An Awkward Conversation

July 7th, 2020

Hussein greeted me at the front door. His hair was longer than I remembered, and he hadn’t shaved for a while. I hadn’t seen him or his younger siblings since the start of the pandemic. Hussein is college age. He should be a freshman this fall, if in fact the schools are open in the fall.

I asked him about his college classes, as he invited me into the family’s home. He told me that he was currently taking a couple online courses from Marquette University. I asked him what he was studying.

Hussein smiled, and said, “Theology.”

“Theology?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of theology?”

Hussein replied, “Christian and Catholic theology.”

Knowing that the members of Hussein’s family are devout Muslims, I asked him,

“How do you like it?”

He smiled again and said, “It’s okay. I have to go back now to my class. I talk to you again a little later.” Then he yelled upstairs for his brothers and sisters to come down and meet with me.

Not all the kids came downstairs. Nizar, being Nizar, refused to stop whatever he was doing to greet me. However, Nisrin, Yasmin, Haneen, Ibrahim, Yusif, and Nadaa came to the living room to hang out with me. I am not sure where the stragglers were hiding. The family has a total of eleven children. It’s a bit difficult to get them all in the same place at the same time.

Nadaa smiled and said, “Frank! We have missed you!”

I nodded, “I missed you too.” I really did.

They wanted to know about my family. I told them that my wife and I were expecting to become grandparents again. My son’s wife in Texas is pregnant again. I also mentioned to the kids that a young woman, who is important to me, is expecting a baby.

I asked the kids about school. Ibrahim is supposed to start eighth grade. Nadaa is ready for tenth grade. They are all studying something online. They miss being in class, hard as that may be to believe. I couldn’t find out from them if they are physically going back to their classrooms. They probably don’t know yet. I bet that their teachers don’t know yet either.

I was going to leave when Nadaa got up and said, “Wait! You have to drink tea! Don’t you miss having tea with us?”

I smiled and said, “Yes.” The Syrian family always offered me hot, sweet tea whenever I came to visit. Nadaa had already started boiling the water for the tea as soon as I walked into the house. So, I stayed to talk some more. Nadaa poured me a glass of tea.

Hussein came over to us. He was trying to listen to his Bluetooth while he was talking to me. His class was still going on.

I asked him,

“Are the mosques open?”

Hussein replied, “The mosque is open, but only for prayer on Friday. You have to register before you go.”

I told him, “My wife and I are going to church again, but we don’t need to register.”

Hussein said, “In the mosque they take your temperature and you have to wear a mask. If you register to come to Friday prayer, and you don’t come, they don’t let come back again.”

“Really?”

Hussein looked at me sheepishly. “If somebody registers, but doesn’t go to pray, then there is an empty space in the mosque that somebody else could have used. That is no good.”

He paused and said, “Yeah, I registered, but I didn’t go.” He shrugged. “Now they say I can’t come any more.” He gave me an embarrassed grin.

Then he said, “I have to go back to my computer.” He hurried away.

Ibrahim asked me, “This young woman you know, the pregnant one, is she married?”

“Not yet.”

Ibrahim looked puzzled. He asked me, “How can you have a baby if you are not married?”

Oh boy.

I said, “Well, uh, yeah, a person can have a baby even if they are not married.”

Ibrahim was still confused. “How?”

“Okay, yeah, well, this young woman should be married before the baby comes. It will be okay.”

Ibrahim silently looked at me. My answer seemed unsatisfactory to him, and it was unsatisfactory to me too.

Nadaa asked, “The girl, she knows that her boyfriend is the father?”

That I could answer clearly. “Yes.”

She smiled, and said, “Then it is good.”

Yeah, it is good. I know that both the young woman and her fiance want the baby. It will be fine.

I finished drinking my glass of tea. I yelled up the steps and told Nizar that I was leaving. He yelled back to me. I told Hussein that I would try to come back more often.

