Monday, May 18, 2009

Cars - Part 2

SUV's. My first car was a utility vehicle…long before they were called utility vehicles—the “sport” part of it hadn’t been invented yet. No, those utility vehicles of long ago were called what they were (& are), trucks, jeeps, and station wagons. People bought them for specific purposes rather than as showy “bling” on wheels.

I’ve grown to strongly dislike SUV’s and their drivers. Unintentionally favorable asset depreciation laws favored the use of Mercedes and BMW cars as company vehicles in the eighties. And similar laws influenced use of the leather upholstered, Bose laden, overstuffed $50,000 trucks masquerading, under a clever manipulation of the language, as tax havens for small businesses and professionals during the nineties and naughts. A fad that Detroit merrily fed, as it and our younger citizens utterly ignored our seventies experience with fuel shortages. So an entire new generation of hard chargers embraced these gas guzzling SUV behemoths in an orgasm of wretched excess, in its way even more silly than a Mercedes company car. The common thread—tax law.

I must admit having some pleasure last summer as gas went to $4.50/gallon and the SUV crowd howled as they learned the lesson that we touched in the seventies. Why do I dislike the SUV crowd? I think it’s their insufferable selfishness. When asked why they wanted the large, 4WD vehicles for highway use, the most frequent response I recall was that it made them feel safe. Of course the converse of that observation amounts to a “screw you” to anyone driving smaller cars—"I’ll be O.K. in my big bastard…up yours."

Even more irritating about the SUV proliferation is that those like me who are driving smaller cars cannot see through or around or over the big bastards. The roads and parking spaces became stuffed with their bloat everywhere. Where I used to be polite and wave forward a driver wanting to enter traffic from a driveway or side street, now if they are driving a SUV, I am no longer courteous and seek to prevent them from getting in front of me.


True or False…A is to B as C is to D?

And if you must view the rear end of another, which would you prefer?


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cars - Part 1

Good-bye Pontiac.
Thinking about Mike Cooper’s old Chevy got me to thinking more about our first cars. Most of us drove one of our parents’ cars after we got licenses, but a few of us were working and could buy one for ourselves. Our parents’ generally weren’t the kind of people to spoil their children, so not many of us were the fortunate recipients of a car that we didn’t purchase ourselves.

Paul Tate had a (’55, I think) Pontiac that he bought from the proceeds of his paper route; Bill Winkler had that interesting Ford hardtop convertible; Gay Burton got a Corvair, and Jim McVean got a neat little Pontiac Tempest with a strong motor.

I remember seeing my first 1964 GTO while in college…and what an impression it made. Sleek, metallic paint, a throaty exhaust rumble, and it was fast. The GTO was the stuff of a young man’s dreams, but I never got one before GM screwed up the lines in 1968 by making it a fastback with a big rear end. The next Pontiac that caught my attention was that outrageous Trans-Am in the Smoky & the Bandit film. I had outgrown those kinds of cars by then, but the fun of it was apparent.

When I saw the first Pontiac Aztec about 2002, I had a few critical thoughts. One, it was the ugliest thing I had seen on 4-wheels posing as a car. Two, I wondered what kind of taste a purchaser might have to consider it an object of desire. And three, I was dumbstruck not only that a designer would design something that ugly, but more incredibly, that a corporate VP who should have shut it down, actually approved building it—or, more likely it was a new-wave committee decision of the kind reached daily in today’s modern business culture!

Oh well, good-bye to a fine old trade name, which apparently died of utter stupidity. I think the comparison picture is a useful metaphor for a lot of things that once worked well, but are struggling today. Seems that we knew how to do things 45-years ago that we can't get done today.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kerry Michael Cooper

Mike, or Coop, as we called him at times, was one of my friends. It didn’t hurt that he was about the first of our class to have a car of his very own, a six-cylinder, green 1950 Chevrolet stick shift that he would try to drive fast, but had only limited success in the effort. I don’t recall any particular mischief we got into, but as much as we tore up Meadowbrook Drive and East Lancaster in that old Chevy, there must certainly have been some. We (Bob Dillard, Kendall McCook, Danny McCoy, Paul Tate, Paul Shields, Tom Koebernick, Larry Guthrie, Steve Means) always took up a collection for gas and usually came up with a couple of bucks, which, with gas at 25¢ per gallon was quite a bit of gas.

