U.S. Army and Me

With the exception of family, the one single consistent thing in my life has been the United States Army. It started first in Junior ROTC as a Freshman in high school, but was really cemented when MAJ Dave Pearson convinced me to join Army ROTC in the early 1980s. At the time I left my position as a civilian attorney earlier this year, I had a direct and regular connection with the Army for approximately 44 years!

Me in uniform with the ADA branch insignia and the First Armored Division Patch (1986?)

Like so many other things in my life, the Army took quite some time to stick with me. It was precarious for a while, but eventually it really stuck! I previously detailed my challenges with JROTC in high school. College ROTC took a similarly slow path. I think I failed my first physical fitness test. I don’t know if I’d ever done more than ten push-ups at once. I’d never been a runner. After remedial training, I finally was able to (barely) meet the standard. In addition, many of my peers started ROTC two years ahead of me (due to my 2-years exemption due to JROTC), so I started a bit behind the curve.

The first turning point for me was the ROTC Summer Camp prior to my Senior year of College. Summer Camp is a six-week, mini-Basic Training, that all officers need to endure. It is complete with Drill Sergeants, push-ups, long runs, sleeping with weapons, and all the other fun of Basic Training. Mine took place in sunny (NOT!) Fort Lewis, Washington. It was pure hell for me for many reasons, one big one being the 4AM wake-up calls every day. My slow eating style was turned upside down. Finally, I had strep throat for much of the six weeks, and only survived due to antibiotics and cold medication.

Two things really turned Summer Camp around for me. First, I caught a break when our tech sergeant had a soft spot for me. He was an active-duty Soldier assigned to St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota. Being the only person in our platoon from Minnesota, I was his “homeboy.” Second was my writing ability. Sometime near the end of our training, we were assigned the task to write an essay about ourselves and about how we saw ourselves fitting into the Army. Now writing was something that always came relatively easy for me. I penned an essay with what I thought was a good mix of self-degradation, requisite seriousness, and a good dose of humor. My leaders thought it was hilarious and determined that I had a good future in the Army. Their final report on me back to the ROTC program put me ahead of many of my peers. Assuming I continued to do well during my Senior year, this set the path for me to make the cut for active duty service upon graduation.

When I got back to the University that Fall, the Army ROTC Cadre now saw me in a different light. I was given more leadership opportunities and ultimately was chosen as “Mr. Vice” for the end of year “Dining In.” This selection provided me, a relatively shy cadet, an opportunity to shine. This further set the stage for my active duty service. All of us were commissioned as Second Lieutenants upon graduation, but only about half of the graduates were granted active duty status. The day the active duty list came out, I was overjoyed to find myself on the list, but wasn’t too sure yet about my assignment to the branch of Air Defense Artillery.

My next steps were Graduation, Commissioning, and starting on Active Duty. In the meantime, I had proposed to Amy and we planned our wedding for July 28, 1984. I had graduation on June 6th and Commissioning on June 8th. What the heck was I supposed to do on active military duty between Commissioning and our wedding in late July? Most new officers left immediately for their Basic Officer Training. My friends in the ROTC department provided an answer. I would enter active duty immediately upon commissioning and serve as a Gold Bar Recruiter for the ROTC program. That meant linking up with high schools in the state, attending college fairs, and whatever else I could do to encourage new college students to join ROTC. I would hold this job until September, when my Basic Officer Training course began in El Paso, Texas.

Our time in El Paso (Fort Bliss), was very much a blur. We arrived in early September and by the following February, we were already off to our next assignment. Still, it was our first real taste of Army life. Highlights included the Texas “blue laws” every Sunday (we often drove just across the New Mexico border to shop in the mall on Sundays); an inch of snow shutting down El Paso; and our cozy apartment just outside the gates of Fort Bliss. We were initially intrigued by the courtyard pool, but our bedroom window faced an alley. Directly across the alley was a “sauna” and a busy porn shop. Inside of the apartment wasn’t much better. I’ll never forget the day Amy woke up screaming when she spied the large cockroach scurrying across the ceiling above our bed.

At Fort Bliss, newly minted officers learned about our trade. That included review of basic Army tactics, but also focused heavily on the branch-specific training. For me, that was Air Defense Artillery. I was further assigned to Short-Range Air Defense, which at that time included study of weapon systems such as the Vulcan, Chaparral, and Stinger. We also received high-level instruction in the long range weapons that included missile systems of Hawk, Hercules, and Patriot. Every other branch had their own Army Post that they called “home.” Officers in Infantry started their initial training at Fort Benning, Georgia; Armor at Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. That typically meant that you would be back to your home post for the next phase of training, Officer Advanced Course. Next step, though, was a first assignment to a “line” unit.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was assigned to 2/59 Air Defense Artillery, a unit of the 1st Armored Division in Schwabach, Germany. We were hoping for an overseas assignment and Germany was our preferred destination. I was to be a platoon leader – 3rd Platoon, Delta Battery, 2/59 ADA. More on Germany and 2/59 ADA in another story.

Hijinx during Vulcan gunnery at Todendorf, Germany.

During my three-year Germany assignment, those of us not “Regular Army” had to sit for a board for retention on active duty. ROTC students were not automatically assigned to Regular Army. That status was reserved mostly for the graduates of the United Stated Military Academy at West Point. Mere Reserve component officers needed to regularly seek continuation on active duty. I was retained, but in doing so I was reassigned to a new branch, the Quartermaster Corps. Quartermaster is the Army’s logistics branch, so this was an entirely new field for me.

The home of the Quartermaster Corps was Fort Lee, Virginia, so that was our next destination after Europe. Fort Lee is just outside of Petersburg, Virginia, and about an hour from Richmond. It was back to the classroom for my Officer Advanced Course. Though I was one of the least experienced of all my classmates, I tied for the top score in the class. It certainly wasn’t easy. Competition had increased since so many of our peers either left active duty after their initial tour or otherwise were not retained on active duty.

I felt like I was just figuring out Air Defense Artillery and now I had to deal with warehouse operations, fuel supply, dining hall operations, field feeding, water delivery, and other less interesting things such as mortuary affairs, laundry operations, field showers, and parachute packing. All this was new to me – plus was the addition of women in our corps. Air Defense is a combat arms branch, which at the time did not admit females. Quartermaster was much different. The biggest difference for me was that we actually had showers when we were in the field. I can only remember one field shower in my entire three years in Germany. That was just not a part of life I was used to in the combat arms.

Following graduation I was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. This is in the middle of Kansas near the college town of Manhattan, Kansas. Fort Riley is an interesting and historic Army fort, but is truly in the middle of nowhere. The worst part about Fort Riley, though, was that shortly after our arrival, my new unit, the 937th Engineer Group, was deployed to Honduras as a part of an operation entitled Ahuas Tara. We were sent there to build airstrips, schools, medical clinics, and provide other humanitarian aid. The real reason, though, was to build a military-capable airstrip in southern Honduras as part of President Reagan’s attempt to counter the Nicaraguan Communist Government.

I mostly enjoyed living in and seeing Honduras, but timing was horrible. I left Amy home at Fort Riley with two young children. Jimmy was only about two and Kathryn was still an infant. I missed them terribly. Even worse, I was assigned to the unit as the “expert” in logistics. Unfortunately, I was far from an expert. They had expected someone who had at least several years of experience in logistics and then attended the Quartermaster Advanced Course. While I had the latter, I was a novice putting any logistical training into practice. Now I was thrown into an actual deployment where supply and resupply were critical.

