Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Make a Hole, Rick!

I looked around me and I was still trying to figure out everything. For a split second, I thought I was dreaming. That idea was quickly dashed when I heard the screaming again. It was at this moment that I began to put some pieces together. I was in a barracks with seventy-nine other men. “Men” is a loose term as most of the seventy-nine others were barely eighteen years old (including me). In many states, eighteen was not old enough to buy alcoholic beverages. However, in these great United States, eighteen is old enough to vote and old enough to serve one’s country in the military. OK, now it is all coming back to me. After less than an hour of sleep (due to all the processing I went through the previous day), I was about to experience my first full day in boot camp in the United States Navy. The seventy-nine other young men were sharing this experience with me. Out of a total of eighty recruits, sixty-four would graduate eight weeks later. The other sixteen would be set back or sent home.
The man who was screaming obscenities at us at the top of his lungs was one of two company commanders assigned to the recruits of Company 202, Navy Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. He ordered us to make our racks (i.e. beds) because our mothers were no longer going to do it for us. The company commanders wore working white uniforms with a decorative red rope attached to the shoulder of the uniform shirt. This red rope is what let us know we were looking at a company commander.  We were told if we ever pass a company commander, we were to stop, salute, and say “Good morning, Sir” (or afternoon or evening). Mind you, on the first day of boot camp, we were calling the cockroaches “Sir”.  Still, this was vital information to know. We had not even had breakfast yet and a perfect stranger was yelling and cussing at us. Therefore, it was important to know the rule and follow them. The object was to have them NOT yell and cuss at you. This was not something that could be obtained with a nice friendly smile. The object could only be met by doing what you were told, when you were told AFTER you responding sharply with “AYE AYE, SIR”.
The company commander marshaled us to the galley. We were not allowed to talk while we were outdoors. Doing so would cause a recruit to be subjected to a MASH (Make a Sailor Hurt). In short, you were told to do a callisthenic exercise for a specified number of repetitions. We marched in stone silence. We arrived at the entrance doors to the galley. It was at this point that we all began to feel conspicuous. Our first day of boot camp was July 4, 1984. The date was as coincidental as it was ironic. I did not deliberately choose Independence Day when I signed up. It just worked out that way. This also meant that we would not be issued uniforms or get haircuts for another day. The only thing close to a uniform we were provided was a thin black raincoat. These raincoats mean only one thing. It’s your first day of boot camp.
As we were herded into the galley, the smell of food made us all think there was relief in sight (at least temporarily). We were wrong. We were met with other, more senior, recruits. They looked at us in our raincoats and uncut hair with a look of contempt and pity. “FRESH MEAT!!” one snarled. Others made profane comments about the length of our hair. One of my fellow recruits had shoulder length hair and a face full of beard. Another had a long jheri curl. These two were subjected to the worst of the teasing. As we stood in line for the food, we were subjected to more yelling. “NO TALKING ON THE GREEN”. This recruit, assigned to the galley for service week (the midpoint in boot camp) was referring to the area where we were standing in line for our food. The floor tile underneath us was green. Again, violating this rule would result in a MASH. We soon found out how real that was as one of the recruits in my company began talking. Suddenly the company commander was two inches in front of his face and yelled “DROP!” The illustration was clear. Many of us were reluctant to open our mouths even when our food was in front of us. We were hungry but we weren’t crazy.
The company commander (also referred to as a CC or “red roper”) took us to an unexpected destination after we left the galley. He took us to a building that had phone booths.  It was a large room where phone booths lined all four walls save the doorway. At this point, I had been yelled at, screamed at, and degraded by perfect strangers who didn’t know me from Adam’s housecat. I figured if I could spend the allotted 10 minutes talking to my parents everything would be okay. I made my collect call home and my sister answered the phone. I asked to speak to Mom and Dad. My sister said “They aren’t here. They went out for breakfast”. My heart sank. They weren’t expected me to call any more than I was. Still, I wanted so badly to talk to them. I told my sister I loved her and hung up. It took all the restraint I had in me to hold back my tears.
Once we settled into our barracks, the CC gave us some basic instructions to Navy boot camp life. He taught us the chain of command from the President of the United States (Ronald Reagan) to the two company commanders assigned to us (RM2 Scanlon and AE2 Fertig). We were also taught that many other red ropers would make references to “Rick” or “Ricky”. This was basically our new, generic name: Ricky Recruit. We were then allowed some time to make a head call (restroom) and use the scuttlebutt (water fountain). One thing the company commander told us was very sorely needed advice. There is only one way to survive the boot camp experience: one day at a time. For a spoiled eighteen year old kid, it was the best advice I could have ever received.
I kept giving it another day; then another. I learned the rules, performed the drills, and attended the classes with my company.  Every day we became more and more like a unit. We endured physical fitness testing and (sometimes) daily MASH sessions. We did it as a unit with a straight face and a sharp “AYE AYE SIR!” We enjoyed “Coke and Smoke” sessions when we were granted them. We enjoyed CARE packages sent from home which we gladly shared with the entire company. When we heard “MAKE A HOLE, RICK!” we parted like the Red Sea to allow a red roper to pass between us. It wasn’t a bed of roses, but every day made it easier to give it another day. I was sidelined with bronchitis when my company ran its final physical fitness test (the “run for the gate”). However, a week later, I ran a makeup test and was then ready to graduate with my company.
Finally, the day came. The day we worked eight weeks to see — August 30, 1984. It was Graduation Day. I joined sixty-three fellow recruits in dress white uniforms prepared to pass in review. We marched back to the barracks to get our liberty cards and meet our loved ones back on the grinder. We even got an extra day of liberty due to it being Labor Day weekend. My boot camp experience began and ended with a national holiday. We all spent the weekend with our loved ones with no idea how to act in public. Even after graduating, we were all subconsciously afraid of saying something that would cause our CC to appear out of nowhere and MASH us.
We left our last day of boot camp the following week. Our company commander told us something that made us all proud: “You are no longer Ricks. You are sailors”. We shook hands and said our goodbyes. Most of my fellow recruits I never saw again after that day. I left for my school to train to be a hospital corpsman. I have long since been discharged but the experience I will carry with me forever.

