What do You Prize Most in Life?

May 17, 2010

I recently accepted a position to lead a group as they transition to a new paradigm. Their former leader failed them. I can show them the way.

I sold my lathe, mill, tools and decoys. I gave a friend a rifle that he only dreamed of owning. Other material possessions have been easy to give to friends who find worth and value in them. They are shocked and gracious. They are suspicious and can’t believe their fortune.

Of course, I will leave them to pursue other fortunes elsewhere. Realizing their loss, they are genuinely saddened. And I regret this as all friends do.



April 9, 2010

Senior Master Sergeant Heinckel was faced with a situation unlike any he had encountered. His was a profound dilemma. He loved the Air Force and all it stood for. He loved airplanes, the way they looked, sounded and smelled. Thinking of the power that could be unleashed intoxicated him. Burned jet fuel blown in from the flight line where aircraft were run up for maintenance was as delicious as any perfume. He had chosen this life and his wife and children accepted every setback and deprivation without thought or word. It was their life.

Back home he worked in a ground unit. He rarely encountered flyers. The flyers he did were the rated officers who flew and navigated the planes. Or they were electronic warfare specialists. These were the flyers he respected. They were cocky and arrogant. They wore flight suits and leather jackets, seldom polished their boots and had extravagant hair cuts. Their brashness commanded respect. In his opinion, this was as good as it got. He loved his Air Force.

He had gladly volunteered to cap his twenty-six year career with a short deployment to a flying unit. This was the first time he had ever been on temporary duty, he had longed for the opportunity to serve in the fight, the gulf war hadn’t presented the opportunity. Robbed, his pride was sorely wounded. This deployment would offer him every stitch of respect he believed was his due. It was a fine and satisfying prospect in every respect.

The unit he had been assigned was an affront. Oh, it was a flying unit engaged in daily combat sorties. But, there wasn’t one flying officer in the whole damned thing. Instead, the unit’s commander was a non-rated, former logistics officer who wore the sloppiest set of fatigues he had ever seen. The flyers were all enlisted. Arrogant, undisciplined, reproachful and disrespectful, in his opinion this bunch was nothing but complaining cry-babies. The tents were too small, the cots too uncomfortable. The showers were always too cold and too hot at the same time. The food sucked. You had to salute everywhere. To cap it off, they only came here for one-month rotations. He, SMSgt Heinckel, was glad to pull a ninety-day rotation. And they complained when he submitted a suggestion to extend their duty to forty five days.

And it was his job as Superintendent of Operations to baby sit this unruly lot. It pained him. Every day in the Operations tent he sat at his computer working schedules, signing forms and tending to innumerable disciplinary matters. The cramped space meant he had to make do and share an expeditionary field desk with SSgt Liane. SSgt Liane was his administrative assistant, but just a flyer. She was pleasant enough, their computer monitors sat back to back. They faced each other for eight hours a day like that. SSgt Liane handled all of the outbound transportation, you didn’t get out of there without her assistance. She got you your ticket back home.

Presently TSgt Schwenck stood patiently waiting for SSgt Liane to look up from her computer. SMSgt Heinckel pointedly ignored his presence. Ridiculously hunched over his computer, his steel gray flat top and zebra stripe laden sleeves were all that was visible to TSgt Schwenck. Schwenck had just arrived on-station the night before and was about to submit his request for a ticket out. Since it took about three weeks to process, you had to make the request about a month out. He wore a wrinkled flight suit, a sly grin and bags under his eyes. SSgt Liane looked up and smiled.

‘Hi. Can I help you?’

‘Why, yes you can. I heard you’re the person who can get me out of this lovely place.’

SMSgt Heinckel boiled over. He pushed his chair back and stood up to his full six foot four. His eyes were red, the veins in his neck bulged.

Pointing straight at TSgt Schwenck he seethed, ‘You and me. Outside.’

TSgt Schwenck gathered and met his glare. ‘Why, sure.’

Heinckel strode out of the tent. Schwenck paused long enough to place the folder he was holding on top of SMSgt Heinckel’s monitor, turned and followed.

