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~ Sunday, January 26, 2003
 
MASTER SGT. JOHN “JACK” STEELE, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF LAW

Introductory Remarks

Those of you who have been reading this Blog know that, for better of for worse, I have had first-hand experience with Army basic training and drill sergeants. However, many of you do not know that I also have had first-hand experience with law school and law school professors, having graduated from law school some 19 years ago. About a month or so ago, my cousin Jack, the guy we all can blame for suggesting I do a Blog, fondly referred to his law students as “raw-CROOTS” in the legal profession. That got me to imagining what it would be like to put the two worlds together – drill sergeants and law professors, basic training and law school.

The idea was banging around in my head for weeks, often causing me to chuckle to myself, something that has always served me well as a test of what others might find amusing. So, here it is – a work of pure fiction, but clearly inspired by having been a draftee in the sixties and a law student in the 80’s (I had a different career in between the Army and Law School, but that’s a story for another day).

I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoyed letting my mind wander between the basic training and law school worlds and committing the strange proposition (or is it?) to the written word.

In parallel, I will continue to share some of the real Army stuff, which should be readily distinguishable from the story of Adjunct Law Professor John “Jack” Steele and his first-year legal raw-CROOTS.

First Installment: The Torts Class Meets Master Sergeant/Professor Steele

The first week of classes was just about over at the Blackacre University School of Law. By this time, the students had already met their professors for contracts, property, civil procedure and legal writing. They had the bloodshot eyes borne of trying to keep up with the murderous reading assignments each professor dished out without any regard for the volume of reading being assigned by the other professors.

Completing the reading had been difficult enough, because virtually none of it was a quick read. Quite the opposite; it was stilted, often barely intelligible, and sometimes it was downright opaque. Many of those sitting in the class were secretly hoping that they were not the only ones having trouble making sense of the material in their case books, and that they were not the only ones draining yellow highlighters at record speed, thinking it would all make more sense on the second pass.

Still, it was, after all, Friday, and there was only one more professor to meet. Despite their fatigue and jangled nerves, the 1L’s felt good about having survived the first week. They chatted about weekend plans and looked forward to the forty-eight hours of recovery time.

Some students were talking about Edward Carey, the professor who was scheduled to teach the torts class. They spoke of his reputation among the second and third year students as an easy professor who did not demand much from his students. The buzz was that he didn’t matter to him if his students attended his class, and he politely tolerated students who attended but who were unprepared. In fact, the word around the school was that all a student really had to do to pass Carney’s torts class was buy a Gilbert’s and check out Professor Carney’s prior exams – they hardly changed from year to year.

They figured this class to be a cakewalk.

Unfortunately for them, being students of the electronic age, they neglected to read the paper notice on the bulletin board posted in the hallway of the student lounge. It read:

“Professor Edward Carney has advised the Board of Trustees that, effective immediately, he will be retiring from his teaching position at Blackacre University School of Law. Professor Carney is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren. The Board of Trustees, the faculty and the students all wish Professor Carney a long and happy retirement. Professor Carney’s Torts 101 Class will be taught by John “Jack” Steele, MSG, Adjunct Professor of Law.”

The lecture hall, which seated approximately 100 students was just about full by 8:25 in anticipation of the class beginning somewhere around 8:30 a.m. The room had become increasingly noisy, as the students, who were now getting to know one another better, traded stories about the past week. Several students in the front two rows were arguing about what Pennoyer v. Neff really was all about. No one was concerned about the time, as Professor Carney was not a stickler for time. Hell, sometimes, he showed up ten minutes late.

They hadn’t read the bulletin board.

Precisely at 8:29 a.m. the door to the lecture hall opened. Some students glanced in that direction to see whether the professor had arrived. Those who glanced at the door suddenly stopped talking and stared at the man entering the lecture hall carrying the Torts casebook.

He looked to be about 6 feet three inches tall and weighed about 190 pounds. He was dressed in his “Class A” uniform, Army green with brass buttons, light tan shirt and black tie. His trousers were perfectly creased and meticulously bloused over his spit-shined jump boots.

On his left lapel, he wore a round brass badge on which were the crossed rifles, signifying him as an infantryman. On his right lapel was an identically shaped badge bearing the letters .”US.” Over his left pocket were four rows of multi-colored ribbons, and above the ribbons, partially hidden by his left lapel was the Combat Infantryman’s badge, a rectangular blue badge bearing a silver long rifle. The blue badge was over a silver oak wreath, the two ends of which met at a silver star, which signified that he had served as an infantryman in combat in two wars. He wore a different unit patch on each arm over the yellow stripes – three stripes up and three chevrons down, signifying the rank of Master Sergeant. Over his right pocket was a simple black nametag that read “Steele” in white letters. Most striking was the Army Drill Sergeant’s hat cocked frontward, with the leather strap around the back of his head.

The volume of conversation diminished with each step Steele took across the front of the lecture hall. By the time he reached the center of the room, very few people continued to speak. He turned towards the class and placed the casebook on the lectern. Now, everyone had stopped talking.

Attennnn-HUTT!” he bellowed, as he stood erect in front of the class, feet spread shoulder width apart, with his hands on his hips.

The class collectively fidgeted, as they looked at one another in fear and amazement.

Virtually every one of them was thinking, What the hell ….?

Steele did not move a muscle, and after a half-minute passed (which seemed like an eternity to the students), he roared again, “Attennn-HUTT!” Confused looks and more fidgeting spread across the audience. Most students looked down at the desk; others looked around the room. No one wanted to make eye contact with what they perceived to be the madman in front of the class.

Another long, silent minute went by, and Steele said for the third time, “Attennn-HUTT!” When no one moved, he said, in a voice hardened by combat and years of calling cadence, “I thought I made my self clear. I’ll stand here every gott-damned day just like this until Christmas until you maggots figure out what to do.”

Seth Tompkins, a frail kid with wire-rimmed glasses in the front row, after a false start or two, slowly got out of his chair and stood up. He quickly looked back to see if anyone else was standing. They were not.

Steele looked at Tompkins and said, “Well, at least there is one man in this gott-damned class who is not dumber’n shit.”

Chairs scraped against the floor, as the students, one after another, rose to their feet.

“Well, that’s a little better. From now on, when I enter this room, I expect you all to get off your asses and on your feet, and I expect you to be standing at ATTENTION. That means that you WILL stand perfectly erect. Your eyes WILL remain straight ahead. You WILL pull your chin back; your chest WILL be out, and your gut WILL be sucked in. Your hands WILL be held to your sides, with your thumbs held along the seam of your trousers. Your heels WILL be together, and your feet WILL be at a forty-five degree angle. Are there any questions?”

No one spoke.

“Well gott-dammit, DO IT!!!”

The students shuffled around trying to do what they were just told to do, but it all came so fast. What did he say about thumbs? As they each readjusted his or her posture, Steele walked across the front of the lecture hall and then up the stairs, glaring at the students and shouting, “Chest out! Suck the gut in! Watch those thumbs!”

Tod Barringer, a student in the back row, audibly laughed and whispered something to the woman to his left.

Steele stopped talking and looked at Barringer, who was wearing a tee shirt that read “Phish – a Backyard Tradition.” Steele walked up the stairs, never taking his eyes off Barringer. When he reached the back row, where Barringer was standing, he put his face two inches from Barringer’s and said, “What’s your name, young man?”

