Remembrances of Thanksgivings past.

Everybody get enough to eat today?

A few posts on Facebook and Twitter are reminding folks to keep in their thoughts the men and women in uniform who can’t be with their families today, as they’re either serving abroad–perhaps in harm’s way–or just stationed somewhere and unable to take leave to get home. So, tip your hat to them, along with the cops, fire fighters, EMT’s and lots of other fine folks answering a higher calling which precludes them from taking the day off. Or, maybe they’re elderly with no other family, or in need of a helping hand.

Such posts also caused me to think back to a few Thanksgivings where I, too, was unable to be with family because Uncle Sam had seen fit to plop my bony ass down somewhere else, or I simply didn’t have the money or leave to be able to travel home for the holidays. Despite that, we still found ways to observe the tradition as best we could, just as we had taken time out to recognize the Marine Corps Birthday and Veterans Day earlier in the month. This happened whether we were heading to the mess hall for chow, accepted the invitation of a married Marine who had opened his or her home to us young bachelor/bachelorettes, or what have you. I recall one Thanksgiving where we were in the field, and we were allowed to un-ass our gear and whatnot long enough to scarf down dinner. What was on the menu, you ask?

No, this isn’t a picture of the actual meal I ate, but it’s the same configuration/contents. I actually swapped with a buddy whatever it was I’d drawn from the box so that I could eat the still-unidentified substance that passed for turkey in the little vacu-packed pouch. I think I had ham slices, or something similar. One of the things we used to do for equitable distribution of MREs among our group would be to open the box of twelve meals and shuffle them around. Back in those days, there were only the twelve different meals from which to choose, and they’ve thankfully continued to expand and improve the selections over the years.

For us, though? Twelve brown bricks per box, each with their entree and varying assortments of freeze-dried fruits, faux-cakes or cookie or brownie, along with crackers and cheese or peanut butter, the latter two items fully capable of bonding an armor plate to a tank, or fusing your digestive tract to the point that you’re soon shot-gunning bottles of Dulcolax. Since the twelve meals were ordered and packed the same way, savvy folks in theory always could grab the “best” meals if they were quick enough. So, we shuffled them to keep things fair.

During one deployment, I drew Chicken ala King seven times in a row.

Seven. In. A. Row.

Nothing but Chicken ala King for seven straight meals. I couldn’t trade it; nobody wanted it. Chicken ala King was the leper of the MRE menu, circa 1986-1990, and known by its more popular designation, “Snot with Vegetable Kibble.”

To this day, I fucking HATE Chicken ala King.

While that particular Thanksgiving observance may have been lacking so far as the eating part was concerned, I still remember sitting around the fire and joking with my buddies, our friendship helping to lessen the sting of not being home for the holiday. I think the surprise beer delivered to us by our C.O. later that evening may have greased the skids a bit, too.

So, for those of you who observe Thanksgiving, I hope you had a fine meal in the company of family and/or friends, and I hope you’ll take a moment to wish a safe holiday to those who can’t be home today.

“Read your stinkin’ knowledge!”

So, yesterday being Columbus Day, I wasn’t working. Confronted with a rare day off that was free of deadlines or other pressing matters, I opted to take a jaunt across town and do some skulking through various bookstores. One of my stops was at Half Price Books, and I spent a good 45 minutes wandering the aisles and checking out everything. Having selected a couple of books for purchase, I decided that the last section I would investigate would be the shelves of books devoted to military history. Of all the things I thought I might find among various dog-eared tomes, I never thought I’d lay eyes on one of these:

Holy Schnikes!

So, what the heck is this? Well, like the cover says, it’s the United States Marine Guidebook of Essential Subjects. Yeah, that doesn’t sound very exciting on its own. Put another way, this is the frikkin’ bible so far as a Marine recruit at boot camp is concerned. One of the first items issued to you when you pick up your gear during the receiving and forming phases of recruit training (those few days at the beginning before the real training starts in earnest), this little book, measuring 5″ by 4″ inches, was perfectly suited to fitting into that cargo pocket along the right leg of your camouflage uniform trousers, and that’s where it lived.

