Bladeship Model

bladeship

I designed the bladeship to be Starfleet’s primary Special Operations support vessel – a concept that kicked off a short but brisk discussion that recently spread across WordPress and Facebook.  Essentially an SR-71, an AC-130 and a submarine rolled into one ship, the bladeship was central to an (unfortunately) unpublished special operations supplement I wrote for FASA’s Star Trek role-playing game back in the day. The fact that at the time I was also serving as the battalion S2 (intelligence) for the 1st battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) UTARNG was most definitely a factor in the whole project

The aforementioned discussion got me thinking about all the work that went into the project and how it could be of enough interest to support a couple of posts. Unfortunately, I started the original bladeship project thirty-four years and seven houses ago, and as I learned in the army “three moves equal one fire” …so I’ve essentially been burned out twice since 1985.

I still have  some “stuff” left, including this Styrene and Bondo ® model built in scale to the original AMT USS Enterprise model. As I think about this I’m pretty sure I’ve already written a post or two  about the bladeship but A) it’s been awhile and B) the pertinent files have proved to be elusive.

Reworked Hansen’s Roughriders

2019-01-03 hansen's roughriders rework

One of the reasons I embarked on my long-term figure drawing program in the early 2000’s  was a comment I once received about the  drawing this image replaces.

“Oh – it’s a female figure? I never realized that!”

Granted, field operations leaves little time for beauty care, but I never made a mistake identifying gender when I was in the military myselfr so the comment stung a little…and that’s probably why my female figures are now a little more glam. True, the uniform on this particular cone-rifleman is a tad more snug than the way it was  in the original drawing, but I did forego high-heel combat boots.

Original 1986 version:

hansen's roughriders 1986

1974: Spring Camp

I was so damn tired.

I was the only man in a two-man foxhole, my buddy long gone to a squad leader’s meeting at the command post leaving me to pull guard duty alone through the night to the next morning. I had never been so sleep-deprived in my life – several times I had to hold back from sounding the alarm after seeing what I thought were giant Neanderthal aliens.1

Welcome to ROTC Spring Camp.

The BYU ROTC program in 1974 was much more rigorous than I’d expected, with a strict discipline that lingered from an earlier time when the looming specter of conscription put teeth into the threat of being ‘dropped from the program’. The abrupt change from the more easy-going first-names-only program at Ricks College threw me off but I quickly got up to speed with spit-shined boots, starched fatigues and an ego surrounded by mental sandbags.

Truth be told I needed something to throw myself into, and the French Foreign Legion was not recruiting at the time. I had been riding high during my last semester in Rexburg, but then in a twist that would make any soap opera proud I went through a broken engagement, a missed application deadline and an equally disastrous rebound relationship that left me marooned in Provo for a semester, living in a dank basement apartment with five strangers and a totally useless line-up of classes at a university that I never, ever wanted to attend.

Looking back it should have been no surprise that I got heavily involved in the ROTC program. It was the one place at BYU that I was able to make friends, it provided my shattered pride with positive reinforcement through the butt-load of merits I earned during tactical lab exercises, and it generally formed a band-aid over the gaping emotional wound left from the break-up. If there was a downside it was the manner in which my overly gung-ho attitude generated antipathy in some of my less motivated squad-mates. I was so caught up in the program that it surprised no one that I volunteered for Spring Camp even though attendance was optional for second year cadets, but to be honest there was little military zeal in my decision. I could see no sense in spending the four days of Spring Break watching the paint dry on the wall of my crappy little apartment.

The camp was held in the desert adjacent to Dugway Proving Grounds and was designed to prepare third year cadets for advanced training at FT Lewis (WA) the following summer. We would participate in a series of tactical problems and training exercises with third year cadets in rotating leadership positions  – and though as a second-year cadet my mission was to simply be someone to give orders to, I surprised evaluators when I proved to be much more than just a body to command. Growing up in rural Alaska had given me an excellent set of fieldcraft skills, and I was also more accustomed to rustic living conditions than my proto-yuppie cadet companions.

The training schedule included seventy hours of various exercises leading to a 24-hour long-range patrol designed to be the capstone of the spring camp experience. For me the patrol was anticlimactic as my peak came the previous morning during a squad exercise involving a hasty attack. As mentioned I was slated to be a redshirt2  during the exercise, so I had slipped my mental gear selector into neutral and let my mind wander while we were double-timing to the training site, only to be startled back to life with:

“DEITRICK! SQUAD LEADER!”

“Huh?” (my snappy come-back!)

A squad-mate hissed “You’re the squad leader for this problem!”

