by the way is an actually Army designation for one that doesn’t carry his or her weight and should not be in the service. Being prior service active duty didn’t seem to help. In fact, having left active duty to become a Reservist is the main reason he took a dislike to me. 

Reservists weren't well thought of back then and I doubt it has gotten a lot better. My former status as EOD also irritated him for some reason. I'm sure I also failed to answer his questions to his satisfaction. Regardless, he told me to my face he didn’t care for me or my attitude and didn’t think I belonged in "His" Army. I realize now it was my pride that got the better of me. Instead of trying to win him over through diligence and good deeds, I copped an attitude.
It seemed that this man LOVED inspections. He went beyond clean and gigged more than one person for "vertical dust" clinging to the tile bathroom walls. So of course, step one for me was to decorate my room. There are Army regulations, then there are post regulations that can be stricter than the Army regs, and sometimes there are company or unit regulations that can take it up even another notch. I always knew the regs. In this case, post regulations allowed for civilian bedding. The beds we had were twin size so naturally I bought a matching set of Legend of Zelda sheets and comforter. This went very well with my full sized cardboard cutout of Wolverine and my boogie board. The only thing green on my part of the two person room was the carpet, and I would have got a throw rug if I'd had the money. 

Sergeant Douchebag simply LOVED it, and made sure that somehow I was always one of the random rooms to be inspected. He picked around 5% of the rooms to inspect each week on a random day and yet my room was always included. Randomly. Sergeant Douchebag also handpicked other student NCO's to be squad leaders that shared his love for douchebaggery. This people were real pieces of work and they agreed that I had no place in "their" Army. They tried hard to do something about that. Unfortunately for them, besides being an asshole, I was pretty good at cleaning, physical training and other Army type activities. They tried hard, I'll give them that, but they couldn’t pin anything on me. I was the only one that could do it for them. I would have had to do something that gave them the opening they needed. So of course, I did.

The Army doesn’t specifically have a rule against sergeants dating lower enlisted unless they are in your chain of command. In a class environment, we were all just students. However, they did have a big problem with soldiers have sex in the barracks. Apparently, we were supposed to either spend all of our meager pay on hotel rooms, or we were supposed to abstain. Did I mention we were all between 18 and 25 and under a lot of pressure? The only people that abstained didn't do so by choice.

The rule was, that you couldn’t have a member of the opposite sex in the room with the door shut, or your punishment was the same as if you were caught mid coatis. Students were caught from time to time with the door shut, and the universal expletive that escaped everyone's mouth upon being discovered was the same: "We were just studying!"

I gave them the opening they so desperately wanted when I started dating a private. The plan they had for my downfall, was the tried and true "Health and Welfare" inspection. These were conducted under the auspice of protecting soldiers from themselves, but the real goal was to bust us for breaking the rules. These inspections happened about once a month, and almost always in the middle of the night.

I knew that they knew that I had a girlfriend. I knew they were coming for me. What I didn’t know was when. I'll admit that I had my girlfriend in my room with the door closed from time to time. Times when my roommate was elsewhere (I'm not an exhibitionist). Did I deserve to get busted and kicked out of school for this infraction? Possibly. A rule is a rule after all even if I find it ignorant and unfair. But like all rules, they had to catch me first. 

A flaw in their system was the student Charge of Quarters. Every night a student had to serve down at the Company Head Quarters and stay awake all night in case something happened. This person staffed the phone and 99% of the time nothing ever happened. They did however overhear a lot of talk between company personnel. For instance when the next random Health and Welfare inspection was going down. I got word that it would be the very next Friday night, around 2:00 AM and that my door would be numero uno on their random search. 

I was driving around the next day with a friend of mine, when I was struck with divine inspiration. The people that were attempting and partially succeeding in making my life difficult, wanted to find me with a girl in my bed. I would oblige them. I drove to a nearby sex shop and purchased my one and only blowup doll. The cheapest was $25 dollars and as luck would have it, she had blond hair.
That wasn't enough fun, so my inebriated friend (I often played sober driver since I don’t drink), suggest we fill her with helium. I'm very grateful that cell phones were still uncommon and the ones that existed lacked a camera, or we may have been the first entries in the People of Walmart website filling up an inflate-a-mate on the clown shaped helium dispenser sometime past midnight. 

