Thursday, April 24, 2014

Goodbye, Farewell and Amen

Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Larry, Moe & Curly, Lucille Ball, Buddy Ebsen, Andy Griffith, Barbara Billingsley. Red Foxx

The screen used to be smaller. It only showed images in shades of black, white and all grades between. The sound came out of a small speaker, and you had to turn a dial to change the channel.

There was NBC, CBS, ABC and Public Broadcasting.

None of them broadcast 24 hours a day. Instead they ended the television day around midnight by playing the national anthem, usually with an American flag flapping in the breeze.

Bob Denver, Davy Jones, Bob Crane, Ross Martin, Irene Ryan, Jim Backus, Jean Stapleton, Farrah Fawcett.

Mid-1960s, color was introduced. Full, glorious technicolor, just in time to usher in the age of psychedelics. The Partridge Family, The Monkees, H.R. Pufnstuf, and the Saturday morning cartoon lineup, there was bright, vivid color splashing the screens keeping us enthralled.

Film noir in its deep black and white tones had become outdated, relegated to the old days of entertainment. And even though neo-noir carried the mantle of its predecessor, it didn't capture the classic feel of the originals instead creating its own atmosphere heavily influenced by the Cold War.

Don Knotts, Eddie Albert, James Doohan, Eva Gabor, Frances Bavier, Ernest Borgnine, Carroll O'Conner.

Sometime in the 70s, the broadcast signal stopped coming via antenna and was delivered to subscribed households through wire, into a plastic box with a row of buttons. Channel choices went through the roof from four channels to thirty. We could even watch stations from the Boston area. Our options were far greater than they had ever been.

Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Darren McGavin, Jack Lord, Dennis Weaver, Ted Knight, Sherman Helmsley.

 
The 80s saw a spate of uninteresting programming. The edgy issues-oriented comedy, the steampunk thrillers, the pioneering sci-fi, the intriguing action were all replaced with unfunny school and family scenarios and glam evening soap operas.

The one show that still had merit, though it had strayed quite a ways from its roots, M*A*S*H, bowed out in 1983 with one of the most watched series finales in history. It was a holdover from the 70s and with its closure, a golden era of television had come to an end.

Larry Linville, McLean Stevenson, Harry Morgan.

Now we are treated to vapid reality shows, raunchy sitcoms, mindless drivel and the occasional interesting show. Programs that show promise get cancelled early while the most mundane filth is renewed season after season. The golden era is far behind us reflecting the tastes of a culture that has grown cynically numb to good storytelling. Titillation is the norm, and that envelope gets pushed further and further in attempt to keep interest levels high.


Thought is out. Articulate is passe. Talent is disregarded. Symbolism is dead. All that remains is flesh. Can death be far behind?

Television is entropy.

Most people gaze neither into the past nor the future; they explore neither truth nor lies. They gaze at the television. ― Radiohead

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TDY Fort Devens

The second time through was all Bruce Springsteen.

It was the summer of 1984. Born in the USA had just been released and I, along with Jeff Healey, a hog from second platoon, had been released from Fort Stewart to attend the Electronic Warfare Operations Course (EWOC) at Fort Devens for the months of June and July.

TDY (temporary duty assignment) was something we all hoped for. The linguists in our unit often went on TDY to Egypt to work on their language skills while being immersed in a middle east culture as they trained with the Egyptian army. They also TDYed to England, and I'm not sure what they did there.

Hogs, on the other hand, didn't have the same kinds of exotic opportunities.

Glory Days

So, when I was informed that I had been chosen to go to Devens for EWOC, I was stoked. I liked Devens and it was in familiar territory, sort of my expanded home area. Plus, we'd be away from the grind that was Fort Stewart.

My partner in this, Jeff Healey (not the musician known as Jeff Healey), was from Olyphant, Pennsylvania which is very near Scranton. He and I drove to Devens in my car, a 1973 Olds Cutlass Supreme, 350 V8 with a four-barrel carburetor. Made a great rumbling growl when accelerating, but it drank gas like a lush.