Few things in life have terrified me as much as those seven words did. Lack of experience coupled with complete inattention up to that point started my knees knocking and my internal Stukas dive-bombing. After receiving my assignment I stepped aside to devise a plan and write an order but all I could think of was:

  • Imminent failure and resultant humiliation
  • Swift expulsion from the program
  • Prompt transportation to a military prison or penal colony in South America

I was totally >bleeping<  lost…and found that coherent speech was not my friend as I began to brief my squad mates, but when I opened the session to questions I inexplicably became more articulate. I was momentarily bewildered at my sudden expertise until I realized what was really happening: I was being indirectly coached by my squad-mates, all third-year cadets (some veterans) who knew their stuff and knew that I didn’t. Rather than belittle me they were subtly carrying me; when I opened the briefing up for questions they’d each ask very detailed leading questions which verbally pulled me into devising a good, professional operation order.

I remember one in particular – a third year cadet with prior service named Don Card. I can visualize every detail of his face picked out in sharp detail by the morning sun to one side with a complex expression on his face that was brave, benign and several other “B’s” all at the same time. I was dumbfounded –  competitive grading meant there was no benefit to helping me, yet there he stood,  gently nudging me into competence with his leading questions.

I managed to implement the order and lead the squad in a textbook hasty attack that earned me  an outstanding spot report, but I had little time to bask in my tactical glory – as soon as we took the objective we were hustled back to our bivouac area to prepare for the aforementioned long-range patrol of which I remember very little. Neither do I remember much about breaking camp or the trip back to campus. Oh, I did get some John Wayne points for carrying the radio for the entire 25 kilometers despite twisting my knee early in the exercisebut all these years later the one moment I remember the best was the earlier exercise when the other guys elbowed me towards excellence. That little bit of compassion that in turn led to a little bit of positive reinforcement was just enough to push me through an emotional quagmire that could have easily diverted me down a very bad path.

Any study of military science will almost immediately reveal that there is a minimum level of transpersonal commitment an army must have in order to function or even exist, that without a willingness to forego personal comfort and safety for the collective good any group of soldiers can easily devolve into glorified gang members. At the same time products of popular media like Combat, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers would have us assume such selflessness would always entail dramatic measures like jumping on a hand grenade to save the rest of the squad or something equally extreme in nature. That sunlit morning in the spring of 1974 taught me that sometimes selflessness measured in very small doses can do just as much good as the grand gestures.


  1. …from the first season Star Trek TOS Episode “The Galileo Seven”
  2. Star Trek term for an expendable crew member
  3. While attending the basic course as a second lieutenant five years later I ran into our cadet lane grader (now an active duty captain) attending the advanced course. He still remembered the incident and my rather coarse response when he asked if I wanted a medivac after the injury. He laughed and said, “Right there I knew you were going to make through the program!”

Music: White Car

 

Despite my fondness for the genre I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the British progressive rock group Yes. I immediately took to their first single ”Your Move” but the AM radio version I first heard at the University in the fall of 1971 did not accurately reflect the band’s basic sound. The raucous addendum “I’ve Seen All Good People” tacked on to the tail end of the album track was missing from the radio version, so I was immediately taken with vocal harmonies and a pleasant, maybe even pretty, acoustic accompaniment topped off with a majestic but not overpowering organ in the last couple of measures.

Hmmm. Kind of like Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, I thought.

Then Marty and Jeff  down the hall played The Yes Album in its entirety and I became a fan of the band on their own merits and not because I though they sounded like someone else…but since I really, really liked the harmony and uncomplicated nature of “Your Song”  I mentally filed it in a place separate from Fragile, Closer to the Edge and other subsequent Yes Albums.

Time passed, and music evolved:

  • The Moody Blues broke up then reunited into a shadow of themselves.
  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer alternately mugged our ears/broke our hearts  with Love Beach.
  • Along with more than 200 million other Americans I survived the Great Disco Epidemic by the narrowest of margins.

With all these changes I found my tastes in music evolving to modern jazz artists like Tom Scott and Tim Weisberg while my progressive rock albums gathered dust on the shelf. I also found that my life was changing as I went from student to missionary to student to soldier  – until one night when I was sitting in our quarters at FT Richardson with KRKN1 playing on the radio  while I was spit-shining boots.

…so while I’m fumbling with matches, a can of Kiwi shoe polish, and an old diaper, an album began to play on the radio. I missed the introduction  – and as KRKN was an album-oriented rock station there was no deejay patter in between tracks  –  it  took almost all of that first track to figure out that maybe, just maybe I was listening to a new Yes album.

