Thursday, November 25, 2010

Desert Storm - Holidays

By the time 1990 rolled around, I was certainly no stranger to being away from relatives on holidays. Note, I didn't write "loved ones" or "family." Those with whom I served were often like brothers or sisters to me; and, in many cases they were (and remain) closer than family to me. Those who have served understand what I'm talking about.

Still, there is a sense of loneliness when one is separated from familiar traditions, away from those with whom one grew up. This was especially so for me as I spent those holidays in Saudi Arabia.

I don't remember if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I remember eating one holiday meal in the middle of a raging sand storm. We had goggles over our eyes and "dew rags" covering our noses and mouths as we made our way to where the mess folks were serving the turkey, ham and trimmings. I remember sitting in the large tent feeling rather glum as I ate my sandy food. It probably wasn't as bad as I remember, it being somewhat of a fleeting memory now.

One thing I do remember with great fondness is the camaraderie the twenty of us shared during our time leading up to the ground war. There were no secrets among us, as is often the case when people live together in close quarters spending just about every waking (and sleeping) moment together. We told stories about our misspent youths (some of those guys were wild men in their younger days), secrets we never told anyone else, our feelings (which is something men rarely talk about) and other things.

Our senior warrant officer pilot, who was dubbed "The Old Dog" by one of the crew chiefs, told us about some of his experiences as a CH-47 Chinook crew chief in Vietnam. They were personal, heart-felt stories about his own fears and triumphs during that time. He would often end the stories with something like, "I don't know why I'm telling you guys this, I've never told anyone about that." I think it was very good for him to get it out after so long.

I won't share any of his stories, as they are his, except for one. I remember one morning we were all discussing the great support we were getting from home. I've mentioned this a couple times in previous installments of this series. The Old Dog stopped us and related his story of returning home from Vietnam after his first tour. He told us how he landed at an Air Force base near Seattle, happy to be home and ready to be with family and friends. As he was going through the return processing, he was advised that he should change into civilian clothes before leaving the base to avoid confrontations with protesters.

He thought at the time it was their right to protest a war they found unjust, and he felt he was fighting for their right to do so. However, it was the more personal expressions of protest, the "Baby Killer" and "Murderer" signs that really hurt him. As I recall, he said he felt betrayed as the bus he was on left the base and people hurled insults, eggs and even a few rocks at the bus full of servicemen. I can't say I blame him for feeling that way.

He told us something like, "Yeah, everything is fine now. But, wait until the body bags start going home and people start getting hurt. All this support could dry up very quickly." I could sense the hurt in his voice as he related this to us. It was quite sobering. (You'll be glad to know there is a happy ending to this particular thread which I will relate in a later installment.)

To wrap things up, please remember our service men and women always - but especially during the holidays. My old unit, the 3rd ACR is in Iraq right now helping the people there establish their post-Saddam way of life. Check them out on Facebook: They're over there working hard doing things most of us wouldn't dream of doing.

This is part 8 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blue Man Group

Jen and I recently visited Las Vegas for the PubCon Web Marketing Conference. The week before, the organizer of the conference sent out a tweet telling he had some tickets to Blue Man Group for the first people to respond. I responded quickly enough and got tickets to see Blue Man Group at the Venetian Hotel.

I thought it was way cool we won the tickets, and I was happy to be able to go to the show. When we showed up at the Will Call window to collect our tickets, I checked them out. Near the top was printed "PONCHO." "What the heck does 'poncho' mean?" I asked. "Oh, you're right up front." Yes, we were in the third row and right in the middle - great seats.

The show was energetic, engaging, funny and fun. There was lots of bass and percussion music going on, but it wasn't like techno dance music. Of course, the PVC pipe instruments were played quite a bit. It wasn't all music, though; there were some quite skits where the group pulled someone out of the audience to participate.

At one point towards the end of the show, the three blue men led the entire audience in unrolling and pushing about a ton of paper from the back of the theater to the front. That was fun and quite different.

If you have a chance, check out a Blue Man Group show. They have regular shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando and they tour around the country. Check out the web site (linked above) for a schedule. It's a fun, kid-friendly show (at the Venetian venue, they even brought out booster seats for kids).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Desert Storm - THAT Day

During our time in Saudi Arabia we would, from time to time, be tasked to fly back and forth along the Saudi/Kuwait border. Although these missions became somewhat routine, they were just a little nerve wracking.

The reason they were nerve wracking was because we were flying along the border, between two opposing armies lined up, arrayed in preparation for battle. We flew over the Saudi side of the border, closer to our guys than theirs. Even so, when the pre-mission briefings included the phrase "keep an eye out the window and yell out if you see a missile headed our way" it made me just a little nervous.

This particular day started off routinely enough. My fellow crew member and I went out with the crew chief and did our part of the pre-flight maintenance check. We pulled a fuel sample, checked the mission equipment, made sure everything that was supposed to be there was there and stuff that wasn't supposed to be there wasn't.

On this particular day, the crew chief didn't fly the mission with us, so I took the role of standing outside while the pilots started the engines. This was always interesting to me. One of the crew members would stand outside with a little fire extinguisher and watch to make sure nothing was blocking the engine intakes while the engines started and ran up. What was with that little fire extinguisher? That was the question. I guess if something really went bad we could put out the fire on one person. I often thought one of those gigantic extinguishers with wheels would be more appropriate to have handy if there ever was a real fire. Thankfully that never happened.

We started up, took off and flew to the Regimental Headquarters to get the mission briefing. Our mission was to fly back and forth along the border for four hours. We went out to the helipad, fired up the bird and took off to do the mission.

Two things went wrong right away. First, I forgot the chock blocks on the helipad. I was supposed to grab them and put them on the floor behind my seat when I got in when the engines were started up and we were ready to go. It wasn't a terrible mistake since we would return there when our mission was complete, but it wasn't good. I didn't pay attention to detail - and it was rather embarrassing to have the folks tasking us to do the mission call to tell me I forgot them. Thankfully I had a radio in the back so the pilots didn't hear about it when they called.

Second the local Stinger team decided to use us to test their equipment. A Stinger was a small, vehicle mounted or shoulder fired antiaircraft missile. There were a few Stinger teams assigned to the regiment to protect against any enemy aircraft which might happen by.

I'm sure they didn't think they were doing anything wrong when they turned on their tracking devices and lit up the cockpit warning panel. The Scounger was the Pilot on Command on that mission. He started yelling and cussing over the intercom and hollered at me to call back to the headquarters and tell the Stinger guys to cut it out. He rarely raised his voice under normal circumstances, so I could tell he was very angry about it.

Off we went to the border and started flying back and forth. Normally, on this type of mission, we would fly along a preplanned path in more or less a straight line, turn around and follow basically the same path back and turn around again. The pilots called this flying "idiot circles."

During this particular mission, about an hour into it and just a little bit before we came to the turn around point, the aircraft dumped over to the left and we started spiraling downward very rapidly. Now, sometimes the pilots got a little bored doing "idiot circles" and would do some fun maneuvers while turning around. Part of me thought that was why we were dropping and spinning, but part of me thought something else was up.

My fellow crew member, Tom, liked the more, shall we say, aerobatic maneuvers. While we were spinning and diving, I could hear him yelling at the top of his voice "YEAH! GET SOME!" He was yelling so loud I could hear him over all the noise in the aircraft - and that was pretty loud.

We leveled off and flew straight for just a few seconds and then we dumped over to the right and started diving and spinning again. This time the thoughts that something wasn't quite right started winning out over the thoughts that the pilots were merely bored. Those thoughts were confirmed when the copilot, "Digger," came over the intercom in a very calm and level voice: "Hey guys. In case you're wondering why we're doing this. We got a missile warning and we're trying to shake it."

The first thing through my mind after he said that was, "Hey, don't stop on my account!"

Looking back on it, what really gets me is Digger's calm and cool tone. This was, obviously, a very stressful situation and he sounded as cool and collected as if we were sitting around and talking about the weather.

The Scrounger, however, didn't take it so calmly. Once we got close to the ground, we started heading back to the Regimental Headquarters. He came over the intercom cussing and swearing again telling us we were headed home for the day. I can't say I blame him too much. By this time I pretty much had it that day myself.

When we got the the headquarters we went in to talk to the people they wondered and why we came home early. After we explained to them what happened they seemed to understand and let us be done for the day. We headed back to the airfield without further incident.

It was THAT kind of day.

This is part 7 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why It's Movember To Me

This past weekend a coworker passed away. For a year I have been following her valiant struggle against cancer through the group her close friends set up on Facebook. They chronicled her story. They started with some of her treatments, her participation in the Pink Heals Tour, through the ups and downs she went through, all the way through the funeral today. Another youthful life snatched away by the evil that is cancer.
Right now I have two aunts fighting breast and lung cancer, a cousin fighting lung cancer, my dad fought prostate cancer, numerous friends are fighting or have fought off cancers of various kinds. I've lost a grandmother, an uncle and a more than a few friends to this scourge.

