Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tuesday Morning in Shannon

Shannon, Ireland
We are on a two-hour layover for fuel and crew change in Shannon, Ireland. Because we are Americans we swarm in, spend money and eat. On the flight back they loaded us by rank so I am in the back of the plane. I did manage to get an exit row, so I slept for an hour on the first flight and should be able to catch some sleep on the flight to Kuwait. We can't leave the terminal, but the countryside is a lovely green outside the terminal windows. Seven more hours in the air and we will be back to Kuwait. Then back to Iraq for the 4th of July.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Long Walk to the Gate

This very long day of beginning my return to Iraq started really well. I got up at 0500 listening to NPR news on WITF radio. I know I can listen to NPR in Iraq, but it has to be on the internet, which is not quite the same as a clock radio. At 0550 my friend Matt Clark picked me up in his van and we went to Starbucks on Columbia Avenue in Lancaster for one last latte at my favorite coffee place and a New York Times, another habit I can't indulge at Tallil Ali Air Base. Matt and I talked and joked on the 35-mile drive to the airport. Then I checked my bags and walked toward the gate.

that was the worst moment of the whole trip. My family was between 400 and 4000 miles away, Matt was on his way back home and the only person I knew was a young sergeant getting on the same plane I was boarding. He was with his wife and mother. He was sad. They were crying and I almost lost it at that point. But when I got to security, the folks who check the bags smiled at me and wished me a good trip and said to come back soon. They know the soldiers on the morning flights in uniform looking glum are the ones going back to Iraq.

When I got to Atlanta, the USO volunteers were waiting to direct us at the arrival area. A big guy in his 60s shook my hand and said, "From the look on your face, you must be going back." By noon we had boarding passes and eight hours to wait. Most everyone grabbed the free USO food and then split into two groups: one group filled the chairs in front of the big screen TV, the other went out into the walkway around the atrium and started looking for electrical outlets for their computers or started taking naps. One of the good things about these incredibly slow (by commercial standards) boring trips is that the rest and sleeping leave us with less jet lag than high-speed travelers. Of course, it's not a great nap when every 15 minutes you hear about liquid and gel restrictions for passengers on the PA system.

I just finished a six-hour wait and am now going to the gate now to begin the next two-hour wait. I am glad these uniforms don't wrinkle easily.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Jon Rutter wrote a follow up article about me in the "Lancaster" section of today's Lancaster Sunday News. Here's the link.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Today's Race

Nigel at the Brownstown Race

At 0845 this morning, I had rode in the first of two road races I will do this weekend before heading back to Iraq. Today's race, the Brownstown Road Race, was flat and offered no state championship points to participants, so there were not be many participants in the 55+ category--and none of the state/national championship riders that filled the field in last week's race. The race was also close to home so my daughter Lisa and I could ride the 12 miles to and from the race as a warm-up for me and cross training for her. When we arrived, she ran around the five-mile course while I finished warming up.

The eight 55+ riders started with about 30 racers in the 45+ category. With mixed categories, the older guys who stay with the younger group are the top finishers. As we made the sharp left turn toward the finish line on the 2nd of five laps, I felt like I might be able to hang on to the pack for most, if not all of the race, then in the middle of the turn I heard a rider yelling "Flat!!" and bikes started to swerve wide in the corner. I ended up in the dirt off the edge of the road. When racers hear another rider is in trouble, especially if the hear the thud and yells of a crash behind them, they ride as hard as they to drop all those trapped behind the crash. I tried to catch back on, but couldn't.

I rode the next two laps with another 55+ rider who was dropped. We passed the guy I thought would win 55+. He crashed--just scrapes and bruises--and was on the side of the road. Two more of the 55+ riders dropped out and I was 4th!!! My best result in my trip home because in today's race, there is no age-group. I will be racing with 20 and 30-year-olds on a hilly course. It should be a very short race for me.

As Lisa and I started the ride home, Lisa said that I definitely had the loudest cheering section. She and my wife and son Nigel cheered every lap as they did last week and were the only people cheering for 55+ category racers. "It's worse than when we were little," Lisa said. "Back then one or two other riders had a cheering section, now it's just you." There were other people watching the race. On the oppostie side of the road from my family, several large Amish families were gathered at the fence near the start-finish. The girls in dresses and boys in pants and with suspenders, all in bare feet, watched the race intently and, as my wife said after the race, stole more than a few glances at my African-American son Nigel standing between his blond-haired, blue-eyed mother and sister.

Saying Goodbye

Because of the schedules my family is on and because my friends are spread across a fairly large area, I have been saying goodbye since Thursday and will be saying it till I go. Thursday I went to Philadelphia and said goodbye to my friends in the city of brotherly love. With most of them, we will be in touch by phone and on email, so it was not too sad. Friday was the last time I will ride the daily training ride till next year. I really miss riding the very green hills and valleys in Lancaster County. Today my daughters were off on a nine-day trip to Europe, part of celebrating Lisa's graduation from high school. That was a lot tougher. I have seen the girls every day, especially Lisa. Lauren has a full-time job as Sports of All Sorts Camp as a counselor, but Lisa is mostly training for Cross Country in the fall. We rode together on 11 of the last 14 days. I will miss them very much until next February. Tomorrow morning my wife and son leave for Ithaca after we go to the early service at Church, so I will be saying goodbye to them and to my friends at Church tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon I am racing then riding with some of my friends, so I will be saying goodbye for a lot of tomorrow.
At 6am Monday I will be on the way to the airport and starting the long trip back to Iraq. The temp here only reached the high 70s. It's supposed to be 118 when I return to Kuwait on Tuesday--at least I won't freeze!

Friday, June 26, 2009

There was an Old Woman. . .

. . .who does NOT live in the shoe, but she and her husband own the shoe house in York County PA. My wife and I took the tour today and it began with the owner, a woman in her mid 40s saying, "Sometimes I feel like and old woman but I do not live in this shoe." The Haines Shoe House is a real livable home built 60 years ago by an eccentric millionaire who made his fortune selling shoes. The house has five levels and Mr. Haines used it as a guest house for his mansion several miles down the road. At the time it was built it was a mile off the old Lincoln Highway on a lonely ridge with a beautiful view. Today US Route 30 is less than 50 yards away. I have passed the Shoe House hundreds of times, but until today never went inside. The strange structure has a master bedroom in the toe, a kitchen in the heel, kids room and maids quarters in the upper part of the boot and a basement down in the sole.

