Friday, October 2, 2020

No Cat in This Cradle

My father would be 85 years old today.  The photo below was taken when he was 52 years old.  Hard living aged him far beyond his calendar years.


 
This is a re-post of an entry from ten years ago.

If I weren’t agnostic, I suppose I could lay a lot of blame on Exodus 20:5.

So much of this trip is about finally getting to see Alaska. But I’m self-aware enough to recognize that it’s also about answering that primal urge all men get to simply get away and (at least temporarily) shed our responsibilities.  I think all men get this urge. It’s part of who we are.  How we handle it is part of what we are.  My father had it in the worst of ways and I clearly have it now.  It’s different for me however because I know that I know I’m going back home.  Read on and maybe this will make sense.

My father died 22 years ago this week. He was 53 years old. His death certificate listed the cause as “complications from Parkinson’s Disease.” But, the reality is even the most highly functional of alcoholic, workaholic chain smokers can’t outrun the legacy of a lifetime of hard living, hard liquor, and unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Short, but Most Popular
High School Junior Year
My father was born in 1935. A kid of short stature, he was too small for most sports, but his Type-A personality made him a class favorite in high school where he was a cheerleader and performed in a singing ensemble. Back then, a boy could do those things and people wouldn’t wonder if he was gay.  He was also incredibly bright and graduated Salutatorian of his 1953 class at Diamond Hill High School in Fort Worth.  My grandparents were hard working farming people who also owned and operated a diner. My grandfather was also a Methodist Lay Preacher. My father inherited from his parents a sincere work ethic that would shape his life and ultimately mine.

We're Not Gay; Really!
After serving an enlistment in the Air Force, my father, now a married man with three kids, went to work for a defense contractor that would eventually become known as E-Systems. He was a brilliant electrical engineer whose efforts were recognized by name in a citation signed by President Lyndon Johnson. When the Vietnam War started, E-Systems offered my father something he had never known; travel.

I remember walking through Love Field Airport one day with my father, my mom, and my two sisters. I was so taken with the hustle and bustle and all the sites an airport offers a young boy that I barely noticed the tears streaming down both my sisters' faces as we walked. I remember being transfixed on a big Braniff airliner that was parked outside the terminal window where we were waiting when my father hugged us all, said goodbye, and walked through the door; appearing outside on the tarmac shortly thereafter. I recall my mom saying "wave  goodbye to your father." as he climbed the stairs and boarded the jet. I also recall wondering where he was going and why as I suddenly joined my sisters' tear fest.  I was five years old.

That trip to Thailand was the first in a long career of multi-year expatriate travel on which my father would embark throughout his career at E-Systems. Over the years, he would write and occasionally call. But phone calls from a war zone across the globe were a tall order in the 1960’s.  He always mailed birthday and Christmas gifts to us at home from wherever in the world he happened to be.

My father came back to the States a few times as I was growing up - for what seemed like short visits.  One time he and my mother re-married, which was odd to me because I don’t remember ever being told they were divorced in the first place. After two marriages and two divorces (these were to my mother; but there were others), my father moved to Europe for E-Systems and lived in Greece, France, and Germany before returning home for good during my high  school senior year.  Our relationship was cordial.  He was busy. I was busy.

My mom and I had several deep and revealing conversations before she died. Despite all she went through alone, she was concerned that I would hate my father for “abandoning” us.  Truth is, I never felt abandoned. My mom loved and supported my sisters and I in ways my father never could (or would) have. As an adult, I recognize her sense of abandonment  because she was left to raise three kids on her own.  I learned later that she accomplished this with little to no financial support from my father.  Still, many times over the years, she would say to me “no one in this world loves you more than your father.”

Not only did I never feel abandoned, I never hated my father. After all, hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you don’t know.  There were times when I didn’t particularly like him and wondered aloud just who the hell he thought he was to try to enforce fatherly discipline upon me as a teenager, when in my mind he had not earned the right to do so.

In 1984 at the age of 48, my father was diagnosed with cardiopulmonary stress syndrome.  His doctor told him that unless he had a heart/lung transplant soon, he probably wouldn’t live to see 50. By this point, he had accepted an executive position at E-Systems and was living minutes from where I grew up. I was in the Air Force, stationed in Austin, was married, and had two sons of my own by then. I remember him telling me he decided not to have the surgeries.  I also remember not being the least bit surprised or, strangely enough, even saddened by his decision.

In 1989, upon being notified his condition had taken a turn for the worst, and that this was probably it, I headed home to Dallas from Austin for the first time in almost three years.  On his last day, as I literally carried him to and from the toilet, his frail body twitching uncontrollably and him barely lucid from the effects of advanced Parkinson’s, I remember thinking to myself “I will never put my sons through this.”  He beat the doctor’s prediction by three years and he died, just as he lived, on his terms.

Despite his being gone most of my life, I’m pretty sure I loved my father because I still feel a strange sense of loss 22 years after his passing. In a sense, he made me the father and dad that I am to my sons. During my Air Force years, I was faced with a similar career choice that my  father had himself had faced 30 years earlier. I was offered an opportunity to get involved with a clandestine field intelligence element within the Air Force; a career path that would have me globe trotting year round. It was at this time I had an epiphany of sorts that not only helped me arrive at the right decision, but helped me reconcile how I truly felt about my father.  He grew up in a home with both parents and never knew what it was like to not have a dad there. It was easy for him to choose career over family because he had no clue what the ramifications to others would be for doing so.  I had the foresight of knowing what effect the career decision I faced would have on my sons - and I chose accordingly. I like to think my father gave me some of his intelligence, but the willingness and insight to be not just a father, but to be a dad is something I know he gave me.

When I look at my sons and contemplate the men they’ve grown to be I quietly, yet proudly acknowledge that there are no cats in their cradles.  If I’ve done my job right, the feline population in their kids’ cradles should be nonexistent as well.

I win, Exodus; at least where the cat and cradle are concerned.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Alaskapade Retro Post: Stupid Part IV

Remember, these retro posts are reposts of entries that stood out to me.  They were written in the context of preparing for my first trip to Alaska in 2011.  Technology and cultural references are a decade old and may seem justifiably dated.


This is the fourth and final part of a series describing acts on my part, the rationality of which some might have found questionable.

 

By Popular Demand - Stupid Part IV



I was sitting in a client's conference room in the midst of pre-meeting smalltalk when a co-worker brought up the Alaskapade and asked when I was leaving.  One of my clients asked what he was talking about and my co-worker pulled up the Alaskapade.com page on the conference room's projection screen.  We had but moments before the meeting kicked off, so there wasn't much time for me to explain.  There was time, however for my client to express his opinion that "this has to be the stupidist thing [I've] ever done".  My first instinct was to argue the purpose for my trip, but this is my customer and IBM probably wouldn't appreciate that.  So, I just grinned, nodded, and bit my lip as the meeting started.

It did get me thinking though.  I know I'm firmly resolved in my purpose for the trip and I also know that I've done many things more stupid than this.  There are too many to list without starting another blog, so I thought I would describe my top three in no particular order.
--

Those three came and went and they prompted many readers to write in and comment.  Most of those comments were something like "Anyone who does that kind of crap must have more than three stupid stories to tell."  I'm not sure how to take that except to wonder how they knew. 

Nevertheless, here's Stupid Part IV - Kickboxing


["Oh yeah! You're winning! No get back out there and finish kicking his ass!"]

After my encounter with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, I decided to never knowingly put myself in a position to be an unwitting victim again.  I began training in Song Moo Kwan Tae Kwon Do at a local school near my home.  This class had been in place over 25 years with the same two instructors. Their system had a foundation which far exceeded the school's owner and some anonymous photo of a Korean "Master" hanging on the wall.  They also held classes in which my sons and I could train together.  This was nice because my boys were far enough apart in ages to always be on different teams and leagues in any given sport or other activity. As such, I relished the opportunity for the three of us to do something together.

Where the adults were concerned, ours was a full contact class.  We always wore protective gear and no one was out to truly hurt anyone else, but it was understood that shit happens and I was always sporting a cracked rib, a black eye, or a fat lip. As I worked my way through the ranks, various martial arts tournaments would come and go, but I was never really interested in them.  Tournaments were for the most part a game of tag where anything more than slight contact was penalized and usually grounds for disqualification.  The fight scenes in the Karate Kid movies were crap.

