23 November 2008


i spent my childhood as something of a nomad. my parents seemed to move every few years, from town to farm, farm to town along the northern Rocky Mountain Front. it wasn't until i was a teenager that we settled into a house my dad built himself, within two blocks of what would become my high school. (i trace my inherent shyness, always feeling like the new kid, to those days, but that's another story.)

my family remained in that house in town after i graduated from high school -- i was 18, my brother was 10, my sister was 5. through two years of college, then two years in the military, i always knew where home was. shortly after i moved out on my own, a young adult entering the migratory pattern south to tucson, arizona, my parents bought a small farm just outside of town. twenty acres of land along the county irrigation canal, with a scenic view of town to the east, and the magnificent ranks of the Rockies marching down the western horizon. the farmhouse was two stories with a full basement, shielded from arctic winds by a nice grove of trees, with a huge garden and an array of aging outbuildings. what struck you first, last and always was the quiet. the only sounds that claimed your thoughts were birds (western meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, pheasant, house sparrows), and the wind. you'd swear you could hear the planet breathe beneath that limitless dome of sky.

even though i had never had my own bedroom in that farmhouse, it became home for me, in the ancestral, family sense. i had my own home in tucson, but my parents' place would always feel like the more fundamental Home, the place where you can always walk in the door and know that you'll be welcome, part of the family. it remained so for 35 years, persisting through the seismic shifts of a struggling parental marriage.

this past spring, their marriage underwent a sea change. nominally "separated", my mom moved into her own apartment in town, leaving my dad at the farm. their long-range plan was to clean the place up, sell it, split the proceeds, and my dad would find his own place in town. though not exactly a surprise, given the strained atmosphere between them for decades, this move was decidedly a paradigm shift. it gave me insight into what my own son must have gone through, when his mother and i parted ways. except my son was only five, while i'm sixty-one.

the difference being that in my parents' case, parting ways ultimately seems like it will be a healthy and healing experience for all concerned. there are no discernible traces of the internecine warfare that my son had to try to understand at so young an age.

last sunday, i received a call from my dad, letting me know that a tentative buyer had firmed up plans, and they had signed the necessary papers to transfer the property. my dad now has until mid-december to pack, clean, and move a lifetime's accumulation of stuff to storage, and to find a place of his own in town to live. seems like he should have insisted on more lead time, but it's not my decision.

here's what's surprising about the news of the sale -- i'm feeling suddenly adrift, homeless, uprooted. it isn't a rational response, i know, but there it is. there'll never again be a single, discreet family home to return to. it all feels abrupt, and disquieting, as though the world has become an unreliable, unsafe place. i suppose the feeling will pass. millions have gone through something similar. still, this is new to me, and it all feels vaguely threatening. as though one sunny day, someone suddenly repealed the law of gravity.

well, i've been through much worse in this colorful life of mine. i'm glad that my mother is, and always has been, so resourceful and assertive and looking out for the future. and i'm glad that my father will soon be relieved of the burden of trying to keep up with a house and acreage that have become too demanding for a man in his 80s. within a few months, all the legal and financial details will have been resolved, and each of them will have settled into their new reality.

as for me .... i miss the farm.

16 November 2008


sleep in. (it's all relative -- for someone whose alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m., sleeping in means 7 or 8.) wake up slowly, leisurely. rise, turn up the heat a bit, put on my casual sweats. feed the by-now-ravenous-but-polite cats. enjoy the quiet. check my email, the comics at the Washington Post online, the NYTimes online, the astronomy photo site, the online dating sites. am waking up by now. turn on the tv to see if anything worthwhile is on Meet The Press. if not, off. sometimes a light breakfast (a toasted bagel, or an almond-and-poppyseed muffin, or some cereal with fresh fruit). sometimes not. eventually, shower and shave and dress. hmm, what to do with the day? few plans, which is nice. do a couple of loads of laundry, read a book or an aviation magazine, make a blog entry. play with the cats, who don't receive nearly enough attention since i'm gone so much of the time. go for a walk, maybe drop in at Barnes & Noble and browse.

at intervals, think about my life -- what i enjoy, what i would like to change, whom i would like to call or email. most of all, relax, allow my body to heal from the abuses of the workweek, allow my mind to refresh itself. i look forward to this.

