Captains’ Club Hijinx

The Captains’ Club was at its apex for several weeks after the thrilling Sylvester exploits of four of its members. Conversation turned dark in early February when several Captains noted an article in the Stars and Stripes newspaper that stated in no uncertain terms that there had been no “stop loss” for Operation Joint Endeavor. That meant that the active-duty Soldiers came and left their assignments as normal. We saw many left behind from the team in Hungary and Bosnia because they were pending transfer. The stir among the Reserve Component Captains was whether that “stop loss” applied to our mobilization as well. More than one of the unit members had tendered a resignation to the unit commander prior to the mobilization. Except for a Major previously written about, none of the resignations were acted upon. One of our Captains’ Club members, Glen Thomas, was among them.

Remember, this all occurred well before the mass mobilizations of the Reserves after the terrorist attacks in 9/11/2001. I can personally attest to the fact that in 1995-1996, the Army hadn’t worked out many mobilization details, as I never received the proper DD Form 214 that is required for any mobilized Soldier. Anyway, there was a lot of consternation stirring about what people felt as an improper mobilization at best or at least separate treatment. More importantly, members of the unit started becoming convinced that out leadership had blatantly lied to us about the requirement that we be mobilized. I didn’t know immediately that these complaints were coming not just from the Captains, but from Enlisted ranks as well.

Soon I started hearing complaints on an almost daily basis. Since I was a lawyer in the civilian world, I started getting Enlisted Soldiers and Officers asking questions about their rights and options for relief. At one point, there was a line outside of my barrack’s door! Since I admittedly knew nothing, I referred them to the post Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office. I also suggested that if they felt they had an issue with the command that they always had the right to seek assistance from the Inspector General. At the same time, I felt an obligation to let unit leadership know of the rumors running rampant through the unit. Our Company Commander suggested I contact the Deputy and Commander. I made the necessary appointments and did so. At first they seemed concerned, but when I asked several follow-up questions, I got stammering and clear direction to stay out of it and to continue referring anyone who comes to me to the JAG office.

There is another Army adage that might be applicable here. Much like they saying of making sure Soldiers have work to do (no matter how menial) is the quote, “If Soldiers aren’t bitching, they aren’t happy.” One thing I’ve noted is that there is a fine line between evil or destructive bitching and sarcastic or even dark-humored bitching. The latter are actually healthy outlets to daily frustrations, but the evil bitching is problematic1. Besides the seriousness of the complaints surrounding the truthfulness of our unit leaders, we had some great laughs about many other scenarios and situations we had to deal with. One such story, though, may have meandered perhaps a bit too close to the line of seriousness. It involved a fellow Captain who seemed to take too much of a liking to the beer. We joked about him being continually drunk. His conversation often turned dark. One night after he had way too many, this Captain suggested that no one would notice if he painted the large historical cannon pink and hung himself on it.

I know that many of us took him seriously – and started keeping a more watchful eye upon him. That did not stop us, though, from nicknaming him “The Reaper,” or even “Reap” (short for the grim reaper) due to his dark thoughts. Similarly, an ongoing joke revolved around who was buying the pink paint and what night were we going to paint the Howitzer! Fortunately, it was Winter in Wiesbaden, so any painting escapade would have to wait. Instead, we found another interesting way to blow off some steam.

One of the unit’s Lieutenants was going stir crazy on our small post. He found and bought himself a beater of a car. In the parlance of the military overseas, these are called hoopties. The only requirement for a hooptie is that it run and can pass a fairly onerous German inspection. I think he got this one for under $500. Since his was the only car owned by anyone in the unit, LT Tom Audette became an honorary member of the Captains’ Club. Some of the senior members of the club received preference, so I was a regular rider (and oftentimes driver) of Tom’s beaten-down Volvo hooptie. We enjoyed evening visits to a local restaurants and various day trips to Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Mainz, and even as far off as Heidelberg. The weekend of February 17-18, 1996, though, was different. Due to President’s Day holiday, we had Monday off, so we wanted to venture a little further away.

I remember the precise weekend because it was also Fasching weekend. The real “holiday” is Shrove Tuesday (Tuesday, February 20th), but the Germans celebrate what we call Mardi Gras in a big way. We didn’t know it, though, at the time. It seems that Fasching is much more popular in the North than it was in Bavaria, where I had previously lived. It was serious business in Wiesbaden, Mainz, Koln and Dusseldorf, among other Germany cities. Anyway, little did we know we were setting out for trouble!

For whatever reason, we decided to head toward Dusseldorf. I think someone had heard it was a fun town. I drove (about a 2 1/2 hour trip) as Tom decided to get started drinking one of the beer racks we bought along.  Once we arrived at Düsseldorf, we searched for a hotel.  We wanted a flophouse near the train station (Bahnhof) like our smaller group had during the New Year’s Eve trip to Nurnberg: cheap and dirty! It really didn’t matter as we didn’t expect to spend much time there.  We found that Düsseldorf didn’t have any cheap hotels — or at least we couldn’t find any with rooms available.  We finally found an old place that wasn’t too from the bahnhof.  It wasn’t cheap, but it had sufficient rooms for us.  

Almost immediately we set out on foot to find the hot spots of Düsseldorf.  Before too long we came upon an area with tents and stands lined up for blocks.  Unfortunately, almost every one was closed.  We headed to one of the few open stands and got an Alt beer.  We found out then that Alt beer was about all you could get in Düsseldorf.  Afterwards, we wandered along the vacant street for a little while.  Tom got pretty bummed.  He was a young guy, single, and was looking for more action.  The rest of us were just happy to be away from the post and enjoyed seeing the sights of the city.

We found another small stand serving Alt beer and stopped for another. Before long, we noticed a lot more people around. None stopped for a drink as they seemed to be heading somewhere. Most of them were dressed in fasching costumes — funny hats, painted faces, etc.  We figured that the big parade and party in Düsseldorf would be on Sunday and that there were only private parties on Saturday.  Pretty soon, the place we were at started to close down.  We figured that we would try to follow along behind some locals to see if there was anything else open.

Soon we strolled down what appeared to be a shopping district.  For about 7-8 p.m., there seemed to be quite a few people about.  We saw a few interesting characters along the way.  Some were dressed in costumes and some appeared to be just out for a walk.  One old guy was drunk as a skunk.  He followed each girl that went by and slapped her in the ass with a book he was carrying.  Not good in #MeToo era, but we found it was pretty hilarious at the time!  Before long, we began to hear music.  We followed the music and came to a square that was jammed with people.  We had found the party!  We were ecstatic.

The mob of people lasted several blocks.  There were at least two bands.  Food, beer, and gluhwein stands were open all over the place.  There were stands selling all kinds of other things, most notably, fasching hats.  They look like jester hats and come in various shapes and sizes.  Of course, we all just had to get one.  They looked great and we began to really fit in with the crowd.  From there we continued down the block until we came to what appeared to be the end and headed back the other way.  As we got closer to the band, we could hardly even move.  People were packed so tight that traffic was at a standstill.  Groups would grab on to each other’s shoulders and sort of bunny-hop through the crowd.  They kind of just bullied their way through.  We quickly figured this out and hopped on behind one such group.  It was really a lot of fun!  As long as you held on to the person in front of you, everyone else sort of bounced right off.

Tom Audette, Me, and Tim Reed in Dusseldorf for Fasching

Once we got through the crowd we found a little stand-up table near a beer and wurst stand.  We grabbed the table and used that as a home base for the next few hours.  Everyone drank lots of Alt as we munched on bratwurst and other German delicacies.  We started up many conversations with people around us and had a really good time.  The funny thing was that nearly everyone there was getting drunk.  Funnier still was that all the beer stands were serving Alt in nice (albeit small) beer glasses.  Before long the sidewalks were littered with broken glass and broken bottles of champagne and schnapps.  Of course, as beer consumption continued, so did the need to urinate.  It was going on behind cars and trucks, in alleys, and along storefronts, by both men and women!  By all accounts we were in the midst of an all-out drunken brawl.  