Barringer, a smirk still on his face said, “Tod Barringer.”

“Well let me ask you something, Tod Barringer. Did I say something funny?”

Barringer did not speak, but shook his head from side to side.

Gott-dammit, answer me! I asked you a question. DID I SAY SOMETHING FUNNY?”

“No. No you didn’t.”

“Well then, why were you laughing? Are you some kind of gott-damned idiot? Idiots and lunatics laugh at nothing. Maybe you’re a gott-damned lunatic, Barringer. Maybe all that beer you drank and grass you smoked at Phish concerts ruined whatever little brain you started out with. I wont tolerate idiots or lunatics in my class. You read me, Barringer?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t you ever call me ‘sir.’ Officers are called ‘sir.’ You see these stripes on my arm? That means I’m an enlisted man. I work for a gott-damned living. This goes for all of you dumbshits. When I ask you a question that calls for a yes or no answer, the proper reply is ‘Yes Sergeant’ or “No, Sergeant. You think you can handle that Barringer, being a lunatic and all?”

“Yes sir…..I mean Sergeant.”

Steele strode back down the stairs in the lecture hall and resumed his position behind the lectern. The students all stood in various approximations of the position of “attention,” every one of them wondering if this was some kind of bizarre joke.

He damned sure had gotten their attention.

Next Installment – Master Sergeant/Professor Steele makes some introductory remarks.
~ Saturday, January 25, 2003
 
Tony Soprano on Going to War. My cuz, Jack, managed to get Tony on the phone to get his thoughts on whether we should go to war with Iraq. Maybe we ought to just send a couple carloads of Jersey Wise Guys over there to kick Saddam's ass.
~ Thursday, January 23, 2003
 
Sick Call. Fort Dix, January 1969 – It started with a scratchy throat, and within 36 hours, I was having difficult time breathing; I could barely stand for more than 10 minutes, and I had a fever and chills. It was time to throw caution to the wind and go on sick call.

Every morning (and I mean pre-sunrise) at formation, the First Sgt. would announce “SICK CALL.” If you wished to see a medic or a doctor, you were to fall out to be taken to a special barracks that was set up to screen those who reported for sick call.

The Army had a tiered system for seeing that only sick people went on sick call. It started with the First Sergeant. After announcing sick call, he always made it very clear that feigning illness to avoid training would not be tolerated. “You report for sick call, you better gott-damn well be sick. Don’t LET me hear from the medic that there’s nothing wrong with you. I hear that shit and I guaran-gott-damn-tee you that when I’m done with you, you WILL need a doctor.”

So, if you felt sick enough to risk being accused of malingering and suffering the wrath of the Sergeant, you were taken to the next stage, where you got an opportunity to see a medic (an enlisted specialist – not a doctor), who would take your temperature and note your symptoms. For most of the guys, sick call ended there. The medic would dispense aspirins (“a couple whites”) and send you back to duty. If, on the other hand, the medic determined that you really might be sick, you would get to see a doctor.

Because my eyes were glassy, my breathing sounded Darth Vader’s, and I had a 101 temperature, I got to see a doc. After the doctor examined me and pronounced me sick, I was taken to Walson Army Hospital, where I was to become a patient in the URI (upper respiratory infection) Ward.

By the time I finally got to the ward, I could barely stand up. The medic in charge of the ward ordered me to get into bed and not to get out except to use the latrine (bathroom). I could have hugged him. I thought, a real bed – not a bunk, real sheets, a nightstand, and even cotton pajamas? Hell, maybe I wasn’t sick, after all. Maybe I died and this was heaven.

My euphoria (no doubt partially fever-induced) was short-lived, because I soon learned that, in the Army, you even had to be sick by the numbers. The Army knew how to get you better in days, because, after all, patient compliance is not an issue. It went something like this:

“You WILL stay in bed, unless you have to use the latrine.”

“You WILL gargle with warm salt water every three hours for five minutes.”

“You WILL have your temperature taken every hour.”

“You WILL drink a quart of fluid [which tasted like vitamin fortified Kool-Aid] every two hours."

“If your temperature rises to 101, you WILL be given an aspirin, and you WILL drink an quart of fluid, while the medic watches.”

“If your temperature rises to 102, you WILL be given two aspirins, and you WILL drink another quart of fluid, while the medic watches.”

“If your temperature rises to 103, you WILL be 'packed' in ice.”

I believe that I must have slept for almost 18 hours (except for the temperature, fluid drinking, and peeing interruptions).

Then my temperature hit 102. I thought, Oh Christ, one degree away from the ICE.

I was uncontrollably shivering from the fever. I don’t believe I ever felt so cold. The poor guy’s temperature in the next bed hit 103, and, as promised, the medics put ice packs under his neck, under his arms, on his abdomen and on his groin (my God!). I recall, at that moment, thinking, J-J-J-Jeeesus. If my temperature goes up to 103, I hope it immediately shoots right through 103 and soars to 105 and I friggin’ die. Dying has to be easier than having ice put all over you while you’re this cold.

Mercifully, I never hit the magic number. Maybe that’s because I drank (and peed) the gallons of mandatory mystery fluids, and gargled my ass off. When I wasn’t peeing or gargling, I stayed in bed. I would have done anything to avoid the ice.

The Army also capitalized on the importance of motivating you to want to recover quickly. This was done by telling you that if you were in the hospital longer than a certain time (I think a week), you would be RECYCLED. “Recycled” meant that you might well start basic training all over again, with a new unit. Believe me, the prospect of starting all over again was one helluva motivator.

So, in about four days, the Army’s cure by the numbers worked its magic. Once again, I found myself back in the ranks, humping a pack and rifle the 12 miles to the rifle range in single digit temperatures and then lying on the frozen ground while the march-induced sweat froze.

It was still better than being recycled.
~ Wednesday, January 22, 2003
 


Just got in about an hour ago. I'm too tired to write, but I see that Bill Mauldin, the Great WWII cartoonist, died. His cartoons of Willie and Joe captured the essense of being a soldier. Even though his Willie and Joe characters are WWII soldiers, I think that all soldiers since that time can relate. May he rest in peace.

Why, why, why do I persist in reading Maureen Dowd's column when all it does is aggravate the hell out of me? It is not unlike picking at a painful scab..
~ Monday, January 20, 2003
 
Protests. Much has been written about the protests that took place this past weekend. Instapundit did a wonderful job of bringing it all together, but I cannot resist sharing a thought or two.

First, I am saddened to see that any American would liken the President of the United States to Adolph Hitler. There have been a few presidents I have not been fond of, the most recent being President Clinton. He is a man I would not invite to my home, but I would never, ever think of comparing him to Adolph Hitler. I would urge those who are quick to compare any President of the U.S. to Adolph Hitler to put the protest sign down long enough to do a bit of reading about Herr Hitler.

Second, if one insists on finding a 21st century parallel to Adolph Hitler, one needs look no further than Saddam Hussein.

After World War I, a defeated Germany signed a peace treaty that banned Germany’s production of virtually all armaments (armaments were the 1930’s equivalent of “weapons of mass destruction”). Only a bit more than a decade later, Mr. Hitler, an Austrian born, itinerant postcard painter, and political thug, took control of Germany.