We lived in a “base camp” near the Nicaraguan border in southern Honduras. We basically build our own base. It consisted of a large collection of tents, surrounded by barbed wire. We (by “we” I mean the engineers assigned to the unit) built flooring for our tents, built the dining facility, built the outhouses and “piss tubes,” and provided for everything in our small town, including power. As the chief logistician, not only did I need to ensure supplies for our construction projects, but also for our base camp. That included fuel and maintenance for our generators, procurement of water (utilizing Army equipment to purify, store, and distribute the water), and ensure that our food supply ran smoothly. We even had to contract with the local Hondurans to burn our refuse, including that collected from the bottom of the outhouses!

Fortunately, I got a LOT of help. I was not particularly happy, though. I felt like a round peg in a square hole and I did not get along well with the leadership of the unit. I appreciate engineers, but my experience in Honduras suggested to me that they were not necessarily the best leaders. There were HUGE morale problems in Honduras and the entire deployment was quite negative for most of the Soldiers. We left just after Christmas and returned over four months later with chips on our shoulders.

Between this experience, my transfer to an unfamiliar branch, time away from my young family, and too many failures in leadership, I’d had enough of the Army. Several months after returning from Honduras, I left the Army with visions of law school and a future as a lawyer. At that time, the Army was clearly in my rear view mirror. As suggested above, I soon reconnected with the Army, but that, too, is fodder for another story.

The Other Side of the Table

My last blog described my first job. Throughout High School and College, my jobs were much different than flinging papers. I worked multiple roles in three different restaurants. A friend recently wrote about his experiences at The Lexington in St. Paul. My best friends, Pat and Jim, worked there and we have many shared experiences. Even there, though, we took slightly different paths. Both of them were slightly more liked by the manager. Actually, there were very few who he really liked, but I think I was lower than most, likely because I lived on Summit Avenue. Later, it was because I started dating a waitress that he clearly favored.

I started as a dishwasher and occasional pot washer. That was truly the ugly side of the restaurant business. We learned terms such as “swamped,” “the bin,” and “the honeypot.” The latter two referred to rotten and discarded food and other scraps. As one might expect, those items occasionally brought us face to face with cockroaches, mice, and other vermin. We also worked side by side with adults, whose work in the kitchen was their full-time occupation. It was definitely an eye-opener and definite encouragement to get through high school and continue our educations. It was hard and sometimes disgusting work that had little upward movement and low pay. I learned great respect for those people. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as some of the modern chef shows you see on television. In fact, it wasn’t glamorous at all. We had to scour our bodies after each shift just to get the coating of grime and grease off of our bodies, hair, and even ears and eyes.

The Lexington

There was possible upward movement for us teenagers working in the restaurant. Jim and I eventually became busboys, giving us freedom from the kitchen. Some busboys even “graduated” to become waiters. That was where there was actually a bit of money in the job. Busboy, though, was a step up. At the end of our shifts, we were always pretty smelly, but not nearly as skanky as the kitchen help. Pat took a upgrade route into the cooking staff and ultimately as a bartender.

One of the funnier stories I recall from my days as a busboy was when a man reported that another man had passed out in the restroom. Keep in mind that The Lexington was considered a fine dining establishment, not a mere restaurant. The manager grabbed me and another busboy to assist. When we arrived, it was clear that the guy had passed out as he had been doing his business at the urinal. He lay still unconscious on the floor. To my great shock, the manager yelled at me and said, “go over and put his . . . his . . . his thing back into his pants!” Not only was it the horror of having to touch another penis, but the man’s pants were soaked with urine. Fortunately, the other busboy stepped up to assist. It is funny now only because the man turned out to be okay. He had apparently been on some medication that interacted with alcohol.

Once we’d been working at the restaurant for a while, the manager occasionally “invited” one or more of us to work on Sunday afternoon. The restaurant was closed on Sundays, so that was generally when some of the real dirty work was done. We deep cleaned the entire place. The worst of these jobs involved commercial “easy-off” oven cleaning. We used similar products to clean the hoods over each the cooking surfaces. In neither case did we have masks, goggles, or other protective equipment. We earned about triple pay, though, and got a free lunch, so we didn’t think that was too bad of a trade-off. With today’s OSHA rules, that would likely never be allowed.

After a couple of years as a busboy, I was let go from The Lex. Ostensibly, it was due to their “rule” against fraternization, but again, the manager never really liked me. I moved on and took a busboy job at the new Radisson Hotel that had just opened in downtown St. Paul. That lasted only a couple of months until I got accused of participating in some dining room hijinks. Since I had not joined their union, I was the one who was canned. Fortunately, though, I landed on my feet and found a job – this time as a waiter – at the University Club on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. That was a job that I kept until graduating from college. It was a bit of a slower pace than The Lex or the Radisson, but I thoroughly enjoyed my fellow employees, the management, and most of the regular customers who were members of the club.

The University Club of Saint Paul

At the University Club, I got to see another side of the business. I occasional worked as the restaurant host. I worked closely with the catering managers and learned so much about event planning. One of the assistant managers, Carol Erickson, took me under her wing and let me participate in the planing and working of many weddings, private parties, and other upscale events. I was able to see some of the financial side of the business and the slim margins in the business. I had to make decisions on when to send staff home early, thus saving some staff costs of the hourly workers. In most cases, these were younger people, who appreciated leaving early, but occasionally it was someone who really needed the money.

Even though the working conditions were not always the best, I mostly enjoyed the work. I learned that I like working with people. In fact, I found that I liked serving people and trying to make their dining experience a good one. There is satisfaction in providing value to customers. Most of my co-workers felt the same way. Yes, we had our share of irate customer who could never be satisfied, but most were genuinely appreciative of a good job. Even when something went horribly wrong, most customers were quite forgiving.

Through all of the experiences in the restaurant business, I definitely learned the value of hard work. I learned the importance of making the best of a bad situation. Even as a dishwasher, I wanted to be the best dishwasher. The s

ame held true as a busboy and waiter. The latter two jobs provided direct compensation when we provided value to a waiter or a customer. I also learned first hand how important it was for me to continue my education. I worked with a lot of very smart and interesting people, but many of them did not have much hope of increasing their earning capability. Without a college degree, and even some without a high school diploma, they had a tough road ahead.

About tipping: I remain what I consider a high tipper. I suspect this is due to my years as a busboy and waiter. I rarely tip under 20%. Even with wages rising, the tips are the single most important part of a server’s salary. For me, an average job gets you 20%. Superb service should be rewarded. At times, I’ve tipped in excess of 50%. That, though, is nearly as rare as the 10% I leave for poor service. I remember one waiter I worked with who would chase down customers after receiving a poor tip and ask them what was wrong. Some people, though, are just jerks; others are trying to send a message. One of the worst messages for poor service was when some friends left coins in a puddle of syrup on the table. That was many years ago after an early morning breakfast following a night of drinking. Even so, that was downright insulting. A couple of us left some extra bills on the table to help compensate for the slight of our friends.

My First Job

I like to think I’ve worked pretty hard my whole life. I got an early start since our parents did not give us an allowance and there were always things that I thought I needed: baseball cards, sodas, candy, and whatever else young kids think they need. The first job I can remember was shortly after we moved to Summit Avenue. My dad offered me a nickel for every dandelion I picked (root and all). Dad thought I’d be bored after too long. Several hours later I presented him a basket of 500-plus of those invasive weeds. Yes, we has a very large yard and yes, it was overrun with weeds! Though my dad was impressed, I think he “renegotiated” our deal and I got something closer to $20. Still, I earned a decent amount, which certainly helped soothe my blisters!

The next job I got was a “real” job. That meant working for someone besides family. In the seventh grade, my buddy Martin talked me into delivering papers. I helped him on his route a few mornings and it intrigued me. I started in the early Fall, just after school started. I worked for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and St. Paul Dispatch. The Pioneer Press was the morning paper and the Dispatch was the afternoon edition. Sunday was a combined delivery. Even though it was a heady load, I liked the fact that I had only one delivery on Sundays.

