You’ll Figure It Out

April 21st, 2022

“I hope I die before I get old.” – The Who

I spent some time yesterday afternoon with an old friend from work. We are both retired, and we meet once a week to talk and share a couple beers. We reminisce briefly about our days (and nights) at the trucking company, but we aren’t really nostalgic about that time. The years that we worked together are gone now, and we are glad to be done with that part of our lives. Neither of us has any desire to go back to that chaos. Our work was a means to an end. It paid the bills and allowed us to raise our families. That’s all it really was.

Mostly, we talk about our adult children and their struggles. It’s a strange topic because what these young people are experiencing is often alien to us, but in some ways their lives and ours are very similar. Things seems to change, but they don’t. Our kids have the same hopes and fears that we had, just placed in different settings. It’s like variations on a theme in classical music.

My friend and I recognize that there are things that we cannot adequately explain to our children. There are things that they can’t really explain to us.

For instance, my kids make fun of me because of my ignorance with regards to technology. It’s not that I can’t understand all the workings of a smart phone. It’s just that I don’t care to learn. I read about things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality and my spirit rebels. It all seems dystopian and more than a little creepy to me. It’s like watching an episode of “Black Mirror”. My children are enmeshed in cyberspace, and that is a world that has no appeal for me.

On the other hand, my friend commented to me about how difficult it is to get a young person interested in the idea of saving up for retirement. His words made me think back to when I was several decades younger. When I was young, my father encouraged me to buy U.S. savings bonds. He said that my employer could purchase them for me, taking the money directly from my paycheck. That’s how his generation salted money away. It was like a prehistoric 401K. My father’s generation bought bonds because they prized security above all. He still had a hangover from his childhood in the Great Depression. Bonds were safe. Despite my dad’s advice, I never bought a bond.

My friend and I both pumped money into our respective 401K’s, and that worked out well for us. My friend has spoken to his kids about starting to save money now. They understand that concept. Young people aren’t stupid. However, I remember that was I was their age, I could not visualize getting old. For me, retirement was a dream that might never occur. Our children are the same. They are overwhelmed with all the things that young people have to do; find a partner, raise a family, start a career. If they do ever think about their golden years, their thoughts are fleeting. Whenever they eventually decide to plan for their future, they will most likely do it in a manner that I cannot imagine. They will find a new way. They will find their own way.

I try not to give my kids advice. They usually don’t want it, and quite often my ideas are not relevant to their situation. Yet, sometimes, they come to me with their problems. I listen, and I try to assure them that my wife and I have their back. Generally, when they talk to me, they have already made a decision. They are not seeking my guidance. They are mostly looking for my blessing. Regardless of my thoughts on their course of action, I give that to them.

If they have a dilemma, and they are at a loss, I still shy away from telling them what to do. I hear them out, and tell them,

“You’ll figure it out.”

They do.

They’re All Damned

April 15th, 2022 (Good Friday and the beginning of Passover)

A long time ago, my wife and I regularly attended a Bible study group. We met at a member’s house almost every Saturday afternoon to discuss the Christian gospels. We went to these sessions for years. Most of the participants were Evangelicals. Karin and I were often the only Catholics in the circle. The discussions were usually passionate but respectful. Occasionally things got tense. We all became friends over time.

I remember once there was conversation about the Jews. One of the people in the group blurted out,

“They’re all damned!”

I was a bit shocked by that comment. I think I was more concerned by the fact that nobody there really contradicted the speaker. The assumption seemed to be that the Jewish people were not saved. Period.

A few years after we stopped attending these Bible studies, I started going to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. I wanted to learn what Judaism was about, and I needed to be with Jews to understand the tradition. Now, after thirteen years, I still don’t completely get the picture, but I still spend time with the folks from that shul. I have grown close to some of them, and we have strong ties of respect and affection.

Today I think about that blanket condemnation of the Jews by the person at the Bible study. Where did he get the idea that all the members of a religious tradition were going straight to hell?