The thug proceeded to brazenly violate the terms of the treaty that ended World War I by manufacturing tanks, ships, planes, and guns. He made his intentions with respect to his weapons quite clear. He even stated them in a book he authored while in prison.

Herr Hitler built up his arsenal over the next six years, while the world community, desperately wanting peace, appeased him time and time again. Laughing at his appeasers, in 1939, Hitler used his newly manufactured arsenal to launch a Blitzkrieg against Poland. And the rest, as they say, is history.

As for Iraq, after having been defeated in the Gulf War a decade or so ago, Saddam signed a treaty that forbade the development of weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that, between then and now, he has violated that agreement by fostering a program for the development of such weapons, the United Nations’ cat and mouse game, twice played, notwithstanding. His intentions with respect to such weapons are beyond conjecture, as he has actually used them in the past. Furthermore, his intentions with respect to the United States are just as clear. He hates this country and its leaders. He went so far as to attempt to have a former President of the U.S. assassinated.

If history teaches us anything, it is that, as much as we fervently wish for peace, sometimes appeasement of a thug is not the answer.
~ Saturday, January 18, 2003
 
Vertical Butt Stroke. Even though the “vertical butt stroke” may sound like a groping technique or even a primer on personal hygiene, it is neither. It is one of a series of whacks, slashes and thrusts, collectively known as the “vertical butt stroke series.” Such was bayonet training in 1968 – 1969 in Army basic training at Fort Dix.

At this point in our training, we had spent a good deal of time on the rifle range learning how to shoot bad guys at long range. Now it was time to learn how to kill bad guys up close and personal. We were marched out to the bayonet training course, where the training was to be conducted by Sergeant Manzero (not his real name), who was the drill sergeant for one of the other platoons in the company. He was about 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a wiry, athletic build, and obligatory crew cut. He had recently completed his tour in Vietnam, and he was not to be trifled with.

I knew we were in for an interesting day when Sgt. Manzero began the training by announcing, “I am the best gott-damned bayonet fighter in the entire Unites States Army.” I cannot imagine that he thought that anyone would take issue with what I viewed as his dubious claim to fame; I certainly did not.

We learned the mandatory response to the question, which would be asked (yelled) by Sgt. Manzero on that day and by other sergeants thereafter. The question was, “What is the spirit of the bayonet?” The proper response was for everyone to shout in unison, “TO KILL, TO KILL WITHOUT MERCY, KILL, KILL KILL.!!!” The idea here, of course, was to whip one into an angry frenzy, because if it ever became necessary to actually engage in a bayonet fight, there was no substitute for killing the other guy. Sgt. Manzero also made it clear that there were two types of bayonet fighters -- “the quick and the dead.” I don’t know how the other guys felt about all this, but it sure scared hell out of me.

So, we learned to “fix bayonets,” to “parry” and “thrust.” We then learned the horizontal and vertical butt stroke series. By way of example, here is how the vertical butt stroke series works – by the numbers:

1. You run up to the bad guy while screaming your ass off (presumably so the bad guy will think you are nuts) and carrying your rifle with, “fixed bayonet,” in front of you at a forty-five degree angle (the “on guard” position).

2. When you reach the bad guy, you swing your right foot towards him while simultaneously thrusting the butt of the rifle upward into the bottom of his chin (the goal being to knock his head off).

3. With the rifle now shoulder high (and if the bad guy is still standing), you cross your left leg in front of your right leg while thrusting the butt of the rifle horizontally and forward aiming at the bad guy’s face (this should definitely knock the bad guy down).

4. You now bring your right forward while slashing the bad guy with the bayonet aiming to cut a line from the right side of his throat to his left groin (by now, the bad guy had better be on his back).

5. You now bring your left leg forward while simultaneously thrusting the bayonet into the bad guy’s chest.

The above was repeated and repeated and repeated on dummies until we could do it in one seamless motion. Between repetitions, we would answer the “Spirit of the Bayonet” question. To me, the thought of finding myself in a situation of actually having to use the vertical butt stroke series on a bad guy, who also had a bayonet on his rifle was enough to loosen my bowels.

Even Sgt. Manzero conceded that bayonet fighting was a measure of last resort because it meant that you were out of ammunition and in “deep shit.” He reminded us of another harsh reality (as if I needed yet another one). “If the other guy has a bullet in the chamber of his rifle, you will probably lose the bayonet fight.”

The idea of shooting at bad guys at some distance (and having them shoot back) was terrifying enough, thank you. But the thought of a bayonet fight to the death kept me awake that night, despite the customary basic training exhaustion. Even knowing that I had been trained by the best gott-damned bayonet fighter in United States Army didn’t help much.
 
I was very sorry to see that Spoons has decided to take down his Blog. His reason is that keeping up with the Blog has been taking his time away from other more important things. I think many of us can relate. I will, however, miss reading his "The Spoons Experience." It was one of my everyday reads. I hope he decides to cut back a bit rather than give it up all together.
~ Wednesday, January 15, 2003
 
A.W.O.L. It’s the acronym for being “absent without leave,” a subject that was stressed right from the start at Fort Dix, where in December 1968, thousands of draftees were being trained to be soldiers. On our first night in the Army, we learned what A.W.O.L. meant, and we were warned of its dire consequences. Anyone who is not “present or accounted for” is classified as A.W.O.L. So, if in the morning you are not “present or accounted for” you are technically A.W.O.L. Sleep late and no one knows where you are; you are A.W.O.L.

However, in 1968, the Army wasn’t terribly worried about late sleepers (although heaven help you if you did). Rather, the Army was concerned about maintaining control over thousands of draftees, who, by definition, did not choose to be there. The Army could ill-afford (and probably could not have effectively dealt with) having large numbers of draftees simply running away. To be sure, the Army did what it reasonably could do to make running away somewhat difficult. For example, someone was always awake patrolling the barracks as “fire watch” and, when outside, we were always in a formation being watched by the sergeants. Nevertheless, if one were determined to run away, it would have been relatively simple, particularly if one had a civilian accomplice. The accomplice could simply drive onto the base (Fort Dix was an open base back then), pick up the recruit, and drive him to “freedom.”

To deal with this relative lack of physical security, the Army constantly reminded us that going A.W.O.L. was futile because the military police (MPs) would track you down and bring you back. When you were returned, the consequences were directly proportional to the amount of time you had been A.W.O.L. In the worst case, being A.W.O.L. for more than thirty days got you classified as a “deserter.” We were told (and I believe accurately so) that deserters would end up in Leavenworth federal prison, serving the sentence for desertion in addition to the mandatory two-year hitch Army hitch. It was a grim picture, to say the least.

It wasn’t only the sergeants who preached about the evils of going A.W.O.L. On about the second or third night, the company attended a “Chaplain’s Orientation.” Even those of us who were not particularly religious were hoping that the Chaplain (presumably a non-Army, Army guy) would offer some measure of spiritual support, or possibly even some practical tips to cope with the craziness that had become our world.

The Chaplain began the orientation by saying in his soothing Chaplain’s voice, “Fellows, I know that many of you are confused (I was); many of you are anxious (I was), even frightened about what will happen to you (I was); many of you are homesick and do not want to be here (I was, and I didn’t), and maybe even some of you are depressed (I was that too). Well, fellows, I have some advice for you.”

