Sunday, May 28, 2017

Tales From REFORGER-2: I Accuse

 (Author's note: This story is true, although I had to go creative-nonfiction to stretch it out and alter it enough so I wouldn't have anyone going crazy on me.)

All things considered, Captain Bryant, the S4 of my air defense battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado, wasn't a bad guy. Which makes what happened to him in a West German field all the worse. Without overly explaining what the S4 does, it can be boiled down to anything to do with supply, logistics, maintenance, transportation, and budget for the entire battalion. It is a demanding job and takes someone with a detail oriented mind and who can deal with the stress involved when millions of dollars of equipment and supplies are involved.

Since I was just a junior enlisted soldier at the time when the incident occurred, everything I heard from the NCO's suggested Bryant was perfectly competent in his job. Captain Bryant's one problem though was that despite his best efforts at the S4 job he was still catching hell from his lackluster command of one of the batteries of the battalion. See, Bryant was suffering from one of the worst traits that can befall an individual not only serving in the United States Army but anyone living in a country that prizes charisma and hard charging excellence. 

Bryant's first sin was that he had absolutely no charisma or anything else in the way of inspiring others to perform great deeds. Like any leader who command people, army officers are almost required to give speeches that motivate those under them to push harder. Given that the batteries in my battalion shared a common assembly area I caught a few of Bryant's speeches and even as a junior enlisted guy I could tell that someone born without vocal cords could have given a better, more inspiring speech. Sure, he could relay information and give instructions but his spoken voice had the personality of one of the old “Speak and Spell” toys from the 1980's.

His second, and possibly worst, sin was that Bryant was average in all his abilities. I learned this from one of my friends, Specialist David Speakman, who was the driver for the battalion sergeant major. While Speakman was my best friend, I often found him irritating as shit since the man excelled at absolutely everything he did from scores on the rifle range to maxing out the PT test. Speakman would regularly tell me battalion scuttlebutt since he spent all normal duty hours at headquarters.

The overall word about Captain Bryant was that the battalion commander and battalion sergeant major, both hard charging types who expected nothing less that one-hundred percent and then more from everyone in his command wasn't happy with his performance. Back then I believe myself to be a member of the hard charging group but was frankly perplexed at what exactly they wanted out of Bryant. However, my lack of understanding of the nebulous requirements they expected suggests I was closer to Captain Bryant's group than the one my friend Speakman belonged.

The curse with being average is that people tend to remember your mistakes, and misfortunes, more than anything else. Being “average” myself in many ways its almost as if you're wearing sign that everyone else but you can see but you that tells people not to expect much. For Captain Bryant to carry such a burden pretty much meant his military career was going to stall and die unless he somehow turn perception around. That opportunity came in the form of one of the battalions units, Alpha Battery, being sent to West Germany in 1987 for REFORGER.

REFORGER, which stand for Return of Forces to Germany was a huge deployment exercise and war games meant to prepare for the possibility of war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations it controlled. All told thousand of troops and equipment were loaded on planes and ships and sent to Europe from North America. In the days leading up to our departure from Fort Carson, Captain Bryant seemed to be constantly in action. After we arrived in Europe for the first four or five days before the people in my unit were dispersed I don't believe the man ever slept.

What Captain Bryant did between the time of our first arrival and when we all regrouped at the assembly area to wait for our turn to return home I have no idea, although I highly suspect he did his best to play super soldier.

Every soldiers' mission at the assembly area was to wait and prepare the equipment we had drawn in Europe for turn in. As duty goes it was pretty sweet, we lived in literal circus-sized tents with some of them dedicated to food stands, movie theaters, mess halls, PX shops, and even libraries. Our equipment was nearby, all lined up neatly with us spending about half a day cleaning and repairing what we could. After lunch, which was still first generation MRE's at that time, we were usually released and allowed to hang out in the recreation tents or even see some of the local sites. Captain Bryant didn't play that game, even though many of the officers were almost as eager to get away as the enlisted, he stayed in the makeshift motor pool trying to impress the his higher-ups. Sadly, even though he moved heaven and earth during this deployment his average-ness came back with a vengeance.

