I am still considering what to write about. I think my best one so far is "Crime and Punishment" which you can read below.
There is a tomcat which wanders the neighborhood. It hunts moles in my back yard and mice down by the railroad track. It looks something like a tiger who got soaked, the colors running together into drab, muddy streaks. Also frequenting my back yard is a bunny who eats the seeds which fall from the bird feeder; it also eats my precious roses, but I figure… well, live and let live. The bunny arrives late at night and disappears at first light. I may be mischaracterizing this rabbit; because it is huge. Take your normal adult rabbit and multiply by three. Even in winter when it may be mostly hair, this hare is massive. I refer to it as Rabizilla.
On a recent morning I happened to look out of the kitchen window before I turned on the light and saw Rabizilla below the bird feeder. I left the light off, and watched him contentedly munching on the seeds. Then I saw the tomcat round the corner of the garage, stop, and then begin to inch forward, head down. It was a few feet and a few moments before the rabbit raised his head. I expected the rabbit to run. The tomcat expected the rabbit to run. But instead, Rabizilla turned TOWARD the tomcat!
This was somewhat disconcerting for the cat. It paused in mid step, uncertain what to do next. Its curiosity had fled, its courage was thinking about fleeing as well. I think that it might have been hoping that no other cat was around to see it’s possible impending dishonor. The tomcat stood there, one paw poised in mid-air. Then Rabizilla raised up on its haunches, its white underbelly rising like a phantom in the early morning darkness, the tips of its ears nearly 4 feet high in the cold air.
I looked back at the tomcat. It was gone.
The rabbit went back to its breakfast.
What’s Your Number?
Let me start out by saying that I am sure that if little old me can see this, not only have much smarter people figured it out, but it is likely being put in place. I am reading two books. One is “Capitalism Without Capital”, by Haskel, Westlake and Perkins which talks about how “intangibles” have changed the valuation of corporations. Buildings, real estate, equipment and other physical assets only account for about 2% of what MicroSoft is valued. Even with companies like Amazon, in addition to its physical assets, its software, intellectual property, contractual agreements, customer loyalty, ability to integrate its activities, and other “intangibles” are given discrete dollar valuations. The other book is “We the Corporations”, by Winkler and Hughes. They write about how corporate “personhood” did not start with Citizens United. It actually started just after the Civil War, and I was shocked to read that the 14th Amendment has been used to argue that corporations have rights over 10 times as often than it has been used to argue for the rights of minority citizens. So now we come to my point: if corporations are legally equivalent to people, then people can be treated like corporations. If “intangibles” can be given dollar values in corporations, then “intangibles” can be given dollar values in people. The number of people you know and therefore might influence, the organizations you belong to, the financial interactions you have each day, these are all valuable intangibles. Add up the balance sheet of a corporation and you can put a dollar value on it. Add up the balance sheet on an individual, and you can put a dollar value on an individual. Add up the dollar values of all the individuals living on a street, and a city can determine if it is cost effective to upgrade the sewer system on that street. Add up the dollar values of the individuals in a neighborhood and you can determine if it is cost effective to put a supermarket in the neighborhood. Already in China they are giving a “social value” to each citizen which are used to determine what that citizen will be allowed to do. Americans will not allow that to happen here, but I do ponder how much our credit scores influence what we do, and how much more powerful a new, all-inclusive number might influence our lives. So maybe I should find out if someone has my number.
A man in Alabama buys a banana at Krogers and puts it in his lunchbox to take to work. He is able to do so because I bought a Nissan truck which he helped to build. The banana and the truck are real, as is the dollar bill which he used to buy the banana. That piece of paper only represents the dollar which I paid, and which he now spends, but that dollar, either in the form of a piece of paper or as a digital record in his debit card account, also seems real. When I paid for the truck I used money I borrowed from Chase Bank, and if I miss a payment, Chase can come and take the truck. So I may possess the truck, but until it is paid for I can't really say I own the truck; still, that dollar that I borrowed... and that the man in Alabama is now using... is a dollar for which I am responsible in the future (5 years, the term of the auto loan). Let's just put aside the fact that the bank need only have on hand one dollar for every 100 dollars that they loan because they expect me to have future earnings, that is, that they will be paid back. Now here's the thing: I get my dollars from the Federal Government (retirement), so that the dollar which I have already spent (though not paid), does not yet exist. The bond that the Federal government is going to issue to pay for my retirement in, say, 2020 has not yet been produced, let alone sold to an investor (American, European or Chinese). That dollar which is buying a banana in Krogers represents my promise to pay Chase, which is in turn based on a promise of the Government to pay my retirement, for which the Government hopes to promise to pay a European investor. A series of promises; so how real is that dollar?
All I Know Is What I Read.
Mark Bowden's new book (which I am just starting) on a particular turning point in the Vietnam War reminds me of a story. First, a lesson in pronunciation. Pretend you are Al Pacino in the film "Scent of a Woman" and say "HUUAHH"..."HUAH". Now change the "AH" sound to the long "a" sound in "Make", or "Away"; ... Hu-ay. Finally (and most crucially) you have to realize that the way in which this place name is written, the "e" - with a carrot on top of it - is pronounced with that same "ay" sound. The place is named Huê... NOT as in to "Hew" a log, the "Hue" (color) Green, or Hugh Grant.
