Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Wife's Holiday Letter. . .Is Amazing

My wife's letter to family and friends:

One of my resolutions for 2008 to was refrain from complaining about being busy.  That’s a surprisingly hard resolution to keep, I discovered.  Like many people I know, I like to brag about being indispensible and overworked, so when people ask me what I’ve been up to lately, I have to bite my tongue to curb my own self-importance.  And just like dieters who find that people urge them to have one more helping just-this-once, I kept bumping into well wishers who fondly greet me with a, “So, have you been very busy lately?”  I finally learned to respond, “My life has been rich and full.”

Which it has. 

This year I taught a bunch of fun courses, ran a summer workshop, organized the Grand Opening of Bonchek College House here at Franklin & Marshall, and did other things at work that made me happy and kept me out of trouble.  I have one more semester as the don of the House, and then I’ll go on sabbatical.  In spite of the fact that I promised not to complain about being too busy this year (Is it 2009 yet?  Can I complain now?), I admit that I’m looking forward to May when I’ll have time to read, spend time with friends, and do math again.  In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to be grateful that my life is rich and full. 

Children one-through-four are doing well.  Lauren and Io have gone their own ways.  In the order that I listed them, but not the other way around, they are halfway through their sophomore years at Juniata and Bryn Mawr; they are majoring in social work and classic languages; they are playing soccer and acting in the “Rocky Horror Club”; when they’re home for the holidays they enjoy shopping in New York and going square dancing with their fathers. No, definitely not the other way around!  Lisa is running fast, perhaps to catch up with her sisters.  She’s applying to colleges and enjoying her senior year of high school.  And Nigel is wiggling and squirming his way through third grade, learning his multiplication tables and telling anyone who asks him about his favorite subject:  “Math”.  So I must be doing something right.

Greetings, and Happy 2009!

The quest for child number five in our family is still plodding along.  We’ve filled out all the paperwork, including financial statements, life histories, and a dozen criminal background checks.  We attended classes, photographed our family as it currently exists (see the picture here), and had our home study. When they ask us what kind of child we’re looking for, we say “hyper, to keep up with Nigel.”  Now we’re just waiting for the social workers to type up the final reports and enter us into the system.  The wheels continue to grind slowly. 

Neil and I took an inadvertent one-year break from reading books to each other, because we got caught up (I am embarrassed to admit) in watching DVDs from two old television series.  We have also been spending time running and walking together in the evenings, which is less embarrassing to admit – or it would be, if I were in a little better shape.  I pretty much manage to keep up with my guy, and that’s saying something because keeping up with Neil isn’t particularly easy to do through all the plot twists in his life. 

If you recall, when we last left our hero Neil, he had recovered from a devastating bicycle accident and joined the Pennsylvania National Guard.  In this year’s series, Episode 1 opens with Neil getting news that his unit will head out for Iraq in January 2009.  There ensues the physical fitness test, which Neil passes despite his advanced age and recent injuries.  In Episode 2, Neil, who joined the military partly to escape materialism, gets a packing list for overseas and realizes that he can take two bicycles and his espresso machine.  Jubilation follows.  Then, in Episode 3, our hero begins to have shoulder problems—his loyal viewers discover that the old bike accident tore up his shoulder more than his doctors originally realized, and he has surgery to repair his rotator cuff.  He heals well, and is running and on the bike again in no time.  Episode 4 opens with a new physical fitness test.  Can Neil pass?  Alas, no: he’s declared “non-deployable” because his shoulder isn’t yet healed enough to do 22 push-ups.  But wait!  He’s actually “temporarily non-deployable”!  He gets a chance to try again on January 20, just before his unit heads out.  Like any good television show, the season ends on a cliff hanger:  will Neil go to Iraq?  Will his espresso machine go, too?  If so, will he leave it there and come back as frugal as his wife? Tune in again next year to find out!

