Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Meshuggah In Michigan

I grew up in Michigan. When I was 19 I joined the Army and eventually ended up in Texas. Up until a few weeks ago, I had lived in Texas most of my life. A job change brought me back to The Mitten. I now own a home not far from the one I lived in as a kid. It's been a wonderful experience; one I never thought would happen.

There are so many wonderful things about Michigan that are still the same as I remember. So many things that I missed living in Texas like Faygo pop, Vernors (which, thankfully, was often available at HEB stores in Central Texas), coney island hot dogs, cider mills, Red Wing hockey, Tigers baseball, the vast beauty of the state, TREES, and much more.

Over the past few weeks, however, I've also noticed that some things have changed. To those who have never lived outside the state, there may be no reference. To those of us who have, though, there are some things that seem just plain crazy.

I'm going to start documenting those things in a new series here on the Musings of Řehoř called "Meshuggah in Michigan." "Meshuggah" is a Yiddish word that means "crazy," and some of the things I've noticed since moving back are just plain crazy.

I hope that we can all laugh together at some of those things. I also hope that we can learn together and, maybe, change some of the really nutty things I'm seeing since moving back to this great state.

Stay tuned!


Sunday, November 09, 2014

My Memories of The Berlin Wall Coming Down

I was stationed in Augsburg, Germany in the late 1980s. The Cold War was winding down - in hindsight. It didn't seem like it at the time, but the world was getting ready to change in a big way.

From the time I stepped off the bus on my first day of Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, it was ingrained in us that the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies were the "Opposing Forces." They didn't use the word "enemy" very often, but there was no doubt that our entire training was set up for the next potential conflict: war in Europe between the countries of NATO and those of the Warsaw Pact.

The events of November 9, 1989 didn't happen all at once, though.

For several weekends before that fateful day, Germans from the east started crossing over the border for day trips into the west. The BBC, German newspapers, the "Stars and Stripes" and Armed Forces Radio (AFN) had reports of West German officials handing out West German Marks to each person coming over to help them with their shopping experiences; the East German Mark being pretty much worthless in the West. Families who hadn't seen each other in years, who were previously only allowed to get together after jumping through many hoops, were reunited. There were tears of joy and wonderment as those from the East came over to find out that those stores full of good were real and not just set up for propaganda by those in the "decadent" West.

Some enterprising East Germans brought over their Trabant cars. Those "Trabis" were terrible cars having a 2-cycle engine that ran on an gasoline and oil mix, wood floorboards that tended to rot and they were ugly. But, they were rare in the West in those days, so they were collectable. Because they were collectable, they commanded a pretty high price. $500-$1000 worth of West German currency was a princely sum in the East. At least, that was the case for the first few weeks. After a time, everyone who wanted one had one.

Then came, Thursday, November 9, 1989. My colleagues and I were working a rotating shift schedule in those days so that Thursday was one of our days off. We spent the day doing whatever 20-something men would do in a beautiful Bavarian city. That night found us at my friend John's apartment to hang out for the evening. I think we were going to stay up late and watch a hockey game on AFN Television.

There we were, sitting around watching TV when the regularly scheduled programming was interrupted for a special news announcement. The news staff from AFN started showing the scene in Berlin: Thousands of people crowding around the wall that divided Berlin for decades. In the span of a few short hours, the world changed in a big way as large chunks of the wall were taken down and removed. The words of Ronald Reagan from a few years before, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" came true. Only, it wasn't the head of the Soviet Union who tore it down; it was the divided people of Germany who decided they'd had enough and felt it was time for a change.

As we watched, AFN switched their feed to one of the German networks. My limited understanding of German was good enough to get the gist of what the announcer was saying. He didn't really say much, though, because he was choked up about what he was watching. At one point, he started sobbing and turned off the sound for a few minutes while he composed himself.

I don't remember who said it - may have been me - one of us commented, "Well, there go our jobs." The events of the day signaled the end of the Cold War, which was the end of our "Cold War" way of life and our "Cold War" jobs. In the long run, though, it was a good thing. I can't think of too many people I worked with in those days who aren't doing pretty well 25 years later.

Over the next several months, one Warsaw Pact country after another threw out the communist governments that had ruled over them since the end of WWII. There was a lot of turmoil in some of those countries, such as in the Balkan states. In others, things transitioned much more smoothly, such as with the "Velvet Divorce" of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Many of those countries now belong to NATO. Three years later, I was very privileged to have been among the first members of the U.S. Army who went to the Czech Republic to help them in their transition into NATO membership.

