Friday, September 23, 2016

FORT DEVENS

Excerpted from BDUDays.


The world was defined by five long buildings all facing in towards a rectangular swath of grass sprinkled with a few large trees. Each building inhabited a side of the rectangle with one side sporting two of them. In the corner, there was another building squarer and smaller than the others.

That smaller building was the mess hall where meals were served three times daily.

This was the first battalion of the intelligence school at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

Behind this battalion was Jackson Road. In front of it was MacArthur Avenue. To one side, beyond the massive parking lot was Givry Street. Peggy Street bordered the remaining side.

Across MacArthur Avenue was battalion headquarters, basically a little office building not much bigger than a small town post office. The commanding officer at the time was Lieutenant Colonel Worth A. Sweet. His executive officer was Major Meaney.

Seriously.

Colonel Sweet looked a little like Paul Newman. He had piercing blue eyes and was not unapproachable. During a NUG (new ugly guy/new ugly girl) orientation, he said a couple times, “I wear the glove.” I have no idea what he meant by that.

Down MacArthur Ave a little further west was the movie theater and across from that the enlisted club where you could congregate for beers, loud music and be puked on by a scrawny young soldier away from home for the first time in his life. That happened to me. He was nervous that I was going to do something to him because of it. I just looked down at the vomit I was wearing, looked up at him and left the building.

Behind Charlie Company across Jackson Road was Charlie Valley. It was a small depression in the woods where MilStakes was held. These were several soldier tests that required passing in order to avoid the pain of having to retrain and retake. I assume some partying took place in Charlie Valley as well. Partying took place almost everywhere.

Across from Echo Company on the corner of Peggy and MacArthur was a snack bar. In the snack bar you could buy nachos, a pitcher of beer for $2-3, pop a quarter into the juke box and listen to John Waite sing Missing You. Or you could go into the darkened back area and play video games. The snack bar was a popular hangout for those with no bigger plans for the moment.

Fort Devens was a pretty post with well groomed grass and tall trees. If you could overlook the camouflage uniforms, the institutional barracks and barbed wire fences around the intelligence school buildings, it would be easy to imagine it as a college campus.

Compared to basic training, the atmosphere was almost that of college as well. We were stationed there to learn our MOS - the Army jobs we signed up to do. Because of the intensity of that training, some of the standard Army procedures were more relaxed. Not done away with, but easier than they could have been.

I had signed up to become a Morse code intercept and copy specialist. The Army designation for it was 05H. Even though it is a zero, five and letter H, we pronounced it as "oh five H". And that was usually slanged out as "hog". So we were "oh-five-hogs".

Prior to starting the course, we were all required to take a typing test. The testers were looking for people who had the ability to type a minimum speed with all fingers and do it correctly. Those who didn't pass the test had to take a typing course.

I was a two finger typist. Because I typed a lot of papers for college courses, I could do it quickly and accurately. So I fudged my way through the test trying to look like someone who knew how to really type. When it was over, I took a breath of relief. I had succeeded.

The first part of the course was learning how to copy Morse code on a standard keyboard and build up speed in doing so. Once we were able to copy twenty groups per minute (each group containing five characters), we were ready to move into the second phase of training which allowed us to hear code that had been transmitted in real world situations. Some of it sounded like chickens clucking, some like watery bloops. There was all manner of background noise to have to listen through to hear the code.


• • • • •

Fort Devens was about an hour away from Boston. The commuter rail which services communities northwest of that iconic city had a station in Ayer, the town right outside the gate of Ft Devens. Cab fare to the station was cheap, so many of us caught the train to Boston frequently. I eventually bought my own car and drove instead. A college friend of mine lived in Quincy, so I would often spend weekends with him.

• • • • •

There was only one field exercise the entire time I was at Fort Devens. This exercise was a requirement for graduation. It consisted of a long march across post and into the woods where we bivouacked. There was a long night of being attacked by APCs, artillery simulators, grenade simulators. Blanks were issued for the M60s and M16s we carried. A few of us from Charlie Company had to go with Echo Company on their field scenario as our graduation date preceded our own scheduled exercise. Because it was Echo’s exercise, we didn’t feel particularly compelled to join in defending the position.

So we just sat up most of the night smoking and talking while listening to the loud booms and rat-a-tat-tats taking place nearby. I heard that some from Echo were ‘captured’ and taken to a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) camp where they were abused as a form of POW training. C Co was supposed to defend the rear of Echo. Word was spread that there would probably be infiltrators through our area. While sitting against a tree in the dark of night and heat of battle, we were approached by a member of Tac Platoon.