Then the track ended, there were several seconds of between-track silence and then the second track started to play, and I was transfixed.

  • Kettle drums lead with synthesizers-posing as strings, creating a melody that toggles between classical music and a motion picture soundtrack.
  • A mandolin plays a syncopated accompaniment in the background.
  • A very martial-sounding roll on the snare drum and a kettle-drum repeat winds up the segment.
  • The whole thing starts over again and repeats three more times.

…and then the vocals start but I will warn you: if you listen too closely they screw everything up. The first few times I listened to “White Car” I really keyed into its quasi-soundtrack feeling and let the vocals work as pure instinctive sound – another instrument in the band. The combined effect of  indistinct voice and music painted a magic mental picture of walking along the docks of a port in some alternate reality steampunk city and taking in the sights:

  • Ships featuring both sails and steam-powered paddle-wheels
  • Nautilus-like submarines with bulbous glowing eye-ports
  • Rigid-frame airships; zeppelins winching cargo up and down from the surface
  • Singer Gary Neuman2 driving around in a Stingray convertible

SKKRRIITCCHHHH!

Nothing can drag the tone-arm across the Great Record Album of Life like this non-sequitur.

I see a man in a white car
Move like a ghost on the skyline
Take all your dreams
And you throw them away
Man in a white car.

 ….namely Mr. Neuman’s white Stingray, which is the official subject of this composition.

 However this short (1:21) song worked such powerful magic for me that I trained myself back into listening with “vocals as instruments” ears  and I’ve kept “White Car” in every format and playlist I’ve had since that night in 1980. It provides a wonderful eighty-one second side-trip to a nicer world and has done wonders for the anxiety that so readily besets me.

My only complaint since then is minor and has to do with the song’s placement in the playing order of the album Drama. It brings to mind a spin-the-bottle game I was drafted into when I was much younger. I say drafted, but I went quite willingly when I found that the game already included a beautiful brunette I was very interested in.

…but when I sat down in the circle I discovered that the young lady in question was flanked by…by…I’m sorry – there’s just no tactful way to describe the two young ladies sitting to each side of my  raven-tressed Faye Dunaway wannabe. Their appearance in contrast to her beauty  was as jarring as having “Man in a White Car” situated between the equally jarring and discordant  “Machine Messiah” and “Does It Really Happen?

.. but that contrast might just be what makes “White Car” so beautiful. Sometimes a sharp contrast goes a long way in bringing out both physical and musical beauty.


Notes:

  1. KRKN (104.3 FM,) was an AOR (album-oriented rock) FM station in Anchorage Alaska from 1980 to 1986 when it changed to an oldies format. Through a process that totally mystifies me the KRKN call letters are now assigned to a country music station in Iowa.
  2. Yes, that Gary Neuman of “Cars” – the 1980 New Wave techno hit that will now be running through your mind and driving you crazy for the rest of the week.

Here’s to Armistice Day!

BetterCaptainPhoto

… or Veteran’s Day or whatever you want to call it. I’m thankful the holiday is  celebrated under dramatically different conditions as it was when I was a young lieutenant.

To all my friends who put your young adulthood on hold to “take the king’s shilling” and wear a uniform – of any nation. Thank you for your service.

Music: “Hello It’s Me”

 

(Dig back far enough in the archives and you’ll find a similar post to this one. Music was a favorite topic when I first started blogging, but those first posts were pretty skimpy, so from time to time I will be re-visiting songs rather than re-running them.)

Consider the following:

  • KFQD
  • KRSK
  • KCSY
  • WSKW

What do they have in common? All of them were moderate-to-low powered AM radio stations playing a mix of current and “recent oldie” pop music when I listened to them in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In addition they all staffed their non-prime-time hours with brand-new talent still learning the trade so on-air gaffes were not uncommon…but of the four it was KRSK (Rexburg ID) that had the worst problem with gaps of silence between songs.

1973

The hiss, pop, and sometimes music on my old clock radio had been good company while I studied the afternoon away, but it was the clock that had my attention as I closed my art history book and sat up on my bed. It was 7:00 PM – time to get changed for a visiting artist lecture, but as I stood up there was an extended  moment of dead air on the radio,  then out of that silence came an unmistakable bass-backed-by-organ introduction followed up by the first crystal clear line of lyrics in Todd Rundgren’s mid-range tenor voice.