Unlike typical American drunks, the Germans aren’t violent drunks.  In fact, I did not see a single fight or even harsh words.  I had my share of Alt, but I was sober by local standards.  Another of our group, Kay Bee, was also fairly sober.  Around midnight we decided we were ready to go back to the hotel.  The rest were still roaring to go.  Kay and I left them after we ensured they had keys to the hotel. Fortunately, the keys had a sort of a business card attached to them with the address to the hotel.

Kay and I walked back to the hotel. It wasn’t until we got back that I realized I had left the only key to my room with my roommates Tim and Tom. My bag and the car keys were also in the room. Kay had the only key to her room. After pondering the situation for a while, Kay and I decided that the best course of action was for me to flop in her room, at least until her roommates arrived back at the hotel and/or until we heard Tim and Tom show up in the room next door. Ultimately, neither of those scenarios occurred, so I slept in a chair in wet and smelly clothes. I don’t remember hearing anything in the hallways all night, so I must have slept well.

For the rest of this sordid tale, the reader will have to wait for the next exciting episode where I likely saved someone’s life!

1. For a great discussion of the difference between good and bad complaining, I highly recommend Chapter 5 (Sweat the Small Stuff) in Congressman Dan Crenshaw’s book, “Fortitude.”

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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.

The Captains’ Club

Things were still moving fast for us in Wiesbaden after our hasty departure from Fort Dix on Christmas Eve, but we soon settled in. Within days of our arrival in Germany, just over 20 of our 119 unit members continued the journey to Hungary. The met up with the 1st Armored Division task force preparing to cross the Sava River into Bosnia and Herzogovina. The rest of us remained in Wiesbaden to figure out our tasks in supporting the units “down range.”

We had it easy! Very quickly we found a place where we could buy German beer by the rack. After our duty hours, life became a bit of an evening-long happy hour in our barracks rooms. The unit’s Captains were congregated at one end of a long hallway on the building’s third floor. Due to the stresses of the mobilization, more than a few of us took the opportunity to let loose a bit. We were careful, though, to stick to our barracks so we wouldn’t get into too much trouble. Besides, no one had a car, so it would have been awfully hard to get anywhere. Even though we were relatively close to the city of Wiesbaden, it was an expensive cab fare.

A german beer rack consists of 20 half-liter bottles of beer. They are easily stackable. We always had multiple cases stacked along the walls of our barracks rooms. (image “borrowed” from the web site indicated above!)

The real trouble started on New Years Eve. Someone got the bright idea to rent a car and get out of town. Four or us Captains left in our company commander’s rental car. In addition to the commander, Tim Reed, there were two other guys I didn’t know so well, Mike Hoover and Mike Flaherty. No one had any idea of where to go, so I suggested Nurnberg since it was a place I knew well. I had not been back to Germany since we left in early 1988. I was intrigued, but also a little disappointed in how much the Germany I remember had changed. The U.S. Army had recently closed all its facilities in the Nurnberg area, so I wanted to see how things had changed. When we were stationed there ten years prior, the Army had over 100,000 Soldiers and families in and around Nurnberg. Now it was none.

After a quick tour of the town and the area, we settled down a bit early for the New Year’s festivities. We were quite disappointed at the local Irish pub. Not much activity for a New Years Eve, so we made our way from bar to bar until we reached the famous Tugendbrunnen (Virtuous Fountain). Rubbing the gold ring embedded in the fountain seemed to bring us good luck as a local bar nearby had just finished setting up its outdoor area for their Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) celebration. Young Germans started showing up there, so we staked out a good standing table with a view of the Lorenzer Platz. This is the area where the famous Nurnberg Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market) takes place.

It wasn’t long before the place was nearly overrun with “rads,” our word for young Germans wearing hip clothes. We were relatively warm due to the crowd and the propane heaters interspersed in the outdoor patio. The beer further warmed our bellies. We started conversations with our fellow revelers. One young woman roped Mike into buying her a drink. She had baited him by explaining in broken English how she much preferred American whiskey to German beer. He ended up buying her a whiskey, not realizing that American whiskey in Germany is VERY expensive. I heard some of her male colleagues refer to her as “Sonia mit der langen Zunge.” Hoover and I knew enough German to translate this to our group as “Sonia with the long tongue.” This created a sensation and we sent Sonia several more whiskeys until some German pushed Reed over a snowbank adjacent to our table.

It was a good thing that Reed was an amiable man after a few beers. He laughed it off, just as the fireworks started. If you have not experienced Sylvester in Germany, you have no idea what this means. This is not a traditional fireworks show like we have on the Fourth of July. No, these are close-range fireworks, including those shot off with something akin to a flare gun. It feels like a war zone with all the flashes and bangs going off in very close proximity. Streamers, ammo casing, and other fireworks residue rain through the air – and the noise rings in your ears! It is definitely NOT for kids. The firework explosion lasts for a good half hour. During this time I noted more than a few (including one or two of our own) seeking out Sonia for a New Year’s kiss, mostly to see if her reputation was based on fact!

We stayed the night in Nurnberg, but were shortly back to our new isolated reality in Wiesbaden. Here we had irregular bus service to the local PX (Post Exchange) and Commissary (grocery store), but, again, the town of Wiesbaden was an expensive cab ride away. Everything we really needed was on post. We had a library, mess hall, chapel, barber shop, mail room, and Community Club (bar) all on our our small base, so there was never a NEED to leave. There was also a small shoppette that sold beer by the rack, so we truly had everything we needed.

This trip to Nurnberg, though, really kicked off our new “Captains’ Club.” We started forming strong bonds, albeit primarily centered on beer. The main gathering place was Mike Hoover’s room (I think shared for a time with Tim Reed). It was just across the hall from mine, so it was easy access. My roommate, Glen Thomas, was not much of a beer drinker, but he participated as did most other Captains in the unit. As our chats got deeper, we learned of growing frustration and anger within the unit. Strangely, it was not from the small contingent send down range. Nope, it was mostly among our team in Germany, likely since we had more time to ponder our repesctive situations than did our brothers and sisters closer to the “combat” zone. This was a time when I heard many quotes about keeping soldiers busy so the wouldn’t cause trouble. I can attest to the truth of those adages!

I was the only lawyer in our unit, though I was NOT a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps, at least not yet. As can be the case with anyone who has just a little understanding of something, I probably had just about enough knowledge to be dangerous. Our unit commander, Colonel Art Hubbard, almost certainly felt that way. That lead to exploits that I can write about in the next blog related to this mobilization.

Whaaat? Mobilized?

I joined the Army Reserve in 1993, five years after leaving the active Army. One of the main reasons I left the Army in the first place was to make sure I was home with my family. Now, only two years into my Army Reserve career I was going back on active duty!

The Dayton Peace Accord was negotiated by the United Nations in November of 1995 and formally signed on December 14, 1995. The purpose of the accord was to ensure peace in the former Yugoslavia Republics and to establish a single sovereign state known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. U.S. Troops were sent to this new state as part of a NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) to ensure peace in the region. The code name for the mission was Operation Joint Endeavor. The IFOR mission included or involved troops from 32 countries and numbered some 54,000 soldiers in-country (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and around 80,000 involved soldiers in total (with support and reserve troops stationed in Croatia, Hungary, Germany, and Italy, and also on ships in the Adriatic Sea). My unit, the 19th Corps Material Management Center (CMMC), was activated to backfill for our active duty counterpart unit in Germany, who was moving forward with the U.S. contingent of forces.

There were some rumblings in October about a potential mobilization and we were first put on notice sometime in November that we could be tapped for this mission. From a planning perspective, it was unclear whether we would merely “backfill” the active duty unit (i.e., take their place in Wiesbaden, Germany) or to also fill their vacancies and deploy to Bosnia. We had no idea what we were in for and there was great speculation, even in the diplomatic community, whether the peace agreement would stick. There was a good likelihood that we could see actual combat. Except for a few U.S. incursions into Panama and Grenada, the United States Army had not seen war since Vietnam. It was our understanding that ours was the first mobilization of any U.S. Army Reserve forces since the Korean War!

Our pre-Christmas celebration in December 1995.

This was an exciting, yet scary time. During our November drill, we spent most of our time going through various Soldier tasks and getting our personal and financial affairs in order. We didn’t know if all would deploy or if it would be just a slice of the unit. Either way, we all needed to prepare. By the time we left that drill we were told to be ready for additional time at the unit location in Arden Hills, Minnesota, to conduct additional readiness activities throughout the month of December.

