Tag Archive: military life


The Temps


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHD5nd3QLTg

“Back in the U.S.S.R!”  But in my case it was “Back in the U.S. of A!”. For we were going home.  Finally and at last.

We’d moved into the “Temps” on the 5th floor of the German military (U.S. occupied) apartments that had been build for the German military back in “the War”.  These were a long string of single rooms, connected by a long hallway.  There were eight rooms on each side, each with it’s own door, and there were no doors on the end of the hallway.  They just ended there in the stairwell.  So while you were living there you were subject to have people walking through the ‘apartment’ that you lived in – whether you were taking a bath, cooking on a stove (in a separate kitchen, of course) – whatever you do.  Fortunately visitors – wanderers, actually – were rare.  Usually you’d just have a gang of kids pursuing one another – taking the forbidden fifth floor route instead of the one in the basement to cut from one long section of armored apartments to another.  We spent some time there – about one or two months, I reckon – living with those walls that sloped up (because you were near the roof) and with the dormer windows.

Gone were the apartments we had lived in below, with their long bay windows in the living room and balcony.  Man!  What can I say: those German soldiers lived nice compared to what I was used to.  And the walls – almost three foot thick, both to keep out the cold and exploding bombshells.  Everywhere: military. Everything green. O.D. was the color of my blood – or part of it.

The rest ran true red white and blue, though I had come to distrust some of the government.  I’d seen too much of it.  I’d lived under the burdens of this world.  I was looking forward to going back to the home of my childhood – if it still stood.

I’d had nightmares all my life, but I’d started to be plagued by this one.  In it I had gone back to the neighborhood, but everything had changed.  Everyone had changed in it; gone were some of the houses, and everyone would be looking at me strange.  As if I was an alien or Martian.  From another world.  Because it was another world, that rural world in Georgia, and this one . . . this all so foreign (and yet wonderfully strange; I wasn’t afraid to explore: I wanted to).  And the Army thing.

But I was ready to go. Gone past ready. It had to be November . . . that’s when dad always got his main orders (there were plenty of TDY’s, too.  And trips in the field.)  And this time we all were to go back home.

As I lay in my room staring at that sloped ceiling (when I wasn’t wandering the base, now stuck on foot, since almost everything we owned was packed up.  Luckily we were on a small one.  It was used to conduct spy missions on and over the border using Mohawks – planes like this one:

Mohawk w Electronics Pkg

They were used to spy on enemy and stuff.  I used to look at the photos some in the hangers.  There was a lot of neat stuff, but not my school.  THAT was over on/near Old Argonner, a base we used to live.  It was in Hanau, Germany, not real far (I think) from Stuttgart.  We wandered all over the place. Sometimes with the G.I.’s, sometimes in groups, sometimes with tours, often with our parents – or just alone.

We had spent a lot of time in the woods.  And in the bunkers doing military stuff.

but this last year had not been good.  First there’d been the fall of one good friend after another – falling away like leaves in the wind; there one day and gone in the next, until I was alone.  Nothing but new kids to play with; kids I didn’t wanna know.  I’d had enough. I was going home.  My last girlfriend has left 3 months ago.

I was ready, more than ready, to move on.

I’d had it with love and stuff.  I hurt inside.  I’d read a lot of grownup stuff.  I’d cruised the books in the libraries and read about everything I could get my hands on.  The administrators who gave tests all said I’d done really good, with a promising outlook.  One even called me a “lazy genius”.  I read and comprehended on a junior college level, and I wrote almost as well as I read, but I sucked in math.

I played the tuba and did art, but this year had been tough.  This year things were short – you won’t be there long enough’ – and they pulled me out some.  Early, it seems.  My heart wasn’t in it.

My heart wasn’t in anything anymore.

I felt burnt out.

And I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling and wondered, had my doubts.

Everything is about to change which I’m afraid of, but I can’t stand this death I’m in.

The snow’s started.  It’s looking gray outside.  Inside I feel . . . cool.  Waiting and ready and nervous, and listening to the voices down the hall and staring at my room, with its blood red four square tiles, separated by mortar joints.

We’ll be outta here soon.

I hope and pray.

I look around at the bare room.

Its like my life.  Barren and empty except me.

Barren and empty like me.

13.


I’ve seen the movie “Hunger Games”, me and my wife.  I wasn’t impressed.

I guess it’s hard to gain an impression of that lifestyle when you’ve lived one as a kid, courtesy of the United States Army and a few other folks.

I grew up in a wartime culture, as lot of my peers did: steeped in the consequences of Vietnam, our father’s fresh from the horror of Korea (and the PTSD symptoms that followed – at the time unrecognized, but visited upon their kids and immediate family sometimes).

I well remember the hunger games.  The real ones.  The ones that WE played – for real.

Kids, gathered or ganged, platooned or assigned, guardian and guerrilla – we came in all kinds, and all kinds of us had our own specialties.  We’d gather in squads or platoons in the woods under the guidance of some counselors, be they military men or civilian, it really didn’t matter.  I even had a Scout Master – Colonel R., from the time I was 14 or so until I grew up and went into the military myself.

We were all a bunch of Army kids – always ‘fighting’, often playing war.  Our Scouts skills consisted of learning a bunch of survival; our overseas training, even more.*

Often the ‘award’ from such a fight was a can of C-Rats – C-Rations, to you civilian folks.  The favorite was fruit cocktail, pound cake (in a can) fell behind as a distant second.

A stack of “Silver Bullets” co-offered by some counselor (gathered from us, of course!) – would be enough for a reward.

To the spoils goes the victor.

They would set the “goody” somewhere (perhaps), divide us into battle groups (divisions, platoons – squads).  Generally the ‘armies’ were divided evenly, but not always.  Sometimes the ‘smart’ kids would be given the little kids to fight with – and the other team would be a lot of big boys.

Very big boys indeed.

I remember laying curled face down in a ravine, knees against my chest as dozens of kids, charging, dove across the ravine, their heels hammering along my spine and ribs.  I served as kind of a footbridge for a lot of them, or so it seemed.  Not that I was there for that, mind you!  I was a spy, and these were my enemies.  They had come up the hill (stealthily, you know), but I had ‘a-spyed’ them, lurking through the bushes, taking little ‘rushes’ from cover to cover, and had sent my young ‘aid’ a runner, about an eight year old kid (I was 14) to go and fetch help, give warning, do something.  Assemble the troops or whatnot.  Set off the alarm.  For I wasn’t the commander – just an infiltrator into enemy territory seeking a few goals.

Often the rules were uneasy.  You were allowed to hurt other kids – but not too badly.  Nothing that needed first aid (and we’re talking here in the serious days, where a small burn or scratch would get you a look of contempt were you to bring it to their attention, much less whine about it.  Kids today are so ‘tender’ . . . but there again, I had such a high pain tolerance (gee, wonder where that came from?  LOL!)

We “played” hard for that little treat, that can of syrupy sweetness, all swathed in green . . . O.D. green, that is, the color of war and canvas.  (How I like the smell of fresh tinted canvas – that military ‘stuff’, thick, green, and sturdy . . . there’s something about it that says . . . something.  Like ‘welcome home’, somewhat . . .)

I remember (and now this was in my older days, when I was 16 and had learned a lot about survival – and torturing folks) – we caught a kid.

