1961: The Sandman

ReRun Saturday + 1. What I didn’t mention in this post was that 100 year old home didn’t last another twenty years. An extended family member had it leveled sometime in the Eighties and put a manufactured home on the lot. Logically I understood the move – the place needed constant repair and was hard to heat/cool but it still broke my heart when I heard the news. It felt like losing a grandparent.

David R. Deitrick, Designer

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The Sandman is a member of what I call second-string mythical characters.  Not prominent enough to rate the massive Disneyfication that would weld him into a universal image, the Sandman has been used in both print and broadcast media for a wide-range of roles ranging from benign wizard to superhero to evil demonic menace. You’re welcome to take your pick of any of these incarnations but personally I know him to be a kindly short little man dressed in mid-19th century British garb.

I know that because I actually saw him in 1961.

Despite the lack of any Romany blood (that I know of) my family and I were gypsies when I was a kid. Using education alone as a measuring stick it was obvious that we never stayed in one place for long; by the time I got to seventh grade I had been a student in seven…

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Music: On The Way Home – America

 

It’s an old joke.

The world sees a sixty-five-year-old man but inside there’s a twenty-three-year-old yelling “What the HELL happened?”

It also happens to be very true.

Age ambushed me. For most of my adult life I looked and felt younger than my peers and on occasion younger folks. When people found out we had kids in middle school their response was “ What – you fooled around in high school and had to get married?”  I ate right, exercised – my only health issue was carelessness about  sleep.  I was going to be that senior citizen that would draw comments like: “How does he do it? – he’s stayed so young!”

I wish.

I was in my late 40s when my body started to cash all the checks my ego wrote in my youth. Then there were the tests, and among other things I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a chronic and (very) painful autoimmune disease similar to rheumatoid arthritis1. All of a sudden it was like there was a pull-date stamped on my fourth-point-of-contact, a pull date that had expired.

I’m fighting it like I have I fought every other challenge in my life, but I don’t think this will be one that I come out on top of. That doesn’t mean I’m planning on checking out anytime soon, but if you saw what mornings were like for me you’d wonder why I keep going. Medication helps to an extent, but I rely on music to help me survive each day. I have a Sony Walkman loaded with 891 songs set on shuffle and each morning as I am trying to move I’ll plug in the earphones for inspiration.

First up at bat this morning was “On the Way Home”, a Neil Young tune that was first released on the Buffalo Springfield album Last Time Around. It also shows up on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live album, Four Way Street, but my favorite version, the one I listened to on my Walkman this morning was a cover by Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell ( AKA America) on their 2011 release Back Pages. In his review of the album, music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that Back Pages was “a visit with old friends that can still do something unexpected after all these years.” My initial reaction when I listen to Buckley and Bunnell’s version of “On The Way Home” is much the same, but then…

Maybe it’s just the box in life I currently occupy. Maybe it’s Mr. Young’s always-enigmatic lyrics. Maybe it’s the hot wings we had for dinner last night – but “On The Way Home” triggered some “non-mundane”2 ideas in my mind as I struggled to get up. Morning is not my friend but rather a painful contest between gravity and will — but morning is also when I have the most insight. The non-verbal right side of my brain is in charge and mental and emotional walls have yet to come all the way up – the walls, barriers and masks we hide ourselves behind as we travel through our waking life.

As I listened to “On The Way Home” the song’s allusions to a journey had me thinking of more than just a trip to church, to college or back home to Alaska. I was just on the cusp of a wonderous insight into how we’re all on our way home in our journey through life …and then the orderly left side of my brain fired up and that thought evaporated.

Now I won’t be back till later on

If I do come back at all

But you know me,

and I miss you now.

Somewhere in those lyrics  was a germ of a vision that kept the fear, anger and fatigue at bay this morning but I’ve been awake too long now and the vision is gone.

 

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Notes:

  1. A condition that has nothing to do with ankylosaurs or any other large reptile.
  2. Sometimes words get so used that they lose their utility. Such is the case with “special” and “spiritual”. For now “non-mundane” is the placeholder used to describe feelings and conversations that I’d previously refer to as ‘spiritual” before that word got worn out.

2018: “…the number you are calling has been disconnected or no longer in service.”

(I try to keep to a schedule with this blog: new material is posted on Tuesdays, visual art is posted on Thursdays and re-runs show up on Saturday morning…which means something like this should be published on this next Tuesday the 19th. However, given the content of todays repeat it seemed more appropriate to run this today as well.)

This last week has been a little odd.

Granted, life is always a bit different when illness is involved – and I have definitely been sick for the last couple of weeks.  Three times a year I develop an upper respiratory infection with a cough that keeps me from both working and resting until the illness has run its course. I’ve had both the flu shot AND the pneumonia shot, and I am regularly dosed with antihistamines, antibiotics, steroids and vitamins, but in the end,  I have to just ride it out and cough until I don’t cough anymore.

Another pattern played out at the same time. Other than teaching at the college, going the church or visiting the firing range I spend a lot of time alone in my studio here at the house. While there are times I’ve had buddies that would regularly stop by and visit I am kind of  in a friend-famine right now so other than my Beautiful Saxon Princess I am on my own.

The situation makes me kind of sad,  but it does motivate me to reach out to others in the same situation, so I spent a lot of time this last week trying to get in touch with old friends. Most of my answers involved voice mail but this time I found another disturbing trend – more and more calls were met with “….the number you called has been discontinued or is no longer in service”. Granted with the constant battle between cell phone providers people tend to change numbers much more often than they change their underwear, but the sad truth was a lot of those people I tried to call are dead.

Dead. Four letters that just slap you in the face.

Even the most faithful will duck and dodge the topic of death  and I confess that quite often I energetically  shove it to the corner of mind…which is why it is very odd that in the last week I’ve inadvertently tried to call:

  • Bonnie Gamage
  • John Prowse
  • Sandy McDade
  • Janice Young
  • Bernie Koebbe
  • Richard Bird
  • ….and my mom

All of these people have passed one – some a number of years ago. When I first tumbled what I was doing I assumed that  senility had set in, but then the proverbial light-bulb flashed on above my head:

Several times in my life I’ve participated in programs that have a specified time span and a population that passes through in waves. In each instance, be it military duty, educational programs or missionary service I’ve encountered the same phenomenon:

  • Starting out I hardly knew a soul.
  • When I got to the middle  I could connect a name with a face to everyone in the group
  • As the end came near I was back knowing very few people.

