Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Road Through Home

This vagabond's official highway is Highway 82--specifically a stretch of road between Greenville, Mississippi and Prattville, Alababma. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of traveling down that road and through towns the sight of whose names on signs still serves to evoke those memories. I have always wondered at the origination of some of the names--Winona, Kilmichael, Eupora, Mathiston, Ethelsville, Reform, Gordo.

The Mississippi portion of Highway 82 is very nearly all four-laned now, bypassing the towns along the route. The trip is faster now, but much less interesting. Passing through a small southern town on what often constituted its Main Street was always a treat. Every little town was different in the details, yet nearly identical in the concept of design. I can remember looking forward to the next town so that I would have new signs to read out loud, an activity that at first pleased my folks, but soon enough caused them to teach me to read silently.

There are still portions of Highway 82 in Alabama that remain two-lane, still passing through the heart of proud southern villages, and hemmed in on either side by towering kudzu-draped pines whose monster shapes scared me as a child. My trips along that highway these days would probably be quicker and safer if they went ahead and four-laned it all.

The little boy in me hopes they don't.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Splish, Splash

Sometimes the tiniest of details makes all the difference. Paying attention to detail is not natural for me. I'm more of a "big picture" guy. My knowledge can best be described as "a mile wide and an inch deep." Consequently I have a lot of useless data in my brain housing group, and just enough information stored in the grey matter to get me into trouble. I think I know enough about a certain issue or project, dive in, and then end up doing a lot of "discovery learning." It is the details that make up the predominance of the grey matter wrinkle-making in discovery learning. Case in point: my latest foray into the exciting world of plumbing.

I was visiting #2 son this weekend and saw a list of home projects on his fridge. Number three on the list was "Fix knobs in showers." "How hard can that be?" I said to self. Self answered with a comment that will go unprinted, but included reminders of disastrous attacks on previous "easy" objectives. I ignored self, and pressed ahead.

The hot water handles in both showers were broken off at the base. In the guest bath, I easily unscrewed most of the parts of the multi-part apparatus leading into the hot water pipe and turned to reach for needle nose pliers to extract the remaining parts. First learning opportunity: Did you know that most successful plumbers turn off the water before working on pipes? Water pressure accomplished the remaining part removal task for me. The remaining pieces shot out of the pipe and sprayed in a jumble at the other end of the tub. The water, hot water, sprayed out as well and continued to spray at a surprisingly high pressure. I was, ahem, mildly perplexed at this development and began to, ahem, calmly and quietly search for a solution. Okay, I was shocked speechless (quite rare for me) and went through several iterations of fruitless knob-turning and wet sock-dancing before hollering for help. My son was in another part of the house and later remarked on the long lag time between the report of hardware on porcelain accompanied by the sound of rushing water and my eventual calls for help. That there was not the immediate vocal response to minor calamities, to which my family has long grown accustomed to hearing from me, made him think that perhaps dear old dad had packed off to the happy hunting grounds. Don't start counting your meager inheritance so fast, #2.

Once I got the water turned off, I attempted to assemble the handle parts. There was a lot of them. I had no clue. So, I went to the other shower, carefully unscrewed its handle apparatus, and learned a little bit more about plumbing.

I thought I had it figured out, screwed everything back in place in the second shower, screwed everything back in place in the guest bath, and confidently sauntered out to turn the water back on. Upon my return to the guest bath, the water was no longer spraying out of the pipe in the wall of the shower, but was running out of the faucet. I went through several iterations of knob-turning--less frantic and not accompanied by wet sock-dancing, but no more fruitful than the previous knob-turning episode. I scampered (sauntering was not in order at this juncture) back out to turn the water off, and went back to the shower that was not misbehaving to try to figure out the difference. I took the handle apparatus apart again, and peering into the pipe, noticed that there was a tiny washer (that I didn't have in the misbehaving shower) covering the small spring (that I DID have in the misbehaving shower). "Surely that tiny washer isn't what prevents the water from running," I remarked to self. Self answered, "It's gotta be, you knucklehead. It's the only thing that's different. The one you're missing probably got washed down the drain during your idiotic wet-sock, knob-turning dance. And stop calling me Shirley."

A trip to a not-so local hardware store (Grenada is one of those small country towns that still roll up the sidewalks at 5 PM and over the weekends) was required to acquire the necessary replacement parts. I am proud to report that both broken handles have been replaced and the water behaves as it should in both of #2's bathrooms.