December drill was much of the same, but with a bit more urgency. I think everyone kept a sharp eye on the Dayton Peace talks. Finally, we were provided mobilization orders. On Thursday, December 14, 1995 at about 9 A.M. I received a call from my military supervisor. He explained that we report for active duty on Saturday the 16th – less than 48 hours – and potentially leave the Twin Cities immediately thereafter. We later learned that we would deploy from Minnesota on December 18, 1995. Our final destination was unknown, but our first stop would be Fort Dix, New Jersey. The orders read that the period of mobilization was 270 days. The first reaction of most was one of incredulity. Why couldn’t we deploy after Christmas rather than just before? Instead, we would likely spend Christmas in the middle of nowhere at Fort Dix with 119 fellow unit members, our new best friends. Little did we know then that this would turn out to be one of the strangest and memorable Christmases ever!

The four days at Arden Hills were much of a blur. There was a “secret” hubbub regarding my immediate supervisor, a Major. We didn’t know the details, but he ended up being one of only two people from the unit that did not deploy with us. We later learned that the Major’s wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. The unit commander claimed that was not a sufficient reason for him not to deploy and even refused to process the documents after the Major tried to resign his commission. It was a full “stop-loss” we were told. My supervisor had gotten lawyers involved and ultimately got himself excluded. Good for him! The rest of us wouldn’t even think of questioning the command after we saw how this Major was treated.

After tearful goodbyes at Arden Hills early in the morning on December 18th, we hopped a bus for the airport enroute to Fort Dix. We were on our way! We were initially told to expect to be complete full processing at Fort Dix over the next two weeks and could expect to deploy to Germany in early January. There was apparently a lot to do at Fort Dix, including full medical and dental exams, weapon qualification, equipment draw, hands-on battle/Soldier training, and seemingly hours of classroom training. Throughout all this, even though it was the Yule season, Christmas and family seemed so very far away. Our only contact was infrequent long distance telephone calls from an outdoor payphone. There was usually a line and it was cold.

Just before Christmas Eve, there seemed to be a lull in our training. It seemed that all the trainers were off, home with their families. We had the promise of a big feast at the mess hall, but we really couldn’t go anywhere. Whoopie! Again, there were rumblings of complaints. Had the Army really gained much in that one week prior to Christmas? We were sceptical.

One of the members of our unit was a Chaplain’s Assistant. He was an odd character, but nonetheless, was able to arrange a Christmas Eve ecumenical service for us at an old Fort Dix chapel that did not have regular services. Because we did not have any transportation and the post bus was not running over Christmas, that was our only option. It was a strange service, as it consisted of only a handful of our unit. There was a minister, but no choir or any other musical accompaniment. At one point in the service the Chaplain’s Assistant got up and started singing O Holy Night – a cappella. I admit this can be a difficult song, but he was awful! The rest of us started singing along simply because he was so bad! To this day, that remains one of my favorite Christmas Carols. The experience also created an unexpected bond among those of us who attended the service that evening.

At the end of the service, we softly sang Silent Night. As we were walking back to the barracks, we noted a distinct change in the pace, as everyone seemed to be hustling around. Soon we found out that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had moved up our deployment and we were leaving – shortly – to board aircraft for Europe. We had to bust our buts and get things packed. Nope, it wasn’t Christmas Eve in Jersey; it was Christmas Eve somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean!

Our arrival in Frankfurt, Germany, could be the enough for a separate blog, but I’ll keep it brief. There was NO ONE there to greet us on arrival. No one. Why would they? It was around noon on Christmas Day. We weren’t expected for another week or so and no one had communicated the change to those on the ground in Germany to meet us. They were home with their families and suddenly had to scramble their plans. We ended up waiting in a airport hangar for several hours – with no food. Finally, several busses appeared to bring us back to the Wiesbaden Air Base, where we would in-process before our final destinations were determined.

The senior officers were provided nearly hotel-like accommodations. The rest of us were dropped off at a barracks. The previous occupants had left the place worse than you could possibly imagine. It was an active duty unit that had mobilized at least as quickly as we had. It looked as if they had taken only their necessaries and left within an hour. They had also obviously partied very heartily the night/morning before. It stunk! We found vomit and condoms throughout. Within short order our noncommissioned officers arranged cleaning parties for various tasks. We worked like dogs and were still hungry and tired. Most of us had gone well over 24 hours without sleeping, but we finally finished.

The end of the day turned a bit brighter than the rest. Our “host” unit had arranged for the mess hall to be opened for a late snack. Similarly, they obtained minimal staffing at the Community Club (formerly Officer’s Club) for limited bar service and music. We were given a 2-beer maximum, but those were a couple of the best German beers I’ve ever had! We collectively trudged back to the barracks and hopped into bed to await our fate in the morning.

Back in the Army

When I left the Army in 1988, there was no looking back for me. For a number of reasons, I wanted to leave all that behind. There were some great times, but overall, my experience was not terribly positive. There was something, though, that seemed to keep pulling me back. A big influence was one of the supervisors I worked with in the Ramsey County Courts. Mike O’Rourke was a genuinely nice guy who worked in the Civil Division of the courts. He quickly took to me when he learned I had recently left active duty. Away from the courthouse, Mike was Sergeant Major O’Rourke. He was very active in the Army Reserve at nearby Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

I think Mike started recruiting me into the Army Reserve on the first day we met. I listened, but still had a very bad taste in my mouth from the end of my active duty career, so didn’t take it too seriously. Besides, I was much too busy with my law school studies to have any “free” time to devote to the Army Reserve. But Mike didn’t stop. As I neared the end of law school, he started to break me down. He even found a unit that seemed appropriate for me and set up a time and place to “interview” with several members of a newly-formed unit, the 19th Corps Material Management Center (CMMC).

The 19th CMMC was a high-level logistics unit. It managed supply chains across the Army Reserve and had connections with active duty Material Management units within the United States and Europe. Besides the various military benefits that Sergeant Major O’Rourke had highlighted to me, this particular unit appeared to have various opportunities to travel to work with a sister unit in Germany. That intrigued me. My dad was to be my new boss after I passed the bar and he had only positive things to say about this. One of his regrets had been not sticking with the Navy Reserve after he finished law school. So, sometime in the Summer of 1993, I started the paperwork to join the Army Reserve with the 19th CMMC.

I can’t say that I liked the work, but I did meet some very interesting characters. This was not a typical Army Reserve unit where you worked one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. Because of our link to the active duty supply chain, we had to work more regularly. We had people staffed every Monday and Thursday evenings. Every Soldier had to work two four hour shifts during the month and one Saturday per month. The Saturday “drill” was scheduled, but the weekday drills were pretty open. Everyone just had to work at least two evenings per month.

The actual “work” was somewhat of a mystery to me. At the time, I was still much of a novice in Army logistics. Since this was what I’d call a higher level of logistics, it consisted of tracking supplies on a macro-level. We managed supply orders, tracking, delivery, and storage/warehousing. All this was done by computer. At the time, it was not common for everyone to have a computer on their desk and Microsoft Windows was still in its infancy. Even though we “managed” everything by computer, in actuality, we did not. Rather, our work consisted of scouring through very large and long printed spreadsheets. These were printed with a dot-matrix printer on continuous sheets and arranged in large binders. They were separated by warehouse and type of supplies. Different teams within the units had responsibility for the different warehouse operations and/or types of supplies. My best recollection of my work was organizing the sheets into the appropriate binder and going through and highlighting line-items that had triggered some sort of error code. We then had to look at another spreadsheet to find the particular details for each transaction that we had highlighted.

A more technical explanation of our work is that a daily computer cycle created various reports that we “worked.” Each report consisted of customer (unit) requisitions for various supplies or parts. We reviewed and looked for computer error codes, which indicated requisitions that had not been processed due to some sort of problem. In most cases, the customer used an improper unit of issue for the part or supply, used an incorrect (or obsolete) stock number, or the item exceeded a cost threshhold and needed additional approval. There were a number of other problems that we had to deal with, but the above were the most common. The hardest part was learning all the various error codes and figuring out the appropriate action(s) to solve them.

