Monday, September 30, 2013

A Veteran's Tale

What were you doing in early 1990? What's that? You weren't born yet? Then go Snap Chat or Tweet or something while I talk to the grown-ups. 

Sorry, you can stay. I'm just envious and longing for those days spent backpacking through Europe with three pairs of socks and a perm that even the French thought was repulsively greasy. I have slides.

But while my new bride and I argued our way from Lucerne to Lyon and all points betwixt, my brother-in-law, Dean Ainardi, began his own journey. He joined the United States Air Force. 

On Friday, Dean formally retired after a twenty-three year career. The ceremony, held at Joint Base Lewis/McChord for family and friends, was emotional and funny, touching, sad and inspirational as hell. Sharply dressed men and women, some in camouflage, others in full dress uniform, packed the room, outnumbering civilians perhaps two to one.

Every fresh-faced airman I came across greeted me as "sir." Although it would have made a lot more sense for me to address them with such deference, such is the underlying theme of service in this setting.

Dean is one of those guys who downplays everything, and I know he would have done the same thing had I not asked him some very specific questions about his stint in the military. I really wanted to know more of his story. As is common with so many veterans, it's the story of a remarkable person who considers himself anything but remarkable. 

My questions are italicized and Dean's answers follow.

You enlisted in the military at age 25, a little older than when most people join. What made you to decide that was the direction you wanted to go?

After my dad died (in 1987), I was kind of drifting from job to job and pretty unhappy with the jobs/my life as a whole. After I met Tammy and I knew that I was going to ask her to marry me, I knew I needed to find a career, not just a job. I tried the college thing (before I met Tammy) and knew that was not going to work for me (Apparently they actually want you to attend the classes, turn in assignments AND take the finals.). I was looking at jobs and everybody wanted school or experience, I had neither and I somehow wandered into a recruiter’s office. “The rest is history.”

How did Tammy react when you said you were thinking of joining?

Well since I have the Ainardi gene, I was an idiot and did not tell or discuss this with Tammy. The night I asked her to marry me, I also informed her that I had joined (not was going to join…had joined) the Air Force and would be leaving in six months. She was “a bit” shocked and overwhelmed but still said yes. In retrospect if I had it to do all over again I mayyyyy have involved her in that decision.

In your first assignment back in 1990, you were sent to the Philippines to work as an apprentice mechanic. You ended up helping to evacuate five thousand people prior to a volcanic eruption. Did you experience any second thoughts (or third or fourth) about having signed up?

No, not really—the actual evacuation part did just the opposite. It was an eye-opener to what the military could actually accomplish. For the first time in my life after Dad died I felt like I was actually accomplishing something. I realized that I was part of something way bigger than just a job. I also realized how much your supervisors relied on you to know your job. 

It taught me that you have to be able to think on your feet and make decisions on the spot. I was very low rank and the decisions I made were very low level but at the time it really opened my eyes to what the military was all about. Of course on a personal level, I was separated from Tammy the first year and a half of my marriage so on that level yes I thought, “WTF did I do,” but what I learned about myself and the confidence I gained in myself far outweighed the separation downside.

During your experience deployed to war zones and dangerous areas, did you ever have an "Oh shit, I’m gonna die!" moment, and if so, where did it take place?

The first one was in the Philippines. My boss and I were in charge of keeping the roads from Clark to Subic Bay Naval Station (where everybody was evacuating to) clear, using a huge vehicle wrecker.  We were staying in an open-bay barracks. I was sleeping on the top bunk when an earthquake hit, which was common during the eruption. We were getting five to ten a day but this one was a big one.
I woke up just in time to see the ceiling cracking and starting to fall in on me. We luckily hauled ass out of there about two minutes before the roof came down on the bed I was sleeping in. Needless to say, we slept in our wrecker the rest of the time we were there.

In Iraq, I had many of them, but if you ask most people that have been in that type of situation, the first is usually the one you remember. For me that is true also. It was my first time over there and I had been there a couple days. This was before anyone had figured out how effective the predator drones were for base security, so the bad guys had basically free rein to shoot mortars over the fences any time they wanted. 

