Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dad's Last Fist Fight

This year I am the age my Dad was when he fought and won his last fist fight.  And on Friday of this week, my adopted son Jacari will follow in Dad's very large footsteps taking his first boxing lesson at Nye's Gym in Lancaster.

George Gussman was 62 years old on the summer day of his last fight.  He was a working foreman at the grocery warehouse for the Purity Supreme supermarket chain.  They had dozens of stores in New England in the 60s and 70s.  I am sure they have been bought and sold many times since.

On that day, I was also working in the warehouse.  I was 15 years old and had been working summers and Saturdays since I was 12, sweeping floors and cleaning garbage out from the truck and train loading docks.

On that afternoon I was on the west end of the warehouse cleaning out the area where the freight cars unloaded.  On the opposite end of the three-acre building in Charlestown, Massachusetts, near Sullivan Square, was the truck loading dock.  I had not cleaned the garbage there yet.  School just got out for summer, and cleaning dozens of truck and train docks of months of dropped groceries and produce was a job of many weeks--job security.

So I was a quarter mile away under a freight car when a 30-year-old driver from Texas walked up to the Receiver and said he had waited long enough and he was unloading next.  The big Texan, complete with a white cowboy hat shoved the Receiver.  One of the two hundred-plus warehouse workers ran and got my Dad.  The janitor I worked for could sense trouble and ran to get me.

Dad was a middleweight boxer when he was in his 20s and pitched for the Reading Phillies.  He was one of the toughest guys among those two hundred Teamsters.  I saw none of what happened next, but heard roughly similar accounts from at least a dozen guys.

Dad walked up to the angry Texan and said, "What's the problem here?" The Receiver was my Dad's age and had a heart condition.  At that time, a heart condition meant staying calm, or you die.

The Texan looked at my Dad and said, "What is this, a retirement home?  Look you old bastard, I'm unloading next or I'll kick both your asses."

Dad stepped closer.  The Texan took a swing.  He missed.  Dad hit him somewhere between five and 100 times (I think ten was the most agreed upon number) and knocked him flat on the loading platform.  The platforms were hinged and tilted down.  By all accounts Dad shoved the Texan with his foot and rolled him off the platform into the garbage I had not cleaned yet.

Dad stood over him, threw his hat down and said, "You'll wait your fucking turn.  Get back in line."  Then Dad turned and walked away.  I saw him walk back to work.  When he was out of sight, a dozen guys came up to me and said, "Did you see that?  Your Dad kicked his ass."

Now that I am the age my Dad was for his last fight, I remember how much I wanted to be as tough as him all the time I was growing up.  I wanted to be a soldier because Dad was a soldier.

Dad was tough to the end.  Three years later at 65 he started his last and longest fight.  Dad had brain tumor, probably from multiple concussions.  He had had his nose broken four times.  The operation that followed nearly killed him, but he recovered and lived another twelve years.

Saved from a Skunk by a Range Official

During Annual Training 2013 at Fort AP Hill, Virginia, we had convoys travel across the post that got hit by simulated roadside bombs.  Above is one of the pictures of a "roadside bomb" going off.  The technician setting up and setting off the munitions was a retired infantry sergeant working as a technician.

During the eight days I was at AP Hill I rode almost 300 miles on my bicycle going from convoy to MEDEVAC to Air Assault taking pictures and collecting information for stories.

The day after this picture, I came up behind the munitions technician on the main road through AP Hill.  He was in his big, white pickup truck.  I was catching up to him, which was strange.  When I got near, he frantically waved me off the road.  Just ahead, waddling out of the woods was a fat skunk.  I could have gotten close enough to get sprayed if he had not signaled.  I slowed, waved and took off in the other direction.

Riding on post is definitely something I will miss when I leave the Army.  On post, everyone gives me plenty of room and even signals for skunks!!  The rest of the world mostly hates bicycles, but on post we are treated like real humans, especially when riding in uniform.  Most of the 300 miles I was in camouflage.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Stupid, and Army Stupid

"If you've got a low IQ, you can be  soldier too." (from the Army marching song "Sound Off")

To me, the movie "Forrest Gump" is proof that anything can be romanticized and therefore distorted. I was talking to an old friend from the Army back in the days during and after the Draft.  We were talking about the truly, profoundly stupid soldiers we had known, served with and served under back in the 1970s.  

The conversation started because I found out at the 70th Armor reunion that one of the soldiers we served with had died a few years ago.  This soldier could not operate an open-end wrench without supervision.  He was funny.  But then we talked about stupid soldiers who were in charge of us.  We both thought of "Jaws." Jaws was our toothless, angry platoon sergeant for a few months.  He had two tours in Viet Nam and if he were serving today would be treated for PTSD.  But he had been brave and he was staying in to "get his 20 (years for a pension)."   Jaws was only funny in retrospect. 