Next trip up, I'll tackle number 4 on his list: Re-wire outside lights. How hard can that be?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Timing is Everything

I served for the better part of three decades as an infantryman. With all of the combat the Marine Corps saw in those years, I never set foot in a combat zone. I had as many operational assignments as any one else. I volunteered for the infantry, and like most Marine infantry officers, fought to get back to infantry assignments whenever I was assigned elsewhere. At the end of my four years of obligated service I considered leaving the Marine Corps for the civilian sector. One of my buddies opined at the time that if I got out I would be sitting at home some day watching him and my other buddies on TV, running across the sand of a combat zone; and I would be sorry I wasn't with them. He was right, and I stayed in.

As my career progressed, my buddies began referring to me as "The Peacemaker." Anytime I checked into an operational unit, peace would reign world-wide. Nearly every time I left an operational unit, headed for a school or some other assignment, that unit would go to war, or some facsimile thereof. Those unfamiliar with the way of the warrior could remark that I led a charmed life. That's not how I viewed it at the time.

I spent four straight years in infantry battalions and expeditionary units when I was a lieutenant. The most combat I saw was the obligatory end-of-liberty call brawl in some port city whose gendarmerie looked forward to cracking the heads of a few unruly Americans. The month after I left for an instructor assignment in January of 1983, my previous unit left its liberty call station in the Pacific, steamed through the Suez Canal, and joined the fray in Lebanon.

Four years later I returned to Camp Lejeune and took command of an infantry company in a battalion that was in the Mediterranean deployment cycle. We trained hard, made two uneventful 6-month deployments and I left for recruiting duty after 3 of the fastest and most fun years of my career. Three weeks after I took command of a recruiting outfit in Georgia, Saddam did the stupid. My old unit, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, was featured on a news special that December as they prepared to leave Camp Lejeune for Saudi Arabia. A few months later I watched a day-old C-Span tape of my battalion as it got ready for its assault of an objective on the outskirts of Kuwait City. I watched as the guy who had succeeded me as Operations Officer issued an attack order to the company commanders--all friends of mine. I had stayed in the Corps and my lieutenant buddy's prophecy had still come true.

I later commanded an infantry battalion through one of the most operationally quiet times in my Corps' history. I left 3rd Marines to go to the Naval War College and then got my follow-on assignment to serve as the Current Operations officer for US Forces Korea. I was in school there in Newport with several of my long-time buddies, and they reprised my "Peacemaker" moniker when, a scant three months before I was to leave for my assignment on the Powder Keg Peninsula, a smiling peace summit between the leaders of North and South Korea was broadcast. The most tense time I experienced during my subsequent tour in Seoul was a snowstorm. I even had a face to face experience with the enemy, but that is grist for another post.

In June of 2001, I assumed command of the Sixth Marine Corps District, essentially a recruiting regiment, responsible for officer and enlisted accessions in the Southeast. Not a full three months later, my nation was at war. I had tried to get out of my recruiting assignment to join the fight in 1990, without success. You only get out of a recruiting assignment early by getting fired--regardless if you are the world's foremost operational expert (as I tried to portray myself at the time). So, stuck on recruiting while the war on terror heated up, I could only watch in frustration as the majority of my Marine Corps slung packs on their shoulders and headed off to fight, without me, again.

One of my oldest and dearest friends served for nearly thirty-five years as a Marine, rising from the enlisted ranks to the rank of lieutenant colonel at his "retirement" two years ago. His heart wasn't in the civilian world, and when the Marine Corps started asking for retired officers to volunteer to come back on active duty, he signed up. He is in Iraq.

Dang it, Scott. I better not see you on TV.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Say hello to my leetle friend.

He didn't stay long. The first one to stop here each spring only stays long enough to tank up. After two or three days of rest and refueling, the first hummingbird of the year disappears as suddenly as it appears, headed further north. Last year, the first ruby-throated hummingbird arrived at the feeder in my backyard on the 15th of March. This year it was the 17th. Last year the first bird was an immature male; this year a mature male. Same bird? No way of knowing, but I like to think so. If last year is any indication, I won't see any more hummingbirds for several more weeks.

That first bird is the leader of a migration no less amazing than any on earth. The tiny feathered helicopters that show up here in the middle of the Florida panhandle have probably flown non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula. Living for several years, a hummingbird will return to the same backyard feeders spring after spring and then return to a patch of jungle in Central or South America to spend the winter.

Wonder if the resident Yucatan tucans call the winter whizzers "snow birds."

