Monday, December 29, 2008

Planning Planting

The past year is about to enter the Colonel's record books, having passed in the inevitably increasing rate years pass in direct correlation to the accumulation of personal orbits of ole Sol. The new year awaits at the end of the week and, if it weren't for the need to keep of track of the opening and closing dates of hunting seasons I would enter it without the plethora of calendars with which my life has heretofore been ordered. Since my re-retirement two months ago, I rarely wear a wrist watch and my cell phone stays off and at my convenience, not my annoyance.

These are the days for which I pined while at the long-distance sprint that was the first 30 years of my adult life. For the first time in my life, and for the rest of my life, my energies will not be spent on preparing for the next move or deployment. Instead of leaning forward in a given direction, I'm squatting and digging in--and loving it.

For the past several weeks, I've been rearranging the mega flora aboard Eegeebeegee. A half dozen tulip poplars that lined a ridge in a forgotten corner have been replanted in a new place of prominence alongside the drive leading up to the Big House. Three sycamores have been rescued from piney obscurity and placed where their saucer-sized leaves will shade the dock down on Lake Brenda. Later this week, two crepe myrtles will find themselves removed from under the back eaves of the house and replanted in Miss Brenda's burgeoning backyard gardens. By the time sap-stirring spring arrives, at least a dozen new fruit trees will have found a home on my range--fulfilling the retirement prophecy I made enough times to my comrades in arms that our reconnections are always attended by their questions about the size and variety of my orchards.

The year of my Lord, two thousand and nine, will undoubtedly have enormous political, economic, and military portent for our world. It will be a rough year for many. A new "decider" will be calling our republic's shots and I wish him luck--he's going to need it. For a change, this rider aboard the big blue marble's e-ticket ride 'round the sun will be watching from the cheap seats. I'll not be responding to any call to arms this year, either with shouldered rifle or rolled suitcase. I'll be responding to nature's cycles with shouldered shovel. Now that's change I can believe in.

Won't keep me from continuing my curmudgeonly commentary, though!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Washington's Legacy

"Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take any leave of all the employments of public life."

With that conclusion to his address to Congress on this day in 1783, George Washington placed an exclamation point on the concept of democratic freedom that had been the cause for which he and his army had fought for the better part of the previous decade. The American revolution against the king of England could very well have resulted in the installation of a king of America. There were many who would have supported Washington had he ridden his popularity into the halls of Congress and declared supremacy over that ineffective and unpopular body. There was ample historical precedent for just such an action, and precious little example in history of what Washington did instead. That he relinquished the power given him by Congress, at the conclusion of a peace treaty with Great Britain, is perhaps Washington's single most impactful action in his celebrated life, and established the American precedent of conquering heroes returning, not to seize national power, but to relinquish that power back to the people.

To be sure, there have been war-winning generals who subsequently became president--Washington himself, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower. But, they allowed the people to make that determination through the democratic mechanisms provided for in our Constitution. And they (Washington excluded, predating), having sworn as American soldiers to "support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..." were true to their word, even out of uniform.

Those who would water-down the power and mystique of our Constitution with liberal interpretations of its contents, making it an amorphous "living" document changeable to the whims of current societal norms, risk setting precedent that would expose our nation to the liberal interpretation of a popular American warrior whose personal ambition could drive him to seize power in order to defend the Constitution against domestic enemies.

There's a fine, popular line between freedom and tyranny. A strict interpretation of the United States' Constitution keeps that line bright and visible.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Chill

It's a bit chilly here this morning at the northern end of southern nowhere. The thermometer is reading in the low teens and the wind chill is lurking somewhere below like a snake under a rotted log--unseen, but dangerous. It's not the coldest morning the Colonel has ever experienced. That dubious distinction goes to the 20 below zero air that instantly froze the hairs in my snot locker the second I poked my snoot out of a tent in Minnesota.

It was late December of 1981 and I was wrapping up my last training exercise with the Marine infantry battalion to which I had been assigned three years previous as a newly minted second lieutenant. The Second Battalion, Second Marines (2/2) was preparing for an imminent deployment to North Norway to practice defending the northern flank of NATO against the godless communists, and I, based on attendance at a four week course in the mountains of California and a three month exercise in Norway the previous year on loan to another battalion, was 2/2's duty Arctic Warfare expert. It had been my task to build and execute a cold weather training syllabus for the nearly 1000 Marines and sailors of our battalion and the Marine Amphibious Unit headquarters to which our battalion landing team would be assigned. I wouldn't be going to Norway with them--I had orders to report to the Third Marine Division on Okinawa in February--but, I attacked my mission with all the sincerity I could muster.

