Monday, April 30, 2012

St. Valentine

"There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God's finger on man's shoulder."
- Charles Morgan"You don't marry someone you can live with - you marry the person who you cannot live without. The ultimate test of a relationship is to disagree but to hold hands."
- Alexandra Penney

Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction."
- Saint-Exupery

"A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous."
- Ingrid Bergman"To love another person is to see the face of God."
- Les Miserables

"Sympathy constitutes friendship; but in love there is a sort of antipathy, or opposing passion. Each strives to be the other, and both together make up one whole."
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time."
- Lawrence Durrell"If you love someone, let them go. If they return to you, it was meant to be. If they don't, hunt them down and kill them slowly."
- Chief

"True love never dies for it is lust that fades away. Love bonds for a lifetime but lust just pushes away."
-Alicia Barnhart

Horseshit, Alicia. Lust and love are fire and fuel, fuel and fire, that joyous bonfire made when Love's strong Arts (of such noble individual parts) makes one fire of four flaming eyes and of two loving hearts. You couldn't be wronger.

It will be ten years ago this October, but I still yearn for you, my love, like I did when we first married; to talk with you, to work beside you, to make love to you, to make a life with you.I love you. Happy Feast of Valentine.

The Army I Knew: AIT and Jump School

So we're up to the spring of 1981.

The Army booked me a flight from Newark, New Jersey to San Antonio, Texas so as to get me to my next stage of entry training; medical specialist Advanced Individual Training, or "AIT".
(Note #1: in the Eighties the enlisted medical field jobs were given an occupational code "91"; your basic combat medic was a "91-Bravo" - the medical MOS has been renamed several times since then. The one peculiarity of military medicine is that it is one of the few MOS that is slotted into combat, combat-support, and combat service-support units. Since we were (and are) technically a CS/CSS job we were open to men and women, but the guys knew that the sweet, sweet REMF slots were going to the ladies. You had a 91B MOS and something hanging? You were going to a line unit somewhere. That was just how it worked and, I assume, still does...)
And so late in the morning after our "graduation" from BCT a handful of us were herded into a GSA van and driven to the airport, handed our travel vouchers and tickets, and pointed in the general direction of the boarding area.
(Note #2: Army commercial travel in the Eighties was - so far as I can tell - very different from today in that the only acceptable outfit to fly in was either the Class A or Class B greens. The idea of flying a commercial airliner in fatigues...well, let's put it this way; when I was permanent party in the Eighties the married guys who lived off-post could stop on the way home or the way in to get fuel. But that was it. God help you if the post MPs caught you in the Piggly-Wiggly in your duty uniform/Class C/fatigues - no matter what seven kinds of hell your Old Lady would give you for not stopping to pick up coffee creamer and tampons. Your fatigues were considered your sloppy jeans and a T-shirt, and as a professional you were expected to appear in public in the equivalent of a business suit; your dress uniform. Recruiters never appeared in public in fatigues. PAO types, ROTC cadre, career counselors...dress greens. The current enthusiasm for running around in fatigues still baffles me, but it appears to be here to stay.)
One thing I remember is how ridiculous I felt. The AG-44 "army green" Class A uniform really was a sad sack (it had only one tiny positive; it was wool, unlike the AG-489 that replaced it, which was a nasty wool-poly blend that looked and felt like a leisure suit) when you had nothing to dress it up.

The hat was the horrible stiffened-peak garrison cap, the so-called "cunt cap" which was nearly impossible to wear without looking like a conehead. The greens thenselves could not be pressed, wrinkled when you looked at them, and even when clean looked dingy and unimpressive.

As trainees were were innocent of the magic of Corfam, the insta-spitshined low quarter shoes that every trooper bought as soon as he could afford them; our black shoes looked equally dingy.

