Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Cold War Barracks Roommate Visits for 37 Hours

At Philadelphia Airport at 6am 

During the first months of 1979, my roommate in the barracks of the Wiesbaden Military Community was Air Force Sergeant Cliff Almes. On May 2, of that year, Cliff was discharged from the USAF in West Germany. I drove him 20 miles to the place that has been home for him ever since, a monastery in Darmstadt.  

Cliff got a new uniform he is still wearing. He is now Bruder Timotheus of the Land of Kanaan. We have talked on the phone ever since I left Germany in 1979 to go to college.  I visited Cliff in Germany a few times in the last 40 years. In 2017 I spent a week with Cliff at Kanaan that included a visit to Point Alpha on the former East-West border in Fulda. 

Cliff is here in the U.S. for a family wedding in Houston this coming weekend. He flew to Virginia, visited his brother, then visited me, then flew to Mexico to visit his sister before flying to Houston. Next week he'll be back in Darmstadt. 

On this visit, Cliff met my wife and several of my friends here in Lancaster. On the long visit to Kanaan in 2017, I met some of the Brothers in Cliff's community and other people who visit the monastery. Dmitri, for example, visited Point Alpha with Cliff and I. And I visited German historic sites with Cliff and a Coptic Christian couple from Cairo.

Cliff is a military brat. His connections to the US Military go back to the Revolutionary War. Some of that story is here. Cliff's schedule did not allow for a historic site visit, but we did drive past all of the sites on Independence Mall in Philadelphia along the way to the airport.  Maybe we can go inside on some future visit. 

I met some of my best friends during my military service during the Cold War.  They live as far away as Germany and San Diego now so it's nice when we can visit.  My former tank unit, 1-70th Armor, has reunions every other year. I've made it to a couple of those. There's one this fall I'm going to miss because of conflicting plans, but I'm hoping for 2021.

In the meantime, there is a possibility Cliff and I will be able to spend a few days seeing Jerusalem in the fall. He has been there several times and I am looking forward to seeing it through his eyes.  

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Three Kinds of People: Sheep, Sheep Dogs, and Wolves

The movie "American Sniper" brought into popular culture and old view of people:  We are all sheep, sheep dogs, or wolves. It is easy to criticize this simplified view of humanity. For one thing, humans can change from sheep into wolves, sheep dogs into wolves, or wolves into sheep.  Real sheep stay sheep. Real wolves don't graze.

Recently, I was talking to my older son about leadership. I used this analogy, because he is starting both an internship and later a job in which leadership is the path to success. His employers, even if they would not use the label, are looking for a sheep dog.

We were laughing about just how much like a sheep dog he will need to be with a crowd of teenagers who needed to be herded to different activities--and who might wander off at any moment.

We also talked about my oldest daughter, both of us smiling because she seems to be born for the sheep dog role. On her high school basketball and soccer teams she played with boundless enthusiasm. She also embraced the role of team enforcer.  If a player on the other team made a bad hit or was abusing one of her teammates, my daughter was in her face, several times fouling out of games with her one-on-one coverage of the offender.  In her professional life she is a social worker, helping disabled veterans get the help they need.

The best sergeants I served with in the Army had this alert, game-face quality of both protecting their sheep and barking whenever needed.

In corporate life, unlike games and the military, leadership has subtleties that blend the sheep and sheep dogs and even the wolves together into an always strained unit that presents itself as a family, but with deep contradictions everyone feels.

In the corporate world, someone has to make money and deal with shareholders.  Wolves in suits lead the sales force and accounting.  Sheep with college degrees can be less than docile.  The sheep dogs in big companies, the middle managers, are the subject of bitching by the sheep and the wolves.

I listen to friends who are corporate managers caught between surly sheep and hungry wolves striving to "increase shareholder value" and their own bonuses. Every corporation I worked for kept score in money--the only real measure of  both short- and long-term success in the world of business.

The friends who played ball or are veterans are occasionally nostalgic for the vivid clarity of games and war.  They tell me how they are squeezed between bosses looking only for profit and staff who want affirmation.

My son is beginning where most of the sheep want to be part of the herd and he can protect his sheep from the wolves.