That's why I'm raising funds during the month now known as Movember, to help the Movember Foundation fund organizations such as the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Lance ArmstrongsLIVESTRONG so they can continue their work in helping educate and research in the fight against cancer.

Please go to my Movember Mo Space page and donate a buck or two or five or a hundred. It goes to a good cause in helping fight against cancer.

If you're in Michigan, please also consider dropping by and donating a buck or two to my friend Scott's Southwest Michigan Movember team. This is his first year joining in and I'd like to see his team do well, too.
Check back throughout Movember and I'll post pics of my mustachioed self.

This post is cross-posted on my other blog The Crossing of Marketing and IT.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bavarian Dream Vacation - Day 3, Augsburg

This is part 3 of a series. Check out Part 1 and Part 2

For reference, here's the map:

View Bavaria Things To See in a larger map

Day 3 - Augsburg
Most people I know who travel to Germany hit the larger cities and the popular tourist spots. One place which is often overlooked is the beautiful, ancient city of Augsburg. Founded by Caesar Augustus over 2000 years ago, Augsburg has been an important central stop on major trade routes since that time. There are many interesting and historic sites to see there. Augsburg is a convenient day trip from Munich, being only about an hour one-way by train from the Munich Main Tran Station. Ask about special one-day round trip fares (Sonderrueckfahrkarte) when you purchase your tickets.

I have to add a little disclaimer here - one of the reasons I love Augsburg so much is because I lived there for three years. I know it rather well and it holds a special place in me. With that, here are my must-see suggestions for Augsburg:
  • Transportation Around Augsburg - From the Augsburg Hauptbahnhof, take the 3 or 4 streetcar to Konigsplatz, then change to the 2 line which will take you to the first suggested stop ...
  • Mozarthaus Augsburg - This was not the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but rather was the home of his father, Leopold Mozart. The elder Mozart was born in Augsburg. It's an interesting historical site. Stop at the Mozarthaus stop on the 2 streetcar line.
  • The Cathedral - The Dom Unserer Lieben Frau  in Augsburg is a site to behold. From the outside you can see the different architectural styles which were common as each part was built over the centuries. Inside, under the main altar, you can climb down the stairs and see the original catacombs where early Christians met. Another interesting feature is just to the south of the site. An ancient Roman bath was discovered while workers were digging trenches to lay steam pipes under that part of the city. There are many examples of Augustine-era statues and artwork displayed in a shelter near the bath.
  • The Perlach Tower - The Perlachturm sits across from the Rathausplatz and next to the City Hall (Rathaus). It's a bit of a climb, but the tower offers one of the best vistas of Augsburg and the surrounding area. 
  • Augsburg City Hall - The Augsburger Rathaus is right next to the Perlachturm. While most of the building houses the official city offices, the highlight of the building is the Goldenen Hall on the top floor. The Hall was painstakingly restored after World War II, even down to repainting the trim in 14k gold leaf paint. The hall is open to tourists during normal business hours unless there is an official function taking place. 
  • St. Ann Church - The St. Anna Kirche has an interesting place in history. It was one of the places Martin Luther hid while he translated the Bible from Latin to German. You can visit the attic room which served as his home and work room. The church itself is set up to be half Lutheran and half Catholic. On one end of the building is the Lutheran alter where those services are held. On the other end is the Catholic altar where mass is done. The Sunday services alternate and the backs of the benches flip over to allow one to comfortably sit and face the desired altar. It's really quite interesting.
  • Fuggerei - The Fuggers were an important merchant family based in Augsburg. As one of their charitable efforts, Jakob Fugger built a home where the poor could live for a nominal fee so long as they agreed to pray for the souls of the Fugger family each day. The community still exists, and people still live there for an annual fee of 0.88 Euros. The Fuggers are an interesting historical family and the Fuggerei is an interesting place to visit.
  • The Roman Museum - As I mentioned above, Augsburg was founded by Caesar Augustus. Because of that, building projects in and around the city quite often also end up being archeological sites. The Römisches Museum Augsburg is where many of the uncovered historical articles are on display. It is filled with everything from statues of Roman gods to sewing needles. This is a "can't miss" visit for the history buff.
  • Basilica of St. Ulrich and Afra - Although, perhaps, not as historical as the Cathedral, the Basilika St. Ulrich und Afra is, nonetheless, a great place to visit. An ornate and beautiful building, St. Ulrich is entombed in the basement. 
Unfortunately, it appears that my favorite places to eat, however I suggest the Sieben Schwaben Stuben as a place to catch lunch. It's between St. Anne's and the Rathausplatz.

That wraps up my 3-Day Bavarian dream trip. I hope you found it helpful.

Please feel free to drop your Augsburg tour tips in the comments.

Bavarian Dream Vacation - Day 2, Schwangau

This is part 2 of a series. Check out Part 1 and Part 3.

For reference, here's the map:

View Bavaria Things To See in a larger map

Day 2: The Beautiful Castles in Schwangau.
Georgette mentioned her son already had in mind to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau near Füssen in far Southern Bavaria. This is the beautiful castle Walt Disney used as the model for Cinderella's Castle at his theme parks. I thought that an excellent idea; and, while they are there I also suggested they visit the Hohenschwangau Castle, which is right across the valley from its more famous companion.

The history of these castles is quite interesting. King Ludwig II of Bavaria (who is known as "Mad King Ludwig") just about bankrupted the kingdom building beautiful castles - none of which he actually lived in.

Neuschwanstein Castle - Perhaps the most famous is the Schloss Neuschwanstein. This beautiful, white, towered creation was built right across the valley from Ludwig's home. It took many years to build and is a magnificent structure, both inside and out. It is well worth the time to take the guided tour so you can learn more of the history and see some behind the scenes things. One of these is the grand ballroom floor, a large section of which could be lowered into the kitchen below. A large table and place settings could be set up on the floor and raised back up for the banquet portion of a party. When the food was done, it could be lowered, cleared and raised again to make a large dance floor.

Hohenschwangau Castle - Opposite the Neuschwanstein is the boyhood home of King Ludwig, the Hohenschwangau. Don't let the somewhat plain exterior fool you, the inside is a sight to behold. Situated on Swan Lake (the same Lake of ballet fame), this site if often overshadowed and overlooked by a great many tourists. The rooms inside are spectacular. The furnishings and artwork are spectacular. One room features a full mural on one wall depicting the life of Charlemagne, who the Bavarians believe was born in Munich.

Pilgrimage Church of Wies - Georgette's son mentioned visiting the Pilgrimage Church of Wies in Steingaden, which is just north of Schwangau. I never visited that place, but from the history I read online it seems like a very interesting place. Steingaden can be easily reached by bus from the train station in Füssen.

Schwangau is easy to get to via train from Munich. Take the train to Füssen and then a bus to Hohenschwangau. Mike's Bike Tours of Munich also offer a charter bus tour, which might be more convenient.

This trip will take up the whole day, so I wouldn't recommend doing much more than a having a relaxing dinner upon return to Munich.

Thus ends day 2. Next up is day 3 in Augsburg.

Please feel free to leave your Schwangau tour tips in the comments.

Bavarian Dream Vacation - Day 1, Munich

My friend, Georgette, mentioned to me she was going to spend a few days in Southern Germany with her son during their trip to Europe next year. She asked me what I what I would recommend they see in Munich if I were going (and how I wish I was). I started to put together a Google Map for them with recommendations, and thought I'd just go ahead and share my suggestions with all of you, too.

