The Storm – Part IV ‘Line of Departure’

Sitting in the pitch black Saudi Arabian night in a reinforced fighting hole, I pulled a set of night vision goggles from their hard plastic case and strapped them on.

Shivering in the surprisingly cold desert air, I looked starward and watched what seemed like an endless cloud of US and British bombers stream like angry hornets north towards occupied Kuwait and on to Baghdad. I couldn’t help but silently ask ‘Am I really here, living this?’ It was just one of many surreal moments to come. As we listened to Armed Forces Radio and the BBC give the play by play to the start of Desert Storm, we glimpsed a cacophony of dancing flashes on the horizon, felt the ground rumble ominously as if mighty dinosaurs once again walked the Earth, and wondered what the experience felt like from our enemies vantage point. War was no longer an if, or a when. It was real, and we were now in it, a few miles down the road from whatever was to come. Of the possible emotions one could feel at such a moment, I remember the strange mix that rose up in me that night. Happiness. Relief. Resignation. Fear. We’d been living a purgatory of watchful waiting, worrying, and preparing for months, far from our country, our homes, our loved ones. The furious barrage we were watching unfold meant only one thing – resolution. We didn’t know what form it might take, but it was clear, this would be over soon. And that felt overwhelmingly good.

The daily drudgery of months past shifted into something approaching urgency after that January night. There was going to be no governor’s reprieve on the eve of execution. Shield had become Storm. And there’s no stopping a storm – it comes and does what it’s going to do. I saw a changing expression in the eyes of my Marines. We trained on, as we had for months, but now with a serious intensity that was palpable. There were no more internal debates to be held – right or wrong, war for oil or justice, peace vs. violence – it didn’t matter anymore. We were going, and there were only 2 possibilities. There was little horseplay now. Jokes and sarcastic mockery, the daily bread of the Marine infantryman, dried up. In their place came determination – that we would impose our will on our friends to the North, and that it would be us that would be going home in the coming weeks and months.

Our first months in the desert had been filled with isolation, quiet, and dread. That calm was now shattered. We were no longer alone in the sand. Instead, every day brought more activity, like a swarming ant hill before an invasion. Trucks, helicopters, endless supply trains brought hordes of reservist troops, ammo, and the essentials of war. There are no warehouses in the desert. So as Marines always do, we helped create them out of thin air. Engineers used massive bulldozers and earthmovers to pile up sand walls 20 feet high. Sand berms thousands of feet long formed square ASPs (ammo supply points), fortified with razor wire, machine guns, and fields of claymore mines should the unfriendlies decide they wanted to come after our supplies. It was an exhausting time. We were tasked not only with training for an assault on Kuwait, but with defending our desert turf should the maniac in Baghdad launch a preemptive attack. We conducted helicopter and ground-borne assaults on mock Iraqi positions complete with tunnels and mock aggressors. We were issued new gear – high tech gear we’d never seen before – an ominous sign since the only time the Marine Corps ever issues new equipment is when they intend to sacrifice you to the Gods. Laser sights and night vision devices for our M-16A2 rifles, AT4 anti-tank missiles (real ones, not the empty training tubes we usually carried), bunker-busting SMAW launchers, digitally-designed camouflage that helped make you invisible from the air, powerful targeting lasers to help guide new laser-guided air munitions to their destinations, even Patriot anti-missile systems became part of landscape.

If the hurried influx and dispersal of new equipment and arms didn’t convince us war was upon us, the launch of SCUD missiles in our direction and frequent chemical alarms sounded now on a daily basis surely did. Nothing was dreaded by my Marines more than the prospect of fighting in MOPP gear. Saddam had huge amounts of biological and chemical agents to throw at us via missile, artillery, or tank shell, should he decide to make that suicidal move. He’d used them before, on his own countrymen no less, and there was no doubt he might choose to use them again as a desperate final act. In 1991, Saddam’s chemical and biologic weapons weren’t a GWB fairy tale – they were a fact. With every poorly-aimed SCUD launch, or British FOX vehicle chemical alarm, we donned the hot, bulky carbon-filled chemical suits, big clunky rubber shoe covers, rubber gloves, and gas masks. Fighting in such gear was almost incomprehensible. Not to worry though – if our cumbersome chemical suits failed us – we each carried atropine auto-injectors with 6 inch needles to plunge into our thighs to help counter the effects of nerve agents should it become necessary.

And preparation for Hell was not limited to gear. Our bodies themselves were prepped. We received nearly weekly injections of various kinds, many designed to protect us (in laughable theory) against innumerable biological agents. We passed out untested medications, called ‘NAP tablets’, reportedly approved for veterinary use, but never given to humans previously. The tablets supposedly competed with the same receptors nerve and blood agents bound with, thus limiting (again, in theory) the potential effects of a chemical attack. Given that our previous training informed us as little as a drop of nerve agent on the skin was enough to kill an adult male several times over, we were skeptical. But we took them – because that’s what Marines do. Two years later, when I lost the use of one of my arms for a year due to a strange demyelinization process my doctors could never explain, I would wonder how much my exposure to untested drugs played a role. A whole generation of Marines out there have experienced similar problems, whether one calls it ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ or not, and whether or not it was caused by medications, exposure to nerve agent (I personally believe we were exposed) – this was the price we paid for being where we were when we were. In the grand scheme of things, I consider myself beyond lucky all I ever had to contend with was some physical ills.

On January 29th, Saddam finally made the kind of foolish move we’d anticipated him making. He sent a 3 pronged mechanized force southward towards our position, near the town of Khafji. My battalion was positioned about 10 miles west of the coastal road leading into Khafji when Saddam’s forces arrived. While some of our unit went forward to support the recon units defending that town, the rest of us were sent to protect the massive ASP just south of us. Arriving at the massive earthen structure, loaded with untold tons of ammunition and explosives, we were told to defend the position at all costs. Loss of the ammo supplies held there would have been devastating. We had only a single company of Marines – about 200 total, to defend a 4-walled square covering a square mile. We spent the night frantically placing machine guns, claymore anti-personnel mines (Vietnam era booby traps that use C-4 explosives to throw thousands of ball bearings in the general direction of the enemy with devastating effect – a truly brutal weapon), and doing our best to dig in for what was anticipated to be a morning assault on our position. We worked through the night, listening to the explosions from nearby Khafji as we did. It was a nerve-wracking 8 hours. As the first faint rays of sunrise dawned, we searched the horizon for the troops we were sure were bearing down upon us. We were not disappointed. There, coming from the north, were thousands of Iraqi troops coming at us in a brazen frontal assault. We couldn’t believe even Saddam was so brazen as to send his forces into what was certain to be a bloodbath. Captain Carretti passed the word to us, we were to open up with all weapons when he fired a green ‘pop-up’, a hand held flare used as a signaling device. The seconds ticked by as the silhouettes of the attacking Iraqis came closer and closer. Suddenly and inexplicably, the invading troops turned away from us enmasse. What were they doing? And then it came, mumbled words at first, then a chorus of excited shouts.

‘Camels!!!’.

We had spent 14 hours preparing for the slaughter of over 1,000 camels. They’d been an ever-present fixture from the moment we’d headed out into the desert. We should have recognized what we were looking for. But coming straight at us, it had been clear beyond doubt, they were Iraqis – their humps the head, their torso human shoulders piled with gear, and their 2 visible legs those of soldiers. Many times since then I’ve given thanks that we didn’t open up hellfire upon those poor camels. I’d like to say it was because I’d mourn the unfortunate loss of those beasts. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want to be forever linked to the Marine Rifle Company that would’ve forever been nicknamed, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, the ‘Camel Killers’. Thankfully, the great Camel Tragedy of 1992 was averted. The ASP was secure, and we returned to preparing for a more substantive enemy.