I waited for some pearl of wisdom that would help me to effectively deal with my confusion, anxiety, fear, homesickness, and depression.

Here was the pearl of wisdom. The Chaplain stated, “Fellows, I know it’s hard, but don’t go A.W.O.L.” He then reiterated the same “you’ll get caught and really screwed” mantra we had heard from the sergeants. Inexplicably, he then told us to “be careful where you dip your wicks. You can catch some really nasty diseases.” I thought, “Don’t go A.W.O.L.? Be careful where you dip you wick? Yeah, there will surely be lots of wick dipping in Fort Dix. What planet is this guy from?” So much for spiritual guidance.

About three weeks later, we had about an hour of down time (which means you spent it spit shining boots and cleaning the barracks) before we were scheduled for another formation to march off to do one thing or another. All of a sudden, the sergeant burst into the barracks shouting, “I want a gott-damned formation in exactly five minutes! Move it. Move it. Gott-dammit. MOVE IT!!!”

We scrambled outside and saw that not just our platoon, but the entire company was forming up. The sergeants, who normally would be swaggering about, looked decidedly nervous. We knew that something was up. Then the Company Commander, a Captain, appeared, something that rarely ever happened. He looked angry, and he also looked nervous.

The Captain said, “I assume that many of you know Private Sanchez (not his real name). Well, I have some bad news about Private Sanchez.”

No one spoke. We waited for the bad news.

The Captain continued, “Gentlemen, Private Sanchez has just ENTERED THE WORLD OF SHIT. It seems that Private Sanchez has decided to go A.W.O.L.”

I immediately knew whom the Captain was referring to. Sanchez was the short, thin Puerto Rican guy who was in one of the other two platoons. He was a scrappy, tough, street guy. He was an excellent boxer who even had fought several professional flyweight bouts before being drafted. I specifically remembered him saying on a couple occasions, “I can’t take this shit, man. I gotta get the f*** outta here.” No one took him seriously. I certainly didn’t.

We again got the standard A.W.O.L. lecture, only this time it came directly from the Captain, and it was no longer theoretical. He told us, “The MP’s are looking for Sanchez now. And, gentlemen, he will be found, and, for his own good, he had better hope he is found in the next few days. But, in any event, gentlemen, you will not be seeing Private Sanchez again.” That meant to me that Sanchez would be spending time in the stockade (which I was told was one cut above a Turkish prison), or he would take basic training in Fort Reilly, Kansas at gunpoint, or he would wind up doing several years in federal prison. It was clear to me that this was not Army bluster; this was serious stuff.

My first, and extremely short-lived, reaction was one of admiration for Sanchez for having managed to rattle the sergeants and even the Captain, who doubtless would have to explain himself to the higher-ups in the chain of command. Surprisingly, however, that reaction was replaced with one of feeling sorry that Sanchez had done something that would screw up his life, and feeling that perhaps Sanchez wasn’t so tough after all. Hell, if I could “take this shit.” why couldn’t Sanchez?

Now that I look back on it, the Army may have failed with Sanchez, but it succeeded with me and others like me. Without even noticing our transformation, we were actually beginning to believe that perhaps we were tougher than we ever thought we could be.

Well, waddya know.
~ Sunday, January 12, 2003
 
Being new at sending my words and thoughts into cyberspace, I am gratified when I see that some people actually read the meanderings of a middle-aged Jersey Guy. I’m even more gratified when people actually like them enough to link to the site. In that regard, I noticed that I was getting referrals from Diminished Responsibility. Naturally, I checked out the site, and I found it to be well written, very well organized and full of extremely varied content – something for everyone. I’m making it one of my daily reads, and I recommend you do so as well.
 

USS Cole. Here are some great photos of the recovery of the USS Cole following its attack by Islamic Terrorists in Yemen on October 12, 2000. The attack resulted in 17 sailors being killed and 39 being wounded. The Cole, a guided missile destroyer, was recovered by the Norwegian heavy transport ship M/V Blue Marlin. Following extensive repairs, which included replacing 550 tons of exterior steel plating, the Cole, returned to the Fleet in April 2002.

Thanks to my friend Brian for sending me the photos.
~ Saturday, January 11, 2003
 


Night Infiltration and the Pathetic Mondo Kane Turtle. It was January 1969, during the final weeks of Army basic training at Fort Dix. We stood shivering on that frigid, moonless night, waiting for our turn to “go over the top” to begin the Night Infiltration Course.

The purpose of the Night Infiltration Course was to give us some sense of how it feels to low crawl (i.e. keeping one’s chest and belt buckle in touch with ground at all times) towards an objective, as real bullets zing overhead and explosive charges go off nearby to simulate incoming mortar or artillery rounds. Essentially, the course consisted of an area that seemed to me to be about three quarters the size of size of a football field. However, that is a guess, as it was too dark to see the finish line from where we were.

The beginning of the course consisted of a chest-deep trench, where groups of about ten waited until instructed to go “over the top.” At that point, the group would climb out of the trench and begin the crawl to the other end of the course.

As I was waiting for my group’s turn, I watched several groups before ours begin the course. The machine gun fire from behind and above was virtually non-stop, which suggested to me that there must have been at least two guns. One gun would fire while the other was being re-loaded. We had been “assured” by the Sergeants that the guns were locked into a position that prevented them from being fired any lower than about seven feet from the ground. Even though I was quite certain that we would not be machine gunned to death in Fort Dix, I still was not at all eager to crawl on the freezing ground under live machine gun fire. I really need this shit?

I watched as the guys in the group before mine crawled out of the trench and disappeared into the darkness, while the tracers (there are about a half-dozen bullets between each tracer) produced fiery streaks of orange-red light in the night over their heads. I was trying to determine whether the bullets were really as high off the ground as promised, but I could not tell. I could also hear the explosive charges going off in the darkness ahead, which lit up the immediate area around the charge, showing brief flashes of the men on the ground in silhouette.


The Sergeant told us to get ready.

I leaned my rifle against the wall of the trench and nervously checked my helmet and web belt (on which was my bayonet and entrenching tool) to make sure everything was secure. As I had done a couple thousand times over the prior six weeks, I wondered what the hell am I doing here?

It also wasn’t the first time I considered how incomprehensible it seemed that strategic decisions that had been made years before, at the highest level of government – indeed, in the Oval Office itself – could set off a chain reaction of events that eventually placed me in this damned trench, waiting my turn to crawl to God-knows where, while other guys fired machine guns over my head. What the hell am I doing here?

“OVER THE TOP,” the Sergeant hollered.

I dutifully climbed out of the trench and began the long crawl. Almost immediately, my helmet slid forward, almost falling off. Each time my helmet slipped forward, it knocked my glasses (army glasses) halfway down my nose. Just keep crawling forward, I told myself, and ignore the machine gun fire overhead. (Talk about a supreme exercise in self-delusion.) I continued crawling, all the while pushing my helmet back on my head, and pushing my glasses back onto my nose.

All of a sudden, KAAH-BOOM!!!!! One of the charges exploded about ten feet from me (the charges were surrounded by chicken wire to prevent someone from actually crawling over them), and I felt something hit me in the leg. I thought, Holy shit! Could I have been hit?? Jesus, nobody gets WOUNDED in FORT DIX!! After a brief moment of panic, I realized that what had hit my leg was just some dirt that the explosive charge had thrown off. I was happy not to be hurt, but even happier not having to explain to everyone how I managed to get wounded on the Night Infiltration Course, something for which one surely does not receive the Purple Heart.