Hello, it’s me I’ve thought about us for a long, long time

Maybe I think too much but something’s wrong

There’s something here that doesn’t last too long

Maybe I shouldn’t think of you as mine

It was the first time I heard the song and I was captivated, standing in that exact spot until music was over. Unlike many songs where  I consider vocals to be little more than another instrument, lyrics had an almost physical impact on me  and I became very curious about the song. I subsequently found out that Rundgren had first recorded Hello It’s Me in 1972, but it didn’t start charting until the fall of 1973, a point in time that was also shaping up as one of the best and worst years of my life. During the previous spring I went  through what can described as a (take your pick) Road to Damascus/Alma the Younger conversion that put me on track for the best semester of my collegiate career, making the Dean’s list and achieving a number of important personal goals…to include the upcoming reunion in six weeks with My Best Friend when everything in my life would be perfect.

Seeing you Or seeing anything as much as I do you

I take for granted that you’re always there

I take for granted that you just don’t care

Sometimes I can’t help seeing all the way through

I was struck by how beautiful the melody was but  unsettled by the bittersweet tone of the lyrics in the same way that the beauty of a majestic anvil-topped thunderhead lit by a sunset could often hide a vicious storm… like the emotional thunderstorm that had swept through earlier that week.

The letter read: “I miss you so much, but I get afraid that all this waiting will come to nothing. It’s a big step to try and start over again when things are going so well here in Fairbanks. We’ve got a whole new group of Young Single Adults including a G.I. from Eielson who is really nice. He kind of reminds me of you.”

I was in the process of learning two  important facts about life:

1) Life changes. There are times when I’d love to settle in, break the cosmic channel selector and just keep Life the way is. I wouldn’t have complained one bit if my sophomore year of high school would have gone for eighteen months instead of nine. (That actually happens. It’s called “flunking”). At a later time, our little family of four house-sat for my parents in Sterling from 1987-89 and it was such a pleasant interlude that I wished we’d never left…but eventually you have to move on, sometimes to happier situations but just as often to sadder conditions.

2) Personal history and temporal landmarks don’t always mesh with the timetable the rest of society uses. An old friend and mentor called his own unique periods of time “boxes” and felt that the boxes could be dictated by age, events or experience – and that our boxes don’t always line up with other people’s boxes. For example the textbook teenage “box” for  a young man is assumed to run from 13 to 19  but all things considered, my teen-age years went from age fifteen to age twenty, and I didn’t know it but Hello It’s Me was marking the end of that  box for me, no matter how I kicked, clawed and dragged my figurative feet.

Rundgren hit a resonant chord, his melancholy resignation very similar to the way I had also been “seeing all the way through” for the entire semester starting in August when I boarded the 727 in Fairbanks and the thought flashed across my mind that she won’t be there at the other end. I’d briskly pushed that premonition aside, preferring life on a Cairo houseboat (living in de Nile), and continuing to brush off doubts brought on by letters with sentiments similar to the one quoted above.

At some level I knew that Rundgren’s haunting lyrics were preparing me for a big change in my life, and while I dreaded the prospect of a relation-ectomy without anesthesia, I  knew that if and when a break came I had to be able to walk away and leave my Best Friend with a clean slate.

It’s important to me
That you know you are free
‘Cause I never want to make you change for me

1979:

“ Hey everybody in the Tidewater area – this is Wally West  and that was Todd Rundgren and  Hello It’s Me from 1973 followed by England Dan & John Ford Coley singing another Rundgren tune Love is the Answer – and the time is (bing-bong) five minutes past the big hour of five o’clock!”

If the admin clerk had actually been on time with my orders I would have cleared post and been out of town before hearing that announcement  – and those songs, and even then the significance didn’t hit me until we were half-way across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. Todd Rundgren’s work had been the signpost directing me through that first transition from teenager to young adult, and now his creative voice (albeit second-hand) was guiding me through yet another transition from the student/cadet/young father phase to (GASP) adulthood.

I drove along the elevated causeway, the sunlight glinting on the wavetops at each side. Lori and Conrad were both asleep and I was alone with my thoughts. On one level the connection with the abrupt end to my first engagement made Rundgren’s “greatest hit” very  difficult to listen to, but at another level the song was very dear to me. When that early heartbreak happened I momentarily thought of flying back home and making a violent scene, but the simple lyrics had had a calming effect and I saved the price of airfare to Fairbanks as I walked away in my best grown-up fashion,  leaving my (former) Best Friend with a clean unencumbered slate to build a future on.

Think of me

You know that I’d be with you if I could

I’ll come around to see you once in a while

Or if I ever need a reason to smile

And spend the night if you think I should

…and as I glanced over at my Beautiful Saxon Princess and my infant son realized given the way things had worked out I’d ended up with more than just one “reason to smile” .