It’s turned out to be true of life in general: As child my circle consisted of just family and a few friends but during mid-life at the peak of my career I met and interacted with (ultimately) thousands…but as I am entering my “senior phase” I’m back to a fairly small circle.

…a circle that is getting smaller with each day. I think that trend is part of the reason the eulogies/memorials I’ve written have had so many readers: it taps on basic – almost primal – emotion.  I’ve been blessed with some marvelous experiences in life and I’ve done just about everything except get rich, preferring to count my riches in terms of friends rather than dollars. When I write these memorial pieces  I’m not just observing a passing – I’m mourning the loss of my true wealth.

 

Music: Abandoned Luncheonette

 

Consider the following terms:

  • algorithm
  • dichotomy
  • paradigm
  • ubiquitous

I don’t think I heard any one of these words prior to 1987 – and I didn’t learn the correct definition of any of them until long after that date. You see, unless the context absolutely demands the use of a “ten-dollar term” I prefer using less-ornamental language, which is why I think we did well enough with the alternate phrases like:

  • steps in solving a problem
  • contrast between two things
  • a model or pattern

…but I make an exception to the rule when using ubiquitous instead of “found everywhere”  as in “the music of Darryl Hall and John Oates was ubiquitous in the Seventies and Eighties!” because it was the absolute truth at the time that their work and faces were found everywhere. They were on the covers of magazines at newsstands. I couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing “She’s Gone” or “Sara Smile” and every time I walked into my sister’s apartment the duo’s slightly androgynous first album cover would be staring at me from the front of her record collection.

Where I didn’t expect to see Darryl Hall and John Oates was the apartment of my friend Oly a.k.a. John Olsen who had been my good friend since serving our respective bicycle penances in New England a few years earlier. Upon returning  to school in the fall of 19761 we had taken adjacent apartments where each day we’d meet to conduct a post-game analysis of our adventures at the university. During these academic post-mortems we’d listen to our respective collections, which in my case consisted of a 100+ volumes of progressive rock…while Oly’s collection comprised of exactly two albums:

  • Lowdown by Boz Skaggs
  • Abandoned Luncheonette by Hall and Oates.

I’m not sure how we ended up listening to the actual Abandoned Luncheonette song because the LP’s breakout Top 40 singles2 were located on the opposite side of the vinyl. When we finally did get to the eponymous tune it didn’t make a great first impression – I tend to think of vocals as little more than additional instruments which can make  lyric-driven songs3  a dicey thing with me, but from the first note it was obvious that Abandoned Luncheonette had an important message for me personally.

The song opens with a simple mix of bass & percussion creating a staccato “typewriter-ish” sound subliminally setting up the song as a story first and a musical composition second. These rhythmic measures could easily be incidental music to a street scene from a 1970’s TV series – a nice touch in that the words are as direct and descriptive as a panel in a comic book.

They sat in an abandoned luncheonette Sipping imaginary cola

drawing faces in the tabletop dust

His voice was rusty from years as a sergeant in “this man’s army”

They were old and crusty

“ So this is how addicts are made” I thought as listened to a song that started out as bubble-gum for my ears slowly transform into a powerful narrative that drew me right in. In perfect timing an adaptable melody, brilliant in its simplicity, starts contributing to the story, as when a Benny Goodman clarinet flourish instantly pegs the setting to the 1940s – a touch of nostalgia typical in mid-Seventies entertainment.

She was twenty when the diner was a baby

He was the dishwasher, busy in the back, his hands covered with Gravy

Hair black and wavy Brilliantine slick, a pot – cleaning dandy

He was young and randy


Unfortunately it’s at this particular point that the song almost lost me the first time I heard it. The music  goes into a rippling electric piano effect much like the “doodle-oodle-doodle-oodle” flashback sound in Scooby Doo. At first it seemed very contrived but after listening through the whole song a couple of times (and soaking up the entire message) the effect seemed more appropriate. The addition of a formal string backing to the chorus also rinses out a lot of the “ Scooby-Doo” as the symphonic effect reinforces the chorus as a chronal bridge between different eras in a person’s life.

Day to day, to day today Then they were old, their lives wasted away

Month to month, year to year They all run together

Time measured by the peeling of paint on the luncheonette wall

Here’s another ten-dollar word: Serendipity – or development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.  While Abandoned Luncheonette  was a song I stumbled onto by chance it contained an important  message tailor-made for me in late 1976. Between my own doubts4 and another’s dire predictions about “a marriage doomed to failure” my relationship with (take your pick)

  1. a) Alabama
  2. b) My Beautiful Saxon Princess
  3. c) Lori
  4. d) All of the above

…was almost over before it got started. As the last verse spooled-up the story with the couple in their later years I felt a warmth, a longing to have the outcome in the song to be my future as well – and I wanted Lori to be with me as well.

They sat together in the empty diner Filled with cracked china

Old news was blowing across the filthy floor And the sign on the door

sign on the door read “this way out”, that’s all it read

That’s all it said

 … and this last verse is where Lori and I are now. Our life is much like the empty diner in that we’re not in the future we envisioned in 1976. We lived from day to day – to yet another day that spun out to many, many more until we ended up here in 2018 (Today) and are of an age where our own existential door with the “This way Out” placard  is never far from my thoughts.

 Day to day,

 to day

Today

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Notes

  1. Oly had been a spectator – nay – participant to my courtship of “Alabama” – which was the name I used for Lori in the beginning. When we hit a rough spot in our relationship Oly was the guy in which I confided “I’m going to ask Alabama to homecoming – and if she says ‘No’ I’m dropping her like a hot rock”. He’s also was the friend to whom I said, “She said yes – now what do I do?”
  2. “She’s Gone” was released in early 1974 and reached #70 on the Billboard Hot 100, and then hit  #7 when it was re-released during the summer of 1976 in the wake of the success of “Sara Smile”.
  3. That is “lyric-driven songs” NOT sung by Gordon Lightfoot or Harry Chapin
  4. See 1976: Beads

Music: ” (Once Upon a Time) In Your Wildest Dreams”

 

There is a rare disease that afflicts anyone living near a theme park like Six Flags or Dollywood. It’s a painful ringing echo in your ears that comes from the endless repetition of radio advertisements for the park’s signature ride, usually a mammoth roller-coaster with a name like Avalanche, King Cobra or Hurtinator. In 1986 the signature ride for Utah’s Lagoon theme park was the Colossus rollercoaster and its radio spot was in heavy, heavy rotation on every AM and FM station along the Wasatch front. However, that commercial flood didn’t bother me much – in the spring of 1986 our life in general had become one big existential roller-coaster full of ups and downs in our income, health and quality of life.