Example of the type of print-outs that the 19th CMMC worked on. We had thousands of sheets such as these.

We never saw a resolution, so it was difficult work to get too excited about. Perhaps the error was cleared on a later print-out, but I didn’t find much satisfaction in that. Mostly, I found the greatest interest in these weeknight sessions to be the people. I worked closely with a young Soldier whose full-time job was working on a turkey farm owned by the University of Minnesota. They were breeding turkeys specifically to increase the size of the turkey breasts. The project was successful enough that most of the turkeys had breasts so large that the male turkeys could not mount the female turkeys. My co-worker’s job was to manually inseminate the female turkeys. First, he had to obtain semen from male turkeys. Thus, his primary job was to cause the male turkeys to ejaculate and to collect the semen. He told stories of being physically attacked by the male turkeys on Monday mornings, since they had spent the weekend waiting for their sexual release. You just couldn’t make this up!

Our drill weekends (Saturday) consisted of some spreadsheet work, but focused mostly on basic Army Soldier skills. That meant PT (physical training), weapons training, tactics, first aid, and various other mandatory training sessions. This was okay, but I still didn’t feel like I fit in very well. It didn’t become “fun” for me until I was tapped on the shoulder by the unit commander and asked if I would accompany a small group from the unit for a two-week tour in Wiesbaden, Germany, in September of 1993. I jumped at the opportunity and was ecstatic. I had not been to Germany since we left in early 1988, and so much had changed in the intervening years – mostly the Berlin Wall coming down and the return of many US forces back to the United States. I couldn’t wait to get back and see what may have changed.

The trip to Wiesbaden was for us to participate in part of a large NATO exercise. Five members of our unit supplemented the active duty team for the exercise. After arrival, we were bussed to Wiesbaden Air Base and provided rooms in a run-down barracks. I recall being a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the post. It all looked much more run-down than any base I’d ever seen. It started, though, as I noted all the grafitti along the highway on the route from the airport. This new Germany was not nearly as clean as the country I remembered.

After we settled into the barracks, we received brief directions to the messhall and were told to be ready at 6AM the following morning to head to the field. It wasn’t until this briefing that we realized that most, if not all, of our time in Germany would be in a field location. We had been hoping for a day or two to explore Germany, but that did not appear to be high on the priority list for this two weeks. Most of our small group trudged off to the messhall before hunkering down early due to jetlag. A Sergeant and I, though, had a different idea. Heck, we were here for two weeks and that night might be the only opportunity we have to drink German beer and to experience the country. Sergeant Mike Kreinbring went on to become a well-respected Sergeant Major and we remained friends. Mike and I hopped into a cab for the town of Wiesbaden. It wasn’t until after a hearty Germany meal, a couple of great beers, and a stroll down Wiesbaden’s main walking street, were we ready to call it a night. Even with the short night’s sleep, it was worth it to us.

The following thirteen days confirmed our worst fears. We were trucked to a large warehouse in the middle of nowhere. It could have been anywhere in the U.S. and we wouldn’t have known anything different. So much for experiencing Germany! We slept on cots in large open bays. As “luck” would have it, we were there to provide bodies for the night shift, so we never even had to fully adjust to the time change. It was not particularly fun work and very little happened in the exercise at night. I remember getting a lot of reading done. We just kept hoping that we’d be able to have a day or two at the end of the exercise to get out and see Germany. Unfortunately, the exercise continued a couple of days past the expected “ENDEX.” Except for a detour back to Wiesbaden Air Base to drop off some supplies and pick up our luggage, we continued in the Army truck straight to the Frankfurt Airport for our return flight. This experience was not exactly what any of us had hoped for, but it did create a longing in me to return to Germany again. Next time I wanted to see it all! Little did I know then, but that was a bit closer to reality than I might have guessed.

Despite the downside of this particular tour, I was intrigued enough to stick with the Army Reserve. I was making some new friends. I wanted a chance to return to Germany. I was actually starting to figure out what logistics were all about. Since I was a brand new lawyer in private practice, I was not making much money. The couple hundred dollars each month in my Army drill pay was something my family could really use. So I stuck it out and the rest is history. My Army Reserve story – the good and the bad – will be further memorialized in blogs to follow.

Law School

I don’t feel like I was a typical law student, if there is such a thing. I certainly didn’t feel like one. Most of my class at William Mitchell College of Law had recently graduated from college with an undergraduate degree. A few had worked a year or two after graduation, but even few more, like me, had families and children. I had recently left the Army and had two young kids. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but we made it work.

I chose William Mitchell mostly because it was the only school that offered a true night school path. My classes were generally started between 4-5PM and ended in most cases not later than 8:30 or 9PM. This was doable, but I knew would be very tough for my family. I was able to handle a full-time job and then heading to school, but it was Amy who would be mostly responsible for everything necessary for the kids and home life. Night school meant this was a three-year path to graduation, so we all had a difficult challenge in front of us.

The difficulty really started after my release from the Army in early July. In a very short time I had to find a job, figure out how to pay for law school, find appropriate lodging in Minnesota, and otherwise support my young family in the transition. This was in 1989, so the kids were only 3 and 1.

Amy also had to find employment. The meager job I found as a bailiff law clerk in Ramsey County was hardly enough. It wasn’t much more than minimum wage at the time. Once Amy found a job, we also had to deal with childcare costs. Not only was this a time of huge transition for us, but marked the start of some tough financial times for me and my family. We had no choice but to put ourselves on an extremely small weekly allowance.

As has been a pattern in our lives, we were looking for housing at a bad time. Interest rates were in the high teens, so even modestly priced homes were hard to afford. We were fortunate that my parents offered down payment assistance for our house. The home we found was on St. Paul’s west side. We ignored my father’s plea for a better location, but felt somewhat comfortable with the lower pricing we thought we could afford. We found a home where we could assume the current mortgage (not common in those days) and we jumped! That decision was certainly the best “affordable” one, but also led us away from what could have been more suitable in the long term. We were just happy to find something that got us out of my parent’s basement.

I was not ready for law school in any way. Yes, I was more willing and able to put in the effort than I likely would have if I’d gone straight from college. I found the classroom experience closer to high school than the freedom I had learned to enjoy at the University of Minnesota. First, there was assigned seating for most classes. Second, class sizes were much smaller, so there was no hiding in the audience. Beyond that, I had no forewarning about things such as “briefing cases,” teaching using the “Socratic method,” or grades that were based upon one mid-semester and one final exam. Because of this, and the fact that I’d been out of the education system for over five years, it took me an awfully long time to adjust.

One benefit that I had that others in my class did not was the fact that I was not particularly worried about my class standing. I found law school to be exceptionally competitive. Even though I’ve always been a competitive person, I had no idea that classmates would quickly do just about anything to make you look bad (if it made them look better). It was truly a dog-eat-dog world. There were some exceptions, so I was able to make a few friends. For me, though, I knew that I had a job at the end (assuming I finished and passed the bar exam!). My dad had promised a job to any of me or my siblings who chose to try. Much to his chagrin, I was the only one who took him up on it. Still, knowing I had a job took away a significant amount (much needed) of pressure off of me.

One of my goals in law school was to somehow balance the severe burden I was putting on Amy and the kids. I promised that I would always choose them over school as much as possible, except in very rare occasions. That meant stacking multiple classes as much as I could in order to allow at least one or two lighter days per week, so I could actually be home in the evening those days. I also promised Amy and myself that weekends were family time, a promise that I think I was able to keep more often than not. After my last class on Friday night until after dinner on Sunday, I completely ignored my studies and tried to be there for my family.

Though I tried to stay away from school when not in class (unlike classmates who seemed to live in the school library), I did meet a few fellow law students. Tom was an on again, off again law student and friend. I studied from time to time with Lisa, Todd, David, and others. My “best friend” in law school, though, was a young lady named Leah. Somehow Leah and I connected through a mutual love of baseball. I think it was during an extended Legal Writing class where we were trying to find the score of a Twins game. If there was anyone as ardent a Twins fan as I am, it was Leah. Those conversations between classes and during late-night studies probably saved my sanity.