I was walking between our shops when we got attacked. I was stuck in the open with no bunkers close.  The mortars started exploding around me and I was fu@#ed.  I was too far away to run for shelter, there was no good cover, so I hit the ground and covered up best I could.

The mortars all missed, but that was my first real “oh shit” moment in Iraq. Like I said, the first one is the one that freaks you out a bit then after that it just kind of becomes your “new reality” and you just deal with it.  That was probably the most scared I have ever been in my life.    

Yeah, I think a lot of people assume that the Air Force is a “behind the lines” military branch, where you work on distant bases out of harm’s way, and obviously that’s not true at all.

Over two plus decades of service, you are retiring with the rank of Senior Master Sergeant, a title comprising only two percent of all enlisted personnel. You’ve supervised and trained thousands of mechanics, a lot of them fresh out of high school. What's the biggest blunder you've seen someone make around one of your vehicles?

Well, when you get young airmen arriving at a base, they are scared to death. They always do stupid shit, so I could go on for days with this. But one of the funniest AF blunders happened at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy.We got a new kid right out of tech school and when I told him to pull a vehicle in for some type of repair, he said he did not know how to drive. 

The guy was from New York, had ridden subways and buses all his life and had never driven. Sure as hell, we figured out that he came into basic where you march or are bussed everywhere so no need to drive.

We researched the qualifications for our job, and nowhere does it say you have to have a driver’s license. We ended up having to do what we could to teach him in Italy, but we had to send the guy back to the US to go to a driving school and get a driver’s license.  

We've all heard of “Desert Shield” and "Desert Storm," which you served in. But you also participated in "Operation Desert Fox." What was that all about? Sounds kind of Vegas.

Honestly Tim, I could not tell you. Every thing we do is some type of campaign. Each one has a different name with a specific set of objectives.  Once that campaign objective is completed it is closed, and in theory, we go home because it’s done.  In reality, they create another campaign with another name and we stay there and keep doing the same thing. More than likely, as with everything in the military, it has more to do with funding than anything else.    

Last question. Somehow you've managed to maintain a highly positive family situation throughout all the moves and absences. Your kids, now 17 and 21, have lived in Delaware, Italy and Tacoma, Washington twice and Louisiana, and they’ve grown into such great people. How did you and Tammy make it work?

We drink a lot. All kidding aside, I have no idea why we are/were successful and why many military families aren’t. We (military) are no different than mainstream society. We deal with all the same issue as the “outside,” and I don’t think our divorce rates (as with most social issues) are much different than the mainstream society.

Honestly, this is more of a question for Tammy. One thing that most people don’t realize is the pressures put on the spouses and family members. I move from place to place and go from my job at one base and I go to the next base and do the exact same job. The spouses and family members do not get those luxuries. They have to “reinvent” their lives every time we move with new schools, new jobs, new friends…

But to try to answer this;  Tammy and I have really enjoyed the military.We bitch and complain all the time about the bad stuff but we also know that we got some great stuff from the military. All military families suffer and give up a lot as far as “normal” American families but we also get a lot in return. How many normal families get to move from place to place and experience different life experiences and cultures? How many normal families get to spend over 11 years in Europe and travel all over the place and get paid to do it? Not many that we know of. 

We have understood this from the beginning of our marriage, and we made sure the kids understood that, yes, this is tough, but look at all the good things we get being in the military. We don’t dwell on the bad. 

Thanks, Dean. We're glad you're home.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's Not Like She's Leaving Forever, Right?

Rain splattered the windshield as our dented minivan, one hubcap shy since 2012, sloshed north up I-5. First day of Fall, indeed.

"You better slow down." I could feel my wife's eyes. "There are always speed traps here." 

"I know." I said (which I always say, even when I don't know). "It's kind of funny that eighteen years ago, this was the same stretch of freeway where we sped back to Seattle in the middle of the night. It was the one time I actually wanted to get pulled over." 

