Thursday, December 29, 2005

Unbelievable! * Did Aliens Do That?

If a teenage kid who loves spending most of his waking day cultivating a vegetable garden is the definition of a geek, or a nerd—then I qualified in spades. But you know what? …I really could NOT have cared less. Back then; worrying about what other people thought of me was not high on my list of priorities. My very “un-cool” wardrobe attested to that (K-mart jeans, a couple sweat shirts, and a favorite flannel shirt).

I loved the entire process of gardening—from preparing the earth, to making the straight rows, planting the seeds, fertilizing, cultivating, and finally, the enormous satisfaction of harvesting our own fruits and veggies. When my dad’s “Organic Gardening” magazine arrived in the mail every month, I read it cover-to-cover, and couldn’t wait to try the various methods I read in it. Oh yeah, I was a nerd BIG TIME!

But this story is supposed to be about something unbelievable, and what could possibly be stunning and stupefying about gardening? Well, I’ll tell ya:

As I mention above, the concept of organic gardening was very appealing to me; and one of the basic premises of gardening organically is the use of mulch. I came to worship mulching, and I spent much of my time in search of materials that lent itself to it. Mulch is any organic, plant-based material; such as leaves, hay, straw, kitchen waste, animal manure, and grass clippings. I never stopped searching for it, gathering it, collecting it, bagging it, and then bringing it back to our family truck garden out behind our house, so I could MULCH it. After four years of non-stop dumping of organic materials into that large garden, it’s soil became so rich and black with humus that I could push my hands down into it up to my elbows with very little effort. For loam, it was a work of art Man!

But, I hear you say, “what about the unbelievable part?”

Early in the summer of ’75 my old man scored some old straw bales. Straw is what’s left of wheat or barley stalks after the seed has been harvested off it, and it makes GREAT mulch in that it doesn’t have to be “aged” in a mulch pit first. Hay bales, on the other hand, makes even better mulch, but the problem with hay is that it is filled with weed seeds that will immediately start sprouting, which means hoeing up the little weeds for weeks, until all the weed seeds are done germinating. Now, I would NEVER turn down hay—its fertilization properties are quite superior to straw; but, as I say, it takes some work. So, getting some clean, weed-free straw bales was awesome. Plus, it looks great around flowers and plants. I used it around the line of daffodils on the front border of our garden for aesthetics, and around our strawberries to keep the berries clean while they ripened. Good stuff that straw!

So, where is the unbelievable?

It rained the night after I had spread the dozen or so bales of straw over much of the garden. It was a late May shower that gave the soil a much-needed soaking just in time for the beginning of growing season. The next morning, I walked out to the garden to inspect its progress. The sun was bright in a cloudless sky; the air was fresh, moist, and still. Walking across our sopping lawn, I knew I’d never be able to walk the garden rows for the mud, but I figured to walk its perimeter just the same. When I approached the front edge planted with gladiolas, that’s when a chill went up my spine.

During the night, someone, or some mysterious force, had taken the individual straw stalks and had evidently carefully pressed each one into the mud, so that they stuck straight up into the air. Never having seen anything remotely like it, I stood there staring at those thousands of yellow stems poking perfectly perpendicular into the air, like an artificial lawn of extra long toothpicks. They poked out of the muddy, rain-smoothed soil about one stalk for each two or three square inches of garden area. There were no footprints to be seen, neither human nor animal, in the soft muddy garden soil. Actually, there was NOTHING anywhere that I could perceive that could possibly explain this strange phenomenon.

That fact that it seemed so inexplicable made me determined to figure it out. I knew it was some sort of natural occurrence; I just had to find it. I walked slowly up the side of the garden and continued to stare at the ground, my spine tingling deliciously at the mystery in front of me, occasionally stopping to cross my arms or to scratch my head. What the hell did that? By now, some of you already know what it was, but it took me a few more minutes to sort it out.

I crouched low to take a closer look at the forest of straw stems poking out of my garden soil. It looked even more intriguing from that lower angle, because I could see that virtually every single piece of straw had found its way into the soil, seemingly against all physical laws of science, AND common sense. Then I noticed a few traces of some thin trails across the mud leading to some of the stalks. I recognized them instantly as worm trails! A light went on in my head and I felt like a complete idiot, although a relieved one, that I had, at last, figured out the enigma of the straw.

That garden was so rich in humus and organic waste that it was, to all intents and purposes, a worm ranch. Every gardener worth his salt knows that the presence of earthworms is a sign of healthy and productive soil, and that worms help make it that way, AND keeps it that way. But even I had not realized how many damn worms were in that ground. A nightcrawler, especially after a night of rain, will come up and out, keeping their rear end locked tightly in their burrow, in search of any organic material suitable for eating that they can latch onto and then pull down into their tunnel. That’s what happened to my straw. These hungry annelids, denizens of the fertile loam of my garden, had groped out from their holes, found a piece of delicious straw, and then happily dragged it straight down into their underground homes for their dining pleasure. For a short time, it sure freaked me out. Bon Appétit my little worm friends!

Unbelievable! * Phantom Fire

There are times when one’s eyes behold strange and unexpected sights, things so unlikely that you doubt your senses. Everyone has seen weird things in their lives, especially me! Every day or so, I’ll be adding personal anecdotes to this posting under the primary title of "Unbelievable," stories that describe moments when I said, “Am I REALLY seeing this?”

It was 1981 at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. I stepped out of the relative quiet of one the Aircraft Generation Squadron buildings, and into disquieting noise, a racket that is ever-present on any active fighter aircraft flightline. I had just turned a piece of test equipment back in after using it to work on an F-4E Phantom, the aircraft then assigned to that base.

Above the usual flightline din, I heard what sounded like a small explosion that I knew immediately to be from a “cart start.” That’s when an aircraft is started without the use of a “huffer, ” which is a large, wheeled air-blowing machine. In an emergency situation, such as combat, a crewchief might help an aircrew start an engine using an explosive cartridge, or “cart.” This cart looks like a large shotgun shell, and when “fired,” forces a blast of air through the engine, spinning it’s turbine, and starting the engine. To stay in practice, cartridge starts were done on occasion, and that’s what was going on as I stepped outside.

I glanced over in the direction of the cart start; and there, about 200 feet away, was the cart-started F-4. Incredibly, I saw flames, at least 20 feet high, enveloping the entire back end of the huge aircraft. The engine was running normally, but half the airplane was covered in fire. Just as I noticed the towering flames, the enlisted crewchief standing in front of the airplane, whose job was to help “launch” the aircraft, also saw them. Overcome with panic, he ran, throwing down the headsets he’d been using to talk to the pilot in the front seat, and to the Weapons System Officer (WSO) in the back.

Inside their closed canopies, the pilot and WSO continued with their preflight checks, unmindful that they were sitting in a burning airplane. After a few seconds they realized their crewchief was no longer on mic. I could see them turn their heads left and right looking for him. Then the “back-seater” spotted the flames soaring directly over and behind him. His helmeted head struck the inside of the canopy as he rose up in alarm after releasing himself from his seat restraints, probably in record time. By this time he must have been yelling like a mad man into his microphone, because simultaneously the pilot’s head also whipped around, then both canopies popped open.

For the first and last time ever, I saw men leap directly from an F-4 cockpit to the ground. It was amazing. These two guys made that jump of more than ten feet look like they were merely exiting from a low-slung convertible; and when they hit the ground they did so with legs churning, cartoon style.

By then, everyone on the flightline saw the flame-engulfed F4, and a frightening sight it was. At first, I watched scores of airmen instinctively run away from the plane, knowing that it might explode. After less than a minute, however, they realized that that was NOT their duty, and overcoming their fear, everyone ran back. One crewchief, a Staff Sergeant, threw open the door that I had just exited, and screamed at the counterman for the Coleman keys. The young kid behind the counter was nonplussed, so the Sergeant vaulted the counter and grabbed the keys. A Coleman is a towing vehicle. The sergeant knew that the first order of business was to tow adjacent fighters away from the fire, and that’s exactly what was going on as I continued to observe the chaotic happenings around the burning aircraft, while staying out of the way of the flightline boys.

In no time at all the fiery fighter sat alone on the tarmac, while a single fellow, a young lieutenant maintenance officer I later learned, battled the blaze with a wheeled fire extinguisher. He might as well have been spitting at the huge flames, which by then must have been more than 30 feet high. The awesome inferno crackled like a grassfire, and belched ugly black smoke high into the air. A fire engine approached, blasting its horn at the lieutenant, trying to get him the hell out of the way, so they could use their top-mounted foam sprayer. At last, he understood and skedaddled. In a few minutes the sprayed foam beat the flames down and then distinguished them all together. Believe it or not, a depot-level team of metal workers rebuilt that burnt out F-4, and it flew again within a year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Serve for Citizenship--a Response

My new friend,Cutler, placed a first-rate comment in response to my last posting, “Service for Citizenship,” and rather than respond via another comment, I felt my reaction deserved it’s own new posting, mostly because it’s so danged longed. I DO go on!

Cutler: “There is an irony with Heinlein and Starship Troopers. He's a well-known libertarian writer, yet he borrowed many of the basic concepts of his society from Plato's authoritarian and communistic Republic. Specifically, a leadership Guardian class that rules a materialistic consumer and producer class. Where Plato went with this, a paternalistic and totalitarian state ruled by the betters, shows the potential pitfalls of creating a specific brotherhood of rulers apart from the rest of society.
Phil: First of all Cutler, thanks for your exceptional commentary; you gave me a LOT to think about. You’re right; a lot of what Robert Heinlein (RH) wrote was Libertarian, especially his newer stuff. Can you “grok” it man? It just shows you that no one can be put into any one philosophical box, especially Mr. Heinlein. I’m the same way; for instance, I like this one Heinlein concept, but I don’t sign on to ALL of his life theories. I pick and choose what makes sense to me, and I think RH did the same thing; just as you do I’ll bet.