By mid-February, we had our marching orders. Our battalion had a mission, in fact, perhaps one of the most daring of all missions. On day 1 of the ground war, we were to conduct a helicopter-borne raid on an Iraqi Division Headquarters. We spent a week rehearsing the attack, over and over again. The more we heard about Iraqi forces in the area, the less we liked the idea. According to recon intelligence, the Iraqi’s had more artillery in the vicinity of the headquarters than the US had in the entire region. Recon reported that the entire area was surrounded by 50 foot wide trenches filled with diesel fuel which the Iraqi’s planned to ignite when attacked, then rain down artillery (perhaps with chemical agents) upon the trapped attacking forces. The only solution we had was to land right on top of the headquarters, putting the helicopters we were transported in right in the range of small arms fire – small arms fire more than capable of taking out our thin-skinned helicopters. We might not even survive the landing attempt.

Fortunately, only days before the ground war was launched, someone decided this was not such a great plan after all, and plans for the helicopter raid were scrapped. By that time, there was little time for the powers to be to devise a plan on how to best utilize 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, on D-Day. Our battalion, known as ‘Task Force Taro’ (after the purple root Hawaiians pound into their treasured native food – Poi) was to be split up, with each company being sent out as a support force. After all this time together, we were to fight, not as a battalion, but assigned to strangers. It was a bittersweet moment. Still, it sounded like a better deal than being served up as sacrificial lambs in some ill-advised helicopter assault debacle. And, we were getting lucky, my Marines, and the rest of Bravo Company, 1/3, were being attached to Task Force Ripper. We didn’t know it then, but we would be the tip of the spear that sliced first through the Iraqi lines and sent them scurrying like cockroaches out of Kuwait.

We said goodbye to our sister Companies. We were all heading West, part of the ‘left-hook’ maneuver that had an incredible mass of American forces picking up and moving 50 miles west to attack from a direction the Iraqi’s never saw coming. One company would go with Engineers to assist in blowing lanes in the 2 enormous Iraqi minefields that stretched for 20 miles and blocked our entrance into Kuwait. Another company would be assigned to guard Artillery units that would be supporting the attack. But my company, Bravo Company, would participate in the frontal assault – punching through the minefields, to the Al Burqan Oil Fields, and onto the Kuwaiti National Airport.

The night before the dawn assault, we were on the move. We loaded up with live ammo – more than we’d ever carried. Live grenades, M 203 rounds, AT4’s, sling after sling of M-16, M-60 machine gun, Bangalore torpedoes, C4 explosive, and every kind of ammo under the sun. Although we Lieutenants were supposed to carry only our service pistols, 9mm’s that would hardly serve as much of a defense in full battle, we issued ourselves M-16’s as well. Our training told us we were there to control our Marines, make battlefield decisions in a split-second, and use our radios as our greatest weapon – it felt more secure to have a substantial weapon slung over our shoulder. As we took on our new load, we shed anything on our persons that wasn’t necessary. Among other things, I buried a walkman, and two paperbacks – a copy of James Michener’s ‘Hawaii’ and ironically given how Custer fared, Evan S. Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’. Somewhere out there in the Saudi Arabian sand, a couple of great novels await to be found again.

Somewhere around midnight, we loaded up into 5 ton trucks and began moving forward. Dressed in our carbon-filled chemical suits, we crossed the Line of Departure (the imaginary line of no return in Marine Assault language, the crossing of which constitutes the start of the attack). We followed the light of tiny green chemlights, left like a string of fireflies by the recon forces leading the way. We arrived at the minefields. There were no fiery trenches, there was no barrage of incoming artillery. Instead, for as far as the eye could see, there were anti-tank and anti-personnel mines lying right on top of the sand. The hapless (or perhaps disinterested) Iraqi forces hadn’t even bothered burying them. We could’ve tiptoed right through them with nothing more than a flashlight. Instead, engineers had blown great swathes through two great minefields, and marked the lanes with tape. We were through the defenses in seconds. Now the first early shades of grey and purple and red glowed with dawn’s approach. The day was here. We were on Kuwaiti soil and we were moving on the enemy. The trucks rejoined us on the opposite side of the minefields, and we mounted up again. We headed north, passing dead Iraqis, some on the ground, some burned to a crisp, frozen in a desperate but futile effort to get out of the armored vehicle they’d been caught in. It was grisly reality. We pressed on. Chemical alarms sounded, once, twice, then a third time. Each time, we would dive from the trucks, throw our gasmasks on, and wait for the alarms to subside. The thud of missiles came for the first time ever from our rear. We were getting close.

If I’d thought my trip to Southeast Asia had had it’s surreal moments before, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Things were about to get ‘Apocalypse Now’ weird. There, in the distance, was a sight fit for the depths of Hell. The Iraqis, with no other reasonable course of action presenting itself, had set afire the Al Burqan Oil Fields. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but a blazing inferno and thick, choking black smoke. It looked like the end of the world. And I suppose, for many of our unfortunate opponents, it was. If the burning landscape wasn’t surreal enough, many of the Iraqi tank forces had sought refuge from our onslaught by hiding in the burning oil fields. That would be no salvation however, as our Cobra helicopter gunships were picking them off one by one with sidewinder missile strikes. We disembarked the trucks, and watched in utter fascination as the helicopter-tank battle raged right in front of us. To add to the bizarre sense of surrealism, I turned to find nearly out entire company of Marines urinating while they watched. Here we were, battle raging 1000 yards in front of us, fire and explosions keeping us company, and my Marines were taking the opportunity to relieve themselves. I don’t know why, but it was at that moment that I knew we would be okay. As the last few Marines completed doing ‘their business’, a Humvee approached. ‘Who the hell are you guys???’ shouted an unknown Major who was clearly perturbed by our presence. ‘We’re Bravo Company, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines!’ I replied with a smile. ‘Well – right now you’re the lead element of Desert Storm Lt., so I’d suggest you hold up here until the rest of us catch up!’. And so, we held up. And they did catch up with us – Marines from regular and reserve units from all over the United States, British troops as well, by the thousands. Soon were but one wave in a sea of allied forces heading North. And we were soon joined by another force – thousands upon thousands of surrendering Iraqis.

They came over the horizon like wayward children looking for shelter. They had abandoned their weapons, and approached waving white rags and shirts over their head. Many of them were smiling. Some approached us speaking English. ‘What took you so long?’ asked one of them, a kid who looked more like a college student than an Iraqi soldier. He shared that he had been living in the US for several years, in school, but had returned home for a visit when he was ordered into a truck on the street, forced onto it at gunpoint, and given a uniform and a weapon. He’d endured months of air raids to embrace our arrival. Before the day was over, my platoon of 35 Marines had gathered over 1000 Iraqi POWs. Almost all of them carried propaganda leaflets we’d been dropping on Kuwait for months – promising them food, water, and safety if they gave themselves up, death if they didn’t. Trouble was – we didn’t have food or water. We corralled them into tight groups sitting in the sand, and surrounded them with the handful of Marines we could spare. It was a scary thing – because anyone could see, had they wanted to overtake us, they could have done it in seconds.

These Iraqi’s though, wanted nothing of the kind. They knew they were beaten before the ground war even began. Like Sun Tzu’s ideal battle plan, we had defeated them before a shot was fired. Those that didn’t see that were either dead already, or soon would be.