I can't confirm this fact empirically, but I'd say most men harbor a secret desire to roll down the window and say, "Sorry about going eighty-five, officer. You see, my wife's in labor...really? I can follow you all the way into Seattle? Yeah, this Kia can definitely keep up with your Crown Vic. Great, yeah, go ahead and flash the blues and I'll pull out."

And now my wife, our firstborn daughter and I were headed back to the northwest corner of Washington, our destination twenty minutes away from where my wife's water broke that April night in 1995. She wasn't due until May, but like a dawn belly flop into chilly Lake Holyshit, our little pot roast had apparently decided she'd been basting long enough, and still eighty miles from the hospital, the carrots and potatoes were ready.

During the silent moments of the two-hour drive to her new home, I worked myself to the brink of tears a couple of times. I focused on anything else—the tightening band around my bladder and kidneys brought about by the huge coffee I'd just finished, an optimal intermittent setting for the windshield wipers—because the only thing more unsettling than seeing the driver next to you texting is seeing the driver next to you blubbering like Jimmy Swaggart.  

This trip up to the college stirred up emotions that weren't unfamiliar: 

That morning she started daycare after my paternity leave ended, I felt like Joan Crawford, only with the guilt and without the expensive face cream. It felt terrible leaving my daughter with these people who knew nothing about her. Would they let her beat on a stool with a spatula while listening to Nevermind? Probably not, which made them incompetent and untrustworthy childcare providers. 

When my wife and I dropped her off that first day of kindergarten, we peeked into the classroom with its tiny desks and tiny chairs and tiny humans.The boys were shaggy little mop tops or perfectly parted with product. The girls wore so many shades of pink and purple, it looked like an undulating Barbie aisle at Target. On the way out, most parents avoided eye contact o keep the throat lumps from exploding into salt water bombs.  

Dropping her off at college was different though. It was joyous. Nervous at first to meet her new roommate, her happiness kept seeping its way into my leathery carcass. I understand that the future promises a few teary phone calls, maybe some "I just can't do this" moments, but yesterday was a triumph for all of us. We parents can be hard on ourselves. I'll often look at the undesirable traits my daughters exhibit and blame myself, but I'm going to try not to do that anymore. 

My daughter has earned the right to own her quirkiness; her tool box still needs a few crucial items, but it belongs to her.

It's probably going to hit me at strange times. She and I have bonded over sports since she was old enough to bat a tennis ball with her dimpled little fist. We always watched football together on Sundays, bantering incessantly and covering scads of non-football topics. I always looked forward to it. 

We liked talking about Harry and Ron, Hermione and Snape. And Katniss, of course.

One of our family's favorite dinners is French Dips. Saturday at the grocery store, I swooned slightly as I stood holding the plastic tongs, realizing we only needed three French rolls.

I won't hear the sounds—heavy, lanky footsteps trudging around the house, pulling milk out of the fridge and dumping a million goldfish into a plastic bowl, always a few scattering on the floor. Her toothbrush won't be pounding the sink too hard and spraying water onto the mirror. 

Okay, I know she's two hours north and not locked up in a penitentiary or shipped off to a war zone. But there's something primal, something ancient, about a child leaving her parents, and I haven't sorted it out yet at all.

I guess there's some time now to do that.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hollywood's Land of MIsfit Toys.

Remember Chuck, the older brother on Happy Days? You don't? That's probably because he only appeared in a handful of Season One episodes and then vaporized into the hazy post-high school brother who never was. Chuck didn't even show his toe-headed self on subsequent Happy Days holiday specials where everyone comes home. He must have gotten himself messed up with drugs or was sent to Nam or something.

Television casting is an ever-morphing amoeba; always has been. 

How about when Partridge Family drummer Chris, a dark complected, brown-haired lad transformed into yellowy blond Chris for Season Two? Why did it even matter? Those kids didn't play the instruments anyway, and if anyone screamed to be replaced, it was the little one,Tracy, whose jerky tambourine demonstrated the musical prowess of a young Linda McCartney.

