A different kind of Veteran

Veterans Day stirs up dusty and dreary memories. I am a veteran after all, though not much of one.  I still see the scar on my right thumb, wounded in battle with a grumpy oil pan at a 4th Infantry Division motor pool.  Still, I too am eligible to go to a VA hospital and be mistreated and ignored.    I have seen the vagaries of military life in a time of peace. I understand why we as a country do not do well at wars anymore.

Here is a brief summary of my military adventure.

Back in the day, the gods of war created the draft.  You had a number.  If it was high, you were “called up.”  That meant a two-year stint in the Army.  Even then, the draft was a farce.  All sorts of deferments laid at your feet.  Stay in college, get married, have children. Most kids my age never saw an M-1, never learned the finer art of dyeing brown army boots black and spit-shining, never had to clear a gas mask or faced the humility of a bolo-ing  on the shooting range.

Any way, I was a low wage-earner with no savings and only a year of college.  Navy ROTC didn’t get me anywhere.  So I “volunteered for the draft,” as they say.  Two years of my time and a nice adventure.  I soon found myself in boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

For recruits it was learning a lot of skills needed later in civilian life.  Long marches, bivouacs, calisthenics and training with rifles and  gas masks, crawling on your belly through mud on an infiltration course with explosives going off at your side and machine gun fire above.  And then there was KP, peeling potatoes and washing pots and pans. And guard duty in the middle of the night, walking around with a rifle on your shoulder knowing nobody would steal anything.  The highlight of your stint was a trip to Lebanon.  Not the country.  The post-town to the west.

I qualified “to go Airborne,” but did not like heights.  I qualified for Officer Candidate School but did not want to “re-up” for more years.  So I stayed with the grunts, the lowest rank of soldier.  The ones who mostly die in wars.

One good thing. Boot camp slammed two different cultures together.  Small-town kids from Kansas like me merged with rough with tumble thugs from Chicago.  We became unified, though, in our hate of arrogant officers and NCOs who routinely lied to us.  If you do this and this, you will get liberty on the weekend, we were told.  We did as ordered, like winning the post athletic competition.  But, alas, no trip to Lebanon.  A lesson in false promises and motivational speeches.

On Saturday mornings a prissy lieutenant would inspect the barracks.  Again, there was the promise of weekend liberty if we “passed.” At first, I thought it was a real inspection.  The officer entered the barracks while we stood at attention and waited his heaven-cast decision.  He checked our beds by flipping a half-dollar coin onto the Army blankets to see if it bounced.  If it did not, the officer was not happy.  He put on a white glove and probed into every nook and cranny until he invariably found his glove soiled.  That distressed him greatly.  No liberty and a weekend of labor and drills.  I reluctantly accepted my station in life.  Slave to the masters.

It was all a game, I suppose, with a purpose.  But, if you had too much pride as I did, you rebelled.   At least privately.

I survived boot camp somehow.  I could strip down an M-1 rifle, clean the parts and reassemble it blind-folded.  I was lean and hard.  But I came away with a life-long distaste for the military life.   Never again would I put myself in a position where others totally controlled my destiny.  I thought of the battlefield more than once and how some officer could “sacrifice” my platoon, my life, for the so-called greater good.

After boot camp and school at Wood, I was sent west to the 4th Infantry Division.  The 4th was then based at Fort Lewis, WA.  For a short time, I served as a supply clerk with the 4th Aviation Company.  The officers flew motorized planes for recon.  No jets.  I typed out forms, or requisition orders.  My daily life came down to airplane parts, mops and brooms, all the little things that make the military function.  I was good at it.  I could type fast and knew all the codes and I worked diligently to escape the tedium.  I kept my spirits up by reading books more I ever had.  I bought a set of barbells from York and worked out in the back of the supply room.

Pay was pitiful.  The figure $76 a month comes to mind.  Of course you got room and board, such as it was.  Near the end of every pay period a sad parade of married soldiers would amble through the barracks begging to borrow money.  They lived off-base and had wives and children to support on the same wages as mine.  I did a couple of loans myself and always got paid back.  I could not bring myself to charge interest as some did.  It was another dim reminder of politicians in Washington wanting to buy an army on the cheap and increasing business for pawn shops.

For a long time I walked everywhere.  Mostly to the PX and back.  Finally, the company clerk and I went together to buy an ancient Plymouth sedan.  It was green and so were we.  We got what we paid for.  The ignition didn’t work and we had to push it so it would start.  We learned strategy from parking that lemon on lonely spots on hills. If the Plymouth was in the mood, we’d head for paradise, a trip into smelly Tacoma where the pulp mills fouled the air.  Compared to the base, it was wonderful.