On the frosty morning in question we had what we called a "round-robin" training event during which the subordinate elements of the battalion cycled through a half dozen different stations demonstrating Arctic survival and fighting methods. The station at which I spent the day was one where we demonstrated the rescue techniques, and subsequent first aid, for a Marine who had fallen through ice. We found a shallow pond, chopped a hole in the ice, and as each company showed up, asked for a volunteer to jump in the hole. As you might expect, there was no clamoring rush to volunteer. In fact, I never witnessed a clamoring rush to volunteer for anything--no matter how tantalizingly it was described--during my entire career as a Leatherneck. Marines have already volunteered once, and have learned their lesson.

Standing there on that frozen pond in the middle of Minnesota with wind chills in the obscene range was the coldest experience any of us ever had and bundled in every piece of issue clothing we could layer on we looked for all the world like dark green pillars of salt on the outskirts of Gomorrah. No one wanted to do anything but stand still, hunched against the wind and cocooned against the cold. So, I resorted to subterfuge. "Who wants to get into that sleeping bag over there on the bank?"

There would always be at least two who would fall for that ruse and mutter some expletive-spiced version of "I do" and that would be enough for me to accept them as volunteers. To one of those Marines I would give the order, "Strip and get in that bag." Once he had complied and indicated, to much catcalling from the rest, that it was warm and comfy in the sleeping bag, I would quietly tell the other Marine that the water in the hole was only three feet deep and that he would not be in the hole longer than about five seconds before I would yank him out. Then I would call him to attention, face him toward the hole, and command, "Forward, march!"

The moment the Marine stepped into the hole in the ice, I would shuck my mittens and dash, dive, slide out onto the ice and up to the wide-eyed Marine up to his chest in a hole in a pond in northern Minnesota on the coldest day of December. Several other Marines assisting me would link up behind me, and as I grabbed the dunkster by the arms, would pull all of us off the ice. I would then begin to furiously strip the wet Marine of his clothing and order him into the sleeping bag with its quite comfy and warm, and now wide-eyed, occupant. This was well before the days of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and I'll leave to your imagination the chorus of testosterone-induced expletive-spiced name-calling that ensued. To which the bag-mates invariably responded with their own expletive-spiced announcement of the relative temperature difference between their station and the rest's.

I believe it was during that long day of icy wet Marine stripping 27 years ago that I lost the sensation of touch in my fingers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Peace Talks

This week began with a blur of long truck rides on the rain slick Mississippi roads connecting my hilly corner of the northern end of southern nowhere with the flat featureless Delta. We were after ducks, but two trips to a slough running alongside a flooded soybean field proved that while there were a few puddlers around, the weather up north had not gotten cold enough to push the big migratory waves that fill a duck hunter's dreams south in search of warmer climes and open water. So we talked.

I was along at the invitation of someone who, up until two years ago, I had last seen in the late spring of 1978. He was, then, a teenager from a small group of youth at the little country church Miss Brenda and I had joined shortly after we married. And, although we weren't but a couple of years removed from their age group, Miss Brenda and I had volunteered to work as teachers with the church youth. During the next three decades my career in the Marine Corps took me to every continent on this big blue marble except Antarctica. My hunting partner had, among other things, driven a truck cross country and visited nearly every state and major city in these re-United States. As we shared experiences, it occurred to me that he had lived a more dangerous life than I had.

This morning, I lay awake in the early dawn listening to the local group of crows I've named the Caw Crew announce their latest discovery and I began to reflect on how God had directed my life. Some would say that I have lived a "charmed life." I know, however, that luck has nothing to do with the way my life went. He never prevented me from taking initiatives and making decisions that gave me the opportunity go in harm's way, but God always seemed to smooth out the rough road ahead of me. At the time, it was very, very frustrating. I was a trained leader of combat Marines and ALL I wanted was the opportunity to prove my mettle. God had a different plan.