The peaks included:

  • My career was really starting to take off. I was winning awards and making a regular income and as far as we could tell that trend would continue.
  • We moved into a larger/nicer home with the best studio space I’ve ever had.
  • I was able to fly home to Alaska for a visit to see my sister Robin graduate from college.

…while some of the valleys were:

  • Our car was broken into, resulting in a smashed window and stolen tape deck.
  • Lori suffered a miscarriage with serious complications.
  • I developed major back problems – severe pain,  spasms and lack of mobility.

At first, I assumed I’d just aggravated an old back injury1, but the pain grew daily until I woke up one Saturday morning unable to move. I dutifully put on the “captain face”, told jokes to the boys and made light of the situation but that schtick soon wore thin. A late-night phone call from  Mom2 just made the situation worse; she hinted at a grim, possibly fatal prognosis but refused to answer specific questions as she wasn’t “attending” (physically present).

The pain was unbearable, and I distinctly recall lying in bed expecting to go to sleep and never wake up again. Oddly enough that finality didn’t bother me as much as the physical pain; it may have been just the painkillers talking but I wasn’t worried about a Last Judgement – I was just sad at the thought of separation from Lori and not being around to raise my sons to adulthood.

As I started to drift off I felt more resigned than scared and was almost asleep when a song came on the radio that caught my attention. It was a simple synthesizer melody that slowly grew into a lush sound with symphonic backing to which an understated syncopated percussion joined in after a few measures. That soft cadence was in turn followed by a bass guitar – and at that point the combination of sounds was creating a slightly familiar but frustratingly unidentifiable sound…unidentifiable until the vocalist started singing and the last Lego snapped in place:

Once upon a time

Once when you were mine

I remember skies

Reflected in your eyes

It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, a progressive rock band that I’d been a devoted fan for decades…and when I say fan I mean dyed-in-the-wool DNA fan maintaining a complete set of their albums through two sets of vinyl and one set of cassette tapes.

(Note: We Moody blues fans are a snooty, opinionated lot comprised of three distinct camps divided by the group’s three incarnations:

1)    1964-1966: The original group featuring Denny Laine as lead vocalist, and doing mostly covers of American pop and R&B

2)    1967–1972: The “Core Seven” years when the band reigned as the premiere art progressive rock band producing one of the first concept albums “Days of Future Past”3

3)    1977-present: Now a Soft rock group recording synth-pop tunes like In Your Wildest Dreams – the tune that was currently playing)

As a staunch member of Group 2 I normally would have passed on a recent release like the song I was now hearing but for some reason I kept listening.

I wonder where you are

I wonder if you think about me

Once upon a time

In your wildest dreams

 It could have been nostalgia that kept me listening – at thirty-three you’ve lived just long enough to have something to look back at. Earlier in the summer we’d run into my former Best Friend and her family4 and since that time I’d been thinking more often about my time in Fairbanks (coincidentally the time of my peak interest in progressive rock) which brought me back to:

 Once the world was new

Our bodies felt the morning dew

That greets the brand-new day

We couldn’t tear ourselves away

I wonder if you care

I wonder if you still remember

Once upon a time

 It could have been the character of the group and their music in general. I always thought that the Moody Blues music was “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge/ truth that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.

 And when the music plays

And when the words are touched with sorrow

When the music plays

And when the music plays

I hear the sound I had to follow

Once upon a time

In typical music industry fashion, the song faded out to an unheard conclusion, but it kept running through my mind for the rest of the evening. In my opinion it wasn’t even close to the quality of “The Story in Your Eyes”, “Question” or just about anything else they recorded during the Core-Seven years, but it did have a nice, reassuring feel, as if a good friend had stopped by to tell me that everything is going to be OK, mate!” That’s when I sat up in bed and realized that all the morbid thoughts I had earlier that day were gone, displaced by that new Moody Blues song and thoughts generated by it, proving again the “stealth scripture” aspect of music produced by Mr. Hayward and company.6

I wish I could say that after listening to “In Your Wildest Dreams” everything was OK and that I made a speedy recovery…but I can’t. I went through another 9 weeks of misery before the pain began to subside and while the condition5 causing the discomfort went into remission it returned with a vengeance fifteen years later and has continued unrelieved to this day.

However –  I did get to raise my sons (and a beautiful daughter) to adulthood and my beautiful Saxon Princess is still by my side. I’ve continued to create images with both paint, paper, wax and words.

…. and I am still listening to the Moody Blues.

 

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 Notes:

1)    See 1985: Fighting Soldiers from The Sky

2)    A registered nurse

3)    For years we were told that the album was the product of collaborative magic between the Moody Blues and the London Festival Orchestra. The real story is a bit more pedestrian and starts with the group working off a hefty advance from DERAM Records…

4)    Including a spouse who bore an unnerving resemblance to the husband in the song’s official music video.

5)    Ankylosing Spondylitis: An autoimmune disease involving pain and inflammation along the vertebrae – a condition much like rheumatoid arthritis and connected in no way whatsoever to ankylosaur or any other type of large lizard.

6)    The fact that it was the Moody Blues singing the song was significant as well – I doubt I’d have listened as intently to any other musician(s) with the same intensity.

1971: You Can Never Go Back Home

English majors will think first of Thomas Wolfe when encountering the title of today’s post, but the line makes me think of a song written by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues on their 1971 release Every Good Boy Does Favor.  I purchased the album in August of that year while driving with my family back to Alaska from the lower 48 and had not had access to a record player until we got to my sister Robin’s apartment in Anchorage. I spent that silent week studying the lyrics printed on the record sleeve and was very undecided about the opening lyrics to You Can Never Go Home Anymore”

  I don’t know what I’m looking for

I never have opened the door

Tomorrow might find me at last

Turning my back on the past

My family would be parting company the next morning with my parents and younger sisters driving on home to Sterling and my older sister Robin staying in Anchorage while  would be taking the train to Fairbanks, my first year at college and my adult life.

