Saturday, April 22, 2017

Strange Tales from the Dark Side of Suburbia

Growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina you had to expect loud and violent thunderstorms during the spring and summer months. For me it was easy to image that the normal combination of high temperatures and soul crushing humidity that stirred up the atmosphere to produced these storms was akin to some ill-humored witch or warlock. The angry dark clouds that made up these storms could drift in like an enemy armada anywhere from the afternoon hours to late at night producing high winds, torrential rain, some hail, but it was the displays of lightning that most people would remember.

In fact, back before such things as cable/satellite television, smart phones, and the internet claimed the majority of our attention span, the lightning from these storms could have been called a form of entertainment. One afternoon in the late 1980's while home on leave from the army, I attended a soccer game and saw the people sitting in the stands paying more attention to the several small clouds shooting off occasional bolts of lighting. Given that their collective reaction was the same as if they were watching a Fourth of July fireworks show, for a couple of minutes I worried about the kids still running around on the field kicking the ball. At least the referees understood what the lightning meant and pulled all of them off the field.

Despite the damage these storms could do they could provide a much needed respite from the very conditions that produced them. Adding to that effect, the sounds of the rain and thunder were quite relaxing and could cause the most tense and anxiety-ridden person to fall asleep.That being said, there was one incident from my childhood that still causes me wonder about the nature of dreams and the behavior or people who otherwise seem normal.

I was about twelve years old when I went to live with my grandparents. The reasons are complicated and beyond the scope of such an informal and the admittedly clumsy story I am writing here. All I will say it involves my parents' divorce that so bad it made Chernobyl look like someone had spilled a mildly dirty mop bucket on a clean floor.

It was in the middle of summer when the event happened. The days were brutally hot and humid leaving the streets of my neighborhood almost empty of the flocks of children who could be seen riding their bikes when the weather wasn't so abusive. Since my grandparents' house was built in the years just after World War Two instead of the air conditioning system which is ubiquitous in homes now, it had an attic fan. This huge fan, which was mounted in the hallway ceiling, sucked in outside air and pushed it up into the attic and back outside. While it didn't actually cool the air, it did provide a constant flow which made the inside of the house comfortable. As you can probably surmise, the attic fan only worked if you had almost all the windows open to allow the air to be drawn inside. Throw in the afternoon/evening thunderstorms and there were times during the summer my grandparents' house almost felt chilly.

The night of the incident we went to bed normally, with all the windows open and me in my PJ's but without any cover. I'm not sure when the thunderstorm begun but it was so late that sometime earlier I had pulled a thin blanket over me to ward off what now felt like chilly air. At first it was the usual booms of thunder and flashes of lightning with the sound of the heavy rain easing me back to sleep.

It could have been a couple of hours later or just a few minutes but what brought me back to consciousness was a noise that sounding like someone was banging on the front door. It was an urgent, almost panicked knocking of someone in danger. Now the first thought that might have occurred to you was that I still half asleep and the knocking I was hearing was just thunder. The trouble with that idea is that I distinctly remember the sound of thunder booming at the same time, so much that it overwhelmed the knocking at the door.

Being twelve, and having survived some uncomfortable events concerning the breakup of my parents I had no intention of rushing to the front door to find out who was there. I did get out of bed and slowly make my way down the hallway towards the living room. Standing on the border between the hallway and the living room I peered around the corner at the front door listening to the banging.

The door didn't shake from the impacts nor did I hear any voice on the other side pleading for help. But the knocking continued to the point I began wondering why my grandparents hadn't also been awaken. Had I been braver, I might have thought about raising the blind to the window positioned just to the left of the front door to see who was there. Instead I rushed back down the hallway to my grandparents' room to inform them of the situation.

“Granddad,” I said shaking his arm, “someone's knocking at the front door.”

My Grandfather, who hadn't yet retired had just spent a week working the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift at the local papermill and wasn't in the mood to be disturbed.

“It's just the storm,” he said with a tone of voice that was a combination of concern and weariness all parents have to suffer through. “You're dreaming, just go back to bed and it will be all over in the morning.”

Despite his assurances, I wasn't convinced that the panicked knocking I was hearing with just the sound of thunder invading my dreams. Still though, I wasn't about to head back down to the living room and throw open the door just to prove a point. Then there was the fact that even though I was just twelve it did occur to me that if someone was at the door needing help, there were houses on either side of the one my grandparents lived. Common sense suggested that if the got no answer at one door they would rush over to the next house. Another dash of logic suggested that someone truly in danger might try knocking on the windows to get attention. And if they did, these hypothetical people in need would see that they were open and then scream for help. Since nothing of the sort happened I went back to bed and before long was back asleep in spite of what I now presumed was just my runaway imagination.

Like all thunderstorms, that one faded away leaving just wet grass and a faint breeze. The next morning I remember waking up to the sun streaming into my eastward facing bedroom window. My dream of the panicked knocking at the door was still fresh on my mind but by that time my concerns had evaporated away. My grandparents were still asleep so I quietly got out of bed and made my way to the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal. It an hour or so late when my Granddad woke up with him asking me to walk outside to the mail box to get the newspaper.

Stepping out onto the front porch all my assumptions and logic was quickly swept away when I saw a single female shoe on one of the steps. Don't ask me what type of shoe it was, all I could say even now was that it was most definitely female. What I can tell you is that given my grandmother's age, the shoe I found that morning was made for a much younger adult woman. I briefly looked around for its partner but didn't see it nor any other item that might suggest someone had in fact knocked on the front door during that storm.

As the years have passed, the shock and confusion I felt upon that unexpected discovery has long since faded. What remains is more a wore out memory of a memory much like an office form that has been photocopied to the point the wording has blurred past the point of usability. Still though, I do remember standing and on the front porch looking down at the mysterious shoe filled with the dread and certainty only children can know that something weird in fact had occurred the previous night.

I decided against telling my grandfather about the shoe on the front porch. He would probably just dismiss it as something one of the neighbors' dogs just left behind during its wanderings. While the people who inhabit subdivisions these days come close to declaring martial law if the dogs of one of the residents gets loose, back then there were several canines that had the run of my grandparents' neighborhood. One of these dogs, a huge, friendly black lab, fittingly named Bear, made a point of greeting every person he came across during his daily journeys.

You might be wondering if there were any strange reports from the other neighbors? No, the people that lived on that street were quite close and communicated on a regular basis. If someone had been running through the neighborhood during a severe thunderstorm knocking on doors looking for help it's a certainty that it would have been mentioned in conversation. The one small detail I am left with is where did that damn shoe come from? While dogs did wander the neighborhood looking for both attention and the occasional snack, they never before that night or after leave items on anyone's front porch.

Besides dwelling on idiotic childhood memories what keep bring me back to this event was that years later a few other bizarre events did take place that sort of make mine seem possible. The first being the time two teenagers decided to play chicken with their cars down the street in front of my grandparents' house. I was away that night but when I returned home the wreckage was cleaned up and no one wanted to talk about the event, not even my grandfather after he told me the story. The second time was a several years later when word got out that one of the teenage girls living several houses down surprised everyone, including her parents, by “suddenly” giving birth to a baby inside her closet. After returning home from the army in 1990 I remember seeing this same girl obviously living with her parents but no small child. While I had once known that family, they weren't the friendliest bunch by that time so I ultimately had to assume the child was given up for adoption.

The final strange event though is the one that takes the proverbial cake. Technically these weren't neighbors since they lived a couple of streets down from my grandparents but word got around that two couples who were best friends had a falling out while having dinner at one of their homes. Turns out one of the couples was either into swinging or wanted to try it and felt the other couple were the perfect partners. Well, after revealing this information the husband of the more straitlaced couple he threw the other out of the living room window. That time people talked so much about the event that both couples found reason to quickly move out of the neighborhood.