We were trained with the mantra "you prepare hoping you never have to use it" and we all nodded in agreement, but the reality was that everyone in the class secretly fantasized about an altercation wherein we would kick the ass of someone who deserves it, using the techniques we practiced daily.  Before class one night, word was spreading about an upcoming kickboxing tournament and everyone was buzzing about it.  These events usually had a few low-level professional bouts preceded by several amateur matches with fighters at various levels of  skill and capabilities.  I had always shunned traditional martial arts tournaments because they seemed lame, but these kickboxing matches would be full contact, multi-round events where a guy could learn first hand how his skills stacked up against others.  I asked my instructor what he thought of my training for and entering the event.  The techniques used in kickboxing were quite different than those we were learning, but he and his instructor agreed to train me if I was willing to do so outside of class and not let on to the other students.  For weeks before the event, I would go to my instructors house and get my ass kicked by whatever guest bully he had show up to beat on me that night. I came home one night with my jaw so swollen I couldn't talk, much less eat the steak dinner that had been prepared for me.  During that private training session, I had been knocked cold from a heel rake delivered by one of my instructor's peer teachers, an ex-con who had real-world skills and the battle scars to prove them.  We were working out in the grass between the houses and I never saw it coming.  One second I was throwing a punch and the next it was lights out. I came to looking up as a fuzzy rendition of my instructor was digging in my throat trying to prevent me from swallowing my mouthpiece.
 
I tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to avoid talking when I got home because I knew how much crap I'd take for doing something so stupid being the sole bread winner in the house.  I wasn't aware that my instructor had called my wife to tell her to keep an eye on me for post traumatic shock.  Truth was, nobody at home knew what I was doing or what I planned to do. I never even told my family about the match or its outcome.  If any of them read this article, it will be my first disclosure of the events.

Kickboxing rules are different than regular martial arts competitions in many ways, most notably of which was full contact was not just allowed - it was expected.  I felt like I had an advantage, or was at least on par with my potential competition because our class trained the same way.  Part of our training included visiting other classes, one of which on one particular night was to a class where absolutely no contact was allowed.  Everyone from the youngest kids to the adults were terrified of us.  I remember thinking what an injustice this school was doing to its students, wrapping them in belts having never really been hit.  Our organization was old school and our founder, now in his mid 60's, didn't believe anyone who hadn't been knocked out cold in training deserved to wear a black belt.  I still had a few years to go before my first black belt test, but I knew I already had that box checked.

The most difficult part of kickboxing for me was learning how to actually box.  Boxing is excruciatingly physical and real skills take years of dedicated training to develop.  The same is true for martial arts.  Kickboxing rules dictated that each competitor had to throw a minimum of six kicks in each of three three-minute rounds.  Three minutes doesn't sound like a long time, but try it in the context of boxing and see how long it feels.  Bit I digress.  You could pummel your opponent, but if you failed to get your six kicks in, you lost the round.  Kicks were my specialty.  I had developed a wicked hook kick roundhouse combination with my forward leg that always caught my opponents off guard because I was equally effective with either leg.  I had confidence; I just needed to work on that boxing thing. Details.  I went with my instructor to watch a kickboxing match and was shocked and somewhat disappointed at what I saw.  These guys weren't martial artists.  They all appeared to be boxers who learned how to throw six kicks.  The irony was that you didn't even have to land your kicks.  I observed that the usual tactic seemed to be to just toss 'em out there in the general vicinity of your opponent so the judges could see the effort and then slug it out for the remainder of the round.  I decided to take a different approach.

Weeks passed and the event for which I had originally signed up was postponed, giving me additional training time.  The night of my tournament finally arrived and I drove out to the venue with my instructor and his instructor, Mr. DeLuna.  Mr. D was a pudgy, 5'-5" Mexican who would stand toe-to-toe with me and kick me in the side of the head before I ever saw him move.  He was the real deal, first impression notwithstanding and a legend in Texas martial arts. That he spent his valuable time working with me privately was not lost on me.  At the event, I observed a few matches before mine and was pleased (if not relieved) to see that my expectations had been met.  Yet again, these guys also appeared to just be boxers who threw the mandatory six kicks per round.  They even wore boxing trunks.  When my first match was called, I entered the ring in a full heavy cotton training pants with my full-sleeved gi top wrapped by my blue belt.  The crowd was mostly silent except for the few friends I had there. The few cheers were drowned out by the snickering and outright laughter from others, but I paid them no mind.  I tried to put on a confident face, but I probably looked like a frightened child.

The bell rang out, calling the fighters for the referee's briefing and as I climbed up onto the traditional elevated three-roped boxing ring, I was struck by the surreal feeling of actually being there.  Surreal or not, I was confident that I belonged there and I had something to prove.  I had resolve.  I glanced into my corner and my instructor looked me straight in the eye and mouthed "stick to our plan" as he pounded his clinched left fist into his open flat right palm.  I had discretely trained with he and his fellow instructors for a few months and had built up the stamina to dance, bob, and weave in true boxer fashion.  The reality was my boxing moves were as bad as my regular dance moves.  I had conditioned stamina and a drummer's rhythm, but I danced like a white guy and it wasn't pretty. Suddenly, I had no intention whatsoever of applying what they taught me in the ring.
 
My opponent looked to be about my age (31), but he had long jet black hair, was cut like a boxer, heavily tattooed, and was totally ripped.  By contrast, I had short gray hair, was cut like a pancake, had no tattoos, and was slightly torn at best.  After the ref's instructions, we touched gloves and the first round bell tolled.  It stuck me how loud the bell was and how instantly silent everything else seemed.  I could see people in the crowd moving about and I could see my instructor's wild gesturing, but the only sound I heard was my opponents bare feet smacking the hollow boxing ring mat as he danced, bobbed and weaved.  This was contrasted by my own silence from an almost complete lack of motion.  I assumed a traditional Tang Soo Do defensive stance with the bulk of my weight on my rear foot and the ball of my front barely touching the mat.  My arms were elevated to protect my chest and face.  My stomach was left open in hopes to lure my opponent's attention there.  I knew how to take an abdominal punch, and hoped he would waste energy trying to attack there. As he danced and moved around me, I just pivoted on my back foot, staying sideways relative to his chest.  This made me a slimmer profile and therefore a smaller target.  All he really had in his fighting arsenal was a straight jab.  My stance made me more elusive than the typical fighter he faced who stood face-to-face with him.  I figured out quickly that for all his muscles, he had no flexibility.  He had a hard jab, but that was it.  When he punched, I moved ever so slightly causing him to miss and stammer forward struggling to keep his balance.  Throwing a full force punch and missing is much more exhausting than when the punch connects.  I heard someone in his corner yell out "kick".  He extended a half-assed forward kick in my general direction that was barely waist high.  I could throw side kicks that were head high, but it was rare for me to ever kick that high as there are rarely targets up there.  Part of my instructor's routine training regimen was to have us stand sideways right next to a folding chair and side kick over it.  If I kicked too low, I kicked the chair and it hurt as bad as any punch or kick from an opponent.  That training technique was instrumental in my discipline development and my high side kicks were a reward.  About a minute into the first round, I had figured out his pattern.  He would fake a jab twice with his left hand and then throw a right hand.  About every third set of these was followed up by a half-assed kick.  I maintained my stance, staying completely passive.  The crowd started booing at me and my instructor was pulling his hair out.  This was years before the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the patient tactics of mixed martial arts became popular.  This crowd wanted a fight and I was taught not to fight.  Rather, I was taught to observe, respond, and eliminate the threat with minimal effort.  About the time my instructor yelled out "sixty seconds", my opponent repeated his staple move.  I flinched slightly to the right and I could hear his fist whoosh past my left ear as he stumbled forward.  I pivoted to the left and launched a head-high side kick with my right leg that caught him square in the under left side of his jaw.  I remember seeing what looked like a slow motion view of his head slamming sideways on to his right shoulder as his slobbery mouth guard spewed forward.  The sweat from his long hair splashed off his shoulder and he dropped to the mat.  The crowd was silent.  It even took my friends a few seconds to realize what happened and respond in my favor.  The ref pushed me to my corner and then handed my opponent's mouth guard to his corner man.  If you lose any equipment, it's lost for the remainder of the round. He then gave my opponent (who had stood up by this point) a standing eight count. This scenario repeated itself twice more before the round ended.  He basically walked into every kick I threw.  After the third knock down, the ref called the fight.
 
I won.  I won in a single round against an experienced boxer and I never even threw a punch.  In fact, I only threw a total of three kicks the entire round.  Ironically, had the round not ended before the TKO, I would have lost it because I didn't have my six kicks in.  The ref raised my hand in victory and the only cheers in the place were from my instructors and the few friends to whom I disclosed my kickboxing plans.  Demonstrating great sportsmanship, my opponent hugged me and I stepped through the ropes and hopped to the floor as I rapidly became aware of the ambient sounds in the facility.  I would have about thirty minutes before my next match which would pit me against another first round winner.