He was from the other team, and he knew where in these deep woods (bounded by a highway and stream on one side, a tremendous lake on the other, bordered by woods and mud, and cut-through with ravines like an old man’s face . . .)

So I had him – or rather my helpers – tie him up.

At the first they were amazed when I took his shoe laces and wrapped them tight around his thumbs.  I tied a noose-knot, one that wouldn’t come unbowed, and would tighten whenever he drew it.

And then I showed them how . . .

to tie him up (to a stump) – and then to torture him . . .

without ever leaving a mark.

(That’s kinda funny, seeing as his name INDEED was Mark; Mark T. is all I’ll say for his own protection here . . .)

He had been boggle eyed and incredulous when I had tied him by his thumbs, sneering and saying:  “I’ll get out in no time!”  He was sure of himself, and that he could break those shoe laces.

While he was struggling with his bounds, I turned to my ‘men’ and began telling them – rather, teaching them what to do.

“We’re gonna tickle him,” I said, glancing over my shoulder.  He was sweating now, and his thumbs were hurting – I could seem them turning blue.

He, overhearing that, stopped struggling (whilst I went over and loosen his thumb braces a bit there) – and laughed again.

“Tickle me?!!”  He barked a laugh again.  “That’ll never work!  You can’t hurt me, you know!  Not really.”  And he smiled with a show of self-satisfaction, and leaned back, confident.

I smiled grimly.

He knew little of what was coming.

Turning to my three or four young charges, I looked over my team and said:

“Like this.”

And we began.  We all took turns in tickling him – him bound against the rough bark of an old (and somewhat soggy) tree stump, and those kids taking turns tickling his ribs, and up under his chin – using every trick in the book, even leaves and soft branches.  We had his shoes off, so his foot soles were bared.  At first he couldn’t stop laughing.

Then he couldn’t stop crying.

Then he couldn’t stop himself from peeing himself.

While we all stood around laughing at him he gave us the information we need . . .

Such is the fate, and the victor’s spoils.

He was only a little younger than me, by a year or two.   After ‘extracting’ our information (and me having two swift young runners go back bearing the news, by different ways should one of them get caught) – we found their camp and made havoc on them, taking care not to snap any of their tent poles, but otherwise ‘destroying’ their tents, and pity he who left a bit of food laying out . . . we would take it, every last drop and crumb . . .

Hunger games.

Yeah.

I’ve played them.

.

.

*We were being ‘trained’ to be infiltrators and ‘helpful little hands’ (in some terms guerrillas) for NBC war.  Those skills included, but were not limited to, learning to fire the minigun from a Cobra’s co-pilot seat using a HUD.  Just in case too many Army pilots got wounded . . . during a nuclear war.

The Dick Knot


“It’s a dick knot,” the boy was explaining to me, swinging it in loose circles between his fingers.  Then he threw out a challenge.  “Nobody has been able to untie it.  If you can – ,” his eyes rolled towards the gray fall sky, “you’d be the very first one to do it.”

I examined the thing.  I had come across it while wandering the playground – a small one on a small base we were on.  This was the last base we would be on; after this we would be going back overseas.  Stateside. We were far from being “short” (that is with only a short time to go) but we could sense a change over the far horizon.  Only about a year left to go . . .

I sighed, taking the knot.  It was huge, the size of a soccer ball, tied in a rope which hung from a massive tree on the playground’s edge .  Facing us was a row of identical apartment buildings, each five stories tall, with identical windows, balconies, and curtains.  The upper floors were more desired, but no one wanted the top one.  That was for “transients” – people who were either coming or going – and consisted of a long hallway the two stairwells, with eighteen identical rooms with 18 identically slanted roofs.  They each had dormer windows.  There’d be a room with a stove and a W.C., but there was no way of locking the doors at the end of the hallway.  As a result kids would occasionally run through, playing chase or escaping foes while a family was cooking dinner or going about their business up there.

Around me stood the playground – one slide, two teeter-tooters, and not much else.  There was, however, the eternal jungle-gym which haunted every playground – a huge cube constructed of pipe iron, set into smaller cubes.  The ends were joined with plain crosses and fittings, and if you fell through – woe to the child who did! – you would crash through all that iron, maybe breaking a bone or your head.

There was another playground once, on another base.  The way the military constructed their toys back then – this time one took off a girl’s fingers – almost took her entire hand – chewing it up in the center pivot of a merry-go-’round they had made out of old sheet iron, a post and some fittings.

But this dick knot – I studied the knot, then looked up.  The rope was tied high on a distant branch.  Looking down, I picking at the knot.

I was about twelve and we’d already been “here” (overseas in Cold War Germany) for two years.  I was tired of moving, the constant changing of schools and ‘friends’.  I appreciated this move – we were on an air corps base now, where my dad belonged and worked.  I had just arrived this afternoon, and dark came early in late autumn.  The rope was easily an inch plus some in diameter, stiff and strong.  I fought the tag end, finding where it looped under a tight coil, and began unraveling.  It was harder than it looked.  The kid who had been encouraging me suddenly turned wandered off . . .

I stood toiling.  Below my feet was sand.   I had become used to kids wandering off – disappearing in and out of my life until it was just a blur in my head.  Not knowing, I was depressed.  I felt it, but didn’t know the word for the situation I was in.  After all, life seems ‘normal’ while you’re living it.  It isn’t until you get to the end that people tell you it wasn’t so . . .

We were on the ‘outskirts’ of the main military bases around Hanau, a region in Germany.  Isolated from the other ones by about five miles through ‘Krautland‘.  There was a shuttle bus that ran from one base to another – old civilian Bluebirds converted to military use, and our school buses in the winter.  Now I was five miles from school, and I’d have to get up even earlier to get on, whereas before I’d lived right across from the school on Old Argonner.

I looked around.  There was no one in sight.  I felt lonely, tired, and bored.  It was best to stay out of the apartment while my mom got things settled, and she’d shooed me outside, telling me “go out, explore!”.  I was beginning to make progress . . .

There was no one around me when I had begun, but after awhile a few kids came up.

“What have you done?!” one of them exclaimed, almost in horror, as the last few kinks in the knot fell away.  “You unraveled the dick knot!”  He came up and grabbed the rope from my hand, glancing between it, me and his companions.  He looked frustrated, looking up at the tree.  “Now we can’t swing on it!”

I felt confused.

“What?” I asked.

“Dumbass,” the kid said, thrusting the rope back at me.  The other two kids (there were three of them) glowered at me expressively.  “Tie it back.  TIE IT BACK!”

Somewhat alarmed, I began redoing the knot again while looking him.

“I thought – someone told me – that this knot needed undone – ,” I feebly protested.  It was going to take a little while – the knot had been huge.

“No it didn’t.  It’s for riding this thing.”  And with that he shook the rope, making my task a little bit harder.

After I’d gotten done, then he showed me how – and why it was called a “dick knot”.

“You ride it like this,” he said, grabbing the rope and jumping up, putting the large knot behind his butt.  The rope disappeared between his legs in the front.  Then he bounced against the tree – feet first – told us to stand back, and took off.

Shoving himself hard with his feet, he spun around in circles while going around the tree.  “Thunk!” – his feet came down on the trunk just as the rope got too short to support another go-around.  Then he took off again, only this time in the other direction.  Shooting past his original starting point, the rope coiling around the tree – his spinning on that knot – then his boots came down on the trunk again; the rope was all wound up, ready to go again, and he did.