Speaking of my wife, which I did not do on Wedensday's post, she spoke on Wednesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, a one hour talk on God, Math and Infinity for about 150 people. The talk condensed the seven-week series she did at Wheatland Presbyterian Church during the last two months. She is an engaging speaker and had the audience laughing when they seemed to be getting lost in the details of countable infinities. She got a lot of questions after the talk about her family and how they feel about her faith since they don't believe. Her final comment was about her middle sister who she said, "Now attends Church sometimes and sings in the choir when she likes the pastor. . .but not in THAT way!" So she ended with a big laugh.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One More Trip to Philadelphia

Today I took the train to Philadelphia after riding with Lisa in the morning. It was a lot of fun making jokes with my co-workers and talking about the kinds of things we will b doing when I get back. I also had a chance to talk with David Black, a teacher of both computer technology and chemistry who is in Philadelphia at Chemical Heritage Foundation for the summer as a visiting scholar. David teaches in rural Utah. He had to teach both chemistry and technology to students in a small school with little lab equipment, but the school had vans so he took the kids to sites where they could see chemistry in action. The students took video cameras and made podcasts about their visits to a glassblowing shop, a cement plant, and a berylium mine. You can learn more and see the videos at his Web site. Part of his time at CHF will be devoted to applying for grants to continue and expand his project for other school districts in neighboring states and eventually across the country. David and I will be keeping in touch over the next seven months while I am back in the Sandbox.

In addition to hanging out with my friends, I spent most of an hour wandering through one of my favorite bookstores, The Philly Book Trader at 7 North 2nd Street. For $30 I got an adapation of The Count of Monte Cristo in simple French. Aristotle's Rhetoric in French. The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara, Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Address and his book First Circle, and a paperback copy of CS Lewis' Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. My duffel bag is almost full.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Books for Iraq

My leave is rapidly coming to an end and my bookshelf is trying to jump into my duffel bag along with bike stuff I am bringing back to the land of dirt and gravel. Among the books going is an old copy of the The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. I was up late one night and read the first act of "Pirates of Penzance." It's like reading Shakespeare (as opposed to seeing the performance of the play)--I don't have to strain my ears to catch the jokes delivered at auctioneer speed in a British accent. I can read at my own pace and not miss the jokes. "Hamlet" is also going back with me.

Ivan Amato's delightful book Stuff is going in my backpack for the long flight along with a volume of Orwell's essays. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and CS Lewis' The Allegory of Love are in the duffel bag along with copy of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. I am bringing Darwin in part because my wife just read me a few pages from How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie--the first great American self-help book in the 20th century and clearly an influence on every one of the tens of thousands of self-help volumes that followed.

Anyway, hearing Carnegie reminded me of CS Lewis' maxim that we should only read the commentators on a book after we have read the book itself. I recently read essays criticizing Carnegie, but had not read the book. After hearing just a few pages, he seems brimming with good sense and based much of the book on a long study of the life of Abraham Lincoln. So I will read his book before I listen to anymore criticism. Imagine if AM talk radio hosts had to actually deal with the reality of politics before they spoke on an issue. The silence would be deafening.

Back to Darwin. I have no quarrel with Origin since nearly every working scientist acknowledges his great insights, and blaming Darwin for misuse of his theory is as stupid as blaming Einstein for moral relativism. But I never read Darwin's great book, so I plan to amend that. I am also bringing The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose more as a reference book than something to read.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Day After the Race

The training ride in a double pace line

Jan took this on the shorter route home. It's still hard to believe how green Lancaster is compared to Iraq.

Unlike running, there is no day off for recovery with bicycling. The day after a race everybody rides. The ride on Monday is somewhat easier than the mid-week rides which is the only reason I thought I could keep up for at least part of the way on the 35-mile daily training ride. I stayed with the pack until the base of the big climb in the middle. Jan Felice was kind enough to ride up the hill that is a little shorter than the main route, but still a climb more than a mile long. We rode to the descent on Turkey Hill which was aborted by tree-cutting that closed one side of the road--no coasting race today. I hope to do that once more on Friday.

Jan and I took a shorter route home. After riding with Lisa before the ride, I still rode a total of 40 miles. I'll ride 15 miles with Lisa this evening then go to the Wednesday night training race (known here as "Worlds") before riding over to Westminster Presbyterian Church to hear my wife talk about faith, math and infinity.

I am going to enter both races this weekend in Lancaster County. I might as well be tired when I go back to Iraq.

In other bike news, I mailed the GT Peace 9R bike to myself yesterday. Hopefully it will be in Iraq soon after I get back.

The peleton riding up a short, steep hill on the way to the descent at Turkey Hill

Photos by Jan "I've Got a Camera in my Race Jersey" Felice

Monday, June 22, 2009

Improbable Post

This morning I am past the halfway point of my two-week leave--152 hours to go. Returning to Iraq means I will be sleeping alone for the next 7 months. But then I remembered Video #103 in the Improbable TV collection. I won't be sleeping alone. Every bed has tiny bugs to keep me company on those long Iraqi nights--yours too!

If you decide to look around the Improbable.com site you will find the strangest scientific papers on the Web--they have a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research in case you, like me, still enjoy reading words on paper. One of the reasons I am returning to Iraq is to help make the world safe for people who study the use of Coke as a contraceptive:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Father's Day has been my favorite holiday (or whatever it is) for more than a decade now. It's early in the summer so school is out but summer camps haven't started yet. I spend most of the day with my kids. This Father's Day I was with my family from the time I woke up until just a few minutes ago when they all went to bed.

Just before 8am, my daughter Lisa and I rode to the Greenfield Criterium, a race that has been one of the Pennsylvania State Bicycling Championship races for more than a decade and has always been held on Father's Day. From 2001 - 2004 Lisa raced at Greenfield in individual races and with me on the tandem. Today we both used the ride to the race as a 7-mile warm up: me for the bike race, she for a five-mile run that is part of her summer training for cross country in the fall.

