12 December 2009

The Indian Chief - Part I

Dad in 1966
Me in 1966

The smell of pine trees and their fallen needles baked in the hot sun always makes me a little sick.

When I was running with a ruck sack, a rifle and sucking in red dust four platoons back, that burnt pine needle smell took me past the point of being, 'a little sick' to an anger bordering on satanic. I would kill Jesus to stop the stabbing pain in my lungs wrapped tight in that Pine Sol smell.  I knew the chest pain was really from smoking cigarettes and drinking too much on Hay Street the night before. But  I blamed the pine trees -- A useless fucking tree if ever there was one.

Eleven years prior, when I was eight, I played in the same woods the army was trying to kill me in. Just behind the duplex quarters of Hammond Hills which my mother thought were made of wax paper and toad shit.  And that's from a woman who grew up dirt poor.

As kids, we took pine tree branches and placed them in a semi-circle, shoveled dead pine needles with our hands covering  the branch skeleton in a rust colored wall. One semi-circle of dead pine needles stood against another and we fought our battles with pine cone projectiles. Meanwhile, my father baked in a record breaking heat wave in the Central Highlands with his SF camp about to be pounced on by an NVA regiment.

He would tell me, when I was home on leave, that he survived with the absolute firm knowledge no harm would come to him because, "I'm the kind of guy who never won anything." He suggested I think the same way. To do otherwise - - To think you could win the contest meant certain death. And as confusing as that was to me, at 19, something clicked and I understood.

A book was out about WW III and it explained how someone like me, a paratrooper in the infantry, would die before I ever saw the door of a C 130 somewhere over Western Germany. And while I thought of what my last moments alive would be like in a burning C-130 nose diving into the German countryside - - I never thought I would die in those peaceful woods behind the village of wax paper and toad shit. But I came close.

22 November 2009


My father and his shirtless team sergeant visit the Koreans. Vietnam 1966

A few years ago my father and I sat on my patio after dinner and discussed my job, which was and still is in sales. "I could never sell anything." he told me. He said it in a disparaging way... like sucking the words through his teeth. I knew he had visions of me in a white short sleeve button down with a navy clip on tie calling strangers on the phone and asking them for money. I mean, I have those images of me -- I don't know why he shouldn't.

But I was defensive and replied, "I couldn't sell a golf ball in a pro shop." He shot me an odd look. "Dad, all I really do is solve problems and build relationships." I added, "And I really enjoy the relationship part. Meeting someone, solving their problems and getting to know them. That's what it's about. Selling is nothing compared to the friendships I've built over years. That's why I do it."

My father nodded. "I did the same thing in the army. In Vietnam we built relationships with the people. We taught them to grow strawberries which they then sold to the army. We taught them to make clay roof tiles which later adorned officer's clubs and we helped them farm fish by providing A.I.D. Bulgar wheat as fish feed because no sane person would ever eat it."

Consequently, when the NVA put a regiment on a mountain over looking my father's small Special Force's camp, those same locals told my father what was going on with the NVA. I imagine a lot of lives were saved.

A few years later, my mother told me of a parents -teacher meeting at my first grade class at Ft Bliss. She said that while other children's work sat on their desks for their parents to inspect - - my desk was bare. "He doesn't do the work." the teacher said. "Don't get me wrong. He's just too busy talking to everyone. He loves it here. He's very social and trust me...there are kids who do their work and they don't want to be here."

Oddly enough, I fell into a line of work that's suitable for that six year old. Relationships are everything to me. It's comforting to know they were important for my father as well.

11 November 2009

The Officer & The NCO

The Major is on your left. The NCO is on the right. I worked for both of these men and they came from very different places. The Major was from New York City. Erudite and sophisticated...we both shared very close quarters for a 30 day exercise where he told me drinking stories from his college days and shared his future plans with me - - which didn't include the Army. Jump Pay: $110 a month

The Master Sergeant was from Arkansas. That unlit cigar you see never left his mouth and when added to his accent made him impossible to understand. He was the best jumpmaster I ever had and while every jump scared the shit outta me - - I always felt safe with him. He didn't have stories about college but stories were told about his dark drinking days in Vietnam and Germany which were long past. Jump Pay: $55 a month

The four years I spent in the Army do not qualify me as a veteran. With hindsight, they were some the most formative years of my life thanks to men like these and for that I owe the Army. But I also realize I was lucky and someone was watching out for me. And that's as it should be. After all, it was the family business.

25 May 2009

12 April 1966

Awards Ceremony in the Central Highlands

My father passes out awards to the top graduates of a political indoctrination class. I wonder where these men are today and what the last 43 years were like for them. These thoughts conjure up lots of others. Most not good. But today is for memories. Good and bad. It's helpful to remember all veterans and not just ours.

14 May 2009

To grandmother's house we go...

Another Polaroid. Somewhere in Arlington. Sometime in the 60's.

This picture says a lot about my sisters. And unfortunately me.

