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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Sign of Pain to Come

Since you all seem to take enormous pleasure from my tales of testicular terror(for those of you that don't know what I'm talking about, see my post entitled "Anesthesia is for Pussies"), I've decided to relate an encounter I had as a teenager in my hometown of Bemidji, Minnesota.
I graduated in 1984, much to the surprise of many. For those of you too young to remember, the late seventies and early eighties were the boom of video games. The first was Space Invaders, but the speed at which new games were introduced into local arcades and bowling alleys was astounding. Before I graduated, they even came out with the first home gaming system called Atari. Those were wonderful and magical times, at least for people that had money. Don’t get me wrong, I made and spent more that I should have on games, but they didn’t overshadow a kid's life like they do now. We had no Internet and the Atari was a bit lame.
We still had to entertain ourselves the old fashion way. The way teenagers have been entertaining themselves for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We got into trouble. The ways and types of trouble were limited only by our own imaginations, and we had a lot of imagination. I will refrain from complete descriptions of our high jinks since I'm not familiar with the statute of limitations on all of our activities. I will instead focus only on the return trip from one of our nightly excursions.
It was summer and we were young and restless. We were also tired after a night that involved some running a lot of hiding and even more walking. Despite our tired feet and sated appetite for trouble, we were obliged to complete a ritual we had followed for years any time we passed through a particular section of houses on the way back to the trailer court we lived in. You see my friends; there was a house in that neighborhood that was not like the others. One of those houses wasn't quite the same. It was in fact mostly underground. The roof line was waste high and there were no visible windows. There was a lot of experimental housing back in the seventies, either for environmental purposes or just to be different. Near the house that I lived in before the divorce and our relocation to the trailer court, we lived near a house on stilts.
But it wasn't just the hobbit hole of a house that drew our interest; it was the people that lived inside. They seemed strange to us. We never saw them come or go, yet the place was clearly inhabited. In retrospect, it's obvious we were scared of the place and its inhabitants, but we wouldn't have admitted it to each other at the time. So we did what all kids do when they are afraid of or don’t understand something. We messed with it. We did this by grabbing a piece of fire wood off the pile behind the house and chucking it on top of the roof. Then we would haul ass, laughing like the idiots we were.
On the night in question, something was different. Instead of the usually door slamming and swearing, this night the deafening report of a 12 gauge shotgun trapped the giggles in our throats as the buckshot shredded the pine needles above our heads. To say that we broke into a run in the exact opposite direction of the man with the shotgun doesn’t quite do our flight for survival justice. I had honed my flight or fight response for years by stupidly teasing bullies, and I went from zero to a full balls out sprint in .05 seconds.
We all knew every square foot of the surrounding five miles of land and like a flock of birds, pivoted in silent communication and headed for the clearing that was across the road from our homes and safety. We had chosen speed over stealth and it was the right choice. Three abreast, we broke land speed records together as we escaped the tangle of pines and increased our pace across the open ground. The lights from the trailer court were in site and we knew that once we cleared the wood fence and were out of a line of sight, we would be safe.
The clearing had changed over the years. The most recent addition was a large pole barn on the south side. Large trucks often pulled in churning the sod into a makeshift driveway roundabout. There were no trucks there that night, but a new addition had been made. The people that owned the warehouse were concerned that people may get curious and want a look inside. In response to their concern, they had decided to erect a no trespassing sign. It went up the very next day. Unfortunately, they had been working on it early that day. They got as far as cementing in the bottom section of the sign post. Like many city signs, they would then bolt the upper post that had the sign affixed to the lower section that was cemented into place. The lower sign post was just three inches higher than my inseam, and I assure you the cement had plenty of time to harden.
I hit that raised post in full sprint and running the fastest I'd ever run before or since. I was actually gaining speed and leaving my friends behind as I hit it full force with my nuts.
Let me assure you that the post was just fine. It did not suffer from the impact. I however went from eye watering speed to zero in .00001 seconds. All the air left my body and I collapsed forward onto the pole, where I rotated like a wounded merry go round. My "friends" took half a block to notice and to slow down. They came back, fear quickly being replace by amusement. If you read the other post about my vasectomy, you will understand that I don’t say lightly that I would rather get the vasectomy reversed than relive running ball first into that pole. I had been kicked in the jewels a few times and had other testicular mishaps involving bikes or fence posts over the years, but nothing before or since can really compare to the pain I felt that night. And while there was pain, it was not focused. It included everything from my thighs up to my belly button.