Naturally, given the human digestive tract and its normal functions the US government spent the money to rent hundreds of port-o-potties for the assembly area to prevent thousands of soldiers from turning the countryside into a disease ridden sewage pit. Most were the normal looking ones you would see here in the States with a wide base that strongly resists tipping over because of wind. But a number of them, like the ones situated close to the motor pool, were quite thin and light and placed very close together.

The morning the incident happened it was already quite windy. In fact, several of the people I was around had noticed the thin and light port-o-potties being moved by the gusts. Once lunchtime came we stopped what we were doing, ate our MRE's, then put away our tools before drifting off to pursue our off-duty entertainment. Not Captain Bryant who stayed behind inside his deuce and a half fitted with a shop van he used as a makeshift office.

Sometime later Bryant had to answer the call of nature and proceeded to use one of the abnormal port-o-potties. Unfortunately, he picked one in the middle of a line of at least fourteen or fifteen. From what I could gather one of those heavy gusts of wind hit when Bryant was inside and not only did the entire line of port-o-potties fall over like so many dominoes, their thin sheet metal construction bent in such a way that he was literally trapped inside. Yeah, as word passed down everyone learned the potty was tipped over enough that its contents did spill out.

Poor Captain Bryant was eventually rescued by someone several hours later but word of what happened spread through the area at a speed that defies Einstein's limit on anything moving faster than light. Efforts to limit the effect on Captain Bryant's reputation were enacted, mainly having already ill-tempered first sergeants telling annoyed platoon sergeants to pass down to the tired section sergeants to tell their troops that any form of misbehavior around Captain Bryant would be severely punished.

It didn't work, especially when news of the incident somehow spread to nearby British troops who were visiting our location. Reports were that when they learned of what happened to Bryant their entire contingent,which was eating in the mess hall tent, all fell onto the floor laughing their asses off. While it was probably American soldiers who did it, someone a few days later took a permanent magic marker and wrote, “Bryant-potty, Use only at your own risk” on most of the type that fell over and trapped him.

There is no happy ending to this story. This incident sort of capped a military career that never left the metaphorical launch pad. He only stayed with the battalion about six months before getting reassigned somewhere else in the United States. But even when I was about to leave the service in July of 1990 some a-hole was still writing “Bryant-potty” on the much more stable ones used at Fort Carson. The only person I knew who could have been immune to possible discovery of the action and had ample opportunity to hit so many of the potties used down range was my good friend, David Speakman.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale

For quite a while now I have found the numerous dystopic novels and movies that are polluting entertainment media nauseating. Sure, I'll put it kindly and say I understand the fascination in doomsday entertainment because the rank and file masses of America are nervous about their relative positions in both the economic and geopolitical realms. Strange looking folks and the world in general is a scary place for a bunch of people who are so enamored with their own existence that they don't have the time nor curiosity to try and delve deeper than the Twitter-based explanations offered up by narcissistic con men.

Fear comes from the less evolved reptile-remnant part of the human brain and if the leaders of our species over the centuries have perfected one thing it is appealing to that basic instinct. Doomsday entertainment feeds that fear and probably reinforces the attitude that we're all screwed and any attempt to resist the tides of circumstance and change for the worse is futile. All that being said, I have discovered an exception to the vast majority of stale and derivative doomsday entertainment that floods our consciousness.

Way back in what is now seriously considered the “good old days,” around 1988, I discovered the book The Handmaid's Tale by the acclaimed author Margret Atwood. It tells the story of a woman only known as Offred who is a reproductive slave to a powerful, but infertile couple in a country called the Republic of Gilead. Short synopsis, set sometime in the near future the United States government is overthrown by a secret society called the Sons of Jacob who then replace it with a theocratic military dictatorship. Being only slightly flippant, Gilead isn't some authoritarian knockoff of the current Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, or Russia, no the Sons of Jacob have gone full totalitarian. In the Atwood book, 1990 movie adaption, and the current series on Hulu, the Republic of Gilead makes Iran look like a free love and thinking party and North Korea almost tolerable.

Because of pollution and a whole host of other man-made environmental disasters, fertility rates have crashed so the powerful elite in Gilead force women who can have children to be their broodmares. In this fictional terror, while civil liberties are dead for all but for women it's worse. The Gilead leadership has rolled back civilization to the point women are once again the property of their fathers or husbands. They cannot control their own bodies, have bank accounts, work outside the home, or even read. Any deviation once discovered by the authorities is usually met with a death sentence.

