1977: SCOPES

It’s always been a challenge for the army to train realistically for war. In medieval times young men would hack at each other with wooden swords but practicing with live ammunition can unfortunately produce unfortunate results similar to the “getting just a little bit pregnant” scenario that happens with inept sex education. It wasn’t until the introduction of MILES gear in the early 1980s that truly realistic training exercises started to happen. Training with MILES (a.k.a. the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) gave a wake-up call to units that were accustomed top scores under the old system of using blanks accompanied with bang-bang-you’re-dead-you-missed-you-stupid grunt; squads breezing through evaluations with a 10% loss were shocked  when the unforgiving lasers and sensors in the MILES system assessed 60-70% losses for the same exercise.

For the first time outside of actual combat troops started getting serious about cover and concealment.

Just prior to the introduction of MILES the Army experimented with a stop-gap system called SCOPES, which used low power scopes mounted on M16’s and camouflage helmet covers bearing low-contrast numbered discs that were extremely hard to read without the aforementioned scopes at distances more than a yard or two. When opposing squads made contact soldiers would aim at an opposing troop, squeeze off a blank round and call off the guy’s number to one of the lane graders who would then assess casualties, the helmet covers having been issued in a totally random manner to prevent soldiers from calling out random numbers and eliminating opponents without really taking aim.

It was under those conditions that my squad went through a series of tactical problems at FT Lewis Washington in July of 1977. We took turns as squad leader and were each given a simple mission to accomplish such clearing a path, making contact with an adjacent friendly unit or setting up a hasty ambush. I breathed a sigh of relief when my number came up and I was charged with leading the squad to a downed reconnaisnce aircraft to retrieve a film canister. At first glance it seemed that my biggest problem would be maintaining squad integrity while moving through the dense vegetation of the temperate rain forest covering this part of Washington state, but mostly I felt relief at what looked to be a walk in the woods.

Any elation I felt quickly dispelled as I started leading the squad in a wedge formation through terrain that sloped slightly downhill and into ever-thickening brush. We’d gone no more than ten yards when I lost sight of my two outermost flankers but I figured that between yelling at the top of my lungs and two dependable fire-team leaders I could still keep things going.

“Hey – I’m running into concertina wire” It was my guy on the left. I stopped the squad and went to check the wire, which was strung three strands deep and angled in towards our front, forcing me pull that side of the squad in before resuming efforts to “bust brush”… but with within a few short minutes a faint voice on my right chimed in with “Hey there’s razor wire over here too”, a development which prompted squad members on that side to also draw towards the center of the wedge creating a tactical formation known euphemistically known as a “Charlie Foxtrot”. Internal Stukas started dive-bombing the length and breadth of my abdominal cavity and I desperately searched for a tactical term that I couldn’t quite remember as we broke through the brush into a cleared area bordered on each side with triple strand razor angling in and meeting at a small gate directly ahead of us.

It was at that point that I remembered the elusive term:

Canalizing: the act of restricting an opponent’s tactical operations to a narrow zone by use of existing or reinforcing obstacles

It was also at that point that the machine gun’s opened fire, one to each side of the gap in the wire, prompting lane graders to start calling helmet numbers and eliminating everyone in my squad but me and one of the flankers. I was safe for the moment in a shallow depression but it was only a matter of time before one of the bad guys achieved a better line of sight so in the interest of playing the game I crawled over the closest casualty (AKA my buddy Doug), rolled him up on this side and used his body as a parapet shield before expending all the blanks in both my ammo pouches and those belonging to my now laughing protective barrier.

Any concerns over my tactical decisions during the critique were dispelled as the lead lane grader issued an outstanding spot report for me for my enthusiasm and unique tactical sense .Unable to hold his tongue any longer my human parapet Doug weighed into the conversation with “yeah, nice move but I began to wonder what you were really thinking when you started going through my pockets looking for my wallet and lighter!” to which I shot back with “ just trying to win in an unwinnable situation” but was startled when our lane grader abruptly broke back into the conversation with a quiet but firm “You weren’t supposed to win” that instantly changed the tone of the critique and shut us all up.