What was special about this particular book on this day was that it was a virtual duplicate of the one I was issued all those years ago, and it was in all-but mint condition. And for five bucks? Yeah, I walked out with it. I couldn’t resist.

The Essential Subjects book, along with the larger and more detailed Guidebook for Marines, which was kept in your footlocker when not in use, and a manual for the care and feeding of your M-16 A2 service rifle as well as a couple of other smaller manuals, were colloquially referred to as “Knowledge” by our drill instructors. While all of the books had their uses, it was the ES book that was the bread and butter of the whole “Knowledge” thing. Jam-packed from cover to cover with information separated into distinct categories, this was the closest thing to leisure reading a recruit had for the duration of their stay at the training depot. Whenever there was any sort of downtime, a lag or lull in the schedule where you were waiting for one reason or another, the drill instructors would bark at everyone to pull the book out of their pockets and “Read your stinkin’ knowledge.” During the brief intervals of “free time” you might have in the evenings before lights out, or on Sunday mornings while other recruits attended religious services, and if you had no other tasks demanding your attention, you read…this, or one of the other books. It was this book from which was drawn much of the material on which a recruit was tested, either via written or practical application exam.

So, what were we reading all that time? Here’s a gander at the table of contents:

Chapter 1: Code of Conduct, Military Law/UCMJ, and Conduct in War
Chapter 2: Marine Corps History, Customs, and Courtesies
Chapter 3: Close Order Drill
Chapter 4: Interior Guard
Chapter 5: First Aid and Field Sanitation
Chapter 6: Uniform Clothing and Equipment
Chapter 7: Physical Fitness
Chapter 8: NBC Defense (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical)
Chapter 9: Service Rifle and Marksmanship
Chapter 10: Individual Tactical Measures
Chapter 11: Security of Military Information
Chapter 12: Substance Abuse
Chapter 13: Land Navigation

The funny thing about that last one? It states right there in the table of contents that “This is not an ESSENTIAL SUBJECT,” meaning the topic did not have to appear on the written examinations we took during most of the time I was in. Recalling the number of 2nd Lieutenants I had to teach to maneuver using a map and compass? Yeah, they needed to rethink that disclaimer.

By the time I graduated boot camp, my copy of this book was pretty tattered. I was able to secure a new copy at my first permanent duty station, and the book was periodically revised and updated during the next few years, and we all got fresh new copies on those occasions. Then, in 1993, the book was replaced by a series of four books under the collective title Marine Battle Skills Training Handbook. The first book was given to all Marines, with the second, third, and fourth being issued depending on your rank, as now the training and testing had been modified and enhanced beyond just the simple 13 “essential subjects.” When I left the service, I donated those books to somebody, but I forget now where they ended up. When I saw the pristine copy of it in the store yesterday, I knew I had to have it.

Ah, memories. 🙂

Certificate of Non-Achievement.

Warning: Nostalgia ahead.

When you leave an old job under favorable conditions, like because you’re on your way to a different department or maybe even a different company or because you’re retiring, it’s not uncommon for your co-workers to go in on getting you some kind of parting gift. Something for your desk, shelf, or mantle, or maybe to hang on your wall; whatever.

So it was when I was in the service, too. Whenever the time came for someone to leave the unit, either bound for another duty station or because their enlistment was up or they had put in for retirement, the rest of the group sprang for some kind of going-away present. This often took the form of a plaque of some sort, and during my travels I ended up with half a dozen of these things. Mostly, they’re reminders of the places I’ve been and the people with whom I served, and so they occupy a place of distinction on one wall of my home office. The most elaborate of these is one rather large plaque with a built-in clock and a gold foil etching of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. Another one is a plaque one of my fellow Marines carved and stained himself, rather than going to an awards or trophy shop, with a gold Marine Corps emblem and a full-sized Ka-Bar knife affixed to it.

