My service

This past weekend’s Veterans Day festivities got me to thinking: like 80-90% of veterans, I never saw any combat, and never did anything remotely heroic, dangerous, or even very interesting. People sign up for the military for a variety of reasons, only a few for the starry-eyed patriotism of popular myth. That’s often a part of the mix, but most often not the main reason. I signed up because I was lost, and because I needed to escape my father. I could have resisted, which to me would have meant Canada; no other options were realistic. But I lacked the kind of conviction I would have needed to thumb my nose at my family and my society. I saw some people getting out of the draft in a lot of ingenious ways, and I saw others sucked in with no recourse. In I went.

My father was a strict disciplinarian, tailor made for the kind of rebel I was. He had a very clear idea of how I was to prepare for my life: Purdue University, engineering (my choice of branch, the extent of his flexibility on the subject), followed by a steady job; in short, to become a version of him. It was not a bad plan, especially in his eyes. He had endured the occupation of his homeland, Latvia, by two warring forces, alternating their occupations. He had escaped with his life and with his immediate family intact. I was born and joined my parents and two brothers in a DP camp in Germany. He figured his experience and wisdom outweighed mine by a long shot.

He was right, of course, but in the Fall of 1964, when I went off to live his dream, my only thought was that I was free. Free to do as I wished, associate with whom I wished, and had to answer to no one. I had a talent for science, and I didn’t exactly mind the engineering part of it, but it did not inspire me. The plan was inflexible. A measure of the meager latitude he allowed me was that when I unilaterally changed my major from chemical engineering to pure chemistry, he blew up. Not good enough. He was an engineer, my brothers were engineers, and so was I, like it or not.

All right, I thought, no problem. I went back to Purdue for my second year, goofed off the fall semester, and didn’t even bother to go to classes in the spring. I had a blast. In June of 1966, I definitively flunked out, after spending three semesters in a row on academic probation, a record I believe still stands.

Well, it was 1966, the draft in full force, and before the lottery system. If you lost your student deferment, you were basically next. It was also the beginning of the surging anti-war movement; the two things were not unrelated.

I had gone to college firmly believing that the war in Vietnam was just, that the communists had to be stopped or countries would fall within their grasp like dominos. I was, after all, an immigrant, a refugee from a country brutally occupied by the Soviet Union. Communism was why I was here.

Off at college and away from my family, I heard a different narrative. Yes, North Vietnam was communist, but a nationalist variety, uninterested in expansion beyond its own borders, and besides, America’s man Diem was at best a mountebank and at worst a dictator.

I vacillated between the two versions, ultimately tending toward the latter, but I never lost the nagging feeling that my view had more to do with peer pressure than rigorous analysis. Complicating the situation was a strong sense of duty. To what wasn’t clear.

What I knew was that returning home was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed a clean break. I joined the Air Force. I didn’t know much, but I knew that the moment I walked through the gates into basic training, my ties to my family were irrevocably changed.

I volunteered for overseas duty, and ended up in Okinawa for eighteen months. The F-102 pilots at my base flew regular missions over Vietnam, but the rest of us went about our jobs without danger of harm. Truth to tell, had I been sent to Vietnam, it would probably have been to one of the big air bases like Da Nang or Ton Son Nhut, and my service would not have been significantly different. Camp Hansen, a USMC base, was nearby, and we’d often see C-130s come lumbering in and disgorging entire platoons, bleary eyed and fresh from the bush, ready for R and R. That gave the bar scene off base a certain, shall we say, rowdy ambience, but that was it as far as danger was concerned.

I finished up my enlistment at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany, hardly a hardship. In fact, I have to say, with a salary based on what was then the almighty dollar, and meals and lodging free, it was a pretty good job.

Apart from some minor trouble I got into in Okinawa, which delayed a promotion for about six months, my enlistment was uneventful. The only medals I got were for just existing: National Service, Longevity, and Good Conduct. In Okinawa I wore a Presidential Citation ribbon my unit had gotten for something they did decades before in Korea, but lost the right the minute I stepped onto the aircraft out of there. I don’t know what you’d have to do to avoid any of them. My “good conduct,” for example, amounted to not robbing or killing anyone for four years, and not much more.

