Dad’s Secret

I was there. I threw some of the snowballs. I know what happened.

Hold that thought for a moment.

As I’ve documented here a few times, I grew up a military brat, the son of an Air Force officer. From birth to college, I was uprooted every couple of years to move somewhere else.

So it was that, just before I entered 10th grade, Dad was assigned as the Air Force Liaison Officer to 7th Army headquarters, and we moved to Stuttgart, Germany.

It was there, on a wintry Saturday night, that I threw the aforementioned snowballs. Specifically, at a passing car.

Winters at Patch Barracks, the Army post where we lived, were harsh. Lots of snow, lots of plowing, lots of ammunition for snowball fights. It was a commonplace activity among us kids.

Early on, we learned to assess each snowfall by the type of snow it produced. We understood that wet snow is better than dry snow because the snowballs pack more easily and are heavier.

I mention this because, on the Saturday in question, the snow on the ground was a dry snow. The snowballs we made that day were so lightweight and ineffective that your opponents hardly bothered to duck.

Why a friend and I were still outside after dark throwing snowballs at cars, I don’t remember. We had spent most of Saturday at play around the post, and, for whatever reason, the fun continued into the evening.

The two of us crouched behind a row of hedges near the entrance to the family housing for officers. When a car drove by, we let fly with a few snowballs. They would skip off the roof, or plow into a side or rear window, always exploding harmlessly into powder.

I should mention that we never snowballed a car unless it had American license plates. This was the late 1950s, only a decade after the end of World War II. In those days, it would have been imprudent to assail a passing German.

Sometimes, the driver would tap the brakes or the horn, but no one stopped. Clearly, it was just harmless fun by some silly kids.

We, meanwhile, had ducked back behind the hedges to have a good laugh and make more snowballs.

But, eventually, as fate would have it, our luck ran out.

This time, when we pelted the passing sedan with a volley of snowballs, the driver braked suddenly and stopped. The door flew open. A man emerged in a huff.

“Hey, you kids!” he yelled angrily, “You broke my window!”

He stood behind the vehicle, pointing to the rear window. “Look what you did! I heard it crack!”

My friend and I looked at each other. Those snowballs weren’t capable of breaking glass.

Moreover, as the car had passed from left to right, the snowballs struck the side of the car, not the rear. That, I knew with certainty.

This guy was lying. He was trying to dupe a couple of kids into paying for a window that was broken under other circumstances.

And the scheme was working. We were nailed and defenseless, and we knew it.

Meekly, my friend and I came out from behind the hedge. We stood there under the streetlight as the man, a Sergeant First Class of about 40, fumed dramatically about the situation. Then he instructed us to fetch a parent.

I went back to our apartment and found Dad. On the way back to the scene of the alleged crime, I managed to lay out the true facts. Dad told me to keep quiet and let him handle things.

Dad listened in silence to the sergeant’s account of the incident. He didn’t defend us or offer an apology. He presented his contact information and told the man to send him the bill.

On the way back to the apartment, Dad told me he knew the sergeant by reputation. He said the scam the guy pulled was not surprising.

The subject of throwing snowballs at cars did not come up.

Some weeks later, I asked Dad if he had received a repair bill from the sergeant. He had, indeed, and the bill was paid.

“But,” he added with a sly smile, “I got even with him.”

At that, I came out of my chair. This was huge. I was desperate to hear the details.

But, in spite of my best pleading and whining, Dad would not explain.

“Son,” he said, “I’d rather not say. We’ll just let it be my secret.”

Once or twice in later years, I mentioned the incident and tried to get Dad, finally, to come clean.

He never did.



The Questions…

1. Olympian Michael Phelps is oddly built, but in ways that are ideal for swimming. How so?

2. The Dutch East India Company, established in Amsterdam in 1602 to engage in trade with Asia, was a major world power for 200 years. How was the company initially funded?

3. What does the “Q” stand for in “Q-tips”?

4. When was the last time the national debt of the United States was paid in full?

5. In the Old Testament, God passed down 10 commandments to Moses as rules for Christians to live by (thou shalt not kill, steal, etc.). The Jewish religion, however, lists a whole lot more commandments. How many are set forth in the Torah?

The Answers…

1. Phelps is 6′ 4″ tall, and his arm span is 6′ 7″. Proportionally, he has the upper body of someone 6′ 8″ tall (more power) and the lower body of someone 5′ 10″ tall (less drag). He also has double-jointed ankles for better propulsion.

2. It was the first public company to sell stock. The company had the power to make treaties, wage war, coin money, establish colonies, make arrests, and execute prisoners.

3. Quality. Q-tips were invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang, who got the idea when his wife used a cotton ball on the end of a toothpick to bathe one of the baby Gerstenzangs.

4. 1835, under President Andrew Jackson.

5. A total of 613 commandments — 248 things you should do, 365 that you shouldn’t.




A Fire in the Belly

On a balmy day in June 1964, I was handed two documents: my college diploma and my commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, the latter courtesy of ROTC.