I’d like to give thanks to a few people who made this blog post possible.
  • Radioman Second Class Michael Scanlon and Airman Electricians Mate Second Class Arthur Fertig (ranks were as of 1984). Thank you both for doing your jobs and never allowing me to give up on myself.
  • Thank you to all the wives, girlfriends, mothers, and other loved ones who provided cookies and other treats to the entire company. Unless you have been through boot camp, you have no idea how such a gesture made the experience bearable.
  • Thank you to everyone who sent letters offering encouragement and love. If you currently have a friend, son, daughter, spouse or other loved one in boot camp, keep the letters and cookies coming in.
  • Thanks to my closest ally in boot camp: Illinois resident Mike Nosek. Mike was a newlywed at the time whose daughter was born midway through boot camp. Thank you for everything, Mike.
  • Last, but certainly not least, thank you to all who experience boot camp before me and after me. Whether you are on the front line overseas or in a cushy desk job at some skate military installation, our freedoms are protected by your service. 

Posted below are pictures from my days in Navy boot camp (Great Lakes, Illinois, 1984).

The first photo is (l-r) Seaman Recruit Mike Nosek and Seaman Recruit Shane McAfee. Mike was a great guy who helped me get through the boot camp experience. His wife had a beautiful daughter halfway through boot camp. Sadly, I lost touch with him after boot camp.

The other pictures that follow is (in order of appearance): My Dad and me, me by myself, and my mom and me. Thise pictures were taken the weekend I graduated from boot camp. It was Labor Day weekend, 1984.

