Archive for January, 2010

LTC Sewell and the Walrus’s Mustache

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Generals all have their quirks.  It comes with the territory.  They have generally paid their dues and deserve to have their quirks.  Hey, we can all live with that.  Most generals, in my experience had many memorable traits that made you love them or hate them, but, the main thing you remember about them is not their quirk.  It goes to the man, the soldier.  There are exceptions.

One of our Commanding Generals during my stay at VIIth Corps in Stuttgart, Germany, hated mustaches.  He hated them to the point he assembled the entire corps headquarters and harangued us for 15 to 20 minutes about the evils of mustaches. We learned numerous scientific studies proved women did not like mustaches.  On and on he went. You know, I do not recall much about that guy except his hate for mustaches!  So, being a good soldier, I refused to shave mine off until the day I signed out of the unit.

One day, one of my Sergeants, SSG Brown, came to me all nervous.  As SSG Brown walked up the road to the headquarters building where we worked, The General’s sedan had screeched to a halt, The General had jumped out, locked SSG Brown’s heels (called him to attention) and chewed him out berating him for his evil mustache. Now, I have to admit, to a mustache hater, SSG Brown’s mustache was a bright red flag.  It was full.  It was thick.  It was bristley, but, it was legal and neatly trimmed.  Never-the-less, any walrus would have been proud to have a mustache of SSG Brown’s Mustache’s magnitude.  Finally, The General Screamed, “Where do you work?”  “Sir,” SSG Brown said,” J-2 Ops with LTC Sewell.”

“COL Sewell, we have to talk” I said.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.  My Col, LTC Sewell, was the J2 Operations head.  In any disagreement over plans, J3 Operations will almost always win.  The Col in charge of J3 Operations was LTC Bailey.  LTC Bailey and LTC Sewell had butted heads several times and there was not a lot of love lost between them.  So, back to “the situation.”

“COL Sewell, SSG Brown was accosted by The General.  The General was really upset about his mustache and screamed at him for almost ten minutes.  Finally, he asked SSG Brown where he worked.”

“Oh No!” Said Col Sewell.

“Well, you do not need to worry, Sir, SSG Brown told him he worked for COL Bailey in J3 Ops and Col Bailey said he did not give a hoot for how The General felt about mustaches.”

I do not think I have ever seen LTC Sewell, or anyone for that matter, turn that shade of white.  All the blood drained out of his face. I lost it.  I laughed so hard I am sure it cost me a point or two on my evaluation that time around. But, it was hard to get around LTC Sewell and I had done it.  I guess I do not hate that stupid general so bad after all.

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Mr. Yamada’s Bento

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

I moved to Japan in January 1978. In June 78, I went to Thailand and Sumontha, my long time sweetie-pie and I got hitched. She followed me to Japan in July.  I believe when you are somewhere, you learn about the flora, fauna and humana of the area.  Japan was no different.  I also need to exercise my selling gene, so, I really worked on my jewelry making and stone cutting while I was in Japan.  This resulted in some very nice contacts within the local community. There was an old man and his wife, the Ishimoto’ who did the same sort of thing we did.  Artists who work in the same mediums express themselves differently. Even though we competed for the same general market, we really augmented one another giving people interested in jewelry a couple targets to visit.  Another good relationship was with Mr. Yamada, an antique dealer.  I bought a small piece here and there while we were there.  There were other contacts who plied the military post bazaars with whom we socialized and visited.  Through my contacts on the base and church activities, we enjoyed expanding our cultural knowledge and experience.  Torinaka the chicken farmer from whom I purchased chicken manure by the delivered 5 yard truck load (for 25 dollars!) was one.

Over the next year and a half, we became familiar with many things Japanese including lots of different Japanese foods.  For Sumontha and I, Japanese food was generally bland, but we learned to eat many things out of politeness.  Into this category were most kinds of sushi.  Now, it was not our dislike for fish that played here, it was our liking for COOKED fish. Many centuries ago, the Japanese had a very bad balance of trade payments problem.  Then, as now, they had to reduce the amount of oil they imported. The huge amount of cooking oil necessary to feed a growing and hungry population was a significant cause in the imbalance.  Under the 5th Tokugawa Shoganate, an edict was promulgated directing the population to figure out how to eat raw foods.  (No doubt the ancestors of today’s climate change scientists got their start in population control with statements of settled science extolling the virtues of raw food.)

Over several decades many attempts were made to change the cooking habits of the Japanese population. Unfortunately, pork, beef, chicken and other real foods just did not make it raw. Fish on the other hand, if not delicious, were at least chewable.  So over time, the population gradually reduced the amount of tasty foods they ate until it was just the few stubborn who continued to consume these foods.  The refusal to change their eating habits lead to their isolation from the rest of the population and the derisive term  “Eters” being applied.  Meanwhile, the rest of the population gradually morphed into the sushi eaters they are today and were 30 years ago when we were there.  I have to say, they really worked at making sushi palatable by mixing in different sauces, seasoning, horseradish, seaweed and rice.  In the end, you still had to deal with raw fish, cold, clammy, bloody in many cases, raw fish.  We prevailed!  No cultural incidents!  No strained international relations! No hurt feelings.  I will say, the dearth of great food lead to other avenues of entertainment.  Halfway through our sojourn, my wife announced the pending 33 percent expansion of our family.  That was great news!

