Thursday, June 21, 2007

History is Not Simple

It wasn't the answer he was looking for, but his simple question didn't have simple one line answer.

We were just strapping in for a flight from Charlotte to Memphis and my seatmate started making small talk. He asked what I did for a living and when he discovered that I was a retired Marine, asked, "How do you think the war in Iraq will end?"

Again, he asked the question. I was just sitting there minding my own business. I took a deep breath and started with, "First of all, the military/political activities in Iraq are just a campaign in an undeclared war with radical Islamic fundamentalists and the nations that are funding their terror tactics."

I went on, for the next 45 minutes, with a history lesson that started with Alexander the Great's conquest of the known world, traced the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, recounted the rise of Islam and it's high water mark in Europe a millennium ago, described the coalescence of nation states in Europe following the Treaty of Westphalia, tripped lightly through the trio of Western European tragedies--Franco-Prussian, First World, and Second World wars, the last of which vaulted America to Superpowerdom and enabled it's European allies (primarily Britain) to willy-nilly carve up the Middle East into states that "looked good on a map" but had not relation to political (read: tribal) realities on the ground, and finished with a crescendo of the rise of radical Islam made possible by the relaxation of the iron fist of Soviet totalitarianism.

To my surprise, the latest Gregory pupil in Seat 7B, remained attentive throughout, displaying none of the glazed-eyed fidgeting exhibited by the vast majority of those who have made the same historical interlocutory error.

He made yet another error with the question, "Why aren't there more war veterans in politics?"

For the next fifteen minutes, I detailed the history of military professionals (not to be confused with opportunists who "checked the box" with one enlistment to enhance their political portfolio) in American political life, beginning with Washington, Taylor, Jackson, and Grant, and ending with Eisenhower. I described each as "failures as presidents, or mediocre at best," to which he replied, "What about Teddy Roosevelt?"

"Aha!," I pounced, "Teddy was an opportunist, not a professional soldier. Teddy, Jr. was a professional soldier, though. Landed at Normandy as a Brigadier General--died of a heart attack a few days later. But TR was one of the few military-check-in-the-box opportunists whose ascendancy to penultimate political power actually resulted in greatness for himself and his country."

As we landed and taxied to the gate, I summed up. "Today's military professionals aren't going into politics. They are going into business, and corporate America's stodgy business school-trained elite had better take note. There are some real operational and strategic leaders coming to boot them out of their Lincoln Town Cars and corner offices."

Our FAA minder was telling us it was safe to unbuckle our seat belts and the gentleman in 7B had a final question, "I'm attending a convention here in Memphis. Where's the best place to get some good BBQ?"

Finally, a question with a simple answer. "Rendezvous!"

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Down South Dust Bowl

Have I mentioned that it has been dry here?

The southeast is enduring a drought of Biblical proportions this year, and it has been particularly dry here at the northern edge of southern nowhere (and I use that term with the deepest affection). The huge flood control reservoir just to the west of us has dropped to one of its lowest levels since it was impounded. The disputed body of water on my property (I call it my lake; Miss Brenda insists it's just a pond) has dropped nearly three feet in the past three months--and we are just now getting into the "dry" part of the summer.

We got some rain last night--first good soaking we have had in months. But, I'm afraid it will just be enough to make me have to cut the grass this week.

I think the thing that I regret most about the dry year is what it will do to duck hunting here this year. I know I should be more worried about the farmers' plight and the cost of food, but we're talking about a near holy enterprise here--duck hunting is a calling.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hebrews 12:11

Most of our classmates that summer 30 years ago were enjoying their break from studies on the beach or at Daddy's house at the lake, blissfully oblivious to anything but the warm sun and cool drinks in iced glasses. For 250 of us who had just completed our junior year at university, the sun that summer was a lot hotter and the strongest drink in our hands was warm water from a plastic canteen. Thirty years ago this week, we who were striving for commissions as Marine officers, converged from across the nation on an isolated camp in Northern Virginia to undergo a rite of passage, completion of which, combined with graduation from college the next spring, would guarantee that our sweethearts and parents would pin gold bars on the epaulets of our dress whites.

In 1977 the Marine officers and NCOs tasked with training the new generation were all Vietnam combat veterans. Their outlook on life and the boundaries of acceptable human behavior were, to put it mildly, a few degrees removed from the civilized mainstream. All of our NCOs, in addition to being combat vets, were also former Drill Instructors at the enlisted boot camps at San Diego and Parris Island. They were, in a word, skilled at inflicting misery without leaving marks.

And, as strange as it may sound, to a man, all of us officer candidates revelled in the abuse they dished out. We had listened to the tales told by upperclassmen about their experiences at Quantico, and had steeled our bodies and minds for the test. We prepared ourselves physically, running hundreds of miles and spending countless hours in calisthenics, knowing that the worst shame was reserved for those who couldn't keep up with the pack. As we worked out physically, we worked ourselves up mentally for the pain of a summer on the banks of Chopawamsic Creek. We were not disappointed.

