Saturday, April 30, 2005


i just got eric "roscoe" ambel's new (as in 2004 release; i'm a little slow on the pickup) odds 'n' sods compilation knucklehead and it's great. if you like great songwriting, beery good-time vocalizing, and the rock'n'roll spirit of the sloppy-drunk faces and exile on main st.-era rolling stones crossed with the brooding, rocky side of neil young, you can't go wrong. in fact, imagine the stones hadn't commenced to suck immediately after exile. instead, imagine that they shitcanned mick and hired neil young to be their frontman. that'll give you some idea of what roscoe's gang and the yayhoos, ambel's longest-lived outlets o' expression, sound like. the yayhoos come with the added bonus of splitting the voxxx four ways, the other three being bunn, north carolina's own terry anderson, prolly the most underrated rock songwriter in these united states, as well as ex-georgia satellites frontguy dan baird and _original_ head satellite keith christopher. their 2001 debut, fear not the obvious, was noteworthy for the inclusion of: 1) a song called "get right with jesus" that's about (what else?) kicking somebody's ass; 2) one about hank williams, jr., called "monkey with a gun;" and 3) one that encapsulates my last relationship in a single line: "baby i love you but leave me the fuck alone." their new record should be out any time now.

when they're not being the yayhoos, some of these guys also tour with steve earle. besides all of that, roscoe's also a recording engineer (he twiddled the knobs on crucial sides by the bottle rockets and half of the y'allternative universe), owns a bar down in manhattan's alphabet city, and (if my shakey memory serves) was playing gtr with joan jett the time i saw her wipe the floor with iggy at the old palladium in dallas, ca. '81. if you go to the performances page on his website, you can check out some mp3's of 'scoe singing george harrison covers that'll give you a whole 'nother idea about the "quiet" beatle, as well as assorted roscoe trio, steve earle, and yayhoos wonderment. as roscoe his own self would say, "fuckin' a, it's alright!"

Friday, April 29, 2005

what you gotta do to be a musician in this town

heard a coupla interesting stories today.

story 1: so band "a" played at the fw weekly's spring rally thingy. they got no money, but had to sign a contract saying that they wouldn't badmouth the paper or sue if they got killed. they were paying for their own drinks all afternoon, but a couple of the fellas decided they would try using their "performer" tags to try and bogart their way into the "vip area." no dice. not a big deal, but it reminded me of the time when i used to freelance for the paper that i got invited to the christmas party -- _after_ everybody had eaten. (better i should eat the leftovers than the dogs in the alley, i suppose.) would you like a side dish of insult with your entree of injury?

story 2: a few nights later, band "b" played at a local club, second-billed to another batch of locals. band "b," who have become a consistent big draw in the last year or so, pulled the biggest crowd, like you'd expect. here's the thing: the headliners had a $350 guarantee, so band "b" got nada, even though the door was over $600 and they brought most of the paying customers. sure, it's nobody's fault but band "b"'s; part of the reason gig money in the fort is so lousy is that audiences are used to enjoying live music for free, but the other part is that musos who come up in this environment (a marketplace filled with sluts and hobbyists eager to give away their wares) tend to undervalue their own product. the lesson here, i suppose, is something like this: respect yourselves or no one else will.

chicano space program

first must-see gig of may (the wreck room's weekend-long eighth anniversary throwdown doesn't start till the next day): chicano space program, aka tony diaz (goodwin) and steffin ratliff (pablo and the hemphill 7), performing acoustic versions of some of their favorite songs and _maybe_ (if allah is merciful and fortune smiles) some bindle goodies, on cinco de mayo at the moon on berry st. i have a work thing in dallas until 10pm that night, but i'll drive pedal-to-the-metal to make it back to the fort for this.

the art of the jam

fell by the wreck wednesday night for the lee allen invitational jam before and after taking in a bit of dave and daver's cd release party -- about which i'll just say that dave williams' tunes have even greater authority live than on the record, which is well worth hearing, altho it woulda been nice to hear the musos talking it up more from the stage. then again, not everybody is a marketer. nor do they need to be.

jam sessions are like forrest gump's box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get. jams can range all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes in the course of a single song. it helps, of course, to have a guiding intelligence on the set, which lee allen definitely provides in spades. playing his six-string bass, he started out with a spanish theme (which he later said was by chick corea, "although we never got to the 'b' section") with fort worth symphony violinist steven huber (formerly a regular at the black dog jazz jams). then he called up goodwin/pablo and the hemphill 7 drummer damien stewart to add some riddim. after a bit, he said, "i wonder what this would sound like with another drummmer?" and as if by magic, another one appeared. (when was the last time you saw anyone playing double drums in fort worth?) finally he added a guitar player to the mix, then proceeded to direct the band, cueing solos and finally ending the tune, in a manner that recalled frank zappa's onstage band conduction. (maybe that's why, at times, huber's mad gypsy violin put me in mind of zappa's idol/early '70s collaborator sugarcane harris.) even the bartenders were getting into the act: woodeye bassist graham richardson joined in for a minute, and it was a real treat to see ex-gideons frontman carl pack sitting onstage rapping for a couple of numbers.