Outside could mean a lot of things. For SMSgt Heinckel it meant an opportunity to discipline without scrutiny. No overarching authority able to intervene. ‘Hats off.’ Just two men, face to face, getting it out in the open. He was good at this, his height gave him an obvious advantage. This tactic almost always resulted in a positive change in behavior. He had used it many times and had never regretted it.

Well around the corner of the ops tent, away from prying eyes, he stopped and whirled assuming his most menacing posture. He had perfected this as well, and had gauged his maneuver to coincide with TSgt Schwenck’s arrival.

Puffing himself up, he launched his attack. ‘YOU don’t tell ME when YOU are going home.’ He forcefully poked TSgt Schwenck’s chest after each word.

Though he towered over the TSgt, Heinckel was disadvantaged. The TSgt’s shoulders lowered and stiffened. His fists slowly clenched, he stood forward on the balls of his feet and slowly raised his view from Heinckel’s finger on his chest up to his face. When the TSgt’s eyes cleared the brim of his hat, Heinckel knew he had met his superior.

TSgt Schwenck had recently contemplated his situation just as rigorously as had Heinckel. A short-notice departure to replace a malingering coworker had strained his marriage past recovery. His wife had taken the kids home to her parents while he out-processed to leave. While this fourth trip in six months tore his loyalties in two, he knew right and duty. His values and beliefs had survived the forge and had been hammered into steel.

‘I will ask you this one time to remove your finger from my chest.’

What Heinckel saw in TSgt Schwenck’s eyes loosened his bowels. He deflated and stepped back with his mouth gaping.

‘Excuse me, I’m going back in to see SSgt Liane to arrange a ticket home.’

This would be the last time SMSgt Heinckel used this tactic. ‘Jesus,’ he thought. ‘These enlisted flyers.’


April 9, 2010

No one owns the morning in tent city. It belongs to all. The air conditioners only whisper and hiss and mask most of the waking sounds. People have long been asleep, the loud gatherings of the evening are just echoes. Those that are up are solitary, transiting, in their morning thoughts. A pleasant cordiality exists between passers by.

There are those that can’t sleep. Some choose to run in the cool and make laps around the perimeter road next to the concertina wire. The sand can be cool enough and the dew point so near, the sand unexpectedly draws moisture from the arid air turning it a darker brown. It sticks to the soles of your shoes and drops off just as readily. The damp soil releases its dark, musky, foreign scent.

The sky domes above in a pinkish hue and the planets’ twinkle diminishes gradually until the sun breaks the horizon. It is a red sun then. When it finally bathes the surrounding sand, tents and buildings, it renders the landscape in every hue of brown. The sun rises further and the horizon disappears in haze, the land and sky become one. It is a peaceful time.

SSgt Rand couldn’t sleep. He lay in his cot and stared at the ceiling of the tent and listened to the air conditioner kick on. It would buzz while the compressor labored, then settle in for a good pump. It’s throbbing was soothing. Then it would just kick off. As the night cooled he listened and waited for it to come on again. When it didn’t, he listened to the air hissing out of the holes of the air plenum. He couldn’t see them, but watched the holes anyway. A small tear in one created a flap, the fabric would flutter and slap from time to time. But he couldn’t sleep. The shaking wouldn’t stop.

But he could wait until it was okay. When it was appropriate, he gathered his things and left for the shower tent. There, he chose the stall with the good shower head, the one he had been tipped flowed well. Some were adjusted to emit a fine spray that nearly evaporated before it reached your skin. This one put forth a satisfying stream.

He slowly shaved with deliberate, careful strokes next to a jet maintenance troop heading into work. His uniform was darker gray emitting an odor of kerosene. The jet troop left and he had the row of sinks to himself as he combed his hair and brushed his teeth. Gathering his things he left the humid tent and stepped out into the cold night. The walk back to his tent braced him, the arid nighttime air evaporated every molecule of water from his skin.