I weighed a whopping 135 pounds when I arrived at Quantico that summer. When I left less than two months later, I had shed nearly 15 pounds--and there had been precious little fat to shed in the original sum. But, I could run like the wind, hike for tens of miles with 50 pounds on my back, and stand motionless for hours on parade. Most importantly, I had an appreciation for the initial training of the young Marines who would be expected to follow my lead without question and for whom I would have the literal control over life and death were I ever to lead them in combat.

Ten years later, when I was a captain, I ran into one of the psychopaths who had tortured me that summer. He was now a sergeant major. My first instinct was to avoid talking to him, but I steeled and introduced myself as one of his charges in the summer of '77. He shook my hand and smiled (something I had not seen him do once that summer). "Skipper," he growled in the way that only professional soldiers can speak convincingly, "good to see you are succeeding. As I remember, you were so small and skinny, I was worried that you might dry up and blow away."

"And I'm surprised that you haven't been brought up on war crimes charges, Sergeant Major."

We both chuckled and locked eyes. I stuck out my hand again, and said as sincerely as I could muster, "Thanks, Sergeant Major."

He smiled, then stiffened and saluted, before about-facing and marching away.

Best salute I ever got.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ode to a Berry

As I climbed out of bed this morning and was stumbling toward the kitchen for a shot of joe, Miss Brenda raised up on one elbow and asked, "Wanna go pick blackberries before it gets hot?"

This was an unusual request. Miss Brenda rarely makes a sound before eight A.M. and it was well before that hour.

But, there are a few things that will get my bride up and at 'em early in the morning. Blackberry picking is one, and lucky for the rest of the family and a few fortunate friends. One of the few culinary skills Miss Brenda learned from her country grandmother (and there are, sadly, many she didn't) was how to make blackberry jams and cobblers. There is nothing this side of heaven that tastes like Miss Brenda's blackberry jam on a hot buttered biscuit, and her blackberry cobbler with a scoop of ice cream is to die for.

So, as much as I had rather be doing something else, I will not jeopardize my first bite privileges by not participating in the preparatory phase.

Blackberry picking is not for sissies. The "rewards' for wading into a blackberry bramble include scratches, chigger bites, and possible encounters with those long slithery fellows with no shoulders.

It has been very dry here this Spring and the berries are small. But better small berries than no berries at all.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Keeping Them Flying High and Tight

They were my nameless heroes when I was kid. At least I never knew any of their individual names. As a team they were (and still are) known as the Thunderbirds. Their dangerously tight formation flying and acrobatics in high performance combat aircraft made several jets look like one machine. As an Air Force brat, I shared the dream with every other son of an Air Force man of some day flying wingtip to wingtip in a crowd-dazzling display of airmanship, and then afterwards glad-handing with the adoring audience in a crisp blue flight suit and white scarf.

This week I attended a client's government sales conference in Las Vegas, highlighted by a trip out to Nellis Air Force Base and the home, hangar, and headquarters of the US Air Force Thunderbirds. The best part of the whole trip was that we didn't talk to one officer or pilot. The NCOs and young enlisted men working on the jets were just magnificent. As an old corps Marine, I was impressed to the point of jealousy at how squared away these airmen were, right down to the military creases in their coveralls and spit-shined boots. This is not just a show-place, either. Those kids had the jets apart and were doing the knuckle-busting maintenance critical to keeping old aircraft (surprising to call an F-16 "old," but they are older than the men maintaining them) flying.

I handed out a few of business cards and told these guys that when they left the Air Force to give me a call and I'd find a place for them on my team.

The be-scarved pilots aren't my heroes any more. Those kids with their arms up to their shoulders in the guts of a jet are my heroes now.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Change-up Pitch

Number 2 son and I took in an Ole Miss baseball game last night in Oxford. Ole Miss is hosting one of the 16 NCAA Div I Regionals in our ballpark, and we watched the Rebels down the Sam Houston State Bearkats 14--5. The game was sold out. In fact, the stadium only seats 4700 or so and there was an announced crowd of over 7000 there. We sat on a hill behind third base.

I couldn't help but marvel at the difference 30 years makes. When I was simulating the act of getting a college education (I always say, "I didn't go to college--I went to Ole Miss") in Oxford in the late seventies, college baseball was not a big thing. Our team played on a field that shared the outfield with the football team's practice field. There were intramural softball fields on campus that were in better shape and had more seats in the stands. A game was lucky to have more spectators in the stands than players in the two dugouts.

Even more discombobulating to me is the location of the new ballpark. As I told #2 last night (he feigned interest--he has lots of practice at that), "when I was at Ole Miss...", the field where the baseball stadium sits today was an intramural field on which we NROTC midshipmen marched each Thursday and took out our pent up aggression (wearing a uniform on a college campus in the seventies built up a lot of repressed aggression) in very rough football games.

Lots of other major changes on the campus since I left in 1978--new buildings, new roads, new football stadium additions. The Grove, the oak-shaded park that is the geographic center and heart of Rebel Nation, is still intact. It looks smaller now; the rest of the campus has grown taller and crowded around it.

One thing else hasn't changed--Ole Miss is still home to the prettiest women on the planet. And, they still dress up to go to a ball game. Some good things never change.