Lancaster has been a hot-bed of political activity this year; our little Norman Rockwell-esque town got to host many visiting political dignitaries, including Chelsea Clinton, Barack Obama, and the team of McCain/Plain.  Nigel spent the year doting on Obama, and in fact he goes to sleep on an Obama pillow at night now, and Nigel’s mother (me) was so inspired by Obama’s acceptance speech that I memorized the Gettysburg Address, even though the world will little note, nor long remember, that I did so.  Rather, it is us who shall be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us: that our Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.  Three cheers for government of the people, by the people and for the people!

Hugs and kisses, and wishes for a rich and full New Year!


That's it! Best wishes for the New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Some Forms are Worth Filling Out

I am just two generations away from my grandparents getting off a boat from the Old Country, so I like helping immigrants.

I've heard the critics: Who? How many? From where? Focusing on who gets in, we can lose sight of how our own lives are changed by those who fulfill their dream of coming to America.

In December 1994 when death squads exacted revenge for generations-old offenses in the former Yugoslavia, Vladislav and his 9-year-old daughter Branka escaped Bosnia and came to Lancaster to find a new life.

They came to America with a suitcase and a passport each.

At the time they arrived, Branka's mother was being held in an internment camp: a prisoner-of-war camp for civilians.

Almost as soon as they arrived, Vladislav went to work at any job he could find.
No job was too dirty or menial.

Through local churches and relief organizations Vladislav and Branka got money for rent and food and they also got help with the many papers that people who struggle with English are asked to "Read and Fill Out Completely."

Vladislav needed money and was determined to earn all he could. He knew that to get his wife out of detention and out of Bosnia, he would need money. His house, his cars, and all he had before the war were wrecked and burned before he left Bosnia.

Slowly, steadily, he saved money. A year later as Christmas of 1995 approached, he was beginning to sound confident.

The calls and faxes were paying off.

He believed Branka's mother would be in the United States sometime in 1996. Vladislav was also delighted with his latest job.

He had found a place near Lancaster that paid him $1 each to tie together handmade Christmas decorations. He said they hired women who would make 10 or 15 and then go home.

As it turns out, the fir branches cut the hands of the workers and it was difficult to wear gloves. Vladislav showed up early each Saturday morning and stayed till they sent him home.

One day he made 200.

The next day at church he was grinning. His hands looked like they had been stuck in a blender, but he couldn't have been happier. The following year Branka's mother came to America--he got her out of the internment camp.

Vladislav got a full-time maintenance management job.

He wanted his daughter to go to a private school so she could go to a good American college. So he asked me to help him get her into the school my daughters attended.

I filled out all the paperwork for financial aid that would allow Branka to attend Lancaster Country Day School and put my name down as the contact person.

Vladislav kept careful records of his income and expenses so the multi-page form had all the proper information, including his first federal tax return.

Several weeks later I got a call from the agency in Princeton that makes financial aid decisions.

The polite woman on the phone verified the applicant information, the parents' current employment status — all the routine questions — then asked me with evident curiosity and some skepticism about an item under "additional expenses."

The item: "Phone calls, faxes and transportation expenses to get applicant's mother released from Bosnian Prisoner-of-War Camp $4,417.12."

She asked if this was true.

I said it was.

"I must tell you," she said, "I personally always disallow 'additional expenses.' People try to say trips to Disneyworld are educational experiences. But getting the applicant's mother out of a prisoner-of-war camp is nothing I've ever seen before. You may tell them we are granting the full amount."

Branka's application reminded that financial aid administrator why she got into her job in the first place.

And I have never had more fun filling out a form before or since.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Engagement Present

Another story about my family and Fort Indiantown Gap

All around us are married couples obviously mismatched but just as obviously devoted to each other. The basketball player married to a woman barely five feet tall. The flight attendant married to a guy who will only travel on the ground. A stage actor wed to an accountant.

