Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sheer Exhileration

Sheer exhilaration—ever experience it? I’m talking about being completely swept away with delight, and NOT the common garden variety of delight when you are merely unable to control a grin, or when a smile takes over your face in spite of yourself. Nope, more even than that.

I’m talking about fist pumping; I’m talking about when you scream till your voice is gone, and when you jump around like a damn bunny, and fall and roll around on the ground, and you just don’t care how stupid it looks. Ever watch a team win The World Series, or a Super Bowl? THAT’S what I’m talking about. Think about it—those episodes are more unusual than you think. Ever had even ONE moment like it?

More than 30 years ago, just three weeks after finishing high school, I left the comfort of home and subjected myself to a three-month tortuous ordeal known as United States Marine Corps basic training, also known as “boot camp.” A primary item on the marine basic training regimen is drill. Drill includes not only marching and maneuvering in step, but also the manual of arms—the painstaking handling of a rifle.

Keep in mind that every marine is required to learn how to march in precise step with all the other members of their platoon while simultaneously handling a rifle with the same precision. Remember also that a basic training platoon can include anywhere from 50 to 70 members most of whom are only 18 or 19 years old.

U.S. marines are proud of their image of looking fighting fit and sharp in their uniforms, and they are especially renowned for their ability to drill in perfect unison. Learning these marching skills is super important in the marine scheme of things, and being able to do it at least as well as your fellow platoons was an important point of honor for us.

Our honor was in serious question however, because of the four platoons in our series, Platoon 1076, of which I was a member, was most certainly the worst at drill. It seemed as if we never did anything right and our drill instructors, known as DIs, never stopped informing us scornfully that we were the most hopeless bunch of losers that had ever tried to march in step.

Our problem stemmed from just a handful of young fellows who seemed incapable of staying in step. They got flustered and turned right when the rest of us turned left, or they’d continue straight ahead as we turned together and marched to the rear. So concerned were we that these clumsy few were hurting the rest of us that we would get together during our few breaks and practice. Our primary goal was NOT to be the best platoon, but to simply not suck! Just NOT embarrassing ourselves was plenty.

After a month we didn’t see much improvement and yet our marching skills were about to be put to the test against our three other seemingly superior sister platoons. This competitive evaluation is called “initial drill,” and it’s a very big deal. The platoon that wins gets bragging rights until final drill competition just before graduation.

The dreaded day arrived, and with heavy hearts and sinking stomachs we meticulously readied our uniforms and rifles for our turn out on the huge expanse of tarmac that we called the “grinder.” Just our luck, we were the last platoon called out to perform. Our senior drill instructor, called the platoon commander, told us in a hushed voice that the other platoons had not marched perfectly, so if we really concentrated we’d have a chance to place higher than last.

With nerves like stretched piano wires, we fell in and marched to the edge of the reviewing area. Our performance began strangely enough as the DI commanded us to, “Fall out!” This means we were to break ranks and mill about in the immediate area. It sounds ridiculous, and looks it. Then he bellowed, “FALL IN!!”

In a flash we darted back to our places in the formation of 73 men, heads craned to the right, left arms straight out from the shoulder so the recruit on that side can find his interval. Keep in mind also that we had rifles; we held them at “trail arms” just below the front sights, carefully keeping the rifle butt just an inch or so above the ground just to the outside of the right heel.

Then as the men at the far right of the formation found their positions, each dropped his left arm, snapping their heads forward and causing a ripple of arms and heads to follow suit from right to left. Subtly, we shuffled our feet in tiny increments to perform the function of “cover” that places each man directly behind the fellow to his front. This process of “falling in” takes no more than ten seconds, even less for an experienced platoon. We did it in seven as we lowered our rifle butts to the ground.

That was just the start of our drill performance as command followed command: “Count off!” “Open Ranks—March!” “Right Shoulder Arms!” “Left—Face!” “Right—Face!” “Port Arms!” “Left Shoulder Arms!” “Inspection Arms!” “By the Right Flank—March!” and on and on.

It sounds more complicated in the telling than it actually is, but to perform the manual of arms with the desired precision and in near perfect unison takes hundreds of hours of practice. To get an idea of the extent of the scores of commands and what is required to learn and perform them all properly, take a look at this site: You might have to copy and paste it to make it work.

