Posts Tagged ‘Military’

Sometimes, a person needs to vent. And when you have a blog, you might as well use it.

It’s been nearly 50 years, and this one still sticks in my craw…

When I was in college in the 1960s, I was enrolled in the ROTC program, which was, and probably still is, the least painful way to become a military officer.

Back then, as you may know, guys my age were being handed a rifle and sent to get killed in Vietnam. I wanted no part of that, so I opted for Air Force officer training. Not the Army, and not the Marines, thank you very much.

I took a series of Air Science classes during college (in addition to the regular curriculum), and in a ceremony the morning of graduation, I was sworn into the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

Two months later, I was called up to active duty. I served from 1964 until 1968 and was, in succession, a deputy squadron commander, a full-blown squadron commander, a P.R. officer, and a squadron commander again.

I did a damn good job. As a young and unlikely boss, I tried to be as fair, impartial, and  non-dictatorial as possible. In general, the men seemed to like me, even respect me. Especially compared to other COs on the base, some of whom let power go to their heads.

Just so you’ll know, I was, at age 21, the youngest unit commander in the whole blooming Air Force, with 500 men reporting to me.

Although I knew right away that soldiering wasn’t for me, and one four-year term would be enough, I enjoyed the experience and was proud of my service.

However, in 1968, when I left the Air Force and returned to Atlanta and civilian life, armed with what any rational person ought to consider valuable experience in managing people and organizations…

… nobody cared.


To my dismay, the companies where I had job interviews considered my military service to be not just meaningless, but an actual detriment; to them, I was a college graduate with zero experience, AND I was four years older than the other greenhorns.

Had I served as a fighter pilot, or a tank commander, or a Green Beret — had I come home highly decorated or wounded or both — maybe my service would have meant something to them. Maybe.

The Air Force, however, had made me a desk jockey and assigned me to a training base in New Mexico. No medals or glory for me.

But the Air Force, God bless it, gave me enough responsibility to last a lifetime.

My job as a unit commander was to ride herd on the hundreds of airmen and non-coms in my charge; to see that they were housed and fed and trained; to praise, reward, and promote them when they earned it; and to mete out the appropriate discipline when they got into bar fights, ran up too many debts, went AWOL, or got drunk and decked their wives at the NCO Club on a Saturday night.

My First Sergeant and I, sometimes together and sometimes singly, stayed busy tending to an eclectic and unpredictable bunch of boys and men.

We pinned on their new stripes, got them out of jail, bragged on their babies, intervened with their creditors, met their wives and girlfriends, and went to their homes to try to patch things up after a spat.

When most of them were called on the carpet, the seriousness of the situation got their attention. They responded to straight talk and reasoning and thereafter stayed out of trouble.

With others, it took cajoling and more stern measures. Maybe placing a Letter of Reprimand in their files. Maybe with the understanding that if they behaved, the letter would get tossed.

More often than not, the infractions were minor, and things worked out. But not always. Some matters were either unsolvable or just too serious, and they had to be referred to the Base Legal Office.

Nobody wanted that to happen — to see a man going on trial, possibly demoted, discharged from the military, or locked up. During that four years, I was involved in 50 or more courts-martial and Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) procedures.

But when I became a civilian again, no, I couldn’t handle the entry-level copywriter spots at the ad agencies.

I wasn’t right for those marketing trainee jobs with Delta and Coca-Cola and Lockheed.

I was a bad fit for the beginner jobs with state government, the newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, and all the rest.

At the time, I was married with a kid, and I had to find gainful employment. Finally, I took a job as a collection agent for an Atlanta insurance company.

Every day, I sat at my desk and, speaking into a Dictaphone, composed letters to poor saps who didn’t have the money to pay their policy premiums. They were in arrears and thus were in the company crosshairs for cancellation.

In the letters, I informed them that if this office did not receive the past due amount of (insert amount here) no later than (insert date here), we would have no choice but to (insert drastic action here).

Every afternoon, someone from the typing pool picked up my magnetic tape containing the day’s dictation. The next morning, a pile of typed letters appeared in my inbox. I signed them, placed them in the outbox, and commenced another round of dictation.

After a few months with the insurance company, I stumbled onto a curious classified ad in the newspaper seeking a “wordsmith” for an unspecified position in state government.

I applied, and it turned out to be the Governor’s Office, looking for a speechwriter. I got the job. I’ve been in the writing business ever since.

Nothing says life has to be fair. But after all this time, I still deeply resent having my Air Force experience dismissed and disrespected. The succession of people who turned me away back then — they blew it.

I wish I could magically sit them down, one by one, grab them by the lapels, and make them understand what clueless idiots they were.

But I guess I’ll have to settle for airing it out in a blog post.

That's me in 1966 -- 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

That’s me in 1966 — 1st Lt. W. A. Smith, Commander, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group, Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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This is a story about me, my late mother, and a book that turned out to have unexpected significance. Sometimes, small things are important.


No rolling of the eyes, please, but I have to begin this tale at the beginning.

I was born January 26, 1943, at a place that no longer exists: Cochran Army Airfield, Georgia.

Cochran Field was located just south of Macon, and it operated from 1941 until 1945 as an Air Corps training base. My dad was assigned there as a flight instructor, teaching RAF cadets how to fly. Mom and Dad lived in Macon, which, conveniently, was her hometown. I was born at the Cochran Field Station Hospital.

Cochran Field, Georgia, 1943.

Cochran Field, Georgia, 1943.

According to Dad’s military records, he arrived at Cochran Field in September 1941. He was there until June 1943, when he was sent to Europe as a bomber pilot. Mom and baby Rocky went to live with her mother in Macon.

Not counting the arrival of me, the time Mom and Dad spent at Cochran Field was a quiet interlude before the war turned everything upside down; it was only a year later, in June 1944, that Dad’s B-24 was shot down. For months, he was missing in action, fate unknown.

I’ve written several posts about Dad’s war years and his time as a POW. This story, however, is about other matters, which I shall address directly.

Cochran Field was just one of numerous places Dad was stationed during his military career. Mom reminded us often in later years, usually with an edge to her voice, that she moved 20 times before her oldest child (me) reached high school.

When Cochran Field was deactivated in 1945, the base was turned over to local control. Today, it is the site of the Macon airport — or, more precisely, Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

In the late 1980s, I finally became curious enough about Cochran Field to go see the place for myself. I talked to Mom and Dad, and they told me where the base hospital had been, relative to the main gate, the flight line, and other landmarks.

So, one Saturday, I drove down to the airport to look around. And I located what may well be the site of the old base hospital.

What I found was a row of foundation stones in a grassy field. The location matched the clues Mom and Dad gave me.

But realistically, it was hard to know. When the base was constructed in early 1941, it was done as speedily and economically as  possible. Most of the buildings — quarters for officers, barracks for enlisted men and trainees, mess halls, the various administrative facilities — were the same size and design.

