Monday, June 04, 2007

Band of Brothers

Dear Brother,

I am writing to apologize. I'm sorry I didn't call to say good-bye before you left. I'm sorry you've been deployed for weeks and I have yet to write to you. My job sucks, again, and the wife struggles daily to find her place here in Cheboygan. We are both desperately seeking God's plan for us. These are not legitimate excuses- I know. I feel like such a terrible person (not to mention brother) for being wrapped up in my own little world and my own problems that now seem quite petty in light of the things you must be facing day-to-day. It's not that I haven't thought about you. On the contrary you are in my daily thoughts; and as often as you are in my thoughts, you are in my prayers. I know that you can not say, but I pray that you are in a safe place.

Our youngest brother’s Memorial Day email to you was right on, of course. On Saturday, the wife and I went to the Memorial Day parade in Mackinaw City. It was kind of hokie, but it was led by a Coast Guard color guard and the streets were lined with people who rose to their feet, clapped and cheered as the colors passed. It was followed by a group of old veterans, dressed in their uniforms, shuffling by and carrying the flags of their respective service branches. Again the crowd rose and clapped. As they passed the wife leaned over to me and said, "This makes me so proud to be an American". It made me proud too, brother. I assure you that prideful, hokie parades like this one were going on in small towns all across our nation this past weekend. Those old guys and the wife's comment brought me back to reality. It made me wonder what makes the war on terror so different from WWII? Really, the question is why is our nation's response so dichotomous? I would submit to you that you and your comrades in arms are no different than our great uncle and his were 63 years ago as they prepared for the invasion of Normandy. I believe this is a struggle against evil and just as righteous as any previous conflicts.

It's easy to become disillusioned and embittered as I watch the masses of our society plunge themselves into complacency and narcissism. The people with the biggest mouths on TV are also the most ignorant... people like Baghdad Rosie (O'Donnell). They who sacrifice nothing are more than willing to exercise their freedoms (and their mouths) without ever knowing the price, in blood, that our nation's sons and daughters have paid for them. But Baghdad Rosie doesn't write the history books, nor do politicians like Billery. I pray that when this is all over, the books will tell the story right. The truth is there is an evil in the world larger than we could have possibly fathomed from the comforts and complacency of pre-9/11 America. When the rest of the world looked the other way, you and your comrades took the fight to the enemy and said, "Not on our watch". Brother, I can not speak for the rest of our nation, but as long as my lungs carry breath- this is the story that I will tell my children and grandchildren (or anyone foolish enough to listen to me). Our nation, whatever it's faults, is still the greatest on earth. As I drove to work in the morning, I did not fear IED's on the roadside. When I walk down our streets, I do not fear being kidnapped by terrorists. When I go to bed tonight, I will not hear the rumble of rocket and mortar fire. I firmly believe that the blood of our nation's son and daughters is not being shed in vein. There are those of us back here who still know that- and appreciate it. Thank you to you and your comrades for bravely facing the enemy to provide us this peace that some have taken for granted. Please spread the word over there that we appreciate all of your sacrifices and are very proud of you all.

On Sunday, in church, our pastor acknowledged our veterans and gave a great sermon on the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the name of freedom. Afterwards, the kindly old couple that sits next to us regularly turned to me and thanked me for my service too. I cracked. I was so ashamed to receive their gratitude while you and your comrades left your families as well as the peace, comfort and security of home to defend those who can not defend themselves, ensure that this great evil knows we will not turn a blind eye... and so that someday our children may not have to face such peril.

I was reminded of Shakespeare's famous speech in Henry V:

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Brother, do you remember when we were kids playing guns in the woods at the farm during the summer? The men of the military were our heroes. Vietnam was history and we wondered if our generation would ever have a chance to be heroes too. Even back then, we recognized their great sacrifice. We are no longer kids, and this is certainly no longer a game. Our day has come... just as it did for our father... just as it did for our grandfathers and uncles. Brother, I firmly believe this to be our Saint Crispin's day. I often wonder if I have done enough. Will I someday, years from now, think myself accurs'd I was not there with you? Will I forever hold my manhood cheap when veterans speak of these days? (I certainly hope Baghdad Rosie will.) You have selflessly answered the call to join the "band of brothers". You are our hero. Know that we are so proud of you we can hardly stand it. We will continue to pray for your safe return. Until then, fight with courage and honor, brother. God-bless.

Love your brother,

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Of Mice and Men

Recently, the wife brought to my attention that we may have a bit of a mouse problem. She did not see any mice, per say, but they left their little bits of evidence all over the kitchen and laundry room. Truth be told, I was routing through some boxes in the basement weeks earlier and came across some piles of seeds. It had occurred to me back then that the piles did not just happen there, but were likely created by some sort of rodent-type creature, but at the time I was still naive and in denial. I convinced myself that they were the remnants of some past rodent civilization… or that it would be best not to alarm the wife who was skeptical enough about our choice of homes for the next two years. Now my suspicions were confirmed by tiny brown turdlets scattered across our kitchen counter. I could no longer claim ignorance.

“You’re the man- YOU take care of it,” the wife demanded as she scrubbed the counter with bleach. I caught myself before pointing out that the mice would likely leave if she didn’t leave a feast for them on the counter-top over night.

Instead, I pondered her rather sharp statement in deep reflection. My first thought, of course, was how convenient the women’s liberation movement must be for wives across the country. They are more than willing to point out how men’s shortcomings clearly demonstrate that rights and privileges should not be based on sex. However, when it comes to eradicating disease-ridden vermin hiding in dark corners of the basement… it rather suddenly becomes a clear-cut gender issue. On the other hand, I am an old-fashioned kind of guy and I would like to think that, on the other side of her sharp tone, the wife was only a frustrated damsel in distress looking for her knight in shining armor to protect her castle. I decided to accept her charge. I got in the truck and drove to Wal-Mart where I purchased a package of four traditional style mousetraps for about $2.00.