Being older and wiser, I'm certain that the knocking at the front door was just a dream, but honestly given the things that happened later there are times I wonder.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Random Existential Weekend Thoughts

First, the more pleasant and intriguing question:

There are two great existential questions facing the human race. Given how humans, even in wealthy countries, are faced with challenges and demands that require our attention daily these questions are rather abstract in nature. Still though, it would be wise to not totally ignore them since the answers ultimately connect to the fate of our children and to our hopes and fears.

The first question is simply whether or not there is any other intelligent life in the universe. On the surface this question looks pretty uncomplicated, either we Homo sapiens shares existence with other species inhabiting other worlds or somehow we are utterly alone in a universe that spans billions of lightyears. Like I said, while there are only two possibilities, the implications for either answer are staggering. To learn that an alien species on some faraway world has evolved enough to become self aware and build a civilization that at least equals our own would truly be the final blow to Humanity's longtime deluded view that we are somehow special.

On the other hand, to learn that the human race is alone in the universe raises difficult questions that might actually be more troublesome than having some intrepid aliens explorers enter Earth orbit and say “hello” by radio. We're not just talking about the idea that God created the universe for us hairless primates but the possibility that our very existence is nothing but an elaborate computer simulation that our erstwhile creator/programmer developed for either fun or an experiment. Think I'm joking? There are serious scientists and esteemed philosophers that have crunched the numbers and feel the probability is quite high.

The basic laws of physics makes it unlikely we will learn whether or not we share universe with another intelligent species in our lifetime. The distances between stars so stretches out and weakens radio signals even if we were relatively close to another species that shares our desire for communication the resources needed and the engineering skills required might be more than they can readily spend. While there are several private groups and government agencies across the planet searching for alien radio signals, it wouldn't be wrong to suggest our efforts are at best piecemeal.

Then again, since any alien species near enough to communicate would almost certainly be far more advanced that us, there is a real question as to whether we would be any interest to them. Chimpanzees are remarkable creatures but you would not try to talk to them about genetics, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, or even something as mundane as literature. I'm in no way saying searching for radio signals from an extraterrestrial civilization is a mistake or a waste of time and money. Discounting the private groups who fund their own projects, the money spent by governments wouldn't pay for a day's worth of electricity to run the air conditioners for the Pentagon.

Any anger generated by the idea that the United States government has spent money searching for Little Green Men should instead be redirected at far larger targets that cost billions and caused the death of thousands. While my opinion of George W. Bush has turned around considerably since the election of Trump, my favorite boondoggle is still the trillion or so he spent to find Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Searching for others in the cosmos speaks to the best side of human nature. Something inside our genes wants to understand how the universe works and seeking out others is just one facet of that desire. While the chances of finding others during our lifetime are small, the rewards would be incalculable for our species.

Now on a darker note:

Getting back on point, the second existential question has more to do with the dark side of human nature. The second question we must face is what in our nature makes us come to crave war, even when a possible threat is manageable. While many of our species has created great works of art and literature and strove to remove the shackles of superstition and ignorance by pushing the boundaries of science and reason, the vast majority seemed locked into never ending cycles of violence and incessant warfare. This is in no way a question of the right of a people to defend themselves from aggressors. As I have stated before, while I am a tree hugging, bleeding heart liberal of the highest order who believes in social justice and that living in peace with others is the only way to ensure the safety and future of our children; I pretty much detest my political comrades who are pacifists.

While the idea that terrorists “hate us for our freedoms” is a vile piece of narrow, self-aggrandizing propaganda, there are individuals and groups who quite literally want to see the world burn. These people need to die in the same way a rabid animal needs to be put down before it causes harm to others. Of course, the devil in the details comes when you have to determine just who is a short, plumped up blowhard wanting to shore his prestige in the tiny totalitarian hermit kingdom he controls and who might be an imminent threat. Another important item to consider before launching a “preventive war” is whether or not the death of possibly millions is worth the cost to remove a manageable threat.

As you might be able to guess, I am not so delicately alluding to Trump's provocations towards North Korea. Yes, the bizarre little troglodyte running that country is a danger, his development of nuclear weapons and missiles is deeply troubling and should be monitored with exacting precision. Our response to any aggression he and his generals might attempt should be so overwhelming that the abused and tormented souls under his control would rise up. This begs the question as to whether it would just be best to go in and put the North Korean regime down like the rabid dog I mentioned earlier.

The problem with that idea is namely the fifty million South Koreans and the nearly one hundred-thirty million Japanese that live dangerous close to the little delusional twit, Kim Jong-Um. They would bear the brunt of any preventive war whose declared purpose would be just another in a long line of tired slogans. Ignoring North Korea's supply of nuclear weapons, that country has plenty of chemical and biological weapons that would cut through its densely packed neighbors like a hot knife in butter. Frankly, my conscious shutters at the idea of another war where millions of people could die horrible deaths because some American non-serving talking head or chickenhawk politician says we should fight them over there before they can reach us. That philosophy worked so well for the Iraqis.

My intention here is not to get bogged down with my admitted disgust with Trump. But his blatant ignorance on matters of national security and foreign affairs should have eliminated him from political contention before the primaries even started. His recent ham-fisted cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield only to have it return to full operation the next day is just as big a joke as him claiming going bankrupt multiple times shows his business brilliance. Having a fully armed aircraft carrier battle group steaming towards North Korea while spouting verbal offal about solving that problem on our own if need be just so Trump can feel powerful is asking for the deaths of a lot of innocent civilians.

The curious thing is that Trump's saber rattling and talk of taking manly action for glory is not an isolated occurrence. Human history is replete with warmongering idiots coming to power and then leading their nations to disaster. The question of whats worse between a people who fall for such speeches about the glory of war or the those leaders who give them is debatable. It's almost as if populations occasionally go insane and forget that war means brutal death for some and lifelong mental and physical injuries for many others.

I can't help but ponder the dichotomy between the United States after World War Two and the one that exists now. After both Germany and Japan was defeated rational leaders in the Allied nations realized that the Soviet Union had replaced the Axis Powers as a threat, this lead to the establishment of collective security arrangements whose best example is the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) charged with protecting the democracies of Europe. No, it wasn't a perfect solution but it is the big part of the reason we didn't have another world war. Every elected leader from both North America and Europe knew this and worked hard to prevent both idealistic leftist fools and right-wing nationalists from cutting their own throats in a bid to promote an workable warm and fuzzy Utopian peace or protecting a deluded view of sovereignty.

Without question many in the United States now have the idea that because we carry the biggest and baddest sticks that we should use them on a regular basis without regard to morals or existing international agreements. The funny thing is that exact mindset was the same one Germany held during World War One when it went into Belgium killing civilians which helped push the United States towards the Allied cause. In many quarters, especially Trump's branch of the Republican party, collective security is viewed suspiciously even though it has kept the peace. What bothers me the most is that the vast majority of these misguided people will be the ones sending their sons and daughters to die to reestablish a workable global security arrangement if the power vacuum we created causes another war among major powers. At least Trump recently changed his mind and said NATO wasn't obsolete, although I believe he made that statement for more cynical reasons instead of coming to some sort of realization about the true nature of the world.

Without question, war in most cases is a racket perpetrated by the rich and powerful on the poor fools who do most of the dying. Let me restate, that the right to self defense is fundamental but going to war should always be the absolute last choice since innocent people always pay the price for our failure to find a peaceful way to solve the issues we face. It doesn't say much for our species that despite several thousand years of organized warfare knowing it causes more issues than it solves that so many can at times still crave, if not demand, we line up and kill each other over the stupidest of causes.