I really wasn’t going back home.

The departure wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been. I’d been away from home many times before; youth conferences, Boy’s State – even flying by myself to California and back more than once – these all had given me the experience to take change in stride. I’d even been on a family trip to Fairbanks once before to take in the 1967 Alaska Centennial exhibition so I would be on familiar turf.  I was also counting on plenty of built-in friends, people I knew from living in Anchorage and others I’d met through the aforementioned trips and activities.

Even so my departure would have been even easier had it come a year earlier. Growing up as a service brat meant moving a lot; you learned to make yourself at home quickly and then move on just as easily. Since moving north in 1962 I’d lived in three different homes and attended four different schools so I’d little opportunity to put down roots – I felt more like a displaced California kid than an Alaskan boy. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I began to feel like a dyed-in-the-wool Kenai Peninsula rat content spending the rest of my life living between Turnagain Pass and the Homer Spit.  However, economic realities of the time required training or schooling beyond what was available locally, so I was off to the University of Alaska.

It was also a period of transition for higher education – while most jobs did not require a four-year degree the Vietnam conflict was running hot and the draft was in place. This meant more young men were going to school to get that all-important 2S Deferment, so college enrollments were on the rise. As I rode the train north I could see that most of the other passengers were also headed for college and that a lot of them were edgy about this new phase in their life….or was it that deferment?

I suppose I was a bit smug as I sat and watched the others; living away from home as part of a large institution held no terror for me.  I was sure I’d easily find my way around campus and based on the 1967 family visit navigating around the city of Fairbanks itself would also be easy. According to my parents this included getting to church, but it didn’t seem likely that my shadow would be regularly crossing that doorstep any time soon. While I had always been blessed with a knowledge of God’s existence, I had serious church issues, a few of them doctrinal, but most of them social. As I grew up church attendance had been compulsory which was particularly galling as our little congregation in Soldotna had not been a safe place for me.  That resentment had combined with the usual adolescent chafing brought on by the “shalls” and “shalt nots”; my plan was that once I left home I would to go to church once or twice (so I could answer in the affirmative to my mom’s inevitable questions) then slowly extract myself from activity and start a new life.

…. a new life that was well on the way to starting the minute the train arrived at Fairbanks, when I promptly:

  • moved into my dormitory room
  • plastered the walls with black light posters depicting “healthy” barbarian women
  • registered for classes
  • started seeing Molly, a charming young lady from Anchorage
  • got caught up in playing intramural football on Sundays

Everything seemed to be going to plan up to the point where I ran into the brick wall – or cement floor to be precise. It happened after a dance held during orientation when a disagreement with a former high school classmate turned physical1. Unfortunately the bruises and scrapes from bouncing off doors, walls and floor of the Moore/Bartlett/Skarland complex entry way weren’t nearly as distressing as losing just about all my friends. Molly was very cool to the idea of dating someone apparently prone to brawling and my former friends from Kenai lined up behind the other guy and stopped talking to me.

My shiny new life had fallen apart.

By the middle of the first week of instruction I was climbing the walls. While my roommate and the other floor occupants were nice enough, most  conversations ended with a three-minute pitch on why I should be smoking weed with them2. Other than discussing syllabus and textbook requirements nothing was happening in my classes, so I couldn’t really throw myself into schoolwork. After spending a few afternoons looking for patterns in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling above my bed I took the bus into town.

As I mentioned, I was already familiar the down-town area, but after hiking a mile out to the hobby shop and back there wasn’t much to fill the time until the last bus later that evening. With no particular destination in mind I started walking again and was startled a half-hour later to find myself going past the Monroe & Minnie chapel. The late afternoon sun was warm and my feet were really starting to ache so I walked up the cement steps and sat down next to the front door. For a moment I smirked at the irony of the situation – I’d gone off to college trying to escape church and now I was sitting on the front steps, but I had to admit I was feeling more comfortable and relaxed there than at any other place since I stepped off the train two weeks before.

If I were writing an article for the ENSIGN, this would be the point at which I started to fervently pray – but it was more like a conversation with myself while God listened in on the extension.  I actually hadn’t been doing much praying because I didn’t want Heavenly Father to tell me to not do things that I wanted to do – a spiritual version of  sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting “ LA-LAL-LA-LA-I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU-LA-LA-LA!” or the way I would  carefully edit what I’d tell my parents about my extracurricular “activities” rationalizing that a half-truth was better than an out-and-out lie. What my youthful hubris kept me from realizing was that I wasn’t fooling Him one bit and that maybe His plans for my life were different than my own.

As the sun continued to sink towards the horizon the air got a little cooler, so I stood up and stretched – and heard some indistinct sounds from inside the church. I checked my watch (5:30) and I wondered if Mutual (youth meetings) met on Wednesdays so I checked the door and found it unlocked.  After a self-inflicted eye-roll I eased through the door and into the foyer where I found two young ladies sitting on the floor against one of the walls. They were seniors at Lathrop High School and after walking over to the church they’d taken a quick snooze to rest up for a “Get Acquainted” dance due to start in about an hour. One of the girls I knew in passing from youth conference while the other one…

…was someone that I really, really wished I already knew as well. Bearing a strong resemblance to my friend Marie3 back in Soldotna, she was fair-haired and petite with umber eyes that played to my weakness for brown-eyed blondes.

Hmmmm.

About a month later…

I was sitting in church, the petite brown-eyed blond on the pew next to me. We were on our way to becoming Best Friends, a development that I did not see coming, but welcome just as the overall improvement in my life was greatly appreciated. I also liked where I was sitting – this congregation definitely was a safe place. The members had been very welcoming and warm towards me and I knew I was where I had always wanted to be.

I had enough fun at the dance to prompt my appearance at regular church meetings the following Sunday where I ran into Lance, Gwen and other friends from past youth conferences. During the intervening weeks a disastrous visit back home to the peninsula was met with an icy reception by former friends, and convinced me that the future was here with college and my new circle of friends…

…who became almost as important to me as a newly reacquired spiritual awareness.