What makes The Handmaid's Tale an exception for me is NOT because it paints a picture of Christians as potential Nazi-like thugs. No, in all three incarnations it is more than readily pointed out in each of them that the Gilead leadership heavily persecutes any Christian not willing to mindless follow the approved orthodoxy. This being a prime example why separation of church and state is enshrined in the United States Constitution. What intrigues me about Handmaid's Tale is the overarching attitudes and beliefs of the dominate males in that fictional society because I can hear similar echos in our society.

Offred's chief antagonist in someone known as the “Commander,” he is the husband of the couple using her to produce a child for them. He is also a powerful member of the ruling elite and in the Hulu series is one of the men who orchestrated the overthrow of the United States government and the founding of Gilead. Something only implied in the novel and vaguely referenced in the movie. But it is something the Commander said at the end of chapter 32 that perplexed me:

The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy... . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.”

While turning off to sex might be a little bit of stretch, but what American men do like to whine about is how women are too pushy or that they have to compete with them in them in the workplace. As for being too pushy where it does intersect with Handmaid's Tale is how some men do not feel right or manly if they are not in control. A seriously sick documentary I found on Netflix recently had to do with men trying to develop a sexual robot to takes the place of real women. I was only able to watch fifteen minutes of the documentary before I was literally sicken but the central idea all men appearing in it shared was that they wanted to be in control.

Yeah, I admit some women can be real and total pains but no more than some of my fellow males can be complete asses. See, the problem here is that while women have made great strides in society they are still woefully underpaid, compared to men with the same jobs and experience, and still face inherent sexism because guys still overwhelming rule the country.

The statement I would make to my erstwhile brothers is that if pushy women bother you or if you feel that even trying to make a mark in society is pointless instead of complaining and being a slacker you up your damn game. Get an education, or go back to school, turn off ESPN or put down the game controller and get involved with some cause and make the world a better place. Hell, if that isn't manly enough for you find the nearest military recruiter and join the one of the Armed Forces. Because I was in the military-National Guard-right after the attacks on 9/11 and there was absolutely NO sudden rush by all the jocks, rednecks, and other assorted males to join the fight against terrorism. So lacking in red-blooded American males, several of the recruiters I knew started pursuing Mexican-American migrant workers who frequented two of the huge flea markets in my area. Getting people to join back then was so bad one full-time recruiter, a hapless sort who frankly didn't have the IQ of a toaster, had to quit his job because he couldn't make monthly quotas.

Long story short, instead of bitching about mean women, do like I was taught in the army, act like men, and improvise, adapt, and overcome. Don't let a lack of imagination or persistence blind you to the fact that instead of men being oppressed by women the vast majority of male whiners are lazy, spoiled douchebags.

The second thing that troubled me about Handmaid's Tale was the concept that the United States government could be overthrown. After a great deal of thought, and exposure to a good deal more of history, I came to the conclusion that while such an event is highly improbable the United States is not immune to the forces that destroyed every now dead civilization. The dustbin of history is filled with empires and nations whose subjects and citizens thought were invulnerable and would exist forever.

American society is rife with faults and serious issues that most refuse to address, but the one that could be our undoing is is simple lack of participation in civil affairs. It is suggested in the Hulu series that even after the events that lead to the United States Constitution being suspended most were happy to pursue their usual affairs. In fact, in the series it wasn't until Offred and her friend couldn't purchase coffee that they became aware that things were out of control. Oh, a demonstration was quickly organized to protest against the changes but by that time the police, or militia were ready to open fire on the people with machine guns.

That last paragraph was aimed largely at my fellow liberals who either voted third-party or stayed home back in November of 2016. NO, I am not saying Trump will ultimately declare himself dictator, but it seems awful funny how it was only once he won the electoral college that so many realized how much a disaster him occupying the White House would become.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention the religious nature of the fictional Gilead. Excuse me if this statement offends but Americans wear their religion way too much on their sleeves. Abraham Lincoln is said to have called American's “God's almost chosen people” and unfortunately, there are many these days who view the world as if we were. Some religious types hold such extreme views on the proper way to live and the world in general that they would in fact be quite happy living in Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead. One individual I know tried quite hard to draw me into a religious-based conversation on what it would take to “save America.” Before I could leave the room one of things I learned America had to be saved from was Canada's far more liberal emigration policy which let in dangerous dark-skinned types. Right before I was able to leave something about a wall along the northern border was mentioned.