They only have three days to spend in Germany since they are on a schedule. So, here's how I would break it down. For reference, here's the map:

View Bavaria Things To See in a larger map

Day 1: Munich
Georgette told me once her and her son took a guided Segway tour of Austin, Texas and thoroughly enjoyed it. They plan to do the same in Munich. This is a great idea. There are two I found:
  • Mike's Bike Tours of Munich offers Segway and other tours in Bavaria. They are conveniently located near the Hofbrauhaus (a popular tourist attraction) and are highly rated by previous customers.
  • City Segway Tours is located close to the Main Train Station (Hauptbahnhof), also a convenient location.
Here are my München must-see suggestions for:
  • Frauenkirche - The twin-domed Cathedral of Our Lady is a prominent Munich landmark. Just a short distance from the Marienplatz, it's easy to see and find from just about anywhere in the central part of the city. It's a beautiful, old church and well worth taking an hour or so to walk through. 
  • Asamkirche Dominikanerinnen - Georgette mentioned wanted to visit a couple of churches. One I think they should see is the Asamkirche, which is just south of the Marienplatz on Sendlinger Strasse. This old, dark church is a great representation of Gothic-style churches. It's very interesting and takes just a few minutes to walk through.
  • Marienplatz and The Rathaus Glockenspiel - The Marienplatz is the heart of touristy Munich. There are shops and restaurants all around the perimeter ranging from old-style Gasthauses to American fast food. The highlight of the area is the Glockenspiel atop the city hall. Every day at 11 AM (also at Noon and 5 PM in the summer) the clock strikes and a play begins depicting the 1568 Wedding of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria and Renata of Lorraine as well as the "Cooper Dance" which marked the end of a plague of that era. The show lasts around 15 minutes. Take the U3 or U6 and get off at the Marienplatz station.
  • For The History Buff - There is a display atop on of the buildings on the south-east part of the Marienplatz with photos of what the area looked like before World War II and at the end of that war. You can compare it with how it looks now and see that great pains were taken to restore the buildings just as they were. I can't remember exactly where it is, but I'll bet the Segway tour guides or the locals know where it is.
  • Beyrischer Donisl - After seeing the Glockenspiel show at 11 AM, a great place to stop for lunch is the Bayrischer Donisl. This was always my favorite place to lunch in Munich. Check out the Bavarian specialties and (of course) the excellent beer. I would recommend a sausage sampler platter including some Bavarian Weisswurst (White Sausage) - it can't be beat. It's located on the Marienplatz to the left as you're looking at the Glockenspiel.
  • BMW Museum - I'm a car buff, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the BMW Museum located near the Olympic Park in the northern part of the city. The museum covers the history of the car maker from the beginning to modern times. Take the U3 to the Olympiazentrum station.
  • Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site - While this may not be a "happy tourist" place to go, while you're in the area it's certainly something to see. "Never Again" is the phrase you hear echoed over and over as you go through the museum and walk the grounds. It's certainly a heavy place, but important. Take the S2 from Munich to the Dachau station.
  • Beer Halls - There are a number of beer halls in Munich. The most famous (and arguably more for tourists) is the Hofbräuhaus. The food is great and the music is festive. And, of course, the beer is pretty good, too. I spent many a good time hanging around with friends and meeting people from all over the world there. Another nice place to visit, and less "touristy" is the Löwenbräukeller. Either spot would be great for dinner and a good time to wind up a great day.
Also mention: The Beer And Oktoberfest Museum. I've never been there and I don't even know if it existed when I last visited Munich, but it look like it might be interesting.

Thus ends day 1. Next up is day 2 in Schwangau.

Please feel free to leave your Munich tour tips in the comments.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: "Your Money God's Way" by Amie Streater

I'm a fan of Dave Ramsey and have been coordinating his Financial Peace University classes at our church for 2 years now. Getting my financial life back in order has been a great experience. I wanted to check out this book by Amie Streater to, perhaps, get another perspective into handling money more wisely.

Instead of a "how to" book, Your Money God's Way - Overcoming the 7 Money Myths That Keep Christians Broke delves more into the reasons of why we Christians sometimes make bad decisions about money and counters those mistakes with Biblical principles and ideals. The author identifies seven problem areas some have and shows better ways based on her personal experience as well as the experiences of some she counsels in her work as Associate Pastor of Financial Stewardship at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

While I highly recommend consulting Dave Ramsey's organization for learning the nuts and bolts of money management, Amie Streater gets down to the nitty gritty of helping us understand why it's important to manage our money wisely, where some of our bad money management theology comes from and how to get our minds thinking in the right direction. It helps Christians not to "check their brains at the door" when it comes to sound, Biblical money management.

Well written and well sourced, I recommend this book highly if you're looking for more knowledge about how to better handle your money.

Your Money God's Way by Amie Streater (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Disclaimer: I am a member of Thomas Nelson's Book Review Blogger program. Although Thomas Nelson Publishing provided the book at no cost to me, this review is my honest opinion of the work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Desert Storm - Still Waiting

Our daily routine during Desert Shield (which was the build-up phase of the war before Desert Storm officially commenced on January 16, 2001) was fairly sedate. The "OPTEMPO" (Operations Tempo) was rather relaxed. We did have time for side projects as I described in my last installment, but there were "Army" things to do, too.

Guard duty first comes to mind. Doing guard duty was so ingrained in Army life that one's first experience with it comes during basic training. Our time in the desert was certainly no exception to this.

Our platoon was assigned to help the Motor Pool folks guard the "gate" at the southeast portion of the perimeter. There were two troopers on guard at that location at all times, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and a lower-enlisted person. We had enough people around that we were hit with a two-hour shift about once every 4-5 days. One person was stationed near the gate who was responsible to stop vehicles and check for proper response to the challenge of the day. The other person sat in a small bunker set up about 250 feet away with the M-60 machine gun covering the person on the gate. Each person would put in an hour at each point, sharing the responsibility. A camouflage net was set up near the gate so the person there had at least a little shade. The bunker, as I recall, was rather comfortable to sit in.

On one of my first shifts at the gate, someone from the regiment's support squadron stopped by to drop off food and pick up trash. Of course, he didn't know the proper response to the password. I tried to call the mess sergeant to get him to come and verify the person's identity, but no one would answer. The sergeant driving the truck was rather angry that I wouldn't let him through, but I didn't know who he was - and "orders is orders." The way I looked at it, he should have checked for the proper response before he left.

I remember one day we got quite a surprise. We were hanging around our area, probably playing cards or something, when we heard shots fired from the M-60 in the direction of the gate. We all grabbed our rifles and ran towards the gate. When we go there we found one of the sergeants from the motor pool yelling at the young man behind the M-60. There were two things wrong with this situation:

  1. There was no one anywhere near the gate other than the two guys on guard.
  2. The sergeant doing the yelling was one of the most easy-going guys on the planet. None of us had ever heard him raise his voice, ever.
This was quite an unusual event. Later we found out that the guy behind the '60 was fooling around and wondered what would happen "... if I turned off the safety and pulled the trigger." Well, he found out. He shot four or five rounds towards the sergeant, all of which missed (thankfully) and hit the ground about 5 feet in front of him. I can't say I blame him for being upset.

Another of our "hobbies" was burying commo wire. Commo wire was what we used to connect our field phones to the squadron's switchboard in the motor pool tent. It was a double-strand cable with plastic insulation, rather similar to 20-gauge speaker wire.Using the field phone it was possible to call any unit within the perimeter. Of course, wire simply laid on the ground would be tripped over and damaged quite easily. It was also standard procedure to hide common wire, and burying it was the easiest way to protect and hide the wire.

Other than the area where engineers had moved the sand aside to expose the bedrock for the flight line, the entire camp was like a huge sandbox with the sand being several inches to several feet deep. The problem with burying something in the sand is that it tends to work its way up and out eventually. This is especially true when the wind blows incessantly and people are walking on top of what you buried. This meant we had to bury the entire length of wire from our camp are to the switchboard every two or three days. That was a hot, sweaty job.

We also had to build fighting positions for the members of our platoons. For the first go 'round, we dug a small trench, lined it with sand bags and put a roof over it. This was similar to a "traditional" type fighting position, except that it held about 10 people.

Later, one of the pilots (our scrounger) thought it would be a great idea to build a bunker. His plan was that we would have some engineers dig a large hole with a backhoe, build a small building inside the hole, and then have the engineers backfill the hole with a bulldozer.

After the engineers dug our hole, we spent a couple weeks building the building. We had some pretty smart folks who were very handy with tools. Because of my lack of tool prowess, I was merely unskilled labor. We put together quite a nice little building, though. It was quite a sturdy structure - until the bulldozer pushed the sand back into the hole. Although the guys who designed the structure were pretty smart about how to put up a sturdy structure, they weren't engineers and forgot to take into account the weight of the sand pushing against the outside walls. Once the bulldozer shoved the sand back into the hole, the building twisted and collapsed. Although it was a bit of a waste, we did learn something from it. And, it was a great way to pass the time doing something constructive.

We also did some running to stay in shape. There were some roads worn cut through the squadron area which were suitable for running. We ran around the roads, sometimes with our backpacks on. This was best done early in the morning or late in the evening when it was cooler.

We had some flight missions during this time. More on that next time.

This is part 6 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Desert Storm - The Wait Is on

We found ourselves in the middle of the desert in the Middle of Saudi Arabia. The area was barren and featureless; so much so that maps of the area were nothing more than brown pieces of paper with grid lines and the occasional elevation marking. There was nothing as far as the eye could see, other than the camel herds led around by Bedouins which passed by from time to time.

It was here that Longknife Squadron made it's home for the next three months. We carved out a spot in the desert where engineers had fashioned a flight line by pushing aside the sand and exposing the bedrock below. The entire squadron was arranged in an oblong circle, longer on the east and west sides and shorter at the north and south. The flight line ran along the western side while our platoon's camp was situated on the southwest side near one of the entrance points. The entire circle was surrounded by triple strands of razor wire (which we called "concertina wire").