Maybe those foundation stones mark the location of the hospital, maybe they don’t.

It seemed sad that my only connection to the place where I was born was the memories of others. As for tangible connections, there was only my birth certificate.

Still, whether or not I found the location of the hospital that day, my trip to the airport gave me a new connection. Which was gratifying.

Twenty years later, the book I mentioned — the one of unexpected significance — entered the story.

It happened in 2005, after Mom died, and we faced the difficult task of dealing with her possessions.

The books in a person’s home are intimate things. Although they are openly displayed, only family members and visitors see them.

And when they do, it amounts to a passing glance at the titles on the spines. Only the owner of the books has any real knowledge about them.

Many of the books on Mom’s shelves were familiar sights to me. “Robinson Crusoe” was there for as long as I can remember. So was “Wake of the Red Witch,” an old seafaring adventure. I remember both because of their colorful and melodramatic 1940s dust jackets.

Another book I recall seeing is “The Hawk’s Done Gone” by Mildred Haun. I knew nothing about it, but I remember it because the title is so wonderful.

Mom’s books needed a new home, but frankly, I didn’t need any more books. My house was, and still is, full of books. I have bookshelves in four different rooms. I own books by the hundreds.

But as I stood there at Mom’s house, seeing all those familiar titles so soon after her death, I was compelled to take a moment, sit down, and let the memories flow.

I took down several of her books and thumbed through the pages. All were clean; Mom was meticulous about her books. She never wrote notes or underlined passages.

When I reached “The Hawk’s Done Gone,” I opened the cover to find, looking back at me from the first blank page, this time-and-date stamp:

Time-date stamp

Property of the Cochran Field Station Hospital? Incredible.

As you can see, the ink on the date stamp misfired and didn’t record the day and month the book was cataloged. But “1942,” when Mom was pregnant, is visible.

The book isn’t a library book in the classic sense. It has no checkout card or a sleeve for one.

Maybe it was part of an informal “lending library” at the hospital. I  can imagine a volunteer pushing a book cart from room to room so the patients could select a book to pass the time, or return one.

Which brings up obvious questions: how, being hospital property, did the book end up in Mom’s possession? And why, 60-odd years later, was it still in Mom’s possession?

I can’t imagine either of my parents being book thieves. Perish the thought. Was the book taken home accidentally? Was it a gift?

The war years were frightening times for the entire population. Family members and friends were at peril in faraway places. The status of a mere book was of no importance. Yet, the questions remain.

Ironically, Mom knew the truth for my entire life. She could have explained it at any time. I just didn’t know to ask the question.

“The Hawk’s Done Gone” is the only book I claimed from Mom’s bookshelves. It’s a first edition, copyright 1940. The pages have yellowed a bit with age, but the condition is good.

I keep it on a shelf with a handful of other books that are special to me. I take it down occasionally, look at the “received” stamp, and think about how people coped during the war years.

The book, by the way, is a collection of short stories that chronicle one dirt-poor family in the Tennessee mountains, from the Civil War years to the Great Depression. The narrator is a midwife who uses meticulously accurate mountain dialect.

Although the stories involve dramatic subjects — witchcraft, incest, infanticide, interracial dalliances — they are less about the people than their unique society; the book is almost an anthropological study.

Actually, I was expecting more and was disappointed. I wonder what Mom thought.


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Here in Jefferson a few months ago, a group of high school kids got busted for underage drinking. They had quietly gathered at some secluded spot to toss back a few, when suddenly, cops were everywhere.

Some of the young merry-makers bolted into the woods and escaped, but most stayed to face the music. They were taken to the station and booked, and their parents were summoned to collect them.

Ultimately, the teens went to court, and their names and faces appeared in the local newspaper. They suffered varying degrees of humiliation, but were not severely punished.

As the drama unfolded, the local citizens separated into two camps. One side favored harsh punishment to teach the little villains a lesson. The other side dismissed it as harmless youthful high-jinks — something everyone did in their youth.

I suppose both sides were right. And the story certainly is nothing new. Teenagers have been scheming to obtain alcohol since alcohol was invented.

Which leads me to the prominent role that beer — premium-quality, high-octane German beer — played in my life at that age.

I was raised a Military Brat, the dependent kid of an Air Force officer. Over the years, we followed Dad on assignments around the United States, as well as to Japan, France, and Germany. It was a pretty cool way to grow up.

I attended high school on an U.S. Army base in Stuttgart, Germany. My alma mater, SHS, was a typical American high school, except for the location.

The location factor made for some interesting dynamics. I mean that from the standpoint of American teens living in Germany and having easy access to alcohol.

When I lived in Stuttgart, the situation was this: we kids lived inside a walled compound and were allowed to wander unsupervised around the base. As aspiring adults, we were afforded an appropriate degree of latitude. That also applied when we went off-base.

In our world, “off-base” consisted of three wholly different experiences. One was our various organized trips — group outings to sporting events, the zoo, the museum, the municipal swimming pool. We usually went by bus and were well chaperoned.

The second was family trips, such as vacations and shopping excursions with our parents.

The third was our below-the-radar trips — the quiet, illicit visits we teens made, usually in small groups on a Saturday night, to the local gasthauses and biergartens.

For us, sneaking off to a bar was ridiculously easy.

For one thing, American families lived on half a dozen military installations scattered around Stuttgart. The Army post where I lived, Patch Barracks, was 20 miles from our high school in the Pattonville housing project. Cross-town trips were routine.

For another thing, we were living in a non-English-speaking country where most of the population wanted us gone and avoided us. Had we been back in the U.S., the surrounding community would have been our home town, where people knew us. Frequenting the local bars? Probably not in the cards.

If a legal drinking age existed in Germany in those days, it didn’t seem to apply to us. If we chose the right bars, we and our money were perfectly welcome in the establishment. And we learned quickly how to choose the right bars.

In reality, many of the local gasthauses were off-limits. Some were frequented by locals who hated Americans. Others were operated by locals who hated Americans. Some bars were already taken — the turf of U.S. enlisted men who had no intention of sharing them with bratty American teens.

So, we worked within the system, and we found the watering holes that were appropriate and satisfactory for us.

To be clear, my friends and I carefully avoided trouble, and we did not sneak out constantly to go drinking. An individual kid managed to pull it off, say, once every month or two.

In total, during the three years we lived in Germany, I went bar-hopping about a dozen times. In truth, I never visited the same gasthaus more than a time or two. Frankly, most of the places have faded from memory.

But I still vividly remember one of them. It was called Bruno’s, and we could see it from the windows of our high school.

Bruno’s was located beyond the baseball fields at SHS, on the other side of a hedgerow, past a high fence topped with barbed wire, inside a massive Czechoslovakian refugee camp.