I don't know why God has circled my life back around to this point and these people I last saw thirty years ago. I don't know why He allowed me to dedicated my heart, mind, and soul to the destruction of my nation's enemies and the leadership of men like-minded, and then ordered the events in my life in such a way that I never fired a shot in righteous anger or led men in a fight. By all rights, I shouldn't be here--I accepted the great possibility early on that the vocation I had chosen would likely mean that I would not live to be an old man. I don't know what God was/is thinking.

But, I'm listening, Lord. You have my attention.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday MOTOs, Vol. I; Ed. 5

It's time once again for an edition of the Colonel's Mastery of the Obvious (Monday MOTO) awards. There are several thousand other things I could be doing that would be much more productive and meaningful, but the Colonel has always had a flair for the unnecessary and meaningless--just ask any one who ever served with me. Actually, I believe that is an inherent disease the increasing symptoms of which directly correlate with increased rank. But, I digress...

The Colonel's Mastery of the Obvious Bronze Medal goes to "W" for correctly assessing that the object thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist was "a size 10 shoe." Unverified sources report to the Colonel that the President told his Secret Service detail immediately after that he was happy to be able to demonstrate to the world that "I still have my reflexes." Reached for comment at his Chicago Graft-in-Waiting HQ, "H" is reported to have remarked that he would have taken the wing-tips off of one of his Secret Service agents and given them to the now shoe-less Iraqi journalist.

The Colonel's Monday MOTO Silver Medal goes to the researchers at Princeton, presumably conducting their study with a sizable government grant, who have announced that "a sugar addiction can be similar to an addiction to illegal drugs, like cocaine and heroin." Ya think!?! The Colonel proved a long time ago that all food is addictive. Heck, my third cousin, Cletus, over in Bugtussle, did a scientific study years ago that proved just how addictive food is and how dangerous it is to try to break the addiction. He had a worthless coon hound that would lay around all day and then eat its weight in Purina every evening. Cletus decided to teach the hound to go without eating. He just about had him trained to do without food, but the worthless mongrel died on him. (Please address your hate mail to Cletus Sorrel, 114 Possum Tickle Road, Bugtussle, AR.)

The Colonel's Monday MOTO Gold Medal is awarded to Wall Street Robber Baron Bernard Madoff (most presciently pronounced, Made Off) who, as his two decade long, fifty billion dollar ponzi scheme collapsed, is reported to have told his sons "There's no money left in the fund." From the Colonel's not so lofty perch, my eagle eye reveals that there's no money left in ANY fund.

This is just too easy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hiroshima!, Hiroshima!, Hiroshima!

As the shattered remnants of Lee's assault on the Union positions at Gettysburg fell back across the fields toward Seminary Ridge, the Federal troops on Cemetery Ridge stood up from behind the stone wall and chanted, "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg!" Their commanders had learned a critical lesson--one that Lee had taught them less than seven months previous.

In December of 1862 the Army of the Potomac was moving south through Northern Virginia with the plan to seize the Confederate capital, Richmond. Union delays caused by failure to secure a crossing site on the Rappahannock River opposite the town of Fredericksburg allowed Lee to fortify Marye's heights above the river. When the Union forces finally did assault across the 600 yard wide plain leading up to the town, they were slaughtered by massed artillery and small arms fire from Confederate troops forces behind a stone wall. The carnage that claimed nearly 13,000 Union soldiers caused Lee to remark, "It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it." The date was December 13th, 1862--one hundred and forty-six years ago, today.

Inexplicably, Lee, at Gettysburg, replicated the Union mistake of attacking a fortified position with massed formations across an open field in what is remembered as Pickett's Charge. He had witnessed first hand, had inflicted personally, the decisive defeat the lesson from which was indelibly written into the Union psyche. And yet, Lee seemingly learned a different lesson from his successes in the first year of the war. He believed, as Napoleon had said, that "the moral is to the physical as three to one." In other words, Lee believed that the morale and fighting spirit of his men would overwhelm any defense.

Is there a lesson for our nation in this historical review? I think there is. Out of the carnage of the Second World War, American industry emerged the world leader. For twenty years our cars and consumer goods ruled the world. We believed it was because our stuff was better than the rest of the world's. It was, but only because the rest of the industrialized world was in ruins from strategic bombing and razing invasion. We belittled Japanese made goods--"Made in Japan" was a term of derision when I was a kid. Our automobile industry, in particular, believed that it would be unassailable for at least a half century post-war. They learned the wrong lessons from their dominance on the economic battlefield.