One of the people I worked with in those days in Augsburg shared his memories of his experience traveling to East Berlin: "You Are Now Leaving the American Sector" by Martin Kufus.

Another perspective of the fall of the Berlin Wall from a civilian point of view was shared by Danny Sullivan on his Daggle blog: My Fall Of The Berlin Wall Story.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Regarding The Detroit Lions: I Stand Corrected

I've admitted publicly that I thought The Detroit Lions were pretty much a joke team. Although they've enjoyed a tremendously loyal fan base in Detroit, they really were never more than a mediocre team, even at their best. Not long ago, they set a record for having the absolute worst season record in the National Football League.

Even reading great Lions blogs such as Ty's "The Lions In Winter" with it's great stats and commentary did little to dissuade me that any success in recent seasons was more than just a fluke.

That is, until this season.

The Lions started out going undefeated in all four preseason games. That wasn't too remarkable, they've had similar success past preseason efforts. They then went on to go 5-0 over the first games of the season, ending the season yesterday at an impressive 10-6 - and a playoff berth for the first time since 1999.

Color me impressed.

I'm not quite ready to jump back on the fan bandwagon just yet, but you can bet I'll be watching the Lions very closely as they progress through the post season.

Oh - and I extend my apologies to the Ford Family and the current staff of the Lions for my past comments. I'm very grateful to be proven wrong.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How To Spot A Bavarian

When I was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, my friends and I would often spend our off days in Munich. It was only a 40- or 60-minute train ride away and there was a lot to see and do in and around the city. One of our favorite places to stop for a meal and some beer was the world-famous Hofbräuhaus.

One Spring afternoon, my friend, Tom, and I found ourselves at the Hofbräuhaus for lunch. It was early in the day, so the place was relatively empty. We ate by ourselves at one of the large tables in the back of the large room.

As we were enjoying our meal, a man came and sat with us. He introduced himself and told us he was an air traffic controller at one of the nearby Luftwaffe bases. He spoke English a lot better than we spoke German, and we found ourselves conversing in a mish-mash of the two languages.

As a topic of conversation, he mentioned he could readily tell if people were Bavarian or not. The trick, he said, was to "Prost" when someone at the table got their beer. This meant to hold up our beer mugs and shout "Prost" or "Cheers" to the other person. If they responded in kind and "clacked" their mugs against ours, that was a sure sign they were Bavarian.

After he told us this, a couple sat at our table. They looked a little out of place, glancing about like they were somewhat nervous in an unfamiliar environment. When their beer was delivered by the server, our new friend raised his mug and shouted "Prost." Tom and I followed his lead in kind. The couple stared at us like we were from Mars.

He asked the couple where they were from. It turned out they were visiting from Frankfurt. They were certainly not Bavarian.

A little while after that couple drank their beer and left, another couple with their teenage son took sat at our table. When they got their beer, we "Prosted" them. They looked a little taken aback, lifted their mugs and said "Cheers." They weren't Bavarians, but they got the idea. They were tourists visiting from Australia.

The next group was a bunch of young-ish looking people - perhaps college age. When we "Prosted" them, they got up and moved to another table. "They are not Bavarian," our new friend told us in a confident tone. He was probably right.

We sat around and talked for quite a while before the next group sat down. It was an older gentleman with a middle aged man and woman and a couple older kids; again, maybe college age. When they got their beer, the turned to us and shouted "Prost!" We three looked at each other and smiled. Yes, here were finally some Bavarian folk spending some time at the Hofbräuhaus. Our German friend queried the man where he was from, and the man replied that they were from a nearby town and had come to Munich to shop.

Our cultural lesson for the day was learned. We now knew how to tell if someone was Bavarian.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Epic Moving Failure Story

I'm acquainted with Dan and Alison Zarrella though my association with the PubCon web marketing conference and have been following their comments on Twitter about their recent cross-country move. Today, Alison made a couple mentions of things which were damaged by the moving company they hired to tote their stuff. I tweeted back that I could certainly sympathize with her plight, given one moving experience I had which was one gigantic mess. As I tweeted certain parts of the story, I realized it certainly warranted more than just a few less-than-140-character comments. Alison agreed, so here it is in all it's insane glory.

I was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas in 1992. I'd just finished up a tour in the Middle East as part of Desert Storm with the 3rd Armored Cavalry and came down on orders for Germany. This was my first move as a married man, and also the first time my wife and son had been part of a military family move overseas. We were quite looking forward to the experience.