Here are a couple shots from the pilot episode of Leave it to Beaver. If your facial recognition skills seemed to have failed you, fear not. The original Ward Cleaver was some guy named Casey Adams. The first Wally was a kid by the name of Paul Sullivan. Wow, Pete Best has nothin' on those poor sods, getting replaced by Hugh Beaumont and Tony Dow after one episode. That must have been rough for those guys, sitting on the sidelines while The Beav and Company rocketed to pop icon status for the next half century.

When we welcomed The Brady Bunch into our homes that fall of 1969, it didn't take long at all for Robert Reed and Florence Henderson to light up our tubes with raw sexual energy. Those two appeared born to play Mike and Carol Brady, especially when they were in their pajama-clad foxiest. 

But did you know that Joyce Bulifant from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Gene Hackman had originally been penciled in to play the very Brady parents? I'll admit, Gene Hackman might have turned a few heads with his puka shell necklace and manfro, but not nearly to the level of Robert Reed, especially back lit in the soft sunsets of Waikiki.

Yet even America's favorite white family had a nosy neighbor named Nielson to spar with, especially when Bobby and Cindy grew up enough to start looking like Rob and Candy. Enter Oliver, the newest, cutest ratings magnet to stuff his Dorothy Hamill bowl cut into the Brady split level.

Not sure Oliver helped steady the foundering comedy; he may have actually tainted its fragile chemistry.

During my prime TV watching years, a couple of shows experienced fairly sizable cast turnover. After Three's Company captured lightning in a bottle with Jack, Chrissie, Janet and Mr. Roper, the show's potency leeched into the slog when Suzaane Somers was swapped with Jinelee Harrison and Mr. Roper was succeeded by Mr. Farley, played by Don Knotts. 

But when Farrah Fawcett turned in her badge and bikini to Charlie after a contract dispute, that hit home. I was fifteen years old and had just been given my brother's old TV when he went to college. It was one of those big console sets, black and white, and it was mine. I guess you could say that Tuesday nights were my "date night" with Charlie's Angels. Jill, Sabrina and Kelly materialized in my room at eight o'clock and filled my musty teenage lair with their silky presence for the next forty-two minutes. 

It always seemed to go so fast, and yet somehow, I had plenty of time.

I don't pay much attention to many TV shows now, especially network stuff. An obvious example of current day high-profile actor replacement is the whole Two-and-a-Half Men situation, where Ashton Kutcher surfaced in the wake of Charlie Sheen's toxic jetsam. I've heard the show's not as good now. 

This one is my favorite. In 1968, Chirstina Crawford, daughter of faded Hollywood starlet Joan Crawford, had been playing the role of 28-year-old Joan Borman Kane on the daytime soap, The Secret Storm. While recovering from surgery, Christina's role was filled by her wonderfully versatile mommy dearest, John Crawford. 

Here's a typical example of the elder Crawfords's ability to take the audience by the hair and flog it with the wire coat hanger of thespianic genius. Let's face it—she looked every bit the part of a 28-year-old—who'd been smoking and drinking nonstop for the past fifty years. Masterful.

Regrettably, there are two other categories that come to mind. The first is the list of actors and actresses who died during filming and hence necessitated quick and tasteful decisions by network creative staff, people like Corey Monteith in Glee, John Ritter in 8 Simple Rules and Phil Hartman of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. All so sad.

And lastly a group exists which is best illustrated by the Bewitched, Darrin Stephens tag team of Dick York and Dick Sargent. No one even seemed to care that Darrin was played by a different guy. It was kind of like when your roommate comes home with a twelve pack of Bud Light and you really wanted Coors Light but it's cool because at least your roomy bought the right cigarettes.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Strange Addiction. Or Is It?

That's the cover of the book I've been reading—just came out a few weeks ago.

As the image flashed onto my Kindle screen this morning, I felt a tinge of relief that nary a nosy bus passenger would catch a glimpse of my guilty subject matter. I mumbled a silent affirmation, grateful for the technological anonymity that has ushered public scrutiny of hard copies toward the same splintered bench on which VHS tapes, compact discs and Mitt Romney huddle in the cold.