We turned our Iraqi POWs over to reserve Marines who came up to relieve us, and pressed on through the burning oil fields towards our ultimate destination, the Kuwaiti International Airport. It was hard to know what to do. We had no real command, our Battalion leadership far behind us, and we weren’t even sure where the rest of ‘Task Force Ripper’ was.Von Clauswitz’ ‘fog of war’ was more real than I’d ever imagined. So we just kept pushing forward. I was awakened after a few precious hours of sleep on day 2 of the ground war by my radio operator, a Lance Corporal. ‘Sir!’ he excitedly shouted, ‘Sir!!! The sun never came up – what are we going to do???’. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, trying to solve the incongruence of the black of night I was observing, and the 10am time my watch was showing. ‘You’re right’ I said, ‘the sun didn’t come up. Now just exactly what do you want me to do about that son?” I asked. The burning oil fields of Al Burqan had belched so much black smoke, it was actually obscuring the light of a normal Kuwaiti morning. The sun never did come out that day. And by the end of it, we were covered in soot, oil, and ash.

The rest of the ground war is a blur to me. Wave after wave of surrendering Iraqis appeared. It was beyond comprehension as mass upon mass of them came over the horizon. It was a roiling sea of surrender almost impossible to comprehend. Before we knew it – it was all over. President George Herbert Walker Bush had, to everyone’s dismay, kept his word to the UN. We were not going to invade Baghdad. We were not going to exceed the authority given us by the UN resolutions. We had said we were going to liberate Kuwait, and nothing more, and that’s exactly what we had done.

Desert Storm, and 6 tumultuous months of my life, had drawn to a close.

‘You mean we’re not going to get to wade in our own blood sir?’ asked the most cynical of my squad leaders, Cpl. Mooney. ‘No Mooney. It looks like we might just get to go home one of these days.’

Soon.

The Storm – Part V ‘Denouement’

And so the ground war, as quickly as it had started, was ending.

There was no grand pronouncement signaling hostilities were over. There was simply a subtle shift from being prepared to mow down anything that moved to resisting that impulse. We’d gone as far north as the Kuwaiti International Airport, found there was simply no one left interested in a fight, and had ground to a halt. Then came the official word – President Bush had issued a cease-fire.

And a merciful cease-fire it was. We had executed Schwartzkopf and Powell’s masterful ‘left hook’ assault, a lightning fast westward flanking attack, to near perfection. We had outmaneuvered and surprised the Iraqi forces, and were in the process of decimating any that elected to resist. Most did not. Those that did paid a horrible price.

President Bush’s decision to cease hostilities just 100 short hours after the ground war began was not without controversy. Many of my own Marines angrily questioned why we’d come to this foreign place, trained for 6 months, only to stop short of solving the ‘Saddam Problem’ permanently? Why not push on, all the way to Baghdad, and finish the job? The Iraqi’s wanted none of us. The vaunted Iraqi military had proven to be a straw man incapable of mounting a real defense against us – militarily, we could have done anything we wanted. Seeing the shambles of the Iraqi Army in clear daylight, and recognizing the state of their morale, weaponry, fighting capabilities, and will to fight, you couldn’t help but be angry. Angry that these thugs lead by a tin pot dictator had invaded their peaceful neighbor, angry at the destruction, death, and waste evident every where you looked, angry that our own lives had been interrupted and in some cases lost in order to deal with them. And angry in the knowledge that we could’ve wiped the floor with Saddam’s forces 5 months earlier had we not been so cautious. I felt the same urges my Marines did – an ugly desire to punish someone for screwing it all up so badly for everyone.

But the truth is, the cease-fire, however personally dissatisfying it may have been to US Marines, was President Bush’s finest hour. At a moment of total and undisputed dominance, with all the weaponry of destruction at his fingertips, with a hated enemy under his thumb, he did the inexplicable. He lived up to his word. He followed the mandate of the UN resolutions. He did exactly what he’d promised he’d do. Liberate Kuwait, expel the invading Iraqi forces from it, and go home. And in doing so, President Bush proved his critics, in the UN, in ruling bodies around the world, and at home, wrong. I knew when I got word of the cease-fire that US forces would someday be back to this part of the world to finish the job. And seeing it happen just 12 years later, it would be easy to second guess the President’s decision. But the impact of a US President living up to his word, and demonstrating for all the world to see that there are nations which, possessing the military might and skill to dominate others, are capable of restraint, should not be underestimated.

It was the morning of 28 February when we got the news that the war was officially over. An exhausting week filled with surreal moments was to end with another one. My company had collected thousands of Iraqi POWs, and guarded them nervously for days. This had been no small feat. The surrendering Iraqis came to us eagerly, almost gleefully. They handed us leaflets, dropped to them from US planes before the ground campaign which promised in cartoonish color food, protection, and mercy from us if they surrendered, and a horrible death if they did not. They wanted to cash their checks. Instead of feeding and protecting them (we had no food and nowhere to send them), we herded them into groups of hundreds, packed them like sardines into tight clusters, and guarded them with a handful of Marines around the group’s perimeter. It was nerve-wracking and scary. Had they decided to rush us, there would have been precious little we could have done to stop them, save sending a few examples on their way to Allah. Slowly, we relinquished our guests to their new masters, Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian military officials. I have wondered many times what the fate of those prisoners ultimately was, but given the looks on the Iraqi troop’s faces as they were handed over to our replacements, I don’t imagine it was a fortuitous one. What concern or guilt I felt handing off these prisoners to those they had oppressed I balanced with the memory of the crimes they’d committed against countless Kuwaiti innocents. They were about to reap what they had sown. I assigned no right or wrong to that reality – it was simply the way things were done there. We were alien to their culture, and judging what might occur to the Iraqis seemed wrong. So we handed them over and walked away.

The day the war ended seemed, from the start, different. Upon waking, there was one stunning and obvious change – the dense, choking, petroleum-laced fog that had hung over us for days, coating us with soot and making it hard to breathe, had lifted. The sun shone warmly upon our shoulders. Like a Hollywood happy ending to a feel-good movie, the Director had called for optimistically hopeful-for-the-future life-affirming weather, and gotten it. Of all the ‘damn I’m happy to be alive this morning!’ mornings, it remains the happiest of my life. All of the deeply-buried fears, of losing Marines, of not performing to my own expectations, of death or mutilation, evaporated with the steamy morning mist. Life was back. It felt so good. Relieved of our prisoner of war duties, we climbed into waiting 5 ton trucks. As we pulled out, headed to tent cities awaiting our arrival, we gave Kuwait and the devastation stretching as far as the eyes could see, one last hard look. Despite the still-burning oilfields in the distance, twisted metal of what had once been tanks and artillery peices, and countless prisoners being herded by their new taskmasters, something seemed different, almost hopeful. And as if God were some cosmic practical jokester, as we headed southward away from Kuwait, war, and the stress of a 6 long months, one last vision caught our eyes. There, one hundred yards away from us, dancing mystically in some inexplicable circle, were a horse, a goat, and a mangy sheep dog. I’m not sure what grand message God was communicating with this bizarre scene, I’ll only say I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. We watched the 3 animals and their strange celebratory parade until we could no longer make them out in the distance.

‘Yes friends’ the Universe seemed to be shouting, ‘Whether 2 or 4 footed – it is good to be alive!’

The weeks that followed seemed to take forever. Getting out of the Middle East and home was a task as monumentally difficult as getting there had been. We’d returned to the tent cities where our journey had begun 6 months previously. We lounged on cots, listened to cassettes we’d listened to a hundred times since our arrival, and traded them to buddies for others we’d listened to hundreds of times. We PT-ed endlessly. Cleaned weapons over and over again. But mostly, we just waited. The return home came in fits and trickles. A couple of seats on a transport here, space on a cargo plane there. 1st Bn, 3rd Marines was finding it’s way home a few Marines at a time. We’d been in-country as long as anyone. We wanted out. Now. The wait was nothing short of excruciating. But finally, our turn came, and homeward we headed. I was tasked along with a squad of my Marines, with escorting our Battalion Armory home. I believe if they’d told us they had to box us up along with the mortars, M-16A2’s, and grenade launchers, we’d have gladly accepted.