I don’t know about the teachings of other Christian denominations. I can only speak about what I know as a Catholic. The historical fact is that, especially on Good Friday, the message to the Catholic congregation was antisemitic.

There are four gospels. One of them is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The crucifixion story of John’s Gospel was and is read in its entirety during the Good Friday liturgy. John’s Gospel is unique in that the opponents of Jesus are always referred to simply as “the Jews”. This a bit odd since Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all of his followers. Regardless, in this particular Passion narrative, the bad guys are “the Jews”. The implication, intended or not, is that the entire Jewish nation was responsible for the execution of the messiah. This interpretation of the gospel can be seen to have been responsible for centuries of pogroms against the Jews throughout Christendom. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Holocaust has some roots in John’s Gospel.

Then there are the prayers that are said after the gospel reading. One of the petitions has traditionally concerned the Jews. Prior to Vatican II, the prayer was recited like this:

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts 2 Corinthians 3:13-16; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. (‘Amen’ is not responded, nor is said ‘Let us pray’, or ‘Let us kneel’, or ‘Arise’, but immediately is said:) Almighty and eternal God, who does not exclude from your mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of your Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That’s a little harsh.

After Vatican II, the prayer was changed to this:

Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. (Prayer in silence. Then the Priest says:) Almighty ever-living God, who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants, hear graciously the prayers of your Church, that the people you first made your own may attain the fullness of redemption. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

That’s a little better. That is the prayer that Catholics use today.

I think about my friends who are Jewish. They are serving God in their own fashion, and in many ways their tradition is the foundation of my own. They are my older siblings in faith. I don’t often talk to them about Jesus. They have already heard enough about Jesus. More to the point, they have seen what the followers of Jesus have done to them during the last two millennia. They don’t really have much against Jesus personally, but they are very gun-shy with regards to his adherents.

I cannot imagine any of my friends being damned for being good Jews. That makes no sense to me. A God who is loving and just would not punish anybody that sincerely seeks Him.

Honestly, if my Jewish friends can’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go either.

Training

April 12th, 2022

My son, Stefan, talked to me several days ago. He was upset. He was telling me about his new position as a “connector” at the construction site. Stefan is a journeyman in the Ironworkers Union. He has already done a lot of different jobs while being an Ironworker. He’s tied rebar, he’s walked on steel beams high above the ground, he’s learned a variety of welding techniques. He’s done most everything except be a connector. So, when his foreman asked him if he wanted to do that job, Stefan jumped at it.

According to Stefan, a connector is the guy putting the steel puzzle pieces together when a building is going up. The connector is usually high up in a lift. The crane operator “flies” each piece of steel to the connector, who has to catch it, and then attach it to the existing structure. The job is fast paced, complex, and occasionally dangerous. Stefan considered that to be the most badass job at the construction site, so he wanted it.

Stefan was frustrated because after two days his boss told him that he wasn’t keeping up with the workflow. The foreman explained to Stefan that, if he couldn’t keep pace with the other guys, they would need to find somebody else to be the connector. Stefan did not take the criticism well. Stefan is a clever young man, and he learns quickly. He has generally been successful with anything he tried to do. His boss’ comments hurt his pride in a big way.

Stefan told me, “They gave me two whole days of training, with two different guys. The guys who were teaching me have been doing this shit for ten years, and they didn’t slow down at all for me. They expect me to do the work just like them after only two days!”

I listened to Stefan and thought to myself, “I bet they do. That’s how it is.”

Stefan made me remember some things. When I was in the Army, all we did was train people. I was the operations officer for a helicopter company, and we trained each and every day. We had an annual budget measured in flight hours. “Flight hours” consisted of the all the money needed for aircraft maintenance, fuel, training, and whatever. I remember very distinctly that we were supposed to use up all the flight hours in the budget. Near the end of each fiscal year, I was told quite clearly, “Fly!” My experience from the military was that training was everything.

I got out of the Army and went to work as a supervisor for a trucking company. I quickly learned that the corporate world regards training as, at best, a necessary evil. Money spent on training, at least in the short term, does not increase profitability. Ultimately, the goal in any business is to hire somebody who needs no training at all. Those people are hard to find.