The man with the odd house and twelve-gauge hadn’t followed us and my friends carried me back, trying hard not to laugh. They failed. As teenagers do when they fear discovery or danger, they split after setting me near my front door. No one was home, so I didn’t need to sneak inside. I went to my room and whimpered, waiting for the pain to pass. With nothing else to occupy my mind, I imagined the amount of damage I’d caused to myself. I’d never experienced this amount off pain before and yet there was a numbness that convinced me I had at the very least ruptured a testicle and at worst severed by penis.
It took me over an hour to get up the courage to look. The lack of blood was reassuring and after further examination, I was still intact. Over the next few days, there was swelling and a lot of pain, but I was whole.
We never spoke about the incident again, but my friends and I had come to a silent agreement that our nightly adventures had ended.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

VIP Cookies, an EOD Adventure

Not all of my time as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician was spent blowing stuff up. We also had a mission to support the Secret Service with bomb search and if necessary response services. We did this for the UN when it was in session and for the President or Vice President whenever they were traveling in our area. During the Presidential campaigns, we also supported all of the candidates and spent weeks on the road starting with the primaries all the way through to the election.
We were given $400 dollars to purchase suites. Even in 1986, you couldn't get much for $400, but we were expected to have at least two suites a nice pair of shoes and as many shirts and ties as were needed. If you ever attended one of these functions, it was easy to distinguish between the Secret Service and us. Our suites were cheap and our hair was a lot shorter. We also didn’t have a giant stick up our ass.
I'm not sure why most of the Secret Service agents were such pricks to us. Maybe it was the fact that we got to move around, while they mostly had to stand in front of doors for hours at a time. Or maybe they just felt superior. Who knows, but after a few weeks, I gave up trying to be nice and get along. Especially after the fourth time they made sure to order enough food for all of their agents, but conveniently forgot us. It was common to go without a meal break for eight hours during the Primaries in 1987-88. We were always short staffed and had to drive from function to function without a break. There were also periods of time we didn’t get paged for three days and kicked back at a hotel, but we made up for it running solid for the next forty eight hours.
Since we didn’t have time to stop and eat and weren't given a plate at 99% of all the functions we supported, we scrounged any chance we could. As luck would have it, the VIPs were usually brought into the events via the kitchen. We were responsible for searching the VIPs route in and out and if he/she stayed at the hotel, their room as well. We found it very convenient that there were large rolls of saran wrap in the walk-in coolers. I would search the entire cooler, then scarf down a half a pound of cold cuts. Once I was no longer dizzy with hunger, I would wrap up another half pound for whoever I was teamed up with.
Sometimes, there is no event. Sometimes, the VIP is just staying at a hotel and they roll in through the front door. In those cases, we primarily search the room and the rooms on either side, above and below. It was during one of these times that we were supporting Vice President Bush. I know there are a lot of people that don’t care for the Bush family, especially George Junior, but let me tell you a couple of reason why I liked the Bush Senior.
First of all, he served in WWII as a dive bomb pilot. Regular pilots were crazy enough, but dive bombers did just what it sounds like. They were launch off a carrier, flew toward the enemy's battle ships and carriers, gained a bunch of altitude, and dove at the big ships. At the last minute, they would pull up, often pulling enough G forces to black out, and then they would fly back and reload a new bomb and do it all over again. Bush senior was shot during one of those missions. After the war, he entered government service and spent the rest of his working life in service to his country.
That's was enough for me to warm up to him, but in the two times I was within ten feet of him, he noticed and took the time to talk to me. The first time, he was at some hotel giving a speech, and he'd been around long enough to know I was EOD. I was 19, but looked about 17. He shook my hand, thanked me for my service and made small talk. I was impressed and happy, but didn’t think much of it. Three months later, I saw him before his speech at the dedication of Ellis Island. They were finally cleaning the place up and we'd spent a full day crawling through a buildings coated in a hundred years of pigeon poop. We cleaned up for the big show, and he shook my hand and said, "Minnesota right?" He'd remembered where I was from. That impressed me. We chatted for about five minutes and then it was time for his speech. Say what you want about the man, he had class.
And now back to the story currently in progress.
I wasn't starving, but I was a bit peckish. We usually had a lot of time to search, but we were called in last minute and the Vice President was ten minutes away. It was then that my sergeant taught me how to search a room expediently. You see the reason we were there was to make sure no one blew up whichever VIP we were protecting. Back in the 80's, they didn’t have a bunch of micro circuit boards and tiny power supplies. Hiding a bomb that could be remotely controlled was hard to do and left signs. Or, it was wired into existing power supplies. So, while my sergeant hit the bathroom and turned on and off all of the switches and gizmos, I jumped up and down on the bed and chairs. Yeah, you guessed it. If there was something there, it would go off one us instead of the Vice President. But hey, we got an extra $150 a month hazardous duty pay!