The long flight back to Kaneohe, Hawaii is a blur to me. I don’t remember the route, where we stopped, how long it took. Nothing. I only remember having butterflies the entire ride back. I’d been married only a year when I was plucked from my happy, normal life in paradise and tossed unceremoniously into Operation Desert Shield. I’d received letters, and even had the chance to make a hurried, static-filled, desert phone call or two over the past six months. But basically, my loving wife had been little more than a memory, an ‘idea’, for half a year. The thought of seeing her again made me inexplicably nervous, almost queasy. The C-130 we’d hitched a ride back on hit the tarmac at Oahu’s Kadena Airfield and crawled to a stop on St. Patrick’s Day, 1991. As we gathered our personal effects, I stole a glimpse out of one of the cargo windows. There, in a sea of strangers, stood my beautiful wife Valerie.

I was home.

We drove to our base at Kaneohe Bay, traded our personal weapons for cold cans of beer they had waiting on ice for us, and were excused for the next week. I won’t regale you with boring stories of just how wonderful the return to civilization and all its comforts was. Suffice it to say that none of us truly appreciate what we have. Not really. The Lava Dogs of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines had returned triumphant. We were ‘heroes’. We were lavished with awards and medals, paraded through the streets of Waikiki in front of adoring throngs. You couldn’t pay for your own beer or meal for months. And that was as it should have been. We had been through something, and in my mind, we were celebrating having lived through it as much as any particular military accomplishment. In the pauses between the celebrations, I tried to take stock of what I’d been through, and sort through what, if anything, it all meant. I thought a lot about Mike Monroe, my fellow Lt., lost in a stupid training accident. I thought about his family, and how seeing others return home from the Gulf must have made the agonizing hole in their lives and hearts ache all the more. And I thought about veterans of other wars, who’d experienced far more pain, suffering, and loss in the engagements of their generations and received welcome homes that looked or felt nothing like the glorious and thankful one we had.

An unwritten military rule is that those who ‘have done something’, don’t talk about it. If you ever meet someone in a bar who tells an amazing story of military heroism or war-time adventure, you can bet they never got within a hundred miles of harm’s way. Those that have, keep their mouths shut. Why? I’m not sure, but it’s probably because to talk about one’s personal experiences reeks of ‘self’. And ‘self’ is something the United States Marine Corps places a very low value on indeed. I hope, having broken that silent vow, that I told my little story with some humility, and that the unbridled affection I have for those that traveled along with me on my little journey, and for whom, I have undying respect, shone through in the telling.

Cupid’s Bow

It’s a cliché spoken a million times a day all over the world in a hundred different languages.

‘I am so lucky’.

But for me, it’s simply a fact. I have the same problems as you do. Stress. Financial challenges. Work-Life balance. Struggling to be the best husband, father, son, brother, friend, employee, and human being I can be. And frequently falling short. But I’ve got a secret weapon in my daily battles.

I don’t deserve it. I have no idea how I stumbled upon it, nor how I’ve managed to hold onto it. But it’s saved me from life’s destructive forces a thousand times. Her name is Valerie, and she’s my wife. This year we’ll celebrate 20 years husband and wife. In all that time, I’ve never had even once the fleeting thought ‘what would my life be like if I’d married someone else?’. Not once. Among innumerable daydreams, I’ve never entertained that fantasy. When it comes to Valerie, only one thought rises from the depths of my subconscious.

‘I am so lucky’.

It’s highly probable my wife is not human. I can catalogue the evidence and it’s nearly insurmountable. She’s nice. Really nice. Inhumanly nice, to almost everyone she meets. Strangers, poor people, rich people, foreigners, even those who don’t reciprocate her vast and overwhelming niceness. She waves to complete strangers on the street. The planet she comes from apparently demands it. I cannot relate. Although I admire and value kindness as one of life’s most valuable commodities, I am nice when I’m in the mood and have plenty to spare. I cannot always muster it up myself, as I am human, while my wife clearly is not.

My wife is a South Carolina girl, hailing from a tiny bastion of southern charm called Abbeville. They have a town square there. ‘Buddy’s’ is the local store where you can buy anything the universe has to offer – even wheels of homemade cheese. She loves stories, country wisdom, circus peanuts, nostalgia, and celebrates her small town roots every day of her life. She doesn’t call her colorful, bigger than life 90 year old grandmother ‘grandma’, but rather ‘Darlin’. She has no time for the usual daily fare of the human woman – isn’t interested in shopping, makeup, fashion, or jewelry. She doesn’t like shoes and would refuse to wear them if stores didn’t demand it of her. I believe this constitutes absolute proof she cannot be a human female.

My wife is too busy being kind, nice, and worrying about others to partake in the culture of the US woman. She gets up, every morning, to make me coffee. I tell her not to, but she doesn’t listen. Valerie works for minimum wage at a pre-school program during the week, although she could make more wages in one shift as a Registered Nurse. She wants to be close to the kids and loves teaching. A Bosnian family that barely speaks English moved in across the street. My wife immediately befriended them, took them food, and welcomed them with open arms. That’s how she rolls. These are the details that swell my heart with love so huge I feel like I could burst. Not manly words, I fully recognize, but true ones. I don’t tell my wife these kinds of things. She wouldn’t react since to her love is like breathing – its what we do. She believes you express your love in living, not in words. In my world, love is a maelstrom of complicated, personal, and secret emotions that scream to be expressed. For my wife, she quietly and simply lives love every day. That’s all the expression she needs.

When I met my wife, I misjudged her. Most people do. For we often make a common mistake when faced with people that are absolutely, inexplicably just too damn nice. We view them as weak. Or simple. Or naively detached from ‘reality’. We think we can dominate them, manipulate them, control them, or take advantage of them. My wife is the nicest bulldog you could ever meet. Mess with her husband, her kids, her family, anyone or anything that she loves, and you’ll find yourself facing bared teeth and an iron will. My wife knows what’s right. And God help you if you get in the way of it. Teddy Roosevelt would’ve loved my wife.

I love that about her.

I dated many a cool chick growing up. They were beautiful, witty, glamorous, sexy, dynamic, fun. I valued all those things as we all do. Then I met Valerie. She was beautiful, witty, glamorous, sexy, dynamic, and fun. But there was something else about her I couldn’t quite distill down to an adjective. She was…well….Valerie. She was someone I’d imagined my whole life but never recognized until she strolled up the sidewalk and knocked on my apartment door in late Summer 1987.

I remember our first real conversation that evening. It should’ve been stilted, awkward, stumbling, both of us bumbling along trying to make our best impressions. But it felt like reuniting with an old friend. I couldn’t believe the immediate connection, so strong, I hit the fast-forward button and made her kiss me halfway through, a clear breach of first date etiquette. Every minute since that night I’ve had but one feeling about my wife. She is the kindest, most loving creature I have met in my journeys on planet Earth.

I am so lucky.

Resolution #9

Let me get it right out there.

I don’t believe in ‘resolutions’. New year? Old year? Battlefield? Deathbed? Congressional? Doesn’t matter. Resolutions are for suckers.

Why the attitude? Simple really. I believe that personal change is not only possible, but is perhaps one of the most powerful, meaningful pursuits a human being can embark upon. But real personal change is about action, not laundry lists, good intentions, or talk.

Want to change your life? Great. Shut up. Stop writing. Avoid the urge to tape motivational quotes to your PC or desk. Don’t tell your friends about your grand plans. Don’t google ‘self help’. Don’t join a support group. For God’s sake, don’t buy anything glossy at the newsstand that purports to help you figure out how to change. And never, ever, ever ask strangers on internet messageboards for advice. Unless it’s a really special, mystical place 🙂

My alternative plan?