He smiled and said, “Good.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Piece of Cloth

July 5th, 2020

“Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country will be righteous as well as strong.” – James Bryce

Well, the 4th of July is over for another year. I have trouble with the 4th, just like I have trouble with other patriotic holidays. I guess I just don’t understand the intense emotions that are conjured up by the 4th of July. That seems odd since I am a West Point graduate, and I served as an Army officer for six years. Unlike some of my fellow citizens, I don’t experience that spontaneous welling up of national pride. I don’t rejoice in our country’s economic and military might. I don’t feel different or better than a German or a Russian or a Palestinian or whomever. When people talk about “freedom” and “independence”, I wonder what they mean by those words. I wonder if they even know what the words mean.

I just don’t get it.

I don’t own a flag, so I don’t wave one. Most of the people on our street display an American flag (or flags). I don’t mind that. It doesn’t bother me. I generally don’t even notice them any more. They are pretty in a way. They make nice decorations.

Many people have incredibly visceral feelings about the American flag. For some of them it is an object of adoration. It is a symbol of all that is good about the United States. Perhaps, some of these people are veterans and their military experiences are intimately connected with the flag. Some people believe that America is “exceptional”, unique in all the world, and in all of human history. The flag embodies that special status. When one of my friends died a few months ago, two soldiers gave his widow a flag as part of an elaborate ceremony at his funeral. The flag meant something to this woman.

Other people hate the flag. They see racism, violence, and greed in the red, white, and blue. They are willing to burn the flag to express their anger.  I would never burn a U.S. flag. I don’t see any point in that. To do that, I would have to see a symbol in the flag.

All I see is a piece of cloth.

Dawn

July 4th, 2020

I started walking before the sun was above the horizon. The sky was clear and the air was already warm. I followed my usual path down Oakwood Road. There was no traffic, none at all. I walk due west. I could see a cumulus cloud in the distance slowly beginning to glow pink in the morning light.

I like to walk early in the morning. It is easier for me to appreciate nature then. Sure, there are houses all around me, but there are also some woods and a few farm fields. There is a vast marshy area on both sides of Oakwood. As I walked, tall grass and cattails barely moved in an almost imperceptible breeze. I could hear bird calls near the wetlands. I picked out the sound of a red cardinal that was lost somewhere in the green leaves of a tree. A sandhill crane took off silently in front of me. Then it cried out. Its voice was like the loud creaking of a rusty door hinge. Half a dozen crows perched in bare branches, high atop a dead cottonwood.

Frogs jumped from the grass near the street into the ditch water. They didn’t croak as much as they made a high-pitched squeak as the made the leap. A muskrat slid into the murky marsh as I approached. The animal made no sound at all.

The milkweeds are almost ready to bloom. There are still some black eyed susans and daisies along the road. Soon the chicory will show some blue flowers.

Just past the marsh I saw a doe. She was standing at the side of the road, looking at me. I walked toward the deer and waved. She just kept staring. As I got within ten feet of the doe, she woke from her dream and darted across the street. The last thing I saw of her was her white tail held high as she disappeared into the brush.

The sun was peaking through the tree branches in the east. The yellow light illuminated the scores of dead ash trees. The ashes looked like black skeletal hands reaching up to the sky. The ash trees have already had their pandemic with the emerald ash borer. There are very few living ash trees left. The dead ones stand forlorn, just waiting for a strong storm to topple them. Other types of trees are growing up in their midst. In few years, these maples and walnuts and cottonwoods will be taller than the dead ashes, if any of the ashes are still upright.

I passed two dead raccoons on the way back home. They were on the side of the road. A car must have hit them. There was a reddish black stain on the asphalt. I stopped for a moment. I remembered my friend, Senji. Years ago, we had both seen a dead deer on a road in Indiana. Senji had bowed deeply in front of the deer and placed the palms of his hands together. He made Gassho. He honored the life of the deer and then walked on.

I bowed before the raccoons, made gassho, and then walked home.

