Thursday, March 15, 2018

Every Week in Cold War West Germany, Gas Mask Drills

Every week during my three years in Cold War West Germany, 
the Tankers of 1-70th Armor had a MOPP drill. Gene Pierce, Abel Lopez and Don Spears
are in the motor pool celebrating MOPP Level 1. 

With Russian Nerve Agent VX in the news, I remembered donning a mask and occasionally putting on full protective gear every week when I was stationed in Wiesbaden in Cold War, West Germany in the late 70s.  An alarm would sound and we would mask wherever we were and continue to work.  

Most days, if we were on post we were in the motor pool.  If we were tightening end-connector bolts or checking ammo racks, we masked and continued with the task in hand.  I had taught classes, including Chemical, Biological, Radiation classes when the alarm sounded and had the odd experience of seeing a room full of men stand and mask, then resume their seat.  It is difficult to be understood wearing a mask, so I dismissed the class.

It really sucked for those who had been waiting for food in the huge consolidated mess chow line then were not able to eat it.  

We did not often go to full MOPP gear (Military Oriented Protective Posture) because they were controlled items and had to be signed for.  Of course, when the drill was going to be full MOPP we knew it because it had to be issued in advance and carried everywhere: charcoal-lined suit, boots, gloves, everything.  

The Soviets had millions of pounds of VX gas they manufactured before they had a nuclear bomb and kept making for years after.  I wrote about the leader of the VX program in the Soviet Union recently, a man named Boris Libman who shows just how bad life can be for a hero of the Soviet Union.

With Soviet nerve gas back in the news, the Cold War is back in our lives.    

Friday, March 9, 2018

Chaplain on Every Convoy, Every Remote Fire Base

Chaplain Timothy S. Valentine 

During the first few months of my deployment Camp Adder, Iraq, in 2009, my favorite chaplain, and the favorite chaplain even of many other chaplains was Father Timothy S. Valentine.  He was also the only Catholic chaplain on a base awash in Evangelical Chaplains from Wisconsin and Texas. 

Father Valentine packed the stone-floored one-story building that was the chapel for every faith. There were three different Protestant services every Sunday and an occasional Jewish and Muslim service when a Rabbi or Imam visited.  The Catholic services were every Sunday afternoon unless Father Valentine was on a convoy or flight.  Catholic services became intermittent after Father Valentine got transferred to Baghdad in the fall of 2009. 

Every unit knew Father Valentine because he went on convoy missions and brought services to every remote fire base in southern Iraq.  He flew to remote areas and seemed to be everywhere in the huge, desolate area between Baghdad and Kuwait that Camp Adder provided air and logistics support for.

Many soldiers who never went to chapel services knew Father Valentine. He was the guy who saw 9-11 from his window at Fordham University and left his professorship to volunteer for the Army.  He served more than a decade, including two combat deployments to Iraq, and two stints at the United States Military Academy at West Point as Regimental Chaplain and adjunct faculty. He left the Army in 2014 and is currently the Chaplain and Co-Chair of Theology at Canterbury in New Milford, Connecticut.

I wrote a post mentioning Chaplain Valentine when I was in Iraq, about how his reputation endured and was a standard other did not measure up to.  The post is here.

I had not thought about Chaplain Valentine for a while, but next week I am going to try to get in touch with him. I will post an update, especially if we can get together for coffee or a visit.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Seeing Paris in a New Way from Saint-Germain-en-Laye

The top of the Eiffel tower and Mont-Valerien seen from Saint-Germain-en-Laye 

Today I saw Paris in a new way, a new view of my favorite city. I saw it through the eyes of one of my favorite authors.  In his new book “Paris in the Present Tense” Mark Helprin writes the story of Jules Lacour, a 75-year-old cellist who lives in the village (commune) of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, more than ten miles west of Paris, on the third reverse bend of the Seine River as it snakes west from the center of Paris toward the English Channel.  Until today, I had never visited that village. Near the end of the book, Jules Lacour looks at Paris from the place I saw it today. It is as lovely in person as Helprin’s description.

Hotel de Ville (City Hall) Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Like most residents of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, I traveled to the village on the regional commuter train RER A from Paris.  When I stepped from the train, the escalator took me to the west side of the huge park Les Parterres—manicured grounds and trees stretching from the Grand City Hall east and north for a half mile to a bluff the looks back toward Paris.  From that bluff at the Terrasse du Chateau, a magnificent promenade more than 100 feet wide stretches north from the village for more than a mile. 

The Bridge at Le Vesinet-Le Pecq

When I walked to the edge of the bluff, I was high above the Seine, looking down on the bridge at Le Vesinet—Le Pecq. To the south is Versailles. Nearly due east is the peak of the Eiffel Tower. The city of Paris itself is obscured by the Mont-Valerien just west of the Tower and the city.  In the book, Jules Lacour was looking in this same direction toward Paris.