I don’t buy that “earning” one’s citizenship necessarily, means that our admittedly materialistic society will become totalitarian, and be presided over by a brother and sisterhood (siblinghood?) of rulers. Switzerland is not totalitarian, yet they have a system of compulsory military service. They have no draft, but EVERYONE serves—at least the men do. But, as I said, I hate the idea of FORCING people into service, so I don’t like the Swiss way either. Heinlein agrees with me—he said in an interview (and I paraphrase), that a society that must be “forced” to defend itself is one that doesn’t even deserve to exist. He’s right. Every true citizen SHOULD feel that they have a stake in their nation, and I believe that there is no GREATER proof of that stake than when a citizen is “willing” to fight and risk life & limb for it. To let someone else do it for you—THAT makes you no better than a “kept” sheep!

Cutler: “Still, the problems we have are real. I agreed with Rangel's basic premise…”

Phil: Mr. Cutler, Rangel’s basic premise is that, by and large, most of the troops suffering and dying in this war are the very poor (mostly ethnic he claims), who have few life options. During a TV interview I heard him say that, in effect, these troops have NO CHOICE, except to serve in the armed forces—he actually called it a de facto draft. (Excuse me!) Even in Vietnam that assertion was a myth. As far as ethnicity and financial class, the casualty numbers match up with society. Most of the dead and wounded are white, and lower middle class to middle class. You’re correct; he’s a demagogue, and a divisive one at that.

Cutler: "Still, what do you think the goal of this program should be?
A. Is the goal of this is to put into charge a leadership class that has proven it can put the whole above themselves?”
Phil: I’m not willing to get wrapped around your Platonic axel, Mr. Cutler; and I don’t think Heinlein was actually looking for the formation of a leadership class either. MY premise, if not his, is that NO ONE should reach the level of FULL citizen, until they become qualified to do so. Remember, the primary goal is NOT to be able to hold government office, but to be able to vote. FULL citizenship would mean FULL PARTICIPATION. Granted, the leaders would come from this qualified pool of “veterans,” but not all would be leaders, or would opt for continued service in government positions or to hold office.

Cutler: “B. Is the main purpose the more limited goal of a broader range and larger amount of recruits? Or, C. A combination of these two and others?”
Phil: The main purpose would NOT be to have more recruits lined up waiting to serve, and neither would it be to get a broader base of citizens into uniform; however, all those are positive aspects. If all the rich folks sons were happy to stay “sheep,” and so never have a say in their destinies, then they would have the freedom to do so. The same thing would apply to any citizen from any class. Ultimately, it would still be a free society, where people can choose to serve or not, but if they choose NOT, then they sacrifice FULL citizenship. Progressives hate this concept, because most don’t UNDERSTAND the concept of service, and self-sacrifice. They are great at talking the talk, but they suck at walking the walk.

Cutler: "Addressing B, I wonder if, even taking into account the obvious advantages of a more motivated volunteer force, perhaps it is ultimately a dream to believe you can attract enough people from such a pampered societies as ours to put themselves under fire. Perhaps, I am overly cynical, but I remember that even World War II required draftees for the vast majority of the army, inefficiencies that it caused be damned.”

Phil: The history of the draft in the US is a story to itself. Lincoln resorted to it out of necessity, and the South pretty much threw ALL able-bodied (and not so able) men into uniform. We used it in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. MY point is we NEEDED to use it, because we DIDN’T have a system requiring service for FULL citizenship. But also consider this—some enlistees join up for no other reason other than the desire to serve. (Note: take a look at my retirement speech). I’m sure I wasn’t the ONLY “true believer,” as many of us are want to call ourselves.

Cutler: “Now, of course, this was also due to the scale of the effort, and we do not seem on the verge of a major transnational conflict. But in decades, that is not guaranteed, and in the present a non-nuclear war with relatively small North Korea would force us to reinstall the draft, inefficiencies be damned. The military is large enough for our current half-efforts [Iraq/Afghanistan are not big wars, even with our large goals], though barely, but not for a bigger and more manpower intensive conflict.”
Phil: War on a larger scale is always a bridge to be crossed when we get to it. But it would have to be a VERY catastrophic bridge before the draft would need to be reinstated. I say we STILL would NOT have to resort to it.

As you say, currently, The Terror War is a very low intensity conflict, and mostly we are fighting it unilaterally. While OUR troops number in the hundreds of thousands, our pusillanimous allies provide troops only in the low hundreds. But, were a wider conflict to pop up, all bets would be off and we would move the hundreds of thousands of troops and equipment not currently involved in SWA into the newer, more dangerous situation. And if need be, we could use our SWA troops as well.

In reference to our current, as you say, “half efforts,” I think you mischaracterize them. We are using ONLY the force we NEED to succeed, just as we expect our police ONLY to use just enough force to keep the peace. In Iraq, we use just enough resources to train the Iraqi police and army, while at the same time to hold off, if not defeat, the insurgents/terrorists.

And if you think we would need the draft to quell an invasion from North Korea, you are WAY off the mark. THAT mission would be over AND WON long before any draftees could be mustered, trained, armed and shipped. The North Koreans are WAY overrated; and together with the very competent, well-armed South Koreans, we would defeat the North Koreans faster than you think. The problem is they will go nuclear in a dying spasm of defeat, but even that would NOT change the outcome. Granted, it would be messy, but winnable within our current framework.

The only way you would be right about having to bring back the draft, would be if China acted up and even then, ONLY if we lose our presently HUGE advantage in technology. Then again, every time we buy Chinese products from Sears and Walmart, we help them to catch up to us. But even against the Chinese, I believe the draft would only be an extreme, temporary measure.

Cutler: “My point is, that there is a line upon which the volunteer military, for all its benefits, is a liability. If the Army is struggling to attract manpower, even though it is relatively small considering the extent of its responsibilities, perhaps we are reaching that line?”
Phil: You wander off topic a bit here my friend; again, you are looking at the current system, which does NOT require service for Full Citizenship. In effect, you make my point. Also, as I ask rhetorically in “Serve for Citizenship,” and which you so eloquently agreed with, if we were not winning the Terror War so easily, would people continue to take the need to serve so casually? Most folks don’t enlist now because they don’t feel a pressing threat, BUT when the “towers” came down, recruiters had a fairly easy time getting young men and women to serve, at least for a time. As you said, Cut:

Cutler: “I believe this is real key. People do not realize the urgency, if indeed there is one.”
Phil: It seems that very few democrats, except for “intelligent” ones like Sen. Lieberman, and even fewer far-left liberals, think there IS any REAL threat. It seems that liberals want to sweep 9/11 under the rug, calling it an anomaly. If they had their way, there would be NO American military at all—and then, as far as they are concerned—PROBLEM SOLVED!

Cutler: “Professional armies are not the norm in human history.”
Phil: Could you qualify that statement? The United States is FOLLOWING the historical norm, when you look at it from the standpoint of what other superpowers from the past did. Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, the British Empire, and many others—all those conquering entities kept huge professional armies of some type or other. And since learning the lessons leading up to our involvement to WWII, so have we. Actually, we have been at war since WWII, on some level or another, which explains why we did NOT demilitarize like we have after past wars.

And finally, we are at a vastly lower manpower and weapon system level, in terms of numbers, since the 80s. Don’t forget, in the 80’s we were as big and as powerful as we EVER were. I’ll dare say we could have easily defeated our monstrous WWII forces with a fraction of our Cold War forces. And the reason I bring that up is because our armed forces in the 1980s were COMPLETELY MADE UP OF VOLUNTEERS! We did it then, we can do it again. So, no, the draft is NOT an issue. The issue continues to be:

Why does the rich feel like it’s just fine to let someone else’s kids defend their way of life; and would Heinlein’s concept of “Service for Citizenship” be a solution?

You KNOW how I feel about it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

SERVE For Citizenship

Robert Heinlein, a prolific and provocative science fiction writer, pounded out his novel, “Starship Troopers,” in the 1950’s, quicker than most of his other many works; but regardless of the speed with which he wrote it, as soon as I read it, some 40 years after it was published, it replaced “Stranger in a Strange Land” as my favorite Heinlein creation.

Hollywood made “Troopers” into a movie in the late 90’s, which for me was a little disappointing. What I did like about it though, is that the primary theme of the book was kept intact as a sidebar. The point Heinlein made in the book is that citizenship should NOT be simply “given” to someone based strictly on birth, or even by passing a written naturalization test. He asserted that FULL citizenship, he defined as the right to vote and run for office, should only be “earned” by successfully completing a tour in the armed forces, or if physically unable, through some other form of service to country.

Let’s examine WHY I love Heinlein’s requirements for FULL citizenship, based on concepts currently in place and their inherent flaws:
· Currently, any citizen can vote as long as they aren’t imprisoned, and if they meet prerequisites established by Federal and State law.
· At this time, any citizen can run for office as long as they meet similar voting requirements, although, a notable exception is that no one born outside the U.S. can run for president—so that excludes me and Arnold Schwarzenneger—Damn it!
· Presently, the armed forces are “manned” by men and women, some of whom are NOT even American citizens, and EVERY ONE in uniform is a volunteer.

So, why do I believe that our existing systems (U.S. military manning & citizenship requirements) are imperfect? After all, the ranks of all the service branches are fully staffed; although some recruiters are hard-pressed to meet their monthly recruitment goals, especially considering the present shooting war; and even worse, as far as the recruiters are concerned, that our economy is doing pretty well.

The primary problem I have with the current system is the same problem that New York Congressman, Charlie Rangel, has with it—that only a certain segment of American society is CHOOSING to serve. Where I part ways philosophically with old “race card” Charlie is that he claims that the brunt of the fighting and dying is being done by mostly the very poor or jobless. The problem with his argument is that he cannot find any statistics to bear him out. Basically, he’s “full” of it. The very poor do NOT generally sign up, especially for combat arms, and neither does any particular ethnic group, at least not in numbers out of proportion to their percentage of the population.

So, here’s where I think there IS a problem—that rich and upper-middle class people do NOT feel compelled to suffer the hardships of a tour in the military whatsoever. Primarily, the country is being defended by the sons and daughters of our Middle and Lower Middle Classes; and not by the poor, and even LESS so, by the rich.

The first question is this: Is it REALLY a problem—that certain classes of our society, namely the Upper Middle Class and the Rich, do NOT feel compelled to risk life and limb for their country? Are they less patriotic and more selfish than Middle Class youth, OR are they just unmindful? To the question: Is it a problem? —Rep. Rangel and I both say, “YES!” Mr. Rangel even says that, as a solution, we should bring back the draft.