 

 

 

 

Protests

June 30th, 2020

The Capital Times printed this letter from me yesterday. I’ve written on this topic in my blog already, so it’s not really anything new. There is a grammatical error in the letter. It was my mistake, and the paper did not catch it. You can’t depend on anybody anymore.  Anyway, the essay is short and to the point.

 

“I am appalled by Tuesday night’s attack on Sen. Tim Carpenter in Madison. I spent five days with Senator Carpenter on a trip to the Mexican border in October of last year. He struck me as being a very compassionate and honorable man. He certainly does not deserve to be assaulted by a group of angry protesters. Nobody deserves that.

I having participated in many demonstrations over the years. I was arrested for civil disobedience at an action in 2017. I have only been part of peaceful protests. I struggle with the idea of joining a Black Lives Matter demonstration because these events sometimes tend to devolve into destructive chaos. I agree with the goals of BLM, but I refuse to get involved with the violence.

I was a soldier once. I understand violence. I am done with that.”

Fifty Feet Up

June 27th, 2020

Stefan took me to Sugar Maple. We had just finished eating lunch at Cafe India on Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View. That is what we had wanted to do for Fathers Day. Now that we were full of naan bread and chicken tikka masala, we walked south on KK to get some exercise. We got as far as the intersection of KK and Lincoln Avenue. That’s when Stefan suggested that we stop at Sugar Maple for a beer.

The sidewalks were full of people that afternoon. It was a warm, sunny day, and most everybody wanted to enjoy it. There was some effort to maintain social distancing, but it was half-hearted. Some of the restaurants had set up some outdoor seating near the street. Stefan and I walked past people sitting in front of Sabor Tropical and Centraal. The crowd was eclectic. We saw a wide variety of individuals.

Stefan commented, “Bay View. You see either the weird or the people with money.”

That’s true. Bay View is an up-and-coming neighborhood in Milwaukee, and its inhabitants are a little unusual. The population is generally young, and some of it seems to be wealthy. Stefan and I have no problem with weird people. We’ve both grown accustomed to being with folks who are living right on the edge. However, Stefan has some prejudice against young people with money. Stefan has money. He is actually doing quite well as an Iron Worker, but Stefan does not like young people who are spending Daddy’s money. Those kids are pretty obvious. They have nice clothes and nice cars, and it is clear that they have paid for none of those things on their own. Stefan has money, but he’s earned every nickel of it, and he has no respect for someone who is spending somebody else’s cash.

Sugar Maple is a tavern that serves beers from various microbreweries in the Milwaukee are. There is a plethora of these local breweries, so the pub’s beer selection is vast. Stefan and I sat at the bar. Sugar Maple is serious about the social distancing. The bartender wore a mask, as did several of the patrons.

I ordered a “Hazy Galaxy” IPA from the City Lights Brewery. I can’t remember exactly what Stefan got, but he tends toward the IPA’s. It was hard for me to tell what the barkeep was thinking. He seemed friendly enough, but it’s hard to read a person while they are wearing a mask. I could only see his eyes, and they didn’t tell me much. There is a large painting above the bar that only shows a woman’s eyes. I kept looking at it, trying to figure out what those eyes were telling me. I never got it.

Stefan talked about work. He likes to talk about it. Stefan takes great pride in his work, although he bitches about it constantly. Being an Iron Worker is a difficult occupation. It’s very demanding both physically and mentally. Building a steel structure is by its very nature a dangerous undertaking. On the other hand, Stefan can point to a building or a bridge and say, “I made that.” I was never able to say such a thing, not in all the years that I worked.

Stefan spoke to me about how he liked to look at the old photos of Iron Workers from years ago, like the guys who built the skyscrapers in New York back in the 1930’s.

I said, “Yeah, those guys were nuts, sitting on a steel beam, just relaxing and eating their lunch.”