Just as an aside, many professions are admired and scorned based on members who choose the role of sheep dog or wolf.  The best lawyers use their considerable training to protect the poor and needy from government and corporate excess. The worst are wolves making fortunes covering crimes by the rich.

The difference between millionaire televangelists sucking money from their sheep to build and buy empires, and believer who becomes a doctor to minister in a refugee camp is beyond astronomical.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Inverting the Beatitudes

The Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

Sometimes when I want to know if I really understand an idea, I restate it. More rarely, I invert it.

The Christian faith has always been at its best at the margins of society. As soon as Christians take power the Church dies.  The Medici Popes, The Crusades, America’s Jim Crow South, American preachers defending slavery, and now white Evangelicals backing Trump are just the latest version of hate wrapped in religious robes.  

Matthew Verses 3 – 11, inverted

3.  Cursed are the rich, for their Kingdom is this world.

4.  Cursed are those who live to amuse themselves, they will die alone in front of TVs.

5.  Cursed are the proud, for they will choose Hell over humility.

6  Cursed are the fat and full, for their appetites rule them.

7.  Cursed are the merciless, for they will receive no mercy.

8.  Cursed are the foul in heart, for they will never see God.

9.  Cursed are the bullies, for they will become sons of Satan.

10.  Cursed are those who are cheered for their lies, for they make the world as horrible as themselves.

11.  Cursed are those who insult and envy true and good people, for they will lock themselves in Hell forever.

For Jerry Falwell Jr. there is a “Dream President” in the White House. Trump is the fulfillment of Falwell’s power dreams, but judged by the most important words of Jesus himself, Jerry is not having Christian dream.  Nor are Franklin Graham, Paula White, Pat Robertson, Robert Jeffress and the Evangelical leaders who have taken their 30 pieces of silver from Trump to get power. 

But taking power and keeping power has nothing to do with The Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew Verses 3 – 11

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Space-Time on My Bicycle

On the bike, space and time can be interchangeable

In Pennsylvania, Germany, Slovakia and many other places I have ridden, the distance between crests of rolling hills is often about a half mile.  At an 18mph average speed, that means the distance from hill crest to hill crest is three and a half minutes.  

I am re-reading the book "Time and the Art of Living" by Robert Grudin. The book is a meditation on time and the realities and paradoxes of life within time.  Grudin writes about the experience of runners on regular routes passing landmarks and knowing that passing a mailbox or an intersection is marker both of time and of distance.  

Twice every week for the past twenty years when I am in Lancaster, I ride a 35-mile route with a group of friends.  The route goes from Lancaster city through Millersville to Safe Harbor Park, up a long climb to Highville, a fast descent down Turkey Hill, then five miles of flat road along the Susquehanna River, then back through Millersville and home.  

From the time the ride leaves at 4 p.m. until the riders split up back in Millersville, I know the time and the distance I have travelled from riding the same route over and over.  The exact speed of the ride each day depends on which riders show up. I know that on a day Brad shows up we will descend Turkey Hill at just before 5 p.m. Without Brad, it might 5:04 that we roll down the longest descent.  

In addition to time and distance melding, deep emotion changes time perception. Joy erases time, making a single moment seem to stand still: filled to bursting with happiness, and then making hours disappear in joy. That joy makes a single moment spread into the future.

In the same way, pain can turn seconds into hours.  The agony of a broken bone has turned seconds into hours for me many times.  

When I learned to swim six years ago, the 25-yard pool at the Lancaster YMCA became a metronome for me. I found I could not count laps reliably, but I knew that three minutes was 100 yards so I could track distance on the clock.  I went from swimming a quarter mile, to a half mile to a mile and longer, tracking my distance with the clock on the wall.  

Since I did not have to think about distance, I could distract myself from the boredom of swimming in a poll by counting or doing squares in my head in other languages.  If I did the squares to 5000 in French it was twenty minutes, close to a half mile.  In Russian, it was 35 minutes, a kilometer or a little more.  Two squared, four. Three, nine. Four, sixteen. Nine, Eighty-one. Twenty, Four Hundred. Forty-four, 1,936.  In Russian:  два, четыре; три, дебять; сорок йетыре, один тыцяча девятсот тридцать шесть.  