From Daddy’s Arms to the Commencement Stage

Fatherhood has been very rewarding to me over the years. I have four great kids: a 20 year old son, a 19 year old daughter, a 17 year old daughter, and a 15 year old son. Over the course of my writing, I have easily made reference to any one of these four great kids. After all, parenting is like being on a roller coaster. Sometimes, it’s a great thrill. Sometimes, it gets a bit scary. Every once in a while you may even get nauseous from the experience. But at the end of the day, I can remember it was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

For this writing, I am going to focus on my baby girl, 17 year old Brianna. Brianna and I have been through some exciting twists and turns on the metaphorical roller coaster. When she was barely a year old, she had surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids. She was just getting the hang of walking. I can close my eyes and still envision the event as clear as day. We took Brianna out of her hospital room and spent some time together in the solarium. Her mother would coordinate the IV tubing and pole while Brianna would take a few steps and stumble. She would then giggle and get back up again. After a few of these dry runs, I went across the room and knelt on the floor. Brianna gave me her bright babyish smile. She took very slow, deliberate steps across the room. With every step, her smile got bigger.  She never stumbled once. She walked all the way across the room and into my arms.

Over the years since that event, I have seen Brianna go through a variety of changes. I have seen her go from being a mother to more than 20 dolls (that was a VERY lucrative Christmas for her) to a young lady who beams when she speaks about the 5th graders she got to interact with during an internship recently. I have seen her transition from a little girl learning her ABC’s to a high school senior planning toward a career in Elementary Education. One day, I was looking at a little girl singing in her school choir. I blinked my eyes and I heard the angelic voice of a 17 year old girl singing songs around the house. She has gone from a little girl who thought her Daddy hung the moon to a girl who is quick to assert that my essays are “SO dry”.

I spoke to a friend from high school recently and we were discussing the ages of our kids. I told him my “baby” is 15 years old. He told me his youngest is 8 years old and added “I can still swing her around.” Given the ages of my kids, if I tried to swing any of them, it would surely result in injury. I now get to add the experience of watching my daughter walk across a stage and accept her high school diploma. In accepting the diploma, she leaves behind 12 years of being a student. In the fall, she will prepare for more education so that she may become a teacher. She is no longer a little girl. But, she will always be my baby girl. I will always be the proud father who will gladly accept her into my arms.

Brianna, it has been a great roller coaster ride with you thus far. In the future, we will sometimes ride together. I may even want to insist on riding with you from time to time. Other times, you will not only ride without me but I won’t even be in the park with you. The ride will sometimes be scary, bumpy, or may even induce nausea. You’ll have to get off the ride, shake it off, and get back in line. In the end, you will have had an experience that no one can take from you. I love you very much and you make my heart swell with loving pride. Thanks for riding with me.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let Me Put It To You Another Way

I have noticed that, as I have gotten older, there seems to be an entity that rears its ugly head more and more every year—the euphemism. By definition, a euphemism is the substitution of a word or phrase for a word or phrase that may otherwise be considered offensive or malicious. Synonyms for euphemism include: rewording, understatement, or code word. Another interesting synonym I ran across was "weasel word". I found this especially amusing because I tend to associate the word euphemism with another word—cowardice.

Euphemisms are put in place to "soften the blow". They are sometimes used out of political correctness. For example, you can look at a parking at a store that is designated as "handicapped" parking. However, the person in the car is referred to as "differently abled" or "physically challenged" or "that dude is about to get a $90 ticket for parking there". Some use euphemisms in a lame attempt to practice diplomacy. I am American by birth and Southern by the grace of God. I know and understand diplomacy. My mother had a Ph. D. in diplomacy. My mother could tell you to go to Hell and you'd pack a suitcase. Be not deceived, however. Telling your wife her jeans "shrunk in the wash" is not diplomacy. It is cowardice. Of course, that's easy for me to say. It's not MY wife.

However, more than any other environment, euphemisms pop up in the workplace like mushrooms after a bad rain. Some of these weasel words (I LOVE that term) are used in order to avoid civil liability. Other times, it is just an excuse for the corporate world to use its own jargon. After all, calling an ongoing process "evergreen" is roughly equivalent to a sailor calling a wall a bulkhead, right? And, of course, there are weasel words in the workplace used simply to avoid confrontation. That's right, cowardice shows up again. A manager giving an evaluation to a subordinate will not tell the subordinate that he (or she) is deficient in a given area, performs poorly, or stinks at his (or her) job. Instead, the manager will tell the subordinate that he (or she) has a "development opportunity". Mind you, if that subordinate fails to address said development opportunity, he (or she) shall be "relieved of his (or her) duties" in order to "better apply his (or her) skills in other areas of the open job market".