Restaurant Maison Fournaise

As I looked, I saw my own history of visiting Paris over the past twenty years unfold in front of me. Three miles east from the bluff where I stood was the next full bend of the river at Chatou.  On the east edge of Chatou is a tiny island in the Seine: Ile des Impressionistes. On the island is a small impressionist museum and the Restaurant Maison Fournaise. When I worked for Millennium Chemicals in the late 1990s, I was in Paris several times a year.  The Paris office was in Rueil-Malmaison just across the river toward Paris from Chatou.  The sales manager in that office was a serious gourmand who took me to the best restaurants in Paris so I would know where to entertain visiting journalists.

For me, the best of all the restaurants he showed me for an event or dinner was Maison Fournaise. Not only was the food good, this restaurant serves lunch and dinner on the porch that is at the center of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party.”  Both for Millennium and for my next employer, I rented this porch for an evening meal watching boats pass on the Seine as we ate dinner. My guests from other countries were delighted with this lovely place they had never heard of.  Even some Parisians did not know of the little restaurant under the bridge at Chatou.  In addition to being the scene of the Renoir painting, the restaurant has several sketches on the wall covered with Lucite. These sketches were the work of Renoir’s young friend Henri Matisse. The young Matisse was in love with a bar maid who worked at the restaurant. He was often short of money and occasionally paid his bar tab with drawings on the walls.

The same train RER A passes through Chatou and Rueil-Malmaison back to Paris.  So several times I stayed in hotels in that area, a delightful surprise for the people who tracked my expense reports, because I stayed for less than $100 per night, when the sales team was in Paris at double or triple that price. 

Another 3 miles east toward Paris is the village of Suresne on the east side of Mont-Valerien, the hill between Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris.  I stayed several times in Suresne, also for less than $100 a night. I stayed there because I always had my racing bicycle with me on trips to Paris. Just across the bridge from Suresne to Paris is L’Hippodrome on the west side of Bois de Boulogne, the huge park in the southwest corner of the city. 

Riding around L'Hippodrome, Bois de Boulogne

Every day the 2-mile road that circles L’Hippodrome is closed to traffic for training races from 10 a.m. to dark.  As often as I could, either in the morning or the evening, I rode in those training races.  From Suresne I just rolled down Mont-Valerien and started warming up to ride in packs of cyclists that sometimes reached 30mph on the flat road around the horseracing track. 

From L’Hippodrome, I rode through the park which is enclosed by another loop in the Seine, then along the south (Left) bank of the river toward the place I love best in the center of Paris: the area that stretches along Quai d'Orsay and then south and up on Boulevard Saint-Michel. This is an area of bistros and bookstores: crowded bistros and crowded bookstores. Shakespeare & Company, Gibert Joseph, and dozens of little specialty bookshops line the roads in this area near the Sorbonne and Jardin du Luxembourg. 
Boulevard Saint-Michel

Of course, every love story has a shadow of loss. In my case, on the east end of the lovely Ile de Cite is the Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation—the memorial of the deportation of 200,000 Jews from France. This underground monument is beautifully made and wrenchingly sad.  It testifies that every one of the 200,000 Jews who went to the death camps had a life and hopes that were wrenched away by Nazis. 

The Deportation Memorial

In “Paris in the Present Tense” Jules Lacour and his parents hide from the Nazis from shortly after Jules is born in 1940 until his fourth birthday when the family is discovered.  His parents are killed; Jules survives. At the book’s end Jules struggles against the revival of anti-Semitism in France 70 years later. 

A Ride West from the Memorial to Saint-Germain-en-Laye

As I returned to the city, I imagined myself riding from the Deportation Memorial to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.  I would begin on the Ile de Cite at the memorial site, riding through the park and across the island.  I would look west in the direction of my birthplace and home far across the Atlantic Ocean. I first pass through the Paris of love of learning at Boulevard Saint-Michel on Quai d’Orsay, past Pont Neuf and a dozen other unique and lovely bridges toward and past the Eiffel Tower. After that I would ride through Bois de Boulogne, to L’Hippodrome and for a lap or two join the racers perfecting their craft.

As I leave the training race, I immediately cross the Seine and ride up to Suresne and over Mont-Valerien and down into Rueil-Malmaison. There I ride past the gleaming glass and steel suburban building that used to be my Paris office.  I cross the looping Seine again with a detour from the middle of the bridge, down the ramp to Ile des Impressionistes and Maison Fournaise.  Back up on the bridge I pass over the Seine. If I glance south on the west end of the bridge, I can see the next island south of Chatou, Ile de la Chaussee, where the story “Femme Fatale” by Guy de Maupassant is set.  In moments I pass through Chatou and into Le Vesinet.  In front of me I can see the hill of Saint-Germain-en-Laye rising to the west. 