This was my paternal grandparents home in Arlington. Grandfather had retired from the Army as a Sergeant Major and was working as a civilian for the federal government. Grandmother forever influenced my politics by telling me Republicans were evil and the only hope for our country was to keep the Democrats in office. I still believe her.

My father took this picture and it may have been his last visit with his parents before leaving for Vietnam. My sisters were very close growing up. They still are. My little sister is deaf. No one is really sure when or how it happened. We know it was shortly after she was born but it took years before we knew she was deaf. We knew there was something wrong. We didn't know what. I look back at this time and remember confusion and a not too sympathetic or helpful Army. And that pretty much defines my role. Too selfish to care and too lazy to make an effort. My main concern was getting my hair to part to the right.

I treasure the memories of these visits to Arlington. It seemed normal.

13 May 2009

Army Brat Vacation

A Polaroid. Somewhere in Mexico. Sometime in the 60's.

It appears I already know the position of Parade Rest and my sister knows Attention. My other sister declines to pose due to an interest in the goat. I loved going to Mexico as a kid. The food, the people, the candy. Man, it was like a dream. We never vacationed much as a family. That was usually saved for a transfer. If we moved from Ft Sill to Ft Bragg - - that was the vacation.

There was one vacation not associated with a move. Six Flags over Georgia. My father was miserable. Rides, crowds, lines, screaming kids... leaving the, "No Sticker!" note on the car... He called it, "chicken shit." --I'm amazed he did it.

12 May 2009

The Bus Station

John Vachon's Bus depot, Washington D.C. 1951

This image never fails to stop in me in my tracks. Whatever petty thoughts I'm having run for the hills to make room in my brain and my heart for this couple. I know exactly what they're thinking. And I would love to know what happened to them because I feel like I know them. I guess in a way I do.

05 May 2009

Movin' on...

I live under a moving cloud. Never in my adult life have I ever thought I would be one place for long. There's always the knowledge - - not an idea or clue or anything else - - but the concrete knowledge I will be moving on. I'm never sure when or how or why. But I do know it'll happen. Pretty much the only constant in my life since I was 18 has been USAA.

27 April 2009

I used to know them...

The other home

Like many brats -- when it was time to settle down it was time to find someone who was settled. A good looking crowd they are. All my ex-wife's family. Third generation natives of Chicago's North Shore. The photographer announced the wife's family picture and as my new Irish Catholic relations came from every direction one guest laughed, "When does Rose Kennedy come rolling out in her wheel chair?" I thought it was hysterical. Maybe you had to be there.

I didn't think of looking for a family to go with my wife. That wasn't my intent. With hindsight it's easy to see I embraced my new wife's family and home and became a Chicagoan in short order. Much like moving in the Army - - I quickly absorbed everything in my surroundings.

I was married for 13 years to my wife and to these people. I loved them very much but after the divorce, except for four people in this picture, I never saw or heard from them again. In all fairness to them -- I never reached out. I wasn't sure how. They may feel the same way about me.

A couple of friends are going through a divorce and I always think of how sad it is to not only lose your spouse but their family as well. I lost so many friends in the Army after knowing them for a year or two. It's inconceivable to me to lose people you know for 13 years. When asked recently if I knew someone in this picture - - I said, "I used to." What an odd thing to say and yet it's the consistent theme of my life.

15 April 2009

The Living Room


My parents in the living room. I was discovering photography and this was taken by me. Some time in the 70's, somewhere in Colorado, sometime after 5PM. I remember this moment because it was repeated through most of my childhood. The old man came home, grabbed a beer and met my mother in the living room. My mother sipped a Coke and dad sipped his beer and they talked and smoked and caught up on the day that just happened.

New orders? Maybe. A promotion? Hopefully. Time out alone. Gratefully.

12 February 2009


My father inscribed the photo with the comments you see. I'm pretty sure this is how he sees life. I know I see it that way.

Look at him. That's what I call cocky. This is Korea in 1960. My father was a young lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery branch. That must have been cooler than cool in 1960. Screwing around with missiles...cutting edge stuff I imagine. Sure to give a man a sense of confidence. I am the shit.

Unfortunately, I inherited a lot of his confidence. Like anyone with lots of confidence it comes from a poor self image. Cocky people always feel like they're a screw up. They just don't want anyone finding out. That's why they're cocky. It's pretty simple.

Moving around a lot I discovered that most teachers don't like cocky kids. Especially those who show up in the dead of winter with a peeling burn from Texas. If you're different and you're cocky - - you're gonna catch some hell. I worked for a colonel in the army who said, " I'm so confused I don't know whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass." I know that has nothing to do this - - but he also told me, "You're a smart ass. It's in your walk. It's in your talk. You can't help it. Me? I like confidence. But most people don't. Remember that."

So there I am. Standing at that bar. A piece of me at least. A scared little boy puffing his chest out so the big fish don't eat him.