Whose Rights?

May 10th, 2020

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is printing a letter from me in the paper today. I don’t often get into the Journal, so it will be interesting what effect the letter has, if any.

My short essay is as follows:

“I have found the recent demonstration against the “safer-at-home” lock down to be disturbing. I sympathize with some of the grievances of the protesters in Madison, and, like them, I am concerned about losing my constitutional rights. However, I think that we need to balance our individual rights with the needs of the community as a whole. With rights go responsibilities. I may have the right to expose myself to COVID-19, but I do not have the right to expose others to an infection I may have.

I bothered me that people showed up at the demonstration carrying firearms. I am an Army vet, and I am familiar with weapons. Sometimes, I go shooting with my eldest son, who also happens to be a veteran. I understand that those persons who showed up at the event with guns have the right to do so. However, that decision does not seem smart or safe to me. Why bring a weapon to a gathering where emotions are running high? Just because a person can do something, does not mean that they should.”

We live in such strange times. Maybe every generation lives in strange times.

I am certainly not bored.

Texas is Wide Open

May 10th, 2020

The phone rang yesterday. It was Hans calling from down in Texas. I was glad that he called. I have been thinking hard about going south to visit with him. I miss him a lot, and I miss his wife, Gabby, and their little boy, Weston. I wanted to ask Hans if it would be a good idea to make the trip. I don’t know what the rules are like in Texas, seeing as every state does its own thing.

I asked him, “How are you?”

Hans drawled, “Welllll, Ahm just waiting for the shit to hit the fan.”

That is never a good start to a conversation.

I replied, “Uh, so what do you mean?”

“Well, they opened up the state a couple days ago, and people here have just gone crazy.”

“How so?”

Hans said, “I went to Academy today to buy some work boots, and hell, I had to park at the back of the lot. The store’s parking lot was full.”

“What were all those people doing?”

“Buying stuff. I went inside and the place had lots of people.”

“Were they keeping distance from each other? Did they have any masks on?”

“Some were trying to keep their distance. I was, but there wasn’t enough room to keep apart. About a quarter of the people had masks. The store owners are supposed to monitor how people are in these places, but they don’t care. They have nobody enforcing the rules.”

“And the State of Texas doesn’t care?”

“Not really.”

Then Hans asked me, “Dad, do you remember that restaurant we went to? Solodak’s in Bryan?”

“Yeah, that was the place with the deep fried bacon. That stuff was kind of nasty.”

Hans verbally shrugged, “That’s what they are famous for.”

(Note: Solodak’s is a family run steak house. They have two locations, one of which is in Bryan, Texas. It’s a carnivore’s paradise. A person can get deep fried anything. My heart hurts just writing about it. Also, the waitresses wear t-shirts with Bible verses written on them. I couldn’t make this up.)

Hans went on, “Well, I went past Solodak’s and the parking lot was full there. It was loaded with Harley’s.”

“So, it was full on the inside too?”

“Well, yeah. The restaurants are supposed to be operating at 25% capacity. These places have blocked off every other booth. That’s more like 50%.”

“So, what’s going to happen?”

“People will act stupid for a couple weeks, and then everything will be locked down again.”


Hans told me that at his work, they were supposed to wear masks.

“When we are out pumping concrete, they want us to wear masks. I do. Some guys don’t. Some of the guys have them hanging down around their necks, or have them up on their hard hats.”

“That doesn’t help much.”


Hans wrapped up the call.

“Well, Dad, I just wanted to let you know how things were going down here. I love you.”

“Yeah, love you too.”

I think I’ll stay home for a bit longer.












Youngest Son

May 5th, 2020

I hate plumbing repair projects. No matter how simple they are (or should be), they always turn into a minor disaster for me. I never fail to get the floor awash with water. Yesterday’s effort was no exception to that rule.

We have two sump pumps in our basement. We live in a soggy part of the world, and it is not unusual for both pumps to be working simultaneously. One of the pumps quit on me a couple days ago. The motor still worked, but the on/off switch was shot, so the pump wouldn’t turn on automatically when the sump crock filled with water. The pump had been running almost continuously for about ten years, so this problem was not completely unexpected.