I have no problem who those who have a strong faith, former President Jimmy Carter is a true Christian and we would all do well to try and follow his example. The same goes for Pope Francis, all things considered I believe him to be a truly positive force in a world overrun with hate and institutionalized injustice. The same goes for countless others who practice different faiths. The eternal problem though is that there are many around the world who believe they have an inside line on how God wants people to believe and act. These types crave and ruthlessly pursue power just to impose their view of God's will on everyone else.

As doomsday entertainment goes The Handmaid's Tale in all its forms is several levels above the usual tripe. In many circles the novel is considered a literary masterpiece. The 1990 movie version did its best to adapt the story to the big screen but there was no way you could have directly pulled the screenplay from the book. It is the Hulu series that excels in painting an expanded and terrifying picture of a nation that went truly and utterly insane. The actor Elizabeth Moss, who plays the character of Offred is totally credible as a person whose freedom, dignity, and family has been stripped away all because a small group believes they know God's will.

In actuality, I view Atwood's story less as entertainment and more a warning. No, I do not think we are on the verge of a right-wing religious theocracy taking over the country. But one thing is certain, Americans, of all walks of life especially those with the most privileges are going to be forced to make some difficult and uncomfortable choices in the coming years. These choices will either continue the expansion of possibilities for all people or send the United States down a dark corridor that leaves us among the other dead societies that came before us.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living the Dream

As someone who likes to hold the banner of science and rationality, I've got to admit to a certain level of hypocrisy. See, while I regularly ridicule superstition after years of living in my current house I've come to the conclusion that the damn money hole is jinxed. This is where a short history might be helpful in painting the required picture.

This sad story began back in 2000 as my wife and I entered the last stages of the adoption procedure that would result in my sister-in-law and her flying over to China to pick up the baby. Because one of the requirements for adoption was that the child had to have a bedroom all to herself my wife and I upgraded our old home and quickly sold it to literally the first couple that looked at the place. We were ecstatic, my wife and I had already picked out a new house and with the buyers of our old home quickly getting approval for a mortgage we called the real estate agent to make an offer on the larger house.

Turned out the couple who owned the house we wanted had accepted a bid on theirs pretty much the same time the people who looked at our home made an offer. While there was no reason to immediately panic, my wife and I had to start looking at more houses. The trouble was that my wife had certain stringent requirements for any house we might offer to buy.

The first thing was that she was adamant about the builder, the floor plan, and the general area it was located. Numerous perspective homes that were close to mansions to me given the dwellings I lived in as a child were rejected because they were built by company “B” instead of “A.” It was the same for the interior layout, my wife refused to consider anything with an open floor plan. As for the location, at the time I didn't care but she wanted the kids to attend the best school district.

My requirements weren't as strict but because we had two dogs I rejected several houses that simply didn't have a backyard fence. One of our dogs was a large, very energetic, mixed breed black lab that absolutely could not be allowed to roam free given the rules of modern subdivisions. That fact ran counter to the subdivision I grew up where the dogs were allowed to roam and sort of became neighborhood pets. Keeping the lab inside during the day while we were at work wasn't an option because while she was a loving dog her inadvertently destructive ways would have guaranteed war zone-level devastation by the time we returned home.

Since the home we were selling was located on a large corner lot, I had some delusion about the next one being the same way. That one issue and my blatant ignorance still causes me to cringe when I think too much about it. While we did have a large front yard at our first home, it was extremely low maintenance and I simply did not consider how demanding a similar sized but more decorated location would be on my time and energy.