My father was a boxer, a soldier, a Teamster and a AAA league baseball player. He grew up in Boston in a big Jewish family and was a big guy with hundreds of friends. The brothers were a loud bunch. My mother was a quiet woman who read a lot and preferred quiet. She grew up on a farm outside a small town in western Pennsylvania. Meeting her future in laws she said, “Everybody talks and nobody listens.” When they married she was 24 and he was 39. Somehow they stayed together until my father died 37 years later. It was the war that brought them together in Reading, Pennsylvania. But it was the romance wrapped up in my father’s engagement present that helped to keep them together despite all their differences.

Scene: U.S. Army Administrative Offices, Prisoner of War compound, Reading, Pa., spring 1945. The camp, now the Reading Airport, was home to 600 German prisoners of war, mostly former members of the Afrika Corps. Guarding them is a Military Police (MP) company commanded by Capt. George Gussman. Civilian clerks and typists handle most routine administrative duties.

Bang! The thin door slammed open at the push of a burly soldier in the white helmet of an MP. In a moment, the buzz of the busy office dwindled to silence. Even on an Army base with a prison camp, a squad of MPs marching into an administrative office cut the buzz of conversation and the clackety-clack of typing. The first two MPs flanked the door, rifles at ready. Four more soldiers marched in behind, the last man carrying a wooden ammunition crate.

Without a word, they marched in close order to the back of the open office space and the gray metal desk of pretty, dark-haired typist. The sergeant at the front of the line called “Detail halt!” He faced the astonished typist and said, “Are you Arnetta Boul?”

The hush was complete. Arnetta was was a graduate of a one-room school in Mercer, a small town south of Erie. A wartime job on an Army base north of Reading got her off the farm and on her way to the life she only saw in magazines. She tried to answer but only nodded yes.

He coworkers, mostly typists and clerks, didn’t move. The MP with the wooden crate faced left, took two steps, faced right and set the box on the desk. “Compliments of Capt. Gussman, ma’am.”

The detail faced about without another word and filed out of the building. When the door closed the other typists ran to Arnetta’s desk. “Open the box.” “What’s in it?” “Is there a note?”

There was a note. Her name was typed on the envelope. The note inside was written in the in an oddly beautiful hand that made her smile and blush. It said:

Darling Arnetta,
Please accept this small token in honor of our engagement. With Love,

She flipped the wire closures, raised the lid and saw Hershey bars. Hundreds of Hershey bars. Rationing made chocolate, sugar, tires and all sorts of things hard or impossible to get. Arnetta loved chocolate, but allowed herself almost none since the war started. Almost all the chocolate went to soldiers. Gold was scarce also. George had proposed to her the previous weekend giving her a band from one of his cigars and promising a real ring as soon as the war ended. What more could she expect during this time of national self-sacrifice? She said yes.

George made a vague promise of an engagement gift, but this was stunning even for the garrulous commandant of the POW camp. Her doubts vanished.

Inside the crate was an official packing list. “Confiscated: 608 chocolate bars from prisoners in Reading barracks.” Now she knew how he did it. The rowdy German prisoners had driven the two previous commandants to beg for transfers. The prisoners knew their rights and lost no opportunity to petition their American jailers for privileges. Then, all of a sudden, they got a commander who straightened the place up.

Capt. Gussman was the fourth of six sons of a Russian Jewish couple that escaped the pogroms of the Czar in the 1890s. He was 38 years old and had joined the Army just a year before he was too old to serve. German prisoners from the Reading camp worked on local farms and were paid five cents per day. Most of the prisoners bought American chocolate and cigarettes with their wages. One of the prisoners caused trouble for the guards on the farm work detail, so Gussman suspended the farm work. He also declared Hershey bars contraband. When no prisoners turned in their chocolate, Gussman led the guards in a search of the barracks. They confiscated 608 Hershey bars. Gussman made very clear who was in charge of the camp, and, despite the privations of war, he presented his bride-to-be with an engagement gift only Milton Hershey or a very rich man could match.