The only ornaments we sported were our bolo badges and the ridiculous "Army Service Ribbon", the so-called "Fireguard" ribbon, since it symbolized nothing more than breathing while on the government's payroll.But that is what we had, and so we shuffled onto the half-empty airplane, enjoyed our Cokes and peanuts (believe it or not, airlines actually fed their passengers in the Eighties) and arrived in San Antonio near midnight; tired, rumpled, and mildly disoriented. Luckily for us the USAMEDDAC reception had detailed a van and driver that got us onto post and into our racks before about 0300.

First call was still at 0500...

I don't want to talk too much about AIT; the training was probably very like it is today; the basics of combat first aid interspersed with some tactical advice from the cadre, the senior of which were still, at that point (as they have become once more) combat veterans. But my personal AIT had some interesting grace notes.Perhaps the best - for me, anyway - was that my little group from Ft. Dix had arrived at the very tail end of the fill for the cycle, and so the barracks of our AIT company had filled up. We ended up bunking across the PT fields in a nearly empty bay in a nearly empty barrack.

This opened up wonderful vistas for us, poor stupid trainees that we were. We were completely ignored by our trainee leaders, and the medical training cadre may very well not have actually known where we were. We "made our bunks" by folding our linens and putting them in our lockers. Inspections? None. Fire guard? Why bother?After the rigors of BCT this seemed like lotos-eating luxury, and, sybarites that we were, we lolled in it shamelessly. But we weren't fools; we knew how precarious our slovenly life was and so made sure not to draw attention to our unsupervised existence. It worked, and we remained idle bodies for ten weeks.

I hate to admit it, but I didn't take nearly the advantage of the far more lax regimentation at Ft. Sam Houston. I have no idea if the the current training environment at MEDDAC is a sort of Fellini-movie orgy but in 1981 many of the young soldiers arrived from much more strict BCT posts than the Ottoman hareem that had been FDNJ and found themselves effectively unsupervised after duty hours amid what must have seemed like a cornucopia of healthy young adults of the opposite sex.

The fucking was Homeric.

Bound up as I was in nice-middle-class-boyness and a modicum of military sheepishness I was only peripherally involved in the swiving; a kiss here, a grope-and-cuddle there...I may have been one of the handful of medics who emerged from Class 6-81 unscrewed. Alas. Si jeunesse pouvait...sigh...

I did spend a little time in San Antonio. I sat on the Riverwalk under the tamarind trees, enjoying the view and marveling at the beribboned glory of the trainees from nearby Lackland AFB (little did I know that embryonic wing-wipers got ribbon for every-fucking-thing, including marksmanship - all I knew is that the weediest of them seemed to have more fruit salad on his chest than Audie Fucking Murphy...).

I also visited the Alamo, history buff that I am, and was struck by how small it seemed, tucked away inside urban San Antonio. It was hard to picture it was standing in the middle of butt-rump nowhere as it had in 1836.

The occupiers of 1981 appeared to be exclusively middle-aged white people somewhere between 25 and 60 pounds over their ideal body weight wearing clothes that had probably looked pretty sloppy when new.

It was hard to picture it as a battlefield, and even harder to imagine it as some sort of Ground Zero for heroism.The training was fairly simple, and hours less than demanding, and it was a pleasant couple of months before I was driven to the airport and decanted onto an airliner bound, this time, for Ft. Benning, Georgia and U.S. Army Airborne School.

-----

The jump school I attended, the school that had been running as such since the Sixties, and the school (so far as I know) that still operates today, is a three-week course run by the U.S. Army Infantry School. At the time the notional military unit that comprised it was called the "4th Student Training Battalion" and consisted of four companies, 42nd through 45th.

I understand that it has been renamed after one of the old WW2 parachute infantry regiments but no matter - it's still Jump School. The round of Ground Week - Tower Week - Jump Week hasn't changed.

Interestingly, the original course as designed in the Forties was called Paratrooper School and included all the tactics needed to work in an airborne infantry unit; assembly on the drop zone, moving out as a unit, and so on. This was cut down in the late Fifties or early Sixties, perhaps largely because the school became the sole parachute jump training for the entire U.S. military (along with numerous foreign nations) and the tactical part of the POI was considered excessive.