I have replaced sump pumps in the past. It’s not really that difficult, so I figured that I could handle the job yesterday. I bought a new pump at Home Depot, and took it home. I rounded up the tools that I thought I would need, and started dismantling the hook up in the rear corner of the basement. I was careful to keep track of the various fittings and clamps that held the old pump together with the PVC pipes. Two clamps were nearly impossible to release. The screws had corroded in the cold water of the crock over the course of a decade, and they were to the point of being immovable. I also discovered that the original pump had an attachment that the new one did not have, making it impossible for me to hook the PVC pipe to the new pump.

I managed to separate the two PVC sections from the one-way valve. When I did so, the built up water in the upper pipe section sprayed all over the basement floor, and all over me.

I found several old, torn bath towels to soak up the deluge. Then I texted Stefan.

Stefan is our youngest son. He’s twenty-six years old. He is a welder by trade, and he is an apprentice in the Iron Workers Union. Stefan has an uncanny knack for fixing things. I can figure out how to repair something, but it takes me a while. Stefan, on the other hand, can look at a mechanical problem and know exactly what to do within five minutes.

For instance, I used to have a cheap, crappy lawnmower. A tiny metal spring kept the throttle adjusted properly. The spring broke and the mower ceased to work. Stefan came to the house, looked at the mower, and found an old fashioned ballpoint pen. He pulled the spring out of the pen and attached it to the throttle. The mower worked fine again. The pen, not so much.

Stefan came to our house about an hour after I texted him. He saw the wet basement floor and the pieces of PVC pipe scattered around. He made no comment. He is used to this sort of thing. He told me that we could get the missing sump pump attachment at Kortendick Hardware in Racine. We drove there in his pick up.

While we drove to Racine, Stefan frowned and said,

“My chest has been hurting.”

Uh oh.

“Any idea what’s wrong?”

Stefan replied, “No, not really. Maybe it’s from work.”

“Have you thought about getting an EKG?”

“Not yet. I didn’t sleep well last night. I was up at 2:30. I wonder where I get that from?”

Stefan gave me a hard look. I have a lot of trouble sleeping. It is apparently hereditary.

Stefan went on, “I guess I could cut back on the energy drinks. That might help.”


When we got back home, Stefan rummaged around the garage for the proper tools to complete the sump pump replacement. Stefan has a couple very large tool boxes stored in our garage. He knows what is in them. I don’t. Stefan rigged up the new pump in about ten minutes. It worked fine.

Stefan asked me, “You want to go to Grant Park?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Oak Creek flows through Grant Park all the way to Lake Michigan. It had rained a couple days ago, so the water in the creek was moving fast. Stefan pulled a rod and reel from the back of his truck. He likes to fish. I didn’t know that. We wandered along the bank, and he cast a few times. There were only to other men fishing. The weather was cold, grey, and windy. People were sheltering in place.

I asked how it is now that he got laid off.

“It’s okay. I got some money. I’ll be all right for a couple months.”

He told me that, as an apprentice, he is “on call” every morning, just in case there is work available. Sometimes, if a contractor wants a specific worker, they will call the night before. That doesn’t happen too often.

He told me, “Once I get my journeyman’s book, then I can take time off and travel.”

“When do you graduate to journeyman?”

“Two years. I’m halfway there already. With the certifications and hours I have, I’m well on my way. I even have a crane operator’s certification. Some guys go their whole careers and never get up in a crane.”

“That sounds good.”

“Yeah”, Stefan replied, “then I’ll go to Europe.”

“Take the train while you are over there?”

“Yeah. I want to go back to Germany and see what’s there.”

I told him, “I have a friend in Spain. If he is still there in two years, maybe you could meet him.”

“That would be cool.”

I said, “When I was living in Germany, before I met Mom, I went by myself on the train from Frankfurt to Zürich in Switzerland. I knew enough German to get by. I remember going alone to some outdoor market at night. It feels like a dream now.”

Stefan nodded, “Cool.”

Stefan reeled in his line for the last time. He said, “You want tacos?”


“We’ll go to Taco Stop. How about steak chimichangas?”


We got back into his truck.