I continued to crawl, dragging my rifle along, as instructed, so as to keep the firing mechanism free of dirt. My helmet and glasses continued to slip. I lost my sense of time and place. I just crawled and crawled. I was exhausted.

I must have looked like the pathetic turtle in the movie Mondo Kane. In nature, after emerging from the sea to lay their eggs inland, turtles instinctively crawl in the direction of the ocean to return to the sea. However, as shown in Mondo Kane, atomic testing near the turtles’ habitat had altered the genes of some of the turtles. The film focused on one turtle, which, after having laid its eggs, crawled in the direction away from the ocean. It continued to crawl in the wrong direction, a slave to its genetically altered instincts, until it could no longer propel its weight forward. It futilely pushed its flippers against the sand until it ultimately died of exhaustion. Yep. That’s me. The Mondo Friggin’ Kane Turtle.

I did not know how long I had been crawling, but I finally reached the trench at the end of the course. I was sweating and freezing all at the same time. I was covered with dirt and mud from head to toe, and my rifle was absolutely filthy. Even the rifle barrel was full of dirt, which would certainly have prevented it from being fired. The Sergeant saw the mud-caked rifle, took it in his hand, and got right in my face.

“What the f*** is wrong with you? Look at this gott-damned weapon. You got about a pound of dirt in the gott-damned barrel. You try to fire this weapon, and you’ll blow your f****** head clean off!”

He was right, but I really wasn’t paying attention to his hollering. I was too busy thinking about that turtle.
~ Thursday, January 09, 2003
 

It’s Not One of the Great Pyramids. It is, however, an interesting oddity in the Garden State. It is a 36 ton granite tombstone sculpted in the form of a full-sized 1982 Mercedes Benz 2400 diesel limousine. The details are here.

Jersey…Ya gotta love it.

 
Update. Sherry L. Murphy was arrested in the early morning hours. Unfortunately, this story continues to get worse.. The police also arrested a 45-year-old male “drifter” who confessed to having sexually abused one of the surviving children in the past. The so-called "drifter" is a friend of Ms. Murphy's and Melinda Williams, the abused children's mother. Human garbage.
~ Tuesday, January 07, 2003
 
Sherry L. Murphy, a 41-year-old go-go dancer, and alleged crack addict, is being sought by police in connection with what is euphemistically referred to as “child endangerment.” A visitor to Ms. Murphy’s residence in Newark, NJ found a 7-year-old boy and his 4-year-old brother concealed in a filthy basement, hiding under a bed, and “reeking of urine, feces and vomit.” The children were “malnourished and dehydrated, and their hair was covered with lice.” The following day, the 7 year old reported that his twin brother was missing. The police returned to Ms. Murphy’s house and found the missing boy’s body stuffed into a plastic container in a basement closet. An autopsy showed that the boy had died from starvation and blunt force trauma to the stomach.

Ms. Murphy, who was not present during either police search, was supposed to be caring for the three children while their mother (Ms. Murphy’s cousin) was serving time in prison for assault charges.

What makes this horrible story even worse is that the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services apparently had received reports of child neglect by the children’s mother, but did not investigate the matter. The Governor promises an “investigation.”

Authorities believe that Ms. Murphy may have fled New Jersey. If you happen to see this mutant, do your best to restrain yourself and just call the police.
~ Monday, January 06, 2003
 
Army Glasses. Sometime during the second week of Army basic training at Fort Dix in 1968, the First Sergeant directed all the men in the company who wore eyeglasses to march to the place on the base where the Army would see to it that we all received Army eyeglasses. After having already relieved everyone of their civilian hair, and civilian clothing, taking away our civilian eyeglasses would effectively remove the only remaining vestige of our former civilian lives. This de-individualization was critical to the process of turning each of us into a “Gorilla Stompin’ Mean Fightin’ Machine.”

We knew the Army glasses were on their way because a few days earlier, the sixty or so of us who wore glasses were marched to the same location where we were filled out forms and temporarily surrendered our civilian glasses for about an hour so that an optician (probably a former truck driver in civilian life) could put our glasses on that widget that allows matching lenses to be made.

Now the sixty of us were back in the same large room sitting on the floor waiting to be “issued” our Army glasses. (As I noted before, the Army never “gives” you things; it issues you things). A sergeant and two corporals entered the room. It was plain to see that “issuing” the glasses was going to be a three-man operation. Corporal Number One held a stack of eyeglasses. The sergeant had an alphabetical list of names that matched up with each of the pairs of glasses. I wondered what Corporal Number Two’s job was, but I soon found out.

Here’s how it went. The sergeant started at the top of the list, “Aardvark, Anthony A. Front and center! On the double. Remove your civilian glasses and stand at attention.” Pvt. Aardvark would move quickly from the floor to the front of the room, where he would stand at attention. Corporal Two would take a pair of Army glasses from Corporal One, and in one motion quickly push them onto the face of Pvt. Aardvark. (Ah ha! I realized then that Corporal Two was the eyeglasses “putter on’r”) Once that was done, the Sergeant would say, “Move out,” at which time, Pvt. Aardvark would execute an about-face and walk briskly out of the room and back to our regular barracks.

This was proceeding through the alphabet without a hitch. Indeed a certain fluid rhythm began to emerge. Sergeant calls the name, and the guy goes to the front. Glasses are pushed onto his face. He is told to “Move out.” He does and about face and walks out of the room wearing Army glasses. No problems.

Then it was my turn.

The sergeant barked, “[Irish last name], James A. Front and Center!”

I scrambled from the floor to the designated spot and stood at attention. The eyeglass-putter-on’r pushed the glasses on my face. I was stunned for a moment and then blurted out, “I CAN’T SEE!” Keep in mind that, until that time, the sergeant’s voice had been the only one heard in the room.

Sgt.: “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

Me: “I CAN’T SEE!”

Sgt. (looking momentarily puzzled, then looking down at his list and then back up at me) “ARE YOU [Irish last name], James A.?”

Me: Yes, sergeant.”

Sgt.: “You CAN SEE. MOVE OUT!” I swear that is exactly what he said.

I made my way to the door and walked back to the barracks, not without some difficulty and a fulminating headache. I truly could not see worth a damn with the Army glasses. I decided that I would risk the wrath of the Army by continuing to wear my civilian glasses, lest I injure myself or others because I could not see what I was doing while wearing Army glasses. I assumed that I was “issued” someone else’s glasses. Sure, I knew that I was [Irish last name], James A., but I knew equally as well that I could not see with those Army specs.

About a week later, we were scheduled for an inspection, which was no ordinary inspection (not that any Army inspection can reasonably be considered “ordinary”). This particular inspection would be conducted by the Company Commander – an eyeglasses wearing Captain.

During these inspections, one stands at attention at the foot of one’s bunk while the Captain and the Drill Sergeant inspect every inch of the barracks, every locker, and every, single detail of one’s attire. EVERYTHING had to be perfect.