I was hired by the trucking company to run an early morning dock operation that was at least three times the size of anything I had handled before. I think that I had two weeks of training, and then I was on my own. My first day solo was a disaster. I couldn’t keep up with all the things that were happening. Like Stefan, I got the talk from my boss that suggested maybe I wasn’t cut out for the job. I felt just like Stefan felt. It stung.

After a few truly ugly days, I got the hang of the position. It was a stressful job, and nobody in management offered to help me out. In fact, management pushed me hard, and I did the same with guys working for me on that shift. There was no slack in the system.

We had a lot of veterans working at our company. Trucking seems to attract vets. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we wore uniforms. Maybe it’s because the chain of command was very clear. Maybe it’s because the instructions were pretty much black and white, no grey areas. Maybe it’s because employees were expected to get the job done with minimal supervision.

The company liked to hire vets. It wasn’t because management was particularly patriotic. I think it was mostly because of the vets’ work ethic. The vets were very mission oriented. Get the job done, whatever it takes. Everybody bitched and moaned, but that was just like being back in the service. People generally worked as a team. Unfortunately, sometimes we got a vet who had been traumatized by his wartime experiences, and that person had difficulty playing nice with his coworkers. A veteran like that didn’t stay very long.

Everybody who got hired by my firm had a trial by fire. I regret that I often increased the level of stress for the new guys. I was an asshole. They had to work fast, and they had to work safely. I was run over by a forklift once. I had my lower right leg crushed. Especially after that unpleasant event, I was very strict about safety. I remember having numerous conversations with inattentive forklift drivers that started with me saying,

“Listen fucker, what did I just tell you?”

From what Stefan has told me, the Ironworkers sound a lot like soldiers, or like my dockworkers. The people who work with Stefan expect him to be as good as them, regardless of his level of experience. They expect him to be efficient and safe, and they are not shy about letting him know that. It’s probably not fair, but that’s how things are.

I asked Stefan yesterday how things were going. He told me that it’s better now. There isn’t so much anxiety. He is still not quite as fast as the old-timers, but he can keep up most of the time. He’s over the hump.

He will be an excellent connector.

Making Sense of Lent

April 5th, 2022

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

When I was a boy growing up in a Catholic family, the adults would ask each other that question just before Ash Wednesday rolled around. Usually, they would say that they are giving up sweets or some other snacks. A bold few would promise to stop smoking, or maybe even drinking. It always sounded to me like some kind of spiritual endurance test. Each person was going to white knuckle it for forty days. Then they would all go back to doing whatever they liked to do until the next season of Lent.

It seemed to me that whatever sacrifice they made was an act performed solely out of a sense of duty. They were fulfilling a requirement, and often doing it grudgingly. I never got the idea that they were giving something up in order to help somebody else. It was just something they did to satisfy the perceived demands of God and the Church.

A few days ago, I wished some Muslim friends, “Ramadan Mubarak”. That phrase means a “Blessed Ramadan”. The Muslims are fasting from dawn to dusk every day for a month. No food or water until after sunset. That’s pretty hardcore, especially in comparison with how I might fast during Lent. I told my friend, Mohammed, that I would never be able to do what he does.

He just shrugged and said, “You’d get used to it.”

He’s probably right.

My wife, Karin, commented that it seems like all religions have periods of fasting. I think she’s right. I know that my friend, Ken, who is an Orthodox Jew, has several days of total fasting during the course of the year. That’s a bit rough on him. He’s eighty years old.

So, what is the point of fasting? What is the reason for giving something up?

Years ago, Father Richard gave a homily at church about this topic. He told the congregation that if we give up something, it should be in order to better give to somebody else. In essence, I give up something I want so that I can give another person what they need. That makes total sense to me.

Making a sacrifice of any kind should increase the amount of love in the world. If I give up something, that act needs to benefit others. It doesn’t need to be a sacrifice of heroic proportions. Every small act of selflessness makes a difference, sometimes a surprisingly big difference.