I'm not exactly proud of this reality, but I'll share it anyway; I love books about murderers. Okay, maybe "love" is a bit muscular for describing the attraction, but I must admit that I'm drawn to this stuff like a stoned teenager to a Dr. Pepper and a bag of Red Ropes. How else can I put this? 

It's not cool, but I'm a fool for Ann Rule.

Obviously, I'm not alone. Otherwise, Barnes & Noble wouldn't offer a complete section of shelves stocked with red- and black-splashed paperbacks with crooked headlines in 22-point Impact Extra Bold. But still.

I suppose my mom is to blame (Sorry, Mom). She was the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate person I've ever known; hell, she taught freaking first grade for something like eighty-seven years. But she had a streak in her.

My earliest recollection of her fascination with the macabre dates to 1974, when young brunette women began disappearing from college campuses and state parks in western Washington. In the pre-politically correct Puget Sound era of the 1970s, news of missing white girls grabbed and held the local Seattle headlines. Clues slowly emerged from a handful of witnesses—he drove a tan Volkswagen, he introduced himself as Ted. I remember my mom's face as she carefully studied the perpetrator's composite police sketch.

When Theodore Bundy was finally detained as a suspect in August of 1975 and his image flashed across our color Motorola, I hadn't heard that type of conviction in my mom's voice since the time she vowed to never again buy Froot Loops or anything else that disappeared during one episode of Kaptain Kangaroo. "That's him," she said, pointing at the screen. "He's the one. He did it." She was right.

The table next to her favorite recliner was always overflowing with paperback true crime, from Helter Skelter to In Cold Blood to The Stranger Beside Me. Due to my Raisinet-sized attention span, I'd merely peruse the photo sections in the books' middles, my twelve-year-old sensibilities reeling at the atrocities portrayed, wondering what could cause one human being to deliver such savagery upon another. As I matured into a seasoned enthusiast, I read them cover to bloody cover.

I eventually flew the nest, but my fascination never waned. And when Gary Ridgway, the notorious "Green River Killer," was ultimately nabbed in 2001, I found myself lamenting that my mom passed away before she could get a little closure on that historic freak. This guy grabbed the bone-flecked baton from Bundy and tested my mom's theories for decades.

And now, here I am, reading about Charles Manson. Again. There's something about that whole story, the manner in which a complete loser, a lifetime illiterate, racist, petty criminal, can persuade people to kill, that will always whet my felonious taste buds.

Hang on a second. If that's the case, why don't I care about George W. Bush?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

One Man's Opinion About Syria.

This one's a tough one. I normally stand united with the cause. 

I typically lean so far to the left that my portside palm scrapes the asphalt, embedding it with tiny rocks like meat and pebble cookie dough.

I usually stick to the party line with the devotion of a toadstool-nibbling Deadhead clamoring at the gates of Red Rocks…holding a coffee can that isn't for coffee.

Okay, enough with the blustery analogies. I'm a freaking commie pinko liberal and for those who've graciously read perhaps forty percent of my writings, it's fairly obvious.

But this whole Syria thing has me flummoxed. Stumped. Stupefied. 

When President Obama initially scrawled out his "red line," the threshold at which America intervenes to stop the Assad regime from poisoning its innocents en masse and thereby bypassing more conventional savagery, it seemed a logical next step. America could unilaterally eliminate Syria's chemical capabilities and provide some much needed bolstering to the rebel forces.

And I guess if that were possible, I'd still support it. But the more I think about it, the more I doubt that it is, so, as they say on Shark Tank, "I'm out." 

Time to skedaddle off the Obama Obandwagon.

Look, I'm no military expert. I know more about the Starship Enterprise's weapons capabilities than those of the United States military. And by the way, every once in a while, even the combined forces of Spock, Chekov, Scotty and Sulu couldn't get the phasers, deflectors shields and cloaking devices to function properly. Sometimes the shit just didn't work and a few dudes in red and blue and yellow turtlenecks went down hard.

Does America truly possess the capability to pick out the vats of sarin and the stacks of weaponized mustard gas, surgically excising them like plantar warts? Or perhaps, some collateral damage has already been deemed acceptable. If so, are we prepared to kill and maim civilians one way while attempting to prevent their massacre in a different fashion? 