When the Captain and the Drill Sergeant came to me, the Captain looked at my boots (spit shined) my trousers (recently starched, and meticulously bloused at the top of my boots), my belt (perfectly shined and centered), my shirt line (a perfect vertical line from the top of my shirt to the bottom of the fly in my trousers), the lower part of my face (cleanly shaven), and then he came to my eyes.

Captain: “You’re not wearing Army glasses!”

Me: “No sir.” (I had learned that one does not take opportunities like this to open a dialog, rather one just answers the question posed – even though, technically, the Captain had made a statement rather than having asked a question.)

Captain: “Do you HAVE Army glasses?”

Me: “Yes sir.”

Captain: “But you’re not WEARING Army glasses.”

Me: “No sir.”

Captain: “Well, where ARE your Army glasses?”

Me: “They are in my locker, sir.”

Captain: “Well, why aren’t you wearing them?”

Me: “Because I cannot see with them on, sir.”

Captain: “WHAT?”

Me: “”I cannot see with them on, sir.”

Captain: “You cannot see with them on?”

Me: “No sir.”

At that point, the Captain turned to the Drill Sergeant, and said, “Make sure that this man sees a doctor.” The Drill Sergeant said, “Yes sir,” and the two of them moved on to the next guy. Meanwhile I was thinking, You dopey bastard. Don’t you think there just might be something wrong with the f****** glasses and not with my f****** eyes? This is Bizarro Land.

The next day I found myself at the Army Hospital waiting to see an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist??? I could not believe that I had been ordered to see an ophthalmologist. These guys treat serious eye conditions and even surgery on eyes.

The doctor entered the room and said, “What seems to be the problem?”

Me: “I cannot see with my Army glasses.”

Doc: “Can you see OK with your regular glasses?” BINGO!! He was the first person who thought to ask me that question!

Me: “I see fine with my regular glasses.”

Doc. “Why did they send you to see me?”

Me: “I have no idea why they did that, sir. I was ordered to come here.”

Doc: “O.K. Well then, let’s take a look at those Army glasses.”

He took a quick look at my prescription and looked at the glasses.

Doc: (chuckling, sighing, shaking his head, and shrugging his shoulders) “I see the problem here. They put the left lens where the right one should be and the right lens where the left one should be. You have a pretty bad left eye. No wonder you couldn’t see. We’ll fix them right now.”

A few minutes later, I walked out of the hospital wearing my gray, translucent-framed Army glasses and wondering how I would survive the next two years in Bizarro Land.

~ Friday, January 03, 2003
 
Instant Money? On one of the streets where I walk in the mornings, H&R Block turned a vacant storefront into a large tax preparation center in something like three weeks. I walked past the place at about 10:00 a.m. on January 2, and saw that there must have been 25 people already waiting to have their 2002 income tax returns prepared.

I can only assume that they were there to get what H&R Block refers to as “Instant Money.” The advertisement says, in large print, “Walk in with your taxes. Walk out with Instant Money.” In only slightly smaller print, the customer is advised, “Instant Money. Why wait for your refund?” The customer doesn’t even have to worry about paying H&R Block that day for preparing and filing his tax return, because H&R Block will happily deduct it from the customer’s estimated refund.

I wonder how many people showing up for their Instant Money realize that what they are actually getting is a loan against an anticipated tax refund -- a loan that may come with a very hefty interest rate. It turns out that H&R Block does not actually make the loans, but rather it teams up with Imperial Capital Bank, and bank actually makes the loans. The bank is chartered in Delaware, where there apparently is no cap on interest rates.

Last year, Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer-director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, stated, “All consumer advocates [e.g. here] consider these refund anticipation loans to be predatory.” The same article reported that H&R Block has gotten into legal soup over the years for failing to fully disclose that the loans may be very expensive. To this, an H&R Block spokesperson responded, “."We think we do a very good job of making clear to our clients that, when they get a refund anticipation loan, it is just that -- a loan."

True, H&R Block’s ad does tell the customer in the “How it Works” Section of the ad, that “while you are there [having your tax return prepared], you can apply for a refund loan of up to $5,000,” and further states, “If you qualify, you’ll get your money on the spot.” However, if the customer wants to know who is making the loan and what the interest on the loan is, he is relegated to the fine print. There, those customers with good eyesight and the skills necessary to understand language carefully crafted by H&R Block’s attorneys are advised that a bank will actually be making the loan, that the bank determines what the interest will be, and that the customer will be advised of the interest rate and other fees either on a separate disclosure statement, or on the loan check stub.

You can bet the ranch that the separate disclosure statement referred to will only be provided in those states that specifically require it, and, even then, it will most certainly be about as clear as mud to the average Instant Money seeker. And, the practice of “disclosing” the terms of a loan on the stub of the check representing the proceeds of the loan is beneath contempt.

What is really sad is that H&R Block is preying on those who are most vulnerable – those who are likely filing low-income returns, who are living from paycheck to paycheck, and who probably need the money right away to make ends meet. I suspect there are even some people who need the money right away in anticipation of receiving credit card bills for holiday purchases, a factor, which doubtless did not escape notice by the H&R Block folks.

Maybe some day -- hopefully soon -- the IRS will figure out a way to handle electronically filed, low income returns rapidly enough to issue same-day refunds to those who truly need Instant Money.
~ Thursday, January 02, 2003
 
Test Day. The Sergeant, and the Wannabe“Remington Raider.” Once I passed my pre-induction physical (See, "Greeting" 12/12/02) and was re-classified from II-S (college student) to I-A (draft-ready), I began thinking (more accurately, worrying) about what job the Army would assign me to do for two years. This ever-present concern escalated dramatically following my induction in December 1968.

In the Army, one doesn’t speak of one’s job. Rather, each person is assigned a “Military Occupation Specialty,” or “MOS.” The Army has hundreds of MOSs, ranging from cooks and clerks and photographers, to infantry men. I spent countless hours wondering how the Army decides which draftee would be assigned which MOS. I knew all too well that, even if the Army had some rational process of making these thousands of individual personnel decisions, the process might well be trumped, or at least tilted, by the Army’s great need at the time for infantrymen (MOS 11B, or, as it is known in Armyspeak, “Eleven Bravo”).

This was so because the Army needed new, fresh infantrymen in large numbers in order to replace those who came home from Southeast Asia after completing their one-year tours, and those who came home in coffins. I also knew all too well that draftees stood an excellent chance of winding up in the infantry, because the technical MOSs (and therefore those less likely to belong to people returning to the U.S. in a box) were often staffed with the guys who enlisted and got to select their MOS, in return for an extra one or two years of service.

I admit it. The prospect of being assigned to the infantry frightened hell out of me. They were the poor guys we all had seen on the 7 o’clock news every night, humping packs and rifles through rice paddies and being killed by the thousands in a war that I never thought was a good idea in the first place. For numerous reasons (which might make the stuff of a future, more serious post), I had concluded that I would serve if called, but I would do whatever I could properly do to maximize the chance of not being shot.

I tried to think of something I had to offer, in addition to a college degree, that might convince the Army that I might be more useful to it by doing something other than toting an M-16. I realized that I had a couple cards to play, one being, in my sixties mind, the biggie. I COULD TYPE! (I also spoke and wrote passable German). I had to figure out how and when I could let the Army know that it had in its possession a guy who really could type – home keys, no looking at the keyboard – the real item. Remember, this was in 1968, back when computers were the size of a basketball court, and generally only women learned how to type. Men who could really type were a rarity.