Back at home, the wife was finishing up her decontamination of the kitchen. I opened the package of traps and began to tamper with them. I pressed down on the trigger mechanism with a toothpick and, with a loud “THWAP”, the trapping bar swung down and snapped the toothpick in two. A rush of exhilarating, manly testosterone swept over me and I shot the wife an evil grin. There was something about the urge to defend my family and home from this evil onslaught or infestation that appealed to my deepest primal instincts. I wanted to wear furs, beat my chest and roar like a lion. It seemed to have affected the wife’s primal instincts too. She suddenly became quite affectionate and referred to me as her “Great White Hunter”. This, of course, served only to perpetuate the disposition of the situation. I went into the refrigerator and dug out some slices of American cheese and began to carefully bait each trap (I got snapped by my own trap only once).

“Your pieces of cheese are too big,” the wife observed over my shoulder nonchalantly.

“I know what I’m doing,” the Great White Hunter replied sharply. I was far too high on testosterone to heed any advice from a woman on how to hunt and defend my domain. My theory was that a larger piece of cheese would provide larger surface area, and thus, more opportunities for a good trigger strike. I placed one trap in the laundry room, one in the basement and two in the kitchen just before we went to bed…

Hunting Log Day 1
The pieces of cheese were too big (Blast that woman!).
All traps were completely clean of bait- none were triggered. Fresh turdlets littered the kitchen near the empty traps (the wife was furious she had to re-clean)
No confirmed kills yet.
We are facing a more worthy foe than initially thought.

Rather than swallowing my damaged pride, I decided to go with my own "Plan B". I re-baited all the traps with peanut butter. The new theory was that a mouse would have to get right on the trap trigger in order to lick off the peanut butter. I positioned the traps in the same places.

Hunting Log Day 2
Peanut butter untouched on all traps except the one in the basement was licked clean.
No traps triggered- no confirmed kills.
Still no sightings of the intruder.

My new theory is that we have a worthy adversary with some sort of peanut allergy.
The wife grows skeptical of my ability to defend our home.

That morning the wife left for a few days to visit family. Later that evening (after she left), I finally decided to swallow my pride and heed the good wife's advice. Using toothpicks and paper towels, I cleaned the peanut butter off the traps and put smaller pieces of cheese that wedged nicely into the nook at the tip of the triggering mechanism.

Then it happened. I was going down into the basement to position the newly baited trap when I detected movement out of the corner of my right eye. A tiny, dark ball of fur scampered behind a set of metal cabinets. I put the trap down on the basement floor, against the cinderblock wall, near the cabinet. I placed another trap on the other side of the basement steps and two in the kitchen area. I immediately picked up the phone to and called the wife, who was still on the road.

“I saw it! I saw it!”

“You did? …Wait. Saw what?”

“The mouse! It’s in our basement! Should I call 911? No… no, wait- not yet. Anyway, how is your trip going?” I was bouncing off the walls with excitement and anticipation. The wife proceeded to tell me about her road trip and how she got to stop at Taco Bell for lunch- which, after living in The Boyg for a few months, actually IS quite a big deal. Then, from the basement…


“I got him! I got him! I gotta go- bye.”

“Got wh-…” click.

I hung up on the wife and dashed down the basement steps. In the dim light I could see the little fur ball with trap attached. He was still alive and trying to pull himself behind the cabinets again, but the trap was too big to fit in the hole. So, he just kind of flopped around. I went back up the stairs and called the wife.

“I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” I began.

“Listen, you don’t just hang up on me!”

“The good news is I got the mouse.”

“Are you listening to me? …you got him?” her interest in the hunt was suddenly renewed and my misbehavior faded into the background.

“Yeah, I got him, but there’s a problem. The bad news is- he’s still alive. What do I do?”

“Ben, you have to kill him. Put him out of his misery.”

“I don’t care about his misery. I just don’t want him to get away- especially not with my trap attached.”

“Ben, you have to kill him… but NOT in my basement! I don’t want mouse blood all over the place!” There was a thoughtful pause, “Get a bucket, scoop him up, and take him out on the sidewalk. Get a hammer and finish it…”

Get a hammer and finish it?

It was a side of the wife that I had seen only one other time and, quite frankly, never cared to see again. I have seen the movies where a perfectly innocent young man is cajoled into committing heinous crimes by some woman who also seemed perfectly innocent when they first met. Once, right after we got engaged we were speeding down a rural road (she was behind the wheel- go figure) and she swerved, very suddenly and rather drastically, in order to run over a groundhog. I braced myself for what I believed to be the inevitable rolling of the car into a ditch and my impending death. When we did not die, I said nothing but shot her a half-horrified, half-terrified look. Her reply was very cool… maybe even cold.

“What? Why are you looking at me like that? Those groundhogs are always getting into my grandpa’s garden!”

I was looking at her like that because I suddenly began to question whether or not I actually knew this cold-blooded killer I was about to marry. We were many miles from her grandparent’s house and their prized vegetables. We were miles from anywhere, for that matter… What if I was next?

“I assure you, ma’am, THAT particular groundhog did not touch your grandpa’s garden.”