11 November 2008


(note: as background, please read my entry for Memorial Day, 26 may 2008.)

what follows isn't pretty. then again, neither is war. war is rarely what one is shown at a movie, or on tv. it is personal, and the experience is different for each participant. what i want to share has nothing to do with sweeping battles or calculated strategies or clashing armies. at its foundation, war isn't about patriotism or noble ideology. it is about you, and those few who are near to you in moments of violence, or tedium, or terror far from home.

my war was vietnam. these are only a few of the vivid memory snapshots i carry with me every day. they represent the randomness, the absurdity, the waste which jar any expectation of glory or patriotism. small moments. important moments. i share them as a way of recognizing, honoring those whom i knew in country, especially those who didn't make it back.

~ it is midday. after leaving travis AFB in california, with stops in hawaii, guam and the philippines, the airliner transporting me has touched down at Bien Hoa airbase. i reach the door at the top of the ramp, and am smacked senseless by a wall of heat. wherever there isn't pavement, there is fine red dust, six inches thick. i'm instantly dehydrated. how am i going to survive an entire year here?

~ it is sunset. after only a few weeks of OJT in country, at my base camp in Phu Loi, i've been sent to the field. we are at a fire support base somewhere in the mekong delta, occupied by the troops of a 155mm artillery battery, and guarded by a company of infantry. the perimeter is a scant enclosure of barbed wire and too few bunkers. all around lie jungle, and heat, and humidity. the hush of twilight is shattered by the unexpected sound of M16 fire being sprayed across the camp, from one of the perimeter bunkers. friendly fire, intentional fire. everyone hits the dirt or finds something to hide behind. the shooter is screaming words, but they make no sense. his firing pauses as he runs out of ammo, reloads. the dusk deepens, concealing a handful of MPs as they take up positions surrounding the bunker. CRACK CRACK CRACK. silence. we learn later that the shooter was a grunt who'd apparently seen too much, and lost it. he had shot his buddy in the bunker before opening up on the camp. his reward: assassination.

~ it is afternoon. we are setting up a temporary fire support base in a paddy near a temple in Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon. a miniature settlement of camp followers materializes along the road -- a barber, a souvenir shop, a whorehouse. the resident vietnamese mingle with curious GIs. a blind boy walks across our compound, led by a smaller boy. we learn later that the blind boy was counting his paces, measuring distances and vectors to our artillery pieces, command post and my communications truck for targetting by VC mortars. children at war.

~ it is night. we are camped next to a highway and an ARVN (south vietnamese army, our allies) compound, back in the delta. we arrived late in the afternoon, and while crews prepare the 155s for fire missions, the rest of us are told to fill sandbags for individual bunkers in the event of mortar or rocket attack. my fellow radioteletype (RTT) operator and i are the only ones who do. for an hour or so after sunset, a searchlight from the ARVN has illuminated us, and (what a coincidence) during that time, every ten minutes or so a harrassing mortar round has landed in our camp from somewhere in the dark jungle all around. eventually a round gets lucky, exploding amid four foolish GIs who have been standing around talking. two are killed instantly. one has both legs blown off. the fourth is peppered with shrapnel. a medevac chopper is called in. this is what the VC have been waiting for. when the chopper arrives, mortar rounds start raining in on us. impossible noise and confusion, lit from all sides by explosions. the VC want that chopper, and the cluster of soldiers who are trying to onload the wounded. i am among those who ran to become stretcher-bearers, ducking and weaving in the mud and chaos. the man i'm carrying is our medic, a black dude from detroit who had only three weeks left in country, and a wife and two kids waiting for him at home. everyone likes him. amid the confusion the first sergeant running around like a headless chicken, looking for the medical files of the injured soldiers, getting in the way (a feat for which he is later awarded the Silver Star). finally the wounded are aboard, and the chopper (miraculously unhit) lifts off into the night sky. we later hear that Doc -- all medics are called Doc -- didn't survive the flight to the hospital. we mourn.

