November 25, 2017 | Posted in General
The Art of War.
Back in the last century, in the summer of 1974 I got my first paying job. Not sure how I ended up as a “porter” which is basically a toilet scrubber and mop up guy at Dunkin’ Donuts a couple miles from my home. As I recall when I started it was a $1.90 an hour and I racked up the hours whenever I could. I’d walk to the donut shop at 4:30am work for a couple hours, walk another mile or so to high school, walk back the donut shop work for a couple hours and then head home. Eventually I was promoted to “baker” and was responsible for baking an assortment of treats, right in front of a giant window so the customers could watch me, like some sort of circus act. I learned the art of cracking two eggs while holding them in one hand, a skill I have retained to this day.
Michelle Weiner was a waitress there, decked out in her DD outfit, big smile and infectious laugh, we became fast friends. I’d watch Shell slide around on the tile floor that was filled with flour, glaze drippings and other assorted food bits. The only rift between us is that she went to Lane Tech high school, I went to Schurz and anyone in the greater Chicagoland area knows that the two schools were (and are) sworn enemies.
But we got along pretty well anyway.
43 years has passed since that time and as with all things in life, people come and go for reasons…and seasons. FB has been a great lifeline to those who are part of my past and connecting with Shell again in the virtual landfill always made me smile, recalling a very different time, which seemed to be simple, but that is of course all a matter of perspective.
So, when I got an invite from her to attending a private gathering at an art museum, my first thought was…”why?” I am in no way shape or form a connoisseur of fine art. I don’t subscribe to “Artsy Mag” or wander endless hallways looking at abstract images tilting my head in thought and letting a quiet “hmmm” escape on my breath as to feign interest.
But I pushed past that stuff, accepted the invite and headed up to the Six Corners area in Chicago where the National Veterans Art Museum is located. At one time “Six Corners” was a major shopping hub in the city. You could go to Woolworth’s and eat at the lunch counter and then buy a parakeet on the way out. The Portage Movie Theater is still there, the place where I saw JAWS six times in a row but most everything else, except the massive Sears store is gone.
As fate would have it, the museum is within short walking distance of that Dunkin’ Donuts.
I didn’t know what to expect, and usually that’s the best course of action, but even so when I made my way up to the second floor and entered the hallway, I was stopped in my tracks, a blindfolded sculpture greeted me in such a way it sucked the breath from my chest.
I read the card next to the piece by John McManus. “During the 1968 Tet Offensive, one night in Song Be the Viet Cong dragged a guy off, he was on a listening post on one of those foggy nights when you couldn’t see the guy next to you. We heard his moaning over the radio and the rustling of the bushes. We were only a few hundred yards away and no one could help him.”
“We are blindfolded on this planet; we are unable to see what we do to each other. We are taught to see what we are told to see. When I found stone, I found life itself; when I sculpt, I learn to see.”
I suddenly knew I was on sacred ground, perched two floors up from the streets I once walked many years ago.
Making my way through the gallery I was stuck time and time again by the visceral and the violent. This from artist Marcus Eriksen regarding his sculpture “Angel In The Desert.”
“In Feb. 24, 1991 a truck filled with a dozen Marines in an endless convoy for Kuwait City stopped when I yelled, “Hey, look, a body!” The paralyzed figure of an Iraqi soldier lay 30 feet from the incinerated jeep he was blown from. His knees were bent, eyes and mouth open, and his intestines poured out from under his shirt. We were both covered with specks of oil from the fires nearby, and soaked by the rains that made me dirty and miserable, yet washed his face clean. Before he died, he waved his arms, like the way kids make snow angels. He made wings in the sand. My Angel in the Desert. I never forgot him, or the grimaced faces of the living ones missing arms and legs, or the piles of dead men at the Highway of Death. Years ago, I began welding a sculpture of him. I began with an old uniform, fiberglass resin, and plaster to make molds. I lined the molds with 70,000 steel ball bearings. In a desert war only sand, flesh and steel move together, in varied directions and velocities. It weighs roughly 300 lbs., but comes in two pieces, much like I found him.”