What am I giving up this Lent?

Well, I am giving up the same thing that I have been offering up for months now. I am giving away my time.

Karin and I care for our toddler grandson fulltime. We give him our time whenever he needs it. Our schedule is his schedule. When Asher needs a new diaper, I stop what I am doing and change him. When Asher is hungry, one of us feeds the boy. When he cries, Karin or I hug him. Right now, Karin is putting the lad to bed. Before I finish writing this essay, Asher will have interrupted me at least half a dozen times.

That’s okay. We are giving up our time because we love Asher. Karin and I also give away our time to each other, so one of us can rest. We do that because we love each other. We make sacrifices for love.

Love of God and love of neighbor are two aspects of the same love. Giving up something for love of neighbor is the same as sacrificing something for love of God. I find it hard to love God as God. It is easier for me to love Asher or Karin. I have to love God through them.

At the end of Lent, I won’t stop giving up my time. Asher will still need me to do that. Karin will too. That’s okay. When I make a sacrifice out of love, then it really isn’t Lent anymore.

It’s already Easter.

Edging Toward War

April 4th, 2022

“I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m movin’ but I’m standin’ still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear the murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.” – Bob Dylan

The news is all about Ukraine, unless of course it’s Fox News, then it’s all about Hunter Biden. However, in most cases, in most of the media, the latest events in Ukraine dominate. The eyes of the world are focused on the war there. There are other wars being fought in other places, but the struggle in Ukraine is the one getting all the attention.

Why does the war in Ukraine get more scrutiny than, say, the war in Yemen? Well, it’s being waged in Europe, and the inhabitants of that continent somehow thought that they were done with war, despite the localized nastiness in the Balkans back in the 1990’s. There are very few Europeans that have any recollection of World War II. The slugfest in Ukraine is bringing back all those bad memories and long-forgotten fears.

The current war between Russia and Ukraine is also bringing back some ugly Cold War vibes. Granted, it is Ukraine and Russia that are doing all of the shooting, but to some extent this war is a proxy battle between Russia and NATO. Nuclear powers are involved in this struggle, and possibility of a nuclear confrontation tends to make people sit up and take notice.

Putin has been labelled as the bad guy in this drama. He is. The Russians invaded a sovereign nation that had done them no harm. They are killing civilians without hesitation or remorse. The West has rallied, for once, to oppose this aggression. Why hasn’t rest of the world done the same?

The West has skin in the game. For the members of NATO, Yemen is some small, remote country that they can safely ignore. NATO cannot ignore Ukraine. Ukraine is part of the neighborhood. The chances of violence spilling over into Poland or Estonia are pretty high. The West needs to be involved for purely selfish reasons.

The rest of the world has its own priorities. The freedom of Ukraine is not one of them. It doesn’t do any good for Joe Biden to brand Putin as a war criminal, although he is one. We, as Americans, really don’t have any moral high ground in this situation. After all, we just left Afghanistan, a sovereign country that we invaded and occupied. The rest of the world also remembers our invasion of Iraq. As far as most people on this planet are concerned, if Putin is a war criminal, then so is George W. Bush.

Even within the United States, there is not complete and total support for the Ukrainians. Once again, that has something to do with our nation’s recent exploits in the Middle East. Americans have notoriously short memories, but we can still remember that nightmarish withdrawal from Kabul last August. We don’t mind giving weapons to the Ukrainians. The United States is always quick to pull out the national credit card to pay for a war, especially somebody else’s war. But establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or putting U.S. boots on the ground in that country…we need to think about that a bit. I see plenty of Ukrainian flags flying proudly near my house, but I have yet to hear anybody say, “I want my kid to fight against the Russians!”

My kid fought in Iraq. He got wounded, and he killed people there. He came home damaged. There are serious costs involved with any war. We need to take a deep breath and ponder how far we want to go in Ukraine. Things are bad, but they could get far worse.

“It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”

Distance

March 27th, 2022

I don’t know our grandchildren. Well, I don’t really know two of the three. I haven’t seen Weston for a year and a half. I have never met Madeline in person. The only grandchild I know well is Asher, and that is because he lives with us.