As we drove to Taco Stop, I thought that it was good that we had been together for a little while. Stefan and I hadn’t done anything exciting, but we had had a chance to talk. We don’t often hang out. I tend to lose track of who he is. I lose track of where he is in his life.

I’m glad I had trouble with the sump pump.







Sacred Space

May 2nd, 2020

There is such a thing as sacred space.

What do I mean by that? I guess I had better define the term.

To me, “sacred space” is anywhere humans allow themselves to come closer to the Other. The “Other” can be Jesus or the Buddha or the Tao or whatever. For my own convenience, I am going define this undefinable thing as “God”. So, a sacred place for me is any place where I open myself up to experience God.

Let me say upfront that I am not necessarily talking about churches or synagogues or mosques or temples. Some of these buildings truly are sacred, but not all of them. A site is not holy simply because a priest or imam or rabbi or shaman blessed it in some arcane ritual. The ceremony might confirm the fact that the spot is already sacred in some way, but a person cannot make a place holy. It doesn’t work like that.

A certain location is not always holy for all individuals. One person can encounter God up close and personal in an ashram. Another person might find the Divine in a Walmart check out line. Who can say? Moses talked to God in the Burning Bush in the desert. Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi Tree. It’s different for everyone. That being said, I think that there are certain locations on the earth where it seems easier to access God.

I’ve been to a few.

San Stefano, Assisi, Italy

The home of St. Francis radiates peace and beauty. Karin and I were there with our kids back in the summer of 1998. We got there by train late in the evening, and had supper at the Ristorante degli Orti just before they closed. Actually, we got to the restaurant after they closed, but they still let us inside. A couple old women in black were sitting at a side table counting up the day’s receipts. They looked at Karin, me, and the three tired children with compassion, and they found somebody to serve us. We were fed well with pasta and love.

The next day we wandered around the town. Assisi is built on the side of a steep hill, so two lane streets turn into one lane streets, which turn into alleys, which turn into staircases. Along one of these winding, twisting side streets was the medieval church of San Stefano. Next to the chapel was an enclosed garden. The garden had a gate, and the gate had a sign. Written on the sign, in several languages, it said:

“If you think it will do you good, come inside.”

We did. Inside the garden was a picnic table, shaded by a large tree. A nun and a laywoman greeted us enthusiastically and offered us glasses of ice water with lemon slices. It was a hot morning, so we all drank deeply. Then we rested in the shade and spoke with the women. They asked us where we were from, and how we were. They were in no hurry, and neither were we.

God was with us in that garden.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

One might think that Jerusalem is packed full of holy places. Maybe it is. I visited there in December of 1983, and I thought some of the sites were overrated. The one structure that impressed me was the Dome of the Rock. I was in Jerusalem a long time ago, back when things weren’t quite so crazy. In those days, non-Muslims were allowed into the shrine. It was well worth seeing.

I couldn’t stop gazing at the inside of the dome. The interior was covered with an intricate pattern of mosaics. The geometry was such that I had the illusion that the dome was moving upwards and away from me. I felt an involuntary sense of wonder because the dome seemed to ascending to heaven, and I was going along for the ride. It was like being part of the story of the Prophet Muhammed.

Mary House, Catholic Worker, Manhattan, NYC, USA

Mary House is easy to miss. It is a nondescript address on a nondescript street. The windows are covered with a metal grill. We had to press a buzzer to get anybody’s attention from inside the place. A street person came to the door and invited us to enter. The interior of the Catholic Worker House is rough. Every wall could use a coat of paint.  We arrived just as lunch was wrapping up. People are busy there. There are always more hungry folks to feed, more of the nearly naked to clothe, and more homeless persons to shelter. That hasn’t changed since Dorothy Day ran the operation many years ago.

However, we were warmly welcomed. Carmen stopped what he was doing to show us around. We saw their small chapel. We saw Dorothy’s old office. We saw where they work and work and work. Love doesn’t take a break at Mary House.

If there is any place on earth where people really try to live the Beatitudes, it’s at Mary House. God bless them all.

Nipponzan Myohoji Dojo, Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

The Buddhist temple is tiny, built in a Japanese style, and surrounded by massive cedars and Douglas firs. The back of the temple is home of a high altar, covered in scarlet and gold. There is a large portrait of Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of this particular order, prominently displayed among the food offerings and flowers. Of course, the altar contains a variety of buddhas and bodhisattvas.

