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Baseball

I previously wrote about my love of baseball, especially as a childhood fan of the great Willie Mays. I played at several levels, but was never really good enough to play on a competitive level. Mostly, I played baseball by myself at our home on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I practiced various baseball skills for YEARS at that home. That consisted of three specific training regimens – hitting, throwing, and fielding. I know I mentioned this briefly in a previous blog post, but never got into the real details.

As is the case with most kids, I felt hitting was the most important skill. I practiced hitting the old fashioned way. That meant throwing the ball up in the air with one hand and then hitting the ball with the bat. This involved a whole lot of running back and forth as I had to retrieve the balls that I hit. It also meant that I had to hit in a directional way to ensure I wasn’t hitting directly at the house. Unfortunately, I broke a TON of windows when I failed to hit away from the house.

My home plate consisted of a sewer cover right near the garage/carriage house in the back yard. Our house was an overbearing structure in right field, like a version of the short Yankee Stadium right field porch. For whatever reason, the giant brick walls seemed to call the balls to come that way. After not too long, my dad banned baseballs in our yard, so I switched to tennis balls. While this was actually much safer, especially as I got older, striking a tennis ball with a baseball bat still carried more than enough momentum to carry through windows from 100 feet away.

Left field was our neighbor’s house. Even though I was strictly a right-handed batter at the time, I avoided hitting to left field even more than the dangerous prospect of hitting our house. Yes, I’m pretty sure I broke a few windows in the neighbor’s house, but much less frequently than I did in my own house. As a result of the challenges of my yard, I became and remained a dead-center hitter (and continue to this day in my softball league).

Throwing (pitching) was slightly less dangerous, but it still led to a number of broken windows. These were usually basement windows, so I could normally get by for a week or more without anyone finding out! The house was a solid brick structure. I taped a “strike zone” rectangle on a wall near our back patio and stood about 30 feet away while I threw tennis balls against the house. This was great practice! I could throw “fast” balls, curve, knuckleballs, sinkers, and a few other pitches. Over time, I gained pretty good accuracy on most of them. Unfortunately, a tennis ball really didn’t do a good job building arm strength and the accuracy I gained with a tennis ball did not necessarily translate to throwing accuracy with a baseball (or softball).

My final training skill was fielding practice. While I broke fewer windows doing this, I gained many more bruises on my body and also actually created a hazard to cars! It is rather funny for me to recall that I actually did this, but I did it hours on end every summer for several years.

Our home had a very long front sidewalk. I wrote previously about this house at https://graysonlaw.blog/2019/07/22/965-summit-avenue/?preview_id=166&preview_nonce=5c27f21c4b&preview=true. The front stairway of the home had about a dozen steps from the open front porch to the sidewalk. The sidewalk itself was about 100 feet from that stairway to the next stairway that went down to the boulevard. It was fairly wide – at least six feet across. The sidewalk was made up of very old concrete squares, each about 18 inches square. Because of the age of the sidewalk, none of the individual squares were even. Some were sunken, some raised, and others cracked.

You might think that I continued to use my trusty tennis ball to throw against the steps. Well, you would only be half right. Throwing a ball at the steps caused it to ricochet back to the thrower at various angles and speeds. The crooked sidewalk added to the adventure, so you had to be good in order to avoid the ball getting past you and into the somewhat busy street. I’d very often throw my body at a ball, much like a hockey goalie, if it was unclear whether I could get the ball with my glove. Now here is the interesting part. No, I didn’t use a tennis ball, but instead used a golf ball! I also used a smaller, little kids’ glove that seemed to better accommodate a golf ball.

Yes, I tore up lots of golf balls. The worst part, though, was whenever the ball got past me. I was pretty good about watching for pedestrians coming down the street, but I definitely could not account for cars. Several got nailed over the years, but surprisingly, very few ever stopped. Many slowed down, probably wondering what they had hit, but most never seemed to know what had happened.

As you can guess, this fielding practice required a great deal of dexterity and skill. Over the years, I’ve played softball with pretty good success in both the infield and the outfield. I contribute most of that success to those days playing on the hard sidewalk in my front yard!

As I mentioned, I had various other experiences playing baseball, including little league, limited High School play, and lots of sandlot play. The latter was for sure the most fun of all. I think it was a typical experience for kids back in the 1960s and 1970s (and prior), but not so much so today. Almost everything with kids today is scripted by adults. Our sandlot baseball (and helmet/pad-free tackle football) was standard Summer fare for us. There were great lessons learned on the fields in those days, some of which kids of today will never experience. It was these dog days of Summer that my friendship with Pat Judd and Jim Landwehr was really cemented. We were the regulars. We could count on a few others, but we never knew from day to day who might join the crew.

Our first challenge was to find enough kids to field close to two teams. That was tough! We needed at least 6-7 kids on each side. If we were short, we often played on both teams. More likely, we simply would have the hitter rotate back into the field after they’d hit. The second challenge was to find a decent field. Our favorite was a field near the Summit School. They had a great field with a very high “green monster” fence in left field. It took a mighty stroke for one of us to get the ball over the fence. Unfortunately, this did happen from time to time. It was unfortunate because the opposite side of the fence was a number of tennis courts. The players (often adults) really didn’t like the idea of stray baseballs raining down on their courts as they were trying to play. As a result, we often got chased off the field. Then, we all hopped on our bikes in search of another decent field.

The lessons surrounding finding a suitable field, identifying, calling & cajoling a sufficient number of players, ensuring the right equipment (bat, ball, bases, etc.), choosing sides, and setting ground rules (the tennis courts were an out, not a home run!), and being able to mediate disputes – all provided great logistical, legal, and other lessons for young kids. That is a far cry from the experience of today’s kids. I don’t know if it was better. It likely was, but mostly it was just a different time. I am so glad I had that experience.

My enjoyment of baseball and all the skills required led me to my lifelong love of softball. I’ve played softball at various competitive levels for over 45 years. Those experiences alone, and the friendships I’ve made though softball, have shaped me and provided valuable life lessons. More fodder for a future blog post!

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My Rotary Journey – Winnipeg Part II, the International Goodwill Meeting a/k/a, “On to Winnipeg!”

The traditional trip to Winnipeg started on a Friday. The bus ride was really the kick-off for the Saint Paul and Rotary District 5620 attendees, though there were almost always others who either flew or otherwise found their own transportation. The luxury bus arrived in Winnipeg late afternoon on Friday, which allowed attendees to check into the hotel and check into the conference. None of the “formal” activities started until the Canadian club hospitality suites “Canuck Nite, eh!” opened around 9 PM that night.

That sequence changed slightly when the curlers joined the trek. The curling bonspiel (tournament) started on Friday morning, so we had to arrive a day earlier. Most of the attendees had no problem adding an additional day to the trip, so most years the bus simply left earlier to accommodate curling. The group gathered for an informal dinner on Thursday evening, but otherwise tried to clear their senses in preparation for the grueling curling schedule on Friday. Other years, the curlers simply found their own way to Winnipeg and met the bus upon its arrival on Friday evening. More on curling in yet another blog.

Shortly after arrival, the St. Paul/District group met for cocktails at our own District Hospitality Suite for cocktails before walking a few short blocks for a fine dining experience. Dinner took place at Hy’s Steakhouse in downtown Winnipeg, a classy, upscale establishment that featured “Prime Grade steaks, cold martinis and trademark warm hospitality.” Coats and ties were demanded of the gentlemen and ladies wore appropriate evening attire.

We were ushered into a dark private room with one large rectangular table. The table was meticulously set for the precise number of guests. One of the short sides of the table was reserved for Bob Johnson, Dick Grayson, Bob Knox, the Rotary District Governor, and any other dignitaries. Like almost everything about the Winnipeg event, the Hy’s experience was scripted, though the script definitely allowed for spontaneity. Bob Johnson usually kicked off the event by recognizing the guests and the Rotary District Governor(s) in attendance. We then went around the table with introductions. We told a little bit about ourselves, our club, Rotary classification, and how many years we’d participated in On to Winnipeg. Many were repeat attendees, but we almost always had a healthy number of newcomers. It was nice to meet and get to know some of our smaller group before getting inundated with hundreds of other Rotarians at the larger meeting.

This dinner was paid for in advance with a flat fee, but it was always a challenge to ensure we did overspend our budget. Bob Johnson (or me) was responsible to ensure that we had an opportunity to order one cocktail before ordering dinner. We also had a very strict rule on the total number of cocktails by each attendee (thus the need for the cocktail party prior to the dinner!). After cocktails, we ordered our dinner. Wine was served with dinner, but again, strictly limited. I don’t remember all the details, but we engaged in general conversation with the people around us during dinner. There were, though, occasional interruptions by someone (usually Johnson, Knox or Grayson) with something they wanted to share. Dinner was always wonderful and the company was exceptional!

Sometime after dinner and before dessert, the real magic started. The floor was opened for stories, jokes, or whatever anyone wanted to bring up. My dad, Dick Grayson, always stood up to tell his latest joke. At some point someone (usually Bob Knox) would shout out, “Number 9!” Others would then join in, “Yes, number 9!” Newcomers would typically just look around wondering what was going on. After some rumbling back and forth, it became apparent that they were calling for my dad get back up to tell a specific joke. There were two stories/jokes that my dad seemingly told every year. Both were relatively long “jokes,” and each involved significant animation by my father. It always started by Knox or someone else yelling a number. You could count on hearing either “The Brigadier” or The Four Balls.” Most years, he would tell both, and this was clearly a highlight to all of the “regulars.”

I never had my dad’s gift of storytelling. I usually forget the punch line or otherwise can’t remember the sequence of the joke. Though I generally can see humor in almost any situation, telling stories/jokes is normally not my strength. I am much better with the written word, where I can think and ponder to get the words right. That said, I attended the Winnipeg Goodwill Meeting the year immediately following my dad’s death. At some point during the Hy’s dinner, the group started yelling numbers. I knew there was no way I could replicate my father’s recitation of one of his jokes, but I stood up anyway and gave it my best shot.