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Culloden's Descent

Yesterday was a good day at my house, and there was no binge drunk salute to a long-dead Irish monk. In fact, I studiously avoided doing, saying or watching anything connected with the traditional March 17th lunacy. I didn't wear green, although its a favorite color of mine. In years past I have participated on the fringes of this day, but not this year.

I'm from Celtic stock, but my ancestors wore highland tartan; and while they drank to celebrate, they didn't celebrate drunkedness.

I once spent a year's free time tracing the grain of my family tree from it's present leafy new growth, back to it's roots in Scotland. Thanks to folks who spent a lot more time researching the family line that I did, I have been able to trace it back to a story of two young brothers, who, shanghaied in Glasgow, jumped ship in Boston in the 1680s. For reasons unknown, but I believe have to do with the fact that the ruling Scottish clan Campbell had "outlawed" clan MacGregor, they changed last names to that of their (possibly) subclan Gregory and started new lives in the new world. Admittedly the ties to my line at that point are a bit tenuous, but I like the tale's timber and I'm sticking with it.

The ties are much clearer to one Thomas B. Gregory (interesting how a name continues to resurface generation after generation in some families), born 1730 in Chatham County, NC and died 1818 in Smith County, TN. His descendents who form my lineage spread across the northern hills of Alabama and Mississippi, and my namesake, greatgrandfather, and Methodist preacher Thomas Edwin Gregory died in Pontotoc, MS, 6 years before my appearance on the scene.

Yesterday was a good day at my house, because my grandson, Caleb Thomas Gregory, the latest in the Gregory line, came for a visit.

Friday, March 17, 2006

"Chaplain, I want a weather prayer."

Lest anyone think that my post yesterday reflected any desire on my part for world-wide conflagaration, or even a lightly armed territorial squabble, I wish to make clear that I sincerely hope that peace will be given a chance for the remainder of my lifetime, as well as the remainder of the lifetime of my grandson. I will admit, as my longest-lived infantry comrades will attest, that as a youngster I itched for a fight to the point that my face could be found in the group picture next to the dictionary definition of warmongers. Not sure I could have done my job correctly (that of preparing combat teams to take the fight to our nation's enemies) if I didn't have a tendency to, as we aggressive ground-pounders put it, "lean into the fire." I like to think, not without a modicum of chagrin, that a gracious and wise Father God kept me out of combat for the reason, among others, that I might actually have been way too good at orchestrating destruction and killing. That sounds terribly, horribly, un-Christian; but there it is.

When your children start having children, however, a transformation takes place in your world view. No, I'm not changing into a liberal--that would require loss of a great deal of grey matter from the confines of my brain housing group. Having a grandchild is like getting a tranquilizer shot. The world's light (what little there is these days) has taken on a different shade with the entry of my son's son on to the stage. My wife says I'm just mellowing with age, but that is not something I want to admit to. Instead, I'm more content to give the credit to my grandson.

But, I am, if nothing else, a realist. My lifelong study of the history of man would not allow me to be anything else. Man may discover new technology and harness new resources to build new machines and edifices, but the nature that God sent with him from the garden will never change. Man may talk in ever loftier terms of the responsibility of men to live in peace with their fellow men, but even the most dedicated and disciplined peacenik has a point beyond which, when pushed, he will react with violence. Even my Lord used force to throw the money changers from the temple.

As an instrument of my nation's "politics by other means," I strived, without complete success I will admit, to be apolitical. My job was to salute smartly, shoot straight, and suffer silently. I was not allowed a public political stance, although I will admit, again, that my private political stance became a little more publicly viewable when my nation's leadership was acting according to my own jingoistic and imperialistic notions of the American place in world affairs.

I have said all of the above to say this: While we are all praying earnestly for peace, let's not forget to pray earnestly for the marksmanship of our defenders of that peace.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"Sergeant Major, where's my Farsi phrase book?"

I don't have a crystal ball. But you don't need one, if you are a student of government and history, to see what is coming. The signs are everywhere. The miscalculations on both sides are stacking up in front of them until, soon, the antagonists will not be able to see over them for a clear look at the other. There's gonna be a war with Iran.

This thing is starting to take on the look of inevitability that the last two father/son outings on the shores of the Persian Gulf did in 1990 and 2002. Those who study these things, knew we were going to war the morning we saw Iraqi helicopters in the skies over Kuwait on CNN. We in the battle business, watching the World Trade Center towers fall over and over that night on CNN, had no doubt that business was going to be brisk soon; not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, and probably Syria and Iran, before it was all over. And it is a long, long way from being matter who controls the American government over the next half century.