My instructor was simultaneously happy and pissed at me.  He angrily asked me if I had forgotten everything I learned the last few months.  I told him I remembered everything I learned from him, but what I learned most was how to observe my opponent and to exploit the weaknesses in the techniques based on what he taught me.  He told me I was being cocky and that cockiness would cost me.  I outwardly feigned confidence, but I knew I was lucky.  My next match was the last of the first round winners.  When they called me for the next round, my opponent wasn't there.  They had to call in an alternate who hadn't fought all night because he arrived too late.  My corner was concerned because he was fresh.  Hell, I was fresh.  All I had done was throw three kicks and then rest for half an hour.  What I realized that my corner did not, was that this guy never saw my first match.

The clang of the bell sounded the start of the second round.  We touched gloves and I assumed the position.  My new opponent was a Hispanic guy who apparently spoke no English.  He started bobbing around and then just stopped, dropping his hands and looking at me as if to say "didn't you hear the bell?"  I seized the moment, launched a spinning back kick with my right leg and burying my heel into his breadbasket.  Down he went, but this guy bounced right back up.  I caught him off guard, but I didn't hurt him.  As the ref gave him a standing eight count, my instructor yelled out to me "You think lightning's gonna strike twice?"  I just shrugged, adjusted my mouth guard and flashed a black toothed grin.  This match went longer and I actually got some hand strikes in.  The boxing gloves made it difficult to strike in the manner in which I was accustomed and had trained for over the last couple of years and by this point I had forgotten anything I had recently learned about boxing.  I figured out I could throw ridge hands and strike with the side of my hand and throw effective backfists.  I loaded up a backfist and with a full 360 body spin to the right, the back of my clinched (albeit gloved) right fist connected on my opponent's right ear, and knocked out his mouthpiece.   My opponent looked at me wide-eyed and motioned with his gloves towards his face as if trying to point.  His lips were wide open and his teeth were clinched.  He was saying something in Spanish, but I never got it.  Then I noticed that he had braces and was trying to show me.  I nodded, kept my strikes low, and finished what proved to be a pretty dull round.  The second round wasn't much more exciting, but I stayed close to him, marginalizing his legs, and we exchanged a lot of punches.  Although my recently acquired boxing skills were coming into play, I took a few good shots to the head during that round.  I knew I won the first round, but I wasn't totally confident in the second and third.  To my recollection, they were close and I was gassed out.  The judges scored me the winner of the second round and in the end, although a moot point after the first two, I won the third round because my opponent failed to get six his kicks in.  Lightning had struck twice.

I had to wait about an hour for my third match.  The third guy was an Italian dude who was younger and leaner than my first two opponents. He wore full length gi pants wrapped by his black belt which was adorned with several gold stripes.  He wore no shirt and had what looked like a Ferrari symbol tattooed over his heart.  After seeing him, I was wishing I had braces to point at; or maybe a cane; perhaps a walker with tennis balls on the bottom.  He was a badass, I was in trouble, and we both knew it.

The bell rang out to start the fight and we touched gloves.  I assumed my defensive stance and hoped for the best.  He displayed no caution and ran in on me fast.  I threw a block with my left hand and tried to side step him.  Right about then, I heard what sounded like a really loud buzzing sound.  I remember thinking "what the hell is that?"  Simultaneously, I felt what seemed like a jackhammer "buzzing" the sides of my head.  I'm pretty sure I knew what that was.  My ears seemed to clog up as if I had a severe cold and everything sounded muffled.  This guy was hitting me so hard and so fast that I never saw the punches coming.  He could kick too and his kicks weren't half assed.  They landed and they landed hard.  At one point I remember we were almost toe to toe and I was looking him square in the eye when suddenly, I'm staring at his feet going up sideways from the mat.  In fact the whole ring was sideways and nobody was falling over!  This was because I had fallen over immediately after he cold cocked me in the side of the head with his left foot.  The next thing I knew, the ref was giving me a standing eight count and I didn't remember standing back up.  The first round ended and I staggered first to the wrong corner, then to mine.  My instructor and friends were laughing their asses off.  I practically barfed out my mouthpiece and asked "How am I doin'? Am I winning?"  Mr DeLuna stifled his laughter and said "Oh yeah! You're winning! Now get back out there and finish kicking his ass!"

The second round began and I decided I needed a new strategy.  Duh!  The reality was it didn't matter what I did.  This guy had my number and there was nothing I could do except try to maintain some dignity and survive three rounds.  I began to notice an odd smell.  It smelled like something was burning.  I rubbed the sweat my face with my sleeve and it was smeared with blood.  I remember wondering "how'd his blood get there?"  I must have landed something.  Maybe I am winning!  I was so punch drunk I didn't even recognize the smell or taste of my own blood.  By this time, It seemed like someone had turned out some of the lights around the ring.  It definitely seemed darker.  I threw a few kicks and eventually heard my instructor yell out "six!", indicating I met the minimum.  Oh good!  Now I can run around and try not to get hit.  Suddenly, I had tremendous respect for those boxers who just hours before I had thought of as lightweights.

The second round ended and it occurred  to me that I may have been lied to by my corner after the first round.  They were all still laughing their asses off and urging me on as I sat in my corner.  I wanted to quit and I told my instructor I was done.  Then, Mr. DeLuna spoke up and told me if I quit, he'd kick my ass worse than he (pointing to the ring) ever could.  Mr. DeLuna commanded respect.  He came up through the ranks the hard way, a direct protege of our organization's founder with all the old school rules.  It was his influence that drove our class and he did not tolerate anything less than 100% effort.  I knew he would do exactly as he said he would and I figured I looked better getting pummeled by the guy in the ring than by a guy eight inches shorter than me with a Santa Claus belly.  When the bell rang, I jumped up as if I thought I had a chance and we touched gloves.  The rest is pretty much a blur.  I know I got six kicks in, although they could have landed on my own head as far as I could tell.  I never imagined a human could move as fast and hit as hard as he was hitting me.  To this day, I suspect he was just toying with me because he could have easily knocked me out; probably in the first round.  The bell mercifully rang and it was finally over.  Lightning struck again.  Only this time, it struck me square in my ass.  We hugged it out and as the ref lifted his hand, I could barely lift my head.  I made it three rounds with this guy and tried to feel proud about it, but a part of me knew that he let me finish standing.

After the match and after I regained lucidity, the Italian bought me a coke at the concession stand.  He had just got his ass kicked in his next match. I was shocked.  If he got his ass handed to him after beating me like he did, how big a pussy must I have been?  He told me that he saw my first two matches and admired the fact that I tried to represent the art; the martial art.  I wasn't so sure I did a good job of representing anything except for Tampax.  See, it was common in the fighting world to use cut off tampons to stop nose bleeding and my instructor had stuffed on up my nose after the third fight.  I had a string hanging out of my nostril the whole time I was talking to him and others after my fight.  I remember looking in the rear view mirror on my way home, seeing the string, and thinking "Jeezus Christ! I AM a pussy!"

 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Alaskapade Retro Repost - Stupid Part 3

 

Remember, these retro posts are reposts of entries that stood out to me.  They were written in the context of preparing for my first trip to Alaska in 2011.  Technology and cultural references are a decade old and may seem justifiably dated.


This is the third part of a series describing acts on my part, the rationality of which some might have found questionable.



I was sitting in a client's conference room in the midst of pre-meeting small talk when a co-worker brought up the Alaskapade and asked when I was leaving.  One of my clients asked what he was talking about and my co-worker pulled up the Alaskapade.com page on the conference room's projection screen.  We had but moments before the meeting kicked off, so there wasn't much time for me to explain.  There was time, however for my client to express his opinion that "this has to be the stupidest thing [I've] ever done".  My first instinct was to argue the purpose for my trip, but this is my customer and IBM probably wouldn't appreciate that.  So, I just grinned, nodded, and bit my lip as the meeting started.

It did get me thinking though.  I know I'm firmly resolved in my purpose for the trip and I also know that I've done many things more stupid than this.  There are too many to list without starting another blog, so I thought I would describe my top three in no particular order. As promised in a previous post, here is another of the three dumbest things I've ever done. 
 

Senior Prom Sabotage
"Now you can explain to your mother why you won't be walking across the stage at your graduation commencement this weekend."