I did not come from a family of early risers, but there I was at about 4:30 every morning delivering the papers. My route was fairly short – two blocks on Goodrich Avenue between Chatsworth and Lexington Avenues. That route also included at least one apartment building, where I had multiple deliveries. Those are long blocks and I delivered on both sides of the street, so it generally took about just over an hour every morning. The afternoon paper was a little easier since I had less subscribers to the afternoon edition, though some homes took both. Sunday was different. It had the normal news section, but also the weekly insert. We all had to spend about a half hour at the drop off spot combining the papers into the one edition. Since most homes took at least a Sunday paper, I had more deliveries that day. Because of the size of the paper and the number of deliveries, I had to use a wagon to haul the papers. The entire route took around two hours on Sunday.

I delivered papers EVERY DAY that school year. Rain, shine, or snow. There was quite a lot of the latter, so it was really grueling work. Even the most diligent homeowner didn’t shovel their walks by 5AM, so it was tough trudging with that wagon if it snowed. Still, I don’t know if I missed more than one or two deliveries that entire year. Carriers took care of each other if we were deathly sick, but for the most part, you were on your own.

I was an excellent paperboy. My biggest problem was that I was a crappy collection agent. Back then, carriers were considered independent contractors. We had to pay for the papers and collected the subscriptions on a monthly basis from our customers. Our only pay was the difference between what we paid and the subscription amount, plus the rare tip or two. Some months I did okay, but most months I was lucky to break even. I just had a few of deadbeat customers and others who simply never seemed to be around when I came calling to collect. Others would short me because they never seemed to have enough cash. Still, I delivered those papers every day.

I continued my route into the Summer of the following year, but it became much more difficult. My family routinely went to the lake for a week every month. The first month I stayed at home with my dad, but quit the route by the time the next lake week came around. I just wasn’t making enough to make this worth my while and summer was quickly slipping away.

There is no doubt that I learned some very hard lessons that year. I was afraid of and respected my boss. He met the paper carriers at the pickup point every week or two. I can’t imagine being the boss of a number of very young teens, but he did pretty well. He stressed the importance of being diligent. Every day and on time! I think that was one of his constant challenges. I always knew who had and had not picked up their papers based upon the size of the stacks of papers left on the curb. By listening to my boss said and by what some peers failed to do, I learned how to do a job well. I prided myself on being the best paperboy in the neighborhood. I never missed a delivery and I was always on time.

I learned how to strategize my route for maximum efficiency. In the winter I learned how to run the route with the apartments spaced out, so I could get relief from the cold. I learned how important the proper boots and mittens were to help survive the winter weather. I learned how to listen to my customers with special requests (in the mailbox, under the mat, inside the screen door, or even in the doghouse out back). Paying attention to those typically led to an extra dollar or two at collection time.

The hardest part of the job for me, though, was not the wind, the cold, the early hours, the afternoons missed playing. No, it was collecting the darn money from my customers. To this day, I have an extremely hard time asking people for money. When I walked away from my law practice 35-odd years later, I did so with accounts receivable well in excess of $100,000, so this was a lesson definitely NOT learned.

One thing to add here. I mentioned my affinity for dogs in a previous post. My paper route taught me something more. My dog, Tanya, was a boxer rescue. Okay, she was only part boxer. Over that year, Tanya never missed a route. She was my constant companion every step of my paper deliveries. I cannot overstate her importance to me. In the lonely mornings, dark and cold, and in during collections with pockets full of change, Tanya was alway there as my protector, my confidante, and my companion. On that job I learned the value of a true friend!

University of Minnesota

There was never any doubt. I was always going to be a Gopher! From about the time I was born until he died, my dad was a season ticket holder for Golden Gopher football. He had faculty seats, which in those days were right next to the band and directly on the 50-Yard-Line behind the Gopher bench. I remember many years sitting out in the cold at the old Memorial Stadium, drinking hot cocoa, and watching the Gophers. Except on a few rare occasions, we watched some pretty bad football since this was after the end of the true golden era of Minnesota football. Not many outside of the Gopher faithful know that Minnesota has seven national championships in football, with four within an eight-year period from 1934-1941. We came close in the early 1960s, but nary a whiff since.

Dad loved Gopher football. He loved having his great seats and rarely missed a game. Sitting with the faithful faculty fans was fun. They were much older than the typical fans, but were extremely vocal in cheering on – and jeering – their team. I never knew that old guys could get so boisterous, but Gopher football certainly brought that out of many. Thus, I became a lifelong fan as well. I would have loved to have played on the team, but had no background in organized football. I did, though, as a college student, spend hours kicking field goals off a tee on the Memorial Stadium turf. As a Freshman I met the new coach, Joe Salem, and he sent me an offer to try out for the team the following year. Unfortunately, that next year another Freshman joined the team – and his leg blew me away. His name was Jim Gallery from Morton, Minnesota, who had a fantastic collegiate career and went on to kick in the NFL.

So, even though I was never a Gopher, I still bleed maroon and gold. I scored well enough on my High School PSAT that the University of Minnesota didn’t even require the SAT or ACT test for admission. I was accepted into the College of Liberal Arts. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it was considered a step up from the “General College” that was for students they thought were less ready for the rigors of University life.

I probably should have started in General College since I didn’t fare too well that first year. It was not a total disaster, though. I enjoyed classes, but still was not too keen on studying. That would come much later – in law school. Still, I got by. I lived at home and commuted to campus every day. That wasn’t so bad except for those extreme cold Minnesota days when the busses always seemed to be running late! The biggest problem that I had was not just the lack of good study habits, but also the plethora of distractions on campus. I’m not just talking about young women, but also shops, libraries, bars, restaurants, and that Memorial Stadium turf. I mostly made it to campus in time for classes, but I also tended to miss way too many classes by doing something else that I found more interesting!

My second year was even worse. I was dating my future bride at the time and she attended the College of Saint Thomas (now the University of Saint Thomas) in St. Paul. That was a MUCH easier commute than going to the U of M and offered the added bonus of more time with my sweetheart. I guess my grades from the U were decent enough for me to get into St. Thomas. Of course, it also brought a significant student loan, but I figure that was the price for hanging with a special girl. As one might expect, that was faulty reasoning. We did some studying together at the St. Thomas library, but I generally did not like the classes I took, nor did I care for the campus feel. In many ways I felt like I was back in high school. That, together with academic probation that spring, caused me to head back to the Minnesota the following year.

The St. Thomas debacle basically set me back a year. I was still taking some basic classes in my third year of college. I maintained passing grades in all my classes, but things were starting to look rather bleak. My sweetheart was due to graduate the next spring and my best option seemed to be a degree in Political Science, albeit a year late. I felt a little scorn as I’m sure Amy was not too keen about my future prospects (nor was her father!). Sure, I was a nice guy, but someone had to put some food on the table. In those days, the man was expected to be the primary bread winner in the family. At that point, my key marketable skill was as a waiter. No offense to waiters, but Mr. and Mrs. Orme had higher expectations for their middle daughter.

College life was much better for me at the U. Though I still commuted from home, this time my friends and I had better acclimated into college life. It was fun to be back on campus with my sister Pam, especially seeing her play the tuba in the Minnesota Gopher Marching Band. We played together with many friends on University co-ed intramural sports teams, attended nearly every Gopher game, experienced homecoming and other campus events, and partied in and around the University. It maybe was not a “typical” college experience since I didn’t live on campus, but we certainly had a lot of fun. Pat, Jim, and I were still hanging out a lot together whenever we weren’t working. Those days, even more than high school, were really great times for me.