Stefan replied, “It’s not much different now. Yeah, we’re tied on, sort of. I mean a fall from fifty feet up means death. If I’m strapped on and slip off the beam, I won’t hit the ground. I’ll swing, but I’ll swing into something. That something will probably be hard.”

He went on, “Every morning I go to work, and I don’t know if I’m coming back home or not.”

It got quiet for a moment. We both sipped our beers.

Stefan said, “You know how it is. You flew helicopters back in the day.”

I stared into my glass. “Yeah, flying was cool. It was 90% fun, and 10% sheer terror.”

Stefan replied, “Well, most of my job is fun. It’s cool to be up there making it happen.”

He looked at his phone, and found some pictures of the Mohawks who built the bridges and skyscrapers years ago.

Stefan said, “These guys were doing it. They had balls.”

I told him, “Most other cultures have a rite of passage for young men. I know the Indians do. That might have been their rite of passage.”

Stefan took a swig off his beer. “Oh, fuck yeah. And this job is mine.”

I looked at him. Stefan is twenty-six years old. He’s tall and well-muscled. He has a tattoo of a wrench on his arm; it’s the kind of wrench that Iron Workers use. He’s smart, and honest, and he works hard. He’s absolutely fearless.

I’m proud of him.

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Carpenter

June 26th, 2020

The following attack occurred in Madison, Wisconsin, on Tuesday night:

“A state senator ‘attacked and beaten by an angry mob’ after attempting to photograph protesters Wednesday evening sought medical attention for his injuries, according to a Madison Police Department incident report released Thursday.

 

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, told police he was headed to the state Capitol around midnight when a group of demonstrators on the 200 block of W. Main St. caught his eye.

Protesters earlier that evening ordered media to leave the scene and not take photos or videos as the night unfolded.

Carpenter’s video of the moments leading up to the attack, which he shared on Twitter, shows a group of protesters yelling. Two from the crowd can be seen running over to Carpenter and one of them grabbed his phone.

 

‘Leave my phone alone,’ Carpenter said.

‘Delete it!’ a woman ordered.

 

A witness to the assault told police about 10 people punched and kicked the politician while he lay on the ground and attempted to explain that he is their ally.

After the beating stopped, an individual identifying herself as a nurse came to Carpenter’s aide. The lawmaker stumbled toward the Capitol and laid on the grass, feeling “lightheaded, stunned and dazed,” he told police.

 

Paramedics treated Carpenter for his injuries and he declined to go to the hospital at the time, though he ended up visiting one later on. As he headed inside the Capitol, police told him to stay put because protesters were still vandalizing property outside.

 

“Innocent people are going to get killed. Capitol locked- stuck in office.Stop violence nowPlz!” he tweeted around 4 a.m. Wednesday.”

That article is from the Wisconsin State Journal.

 

I know Tim Carpenter. I spent five days with him in El Paso/Ciudad Jaurez last October for a border immersion program with Annunciation house. Tim and I, along with twelve other people, stayed with the folks from Annunciation House to learn about the conditions for migrants on the U.S./Mexican border.

I didn’t interact a lot with Senator Carpenter during our stay in El Paso. We spoke  several times, but he was often busy with his legislative duties, even while we were visiting the border. I did find Tim to be a very compassionate and decent person. He’s an honorable man. I like him.

Over the last few weeks, I have read a great deal about the BLM demonstrations. I know people who are involved with them, and I admire their passion. I agree with the goals of BLM, and I see the need to eradicate the systematic racism in our country. Part of me wants to stand and march with these people.

However, I am appalled by the occasional violence that has occurred. It’s one thing to read about strangers getting hurt in a protest. It’s is quite another to learn that a friend had the living shit kicked out of him by members of an angry mob.

I don’t deal well with matters in the abstract. For me everything has to be personal. My feelings about the BLM protests are personal now, and not necessarily in a good way. I am aware that the violent actions in Madison were unusual, but they still happened, and they happened to someone I know and respect.

Don’t ask me to go to a BLM rally any time soon.