One of my more embarrassing moments was in class giving a presentation on a particular battle which took place during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. I had finished my introductory remarks and was well into the body of the presentation when the instructor, who it seems had previously been concerned with another matter, started listening to what I was saying. Having missed the introduction, I could see that he was trying to determine from the events I was describing which battle I was presenting. Certain of all my facts, I described the capture of the Citadel and the battle by the U.S.Marines to re-take it; I knew everything in detail, each tactical movement, each participant and event... yet he remained puzzled. Where and when was this battle of "Hugh"? Finally he smiled and dropped his head, even this late in my presentation he would have to correct me. "Mr. Hoffman, are you referring to the Battle of Huê?"
The New Normal
I had planned to draw a series of comics about the process of getting old, but have lost interest. The first time something happens it seems noteworthy; like the time I was walking on the gravel where a nearby street crosses the railroad track and fell down so hard I shit myself. That seemed funny... it still does, but not funny enough to draw a cartoon about. The first time a ...darn it, what is the person called who operates the money thing... um, register... at a store called?... cashier, yeah... the first time a cashier asked me for my phone number and I realized I couldn't remember what it was, I thought "now THAT's funny!". But now that it happens more often, it isn't really worth mentioning. It seems incredible that when enjoying summer Saturday mornings in 1970's central Alaska I would go for an 8-mile run just because I felt like it. Going up on a ladder yesterday to clean out the gutters seemed both more challenging and less notable. I have decided that this Thanksgiving I will be thankful that nothing has happened about which is worth drawing a comic. Wait... what just ran across the attic?
Is it SAFE?
I live in Fort Wayne because it is safe... there are fewer things here that can kill me. We do have some crime, but it is much less of a problem than elsewhere I have lived. That, of course, is true generally; as far as the entire animal kingdom is concerned, in most of the world we now have to fear only microbes and other people. Here in Fort Wayne we don't have volcanos, hurricanes or earthquakes, and tornados are much rarer than they are further west. The Maumee river and its tributaries are gentle streams which rarely flood (though there were bad ones in 1982 and 1913). A proof of safety is the house in which I live. It was built on a soft sandy bank thrown up by a prehistoric lake and the structure built by the original homeowner - who may not have known what he was doing since there is not a right angle or straight wall in any room - and it was nailed together before there were building codes. Yet, in Fort Wayne, after 75 years it still stands. I rest my case.
It's Beyond Me:
When I was young, a certain turn of phrase used frequently in our family was “it’s beyond me”. Rather than a recognition that the event in question was inexplicable to the specific speaker, it was most often a comment that the event itself was, well, just plain stupid. “It’s beyond me why you would do that”, or “It’s beyond me why you would not do that”. Here I must point out that, given her intelligence and considerable experience, for my mother, the primary user of the phrase, there was very little which was actually beyond her. However, the phrase persisted.
When I was in the military, I had the experience of being a part of an organization which was capable of much more than any individual could accomplish. Any contribution or recognition of the person was inconsequential in relation to the vast scope and duration of the combined effort. As I saw the Division assembling to deploy, the shear size of it made me wonder how the Commanding General kept it all in his mind. It was not something I could ever do: it was beyond me.
Now as I consider mortality, I think about the great questions. This family, this country, this earth, this universe; everything that was here long before and will continue long beyond. The one certainty I have is that all of it… except for just this place and just this moment, all of it… it’s beyond me.
Beginning of Record
Q: State your name and address.
A: Frank Hoffman, Fort Wayne Indiana
Q: When did this occur.
A: Today, about zero nine hundred hours.
Q: What time?
A: Oh, sorry, about nine o'clock this morning.
Q: And you say you saw a murder.
A: I saw the murderer, the victim, and the location... but they were out of my view at the instant of the event.
Q: Fine, Describe the murderer.
A: Well, he was... that is, he or she was...
Q: Wait, you can't even tell me what sex the murderer is?
A: Um, no... but I will just refer to him as "He".
Q: Fine, what sex was the victim?
A: I'm not sure.
Q: But you did see the victim?
A: Yes, for simplicity I'll refer to the victim as "She".
Q: But you did see the location of the murder?
A: Yes, with the new-fallen snow the exact location was easy to find.
Q: Sargent, send a team to take photos of the footprints.
A: Don't bother, there are no footprints... except mine.
Q: The murderer made no footprints?... and then you trudged all over the crime scene?
A: Yes, I'm sorry, I was curious.
Q: And that's where you saw the body?
A: There was no body.
Q: No body?
A: No, I think the murderer took it with him.
Q: Curiouser and curiouser... describe the victim again.
A: She was a member of the Dove family.
Q: Is that a local family.
A: Yes, they come into my yard almost every day, I've counted 25 on occasion.
Q: And you haven't complained they were trespassing?
A: No, I enjoy watching them, and they are a peaceful group.
Q: Sargent, see what we have on the Dove family. Now, Mr. Hoffman, try to describe the murderer again.
A: It happened so fast, but I have seen him in the area before on multiple occasions.
Q: And you did not report that either?
A: No, he had not done anything but sit there.
Q: Fine, describe him.
A: It happened so fast, the victim and her associates must have seen him at the last second because they scattered, the victim was just a little too slow, and then all I saw was a off-white streak go by, but as I said it is likely the same one I have seen before.
Q: That will be easy for the defense lawyer to dispute, but go ahead with the description anyway.
A: Well, his chest area was white with brown spots, his cap and back were grey.
Q: Ok, some sort of white sweater and a grey hat and coat, continue.
A: And he was massively built.
Q: A weight lifter?
A: Well, he took the body away before I could put my boots on and go outside.
Q: But you saw where it happened.
A: Yes, all there was left were some feathers.
Q: Get out of my office and don't come back.