I chose “The Brigadier.” This joke involved an old British Brigadier sitting at a pub regaling his experiences during the war. The Brigadier was talking to an elderly chap at the other end of the bar. They were both hard of hearing, so the Brigadier’s “aide” (i.e., his son) had to shuttle back and forth between the two to transmit each part of the conversation. During his telling of this story, my dad would literally run from one end of the room to the other to animate the shuttling between the elderly British men. He used his best English accent to add character to the story. It has a quite funny ending, but certainly the best part of this whole story was my dad’s obvious joy in telling the tale.

During my telling, I admittedly might have had a bit too much wine during dinner. I truly wasn’t expecting to tell the story, but I’d heard it so many times that much of it was stored somewhere in my brain, even though I didn’t think it was. Somehow, I was able to channel my father in telling his story. I don’t know if it was nostalgia, recognition of the effort, or mere pity for me, but I got a solid round of applause after nailing the punch line! I felt that Dick Grayson was looking down proudly.

Dinner almost always had somewhat of an abrupt end. This was another of Bob Johnson’s scripted items. We needed to finish up on time in order to get to the Canadian hospitality suites. The Canuck Clubs did a fantastic job highlighting their local areas – and they were always a lot of fun. We meandered from room to room, each with a distinctive theme, and met Rotarians from across the Manitoba and beyond. We often received tchotchkes/souvenirs from each room – and there was always something unique to eat or drink. Most suites included music, dancing, games, and other activities. I can’t begin to explain how interesting and fun these evenings were, but it was typically long after midnight before we got to bed.

Doug Bruce and I were constant companions during each On to Winnipeg trip.

Saturday consisted of a business meeting, business/Rotary seminars, a formal luncheon, and various tours throughout the city. The luncheon included speeches by the various District Governors in attendance, award of the curling trophy, and the Sergeant of Arms for the Order of Rotary International Fellowship administering fines for various faux pas noted so far at the conference. Many of these were inside jokes, but some were terribly funny. The tours were fun and there was plenty of free time for other activities, such as ice skating on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the Festival du Voyageur (Canada’s Winter Carnival that often synced with this meeting), Manitoba Moose Hockey, numerous museums, and shopping.

River skating in Winnipeg

The Saturday evening formal banquet always kicked off with full pomp and circumstance. This was black tie optional. It included a bagpiper escorting the head table into the ballroom and a formal flag ceremony presented by the Canadian Mounties. A Canadian Color Guard would present the flags of both Canada and the United States and the audiance sang both National Anthems. Soon after me and our group of curlers started attending, Colonel (retired) Alan Ruvelson and I added to the ceremony by wearing our Army dress mess uniforms and presenting a United States Flag to the Winnipeg Clubs. There was always an interesting (and often famous) keynote speaker. Several times this was the sitting Rotary International President, but we had politicians, comedians, and various other famous types. All were very good!

Immediately following dinner was a mad dash to the U.S. hospitality suites. Like the Canadian rooms the previous night, the U.S. clubs did our best to match the hospitality. Ours was known as one of the more sedate rooms. We had a single harpist or a piano player, but were known for the drinks. Most hospitality rooms, both Canadian and U.S., offered wine or beer, but the District 5960 suite was well-known for our full bar. We also served ice cream sundaes as a drink alternative. Both options brought significant crowds to the room. We had to “staff” our room with a schedule, so our District attendees could get around to the other U.S. hospitality suites.

At a certain appointed time (11PM?), there was an informal attempt to gather all attendees back in the main ballroom of the hotel. The only “business” was to circle the room (holding hands if you were interested) and sing Auld Lang Syne, as celebration of our lasting friendships. For many, this was a powerful and defining moment of the entire conference. Then, it was quickly back to the hospitality suites. After an exhausting evening of pomp and circumstance, staffing our hospitality suite, and visiting other suites, we were definitely tuckered out. We had to sleep fast since the bus left promptly on Sunday morning. We often had to rouse someone who missed their alarm.

The ride home on the bus was simply a reverse of the outgoing trip. The bridge tournament continued until an eventual winner was determined. Those not involved in bridge simply relaxed and caught up on their sleep. Unlike some, I worked for myself, so did not have the following day off (Presidents Day), so I definitely took advantage of the plush bus seating for a nap.

Bob Knox and Marcy Wallace gunning for the Bridge trophy.

In addition to my multiple years attending the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting, I have attended many other conferences. In Rotary alone, I’ve attended four International Rotary Conferences, at least a half-dozen President Elect Training Conferences, and various District and multi-District conferences and events. None of those measure up to the Winnipeg Conference. Attendees came from across Canada, throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana, and even regular attendees from North Carolina and Arizona. It was unique and diverse. International Conferences are wonderous in their own right, but I find them a bit too large and logistically difficult to navigate. Smaller conferences don’t provide a sufficient critical mass. Winnipeg was just right.

Several years after I left the Twin Cities, the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting died. This was actually a slow death, as attendance had started to wane. Like many events, it is hard to sustain over a period of years, but this event hung in there for over 80 years – through wars, a depression, and many other times of economic and social turmoil. It was a unique display of the long-standing American (Canadian and U.S.) partnership. I am encouraged to hear sparks of new interest in resurrecting this tradition – and will be first in line, together with my pal, Doug Bruce, when that effort begins to roll!

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My Rotary Journey – Winnipeg & Curling

Who would be crazy enough to go to Winnipeg, Canada, in February?! I thought that for many years as I watched my father and his Rotary pals board a bus to Winnipeg. This was a tradition of my Rotary club for years, but had only fairly recently been re-energized by Saint Paul Rotary luminaries such as Bob Johnson, Bob Knox, Dick Grayson, Ken Crabb, Rich Cammack, Andy Keane, John McNulty, Jerry Meigs, and a whole host of others. I think my first foray into the winter tundra was 1997 or so. That was the 79th Annual International Goodwill Meeting. The event started to commemorate the charter of the first Rotary Club outside of the United States. The Saint Paul and Minneapolis clubs, together with Duluth, charted the first club in Winnipeg. The International Goodwill Meeting was truly a grand celebration of U.S. and Canadian relations. Many Rotary International Governors appeared over the years to add to the festivities.

The crowd that Johnson, Grayson, and Knox, et al, re-started was quite lively. That might be an understatement. Rather than the traditional train trip to Winnipeg that the earlier groups had organized, this newer group of hearty Northerners charted a luxury bus for the trip. For the non-politically correct version of this trip I have to use my imagination. I just know that there was a lot of liquor loaded onto the bus and upon their return to Saint Paul, none could drive home from the bus drop off location. Thus, I was the “designated driver” to get some of them the last few miles home. I also know that cards were involved, but it certainly was not poker. Bridge was the game – and they always carried a trophy from year to year, newly inscribed with the latest winner. I have heard stories, but cannot confirm, of some shady movies that may have been played on the television screen on the bus.

II say I can’t confirm activities on the bus because I’ve only heard rumors. Fortunately, a few brave women, including Rotarians Gretchen Dian, Carolyn Brusseau, and Nancy McKillips, made the trek a couple years before my attendance and they were able to clean up the act!  I can pretty much attest that EVERYONE who attended the event came back with marvelous stories of the great Canadian hospitality. For a few, this trip became their primary Rotary interest. I figured there must be something beyond the drinks and I can assure you that there definitely is!

My group introduced curlers to the throng of Rotarians from the Twin Cities heading North. Curling had been a part of the International Goodwill Meeting for many decades, but no one had recollection of a contingent from the Saint Paul Rotary Club. The problem for me was that I didn’t know anything about curling! The whole idea started when my Rotarian friends Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I were spending a late evening around the fire at the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. We decided it might be fun to see what all the hubbub was about. First, we figured we’d better learn how to curl.

We recruited other members of our club, Al Zdrazil, and later Alan Ruvelson, to join our team. We registered for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. Al was the first “skip” for our team since he was the only one who had actually curled before. The skip is the leader who calls the shots, directs the action, and throws the last stone. We were not particularly good, but we had fun. It is my recollection that we lost most of our games, with possibly one or two lucky wins. We especially enjoyed the collegiality among teams. The collegiality included sharing several of pitchers of beer with the opponent after the game.

St. Paul Rotary Curlers (2002?) Cathy Smith (District Governor), Doug Bruce, Pete Grayson, and Alan Ruvelson

President’s Day weekend in mid-February was normally the weekend for the International Goodwill Meeting. It correlated to Rotary Founder, Paul Harris’s birthday, rather than the actual founding of the Winnipeg Club. It also gave some South of the Northern border Americans a Monday holiday to recover!

Our first trip to Winnipeg was quite an eye opening and enjoyable experience. What was interesting about it was the structure. Everything about our Club’s and District’s participation in the weekend was scripted in very detailed fashion. Much of this was due to the assiduousness of Rotary Past District Governor Bob Johnson. The planning actually started in late Fall (September, I believe). The planning meeting was a dinner at a local HOA club room. It was called the “Due Diligence” dinner. Dinner with cocktails (of course!) and as we learned, the menu was exactly the same every year:

  • Appetizer of cream cheese and chutney with crackers
  • Grilled tenderloin steak – at least 2 inches thick
  • Caesar salad
  • Classic chocolate ice cream bars
  • Cabernet Sauvignon wine

After dinner, Bob led the agenda (printed for all). It consisted of providing the dates and times for everything (down to a tee), assigning various tasks and roles, and picking out ideas for our club/district hospitality room. Bob assigned me as “chair” of the event, even though I had not even attended a Goodwill Weekend meeting! It worked out just fine, though, as Bob really ran everything behind the scenes. Interestingly,at the end of the dinner, Bob always seemed to be the one loading the leftover liquor into his car. Ostensibly, this was so he could be sure to “save” it for the next year’s due diligence planning dinner!