As we followed our drill instructor’s staccato orders, we strained to do our best marching ever, carefully listening to every command while complying with each required motion, and even more importantly, to do all this as ONE. I can honestly say that I have never concentrated on doing anything like I did that day, except for when we had to do it again two months later at the final drill comp. We were finished in no more than 20 minutes, but a lot of commands, marching, and rifle handling can take place in a very short time when a DI barks out orders one after another.

When we finally finished, our relief was palpable. We realized that we hadn’t screwed up and for the moment that was enough. We marched back to our squad bay and quietly waited to find out the results. After a half-hour, our platoon commander called us to the open area near the entrance called “the classroom.” In a subdued mood we assembled, sitting cross-legged on the floor, expectantly waiting for him to tell us exactly how poorly we had done as compared to the other three platoons.

“Well, you maggots didn’t come in last,” he said in an emotionless monotone. As a group we unwound and allowed ourselves a half smile. “Nope, you girls didn’t come in last—YOU WON! Congratulations!”

Immediately we erupted into a chorus of screams and cheers like I have never been a part of before or since. Our happiness was boundless. We jumped on top of one another, slapped each other on the back, and yelled ourselves hoarse, exactly like I described at the beginning of this story. We hadn’t won the Super Bowl, but we knew what it would feel like if we did.

We thrilled to the knowledge that all our hard work had come to fruition. We never dreamed that we could win and that made our unexpected victory even sweeter. I’ve never felt that level of joy again, not at the birth of my children (sorry kids!), not when I got married (twice), not ever. I suppose it’s like losing your virginity—once it’s gone it’s gone—it cannot be recaptured!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Military Brat

My father served in the United States Air Force from 1950 through 1970. I was born in 1957 during his second tour in Japan. Thus began my own career, you might say, as a military brat.

A military brat is a slang term for a military dependent. It sounds like a negative description, but we brats proudly use the expression to describe ourselves. Actually, I don't doubt that a brat came up with it.

Military brats, especially “old school” brats like me, led difficult lives following military fathers from base to base, constantly changing schools and making new friends, sometimes once or even twice in a year. In my case, my résumé of schools numbers 14 institutions before graduating in 1975 from high school.

After my dad retired and hung up his Air Force uniform for the last time, he started a second career in his home state of Michigan. My new “civilian” Michigan classmates seemed a bit like inexperienced bumpkins. After all, I had had been exposed to more different types of peoples, cultures, and climates than any of them could ever imagine.

Just the same, these children of factory workers and farmers did not admire me; instead they looked at me as an outsider and made me feel a bit unwelcome. They had known each other almost since birth and had attended the same school their entire lives, so a new guy like me was just an interloper. I didn’t care—I knew I only had to put up with them for just over four years before I would be off again—following in my dad’s footsteps as an American serviceman.

I didn’t dwell on this downbeat turn of events, because out of necessity and through thorny experience, military brats are used to facing adversity. We learn very early not to expect things to go the expected or preferred way. Brats figure out real quick how to adjust to new situations and how to adapt and overcome when things turn difficult.

This lesson of learning to adapt to adversity is one that serves us well for the rest of our lives. It makes us willing to face the unknown with intrepidity, and it’s probably the reason why so many of us end up following our father’s into the military. Leaving home isn’t a problem for people who have learned that “home” is a state of mind; it’s where you hang your metaphorical hat.

By attending so many schools, at times two in one school year, you might think that it would have a negative effect on grades and academic accomplishments. This does not generally seem to be the case for most brats. I usually averaged A’s and B’s with an occasional C, and the further I progressed in grade level the better I did.

My travels made me particularly proficient at geography, history and social sciences. When my teachers spoke of a war in Europe or a mountain range in Asia, I could easily visualize the subject matter. I had lived on the same ancient road that Romans, Persians, Macedonians, Crusaders and many others had marched upon over the centuries. How could any kid not get a sense of history after something like that?

Just as we got a sense of history, many of us got a sense of OUR PLACE in it. Our service fathers, and nowadays service mothers, continually find themselves involved in military operations that eventually end up in the history books. I remember clearly the tension at home when my father became embroiled in the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I was very young, but the fear and apprehension of that time is still etched in my mind.

