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.

R.I.P. Belle

I was so stunned that it took me three attempts to hang the telephone handset on the receiver.

The message had been brief and to the point: “My family is OK now so I don’t really need you for a friend anymore”.

Just about everyone has gone through the social leper stage – that time when you are lowest social outcast stage in school, unit or other type of social unit. Hopefully it happens once, and then during the younger and more flexible years in life. This was happening to me during early middle age and it involved one of the few places you expect to be emotionally safe – at church To this day I’m not sure how I ended up the congregation’s primary pariah but I was – and my last source of help had just turned their back on me, after we had sacrificed time, money and a change to move home to Alaska to aid the people in question.

I’m not sure of the exact sequence of event after that call, but I am sure of what the eventual outcome was. As I was preparing to take a permanent solution to a temporary problem Belle intervened and stopped me.

Yes, you read that correctly. Belle – my Great Pyrenees companion (I’ve never liked “dog” or “pet” as neither really fits completely)

She barked.

She howled.

She thrashed about and raised hell which broke the hold whatever depressive, destruction auto-pilot was running my brain at the time.

She saved my life and I never forgot it. That genetic tendency to watch over and protect had made itself manifest in a most spectacular manner and for the rest of the time we spent together on this earth I always knew she was continuing to watch over me.

She’s gone now. She took a nap Tuesday afternoon and never woke up. She’s finally free from the aches and pains that had been plaguing her, no doubt running and playing through celestial meadows with Sasha, Punky and Mitzi.

A part of my heart went with her …and I wonder who will watch over me now.


2016: Cookies, Comics and Elizabeth Montgomery

Given her velvety smooth voice I could never understand why she never went into broadcasting voice-over work. That beautiful voice was one of the first things I noticed about Judy Thomas – and while growing up on a frontier gave her little opportunity for that sort of thing , when KSRM started broadcasting from (literally) across the road in 1967 it seemed like a slam-dunk use of natural talent to have Judy doing radio commercials and public announcements, but it was not to be.  Instead she spent her life taking care of her family, which often included my family as well.

Sadly, we won’t be hearing Judy’s voice say anything more – she passed away late at night on the 6th of May in what was actually a blessed relief from intense pain and discomfort. I am thankful that I was able to talk to her on the phone earlier in the week and share just a few more minutes with a grand lady that was for all intents and purposes my aunt.

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s meant we formed our own ad hoc extended families . With the price of plane tickets as stratospheric as the actual mode of travel we had  little opportunity to spend time with “for real” grandparents and cousins in the Lower 48 so good friends filled in for family.  We’d spend Christmas Eve with the Hershberger’s and New Years Eve with the Stringhams.

Bill and Judy’s family? They were there all year round.

My first Thomas family memories date from right after moving to the Peninsula in 1964. Mom, Dad and older sister Robin were all involved with Tuesday night youth activities at the church so my three younger sisters and I spent those evenings with Judy and her toddlers. We never felt like we were at a baby-sitter’s when we were there – it was more like spending time with a young aunt as we read comics, watched “Bewitched” and ate cookies with a unique flavor that I have never known anyone but Judy to bake.

Later on after they moved out to Sterling the tables were slightly turned when I would babysit the Thomas kids when Bill and Judy wanted to get out for a rare date night …but in and around all this kid-surveillance were innumerable dinners, barbecues, sleep-overs, road trips and camping trips all of which served to forge ties that truly did bind. Those ties were such that whenever there was an accident, illness or other disaster the first phone calls were usually between our two families.

It wasn’t just collective assistance either. In my early twenties  I went through a shattering emotional disaster that my parents and most other adults around me dismissed rather casually…except for Judy. Our conversation about what was going on was not overly extended,  but it was long enough for her to acknowledge that was I was going through was real – and very hard to deal with. As Judy was a decade or so younger than my folks I imagine memories of her own heartbreaks were all that  much brighter, which gave her insight that older people lacked.   It was a trait that would repeat itself over the years; whenever life kicked me in the teeth Judy’s response was truly caring; where others would try to “fix” me or minimalize the emotional impact,  “Jude” would just kind of go “tsk”  then acknowledge that I “must really be hurting”, ask how I was doing, and then listen to me vent.

As I started to travel I saw her less often , but no matter how long I was gone each reunion was as warm as a backyard barbecue campfire and the “hellos” and “how are yous” spoken in that resonant purr of hers were just as thoughtful as they were decades ago when we were sitting in her trailer, eating mysterious-flavored cookies and reading comics.  I am grateful for the release she had been given from pain, but I will miss her keenly.


Requiem For An Almost-Mom

For the last four or five days I have been running through a wide range of emotions – primarily those clustered at the sad/lost/frustrated point in the continuum. I’ve found myself wasting time at my desk puttering at pointless tasks like making copies, stacking papers and sorting tubes of paint while getting easily distracted….

(Paint. Hmmmmm. This could either be the beginning of a great analogy or just another a flash of attention-deficit disorder…)

As a student I was surprised to find that painting entails a lot of chemistry. Mixing colors is not always a straightforward proposition wherein blue plus red always equals purple. For one thing colors are not “pure” hues but can lean towards one side of the mix more than another. Sap Green is a very warm green that looks closer to the yellow side than the blue while Viridian is a cool green favoring blue over yellow. Creating secondary colors by mixing primaries is not always predictable and some mixtures produce completely unexpected results – for example one of the best landscape greens can be made by mixing black with yellow.