The refugee camp was there because of the Cold War, which burned hot in those days. West Germany had to accommodate a steady influx of people fleeing from behind the Iron Curtain.

Such camps, I later learned, were called DP camps — for “displaced persons.” Most had been built by the Nazis to house Jewish, Polish, and Czech slave laborers. After the war, they were converted to refugee camps.

Naturally, a sizable refugee community required services and amenities. These refugees being from Czechoslovakia — the country where Pilsner was invented and beer is called “liquid bread” — one of those amenities was a proper gasthaus for the refugees.

Bruno’s was that establishment.

My night at Bruno’s happened in the fall, during “Fasching,” the German period of celebration and revelry that precedes Lent.

A few of us were spending the weekend with friends at Pattonville. One of them knew about Bruno’s and had a Czech friend who offered to take us there.

That Saturday night, we went to the main gate of the refugee camp. We were met by a young man in his early 20s who vouched for us to the guards. The gate was opened. We proceeded to Bruno’s, where the residents were observing Fasching with gusto.

Bruno’s was a joyous place. The residents of the camp being Czechs, not Germans, they loved Americans. They loved everybody. They had escaped communism, and the future seemed bright.

The Czechs at Bruno’s were a delight to be around, and they welcomed us enthusiastically. Music played, beer flowed. People danced. The air was thick with laughter and cigarette smoke.

At some point, we were given brightly-colored party hats. Mine was a cardboard fez, metallic silver in color, with a yellow crescent stapled to the front and a dangling yellow tassel. Whether the fez was symbolic of something or merely festive, I neither knew nor cared.

The fez looked like this, only silver and yellow.


After a terrific evening of beer and merriment, we said our farewells and stumbled back to Pattonville. No trouble, no unpleasantness, no complications, no regrets.

When I got home, my parents asked where I got the fez. Mom zinged me by calling it “silly-looking.”

Personally, I thought “garish” or “tacky” would be more accurate. But I told them the literal truth: we went to a party where everyone got a hat.

For years, that fez was one of my most treasured souvenirs. For the rest of our tour in Europe, it sat on the dresser in my bedroom.

When I went away to college, the fez went with me. It was one of the decorations in my dorm room, along with some beer coasters from Stuttgart and my favorite pencil caddy, a souvenir beer stein from the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.

Naturally, after I got married, the fez was relegated to a souvenir box. I didn’t think about it for a long time. Then one day, after we moved to Ft. Lauderdale, I went looking for it. The little thing was gone. Nowhere to be found. I was deeply saddened.

Mind you, I’m not implying in any way whatsoever that my ex-wife was responsible.

The  last time I saw good old SHS was at graduation in June 1960. By the end of the month, we were on our way back to the U.S. and Dad’s new assignment in Atlanta.

By September, I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, living in Athens. For the first time in my 17 years, I was on my own.

More about that in Part 2.


My alma mater, Stuttgart American High School.

The view behind SHS. The refugee camp was over there.

The view behind SHS. The refugee camp was over there.

Residents of a DP camp in Germany, late 1950s.

Residents of a DP camp in Germany, late 1950s.

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When I was a kid, my parents probably knew more about the everyday events of my life than I realized at the time.

I’m sure that’s true of everyone. Even though children live a good portion of their lives with no adults present, parents have ways of learning and discerning things.

But adults are not omniscient. Plenty happens in kid-dom that the grownups never suspect.

And sometimes, it’s just as well…


It was 1950. I was in third grade, eight years old. My dad was an Air Force major, stationed in Tokyo, Japan. We lived in the heart of Tokyo at Washington Heights, a housing project for American officers and their families.

I’ve written several times on this blog about life in Tokyo and Washington Heights. Among them: the story of how I learned the truth about Santa Claus; and a story about an ugly incident innocently precipitated by a bunch of us kids.

Back then, my world consisted of the family apartment, the school, the various base facilities, and my friends, all of it within the confines of Washington Heights. Tokyo was all around us, but remote, beyond the gates.

Dad’s office was downtown, so he went “on the economy” daily. But the rest of us saw Japan only when we went on vacation, or took a trip to a city monument or park, or went to the Ginza, Tokyo’s fancy shopping district.

One day, certain events unfolded among a few of us kids that, to my knowledge, the adults never learned about. Let me set the stage.

In olden times, like the 1950s, parents did not ride herd on their children every second, as is mostly the case today. Back then, kids were allowed to roam freely, as long as they reported in as ordered and stayed out of trouble.

That was true at Washington Heights, which had the added advantage of being a walled compound that was under armed guard around the clock. So, as we kids went about our daily routines, we rarely were chaperoned or questioned.

Somewhere near a remote edge of the housing project, a stormwater runoff pipe emerged from the ground and emptied down a slope into a small creek. The pipe was about two feet in diameter and was part of the drainage system beneath Washington Heights.

From that exit point, the pipe went back under the housing project for 40-odd feet until it reached a large metal grate. There, it made a right-angle turn and went another 40-odd feet to a second metal grate.

We kids knew this, because over time, some of us had ventured into the pipe, driven by taunts and dares from the others.

As underground pipes go, this one was relatively clean and dry — clean because Washington Heights was only a few years old, and dry because we were not dumb enough to enter the pipe after a rain.

The floor of the pipe was covered with a layer of sand and pebbles, but it wasn’t icky, slimy, cobwebby, or bug-ridden.

That was the good news. The bad news: even for kids, the pipe was too small to allow you to advance on hands and knees. You had to go belly-down and “soldier-crawl,” using your elbows.

Yet, after someone emerged from reconnoitering, he merely stood up, dusted off, and went about his business. His clothes would be dirty, but not trashed.

In my mind, two related facts about the pipe made going inside possible: one, it ran in a straight line; and two, you could see daylight ahead, shining through the nearest metal grate.

Conversely, when exiting the pipe, you always moved toward a patch of daylight. To me, seeing that daylight made a huge difference.

The truth is, I dreaded venturing into the pipe. It was creepy and nerve-wracking and no fun at all. Every time I went in, I longed fervently not to be there.

But going into the pipe was better than the alternative: being exposed in the eyes of the other kids as a gutless fraidy-cat chicken. Nobody wanted to lose face, so nobody refused to go into the pipe.

I should mention that in accordance with the code of our group, the younger boys were not allowed to enter the pipe. This was partly for their protection and partly to keep them in their place and reserve the glory for ourselves.

But one afternoon, we violated the code and allowed one of the youngest and smallest of us to go into the pipe.

Donnie Paul was no more than five years old, and he was obsessed with going into the pipe like his older brother Billy. Donnie whined and pleaded incessantly. We always refused.

But that day, for some reasons, we relented. We had to know it was a bad idea, but we let it happen anyway.