One of my favorites, on the other hand, is a plaque I got when I left one duty station in 1992. I was cleaning stuff this morning and for whatever reason this plaque caught my attention. It’s not like the others; instead, this one takes the form of an award citation or certificate of promotion, mounted under plexiglass on a wooden base. As part of the joke, I was called to the front of the group by our commanding officer, and stood at attention while the following was read aloud:

UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
Certificate of Non Achievement
Awarded to
(me)

who distinguished himself through exceptionally mediocre service during an indefinite period while serving in a position of absolutely no responsibility. During this period, he was confronted by a variety of consequential challenges and his reaction to these trivial matters was to clutch completely. Unlike his cooler, more level-headed contemporaries, he repeatedly crumbled under the slightest pressure. His flaccid standards could not fail to be attained by even the most indolent individual, although he had difficulty maintaining them himself. He has consistently displayed a total lack of knowledge of–or interest in–any facet of his position. During his tenure, because of his lackadaisical and indifferent approach, the position rapidly deteriorated to utter shambles. His inability to produce results under any circumstances characterizes the insignificant effort he put forth. His selfish and uncooperative personality soon permeated his entire section to the extent that all with whom his unit has dealt were treated with hostility and contempt. His complete failure to accomplish even a single task is a tribute to those who wish to do away with the military establishment. His inebriated appearance, sloth, lack of ambition and odious traits of character, coupled with his “to hell with it” attitude have brought the utmost disgrace to his superiors and contemporaries alike. His ineffectually sub-standard performance of duty is in keeping with the lowest traditions of humanity and reflects discredit upon himself, his country, and society as a whole.

 

Signed

_____________
Commanding

And yes, the commanding officer signed it as he would any other award.

The whole setup and presentation was flawless; I never saw it coming. Though the entire group busted a gut laughing, I was (barely) able to maintain my bearing long enough for the CO to finish the reading and hand me the plaque, after which I snapped off the required salute and did the rest of the military protocol dance to round out the presentation. Once everybody calmed down, the real award and gifts were given. I still have those, too, and this one hangs on the wall along with them and the others.

I did have my vengeance, of course…but, that’s a topic for another day.

Every man should own a Leatherman…and one of these, too!

A friend sent me an article over the weekend that advocates “Why Every Man Should Own A Leatherman Tool.”

(Dead link removed.)

Setting aside the comments (though I did wonder how this guy had never seen one of these things before), and the fact that the writer never actually expresses why every man (and woman, for that matter) should own such a tool, I’ll agree with the sentiment. I’ve had a Leatherman tool for years and years. I don’t wear it on my belt (it’s in my truck’s center console), though it did have a place on my patrol harness on those occasions I went to the field in the days when I was one of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. It’s more than earned its keep since I first bought it, along with my Swiss Army knife and the pair of GTE lineman’s scissors that can cut through pretty much anything.

Now, you want to talk about something everybody should have? How about one of these?

It’s perhaps the simplest tool ever devised by man. It’s perhaps the finest tool ever devised by man. It’s a can opener.

I got the first one of these from my father before I was ten. A couple of them were packed in the boxes of C-ration meals he would acquire from time to time for use during our frequent camping trips. By the time I joined the service, C-rats were being phased out and replaced with the first versions of MREs (“Meals, Ready to Eat”), so the P-38s were no longer needed, at least for the individual meals. The things still came in handy in a variety of situations, though, so those of us who had them refused to part with them even long after we hung up the rest of our gear. I had one attached to my dog tag chain throughout my time in uniform, and to this day it occupies a place on my keychain:

You can read more than you’d think should ever be printed about such a dinky tool by checking out this link:

Georgia Outfitters: P-38 Can Opener – The Army’s Greatest Invention

In particular, this article sheds some nice light on the history of the P-38, and why so many service folk love the dang things so much:

Army.mil: The Best Army Invention Ever

You know you want one, right?