Think. Think long and hard. Get the hell away from places where you currently expend energy (meaningfully or otherwise). Isolate yourself. Take a trip to somewhere, maybe no place particularly important where upon arrival you have nothing particularly important you have to do. On the way there, think. Think about the brief little flicker, the eye blink in human time that you’ll occupy this world. Think about how you’d most like to spend that time, and whether or not it matters to you what occurs during that shutter click of life’s camera. Ask yourself, are you about ‘the moments’ of that journey, or is it a ‘legacy’ you wish to leave behind which might require sacrificing the ‘now’ of countless daily moments? Maybe there is a right or wrong answer to that internal debate. I don’t personally believe so. It’s simply about your vision of what matters to you. What kind of trophies do you want on your life’s shelves at career’s end?

Then decide.

What does a meaningful life look like to you? Are you living it? If not, what’s gotten in the way? Have you committed crimes of prioritization, actively mucked it all up, or simply allowed entropy and passivity to slowly, quietly steal control of your daily life’s decisions and direction away from you?

I had to go to West Virginia a bit ago. I could’ve flown, should’ve flown, 99 times out of a hundred, I would’ve flown. But I decided instead to drive. Somewhere in the dark-as-hell of a bitterly cold 6 hour drive through the mountains, I caught a glimpse of truth. I lost sight of the road in patches of fog that I suddenly found myself driving mindlessly through at high speed. It occurred to me that night that this is what I had been doing with my life for about a decade. I didn’t know where the road of my life was leading, hell, sometimes couldn’t even see it through the fog, and hadn’t given it much thought in a long time. I hadn’t stopped to enjoy the journey or even observed life’s beauty as it rushed past me, and really had no idea if the place I was headed to meant anything to me. That night, I just stopped driving for a few minutes. I thought and then I decided.

I decided to change my life. I reject cynicism as its proponents will tell you in a hundred different ways that ‘people really don’t change’. Bull****. Average people don’t change. Frankly, it just requires too much work. You might have to swim against life’s currents, or harder yet, carve out a brand new fork to reroute the stream that’s been stupidly sweeping you along for weeks, months, or years. I refuse to be average, and I refuse to be an empty vessel mindlessly carried by a current not of my choosing.

I’m not Gandhi. I’m not the Dalai Lama. Hell, I’m not even Dr. Phil or Oprah. I don’t have anything dramatic or mind-alteringly insightful to say. I won’t be copyrighting my mental slogan or slapping it on t-shirts or coffee mugs. But I have learned some important things. I don’t claim to know a thing that would be useful to you. Don’t listen to a word I’m saying – it could well be crap when it comes to your life. I could get you killed, or at minimum, get your knees skinned up pretty badly on the bicycle ride of life. But I am excited. I’ve changed my life before. It felt good. Really good. I just started changing mine again. I’m 46, have been mired in an extra-sized pool of sludgy life crap for awhile now, and woke up one morning a month ago and said ‘it’s time to be me again’. Being me isn’t perfect. It probably wouldn’t even get you into a decent Law School. But it beats the hell out of the imitation of me I’ve been performing for about a decade now.

In the Marine Corps, you can solve any dilemma, attack any hill, defeat any enemy, emerge victorious in any struggle with one simple tool – the 5 paragraph order. SMEAC.

S – Situation
M – Mission
E – Execution
A – Administrative and Logistics
C – Command and Control

Ask any Vietnam Vet – the most crucial thing in any endeavor is picking the right mission. During the past month, I figured out I’d spent a decade immersed in hectic, chaotic, driven daily life. I’d acquiesced and relinquished my right (duty?) to determine my life’s mission. Oddly enough, when I did set about mentally writing the 5 paragraph order to reclaim and accomplish my life’s mission, it turns out it’s the same one I’ve had for most of my life. Because I dig you in a big way, I’ll share:

  • Enjoy life.
  • Grow stuff. Green feels good and producing it has to provide some good karma. The world can always use a little more green.
  • Actively and aggressively love the lovable around me.
  • Forgive the unlovable but don’t waste a second more than you have to on them.
  • Be kind, always, and most of all to those that may not deserve it.
  • Connect with friends and family and stay connected. It matters.
  • Be physically strong and make getting there a part of my daily life so that I can be strong in other ways when I need to be. My body will never be a Temple – fahgetaboutit – you can’t have fun in one of those. But at least treat it like the lobby of a really nice hotel.
  • Work hard, because that’s who I am and who my father and mother raised me to be.
  • Remember that, for me anyway, work is not and never can be life.
  • Worship the great one, the immortal Alfred E. who implored of the heavens, ‘What, me worry?’ and try to live those words. Life is far too brief for worry.
  • Maybe most importantly, go outside weekly, look up at and hear the echoing refrain of boundless stars shouting down to us across eons that ‘very little in your tiny speck of a life matters, so we suggest you focus on that which does!’ Listen to them.

Those aren’t ‘resolutions’. I’ve always believed in them. I meant to always live them, I just got waylaid there for awhile. Now, the mission is reestablished. Maybe in a year or two, I’ll give you an after action report.

Wish me luck.

The Fickle Finger of Fate – Part I

How the hell did I get HERE?

We’ve all probably asked ourselves that question as we lived through the myriad twists and turns of our unpredictable lives.

It was 1987. I was a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps and had decided I’d had enough of sleeping in the mud, and the misery, loneliness, and isolation inherent in the life of an infantryman. My plan was simple – serve out the last few months of my 5 year Marine Corps obligation, move back to my hometown of Alexandria Virginia, go to veterinary school, and marry my girlfriend. I had a roadmap ready for the rest of my life.

Fate, on the other hand, had other ideas.

I was serving out my last days of service as my unit prepared to wrap up a 6 month deployment to Okinawa Japan. I loved Okinawa. It was a recreational paradise with some of the best scuba diving anywhere in the world. And getting the chance to train at the foot of Mount Fuji, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, plus a few side trips to Thailand and Hong Kong, had made what I thought was my last deployment especially memorable. Looking forward to my new civilian life, all I had to do was get through another week or so of Marine Corps life, reunite with my girlfriend, and it was happily ever after.

One drunken Marine changed my life.

4 days before flying home to begin my new life, I was walking back to my barracks with some friends late in the evening. An innebriated corporal who I barely knew was returning from town. Sneaking up from behind, he stealthily launched himself at me in a sudden surprise attack. Slamming me to the ground with all of his 200 lbs, I immediately had that dreaded sensation of having the ‘wind knocked out of me’. Anyone who’s slipped on a throw rug, or had their feet fly out from underneath them as a child knows the feeling. Panic quickly strikes as you struggle and fail to take a breath. But within a few moments, I was able to breathe normally again, and hurl a few choice expletives at my attacker, promising payback would be a ….well, would be forthcoming. Back to the barracks I went, sore, but otherwise feeling myself again, falling to sleep to dreams of a glorious homecoming.

The next few days crawled by in agonizing slow motion. I was ready to be back home again, where cars much larger than necessary drove on the right side of the road, where I didn’t have to alternately freeze and fry out in the elements, or take sick pride in just how much physical suffering I could endure. Still – something didn’t feel right. I continued my Okinawa routine during those last few days. I ran a PFT (although I had a sub par effort in the combination pullup/situp/3 mile run test). I was in the best shape of my life and had worked up to 250 lb bench presses, but at the gym was barely able to do half that. Something was wrong. I felt a little short of breath and asked a Navy Corpsman assigned to my unit to listen to my lungs. ‘I don’t hear anything’ he said. Sounded reassuring to me. And, as it turned out, prophetic.