George and Arnetta were married at the base chapel, Fort Indiantown Gap on July 31, 1945. The legend of this amazing gift of plenty during an era of scarity lived on in their marriage and in their children. It is stories like this that keep us going; these stories are gifts of plenty that carry us through the inevitable times of need.
I wrote this story for my kids. My Dad died before they were born and my Mom died five years in her 80s after a long illness.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

From the Books & Culture Weekly Newsletter

John Wilson sends a weekly on-line newsletter about books and his bi-monthly book review magazine Books and Culture. He just posted my latest article (with Brigitte Van Tiggelen) on line.

In two French-themed articles from the November/December issue of Books & Culture, David Hoekema of Calvin College celebrates the centenary of composer Olivier Messiaen, while Brigitte Van Tiggelen and Neil Gussman tell a story of "Technology in Translation." Neil, a regular reviewer for B&C, re-enlisted in the Army in 2007 and will be deployed to Iraq in January. Most of his fellow soldiers are young enough to be his kids. You can follow his story on his blog, Back in the Army Now (at 54).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Obsessed with the News

For the Holidays, some stories about my family. First, my paternal grandfather.

I am obsessed with the News. I got that from Grandpa.

Every morning I listen to the news. I read the newspaper on the train. I get a dozen Google news alerts every day in my e-mail. Am I obsessed with the news? Probably, but I have a good reason. My parents were daily news junkies. In my father’s case, his devotion to the news came from avoiding the mistakes of my grandfather, whose ignorance of world events led to the worst year of his life.

Grandpa started his life in the Ukraine more than a century ago; he trapped ermine so he could make enough money for the bribes and the one-way ticket out of Tsarist Russia. He was one of the fortunate few poor Jews who escaped the slaughter of a million Jews by the Cossacks in the 1890s. In America he met my grandmother Esther, and together they started both a fruit business and a family. By 1910 the business grew and Grandpa had dealers in Egypt, Palestine, and Southern Europe.


In the spring of 1914, Grandpa decided to visit his business associates. He sailed to Europe in much better accommodations than he arrived in two decades before. Grandma was nervous about the trip. She would be raising six boys by herself while Grandpa sailed to Europe. The boy’s names showed how comfortable the couple had become in America. The oldest were named Abraham and Emmanuel. The next four were named Ralph, George, Lewis, and Harold.

While in Egypt, Grandpa decided to visit his old home near Odessa in the Ukraine. He arrived in August 1914, and, as usual, was not paying attention to the news. Shortly after he arrived, war was declared across Europe. The Jews in Russia who had survived the pogroms of the previous century were now drafted into the Russian army. Jews were not given any training as soldiers; they were simply dressed in Russian uniforms and sent into battle ahead of the “real” Russian soldiers to explode mines and make the Germans use up their ammunition.

With the help of some old family friends, Grandpa escaped, but not by sea. The only way he could get out of Russia was through Finland. He walked more than 1,000 miles north across Russia as winter fell on this most forbidding of countries. Months later he reached a bridge to Finland and crossed at night under a hail of machinegun fire. Many others died around him, but Grandpa reached Finland sick and freezing.

Back in Boston, Grandma had waited frantically for nearly a year before she got a terse telegram saying that her husband was alive and on his way back to America in a cargo ship. Grandpa lived 17 years after his escape from Russia until 1932. He never traveled again. My father and all my uncles became news junkies during the year Grandpa was missing and remained well informed on national and international events for the rest of their lives.