So, what is the point of this confessional? Don’t thank me for my service. I served four years in the Air Force, got a monthly paycheck, not enormous, but more than adequate. Afterwards, the GI Bill took me through a BA in Anthropology, and a Vocational Rehabilitation stipend for a minor service-related disability got me the rest of the way to an MS. I’m fine.

More importantly, my story is far more typical than you might think, even in today’s volunteer military. I’ve known my share of combat veterans; the one thing they have in common is the reluctance to talk about the experience. Remember that the next time you hear someone regale you with “war stories.”

Remember your loved ones who served, those who are gone and those who are still here; at least you know their story. And by all means, acknowledge those others who came home wounded, either physical or emotionally, or who never came back, but be aware that, for most of even these, they didn’t “sacrifice” themselves; they served in harm’s way, and through the luck of the draw didn’t come out unscathed, and if they were heroic they did it primarily for each other, whatever the original reason for enlistment may have been.

If you simply must voice a blanket thanks to veterans for their service, be aware you’re doing it primarily for yourself, and the relatively few veterans who enjoy basking in such gratitude. And reflect on this: what kid, hearing all this gushing, wouldn’t hope for a war of his own when he grows up?

Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

It’s alive!

Trigger Warning: This post includes descriptions of the brutal murder of a furry little mammal. Well, I assume a mammal, I didn’t really look.

To be honest, I don’t like to kill things. I mean, it’s a rare enough thing to be alive that just arbitrarily ending it seems a bit brash.  Some things, however, practically beg for a quick, honorable finish, an assisted suicide, sort of.  I’m thinking of the deer that ran into the side of a speeding Suburban I was driving to work one early morning.  That’s right, it ran into me, not the other way around, so I figure I’m off the hook, even though the result was no less permanent for the deer, which was not as easily repaired as the Suburban.  Or the occasional squirrels which, having safely reached the other side of the road, lurch back under my wheel at the last possible moment.

I have a friend who cheerfully puts any humans nearby (herself included, it must be said) in peril of serious injury to avoid such encounters, but not I.  I respect these animals enough let them have their way.

There’s another category of beast that begs for killing in a whole different way, however.  Mosquitos, hornets, cockroaches come to mind.  Does even PETA object to swatting mosquitos?  Of course, there can be legit disagreement about membership in this category.  Definitely a candidate for a slippery slope.  Does it include vertebrate pests?  Are you let off the hook if you encourage snakes just so you don’t have to kill the mice yourself?

What about moles?  They make a right mess, that’s for sure, and live trapping a mole is, let’s face it, laughable.  All the same, I would just as soon not kill them.  I used to spread stuff around the yard to kill the grubs that moles eat, but unless you put tiny signs around the perimeter of your property to alert them there’s nothing to eat, they still search every square inch looking for the little snacks.  Moles do not give up easily.  It can take them a month to decide to move on.  Then again, on the moral side of the equation, I probably killed many times the biomass of a mole or two in grubs.  Who am I to say a mole life is worth more than a grub life?  Is the fact that it’s a warm(ish) furry little mammal, and therefore easier for me to relate to than an animal that spends all its time sleeping under the sod … never mind.

So, I turned to trying to discourage the little bastards.  Every spring or early summer I spread a mole repellant around.  Moles hate it.  Of course, if they’re already in the yard, they run around like lunatics trying to get away, and make an even bigger unholy mess, but they do manage to escape in a day or two, and that’s that.  For awhile.

Some moles, apparently, have no taste.  For them, I have the Victor Mole Trap (VMT), a thing with spring-loaded spikes to skewer the tasteless little devils.  True, they might get skewered and squirm around for awhile before dying, but come on.  Is mole suffering really the same as human suffering?  I worry about stuff like that, but I confess I accept the most feeble loopholes, like “How can you tell what a mole feels when it’s squirming futilely on the prongs of a Victor Mole Trap?”  So there it is.  It’s a last resort, but I do not hesitate when the time comes.  Or keeps coming, in some cases.

Specifically, consider the mole I recently dispatched.  It had been burrowing around the yard a good couple of weeks, completely ignoring a generous application of mole repellant.  The lawn was slowly but surely turning into a dust bowl, one narrow run at a time.  Truthfully, though, it wasn’t so much the damage as the sheer cheek of the animal. its utter disdain for humanity and our inventions.  So out came the VMT.