This isn't as much stupid as it was just a smart ass prank.  I was a senior in high school and like most seniors, I thought I knew everything and felt like my Teflon reputation would keep me out of trouble.  Reflecting back, this is all pretty trivial when compared to exploding testicles, inept kickboxing, and prison camp.  But watching my kids go through high school and seeing them deal with what seemed like end-of-the-world stress reminded me of how at that time in my life, simple high school silliness sometimes seemed like the end of the world for me too.

I graduated in 1981 from Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland, Texas.  LCHS was a brand new school with all the modern conveniences and was considered a model for other schools and districts around the country.  My sisters graduated from South Garland High School and it was expected that I would too.  They were both super star students, cheerleaders, drill team, and ultra-social popular girls.  They were a public school faculty's wet dream.  Me, not so much.

I wasn't a bad kid.  I like to think I was just energetic and creative.  In today's diagnostic terms, I was off the charts ADD/HD but back then, there was no well-known clinical name for it.  Kids like me were just brats.  Whatever the term, in my last year of junior high school I knew one thing; I was not going to go to South Garland and live under my sisters' shadows while trying to measure up to their academic and social successes.  It almost broke my mom's heart, but she recognized my individuality, understood my motivations, and supported my decision.  When LCHS opened, we were the first class to go through from freshmen to seniors.  In fact, the first year, there wasn't even a senior class.  The school was new, the technology was fresh, and the faculty was young and optimistic.  As recent college graduates and first year teachers, many in the faculty were but a few years older than the students.  It was the perfect place for me to blaze my own path and pretty much get away with anything along the way.

I was a scrawny kid in high school.  I was 5'-4" and I didn't hit puberty until the summer before my senior year. I was too small (and lazy) for sports and my interests were all technology related. Schools today embrace geeks and offer programs for them to excel.  No such programs existed back then.  In those years, we had four primary groups: socials, jocks, ropers, and freaks.  The socials were usually rich, snotty kids who wore Izod shirts, Jordache jeans, and drove cool new cars.  They seemed to always have extra lunch money and were constantly letting their snotty social friends cut in the cafeteria lunch line.  The (male) jocks were often stupid lumps of beefcake who were pushed through the academic system by the coaches and a compliant administration because of their athletic prowess and college athletics potential.  The ropers drove old pick-up trucks with rifles in the cab window rack, dipped snuff, were proud of the Skoal can ring fade in their blue jeans back pocket, and often smelled like the livestock with which they probably lost their virginity.  The freaks had long hair, wore concert t-shirts and torn jeans, and were proud of their stoner reputations.  Many of them would come back from lunch every day with a vapid grin and reeking of pot. Looking back objectively, the freaks were probably the most honest and genuine crowd of all the groups because what you saw is what you got and they really didn't give a damn what anyone thought of them.  The socials pretty much did the same drugs that the freaks did. They just wore nicer clothes and completed their homework.  Nevertheless, I steered clear of the freaks. I didn't judge them; I just didn't want anything to do with them.  My sister was struck down and killed in a crosswalk by a stoned driver the week before her high school graduation.  Her death tortured my mom and I couldn't bear being associated with people who could put a family through the abject anguish mine suffered, even if by accident.  So, I never touched pot nor drank in high school. In fact, I've never smoked pot even to this day.

Geeks like me didn't fit into any group.  In fact, back then we really weren't thought of as geeks as that term had not yet bubbled to the top of the American lexicon.  Dorks is probably a more appropriate term for who we were. I was into rock music, model rocketry, and computers. The Computer Math class had the latest personal computer technology of the time: a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer with a whopping 4k RAM, a 1.7MHz processor, data storage on cassette tapes, and a black and white monitor that was essentially a small shitty television. I wasted countless hours writing BASIC programs to validate rocket designs and calculate propulsion trajectories...none of which I ever used or validated.  I did, however, get an A in my Computer Math class.

In my sophomore year, I got into photography and it opened up a whole new world for me.  Photography and my affiliation with the school's yearbook and newspaper staff helped me cross over from invisible dorkdom to a somewhat visual pseudo-social status.  I wasn't popular. In fact, I was still a dork, but I had a camera and that made me key to getting the popular kids' pictures into the yearbook and paper.  As such, I got invited to many parties.  I got the last girl, but at least I was there.
Spot the Twin Camera Photo Dork
 
Our class' faculty sponsor was Mr. Poore.  Tom Poore was a strict, no bullshit, take no prisoners teacher. No one talked in his class and there was no cutting up allowed.  It was a solid hour of American History and amazingly enough, everyone learned in his class.  His reputation as a hard ass preceded him and everyone hated him; that is, until they actually had him as a teacher.  That hatred usually faded into respect laced with a dusting of fear.  He was the kind of teacher who made a kid believe that the trivial things that happen in high school could actually end up on some permanent record.  As our Class of 1981 faculty sponsor, Mr. Poore helped us raise a great deal of money for the various senior year activities we would enjoy.  Under his leadership, our class worked through our sophomore, junior, and senior years to earn money for our prom and other senior year events.  We served concessions at Texas Ranger baseball games, worked the midway games at Six Flags over Texas, and had countless car washes and other fund-raisers.  By our senior year's end, we had raised over $30,000.  With it, we bought the school a new scoreboard for the gym and paid to finish a monument on the school's front lawn that was started but unfinished by the slackers from the
DJ Marshall
class of 1980.  On top of all that, our senior prom was free to all class members.  This prom was no small affair. We held it at the Grand Ballroom at the new (at that time) Dallas Hyatt Regency Hotel. There were cash giveaways, casino games with prizes, and excellent food. Granted, it was hotel food, but compared to school cafeteria food, this was tasty stuff.  We had a killer DJ named Marshall Argovitz.  You never forget a name like that. For grins, I looked Marshall up while I was writing this and low and behold, he is still a Dallas area events DJ.  Although the name Marshall Argovitz conjures thoughts of someone about as exciting as a model rocketeering computer nerd, he put on a great show and all who attended had a blast with his music and crowd participation antics.  But I digress.  This may have been our prom, but it was Mr. Poore's showcase event to his fellow teachers, the school administrators, and the district executives.  They were all invited and looking back, it seemed like they all showed.  I wasn't aware of this fact at the time or I might not have done what I did.

Well, maybe...

Mr. Poor was a forward thinker.  As a photographer and one of few students he seemed to actually like, he put me in charge of creating a slide show for the prom. This assignment started back in the tenth grade and had me collecting images of my classmates from my sophomore throughout my senior years.  I also spent hours taking pictures of pictures from our freshman year to ensure the show included as much as possible. I was the ultimate photo geek. I carried a regular film camera for the school's paper and yearbook and another camera with slide film for the prom show.  Those in my photographer crowd thought we were infinitely cool and thus labeled ourselves "Camera Commandos".  We even purchased out own full-page ad in the year book congratulating ourselves on our past and future successes.  The reality was everyone else still just thought of us as photo dorks. During the school day when an announcement was made over the PA for any club, team, or organization to meet for yearbook photos, I would grab my camera and take my exit from class.  I wasn't shooting the picture most of the time and I certainly wasn't in the club, I just wanted to get out of class and my camera was a like an unlimited, never-expiring hall pass.  In fact, I managed to appear in many club or group photos my senior year.  I'm convinced that if I had a hair net and birth control glasses, I could have been included in the photo of the cafeteria lunch ladies.
 
My cameras went everywhere I did.  I had photos of car wrecks, a Cessna plane crash near our school, and I shot every official event our school held as well as many unofficial "events" held by the students.   I even captured images of a football coach making out with a senior student at the Dallas Zoo. This guy was an All-American college baseball star and body builder with a short man's complex.  He was also a total dick to me the year before. He gave me three licks with a paddle in front of the entire varsity football team for something I didn't do. No, really, I didn't do it!  I made a point to walk up to he and the senior student at the zoo that day and say hi...with both cameras danging from my neck.  I never did anything with the photos; I wouldn't have.  Still he and I got along really well after that.

One of the unofficial event photos I shot was from a small party I attended.  It was after the Homecoming dance and a bunch of us were going to dinner after.  Our crowd got to the restaurant and our reservations had fallen through and getting a table for eight on a Saturday night in Dallas wasn't happening. One guy's parents were out of town, so we stopped at a grocery store and bought steaks to grill at his place. Half of one of the couples there was my closest friend who was also a rock and roll, computer, and rocket geek. He is in the group photo, second from the left, top row.  He and I seemed to share a brain and were always together.  An exciting Friday night for us was putting a twist in the belt drive under the platter of a record turntable and listening to entire albums backwards hoping to catch hidden subliminal messages. We would do this while building rockets and making prank phone calls.  He and I were super tight but to me and many others, the girl he took to the dance was a whiny bitch whose existence the rest of us just tolerated.