The temple is quiet, except for twice a day, when people come to drum and chant. At all other times the place is cool and dark. It smells from decades of burning incense. It is one of the most peaceful places I have ever experienced. I have always felt at home there. I belong there.

A nameless sweat lodge on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, USA

The sweat lodge was a cloth/skin-covered dome inside of an old garage on the rez. Outside the garage were the frozen Montana plains. Inside the garage it was warm. Inside the sweat lodge it was hot. I was in there with several other men, all of us nearly naked. Almost all of the guys were Native Americans, most of them locals from Fort Belknap. There is no place darker than the inside of a sweat lodge. There are very few places that are steamier. There were only disembodied voices, chanting and speaking in tongues, praying to the Creator. It was like being in a tent with ghosts, or maybe like being in a tent with God. Scary crazy, and totally worth it.

Retreat House in the Chama River Valley near Abiquiu, New Mexico, USA

Vigils (the first morning prayer) start at 4:00 AM at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is a relatively short walk from the retreat house to the church. Karin and I took a flashlight with us. It was a moonless night. We walked along the gravel road that led to the chapel.

I stopped to look at the sky. The river valley and the surrounding mountains were blacker than black. I craned my neck to see the stars. The sky itself was ebony pierced with frozen white flames. The Milky Way flowed across the heavens like a torn, glowing river.

I couldn’t look away, but it hurt to gaze at the sky. It was beautiful in an overwhelming way. I was utterly amazed.

Wonder and awe.

Stonehenge, England

I was there in 1983. I went to see Stonehenge during the day, and I remember flying near it at night in an Army helicopter. Huge monoliths in a circle. It’s a place full of secrets, and those secrets predate history. The site is utterly pagan. It’s a holy place, and mysterious. It is mysterious in the sense that it can’t ever really be understood. It just is.







April 29th, 2020

“And there’s always retrospect (when you’re looking back)
To light a clearer path
Every five years or so I look back on my life
And I have a good laugh
You start at the top (start at the top)
Go full circle round
Catch a breeze
Take a spill
But ending up where I started again
Makes me want to stand still

Up on the watershed
Standing at the fork in the road
You can stand there and agonize
‘Til your agony’s your heaviest load
You’ll never fly as the crow flies
Get used to a country mile
When you’re learning to face
The path at your pace
Every choice is worth your while”

from “Watershed” by the Indigo Girls

Hans called yesterday.

He had just finished working a twenty-hour shift. He sounded dead tired. I could hear him popping open a Lime-a-rita as he talked on the phone. He bitched about work for a while. He had been pumping concrete at one job site for almost twelve hours straight. The mixer company wasn’t sending him trucks fast enough to keep up with the work. Hans wound up waiting for mud to pour, and that just made a difficult job harder. Hans had to do another pump job once the first one was done. He was dragging ass by the time he got home.

Somehow the conversation shifted over to Hans’ time in Iraq. That happens quite often when we talk. I guess Hans figures that he can tell me things and I will know what he means. Most of the time I do understand. Maybe it is because we both served in the military. The Army is our common ground, even though he was in combat and I never was.

He said, “Yeah, Dad, the Army was okay. I mean the wartime Army; not the Army we had after we got back from Iraq, with all the rules and nonsense. When we were in Iraq, we kicked some ass!”

I replied, “Well, that is what you were there for.”

Hans said, “Yeah, we were kind of wild in Iraq. Then we got back to Fort Hood, and it was all different. I knew it was time to get out when the Army started getting rid of the sergeants I liked. One of them got a DUI, and they just cut him loose. I could tell it was time to move on.”

He went on, “You know, I have been trying to get in touch with some of the guys I knew back then. I hooked up with a lieutenant that was in the other platoon. He was a cool, laid back kind of guy. He was the officer we had to talk to when we wanted to get a motorcycle.

I told the lieutenant what I was doing now. You know, I told him how I was driving this big truck and pumping concrete. He told me that he knew I would do good when I got out of the Army. He said that he could tell just by how I carried myself and how I acted around him.