It was settled. I would do everything I could do to be an Army Clerk Typist, or known somewhat derisively by the Eleven Bravos as a “Remington Raider.”

It looked like everyone’s one big chance to show his stuff was at hand, when one evening, a few days into basic training, the sergeants told us to be on our best game tomorrow because it was “Test Day.” [Not to be confused with the test that was the subject of "You Must have Cheated"] One sergeant explained that “Test Day” is the day that the Army would be giving us draftees about five hours worth of aptitude, achievement, and personality tests. The stated reason for the comprehensive testing was that it provides the Army with the means to capitalize on each draftee’s aptitude, abilities and personality characteristics in making MOS assignments. Eureka! So there was at least some evidence that the Army did not assign MOSs randomly. I asked the sergeant if a typing test was part of the process, and he replied that the typing test is a special test given after all the other testing is done. The same was true, he said, for foreign language tests. Special tests! I have two special skills! Yes!

My momentary (and increasingly rare) feeling of optimism was, however, short lived when the sergeant then said in a rich southern accent, “Hell, the truth is - them tests don’t mean shit. Y’all gonna wind up being grunts [infantrymen] anyway.” I was hoping that it was just a cynical comment designed to scare hell out of me (It did), rather than being a statement of fact or even an informed opinion. Nevertheless, I saw no downside in answering the questions on the tests (as well as demonstrate my flying typing fingers) so as to convince the Army that it could make excellent use of me for two years as a Remington Raider (and one who spoke German at that).

Test day had arrived. There must have been 300 of us in a huge room. The sergeant in charge, a shockingly articulate guy (I figured that he probably had a Masters Degree in English and enlisted to get the Testmeister gig), explained the various tests we would be given, and he confirmed that typing and foreign language tests would be given after the main testing was completed. There would be a lot riding on this – at least I wanted to believe that.

The tests covered everything from reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing skills (punctuation, word choice, etc.), and quantitative skills, ranging literally from simple addition to geometry and even a sprinkling of calculus. There were also tests of mechanical aptitude (gears, pulleys, levers), none of which were the stuff of a Remington Raider, and a test to gauge our aptitude for quickly learning to tell the difference between Morse Code’s dits and dahs coming through a headset first very slowly but ending up blasting through at machine gun speed. Finally, there were a couple personality inventories, presumably calculated to identify those among us who would do particularly well in a firefight or in a minefield.

My plan was to knock hell out of the reading and writing related tests and to try to answer the personality inventories in a manner befitting a Remington Raider. So, for example, one question might look like:

Given a choice, would you prefer to:
(a) go camping
(b) attend a sporting event
(c) participate in sporting event
(d) go hunting
(e) spend time in a library

Hunting? Camping? Sports? No way. Sounds like Eleven Bravo stuff to me. Remington Raiders like the library. Hey, I was desperate
.

After hours of exhausting testing, the Testmeister announced, “Any man wishing to take a typing or a foreign language test report to Sgt. Smith [not his real name] in the small room in the rear.”

My time was at hand. I walked back to the room, expecting to be one of a couple dozen guys seeking to take the special tests, particularly since foreign language tests were being given. To my surprise, there was only me, a Hispanic guy named “Angel” and Sergeant Smith.

Sergeant Smith must have thought this to be his lucky day because, at most, he would only have to administer two tests. It would be even better for him if he had to administer NO tests, which, judging by what happened next, is what he had in mind.

He started with Angel. “What’s your name, boy?”

Angel: “Angel [Clearly Hispanic last name]”

Sgt.: “What test you wanna take?”

Angel: “Spanish,” Sergeant.

Sgt.: “You speak and read m***** f****** Spanish?”

Angel: “I always spoke it at home with my parents and grandparents.”

Sgt.: “Sure, you may be able to SPEAK m***** f****** Spanish, but can you READ it?”

Angel: (Now, scared shitless – as was I, listening to this crazy exchange) “Well, I don’t think I read it that well; I can read it, but mainly we spoke it.”

Sgt.: “You best not be wastin’ my m***** f****** time here, boy. Don’t let me see that you can’t read that shit. Now, are you gott-damned sure you want to take this test?”

Angel decided that he really didn’t want to take the test, after all. Some picture -- a sergeant who barely spoke English in more than grunts scared a kid, who had spoken Spanish all his life, out of taking the test because he perhaps felt that he couldn’t read it like a Spanish professor!

Angel left. One down – one to go. Now, it was my turn.

Sgt.: “What’s your name, boy?”

Me: “James [Irish last name]”

Sgt.: “What language test you wanna take?”

Me: “German.”

Sgt.: (Exploding) WHAT?? You wanna take a m***** f***** German test with a last name like [Irish last name]? What’s a guy with a m******* f****** last name like [Irish last name] doing speaking German? Don’t BOOshit me, boy. You can’t really speak that shit.”

Me: “I believe I speak it well enough to take the test.”

Sgt.: (Getting really angry) “Well, can you READ it?” Here he goes again, I thought.

Me: “I can read it well enough.”

Sgt.: “You f****** BOOshitting me. Where you learn to speak that shit?”

Me: “In school.”

The sergeant ranted the same warning that he had given Angel to frighten him out of taking the Spanish test. I didn’t budge. This was my shot, and I’d be damned if I was going to let this lazy jerk scare me away just so he could have the rest of the day off.

Then it got REALLY crazy.

As the seargent was muttering and handing me that material for the German test, we had the following meaningful exchange:

Me: “When I’m through with the German test, I would like to take the typing test.”

Sgt.: “WHAT??? You wanna take TWO m***** f****** tests??? Nobody takes two m***** f****** tests!!!

Me: “No one ever said that one person could not take two tests.”

The Sergeant, apparently realizing that his on-the-spot concocted no-two-test “rule” wasn’t working, did a variation on the language rant.

Sgt.: “So, you must be some kind of m***** f****** smart guy. You can speak German AND you can type?”

Me: “I just want to take the tests, is all.”

Sgt.: “OK, you can take the m***** f****** typing test too, but you gott-damned better be able to type thirty-‘fie’ words a minute! Can you type thirty-‘fie’ m***** f****** words a minute?”

Me: “I think I can.”

Sgt.: (pointing out the window at a freshly snow-covered parking lot) “Listen up, boy. You BETTER type thirty-‘fie’ words a minute, or your wastin’ my m***** f****** time. If you wastin’ my m***** f***** time, you gonna shovel that whole m***** f***** parking lot your m***** f****** self.”

Wow. Talk about taking tests under pressure. And, to my mind, these weren’t tests that would make or break me for the Dean’s List. No, these tests could at least conceivably be a matter of life or death.

So, I took both tests alone, under the watchful and seriously resentful eyes of Sgt. Smith. When it was all over, he said that I had “passed” (whatever that meant) the German test and that I had typed forty-something words a minute.

It looked like I wouldn’t be shoveling the m***** f****** parking lot after all, but I fervently hoped that’s how Sergeant Smith would spend the rest of his m***** f****** day.

I left the room, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but even more hopeful that I still might become a Remington Raider.