When Burnside, the Union commander at Fredericksburg, and the other incompetent generals that followed him in command were finally replaced by Grant, the Union Army internalized the hard-learned lessons of fighting Lee and the Confederates, and made the physical and philosophical adjustments necessary to overcome the initial martial advantage enjoyed by the Army of Northern Virginia. While Southern forces largely continued to fight with equipment and organizational structure with which they began the war, the Union Army and Navy embraced relatively radical improvements in armament and tactics and by 1864 had the premier fighting force not only on the North American continent, but indeed had no peer in the entire world. The American industrial experience is analogous to what transpired in the ranks of the Army of the Confederacy. The Rebel Army enjoyed the initial advantage of having the majority of the American Army's pre-war leadership on its side, owing to the military option being more attractive to men from an agrarian background than an industrial one. Succession left the Union Army leadership ranks decimated as initial Confederate battlefield victories showed. Southern leaders mistook those successes for some sort of inherent qualitative measure of Southern manhood over Yankee manhood. American car makers made the same mistake in judging their success in the post--WWII market. In reality, we were only better because we weren't starting from scratch like the rest of the world.

No bailout for the losers in Detroit--time for some Reconstruction up north.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pericles Principles

As disgusting and infuriating as the alleged misconduct of the governor of Illinois is, it is not the least bit surprising, nor should it be considered an isolated aberration.

Illinois governments, Chicago's prominent among them, as notoriously corrupt as they may be, are not, unfortunately, the most corrupt nor in the minority of governmental entities with regard to illegal and unethical behavior. Governments are human organizations endowed with enormous relative power. In representative democratic republics such as ours, and their subordinate political divisions, that power provides incredible temptations to those who, in positions of responsibility and decision, allow their better natures to be suborned by their greed and avarice. The only protection we the people, of and from whom our governments are derived, have is our discernment in the voting booth.

Ancient Athenian democracy, the earliest recorded experiment in government of the people, had a curious way of ensuring against any politician becoming too powerful--banishment by ballot. Even the most popular leaders were subject to electoral eviction from the city if a majority of the people feared that they were becoming too influential. Called ostracism, from the Greek word for the pieces of broken pottery upon which citizens wrote the name of the man they wished to be banished from the city for ten years, the practice carried no particular stigma and the man so removed from the temptation of dictatorial power could return to his place and possessions at the end of his penalty.

That particular quirk of Athenian government 2500 years ago was not, in my not-so humble opinion, the most important means of preventing political perversion. While ostracism gets the most attention in simplistic historical reviews of Athenian democracy, a more responsible study of the Athenian constitution reveals that it provided for an elaborate, yet simple, system of governing committees, the members of which were chosen, not by ballot, but by lottery. Every Athenian citizen's duty was to serve on one of a multitude of administrative boards, regardless of his pertinent expertise, if so chosen by lot. Most importantly (again, in my not-so humble opinion) Athenian citizenship was reserved only to free Athenian-born males with Athenian military training. Such citizens understood the meaning of duty, discipline, and honor; as well as the danger of dictatorial decisions regarding matters of war and peace.

The challenges facing our nation require principled, disciplined, honorable leadership at every governmental level from president to puppy-catcher. We would do well to look outside the tenure track of draft-dodging and duty-shirking baby-boomer politicians for our future leaders. They ain't up to the task. Most are up to their necks in greed and ambition--at our expense.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Let Them Wear Cake

The day is a blustery, wet, wintry one here at the northern end of southern nowhere and I couldn't be more happy and content.

The better part of the last week was reluctantly spent down on the Redneck Riviera for the occasion of my second grandson's first birthday. Had it been up to me to schedule and execute the trip, it would have been a much more rapid one than the four days with 9 hour drives at either end. Miss Brenda wanted to spend some time with her folks and there's no way I'm gonna begrudge her that. When I issued her latest set of orders, she consented to let me drag her up to the hills of Mississippi and away from her folks and our growing gaggle of grandkids with the clear understanding that she could go for a visit anytime she wanted and stay for as long as she wanted. I checked and she was within her rights--there are no limitations on the leave and liberty privileges extant in her pre-nuptial enlistment papers; a grossly negligent omission on my part.