Of course Rangel is being disingenuous—He doesn’t REALLY want that at all; he just believes that if a bunch of rich Republican’s had sons forced into uniform for impending shipment to Afghanistan and Iraq, or to the next “hotspot,” that they would be a lot less enthusiastic to rush us off to war. And he’s got a point—that’s why the French maintains a foreign legion—who is going to complain back home, when there are no moms and dads worried about their kids?

It seems to me, that a big reason there is a lack of interest in rich folks volunteering to serve, can be attributed to the fact, that so far, our military, police, and special agents have been GREATLY SUCCESSFUL in the current war against the terrorists. According to a poster pushing the importance of flu shots that I just read at the Manila Veterans Clinic, we lose 36,000 people per year to the flu. Compare that huge number to the less than 3,000 troops that have died fighting our enemies in the current Terror War since we invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. While terrorists have successfully hit on a grand scale places like Spain, Bali, Jordan, and England, they have NOT been able to do any real harm again on U.S. soil. That’s a pretty good interim measurement of “success,” as far as I’m concerned. But IF instead, we were STRUGGLING against the terror mongers, would there then be such an apparent lack of interest in WHO among our society become casualties of war?

Also, the fact that our way of life has barely hiccupped, even as we fight this war, that alone makes it quite easy for our affluent citizens, who are apparently self-centered anyway, and with better things to do with their “more important lives,” to simply ignore the whole thing. These people carry on with going to expensive schools, and increasing their fortunes, while doing so at the expense of those relatively few who have submitted themselves to the hardships, dangers, and low pay of military life.

All three of us—Charlie Rangel, Robert Heinlein, and I—we all say that a situation where only a FEW preserve the liberties of the many, is wrong, wrong, wrong! This is especially unfair when these few come from only a single part of society—financially speaking, the lower middle class to middle class.

But, reinstating the draft is NOT the answer to correcting this wrong. I hate the draft. Forcing people to serve is the LEAST effective way to “attract” motivated people into the military. “Drafting” is the antithesis of “attracting;” and the best troops, those most receptive to training, and those most willing to “close with and destroy the enemy,” are naturally going to be those that willingly volunteer.

Drafting people is just plain counter-productive, because for the most part, you end up with a bunch of individuals who DON’T want to be there. The draft causes morale problems, and the “unwilling” it puts into uniform just won’t work as hard to accomplish mission goals when their hearts aren’t in it. Today's professional military is perhaps the most highly motivated, and best trained, of any we’ve ever fielded; and it’s success has proven that it is the ONLY way to go, especially when it comes to fighting a war heavy on high-tech.

So the draft is OUT, but how do we answer the cultural problem that exists—of getting the pampered sons of rich men—to VOLUNTEER? Heinlein has the perfect answer—change the Constitution to state that ONLY those that have served in some capacity have the right to vote and to run for office.

Think of it. There would be no more “chicken hawks,” as the dems like to label people like Vice President Cheney, and even Senator Hillary Clinton, whom have never served in the military in uniform, while supporting the use of arms to protect the country’s interests.

And the best reason of all—if RICH people want to run for office, they MUST serve in the military, FIRST! It’s perfect, as it addresses the societal question: is the country really best served when ONLY mostly privileged people serve in office that have NEVER had to exert themselves elbow-to-elbow with the rest of us? What better way for these pampered few to get a dose of “real life,” than by “serving in the trenches” for their country? Let's face it, nowadays only people with money can AFFORD the costs of running for office, and that's NOT going to change. So, it's important that we get more of them with some military experience under their belt.

Academics and cultural elite HATE this particular Heinlein concept. They have called him everything from a militarist to a fascist. Of course, they are idiots. What is their solution? They have none. They are ALSO against the draft. Remember the 60’s—“Hell no, we won’t go!” Those are the same people who came up with that silly saying. Thank goodness that the existence of the All Volunteer Force precludes them from being able to parade around, while yelling that ridiculous inanity. For the most part, these people despise the military, and deny we even need it. This makes it easy to discount most anything they have to say about it. Their absurd belief that America is the “jack of all problems,” that we are inherently evil, and that we DESERVE to be attacked and destroyed, ALL THAT makes them irrelevant in the discussion. So, enjoy your latte and continue to look down your haughty noses at the very people who give you the right and ability to yammer and think up clever catch phrases. Most of us who have operated in the REAL world realize how truly inconsequential you are when it comes to actually solving real world dilemmas. In other words--you pontificate, while we get things done!

Problem is, most of those in the mainstream media, and educators at virtually all levels, have already been brainwashed and tainted by the "military haters" in academia. And worse, the people who pursue careers as educators are the philosophical clones of the professors who trained them. Liberals breed liberalism. It follows: who has first access to the youth of America, our future soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen?--so-called "progressive" anti-military educators, that's who! It's a wonder that ANYONE enlists. So how are we going to get rich young people in the process of acquiring an eduation to WANT to enlist, when their minds are being poisoned against joining up in the first place? The young and impressionable are the easiest to influence, and they certainly are; therein is the problem.

So, the ranks of the military will continue to be filled, by and large, by young patriots from small towns and suburbs. College professors will continue to poison their students against military service, especially students who are very rich, and very liberal. Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not when you look at who DOESN’T serve in uniform—it’s NOT the very rich, and there certainly aren’t many dyed-in-the-wool liberals lining up in front of recruitment sergeants either! It's sad to say, but UNTIL there is some kind of incentive for them to do so, rich men's sons will rarely consider serving even a second in the armed forces. As far as RICH young liberals serving, THEY are a lost cause!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Past

My parents always did a great job of making our Christmases impressive and unforgettable.

Visually, the season for us began for us as we watched and helped our Dad decorate the outside of the house with Christmas lights. Sometimes, he’d get really creative, like when he made his display complete with hi-fi speakers placed outside to play his favorite Christmas music. That was in Texas. After work, he’d sit contentedly on a folding chair in front of the house, right in the midst of his festive creation and exactly between the two stereo speakers, where he’d savor a beer while enjoying the music.

Aside from putting up the outside lights and decorations, there was a whole series of successive events that, for us kids, marked and counted down the days to the anticipated BIG day. We didn’t do them all at once; instead, each occasion became its own special moment.

The day after Thanksgiving, in late November, is when the entire Christmas hubbub started. That was when we’d start bugging Mom about presents we might get from “Santa.” My dad dusted off the Christmas albums and every evening we’d listen to Perry Como and Andy Williams croon the old favorites during dinner. Good stuff that!

I can’t remember when my mother started it, but a neat family tradition came into being involving our little nativity display. My mom and dad acquired it before I can remember. For years, the manger scene included the original wooden structure that came with the ceramic figurines. Eventually, the manger became dilapidated after our many world-wide moves, and my dad, always the do-it-yourself carpenter, made a larger and more elaborate one, which included a beautiful plywood backdrop painted with a Christmas star against a blue-black nighttime Middle-eastern sky. The first day, we put up only the manger. The second, we put out one of the tiny painted figures, maybe a donkey or a sheep. Everyday, we put out another piece, saving the last and most important one, the Christ Child, for Christmas Day.

At least once and sometimes twice, about a week or two from December 25th, we took a family drive through out the nearby neighborhoods, and we’d ooh-and-ah at people’s Christmas displays. Some folks would REALLY do it up big. One thing I’ve noticed—the further south you go in the United States, the more elaborate and gaudy the displays. I think the lack of wintry Christmas weather causes folks down in Dixie to compensate with displays that are really more like showy Christmas spectacles, compared to the simple displays you normally see up north. We certainly didn’t complain—we kids loved every blinking light; gigantic Santa; and life-sized Jesus, Mary and Joseph we saw.

As we got older, and settled in Michigan, we started to include in our countdown ritual the practice of caroling. I wasn’t big on it, but I’d go along on occasion. Usually, we’d pick a night that was deliciously snowy, and we’d go out in two or three cars to people’s homes, but we only sang to people we knew. We didn’t want to risk singing to a bunch of grumpy scrooges; besides, our friends would always invite us in for hot chocolate. I grudgingly admit, there is something to be said for Christmas in cold climes, but for me, those days will REMAIN pleasant memories, thank you very much.

Another custom, especially for me, was making a list of presents for each of my siblings and for my mom and dad. I was never a shopper, I’m still not, so back then I’d get my mom to take me shopping so I could buy each of the gifts on my list all at once. What a relief to get that out of the way. I’m such a "guy" when it comes to shopping. It comes slightly ahead of going to the dentist on my list of preferred activities.

Going out and buying our tree was a huge day on our countdown calendar, usually about two weeks from Christmas. Depending on where we lived, sometimes it consisted of simply going to a lot filled with trucked in, pre-cut trees where we selected the perfect one. However, The BEST way was when we would go to a Christmas tree farm. The very best tree farm memory for me is the time we went to one with my Uncle Mike’s family. It was a cold, snowy day and the farm was filled with beautiful, well-shaped spruces and pines. With our faces splotchy from the frosty air, we examined tree after tree though falling snowflakes, until each of us had found the ideal tree. But no, there was a nicer one further on, and so it went.

Eventually, each family came to a consensus, with, of course, the final decision for each made by the adult men. Then, we brought out the big bow-shaped, red-handled branch trimming saw. The men lay on their sides on the snow and pine needles, and quickly sawed through the doomed tree’s base. We kids pranced and laughed like little druids as we followed behind the dragged carcass of our selected trees, all the way back through the rows of standing trees, back to our cars. Depending on the type of vehicle, we either tied the tree to the top, or placed it diagonally in the trunk, or out the back, if it was a station wagon. Hot chocolate never tasted better then after an afternoon of “slaughtering” Christmas Trees! (grin)

That night, we’d set up the tree on it’s metal stand, that included a bowl for water, carefully ensuring that it stood absolutely vertical, as Dad turned and tightened down the four thumb screws into the tree’s sappy wood. When it was perfectly straight and secure, we turned the tree around and around, until we were satisfied that the fullest, best-shaped branches faced out and away from the wall.