This was also a very scary time because none of us had any clue what would come next. It was the Jimmy Carter years and the U.S. economy was in shambles. Gas prices exploded due to OPEC playing games with the United States. Much of the world was in crisis and there was still a lot of political fallout over the Vietnam War and the Nixon years. The mood in the country was quite poor, jobs were hard to find, and layoffs were common. There was not much of a safety net for anyone. Ronald Reagan and other commentators rightly termed this as a time of malaise.

During one of my campus wandering that fall, I happened to stop by the University of Minnesota Armory. I didn’t have any particular interest in the military, but had always been curious about that large fortress-style building on campus. I was immediately hit upon by a faculty member from the Navy ROTC program. I received a great tour and sales pitch, but it quickly became clear to me that the Navy was not a good fit. Most of their program members were in engineering or other hard sciences. That definitely was not for me.

On the way out of the Armory, I encountered another faculty member. This time it was a guy from the Army ROTC program, Major David Pearson. He invited me into his office for a chat. I got a similar sales pitch, but felt much more comfortable with him. He didn’t give me a hard sell, but told me he thought the Army might be a good path for me. He explained that my Cretin Junior ROTC experience gave me a leg up in the Army. Because of that JROTC, I only had to complete two years of Army ROTC to get commissioned as an officer in the Army. I left still skeptical of something as extreme as joining the Army!

As spring came to campus, Amy began looking even more diligently toward the future beyond her Senior year. She dated other guys from time to time. I began to feel a smaller and smaller part of her future and didn’t want to lose her. I had met Major Pearson a couple other times during the winter and had started seriously thinking about Army ROTC. Between the fall and spring, Major Pearson became somewhat of a mentor for me and kept encouraging me. After one promising discussion with him that spring, I signed on the line and joined Army ROTC for the next year.

Year four was a big one for me. ROTC required that I keep what I recall to be a 2.5 grade point average. The pressure was on. I also had to start working out and running. I’d never done much of either and it was not easy. I took my first Army physical training test (PT Test) was that fall. We ran in an Army fatigue uniform and combat boots. Needless to say, I did NOT finish the two-mile run in under sixteen minutes, which was the standard for my age group at the time. That meant in addition to the “ROTC day,” I had to arrive on campus at 6:30AM for remedial PT three days per week. Fortunately, I made some friends along the way and the PT got a bit easier. Other than that, I really buckled down to get keep my GPA up. I was keeping up my part of the deal, but I still was far from a model cadet in the ROTC battalion.

ROTC day at Minnesota meant early morning formations and inspections every Thursday. It also meant wearing the uniform on campus all day. We wore the Army green dress uniform, not fatigues. That was an interesting concept in the early 1980s, especially in the political science classes on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus. There were still remnants of the anti-Vietnam war protests on campus. Many professors were part of the protest movements and were not always happy to see uniformed members in their classes. I was called “baby killer” and other crude names. I was spit upon on campus. Still, I was always proud to wear that uniform and even prouder of the leadership, discipline, and ethics training that was transforming me into a Soldier.

Amy graduated that spring (1983) and I headed to my first summer camp. This was truly my first taste of the “real” Army. My four years at Cretin and my first year of ROTC in no way got me ready for a six-week taste of what Basic Training is all about. More about Summer Camp in another story, but it was hell being away from Amy as she was embarking on a new career.

My final year at the U of M was a good one. I made both the A and B Honor Rolls that year. A little discipline seemed to be paying off, not to mention my strong desire to hook and keep that woman! I was enjoying my upper-level classes in political science, speech, and history. Pam and I took one of Dad’s classes together in the Mortuary Science Program. That was fun! It was also a treat for Pam and me to graduate together in the class of 1984. Dad was so proud and made sure that his robes were ready so he could welcome us onto the stage as a faculty member. My commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the Army was just a couple of days later. Amy and I were married a month later. Lots of things seemed to be happening all at once. This appears to be a habit for us that has been repeated many times in our lives.

The University of Minnesota prepared me well for life and taught me some important life skills, such as, how to work diligently in the midst of chaos; how to strategically choose classes to avoid too many brutal winter walks across the bridge from the East and West banks of the campus; and how to become more comfortable in my own skin. I grew up a lot during those years. Much I attribute to the Army . . . but that is yet another story . . . .

Gopher fans at Maryland’s College Park 2018

Fun fact: I later went on to teach Mortuary Law and Ethics, as an adjunct professor, for five years at the University of Minnesota in the College of Mortuary Science. I enjoyed that experience nearly as much being on campus as a student.

Go Gophers!

The Boundary Waters

Many people could write of the great survival skills, the wondrous beauty, or the life lessons learned in the Boundary Waters. Unfortunately, not me. For those lessons, check out the book by my buddy, Jim Landwehr, “Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir.” While my Boundary Waters story involves the aforementioned Landwehr, it was definitely NOT the sort of lesson you might think! Or was it?

For the uninitiated, The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA or BWCAW) is part of the Superior National Forest and is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. It consists of over one million acres, located along the United States and Canadian border along northeastern Minnesota. The Boundary Waters are mostly undeveloped and most locations are accessible only by non-motorized boats or by foot. It contains more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, and many miles of hiking trails. It is not uncommon for voyagers to encounter very few humans, if any, during even a short trip through the BWCA.

This trip was planned as an immediate post-high-school-graduation adventure. It involved me, Pat, Jim, and another friend dubbed “Doug” in Jim’s book. I had a sleeping bag and some fishing gear, but nothing else that you might consider proper outfitting for a week-long trip in the wilderness. Doug had arranged for the canoes and all the other gear with a local outfitter at the edge of the BWCA. All we needed to do was get our limited personal stuff from St. Paul, Minnesota, up the Gunflint Trail to the outfitter.

Doug and Jim had decent tents that they packed. Jim was proud of his newer model that had rain shields and special bug screens. I had no idea how important those particular items were until they became nearly necessary for survival (or at least basic comfort!).

We left almost immediately after graduation. That meant early June, 1979. For my friends outside of Minnesota, June is still on the very early edge of Spring. You never know whether the temperatures would be in the 30s or the 80s. It also means prime time for black flies, mayflies, and no-see-ems. I think we checked the weather, but that did not mean we specifically prepared for it. Springtime is also known for heavy rain. We learned about all of these things the hard way.

If you think this adventure was haphazardly planned, you would be correct. Yes, we had a rough idea of what we were doing and where we were going, but we connected the dots using our 17-18 year old brains (that means they did not necessarily connect!). For instance, our route to the BWCA was not well thought out and took MUCH longer than anticipated. Next, the hamburger that Doug had meticulously packed in a cooler went bad even before we arrived in the BWCA. Finally, our small troop had little understanding of canoeing skills, and even less of navigating through the woods. None of these things were necessarily fatal, but they all contributed to the ultimate failure of the trip.

The first bright idea was just getting from St. Paul to Grand Marais, Minnesota, which was the starting point of the Gunflint Trail into the BWCA. None of us had a car that we trusted to make it all the way to Grand Marais, so it was either the train or bus. We opted for the train to Duluth because that sounded classier than Greyhound. Even so, we still had to hop the bus in Duluth for a two and one-half hour ride to Grand Marais. We didn’t plan on the bus station being on the other side of the city, so our hoofing it started sooner than we thought. It was great to finally get to Grand Marais after that long trek. We excitedly took photos beneath the large sign welcoming us to the Gunflint Trail. I just wish my camera wasn’t lost on the trip!

The Gunflint Trail used to be a footpath from inland lakes to Lake Superior. It is now County Road 12, a fifty-seven mile paved road from Grand Marais to the BWCA. Our plan to get that fifty-seven miles from Grand Marais? Hitchhike. No lie. Yup, teenaged brain. We figured it would be easy! As you might expect for four guys with gear – easy, right? What we got was a wonderful, sunny, and HOT day that early June. Oh, and we found those mosquitoes and no-see-ems! I think we hiked nearly half-way up the trail before getting several rides in the back of pickup trucks. We ended up splitting up, so it was Jim and I arriving at the Gunflint Lodge long after Pat and Doug.