As luck would have it, in the Summer of 1991, Leah happened to be dating a sports columnist from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A Minnesota Twins fan will recognize that 1991 was the year of the Twins’ second World Series Championship. Leah’s friend was able to score her two excellent tickets for the series. Knowing my love of the team, Leah graciously offered me two tickets to either game 6 or 7. I’m pretty sure she wanted to keep game 7, so I “settled” for game 6. The rest is history. My friend Toran and I saw the best game I’ve even seen. Kirby Puckett gained immortality by first snagging a ball about to ricochet off the center field wall that would have given the Brave’s the lead, and an inning later hitting a game-wining, walk-off homer at the bottom of the inning.

Most of my time in law school is a blur. I didn’t have time for much excitement. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it – or how any working parent can go to school at night! But pretty soon, I was coming near the end. Taking the cue from a few of my classmates, I took summer classes in order to lessen the burden as the classes got harder. But the classes didn’t really get harder. I had a much more difficult time with those first year classes than I did in the upper level courses. Perhaps it was because I was more interested in them. Or I was just more into the school mode and understood how to get along in law school. Either way, loading up on Summer classes enabled me to graduate in December, an entire semester earlier than the normal three-year course.

Like almost all of my colleagues, I took a Bar Exam Review course. The Bar Exam is MUCH different than law school and passing law school really does not in any way prepare someone to pass the Bar Exam! So, we studied. I actually took about a month off in order to study day and night – and was awfully glad that I did since there is no way I’d want to go through that agony again.

The day of my Bar Exam started okay. I felt that I had done my preparation and was relatively confident. Little did I know that it would soon turn into a fiasco that nearly cause me to have a stroke!

I’ve always had what seems to be a small bladder. Multiple cups of coffee does NOT help. The Bar Exam in Minnesota was quite strict about those leaving the exam area, even for the bathroom. I suspect there was a lot of cheating taking place that way. One of the ways they regulated this was to ensure only one person was allowed in the bathroom at a time. During the morning of the second day, I raised my hand to get permission to go. Once permission was granted, I left my seat and went to the bathroom. Imagine my surprise when someone else exited the bathroom as I was walking in! I continued in, did my business, and went back to my seat. Within a few moments, I was called up to the front of the large auditorium and told to bring my test and test booklet.

Not knowing what was going on, I complied. Once to the front of the room, one of the proctors asked me for the test materials and told me my exam was finished. Even though I had permission, I had apparently violated the bathroom rules and was being expelled from the exam. My blood started to boil. Rather than to take my punishment, I immediately objected (probably in a louder than necessary voice!). Everything around me seemed to start crumbling. It was six months till the next exam. Six more months until I could start getting on with my life (at least as a lawyer). The time I saved with Summer classes was wasted. Heck, I was already “old” for a new lawyer and no extra time was going to help.

As I was pleading with the proctor, the head proctor stepped over the find out what the trouble was. He was a sitting District Court Judge, Al Markert. Fortunately for me, I had clerked for Al. He backed me up 100%. He told the other proctor in no uncertain terms that I was his clerk and that he was certain of my integrity. He then grabbed the exam materials from her, handed them back to me, and told me to sit down and finish the exam. Whew! I was relieved. I could hardly focus for the rest of that day, but I somehow did well enough to pass! I am forever grateful to Al Markert for protecting me.

I was recently reminded of the terror of the Bar Exam – and the problems caused by not passing. I understand that the Minnesota State Board of Law Examiners are currently contemplating postponing the Spring Bar Exam this year due to COVID-19. I feel so bad for those law school graduates who were hoping for that Bar exam. The study for a test such as the Bar exam does NOT age well. Like so many others missing big events, this year has made us all take a step back and appreciate what we had.

It probably does go without saying that law school is quite difficult. It certainly was for me. In so many ways, though, it really made me who I am today. I really do not identify myself first as a lawyer. Being a lawyer, though, is certainly a big part of me. One of my favorite sayings is the sign on my office wall that keeps me humble (see below). No, it isn’t becoming a lawyer that affected me the most, it was the struggle, the challenge, determination, failure, confidence-killing, and being able to overcome it all that is more important to me than the actual degree. Lawyer, sure, but I’d rather be known as a decent dad, grandfather, husband, brother, co-worker, and friend. Better yet, I want to be the man my dog thinks I am!

I love this sign given to me by my sister Jenifer!

A Lone Turkey

My purpose in this blog is normally to write about the various mentors and influences in my life. Today, like everything else around us, is different. This is more of a muse – random thoughts as I watch a lone turkey wander across the open field behind our house.

I feel sorry for this bird. If you know anything about wild turkeys, they tend to congregate in groups, called flocks. We often see them parading in line across the meadow in flocks of eight to twelve. Over the past few months, this has been nearly an every day event. If we don’t see it, Buster, our vigilant watchdog, eagerly announces their presence.

Thought they are quite regular, we notice that the flock can be occasionally absent for a day or two. I suspect that they get bogged down at an especially rich field of food. That was the case for the last two days . . . except for one sole turkey.

Rather than the typical march across the field, this poor turkey seems walking aimlessly around and across the field. He occasionally darts into the woods for a moment, but then comes back out. At first I was concerned that he was hurt. But he keeps walking and even flying on occasion.

Since I have been working from home every day, maybe I’ve noticed him more than I otherwise might. Still, this definitely feels like an anomaly. We finally determined that he was lost. Not that he doesn’t know where he is, but he appeared to be missing his flock. As wild turkeys are known to do, he was likely in a zone foraging and somehow didn’t hear the call to move on to the next field. That is not surprising given the amount of construction noise going on in our neighborhood.

So, for a few days, I watched this poor turkey and felt bad that he missed his comrades. I think it apropos for how we, as a society feel right now. We are cooped up. If we are interacting with friends and family, it is digitally. What if we were more like that lone turkey and had no way to connect? I suspect that there are many among us who are. I feel bad for them, as I do for the lone turkey.

We are managing this isolation quite well. Both Amy and I have introverted tendencies, though I clearly get energy through interactions with others. In Myers-Briggs-type testing, I often cross over the introvert/extrovert line. So, in this time of isolation, I find I do miss people. There are other things I definitely miss more. I love the vibe of drinking at a crowded bar or eating at a restaurant full of patrons. I miss sports, especially baseball! I miss church on Sundays.

As I think of the things I miss most, it is not necessarily interacting with people (which I still do virtually), it is enjoying activities surrounded by people. Though I am often annoyed at crowds, based upon what I am missing, it appears to me that I might enjoy simply being in and around others. More than ever, I want to take the headphones out and seek out the din of people.

So, even for introverts, I am convinced that we are supposed to be social beings. I sincerely hope that “social distancing” will quickly be forgotten once this pandemic is over. I also hope that we will learn to better appreciate the value of others around us. Rather than being annoyed by crowds, I want to embrace them and enjoy the moment!

I’m afraid that I don’t think I can say the same for our lone turkey. Several days ago, a large flock of over a dozen turkeys pranced through the field. A day later I saw just one turkey standing alone. I no longer think he is lonely. No, he just marches to his own drum. Good for him! I no longer feel sorry for him. I know that isn’t me.

Postscript: Interesting article in today’s Minneapolis StarTribune on the prevalence of wild turkeys! https://www.startribune.com/you-re-not-imagining-it-there-are-more-and-more-turkeys-among-us/569623502/

Honduras (Ahuas Tara ’88)

Just about the time I was starting to figure out how to be a good Air Defense Artillery Officer, I was involuntarily transferred into the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermaster Corps in the Army focused on logistics (water, food, fuel, equipment issue and storage, etc.). The first step was the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course at Fort Lee, Virginia in the spring of 1988. That was a special time and place for us since that was where our daughter, Kathryn was born.

After the Advanced Course, I was looking forward to an assignment in the United States, but don’t recall even getting a choice. We were assigned by our branch. Since I was a newer member of the Quartermaster Corps, I didn’t have much pull. I did, though, score at the top of my Advanced Course class, so I suspect someone decided to sign me up for a challenging assignment. I was assigned to the 937th Engineer Group at Fort Riley, Kansas.

