Don’t Go Back

October 19th, 2021

I took our ten month old grandson, Asher, to my former workplace a couple weeks ago. It had been at least a year since I my last visit to the trucking company. I only went there because one of my previous co-workers wanted to meet the little boy. I had no other reason to return to that place. I feel no nostalgia for it.

I held Asher in my arms as I walked across the parking lot, like I had done a thousand times before. The physical plant looked the same. The tractors and trailers were as I remembered them. There was the same dirt and grime on the overhead dock doors. I felt the same old Sith energy radiating from the place.

I was a dock supervisor at the company for nearly twenty-eight years before I retired. I worked third shift for most of those years. The dock was, and still is, unheated and mostly open to the elements. I worked in the heat and in extreme cold. Most of the time I worked when it was dark. The job could be dangerous. I was run over by a forklift twelve years ago. My right foot and ankle were crushed by the weight of the jeep. I left that corporation with scars.

I don’t miss working there. The work environment was toxic, and sadly I helped to make it so. People were treated as commodities by the company. It was always about profit all the time. Working for that business was corrosive to my soul. My body was not the only thing damaged by my experiences on the dock.

I took Asher into the office to meet Jen. She was delighted to meet the lad. Asher was happy to see her too. Asher loves to meet new people. I didn’t see many others that I knew or remembered. The company has always had an extremely high turn over rate. I left there six years ago, so it’s no surprise that I couldn’t recognize many of the faces. The place was full of strangers, and it made me feel even less welcome than I had expected.

Things have changed there, for the worse.

When I retired it was a big deal, not just for me, but for the other folks working at the company. Whenever anybody retired, the company bought a big sheet cake and gave the lucky winner an award of sorts. Everybody who was in the building came to witness the event. A retirement was one of the very few times that people came together as a team.

Now that doesn’t happen any more. There is no party for retirees. There is no recognition of their years of service to the corporation. People just disappear. I guess it makes sense. The worker did not matter to the company when they were on the clock. Why should anybody care when they leave?

One of my old dockworkers was in the break room when Asher and I arrived. The man’s nickname is “Kung Fu”. He has eyes that remind people of “Kung Fu Panda”. When he saw Asher, his face broke into a grin. Kung Fu said,

“Wow, look at him! He’s such a happy little guy!”

I replied, “Of course, he’s happy. He doesn’t work here.”

Those Guys Were Assholes

October 13th, 2021

My son, Hans, and I were just sitting around, arguing about who had put up with the most shit while in the Army. Hans had been a tanker in the 1st Cav at Fort Hood, but somehow he got used as infantry when he went to Iraq. When I was in, I flew Hueys for a while and then transitioned to flying Black Hawk helicopters. Hans had strong opinions about aviators.

He took a drag on his Pall Mall and said,

“I didn’t like pilots. Those guys were assholes.”

I looked at him and asked, “Are you aware of what I did for a living?”

Hans shrugged, and said, “Yeah, I know. Why?”

I ignored his question and asked him, “So, why exactly were the helicopter pilots assholes?”

He gave me the stink eye and said, “Don’t go playing all innocent. You know what I mean.”

“Give me an example.”

Hans took a hit off of his Lime-A-Rita, and said, “How about when y’all would make a really steep turn for no good reason, and the troops on one side would staring straight down at the ground?”

“Oh, that…”

Hans burst out, “Yeah, oh THAT!”

I asked him, “You were buckled up, right?”

Hans was fired up now. “I was buckled up, but my smokes weren’t! I dropped my last pack of cigarettes out of the aircraft, and I had nothing to light up during that whole field problem!”

I replied, “I can see how that would be an issue.”

“Damn right! I gave that pilot a talkin’ to when we landed. Well, that warrant officer felt so bad about it that he gave me his can of chew.”

“What kind was it?”

Hans replied, “Grizzly.”

Of course, Hans was right. We really were assholes. A Black Hawk can make a 90 degree bank without losing any altitude. Therefore, we loved making 90 degree bank turns, especially if we had troops on board. It was one of the fringe benefits of being a pilot.

Hans’ story reminded of another time that a troop lost something from a helicopter in flight. When I was with the 7Th ID at Fort Ord, we used to fly the infantrymen to Fort Hunter-Liggett to do their training. Fort Ord was a tiny military post on the Pacific coast, so everything had to be done at Fort Hunter-Liggett, which was a much larger area, maybe about eighty miles inland from Fort Ord. We made numerous flights between the two posts. It was generally a straight shot down the Salinas Valley.

At that time the Black Hawks were equipped with a Doppler radar system to assist in navigation. We still had to use our map books, but the Doppler would help us to know our grid coordinates. We would log in the initial grid coordinates before take off, and then the radar would measure our air speed and direction to keep track of our location. Think of the Doppler as a Fred Flintstone version of a GPS. It wasn’t terribly accurate, and we had to update the information frequently, but back in 1986 that device was hot shit.