I learned that in 1981, a few Vietnam combat veterans put together an artistic and historical collection that would become a timeless, humanistic statement of war on behalf of all veterans for future generations. Since 2003, the museum has broadened its mission to include art by veterans of all wars. In 2010, the word Vietnam was dropped, and we became the National Veterans Art Museum (NVAM). Today, NVAM’s Permanent Collection features more than 255 veteran artists, and consists of more than 2,500 works of art, including paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry and music. The artwork showcased at NVAM provides a unique perspective on the controversial subject of war to all. It is a tenuous and reflective balance of beauty and horror, providing unique insight into the psyche of combat veterans and the consequential impact war leaves on its survivors.
I kept thinking that this place with its real images of war, created by those who fought in the jungles of Vietnam to the sand in Iraq lies in stark contrast to the video game versions of war that will be included as “stocking stuffers” this Christmas.
Michelle was a gracious host, so very good to see her after all this time and even though I was surrounded by Lane Tech alumni, the impact of her efforts in pulling together the event was very powerful. At one point we were all called together in the main room and listened to two combat vets share their story of healing through art. Two men that know what it’s like to kill another human being, and in doing so a part of their own humanity died. They talked about how efficient the military is in breaking them down as to build them up into a fighting unit, but how lost they became once their service ended.
Through a program at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, these veterans were able to channel their pain into images that brought a bit of sense to the senseless. Their pride in overcoming the challenges of adapting into civilian life was evident. They were no longer just a jarhead grunt, but rather an artist who has a portfolio and showing.
“The Art of War” is an ancient Chinese military treatise dating from the 5th century BC. The work, which is attributed to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”, also spelled Sunzi), is composed of 13 chapters. Each one is devoted to a distinct aspect of warfare and how that applies to military strategy and tactics.
While it a very famous work on how to gain victory, none of the 13 chapters deals with what happens to the soldiers, their mind, body and spirit as they attempt to live out their lives after being witness to and participate in, the slaughter of other humans.
“The Art of War” I was witness to isn’t about victory over some foreign enemy, its about victory over the darkness that takes up residence in a foxhole, a rice paddy or blood and oil soaked sand.
As a non-combat veteran, I left wonder what could I do to help my combat-veteran brothers in their efforts to create a safe space for healing that can take decades for those who returned home, but left a piece of themselves behind.
This image I posted here, among all of them stands as a giant mural covering one whole wall. It’s titled “Class of 1967”
“In June 1968, we were on an operation in the hills between Khe Sanh and Laos. One night NVA sappers crawled up through the wet elephant grass and overran our position. In the ensuing firefight we took heavy casualties. The sky was lit up with parachute flares and on the ground the night swayed out through the trees and became a kind of surreal blue day. The armorer working with me had his leg blown off at the knee by a grenade; the corpsman who came to help him was shot through the shoulder. When daylight came the NVA had pulled back and mortared us for the next few hours. Being a short timer, with a flight date at the end of the month, I had dug a deep foxhole and during that morning I shared it with eight or ten different people: my wounded company commander, a wounded air liaison officer, a wounded jeep driver, a wounded artillery forward observer, a wounded mortar man, the communications officer, and some others.”
“When the bodies of the dead were laid out in the clearing and covered with ponchos, they all looked alike. They lay in short rows on their backs with their toes pointing up and outward. In death, they were all the same, except for the one who had only one foot—one boot. This scene occupied a little part of Class of ’67. June was graduation month; some of them had probably been finishing high school the year before.”
High school…same age as the target market for those video war games that cost $59.99 at Walmart.
Maybe that’s where I can start with soliciting donations…from the video companies that pull in millions and millions of dollars by selling war as nothing more than a game.
There has been a meme going around this Thanksgiving on Facebook.
“If you ate today thank a farmer. If you ate in peace thank a veteran.”