I remember debating whether to stay at the lodge overnight or trying to catch up to our planned schedule. Much to my regret, we took the cheap route. It wasn’t as if we had a whole lot of cash to spare! So, we loaded our gear into the canoes and took off. I think we only had one map. Doug had that since he was the one who planned our route and obtained the gear, so he rightly declared himself the trip navigator.

Actual map used to navigate a small portion of the BWCA by 4 friends in 1979

It was a beautiful evening. The water was calm and serene. It was so clear that you could see clear down to the bottom of the lakes. I’d been in the woods plenty, but never had seen such pristine forests and lakes. It was quite enchanting. Before long, though, the day’s long arduous hike, sunburn earned along the trail, and grumbling stomachs made us find a campsite for the night. It was then that we found that Doug’s hamburger meat had gone bad. Doug insisted that it was still good – “white hamburger doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad,” he said. Too exhausted to even argue, we simply pitched our tents and decided to wait for our eggs and sausage breakfast, which we knew was likely still edible.

The next day started wonderfully. It had all the signs of a great day. We were up early, feasted on breakfast, and broke camp. We had a leisurely morning of paddling, fishing, and swimming. We learned that the bugs were not nearly as bad when we were away from the shore, so the day started in a truly spectacular manner. That all came to a crashing end when we encountered our first portage. Doug had identified a “shortcut” that would help us make up the time lost in transit. It meant an over land portage of nearly a mile. That is a mile with canoes, paddles, and our gear. I, for one, was not physically ready for this part of the adventure.

Jim is almost a foot taller than me, so carrying a canoe on our heads together must have looked ridiculous. The only way for it to work was if he were in the front. Even then, it wasn’t easy. The word “trail” was not a good description of our route. Maybe overgrown path, but certainly nothing like a groomed trail. We constantly tripped on the numerous tree roots and other undergrowth. All the while we were unmercifully attacked by flying critters. This was no fun at all, but we were still pretty giddy about being all alone. We hadn’t seen another soul since we’d left the lodge the night before.

I’m sure my mind has played tricks on me to get me to forget the great times on that trip, but from that portage, almost all I remember is that things went from bad to worse. I do remember being pretty excited about having to traverse a rapids on this route. It was a small rapids, but fun. Pretty soon, though, there was an even bigger rapids. We stopped and debated whether to “shoot” the rapids or carry the canoes around it. Well, the adjacent landscape wasn’t too conducive to portaging and we were perhaps overconfident after the last fun rapids. We decided to go one at a time. Pat and Doug took the first shot at the rapids. As a precaution, they put their most important gear in our canoe.

It was quite the wild ride – and hilarious to watch from the sidelines! A better description might be “small waterfall,” but it was shown on the map as a minor rapids. Pat and Doug’s canoe flipped several times, dumped them out onto rocks, and nearly floated away. Good thing for Jim and I that we chose the sit this one out! Because of the terrain, we decided the best alternative was to let the canoe stay in the water, while Jim and I held onto a rope tied to the stern. Great idea until the rushing water got rough. No, it didn’t become too hard to hold, but because we were pulling against the swift current, something had to give. The canoe flipped and started to submarine. EVERYTHING was soaked. Even worse, the “important” gear from Pat and Doug’s canoe never got properly tied down, so it all kept floating down the river. I remember making a heroic effort running along the shore and diving into the water to rescue Pat’s sleeping bag, but just about everything else was lost.

By this time, we were ready to call it a day. We found a nearby campsite and strung everything up to dry. We figured we’d be better off waiting till morning to continue this gallant journey through the wilderness. Besides, I think we were all just physically exhausted. We lit a fire and Pat cooked up some pancakes for dinner with our remaining egg or two. Since we hadn’t had any luck fishing, we were already nearing the end of our limited food supply, but at least we were sated for the evening.

Morning broke with the sound of rain on the tent. All of the clothing and gear that we’d carefully hung was soaking wet yet again. Springtime in Minnesota brought a bit of chill to the morning air. We crawled out of our cold, wet sleeping bags to find an overcast sky, rain, and no way to even whip up some hot coffee or cocoa over a fire. Though Jim had regaled us in high school about being able to start a fire in a cave with an ice cube, we couldn’t even keep a match lit. Even Doug’s supposed “waterproof matches” failed. For me, this whole trip was looking pretty bleak.

We researched Doug’s route, packed up the gear, and started out again from the bank of the giant lake we had settled at. Within about an hour of paddling through the rain, the clouds above started looking even more ominous. Jim and I looked with horror at the small whitecaps that were starting to form on the lake ahead of us. We looked back at a comparatively smooth lake behind us. Within moments we both had similar foreboding thoughts and almost simultaneously determined that the best course of action was to pack this trip in.

Pat and Doug insisted that we carry on. Jim and I were just as insistent that we turn back. In addition to the impending storm, a key factor was our lack of food for the remainder of the journey. One solution was to again split up. Doug and Pat might be able to subsist on what we had left if Jim and I went back. Together, we reasoned, we’d never be able to finish. We left our best gear with Pat and Doug, while Jim and I regrettably turned back. I know that my morale was at an all time low and I felt that Jim was in a similar boat (pun intended!).

Though we turned back, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. Jim and I retraced our route, albeit with some recently-aquired wisdom and exceptionally vigorous paddling spurred by the approaching storm. So much for the easy going trek from the day prior. We were, though, able to make it back in less than half the time. Yes, we got rained on, but we were already soaked to the bone. I was never so happy to get back to “civilization” as I was when we reached the lodge.

The way back from the BWCA remains somewhat of a blur, but I’m pretty sure that someone took pity on us and gave us a ride all the way back to Grand Marais. My recollection was that we simply hopped a bus all the way back to the Twin Cities rather than deal with the train from Duluth. I could be wrong, but I was so wiped out, I just can’t remember many details.

For what it is worth, Doug and Pat finished the trip. They waited out the storm and had relatively smooth sailing the rest of the way. I recall that they continued to mock us as “sissies” for quite some time. I retorted that Doug couldn’t talk as the self appointed leader of this failed expedition, but truly, without him we probably never would have even done it. It was Jim, though, who had the last laugh. Yes, he might have been a bit of a sissy (me, too!), but Jim made multiple return trips to BWCA, became quite an accomplished wilderness voyager, and even wrote an excellent book about his experiences.

So, the real lessons of this trip – were surprisingly tremendous! I learned, belatedly, to never give up. We were really no better off than we would have been if we had survived the wilderness and finished the journey. Anyone who knows me knows that it wouldn’t hurt me to go a couple of days with little or no food. I also learned the value of preparation. To this day, I never go on a trip without personally doing the research, making a list of supplies, and planning for what could go wrong. After our foray into the BWCA, even during extended field time with the Army, I knew conditions could always be worse – and that I could make it through. Finally, I learned that young mens’ dreams and aspirations can be realized if they stick together – and that the friendships forged during the hard times can last a lifetime. I still cherish my relationships with those old dudes!

As a final thought, even though we are getting old and gray (or no hair), our impending move back to Minnesota has definitely inspired the idea of reliving that ill fated journey with Pat and Jim. Heck, maybe we can even take some sons or daughters along and regale them what the BWCA was really like in them olden days!