The highlight of my military career, if you could call it that, was playing ball.  I did little the last year and a half but play baseball, football and basketball.  For a while I thought I had beaten the system.

We jocks lived like kings.  This was particularly true during football season.  We were given “Class A” duty.  We lived in a separate barracks away from the normal, hard-working grunts and slept in till noon if we wanted.  I learned pinochle and backgammon from a running back  from California who also gave me an appreciation for jazz.  The only expectation was to attend practice in mid-afternoon and play the games on weekends.  The games, though, could be hell.  I still remember playing the semipro Seattle Ramblers in a cold, driving rainstorm.  Poor us.

Basketball and baseball got only “Class B” status.  While we lived in the same separate barracks like football, the jocks had to return to their companies in the morning to do this or that.  Mainly I was a driver for the battalion commander, Col. Pete Clainos, one of the few officers I half  way liked.  He was a West Pointer, after all, and seemed secure in his role, so unlike the officers that came up through OCS and college ROTC.

In the summer, though, everyone went on maneuvers in the Rattlesnake Hills above Yakima, on the dry side of the Cascades.  I was a short-timer by then and marked down the days I had left to serve in the underside of my Army cap.  Because I could taste freedom again, I suppose, the slightest of moments filled me with joy.  Like the smell of apple blossoms wafting up from the Yakima Valley at night, and even driving in darkness with a major who couldn’t read a map.

And there was the time, we prepared to go to war in Lebanon, not the town.  Even back then there were tensions in the Middle East.  The 4th was a STRAC unit, ready for combat anywhere in the world within 24 hours, it was said.  We greased our rifles, packed our bags and were on the verge of boarding a train to the docks when everything was called off.  Not that I minded.

So, now, I am, yes, a veteran.  But it is nothing I’m proud of.  I got through the military the best way I knew how.  On the other hand, I was available to fight a war.  But that was about it.  Being “available” is not worth the “shit on a shingle” we had for breakfast.  Not compared to what others have endured.

That does not keep me from wishing the best for all those veterans before and after me who truly served their country in a meaningful way.  Particularly those who actually came into harm’s way.  And extra-particularly those who fought in unpopular and needless wars, like in Vietnam and in George W. Bush’s campaign of empire in Iraq.

Having watched the sons and daughters of our wealthy class avoid wars their parents are so fond of creating, I hope the draft will again return. A real draft with real consequences for everyone.   It is the only fair way to go.  Everybody should be required to do government service of some kind.

If I can get through military life, anyone can.

The beauty of it all

Cellphone towers atop summit of North Mountain.

Cellphone towers atop summit of North Mountain.

I believe you can find beauty in almost anything.  Even in the looping knots of the magnified Ebola virus.  And yesterday evening I found beauty in cellphone towers.

It was sunset when I started down from the summit of Shaw Butte, a relatively high peak in the middle of Phoenix.  It is one of the two tallest peaks in North Mountain Park.  The other, North Mountain, is just a shade smaller.  Both mountains are in the 2,000 foot range in elevation, yet 1,000 feet higher than nearby terrain.  And both are dotted with cellphone towers.

Metal amid nature.

Metal amid nature.

Standing tall on Shaw Butte.

Standing tall on Shaw Butte.

Heading down the rough road, I suddenly became struck by these metal trees.  I must have caught them just at the right moment.  The mix of man-made metal and Nature-made shadows compelled me to pull out by old Canon and shoot away.   Behind the towers, clouds of all colors amid an azure sky enhanced the scene.  Nature’s own cellphone tower, a giant Saguaro, rested nearby, the tops of its numerous arms swathed in sunlight. It would be hard to choose one tower over the other unless you intellectualized it:  Nature is best, cellphone towers on mountain tops are evil.

All of this reminded me to take longer looks at things that at first seem repulsive.

Unearthly constructions.

Unearthly constructions.

The Saguaro, Nature's tower.

The Saguaro, Nature’s tower.

The other night watching “Forensic Files” I could barely stand to look at a disfigured woman.  Her son had stabbed her three times in the head with a long knife.  She recovered but her face looked akin to a burn victim.  It took great courage for her to now walk in public, to see the stares, to see the quick-turns of faces looking away.  But I believe if you examined that face long enough, that courage would be reflected somewhere, in some aspect on that face  And that would be beautiful.