Within two weeks, I was ordered to active duty. Before July ended, I was in uniform, serving at a base in New Mexico.

In those days, as you may know, the Vietnam War was at its height. One of the reasons I took ROTC in college was to avoid being drafted, handed a rifle, and sent into the jungles to my doom.

Yes, I dodged being drafted. But to my dismay, the Air Force still had plenty of chances to send me into the war. Fortunately, I was just a non-flight-status lieutenant, first an Administrative Officer and later a PR Officer. They decided they didn’t need me over there.

But plenty of my contemporaries got the call. How it was done was frightfully efficient.

In the Air Force, the usual practice with support personnel was to send you overseas on a TDY (temporary duty) assignment for three months. One day, everything was normal. The next day, you got the TDY orders. A few weeks later, you were in Vietnam.

What you did when you got there depended on your career field. If you were a Supply or Personnel Officer, you worked in Supply or Personnel. Had I gone, I would have remained in admin or PR.

My mentor and boss Major Walker was an experienced pilot. His Vietnam orders assigned him to fly military transports that sprayed the defoliant Agent Orange. Major Walker didn’t come home.

But in most cases, the person returned from TDY safely, greatly relieved to be back, praying that someone else would be sent next time.

However, there were exceptions. There were a few who salivated to get their orders. Who ached to be in the middle of the action.

One of them was my fellow officer Smokey Ellis.

In my experience, the non-flying junior officers were obliged to stick together. Most of us were young and single. We worked, lived, and socialized together because, as a group, we were disdained by everyone else; to the senior officers, the pilots, the NCOs, and the enlisted personnel, junior support officers are useless.

Smokey was an Air Police officer and a decent guy. He was cocky and loud, had a bit too much of a John Wayne swagger, but essentially, he was good-natured and good-hearted.

(Smokey had been his nickname since childhood. He was born Francis Charles Ellis. When he reached adulthood, because he was who he was, he had his name legally changed to Smokey Francis Charles Ellis.)

By the time I knew him, Smokey had a burning desire to get into the war while there still was one. And it wasn’t mere bravado. Like Mr. Roberts two wars earlier, he genuinely longed for his shot at glory.

He submitted Volunteer Statements. He sent letters up the chain of command. Nothing worked. There he sat, languishing in New Mexico.

Finally, he did something about it. He arranged to give up his Air Force commission and enlist in the Army.

Apparently, the Air Force saw no reason to turn him down. Knowing Smokey and his intense passion to be in the fight, I suppose it was the right decision.

Smokey left us rather hurriedly. He consented to a brief going-away party, but you knew his thoughts were elsewhere.

I last saw him in front of the Bachelor Officer Quarters as he walked down the sidewalk toward his car. Two large duffle bags were slung over his shoulder. He turned back toward us once, grinning and waving. You had to be happy for him.

We didn’t hear much from Smokey after that. There was talk that he was accepted for Green Beret training, that he went to Vietnam.

And eventually, the rumor went around that he had been killed in action.

Maybe the scuttlebutt wasn’t true. 56 soldiers named Ellis are listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and neither Smokey nor Francis is one of them.

Maybe he met his fate in Thailand or Laos in some clandestine operation. Maybe he survived and is now a retired dude enjoying his grandkids.

Your guess is as good as mine.



Quotes o’ the Day

The final test of a gentleman is his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.

— William Lyon Phelps


Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.

— Albert Einstein


You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.

— Mahatma Gandhi


Righteous intransigence is not a strategy; it’s just a satisfying attitude.

— David Quammen





One of my favorite hiking spots these days is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. The SBG, a 300-acre preserve, is pleasant, clean, safe, and close to home. About five miles of well-maintained hiking trails wind through it. It’s a terrific place.

The SBG was created in 1986 by the University of Georgia as a “living laboratory for the study and enjoyment of  plants and nature.” It includes a large tropical conservatory and a variety of formal gardens.


The gardens — native flora, annuals and perennials, azaleas, rhododendrons, groundcover, shade plants, etc. — change with the seasons. They and the conservatory are well worth a visit.



As for the trails, they’re especially notable because a few years ago, a geology professor and her students uploaded the complete trail system to Google Maps. Thus, the trails appear on your phone as if they were streets, and your location is shown as you progress. Very neat, very handy.

The trails are remote and quiet, but the central part of SBG is plenty active. The formal gardens require constant attention and maintenance. At the same time, various departments of UGA are conducting research and teaching field classes.

Between the maintenance, teaching, research, classes for the public, events for kids, etc., it’s a busy place. People are everywhere, focused on some task or other.

One morning not long ago, I drove over to SBG, parked at a convenient spot, grabbed my water bottle, and set out to walk the outer loop of trails. The day was sunny, the temp mid-70s. Perfect.

Not far from the conservatory, I arrived at the edge of a large field. According to a sign, the field is being restored to open prairie for the benefit of certain plants and wildlife.