As with AIT, the actual details of my transit were unremarkable, and there's no need to revisit them; you can find all sorts of information about Jump School on the Internets.

I will mention two moments, though.

The first was some time in the middle of Tower Week, I think. We had had a long day (they were all long days) and were somewhere in the middle of the night when one of the company cadre, one SSG Gaddy, woke us up and "cabled us down" - the formation area outside 44th Company had four long steel cables stapled to the ground on which we formed up in roster number order
(I was Roster Number 118, which says something about the bizarre sorts of things that stick in your head even after thirty-one years)
- and proceeded to bomb us with a long and not particularly coherent rant about Death, Judgement Day, and Salvation or something to that effect.I vividly remember thinking somewhere in the midst of this bizarre oration
(to this day I'm not sure if he was drunk, bored, or simply nuts, or fucking with us just because he could - unlike the dreaded Blackhats, the actual Airborne School instructors, the company cadre were a collection of casuals, transients, and (I suspect) goofballs, fuck-offs, and fuck-ups who had been assigned to babysit trainees because they could do less harm there than anywhere else - and probably never will)
that one of us - Gaddy or me, standing out there in the warm Georgia spring night when we should have been sleeping, was fucking insane and at that exact moment I wasn't sure which one of us it was.

The other incident involved a very tall Marine sergeant and the company's daily march down to Lawson Army Airfield during Jump Week.

As a private, all I had to do to get through three weeks was keep my head down, my boots shined
(and I learned very quickly that I could not spit-shine them enough to avoid the dreaded "gig pit" and scurried down to the bootblack stand at the end of the battalion area and paid up. The bootblacks painted my boots with some sort of gawdawful shiny glop (that cracked off in several hours and had the long term effect of ruining the boots with a scrofulous residue of petrochemical scurf) that got me through morning inspection and the extra pushups)
and complete five successful parachute jumps.But the NCOs and officers were graded on "leadership", which meant what the U.S. Army considered "leadership", meaning drill and ceremonies and the small change of troop leading.

Including marching.

Marching, for the U.S. Army, meant "calling cadence". This is a relatively recent feature of Army life, dating, so I understand, from the WW2 era when African-American units used chanted call-and-response cadences to keep marching step. These "jody calls" ran around the Army by the late Forties and are now considered part and parcel of "leadership" - you march troops, you gotta jody-call cadence.

Apparently this was not so in the USMC, circa 1981. The NCO in question, a very tall staff sergeant intended for a Marine Recon unit, was perfectly competent at drill commands, keeping time, and could call the step in the peculiar "'Eft, 'eft, eftrawt'eft" USMC fashion (although once, for pure entertainment, he tried to teach us an "oblique" - a disaster never repeated).

But he swore up and down he couldn't call cadence.

The company cadre (of which I've already unburdened myself) dogged him through the entire course. He had to call cadence; his "leadership" evaluation portion of the school depended on it. He needed to learn one cadence, he needed to use it, as the final week approached he seems to have been pushed harder and harder to find a way to accomplish this "critical" task...

Finally Jump Week arrived, and SSG Lanky was put in charge of the company and given the dire warning that it was this march or doom. So we right-faced and marched off on the road down through the housing area towards the airfield and our parachutes. SSG Lanky eft-eft-efting through the battalion area and past the supply sheds, with one of the cadre glaring at him and shaking his head ominously.

Finally, with less than a mile to go and the final slope through the living area and past the post elementary school in view, Lanky cleared his throat and produced his cadence, the only one I guess that he had stashed in the back of his head.

-----

Well, the story is that the adorable, tow-headed offspring of one of the majors stationed at the USAIS hopped on his mommy's lap that evening, peered wide-eyed up at her, and in his childish treble asked guilelessly:

"Mommy, what's a 'ping-pong pussy'"?

Because here's the only cadence SSG Lanky could remember:

"I know your momma,
She's a good ol' whore!
She's got a ping-pong pussy,
And a rubber asshole!
She's got knots on her titties
As big as my balls!
And the stench from her gash
Could make a dead man crawl!"