I remember how we went over the details and prepared Donnie for the undertaking. We made sure he understood the layout of the pipe. We told him to crawl to the first grate, make contact with us there, then turn around and crawl out. We would talk to him and keep an eye on him the best we could.

At first, Donnie did fine. He crawled in at a good pace, reached the turnaround point, and looked up at us through the grate.

Then, as if the reality of the situation finally hit home, his eyes slowly widened in fright, and he began to bawl.

Thankfully, he wasn’t in a panic. That would have been infinitely worse. Donnie simply was alone and scared and overwhelmed.

As he slumped there beneath the grate, sobbing and shaking, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere. One of us would have to go in after him.

Why the rescue mission fell to me, I don’t remember. Whatever the reason, as Donnie moaned and wailed like a lost soul, I dropped to the ground and belly-crawled into the pipe.

When I reached Donnie, he was whimpering and uncommunicative, but cooperative. I was able to maneuver him in front of me for the return trip. He stopped frequently, but always resumed crawling when I prodded him, sobbing in despair all the while.

After we emerged from the pipe, Donnie stopped blubbering and calmed down. After a few minutes, he pulled himself together and was okay again.

After that, life at Washington Heights returned to normal. No adults ever mentioned the incident. No kids got in trouble. No metal bars appeared at the mouth of the pipe to keep us out. But by unspoken agreement, we never ventured into the pipe again.

For me, the rescue mission is memorable for a second and entirely different reason: during the exit crawl with Donnie, I had my first experience with the sensation of claustrophobia.

As I said, I always hated being in the pipe. It seriously gave me the creeps, and I went in only because of peer pressure. While underground, I tried to concentrate on the moment and not think too much about where I was.

But at a certain point inside the pipe, with Donnie in front of me and daylight not far ahead, I felt an ominous tingling of fear, anxiety, and impending panic.

It was only a brief taste of the real thing — a weak, but growing sensation of being confined, trapped, helpless.

It was a subtle thing and not very strong. By focusing intently on the task at hand, and Donnie’s silhouette in the circle of daylight ahead, I shook off the feeling.

But that preview was enough to last me a lifetime. It was monumentally awful. To this day, I am spooked just thinking about it. I can’t imagine the horror of experiencing true claustrophobia.

Washington Heights was built in 1947. It was in use until 1963, when the American occupants were relocated and the installation was torn down to make room for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Specifically, it was the site of the Olympic Village that housed the athletes.

When the Olympics ended, the property was razed again and given back to Yoyogi Park, from which it was originally carved. It remains green space today.

And for all I know, the stormwater runoff pipes are still there.

Washington Heights and Yoyogi Park in the 1950s.

Washington Heights and Yoyogi Park in the 1950s.


Dismantling begins, 1963.

Dismantling begins, 1963.


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Other than being an avid hiker — an activity I have pursued with relish for the last 40-odd years — I am not an athletic dude by any stretch.

As a kid, I tried my hand at the usual sports. I played Little League baseball for two years, mostly as a bench-warmer. Late in a game, the coaches might put me in right field, if we were far enough ahead.

Sprinkled among my walks and strike-outs were a few hits (including a double that I still remember fondly), but they were sheer accidents. I simply didn’t have the skills, or the inclination to develop them.

In my high school years, Dad was in the Air Force, stationed in Stuttgart, Germany. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, military bases overseas are miniature American towns, with no lack of facilities for the soldiers and their families, including organized sports.

So, even though we lived overseas, I had plenty of sports opportunities. I played football as a sophomore and basketball as a junior. But again, my talents were meager.

In football, if I took the field at all, I played offensive tackle. In high school, the interior line is a safe place to send your mediocre players.

In basketball, I was a forward. I had the necessary stamina to run around a lot, but the good players rarely gave me the ball.

Actually, I did have a hot hand in one memorable game. Somehow, I got a rebound and quickly scored. When it happened a second time, my teammates started feeding me the ball. And I delivered — 16 points in all.

It was most gratifying. But it never happened again.

Over the years, I tried a succession of other sports — softball, golf, tennis, volleyball (soccer wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in those days). Nothing really lit my fire and was enjoyable enough to continue.

Then, after college, I discovered hiking. And backpacking and camping. And kayaking. With those activities — which, you will note, are for individuals, not teams — I was considerably happier and more comfortable. For me, they clicked.

Looking back, there may have been clues that I was never cut out for team sports — that if I excelled at anything, it would be the solo stuff.

I say that after having a flashback recently to an episode during my junior year of high school in which I showed a genuine and unexpected degree of athleticism.

But let me begin at the beginning.

I don’t know if high schools require Physical Education these days, but they did in my time. PE was daily and mandatory.

The PE teachers did their best to give the hour some variety. We might play basketball or flag football. We might run laps or do sprints. We might lift weights or line up for calisthenics by the count.

And once a year, as most Americans kids have done for decades, we participated in the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge.

Most adults probably aren’t even aware the program exists. It was instituted in 1956 by President Eisenhower to get America’s increasingly soft and indolent children off the couch.

Ike got the idea from Dr. Hans Kraus, a professor at New York University. In 1953, Kraus warned that the nation’s kids were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America.”

And this, by the way, was decades before video games came along.

In response, Ike created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, which developed a physical fitness test for school kids. In the beginning, the test consisted of a softball throw, a broad jump, a 50-yard dash, and a 600-yard walk/run.

Over time, the name of the council and the nature of the test have changed. Today, it’s called the President’s Challenge, and it requires school kids to do the following:

– One minute worth of curl-ups (modern variation of sit-ups)
– Sprinting between lines set 30 feet apart
– Running and/or walking 1/4-mile or 1/2-mile, depending on age
– As many pull-ups or push-ups as the kid can do
– A “sit and reach” test to measure the flexibility of the lower back

I don’t remember which events made up the President’s Challenge in 1958, only that it was a series of the usual exercises: running, push-ups, sit-ups, and so on. I recall it as being more tedious than strenuous.

PE at my high school was under the auspices of Coach Jack Larkin, a gruff, but decent guy in his 40s. Coach Larkin, bald and bespectacled, was from Kansas.

PE class on the day of the incident was during 4th period, just after lunch. The final event of the Fitness Challenge was to perform a timed series of sit-ups. We did them with a classmate sitting on our feet to keep us stationary.

As the class went about the exercises, Coach Larkin bellowed that time was short. After the sit-ups, we needed to hustle to the showers, because 5th Period classes would start soon.

In my case, 5th period meant geometry, which I loathed.

“Coach!” I yelled out from the supine position, “Bruce and I want to stay here and see how many sit-ups we can do without stopping! Will you get us excused from geometry?”

I was speaking for my friend Bruce Jones, who was stretched out next to me. I assumed Bruce would be agreeable if it meant missing geometry. He was.