 

 

Texas Roads

June 22nd, 2020

I was on the road for eight hours last Wednesday. Most of the journey was made within the boundaries of the state of Texas. The GPS took me mostly along back roads, and it kept me away from places like Houston and Dallas. Instead, I passed though Buffalo, Palestine, Madisonville, Canton, Sulphur Springs, and Paris, Texas. It’s a long way from Bryan/College Station to the Oklahoma border, and I had plenty of time to think and ponder.

My first stop on the journey was to buy gas and postcards at Buc-ee’s truck stop near Madisonville. There are several Buc-ee’s travel plazas in Texas, and they are all awesome. Each of them has a statue of a beaver in front of the building (the beaver in Madisonville was wearing a COVID-19 mask). Buc-ee’s is a huge place. The store is clean. It’s open all the time. They sell damn near everything.

I had left Hans’ house in Bryan before dawn. It was just getting light out when I was filling my tank at Buc-ee’s. By the time I drove north again, the sun was peaking through the trees. I had a cold Mountain Dew, a plethora of old CD’s, and no air conditioning in the Ford Focus. The morning was still cool, but I knew it would be sweltering hot by the time I crossed the Red River into Oklahoma. I would be opening the windows wide, and cranking up the volume on the stereo soon.

The Texas countryside is beautiful. At least I think so. The blue bonnets are done for the year, but there are other wild flowers to see. I am partial to the Indian paintbrushes and the black eyed susans. Eastern Texas has rolling hills with thick stands of oak and pine. Most of the open space is ranch land, spotted with black cattle. In some ways it reminds me of my home in Wisconsin. It’s just much warmer.

The little towns are all speed traps. I didn’t mind slowing down while going through them. No matter how small the village is, there are always several churches. Some of them look like churches, and some look like old warehouses. Occasionally, I saw a stray Catholic church, but mostly these were all Baptist congregations. I never realized how many types of Baptists there were: Southern Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Reformed Baptists. It’s endless. Occasionally, I drove past a “Cowboy Church”. I want to check out one of those someday.

Jesus is big in rural Texas. So is Trump. The two of them are sometimes co-mingled. On the long road back home, I saw a sign that said “Jesus and Trump: 2020”. That kind of says it all. There must be a primary election coming up in Texas. I saw plenty of signs for people running for office. Some signs indicated the candidate to be “Republican”. Other signs said that the individual was a “conservative Republican”. That seemed redundant, but it means something to the folks working the land.

I did not see any Confederate flags while driving through Texas. Texans don’t generally go for the nostalgic Civil War schtick. Instead, they proudly wave the Texas state flag. The Lone Star flag reminds them, and everybody else, that Texas was once an independent country, and, by God, it might be one again.

I should note at this point that everyone I met on my drive through Texas was unfailingly friendly and polite. Do I agree with their politics? Probably not. Are they good people? I believe that they are.

I listened to music in the car that reminded of people who are long gone. My brother, Marc, turned me on to southern bands like the Indigo Girls and the Reivers. He also introduced me to the songs of Nanci Griffith, a resident of Austin. Nanci Griffith has a twang in her voice that sounds like somebody pulled a bow string tight and then let it go. When I listen to her I remember my brother, and how I would visit him all those years ago. I don’t necessarily recall specific events. I have been making the journey to Texas for over thirty years now, and the trips are all a blur. I only remember feelings. Sometimes, while driving through the fields and forests of Texas, the feelings suddenly rise up and overwhelm me. I’m okay with that.

I especially like Griffith’s song “Gulf Coast Highway”. It’s ridiculously sentimental, but I still like it. Maybe “like” is the wrong word. It moves me, and I’m not sure why.