I understand that no one ever asked SSG Lanky to call cadence again.Well, the rest is nothing special; I made my jumps, got my wings, and was shoved onto a bus headed up the road for Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where the U.S. Army intended to make me into a highly-paid, highly-trained, high-speed, air-ram, fuel-injected Special Forces soldier.

And that is a tale for the next time.

Regina Quondam et Futuram

My son ran headlong into an odd bit of Portland history last week; Queen Thelma.A group sponsored, I believe, by an outfit known as the Royal Rosarians turned up at his class to tell the kids about the history of the Rose Festival.

Now - as I've mentioned before - Rose Festival is a very odd sort of Portland thing in a place that treasures its oddity.
First of all, it's not really a "thing" at all; there's no real theme or purpose behind it, and it's span is so vague as to be almost meaningless. No one knows exactly when it begins, or ends, or what is or isn't part of it.

We know that it's not a purely musical event like, say, SXSW or Sasquatch, but there is music in it. It doesn't celebrate a historical or national event, like Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July, or an event of significance to any particular group of people, like Kwanzaa or Christmas or Ramadan, but it has a sort of a history.

It does have parades, of several different types, and times, and themes. It has races, human and vehicular. It has an airshow, and dragon boat races, and a nasty carny (which is always held along the downtown stretch of the Willamette River and for years was known as the "Pepsi Fun Center" until one of our local weeklies published a story titled Face-down in the Fun Center, pointing out that the goddam centerpiece of the Rose Fest was a nasty carny filled with drunk frat boys and girls from fucking Beaverton and Gladstone gatoring in a vile mix of mud and used lager. I don't know what they called it after that, but it sure as hell wasn't the "Pepsi Fun Center") and several god knows what.

There's also a weekend when a small group of military and coastguard vessels turns up and ties up along the waterfront, adjacent to the whatever-they-call-what-used-to-be-the-"fun-center". This used to be entertaining for the locals, who got to visit the ships, and for the crews, who got to visit a liberty port not expressly designed around separating a sailor from his or her cash in the most nastily expeditious way possible.
That was pre-2001. Now security is so damn tight that nobody but invited guests get to tour the damn ships, which in return for very little entertainment value tie up traffic for several hours during Monday rush hour causing the bridges to raise when they head downriver. So sorry, sailor, you can stuff your "Fleet Week", in my opinion.
In fact, most Portlanders I know fall into two categories; those who sorta-kinda know that there's this "Rose Festival" thing that happens every spring but don't really care or take part in any of the events, and those who have some deep and passionate connection with one specific event that is part of the whole magilla but don't really care or take part in any of the other events.

For example, I have two friends who race in the dragon boat competition every year.

But that's all. They don't go to the parades, or down to the carny-formerly-known-as-the-"fun-center", or the air show, or the concerts. They don't know who the Queen of Rosaria is, or what the theme of the Starlight Parade is.

They do the dragon boat races, and nothing else.

And that's the way a LOT of Portlanders take this rascal.

Some get excited about one of the parades. Or the airshow. Some love the ships. Some - mostly young men from Gresham - come to get shitfaced at the carny and fall face-down in the mud and spew of Waterfront Park. But I honestly cannot think of anyone I know who gets all jiggly looking forward to "Portland's Official Festival".

So I got a kick out of my son - who has never given a rip about the thing other than the time that we got caught downtown in the middle of the Grand Floral Parade and the float caught fire, which he considered genuine quality entertainment - coming home stuffed full of information about Queen Thelma and W.J Hofmeister, her "Prime Minister", and Silas Christofferson, the ragtime aviation freak who rocked the RoseFest 100 years ago by flying off the roof of the old Multnomah Hotelin his Curtiss biplane and then, pioneering the tradition of Oregon residents fleeing to Clark County to avoid our income tax, landed fifteen minutes or so later at the Army airfield in Vancouver.