It's a long drive from Georgia to Ayer, Massachusetts. As I have driven the east coast corridor too many times to count I don't recall this particular trip. Suffice it to say we arrived just fine.

We were assigned to 2nd Battalion which is next to 1st Battalion where we spent our time in AIT. The layout was similar, but it had two fewer barracks buildings. There were six or seven of us attending EWOC. One of the group was a Marine; the rest were Army.

PT was a casual exercise conducted in the morning by the ranking NCO of the group. Jeff and I asked him if it would be okay for us to run on our own since we both knew the post. He agreed it was allowable, so after we did our morning stretches and exercises, Jeff and I broke off from the group to run.

When out of sight we doubled back, hopped in my car and drove to McDonald's for breakfast.

This was a regular occurrence. No one seemed to notice or care. 2nd Battalion was very lax as it was disparate groups of soldiers with varying reasons for being there. Some were temporarily assigned like us. For others it was their permanent duty station.

Dancing in the Dark

Unlike AIT, we didn't have to march to class. We were allowed to drive our cars to the EWOC training area. We had classroom time. We had hands-on time. We learned about electronic warfare systems like the A/N TRQ-32 and A/N TLQ-17. These were systems used for communications intercept and jamming. There were others as well.

Elaine was a young woman in our class. She was blond, short, slender and slightly cute. She had a boyfriend, a Hispanic Army fellow named Laro. He was stationed elsewhere. When she tried to say his name with a bit of a tongue roll on the syllable change, it came out sounding like "Lardo." So whenever we referred to him, that's what we called him. He came to Devens for a couple days to visit her, but then had to leave.

Elaine and I were tasked to go into the TRQ-32 hut and perform the setup and operation of the equipment. There were many steps to do so, and we both got lost in the effort having only seen it done once before. The hut was dark with the only light provided by the electronic equipment. So we pushed buttons, turned dials, joked around and generally goofed off. We found a radio station and put on some music. We even danced a little.

I think I could have hooked up with her; she seemed to be sending a vibe.

But in the end I decided against it.

When we came out of the hut, others made some insinuations, but I told them nothing happened. I don't think they believed me.

I'm on Fire

This second time around, I reconnected with Sheleen. She was a Massachusetts girl I had known in college and started dating during my first tour at Devens. We had separated but resumed on my return.

I really liked Sheleen. Given my limited time this time around, I moved faster than I should have. It caused some friction, and she ended up dumping me again. I don't blame her for this. But I knew that keeping a relationship going when I went back to Georgia with her remaining in Massachusetts would be near impossible. Efficiency of communication didn't exist back then like it does now.

Long-distance relationships are dicey at best. Though I may have been able to see marriage in our future, she couldn't. at least not in that short a time.

So, I just wallowed in Springsteen and beer through the pain. It didn't last too long.

No Surrender


Our course ended with a field exercise. We spent a week in the woods of Devens rigging up a different piece of equipment every day and using it. 

The first night, we camped near a swamp. It was a hot and humid night. The air was dense with mosquitoes. We each had to do a couple hours of guard duty - the shift rotated through the week. It was difficult to sleep because of the mosquitoes. I was in my sleeping bag to fend them off my body, but that became unbearably hot. I covered my head and face with a wool blanket, but could still hear them swarming around all night. Didn't sleep a wink.

Each day we would uproot camp and move to a different spot. The last night we were there, we were situated on a hill. The night was clear, humidity low and there was a breeze blowing. Best of all, there were no mosquitoes. It felt so good that when I ended my two hour guard shift, I was reluctant to go back into the tent to sleep. I considered not waking the next guy, so I could stay up longer, but decided that probably wasn't prudent. However, I did use the time during guard duty to do a real good washup and shave out of my helmet.

The cadre of the course was planning on attacking us one night at one of our positions. We never knew when it would happen, so we had to be prepared at all times.