Music: Main Street

I had no idea I would miss her so badly

I’d left for FT Lewis with the assumption that I’d be channeling Mr. Spock for six weeks and remaining in complete control of my emotions.  As much as I loved Lori there was an element of reserve in my heart, an emotional bunker left-over from a devastating break-up years earlier but after the initial chaos of travel and check-in I noticed a slight hollow feeling akin to a hunger pang that wasn’t enough to slow me down… but was enough to get my attention during down-time.

The other shoe boot dropped the morning I moved my wedding ring to my dog-tag chain as a safety precaution for a physical fitness test. As I was moving, clipping snapping and such I paused for a moment, startled by the stark white of a band of skin usually covered from the sunlight – and at that moment a deep but amused voice rumbled from the next bunk:

“It’s still there isn’t it?”

It was Doug Zanders, a cadet from Nebraska and he was smiling as he also moved his wedding band to the chain around his neck.  He continued: “We can take the rings off, but they’re still there.”

As we polished boots that evening Doug and I picked the conversation back up. I talked about Lori and how we’d been married only a couple of months. He blessedly made no ribald comments but instead talked about his distress at Advanced Camp overlapping with the birth of his daughter. It was not the conversation you’d expect from two young warriors and those unlikely sentiments were still in mind as the lights went out and we listened to one last song on the radio before going to sleep:

“I remember standing on the corner at midnight

Trying to get my courage up

There was this long lovely dancer in a little club downtown

I loved to watch her do her stuff”

It was Main Street by Bob Seger and before that night I’d never realized how poignantly Seger captured the essence of something I’d assumed was no longer part of my life:  loneliness. There’d been so many times in younger years when I’d watch couples pair up for the last dance just to walk home alone. Marrying Lori was supposed to change all that and get rid of the loneliness, but it wasn’t until we were apart that I could see that as long as the inner bunker was intact I’d always be “walking home alone” at some level.

“Through the long lonely nights, she filled my sleep

Her body softly swaying to that smoky beat

Down on Main street”

 I laid on my bunk looking up at the rafters and tried to sleep to the lullaby of sniffs, snores, coughs and farts of twenty-three of my closest friends, but with Ted What’s-his-name in the bottom bunk working on his OCD boot-shine sleep was going to remain a stranger.

“And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street”

Seger’s raspy/bluesy vocals overflow with emotion it was Pete Carr’s haunting guitar work that really ripped my heart out. Some artists use a brush but Carr’s work with a guitar paints a vision of sadness and longing more accurate and detailed than an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition. It captured perfectly the gap I felt that night.

I missed Lori –  as in “capital-M” missed her.

Yes, I missed making love1, but I missed her solid reassuring presence just as much and maybe more so. Light-blue water-color eyes with the slight sad tilt that’d been so quick to sign emotional school loans – promising so much despite the possible cost. In the short time we’d been married I’d grown accustomed to the comfort of her arm around my shoulder and her cheek against my chest as we slept.

…and her smile when I first woke up.

The post-training discussions continued –  at the rate Doug and I polished boots over the next thirty-six evenings you’d think we owned stock in Kiwi, but spit-shined boots were secondary to words that were just as important as the daily training. We talked about our wives, wrote operations orders, talked about our younger years, planned artillery pre-plots, talked about our wives again – while  consuming our respective weights in Peanut M & M’s.

…and then before I realized it advanced camp was over, and we went back to our former lives.

My brain is such that a song automatically gets mental time-stamp and is forever connected with what was happening when I first heard the tune: Play ‘Windy” (by The Association) and I’m finishing 8th grade and kissing Kathy Knight at the graduation party. Play “One of These Nights” (by The Eagles) and I’m packing my bags for a reluctant transfer from Skowhegan to Penacook. Play “Main Street” (Bob Seger) and I’m back at FT Lewis gaining skills I’d need as a second lieutenant…and a husband.

 And sometimes even now, when I’m feeling lonely and beat

I drift back in time and I find my feet

Down on Main street

Down on Main street

____________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1)…and I mean making love. Not banging, boinking, humping, hitting it, making the beast with two backs, getting a bit of crumpet or any of the countless other soulless euphemisms for physical intimacy that we are constantly flooded with in the new millennium.  At that time it was “making love” in every sense of the word.

 

1966: Mukluk Camp

Military service is a much more popular career choice now than when I was a young man. While public antipathy had ebbed from the poop-flinging, hippie-spitting antics common during the height of the Viet-nam conflict, wearing an ROTC uniform on campus didn’t exactly make me a babe-magnet. The kindest comment usually involved my military aspirations being motivated by not having brothers to play army with when I was in grade school.