I guess I knew some years ago that Mike had passed away young, but hadn’t known any of the details. He was only 31 when he died in an April 1977 airplane crash near Wichita Falls and he had a son who also died young. Mike was a good kid who, for some tragic reason, didn’t get much of a ride out of life.

Mike was a little rotund, about 5’9”, had close cropped red hair, and had a bit of a temper. His manner was quiet and good humored.  His humor was sometimes caustic. He was a good athlete who played on the varsity baseball team for a couple of years, and was the starting catcher as a Senior. At Meadowbrook he was the center on the 9th grade Championship football team and played for a year on the EHHS "B" team before getting displaced by a couple of Handley boys....Jimmy Barnes, then Ray Avery.  He was also one of the Meadowbrook "originals" that attended Meadowbrook Elementary from the 1st grade in 1951-52.

After we left EHHS I didn’t see him again. I think he went to college in Missouri. We had some laughs—that’s him wearing the white ice cream man uniform and black hat in the Steve Helmricks piece elsewhere in this blog..

October 2013 update:  Mike's Mom passed away this month; her obit can be found online where a few more details about this fine family are told.

Vaya con dios, my friend

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Legacies & Reunions, Part 2

The desire to reunite with former classmates is similar, yet different than the pull former soldiers, or airmen, or sailors feel in wanting to associate with their old comrades in arms. While class reunions are interesting from the standpoint of comparing notes with one another as to how we’ve done in the interim between reunions, old warriors don’t compare notes in the same manner.

As classmates, we were locked in competition with each other for various recognitions and achievements. However, the old warriors generally associate for the purpose of recalling their shared time together. Dad had a good time meeting with others who had served in Eighth Air Force during WWII and they used their twilight years to learn more about the war in which they fought so long ago. When they were young, they had scant time to consider why there were there and how what they did fit into the larger whole.

It’s possible with this new technology to express complex thoughts with a few words and pictures. Once they were young…now they are old…and they still hold each other in high regard. Once, without hesitation, they trusted their lives to the others.

WWI - 94th Aero

WWII Eighth Air Force

Vietnam Recondo Team


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Legacies & Reunions, Part 1

My father often remarked that all of our fathers and grandfathers had volunteered for wartime service and that our volunteer heritage went back to the Revolution. For years, his telling of those facts meant little to me, for I hadn’t volunteered because of a sense of patriotism—I volunteered seeking to avoid service in a SE Asia rifle company and managed to accomplish that.

However, I did not manage to avoid combat service and thereby became, quite by chance, the fifth generation to not only volunteer, but also the fifth generation to serve in a combat area.

Greatgrandpa served in an infantry regiment assigned to the Army of Tennessee and participated in most of the battles fought by that western army. He served for the duration of the war…a remarkable feat for that period. Grandpa served in an Army division assigned to France during WWI, and his son (my father) flew with the Mighty Eighth Army Air Force during WWII.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), an organization almost as old as the more familiar DAR, has been marking familial lines of service such as ours with a series of crosses, one for each of the wars in which our country has fought since the War Between the States. These fine medals provide a tangible family record of service like nothing else I have found.

During the late 1890’s the crosses were first conceived by a Georgia woman as a tribute to her father and the old soldiers still living. The old rebels had just begun to gather together a few years earlier for the first time since the war and formed the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). Since no medals were awarded by the Confederacy for wartime service, the ladies wanted to honor their fathers’ faithful service and have continued to do so for their descendents for over a century.

If you click to enlarge the old timers’ picture in the preceding post, you can see at least six of them wearing their original Southern Cross of Honor on their left breast.


Thursday, May 07, 2009

Vietnam – Part 3, Perception

The Internet came to my house about 1996 and one of the first things I did with it was to dig into my family history. For the past century or so, all we knew of our ancestors was that they were farmers who lived in a couple of Southern states and their lines were originally from the Carolinas. We were sophisticated city folk and saw not too much of interest in some Southern farmers. So the old ones stayed buried and we, the new ones, pressed on.