“The trick is!,” he yelled as he spun around, “to come down with your feet!”  And with that he smacked his shoulder in the tree as he attempted to turn around.  He winced, fell, and stood rubbing his shoulder.  As I watched another kid got on.

“The trick is: who can get the most go-arounds while you’re going around the tree,” he said, pointing at the kid who had replaced him.  “One-two-three-four – ,” the kid smashed, back first, into the tree’s rough bark, and he groaned, falling to the ground.

“Ouch,” he said, standing up and rubbing his back.

I stood and watched for awhile.

Then after awhile, they left.

Then I tried it on my own.

It grew to be one of my most favorite things – spinning and twirling around that trunk.  I’d go for hours and hours.  I got good at it after getting busted up a few times – sometimes good! – and I’d taken my share of scrapes, bumps, and bruises – but I loved it!  The sensation of flying through the air at speed, the world whirling and spinning around you – the perfect (and careful) timing that was required.  I got to where I would win those ‘contests’ – where you had to get off if you messed up on the landing – going around and around until my audience would get tired.  I kept testing my limits – how wide I could take off, how many rolls I could complete before having to come in for a landing – until the other kids learned it was useless in challenging me.  And I’d be far off in my head – thinking about back home, thinking about the woods; the ‘games’ we played ‘playing’ war – our fears and desires and the great unknown, back home, waiting over that far horizon.

Berlin: 1972 – Behind the Red Wall


We weren’t supposed to go to Berlin.  The Army forbade it.  They were afraid due to my dad’s job and security rating the Reds might kidnap us and hold us for “intel” ransom – therefore any trip to, from, or through a Warsaw Pact country was strictly forbidden.  This held true for a lot of dependents, something we were constantly aware of.  After all, the enemy was “right over there” with their forbidden chemical weapons, atomic bombs, and engines of war.  Just as we were.  At least one base I know had atomic warheads – and in my late research I found an entry by a G.I. that confirmed it.  And I’m quite sure those were Pershing missiles I saw cruising through our neighborhoods – packed on the back of some old flatbed semis, and covered with green canvas.

But somehow my dad wrangled it – he was good at getting his way sometimes.  He held a position of mid-level power in the field where he worked, a Chief Warrant Officer – WO3 or 4, I believe.  And he was always doing things – strange things, like taking off for a week or so – or months at a time (after we’d come back to the United States) – and the oddest thing of all was how career-wise he didn’t seem to deserve it – though I suppose he did.  However, he had quite a few bad marks on his record during his first decade or so of beginning his career with the Army, including getting locked up in the psych ward on an isolated island where they kept “people like him” away from the general world.  They were often considered too violent – or messed up – to even associate with the Army.  So they kept him locked up for a year after Korea, plus he had numerous complaints and dings on his record, as well as a reputation for backstabbing and random betray (because he could, he said, explaining why he screwed over my best friend’s dad) . . .

And before I knew it I got the news, and we were on a train bound for West Berlin – “the free country” within an enemy state; an isolated segment of the country, like an infection locked within the enemy’s side – for a tourist trip.

I’ll never forget that ride . . .

The German trains were always on time, clean, and friendly.  The coaches were warm, even while the snow fell outside and our breath fogged the windows.  Sometimes when you’d go to the “W.C.” (the bathroom) when you ‘flushed’ you’d see a trapdoor open up under your turd and it would drop out on the ties flipping by – toilet paper strewn, sometimes, especially near the cities . . .

But the dining cars! – the rich thick coffee, bordering on expresso, souped up on caffeine cut with sugar (and heavy on the creamer, please!) – confined to walking the narrow isles of the train watching the landscape go by – the cold blustery winds on the platforms between trains (when there was not a ‘tube’ joining them) – cheeks red like apples while tears frosted in our eyes . . .

But this trip was a little bit different.  For one thing, we had to have our passports.  For another thing, the soldiers got on.

These were the East German soldiers – grim faced men, all of them frowning, running up and down the corridors with Uzi’s in their hands.  Their uniforms were strange to me . . .

We had come to a stop in the middle of the night.  I, asleep in my bunk, was awaken by some commotion and the lack of movement.   I could hear gruff voices in the corridor beyond the wall, and my mom sat up, looking shaken.

“It’s just the East Germans,” she said, opening the door a crack.  This was when I watched the soldiers running by.  They passed, checking the train (but mostly putting on a show, I was to later learn – to impress the Westerners with how tough they were).  They passed, and we moved on . . .

Berlin.

What can I say?  Kennedy went there – and declared himself a doughnut.  Comes from not knowing the language, I know – but when he said “Ich ist ein Berliner!” he was saying he was a doughnut – since a Berliner was a specific type of cream puffed pastry there – however, the Germans understood what he was trying to say – tthey are very good – and tolerant of our attempts at their language – and they applauded him, if not for nothing else than the fact he was trying . . .

We saw the Berlin Wall, Check Point Charlie, and the museum that was there.  There was an old car with more bullet holes than Swiss cheese, and lot of stories about people who had come over, through, or under the wall – and even more poignantly, those who didn’t make it.

I saw that wall – high, hugging a neighborhood in the distance – blank windows, all bricked up, the dragon’s teeth in the ‘no-man’s land’, curling barbed wire . . . knew there were sensors (and mines, it was rumored); there were the East German sentries staring (hard again, as usual) back at us – the curious milling civilian crowd, for the East German wall and Checkpoint Charlie were tourist checkpoints as well – places to go if you were going to see Berlin – and we did.

After that – indeed, during that trip a feeling of sympathy began growing in my heart towards these people, the East Germans across the wall.  You could see – practically smell! – how gray and hard, how restricted, regulated it was.  There were very few people, if any, that I could see.  The buildings were all either brown or grey.  There was none of the color and glamor of West Berlin.  Just what seemed a dismal dull and somewhat lifeless city ‘over there’ that the people who lived there were desperate to be rid of.  But there was nothing they could do – they were powerless – and so was I.  And so I read their stories – wished them luck, wistfully wished that I could help them . . .

and we left East Germany behind.

Tank


“Bring up Tank!  Come on, hurry up there!”

I hurried at a run, my two guys behind me, ignoring the flames running up and down my legs.  The squad leader, a youth of about fifteen, stood silhouetted in the darkness of the woods beyond which lay a street light on a road.

I was dressed in shorts – not a wise choice for this kind of mission, but it was what I had been given: shorts and a tee shirt.  My half torn old tennis shoes flopped, one sole half torn lose.  I was steaming hot yet soaked to the bone.

“Tank!  Hurry up!  We need you!”  The squad leader didn’t bother to hide his impatience to get going.

I redoubled my efforts, my girth hampering me some.  I had grown during my years here – mostly around.  The briars and nettles raked me – it was impossible to see them, except when we’d cross the occasional field under a spotlight moon half hidden most of the time by darting clouds.  It felt like it would storm again at any time.

“Where’ve you been?”, he asked, crouching as I came nearer.  A few other guys – kids my age – were crouched down around him.