We lived on the bottom floor of the middle building
here on Parseval Strasse.
My orders stated there was no family housing available in Darmstadt, the city where I was ordered to go. Because of that, I went first, leaving my wife and son to wait until I could get an apartment. Of course, bureaucracies being what they are, I found on my arrival there was plenty of housing. I got a very nice apartment in a building leased by the government in the nearby town of Griesheim. It was a great location, off away from all the "Army" stuff, yet very conveniently located.

Of course, my wife and I wanted to get everyone together as quickly as possible, so then came the mad dash to get the house packed up and shipped over to Germany so my wife and son could fly over and join me.

My wife had never undertaken quite such as task as dealing with "professional" movers. On the appointed day, a legion of packers swarmed the house to wrap, box up, crate and haul off everything we owned. When they were done, there was nothing left except three suitcases full of clothes.

Items shipped in those days were divided into two categories:

  1. Hold Baggage, which consisted of things needed right after moving into a new place. This would include things like kitchenware, bedding, seasonal clothing, small appliances and stuff like that. These items were sent via air freight.
  2. Household Goods, which included furniture and other large items and things which wouldn't be needed right away. These items were crated, sent via ship and then trucked to their final destination. 
When I moved into our apartment, I got some loaner furniture from the Army and set up our home. The hold baggage arrived soon after it was shipped and things started looking more like "our place." The move was going quite smoothly up to this point, but we were soon to hit some major bumps in the road.

Namely, our hold baggage was a long time in coming. What was customarily a wait of several weeks turned into several months. Every time I called the Transportation Office to find out what was going on, I was told they couldn't find my stuff. I finally ended up contacting my Mother-in-Law who worked in the Family Travel Office at Fort Bliss to see if she could contact the right people and find our stuff.

Household Goods Crate #1
She managed to locate one of the two crates into which our things had been packed. It was sitting in a warehouse in Bremerhaven, Germany. That crate was delivered to us within a week of her tracking it down. This had our brand new kitchen table - or at least the top part of it. The legs and the hardware to put it together was missing - presumably in the other, as yet unfound, crate. 

In one box we found our television set. It was a very nice Zenith 18-inch diagonal color model. At least that's what it was before it made the trip from El Paso to Germany in a box packed with a rake and a cinder block. Yes, you read that right: the T.V. was packed in a 5-foot long box with a rake and a cinder block ... oh, and a warehouse club-sized canister of powdered drink mix. Needless to say, it wasn't in working order when it arrived. (The lady at the claims office demanded I get an estimate for repairing the TV before she would process my claim. I ended up having to take the thing to her, pieces in a box, before she would believe it was unrepairable.) Most of our dishes and glassware was broken, too. They were merely stacked in a box with no paper wrapping, padding or anything else in the way of protection.

I'm happy to report, though, that the rake was completely undamaged and the cinder block only received a few minor scratches in transit.

Believe it or not: all the stuff in our junk drawer, including the envelope we kept coupons in, was neatly wrapped in bubble wrap. All of our markers, pens and miscellaneous stuff from that drawer made the move unscathed.

Our mattresses and bed frames arrived, but no headboards. The boy's toys made it, mostly in good condition. There were other odds and ends, including my guitar which was broken even though it was in a case and packed inside another box.

Oh, and half my CD collection was also in this crate. I had them in two of those faux wood three-drawer units alphabetized by artist name. A-M made arrived, but N-Z were missing. Half my VHS movie collection was also unaccounted for. We held out hope they were in the other crate.

Household Goods Crate #2
The other crate was a long time in coming. We'd just about given up on it when I got a call at work one day with the news it had been found. It turns out this crate was on a ship which had been loaded up with supplies for the troops who were operating in Somalia at the time. The situation there caused the ship to be parked in the harbor off Mogadishu for six months. When the ship was finally released, it went on to Germany to drop off my, and presumably others', crates.

When the shipment finally arrived it was quite a welcome sight. Well, at least most of it. The packers in El Paso had been so efficient, they packed up the wastebasket from the kitchen - along with the trash inside of it. You can't imagine the small that issued forth from the box when it was unsealed. This was also carefully wrapped in bubble wrap.

The legs to the kitchen table were in the crate, but the hardware was still missing. Unfortunately, the nuts and bolts designed to hold it together were some custom made ones and irreplaceable (believe me, I tried to find some).  

Also missing were the CDs and VCR tapes along with several other high-value items. These were presumably stolen by the packers back in Texas as I later found that company lost their government contract because so many complaints were lodged against them.