Perhaps that night, or the next day, we brought out boxes and boxes of Christmas tree decorations. These baubles, lights, garland, and tinsel went on in a specific order. First, we put on the lights. These strings of colored bulbs usually went on from top to bottom and were arranged and rearranged until when lit, they seemed to cover every blank space on the tree. This was the least fun of all things going on the tree, so we let the big people worry about that, until we became big ourselves that is. Then if we used garlands, it went on. Next, we brought out the glass ornaments, each carefully stored inside cardboard holders and as the years went by, inside foam ones. Every year we accidentally broke at least a half-dozen, so new ones would join the collection, including big fancy ones with each of our names. ONLY the owner of each of those ornaments could place that particular one on the tree, so the “named” bulbs went on first.

After all the ornaments were on, with every branch having at least one or two baubles hanging from it, that’s when we placed tinsel on each branch until the whole tree shimmered with it. Depending on our disposition, some of us kids would throw it on, while others of us were more likely to carefully place each foot-long piece across a single needle or branch. I was torn between the two methods and did both. Once the tree became our finished masterpiece, we’d truly complete it by placing the biggest ornament of all, the glass Christmas Star, on the very tiptop of the tree. This required a ladder, and once my dad had placed it on the top, we knew it had officially become OUR tree.

A week or so before the 25th, we hung up our big red stockings over the mantle, one for each member of the family, each stocking designated by name; and we actually HAD a mantle once we moved to Michigan, which was nice after years of "pretend mantles."

We usually went to midnight Mass, which began at midnight, but we’d go early to enjoy an hour of choir-sung Christmas carols and hymns. When we came home, we delightedly placed the final ceramic piece, the baby Jesus, into the manger scene. Next, we each opened one present. The final thing we did before hitting the hay, was to set out a plate with a cookie on it, along with a glass of milk for Santa to enjoy. After all, we wanted to make sure he actually came. After that, we went to bed. The late Mass was tiring for us kids, so we quickly fell asleep.

The next morning, festivities began when the first kid awoke; usually Kevin, but not always, and then that kid’s excitement ended up waking the rest of us. Our screams of delight would wake up bleary-eyed parents, who’d been up much of the night, putting together bicycles or dollhouses, and placing so many wrapped presents under the tree that it looked lost under a sea of brightly colored, bow-sprinkled gifts.

Dad always took his seat on the lounger or in a big stuffed chair, and Mom found her place near him as well. Then, each of us became a Santa’s helper, which meant we would examine each present, read the tag out loud—who it was for and from whom—and then hand that present to it’s owner. This went on until ALL the presents were stacked next to each family member. Mom and Dad usually had a small number of presents, while each of us had as many as 8 or even a dozen or more presents. As we got older, we got fewer presents as our older tastes required more money per gift. I always hated getting clothes, and loved getting games, art supplies, books, and toys.

Once all the gifts were in the proper piles, we took turns opening each. We would examine the tag, and read it aloud, “From Santa, To Phil!” or “From Mom and Dad, To Kevin.” If it were from someone present, we’d hurriedly say thanks and then rip into the beautifully wrapped present, or carefully remove it, depending on the kid and their age. (A psychologist can probably analyze someone by watching them open Christmas gifts). Sometimes there was a shriek of excitement, or perhaps, if a sweater or a shirt, it would be held up with a polite smile and a spoken Thank You.

When all the presents were open, we’d gather the empty boxes, paper and bows for disposal, usually into two or three large plastic garbage bags or into one of the many big empty present boxes. After that, we were free to play with our presents. We’d go outside and ride our new bicycles, skateboards, or roller-skates. Or perhaps shoot some baskets, throw a football, play lawn darts, or go to our friends’ houses and see what neat things they got. Those were good days indeed. I’m interested to know from my brother and sisters--Kevin, Mary Kay and Gail--if their memories are similar to mine, and what traditions I might have forgotten or left out. Comments anyone?

Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Enemy Within

I came back from the American Embassy in Manila two days earlier than scheduled after finishing Service Officer training. Completing it so soon wasn’t much of a surprise, considering I’ve already been doing the work for three years. During my stay in the capital, however, something happened at the embassy that reminds me that I have a serious problem.

My problem is Depression. Not everyone reacts the same way to this disease, or mental condition, or state of mind, or whatever it is. I think it must be more disease than anything else though, because over the past three years I’ve been prescribed a host of medications to control it, although so far with little or fleeting success. My primary symptomology includes sleeplessness, agitation, and moodiness. Moodiness is another way of saying I snap at people. And after I snap, I feel regret about having lost control, although not to the point that I feel compelled to apologize. Actually, the regret causes more anger—at myself, and then at everyone else, and I do mean EVERYONE else. Ultimately, the anger feeds on itself. Once the angry button is pushed, that’s it. Its slippery slope time—there’s no turning back, and truthfully, I don’t want to. The “mad monster” inside me takes completely over, and wants to feed. This monster sees a potential adversary in the face of every person he encounters. It’s ugly.

I admit that the incident at the embassy resulted mostly from my own doing—as usual. The ease at which I become agitated causes me to over-react, and that is what I did. There is no separate entrance for Americans, and there are several security checkpoints and doors that have to be passed through. Each door and checkpoint can and usually does involve standing in line. In two of the lines, Americans are usually allowed to pass through ahead of the locals by showing their American ID. This means going ahead of long lines of Filipinos. Having to do that makes me feel like a huge jerk to begin with, but my stress level really starts to rise when I have to state my business before being allowed to pass into the embassy grounds. At that point I begin to revolt against authority, against “The Man,” and that sets up my “bad” attitude as I continue the process of getting into the building.
Next, comes the wait to go through a door into an anteroom that contains metal detectors and xray machines. Only five people are allowed in at a time, so you have to wait outside the door while the long queue of locals stare at you as you cut in front of them. A Filipino guard stands there and manages this entrance. Sometimes he tells Americans to get in line with everyone else, but usually the US Citizens just cut in line and wait to enter as the next group of five. On the third day of class, the guard outside the door to the metal detector decided that ALL Americans had to wait in the line with the multitude of Filipinos. Since I work in the embassy, I went directly to the door like I always have, although I have no permanent badge yet.

The guard was on me immediately, demanding, “Sir, please get in line.”

I looked at the line and saw that it snaked under a pavilion with at least 60 people already waiting in it. I refused, telling him, “Look, I WORK in the VA. I’m NOT getting into that line.”

Distracted, he turned from me to order around another group of newcomers, so I went back to wait outside the door. He came at me again looking determined and annoyed. “GET in line!” he demanded.

I snapped. Surging with adrenaline, I gritted my teeth to keep from shouting, “I’m not getting into THAT line. Call the director of the Veterans Administration and tell him I’m out here waiting to get in. Do it now and stop messing with me! …To hell with this! Where’s your supervisor?”

He pointed toward another guard behind an information window, and I got into THAT line. By the time I got to the front of THAT line I was furious beyond all reason. I yelled at the guard through the glass window while showing my ID, “CALL CARLOS PEBENITO IN THE VA. TELL HIM I’M OUTSIDE. TELL HIM I’M LATE BECAUSE YOU WON’T LET ME IN!”

He looked at me like I was crazy, and he wasn’t wrong. Then he told me to go ahead on in. The first guard was watching all this and he glared at me as I glared at him. From about 10 yards away I said to him with my eyes wide with rage, “Dumb ASS!” He clenched his jaw and puffed up on me. I envisioned him putting a hand on me, and me getting in one good shot to his face before I got bum rushed by him and all the other guards. Clearly, that is NOT the thinking of a rational man, and so I make my point.

One final exchange took place as I stood just inside the door to the metal detector room. I was unable to close it because a very old woman stood unsteadily just inside. The guard used this as an opportunity to exert his authority one last time. He ordered gruffly, “Get inside and close the door!”

I shrugged him off. “Back off! There’s an old woman standing RIGHT here. Why don’t you come in and rough her up!” I said, dripping sarcasm.

Regret and anger consumed me from that point on as I realized how poorly I had just conducted myself. The last four or five years of my life have consisted of a series of incidents such as that—one after another. Whenever I have to leave the refuge of my home, I start to feel my stress level rise because I start to worry about what stupid thing I will do or say as I have to mingle in society.

Something stupid thing such as this:

A couple weeks ago, I was rolling along on my scooter in a line of traffic at a normal distance behind the car in front of me. A little van pulled up just behind me urgently honking his horn. He wanted to go ahead of me. I shook him off, but he came up alongside and started to move in on me trying to get me to relent and give up my position. I sped up and got even closer to the car ahead of me as a car approached from the opposite direction. This caused the van to move out of the oncoming lane and right into me, at which point I cracked his passenger window with my left elbow. THAT caused him to slow down and get behind me.

I became adrenalized and ready to fight—to the death—literally! I started to swoop back and forth in wide S turns, looking over my shoulder to see if this jerk wanted some more. Before I came to my turn, I put my signal on well in advance and even pointed enthusiastically hoping he’d follow. I sagged when he kept going. I wanted to eat his guts. I didn’t think about if he had a gun, or if he had friends; I didn’t think about anything. My hands trembled for an hour after I got into the office. Why didn’t I just let him pass? Why do I turn every situation into an ugly altercation? The obvious answer is Depression.

When my depressive condition was first diagnosed just after I retired from the military, I became aware of other people’s depressive behavior. I began to recognize my symptoms in other people. A large number of the veterans I assist are depressed. Actually, it seems to attack quite a few servicemen upon their departure from the service. Some of them receive treatment, but others don’t even realize they suffer from it. The adage that “misery loves company” does NOT apply in my case. It doesn’t help me one bit to be around others like me. I don’t like to be reminded of my own wretched condition by seeing it in on display in others, although I don’t mind helping them in my capacity as a Benefits Advisor.

In my case, extreme Depression was triggered by Hyperthyroidism; but thinking back, I believe I was prone to it even from an early age. Aside from the thyroid problem, another reason I fell victim to it was my inability to run long distances due to a host of orthopedic problems that beset me in my 40s. Beginning in my teenage years, I have used physically-punishing distance runs to combat sadness and anxiety. When I had to skip even one day on the road I felt physically and emotionally terrible. I needed to run to maintain my well being, and once I lost that ability, Depression had full access to me. When I lost my distance running, that’s when I began to feel the awful emotion that I fight off my every waking moment; it’s the feeling of abject despair.