Trivia, for you Star Trek fiction readers: In a couple of the Star Trek: Corps of Engineers stories Kevin and I wrote, I make mention of a “P-38” tool designed to break the magnetic seals on all those sliding doors. Such a device was first seen in the Next Generation episode “Starship Mine,” though it was never given a name, so I decided “P-38” was a nice tip of the hat to the famous little tool.

There you go…some rambling thoughts on a Monday morning while I wait for the caffeine to take hold. So, go and get yourself a Leatherman…and one of these things for your dog tag chain, too.

EDIT: I’ve been informed that I’ve been remiss, and there’s actually another tool that you shouldn’t be caught without:

The Coolest Trek Collectible Ever.

 

October 1, 1985.

Twenty-five years ago tonight, I sit on a darkened bus along with fifty or sixty other guys, wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake.

Then the doors open and the lights come on, and a muscular man steps aboard, wearing a uniform with razor-sharp creases and shoes that reflect the overhead illumination like a pair of spotlights. His face is all but cloaked in the shadow cast by the wide brim of the hat–sorry, “cover”– he wears, and he tells us in no uncertain terms to get our asses off his bus. The next few seconds remain a blur, but somehow I get off the bus and onto the pavement, placing my feet atop a pair of yellow footprints–one of 72 pairs painted on the asphalt–and standing mere inches behind the man in front of me. Most of my field of vision is dominated by the back of the guy’s head, and I can feel the fear emanating from him, the two men standing shoulder to shoulder to either side, and the guy behind me. The effect, amplified by the near-total darkness and the warm, humid, unmoving South Carolina air, is almost suffocating.

We’re herded like cattle into a large wooden building (which has since been replaced with a more modern facility, but for us it’s a relic of a bygone era; a re-purposed barracks building originally built at some point prior to World War II) and into what at first glance appears to be one of the high school classrooms I left behind not all that long ago. Rows of desk-chairs await, and we’re told to quickly get to them. We’re informed that from this point forward, we’re subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, violation of which could result in punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment and discharge from the service we’ve barely entered. We’re given a form letter to sign, which informs the recipient that we’ve safely arrived for training, that we’ll write when we can, and not to be alarmed if you don’t receive mail from us for the first few weeks, as we’re very likely to lose track of the days due to the training schedule and sheer exhaustion.

Yeah, this might’ve been a bad idea.

The rambling continues…behind the cut!

A blast from the past.

Back in the early-mid 1990s, I was part of a rather tight-knit group of Marines and DoD civilians working at the Marine Corps’ pay and personnel center here in Kansas City. It was an awesome group to work with. We pushed each other to be the best at what we did, and even though we worked hard and always labored under inflexible deadlines owing to the standard military pay cycles, the atmosphere in our work area was always jocular. We had a hell of a lot of fun. At one point, our CO likened us to “a pack of piranhas unleashed into a goldfish pond.” It was a description that stuck, at least for the duration of my tour there. Some of us even continued to work together for a time once we left the service (or the DoD civilian ranks, in some cases) at various locations around town. For years afterward, whenever any of us interviewed prospective new-hires at our respective employers, finding out that you had worked with any of our colleagues – and survived – meant that you probably knew your shit, and were almost certainly worth hiring.

Heh. 🙂

While perusing a backup CD looking for some writing stuff I’d not had occasion to revisit for several years, I came across a golden oldie document: A “glossary” of terms and acronyms I’d put together during my tenure with that team. It’s a collection of terms from various places, from things we made up to stuff we read in e-Mail or in a magazine or book, or heard someone else saying. It definitely reflects the jovial, good-naturedly competitive mood that always characterized our group. Since it was compiled in the mid 1990s, the computer terminology is reflective of that period.

The Glossary…behind the cut

Taking Chance.

This isn’t a movie review. It’s just me rambling as I continue to consider the film I watched last night.

Taking Chance was but one on a stack of DVD’s I’ve purchased over the past couple of months, but until recently haven’t had time to watch. I knew it was a film I was going to want to watch, rather than simply let play in the background while I tended to other things. I also knew that watching it would bring back memories I had not revisited in quite some time, and to be honest I was reluctant to go down that road. So, on the stack of DVDs it sat, waiting for me to have an evening where I could dedicate my full attention to it.