‘Apartment Zero’ and the Ebola scare

If there is one Ebola case in the U.S. that Americans should follow closely it is the one involving Louise Troh and others living in her apartment in Dallas late last month.  This case of “Apartment-Zero” should tell Americans just how contagious this strain of Ebola actually is.

Troh was the Dallas girlfriend of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first human in the U.S. to die of the disease.  She resided in an apartment with Duncan as his infectious symptoms emerged on September 25.  Also staying in the apartment at the same time were Troh’s 13-year-old son, her nephew and a friend.  At least five others lived in the apartment or had contact with Duncan during the critical period.  None of course wore protective gear.

Probably none had more exposure to Duncan than Troh’s daughter, Youngor Jallah, a nurse.  After Duncan was amazingly sent back to the apartment after appearing with symptoms at Presbyterian Hospital, it was Jallah who took care of Duncan as his condition worsened and was the one who finally called 911 to transport the victim back to the hospital on September 28.  By then, Duncan had suffered from fever and diarrhea in the apartment for three days.  He received an Ebola diagnosis two days later.

It is all good news so far after 18 days.

None of the exposed  has come down with symptoms.  All are in quarantine at another residence in Dallas as Ebola’s 21-day incubation period approaches.  Under current CDC guidelines, Troh will be considered Ebola-free on Monday, the 20th, and supposedly her quarantine would be lifted immediately.  Since most of the disease’s symptoms appear within 8-10 days, this is good news.  Here, you have a wide sample of exposures involving different age groups and genders.

So far, the only cases within the U.S. involving transmission of Ebola have been two high-risk nurses who treated Duncan during the most contagious period.  Should Ebola ever get into the general population via casual contact, then, and only then, do we have something serious to talk about.

It is almost mind-boggling how the media has hyped the bad news about Ebola in the U.S. and has lost their way in covering the tell-tale Apartment Zero.   It would be fully mind-boggling if it didn’t happen so often.  In the meantime, Americans continue to show a propensity to panic before knowing the facts, thanks in part to the ineptitude of the CDC and Dallas hospital where the U.S. outbreak has occurred and hyping the dangers, particularly  by CNN and Fox News.



A page for bumbling America

It surely has become obvious to many that America is in a state of decline and denial.  Starting this century with 9/11, you see case after case in which incompetence, bad decisions and deceptions are a large part of this country’s daily diet.

With this in mind, Long Row starts “Bumbling America” hoping to  identify some of the more egregious examples.  Although the page begins today with the looming possibility of an Ebola epidemic in this country, “Bumbling” will not hesitate to reach back in time to summarize other significant events in current America history be they large or small.

Suggestions are welcome and will receive attribution if used.

Losing our heads over Ebola

Two Americans are beheaded by ISIS in the Mideast.  Polls reveal a turn-around in public perception. Many Americans suddenly want to go to war.  A significant number want soldiers on the ground, particularly if those soldiers are not their sons and daughters.

In the meantime, Ebola arrives in the U.S.  It concerns us only a little.  To me, Ebola poses a much larger threat to this country than ISIS.  The survival rate is about 50 percent.

“I have no doubt we will stop (Ebola) in its tracks in the U.S.,” says Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Diseased Control and Prevention.

I for one am not in the believing mood.

Sincerity and truth are hard commodities to find these days in a cover-up American society.  People stew over losing their jobs.  They refuse to admit mistakes.  Like 9/11, WMD and the tragic invasion of Iraq in 2003, the financial crisis of 2008 and more recently the dithering over ISIS and under-estimation of its threat to the U.S.  And the Secret Service lapse:  A knife-wielding man penetrating undeterred deep into the White House.  And then the Secret Service lies about the incident.

And now Ebola.

Incredulously, we have allowed an infected man to enter the U.S. by simply taking a flight out of Liberia, one of three West African countries already decimated by the infectious disease.

You would hope that anyone traveling out of that African region would be quarantined for a while.  Not so.

It is reported the Liberian victim now being treated in a Dallas hospital was cleared for “symptoms” before boarding the plane and then sent on his merry way to visit relatives in the U.S.

Most victims, it is reported, show symptoms within 8-10 days after infection.  It is during the symptoms stage that the disease can be transmitted by contact.  So how does anyone know the health status of passengers leaving Liberia by sticking a thermometer in their mouth?  What is apparent today may not be apparent in a week.  How can you not quarantine travelers for at least two weeks and see if they are OK?

The man arrived in Dallas on September 20, became ill on the 24th, visited a medical facility and was sent home before a later diagnosis of Ebola.  Even more alarming was a report today the victim was sent home after telling the medical person he had come from Liberia!