As a Special Forces qualified Master sergeant who’d started his career as a rifleman in Korea and spent two tours of duty in Viet-Nam our evaluator was definitely someone to listen to carefully. The lines on his face traced a map of every one of his twenty-seven years as an infantryman though the wrinkles around his eyes were as much the product of good nature as evidenced earlier that morning at the beginning of the exercise when he stressed that his personal motto was:

“Don’t run if you can walk

Don’t walk if you can ride

Don’t go if you don’t have to!”

He went on to tell us about an infantry school study that had shown that new platoon leaders in Viet-Nam often found it “easier to die than to think”, and that just as much emphasis needed to be placed on initiative and imagination as doctrine when training new lieutenants.

“That’s why we scattered problems like this in the syllabus – to get cadets to use their imagination when needed”

“Sometimes you just can’t win”

…which is the point of my story. As I’ve written in the past I have ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease much like rheumatoid arthritis. It is progressive, incurable, irreversible, very painful and getting more so as time goes by which is why insurance underwriters put it in the same “dread disease “category as lupus, multiple sclerosis and others. It’s going to be with me until I die and at best all doctors can do is alleviate the symptoms…which gets more and more difficult to as time goes by. It’s also the reason my writing has been so sporadic this last year. Lack of flexibility brought on by A/S was a major factor in a tumble I took down our front room stairs that in turn caused me to spend a good part of the fall of 2019 flat on my back followed by a slow-down-in-general since then.

Because the disease didn’t come with a missing limb or change in pigmentation it’s not readily apparent which can often lead to judgmental comments of which “You don’t look sick” is the most prevalent and as the topic has not appeared here lately my Beautiful Saxon Princess has been gently elbowing me into crunching some words on the subject so:

 Please understand that your friend or relative or co-worker with the not-overly obvious disability is not fishing for sympathy or trying to figuratively steal your wallet and lighter through disability/insurance fraud. We’re just trying to cope with an extremely difficult situation and we’re just doing the best we can…and just as was the case in June of 1977 I’m still trying to win.

Spoons

Spoons

It should be no surprise that summer is my least favorite season. Despite the years I’ve spent in Tennessee I am still an Alaskan boy at heart with climate preferences like those of a golden retriever – I’m happiest when it’s no warmer than forty degrees and my feet are wet. I’m also one of a very small group of people whose autoimmune disease symptoms became more painful when the weather gets warmer….which means that as summer heats up I feel progressively worse – when July rolls around my days involve a lot of just laying around reading and trying to mentally “will” autumn to appear in August.

Despite my penchant for speculative subject matter in my art my taste in reading material is fairly mundane. Currently on my Kindle you’ll find the following books:

  • Confederates in the Attic
  • The Year 1000
  • The Mound Builder Myth
  • The Color of Law
  • Empires of the Sky
  • Drums Along the Khyber

Most of these books are historical works, but sprinkled among the titles from times past you will find books about spoons, specifically spoon theory –  an idea that has very little to do with silverware and everything to do with communicating the challenges and discomfort brought about by the  daily battle with  autoimmune diseases. It’s a wonderful concept brought about by Christine Miserando and you can read about it at length at http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com.

Spoons are markers used in allocating/assessing how much you can get done in a day despite the dramatically reduced energy level and equally elevated pain levels that come with autoimmune problems like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or in my case anklysosing spondylitis. You start out the day with a dozen spoons, and every action – and I mean EVERY action will cost you one or more spoons. The allocation of twelve is purely arbitrary but I found I was able to calibrate my spoon expenditures rather quickly. Getting out of bed costs one spoon, getting dressed is another one, climbing stairs takes two spoons and going to church takes three…so it’s not hard to see how you can run out of spoons rather quickly.

I’m barely scratching the surface of this marvelous communications tool and I highly recommend you check out Ms. Miserando’s website and read her ideas first hand.

 

 

 

Late Night Lament Revisited

(With apologies to Moody Blues percussionist/poet Graeme Edge for stealing his title – it was just too perfect for this post. This was composed a few nights back when I woke up in searing pain at 2:23am – I will try to edit it down to something understandable)

While experts say that late night use of personal electronics interferes with sleep, I’ve found that they can be either a blessing or a curse. I’ve kept track of the efficacy of painkillers over the years and found that they fail 12% of the time, which means that I face a one-out-of-a-dozen chance of waking up in pain that is not eased, making that particular night seem much, much longer than the few hours it actually covers. It’s that point that I’m glad to have a smart phone or tablet handy to provide some distraction.