I warmed up with my teammate Kevin then we lined up at 9am for the 55+ State Championship race. The field was small, just over 20 riders, but included several masters state and national champions. Worse than that for me, each one-mile lap of the 20-lap race ends with a 1/4-mile 5% climb. On the positive side, my wife and kids were on the side of the road near the start-finish line cheering every lap. They only cheered for me for five laps. I was hanging in for most of five laps, but at the end of the fourth lap they rang the bell for a premium prize or "preem" as they are called. For the first four laps there were a few half-hearted attacks that got sucked right back into the pack so I could hang on. After that bell rang, one of the stronger riders took off on the long, shallow downhill. By the flat stretch at the bottom of the hill we were strung out in a line going 32mph. I was 8th at the beginning of the lap and last as we turned up the hill to the start-finish line. By the time they crossed the start-finish line I was gasping, wishing I had skipped breakfast, and watching the rest of the riders disappear.

But I only expected to last three laps, so I felt pretty good. We cheered for my teammate and for Scott Haverstick for a few more laps then Lisa and I rode home to change for a day trip to NYC. It was fun to be in a pack again and riding fast, even if it was not for very long. I am going to need a lot of hill training when I get back from Iraq.

Just after 11 am we were on the road to NYC. We drive to Newark, park the car and take the train to Penn Station when we go to NYC. When we first got to NYC my kids walked south on Broadway from 32nd to get some lunch and I went up to 6th and 47th to the NY Post office. I visited a friend there for a few minutes, but like every major daily they do maximum work with minimum staff, so after we chatted for a while I went across the street to Pret a Manger (Ready to Eat) for a sandwich and a drink since the kids had already finished eating.

While I was eating, a tall man in his early 60s strode in. He was dressed casually in expensive clothes. He had a theatrical air enhanced by his well-dyed, well-coiffed red hair (NO ONE his age has red hair). He was waving a $20 bill over his head and saying "I need change." He passed three other people in line and shoved the bill toward a young woman behind the counter who took it then continued to wait on the customer in front of her. Mr. Drama paced left, turned and looked at me (I was in uniform) and said "Gussman, what MOS are you?" in a very Broadway voice. I kept eating. He said, "I was a 95B20 in Quan Tri in 1967. I used to drive lifers like you crazy." Then he grabbed his money and strode out.

This dramatic draftee was in when soldiers wore their rank on their sleeve or collar. He had no idea what rank I was and assumed I had served for the last three decades or more. You just don't get guys like him in the Army without a draft.

Then I met my kids at 23rd and we went to Chinatown to shop at the street vendors. Lisa's senior project was a study of street vendors. She took me to a shop that had a basement storage area where a street vendor had taken her to show her the best stock she had. We walked back to the north on Broadway. Nigel and I got coffee and watched people go by while Lauren and Lisa shopped. We then took the Subway to Penn Station and cuaght a train to New Jersey. I have been trying to eat food I can't get in Iraq. Almost every day I buy bread from a bakery. Today it was NY Challah from Zaros. We at Chinese food in New Jersey (Chinese food at the DFAC is not very good.) then drove the 150 miles back to Lancaster singing along with a playlist of songs from Lauren's iPod:

Boom Boom Boom -- the outhere brothers
Spice up your life -- spice girls
Because you loved me -- Celene Dion (Very funny when sung by a 9-yr-old boy)
Back at one -- brian mcknight
Could you be loved -- bob marley
Baby baby -- Amy Grant
I know you want me (calle ocho) -- pitbull
Number one -- john legend (featuring Kanye west)
She hates me -- puddle of mud
The lion sleeps tonight -- lion king soundtrack
Let it rock -- kevin rudolph and lil wayne
Paper planes -- M.I.A.
Wake me up before you go go -- Wham!
Beautiful Girls (remix) -- sean kingston
Hello, I love you -- the doors
Get off of my cloud -- the rollingstones
Boom Boom Pow -- Black Eyed peas
Single ladies -- Beyonce
Welcome to the world -- kevin rudolph
Let's call it off -- drake
Get silly -- V.I.C.
Girl talk songs
New Soul -- yael nai m
1234 -- feist
Hot Revolver -- lil wayne and kevin rudolph

Father's Day doesn't get any better than this.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rainy Day in America

Today I washed clothes, ran errands and also did nothing for an hour or so. It was raining. I did not want to ride the bike because I wanted it to be clean for the race tomorrow. I walked in the rain a little just to enjoy the feeling of rain. I heard it rains in the Fall in Iraq and the whole country turns into grimy mud. I am quite sure that is true and rain in Iraq is as miserable as sun in Iraq can be. But here every kind of weather is wonderful.

The kids and I ate pizza for dinner because even with the tons of food we get, you can't get real USA pizza in the DFAC.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Drive Toward the Sun

For the almost 200 people attending the memorial service for Carol Jo Crannell today, the directions to get from the service to the reception afterward included the line "drive toward the sun." The service was held in the auditorium of the Physics department at Catholic University in Washington DC. The service afterward was at the home Carol had lived in with her family for more than three decades in Silver Spring, Maryland. Silver Spring is northwest of Catholic U. so the directions took us through a short maze of DC streets before we turned north. It was 6pm when the service ended so driving west meant driving toward the sun (actually, as Carol would known well, the sun was not exactly west, but 15 degrees south of west at 6pm since it is Daylight Savings Time).

The service was a celebration of a life well lived by family, friends, teachers who worked with Carol on a NASA outreach program to schools, and colleagues from NASA Goddard. After the funeral for an infant child I attended earlier this week, it was good to be at a service for woman who lived her life well and fully. It is no small irony for me that the grief I have experienced during my first weeks of deployment is in America, not in Iraq.

Here's the short bio on the program for the service:

Carol Jo Argus grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest of four children.  The nuns at her Catholic schools successfully encouraged her parents to support her academic endeavors.  She earned her B.A. from Miami University and a PhD from Stanford University, both in physics.  While a graduate student, she married Hall Crannell and had the first of her three daughters.

After graduate school, the family moved to Maryland where her house was always open to friends and filled with an abundance of pets. Carol worked for Goddard Space Flight Center as a solar astrophysicist, studying solar gamma rays and playing an instrumental role in the success of SUNBEAMS, a NASA teacher internship program.  She loved going to the balloon launches and seeing her payloads rise safely into the air.  