“You’re right- and now, he never will…”

At any rate, I suddenly began to be less enthusiastic about being “The Great White Hunter”. These discussions with the wife brought up some interesting moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries. I am not, in fact, a hunter. However, nor am I opposed to hunting/fishing. I believe they are great sports that originated out of our ancestry and primal instincts. God granted man mastery over the earth- over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and over the animals that walked on the land. I personally don’t do it because I don’t want to clean my kill and don’t have a particular taste for anything I could hunt. I have great respect for the skills of the hunter/fisherman, but I would just as soon take a “skilled” trip to the local market with the wife (who wouldn’t be caught dead sitting in a tree in the middle of the cold, dark woods, dressed in camouflage waiting to shoot some animal that she would probably miss anyway). This begs the question: If not for sport, when is it morally “ok” to kill? The law says I have the right to defend my home and my family. I would like to think I would do so. But, I have to ask myself: Can I look my adversary in the eye and take their life? Is a mouse even an adversary? They didn’t ask to live in my basement. They don’t pay rent. They eat my food. There is a chance they could be carrying the plague. On the other hand, does that mouse not have the right to survival- to feed his family and provide them shelter? Would I not do the same thing and hide my family in someone’s basement if I were stuck without food or shelter during Michigan’s unforgiving winter? I dare say I would. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were caught in a trap with some giant creature swinging a hammer at my head. Look pathetic- that’s what I’d do. The mouse would try that one too. I would have to avoid making eye contact. Nevertheless, these questions served only to cloud the issue and there was still a mouse flopping around the basement with $0.50 worth of trap attached to it.

The wife’s tone changed on the other end of the phone…

“Ben, I need you to be my Great White Hunter. I need you to protect our home. Now, before it gets away…”

“Okay,” I sighed reluctantly, “I’ll go get a bucket.”

I went and got a bucket and the tongs from the grill. I donned safety goggles, a shower cap, rubber gloves and an apron. I opened the basement door and flipped on all the lights. I stood at the top of the stairs for a moment and listened. There was silence. I slowly crept down the stairs and peeked over the rail at the area I last saw my victim. He was still there- motionless now- with trap clamped to one of it’s his hind legs. I inched closer carefully watching for any movement. There was nothing. I reached out and poked the trap with the tongs. Nothing- the mouse was dead and I had won. I sighed in relief and did a little dance there in the basement. I picked up the trap and examined the little fur ball dangling by its leg.

“That’ll teach you.” I boldly snarled. Between the wife’s gentle coaxing and the successful kill without having to bash the mouse’s head in on the sidewalk with a hammer, I had renewed levels of testosterone. I was a man again- The Great White Hunter, master of my domain, a knight in shinning armor and defender of freedom. I carried the trap out onto the front porch and deposited my first kill on the railing as a warning to mice everywhere that “here there be death for all who shall trespass”. I felt alive. I wanted to carve out his tiny heart with a knife and drink his blood as in some ancient tribal ritual… but then remembered the part about the plague. Instead, I reset the traps and placed two in the basement and two in the kitchen. Before crawling into bed, I called the wife again and assured her I had defended our home.

Hunting Log Day 3
Awoke this morning to discover two new kills.
Three confirmed kills total.

I deposited the fresh kills on the porch rail with their departed brother from the night before. I called the wife and woke her up to proudly announce my kills. That evening I came home from work and reset all the traps as before.

Hunting Log Day 4
Awoke this morning to discover two new kills.
Five confirmed kills total.

My “porch railing of death” was now most impressive. I called the wife again (this time a little later) to brag. She seemed to be proud, albeit timid about the monster she seemed to have created in me. At this point I was obsessed with tending my traps and completely eradicating northern Michigan’s mice population. It was all I talked about and all I thought about. Every noise I heard in my lonely house sounded like a trap clamping down on some rodents helpless little furry head.

Hunting Log Day 5
No kills today- no traps triggered.

Perhaps I’ve got them on the run? I was skeptical. Maybe they were just being timid. After all, wouldn’t you be if dad, mom, brother, sister and Uncle City-Mouse went out for supper and didn’t come home? That’s ok with me. I want them to be too terrified to touch any morsel of food ever again. Still, I wasn’t naive enough to believe I had won completely.

Hunting Log Day 6
Awoke this morning to discover one more new kill.
Six confirmed kills total.

It boggles my mind that so many rodents have made my home their home. It made me wonder how many more were down there in the dark recesses of the basement. What else is going on within these walls that I don’t know about? Will I awake one morning to a polar bear eating my ice cream?

I have vowed to the wife that I will continue resetting the traps as long as I am getting kills. I have even pondered buying some of the poison mouse bait. But that just means the poisoned mouse goes and dies somewhere in the walls and stinks up the house with decay come spring. In any case, a once perplexing ethical struggle has become my righteous cause. There IS an end to this battle- and I shall be its just victor. I have met the enemy and smite my foe. And to the wife I say, “Sleep soundly, my fair princess, for tonight your castle is safe. Nothing shall harm you… not on the Great White Hunter’s watch” (queue theme music and end credits).

PS- no animals were harmed in the writing of this blog entry... but so far six mice have been killed in order to inspire it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Christmas in October

This is an important news break from our regularly scheduled flashback. We will return to our program after this significant bulletin…

On the evening of Thursday, October 12 I was driving across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula- homeward bound. The wife had called me that morning all giddy and excited.

“It’s snowing!” she exclaimed, “It’s just like Christmas!”

After three years in Texas, we had missed out on three autumns and three winters, so the wife and I were just beginning to remember what they’re like. In Houston, winter means you stop suffering through 100 degree humidity and pull on a sweater for those crisp 75 degree days.

“But it’s not Christmas,” I said glancing at my calendar just to make sure I wasn’t the crazy one, “It’s October.” (For a brief moment, I was worried that perhaps I had thoughtlessly squandered two and a half months of opportunities to buy the wife a Christmas gift)

“I know it’s not Christmas! That’s not the point!” she said sharply, irritated with my matter-of-fact response. Her tone softened, “But it’s just so pretty…” (I breathed a sigh of relief that I still had 73 shopping days left to find a gift for the wife… meh, I’ll do it later)

With the exception of a chilly wind, the weather crossing the U.P. was uneventful- not even any signs of precipitation (wet or frozen). I was beginning to wonder if I would miss it all together. I headed south across the Mackinac Bridge and the wind picked up. The instant we got to Mackinaw City, the snow started coming down. The plows hadn’t hit the streets yet and the roads were in terrible condition. This bothered me. The second thing people say to you when they find out you’re moving to Northern Michigan after, “Oh man, you’re in for some harsh winters…”, is “… but they do a good job keeping the roads plowed”.