One day we were flying the standard milk run to Fort Hunter-Liggett. We had several aircraft hauling the members of an Infantry company. Then suddenly everybody got this urgent radio call. The voice on the radio was tinged with panic:

“Get me our current coordinates ASAP!”

Somebody asked, “What for?”

“Just DO IT!”

Well, somebody did. One of the pilots called the guy back with the grid coordinates, and life went on.

Later, we heard from unofficial and possibly disreputable sources that one of the troops had dropped an extra machine gun barrel from the helicopter. Maybe that isn’t accurate, but somebody dropped a weapon, or part of one, from a helicopter. That explained the panic. Now they had to find this sensitive item.

Visualize for a moment how that must have looked. A weapon falls from a Black Hawk flying at probably a thousand feet. The object tumbles end over end, and finally buries itself deeply in the rich, fertile soil of the Salinas Valley. It probably landed in some strawberry field. Good Lord.

Keep in mind that the aircraft were probably moving at 120 knots when the mystery speaker made his frantic radio call. By the time he finished talking and the pilot checked the Doppler, we were most likely a mile or more from the landing site of the missing weapon. Did they ever find it? I sincerely doubt it.

I’m glad I wasn’t that troop’s platoon leader.

Asher at the Ambo

October 12th, 2021

I took our grandson to church on Sunday. There is nothing unusual with Asher going to Mass. Karin and I take him with us whenever we go to St. Rita. What was different this time was that I was the only one of us to be with Asher on Sunday. Karin was down in Texas visiting with our other two grandchildren.

Generally, when Karin and I are attending the Sunday liturgy, we take turns watching over Asher. Asher is only ten months old. He is not hard to handle, but babies need some care. This is especially true when I am scheduled to serve as lector during the Mass (a lector reads aloud from the Scriptures to the entire congregation). On Sundays when I am called to proclaim the Word, it is helpful when Karin can hold and cuddle Asher for a while.

This Sunday I did serve as lector, but I was Karin-less. One of my duties was to carry the Book of the Gospels up to the altar at the beginning of Mass. This is not a big deal, unless, of course, you are carrying a 26 pound baby in your right arm while trying to hold the book in your left. I managed to do that.

I was supposed to do the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. Normally, I would hand Asher over to Karin before I went up to the ambo (“ambo” is Catholic for “lectern”). Clearly this was not going to happen, seeing as Karin was absent. Georgiana, another reader, offered to hold the lad while I did my thing. I told her not to worry.

When my time came, I walked up to the ambo with Asher in my right arm. He didn’t seem bothered at all. If anything, he wanted to know how the microphone worked. With some difficulty I kept the boy from messing with the mike or with the book with the Scriptures. Actually, Asher was pleased with the fact that all eyes were upon him. Everybody in the church was looking directly at Asher.

They like Asher.

They like Asher because he is beyond cute. I suspect that they also like him because he is one of the few people in the church is less than sixty years of age.

The truth is that almost everyone who comes to our church on a regular basis is old. There is often a procession of cars at the entrance of the church just prior to the service. Old people get out of these cars to help even older people with their walkers and wheelchairs. The demographics are not good.

After Mass a lady came up to me and told me that, by taking Asher up with me to the ambo, I had inspired Catholic families in the church who have small children. I would have been more impressed with her comments if there had been more families with small children in attendance. There weren’t. There are very few young people at Mass. There were perhaps a dozen children.

After this woman made her remarks to me, I told her,

“He (Asher) is the future. We are not.”

If we take Asher to Mass every Sunday, will that ensure that he becomes a Catholic?

No.

In our time, I have no idea what would convince a young person to be a Catholic. Karin and I have three grown up children, and none of them go to Mass. They have some very good reasons for not going. I won’t go into details here, but the Church (which includes me) cannot satisfy their spiritual needs. All of our kids are spiritual people. They are all actively seeking God, but they don’t Him with us in our church.

What will Asher be? It’s hard to tell. He has a Hebrew name. Asher means “happy” or “blessed”. The boy’s mother has his name tattooed on her arm in Hebrew. When I visited with my rabbi on Monday, he gave Asher a blessing, the same that he gives to his own children. The Birkat HaKonahim:

“The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!”

הוהי ךכרבי ךילא וינפ הוהי ראי ךנחיו םולש םשיו ךילא וינפ הוהי אשי

Transliteration Yeh-va-reh-cheh-cha Yahveh veh-yeesh-meh-reh-cha Ya-air Yahveh pa-naiv ay-leych-cha vee-chu-neh-cha Yee …

That’s a good blessing. At one time, I gave that same blessing to our kids (in English).