Doug and I alternated as chair for several more years and we essentially followed Bob’s script. Our biggest job as “chair” was to arrange for the bus and to recruit attendees. This was actually quite a difficult job since we had to ensure an optimal number of riders on the bus in order to make it relatively affordable, but the bus not too full.

The bus ride had a script as well. I don’t recall all the details now, but Bob gave me a list of the booze to purchase. He seemed to have it all measured by the glass. It seemed like plenty to me, but Bob had his ways. I just didn’t know why the specifics were was so important to him. The packing list also included pickled herring, various condiments (some quite strange), sandwich fixing, and various other snacks. Bob Knox also supplied “real” glassware since he claimed you could not drink a fine cocktail out of plastic!

The bus ride was LONG – about 9+ hours. There was a Bridge game going during the entire trip. The non-bridge players read, chatted, or brought work along for the trip. There was a television on the bus, but I really don’t recall much interest in watching videos. Drinks flowed freely. I finally found out why Bob Johnson was such a stickler for the amount of liquor. As we approached the Canadian border we needed to make sure we did not exceed the limit of alcohol per person crossing the border. Fortunately, that limit did not apply to liquor already imbibed, so the pace of drinking often increased suddenly when we got within about a half-hour of the border.

Arrival at the entrance of the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg was epic! What a grand and historic structure. It is a huge stone building very close to the main Winnipeg train station. It has over 240 guest rooms, a casino, and several HUGE reception rooms. There was more than enough space for a large convention. Just past the main lobby is the circular, formal and ornate cocktail lounge with a high ceiling. It is almost like sitting beneath the dome of a grand cathedral.

The majestic Fort Garry Hotel, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

I am many paragraphs into this blog and we haven’t even gotten to the main event, the International Goodwill Meeting. Suffice it to say that I learned so much about planning and organization – and people – from the preparation alone. Bob Johnson, for all his faults, was a tremendous influence. His meticulous planning and attention to detail live with me to this day. The meeting itself and all the hijinks will have to wait for my next blog post: Winnipeg, Part II, the International Goodwill Meeting.

My Rotary Journey – Youth Leadership (AKA: Camp RYLA)

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As it so happened, one of my most influential Army mentors, Colonel Dave Pearson, had retired from active duty and was then a member of the Saint Paul Rotary Club. Dave was the chair of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. This was a very well established and long-term Club project. The project started in the mid-1940s as the Rotary Youth Conference and was the first of its kind in the world of Rotary. Over the years the names morphed. At one time it was called the Young Men’s Leadership Conference, Rotary Youth Leadership Conference, and then the full-name of the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. It later became Camp RYLA as I will explain below.

Many aspects of the conference changed over time, but the overall concept remained the same. Each club in the District was invited to send two students to the annual event. The conference lasted between 3-4 days with a basic ideal of teaching and inspiring mature high school students on leadership, recognizing and celebrating vocations, and yes, even to showcase Rotary. The latter, though, was mostly an afterthought.

Most years had somewhere between 120-150 students in attendance. Rotary provided housing, meals, transportation, and the program support. All of this was done through volunteers. Our biggest task was to recruit volunteers to serve as counselors, cooks, speakers, drivers, small group leaders, game leaders, and a whole host of other tasks. Dave Pearson recruited me to serve on his committee with an eye toward leading the Conference the following year. I was involved in all planning with Dave that year and spend a wonderful four days at the YMCA Camp St. Croix. Camp St. Croix is a fantastic wooded site that sits atop the bank of the St. Croix river. It consisted of a large number of separate cabins for campers, together with a large dining hall, theater, and a number of other administrative buildings. The YMCA also had a high ropes course and trust workshops that we built into the curriculum.

Confidence and teamwork building at Camp RYLA

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army had other ideas, so I missed the 1996 Conference. Dave recruited another Rotarian, Dan Fesler, to take up the role as Chairman of the 1996 Conference. Upon my return, I worked closely with Dan and Dave to ensure I was ready to take on that role for the 1997 Conference. As is Rotary tradition, both stayed quite involved, so we didn’t have any failures. They also had recruited another member, Sheila Maun, to take over in case I was not ready.

“Be a Leader” was the conference theme that year.  The objectives of the conference were to learn about leadership and how you can make a difference; to learn about county government and how it operates; to learn about group dynamics and decision-making; and to learn about yourself and others. The 125 student attendees reflected a cross-section of society and were chosen to attend based upon their leadership potential.  Approximately 50 Rotary leaders assisted in the conference and nearly 100 more Rotarians were involved in planning the program.  Many of the Rotarians participated in a unique ethical problem solving discussions with the students. We used the Rotary Four-Way Test to teach and demonstrate ethical principles.

I had so much fun training and teaching – and just being around those young people – that I decided to lead the conference the year after Sheila’s year. I served as her deputy in 1998 and then served as Conference Chair of the conference again in 1999. Sometime between my first and second conference, I figured I’d better work on continuity. I met Kelly Unger at a Rotary District event and put her in the pipeline as conference chair. Next were my Rotary friends, Doug Bruce and Greg Hudalla. The four of us, together with a group of Rotaractors (in short, Rotary for younger members), ended up being the core of the program for the next several years. District Governor Will Salesses took notice of our enthusiasm for the project and Greg and I us to a Rotary International event for Camp RYLA. RYLA stands for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. It was there that we realized that others outside of our club were doing very similar events. The only difference was that theirs were District projects rather than the project of a single club like ours.

We shared ideas, but left that meeting with the idea stuck in our heads to broaden the reach of our conference to a District-wide event. Why should the Saint Paul club bear the entire brunt of planning and execution for what was, in fact, a District-wide event? As is typical in large organizations, this took some lobbying work – both at the club level and at District level – but ultimately, our Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference became Camp RYLA.

Enough about the administration of this project. This blog is supposed to be about influences in my life. Yes, I had a lot of fun – and learned a lot about organization – but the real magic of Camp RYLA was experiencing the effect and transformation it had on our students. It truly changed lives. I saw it first hand many times. Even for those it did not transform, it certainly had a lasting impact on almost everyone who attended. Let me give you an example of the transformation I saw on one young man:

Gunther was a quiet, mild-mannered teenager.  He was rather shy, had very few friends, and simply didn’t get out much.  Gunther didn’t particularly like school and frankly, wasn’t doing all that well.  Neither his parents nor his teachers had expectations for him after high school.  College did not appear to be in Gunther’s future.  Gunther would likely stay home in their small town, find a nondescript job and pretty much keep to himself.  But he wouldn’t necessarily be invisible.  You see, at 17 years old, Gunther weighed well over 300 pounds.  Finally, something changed in Gunther’s life.  One teacher noted a spark and found a way to recommend Gunther to attend a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp.  Gunther reluctantly agreed, but didn’t hold out too much hope for anything.

Once at camp Gunther was thrown together with a number of students he didn’t know.  They were all together in an unfamiliar environment.  Slowly throughout his camp experience the real Gunther began to emerge.  Gunther later explained that Camp RYLA was the first time in his life that he was accepted.  He’d never experienced that before.  He was accepted for who he was, not what he looked like.  He was not ridiculed.  No one made jokes about his weight.  Others listened to what he had to say.  By the end of camp Gunther began to show true leadership.  This shy, introverted, friendless teenager with no self-confidence was remarkably transformed.  He made more friends in one weekend than he had made in his entire life.

It didn’t end there.  Gunther returned to school and maintained the confidence that he gained at camp.  His grades improved markedly and he began to demonstrate leadership in his school.  After the summer break, he returned to school with renewed vigor.  He made the school’s honor roll and was becoming a popular member of his class.  Gunther returned to Camp RYLA the following spring as a junior counselor and continued to demonstrate his new found leadership skills and self-confidence.

I saw this transformation first hand.  Last I heard Guther graduated from college and was happy.  I talked to his mother several years ago.  She cried as she talked to me.  Gunther was doing quite well and his future looked bright.  She told me that Camp RYLA was by far the best experience Gunther ever had.  It changed his life.

That is what Camp RYLA is all about.  It can be a life changing experience.  It was for Gunther and it was for me. I’ve seen other similar things in Rotary, whether through Camp RYLA, Rotary Youth Exchange, and various other programs, but Camp RYLA definitely changed my life. I became a better leader, listener, learner, and coach. I learned how I can live my life in a way that can positively impact others. I, like Gunther, was transformed. No longer was I a Rotary newbie, but I belonged. I had become a Rotarian.

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My Rotary Journey – the Beginning

As indicated in my last post, it was not my decision to join Rotary. I think I wanted to follow my own path rather than follow that of my father and grandfather. I was already a lawyer working for my dad, so I figured that was enough. As the years have gone by, my Rotary experience has been far different than either my dad or grandpa. I’ve been a member of four different Rotary clubs and two Districts. That alone gave me a much broader perpective of Rotary. I have been more involved in Rotary International, such as Youth Exchange, attending meetings abroad, being involved in District leadership, and attending multiple Rotary International Conventions.

That said, I have similar experiences to my dad and almost every Rotarian. That means enjoying the fellowship of other Rotarians; celebrating the successes of Rotary’s PolioPlus effort to eradicate Polio; participating in club projects in the local community; and just being a part of a community with similar values of truth, fairness, integrity, action, goodwill, friendship, diversity, mutual respect, leadership development, philanthropy, fun, and fellowship. Nearly all of my Rotary experiences have been positive, but like any endeavor, I’ve run into a few Rotarians who forgot the hallmarks of Rotary’s Four-Way Test. For a Rotarian, the Four-Way Test is the cornerstone of all action. Of the things we think, say or do:

Is it the TRUTH?

Is it FAIR to all concerned?

Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

It is amazing to associate with a group of people where almost everyone has the same basic ethical values. I find that to be one of the best aspects of Rotary. My first – and current – club is one of the oldest clubs in the Rotary World. There are currently somewhere over 35,000 Rotary Club worldwide and the Saint Paul Rotary Club was established in 1910 as Club #10. Over the past 30 years, it has ranged in size from around 100 members to well over 250. I used to explain to non-Rotarians one of the best benefits to the club – if I need a lawyer, there is one (or more) in the club; if I need a realtor, there is one or more in the club; if I need an auto mechanic, there is one or more in the club. Mortician, doctor, dentist, accountant, architect, property manager, pastor, opthomalogist, stock broker, veterinarian, educator, banker, travel agent, insurance agent, dry cleaner, entrepeneur, pig farmer, jeweler, manufacturer(s), caterers, College President, city mayor, publisher, printer, graphic designer, florist, moving & storage, librarian, historian, newspaper, Scouting representative, picture framer, auto dealer, beer brewer, advertising executive, chamber of commerce, and a whole host of non-profit businesses and services, there is one in the club. It is like an Angie’s List on steroids – and all hold the same basic values.

Almost all of my best friends are Rotarians. I guess it is just natural for people to associate with like-minded people. Yes, there is great diversity across many demographic and political characteristics, but all are united around the common theme of the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self” and the aforementioned Four-Way Test. This was not always the case, but for many years, Rotary International has led in diversity, even before it became commonplace. That is because Rotary is truly and International organization. We have members across the globe. An International Rotary Convention is a veritable smorgasbord of people and cultures, many wearing their traditional/cultural attire. All share a common ethic and a strong desire to make the world – and their own communities – better. We don’t just pine for that, but we get our hands dirty to make it happen.

Okay, I think I’ve rambled on long enough about some positive aspects of Rotary. It was not my intent to have an entire blog about this, but rather, to talk about my experience in Rotary and how that has impacted my life, so here goes:

As I think back, I had a rather typical beginning in Rotary. I attended meeting regularly. In those days, members HAD to show up. There was competition among members for the longest streak of 100% attendance. The leaders were often in decades, not months or years. I knew very few of the members and was one of the younges members in the club. I latched on to Doug Bruce, a stockbroker about my age, but there were few others. Everyone knew my dad, so that was always a topic of conversation. Many expected me to be as gregarious as he was. Perhaps I am in some ways, but in as much of an outgoing way. As a result, it really took me a long time until I felt like I fit in. It was even longer before I truly felt I was a Rotarian.

I volunteered on projects as I could. At the time, I had young children, so could not do as much as I would have liked. The first project I really dug into was a gardening project in downtown St. Paul. It was called the Cleveland Circle Project. Cleveland Circle was at the point of several well-traveled routes into the city. It was an intersection of roads directly in front of the St. Paul Civic Center, which is now the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild hockey club (and yes, the Wild does have a Rotary member). The Rotary Club of Saint Paul was “deeded” four plots around the intersection to be used as flower beds. Rotarians planted the plots every Spring and kept the beds weeded throughout the Summer. I think I volunteered for weeding once, and was thereafter personally called each successive session. After about a year of this, I suddenly found myself as the Chair of the Cleveland Circle committee.

I had little idea of what I had undertaken. The previous chair provided very good instructions on the logistics, but less about recruiting volunteers. I put a notice in the club bulletin and made an announcement at a weekly meeting about our upcoming tilling and planting effort. At that time, I had little idea what gardening was all about, so following the previous year’s instructions, I rented a gas-powered tiller. I showed up early on a Saturday morning with the tiller and had to figure out by myself how to work it. It is a wonder I didn’t lose a limb! As the morning moved on, the hot coffee became cold – and the doughnuts were not much better. No one showed up to help! Nada. These were big gardens – four of them – and I was on my own.

Even before starting the tiller, though, I had to clean the gardens after a Winter of neglect. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of garbage that had accumulated over the Winter. It wasn’t only fast food wrappers, but condoms, hypodermic needles, and more weird stuff than you would expect. Sometime near 10:30AM, a couple of Rotarians showed up, one of whom actually knew what he was doing with the tiller. He stayed until we finished all four plots. I’d been there since 8AM and it we finally finished sometime after 1PM! This was untenable unless I was able to recruit volunteers.

I had learned my first lesson of Rotary – Rotarians were more than willing to help, but they must be personally asked. Sometimes it takes multiple asks. The Cleveland Circle planting was supposed to take place the following Saturday. I knew I couldn’t call all 200 Rotarians to ask, so I tried the next best thing: made a fool of myself! That was something I didn’t need any training on. I got up in front of the membership on Tuesday and sang. I don’t do Kareoke and have rarely been noted for my singing voice. It took all the courage I had, but I walked up to the podium asked for volunteers by singing a request to the tune of “Day-O.”

“Day-O, Saturday-O, Rotarians are goin’ out and we’re gonna plant flowers . . . .”

Yes, I also made some calls. By the time Saturday rolled around, we had a good sized crew. With sufficient volunteers, the task of four large beds was actually pretty easy. I was able to direct and supervise rather than actually do ALL the work myself. Lesson 1 of Rotary learned! The rest of the year went pretty well. I think I was chair of the Cleveland Circle project for at least a couple of years before turning it over to someone new. I learned a lot about Rotarians and became more than just a mere member. Lesson 2: if you want to feel part of the club, you need to get involved. The more, the better. Also, it never hurts to make fun of yourself every once in a while!

My Rotary Journey – the Seeds

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I have been a member of Rotary for nearly 30 years. Hard to believe, but Rotary has actually been a part of my life much longer than that. My first memories of Rotary were asking my grandfather (Papa) about his Rotary pin that he dutifully wore on his lapel every day. I also remember accompanying him on occasion to special Rotary meetings at the Saint Paul Athletic Club. These were quite formal affairs in a giant ballroom with well over 300 men in attendance. These particular meetings were set aside for members to bring their children or grandchildren to the club.

Nearly every major business in town was represented at the meetings. Most of the time it was the CEO or President of each company. Though there were over 300 members at the time, membership in the Saint Paul Rotary Club was still quite exclusive. My grandfather was the retired President of Western Fruit Express, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. For a young kid, this was high society. The meetings generally kicked off with a gathering of cigar, pipe, and cigarette smokers around the bar about an hour prior to the meeting. My granfather smoked cigars, but I have little recollection of him drinking much. Anyway, because he had my sister Pam and I in tow, he avoided that part of the meeting whenever we joined him.

It was MUCH later that my father got involved in Rotary. He had become a well-established lawyer in Saint Paul and was active in many volunteer and social activities in town. He had been active in the Ramsey County Bar association, taught at the University of Minnesota, and was President of the Saint Paul (later Ramsey County) Humane Society for many years. It was in the latter role that he became friends with Dr. Jim Olin, a veterinarian who was longtime Rotarian in Saint Paul. Jim was a past president of the Saint Paul Rotary Club and past District Governor of the Rotary District. You would think that between Jim and my grandfather that my dad would be a shoo-in for membership. You would be wrong!

One of the Charter Members of the Saint Paul Rotary Club was a lawywer named William H. (Bill) Oppenheimer. The Oppenheimer Law Firm is now a nationwide firm and has always been a big player in the Twin Cities legal market. They maintained a strong presence in the Saint Paul Rotary Club and used their influence to exclude any other lawyers from the club. One of the early tenets of Rotary was to have a wide range of vocations, so it was very common to have only one Doctor, one Lawyer, one Stock Broker, one Insurance Company, one Funeral Director, etc. As a result, even though there were many members, it was still quite difficult to gain entry into the club. That is changed now, but it served to exclude many otherwise good members over the years.

After my Dad had been rejected numerous times, Jim Olin had an idea. Each time that my dad had applied, he had to provide the area of law that he practiced. Each time, the Oppenheimer member would state to the membership committee, “we do that” and objected to the application. All it took was an objection from a current member to exclude a new member in the same vocational category. Finally, Jim presented my dad’s application as “Attorney – Mortuary Law.” Upon reviewing the application, Oppenheimer looked up and said, “What the heck is that?” Jim replied, “Well, it looks like you don’t do it!” With that, the committee approved my dad’s membership!

Because of his many connections in the club, my dad became active in Rotary very quickly. We participated in many events as a family. One of the most worthwhile projects was getting involved in Youth Exchange. This necessitated the entire family getting involved since we hosted high school students from Honduras and Japan – a boy and a girl. Each stayed with us for approximately three months. Jose’ was the first. Since he was a boy and close to my age, I became responsible for him. He went just about everywhere with me. He liked school and was somewhat of a novelty. He definitely enjoyed that, especially the attention of the girls! He didn’t like my job nearly as much. At the time, I had a paper route. I got up very early EVERY day. Jose’ stayed with us in the middle of the winter and HATED trudging through the snow with me. Many times he failed to join me, but most of the time he did.

Yoko was our second exchange student. As a girl, she was Pam’s responsibility. Like with Jose’, we learned a lot about a culture different from ours. Unlike Jose’, who basically followed the rules, Yoko quickly took to the new freedom that she found in the United States. For her, that meant dating, something she was not allowed to do at home. Serious dating was also contrary to the rules of Rotary Youth Exchange. Yoko knew her steady boyfriend was a clear violation of the rules, but she persisted anyway. As much as we tried, we could not get her to tow the line. She became secretive about it and started to disassociate with Pam and our family. It was about this time that she moved on to another family. I think the Rotary counselor got involved – and ultimately threatened to send her home early – but she did finish out the year. I don’t know if she gave up the boyfriend, but at least she figured out it had to come to an end soon anyway.

That was not the end of Rotary Youth Exchange for the Grayson family. My sister Pam spent a year in South Africa in 1979-1980 and brother Jon followed her footsteps a few years later. His was a year with Rotary Youth Exchange in Birmingham, England. Strangely enough, I did not participate in Youth Exchange for a multitude of reasons, but I did spend an extended weekend at Camp Enterprise, hosted by the Edina Rotary Club. Even though it was a short event, Camp Enterprise had a huge impact on me and directly led to my interest in public speaking and politics. MUCH later, I became involved in Rotary Youth Exchange again, but that is a story for another day.