Alas, I was even victim to this myself. My job faced some economic cutbacks. This meant I succumbed to a layoff, a reduction in force, a corporate outplacing, a rebalance of the human capital. My services were no longer required. Mind you, my boss did not actually use any of those terms. He was very straightforward. He reluctantly told it like it was, without cowardice. Nonetheless, it was an uneasy experience when my wife walked into the house and said "What are you doing home so early?" My wife was very sympathetic and understanding. She said: "Let's put it this way: you were stressing about your contract ending in six weeks. You don't have to stress about that now". What can I say? My queen isn't a coward either.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

There Was Nothing Minor About That Night.

I have mentioned before that my Dad would take us to see minor league baseball games as a relatively inexpensive form of family fun. Due to the fact that I moved a lot as a kid, I saw a few minor league teams with my Dad. I got to see games with the Charlotte Orioles, Savannah Braves, and Columbus Astros (that's Columbus, Georgia). My Dad and I were even planning to attend an exhibition game between the Charlotte Orioles and the Baltimore Orioles in 1980. Sadly, our plans were dashed when the Major League Baseball folks went on strike. Shortly afterward, we moved from Charlotte to Savannah. We saw a few more games together before I graduated from high school.

Life went on for my Dad and me. Over the years that followed, I would join the Navy (and get out). I got married (twice). I also moved 1000 miles away from my home state of Georgia (also twice). I have welcomed four children into my life between 1988 and 1993. I have also bade several loved ones farewell (including my mother in 2006). Like many others in the world, I have tried to create memories with my wife and kids. I have also, like many others, tried to relive the great memories I had as a kid with my own kids.

Dad and I never went to another ball game together after I graduated high school. Stranger still, I spent more than 20 years living in the same city and never took myself or my family to a minor league game. This is in spite of the fact that I went to see the Atlanta Braves twice in 2007 with some extended family. This was just downright shameful. The Rochester Red Wings have some very distinguished alumni: Boog Powell, Cal Ripken (Junior AND Senior), Jim Palmer, and Mike Boddicker. One Red Wings Hall of Famer, Bobby Bonner, went from the Rochester Red Wings to the Baltimore Orioles to Zambia, Africa where he now serves as a missionary.

I looked at my wife one day and said "We should go to a Red Wings game". Next thing you know, my wife and two younger kids are joining me at Frontier Field. It was a nice cool summer evening. We bought programs. My wife bought pompoms (of all things). I couldn't believe they would actually sell pompom at a baseball game. I wasn't about to complain. I had been looking forward to this night for a while. We bought the obligatory soft ice cream in a helmet cup for the kids. We also bought drinks and the even more obligatory peanuts. The peanuts had been under a heat lamp. As I felt the heat from the bag, I felt that I was, at that very point, officially AT the game.

We had great seats 10 rows up from the field, between home plate and first base. I sat between my wife, Renee, and our daughter Brianna. Our son, Caleb, sat on the other side of Renee. The first inning had just started between the Rochester Red Wings and the Gwinnett Braves. Several innings passed and the Red Wings played to an enthusiastic crowd. At one point between innings, some Red Wings t-shirts were thrown into the crowd. I caught one and gave it to Caleb (it was too small to fit my "larger" frame). At another point between innings, The Red Wings Mascots (Spikes and Mittsy) threw foam balls into the crowd. I had my sights set on catching one to give to Brianna. I barely missed it and a gentleman behind me caught it. He graciously gave it to me to give to my daughter. Chivalry is not dead in Frontier Field.

Then there were the vendors. For the most part, the vendors were quite typical. They roved the stadium offering beer, peanuts, popcorn, and cotton candy. One vendor, however, was not so typical. He wore a Conehead cap on his head. If you had any doubt about his name, it was on his name tag and the back of his shirt: Conehead. I saw several patrons order beer to which Conehead enthusiastically served. "You got the Conehead guarantee. You'll NEVER get this beer for free". He then politely thanked his customer and went his way. One girl sitting near us seemed either fascinated or frightened by Conehead. Any time he walked near this little girl, her eyes followed him until he was out of eyeshot.