Solo

October 7th, 2021

Lightning and thunder. It’s a rainy, windy night. Maybe I should say that it’s a rainy, windy “morning”, since it is after 2:00 AM already.

Asher is asleep. He struggled to stay awake when it got dark in the evening, but finally he crashed. At ten months of age, Asher is a willful boy, determined to do things his way. When I put him in bed several hours ago, he rolled around and kicked. He tore at my beard and grabbed at my nose. He pulled on my ears with his sharp fingernails. Slowly, very slowly, he wore himself out. The little guy finally bowed to the inevitable. His body relaxed, his face became calm, and he gave himself to that state of total rest that adults can never have. I envy him.

It is just me and Asher tonight. Karin, my wife, is in Texas with our other grandchildren, the grandchildren that she has not seen for well over a year. She flew down there visit with them yesterday. I remain here to care for Asher. I don’t mind. It just is.

The situation feels different now because of Karin’s absence. Since Karin and I became fulltime caregivers for Asher back in February of this year, we have worked as a team. It is difficult for any one person, especially an elderly person, to care for an infant. Karin and I have always given each other space. We have been very aware of the other person’s need for rest. Asher is a wonderful little boy, but he is always a very active little boy. I am writing now because I can, because my grandson is sleeping. In a couple hours things will be very different. All hell might break loose.

I am happy to be here with Asher. He’s amazing, at least he is to me. He is fascinated by his world, and I am fascinated with him. He loves our dogs, and they tolerate him. He wants to stand and walk. He wants to explore everything. All things that are old to me are new to him. He is easily impressed.

I introduced him the wonders of a phonograph yesterday afternoon. I played for the first time in a long time my copy of “Sgt. Pepper”. Asher was interested in how the record spun on the turntable. He didn’t particularly care for the music. Asher is more of a hard rock/heavy metal kind of guy. Karin puts him to sleep with Mozart. I put him to sleep with Foo Fighters.

Our youngest son, Stefan, came over to visit yesterday at noon. He brought me some Italian food, and he helped me to put up the new futon. I fed Asher blended carrots, and Stefan talked to the boy. We checked out what kind of music Asher likes. Stefan is very fond of Asher. That’s good. Asher is going to need a strong and loving uncle. Asher will not have a dad in his life. Stefan will need to be a role model for Asher.

Asher’s mom also came to visit yesterday. She put Asher down for his nap in the afternoon. She is good at doing that. She loves Asher intensely. She is a good mother.

In a few hours I plan on meeting a Greg, the deacon from our church, for coffee. Obviously, I will take Asher with me. It is always good for Asher to meet new people. Maybe it is of greater value for the others to meet Asher than it is for him to meet them. I don’t know. Somehow it seems to make things better.

God willing, I will take Asher to meet my rabbi on Monday. Asher, despite his name, will probably never become Jewish. That’s okay. He will grow up knowing good people who are Jewish. His world will be larger.

It’s late (or early). I need to rest for a while.

Asher won’t be patient with me when he wakes up wet and hungry.

On the Hook

September 29th, 2021

The UH-60 Black Hawk has a hook on the underside of it. That is the helicopter’s primary means for carrying cargo. When I flew Black Hawks, way back when, we could haul some stuff inside the aircraft, but most of the time we had to hang the freight on the hook. The hook was good up to 9000 lbs. I think the most we ever carried was about 7000. That was plenty.

When I was stationed in West Germany, my unit was part of the 3rd Armored Division. We seldom carried troops. That’s what the tanks and APC’s were for. Our job was to transport fuel and ammunition. We seldom actually transported ammo (security issues), but we carried lots of jet fuel. Aircraft with turbine engines, such as helicopters, burn through enormous amounts of JP-4. We had to make sure that there was enough during each exercise.

We used the hook on the Black Hawk to transport the equipment that the III/V (Fuel and Ammo) Platoon needed to set up a FAARP (Forward Area Arming and Refueling Point). The pumps and hoses were crated up and placed in a net. The net had a ring on the top that could be placed on to the hook on the helicopter.

We also transported the fuel on the hook. The JP-4 was pumped in fuel blivets, each of which carried 500 gallons. Two blivets were attached together to a sling and the sling was hooked on the bottom of the helicopter. The blivets plus the sling weighed approximately 7000 lbs.

It was sometimes tricky getting the blivets off the ground. 7000 lbs put a heavy strain on the turbine engines. We would face the helicopter into the wind to get extra lift. As far as the Black Hawk was concerned, facing into a headwind was the same as the aircraft moving forward. Forward motion and/or a headwind reduced turbulence under the rotor blades, thus increasing lift.

Even with a headwind, we sucked the guts out of the engines when we first picked up the blivets. The engine strip lights would go from green to yellow, and really close to red. Once the fuel bladders were even a few feet off the ground, we would start moving forward. Any extra lift was welcome.