Despair is what kills depressives--literally. It’s a black shroud of sadness that envelops and emotionally drowns a person, to the point that the pain it causes brings on “suicidal ideations.” That’s psych talk for wanting to kill oneself. I’m convinced that my anger is how I stave off despair. To me, it feels like I have two choices: to be angry, or to be sad. Unfortunately, happiness is NOT one of the available
options. It appears that happiness is but a temporary state that exists only between bouts of anger, sadness, or feeling nothing at all.

Getting back to the choice between the two options of either sadness or anger--being sad seems unmanly and pathetic; so I usually go the route of the more acceptable "manly feeling" of anger. Instinctively, I know that if I lose the battle against the deadly feelings of despair resulting from Depression, that I will simply stay in bed, curl up, and never get up again. Thus, my anger is my protective wall; a bulwark keeping back a dark sea of pitiful despair.

Ironically, even as I strive to control my destructive anger, as I inferred above, I cannot let it go completely out of fear that it will be replaced by something far worse--sadness. Even now, I feel it pushing up against my throat, trying to well up and take over. I liken it to the movie ALIEN, when the baby alien explodes bloodily from the guy's chest. Keeping the darkness of despair and sadness at bay is a constant struggle. One which I don’t dare stop, for despair is a relentless force to a depressive.

It's no wonder so many depressives have self-destructed to some degree. In fact, many sufferers of Depression have not been able to win over it. Depression ruins relationships and careers; it brings on alcoholism and drug usage. Depressives have made decisions that have led to horrible endings. Truly great people in history are those that have been able to succeed in the face of their Depression. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were both prone to bouts of the “sadness disease,” and yet both were men of huge accomplishment. Churchill used alcohol to cope, while Lincoln just seemed to “gut it out.” The great English explorer, Ship’s Captain James Cook, seemed to lapse into depression in his later years as his physical health abated (sound familiar?), and his bad temper and angry decisions ultimately led to his horrific death and dismemberment at the hands of the Hawaiians in 1779.

I’m convinced my career in the military might well have lasted a full 30 years if not for Depression. Now, I’m not sure my marriage can survive it. At times, I become insufferable and unlivable, so everyday I keep my family I consider it a major success. The idea that my emotional impulsiveness could cause me to lose everything I hold dear brings on more anxiety and worsens the Depression. It's a vicious cycle, and I try to use my knowledge of it in my strategy of continual defense against it. It’s an implacable enemy, always waiting to pounce when it sees a chink in the emotional armor.

When I told my brother Kevin of my plans to write about my personal battle with Depression, he remarked that it would probably be good for me to do so, and so I have.

I have met the enemy and I am he!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

I'm Out of Control

I was just thinking…

Vanity thy name is Blogger! I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but it just occurred to me how vane doing this is. I write stuff for people to read, as if what I have to say might be worth a squat to them. Now I’m NOT saying that I plan to stop; just that I’m onto myself! Every time I post something I feel a bit like an imposter. I wonder if anyone else who posts feels this way?

With that smidgen of self-analysis out of the way, I just realized that all the things I’ve written about either show me in a positive light, or put forth opinions that are purposely sculpted NOT to reveal any of my faults and foibles. Anyway, I’m quick to point out OTHER people’s shortcomings, but what about mine?

Sounds like I’m about to turn this post into a revealing “tell all,” a veritable “behind the scenes” exposé on myself. Well, yeah, I guess I am.

There are times when I can be “hard to take,” or so I’m told. From the time I was a kid I’ve pranked and kidded, sometimes to the point of cruelty. Why? I wish I knew. I couldn’t stop myself. When opportunities came up, I couldn’t resist following my “playful” impulses, and I rarely tried. Shame on me, as you are about to read:
Sister Gail (Driver’s Test):

I was 16 and the proud owner of a brand new driver’s license. I had read about a dastardly practical joke that I knew I MUST spring on an unwary victim. The easiest “victims” are the young and naïve, so my youngest sister, Gail, at ten-years-old was the perfect prey. She was very impressed with my new status as a driver; so one evening I asked her if she wanted to take a “test” to check out her own potential driving skills. In her enthusiastic young girl way, she excitedly accepted.

“Okay, we’ll have to do this in a dark room. I’ll get two chairs for the test.” I told her.
I dragged two kitchen chairs into the front foyer and turned the hall lights off. We sat facing each other, knees to knees, and I handed her a large plastic dinner plate. She didn’t notice that I held it in the center on my palm as I gave it to her. Earlier, with a lit candle, I had layered the entire outer circumference of one side of the plate with black soot. Thus, the darkened room was a necessity to keep my joke from discovery!

Acting the part of a driving instructor I started, “This test is to check your reflexes and concentration while driving. Are you ready?” She assured me she was. “Okay, good. Now, hold the “steering wheel” in both hands and listen very carefully to my instructions.” Expectantly, she held the sooty plate out in front her, almost at arms length.

I continued on with the make believe test. “Step on the accelerator and go forward. Now, you’re coming to a corner, so turn right. Now, turn left. Oh no, a bee just flew into the car and it’s landed on your nose—use one hand and shoo it away! It landed on your cheek, use your other hand this time, but make sure you use the other hand,” I insisted. The “test” went on like that—stopping, turning, scratching imaginary itches, swatting flies, and any other scenario I could dream up that would cause her to transfer soot from the plate to her face. After ten minutes, her face was as blackened as Al Jolsen’s. In the near lightlessness I could barely see her and I was glad of it, otherwise, I would have ruined the prank by laughing. I congratulated her on a “successful” test and she proudly went off to tell our mother.

Mom wasn’t nearly as amused as I was. I have to admit, I’m chuckling now thinking of my sister’s face, completely smudged, especially remembering how brightly white her proudly smiling teeth looked. She showed them to me in response to my laughter as I began to admire my handiwork in the full light of the living room. She laughed right along with me, not yet knowing why I was so amused. I was a very bad boy!
My mom (Helen Keller’s House):

Year after year I have ambushed my mom with the exact same gag. She seems to get amnesia every single time, and I am able to spring it anew upon her every couple of years. It usually goes like this:

“Hey Mom, when I went to Georgia I did some sightseeing. I saw Helen Keller’s house. It is SO beautiful. Have you ever seen it?”

For only the 12th or 15th time she’d answer me, “Really? No!”

I spring the same punch line, just like every time before, “That’s okay Mom, NEITHER did she!” And I laugh like a hysterical jackass. Will I ever grow up?
Come on; KICK it!

There are times after springing a prank that I have felt genuinely bad about it, of course that didn’t stop me from laughing just the same. The problem is, some people just seem to “ask” for it. There was this one fella, Roy, in North Carolina. He was retiring after 20 years in the Air Force, and he had always been someone few of us in the shop had ever really respected. As I said, he brought this disrespect on himself. This guy was a 39-year-old under-achiever, and he would tell us unbelievable stories about past exploits that would make Bruce Lee proud.

Here’s one: When he was stationed in the Vietnam back in the 60’s he was a finely-tuned, high-strung martial artist—a black belt in some kind of deadly karate. One day, some unlucky, unsuspecting fellow came upon him from behind. My guy told us with a straight face that he reacted like lightning, without thinking; he claimed that he actually ripped into the unfortunate fellow’s chest with a deadly strike, pulling out a hunk of the poor man’s rib in the process! Our reaction was never what he was looking for—we usually laughed. Can you blame us? He had a million ridiculous tales like that one.

It was Roy’s last day in the Air Force. As a matter of fact, I was throwing a retirement party for him that night at my house. We were cleaning the shop for shift change and Roy was standing there watching us. I had emptied all the trashcans into a single plastic bag and I good-naturedly goaded him. “Hey Roy, let’s see one of those deadly karate kicks you always talk about on this bag!” I held the bag by the closed end and the bulge of it hung down waist high. Both the day and night shift people were there, so more than a dozen of us were on hand. I really didn’t think pudgy old Roy would show us a kick, he never had before; but then I saw his face take on a determined look. It was like he was thinking, ‘I’ll show them!’ We all saw his reaction and it took us by surprise.

Roy got into a fighting stance, such as it was. We all went quiet while he poised himself to kick the crap out of that bulging bag of garbage hanging from my fist. He took two quick steps and flung his right foot quickly into the air at the bag. Without thinking, I simultaneously raised the bag and moved it to the side as he tried to kick it. I was Lucy and he was Charlie Brown! Poor chubby Roy’s foot went high into the air, without even slightly coming into contact with the bag. The freshly waxed and highly polished floor tiles could NOT hold him, and soon his other leg followed the first into the air. At the same time, ill-fated Roy’s hands also went up, so that for a split second he seemed to almost float horizontally over the shiny floor. What goes up must come down, and he landed with an ugly thump on his back. I’ll give him credit though; he scrambled back to his feet almost immediately, red faced and all; and if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here today writing about it.

None of us wanted to laugh, but we could not contain our mirth. I have never seen anything even remotely as hilarious as when I caused that poor man to humiliate himself that day. Why in the hell did I do that to him? I didn’t plan it; it just happened! I apologized to him straight away, and several more times at my house at the party that evening. I’m pretty sure he forgave me, but I sure didn’t deserve it. Even now, thinking back at the way he looked, I’m laughing. God, it was so hilarious! Sorry about that Roy.
Hot Coffee:

When I was but 12-years-old I executed one of my first “planned” practical jokes. We were living in a suburb of San Antonio, Texas on Quirt Drive, when one evening my dad’s buddy, Mr. Deruso, came over. It wasn’t much of a plan, because I didn’t think over it for much more than a few seconds, but it was an inspired scheme of absolute “genius,” even if I do say so myself.

Chuck Deruso always had a cup of coffee when he visited, so I grabbed a plastic coffee cup and saucer and carried it carefully, albeit empty, using two hands as if to steady it, into the living room where he sat on the couch talking to my dad. To complete the “illusion” I remarked, “Here you go Mr. Deruso. Watch out; it’s hot.”

