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.

Gun Kingdoms 3: Petty Officer Stoneham

2016-02-03 PO Stoneham

Momentum is starting to build and it is getting interesting.

Scott has started writing Gun Kingdoms 3 and as was the case with the first two books we are working in a sort of cooperative loop (buzz-word alert)  Scott writes. I read what he writes, which inspires me to design/draw things.  Scott then studies my work and gets fired up to crunch out more words, which in turn fires me up to draw more…and so on and so forth. It is an very effective and rewarding way for a visual artist to work as it acknowledges that I am not just a pair of hands for an editor.

We are not sure how this volume will work when it comes time for crowd-funding. Scott also produces old-school gaming modules which to be honest are more profitable than “just stories”. At the same time my work lends itself more effectively to gaming – the functional detail I build into these drawings pushes them from pure artsty-fartsy illustration to a level than is more diagrammatic…but we need the stories to provide a cohesive world framework upon which we can hang the adventures.

As for Petty Officer Stoneham: he wears a combination of old uniform items and current equipment and garb. While I have not attempted any sort of specific likeness I am basing the character’s build and body language on LTC Mark Lisi with whom I served in the 172d Light Infantry Brigade (FT Richardson Alaska) in the early 1980’s. Mark and I worked together in aerial movement – getting people and stuff moved around via C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, a task made all that much easier because we were next-door neighbors. Mark still calls me “the neighbor who lies” a label based on a story too long and boring to write when I am as tired as I am right now.

The Lieutenant (NBC 1963-64)

Few people realize that Star Trek was not the first television series that Gene Roddenberry created and produced. The Lieutenant aired during the 1963-64 season and was every bit as thoughtful and well-written as the original adventures of Captain Kirk and company. It was also just as piercing on a sociological level; one hard-hitting episode dealing with race relations was rejected by the network, but Roddenberry ran it anyway and caught h*ll for the decision later on. That incident was the real reason Trek was such a hard sell; it was just as much Roddenberry-as-loose-cannon as the subject matter that made the NBC  suits  drag their feet.

It’s one of my favorites – it’s a show about the unique challenges of a peace-time military which I could definitely identify with. It was also one of the few common interests my dad and I had. Even when I was only ten years old we existed on the same planet but lived in different worlds – but we watched every episode together during that first run. A lot of my troop-leading philosophy came from listening to my dad’s comments while we watched The Lieutenant – he had only been out of the navy four or five years after retiring as a chief petty officer in the navy so the experience was still fresh.

I bought the entire series on DVD but many of the episodes are on YouTube or other network sites.

1976 Beads

Kenai Central High School was not on the leading edge of popular culture in the 1970’s, but I had no idea how benighted we were until the Yearbook Issue of National Lampoon came out in the spring of 1971. It featured a parody of a 1950’s high school yearbook and as we leafed through the pages I was surprised to see that the Eisenhower-era fads, slang and dating customs Lampoon was mocking were the same ones we participated in. Even though television had been showing us how to look like other American teenagers of the time, our behavior was twenty years out of date.

College brought me a little more up-to-date, though attending the University in Fairbanks, Alaska still had me on side roads instead of the cultural freeway… My hair got longer. I dressed a bit differently and when I fell in love I did something I thought I would never do: I started wearing beads. Nothing over the top – a strand of multicolored seed beads that my Best Friend and I each made one of while sitting on the couch watching Night Gallery one evening. During the next week’s episode t we were both surprised to find we were both still wearing the beads so I decided to keep on wearing mine as token of my feelings – not the same thing as wearing a ring but perhaps a more accurate symbol of my commitment as the beads had me by the neck in grip as secure as the one my Best Friend held on my heart

I was still wearing those five years later as I was returning to college to resume work on my bachelor’s degree.  I had taken a break in my studies for a two year bicycle penance in New England and now all I wanted to do was finish with school and get on with my life. I had a plan with a schedule and a checklist, all of which were designed to get me to my degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army as quickly as possible

…none of which made any allowances for a life co-pilot.  Just prior to that two year mission my Best Friend and I parted ways in what was one of the hardest trials of my life. I had hoped that losing myself in service in the New England States mission would help me move on, but I had little chance to forget. The first (and longest) area I was assigned to was Lynn, Massachusetts and the similarity of that place name to my (former) Best Friend’s name guaranteed that the matter was never out of my mind. Fulfilling much the same function as a white flag, the strand of beads remained in place around my neck and under a white shirt and tie for twenty-four months.