End of Record.
I want to stay inside today. As I lean lightly on my cane, the dull throb in my left hip and knee is excuse enough to just plug in the electric blanket and watch old movies on YouTube. I have done my part; I have worked at nearly a dozen different companies, have owned my own business and have earned my retirement. I do know how fortunate I am no longer to be required to do what other people tell me to do, so I think I will just chill out. But the grass doesn't care what I want. It has been waiting all winter; olive-drab, matted, slick, slimy and soggy. It has waited in the still hush of long, frozen nights and in the dense gloom of chill, overcast days. It has been patient and calm and serene. But now, suddenly, like the hair on the back of a startled cat it jumps straight up, bright green and glaring. It dares me to stay indoors, to ignore it, to wait another day... but with another sunrise I imagine it will have the frightening aspect of jungle plants choking an ancient city... dense, unforgiving and impenetrable. Want to stay inside? Tough, the grass doesn't care. The grass is growing.
I realized today that I have reached a point where there is absolutely no reason for me to finally learn Calculus. What a relief that is! I have been haunted by that failure my entire life. Shortly after the biblical flood, I began an Electrical Engineering program at Lakeland Community College. Whether it was lack of attention to detail in reading my slide rule, or a weakness in trigonometry and algebra in high school, the pre-calculus class was like trying to learn Chinese. I had always heard that math was like a language; a beautiful, rational and global language. Although I bought-in to that viewpoint, it did not help me actually understand the concepts. Therefore I did what many people seem to do; I left Engineering and enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts. Yet, years later I was back staring at Log Tables in Artillery Gunnery class in the Army, and later as a Lieutenant I would silently say a prayer as rounds left the tube… based upon my safety data.
Once I was in an administrative position, I found that lack of math ability is less of a problem. I could go through my entire life without Calculus, because luckily for me, other people were doing it instead. Other people could tell me the volume of a lake or, after messing with integrals and derivatives, design a highway or a cell phone. But I always felt that I had failed in some way, that I was not pulling my weight as the great wave of technological progress rolled forward.
But today I realized there is absolutely no reason, finally, for me to learn Calculus. There is nothing I am really ever going to do which would make knowing it helpful. If the roof of my house has a sag, I can prop it up with enough wood to distribute the weight and it really doesn’t matter if I use an unnecessarily heavy timber. The change in volume of the gravel in my driveway is due to it sinking into the sand/loam soil my house is built on, but I really don't have to calculate the rate of change, I can just order another 3 tons this spring and I’m good-to-go for another year.
Yes, I can say there is absolutely no reason for me to learn Calculus. Therefore, I just ordered a course from the Great Courses company titled: “Change and Motion; Calculus Made Clear.”
This is a story about a travel size box of kleenex. I have not seen any recently, but they were brightly patterned cardboard boxes that were about 4 inches long by 3 inches wide and about one and a half inches high, filled with Kleenex tissues. It is also a story about how little things never matter… until suddenly they do.
Drugs in the military were less of a problem in the late ’70s than they were in the early ’70s, but they were still common among the junior enlisted. Now I will tell you why Tim did it; he did it because he was proud that he could be trusted. A friend of his while he was stationed in Alaska had made contact with another friend of his from when he was stationed in Germany. At the time of these events, that second friend was back from Germany, out of the service, and living in Texas. We’ll call the Alaskan “Specialist A”, and the Texan “Sargent T”. The buyer, Specialist A, was aware that Tim knew nothing about … well… this sort of thing, and he could end up carrying a block of green anything. The seller, Sargent T, would be pre-purchasing the product just on Tim’s word that he would be paid back. Tim was proud that these two friends trusted each other only because they both trusted him. They were able to consider each other honorable because Tim was honorable, neither would ever consider cheating him… and thus the deal was made.
These events took place before the War on Drugs, which was before the War on Terror. On airplanes you could almost take a bazooka as a carry-on, and Security would ask only if you had carefully stowed the ammunition for it in your check-in luggage. Tim flew down to Corpus Christi for a short vacation with Sargent T; it was nice to be in the warm sunshine after a couple years of Alaska winters. His wife was a great cook and Tim got to see Sargent T’s young son again, as well as be introduced to his new baby daughter. They went to the beach and just generally had a great visit, but all too soon it was time to leave. Sargent T showed Tim what he would be carrying back; a small block of compressed plant matter encased within aluminum foil, about 1 inch high and 3 inches square. They stopped at a convenience store and purchased a travel size box of kleenex to hide it. Tim nestled the block in, replaced some kleenex on top of it, and packed it in the checked luggage.
The trip back to Alaska was uneventful; upon arriving at the airport, Tim presented the little aluminum-foil-wrapped block to Specialist A and tossed the travel size box of Kleenex back into his luggage. They got on the bus and rode back to post, Tim was fearful the whole trip from Texas and never did anything like it ever again.
Now it is 2 years later. Tim is well on his way to becoming the Distinguished Military Graduate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; which means he will be a Regular Army Officer upon graduation rather than a Reserve Officer. He has a spotless record and has participated in every experience made available to prepare him, including Air Assault School at Fort Campbell Kentucky. He is now at Fort Lewis Washington, participating in a 2-week program which allows him to follow an active duty Lieutenant during his daily responsibilities as an Infantry Company Platoon Leader. The platoon is heading to the woods for a field training exercise. Having drawn their weapons from the arms room, they have formed up in the parking lot west of the barracks. They drop their rucksacks beside their right foot and take enough steps forward so that the last rank of soldiers is now in front of the first rank of rucksacks, facing away from them. They are put “at ease” and “rest”, standing with their feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind their backs, looking forward but able to talk and move while standing in place. Since the NCOs were in charge, the Platoon Leader and Tim were at the rear of the formation. The Lieutenant was patiently explaining to Tim what he was hoping to accomplish during the field training exercise when there were two sharp barks, and then a commotion behind them. The Lieutenant and Tim looked over their shoulders… and Tim’s heart stopped. His future melted away in front of him; his graduation from ROTC was gone, his career was gone, his Lieutenant bars were gone, his company command was gone, his retirement was gone, his paid healthcare was gone, his free grave marker was gone… all gone… all gone.
