Tuesday, August 23, 2016

You Are Your Cultural Influences

I was musing about technology advances, and got to thinking about stereo systems. What was your first stereo sound system? For many (most for my generation and earlier) of us, it was in our car. For me it was the first brand new car I ever bought - a 1971 Plymouth Fury station wagon. I bought it in Las Cruces, NM while I was stationed at Ft. Bliss, TX. (New Mexico exempted service members from the state excise tax.) I also bought a new Honda 350 CL Scrambler  motorcycle at about the same time. I was, indeed, living large! When they first came out, I added an 8-track to the car.

I started amassing a number of albums on 8-track, one of which was very instructive in a totally unexpected way. It was a "Favorites" compilation by a pretty poor cover band. Poor enough that listening to the album was pretty painful at first. But I persevered, and after awhile I got used to it.

Then I heard one of those songs being performed by the original group that had recorded it, and I (multiple choice here): a) realized just how bad the cover band was; b) realized that both of them really sounded pretty much the same; c) hated the original band's version.

Logically, we have good taste and can tell the good stuff from the bad - right? So the answer should be a), right? BUZZZZZZ! Wrong! My ear had been knocked so totally out of tune, that bad was good and good was bad. c) is the correct choice.

The same thing happens with our tastes in other areas as well. In Mexico, the people that harvest the high quality arabica coffee beans are not allowed to use them, because of their relative scarcity and value as an export crop. Instead, they are given the plentiful cheaper robusta beans. They learn to like them, and when they are given the chance to try the arabica variety, they can't stand it, so I'm told. Think, too of the folks down in Louisiana and their "coffee".

Our children grow up thinking McDonald's makes a great hamburger. Cubs fans grow up knowing you can never win it all. Yankees fans grow up expecting to win it all - every year. Little boys growing up watching sports nowadays know they'll have hard choices to make in the years to come - Bud Lite or the Silver Bullet; F-150 or Silverado; Viagra or Cialis. 

Increasingly, the media seeks out or fabricates conflict to win ratings to enhance the ad rates they can charge their sponsors. A good fight just reaps bigger audiences. Reality shows, the Bachelor, MMA. Even the mainstream news programs feature things like "Crossfire" where frothy-mouthed zealots from both ends of the political spectrum scream at each other over hot button topics. The worst part of this whole development is that the moderators, presumably (at least, ideally) level-headed intelligent types can't jeopardize their ratings by expressing their disgust with the whole panel of guests, kicking them off and then commentating on the issues. So they're becoming more like their guests - screaming and goading and trying to foment conflict. And viewers are never presented with any but the deep blue or the deep red views. What ever happened to well-reasoned, thoughtful, respectful conflict resolution? It doesn't sell Viagra, that's what! It was cancelled!

So folks lean a little one way or another and then go off and watch MSNBC or Fox News. Boy! There are a couple of places you can hone your diplomatic and negotiating skills. NOT!

We see clips of boys in extremist religious Islamic schools on their prayer mats doing their hypnotic head-bobbing chants and smugly think, "It's a good thing we're not into brainwashing in this country." Oh, really! Wake up and smell the chicory!

The first time you get shot at in combat is a sort of reality check. Here is some regular guy from another country, another culture, that hates you enough to want you dead, just because you are who you are. You may have a flash of realization that, except for the results of the crapshoot we call birthplace, our positions could be totally flipped. (Maybe you need to table that thought for right now, or he may succeed in his efforts to fulfill that deathwish on you. War is the ultimate "Him or Me" game. So don't do anything to jeopardize winning it. Think your profound thoughts after the battle.)

As humans, we are born helpless and ignorant. We reach adulthood mostly as a product of our upbringing. Nearly everything we think has been taught to us. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately, our societal attitudes and tastes are as pliable as our ear for music or our taste for coffee. With the right influence, we actually can refine and improve our tastes and attitudes. Or under the wrong influence, the exact opposite may occur. Our brains can be patterned, for better or for worse, through a process called neuroplasticity. We can be strongly influenced by those around us. 