Carol was active in Girl Scouting her entire life, leading large camping trips and teaching other leaders outdoors skills.  She was a strong advocate of her local civic association, a clerk of course in her daughters’ summer swim league, and a regular blood donor.  Once her daughters grew up, she began square dancing with Hall, and the two of them managed to get at least one of her granddaughters hooked.

Carol is fondly remembered by her husband, her three siblings (Pam, Scott, and Connie), by her three daughters (Annalisa, Francesca, and Tasha), by her eight grandchildren (Rebecca, Lauren, Argus, Iolanthe, Lisa, Nigel, Anika, and Janelle), and by her many friends and colleagues.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tour de Tallil Ali Air Base, Iraq

Rich Ruoff, bicycle race promoter extraordinaire has agreed to serve as promoter for the Tour de Tallil Ali Air Base, Iraq, on Saturday, September 5 at 0500. He already has the race up on his web site and will be putting the event on www.bikereg.com the place where bicycle racers around the country find and register for races. Rich wants to actually be on site for the race which is not going to happen, but it is fun to see a race in Iraq on his calendar of events.

I will be riding in one of Rich's road races on June 28, the day before I go back to Iraq. It is a very hilly race on country roads near Lancaster so my big goal will be to avoid being lapped by the winner. I have been riding at Tallil, but riding on flat roads does not get me in shape for hills.

Yesterday I rode a mile or so in the rain, another very strange experience for someone who has been living in Oklahoma, Kuwait and Iraq. I saw a couple of storms in Oklahoma, but they were over in hours. The rain here in Lancaster was off and on for two days. It is SO green here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Unit Circle

Today I went on a long shopping trip with my youngest daughter. She is off to college in the fall and has one course left to choose, the other three are freshman requirements at the University of Richmond. She either will take general chemistry or calculus. The mention of calculus lead her to say how the unit circle drove her nuts in her high school calculus course. "Why did we have to memorize all of those fractions of pi and the square root of two?" she said. It turns out her teacher did not explain why the unit circle is so useful. It's not that a circle with a radius of one ever occurs in real life, the point is that every other circle can be converted into the unit circle then all the calculations relating to it are divisible by one. And the sines and cosines relating to the position of any point on the circle read directly--they don't need to be factored. The unit circle above is the way she learned it: static, with key points to memorize.

But the unit circle is better understood live. When it moves, it makes sense immediately, as you can see here.

OK, enough geek stuff. The point of this post is just that talking about abstract ideas makes me happy, so these two weeks in America really are a rest from the concrete reality of carrying a weapon, walking on rocks and riding in sand. It's raining now in Lancaster. I am going outside to enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Catching Up with a Lot of Friends

If you think driving and talking on a cell phone is an indication that the end of the world is at hand, stop reading here.

I drive and talk on the phone. I have been doing this awful thing since 1993 when I had a five-watt cell phone powered by a lead-acid battery that was as big as a lunch box. When I talk on the the phone on a highway, I drive slower and keep right. When I am not talking, I drive faster.

Anyway, I drove to the Wake for my friend's baby girl and talked to friends nearly all the way there and back--3 1/2 hours each way. I thought it would be good to be distracted rather than think too hard about how terrible it is to lose a child. The gathering at the funeral home was sad for everyone. I realized I had never been to a funeral for an infant. Little Candace looked more like a doll than a person, peaceful and perfect. Her father is a generally positive guy and was his usual affable self, putting others at ease and giving a kind reassuring word to the sad people around him. He knows the sadness will hit him tomorrow at the actual funeral, but today he is holding up well.

On the way back I called more friends and made plans for visits before I go back to Iraq. I still can't begin to think how difficult it is to deal with losing a child. I also remembered the last Echo Company family funeral I attended. The father of one of our soldiers died suddenly last summer. The funeral happened to be on our drill weekend. There were 70 soldiers at that drill. More than 50 attended the funeral service. I know if they were not 6000 miles away everyone in Echo would have been at the service and helping the family to recover from their loss.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Good Times, Bad Times

Today I had a wonderful day catching up with my co-workers and meeting my new boss (when I return).

I also got some bad news from Iraq. Another soldier from our unit went home a few days before I did. His daughter was just born and he got to be there. But the happy occasion turned to mourning when his new daughter died suddenly. It happened Saturday while I was traveling. The wake is tomorrow afternoon in Altoona PA about 3 hours away, so I should be able to attend. It's good that he could be home for his family, but so sad that his leave from Iraq would be marked with tragedy.


At 5pm yesterday, my daughters picked me up at Harrisburg International Airport, just 57 hours after I showed up at the passenger terminal at Tallil Air Base. Since we gained 7 hours, the trip actually took 64 clock hours. But my leave did not start until one minute after midnight today, so I have only used 18 of the 360 hours (15 days) of leave.

When we got back to Lancaster from Harrisburg last night, we picked up my son Nigel then went out to dinner at Isaac's Restaurant & Deli, my favorite place to eat in Lancaster since they opened in 1983. All of the sandwiches are named after birds. My favorite sandwich is a Bird of Paradise:
An all-time favorite from our original menu! A combination of mushrooms, green olives, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, melted Swiss and Muenster cheeses on rye with mayo. 7.39
My kids each have a favorite sandwich so we ate at Isaac's then went to the Starbucks on Columbia Avenue. I got a free latte for coming back from Iraq. I'll get another one next year. We all talked and laughed till 10pm when I turned into a jet-lagged zombie and went to bed.

This morning, Nigel and I went to Dosie Dough a coffee shop and bakery near Franklin and Marshall College where my wife is a professor. We rode bikes. I had a croissant and a latte. We all walked to Church together. After Church I went to the Bike Line of Lancaster where my new bike was waiting for a test drive. The GT Peace 9 R is army green and will be stylin' in Iraq.