I knew the guy, knew him immediately as one of the infiltrators. As he crouched down near us to talk and ask about defensive positions, I quietly raised my M16 and pointed it at his face. It couldn’t have been more than a foot, foot and a half from it. Then I wondered what would happen if I pulled the trigger. There was a blank adapter on the end of the rifle, but still the flash from it - who knows. He had no idea; it was that dark out. Then he took off with a loud hoot as if he had done something incredibly daring.

I never fired the weapon. Just finished smoking my cigarette and stubbed it out.

Like I said, it was Echo’s exercise.

• • • • •

There are other activities I could mention. The parties at Robbins Pond and Mirror Lake, some unit-sanctioned, others open free-for-alls. There was one such gathering set up in a field somewhere not far from the PX. Music was playing, coolers were filled with cans of beer. There were three tents erected for the occasion, for what purpose I don't know. It was a nice, sunny day out. A crowd of guys gathered around the window opening of one tent. I moseyed over to check out what they were looking at.

Inside the tent was a guy and a girl totally naked having sex. And by that, I mean they were in the doggy-style position with all the appropriate moaning sounds..There were catcalls and comments from the group watching, and I wondered about this brave, new world I had joined. Was everything going to be this wild and uninhibited?

After finishing, the girl, fully clothed, left the tent and didn't look at or speak to anyone nearby. The guy, however, emerged from the tent complaining about having an audience.


• • • • •

Because a portion of my training was self-paced and I picked it up pretty quickly, I was ready to move on to my next duty assignment a month or two sooner than what was considered normal. For that I received a letter of commendation which has long since been lost. My experience at Devens was such that I strongly considered making the Army a career.

When it was time to pass out the permanent duty assignments, we stood in formation listening as the Charlie Company First Sergeant announced names and destinations.
Since my MOS training included a Far East component, I figured I was headed to Okinawa, Japan, or maybe even Hawaii. Others called out before me were headed to locations like that and some to Augsburg, Germany.

Then the First Sergeant called my name, “Specialist Howe!”

“Yes, First Sergeant,” I responded.

“You are going to Fort Stewart, Georgia.” Then with a wry smile, he added, “Garden spot of the world.”

Something inside me thudded and I knew right then that the Army life would not be for me. I would get out after my enlistment was over.

But before I could do that, I had to make my way through Camp Swampy. Little did I realize at that moment how it would change my life forever.

But that’s a story to come yet.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Mystery of Mystery

I watched the season finale of Stranger Things on Netflix last night. This was after binge watching the majority of the show's run over the course of two days.

I had heard good things about the series so decided I'd take a peek. My interest isn't grabbed easily and not always quickly - I have shut off shows after about 10 minutes of viewing and never revisited them. But Stranger Things was sufficiently interesting to keep me going and actually desiring to see the next episode after the current was finished.

Like any learning experience, it took a while to get into the rhythm and understanding of the show. Characters have to be learned, and if they aren't strong portrayals then they aren't easy to remember. But I ended the season knowing everyone's names and what their function was in the storytelling.

The biggest strength of a good story is the mystery it constructs, building question upon question and dispensing small clues along the way. Stranger Things did this. It wasn't until the final episode that the monster was totally revealed.

It almost becomes anti-climatic to finally see the villain in any story because when flesh, mass and weight are added to the mystery, it is no longer a mystery. But, of course, any story has to eventually get to that point. It cannot remain a mystery in perpetuity.

The Stand by Stephen King was like that for me. The first half of the story was very mysterious with the pandemic outbreak, then the visions the survivors had of Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg. What were they actually being compelled to do? The first half was shrouded in questions and the doubts of the players only reinforced that. Then when they all traveled west and settled in Boulder, Colorado, the story kind of flat-lined. The final standoff with Randall Flagg was a strong point, but the select few had to leave Boulder and travel to Las Vegas to do that. And it turns out that Randall Flagg, though still imposing, had lost a bit of the mystery that made him seem like a terrible boogeyman.

Mystery is a spice.

Those who are married can remember back to the days of dating and the mystery that wove through the relationship-building process. Will she marry me? Will he agree to commit to me for life? It's all so very heady.

And a certain amount of mystery, in my opinion, is necessary for good storytelling. When the end of the story can be seen early on in the telling, then the rest of the story becomes pointless.

Stranger Things built a strong sense of enigma and wrapped it all up with a mostly satisfying finish. I say mostly because it dangled a few loose threads at the very end as a hook to a possible second season.

If it comes, I'll watch it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

This is How We Started, This is How We End

Me. My wife. A cat or two.

* * * * * *

Well, I'm on the other side of it and I don't know what to think.