Most of the time it involves listening, as in :

  • Listening to old radio programs; classics like Dragnet or 21st
  • Listening to LT Theo Kojak bellow “CROCKER” while working a homicide case.
  • Listening to Gordon Lightfoot or the Moody Blues take me to simpler, less stressful times or a more spiritual place.

Most of humanity has no concept of living in chronic pain and I have to laugh at those who suggest that I wean myself off my meds and just pray more. It’s hard to understand a life that entails living in the present and just wanting to escape the pain for a few minutes. You think it’s tough enduring the commuter coyote sitting next to you on the train? The one with earbuds in and singing along with their iPod for the entire trip? Try coping with level 6 or 7 pain in your back, hips and knees for hours on end.

It’s even more difficult because of the years I defined myself by the miles I could walk, the mountains I could climb and the adventures I would find on my way. Now my adventures consist of laughing along with the cast of NewsRadio or listening to Days of Future Past in the middle of the night while I watch the moonlight and shadows make a new landscape and pray that blessed sleep will soon come and let me roam in spirit over those new forests and oceans.

Thanks-that-I-am-giving

I never was a little kid – at least internally. From the time I was able to form coherent thought I was a fifty-year old man in a kid’s body and much more inclined towards pragmatism than my friends. Because of that nature as I approached the precipice of adulthood at eighteen I spent a lot of time trying to develop a good set of mental tools to get me through life, and came up with these half-dozen personal rules:

  1. Taking inventory of my interests and carefully choosing how I’d spend my time
  2. Avoiding trouble and in doing so learn from other people’s mistakes
  3. Thinking through problems the way water always flows to the lowest level
  4. Making everything negotiable when it came to changing myself.
  5. Re-casting challenges as a matter of endurance, then hanging on like a bulldog.
  6. Having faith in the future, that “maybe tomorrow will be a better day”

I figured that by following these guidelines I’d get through life with a minimum of fuss, solving problems efficiently and avoiding the setbacks that my friends encountered, but as Napoleon said “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. That inner fifty-year old made it difficult at times to adapt to social trends and mean old Mister Genetics blessed me with autoimmune issues that have had a game-changing effect on every aspect of my life, but I was still able to hang on to #6, that “maybe tomorrow would be a better day”

…but it’s getting more and more difficult to keep telling myself that and I often fear that there are no more “do-overs” in my life, especially with physical issues. I thought ankylosing spondylitis was the major game-changer in my life, but then I fractured my ankle and that became the major game changer…right up until I took a tumble down our stairs and damaged my knee.

Now my game, my life has truly changed and while I may not totally housebound I am pretty close to it and my best efforts have not been equal to the challenge. There are a lot of things I cannot due (not for the lack of trying) and I struggle with wondering if I don’t have that many more “better days” left to me. It’s a bitter pill  to swallow and while it takes effort to combat that bitterness there are two excellent ways to do so:

  • Service – doing something for someone else
  • Gratitude – expressing thanks for what I do have

That second remedy is why I cherish Thanksgiving – and by “Thanksgiving” I don’t mean the traditional holiday with the Pilgrims, Squanto showing them how to fertilize crops with dead fish and all the emotional baggage the holiday has acquired recently. I’m talking about my own personal “thanks-that-I-am-giving”

  • I’m stuck in my house a lot?
    • Isn’t it great that I’ve got a nice place with comfy places to sit and plenty of DVDs to watch
  • We’re far away from family and old friends?
    • What a blessing to have Facetime and Skype to keep in touch with my whole family.
  • An A/S flare keeps me from walking or doing simple tasks?
    • My Beautiful Saxon Princess loves me and selflessly aids me in everything. 

…and (despite what I said before) tomorrow very well may be a better day.

2019: Fractal-blessings

Even though it has been in use for over thirty years fractal is a word that remains a little ambiguous to me. Oh, I’ve read many definitions to include that by the Fractal Foundation1: A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop… Fractal patterns are extremely familiar, since nature is full of fractals: trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, etc.”

 …all of which is incredibly informative but a bit unwieldy to use in composition or conversation so I tend to think of fractals as: lots of little bits that all look alike and are used to make larger things that look like the little bits. I also use fractal as a found word2 for descriptions that lack a more exact term, a situation that has come about since my mobility became limited and my pain level increased. I am very goal-oriented and tend to think of life in big-picture terms, but I have had to learn to set fractal-goals and recognize fractal blessings.