The single best piece of advice a person can be given is this: Surround yourselves with the very best people possible. Because that neuroplasticity is, indeed, a sword that can cut both ways. 

Bike Helmets: Musings on Mandatory v. Voluntary Laws, Good Judgement, etc.

As the jackhammer slams away at the concrete on the sidewalk across the street - the first step in a process which I set in motion with my email to the city about my concern that a cyclist would drop his front wheel into the gap in between concrete slabs and take a header, I feel compelled to share this personal experience, which goes a long way toward explaining my consciousness of potential bike-related head injuries. 

On the first Sunday of January 1972, a crystal clear, cold day at Ft. Bliss, TX, I decided to forgo watching the NFC and AFC Championship games in favor of taking a good, long motorcycle ride in the desert. My "Career Course" (more formally, the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Advanced Course) classes resumed the next day, and I would have very limited opportunities to ride until leaving for Korea in a month and a half or so - our class would be very busy until graduating in two or three weeks, and then our family would be very busy clearing out of quarters, moving, visiting family, etc., until I left.

So I pulled on a couple of pair of bluejeans and otherwise bundled up, then struck out for the Hueco Tanks area, east of El Paso. And what a glorious time I had - mostly running the nearby pipeline right-of-way through the desert, which included lots of jumps! On the way back home, my bike started to lag just as I got back into the outskirts of El Paso, and I immediately thought, "Oh, crap! I've broken an oil line and run it dry!" So, I decided to wheel into the Border Patrol parking lot to check it out, as I had just passed a service station. When I turned the front wheel to the right, it jerked and locked against the right fork stop, and I went sailing over the handlebars at maybe 25 mph! When I landed on my head, that polycarbonate helmet sounded like a mortar round had hit it! Nope, it wasn't the oil. I had picked up a mesquite thorn in the desert, and my front tire had just gone flat!

So, I picked myself up, bushed myself off, assessed the damage - torn and scuffed jeans, scraped shins from the handlebars and mirror, severely scuffed jacket, scuffed gloves, bent foot-rest, broken mirror, shredded handlebar grip - picked up the bike, and walked it back to the service station to fix the flat. Thanks, helmet!! I've often reflected on how that helmet protected my wife, Nancy, from having to make the tough decision about whether to keep me on life-support or not. 

But - as Paul Harvey used to say, "Here's the Rest of the Story".

At the time, Texas had a mandatory helmet law, while my other riding venue, New Mexico, did not. So, one would think that my mature judgement and intelligence kept me in my helmet, regardless of which state I was in. After all, that is the argument put forth by the libertarian-minded folks who argue against mandatory helmet laws, right? To document my said qualities, allow me, without false humility, to enumerate a few examples. 

At the time, I was an almost 29-year-old Army Air Defense Artillery Captain, soon to be an Honor Graduate of the aforementioned Career Course, and soon thereafter to have my finger on the Big Red Button as Commander of a Nike-Hercules Battery in Korea. Just the previous June, I had graduated cum laude in physics from UT-El Paso, as part of the "Pilot Program" group of a new two-year Officer Degree Completion Program, which meant that DOD had picked me out of all the non-degreed (i.e. OCS-sourced) Captains with 2 or more years of college in all of the Army, to be in that first group. Heady.

After getting home from Vietnam, my first Air Defense Officer position was as an Instructor in Air Defense Tactics at the School at Fort Bliss. My students included ROTC and West Point Graduates in the Basic Course, other Captains and Majors in the Advance Course, and officers of all ranks, up to the occasional General or Admiral from other branches of the US DOD and foreign militaries in various familiarization and War College level courses. Heady.