When we first arrived, of course, there was nothing but vehicles and aircraft. We soon started putting together a reasonably comfortable camp for ourselves. One of the pilots was an expert scrounger. He managed to get us sheets of plywood to make nice floors for our tents as well as some hooches for some of the guys and a large storage closet for the goodies we received. He also managed to "procure" quite a bit of other lumber for building projects (2x4s and 4x4s).

As time went on we made improvements to the area. We built a nice place at one end of the our site we called our "breakfast nook." This was a patio-like area with a large crate for table where we had our morning  coffee and breakfast time. The benches around the crate were fashioned somewhat like a picket fence as the backs of the seating bench with wooden seats. The large area really resembled a scale model of an Old West Town, so we christened it "Quickfix, Arizona."

For the first part of our stay there, we were only allowed to work in the mornings until around 11 AM or Noon. Work stopped then because it was just too hot. At 4 PM work could commence again.

Not that there was too much work to do. I've heard it said that war is nothing more than hour upon hour of sheer boredom punctuated by brief periods of sheer terror. In this case, the boredom lasted for months. Thankfully we had our projects to keep us busy. We also had daily games of cards (Spades and Cribbage were the most popular), Risk (we played A LOT of Risk), personal reading and answering the many letters we got from home addressed to "Any Soldier." We got so many letters from complete strangers we couldn't possibly have answered them all. After a while we divided up those letters and only answered those which came from our home states. If you sent a letter and didn't get a "Thank you," please consider this your thanks - your support was greatly appreciated.

Our main project was making sure we had some creature comforts. One of these was a shower. It was interesting that a company-sized unit with only twelve members was afforded a separate shower in their area, while our platoon with twenty members was forced to share a similar shower facility with the rest of our troop, which had over over 100 members. Thanks to some creative thinking, we built our own two-stall shower. It consisted of wooden pallets for the floors and ceiling, a 2x4 framework and plywood for the walls. At first we used camping shower bags for a water source. Later, someone took the rubber hoses off the shower bags and attached them to metal drums mounted to the roof of the shower. A frame was built over which plastic map overlay material was wrapped making for a very nice solar heater.

Next to the shower was our laundry area. We had some large containers, which I believe were for carrying some of the aircrafts' equipment during shipping, which we used for washing and rinsing our clothes. Someone in the group fashioned "T" poles from 4x4s and strung up a clothesline. Clothes dried very quickly in the hot Saudi sun.

For whatever reason, the squadron leadership didn't think it appropriate that we should have our own shower and demanded we give it to another unit. After threatening to burn it down (after all, we procured the materials and built the thing) they relented, only to forbid the water truck from filling it a few days later. Some quick thinking (and some bribes from our "Goody Locker") soon solved that problem.

The Goody Locker was where we stored the largess of the bounty from the support we received from folks back home. We had more candy, cookies (and other assorted baked goods), gum, toilet paper, baby wipes, cigarettes (but not smokeless tobacco), powdered drink mixes, tea bags and other items than we could possibly use. We shared quite a bit of our bounty and used a lot for trading.

For example, I once wrote home that I was tired of the toilet paper the Army gave us because it was similar in texture to 20-grit sandpaper. A few weeks later I got a case (that's 24 rolls) of an extra soft name-brand toilet paper in the mail. Needless to say, that was quite a popular item. Another time I mentioned we had a TV and VCR along with a generator to run them, but no movies. A few weeks later I got a box from home containing a dozen or so VCR movies my sister and her class at school scrounged from home or from video rental places. All of us got stuff like this - and I am quite grateful to this day for that support. It really did make life a lot more bearable.

That's not to say the Army didn't take care of us. We were supplied large quantities of bottled water, a daily ration of ice, food, clothes and shelter. We would have survived quite nicely without the help from home, but it helped made things a whole lot better.

There are a lot of "Army" things to do, too. I'll cover those in the next installment so you don't get the idea we lazed around the whole time we were waiting for the shooting war to start.

This is part 5 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Desert Storm - It's HOT In Saudi Arabia

It was an October morning when we landed in Saudi Arabia. The air was already cooling in the West Texas Desert we left, but not on the Arabian Peninsula. It had to be in the 90s already when we arrived mid-morning on that day.

When the flight attendants opened the door, all the moisture in the aircraft was sucked out and you could feel the dryness on your skin. If you've ever flown to El Paso or Las Vegas, you know the feeling. It was more intense over there, though. It made me think of the science fiction book Dune. I was half expecting to be issued a "still suit" to recover water from my body.

I had a reason to be wary of working in such an environment.

Extreme heat and I have been enemies for a long time. Growing up in Michigan, I really didn't spend too much time in temperatures above 95 or so degrees. My time in the Army, though, was another story.

During my initial training I attended a school near San Angelo, Texas. Towards the end of our time there, we had a field training exercise which they called "Armydillo." It was a weekend trip to the desert to participate in "Army" activities such as digging foxholes and forced marches. I was careful to make sure I drank enough water to stay hydrated and taking breaks in the shade when told to. My tent mate, on the other hand, was a bit of a goof and brought two canteens full of Sloe Gin with him. I'm sure he had more fun than I did.

It was the hottest day in history for that September day in that part of Texas. I think the heat index (temperature eith humidity taken into account) was 110 degrees. We were all hot an miserable, and I more so than the others. I wasn't totally aware of it at the time, but I have a propensity to suffer easily from heat exhaustion (AKA heat prostration). I get to a point where my brain starts to shut down and I act as if drunk. Later, my cohorts in Saudi Arabia got to know my peculiar "thousand yard stare" and knew when I needed assistance.  On this particular day, though, none of us were quite prepared for how I was to spend the latter parts of that Saturday outside San Angelo.

I don't remember too much of what happened in the latter part that day. A lot of what I think I remember may have been related to me after the fact. Things started going downhill for me during the forced march. I remember walking in a staggered formation along with my fellow soldiers and being cold. I think I may have mentioned to someone that I was cold and was glad they made us pack our jackets even though it seemed a silly idea to haul around a jacket in September in Texas. Someone grabbed a medic, who forced me to sit on the side of the road while he poured water over my head. I remember the cool water hitting my body was very painful.

Because the only ambulance available was already transporting someone who fell and broke their leg to the hospital, I had to walk back to where we made our camp. I don't remember much about the walk, other than I remember it was more of a drunken stagger (picture a scene from a movie or TV show where someone is trudging through the desert). When we got back to the camp, the medic had my classmates help me to the just-returned ambulance so I could be further evaluated. I don't remember doing so, but my classmates later told me I had some very choice words for our instructor and told the chaplain to "F*** off" when he asked how I was doing. That was totally out of character for me, so my friends knew I wasn't doing very well. I'm also told that while I was laying in the back of the ambulance, one of my classmates tried to loosen up my belt and shirt and I took a swing at him. Again, this is totally against my nature.

The rest of the afternoon and evening is a blur. The next thing I definitely remember was waking up in the hospital with IVs running into each arm. The doctor told me that I came as close to having heat stroke as one could without actually having it. It mattered little to me at the time as I felt like I'd been hit by a truck.

Fast forward to Saudi Arabia. I'd had heat exhaustion many times up to this point, so I warned my compatriots to watch out for me. I was fortunate that my platoon mates looked out for me quite well. There were 3 or 4 of them who were trained as combat medics to give IVs. When I got to a certain point, they'd know to hit me up for practice. Here's a snap of one such instance (thanks for Spiffyd for the picture):

Yup, that's me on the cot. This was taken sometime during the months we were in Central Saudi Arabia waiting for either Saddam to capitulate or the shooting war to start.

I like to joke around that I had so many IVs during our months over there that I looked like a junkie with track marks when we returned to The States. It wasn't too far from the truth, though.