With a step or two to go, I pretended to trip and dropped the cup and saucer on his lap. Mr. Deruso was naturally excitable and skittish anyway, and when he saw what he thought was hot coffee on its way onto his “family jewels,” he yelled loudly in alarm and jumped straight into the air like his ass was spring loaded. I must have taken at least ten years off that poor man’s life with the fright I gave him. I can’t remember if I got in much trouble over that, but I should have. Lord help me, but it was worth whatever punishment came my way. NO, wait, I shouldn’t be so proud of such cruelty!
Brother Kevin (he just snapped):

Much of my problem is that I don’t have a clue as to when to “stop.” One summer day, late in the afternoon, I was engaged in one of my normal pursuits of teasing my little brother, Kevin. I can’t remember now what it was that I said that irked him so much, but whatever it was, he became very angry. And once I saw that I had gotten under his skin, I went into “idiot autopilot” at which point there was no stopping me. I verbally hounded him until he finally lashed out and tried to give me a well-deserved bashing.

At one point, Kev started chasing me around our yard, where we lived at the time outside of the small town of Birch Run, Michigan in the early 70s. With me being older, faster, and stronger, he couldn’t catch me—try as he might. I eluded him, jumping over bushes, twisting and turning, while purposely barely evading his grasp. To make it worse, the whole time he pursued me I did a ridiculous Daffy Duck impression, you know the one, where he jumps around hooting while Elmer Fudd tries to get him? Anyway, “Elmer-Kevin” became very frustrated, and then, for the first time ever—he just snapped. Abruptly, he stopped chasing me and stalked angrily into the house. I followed him, continually goading and mocking, but I stopped when he opened the knife drawer and picked up a butcher knife. The tables had unexpectedly turned.

With his face set in stone he now continued his quest to catch (and kill?) me, only this time he didn’t run, instead he quickly walked. I was stunned! I had but two options: evade or hide. I wasn’t about to grapple with him over possession of the knife; I didn’t want to risk getting one of us cut, especially me! I retreated out to the back yard hoping he would come to his senses. He just kept coming, never hurrying and saying nothing; his face was frighteningly determined and although he didn’t speak, I could hear him breathing deep and fast as if he were hyperventilating. At first, I spoke to him in an attempt to break through his seeming insanity. He never acknowledged a word; he just kept coming.

I was barefoot, so I couldn’t go anywhere but the yard or in the house, and the house is where I eventually went. No matter how fast I ran, or how long I continued to evade him, he kept after me. It was frightening, and worse, it was physically and mentally wearing. I hurried into the family bathroom and locked the door. Seconds later he began trying to break it down. If he broke through, I was trapped. The bathroom window was too high above the ground for me to try to jump for it, so I braced my body against the door while Kev continued to batter at it from the other side. My hope was that our mother would come home from work and rescue me from impending death due to multiple stab wounds! And finally, much to my relief, I heard her knocking on the door in place of Kevin’s battering ram sounds. With her arrival, Kev became a normal 11-year-old once more, and I learned NEVER to mess with him again. But did that stop me from being insufferable? I’m afraid not.
Hair trick!

I always did very well in school academically, but my prankster propensities would inevitably come to the fore, and sooner or later get me into trouble. In the eighth grade, just months after we moved to Michigan, I did something really impulsive and ill advised. One of my dad’s buddies had showed me a cool trick, and I had tried it on a couple of my school chums, but on this day I got a chance to show it to my Health teacher. I wish I could remember his name, because he was a really good sport, in fact, unbelievably so.

During class one day he gave a lecture on the hairs of the human head. I spoke up and told him that I could remove a hair from his head and he would never even feel me pulling it out. He was intrigued, and so he became MINE! He challenged me to come to the front of the class and demonstrate. I walked up to him grinning and got behind him in preparation for my demo.

He had fairly short hair, especially considering it was the 1970’s. I reached up with my left hand and found a likely candidate declaring, “Here’s a good one, and it’s a gray too! You ready?” He nodded and as soon as he did, I slapped him hard on the opposite side of his skull with my right hand, while yanking out the gray hair with my left. The reaction from the class was in itself rewarding—the other kids laughed so hard that some of them were crying. The teacher, on the other hand, was only slightly amused, but he still managed a weak grin. What COULD he do? He had given me his permission! This time—I had manipulated the circumstances perfectly; and even more importantly, I had chosen my victim well! Actually I was just lucky that he was a nice guy, and not vindictive. But, did that hair come out without him feeling it? Yes!
Daughter Rebecca (Give me five!):

One of the most shameful scams I ever pulled was on my daughter, Rebecca, when she was just 8 or 9 years old. I think about it now and I can’t believe I could do something so mean, but that’s me.

I had a small tack left over from putting together a bookcase. I placed it between my fingers so that the sharp end barely poked up between them. Then I said to her, “Give me five Bec!” She did so, and she was surprised, or more like shocked, to feel the slight prick of the tack on her palm. “Dad!” She protested piercingly, checking out her hand for damage. I told her, feeling very ashamed, “Just a lesson for you Bec; never slap someone’s hand, or even shake hands with anyone until you look first, even from me!” The tack didn’t even break the skin, but what the hell was I thinking? The answer: I wasn’t, …as usual.
Sister Mary Kay (Youth-in-Asia):

I have to recount this one because to this day, my sister, Mary Kay, still hasn’t forgiven me for it. She is just a year behind me in age, but there’s no doubt she was always ahead of me when it came to schoolwork and the brainy stuff. She went on to become an accountant, a profession I would never try to get certified in.

I was in the 9th grade when I came upon a report she had just finished on the topic of “Euthanasia,” only she had spelled it, “Youth-in-Asia.” I was convinced it was a clever play on words that she had purposely come up with, but when I asked her about it she didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. I waved the report at her and said, “You really MEANT to spell it like this? It’s NOT a joke?”

I was so tickled by her innocent gaffe that I started giggling and couldn’t stop. She was mortified, and then she became infuriated at the way I made her feel—totally humiliated! Once again, I went too far and really hurt someone with my insensitive heckling. I had saved her some big time embarrassment at school if she had tried to turn it in with the misspelling, but that was the last thing on her mind. I horribly bruised her psyche for at least the next 25 years, or maybe for two or three days.
Rum (and Rum) and Coke (and Rum):

I was 13, and the adults were having a party at my Grandma’s house. They were mixing rum and cokes, and other drinks like that, and they made the mistake of leaving me with access to the opened bottles of the “hard stuff.” My Uncle Joe was just a lad of 20 years and he was also imbibing and having fun. When no one was watching, I would “freshen” his drink with a little more rum. I did this for 3 or 4 drinks until he was completely plastered. My mischievous merriment came to an abrupt end, however, when I must have added just a little too much rum and he finally noticed how strong his drink was. He looked over at me and must have seen either guilt or mischief written all over my grinning face, because he knew right away that I was the culprit. He, and my mom really gave me hell, and rightly so. But did I learn my lesson? Maybe, but ONLY for a few minutes or so.
"Doctored" Cancer Stick:

My Uncle Bill was a heavy smoker, not quite a chain smoker, but close. He was also a “heavy napper.” He worked nights at Kroger and would fall asleep in his lounger in the living room, sometimes with a cigarette still dangling from his fingers. While he loudly “sawed logs,” I’d snatch a pack of his cigs from where they usually lay next to him on the coffee table. Then I retired to my “workshop” in the tiny closet out in the garage, where I proceeded to work my “magic.” I discovered that I could remove the first inch or so of tobacco from his cigarettes; stuff in bits of dried dirt, lint and dust; and then repack tobacco so that the new-and-improved “cancer stick” looked almost normal. I could doctor four cigarettes like this in about 20 minutes, after which I would replace the pack from whence I acquired it.

The fun part came next. I’d sit near him when he woke up, waiting expectantly for him to light up. I always crushed the pack a little to make it look like it had suffered a little unintended damage, and that way he wouldn’t really give much mind that the cigarette didn’t look exactly ordinary. When he got down to the 5th or 6th drag he’d reach the sabotaged area of the cigarette. Sometimes he’d just say, “Yuck! What the hell is wrong with this damned thing? It tastes like shit!” Of course he’d keep smoking it anyway. Other times the cherry would flare up into a flame, complete with different colors and sputtering sounds, after which the cherry would fall off into his lap. Damn, that “stuffed cigarette” trick was always good for a laugh! Uncle Bill entertained me more than he ever knew. He never did catch on to my little tinkerings. Oh well, he had to find out eventually, unless no one ever tells him!
Mr. Davis, the "Flying" Teacher:

I thought a lot of my high school teacher and track coach, Mr. Davis, and still do. I respected him and thought the world of him, but did that save him from my capricious ways? You be the judge:

Before he coached me in track, he was my freshman English teacher. We were both freshmen actually, me as a student and he as a first-year teacher fresh out of college. He always reminded me of a cross between a Mongol warrior and George Armstrong Custer. He had shoulder-length, wavy blonde hair with dark highlights and a thick moustache that turned down menacingly at the corner of his mouth. The moustache, combined with his slightly almond shaped brown eyes, gave him the intimidating look of a Mongol George Custer. In reality, he was anything BUT mean; Mr. Davis was a very nice guy and a great teacher. For some reason he liked me too. Why? I have NO idea!

Mr. Davis had been a collegiate track athlete earlier that spring, and he still had an athletic build and matching athleticism. He had a habit of popping out of his chair from behind his desk at the front of the class, and then spryly walking over to his filing cabinet in the corner. He had done this a couple times already one morning, when impulse got the better of me again. Unfortunately for him, I sat right in front of his desk. Reaching with my right foot under his desk, I pushed out his lower right desk drawer about a foot, while he intently lectured the class from his chair. Suddenly, he popped up again, like he’d done scores of times before, turned to the right and simultaneously fell over the pushed-out drawer. He fell awkwardly, face first to the floor, barely catching himself on his hands. Thank God he was young and sturdy. He thought he had left the drawer open, and never suspected a thing as he embarrassedly rubbed his skinned shins through his pant legs. Man, I really deserved an ass-kicking that day!
Coach Davis, “Dance of the Jockstrap:”

A year and a half later he was an assistant coach of the boy’s track team. My specialty was the mile and two-mile runs, but I had a little speed in me too when needed. One pleasant May afternoon during practice, I needed it.