You can also thank them by making a donation to the museum- here is the link. The museum is a 501 (c) (3) and relies on fundraisers and private donations to operate.
November 22, 2017 | Posted in General
The Wednesday Rant.
The official beginning of the holiday season,the day that we give thanks and stuff ourselves into a food coma, the day that family and friends gather together in great fellowship and cheer, the day we set aside to take stock of our blessings, that pre-game warmup to get our priorities in order, before we buy a shitload of stuff on Black Friday and fall back into the assembly line of consumerism.
The one day a year everyone seated at the table puts aside politics, religion and politics and solely focuses on the blessings that have been bestowed on each of us.
For many, Thanksgiving is a time filled with a great bird, real canned cranberries (the great debate continues but personally, I want to see those rings around my perfectly shaped cranberry loaf) a dozen football games to choose from (I remember when only the Detroit Lions played on Thanksgiving.) The good china comes out, the napkins are cloth and the glasses are clean.
But for many more, Thanksgiving (and Christmas for that matter) is hardly a Martha Stewart experience.
The forgotten, the lost, the lonely, the ill and the missing in action humans endure what so many of us take for granted.
A note from my cousin Bob who has been fighting for years against more health challenges than I can count, had me thinking once again on how important it is to remember those who might not be with us physically on Thanksgiving, and those who sit in a small room somewhere, no family to spend time with, waiting for a nurse or healthcare worker to deliver a turkey dinner, thankful for a few minutes of conversation perhaps.
In so many ways, we are a throw-away society. When something becomes obsolete be it a cell phone or human being, it gets discarded, forgotten…replaced.
However, the circle of life shows us that one day we too become “yesterday’s model” and be it by choice or chance, our turn comes to face this often difficult time of the year, not with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, but often times through the tired, defeated and heavy gaze illness, disease or loss and all the cracks in the human spirit that take their toll over time.
When I was a kid, couldn’t wait for the relatives to show up to the big old Victorian on Berteau Avenue. My pop held court as king and my mom of course was the queen of the castle. Up at 4am to roast the bird for what seemed like an eternity, endless bowls of stuffing, racks of pies, gallons of gravy and perhaps later in the evening another round of cold turkey sandwiches layered with mayonnaise on white bread.
But times change, and people change and eventually leave us, but the memories linger and are bittersweet.
Most of my family has gone ahead of me on the arc of life, that house has been sold three times since my dad passed and its been more than three decades since I heard my mom yell out “Dinner!”
But if I listen closely, I can hear her in my mind.
I cannot imagine what Thanksgiving will be like for families of the 26 slain in Sutherland, Texas or the 58 in Las Vegas or at the tables in Sandy Hook that will always have an empty chair.
Sometimes, its very hard to find something to be thankful for when so much of what comes our way doesn’t validate the gift of life, which no one ever said would be fair or easy…but perhaps that is the gift right there…hidden in plain sight.
Humans above all other creatures have the ability, the choice really to determine what something does or does not mean-to literally define our circumstance rather than letting the circumstance define us.
No matter what they might be.
As Norman Rockwell-ish as it sounds, its imperative to dig for the good, small as it may be, insignificant as it may seem, the tiniest bit of light in a world that often times so very dark.
Why? Because for reasons known (and unknown) what we focus on tends to expand. That expansion creates a ripple effect and that ripple effect goes out and eventually comes back to us.
For the record there are days I get up and after about five minutes in the landfill of FB, filled with news I can’t use I often wonder what is the point?
Then I remind myself that while I cannot control anyone else, I can control my response, while I cannot change the world better, I can make sure the world doesn’t change me for the worse.
That’s the point.
And that starts by giving thanks, as difficult, challenging, sad, or hard as that might be.
For a little perspective consider the following:
If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world.
If you have money in the bank, your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
If you woke up this morning with more health than illness you are more blessed than the million people who will not survive this week.