“Yeah, Coach!” Bruce chimed in. “Let us try! How long can we keep doing this, anyway?”

“No! Don’t be ridiculous!” Coach Larkin snapped.

Bruce and I continued to plead with feeling. Finally, the coach relented.

“Okay, you can stay as long as you can keep doing sit-ups,” he said. “But when you have to quit, I want you out of here and off to class!”

He looked at the two guys who were sitting on our feet. “Can you two stay and keep count? Can you miss the next period?” Indeed, they could.

All around us, hands shot up from boys who wanted some of this action. The coach wouldn’t have it.

“Just these four!” he growled. “The rest of you, finish the set and hit the showers!”

Bruce and I grinned at each other and slowly continued doing sit-ups in unison.

After the gym was empty, Coach Larkin moved us to a small alcove near his office and handed each foot-sitter a mechanical counter. He told us to take a break, then start a new count.

We got up, walked around, got a drink of water, and got back in position. When the tardy bell rang, we commenced to doing sit-ups, and the count began.

If I were tasked with doing sit-ups today, I probably wouldn’t last very long. But when you are 16 and indestructible, and your choice is between sit-ups and geometry, the choice is already made.

The period rolled along. Bruce and I did our sit-ups at a slow, steady, easy pace. The four of us chatted matter-of-factly.

I don’t recall getting especially tired or sore. I was in the zone — sitting up, lying down. Sitting up, lying down. Talking, thinking, looking at the beams of the gym ceiling overhead. Sitting up, lying down.

Ten minutes later, Coach Larkin came out of his office to check on us. He asked our sit-up counts. Both of us were approaching 300. He nodded and went back to his office.

Occasionally, a student from one of the PE classes would peer around the corner at us. I wondered if word about us had spread — if people were talking. I never found out.

Halfway through 5th period, the coach reappeared and asked for the latest count. According to our foot-sitters, I was at about 700, Bruce a little ahead of me. We showed no signs of fading.

“You two will go to any length to avoid math class,” Coach Larkin observed. “But I’m impressed anyway.” He turned and walked away.

Near the end of 5th period, he was back. Bruce and I were still at it, slow and steady. Although we didn’t think of it as a competition, Bruce was 30 or 40 sit-ups ahead of me. At that point, we were at about 1,200 sit-ups.

“Okay, boys, the bell’s about to ring,” said the coach. “Ready to call it quits?”

Bruce and I protested mightily. The foot-sitters joined in, begging the coach to let us continue. None of us knew what the outcome of this odd little drama would be. None of us knew what we wanted it to be.

Again, Coach Larkin relented. He asked for our 6th period schedules, and, with a sigh, departed to inform our 6th period teachers. Bruce and I continued doing our sit-ups, slow and easy.

Midway through 6th period, Bruce finally gave out. Maybe it was a tortoise-and-hare thing; maybe in building up a lead, he wore himself out. His final count was a little over 1,800.

Bruce was okay with having to stop, but I knew he wasn’t going anywhere until I stopped, too. As for me, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

Stop and be done with it? No way — not after all the time and effort I had invested. I wasn’t worn out yet, and I wanted — needed — to keep going. But for how long?

With the end of 6th period about 10 minutes away, the answer suddenly came to me. It should have been obvious. I was approaching 2,000 sit-ups — a good logical stopping point.

Bruce and the two foot-sitters were still there, waiting. I told them my intentions. They concurred. Bruce went to get Coach Larkin to witness the finale and wrap things up.

In the end, I did 2,001 sit-ups. Coach Larkin said he was proud of both of us. Then he chased us off to the showers, which we finished in a rush so we could catch our respective buses home.

For the rest of the week, I was a minor celebrity in some circles. I did my best not to be a jerk about it.

But, of course, my fame was fleeting. Something else soon materialized on the student body’s collective radar screen, and when it did, I became old news. Life returned to normal.

I’m not bitter, mind you, but the fact is, I pumped out 2,001 sit-ups in less than two hours that day, and I don’t have squat to show for it.



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Actor Charles Durning died last month. Durning was a well-known character actor in Hollywood and on Broadway whose career lasted 50 years.

Durning had plenty of memorable acting roles, but when I think of him, his service in World War II comes first to mind.

In 1944, 21-year-old Private Charles Durning was in the first wave of soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.

He was the only man in his unit to survive a machine-gun ambush. Although seriously wounded by machine gun fire and shrapnel, Durning survived and killed seven enemy soldiers.

After several months of medical care, Durning returned to the fighting in Belgium, where he faced a bayonet-wielding German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Although badly wounded, he overpowered and killed the German.

Durning was released from the hospital just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner. He was one of only three Americans who escaped during the infamous Malmedy Massacre, in which 80 POWs were executed by German soldiers.

Several months later, he was wounded in the chest and was sent back to the United States. He was discharged from the Army in 1946, one month before his 23rd birthday.

For his service, Durning was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action and three Purple Hearts for his wounds.

Like many men of his generation, my father among them, Durning preferred not to talk about his war experiences. He told an interviewer in 1997, “Too many bad memories. I don’t want you to see me crying.”

But later in life, he began to open up. In an 2008 interview, he talked about the bayonet incident.

“I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”

As the two of them grappled, Durning was bayoneted eight times. Finally, using a rock, he struck and killed the young soldier.

Durning said that for a long time afterward, he sat on the ground, held the soldier in his arms, and wept.

In 1994, Durning said, “There is no nobility in war. If you really knew what it was like for an hour, you wouldn’t want anyone to go through it.

“They train you to do awful things, then they release you and wonder why you are so bitter and angry. The physical injuries heal first. It’s your mind that’s hard to heal.”

Durning said the memories of war never left him, but acting gave him a safety valve. He said performing allowed him to become someone else, however briefly.

“I forget a lot of stuff now,” he said. “But I still wake up once in a while, and it’s still there. I can’t count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy.”

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he said. “There is terror and repulsion in us — the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret.”

Since 2005, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan intensified, the suicide rate among American soldiers has risen sharply. Last year, more American troops committed suicide than were killed in battle.

By the grace of God, I was not sent into combat during my time in uniform. Others were not so fortunate. What horrors they endured, and continue to endure, I can’t begin to understand.

Charles Durning, may he rest in peace, could.




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On the Road #1

Last month, I took a lengthy road trip.

I drove north through the Corn Belt, west across the Great Plains, and up to Glacier National Park, where Montana borders Canada. I returned home by way of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. 17 days, 7,000 miles, 18 states.

What follows is a series of seven stories from my time on the road.


Too Great a Price

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, has been a military cemetery since 1826. It’s about half the size of Arlington, which makes it plenty big. Most people never heard of it.

The U.S. maintains 131 National Cemeteries across the country for the interment of our war dead, deceased veterans, and spouses; 235 years worth of interment requires a lot of space.