By the time I rolled into the Boyg around midnight, at least eight inches of snow had accumulated on the ground. The pale moonlight reflected off the snow-covered fields making it look like the surface of the moon. It all seemed so surreal and foreign. Truth be told, I may have even hummed a Christmas carol or two in my mind. When I got home, the wife gave me a forlorn look that said- “It’s going to be a long winter…” Maybe God was trying to warn us for what lies in the months ahead. We don’t own a snow shovel yet and seriously lack appropriate winter attire. We broke out the catalogs and began looking for the perfect down parka, hats, gloves, scarves and long underwear.

The next morning I awoke early to the sound of large trucks and amber-colored strobe lights. I went to the window and peered into the darkness. A plow was diligently clearing our rural road. The wife was right- we would certainly be tested this winter. Our survival would ultimately depend upon keeping morale up long after the holiday season was over. I am always up for an adventure. Besides, that which does not kill us… TBD.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Welcome to the Boyg

The wife’s reaction to our new assignment was much more muted than I had anticipated. It’s a funny thing about the wife- she doesn’t fully appreciate all of life’s little adventures and ironies. Growing up in the constancy of sleepy and rural western Pennsylvania, “change” is a dirty word to her. However, she was starting to get used to the bright city lights and the plethora of shopping, restaurant and entertainment choices that went with it. Mentally, she was still headed for Seattle or California or Rhode Island and the relatively stable life of a grad student- anywhere miles away from bucolic northern Michigan. Suddenly she was thrust into being the wife of a military officer at the pointy end of the Coast Guard’s spear. Her gears didn’t shift as quickly as mine. I, on the other hand, was reveling in the intoxication of my own pride in having my cake and eating it too. To me, this was a great victory and I was ready to celebrate.

So when I came home from work that night, I didn’t exactly expect her to greet me at the door in skimpy lingerie holding a Domino’s pepperoni pizza in one hand and ice-cold cheap domestic beer in the other- but I sought something close to that. Instead I found her in front of the computer- fully clothed- looking at Michigan websites and nervously pouring over the road atlas.

“There’s no mall, Ben… NO MALL!” she said franticly.

This, I assumed, could only be a reference to the shopping situation in Cheboygan (Indian word pronounced “She-boy-gan”) - our future home town. Based on our latest credit card bill, I could think of much worse situations. I glanced at the website over her shoulder,

“…But hey, they’ve got a Wal-Mart!” I replied with an optimistic smile, “How bad can it be?”

These words would come back to haunt me, of course. Weeks later (we're up to April now), the wife and I found ourselves driving down Main Street in Cheboygan (or “The Boyg” as I affectionately refer to it, though many Coasties refer to it as “CheVegas”) for the first time. We had flown up to Michigan for a few days of area familiarization and house hunting. She said nothing as she inventoried her shopping options (or lack thereof), but I could feel her glare like a hot iron burning my face. To me, the novelty of Small-town, USA was its own quaintness. To the wife, this would be the ultimate test of survival skills and forced optimism. Bless her heart- no one tries harder.

* * * * *

For those of you unfamiliar, northern Michigan was first settled by French fur traders and some missionaries who had a fairly amicable relationship with the Ojibwa and other local native tribes. The English came in after that and shook things up. As with the rest of their colonies, they saw dollar signs everywhere they looked and often trampled the locals to squeeze out every cent. Needless to say, their relationship with the Indians was less cordial. So after the Revolution, northern Michigan was slow to re-settle with Americans. Few were interested in living in the wilderness, surrounded by pissed-off Indians and freeze their tails off for 88% of the year. Then along came the lumber industry, and thus The Boyg came into its humble beginnings. Things began to pop up quickly in the small town, and for a brief moment, the early leaders believed they were on the cusp of founding a major metropolis. But, as with every industry in the United States, environmentalists immediately moved in for the kill. They decided it would be better to cut down forests in places you’d be less likely to notice- like Canada- and The Boyg never came into its destined greatness.

The Boyg lies on the southern shore of the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced “Mack-in-aw” thanks to those cheese-eating surrender monkeys). Mackinac being the phonetic spelling of the Indian word for “Place of the Great Turtle”- a vague reference to the shape of Mackinac Island (discussed in tome to be developed). The Strait is the narrow strip of water that connects Lake Michigan in the west to Lake Huron in the East and separates Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the rest of the state. If you can imagine for a brief moment that Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is a left-handed glove or mitten, then The Boyg, rather ironically, is the tip of the middle finger. The town is centered on the T-like intersection of Main and State Streets- home to one of approximately four streetlights in the county. Main runs south along the Cheboygan River, out of town and toward Mullet Lake (one of three inland lakes that dominate the county) before veering west toward the interstate highway. State runs west to Mackinaw City and east over the Cheboygan River and into the wilderness before running into Rogers City. The River connects Mullet Lake to the Straits. Two bridges cross the river in town- the draw bridge on State Street and the Lincoln Street Bridge. Just south of city limits the Black River branches off Cheboygan River and extends southeast to Black Lake (second of three inland lakes that dominate the county).