Full blivets hung under the helicopter like a set of black balls. They were usually steady as stones. Empty fuel blivets, on the other hand, would catch in the wind, and swing and twist. That was disconcerting. It was a pendulum effect. We didn’t want the crew chief to tell us that he could see the blivets from his side window.

There were flight procedures to follow if the blivets were swinging to the point that control of the aircraft was in question. A gradual climb or descent could smooth things out. Or the pilots could go into a gradual turn to stabilize the blivets. In a real crisis the pilot could hit the emergency release button to open the hook and dump the blivets. It was impossible to hit that release button accidentally. It had to be done on purpose. If a pilot hit the emergency release and dropped blivets with residual JP-4 from an altitude of a couple thousand feet into the potato field of some German farmer, he better have a good reason for doing so. It was likely that the flight crew would have a meeting with unhappy people of high rank immediately upon landing.

When I went to the 7th Infantry Division , we did a lot more troop movements. The 7th ID was made up of “light fighters”, grunts with little or no ground transportation. We still used the hook on occasion. We lifted 105 Howitzers for the Artillery guys. That was pretty easy. We only had a problem with that once.

A helicopter tends to build up a static electric charge while in flight. The charge is typically released when the aircraft touches the ground. Sometimes the charge is released when the aircraft touches something or somebody on the ground. That can be problematic. The way to avoid grounding the helicopter inadvertently is to key the mike on the radio just prior to landing. That is another way to dissipate the electrical charge.

When an artillery man tries to hook up his Howitzer to the bottom of the Black Hawk, He straddles the chassis of the gun and holds a ring up to place on the hook. This ring, or donut, is attached to a sling on the Howitzer. The soldier usually wears a gasmask or at least goggles when doing the hook up. The rotor wash from the blades is intense.

We flew in to grab the Howitzer. We saw the gun bunny standing precariously on top of the weapon. He was holding the donut as high up as his arms could reach. We got right over him. Then we heard…

“Man down!”

“What do you mean?!”

“The troop with the donut is on the ground.”

“Is he okay?”

“He’s moving a little bit. Yeah, he’s getting back up.”

“Roger. Let’s try it again.”

Got to remember to key that mike.

Fort Irwin

September 28th, 2021

The Fort Irwin National Training Center is deep in the Mojave Desert. It is about 37 miles from Barstow. California, which means it’s 37 miles from nowhere. To get to the nearest real city, you have to drive two hours to San Bernadino. To get to the Pacific Ocean, you need four hours of windshield time. I was at Fort Irwin in February of 1986 for training. I don’t remember much from that time period, probably because I don’t want to remember it. However, I might as well write about the highlights of those weeks in the desert.

I have to back up a bit. To properly tell this story I need to begin at West Point in the spring of 1980. I was getting ready to graduate and become a second lieutenant. At that time all the members of my class had to choose their branch. Branch selection was based on class rank. People at the top of the class could pick whatever branch they liked. The folks on the bottom got to go Infantry.

1980 was the first year that a graduate could go to Flight School immediately after completely the officer basic course for whatever branch they had chosen. At that time, there was no such thing as an Aviation branch in the Army. The graduate who wanted to go directly to Flight School needed to pick an unrelated branch in the Army, usually one of the combat arms. The idea was to sleepwalk through the basic course, and then become a pilot.

Also in 1980, there was a total of four slots available in Military Intelligence for prospective pilots. Those went fast. I got the last slot, and I went into MI prior to going to Fort Rucker to learn how to fly. I spent several months at Fort Huachuca, AZ, studying PHOTINT (photo intelligence) before I was sent to Fort Rucker. If for some reason, Flight School did not work out for me, I would have gone back to the MI branch fulltime.

I had a classmate who was (and is) a good friend. He also planned on becoming a helicopter pilot. He was higher in class rank than I was, so he could have snagged that coveted Military Intelligence slot. But he didn’t do that. Instead, for reasons that were never made clear to me, he chose to go Infantry.

Before any of us could be accepted into Flight School, we had to have a flight physical. I think we had an initial physical while still at West Point, but then we had to undergo another physical prior to beginning classes at Fort Rucker. My physical was a nerve wracking experience. The doctor needed me to “valsalva”, that is, clear my ears. Pilots had to be able to equalize the air pressure between the outside environment and inner ear canal. Well, I couldn’t do it. I had scarring from childhood ear infections, and I couldn’t get my ears to pop. After multiple attempts, I finally got an ear to make a pitiful pop, and the physician reluctantly signed off on my medical exam. I came very close to not ever becoming a pilot.

My friend failed his exam. They determined that his vision was not good enough. It was good enough to pass the first exam, but not the second go around. The Army didn’t know what to do with him at first. He got a position working at the Fort Ricker golf course. He went to work every day in his Izod shirt and chinos. His life as a golf pro went on like that for months.