In his uniform, he made his way to the chow hall tent. Outside he stopped at the butt can. Pulling out a cigarette, he pinned his arms to his sides and steadied his hands together as held the lighter. The flame wavered back and forth, but finally licked the end long enough to catch. He sucked deeply and the demons quit their taunting while he stared at the tent side.

Inside it was the midnight meal. There might be something different, something special. In the line, he chose quickly. Leftovers from dinner, boiled ham slices with pineapple, mashed potatoes and corn. He also got one scoop of scrambled eggs.

The maintenance crew sat mesmerized watching SSgt Rand eat his eggs. Shaking, bits of egg shed from his fork as he lifted them from the plate. A bead of perspiration wet his brow.

‘Why doesn’t he use a spoon?’ They snickered.

SSgt Rand was oblivious. He was already in Ops Town, headed to the Box to get some work done. Anything to stay occupied. For SSgt Rand General Order One was a bitch.

Spring Rush

March 29, 2010

The winter this year was quite severe.  The snow piled on early in December and remained until the second week in March.  The pack was so extensive the geese and mallards went elsewhere to find food.  The bridge over the warm water creek in our town was absent of those citizens this year.  I longed for the soft south winds that melt the snow, the sun barely crept above the horizon for days and days.

I came back from California the second week of March.  The snow bank my truck door had scraped was replaced with a Toyota.  This was promising.  The next morning a clear robin’s song greeted me as I let Dizzy out.  It was on.  In the fields on the drive home from work the robins were out resting and feeding in force, alternating between their characteristic pose and that charging chase.  One field held at least forty. At home in the driveway, a string of snow geese heading to roost on the nearby lake passed noisily overhead for five minutes.  I went inside and pulled up the NEXRAD site in Valley.  Though the winds were northerly, yellow blobs evidenced flocks of birds bucking steadily northward up the Missouri and Platte river valleys until nightfall.

The next day the waterfowl count in the Squaw Creek refuge was a fraction of the previous week.   It was a rush north to the potholes and tundra like no other year I’ve seen here in Nebraska.  The urge to get on with the business of life could only barely wait for the weather to break.

A Lesson: How to be Mean

March 22, 2010

When I am stung, whether from love or pride, I retreat.  Withholding myself is the weapon I employ in revenge.  I am not quick to confront, to stab a dagger and twist.  Instead, my style is calculated and I have cultivated this tactic over the years until I can claim a certain expertise.  This is my nature and like all other destructive habits, I know just how petty and small this is.  It isn’t necessary to observe what punishment and pain my efforts have wrought, the knowledge is enough.

I contrast this with the callous slights, the thoughtless acts and omissions most commit whose results are equally hurtful and damaging.  I am certain I am guilty more times than I am aware.

As I point these out you would be wrong to assume I hold any illusion I created any of these behaviors.  I just wonder sometimes why I did it.  Any other person of average intelligence, but from a different perspective, could have seen just how stupid and counter-productive they were.  I can say I have learned and I regret each instance immensely.

A friend of mine, the son of a friend I should say, recently enlisted in the Army.  With one semester left, he said he was tired of going to college.  He had been on a JROTC scholarship and owed the Army 4 years.  He said he decided to get in right away and get it over with.

His parents were concerned, but not worried.   His father, an attack helicopter pilot,  retired a few years ago from the Army, so he knows what his son will face.  His mother knows as well.  We discussed what job he might choose, he wasn’t given a guaranteed job until he was in basic training.  I hoped he would get some fulfillment, live as he should.  But, I was also advocating he take a job that would be challenging and relatively safe.  From that standpoint, I was on shaky ground.  And I remember what I wanted to do when I was twenty one.

Apparently the Army is looking for cooks and truck drivers, everyone that joins these days wants to be in the infantry.  That was what their son was telling them, he was trying for the infantry.

Last week I learned he got the job he volunteered for,  Explosive Ordinance Disposal.

This guy is good.


March 14, 2010

Einstein remarked that religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.  I never quite understood what he meant.  My high school biology teacher was a man respected by everyone.  He urged us to consider differing points of view and taught us to learn.  He praised our diligent efforts and, a true friend, upbraided our sloth.  It was during his remonstration after a collective poor performance, our exams bleeding from his pen, that he collapsed and was gone from us forever.

