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. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

The War We Won, In a Podcast

In 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Cold War ended. There was only one Superpower left in the world. China was still communist, but a hybrid kind of communism with a free market. 

Whether the Soviet Union collapsed from corruption or a bad economy or the its war in Afghanistan, the Cold War ended when its fourteen member nations and satellite nations became self governing, many of them voting in democratic governments. 

The new podcast on the Cold War by wondery ends at this moment in history.  It's six episodes begin at the end of World War II and trace the history of the conflict that never happened. The perspective is inside America.  It looks at the Cold War from the perspective of Americans going about their lives, which we all were before and after our service in the Cold War. 

I loved the podcast. I hope you enjoy it too. Listen here or on iTunes.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Immigration and Surviving The Holocaust in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

On the eve of World War in the late 1930s, the original "America First" campaign turned away thousands of Jews who came to America to escape the Holocaust.

But more than twenty Jewish families that escaped Germany and the Nazis found refuge in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a haven for refugees then and now.

One of those refugees died on February first.  Just a young boy when he arrived here with his parents, Arno Gerhard "Gary" Wolff of Millersville was 83. 

Born in Schneidemühl, Germany, he was the son of the late Kurt and Else Rothschild Wolff. Arno had two older brothers who stayed behind in Germany. They were both sure that things would get better. Both were lost in the Holocaust.  

The two older brothers were murdered by the Nazis. Arno and his parents, while fortunate to get out of Germany, were left to deal with the scar of the murder of their Arno's older brothers, the sons of Kurt and Else.

Arno Wolff had a long and successful life in America. He taught as a Professor in colleges and universities in both the United States and Germany. But he and his parents lived with a loss from which no one fully recovers. 

Nazis are not "fine people." Not here, not anywhere, not ever.

Who Fights Our Wars? "Doc" Dreher, Blackhawk Pilot

Darren "Doc" and Kate Dreher at the Aviation Ball

Through Facebook, I just saw that a friend I deployed with in 2009-10 is off to another overseas adventure. 

Darren “Doc” Dreher is a Blackhawk pilot. We first met during training for deployment to Iraq. We were at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, getting ready to fly to Kuwait and meet up with our helicopters and equipment. Then we went into Iraq. 

Like nearly everyone in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Doc is from the mid state, not the city.  He lives in vast 570 area code that, together with 814 covers the majority of the population of the Keystone State.

When Doc and I first started talking it was because one of the other pilots let him know there was an old sergeant who was a liberal in Echo Company.  We started arguing about whether the TEA Party were just the nicest, cleanest most well-behaved people who ever graced the National Mall with their presence, or they were out-of-the-closet racists trumpeting Birther and other conspiracies inflamed by idiots like Glenn Beck. That was the starting point for several discussions.

Believe it or not, we kept talking.  We could clear a room with soldiers rolling their eyes about more political bullshit, but they could also see we were having fun.  Doc is smart and quick and won most of our discussions.  In fact, it was pretty clear after a while that he continued the arguments for his own amusement. He would smile just a little before announcing the latest outrage by President Obama. 

But Doc is not just razor wit and a pretty face (there were many jokes about which of us was better looking), he was by every indication I could see an amazing pilot. It seemed everyone wanted to fly with him, both other flight crew members and the soldiers we carried on missions.  One time I flew with Doc was up to Camp Garry Owen on the Iran-Iraq border.  On the flight was Colonel Peter Newell, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Armored, the unit that provided security for our main base at Camp Adder.  Newell put his unit patch on the nose of Doc’s Blackhawk helicopter.  So when Newell went to the border to oversee anti-smuggling operations or some other mission, Doc was often his pilot.

"Doc" Dreher flying over the Ziggurat of Ur

Another time I got to fly with Doc was for a video camera crew visiting Camp Adder. I think it was a British crew, but it may have been a British cameraman working for an American network.  The camera crew wanted to get a flyover shot of the Ziggurat of Ur, a huge monument to the prophet Abraham that was close to our base.  The wind howled out of the west most days. Doc hovered a hundred feet above the Ziggurat and a few miles west with the aircraft perpendicular to the wind. When the cameraman was ready to roll film, Doc trimmed the rotor blades and we flew sideways at 30 knots with the doors fully open.  It was spooky and exciting to be moving only sideways. I had taken some weird twists and turns flying in Army helicopters, but flying completely sideways was new to me.

After Iraq, I saw Doc only occasionally, if I happened to be on flight when he was on duty, or at the annual Aviation Ball with his wife Kate. He first introduced me to Kate as his “favorite liberal.”  Wherever he is, I hope Doc finds another liberal to argue with. Defending myself from Doc’s wit and encyclopedic knowledge made me a better liberal.  Thanks Doc! 

I hope my favorite conservative has a safe deployment. And Congratulations on your promotion to Chief Warrant Officer 5.


Thursday, February 1, 2018

When is an Old Soldier Really Old?

Young People, whatever their age, take needless, thrilling risks

A 58-year-old retired sergeant major I served with in the 70th Armor said yesterday, in a discussion we were having about Life, that he is not old. I made a joke about it saying he is, in fact, old. He persisted in denying it.

For me, the first measure of being old is in the effect of training on my bicycle racing. Training in my mid-60s does not make me better, it helps me to get worse at a slower rate. I will never be faster climbing a two-mile hill than I was when I was forty. If I train hard, I get slower at a slower rate. That is the effect of old age on my body. It is inevitable and predictable and responds well to exercise.

The soul is just as predictable. When people get old in their souls, their hope is in restoring the past, not striving to the future. Ironically, though they are nearer death and have less to lose than a 20-year-old in terms of life lived, the old soul stops taking risks.

Courage is the bright aura around the best young lives. Courage in old age has to be practiced and cultivated. The tendency is to self protection. For me, racing and training to race help to slow the aging of my soul also. Riding in traffic, riding fast in groups, riding as fast as I can down a hill keeps me looking forward to the next race, the next season, and exercises my courage along with my body. Young souls can risk all for a reward, but also take risks just for the delight of feeling alive in the moment.

Countries and cultures are the same. A growing, thriving culture looks forward. A dying culture looks primarily to past glories. China and Israel, arguably the oldest countries in the world, are also the most vital. Of the 44 countries I have visited or lived in, they are the most alive. In Jerusalem, in Shanghai, in Beijing, young people are moving in.

Poland, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine to name a few are dying. When I visited these countries the young people I talked to were looking for a way out. Those cultures are turning backward and turning inward, as we do when we die.

Am I getting old? Are you getting old? When was the last time you did something that risked you life, risked your fortune, or simply took a risk for no reason except the thrill of taking that risk?

I will leave it to my old friend to decide if he is an old soul. To call 58-year-old body with a 75-year average lifespan middle aged or not old is truly "Fake News."

America is, I believe, currently old country. As Israel and China show, a country can turn around after centuries or millennia, but right now the people in power look backward.

Money can help people and countries fight the appearance of aging, but not the fact. Nostalgia is the cosmetic surgery of rich countries. Rich, dying, countries can wrap themselves in past glories for a while. But eventually, the best young people will want to go somewhere else. And when they do, the nostalgia turns self-protective and ugly. It is happening fast and ugly in Eastern Europe. It can happen here too.

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 bu...