Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Military Madness (6)- Support

Military Madness-
I have thought about the support system that seemed to develop on its own, while I was in the military, and then I started to look through my old correspondence.   My friend Janet gave a party, and told everyone who planned on coming that he or she had to have sent at least one letter to me in order to gain admittance to the party.  If you had sent two, you got a drink besides, and even a postcard would get you entry and ice.  
I got letters from friends from all corners of my life: huge immediate and extended family support, high school friends, new college buddies, and fellow workers at Sunrize (sic) Market.   There were letters from people I either barely knew, or people I met after I entered the military, who then became very close to me in a short period of time.  
The one individual who stands head and shoulders above the multitude, is John-Bryan Davis, the kid with two first names.  No one would know who was being discussed if you said John is bringing the gin;  it was always “John-Bryan.”  (OK, bad example, because if it was gin, then we would automatically know who was involved.)  If his surname was mentioned at all, it was only in the form of an initial, as in, “JBD is passed out on the couch again.”  
Not that John-Bryan drank back in those days, it was more of a guzzle.  Of course, he was on his best behavior until we were are so bamboozled, that it didn't matter anymore.  He was as much a part of the family as anyone could possibly be who had not exchanged vows.  
When I left for Fort Leonard Wood, on January tenth, John-Bryan was still back in New Jersey with my brother Eric, completing the twelve week training course for incoming peace corps volunteers.  I have always marveled at the juxtaposing of  Eric and John-Bryan's path, and my path, at this crucial juncture in time.  They were en route to Korea in the Peace Corps, and I was on my way to Korea in the army.  Peace Corps and army made for curious bedfellows.  
John-Bryan, Eric and I drew naturally together, as in the yin and the yang, they representing all that is right with the civilized world, and me representing all that was anything but right.  I kept wondering how gullible Markie ended up in the army.  My friend Kat once referred to me as Winnie the Pooh, as in it was like Winnie the Pooh getting drafted into the infantry.
John-Bryan occupied a huge role in this setting.  He had made a gallant effort, and put up the grand struggle to adapt to a harsh climate, but struggle is what he did.  There was just too much.  There were too many contradictions to his world, and they combined to defeat his valiant efforts to adjust.  Maybe this influenced his role in the effort to keep me in the loop, as he mounted a campaign on the home front for the establishment of the SUPPORT system. 
SUPPORT stood for “Send us poor people our rightful tidings.”  It's possible that I imagined the existence of this acronym, but if I did, it was only based on the volume of tangible evidence.  For instance, John-Bryan used to send me comics.  
So, what's the big deal?  Weren't there comics in the Stars and Stripes?  Sure, but not Snuffy Smith, and not Peanuts.  Everyone knows, at least John-Bryan did, that comics from home evoke so much more of everything.  It was how you were draped over Papa's footstool in the living room while reading “Blondie”, that you remembered. 
It was not even being allowed to read the comics until after Papa was done, for obvious reasons.  How I ached for someone to say (there were three older brothers, for starters), “Keep your grimy little claws off those comics, Clowny.  Papa hasn't had a chance to read them.” 
Comics meant the weekly squabble with JT, who had a penchant for seeing Charlie Brown flop flat on his back, as Lucy pulled the football away, again and again.  Poor Charlie Brown.  Wait a second, is that Markie on his back, with Drill Sergeant Fletcher holding the football?   It's all so blurry now, but not then.  My comics were hooch comics.  It was like trying to hide the fruitcake when the fragrance would waft enticingly, exactly where it pleased.  The rustle of newspaper, coming on the heels of mail call, had nothing to do with The Stars and Stripes, and everything to do with home.
Along with comics, John-Bryan sent sports clippings, newsy articles, theater reviews from his drama productions and letters, letters, letters.  Who was this guy I had never met, and why was he being so nice to me?  Did I ask those questions?  Hell, no.  I charged forward to the front of the line in mail call and accepted my due.  Another notch on the six shooter of life.  
John-Bryan fueled my reputation for being the Man when it came to stepping forward [again] in response to my name being yelled.  Actually, after the first mail call, the company clerk was on a first-name basis with me, and I have all of my SUPPORT crew to thank. 
I heard from everybody about John-Bryan.  He and Eric had arrived back in La Puente for a one day sojourn, before embarking for The Land of the Morning Calm.  I remember a tape JT sent me later, emptily telling me she hadn't seen Eric for a year.  She dismissed that one day in January with a pre-emptory  wave.  “That was when Grandpa died, and there was so much going on, I never even got to say anything but hi.”
Of course, Mama told me about John-Bryan, and how he and Eric had been in the training center together, and had become close friends in New Jersey.  I could identify.  I had a fiercely treasured collection of friendships that enveloped me, as I went from Fort Leonard Wood to Fort Dix.  I doubled that number as I went from New Jersey to Korea, breaking away from yet a second set of brothers.  When John-Bryan went with Papa and most of the remaining tribe down to Baja in March of that winter, it was as natural as if he had always been included.
Every single person who went on that jaunt to Baja in March, gave me feedback on John-Bryan.  The accounts of the trip and the humorous anecdotes that accompanied them, kept me and my hooch brothers in stitches.  Any questions I had about who this guy was, and why was he so nice, dissolved, replaced by the thought that I liked this guy, and he made me feel as though I had somehow earned his attention.  I felt very comfortable being included in John-Bryan's circle, even though I had never met him.  I was one of the gang, though the gang was seven thousand miles away.  
When I had first left home, the letters to me contained a constant dialogue about the send-off party we had all attended, the party they had just come from and talk about the big party they were planning when I got home.  However, over time the tenor of the letters began to evolve, from folksy, newsy, cheerful missives, to a more serious bent involving friendships, relationships, life changes, and the future.  Being separated by thousands of miles intensified the emotions being bandied back and forth across the miles, like a supersonic Ping-Pong ball.
The intensity of my correspondents, for the most part, was astounding.  Talking is the most common form of communication, but there are many avenues in which to get sidetracked.  Through mishearing, misunderstanding, or impulsive responses to offhand or thoughtless comments, people often struggle with emotional dialogue, because the heart and the head are not necessarily always aligned.
Therefore, when I switched to communicating through letters, I found that words took on a new meaning, and that once they were on paper, they didn't change unless someone erased and then replaced them.  Unlike spoken communication, in letters there were no interruptions.  There were no hasty asides, thrown out in the heat of passion or in response to a telling point.  
Not only that, but there was almost always a delay between the time the words were written and the time the letter was sent, in case I wanted to back the truck up, and revise something before placing it irretrievably in the olive drab mailbox in the day room.  Just as we came to the day room to send out our letters, we came here for mail call.
Mail call was the center of our universe at Ascom; all plans, all splurges, drunken or otherwise, revolved around the mid-afternoon arrival of the mail orderly from Seoul.  It was ritualistic that we swung by the orderly room to check the mail, after leaving the barn, en route to the hooch, via the day room.  
At the day room we could purchase any of four types of American labeled beer for a dime apiece: Hamms, Black Label, Falstaff and Micholob.  They might not have lined up as the four that I would have selected, but I didn't see anyone boycotting the machine that dispensed the beer as regularly as the dimes which flowed through it.  It cost the same to buy a twelve ounce Micholob, as it did to make a phone call.
I remember coming in from the barn one humid August afternoon, not quite drenched from the downpour, but not far from it.  The temperature was in the mid-eighties, and the rain, which should have felt refreshing, just felt like rivulets of sweat, coursing down into the most uncomfortable and unwelcome of places.  
It was a Tuesday, so the promise of the weekend was still too distant to even contemplate.  We had an office inspection on the immediate horizon, Eric wasn't due for another week and the movie theater was closed for remodeling, which meant a fresh coat of olive drab paint.
I had been in-country for eight weeks, and I was already so tired of being seven thousand miles away from home, that I could have cried at the sound of a Red-Tail, as it passed overhead, on its way back to the World.  There was nothing immediately forthcoming in the way of any relief, from either the rain, or from Korea. 
I had just received a care package/letter from Mama, several letters from my girl and at least three other assorted letters from family members, so I was not expecting anything.  In fact, as I came in through the door, I thought the mail pouch, lying dejectedly on the back counter, was empty.  I started to leave, but the mail clerk was just coming out the side door, and he waved me back in.
“Your lucky day. There was only one piece of mail delivered to the company and it's addressed to you.”  I stepped up to grab the letter, and as I did so, the clerk mentioned to me that whoever had sent the letter was lucky enough to get it through on a day when no one else had been able to.  
I looked at the neatly blocked printing on the outside of the envelop, unfamiliar at first glance, and noted that the name on the outside was O'Neill.  This was an unexpected delight, on a day devoid of anything resembling light, and I clutched my letter in my right hand, as I waltzed through the day room door, two dimes extended toward the beer machine.
On my final leg of the journey back to the hooch, I once again examined the envelope, addressed in red ink, and mentally checked off the possible candidates, until I got to Kevin.  It wasn't Kevin's handwriting, but I was willing to bet that he was the author.  
I thought back to that letter I'd received in February, just after his sixth birthday, and it made me chuckle again.  I remembered how he had dictated to JT that the “Dune Buggy Rat” model that he had been given “wiped out, but we fixed it.  Eleven pieces are [scattered] around the house.”  I could picture Kevin, his blond curls spilling out in every direction, concentrating on his Hot Wheel collection.  He asked the most quaint questions, much to the amusement of my bunk mates, one being, “Does the army serve garbage for food?” 
Back in February, I was still at Fort Leonard Wood.  I could picture us sitting around in the doorless barracks room, me perched up on my ledge, while we went around the circle on that one.  Opem opined that the question merited serious consideration, but Kyle said no, that he had seen the garbage officially get dumped out back of the mess hall, in its designated place, so we could officially rule that out.  
Lon, of course, was the one who came up with the most appropriate response.  “Tell your little bro, that it's not garbage when they serve it to us, only after we turn our plates upside down above the big silver receiving tray, otherwise known as the garbage bucket.”  That seemed to be the best response to what was obviously a perceptive and revealing question.  
Another of Kevin's questions which drew an enthusiastic response was the adroitly fashioned inquiry, “Is the Captain nice to you?”  Again, all assembled were anxious to put their two cents' worth in.  Dwight commented the the Captain had been nice to him in the sense that the Captain had not run him over with a Sherman tank yet, but otherwise, he wasn't sure that he could definitively say that the Captain had indeed, been nice to him.  
I mentioned that the Captain had been nice enough to allow me to clean out his fish tank, including cleaning all the slime off of the gravel at the bottom of the tank.  Dave chimed in the the Captain was especially nice while napping in his Captain's chair, cleverly positioned in front of his Captain's desk, where he pretended to be a real live Captain, instead of a pencil neck.