Weston and Maddy live in Texas with their parents, Hans and Gabby. Hans is our son. He moved down to Texas about fifteen years ago. He has not moved back to Wisconsin, and it is unlikely that he ever will. Hans grew up in Wisconsin, but Texas is his natural habitat, and it’s the place he calls home.

Hans and Gabby do not have the time or the money to visit my wife and me. Since Karin and I became the primary caregivers for Asher, we haven’t had the time or the energy to go down south. 1159 miles lie between Hans’ home and our house, and that just too far for us to maintain a close relationship, both in terms of distance and in terms of understanding.

We communicate often. Gabby sends Karin photos and videos of Weston and Maddy almost every day. Karin reciprocates with messages about Asher. Hans calls us at least once a week. So, we keep in touch. But it’s not enough.

We know a man who is a missionary in Germany. He has been in Germany for at least a decade. He used to live in our local area. He comes back every autumn to reconnect with family and friends. He likes to tell us that, although he only sees his grandkids for a couple weeks a year, he has a very close bond with them. He will say things like,

“It’s great! I’m their opa’ from Germany! We do FaceTime and Zoom!”

I don’t think that he has a close relationship with these children. I really don’t think he can. Or perhaps his definition of a close relationship is different than mine.

Zoom and FaceTime are good things, but they can’t replace physical contact. Electronic communication is a poor substitute for being together with another human being.

I interact with our toddler grandson, Asher, each and every day. I feed him, change him, play with him, put down for naps. It is only because I am with him so much that I notice certain things about Asher, like the fact that he has a dimple on his right cheek when he smiles. I watch Asher happily tug on the dog’s collar as our old border collie tries to ignore the little human. I notice that, when he sits on the floor to play, he holds his toys with his feet; it’s like he has an extra set of hands. I see that he wobbles uncertainly when he walks around the house, but he has the speed and agility of a mongoose when he reaches for something he wants. These are all little things, but added together they reveal the little boy’s personality. A person is an intricate mosaic of tiny details, many of which are not visible on a glowing screen.

I don’t know these sorts of things about Weston and Madeline. I can’t, because I am not with them. Even if I made the trip down to Texas once or twice a year to visit, I still wouldn’t know them like I know Asher. I will always be that friendly stranger who they call “Grandpa Frank”. I will always be peripheral to their lives, and that grieves me.

Hans called us a couple days ago. I haven’t seen Hans for eighteen months. I was missing him, so I told him,

“I wish I could come down to talk with you. We wouldn’t need to do anything special.”

Hans replied, “Well, we could go to that fancy movie theater…”

I interrupted him, “We don’t have to go anywhere. I just want to sit with you and talk. I don’t even need to do any talking. I just want to listen to you.”

I want Hans to tell me about his life. I want to know if he is healing from his wartime experiences in Iraq. I want to understand who he is now at the age of thirty-five years.

I just want to be there.

Grief

March 22nd, 2022

I dreamt of my father last night. He died three years ago. I dream of him often, and the dreams are all very similar, just variations on a theme. I never see my father in the dream. He is always in another room or someplace distant from me. However, I can hear his voice clearly. He is always complaining. Always.

What do the dreams mean? I don’t know. I am convinced that they mean something, but I can’t decipher the code. I’ve read a lot from Carl Jung, and one dream by itself may not mean much. A person has to follow a long series of dreams to understand the pattern. I haven’t had the motivation or energy to do that.

I have read some things about grieving. There is the Kübler-Ross model that says people go through five emotions during the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I don’t remember going through that series of emotions when my dad died. If anything, I went directly to acceptance. I reacted to his death with a sigh and a shrug.

I have been to funerals where the children of the deceased stand up to say wonderful things about their father. Often, they get emotional as they speak, and choke up or perhaps weep. Nobody from our family gave any kind of eulogy for our father. Nobody said anything, except for the priest, who hardly knew the man. I have always envied those adult children who were able wax nostalgic about the father they had lost. I have never been able to do that.