Friday, December 19, 2008

39th Anniversary of My Driver's License

Today, December 19, is the 39th Anniversary of My Driver's License. Our company holiday party is tonight so I get a chance to celebrate it. Can you believe some people don't celebrate their driver's license anniversary?
Some of my better cars:
1972 Mustang CJ

1969 Torino Cobra

1965 Chevelle SS

There were also a LOT of junkers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cell Phones Change Army Paperwork

Those of you have have read Joseph Heller's Catch 22 know that in any big bureaucracy that paperwork is reality--real life is 2nd place. Today I got a call from our admin NCO saying the battalion was asking for a list of Non-Deployable people so they could start replacing them. I had told 1st Sgt and Sgt Major about the plan for the surgery and that I would be ready to go on the 29th. But the HQ guy with a No-Go list in his hand was Army reality. Our admin NCO called me, verified some facts and got me off their list. Before cell phones, I might have been replaced before they could reach the right people. Paper is reality in the Army.

The best instance of Catch 22 in my life is the reason I am a resident of Lancaster PA. I grew up in Stoneham Massachusetts. I enlisted in 1972, got out in 1974 then decided to go back in the military in 1975. The recruiters in Lancaster offered me a much better deal than the one in my actual home town, so I signed up in Lancaster. I needed a local address so I used PO Box 334, Brownstown PA. Four years later when I was ready to go to college, I assumed I should apply to schools in Mass. The education office said No--you are a resident of PA. My parents were still living in the house they bought when I was 4 years old, but my DD Form 4 (enlistment contract) said Brownstown PA so I was a PA resident. Actually this turned out great because it meant I could go to Penn State U at resident rates and the next year, in 1980, PA decided to give tuition bonuses to soldiers who served during the Viet Nam War. I ended up with most of college paid right through a masters degree. All because of how I filled out a form.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Real Physical Therapy Begins Today


After three weeks of range of motion and stretching exercises, I started today doing strengthening exercises--rowing motion, arm exercise bike, resistance bands, small weights, and other exercises to begin to build my weak shoulder back up. Most of the exercises felt good. But the last one was a simple elbow lift lying on my back with a four-pound weight. Joe the Therapist (no relation to Joe the Plumber) said to do 15. By 12 I was in serious pain. And my shoulder was stationary. At that moment I remembered why PT is so important. The therapists know every muscle and can isolate and strengthen specific muscles. Every time I have had therapy, that has meant there are some exercises with little or no weight that seem like nothing and hurt like blazes. The therapists know exactly where the problem is and how to fix it--which means they can turn a 4-pound weight into a torture device. The best part, though, was that outside of that one motion, nothing hurts very much.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shoulder Looks Good

Today's visit with my surgeon went great. He said my range of motion is good so far. He said there should be no problem signing off that I am ready to go in January. My next appointment is January 20. I will call my "No Go Counselor" tomorrow and make sure I have everything they need. Getting the evaluation on January 20 should give me time to see an Army doctor if something goes wrong at the last minute.

After the doctor appointment, I went to the gym and did the round of machines. For the last week or two I have used the machines with no weight. Today I changed to lifting some weight. Next physical therapy appointment is Wednesday. Everything is looking good.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Out Early and Another Article

We were finished with medical processing at 2pm on Thursday. We had a roll call formation at 330pm, dinner from 5pm to 630pm and that was it for the day. I got to spend another night in an open bay barracks, but there was nothing left to do but clean the barracks. We got up at 5am and cleared our stuff out of the barracks. By 630 we were back from breakfast and cleaning the barracks. At 745 I was on my way to work in Philadelphia, just over 100 miles away. Someone else answered for me in final roll call so I could go back to work.

Also, I got a PDF file of an article that I wrote for a monthly magazine called TACTICS, published by the Public Relations Society of America (I am a member). I was writing for other people in my profession about why I would enlist. Click on the story to make it bigger.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Non-Deployable (for now)

Today we went through another round of medical screening. We got more shots and another dental x-ray. For most of us, the visit with the doctor took about two minutes. Mine was longer. I had to explain the surgery, the rehab and my projected time for recovery. The doctor marked my processing folder "No Go" and sent me down the hill to my "Non-Deployable Soldier" counselor. She went through all the steps I need to get myself declared fit for deployment and gave me the form my surgeon will have to fill out to say I am healthy again. Given the rehab schedule, it looks like I will be very close to my deployment date when the surgeon says yes or no.