Where I used to meticulously map out each week in terms days filled with interlocking blocks of time filled with work or appointments I’m now happy to make it to the bathroom and back unaided. Where I used to take my comfortable home life for granted I am grateful for the individual efforts of each member of my family. Instead of just plopping into a chair I am grateful for that one perfect pillow that isn’t too soft or too firm. I read and reflect on each name/like under the FaceBook posts.

Instead of a general “it’s all good” I’ve become more aware of – and more thankful for – each good thing in my life no matter how small.

The fractal-goals and fractal blessings.

___________________________________________________________________

Notes:

  1. A for-real  New Mexico-based non-profit organization advocating math and science education through the use of fractals.
  2. See 2019: Found Words

1972:Vintage Bat-Vehicles

1970sBatStuff0003

I read once that time is something God created to keep everything from happening at once but right now that invention doesn’t seem to be working. Everything IS happening at once, at least several items of great impact on my life. Right as we’re trying to get the Midnight Son Kickstarter campaign set up my knee has gone out – and not in a minor manner. Lori thinks I have a torn meniscus but all I know is that even the most minor movement to my knee brings on excruciating pain.

…which means I haven’t been able to finish the tongue-in-cheek write-up meant to accompany this “vintage” drawing that  incidentally documents two important discoveries/purchases  I made in 1972:

  1. A hard-bound reprint collection of Batman stories from debut in 1939 to 1971
  2. A set of Higgins ink comprised of ten colors and opaque white

I’d just finished my first year of college and while I was intent on changing my major to art I had yet to take a college art class – or any other kind of art class for that matter. I was just having the time of my life drawing  my favorite images, which in this case included 1940’s era Bat Vehicles

2019: Whimpering

One of the most quoted lines from 20th century poetry comes from the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s 1925 masterpiece “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s been garbled, misappropriated and bent to numerous interpretations, but it has been on my mind the last couple of weeks. It’s difficult to resist thinking morbid thoughts as I head into the latter half of my sixties but it’s not just a matter of drawing nearer to the biblical “three-score and ten” that has me so pensive – as a thymus baby my crippled immune system runs with a twenty year handicap. Chronologically I am 66 but when I get sick I heal like an 86 year old.

…which is why I leapt at the chance to be inoculated with  an anti-pneumonia vaccine devised for people age 66 and older. With all the problems I have with upper respiratory infections I was happy enough to get the shot, that is until twenty four hours later when I started to run a fever and rapidly lose strength. By that evening I was weak, couldn’t lift myself from the bed and when I woke up the next day I managed to get to my papa-chair but was unable to dress myself for church. It wasn’t until that afternoon more than 48 hours after getting the injection  that I was able to function. As you would expect it was a scary experience, but what bothered me the most was not the fever or the weakness, but rather the fact that I really just didn’t give a damn.

I suspect it is due to fatigue more than just being ill. In the last six weeks I’ve been sidelined with illness four times and while my inner paratrooper balks at describing these bouts as being “seriously sick” the bronchitis I am currently battling has been the least troubling of the recent illnesses, and upper respiratory problems are usually the medical bogeyman for me. All of this has been happening with my chronic autoimmune issues as a backdrop and when combined with idiotic political and cultural quibbling that I can’t seem to escape I find myself totally overwhelmed.

It brings to mind an older gentleman named Clarence that I worked with during the summer of 1969.. He was a veteran of the Great War (World War I) and I was helping him finish display cabinets for the small museum where I was working via the Neighborhood Youth Corps. I was amazed at his skill and knowledge in woodwork but mystified when once or twice each session he’d simply say the word tired. He was evasive when I quizzed him on it but finally admitted it was a sort of mantra he would used when he felt overwhelmed by the world during his seventh decade. His life had spanned from “if man were meant to fly he’d have wings” to watching Neil Armstrong make that first step on the moon and often felt overwhelmed and tired from trying to cope with all the changes.

I now understand how Clarence feels – I am profoundly tired. I’ll bounce back but for now I just want to whimper.

2019: Becoming Pak

protector

Because it is usually displayed as a fairly small image most people don’t recognize my avatar as anything but some sort of alien, when in fact he is a Pak Protector. Pak Protectors are an invention of noted SF author Larry Niven and figure prominently in his Known Space cycle of stories. They are an old race from a world near the core of our galaxy, a world with high radiation levels and crowded conditions that brought on rapid and extensive evolution.

The Pak go through three stages in life with the first two analogous to human child and adult states,  but instead of expiring at our own  “three-score-and-ten” limit they go into a third phase of existence known as  the Protector stage, which is brought on after a breeder ingests a tuber called Tree-of-Life which a contains a virus that acts as an evolutionary trigger. Humanity is descended from a colony of Pak breeders stranded on Earth millennia ago when the Protectors that established the colony died when their Tree-of-Life crops failed. The original Pak Breeder population evolved into modern humans and all primates of our world would transform into the Protector stage if exposed to Tree-of-Life root.

The transformation produces  positive characteristic “improvements” that mirror the negative aspects of aging:

  • Skin thickens into a leathery armor-like covering
  • Teeth fail out and are replaced by a beak
  • Fingernails transform into retractable claws
  • Joints deform in a way that increases leverage available to muscles developing

All these changes make Protectors extremely efficient fighting machines, which is just as well as protection and survival of their family becomes their sole reason for living and their lives become one constant battle with other Protectors living on a crowded world with limited resources.

The most significant change is increased cranium size and brain mass which results in phenomenal increase in intelligence, which is why one of the first remarks a newly transformed Protectors is “I’ve been so stupid”…a sentiment I find myself expressing many times since passing age sixty. The experience surviving to your seventh decade alone imparts a lot of wisdom and if you’ve endeavored to learn from your mistakes you end with knowledge and judgement that would rival Mr. Niven’s creations.

There is a dilemma that comes with that knowledge: what do you do with it? In times past elders/seniors/geezers were accorded a measure of respect and their counsel was considered valuable. It sure doesn’t seem that way now though – most of the time people look at me and just see a member of the “fifty-five-to-dead” demographic with the more extreme voices advocating euthanasia or other marginally less drastic measures to reduce the cost of elder care on society as a whole.

I try not to think about the situation, in fact when my when my autoimmune issues started ramping up in the late 1990s and I was first diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. I took a page from the handbook of an eleven-year-old coping with the idea of Santa Claus: I embraced the idea of “well, what if Tree-of-Life really did exist” and instead of chronic pain and limited movement looked forward to life as a totally bad-a** senior citizen,

…a feeling that lasted for maybe three minutes at most and I embraced those small Pak traits I did end up with, namely a fiercely protective and supportive love of for my children, grandchildren and eventually great-grandchildren… and a desire to use whatever insights gained from my “I’ve been so stupid” epiphany to help them find an easier road in Life than I walked.

 

 

 

…still a little shaken.

Thank you all for hanging in with me during this dry spell. It’s been difficult to find the motivation to do anything creative after taking not one but two tumbles down the stairs. I will be eternally grateful that bumps and bruises seem to be the worst of it all but to be  honest I am not nearly as brave as I was when I was younger so it’s taking me a little longer than expected to get back up to speed.

A Painful Lesson

Eight months ago I moved my studio from a shoebox sized sitting room off the kitchen to the much roomier bonus room on the second floor. There were several reasons for the move, not the least being the good vibes I get in sitting in a room resembling my attic loft back in Sterling. The move also forces me to negotiate a set of stairs at least four times a day, providing the exercise that is too easy for me to avoid given the chronic pain I deal with.

Sometimes the stairs provide more than exercise. When I went to visit the second-floor bathroom this afternoon I found that there was no tissue to be found anywhere, which prompted me to head downstairs for the hall bathroom. I had no sooner started down the steps when I slipped/tripped/mis-stepped which caused me to fall down the rest of the flight. As I was bouncing between the banister and the opposite wall I kept waiting for that avalanche of pain that accompanies a fracture but evidently judo and jump school taught me how to fall correctly and so far the only damage I’ve found is some pretty ugly bruises.

I’ve been murmuring continual quiet prayers to myself – this could have gone SO badly for me but so far the only damage is to Jaybug’ s eardrums when I set a record for consecutive “son of a bitch” utterances. The incident also taught me one very important lesson:

“Always keep the upstairs bathroom stocked with toilet paper!”