I rode 20 miles by myself then a dozen more with Lisa who wants to do a bunch of bicycle cross training while I am home. We'll be going to a New Orleans brass concert in the park tonight.
Tomorrow is Philadelphia.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Always, Always Volunteer

The last bit of advice my Dad gave me when I enlisted in 1972 was "Volunteer. Don't listen to those [other soldiers--expletives deleted]." So I did. In basic training when no one else's hand went up, I volunteered to be one of the Latrine Queens--the name given to those who clean the bathrooms. Jersey, one of the smart guys, also raised his hand for this job and smiled when he saw me volunteer also. I got hassled right away. My roommate, 'Bama, said "What in the Hell did you do that for Guss? Have you lost your damn mind since breakfast?" I shrugged. I did not feel smart at the time. Three days later I felt absolutely brilliant. Everyone except the latrine queens and the buffer crew went for a 10-mile, 4am road march in a 50-degree Texas February rain. Jersey and I had to stay back and clean the latrines for an inspection by some higher command.

When the soggy marchers got back they had to stay outside until the inspection was over. Jersey and I and the buffer team smiled and waved at the rest of the platoon. 'Bama later conceded that Yankees weren't so damned dumb after all.

So I have continued to volunteer. Yesterday when we got ready to load the buses to go to the airport in Kuwait, they asked for seven sergeants to be (I am not making this up) Pushers and Counters. The Counters count the soldiers getting on the bus and eventually on the plane. The Pushers keep them moving to get the buses and planes loaded and unloaded. I was a counter, so I counted to 160 three different times as everyone walked past me. I stood out in the sun longer than everyone else, but we were already out for a long time. When we got to the airport, I was stationed at the bottom of the ramp to count the soldiers as they boarded our DC-10 to America. But before I started my final count, the ground crew told the pushers, counters and the officer and NCO in charge of the plane to drop their bags on seats--at the front of the plane! It turns out the pushers and counters got the business class seats. In this old plane, the business class seats are not as good as new planes, but they WAY better than regular seats.

When I volunteered, a couple of sergeants standing behind said under their breaths almost together, "Ain't no f-in way. . ." Seemed like a good trade to me. I slept for almost half of the 15 hours we were in the air.

Just a note on nicknames. When I went through basic the first time the forty recruits in our platoon were from almost as many states, hence the state nicknames. 'Bama, my bunkmate in basic introduced himself as "Leonard Norwood from Sawyerville, Alabama, population 53. I had me a job down the road at an A&P store, but it closed down so here I am. Sawyerville is just down the state highway from Talledega, the biggest racetrack in the world. Did you know. . ." He went on like that for the rest of the basic. By the time I went home on leave after basic training, I had lost my Boston accent forever and spoke with a drawl. 'Bama, Jersey and I went to tech school at Lowry AF Base in Denver and remained buddies. A month later my Dad, my sister Jean and Jean's best friend Mary drove my car--a 1969 Torino Cobra--all the way to Denver. If I remember correctly Jersey wanted to be my brother-in-law as soon as he met Jean and 'Bama was hopelessly in love with Mary.
The last time I spoke to 'Bama he was on disability leave from the railroad and wanted me to come down and see a race at Talledega with him. He is married with grown kids, so he did not wait for Mary to come back to Denver.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Going Home--Day Two

I am still in Kuwait. In fact, I am still at the Air Force base where we arrived.
So after the 6-hour, 200-mile trip yesterday beginning at 0800, I have not moved.

But I did get up at 0500 to find the 24-hour chow hall is not quite open 24 hours and was actually closed till 0530. I could not wait for that and make my 0600 briefing, so I ate a turkey sub at Subway. At 0600 we had a 45-minute gathering to get our flight itineraries. We meet again at 1245 to go through customs outside (forecast high 118) in our uniforms (long sleeved so we don't get cold).

After we go through customs, we load on buses to go to the commercial airport. After that five-mile trip we will wait in tents (although these are air conditioned) until 830pm. At that point we will board the aircraft to the US which will stop somewhere between here and Atlanta for gas and arrive about 0830 Saturday morning. Then at Noon I will fly to Harrisburg, then home.

After this, a commercial flight to anywhere in the world is going to be a piece of cake. On the way back we do roughly the same thing, except losing time so it is longer on the clock. I can't wait.

(This post won't go up on the internet until we have arrived. I don't say anything about troop movements until they are over. --Neil)

Chaplains: Then and Now

During my first enlistment, the chaplains I met were mostly from mainline Protestant denominations including the kind of Baptists who go to seminaries as well as Catholic priests. A chaplain in the 1970s was, in my experience, a well-educated mid-30s and older guy who was well-read, but not scholarly, not very fit, and liked the company of soldiers.

One of our chaplains is exactly that, mainline denomination, pastor of a large church in a small town back home, struggles to stay fit and watch his weight, is affable and friendly. His sermons tend to exhortation and have no hard edges. He went to a denominational seminary, but did no post-graduate academic work.

But every other chaplain I have met so far would have been too strange for the 1970s Army. If the culture was all in a swirl outside the gates, the 1970s chaplains were the recruited in the 60s and were not campus radicals.

Before we left, the chaplain for our battalion was a short, intense Greek Orthodox priest who looked vaguely familiar when I met him. When he introduced, I got one of the biggest surprises of my first months back in the Army. Fifteen years ago, our Greek Orthodox chaplain was the assistant chaplain of Franklin and Marshall College. In matters of politics he on the Left, but he was called to serve with soldiers after 9/11 and had already been on one deployment. In fact he left our unit to go with the Stryker Brigade just a few months before we deployed.

The chaplain at the most recent contemporary Protestant service I attended raised his hands to praise the Lord while the rock band played up front. He preached on sin and called people who wanted to commit their lives to The Lord to come up to the front of the Church. In the 1970s the Evangelical pastors had to be rather circumspect about altar calls. This intense career chaplain, who looks like he could serve on the line with his armor troops, conducts his service just as I assume he would back home.

Another chaplain who I see in the DFAC and out on the bus stops is also an Evangelical. He is a guy who can identify with soldiers. One time I was sitting with him in the chow hall he was talking about how much he is looking forward to the next Dan Brown movie. He loved the DaVinci Code movie. He also liked the Matrix movies. He watches a lot of movies. He plays video games. Again, hard to imagine him serving in the 70s Army.