…a comment that wasn’t all that far off. Living on a homestead in Sterling (AK) with only my four sisters for company left me with little prospects for recruiting playmates (oops!) squad-mates.  Living in Anchorage had been a different case entirely when on any given day there were at least two armies headquartered in Mrs. Green’s fifth grade class. These two armies were usually under the command of either Mark Davis or myself with national identity alternating between Americans and Germans, depending on who looked coolest on the latest episode of Combat!

That type of play was not happening when we subsequently moved to the Kenai Peninsula where I encountered a reverse sophistry in place. You’d assume that an urban institution would be much hipper and “grown-up” than a country school but the opposite proved to be the case: while imagination games were accepted at Woodland Park Elementary the kids at Sterling were much more interested in sports (and the female body). It may have been a natural change in attitude for that particular age so it was possible  the Anchorage kids were embracing older interests at the same time but as the change in attitude happened  at the same time as a change in locale I missed the memo and ended up being mocked unmercifully by my Sterling classmates for playing “baby games”. 1

Eventually I smartened up and learned to blend in at school by talking tough and playing sports during recess but at home my spare time was still taken up with living room maneuvers with my plastic soldiers, writing to former comrades-in-arms back in Anchorage or (on warmer days) getting outside to run and fight the phantom armies of my imagination.  Such activities were good for passing the time, but I never had as much fun as I’d previously had back in Anchorage with my buddies. Sadly, the situation didn’t look to get better anytime soon as there was little hope for recruiting the manpower to fill the roster for an elementary school infantry squad.

Then a solution came to me one evening as my whole family was gathered together watching Sink the Bismarck! on TV.  As I looked at the faces around me transfixed by the on-screen action I realized the answer to my manpower shortage was in fact girl power – my three little sisters who had had been pestering me to join in the war effort from the day I got my first Mattel Tommy-burst.  All along they’d been sitting right next to me watching Combat!  and The Gallant Men, and had been bitten by the imagination adventure bug, but in my grade school chauvinism I had classified all three of them as 3-F: three little females with no business on the battle field whatsoever.

It appeared that in the intervening year or so all three of my little sisters had grown out of their toddler clumsiness and would make good soldiers.  It also appeared that the tom-boy gene figured prominently in their DNA and they could all shoot and scoot right alongside of me without missing a step.  What’s more each one also brought a unique skill that added to the play:

  • Holly had the gait of a deer and made an outstanding scout.
  • Heather was deceptively strong and was good at negotiating obstacles.
  • Dana had a talent for camouflage and could literally hide behind a clump of grass.

They also collectively possessed something else that would add immensely to our experience: friends. There wasn’t a weekend that our squad strength was not augmented by the addition of Patty, Sandy, Bonnie or any number of the girls’ friends who were just as enthusiastic about pseudo-combat duty as they were.

I soon had them kitted out in mix of helmet liners, satchels, canteens, carry-cases that I had acquired as personal gifts, thrift store purchases or trade with other kids2, and I was able to issue each one of them at least two items of equipment. It was during the issue of this equipment that the experience took on an even more realistic Army flavor when Dana, the youngest and smallest of the three was invariably saddled down with the heaviest gear.

Once we were all equipped I started out with some very basic training:

  • How to wear and use the wide assortment gear I’d come up with
  • Basic terminology – as in using the term “weapon” instead of “gun”
  • Marching in step was right out so I just taught them to all move in the same direction
  • Proper use of our toy weapons to include proper sound effects3

One seemingly obvious training aid conspicuous by its omission was the use of pyrotechnics or in our case fireworks. At the time they were legal and when we lived in Anchorage my friends and I would add realism to our maneuvers by lighting off the occasional string of Black Cat firecrackers or peppering each other with torpedoes, a silver-colored munition about the size of a cherry bomb that would detonate on impact.  With my sisters involved it seemed better to rule out firecrackers, a seemingly altruistic decision that in fact came about when I discovered the hard way that I couldn’t lead troops and chuck Black Cats at the same time.4

Despite our rural location one of our biggest problems was finding areas to train in. There was a real danger from wild animals like moose or bear so we had to stay relatively close to the house but as LTGEN Arthur Collins states in his excellent book Common Sense Training you don’t always have to have large areas to conduct good training. The outbuildings behind our home worked well for house-to-house combat and while the barbed wire fences around the horse pastures weren’t quite the impenetrable obstacles that concertina coils were, they could still prove to be tricky to negotiate and added an element of realism to the activity.