While I'm at it, I'll hang my reputation for predictive accuracy a little further out on the limb. The coming donnybrook with Iran will not be the "drive-by" variety that the last two anti-Saddam campaigns were. Whereas Saddam possessed a third-rate military commanded by trustworthy idiots who were forbidden to communicate with each other (they weren't trustworthy enough to keep Saddam from worrying about a coup), the Iranian Mullahs have a second-rate force, a uniting theology (critical; ours is democracy, theirs is theocracy), and (here comes that geography thing again) geographically strategic position. Iran will not allow us to mass an invasion force in the vicinity for six unmolested months prior to receiving our untoward attentions, as Saddam the Stupid did...TWICE. The Iranian navy and air force is quite capable of contesting us for control of the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea in proximity of their shores. Said contest will be relatively short-lived, but very bloody on both sides. The Iranian ground forces will not melt away as quickly as the regular Iraqi army did. Most of the resistance our forces encountered on the ride to Baghdad three years ago were fanatical Baathist irregulars. Nearly the entire Iranian military is steeped in the tradition of suicidal, human-wave tactics (see for reference their tactics against Iraq 1980-88), the likes of which American forces have not faced since our mid-twentieth century expeditions on the Asian continent and adjacent islands--when you think Iran, think Japan 1941-45, N. Korea (and China) 1950-53, and N. Vietnam 1965-1973.

My educated guess is that my beloved Marine Corps will get to do something they have not done since Inchon in 1950--a real live, large-scale, amphibious assault on a defended coastline. This will be necessary--despite the protestations of my Air Force friends that they can win it all from the air. I was held captive at the mecca of air power zealotry for three years (Marine rep at the Air Command and Staff College) and easily exposed their strategic attack arguments for the "pie in the sky" theorizing that it was--and if this knuckle-head, Ole Miss-educated Marine can figure out the bankruptcy of your ideas, they ain't good ideas. I'm not saying that the zoomies won't make a vital contribution--American airpower is indispensable to our way of warfighting. But my friends in light blue never could explain to me how they could seize the port facilities necessary to introduce the ground forces needed to place the requisite boot heel on the neck of the enemy.

Oh, we'll play "bust the buried bunker" for a while with our latest air delivered deep penetrating high explosive toys. But then my dirty, sweaty, rifle-lugging kind will have to go in and root the hold-outs from the rubble. If you think that we can just bomb the Iranian nuke facilities for a few days and be satisfied, you are sadly mistaken, and sorely misunderestimating (that's a word, my president says so) the Iranian reaction. The ayatollahs are going to react very badly to our attempt at setting back their jihadic timetable for establishment of their long-sought (a least 1200 years and counting) theocratic domination of the world. They won't just shrug their shoulders and go back to suppressing Persian freedom--they will lash out. Their current mullah-puppet and former American hostage-taking president fervently believes in a Koranic prophecy of a cataclysmic, world-ending Islam v. Infidel conflict (Our president, and I, believe in something similar. But, we don't think man can bring on the final battle, like Amindejawhateverhisnameis believes). He will likely go down in history as one of a long line of lunatics whose fanatic megalomania threatened, and often succeeded, to plunge the known world into conflict pandemic--Nebuchanezar, Alexander, Suleman, Wilhelm, Hitler, Johnson..., et. al.

Better get my boots back in shape. I'm not too old to get called back to active duty and I think this is gonna be a biggun.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mouse Trap

Took a quick business trip to Orlando, yesterday. Mickeyville always raises my blood pressure. I hate the way the place treats everyone like we are all eight years old. I hate the parks and their interminable lines. I hate fighting the traffic, made all the worse by yankee tourists in rental cars. I hate the kitschy architecture; developers trying for all the world to make Central Florida look like Southern California.

I was born in Orlando, but my family luckily moved on before the Disney invasion. My parents have occasionally mentioned that they would like to move back to Central Florida and I have been quick; perhaps too dream-killing quick; to snap that nothing remains of the orange grove-robed and lake-speckled jewel that they remember. The soothing groves of citrus have given way to seething droves of citizenry drawn to the place not by its former natural beauty but by its cosmetic enhanced promise of ecstasy; like so many johns to a streetwalker.

There is bright-eyed rumoring in my current adopted hometown of the possibility of theme park invasions here. Good for Panama City. If it comes, I'm gone. I'll shake the sand of this place off my white walkers and head for the hills of North Mississippi where I belong. That's the last place anyone would want to build a tourist attraction.