I have attended the Catholic service at 5pm the last two Sundays just to hear the homily by one of the Catholic priests. This chaplain loves New York. He was educated at Columbia, taught philosophy at Fordham, and after his beloved New York was attacked, decided to serve. He was deployed before and just volunteered to extend his current deployment for another year. He is a big, cheerful guy who looks more at home in camouflage than priestly vestments. (By the way, I have been to three different services with the priest wearing vestments. It still looks weird to me seeing those long white, or purple, red robes worn with combat boots.) While this chaplain preaches at the main base on Sunday, he is not on base during the week. He flies out to smaller bases in the surrounding area to do pastoral counseling at the forward bases.

In addition, there are Gospel services with lay ministers who preach. That is one thing that is exactly the same as the 1970s. When I was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, in the 1970s, the most lively service was the Sunday night Gospel service. It's the same here. Back then the minister was an sergeant first class from our tank battalion. Here he is a retired first sergeant who came back as a civilian contractor. The choir leader is a staff sergeant. She is on active duty.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Journey Home Begins

It's getting close to 9pm so the temperature here in Kuwait is just dipping below 100 degrees. It was only 113 today when we arrived at 1pm, but the body armor and helmet we are required to wear for the flight from Iraq to Kuwait make it feel even warmer. An hour after we arrived we were allowed to turn the body armor in at a storage warehouse so we don't have to wear it here. In fact, I turned in my weapon yesterday so I am feeling like a very successful dieter!!! Those pounds just melted away (fr a couple of weeks anyway).

The entire trip from Iraq to Lancaster should take three days, four at the worst. It will take more than a day and maybe two days just to get from the front door of the passenger terminal at Tallil Ali Air Base to taking off in Kuwait--I will spend more than a day and maybe two traveling the first 200 miles from Iraq to Kuwait, then hopefully cover the remaining 6000-odd miles from Kuwait to Lancaster PA.

The trip really began at 9pm last night. I went to the Air Force passenger terminal to find out when my flight to Kuwait would leave. They said I had a report time of 815pm Thursday evening and I would fly out at 1115pm, arriving just after midnight. That plane was full with more than 50 soldiers on R&R leave. There was also a flight at 1130 this morning. I changed my mind five times about taking that one, then the ground crew reassured me I would not lose my seat on the night flight if the day flight had problems, so I took it.

For those of you who think commercial travel is a pain, here's my trip to date:
0800--My platoon sergeant drives me to the terminal in a maintenance truck. I wait in an air conditioned room for 40 minutes, then
0840--The Air Force clerk at the desk collects ID cards and makes up a flight manifest.
0855--We are called to the scale to get weighed with our gear and bags for the flight then we go outside to a tent to wait for our plane. The tent has a vent, but it is already 100 degrees and climbing and we are wearing our uniforms, so we all remain as still as possible and wait.
1045--The plane is 30 minutes away. We go outside and line up to be counted. Then we sit in a pallet storage area because it has shade. It is now 110 degrees.
1115--The plane lands, the cargo is unloaded--just one pallet and we line up again. This time we put on our 35-pound body armor, helmet and bags. We stand in the sun, then ten minutes later the loadmaster says there is manifested freight on the way. We have to wait. So we go back to the pallet shed. The tent is 20 feet from the pallet shed. The air-conditioned building is 30 feet away. We are not allowed in either one. So we sweat. The temp is creeping toward a high of 118.
1150--Pallet arrives. It gets loaded. We put on armor and line up again. Then we walk to the plane--a C-130 Hercules which is lucky for us. The plane is half full and we can slouch in the webbing seats. We must wear the body armor and helmet all the way to Kuwait. We sweat.
1240--We land in Kuwait. The frieght is unloaded and we wait on the plane for a bus. Since we are on the ground out of Iraq, we can take off the body armor. Not everyone does because if you take it off, you have to carry it and it is easier to carry on your back than in your hand. I leave it on. I am reading a new book of Orwell's essays called "All Art is Propaganda." The other folks on the plane are listening to IPods or waiting. No one is talking. We are all strangers and no one is happy.
1300--The bus arrives and we drive to the transient holding area. The bus is air conditioned--Ahhhhh. After a 20-minute bus ride, we arrive for in-processing in Kuwait. Because there are only seven soldiers on R&R leave, the initial inprocessing is quick. They tell us not to write on the bathroom walls or have sex in the tents then sign us into the base.
1330--We walk a quarter mile over rocks to storage warehouse for body armor. A very good natured young captain waits for me as the other soldiers walk to the warehouse. They are walking fast because they want to be rid of the armor. The bone spur in my heel is getting worse and I am walking slow. The captain asks if I am having trouble. I tell him about the bone spur and he seems releived it is not anything worse. I really need to get this thing fixed.
1345--We fill out all the papers and get rid of the body armor. Next we go back to the tent where started and fill out another form. Then we walk several hundred yards the other way and turn in those forms to the people who will arrange our travel.
1405--Now we get tents. Billeting office has three clerks. It takes 10 minutes to get tents for seven of us. Up to this point I was thinking I had screwed up by taking the early flight. Then I remembers that I would have been doing all this paperwork at 2am with more than 50 people instead of just 7. It would have been cooler, but it would have been the middle of the night. And since our report time if 6am, I would have gotten to the tent at 230 am, woken up everyone else in it, then slept very badly worrying about missing the 0600 briefing.

230pm--dropped my bag in the tent and went to the chow hall. Ate a sandwich, went to the Green Beans coffee place, drank a latte and read the newspaper. Then I went bakc to the tent and went to sleep.

620pm--Got up and went to dinner. Met a nice group of guys at the Post Chapel near the chow hall. Went to their Thursday night meeting for while, then got on line and started writing this post.

930pm--going to bed soon. More tomorrow when I find out my flight details.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

SUVs are Status Symbols Here

Most of the thousands of soldiers on Tallil Ali Air Base walk or take buses or ride in the back of 5-ton trucks to get where they are going on a post that stretches across dozens of square miles of sand and rock. A few hundred soldiers and airmen ride bicycles. Senior maintenance soldiers get 'Gators: four-wheel-drive golf carts made by John Deere and other manufacturers.

Senior officers, sergeant majors, commanders, and many garrison staff soldiers get SUVs. For Explorers, Chevy Suburbans, GMC Yukons as well as full-size crew-cab pickup trucks by the big three American automakers. The SUVs are the real status symbols around post. SUVs fill the parking lot of the DFAC for each meal near the end of the dining hours when the senior officers eat.