Between sermons, motivational speakers and inspirational posters I’ve gotten the message that you can’t blame all your shortcomings on other people – but at the same time there’s something to be said about the negative effect of growing up with never-ending criticism and ridicule in a place that was supposed to embody divine love. There was also the stress of trying to reconcile what I was taught to be proper behavior with the open-secret off-hours antics of men who were supposed to be my role models.

It brought to mind the an old saying “I could not hear what you said because your actions shout so loudly!”  4 To me that statement had added weight: Early in life I learned that I didn’t get smacked as often if I paid more attention to a person’s body language and actions than to what they were saying. At the same time, I learn mainly through analogy and patterning, so verbal presentation of abstract concepts can often come across as someone speaking French – I can piece together a little bit of the information but most of the meaning is lost.

What I was starting to figure out was not particularly Gallic in nature, and therein was hope.  I decided to try and have more “conversations with myself with God on the extension” and would try reading and studying in the hope of gaining faith, the difference being that this time it wasn’t to keep my parents or even my new Best Friend happy….

…. this time it was for me.

 


 

1.He had given me a hard time all the way through high school and after a couple of very improper comments to Molly I thought to myself “I’m not going put up with  another four years of this” and punched him in the nose. He then proceeded to mop the floor with me. Did I mention that he was an All-State, 4-year letterman in wrestling and had at least three inches on me? Definitely not a good choice on my part.

2. See 1972: A Different Kind of Bug Dope.

3. See 1971: Alaskan Graffiti.

4. A line that had to have been written by someone who grew up in a bi-polar household.

CPT Ron Fernstedt’s Last Jump

Despite the common uniform relations between active and reserve components of the Army are not always the most cordial, a fact I soon learned upon assignment to 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) Utah National Guard. It was January of 1984 and had just been assigned as the battalion S-2 (Intelligence) after four years of active duty and I was finding reception by the other officers to be decidedly cool.

The ink was still damp on my orders when I had an administrative hot potato dropped in my lap, specifically a Line of Duty (LOD) investigation. Whenever a reservist is injured while on drill an LOD must be completed to verify the conditions surrounding the injury and eligibility for future medical coverage. Never an easy task, this particular LOD investigation was a particularly complex and critical situation because of the timing and circumstances of the injury in question. I also happened to be the third officer assigned to the case, the previous two begging off because of conflict of interest, hair in need of a wash or some other flimsy excuse.

It was while I was struggling with this LOD that I first met Ron Fernstedt. The solider in question was a member of his team and as far as I could tell the investigation wasn’t looking good for this soldier. Ron stormed in one day and with his face set (in the way only Ron could manage) and demanding fair treatment for his subordinate. While not nearly as forceful I replied that I was doing the best job I knew how to do and that his sergeant would get an honest and fair investigation.

The room got quiet as our eyes locked. Several thoughts came to mind:

  • My path to the nearest exit
  • Money available for an emergency room visit
  • …and if I ever lost my axe this guy’s face was hard enough to make an excellent replacement

A minute passed, Ron’s face softened an iota and he spoke:

“You’re Deitrick – the new S2 here. You just came off active duty – right?”

I replied with a witty rejoinder: “Urk – yeah”

“They’ve dumped this grenade in your lap with the pin half-pulled and you’ve probably never seen, much less completed a National Guard line-of-duty investigation before”

Again, the clever quip: “Urk!”

The change was imperceptible, but there was change nonetheless. He became just a little less confrontational and a little more helpful as he realized that I had been put in just a precarious position as his team member. He helped me through the maze of National Guard Bureau and Utah National Guard regulations that had me completely baffled and eventually the LOD investigation was resolved in a less-than-total win for his subordinate, but it was a resolution that was totally fair and according to regulation.

It was pattern that in my experience would repeat itself every time I worked with Ron. He had a larger-than-life personality and definitely played to win, but at the same time his actions were tempered with a sense of justice and expertly camouflaged compassion. He had a strong set of standards to live by but wasn’t ostentatious about the matter.

He was like my favorite uncle – he could be a little scary, but I always knew where I stood with him, that he was looking for my best interests and that we were all safe in every sense when he was on watch. He took his Last Jump to a better life earlier this week while standing on his feet –  a soldier to the last – and we will all be a little poorer because of the loss.

1975: A Better Christmas

I have yet to utter my traditional Yuletide greeting (“I >bleep< hate Christmas!”) but I have found that to be the case as I have been  drifting through this emotional wasteland known as December as I have every year since 1966.  You’d think with my Arctic upbringing I’d at least like the weather, but I don’t. It just seems like the recurring irritants of life intensity during the closing of the year, things like:

  • Financial strain
  • Homesickness
  •  Disagreements with my Beautiful Saxon Princess over correct holiday traditions
  • …the fact that every disaster in my life has happened during the closing-of-the-year holidays

I’m not kidding. Disaster seeks out my Christmas like a starving eagle circles a bunny burrow – and we’re not talking about minor things like a stubbed toe or getting the Power Droid instead of Carbonite Han Solo in my stocking. We’re talking major life-changing events such as:

  • My father dying
  • My mother dying
  • Narrowly avoiding death while totaling my dad’s car
  • Losing a job (more than once)
  • Disfiguring facial surgery
  • The unexpected end to an engagement
  • Revocation of flight status while on active duty

All these (and more) happened between Thanksgiving and MLK day, so please excuse me for flinching when I turn to that last page in the calendar.

It wasn’t always that way. I can remember Yuletide seasons in Little Shasta Valley and Anchorage that were truly wonderful but as I started into my teens the line on my Joyeux Noel Index started inching down until it hit rock bottom in December of 1973, the year I spent the holidays with my grandparents right after my engagement folded. Grandma and Grandpa had stopped the tree and gift routine years earlier so when I showed up at their doorstep on the morning of December 22d they really didn’t know what to do with me. Christmas consisted of dinner and a surreptitious glass of wine at my Uncle Roy’s vacation cabin on Donner Lake.