Prior to that, while I was in Vietnam, the Air Defense Artillery and the Field Artillery branches split, and I became Air Defense Artillery. I then finished my tour in Vietnam, continuing to serve as a combat Field Artillery Officer - 6 months as a Forward Observer with Charlie Battery, 2/9 Artillery, humping the Kontums supporting Bravo Company, 2/35 Infantry, a grunt infantry outfit, 2 months as the Fire Direction Officer (AXO) and 2 months in charge of the guns (XO) of Alpha 2/9, a sister 105 mm Howitzer Battery, and then, after being promoted from 1st Lt to Captain, as Assistant Operations Officer (AS3) at the 2/9 Battalion, DS to the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Division. I earned bunch of little ribbons, including a Bronze Star, for my efforts. (OK, so the Bronze Star (no V-device, thank you very much) was kind of the Officer's "Participation Medal" for anyone who was actually in combat in Vietnam.)

As an FO, With a total of about two weeks in the field in what was my first Field Artillery assignment other than OCS, I brought the first high-explosive round of one fire mission within about 30 meters of our closest friendly element - with the full blessing of the Company Commander, CPT John Pipia, and to the relief of my supported troops, as we were pinned down by an enemy heavy machine gun. (This was in violation of the Rules of Engagement, which demanded 400 meters minimum distance for the first HE. But, while being incredibly lucky with the initial smoke spotting round falling about four hundred meters nearer than expected, my decision to immediately enter "Fire for Effect" was technically and tactically sound. Although without John's intervention, the little ring-knocker that was my BC, might have Court-Martialled my cowboy butt. John told him, "Why don't you just accept that my troops consider your battery our savior now, rather than the total bunch of screw-ups they thought you were after you had fired out on us twice in the two weeks before that mission?) About two weeks later, I faced down a veteran Field Artillery Major over his desire to fire a prep with a platoon of 8" howitzers, which had no smoke round available, into the middle of about a square kilometer area on the far side of a mountain from those guns, that we had twelve companies surrounding, hopefully. Actually, they had all fought through jungle, from different directions, over a period of about a week, and no one was really sure where they were - only two of the companies had linked up. (This was the area the machine gun had been deployed on the main approach to.) At this time, my supported company was on the fire-base, LZ Ryder, as "Palace Guard", and I was sitting in for the Liaison Officer to the Infantry Battalion, who had been medevaced with intestinal parasites. This had evolved into a brigade-sized operation, all under the control of our 2/35 Infantry Battalion, since it was in our Area of Operations. We were under the Operational Control of one of the 23rd (Americal) Divisions' Brigades - 196th, I think, I don't remember for sure - and the Major was the Operations Officer for that Brigade's Direct Support Artillery Battalion. After listening to my end of our discussion, the 2/35 Battalion Commander, "Wild Bill" Livsey, took the phone and pronounced, "Major, you're a damned fool!"" In that case as well, my reasoning and my judgement were sound and appreciated by the supported infantry, if not by my artillery fathers. I could go on, but for the sake of, ahem, brevity, I'll leave it at that.

So, I had proven chops in both intelligence and judgement, right? Ahh, well . . . Whenever I headed north on the I-10 toward Las Cruces, I would stop at the state line, take my helmet off, and strap it to the back seat. My goodness, how I loved to feel the wind in my face and the varied smells and tastes of the bugs, as you passed different kinds of crops up through the Rio Grande Valley! (The grasshoppers, on the other hand, really stung, but, oh, well.) Then heading back home - back on with that pesky helmet at the Texas line. That sissy helmet law, you know.

PS: Within a year or two, Texas "saw the light", as they are wont to do, and repealed that sissy law. So now, I thank God, not only for being in Texas when this header occurred, but for it being before I left for Korea, rather than later on.

Friday, August 12, 2016

My Luck in Observing the Leonid Meteor Storm of 1966

The current show featuring the Perseid Meteor Shower set me to reminiscing about my singularly envious, serendipitous opportunity to experience the full glory of the famous  Leonid Meteor Storm of November 17, 1966.