I know about Jefferson Barracks because the man who would have been my father-in-law, had he survived World War II, is buried there. Last month, on my way west, I stopped to visit his grave.

In November 1943, Air Corps Captain David Councill from Pennsylvania, 23, was in command of a squadron assigned to ferry a group of B-24 Liberator bombers to Italy. David piloted the lead bomber, the Pudgy II, Tail No. 01.

En route, during a storm, the Pudgy II crashed into a remote mountainside in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, killing all aboard.

The wreckage was located later in the war. The bodies of the crew were returned to the U.S. and buried at Jefferson Barracks.

In April 1943, David had married his sweetheart, Kathryn Collins, in Arizona. The crash occurred December 8, 1943. Their daughter Deanna, my ex-wife, was born in April 1944.

At Jefferson Barracks, David Councill and the 13 members of his aircrew are buried in a single grave at the crest of a hill. The place is beautiful and serene and majestic. All cemeteries strike me that way, but because David is there, it was especially moving.

I stood there for a long time, looking out at the sea of headstones, thousands and thousands of them, each representing someone like David.

Many people, probably most people, believe that the men and women buried in our national cemeteries died for noble causes. I can’t accept that.

I can’t get beyond the tragic, pointless deaths. All those lives ended, all those families devastated.

I am drawn to cemeteries because of the serenity, and the sense of intimacy I feel with the departed, one on one.

But I see nothing noble about what put them there.

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A few weeks ago, when I was writing a post about my former boss Major Walker, I found an old newspaper clipping in a souvenir box. I can’t remember the last time that saw the light of day.

I remember precisely where it came from: the base newspaper when I was in the Air Force. It was sometime midway through my hitch, maybe 1966 or 67.

The base paper, the Mach Meter, had a habit of sprinkling its pages with random inspirational stories for the troops. You know, gung ho stuff to bolster spirits, build esprit de corps, etc. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. It’s sort of expected.

Some months later, I ended up being assigned as the editor of that very newspaper. And, as I suspected, it was always the base commander or some other high personage who ordered us to run such stories.

But the effort was always SO transparent. And honestly, it never worked very well. Soldiers are a tired, jaded, sarcastic lot who quietly roll their eyes at puffery and propaganda.

In this case, I executed my symbolic rolling of the eyes by strategically cutting off the end of the sentence. What you see below, I laminated and displayed on my refrigerator door.

And now, for the life of me, I can’t remember what the next line said we were full of.


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Major Walker

In every war, they kill you in a new way.

— Will Rogers


During the Vietnam War, American military forces sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides onto South Vietnam, eastern Laos, and parts of Cambodia. In effect, we caused Roundup to rain from the skies. For a decade.

Initially, the idea was to clear vegetation from the perimeters of U.S. bases.

Then the spraying was expanded to defoliate other areas of jungle, thus denying the enemy cover and concealment.

Then it was expanded again to destroy crops and deny the enemy food.

Destroying crops as a tactic of war is a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol. We did it anyway.

The defoliation program was known as Operation Ranch Hand. It lasted from 1962 until 1971, when the health effects of the herbicides — on our soldiers as well as their civilians — became too clear and alarming to ignore.

Ranch Hand used a variety of chemicals concoctions. They were shipped in drums marked with an identifying colored stripe.

The most widely-used mixture came in drums with an orange stripe. It became known as Agent Orange.

Today, Agent Orange is the term we use to refer to all of the chemicals mixtures sprayed at the time — Agents Orange, Pink, Green, Purple, Blue, and White.

To spray them, the Air Force used the Fairchild C-123 Provider, a sturdy and reliable military transport. When fitted with special aerial spraying equipment, these aircraft became the UC-123B, with a capacity of 1,000 gallons of herbicide.

In about five minutes, a typical plane could spray a swath of land 80 yards wide and 10 miles long. It applied the herbicide at the rate of about three gallons per acre. Missions usually consisted of three to five aircraft flying side by side.

Agent Orange was used because it was a powerful and effective herbicide. And, like Roundup, it was highly toxic. It posed a severe health risk to people, livestock, and wildlife. We used it anyway.

In the late 1960s, researchers came upon something unexpected. They discovered that small amounts of dioxins were being created, unintentionally, during the Agent Orange manufacturing process.

Dioxins, which are not found in nature, are some of the most toxic chemicals known. According to the EPA and the World Health Organization, there is no “safe” level of exposure.

Dioxins have been linked to cancer, birth defects, damage to the immune and hormonal systems, learning disabilities, diabetes, skin disorders, and more.

In 1970, a study specifically linked Agent Orange to birth defects in animals. By the end of that year, Operation Ranch Hand was terminated. All military use of the herbicides ended in 1971.

During the 1970s, veterans returning from Vietnam began to report skin rashes, cancers, psychological problems, and birth defects and handicaps in their children. Large numbers of veterans believed that exposure to Agent Orange was the cause.

In 1979, a large class-action lawsuit was filed against the herbicide manufacturers.

The primary manufacturers of Agent Orange, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, have always maintained that (1) their products caused no harm whatsoever and (2) they aren’t liable anyway.

It was clear that the chemical companies had the ability to drag out the litigation until the claimants were all dead. So, in 1984, the lawsuit was settled out of court.

It resulted in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which distributed roughly $200 million to 52,000 affected Vietnam veterans. The exposed veterans received an average of $3,800 each.

The impact of Agent Orange on millions of civilians in Southeast Asia was many times more horrific. The Vietnamese in particular suffered terribly. For 40 years, the country has dealt with disease and birth defects on a massive scale. They’re still working to reforest the land and restore wildlife populations.


When I went into the Air Force after college, the war in Vietnam was at its peak. The government shipped me off to Cannon AFB in Clovis, New Mexico, where I was assigned as Administrative Officer, Headquarters Squadron, 832nd Combat Support Group.

The Admin Officer is the assistant to the squadron commander. That’s the way young second lieutenants learn — working for a seasoned officer who knows what he’s doing.

And the system works pretty well. Spending every day around the commander and his key NCOs, I learned the art of running a military organization.

And I was luckier than most. My boss was the best military officer I ever knew, Major Lloyd Francis Walker.

Major Walker, a career man from Oregon, was a crackerjack officer. He was talented, dedicated, and a person of great integrity. He loved the Air Force. And he was a leader, not a whip-cracker.

Being the boss in any context, military or civilian, is tricky. A surprising number of bosses become bullies, because that’s the easy route. Your underlings can’t do much about it, except impotently despise you.

But that isn’t leadership. Leadership is when you earn the respect and good will of your people.

Major Walker was well-known and highly-regarded at Cannon. He also was a seasoned pilot, which is a good thing to be, career wise, in the Air Force.