They probably said that about Orlando fifty years ago.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Raise, Don't Lower, the Standards.

A story on a newspaper's website caught my attention this morning, and made me catch my breath. The context for the story is the difficulty of the military's recruiting battle in the midst of the war on terror and facing a shrinking demographic pool from which to recruit. The not-so-subtle subtext in the story is the contention that the US military's standards are too high--non-high school grads, ritalin-takers, tattoo canvasses, drug-users, and criminals need not apply. Maybe I am way too sensitive on this subject, but I can almost smell the reporter's belief that the aforementioned disqualifications would actually make for good cannon-fodder in our long-war against islamo-fascism. To which I would reply for our nation and its military: "Been there, done that, didn't work so well."

At the height of the Vietnam campaign in the War with the Soviet Union, a Defense Secretary, whose qualification for the job was that he had presided over the building of planned-obsolescent automobiles in Detroit, decided it would be just a great idea to lower minimum mental requirements, and other standards, to fill the ranks of the military; under the guise of giving a "hand up" to those less fortunate in our society. The plan failed miserably. The quality and capability of the US military plummeted--a nose dive from which it took nearly two decades to pull out.

There was nothing wrong with the patriotism of those who served at the time--they just weren't smart enough to be soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines. If you laughed out loud at that point, you obviously have never served in the military and never been required to plan and execute even the smallest scale military mission, the normal technological complexity and human resource management requirements for which would daunt any production floor manager at any auto plant. Being a soldier, and leading other soldiers, is not only physically demanding; it is one of the most mentally demanding activities in which man engages.

I always believed, much to the dismay of the recruiters who worked for me, and to the chagrin of my superiors, that our recruiting standards were way too low. I believe that the smarter a man or women is, the better soldier he or she makes--no matter whether that soldier's finger rests on the launch controls of a Patriot missile or a 5.56 round. So, I say, "Raise the standards!"

Don't tell me that the highest quality people in our society won't join the military--that insults my intelligence and their patriotism.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Isthmian Inkling

When the Colonel was 14, his Air Force NCO dad got his second most significant set of orders, as far as the impact on the Colonel's life was concerned.

The first most significant was in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam for a long and family-stressing year, during which the Colonel attended the fifth grade in Columbus, Mississippi and got his first real lesson in the lunacy of racial segregation. But that is grist for another post.

In January of 1970 the Colonel's family flew to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone. 

That month the Colonel started in the second eighth grade class and third junior high he attended, but his school-hopping days were finally over. The result of the Colonel's previous 9 years of itinerant education, during which he landed briefly on 11 different schools like a confused honey bee visiting different varieties of flowers and returning to the hive with an unusable mixture of pollen clinging to its legs, was a polyglot of disconnected learning, disparate educational philosophies, and classmates known too briefly to be classified as friends. At Balboa High School in the Panama Canal Zone the Colonel got a real education from a first class high school, at which he miraculously stayed for his entire high school career.

We stepped off the plane that early January afternoon into 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity -- a warm, moist embrace that wrapped the Colonel and held him for nearly 5 more years.

The Panama Canal Zone was a slice of time-warped America straddling Teddy Roosevelt's crowning achievement and dividing a banana republic situated on an isthmus stolen from Columbia in a relatively bloodless American sanctioned revolution. Teddy took what he wanted, and he wanted an American canal. 

By the time the Colonel got there the Panama Canal Zone was at its zenith. Governed by a US Army general appointed by the US President and ruled by a strict set of regulations called the Canal Zone Code, the Canal Zone was a country club-manicured, and nearly crime-free American oasis in a turbulent and poverty-stricken region. The Zone's permanent residents, American employees of the Panama Canal Company referred to by themselves and others as "Zonians," were proudly American, but undeniably influenced by the Panamanian culture surrounding them. They ran the canal and tolerated the large US military presence that brought a steady stream of temporary residents to their idyllic haven.

Little wonder that the Colonel's Panama experience became such a significant influence on him. It was a wonderful place for a teenage boy -- swimming weather year round, unspoiled beaches, lakes and bays full of fish, and rain forest (we called it jungle) to explore. 

In Panama, the Colonel found a scout troop and made Eagle. 

In Panama, the Colonel discovered a passion (won't call it talent) for writing and was published for the first time, in the high shool literary journal, "Isthmian Inklings." 