Now as I opened the letter and confirmed that the signature was “Kevin,” I turned my attention to the contents of his message.  I could picture the scene at home, with JT and him, sprawled out on the living room floor, JT using a pee-chee folder to work on.  Kevin and she would have lain head to head, Kevin supporting his chin with his two hands, while he followed JT's red pen hypnotically.  
In the background, a rerun from the Rowan and Martin Laugh-in would have been on, which was always one of Papa's favorite shows.  The sight of that guy on his tricycle, telling us he knows, sees and hears nothing, as he slowly tips sideways, made us crack up every time.  Mama would be sitting in her chair, just outside the door to her bedroom, and Laura might be brushing Mama's hair, or even cracking pecans for the banana bread she was about to bake for tomorrow's lunch desserts.
At six years of age, Kevin was a product of the 'hood.  He chilled with his friend Michael, and according to Papa, the two of them washed my car with mud, to ensure that it didn't feel left out.  He rode his Sting-Ray bike with vigor, and chased poor Pierro around the cement until she simply stopped, and dropped herself to the ground, in the shade on that same cement, to sleep.  
When JT had tried to get him to talk into the microphone of the tape player she was using to make a voice tape for me, he refused, running away while protesting that it was all so dumb.  Such keen awareness of the power of the media at such a young age.
Kevin had posed more provocative questions in this current letter, hinting already at that razor sharp, lawyer-in-making persona, the first of which was, “Are you using any guns?” Actually, we had had to go out on the firing range one time, while in-country, to brush up on our mechanics, but that was it.  One shining pinprick of light about Korea was that there was no work detail harassment, and no KP, or that kind of nonsense.  
So Kevin's question inevitably produced positive thoughts, as we recognized that our situations were universally improving.  His next question was certainly innocent enough:  Was the weather nice? Let's see now, Kevin didn't specify through whose eyes we should be examining for the quality of niceness when discussing weather.
In winter, either in FLW or in Korea, for the resident polar bears, the weather  was very nice; for a group of guys from LA visiting FLW during January and February, the weather left a lot to be desired.  The temperature had dipped to fifteen below, the night we bivouacked.  My mummy sleeping bag probably would have even been adequate protection from the cold, had it not been for the broken zipper, which refused to cooperate in the common goal of keeping out the cold.  
My tent mate, a black kid from the inner LA city, and one of the gentlest, warmest human beings I ever met, named Howard McDowell, commiserated with me.  He offered me his field jacket liner to add to mine, and extra woolies and socks, anything to help a brother out.  Was the weather nice?  Certainly, nice and frigid, just the way we like it-up in Alaska.   
Kevin's final inquiry involved whether or not we got to play with grenades, an explosive question, if ever there was one.  Before we could even address it, I read the last line of the letter aloud, leaving us all to ponder the mysteries of small boys' minds.  Concluding his letter, Keven had asked JT to write, “Well, I guess I'll go out and play with my toy soldiers I got for my birthday.”
For some reason, the juxtaposing of soldiers playing with grenades, alongside the thought of Kevin playing with soldiers, made me feel very eerie.  This was certainly a very peculiar world, when these types of militaristic images vied for attention in a small boy's mind.  But from six year old Kevin's eyes, with older brother far off in some distant land, playing soldier, it must have seen quite appropriate for him to embrace the concept of soldiery, in an ongoing effort to supply an unending wave of support to me.
Kevin's lively letter, was one of many times, when a single contribution, through timing and circumstance, made far more impact than its appearance may have suggested.  Because everyone on the home front presented a unified force, any single ray of support, was apt to extend its light, at any given instant, to help guide me on the path to back home.  I felt their support to the marrow of my bones.
Laura was ten, almost eleven, when I left for Fort Leonard Wood and making her way through middle school.  Though she was perky and cheerful around Fellowship Street, socially she was more of a tanager than a peacock.  She produced beautiful music and did not seek the limelight.  She wrote in one of her many letters, “I am doing pretty well in band; I am third chair, first section, which means I am the third best out of twenty-three or twenty-four clarinets.”  Not being musically inclined myself, I was impressed.  If Laura were ahead of seven-eighths of the rest of the clarinets, I'd say there was a lot of dust eating going on amongst those seven-eighths available clarinets.