This is part 4 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, August 16, 2010

Useless "Emergency" TV Trivia

Jen and I have been watching old reruns of "Emergency" streamed off Netflix. Aside from the amusement of making fun of the "stylish" clothes and noting the differences in prehospital care today versus then we've been having fun spotting celebrities who appeared on the show before (or after) they were famous. Here's just a sample:
  • Melissa Gilbert
  • John Travolta
  • Vic Tayback
  • Wayne Knight (Newman! He blew up his house smoking a cigar when the gas oven was leaking.)
  • Jamie Farr (We also spotted him as the deli delivery guy on "The Dick VanDyke Show")
    Jamie was not in the episode in which his name appeared in the credits, he actually appeared two episodes later.
  • Scottie MacGregor (Mrs. Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie")
  • Deidre Hall (Jen recognized her from "Days of our Lives")
  • Jackie Coogan (almost didn't recognize him with hair and regular clothes)
  • Stanley Kamel (Dr. Kroger from "Monk." Jen spotted him right away. )
  • Marion Ross (Mrs. "C" - she was a secretary helping her boss who was having a heart attack).
  • JoAnn Worley (A primal scream adherent, just about the time it "wasn't nice to fool Mother Nature."
  • Don Most (Another "Happy Days" star)
  • Nick Nolte
  • Dick Butkus (though I thought he was Alex Karras)
  • Pat Buttrum (As a hermit living in a cave. He must have run out of junk to sell to Mr. Douglas.)
  • Robert Urich (Hard to recognize him - he was kind of burned up.)
  • Alex Karras (He showed up in Season 3, Episode 1 in an uncredited appearance.)
  • John Ashton (Later went on to play Taggart in the "Beverly Hills Cop" franchise.)
  • Anne Morgan Guilbert (Milly in "The Dick Van Dyke" show and Evelyn in "Seinfeld")
  • Mark Spitz (Great swimmer, not so great actor. There's a Suzy Spitz in the same episode, too)
  • Kareen Abdul-Jabaar (I guess this was the sports season of Emergency)
  • Erik Estrada (His face was bandaged up, but you can't miss the hair and the teeth)
  • Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay on "Bewitched" and Colonel Crittendon on "Hogan's Heroes")
  • James Gregory (Detective Luger in "Barney Miller." Typecast as a grizzled detective)
  • Mark Harmon (This was way before NCIS. It looks like they were setting up for a spinoff about the Los Angeles County Animal Control, but I don't think anything came of it.)
  • Sharon Gless (Before "Cagney and Lacey" she was a pop artist)
  • Robert Weston Smith (better known as "Wolfman Jack")
  • Scott Bakula (Before he traveled through time, he was on LSD and got shot playing with a gun)
  • Terry Kiser (Remember Bernie from "Weekend At Bernie's?" This was before he was dead)
  • Linda Gray (J.R.'s wife. Before she shot him ... if it was her.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Desert Storm - More Preparations

I cannot overemphasize the great help my friends, family and the entire community around Fort Bliss were to me and my fellow troopers. I cannot imagine having pulled off a success deployment such as we did without the support of those dedicated civilians who took on the cause of helping out. Here are some examples:

  1. The folks at the Sun City Amateur Radio Club (K5WPH) were good friends and helped me out quite a bit. They were among the first to offer their support to help me get anything I needed for the trip. I especially need to single out John and Jeannie who offered to let me park my truck in their yard and their willingness to let me borrow their truck during the final days before we left.
  2. GEICO Insurance: I was renting an apartment when we received notice to deploy. I moved all my worldly possessions into a storage unit and they were very nice about letting me transfer my renter policy to cover the storage unit even though they don't do that kind of thing. I appreciated it very much. (If their rates were more competitive I'd still be a customer!)
  3. The manager of the Wallington Plaza Apartments where I lived was nice enough to let me out of my lease even though I didn't have a set of paper orders sending me away. A deployment isn't quite the same as a permanent change of station.
  4. The El Paso Independent School District was nice enough to pair some of us up with elementary school students who were great about sending us care packages and mail. Although the sheer volume of mail we got there was astounding (more about that later), it was very nice to get mail from someone I met in person.
  5. Of course, my family was great before and after I deployed. My mom and step-dad and my dad flew out to visit me for a few days before we left. Thankfully we had enough time getting ready that they had the opportunity to come down for a visit.
I know there are some I missed who were very helpful. Please accept my apologies for not singling you out. These are just the ones that stick out in my mind 20 years later.

We got all packed up and ready. By the time we actually got on a plane to go it was October. So in all, it took the better part of three months to make ready and leave.

On the day we left we met up in the large hangar on Biggs Army Airfield (across from the hangar where our aircraft and offices were housed) and waited. This was one of those famous Army "Hurry Up And Wait" occasions. I remember we were supposed to get on the plane early in the morning and ended up waiting until sometime in the late afternoon before our plane finally arrived to take us to Germany.

I don't remember much about the flight to Rhein-Main Air Base (near Frankfurt, Germany). We may have stopped somewhere along the way for fuel, but I my memory is a bit fuzzy on the details. I do remember everyone on the flight crew was very nice. One of the pilots in the group ended up getting the address of one of the flight attendants, with whom he corresponded regularly while we were overseas.

In Frankfurt, we deplaned and waited for our flight to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. This is a port city in the east, central part of Saudi Arabia. There were tents set up with recreation areas and mess facilities. I remember parking in front of a TV watching Armed Forces Network while we waited for our flight out. More "Hurry Up And Wait."

View Larger Map

I remember the vast number of commercial aircraft parked in a row as we walked out to our plane. There were a large number of wide-bodied aircraft such as 747, DC-10 and such. I think we walked a couple miles down the flight line before we got to the plane which was to take us on the final leg of our trip.

All in all, it took about three days to get where we were going. And this was really just the beginning.

This is part 3 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, August 02, 2010

Desert Storm - Getting Ready To Go

After we were officially told we were being deployed to the Middle East, preparations started in earnest. There were personal preparations as well as packing up our platoon's gear and equipment. It takes a lot of work to get an armored cavalry unit across the ocean with all its heavy vehicles.

Rail loading our trucks wasn't hard, but it was rather tough on me. Apparently, the wood on the flat cars is covered with some kind of pine tar to which I am allergic. My nose ran like crazy the two days we were working on the rail head.

Personal preparations included getting lots of shots. The worst one was the Gamma Globulin. This fun consisted of two shots given simultaneously in both buttocks. The reasoning for two simultaneous injections? I was told because they hurt so much after the first one, too many people were opting out of the second. Oh yes, it hurt a lot - for three days. I was reminded of the horror every time I pressed in the clutch of my truck.

As the preparations when on, the members of our platoon were given the opportunity to have a going away picnic. While we were having our picnic with friends and family, someone from the squadron's operations office came to the park to tell us that the FORSCOM Commander (General Edwin Burba) was visiting Fort Bliss and specifically wanted to see our platoon's aircraft. We packed up the picnic, ran home to change into our uniforms and headed over to the air field for the "Canine & Equestrian Show."

All of us met back up at our hangar and plugged a ground power unit into one the aircraft so we could turn on the equipment and show all the flashing lights. We waited for at least an hour before the General, the Regimental Commander, the Squadron Commander, our Lieutenant and a host of other officers made their way to where we were waiting.

Our LT gave a short briefing, the "elevator pitch" if you will, about our aircraft's purpose and capabilities. Everyone nodded and smiled - until The Question came up. The General asked, "Are you men ready to go?"

That's when our platoon sergeant (PSG) spoke up. "No, sir, we are not."

The General turned to him with a puzzled look on his face. No doubt, this was not the answer he was looking for. The color drained from the LT's face as the faces of the other leaders in our chain of command turned very red.

"Well, Sergeant, what seems to be the problem?"

The PSG went on to explain that in order to do our jobs properly, we needed to be trained in the Arabic Language. Since we were all Czech linguists, we would be less than useless to the regiment's mission. He stated that in order for the platoon to work properly we'd either need to go to school to learn Arabic (which would mean several months of intensive training) or we would need to turn our platoon equipment over to some who were already proficient in Arabic.

The General thought for a moment, turned to the other officers in the entourage and asked, "Is this true?" The LT spoke up, "Yes, sir. This is true. The men are willing to do whatever they can to help the mission, but as it stands they are not properly trained."

The General said, "Well, we'll have to look into this. Thank you." And, he turned and walked away.

I was rather shocked. Of course, the PSG was correct. I was quite surprised he didn't drop dead on the spot, with most everyone in the General's group staring at him with looks that could kill.

In the end, we still ended up deploying (of course, or there wouldn't be much reason for me to write this). The linguist problem was solved somewhat after we arrived in country.

In the meantime, we kept on working to get ready to go.

This is part 2 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Another Case of Lost In Translation

Last January I wrote about a translation gaffe I made during a trip to the Czech Repulic ("Healthy Train Stations"). Here's another one ...

In June of 1995 I was assigned to travel around the Czech Republic with the leaders of a large group of U.S. soldiers who acted as honor guards in cities and towns all across that country to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of their liberation from the Nazis. It was a great experience which I will cherish forever.