Now I cross the Seine to the west for the last time on the bridge, Le Vesinet-Le Pecq.  Mark Helprin made this crossing forever comic for me in the book. This bridge is the place his crude and insanely rich housemates speed across the Seine toward Paris on matching black Ducati Pingale motorcycles.  I ride though Le Pecq and up the hill toward the village center of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and its massive city hall. 

For the view back to Paris, I ride slowly on the lanes across the park to the edge of the bluff above the river.  The bridge at Le Vesinet-Le Pecq is below and slightly south.  I can glimpse Chatou, Ile des Impressionistes, and Rueil-Malmaison through the trees in front of me. Mont-Valerien hides Paris, all but the top of the Eiffel Tower and all of Suresne and Bois de Boulogne, but I know they are in the present moment, the present tense, in front of me.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Green Beans Coffee in Newark, Terminal B

At Camp Adder, Iraq, my favorite place was Green Beans Coffee.  Today I am in Newark Liberty Airport and saw a Green Beans coffee for the first time since I got back from Iraq.  And they give military discounts.  Coffee is free for soldiers.

The story of one of the baristas is here.

Good to know they are successful here as well as on American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

My First Military Haircut, February 1, 1972

The night before my Basic Training haircut.

When I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base on February 1, 1972, among the first order of business was the haircut.  For me and many other recruits, this was a matter of no small delight for the three barbers shearing our shoulder-length locks down to military crew cuts.  We paid for the haircut, twenty-five cents if I remember correctly. When it was my turn, the thin, grinning guy with several teeth missing said, “Lookie here fellas, another pretty one.” 
My wavy, shoulder-length hair fell to the floor joining a pile that could have been a couch cushion.  As my hair hit the floor, the third barber took a break and started sweeping the curls and waves into a waste bin in the corner. 
Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” was released more than two years before in September of 1969.  The barber was humming while my hair floated to the floor.  I had not heard “Okie from Muskogee” at that point in my life.  I would hear the song in Denver after basic training when country music would become part of the background sound of my barracks life. 
Whether the humming hair harvester was serenading me with Haggard’s Hippie-Hating Hymn of some other country call to arms, he enjoyed sending my transient tresses to the floor. 
With shoulder-length hair and head-to-toe discomfort, the barber knew I was a Yankee.  Because I was at Air Force basic training in February he could assume I was a Liberal, but not rich enough to buy my way out of the draft and took the safer route of the service in which about one percent were in the line of fire and 99 percent were on big bases protected by the Army.  
He would not have guessed that the skinny recruit he was shearing was the son of two enthusiastic Goldwater Republicans and that I had, in fact, enlisted before my draft number was published.  Two months later, my sister would send me that draft number, 269, written on a small poster she sent in a large, brown envelope, much to the amusement of my fellow basic trainees.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

An American Nazi and a Russian Nazi

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Prison

In almost twenty years of service over more than forty years, I met some of the best people it has ever been my good fortune to meet, and some of the worst.

In the fall, I took a class in contemporary Russian literature. One of the books we read was a memoir by the Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky titled “My Fellow Prisoners.” The short book was a series of sketches about men he met serving a ten-year sentence from 2003-2013. Khodorkovsky was the first and richest billionaire that Vladimir Putin jailed as he consolidated his power during his first term as President. 

As soon as the discussion started, it was clear that neither the professor nor the other students knew any Nazis. Certainly none of them had ever knowingly spent time with a Nazi. 

Alexander, the 19-year-old Nazi in a Russian prison was “a real-life Nazi—that’s to say a member of one of Russia’s numerous National-Socialist groups.  Alexander is no fool; he got through his secondary school exams (in prison), is interested in philosophy and politics, wants to teach later on.”

Khodorkovsky wants know why Alexander is a Nazi, “I’ve never been able to understand how Nazism could be a phenomenon in a country where so many people lost their lives fighting it.” They can talk and get along because they have a common enemy in the guard and a common purpose in someday walking out of prison.

Reading Khodorkovsky reminded me of a Nazi I served with. He was my platoon sergeant in an Army Reserve tank company in the early 80s.  Within a few years he would be promoted to Command Sergeant Major and be activated for Operation Desert Storm. Sergeant First Class Michael Wittmann* was competent, thorough, took care of his men, knew his equipment, and did not believe The Holocaust happened, or it wasn’t as bad as the Jewish propaganda said it was.  He collected German memorabilia, had reworked an Wehrmacht MG 42 machinegun to fire the NATO ammo our tanks used, and some of the soldiers in the unit said he had a picture of himself in dress uniform with a swastika.

For Mike, I was a good tank commander with active duty experience. He got me promoted to staff sergeant and made me a section leader, in charge of two tanks. We had a common enemy, the Soviet horde that was going to invade Western Europe, and  a common mission to train for that fight.   