~ it is morning. we are set up on the western perimeter of a base camp west of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border. the perimeter is manned by ARVN soldiers, not Gis. my RTT rig, looking like a pickup camper with a thyroid condition, sits near a small, one-man perimeter bunker. the ARVN occupying it has a puppy. yesterday he became furious with the animal, and started to beat it. i was furious and intervened. he couldn't understand English, but he knew from my voice and gestures what i meant, and assumed a placating attitude. this morning, the same performance, only this time he is throwing the puppy down hard on the ground, like a football. i literally see red. against all reason, since he had an M16 handy and i only had my bayonet in its belt sheath, i stormed over and seized the dog from him, then returned with it to my rig. he in turn was incensed, picked up his rifle, then put it down again and followed me, yelling at me. my commo sergeant was visiting and backed me up, and the ARVN had to retreat, losing face. i kept the dog, named it Sooner, and brought it back to my own base camp at Phu Loi when i returned from the field. Sooner became our commo mascot, and was still there when i left the country months later.

~ it is twilight. same base camp. near my tent a small group of GIs has set up a crude table, and a rowdy poker game is going on. i'm trying to catch a nap on a cot, miserable in the heat and dust. last shower was thirty days ago. i'm snapped awake by the crack of a single shot, very close by. i jump up to a crouch and peek outside. the poker table is deserted, everyone has scattered. leaving the tent, i walk past the table, noticing a wet gray mass on the ground. nearby a small group has gathered on the porch of a hootch. one GI is raving, being restrained by others. turns out that he was one of those standing around watching the card game, next to his best friend who was one of the card players. holding his M16, which for some absurd reason went off, six inches from his friend's head. the entry wound was as big around as your finger. the exit wound was as big as your fist, and as the player's body slumped to the side, his brains fell out onto the ground. the accidental shooter is taken out by medevac chopper, senseless with grief and horror and guilt. he's sent to a psych hospital in japan the next day, a casualty of a landscape where everyone carries a gun.

~ it is night. we are back in the delta. some enterprising souls have erected a shoulder-high sleeping bunker made from dirt-filled wooden ammo crates, roofed over with PSP and sandbags. inside are a dozen wall-to-wall cots. you have to crawl over bodies to find an empty cot, if you want to sleep in that protected space. we are all awakened in the same instant by the distinctive sound of incoming rockets -- pssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhBOOM. the first one impacts some distance away, but each one gets a little closer. they are being walked in our direction. somehow, by some sleight-of-hand, every single bunker occupant has managed to rotate his cot sideways to burrow closer to mother earth. an amazing feat that could not be duplicated in daylight. all the rockets explode harmlessly, hurting no one, destroying nothing. in the surreal silence which follows, a lizard scoots across my legs, and i barely notice.

~ it is morning. DEROS. date eligible for return from overseas. i'm returning to the World (as we call home). two of my commo mates escort me on the jeep drive from Phu Loi to Bien Hoa. joking around, roiling mixed feelings. i spend the night at the 90th replacement battalion, pretending to be hardcore for all the green troops arriving for their year in paradise. i leave vietnam at 11 p.m. on 8 march 1968, and 24 hours later, after fueling stops in japan and alaska, arrive at travis air force base in california at 11 p.m. on 8 march 1968 -- a beam-me-up trick caused by crossing the international dateline eastbound. a few hours of out-processing and i'm set loose from oakland army base, honorable discharge papers in hand. no decompression, no counseling, no preparation for the jolting culture shock to come.

but that's another story.

epilogue: here's a link to a NYTimes article on Veterans Day, as it is observed both here and in other countries. (i've carried a buddy poppy attached to the rear view mirror of any vehicle i've owned, all my adult life.)


if you know a veteran, please tell him/her "thank you". many of us never heard the words.