“I had to pee – and we had to finish setting up the deadfall.  Remember?” I told him with a bit of anger in my voice.  We had set the latrine up as a trap – a pit someone might fall into if they came scrambling over a certain log, and if they missed that there was the deadfall to get them.  Or so we hoped.  Everyone was certain our camp would be raided again tonight; they always did, those raiders like us: other kids who were being trained in the guerrilla art-form of warfare.  But we wouldn’t be there – instead, we would be out raiding them, at their camp.  Or so we hoped.

Our fearless Leader had come up with this: the idea of an early offense, striking earlier than was anticipated, and thereby hopefully taking out their camp while they were there – beating up a few kids (maybe), striking many with the sticks we held in our hands.  Nobody was allowed to actually do anything – the use of knives or guns of any kind was strictly prohibited.  Injuries were to be kept to a minimum.  However, our boobytraps – some of those could be quite deadly, if you were foolish enough to get caught in them.

This was while we were overseas, at a camp – I don’t know, some military camp around there, over in the Eastern part of Bavaria.  We were always moving around, and this was a larger camp I’d found myself – there were plenty of amenities and plenty of woods for the G.I.’s – and us – to ‘play’ in.

“You, Tank – you take the lead,” the squad leader said, pointing his finger at me.  The other boys smiled and nodded vigorously while my heart sunk.  I hated going first sometime.  First was always a precarious position – and they were using me as their ‘Tank’ – someone to take the lead, pushing through all the nettles, briars, and bushes – busting a trail while running, not knowing when someone (or something) might take offense to your actions.  But that was what I was known for: my toughness, ability to stand pain.  I could pick a path out through the dark before I was ten and I never got lost.  If I knew where the target was (or home was) I could keep on going (albeit in a straight line) until I got there.

They depended a lot on this unfailing quality about me.  I could guide them to our campsite in the dark – and I could take them through the brush to the enemy.  (This quality was to come in quite handy – and profitably! – when I entered the Corps – escorting Marines through the brush to the theatres.)

We crept slowly up the hill – me sensing more than seeing the paths ahead.  I had been practicing my Indian walking for a long time – about two years, ever since I’d studied it at about age eleven.  My tennis shoes, worn as they were, offered a hope of feeling a branch before I crunched down on it.  I could ‘see’ in the dark rather well compared to some of my peers (a quality I regret to say has been going with age).  I was a good leader.

And I made a good tank in the woods.

Bursting forth with a run, I ran screaming and waving my club through the last dozen feet of woods.  There, in front of us (my legs still burning from the nettles) sat our startled enemy – sitting down, cans out, food half eaten by a small fire who’s light I’d seen.  Behind me, through the hole I’d carved – I’d intentionally went through the thickest set of bushes, figuring they wouldn’t set any boobytraps in there – poured the rest of my squad, the leader behind them, taking up the tail.  With a bunch of Indian screams we ran around, punching in the tents and snapping some of the poles with our clubs.  The kids, startled, jumped up screaming and ran helter-skelter through the woods – I watched as one of them got caught up in his own trap – a net that swung up from the ground and bore him aloft – all the while raising my club and screaming and shouting . . .

It was great, and it was fun

but I’ll never forget how my bare legs would burn and burn for hours to come . . . the deflation after victory, the long march back home . . .

marching through the nettles, to the place we called home
for now.

The Germans


The Germans

The first word I learned during my visit to Germany (1969-73) was “Entschuldigung”, or “Excuse me”. In a way it symbolized how I felt being among our German ‘hosts’. An intrusion, a bother; a useless gnat fluttering across their vision, whispering in their ears. The next words I learned were the ones of politeness, like “Bitte” (please) and “Dankeshern” (You’re welcome). After that the ones for ‘bathroom’ (which was more difficult; “W.C.” was the common term). I learned these were the first things one should learn when arriving in a foreign culture – the words for politenesses and requests for basic necessities required for human life.

I learned those basics and learn them quickly enough though not well. At first I was intimidated by the Germans with their gruff grunts and growling language that seemed full of hard S’s, R’s, K’s and G’s. The men seemed big and burly in their overcoats and most wore hats. The women seemed large to my ten year old eyes. The Germans kept their distance and we kept ours – for the most part. There was always some interaction – you had to. Unless you stayed on base all the time (and some Americans did, being afraid or uncomfortable around their German hosts.) And over time I found the Germans were generally friendly, helpful, and kind, albeit in a brusque kind of way, especially the older men, and they were polite, fastidious, clean and orderly – a meticulous brand of people who functioned like social robots, with a little bit of individuality hanging like fringe from the edges of a well sewn hem.

They were a strict people – not so much with us, the Americans. We were forgiven our sins since it was well known us Americans were like dumb children – but not so much with and amongst themselves. They held themselves and other Germans to a high standard of social behavior, especially the pubic ones. Everyone obeyed the rules, kept things smart and orderly, and walked fast! I learned to walk much faster than the average American. You had to do it – or get run over from behind!

Once on a business trip in the late eighties I was in a mall where I saw two teenagers horsing around rambunctiously when a little old man and woman came up to them, hunched over and frowning, and said a few hard things. The teenagers, two boys, just laughed and kept on. In a flash the woman whipped out her umbrella and began beating them right there! The two hoods scampered, stuck between the couple and a wall as the blows rained down around their head and shoulders. They did the avoidance dance, not fighting, while the old man shook his finger in time to their steps. After a moment the woman stopped and looked at them sternly while the man scolded them. They left much subdued, heads down meekly, as if recounting their sins with every step . . .

Sometimes I think it would be good if we here in America did that kind of thing for pubic good – for when their parent’s won’t teach kids proper behavior, then society should. And much better an umbrella thumping in some mall than ten years in jail – especially a German one. (I’ve heard their strict, but not bad – if you don’t mind having your civil rights violated on a daily basis if not more.)

The Germans seem to have a holiday for everything – still do, last I heard. In part this is because of their history. Compared to America, it is very long, well documented (unlike our Native Americans, who didn’t write), and complex. Each village and hamlet might have a festival based upon their traditions, and then there were the greater ones: the region and the country, and the traditional Christian ones – Christmas and Easter, especially. In one place I stayed at in 1978 they had an Asparagus Festival – and it was really fun. And like all festivals, it had a beer hall (a tent, actually) with a German oomp-pah band! It ran for a week – and I had great fun. An interesting time, to say the least (though the value of the dollar had gone down).

Their children attended school five and one half days a week, earning us American kid’s respect. Us Army kids had very little do do with the German kids, anyway. They were outside the fence – in “Krautland”, so to speak, and not on ‘American’ territory (thought the military was leasing the land). The ‘feeling’ of avoidance I think was strong on both sides. We” were the invaders; we had invaded their – the land of their parents, aunts and uncles, and rare was the German family who hadn’t lost some relatives, suffered some privations during the war. Not that I ever heard them griping. We would see the German kids from afar, even when standing right next to them. Only on the parks and their play grounds did I see them playing gleefully with their parents watching on, or walking dourly, soul-faced and somber, hands tucked behind them as they followed their parents obediently through stores and streets. Not like over here with kids running helter-skelter hither and skither here and there, yelling and wild armed waving. No, the Germans were quite a different breed.