As far as existential questions go, I'd much rather contemplate what kind of galactic neighbors might be near us. But unfortunately, the nightly news has far more stories on the whack jobs that hold the reins of power and influence on this troubled planet. So much that I often find myself wishing a starship of intrepid alien explorers would stumble upon our world and demand we get our act together or face the consequences of being stupid idiots. I can only hope that we would listen to them.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Wandering Toes: An all too Brief Escape

Broke away from the house yesterday and made an all too brief escape to my nearest happy place. The Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park and Pier truly meets all my criteria as a location to recharge my mental batteries. While family and homeowner obligations are the main reason I can't escape the suburban hellhole where I live on a more routine basis, quite frankly the drive down from Columbia on I-26 is often a pain in the ass. When I-26 was built I believe the traffic volume was smaller than what is normal today and because of the increased load both the east and west segments can become easily clogged by the slightest accident or a few bad drivers. Several times over the years trips down to the Charleston area, or going back home, were ruined by Interstate traffic jam delays than stretched the normal ninety minute to two hour trip to a three or four hour feat of endurance.    

As I sat on one of the park's benches sipping my coffee and pondering the fate of the universe this curious looking ship cruised by heading for the nearby docks. While the decks are clearly loaded down, I had to assume the containers on the front end were empty since the bow was riding so high in the water. What puzzled me was that the stern was riding so low giving me the impression that the white containers might be full. I know next to nothing about freighters but to me it made the ship look unstable.     

One of the more sad accomplishments of Facebook was that it has publicized the existence of people who believe in the "chem-trail conspiracy" involving the spraying of nefarious chemicals on an unsuspecting public for experimentation or even mind control. Ignoring the utter paranoid insanity of the basic premise for a moment, the logistics of producing these chemicals, then the transport, and deployment aboard thousands of aircraft made to look like passenger planes makes the UFO, MIB, Illuminati, and Bigfoot people seem within the realm of reason. Whatever the case, if there were any Chem-trail people in Charleston yesterday morning they would have been running for cover because the beautiful blue sky was being constantly cross-crossed by jets producing these neat trails caused by the heat of their engines making the atmospheric water vapor condense.       

Wanted to hit a pub on nearby Sullivan's Island but the tourist hordes had already overrun the place to the point it wasn't worth the effort. Instead I cruised down to Fort Moultrie where a bunch of A-hole Citadel cadets started the Civil War back in 1861. I've never bought the propaganda that the Civil War was about "states rights", tariffs, or opposing the tyranny of the Federal government. Boil away all the crap and it was about rich white people whose fortunes were built and maintained by the fact they kept other human being in bondage.     

Correct me if I'm wrong but the lighthouse in the distance is the Morris Island lighthouse situated on the south end of entrance to Charleston Harbor. Despite my distaste of many thing associated with South Carolina, namely its ignorance and stunted politics, there are a number of interesting places I would love to visit, that lighthouse being one.  Since the local pubs and bars were all too busy I made a quick stop by a fast food joint for lunch and hit the road for home.Thankfully, except for one minor accident that slowed me down three or four minutes my drive back to Columbia was just as quick as the one going down. It was made even better by the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts I downloaded onto my MP3 player. It's a science show that make its easy to keep up with all the advances we are seeing on a daily basis. It's early Sunday morning now and as I tried to type in my usual substandard drivel, I've had to make stops to clean up cat puke, give a diabetic dog his shot after handing feeding him, and prep the recently installed carpet for cleaning after discovering a huge pee spot that had literally soaked a five-inch in diameter section. There is no way in hell my wife would let me make another run down to Charleston next weekend so I'll have to settle for watching my Blu-Ray copy of Rogue One when it arrives.   

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Tearing it Down Piece by Piece

Before anyone starts freaking out and thinking I'm being a sanctimonious douchebag, I readily admit all politicians are often guilty of blatant hypocrisy. The only ready defense I have to offer is that the very nature of politics and events outside of government sometimes makes it unavoidable that people make choices that run counter to their declared principles. The problem though is when these choices are made to ram through narrow agendas that while preserving power for one group destroy the very foundation of American democracy.

Yes folks, contrary to all those idiots running around saying compromise is a betrayal to godly inspired principles, the world is far from a black and white situation. In a better world with a more rational electorate and honest politicians, each situation would be weighed and debated among elected leaders who could balance the needs of their constituents and political party with the greater good of the entire nation. My personal beliefs as of right now has me running fairly heavily in the liberal, slightly socialistic-inclined progressive of the American political spectrum but I realize absolutely no one ideology has all the answers. Any ideological group that claims to have all the answers are either fools or liars and the people that believe such crap are morons that shouldn't be allowed to vote.

It speaks volumes that the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution established a framework for which debate and eventual compromise prevented the majority party from running roughshod over the minority party in Congress. Since the devil is always in the details, this wise precaution has also allowed a highly partisan minority party to stop legislation and judicial appointments dead in their tracks. Unfortunately, this is the train wreck we find ourselves now and I fear things are only going to get worse.

Depending on a person's politics the blame for this Congressional dysfunction will obviously go to the other party, But in truth, there is enough blame for this partisan bullshit for everyone to have a nice heaping share. Personally, I say it started back in the 1980's when Republicans began picking judges who were more ideological than practical. Of course, Republicans will counter that the Democrats started this ever escalating war with all the crazed liberals they started appointing to the benches in the 1960's and 1970's. For the Republicans the United States Constitution is something carved in metaphorical stone while for us Democrats it is a living document that must change with the times. Quite simply, from my point of view the United States of 2017 only bares the most superficial relation to the one that existed when the Constitution was first enacted. Such a huge difference in my viewpoint made the sixty senate vote majority for approving judges so important in crafting compromise.

Yes, the Democrats removed the sixty vote rule for judgeships below the Supreme Court when Republicans absolutely refused to fill the numerous vacant seats during the Obama Administration. But now it is as certain as bears taking huge dumps in the woods that the Mitch McConnell will lead the Republicans to end the sixty vote rule for Supreme Court justices so they can ram through Trump's pick for the empty seat. This after McConnell refused to consider the guy Obama nominated when the seat become open after the A-hole Scalia died.

It is true that the road to hell is paved with good intention and it is made even wider by those who rationalize choices made for strictly blatant political purposes. This slow but deliberate wrecking of the Constitution to secure a certain political viewpoint is a dangerous habit that eats away at the very premise of the United States. Like I said before, all politicians are hypocrites to a certain degree but there is an old saying about those who sow the wind will eventually reap the whirlwind. The Republican nominee up for the empty seat on the Supremes will be be approved this week. I just wonder how the Republicans will whine when they are in the minority and the Democrats ram through their own pick by a simple majority vote. It's no wonder that Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. To me this just proves that craven politicians and the idiots that vote for them are the true enemies to democratic self-government. 

 Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated Tuesday that he believes he has the votes to invoke the so-called nuclear option and eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court justices, while also committing not to seek to dismantle the legislative filibuster.The Senate is heading toward a showdown later this week over the confirmation of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, whom Democrats have vowed to filibuster. Up until McConnell’s direct confirmation Tuesday that he had the 50 votes required—with Vice President Pence as a tiebreaker—to change the rules around Supreme Court confirmations, GOP leaders avoided answering the question directly and preferred to say that they had the votes to confirm Gorsuch when asked about the GOP whip count for the nuclear option.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rest in Peace, Omsin

Omsin, the nickname for a green sea turtle living in Thailand that recently garnered international sympathy after it became sick from eating coins people tossed into its pool has died. This came as a surprise to me but apparently in Thailand it is believed feeding coins to animals is supposed to bring some form of good luck. As someone who has seen and read numerous examples of human stupidity this Thai belief isn't quite the worst, that would go to all the unthinking morons who litter beaches and the ocean with plastic trash. I've walked the shores of Hilton Head Island many times watching the sunrise while on vacation and ended up filling several trash cans with garbage casually left behind by people who should know better.