The Red Wings had some fine batters going up to the plate. We enjoyed cheering on center fielder Jason Pridie, catcher Drew Butera, and left fielder Dustin Martin. Most of all, Brianna and I especially enjoyed watching shortstop Trevor Plouffe. We would say his name and giggle whenever he went up to bat ("PLOOF" hee hee). The Red Wings had earned a lead in the score briefly. Not much later, the Gwinnett Braves got ahead of them. Still, there was hope that the Red Wings could regain their lead.

Then, at the top of the seventh inning, it happened. Gwinnett Brave right fielder Reid Gorecki hit a fly ball. As the ball reached the apex of its arc, the crowd let out an audible "OHHHHHHHH!" Exactly as our collective interjection predicted, the ball landed over the fence. Gorecki had hit his second home run of the night. This created an 8-6 lead from which the Red Wings did not recover. The game ended. Brianna acquired an autograph from Dustin Martin, Spikes, Mittsy, and Trevor Plouffe. Caleb also got his t-short autographed by Mr. Plouffe ("PLOOF" hee hee).

The night was capped off by a phenomenal fireworks display. A beautiful mosaic of colors lit up the sky as our ears were treated to classic top 40 tunes. After it was over we made our way to the minivan. Everyone told me they had a great time. Brianna kissed my cheek and told me it was worth skipping out on a senior night function. I had done it. I had taken one of my magic memories with my Dad and shared it with my family.

In closing, I want to thank my wife and kids for sharing this great night with me. I can't wait to do it again. Thanks to Spikes, Mittsy, Dustin Martin, and Trevor Plouffe for the autographs. Lastly, thanks to the Rochester Red Wings and the Gwinnett Braves for a great game. I look forward to seeing some of you in the majors someday. Y'all might be minor league players but there was nothing minor about that night.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Since the beginning of time, men have been performing feats and uttering phrases to impress women. While it is true that we (er…I mean they) do such things for a variety of reasons: affection, approval, another reason that would make this more alliterative but I can’t think of one; the truth is there is another driving factor. Yes, it is true that we (sorry…again, I mean they) do enjoy a friendly kiss on the cheek, a glowing smile, and a blushing expression of thanks. The truth is that men are looking to elicit a specific response — AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!

This starts very early in development. A little boy will enthusiastically walk into his house and present his mother with flowers. She immediately responds: “AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!” This makes the little boy’s day. It is clear that he did well to go to the old lady’s yard next door and acquire the same old lady’s prize winning flowers.

This develops even more when it is time for the now teenage boy’s first dance. He nervously walks into this date’s house and is greeted by the young lady’s parents. The young lad’s date enters the room looking more beautiful than anything his teenage eyes have ever witnessed. He then presents his lovely date with a corsage that his Dad was kind enough to pick up for him on the way home from work. The young lovely lass (and her mother) both exclaim: “AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!” Then he hears an additional response he has not previously heard: “That’s soooooooooo sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet!!!!” The young man knows he has done very, very well for himself.

The young man then grows into adulthood by the time he finds out that (according to Newton’s Law) there is an equally opposite response— the crash and burn. I’ll give you an example. Shortly after my wife and I first met, she was wearing this lovely floral dress. She had also just had her hair done. Looking at her made my heart flutter. I wanted to tell her how nice she looked. However, due to some apparent faulty wiring in my brain, I said: “I’m impressed”. I heard the sound of a B-1 bomber crashing into the ground. In spite of this, she married me two years later.

Let us now fast forward to our ninth wedding anniversary when I was purchasing some flowers. I explained to the cashier that my wife and I had four kids. Therefore, I was purchasing four bouquets. The plan was simple. As each of our four kids got off the bus from school, they would enter the house and present her with a bouquet and wish her a happy anniversary. Suddenly, a chorus of women throughout the store sang in perfect unison: “AWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!” I have overheard my wife tell that story to other women and get the same response.

The bouquet incident has inspired an idea. What if they came up with a device where I (again...I mean other guys) could tell if they were going to get the AWWWWWW response BEFORE they purchased an item. I now present to you my proposed infomercial for the AWWW Meter.