Although I have traveled the equivalent of several trips around the world on the Amtrak Keystone train between Lancaster and Philadelphia, time and space do not merge on train trips. At least for me, the seven stops from Lancaster to Philadelphia are time markers, not distance.  Eleven minutes to Ardmore, 12 more to Paoli, five to Exton, seven to Downingtown, seven to Coatsville, five to Parksburg, then 18 more minutes to Lancaster--and vice versa.  The only distance I feel is Philadelphia to Lancaster or vice versa: on the train, off the train.

But after a decade of riding the train, I decided I could ride to work once in a while. I would ride from Lancaster to Philadelphia along route 30. Every station from Lancaster to Philadelphia except Parksburg is on the Route 30. When I rode, the train stations became time and distance markers on the trip. In the past dozen years I have made the trip maybe 50 times.  On the bike, those stations take on new significance.  

When I pass Coatsville station I am past the longest hill on the entire route. The rest is flat. At Downingtown, I am halfway. If I reach Downingtown in two hours, I will be in Philadelphia in four hours.  At Exton, I can get on the bike trail, add 10 miles to the trip and stay off the busiest roads.  Usually I just keep going on Route 30.  Paoli is the beginning of the heaviest traffic. Ardmore is close to the Philadelphia City line. Once I am in West Philadelphia the traffic is less, but the roads are terrible--trolley tracks and potholes.  

I am writing this on the train from Philadelphia to Lancaster.  The trip is 75 minutes to write or read. I am in a warm, metal cylinder on a cold night traveling a mile a minute. No distance. Just time. When I leave the train I will get on my single-speed bike and ride two very cold miles to my house. Nine minutes. I can picture every yard of that trip in my mind. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

3, 2, 1: Chance, Fate and Free Will

"Free Will" by Mark Balaguer: did I choose to buy it?

In the book “The Forgotten Soldier” Guy Sajer describes a moment when his rifle company is sheltering from Soviet artillery and guns in a concrete storage cellar. An order comes down to attack. The Top Sergeant tells the men to count off by threes. Sajer is a One.  The sergeant tells the Threes to get ready to attack.  In two minutes they run from the basement. In another ten minutes they are all dead or wounded.

The Twos are next. As they run into the hail of Soviet fire, Sajer thinks about what it means that the Threes went first.  Why them? Usually the Ones would go first and he would be dead.  His assault wave took the Soviet stronghold in the middle of the village.  After this brief victory, the Germans would continue the year-long retreat to Germany and utter defeat. 

Sajer survived that day and the war because he was a One on the day the Threes went first.  Not surprisingly, Sajer sees his life as dominated by fate rather than free will. As a soldier in a retreating Army, his life is a series of terrible moments. In another scene, he describes the relief of climbing into a truck after 20 miles of marching. The relief turns into terror when the convoy is attacked by Soviet fighter-bombers. Then there are all the horrors of his one leave to go home.

In the military, I have met more fatalists than in civilian life, or at least people who are more open about their belief.  The most usual expression of this belief was, “If a bullet has mine name on it, there’s nothing I can do about it.” I can understand this belief, but so much of the training we had was how to avoid the bullets, bombs and rockets that were aimed at us. 

For a year during my tour in West Germany in the 70s, I taught a monthly class in how to survive what are now called WMDs.  I shared the Army’s best advice on how to live if our position was hit with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.  If it is somehow possible to survive a nuke, can there really be just one bullet with NEIL on it? Or would it be my full name? When I was a tank commander, would it be an armor-piercing cannon shell with my name on it?

All my life, the question of Free Will versus Fate has been in the back of my mind. Early in my life, as well as I could understand the question, I would have said fate guided my life.  After I joined the military, life seemed to be a series of endless possibilities.  I went to college, picked a job I liked, had kids, became a late-life athlete, traveled to every inhabited continent, a paragon of choice.

Last year, I read a book titled “Free Will” by Mark Balaguer.  I bought the book in the MIT Bookstore when I was in Cambridge for the annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. I had an hour so I went to the bookstore and bought the book on a whim.  Was it a whim? It is a subject that interested me all my life. I went to a bookstore that had only academic books. Was fate lurking in my mind?