So many questions, and I guess that's my point. As cruel and savage as this "civil" war has become, I can't see how America can improve the situation over there by engaging in "War Light: Now with 100% Fewer Boots on the Ground." 

We've grown accustomed to video game wars fought with drones from trailers in Nevada. We love our Double Whoppers and Triple Quarter Pounders, just not that whole unsightly cow-slaughtering process.

Syria is yet another example of a colonially-generated nation whose borders and tyrannical rulers were created to quell the tribal animosities that have lingered over the millenia and ultimately infected with Arab Spring Fever. No amount of American intervention is going to change that. Why rattle our sabers now after having spent decades doing nothing to curb African genocide? 

Do I have an answer, even a half solution to halt this excruciating massacre of Syria's most vulnerable?

No, but I don't think Barack Obama does, either.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

You Dig?

Wow, what a week.

Typically in this unhinged journal of mine, I like to relate a story, sometimes in longish form, but this time, I'm going to treat your attention span like it's the length of Rush Limbaugh's listener list who possess IQs above those of a gifted geoduck.

Or the list of Rush Limbaugh's black friends.

Or the list of Rush Limbaugh's female acquaintances who aren't monetarily compensated after nine minutes with Rush Limbaugh.

So painfully easy to go after that corpulent steer. Anyway, yeah, let's talk about a few things that happened this past week, and I promise I won't drone on like...okay, Rush Limbaugh.

We all know about the whole Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke thing already, right? No need to beat that dead horse, even though I think I would have rather watched a dead horse being beaten than witness such a raunchy spectacle first on my TV and then on my computer over and over and over...

Let's move on. Really, I should have led with this story, because it's huge. Kanye West revealed, on mother-in-law Kris Jenner's talk show, the first photograph of baby North. How wonderful. I can't wait for the next installment of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, where Kim and Kanye spat adorably over which nanny will change the baby's diaper, and they can't agree so they stage a nanny decathlon for all sixteen caregivers.

And it turns out it was Bruce Jenner's idea. Fun!

Popular British talk show host David Frost passed away at 74. Anyone around my age can remember Frost's crowning moment, his 1977 interview with Richard Nixon, a guy who was so awkward he famously gave up on a child-proof container and handed it to an aid, its lid gauged with Tricky Dick's teeth marks.

More than thirty years later, Frost remembered Nixon as a socially inept figure who, while once discussing what they'd done the previous evening, asked the host, "Did you do any fornicating?"

I don't know what Mr. Frost's reply was but if it were me, it may have been something like, "Well, Mr. President, I was alone in my hotel room. Define fornicating."

Rest in peace, David Frost.

Quarterback Tim Tebow was released by the New England Patriots. Dang, that dude was one of my lampooning staples. Hopefully he can catch on as a backup for another NFL franchise. We all know JC needs someone holding the clipboard while he's out blessing everyone who points to him after concussing the punter.

Fox News' Bill O'Reilly admitted he was wrong after charging that no Republicans were invited to speak at Wednesday's March on Washington anniversary. It turned out that several Republicans were in fact asked to orate, including both George Bushes and House Speaker John Boehner, all of whom declined.

Holy shit! Billo apologized? Between that and the Tebow cut, I'll have no one left to ridicule except my children.

That's cool, I've got plenty of material there.

Finally, in local news with national implications, I built a fire pit in the back yard yesterday. Naturally, a project I assumed would consume about three hours of my Saturday afternoon actually required about six hours and a borderline need for an A positive blood transfusion.

Here's a tip if you're thinking about building a fire pit: Don't use bricks from an old, mystery oven out by the back fence.

I had to chip so much mortar off those things that "mortar" morphed into "Mordor" in my subconscious and I had really trippy Lord of the Rings dreams last night.

Here's how it looked upon completion.

Sorry to get all Facebook on you. I try not to be one of those people who takes pictures of her incredible quinoa martini while dining on the beaches of St. Croix.

I just want those kids in Holes to know how much I feel their pain.