“Gulf Coast Highway
He worked the rails
He worked the rice fields
With their cool dark wells
He worked the oil rigs in the
Gulf of Mexico

The only thing we’ve ever owned
Is this old house here by the road
And when he dies he says he’ll catch
Some blackbird’s wing

Then he will fly away to Heaven come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring
She walked through springtime
When I was home

The days were sweet
The nights were warm
The seasons change, the jobs would
Come, the flowers fade

This old house felt so alone
When the work took me away
And when she dies she says, she’ll
Catch some blackbirds wing
Then she will fly away to Heaven come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring

Highway 90
The jobs are gone
We tend our garden
We set the sun
This is the only place on earth
Blue bonnets grow
Once a year they come and go
At this old house here by the road

And when we die we say, we’ll
Catch some blackbirds wing
Then we will fly away to Heaven come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring

And when we die we say, we’ll
Catch some blackbirds wing
We will fly away together come
Some sweet blue bonnet spring”

It’s a good song for remembering.

Pushing It Way Too Far

June 20th, 2020

“He got to his feet, stood painfully, his face drowsy and confused, as if a legion of battles had ebbed and advanced there, over many years. And then, by degrees, he progressed along the route to the bedroom. ‘Okay’, he said, ‘Long deserved peace.’ He stretched out on the bed, dust sifting from his clothes and hair onto the white sheet.” –

from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick

Hans came home from his shift at about 2:00 PM. He had been at work for almost fifteen hours. Hans said “Hi” to his wife, Gabby. He looked briefly at Weston, his 18-month-old son, who was busy watching “The Mickey Mouse Club” on the television. Hans dropped his car keys on top of the counter. He had a couple cans of Lime-a-Rita in a plastic bag. He had picked them at a filling station on his way back from the yard.

Hans just stood in the living room for a minute. It seemed like he was disoriented, like he was just trying to focus. His eyes saw the people in the room, but his mind barely recognized them. He took off his sweat-stained cap, and rubbed his forehead absentmindedly. His face was dark with grime and perspiration. He had been working in the intense Texas heat for hours. Hans looked rough.

Gabby asked Hans a question. He shook his head slowly, and said,

“Maybe, not now. My mind is still at work.”

Gabby went back to checking her messages on the phone. Weston decided that he wanted to check them with her. Hans gazed around distractedly, and then he turned back toward the front door. He went outside.

Hans has his favorite chair right outside of his front door. That is where he sits, and smokes, and drinks, and ponders. He has an old coffee can that he uses as an ashtray, but it’s been full to overflowing for a long time. There is a pile of cigarette butts and bits of tobacco under his seat. He never sweeps it up. The pile just keeps growing.

Near Hans’ chair is his Harley Sportster. It has an oil leak. Hans has it partially torn apart. It’s been that way for a while. He plans on working on it some more when he has time. Also nearby is Hans 1980 vintage Dodge truck. It has a starter problem, and it hasn’t moved from his driveway in over a year. Hans plans on working on it some more, when he has time.

Hans doesn’t have time. A short work day for him is when he only spends twelve hours pumping concrete. Usually his days (or nights) are longer. It is not uncommon for him to work sixty hours in a week; sometimes he works eighty. Hans makes good money, and he needs it to care for his growing family. Money isn’t everything. I know that.

I sat in a chair near Hans. He was burning a Pall Mall, and staring out into the distance. I told him that I worked twenty years on third shift, and I understand that he is exhausted. Hans didn’t bother to look at me, He exhaled some smoke and said,

“Well, at least you had a shift. I don’t even have a start time.”

That’s true. I worked long hours at night, but I did know when I would start each night. Hans is on call. He might work a shift, and then be expected to return to the yard six hours later. When I worked nights, I barely got enough sleep. Hans never gets enough sleep.

We sat next to each other. Hans sipped on a Lime-a-Rita. After a while, he told me about  last night’s pumping job. Each job is different, but somehow each job is the same. He always has problems with the salesmen (they promise the customers things that Hans can’t do). He has trouble with the mixer trucks coming with the concrete (“mud”) too slowly. Hans often has mechanical problems with his pump truck. He has problems with the finishers, who sometimes work too fast or sometimes move too slowly. The finishers smooth out the concrete that he pours. They are almost always Mexican. Hans is convinced that they all know English, but they just play dumb when it suits them. That frustrates him. His job assignments are complicated and time sensitive. A lot of things can go wrong, and they usually do.