Towards the end of the trip, we ended up in the Eastern Bohemian city of Strakonice. It was a great place with friendly people and a large western style hotel, the Hotel Bavor. One morning, I had a small item which I wished to bring up with the front desk staff. Here's the conversation as it would have occurred totally in English:
Me: Excuse me, sir. There is a large spider building a home above the door outside my room.
Clerk: I beg your pardon? Please! There are no bats in the hotel.
Me: Yes, there are. One is building a web above the door outside my room. It's a large spider, as the web shows.
Clerk: I don't mean to disagree with you, but there are no bats in this hotel - none at all. We are regularly inspected for such things. Besides, bats don't build webs
Me: I'm sorry to argue, but there really is a large spider building a net above the door outside my room. I don't think it should be such cause for concern. Spiders are bound to get into the hotel. All you need do is kill it with a broom.
Clerk (rolling his eyes and looking at the bell hop): Why don't you go up with this gentleman and see this bat. I'm sure he's mistaken but we should make sure.
So, the bell hop and I get into the elevator and go up to my room. When we get there, I point to the large spider web above the door.
Me: See, there's the spider web.
Bell Hop: That's not a bat, that's a spider! It's a spider web, not a bat web.
Me (seeing the error I had made): Oh - spider! Not bat. I'm terribly sorry. Please excuse my misuse of the proper word in Czech.
For the rest of my stay in the hotel, I was known as "Mr. Bat." I prefer to think I was Bat Man.

Another Inspection Story

Inspections were a way of life in the military service. Uniform inspections, room inspections, barracks inspections, vehicle inspections ... lots of inspections. During my time in the Army, one of the worst was the dreaded I.G. Inspection.

I never understood who the I.G. was who was doing the inspecting. "I.G." stood for "Inspector General," but the Inspector General him/herself never actually showed up to do the inspections, it was always a bunch of sergeants. And they inspected everything. Unlike the normal inspections by First Sergeants, Commanders and whatnot, these guys moved furniture around, took mirrors off the walls, pulled covers off light fixtures and generally dug around all over the place. A fine-toothed comb doesn't even come close to describing what they did during their inspections.

One way to reduce the time spent in the room was to wax the floor to a very high shine. Apparently the shiny floor distracted them and kept them from digging around too much. Under normal circumstances, for normal inspections, the regular emulsion wax the Army supplied with a quick buff was good enough. For the I.G. inspection, though, some extra effort was needed.

The best trick to get the floor to shine almost like a mirror was to use Johnson Paste Wax. The exact method was passed from soldier to soldier. Here's the steps as I remember them - and don't try this at home:

  • Make a handle for the can out of a wire hanger. The handle can be fashioned a number of ways so long as it holds the can securely when held upright and tilted to the side.
  • Attach the handle to the can and open the can.
  • Light the wax on fire and allow some to melt.
  • Put the lid back on the can to extinguish the flames.
  • Pour a small amount of wax on the clean, dry floor in strategic locations around the room.
  • Buff the wax into the floor using a floor buffer with the brush attached.
  • Buff the floor again, only this time cover the brush with a woolly toilet seat cover.
With a little practice, you could have the floor almost good enough to shave with.

Oh, I forgot to mention this practice was strictly forbidden - for reasons you will soon plainly see.

I mentioned earlier that this trick was passed on from soldier to soldier. One time, I remember, it didn't work out quite so well for one guy. We were getting ready for the "Big Inspection." A few of us chipped in for a can of Johnson Wax and took turns with the buffer and the toilet seat cover. A new guy who just moved in across the hall was wondering what we were doing, lighting wax on fire and pouring the liquid onto the floor. We explained to him it was to get the floor as shiny as possible. He caught onto the idea quickly enough, so a couple of us "more experienced" guys gave him the quick rundown on how to do it. He decided he'd surprise his new roommates by waxing the floor while they were at chow.

We finished our floor and were relaxing after a hard day's work, when we hear a panicked "Oh shit!" from the room across the hall, immediately followed by what sounded like a fire extinguisher being discharged. We looked at each other, wide eyed, and ran out of our room into the hallway. There stood the new guy, fire extinguisher in hand, smoke floating out of the door to his room and into the hallway.

"How do you guys do that without lighting the whole building on fire?" was the question he asked. You see, we didn't exactly spell out to him the fourth step in my instructions above - "Put the lid back on the can to extinguish the flames." He misunderstood and thought we poured the BURNING LIQUID WAX onto the floor WHILE STILL ALIGHT.

The tragedy was lost on us as we had a good laugh at his expense. After the howling died down we got together and scrounged up a couple of extra blankets to replace the ones he partially torched so at least his roommates wouldn't have to explain to the I.G. why their bedding was singed and smelled of smoke. Unfortunately, he had to replace one roommates expensive gold-plated stereo cable out of his own pocket.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Book Review: "Plan B" by Pete Wilson

What is a "Plan B?" A Plan B is a time in your life when things don't turn out the way you planned. A Plan B is a time when things just turn out plain badly for you or those you love. A Plan B is a time when the world seems to be at its darkest and you feel completely alone. We all go through these times. We may hide them and we may deny them, but we all go through them.

How do you explain when bad things happen to good people? How do you reconcile the love of God compared to the terrible things which can happen to us in this life? I don't have the answers to those difficult and very relevant questions. Neither does Pete Wilson.

What Pete does in this book is explain very eloquently that while bad things do, indeed, happen around us and to us, God is ever-present and there to help us through those times of disappointment and crisis. Using examples from his own life (some of which are laugh-out-loud funny), the lives of people he knows and the lives of Biblical characters, Pete shows us while our lives may not follow the "primrose path" we may have laid out, God still brings about all thing for the good of those who love and trust in Him.

I think the biggest benefit to this book is Pete encouraging us to be honest about some things:

  • That we are broken people
  • That we don't have all the answers
  • That God, not us, is in control
It's in this place of honest reflection where we learn that God wants to and does bring out the best of any and all situations. Things may not go the way we envision them, but His ways will always work out best for us in the end.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, because we have all gone through or will go through a "Plan B" where we will need to understand that it is those situations where we need to be open and willing to learn that we don't have all the answers but we can learn to lean on the One who really does.

Disclaimer: I am a member of Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze Blogger program. Although Thomas Nelson Publishing provided the book at no cost to me, this review is my honest opinion of the work.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Remembering Ernie Harwell

Ernie Harwell, the long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers, passed away yesterday. He was a legendary sports figure and a great among those who were privileged enough to have the opportunity to describe baseball on the radio. He was 92 years old.

As a kid, I loved to follow the Detroit Tigers. In those days they were mediocre at best, but I was a loyal fan nonetheless. I remember listening to Ernie and his broadcast partner, Paul Carey, describe the games with the various transistor radios I had over the years. When they played evening games on the West Coast, I'd often fall asleep listening to the games in the top bunk of my bedroom with an ear plug.

Even after I left Detroit to join the Army I would often be able to catch his voice on WJR, the clear channel station in Detroit. There were a couple occasions I was even able to hear the station in Texas - though that didn't happen but two or three times.

My favorite memory of Ernie happened in 1987. I'd just been assigned to a unit in Augsburg, Germany. I was feeling kind of homesick one day when I turned on the radio and there, on Armed Forces Network, was the voice of Ernie Harwell working his verbal magic over the air waves. I wrote him a letter that day, thanking him for his wonderful work on behalf of the Tigers and for making me feel a little less far away.

Last year, the Tigers paid tribute to the man who for so long was their voice. Reading his speech brought tears to my eyes as I recalled those memories of his voice coming through the radio.

Thank you, Ernie.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Help Friends Find Missing Daughter - Updated

Our friends daughter is now home safely. Thank you for your concern.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Elixir® Cable Review

I'm a big fan of Elixir® and use their strings on my bass. Because I'm on their email list, I was invited to receive a free instrument cable for review late last year.  I received it in January and have been using it since then.

The cable is well put together. The wire is heavy-duty and appears to be about 1.5 times larger than the previous cable I was using. The plugs are molded plastic and are quite large - large enough that I thought they might not plug into the socket on my axe. The plugs fit, though, with no problem.

I tested the cable through my normal setup. This would be from my bass, through a Zoom effects box to a direct box and into our mixing board. I used the Elixir cable between the bass and the Zoom box. Just using my ear, I really didn't notice a lot of difference from the cable I had been using. There was a little bit more brightness on the highest notes, but that's about all.

There are a couple things I don't like about the cable:
  1. The molded plastic plugs. From what I can see, there's no way to easily replace the plugs if necessary. I like to be able to easily solder a new plug on if I need to.
  2. The extra thickness of the wire. This was a little bit of an inconvenience because it didn't fit well in my case. This may not be a problem to many of you, though.
Other than those two things, it seems a pretty decent piece of equipment. I'm not sure if it's worth the premium price, though. That's up to you to decide.

I will keep buying Elixir strings for my bass, though. They are the best I've ever used.

Disclaimer: I received this cable free for evaluation from Elixir; however, this is my honest opinion of the product.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Hospital Story

My wife and I often talked about volunteering so we could give back to the community. Both of us had, at one point in our lives, been involved in Emergency Medical Services, so volunteering in our local hospital seemed a good fit. After months of "on again, off again" talk, Judy decided we'd talked enough and called the volunteer coordinator at one of the local hospitals to get us signed up.