The directions say to carefully tramp down the mole runs, then come back the next morning to see which ones are still active, so you can set the trap on one of those.  I figure, why not set the trap on one while you’re waiting?  At worst, you have the frustration of seeing all the active runs encircling the one you picked.

Which is exactly what happened.  No problem, I just moved the trap over to one of the offending runs.

Now, the VMT consists of six very sharp pointy spring mounted spikes, the spring being strong enough to penetrate the soil and the mole, and probably even a little white grub, if it happens to be directly under the mole in question.  In other words, a really, really strong spring.  What you do is pull upwards, and at a certain point, a tab engages the trigger mechanism and holds the spikes above ground, but ready to release into mole flesh.  One hopes, anyway.  Fortunately, there is a little pin which can be stuck into a tiny hole to hold the whole shebang in abeyance until you’ve got it set, and you’re ready to slink away while it does the dirty work for you.  Which is nice, because accidentally tripping the thing can be unpleasant.

Being a thoughtful person, I had figured this out (with some small damage to my index finger, I admit). I would leave the trigger engaged, insert the pin, and move the whole thing without having to  trip it and reset everything.  Brilliant!

Next day, I eagerly examined the results.  There was the VMT, six nasty spikes still poised above ground, and mole runs all around it and, I swear, under it.  I could just see the little shit laughing and poking the trigger, probably even calling his ratty little mole friends over to try it themselves, all of them sitting around with tiny beers, going on about how stupid humans are.

I had forgotten to pull the pin out of the little hole.

Unbelievable how liberating a couple of minutes of really good cursing can be.  At any rate, I could at least see that the run was still active, so I set the trap again, this time carefully removing the pins, and slouched away.  Actually, I stomped away, but never mind.

And Voila!  I didn’t even make it as far as the back door when I heard a chilling little metallic “snick!”  I turned to look, and, sure enough, the trap was down.  I decided to give it  a little time before pulling it to make sure the critter was dead, then removed it, put it away, stamped down the run, and went in for a drink.

Next day, on the way to the garage and past the scene of the crime, I glanced over.  The damned run was up again!  I cursed myself for not having waited long enough to ensure the mole was dead, and reset the trap.  On the same run.  I know, but it was the only one; the mole had apparently not gotten far.

This time, it took longer, not until the next morning.  I imagined the mole, mortally wounded but valiantly pushing on, taking all day to get back to the trap.  Also this time, I left the trap as it sat for a whole day before I pulled it up.  Yes, I could have dug up the mole to see if it was dead, but what would I have done if it wasn’t?  Run to the garage for a tiny little shovel to bash its miniscule head in?  I was sure I got it this time anyway.  Job done.

A couple of days later, sitting on the deck, I happened to glance over at the site of the mole run.  Incredibly, it was UP AGAIN!  Now resigned to my fate, I repeated the process.  At least it wasn’t a gigantic boulder, like Sisyphus was saddled with.  Two or three days later, just as I was about to give up, the trap was sprung again.  I left it where it was for three days.  Surely the mole would starve to death in that time if nothing else.  I declined to dig it up, uneasy about what I might find.  The line from Macbeth kept running through my head, “Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?”  I pulled up the trap, wiped it off, and put it away.

It’s been a couple of weeks since then.  I still occasionally glance over, nervously, at the now barely visible traces of the mole run.  I imagine the undead mole, nursing a grudge, plotting revenge as soon as it regained some strength.  I wonder how and when it will strike.  I will be prepared, this time armed with an oaken stake, to hell with the VMT.  All right, it’s a toothpick.  Only thing, where exactly is a mole’s heart?

The Victor Mole Trap

TMI, America

Every week or so brings another well thought out, evidence-based article somewhere about how Trump’s base is reacting to his latest stunt. This is immediately followed on social media by someone’s comment to the effect, “I know these guys; they’re not like that at all.” These observations come from the right or the left, makes no difference. My reaction is, “Really?”

Let’s see, most polls give Trump’s approval rating consistently around 35%, give or take a point or two (of which much is made, but that’s another story.) The adult population of the country is about 246 million, and this is presumably the target group of the polls. So the articles in question are making statements concerning the beliefs of approximately 86 million people, based on scientific polling. Now, you can have legitimate concerns about the validity of these polls, either on scientific grounds or past performance.