Last night was the night.

I spent a good bit of time after the film concluded just sorting out what I’d watched, trying to make sense of the chaotic blur of memories as well as scenes from the film which were rushing around and past each other in my head. Beyond simply laughing at a joke, smiling or throwing out the occasional “Yeah!” at cool action, or flinching when something intense or even scary happens, it’s a rare occasion for me to have any sort of true emotional reaction to a movie.

Simply put, Taking Chance knocked me on my ass.

It’s not a war movie, nor a military propaganda piece. Based on actual events, it’s simply the story of one young man and the impact he made on those around him, in death as well as throughout his all-too brief life. The story focuses on Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl (as portrayed by Kevin Bacon), a Marine officer stationed at Quantico in 2004 who volunteers to escort home the remains of Private First Class Chance Phelps, a young Marine killed in Iraq. Strobl is at first drawn to Phelps upon learning they both hail from the same town in Colorado. Though he’s later told Phelps will be transported to Dubois, Wyoming, because that’s where his family resides, Strobl still opts to act as the fallen Marine’s escort. The balance of the film covers Strobl’s journey from the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Dubois, accompanying the casket containing Phelps’ remains every step of the way.

I’ve performed escort duty, so I can attest to the care — even reverence — with which the body of a fallen service member is handled throughout the process of preparing the remains for transport home. No detail is overlooked, no task performed in perfunctory fashion. It is a solemn undertaking, carried out with precision and respect. In this and many other areas, the film’s accuracy is to be praised.

The scenes depicting PFC Phelps’ journey were difficult to watch. Unlike LtCol Strobl, I knew the Marine I escorted; he was one of mine. I got the call about his death on Easter Sunday in 1996, and I spent the next eight days inventorying his personal effects, overseeing every aspect of the preparations to take him home, and accompanying his casket. Except for the actual flight, I spent every moment of the journey from Kansas City to his home town in arm’s reach of his casket, to include sitting with it in a cargo hangar at the airport. I spent three days with his family and friends, listening to their stories and attending his funeral. I was struck by how loved and respected he was by the countless people I encountered. Everyone treated me as well as you might expect, given the circumstances, but the sad reality was that I was a stranger in their midst, and I had brought tragedy with me. It was one of the most emotionally-taxing experiences of my life, and it naturally was nothing compared to what the family was enduring.

As I watched the movie, I couldn’t stop those recollections from coming forth, but it wasn’t until I got to the scenes of Strobl standing vigil alongside Phelps’ casket that they all just seemed to push forward and hammer at me. I had to pause the film more than once and just sit there, processing long-dormant memories. Easter never passes without me pausing to remember the young Marine (I do the same thing on Halloween, owing to an unrelated yet similarly tragic incident involving another Marine), though this was something I hadn’t really pondered for years. In my head, it was 1996 again, and I had just returned home, drained from the heart-wrenching duty I’d completed.

It may well be the oddest damned thing that’s ever happened to me while watching a movie; the closest thing to a “flashback” I’ve experienced. When it was over, I just let the thoughts and memories roam at will, sorting themselves out. This blog entry was originally going to be about something completely unrelated to the movie or my reactions, but once I started typing it all just came out.

Thanks very much for your indulgence.

Disappear, scumbags.

Marine expelled, another punished over puppy video

For those wondering, “non-judicial punishment” is essentially the commanding officer imposing punishment without the hassle of a court-martial. The accused would have the right to refuse NJP and request a court-martial, but if the case is a slam dunk then said accused would be a moron to go that route, as the sentencing under NJP is more lenient than that directed by a court-martial.

What’s weird in this case is — as I recall and without looking it up — NJP punishment doesn’t allow for discharging the accused, at least as it’s normally carried out. I suppose if this was kicked up to higher command levels and with the extra-heavy scrutiny the case was getting, all bets were off.

Anyway, good riddance, and they got off light.