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.

 

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..

========================================================================

  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.

Hawkman 1943

2016-10-01-hawkman-1943Carrying on with the alternate time-line historically correct superhero idea: CPT Carter Hall, US Army (Airborne) tests his wings. This design actually took some time to come together for me as Hawkman traditionally uses edged weapons and maces (granted they are enchanted edged weapons and maces) but they just didn’t look right. I also briefly considered  giving him an officer’s sword ( yes – they still do exist) but in the end I went with just the good old M1911A2.

(answering the age-old question: Why do you use a .45? Answer: Because they don’t make a .46!

I also considered giving him an oxygen mask w/bottle but I don’t think he would routinely fly high enough to need one.

 

Gun Kingdoms 3: Dusker Trinidad

2016-04-04 Dusker Trinidad

This was an unmitigated knee-jerk reaction to the name Scott came up with for our villain. The first time I saw the name”Dusker Trinidad” in written form I had to stop and say it aloud to myself – I immediately envisioned a large islander much like Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”).  Try as I might I cannot see him as ‘SsCaArRyY! but neither do I see him as a particularly benign person. Amoral and hedonistic but not a jerk about it.

He reminds me of an Islander friend named Jim that I knew at Ricks College .  Jim was a service brat just like I was which meant that it was no surprise that we ended up enrolled ROTC together. Towards the end of that semester I went through a very unhappy upset and when Jim found out about he simply asked if I wanted him to find the other guy and “mess him up”.  No emotional heat involved but rather accomplishing a task for a friend and I am glad that I passed on the offer because

  •  the other guy eventually became a good friend and
  •  I swear I saw Jim drive a nail with this fist one time.

If I get too detailed or mission specific with these designs it often robs the character of…well >character< so with this rendering I stressed the “pirate” part of “submarine pirate captain”. Bits and pieces of his clothing deliberately resemble the uniform Skylla started wearing in “Airship of Fools”; I did that to build in a little ambiguity that Scott can pick up and run with if he so desires. I also have on my check-list one of his crew-members garbed in gear more fitted to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or “Das Boot”.

…and as for the pose? Long story involving a very funny story about The Avengers movie and the way Black Widow as posed versus the way the guys were posed.

1982: “…she’s gone”

As a newly minted second lieutenant I assumed that troop leadership would be the least pleasant aspect of my duties, but within weeks of becoming a platoon leader I found out I had been dead wrong – I really enjoyed being a leader, but then I had been prepped for the job, having been a teacher’s aide in high school, a trainer on my mission and an adult Scout leader for years.

The only part of leadership that I didn’t enjoy was enforcing rules. Oh, I had no problem leading my guys into difficult situations but I’m not one to crack a whip and rules often seem like punishment to your most capable troops because the restrictions feel like punishment. That’s because rules are made for the lowest functioning people in the group and by setting a limit that keeps them reined in everyone else will be under control as well. Unfortunately there are times when the percentage of “lower functioning personnel” makes up the majority of the organization and when that happens  you spend most of your time in basic maintenance of unit cohesion.

When that happens two short phrases come to mind:

  • Pushing a rope
  • Herding cats

 

Complicating the situation was the fact that the army of the late 1970s/early 1980s contained a larger than usual percentage of lower functioning people which were referred to as “cat-fours”, Cat-Four was short-hand for Category IV the term used in the army’s system for evaluating enlistees – they were the least qualified people accepted for enlistment. These were the people who didn’t have a high school diploma, scored low on placement tests, or were on a first-name basis with their home-town law enforcement agencies. While it may be an urban legend that a Cat-Four was once caught reading an M&M, as a group they were often very difficult to lead. Coming out of the post Viet-Nam “hollow Army” era meant that in order to fulfill recruiting goals  we were getting a larger percentage of Cat-fours, one of them being  a Private Coolidge who was assigned  to Fort Richardson (Alaska) in the summer of 1982.

I didn’t get off to a good start with Coolidge. I met him at the church one night while dropping off a donation for the scout troop’s summer camp fund raiser. I started causally talking to some of the young men about their progress towards ranks but when I got to one particularly small dark-haired young man all I got was a pained look and a comment that he was solider, was married, and his wife was expecting a child. I made some feeble jokes…then made another equally feeble joke when he dished up the S.O.S. on my tray the next morning. He was one of our battalion cooks.

He didn’t mix well with the other troops but he eventually made friends with Specialist Terry. Terry also fell into Category Four but had a couple years of army under his belt – and during those years he had worked hard and earned a position of responsibility with the battalion communications section. I am not sure how it came about but Terry took a liking to Coolidge  – called him his “little buddy” and was instrumental in getting both Coolidge and his young wife accustomed to Army life – but in the process almost gave the young cook the scare of his life.