Then the letter came. My friend and I shared an apartment off post. He came back one day pissed off. He went directly to the refrigerator and made himself a rather strong Black Russian. I asked him what was wrong. He tossed me an envelope. Inside was a copy of his PCS orders. I looked at it.

He was going to Fort Irwin, as an Infantry officer.

I asked him where Fort Irwin was, and he exploded.

Eventually, after we had numerous Black Russians, he explained where Fort Irwin was, and what they did there. He would be part of the OPFOR (Opposing Forces) for training troops that were rotated in from posts all over the U.S. In practical terms, he was becoming a faux Soviet officer for three years at one of the most isolated duty stations on earth.

Over the following years, we would write to each other. My friend’s letters were often bitter and sarcastic. My impression from reading the letters was that there wasn’t fucking thing to do at Fort Irwin except work. So, everybody stationed there got really good at being the OPFOR. They knew all the terrain. They knew all the ways to win. When other units came to Fort Irwin to join the wargames in the big sandbox, the locals were ready for them, and they were playing for keeps.

Fast forward to late 1985. The 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord was chosen to train at Fort Irwin. That meant that I finally got to go there.

We spent months preparing for the move to the National Train Center (NTC). The Infantry was getting all pumped up for the trip. They were absolutely convinced that they were going to kick some ass. I was not so sure about that. It didn’t matter, we were all going there anyway.

We flew the fifteen Black Hawks in our company from Fort Ord to the NTC. We planned to make a grand entrance. We were going to go in as a flight of fifteen, Apocalypse Now-style. It went well at first. We looked good. I was in Chalk 5 behind four other aircraft. I watched the first helicopter slowly approach the ground.

Then it disappeared into a cloud of brown dust.

Oh fuck.

Chalk 2 did the same thing, as did Chalk 3. Now the rest of us had no idea where any of these three Black Hawks had landed. We could see nothing, and it is considered bad form to land on top of another aircraft’s rotor system. So, it was everyman and woman for themselves. We each peeled off and found a piece of level ground. We planted our helicopters, and turned off the engines. Like fools, we had flown with doors open. Everything, I mean everything, was covered with dust and sand.

We set up our operations tent next to the only Joshua tree available. We got ready to do our thing: transporting troops and equipment. Everybody was preparing to show the folks at Fort Irwin what the 7th ID could do.

The first day of the war came. Once again, our operation was carefully planned. We were ready. The show started promptly at 6:00 AM. We cranked the engines. The rotors started to turn.

We all got a radio call:

“It’s done. Shut them all down.”

“WHAT?!”

“It’s done. We lost. Shut the aircraft down.”

My watch said, “6:06.”

Fuck.

Split

September 25, 2021

We tend to forget history, especially the parts of history that were relatively calm. I served as an Army helicopter pilot in West Germany during the latter years of the Cold War. It was during the time of Reagan and Andropov. Nothing happened while I was there, but fear was omnipresent. The threat of a nuclear war with the Soviets was always hovering in the background. People went on with their daily activities with a certain edginess. It was best not to think too much about the unthinkable. Just do your job, and drink plenty of beer when you weren’t doing your job.

I visited Berlin with a friend in May of 1983. It’s hard to remember much about that trip after 38 years. All I have are faded photographs and equally faded memories. The details may be fuzzy, but feelings are still intense.

My friend, Mike, had a buddy who was assigned to the Berlin Brigade. I forget the name of Mike’s comrade, but he had a small apartment in West Berlin, and we were welcome to stay in it, if we didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. The Berlin Brigade was a tiny American military force surrounded by the communist troops in East Germany. It was mostly for show. It also acted as a tripwire. If the hated Reds ever decided to move on West Berlin, they would have to fight the American soldiers of that brigade. That would start World War III. The Soviets never tried it.

Mike and I decided to go to Berlin. I had just purchased a new BMW 320i, and was ready for a road trip. The first thing Mike and I did was go to our battalion S-2 ( intelligence officer) to get a form authorizing each us to travel across East Germany to West Berlin. It was a cool document, written in English, French, and Russian. I wish I still had it. That piece of paper, along with our military ID’s were all we needed to make the journey. We did not require passports.

Keep in mind that at this time Berlin was still an occupied city. World War II was not quite over. As military personnel of one of the four occupying powers, Mike and I could legally go to and from West Berlin. We could also enter East Berlin. We just needed to wear our dress green uniforms while we wandered through the socialist paradise. We planned on doing that.

We drove the BMW to Checkpoint Alpha in Helmstedt on the Inner German Border. Before we could make the trip to Berlin, we had attend a briefing. The sergeant who talked to us kept it simple:

“Stay on the fucking autobahn!…Sirs.”