In Panama, the Colonel found a group of guys with budding patriotism in their hearts and made plans for military careers that many executed well beyond their wildest dreams. 

In Panama, the Colonel found a girl who became his best friend, later wife, and now the joy of his life. 

In Panama, the Colonel found faith in a gracious God whose faithfulness, mercy, and provision never ceases to amaze him.

The most idiotic American President of the twentieth century (he will go un-named, but his initials are James Earl Carter), in a fit of never-rewarded international do-good-ism, gave the Canal Zone "back" to Panama (actually, Nixon started the process, but we won't go there). 

If you want to be technically legal about it, we should have given the Isthmus of Panama (and the Canal) back to Columbia, from whom we took it at the beginning of the century. 

The Canal, one of the technological marvels of the twentieth century (and even the present century), still runs -- Panama had the good sense to keep on many of the Zonians who had the expertise to run it, until they could train their own. But the zone itself, its American affluence once starkly contrasting against the poverty of Panama on either side, has largely fallen into neglect; a line no longer sharply demonstrating the wealth and power of the American Empire.

Just as well. The Canal Zone of the Colonel's youth is brought to his mind every time he looks into his high school sweetheart's eyes.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Show Me the Money!

A recent e-mail discussion with a college buddy and fellow Marine dredged up some feelings that I am surprised to still be harboring. He retired from the Marine Corps a year after I did and we have shared e-mails and phone calls for the past year regarding our separate and mutual business ventures. I must admit that he seems to have embraced the capitalist spirit with much more gusto than have I.

This "for profit" stuff is still a bit disconcerting to me, even after 2 and 1/2 years as a "money-grubbing civilian." For three decades I paid scant attention to my compensation, and when I did, my feeling was that I was being overpaid for something that was my duty and that I loved doing. I can honestly say that I didn't sign up for the pay check.

During my brief foray into the business world, I have been amazed that someone will pay me so much money for my ideas and some simple decision-making! I almost feel guilty taking their money...almost.

After spending most of my adult life defending the Republic, and the capitalism for which it stands, I find that I'm not a very good capitalist...yet.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's the Geography, Stupid!

A high school geography teacher in Colorado, and the student who taped his anti-Bush rant in class, are getting their "15 minutes of fame" this week. Of course, the whole issue is much ado about nothing, but politicians and the media (liberal and conservative) have seized on the issue as a platform for bellowing their position at the other end of the political spectrum. What is somewhat hidden in all of the hoopla is the fact that American schools are woefully derelict in their responsibility to actually TEACH the BASICS. I have no problem with an elective course, descriptively titled, challenging students to examine issues critically and then to make up their own minds on where they stand on those issues. The problem I have is that you can't participate in a course like that unless you have an educational foundation in the BASICS. Case (somewhat) in point: My daughter's fourth grade class spent the better part of a week studying China and its peoples' writing, food, clothing, and love of the Panda. At the end of the week, she, and the rest of her classmates, could not point to China on a world map.

I have always believed the refrain, "Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it." To which I would add the corollary, "Those who do not understand geography cannot understand history."

The geography of a place; its location, resources, physical features, and climate, is often the most significant factor in the history of the people who live in that place. Would the British colonies in the New World have developed into the current world's superpower if they had been scattered across the islands of the Caribbean instead of along the edge of one of the most challengingly diverse and resource rich continents on the planet? Arguably, had western Europeans not supplanted the existing native populations in North and South America, those people would have eventually developed technologically to the point that they could have harnessed the full power inherent in the resources of the land. The "Native Americans" were a very adaptive and intelligent people--they took horses brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500's and developed a "horse culture" that rivaled Old World horse cultures that had existed for millennia; and they took firearms and gave the expansionist former British colonists fits for nearly a century (just ask Custer how effectively they used that technology). The Maya, Inca, and Aztec in what is now called "Latin America" were even more advanced than their northern cousins, with architecture and culture in some cases more advanced than that of the European nations from whom the conquistadors and their ilk came. And, contrary to "pop culture history," Anglo-American cavalry and cowboys did not "kill all the Indians"--smallpox did most of the dirty work. Smallpox so decimated the Native American populations that they did not have the numbers to resist the Anglo tide sweeping west, and smallpox was so horribly effective because the GEOGRAPHICAL isolation of the New World had prevented development of immunities from this Old World disease. See? Geography is the key!