I didn’t want to get charged with some other violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, so I borrowed a two piece swim suit from a nice lady sergeant that lived down the hall. I think the doll looked rather stylish. I tucked her in next to me, and laid awake on the verge of hysterical giggles for over an hour. Then I fell asleep.
The first thing I noticed was the pounding. It sounded close. It was followed by angry shouting and the sound of a key being inserted in my lock. Panic rocked me awake as I felt someone in bed with me. I could just make out blonde hair from the light coming in through the drapes. I was fucked, royally and truly fucked. Three people entered my room in a rush. SFC Douchebag was leading the charge, flanked by a not so douchey First Sergeant and the pretty decent Company Commander. What the FUCK? The CO never went out on these inspections. I locked eyes with SFC Douchebag and he looked past me to my bed and smiled in triumph. He rushed forward and threw back the sheets to reveal…

I never gave her a name, but just as he reached for my Legend of Zelda comforter, my groggy brain recalled how I'd spent the night. She didn't float up as fast as I would have liked, but she did head for the ceiling. I was looking at the Captain, and saw his face shift from disappointment to glee. I almost forgot my line. Almost. 

"We were just studying!"

That was it for the company commander. He and the First Sergeant bolted out the door before they lost their military bearing. That left me alone with my number one fan, and my doll. I stood at attention and waited for the shock to wear off. When it didn't, I held my pose until the First Sergeant came in and took SFC Douchebag out into the hall. There was a short debate about the perversity of being in possession of such a doll and I heard the commander say "swim suit". 

The First Sergeant said "Carry on," and shut my door. I'm not drawing any conclusions, but shortly after that SFC Douchebag was moved down the hill to G Company. My life got a lot better and so did the lives of most Foxtrot company students. I was there for another five months and we never had another middle of the night inspection and no one was ever written up again for vertical dust. My doll made an appearance at our class picnic as substitute volleyball, and then was passed on from student to student in a series of pranks.
I don’t know what happened to her, but she's never tried to contact me. Maybe I should have named her.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Part Two, Monterey or Bust

Fifty miles East of Reno, my left rear tire blew out. It didn’t just go flat without warning, it exploded, throwing rubber in all direction. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over to the shoulder. There was a slow steady stream of cars, but I wouldn’t have called the traffic heavy. I managed to get off the road enough to safely work on the car. I was grateful I had a spare, but it was a doughnut, nut a full sized replacement. It was rated for fifty miles. Perfect. By the time I had the first tire off, it was pitch black. The sky was overcast and I don’t think I had not seen so much. You read that right. Before the lights went out, I was impressed with how far I could see, but once it got so dark I couldn’t see my own hand, I welcomed the blinding headlights. Over the thrum of the cars, I could coyotes. My imagination had them converging on my car just before I climbed back inside and dragging me out into the brush. I didn’t see even one, but the howls did get closer as I worked.
Once I was road ready, I cruised the last fifty mile of my daily trip and pulled into the Motel 6. The room was an exact copy of the one in Cheyenne, down to the ugly ass comforter and bizarre art. The bed was as I’d feared and I considered curling up on the carpet which at least had a thin layer of padding. Despite the lack of comfort, I was exhausted from the lack of sleep the night before, and the day of thrills and chills. My alarm woke me at 4:00 and hit the snooze, knowing that no tire shop would be open until 9:00 or later.
There was one shop open in all of Salt Lake that had tires that would fit my rims, but they were a different brand than what I had. The salesman probably still tells stories about that day and I'm sure I paid for one of his kids orthodontics work, but I was back on the road with 300 miles left to go and five hours to do it. I didn't get off to a very fast start. Not long after I crossed into California, traffic slowed to a crawl. I had no idea what was going on, but it was hard to imagine that a traffic jam would occur this far away from a major city. As I rounded a corner and got a view of the road ahead, I saw the cause for the slow down. It looked like a border crossing. I'd just left Reno, so I knew I didn’t somehow accidently cross over into Mexico. I'd heard my dad refer to the state as the Republic of California, but what the hell were they checking? I didn’t have a passport. I did have my military orders and ID, and I hoped that would do.
When I got a few car lengths from the structure, I saw people in uniforms searching vehicles. What the hell were they looking for? Illegal aliens? Drugs? Guns? Then I remembered the guns I had in my trunk. Two pistols to be exact, a .454 caliber Casual revolver, and a Swith & Wesson model 645. I also had some knives and other equipment, all of which I was allowed to have in the Army, assuming I signed the weapons in with the armorer. 
Finally it was my turn and the man with the gun asked me to exit my vehicle. He then asked me the last question I was expecting.
"Do you have any fruits or vegetables?"
I thought for a second, but I was sure I only had junk food. I assured him I didn’t, but he must have seen my perplexed look and instructed me to open my truck. He looked through some bags, pushed some stuff around and at one point lifted the bag I had the guns in. They made what I thought was a very distinct gunny sound, but he set them back down without comment. Then he uttered a phrase that seemed so out of place and understated that it has stuck with me since.
"Move along."
 I was more confused than ever, but I complied and was soon back up to a the speed required for me to meet my deadline, slowing down only when my trusty, and I found out later illegal in California, radar detector chirped. I went through the garlic capital of the worked and then the artichoke capital of the world and finally, I saw Monterey Bay. I’d been there before and the view was bitter sweet. I took the exit and within minutes was at Foxtrot company, Russian Village on the backside of the Presidio where just a few short year before there had been only grass and trees. With ten minutes to spare, I presented my orders. The sergeant eyeballed me and said:
 "You're a little early. The next class doesn't start until a week from tomorrow. You could've showed up next Sunday, but since you're here, I'll get you a room in the temporally barracks until you get assigned to a platoon."
Classic Army, hurry up and wait.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Road Trip Part 1, Monterey or Bust