Oh yeah. I took the tests wearing my civilian eyeglasses. I’ll tell you about Army glasses, but that's a story for another day.
~ Tuesday, December 31, 2002
 


HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
I wish everyone a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. See you in 2003.
~ Monday, December 30, 2002
 
Swizzle Sticks. While the origin of the term “swizzle stick” is less than completely clear, they are drink stirrers, usually made of plastic, which used to be available in virtually every bar. They often promoted brands of liquor, but they also bore the logo of the place serving the drinks, be it a hotel, bar, or even an airline. They are more difficult to come by these days now that bars often use those awful little, thin plastic straws as drink stirrers. Some people, obviously not knowing how silly they look, insist on drinking through those teeny straws. Yo! It’s whiskey, not a milkshake! Next time you are served a drink with a teeny straw in it, I suggest you use it to stir your drink, and then remove it. You might consider putting it in your pocket after each drink as a convenient way to remind yourself when you have had enough.

Not surprisingly, people collect swizzle sticks, and I enjoyed looking at the collections here, here, and here.

Here’s to ya!
~ Sunday, December 29, 2002
 


A Hockey Night for a Non-Hockey Fan. Last night I went with a friend to Continental Airlines Arena to watch the New Jersey Devils play the Washington Capitals. The tickets for the event came courtesy of my friend’s employer. No one I know would describe me as a sports fan, much less a hockey fan, but I have been to New Jersey Devils hockey games a couple times over the years (also with corporate tickets), and I attended this time, because it is difficult not to get caught up in the spectacle of it all.

It starts in the parking lot being surrounded by the tailgaters, ranging from folks who bring a sandwich to eat and a beer to drink before the game, to those who set up elaborate cooking areas and bring cases and cases of pre-game suds. Last night, we enjoyed it all vicariously, as it was below freezing and the thought of standing in the wind-whipped Jersey parking lot sipping a cold one didn’t appeal to me very much. So, we left the tailgating to the diehard Devils fans.

Once in the Arena and its large circular hallway, one is treated to another people show, the cast of which hustles in both directions simultaneously. I immediately began to think that I was the only person in the place who was not wearing some sort of Devils regalia. People were wearing Devils hats, Devils jerseys (adorned with their favorite player’s name and number), Devils Jackets (one guy was sporting a leather job that must have cost a small fortune), Devils Sweaters, Devils tee shirts, and a couple guys even wore Devils hardhats. The prize for the goofiest, I think, goes to the people who wear red devil’s horns on their heads that blink on and off. Some people carried homemade “Go Devils” signs, and a few even painted their faces to say, I assume, “Go Devils” (I found it difficult to read the face writing without staring directly into the faces providing the writing surface, something that made me, if not them, uncomfortable).

The circular hallway is also full of places that sell all sorts of food and drinks, including beer and I think even booze. The Devils Fan Club also mans a table, as do program sellers, and people who were taking applications for Devils Visa Cards (all the way up to platinum), which come with a free three-month subscription to Sports Illustrated Magazine. Of course, there were also numerous souvenir stands selling a dazzling array of Devils hat, jerseys, toy hockey sticks, and God knows what else. It was all flying by too fast, as I was working my way through the crowd to find our seats.

Upon exiting the circular hallway, one enters the seating area surrounding the rink. It is a case of an instant and pleasing audio and visual overload. All the arena lights are ablaze clearly showing the advertisements and corporate logos that cover seemingly every inch of the interior. Even the ice itself serves as a billboard displaying the "Bud Light" Logo under the playing surface. There are several huge TV screens on which there is always something (almost always promotional) going on. Both teams were in full force on their respective sides of the ice warming up by skating in all directions and slamming dozens and dozens of pucks to one another and at the team’s goalie. The goalies’ functional, protective outfits are also billboards for the teams’ colors and, with their elaborately painted facemasks, they look downright otherworldly to the uninitiated.

The sound of it all is also quite amazing. As the teams warm up, one can hear the multiple thwacks of the pucks hitting against the sticks as well as the noise of the skate blades cutting through the ice and against it as the players abruptly stop and change direction. Now and then a practice shot smacks into the glass (protecting the audience members from possible decapitation), which creates a sound that leaves little doubt about how fast those things fly through the air. All this is against the background of electronic music that is pumped through a well-equalized sound system that must be worth a gazillion dollars.

During the game’s many breaks in play, the action does not stop. There is a person dressed as a devil who shoots tee shirts from a special gun that can rocket tee shirts from ground level to the highest points in the arena. There is also a “Winning Section” game, which awards a single row of audience members, chosen at random, prizes that are handed out by the tee-shirt shooting Devil guy.

The huge TVs also fill in the play breaks with entertainment. For example, there is the “Kissing Cam” that focuses on two unsuspecting audience members for all in the arena to see. If they kiss, they are rewarded with applause, while refusals to smooch bring hoots and hollers from the audience. . Much like the “Kissing Cam,” there is a also a “Fan Cam,” which focuses on one or more fans who are the most creatively “Deviled Out.” Last night one of the favorites turned out to be an infant decked out in a pint-sized Devils jersey. The TV also entices audience members to visit the souvenir stands in the circular hallway during the intermissions, and informs parents that while out there the kids can have their picture taken with Scooby Doo (who looked to me to be about 6 and a half feet tall).

It was quite an amazing experience, but there is most definitely a rub, and that is, I cannot imagine too many families of four being able to afford to experience the whole show. Here are some numbers.

Tickets. Our tickets carried a price of $90.00 each. We sat in Section 117, which are very good seats, but one could pay more for even better seats. So, for Joe Working Guy, his wife and two kids, the seats alone would cost $360.00.

Parking. Our parking was included with the complimentary tickets, but parking normally costs $10.00.

Drinks and Food. If the parents might like two beers each during the evening, they come at $6.25 each (a can of Coors Light in a plastic cup), and the guy serving the beer has a tip jar. So, figure another $26.00 for beer. For kids, soda or milkshakes run about $4.75 each. If each child wants two, that’s another $19.00. Food is also extremely expensive. I don’t know about the fancier food items, but a couple pedestrian hot dogs can run $10.00. Two for each family ember totals up to something like $40.00. Toss in some fries and popcorn and you’re easily up to $50.00. (I saw dads carrying lots and lots of food and drinks).

Souvenirs. Let’s assume that the adults are not interested in souvenirs (although you could not prove that by watching the action at the counters), and that only one of the children wants a jersey, while the other wants only a hat (anyone with kids knows that this is a pretty gutsy assumption). The jersey will run about $70.00 and the hat about $30.00.

So, conservatively, it would cost a family of four something in the area of $555.00 for a night of Devils Hockey (not including a program, the Devils Year book, or the picture with Scooby Doo). Now, I am sure that it can be done cheaper. Cheaper seats, no food, no beverages, no souvenirs, no this, no that, – an evening of “no’s” to the children. Pretty sad picture, I think, and the people who are making all the money count heavily on that.

I am sure that sports journalists have a good deal to say about why it is that professional athletic events are becoming something that only well-to-do individuals and corporations can afford, so I will leave that to them. For my part, as much as I enjoyed the evening, I think for $555.00, a family could get more bang for the buck elsewhere. However, I am sure that the folks wearing the blinking horns on their heads would not agree.

Oh yeah, the game was very good. The Devils won 2 to 1 in overtime.


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