I find it mildly amusing that nowhere in the Rose Fest publicity for the centenary of this stunt is there a mention of hos insane it was and that this poor mook had only about four more year to live because of his enthusiams; like a lot of early aviators, he augered in - in his case on Hallowe'en Day, 1916;
"Silas was flying several hundred feet over the aviation field on Halloween 1916 in Redwood City, California when his engine went dead. He ‘volplaned’ but could not regain control of the aeroplane and was hurled to the ground. His plane overturned in a 100 feet fall during a trial of a new military biplane with a new innovative control system. His wife and two brothers watching the flight with a pupil of the Silas Christofferson Aviation School rushed to his aid; he was taken to a hospital were he died from his injuries."
Sucked to be him, but those guys had the life expectancy of caddis-fly larvae. It's pretty amazing when you think of how blase' we are about flying. A century ago it was like combat diving or panther wrestling, a sport only for the truly mad...
Imagine; 50,000 people stopping to watch an airplane fly overhead; it makes sense when you think that it had a damn good chance of falling ON their heads. It was a very different time

And that was not the only difference in the times. I get the sense that back in the teens the Rose Festival really WAS something. Certainly it seems to have been everything to young Thelma Hollingsworth; she spent the rest of her life connected to the thing, and appears to have had a splendid time living in the corona of the year she reigned as Queen of all Rosaria. What I find intriguing about her is how difficult it is to find her; do an Internet search for her picture; all I could find was the Oregonian shot of her "court" I have at top, this one, from about the Fifties or late Forties;

which seems to have been taken at some sort of Rose function; you'll note the skimmer-sporting Rosarian squiring Her Majesty.

The strange part about this is that all the articles about her talk about how the Queen and her court of pretty young ladies toured all over the Portland area and much of the Northwest that year, drumming up interest in the Festival. Photography was quite the rage in the Teens, and I cannot imagine that any young Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco camera-nut passing up the opportunity to get some snapshots of a pretty girl in fancy clothes amid a bevy of other cuties; men may have changed since 1914 but not in that respect...

My personal favorite, though, is this enlargement of the Oregonian photo;

It is the only one that I could find that gives you an actual sense of the young Miss Hollingsworth as a person. It's worth looking closely at her; go ahead. I'll wait.

So physically she seems to be a conventionally "pretty girl"; oval face, straight nose, dark eyes. She has a bit of a full chin, suggesting that she was pleasantly rounded in the fashion of the times, before the brutal modernity of the Twenties demanded a woman's figure lose all its womanly curvature.

It's hard to tell, since the background around her head appears to have been retouched, but she seems to have had a cloud of dark hair in the Edwardian style. The rest of her is buried under the pile of clothing she's been dressed in as her robes of "state".

But the worthwhile part is in her expression. Look at her again.

She's looking at something or someone down to her left; she's cocked her head a bit, and her glance is slightly hooded, as if she's trying not to be too obvious about not staring. But what- or who-ever it is seems to be providing her with a certain amount of amusement, given the traces of her smile.

And the smile is the good part; Queen Thelma seems to have a lovely, subtle smile, the corner of her lips tucked neatly away in a wry little curve that floats up from the old silver and black salts like a fragrant curl of smoke from snuffed candle.

It seems to contain a good deal of sense, and a good humor that bolts across the divide of nearly a century, jolting me into thinking that I would have enjoyed a lazy afternoon's company with this woman, hearing her talk of her work, and her excitement at her celebrity, and thinking up ways to provoke that fleetingly adorable smile.

I am not one of those who long for the past. For a person of my class and age 1912 would most likely have been an generally drudging and occasionally (e.g. typhus epidemic, financial panic, labor-management war in which I was beaten by strikebreakers or shot by the National Guard...) fearfully frightening time. I am very glad I live in 2012 and not 1912.

But looking at Thelma's smile I cannot but stop and think that there must have been something worthwhile about the then that made this young woman and her beloved Festival; for all that we cannot and I would not if we could, return, I wonder; what was it that has changed so that we are ourselves so much alike in so many ways, and yet in so many others so strange?