For that reason I'll cut the Thai some slack because the overly educated and wealthy professional types that frequent Hilton Head don't have to struggle with life like many in that Southeast Asian nation. But on the other hand for poor Omsin, the weight of all those coins cracked its shell and the nickel in some of the coins damaged its immune system beyond the point it could be saved.

Being a sorry-ass liberal tree hugger, it's not hard for me to make a connection between the life of a green sea turtle and us humans who seem hell bent on destroying ourselves and just about all life on the planet. It's almost as if our species has a strange desire to see how the surviving roaches, assorted slime, and bacteria might evolve.

The human inability to think beyond moment goes beyond destroying the ocean and the life that resides there. Unlike poor Omsin, an instinctual creature who should have been cared for better, we humans—especially Americans—knowingly stuff ourselves with crap that seems designed to bring on heart disease and cancer. Making matters worse, when the previous First Lady Michelle Obama made her cause getting kids to eat healthier food all the partisan fools started acting as if she was leading some nefarious evil crusade to bring down the Republic. Her cause was never to permanently band fast food and force everyone to become vegans, but many conservatives went all irrational claiming it was their God given right to engorge themselves with as much fat and calories as they can before falling over from a massive coronary.

One of the darkest comedic sights I ever saw was the former Alaskan Governor and one-time Republican Vice President nominee Sarah Palin stand up on stage and equate American freedom with the ability to chug down and extra-large soda from a fast food joint specializing in chicken sandwiches. Omsin didn't have a real choice in either her environment nor the bite-sized bits seemingly friendly people kept throwing her. While I am in no way a culinary saint nor health nut I am at least aware enough to know my rights will not be infringed if I occasionally chose a salad or the baked salmon instead of the gooey cheeseburger or pizza. Contrary to the belief held by many the thing called “commonsense” is severely lacking in both those who carelessly litter the environment while claiming to love the planet and those who guard their artery-clogging delicacies as much as their precious firearms.

From NPR:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Idle Thoughts While Sitting in a Parking Lot

The first car I could technically call my own was an austere Gremlin produced by the now defunct America Motors Corporation. For those too young the Gremlin was an American subcompact-sized economy car produced during the 1970's whose visual appearance was unlike any other vehicles made during that era, in other words most people considered the model quite ugly. Despite its odd appearance, its chief attributes was that it was a cheap, dependable car that got exceedingly good gas mileage, even by today's standards. I got my Gremlin from my grandfather, it was the car he drove to work and when he retired it was passed to me. I don't remember what year the car was made but by the time I began driving it back and forth to school the blue color of the paint job had long since faded to the point it actually had more of a gray tint.

I can't say for sure but I believe the color change was the result of exposure to the chemicals in the air near the paper mill my grandfather worked. Yes I've asked the same question you might now be thinking, if these diluted chemicals had such an effect on the paint job of a car it's an open question as to what they might do to living things. All I can say is that it's a longstanding joke that the paper mill allows my hometown to be smelled long before you actually saw the sign indicating the city limit. At least the color change allowed the outside body to match the interior which was either plastic, in the case of the dashboard, and the vinyl seats.

My Gremlin was about as basic a model as it could come since it didn't have air conditioning and the radio was only able to pick up the AM dial, drawbacks that completely stupefied my son to the point that he once told me he would have rather gone without driving to school. Such were the times because I remember my little car was not the only basic and ramshackle model parked around the high school. The vehicles of the student body consisted of numerous beat up trucks and dilapidated cars that collectively rattled and coughed something akin to a mechanical symphony in the afternoon as we all left for the day.

Sure, there were a few exception like the kids whose parents were wealthy enough to buy them one of the flashy sports cars like the Pontiac Trans Am or Chevy Camaro. And yes, such individuals seemed genetically programmed for the need to make an overt displays of their expensive transportation by either rattling any nearby windows with the sound from their amplified car stereo or producing as large a cloud of dust as possible as they peeled out of the gravel parking lot. On a side note, several years after I graduated from high school, I bought Jane Goodall's first book on her experience observing the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild and was stunned at how similar human behavior could be compared to our hairier and supposedly less evolved cousins.

Years later after finishing up my army enlistment I enrolled in the local community college and quickly noticed that car ownership standards among the students had gone up considerably. For those newly graduated high school students almost all of them drove cars that at best were just a few years old and in great condition. There was also a higher percentage of rich obnoxious a-holes who regularly showed off the perks of being born into a family where daddy, and maybe mom was well, was a doctor, lawyer, or some other high-salary type. The sad fact was that if there was a beat economy car in the college parking lot it probably driven by one of the single moms desperately trying to hold together her sanity while pursuing an education and take care of her kids. Playing the full disclosure card here, my Gremlin had long since passed on while I drove a 1984 Chevy Camaro. Its purchase, made after graduation but before going in the army was severely problematic but, like they say, that is water that had long since passed under the bridge and made it to the ocean.

The funny thing about all those bright and shiny expensive cars rich mommies and daddies had bought their newly minted high school graduates was that as the days and weeks passed after the start of a new semester, they not so slowly disappeared from the college parking lot. About the same time it was not uncommon to see one of these privileged offspring working the counter at one of the numerous fast food places or retail shops in the general area. In fact early one semester a young girl fresh out of high school began asking me about questions about our community college before class. She wanted to know simple things like which instructors were hard and which were the ones that would grade on a curb.

At the time I was around twenty-five years old and found her rather annoying since she was at best eighteen. During her questions she made the statement that her dad had given her choice of returning to school or getting a job. Not an unreasonable demand from her dad, but when she said that if things didn't go well in college her other option was just to get married. It was then that I suddenly remembered I desperately had to go to the restroom and didn't return until after class had started. Thankfully, my seat next the young girl had long since been taken my another person. Several months later, I saw that same girl pregnant and working one of those sunglasses stands inside the old Myrtle Beach mall.

Luckily for me my quota of common sense, or stupid luck, was rather high during that period of my life and I never did get entangled with any young nymphets looking for a meal ticket and a baby daddy.

Maybe it's just late middle age screwing with the wiring in my brain but those memories and many others came flooding back to me recently as I waited in the my daughter's high school parking lot. It seems suburban affluence has spread its decadent tendrils down to that level now. The vehicles in the student body parking lot are a remarkable collection expensive cars with at least a dozen redneck super trucks that belch enough black smoke when running to kill any nearby lifeforms. These trucks, with an suspension that raises them so high it takes a step ladder to reach up and open the door, are literal “screw the planet” statements every time those drivers cause thick plums of black smoke to come out of the exhausts. Then there are about the same number of sports cars, including several BMW's, Audi's, and more than a few Toyota Priuses complete with ecologically minded bumper stickers. The most outrageous car though has to go to the kid driving a Chevy Corvette. He comes out of the school everyday with an entourage of male and female admirers swarming around him like joyous flies. Given his swagger and overall good looks it seems a good bet someone like him will drift towards politics.

I've looked for someone driving a modern version of my old Gremlin at my daughter's high school. I have to admit to a certain amount of melancholy to the fact that I really don't see anyone that even comes close to fitting that niche. The unbridled affluence shown by these kids is nauseating in a subtle way. It makes me feel like a bit of a dinosaur surrounded by swift and more intelligent mammals.