Much to our pleasant surprise, the volunteer coordinator turned out to be the man who was our instructor when we went to school to be Emergency Medical Technicians. We found he'd recently retired from the hospital's EMS service and was working at the hospital part time to keep himself busy. We both had great experiences in our EMT classes with him running things, so we were quite happy to learn he would be our "boss" at the hospital.

Larry was the kind of person people either loved or hated. Those who went through his classes knew him to be a tough man who demanded high standards of his students. Those who got to know him learned that his toughness came from a sense of responsibility to the future patients of those students when they graduated. Those who were just looking to cruise through the class didn't get that message and thus considered him just mean. Fortunately, Judy and I both got to know him when we went through his class and understood the "method behind his madness." We respected him for that and I believe his methods made us better EMTs when we worked in emergency medical services.

We started our first day of training with Larry promptly at 8 A.M. on a Saturday morning. He met us outside the main doors to the hospital and led us to his office where we spent an hour or so doing paperwork and catching up on our lives. It was great to get reacquainted with Larry again after quite a number of years. I was rather surprised he remembered me so well, even down to parts of the class I had problems with. 

Even though he was retired from his regular job, he was not retired from life by a long shot. We learned his wife of many years had recently passed away and he decided to retire and slow down, but only a little. Judy pulled out pictures of our kids and showed them off. We told stories, true and not so true and laughed as we got reacquainted.

When we were done with the paperwork, Larry got down to business. "I know you two have medical training. But, even if your EMT certifications are current, you're not allowed to do any medical procedures at all except CPR. You may only do CPR if specifically told to do so by a doctor or nurse, too. Our main function as volunteers is to help people in small ways so we can free up the hospital staff to do what they are trained and paid to do. If someone wants something to read we can fetch a magazine for them or if someone needs directions we'll give them directions or even take them to where they need to go rather than try to explain it. That makes the patients and their loved ones feel better cared for. It relieves a lot of stress for them and for the staff." Judy and I nodded at Larry and then to each other. We understood the concept of helping people, that's why we were there. It made a lot of sense that we could help with small things so the doctors and nurses could take care of the bigger things.

Larry continued, "Since this is your first time volunteering, I'll have you follow me around so you can get acquainted with the routine and how we do things. I'm sure you'll pick things up quickly enough. We do prefer volunteers to work in pairs, so you two working together is perfect. Let's go." That was how Larry did things: short, to-the-point and get going. He was a man of action.

He led us out of his office in the administration area of the hospital to another room a few doors down. There he gave some of the paperwork we filled out to a clerk who entered information into her computer. Then, she had us stand in front of a camera so she could photograph us for ID badges. While we waited for them to be made Larry told us we'd be primarily working in the Emergency Department since that area was usually the busiest place on a Saturday. "So many people come in who don't have regular doctors and because they can't take time off work during the week. I'm sure you two remember from your EMS days that Saturdays are usually pretty busy for emergencies too. That makes it so these folks have to wait a very long time. Any little things we can do to help them relieves the stress of waiting and helps the staff keep things running smoothly."

As soon as we got our ID badges, Larry led us off to the Emergency Department waiting area. From the administration area it was quite a hike down numerous hallways and corridors. "At least," I joked to Judy, "we're getting some exercise out of this." Judy and I often chided each other about our lack of exercise and bad dining habits. Although we enjoyed decent health, we could certainly have stood to lose a few pounds. Unfortunately, we were too lazy to do more than talk about it.

Larry led us through the door into the Emergency Department. The room was laid out in an "L" shape. In the area making up the long length of the "L" were chairs, hundreds of them, back to back in groups of 5 or so set up like a typical waiting area. On the long wall of this part of the room were high windows overlooking the parking area at the front of the building. Between the windows attached to the walls were large-screen televisions tuned to either a 24-hour news or cartoon channel. On the far end of the "L" making up what would be the bottom part of the letter, was a smaller room where children were playing. I elbowed Judy and motioned towards the room. "Good idea," I said and she nodded in agreement. The rest of the shorter end of the "L" was where the reception desk was situated. Two nurses were doing intake behind the desk. Two lines of people waiting to talk to the nurses went through the entryway and out the door into another parking area located at the side of the building.

Larry led us to the volunteer desk, which was situated against the wall about half-way down the large "L" opposite the windows. The desk was about 10 feet long and made of wood covered with a nice woodgrain laminate veneer. Behind the desk were numerous drawers and cupboards. The only thing on the top of the desk was a phone next to a sign which read in English and Spanish "Not for public use." There were two chairs behind the desk, towards which Larry motioned for us to sit. "I'll go get another chair so we can all sit down and I'll explain a bit more of what kinds of things we can do to help the people here."

While he was gone, I started to open the drawers and cupboard doors to see what was in them. I was nosy that way. There were phone directories, pens, pencils, note pads, and other office supplies in many of the drawers. One cupboard was filled with dozens of coloring books of various themes and about 100 8-pack crayon boxes. Some of the drawers were empty and two were locked. I thought the coloring books and crayons were a nice thing to have to pass around to the kids who found themselves waiting around. Waiting can be very hard on kids, so anything to help them would surely be welcome.

Larry was a long time in returning, so I decided to have a look around the waiting room. I walked across the room to the windows and looked out at the parking lot. It was a cloudy day and looked rather dreary. I knew it was warmer outside than the cloudiness made it seem. Still, the weather made the outdoors looked sad to me. I walked along the wall towards the playroom at the opposite end of the room from where we entered. There were a dozen or so kids playing on the floor with toys, which I assumed were donated by charitable folks who supported the hospital. I glanced across at the reception desk where the two nurses were busy interviewing the incoming patients. They both looked rather harried. Considering the number of people waiting to talk to them and how many people with whom they had probably already spoken, I could hardly blame them. I noted a small room with vending machines selling various refreshments beyond the lines of people. I made note of that in case we might want a snack or drink later.

By the time I made my way back to the volunteer desk, Larry had returned with another chair. He and Judy were sitting and having an animated conversation about kids and grandkids. Both our boys had just graduated college and were out on their own in other cities. Judy had her pictures out again and Larry was showing pictures of his offspring and his offspring's offspring on his phone. I went behind the desk and grabbed some coloring books and crayons and walked through the room giving them to the kids who wanted them. Those who took them were very appreciative. The kids looked so sad sitting there. I was glad to be able to cheer them up a little.

When I returned to the desk Larry asked, "Do you want some coffee? I could go for a cup." I nodded, "You might remember, I never turned down a cup of joe." He jerked his head to the right as a sign to follow him. I waved to Judy and blew her a kiss as we walked away. I knew better than to ask her if she wanted a cup because she hated the stuff. "More for me," I always said about that with a smile. Even though Judy and I were married over twenty years, we were still very much "in love." It wasn't unusual for us to hold hands as we walked or to blow each other kisses when we parted ways, even if only for a few minutes.

Larry swiped his badge in the card reader next to the door leading to the clinic part of the Emergency Department. "Next time you guys come your badges should open the door. The security folks only enter new people in during the week, so your badges won't work now. When they do, you can come and go through here. Just remember to stay out of the way. It can get pretty hairy back here when it's busy." He really didn't need to say that. Because I spent enough time around emergency departments in various hospitals, I knew how crazy they could be. It can be described as organized chaos. I always admired those who work as doctors and nurses in emergency medicine. The dedication and hard work it takes to provide excellent care is amazing.

Larry led me down one corridor and then left down another. There was a nurses station in the middle of a large room and on the wall opposite was a snack bar with a coffee maker, ice machine and refrigerator. Larry motioned to the snack bar, "You can come and grab yourself some coffee or ice but the 'frige' is off limits to volunteers." That didn't phase me a bit since I had already seen some snack machines in the waiting area and there was a cafeteria elsewhere in the building. If I really needed something I didn't need to go rooting around in that refrigerator.

We got our coffee and turned to start back to the waiting room when some medical personnel hurried by in a large group surrounding a gurney with a patient on it. The way the people were moving around the rolling bed, it looked as if it was moving along under its own power and the people were orbiting around like the electrons in some kind of rectangular atom. As the group passed, a lady in the group turned to Larry and said, "We need some help with compressions, can you assist?" Larry nodded and followed the group, motioning for me to follow. I put my coffee down and hurried along behind the group.

The gurney along with the group of people moved into a large room. As soon as the bed came to a stop, the people in the group scattered around the room as if the atom had just hit critical mass. Some people were hanging plastic bags of liquid, others were sticking needles into the arms of the patient, still others were hooking up wires and sticking electronic sensors to the patient's chest. One man was furiously pumping on the chest while a woman sat at the patient's head holding a plastic mask to the face and pushing air using a large plastic ball attached to the mask. Larry handed me a pair of latex gloves which I quickly put on. He motioned for me to stand next to the man doing the check compressions while he went over to the lady at the head of the patient. The man doing the compressions looked tired, and he probably was because doing CPR chest compressions properly does require quite a bit of exertion. He looked over to me and asked, "Will you take over?" I nodded and got my hands ready to push. He stepped aside and I stepped sideways to where he was standing, placed my hands on the person's chest and started pumping.