…but all that was past and I was now living in 1976. When I left school in 1974 the counterculture was in full swing and everyone wore long hair, love beads, and embroidered Levi 501 trousers and listened to Cat Stevens and Neil Young.  Two years later things had changed a bit; the hair was still longish but now it was razor-cut, the denims were $50 designer label pants, the beads had been replaced with medallions and we were sailing mindlessly into the disco era serenaded by the falsetto tunes of the Bee Gees.

I jumped into school, my days taken up with design studies and ROTC while my nights were devoted to “quainting”; either getting reacquainted with old friends or going to “get-acquainted” dances after hours at the school, all the time making sure that I didn’t spend too much time with any one young lady.  I had a plan with a schedule and a checklist to follow…but I also still had a string of beads that I wore around my neck. I told myself that at this point wearing them was an unconscious habit, that they were essentially the worry beads that figured so prominently in pop psychology at the time but deep down wearing them was less a matter of worry than it was a matter of just Not Letting Go.

As for school: If my class schedule were a tangible object it would have been made of cardboard, parts of broken appliances and duct tape.  I was off-cycle with both my design classes and ROTC so my semester schedule included 200, 300 and 400 level classes, one of the 200 level design classes being  Presentation I, an industrial design class teaching  techniques for presenting concepts and stressing perspective drawing. It was an extremely testosterone-laden class populated primarily with industrial design students designing cars and tools; while my taste was more towards military or space vehicles I fit right in with the rest of the guys…except the class wasn’t made up of only guys.

The gentle cascade of light brown hair caught my eye first, but the water-color blue eyes with the slightly sad tilt and a hint of a Southern accent clinched the deal. I moved to her side of the room on the pretext of showing my portfolio to our teacher and was surprised when she moved over closer when I mentioned I had studied under Richard Bird in his ground-breaking graphic design program at Ricks College two years earlier. She’d  also taken classes from him  which got us to talking and by  the end of  class we were fairly well acquainted: her name was Lori Howell and she was from Huntsville Alabama,  her father was an engineer with  Boeing and  the local stake president in the Church.   As I walked along idly fiddling with my strand of beads two thoughts came to mind:

  1. I was definitely “interested”
  2. Based on what I had learned about Lori that day it was a sure thing that given my interests and background I was not part of her world and never would be.

What followed was a confusing whirl of dates-that-weren’t dates and statements that often echoed a parent’s feelings instead of our own.  As the semester progressed I was becoming more confused and by the time Homecoming rolled around I felt it was time for an ultimatum. “I’m going to ask Lori to homecoming” I told my friend Oly “and if she turns me down I am going to drop her like a hot rock”

She said yes.

…and I was glad she did because the Homecoming Dance was a magical night, but as enjoyable as the dance was, it did little to dispel the anxiety that was developing right along with my feelings. I was happy with an idea of a low-key casual relationship, but when she presented me with an afghan comforter she’d knit for me it was all I could to avoid a full-scale panic attack. The afghan was just too similar to the red, white and black knit scarf that my Best Friend had made for me five years earlier. Suddenly the half-verbalized concern that had been lurking in the back of my mind became crystal clear:  I didn’t want to get hurt again. More importantly I didn’t want to hurt anyone else again, but the way the relationship was developing we’d soon pass beyond the point of any possible emotional damage control.

It was with this anxiety that I climbed aboard a truck a week later and set out for a three day field exercise in southern Utah with thirty other ROTC cadets. As I gazed out over the tail gate on the trip south a buddy’s raspy voice startled me:” Hey Deitrick you hippie – what’s with the beads? ” Old habits die hard – I had forgotten I was wearing them and was toying with them as I watched the miles roll by from the back of the deuce-and-a-half.  Moments later I forgot about the beads and the comment as we pulled off the road to our start point, where we jumped off the back of the truck and into a rugged adventure involving a midnight crossing of the Dirty Devil River and a shivering twenty kilometer hike to our objective.

I shuffled along under the stars wearing the same uniform as the others and armed with the same weapon, but I was also carrying a burden my buddies weren’t weighed down with: a strand of beads and a heavy heart. I was in love with Lori but I couldn’t see any sort of relationship ever happening. Our worlds were so far apart. At the same time I had to admit that hard as I had tried to get on with my life I was still  damaged from the loss of my Best Friend.  My feet started to feel heavy from the miles we’d walked and the mud that clung to our boots, but my heartfelt even heavier’ “Lord, what am I going to do? I can see no resolution to this issue that doesn’t entail someone going through the kind of misery that I swore would never happen again.”