About the only solace I can find in this situation is the belief that events far larger than the petty wants of American teenagers will forcefully insert a degree of reason into what cars parents can afford for their driving age kids. Yes, I know I'm just becoming a curmudgeon but in all honesty there is no teenager in the United States that needs to drive a damn Corvette to school. The little spoiled twits need something to aspire to that will force them to get a real education and then a job.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

For the Cupcakes and Glory

Since becoming a dad back in 1995 with the birth of my son whenever I happen upon a rerun of Leave it to Beaver or any other 1950's sitcom that had some omniscient father in the cast I find myself wondering if any such person could ever exist in reality. During the 1970's when I was growing up, shows like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzy and Harriet and even The Brady Bunch were still mainstays of afternoon television. These shows and a few others were usually shoehorned between the last of the melodramatic soap operas but before the evening news. I guess to babysit kids and because the local television stations had to broadcast something.

With the exception of maybe of the Brady Bunch dad, the only thing greater than the near god-like detachment shown by these sitcom fathers was their wisdom and unflappable nature. In fact, while I haven't watched an full episode of Leave it to Beaver in decades I can't honestly remember seeing Ward Cleaver, the dad, ever leave his den or wear anything more casual than a light sweater over his still pressed white shirt and tie. After a quick jump to Wikipedia looking up the entry on “Ward Cleaver” apparently he did leave his den to go to work, entertain guests, and run the barbecue, although I still do not remember these more adventurous episodes. This of course brings up the gross idea that Ward and his wife, June Cleaver, might have actually had a sex life, an idea that totally weirds me out in ways I didn't think possible.

As I came to grips with being a dad back in the mid-90's I must admit that the idea of Ward Cleaver's fatherly perfection lingered somewhere in the background static of my mind. Yes, the fact that he was nothing but a fictional, unrealistic, one-dimensional character was never lost to me but I don't know a real caring dad that doesn't want to do the absolute best for their kids. A nice sentiment but honestly there are two rather huge problems with trying to pursue that course. The first being that Ward and his fellow fictional male television sitcom creations represented a whitewashed 1950's society that never really existed. Sure, back then dads made the money and ruled their households in a similar manner with the wife doing the required marital obeying as she baked cookies and volunteered for some sort of local charity work. The fact that such televisions families never displayed any deep emotions nor conflict probably put real moms and dads under a great deal of stress to measure up. The second problem dealt with the fact that by the 1990's sitcom dads' position as wise masters of the household had long since become a joke. This is where my reality as a dad intersected with my fictional brethren.

My loving spouse, known by the code name Dragonwife, is a complete and total opposite of the fictional June Cleaver who was a meek homemaker that seemed to never leave the house but was forever wearing a nice dress, pearls, and flawless makeup. My wife is a high-powered tax attorney who, needless to say, makes more money in a year than her glorified blue collared husband does in two. I don't have a problem with my wife making more money than me but where it becomes an issue for Dragonwife is that the demands of the job often require her complete attention. This means I have to take up the slack on many mundane household and family-related chores, among them organizing my daughter's four-year old birthday party.

Back in August of 2007, my daughter, code named Darth Wiggles, birthday was coming up quick but at the same time my wife was getting slammed at work. During this period meetings lasted until way after normal business hours along with some hours spent on paperwork at home during the weekend. There was simply no way she would be able to spend any time or effort on organizing our daughters birthday. This is where dad stepped up to the plate to save the day.

Darth Wiggles loved both the staff and her friends at daycare so I figured it would be the best place to celebrate her birthday. In fact, the daycare openly encouraged parents to use their facilities for birthdays since that generally meant every child in a particular class would be included. This prevented hurt feelings when a child, or his or her parents, discovered they had not been invited to the big birthday shindig at some house or kid-themed restaurant. The two conditions the daycare wanted parents to follow was notify them at least a week in advance and to have the celebrations on a Friday near the end of the day. The latter made management of the kids and cleanup easier for the staff who by then were ready to call it week. All it took to make the arrangements with the daycare was a phone call to the director and that part of my task was done.

The next task was to order the birthday cake, which due to my daughter's interests at that time would come in the form of individual cupcakes decorated to look like ladybugs. It took me digging through the old phone book at home and several calls to various grocery store bakeries to find one that could decorate the cupcakes like ladybugs and have them ready Friday afternoon. It turned out Walmart could do the insectoid confections and have them ready for Friday. I'm absolutely no fan of Walmart, I find their business practices and treatment of their lower ranking employees almost criminal, but no one else in the local area could have the stuff ready on the day of my daughter's birthday party. Moral indignation aside, after getting the order placed I was feeling pretty good having done everything needed to make sure Darth Wiggles and her friends would enjoy the upcoming party.

All that changed as I walked into local Walmart to pick up the cupcakes about two hours before my daughter's scheduled birthday party. Thinking back on the the situation, I often wonder if maybe my life isn't a sitcom in another universe with some stand-up comedian turned actor playing the part of me. Because this is where I seemingly walked straight into a sitcom episode playing the perfect bumbling and confused dad.

One of my biggest pet peeves is having to rush, call it a relic from my military days working under the philosophy of what one of my senior NCO's called the “Five P's.” The Five P's stands for “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” and in truth, it is as near an absolute truth as humans can come. While being pretty self explanatory, the philosophy boils down to the idea that as long as a person plans out whatever activity he or she as to perform frak ups can generally be avoided. During my adult life as long as I have adhered to that truth I have avoided most of the pratfalls that can befall someone like me who I freely admit isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer nor made up from stuff at the deep end of the gene pool. Call the Five P's not only a philosophy of life but a bit of a temporal insurance policy because after talking with the nice lady behind the Walmart bakery counter I quickly realized that I had royally screwed up the situation.

It didn't take much in the way of investigation for me to realize that while my intention was to place the cupcake order with the local Walmart which was directly on the way to my daughter's daycare, I had in fact miss read the phone number on the crumbly phone book page and called the one clear across town. Given the time frame I was working under, I had inadvertently screwed myself and probably ruined my daughter's birthday party.

Once you live in Columbia, South Carolina for a while you soon realize that while the city and the general surrounding area doesn't have that big a population it is a sprawling, cancerous mass connected by badly designed roads that are just a degree or two above third-world status. I've driven through some truly big cities and while they all have traffic problems, I honestly believe Columbia has them beat. Of the two interstate highways running through Columbia all it literally takes to shut both down for several miles is for one semi to overturn on one of the slopping off ramps that connects them. Throw in several rubberneckers slowing down to see how bad things are and you can start multiplying the minutes it will take to get anywhere.

Boiling my situation down to simple terms, I had go across Columbia in middle of lunch time traffic to a Walmart just outside Fort Jackson, the local military post. Then take another route that in all likelihood would be even more congested to get the cupcakes to my daughter's daycare before her party was scheduled to start. The stakes involved just wasn't a disappointed daughter and a couple of dozen irate kids upset they didn't get a afternoon sugar buzz. While my wife said she probably wouldn't be able to make the party because of work, I was sure as bears leave steamy piles of poop in the woods that she would be in the classroom mumbling something to herself as minutes ticked by with no cupcakes.

When I ran out of the Walmart I did a quick mental calculation and figured I had just under two hours to pickup the cupcakes and then make it to the daycare. Given the conditions I was dealing with there was chance I could save my sorry ass but it was going to be really close. By all rights I should have been pulled over on the first leg of my warp speed journey to the other Walmart. For reasons I can't really explain, the South Carolina Highway Patrol seems to me to have a heavy presence in the Greater Columbia area, as compared to other parts of the state, but that early afternoon as I weaved in and out of the slower traffic they were no where to be seen. This is where if I wanted to be snarky I could make a comment about there must have been a buy-one-get-one-free deal at a local doughnut shop. But given my previous and unfortunate encounters with the Highway Patrol I will refrain from such attempts at snide humor. Trust me, I've had the misfortune to be know a little over ten Highway Patrol types and while they have a really hard job I consistently say they could tone down the robocop/Nazi-like attitudes. Out of them all, I only knew one Highway Patrol officer that I acted like a human being.