In 1984, I went on Active duty in the Army on a 4/2 contract, which is Four years active duty, two reserve. I had signed up on what's called delayed entry, so even though I went to basic in June, my contract expired in April 1990. I had gone back home to Minnesota and served my almost two years of reserve time in an Intelligence unit holding an analyst slot.  I had no intention of re-enlisting. I was happy to be out and even let my hair grow long. As far as I know, there isn't any photographic evidence of my brief mullet experiment in the summer of 1990.

Desert Shield began later that summer and despite my adoration for my growing curly locks, I felt the call. We anticipated going into Iraq and were convinced it would be a quagmire. It became clear very quickly in the fall of 1990 that we were going to war. I wanted to rejoin my EOD unit when they got deployed, but I didn’t want to join back as an active duty soldier. I was told it was possible, but that I had to get in the system. In September, 1990, less than a year after receiving my freedom, I signed an 8 year Army Reserve contract and joined the 19th Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Company under the 13th PSYOP Battalion.
I needed a job, so I was put in an Interrogation slot and started attending drill. I waited for my orders to be deployed as an EOD tech, but they never came and I couldn’t be deployed with the 19th because I had no Military Occupational Specially (MOS) in the Reserve.  In February, 1991, the war ended and I had 7.5 years of reserve contract left to serve. 

A few months later, orders came to send me to the Presidio of Monterey California for Russian language school. It was a one year course and I'd been given two weeks warning to report No Later Than (NLT), Close of Business (COB) Sunday, April 14th. On Friday morning, April 12th I hopped into my 1970 Chevy Camaro with big 60's on the back and started my 2,200 mile journey. The red Camaro had acquired the nickname Camaro of Death, which is another story. Let's just say for now that it had some attitude and had served me well.
My first day was any easy 875 mile trek to Cheyenne, Wyoming. I'd book a room at the Motel 6, where they may leave the light on for ya, but they also bought mattresses built entirely from solid rock. After a less than restful night, I got back in my car with the goal of making Reno, Nevada by nightfall. I had been to most of these states before, though Nevada and Wyoming were new, but I'd been to California and many other states. I’d gotten to all most of those paces by plane. I'd even driven in the opposite direction between Minnesota and the East coast four times. So what was the big deal about driving to Cali?

In April.

In a Camaro.

With big ass tires in the back made for street racing.

I found out about two hours into my journey on Saturday morning. You see my friends, there are these little bumps in the road that start in Wyoming and end over in Salt Lake City, Utah called the ROCKY FUCKING MOUNTAINS! There was a winter storm advisory and the local radio station announced the highway was going to be closed. I thought about it and decided that a little snow didn't scare me. I got to the place where the road starts to get really steep and there were no police blocking it, so I rolled on. A few hours later, I was on top of the world, or at least North America and I was starting to wonder the big hairy deal was. There was some snow, sure, but for a man raised in northern Minnesota? Please. 

There was a gas station up there and I pulled in to use the bathroom and fill up. A man came out after I'd honked a few times because it said there was no self service. He looked at me like I was an alien. True, I hadn’t seen any other cars coming or going that day on I-80, but I didn't think I was doing anything odd. He walked all the way around my car until he got to the license plate.