For there was a Military Police Dog at Tim’s rucksack tearing apart a travel size box of kleenex.
Plunging his muzzle into the box then tearing away at the kleenex and the sides of the box, strewn upon Tim's rucksack were the white and cardboard-brown remains of a past… a past that somehow Tim had kept, packed off to college, repacked for the trip to Fort Lewis, and then packed again for the training exercise. How could it be? How could it be? If there is even the tiniest piece of what had traveled from Texas in that box, Tim’s life was over.
Some of the soldiers in the platoon were now looking over their shoulders, quite amused because they could tell from where the rucksack lay that it was Tim’s; the college kid’s rucksack. No one told them to turn around forward, because everyone in the formation was curious to see what would happen next.
What happened next was… nothing. The Military Policeman shoved the destroyed box around with his foot for a few seconds, then tugged on the dog’s leash and they were off to the next platoon. Tim made a few snide remarks about how poorly trained the dog was and how it could even think kleenex was drugs. It must be a stupid, stupid mutt, Tim said. Some of the troops laughed. Everyone turned back around, the training exercise continued and nothing more was said. Later Tim got his degree, his commission, his career, his command, and his retirement.
Yet Tim clearly remembers that as the dog lumbered past it peered up at him and, with a look of intense contempt, gave out a short derisive snort.
Tim knew what had happened,
…and so did the dog.
I can be a real asshole; just try entering my house uninvited and see how big an asshole I can be. But this story is about love.
I save things. Things like tickets from Paul Simon concerts are no problem, things like motorcycles and old trucks are somewhat more challenging. Old coins which I once owned spent some time with the State of Alaska because I somehow forgot about them in a safe deposit box; I had to make a trip from Texas to Juneau to get them back from the state treasurer. So it was no surprise that when clearing out my storage space in Avon, Ohio I came upon a 12x9x4" white box which I had not remembered that I had kept.
When asked why one enters the Army, a lot of people say “to serve my country” or perhaps ‘to pay for college”. I went into the Army to get out of my parents house. It was all I could do to wait for the delayed entry program to crank out my orders for basic training, and when I developed stress fractures in my ankles during basic, I made it clear to my drill instructor that he would have to drag me out the main gate if he wanted to get rid of me. I was very happy to be stationed in Germany, then in Alaska, then in Germany, then in Texas, and then in Montana… anywhere that was nowhere near Ohio.
And so the years passed. There were few trips home, and those were very short. After I left the service, I stayed in Montana for some years, then tried living in Ohio but found myself bouncing off and landing in Arizona. And throughout all of this time… for nearly 40 years… each Christmas, a box would arrive.
The boxes nearly always contained a sweater. Sweaters year after year… brown sweaters, blue sweaters, grey sweaters… always size XL. Since our communication was sparse (my fault), my folks never had any way to know what else they could send. Although the sweaters were nice sweaters, I thought (but never said), “Mother, enough with the sweaters already!” One year I didn’t even bother to open the box. I’m sure I sent a cursory note, something like “Thank you Mother and Dad for your kind gift, I’m sure it will be useful, have a great Christmas, your son, Tom”. Like I said, I can be an asshole.
Both parents are gone now, and all of these years later I sat in my storage locker, turning the white box over and over in my hands. Regrets? Hell, yeah I have regrets; but what can I do about it now?
I opened the box.
Mother and Dad:
Thanks for the sweater.
Bad Tolz is a beautiful Bavarian town with muraled exterior walls on their homes and onion-domed towers on their churches. If you visualize Julie Andrews in the opening sequence of "The Sound Of Music", that's what the area around Bad Tolz looks like. The food is fantastic and the people are friendly. It would have been a great place for a vacation, but I was not on vacation.
The squat twin towers and low arch at the entrance of Flint Kaserne, then home to the 10th Special Forces Group and 7th Army NCO Academy, were stark and foreboding. The heavy architecture was borne of it's creation as the german SS Officer School prior to and during WWII, which gave it a character which persisted from Patton's use of it for his headquarters until (nearly) the present day. Now the complex is a shopping area with a glass-and-steel modern construction on the previously bare quadrangle parade ground; but at the time of this story the large classrooms still had tactical terrain models, and built-in rifle racks still lined the hallways.
A short distance from Flint Kaserne was Bad Tolz Army Airfield, which also had changed little since WWII. Unlike the Kaserne, the Airfield seemed... well... temporary. The landing strip was PSP (perforated steel planking), that is, the kind which they laid down for immediate use and then picked back up to use again as the battle moved forward. The few aircraft hangers were thin and rusted, and the small air traffic control tower rested on stilts next to one of the old wooden buildings.