The SUVs are either light silver or white--colors that reflect rather than absorb the heat of the Iraq summer. Hybrids and high-mileage cars may be the cars to own back at home--at least for those of us who live in cities, but here a white or silver SUV is the vehicle to drive.

Monday, June 8, 2009

KBR is Much More Than What is on the News

Before I was here in Iraq, my association with the initials KBR was with whatever bad news was reported about insider contract deals and some sort of shady arrangement that had Dick Cheney in the background like the Emperor in "Star Wars."

But here in Iraq, KBR are the initials on the red ID tag lanyards of the people that are behind all the good stuff for soldiers here at Tallil Ali Air Base. KBR people run the 24-hour House of Pain gym and make sure it is clean, cold water is available and all the various soldier-led classes are scheduled and supported. They run the weekly 5k race, they staff the cyber cafes, the free-phone rooms, the library, the rec centers, the DFACs, they fix the air conditioners, and now they are starting to leave.

In the month I have been here Brook, Jelena, and Steve among many other KBR people have helped me to find the people who run every activity the soldiers in my unit have asked about or wanted to do. The KBR folks are cheerful, helpful and really interested in making things as good as possible for soldiers. But as the KBR contracts expire and others come in to replace them, some of my favorite people are worried about their jobs. It will be a shame if the folks who most want to help soldiers are replaced and cut instead of retained. In the future I will not think of the contract lawyers at KBR, but the smiling faces who serve me food and set up Spin class.

The Silent Guitar Player on the Bridge

On the path between my trailer park home and the gym a 20-foot long wooden foot bridge spans a dry, rock-filled stream bed. The long-timers (who were here last year) say that during the fall rains, the dry stream beds actually fill with water. I've never seen it.

The last four nights as I cross the bridge coming back from the gym or coffee shop a tall (6-foot, 5-inch) soldier in PT uniform (gym clothes) has been standing on the bridge strumming a 12-string electric bass. He has no amplifier, he is just picking the strings.

Last night, curiosity got the better of me and I asked him why he was on the bridge. It turns out that his massive guitar weighs almost as much as body armor (35 pounds) and he supports the guitar on the bridge while he practices for a return to the stage in the fall.

One of our mechanics, a specialist, was the lead singer (if that's the right word) in a metal band before we deployed. He is a huge, bald guy in his late 20s who also kickboxes when he is not singing about eating dead babies or whatever metal songs are about.

But the big, bald dude on the bridge is a 45-year-old captain. He is also a disciple of Metallica, but it seems somehow stranger to me that a middle-aged officer in an active Army armor unit would be a metal performer, than a 27-year-old mechanic. When I wrote about the Gospel Rock Band yesterday, I did not mention that two of the five members will be gone in mid August. The Captain told me one of the chaplains asked him about playing in the Gospel rock band. The captain won't be singing Gospel. He told me he has a residence in Hell.

One of the things I like about being around soldiers is that they tend toward extremes. In a place like this, people don't equivocate. The soldiers that go to Church are there because they want to be. And the soldiers who hope for a home in Hell are ready to tell anyone who asks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Choir Update--Home in a Week

To the list of choirs I wrote of earlier, I have to add the choir at today's contemporary service at Adder Chapel (from Anthrax to Adder--what's next?). Actually, it's no a choir, but a rock group in camouflage. The two lead singers play amplified acoustic guitars, they are backed up by an electric guitar, an electric bass and a full drum set. These guys really rocked too, they are from units all over the base. One of the singers is an infantry captain, the other is an engineer sergeant. All but the bass player are big guys, over six feet tall and 200 pounds. These are not skinny teenagers with a garage band. They sang contemporary hymns then a completely rock arrangement of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" that had me singing along at the top of my lungs.

The Chaplain, whom I met the day before at the DFAC, is a very straightforward evangelical who admires Billy Graham and has an altar call at the end of the service. He had his hands in the air while the band played--unusual at Chapel services except the Gospel service.

And in somewhat related news, if my flights go well, I should be listening to the Wheatland Presbyterian Church Choir one week from today. I get 15 days leave which for me starts when I land in Atlanta after leaving Tallil. This also means if it takes extra time to get back, it is not charged to me as leave. I will have at least 13 days at home, since the first and last day include getting to and from Atlanta.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

We Get a Combat patch

As of 0900 yesterday morning, all the soldiers in our unit are authorized to wear a combat patch. This is a patch worn on the right sleeve and is the unit you served in combat with. The left sleeve is the patch for the unit to which you are currently assigned. So I and many of my fellow soldiers have the same patch on our left and right sleeves. If a soldier has been in combat with more than one unit, he or she can pick which unit is on the right sleeve.

Many people have multiple deployments and tend to put the coolest patch or their favorite unit on their right sleeve. A few of the mechanics in our unit have been deployed with 82nd or 101st Airborne and wear those patches instead of the our Keystone patch. When I went to my most recent Army training school, one of the instructors was a female generator mechanic who was taken from her unit in Afghanistan and deployed to another country which she could not even name with a Special Forces unit. She is entitled to wear a Green Beret patch--and did.

How proud are some soldiers of their combat patch. One of my teammates when I was on Green Mountain Cyclery of Ephrata was a soldier who had served in the 2nd Armored Division during the first Gulf War. He had a scale replica of the "Hell on Wheels" patch (Patton's division) tattooed on his right shoulder in exactly the spot where the combat patch would be on his uniform.

Our Keystone patch is all red when it is on the dress uniform. Because 28th Division units had so many casualties in previous wars, the red Keystone is also called the Bloody Bucket. It is only a historical reference now.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Riding in the Running Race

Photo by Jelena Bozic, Tallil Ali Air Base

Every Wednesday at 0600 is the “First Light 5k” race at the “House of Pain” gym. For almost a month now I have not been allowed to run because of a bone spur in my right heel. So while I can’t run, I have volunteered to be the “Pace Bike” for the weekly event. The course has six right turns and two lefts on double oval so every week for the first few weeks, someone would get lost. One new racer who claimed to be able to run under 18 minutes for the 5k got off course while in the lead, so the pace bike is actually useful. I also like being at the race since almost forty of Echo Company’s hundred soldiers run every week. The top runners in the company are training for the Army 10-miler in October. We will have a team. But the majority are training for a passing time or a better time on their two-mile run. In any case Echo Company is about 1/3 of the field most weeks, but is out of the prize categories.