So, the day before my unit’s fly-out date, I awoke and headed to the community showers to brush my teeth and shave. Looking in the mirror, something bizarre caught my eye. My adam’s apple, normally imperceptibly and perfectly centered in my throat, seemed to be shoved all the way over to one side of my neck. It didn’t take a genius to know – this was not a normal or desirable state of affairs. And I felt bad. Not ‘not good’, but bad. I had a silent argument with myself. If I went to the base infirmary, and something was really wrong, I might not make the flight home the next day. On the other hand, something was clearly and indisputably wrong. Capital ‘W’ wrong. I fought my base instincts to gut out whatever this problem was and trudged over to the medical facility.

A brief physical exam and X-rays ensued. As I waited in the hall for a Navy MD to come talk to me, I couldn’t help but take a peek. The black film with stark white shadows meant nothing to me. But it didn’t take a radiologist to know, one side being filled with ivory detail, the other black as night, wasn’t a good sign. Even I knew, in this case, symmetry was what one was looking for. Before I could grasp the meaning of all this, I found myself being thrown on a gurney and propelled at high speed to a waiting ambulance. Sirens blaring, I was soon being driven at high speed towards Kadena Air Force base, home of the only hospital on the island.

I’d find out later that I had walked around with a collapsed lung for days until I developed ‘tension pneumothorax’, a life-threatening condition where pressures from the collapsed lung build up to a point where your heart chambers can no longer fill with blood. It was those pressures that had pushed my larynx to one side of my neck. Had I followed my usual stoic nature, ignored the obvious, and gotten on the plane back to the US, I wouldn’t have survived the flight. Instead, I got to experience the emergency treatment for a collapsed lung, having a physician stick a scalpel through my chest, open up the hole with a gloved finger, and have a garden hose shoved into my chest cavity, all without the benefit of medication or anesthesia. Now that’s an experience every one should have. Still I consider myself extraordinarily lucky for not getting on that plane.

So I wasn’t going home. I wasn’t reuniting with my beautiful soul mate. I wasn’t getting out of the Marine Corps in days. Plans had changed. I was in for a month of fun. A couple of my best friends from Weapons Company, 2nd Bn, 8th Marines, along with my Platoon Commander, Lt. Mabe, came by to bid me farewell on their way to the airport. All but one of them I would never see again. They brought me a present, a pair of ceramic Shishi dogs that sit on my mantle at home still, and wished me luck. And suddenly, I was alone. The next 60 days were interesting. Chest tubes were placed, chest tubes were removed. The process was repeated several times. Every time they pulled the tubes, my right lung would collapse again. Chest tubes are not fun. I lost 20 lbs in 2 weeks. I was up twice in all that time, forced to pull what looked like a tonka toy behind me, only this one was attached by tubes and filled with fluids coming out of my damaged chest. I found, when you come at people pulling nasty contraptions containing body fluids, they get out of your way.

When it became clear that chest tubes were not going to heal my damaged lung, I was scheduled for a thoracotomy and lung repair surgery. It was a simple operation. Step one – cutting my chest open from the middle of my back to my sternum. Step two – jacking open my ribs with a rib spreader. Step three – snipping the bottom and damaged lobe of my left lung away and stitching it up. Step four – scratching up the interior of my chest wall with gauze and acid to ensure the repaired lung would stick to the chest wall while it healed. And the final step, inserting 2 more chest tubes.

I vaguely recall weeks 3 and 4 of my stay. I was given copious amounts of morphine and Demerol. Watching Japanese television, bizarre enough straight dead sober, with a mountain of narcotics running through your veins – lets just say it’s something you really have to experience to appreciate. Somewhere in the haze of this stretch I managed to call my parents. In typical fashion for a highly efficient US Government operation, my parents had never even been informed I was in trouble, and my parents thought I was calling from my base in NC to tell them I’d be home soon. At the same time, I realized I hadn’t heard from my girlfriend in months, but wasn’t able to get through to her.

I received another shock to the system right after surgery, when an officer unknown to me visited to inform me that, sometime during the narcotic haze period of my experience, I’d been notified of my selection into the Marine Corps MECEP Program, an enlisted to officer commissioning program, and in a drug-induced state of mind, had accepted the offer (hence agreeing to at least another 5 years of Marine Corps service). The officer was there to find out which colleges I was interested in attending at Marine Corps expense. I have no recollection to this day of being informed that I had been accepted to this program, nor agreeing to accept the offer.

A drunken tackle by a casual acquaintance had rocked my world in more ways than one.

Declining a tempting offer from one of the hospital nurses to complete my convalescence at her apartment (she was married and her husband deployed elsewhere – even then I had some lines I would not cross), I was put in a cab and taken back to my former base. I had no clothes (not even underwear), no money, no unit, no friends. And no idea how I was getting home. I was restricted from flying – anywhere – for at least another 30 days. The Red Cross (to whom I am grateful to this day) bought me some clothes. I read books, tried to move without experiencing excruciating pain, and waited.

30 days later I was at Kadena Airfield. When told I ‘wasn’t authorized’ to fly back to the United States, I threw a fit right there in front of 100 strangers, and told them that if they didn’t put me on a plane, I was going to knock someone’s teeth out, and I didn’t really care who I started with. Whether they believed me, or just wanted to get me out of the airport, next thing I knew I was looking out the window at clouds and ocean, from a first class seat.

I knew where the plane was landing, but where I was going? All that had suddenly and inexplicably changed. And my crystal clear plan for the future was now as nebulous and ephemeral as the wispy clouds flying past the window.

The Fickle Finger of Fate – Part II

It was early May, 1987 and the 747 I’d hitched a ride home on from Okinawa, Japan skidded to a stop on the scorching tarmac at Washington National Airport. No longer attached to a Marine unit, I’d had to beg, plead, and threaten my way home. But I’d finally made it back.

A month prior, my plans had been well-laid and seemingly perfect. Gracefully exit the USMC, apply for veterinary school, talk the girl of my dreams into marrying me, and commence happily-ever-after. But a near-death experience and 60 days of surgeries, recovery, and drug-induced haze had blurred the lines of that roadmap considerably. Somewhere in the fog of those months, I’d apparently agreed to continue my Marine Corps career as an officer. I’d get a brief 30 day hiatus at home before having to head to San Diego for the summer to attend a Marine preparatory program, designed to ensure as one of the USMC’s prime investments, I didn’t flunk out of school when I got there.

I was to return to the scene of previous academic crimes, the University of Virginia. My experience there 5 years before had left scars. Unlike seemingly everyone around me, I had felt lost, rudderless, and frightened. I’d had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I had never had to study and frankly, didn’t really know how to study. I did enough to get by while comforting myself with a hundred friendships and plenty of partying. Finally, after 2 and ½ years of floundering, the pressure of trying to preserve a scholarship, being a disappointment to my parents and myself, and just plain depression over my poor performance was too much. Instead of going home for Christmas my 3rd year, I stayed in Charlottesville, hiked to the Marine Recruiting Office downtown, and enlisted.

The Marine Corps saved my life. The ultimate meritocracy, all the Marine Corps asked of you was 100% commitment and your absolute best performance. You didn’t have to worry about direction, the Corps provided that for you. You just had to perform. So I performed. I dove into every training course I could gain entry to. When I was sent to a school, I finished first, whether there were 20 course members, or 200. I’d been failing for so long, excelling felt like salvation. There was no pressure. I was a US Marine infantryman. I belonged to the United States government, and believe me, in their eyes I was expendable. What I did with the opportunity mattered little to anyone except myself.

In a year I was a corporal. In 3 years, I was a sergeant running a mortar platoon. And now, I was about to come full circle, completing the circuitous journey back to where I’d started – back to the University of Virginia enroute to becoming a demi-god, an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

But first, I had some loose ends to wrap up.

In the Marine Corps, trust me – there’s no ‘woman in every port’. It’s lonely as hell. Even though I was involved in a serious relationship, I knew it would be tough if not impossible to sustain when you’re gone more than you’re ‘there’. During what I thought was to be my last deployment, things between her and I began to unravel. We’d barely held it together before my deployment. She’d written often, sent packages, all the usual expected stuff. We told each other we loved each other and would start over when I got back.