Jaws could not write.  Jaws could barely read.  Jaws also liked to hear himself talk so he would keep us in formation for a half hour or more sometimes saying whatever popped into his head.  If he decided something was wrong, he could not be dissuaded by any argument.  He controlled our lives and tormented us not so much by design, but by our knowing that stubbornness is how stupid people get control of the world swimming around them.  

Which led us to bitch about Forrest Gump.  No one who had ever been under the arbitrary authority of a stupid person could be entertained by that movie.  We both hated it.  

When I re-enlisted in the Army eight years ago, my first squad leader was Army National Guard Stupid--beyond any level of stupid in the regular Army.  Like Jaws, he was missing many teeth and disliked wearing dentures.  He could not write, mumbled, was profoundly paranoid, and was overweight and out of shape.  If Fox News had existed in the 1970s, Jaws might have been as bad, but we will never know.  Clearly, every delusion Glenn Beck could dream up lodged in my squad leader's head.  He was a generator mechanic who could not read wiring diagrams and did circuit troubleshooting by touching wires together to see if they sparked.  He carried a 3-inch thick binder with him everywhere that had paperwork he might need to claim benefits.

My squad leader was eventually barred from re-enlisting in the National Guard, but managed to find a reserve unit that would take him.  While the quality of National Guard soldiers today is far above what it used to be, a few like my 52-year-old squad leader managed to hang on.

"If you've got a low IQ, you can be  soldier too." 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Leadership Reaction Course--Groups Solve Problems

The Army Leadership Reaction Course gives a problem to a group and has them solve it in ten minutes or more depending on the problem.  The problems usually involve moving something or someone across an obstacle:
Move a drum across a stream
Move an unconscious pilot across stream on a cable
Move an ammo box through a pipe and across a water obstacle

Here are some photos of soldiers in my company attempting those obstacles.

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Unit on TV in Northern Michigan

Follow the link to Chinook and Apache helicopters on TV in Northern Michigan here.

Fun to see the unit on TV.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's Not Just Me: Rejected by the Allentown Morning Call

Today one of my public affairs colleagues complained that he has sent stories for years to the Allentown Morning Call and they never pick up any of them.  Other media in central Pennsylvania run stories about local National Guard soldiers, but not the Morning Call.

I just searched Army on the Morning Call web site and got no results about current soldiers.  I did get a World War 2 veteran.

Two people in the same profession, finding the same difficulty can make each other feel better by sharing difficulties.  I could do that very thing today.  I told my colleague that one of the best stories I ever had about a National Guard soldier got rejected by the Morning Call, but later was picked up by the New York Times.  It was one of the soldier stories the New York Times used in a feature about the tenth anniversary of 9-11.  The whole story of Lt. Col. Joel Allmandinger leaving the Army just before the 9-11 attacks and then re-enlisting is here.  Or you can scroll down to The Officer.  I also copied that section of the New York Times story at then end of this post.

You can also read my story about him from 2010 here.

When I can back from Iraq, local newspapers picked up my stories about several other soldiers from sergeants to colonels.  I thought the one about then-Major Allmandinger was the best of the bunch, but he is from the Allentown area and the Morning Call did not pick up the story.

 My colleague was relieved to hear I also got rejected by the Allentown newspaper and may use my story about the New York Times picking up the story the Morning Call rejected to say "It's not just me" to his commander.

Getting rejected is part of this job, but getting this story rejected really surprised me.  But if I had to choose between the New York Times and the Morning Call, it turned out for the better.

The Officer
He had graduated from West Point, served eight years as a Black Hawk pilot and wanted to try his hand in business. It was June 2001, and Joel Allmandinger was leaving the Army.
He was in California for a wedding when the attacks occurred. The groom, a firefighter, held a vigil at his wedding and introduced Mr. Allmandinger as a soldier, though he no longer was one. And that troubled him. 
“I didn’t feel part of that brotherhood of the uniform anymore,” he recalled. “These guys could immediately identify with what happened in 9/11.”
So back home in eastern Pennsylvania, he signed up for the National Guard. On his first day of duty, he wore his uniform into a store and someone thanked him for his service.
“It was odd and uncomfortable,” he recalled. “But when I got into the car and started driving to the armory, I thought, ‘That was neat.’ ”
His unit deployed twice: first in Kosovo in 2004, to fill in for an active-duty unit being sent to Iraq; and then in Iraq in 2009, where he flew dozens of missions.
A one-year commitment turned into a decade. Today he is a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander. He is also the director of sales for a national food company and a father of two.
“I think I have a much, much better appreciation for the civilian soldier,” he said. “In some ways, I see it is an even bigger commitment, the sacrifices people have. There is a duality to it that is tough.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Riding to Do My Army Job

Part of my Army job is taking pictures of Army training, Army living and sometimes Army relaxing.  To get to these various places I ride my bike when I can.  Today I was shooting photos at the extreme ends of the ten-mile long Fort Indiantown Gap training area.  In the course of riding to and from both events I put 31 miles on my single-speed mountain bike.  Since the terrain here is hilly, it was a good ride on rolling hills.