71st Aviation Company, to which I belonged, was on a field training exercise. Since I was merely a Private First Class, why we were on a field training exercise was none of my concern, I was simply happy for the change of scenery. My job was to refuel the helicopters. To do that I had a 2 1/2 ton, 1200 gallon tanker with which I waited patiently until the aircraft landed, the pilots departed, and the crew chiefs motioned me forward. Sometimes we "hot-refueled", but that's another story. JP-4 was the fuel which was used in helicopters and in most jet aircraft. To keep the 1200 gallon tanker supplied, we made fuel runs with a 5000 gallon tanker and then transferred the JP-4 over using 10 ft long, 4-inch reinforced rubber hoses. The hose had, on each end, two... well, sort of like ears... which you would press down against the sides of the hose to lock it securely onto tanker fittings, and onto each other... or onto a cap, which was used to keep foreign materials out of the fuel.
It was nearly evening and no more flights were due in. Both tankers were already parked, and the fuel handlers working with me had headed for the Kaserne. I looked out and saw we had left a section of hose next to the runway. Instead of moving one of the trucks again, I figured I would just walk out, grab the hose, and drag it back in... although it was quite-a-ways out there. As I meandered out toward the runway, I looked around, and it was glorious! Except for the movement of a slight breeze, there was the peaceful silence of a remote rural evening. The soft light fading behind the gentle mountains in the distance, not a soul in sight; I was alone with such sublime beauty! I paused and reflected upon the perfection of god's creation.
Finding the fuel hose, I grabbed it and started to drag it back toward the tankers; and it was, well, a real drag... the thing was heavy, or maybe I was tired, but I was getting nowhere fast. So I thought "if I get rid of the fuel in the hose, at least it will be a little lighter". Yes, I know it was wrong to dump a hose-full of fuel on the ground; it would be wasteful and it would pollute the beautiful country I had just been admiring. I know that now, and I knew it then... but I decided to do it anyway. I think it was just before I released the cap that I noticed the hose had been run over and crushed. I pulled and pulled on the "ears" of the hose connector trying to release the cap. Suddenly both ears snapped forward, and the cap shot from the hose-end straight into my forehead, followed by all the fuel in the hose.
I might have been knocked out, I don't know. But my head hurt bad, and I tried to open my eyes but each time I did they were bathed in jet fuel... and soon I could not see at all. When I did open my eyes, I thought either I was going blind, or I had been knocked out and the sun had already set. Even worse, I did not know which way I was facing! If I started walking, would I be walking toward the control tower or toward… nowhere? If I yelled would anyone hear me? The pain in my eyes was getting worse. Well, I had better do something! So I started to yell. "Help! Help! I can't see!!" I waited… I waited… Nothing. "Help!. Help, I can't see!!" I waited… Nothing.... only the sound of the soft breeze. It seemed like forever... then, far in the distance, the sound of a jeep. Slowly, very slowly, the engine got louder. "Help!, Help!, I can't see!!" I could hear the jeep pull up next to me, I felt a hand grab my belt, pull me into the seat, and a voice say;
"I Have You".
--------------------------- Postscript -------------------------
71st Aviation had brought no jeeps with us, so whoever this was most likely was a member of 10th Special Forces. He drove me to the dispensary and left; I never found out who it was. The doctors and nurses washed me up, flushed my eyes, and held me there for a day or so. I was very lucky to have arrived quickly enough that the fuel did no permanent damage... no, I wasn't just lucky... someone... someone I will never know, did that for me.
I waited by the drivers door of my tanker truck, the bright orange shards of the destroyed traffic marker littering the ground around me. The Polizei car stopped and I saw a familiar face walking toward me. "So it's Herr Mario Andretti AGAIN?!!". "Yes, Officer." I said, with my head down, trying to disappear into the pavement. "…and I am So... So... Sorry!!"
....However, just an hour before....
Peden Barracks was constructed in 1936 on the plateau above the small city of Wertheim on the Main River in central Germany. Wertheim is known for its wonderful castle and churches, and its old timber houses lining the narrow cobbled streets. By the mid 1970s... the time of this story... Peden Barracks was home to American Army units including Artillery, Air Defense, and Aviation. I was an enlisted soldier refueling UH1 helicopters for 71st Aviation Company. Every few days we would drive to Kitzingen to fill our tanker trucks, today was my day, and I was running late. I had been standing for several minutes waiting for the Major in charge of aircraft maintenance to finish a conversation with a pilot. Suddenly I interrupted: "Sir, please excuse me, but I need you to sign my trip-ticket, I must get through town before the traffic gets too bad." "Fine, private" he said, signing the document, "here, now move out." As I saluted, turned, and walked through the door I heard the conversation continue behind me. Almost spitting his words, "That's a very IMPORTANT private" the pilot said with a sneer. Quietly the Major replied. "Yes... yes, he is."
Well, upon hearing that my "I am god's gift to the Army" meter went off the dial. As you can tell from these first few paragraphs, this story is a morality tale about "pride comes before the fall", but hang on, it gets worse.
The mid 70's Army had some maintenance problems. We were either still in Vietnam or not, depending on who you asked. The all-volunteer Army had quite a few draftees still serving, and there was a low level of investment in both people and equipment. At the time, my tanker truck lacked a fender over the left rear duals. You know what I mean; on each side are two rear wheels, each with two tires… like you see on most large semi-trucks. The fender was on requisition, but then, everything was on requisition. I tell you this now because the whole story rests upon that missing piece of metal.
Sgt Palacios lifted himself into the right (passenger) seat. I started the engine, put the tanker into gear, released the handbrake, and we were off. Sgt Palacios was from Corpus Christi Texas and figures prominently in a story which (based upon valued advice I have received) I can still get in trouble for. Although you will have to wait until after I'm dead to read that story... it will be worth waiting for, it's hilarious! But I digress.