His memorial revealed a side we hadn’t seen.   He practiced faith.  I was perplexed, how could a man of such exacting and trained thought be so deeply religious?

Since, I have come to know many more persons whose faith and science coexist without conflict.

I just returned from a trip where I was privileged to catch and hold steelhead trout.  Theirs is an impossible journey.  Their beauty can never be rivaled by any man-made construction.   Science allows us a glimpse of their world, but we cannot truly understand it.  I have always been enthralled with trout and always will be and am drawn to the places they inhabit.  The trip was a success from every aspect and I came home with an appreciation of what faith can be.

And then I learn another friend has been taken from us, and the pendulum swings.


March 5, 2010

I wonder what process Galileo engaged that allowed him to imagine the solar system remarkably as we refer to it today?

Engaged in the trenches at work, I attempt to budge my colleagues to consider for a moment their long-held beliefs may not survive the light of truth. It is quite provocative and entertaining. Wrestling, they lash out in protest. I present their arguments in a context that mockingly parries their assault. They wince. Playing the humble conqueror, I show no judgment. I retreat.

As the continents creep, change manifests itself as the norm.

An Open Letter to my Colleagues and Co-Workers

February 14, 2010

As we wrap up Valentines Day, I offer a few observations that may make life in the office a trifle more pleasant.

First, it has been brought to my attention repeatedly how trying and desperate your lives are.  You have pointed out in detail the pains your ex-wives have taken to garnish alimony and child support.  The trials your offspring force you to suffer are equally compelling.  I understand.  If I may offer a small observation, I have spoken with many if not all of your current and former spouses.  From my perspective they are all equally pleasant, intelligent and respectful.  I really have no idea what cause precipitated your belief a separate life was best.  Perceived or actual, it must have been momentous and lasting for you to have formed the opinion that summoning vehement, profane invective in their portrayal is appropriate.  I assure you it is not.

Next, I’d like to broach the subject of sexual innuendo.  I do not think of middle aged men in a sexual context.  Ever.  If we were engaged in clinical psychology it might be an appropriate subject.  Indeed, it may probably be the predominant subject if you should seek counseling.  However, our products and services do not include psychological or psychiatric treatment, research, or the exploration of topics thereof.  You may therefore correctly draw the conclusion that sex and the topic of sex isn’t appropriate.  If and when the urge presents itself, apply the same inventiveness and energy you apply stretching that metaphor towards our actual work products and services.

Finally, I hope your wishes came true this Valentines Day.  You really should be grateful for what you have.  Any woman that would choose to have someone who refers to them in the third person, delineates their shortcomings to strangers, publicly recounts their setbacks with pleasure and generally holds them in low regard is a saint.  If you are sitting around at the end of the day web surfing or playing solitaire waiting to punch the clock, and you should ask yourself what you should do, please go home and be with your wife.  At least, that has been and always will be my advice when you ask what you should do.  They, after all, truly appreciate you.

The Case for a Trial

February 12, 2010

Collectively Americans love a war.  We can’t seem to stay out of one.  We know how to pick a fight and employ our might.  I’m not going to argue that here, it is self evident.  Individually, there are those of us who hate war.  But the collective that is Americans, we love it.

We seem to have lost our collective way when it comes to finishing one off.  The war on terror will be one of those.  There are no clear boundaries, the forces are unconventional and the line that separates combatants from non-combatants is wide and indistinct.  The means and methods we must use to find and prosecute the enemy are repugnant for some and self-evident to others.  The common resolve we shared in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and the Pentagon has withered.  This places our troops at the front in battle in a precarious position.