Inevitably, the Major’s flight status meant a ticket to Vietnam.

In late 1966, he was transferred to the 12th Air Commando Squadron, Bien Hoa Air Base, as the pilot of a Fairchild UC-123B defoliation aircraft.

I don’t know if he welcomed the assignment, but he accepted it like a good soldier. I replaced him as Squadron Commander. His going-away party was a big deal at Cannon.

So was the news, just months later, of his death.

This item appeared in The Oregonian, the Portland newspaper, on February 1, 1967:

Oregon Major Dies in Battle 

Salem (AP) — Air Force Maj. Lloyd F. Walker, 45, was shot down and killed on a flying mission over enemy territory in Vietnam, relatives here were notified Tuesday. A veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict, he was a pilot. Walker was born and reared at Mount Angel and attended Oregon State University. He leaves a widow, the former Betty Fay Guttenberg of Salem, and four children at home in Clovis, N.M. 

Just recently, I found this information online on the P.O.W. Network:

Major Lloyd F. Walker was the pilot of a 12th Air Commando Squadron UC123B which was sent on a defoliation mission (Agent Orange) on 31 Jan 1967 over Laos. As the aircraft leveled off to start spraying, its propeller was struck by hostile fire. The aircraft crashed about 5 miles south-southwest of Sepone in Savannakhet Province, Laos. After an investigation, it was decided that Major Walker and his crew of 4 (which consisted of 3 captains and 1 Airman 1st class/flight mechanic) had died in the crash. 

The day after the Major’s death, I wrote this entry in my diary:

Major Walker was killed yesterday in Vietnam. 

We were notified this morning, and the whole base knew by noon. I was in Base Supply, and Sgt. Smith came in and told me. The Major was on his first combat mission as an A/C. It was only his 4th mission since he got there. 

He and 1st Sgt. Stricklan were close. I can guess how Strick is taking this. 

The Major planned to stay in Clovis after his retirement, which was just 10 months away. He told us this would be his 3rd and last war, and it was. 

The young guys fight for the chance to go over there and win medals. I say let ’em. But wasn’t two wars enough? They should have let him sit this one out. But they didn’t, and he went, and it killed him. What an awful waste. 

First Sgt. Stricklan, Major Walker, and the Airman of the Month, Cannon AFB, August 1966.

Major Walker was a genuinely good man. He was universally admired and respected. He was our own real-life Mister Roberts.

A few years ago, I went to Washington and took this photo of Panel 14E, Line 102 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


The tragedy of war is that it uses man’s best to do man’s worst.

— Henry Fosdick

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Ben Bova is a long-time science fiction writer, editor, and essayist who, so far, has published 120 books. A space program insider and cheerleader from the beginning, he has won a slew of industry honors and awards.

During his career, Bova has predicted a lot of stuff — the Space Race, human cloning, ice on the Moon, electronic book publishing — but nothing quite as, well, logical, as his vision of the wages of war in this short story.


The Next Logical Step

By Ben Bova
Published in 1962

“I don’t really see where this problem has anything to do with me,” the CIA man said. “And, frankly, there are a lot of more important things I could be doing.”

Ford, the physicist, glanced at General LeRoy. The general had that quizzical expression on his face, the look that meant he was about to do something decisive.

“Would you like to see the problem first-hand?” the general asked, innocently.

The CIA man took a quick look at his wristwatch. “O.K., if it doesn’t take too long. It’s late enough already.”

“It won’t take very long, will it, Ford?” the general said, getting out of his chair.

“Not very long,” Ford agreed. “Only a lifetime.”

The CIA man grunted as they went to the doorway and left the general’s office. Going down the dark, deserted hallway, their footsteps echoed hollowly.

“I can’t overemphasize the seriousness of the problem,” General LeRoy said to the CIA man. “Eight ranking members of the General Staff have either resigned their commissions or gone straight to the violent ward after just one session with the computer.”

The CIA man scowled. “Is this area Secure?”

General LeRoy’s face turned red. “This entire building is as Secure as any edifice in the Free World, mister. And it’s empty. We’re the only living people inside here at this hour. I’m not taking any chances.”

“Just want to be sure.”

“Perhaps if I explain the computer a little more,” Ford said, changing the subject, “you’ll know what to expect.”

“Good idea,” said the man from CIA.

“We told you that this is the most modern, most complex and delicate computer in the world … nothing like it has ever been attempted before—anywhere.”

“I know that They don’t have anything like it,” the CIA man agreed.

“And you also know, I suppose, that it was built to simulate actual war situations. We fight wars in this computer … wars with missiles and bombs and gas. Real wars, complete down to the tiniest detail. The computer tells us what will actually happen to every missile, every city, every man … who dies, how many planes are lost, how many trucks will fail to start on a cold morning, whether a battle is won or lost …”

General LeRoy interrupted. “The computer runs these analyses for both sides, so we can see what’s happening to Them, too.”

The CIA man gestured impatiently. “War games simulations aren’t new. You’ve been doing them for years.”

“Yes, but this machine is different,” Ford pointed out. “It not only gives a much more detailed war game. It’s the next logical step in the development of machine-simulated war games.” He hesitated dramatically.

“Well, what is it?”

“We’ve added a variation of the electro-encephalograph …”

The CIA man stopped walking. “The electro-what?”

“Electro-encephalograph. You know, a recording device that reads the electrical patterns of your brain. Like the electro-cardiograph.”


“But you see, we’ve given the EEG a reverse twist. Instead of using a machine that makes a recording of the brain’s electrical wave output, we’ve developed a device that will take the computer’s readout tapes, and turn them into electrical patterns that are put into your brain!”

“I don’t get it.”

General LeRoy took over. “You sit at the machine’s control console. A helmet is placed over your head. You set the machine in operation. You see the results.”

“Yes,” Ford went on. “Instead of reading rows of figures from the computer’s printer … you actually see the war being fought. Complete visual and auditory hallucinations. You can watch the progress of the battles, and as you change strategy and tactics you can see the results before your eyes.”

“The idea, originally, was to make it easier for the General Staff to visualize strategic situations,” General LeRoy said.

“But every one who’s used the machine has either resigned his commission or gone insane,” Ford added.

The CIA man cocked an eye at LeRoy. “You’ve used the computer.”


“And you have neither resigned nor cracked up.”

General LeRoy nodded. “I called you in.”

Before the CIA man could comment, Ford said, “The computer’s right inside this doorway. Let’s get this over with while the building is still empty.”

They stepped in. The physicist and the general showed the CIA man through the room-filling rows of massive consoles.

“It’s all transistorized and subminiaturized, of course,” Ford explained. “That’s the only way we could build so much detail into the machine and still have it small enough to fit inside a single building.”

“A single building?”