After a long time as an an active member, my dad was offered the opportunity to “run” for President of the club. In those days, the office was much more competitive than it is now, which often led to hotly contested elections. Dad lost to Bob Johnson, who went on to become an influential District Governor after his term as President. It was shortly after that election that the Saint Paul Rotary Club changed its procedures and nominated a slate of officers, with only a confirmation “vote” by the entire membership. It was under these new rules that Dad finally became President. While he was one of the first presidents elected by a committee rather than the general membership, it was not without issues. Dad was hugely popular in many circles, but less so in others. Keep in mind that this was the late 1980s and women had just been admitted into Rotary in 1978. Things were changing and Dad wasn’t changing fast enough!

My father almost became the first Saint Paul Rotary President to be impeached. As most Presidents do, Dad added some personal touches to the weekly agenda. The one that led to problems was his practice to start each meeting with a story or a joke. Unfortunately, being “old school,” many of Dad’s stories were off-color. In his defense, he had jokes that offended everyone, so there was definitely no intentional targeting, bias, or discrimination. I don’t know the story that was the tipping point, but I can venture a guess based upon his repitore. A number of prominent women in the club lodged complaints. It wasn’t until other women, including future Club President Carolyn Brusseau, stepped in to mediate, that the office was saved. Dad toned down his act and eliminated most jokes, but he survived the year.

I formally became involved in Rotary in 1993 after joining my father in his law practice. I really had no intention joining, but one day my Dad dropped an application form on my desk and told me to fill it out and get it back to him. I don’t think I ever completed the application – I was worried about the cost of membership – but several weeks later I received a letter from the Saint Paul Rotary Club informing me that my application had been approved. When I protested to Dad, he told me that the firm would take care of my membership. So, that was truly the beginning. Everything before that was just a prelude to the journey that I was about to embark on. Rotary has provided me so many mentors and friends over the years. Even though it wasn’t my idea, Rotary has greatly impacted my life. More about my personal Rotary story in my next blog!

Kaposvar, Part 2

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Not only was my Army career looking up after I got to Kaposvar, but so was my fitness and social life. Yes, the Captain’s Club was fun, but there were also a number of poor influences. I was certainly drinking too much beer; the food in the mess hall was plentiful; I was hardly working out; and all that started adding to my waistline! My new influences were fellow Captains in our Kaposvar home – Laurel Devine, Mercer Hedgeman, Ken Speaks, and Ben Tuck. All were quite physically fit and I started mimicking their routines.

There was no way I could keep up with Mercer. He was a former Division 1 football player from Rutgers University. Mercer worked out two times per day, so there was no way I could keep up with him! Laurie, Ben, and Ken were more my speed. Ken lived at Taszar, so he wasn’t a regular, but Laurie, Ben, and I were a workout team. It got rather old running around our small former Soviet Army base. As we ran more, we needed more space. At one point we found a mostly abandoned “back gate” that abutted the woods. We were able to work around the NATO concertina razor wire and through a break in the fence line.

Mercer signing an autograph for a young Hungarian girl. He was the first black man she’d ever seen and thought he was someone famous. As you can tell from her face, she is overjoyed!

There were rumors about this “back gate” and a few brave souls apparently found some running trails in the woods. At first it was just Laurie and I who had the guts to try, but we quickly convinced Ben that this was “safe.” Keep in mind that we were restricted to our base, unless off on official duty. That meant written permission from a senior official. We somehow convinced ourselves that fitness was definitely official duty. In getting around the restriction policy, we reasoned that the woods were truly an extension of the base. It wasn’t as if we were walking around in town or in someone’s back yard.

So, the running really started with earnest. Sometimes it was only two, but often four or five of us. Almost always, it was me and Laurie, and we were dedicated. So dedicated, in fact, that we made a pact among ourselves that we would run the Twin Cities Marathon upon our return. At one point this was just four of us, but that later grew to others within our unit, to include some back in Wiesbaden (fat chance!). We ended up finding trails for miles and miles outside of that back gate and ran just about any chance we got. Before too long the rumored and unofficial back gate running route was actually approved. Even then, though, we rarely saw more than a couple of runners during our routines.

One terrible experience occurred while in the makeshift gym after one of our runs. The gym was basically a large fest tent with a plywood floor. It housed various workout equipment on one side and a small basketball court on the other side. Laurie, Ben and I were stretching in the workout room and Mercer was across the room on weights. I was laying on the floor stretching my legs when a Soldier staggered out from the basketball court area and fell face-first right next to me. He was out cold. Laurie and I immediately tried to waken him, but it quickly appeared that his heart stopped. We started CPR while someone summoned an ambulance. Someone found the unit surgeon, who quickly replaced us performing CPR, but the Hungarian ambulance didn’t arrive for another 45 minutes.

It was painful to watch the female military doctor frantically performing CPR without a break for nearly an hour. By the time the ambulance crew took over, it was apparent that the Soldier was dead. We later learned that he had suffered a brain aneurysm. He died within moments and no amount of CPR could have saved him. I can still see that doctor working so hard without avail to save him. His friends on the basketball court said he complained of a severe headache and left the game shortly before he collapsed. A few days later, we held a unit memorial. Like all of us on our small base, his was a familar face. There were no dry eyes at that memorial.

Another memorable occasion in Hungary was the Fourth of July in 1996. This was the first real holiday that we had. They opened up the Taszar airfield to a Hungarian “market” of sorts. Vendors from outside the base sold local goods that most of the Soldiers never had the opportunity to see. A large fest-tent messhall catered an old fashioned USA barbeque feast. There were games and other activities all day on the airfield, including a 5K run. At dusk, the First Armored Division band started playing. Pretty soon a fireworks display started. They shot off directly above us – perhaps the closest I’ve ever been to live, commercial fireworks. The highlight was when red, white and blue fireworks displayed above while the band played the National Anthem, America the Beautiful, and other patriotic songs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite the chill – or was ever so proud to be an American Soldier – than when saluting the American Flag in a foreign land that night in Hungary.

My job continued to be interesting, but the same was not so true for Mercer and Laurie. They worked for another unit – the forward portion of my 19th CMMC unit from back in Wiesbaden. Their boss, Lieutenant Colonel Quimby, reported regularly to Colonel Hubbard back in Wiesbaden. LTC Quimby had an issue with the pair before I arrived – he feared some sort of secret romance between the two. Unfortunately, them making friends with me seemed to make it worse. It should have been better since we started to hang out as three, but it did not. Hubbard had warned Quimby that all I did was stir up trouble and Quimby didn’t want any part of it! We were scrutinized by Quimby every time he saw us. Poor Mercer, the active duty officer reporting to Quimby, got the worst of it!

Later in our tour we were authorized R&R outings. This included an opportunity to spend a weekend in Budapest – and I think some got were able to get back to Germany if they had family there. I actually got two weekends in Budapest. The first was a weekend with just Ben and I. We shared a room in a Dominican Convent right next to the famous Matthias Church on the “Buda” side of the Donau River. This is also adjacent to the Fisherman’s Bastion that houses a statue of St. Stephen and overlooks the river. St. Stephen is revered in Hungary and was its first King in the year 1000. In short, we were staying, literally, within the most famous sites of Budapest. It is in the area called the Holy Trinity Square. The convent is remarkable and Matthias Church is probably one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever stepped foot into. It is quite unique with its mosaic tile throughout.

Ben and I had a great weekend touring both sites of the Buda and Pest neighborhoods. The history was remarkable and I learned so much, including the great Hungarian uprising in 1956 that was ultimately quashed by the Soviets. We also ate great food and freely drank alcohol for the first time in months.

I was later lucky enough to visit Budapest again. This time it was mostly as a chaperone to make sure that Laurie and Mercer remained platonic friends! Still, we made the most of that short weekend. We walked miles and miles exploring the city. The hotel was NOT the same. This time it was a run of the mill hotel on the Pest side of the river. Mercer and I shared a room, though I don’t recall spending much time there. Even though I really enjoyed the company, nothing could compare with that first taste of freedom – and the spectacular location – that I shared with Ben.

Sadly, I’ve mostly lost touch with Mercer, Ben, Ken, and many others from my time in Kaposvar. I’ve remained fast friends with Laurie, but we have not gotten together in a very long time. I’m proud to say that of the six or so who agreed to run the Twin Cities Marathon, Laurie and I were the only two who competed – and completed! We even ran it again several years later with our friend Kay.

Laurie, me, and Kay. Twin Cities Marathon finishers!

Upon our return to Minnesota at the end of the mobilization, Laurie and I remained close. We both left the 19th CMMC and joined a training unit for a short time before I moved on to another new unit. We remained close until Laurie moved away. At my urging, Laurie applied for active Army duty and was selected for a coveted Active Guard-Reserve Soldier position. Though she moved away, this turned out to be a great move for her. We kept in touch regularly and our families got together several times when I was in Baltimore and she in Washington DC.

I learned much from my deployment to Germany and Hungary. This was very much an exercise in perseverence. Overall, it was a difficult time, but through it I learned to trust my instincts. Sadly, I also learned to be wary of who to trust. I learned that our Nation’s fear of the Soviets was unfounded in many ways. The Hungarians, like the Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavians, and ultimately East Germans were begging for freedom. The Soviet Union, much like historical “empires,” were overly-extended and burdened by the cost of maintining their military presence abroad. This was evident in Hungary by the very poor facilities, vehicles and tanks on blocks in the motor pools, and jets left rotting on the runways.

There are so many lessons I learned from my friends. Mercer demonstrated a daily dedication to fitness. In addition, he remained one of the most professional Soldiers I’ve ever seen, despite the continual put-downs and undeserved ass-chewings from LTC Quimby. Ben was an extremely competent Soldier and helped me learn logistics like I never had before. He was also good about keeping his head down (i.e., how to stay just outside the target zone), unlike me, who always seemed to end up in the middle of it! I definitely learned a lesson or two on that from Ben.