It was while I was bouncing on the bed, that I noticed the plate of cookies on the bedside table. It was a big plate and they were big cookies.
Chocolate chip.
Six of them.
I knew I didn’t have much time. My sergeant would never approve, but it occurred to me that six just didn't look right on the plate. Five, if arranged properly would not only look better, but seriously, how many big ass cookies did one Vice President need?
It was so big it wouldn't fit in my jacket pocket so I had to break it into four pieces. I rearranged the cookies that were left and brushed the crumb evidence off my hands and suit. We were in and out of that room in less than five minutes. A Secret Service agent, with requisite stick in his ass, was waiting to guard the room. I smiled and waved at him and we walked away. My sergeant suggested we go up to the roof, so I followed. We were in Boston, and it was a warm spring day and the view was magnificent. I was feeling pretty good, until my sergeant said, "Okay, hand over the cookie."
Apparently he'd done the math and noticed six had become five. I figured my ass was grass. I pulled out the four pieces and he studied them and then me. Then he took two of the pieces and quickly gobbled them down. "This never happened," he said and walked back to the elevator.
It was a damned good cookie. Too bad there hadn't been any milk.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pocket Change, an EOD Adventure

Getting old and reminiscing about our youth is a common theme in popular culture, whether it's a song or a movie. I have no desire to go back and relieve those days, but they are worth remembering. I was fortunate to have some experiences that were powerful enough that I was able to lock in the time and place clearly in my mind. To remember how it felt to be in that younger body, and to clearly remember the smells and sounds and feelings. Some of the most vivid memories I have, are from the four years stretch of active duty that I served in the US Army. Friendships seemed to develop faster and events seemed to be more important.
I've never served in combat, and it is simultaneously the source of my greatest relief and greatest regret. I was a Cold War soldier. The Soviet Union was the enemy and it seemed very likely that during my tour from 1984-88, we would meet them on the battlefield, likely in Europe. During that time, there were still many Vietnam Era vets on active duty, and many young soldiers like me, were in awe of their stories. People did not support the troops and soldiers were looked down on.
I had a bumpy ride getting to my permanent duty station and even when I found my home, it was not smooth sailing. But those are stories for a different day. This story is about a time when I had brass balls the size of church bells and felt that if I wasn't exactly immortal, I was certainly invincible.
I was 19, and stationed at the 60th EOD, Ft Dix New Jersey. EOD stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Our job was to render safe unexploded ordnance, and we were damned good at it. On that sweltering summer day, I still had marks to show where the two prongs of the badge, affectionately known as a "Crab", were shoved into my chest by my loving and supportive unit members. Thank god that an EOD detachment consisted of no more than fourteen people.
On the day in question, we were out at the grenade range. Ft. Dix was a training post, and many basic trainees went through there over the years. One of the required parts of training was throwing a live grenade. Thousands of trainees went through every year, and with all of those thousands of grenades, some were bound to fail to function as designed. Every post is different, and at Ft Dix, we dealt with a wide variety of ordnance and even had our share of IED's(Improvised Explosive Devices). But what we had the most of, was grenades. The lot were dealing with that summer had a larger than normal percentage of springs that were broken. For those of you that don’t know, the "spoon" on a grenade holds back a striker with a spring. When the pin is removed and the spoon is released, the spring slams the striker into a fuse that in turn burns for a few seconds before detonating and setting off the explosive. The batch we were dealing with had a lot of broken springs, so the striker never flipped over and the fuse wasn't initiated. The render safe procedure for a grenade was the blow it in place. We did this with a block of C-4. We always put two blasting caps in it to make sure it went off, redundancy in all things.
A tech's biggest enemy in those days was complacency. I'm sure it is still a danger for the EOD techs today, but they also face a greater threat in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bad guys figured out that these guys were rendering safe all of their nasty roadside bombs, so the started specifically targeting EOD. The school is about 8 months long and it takes years of real world experience to get really good at the job. I barely scratched the surface in my short stint and don’t claim to have achieved the expertise of a ten or twenty year vet. By targeting the techs, they slow down the process, spread the rest of the guys thin and in turn killed more people with their IED's.