“Oh yes; this is only the control section. Most of this building is taken up by the circuits, the memory banks, and the rest of it.”


They showed him finally to a small desk, studded with control buttons and dials. The single spotlight above the desk lit it brilliantly, in harsh contrast to the semidarkness of the rest of the room.

“Since you’ve never run the computer before,” Ford said, “General LeRoy will do the controlling. You just sit and watch what happens.”

The general sat in one of the well-padded chairs and donned a grotesque headgear that was connected to the desk by a half-dozen wires. The CIA man took his chair slowly.

When they put one of the bulky helmets on him, he looked up at them, squinting a little in the bright light. “This … this isn’t going to … well, do me any damage, is it?”

“My goodness, no,” Ford said. “You mean mentally? No, of course not. You’re not on the General Staff, so it shouldn’t … it won’t … affect you the way it did the others. Their reaction had nothing to do with the computer per se …”

“Several civilians have used the computer with no ill effects,” General LeRoy said. “Ford has used it many times.”

The CIA man nodded, and they closed the transparent visor over his face. He sat there and watched General LeRoy press a series of buttons, then turn a dial.

“Can you hear me?” The general’s voice came muffled through the helmet.

“Yes,” he said.

“All right. Here we go. You’re familiar with Situation One-Two-One? That’s what we’re going to be seeing.”

Situation One-Two-One was a standard war game. The CIA man was well acquainted with it. He watched the general flip a switch, then sit back and fold his arms over his chest. A row of lights on the desk console began blinking on and off, one, two, three … down to the end of the row, then back to the beginning again, on and off, on and off …

And then, somehow, he could see it!

He was poised incredibly somewhere in space, and he could see it all in a funny, blurry-double-sighted, dream-like way. He seemed to be seeing several pictures and hearing many voices, all at once. It was all mixed up, and yet it made a weird kind of sense.

For a panicked instant he wanted to rip the helmet off his head. It’s only an illusion, he told himself, forcing calm on his unwilling nerves. Only an illusion.

But it seemed strangely real.

He was watching the Gulf of Mexico. He could see Florida off to his right, and the arching coast of the southeastern United States. He could even make out the Rio Grande River.

Situation One-Two-One started, he remembered, with the discovery of missile-bearing Enemy submarines in the Gulf. Even as he watched the whole area—as though perched on a satellite—he could see, underwater and close-up, the menacing shadowy figure of a submarine gliding through the crystal blue sea.
He saw, too, a patrol plane as it spotted the submarine and sent an urgent radio warning.

The underwater picture dissolved in a bewildering burst of bubbles. A missile had been launched. Within seconds, another burst—this time a nuclear depth charge—utterly destroyed the submarine.

It was confusing. He was everyplace at once. The details were overpowering, but the total picture was agonizingly clear.

Six submarines fired missiles from the Gulf of Mexico. Four were immediately sunk, but too late. New Orleans, St. Louis and three Air Force bases were obliterated by hydrogen-fusion warheads.

The CIA man was familiar with the opening stages of the war. The first missile fired at the United States was the signal for whole fleets of missiles and bombers to launch themselves at the Enemy. It was confusing to see the world at once; at times he could not tell if the fireball and mushroom cloud was over Chicago or Shanghai, New York or Novosibirsk, Baltimore or Budapest.

It did not make much difference, really. They all got it in the first few hours of the war; as did London and Moscow, Washington and Peking, Detroit and Delhi, and many, many more.

The defensive systems on all sides seemed to operate well, except that there were never enough anti-missiles. Defensive systems were expensive compared to attack rockets. It was cheaper to build a deterrent than to defend against it.

The missiles flashed up from submarines and railway cars, from underground silos and stratospheric jets; secret ones fired off automatically when a certain airbase command post ceased beaming out a restraining radio signal. The defensive systems were simply overloaded. And when the bombs ran out, the missiles carried dust and germs and gas. On and on. For six days and six firelit nights. Launch, boost, coast, re-enter, death.

And now it was over, the CIA man thought. The missiles were all gone. The airplanes were exhausted. The nations that had built the weapons no longer existed. By all the rules he knew of, the war should have been ended.

Yet the fighting did not end. The machine knew better. There were still many ways to kill an enemy. Time-tested ways. There were armies fighting in four continents, armies that had marched overland, or splashed ashore from the sea, or dropped out of the skies.

Incredibly, the war went on. When the tanks ran out of gas, and the flame throwers became useless, and even the prosaic artillery pieces had no more rounds to fire, there were still simple guns and even simpler bayonets and swords.

The proud armies, the descendents of the Alexanders and Caesars and Temujins and Wellingtons and Grants and Rommels, relived their evolution in reverse.

The war went on. Slowly, inevitably, the armies split apart into smaller and smaller units, until the tortured countryside that so recently had felt the impact of nuclear war once again knew the tread of bands of armed marauders. The tiny savage groups, stranded in alien lands, far from the homes and families that they knew to be destroyed, carried on a mockery of war, lived off the land, fought their own countrymen if the occasion suited, and revived the ancient terror of hand-wielded, personal, one-head-at-a-time killing.

The CIA man watched the world disintegrate. Death was an individual business now, and none the better for no longer being mass-produced. In agonized fascination he saw the myriad ways in which a man might die. Murder was only one of them. Radiation, disease, toxic gases that lingered and drifted on the once-innocent winds, and—finally—the most efficient destroyer of them all: starvation.

Three billion people (give or take a meaningless hundred million) lived on the planet Earth when the war began. Now, with the tenuous thread of civilization burned away, most of those who were not killed by the fighting itself succumbed inexorably to starvation.

Not everyone died, of course. Life went on. Some were lucky.

A long darkness settled on the world. Life went on for a few, a pitiful few, a bitter, hateful, suspicious, savage few. Cities became pestholes. Books became fuel. Knowledge died. Civilization was completely gone from the planet Earth.

The helmet was lifted slowly off his head. The CIA man found that he was too weak to raise his arms and help. He was shivering and damp with perspiration.

“Now you see,” Ford said quietly, “why the military men cracked up when they used the computer.”

General LeRoy, even, was pale. “How can a man with any conscience at all direct a military operation when he knows that that will be the consequence?”

The CIA man struck up a cigarette and pulled hard on it. He exhaled sharply. “Are all the war games … like that? Every plan?”

“Some are worse,” Ford said. “We picked an average one for you. Even some of the ‘brushfire’ games get out of hand and end up like that.”

“So … what do you intend to do? Why did you call me in? What can I do?”

“You’re with CIA,” the general said. “Don’t you handle espionage?”

“Yes, but what’s that got to do with it?”

The general looked at him. “It seems to me that the next logical step is to make damned certain that They get the plans to this computer … and fast!”

Original story illustration from Analog Science Fact & Fiction, May 1962, by George Luther Schelling.

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