Baby Sister

Well, I’ve written about my other siblings, so I guess it is about time I talk about my little Sister. Jenifer is eight years younger than me – the same difference in ages between our mother and father. That is sometimes so hard to believe. In many ways it felt if we were two different families. Jenifer was just a punk little sister. The funny thing is that with Jon there was some jealousy. With Jenifer, though, Pam and I both LOVED having a baby sister. Over the years, we babysat a lot. For Jenifer, I’m sure that she preferred Pam to babysit, but I am fairly certain that I was much more fun!

Jenifer was such a gullible young kid. She was always up for anything, no matter what. We certainly had some adventures. I think she looked up to me and enjoyed my company. Unfortunately, by the time she was five, I was a teenager. I started to look at my baby sister as a burden and a pest. She always seemed to like hanging around with me and my friends. We would regularly look for ways to “ditch” her, some not very nice. Sad to say, I even tried to get her mad so she would go away.

As I think about some of the stories, it is a wonder that Jenifer survived. I also wonder why she likes me, even today. I was not nice. In fact, I was downright mean. It wasn’t as if I went out of my way trying to torture her. Mostly I was just trying to get her to stop hanging around me and my friends.

Jenifer and I had a game where we would each stand on each end of the pool table and throw the pool balls to each other. It was a lot like air hockey. The only difference was that you would try to catch the ball. Mean as I was, I tried to jamb her fingers against the side of the table by whipping the ball as hard as I could. Sorry, Jenifer! I guess Jon was smart enough to not play again after a couple of crunched fingers. Jenifer, though, just kept coming back for more! Even though I was trying to get rid of her, I really respected her toughness and the way she kept coming back.

Another mean moment was when we were making carameled apples. I had melted caramel on the doubled boiler. Jenifer was flitting around annoying me as usual. I tried to get her away telling her how hot the stuff was. At one point I pulled the pan from the boiler and tried to fake that I was dropping the pan when she was right there. Unfortunately, while I didn’t drop the pan, I did tip it enough to drip scalding hot caramel onto her arm. Jenifer ended up at the Emergency Room with a significant burn. I was mortified. I never want to hurt her (at least not badly), I just wanted her to go away.

Yes, there were other attempts to terrorize (but never hurt) over the years. Often, Pam or Jon got into the act as well. Mine just seemed to go further than theirs. Where Pam would drool long, stringy spitballs over Jenifer’s face, just to suck them back at the last moment, I chose for more physical terror like holding her out the window by her ankles. Why? I guess because she was so easy going, so easily tricked – and surprisingly still loved us – despite the regular family hazing she suffered. It is not that we were never nice to her. We were. There is just something about being the baby of the family where the bullying of older siblings can just get to an extreme. Fortunately, we grew out of that (okay, mostly we did!).

The other thing about Jenifer is that she gave us what we thought was good reason to pick on her. At least we thought it was good reason! Jenifer was born with some sort of adenoid disorder. It caused her nose to run incessantly. It was pretty gross, as her snot got everywhere! Worse, even, than our Boxer dog, Bos’n’s drooling jowels. I have no doubt that our family, due to Jenifer, went a long way toward the transformation of “tissue” to be better known as “Kleenix.” We went through so much of that stuff that we should probably get stock from Kimberly Clarke.

Our dad used to love to tell the story about Jenifer on her first cruise. She was about four or five. It wasn’t as if our parents ignored us, but we seemed to have a pretty free run of the ship. Jenifer liked riding up and down the elevator all day. It stopped right outside our room, so she would just go out and ride on the elevator. Oh this particular ship, there was an elevator boy who would “run” the elevator (i.e., push the floor buttons for you). He was quite young and I think Jenifer had a crush on him. He doted on her like she was his only passenger. Our room steward similarly took a liking to this cute little girl (by this time her runny nose problem was resolved and she was very cute!). He brought her bananas and other treats multiple times per day.

At some point during the cruise, Jenifer came down with the Chicken Pox. It seems that much of the crew had not been vaccinated for this. As a result, we had a boat full of sick crew members. We never knew how far it went, but by the end of the cruise, there was no longer an elevator attendant and we got a new room steward. Even then, the crew seemed afraid to even come near our cabins. Jenifer lost her following!

Despite being cute and sweet, Jenifer became quite a sassy young girl. Perhaps it had something to do with the constant bullying at home (or in spite of it). Those who know her today would have no idea how bold and audacious she was as a kid. I’m sure she still has occasions where she stands up for herself, but she is much more measured now. Jenifer is no longer the kid who would stand on her desk berating her teacher saying, “You can’t tell me what to do! If you talk to me like that again, I am going home and not coming back.” In that way, I think Jenifer might have been mimicking her elder brother. Whatever I didn’t do by my bullying, our mother and the nuns at St. Lukes really smacked that sassy streak out of her!

Sassy Jenifer (with no snot!)

Jenifer today is one of the nicest, mild-mannered women I know. She reminds me of so many of the most positive qualities of our mother. She is respectful and kind, slow to speak up unless she really thinks something is wrong, responsible, and is a bit reserved around strangers. With her friends and family, though, she is outgoing and fun to be around. She also took my mother penchant for worry. That is not necessarily a bad quality, but I worry (like I did about my mother), that such worrying can take some enjoyment out of life. Lighten up, Jenifer! 🙂

From what I can tell, Jenifer is universally well liked. Almost everyone who knows her always has positive things to say about their interactions with her. She still stays in touch with many friends from grade school and high school. Jenifer goes out of her way to maintain those connections.

Jenifer is quite the pianist. Though not quite the professional musician as her sister, Jenifer is an accomplished musician in her own right. She plays piano by ear and played percussion in the Police Band. Our Dad loved hearing Jenifer play. He always loved seeing his kids in the spotlight, but he definitely had a special place in his heart for Jenifer. Any time he saw a piano somewhere, he asked her to play – and she would. Jenifer played piano for him in malls, airports, nursing homes, street corners in Paris, and even in concert halls. She has a great talent and still plays by ear.

Because of our age differential and the fact that I left town when I was relatively young, I didn’t get to really know my adult little sister until much later in life. What a joy! Some of my favorite memories with Jenifer involve our travels together. We laughed so hard when others got so mad about being diverted on a flight back from a vacation. For us, we were happy for the extra day away. We pitied those who saw it as a curse, but definitely had fun at their expense.

Another trip that I will never forget was when Pam and Jenifer came to visit me in Germany. I was able to take some time off and we toured Southern Germany and Northern Austria. We sang in the streets of Heidelberg and Munich, danced with the Munchen Lion in a fountain, drank beer with a ghost (true story!), and hiked the Alps. What an enjoyable experience!

Finally, I was so proud to see Jenifer walk down the aisle to her husband, Kirk. They are a good match and compliment each other’s strengths. Weaknesses? Jenifer seems comfortable with Kirk’s love of trains. Kirk similarly puts up with Jenifer’s longtime friends, who still seem to get her out for a drink every now and then. Kirk and Jenifer met relatively late in life, but she always had her lifelong friends Cheryl, Mary Beth, Nicole, Dana, and many others, to mostly keep her out of trouble. Just kidding! They are all truly wonderful friends who have kept strong friendships through the many good and bad times each has faced.

I can tell that Jenifer is looking forward to us moving back to Minnesota. She, along with Doug Bargmann, regularly keep me up to date on the status of our home building project. We look forward to spending more time with Jenifer and Kirk. I think I’ve missed enough birthdays and other special occasions. Besides, I’m guessing Jenifer, Kirk, and brother Jon, might be excellent dog sitters!

Finally, despite ours age difference, I’ve always felt that Jenifer and I had a natural connection. Pam and Jon were the more intense go-getters. Jenifer and I have always been a bit more laid back and enjoy a good time. We love family, dogs, and laughter. I am looking forward to a lot more laughs with my baby sister in the near future!