"Uh huh," was all he said and he filled up my tank. He waved me off and he looked very sad, as if I had just told him I was dying of terminal cancer. Creepy. But, I was on the road again and looking forward to seeing the Great Salt Lake that I'd read about in McCammon's Swan Song. Ten minutes later, I started seeing tractor trailers pulled off to the side of the road, followed by a couple of SUV's. I noticed that I could no longer see the actual road, just a flat section of snow and ice that extended from one rock wall to the other.
It was about that time I got hit by the first crosswind. I have no idea how many miles per hour it was blowing, but it slammed the Camaro of Death thirty feet sideways and I could have touched the rock wall to my right if the window had been down. I could see the storm form behind me. It grew in strength until it threatened to overtake my car. I got slapped both ways and almost spun completely around, but refused to slow down below 40 for fear of being buried alive and not found for days. My ass cheeks were clamped so tight, I could have converted anthracite into diamonds. I had a death grip on the steering wheel and briefly wondered if it could be bent.

Finally, I hit a stretch of road without any gusts and I while it still looked like an ice age was hot on my ass, I could see the sun break through ahead of me. I was out of the worst of it, I was safe. Then the road started slanting down. By down I don’t mean a gentle grade, but to me it appeared to be a flume ride at Six Flags, except this one was frozen solid. Oh, and here's the really cool part for those of you that have never driven on this section of I-80, it's curvy. It's a road cut into the side of a mountain, so it keeps switching back. I didn't touch the breaks for fear I would lose the illusion of friction that somehow kept me from shooting off the road and out into the air. My hands and jaws and yes, even my ass cheeks, went from uncomfortable to painful to numb and I have to admit I don’t remember the last fifteen minutes.

One instant I was anticipating how death would feel, and the next I was riding through a residential area on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. I was suddenly overcome with the urgent need to empty my bowels and bladder and pulled into the first convenience store I saw. I was still wearing my gloves and winter jacket. Hell, the inside of my car was still around 50 degrees. When I step out of my Camaro, I judged the temperature to in Salt Lake be around 75. People were looking from me to my car and then up to the mountain and back to me again. I walked around the front of my chariot just in time to see a solid block of ice at least three inches thick that covered the entire bumper and grill, fall off in one piece onto the parking lot. 

Later, with a completely empty digestive track and a liter of ice cold Mountain Dew, I stood beside the Great Salt Lake. It was salty. It was great. After five minutes, I got back in my car and continued on toward Reno where another rock solid Motel 6 bed was waiting to cause me pain. 

Tune in this Friday, for the exiting conclusion in Part 2.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You had to see it