The organizers—the base Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) office—give medals to first and second place in 10-year age groups from under 30 to 50+ and medals to the overall male and female winners. I got a medal in the only race I ran because that week the usual winner was on leave. The overall winner for the last three weeks is a 55-year-old warrant officer who runs between an 18-flat and 18:30 5k. So my medal was a matter of good timing. There is supposed to be a lieutenant who is currently on leave who runs a 17-minute 5k, but for now the old guy rules.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Chapel Choirs Men are the Majority


At first glance, chapel choirs look and sound like their civilian counterparts—except they are several octaves lower. Women are the majority in churches and choirs everywhere reflect that. But in the chapel choirs, we see all the variety of the civilian world, with men doing most of the singing.

At Fort Sill, the choir in the Anthrax Chapel for the protestant service was one young lieutenant with a guitar who sang a solo every week and provided the music for the hymns.

In Tallil, every faith community has a choir and they are as different as the denominations they represent. At the Sunday evening Catholic service, the choir was three men, one with a guitar, leading the singing for a service with almost 100 soldiers. At the contemporary Protestant service in the Air Force area, they had a 6-member choir with a keyboard and several other instruments and PowerPoint Hymns for a congregation of 25.

The traditional Protestant service in the Army chapel had a keyboard player and three singers and also had hymns on PowerPoint on a screen. The Sunday afternoon and evening Gospel services are the choir showstoppers. They have 30 men and 10 women backed up by a half-dozen drums and other instruments in front of a congregation of more than 100. A mostly male Gospel choir sounds like any other Gospel choir until they crescendo at the end of a song. Thirty male voices almost shouting shakes the walls of low, concrete Adder Chapel. In addition to the drums, clapping and singing of the main Gospel choir, the same group has a dance choir that performs at the beginning of the service. This choir is mostly women in black costumes with white gloves dancing to Gospel music and performing passages of Scripture.

One other thing that happens to those who attend multiple services at the Chapel is that all services are held in the same rooms at different times. So one week I heard the Gospel choir raise the roof and the next week listened to the three-man choir at the Catholic service in the very same room. It would certainly save Churches in America a lot of money of they had every Church in the neighborhood meet in one building at different times.

I hadn’t thought until this moment that I have gone from Anthrax to Adder, a deadly disease to a deadly snake. Army chapels may have good choirs, but they need help with their names.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Chapel Menu is as Long as the Chow Hall Menu

Pro Deo et Patria is the Chaplain's motto

The Chapel here at Tallil can't cover every spiritual practice, no organization can, but they try. The first service on the Sunday morning schedule is Orthodox, I have not been to the service, but I believe the Romanian unit provides the priest. Next in rapid succession are traditional Protestant, Catholic, contemporary Protestant, Latter Day Saints, and then repeat services are held in the evening.

On Friday Muslim and Jewish services are available, followed by LDS and Jewish services on Saturday. Every day of the week there is Mass, intercessory prayer, choir practice, praise and worship service, Christianity 101, and other beginner Bible studies. The schedule is changing because a new unit is running the base. I am hoping to get one of the chaplains to start a mid-week Bible study for soldiers who are familiar with the Scriptures.

If the Chapel services are varied, the Chaplains and lay ministers cover a wider range. I'll write about some of them soon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Boom, Boom, Yawn

We began the Memorial holiday weekend by being woken up at 3:54 am by a series of explosions. Rockets fell near the fence on our side of the base. After the blasts the sirens wailed and we all went out into the pre-dawn light to check in and be counted--100% roll call after an attack. Most everyone went straight back to bed inside our 12-foot blast walls, and everyone knew we were safe because once they fire, they have to hide or an Apache helicopter will get them.

The only complaint I heard was one of our platoon sergeants. He was looking forward to Spin Class (bicycling in the gym) and knew that by the time everyone was accounted for, the 0530 class would be cancelled.

Later, around 1100 hours, several of us were unloading shipping containers in the motor pool when we heard two big explosions about 600 meters away. The tall thin mushroom clouds in the relatively still air said these were big artillery or mortar shells. The first had a brown cloud--probably hit a dust pit, the second was white and thinner. It must have hit concrete.

As the clouds dissipated we decided to keep working until the sirens wailed. They never did. We found out later these were controlled explosions--they just forgot to tell us. Again, the only complaint was from two soldiers, one on his first deployment, one on his second, who did not want to be in a blast shelter in the heat.

Many proverbs say that stress brings out the true character of a person, whether good or bad. In a place like this, it's good to know I am with people who yawn at missile attacks and complain only about the inconvenience.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Food, Fiber, Friends and CS Lewis

Last week it became clear to me that the endless bounty of food at the DFAC (dining facility) was not providing me with enough fiber. So I went to the only store in town--the PX--and found that they sell every conceivable sugared snack, but no high fiber food. Coincidentally, I got an email from my 20-year veteran uncle asking if there is anything I need. I asked for a case of Grape Nuts cereal.

I was already eating the top five high-fiber foods on the web lists. Then I thought I could go on sick call. But that thought only lasted a second or so. I don't mind going on sick call for a bone spur or an acute illness, but the medical unit is mostly staffed by women in their 20s. So I did not want to go on sick call and explain my problem.

As usually happens when I think about human interactions for more than a minute, something from CS Lewis comes to mind. I remember reading in more than one of his essays that we are apt to judge a man as having a spiritual problem when he really just suffers from chronic indigestion. So rather than go on sick call, I asked for help from a nearly-50-year-old ex-Marine who sometimes sits in the DFAC and yells back at the TV news when "Liberals" are on. It turns out he has had digestive trouble for many years and had lots of good advice plus a huge stash of fiber supplements. And he was happy to share. I am going home in 11 days, so I will be able to go to a real store and get all the fiber that America has to offer, but in the meantime, I got by with a little help from my friend.

Military Pilots Really Have "The Right Stuff"

Tammie Jo Shults, F-18 Fighter Pilot Today I listened to the audio of pilot Tammie Jo Shults calmly speakin...