My first question of the then new Google search engine was to ask who were the two other names on my 3rd great grandfather Jim’s grave marker. Grandpa Jim’s marker simply bore his name, named the two others, one a company commander and the other, a regiment commander, all followed by the notation: “Rev War.”

As 9-11 demonstrated, there has never been a shortage of those who, if given the opportunity, would take or destroy what we have. Although we knew from family tradition that grandpa Jim had served during the Revolutionary War, we knew none of the details. But the ability to easily research those other two names through the Internet revealed a rich story of a 15-year old youngster trekking the wilderness as part of a company of men from the western Virginia frontier settlements.Curiosity about the service of a Confederate great grandfather, a grandfather who served in WWI, and finally the fantastic story of my father’s service over occupied Europe in WWII followed. The latter story is something I thought I knew well, but there was a tremendous amount of detail that my father never told. After pondering all this new-found heritage, it struck me that Patton touched a notion accurately in his 1922 poem, 

Through A Glass, Darkly,

So as through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names, but always me.

As it was with all the others before me, Vietnam service was just the most recent in a continuing tradition of service to the ideals of freedom and country—whether it was worth the cost will long be debated…but the debate changes nothing that has happened. People can take issue with this thought, but their arguments matter little in the larger sweep of history.What does matter is that until the United States of America was established, in all of human history there was never before a place on this earth where common men could own property and live in peace, relatively free of tyranny.

Franklin and the other Founding Fathers knew the fight to preserve those freedoms is an ongoing fight—their own words clearly express that belief.
I look at vintage pictures of old soldiers differently these days. Now, I see myself in their faces. 

As the noted Civil War historian, Bruce Catton wrote, “once, ages ago, they had been everywhere, and seen everything, and nothing that happened to them thereafter meant anything much. All that was real had taken place when they were young.”

United Confederate Veterans - 1917


Monday, May 04, 2009

Vietnam – Part 2, Aftermath & Awakening

In Part 1, I mentioned that I was no longer concerned about Vietnam after I was clear of it. That was true for about 20-years until I made my first and only visit to the Wall in Washington. I recalled the furor over its design and had decided that it was an ugly monument to an ugly war…I wanted no part of it.

After the passing of 20-years, we had been sold a bill of goods by a Leftist dominated media, that we had lost that war. But those of us who were “there” knew better. America lost not one single battle during that war, nor was there a single instance of an American retreat. Those of us who were “there” saw the incredible mismatch in weaponry and fighting personnel. We had essentially no opposition in the air or at sea. Ground opposition, while credible and tenacious, was simply no match in terms of tactics or training.

No, the correct description of how that war ended is that our political class elected not to win it. I know this argument has been raging for nearly 40-years, and I have no interest in arguing it further here; suffice it to say that within any given 30-day period, given the go-ahead, I believe we could easily have taken Hanoi and as much else of the place as we wanted. To have left the issue undecided as we did, dishonored an entire generation of American soldiers and left open the door for them to have been shamefully disrespected upon their return home.

Those like me, who arrived home from overseas inside a military base and simply drove out the gate saw none of the stupidity seen by some of our brothers when they arrived home in some of the various airports where they deplaned. To this day, few of us openly acknowledge our service although none of us have anything to be ashamed of and each and every one of us have secured an honored place in the history of these United States. That honored place is a spot in the line of march started by our fathers and brothers of the 1776 Revolution.

We were visiting D.C. some years ago when my wife suggested that we go see the Wall. I replied, no…I didn’t know anyone on it and really had no interest in it. She persisted…maybe she was the one who really wanted to see it, so we went.

It was a scene not unlike the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan where the old timer slowly walks amidst the grave markers with his family walking quietly behind and tears flood his eyes. Now, I fancy myself a tough nut, but for some inexplicable reason, more and more tears flooded my eyes as we walked along that Wall. The Wall seemed to rise out of the ground with a couple of names even with my ankles; then more names as the Wall rose to my knees; and many, many more names as the Wall dwarfed me near the center. The overwhelming sense was that I had been a very, very lucky man to have gotten through that mess alive and unbroken.