So, finally our time was drawing to an end. A month before we left, we went out to visit with Mr. Yamada, the antique dealer.  I had about 1500 dollars I wanted to invest in Japanese antiques before leaving.  So, after a couple hours of picking through everything, we had it all laid out.  The 100 year old porcelain with blue and white urinal with matching squat toilet; several sets of very nice painted porcelain bowls and plates, a couple nice wood block prints about 100 years old, one of which, I still have.  A very nice picture of Japanese Ladies in their beautiful kimonos enjoying Ueno zoo in Tokyo.  There were many things long since sold and forgotten, but, the great time visiting, bargaining and laughing and joking still remain sweet.  Finally, the day was done, the business was finished and it was time to go.

Mr. Yamada insisted we stay for supper.  He called up his favorite sushi-ya and ordered food for us all. I know we were honored because what came was obviously expensive stuff.  Expensive and good are not always synonymous. He had ordered quite a bit of the ten kinds of fish sushi bentos.  This was a box about six or seven inches square.  The box was beautifully lacquered with very pretty designs on it.  The chopsticks likewise were delicate and nice.  The bottom half of the box was filled with rice, delicious, steamy hot white rice. The top half was filled with expertly sliced fillets of ten different kinds of fish.  I no longer recall which fish–tuna, porpoise, white meat fish, probably eel, maybe whale, certainly a big spoonful of fish eggs and who knows what else.

Sumontha looked at it and said, I am a day short of nine months pregnant, I can not eat raw fish and happily began working on some nice miso soup. Feeling honored, and even though I looked a little pregnant and had a share in my wife’s pregnancy, I knew there was no escape.  So, I gallantly worked me way through the rubbery inch and a half by seven inches square thanking my (truly) generous host all the time.  Finally! Salvation! Pure sweet rice. I was so happy.  As I finished, my kind host said, “Please” and handed me my darling’s uneaten bento!

Thanks for spending a few minutes with me as I remembered a very happy time in my life, 1978-early 1981.  From time to time, I will try to add another note or two. Many of the names are long forgotten, but, the faces are still clear in my mind. The wonderful shared experiences likewise make me smile as I write this.  Bear with me as I occasionally make things up (cooking oil shortage for example) and enjoy.

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Waking up is so hard to do!

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

I did not spend much of my military life in typical military units with marching and uniforms and all that normal military stuff.  Even when I did, I ended up in off the wall sections.  I do not know why this happened, I just rejoice that it did.    One of my “real” units was the J-2, VIIth Corps in Stuttgart Germany.  When I showed up, I was assigned to a tiny four man section in the Operations division.  Captain Jack S., CPL Jamie R, Spc4 James K and SFC Nickerson were the incumbents. I was there to replace Nickerson.  My timing was perfect, Reforger 82 was ramping up.  SFC Nickerson said “Here are the files, I’m outta here.”

Reforger is, or was a huge cold war exercise where NATO practiced going to war against Russia and its East Block Allies. It engulfed huge swaths of Germany and troops from all over the US, France, Britain and Der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (FRG, or West Germany.)  The exercise takes place in a “box” which is the area where all the activity occurs. 

My four man section was charged with taking care of the various special forces taking part in the exercise.  This included the US Special Forces, the French Long Range Patrol group who dug holes and buried a small two man box in the ground and would come up for air and check out what was going on, and the Danish Special Forces group.  We set up with a German company in support of the operations.  We were not specifically involved with the actual work of these groups, but rather, were their logistics base and special action coordinators.  For example, one day CPT Jack says “SFC Atherton, set up a NOTAM for 2100 on this date.”  “Yes Sir!  What is a NOTAM?”  Felt like I was in a Bill Cosby routine.  Thirty minutes later, I was on the line with Hauptmann Kohlkopf at Frankfurt International Airport setting up the Notice To Airmen that we would be doing a parachute drop at that date and time.

But, I am getting ahead of myself.  This is a HUGE undertaking.  Even though our part was small, it likewise had many moving parts.  My job as an analyst and a recent graduate of the Defense Language Institute German course had not really prepared me for this sort of operations.  My sponsor, the good SFC, had a lot of interests, very few of which had anything to do with getting me up to speed. CPT Jack really expected me to know everything already and my two analysts had little experience either.  We were in scramble mode!  We had to coordinate with the Danes, the Special Forces, the French and the Germans.  We were responsible for setting up the camp where we all would stay.  Unfortunately, there was not a lot of command interest in our very tiny part of the picture–(Had we failed there would have been huge interest, but that is another story.) We had to scrounge all of the assets we needed.  One of these was camouflage netting–enough to cover a football field.  J4 (Supply) had none.  It had all been distributed to the line outfits and bigger operations.  CPT Jack did not accept “Sir, there is no more.” as a legitimate answer. 