I knew even less about Engineers and Engineering than I did about Quartermaster and Logistics. I arrived to the unit as the logistics “expert” they needed for an upcoming deployment to Honduras. What a fiasco that turned out to be! I was far from an expert in the Quartermaster Corps and my only experience was in the schoolhouse. They expected me to provide all the logistical support for a fairly strange and complicated mission – Ahuas Tara ‘88. This was also my first experience working with engineers in general. I can tell you from that – and other experiences – that engineers think differently. I don’t think that is a bad thing, as lawyers, too, have a different way of thinking and operating. I can say, though, that I don’t think my style worked for them. I was the constant “outsider” in the unit. My best friends were mostly the Warrant Officers, who are also sort of outsiders in most units.

It became clear to the Engineer Group Commander that I was not the right fit for this particular mission. Both my logistics experience and my operating style were a bad fit for what they needed. I operated fine with incomplete information, assumptions, hunches, and promises. They, on the other hand, demanded precision. I understand that when you are building things, but most of the Army operates quite differently. I was closer to the “normal” Army than engineers. The Commander chose to appoint another mid-grade engineer officer to serve as his primary logistical officer for the deployment, so I became the assistant. They had a hard time finding the right job for me, so I helped out as directed the best I could. The worst part of all, though, was that I would spend months away from our 2 year old son James and four month old daughter Kathryn. Poor Amy got the worst assignment, though, since Kathryn had bad colic!

Ahuas Tara was the name of the mission. The primary purpose was to build an airstrip and basic facilities in Southern Honduras, several miles from the Nicaraguan border. During this time the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua was banging its drums and attempting to export communism throughout the region. They send regular incursions across the Honduran border. Our somewhat secret mission was to build the airstrip and basecamp to allow the United States to send troops and heavy equipment into Honduras within hours, if necessary. It was in direct response to the sporadic border clashes involving Honduran and Nicaraguan troops and U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels who had camps along the border.

As part of the deal to allow U.S. troops to operate in Honduras, the U.S. government committed to spending millions of dollars across Honduras building schools, libraries, orphanages, and other things of great value to the Honduran people. We had Soldiers not only near the border of Nicaragua, but were building across the country. That made the logistics challenges even more difficult.

One of my primary jobs was coordinating the various services provided by local Honduran companies. I found it interesting work. I learned first-hand the meaning of mañana. For our airfield mission it was critical to keep a supply of crushed rock. Quite often, I found myself knocking on the door of the owner of the Honduran company we had contracted with to provide crushed rock. If it wasn’t a sudden and unexpected to shut-down for a day or two, it was a situation where they provided the wrong gauge of rock. I didn’t speak Spanish, so always had an interpreter. Even so, it was awfully hard to get our point across that we wanted things NOW and per the SPECIFIC scope. Still, it was quite interesting to be invited into their mostly humble homes and offered a snack or drink.

Ice was other extremely important commodity that I had to deal with on a regular basis. Due to the intense heat, we needed ice – and a lot of it. We needed to contract with local commercial facilities to produce ice. We had our own equipment to produce clean water, but the Army did not have the ability to create ice in the quantities needed. Whether it was the crushed rock or the ice, we had REGULAR problems keeping a consistent supply. To the Engineer Group Commander, this always seemed to be my fault. The only problem with that is I had absolutely NO ability to affect when and how the local companies worked. It was quite a lesson on the stereotypical Latin lifestyle. Yes, siestas and mañana are real in that culture. The engineers liked that even less than they cared for me!

A day in the life of us in Honduras was not especially exciting, but it was somewhat interesting. As any deployment goes, we pretty much worked all the time, seven days per week. We generally got up pretty early. If you wanted to exercise at all, it had to be before the hot sun arrived over the horizon. I distinctly recall running the nearly one-mile perimeter of our barbed-wire base camp. As soon as the first peek of sun appeared over the horizon, it was an almost instant and extremely significant increase in the level of effort it took just to continue running. That heat was intense! We then showered in our shower tents and headed to breakfast. There were no tables to sit at, but there were standing tables. Before we got our food, we had someone physically watch everyone take their malaria pill.

Or offices were housed in large canvas tents. The entire basecamp had electricity from our own generators. We had limited furniture, but most offices, including mine, had desks fashioned from large cardboard boxes and the cheap folding chairs we brought with us. We had large (and noisy) fans running day and night. This was a required nuisance due to the heat. It also required that we utilize rocks to keep our various paperwork from flying away. After a long day at work, we took a break for dinner, but most of the time went right back to the office. There was little else to do, especially since we couldn’t leave our base camp after dark or without a required mission. We did have plenty of water and had sodas for sale. The engineers set up a television that provided some limited entertainment, but was pretty useless for most. I read an entire footlocker full of books.

Besides the shower tents, our only bathrooms were wooden outhouses. The “drop zone” for the outhouses consisted of 55 gallon drums cut in half. We contracted with Honduran locals to empty and burn the refuse every day. Going to the bathroom was slightly easier for men, as the engineers buried a number of large PVC pipes diagonally for “piss tubes.” This area was surrounded by about a four-foot solid plastic fence for a semblance of privacy. We had a few women, but not many. They were stuck with the outhouses and limited hours for the shower tents.

Everyone slept on cots in large tents. Since we were deployed with engineers, within a few weeks, almost all the tents were upgraded with wooden floors. What a treat! We had electric lights and several large fans that kept us relatively cool all night long. We slept about 20 per tent. I was assigned to a tent with the “ash and trash” of the unit that included an assemblage of Warrant Officers, a priest, occasional helicopter pilots, and the assigned lawyer. The lawyers rotated every few weeks since no one could expect them to survive in such awful conditions! One advantage of having the lawyers was that we always got updates on things going on in the unit. We never got personal details, but just ideas of the things going on.

One of the lawyers was a quite a jerk. He was formerly a Special Forces Soldier, who later became a Judge Advocate, so he was pretty full of himself. He did, though, cost the U.S. Government a boatload of money. We had an incident where a Soldier lost his rifle. This was a BIG deal and our basecamp was locked down for a couple of weeks. There were constant searches for the weapon. Someone was convinced that the Soldier had actually sold his weapon or was otherwise in cahoots with the Sandinistas from nearby Nicaragua. The poor guy claimed innocence, but had stupidly misplaced his weapon. Nonetheless, the lawyer personally participated in aggressive cross-examination of this guy in hopes that he would fess up. He eventually turned our Soldier over to the Honduran military so they could question and even torture him further. The lawyer would cheerfully report nightly about the sleep depravation, water torture, and other hazing conducted by the Hondurans. Years later I learned that the Soldier received a nice payout from Uncle Sam due to his treatment in Honduras. I don’t know whatever happened to that lawyer, but he should have been Court Martialed.

It was during this deployment that I decided to leave the Army. This had been on my mind for quite some time, particularly with two young children. I wanted them to grow up in a stable environment around family and to get to know their grandparents. My dad had offered my sister Pam a job if she went to law school. At the time, she was living in Mexico City. Much to Dad’s surprise I was the one who took him up on it. I had applied for Law School prior to that deployment and received an acceptance from William Mitchell School of Law while in Honduras. I wasn’t quite sure yet that I wanted to leave the Army, but based upon my experience in Honduras of 1) extended deployment away from family, 2) a bad taste in my mouth from working with the Army engineers, 3) and the uncertainty I felt about my future in the Quartermaster Corps, I made the decision to leave the Army.

It is funny that I find myself in the reverse of this situation now. Though in a career that I loved, as a civilian with the Army, I left that life so we could be closer to our own grandchildren! Again, I want my grandchildren to grow up around us and really get to know their grandparents! Funny how life really does come in a full circle!

The Courthouse

This is probably something that most lawyers can relate to. To me, The Courthouse is not just any old court. More specifically, for me it is the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Ramsey County Courthouse is an 18-story Art Deco building that opened in 1932. The entrance is highlighted by a three-story white onyx Indian God of Peace (now called Vision of Peace). This statute stands 38 feet high and weighs 60 tons. It is set within a dark hallway that has various memorials to Minnesota Soldiers who died in combat in the 20th century. The Vision sits on a revolving base that turns the statue approximately 132 degrees every 2.5 hours. I first saw this magnificent statue as a grade schooler. I remember a field trip to the Courthouse to see this and other sites (likely arranged by my father), but cannot place how old we might have been. I still remember, though, that it had a profound effect on me.