Now I was back. Back, but a mess. I’d lost 25 lbs. I had an incision from the middle of my back running to the edge of my sternum, and four healing garden-sized holes where chest tubes had been a month prior. And I had 30 days to get myself mentally and physically together before I’d be off to California and back in the Marine Corps fold.

I arrived home from the airport, greeted my family, and tried to relax. I knew I had to call her. She’d be home for the summer. After working up some courage, I made the call. She came over. She was as lovely as ever. We went out on the deck to talk in private. The one thing that has stuck with me all these years is that through the whole conversation, she never took off her sunglasses. She cried some, told me how much she had missed me, and asked me if I could have breakfast with her that Saturday so we could really talk.

I already knew what was coming. Joedy was his name. ‘Ain’t no use in looking back, Joedy’s got your Cadillac, ain’t no use in lookin’ down, Joedy’s got your girl and gone’. That’s the bastard’s name, and for 200 years he’s been swooping down in our absence and making our girl back home forget all about us. It’s what he does. And you know what? We never blame her. Who’d want to sit around waiting for a Marine to come home, knowing it’s only a brief respite from another long wait to come?

So Friday came, and sensing the train wreck of love barreling down upon me at high speed, hearing the tumultuous roar of a breakup’s approach, and almost feeling the excruciating agony of the collision, I made a decision. I packed up my Honda Civic that morning, kissed my folks goodbye for the summer, and drove west. It hurt like hell to leave, but I knew there was more distance between us now than perseverance or passion could bridge. By the time I got to Oklahoma, my heart was just a little less heavy. As I rolled into San Diego, I vowed I wouldn’t look back.

I’ve heard people say a thousand times ‘things happen for a reason’. I think it just as likely we’re at the mercy of dumb, blind luck. Or maybe, once in a rare while, God just throws us a karmic bone. The greatest gift I’ve ever received was about to be bestowed upon me. 6 months before, blind to its value, I might have given it back. I’d thought I’d found true love. But here I was, absolutely alone, without a friend within 1000 miles, and only the slightest of ideas how I’d gotten here or where I’d be in 10 years.

Then it happened.

I was 3 week’s early for my report date for prep school in San Diego. For lack of a better idea, I shacked up at an Econolodge and watched bad daytime TV, read books, and ate delivery pizza. After a couple days of that wholesome regimen, I felt stir crazy and decided to do some exploring. I took a taxi downtown, and headed out on foot to get the lay of the land. After a stop at a bookstore, and an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading, I decided to head back. As I turned a corner looking for a taxi, I ran right into a couple going the other way. I’d nearly knocked the gentleman over. As I looked up and prepared to apologize for not watching where I was going, I was suddenly speechless.

The guy I’d run into was Pete Reddy. Pete had been my roommate at Virginia and one of the best friends I’d ever find. He’d made it successfully through the UVa Marine ROTC program and was now an Air Defense officer stationed at 29 Palms, California. He and his wife had made a quick jaunt to San Diego to do a little shopping. And I had almost knocked him on his ass.

We chatted for an hour and caught up on each other’s lives. Then I remembered something I’d nearly forgotten over the past year – that Pete’s wife Lisa had roomed with a girl at Virginia who I’d always been very interested in. Her name was Valerie Hall. Valerie was a tall, slender brunette from South Carolina. She had the unforgettable slow southern drawl of a real South Carolinian, piercing brown eyes, and a smile that could light up a room and never seemed to leave her face. I’d approached her intermittently throughout my college days, but she was entrenched in a long-term relationship. Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, Lisa said ‘You should look up Valerie when you get back to school! She’s living in Richmond now and she’s single. I’m going to tell her to call you!’

Running into dear friends out of the blue like that, in such an unlikely place, made the whole encounter seem surreal. I filed away the information about Valerie, but the thought of entering into another ‘relationship’ was the farthest thing from my mind. The summer moved on, I got through the Marine prep course, and before I knew it, it was fall and I was back in beautiful Charlottesville. Finishing up the move into my new apartment, I decided to give my sister Anne a call from a local payphone. Anne lived nearby at the time and worked at UVa’s hospital. We chatted for awhile and agreed to get together for dinner soon. As I was about to hang up, she informed me she’d had a strange phone call from a girl named Valerie who claimed to know me – did I want her phone number?

I wanted it.

I called. And a few days later, she was knocking on the door of my apartment. From the minute she walked in and we started talking, it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives. A year later we were engaged, and 2 years later, in a snow-covered church in Richmond, I married my best friend, the sweetest, kindest human being I’ve ever known. We’ve been together for 19 years this 9th of December. We have 2 of the most wonderful kids in America, and every day of my life I am thankful for the drunken idiot Marine who tackled me to the ground that night in 1987, sent me to the hospital, and almost cost me my life.

Were it not for the Fickle Finger of Fate, I never would have gone to that hospital. Had my drunken friend decided to target one of the other 5 Marines I was with, instead of me, I never would’ve stayed in the Marine Corps. I wouldn’t have had a reason to be in San Diego, wouldn’t have decided on a whim to take a tour of downtown, and wouldn’t have had a chance meeting with dear friends. I would never have known what happened to the girl I admired from afar in college, found out where she was, or reconnected with her. I wouldn’t have a beautiful marriage to a wonderful woman, or 2 amazing kids who bring me incredible joy and pride every day. I don’t know where I’d be, but I wouldn’t be here, where I most want to be.

I don’t know if I believe ‘everything happens for a reason’, or that some deity oversees our lives and steers us to the course meant just for us.

But I think I may believe in Fate…

How could I not? 🙂

Surviving the 70’s

It’s a miracle I lived through the 60’s and 70’s.

As if Richard Nixon, Vietnam, mutually assured destruction, and really really bad fashion weren’t risky enough, I faced the daily threat of mass-marketed toys that could maim, wound, and disfigure. Mattel? Kenner? Hasbro? Whamo? Endless fun with just a hint of mutilation thrown in for good measure. The children’s playthings of my youth would never make the cut nowadays – but how dear they were to my heart way back when.

Toy’s of my childhood – how do I love thee?

Let me count the ways.

The Poisonous:
In the 20 years spanning 1960-1979, nothing said FUN like toxic chemicals and vapors. The Bubble Jet, a fancy water gun you shoved bubble-producing cyanide tablets into, was great recreation. Whether squirting the solution into a friend’s eyes or mouth, or your own, chemicals meant good clean fun. When you bored of the toxic bubble fun, you could relax with a couple of puffs from your Fake Cigarettes and blow (or inhale) some artificial chemical smoke. If smoking wasn’t your thing, it was time for some Superelastic Bubble Plastic. If the fumes from the blob of plastic goo you’d place carefully on the short straw didn’t fry some essential brain cells, the psychedelic colors of the finished bubbles were sure to blow your mind. And there was always the classic standby, the Chemistry Set, always full of poison potential. ‘Hey Mommmmm! We’re mixing up an experiment! (ie…mixing every damn powder and solution in the set together)’. ‘That’s great Johnny. Just don’t be late for supper. Johnny? Johnny? What’s that horrible smell?’

I find the smell of burning flesh intoxicating:
Once you’d worked up a healthy buzz from sniffing and snorting some of the good stuff above, it was time to get down to real business. If you weren’t holding a steel rod at 373 Kelvin, you weren’t having fun. I guess ‘Red Hot Iron Poker’ wasn’t very marketable. Instead they called this fun-filled item a Wood Burning Kit. Designed for the youthful artiste to trace lovely designs in the smooth face of a virgin wood canvas, we found it much more fascinating and gratifying to see which of our sister’s toys was combustible. The fun lasted until we ran out of things to ignite, or burned the hell out of one of our fingers. The Wood Burning Kit had the added benefit of giving off some more occasionally toxic fumes, a plus if the headrush from earlier fun had worn off.