I could go on and on, as my family will attest. They have long ago learned not to ask any question of me that could possibly give me the excuse to lecture (for the minimum required 30 minutes) on the geographical and historical background necessary to understand the answer.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Don't Tread on Me

This week the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on a case brought by a collection of law schools challenging a 1996 act of congress that denied federal funds to any school that denied access to military recruiters. That this case made it all the way to John Roberts and crew is amazing on several different levels. The law schools' argument was that the law forced them, in effect, to associate with someone (in this case, military recruiters conducting the business of the nation on a law school campus) whose views (in this case, DoD's prohibition on homosexual conduct) were repugnant to them. Any normal American (defined in this case as the majority population in "red" states and the minority population in "blue" states) could see the fallacious nature of this argument without the benefit of a law degree or even the benefit of having watched Perry Mason once. I am forced daily to associate with punks, rascals, scoundrels, thieves, reprobates, and other assorted low-lifes (all in a quick trip to Wal-Mart) and I don't believe I have a legal claim to a First Amendment right to require one half of the population of my fair city to get out.

In fact, this farcical suit exposes the litigants for the Home of the Brave-hating hypocrites that they are. They wallow in the rights of this free land and yet refuse to accept the price of its protection. The present ruling generation (of which I am, sadly, a member) has forgotten (maybe never learned in the first place) that "Freedom isn't free."

I am touchy on this subject in general because I served with, and am related to, great Americans who sacrificed comfort and compensation to protect the freedoms most Americans take for granted. I am touchy on this subject in particular because I served for a fifth of my Marine Corps career as a recruiter and saw first hand the lack of a sense of civic and national duty that is prevalent in our society. We have what we euphemistically call an "All Volunteer Force" when, in fact, the vast majority of those who join today's guardians of freedom, do so only after being contacted by a recruiter and sold on the benefits of a vocation for which the idea of pursuing had never previously entered their minds. I'm not knocking the young men and women of our nation here--when finally taught that freedom has a price and presented the call to serve, they do so admirably. I am indicting their parents and influencers (teachers, coaches, and counselors)--my generation--that grew up in the most affluent period in our nation's history and refuse to accept (or teach our children) that service before self is a primary virtue.

And another thing, while the spirit moves me... When the rest of our nation went through a paroxysm of flag-flying, skin-deep patriotism post 9-11, the true life-long patriots looked on with a mixture of wonder and scorn. Where was your flag on 9-10? Where is your flag, now? I will tell you that mine stayed reverently folded in my pack, where it had been for more than two decades, ready to be raised over a captured enemy citadel. It is still reverently folded and lying in a position of honor on my desk. True American patriots don't fly the flag like a banner on the way to a football game--it is way too dear of a symbol for that.

Okay. I'll take a deep breath now, and let the coffee push the curmudgeon back into his hole.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Snoopy's Sub-Orbital Flight

Another February is gone, its page on my calendar flipped unceremoniously, yet thankfully, to reveal one of my favorite months of the year. March may not be such a special month to those of you unfortunates who reside (won't call it "living") in the arctic reaches (anywhere north of Memphis), but for those of us who live in the most blessed portion of these Re-United States, it is a month welcomed with smiling sun-turned faces and happy winter coat-shedding shoulder shrugs. While Spring begins officially in March for everyone, it begins in truth in the South. March brings blooms to forsythia, dogwood, and redbud, and everybody knows that "when the forsythia are bloomin', the crappie are bitin'!"

This month brings back childhood memories of kite-flying. I still remember the first "store-bought" kite I ever had--I think I was 12 or 13. It was acrobatic--its crackling plastic swept-back wings made me feel like I had a fighter plane on a leash. It was so light and aero-dynamic that it would leap from your hand into flight with the slightest breeze. But, as special as buying and flying that marvel by myself was, there was something missing in the experience. Up until that point, every March meant saving the Sunday paper funny pages with which to cover homemade kites the way my daddy had done when he was a kid, and the way he did for my brother and me the first time we ever experienced the wonder of sailing a kite on a warm, windy afternoon.

After a few years of flying small diamond-shaped kites stabilized with rag-strip tails and tethered to us with a few hundred feet of string, Dad decided we were big enough to handle the "manly-man's kite" and he built us a box kite. On a three-dimensional two foot long frame, a box kite's sail surface was four-sided at either end. This produced a dramatic increase in lift compared to the one dimensional kites we had flown. Dad attached the box kite to one of his fishing poles, the reel for which was spooled with several hundred yards of line, and set the drag at its lightest limit. It took both my brother and I running full tilt into the wind to get the behemoth airborne, but once it "slipped the surly bonds of earth" the box kite literally streaked into the sky. The line screamed off the fishing reel and the kite rapidly diminished in apparent size as the March wind drove it upward toward the clouds.