That advice would seem obvious, but apparently there had been American GIs who failed to follow that guidance. Over the years, soldiers had gone into East German villages to get lunch, or buy gas, or do any number of stupid things. As long as we remained on the autobahn all the way to Checkpoint Bravo, we were good. Side trips meant time in a socialist slammer.

We received a card from the sergeant that was written in German. It said,

“I want to speak with a Soviet officer.”

If we got pulled over on the autobahn by the East German cops, say for speeding (the Reds had a speed limit), we were not to talk with them. We were to show them our little card. The U.S. did not recognize the German Democratic Republic. If we got in trouble, we were only supposed to talk with a Russian. That would be unpleasant.

The sergeant made it abundantly clear that it was in our best interests not to get into trouble. Eventually, the U.S. government would bring us back home, but there be people waiting in the West to ask us questions that we would not want to answer. Bottom line: DO NOT SCREW UP.

We crossed the border into East German, and immediately had to present our paperwork to the Soviets. We walked up to a kiosk with a frosted window with a narrow slit open on the bottom. We slid our ID’s and transit forms under the glass. Nobody talked to us. We just heard the sounds of somebody stamping, folding, and mutilating our papers. In the meantime, some skinny Russian soldier who looked all of fifteen inspected out vehicle. Eventually, our paperwork reappeared and we could drive to Berlin.

The ride to Berlin was uneventful. We didn’t speed on the autobahn, mostly because we would get busted for it at Checkpoint Bravo in Berlin. They (the Army personnel) noted our departure time at Checkpoint Alpha, and they checked our arrival time at the other end of the trip. If we got to Checkpoint Bravo too soon, well, then we were speeding. There was nothing to see on the way. The East Germans kept the locals away from the freeway.

The arrival at Checkpoint Bravo was exactly like the departure at Helmstedt, except that the process was done in reverse. What immediately struck me when we got to West Berlin was The Wall. It was impressive: massive and imposing. Trump bragged about his wall on the southern border of the U.S. That ain’t shit. The East Germans knew how to build a wall. With socialist zeal and Teutonic thoroughness, they erected a barrier to last the ages. The irony is that none of it exists now. I have a small piece of it at home. It’s just a lump of concrete that somehow still feels like tyranny.

Mike and I wanted to see and do as much as we could in as short a period of time as possible. Mike’s Kamerad was willing to help us with that. We did the whirlwind tour. We saw all the touristy stuff: Charlottenburg Palace, the Siegessäule (Victory Column), the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag. Mike’s friend took us into the Kreuzberg district, where the action was supposed to be.

The three of us went to a cabaret. We paid a cover charge, and found a table. It was still early, so the place was nearly empty. A waiter cam to our table and asked us to order drinks. We demurred. He explained that we had to buy drinks to stay at the table. Fine. We ordered three overpriced beers, and grumbled about it.

In the center of the cabaret was a small stage. On the stage were maybe a dozen people, men and women, who were just standing there wrapped in white sheets. The sound system started to play the Moody Blues song, Nights in White Satin. This was decidedly strange. We were about to leave when everybody on stage dropped their sheets, and nobody was wearing anything.

We ordered another round.

West Berlin was like a city on meth. The town was wide open for business 24/7/365. A guy tried to sell us coke on the U-Bahn (subway). West Berlin was the most glorious and grotesque example of capitalism on earth. You could buy anything there.

East Berlin was the opposite. It was supposed to be the shining example of socialist supremacy. Not so much.

Mike and I spent a Sunday afternoon in East Berlin. We put on our greens and drove to Checkpoint Charlie. The spy movies like to portray Checkpoint Charlie as this dark and dangerous border crossing. It was really like that, or at least it felt that way. The place reeked of espionage. It kind of made us wonder if crossing the East side was such a good idea.

My main memory of East Berlin is boredom. There were rows of drab and monotonous apartment blocks, built in that soulless Soviet style. There were huge empty plazas that only contained heroic statues of Marx and Engels. The most interesting sight was the Monument Against Militarism and Fascism. It had an eternal flame and a squad of East German soldiers goose stepping in front of it. I had thought that the goose step had gone out of style in 1945. I was wrong.

Looking back on my visit to Berlin, I can only describe it as “bizarre”. Even then, it was bizarre. It was just nuts. In one of his books Carl Jung uses postwar Berlin as a prime example of political and psychological dissociation.

Spot on.

Time and Place

September 23rd, 2021

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. “

Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1

Over the years I have met many new people, and they have often asked me what sort things I have done. The conversation has usually gone like this:

New Guy: “So, tell me about yourself.”

Me: “I used to be in the Army.”

New guy: “What did you do there?”

Me: “I flew helicopters.”

New Guy: “Really?”

Me: “Yeah, really.”

New Guy: “How long did you fly in the Army?”

Me: “Five years.”

New Guy: “Did you like it?”

Me: “Yeah. It was 90% fun, and 10% sheer terror.”