That scare came about in late summer of 1982 when the battalion was in the field for a BYX , the initials standing for “back yard exercise” instead of the normal term FTX or field training exercise. Because it was being held on one of FT Richardson’s own training areas, (albeit one of the areas located several miles away from the cantonment area where our homes, the PX and the battalion facilities were located)  the BYX saved a lot of training dollars normally spent for various transportation costs.  The on-post location also provided for much more reliable communications; instead of contending with static from the Aurora Borealis or real-world  jamming from Russian signal units located across the Bering Strait, we could tie into land-lines clear communications between our TOC (tactical operations center) in the field and our regular battalion headquarters. Unfortunately easier communication didn’t automatically make life in general easier as I found out when I received a call from battalion headquarters late one night.

 

On the phone was a near indecipherable Specialist Terry,  which given his job was to be expected. What was unexpected was the near-indecipherable nature of his speech.  He had grown up the Great Smoky Mountains which had flavored his  southern accent with a mountain twang, and  just to make things interesting he had grown up with a Scandinavian step father which added yet another measure of incomprehensibility to his Southern/mountain accent. All of that I could deal with – I’d been working with him for six months but what iced the cake was the fact that Terry was extremely distraught.

He was all worked up and so hard to understand that I should have asked to talk to another soldier but I wasn’t doing so well myself. I had caught a cold the first day of the exercise and a shortage of officers at that time precluded me leaving the exercise to see a proper doctor. The medics did their best but there was only so much aspirin could do with a raging 103 degree temperature. “We than mumble banana patch trombone,” Specialist Terry was wailing into the telephone, ” Coolidge swift gone dog face tuba Elmendorf!”

 I was totally clueless. As musical instruments seemed a major part of the conversation I wondered if the call had something to do with the highly unauthorized band that our commanding general was dancing around regulations to staff. The post commander had already cherry-picked our battalion for musical talent and in the process had stolen one of our best PAC clerks. 

At that point the communications platoon sergeant took the phone and between the two of us we got Terry’s message sorted out – and when we did it was like we both had a bucket of cold water dumped over our heads. Specialist Terry had called to tell his good friend Private Coolidge that his wife had just died. “That’s right sir”, he was finally able to verbalize,” She’s gone. Someone from her church called and said she had a tuba pregnancy and she was gone”.

Once I caught my breath I told him to calm down, knock back a beer or two and relax, stressing  very strongly that he wasn’t to talk to ANYONE about the matter until I gave him the OK the next morning. I then sat down with the operations sergeant and started planning how we were going to handle the situation. Our battalion commander was on TDY visiting our sister battalion in the reserves and I wanted  a chance to talk to him before starting the survivor’s assistance process through the Red Cross.  Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to figure out my next step as Coolidge was going to be working on the breakfast line and the mess sergeant would be waking up soon.

Then in what was either divine inspiration or the effects of my elevated temperature it came to me. I called Lori at home and got the phone number our congregation’s Relief Society president ( Relief Society being the fellowshipping and support organization for LDS women).  She was none too happy about being called at 4:00 AM but when I told her the reason for my call her tone immediately mellowed. Oh, she definitely knew that Sister Coolidge “was gone” – but there was nothing fatal about her absence, nor were any tubas,  trumpets or trombones involved.

Earlier in the year there had been some worry about a tubal pregnancy so when Coolidge’s wife started experiencing some discomfort she went to the emergency room at Elmendorf AFB. Specialist  Terry was just being a good friend when he called to check on his “little buddy’s wife  – but when the teenage babysitter told him “Mrs. Coolidge was gone” he panicked and hung up before she could add “to the emergency room”.  Armed with that knowledge I made a couple of damage control phone calls – and when Coolidge fell in for duty at the chow line he had no clue as to the fright he had just narrowly missed .

As nerve-wracking as the situation had been it did prompt some important changes:

  • Both the battalion chain of command, myself, and members of the congregation stepped up efforts to support service members and their spouses during deployment.
  • Specialist Terry was referred to a speech therapist at the same hospital that his little buddy’s wife had “gone” to.
  • Whenever get bad news over the phone I do my best to keep calm and verify the information before wigging out.

Gun Kingdoms 3: Brandon “Bear” McCoy

2016-04-01 Ship's Technician )  Brandon Bear McCoye i

Sometimes there is nothing as good as black line on white paper and as I get older it seems I like that basic art even more. Maybe its a “getting back to my roots thing” – I certainly used up a couple of tree’s worth of paper sprawled on the floor of my attic loft churning out drawings all the way through high school.

This young man is the artificer/fitter for all the non-magical equipment on the Sand Tyger which makes him fairly important. He also goes unnoticed most of the time – until something breaks down – but he is important nonetheless.

That’s just as well as he is named for a very important person to me. Brandon McCoy was a real-life adventurer and  fallen soldier. Brandon was my next-door neighbor / foster-nephew  for a couple of years  we watched him deploy a couple of times, then watched him re-deploy and try to cope with PTSD and a host of other issues.  Brandon was not as fortunate as others and the dragons got the best of him.  His wife and daughters still grieve, as do we.

I’m long past the time for wearing helmets and carrying rifles but the bond is still there.