[Fade into interior of brightly lit department store. Two young men (late 20’s/early 30’s) are at adjacent checkout lanes. Both of the cashiers are young females.]

[Pan camera to cashier on the left. Customer 1 is wearing a sweater vest with a tie and tan khaki pants. He has brought to the checkout line: four bouquets of flowers, a bottle of wine, and 2 DVD’s}

Cashier 1: Well it looks like someone is setting the night up for romance.

Customer 1: Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed actually. I am buying last minute stuff for my wedding anniversary. My wife and I have been married for 4 years today. So I got [shows each item to the camera as he lists them] 4 bouquets of flowers, a bottle of white wine, and her two favorite movies: “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Both Cashiers [in unison]: AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!! THAT’S SO SWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET!!!! [Both giving a glowing look at Customer 1]

[Customer1 smiles proudly]

[Pan camera to face Customer 2 and Cashier 2]

Cashier 2: Well, it looks like somebody has a relaxing night planned.

Customer 2: Yup, I have been planning this night for days. It’s my wife’s birthday. So I got [showing each item to camera]: a six pack of beer, a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, and this DVD of “9 ½ Weeks”. [Smiles proudly]

Both Cashiers: [in unison] OH, NOOOOOOOOO YOU DIDN’T!!!!!!!!!! [Both cashiers give a clearly disgusted look to Customer 2].

[Customer 2 quickly loses his smile and looks confused]

[Both Customers and Cashiers stop movement to imply a freeze frame but the characters should obviously fidget and blink ever so slightly].

Narrator: Has THIS ever happened to YOU? You go to make a special purchase for the special lady only to wind up in an ego-deflating crash and burn that puts you on the couch for a week. Well, my friend, that problem is gone FOREVER.

Customer 2: But HOW?

Narrator: I’m glad you asked, my clueless friend. What YOU need is The AWWW Meter.

Customer 2 and Both Cashiers: [in unison] THE AWWW METER??

Narrator: That’s right, The AWWW Meter. It looks just like a ball point pen. But it’s much more than that.

[Zoom to an unidentified hand demonstrating the product]

Simply take the AWWW Meter and point to the bar code of whatever you are looking to buy for your special lady. Click the top like a pen and a laser scans the bar code and performs a lightning quick analysis. The AWWW Meter will then give you the results. The meter can give you a good response.

[Off-screen hand scans a bouquet of flowers with the meter]

[Off-screen voice emanates from the meter]: AWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!! YOU’RE SO SWEEEEEEET!!!!!

Narrator: …or it can let you know are a bit off with your selection

[Off-screen hand scans an iron with the meter]

[Off-screen voice emanates from the meter]: OH, NOOOOOOOOO YOU DIDN’T!!!!!!!!!!

Narrator: So, with the AWWW Meter. You can get a present for that special lady without winding up in court dividing your assets.

Customer2: That’s great. Where can I get one?

Narrator: The AWWW meter can be purchased at your nearest convenience store, hardware store, or sporting goods outlet or you can dial 1-877-AWM-ETER and pay just $19.95 plus shipping and handling with your major credit card. Operators are standing by.

[Flash phone and price on screen with a blinking notice that operators are standing by].

[Both Customers and Both Cashiers give a bright sugary smile]

Customer 2: Wow, thanks. I’ll never make THIS mistake again.

[Fade to dim lighting]

[Scroll the disclaimer from the bottom of the screen to the top]

Narrator [speaking rapidly]: Never shine the AWWW Meter into someone’s eyes. The AWWW Meter may be confiscated by airport personnel. The AWWW Meter is not liable for loss sustained by the user due to misuse. The losses include: Attorney fees, therapy fees, temporary restraining orders of protection, and emergency room visits. You must be 18 or older to purchase the AWWW Meter. Void where prohibited by law.

[Fade to black]

So there you have my hypothetical creation that could prevent men everywhere from facing the crash and burn. I hope my wife reads this. Her eyes look so beautiful when the monitor shines in her eyes (You just said it didn’t you ladies?)