As we sat, I could sense Hans’ fatigue. I could see it in his face, and in the way he held his body. He was slumped over in the chair. He was spent.

Hans takes enormous pride in his work. He likes to point out buildings and bridges that he helped to make. But he is doing what I did. He’s pushing it way too far.

I decided to leave him a lone for a while. I went up to him, and put my hand on his shoulder. I told Hans,

“You’re a good man. You’re a good husband and father.”

He looked up at me, shook his head, and replied, “Dad, I’m doing the best I can.”

My throat constricted a bit. I said to him,

“I know.”

Hans came into the house later. He told Gabby that he needed to lie down. He was dirty as can be, with his clothes caked with bits of concrete. He went into the bedroom and collapsed on his bed.

Weston tried to grab my laptop. I fought him for the mouse.

Gabby said, “Well, I guess I will have to wash the bed linen tomorrow.”

I asked Gabby, “Is it hard to get the concrete dust out of the sheets?”

She shrugged, “Not too much.”

Hans slept. He got some “long deserved peace”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pepper Balls

June 18th, 2020

Hans was slouching forward in a chair. He was sitting next to the front door of his house, smoking a Pall Mall, and sipping on a Lime-a-Rita. Hans looked tired, dead tired. He had just come back home from work. He had been on the job pumping concrete for well over twelve hours. He was still covered with dirt and cement. He didn’t have the energy or the inclination to clean himself up. He just wanted to sit for a while, and talk.

I was sitting with Hans. We were having a conversation about paintball guns. I had only used them one time in my life. That was when I was on a class trip with my youngest son, Stefan, in New Orleans, back in 2008.

Hans asked, “Did you all use the regular paint guns, or did you use the guns that fire those rubber balls?”

I asked him back, “Do you mean the balls that are hard like squash balls, and leave a nasty red bruise?”

Hans replied wearily, “Yeah, those.”

“We used those guns. That shit hurt.”

Hans chuckled, “I bet those balls didn’t hurt like a pepper ball.”

“Pepper balls?”

Hans told me, “Yeah, the balls that contain pepper spray. We fired those during training at Fort hood. We also fired rubber bullets.”

“Oh.”

Hans went on, “It kind of pissed me off when this guy I know wrote on Facebook about how the National Guard was supposed to fire rubber bullets at the ground in front of the crowds during these protests. He also said that the soldiers were firing at the faces of the demonstrators. That’s just ridiculous.”

“Why?”

Hans took a deep drag on his cigarette. Then he said slowly, “Well, first of all, you can’t any accuracy when you fire a rubber bullet. They go every which way. You couldn’t aim at somebody’s head, even if you wanted to do that. Also, if you shot one at the ground, it wouldn’t bounce up like a ball.”

“What about a pepper spray ball?”

Hans said, “They aren’t accurate either. If you get hit, the ball explodes like a paint ball, just a little harder.”

“How do you know this?”

Hans smiled, “I got hit by one. Actually, I got hit by about twelve of them.”

“Why?”

Hans drank some of his Lime-a-Rita. He swallowed and said, “Well, I was supposed to  demonstrate what happens when you hit by a pepper ball. This new guy was supposed to fire one round at me. He said that was a professional paintballer. Maybe he was. I don’t know. All I know is that this asshole fired a bunch of rounds at me.”

“That didn’t go well?”

Hans laughed, “I was on the ground, throwing up. I couldn’t see, and I was cursing at my sergeant.”

“Then what happened?”

Hans lit up another smoke. “Well, the sergeant wasn’t all that mad that I was yelling and swearing at him. He told me that he knew I was in incredible pain at the time. Then the sergeant asked me if I wanted to shoot a rubber bullet for the next part of the training. I told him, ‘Yes’, and then he wanted to know if I wanted to have the guy who shot at me as my target. I told him, ‘Yes’, to that too.”