Was my dad a good father? Was he a bad one?I have no idea. He’s the only one I ever had, so I cannot make any kind of comparison. He raised me and my six brothers. I think that he loved us. He was wounded somehow. He had a bitter spirit and that influenced everything he did. It was difficult to be with him.

The truth is that I don’t miss him. If there is anything that grieves me, it is that fact. I wish that I could miss him. He is not the only one who died. Something died inside of me too.

It hurts to say this, but I have often felt relief that I don’t have to listen to him bitch anymore.

At least not when I am awake.

Why Fight?

March 15th, 2022

I’ve been thinking about the Russian soldiers in the Ukraine. I don’t mean the senior officers. I mean the regular soldiers, be they enlisted or conscripted. I am aware that they are causing enormous amounts of suffering, but somehow, I pity them. The Ukrainians are fighting for their homes and their families. They know exactly why they are at war. What motivates the Russian soldiers? Why do the Russian troops fight?

I read the news about the war in the Ukraine, and a lot of it is propaganda. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. We get bits and pieces of the truth, and I doubt that we will ever know the whole story. What little we do learn is disturbing enough.

I read one pundit expressing shock that the Russian troops were not told that they were going into Ukraine.

My reaction was, “Yeah, and so?”

I think back to when I was an operations officer in a Black Hawk company with the 7th Infantry Division (light), back in the mid-80’s. The 7th ID was often on alert. We were supposed to be deployable at a moment’s notice. Not once, when we got called on alert, did anybody ever tell us where we were going, or even if we were going someplace. The official rumor was that would be going to Honduras. This was back in the days when Ronald Reagan had a hard on for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The farthest we ever got was the airfield in Fresno, where we tried to stuff some helicopters into an Air Force C-5.

Why would the Russian top brass tell their grunts where they are going? We don’t even do that.

Another talking head on the news stated that morale among the Russian troops is low. It probably is, but I don’t see how anybody knows that for sure. It’s not like Putin is taking a poll.

I remember when I was a section leader in a helicopter platoon in West Germany. It had to be back in 1982 because we were still flying Hueys. I think it was during the annual Reforger exercise. We were told to fly a couple aircraft to an LZ near a wood line. Once we got there, our instructions were to “wait for further instructions”. So, we waited. And waited. And waited.

We got the unpleasant feeling that the people in charge had completely forgotten about us.

It got to be late in the afternoon, and one of the warrant officers asked the company executive officer if somebody at the company HQ was going to bring us a hot meal for supper. We had already eaten c-rations for lunch. The XO replied in an overconfident way,

“Don’t worry. They will take care of it.”

The warrant officer stared at the XO and asked,

They? Who the hell are they?”

Then the pilot turned away from the captain and shouted into the woods,

“HEY THEY! THEY, CAN YOU HEAR ME?”

The pilot turned back to the XO and said,

“I didn’t hear a response, Sir. Did you?”

Our morale on Reforger was not the best, and that was in peace time.

I talked to my son, Hans, on the phone about the war in Ukraine. I mentioned the column of vehicles that seems to stretch back from Kyiv almost all the way to the Russian border. Hans was in the Armored Cav at Fort Hood, and I asked him about this stationary line of tanks and BRDMs. Hans said in his Texas drawl,

“Y’all want to know what I think? Those boys are gonna get lit up.”

I keep imagining what it must be like now for these Russian troops in the endless convoy. It’s probably cold as fuck, and they can’t run the engines on their tanks to keep warm because they need to conserve fuel. So, there is probably a tank crew standing in the snow next to their T-90 or T-72, freezing their asses off. I can see one of them smoking his last cigarette, holding it between his thumb and forefinger, and sucking on it until there are only ashes left. They stamp their feet to keep the blood flowing, and they swap rumors to pass the time. The next time these guys will get warm is when a Javelin fries them inside their tank.

I visualize some junior officer walking past them, and one of these soldiers calling out to him,

“Lieutenant Butterbarsky, when do we move? When do we get more fuel? You got any smokes?”