Thirty-eight years ago, I bid my parents farewell and set off for college. The urge to leave, to find my future, to decide who and what I would be was strong. The thought of staying with my parents and working a full time job right after high school was a bleak one. I was ready to go.

The college I attended was two states away, so there were no regular visits with family. I went home for holidays, of course, but only one summer - the one after my freshman year. Every other summer, I stayed at the school for I had a job.

Sometimes more than one.

After college was done, I joined the Army. In 1987, I returned to my hometown with a wife and ten years worth of living away from where I was raised.


* * * * * *
 
My oldest son left for college today.

He has already lived away from home. A couple years ago, he moved into an apartment thirty or so miles away. He felt it was time to leave and there was a job which required a longer commute if he'd stayed home.

I was all for it. After all, it was time for him to leave, to find his future, to decide who and what he would be and he'd only be just a few minutes from my parents' house. The possibilities for seeing him occasionally were good, though I didn't want to overdo that. After all, he needed his adult space.

After a year of living on his own, he returned home. He had changed jobs and his new work was about fifteen miles to the north of us. So, it made sense for him to bring all his stuff back and stay with us until he figured out what he would do with regards to living space.

We didn't see him often, maybe once a week. He'd usually get home from work in the wee hours, so I only saw a closed bedroom door when I got up in the morning. Sometimes he'd stay with a friend.

But he was still here and that was really all that mattered.

Now he's gone.


* * * * * *

My youngest son moved out in January of this year, married in April and lives with his wife about fifteen miles away. They have been house searching and, for all intents and purposes, have found a place three towns over.

Probably about twice as far away as they are now. A not insurmountable distance, of course, but there's more geography between us than there had been. The quick jaunt to their apartment is being replaced with a half hour drive.

I know distance. Know it well.

The further away, the less likely the trip will be made with any frequency.


* * * * * *

Though I've grown used to my youngest being on his own, I've also grown used to having my oldest around, if not in body then at least in spirit.

He left for college today. The school is a little over two hours away.

That distance isn't insurmountable, but I know distance and likelihoods.

I brought my wife to Maine from the south. When we married, her parents were living in Hialeah, Florida. Eventually, they moved back to their homeland in North Carolina. Half a country closer than they had been, it was still a thousand miles away from us.

We saw them once a year.

I know distance.


* * * * * *

I walk around our house and wonder how my sons remember their childhoods, their home. Did it leave a positive stain on their psyches? Do their memories of it resonate?

Perhaps not as much as I would like.

When I was in my twenties, everything was about now and next, certainly not then. Those recollections would not come for another thirty years.

Life gets so busy. Reflection becomes something of an unnecessary luxury when one is building a world with a growing family. There is much to be submersed in that roots end up taking a rear seat in the theater of living.


* * * * * *

I go to my parents' house these days and it is so grandparenty there. Much like I remember when I visited my own grandparents. So many tchotchkes and trinkets and pictures. And the fragrance, oh the fragrance. Some people's homes just smell old. You know what I'm talking about.

It's an indefinable odor that is laden with decades of history and memory. A little musty, maybe. A little hairsprayie. Maybe some Old Spice. But mostly just the smell of age.

And I have to wonder if our home is like that or will become like that? Is that one of the undeniable truths of life - that our homes will start to reek of grandparentness?

That's in the future right now, I suppose, as neither of my sons are parents.


* * * * * *

In September of 2007, I wrote a poem. My sons would've been around 11-13 years old at the time. It goes like this:


A Father's Lament

They first started walking
On little wobbly legs
(Waving wild their chubby arms
Like a chicken laying eggs).
And they came to me with smiles
Stretched o'er their drooly chins.
Big proud eyes alight with glee -
They've not stopped walking since.

They just keep walking away;
I wouldn't stop them if I could.
But I want to, yeah I want to,
To keep them here for good.

The little legs are longer now,
Stronger - pushing hard.
Running wild to find the keys
To leave the house, escape the yard.
I manage still to reign them in
And trim their wings unbound
But the hill they're on goes up
While the hill I'm on goes down.

Will come a day they walk too fast
And far that I'll lose sight.
Expected, but not wanted -
It is their life, it is their right.

They just keep walking away;
I wouldn't stop them if I could.
But I want to, yeah I want to,
To keep them here for good.


I suppose that sentiment hasn't changed and might actually be stronger now.

My wife and I will get used to being empty nesters for that is the human condition. We grow used to situations. But adapting won't replace the gladness and sadness we feel at our kids moving on.

We have come full circle.