This party went as parties did when parents weren't around and after a while, people were coupled off making out wherever space permitted.  My friend and his date were making out on the couch and I snapped a picture of them.   On the coffee table in front of them were knocked over beer cans and a wine bottle or two.  On the couch, perfectly juxtaposed were he and his date, stretched out with his hand up her fluffy blue formal dress.  You couldn't see his face in the photo, but hers was clearly visible.  For all her whiny yelping in the past, she looked pretty happy in this picture.  At the time, no one seemed to notice that I took the pic and even I pretty much forgot about it.  I was processing slides and negatives in my darkroom at home (yes, I was King Uber Dork with my own color/b&w/slide darkroom) and just happened to run across the image on a printed contact sheet, but it wasn't in my negative strips.  I mistakenly shot the photo with my slide film camera. I probably just saw the shot opportunity and grabbed the first camera body I could reach...since I wasn't grabbing any other body.  I decided to print from the slide and took a copy to my friend at school.  We all had a laugh over it, until she saw it.  Then, it wasn't funny to him anymore.  Bitch.

A year went by.  Spring and the twilight of my senior year had arrived.  My consistently-mediocre academic efforts ensured I was on track to graduate in the upper 10% of the lower 50% of my class, I was signed up to go into the Air Force in the fall after my graduation, and The Cars' Panorama was a top selling album.  I worked three different part-time jobs to help out at home and to keep running money in my pocket, and I was the head photographer on the newspaper and yearbook staff.  I was optimistic about my future and life at eighteen was pretty good.

A few days before the prom, I was reviewing images from the stack of slide carousels that comprised the presentation for which I had been shooting pictures and working over the last three years.  Each slide was choreographed with specific parts of tunes from the era that we selected, which included such timely hits as "Don't Stop Believin'", "Super Freak", and "Touch and Go". This data was all programed on old school equipment that far preceded today's multimedia platforms.  Honestly, the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer couldn't have handled much more.  The music tracks were on cassette tape along with encoded subsonic cues that we manually placed that would tell the different slide carousels to advance to the next image on cue with the music. The Hyatt gave us three large screens, the center screen of which was giant and the best images would be projected there. During the program, the images would flash from screen to screen, precisely timed with the subsonic cue points I programmed onto the cassette tape.  On Friday before the prom, Mr. Poore reviewed the show and gave his blessing to its content.  I took the carousels and projection equipment home with me with plans to go to the Hyatt in the early afternoon the next day and set up for the show.  The Hyatt's audiovisual technician met me and connected everything into the hotel ballroom's P.A. system. We reviewed the show, reset the carousels, and left the ballroom.  After we parted ways, I sneaked back in, removed the retaining ring on the center slide projector, pulled out a random slide, and hurriedly dropped in the slide which I claimed had been destroyed the year before.

I drove home, dressed for the prom, picked up my date Tammy, did the obligatory photos with the moms, and we headed downtown. On the way, I told her what I did.  She laughed out loud and then said "You're dead. Mr. Poore will kill you!"  She too worked on the prom planning and one of her roles was coordinating invitations to the Administration members to whom Mr. Poore wanted to kiss up. I sank deeper and deeper into my car seat as she listed them and decided I should try to retrieve the slide before the show.  We arrived at the ballroom and saw that it had been transformed into a wildly-decorated scene with casino games, hors d'oeuvres tables, and Marshall Argovitz's lights flashing and music blasting.  I approached the AV table in the center of the room which was now surrounded by red velvet ropes and saw a different hotel AV guy sitting there.  He wouldn't let me get to the equipment saying he was instructed my Mr. Poore to prevent anyone from messing with the content of the show.  I told him I was the guy who produced the show and it got me nowhere.  My Camera Commando status was unraveling and I hadn't even graduated yet. Crap! I had really outsmarted myself now.  I joined my date and my friends and tried to put it out of my mind.

Mr. Poore found me and introduced me as the producer of a wonderful retrospective of the best times experienced by the best students at LCHS. I can still hear him today. He did this repeatedly to many of his special guests, including the school district Superintendent and his wife who commented "I hear you've done something special for us tonight". "You could say that..." was all I could come up with.  Mr. Poore was so emphatic that I suspected he had found the slide and was just putting me through the wringer to make me sweat. I was already sweating and I didn't need his help.

As the evening progressed, we danced, we ate, and we acted stupid as seniors do. After a few awards were handed out, the lights dimmed and the slide show started.  The presentation lasted about thirty minutes and kicked off with our school fight song, which now that I think about it is probably a term no longer allowed in public schools these days. The first image was of our school mascot - the Patriot in front of the school in the early morning dawn light.  Other random images flashed from screen to screen.  I made it a point to get shots of everyone I could into the show and groups would yell out when they saw themselves and their friends on the screens.  People cheered the pics of the teachers they liked and boo'd the ones they didn't.  They were silent when Mr. Poore's picture came up.

I kept waiting for the slide to appear and each time a screen filled with another image, I was cautiously relieved. I had dropped the slide into the carousel with such haste that I had no idea where in the presentation it might appear.  I only knew it would be in the center screen; the giant screen.  Everyone was having a great time, laughing at the silly images, some staged, most candid. I was nauseous. I looked around the room for an instant to see where Mr. Poore and his entourage were standing. I wanted to know which side of the room to avoid. Before I turned back to the screen, the entire room erupted in laughter. My stomach wrung itself inside out and I thought to myself, "This is it. I'm dead".  I looked up and was relieved to see an image of a football coach wearing a wig and dressed as a cheerleader at pep rally.  Oh yeah...I knew that one would kill.  Whew!

A few minutes later (which seemed like an eternity), I was looking for a place near me to discreetly barf when the crowd erupted again, but this time you would have thought the coach was naked based on the volume of the screams and hoots.

This was it.  I was dead.

There on the giant center screen was my best friend and his whiny dance date.  Unfortunately, she was also his prom date. Oops.  Her shriek rose above all the other yelling and became so shrill a pitch that I was certain only dogs could hear its upper register.  In my early afternoon haste, I had dropped the slide into the carousel sideways. But on that large screen, the image and her identity were crystal clear.  For a brief instant, the photo dork in me marveled at the clarity of the image, its crisp focus, the depth of field, and its color balance in such low light conditions.  The thought "Damn I'm good" was quickly replaced with "damn I'm dead".  I could go to my grave (and probably would within the next sixty minutes) knowing I took a really good photo.

The music kept playing and the images on the outer two screens kept changing.  But the image in the center screen just stayed there.  Apparently, I didn't just insert the slide sideways, I also dropped it in cockeyed and it was stuck in the projector. The screen would go dark for an instant as the projector's shutter closed for the next image to drop in from the carousel and then illuminate again with the same picture.  This happened repeatedly and every time the crowd would yell out loud.  The repeating of the image became a bigger joke than the image itself. People were holding up lighters like it was a rock concert in the 70's.  If this were a concert, my death would be analogous to Stevie Ray Vaughan's demise as he too was killed moments after one of his greatest performances. This went on for a good five minutes while Mr. Poore searched the hotel for the AV guy who had apparently abandoned his post once the show started.  Eventually, the show stopped and the offending slide was removed while everyone boo'd. The presentation started again and everyone settled down.  My stomach however, was about as settled as Fukushima, Japan during the recent earthquakes there.  This was the sentimental part of the show wherein our alma mater played and all the sappy pictures of the students showing their school spirit at pep rallies and football games were shown.  The last image before the credits ran was of our school mascot posed in front of the school in the sunset. It was symbolic of the end of an era - in a very high school way.

When the music faded, everyone was silent.  Almost every eye in the house was teary except for one pair - and those were blood red with anger. Mine were tear filled too, but for a different reason than everyone else.  Finally, my picture popped up during the credits and the place erupted again.  People were shouting out my name.  At that instant, it occurred to me that in a few short years, I had moved from  pre-pubescent photo dork, up to pseudo-social camera guy, and further up to full-on Ferris Bueller rock star status.  Even the two or three freaks who showed up at the prom thought I was cool.  My introspective status analysis came to a sudden halt when Mr. Poore appeared at the podium, turned and looked at the screen, and then shot a look back at the AV guy who then killed the projector.