When it finally did come, I heard the ruckus and moved out of my tent into the woods. My tentmate was on guard duty and they took him, forced him to the ground while kneeling over him. I observed the whole thing, then stepped out from behind a tree, pointed my rifle at the sergeant who had captured my tentmate and said, "Bang, bang, Sgt. You're dead."

He said, "Oh, shit!" Then he proceeded to get on me about not firing the weapon. We had been issued blanks. When I told him I hadn't wanted to because I didn't want to have to clean it, he told me to fire it anyway. So obeying orders, I pointed the rifle into the air and emptied the magazine on full automatic.


"There," I said.

As it turned out, we didn't have to clean the weapons after all. Someone else did it.

Working on the Highway


My car was starting to lose its braking ability. I took it upon myself to try to fix the problem by locating a leak in the brake line. I removed the old, rusted line and took it to a machine shop in Ayer where they fashioned a new line for me.

When I tried to install the new line, I couldn't make the connections work. They were so rusted that the threads wouldn't join together.

So my Cutlass had no brakes and it was time to leave Fort Devens as the EWOC course had finished.

Both Jeff and I planned to take some leave after the course. He went on his way to Pennsylvania, and I decided to go ahead and drive my car back to my parents' house in Maine with no brakes. It was a two-hour drive on mostly highways, and I figured I could get by with using the emergency brakes while holding the release lever so they wouldn't lock up.

I kept a good distance from other cars on the highway and didn't speed. My plan seemed to be working well. But I had to stop for gas in New Hampshire and was cut off by a car entering the rotary near Portsmouth. I stomped the emergency brake and skidded a bit, but managed to avoid collision.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, though a bit nerve-wracking.

My Hometown


I parked my car on my parents' lawn with a For Sale sign on it. Someone eventually bought it for $250. My dad took me to Maine Mall Motors where I found a 4-speed Mazda GLC with no radio or air conditioning for about $5000. I bought it.

My leave was only for a week, and I soon found myself back on the road.

Downbound Train


My first stop was Scranton where I picked up Jeff. We drove to Fort Stewart, Georgia. Back to motor pools, field exercises and the unrelenting southern heat.

Both of my times at Fort Devens had been positive experiences. Unfortunately, the post is no longer there. It was closed in 1996 as part of the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process started in the 90s by the federal government.

The intelligence school operations from Devens were transferred to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The 10th Special Forces Group was moved to Fort Carson, Colorado.

No longer called Fort Devens, the area is now just Devens. It is an Army Reserve installation with support for FEMA operations. There is also a business park, hotel, restaurants and residential areas. A group of Devens residents have filed petition with the state of Massachusetts to become a legally incorporated town. So far that hasn't come to pass.


To this day, I kick myself for not keeping the Cutlass and trying to restore it. It is, after all, a classic. 


Now.

Now we went walking in the rain talking about the pain from the world we hid
Now there ain't nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me the way you did
Maybe you'll be out there on that road somewhere
In some bus or train traveling along
In some motel room there'll be a radio playing
And you'll hear me sing this song
Well if you do you'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between
And I'm just calling one last time not to change your mind
But just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye, Bobby Jean


©Bobby Jean by Bruce Springsteen. All rights reserved.




Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Week in the Woods

Captain Wally Dees declared Alpha Company would spend a week in the field one November, so we packed up all our necessities, hopped into our respective vehicles and caught the nearest tank trail to where we would set up for five days. Leave on a Monday morning, return back to the battalion Friday afternoon [see Friday After the Field].

We were just going out into the woods to train, which meant spending the entire time in MOPP level one and sit around listening to NCOs teach us things we already knew from having been instructed in them over and over again. Repetition is a good thing - really drives the training home, so to speak.

The command tent was erected in the center of the location and both platoons set up individual positions to either side of it. In basic training we were issued a shelter half, poles and stakes. When two shelter halves were snapped together, they created a pup tent which would be shared by two people with all their gear.

At Fort Stewart, however, we didn't do that. Instead we each set up our own "hooch". One guy erected his shelter half into sort of a lean to. I took my poncho and laid it over a rope strung between two trees, staked it down and had a makeshift tent that was open on all sides. Some people just threw their sleeping bags on top of a thin foam pad and didn't bother with overhead shelter.