In the end, I ended up with a huge mess and a check for $4500 to cover the damages. 

The Good News
When we moved back to the States, we had no damage and no loss. Even the antique china cabinet we got in Germany arrived unscathed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Free Vacation Story

As many of you know, Jen and I are big fans of Dave Ramsey. Earlier this Spring, the folks who run his web site were asking for Debt-Free Vacation stories. Here's ours ...

I wanted to visit my mom in Michigan this summer. Of course, we planned to "pay as we go." We budgeted some money for the trip and opted to drive since it would have been way too pricey to fly all three of us to fly there.

All went well as we departed in my pre-owned 2005 Ford Taurus (which, by coincidence I paid cash for just like Dave talks about in his Financial Peace University class). Jen and I and #3 son headed northeast on our 1106 mile trek.
Jen and I At Financial Peace Plaza
We spent the night in Nashville on the way. On the second day of the trip, we stopped at Financial Peace Plaza to take our picture in front of the sign. We'd have stopped in, but it was Sunday and the place was closed. No problem, we'll come back another time and visit.

Our first problem came in Sidney, Ohio. As we zipped along, I reading a book aloud and Jen driving and listening to her MP3 player, we realized we had a flat. "A mere inconvenience," we reassured ourselves as we pulled off the highway and into a gas station parking lot. We unloaded the trunk, pulled out the spare and realized we were in more trouble than we thought.

I was smart enough to have the car serviced before we left. I had my mechanic give it the once-over and make sure it was as ready as it could be. I also checked the tires, to include making sure the spare was fully inflated. What I failed to check was whether there were also a jack and lug wrench under that spare tire. It's hard to change a tire without both of those items.

Important life lesson: If you buy a used car, make sure it comes with a jack and lug wrench or negotiate a lower price accordingly.

Ah, but we have roadside assistance coverage as part of our auto policy. A quick call to the insurance company and help was on the way. I was slightly embarrassed to admit I didn't have the right tools to take care of the problem at hand, but it was better to swallow my pride a little and ask for help so we could get back on the road.

We also realized that we'd have to cover the last 200 miles or so of our journey at 50 miles per hour on that donut spare. That wasn't going to work out well. What to do to get a new tire on a Sunday afternoon in small-town Ohio? Go to Walmart! We called the local Walmart, which was only a couple miles away, and made arrangements to get a new tire. (You can read the details of that part of the trip on my other blog.)

We made it to mom's just a couple hours later than expected. No problem, since we really weren't on a schedule.

We had a great week visiting folks, eating all the Detroit delicacies not available in Texas like Coney Island hot dogs, White Castle hamburgers, breakfast at Tim Horton's and dinner at our favorite Polish restaurant. For everything we paid cash. This vacation was not going to follow us home.

After a week we left to head back to Texas. We stopped in Battle Creek to have brunch with an old friend from my Army days. We also tried to meet up with another friend in Indianapolis; but, unfortunately he had to work. Our only plan for the trip home (other than to get there safely) was to stop at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Jen and I try to make a pilgrimage at least every other year because she's a big fan.

After spending the night in Arkansas (and having dinner at quite possibly the worst Wendy's restaurant I've ever been to), we got up early and headed to Graceland. We parked, took some pictures at the gate, went through some of the gift shops and got our free poster from checking in on Foursquare. No time for tours, though, we needed to get home.

As we passed into Texas we were in the home stretch (or, at least as much a home stretch as you get driving across Texas. For those of you who've never been here, it's a BIG state). About 60 miles west of Texarkana we ran into another snag. Again, I was reading aloud and Jen was listening to her MP3 player when she noticed some white smoke coming out of the rear area of the car. Since it is an older car, it could have been anything. I suggested we stop at the next gas station to to investigate the cause.

We didn't make it.

At the very next exit, almost literally in the middle of nowhere we lost all power. We coasted off a handy exit and stopped dead. The engine was running, but there was no power to the wheels. A quick check of the dip stick confirmed my suspicions: the transmission was dead. There wasn't a drop of fluid in the thing - it was all over the road and the back of the car.

Another dilemma was at hand. A dilemma which lead to another call to our insurance company for assistance. At least this time it wasn't due to my lack of foresight in making sure we had the right tools. Given my lack of prowess with tools, I certainly wasn't going to MacGyver a solution to this problem.

A state trooper stopped to check on us and was kind enough to tell us where we were. I mean, there were no signs at all, no town, no nothing. All I was able so surmise was that we were on the westbound service road of I-30 somewhere between Texarkana and Dallas - not too exact a measurement. The insurance company was also able to get my location off my phone. Ain't technology grand?