I don’t recall any particular name on the Wall, but do recall there being a large number of ethnic surnames…surely they were the guys who weren’t so clever as we were to find an easier way through to the other side.

One visit was enough…I haven’t been back since and have no plans to do so again. I wouldn’t trade the fellowship of any one of those guys on the Wall for a whole room full of the screaming protesters that greeted us when we came home. As for those who found legitimate ways to avoid service, I have no problem with them as long as their strategies were lawful; however, if I were one of them, I would forever wonder if one of the kids named on that Wall had taken my place.

Adios - (See Wetterling's "Still the Noblest Calling")

Vietnam – Part 1, Beginning

For the graduating Class of 1963, Vietnam was little more than a distant rumble when we took our diplomas home from the coliseum that night. First we had to deal with the JFK assassination as first semester Freshmen, then continue our first semester studies while attempting to maintain new social lives in new surroundings with new girls, new boys, new teachers, new coaches. The film, Animal House, was set in this time frame.

The first hint of trouble afoot that I recall was that Life magazine issue showing the burning Monk. “What in the hell is that all about?” I thought. By Summer 1965, LBJ announced his decision to dramatically increase troop strength in Vietnam and it quickly became clear that without maintaining a student deferment, all lads age 18-26 were going to be drafted.

Our class game plan quickly became an extended infatuation with higher education. Since the trek of our age slot through history roughly coincided with draft pool for Vietnam—we were 18 in 1963 and 26 in 1971; the Vietnam War ramped up in 1965 and was in decline by 1971. So if we could get our BS in 1967 or 1968, our MS in 1969-70, and get into a doctorate program after that…well, we could keep rolling that student deferment over indefinitely or at least until that bloody war was over. That is what occurred and I would suggest that is why so many of our classmates became doctors or professors. And a number of them were not from our high school pool of top academic achievers…funny thing, motivation.

A wild card, in the form of the draft lottery, was introduced in 1969, so if your number was higher than 195 in that lottery, you were home free…you would never be drafted. Before that, from 1965 to 1969, there was a constant pressure to either stay in school in order to hold that student deferment or find a Reserve program that offered little exposure to the Vietnam jungles. I don’t recall ever meeting one of my peers who was anxious to be a soldier or sailor.

Six month active duty reserve programs were available through most branches of the military, but by 1965-66 there were 2-year waiting lists for those programs. These were good programs because with just a 6-month of active duty obligation, there was not really enough time to train someone to go to Vietnam, so most of those reservists served their active duty periods in the USA, “playing soldier” as most of them described it. Dan Quayle and Al Gore were two of those 6-month reservists, both I’m relatively sure, gaining entry around the waiting lists due to the pull of their politically connected daddies.

As a back up to the 6-month programs, 2-year active duty reserve programs were available from the Navy and Air Force. Even though the active service requirement was the same as an Army draftee, these programs were superficially attractive because neither the Navy nor the Air Force were in the business of crawling through Southeast Asian jungles. Of course, assignments to Sea Dragon, the MRF, Tuy Hoa or Da Nang were not mentioned in the recruiting spiel.

Reserve officers were obligated to 3-1/3 years of active service while pilots signed on for 5-year active duty hitches with about 18-months of that spent in training. After the training, pilots could look forward to 3-1/2 years on the line—plenty of time for a lot of them to die. Google, “Still the Noblest Calling” for one of the most poignant personal recollections of Vietnam combat air service I’ve read. Be sure to use the “quotes” in your search…it was written by J.D. Wetterling.

When you finished your active duty service, you were still obligated to be a member of the reserves for several more years until you had completed six. The newspapers and evening TV news talking heads continued bleating body counts, the “students” kept rioting on their university campuses, and oddly, very oddly, you didn’t care any longer—your time in that hell was done. Of course you grieved for those lost, you always do, but it wasn’t your war any longer—it was someone else’s turn.

The protest fervor continued building, but it didn’t involve you any longer. In fact, it seemed rather self-centered and selfish on the part of the students….Mommy, Mommy, not me, not me. Time to grow up kid, you thought. Time to grow up. For years after the service I could quickly tell if someone had served or not…it was something in their bearing and in their humor.