The pigments themselves have different properties. Cadmium-based colors are all slow to dry. Traditional palette colors like burnt sienna or Naples yellow are fairly opaque and can cover other colors with little effort but they don’t stain very well – it takes a lot of burnt sienna to tint white to any degree. Phthalocyanine  (phthalo / “thay-lo”) blue has opposite properties: it is translucent and has to be mixed with white in order to cover other colors but it is a powerful staining agent requiring small amounts of paint to produce deep tints with whites. It’s also one of the more archival colors, being very permanent and it retains its stability and hue longer than most other colors.

….and it’s pretty. While not the most academic or professional descriptions of artist’s colors, I have to say that both phthalo blue and its sibling pthalo green are two of the prettiest colors in the spectrum. Add magenta, orange and chartreuse and you have the retro “Trap-jaw” palette that I routinely use to torment art directors in search of more serious palettes.

Leaving home was not a smooth operation for me. While my better-prepared friends were all soaring like eagles my launch into the adult world resembled an albatross stumbling into flight. Being more interested in intramural football than my studies I was destined for the rice paddies of Viet-nam or a career in fast-food until God gave me a break and I became very smitten with a young lady I met during a rare appearance at church. The young lady was a very positive influence in my life, her influence causing me to change for the better. The only problem was her mom: with her dead-pan facial expression and piercing black-diamond gaze the lady scared the h*ll out of me.

Luckily that terror soon began to subside, starting with a church dance at Eielson Air Force. Midway through the event she walked up, said “Let’s dance” and then spent two songs talking with me about everything but her daughter. I felt ever-so-smug afterwards about the way I had mastered the situation until I woke up the next morning realizing we had in fact been talking about nothing but her daughter, albeit in a roundabout way.

It wasn’t the last time Ramola Smith worked mental judo on me. Just as those two or three drops of phthalo blue create such dramatic tint when mixed with white, a few words and a small action from her would achieve a much greater result on me than expected. Outwardly it would seem like we had just spent a few minutes watching “Cannon”, playing Spoons or designing an apartment into the basement of the new house, but invariably I’d realize later that what we had really been talking about were the challenges of the 1970’s college dorm experience, what my plans for the future were – even our respective dental issues.

To continue with the paint-analogy: she was permanent – in it for the long haul. As I would hear them talk and watch the way she and Brother Smith would interact as both sweethearts and team-mates it would “make my heart big”. It was as if “JimAndRamolaSmith” were just one word.

She was “permanent” to me as well. I was always amazed – and very grateful – that she remained so kind to me despite some of the brain-dead decisions I made and the impact they had on her eldest child. Time would pass and circumstances would change but I’d always be greeted with a hug, a kiss and a few words that were much more than just a sum of their syllables. For example shortly after returning from New England in the summer of 1976 I found myself walking through the stake center in Anchorage on some church-related errand. As I passed the family history center I was startled by flash of color quickly followed by a crushing hug and a kiss on my cheek …and when the dust settled I found that I had been the victim of a Ramola hugging-mugging. She then introduced me to the other lady in the room in very complimentary and affectionate terms before sending me off to my drive back down to the Peninsula with another hug and kiss on the cheek.

Those hugging-muggings would recur every few years as I would encounter the Smiths at social gatherings or I would drop by their house in Fairbanks when duties took me to FT Wainwright. I was always met with kindness and affection, the only difference being that she smiled more openly as time went by.  However, as years passed physical distance and circumstances started spacing the visits further and further apart until they finally stopped and I lost touch.  Were it not for Facebook the separation may have continued even longer. Though my physical disabilities have made a literal “drop-in” unlikely the Internet has made it possible to be in better contact than before.

…a situation which seems contradictory as I now sit agitated in my studio, misfiling things and throwing tubes of pthalo blue paint around. While I know that she is in a better place now, I’m not feeling very happy about it. Regardless of our faith we all have that inner Cro-Magnon that wants to howl at the separation of death. I’m grateful that I have been able to talk to the Smiths and thank them for all they did for me as a young man but I’m also angry because so many years passed by without contact – that our ever-in-planning visit out West didn’t happen before her death. I’m agitated because most people around me can’t understand why Ramola Smith’s passing is having such an impact on me.

  • “Was she your mom?” No.
  • “Was she your step-mother?” No.
  • “Was she your mother-in-law?” Almost.
  • “Was she a teacher of yours?” More than I realized.

After running out of files and paint it came to me that logical word-crunching wasn’t going to work. I’ll have to finish this out with the analogy I have been using as a framework so far.  I can’t pretend to have any insights into the life and character of an almost-mom that I hadn’t seen in thirty years. All I can do is tell you about what it was like when she was a regular presence in my life.   Art and creativity in general are a major part of my existence which makes life my biggest project of all. While there may be some question as to what kind of art my life has been there is no question that if my life were a painting Ramola Smith would be one of the hues it was painted with.

What’s more – given her nature, her permanence and ability to make positive change in me, she would be one of the primary colors, and her presence in that emotional palette has made the painting of my life all that much richer.