Laurie remains the best friend I gained from that deployment and she made a huge impact on me. Laurie is always upbeat and friendly. She is definitely not afraid of what people think of her. I initially thought that she was one of the happy, go lucky types, but I quickly recognized a dogged determination behind that always-cheerful facade. Not that her cheerfulness was fake, but in those days it often masked her competence and dedication. Laurie made her start at the Dorothy Day Center soup kitchen and ended up retiring as a senior Public Affairs Officer at the Pentagon. Though I think I’ve always had a healthy dose of humor, I believe I lost it for a time, especially as related to the Army. Laurie helped me realize again that humor and a smile are the best ways to deal with difficult circumstances. Except for a few isolated incidents, that is a lesson that has stuck with me my entire life.

Was this deployment hard? Definitely. Did it make me a better person and a better Army Officer? No doubt. In fact, it set the stage for the next stage in my Army career. Shortly after returning home, not only was I promoted to Major, but I finally transferred to the Army Judge Advocate General Corps. This changed the entire trajectory of my career and it all started in Kaposvar, Hungary.

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Kaposvar, Hungary

From the low point of my exile from Germany and the XO declaring my career was over, there really was nowhere to go but up. Strangely, this change slowly changed the arc of my life in the Army. That isn’t to say that there were no more hard times, but somehow my entire perspective changed.

The start of the directional change was my arrival at the logistical staging base at Taszar Airbase in Hungary. It was my understanding that I would spend a couple of days in Hungary before hopping on a follow-on flight to Slavonski Brod, Croatia, or Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the bus I ran into a Chief Warrant Officer I knew, Andy Tuthill. He was headed to the G-4 (logistics) shop in Kaposvar, Hungary. Upon arrival at Taszar, Chief Tuthill reached out to his new mates in the G-4 Office for transportation to Kaposvar. Master Sergeant Hurst arrive to pick him up. Since it was unclear where and when I was heading out, I figured I’d tag along with them to the mess hall. There I learned that the G-4 was woefully understaffed. MSG Hurst hurried off to call his boss as Chief and I finished our breakfast. MSG Hurst came back with the idea that I join their office in Kaposvar instead of going further “down range.” His boss apparently agreed. I hung out at Taszar as they worked out the details.

Map of the IFOR Intermediate Staging Base for logistics and personnel. First stop on the way to the combat zone. The picturesque Lake Baleton area is just under two hours to the North, but we never got to spend time there!

As it turns out, my new boss, Major Chuck Burden, was able to make his case and get me added to his staff. I’m sure my 19th CMMC leadership was overjoyed to be “rid” of me. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. MAJ Burden reported through a separate chain of command. He also had no visions of further promotions, so COL Hubbard and LTC Harrell had very little influence on him. For me, that meant a clean slate! MAJ Burden simply wanted someone who could help the logistics flow in and out of the “combat” zone. I was more than willing to do my best.

My room, shared with all of my G-4 teammates.

The whole G-4 section lived in the same room. Yup, my new section not only worked together, we lived together. At times it got annoying, but we got along quite well. As the newcomer, I got an upper bunk. With me and Chief Tuthill, the room quickly went to eight occupants — all in a size room smaller than the one I had for myself in Wiesbaden. There was barely room to move around, much less store gear. The bunks were stacked three high, but the third level was used to store equipment. Each room was heated by individual, ancient kerosene heaters. Contracted local Hungarians filled the heaters with kerosene daily.

There were two shower stalls in the building, but the water only got lukewarm. In addition, the building bathroom smelled awful because the sewer system apparently didn’t work too well. Fortunately, we had showers and toilets in a trailer outside the building. These did have hot water, so that is what we primarily used. The only bad part was that the water pressure wasn’t too good and it got rather cold walking to the showers every morning, especially when it snowed. All in all, though, it wasn’t too bad.

Our office was in a small one-story building that was about a three-block walk from our barracks. The mess hall was roughly on the way, so we pretty much had everything we needed The “office” was one large room that held all eight roommates, plus a contract specialist and a Hungarian interpreter. No cubicles here, so I guess we were ahead of Google for an open office concept! Our desks were lined up against the walls and we had a big conference table in the middle (it was actually a homemade picnic table with benches). We had several computers and printers. In order to print something I needed to take a floppy disk to one of the computers connected to a printer and print from there.

At work in the office with two of my logistics comrades. We are immediately in front of my desk.

My desk faced a window. Due to security, all the windows were painted over or covered with paper. The furniture was stuff that was left here by the Soviet when they abandoned the post, so it was very old. Some of the desks were so close to the ground that we raised them up with wood blocks. We had several phones in the office: three civilian phones, three DSN (military network) phones, a fax machine, and three military field phones. The phones seemed to ring all day long and well into the evening. About the only other thing in the office was a kerosene heater that sat in the middle of the office.

Besides the mess hall, we had some other niceties on the small post, including a chapel, laundry service, a very small gym, an even smaller PX store, and a small USO center. It goes without saying there was no alcohol and we couldn’t leave the post, so most of us simply worked 16 hours per days. There was just not that much else to do. Some people call the place “Kaptives-are-us,” a play on the name Kaposvar. It was a fairly appropriate name given the fact that we were literally locked on post and had bars on all the windows. Another interesting fact about this post was that it was completely surrounded by a cement wall on all sides (about 7-8 feet high). That, coupled with the occasional guard tower and barbed wire, lended to the prison atmosphere. Unlike most, though, I had the opportunity to get off post! The only people allowed off post were those whose jobs required them to leave. Mine did!

My primary duty in Hungary was to manage various part of our logistics system. That meant tracking supplies for both of our bases in Hungary (Taszar and Kaposvar), as well as ensuring flow of supplies into Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most supply “activity” took place at the Taszar airbase, but we coordinated all from our small base at Kaposvar. One key task that I really liked was my role as purchasing officer to support the Hungarian bases. It was up to me to find large quantities of things such as bottled water, charcoal, kerosene, and various other “specialty” products on the local economy. As a result, I had a van and interpreter. Together with a cash agent, we spent many hours and miles (actually kilometers) throughout Hungary.

Because this mission provided one of the few opportunities to venture off the installation, I constantly had “volunteers” wanting to tag along and/or assist. If I was heading North, I got multiple orders for McDonalds meals. Outside of Budapest, the only McDonalds in Hungary at that time was near Lake Balaton. This was about a 45-60 minute drive from Kaposvar. In between stops and other missions, it was often several hours before the previously warm meals ended up with the requester. Even so, Soldiers happily gobbled up their cold Big Macs, hamburgers, and fries without question. They were a taste from home that we all enjoyed.

One of the most poignant trips I recall was our search for charcoal. The mess hall was keen on providing “home cooked” meals as much as possible. That meant from time to time they would grill hamburgers, chicken, and rarely, even steak. Strangely, we couldn’t find charcoal off the shelf anywhere locally and it was not on any Army supply inventory. As a result, we had to find charcoal from the source. Chief Tuthill (the cash agent) and I, together with our interpreter, Mr Lazlo, set out to what Mr. Lazlo had found to be a charcoal “factory.” It truly wasn’t much of a factory that we found, but more of a coal mine.

Once Mr. Lazlo described what we were looking for, the owner summoned some workers to get what we needed. Those “workers” turned out to be kids who appeared to be not more than 10-12 years old. They were covered from head to toe in dark soot from working in the nearby caves. One of them carried coal nuggets in flour sack. We mulled and looked at the nuggets, while Mr. Lazlo tried to explain our use of the coal. After a time we determined that this might be the best we could find so we placed our order. I spent days agonizing over the sight we saw. I remember learning the history of child labor in the US, which included the coal industry. It felt like we’d lived through a live scene of early 1900s America or England. I just couldn’t get the sight of those kids off my mind and wondered of the lasting effects of that coal dust.

Touring Hungary for my job, even considering the above situation, was a great improvement from the easy life I had back in Wiesbaden. Though conditions and work hours were much tougher, I felt quite productive. Yes, we had a few snafus, such as when our bottled water suddenly turned green, but I was learning a lot, had a great job, and a really great team to work with. I also gained some wonderful new friends that I will never forget. More on that in my next post.

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Banished!

I indicated in my last post that our Fasching exploits was the beginning of the end of the Captains’ Club. That it probably a good thing since, as every Catholic knows, Fasching (or Fat Tuesday) reflects the last opportunity for fun before the 40-day fast of Lent. For me, Lent was a reminder to try to keep my mouth shut. This is a lesson that I’ve fought with my entire life, especially when I want to think I am helping someone else.

Things really started to get ugly related to the many unit members who believed they were improperly mobilized. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had people lined up at my door to complain. Doing what I thought was the right thing, I passed these complaints off to the unit Commander. Though I did not have “client confidentiality” related to these individuals, I always tried to be discreet about who was doing the complaining. As a result, unless those individuals made a direct complaint through their chain of command, the unit leadership had no idea who was doing the complaining.

It came to a head when the unit started getting IG (Inspector General) complaints and Congressional Inquires about the mobilizations. I had referred all to the installation Judge Advocate General’s office (JAG), but also suggested IG complaints in addition to seeing JAG. I don’t know exactly how I got put onto the hot seat (except from telling them about the unrest), but pretty soon I started receiving almost daily “warnings” from the unit Executive Officer (XO) to stay out of the issue. He communicated this both directly to me and through the Major that I worked for. By this time, though, I was no longer seeing anyone about this matter since they had rightly taken their complaints elsewhere. Frankly, I was happy to be out of the middle of it all.

Our Lieutenant Colonel XO somehow got it in his mind that I was the ringleader of the chorus of complaints raining down on the unit. If anyone has been involved in responding to IG and Congressional complaints, it is a bear and can quickly bog down the leadership of the unit. I don’t blame them for being mad, but they should have looked in the mirror at their lack of transparency and outright lies rather than directing their anger at me. It became obvious that I was “persona non grata” in the unit, as senior leaders started to overtly avoid me. After a couple of weeks of this – and the continual warnings from the XO, I made an appointment to talk to the XO and Commander.