We didn’t have to deal with any of that. Hell, back then we didn’t even have bomb suits. They were introduced just as I was getting out and I never wore one on an incident. Our uniform, especially in the summer, was boots, pants and a t-shirt. A hat could fall at an inopportune time and the uniform blouse could get in the way. The only thing we had on us beside the stripped down uniform was our Hero Kit. It was a leather tool belt that held a dive knife, a demo pocket knife, a blasting cap crimper, a Leatherman tool and a roll of electrical tape hanging by a short chain.
When we had so many dud grenades, thanks to faulty springs, it made sense to go out first thing in the morning with a bunch of supplies and camp out at the range instead of driving back and forth each time. We did that for a couple of weeks and I will admit that I had become complacent. On this particular day, I remember sitting in the air condition van and arguing over whose turn it was to walk down range it the blazing sun. We all liked to blow stuff up, but it was like Africa hot that summer. There was no sense in arguing either, since I was low man, but it was matter of pride to be able to come up with the best excuse for why I shouldn’t go next. It also helped pass the one hour wait time. When a grenade fails to function as designed, there was a mandatory one hour wait time. It used to be 15 minutes, then 30, then 45 and but at that time it was an hour. The time would be increased each time there was a grenade somewhere that decided to wait until longer the current limit to go off. I sometimes wondered while walking down range if I would be the reason the new wait time was 75 minutes.
I stepped out of the van after 55 minutes, went to the back of the van and prepared my C-4 charge. Then, with 200 basic trainees and a cadre of mostly Vietnam era veterans watching, I walked around the large brick wall and onto the range to find the grenade. Did I saw walked? It was more of a strut. No quite a full out pimp walk, but it those big brass balls made it hard to walk like a normal person.
I knew that it was another broken spring. I knew it to the point where I didn’t even question it. I strolled down range, my gigantic balls clanking in the rhythm of my pace, sure of my invulnerability. The Drill Sergeant had said that the female trainee had "really chucked it", so I headed for the middle of the hard packed dirt range that was pitted with holes from all of the blasts. It resembled a prairie dog habitat. When the holes got too deep, they were supposed to close down and grade it, but that slowed down training, so they always pushed it as far as they could.
During a rainstorm a few weeks before, I'd had to reach down into several holes, some up to my shoulder before I found the grenade. Even with gigantic brass balls and a strong believe in my invulnerability, I questioned my intelligence after the 3rd hole. But there was no rain in sight as I made my search on that day. The heat index was on the ratty edge of being unsafe for outside training and after fifteen minutes of checking holes, I was getting frustrated and thirsty. I looked up at the blast resistant glass for some help, but the Drill Sergeant only shrugged. I headed for the wall, resigned to perform a foot by foot grid search of the entire range. When I was ten feet from the wall, I saw a bulge in the sand at its base the size of a ball, or in this case, a grenade. The private that had "really chucked it", had done so straight down into the ground. I figured that the range sergeants were going to be pissed that I blew a hole in their brick wall, but rules were rules and I set my charge down to blow it in place.
As I bent over to place the charge a strong wind came through and uncovered the grenade. I expected to see another broken spring, but instead, I saw a very healthy spring straining against the sand, attempting to complete its mission. More wind blew and the spring twitched in anticipation.
There are many times in stories where the author will describe a segment of time slowing down for the intrepid hero. I have to tell you that while there is an illusion of time slowing; the reality is that the adrenaline that hits your system speeds up your brain function into overdrive. In less than a second, I disregarded the idea of running, or throwing the grenade. I remembered the change I had in my pocket. At EOD School, a crusty old sergeant had told me to always carry two dimes and a quarter. The two dimes were for a bomb fuse I never saw outside of training, but the quarter was for this very moment. For many years after I got out, even after my brass balls shrunk to almost normal size and I no longer believed in my invulnerability, I carried two dimes and a quarter with me everywhere I went.
I pulled the quarter out of my pocket and slid it between the striker and the fuse just as the spring overcame the sand. There was a loud click as it snapped shut, holding the quarter in place. Now in auto pilot mode, I used a strip of electric tape to secure the quarter, and since I had already picked it up, moved out fifty feet before I set it and the C-4 charge down. I pulled both igniters and walked slowly back to the van.
I was greeted with a scowl from my sergeant. "What took you so long?"
I told him and he shrugged. We went back to waiting for the next dud as more trainees threw grenades and the sun sagged down toward the horizon. It was just another day on the job, and even at the time I didn't find it very remarkable. It was my most interesting grenade, but at the time, that was like your most memorable glass of water. Compared to the other beverages, it was still pretty bland.