If there is an official baseline for the definition of civilization, The Boyg probably would make the cut- but just barely. I would imagine such a baseline guidance to include:
- Wal-Mart
- McDonald’s
- Electricity
- Running water (flushing toilets optional)
- A gas pump
- At least one functioning piece of machinery/technology designed no earlier than 1960 (this, of course, does not include the deep-fat fryer at the McDonald’s or late model cars on cinderblocks in front of your home)
- At least one paved road (no mention of quality)
- There is currently debate as to whether or not “civilization” must include a stoplight.

The wife, I’m sure, would have vastly different guidelines. The Boyg, in fact, meets all these minimum requirements, plus a few extra perks. The usual smatterings of fast food joints (minus Taco Bell), one of the last remaining operating (Bob’s) Big Boy restaurants in the country (complete with statue of said “Boy” out front with one hand on hip and the other raising his hamburger proudly as an offering to the Gods), a post office, a small hospital, a county courthouse (of course) and a dilapidated K-mart with an empty parking lot. More importantly, we haven’t had any trouble flushing our toilets thus far. Additionally, the McDonald’s has a rather cozy little fireplace. One chilly morning the wife and I stumbled in for a quick breakfast and found a homely booth near the fire. I looked around the room and noticed that we were, by far, the youngest people in the restaurant. All the old men had gathered on one side of the fireplace and the old women on the other. The old men sipped at their black coffee and griped about young people these days, politicians, local high school football prospects and the coffee being too hot; while the women gossiped about whose daughter was getting married to a Lutheran (everyone here is either Catholic or Lutheran- and never the twain shall meet), whether or not said girl was pregnant already, which boy was going off to college and someone else’s daughter returning home from college to announce to her parents she was gay (maybe she went to UW?). It was almost too cliché.

“All the world’s problems are solved right here in this McDonald’s,” I whispered to the wife with a smirk. I don’t think she found it as cute as I did. What an immense burden it must be to lack a sense of humor.

For recreation, there are several boat ramps (everyone here owns some form of water conveyance… though some are more seaworthy than others) for the summer and snowmobile trails for the winter. There is an ice rink and a horseshoe pit where the old guys accumulate on Tuesday evenings to drink beer, smoke cigars and occasionally toss a steel horseshoe at the sandpit. The Boyg is also home to the county fairgrounds which hosts a wide variety of colorful events, not the least of which is the semi-climactic Cheboygan County Fair. At the main entry gate, one is greeted by an inordinately large, Paul Bunion-sized axe and logroller- a tribute to The Boyg’s bygone glory days. The town has little to offer in terms of quaintness. For that, one would have to travel sixteen miles to the west to the more touristy Mackinaw City. Regardless, summer crowds find their way into town for the fishing and boating… or they got lost on their way to Mackinaw City. The Boyg was founded solidly upon blue-collar values and has little use for, or interest in, tourism …except for the dollars in their pockets.

Industry never really found its way back into The Boyg after the lumber industry went bust. The Cheboygan Lumber Co. of today is essentially a hardware store- with little to offer in the way of actual lumber. It would seem that most people in town are employed by Wal-Mart or the Coast Guard. However, half-way down the river, on either side of Main Street, lays two large, brick buildings with no windows. This is the Great Lakes Tissue Company- a manufacturer of paper towels and napkins. The two buildings are connected by a small enclosed footbridge that spans Main Street. The one on the eastern side of the road has a tall, skinny brick stack that dominates the local skyline. Small wafts of white smoke drift out of it to remind locals that some semblance of an economy still exists in The Boyg, but the light wisps are also analogously just as weak and fickle. Over the Lincoln Street Bridge, just to the east of the fairgrounds lies Cheboygan Cement, which houses a large dirt lot full of thousands of neatly stacked cinderblocks… there are no cinderblock buildings in The Boyg. These businesses survive to the extent that they do because of local familial loyalties… and because each other is all they have. The harsh winters are a constant reminder that strength- and survival- lies in numbers. A few years ago Proctor & Gamble opened an office in The Boyg, perhaps to throw the fledgling community a bone. But the locals looked at the national giant in their small town as if they were from outer space- “Who did they think they were?”. It didn’t last long, of course, and right now some ex-Proctor & Gamble executive is sitting at home watching commercials for trucking schools, eating potato chips and shaking his head, “Cheboygan? What WAS I thinking?”.

The people who live in The Boyg do not come here looking for work. There are three kinds of people here.
- People who found themselves born and bred here by some sick family tradition and failed to find a way to escape (These people also find themselves getting nervous if they venture south of Detroit).
- Snowbirds that vacation here to boat and fish throughout the summer and flee by Labor Day.
- Coast Guard families who pass through on two to three year stints before disappearing into some other assignment in some place far from The Boyg.

They are generally a friendly people, but none of them are in any kind of hurry. After all, where would they go? Their lives don’t slow down in the winter either, because what would that leave them with? They possess a unique regional accent, not unlike a Minnesota accent (doncha’ know?), that makes them incredibly amusing to listen to. I sometimes find myself randomly snickering in the middle of completely benign conversations. They don’t have high expectations for themselves or anyone else for that matter. They are not flashy or glamorous and are quite fond of alcohol- though crime outside of the usual teenage-angst shenanigans and tom-foolery is miniscule. Additionally, they have a relationship with the Coast Guard unlike any other community in the country. They see the WOLVERINE, the largest Coast Guard cutter on the Great Lakes and the newest in the entire fleet, as their own. They would cry bloody-murder if anyone were to suggest moving it to a more hospitable location. And yet, having spent more time around the ship than most of the ship’s crew, they have no problem pointing out what we are doing wrong. “… That’s not how the old skipper did things…,” a local once smugly remarked to the captain after examining our mooring. The rest of the crew blushed and looked away. On a ship, the captain is one step below God and none of us, Lutheran or Catholic, would dare speak to him with such a tone. Nevertheless, if history has shown the WOLVERINE one thing, it’s that nothing is more critical than our relationship with the locals. Those skippers who choose to ignore history suddenly find their lives extremely difficult and unpleasant.