She started “newspapers” for me, the first one of which was postmarked only seventeen days after I departed for Missouri.  Whether the date, January 27th, just happened to coincide with the completion of her first publishing effort, or whether the death of Grandpa prompted this completion, or both, I didn't know, but I do know it arrived with a tsunami wave of well-wishes and support.  
I was very tickled to be able to show my barracks mates my stack, and pass around the puns and the home made newspapers.  These consisted of pages of jokes and puns, mixed with newsy sorts of home-baked trivia, that could only have come from the official house Miss.  Laura included up-to-date newsflashes on the neighboring kids, the family pets, even the neighbors' pets. She wrote of birthday parties, and included a full-page account of the March Baja trip.
To me this was so cool.  Laura talked about all of the various components of the weekend, which began by her getting out of school at half day, along with Tom, so that they could get down to Ensenada by dark.  The excursion included a trip to a restaurant, always exciting in our household.  She was allowed to stay up as late as she wanted, which obviously made her feel gown up, and she retired at midnight.  
I felt as though I were there, sharing in the Friday night burritos, that I knew Papa had made.  He was amazing when we camped.  He bustled about the camp area, lighting the Colemann stove, already getting a kettle of cold water on to heat up to do the dishes.  It was so different from when we were at home.  Papa was so cool about doing the stuff he usually made us do, like the dishes.  Secretly, I just think he wanted to make sure that the dishes were done properly
The one connection that I was unable to make at the
time, and had to wait until years down the line, was the fact that, while Laura and the rest of the gang were heading south to Baja, I was heading east to New Jersey.  I find it ironic, that with all of the talk during that period, about heading north to start a commune, that on St. Patrick's Day, 1972, our family was heading out all right, in more than one direction, but North was still on the back burner. 
Laura wrote one letter on a background of paper shaded with different colored crayons, so that the message was a bright and cheerful one.  Her efforts were so genuine and so heartfelt, that they never failed to boost my day, and I know it sounds funny, but it brightened up the days of the guys around me, who did not have the support system in place that I did.  
It was funny how different manifestations of the concept of brother came into play while in the military.  Guys formed bonds for a multitude of reasons, and then my siblings became your siblings, and your cousin became my cousin, and we all shared parents, and the benefits that naturally sprung forth from said parents.
My younger brother Tom had gained fame within our family, because he had been christened with a string of nicknames that began as an offshoot of his name, Thomas Francis.  Noel, (who else?) was the only one possessing the power to alter Tom's name,   but the original name went like this:  Thomas Francis, Scott, Key, (Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner) Luke, Leek, Owen, Alvin, Murphy, Durphy, Martin, Poochie, Tomurgalar, Gronk, Lorg Torg O'Neill, Amen.  Owen and Martin were almost certainly the first names of two of Noel's friends, Murphy may have referred to Father Murphy, a priest at the school Noel attended, and Poochie may have referred to my Uncle George, who had gone by the name Poochie since he was a kid.  
I got into the act, at one point, and attempted to insert two additional nicknames into the mix, but Noel nixed it.  Now I will be the first to admit that my offerings were fairly pedantic, and reflected little of the panache that Noel displayed, so I guess in the long run Noel was forced to preserve his status as the bestower of names.  The younger kids went along with me, because they liked the rhythm presented by, “Martin Spartan, Poochie Moochie,” but it was all in vain.  The reason I bring this up is that Tom was just a kid when I went in, but he did a lot of growing up.
In the first year I was gone he had made a two inch thick booklet for me of that magical season of the Lakers, ('72-'73) where they won thirty-three games in a row.  He cut out the clippings from every game, pasted them on to construction paper, added color commentary in the form of written assessment on each game, and bound them together with twine.  I have no idea how long it took him, but it made its way around the hooch, whether you were a sports fan or not. 