With these requirements, and a little ill-timed bad luck, my wife and I were finally forced to make a choice a few weeks later. We had narrowed our prospects down to three locations that neither my wife nor I really liked. The trouble was that the buyers of our old home were about a week or two away from being forced to move and they, naturally, needed us out. Now I admit, despite what I began to feel were my wife's ridiculous requirements, I made the horrendous mistake of actually giving an opinion on one of the three choices. I made matters even worse by saying the house on the corner lot with the highly manicured yards, “spoke to me.” The situation was getting quite tense given the deadline we faced and my words were a sad attempt to lighten the mood.

My wife compounded my error by making an offer on that house which was accepted by the owners. Before I go any further let me state that we did look at the interior of the house we bought on two separate occasions before making an offer. Both were haste affairs and no, we did not look anywhere near as closely as we should have, which would have dire consequences almost immediately. As for the professional inspector, who we paid for and was supposed to catch issues before all the paperwork was finalized, I have often considered the possibility that he was bribed in some fashion to ignore the obvious problems.

Making matter for more complicated, the day we had to move into the new house was my National Guard drill weekend and the leadership at my unit refused to cut me some slack so I could assist. Luckily my in-laws were there to help my wife and keep an eye on the movers we hired to deliver the big stuff. Late that Saturday afternoon I got to the new house to see the sorry state the previous owners had left things.

First off were the numerous holes in the walls that had been hidden by an array of family pictures. Given the number of holes in the walls it literally looked like that family had rearranged the display of pictures at least a couple of times a month. Secondly, and the first bit of evidence I believe the home inspector was compromised, we learned that night one of the four elements on the kitchen stove didn't work. Then there were the electrical sockets that when you tried to push a plug into them moved backwards an inch or two. Quite frankly, it wouldn't be a challenge to write several pages listing the deficiencies the inspector had somehow missed.

My wife and I were furious, but the reason we didn't pursue legal action was that we had a critical assessment coming up with the adoption agency handling our case. Pursuing a lawsuit while trying to adopt a little girl from China would have been too much. So, just a few days after moving in the new house, my wife assigned me the task of correcting any and all deficiencies I had the ability to fix. We've lived in our current money hole since then and in many ways we are still fixing things.

Given these circumstances, and several others outside the purview of this narrow memoir, it shouldn't surprise anyone why I have developed such an extreme dislike for suburban living in general and the house I live in specifically. So much that instead of the usual fantasies middle-aged men like myself entertain, I dream of winning the lotto so I can move the family and myself into another house which would allow me to burn down the one I live. Despite the numerous deficiencies, there is another, truly bizarre aspect to the house I live that often leads me to believe the place might be cursed.

As I mentioned, the house we bought had several decorative landscape islands in both the front and backyards. Somewhere around six months after we moved in two of the three pine trees that were in the backyard landscape island suddenly died. No, I have little knowledge of trees and I know both of the ones that died were probably already sick but all I can say is their appearance changed from thriving to zombie-like was so abruptly it shocked both my wife and myself. That wasn't the only issue we had with trees.

Over the course of six or seven years lightning struck three other trees, all resulting in collapses of major limbs and even trunks. Since my wife and I were dealing with demanding jobs and two young children, we never could immediately deal with the carriage of singed and broken limbs littering the ground. A fact that the neighbors, all unhealthily obsessed with the appearance of their yards in my opinion, I am sure commented upon among themselves.

A lightning strike also hit the pump used to draw well water for the lawn sprinklers. This particular incident naturally occurred during a severely hot July with August being even worse. By the time cooler weather arrived in late September my front yard had taken on the appearance of a desert. We did replace the pump the following May, at the cost of two-thousand dollars when you include installation but my front yard never really recovered.

Water heaters have also been an issue with us on our third one right now. The first water heater is another example of the home inspector possibly being paid off because while on the outward facing side it looked okay, when the tank cracked and started leaking I discovered the side facing the wall was heavily rusted. I have no idea why the second water heater cracked, it was probably the result of someone bumping the thing but even then I thought such items were supposed to be a little more resilient.

Like the deficiencies the home inspector somehow missed, I could spend a considerable amount of time listing the premature and often disastrously expensive breakdowns with things like washing machines, air conditioning systems, televisions, and lawn mowers. But the example that sums up the bad luck we've had with the house we live occurred after a heavy thunderstorm a few years back. No, lightning didn't fry anything that particular instant but what it did was trip the ground fault breaker in the garage. The place we had the freezer, which a few days before we had filled up with a couple of hundred dollars worth of meat bought at Sam's Club.