This puts us, the crew and our families, in a particularly uneasy situation. It forces us to fit into a community that seems to know more about how we are supposed to live our lives than we do our own. So, we smile and agree and try to blend in. No one just picks up what they’re doing and moves to The Boyg, so when your conversation turns up that you are new in town (which the local more than likely already knew), they look at your short haircut and smile.

“Ah, you must be Coast Guard then…” And you become theirs.

* * * * *

There are those among you reading this right now that are familiar with the writings of one of my favorite authors, Garrison Keillor, saying to yourselves, “Hey, this town sounds an awful lot like Lake Wobegon”. Before you accuse me of plagiarism, take a trip to The Boyg and see it for yourselves. I would submit to you that I live in Lake Wobegon. Mr. Keillor himself may very well have used The Boyg as the inspiration for his stories.

One day, while browsing at an antique show on the fairgrounds, the wife picked up a green button that read: “I'm from Cheboygan- A nice place to live.” She set it back down on the table. I thought that summed it all up perfectly. I bought it with the last two dollars in my wallet.

… That’s the news as it happens in The Boyg where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.

NEXT: The hunt for a new home… stay tuned!!!
COMING (very) SOON: Pictures!!!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rainy Day... without the rain

Keep your head up... at the very least, it will keep the sweat from rolling into your eyes.

Monday, September 11, 2006

What about you? Are you in the Physics Club?

Shortly after “The Night of the Drunken Lesbians” (as it shall forever be known), I returned to Texas and what I like to call reality. In summary, the couple days I spent in Seattle left me with an uneasy feeling for several reasons:

- I came to the realization that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had been out of school for five years and most of the other prospective students sitting around me at orientation were still in their undergraduate programs. Many of my “contemporaries” (read- the other students that were applying/visiting UW) were physics and math nerds. Oceanography is applied physics. The typical oceanography grad student- apparently- comes from math or physics undergraduate programs and is looking for a real-world application to their vast understanding of those subjects in their graduate program. My undergraduate program, on the other hand, contained all of these subjects, but specialized in none. Put simply- I was surrounded by guys who enjoyed math, regularly discussed the laws of physics, spoke several computer languages (did you know computers have “languages”??? I didn’t!), had Star Wars posters on their dorm room walls and cardboard boxes full of comic books in sealed plastic bags. I was not like these people. I didn’t like math and I didn’t like physics. I liked science and was willing to tolerate those other subjects for the sake of my major. I didn’t discuss the laws of physics unless it applied to some bathroom function. I was laughed at when I asked if Microsoft Office was a computer language (I pointed out that I am quite proficient with Excel). And I never had a Star Wars poster (I had an Ewoks lunch box in 2nd grade. Does that count?). I asked one student why he had decided to major in physics. “I dunno,” he replied, “I guess I just wanted to be challenged. I wanted to learn about the things I didn’t understand. I suppose it bothered me that I didn’t know.” I snickered. “Heh, you’re joking… right?” No, in fact. He was not.

- There was a huge culture gap between me and my “contemporaries” (from here on out referred to as “them”). On the first day of orientation (the day after “The Night of the Drunken Lesbians”), I wore khaki slacks and a collared, button-down shirt. They wore fleece vests, t-shirts with what I can only assume is the name of some obscure band I’ve never heard of and sandals with jeans (which I later discovered to be quite comfortable, but would never admit it in front of “them”). I had my hair cut before I left Texas- high and tight, zero blade on the sides, tapered in back and just enough to lay down on top. They liked long, wild, unkempt hair with beards of many colors on their men and short boy-length hair with multiple visible piercing on their women. They were young, single and lived on hops and bong resin. I was older (note- I never claimed to be more mature), married and, even when I did live in the “dorms”, took regular meals in the galley. At one point the current grad students took us prospective students to lunch. Our guide announced that we would be partaking in a Tibetan buffet at a Himalayan restaurant. “Oh, and if you don’t eat meat- don’t worry,” she announced proudly, “it’s a vegetarian buffet”. I looked around at the rest of the group and was astonished to see they seemed to take comfort in the announcement. “What if you don’t eat vegetables,” I asked sheepishly, “do they have cheeseburgers?” They weren’t amused. I didn’t mind at that point because neither was I. Himalayan food? Come on- what the heck is that? Is Tibet even really a country? I heard they were a part of China or something. Maybe there would be some General Tso’s chicken. Chinese food is ok once you accept the fact that it’s just chicken nuggets prepared about twelve different ways. Besides, what makes some vegan Sherpa travel all the way to Seattle and decide to open a vegetarian buffet? Anyway… I went hungry that day.

- I was under the impression that I was going to Seattle to be wooed. It didn’t occur to me while I was at UW that this could be construed as some kind of interview. The email said this was a visit to see if the University met my needs. Why would they go through the time, money and trouble to fly me out there if I wasn’t right for them? I didn’t fully appreciate how costly a mistake that assumption was until several weeks later, but even by the time I got to the Seattle-Tacoma airport for my flight back to Texas, I was already having one of those “oh crap, I shouldn’t have said that” kind-of-moments. In retrospect, I was completely off base. I didn’t even feign interest in the research work of most of the professors I met with, I gave them only vague descriptions of where I was going with my own goals and regularly played the “my tab is being picked up by the government” card rather than trying to directly answer their questions. UW is one of the premier oceanographic research institutions in the world. I was surrounded by some of the most renowned oceanographers of our time and I may as well have asked them to play G. I. Joe with me. I imaged a group of professors sitting around a table reviewing our files in the weeks after we left. A burst of roaring laughter would come from the room as they got to my file. “… and get this,” one with a thick bushy moustache would say excitedly, “when I asked him what computer languages he spoke, he replied… (raises his voice to a nasally Urkle-like pitch) ‘you mean like Microsoft Office?’” And they would burst out laughing again while my file was tossed carelessly into the nearest recycle bin. My stupidity left me sick to my stomach.