You could have heard a moth fart in the silence.  It was as if E.F. Hutton was about to speak.  Mr. Poore said nothing. He just walked away.  Finally, mercifully, Marshall cranked up some music and the usual prom activities resumed.  I hung around, danced, and did my best to have fun.  The rest of the evening, I was greeted with encouraging lines like "man, that was cool!", "that was awesome!", "you rock!", etc.  Unfortunately, those words of encouragement were followed by "...and Mr. Poore is gonna kill you".

My friend avoided me the for the rest of the night and I went to a different after prom party.  He and the rest of my normal crowd went to a "party" thrown for him by his parents so they could keep an eye on the kids.  He was a great kid and is a great guy now, but for some reason his mother never trusted him.  Maybe it was the company he kept.  Nevertheless, it was probably best that we parted ways because at the time, he seemed really pissed.  He later told me that he thought it was as funny as everyone else, but she was sitting next to him and he had to act pissed.  Looking back on those days, I realized how much she meant to him and how much he means to me to this day.  I suppose a better friend would have thought acted differently.  But I did what I did and it seemed funny at the time.  To this day he is one of two or three people on whom I could call anytime day or night and he would be here for me.  He knows I would be there for him too.

Monday came around and when I got to school, people just stared at me as I drove my 1972 AMC Hornet into the student parking lot.  I remember holding out hope that because I didn't have any classes with Mr. Poore this semester, I might be able to avoid him. I was still enjoying somewhat of a hero status among my friends before school started.  But by the break between first and second period, word was out. It was like one of those movies where the school bully let it be known that he was going to beat someone's ass and everyone felt compelled to deliver the message.  In this case, the bully was Mr. Poore and the ass was mine.  Even my teachers would look at me and just say "wow".  My journalism teacher Ms. Newkirk looked at me, held our her hands as if grasping together,  and just said "big ones".

Never one to back down from confrontation, I decided to take the initiative and go see Mr. Poore rather than have him send for me.  I went by his classroom after lunch before my next class.  I noticed the crowd behind me was swelling, yet simultaneously growing increasingly quiet.  There were no doors to the classrooms; just open doorways, so it was easy tor them to eavesdrop on the class without being seen.  He was sitting at his desk grading papers; his classroom was bathed in its usual hallowed silence.  I took a deep breath, gulped, approached his desk, and said that I heard he wanted to see me.  He responded without looking up from his papers "I will see you; when I'm ready; on my terms, not yours."  I remember him then sternly pointing to the door in a silent gesture indicating he wanted me out of his sight.  Man, I felt sorry for the students in his next class.  Hell, I felt sorry for myself.

There were only three days of school left before graduation.  Maybe I would be off the hook if he got distracted, although that was about as likely then as President Obama handing over his birth certificate today. Days passed.  Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, nothing. By Thursday, I was beginning to consider the possibility that he did forget.  Friday was a school day, but seniors were out.  It was either today or I was off the hook.

I managed to distract myself with the usual end-of-school goofiness. The yearbook was out and people were passing their copies around to be signed by other students. I suppose it was a popularity contest of sorts to see how many scribbles one could get in their yearbook. The super-social airheads would just pass their books around for anyone to molest and I never passed on an opportunity. If it was a snotty social girl's yearbook, I would find the creepiest looking dude's photo and next to it write a passage thanking the girl for giving him his first blowjob or some other grotesquely descriptive sex act.  I did the same thing for the guys. It was great to watch from a distance and see them or someone else discover it. I could always tell when someone saw a yearbook I wrote in. In an apparent post-prom homage, someone wrote "R.I.P 1981" in my book next to my senior photo.

I was at lunch in the noisy cafeteria and had almost forgotten about it all until student after student came up to me telling me that they just called over the school PA for me to report to the office. The rush of lunchtime in the cafeteria was silenced and all I could hear was the sound of my pulse inside my brain.  I looked at my wrists and could literally see my pulse. I walked into the office which was bustling with year-end activity and the place fell silent.  All of the cute student aids just looked down when they saw me except for one, who just did the finger across the throat slashing motion as I walked by.  The secretary just shook her head and pointed to the offices in the hallway behind her desk.
 
I knew where to go.  I had been there a few times over the last four years. Mr. Poore was waiting for me in the Vice Principal's (Mr. Coleman) office. I went in and sat down, but was told to stand.  Mr. Poore did all the talking.  He described how my "sabotaging" the prom humiliated him before his peers and his supervision, how I disgraced the entire school, and how I ruined the prom experience for the rest of the class. I thought of the prom crowd reaction and fought to suppress a grin.  I swear I saw Mr. Coleman fighting back a grin too.  I stood silent; motionless, and emotionless.  There was no getting out of this one.  I just wanted to take my lumps and get it over with. Mr. Coleman finally spoke up and said they had carefully considered an appropriate punishment for me.  He flipped through his Rolodex, picked up the phone, dialed, pressed the speaker button, and said  "Now you can explain to your mother why you won't be walking across the stage at your graduation commencement this weekend.  You will graduate and  receive a diploma, but you will not be allowed to participate in the commencement exercise."

I only thought I was afraid before. This was going to go over like a fart in a church Baptistery. with my mother.  Mine was a single mom who proudly raised three kids on her own and one key major measure of accomplishment for her was seeing us graduate.  She struggled to pay for my senior photos, the cap and gown, and my graduation invitations, so depriving her of seeing me walk because of something stupid I did was going to hurt me much worse than the paddle ever could.

Mr. Coleman  had called my mom at work, which didn't help my case any.  When she came to the phone, I told her I was in "the office again". "Do they need permission to paddle you? Because they already have it." was her response. I explained what I did and she started laughing.  I stood there once again trying unsuccessfully to stifle my laughter.  Even Mr. Coleman's secretary snorted as she sat outside his office listening in.  She was the personification of Ferris Bueller's high school secretary, Grace.  I told my mom they weren't going to let me walk at graduation and her laughter stopped. I think I remember frost forming on the phone's speaker.  If it did, it quickly melted when she started her rant.  Mom was with us kids like a mother bear was with her cubs, but if we were guilty, she was all for us paying a price.  In this case, she thought the price was too high and when she started in, Mr. Coleman picked up the receiver and ordered me to step out.  After about ten minutes that seemed like an eternity, they ushered me back in and Mr. Coleman reached for his paddle. 

His paddle was a masterpiece of woodworking craftsmanship; custom made by the Woodworking Shop teacher.  It sported a taped handle and holes drilled throughout the butt impact zone for added sting.  Mr. Poore asked if he could do the honors, but apparently only administrators were allowed to dish out Corporal punishment. I was relieved to hear that. I assumed the position with which I was familiar - bent over the chair that I was earlier told not to sit in - with hands extended and braced for impact against the chair arms.  Mr. Coleman asked "How many?" I grinned and answered "One!" to which Mr. Poore replied "He wasn't asking you" as he held up ten fingers.  Mr. Coleman shook his head and and said five was the limit set by the district.  My relief was interrupted as Mr. Coleman let five hard ones fly and set my ass on fire.  I wasn't grinning anymore as I stood up fighting back tears.  I tugged my pants from my butt and and shook them as if to rattle out the ashes that had been my underwear as I regained my composure. I reached out and shook Mr. Coleman's hand.  Mr. Poore refused, so I turned to leave. I wanted out of there bad.  My parting words were "See you Saturday!"  It was a lesson learned well, for about two days. I wore combat boots to the commencement and after receiving my diploma on stage, did a nose dive tumble down the steps as the entire place gasped.

Mr. Poore, 2009
I've seen Mr. Poore a few times since then. He fast tracked himself from a teacher to the Principal at my sisters' alma mater South Garland High School.   While there, he helped us coordinate our 10th and 20th class reunions. He even shook my hand when we met for first time since graduation.  While writing this, I did some looking around and found that he's still in the Academic world.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Alaskapade Retro Post: The Three Most Stupid Things I've Ever Done - Part Two

Remember, these retro posts are reposts of entries that stood out to me.  They were written in the context of preparing for my first trip to Alaska in 2011.  Technology and cultural references are a decade old and may seem justifiably dated.


This is Part One of what turned out to be a four part series describing acts on my part, the rationality of which some might have found questionable.

Stupid - Part Two

I was sitting in a client's conference room in the midst of pre-meeting smalltalk when a co-worker brought up the Alaskapade and asked when I was leaving.  One of my clients asked what he was talking about and my co-worker pulled up the Alaskapade.com page on the conference room's projection screen.  We had but moments before the meeting kicked off, so there wasn't much time for me to explain.  There was time, however for my client to express his opinion that "this has to be the stupidest thing [I've] ever done".  My first instinct was to argue the purpose for my trip, but this is my customer and IBM probably wouldn't appreciate that.  So, I just grinned, nodded, and bit my lip as the meeting started.