I used to do that when we did desert training, rattlesnakes be damned.

The first day we were encamped, it rained.

And by rain, I mean it poured cats, dogs and kitchen sinks.

We all crowded into the command tent to ride out the storm. There would be no sitting around dozing to the drone of some sergeant talking about mission-oriented protective posture [MOPP] and atropine.

As a side note, being at MOPP level one meant we were wearing our chemical suits over our uniforms. As it can get a bit chilly in November, even in Georgia, the MOPP suits kept us warm.

Anyway, after ths storm cleared, we all emerged from the command tent to see the extent of the damage.

So much water had fallen in such a short time that it created pools all throughout the woods around us. 2nd platoon was mostly flooded out with everyone's clothes and sleeping bags getting soaked. 1st platoon fared better. The poncho shelter I created, though open on all sides, was quite low to the ground so everything under it stayed dry - even the roll of toilet paper sitting on top of my sleeping bag. My position was atop a little knoll between the two trees, and it had become something of an island to which I had to jump in order to keep my feet from getting wet.

By far, the most amazing thing we saw was that the guy who had the lean to stayed totally dry as well. The rain must have been angled such that it poured against the side of the lean to, but never into the one side completely open to the elements.

Even though half the company was waterlogged, Captain Dees stated we would remain in the field for the time intended.

And we did.

The second memorable event occurred toward the end of the training rotation.

It was evening and Cpt. Dees and SFC Brown had to go back to the battalion area to take care of some business. This left us free for a while and someone got the idea that we should ambush the CO and platoon sergeant when they returned.

There were about eight of us who got together and went up the road a ways from the company site. I radioed back to the battalion to determine an ETA for them. Then we split up and hunkered in the brush on either side of the road.

We lay there a long time fighting off clouds of mosquitoes looking for an easy lunch. Then we heard the jeep in the distance. Gathering up our M16s which were loaded with blanks, we tensed waiting for a prearranged signal to start the ambush.

When the Jeep entered the ambush zone, one of the attackers, I think it was SGT Huntley, tossed a grenade simulator in front of the vehicle. It went off
with a bright flash and loud bang. We all started firing our rifles on full automatic until the magazines were empty.

Then we ran off into the woods nearest us and circled back around to the company site. By the time we arrived, Cpt. Dees and SFC Brown were already there.

It occurred to me that our antics may have a less than pleasant response from our leader. After all, it was swift, sudden and startling.

However, Sergeant Brown had a big smile on his face as he told us his side of it.

"The captain kept telling me on the way back that all the troops had probably just stopped training altogether and went to bed. And I kept telling him, no sir. I know my troops. They are still doing training."

Cpt. Dees even took it well, laughing and saying that he had been standing in the jeep with a flashlight pointed toward the road so they wouldn't drive off it in the dark. When the grenade simulator went off, right in front of the jeep, the flash blinded him for a few minutes. And then the gunfire on top of that...

I don't know if it was actually training.

But it was certainly fun.


And the leadership thought it was good training, so no worries.

I've been part of an exercise where we were dressed down for negative training. That will be in another post.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Redundancy

Friday morning and Facebook is the same as it always is.

Norm and Cheryl are posting their inspirational quotes. Jane is posting her pictures of tropical beaches. Jim and Verne post their versions of humor. The myriad of Buzzfeed who-or-what-am-I quizzes seems to have come and gone. Chris is posting links to conservative and Calvinist articles as well as his own writings. Jon is obsessing over vernal pools and Lisa her gymnastics dance daughter.

Geri is making sure the daily lectionary reading gets seen. Michael keeps us on top of abortion, gay rights and feminist news. Keith is good for science and technology, much of which is above my head. There are Bible verses from Joleen. Some complain regularly making me think their lives are nothing but misery. Others post their current trips to wherever isn't Maine.