They kept their towns orderly, their trains orderly, their buses on time, and everything well kept. Each Saturday morning like clockwork the ladies would appear – going into the cobblestone streets in front of their houses and sweeping everything – including the sidewalk. By each person taking care of their own section of land, the entire countryside was kept up – as clean as a garden it seemed. Even walking through the woods was an experience in ‘orderly’ to the point of strange. Odd stacks of wood would appear in the middle of nowhere where the citizens, going through the woods, would ‘clean them up’ by removing all the old deadwood and stacking some. Their woods were like parks there.

The Germans themselves – well, the colors were fascinating to me because it seemed everything was done in these bright primary colors – the crockery, the appliances, the toys. Tomato red, canary yellow, and sky blue. Even some of the cars seemed cartoon-like with their funny lines and bright colors. But they were fast and the Germans were good at driving them, though you would see the occasional fatal pileup or plunge in the mountains where they’d get to driving too fast for some turn. The streets in the towns – too narrow for one car, much less two – were often marked for going both ways. My dad would struggle to make a turn that only a chariot could have made; sometimes I could swear a car drove up on the side of a building to get around!

And those buildings: huge timbered frames, some overhanging the streets until the streets were practically enclosed; the strong smell of old wood and masonry, with just a touch of pine; those Alpine villages with their graceful filigrees and gold domed churches – we were constantly going places whenever we could, and I, when I owned a bike, would often go out on my own, making for the nearest bus station or train station and going “to town”, meaning the local German neighborhood or village we were in or near.

I remember one store: the Haushoff (meaning “head house”, literally translated) which was a towering department store. In it were the most amazing (to me, anyway) appliances, tiny things – washers and dryers and miniature ovens – and all the items were bright and shiny and painted in those primary colors. How many times have I wished and wondered why the American appliance market doesn’t offer more of these things – a two pants load and two shirt load washer, with a dryer to boot, that plugs up to your faucet and doesn’t take half a room. Efficient machines.

At the time I was there – “this time”, from the ages of about 11 to 13-1/2, the mark was worth a quarter, and bought a quarter’s worth of ‘stuff’. It seemed fair. Later on when I went over there to work with an engineering company for awhile (interfacing PAFACS CAD with AutoCAD ‘style’, including doing some pressure work on a special electrical vessel to be made) – the mark would buy you about ten cents worth of crap. The changes in attitude were there, too: the Americans, made poor by the devaluation of the dollar, were something to be pitied and charitied, not honored as heroes anymore. “We” had become a ‘burden’ on them; our welcome had worn out.

Yes, Germany has much changed over the years, but some things, I am sure, remain the same . . .

The Beirhall festivals being one. Beer was the most popular beverage (the water being considered untrustworthy to drink) – and is considered a ‘food’. They serve it for lunch, though nobody gets drunk. They save those occasions for their nights and their festivals. And boy! – what traditions they have!

The burning of the Heidelberg Castle was one I’ll never forget; nor a voyage down the Rhine. The endless castles and their ruins and secrets to hide. The graveyards so ancient their stones were black and ruined; the endless visages of statues with their blank eyes; cherubs and virgins carved there – frozen in time, their love never to be consummated, though their stone hearts were hard.

I remember another thing that will always stick with me, and that’s how Americans were (and still are!) prudes. The naked statues of children; the Madonna, nude – those the Americans would gasp, clutch their mouths, titter about . . . while the Germans just walked by, staring at them. I remember the bathrooms – just a wall in a park, set at an off angle to the path, where men could go to relieve themselves. Once I saw a fat German woman hike up her dress in front of me and take a squat to pee right there on the sidewalk. Stuck behind her we could do nothing but pause and wait, and then without a word she stood and walked on. Everyone ignored her, as did we – most studiously ignoring her and wondering at this kind of behavior which opened our eyes to things – and ways to behave in this country, though we didn’t go around peeing on the street. Even that was somewhat frowned upon. I gather that this was some country woman who had been suddenly overcome by the need to go. In which case in this land it was acceptable to do that. Apparently.

There were a lot of things to see and do, but the Germans – they were good. Just strange to my twelve year old eyes at the time. As I learned it all seemed normal, until I was being accepted by them – which is good.

But we always stood out – Americans always did. And it seemed no matter where we went – we did not ‘belong’ there. We were there for a reason, and that reason was leaving . . . all the time.

And so it went on . . .

A Friend Made; A Friend Lost


I guess we’ll call him “Dee.”  D.B. for short.  Something like that.

During my last year in Germany he became my best friend.

We met at a party my parents were hosting in our third floor apartment with its rectangular concrete balcony – thick walled, meant to withstand bomb blasts.  There were basements and tall concrete stairwells going up for five floors, built by our German hosts for their war and troops back in the 1940’s or so.  It was our enemies housing, meant to withstand our attack, with hidden bunkers beneath.  The most massive one was out at the airport – it was rumored to be seven levels deep, with only the first three open.  The others, it was rumored, were flooded and filled with German booby-traps and gear – including airplanes!  Imagine that – someone going down there now with an ROV, finding those old treasures of war.  The Germans were famous for their devotion to the Third Reich – and the idea of a Fourth so much they may have successfully sealed up those gasketed rooms, making them watertight for generations later . . . putting the airplanes (and their ammo, parts, and gear) with them . . . who knows?  I wish I did.  I wish I could attend an exploration there.  But you’d need the German government’s permission . . . and I doubt their going to give it.  They are for burying the past and that sort of thing.

But I’ll always wonder if those rumors were true.  It’s very hard to find out information regarding that airport – or what’s underneath.  But I know what I saw – and D.B., did too – he often accompanied me.

I first met him at that party – we were careful friends, cautiously extending our hands and shaking one another’s – three firm shakes (like you are supposed to) and releasing your grip.  He was half-Japanese and stood about half a head taller than I; narrow framed, narrow face, black framed military glasses just like his dad.  He wore his hair short, as I did mine – not too short!, mind you – for in the winter we tried to grow it long to cover our ears and the back of our neck to ward off the cold.  But he was different . . . smart, lithe, intelligent, sharp – I admired him.  And I think he must have found something to like about me.

My mom and dad had insisted we meet him and his sister.  Their parents were our ‘friend’s’ parents, and apparently we were going to become friends, too.  Whether we liked it or not.  That’s the way it went with these things.  Sometimes you had to play with a child when you did not want to – always proposed to do with something about somebodies rank and social standing.  Sometimes we just played with them because we felt sorry for them, as we did one kid in Germany.  Nobody liked him but me – and I didn’t even like him much, but I befriended him and tolerated him because he was one of the most disliked friends in Germany, and his name was Jeremy (I think).  The kids at school could not stand him because he was half-German, – but I could stand him, so I took him in.  He had to be my friend.  He had no other.  So we took him in under our wing.

He had been born in Germany (like ‘I’ was) but he had lived there a long time – up until his momma had met his dad, some G.I. down at the local bar.  He’d been taken in like a third shoe – one that didn’t fit the mold and the pattern of the family his dad was demanding at home.  He was a bit like me.

So we took him in and took him ‘home’ every once and awhile, this ‘friend’ of ours – feeling sorry for him though he was cocky as hell and wouldn’t hesitate to ask my mom for a sandwich or two from the fridge – though she kinda felt sorry for him, too, so she helped him: feeding him, tolerating him for my sake.

I didn’t like him, too, but I hung onto him for awhile . . . and then we moved and I met this other ‘friend’, the one I told you about.

D.B.