Being somewhat oblivious five or six days after the thunderstorm I finally noticed that the sprinkler system, whose pump had been replaced several months earlier wasn't coming on like it should. Yes, the controller for the sprinkler system was on the same circuit as the freezer and when I traced the issue to the tripped ground fault breaker I am happy to report it only took and extra thirty minutes for me to realize what that meant for all the meat we had purchased. In fact, the exact moment I realized all that meat was ruined I was sitting at the table drinking a beer. My reaction was a classic movie spit-take that lead immediately into a coughing fit so bad my wife thought I was having a heart attack. Once I recovered enough to explain my sudden epiphany, my lovely spouse promptly had her own bad reaction to the news.

Sure enough, even though I had reset the breaker thirty minutes before the freezer was still room temperature with the faint hint of spoiled meat becoming apparent after I lifted the lid. After that everything became a bit of a blur, so much I don't really remember taking all that ruined meat to the trash place.

This all leads to the statement I made to my wife a couple of days ago as I backed my car out of the garage, I made an offhand comment about how after all the crappy breakdown both the garage openers, which were installed by the first owners were still working perfectly. Taking history into consideration I now expect one or both of them to suddenly and totally meltdown at the worst conceivable moment. On the other hand, if that meltdown and resulting fire could somehow occur with the house empty of my family, the dogs, and cats I would be lying if I didn't say that I would consider such an unlucky event a type of blessing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

All About the Science

The mindset that has always puzzled me is how certain political types crow about making America number one in the world—yes I paraphrased to avoid throwing up in my mouth-- but refuse to properly fund the only real way to accomplish that goal. Basic or pure scientific research, without any obvious applied applications is the only way to keep America a player on the world stage. The best way to describe pure research is that it lays the foundation for later practical applications. The quickest example I can offer is how it took the combined efforts of diligent scientists over a couple of centuries to discover the underlining principles of electricity before Edison could figure out a way to build a practical light bulb.

The trouble with pure research is that to many it seems to fly off on a tangent chasing some bizarre but useless scientific oddity. In this day and age once information along those lines seeps out to the general public it usually leads to some manly man announcer or hot blond bimbo clone on Fox News whining about taxpayer's money going to waste. Which causes numerous people to call their Milquetoast congressman whose scientific education never goes much beyond figuring out the remote on his home entertainment center to demand cuts in funding to the research agencies responsible for keeping America on the cutting edge of science.

Contrary to the insipid little twit running the Office of Budget and Management, private industry does not spend a lot of money on basic research, so that leaves it to the federal government to pave the way for future accomplishments. You need a couple of examples? The first being the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. Besides Einstein's Special Relativity—another work of pure research, it took a lot of coordinated effort by government agencies to produce the bomb that ended World War Two. The second is that internet which for years before Al Gore was ever accused, wrongly, of saying he invented it was a way for government laboratories to communicate.

Long story short, the scientific advances that lead to better healthcare, improved lifestyles, faster communications, and even bigger weapons do not appear out of thin air. Someone didn't wake up one morning and say, “I'm going to invent a Blu-Ray player.” If you ignore the electricity angle I already mentioned, in truth the origins of that device can be traced back to Einstein's earlier research that lead to the invention of the laser.

Getting to the heart of the matter the individual now occupying the White House has proposed deep cuts into the amount of money we spend on basic research. Making matters worse, the United States does not spend as much on basic research as compared to China and many other countries which could be compared to us trying to commit a form of suicide. Since discoveries in science always lead to new questions which spur new insights regaining a lead once it is lost is next to impossible. In the simplest words, money spent of pure research is a long term investment the future. While there is no promise of a big return in the form of an earth shattering discovery, without pure research we just stagnant and live off the efforts of others.

The good news though is that while the Congress of the United States has never been enthusiastic supporters of pure research it has taken a surprisingly bipartisan approach to sticking it to Trump and the cuts purposed in his 2018 budget. Yeah, given the current situation, I'm taking what good news I can while realizing the next four years will ultimately hurt the United States in ways our kids will have to work incredibly hard to overcome, if it is even possible.