Indian God of Peace (Vision of Peace) towering over the lobby of the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Not only was I a casual visitor to the courthouse as a child, but my sister Pam and I attended various court sessions with my father while in grade school. That was before there was any such thing as a formal “take your kids to work” day. I think that my dad just thought it a good idea to provide a first-hand lesson in civics and the court system to us kids.

I was later a participant in a trial at the courthouse. In the fourth grade I was injured during a school gym class and someone had convinced my father to sue the school for the cost of the extensive dental work caused by the injury. In today’s climate, we probably would have settled for a tidy sum since the “game” we had played was rather rough and dangerous, but in the 1970s, we weren’t quite there yet. Although we lost, I got to experience my first trial. In fact, I was the star of the trial. I was the primary witness in court, as was my friend Toran. I remember being extremely nervous, but the lawyers made it pretty easy. Even the defense lawyer was direct, but kind.

It was many years later that I set foot in the Ramsey County Courthouse again. I think I stopped there to get my marriage license, but it wasn’t until I returned from my stint with the Army and started Law School that I actually spent some time there. As I was leaving the Army, my dad sent a letter to several Judges asking if they needed a law clerk. One of them passed the letter on to Mark Haakenson, the jury manager for the Ramsey County. Mark also ran a program that provided extra or substitute law clerks, called “Bailiff Law Clerks.” The pay was basically minimum wage, but it provided aspiring law students (and select others) insight into the operation of the court system. Mark told my dad to have me stop by when I returned from active duty. I did and was hired on the spot.

My fellow Bailiff Law Clerks were a veritable cast of characters. There were a couple of “elder statesmen” who had already graduated from law school, but could not find a legal job. That was a bit discouraging from the perspective of an aspiring law student, but there were some obvious reasons why they were not hired elsewhere. Although there were both law students and non-students in among us, we were all treated the same. Mark Haakenson and his staff were good to us, but again, the pay and some of the menial tasks, were nothing special. The best part about the job was that it provided some “free” time to study. If we wouldn’t have had homework, we would have been bored silly some days.

Since we spent a lot of free time together, we all got to know each other pretty well. I became very good friends with Tom Kempe and George Perez. We were probably the troublemakers of the group, as we often bounced baseballs, basketballs, and footballs across the cavernous jury room after the prospective jurors had been sent home for the day. I admit that perhaps a few courtrooms still have ball marks on the walls due to our athletic prowess (or lack thereof).

Tom, George and I definitely had fun at work, but we also extended that to our off duty time. We attended ball games together, played basketball together, organized and played on various softball teamsm and were generally great buddies both on and off duty. After our courthouse days, we saw each other occasionally, but we mostly lost touch after I left Minnesota. I still have fond memories of them. For over five years, they were a very big part of my life.

We had other great co-workers. Sharon & Mary Jo, clerks in the Court’s Civil Division, were two of our favorites. They knew the inside of the court system and helped in many ways. Plus, they were just nice, fun people. Court supervisors Mark Haakenson and Mike O’Rourke both made great impact on me, but in very different ways. Mark for his treatment of people and the way he dealt with the egos of jurors, law students, lawyers, and Judges. Mike was a Sergeant Major in the Army Reserve. It was Mike who convinced me to get back into the Army, only this time as a Reservist. Without Mike’s constant prodding and encouragement, I don’t know if I would ever have taken that leap. Needless to say, the Army Reserve became a central part of my life after that time, so I owe a lot to Mike.

I was at the courthouse for over three years. In addition to the friends and colleagues mentioned above, I worked directly for Judges Larry Cohen, Ken Fitzpatrick, and Al Markert. Each provide me inspiration in my life and as a lawyer. They were as different in personality and character than you could imagine. Judge Cohen was a former mayor of St. Paul. He was a liberal Democrat and we got along as well as I have with any boss I’ve ever had. It was different since there is a fairly wide chasm between a law student and a Judge, but he was firm, kind, and always encouraging. He also had an eye for the ladies. I think I was the first male clerk he ever had. He ran a very busy courtroom, but I had fun going to work every day.

Judge Fitzpatrick was the total opposite of Judge Cohen. Where Judge Cohen was outgoing and charismatic, Judge Fitz was reclusive. He would walk through the outer chambers every morning without even saying hello to me or his court reporter. Rather strange. After a trial, Judge Fitz would put a sticky note on the file telling me how to rule on the case. It was up to me to write the Court Order. Several times, the precedent didn’t agree with Fitz’s sticky note. That didn’t matter to him. He told me to make it fit somehow. I didn’t particularly enjoy working for Fitz, but I did learn from him. He demanded a lot from his clerk. Not only did I write his opinions, but I managed his calendar, screened his calls, and kept pesky attorneys and court management personnel away. The only people who received open access were two nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor who dutifully visited every month. They always left with a check! While not overly social, Fitz was definitely a generous man.

Finally, Judge Markert was perhaps my favorite. Like Fitz, he often had me draft his opinions. He was, though, much more willing to discuss the case and precedent. Judge Markert was what some people might call a gentle giant. He had been a lineman on the Minnesota Gopher football team and was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, he was also drafted by Uncle Sam, so never played professional football. Judge Markert freely admitted that he wasn’t what he’d call the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he made up for it with a excess of common sense and uncommon kindness. He was a Republican, but truly a nonpartisan jurist. More than anything, Judge Markert taught me how to treat people. Treat them well and they will reciprocate. He also knew how to keep me laughing. He had a deep baritone laugh and laughed often. He even made me laugh without saying anything. Often, he would show up after lunch with a box of ice cream sandwiches – and would proceed to eat the entire box! More important than the laughter, though, Judge Markert would back me up any time – and proved it during a debacle when I was taking the bar exam (perhaps a story for another blog!).

After graduation from law school, I became a regular visitor to the Ramsey County Courthouse. I represented many clients and filed numerous documents on site, so for many years it remained a big part of my work life. The climax, though, was a Rotary meeting shortly before I left my law practice in Minnesota and rejoined the Army. This was a gathering that followed my year as President of the Saint Paul Rotary club. It is a club tradition to “roast” their outgoing President. For me, it only made sense to hold it – after hours – at the courthouse. This was a wonderful gala that started in a large meeting room. What followed, though, was hilarious! I was put “on trial” for something that I can’t even remember.

Uh oh. Doesn’t look good for the defendant!
If only I could have kept my defense attorneys sober.
This judge looks mean!

My fellow Rotarians served as judge and jury. Tom Farnham presided from the bench. I was assigned a couple of drunk defense attorney, Doug Bruce and Bob Jones. Rotarians served as the prosecutor, court staff, bailiffs, and jurors. Other Rotarians were in the gallery with various protest signs. As you might expect, I was pronounced guilty. I was led away in prison garb, only to be released to family and a heartfelt thank you from the club. It was quite a fitting way to end my long association with the Ramsey County Courthouse.

Working in Germany (volume II)

One thing special about military units is tradition. I believe, however, that my unit in Germany, 2/59th Air Defense Artillery, had traditions above and beyond what is typical. In my many years in the Army following that first assignment, I never experienced another unit that had quite the same. There were some similar traditions, but never the extent and number of unique unit customs.

The first tradition I will discuss is saluting. Even non-military readers will understand that saluting is a tradition unlike any in civilian life. Many units take that to another level and 2/59 ADA was one of those. The junior Soldier initiates the salute to a senior officer. In the 2/59 ADA, the junior Soldier would initiate the salute and state loudly, “Hot Shot!” The senior officer returned the salute and replied, “On Target.” It was a great tradition within the unit and very often officers would scold a young soldier who failed to abide by the traditional greeting.

Hot Shot motto stenciled onto the stairs in the O’Brien Barracks buildings.