My visit to the Fort Jackson area Walmart was so quick I only have a vague recollection of what the place looked like. No real disappointment since nearly everyone of those huge retail edifices are near carbon copies of each other but I must admit to being a little unsettled as to the fact that my memory doesn't really kick in again until I'm driving out of the parking lot with the box of ladybug cupcakes on the front passenger seat next me. As expected, due to the distance and traffic it had taken over an hour to reach my first destination and as I checked my watch a sense of doom filled my soul as I knew the most difficult part of my trip was about to begin.

My route to the daycare had me on secondary roads that while being four lanes were nevertheless still crowded with people going for late lunches or on the way back to work. So while the actual distance I had to travel was smaller, the nature of the slower traffic came close to giving me a heart attack a couple of times out of frustration. At some point though the traffic magically cleared and I made the jump to emergency warp and literally slid into the daycare parking lot with five minutes to spare saying a silent prayer of thanks that I hadn't killed anyone.

One of the lessons I have truly learned is that when life throws a world of shit your way never let the riff-raff see you sweat. During shit storms, it's best to act like a duck, seemingly all cool and collected above water while paddling your feet underwater as if you are being chased by hungry alligators. Playing the part of the unperturbed duck, I calmly walked into the daycare as if my arrival was just as I planned. Inside, I was greeted by my daughter and her friends like a hero while I saw my wife down the hall talking with one of the teachers. She gave one of her looks that I have come to learn says she knew something was wrong with the situation but just didn't have any evidence to make an accusation.

Dragonwife did eventually ask some probing questions in an attempt to get me to inadvertently spill the beans. But like the mythical father figures from the 1950's I just gave her one of those omniscient smiles and said everything was perfectly okay. Come to think of it, maybe Ward Cleaver and the others like him were doing the same thing all along.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hoping for Something Better

Very rarely do I ever sing the praises of any soulless multinational corporation. Truthfully, I can't remember the last time I said anything positive about such entities, but right now that's beside the point. Given the total crapfest of an era we find ourselves living, the current situation requires that everyone not caught up in the rabid and inbred delusion of “Making America Great Again” should do whatever it takes to preserve some sort of personal hope for the future. For me personally the hope that I am carefully nursing comes in the form of moving beyond our society's self imposed limits on imagination. Americans once dreamed of tomorrow, that something new and better might lift us all up, not just a narrow self righteous segment so fearful of the world and even fellow citizens that they would willingly sacrifice the principles that made the United States special in the first place.

Call me foolish, trust me I'm all to use to that accusation and much worse, but the soulless Boeing Company recent unveiled its new and greatly improved spacesuit, which will be used with its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that should, hopefully, begin manned service in late 2018. No, I'm not talking anything as grandiose as some sort of sudden Golden Age of scientific adventure going back to the moon and beyond, more like a small step towards building an infrastructure that our kids and grandkids can expand. My chief hope is that returning Americans to space might just jolt a few people to consider the future again and not be satisfied with our stagnate reality.

Ever since the space shuttle was retired, right after the completion of the International Space Station, Americans have been forced to buy rides up into orbit from the goddamn Russians. Making matters worse, Putin has made sure we've paid through the ass for the privilege of going into space on a system that hasn't had an upgrade since the 1970's. Don't get me wrong, that last sentence isn't meant as an insult towards the Soyuz spacecraft for two reasons. The first being that the damn thing works and does its job by sending humans up into orbit and bringing them down again safely. The second being that while I do not like Russians, at least they didn't mothball their one access into low Earth orbit before having a working replacement. While I would welcome George W. Bush back in a New York minute, given the insane narcissist now living in the White House, he and his administration are the ones to blame for the fact we're shelling out fifty to seventy million an astronaut for rides to the ISS.

Digressing even further, retiring America's only manned spaceflight system was the right decision. Despite the Buck Rogers glamour of the space shuttle, it was a cumbersome system that never lived up to the promise of those who envisioned a relatively cheap and reusable spacecraft that would ultimately allow humans a way to expand civilization to Earth orbit and beyond. If my memory serves me correctly, the space shuttle cost about a billion dollars to launch on each mission and was so technically complicated it's a wonder it ever go off the launchpad. The fact that out of just one-hundred thirty-five missions two of them ended disastrously resulting in the death of both crews is a statement on the inherent danger of that system. I not going soft on George W. but you can't really blame him for bungling the development of its replacement. A shortsighted and incompetent congress and the general sense of apathy from a banal American public carry the majority of the blame for the inability to look beyond the static here and now. George W's biggest fault was that the replacement system his administration purposed looked simple on paper but was criminally underfunded and in truth, was more a haphazard afterthought.

While Boeing's Starliner looks more or less like the old Apollo missions capsule it will be able to take seven people consisting of five passengers and two crew up to low Earth orbit. While the Starliner principle destination will be the ISS, Boeing is working with Bigelow Aerospace to develop its B330 expandable space habitat. A single habitat will have three hundred thirty cubic meters of pressurized volume and be able to support six human occupants. Start linking these habitats together and you are soon looking at some serious living space up in Earth orbit that can be used for microgravity research, space tourism. Add some form of engine and the B330 becomes a spacecraft that can be sent on missions back to the moon and Mars. Needless to say, the really neat thing about the B330 is that it is sent up into orbit in one piece then essentially inflated to its full volume greatly reducing the time for construction and the inherent dangers involved with such endeavors. As far as the space tourism things goes, yes at first it will be restricted to the super rich, all I can say is that you've got to start somewhere and I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Boeing is not alone in the buildup to returning Americans to space. The SpaceX Corporation, lead by Elon Musk, has its own manned spacecraft, Dragon 2, which will sending astronauts to the ISS about the same time as Boeing. Musk's Falcon 9 rocket does have one huge advantage over the models Boeing and its partners launch, namely that they can fly back and softly land back on Earth allowing them to be refurbished and reused, thus greatly reducing the cost of putting people and material into space. That amazing procedure goes a long way to making Musk's ultimate dream of establishing a permanent human colony on the planet Mars possible.

For me establishing a branch of human civilization on another planet or moon is the ultimate reason for pursuing a safe, cheap, and reliable means to get to low Earth orbit. I could name off several reasons why I want this to happen but it all boils down to the idea that I believe our current global civilization is totally unsubstantial. The rampant environmental destruction and resource depletion that is endemic in this era, along with over seven billion humans all wanting, justifiably, a better life for themselves and their children will eventually push the planet beyond its means of supporting our civilization. Whether this means a collapse along the lines of what happened at the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age or the end of the western Roman Empire or even the extinction of human life I have no idea.

I don't necessarily view any off-planet human society as just an insurance policy for our species continued existence. What I would like to see is something along the lines of what happened with the European colonization of North America. Yes, what was done to the Native American societies that had existed on this continent for thousands of years by European colonizers is a crime that can never be rectified or excused. What the colonization of North America did for civilization was to give the ideas formed during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment a chance to flourish away from the entrenched powers of intrusive religion and hereditary aristocracy. Yes, the development of North America was an ugly affair that chewed up the innocent and powerless but while the ends can never justify the means I do believe the liberal democracies of the world are the offspring of that process.

I believe the establishment of human civilizations on other bodies in the solar system like the moon, Mars, and asteroids could do the same. The sheer fact that survival on incredibly harsh environments would force a level of cooperation and rational thought that can't happen on a planet dominated by ancient hates, powerful wealthy men intent on protecting their positions, and ingrained, willful ignorance by those without any vision. Do I view Boeing as some sort of savior of humanity, of course not, it is a multinational corporation out to protect its shareholders, often at the expense of it workers and society in general. But it does have the scientific know-how and resources to develop the means for something incredible to be born in the coming decades. For that reason I am forced to give them a limited pass on being complete A-holes. Yes, this does open the door to the ends justifying the means but I have never belonged to the group of self-righteous progressives who would rather commit suicide than work within a system that can be reformed and give birth to something far better.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Tales From REFORGER-1987

“You're really going to eat that?” My wife said looking at me as her face morphed into an expression that registered both borderline disgust and sad resignation that she married a man only one step above a primitive and uncultured brute. I paused just long enough to consider her words.