1974 wasn’t much better. I was in the seventh month of my “bicycle penance” – missionary service that by its innate spiritual nature was supposed to sew my broken heart back together, but it just wasn’t happening.  The city I was working had the same name as my former Best Friend (Lynn, Massachusetts) and I was training a new missionary with a bad attitude who took his frustrations out on me. The weather was also most uncooperative; I had envisioned a picture postcard New England holiday with white snow drifts blanketing cozy salt-box homes with colorful lights blinking in the windows; what I got was a gritty industrial city where rain came as often as snow, creating an environment that:

  • Soaked you to your skin in the space of minutes
  • Slushed up the roads, making just the act of walking around a chore
  • Gave those people we would tract out another great reason to slam the door

…all of which added to the extremely self-absorbed attitude I already had. We were also collectively balking at a new proselytizing procedure the mission president had just introduced so the result was a totally wasted Christmas. I spent the day grumbling around the apartment feeling sorry for myself and making the day a contender for the worst Christmas of my entire life.

Christmas of 1975 was a little different; sometime during the previous twelve months while walking the width and length of New England I’d grown up a bit and became a little less self-absorbed.   I had just been transferred to the small country town of Littleton, Massachusetts and assigned a problem elder for a companion, though I soon learned that Elder Neyland’s problems were more a question of ability than attitude. He had multiple severe learning and social disabilities – to the degree that he would have not been called on a mission under the criteria used for today’s missionaries.  It was like being teamed up with a thirteen-year-old cousin – the one with Asperger’s Syndrome –  and within three days it was obvious that negotiating the last two weeks in December was going to be a bumpy ride.

Still –  the morning of December 23rd didn’t seem all that different when I got up but then I really wasn’t interested in doing anything other than wasting the next couple of days away. Then as I was daydreaming at my desk the phone rang and pulled me back into consciousness by the voice of my mission president calling to confirm a day-trip I would be making to FT Devens in January to attend to an ROTC scholarship application. After exchanging information and confirming dates he hesitated for a minute, and then said, “While I’ve got you on the line I’d like to talk to you about your situation”.  I rolled my eyes – having President Ross rattle off the list my character flaws was not my idea of fun – “by this point in time you’ve undoubtedly that discovered Elder Neyland is a little different from most other missionaries.”

I groaned inwardly – “a little different” barely scratched the surface o but I continued to listen as President Ross went on to talk about Elder Neyland. It was actually important information: Neyland was getting little to no support from his parents, he was functionally illiterate, and his personal challenges made him so difficult to live and work with that changes in companions and areas happened more often than usual for him. Ross went on: “As I was considering his situation in light of the holidays I realized that there had to be one individual that could get him successfully through his first Christmas in the mission field – and when I turned to the assignment board your tag literally fell off the wall.  I felt strongly prompted to move you to Littleton for the holidays.”

  At first, I felt mostly disbelief tinged with cynicism; up to this point in time President Ross and I had mixed together much like oil and water, but as a good portion of my aforementioned “growing up” entailed learning to simply shut up when needed, the balance of my conversation with the mission president was uncharacteristically productive. After ringing off I stayed sitting by the phone and thought through the situation very carefully. Since turning twenty my life had been a series of disasters and while changing that trend had been one of the major reasons I’d gone on a mission it still seemed like my road in life had more than its share of land-mines. I’d read once that the definition of insanity was the act of  repeating the same actions yet expecting a different outcome. Maybe babysitting Neyland would change my luck.

My change in direction kicked off at 5:30 the next morning when I got up early and made Elder Neyland pancakes for breakfast. For most of the day we kept close to our regular schedule, but I made sure that we worked in the more heavily decorated parts of town and as we tromped through the slush I’d prompt him to talk about his family celebrated Christmas when he was a child.

I continued cooking for him for both lunch and dinner, playing a cassette full of Christmas carols during both meals, then we spent the rest of the day taking cards and presents to people that we had been teaching. Upon our return home we helped our elderly land-lady trim her tree until 10:30 when I all but barricaded Neyland in his bedroom so I could set up Christmas for him in our front room.

I was thoroughly exhausted when I turned in, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind, so I got up and sat at my desk and tried to alternately read scriptures and a facsimile copy of the first edition of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. That lasted all of seven minutes, so I traded the books for my two best friends; Messrs. Paper & Pencil. At first, I started sketching, but in between images of linebackers, Iron Man and the starship Enterprise I started listing some of the thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  • Teaching abstract theological doctrine might be a good part of my job description but it wasn’t giving me much job satisfaction in return.
  • In contrast, doing something for another person – rendering service – most definitely punched my job satisfaction buttons.
  • Giving service to someone I wasn’t too terribly fond of in the first place did an even better job of punching those buttons – and made it easier to be kinder in the future.
  • For the first time in months – maybe years – I felt…happy!

I’d like to say that the clouds opened, and heavenly choirs stared singing praise to my faith and wisdom but all I could hear was the dog barking Jingle bells on our land-lady’s radio downstairs…and when I was able to shove my cynicism aside I had to admit that despite the lack of presents or attention from my own family it had been a good day

…and possibly the best Christmas of my life.

1982: “Good Luck!”

It’s not always easy to make friends while serving as a lieutenant in the Army.  With as few as a dozen officers in a battalion – and half of them higher-ranking your pool of available buddies is small. It can also be tough finding others with similar outside interests – common occupation doesn’t always mean common avocation, so once in awhile you make friends across the officer/enlisted gap. Most of time it’s not a good situation to be in – as an officer it is important to avoid the fraternization trap and retain that commitment edge necessary to good leadership.

SSG James Bradley and I managed to avoid those pitfalls.

For starters we were in different units and didn’t normally work together during the day. When we did interact was “Lieutenant Deitrick” and “Sergeant Bradley” and everything was conducted according to regulation. Off-duty it was “Dave” and “Jim”.

Jim and his wife Jane attended church at the same congregation but in addition to our common faith we shared interest in speculative fiction, military history, computers and Monty Python – but the best overlap in interests was our collective love for the outdoors. At least one Saturday a month was spent climbing, biking, hiking or rafting over whatever parcel of Alaskan forest we could reach. Most of the time our activities were moderately adventurous but once in a while we’d end up in a situation almost beyond our abilities. Such was the case when we decided to raft down Moose Creek, a tributary of the Matanuska River not quite ten smiles upstream from the town of Palmer.