Both my mom and older sister were working at a cannery in Kasilof so there wasn’t much to distract us from our training.  Other than the week I was at scout camp we spent the entire summer outside conducting operations, which says a lot when you consider that KENI TV began day-time television and Saturday morning cartoons in mid-June. The only reason we stacked arms and stood down in August was the start of school.

Like most aspects of my youth playing army didn’t abruptly stop but was slowly edged out by other activities competing for my attention. My relationship with my little sisters changed as well when I left Sterling Elementary for high school – it created an interest-gap just a little too wide to bridge. In the following years we would still have a good time playing outside but working every summer made it hard to keep the intensity going.  Playing army slowing morphed into a combination of hide & seek and tag with undertones of James Bond, but as I continued to take on further outside interests and activities the time we used to spend running around the outdoors was replaced by Risk and other board games played inside.

Then I blinked my eyes and I was leaving home for college, mission and the “for-real” army where I would run my platoon through collective and individual combat skills in the same way I trained my little sisters. Another blink and I was no longer a soldier but still passing hard-won leadership skills on to students, Scouts and Scout leaders…then I blinked a third time and found that I was old, and my body was cashing all the checks my ego had written years ago.

Now any shooting and scooting in my life happens only in my memory.

___________________________________________________________________________

1) It was my first exposure to mankind’s innate hypocrisy. All day long at school I was mocked for playing baby games (army), playing with baby toys (army men), and (gasp!) playing with dolls (G.I. Joe action figures). However, when George, Steve or any of the other kids at school came over to my house they’d make a bee-line for my Mattel Tommy-burst or my G.I. Joe, but the next morning at school they’d revert to type.

2) Between operations in the state during World War Two and the nearness of both Army and Air Forces bases Alaska was blessed with a plethora of surplus clothing and equipment. Quonset huts dotted the landscape, every contractor had at least one surplus Caterpillar tractor and thrift shops were loaded with personal gear.

3)There were several schools of thought on reproducing gunfire sound effects.

  • Single shot was easy – a loud raspy “K” sound formed inside the back part of your mouth.
  • The easiest machine-gun sound was a phonetic “duh-duh-duh” chanted out at low pitch.
  • Another option was a variation on the single shot method, with the raspy “K” rapidly repeated.
  • My favorite a combination of a tongue-stutter combined with a kind of deep gargling sound which a buddy’s  veteran father told me sounded disturbingly similar to an MG42 in the distance.

4)  The first accident involved a short-fused Black Cat that went off just as it left my fingers which required burn salve and bandages for a week. The second incident involved a torpedo that blew off the side of my sneaker. I didn’t wait for a third incident.

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.

1982: “…this is really STUPID Dave!”

I think we all have magic places in our lives – locations that seem to resonate and bring strength. Places where you can push your fingers down in the dirt and feel nourishment flow into your body.

I certainly do:

  • The ranch where we all grew up in Sterling AK
  • The 2 ½ mile trail running back behind the UAF campus
  • Hideout Hill

HHillFromHighway

As you drive from Sterling to Anchorage you pass Hideout Hill on your right as you first enter the mountains. It’s called a hill because it’s only 2726 feet high, but when I first noticed it in 1965 it sure looked like a mountain to me. You could barely see it from my attic loft window, but it figured prominently in all my adolescent fantasies: It was the redoubt from which my doughty band of freedom fighters fought the Russian invaders, the site of the castle from which I ventured out to fight dragons and was my Fortress of Solitude to which I would retire after fighting crime in Anchorage.

I’ve made three climbs, the first time as a Boy Scout in 1968 when we got halfway up the southern side after starting from Hidden Lake. The second trip up was a drizzly day trip in 1981 when I climbed in the company of my brothers-in-law Bobby, Marc and Scott. We started at the highway and just brush-busted our way until we found a very faint trail marked by faded bits of engineer tape. Finding the bits of tape became a game:  we spread out and moved the brush in the general direction of the hill, keeping an eye out for animals and keeping an ear cocked for the cry “Red Flag!” which meant one of the other guys had found the next trail marker. As we got closer to the hill the markers became closer and easier to spot one from another, so we were able to pick up the pace and get up the hill.

Hideout Hill Lake

We stopped at the small lake, made a fire and heated up some soup, then moved on up to the summit where we rewarded with one of the most breath-taking sights I’ve ever seen. As we sat comfortably on the thick moss ground cover we could see and point out locations over a good part of the Peninsula. There was a tangible reward of sorts as well; while sitting on the summit I looked down and found a C-ration can embedded in the moss. I showed it to my Dad when we got home and thought it came from rations that had been dropped to survivors of a plane wreck that happened in that area in the late 50s/early 60s.