As I stood there reading the sign, movement about 20 yards to the left caught my attention. I turned and saw a small brown bird entangled in a net, periodically struggling to escape.

The net resembled a badminton or volleyball net, but had a very fine mesh. It had been erected a few feet in front of a low patch of wild foliage and was almost invisible from a distance. Its purpose, I didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I have no idea how to extricate a trapped bird, but I couldn’t just ignore it. Maybe I could go back to the main office and get help. I walked closer to get a better look.

As I approached the flailing bird, a female voice rang out in the distance. “Sir! Get away! Leave the bird alone!”

I looked up with a start. Striding across the field toward me was a small, youngish woman in all khaki. She was waving insistently and continued to shout instructions.

“Sir, do not touch the bird! Stay away!”

Puzzled, I stood there quietly and waited. When she reached me, I got in the first words: “What are you yelling about? What’s going on?”

“I am an ornithologist,” she said in a grave and decidedly snooty tone. “I am authorized by the State of Georgia, the University, and the Botanical Garden to handle birds.”

“Yeah, but what –”

“I am a member of (she reeled off a few names that may have been professional organizations). I am pursuing my doctorate.”

She reached over and began to examine the bird, cupping it in her hand through the net.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re an ornithologist. Good for you. Why are you fussing me out? What is this all about?”

“You don’t have the skills to handle this bird,” she snapped. “I have the training. I understand how the bones and joints function.”

“Lady, I’m just a hiker. I saw a bird stuck in a net. I walked over for a closer look. Why are you down my throat?”

“I can remove the netting without harming the bird. You can’t.”

“I didn’t touch the damn bird.”

“You would have.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s too tangled in the net. I would’ve gone for help.”

“It’s not very tangled.”

“Lady, I haven’t done a damn thing except show compassion for this poor bird. Your attitude stinks.”

She ignored me and addressed the bird. “Oh, poor little guy,” she cooed. “You’re just a thrasher, not the bird I wanted. I’ll just have to let you go.”

I finally deduced what the drama was all about. “This is your net,” I said as the bird flew away. “It’s here to catch birds.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. All you did was yell and give me your credentials. How could I possibly know what you’re doing out here?”

“This is a [word indecipherable] net. I am involved in a research project. Do you understand now?”

“Well, put up a sign so people will know! Are you afraid the birds will read it and stay away?”

“Sir, no birds will come around as long as we’re standing here. We need to leave. I hope you have a good hike.” She turned and walked away. Briskly, of course.

I didn’t reply, and what I muttered to myself wasn’t nice.

Even on my way home after the hike, I was still steamed. That evening, I Googled the subject of using nets to trap birds. The nets, I learned, are “mist nets.” This is from Wikipedia:

Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net.

When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. Mist nets have shelves created by horizontally strung lines that create a loose, baggy pocket. When a bird or bat hits the net, it falls into this pocket, where it becomes tangled. The purchase and use of mist nets requires permits, which vary according to a country or state’s wildlife regulations.

Mist net handling requires skill to optimally place the nets, avoid entangling nets in vegetation, and properly store nets. Bird and bat handling requires extensive training to avoid injury to the captured animals.

Okay, fine. Clear and concise. Now I know what I didn’t know when Miss Charm blindsided me.

Do us all a favor, lady. Put up a sign.




More poetry that isn’t pretentious and a waste of time…


Abou Ben Adhem

By Leigh Hunt


James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859)

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.



By nila northSun


nila northSun (B. 1951)

it is finally there
just on the other side
of the freeway
located on our tribal land
our poverty is over
we get all of the sales tax
besides the lease on the land
it is a fact
our unemployment rates
will decrease
an elder is a greeter
her white hair brilliant
against the blue of her
walmart smock
she smiles at me and
says ‘welcome to walmart’
minimum wage is
better than nothing.


At the Vietnam Memorial

By George Bilgere


George Bilgere (B. 1951)

The last time I saw Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall
above the showers in the boys’
locker room, next to the school
record for the mile. I don’t recall
his time, but the year was 1968
and I can look across the infield
of memory to see him on the track,
legs flashing, body bending slightly
beyond the pack of runners at his back.

He couldn’t spare a word for me,
two years younger, junior varsity,
and hardly worth the waste of breath.
He owned the hallways, a cool blonde
at his side, and aimed his interests
further down the line than we could guess.

Now, reading the name again,
I see us standing in the showers,
naked kids beneath his larger,
comprehensive force — the ones who trail
obscurely, in the wake of the swift,
like my shadow on this gleaming wall.


The House was still — the room was still

by Charlotte Brontë


Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)

The house was still, the room was still,
‘Twas eventide in June;
A caged canary to the sun
Then setting, trilled a tune.

A free bird on that lilac bush
Outside the lattice heard,
He listened long, there came a hush,
He dropped an answering word.

The prisoner to the free replied



Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of “The Judgment of Paris”

By Robert Browning


Robert Browning (1812-1889)

He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,
Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.