The 5,000 gallon tanker truck I was driving was used for JP4, the fuel which runs jet aircraft and helicopters. In liquid form, JP4 is quite stable; it is even possible to have it rapidly drip from a broken fitting onto a red-hot pump engine and not have it ignite... don't ask me how I know that. In vapor form, however, JP4 is explosive. Since my truck had been just emptied, what I was driving through the center of this small, old and beautiful city was a 5,000 gallon bomb.
We were late, and the traffic was terrible. Pedestrians were everywhere, and even the never-break-a-rule germans were jaywalking. In the center of town there was a less-than-90 degree left-hand turn that I knew I would have to take wide. I saw a break in the on-coming traffic, shifted to first and pulled the wheel over hard. The truck shuddered and lurched sharply to the left. Sgt Palacios verified my right front bumper was clearing the nearest car on that side, and I carefully nudged the left front bumper closer to the cars in the direction we were headed. Gently I turned the wheel right to complete the maneuver… I had made it! Then... I looked in my rear-view mirror.
Perched upon the top of my forward-most rear dual was the front end of a very nice late model BMW. As the inertia of the truck continued forward, my tires gently placed the car and its terrified driver back onto the roadway. The car had been picked up by the fender-less rear duals, then transferred forward across the top of both sets of tires to the point where I had seen it drop back down. There was no commotion, there was no cry of alarm, everything just stopped. Before I could exit the cab of the truck, the Polizei had arrived. In my terrible german I apologized profusely to the driver of the BMW, who was still in his car and still looking forward. There was surprisingly little damage to the car and with the driver indicating he was unhurt, the Polizei officer's primary concern was clearing the intersection so that the daily routine of the town could continue. I was lead by the patrol car back toward Peden Barracks. As we crossed the river, the Polizei officer stopped, took my information, told me to report to my commander, and left to clean up the mess I had caused in town.
I was shaking. I told Sgt Palacios that I would prefer that he drove, and he agreed. The Polizei was now out of sight, and the Sgt started the truck and headed toward the barracks. Something caught his attention in the rearview mirror, perhaps some damage to the tanker, but before he had turned back around, the front of the truck had smashed a large (and likely expensive) traffic marker to smithereenes. We stopped, and as we tried to figure out what to do, we saw a elderly lady in a nearby house talking into her telephone. Sgt Palacios spoke quietly; "look, you are already in trouble, I have got a perfect record, is there really any reason to drag me into this?... I promise, I will get the CO to go light." I thought "shit, I'm screwed anyway, what the hell do I care", so I said OK. And there I stood...
--------------------------- Postscript -------------------------
Within a few months of this incident, construction equipment was at work on what was to become the bypass road you can see on maps of Wertheim to this day. I admit that I still look with some pride upon that accomplishment.
I don't fault the Army for my mandatory retirement, I am sure they could tell from my record that I would never leave voluntarily. The letter, in it's entirety, read:
"Cpt. Hoffman: Regretfully, you were not selected for promotion to Major by the FY 94 Selection Board. You will soon be faced with the dilemma of leaving active duty and preparing to enter a new chapter in your life. Cadet Command is dedicated to assisting you in making this difficult transition as smooth as possible. If I can be of any assistance to you, please don't hesitate to call. Sincerely, James M. Lyle, Major General, U.S. Army, Commanding General, U.S. Army Cadet Command".
On Sep 23, 1994 as my local commander handed me the unexpected letter, this "difficult transition"... this exit... left a wound. I had really expected to make Major and go on to a staff assignment, but it was not to be. The Army was cutting back after Desert Storm and the breakup of the Soviet Union, and with my time in service, I was an easy target for the Reduction In Force. If I am honest, I have never looked like what an officer is supposed to look like. My shoulders are narrow and my back is crooked: when I see a photograph of myself I always think "the incredible S-shaped man". But that's fine; to quote my favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia: "We can't all be lions". When I was enlisted, I was about to be recommended for the West Point prep school, but the commander who was going to recommend me changed duty stations, and I never finished the application. I only applied for an ROTC Scholarship at the University of Alaska in 1980 because the re-enlistment NCO at Fort Greely kept hounding me to stay and likely make Staff Sergeant, but I just wanted to be someplace else. As you can see, I sort of backed into being an Army Officer, but now I was being forced to retire; with 7 years as an enlisted soldier and the rest as a Field Artillery officer, I had nothing to complain about; but that didn't make it any easier.
The people I worked with in the ROTC Department at Montana State University were a great group. Gretchen, the admin supervisor (who along with the supply tech were DA Civilians), was kindness personified. She arranged my going-away party.
It was a pleasant July day in the park at the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Gallatin Valley of Montana is as pretty in mid-summer as it is challenging in mid-winter. The mountains were deep green, the sun was bright and the water was clear. I was already on terminal leave; I had kept quite a few paid vacation days to use at the end of my service time, so I was already in "civilian mode" when the date of my retirement arrived. I parked and walked down to the campsite at the water's edge. Everyone was already there. We had some barbecue and some beer. Then the commander said a few words. I frankly can't remember what he said, because what came next blew me away. Gretchen came forward and ask me to help her unfold a quilt. One side had red-white-blue squares, and on the other... well, nearly every member of the unit (past and present) had made a unique square and Gretchen had sewn them into the quilt.
On the quilt there was depicted;
"Thank you for your service, dedication, and friendship" from LTC Yrazabal.