I was in the Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School and we were six days from graduating and becoming prime fodder for Vietnam. (An Artillery Lieutenant's first assignment in-theater was for a couple of months as a Forward Observer (F.O.) in support of a combat unit of another branch, with a reported life expectancy (L.E.) of approximately two weeks. If you survived the first couple of weeks, the L.E. went up sharply. In my case, I walked with B Company, 2/35 Infantry for six months, since a dwindling number of  replacements were sucked up by outfits with F. O.'s who had been less fortunate than I, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive of 1968.)

We were in Happy Battery - the final week of School - where we had no responsibilities but to navigate the Escape and Evasion Course and to run roughshod over the Lower and Middle Classmen. So, 16 November found us on the E. & E. Course, maybe 15 miles out from the lights of Lawton and the Main Post. The sky was crystal clear, and the moon was a thin waxing crescent, so that it set early in the evening.

The exercise started about noon. The hundred or so men in the Battery were divided into three-man teams, with each team being supplied one compass and one map with the intermediate checkpoint marked. We all took a long hard look at the map, especially noting the location of the checkpoint. Then, with the announcement, "Your position is being overrun! Run! Escape!", or words to that effect, we were off. The boundaries of the course were defined as the top of a rocky ridge line on the north and the middle of the valley on the south. we were to flee east and instructed to stay on the ridge for better cover. The Aggressors were dispersed along the course and would be looking for us. If we were captured, we would be taken to an Aggressor Camp and "interrogated". (This basically meant that these enlisted men would have a sanctioned free shot at guys that would become officers within a week! We had all been fed horror stories about the interrogation methods, so that was not in anyone's grand plan.) Two or three hours into the exercise, my group was spotted, and we flushed like quails in different directions. I'm not sure what happened to the other two, but no one pursued me, and I got away. Unfortunately, I did not have the map or compass, so, I was working on memory. An hour or so later, I came face to face with another Aggressor as I peeked up over a boulder. "Halt! You are my prisoner!" "Catch me, if you think you can, "some choice name"!" And I was off, bounding down the hill like I had nothing to lose! He did chase me, but, since he was in fighting web-gear and toting an M-14, I was able to put enough distance between us that I could cross a rise and disappear into a stand of bushes. He made a good effort to locate me, coming within about ten meters at one point, but finally gave up and went back to his post. I continued after a suitable wait, and was able to close on the checkpoint at about dusk. There I was fed, as I recall, and shown a map with the Objective marked. It was several kilometers further and up on the top of the ridgeline.

The best word to describe the next five hours or so is "gruelling"! A little moonlight early in the evening, but after that pitch black except for the stars and the occasional sweep of the Aggressors' spotlights, which, fortunately, were behind me. Those and the North Star were my navigation beacons. I stumbled and stumbled and stumbled through the loose rocky field that was the side of that ridgeline. At last, I stumbled into the Objective at about 10:00 pm, barely able to stand up on my tortured feet and ankles.

Three classmates had beat me in, but they had walked straight down the valley, staying ahead of the Aggressor deployments and spotlights. (I think mine is a much better story!) About an hour later, one other guy stumbled into the Objective. (As it turned out, we were the only five to close that night, and we had people coming in all of the next two days. My "Sick Puke" of a bunkmate, who got by on his father being a bird colonel, even after he was declared a safety hazard and banned from any contact with artillery, was located by a search party on the fourth day.)

After eating, we all fell into our racks, at least two of us totally exhausted. Then about 1:30 or 2:00 am, our Tach Officers rousted us all out of bed - "Get up! Get up!" "Wha'? are the Aggressors overrunning the Objective?" "No, no, no! You just can't miss this!" Outside the tent we were bedazzled by the most spectacular Meteor Storm of the 20th Century! Holy Cow! And we had the perfect observation venue - the top of a ridgeline relatively far from the small city's light pollution, with our eyes already adjusted to the dark, with a crystal clear sky, and the moon long since set! We were all simply stunned!

I have told an abbreviated version of this story to a few folks that I knew had some interest in the subject, and have, inevitably, drawn envious oohs and aahs. I thought it was high time I get the full tale down, for my family's sake.