In the middle of the day I took pictures and videos of teams of soldiers on the Leadership Reaction Course.  This is a team obstacle course.  Later I rode to the other end of the base to take pictures of a field kitchen.

I don't have those pictures downloaded yet, but I have a few from Land Navigation the day before:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

In Back of an LMTV (Army Truck)

Today I went to a land navigation course in the back of an LMTV--a big Army truck.  Very much like the one below.

Here is the view from inside:

The ride was short and pretty smooth for the back of a truck.  When former soldiers and retired soldiers talk about why they would never want to be back in the Army at my age, riding in the back of trucks and sleeping in open-bay barracks are among the things they never want to do again.


Not to mention my recent meals.  Like these hot meals served in the field:

Or for that matter, the MRE I had for lunch:

Even if people of my age mostly don't like this kind of living, I am having a lot of fun.

At least for one more year.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Getting Around. . . With a Little Help from My Friends

Since early May I have been driving a 1996 Mazda Miata!  I did not buy a new car.  We are officially a one-car household.  We have one old car, a 2001 Toyota Prius, and ten bicycles as described here by my wife Miser Mom.  It looks like one below.

But for Annual Training this year I am driving a Miata loaned to me by Kristine Chin and Rick Chu.  I loaned them my tandem in 2009 when I went to Iraq, so they loaned me their two-seat vehicle this year.  Having the Miata allowed me to have a car at Annual training, which will allow me to go home once or twice during the two weeks.

Like sooooooo many other parts of my life, I am different than my Army surroundings.  The Prius is not the average soldier's car.  The Miata less so.  As you can see above, the Miata is MUCH smaller than the typical vehicle in the Army Parking lot.

It has been fun to drive a car so small I sort of fall back into it.  My sons were delighted.  They just like the idea that their family has a really cool car, even if it's temporary.  The kids at their (Lancaster) school brag about their family's vehicle--and especially when the family vehicle is a big, red crew cab Dodge Ram or Chevy Silverado pickup truck.

But the Miata is a two-seat convertible so it has real cache.  Unlike when I was a kid, the five-speed stick shift is irrelevant.  Few modern kids are serious motorheads.  A car is just designer jeans with wheels.

It is convenient to have a car, and fun to have such an interesting car.  Thanks Rick and Kristine!!!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Taxi, Take Off and Hover Videos of Chinook Helicopters

Every time I take photos and videos of Chinook helicopters, I am too close and getting buffeted by the amazing wind from their blades.  A reasonable distance from an Apache or Blackhawk helicopter is just too close to the big double-main-rotor Chinook.

Four Chinooks just after starting their engines on the flight line.

The moment of take off.  I am behind a metal emergency equipment container so I don't get blown over.

Another takeoff.  You can see the flattened grass from the wind.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Army vs. Civilian View of Human Nature

During the last week my co-workers, former co-workers and I said good bye to my supervisor Mary Ellen.  She is great at her job, going to a better job, and a really great person to work with.  Because most of those lauding her are also smart, funny and ironic, the praise was effusive but never maudlin.
My co-workers are librarians, archivists, writers, editors and historians.  Just the kind of people you would expect to think the best of others.  And Mary Ellen showed confirms their belief in the inherent goodness of people.  Most of them are much too ironic for a Patron Saint, but if they have a chosen philosopher it is Rosseau--people are good, only circumstances make us evil.

In a coincidence known only to me, Mary Ellen's last day of work was my first day of Army Annual Training.  So while I occasionally glanced at warm and sincere messages about Mary Ellen on my phone, I moved into the world green and camouflage world where everyone is a shit-bag unless proven otherwise.  Machiavelli is the Patron Saint here.

I had a brief hallway conversation with a guy I served with Iraq.  We were discussing some soldiers I had to supervise the following week and what I should do on the two days I would be going Michigan.

Without changing his tone at all he said, "There should be at least one of them who is not a total drooling idiot.  Leave that one in charge."

I admired the non-sexist way in which he left possibility that the one who could meet his very low standard could be a man or a woman.  I really do love both worlds, but the transitions are always strange.

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...