Cross-stich mountains with the word "Retirement" rising from behind, from Maj Thompson's family.
A comic of a secretary asking for computer help, from Linda.
An Engineer corps castle from CPT Ward, and an Ordinance corps bomb from CPT Donley.
"Civilian At Last" and sewn flowers, from Kay.
A 1st Cav Division patch from CPT Stone.
"Franks Equipment Rental" from Lori and Phil Lee.
A Cross-stich MSU logo from LTC Windemaker.
"CPT Ever Ready Hoffman" from CPT Weiler's family.
"Noth'n can stop..." from the MSU Air Force ROTC Detachment.
Various NCO rank patches, CIB, Ranger tab and Drill patch from the NCOs
And finally "Friends are rarely as needed or as kind" from Gretchen.
I have been trying to come up with a clever way to end this essay using the title, but I find that I can do no better than to use what Gretchen used; to complete it with one very important, very powerful word:
On the day Martin Luther King was shot, during our bus ride home from middle school (then called "Junior High") my classmates had an impromptu competition to see how many times they could use the N-word in a sentence. No one objected; not the bus driver, not me. The father of one of my friends was in a leadership position with the John Birch Society (think KKK without the pointy hoods and robes). The phrase “she is divorced” was used for the lady down the street …not that she went through a divorce, but that she had a personality fault which would follow her to her grave… she is divorced. There were no homosexuals on our block, or in the whole city as far as anyone knew. The marriage of a lutheran german girl to a catholic polish boy was the subject of heated and prolonged discussion. Around that same time I bought a picture book which had portraits of people from around the world. The book was called “The Family Of Man”. I loved that concept. I still do, and I think we are getting closer to it… slowly, haltingly closer to it… all the time.
You might have passed Private Jones on the street today. He would be a strongly built man with well proportioned features which now, in middle age, would give him an air of ability and authority. His confident and friendly nature would cause him to nod and smile at you, and you likely would have smiled back.
When I first met Private Jones he was wearing orange coveralls and talking with me through a plexiglass divider at the Bell County jail of Killeen, Texas. I had just become the Commander of a U.S. Army company-size unit (which in the Artillery is called a “Battery”), and I had come to visit one of the nearly 150 soldiers I was now responsible for… this one, Private Jones, was currently being held by the civilian authorities. He asked me what I knew about his case, I said I knew very little but that I had been told not to discuss the case and only to see if there was anything I could do for the soldier. He said he understood, and there was nothing he needed right now. I said I would visit again in a few days, but by that time he was to be out of jail.
I would meet Private Jones quite often during the next month or so. He was always around because he could not leave main post and could not deploy on training exercises due to his ongoing court case. His case had been transferred from civilian to military authority, and I had been told that a General Court-Martial would be convened, but little beyond that. I thought "how serious could it be?"… he was out painting the DivArty Headquarters building and making trips to the PX (shopping center), although on those trips he was accompanied by a Sergeant.
The story told among the enlisted soldiers was quite sad. Private Jones had brought his girlfriend and their new baby to Killeen and put them up in an apartment off post. Her affection for him soured and, unknown to him, she began seeing other men. She needed his paycheck, so they continued for a time in an uncomfortable relationship punctuated by heated arguments. She was looking for a way to somehow break it off, but blame it on him, keep the baby, and maintain his full financial support. The opportunity came one day when the girlfriend was at work. Private Jones was bathing the baby girl and was inattentive to the temperature of the water, which was a little too warm. As he lowered her in, she cried loudly. Hearing it, their neighbor called the girlfriend who then called the police. The baby’s legs were quite red, and the girlfriend insisted Private Jones be charged with injury to a child. Immediately Private Jones was arrested, denied any contact with the girlfriend and their baby, then he was locked up where this my narrative started.
About a week before the day of the Court-Martial, Private Jones was transferred to the Post Guardhouse, purely for convenience, I was told. I stopped by to see how he was doing, and he indicated that everything was fine. I then performed my only real responsibility in the case by signing a document, I don’t remember what I signed, but I did know that from that moment I had nothing further to do with either the case or with the accused; I would attend the proceedings by my own choice, merely as an observer.
The prosecution began its case, then showed a couple of slides on a screen. Shaken, I got up and walked out.
For there on the screen were what looked like deep red, bloated sausages…. the thin pale skin peeling away from the dark, mottled meat. This was not an accident. This was not a mistake. The baby’s legs and feet were held, forcibly held, under near-boiling water as she screamed in terror and pain.
How little thought had I given to the baby! What I saw on that screen was unimaginable to me.
Damn that monster. Damn him to hell.
If God’s eye is on the sparrow, were was he that day?
That was over 30 years ago. Private Jones went to Fort Leavenworth;
… but where is he now?
It was the late 1970's when someone poked his head in the door of the Survey Section building at Beales Range, Cold Regions Test Center on Fort Greely, Alaska and announced that an eagle or hawk had been seen looking out from the crawl space under a nearby hut, it was something we all wanted to see. We gathered around the hut, but of course the bird had retreated deep within the darkness between the floor supports. The others became bored and drifted away, but I had never seen an eagle …if it even was an eagle… up close. It's not at all unusual to see them soaring over Fort Greely and the Delta River, but when they do they are only a streak in the sky. I wanted to see one up close; close enough to remember and to draw (I really like to draw). So I got down on my hands and knees and very carefully began to crawl under the shack. It must have been early spring, because I was wearing a field jacket rather than a parka. The snow around the crawl space was old and hard, blocking most of the weak sunlight. I crawled in at least my body-length (again, I was on hands and knees) and could feel the toes of my boots drop from the snow onto the bare earth under the shack. I paused for about a minute while my eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness… and there, not three feet away, was the biggest fucking bird I have ever seen.