Whether picking the book was fate or free well, Balaguer, helped me to see that the gap between Sajer and I, between those who believe an invisible fate controls their life and those who believe everything is free, is not so great as I thought. 

Balaguer looks at both sides of the question from a philosophical viewpoint, and then from a practical viewpoint.  How many choices can one person actually make in a day-week-month-life?  Not that many.  The human condition, circumstances, lifespan, and every previous choice we have made, combine to constrain all of our future choices. So real choice is relatively rare. 

Each time I have made a big choice, I have accepted a thousand small restraints. When I decided to re-enlist in the Army National Guard, one weekend a month was outside of my control. Then two weeks in the summer. Then a year in Iraq.  A lot of choices I might have had, I no longer had. Certainly in Iraq, I had no choice in what to wear, where to live, when to eat, and so many other things. 

I don’t know if there is an answer to the question of fate or free will, except in very specific circumstances.  But it is a question I seem fated to keep thinking about.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Forgotten Soldier: "Surely the war must end soon."

The Forgotten Soldier, a memoir of World War II

In the middle of Guy Sajer's story of war on the Eastern Front in World War II, he writes of his one-and-only leave during four years of fighting. In the spring of 1943, he was given 14 days leave that does not start until the railway station at Posnan, 200 miles east of Berlin. That's important because his journey began in Kharkov, more than 1000 miles further east.

Before, during and after the leave. People around Sajer from Russia to Berlin say, "Surely the war must end soon." "Surely the war can't go on like this." Of course, the war does go on, and on, until finally Nazi Germany is crushed between two massive Allied armies.

Sajer spends his first months of war in a transport unit trying to bring supplies to Stalingrad. The city fell before the snowbound trucks of Sajer's unit could reach Stalingrad.  In the way of all armies since the Roman Empire and before, the front line troops blamed the supply troops for their defeat.

Sajer volunteers to be a front-line infantryman with an elite division. Part of the offer by the officers asking for volunteers is a fourteen-day leave.  Sajer volunteers and gets his leave.

His goal is to go home and visit his family in Alsace, France, 500 miles west of Berlin. The train he is on west of Berlin is stopped when the town ahead of them is bombed by the allies. Sajer and everyone else on the train helps to clear the tracks. When they get to the station, Sajer is told his destination is too far from his unit and he has to go back.

He decides to return to Berlin. He visits the family of his best friend who was killed on the road to Stalingrad. While he is waiting to see his friend's parents, he meets Paula and falls deeply in love with her. They spend every moment they can together during the rest of Sajer's leave.

The most intense moments they share are during bombing raids. In a night raid that hits the neighborhood they are in, they hide in a shelter, then help to care for the wounded when the all-clear sirens sound. In the shelter, terrified mothers say,
"Surely the war must end soon."

Later they are near Templehof Airport on a lovely spring day, when the airport itself is the target of a daylight bombing raid. There are no shelters nearby and they hide in a fold in the ground as Eighth Air Force bombers reduce Templehof to rubble.  As they help the wounded after they raid, they tell each other, "Surely the war must end soon."

It doesn't. The war drags on and on until crippled Berlin is fully destroyed and the Nazi army retreats all the way from Russia back to Germany. Sajer goes back to his unit. The lovers write to each other, but never see each other again.

Sajer records all of the deep emotion he feels, and the reaction when the older soldiers in his unit find out he fell in love on leave.  They needle him and tell him he has a thousand miles to travel back to the front lines and he can fall in love on the way. 

Sajer conveys very well the hope that wells up inside people who have suffered. "Surely we have suffered enough," They say. "Surely this will end." But it does not. The suffering of individual men and women and children is never a priority of the leaders who want victory.  A year later, after a victory in which they hold the advancing Soviet Armies, young soldiers like Sajer--he is then 19--start to talk about how the war must end soon and they will all go home.

I read all this book 42 years ago as a 24-year-old tank commander in Germany on the East-West Border. I did not remember the leave from forty years ago. I remembered much of the book, but not the leave.  This time reading, mid-tour leave was part of my experience, part of my year in Iraq.  It struck me how different it was to come home to a completely peaceful country.