The third time was the charm. It was July of 1982 – SSG Bradley and I were both able to score a 48hr pass which in conjunction with a weekend would give us time to take our wives up the hill for a short camping trip. Unlike the climb in drizzly weather the year before we would be making the trek in sunny weather, which meant a light pack – I could leave behind all my raingear other than a pair of gaiters that I invariably wore when walking through the invariably wet Alaskan brush.

David in Hiking Order Hideout Hill 1982

Preparations for the trip ended up a comparison test between camping philosophies. I was very much into minimum impact camping and took the bare minimum of equipment and supplies; Jim on the other hand had a large capacity pack and preferred to plan for every contingency and ended up carrying quite a bit more than I did. It posed little trouble on the first part of the hike as we moved across level and slightly sloping terrain, but the heavy weight of Jim’s pack would make him stall or trip over the slightest obstruction. Each time that happened I would hear his deep voice rumble out “This is really dumb Dave!”

It got worse. When we finally got to the side of Hideout Hill proper the trail made a 45o angle upwards and made a narrow cut through low-lying close growing willows. Before long we were pulling ourselves up as much as walking – with my relatively light load I still made good time, but the rest of the party was stretched out along the trail with the girls following me at a short distance and Jim further down the trail, occasionally tripping with his heavy load and periodically repeating ‘This is really dumb Dave!”

At that point I changed tactics and sped up my climb, so I could quickly get to the top of the trail, ground my pack and come back down to help Jim. The girls passed me on the way up in good shape but when I got to Jim his dark glare of rage prompted me to stay out of reach. He was close to the breaking point, struggling with his overloaded pack and just barely making progress, and when he looked up at me he glared and growled “This is really STUPID Dave!”

I carefully stayed out of Jim’s reach and tried to give moral support – I knew better than to try to physically help him. At length he made the crest of the trail and after a short rest we all moved down by the small lake, pitched camp and explored the area. After his laborious climb Jim had no desire to hike all the way to the summit, but the enclosed vale around the lake offered plenty of places to explore and play. I even tried some rock climbing but upon closer inspection it was obvious there had been repeated freeze/thaw in the cliff face making the rock “rotten” and prone to a sudden break.

JimCamp

 

Sitting around the tents and boiling up our Mountain Home freeze-dry was as idyllic an existence as I have ever led. The sun was warm and there was a slight breeze, the food was filling, and the company was of the best. We talked and laughed and once again made a list:

  • Our next adventure was going to be on level ground.
  • The gaiters I’d been wearing on my lower legs were the magical source of my energy.
  • Henceforth I would be known as “Forced March Deitrick”

 

DinnerHideout

I could hardly sleep that night – I didn’t want to miss a single minute of our stay there. I would creep quietly out of the tent and look north and track the path of the sun on the other side of the globe by the slight point of light that escapes over the northern horizon as the earth rotates. I drank in the wind as it casually caressed my cheeks and felt my heart swell as I looked down at the sleeping forms of my dear wife and my good friends.

Hideout Hill Sunrise

I was up at sunrise and boiling water for breakfast when everyone else finally awoke. We explored around the lake some more, throwing scraps to the loons that swam there and searching for the point at which the lake made its way over a small waterfall and down the north side of the hill …but eventually it was time to leave. Descending the hill was much easier though we did have one scare: Midway through the willows growing close to the more vertical part of the trail we were alarmed by vigorous rustling just below us. As we were in prime bear country both Jim and I drew our side-arms, but just before firing we heard a voice call out: “Humans! Humans on the trail” and shortly passed a party of three young men climbing up for a day-trip just as I had the year before.

LoriHideout

All too soon we were off the trail and at the pick-up point  and from there back to FT Richardson. We didn’t know it at the time but that was the last adventure we would have together in Alaska as Jim was transferred to FT Hood TX shortly afterwards. I’ve never been able to get back up there myself either; when we lived in Sterling from 1987 to 1989 it seemed like I was always caught up with either my work, being a Dad, work with Scouts or drilling with the Reserves. I struck out on both our 1997 and 1999 visits home mostly due to transportation and our trip back for my dad’s funeral was in winter-time.

…and now I am too old and broken, but I still visit Hideout Hill. Some nights when the pain in my back keeps me from sleeping I think about being there. I can smell the spruce along the lower trail and feel the mischievous cool breeze teasing my face. I can look out from the peak and see my Peninsula home with a view only the angels share and track the path of the sun along the northern horizon.

…and then I can sleep.