One of the most memorable toys of my youth had the potential to deliver fun and 3rd degree burns simultaneously. Creepy Crawlers let you make your own multi-colored rubber bugs and reptiles by squeezing some liquid goo into a metal mold you then placed in an electrically heated bath of incredibly hot water. The mixture of high-voltage electricity, water, toxic goo, and blazing heat was intoxicating. I can’t remember what the hell we did with the rubber bugs, but making them sure was fun. If you were really adventurous, you got the Incredible Edibles version which combined the above risks with ingestion of the finished (supposedly ‘edible’) product, creating a high-risk toy twofer. What a bargain!

For the girls, there was always the classic Easy Bake Oven, which delivered the potential need for skin grafts using only the power of a light bulb. But the little brownies were really good, which did help take your mind off the burns.

Finally, for the truly ambitious kids, there were Estes Rocket Kits. You spent weeks carefully assembling the model rockets, inserting the real solid fuel engine, and then painstakingly preparing your rocketship for blastoff. 3 weeks of work was over in seconds as your rocket blast off into the great beyond, usually never to be seen again. After a few launches, we naturally progressed to the next logical step – laying the rockets on their side and launching them down the street. We were among the most popular kids in the neighborhood. Finally, we’d tire even of bothering with the rockets at all, and would tape the engines to handy household items (like empty glass Coke bottles), and fire them off that way. Good clean American fun!

You’ll put your eye out!:
We damn near did, on multiple occasions. Back then, the federal government was too busy alternating betweem idealism and corruption and fighting wars in obscure corners of the world to worry about what little kids were playing with. One of my elementary school playmates, Bonnie Higham, had one of her eyes put out with a dart thrown by her brother. As I recall, even for an elementary school girl, Bonnie was pretty hot, although it could be a little disconcerting to see her lovely little blue glass eye drift off in an unintended direction while the other one stared piercingly right through you. If the loss of an eye wasn’t gamble enough for you, you could risk full-on skull impalement with the big brother of the dart, Jarts, more commonly known as ‘lawn darts’. These bad boys were big enough to do serious harm, and were so tempting the adults usually absconded with them. Add in a little alcohol and adult klutziness, and you had a recipe for madcap fun or tragedy, depending on your luck.

And of course, we had that old suburban standby, the Daisy BB Gun. When we tired of shooting at squirrels, crows, and the windows of neighbors we didn’t like, it was only a matter of time before we turned them on ourselves. Lets face it. We had it coming.

There were other less forboding weapons at our disposal. The Fli Back Paddle was a personal favorite. It made a great weapon with a nice stand-off distance, giving you a headstart should whomever you were pummelling in the back of the head decide to counterattack. It also offered the risk of it’s hard ball slapping into your own face if you weren’t careful, or the rubber band breaking, sending the projectile off God know’s where, destined to break a family heirloom of some kind. If you wanted to take the hostility up a notch, you could call the Red Eye Ball into action. A modern day mace, its hard stubby prongs were nearly lethal when thrown at maximum velocity. Finally, a favorite weapon in many a childhood arsenal was the Johnny Reb Cannon, which hurled hard plastic cannonballs at those damn yankees with almost frightening fury. I wish I’d lived in a land of cotton.

I’ll call your eye out, and raise you a blunt head trauma:
It’s amazing any of us escaped our childhoods without traumatic brain injury. Even the most basic of toys in my day had the potential to maim. One of my favorites was the boomerang. Ironically, even then people knew that the boomerang was a traditional Australian hunting weapon, but you could still find one in your stocking at Christmas. It could take years to master the perfect boomerang throw, seeing it make its swift, sweeping, beautiful arc and begin to race back to you and its point of origin. It took only seconds to realize you had no idea what to do about it as it careened towards your head at 90 mph. Run for your life!

All of us remember the joyful glee of a slumber party pillow fight. So it was no wonder marketers of that era sought to capitalize on those misty memories with Sockem Boppers. The nostalgic rememberances of pillow fights past quickly faded as you were thrashed about the head and shoulders with a couple of thunderous right crosses from Brian Elkins, the big mean kid down the street. ‘Knock Em Senseless Boppers’ might have been a more descriptive moniker.

Sometimes, you didn’t need anyone else at all to experience major head trauma. In the pre-rollerblade era, a common instrument of death known as the Strap-on Skate could be spotted on almost any sidewalk in America. After the hour it required to apply the strap-on skates to your Buster Browns or Keds, using your special ‘skate key’ to tighten them, you were in for the ride of your life. Everything usually went just fine, until you happened to hit a rock or stick on the sidewalk, at which point all bets were off. The skates had an interesting tendency to simply come off at any given moment. The only saving grace was that the maximum speed obtainable with skates on was about what you could muster at a quick walk normally. Fortunately, all kids of that era were urged to always wear their special protective headgear when skating. We called them ‘baseball caps’.

Vehicles of Death!:
If you’re going to ride to your death, why not do it with a really bitchin’ set of wheels? That’s my life philosophy anyway. Having the misfortune to have turned 10 years old on 24 April, 1972 P.B.W. (Pre-Big Wheel), I was robbed of the opportunity of sporting a truly stylish and functional ride. Alas, our vehicles were lame, and generally dangerous as hell. The most hazardous of them all was the ominous-looking Skat Skoota. A set of 4 wheels, with 2 plastic red footprint pedals, Houdini himself couldn’t have successfully escaped its clutches. Besides, even if you did manage to traverse down the street on the thing without breaking your neck, you looked decidedly uncool doing so. Bummer.

Another classic mode of transport those days was the Hasbro
Inch Worm
. The vehicle itself was perfectly harmless. But if you were spotted riding the ridiculous thing, your safety could not be guaranteed. It could take until High School for your rep to recover. The only plus was the catchy inchworm jingle.

In fact, our choice of rides back in the day were so woefully inadequate, we were forced to create our own. In its lowest form, this might mean stilts made out of a couple of baked bean cans and some laundry cord. But my most memorable vehicular experience involved 2 childhood buddies, twins, David and Eddie Reynolds. Using plywood, and nails (lots of them), on top of a Radio Flyer wagon chassis, we erected a monument to transportation unrivalled to this day. We shaped it’s side’s like a lemon, even painting it bright yellow as the final glorious finishing touch. Carefully we hauled it up to the top of Larkspur Drive, which happened to be the steepest point in our neighborhood. Eddie, being none too swift upstairs (if truth be told) drew the lucky straw as our primary pilot. Into the lemon car he went. The fateful countdown began, and with a gentle push, he headed down the incline, gathering speed as he went. As our creation plummeted downward into the abyss, we suddenly realized our heady plan had but one fatal flaw. You couldn’t steer a Radio Flyer wagon. When the lemon car hit it’s max speed of 25 mph, it decided a 90 degree turn was in order. The plywood, nails, and Eddie Reynolds decided, however, to continue down Larkspur Drive. It was not a pretty finale. The lesson? We didn’t need toys to be dangerous. It came naturally.

I both rejoice and recoil at the typical childhood activities we embraced back then. When my brother turned 10, he got an archery set and target for Christmas. We routinely fired real arrows at high velocity past each other’s ears. Exhilirating, amazing, and ummmm….kind of stupid in retrospect. I’d never let my kids do likewise, but still wonder if they aren’t missing some essential life training from the safety of their X-Box and Play Stations. I’ve shared with you the hazards of my youth. Next time, I’ll regale you with tales of some of my favorite toys. Maybe if I’m really really lucky, you’ll share your memories too.