It will be difficult for most Americans to admit what is so obviously true and has been increasingly true for all of the 21st Century.  We live in a bumbling country.  Neither government nor citizens have their heads screwed on right.

You can not make foreign policy over two beheadings. You should not make policy from polls.  You can make policy over who gets into this country from Liberia.

Under the el

The el (above right) just 20 yards from our condo.

The el (above right) just 20 yards from our condo.

Last month we rented a condo for four days in Chicago’s Old Town, a few miles north of the downtown Loop.  What the owner didn’t reveal in the property description angered us.

“It’s under the el!” I wrote in my notebook.

Yes, the condo all but set directly under the city’s noisy elevated rail, commonly known as the el.

When we first sized-up the situation, thoughts of eating the $200 a night rent and fleeing to a quieter place immediately rushed in.  A lawsuit crossed my mind.  Surely there was a Clarence Darrow out there somewhere willing to hammer the condo’s owner in court.

But it was already evening.  We decided to endure one night of hell under the Brown Line.

From our bedroom window, a Brown Line Train passes.

From our bedroom window, a Brown Line Train passes.

Looking at the Chicago Transit Authority’s schedule for the Brown Line, it is almost impossible to reach a precise figure on the number of trains, coming and going, that passes on the el each day.  I used basic arithmetic to come up with a rough figure.  That figure is 300 trains every week day, 22 hours a day, from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.  That comes to about 14 trains per hour, or one every 4.3 minutes.  The frequency is slightly less on weekends.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue is a short walk down the alley to the Brown Line’s Sedgewick Station.  It is the train you take to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.  From our smudgy bedroom window, we could look up at the el from an estimated 20 yards away.  There was no barrier from the sound, not even a tree in the nearby grassy courtyard.

Rumble, rumble.

At bedtime, Nebra pushed in the foam earplugs she had just purchased down the street at Walgreen’s.  I plopped down on a couch with a book and the TV on.

Rumble, rumble.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue.

At a 11:38 I began noting the times trains passed overhead.  11:40, 11:49, 11:57, midnight, and so on.  I finally stopped at 1:39 and went to bed. Twenty trains had thundered by in two hours and a minute.

I dropped into the king-size and soon was off to dreamland.  I was relaxed.  I knew I had a two-hour respite until 4 a.m. when the trains started up again.

But a funny thing happened.  I slept until almost 9, like a lamb.  The trains had been going for five hours.  The plan to abandon the condo vanished somehow shortly after we awoke.

We had breakfast in, worked on the Internet and eventually walked down to the Sedgewick Station and took the north-bound Brown Line train to Wrigley Field.  We had tickets for the Cubs game with Milwaukee.

In the evening, we walked to supper at Thai-Aroma, a restaurant on bustling North Avenue.  By then, the el sounds were imperceptible.  No longer did a jarring rumble, rumble play with our ears.  Back at the condo we had another good night’s sleep.

Far from an enemy, the Brown Line was becoming our friend.  Not only did we travel to Wrigley, but also took “our” train to downtown twice, once on Friday and again on Saturday, then used it again on Sunday to transfer to the Blue Line on our way to O’Hare and the flight home.

As we packed up on Sunday to leave for Arizona, I marveled how we had grown accustomed to life under the el.  The rumble, rumble had become no more than background noise akin to the sound of an air-condition in the house.  You hear it only if you deliberately listen for it.

It is amazing how the mind can adapt to almost anything if given the chance.  I don’t know that I would choose to stay under the el again.  But I do know this.  I am no longer afraid to do so.


On Mackinac Island

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Readers of the travel mag, Conde Nast, voted Mackinac Island in Lake Huron one of  the “top 10″ islands of the world.  That brought caution to my contrarian mind.  Call something paradise, kiss it good-bye.  So went the Eagles’ song anyway.

But there we sat, Nebra and I, waiting patiently at Dock 1 for the 2 o’clock ferry to Mackinac.  As the moment of departure arrived and the Star Line’s “hydro jet” parked alongside, the dock quickly filled with other tourists who, I assumed, had each coughed up $25 for the round-trip fare.  Some even carried luggage for an extended stay.

Star Line is only one of three big ferry companies to service Mackinac traffic.  Along with Shepler’s and Arnold’s, Star Line is bunched into a busy area of motels and restaurants on the east side of Mackinaw City, in northern Michigan.