But the person who writes in a FB comment or a tweet that he or she “knows these people” is talking about an infinitessimal sample. A human being can have direct, personal knowledge of maybe 100 people, max. This has been demonstrated by several studies, but even if it’s off by an order of magnitude, it’s no serious competition for professional polling, especially since “all the people I know” is hardly a random sample.

This is just a symptom of a larger issue: we are giving each other far more information about our personal lives, our beliefs (and ipso facto our prejudices) than we can possibly process in a useful way. Add to that the fact that we have access, updated hourly, to information about hundreds or thousands of instances of tragedy and injustice anywhere in the world, and that makes it — I’ll say it — impossible to evaluate most of what gets fed into our heads each day.

I am interested in significant events in my friends’ lives, I really am, but do I need to know about every hangnail, every maddening computer glitch? As far as the news of the world is concerned, am I really ready to vet every allegation of misconduct? More than likely, the former will generate a snicker, and the latter will be incorporated into my world view to the extent it confirms what I already think. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? If the piece doesn’t fit, out it goes. Except we can subtlely change the pieces of reality we don’t like to make them fit.

The virtue of physical newspapers was that they were limited to roughly the amount of information we could deal with. Biased? Of course, but I’ll bet we’re more neurotic now, torn by the possibility of mistaken outrage, or an injustice we can’t possibly set right.

Our knowledge of our friends’ foibles was limited by however much time we could allot to hanging out in cafes and bars, which usually entailed fewer than 5 or 6 people at a time. There were no headlines about minor domestic glitches published for all the world to see and comment upon.

Technology is racing ahead of cultural adaptation. We still give up our secrets as if we were just talking over the fence with a neighbor. And then we express outrage at our lack of privacy.

Hello! My name is …

This post was inspired by a conversation with Dave Higgins.

Pleased to meet you. My name is Mike. Or Mika, that’s my Latvian nickname, or, actually, it’s more Finnish (which I have a small percentage of, apparently, according to my DNA analysis), unless you consider the ‘a’ at the end a Latvian possessive ending. Of course, Latvian speakers displaced Finno-Ugrian speaking Livonians in late medieval times, who presumably moved north to become Estonians or Finns, but that wouldn’t explain the odd form of my nickname, which ought to be Miku, strictly speaking. Then again, I wasn’t actually born in Latvia, but in a DP camp in Germany after the war (sorry, WWII for you; you look under 50). DP (Displaced Persons) is what they called European refugees then. Mikels is my full first name, or rather, that’s the English spelling of it, although I guess it doesn’t really look very English. It’s actually spelled Miķelis, with a funny little hook dangling from the ‘k.’ You won’t be able to pronounce it …

What? Where are you going?

Where we’re at

While it’s true that being appalled by Trump is terrific sport, we should be careful not to let it overshadow what’s going on policy-wise in the meantime. Trump’s appointees are quietly trying to implement an agenda that the right has been craving for years, but has been unable to deliver in the light of day.

There’s a limit to what they can do, thank goodness. Many of the regulations of the EPA, for example, have been encoded into law, and are beyond the reach of the executive branch alone. We can be grateful for the incompetence of the Republican congress.

They’re also hamstrung by Trump’s infantile rants, or rather by calls to condemn them. You’d think it would be a simple thing to respond to the atrocious statements coming out of the WH by just reiterating statements members of the Republican party have said many times before, but the problem is that they don’t want to risk alienating Trump for fear of halting the afore mentioned slow, stealthy march of the right-wing agenda by his minions.

They’re walking a delicate line. If they let him go too long, the risk becomes losing control of congress, but if they stand up to him too soon, they risk derailing the progress toward conservative policies they’ve been lusting after for years.

Many years ago, when I ran a crew of surveyors for a couple of penny-pinching bosses, the crew truck I was driving broke a front axle at 60+ mph on the highway. I managed to coax it to the shoulder, and called my boss. I told him what had happened, and that the right front wheel was barely hanging on by a tie rod. He said, “Could you nurse it home?”

The wheels are slowly, steadily coming off the Trump administration truck, one at a time. I have a feeling that congressional Republicans are just trying to nurse it home.  Disaster, from their point of view, is almost inevitable.  I’m mentally preparing myself for the pleasures of schadenfreude.

Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?