The LT ignores the questions and tells these guys to do some preventive maintenance on their vehicle.

The lieutenant probably doesn’t know any more than his troops. Maybe nobody knows what is going on, maybe not even Putin.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure their morale sucks.

Why should they fight?

After Hans got out of the Army, he worked in the Texas oil fields. He had been deployed to Iraq in 2011. His boss in the fracking outfit talked to him one time about Iraq. He asked Hans,

“So, do you think you’re a hero?”

Hans replied, “No, I was just doing a job.”

Hans told me once that, when he was in Iraq, they didn’t fight for democracy or for oil. They fought to make sure everybody in the unit got home alive. That was it, no more, no less.

These Russians in Ukraine are just doing a job. It’s a nasty, immoral job, but they think that they have to complete it. I suspect they are a bit like my son was in Iraq. I doubt that they are fighting for Mother Russia. I doubt that they have any noble purpose. At this point, they are fighting to keep each other alive.

Strangers Far from Home

March 13th, 2022

A couple months ago, Karin, Asher, and I went out for lunch with Janan. Janan is a good friend, and she treated us to an enormous meal at Taqwa, a Palestinian restaurant in Milwaukee. We worked our way through bowls of red lentil soup and plates of shish kabob and saffron rice. We tried to feed our little grandson, Asher, pita bread and stuffed grape leaves (he wasn’t liking the grape leaves). Even though Janan is a busy woman, we sat and ate at a leisurely pace. We had time to talk, and we had time to listen.

Janan is a leader in the local Muslim community, and she often interacts with immigrants. She had just recently organized a clothing drive/fundraiser for the Afghan refugees staying at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Our conversation turned to the topic of immigrants. I mentioned that people coming to America always seem to have one foot in the Old Country, while their children don’t have that connection.

Janan agreed and said,

“Of course, they all have one foot in the Old Country. They die believing that someday they will get to go back home.”

Janan may have exaggerated slightly, but she was pretty close to the truth. I think she described some refugees accurately. Her words made me think about a number of things.

My wife, Karin, is from Germany. Her family, on her father’s side, were all refugees at the end of World War II. They were originally from Silesia, which is now part of Poland. They fled to the west and settled in Baden-Württemberg. Karin’s aunt and uncle, Aga and Kurt, often spoke of their hometown. I believe it was called Neustadt (Germany has a plethora of towns with that name).

Tante Aga and Onkel Kurt dreamed of going back to their home, but the Iron Curtain held them back. Then communism suddenly collapsed in eastern Europe. Aga and Kurt made the trip to Poland, and after fifty years, finally visited Neustadt. They were deeply disappointed. I can remember Kurt bitterly complaining,

“Polnisch! Polnisch! Alles war polnisch!” (“Polish! Polish! Everything was Polish!”)

Aga and Kurt never went home. They went to the correct geographical location, but they arrived a half century too late. Almost all the things they remembered were gone, or at least changed beyond recognition. They tried to go home, but that particular time and place no longer existed.

Karin and I are friends with a Syrian refugee family. I used to tutor their kids. The parents and the older children still remember life in Syria, and they will always linger in those memories. The younger siblings don’t remember the Old Country. In fact, the youngest girl won’t speak Arabic, even though she understands the language. The little one has become an American, for good or for ill.

Immigrant families lose things over time. The first thing that goes is their native tongue. The members of the following generation, those who have been born here, often has no interest in the old language. Then maybe the religion goes, especially if the folks of the next generation intermarry with partners from different faith traditions. Oddly enough, the last thing to go is the food. The following generations may know very little about their immigrant ancestors, but they know what those people ate.

What is a “home”? It is more than just a physical place. It is more than just a certain time in history. It is a constellation of relationships. It is where a person belongs.