Tom probably changed more than anyone else, because he was fourteen when I went in, and sixteen when I came out.  He went from sending me sports clippings to discussing issues of integrating into his new high school.  At one point, about twelve weeks after he started at Bishop Amat, after having gone to Fairgrove Elementary, the local public school,  he wrote the following words in a four page letter that was as different in format than anything else he had ever sent. 

“I guess one thing that I am very happy about is that when I started at Bishop Amat, it was like being able to start all over in the way I liked.  I can change my image completely if I like, because I didn't know a single person when I started, and vice-versa.  It's like changing from a class clown to a person who knows how to handle the situation. Also, learning how to cope and communicate with my teachers can help...
A little about what you said about taking it easy.  In a lot of the things I do, mainly about talking with people, I usually keep it cool until I know where my head's at.  I can see how people wouldn't accept me, even if I proved I was capable of handling he situation.  I don't like it to seem to people that I'm growing up in a day, because I've put some heavy thinking into the world of today, although I cannot express myself very well.”
Tom's letters changed in tone, reflecting the changes in himself.  The amazing thing is that the distance between us, served as a conduit for sharpened communication, and for being able to set aside the normal restrictions or boundaries the need to go beyond just the newsy sort of approach to letter writing, was very strong.  So we developed not only the ability to communicate well on paper, but, to a certain extent, this exchange of ideas was to lead to a lifelong feeling within myself, that Tom and I would always be on a certain wavelength, even if the letters stopped.
Matt was fifteen when I went in, and already in the arena as far as keeping his head together.  He maintained his sanity partially through the help of Brother Noel, who used me as an example for Matt, when Matt was feeling that the world (read that as Mama) would simply not stop hassling him.  
In his letters, Matt would talk about my scene, and how, if he had to do it, he didn't think he could.  Therefore, when Noel would throw my situation in his face, Matt would back off and realize that one man's ceiling was another man's floor.  The stuff that was bugging him was trivial, compared with the stuff I was dealing with.  
I remember my thought process when I first went in, and how I had come to the conclusion that I had it a heck of a lot easier than Papa, who had spent time in the South Pacific.  His time did not include taking in the vacation package.  Just as Matt helped me get through a rough time with his words of encouragement, I was able to lend a little support to him by being where I was, doing some unpleasant business, hating every second of it, but plodding on, one second at a time.  At one point he wrote, 
...Noel was here and he said to me that Mom wanted me to get my hair cut or I couldn't go to the apartment on Wednesday night...he said that Mom was all bent out of shape at me for wanting to be older than I am but not taking the responsibility like getting my hair cut or working or something else...
But we got talking and I guess I was really down and I was telling Noel that I didn't like going to school...but he said, look at Mark, when he found out that he had to go to the army he took advantage of it...and he is really doing well...Of course, he doesn't like it, but he is not sitting down and quitting, he is doing something with it...
Well, I got my hair cut really short and...things are going better because of what Noel said to me about you...I don't really know how to say it, but in any case, you know you always have all of us here and if you can't cope or whatever comes up you know we are behind you and you always have us to turn to in any situation.”  
For a guy who didn't really know how to say it, I thought he he did pretty damn well.  He always has had a way with words, you know.
Jean sent me updates on the college scene, filling me in on classes, program cards, and the news of my friends.  If I got the handwriting right, she also let Kevin dictate his letters to her, so that he could add something to the community envelope being mailed off to the apple (APO, which was Army Post Office).  
She wrote one night while baking cookies for me which she was going to add to an outgoing package; that's what I mean by support.  She told me about watching The Smothers Brothers on the Flip Wilson show, and it made me feel as though I were back in the living room on Fellowship Street, chilling in front of the tube.  It made me think of the film festivals we used to enjoy, back in the days before VHS machines.  Every night for a week, the TV station would broadcast a  W.C. Fields or Mae West film, and all of my friends would gather at the house for the occasion.  It was what we did: gather, enjoy and do it again.  Doug Maloney even went outside when he smoked his Marlboros, so as not to chance annoying the parents. 
JT talked about our commune.  The funny thing is that all of these years, I had remembered this ongoing dialogue.  What I had forgotten was how detailed the plan was.  She had been listening to a tape that I had sent, and it was obvious that I was skeptical.  I questioned us building houses.  What did we know about that?  She said it would take time.  We had our whole lives.  I asked about being out in a remote area, and having to run miles of piping.  I asked her about schooling, about work.  She had the answers and she was so convincing.  The tapes were so much more effective for this kind of communication. 