Party dresses for young girls, recipes for all sorts of dishes, pictures of meals prepared. Cry outs for prayer, expressions of thankfulness, political memes, links to astounding vocalizations from unlikely singers on X-Factor or The Voice.

Pastors posting what's happening at their churches. Martin posting what's happening in Israel. Shannon posting about the most recent Irish folk band to play in Florida. Fletcher is in Pakistan where he seems to be quite often. Gary is all over the globe and has pictures taken with other people wherever he is.

Updates on baby development, complaints of a long winter, hopes for coming sping.

Facebook is a flea market and its vendors sell the same trinkets day in and day out.

How many more color-saturation-enhanced-dramatic-nature-photos can we see?

How many more pithy statements on parenting or marriage can we read?

How many more cute kitten antics do we need to know about?

How many book promotions by authors on Facebook are effective?

Do we really need to see your daily workout shedule daily?

Facebook, thy name is boredom.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Rolling Thunder

Our platoon was on a field exercise in the woods of Fort Stewart. There were two types of field exercises. The first involved setting up encampment and doing regular training that was usually done repetitively back at the company. The second was an actual exercise where two forces "battle" each other through the day and night often with readiness and combat testing being conducted.

This particular exercise was the latter. It had the name of Rolling Thunder or some such thing. I don't recall those names any more, but they're usually pretty dramatic.

I was in the 2nd squad and our mission was communications jamming. To that end we had a behemoth of a vehicle called a TACJAM. It consisted of a 6-ton hut filled with electronic equipment mounted on the back of an M548 tracked vehicle. There was a retractable antenna on top of the hut which would extend about twenty feet into the air.

When TACJAM worked, it could effectively jam battlefield communications, once to the point where it was ordered shut down so the opposing forces could get in comm training during the battle. When it didn't work, it became a very unwieldy military sculpture. The main problem with TACJAM was that the electronics were powered by an onboard generator that required the M548 engine to idle at a high rpm while the mission was taking place. The M548 was an old vehicle and this put strain on the engine which already had to haul around 6 tons worth of electronics.

There were four of us on the jamming squad; Jerry Poulin, Bill Lafond, Loren Lange and me. Jerry was the squad leader being a Staff Sergeant (SSG). The rest of us were SP4s. We were deployed into the battle zone, though we weren't on the front lines. It wasn't necessary as TACJAM had sufficient power to jam at a good distance. We had pulled off one of the main roads onto a smaller road and set up TACJAM for its mission. As there wasn't much to do -  setup didn't require much effort - I took it upon myself to build a defensive position trying to dig a foxhole with an entrenching tool.

Not the easiest thing to do if you've ever used one.

With little leverage due to the short length of the entrenching tool and the fact that the ground was threaded with tree roots, I got about 2-3 feet down and quit digging. So instead of being a foxhole it was more like a cathole. We never used it as such though.

A-10s flew low overhead with a thunderous roar as the battle was carried on somewhere beyond our position. They are impressive planes, more like flying tanks than graceful fighters. Heavily armored, they are used for ground support as tank killers. They have two large engine nacelles mounted at the tail, straight wings and an automatic cannon protruding from its nose. The official name of the aircraft is the A-10 Thunderbolt, but most people referred to it as a Warthog due to its  rather ugly looks, though I thought they looked pretty formidable.

Occasionally one would fly over us just above the trees in a steep banking maneuver to return back to the field of battle. It was thrilling and chilling at the same time.

As it was growing dark and TACJAM was shut down due to mechanical issues, Sergeant Poulin said he was heading back to the platoon. For reasons I don't remember, Loren and Bill announced they were doing the same, leaving me all alone with the nonfunctioning military sculpture sitting within plain sight of the road. I was given instruction to guard it while they were gone.

As they drove off, I smoked a cigarette and figured it would be easy duty. Nothing to do really but hang out and keep an eye open for inquisitive, nocturnal creatures.

In the distance I could hear a low rumbling but didn't give it much thought until I noticed it getting louder. Tanks moving their tactical positions, I assumed.