I'm a writer. Even before I focused on my craft and gave it the time and energy it deserved, I was a story teller. When I was a child, I was a liar. I told lies to escape punishment like many kids do, but I also told lies to get attention.  They were stories that I made up and not meant to cause trouble. I realize all kids do this to some extent, but I probably did it just a bit too long before I realized it was wrong.
I tell you this as a preamble, because as I relate things that have happened in my life, there are times when I am obviously exaggerating for comedic effect. In one post I described my balls as being made of brass and being as big as church bells. In another, I claimed I sprinted faster than a car in a quarter mile. I know most readers will either like or dislike these exaggerations, but few will believe I'm claiming them to be true.  I'm spending two paragraphs to make this point, because when I tell you this next story about my dad, people will undoubtedly believe I am exaggerating or stretching the truth for effect. I'm not.
These blog posts are to help me with my writing while hopefully entertaining my friends and fan (I know I have one somewhere). But they are also to help keep my memories alive. Some are funny, some are tragic. Most of the stories dealing with my father I will tell so that I don’t forget. Like all father son relationship, ours was complicated, but never doubt that I loved him.
I'm going to tell you two examples of his shooting ability. He loved to hunt. His life revolved around hunting season. He loved to hunt anything and everything, but his main passion was deer hunting. Over the years I saw him demonstrate his skill as a hunter and shooter. You need to have both to consistently take down the game you want, but there are times when even he seemed to exceed his own legendary abilities.
The first occurred when I was too young to hunt. It was the mid 70's and we were all still a family and dad decided to take my sister (who was hunting age) and I along for a road hunt. It was the last day of the season, and he hadn’t seen jack shit on our property. The snow came early that year and it was already deep. On that day, we drove out in the morning and saw nothing. We went back out that afternoon. We were ordered to scan the fields for any movement. I don’t think he'd ever been skunked before, and he wasn't about to go a season without putting some meat in the freezer.
We'd been driving around since lunch, and it while there were still a couple hours before sunset, a bad storm had moved in and the snow was coming down in huge flakes. I was in the front seat scanning the right side, but visibility was down to less than a hundred yards. I prayed for a deer and just when I gave up, I saw the flash of horns out of the corner of my left eye. I was so surprised I couldn’t speak. Dad saw the movement and turned just as the buck bounded across the country road less than fifty feet in front of the car and leapt into the field to our left.
We were going about 35 miles an hour. Dad slammed on the brakes and the station wagon went into a sideways slide. With one hand, he pulled out his still loaded rifle and with the other, he shoved open his door. He held it open with his left foot and used the door frame for a rest. I'd already lost sight of the deer, but he must have still had sight picture with his 3x9 scope, because he squeezed the trigger once and smiled. It was a rare site, and I cherished it.
The car came to a stop and he told us to stay put. We strained to see him, but he disappeared into the storm. Fifteen minutes later, he came back, dragging the field dressed buck through the hip deep snow.
A year later, my parents got divorced and two years after that, my dad moved to Thief River to be the manager of a compressor station for Great Lakes Gas. He purchased 80 acres of land 50 miles north of Thief River near a preserve. He was right between state land and farmers fields. The deer were corn fed and plentiful. It was a freakishly warm November and there was no snow. I left my stand around noon to grab some lunch and met my dad and his girlfriend by the cars. The entrance road to the land ran along a ditch bank and the next to the farmer's field that usually had corn. Behind us was all forest, but in front of us were fields for miles.  
After lunch, we headed back toward our stands. When we got past the trees that ran like a wind break along the ditch bank, my dad grabbed my arm so hard I almost screamed. I stopped and followed his gaze. There was something out there, but even with my glasses, I couldn’t tell for sure what it was. My dad had 20/10 and he whispered that it was a buck. He crouched down and moved up about twenty yards to a small mound of dirt and told me to lie down. I did what I was told, but I still had no idea what he was thinking. I lay down on my back and he looked at me like I was high.
"Roll the fuck over."
I did and he lay down and used me as a shooting rest. After a few minutes, he whispered, "Four point."
For those of you not raised by my father, you would likely call it an eight-point buck. But he only called one side for reasons that were never fully explained. I tried to turn my head to get a look, but he growled at me not to move. After a couple of minutes of adjusting, he told me to take a breath and not to move. His actual words were, "Don’t you some much as fucking twitch until I after I take my shot." I took a breath and held it. I have no idea how much time passed, but I was starting to see spots when his 300 Weatherby Magnum boomed. He got up and I followed, sure he'd missed. But he was smiling.
"Let's go get him."
We got in his station wagon and he set the trip meter to zero. We rolled down the ditch bank toward the main road that was a mile away. When we the trip meter said ¾ of a mile, we stopped. I walked behind him into the field. We'd passed the deer by about a hundred yard and we walked back to it. The bullet had taken the buck in the spine, breaking its back and killing it instantly. We were one hundred yard shy of three quarters of a mile. I realize that a car odometer is not an accurate judge of distance, but even if it was a ways off, he shot at least 1,000 yards and likely closer to 1,100. I'd seen the ballistics, and I know that the round would do it. The rifle was stock and even though it is a beautiful limited edition Colt/Sauer bolt actions rifle, it had not been modified and was not what snipers call a "One Minute of Angle" weapon, which guarantees a high rate of accuracy.
I've seen him accurately shoot a lever action from the hip like the character on the TV show The Rifleman, snap a rifle to his shoulder and take a deer mid jumped while on a drive and I'd witnessed him make many long shots from a rest. Standing still, jumping away or at a full run at 500 yards, there wasn't a deer he couldn't take with a rifle. Come to think of it, he was a fair hand with a shotgun (best in Bemidji at Trap and Skeet two years in a row), and was spooky good with a pistol too. I'm a fair shot. I'm sure I inherited some of his natural skill, but I'm thousands of rounds behind him. He took his skills and sharpened them all the years of his life.
He passed away in 2008. I haven't been able to hunt since. It just doesn’t feel right to do it without him. It was the one thing we did together as father and son.