Microphone users (including me)  had universally felt discomfort at the thought of talking into a mic, and it was reflected in the tapes.  However, that was more when they were simply sharing newsy, unimportant kinds of trivia.  When given a subject upon which she really wanted to expound, JT had used it as a soapbox, and delivered an inflamed defense of the whole plan, forgetting completely that she was supposed to be embarrassed by talking into a mic.  Now, as I listened to her plans, spoken thirty-seven years ago, they were uncannily accurate.
Jean wrote about hanging out with her beau, Dave, and how they went on a picnic and flew kites, played on the swings and got dizzy on the merry-go-round.  I enjoyed hearing about the stuff I was missing, because it made me feel that I would be able to regain my rightful spot in the lineup of life, without missing a beat when I returned from the shadows again.  As she spoke, she began to drift into a more pensive mood, wondering what the future would hold.  As her frame of reference ebbed and flowed, she went from pondering one heavy life decision to the next.  Quit her job at the library?  Consider a life commitment to Dave?  Change schools?  
Thus we examined our options for the immediate future and shared our views with one another from seven thousand miles' distance.  Even now, when I listen to her voice, I am moved by her ability to look with such clarity at the issues.  By no means did she claim to have the answers, but doggone it, she had all of the facts right at her fingertips.
Brother Brian (twenty-six years old when I went in) sent me Laker clippings while I was at Fort Leonard Wood, spring training clippings of the Dodgers while I was at Fort Dix, and regular season clippings all summer long (not a baseball season to be remembered by the fans for very long).  He was rock solid when it came to support.  In terms of sheer volume, his letters ranked third behind my girl and my mom.  His letters were a combination of news from Manchester Avenue, the hotbed of all commune discussion, and support for both me and my girl, who struggled at times to keep things together.  He hosted many gatherings where my plight was discussed and I always got an infusion of correspondence out of these gatherings.  At one point he wrote,
“Your letter, received yesterday, was so fantastically outasite!  Picture the typical situation, if you will (this is a Wednesday at the apartment that I'm referring to): Brian comes straggling in from school and nearly everyone is here: Noel and Sharon, Nancy, Janet (just arrived on the scene), Joanie, and John Bryan from San Diego.  What is everyone standing around doing?  They are all reading letters from Markie, and saying, 'Hurry up and open your letter, we haven't got all day!...Wait a shake, Jack, hold on...What IS this? Gimme a chance.'
Outasite.  Later, Dave, Jean and Matt showed up...By the way we are anxious to get preparations underway for the all-time most classic party of them all when Markie gets back.”   WowFor  a guy unaccustomed to getting attention, by virtue of my placement dead center in the family structure, this was good stuff.  

Brian had to go to court for me more than once to settle little logistical challenges for me, but he took up the gauntlet and appealed to the judge for justice for me, who was “defending his [beloved] country while on hostile shores.”  He wrote me all of the sordid details, including a copy of the transcript of the dialogue in the courtroom, which he recreated from memory.   
In the end it added up to a brilliant defense by Brian, and a dismissing of the case of the judge.  Evidently I had been cited by the CHP for a smog violation on my '64 Nova, and Brian had gotten the whole thing tossed out, including the fifty to five hundred dollar fine that accompanied the citation.  Now that's what I call support.
Mama was a veritable gold mine of goodies, sending a non-stop stream of creature comforts.  I asked her early on to send me some civvies, and then commented when they arrived, that they made me temporarily feel as though I were back in “the World.”  She had sent me off in the first place with this black, fuzzy Russian hat, designed to keep my ears warm.  Predictably, the first (and only) time I went to a base club, I left the hat behind.  She replaced it for me once while I was at FLW, and she had to replace it again after I arrived in Korea.  She sent fruitcake, fudge, brownies, fruitcake, avocados (!) Sunday funnies, newspaper clippings, fruitcake and anything else that she could find.
Mama sent candy, suckers, fudge and other sweets to Eric, either directly to Kwangju in the early days, or then later on, to me, through the APO.  To me she sent chips, pretzels, cookies and lots of reading material.  When she sent the avocados, we had to break out the company safe to store them in, they were considered so precious.  
Besides the cookies, fudge, or other baked goods,  a package might have a crossword puzzle book, a box of raisins, ten packs of Kool Aid (again for Eric, for whom potable water was at times an issue) a medicine bottle with aspirin or throat lozenges, and always a letter.  
During the period when Brian was in Guadalajara, Eric in Kwangju, and I was in Seoul, Mama did what a lot of moms did, and put a piece of carbon between each piece of paper when she typed out her letters. Whoever got the third copy had hard times, but I would rather have gotten the third copy than no copy at all.  
Besides, it's easy to second guess how I may or may not have felt back then, as I sit here today, and try to decipher the carbon-smeared words.  If this letter had been word processed today, and printed off with a nice laser printer, each copy would have been as pristine as the next.  It's easy to see how from today's technological perspective, a smeared carbon copy might seem annoying.
There was hardly a letter that went back or forth that did not include some reference to a pending package, a package that had recently arrived, or the bane of our existence, a package that was missing. Looking back and reading the letters, it was an ongoing soap opera, especially when the missing package actually finally turned up, having been sent overland instead of by Air Mail. 
All of the edible contents were enveloped in mold except for...the fruitcake, which was wrapped up in cloth and waxed paper.  I'm sorry, but fruitcake was immensely popular, for the simple reason that it bellowed out not only the word “Home,” but rammed it home with a fragrance universally associated with homecomings and family.  All of you who snickered when you saw that fruitcake not only made the list, but multiple times, better laugh out of the other side of your mouth, because Mama knew what she was doing. 

San Francisco Giants Baseball-#2: Stats Versus Intangibles

Stats Versus Intangibles

Brian Sabean continued his fine-tuning process of the Giants by acquiring 36 year-old Orlando Cabrera from the Cleveland Indians, yesterday, in exchange for minor league outfielder Thomas Neal, a prospect who has shown intermittent power, but had only two home runs this season.

Already the cry has gone out that the stats for Cabrera, as far as hitting, on-base-percentage and slugging percentage, are the same as the stats for Miguel Tejada.  The fact that Cabrera has been on four consecutive post-season teams, and has seen post-season play six out of the last seven years, does not seem to enter the picture.

The deal would seem to indicate that Bochy has given up on Miggy, and his 6.5 million dollar contract.  The dude brings a lot of intangibles to the field, but the tangibles are too apparent to ignore.  His range has diminished, and in all fairness to Miggy, he probably belongs more in the role of back-up to the Panda at third.

In checking out the comments from the article about the trade on, the first salvo fired was that Brian Sabean is a dumbass.  I find the comments to be generally negative overall, and specifically critical of Brian whenever he pulls off one of his textbook July trades.  Usually the criticism focuses on the merits of the player himself, but frequently it includes commentary on the player traded.   These bozos who jump first and ask questions later, never remember to go back to the comments to adjust their initial appraisal.

Sabean should not have to justify his actions to anyone;  his track record is indisputable.  I do not know exactly why the deal was pulled, but it is not important that I do.  The only important thing to consider, is that Sabes has proven that he has the know-how, and the gumption to pull the trigger, and we should trust him when he does.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

San Francisco Giants Baseball-#1: Good Pitchers, Not Great Ones

Good Pitchers, Not Great Ones

I am going to premise this baseball blog on two infallible concepts: one, something occurs in every baseball game that is played, that has never happened before; and two, the purpose in watching the Giants play, is not to see a victory, but to see the game played well.  For me it is enough to know that I am watching the best team in baseball play each day.

I used to feel that an appropriate measure for a "successful" game was to have the tying runs on base in the late innings, thus providing a chance for victory.  Now victory is no longer the measure of success.  Simply watching them play, knowing that they have the best win/loss ratio for one-run games, lends credence to the idea that they can pull out a victory if they are behind.

Did I mention that the Giants lead the majors in come-from behind victories?  Even when the Twins jumped on Madbum for eight runs in the first, I did not bail out on our guys.  I remembered that nine-run deficit that we had overcome last summer against Cincy.  The fact that David, who hails from Minnesota, was watching the game with me, made it impossible to admit that eight runs might have been a tad too many.  Therefore, we watched until the seventh, when he had to go off and do some chores.

Last night's game had already exceeded expectations, when we were able to tie it up in the eighth.  So when the Reds opened the tenth by loading the bases with no one out,  Nate's catch and two-hop throw to the plate, with one out, was as sweet a play as I've seen all season.  Eli had time to apply the tag, and get back out of the way, before the sliding runner crossed the plate, making it a straightforward call.  Perfect execution.

Edgar's hit in the thirteenth?  I'd rather be beaten by Edgar Renteria, than any other player in the game.

I have one comment on Charlie Manual's incredibly shortsighted evaluation of Timmy and Matt's pitching.  He said that they were good pitchers, not great ones.  Poor Charlie doesn't get it.  It doesn't matter whether Timmy and Matt are good or great; the Phollies seem to have a hard time scoring runs off of them.  Indeed, by denigrating Timmy and Matt, he disses on his own team.  After all, if his own offensive-minded juggernaut cannot get past the "good" pitchers, what are they going to do when they get to the great ones, like Madbum and Vogelsong?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Military Madness (4)-Mail Call

Mail Call

I mentioned storing correspondence in a military headgear box.  From my arrival at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I saved everything that was sent to me, and it rapidly became apparent that that I would need something a little more substantial than a cigar box.  I say that because mail call was something that set me apart from the rest of the herd.   

We had spent the first two weeks agonizing over the absence of any word from Home, groaning each day at the announcement that there was still to be no mail call.  What is wrong with the army, we wondered?  If it could mess up something that even the Post Office could handle, it did not bode well for us.  On the other hand, forewarned is forearmed.  The army holds nothing back when it comes to sending out signals that the path to eventual discharge is littered with members of an old-boy organization which places too much emphasis on longevity, and too little emphasis on quality.

I wrote to the “O'Neill people” (That's the way I addressed the envelope) twelve days after I had arrived in Missouri that, “THEY WON'T GIVE US ANY MAIL!  It is so demoralizing not to get one word as to whether my family is alive or dead or what.”  [Nothing like infusing a little drama into the picture]  “...there is a shortage of clerks, or so they claim.  That's one reason I've been feeling in such a bummer mood.  I can write letters from now till doomsday, but I can't get any in return.”

I was convinced that the army could easily rationalize holding up mail as a toughening strategy  I could also see ineptitude as the prime cause, so it boiled down to two nickels or a dime.   It resulted in this ungrounded, uncomfortable zone of unease, from which there was no other cure than the welcoming sound of the company clerk bellowing out, “MAIL CALL!”
Thus it was ironic, that when the magic moment finally arrived, our first mail call, it found me grabbing a quick shower after our mess hall dining experience, having given up the incoming mail ship vigil for that particular day.  As I emerged from the shower room into the main flow of traffic in the hall, I was instantly aware of the crackling electricity in the air.  
There was a wide range of emotions on display, from joy at good news, to despair for others.  Bad news meant either no news or no news from the right person.  There is no instrument on earth capable of measuring the disappointment of someone who does not receive a letter he hopes for.   On the other hand, happiness is achieved by the mere handling of a letter, when you know it is going to bring you news of Home.

I stopped the first guy I saw and asked unnecessarily, “Was there mail call?”
“Yeah,” he said, “but unless your name is O'Neill, don't bother to go.  Jesus..”  The last was muttered disgustedly, as he moped on down the hall.   
I had waited each day in anticipation because I had followed a piece of advice given to me by my mom.  She had suggested that, if I wanted to receive any mail from people other than my immediate family, I should send letters out, as soon as I arrived, and give folks my address.  I actually planned ahead to the extent that I took a type-written list of my twenty-seven closest friends' addresses with me, when I left for basic training.
Jammed into that first week's confusion, I had found time during the inevitable waiting periods, so conveniently provided for us by the army, to write quick notes of greeting to my siblings and as many of my friends as I could manage.  I gave a few tantalizing details of “Mark's Military Madness,” made sure my address was clearly legible on each envelope, and mailed them off in the Day Room.  I affixed an eleven cent stamp on each envelope, noting to myself that the rate of postage had already almost quadrupled during my short lifespan, from three cents to eleven cents.

Exactly how many pieces of mail did I receive that first mail call?  Fourteen. Most guys were jazzed to get anything, so my case was unique, particularly in light of the fact that I had managed to be away from the scene when all that mail hit FLW.  That mail call established a reputation for me that I worked diligently to uphold; people's natural tendency to reach out to someone who was hurting, matched my own enthusiasm for responding to these letters. 

Besides mail, which evoked so much emotion, the most common subject for discussion in my letters home was food.  What I had grown up on was food prepared from scratch, for a household that would eventually total eleven, not counting girl friends, boy friends, hangers on and the left out.  My folks generally tag-teamed dinner preparations, with solid (if unwilling) support from the small fry.  I might have found myself peeling potatoes, dicing onions, setting the table, or going out to the avocado tree to see if there were any ripe ones on the ground under it.  

Frequently, I'd end up pedaling madly on a last minute dash up to Sunrize Market for a gallon of milk or a can of tomato sauce.   Papa would indulge in a couple of cocktails upon his arrival home from work and, inevitably, the result would be some of the most original dishes I have ever encountered.
There was the ever-popular “Gopher Stew”; when asked about the origin of its name, Papa told us that people always “go for” it.  Of course, we didn't have a corner on the “Slum-Gum” market, but any combination of beef/lamb stew meat, a selection of fresh vegetables from the garden and ten pounds of potatoes, produced family meals that couldn't be beat.  Rancho Styled Steak, Mulligan Stew, and barbecued fare that screamed out summer, were among the options.  

My father began trekking down to Baja in 1963, and thus Mexican cuisine, in the form of tortillas and frijoles, came into the house.  My folks used to prepare soft tacos, encased in flour tortillas, with hamburger, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.  The chile sauce was my father's recipe, and they used to stockpile the tacos on cookie sheets, kept warm until close to forty had been prepared.  Everyone was more likely to have an even shot at the table, if there was no lag time between production and consumption. 
The food was plentiful, tasty, homemade, and about as different from the food in the army as that of a four star restaurant would be to Micky D's.  The army food was presented in small portions, varied greatly in taste from kitchen to kitchen, and mass-produced to provide basic sustenance for troops, who moved through the revolving doors with dizzying speed.  

None of the first dozen or so letters home ignored the subject of food.  For some army chow was an upgrade, but for me it was an abomination, a slap in the face, when I was already being pummeled by the rigorous agenda provided by the drill sergeants.  The first letter home, after three days, contained the following excerpt,

The food (?) is so gross and that is no exaggeration. We've had one half-decent meal.  You don't know what you're eating-it's unrecognizable.  If you're hungry enough you eat.  You get one glass of milk, one glass of coke (which is good) or one cup of coffee (iodine), and that's it.”  (January 13, 1972)

Two days later, I included a one sentence summary, that seemed a little more optimistic.  “Either (a) the food is improving, (b) I'm getting hungrier, or (c) I'm getting used to it, because it doesn't seem so bad.”  Only two days after this, I wrote, 

“I've finally decided that the food isn't too bad three out of four meals.  We'll get seven decent meals in a row and then three bad ones.”  (It didn't seem to occur to me that the numbers didn't add up.  In the previous two days, there had only been a total of six meals...) 

“Tonight we had what was supposed to be spaghetti; I positively could not eat it.  We were last in line (so what's new?) and the salad and dessert and vegetables were gone, and I couldn't hardly eat anything.  The best meal we had was some kind of meat that looked like hamburger and was as tough as rubber...tasted good like steak.  We had it with mashed potatoes, rolls, salad and some cake.  It was really good, and the best part was Friday morning; we actually had-hold on to you hats-a FRESH APPLE. It was really good.

Every morning, we have those little box cereals (Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies or Special K), the best part of breakfast, and then one or two pieces of raw bacon, which I don't usually eat.  Then we get either eggs (...I haven't had enough hair yet to try them.) or rubbery tasting pancakes with one tablespoon of syrup.
One day we actually had pineapple juice...” (January 17, 1972)

Finally, we got out of Reception and over to permanent housing, where once again, we were eating in a different mess hall, with different expectations for the food. I wrote,
“The food is much better over here in basic...except you only get one small portion, and I really go hungry five out of eight times. (Even I would love to know the source of my stats) We only get one glass of milk... (I've entirely disregarded that order, and I drink as much as I want-I just haven't been caught) supposedly, or one glass of coke, or one cup of coffee.  The coffee is good here, so I usually have some in the morning.  We have exactly twelve minutes to wait in line, get our chow and milk/coke (located in different places from the food), find a place to sit down and eat, chow down, get rid of our trays and get out. So what little chow I get, I have to gobble.  January 17, 1972) 

The letters continue to provide daily evaluations of the chow;  if this fixation on food seems extreme, it merely reflects my complete shock at the poor quality of the food, compared to the standard set by Papa and Mama, while growing up on Fellowship Street.  It took all the way until the letter of February 2nd, a string of eleven consecutive missives, to break the run of commentaries on the chow.  Even at that, only the news of my grandpa's death, appropriately commanding the attention of the entire letter, served as an important enough of an event to accomplish this overthrow.

Meanwhile, we sought out other avenues of nourishment.  There was the P.X, which I would compare to something like a combination Coast-to-Coast and the old Gemco store.  There was a comprehensive section for each of the following: household items, hardware, medication, music, and assorted reading/ writing materials.  There was a small section for canned and packaged food items, but mostly we were supposed to go the commissary if we were after meat or produce.  

We could therefore supplement our food supply outside the mess hall.  With so few concessions available to us in those opening weeks of Basic Training, this one was so huge as to defy accurate explanation.  We were able to load up the cargo pockets of our field jackets with packages of peanuts, raisins, or candy bars to get us through the paltry offerings of C-rations, while out on the range, or going on bivouac.  I never understood the reasoning behind not giving us our fill of grub, but I expect that there is a clear explanation in the Army code of Military Operations.  Not.

As far as the commissary goes, doesn't that sound nice?  Fresh meat and produce?  Unless you were married, you were not given commissary privileges, so we didn't even think about it.  Fortunately, the base had several eating establishments (Wording is key here, so that you don't get the impression that these were actually restaurants) that we could hit, once the initial movement restrictions were lifted.  

The P.X. itself had a snack bar which was reasonably palatable, especially in the beginning, when the food at the mess hall was so gross.  The first time, about ten days after arriving at FLW, that we were allowed access to the P.X, it seemed comparable to a trip to Knott's Berry Farm.  I did what any other normal, red-blooded nineteen-year-old American G.I. would do: I got drunk.  

I didn't do it on purpose.  I can even truthfully say, I did not go to the P.X. initially for beer.  However, that did become the reason for future visits.  No, I went the first time for sustenance of the food variety.  However, as I entered this mecca of available resources, my eyes fell upon a recruit ambling somewhat unsteadily toward me. He was balancing an overfilled, mammoth plastic cup of foaming nectar of the gods.  

Some of the ambrosia was cascading over the side and down onto his hand and arm.  Oh, blasphemy, that any of the precious liquid be allowed to fall from the sacred chalice.   He was desperately trying to prevent any spillage, but the time for that was at least two filled cups earlier.  Little did I know that it would take minimal time for me to join him in this regard.

I know that sounds like questionable behavior, and believe me, the next morning, while beginning a set of twenty pushups, I questioned it.  Boy, did I question it.  The blood was pounding in my head to the cadence of the drill sergeant's voice, and I fought down the bile, threatening to spew out all over Drill Sergeant Fletcher's spit-polished boots, as he stood over me, noticing perhaps, that I was not my usual perky self.  

There's something provocative about a pasty-faced recruit to a drill sergeant, especially if that recruit has distinguished himself physically in the past.  Never to lose an opportunity for enhanced communication, Drill Sergeant Steven C. began by stooping down closer to me and asking some clarifying questions, as the entire platoon perched on hands and toes, in the classic “Push up Missouri” pose.

“Private O'Neill, how are we?  You're looking a little green around the gills.  Are you feeling poorly, this morning?  Oh, please, don't get up. ”  Not even DI Steven C. could call cadence and talk to me at the same time.
“I feel great, Drill Sergeant,” I lied.
“Well, I certainly am relieved to hear that.  We can't have our P.T. Specialist falling short of the job now, can we?”

“No, Drill Sergeant.”  At the inaugural physical training test site, I had scored off the charts, surpassing the number of points required by a comfortable margin.  
Straightening up, he seemed to notice the other recruits all stretched out in the agony of the posture they had assumed.

Bellowing out lustily, “Maggots, AT EASE!  Smoke 'em if you got 'em,” he  returned his attention to me, as every guy in the platoon silently parroted back the refrain, “And if you don't got 'em, roll 'em.”  I began to scramble (make that stagger) to my feet.  “Oh, Private O'Neill, did you think I was talking to you?  Oh no, we haven't even begun; get back down on your tips (as in fingertips) and toes.”  Me?  Again?  “Now, why is your face all pale?  Are you ill?”
“No, Drill Sergeant.”  Just hung over, I added to myself.
“In that case you won't have a hard time pushing up Missouri by yourself, will you?”
“No, Drill Sergeant.”  Though everyone else was taking advantage of the moment to light up a butt, or grab a candy bar, all of their attention was on me.  In these kind of situations, there was always a morbid curiosity as to what was going to befall the poor clown who got singled out by DI Fletcher.   At the same time there was recognition that it was a double-edged sword.  Go ahead and enjoy the entertainment; just remember, it could be you occupying the spotlight.

“That's good...real good.  Because, it's either you or your platoon.”  Huh?  What's he doing now?  
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”  What else was I going to say?
   All of the sudden, the level of concern inched up, as recruits nervously fingered their glowing cigarettes, and thought about needing both hands to support their weight on the icy terrain.  Meanwhile, DI Steven C. was beginning to warm to the topic.

“Someone has got to help out poor Missouri, and your men think it should be you.”  I didn't know that that was true, but I didn't know that it was false, either.  I tried to put myself in their shoes.  Boy did I try, but that was still me pushing up misery.   I made that mental adjustment, from Missouri to misery, countless times per day, and it was beginning to make the jump shift automatically.

“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“My, you are accommodating, today.  I like that in my recruits.”  Whoa, big word.
“I like to be helpful, Drill Sergeant.”  Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't that. His eyes sparkled, and his mustache did that funny twitching thing when he tried to stifle a grin.  He was center stage now (When was he not?) and he may as well have had his feet up on the railing of the dance floor, the way he took his time.

“Do you now?  I bet your men appreciate that.”  Do they now?  I just bet they do.  Looking peripherally at the relaxed posture of my buddies, I think he pegged it.
“Yes Drill Sergeant.”  My arms had begun to throb, in unison with my head.  I think there was some two-part harmony going on.

“What do you say, men?  Shall we let PFC O'Neill get up, while you take his place?  WHO would like to take PFC O'Neill's place?”
Come on, Man.  That's bogus.  Those guys aren't that dumb.
This time I think I pegged it.  There was some serious footwork going on as guys were shuffling their feet as though tip-toeing through a bed of embers.

No one said a word, except me.  Everyone was facing DI Steven C. and me, so they had their backs to the range.  In the background, from my vantage point twenty-four inches off the ground, I could see the range commander gesturing frantically at DI Fletcher.  
“Master Sergeant Chase, if you don't mind my saying.”  There was a catchy wobbling going on in my lower extremities, as my arched back fought to repel gravity's pull long enough to direct DI Fletcher's attention away from the entertainment, and back to the range.

DI Fletcher didn't get to his place on top of the world by being slow on the uptake.  Before he even flicked his eyes, he was bellowing, “Fall in, Fokwads!  Why are you still helping out Missouri, Private O'Neill, when you are needed here on the range?”
I had survived another performance, and would live to star again.