I asked Hans, “So, what did you shoot at the paint ball pro?”

Hans smiled, “A 203 round.”

“Shit. What was that like?”

Hans smiled wider, “It’s like hitting a guy in the chest with a bag of sand.”

Hans looked exhausted, but he went on, “Before I shot the round, I told the sergeant that the paint ball guy seemed a little too close. The sergeant said that he was just fine where he was. And the sergeant said, ‘Besides, he’s got on body armor’. ”

“How did it go?”

Hans smiled even wider, “It lifted him right off his damn feet.”

“Did he take it well?”

“No. The guy got up and came running at me. He wanted to fight. I still had the M4 in my hands, so I hit him with that. I didn’t hit any place that would show. I just butt stroked him across the side of his helmet. Then he went down for a bit.”

Hans paused for a moment, and continued, “The sergeant came over and talked to the troop. He told the guy, ‘Now when you fired all those rounds at Specialist Pauc, he didn’t try to kill you. But you get hit by a rubber bullet, and you come here wanting to kill him. Pauc is a real soldier’.”

I said, “Nice.”

Hans squinted at me with his bloodshot eyes and smiled.

He said, “Yeah.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrambled Eggs on a Keyboard for Breakfast

June 15th, 2020

Weston only loves me for my laptop. The 18-month-old is eager to crawl up onto my chair, especially if he sees that have I turned on the computer. He usually does this after he has just finished a meal. He holds out his arms, and then he climbs right up next to me, and abruptly pushes my hand away from the mouse. From that point on, he’s using the laptop. It doesn’t take long for fragments of scrambled eggs to litter the keyboard, and for a thin layer of peanut butter to coat the screen. I let him do whatever he wants until he somehow gets to the “settings” screen. Then I gently nudge him off of my lap.

Weston does not take this rejection well. My grandson is a boy who wears his emotions on his sleeve, or rather, on his face. Once I have separated him from the magical device, he reacts to the injustice of it all. His face darkens, his brows furrow, he cries out, and he beats the floor with his pudgy little fists. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh. He is rather young to experience the unfairness of life, but, hey, he has to learn sometime.

Fortunately, Weston is also a young man who does not dwell long on perceived slights and offenses. His attention span is similar to that of a fruit fly, and he is easily distracted by the parade of new events. This is not to say that Weston does not remember things. He may be led away by shiny, new things for a moment or two, but he always returns to his original goal. By the time I have read even one email, Weston is standing at my side, arms extended, waiting for me to raise him up to the world of the Internet. The lad is relentless. Eventually, he wears me down. Somehow, he knows that I am an old man with limited stamina.

It does not hurt Weston’s cause that he is so ridiculously cute. One loving look from Weston turns my heart to melted butter. I mean, really, who can refuse a little, round-headed kid with a cherubic smile? I can’t do it. Maybe his father, Hans, can be a hard ass with the boy, but not me. It’s not my job any more to be a disciplinarian. I’m more of a non-threatening Gandalf figure.

It would be unfair to say that Weston only wants me for the computer. He also wants me for my damn cell phone. That is pathetic, because I only own an old flip phone. However, he can hear me open the thing and type on it. It’s scary in a way. Weston has excellent hearing. He wants that phone. I don’t know why. He just does.

Okay. Now comes the truth. Weston asks me to hold him even if no electronic devices are involved. If I am standing in the room with him, he will look up at me and raise his hands, and he won’t stop until he is in my arms. He might get a bit squirrelly there, but he wants me to hold him. Just hold him. I think he feels safe with me. Weston will get restless after a while, and want to go back down. Kids are like that. They need to explore. They need to move.

Eventually, he comes back to me. He will latch on to me, and rest. We hug for a moment.

That moment lasts for an instant. It lasts for all time.