New Guy: “Wow. Do you still fly?”

Me: “No.”

New Guy: “Why not?”

I never have a good answer for that. After I got out of the Army in August of 1986, I never flew again. I had a commercial pilot’s license from the FAA, but I didn’t have enough flight hours to be marketable as a civilian aviator. I had to go into another line of work, and quickly. My wife and I had a baby boy within a year of me resigning my commission. As time went on, we gained two more children, a mortgage, tuition payments, and the rest of the American dream. Flying as a hobby was out of the question. That requires time and money, and for three decades I had neither.

I retired six years ago. When I left my job, I finally did have time and money. However, my eyes were not as sharp, and my reactions were much slower. I also had other interests. I was busy teaching a citizenship class. I was visiting patients in the VA psych ward every week. I was going on adventures that I would have never dreamed of doing earlier in my life. Flying was no longer attractive to me. It was a huge part of my youth, but it’s over.

I loved flying in the Army. It was exciting, and occasionally dangerous. I learned to fly with night vision goggles at the Netheravon Airfield in England. Flying with goggles was often challenging. It was like watching a green TV screen through toilet paper tubes. The NVG’s allowed for no depth perception, which made things in the air more interesting. I flew over the Salisbury Plain training area near Stonehenge. It was an endless sea of grass bathed in moonlight. The landscape was beautiful, but treacherous. Flying over fields of grass is like flying over the ocean. There were no landmarks, nothing I could use to judge my airspeed or my altitude. Eventually I got used to the goggles. It took a while.

When I was stationed at Fort Ord, CA, I needed to go on instrument flights. As a pilot, I was required to get a certain number of flight hours in actual IMC conditions, which meant flying in the clouds. I didn’t need to much “weather time”, but I had to get a certain minimal amount. Racking up those flight hours on the sunny California coast wasn’t easy. The best time to do it was during the summer, when the fog rolled in from the ocean every evening and didn’t clear away until late in the morning of the next day. The fog was thick, hundreds of feet thick.

I remember walking with the other pilot to the Black Hawk that was sitting on the pad. It was early in the morning when the fog was dense, and a cold wind was blowing in from the west. The air smelt of sea water and fish. Everything was damp and dark. The top of the aircraft was slippery, making the pre-flight checks of the rotor system a little nerve wracking. I could only see a few feet in any direction. It felt like being inside a golf ball.

After we had started the helicopter, we taxied to the runway. ATC gave us our flight instructions. Basically, we were to keep on a certain heading and steadily climb a couple thousand feet. We were on the instruments as soon as we took off. There was nothing to see outside. The windshield just showed us a blank sheet of grey mist. We climbed and climbed and climbed.

Suddenly, everything was blindingly bright. We had broken through the cloud cover. Above us was the bluest sky I had ever seen, and below us was endless sheet of dazzlingly white clouds. Seeing that was a transcendent moment for me. It was absolutely glorious. I don’t think I have seen anything that breathtaking since then.

I have other memories from my time as an Army aviator. Some of them are pleasant. Some are terrifying. But they’re only memories. I can’t relive those experiences, and I don’t want to. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to fly. I have no regrets about it at all, but it’s done.

It’s time to do new things.

Nothing Planned

09/17/2021

I have no idea what I will be doing tomorrow. In very general terms, I know that I will caring for our nine month old grandson, Asher, for most of the day. My wife and I watch over Asher 24/7. However, there is nothing specific set up on tomorrow’s schedule. Actually, there isn’t anything on the schedule at all, other than whatever Asher decides to put on it.

There are things that I would like to do, but they all take a back seat to the needs of our grandson. My wife and I give him what he needs when he needs it. If he’s hungry, we feed him, If he’s tired, we take him to bed for a nap. If he’s bored, we play with him. If he’s dirty, we wash him. Asher does not follow any kind of plan. Neither do we.

I have been trying to write on my blog for almost two weeks now, and this has been the first opportunity to get at it. Asher is asleep at the moment, and perhaps for only this moment. I may complete this essay, or I may have to stop and check on the boy before I finish typing this sentence. There is no way to predict what will happen next.

Karin and I try to meet up with friends when we can. That does not happen often. It’s not that people don’t want to hang out with us. It’s more the fact that Karin and I cannot know in advance what our situation will be the next week, or the next day, or the next hour. Our friends, understandably, want to set up a time and place for any kind of meeting. Karin and I can agree to join them at the specified time and location, but we always have to add the disclaimer: “If Asher is okay.” It has happened several times in the past that we have set up something with a friend, and then we needed to back out at the last minute. This has been frustrating for everybody involved, except maybe for Asher.

It has worked out best when our friends have come to our house to visit. Some people we know don’t like that idea, due to COVID and whatnot. We understand how they feel, and we respect their desires. On the other hand, if they can’t or won’t come here, then we are not going to see each other. That’s the bottom line.