Lively discussion was the norm for any time spent with Jim and Jane and this trip was no exception. Most of the talk revolved around the evolution of outdoors etiquette – the way people acted and interacted on hiking trails or campgrounds. We all agreed that there had been a change for the worse in the previous five years and I saw that where once I felt I could count on the kindness of strangers in the wild I now had to constantly stay on guard against the chance that unknown person might try to kill me and ravage my wife into the bargain.

Similar sentiments were voiced but discussion broke off as we reached the turn-off to Moose Creek.  After parking and unloading our raft and supplies Jim and I spent several moments studying a map of the area. It showed a fork in the creek just downstream from our position and as I read that note I remembered that one of the two forks was much more suited for rafting than the other, so we flipped a coin and chose the east fork.

As the first deadfall loomed across the creek minutes later we realized we’d chosen the wrong fork. We all ducked down into the raft as it barely squeezed under the tree, then repeated the action three more times in rapid succession before the raft was stopped against a fallen tree too large to allow us to get past. We hopped out and shuffled people, supplies and raft around the jam and started out again.

The creek made a lazy curve to the right towards the river and seconds later we hit the biggest jam of them all. Several trees of various diameter were jammed together with the flow of water forced through a half-dozen gaps. We hit the log-jam so hard that I saw stars, and when my vision cleared I saw that Jim, Jane and Lori had managed to get to the close-by bank with our supplies.

On the other hand, I was semi-stuck on the raft. The contour of jam combined with the tremendous flow of water had the raft turned almost vertical against the logs; I was standing on the front buoyancy cell of the raft, facing the logs with the bottom of the raft at my back. I was spared a dunking by gaps in the log-jam that directed the water away from me, so I was able to climb up out of my little pocket in a mostly dry condition.

After tying a safety line to the raft, I stepped over to Jim and the girls for a conference. There was no way we were ever going to get that raft out of the creek – the volume and velocity of the water-flow combined with the Pick-up Stix ® pile of fallen trees comprising the jam made it difficult to grab the raft at any point other than the eyelet when I had tied the safety line. It was the afternoon of a midsummer Alaskan day, so we should have had plenty of light, but clouds had moved in which would end up allowing only limited light to work by that evening. I was beginning to think that the best course of action would be to just leave the raft and forfeit the damage deposit when we heard a loud thrashing in the brush across the river.

Three of the scruffiest men I have ever seen pushed their way through the thick willows crowding the opposite bank of the creek. One of them was carrying a chainsaw, two of them were smoking and all three were unshaven and slightly scowling. One of the smokers looked over at me – and as his gaze shifted very pointedly at the holstered pistol on my belt couldn’t help but recall the “kill me/ravage my wife” discussion we’d had in the car earlier.

Then the entire situation changed.

The expressions on all three of their faces softened and one of them called out “Hey, are you guys OK? We heard some yelling and got worried that someone was hurt” He went on to explain that they were three locals that had gotten permission to look for down/dead timber to cut up for firewood. At that point Jim jumped into the conversation and the five of us worked out a plan for eliminating the deadfall and releasing the raft. Unfortunately, the tremendous pressure of the water had pulled the knot in the safety line so tight that it had literally melted together.

We’d already failed at trying to pull the raft back out, so the only solution was to put one person in the raft, cut the rope, and have that occupant guide the raft to the side of the creek as soon as possible. Jim won the coin toss and climbed into the raft with a paddle while I stationed myself at the safety line, knife at the ready. Jim looked over and gave me a thumbs up; I responded with a hearty “Good Luck”, cut the line and the raft shot down the creek like a rocket, with me splashing along the creek bed afterwards.

The story ended well enough – Jim and I got the raft beached before he hit the river and the girls showed up carrying our supplies. After leaning the raft up as a windbreak, we had lunch, then spent a few minutes talking and resting before taking the raft back to the car and going home.

During our after-dinner discussion we collectively came up with the following conclusions

  1. You can’t always judge by appearances; the three guys we took to be thugs turned out to be just the help we needed in a pinch1
  2. “Good Luck” was probably the corniest thing I could have said when cutting the safety line
  3. Our next outdoor adventure was happening on dry land.

  1. Whenever we tell this story we refer to those guys as “The Three Nephites that Smoke and Carry a Chainsaw”

 

1981: Tie A Yellow Ribbon

BrimFrost

I am slow at picking up slang. For example, it was in early 1985 that I first heard someone use the term “awesome” for describing something less monumental than Hoover Dam or Pamela Anderson’s upper story. I never used the term myself until about a week ago – and when I did my daughter all but threw a party for me. Her congratulatory remarks:  “Daddy – you’re trying to use slang” were delivered in the same tone of voice as entreaties to her four-year old in his delinquent potty-training efforts.

It took an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory for me to learn the meaning of “earworm”. What I took to be yet another Star Trek reference was instead a term referring to a snippet of an almost-forgotten tune that drives you crazy as you try to remember the song’s title. I rarely suffer from such a dilemma but I do battle a similar problem, something I call an “ear cobra” – a song played over and over so many times that I am driven to suspect that the DJ’s playlist is shorter than my afore-mentioned grandson’s attention span. Such was the case when we listened to the radio while encamped at Clear Creek Alaska during JRX Brim Frost 1981 and heard the Tony Orlando tune “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Round the Old Oak Tree)” played on the radio over and over and over…..One day earlier the American hostages in Iran had been freed, and while the Ayatollah’s spokesman denied any connection between the timing of the release and Reagan’s inauguration it didn’t take a genius to connect the dots between their release and the hawkish stance of the new administration. However, politics had little to do with the way radio stations were continuously playing “Yellow Ribbon” as a token of the nation’s collective joy, but as the song was endlessly repeated my mood went quickly from “that’s nice” to “that’s irritating” to “that’s REALLY p*ssng me off” so my tent mates took to hiding the radio whenever I came in from the cold.

However, the problem wasn’t the song. It was the view.

Daylight in February is a rare commodity when you’re standing in the snow at a point less than two degrees south of the Arctic Circle. As I stood at the barbed wire perimeter and faced north I could see the lights of downtown Fairbanks; if I was very careful and double-checked the map I could just make out lights at the University of Alaska1 where a decade earlier I had stood next to the window in my warm, snug dormitory room and looked south in the general direction of all those crazy soldiers camped out in sub-zero weather. As I looked north in 1981 I had to wonder what my reaction would have been back then had I known that one day I would be one of those aforementioned “crazy G.I.s”.