I wasn’t sure if it was the people I met, the city or the university itself or my own reservations/misgivings about going back to school, but I returned to Texas more confused than excited about graduate school. I don’t mean to imply that I am an idiot, but people change as they progress through a career and start a family. On the one hand, I had lived in and enjoyed Seattle before (as a bachelor). On the other, I wasn’t sure how I could fit my family into a city of hippies. On the one hand, UW was known for its oceanography program. On the other, I wasn’t sure how I could fit into a campus of hippies. On the one hand, grad school is critical to the career path I desire. On the other, I don’t know if I’m really cut out for school this late in the game. One option that brought me some comfort was the Naval Postgraduate School, where my contemporaries would be a little more like me. At least they’d cut their hair and not judge me for eating a hamburger. The wife can vouch that I spent several sleepless nights pondering these issues. Bless her heart for waiting patiently while our future hung in the balance.

Then one Monday morning shortly thereafter, something happened that changed everything. I was pouring over the typical Monday morning email barrage with my cup of black coffee when I received a phone call from the assignment officer.

“Would you be interested in the Operations Officer job aboard the Cutter WOLVERINE?”

Who was he kidding? He knew I was interested. It was my first choice on the “dream sheet” I submitted after I found out I was an alternate for the graduate school program. At this point I was half-way through my graduate school applications, which I had devoted a lot of time and energy to. Despite my misgivings, I wasn’t about to give up an opportunity to get a master’s degree for free. Dad always said, “Education is something no one can ever take from you.”

“Yes,” I replied calmly, “I would ‘like’ to be Operations Officer on the WOLVERINE, but unfortunately I have been selected for grad school and am currently in the application process.”

I can not begin to describe to you the amount of pleasure it gave me to be in this most desirable position with the very same people who had jerked me around not more than a few months before. Assignment officers- two; Ben- two. The score’s now tied up folks.

“Hmm, yes…” He seemed to sense I was enjoying this. After a very brief and thoughtful moment he continued, “What if I could get you a two-year deferment?”

He was cool and calculated. He knew just where the fish were biting. But I was playing hard-to-get.

“By deferment you mean…?”

“Let me pencil you in for the WOLVERINE and, assuming there is no change in your performance, you can go to grad school after this assignment.”

I knew better than to take an assignment officer at their word. I couldn’t help but feel I was being lured into some devastating trap… but it all looked so inviting! I like to have my cake and eat it too!

“Can I get all this in writing?”

“Sure,” I could almost hear his sly smile, “send your deferment request paperwork into me and I’ll pencil you in.”

“Can I have a second to think about this?”

“Yes, but I have a slate to fill, so I need to know ASAP.”

I hung up the phone and spent the next few minutes mulling it over. My supervisors and crew were excited for me. They took the fact that I had been offered so many opportunities as a complement. I called the wife too, of course. Her response was much more subdued. She had mentally prepared herself for graduate school. This sudden and drastic switch from school to operational Coast Guard didn’t seem so complementary to her. She was more inclined to see assignments as a location with a distance from Pennsylvania rather than a career path. I had to explain to her that this would be more beneficial in the long run… and that Michigan is closer to Pennsylvania than Seattle. She consented. I called the assignment officer back and sold my soul.

So, graduate school will have to wait for two more years. Instead of facing my uneasiness, I chose to put it off. The answers to all my questions will have to wait. For now, as I sit aboard the WOLVERINE and type this, I can only hope that I made the right choice. I can only tell you that, where I am, there are no Tibetan vegan Sherpa buffets (though we do have a pretty good Chinese buffet with General Tso’s and that’s essentially the same thing, right?), people dress like me and Microsoft Office is the only computer language I need to know. …and, for now, I’m ok with that.

And that’s the news as it happens here in Michigan- my new home away from home.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Pilgrim in an Unholy Land

Define irony. Irony is spending a paragraph complaining that you have nothing inspiring to write about, then suddenly you life turns upside-down and you’re so crazy busy that you don’t have time to write. It’s been a busy several weeks down here on the bayou. Actually, I have spent a majority of that time away from the city of swamps and mosquitoes the size of condors. I now have many adventures and characters to regale and mesmerize you for hours. So many, in fact, that I am somewhat overwhelmed and don’t know when or how I’ll ever get it into words. But my wife, who is the more level-headed of the two of us, told me to take it slow.

“One at a time, Ben,” she says in her sweet, childish little voice, “Break them down into shorter, more tolerable stories… besides, you don’t want to scare your readers away with a dissertation.”

More tolerable? So I guess this is the first installment in a series on my March adventures.

In order to truly appreciate this story, we must go all the way back to the fall of 2005. I applied for the advanced education program at the last minute in hopes of obtaining a Master ’s Degree in oceanography compliments of the U.S. Government (read: tax-payers). In reality, I was desperately seeking my career niche after a heartbreaking bout of rejection from the flight school selection panel (this is a story unto its own… ask me about it some other time- this is not the time/place). This particular degree/program would open up some career opportunities that would keep me occupied long enough to bring retirement into the foreseeable future- and after that I could improvise. When the advanced education selection panel released its picks, I was listed as the third alternate. Assignment officers two- Ben nil (if you were to keep score).