I served and was proud to serve.  I understand the importance of defense and was cognizant of the paradox of hating war while learning and practicing its craft.  I detest war not from the aspect of the personal deprivations and loss I might suffer and inflict.  I lament the waste, the moral black hole that is war.  There is no virtue to be found in waging any war.  How we reconcile the debris that is the aftermath of any war ultimately defines that generation’s character.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should stand trial in civil court.  There are some that are stoking a firestorm of fear, uncertainty and doubt about the outcome of such a trial.  They contend his actions are of such a heinous nature he doesn’t deserve the treatment accorded a citizen of the United States.  From my perspective, there is no other course of action that would stand moral scrutiny.

1.  Mohammed, while having perpetrated a vile act against civilians, is not aligned with a government.  His organization isn’t aligned with a nation state, they don’t wear a uniform recognizable as a military arm.

2.  Trying Mohammed in a military court would besmirch the status of legal combatants.  We are talking about our military.

3.  If we were to act in such a manner it would weaken our argument with governments who detain our airmen, sailors, marines and troops, that argument being that we treat detainees with dignity and respect.  This is a pivotal argument to our troops that our actions regarding enemy detainees are above reproach.  Should governments and organizations choose to harm our captured or detained troops, it will cause them shame and loss of status on the world stage.

4.  Having tried 195 terrorist cases with a 91 percent conviction rate, what have we to fear?

5.  Does anyone really believe trying Mohammed in New York will tip the balance and precipitate some catastrophic attack on New York?  Al Quaeda has vowed to destroy New York for more than 20 years.  Theirs is a long view.

I am weary of the war on terror.  I was heavily invested in its fight.  In my actions I have attempted to temper my resolve with a due regard for basic respect for human dignity.  The true battle here is one for our collective morality.  Our actions must hold true to the maxims of humanity laid out for us in our constitution.  The inconveniences of trying Mohammed in civil court would be a small concession towards that end.

Jewels from the North

February 7, 2010

Cristo built his running fence while I was growing up in the San Francisco bay area.  People were in awe of the beauty and the execution of a concept; it was a piece of art integrated with the outdoors.  My view was different.  I regarded it as an anomaly, an incongruity.  It just didn’t fit in my mind.  I didn’t get it at all.

What I did understand was the natural, unadorned beauty of California.  My first revelation was the time I saw the Pacific after rounding a corner on an impossibly steep hill in San Francisco, it was an expansive, undulating, deep blue mass.  The perspective from the hill we were standing on made it appear as if it were tilted.  It angled up and disappeared into the haze on the horizon.  It still awes me.  California offered many more of those moments.

I have lived in many states now and I can honestly say that very few are as audaciously impressive as California.  I am biased having grown up there, but I have also found each state has its own natural beauty.  And I have searched.  In many states it required some real investigation.   The Mississippi delta is one example.  The combination of the humidity, winter light and flat, stark terrain is remarkably beautiful.

I came to Nebraska on orders.  I knew next to nothing about this state the day I drove into it.  Situated in the center of the contiguous states, you would think more would been mentioned about it in school.  The railroad I knew about.  Being a hunter, I investigated those opportunities and had some information about pheasants.  What really lay in store for me was uncovered in stages through years of experience.

The east slope of the Rockies gradually peters down into Nebraska where it forms a watershed of many lazy rivers. By the time you find yourself east of North Platte the state is hopelessly flat.  There is some occasional relief in the river bluffs formed by river erosion.  Most of these rivers eventually drain into the Platte.  This river wanders east through the state and provides rest and refuge to migrating waterfowl on their journeys both north and south.  It skirts the north edge of a region in the center of the state called the Rainwater Basin.  The concentration of little potholes over this area provide additional refuge during the fall and spring.  It is this convergence of topography, watershed, location and habitat that creates Nebraska’s true spectacle.

In the fall when the waters begin to freeze up north a succession of bird species begin to arrive.  White pelicans are usually the first and they generally follow the  Missouri river corridor, but you can sometimes catch a large flock in the central part of the state.  I usually spot them early in fall on days where cumulus clouds are formed on the thermals the pelicans ride.  They are gregarious and circle in unison as they gain altitude in the rising air.  The flock almost disappears as they turn away, then suddenly appear again in contrast against the sky.