This meeting was not pretty. I told them that I felt like I was being targeted. They refused to believe that I was not whipping up insurrection within the command. I suggested that they sit down with the unit officers and ask directly who had complaints. Instead, they accused me of writing all the Congressional letters and IG Complaints. Apparently, in their view, only a lawyer could write well enough to get so much attention. The truth is that I was not involved in any of that, at least not until what happened next.

Surprisingly, the Commander agreed to gather the officer corps to explain the mobilization and auto allow anyone to air any grievances. This occurred after work in a ballroom at the community club. Almost everyone was encouraged and eager to hear details from the horse’s mouth. Several officers told me that they had prepared statements to outline their grievances. We all hoped that this would end the dark cloud hanging over the unit. Boy, were we disappointed.

The Commander started by stating his case about the mobilization. He actually blamed things on his boss, a Brigadier General, saying that he was told that there were NO exceptions to the mobilization, even if the Army had stated otherwise. After some other obfuscations and dodging a few softball questions, we waited for others to lay out their complaints. Crickets. None of the most ardent of the aggrieved raised their hand – and here is where I failed to keep my mouth shut. Yes, I was still peeved about being blamed for the whole mess, but THIS was not my battle to fight. Still, I plunged forward.

I laid out the case that had been presented to me many times. People consistently used the word, “stop-loss” as the reason they were given by the Commander for their resignation, retirement, or other reason to not deploy. I asked if he had said that to anyone. He denied saying so. Then I asked if there was a stop-loss. He claimed that he was not aware at the time, but later realized that there was not. I then asked a couple of other pointed questions before the meeting abruptly came to an end. Following the meeting I got the worst chewing out I’ve ever received. Furthermore, the XO directed me to pack my bags, as I was on the next bus to Bosnia. He finished by telling me that Colonel Hubbard had more friends in the Army Reserve than I could ever hope to have, so I could consider my career over.

This was the lowest point of my on again/off again Army career. Here I was being punished for fighting a battle that wasn’t even mine. I wasn’t eager to be mobilized, but I clearly understood my duty and obligation. I never asked, nor would I have asked, to be removed from the mobilization. In fact, there was a part of me that missed the Army. Now that I was a senior Captain, the Army was looking better to me than it ever had before. Not anymore. It now looked that my career was over. Not only that, but I was headed to the war zone.

I was vaguely aware that there was a regular bus to Hungary – the transfer point for follow-on travel to Bosnia every couple of days. I did NOT realize that the “next” bus out was the very next morning at 6AM. Even though I was pretty overwhelmed at the chewing out session, I was pretty clear that I received no specific instruction to be on a bus at 6AM the following morning. Oh, was I wrong. The Commander and XO were livid that I wasn’t on that bus. They didn’t even give me the opportunity to get on the next bus in a few days. Nope, they were so eager to get me out of town that the XO personally escorted me to Rhein Main Airbase to get me on another bus to Hungary.

I suspect that those who know me can attest that I can be surly, but I don’t think I’m seen by many as a threat or as dangerous. Strange as it may be, COL Hubbard and LTC Harrell seemed to think otherwise. Either that or they had something to hide! None of that mattered since I was now on a +/- 16 hour bus ride from Frankfurt, Germany to Taszar Airbase, just outside of Kaposvar, Hungary. Exiled, but at least I was away from my tormentors and able to focus on a new adventure – and quite the adventure it turned out to be! More on this in the next blog post.

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Fasching, Days 2 and 3!

After a long night — there were drunks making noise outside of the hotel all night long — I woke up for good just before 8:00 a.m. I decided to check next door to see if our comrades had made it back. I found the door locked. My greatest fear had been realized — they didn’t make it back. They would have had to lock the door from the inside with the key and I knew they likely couldn’t have done that! I stood in the hallway trying to figure out what to do next. There I was with dirty, smelly clothes, bad breath, and no key for the other room nor the car. I tried to put together, in German, what to tell our German guesthouse owner. I knew they probably had a second key, but, it would be hard to explain what I wanted and guessed he would probably be mad and make us pay for a new key.

On my way to find the owner, I made one last attempt at the door and knocked in desperation. Again hearing nothing, I proceeded to knock louder, almost banging on the door. Lo and behold I heard a noise of some movement in the room. Before long I heard someone clawing at the door handle to open the door. It wouldn’t open because it was locked. Next thing I heard was someone muttering about where the damn key was. After a few minutes, the door was opened and our problems were solved. The occupants, though, were having problems of their own. The room smelled awful. Apparently someone had tried to get a glass of water when they got home (about 4 a.m.) and had dropped a glass in the sink. Later, someone else barfed in the sink. It wouldn’t drain because of all the broken glass mixed with vomit. It was gross! They could barely stand up — and the hangovers hadn’t even begun to hit.

We got out of the hotel by 10:00 a.m. I had clean clothes and brushed teeth! We hurried downstairs and made it out to the parade route. There was a lot of activity going on. All the stands that had been closed the night before were now beginning to stir. Now the people were really dressed up. There were very few people without some sort of costume. We still had our fasching hats so we fit in pretty well. It was quite a festive atmosphere. Lots to eat and great people watching. The costumes were outrageous! A lot of people had wagons and carts set up and decorated to fit the theme of their costumes. Almost everyone had either a case of beer or a keg in their cart. Some people were just pushing shopping carts with beer and champagne. Others had baby carriages (with the babies in them) which had beer kegs attached to the back.

We strolled up and down the street watching everyone. Since it was still morning, we decided to try gluhwein instead of beer. After a few sips, one of our crew, Tom, gradually appeared to get much better. In fact, he felt so good that he broke down and got a bratwurst. We kept strolling down the street for a while. Suddenly we saw Tom go completely pale. He started looking for a place to lose his cookies! Unfortunately, there was no place to be found, so he decided to fight the urge to puke. We continued down the street for a while when he suddenly let loose — right in the middle of the street! No one seemed to notice. We just kept walking and ignored him, but that didn’t stop us from laughing hysterically. It truly served him right!

Breakfast in Dusseldorf.

As the day wore on, the heavier drinkers from the night before became more and more miserable. The rest of us did as well. It was a cold and rainy day. Before long we were soaked to the skin and freezing. After some crepes and waffle-things, we decided to head back to Wiesbaden. We figured that we might just catch part of the Wiesbaden celebration if we hurried back.

The trip home was pretty bad.  Tom slept in the back while I drove again.  About 45 minutes out from Düsseldorf, the rain turned into snow.  The road got really slippery.  Before long there was about 2 inches of snow on the ground and a driving, blizzard-like snow.  That slowed traffic down considerably.  Pretty soon, though, we were out of the mountainous area and the snow was back to a rain.  As we got closer to Wiesbaden we actually ran into some sunshine.

Wiesbaden looked pretty dead. We walked around a bit and found out that the parade was still going on. It had started at about 1 p.m. We watched the rest of the parade and caught some of the goodies that were tossed from the floats. In all, it was pretty uneventful and we walked back toward the car. As we passed one particular bar, there was a woman on the sidewalk hailing people asking them to stop for gluhwein. Of course we obliged. It was free! Apparently they had lots of extra gluhwein and decided to give it away instead of letting it go to waste.

After a couple of glasses of gluhwein, we headed back to the Army post.  Though it was kind of depressing returning there,  I was pretty happy. I was dog tired and slept until about 7 a.m. on Monday.  I was beat from the Düsseldorf ordeal!  

In Wiesbaden on Sunday, we had learned about the even bigger celebration in Mainz on Monday. We had predetermined that we had to get to Mainz by about 9 a.m. The parade started at exactly 11:11 a.m. We heard that it got pretty crowded by about 10:00. Everyone was up and ready to go on time. In addition to the hats, we painted our faces with markers and lipstick. We added Mike Flaherty and several others to our group and met in Mainz. In Tom’s car, we were lucky enough to get a parking spot in a lot along the river. From there we headed into town. We weren’t sure where the parade route was, but we were sure we could find it.

We decided to start at the bahnhof.  There was already a pretty big crowd growing there.  Everyone was in a festive mood — a lot like we had seen in Düsseldorf.  We each had a brat and either beer or gluhwein (yes, at 9:30 in the morning!).  It was pretty funny to see all the people arriving by train.  Many of them were already loaded with liquor.  We got a fasching hat for Mike.  It wasn’t a Düsseldorf hat (actually it looked like a farmer’s hat), but, at least he sort of fit in with us.  Before long we decided that we had better find a place to watch the parade.  We hadn’t gone far when someone wanted to stop for another beer, then another.  

We found a pretty good spot along the street just about the time the parade started. It was great! There were oodles of marching bands and lots of floats. The floats were pretty creative. There were none of the cheap and hokey floats that you see at home. These were paper mache’ sculptures, fully painted. There were political figures, animals, and some that were pretty funny — one with a dog peeing on some guy’s head! I think the guy was probably the mayor or something. Other floats were like big sleighs full of people dressed as royalty. All of the floats had people on them tossing out trinkets. There was some of the typical hard candy, but a lot of the stuff was much better. There were ice cream bars, Frisbees, all kinds of little plastic and rubber balls, piggy banks, candy, chocolate bars (big ones), comic books, etc. There was a family next to us who literally filled two shopping bags with stuff. I filled my pockets and even stashed some stuff in my hat. One of the most unique things I caught was a plastic bag of mashed potatoes!

The parade lasted over four hours!  We stayed at our spot for nearly the entire time.  We only left to pick up another beer or to relieve the effects of the last beer in a nearby alley.  Pretty soon the parade finally ended.  There was a car at the end indicating that the parade was over.  We decided to follow behind the parade in order to beat the crowd back to the middle of the city.  As parades do, the parade traffic stopped a few times.  We kept walking down the street.  The next thing we knew, we were part of the parade!  We were walking along with the “big-headed people.”  They were the people dressed up with the huge paper mache’ heads.  That was a hoot!