Out in the grassy mid-field was none other than my favorite teacher (and coach) Mr. Davis, carrying his coach’s clipboard and wearing a pair of gray coach’s shorts that seemed to beckon me, just like a flower attracts a bee. With absolutely no thought to consequences, I walked up behind the coach and yanked his shorts down to his ankles! About 30 kids saw him standing there with his shorts on the ground with nothing on below the waist but a skimpy jockstrap to cover his “family pride.” The problem with jockstraps is that there is NOTHING to cover the other side, the wearer’s gluteal area, and his was very white and noticeably round! There’s something about a man’s white rump that inspires uncontainable mirth and his bare rear was no exception. Thing is, he was the ONLY one NOT laughing, perhaps because he couldn’t see the hilarity inspired by his own pale butt globes, framed at the dimples by his skimpy athletic supporter.

The clipboard kept him from immediately snatching his shorts back up, which flustered him, but he soon dropped the board and returned his shorts to their proper place. Needless to say, he was steamed! I took off like a jackrabbit with Coach Davis in close pursuit, while I giggled uncontrollably, if not hysterically. I kept ahead of him for 30 or 40 yards, let him get even closer to the point where I could feel his fingers grasping at my shoulders, and then I suddenly dropped to the grass and rolled up into a human ball. He tripped over me and flew 6 feet through the air, sprawling flat onto his face and into an unseemly chest skid. I could hear my teammates practically screaming with laughter as our physical tête-à-tête continued toward an unknown conclusion.

We both popped back up, I took off again in the opposite direction, with him right on my tail. I zigzagged a little to throw him off the scent somewhat, and when he was almost on me, just like before, I went to ground and let him trip over me. This time he did he an amazing forward roll, sprang to his feet and came after me once more. For some reason, I could NOT stop laughing and it seemed to egg him on. HE certainly wasn’t laughing; he was cursing me, and using language really quite inappropriate for a high school teacher; and still I hooted and snorted. We continued like this, him chasing, me tripping him, and then doing it all over again. After he fell for over me for at least the 5th or 6th time, we both grew tired, and even HE began to see the humor of what was happening. When I heard him start to giggle too, I finally ended “the chase” by faking one way and then veering into the opposite direction. We stopped, eyeing each other, bent over with hands on knees, our breath coming in ragged gasps. I was not only gasping for air, but hiccupping between irrepressible giggles.

Mr. Davis finally disarmed the situation when he grinned at me and said while shaking his head, “Spear, you are ONE crazy bastard!”

Damn, I got away with it again! Can you believe that? Hey, I told you he was my favorite teacher, and for good reason. Thing is, he was absolutely right…and still is! … And the beat goes on...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Game, Set and MATCH!

Can you think back to that exact moment when you “peaked” at something? I’m at the point where I know that there are things that I will never do as well as I once could. I realize I’m leaving myself completely open to ridicule on that little observation, namely from my good pal, “Mick” Healy, but I’ll risk it. I can take his “good natured” jibes …I guess (sniff, sob, and shudder).

Physically, I’m now a wreck, but I wasn’t always the fat, hurt’n “has-been” I am now. Early in 1982, I was a couple months into my second year with the 4th Component Repair Squadron, or CRS, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Back then, I was as yet more marine than airman, but still, I was enjoying the "kinder-and-gentler" culture I found in the Air Force. Marines pride themselves on operating in an atmosphere of tension, or as we used to call it, “hate-and-discontent;” I didn’t miss that rubbish in the least. The new spirit of cordiality I found myself ensconced in was quite refreshing. I was glad to be in the Air Force where people were just plain NICE. Just the same, I maintained a regimen of running and exercise similar to what I had practiced in the Corps. Some habits are had to break.

One day in early March, the commander of the squadron, I think his name was Lieutenant Colonel Sams, came into my section, the Instrument/Autopilot Shop.

“Where’s Spear?” I heard him ask. I was checking out a bombing component for an F‑4E Phantom on one of our benches. The shop chief brought him over and I settled into a position of attention as he approached, even though I didn’t have to in an electronics shop. “Good morning Sir!” I greeted him marine style.

“At ease; relax; please!” Hardly pausing, he continued, “Sergeant Spear, I have a job for you!”

Unconsciously, I snapped back into attention, “Yes Sir!”

The colonel grinned and crossed his arms, “Phil, is it?” He went on, “The commander of AGS has just challenged CRS to a duel. He says his runners can beat our runners in the 5K race coming up this May. He bet me a case of beer on it. I’m told that YOU are my best runner, so I want YOU to put together a team for CRS and kick AGS’ ass. Is that understood?”

Still at attention, I practically shouted, “Aye Aye Sir!”

“Very good. Don’t let me down Spear; I’m counting on you! If I have to buy a case of beer for that AGS prick I’m gonna come looking for you. Is that understood?”

No sooner did he leave then I started to think about who else in the squadron might help me to successfully follow his orders. AGS, which stands for Aircraft Generation Squadron, was a much larger organization. They had several hundreds of people compared to our paltry little unit. They outnumbered us by at least three or four to one. I needed to come up with four other runners to meet the minimum requirements for a team. There was only one other fellow who approached my own level as a runner; he was originally from Egypt, and he had run in college, or so he said. The other three were “sometime runners,” and not all that good. I had about two months to whip my guys into the best running shape possible, including me.

I worked hard at getting into racing shape. I became obsessed with doing my very best in accomplishing what I assumed was a valid order from my commanding officer. I took it all very seriously, and I began to daily badger my teammates, making sure that they also trained. Our schedules never allowed all of us to run together as a team, so I did my best to get two or three of us out on the road as teammates every other day or so. As far as my own preparation, I worked harder on my running prowess than I had ever before done in all my 24 years.

My training regimen was fairly simple—the best plans usually are. It consisted of a four-day cycle:
Day one—interval training, including speed work and recovery jogging covering five or six miles total;
Day two—medium distance running of no more than four to six miles;
Day three—LSD or Long Slow Distance of between six and twelve miles, and finally
Day four—jogging, usually no more than three or four miles to give my body a chance to rest and restore.

The days passed quickly. I approached the best physical condition that I had ever been in. I shed five pounds, getting down to a “speedy” weight of 132 lbs. As my high school track coach, Mr. Peters, used to tell us, “The hungry horse runs the fastest.” And I WAS hungry; I was hungry to win. I knew I was ready, but I worried continuously about the race. It was a team competition, and I knew the AGS runners greatly outmatched my poor little running team.

Less than two weeks from race day, an older gray-headed AGS second lieutenant, a grizzled former enlisted man and now an aircraft maintenance officer, was in our section on business. I greeted him respectfully, mindful of his rank; and knowing that he was on the AGS team, I queried him, “How’s the training coming Sir? You ready for the race?”

He responded smugly, “I can tell you this—WE are going to destroy CRS. You guys don’t have a chance. We got some real horses on our team, some stallions!” He couldn’t contain an arrogant smirk as he said it.

For a moment I lost my bearing, and answered him almost insubordinately, “All right buddy, we’ll see! I can tell you this though,” almost poking him in the chest as I took three steps toward him, “no matter which squadron wins, I guarantee that I will kick YOUR ass…….!” I nearly forgot whom I was speaking to and only just remembered to finish my declaration with an obligatory, “……SIR!”

A week before the race, I was training in a park outside of the base that was laced with several miles of soft dirt trails. I had planned on a simple day of easy distance running, but I couldn’t hold back. I decided to throw in a two-mile spurt at a ¾ rate of full-speed. Mind you, full-speed is as fast as one can run—it’s sprinting. I began to run faster and faster yet, and it seemed as if I could NOT get tired. I finished the last mile quicker than I had started the first. It felt completely effortless and I KNEW and felt that I was ready! I wanted nothing more than to race—the sooner the better.

Race day. It was a warm, sunny Saturday morning. I got up early and ate a light breakfast. With my wife and three small children, we drove to the base gym in our white 1975 AMC Pacer. The area was filled with scores of cars and even some buses. One bus was from the army base some 50 or so miles south of us, it had carried in several dozen troopers from Fort Bragg. Some of them were Special Forces guys and they looked like they were in pretty good shape, but I didn’t care about them. My mind was only on AGS and how badly I wanted to beat them—NO—humiliate them!

With butterflies in my stomach I got in line at the sign-in tables. One of the tables was set up for teams; and I signed in under CRS. I was pleased to see that all of my teammates had already showed up and were signed in. The attendant minding the table was a captain who worked at the base hospital, a fellow runner; he knew me, and OF me. He greeted me declaring loudly with a huge grin, “THERE’s our winner!” This caused every runner in earshot to look at me and size me up from top to bottom.

I looked up, shook my head, and with a wry smile mentally grumbled at the captain for “hexing” me. I would rather have heard “break a leg!” Swallowing my superstition, I managed to maintain a half smile, took my number from him and went looking for my team. I spotted Wendy Burke, my supervisor and a fellow CRS runner. She was with the other CRS guys near the start line getting ready to run. She was calm and jovial, but she was also upset. She told me why.

“Can you believe Colonel Sams is NOT here? He didn’t show up because he thinks we are going to get beat by AGS! Son of a bitch!” Wendy said through clamped teeth trying to disguise her resentment with a smile. She continued shaking head in angry disbelief.

“Never mind him,” I told her and the others. “Let’s run the best we’ve ever run today. Did you know that the winning team will be based on aggregate time and NOT on places? That means if our times add up to a lower total than AGS’s, WE win. We can do this guys! Let’s get loose and get our heads into this race. No matter what, don’t give up. Make every second count, okay? We all quietly shook hands and wished each other good luck. I called over my shoulder, “See you at the finish folks!”

With that, I left them alone and concentrated on getting ready. After stretching my hips, hamstrings and Achilles, I jogged slowly for about a quarter mile, interspersed with a few spates of short sprints. As I warmed up, I spotted the AGS team; they were hard to miss. The AGS commander was one of the runners, and he had bought his team “uniforms.” They were all wearing the same color shorts and t-shirt—bright red. I felt like a bull in a ring, and the sight of those red AGS pukes made me rage like a bull. Actually, they looked impressive. As the lieutenant had said, they were “horses.” They looked well-trained, long-legged, and ready to run. And THERE was the lieutenant too, dressed in the same red uniform. Our eyes met and I spat in his direction in spite of myself. I was feeling pure hatred—and it was GOOD!