I know I’m bitching, but I really don’t want to do that. A lot of people have situations similar to us. Some have it far worse. There are whole nations that can’t plan ahead. Look at Afghanistan. The forty million citizens of that country have no idea what tomorrow will bring. They all suffer from a sort of communal PTSD. They haven’t had any kind of steady lifestyle since the Soviets invaded their land in 1979. They have had generations of unrelieved chaos, and that condition is unlikely to change. Our lives are pretty stable in comparison to theirs.

I think about what Zen has to say about all this. Zen does not tell people not to plan. Zen tells them not to attach to the outcomes of those plans. Suffering comes with attachment to the results. Not having a plan can sometimes be liberating. If I have no schedule, then I am not constantly looking at the clock or the calendar. I can be in the present moment, which is where I should be anyway. I don’t have to worry about what I will be doing. I just give my full attention to whatever I am already doing.

Years ago, when I was in the Army, I was assigned as the operations officer for a helicopter company at Fort Ord, CA. All I did all day, every day, was plan and organize. I was good at it. Eventually, I learned the limitations of my skills.

There was a joke in the Army about making plans. We used to spend endless hours writing detailed operation orders (OPORDs) for military exercises. The joke was that once the exercise actually started, you just threw away the entire plan. Often we did.

One time we had to organize a very complicated joint operation with the Navy. The Navy was supposed take Army infantrymen on to their ships, and land these soldiers on the beach at Big Sur. Then my unit was supposed to fly them in our helicopters from the beach and then over the coastal mountains to Fort Hunter Liggett in the Salinas Valley. It required us to make three round trip flights to transport all the troops. Everything had to synchronized. We planned and practiced these maneuvers for months.

The big day came. We made the first flight with no problems. The execution was flawless. Then we got an emergency call over the radio saying that the fuel was contaminated. They had found water in the jet fuel that was in all the helicopters.

Game over.

We all landed immediately. Each pilot found a horizontal surface and planted his or her aircraft there. As it turned out later, the fuel test was inaccurate. There was no contamination. We could have done the entire mission with no problem. All the planning was for naught.

Asher is up. He’s smiling at me.

I’m done here.

Taking People for Granted

September 6th, 2021

“Once Khidr went to the king’s palace and made his way right up to the throne. Such was the strangeness of his appearance that none dared to stop him.

The king, who was Ibrahim ben Adam, asked him what he was looking for.

The visitor said, ‘I am looking for a sleeping place in caravanserai.’

Ibrahim answered, ‘This is no caravanserai, this is my palace.’

The stranger said, ‘Whose was it before you?’

‘My father’s,’ said Ibrahim.

‘And before that?’

‘My grandfather’s.’

‘And this place, where people come and go, staying and moving on, you call other than a caravanserai?’ “

from The Way of the Sufi

Father Michael gave the homily at Mass on Sunday. The topic of his sermon was how we often taking others for granted. We assume (I know I do) that a person we love and need will be always be there for us, even when experience proves that assumption to be false at times. Our relationships with other people are fragile and transient, and therefore precious. Individuals enter our lives unexpectedly, and then leave in the same way.

Our grandson, Asher, came into our lives quite suddenly nine months ago. He was born two months premature, and his arrival took us a bit by surprise. After four weeks in the NICU, the little boy came into our home, and he has been part of our family ever since. We love this baby, and we are amazed at how quickly he is growing and developing. The fact is that every morning we meet a new child when we first see Asher. He is not the person he was last month, or last week, or even yesterday. He is constantly with us, but he is already in the process of leaving us.

Over the years, many people have entered my life, stayed a while, and then left again. Some of them I failed to appreciate until they were gone. I have tried to maintain contact with a number of them, with middling success. Sometimes our relationship can continue in a different fashion than before. Sometimes that is not possible, and with great reluctance I have had to let them go.

People leave our lives for various reasons. Sometimes they move far away. Geographical distance does not always doom a friendship, but it can make it difficult to keep alive. Often people change. Their attitudes and values shift, and the things that we held in common no longer exist. Without continuous interaction, a friend can quickly become a stranger. Life events split friends apart. The arrival of Asher into our family has forced me to curtail many outside activities. This in turn has weakened or ended the connections I had with those who shared my interests.

People die. Two of my friends have died during the last year. They are irretrievably gone. There is no chance of us reuniting in this world. As I grow older, this very permanent separation happens more often.

I thought about my wife and myself, as I listened to the priest’s sermon on Sunday.

My wife and I take pains to appreciate each other. Since we have to care for Asher full time, we need to do that as a team. It is impossible for one of us to raise Asher alone. Karin and I are very aware of our mortality. We are both in our 60’s, and neither of us knows how much more time we have on earth.

We do not take each other for granted.