I just read that two million people have fled the war in Ukraine. They are all refugees. Can they ever go home? If the war ended today, this very minute, could they go back to something that they would recognize as “home”? If a person’s house is blown up, where is home? If a person’s friends and family are scattered to the winds, can a that individual find a home? The longer this war goes on, the harder it will be for any of these millions of people to return home. Many of these migrants will be forced to build new lives and create new “homes”. Even if Ukraine wins this war with Russia, what will there be left in the Old Country for these uprooted and traumatized people?

We know a young Afghan refugee family. They fled Kabul just before it fell. They went across the border to Pakistan and were stranded there for months. They finally got visas to go to a small European nation. A year ago, they may have not even heard of this country, but they are there now. They are strangers in a new land, with new customs and a new language to learn. They are safe now. That is the most important thing.

The parents have a baby boy, a few months younger than our Asher. That boy was born just before the fall of Kabul. His parents will always think about Afghanistan. Maybe they believe that they will be able to return one day. The boy will remember nothing of his parents’ homeland. He will hear their stories, but he won’t understand their experiences.

He will only know their love.

The little boy is home.

Nukes

March 1st, 2022

“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

“(It) does tell one something about the nature of civilization. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear-fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees, or even planting next year’s crops.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation

I should stop reading the news. There is nothing helpful or hopeful there. It just causes me to have some sort of psychological paralysis. It is not so much the news about the war in Ukraine that bothers me, frightening as that is. It is more the speculation about a nuclear war that drags me down. It brings back memories from when I was stationed in West Germany back in the early 1980’s. It all seems painfully familiar.

When I was a helicopter platoon leader in Hanau back in the bad old days, we would occasionally receive intelligence briefings from the Battalion S-2. These talks were consistently depressing. We heard all about the Soviet armor units and motorized rifle regiments facing us on the other side of the intra-German border. The numerical odds were daunting: 3 to 1, maybe 5 to 1, in the favor of the Reds.

We heard that the Soviets would most likely use chemical weapons when they attacked. They would launch nerve agents against NATO airfields. That was disturbing to me as an aviator. Apparently, one the first effects of a nerve agent is to cause blurred vision. Nice. It is much more challenging to fly an aircraft when you can’t see anything. Of course, if we had advanced warning (which we wouldn’t have), we could fly while wearing MOPP gear. We trained at least once a year to fly while wearing a gas mask. Not a good deal at all.

So, what do we do if we are grossly outnumbered by the Soviets? It wasn’t often said out loud, but if the red horde crossed the border, then maybe the United States would fire a tactical nuclear weapon. The U.S. never said that it would not use nuclear weapons first. That was an option.

I used to listen to these briefings and think to myself,

“This is nuts, just fucking nuts.”

Of course, the whole scenario was nuts. We were deep into Dr. Strangelove territory. How could we even consider using a nuke? Launching nukes is like eating potato chips: nobody can stop at just one. Once we fired a round, it would be “game on”. Let’s welcome Armageddon.

It was really hard to plan for the future when I was staring at the prospect of total destruction. Why bother to do anything? What’s the point?

I wasn’t the only person unnerved by the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. That was in the back of everyone’s mind. It was part of the zeitgeist. How else can we explain the popularity of the song “Neun und Neunzig Luftballons”? from Nena. That tune was a hit on the pop charts in Europe and America, and it was about nuclear war (sung in German no less).

We got lucky. The apocalypse did not happen on our shift. The Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and we completely forgot about those thousands of missiles and bombs.

Until now.

After the Cold War ended, the nations of the world had a chance to get rid of its nuclear arsenals. No one did anything. Everybody kept their toys. Now things are scary again. An entire generation has grown up not having to feel that uneasiness and dread. Now they are going to taste that fear.

I don’t worry too much about what will happen to me in a nuclear war. I’m old. However, I spend a lot of time with my toddler grandson, Asher. I am concerned about his future. More to the point, I am concerned whether he will even have a future.

Kenneth Clark spoke about nuclear weapons. To quote him once again,

“Add to this the memory of that shadowy companion who is always with us, like an inverted guardian angel, silent, invisible, almost incredible-and yet unquestionably there and ready to assert itself at the touch of a button; and one must concede that the future of civilization does not look very bright.”