Cretin High School

As almost everyone can probably relate, high school had a profound affect on me. In so many ways, my experiences there changed my life. Some in not so good ways; in other ways, it made me the man I am today. Most importantly, Cretin High School started me on the path that led to a mostly successful life. I think that is the ultimate testament to a high school experience.

My 40th high school reunion is later this Summer. That landmark is merely happenstance, not the reason I am writing this now. Rather, as a regular reader knows, this blog is basically a chronological catalog of influences in my life. Though I wasn’t particularly a fan of Cretin High School at the time, it provided me with fond memories, great friendships, and of course, profound life lessons. The very best thing about Cretin, for me, was stability. Up to that point, I had attended four different grade schools, none for more than three years. Finally, at Cretin, I was a member of the same class from grades 9-12.

My start at Cretin was hardly the greatest way to impress my new classmates. Though I’d never played organized football, my dad convinced me to try out for the team. I was rather small for my age (and young for a Freshman), but I could kick. I signed up and showed up – albeit late – for the first fall practice. I remember being all alone in the locker room trying to figure out how to put the uniform together. There seemed to be too many pads and I had no clue how they went into the pants. Same with the shoulder pads. The biggest problem was when I finally got all the pad and pants on. I didn’t know I was supposed to buy a practice jersey to wear over the pads, so I ended up stretching and pulling my t-shirt over the pads.

I suspect I was quite the spectacle as I staggered out to the field. I was met by a coach who stifled a chuckle and asked me what position I played. When I said, “kicker,” he lost it. He chewed me out and told me to head over with the defense. It was brutal. I was picked on by both the other players and the coaches. I think that was the first and only time ever I showed up for football!

Classes were okay. I was actually pretty good at most of the subjects that first year, except for military. For some reason, I never took to subjects of rifle marksmanship, first aid, and the other basic military topics. Our teacher, 1SG Stephens knew my sister Pam because he also worked with the band. He liked her, so I think he gave me every break he could. Ultimately, I got a “D” that first semester in military. In just about everything else I got “A’s” and “B’s,” so I figured that this military stuff was just not for me!

Based partially on general geekiness, as well as the football fiasco and the non-military bearing, I did not fit in too well at school. I was glad I had my two friends from St. Luke’s, Pat and Jim. We remained fast friends throughout high school , and even college, until we all ended up leaving town to make our starts in life outside of Minnesota. Up until then, we did almost everything together. For the most part, we were good kids, but I can tell you that we got into things that kids nowadays just don’t do. They were mostly juvenile types of things, such as bumper skiing, hitchhiking, drinking beer, and smoking cheap cigars. Oh yes, and checking out girls. Girls we had absolutely no chance at dating!

There were a number of others who came in an out of our circle during our high school years, including Dave, Dan, Larry, Tom, Mike, Bic, the Weiss brothers, . . . but most often it was just me, Jim, and Pat.

Cretin High School was a MUCH different school than the Cretin-Derham Hall (CDH) we know of today. Back then it was all boys. Girls were across an expansive field to the West. They could join the Cretin band and one or two joint classes, but that was rather rare. We just didn’t see girls around campus. We wore modified Army uniforms EVERY DAY! They consisted of tan shirts, black tie, Army green pants, black socks (except for Pat’s occasional white socks), and shined black Oxford shoes. We wore these to and from school, and even played intramural sports, without changing out of the uniforms. As a result, everyone in town knew what school we were from. There was no getting into trouble either before or after school without someone making a report to the school.

The other thing different from today’s CDH was the composition of the students. There was no fighting to get into the school. Everyone I knew from just about any Catholic grade school in the city got in; many others from public schools as well. The guys in our class included sons of bakers, mechanics, secretaries, car dealers, engineers, lawyers, and just about every blue and white collar occupation you could think of. We were a true melting pot of society, except for racial diversity. We had Hispanics and Lebanese, but very few African American or Asian classmates. I think Cretin in those days pretty much matched the demographics of St. Paul. We did have great intellectual diversity. We had highly intelligent classmates, those of average intelligence, and even some guys who really would have been better off at a different school where they had special programs. Still, we were all Cretin Raiders!

Freshman year went well overall. Except for 1SG Stephens’ Military class, I did quite well. Algebra, with the infamous Harvey Buron started quite well, but once he became a cheerleader for the S.P.A.F.F tickets, I lost interest. My grades suffered as a result. Besides, the second half of algebra was just pretty darn hard! Despite my experience with football, I did try baseball in the Spring. Unfortunately, work got in the way. My new boss, Don Ryan, at The Lexington didn’t care about my practice schedule, so I eventually quit the team. The Lex became my second (or third) home throughout my high school years. It, too, provided me many life lessons. More about that in a future blog post.

The worst part of Freshman year for me was Spanish class. For some reason, that class was extremely difficult for me. The teacher, Brother James Saiz, was okay, but he spent most of the second half of the year relying on audiotapes to teach the class. The entire class was hooked to headphones, complete with microphones. Kids would regularly “comment” on things even if it wasn’t their turn. Brother James rarely knew where the comments were coming from. Admittedly, some came from me, but by no means was I the most disruptive. For some reason, though, Brother James always seemed to think it was me. As a result of this – and my poor comprehension – I got my first “F.” Yup, I failed Freshman Spanish, My penance was to make it up in Summer School.

I took Spanish that Summer at Highland High School. The teacher was a cute young lady, who clearly piqued my interest. Even though school in the Summer was a real bummer, I did well enough to score an A! Take that, Brother James.

If Freshman year ended poorly, Sophomore year started dreadfully. The primary event that is still in my mind was the continual practicing for the annual Federal inspection. That is when someone from the “real” Army comes to the high school JROTC programs to inspect the program. This was a BIG deal for Cretin in those days – we need to keep the yellow star that signified “honor unit with distinction.” I hated the Federal inspection. Not only did we need to dress up in the full uniform, complete with the Army suit coat (we called it our “blouse”), spit shined shoes, and highly polished brass accoutrements, but we had to stand for what seemed like hours at attention as the Army Brass inspected the “troops.”

During one particular afternoon “practice,” someone made a snide comment in the ranks. It was something rather innocent like, “I hope I don’t pass out during the formation like a St. Thomas weenie.” I laughed. Oops! 1SG Stephens thought I was the one who cracked the comment. Even worse, he thought I made a racial comment about him (he was black). Though that was a different time in our society, to this day I swear that I never said (or heard) a racial epithet that day. 1SG Stephens was not convinced. He told me to meet him after school that day. When I did, he directed me to show up early in the morning with all my Army uniforms to turn them in to him. Yes, he was telling me that, in essence, I was being expelled from school. I was aghast. I didn’t know what to do. Some buddies encouraged me to call his bluff. I did show up early the next day, but without the uniforms. I again told 1SG Stephens that I never said, nor heard any racial comment. Reluctantly, he “allowed” me to stay. He said it was due to his fond feelings for my sister.

I suspect 1SG Stephens didn’t have the authority to expel me, but that did not change how much I worried for an entire night! Truth be told, I greatly respected 1SG Stephens. Though I didn’t do well in his class, he definitely instilled in me the need to treat all people with dignity. At that time in my life, except for first aid, I just wasn’t very interested in the military subjects he taught.

Sophomore year was an influential year for me in another, more positive way. I don’t remember the teacher’s name, but he was a Christian Brother who was at the school for only a couple of years. One of the classes we took with him was a speech class. As one would expect, almost all of us teenage boys were mortally afraid to get up in front of the class to speak. We’d talk okay, but get us alone in front of the class and it became a different story. My first speech, like that of most of my classmates, was a bomb. The second was a bit more interesting. The assignment was a persuasive speech.