Besides saluting, one of the first things we learned about in the unit was the “Hot Shot Board.” The legend was that the unit was such an elite unit that it could reject any new second lieutenants who were not up to snuff. I don’t recall the “punishment,” but I do remember the story was that anyone who failed the Hot Shot Board was either sent to a less desirable unit in Germany, or even sent back to the States! The Board typically took place within several weeks of a new lieutenant’s arrival. This was to allow the newbie to get some sense of the unit and its great lineage. The Board was convened by the Battalion Commander (a Lieutenant Colonel) and conducted by senior First Lieutenants in the unit.

As the more skeptical of you may have guessed, this entire debacle was little more than a initiation stunt where the new lieutenant was debased and made fun of, all for the pleasure of their new peers. The Commander’s involvement led to a degree of credulity that was hard for a newbie to rebut. Therefore, most new lieutenants looked toward the Hot Shot Board with a great deal of angst and trepidation. The real key to “success” was to get the new lieutenant so worked up that he could hardly sleep or eat or do just about anything. Ultimately, it was a right of passage, much like a fraternity initiation. It is definitely not allowed in today’s Army, but it was riding high in 1985!

For my Board, I was teamed up with another second lieutenant who arrived around the same time as me. I knew him from my Basic Officer Course, so it did help to ease the pre-Board jitters. The Board started with some seriousness, but quickly turned into a exercise of the two of us marching around the room with our hats over our faces (to mimic the use of a gas mask), while “tooting” our horns and calling out instructions to each other. It must have been awfully amusing to everyone in the room besides the two of us. Not only was I relieved to be ultimately let in in the gag, but I admit that I became a chief tormentor for many poor lieutenants who followed me.

Similar to the Hot Shot Board was the tradition at the end of one’s tour of duty with the unit. Upon someone’s departure, we held a formal “hail and farewell” ceremony. As part of the ceremony, the departing officer was inducted into the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Oozlefinch.” The Oozlefinch is the unofficial mascot of the Air Defense Artillery. It is a fictional, featherless bird that flies backwards and carries the weapons of the Air Defense Artillery. As part of the induction ceremony, an officer stood while a fellow officer read a scroll that depicted the accomplishments and achievements that merited membership in this great Order. It most often included some of the most notorious and/or embarrassing events that occurred during the person’s tour. While it could be quite personal – and often extremely exaggerated (or even blatantly false) – these stories were regaled in a funny and endearing manner. They were truly a highlight of unit activities.

The Oozlefinch as adopted by the Air Defense Artillery Branch in the 1980s

A corollary to the Oozelfinch was the monthly award of the “Black Helmet” to someone during the monthly hail and farewell. This was a special award granted to the biggest screw-up during the month. Sometimes it was a huge screw-up and sometimes it was a minor infraction. It was always, though, a hilarious affair. Like the Oozelfinch stories, these were very often extremely embarrassing events. Some were based upon mere stupidity and some were cases of flat-out insubordination. The real point (in my opinion) was to provide a learning opportunity, particularly for young officers, to learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of their peers. Though embarrassing, the presentations were conducted with sufficient humor in order to allow the recipient an opportunity to save face. The most hilarious Black Helmet lore during my time in 2/59 ADA was that one lieutenant seemed to win the award time after time. Pretty soon, it was almost a given that 1LT Dave Shublak would do something to keep the rest of us from getting recognized for whatever dumb deed we did that particular month. Or, as we used to say, Dave had an uncanny ability to steal defeat from the jaws of victory!

Most of our hail and farewell events took place after work at the Officer’s Club. More accurately, by the time we arrive in Germany, Officer’s Clubs had become passé; therefore, the club on O’Brien Barracks was a Community Club. Our Battalion Commander, Jack Costello, was not a big fan of this. He (rightfully) felt that Officers needed a place to blow off some steam that is not in front of the Noncommissioned Officers and Soldiers. This was especially true when we made fun of ourselves during awards like the Oozelfinch and the Black Helmet. LTC Costello ultimately worked out a deal with the Club manager that gave officers exclusive access to a private room in the Club.

Ken Busse and I were assigned the task to make our new club room unique and special. We got almost Carte Blanche authority to do whatever we needed in order to make an Officer’s Club within the club. We started by changing the lock on the door and assigning a key to each of the unit’s officers. Then it seemed to us that the room was lacking adequate space. After pondering the situation over a few beers, Ken and I had the bright idea that if we took out half the bar, we would have more space for the patrons. Besides, the bar was adjacent to the main bar in the outer room, so we figured the bartenders could use that space whenever necessary.

The bar ran across one entire end of the room, so there was some merit to our plan. The problem was that we had an extremely limited budget and using government resources was not an option. I swear it wasn’t the beer talking, but it wasn’t long before Ken and I were physically sawing the bar in half with a hand saw. Unfortunately, we did not have a very good plan on how we would properly finish the raw cut end. I guess we envisioned turning the removed end into a corner joint back toward the wall. Sure, an “L-shaped” bar! Once we had completed a relatively straight cut through the massive bar top, we recognized that we had opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box. How do we support the new corner point in the bar? How about the electricity and plumbing running through the middle of the bar? How would we finish the top of the bar to make it appear less of a hack job and somewhat “professional?” All these questions and more caused us to “close” the Officer’s area of the club for several weeks.

Somehow, we were able to rebuild the bar into something useable. It actually didn’t look half bad. We got some help from some guys who had some more general contractor knowledge than we did and surprisingly made it work. It turned out to be a lot more work that we had initially set out to do, but everyone – even the Battalion Commander – was appreciative of our efforts. Unfortunately, though, the concept of an officer’s only section didn’t last long. Before too long we realized that the Officers on the barracks preferred to take their business to the local German establishments rather than going to the Club. In retrospect, I suspect that is part of the reason why the Officer’s Clubs were phased out in the first place. Oh well, live and learn!

There were several other traditions in 2/59ADA that I’d better mention. These are typical for every unit in Germany, so not necessarily unique, but still a whole lot of fun. The first was the annual Oktoberfest trip in Munich. It often got ugly and always included an eventful ride home (usually on the train). It is fortunate that we didn’t lose anyone along the way, though I seem to remember that Shublak might have turned up missing for a day or two!

Me with LTs Tomlinson, Sammy, and others at Oktoberfest 1987
Amy celebrating Oktoberfest with Joel Oguete and the gang.

The other interesting and fun traditions were the formally organized Officer Professional Development (OPD) trips and the less formal unit ski trips to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The former were called “battle rides” or “staff rides” with purpose to visit and learn from previous Army campaigns or individual battles. In Germany we had a plethora of sites to choose. In my time with 2/59ADA, we visited and studied such sites as the Malmedy Massacre, the Battle of the Bulge, the Siege of Bastogne, the Maginot Line, the Nurnberg Rally Ground, and Dachau Concentration Camp. All provided interesting insight into our profession of arms and the horrors of war.

Ski trips were fun, but again, not necessarily unique events. The best part of them in those days was to experience the magic of the area around the German/Austrian Alps. Garmisch-Partenkirchen remains one of my favorite cities in the world, even today. In the mid-1980s, it was unique as the town had several hotels named after American Generals from World War II. They included The Patton Hotel, The Abrams Hotel, and even the quaint Von Steuben Hotel that recognized German General Baron von Steuben, who assisted General George Washington in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Also in Garmisch was a commercial movie theatre that showed first-run movies in English on weekend nights. That was a rare treat since there was nowhere else in Europe at the time to see first-run American movies (at least in English). It was at that theater that I had my first taste of the “original” Budweiser beer that was imported covertly from Czechoslovakia.

Finally, I can’t say enough about the experience of skiing the Zugspitze. The “Zug” is part of the Alps and is the highest peak in Germany. Prior to skiing there, my only experience was the various local ski locales in Minnesota where you skied about 5 minutes down the hill and waited for another 30 minutes to get back up the lift. On the Zugspitze, you could ski for well over an hour without going back uphill! I remember having to stop to take breaks before continuing down the mountain. Yes, you had a long trip back, but by that time you really needed a break.

Throughout all of the above, I learned to love Germany and gained great appreciation for everything that the Army offered to me. It would be many years before I really learned to love the Army, but it certainly got its start with the camaraderie and great adventures from my time with 2/59 ADA in Schwabach, Germany. I remember all of my friends and colleagues with great fondness. That three-year tour clearly left indelible impression on me and my life.