We continued along in the parade with the big-headed people.  I think they were starting to get sick of us.  One of the Captains had too much beer and kept running into one of the big-heads, almost knocking him over.  The people with these big masks could only see out a little hole in the costume.  Anyway, we kept on going.  We lost Mike along the way, never to be seen again that day.  He stopped to find a bathroom.  We expected that he would follow the parade route to find us, but he never did.

The parade continued zigzagging through town for at least a mile.  We had apparently been right near the beginning of the route.  It was pretty fun to be in the parade as we passed the mobs of people in the center of town and as we passed the mayor and dignitaries in the reviewing stand.  We joined in by waving and yelling “Hellau” to the crowd.  Finally, near the end of the parade route, we were grabbed from behind by someone else from the unit.  There was a group of people that had been watching the parade and saw us going by.  We stopped to chat with them for a bit.   By this time the sun had gone down and it was starting to get a little cold and I was ready to go. I spied our friend, The Reaper on a nearby street.    

We all couldn’t stop laughing when we saw The Reaper.  He was leaning on a car with a goofy hat on.  It had about a dozen spikes pointing out.  Each spike had a bell on the end.  The reap was already three sheets to the wind.  He was talking to some people, but hey weren’t talking to him!  As soon as he recognized us, he staggered off to buy us all a beer.  

We stood there for nearly an hour with the reap.  I remember standing on a wall around a fountain that was drained for the winter.  In the fountain were bottles and lots of broken glass.  It was just a matter of time . . . pretty soon The Reaper fell backward and ended up on his head in the fountain.  He got up and was alright, but I decided that it was time to go. It was dark by this time.  Kay Bee and I decided that we had better take the reap home before he killed himself. Now we had to find the others who had driven with us.  We tried for some time to find any of them, but could only find Tim Reed. Tim was relatively sober and offered to stay and get the others home.  Kay and I left with The Reaper.

It was a good ways to the car. That was quite a trip with the Reap. If we stopped, he would fall down. As long as we were moving, he could stagger along. By the time we got to the river, the Reap needed to go to the bathroom. He decided to stop on the bank of the river behind a candy stand. It was actually a wall along the river rather than a bank. We waited for a little while out front. Kay decided that I had better check on the Reap since that was a “guy thing.” I peeked around the corner of the stand and saw the Reap laying on his back with his feet in the river. He had fallen down while taking care of business. He fell half into the river while peeing all over himself. I dragged him out of the river and we proceeded to the car.

Boy, was I glad to get home.  It was only about 8:30, but I was worn out from another long day of Fasching.  I remember around 11:30 I heard loud voices coming down the street outside.  I figured that it was the rest of our crew.  They made it back!  About 15 minutes later there was a loud knock on the door.  It was Tom and Tim.  They staggered into my room with fresh beers in their hands.  They sat down and told me tales about all the fun I missed!

Epilogue: Friday, February 23, 1996. Tom was sicker than a dog on Tuesday. He didn’t touch another sip of alcohol all week! Tim was at work by 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday. Like Tom, he stayed away from beer for the rest week. The Reap survived, thanks in part to my heroic efforts pulling him out of the river. Kay Bee, Mike S., Mike H., Glen, Tammy, Slack, Ricks, The Reaper, and the many others who lived through that Fasching weekend likely have similar stories to tell. This was, though, the beginning of the end for the Captains’ Club as I will describe in my next blog.

Curling

Curling is indelibly connected to Winnipeg for me. As noted in an earlier post, Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I decided that if we were going to go to Winnipeg, we’d better go for the Curling tournament. In Curling parlance, a tournament is called a “bonspiel.” Our target was to play in the bonspiel in Winnipeg, so we first had to learn how to play. We enlisted a fellow Rotary Club member, Al Zdrazil, to play. His influence on us was instrumental. He was the only person on the team who had ever curled before, so he was our mentor.

The start was not pretty. Al signed us up for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. We played once per week for our first season. I think we started in November, so we were able to get a few games under our belt prior to the Winnipeg Bonspiel in February. Al was a great teacher and was our team’s “Skip.” The Skip directs the play, tells us when and how to sweep, and always throws the last stones. A good Skip can make even an awful team somewhat competitive. Al was that for us, but we still lost way more games than we won.

That first year was probably hilarious for others – and a severe test of patience for Al. Unlike most experienced curlers, we all seemed to have a hard time just walking on the ice! I know I took more than my share of spills. Al assigned me as the “third.” That meant that I threw third and stood behind the ice target on the far end of the curling rink when the Skip threw. Greg and Doug threw first and second, respectively. I swept the ice for the first two throws, along with the person who was not currently throwing.

Not the greatest photo, but here is our curling team (plus Gustavo, our Rotary Youth Exchange student from Brazil). From L-R: Greg Hudalla, Pete Grayson, Al Ruvelson, Gustavo Shalders, and Doug Bruce. Al R. replaced Al D. after the first couple years.

In a sense, curling is a lot like shuffleboard, but just with a whole lot more strategy involved. The game consists of four players per side, who each throw two stones toward an ice target at the opposite end of the rink. The object is to get maximum points by landing stones closest to the middle of the center of the bullseye in the “house.” Each time play goes from one end to the other the score is tallied before play returns back the other way. Each leg down is called, not surprisingly, an “end.” Teams alternate throws and whichever team threw the second stone also throws the last stone, so that team clearly has the advantage. The first advantage is determined by a coin flip at the beginning of the match. The winner of the previous end always throws last in the next end. Teams generally play 10 ends, except for blowouts, where the match can end early. For us, we were subject to that mercy rule more often than not.

Throwing stones is truly and art. This part of the game is a bit more like bowling than shuffleboard. The thrower starts with on foot on a sort of starting block called a “hack.” This is quite necessary in order to get the traction to propel a 40+ pound granite curling stone. All players wear special shoes or a pull-on “slider” on one foot. This allows the non-push-off foot to glide along the ice before the thrower releases the stone. A good curler has the ability to get most throws within the “house.” Like bowling, there are out of bounds areas, like gutters. If a stone hits a side-wall, it is out of play. It also must get beyond a “hog line”that is thirty-three feet from the hack and past the hog line on the other end of the rink. Any stone that falls outside of those boundaries must be removed.

There is quite a bit of strategy involved in the game. Not only does a curler need to be able to throw stones within the house – ideally to the “button” in the very center of the twelve-foot target – but they also must consider guarding stones in the house, lest they be knocked out by the opponent. Good curlers will often remove stone after stone, so it could easily come down to the last throw by the skip with the advantage. As a result, there is a lot of consideration to leaving guarding stones in front of the house. That leads to the stronger curlers (generally the third and the skip) having to navigate a very small path into the house.

I enjoyed the strategy and likened it to chess on ice. I also greatly enjoyed the collegiality of the game. Curling is considered a gentleman’s game. No offense to my female readers, but not sure if there is a modern term for this. Like golf, there are unwritten rules about sportsmanship. Cheating, arguing, or berating the other team are forbidden and greatly frowned upon. The two Skips determine the score by agreement at the conclusion of each end. The loser of each match graciously shakes hands with the winner – and stays on the rink to clean the ice.

Here comes one of the best parts: every rink I’ve ever curled at (including the Saint Paul Curling Club) has an upstairs or adjacent clubroom with large tables to accommodate all eight players. The opposing teams gather after the match at the same table to share a few pitchers of beer (or Scotch!), talk through the game, watch the next round of games, or just shoot the bull. Of course, the losers pay!

By the time we reached Winnipeg that first February, we were a somewhat seasoned team. At least we were very good at cleaning the ice and buying the beer! Though we’d been through most of a season at the Saint Paul Curling Club, we were in no way prepared for our Winnipeg experience. First, the Saint Paul Curling Club, though a fine and well-established club, is in a rather nondescript building in what was at the time a somewhat depressed neighborhood of the city (I must note that both the neighborhood and the club have considerably improved their respective curb appeals!). The Granite Curling Club in Winnipeg is a magnificent edifice that is known as the mother of curling in Western Canada. The Tudor-framed clubhouse, with it’s arching rink to the rear, is the Province of Manitoba’s oldest curling institution and one of the oldest sporting groups in the province. The building is now considered a Heritage Building by the City of Winnipeg.

The majestic Granite Curling Club located at One Granite Way in Winnipeg, Canada.

The second eye-opener for us was the competitiveness of the play. Curling in Canada is like football in Texas. On local television, it is not uncommon to have three separate stations, all with different curling events on air at the same time. Everyone watches and plays and even a novice Canadian was seemingly miles (or should I say kilometers?) above our level! Though the Rotary Goodwill Conference brought a good cross-section of North Americans to the bonspiel, the Canadians were clearly there to defend their turf – especially from their fellow Americans coming from South of the border!

One interesting tidbit I can share is an occasion several years later that seemed to defy the rules of both curling and Rotary. Surprisingly, our team of amateurs ended up in the final match. We were shocked to find that our opponent showed up with a ringer on their team. Someone akin to a professional curler showed up to replace their weakest curler (some strange malady had apparently stricken him). Yes, he was a Rotarian, but it just didn’t seem fair. We felt that the Canadian team was probably strong enough to beat us without the ringer, so it seemed just a bit of a overkill. We thought this was an affront to both the collegial unwritten “gentlemen” rules of curling and Rotary’s Four Way Test. We objected on those grounds, but our Canadian hosts quickly denied the appeal. After a somewhat competitive game, the the Winnipeg Goodwill trophy stayed in Canada.

I look back to the various lessons of curling with fondness. I have always been quite competitive. One of the reasons I have not been able to golf well was my Uber competitiveness. I think curling helped cure that, albeit only slightly. I loved the collegiality and professional demeanor required in curling. Al Zdrazil always insisted and ensured that we keep our cool. I’ve been able to take that to other endeavors, even the golf course, and think I am for the most part a better – and friendlier – competitor. Similarly, curling mandates the after-match camaraderie. The certainly helps to keep civility. We laugh and joke together to embrace our common humanity – as respected competitors. If we could only ensure that same civility in other endeavors of our society, we would live in a better world.