I looked down and saw we were working on a frail-looking, little old lady. The mask over her face had been replaced by a tube going into her mouth and down her throat. Larry was squeezing air into her lungs through the tube using the large plastic ball while I pushed on her chest. Her eyes were open, but they were staring straight up empty and devoid of life. I had a feeling that no matter what we did it was too late for her, she was gone.

As I compressed her chest, the old Bee Gees song "Staying Alive" went through my head. Ever since I read that the beat to this particular song mimicked the perfect rhythm for CPR, every time I did chest compressions that song went through my brain. Although I hated it, it really was a catchy tune to keep one's mind occupied while doing CPR.

On two occasions one of the doctors yelled "Clear!" This was our signal to stop what we were doing and step back while she administered a shock with the paddles. After the shocks she would wait a moment to watch the monitors and then loudly announced, "Continue compressions!" At that point I continued what I was doing and Larry started squeezing air into her lungs again. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only fifteen minutes or so, the doctor told me to stop compressions. The heart monitor showed a flat line. She pushed some medicine into one of the intravenous lines and told me to continue. After a few minutes she stopped me again and watched the monitor. Nothing. At that point she declared, "Time of death, 11:46 AM." And it was over.

Larry and I were thanked for our assistance and then quickly ushered out of the room. I didn't feel too badly for the lady because she was probably dead before we entered the treatment room. I'd worked in EMS long enough to know that sometimes there's nothing one can do but try and help; and, sometimes we try even though we know the outcome won't be successful. I did feel sadness for her family, though. Somewhere in that vast waiting room was a husband or a child or a grandchild who just lost a loved one. That was the hard part of working on a patient who passes: telling the family.

Thankfully, that was not my job this time. I was a minor player in the drama which just finished playing out. Larry told me to wait there outside the door and he wandered off, returning with Judy in tow a few minutes later. He said we needed to help someone find another part of the hospital and motioned for us to follow him. "Sometimes we can give directions, but this place is so big that often we end up just escorting people around. It's just easier that way at times." We walked down the hall and made a turn where an older lady was waiting. When she saw Larry, her face lit up and she said, "Oh, thank you. This place is so confusing to get around and I really appreciate you taking time to show me where I need to go."

We walked down one hallway, then another, turning here and there until we finally stopped in a small waiting room. It was a square room with some typical waiting room-style chairs along two of the walls. On another wall there was a large sliding door with a sensor above it; presumably meant to open the door when someone approached. The door was glass and I could see a collection of different types of medical equipment on the other side. There were no markings on the door, which was unusual since every other doorway in the hospital was marked.

Larry and the lady sat down on one set of chairs; Judy and I sat perpendicular to them on the chair against another wall. Larry and the lady spoke softly to one another, so softly that I couldn't quite make out what they were saying. I sat and watched for while, when Larry finally ask, "Well, are you ready, ma'am?" To which the lady replied, "Yes, I guess I am, now. Thank you." Larry said, "Just go through that door and someone will let you know where to go next." The lady thanked Larry and made her way through the door. As the door closed behind her, Larry said, "OK, time to head back to the E.D."

Lunch came and went, as did the people in the waiting room. When Judy and I returned from the cafeteria, some faces I noted were still there from the time when we arrived in the morning. Some were new, too. Two or three times through the afternoon I grabbed a stack of coloring books and crayons and went around to distribute them to the children. Although I felt rather inadequate to relieve their suffering and boredom, I was happy to do what little I could. Judy helped, too, telling people how to get to the cafeteria and where other things were. She has a great sense of direction and was very skilled at showing people where places were on the map of the hospital. Oftentimes she would advise people to go outside and walk around because it would be a shorter trip that way. Keep it simple and very smart - that's my Judy.

In emergency medicine, nothing brings more tension than a critically ill or injured child. For whatever reason, be it youth, lost potential or because parents shouldn't have to bury their children, things are very tense and intense when a child in trouble comes in. The whole area is electrified as soon as word comes in there is a critical child on the way. The tension is palpable as the staff gear up for the arrival and word spreads quickly that something important is about to happen. During the late afternoon of our volunteer shift, we got word that a 5-year-old boy who had been hit by a car while riding his bike was coming in by ambulance. Even though I was not to be a part of his treatment, my chest tightened as my adrenaline started to flow. It was a visceral response, one I could sense in Judy and Larry, too.

Our volunteer trio carried on, though, as if nothing was going on. Occasionally a doctor or nurse would come out and Larry would inquire as to the boy's condition. Though I couldn't hear what was said, the look on the faces of the staff member talking to Larry told the story; he wasn't doing too well. After an hour or so, sobs and shrieks could be heard from the treatment area through the door off to the side of the volunteer desk. The final step was taken and the boy was gone. The mood throughout the department darkened as if some of the overhead lights had been switched off. I said a silent prayer for the parents of the young boy. No doubt he was in a better place, but their place had just become empty as a huge piece of their lives had been ripped from them.

I noted that Larry had slipped away when I wasn't paying attention. No matter, though, as Judy and I could certainly handle whatever came along. After all, we were volunteers and our tasks weren't too difficult. A few minutes after I'd noted he was gone, he reappeared, half hanging out the door which led to the treatment area. He waved at me and Judy to follow him. He led us along the hallways, telling us we needed to escort someone again. We went to the very spot where we met the old lady earlier that morning. This time, there was a young boy waiting for us. He smiled when he saw Larry and said, "The nice man in there told me to wait for you 'cause you're gonna show me where I need to go next." Larry nodded and said, "Yes, let's go."

We walked down the same hallways and ended up in the same small waiting room where we'd been that morning. It was the same room to where we escorted the old lady. Larry and the boy sat down along one wall while Judy and sat along the other, just as we had done that morning. Judy and I looked at each other. I whispered, "Does this seem odd to you?" She nodded in agreement but said nothing. We sat while Larry and the young boy spoke in whispers which I couldn't hear. Finally the boy said aloud, "I guess I'm ready. I'm a little scared, though." Larry replied, "It's OK to be scared. New things are scary sometimes. But, everything is going to be OK once you go through that door." "Can you come with me?" the boy asked. "No," Larry replied, "I'd go with you if I could, but I'm not allowed to go in there." The boy stood, smiled and waved, and then walked quickly and resolutely through the door.

Larry looked at us and said, "Yes, this is rather odd, isn't it? You see, my volunteer work goes beyond just helping those who come here looking for help. Part of my job is to assist those who can no longer be helped by the medical staff." Judy and I looked at each other, again. I gulped; this was certainly going in a strange direction. Larry stood. We stood, too.

Larry continued, "You see, people who pass on need some help going to the next stage of their lives. I was chosen to show people the door to go through. Most times it's pretty easy, sometimes a little difficult. It's an important job, though, and one I enjoy doing very much. I spent my whole life helping people who needed emergency care and this is just an extension of that."

"I'm not an angel or anything like that. I'm still just a regular guy, much like I was when we first met years ago. I've gotten older and slowed down a little, but that doesn't mean I stopped wanting to help people. Because of my willingness to help anyone at any time, I was asked to be an escort to those moving on. It's no coincidence that we escorted that nice lady and this young boy right after we learned of the deaths. You see, those were ones who passed on. We showed them where to go."

"I said this job is sometimes difficult. The difficult part comes when I have to tell friends it's time to move on. You two don't realize it just yet, but you were both killed in a car accident yesterday. Because we were acquainted, I was allowed to let you hang around with me for a while. But, now it's time for you two to move on to the next stage in your lives. Your time on Earth is finished and now we must say 'goodbye.'"

My mouth must have been hanging to the floor. Dead? How? I don't remember being in an accident. I looked at Judy, who was leaning on my shoulder crying softly. The next thought that came to my head was, "Well, at least we went together. I'll miss the kids, but they'll be OK."

"We can still wait a short time yet, but not too much longer," said Larry. "You've already been allowed to linger more than usual. I want you both to know I think you've lived good lives and I appreciate all you did to help others in need." He was smiling broadly, his hands were clasped together in front of his chest. He was, indeed, proud of us.

Judy regained her composure enough to stand up on her own. She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked at me. "I guess I'm ready," she said. After a pause, she continued, "At least we're going together. I'll miss the kids, but they'll be OK." "Ah," I said, "great minds think alike. I was just thinking that to myself." I grabbed Judy's hand and led her slowly to the door. Enthusiastically, Larry exclaimed, "Goodbye. So long. I'll probably be seeing you guys again soon enough." As the door opened and we stepped through, I looked back and saw Larry smiling and waving. 

That's the last vision I have of my time on Earth.