I guess I became that kind of friend to him in some ways – his best friend, but an inferior one in some ways, though he never said anything to make me feel inferior.  I know he liked me.  Perhaps it was my rough & ready attitude.  Perhaps it was because he also had been abused some by an anxious and expectant Japanese mother and a demanding fatherhood figure.  He dad certainly smacked him around some, including his mom and daughter I heard – but those were only rumors.  I know my friend sometimes came with bruises on his face . . . something I understood (although later it would break my heart to see them.)

He was smart and he was tall and he taught me a lot of things about “being human” – I, a child from the swamps and woods of the deep south – though a lot of that had disappeared as I ‘hid’ myself even further . . .

To this day I wear button up shirts because of him.  Odd the effect a friend can have all your life.  I learned to love him.  He was an athlete – agile, able to jump, whereas I had earned the nickname “Tank” because of my way through the woods and countryside when we had to get moving, or were attacking someone . . .

We hung out a LOT together; went on missions, diverted tanks, road bikes, explored hill, dale, countryside, German villages, midnight raids – you name it.  He delved into the more elegant tactics and taught me some more; I was elegant in my own way, though, and much bolder . . .

I would have done anything for him, man.  Really and absolutely.  I loved him.

And then . . .

He stopped coming over . . . stopped coming out at the owl’s hoot in the morning (something he’d shown me how to do) . . . passing me by without a word on the way to classrooms . . . team meetings, that sort of thing . . .

And then he moved.  I went over there one day, knocked on the door, and a stranger appeared.

It was done.

And the beginning of winter . . .

.

.


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* ~ an addition to this ‘story’ . . . obviously ‘switching’ from various “points-of-view” . . . last year I found out via a story my brother told me that I lost this friend due to my dad – my dad had betrayed HIS dad (my friend’s) at work, and when asked “Why?” my dad simply said: “Because I could.”   Yeah – he’s that kind of man, really . . .
     but the thing is – in those last few months, he became suddenly much more ‘distant’ – no longer coming out in the early morning to meet me, no longer answering my call.  Not a word from him during their last few weeks there – he shed me like an old skin, moving on without me – and I loved him more than earth itself.  Such is one’s fate when in the Army, and quite young . . . I was only 12 going on 13 and it hurt . . . and it wouldn’t be long before we would be moving, too – coming back here and to the neighborhood I both missed . . . and yet now feared in some dismal way, suspecting my nightmares would soon be coming true . . .

Nightmares CAN Come True


Nightmares CAN Come True

As a kid I was used to having nightmares. I had nightmares all the time. I never even knew what a ‘wish fulfillment’ dream was until I was about fourteen and read up on them – part of the psychology training that my dad was giving me.

Every dream I’ve ever had was a nightmare in some way, up until I was about forty-eight or so. Every last one featured the same old things: death, wars, loss. Loss of one’s loved ones, mostly – after I’d gotten to where I loved them. “The Boy” comes from a dream like that – and in a way you can say it really happened. A ‘life long’ dream that finally came true. I can finally love my inner child, my ‘selves’, that ‘stuff’.

But one in particular stands out. It was the first major reoccurring dream I had. I’ve had several reoccurring dreams – one three nights in a row! You know what that means: it’s supposed to come true. But it didn’t, fortunately. It was one in which I was trapped . . . in an underground stone maze with a friend, and we kept getting killed by these Spaniards dressed in ancient armor. And we’d ‘sit’ and watch our bodies decompose . . . completely down to bone – and then we’d build it back again – and the chase was one. Over and over again, on through the night . . .

I almost felt comfortable with it in the end, feeling myself die at pike’s end – sinking to the mouldering floor, my friend perhaps besides me, or sometimes fighting on . . .

We’d wander those halls, looking for a way out. And there was never one. But it was beautiful in some ways – those old mossy stones – round cutouts above to let the golden white light in, until we’d stumble across the Spaniards, or they would come pursuing us. And then the race was on.

We always lost in the end.

Three times running we had that dream – it was when I was about sixteen. Weird thing it was.

But sometimes dreams – and even nightmares – come true. I’ve had several of them.

The very first one was when I was a kid living over in Germany. We’d been there a total of two years, with another year of running from base to base – meeting kids, abandoning them – or them abandoning us as the Army orders came in; mixing with various societies and cultures . . .

It led to a lot of . . . I don’t know.

Things, I call them.

And one of them was this dream.

In it we had come back to the ‘hood – the object of my hidden desire: to be once again where my true friends did not change, where the neighborhood and everything in it would remain the same. The same dirt road with the same people living up and down it, pretty much as I had left it . . .

But I guess inside my mind ‘someone’ knew . . .

We are standing on the dirt road, looking uphill towards the horizon. It is jagged and pointed with the tops of pine trees, their individual forms hidden in darkness. Our friend comes riding down the road – and lo and behold, it’s our very best friend from when we were a child!

We open our arms to him (feeling somewhat confused now; he’s bigger and his face is broader, and he’s riding a motorcycle, not a bicycle). He stops and looks at me.

He knows who I am – but does not care. He is not the same kid anymore. He doesn’t even live here (and he won’t; they moved soon after us due to a death in their family). He stares. I say “Hey.” He says “Hey,” back.

We are two total strangers.

Same dream, different time: the houses have all changed. Some of them have been built up into huger houses. The road is paved. Everything and everyone I know is gone. Everything seems busy, the yards are all fenced. You can’t walk on the road for the traffic. Crime is high.

In every one I feel that overwhelming sense of loss. “Here” keeps on changing – and I’m sure it will (‘here’ being Germany when I was thirteen), and yet there seems so unstable in my mind . . .

Could it really be true? I started wondering. (This is “13” here.) I could feel my inner child; the inner one: Little Michael & Little Mikie – moving in me, wondering, too, at the dreams I was having.

I went and asked my dad.

He said don’t worry about them. And I didn’t. Or at least I tried not to.

A few days later – or it might have been a few weeks later – I asked my mom.

“Sure,” she said. She was in the kitchen looking around for something, I think it was lunchtime or so. “Everything changes.” She turned around looking at me directly. There was a firmness in her mouth; the lines.

“You mean it won’t all be the same?” I could hear my inner child asking me and so I asked.

“No, of course not,” she replied, turning back to the counter messing with something. There was a large transformer on the counter. It powered the skillet from the German electricity voltage, which was set too high for our appliances. It started to give a big hum. I knew if you lifted it and dropped it a bit – not much! -it would stop humming. Usually. I ignored it and turned back to my mom and my ‘stuff’.

“You know the next door neighbors have left,” she pointed out. “Their momma got remarried not long after we left. And the Smiths are here in Germany.” They were the ‘other’ military family in the hood. There were just the two of us: us and them. The rest had regular dads that came home lots of times; ours didn’t. Sometimes he’d be gone for a loonngg time and we’d have to write letters to him. Sometimes those letters took six weeks to arrive, and just as long to get back. It was the same thing ‘overseas’ – all those letters we’d written took six weeks to ‘get there’ – and get sorted out – and then another six weeks for them to be sent ‘slow ship’ back. Even airmail was slow back then. And phone home? Just forget it. One phone for thousands of people – you had to schedule that stuff.

I wondered about it, what it would be like back home – if we did come back and find it all changed. I wondered a lot as the time grew closer – as November moved in and we were in our last year and ‘stuff’. Having just lost our best friend . . .