If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the agony of imprisonment or torture, or the horrible pangs of starvation vou are luckier than 500 million people alive and suffering.
If you can read this message you are more fortunate than 3 billion people in the world who cannot read it at all.
So consider taking a moment or three, to put a thought on those less fortunate than us. The homeless, the hungry, the lost, the hurting, the suffering and the lonely.
And I wish you a very blessed Thanksgiving.
Be well…safe travels.
November 15, 2017 | Posted in General
I hit the gym four mornings a week, usually before 8:30am .
One of those mornings I also go to breakfast with my dad…well kinda, sorta.
My dad passed away in 2004, I miss many things about him, one of which was having breakfast at McDonald’s as he had an affinity for the #11- Steak, Egg & Cheese Bagel that absolutely drips butter and oozes onions. Toss in the obligatory hash browns and a coffee and its a nice throwback to my pop as I ponder my life for a few minutes and think on him.
I vary up the days that I hit Macs, and since I’ve been back in the gym again for the past three months, not too worried about my weekly foray into the land of fast food. Down nearly 15 pounds, shoulder feels good, neck and back in working order, knees check out fine.
The first time I grabbed breakfast at Mickey D’s I was within ear distance of a long table filled with old fellas that clattered like an assembly line. All of them were old enough to be my father, a few my grandfather. I sat and soaked up their conversations that ranged from how to increase font size on their phones to sharing pics of the grand-kids to giving the manager are hard time.
He was complaining that all they do is take up space and spend about $1.80 per week, they pushed back that without them, it wouldn’t be the same. He of course agreed, while serving them hot coffee and laughing.
After six or more “sessions” where I was eavesdropping, I finally made the move to stop and thank them for their “entertainment” as it was a refreshing way to start my day.
“This is the real Breakfast Club kid” barked one guy. “Do you remember that movie?”
“All those kids were being punished but ended up learning a lot about themselves and each other in the process” he continued while the others listened and nodded in agreement.
“We are doing the same thing but the only punishment is how crappy the coffee is here!”
The table roared with hoarse laughter, the manager rolled his eyes.
Sometimes the Breakfast Club has eleven members, other days just three or four, so yesterday I stopped again on my way out and greeted them, and got an invite to sit down.
Figured that was some kinda big deal, so I did.
“You a cop?”
“You look like a cop kid” said William who served in Vietnam and proudly wore his cap filled with buttons from combat. ” Mac was a cop” he continued, pointing to a dark haired guy sitting by himself, sipping coffee quietly.
“Nope, I’m not a cop. I usually spend most of my time writing these days, even though most of my career has been in radio.”
“Yeah? No shit. Do you write cop stuff like Mickey Spillane?”
“Maybe you should write cop stuff. That shit sells big time” William explained, while half a dozen other guys listened in.
I thought I would change course, so asked them how long they have been meeting.
“Thirteen years ago Leo passed away. Did you know him? He lived around here for a long time. Anyway, Leo kicked and we came here for coffee after his burial. Next morning I came in for breakfast and there was Don in line next to me” explained Freddy.
Don who was seated a few chairs away gave a nicotine stained thumbs-up.
“So we just started showing up every morning, more and more guys came along and so we are here seven days a week from about eight in the morning until ten-thirty or so. Someone is always here and we like it that way. Gives us something to look forward to each morning. People need that, you know a reason to get up each day.”
“Yea we look out for each other. No politics or religion allowed. We all know God in our own way and sure as shit ain’t gonna spend our time arguing over the Almighty” insisted Hal who’s gnarled fingers were straining to bang out a text message. “It’s the wife, she is making sure I take my medication” he said.
“Here’s all the medication you need Hal” said Freddy, as he tossed a box of cookies down the table. They all laughed.
“Yea we had a guy that tried to come in here and mess stuff up with politics and shit. Saw right through his bullshit. There are nine veterans at this table and this clown was gonna tell us what is what. We kicked his ass out” barked William. “Did you serve kid?”