I doubt it would have been complimentary. With my family’s strong military tradition and my own large dose of transpersonal commitment I was nowhere close to the deep antiwar/antimilitary feeling held by my classmates, but I did have some concerns with the situation in Southeast Asia. Unbiased information was scarce in those pre-Internet days but I studied both sides of the issue as best as I could…and still came away confused.

Ten years before that time of confusion I had no doubts at all. As I boy in the Anchorage of 1962 I was living in as army-friendly environment as you could get.  America was enjoying a healthy economy and it was less than twenty years since we’d collectively handed Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo their respective a**es at the end of the Second World War.  Pop music was full of positive references to “soldier boys”, TV schedules were loaded with programs like McHale’s Navy and The Lieutenant, and all the Christmas catalogs were filled with war toys. At the time the only problem I had with the military was wondering what “Checkmate King Two – this is White Rook” meant when Sergeant Saunders barked it into his walkie-talkie on Combat! every Monday night.

As I stood in the 1981 snow and looked at the city lights to the north I mentally hopped back and forth over those ten year increments.

  • My inner ten year old was ecstatic at the idea of being an officer in the army.
  • The college freshman was wistful as he looked north to the site of the beginning of his adult life and his first real love.
  • The twenty-something lieutenant was baffled by a post Viet-nam hollow army that bore slight resemblance to the soldiers I admired as a boy.
  • The grounded aviator was wondering why he was in the army at all.
  • The young father worried about his children’s future in light of global tension brought on by the recent Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

I turned and walked back to camp. It was the last week of the exercise; I was physically exhausted and a bit sluggish from a steady diet of C rations, but there would be little chance of a rest during the redeployment back to FT Richardson. We’d been blessed with relatively mild temperatures2 during the exercise but the long Alaskan winter nights would still complicate our tasks as we were forced to grope in the dark for tools, tents and tires. As we went into the last 36 hours on the ground it all became a blur as I took on more and more tasks, simultaneously preparing load plans for our flights south and supervising my troops as we broke camp and took down our defensive perimeter.

The corners of my mouth and fingernails became cracked and sore. My eyes ached and burned with that odd warm feeling that only extended wakefulness can bring on. The mental debate between childhood idealism and current cynicism was being steadily crowded out by a fatigue-fueled anger until I found myself with one fist clenched and the other one grabbing the collar of a soldier that had been slacking off to the detriment of his comrades.

“L.T. – why doncha let me take care of this” I felt my platoon sergeant’s hand on my shoulder as he quietly kept me from making a career-killing punch-in-the-throat. “You probably should check on the guys filling in foxholes and salvaging concertina.3 

“and cool off some” I mentally added to his words

I walked back out to the perimeter for one more look north at the University but rather than cooling off I became even more angry; again I knew that the anger was fueled by fatigue but I didn’t care. In my twenty-something conceit I felt that I had been singled out by life and cheated, though I was at a loss to coherently state what I had been cheated out of.

I was startled into a state of awareness by the sound of something moving toward me through the snow-covered brush. Two weeks earlier a ground surveillance team had observed a bear ambling around just outside the perimeter, the warm weather having fooled his internal calendar into thinking that spring was near. Cursing the rule against carrying live ammunition during field exercises I mentally fumbled/figured the odds between a folding Buck knife and a bear’s claws when one of my soldiers burst through the willows and stood next to me on the ridge.

“Heya sir – you doing OK?” Near-ursine size and a flat Minnesota accent identified the soldier as SP4 Newville, one of the better soldiers in my platoon and a ace truck driver that could get an M35A2 2 ½ ton truck through any kind of terrain or weather.

 “Boy this back-haul is a bitch doncha know?”

I muttered something.

Pointing north towards Fairbanks he continued: “So – Sarge says you went ta college up there. Betcha that was sumpin! You know – ‘Sex, drugs, rock & roll’ and all that stuff?”

I muttered again, trying to discourage further conversation but Newville either missed or ignored the cue and went on.

“Listen Sir – this ain’t like listening to no ‘Stairway ta Heaven’ but I thought you’d enjoy it”

He extended his paw hand: In it was a can of 7-UP – and in that moment a carbonated beverage changed my whole world.

While setting up our tents at the beginning of the exercise I had shared a childhood story about my older sister’s pranks and how they always involved 7-UP as bait. I had even recreated an experiment in creating a home brew version of the Uncola with Alka-Seltzer and sugar that failed just as miserably in 1981 as it had in 1961, and had ended the demonstration with the comment that soft drinks were just as inaccessible at our remote airhead as they were in my childhood home. Together the story and demonstration took at most ten minutes but that was long enough to prompt Newville to give up desperately needed shut-eye in order to make a side-trip to a convenience store as he drove all night to collect infantrymen scattered over the area of operations. It was a lesson in Christ-like service that got the point across better than any sermon or scripture.

I popped the tab and took a gulp, the cold sweet carbonated water shocking me back to a more alert state. I mentally made a new list:

  • Even if there had been a few more marks in the “down” column of my life than in the “up” category, I had always been able to stand back up after each time I was knocked down.
  • While Fairbanks was the cradle for the worst heartbreak of my young life it was also the birthplace of my true understanding of God, family and friendship.
  • Maybe my cross-country trips were now made in a jeep at an altitude of three feet instead of helicopter at a thousand but I’d have never known or learned how to lead men like Newville if my career had kept me flying.
  • …and maybe I’ll never be as cool as SGT Saunders, but I had something he’d never match: A two-year old son, another on the way, and my smoking hot Saxon Princess sweetheart that had crusty CW4 introducing themselves to a lowly second lieutenant just on the off- chance that she’d shake their hand..

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  1. There was no UAF, UAA or UAJ when I first went off to college in 1971. We were “the” University of Alaska and all those other places were community colleges.
  2. The weather had been so unseasonably warm that the ground started getting soft. There were doubts that the airstrip at Clear Creek would stay frozen enough to support the large number of C-130’s taking off and landing during deployment/redeployment.
  3. Concertina: a type of barbed wire that was stamped out of very thin steel. It was issued in tight rolls that would expand or contract like a small accordion (hence the name) at the most inopportune time. Also called razor blade wire.