In our mind’s eye we started seeing: this was a dream that could come true, this nightmare and ‘stuff’ – meaning the feelings and horrid emotions that went with loss, grief, anguish, loneliness – and this staring-you-in-the-face despair that no matter what you do you will flounder in loss.

And yet our inner child held onto that dream – still does; I can see it in his shining face with his memories of sunshine and running into the wind across the white sand, the cloud puffed sky blue, the sun warm on his back, and the excited calling of his friends ahead; bare feet pounding on the road . . .

He had hoped and hoped that when ‘we’ came back and he came back he could get rid of this thing: all of these ‘false feelings’ and things which did not belong in the ‘hood. That he could shed those parts; shed those feelings – go back.

But as the old saying goes: There is no going back home. It’s never the same as you left it. It always has changed – gotten smaller, or more dismal, or even more depressing. Or it may be that it’s been built up so that you can hardly recognize the thing – all the old houses may even be gone, or so built up and altered you can’t tell a thing: you have to find your address by the number, and not the appearance of the yard and house.

The house may even be gone, and you find yourself staring at an empty field – one that’s soon to become a parking lot and a shopping outlet . . .

We’ve faced those kinds of things. All too many times in our lives. Moving is good: it changes your experiences, expands your mind, develops different outlooks, understanding, and tolerance. You make new friends (but you also might lose old ones), you find new jobs, new hobbies, new occupations . . .

But meanwhile a part of you in the heart of you keeps on calling for his forgotten childhood.

The one you left behind.


Some notes here; things ‘I’ (my adult sides) find interesting.

(Part 1 of what you could call a ‘Dream Journal’. 

I know my nightmares started early with the 2nd dream I ever remember having.  I couldn’t have been more than four years old.  That’s assuming my 1st dream was a dream not a religious experience.

This dream did come true, by the way.  When we got back ALL my best friends were gone.  There remained only the four kids from ‘next door’ across the road, and one was a very young daughter who, with three rough boys around, was a tiny terror to begin with.  (She’s still quite high spirited.)  The road had been paved. No longer the sand ditches to stand in and wade during the middle of summer, pumping our legs up and down in the cool sand until we sank, knee deep in the stuff. Parents and kids would get a laugh driving by – there’d be four or five us ‘standing’ in the sand like dwarfs, smiling and waving.

All that was gone.  The PEOPLE were gone.  Our friends, the Smiths, were still overseas – and wouldn’t be back for years.  People no longer leisurely drove by and waved.  “Our House” was ‘gone‘, my parents having sold it while we were overseas – and so we moved into my molester’s house – where the septic tank had to be drained before they could use it.  When they pulled the lid it was full of pink condoms, a thick skin, so much that the sewer men were laughing and pointing and giving knowing winks to my parents.  My parents were embarrassed, and I stared out the window (to avoid the stink), also embarrassed, because I had learned about this thing, ‘condoms’, while we’d been gone, and what they were used for – and thinking about ‘him’ and what he did . . . that love, that betrayal.  And where he had gone, my best friend, his younger brother . . . the all of them.  Gone.

And the future to be was dim at best.  At times I could see it turning dark as hell.  A thunderstorm was approaching, approaching in my mind. . . .

And yes, I did see my friend – and it was almost exactly as my mind had said.  Almost down to the last detail.  Except the sky was cloudy, gray.  And he drove off . . . sputtering away, then roaring on that old dirt bike of his, engine roaring . . . I never saw him again until much, much later.

Somehow a part of my mind – I don’t know. Was it trying to prepare me for this? Warning me – or trying to warn – the inner child? (again, I am “13”, or at least a part of me is; part of the adults are doing the typing; though I’ve learned since 7th grade . . . sighing).  We had just lost our best friend; gotta girlfriend, knowing we were going to dump her in a while, within a period of a few months (overseas).  She knew it and so did I.  The relationship was formed because we were bored, I guess . . . just a last something to do, and try to assuage the hurting in my heart . . .

Yeah, I’m depressed. I (“13”) am still sorta ‘stuck’ on this thing – and “the Teen” I built with the alternate personality “The Machine” (tough armor) around him. But it kept him “too much inside” shielded against his own emotions . . .

However, that changed the day The Machine Broke Down.

I’ll save that story for another day.

Oh Say Can You See


Oh Say Can You See


I suppose most people find out they need glasses when they go to the eye doctor, but as an overseas Army brat, I didn’t see the doctors a whole lot.   The military medical establishment is set up to treat soldiers.  Dependents come second.  As a result, we didn’t go to the dentist or optometrist on a regular basis – only when and if needed.

Senses are funny things. There is no way to know for sure that you see things the same as I do – that what you call “red” is “red” to me. As a color-blind (or red cone weak) person, I’ve had a lot of reason to think about things like that – the differences in how we each perceive the world around us. For instance, what you “see” as blue I may “see” as yellow – but we’ve both learned to label that particular part of the visual spectrum “green”. I know it’s a hard thing for some folks to wrap their heads around – but after learning that certain colors are “brown” – though I may see them as green (part of that colorblind thing) – I’ve come to hold most people’s perceptions as somewhat suspect. And I suspect that how we see things differs to some degree for each of us.

Which brings me to my point. Vision is perhaps the trickiest sense of all – in part, perhaps, because we rely so heavily on it. We often assume that everyone sees things the way we see them (and not just physically, but metaphorically as well). But I was to get my first taste of just how untrue this was when I was eleven.


My dad had always wore glasses, and sometimes my mom wore them, too. As a kid I found glasses desirable – an adult apparatus, much like cigarettes, coffee, and beer. So, as a kid, I found myself wishing I had glasses, thinking they would make me that much more ‘grown up’ looking. Never mind that other kids wore glasses and it didn’t change my perception of them – I figured that having glasses of my own would “mature” me in some way. How little I knew!

I was sitting in the bedroom of our military apartment getting ready for school – the bedroom I shared with my brother – when I noticed I couldn’t read the words on a card taped on the opposite wall. A thought started tickling the back of my mind, and I asked my brother to read the card.

“Happy Birthday,” he said. I looked at the words. They were a fuzzy blob. I glanced towards the kitchen where my mom was getting our lunches ready.

“Mom!” I yelled out, already knowing what the problem was. “I think I need glasses!”

She stopped what she was doing, came in, and with a puzzled look asked why. I pointed to the card.

“He can read it,” I said, pointing at my brother. “But I can’t.”

She quickly had me look at a few other things in the room, asking me to identify them. Some I could, some I couldn’t. She frowned. I was happy. I was about to get my wish!. (Silly child!) Little did I know what my wish entailed, not truly.

A few weeks later I was tested, and it was determined that yes, I needed corrective lenses. I could have told them that. They said if I wore them consistently, perhaps in a few years I wouldn’t need glasses anymore. I was thrilled with the prospect of wearing some. But the Army wouldn’t provide glasses. That was up to my mom, so we ended up going to a German optometrist and getting my prescription filled.

I’ll never forget getting that day.

It was winter, damp and snowy outside, and the inside of the small shop was warm and humid. It felt good after walking the cobblestone streets outside where the wind blew drifting snow down the narrow roads (more like alleys). Tackling the language barrier, the optometrist and my parents fitted me with a nice pair of brown turtle shell brown glasses with lightweight plastic lenses. After checking the fit over and over, they had me get up.