“Yes I did. Coast Guard.”
“No shit” said William. “Coast Guard eh. Pete there is a Navy lifer and so is Chick, but he’s not here this morning. Thanks for your service kid.”
“So let me ask you guys a question before I head out” I said.
“What is the greatest lesson you have learned in your life?”
Table got quiet, the only sound came from the television on the wall blaring out the news of the morning and the line of customers ordering.
“Every day is a gift.” came the first response.
“Take care of your shit” said another voice.
“Cellphones are a waste of time.”
” Forgive people before its too late.”
” Don’t drink the coffee here.”
” Be proud of who you are.”
“Do unto others.”
“Take care of the people that are important to you best you can.”
” Never go to sleep angry.”
“Count your blessings.”
I thanked them for their time and the invite, slapped a few backs and shoulders and then bought them a round of coffee.
“Hey kid, if you want to join in that’s fine but you have to start at the far end of the table and work your way up, just like life” snorted Freddy while the others smirked their approval.
Might just do that.
November 11, 2017 | Posted in General
To be clear, I am well aware that nothing gets solved in this blog.
This space wasn’t set up as a platform for as an exchange of ideas that can create changes that can be implemented bringing about solutions to the ills of society, the pandering of politics or the absurdity of human behavior.
So, while I know absolutely zero change will come from my words this morning, I will type them anyway, a protest of sorts against what has felt to me like a slow slide from our ability to discern what reality consists of that is part of our undoing as human beings.
I’ve been stewing on this particular subject for years, and as the profits grow from video games that have “war” as their subject, so does my anger, angst and disgust with it all.
Today the vast landfill of Facebook is filled with images and thanks for and to our veterans. I have done my fair share adding to the piles, the one time a year I can haul out my USCG stuff and remember when I was a lean, mean Coastie machine and thank those who I served with and those who have served.
I served in peace time, didn’t have to face an enemy hiding in the jungle or burrowed in a bunker with at .50 raining lead on me at the age of 19.
But I know and have known men who have had that experience and far, far worse. They came home dragging Pearl Harbor, The Battle of The Bulge, Iwo Jima, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan with them.
Nothing jacks up my shorts more than seeing a commercial for “Call of Duty” on the tube and the billions of dollars made on the backs of veterans and the bodies of those who did not come home.
Its obscene to me as a vet to see this description- “Call of Duty: WWII is a first-person shooter video game developed by Sledgehammer Games and published by Activision. It is the fourteenth main installment in the Call of Duty series and was released worldwide on November 3, 2017. It is the first title in the series to be set primarily during World War II since Call of Duty: World at War in 2008. The game is set in the European theatre, and is centered around a squad in the 1st Infantry Division, following their battles on the Western Front, and set mainly in the historical events of Operation Overlord; the multiplayer expands to different fronts not seen in the campaign.”
Oh cool, “the player” sitting in his bedroom with a multi-control device instead of an M-1 rifle can “expand” to different fronts not seen in the real campaign that took place.
“Operation Overlord” is another name for “The Invasion of Normandy.”
Between 6 June 1944 and the end of August, the American armies suffered 124,394 casualties, of whom 20,668 were killed. The Allied air forces, having flown 480,317 sorties in support of the invasion, lost 4,101 aircraft and 16,714 airmen (8,536 members of the USAAF, and 8,178 flying under the command of the RAF).
In WW II the famed 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) that the game is based on suffered 20,659 casualties, had 3,616 KIA, 15,208 wounded, 499 MIA and 1,336 POW’s.
WWII is the first title since the original game and “Call of Duty 2: Big Red One” not to feature “health regeneration” in the campaign. Instead, players must find “health packs” scattered throughout levels, or rely on their medic squad mate to provide “health packs.” Other members of the player’s squad can provide ammunition, grenades, call in mortar strikes, or spot enemies and reveal their position in form of silhouettes. In certain sections of the game, enemy soldiers in the campaign can be captured, and wounded allies can be dragged to cover. In some parts of the campaign, players are able to control vehicles.