It did get me thinking though.  I know I'm firmly resolved in my purpose for the trip and I also know that I've done many things more stupid than this.  There are too many to list without starting another blog, so I thought I would describe my top three in no particular order.As promised in a previous post, here is another of the three dumbest things I've ever done.


 Shooting My Mouth Off to a Prison Camp Guard

"That...Mr. Wilson...is going to cost you."

Many years ago, I served in the U.S. Air Force. My primary job was an Electronic Warfare Systems Technician and in that capacity, I serviced aircraft-mounted electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment. The gear's purpose was to jam or deceive enemy radar by altering the apparent location and/or quantity of our aircraft as they flew over threat radar systems. We also maintained radar warning receivers that alerted aircrews to the presence of various ground and air based radar-guided missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. In their day, these systems were on the absolute bleeding edge of microwave and RF signal processing technology and as technicians on them, we were the geekiest of geeks. Training for and working with these systems required serious security clearances beyond what the general public even knew existed.  While I was in basic electronics tech school, I was constantly hearing from friends and even high school teachers back home telling me that strange people in suits with badges showed up at their doorstep asking questions about my background. I had pulled my share of harmless pranks in high school, but I was squeaky clean - the Air Force's wet dream, so securing the necessary clearances necessary to move on to the specific equipment was a breeze for me. I also happened to do really well in the tech training schools. Classes ran six hours a day, five days a week for 18 months, at the end of which I had carved out a 98% test score average. My point isn't that I'm some smart guy. Hell, I flunked algebra in high school.  I just got the concepts and excelled in the training.  Nevertheless, that average earned me Honor Graduate status and that status offered me my choice of base assignments as well as opportunities to apply to join Special Operations forces.  In one of the few conversations my father and I had regarding my career, he strongly advised (based on his own experiences) that I stay away from any special duties that involved National security or Special Ops.

I couldn't wait to get into National security or Special Ops.

I took an assignment at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas and worked in an ECM shop in the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing's Component Repair Squadron (CRS). Many there claimed ECM stood for "Easy Chair Maintenance" and that CRS stood for "Can't Repair Shit".  To a certain degree, they were correct.  So when I was offered an opportunity to step outside the box and work in field intelligence for a three-letter agency, I jumped at the chance.  I would work in my shop until notice of an assignment came to me. These notifications usually consisted of temporary duty (TDY) orders with the location blanked out. Then, I would disappear for a few days and no one in my shop or immediate command structure was allowed to ask where I was. They knew these programs existed and that there were likely people the knew involved, but unless they were directly involved, they had no idea who those people were.  As one of "those people" it was a perfect racket.

These assignments had ancillary training prerequisites that were not overly technical.  Short classes at another three-letter agency in Falls Church, VA were common. You can determine the Government agencies there and put two and two together.  Less common but equally required were the field survival courses which were usually conducted in remote locations in the pacific northwest. One of these courses was essentially a prison camp experience wherein the trainees were dropped-in to the forest, captured by "enemy forces", interrogated, and subsequently evaluated on our ability to cope and maintain military discipline throughout the induced stress. There was one other tech in my squadron who had been to "prison" and he had related his experiences to me as a fellow one of "those people".  So when my turn came up, I had an idea what to expect.  In fact, I was pretty sure that I had the entire game figured out.  Hell, at 24 years old, I thought I knew everything.

I was fortunate to be scheduled in the summer months when surviving in the forest is easier.  I can take heat, but brutal wet and cold are not my strong points.  There were six of us from various service branches in my drop group.  When I said "dropped-in", I meant it.  We bailed from the back of a C-130 cargo aircraft and parachuted into the forest.  They didn't just strap a chute to us and push us out the door.  I had been a sport sky diver in years past and had some Air Force training as well.  We could see the camp facility from above during our descent and we knew they could see us parachuting in. We had been told that once we were on the ground we would most certainly be captured immediately and taken to the camp.

Having had some idea of what to expect, I packed peanut butter crackers and a heating bladder of water to live on in case I wasn't immediately apprehended. The course had a finite schedule and I figured every hour I was on the lam was an hour I wouldn't spend in "enemy" hands. I also knew the forest was wired and our location would be known as soon as we hit the ground and started moving.  So when I hit the ground, I buried my chute, dug a hole, covered myself with leaves,and laid there. I wasn't alone.  I discreetly shared my sustenance stash with an Army Ranger onboard before we jumped. We shared a warped sense of humor and clicked in the hours prior to our flight departure. Beyond that, I figured if I was caught with the goodies, splitting the blame between two of us might make my life easier.

We laid in the woods through the night and were awakened from the pre-dawn silence by an announcement blasted through a loudspeaker system in the trees instructing us to turn ourselves in. Specifically, the instructions were to walk south until we saw a white marker in the trees and then turn left, and to keep turning left at each marker until we received further instructions.  Looking back, I assume they always knew where we were.  They were just to lazy to come get us.  Essentially, they had us following an inward spiral which terminated at a clearing in the forest. The fort was straight ahead of us in this clearing.

Prior to our flight, we were given details of fake missions, nonexistent technologies, call signs, passwords, and other minutia to memorize. This would be the information that our captors would attempt to extract from us during the interrogations that were almost certain to take place in the days ahead.  The instructors actually used Dale Carnegie memorization techniques to force feed the information to us.

My Army co-fugitive and I exited the forest and made our way towards the fort.  After sleeping in the dirt among insects and Lord knows what else and having consumed only stale crackers and warm rubbery water for the last 30 hours, even prison quarters and inmate chow was starting to sound appealing.  The fort looked like a fort I would have constructed as a kid.  It appeared to be a two-story wooden structure with guard posts on each corner and a row of razor wire surrounding the entire place. As we approached the fort, a person appeared in one of the guard towers and yelled to us through a megaphone, ordering us to stop. It reminded me of the French guard in Monty Python's Holy Grail. That movie cracks me up to this day.  Unfortunately, the association of events cracked me up then too and I started laughing. The night before, we had been discussing the tactics they might employ to get to us and surmised that although they would try to scare us, they weren't going to physically harm us.  I assumed we were way to valuable for that. Looking back, I doubt my Ranger buddy knew better.  That value proposition would turn out to be but one of many invalid assumptions that I will have made by the end of this experience.
 
Another guard appeared on the other end of the wall before us and told us to keep walking. We started walking again and the first guard yelled to us to stop. Again, the other guard said to keep walking and we did.  About then, the most realistic bullets-hitting-the-sand-around-us-effect stopped us dead in our tracks. Turns out it was no special effect.  Apparently, when the first guard said to stop, he meant it.  The other guard was unarmed, or at least never showed a weapon. You can guess which orders we followed. The doors about fifty feet in front of us burst open and several people came running toward us with weapons drawn and yelling in some language neither of us understood.

Instinctively, I dropped to my knees with my hands in the air.  The afternoon before, I was leaping into thin air form a cargo plane and was as cool as a cucumber.  Now, here I was firmly planted on terra firma and my heart was pounding so loud I'm sure the guards could hear it from their posts.  We were instructed to turn to face away from the fort.  My hands were bound to the sides of our waists and my elbows strapped so close together behind me that I thought my arms would snap out of my shoulder sockets. They bound my feet together and them bound my right ankle to the left of my Army buddy.  One of the soldiers placed a black cloth on the ground in front of us and told us to put our faces in it.  Picture me on my knees with my arms and legs bound and try to imagine how I could comply with their order.  All I could do was lean forward and let gravity do its thing. I managed to turn my head to the right so I wouldn't face plant into the dirt and so I could see what was happening next to me.  That was the last I saw for what seemed like several hours.  The thick, opaque, black cloth was wrapped around my face and its base duct-taped around my neck. I couldn't see anything, but I remember hearing the tape being unrolled and torn.  We were brought to our feet, turned around, and instructed to walk forward. Still bound at the ankles, it must have resembled a drunken three-legged race at an inbred family reunion.  I had no idea which direction I was stumbling. We clumsily stepped up into something and I felt cooler air surrounding me.  I assumed we were inside the fort.

At this point, we were separated and I was led into a musty smelling room. The door closed behind me and the room was silent except for the thundering sound of my heart and pulse. I was still bound with my head covered. For all I knew the lights could have been on with a roomful of people watching me, so I just stood like a mummy.  I could hear conversations in adjacent rooms, but couldn't make out what was being said.  I could also hear what sounded like grown men screaming out in pain and I tied hard to convince myself those were either others acting out for effect, or maybe recordings.