I felt like I was walking on eggshells as I walked across the carpet towards the door. The world suddenly looked much different – stranger, smaller, and sharper than before. Apparently I had needed glasses for some time, and I felt dizzy as we approached the door. I was happy as a clam, proud of myself (like the little fool I was). I had finally got what I wanted after so many years.

It wasn’t until we stepped outside that I began to realize what a horrible thing this could be.

Those warm plastic lenses, hitting that cold clammy air, immediately fogged over. I couldn’t see a thing. Complaining, I turned to my mom.

“You’d better get used to it,” she warned, taking them off and showing me how to wipe them. Then she warned me in that sharp voice how to take care of them. Turns out plastic scratches quite easily. “And you’d better take care of them. You’re gonna need them for a few years.”

What a lie. I ended up ‘needing’ them for another fifteen years, up until I got “The Gift of a Lifetime”. And I hated wearing glasses. When you work sweat falls on them; in the rain everything turns to a blur. They needed constant cleaning and wiping, and if you weren’t careful, they’d get so scratched up that eventually they’d need replaced. There were a few times when they saved my eyes – keeping foreign objects away, absorbing liquids and blows – but for the most part they were just a huge pain in the ass. And now I’m needing them again – mostly for reading, though I can tell bifocals aren’t far off.

Just goes to show: be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

There’s blessings in curses, and curses in blessings, too.
And you don’t always need glasses to find how they apply to you.

G.I. Joe Scouts


G.I. Joe Scouts

I was about twelve or thirteen when I joined the Boy Scouts. My parents told me about them – they were at the JYC or whatever acronym the Army used for that thing – an Army run “Juvenile Youth Center” where bored teens could hang out. It was worse than the USO, which had fallen into hard times during that period – probably due to the Vietnam war. They had an old dinged up ping-pong table, a couple broken balls, and a paddle or two – the rubber peeling off one side like dead skin. You could hear it flapping and woofing in the wind as you swung it around, batting the beaten balls on their unpredictable trajectories and hearing their dull thumps.

And that was about it.

Us kids were generally bored. We’d seen everything. I read a LOT. We’d scouted out the hangers, hung around in the barracks, stole supplies – you name it.   And we were very good.  Not that we were ‘bad’ kids, just generally bored Army brats with too much knowledge in this world.  So when my parents approached me – practically forced me – into this group, I joined as my brother did.

We were a very small group, this “Troop” of ours.  There were only five or six kids.  They were of various ages and colors – ranging from some small ones (two little black brothers), a medium one (Latino or Hawaiian) about my age, my brother, and someone else.  Race didn’t make any difference; never did, not until the blacks taught me to hate them for a while with their hatred for the ‘white man’ (though I was only a boy at the time).  Sometimes  I still have a problem with it, but then – so do they and they caused it.  At least in me later on.

We had a lot of ‘fun’ with those guys, our G.I. Scout Masters, serving as go-to boys for their beer. They sold it in the barracks in a soda machine – just insert four quarters and you were done – and we’d dutifully trot right on back, bearing their beer. We never drank it. Though German beer was good they didn’t offer it in the machines due to the higher alcohol content – and our Scout Masters always provided the quarters. They were our masters in more than one way, and we were their sons sometime.

They didn’t act like Scout Masters, not much. Nobody wore any uniforms, took any oaths or salutes. I wouldn’t learn those until later, when I joined a real Scout Troop over ‘here’ in the United States again. They acted like a couple G.I.’s who were set on having a fun mission – that of training us kids.   It involved a lot of hiking, quite often in Volksmarching (20 kilometers or more), hard winter camping, and learning survival skills, which included learning weapons and ammo, how to set up a tent, hunt for mines.  We met in one of the underground bunkers – the first of seven  of the rumored underground levels of the base we were on, Fliegerhorst Kaserne (Flying Horse, quite literally translated). These were also the two G.I.’s who took us on trips through parts of the huge sprawling bunker – it seemed to cover acres, and was built like a rat maze with rooms. All the doors were gasketed and vented with chemical ports – small black perforated domed eyes of thickly painted steel – with big dog-legged levers that pivoting in the middle, one on top and one on the bottom. There was a firing range there as well.

We spent a lot of time identifying bullets by their remains. The G.I.’s had us doing it at an outdoor mountain range one time, digging them out of a hill bank that acted as a range backstop, identifying them by name.

“This one’s a thirty caliber, and that one’s a forty-five,” they’d explain, holding up some mushroomed piece of lead, its copper jacket all torn and mangled. You could usually tell by looking at the lands (bottom rim) of the bullet what kind of gun it came from. But sometimes the bottom would be chipped and broken and you’d find yourself digging looking for the pieces, as if there was a story to be told and here were the hidden words. And that was the truth of it sometimes. Sometimes you could tell by small arms caliber fire what kind of bullets were used, and get some idea of the strength of their weapons. They could sometimes tell you the enemy’s – or a sniper’s – direction, though you hadn’t heard where the shot came from. And sometimes, piecing them together, you would learn a little bit about yourself. How to use your own skills to find things like that – those little bits and pieces, piecing them together, and announcing:

“They shot an M-16 from that booth on automatic,” and then pointing to the little holes, be able to explain where the fire came from, where was the enemy’s last known direction when this attack took place. From that you could determine where to go next. We always found ourselves going towards the enemy’s direction so we could track them, or else back to ‘base’ to make your report and stand by for ‘more orders’. A lot of the time those ‘something else’s’ ended up being extended marches – through the snow and woods; along some busy German road in the slush and the rain, backpacks bearing down across our backs. I wished so bad for a frame; mine didn’t have one. It took a long long time, saving up a little as I did, but it was well worth it when I did. My back became hard and strong by then.

One day we were walking when we heard some small arms fire coming from our right. Looking up the mountain, we could see a narrow green swatch of ‘range’ arrowing up on the mountains.  Earlier that day we had been poking for some mines and looking for booby traps and ‘things’ – those long thin wires they would lay out on the ground where a firework would go off announcing your presence to someone and you were ‘dead’.

Filtering up through the woods we ‘took’ that range strategically (announcing ourselves and surprising some older scouts posted around) and surrounding them, went into the long lean-to that served as wet weather protection and a place to clean arms. We all stood there fidgeting around while the two scout masters met, discussed something real quick, and the boys all laid down their weapons in the pits. I was hoping and praying we were going to get to firing them – you know, shooting the still warm weapons, but we didn’t. Instead the Sargent had us move on – filing out of the building single file. Later, after a long night, we came back and dug some bullets out – again, with our fingers stiff and sore because we had to use them. No one had a shovel, which I find rather strange – not even the two G.I.’s. Or if they had one I don’t remember.

So we walked again – a long time – set up our tents and laid down inside, still on the hard packed snow in our canvas bags because it had started snowing again. We were cold, wet and shuddering, wrapped in army canvas as we tried to stay warm . . . but soon the quilted warmth of our downy “Sleeping Bag, Arctic” kicked in, and we slept in our warm cocoons, our breath frosting our mouth and nose.

It was a long night . . . and just one of many I’ve experienced in my lifetime. And some not so comfortable as that . . .

Says a lot for the places I’ve been.