Me. My wife. A cat or two.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Vacation Contemplation

My wife and I took a vacation trip to New Jersey recently.

New Jersey.

Not my preferred destination.

And, honestly, were it not for a family gathering taking place there, I never would've gone.

It wasn't unpleasant. We stayed at Days Inn across from Fort Dix/McGuire Air Force Base. I did basic training at Fort Dix back in the 1980s. Given my desire to see old spots again, it was a little interesting. But we didn't attempt to go onto the post. Had we been there a few more days, I maybe would have tried to find out if it was possible. But neither my wife nor I are retired veterans, so we don't have an ID higher than my VA card which wouldn't be enough to allow access.

Being across the street from the military installation meant we had to listen to a myriad of aircraft taking off, landing, revving their engines. It got quite loud at times.

We were also treated to the sound of Taps being broadcast from loudspeakers every night at 10:00.

The Days Inn is located in Wrightstown. I had heard of Wrightstown back when I was in basic, but never saw it as we weren't allowed off post. My first impression of the town was that there are a lot of boarded up, empty businesses in plazas that are pretty run down. I have to assume that retail doesn't fare well outside of a post that boasts of a mall to service both Army and Air Force personnel. It was a smallish mall when I did time there; I have to assume it's larger now.

My second impression is that Wrightstown is small for its location. At other posts where I have been stationed, the towns right outside the gates were pretty good sized and growing.

We ate at a couple area restaurants. One was a BBQ place and it was just okay despite its claims to having won awards. Given the lack of competition in the area, I'd say that it was much easier to win than in places like... oh, New York City or Boston.,

Another was a German restaurant, and I really enjoyed that. The decor was very cluttered with steins and dolls in all sorts of costume. The brats and sauerkraut were good as was the bread and salad. I didn't sample any of their beer.

We spent an afternoon in Bordentown which is about 20 minutes away. This is an historic town and maintains a colonial atmosphere. Thomas Paine had a house on the main street there according to a sign beside it. The business owners we chatted with were all personable.

 Cookstown, where my wife's cousin lives and was the center of family activity, was only about 2 miles from our motel. The drive there, once you get beyond the security fence around Fort Dix, is pastoral with fields and white fences. There is a well kept park with a gazebo in the middle of Cookstown. There is no business district, just a few small establishments here and there. For grocery shopping, one has to drive about 15 miles. It seems like everything is about 15 miles away from where we were at any given time.

We did take a drive up the road to New Egypt where there is more of a business presence. I had all the tires replaced on our RAV4 when I noticed one was worn quite badly. Since the vehicle is 4-wheel drive and the tires it had were no longer available, I had to go with a new set. This service was done at GW Tire Service on Cookstown New Egypt Road. The people there were friendly as well.

It was surprising to me how many wineries are in that part of the country. I had never envisioned New Jersey as a producer of anything but chemicals, mafia and gambling. But we passed by a few without stopping in.

The family gathering was nice. It was a reunion of sorts. I finally got to meet one of my wife's cousins for the first time. This after being with her for over 30 years.

All in all, it was a good trip. But I was glad to get home and had no post-vacation blues.

Now, two weeks after, I find myself still thinking about the trip.

It's not that I want to go back. After all, New Jersey is still not my preferred destination.

But at least it was away from work.

And that's always good.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Nose Doesn't Know....

I am not a drinker.

Well, maybe an occasional beer, but my real drinking days are far behind me.

I've never liked wine or hard liquors with the exception of gin and brandy. Back in college, I did find a taste for Yukon Jack, but didn't drink much of it.

When we drank, whether it was in college or the Army, it was for the alcohol.

Obviously.

And it was never expensive stuff.

I always assumed I didn't like wine or liquor simply because I never had anything that cost more than $6 a bottle. I mean, to get to the connoisseur level, you have to plunk down a lot of money, right?

The last few years, I've spent more time with family members who drink. The evolution of this situation would take too much explanation, but suffice it to say that the lack of time previously had nothing to do with animosity. Just distance.

These family members have some interesting liquors and wines. Some are quite expensive.

So any time I was asked if I would like a glass of something, I would indicate that a full glass wasn't necessary, but enough for a taste would be welcome.

With this, I have tasted moonshine, an expensive Italian wine and Johnnie Walker Blue scotch.

The moonshine was actually a homemade concoction my wife's uncle bought from a fellow who had a still. It was pure jet fuel. After the sip, I believe I commented that it tasted like a hangover in a jar. One taste was quite enough. That was a few years ago.

Recently, I tried the wine and scotch.

I can't remember the name of the wine, but I had a sip and found it to be somewhat better than I've had in the past. But it still wasn't enough of a difference to make me a convert.