So, despite the fact that we are in the middle of two concurrent and relatively brief hunting seasons for which I yearn during the remainder of our annual wobbling orbit around ole Sol, Miss Brenda and I strapped our car to our posteriors and drove to Florida. Actually, we had a VIP in the back seat on the way down to the coast. Caleb Thomas Gregory, the hope of 21st Century civilization, fearless ladder-climber and bug-catcher, had spent the last three weeks with his Nana and Pop and was sufficiently spoiled for return to his parents. During Caleb's stay with us, the Colonel documented a heretofore unknown property of physics wherein at approximately 0900 each calendar day, following introduction of copious amounts of glucose into the bloodstream via a bowl of Sugar Sticky Crunchy Crumbly Yummy Os, a three-year old boy actually multiplies himself three-fold. When I remarked that I didn't remember our boys being so rambunctious at that age, Miss Brenda remarked with the exasperated tone that I have only heard her use with me and therefore have come to know and love as my own special reserve, "You were never around when our boys were that age!"

Saturday we celebrated Caleb's little brother Taylor's first birthday, complete with the ritual face-smearing and hair-encrusting of cake icing to the twitter of camera shutters. It is a wonder the children in my family are not more confused and conflicted--at their early birthdays we have always encouraged them to wear their cake and then at later birthdays fuss at them for being so messy. We have dozens of albums replete with photos of cake-covered toddlers at which we coo and chortle, in between admonitions to those same now older progeny to quit making messes.

Anyway, I'm back happily on my ridge at the edge of nowhere. There's hot coffee in my mug and quiet in my cave. I should be able to make it without a grandson fix for at least another month or so. Yeah, right.

Wonder what Miss Brenda is up to right now?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Whistling in the Dark

He was young, urbane and a mesmerizing speaker who looked more like the minority of his country than the majority. He swept to power following a campaign full of promises of change to the way government would tackle the challenges facing his nation. He was a heartthrob celeb and promised things would be better for all once the old guard in his nation were out of the way. Many in his nation and abroad did not believe that the charismatic leader was the leftist that his opposition portrayed him as. Surely he would govern with centrist enlightenment once in power. Forty-six years ago today, Fidel Castro, in a televised speech, proclaimed to his nation and the world that, "I am a Marxist-Leninist and shall be one until the end of my life... Marxism or scientific socialism has become the revolutionary movement of the working class." Even more chillingly he decreed that "there cannot be three or four movements." For the next half century (and counting) Cuba was subject to the ruthless leadership of one man and his communist cronies.

There's been a lot of wishful thinking amongst those to the right on the political spectrum lately regarding the "pragmatism" of an Obama administration. The hope is that "H" will suborn his socialist core and govern in a way that is, frankly, anathema to his beliefs. The hope is that regardless the strength of the left, the right will be allowed to reclaim and proclaim its movement.

Hope is not a strategy, nor an effective course of action. It is whistling in the dark.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Change, Schmange!

Bill Clinton redefined "sexual relations," as in "I didn't have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," and now our President-elect is redefining "change we can believe in."

"H" is defending the "change" promise he has broken even before he has been inaugurated, by claiming that it would be foolish to not have Washington insiders on the team with the economic and security challenges facing us. Silly us (at least the 63 million of us who voted for him), thinking that he was any different than all the rest. I thought the reason we were supposed to vote for him instead of Clinton or McCain was that he would bring in a whole new crew to Washington--BECAUSE the old crew was the one that had made a mess of things over the past generation.

This should come as no surprise--politicians, ALL politicians, tell us what they think will get them elected, and then do whatever they please with the power we hand them, misinterpreting the policy mandate as a popularity contest win. And when anyone dares challenge "H" on his staffing decisions, watch that chin raise and profile turn to the pose of..., well, that high chin profile is nearly identical to Lenin's, Mussolini's, Hitler's, Johnson's and FDR's--tyrannical socialists all.

I, for one, am happy for the redefinition of "change"--should come in handy with Miss Brenda's expectations that I will "change" some of the behaviors she has determined to be objectionable and for which she has gotten a "change" promise from the Colonel.