For a brief moment, I considered my options if I were to get out, but the thought of civilian life scared me. Living in one place and doing the same thing for too long makes me antsy. After my second crushing defeat, I turned to the last bastion of hope for my military career. The reason I joined in the first place- to be at “the pointy end of the spear”. For me, that meant going back to sea. The wife and I had long thoughtful discussions about this. Being the devoted wife she is (one of the few in a dying breed), my wife would never stand in the way of my career. Being the devoted husband I am, I knew by her reluctance to express her chagrin that we were treading on thin ice. The wife is new to the military and wasn’t excited about the few times I had to travel on business as it is. She especially did like the part where I drag her to a strange place thousands of miles from home then left her for weeks at a time. I approached with caution:

- “It’s only two years… we can do anything for only two years. It will be over before you know it”
- “If we’re going to have kids, I would rather do this now than when they are older”

I was feeling backed into a corner and the only way I could buy more time was to justify one more assignment to the wife and hope she jumped aboard- which, of course, she did (God bless her). …Although, I think I may have promised her my first born.

I carefully crafted my “dream sheet” to inform the assignment officer that I wanted to be assigned to a ship that stayed close to home. Meanwhile…

In January I received a call from an assignment officer who asked me if I was still interested in graduate school.

“Admissions officers two- Ben one,” I thought aloud.


“Oh, nothing… Are you serious? Do you even have to ask?”

Apparently he did, because the two alternates before me turned him down. Two men’s lost opportunity makes a third alternate a lucky bastard. I knew better than to turn this opportunity down. My dad always told me “education is something no one can take away from you” (i.e. you have a chance to earn a free degree- you take it). After a brief conversation with the wife, I accepted that same day and immediately began to research schools.

So I began the long arduous process of applying to schools. The University of Washington, University of Rhode Island and Oregon State were among my top picks. To make it worse, January is late in the game to be applying for graduate school, so I had to call and beg many of them to waive their application deadlines with the assurance that my tuition would not be an issue and rush them my application package. Shortly after I completed the UW application, I received an email saying the admissions staff was “very impressed” by my application and wanted me to visit. Under normal circumstances I don’t think I would have accepted. I lived in Seattle for two years after the Academy and I knew enough about the area that I couldn’t justify the expense of traveling there to “see if it was right for me”. However, they offered to pay to fly me to Seattle for the two day visit and put me up in a European-style hotel near campus. How could I turn them down? At this point, I was confident I would be accepted to UW. After all, who would go through the expense of flying some guy from Houston to Seattle and put him up in a hotel if they weren’t genuinely interested in him. I no longer felt compelled to woo UW with my redeeming qualities and academic excellence. This confidence led me to assume UW would be under the magnifying glass, not me. This brings us to March…

I touched down in Seattle in the afternoon and caught a shuttle to the “European-style hotel” eager to kick off my shoes, recline on my hotel bed and watch some hotel cable TV (I got rid of my cable after marring the wife). The entrance was between a café and a store on the street level and you had to hike up to the fourth floor to check-in (or so the signs indicated).

“That’s funny,” I pondered as I lugged my luggage up four flights of stairs, “I wonder where the elevator or bellhop is? And where is the handicap access?”

It was at this point that I began to realize that “European-style hotel” is Seattle-speak for “youth hostel”. My room consisted of a small-lumpy mattress on a frame, a sink, a cracked oval mirror handing on the wall and a creepy picture of a naked European-style toddler harassing a small dog. I panicked and checked behind the door for the shower, TV and toilet, but there was nothing- just empty space. I spent the next several minutes pacing over a creaky floor trying to compose myself. I glanced repeatedly at my watch. It was only four in the afternoon Pacific Time. What on earth am I supposed to do until bedtime, read a book? If first impressions are everything, UW had a lot of make-up work to do on me.

Later that evening, two drunk girls checked-in to the room next to mine. How do I know? Because the walls in “European-style hotels” are paper-thin and drunk girls are fairly vocal about their current state of mind. Now, I consider myself to be a fairly open-minded guy and ordinarily, I would not be opposed to being in the hostel room next to two drunken girls. However, noises began to come from their room. At first I wondered if one or both of them might be in some form of “distress”. Instead of staring at the walls I debated whether I should seek help or not. The noises emerged as sporadic and periodic “panting” between bouts of mumbled conversation between the two. It occurred to me that one (or both) of them could be seriously ill… but it also occurred to me that they may be engaged in some form of “lesbonic” activity. I resisted the thought, of course. I am a happily married man, after all. But I could only resist thinking what any other warm-blooded male would’ve thought about two drunk girls panting in the room next door at a youth hostel for so long. Regardless, the debate quickly ended a short time later when the police showed up. I heard the two male officers quickly back out of the room and called for a female police officer when they were confronted with two drunk girls, at least one of which was not wearing pants. The female officers arrived and sparred with the belligerent one, who seemed indignant about the implication that she was not handling the situation.

“She just needs to sleep it off!” She repeated.

Meanwhile the paramedics carted the dazed and incapacitated one out to an ambulance on a hotel chair to have her stomached pumped. Who needs TV? And I thought I was going to be bored! After I was sure that there was no chance of lesbians checking into the room next door, I made sure the coast was clear and made my way to the communal shower for a long, cold shower. On my way back to the room I noticed the smell of vomit wafting down the hall. It only became stronger as I approached my room. I locked the door, turned out the lights and crawled into the lumpy bed. In all the excitement, I hadn’t noticed the gentle, rhythmic bass thumping coming from the café/bar below my room… it lasted until 4am.

This is a good place to stop for now. The story continues from there, of course, but my time is short and I suspect there is enough suspense left to keep you coming back for more. I’m sorry I haven’t been more faithful to my writing, but the wife and I have been terribly busy over the past couple months. We are getting ready to make a big move. I promise I will write more, but I just can’t say when. It may be several weeks before you hear from me, but keep checking back from time to time. I'll be here... or maybe there.

And that’s the news as it happens here in Texas... where homosexuality is still queer.