Age and experience adds perspective that youth can never possess—it takes time, kid and you won’t find it in the books. A well-regarded personality recently visited our soldiers in Afghanistan and returned home in awe of the young soldiers he met. He said that he felt small in their prescience. “The opportunity to serve occurs only once while you are young,” he observed. “I had the opportunity to serve during the Vietnam War, and did not take it,” he said. “My draft number was high so I didn’t go,” he continued, “and I have regretted that decision all my life.”


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Stephen Allen Helmericks

Steve Helmericks is yet another friend who, in February 2008, left us much too soon. He joined our class during our Junior year, transferring in from Wyoming. His ready humor and fine personality enabled him to find quick acceptance. He played on the B team during our Junior year in order to satisfy the UIL transfer rules.

During our Senior year, Steve was on the varsity team but played linebacker as understudy to Sam Scott and Louis Miller, two returning lettermen, and I don’t think he got much playing time. As I recall, he was a rugged and reliable performer.

I seem to recall Steve getting himself into some hot water with the school authorities that led to a pretty severe reprimand, but recall none of the details—only that the story was a persistent one. Perhaps it was this that led to his being cast in the starring role for an end of the year variety show parody where he played a thinly disguised version of principal Roy Johnson calling for “fifteen for the team.”

Steve was a U.S. Army veteran of Vietnam. And he is interred in the Chattanooga National Cemetery. Whether he was a combat veteran or not I don't know; however, it matters little as it was a life altering event in the lives of many of our generation. The words of another veteran of that war describe pretty well what most others cannot express:

"I literally prayed the entire walk to the Wall, asking for guidance, asking for continued strength.... on those occasions that I saw people looking at me I came to realize that:

"1. Most people have some sort of fear about seeing someone carry our flag: they would look away and give an impression that "they did not see me" ..."I was not there...."

"2. Some people would see the flag and look down "knowing" I was on "pilgrimage" to the WALL, and they did not want to look into yet another vet's eyes...

"3. There were those FEW who would would look me straight in the eyes and say something like "God Bless you or WELCOME HOME" .... SOMETHING to indicate that they KNEW.....and had been "there" themselves...."

God bless you, Steve. Welcome home to a good kid who raised a nice family.

Adios, my Brother.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Downhill Racer

I tried skiing a long time ago and quit it a long time ago also. It was kind of expensive, hard to get to the slopes, slippery roads, potential for long plunges into deep canyons, and cold. The rented gear didn’t fit very well, the boots hurt, and it took a lot of dedication to get any good at it.

Skiing has always had a bit of a hey, look at me aspect to it. I think for most it was more something to brag about having done when folks got back home. The best skiers were rarely the best dressed.

For me, the worst thing about skiing was the assorted ski bunnies and ski dudes from the flatlands (flatlands—that’s everywhere else where mountains weren’t) who couldn’t figure out how to get off the lift chair without falling down on that little hill at the end of the ride. Plop, down they tumble…the lift stops…dozens of others behind the tumbling geeks left dangling in their lift chairs, impatient and cold.

Of course the views from the tops of those runs are often dramatic and beautiful. And the trip down the run can be exhilarating, or they can be long and taxing if the tip of one of your skis snaps off on some moguls. Well, you get the idea.

After one last, excruciating ride up to the top of Loveland Pass (abt. 13,000’) on a particularly cold and windy afternoon, stopping for every chair advance to wait for the stumbling flatlanders to pick themselves up and clear the dismount area, I decided once and for all that, for me, skiing wasn’t enough fun to keep enduring all the discomfort and agitation. And that was my last time to go skiing…I liked warm places better anyway.

Over the years you tend to revisit things you once did and decided to do no more, sometimes wondering if you made a good decision to stop. But rarely does such a remarkably clear illustration of the thing that turned you off in the first place appear in print. This flatlander ski dude was at Vail this past January.

I would venture the thought that this dude had never been able to get off the lift without tumbling down on that little dismount hill and that he always went home to a suburban neighborhood where he never missed an opportunity to regale his neighbors with stories of his recent "ski trip."
Adios...on your right