The pelicans are followed by blue winged teal, pintails, wigeon and whitefront geese.  If they are traveling on the clock, there are usually trickles.  They show up in the basins and along the river overnight in relatively small bunches early, one day you’ll notice small flocks of ducks buzzing along the river or orbiting a marsh.  The sandhill cranes

A large storm up north hastens the migration as the bird’s food is covered with snow.  I don’t know how they know, but many times they bunch up and all come down at once in front of a storm.  These are the days you want to be in the marsh or on the river.  The early migrants leave before the storm, and then flocks of snow and canada geese, mallards, gadwalls and all the divers push south.  Long, noisy strings of geese and high, fast clouds of ducks fill the sky and parachute in to cover up the river, ponds and marshes.  The next few weeks are busy in the marsh before the freeze.  A harrier cruising a wetland will reveal the ducks as they flush its approach.

This is a good time to decoy birds.  On a heavy migration day the birds are willing and respond to decoys and call with abandon.  You don’t see them at first, but notice the sound of distant, ripping canvas.  Looking straight up a group of bowling pins arcs down from an impossible height.  As they lose altitude, the mallards circle down closer and begin to inspect your set.  Careful to remain concealed, you hammer them with a call on the corner of their swing and they turn as one to close on your spread.  If you are lucky, they will find it suitable and make one last swing to downwind, turn and cup up their wings to pile in.  Once, a reluctant group hung up and orbited to scrutinize the decoys.  Not satisfied, these mallards strafed the decoys in an arcing, high speed pass ten feet off of the water.  In brilliant breeding plumage and full sunlight, they were magnificent.

As spectacular as it can be, the fall migration pales when compared to the spring.  The fall waterfowl remain only as long as there is open water, or only long enough for a rest on their way to the southern tier of states, the gulf or tidal waters of Mexico.  As the days grow longer in late winter, the snow line recedes northward.  It is this line the birds follow.  Each day more birds pile in to north west Missouri.  Squaw Creek loads up with geese and ducks.  You can see them on NEXRAD radar.  The snow geese are the most numerous and daily fly up towards the rainwater basin and back searching for open water and bare fields.  Eventually the conditions are judged acceptable and the move is on.

You can’t comprehend the sheer mass of birds that can pile into the basins overnight.  One marsh was estimated to hold 2 million geese.  Other geese, canadas and whitefronts, and every specie of duck accompanies them.  But, the snow geese are the main show.  They literally fill the air.  I’ve driven underneath one long string that was twenty miles long.  Their destination was a winter wheat field already occupied.  A beehive can’t describe how many geese were on the ground, directly above and on their way towards that field.  One day the field was green, the next it was a black splotch.

For a month the basins and Platte hold most of the mid-continent waterfowl population as they rest on their way north.  It is an important resource for the birds.  Without this important habitat, they would likely face increased stress on their systems.  Fewer birds would make it back to the breeding grounds in the prairie pothole region and up to the tundra.

I have been in Nebraska now for eighteen years.  I’ve hunted nearly every one of those years, and have spent a lot of time outside.  The state has changed greatly in that time.  We’ve had very wet years and a drought.  Since the time I arrived, no-till farming and center pivots have proliferated.  Economic conditions rewarded increased production.  Land that by most accounts should have been left fallow has been planted.  Water is pulled from the watershed to irrigate.  The net sum is the landscape is changing.

Luckily for the waterfowl, for the most part they can adapt.  The Schilling Wildlife Management Area was once a federal waterfowl refuge.  Schilling used to be a major stop for snow geese and other waterfowl in both the fall and spring.  For various reasons, all due to a changing environment, the geese stopped coming.  It is believed they moved their route to the west.  I know the days of stepping outside on a late fall night in Plattsmouth to hear roosting snow geese are gone.

I have killed my share of ducks and geese.  As I have matured, I have learned to value the spectacle and beauty, and the wildness these remarkable birds represent.  I don’t know what is in store for our waterfowl.  It would be a shame to sacrifice these beings to sate a material want.

Snows on the Feed south of Waco, NE