The other deep irony of the leave was the way that Paula's parents and the people Sajer stayed with were worried the young couple was moving too quickly.  They were worried about the young couple doing the "right thing."

By the time of the leave in 1943, Nazi armies had already deported and slaughtered millions of Jews. They had killed millions more civilians in pitiless air raids on civilian targets and armored warfare.

It is painful for me to read how people could be concerned with moral questions while German soldiers and German policemen drafted into military service had already shot more than two million Jews and thrown them into pits and were sending others to death camps for slaughter on an industrial scale.

But tradition has always blinded people in this very way. So the Berliners could be concerned about what a Good German would do at the same time German soldiers were machine gunning children.

In America, the people who owned slaves went to Church and told their children to behave even while they, just like the Nazis, believed people who lived among them were less than human and could be tortured and denied freedom for their entire lives, and the lives of their children.  The American segregation in the Jim Crow South that followed the end of slavery was Hitler's model of making an underclass of Jews. Hitler started that segregation immediately, and quickly went past oppression to slavery and murder.

The Church in Germany, like the Church in America, was complicit in the terrible plans. The American Church twisted the Bible into saying Black people were less than human.  The German Church, Evangelical and Catholic, expelled Jewish convert pastors and then Jewish Church members within the first two years of Hitler taking power. The German Church, like the slavery Evangelical Church in the South, supported the racism of their governments.

This time re-reading Guy Sajer, the most painful passages are not about the war, but about what was happening "back home." 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Boston Traffic: Rules Made Up on the Spot

My Home Town, Boston

Boston traffic is now the worst in the nation, maybe worst in the world according to a new survey.  It's not simply the volume of traffic. It's the roads: the diabolical design of the roads that makes chaos that sometimes can only be unravelled by making up rules on the spot.

My father was a truck driver and a warehouse worker. Born before World War I, he liked to say he began as a Teamster shoveling shit when Beantown still used horse-drawn wagons.  The cobblestone roads only slowly gave way to pavement, so by the time I was a kid in the late 50s and early 60s many key road junctions were still paved for horses. 

My Dad worked at a grocery warehouse next to the former Hood Milk plant in what is now Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown. To drive a truck north from the warehouse meant driving around the cobblestone rotary at Sullivan Square. To go south meant passing through cobbled City Square rotary then turning a tractor-trailer into an alley that was the only access to the bridge to the Southeast Expressway.

One Friday in the summer of 1961, my Dad had to take a refrigerated load south to Taunton.  His company had just upgraded from 32-foot to 40-foot refrigerated trailers.  I had gone to work with my Dad, so when he got the assignment, I got to ride in the cab.  Ahhh, the days before liability lawyers decided everything.

We rumbled around the cobblestone rotary at 5 mph.  When Dad turned into the alley, he misjudged the new trailer. It was his first time pulling a 40-footer.  He clipped the rear fender of a new Chevy Belair parked illegally right on the corner and pushed the shiny, blue sedan into an iron street lamp pole.  The car was crunched at both ends.

My Dad got down from the cab. A thousand horns honked at the brightly painted tractor trailer blocking the alley.  As my Dad wrote his information on a piece of paper, an enormous, red-faced Boston Cop strode through the stalled traffic yelling at my Dad to get moving.

My Dad started to protest that the car was illegally parked. I hung out the window wondering if my Dad would be arrested.  The Big Cop grabbed the paper and tore it up.  "Get moving. Get out of here," he yelled. "That drunk son-of-a-bitch parks there every Friday and fucks everything up. Fuck him. Get going."

My Dad thanked him, swung into the cab and with one more move, rumbled down the alley toward Taunton. 

Whoever decided it was a good idea to funnel the major route from the north side of Boston through a cobblestone rotary and an alley is just one of the idiots who made driving in Boston such an adventure when I was a kid. 

I have no doubt Boston traffic is currently the worst in the world. I wonder who else ever held the title.

Cold War Barracks Roommate Visits for 37 Hours

At Philadelphia Airport at 6am  During the first months of 1979, my roommate in the barracks of the Wiesbaden Military Community was ...