Yeah, he was a good guy, not like those West Point lieutenants. You know what I mean, Dad? You were one of them.”

Hans laughed.

“I told him, “Yeah, I know.”

Hans laughed again, “The West Point guys, they thought they knew it all. I was the designated driver for one of them. Good God! That was something. We were taking small arms fire, and he was looking up what to do from a book!”

He went on, “I guess it didn’t help him with me asking him all the time, ‘What do I do now, LT? What do I do now?’ I don’t think he liked that.”

“Probably not.”

Hans chuckled, “If I had been that lieutenant, I would have just told our boys to fire up those fuckers with the 50 cal. I couldn’t believe that he was looking up the rules of engagement. Those West Point guys, they had to do everything by the book.”

“That I believe.”

I thought for a moment about emails I occasionally get from some of my West Point classmates. I never really understand why they bother to send them to me. The messages always seem to turn sentimental and strangely nostalgic. People use the emails to reminisce about events that I can’t or won’t remember. We graduated forty years ago, for Christ sake. I miss some of the people I knew back then, but I don’t miss the institution. I get the distinct impression that some of my classmates are stuck in 1980. I have trouble with that, but maybe that was their watershed.

Then Hans said, “When I was over there, I just wanted to keep from getting shot. I did anyway, once or twice. I got some shrapnel from a bullet in my shoulder blade. The doc told me that the metal might work its way out. I don’t think so; not from the bone. The body armor helped a lot.”

“That’s good.”

Hans thought for a moment and said, “I think they had worse diseases in Iraq than this corona virus.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

Hans took a drag off his cancer stick and said, “While I was there, I got dysentery. I know how I got it too. The thing is: that chicken I ate from the street vendor was the best I ever had. They must be immune to these things over there.”


“You know how the Army treated the dysentery? They gave us a laxative. They wanted to flush it out of our systems. I spent a couple days sitting in the conex, next to the porta-john, just waiting for the next chance to shit.”



There was a pause, and then Hans said, “I miss those days.”

I replied, “I miss flying helicopters. I dream about that at night. I don’t miss the Army, but I miss flying. I guess I’m glad that I joined up, but I am even gladder that I left.

Hans said, “Yeah, I hear you. I miss being in tanks.”

I thought some more. I got out of the Army in 1986. I haven’t flown since then, but it is part of me. It always will be. Hans came back from Iraq in 2012. That experience will always be a part of him.

We were both remembering when we were younger, and we stood up on the watershed.










April 24th, 2020

The protesters are in Madison, railing against Governor Evers’ policies concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Evers has the state shut down until May 26th. That is a long time. The Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature are suing Evers to block his stay-at-home rules. Wisconsin’s chamber of commerce wants to open businesses by May 4th. The protesters want everything to be opened right now. 

It’s kind of a mess.

Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce want to open businesses completely in the less densely populated parts of the state. Those regions show little or no signs of infection by the corona virus. The majority of the virus problems are in Wisconsin’s urban areas. So, is it a good idea to open up the economy in certain parts of the state, but not in others? Maybe, but it reminds me of something from years ago.

Back in the early 1980’s, I was stationed with the Army at Fort Rucker, Alabama. It didn’t get any deeper in the South than that. I lived in a apartment off-post in a town called Enterprise. Enterprise is famous for the Boll Weevil Monument. The monument commemorates the boll weevil plague that destroyed the cotton crops of the South. The destruction of the cotton economy forced farmers to diversify their crops. When I was living in Alabama, the farmers were growing peanuts, okra, and kudzu (mostly kudzu). Anyway, the monument is a large statue of a woman holding a hideous insect above her head. That should give you an idea of what Enterprise was like.

Enterprise was the largest city within the borders of Coffee County. At that time, Coffee County was dry. No alcohol. Period. Now, Fort Rucker, being the property of the federal government, did not have to abide by the rules of Coffee County. So people could drink at Fort Rucker, and they did, often to excess. Because of a lack of housing on the post, many of the soldiers, like myself, lived in Enterprise. We drank heavily on post, and then we drove back to our homes. When I wanted to buy booze, I went to the liquor store on Fort Rucker (the Class VI Store), and took the forbidden beverages back to my apartment in the trunk of my car.