Jim had to give his speech before mine. It was awesome! His attempt to persuade the class that he could light a fire with random items found in nature was both interesting and entertaining. His argument that he could (or at least someone could) start a fire with an ice cube was hilarious. I think we all loosened up a bit after that. Pat always gave funny speeches, but I don’t remember any of the topics! My speech of persuasion, though was more difficult than either Pat’s or Jim’s. I chose to suggest to the class that the Minnesota Twins would win the pennant that year. The best part about that choice of topic was that I knew it through and through. My classmates seemed to be entertained and engaged, asking lots of questions, which I easily answered. Unfortunately, I don’t think I convinced too many of my premise! I did, though, gain a lot of confidence in public speaking that day and throughout the remainder of that class. That has served me well throughout my adult life. Oh, and by the way, the Twins did NOT win the pennant that year, though they did finish seven games over .500.

Sometime early in high school Pat, Jim, and I started hitchhiking home from school every day. We would walk down Randolph Avenue after school and hitchhike from the corner of Randolph and Lexington. Most days we got a ride down Lexington to Grand or Summit Avenue. Pat and Jim both lived within a half block of Lexington, so we typically stopped at one of their houses for a quick snack or to pick up some baseball or football gear, depending upon the season. Then we’d play catch and just hang out like normal teenagers would do. Before long, though, we all had shifts in the dishwasher dungeon at The Lex, so our lazy after-school time was interrupted. It wasn’t until Jim got a car that we stopped hitchhiking daily.

Everything from Junior and Senior years at Cretin pretty much blend together for me. Between school and working at The Lex, we didn’t have a whole lot of time for anything else. We worked almost every weekend evening. The biggest difference between the two years was that my sister Pam was away my entire Senior year. She was a Rotary Youth Exchange student to South Africa. Most kids went abroad either their Junior or Senior year, but Pam waited until she graduated from Derham Hall. Jon and Jen were still in grade school, so I was the only teenager in the house. That meant that during my Senior year, I didn’t have to share access to Mom’s car with my sister.

In my group of friends, no one had a steady girlfriend. Probably because we were just a bunch of geeks. We didn’t party at the Mississippi River or “the valley” like many of our classmates. Instead, we mostly kept to ourselves and drank crappy beer in beer cellar caves beneath the former Schmidt’s brewery in St. Paul. Truly, the worst thing that we did from a criminality sense was to surreptitiously move a case of Heineken beer from The Lex’s storage room into the alleyway dumpster late one night. Another of us retrieved said case from the trash and transferred it to an ice chest for the evening’s after work festivities. My recollection is that many years later, Pat felt guilty and replaced the case in a similar way. Of course by that time, he could legally buy the stuff! I can attest that neither Pat nor Jim had anything to do with the stolen car(s) escapades. That was all me. Perhaps I can write about that another time. And the Great Golf Cart Caper actually occurred, I believe, after graduation, so that, too, is another story.

Though we were not in the class of jocks, we did play football, baseball, basketball, and softball. We played hard! We always played intramural sports at school and were often as good as – if not better – than the class jocks. We actually played all year. In the Summer months, we scrapped together neighborhood teams to play baseball and football (depending upon the season) at the local Summit School. Since school was out, we had little competition for the field, but we did have some harrowing moments when someone blasted a baseball into the nearby tennis courts. For some of us, that was more often than was comfortable. I can only imagine playing a round of tennis, just to be interrupted buy a hard baseball jettisoning into the court. Sometimes we tried to talk our way out of it. Other times, we ran!

Football during those Summers was brutal. We played with at least ten to twelve players and almost always played tackle. No pads or helmets, just us, a ball, and the hard autumn ground. We were actually quite good. Pat was the best quarterback; Jim could have been nicknamed “sticky fingers” as our best receiver; and I was the guy who would run the ball up the gut. My stocky frame and low center of gravity made it very difficult for would-be tacklers. There is no doubt in my mind that we left many concussions on that field every Summer. Even so, we were almost always back the next day or the next week for another battle. Nope, we weren’t jocks, but we were certainly tough!

Senior year was a bit of a surprise. We all progressed steadily and were making decent grades! Pat was the freest thinker of the group, so he appeared less concerned with grades than Jim and I, but he also did pretty well in class. Jim was clearly the student. I think he may have tried to play dumb, but he was far from it. Jim was almost always the one who got his homework done. Pat occasionally did his. I did my homework rarely, instead relying on my innate abilities that consistently let me down. As a result, when homework was due, Pat and I begged Jim to share his homework on the morning it was due. Jim almost always relented. I still laugh today when I recall how one of our teachers routinely annotated all of our last names at the top of our homework and test pages. He was obviously on to the gig, but didn’t know who was doing the work and who the cheaters were.

All of our grades improved by Senior year, whether from study, shared homework, or simply by figuring out the system. As they do as you near the end of school, things started getting a bit more serious. College was near. No more of the BS we did in high school. It was time to put up. We all did. Interestingly, by the end of my Junior year, I was taken under the wing of a military instructor, Master Sergeant (MSG) Stock. MSG Stock apparently saw something in me that one might call potential, since it was highly unlikely that he saw many examples of achievement from me. Anyway, MSG Stock encouraged me like no one else at the school had done. For some reason, his encouragement stuck and he became somewhat of a mentor for me.

JROTC student officers were generally appointed at the end of Junior year. We had a number of great officers, including our friend, Larry, who became the “Cadet Colonel,” the highest student rank at the school. Jim and I made it to the sergeant ranks, yet for some reason Pat remained a private (probably due to his habit of wearing white socks). I was rather proud, but still a bit jealous of those appointed as officers. That, plus the specter of college, caused me put my nose to the grindstone some more. As a result, I had an excellent first semester of my Senior year. Just before Christmas break I was promoted, along with a small cadre of other Seniors, including Jim, to the officer rank. MSG Stock’s faith in me seemed to be taking fruit.

As an officer, we had to set the example. Now I had to do well. With the increased attention, I guess I must have rose to the challenge. I was finishing high school on a high note (our graduation hijinks notwithstanding). The best thing about being an officer, though, was being able to attend the highly anticipated formal Officer’s Ball. Unfortunately, I had no date. Gone were the days when my sister would arrange a date with one of her friends. Now I had to find my own date and it wasn’t easy!

I catalogued all the girls that I knew and got recommendations from my friends. Since they were basically in the same boat I was, we simply didn’t have much of a pool of dates. I was somewhat friendly with a salad girl at work – she made the salads and sandwiches at The Lex. She was nice, pretty, petite, but a little shy (as, of course, was I). I really didn’t know much about her, but knew that I liked her. I asked about her of my friends at The Lex. Most said she was the nicest girls around – probably too nice for me! One guy recommended that I stay away because he had dated her for months and couldn’t even get to first base.

After deliberation and summoning all the courage I could, I stopped her just as she was leaving one night. I stammered while asking if she’d like to go to the Officer’s Ball. I was thrown for a loop with her reply. “With who?,” she asked. Flummoxed, I finally spit out, “Well, with me!” She quickly answered, “Sure” then turned and flitted away down the stairs. I called through the darkness, “okay, I’ll give you details later.” No reply as she was gone into the women’s locker room.

We had a marvelous time at the Officer’s Ball. To me, this young lady was truly the Belle of the Ball. I haven’t looked back. Second base (or more) was not an issue for me. Forty years later (35 of them married to her), that was the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. In a roundabout way, Cretin High School gave that to me. As I’ll write about later, Cretin also set me on a path – the United States Army – that would be a central part of who I am today. Things don’t always happen the way you plan them, but my experience with Cretin High School tells me that God’s plan is a whole lot better than any plan I could have made. Thank you, Cretin! Go Raiders!

By the way, if you like stories about Cretin High School, keep a lookout for my friend Jim’s upcoming book, “Cretin Boy.” Check out his (much superior) writing at: http://jimlandwehr.com