Then we heard the peals of thunder. It hadn't rained in Texas since March and there we were in a thunderstorm. Water pelted down as the tow truck arrived. I mean, this wasn't some Spring drizzle; huge drops were falling from the sky. The driver offered us shelter in his truck as he expertly hitched up our stricken vehicle.

It was quite a sight, I'm sure. There were three adults sitting across the bench seat of the F-250 tow truck. The two who weren't driving had an adult-sized teenager sitting on their knees, his head resting in his hands with his forehead pressed against the windshield and elbows propped up on the dashboard.

We made the 15 or 20 miles to the Ford dealer in Mount Pleasant, Texas in short order. The driver dropped the car at the service department's night dropoff and then took us to an Applebee's where we could wait for Jen's sister to rescue us. Since she lives hear Austin we had to wait 5 hours for her to get there. We're very grateful she was willing to take 10 hours out of her day (and night) off to come fetch us.

The people at the Applebee's were very nice. They referred to us as "That Stranded Family" and made sure we were kept well lubricated with Cokes and Arnold Palmers and that we had enough to eat. #3 son and I played Monopoly on the iPad to pass the time while Jen read and watch some countdown program on the NFL Channel. It was a wonderful family time.

Jen's sister arrived around 10 PM. We finally got home around 3 AM. Thankfully, the next day was Independence Day so we didn't have to go to work.

When I talked to the people at the Ford dealer's service department, they told me the torque converter blew out after the main seal failed and all the transmission fluid leaked out. This pretty much confirmed what I suspected. We opted to have the entire transmission replaced with a factory rebuilt one. This made sense as we are planning to keep the car for a while.

For the cost of the transmission, I could have flown us all up to Michigan first class. Thankfully, Jen and I were in the process of saving our 4-6 months emergency fund and were able to pay cash for the transmission. The vacation was not going to follow us home! Still, it was hard to part with the money we worked hard to save. But, that's what an emergency fund is for.

All in all, though, it was still a great trip. We had fun, visited with lots of friends and family, went to see things you don't get to see here in Texas. Best of all, we won't be losing any sleep worrying about paying the bill for it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Tribute To Mark

My cousin, Mark Wheeler, passed away yesterday  at age 48 after a long fight with cancer. He is the latest victim in a line of those taken from my family by cancer. His mom passed just a month ago.

Mark was a police officer for many years with the Livonia Police Department in suburban Detroit. I think that's what he was born to do. As a kid he was always interested in law enforcement. I remember listening to his mom and my mom talking around the kitchen table once when I was quite young (maybe in junior high). She remarked how he was never much interested in sports. She related an incident to my mom where some kids from the neighborhood came to the door to see if Mark wanted to get in on a game of pickup baseball.

"No, he's watching T.V. and doesn't want to play."

"Oh, yeah, the Tigers are playing today. Is he watching the game?"

"No, he's watching 'Emergency.'"

That was Mark. When we were kids, his sister Cheryl and I sometimes would get angry at him because he was often bossy and (to us as kids) rather overbearing. Looking back on that now, I can see it's just the way he was wired. That part of his personality is what helped make him a good cop. He was a police officer, not by career but because that was what he just was. It's a kind of a zen thing which my brother-in-law Chad used to say was why he was a firefighter. Perhaps this is a common trait amongst those who aspire to public service.

Don't get me wrong, he wasn't mean or hateful. He was, however, tough and didn't tolerate nonsense very well. He was certainly a "take charge" kind of guy.

And he was good at what he did. Although we didn't keep in close touch, I did follow his career through letters and conversations with my mom and others. Although we didn't serve in the same way, I respected him greatly for being a part of a uniformed service. Police and military are somewhat similar in many ways.

Although he may not have been interested in team sports, he was an avid sportsman. He was always out hunting and fishing. I remember as a kid he and his dad used to go elk hunting in Canada. He always had a good retriever dog, too. Shadow was the one I remember most.

Once when I was home on leave while stationed in Germany with the Army, Mark and I made arrangements to have lunch with our Uncle Dennis in Downtown Detroit. Since Mark knew where we were going, he agreed to drive. I remember we were blasting down I-96 toward Detroit at a high rate of speed, Mark expertly weaving in and out of traffic. "Mark, we're going to be early, you can slow down a bit." "Hey, this is just the way I drive. Force of habit." I still chuckle at that.

Mark, you will be remembered by those who love you. Rest in peace.