With just a minute or two before start, I made my way to the mass of nervous fidgeting runners at the starting line. You could almost smell the adrenaline and dread. I loved it! I pushed to the front of the throng, feeling very aggressive and unapologetic about it. Anyway, no one complained, so no harm—no foul. The starter yelled at us through a bullhorn, “Runners! Standby! I will say ‘Ready, Get Set,’ and then I will fire the pistol. I will do this in 15 seconds.” He looked down at his watch, and then looking up, he raised his starter's pistol in one hand, his bullhorn in the other and spoke, “Runners! Ready, Get Set…”


I took off like I was fired from a cannon. For about 100 yards I was sprinting in a small group of ten other runners, then six, then two, and then, it was only me. Finding myself at the front, and so quickly, was totally startling and unexpected. I began to doubt the wisdom of my current lightening speed when I realized I was at almost a full sprint. Behind me, I heard one of the runners counseling another, “Don’t worry, he’ll come back to us.” I threw him a mental rejoinder, not wanting to waste my breath on spoken words, ‘Kiss my ass!

Now that I had the lead, after a very fast first ¼ mile of the total of 3.1 miles, I got my head into my work and began to settle down. It’s important to think about what you’re doing in any footrace, and the longer the distance is, the more important having a strategy becomes. I slowed my speed down to ¾
and took stock of my body. I was breathing fast and deep, but nothing hurt and I still felt strong. My confidence held steady and that was encouraging. Once a runner stops believing, it’s all over.

The course turned right and left and right again, but I wasn’t too worried about following the course. There were plenty of volunteer race marshals to point the way and to shout encouragement. I made a right onto a long straightaway that ran eastward the length of the base golf course, straight towards the flight line almost a mile away. This long course leg undulated over a series of fairly steep hills; and hills like these can make or break a racer. It was on this road that a marshal began yelling my time at me as I approached his position at the one-mile mark: “4:48, 4:49, 4:50!” ‘Hmmm,’ I thought, ‘that’s pretty fast!’

Hills. I was on the hilly part of the race route and that required that I “kick” my concentration into the next gear. The trick to racing over hills is to use them to your advantage going down, and to work hard to maintain pace and momentum going up. Easier said than done, but winners know how to run hills. I’d learned in California how to let my legs go into huge ground-eating strides running down steep hillsides and roads. Even more importantly, I had developed the discipline and technique required to keep my pace fast going back UP the damned things. My method is to keep my eyes down, about 5 to 10 feet on the running surface to my front, so that I can’t see the actual grade of the incline. Then once I am up and over, I raise my focus back up to normal and simply let my legs fly out behind me as I increase stride down slope, always making sure not to over stride. No matter what, the first rule in running is ALWAYS keep your feet UNDER you when they hit the ground. Anyplace else is inefficient and slows you down.

Halfway through the long stretch along the golf course, a buddy from my shop stood at the top of one of the hills and yelled his support to me: “Come on man! Looking good! Keep it up! Go! Go! Go!” It was nice to see him there, but it also irritated me. Inexplicably, I was feeling grumpy with him, so I took off my shirt and threw it at his head. He laughed and caught it good-naturedly, “Go man, go! They are RIGHT behind you! …and thanks for shirt!”

‘Damn! Was there really someone right behind me?’ His remark did the trick. I didn’t want to know if there was a runner back there or not. I simply assumed that someone was on my tail and I found the determination to kick it back up into overdrive. I was VERY uncomfortable now, my breathing was deep, fast and loud, and I could feel the oxygen debt building up in my legs and arms. Even so, I would ONLY allow myself to think of one thing, ‘SPEED, MORE SPEED!’ Winning was NOT enough. I had to win with a time as quick as possible. I pushed against the pain with my mind, as my body began to protest. I was at war with myself.

Then, it was time to make a right turn, to the south, along the flight line. Just ahead was another timer at the two-mile mark, and I pushed my pace back up again by pumping my arms faster and higher. He began yelling, “9:48, 9:49, 9:50! Good job man! Go! Go!” I was amazed at my time, considering the hills I had just passed over. Imagining there was someone just behind me, I continued to press ahead, always trying to find a way to increase my tempo. Now that there were no more hills to speak of, it was working. I WAS going faster. I felt pretty damned good! NOT!

Now I was into the second longest leg of the race, it was fairly flat, but I was quickly losing focus. At that point, I was simply trying to maintain foot speed and it was a constant battle. I must have gone into a sort of trance, because before I knew it the 3-mile timekeeper came into view. I struggled to hear him over the raspy roar of my breathing, “14:57, 14:58, 14:59, 15 MINUTES!” I found I had no real interest in what that meant anymore.

Next thing I knew there was a boy in the road just ahead of me, almost in my running path, offering me a cup of water. I had no time, and certainly no inclination, to adjust my direction and my right arm took him out. He fell backwards over the curb. I remember thinking through a fog, ‘I’ll feel bad about that LATER! The little IDIOT!’ Then there was the turn right heading west. It took all my concentration to take the turn as sharply as possible and still maintain momentum. Damn, I was fading.

The last turn left was “almost” easy, because I was on the right side of the road and could make a sweeping “farmer’s turn” into the final stretch. The finish line was only about 200 yards away down that last leg—I could see it! I put my head down, pumped my arms, and SPRINTED! Through the fog of pain and over the hoarse groans of my breath I could hear my wife, “Look, there’s daddy!” I looked up and through sweat and tears I could see my kids, Marie and Josh, jumping up and down near their mom, yelling: “Daddy, Daddy!” I would have felt exultant and satisfied if I hadn’t been so used up. I staggered through the finish line. I could barely grab the Popsicle stick with a number “1” marked prominently on one end from the race official who thrust it at me. “How fast…pant, pant, was, pant, my time?” I gasped.

“16:12!” I heard. ‘Wow! Personal best. Good time for it,’ I thought. I walked around in little circles for a minute until I got my normal breathing back, and started to return to the here-and-now just in time to see the second-place runner turn the corner. I was happy to see he wasn’t wearing red! I had beaten the runner-up by more than a full minute. The first AGS runner didn’t show up until well into the 18-minute range. I had beaten the first AGS puke by MORE than 3 minutes! Then the rest of the runners started coming in, finishing as a streaming horde, and so I lost track of who finished at what time in what place.

Most of the AGS runners, in their cute little red outfits, finished ahead of most of my group; but my guys gave it their best. The Egyptian fellow finished in the 18-minute range and the other three in 21 minutes and more. As each of us came in and recovered, we ran out, and as a group we yelled in the rest of our teammates, until we were all across the line.

I swigged a Gatorade, glanced around and saw the AGS colonel over at the scorer’s table. He did NOT look happy. His hands were on his hips and he was shaking his head in disbelief. My heart soared as I realized that I had done it! NO, WE had done it! I nudged Wendy, pointing at the crestfallen AGS commander, and she pumped her fist and went over to confirm our victory. She came back beaming, “We beat AGS by a FULL minute!” We high-fived, shook hands and joyously congratulated each other. As one, we got the AGS colonel’s attention and waved cheerily at him. He shook his head angrily and turned away. We couldn’t have asked for a better reaction—priceless!

The trophy award ceremony came next, and we grinned like Cheshire Cats as we accepted the team trophy. Then my teammates, squadron members, friends and family cheered me as I was awarded the first place individual trophy. Sweet!

After the awards, Wendy could not contain her anger at our commander. She got us together and she made us all agree to caravan over to his house. He lived just a short distance away over in base housing. At his house we piled out of our cars, and some twenty of us gathered in his carport as Wendy banged on his screen door. His wife answered and Wendy sweetly asked her to fetch her husband. He finally showed up and we enjoyed seeing another very embarrassed colonel as Wendy presented him with OUR team trophy. Ashamed of himself, he retreated into his home again and came back out with the ice-cold case of beer he had already purchased for the “AGS prick.”

Wendy said what we were all thinking, “Next time have some faith in your people sir.” She continued to scold him; “We did this for you sir. You should have been there!” Not normally at a loss for words, he certainly was then. Served the SOB right!

The next time I saw Colonel Sams was when he came in to congratulate us at the shop. All of his runners, actually MY runners, were gathered together at the CRS trophy case for the installation of the new 1st place trophy. He told us the story of what happened when he confronted his chagrined AGS counterpart. Colonel Sams described the conversation: “The first thing he said when he saw me was, “Who in the hell is Spear?” I just told him, “Oh, that’s my secret weapon, an ex-marine. Every squadron should have one colonel!” We all got a good laugh out of that, and I could feel myself pumped up to about twice my normal size!

My final bit of sweet revenge (and most revenge IS sweet, isn’t it?) came the very next weekend after the race. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was out for a run. I made my way off the base through the side gate, and there in front of me, no more than a hundred yards ahead, was none other than the “AGS prick” and his “lapdog,” the grizzled old second lieutenant. ‘No way!’ I thought. ‘Thank you God for delivering them both to me at once!’ I kicked my speed up a couple notches and soon caught up to them.

“Hello gentlemen! Nice day for a jog.” I said jauntily startling them. I pulled up next to the colonel slowing down to his pace. In his grumpy grudging way, he tried to be gracious and offered a bit of congratulations on my fine run during the race. I thanked him, but then I went for the gold, unable to contain myself. I said to his gray-headed companion, “Lieutenant, I want to thank you for motivating me to run the fastest 5K in my entire life!”

“What? What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, that day when you said AGS was going to kick CRS' ass, that’s all I needed to pump me up to the point that I was NOT going to give you the satisfaction,” I chortled.

“What are you talking about? No… I…” he never finished his denial, at least not that I could hear.

I interrupted him: “Well gents, got to go. Nice talking to you!” At that, I kicked up my speed to a sprint, leaving them in my dusty wake, made a sharp turn and vaulted over a 6-foot wide ditch and onto a dirt road that angled away into some woods. I glanced over my shoulder and saw them staring after me. I could see that the lieutenant was in the midst of trying to explain what had REALLY happened to his arrogant boss. Ha! Game, Set, and MATCH!