I think I'll skip breakfast tomorrow. Eating Army--today it was eggs, sausage, pancakes, and cereal--is make my UnderArmor feel tighter across my stomach.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paperwork Processing Complete

Today we went through a pre-deployment paperwork review. When critics crab about the inefficiency of government, they could use pre-deployment processing as an example. There were 11 stations which we could complete in any order, except station 11 where we signed out. So it would that the smart move to get through quickly would be to get as many stations as possible completed. But that would be wrong. The first people out of the building and on their way to lunch or the barracks were those who followed the whispered tip of going to station 7 first. Station 7 is ID card processing. Last May when we went through the same processing in a different building, the story was the same: go to station 7 first, get done up to an hour faster.

In May station 7 had four technicians at four computers with four cameras. Two of them worked. Today, there were four technicians, with four cameras and, you guessed it, two of them worked--at least for the first hour. The complaints were exactly the same--the camera interface was unstable and if something went wrong the whole system needed to be rebooted. A for-profit business with a bottleneck and competitors would straighten the bottleneck.

When we get to our pre-deployment training station and do all of this paperwork again, I will go to station 7 first.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Travel Day

In the Army accountability is everything. It is one of the reasons the Army will never be a "flat" organization in the modern sense. Every leader needs to be able to tell someone above that he knows where his people are. So each team leader (in charge of 3 or 4 soldiers) can tell the squad leader (with 10) where his people are. Three squad leaders tell the platoon sergeant where their squads are. The platoon sergeants know the whereabouts of their 40 soldiers. Several platoons make a company (100 to 200) and then a battalion (600), a brigade (2000) a division (6000 to 10,000) and so on.

So we arrived today at 2pm to sign in. We had a roll call formation at 3pm. We had dinner at 5pm. And that was our day--except those who did not mark their duffel bags. They reported in the morning to mark their baggage.

This whole day was devoted to: "All present and accounted for."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Short Day Getting Ready to Go

We were done just after 3pm today. We had a short day of marking bags and footlockers and filling out paperwork. At least I did. Many went out to the range for qualification, but i still am not allowed to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup. And it was a tough day to shoot--30mph winds and a temperature that just reached freezing. And we will all be back Tuesday to once more go through paperwork and medical checks to be sure we are healthy enough to go to Iraq.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Getting Ready to Pack Up the Motor Pool

Today I finished the electronic inventory of our Conex (8 by 8 by 12 foot container) box full of special tools for maintaining Army vehicles. Sometime in January we will be packing all of our equipment for Iraq, this weekend we are finishing paperwork and putting things in places ready to be packed. The thousands of tools I am responsible for are now in my Mac and on a backup drive. They will also be on a PC in the motor pool and in my house, and on a thumb drive before the weekend is over.

I also started doing my post-accident exercise program from last year. I was not allowed to lift more than five pounds then. Now I am not supposed to life more than a coffee cup. So I did ten reps on every machine in the F&M gym tonight, but with no weight at all. I did that for a month last year. It's weird, but it kept me flexible until I was ready to actually lift weights.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pre-Deployment Processing Again

Next week from Tuesday to Friday I have yet another round of pre-deployment paperwork and medical processing. I thought this round would be something different but it is the same thing as the last round. The bad thing for me is that I hoped the next time I would see an Army doctor would be after we began pre-deployment training in February. That way my shoulder would be healed up ior at least far enough along that I could pass a PT test. That way when they asked about the shoulder I could offer to take and pass a PT test on the spot. I can't do that next week. Hopefully I will have until mid-January to get enough rehab to do 21 pushups (the minimum to pass at my age) and I could show up and pass a PT test. I now have official Stop-Loss orders and deployment orders. I don't want to get stuck here on a paperwork technicality at this point.

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietna...