Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fort Jackson

The first page of today’s New York Times featured a photo of soldiers at Fort Jackson in their PT uniforms. I’ve been at Fort Jackson since Friday, acclimating myself to Columbia, the military base, and the weather. It’s hot down here in South Carolina, but the humidity of the weekend has pleasantly turned into a dry heat. At 6pm this evening I ran five miles in 95-degree weather and hardly broke a sweat. On my way to the track I scoped out Semmes Lake, a man-made body of water located on Fort Jackson; the trees surrounding it will look absolutely spectacular this autumn. I intend to spend some weekend afternoons there in October, sitting under a tree and reading a book.

I won’t bore you with details about my routine in the basic officer course. This week largely involves in-processing. I have just a few comments. Every time I drive along the main strip in Fort Jackson, Strom Thurmond Blvd., I’m going to think of racism and pork barrel spending. Today I went to the Strom Thurmond Soldier Service Center to get a decal for my car. I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the base and receive daily housekeeping services. My thirty-six classmates seem okay to me and the class advisor is superb. I’ll keep you updated periodically; but don’t worry, I won’t give you a daily account of my experiences here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Message in a Bottle

One thing I’m not particularly proud of occurred when I was about sixteen years old. I snuck into a friend’s house when the family was on vacation and along with two buddies took turns peeing in a jar of prune juice before placing it back in the frig. I’d like to believe that nobody drank from the jar. I can’t imagine them putting it to their lips, for the smell was absolutely horrific. What possessed us to urinate in the said prune juice given that we were all friends of this dude is beyond me. Was it a cry for help? If so, what kind of help were we seeking? Perhaps the real moral of this story is that we all have a "jar of prune juice" in our life, something buried deep within our psyche that just won’t go away.  Your prune juice might be a sense of shame or perhaps a problematic childhood.  Then again, it might represent the confluence of irreconciliable worldviews in your mind, as if two swirling eddies of contrary beliefs are sucking you down the vortex and leaving you in a state of cognitive dissonance.  The only thing I know for sure is that to this day I’ve never again drunk prune juice.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Man in a Boat

Prologue—September 1932
My name is Birk Gerhardt and I’m staring into a bucket of my own filth. That’s all I know right now. That’s all I can think about at this particular moment, I should say. I’m not even sure of my name anymore, to be honest. As I look into this metal bucket, pen in hand, notebook on the bed, things are coming back to me. I lied, exaggerated; can you blame me, I’m not myself, and I’m starting to doubt this whole odyssey, my resolve is faltering—indeed the ship’s mate says I’m as green as a frog. I know that I’m deep in the hull of a ship bound for Europe and the waves are making me nauseous. They look at me askance, a city dweller who can’t handle the high seas. And don’t let the name fool you, because I also know that I’m an American, third generation, a proud resident and alderman of Pemberton Heights, New Jersey, and I can’t wait for that bastard Hoover, the so-called “Great Engineer,” to get booted from the White House. Governor Roosevelt, now there’s a man of the people; he’s got my vote. I’ll forgive him for being Dutch, and for his cousin, President Roosevelt, that ruffian with the big teeth, for sending his son to fight against my homeland, though I felt for his loss. I digress. My grandfather and his brother came to this country as teenagers in 1850 from Alsace. My father was born during the Civil War. There’s no way I’d fight in the Great War. No way. But my family has been as American as Andrew Carnegie is!

I’m about to write a letter to my dearest Millie, but I don’t know where to begin, and I’m still having trouble explaining the reason for this trip—still trying to explain it to myself. Gerhard is on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis from New York to Hamburg thanks to the inheritance money and some considerable help from Mr. Whittaker, a kind man. Millie’s been such a blessing to me. I have only this locket photo of her and my daughter, and this navy blue cap that she knit for me. It’s been over a decade since my first wife and son died from the Spanish flu, leaving me and my five-year-old daughter behind in this Jammerthal, as my Oma used to say. Millie’s been such a great mother to my daughter and has been a source of comfort to me. Here’s what I have in my letter so far, and pay no heed to the sloppiness; it’s from the rocking of ship not from inebriation. I’ve been off the juice for three years. I’ll recopy it once I get to Strasbourg:

It all started when my aunt Gretchen in Cincinnati just before she died sent me the family Bible that’s been in our family for over three centuries. She was going to donate it to some Lutheran seminary but I convinced her to trouble herself to send it my way. At the time, eight years ago, I cared little about my ancestry beyond its arrival upon these shores. But I knew enough to realize it would be such a shame to let this precious heirloom go. It’s a Luther translation, which I could care less since I’m Episcopalian, at least when I want to be. It had been stored in a wooden chest with other valuables in a secret compartment in the closet ceiling. I was always puzzled by the Latin written on the bottom of the title page: Facientibus quod in est Deus non gratiam denegat. But this reference, and some other marginalia in the Bible dating back to the 17th century, is only part of the story that got me to travel across the world ill-advisedly during economic woes. I also received a letter from a man claiming to be a distant relative of mine. He said he must speak with me. He sent me a hand copy of a 17th-century chronicle that exists only in manuscript. He works at the municipal archive in Rauschenberg. I can read basic German, modern Hochdeutsch, and speak it with some trouble, but I needed someone to translate this for me. I hired a smart fellow from Princeton. I could make out only bits and pieces.

I know you don’t keep up with these things darling. Diplomacy and international politics is a man’s world, and you need not trouble your sweet fiery-haired head with such things. This man Hitler should probably be president someday. I always felt that Versailles was an unjust evil, and he’s the only one consistently opposing it. They say he hates the Jews. What with their riches, they could use some discipline, but there’s nothing to fear. I see his point that their haughtiness needs a bridle and bit. It does remind me, though, of an incident that I came across in my story, but more about that below.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Five "S" Plan

Many of my readers have asked me how I cope. They say life is so difficult, replete with hardships and peppered with disappointments, and they bounce continually from resignation to despair. Love of family is key to my mental health. Who wants to be alone? Yet I’m aware that not everyone has a spouse and children. As I was driving through the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee this morning, I reflected on five recreational activities that keep me sane: listening to music, writing, drinking whiskey, making sarcastic remarks, and working out. To make my “coping mechanisms” easier to remember, I use alliteration and list them below. Let’s call these activities the Five “S” Plan for healthy living.

I couldn’t live without music in my life. Back in the day I wrote and performed music; but nowadays I hardly ever pick up my guitar or tickle the ivories. Nonetheless, I still listen to music, albeit mostly in the car when I’m driving from Point A to Point B. For the most part I like my music hard, dark, complicated and fast. Yet I have an eclectic taste and listen to many genres. My sister, for instance, indulges my secret hankering for Tom Jones’ baritone voice by feeding me one of his CDs every now and then. There’s a reason why I’m writing under a pseudonym in this blog, my mention of Tom Jones being a case in point. Music soothes me, calms me down, and takes me into a contemplative mode. When I listen to Hate Eternal and Malevolent Creation, say, or Satanic Slaughter and Evil Cunt, I gain a greater appreciation for the human condition.

Apart from a few nonfiction publications, I have little experience in professional writing. In the past few years, however, I’ve taken up creative writing to help me get through some tough times. Writing stories is an opportunity to resolves issues in my mind or simply live vicariously through characters. I don’t know much about writing, but I do know to keep it simple. You know what I’m talking about, right? Boy meets girl. Boy becomes girl, forcing girl to rethink her life. Meanwhile, the boy-girl, that is to say, the boy who became a girl (not the original girl) starts to experiment with his, or her, sexuality by getting an apartment downtown and hanging out with other weird boy-girls. Meanwhile, the girl got pregnant from another boy who had terminal cancer. Eventually the girl and her son joined a cult in Arizona.

I don’t think I could carry on if I weren’t able to mock and ridicule people on the basis of their physical appearance, ideology, religion and the like. I mean, what’s the point of living if you can’t have fun at other people’s expense? On a more philosophical level, sarcasm fulfills my need to assess human behavior in as realistic terms as possible. The dictates of nature have made all of us self-contradicting, hypocritical, and manipulative primates. We organize our lives around principles but don’t always abide by them. We have ulterior motives and let passion guide us more than reason, even if we claim the latter as our motivation. Caustic remarks delivered in the form of dry humor only bring to light these amoral attributes in the human species. Sarcasm, like death, is the great leveler, sparing nobody in its assault. It reduces everyone to selfish organisms carving out meaning and purpose for their lives. In short, sarcasm is a useful way to exercise one’s wit.

I enjoy drinking whiskey either straight or with Coke once in a while. Jack Daniels is my preference, but I drink other brands as well. Vodka is fine, but I have no taste for beer or wine. Unlike the other four “S”s I could probably do without spirits if I had to, but a shot or three of whiskey is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. I’ve decided not to touch the stuff for the next three months of my military training in South Carolina and parted with my flask with no small amount of sadness and misgivings. I’m sure I’ll miss it most in October. I have fond memories of stumbling around as drunk as a skunk and urinating in neighbors’ Jack o’ Lanterns.

As I get older, working out becomes more important to me. Back in the day I pumped iron to beef up my body, but now it’s largely about stamina. And as we all know, physical fitness gives one confidence mentally and enhances the quality of life overall.  Being a solitary creature, my workout involves individual sports like running, swimming, weightlifting, and biking.  I suppose being in the military is a motivating factor, but working out had been an important part of my routine long before I enlisted.  I don't want to sound like one of those self-help gurus and tell you how to budget your time; but one thing they'll often suggest is true: people who complain about a busy schedule can always cut and prune TV or other unnecessary activities here and there.

I'd like to address a couple of other ways in which people usually cope, namely prayer and pills.  Throughout my life I have prayed, usually asking God to destroy my enemies or to give me a souped-up, silver metallic Chevrolet Camaro.  But my prayers have become fewer over these past few years, less formal, and now consist of one petition: If you exist, please reveal yourself in some way to give me guidance, hope and ultimate purpose.  I don't do pills of any kind: antidepressants, ibuprofen,  aspirin, or vitamins.  The only exception here would be those blue and orange tablets that I keep in a metal canister and locked in a file cabinet.  I bought them from some guy in El Segundo.  I pop a few in my mouth and down'em with whiskey.  They do the trick.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pet Peeve

Some of you know that I, Der Viator, am or at least was a professional historian. I can be rather punctilious when it comes to historical details. As Monk would say, it’s a blessing….and a curse. The other day I chanced upon the Glenn Beck program on Fox News. I’m neither a fan nor a critic. What bothers me is that he talks about the lessons of history and devotes portions of his show to the past, but at the same time he lacks a broad knowledge of history. For instance, he’ll spend time on Woodrow Wilson (whom he sees as evil) and Calvin Coolidge (whom he sees as benevolent). But here’s the thing. He didn’t even know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was until quite recently! Now, you might not know who he was either. I don’t expect everyone to know every historical figure who ever lived. But Beck presents himself as a student and voracious reader of history. He also didn’t know the name of the town where Serbs in the summer of 1995 killed over seven thousand Bosniaks, namely Srebrenica. His lack of knowledge gives the impression that he’s tendentious and selective, if not outright ideological, in his quest for lessons from history.

I don’t mean to pick on Glenn Beck, because, as I stated above, I have no ideological animosity toward him. So let me give you another example. As I was surfing the car radio the other day I heard the name Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant reformer of the 16th century whom I’ve studied in some depth. Some dude on a Christian station, presumably an expert on church history, was explaining to the host and the audience the Protestant Reformation. I cringed when he said that Zwingli was born in Geneva. Also, his explanation of John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” was flat-out wrong. In the aforementioned cases, so-called expositors of history get the facts wrong. Sometimes historians make basic errors of judgment too. I heard a couple of presidential historians on the radio arguing that Abraham Lincoln is the most important president we’ve ever had. I’d be hard-pressed to deny him slot Number Two, but you don’t have a Republic to salvage in the mid 19th century were it not for George Washington. The latter is clearly the most significant president we’ve ever had.

I know what you’re thinking: Der Viator is rather anal and persnickety. Again, I’m addressing people who claim to be authorities on history, not the laity in general. History is important to me. I can’t help but look askance at those who get their facts wrong, let alone those more pernicious souls who manipulate history for their partisan agenda.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The United Nations as Peacekeeper

Rebel groups raped over 150 women in the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo almost a month ago, though the report has only recently come out. The atrocities occurred throughout villages within twenty miles of a UN forward operating base. Roger Meece, spokesman for MONUSCO, the UN’s “stabilization” mission in the central African country, claimed the blue helmets knew nothing about this grim event until ten days after the fact. Moreover, peacekeepers had gone through the main village where the crimes had occurred, but presumably out of fear and intimidation nobody informed them of mass rape. I was planning to write about the United Nations on October 24, United Nations Day. Here I’ll limit my condemnation of this perverse organization to its mismanagement in central Africa. Let me explain from the outset that the perpetrators, not UN peacekeepers, are entirely to blame for the rapes. However, I’m not letting the United Nations off the hook so easily.

Let us not forget that UN soldiers also raped local women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some officials made snuff and porno films of captive girls. Last time I checked, there were 150 investigations into pedophilia, rape, prostitution, and sexual abuse on the part of UN personnel. MONUSCO enjoys a $750 million budget and embraces about 11,000 peacekeepers from forty-seven countries. Why are UN peacekeepers in Congo? The problem started in the mid 1990s when the Hutu perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide fled to Congo. Some of the rapists in this latest instance of sexual violence were in fact Hutus. The United Nations had set up refugee camps for survivors of the genocide, but officials didn’t manage it well. Killers went into the camp to continue their murderous assault on Tutsis.

As a grade-schooler I recall proudly taking a UNICEF box with me during Halloween and collecting people’s donations. True, I had an extremely vague notion at best as to what the United Nations was about, but I believed I was doing my part in helping to feed starving children throughout the world. Though that worthy cause had to compete with baseball practice, riding my motocross bike, and playing army in the vacant lot across the street from my house, I think it might have registered in a small, albeit fleeting way, in my childish heart. Later as an adult I would learn with no less pride that great Americans had founded the organization and based it firmly on liberal democratic principles. President Franklin Roosevelt proposed and push for the noble idea. President Truman took up the banner after his predecessor’s untimely death. Eleanor Roosevelt helped draft a Manifesto of Universal Rights. (There are other wonderful Europeans involved in this story, but I single out Americans for my American readers.) In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the founders restricted membership to “peace-loving states” that valued democratic ideals. Today the situation is quite different.

Current UN Peacekeeping operations continue today in about eighteen countries: Western Sahara, Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Darfur, Central African Republic, Chad, Haiti, India vis-à-vis Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Cyprus, Georgia, Kosovo, the Middle East, Golan Heights, and Lebanon. I’m not confident that these places are better off without UN intervention. “At least the United States military,” Stanford University historian Victor Davis Hanson says, “is subject to a president who has to go get funding from a congress whose people are elected and subject to censure and audit by a supreme, legitimate and independent judiciary. That doesn’t happen with the United Nations.”  Countries like Syria, Algeria, Iran and Cuba—who violate human rights left and right—sit on committees for human rights. Various member states and senior officials in the UN committed what must be the crime of the century. In the “food for oil” scandal, the UN and others bilked $30 billion, cutting deals with an evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was supposed to be using the proceeds for the benefit of the Iraqi people but instead it went into his coffers and those of UN officials.

If I were impolite or honest to a fault, I might suggest that those charlatans, careerists, sadists, anti-Semites, miscreants, kleptocrats, hypocrites, crooks, scoundrels, profiteers, vermin and other loathsome primates who operate the United Nations, a precious institution that liberal democrats had created with such hope for the future, are ineffectual in promoting peace at best and too often turn a blind eye to crimes against humanity.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Family Portrait (10/12)

With the exception of a rather happy-faced gourd that Melissa contributed to the Halloween display, I carved each of the eleven pumpkins with a variety of devious faces, one of the few activities I remember doing with my mom; Halloween was my favorite holiday as a kid and I still enjoy the sights and décor of the season. Give me a carving tool and I’ll create the most horrific expression you’ve ever seen.

So why am I concerned about Deputy Beaumont’s interest in my lawn display? I once read about a Belgian trader who stacked the heads and hands of Africans around his villa. I loved that image so much that I’m pretending these pumpkins are my victims. One of them contains the skull of a young woman named Shannon McGuire, whom I met about five years ago at a summer fair in Batesville. She had a pretty face, and I would every now and then gaze upon it in a jar filled with formaldehyde. I took the head out of its container at the top of October and placed it in a pumpkin. The face is slowly fading away, almost in sync with the wrinkling gourd, but my memory of a wonderful August night lives on.

I saw her working a hotdog cart near the rock band stage.  She looked so forsaken and forlorn that I resolved to strike up a conversation with her. She opened up to me not because I have one of those faces (my mom used to say I have kind eyes), but she liked my REO Speedwagon t-shirt. We talked initially about music and her favorite bands, but I soon learned that she had gotten into a fight with her boyfriend. She had left her three-year-old daughter with her ex-husband because of the turmoil at home. I quickly came to despise her weak mind and servile heart. I was going to kill her anyway, but when she seemed to revel in her victimhood I knew I would find myself ripping her head out.

Of all my victims, Shannon the Pumpkin Head, as I like to call her now, was the only one I killed and kept hidden. I stuffed the body inside an abandoned well in the woods near my mom’s trailer. She’s still considered a missing person. When I nabbed her I made sure to take her purse and cell phone, both of which I destroyed—items, in other words, that a person would not leave behind. I wanted to keep out the possibility that she left everything to live in Mexico or the Caribbean. Her family and friends never believed it; they suspect the boyfriend to this day. The police have questioned on numerous occasions and probably had him followed; but of course they didn’t have any evidence of foul play.

I admit I kept the woman’s maroon knit cap, the one that made me the butt of Sheriff K’s joke at the Peterson crime scene, but I hung onto it less as a “souvenir” than as a fond reminder of my grandma who knit caps in the basement.

I need to explain briefly why I kept her head before you hastily conclude I’m some kind of monster. I took my 8mm camera and slammed it into her left temple; that’s the penultimate cause anyway. It sounds like a stretch, but I was worried the police could identify the blow as inflicted by a camera, maybe even my camera. As a student of forensic at the university, I saw a photo of a man who had the butt of the killer’s gun imprinted on his chest. It wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but investigators managed to identify it with testing.

“Deputy,” I said. “Care for some apple cider?”

“No thank you.” My question was strange, granted, but it took his eye off dear old Shannon.

I responded to the sheriff’s question. “I went home after the store. I live a boring life, sheriff. I do drink coffee on occasion, and I had some work that I knew would keep me up late on Thursday night.”

“That mini mart was a bit out of your way, wouldn’t you say?”

“No sir. Like I said, I was coming back from Batesville.”

“Visiting your mom.”

“That’s right.”

“Have you ever been to Batesville, sheriff?” Yet another strange comment came from my lips, but you’ll understand later why I wanted to ask this question.

“Passed through it, here and there. Hardly a town I haven’t seen in my 61 years.” Sheriff K took off his hat and scratched his head. “Mr. McMasters, we want you to come to the station nonetheless.”

“I’m a person of interest, I take it?”

“That’s right.”

“You must be kidding!”

“You know as well as I do, Mr. McMasters, that a person of interest isn’t quite the same as a suspect.”

“Isn’t it?”  I was a bit surprised that the sheriff would use such a colloquial phrase.

“Be that as it may.”

The time had come for me to confront a self-righteous sheriff with his transgressions. He had found Peterson’s killer, or so it seemed, even if he lacked conclusive evidence.

While Deputy Beaumont was in an adjacent room looking at one of my posters, I grabbed a manila envelope of photos off of my desk and handed it to the sheriff. “Perhaps this will be of interest to you?”

He looked at the name written on it, Lyle Kasperbauer and Karen-Larson Lekranović, and slightly winced.

He opened the envelope and peered inside it. He had a look of sheer horror as he pulled out a nice 81/2 by 11 black and white glossy of Sheriff K wearing shades and smiling and a woman, hand in hand coming out of a Holiday Inn Express near Dallas. I have only a bad memory of taking the photo. I had been waiting in my car eating McDonald’s. When I saw them come out, in my haste to take pictures I knocked over my coke, which spilt over some precious film rolls in the passenger seat.

“What’s that, Lyle?” asked Deputy Beaumont, noticing his white face.

“Dennis, why don’t you go to the MDC [mobile data computer] and pull up the digital photos. I’ll want to show Mr. McMasters.”

“Are we going to take him to the station?”

“Just do it, Dennis.” His deputy walked out to the truck with a confused look on his face.

In the few seconds of silence as I stood facing the man in the Stetson my Poe image turned into a spaghetti western.

Sheriff K shot his steely grey eyes at me. “What is this?”

I relished in the irony of the moment: Sheriff K has discovered the killer and confronted him, only to be confronted with his own transgressions.

“I take photographs, sheriff. That’s what I do. And sometimes I capture some interesting scenes, yes I do.” I’m now in control and he must listen. “You’ve been unfaithful, sheriff. Meanwhile, good old Darlene is wasting away. You see, I know about you, Lyle Kasperbauer. You love your wife, in your own way. But…”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“What else would I say? Is this some kind of cruel game?"

You’re judging me? Let’s not forget who the transgressor is here.”

“Do you want money? I don’t understand.”

Sheriff K never asked me about killing Peterson, not yet. He had a moral dilemma. He didn’t want things spelled out; he knew I killed Peterson, and that was enough. I’m a decent judge of character, and when it comes to Sheriff K I think I know him inside and out; yet I couldn’t be sure if he’d violate his duty—namely, arresting the perpetrator of a violent crime—in order to keep the secret of his long-term affair from his dying wife.

“Are you stalking me? Why would do you do this? What is it you want?”

“You’ve been seeing Mrs. Lekranović for six years this December. Alleged conferences covered the countless hotel rendezvous and trips to Aruba and Las Vegas.”

Before you write me off as a pathetic lowlife following the sheriff around from tryst to tryst, you should know that I’m mentioning only the tip of the iceberg. I not claiming to know every clandestine meeting, or even relationship, Sheriff K was involved in. Ms. Lekranović was not his only fling, though.

“You know all this? Why, I say?”

“I’m a curious person, you might say.”

“You got a lot of gall prying into my affairs…”

“Affairs?” I duly noted his Freudian slip.

At this point Deputy Beaumont came back inside. The moment of truth for the sheriff had arrived.

“Got the photos loaded in the computer, Lyle.”

“Hold off on that, Dennis. We’ll be in touch, Mr. McMasters.”

“Lyle?” Deputy Beaumont raised his eyebrows. “Don’t we want to show him the pictures?”“Yes, sheriff,” I said. “I’ll be here.” I watched them through the window walking out to their truck. What the sheriff was telling his bewildered deputy I can only imagine

“We’re good here….for now. We will probably have some follow-up questions for another time, Mr. McMasters, so don’t go too far.”

He never acknowledged that I killed Peterson. This might seem obvious, given what appears to be my attempt to blackmail him. I’m sure it dawned on him, but his worries centered on his woman problems.

I didn’t have much time to brew over these thoughts, for I had agreed to meet Melissa for dinner a couple hours later. We’ve been dating for three weeks and have not consummated the relationship. I’m not sure how it’s going to work out, however. She intimated that sex is the next stage in the relationship. I told the little whore that I have a congenital limpness in my genitalia. I actually enjoyed her discomfort with this revelation, which I hasten to say was a lie.

I must admit that my desire to kill her had increased tenfold since the “confrontation” with the sheriff. I took her back to her apartment and we parted with a certain degree of finality. Before I left, I opened the trunk of my car and looked longingly at a butcher cutlery kit that I usually keep in my garage but had brought along in case the temptation to kill become too strong. It did.

What was different this time was that I had no vision and no plan. You don’t have to tell me how stupid it would be to kill her when the sheriff’s department has me on its radar for Peterson’s death. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Melissa lives almost an hour outside Mueller County, anyway—four counties removed from Sheriff K’s jurisdiction.

Since it was still early when I dropped her off, I waited in my car at a nearby park. This happened two days ago and I can’t make sense of it. No thoughts were running through my head as I sat there waiting. I resolved to kill her in her apartment and my previous vision for her death, which I didn’t think would ever come to fruition, seemed to evaporate. I’ve never killed anyone outside the controlled environment of my home and studio.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fight Urine with Urine

I have to place my shoes upside down when I leave them in the house because one of my cats is peeing in them. We have three cats and I don’t know which one is doing this. For the sake of argument, I’ll say that all three of them are urinating in my shoes. It’s happened at least twice this year. It disgusts to me to think that as they lay on my bed and I scratch their belly and ears in the evening, one thought is swirling around in their golf-ball-sized brain: “I think I’m going to pee in his shoes tonight.” Such deception and betrayal! Is this how Jesus felt at the Last Supper when he passed Judas the gravy and mashed potatoes? They look and act so cute, but they're plotting their Machiavellian schemes the whole time!  I don’t know for sure whether my cats pee out of spite. It’s possible that they’re smarting over the fact that I don’t let them go out at night or I shoo them away from the dinner table. Perhaps I’m anthropomorphizing their actions. Maybe my shoes bring in the scent of the outdoors and they’re simply marking their territory. I devised a simple remedy, and even if it doesn’t work it will give me some satisfaction. I filled a water bottle with my urine and every now and then I sprinkle some of it onto their back or head. If they peed in my shoes out of spite, then touché! What goes around comes around. However, if they peed in my shoes for some territorial, “call of the wild” reason, then no harm here. I’m just doing the same thing, as far as they’re concerned.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Help's On the Way!

Are you sick and tired of all the shysters and hucksters out there? Con men and quacks?  Charlatans and false prophets? Infomercials and celebrity endorsements designed to manipulate you, exercise control over you, or separate you from your money? Self-help books and so-called motivational speakers making promises but never delivering? Mental health gurus not practicing what they preach? I’m sick of that shit, and you should be too. Such disgust with our egocentric, shallow, materialistic and profit-driven culture drove me to pen a book entitled Panacea: Der Viator’s Guide to Relationship Building, Romance Enhancement, Spiritual Growth, and Weight Control. It costs a token $29.95 and you can find it at your local Borders and Barnes & Noble.

Do you have a spiritual hunger inside? Do you yearn for something everlasting and unconditional? I know you do, and I feel your pain.  You just want someone to give you direction and meaning to your life.  You need some kind of moral compass to keep you on the right track.  Even in our increasingly secular and agnostic culture, we’re looking for something bigger than ourselves to believe in. Conservatives and Republicans look for solace in their evangelical faith; progressives and Democrats seek community in their Unitarian and liberal Methodist churches. Somehow the bogus and discredited New Age movement of the Eighties has come back in a different guise in recent years. One thinks of Deepak Chopra’s success or the popular book and film The Secret. Tony Robbins has managed to enjoyed longevity in the positive-thinking industry; his message and techniques have changed over the years but his ability to take in a lot of money remains the same.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  Don’t buy into this garbage. This pseudo-spiritual advice combines three things: (1) gobbledygook; (2) common sense that any biped mammal could come up with; (3) unadulterated drivel; and (4) pure shit.

Did I mention I have a new book called Panacea? You’ll find your answers therein. It’s legit. First of all, you’ll find my book on one of those tables near the entrance to Borders. Secondly, PhD is printed next to my name on the cover. (It doesn’t matter whether I have expertise on anything I discuss inside the book, but that I have a PhD, okay?) I pad the book with nifty quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Oprah. The inside sleeve contains my impressive bio, which I carefully crafted myself.  The core of Panacea, however, is the two pages in which I provide you with basic insights on how to live a more fulfilling life.

Part of the journey I shall take you on involves a rejection of the usual advice you get in conventional self-help books. For instance, miscommunication is the key to any relationship. Anybody will stick around if he or she understands what you’re saying. What’s so great about that? Another falsehood out there is the idea that you need to love yourself before you can love others. What the hell? Yeah, like humans really need to learn how to love themselves because such self-love isn’t a part of our hardwiring! (By the way, I'm using sarcasm, a nice coping mechanism, to which I devote a chapter  in my book.)  I suppose the only people who really have a problem with loving themselves, arguably, are those who commit suicide, but even suicide is 95% of the time an act of selfishness. What do I have to say about weight loss? Here’s just one tip you’ll find in the book: When you bring the groceries home, urinate on half of them. You won’t want to eat that crap now. (Preferably piss on the Doritos and Oreo Cookies and Cream ice cream, not the fruit and vegetables.)

Yes, you can live a more fulfilling life.  Now go get the book before your local bookstore runs out.  And please don't share the  book with anyone!  If friends are interested, you should encourage them to purchase the book, otherwise you'd be enabling them.  They need to seek their own destiny by taking the initiative, wallet in hand, and purchasing the book. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The "F" Word Revisited

Readers of this blog might recall that I, Der Viator, frown on the word fart and grow weary of its overuse. Why must everything be “fart this” or “fart that”? I kid you not, hardly a day goes by in which I’m not subjected to this vulgar word. To make matters worse, some people think it's funny (!) to say it aloud.  A good friend of mine, knowing my feelings on this issue, came up to me the other day and blurted out rather brazenly: "Fart, fart, fart, fart, fart!"  I just don't get it.  Were you to defend its usage by saying that the term simply describes a biological function—to wit, a self-explosion of gaseous waste, sometimes auditory, sometimes silent, almost always pungent—I would still take issue.

You see, dear reader, my objection to the “F” word stems not merely from a legitimate concern for propriety and decency. The word resonates with my family history. The Viators migrated here in the 1850s from Fartenburg, Germany seeking religious freedom and better prospects for their future. They were peasants who tilled the soil, planting mostly beans, lots and lots of beans. Crop failures and high rent had been making life in their Bavarian town unbearable, however, and their Anabaptist roots hadn't endeared them to their Catholic neighbors.  Add to these difficulties a haughty landowner from the minor nobility, Baron Ulrich von Flatula, who enforced new inheritance laws.  Rather than live like paupers, the Viators emigrated to the States.  As they made their way to Munich for the necessary paperwork, the locals called out, “Schau ma mal, die Farts sind hierher angekommen!” (Behold, the Farts are coming!).  In that time and place such a phrase had an entirely different meaning.  My great-great-grandfather's half-wit servant boy, Karl the Half-Wit, wrote about their exodus from Germany in his memoirs.  (To be honest, though, his account is hard to follow, full of grammatical errors, and marred by drawings of penises in the margins.)

If you're interested, the photo above shows my great-great-grandfather Jakob Ruprecht Viator around 1874.  Note the positioning of his left arm.  I'm told that he's demonstrating his skill in recreating the sound of flatulence by cupping the palm of his hand over his armpit and cranking his arm vigorously as if it were a piston.  He was a brilliant man.

Suffice to say, I have misgivings about associating my ancestors with unpleasant bodily functions, however necessary they might be. I wouldn’t have known about this story, by the way, had it not been for the family genealogist, my uncle Willard. Then again, he’s just an old fart. What does he know?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Belief System

Most people who know me can attest that I firmly believe in UFOs, ESP, and astrology. For that matter, anything in print, an article in a news magazine or a book, say, is the Gospel truth to me. Also, I’m no Mormon, but I think the evidence is conclusive that Joseph Smith, erstwhile shyster and womanizer, was a prophet who thanks to an angel found ancient tablets proving the Israelites had come to this land millennia ago.

Such credulity, I concede, is costly, for I depleted my kids’ college fund on the Psychic Friends Network a few years ago. Was it worth spending my entire life’s savings? I’ll let you decide: I not only found that I’d have both challenges and opportunities in my future (which in fact came to be true), but, for those of you who are weaker in faith and require more specificity in psychic reads, I learned two months in advance that Anna Nicole Smith would probably die of drugs or alcohol. It’s like I was living history before history even happened!  Listen, I don’t mean to brag about my belief system, but it’s made me a wiser person.  What I just can’t wrap my mind around, however, is the notion that people do things out of self interest. I not only refuse to believe that, but I can't believe it. It goes against everything I’ve ever known about human nature.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Trust, me there’s nothing like listening to Chopin while you’re blasted on vodka, with the possible exception of cranking Disturbed with a couple shots of Jack Daniel’s or Maker’s Mark. I’m looking forward to Disturbed’s fifth CD, Asylum, scheduled to come out at the end of the month. The song “Another Way to Die,” which one can sample on YouTube presently, contains their trademark sound, but I can also discern a bit more complexity, at least in the guitar work. I realize it might sound juvenile for me to get excited about a rock band’s new release, but I don’t get much enjoyment out of life. Don’t begrudge me this one indulgence, okay?

I won’t bore you with a run-down of Disturbed’s discography and all my favorite songs. Instead, I’ll throw out some general comments to explain why I like them so much. In my opinion, bands like Disturbed, Tool and, say, Avenged Sevenfold—all of which I like—have carried the metal or heavy rock torch into the 21st century. I don’t know many “old school” rockers who don’t like these particular bands. It would be a stretch to put these bands in the “progressive metal” genre à la Dream Theater and Steve Vai, but they do have progressive elements. Disturbed’s four-CD corpus to date is impressive. Some songs are better than others of course, but meiner Meinung nach there isn’t one bad song in their repertoire.

Disturbed has managed to create a unique sound, not an easy feat in the world of metal. (By the way, the term “metal” doesn’t do them justice, and frontman David Draiman, rightly, eschews such categorization.) Draiman has an amazing voice; his ability to sing in lockstep with the staccato power-chord chugs and tight syncopation that characterize the band’s overall sound is extraordinary. Like Maynard James Keenan of Tool, he has a knack for squeezing a vocal melody out of monotone power chords and his lyrics are usually pretty darn good and clever.  I like thinking bands that cast a wide net in lyrical content.  Disturbed addresses religion without being preachy or hateful, politics without being partisan, and social issues without coming across self-righteous.

I’ve become a big fan of Dan Donegan as a guitarist and songwriter. He seems to have an indefatigable supply of original guitar riffs and he provides a nice palette of sonic textures. He’s no virtuoso, but in a way that’s what I like about him. He has improved from each CD to the next. He didn’t play any guitar solos in the first two CDs, for instance, but now he comes up with interesting solos once in a while. He’s largely self-taught, I understand. The drummer, Mike Wengren, is dead-on with his double-kick and judicious use of toms and Chinese-crash cymbals.

A band with working-class roots in Chicago, Disturbed’s tight sound and lyrics convey the early-21st-century angst of living in the era of the American Imperium, with injustice and social confusion in the heartland and military conflicts abroad. A central motif of the band, like that of Rush and Queensryche and others, is the individual crying out for autonomy amid a sea of conformity, corruption, and confusion.

I appreciate the fact that they take a thoughtful approach to what they do; their painstaking care with songcraft no doubt enticed me from the get-go. I don't want to exaggerate my interest in the band, but their songs, it would seem, have woven themselves into the fabric of my life in the last decade.  Disturbed’s first CD, The Sickness, featuring the hits “Stupify” and “Down with the Sickness,” came out in 2000 when I was in a progressive metal band. I remember listening to the “middle eastern” part of “Stupify” while setting up my keyboards and guitar on stage. It was so taken aback by the song. When I was stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona I got Disturbed’s third CD, Ten Thousand Fists, and listened to that thing over and over and over. In a weird way, the music gave me comfort during a time in which I felt lonely and seemingly forlorn.

Speaking of the military, I appreciate Disturbed’s appearance in Kuwait for the troops back in 2008. You can find the performance on YouTube.  The band members got a taste of some of the training that soldiers go through. I don’t know the political leanings of the band’s members, but it really doesn’t matter anyway. They could be leftist or right of center, but they seem like good guys who wanted to do their part in supporting our men and women in uniform. Nice.

If you don’t like metal, you probably won’t like Disturbed. Moreover, you might hear a few songs and think that they all sound the same. An outsider listener would make this mistake. I’ve never been to one of their shows, and it pains me to know that they’ll be playing a doubleheader with Avenge Sevenfold in early October when I’m away at Fort Jackson. I’ve watched their live performances on YouTube, however, and they admirably reproduce their sound live (minus little extra guitar and electronica parts that Donegan throws into the studio version).  I anticipate another great album from these guys, something that we'll probably help define my time at Fort Jackson this fall.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The March of Time

I went with my daughter Monika to registration today. She’s the baby of the family and she’s starting high school. I knew this day would come. Moreover, I knew it would come faster than I thought. But boy oh boy! The nest will be empty in a few years, and I’m no longer a spring chicken. A friend of mine who’s about to turn forty told me that life is now about maintenance—maintaining your health, relationships, and source of income. He’s right. The days of careerism and ambition are largely behind me. Don’t get me wrong. I still have ambition in terms of my mental and spiritual development, always thinking and writing and trying to learn more. For that matter, I haven’t yet completely given up on trying to better my work situation and economic status. About four or five years ago, however, my outlook shifted a bit. I’m more involved in my children’s future success than in seeking my own opportunities. That’s just the way it is, I guess. But who knows? In five years, when the kids are no longer in secondary school, I might embark on some new chapter in my life. I just got to take it one day at a time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Family Portrait (9/12)

Part 3

Four days later Sheriff K and his senior deputy showed up at my portrait studio. It had been raining all that morning, but I now felt warmth on my face through the window as if they brought the sun and a clear sky with them. I was multitasking on the computer and paying some bills, all the while enjoying a cup of hot cinnamon spice apple cider. I was using Adobe Photoshop to whiten the teeth of a woman who sat for me yesterday with her three children.

The two sixty-year-old coots climbing out of the Suburban struck my artistic sensibility, so I quickly grabbed my digital camera and snapped a couple photos through the window. A bead of water was streaking the windowpane right down the middle of the two men. They walked near my car and said something to each other in a cryptic manner. I realized that they weren’t here for a social visit.

Life is full of irony. I thought someone would discover Peterson’s body within an hour, and I didn’t expect Sheriff K to suspect me so quickly. I was off on both counts. Sooner or later Sheriff K would be sniffing down my porch. I’m not underestimating his detective prowess, but I thought I covered my tracks sufficiently.

By the time the two lawmen were at my door, my temporary nervousness had already evaporated like the morning dew. I took another sip from my mug. As I went to answer the door, I laughed under my breath with the thought of me being the deranged protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Sheriff K and Deputy Beaumont the two constables.

It didn’t take too long for me to figure out that they suspected me of the murder. I put on a disposition somewhere between equanimity and mild surprise as I opened the door.

“What brings you here on a fine Monday afternoon, sheriff?” I nodded toward his gaunt partner, who remained expressionless. “Deputy Beaumont.” Sheriff K had his Stetson tilted slightly forward on his forehead, a clear sign, I’ve come to learn, that he meant business.

“Afternoon, Mr. McMasters.” For the first time Sheriff K didn’t call me Oxford boy or some such epithet. I was so taken aback by his formality with me that I momentarily forget what it meant: I’m a suspect.

“This is quite a surprise.”

“Is it?”

“Of course. I don’t usually have the county sheriff at my front door. Do you have a question about a crime?”


“A question about my photos?”

“No, not exactly.”

I ignored his response. “You were here years ago, remember? You were investigating an assault up at the penitentiary. You asked me about some photos of the perpetrator.”

“Callaway, a nasty son of a bitch. He killed five inmates and a guard. I remember well. He’s sitting in solitary to this day. You were helpful. We’re not here because of your work.”


“Do you mind if we come inside?”

“Where’s my manners! By all means. Please come in. I was just putting some final touches on some photos.” I led them to my office and studio. “It’s just that I’m not used to personages such as yourself visiting a simple crime scene photographer at his home.”

“So this is your home?”

“And workplace too. I operate my business here and have a small residence in the back. Makes life simple.”

“You live alone?”

“I do nowadays. My wife left me a few years ago. We divorced.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Sheriff K said. “Didn’t know that about you.”

I’m not stupid. I knew that they had some evidence of my involvement or at least some questions they needed answered. I couldn’t lie. I had to concede that I was in fact in the area at the time of Peterson’s delicious demise.

“So you do family portraits, I take it?” Sheriff K was looking at my work on the walls.

“I could have told you that, Lyle,” said Deputy Beaumont.

“Photography, well, art, is a passion with me.” As I was talking, I noticed Deputy Beaumont’s roving eyes. He looked at my cabinets, a card table full of magazines, and a tripod, before finally settling his gaze on a stack of crime scene photos I had set on top of a book shelf. Self-conscious of my gaze, he looked at me and said, “May I?” I nodded.

“Are these your work? Pretty nasty stuff.”

“Some of them are.” I was a bit perturbed that the deputy couldn’t pick up on the obvious. They don’t have my signature on them; besides, some were clearly taken in the early twentieth century!

“I gathered most of them from crime labs across the South. It actually helps my work. I don’t usually leave these out in my studio here. I was about to put them away. Don’t want to have such things laying around when customers come in. But everything you see on the walls is mine, minus the Ansel Adams of course.”

“Your work is impressive, Mr. McMasters. It’s a far cry from a Polaroid!” Deputy Beaumont guffawed and grinned. He was the previous crime scene photographer, and a rather bad one too, an undeniable fact he had already conceded to me when I got the job.

“It must be odd taking these kinds of photos and then next minute photographing families, I should think,” commented Sheriff K.

“Odd? Maybe. Never really thought that much about it. I suppose these two professional activities make me think. Life is so tenuous. I mean, I see a smiling family or a graduating senior and try to capture their essence on two-dimensional medium. Then, I take these photos of blood-soaked, mangled bodies. Helps me reflect on the ebb and flow of life, I guess.”

“You’re a philosopher, Mr. McMasters. You have an interesting take. I like that. Never did too well in school myself. Some people think about what they do; others go on in life without a clue. You’re the first sort.” Another red flag went up with Sheriff K’s self-deprecating demeanor. I got the sense that he was humoring me. His conversational tone was merely a screen behind which he could observe me.

“I find this one particularly gruesome.” Deputy Beaumont held up a photo with one of my post-it notes stuck to it. I had it copied at an archive in Jackson, impressed as I was that a crime scene photographer in 1913 (the year according to the archivist’s best guess) had such insight and skill. It was a full-body shot of a child’s decaying corpse in the woods, partially covered with brush.

Curiously, the face was almost fully skeletonized, whereas the rest of her naked body still had most of its skin. Somehow the lower body, perhaps less exposed to the elements or shaded from the sun, remained relatively preserved. Only on closer inspection would one see a knife stuck in the genitalia. I’m not sure if the deputy saw the knife. Though there wasn’t much of a fleshy face left, you could clearly see such agony and horror expressed in the eyes and mouth. The neck was arched back as if the child reeled in excruciating pain as the killer thrust the knife slowly inside. This is how I imagined the scenario. I didn’t see his expression as he showed the photo to Sheriff K, but Deputy Beaumont probably gave him a wink. This sick fuck must be our man.

“I must admit, Mr. McMasters,” said Sheriff K, “despite my years of experience in homicide, I’ve never gotten used to the sight or scent of a murder victim, especially one such as this photo.”

“Or one like poor Mr. Peterson.”

“Now that you mention it…”

“It makes you human, sheriff. I see things a little differently, however.”

“You’re not human?”

“I try to put aside my humanity, or emotions I should say, and analyze the evidence as objectively as possible.”

“Well, I can’t fault you for that.”

“I take pride in my work, yes. And I never leave fingerprints.” I was addressing Deputy Beaumont, who was getting a smudge on one of the photos. He looked at me sheepishly.

“I’ll come straight to the point.” Sheriff K’s tone became stern. “We want to ask you some questions about Thursday.”

“Thursday? The aforementioned Peterson murder, you mean?”

“The same.”

“Actually we’re interested more so in your whereabouts on Wednesday evening,” said Deputy Beaumont.

I made a face and uttered a sound of absolute credulity. “Is this an investigation…on me?”

“Just routine questions. You know how that goes.”

“Of course.” I figured they knew something, so lying about my whereabouts would be futile and risky.

“Were you here at home on October 17?”

“No sir. I visited my mother in Batesville. Afterwards I came home, but first stopped off at the store to pick up some things. The market. Gas station. Odds and ends.” I could tell my answer didn’t satisfy them.

“We’d like you to come down to the station for further questioning—an interview, not interrogation, mind you.”

“If it’s all the same, I’d rather answer questions here and now. I have nothing to hide.” I remained insouciant outwardly, but I wasn’t going to let them question me at the sheriff’s department. Coming to the station means control; they want to ask me questions on camera and study my body language and facial expressions over and over. It was getting time to deliver a message to Sheriff K. I was wracking my brain: What did they know and how did they know it? I figured the plastic shred could be traced to my cousin’s factory. I hadn’t considered that angle. Or did they discover that I did his portrait two years ago? Or did they find fibers of my hair in the Tahoe? Or maybe someone had spotted my car? It could have been anything.

“We saw you on camera getting coffee at the Exxon mini mart near the corner of North Wood Avenue and Glatman Drive.”

“Yes, I stopped in. Not a crime, it is?”

“I wouldn’t have recognized you were it not for the red knit cap you were wearing. You wore it the other day too….at the crime scene.”

“Yes, I was…”

“You don’t drink coffee if I remember correctly?”

“Yes and no. I was up late working on my portraits. I’m not averse to caffeinating myself when I have deadlines. Is a late-night run of concern, sheriff?”

“Also,” Sheriff K ignored my question, “you didn’t get any gas. The outside cameras don’t show your vehicle anywhere around the premises.”

“I parked across the street.”

Sheriff K continued to explain. “Mr. Peterson entered the store about a half hour prior to you. Is that a coincidence?”  Now I understood. They followed his credit card usage. The asshole went into the mini mart not long after I had been there.


“Did you see him in or around the store, or at all on Wednesday night?”

“Of course not. Well, given what happened to his face, maybe I saw him but I wouldn’t know.”

“He went in for smokes and gas between 8:05 and 8:12pm. He’s on camera, as you are, Mr. McMasters. What were you doing after this time? After you went to the store, that is?”

While Sheriff K was grilling me, I observed Deputy Beaumont looking out the window at a stack of Jack o’ Lanterns I had placed along a white stone fence that keeps my lawn from sliding down the hillside. I tried to rope him into the “conversation” and divert his attention, for I couldn’t afford him to find out my secrets.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

“Get to Shoot an M16 and Eat that awesome Army Chow!” (4/4)

So there I was in the middle of Korengal Valley, crouching behind a rock with only one bullet left. I no longer had a weapon, just one bullet and my wit. I was the last man standing after the enemy had ambushed our convoy. My dead comrades lay all around me. And now ravenous beasts in the shape of men with long black beards, murderous eyes, and AK47s were swarming down the rocky hillside in my direction. How I ended up taking out thirty Taliban, dragging three of my buddies back to the firebase, and acquiring the Army Medal of Honor is still difficult for me to process; but somehow I overcame despair and the odds and lived to die another day.

Would that I had such a tale to tell after serving a year in Afghanistan! Yet I really don’t care about such stories of heroism anymore. I lost a friend over there, and one of my duties included providing vehicles that would transport coffins to the Bagram airport and ultimately to Dover Air Force Base.  Besides, the heroic act of one usually means the death or severe maiming of colleagues. True heroes, like Marcus Luttrell, a Navy Seal from Texas who wrote about his harrowing escape from hundreds of Taliban fighters in the Hindu Kush mountains, do not glory in their exploits; in fact they regret the events that changed their life and would give anything to have their buddies back. My story is much less dramatic, in part because I served in combat support, not combat per se, even if I found myself in a war zone.

Before I discuss my deployment to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and thereby conclude this series about my first experiences in the Army, I’ll briefly follow up the story from Part III. From December of 2005, when I completed AIT in Arizona, to December of 2006, when I got mobilized for Afghanistan, I fulfilled my Reserve duty with an engineering battalion in Milwaukee. Talk about a let-down! My “mountaintop” experience at Fort Huachuca met the boring reality of serving in the Army Reserve post-training. I was hoping to employ the skills I had acquired in Missouri and Arizona for the past nine months. I also expected soldiers to be in good shape and attentive to at least some of the rules and regulations. I was sadly mistaken.

What was an intelligence analyst doing with an engineering battalion anyway? Well, as it turns out, just about any kind of unit—combat, engineering, transportation, logistics, etc—needs someone to assess the dangers of an area of operations. The thing is, I didn’t get any further training in this regard while sitting in Milwaukee. The one exception was a three-week field exercise, "Operation Sandcastle," in the spring of 2006 at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center in California. Located at Fort Irwin in the desert, our forward operating base was dusty and dry as hell. I recall driving around in a Humvee in nearly 100-degree weather. At any rate, it was an invaluable experience because I got to brief the battalion commander every evening as the “S2” or intelligence officer.

By 21 December I got word that I’d be going to Afghanistan for sure. Let me give you the context of my deployment.  I had reported to Fort Snelling in Minneapolis a day or two before. What I discovered was that the higher-ups needed an intelligence analyst for a “multi-functional” reserve force that had deployed from Fort Benning a couple weeks prior. It turns out that their intel officer bailed out claiming to be sick or whatnot. Anyway, the Reserve headquarters at Fort Snelling had called up the three intelligence analysts, or 96Bs, that were currently available and ready for deployment. They wanted only one, but they called up three in case they had a tough time getting them to agree to their deployment. I thought one had to go no matter what, but maybe I’m just naïve. At any rate, the other two guys (and they were guys) looked to be in their early twenties. I think they were bitching and moaning about having to go overseas at this time in their life. One of them prattled on about getting married soon or something to this effect. I was so disgusted by these guys shirking their military duty. Sure, no time is a convenient time for overseas deployment, but that's what we signed up for, no?

So I agreed to go without much fuss.  True, the Army Reserve and National Guard traditionally didn’t send troops abroad, but 911 changed all that. Something that an NCO told me also helped my decision. He said that it’s a great opportunity; I’ll be working with a bunch of officers in a nice comfortable environment. As it turns out, he didn’t lie about that. He also said that if I were to refuse deployment now, I might be called up in, say, 3 or 4 months and get a mission that won’t be as fulfilling and safe, such as guarding a tower somewhere or whatnot. To this day I tell people that the Army deployed me and I chose to deploy. Maybe I would have gotten out of it if I had bitched and moaned enough.  Who knows?  But I didn't join the Army in order to avoid service to country.  It also helped that I'd be going to Afghanistan and not Iraq, because I entered the military with the former more prominently in my mind.

I’ve discussed certain aspects of my deployment in a January entry to this blog entitled “Travels to Asia.” I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already written, so I’ll restrict myself here to a couple of fond memories and a few bad ones. I enjoyed the process of gathering and sifting through information throughout the night in order to brief the battalion commander every morning. With the help of the 82nd Airborne's intelligence center at Bagram, I'd track enemy movements and get my stats in order.  I particularly enjoyed working with two ex-Army contractors, Jack and Isaiah; they made the whole experience a much better one for me. The three of us had the right balance of work ethic and play. As long as we were doing our jobs, we’d goof around and have fun. A lot of my fond memories have little to do with my military duties, however. I think about going to Green Beans coffee shop in the middle of the night to have a hot mocha or mocha frappe. Yum. I’m also glad I had the opportunity to teach four courses for the University of Maryland-College Park (European Division).

The only real danger I faced was getting hit by an incoming mortar round or rocket.  The Taliban or like-minded locals would fire them into the air base every once in a while.  They'd take off as soon as possible, though, lest they get incinerated by the fighter jets that would inevitably take off to look for them.  As intelligence offer at a compound on the southeast section of the base, I would report on these attacks.  A fair number of them occurred close to our quarters.  I finally figured out that they were trying to destroy a new air control tower that the Army had been constructing—a tower located only about 300 yards from our barracks.  Fortunately the one rocket that got pretty close to my "container" was a dud.  It made a hole about the size of a softball in a nearby building.

On 26 Feburary 2007 a suicide bomber killed a Korean soldier, an American soldier, an American contractor (my aforementioned friend), and nineteen local Afghans who were scheduled to work on the base.  This attack occurred at about 10am.  Because I work the graveyard shift as an intelligence analyst, I was sleeping at the time.  Vice President Cheney had visited Bagram the previous night, so the Taliban, it appears, were making a statement.

My biggest disappointment was the privatization of the “War on Terror,” not so much in theory but certainly in practice. I can deal with selfish and debauched soldiers here and there. I don’t have a sanguine view of human nature anyway. Moreover, government waste and corruption have been around as long as wars. We’re nothing new in the history of humanity. But I was so disgusted with what I saw. Both private contractors and DOD civilians pranced around, or more aptly sat on their ass, with such an air of entitlement and privilege, and they weren’t shy in informing soldiers about the six figure pay they were reeling in for doing virtually nothing.  Most of these contractors came from blue-colloar backgrounds; the fact that they were suddenly making $150,000 olr $200,ooo per year (albeit on a short-term basis) went to their head.  Should an officer, even a colonel, require them to do something out of their complacent routine, they’d cite their contract: “It’s not in my job description. Sorry."

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brushstroke, and it seems I’m contradicting the previous paragraph in which I express my appreciation for some of the contractors with whom I worked. I think I was operating on the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach."  Anyway, a few contractors were level-headed, sensitive about their situation, and respectfully taciturn about their income.  I realized that the fifteen or so "green suiters" (i.e., soldiers) who supposedly ran this particular mission at Bagram Air Base were window-dressing.  The Department of Defense wanted things to look like a military operation.  Our compound at Bagram had about one hundred or more civilian workers, and they virtually called the shots.  I could go on and on about this, but I’ll refrain.

Friday, August 13, 2010

“Get to Shoot an M16 and Eat that awesome Army Chow!” (3/4)

Fort Huachuca is situated in the high desert a ninety-minute drive southeast of Tucson. I spent four months there for AIT, or Advance Army Training, in order to become a military intelligence analyst. Honestly, those days were some of the best of my life in recent memory, the only downside of course was being separated from the family. I fell in love with the climate and the landscape. I was in great shape. I relished my leadership role. The classroom instruction was tedious but still rewarding. The guys and gals I worked alongside were for the most part wonderful.  Our drill sergeants were awesome.  I managed to squeeze in plenty of books. The food was superb. I got some downtime alone on most weekends. And with my top security clearance and training, the future looked bright.

After graduation from basic training and a couple of precious days reunited with my family at Fort Leonard Wood, the Army bused those recruits who were to be trained as either an intelligence analyst or interrogator a day later. We arrived at Fort Huachuca at the beginning of August, 2005. Huachuca is a Chiricahua Apache word meaning “thunder storm.” The fort commands a spectacular view of desert grasslands and mountains. Small wonder the U.S. Army used the site as a base for its ethnic cleansing campaign against the Apaches back in 1877. I fondly recall running on the track and looking across the breathtaking vista.

Programmed from basic training to watch our every step, we took a few days to accustom ourselves to some of the liberties we hadn’t known for the past three months. The drill sergeants were nicer and we had fewer restrictions. They in fact lightened up on some of the restrictions as time went on. For instance, they first required us to hand over our cell phones. I remember placing mine in a Ziploc bag and burying it in a box of detergent. The company commander and a few drill sergeants decided that we should be treated like adults, however. Imagine that? So I didn’t have to go through these precautions by the third week or so!

After about the first two weeks I became the "platoon guide," responsible for about one hundred soldiers. We went by the name Bushmasters, as all of the platoons took on the theme of a deadly snake. The usual day involved getting up anywhere between 4:30 and 5 in the morning to line up for formation and march off for physical training at a particular site. After morning chow and showers, we'd form up again next to the company headquarters building and march off yet again to the classrooms. I had become quite skilled at marching cadences as the platoon guide, and I was known for making up lines here and there.

The classroom instruction was long and tedious. We’d go over some material at the beginning and then apply it. This usually involved pouring over maps and plotting various coordinates and military symbols. We learned intellgience nomenclature and procedure and the proper way of conducting an intelligence briefing. The instructors, like just about everyone else except our drill sergeants, were government contractors, almost all of whom had been in the Army. We had one instructor who informed us that Al-Qaeda is a Shiite organization. I lookd at a couple of my buddies, a guy in his late thirties who had a master’s degree in history and a twenty-something sharp fellow with a BA from the University of Kansasand. We looked on with astonishment that this makeshift instructor would teach us something so wrong, something so key to understanding conflict in the Middle East today! Oh well.

Most of the instruction focused on “Soviet doctrine.” That is, we learned how to conduct an intelligence operation as if we were fighting a conventional war like the in the days of yore. Unless we’re going to war against China over Taiwan in the coming decades or something, this kind of exercise is not practical. Today we fight largely asymmetrical wars that involve urban combat and anti-insurgency tactics. Another problem with our training, in my opinion, is that we spent most of the time working on hardcopy maps and only a few weeks on computers. We’re a technological military force in today’s world, and we should be emphasizing state-of-the-art methods. Clearly the Defense Department puts less money and resources into the Reserves.

I was at the top of my game when it came to physical fitness. They divide running groups into Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. I had been running with the best runners in Alpha, even if I was always one of the slower; but the fact that I was 40 years old made me look good. So I continued to run in the Alpha group. It was hard work, as I’m not a natural-born runner, but it was rewarding. One of the advantages of taking an APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) at Huachuca was that they had us run slightly downhill on Apache Flats. This was a concession, so the drill instructor said, for running at a higher elevation. Honestly, I never experienced any breathing issues because of elevation. One time my two-mile run clocked in at 12 minutes! In my best days I usually run it in 14 minutes. Whatever. I think they just wanted to make sure their soldiers got good PT scores, as the Army emphasizes good scores and it makes the drill sergeants look good.

We would get weekends off, which was a nice treat when you came directly from basic training. Ever the lone wolf, I would check into a hotel for a Friday or Saturday night, or sometimes both if we had the full weekend, and just chill by myself—writing, watching TV, and resting. I have a vivid memory of walking the main avenues of Sierra Vista, the small city adjacent to Fort Huachuca, blasting the latest CDs from Disturbed, A Perfect Circle and Lamb of God in my headphones and wearing dark glasses in the nice dry heat of Arizona.  I'd hang out at Taco Hell or a local pizza joint.  The city didn't have a bone fide Starbucks, and I'm sure that will change if it hasn't already.  I resorted to the Starbucks booth in a Safeway grocery store.  I killed plenty of off hours at Hastings bookstore too.

One of the highlights for me was attaining the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge with a select group of soldiers.  The badge involved track and field, swimming, marksmanship, and a 12-mile march.  Since I'm a crappy shooter, I received the bronze version of the badge; otherwise, I was gold all the way!  By the way, we also got a fair dose of combatives training, because our drill sergeant happened to be an expert in ultimate fighting.

Just about any prolonged military training in the Army includes an FTX, or field training exercise, at the end. I mentioned in Part 2 of this series that basic training had three of them. For the most part I didn’t enjoy the FTX at Fort Huachuca. Why? First, we spent nearly a week outdoors without any showers. I was in a tent with four or five guys and boy did it start to stink in there! Secondly, the high desert in early December was cold as hell. On a positive note, the drill sergeants suspended my duties as platoon leader during the FTX so that I could focus on my own issues and not worry about other soldiers. So that was nice. We trained in military tactics; gathered and analyzed intel in a fictional scenario involving terrorist organizations in the Caucasus; received instructions on dealing with and calling in IEDs, unexploded ordnance, and medivac; and posted guard at night. Regarding the last of these tacks, we were told not to engage illegal aliens who might be walking through from the border. Some of these people actually took food we had laid out. Can we wonder that we have such a border problem? Even the U.S. Army must turn a blind eye!

My family visited me in late August on their drive back from California. (After coming to my graduation in Missouri, they drove on to Los Angeles to spend time with family). We spent a night at Tombstone and visited the historic town.  In mid October I met my wife in Tucson.  It was a wonderful time and I fell in love with the city.  I had been there visiting a friend in February of 2002.  My wife and I returned in 2006.  We also visited Tombstone at this time and by happenstance it was the 125th anniversary of the O.K. Corral gunfight!