Brother and I stood transfixed and alternately gawked skyward and grinned back at Dad as the kite soared. At the grin point in each slack-jawed gawk and grin sequence, however, I detected a slight change in the look on Dad's face. He was going through his own attention-shifting sequence, grinning at us and then checking the rapidly diminishing line thickness on the level-wind reel at his hands. Dad's look began to take on a hint of concern as he attempted to check the racing line by tightening the reel's drag. Line continued to scream off the reel. Brother and I continued our gawk and grin routine. The box kite was approaching escape velocity at down-range altitude sufficient to turn it into a mere colorful speck.

"Uh, oh. There she goes.", Dad said flatly. Just as I began to try to figure out where Mom was going, the last of the line left the reel and a loud snap announced another Confederate loss. The gawk and grin sequence devolved into an expanding-interval shock and question sequence, the shock portion of which was accompanied by quivering bottom lips caving-in under protruding buck teeth (regular torture sessions at the orthodontist were still underway).

Somewhere east of England Air Force Base, outside of Alexandria, LA, a homemade box kite, bearing the previous Sunday's Charles Shultz creation, crashed to earth--that is if it didn't burn up on re-entry.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Ace Low

On the tenth of May, 1972, in the skies over North Vietnam, a Navy fighter pilot and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in a two seat F-4J Phantom became the first ace of the Vietnam War. They had two previous kills, and on this memorable day, they quickly downed two communist MiGs and then engaged in one of the most studied dogfights in aerial combat history with one of North Vietnam's most experienced fighter pilots. After a seesaw aerial ballet which pitted the brute force F-4 Phantom against the nimble MiG-17 Fresco in a series of head-on and climbing engagements, the Americans finally got the advantage and made their fifth kill with a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile at close range. The enemy pilot had the advantage at several points in the fight, but the American pilot refused to follow the safe route and disengage to fight another day. He pushed the envelope, hung it out, and finally prevailed. On their way out of enemy skies, their aircraft was hit by a surface to air missile and they were forced to eject from their fatally crippled ride over the coastal waters of North Vietnam. Plucked from the shark and enemy patrol boat-infested waters by a rescue helicopter, Randy "Duke" Cunningham and his shipmate Willie Driscol became two of the most celebrated and decorated flyers of the war, and went on to train hundreds of other fighter pilots at the Navy's Top Gun school.

Yesterday, former congressman Randy Cunningham was sentenced to 8 years and 4 months in a Federal penitentary as punishment for his conviction on bribery charges. The immediate reaction that most of us have when we see something like this take place in the life of a former hero is to wonder where and why they changed. But Cunningham didn't "change." He lived the rest of his life like he fought enemy fighter pilots--over the edge, pushing the envelope.

The character "strength" that made him an ace was the character "flaw" that made him a felon.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Checklists and Caffeine

Shortly after I left active duty, my son and his boss asked me to come help them with organizing the operations of their fast-growing construction supply business. I started out part-time at first--I had a lot of hunting and fishing to catch up on. As time went by, I spent more and more time and eventually became the full-time operations manager.

From long training in the Marine Corps, I had learned that the first one to arrive on the battlefield had the advantage. This advantage applies whether the battlefield is an actual fight or a business venture. Getting in to work before everyone else allowed me to be organized and ready to get everyone else organized and ready. I also found, as I got more senior in rank, that my subordinates drew a certain degree of comfort from my predictability, and from the fact that I was ready with a plan for the day when they arrived.

Of course, the first to arrive at the office also had the responsibility for making the coffee. I am a prodigious consumer of coffee. If caffeine is ever out-lawed, I'm changing my name to Jesse James. I took great pleasure in having that first bitter taste of the bean, at my desk, in the quiet before the arrival of the rest of the gang.

Besides making the coffee, my more visible duties as operations manager were generally to issue orders for the day's and week's deliveries and installation jobs, and then record all of the activities accomplished at the end of the day in a series of reports. Although there was a lot to do, my routine and the relative simplicity of the tasks, made it look fairly easy. I also made checklists for everyone else to help keep them on task.

When I left that job last year, the guys presented me with a coffee mug. They told me that, through close observation, they had figured out my duties, and they pointed out the checklist printed on the side of the coffee mug.

1. Make the coffee.
2. Drink the coffee.
3. Tell people what to do.
4. Write it down.

That about sums it up.