Mike knew America defeated the Nazis, but he also knew that defeating Japan was what got America into World War II. Defeating Germany, in his view, was about protecting our allies England and France. He could celebrate America’s victory in World War II and still admire Nazi ideology. "America First" was active in America and supporting Nazis right up until the time America declared war on Germany.

With a similar selective perception, Alexander, Khodorkovsky’s Nazi, could deny the horrors of The Holocaust that in some cases happened on the soil of the Russia itself and many former Soviet states. He knew the Russian armies defeated the invading German army, but Alexander could still admire the invader’s ideology.

Mike enlisted during the Vietnam War. He knew that the mostly teenage soldiers who defeated Hitler’s armies were not fighting for ideology, they were fighting beside their buddies against the enemy in front of them.  Only civilians believe soldiers fight for great causes.

In an irony I should have pursued further, Mike’s family and neighbors may have known my Jewish father.  My Dad was the Commandant of the Afrika Korps prison camp in Reading, Pennsylvania, on what is now the Reading Airport. The six hundred prisoners were allowed to work on local farms and paid ten cents a day by the farmers, many of whom were German immigrants in the previous century. 

The prisoners knew the camp Commandant was Jewish and a former middleweight boxer. When one of their officers made a remark in German about the new Commandant being a Jew, my father knocked him out. My father grew up speaking Yiddish at home so he could understand German. Mike would have heard stories about the German POWs working on the farms during the war.  My father told me some of the prisoners stayed in the United States after the war.

I met up with Mike early in 2016. He is retired and a big supporter of Trump.  We spoke a little about the old days, but it was pretty clear we were not going to be friends.  We no longer had a common purpose, and if we were not openly enemies, we certainly represented what each of us thought was killing America. 

When we served together, I could look at Mike as I looked at all racists, as dinosaurs. I just had to wait for them to go extinct.  I was wrong about that.  Nazis and white supremacists have come out in the open with a champion in the White House. 

In the 80s I saw the Nazi I served with as just another racist in an Army that was dealing with integration better than the rest of the country. I never imagined then that the racial divides of the 50s that were getting better in the 80s would come roaring back in the 21st Century. 
*Michael Wittmann is not his real name, but the name of WWII German tank commander of considerable reputation. Wittmann is buried in the German Cemetery in Normandy I visited.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Topless Shoeshine Parlor: The Draft-Era Military Really was Different

After Basic Training, the Air Force sent me to a technical school at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado.  The base is now a community college, a golf course, and a museum of the many missile and weapons technicians trained there during Cold War. 

In 1972, Airmen with free time could take a bus or walk the 108 blocks west to downtown Denver.  The first time I went to Denver was in April. The weather was nice so ‘Bama (my basic training bunkmate) and I walked to the city.  A few blocks east of the base on Colfax was proof positive we were serving in a draft-era military composed of mostly 19-year-old single men.

We walked east past taco stands, pawn shops, pool halls, stripper bars, bars without strippers, tattoo parlors, burger joints, military surplus stores, camera shops, and other stores of interest to young men easily parted from their meager incomes.  At about the 9300 block of East Colfax Avenue, ‘Bama stopped and said, “Lookie here Gussman. Son. Of. A. Bitch.”

We were staring in the front window of the only Topless Shoeshine Parlor I have ever seen before or since. My 19th birthday was still a few days away, so as far as I knew I was still the only 18-year-old virgin in the United States Air Force, or maybe in the world.    

‘Bama, being a man of the world, insisted it was a rip-off and we should just keep walking.  I took his advice, but as we walked away, I was twisting my neck farther than normal anatomy allows to look at the hypnotic motion that occurs when a woman wearing just a skirt rhythmically rubs a shine cloth on a boot.

Topless shoeshine parlors were a 1970s phenomenon. They were also part of the culture around military bases that began to disappear with the all-volunteer Army. From its beginnings with the end of the draft in 1973, the volunteer army recruited more and more married soldiers. With the bad economy of the 70s, especially after the oil crisis, the Army recruited men who needed medical care for their wives and kids.  All through the late 70s, the replacement soldiers who came to our unit fit this profile: 19-21 years old, married, one child, wife is pregnant. Like most soldiers, that young man was from the south or the west.

With more married soldiers, wives had more influence on the culture on and off the base. The stripper bars and other family unfriendly businesses moved away from the gate of the base.  It’s not like the soldiers stopped going to strip clubs, topless shoeshine parlors or pool halls, but with so many wives going on and off base, they went to strip joints away from the gate. 

Every Week in Cold War West Germany, Gas Mask Drills

Every week during my three years in Cold War West Germany,  the Tankers of 1-70th Armor had a MOPP drill. Gene Pierce, Abel Lopez and...