The food item in question was a small portion of my garlic mashed potatoes that had fallen off my fork and impacted on the fake leather bench seat I was sitting. The Italian restaurant we were eating was one of those national chains that will go unnamed, but needless to say the Chicken Bryan entree I had ordered, and which came with garlic mashed potatoes, is one of my favorite meals. So yes, I totally ignored the numerous rules of polite dining etiquette along with simple health concerns and scooped up the errant portion with my fork and savored the delicious flavors without hesitation.

“Remember the rule we had with the kids,” I said once I had swallowed. “It was less than five seconds and I'm sure they wipe down the seats after every customer here.” I further said before craving up another portion of the fried chicken breast careful not to disturb the goat cheese that the chief had spread over it.

“That was just plain wrong.” My wife wearily replied before forcing herself to forget my latest transgression.

“Trust me,” I said enjoying the moment, “it's not the worst thing with food I have ever done.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt.” She said in such a tone that further discussion of me scooping fallen pieces of food would not be tolerated. A fact that allowed me to stroll down memory lane unmolested by snooty, judgmental people.


Never one to take the direct approach in life, after having spent two years in the South Carolina National Guard I transferred over to the active army in 1986. I had already received my training in the Man Portable Air Defense Systems like the old Redeye and early versions of the Stinger missile as my Military Occupational Specialty, so despite the desire to do something different upon going active duty I found myself assigned to the air defense battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado.

Sometime during the summer of 1987 my unit was chosen from the others in the battalion to take part in one of the old and truly enormous REFORGER exercises that moved both men and material to Western Europe. Just to clarify, REFORGER was one of the better conceived military acronyms that stood for Return of Forces to Germany, which was an annual exercise to practice the quick deployment of American and other NATO allied forces to western Europe in the event of a conflict with the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.

While the charted commercial jetliner my unit, and at least a couple of hundred other soldiers were aboard landed in Amsterdam we weren't allowing any sightseeing. But were quickly hustles off by buses to one of the many propositioned military depot sites to draw vehicles like hummers and old jeeps along with radios and other pieces of equipment. From there we convoyed out of the Netherlands and into the northern parts of West Germany, a drive so damn long that I was forced to pull over to the side of the road to relieve myself. Funny thing about that one little incident, everyone behind my little jeep pulled over as well making my team leader, the other guy in my jeep the defacto convoy commander after I got back in the vehicle and floored the accelerator in an attempt to catch up with the main body. Those were some serious tense minutes because of both the level of civilian traffic on the road as well as the nagging possibility that the rest of the convoy, which was long out of sight, might have made a turn onto another road we wouldn't see resulting in us getting seriously lost. Thankfully, we eventually found the main body of the convoy and followed it to our final, rather anticlimactic destination.

For at least the better part of a month my unit bivouacked in an empty field in what had to be the absolute middle of nowhere West Germany. We're talking scores of what was even then ancient army, two-man pup tents lined up in columns and rows so surgically precise it would have made generals going back to Roman times shutter with glee. I've got to admit, if you could ignored the smell of the manure the farmers were spreading around in the surrounding, active farm fields the area had a pleasant, almost nature reserve atmosphere. The daily temperature ran from comfortable at noon and just a little chilly during the night. The woods surrounding the farm fields were a deep green, which had both a calming effect on us all and dampened the greater part of the sounds coming from the vehicles on the major highway that I was told was three kilometers away. Aside from the smell of the copious amount of manure on the ground, I would have called the area idyllic.

Where things went to metaphorical crap was the food situation. Since arriving in Amsterdam, we had been living off a combination of first generation MRE's, horrendous creations typified by meals like dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King and “T-rations”, huge unit-sized meals that were packaged in aluminum trays that looked like old fashioned TV dinners.

The MRE's were nothing less than barely disguised attempts at human experimentation to see how badly hunger could force a soldier to consume things that looked like a petrified brown sponge, in the case of the dehydrated beef patty. Yes, I added water to the package to soften up the "meat" but that is a relative term because no matter how long you waited the entree was still an abomination. Concerning what was euphemistically called Chicken a la King, it more resembled the half digested contents pulled from the stomach of a two-day old corpse. Yes, there were other MRE packages that approached the level of being edible human food, but it required a soldier to use all his or her concentration to think of any other subject as they consumed the required calories needed to complete their duties.

One of the most important tasks in any military conflict is to keep the troops properly fed. It ranks right up there with keeping soldiers healthy and properly equipped. The trouble with feeding troops though is that it is damn inconvenient because moving, storing, and preparing food takes time and effort that could be going to the defeat of the enemy, this is where T-rations come into play. The story that I was told at the time was that T-rations would go a long way to solving all those concerns because all it took to prepare them was a large pot of boiling water. In theory, this was supposed to removed the need for specially trained cooks as well as refrigeration because T-ration trays could be stored at normal temperatures like regular canned goods.

It was all a nice idea, but the only real way T-rations excelled were in their utter blandness. Unlike the first generation MRE's, which are memorable because of how bad many of the meals were, I don't remember any of the T-ration entrees. I do have vague recollections of dreaming about pizza and hamburgers as I stood in line to receive my serving of whatever came from those large aluminum trays. While I never personally read anything for certain, I do not believe T-rations lived up to their theoretical potential. For the rest of my active duty time, they seemed to slowly faded away while MRE's continued to evolve and improve.

We did receive a real, fully prepared meal during those weeks bivouacked in that field. One of the pieces of equipment drawn from the depot in Amsterdam was a mobile field kitchen whose proper military moniker escapes me at this moment. If memory serves me right, I believe breakfast was the one meal that we could depend on to carry us through the day. Of course, once all the forces arrived in theater and the actual war games began even that one bright light of our existence ended. Luckily, the war games last just a week, after that things got much better.

The thing about REFORGER exercises was that once you've brought all those troops and equipment across the ocean you eventually have to send everyone and thing back home. That takes time, so once the war games were over everyone was pulled back to rear assembly areas to do maintenance on equipment and wait for their turn to board a plane back to the States. These areas were on even bigger empty fields and consisted of giant circus tents that acted as barracks, mess halls, and even recreation centers made up of restaurants, movie theaters, arcades, and just about anything else designed to help the morale of the troops.

Yes, I know REFORGER exercises were not combat and that the five or six weeks my unit, me, and all the others were in the field was akin to a trip to Disney World compared to the hell our guys and gals endured in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But that is the fault of circumstance and the relatively wiser geopolitical leadership of that era, all I can say is that after weeks of either MRE's or T-rations I was ready for anything that approached normal food.

After going through the procedures of finding the area where my unit was supposed to park and then securing our vehicles, we were released and allowed to explore the circus tent where all the recreational stuff was housed. My unit was in no way one of the first troops brought to the rear assembly area, in fact the place was rather crowded, so much that my friends and I all wondered if some of the soldiers came over to Europe just to spend time at that particular spot. Whatever the case, my group of about four or five split up to hit the various food stalls with me picking the one that sold huge slices of New York-style pizza.