Wow how cool is that! Control vehicles right from the comfort of your gaming chair! Virtually pull the wounded to safety while stuffing down a candy bar!
Nothing in the game about GI’s being tortured, cut in half on the beach, never making it off the transport, holding each other’s guts in calling for a medic or blown to bits so small they would never be found.
I wonder how much those 19 and 20-year old kids on Omaha Beach would have given for “health regeneration” or their medic could give them a “health pack” so they could put their mangled arms and legs back in place and keep heading into enemy fire.
In “Call of Duty” the “shooter” faces “Zombie Nazi’s.”
At The Battle of the Bulge, they faced…you know…REAL Nazi’s. Out of 610,000 troops involved in the battle, 89,000 were casualties. While some sources report that up to 19,000 were killed, Eisenhower’s personnel chief put the number at about 8,600. It was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II.
Again… “heath regeneration” was not an option.
Fair to mention that “Call of Duty: Vietnam” was cancelled.
Not because it would be a controversy over perhaps our most difficult and divisive war, but because the company needed help finishing “Call of Duty 3: Modern Warfare” and had just experienced a major loss of employees due to firings and departures.
In real life, there were 58,220 permanent departures that are etched in stone on The Vietnam Wall. “Firing” meant something very different.
The masterminds behind these “games” are Glen A. Schofield who is trained in both fine arts and business, earning a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MBA from Golden Gate University. His influence is felt in “Gunstar Hero” and a bunch of other stuff I’ve never heard of. Michael Condrey graduated in 1997 from the University of Washington. The following year, his senior thesis on applying biotechnology to conservation biology was published in the Molecular Ecology. After serving as scuba diving instructor and boat captain in the Cayman Islands, he began work on a graduate degree in Seattle. It was there that launched his game development career, beginning with a summer job at Electronic Arts during the peak of Seattle’s gaming explosion.
Neither one of these guys ever went to boot camp, put on a uniform, stood at attention during the raising or lowering of the colors, ate sand in Afghanistan or carried out a wounded buddy in Nam or took enemy fire in Iraq.
My longtime friends Greg and Debi Daniels lost their son Nick in Afghanistan on November 5th, 2011-six years ago.
When I heard the news, I went to the funeral in Chicago that was framed by the USMC Honor Guard at each end of the flag draped casket that held their boy inside. There was no sound at all in the room as I stood off to the side, watching my friend, this hulking 6’6 football player with his broad shoulders hunched in pain, and his wife, Nick’s mom next to him, forever changed.
Nick Daniels was 25 years young.
War is no game…and its all based on the fact that the human mind has a hard time discerning reality from “virtual reality.”
These “games” have grossed over $10 billion dollars since 2003 and are played by millions of mostly young men giving them “the thrill of combat,” the adrenaline rush of “the kill” and the ability to “regenerate their health” and continue fighting “zombie nazi’s” and simply turn it off, and return a few hours later without ever having to actually put their lives on the line.
For Nicky there was no returning a few hours later to start over again, and for the Daniels, there is no turning if off.
Today, 22 veterans will take their own life.
I didn’t see that option in “Call of Duty.”
Far as I can tell…not a single dime from their profits has gone to veteran’s issues, care or consideration. I hope that I am wrong and just missed where they donate millions to veterans and their families…because you know they get all that “real life action” royalty free.
Their tag line is “GREATNESS AWAITS” and it will only cost you $59.99 at Walmart.
But for some the cost is much, much higher.
For the record, if by some remote chance you think I should lighten up and just see these as “games” and for what some suggest they are, harmless entertainment that kids will grow out of…I’ll be happy to discuss it with you on the 5th floor of the VA or in the military section of your local cemetery.
November 6, 2017 | Posted in General
I don’t even flinch anymore.
My lack of response is the result of learned behavior.
No longer a matter of “what if” but rather “when and where?”
And… how many?