So what’s the attraction out there?  For one, a few handsome old hotels and 19th Century churches at the port, Mackinac City.  Uphill from the town is an old fort built around 1715 and the Michigan governor’s summer residence.  And, what interested me most, some hiking trails along Huron and through beautiful evergreen forests.

The Michigan governor's summer residence.

The Michigan governor’s summer residence.

As we boarded the two-tiered boat, most everyone grabbed seats on the open upper deck.  It was a sunny Sunday yet cool even here in August, so Nebra and I steered to the lower deck and found seats by the starboard windows.  As we made for open water and the 20-minute ride to Mackinac, the boat’s powerful engine shot water up in the air behind us, 20-30 feet high.  It was an enjoyable voyage over.  Huron’s choppy surface was decked out in eye-pleasing shades of blue against the distant islands of green.

From a distance of a mile or so, the port seemed attractive.  A large marina, sailboats, and a busy harbor.  Big nicely painted home along the shore.  But leaving the dock, you immediately run into another picture which is Mackinac City’s Main Street.  The busy thoroughfare immediately destroyed the first idyllic view.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

Small garish shops lined the bustling street.  Most, it seemed, sold  fudge.  Noisy tourists, inattentive children on bicycles, young families wheeling babies in carts, horse-drawn carriages with camera-toting riders.  You could not have found a more inhumane human place in Kalamazoo.

We picked up a free island map and decided to eat at the least congested restaurant we could find.  That turned out to be the Mustang, I believe.  It stood on a side street and served bar food.  We regretted our order of hamburgers.  After eating, Nebra asked about the food.  “I thought the white onion was good,” I told her.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Fortunately in walking northerly on Main Street, we soon ran into the Coastal Trail and proceeded along the eastern side of the island to a geologic formation called Arch Rock.  But first we came across the city street cleaner, a cheerful man sweeping up the mess the horses left.  And Nebra, in fun, had to wrench the man’s broom and manure pan and do a little sweeping of her own.  I do think it made the street cleaner’s afternoon a better one.

Only after passing the sprawling Mission Point Resort did I start to feel good again.  Though we had plenty of hiking company, the crowds thinned and were soon reduced to the lingering memory we would have to trundle back through the place to catch our ferry.

Mackinac finally grew enchanting, this mix of unexpected wildness of forests and white limestone by a dazzling blue lake.  Canada geese bobbed along the shore.  We stopped numerous times to ponder the natural world.  What kind of flower?  What kind of tree?  Was it Mountain Ash?  We huddled by a tree I thought was a Paper Birch, scanning our guide to plants in northern Michigan.

At one point though, the human need to create meaningless art forms emerged.  Zillions of rock cairns began to dot the shoreline.  I was at a loss to explain some of the cairns poking up from Huron itself.  The bafflement continued until Nebra reminded me that until a few years ago that not only Huron but all the Great Lakes had lost vast amounts of water.  The cairns had obviously been erected in the ebb years when the rocky coast was exposed.

To reach Arch Rock from the shore requires some stamina.  That meant mounting the hundred-some wooden steps to the top.  And when you get there, you see many have taken the easy way up, by carriage from town.  And once there, you see too it is over-ridden by kiddies with Canons, all in a rush to take selfies and absorb nature in the new digital sort of way.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The Arch proved a decent destination, a huge hole in the limestone, resting, I read, 146 feet above Huron.  The vistas are great from the wood platforms nearby.

We hiked back to town by a different route, slipping along a well-kept trail through old forests.   It was like a nature trail with signs along the way identifying various trees.  But you are never too far away from the noise of tourists returning on the carriages to the tune of clop-clop-clop on nearby pavement.

Probably the most impressive  thing we saw came outside old Fort Mackinac.  Near sundown, a group of uniformed Girl Scouts performed a ceremony to take down the American flags, not only at the fort but at the governor’s mansion and a few other spots to boot.  Make no mistake.  These are very serious girls who seem to take their duties to the highest level as they break into groups and march 100s of yards to their assigned destinations.  Impressive.  We followed three of them to the governor’s residence where the flag was lowered solemnly in front of a small gathering of spectators.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor's residence.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor’s residence.

Down the hill to the harbor we came, wasting little time in the still-busy foot traffic of Mackinac City and reaching our assigned dock well in time to catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Mackinaw City.  The return passage proved uneventful, and I was glad to be back on the road to Petoskey.  We planned to leave our pleasant house on East Mitchell in the morning, bound for Chicago again.

While Mackinac Island turned out to be a pleasant afternoon’s experience, I doubt I will ever go back.   As it turned out, once is enough.  Too many tourists.