Part of the reasoning of my choice had to with the fact that for the last couple of days of the war games the MRE's I had drawn for lunch at our T-ration breakfast were the really bad ones. While dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King were the champions of gross, dehydrated pork patty and beef stew were only the tiniest bit better, but not enough to really make a difference. Except for a couple of bites of the entree, I had essentially skipped lunch those days and was pretty hungry. The second reason for going for the pizza was that the line in front of the stand wasn't as long as other places. Given my hunger the equation was pretty simple, so about fifteen minutes later I find my way back to the table my buddies and I claimed and sit down with the most beautiful piece of double cheese pizza that existed in the entire universe. Throw in the large Coke that I had bought and I was as close to being a happy camper as anyone can reach in this life. That is when what would seem like a total disaster occurred.

With my elbows resting on the table I lifted that gorgeous and quite hot slice of pizza up from the paper plate. At the exact same time my buddies got back with their own food and jostled the table. Hand/eye coordination never being one of my strengths, this caused me to bite more of the slice than I had planned burning the living shit out of my mouth, which lead me to dropping my food on the floor, cheese side down. You have to understand one important factor about the nature of these circus tents, yes they had plywood floors but because of the traffic of literally a few thousands soldiers fresh out of the field there was plenty of dirty and small pieces of vegetation everywhere. Given how my slice of pizza had fallen, that now included such detritus mixed in the cheese.

A smarter man might have tossed the now contaminated slice and bought another. At first I am sure my buddies expected me to do just that, but I just picked out the larger pieces trash and commenced to devour the now contaminated slice. My buddies snickered a little at first as I tore the pizza slice apart, but then shrugged and forgot about the the whole thing.


My wife and were driving home after completely our dinner and I could tell she was in a pensive mood. “What's bothering you?” I asked knowing after years of marriage how problematic such a question could become.

“I can't believe you ate that bit of food that had fallen off you fork. Do you have any idea how dirty that seat might have been?”

The question was of course rhetorical, but sometimes the universe supplies a way to answer such queries. As chance would have it, as I considered a possible response I spotted a french fry stuck between my seat and the center console. A relic of some quick drive-thru adventure I carefully picked up the fry and held it to my nose in a dramatic gesture. Not yet fully fossilized, I causally tossed it in my mouth and swallowed before answering.

“Yeah, I understand how dirty the seat might have been, but like I said earlier, I'm not worried about it.”

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Odysseus to the Laundry Gods

A true story, in some respects...

One of the marginal benefits of working third shift is that my weekend begins on Friday morning as soon as I clock out. So, with the other members of my family either attending school or at work during normal daytime hours, if I feel motivated enough I can use that same time to get certain tasks done without any of the usual hindrances. The one issue with trying to play Friday hero though is that sometimes I simply do not feel up to either the tasks or even driving around to the locations I need to be or the waiting that is involved in all aspects of life these days.    

This past Friday was supposed to be one of those busy chore and errand days, so much that I had taken Thursday night off from work in an attempt to be rested enough that I didn’t feel like a zombie as I ran around town. I was off to a good start Thursday morning having gone to the gym after leaving work and then returning home to replace the bad door latch on the front loading washer.

The workout was nothing to brag about, both my wife and I are just now getting back into the routine with all the home renovation projects fast approaching completion. However, I was rather proud of the fact that I successfully replaced the defective electronic door latch in my washing machine. While the procedure on paper and You Tube video looked amazingly simply, there was one aspect that turned out to be a certified pain in the ass. It involved reinstalling a thin, spring-loaded wire band that keeps the door gasket in place while the washer is in operation. Getting the over a foot in diameter wire back into its proper place around the door gasket proved so frustrating I began to worry I might actually be forced to  call a trained technician despite the fact the guy who made the You Tube video explaining the procedure said it was possible.

Not having the washing machine operational during the normal family weekend laundry cycle would have meant my sorry butt spending the greater part of Saturday at the nearest coin-operated Laundromat. See, while the old door latch definitely needed replacing, if you whispered sweet-nothings to the washer while dancing around on one foot and then promising to make a sacrifice to the laundry gods, it might just engage and allow the machine to run. What this means is that I was going to take the washing machine fully offline in an attempt to fix an irritating problem we all had been living with for about five to six months. Failure could have come in the form or a broken wire band or a torn door gasket, both unfortunate possibilities since I didn’t order a replacement gasket and the new wire band sent with the new door latch was the wrong type. Thankfully, one of the laundry gods smiled upon my sorry ass allowing me to avoid both the ridicule from my loving family and having to spend time at the local laundromat which in all honesty is sort of a recruitment center for the local chapter of the KKK.

With a successful completion of the washing machine repair, I decided just to do laundry and chill out for the rest of the day while I basked in the glory of my accomplishment. I figured my other tasks and errands would wait until Friday morning. Funny thing about the laundry gods, they seem to be just as touchy and prone to bad attitudes as was Poseidon when he decided to screw with Odysseus on his trip home from Troy.

It was about two-thirty Friday morning when my brain’s internal sensors detected a disturbing issue in my lower torso region requiring an immediate run to the bathroom. To avoid further unnecessary and grotesque descriptions, I’ll just say the bathroom was where I spent the majority of the rest of that night and a good portion of Friday morning. Around sunrise the mild body aches I had ignored Thursday afternoon and evening, which I thought were from my visit to the gym, ramped up to about an eight on a scale of ten making me glad I had taken the night off. While quite uncomfortable, the two ailments I was dealing with during those early hours hadn’t truly beaten me. I had taken the required home medication and retreated to the couch to allow my wife to sleep. I figured I had picked up a mild bug from either work or the gym and would in the course of a few hours beat it back enough to at least get the in-house chores done once everyone left that morning.  A few hours after that idea the fever hit followed by the nausea and intense chills.

Before anyone assumes the worst, my wife did offer to stay home with me as I writhed in agony on the couch. At that time, I assuring her I would be fine and told her to go to work. She had several meetings to attend that day and a bunch of paperwork to complete. Had she stayed home, that would have meant her spending most of the day on the phone with numerous callers trying to get as much of her work done as possible given the circumstances. I simply didn’t want her having to explain that the moaning in the background these people would certainly hear on their end of the phone was her sick husband and not someone being tortured for information. Yeah, just call me a considerate and compassionate husband.

I figure it was around noon that I became conscious enough to realize I was going to need more drugs to tame my flu-like symptoms enough so I could rest. One problem though, when I tried to stand up I found that some entity had changed the law of gravity. Everything seems to be off about ninety degrees requiring me to literally crawl on the floor towards the bathroom. I actually found the situation quite funny, as did the various fictional and historical characters keeping me company during the point when my fever was hitting the high side of one-hundred and four. Both Jim Kirk and Ernest Hemingway told me stories of some of their wilder experiences as I slowly made my way to the bathroom where I left the ibuprofen and whatever anti-nausea medicine I had taken earlier.

This is where things go really weird because it was around two o’clock when I became conscious again and found myself back on the couch. The last thing I remember was reaching the bathroom and wondering how in the hell I would get the child-proof caps off the bottles.  While I still felt like watery baby poop, at least all my companions had decided to leave and let me rest. Damn Jim Kirk, he was supposed to tell me about the three-way he had with a couple of green Orion slave girls during his first five year mission.

What was even wilder, I found that gravity had returned to normal allowing me to staggering around the house zombie-style.  This was just in time to answer the knock on the front door which turned out to be the FedEx guy trying to deliver a package for my wife. Got to admit, I freaked the Fed Ex guy out when I opened the door, he didn’t quite know what to say when I asked him in all seriousness if he was a real person.

Eventually both my wife and daughter returned home and forced me to go to bed after drinking enough Nyquil to knock out a horse. When Saturday morning arrived I felt good enough to realize just how bad my situation had been the previous day. While I have exaggerated some aspects of that experience it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I felt I could keep anything in my stomach, even then it was a single piece of toast and some ginger ale. About the only moral to this story I can offer is that like Odysseus must have learned, never screw around with the gods, especially those overseeing the laundry.