09 November 2008


as the presidential election results continue to resonate, spreading ripples of speculation and discussion, one fact remains remarkable to me. barack obama's winning majority was evenly distributed among nearly all voting groups -- whites, blacks, latinos, democrats, republicans, older voters, younger voters, gays, straights, men, women. about the only group he didn't fully penetrate (no surprise here) was unreconstructed white southern conservative males. if one looks at a map of the shift by voters toward democratic candidates nationally (see http://elections.nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html and click on the "voting shifts" tab), most of the nation reflects this change. except the bible belt, where red persists. i have a feeling that over time, these folks too will be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. or failing that, they may disappear through attrition.

i digress. the numbers tell the story. obama, 364 electoral votes. mccain, 162 electoral votes. undecided, 12.

in actual voter numbers, obama, 65,431,995. mccain, 57,434,084. undecided, 1,159,079. (source: http://news.aol.com/elections/2008/president )

landslide? you betcha. mandate? well, yes.

as has been his pattern throughout his political career, obama appears to be acting "with all deliberate speed" in assembling his transition team, and soon his cabinet. he is drawing upon the proven talents of people he's worked with in the past, as well as upon the expertise of people who are familiar with the minefields of washington, dc, politics. in short, a coalition.

it is this which leads me to believe that neocon fears of a radical shift to the liberal left in policy and legislation, are only that: fears. my prediction is that obama will create a centrist administration which, while unmistakeably liberal in its philosophy, will seek to address the needs and desires of the populace as a whole. no small task. as abraham lincoln put it so memorably:

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." -- Lincoln's Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862.

lincoln and obama have much in common: both represented the great state of illinois in washington. both are guided by an evolving, far-reaching vision. both are hopeful that the better side of our natures will prevail. both have been tempered by personal adversity. both are informed by an awareness of the greater good. and both are gifted, transcendant orators. lincoln surrounded himself with a cabinet made up of allies and adversaries, both. obama appears poised to do the same.

but one can carry such parallels only so far. we live in our own times, guided by our own angels, contesting with our own demons. today, more than i have been for many years, i am hopeful of the outcome.

05 November 2008


last night (presidential election night), i wasn't able to stay up for more than the preliminary returns, since i faced an early wake-up for work. i went to bed around 8 p.m., with obama building a convincing and expected lead. but wouldn't you know, i woke up around 2 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. so i checked the tv, but election coverage had already ended. the NYTimes webpage gave me the news of obama's sweeping victory, and i was unable to fall back asleep after that.

this day has been so long in coming, on many fronts. in the more immediate context of the disgrace we charitably call the bush presidency, we've been saddled with eight years of needless war, the rape of the environment, the near destruction of the world economy, repeated injuries to our well-being and insults to our intelligence. (one might question the intelligence of an electorate that would prolong the agony for a second term, but apparently there are limits even for the party faithful, given how deeply bush's approval rating has tanked.)

throughout the primaries and the campaign, obama held a steady course, never lost his cool or his focus. he appears to be the genuine article, someone who legitimately places the needs of ALL the people he serves (not just the richest donors) first. which is what sets true liberals apart from conservatives, in my mind. he did not stoop to the smear tactics which the republicans, and even hillary clinton a few times, employed with relish. he held the high moral ground, and persisted in his message of hope, of finding common cause, of transcendant vision. his intelligence, diligence, eloquence and strength of character will, i believe, place him alongside lincoln, fdr, and jfk among our greatest and most inspiring leaders.

in a more historic context, going back decades to the struggles of the civil rights movement, obama's ascendancy to the presidency seems more like an impossible dream come true. i am proud beyond words that i've lived to see the day when a black man or woman will take the oath of office. so many good souls fought so hard, enduring tears and bloodshed and humiliation and death, to bring this day about. it is a culmination most devoutly to be wished. and someday (sooner rather than later, now that this threshold has been crossed), when our first latino or woman or jew or asian or native american is elected, the sweetness of the moment will only be enhanced.

i wish that bobby kennedy and dr. martin luther king, jr., could have lived to see this moment in history -- a moment when the majority of voters chose a candidate based "on the content of his character, not on the color of his skin." this is a defining moment in our national story.

obama is human, therefore imperfect, and he will make mistakes. but fewer mistakes, i think, than most would. he has inherited problems vaster in scope and in number than any of his predecessors (thank you, george. thank you, dick. thank you, donald. thank you, oil barons. thank you, wall street greed merchants.). he will need a crack team to advise and assist him, not unlike the kennedy brain trust. the talent is out there. the will is there. the need is there.

barack obama, step forward and meet your constituency -- the planet. i wish you well.