The Johnnie Walker Blue is a $200 a bottle scotch. It has high praise from the alcohol reviewers in magazines and other media.

From one website I found this information.

Johnnie Walker Blue has a subtly sweet aroma with notes of bittersweet chocolate, caramelized oranges and a touch of tobacco.

The initial notes of roasted nuts and smoky chocolate are complemented by hints of rich fruits (including pears), dates, toasted bread and delicate brown spices. The finish, which is incredibly smooth, has a touch of pecan pie, milk chocolate, peppercorn and figs.


When I received the splash of JWB, I immediately sniffed it because I know that's what cultured people do. However, I sensed no hints or notes of anything but scotch. I certainly didn't notice a tobacco aroma. Maybe that description came about from people who like cigars with their scotch?

Then I took the first sip and was immediately struck by the expected jolt of alcohol flavor which mostly masked the taste of the scotch.

On the second sip, the alcohol was less obvious and I could taste the malt beverage. No roasted nuts or smoky chocolate came to mind on my perusal. Really, it was more like a little butterscotch and a little wood. That's about it.

I guess my palate isn't that refined.

Either that, or the reviewers are totally making this stuff up to obfuscate the fact that people are just drinking booze.

I can't imagine anyone drinking an alcohol-free scotch. I mean, who wants to guzzle down viscous woody butterscotch? At least not on a hot summer's day.

Nope. Fine scotch and whiskeys, not to mention rums, vodkas and so on are imbibed primarily for the feeling one gets from doing so. That's my take on all this.

The occasional beer? That's mostly to recall fun memories I had back in the day.

For the most part, I'll stick to coffee.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Traditions Come, Traditions Go

Traditions are the result of performing the same activity at the same time of year with the same or close to the same people. Traditions are basically habits imbued with a sense of family or friendship and a certain level of sentimentality. They are often warmly anticipated, though not always. Sometimes traditions are upheld through a sense of obligation.

As a kid, it was tradition for our family to go to my grandparents house for Thanksgiving and Christmas. All the families on my mother's side of the tree would gather there as well with the exception of my Aunt Barbara who lived in Ohio.

So on those two holidays, the house would be stuffed with people eating, exchanging gifts, watching football on the television. Memorable times.

Every August, my parents used to rent a cabin on Highland Lake and we spent two weeks there before returning to the school year. Those were very fine weeks of swimming, fishing, archery, exploring dirt roads on a minibike, grilling, boating and all the typical things done at camp. Memorable times as well.

Those traditions are done now, of course.

As parents, my wife and I have established some traditions with our sons as well. We have carried on the tradition of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with my parents and sisters and their families. Our summer vacation became a tradition when we would drive 1000 miles to North Carolina to spend a couple weeks with my wife's parents. Sometimes there were family reunions attended there. After her parents passed on, we still made the trip for a few years to visit with her uncle and aunt who lived in the same area. But they are in Florida now and my sons are adults, so that tradition has passed on as well.

See, the thing about traditions is some of them just end. Some kind of fade away. You will miss some and not others. Some bring fond memories and others are viewed as just something that happened.

This Memorial Day, our tradition of getting together and watching the parade in my parents' hometown may be done. My parents have gotten to the age where it is difficult for them to get out. They aren't in bad health, just old.

My sons won't be there. It used to be great fun to take them to the parade when they were children. Their cousins would be there and the people marching by, the old cars, the fire trucks, enthralled them. There were balloons, candy thrown to the kids on the sidewalk, a lot of mayhem and poorly played (but enthusiastic) music by the middle schools' marching bands.

And now, I think I can safely say that this is one tradition that has grown old. It's time to let it lapse. The small town parade in a pretty good sized city is not the spectacle it used to be when I was much much younger.

Traditions come, traditions go. And I'll gladly say goodbye to this one.

The following is a video I made of the parade in 2011.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Latest Rant

Facebook has become a vast wasteland of unfunny memes, intended-to-be-inspirational sayings, supposedly thoughtful spiritual posters, graphics with cutting statements meant to shame, links to "news" stories that slam one political side or the other, links to not-so-scientific gotchas that preach about how bad foods or vaccines are for you, defiant pablum posts intended to boost people's self-esteem (mostly directed to women it seems), various videos of kittens and puppies doing cute things, ongoing updates about the depths of depravity the world has sunk into, fraudulent give-away hoaxes, many many many "mind-blowing" something-or-others.

It has become a mindless stream of content and true "aha" moments have all but vanished.

At least people don't post pictures of their meals as much as they used to.

Uh oh, there's one.