The Property Disposal Office (PDO) is where all the property no longer needed or 100 percent usable goes for final sale or disposal.  These guys became VERY good friends.  They supplied all my camo netting and a host of other goodies which kept me keeping CPT Jack happy. 

We finally deployed to our field location and got everyone set up.  The exercise started and we went to twelve hour shifts.  My shift went from 7 AM to 7 PM, but, in reality, as the senior enlisted man and chief muckety muck in charge of making sure things ran smoothly, (In the army, the officers are responsible for what goes on but expect, rightly, for their NCO’s to make it happen.) I rarely went to bed much before midnight.  We had some augmentation to flesh out our small staff.  SSG Black ran the night shift.  About three and a half weeks into this four week exercise, I was exhausted.  The two month run up to the exercise and the very long days had taken a lot of energy out of me. 

I got off shift and went to bed.  The next morning I was dragging and laying in my sleeping bag on the cot and SSG Black walked in. I asked him what time it was.  He showed my his digital wrist watch: 9:15.  I totally freaked out. Two and a quarter hours late!  “Man!”, I said, “Why didn’t you wake me up?”  I jumped out of bed and frantically started getting ready. I was madly concocting reasons for my tardiness.  Meanwhile, SSG Black is struggling to contain himself. Finally, loosing it, he bursts out with a huge laugh, and shows me his watch again.  0630!  He pushed the button one more time and now it showed 9:15– September 15th. I was So Busted!

PS.  The exercise ended and went well for us. But now, I always carry my own alarm clock.

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Pappy’s Inn, Iowa at its best

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

In my 14th year, I had the joy of spending the summer with my fraternal grandfather, grandmother and great aunt. Pappy, Gramma and Aunt Deana left Chicago when Pappy retired from Argo Corn Products.  I would guess that was in the late 1950’s or very early 1960’s but really do not know.  I just know I loved the place!  By 1965 when I went there, they had gifted their original home and a significant chunk of land to the Luthern camp on the lake.  They kept 5 acres on the edge of the lake along with several small cabins, an old restaurant which they used mostly as a storage room and the main house.

Half of the property was a big open field which I mowed using a riding lawnmower.  The driveway divided the property with the open field on the left and a bit of lawn and a nice hardwood forest on the right.  Nestled against the woods were the three one room cabins which constituted the “Inn” of Pappy’s Inn. These were used by travelers moving through the area on rare occassions, but, primarily were used by hunters and trappers who came to the area for the winter.  Most of the income Pappy’s Inn generated came from the sale of fishing supplies, night crawlers, minnows and food, sodas and ice cream.

The highlight of the day would come when Pappy and I would row out into Ingham Lake with a couple of cane poles to go bullhead fishing.  The former “Mud Lake,” now called Ingham lake did not have a whole lot going for it.  The county conservation corps for some reason had drawn the lake level down.  From our beach to the water, there was about 150 feet of mud flats.  Not something you could walk on, just an unknown number of feet thick Iowa farm land rendered into muck.  Pappy had gone out and dug a row boat sized trench through it to the lake.  Considering it was done from a boat, by hand with a shovel by a man who had to be in his sixties, it is pretty impressive, but, that was Pappy.

So, after rowing out into the lake, we would thread a nightcrawler or a minow onto a hook, set the bobber for about 18 inches and throw out the line.  Might be on a rod and reel, but, just as often, we took cane poles.  Mostly, we caught bullheads.  Mostly they were about three or four inches long but occassionally we would get a nice one or two pounder.  We kept them all because they were considered to be somewhat of a nuisance.  On a nice summer day, you could see huge twenty foot wide swirls of baby bullheads sunning on the top of the water.   Once in a great while we would get a nice big walleye to take the bait.  Then, Pappy would let out a very nice “Ooooo  boy here we go” type of comment and get all excited.  A couple minutes later a nice silvery fish would be flopping around on the bottom of the boat.

We usually fished about an hour or an hour and a half.  In that time, you could normally catch the better part of a 5 gallon bucket full of bullheads.  The next step was not all that fun.  Now, it was time to clean these guys.  Pappy had a special pair of  pliers which were flat for about an inch at the pincher part.  First, you would grab the fish by the gills with your palm covering the head.  Then, a shallow cut around the entire fish just behind the head. After that, I would take the pliers and grab the dorsal fin and some of the skin around it and pull back.  The skin would all come off then a quick gutting and into the basin for final cleaning.  It took about 35 to 40 seconds, rarely more than a minute, to skin and clean one fish.  After a final rinse, they would go into a half gallon milk box.  When the box was full, we topped it off with water and put it in the deep freeze.

While we were there, we had a family reunion of sorts.  I remember about 30 of us gathering around an outside table.  The past several months of bullhead fishing came out of the freezers, were thawed out and the fish rolled in batter and deep fried.  My cholesteral levels are still high, but, boy were they great eating.