After what felt like hours, I heard the door open behind me.  My feet, elbows, and hands were unbound and that damn hood was finally removed. Looking back, it's interesting how visual sensitivities are impacted by temporary blindness.  The room walls were bare and dull grey in color, yet the contrast from total darkness made the grey seem vivid by comparison.  The room was sparsely populated with an old metal government issue table with chairs on opposite sides facing each other. The walls were bare, but traces of unfaded paint were visible as if pictures or other framed items had been recently removed. Behind the table and one chair was a clear window into a smaller room with a big, old-school video camera.  Two older Asian-looking men in foreign military uniforms walked in. One spoke perfect English with no trace of accent; the other said nothing. The English speaker spoke softly and in a seemingly friendly demeanor, invited me to take a seat.  I was offered a cigarette and a glass of water.  Was this going to be good cop/bad cop?  I declined the smoke, but took the water.  Article III of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct permitted me to accept basic living necessities, but dictated that we decline luxuries that might lead the other prisoners observing us to think we were receiving special treatment in exchange for information or cooperation. I sat silent at the table, choked down the hard water, and stared stoically at the window before me; avoiding eye contact with the camera operator.

The non-English speaker spoke to the other in what sounded like an Asian dialect.  The other nodded, opened a binder on the table, and pushed it toward me.  I was instructed to sign a pre-written statement or write my own and then read to my captors in front of the camera. I replied that I didn't wish to make a statement.  The non-English speaker said something to the other, who then relayed to me that it was not a request. "You must make a statement." I thought about if for a moment and reached for the pen. It was a standard issue black Bic Click pen with "Property of the U.S. Government" embossed in the barrel.  That pen totally ruined the environmental mood effect.

I scribbled out a short sentence with my right hand as my left had been cuffed to the table.  I then closed the book and slid it across the table.  Without looking at it or even opening the book, the English speaker motioned to someone in the camera room and stepped out leaving me alone with the other officer.  A large red light on the camera illuminated and the officer pointed at the book and then at the camera and said something I didn't understand.  I knew what he expected and in an uncharacteristic moment of cooperation, I opened the book, looked toward the camera and read the following statement which I had written moments before.

"My name is U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Scott Wilson. The Geneva Convention dictates that I cannot be bound to tell you anything more."  That was the written statement.  At this point, I thought about that pen and then the smart ass in me piped-up and I added "Do whatever you want to me, but remember; You never found me out there. I came to you."

I could hear someone in the camera room burst out in laughter and then stifle it.  The Asian speaking officer leaned over to me and with a straight face said very quietly in perfect, unaccented English. "That - Mr. Wilson - is going to cost you."

It occurred to me at that very instant that that might not have been smartest thing I had done up to that point in my life.  The events that occurred afterward would confirm this thought. In fact, I would learn during my time there that I was wrong on many things concerning this experience.  We figured we were too expensive and important to take serious physical abuse from these guys.  We were wrong.

I was led to a cell in an area I had not seen in the complex before.  My feet and hands were bound to the outside of the bars as I sat on the concrete, legs on the floor and my body bent at the waist and my arms reaching to the other side of the bars. A heavy steel rod between the hand and foot cuffs prevented my hands and feet from retracting back through the bars.  From that position, I learned shortly thereafter that if the bottom of your feet are beat with a pliable rubber paddle, the bones don't break and there's no bruising for evidence.  I also learned that if I didn't flex my wrists upward, extending my fingers as straight up as possible, the rubber hose would rip the skin on my knuckles like a bowling ball dropped through single-ply toilet paper and it hurt like a motherf*cker.  I can imagine the incredulous look on my face when the reality of my situation sank in.  These people really are serious, this shit really hurts, and I really fucked up sighing up for this program.  I have very few recollections of life with my father, but I clearly recall briefly thinking he was right when he warned me about this type of work.

At some part of the path after our trek through the woods from our comfy hiding spot to the camp, someone apparently uncovered my water bladder and empty peanut butter wrappers from the forest where we hid out.  I paid for that too and there was no blame sharing discount.

I towed the line and did my best to play by the rules for the rest of my time there. Once again, I thought I could outsmart them during an interrogation session, so I made up details and lied.  I later learned that they already knew all of the information I was given beforehand, so they knew I was full of it.  I learned also that the reason telling lies doesn't work is because your captors could assume it's true and word will get out among the other prisoners that you are cooperating. Morale suffers as a result. It's not like everyone's morale was high to begin with, but I got the point.

I learned that they had called back to my shop at Bergstrom and asked for dirt on me. They asked about things like gambling and drinking habits, girlfriends, pilfering from the paint locker; anything with which they could claim to know about and use to try to get me to talk.  When I said above that I was squeaky clean, I meant it. So when they broke character and told me that someone from my shop reported some lame story that I forged my semi-annual physical fitness test results, I knew it was crap and thought (silently to myself this time) "is that the best you got?" and refused to talk.
 
One afternoon while standing outside sweating and attached to a vertical post in the ground that wasn't attached to anything at the top, the opaque black hood was removed from my head and I witnessed a prisoner that I didn't recognize being folded and stuffed into a small nesting crate.  The crate was lowered into a freshly excavated hole in the dirt and much to my terror, was starting to be covered with dirt as I was re-hooded, detached form the post and led away.  It was like a David Copperfield stunt without the element of illusion.  I would have simultaneously shat and barfed had there been a shred of food in my system.  The peanut butter had long since passed and I refused to eat the "food" they shoved into my cell when I wasn't bound to the bars.  This was what Dr. Morris Massey defines as a significant emotional event" and coincidentally, the exact point at which I wholeheartedly gave in.  My mind was warped enough to convince myself that this was all somehow real and I that I was witnessing the consequences of my own actions.  Adding to the emotional baggage was the thought that my actions could have caused others to endure the same consequences.  I was physically and emotionally broken.  Perhaps that was their goal.  I played by the rules for the three days that followed.  I gave up no information and cooperated as little as possible as I had been taught.

When our "sentence" was complete, a horn was sounded that was heard throughout the camp and it was as if the world around us went from black and white to color.  The entire staff immediately spoke perfect English as they opened up the cells and walked the grounds calling for everyone to assemble in the courtyard.  We were told that our training was complete and sent to shower and get back in uniform and meet up for our individual evaluations.  We were introduced to medical staff who asked two questions:  "Do you believe you need medical attention?" If the answer was yes, the next question was "Are you hurt or are you injured?"  I considered the motive behind that second question with hurt possibly being a mental interpretation of pain, versus injured being a physical reality.  It occurred to me that I might have been both physically hurt and emotionally injured. I've experienced my share of injury and trauma - both physically and emotionally, over a lifetime, nothing really stuck except for one thing.  To this day, I cannot be bound from behind.  Any attempt to handcuff or otherwise bind my hands behind me yields an almost uncontrollable reaction. In my world, once you've been bound for real and it wasn't a game, it can never be a game.  But I digress.
 
I actually didn't get the chance to answer the medics' first question after they saw my scabbed over knuckles and the dirt-soaked dried blood running up my forearms.  This was nothing a little soap and water and band aids couldn't fix.  As she patched me up, the rather attractive medic commented without emotion "this only happens to  those who ask for it". After the medical screening, I was led into what appeared to be a cafeteria full of people.  I remember wondering where all these people came from and where were they when I was getting my head kicked in.  I also remember seeing very few others with bandages.  What I did see was the "prisoner" that was being buried alive as I was led away.  Turns out, he was in instructor and I learned that instructors who weren't involved with an ongoing class took turns in the box or in other staged punishment scenarios so we wouldn't recognize them.  Again, outsmarted.

As I was being debriefed, I recall being struck by the fact that the instructor staff were all older and were all veterans, most of whom had spent real time in real POW camps during the Vietnam war. At that moment, I felt like a heel for the attitude I displayed more so than I felt like a pussy for whining when my feet were beaten the days before.  These guys were the real deal and I felt like I had disrespected them and their suffering with my attitude and my actions.

The key thing I took away from it all was a comment I received from the "Asian" officer.  All he said to me was "You could stand to take all of this a bit more seriously".  I'm fortunate that although I faced some wild experiences and had to make some hard decisions in my last couple of years of Air Force service that followed my prison camp experience, I never faced the circumstances that were presented to me in the camp.  So while my "you didn't find me" comment was stupid, I like to think I came out of it a little wiser.  I know I was a great deal more humble.