How does this apply to the current state of affairs in my state? Well, I live about ten minutes from the Racine County line. If, for some reason, Racine County was able to open all the way up, but Milwaukee County, where I reside, could not, then it is very likely that I would simply drive a few miles south to do whatever I wanted to do in Racine County. For instance, if I can’t take my wife out for dinner in our county, I could take her to a restaurant in Racine. I would not be the only person doing this sort of thing. Basing the stay-at-home rules on a local level guarantees that people will travel and mix with folks from other parts of the state. It is a perfect way to spread the virus to places that so far seem to be unaffected. I see this as being a problem.

Then there is the question of what businesses open and under what conditions. I am betting that the very last businesses to open will be the bars. Why is that? Think about it. I will give you an example.

I don’t usually go to taverns. However, I used to go to Frank’s Power Plant in Bay View when my friends from the Dead Morticians played a gig. The Dead Morticians played horror punk, a dark and twisted sub-genre of heavy metal. It is an acquired taste. They did not play often, but I tried to listen to them whenever they did.

Frank’s Power Plant was a dingy bar with a rather eclectic clientele. It was a tiny place, and always crowded. It appealed to me in a quirky, subversive sort of way. On the nights when the heavy metal enthusiasts were there to hear the bands play, the bar was packed. The volume of the noise in the tavern was at eardrum-bursting decibels, and people were wedged in tight near the musicians. There was no stage. I remember standing within a foot of Ian, the lead guitarist.

Heavy metal aficionados are an unruly lot, even when sober. Generally, they do not remain sober for very long. There is a tendency for the spectators to yell and cheer, and get pretty wild. The music makes some people want to strangle puppies. The odds that one of the customers, after several drinks, might suddenly decide to French kiss another guest are relatively high. These people would never follow CDC guidelines, even if they could. If it reopens, this bar will most likely be an alcohol-fueled petri dish for the virus.

Frank’s Power Plant is not the only tavern that would have great difficulties meeting government health requirements in this pandemic. I can think of very few bars that are big enough and open enough to keep the necessary distances between customers. Many of these establishments will never reopen. This may dismay some of the protesters currently wandering around the state capitol. They have been driven from their natural habitats. They can no longer sit on their regular bar stools, and it is likely that they never will again.




Riding the Rim

April 22nd, 2020

As I was taking my third walk of the day, I heard a noise coming from behind me on Oakwood Road. It was a loud, rhythmic, clunking sound. I turned to look, and I saw a beat up Honda Civic closing in on me. A young man was driving it, and he had his four-way flashers on. He was doing probably 25 mph.

The front tire on the driver’s side was completely shredded. Strips of black rubber clung to the rim and flapped crazily as the wheel rotated. With every rotation the rim hit the asphalt and left a small gouge. It was painful to watch the metal wheel hammer on the pavement.

I thought to myself, as he started to pass me, “For the love of God, pull over!” I have had blowouts in the past, and even I know better than to just keep rolling. This man was in the process of totally trashing the front end of his car. He was going to have much more than just a flat tire to worry about.

The guy had obviously been driving like this for a while, and he fully intended to keep going. I saw him go past me, and I watched as his lights faded into the distance. I could hear the sound of the bouncing wheel even after he was out of sight.

This incident makes me think of the COVID-19 crisis. Actually, almost everything makes me think about COVID-19. It’s just that the pandemic is a bit like a huge blown out tire, and the U.S. is the tired, old Civic. Yeah, I know that this is a wretched analogy, but our health system, our economy, and our civil rights are all shredded. So, maybe we have three flats. As a nation, we have at least pulled over to the curb to look at the damage. We know that we need to fix the problem before we move on. Unfortunately, we don’t have a spare, and we aren’t willing to wait for one. We want to get somewhere in a hurry, and we are going there, even if the vehicle (the United States) is undrivable once we arrive.

We are going to ride the rim.

Maybe we will get lucky. Maybe we will find a vaccine (i.e. spare tire) really soon. Maybe we won’t destroy our political and economic struts and tie rods.

Or maybe we will wind up stuck on the side of a deserted highway, and have to abandon the car. I guess we could empty out the glove compartment and remove the plates.