I started getting concerned when the sound didn't abate.  Then it occurred to me that the sound was moving up the road towards me.

"Oh, damn," I thought. "It sounds like a column of tanks coming." It grew louder and louder, the ground began vibrating.

Not knowing if the tanks were friendly or foe, I began to get antsy. I was supposed to guard the useless battleship anchor beside me, but to what end? I had no firepower besides my M16. No antitank weapons, no grenades. Nothing but a rifle with blanks in it. And there was no way I was going to be captured for such a silly reason as guarding TACJAM.

I abandoned my post.

This is the first time I have admitted this anywhere. I think it could have been a court martialable offense - at least in time of real war.

But I left TACJAM and headed for the woods. The sound was almost upon the spot where TACJAM sat miserably quiet and inactive. The vibration in the ground was much more pronounced.

I got out into the woods, ready to dive more deeply into them if need arose. I was still able to observe the road through the trees, and it wasn't totally dark out yet. I waited.

It didn't take long.

And it wasn't what I expected.

Instead of a column of angry, fire-breathing, armored chariots of death intent on grabbing and sending me to some bleak gulag until I was nothing but skin and bones , there was a lone tracked vehicle making its way toward the rear.

It was an M88 Recovery Vehicle, one of the largest all weather armored recovery vehicles in service. It weighed as much as 70 tons and was driven by a 1000 horsepower diesel engine. It was designed to replace damaged parts in armored vehicles or extricate them if they became bogged down. And it wasn't at all interested in the dead TACJAM.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I came out of the woods and watched it drive by.

When the others returned from the rear, we carried on with repairs and the mission with no further issues.


And like I said, I never mentioned it to anyone.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

How I Met Her

Repost from December 2011

You always notice the newbies.

Then they get absorbed into the unit, and they may or may not become significant to you. That's the way the social order in the Army evolves. With the observation, whether loosely or tightly, of non-fraternization rules, various levels of familiarization and friendship will be made.

I certainly noticed her when she arrived. She was taller than most I had known. Her lovely hair was brown and her blue eyes were inviting pools.

Somehow, someone else noticed her before I did, and she started seeing him.

No matter. I was sort of seeing someone at the time anyway, though I really shouldn't have been.

Even so, I kept an eye on the new woman. It sort of bothered me that she was seeing the fellow from Bravo Company. I always thought that she should be hanging around with her own, and by that I meant the members of Alpha Company. But attraction doesn't know boundaries like we do. And it was an admittedly silly thought anyway.

She was in third squad. I was in second squad. In every formation, I stood in front of her. Knowing she was behind me, I acted up a little - talk about regressing back to childhood. Of course, I couldn't act up too much. After all, it was the Army and we had to follow decorum.

So, until "attention" was called, I would boisterously joke and laugh with my squadmate and roommate, Jake, with the hope she would notice my social joviality skills.

I remember offering to shine her boots for an inspection, and she took me up on it. After all, I had a pretty good gloss on my own. I think she saw that. Or maybe she just hated shining boots.

Eventually, she started eating with us now and then in the mess hall. I can't recall any of the conversations, but I was delighted and a bit nervous. It was almost like dating.

The person I was involved with was getting ready to move to California. It was a somewhat difficult time for me, but I hadn't been seeing her for long. The day she left, I went to see the newbie. By now, she wasn't a newbie anymore, and we had become casual friends.

I knocked on her door. When she answered, I said, "Emily is gone. I need a hug."

She obliged.

Hugging her felt so right. I think I told her that.

I kissed her and she kissed back. It was sweet and wonderful.

We went out on a date shortly after. I found out she had a boyfriend stationed in Panama, but she wasn't particularly committed to him.

He would come to visit her at some point during our dating which caused some issues. However, he left, and I remained.

That was over twenty-six years ago.

This December 27th, she and I celebrate our 25th anniversary.

Despite the graying hair, the bodies that aren't as firm and smooth as they once were, I still have a great desire for her. I once told her that I wanted to grow old with her.

In retrospect, my real wish would have been to remain young forever with her.