I was so caught up with this internal debate that I was surprised when the sun started coming up again – we had spent the entire night hiking through the desert.  We started to check weapons and prepare for the assault when were all unpleasantly surprised: a quick check of the map showed that even though we had been walking for over twenty shivering kilometers we were still more than twenty three kilometers away from our objective. It was an easy enough mistake – our cadet platoon leader had made an error with his compass when we set out the night before, a small error that had compounded as we walked the night before. There was not much of a forgiving mood at that point though – the rage was palpable and had there not been a Regular Army advisor in the group we would have thrown the guy over the edge of the closest ravine.

The major grinned and sardonically said” “It’s time to suck it up cadets. You know Duty, Honor County?  Be the leaders you’re supposed to be and stop whining like little girls“…and with those words he turned and started to trot in the direction of our objective. While it took a moment or two for the platoon to collectively shake off the fatigue of the previous night’s trek and start after the Major I personally had no problem breaking into a run: I didn’t care about the miles. I didn’t care about the thirst. I finally had an answer.

Duty.

The word had ripped through me like a bullet through jello. To the rest of the platoon it was a command to get moving, but for me it was the answer for the question that plagued me more than the mud, blisters, or cold. I loved Lori, but I was holding back because I was afraid of what might happen.  I never wanted my heart broken again, and I certainly didn’t want Lori’s heartbroken either.

But then there was the “D” word. Duty. Sometimes Love wasn’t just about the romance or the hair, eyes and curves. It was about commitment.

Duty

….and sometimes duty is a higher emotion than love.  I had been given a charge, a duty to love and live with and protect this daughter of God no matter what fears I may have or what problems we would encounter at that moment or in the future.

Past that epiphany I remember little else from that day. We crossed the desert floor in record time, completed the exercise then climbed into the back of the truck to bounce back to campus and the Welles ROTC building.  I stopped at Lori’s apartment on the painful walk back to my place and made the usual dumb Ranger jokes but somehow being there with her seemed a little bit different. The edginess was no longer there.

It was the same way when I came back to see her later on that evening. We didn’t do much other than curl up together in a big white chair and listen to “Peaceful Easy feeling”  on the eight-track player but somehow the whole universe had changed.  My plan with the schedule and checklist would have to be adjusted accordingly

…and the beads were now sealed in an envelope stashed in the back of my sock drawer.

1977: Commitment and Cool-osity

Making a commitment is rarely a comfortable thing to do.

I’ve got the kind of physique known as the “Cornish Coal Miner’s Build”, which means I have a long torso and relatively short legs.  With my short legs one of the hardest events on an obstacle course was the vertical wall – I could handle everything else but that wall was really hard for me to get over. There were many times when I’d just look both ways, then run around the wall if the coast was clear.

But when the coast wasn’t clear? Such was the case during a hot summer day at FT Lewis many years ago. A member of the training cadre was standing right next to the wall so I had no choice but to go over it in the proper manner. I stood there for a minute trying to think while the sergeant was “counseling” me – I can still vividly remember his neck muscles all bunched up and little specks of spit flying while he was tactfully delivering a critique of my performance. A sudden thought came to me – more of an impulse actually – and I took out my wallet and threw over the wall. There was no way I could by-pass that sergeant – and inside my wallet were pictures of my sweet heart – along with my identification card, weapons card, meal ticket  and the pathetically small amount of money I had at the time.

I made it over the wall. Some part of my reptilian fore-brain recognized that I needed to make a commitment much stronger than usual to get over that wall and the sight of my wallet sailing over the  wall was strong enough to get me over that insurmountable top edge.

In medieval times the weather had a tremendous effect on the way battles were fought. The mud would slow down armored men on both foot and horseback. Damp weather conditions would also take the spring out of bows and catapults so most military campaigns were conducted during the summer when the weather was warm and dry. When the cold weather would return many men would slip away home while the more stalwart fellows would stay and prepare for the next summer’s campaign, gathering provisions and preparing weapons. The ones that left were called “summer soldiers” and the term became a curse-word – it was someone who didn’t fulfill his commitments and failed in supporting their comrades.

It’s easy to be a summer soldier in the world today. Maybe I read too many comics but commitment and honor were the types of values that I grew up hoping to have as an adult. Unfortunately “being cool” too often trumps those values and just as unfortunately “being cool” means being self-absorbed – not investing any action or situation with anything other than a minimum of commitment.

It’s sad – not only am I much more comfortable around people who keep commitments and can be trusted, there are countless times in a day when I wonder how “cool” people were trying to be during the course of their jobs.  Was the lab tech processing my blood work at the doctor’s office doing a good job or worrying about “being cool”. Was the mechanic working on my car committed to doing a good job or was he more worried about “being cool”.

I’m not suggest that he throw his wallet into my transmission like I threw mine over the wall at FT Lewis, but I do hope he has a measure of commitment in what he does do.