Yes, I just used a word common among soldiers, because I want you to understand my level of, well, let's call it surprise. Mouth open, frozen movement, soil yourself surprise. Not three feet away were 3 inch talons and a truly massive beak attached to the killing machine referred to as a Golden Eagle… and I was looking UP at it. Now, in recalling this story, I had to check; could the bird really have been that big? Had my memory made the bird bigger each time I remembered it? Well, Golden Eagles can be 40 inches in length, so it is quite possible that the Eagle was looking down on me from where it stood upon the level ground which we shared.
Now you are thinking, "what happened next?" Nothing. I backed slowly out of the crawl space, and I don't remember anything particular happening after that. I don't remember what happened to the Eagle. What I do know that it was not my decision to make nothing happen, it was the Eagle's. The Eagle decided not to slice me with a claw. The Eagle decided not to rip my face open with its beak. It was a day that nothing happened, but only because a certain Eagle decided it was to be so.
I have decided to tell my most favorite story. I will write it in three sections; in the first section I will set the stage by describing the situation and the participants, in the second section I will tell you what happened, and in the third section I will tell how I did it.
It is 1983, Garlstedt Germany. I am a new second lieutenant just assigned and arrived in the battalion. Most contact new lieutenants have is not with the battalion commander, but with his assistant, the executive officer (XO). The XO is expected to train new officers and weed out undesirables, so the last thing a new lieutenant wants to do is piss off the XO. The relationship between lieutenants in the battalion is primarily competitive; the easiest way to climb up is to step on someone else. A great opportunity to step on someone is called the "Hail and Farewell". The Hail and Farewell is a monthly officers mess (dinner) at which new officer arrivals are welcomed to the battalion and departing officers are given awards and an honorable send-off. Each battalion has traditions which must be observed, and a tradition in my new battalion was the passing of the jug. Prior to the Hail and Farewell the newest lieutenant… referred to for these festivities as "Mr. Vice"… had to accept the jug from the previous caretaker, safeguard the jug until the dinner, and… at his own expense… fill it with an appropriate alcoholic beverage. Already there are ways for other members of the battalion to torpedo the new lieutenant; they can steal the jug, they can give him inaccurate information about what is expected of him, and they can generally make him nervous about this his first appearance in front of all the officers in the battalion. The whole idea is to see how he handles pressure; to try to make the new lieutenant look like an idiot.
I arrived at my initial Hail and Farewell having safeguarded and filled the jug. The tradition of the jug had begun when the unit was part of the Korean conflict. The jug subsequently survived all of Vietnam, a period in the states, and then the unit's deployment to Germany. It had been painted with designs reflecting each of these experiences and travels. The jug was carried in a handsome leather case appropriate to its value to the battalion. At the Hail and Farewell, "Mr. Vice" (the poor sucker) would lift the jug from the leather case, display it while telling its history (having read and memorized the information), then answer questions about the jug and the battalion, and finally present the jug to the battalion commander who then initiated the passing of it among the battalion officers for a swig. At the end, the jug was to be returned to the leather case and safeguarded until given to the next newly arrived lieutenant. All very clear, all very specific and… of course… not at all what happened.
At the end of the meal I waited for my cue, and then…"Mister Vice, please present the jug!", shouted the XO. The tables were in a large open square, with everyone facing inwards. I walked to the center of the square with all eyes upon me. I had the leather case with the jug inside, a tape player, a plastic sheet, and a large rock. I started the tape player and military music filled the room. I unfolded the plastic sheet, spread it carefully on the floor, and placed the large rock at its center. I then opened the leather case and lifted the jug from it. Turning the jug around and showing each side, I then raised it over my head, paused momentarily, and then threw it down hard onto the rock, shattering it with a thunderous CRACK! Pieces of it flew in all directions. The music stopped. Silence. Then someone said "Oh My God!" Another pause… I waited… then I saw the XO slowly begin to rise out of his chair. I reached into the leather case and lifted the REAL jug into the air. All the tables erupted in laughter and applause, the XO relaxed, seated and smiled. With all the noise no one could ask questions and no history could be recited, so I took the jug to the commander (who still looked a little shocked) and he began to pass it around. Other officers retrieved broken shards from the floor and expressed admiration for the accuracy of the copy. I had survived my first Hail and Farewell, I had made my mark, and did not have to present the jug ever again.
How I Did It:
If you know me, you know that I do not do well in groups. I know that too; I knew that the usual Hail and Farewell would be a disaster for me. I decided that if it was going to be a disaster, it would be one I controlled. I have said that other lieutenants were competitive, but that was a generalization; I had made a friend of one of the senior lieutenants (1LT Bruce Manning), told him of my idea, and he decided he would help me. I could not find a jug of the right dimensions in town, so I got a medium size crock and some clay that hardens in a kitchen oven. At my friend's house (with the help of his wife Ilene) I fashioned the top part of the jug from the clay and glued it to the top of the crock. I then painted the fake jug to match the real one; it was slightly smaller, but I was confident no one would notice. When lifting the fake jug out of the leather case I had to be careful to lift it mostly from the bottom otherwise the top might separate. Since our Hail and Farewell dinners took place in a german guest house (restaurant) I knew I would have to protect the floor, hence the plastic sheeting.
Very rarely in life does one have a plan that works out as well as this one did. I decided I would share it with you.