Because they were constantly involved in the implementation of the nation’s policies, our parents unintentionally exposed us to what at times were intense and sometimes troublesome discussions. I grew up at the height of the Vietnam War, and the arguments involving it constantly bombarded the tender ears and innocent minds of young kids like me. I carefully listened to their arguments and tirades, and unconsciously absorbed the thoughts and attitudes of these wound-up grownups.

Naturally, most of the mind-sets to which I was exposed reflected the considerably conservative and patriotic stance of military servicemen. I attribute my existing aggressive outlook towards how we should handle the Terrorist War to the days I listened to the conversations of my dad and his buddies while they drank beer and ate charbroiled hamburgers and steaks in our backyard.

Being a military brat is something all us brats take great pride in. We brats are part of an exclusive club. We shared similarly challenging experiences and consider ourselves the better for it. I treasure and will never forget my time as a brat. It’s an experience that I recommend for anyone’s kid.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

What I Like About Living in the Philippines

Living in the Philippines, I freely admit that Americans here typically complain way too much; and being fairly typical, I am no exception. If two of us are talking you can bet that our conversation will eventually get around to our latest complaint. I've lived in many countries and never have I been anyplace where so many whining citizens from another country continue to live in the country about which they complain. Our grumbling covers almost every imaginable thing from unbelievably dreadful local drivers, to bad roads, to the predictable flooding during rainy season, to the constantly failing power. The conundrum is that even though so many of us find reasons to continuously carp, thousands of us continue to live here. That fact begs the question: If it’s so bad, why don’t we leave? It must be that there are things here that we DO like. I won't presume to speak for my fellow expatriate Yanks, but I will make an effort to list what I personally find likeable.

First, I like the year round balmy weather. I spent my high school years in Michigan, a frigid place where I learned to hate the cold. Now I have even more reason to avoid chilly weather because of my aching osteoarthritic joints. Even in the supposedly warm climes of some southern states like Southern California or Florida--even those places have their frosty wintry days. No thank you! My tender joints and painful tendons prefer the heating-pad-like weather right here in the Philippines.

I like the fetching smiles and friendliness of the people here, and being me, I’m especially fond of the wonderful smiles of the ladies! Seriously, Filipinos are naturally gracious and welcoming. By contrast, Americans are friendly as well, but we tend to be a bit more reserved, particularly if we happen to come from certain parts of the U.S., namely from the big cities of the northeast, but I generalize. Having lived all over the globe I can say for certain that as a people Filipinos are the quickest to give a stranger a pleasant smile and welcoming words.

I like the cost of living here. The prices of many things in the Philippines are well below the costs of the same items and services in the states. Many of the foreigners living in this country survive on pensions; finding a job here that pays anything substantial is pretty much out of the question for an outsider (and for a local for that matter). Therefore, it’s important to us that essential living expenses such as rent, food, and transportation be affordable. Although you can find deluxe accommodations here, it’s more important to have available reasonably priced housing, victuals, and conveyance; and all those things can easily be had no matter how limited the budget.

In my case I also include the cost of secondary schooling in the list of affordable services. As a military veteran I get paid to go to school, and the more economical it is the more educational benefit monies I get to put in the bank. The cost of college in the U.S. is so high that it has become prohibitive. For instance, a stateside textbook can cost as much as 5,000 Pesos (around a hundred bucks) and more, so you can imagine how high the cost of a single class there. It’s easily the price of a complete semester at my school, Systems Plus Computer Foundation, taking a full load of credit hours.

It’s ironic that one of the things I like most about Filipinos is their composed attitude while driving. It’s ironic because although I like this one aspect about them as drivers, I abhor their generally poor driving. What I appreciate about their attitude is their absolutely non-American style of patience with other drivers and their lack of the road rage so prevalent in United States society. It seems that nothing really upsets a Filipino behind the wheel. Situations and the actions of other drivers that would drive an American back home into paroxysms of middle-finger-waving fury cause the Filipino to merely tap his horn, or more often than not, to have absolutely no reaction at all. I strive mightily on a daily basis to attempt to copy this admirable characteristic. So far I’ve had very little luck in accomplishing this change in my driver’s persona.

And finally, my mom used to tell me that if I couldn’t say something nice about someone that I shouldn't say anything at all. Well, I’ll doubtless keep on complaining about irritating aspects of this place, but I’ll also try to keep reminding myself about the good things, because there are many! Did I mention how cheap it is to buy a San Miguel beer? Hey, there's another one!