all jammers, of course, are not created equal. the best are the ones who listen and respond empathetically to what's going on around them. the other kind are those that treat each piece as an opportunity to showboat rather than interact. (that's right, kids; "plays well with others" matters long after grade school.) you see some of both in any jam situation; the wreck's is no exception. but allen is such a great bandleader, transforming warhorses like hendrix' "manic depression," zappa's "muffin man," funkadelic's "maggot brain," and the fonky meters' "cissy strut" into evolving, spontaneous compositions that take on a life of their own, that it's worth sitting through the occasional dodgy bits to hear the diamonds.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

blogger haiku

unloading my head
closing the book on the past
ready for what's next

lee allen

move over, hank hankshaw, scott copeland, and darrin kobetich. the wreck room has a new weekly ritual on wednesday nights: a revival of lee allen's all-star jam from a few years back. lee, recently returned to the fort from "america's live music capital(r)," plays a bunch of instruments, knows a bunch of toons, and has a bunch of friends. should be good times. lee and dave karnes are also starting a music school here in the fort. film, as they say, at 11.

airport haiku

amish on a plane
comparative religions
catholic t-shirt

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Back to the World with "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

What I did for my year in Korea: I ran a lot, between five and ten miles a day. Sometimes I'd go run by myself early in the evening and then go again with Holliday and his buddy Jerry Aiken. I'd been warned to stay out of the fields around the perimeter road because they were mined. When I was out there, sometimes I could hear the click of the Vulcan cannons overlooking the weapons storage area as the gunner sighted on me. One night I ran right through a ROK patrol, weapons at the ready, bayonets fixed, moving quietly through the fog. Occasionally, passing the women's dormitory, I'd smell the pungent odor of marijuana.

I read a lot, too, and wrote letters. The base library was excellent, and I was able to read pretty much everything I'd been meaning to but hadn't for ten years. I was a somewhat adequate orderly room clerk, which meant I could get shithoused on squadron members' generosity any time I set foot in the NCO Club or the squadron's hooch. I knew a lot of guys in Korea that were basically functional alcoholics. It was cheap and available, and your other recreational options were pretty limited. One kid used to carry a bowling bag with a gallon of vodka in it everywhere he went off-duty. He had such bad DT's I saw him take a full minute to open the door to his room in the barracks.

I bought a $50 acoustic guitar and used to jam around the barracks a lot. A guy called New York Jay gave me an electric guitar to join his band. He could play about five instruments and figure out any arrangement after hearing it once. My job was teaching the material to the other dipshits in the band. There were three bands on base; we were the only one that couldn't play gigs downtown, because most of us were using borrowed equipment from the base rec center. The other bands played rock; we were supposed to be a super-slick R&B showband. We wound up getting roped into playing the Black History Month banquet at the Officers' Club. Our squadron commander was the project officer. He wanted us to play for four hours. With the schedules we were working, that wasn't going to happen, but we gave them an hour and a half -- two sets. A few weeks later, I quit the band because I was getting too far behind at work. A week later, they took the base talent show and got to go TDY to Japan for the Fifth Air Force finals. The story of my life: bad timing.

I thought a lot about my wife and baby Kimie, who'd been born in Fort Worth when I was in-country almost a month. She was born on Thursday back in the world, but because of the time difference, the Red Cross notification didn't come through until I was off duty on Friday. When I walked into work on Monday morning, Sergeant Bo told me to get my ass to the Red Cross office, which was halfway across the base. I ran all the way to get the news. It was the happiest day of my life. Kimie's mom sent me pictures every week, and I planned to take leave around the holidays to go back and see her.

Sergeant Bo was my NCOIC in the orderly room. He was born in Panama; his dad had been in the Army. He was a cop before he cross-trained into admin. He used have a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a toothpick, and a wad of chewing gum at all times: a very oral individual. His boss was Lieutenant V., a chunky, church-type woman from somewhere in Maryland. I had a roster which listed, among other things, all of the officers' college majors. Hers was elementary education -- no surprise. She insisted on calling me "Shikamoko," which I thought sounded like the name of a pet monkey in a movie about the Amazon, and saying things like "Bring me a PACAF Form 58 -- prompto." PACAF Form 58 was a counseling form. In the Air Force, "counseling" means "getting your ass chewed." Lieutenant V. used to administer all the disciplinary actions for the squadron. When some troop who'd fucked up was ushered into her presence, she'd say, "Airman So-and-so, do you know why you're here?" When they responded in the negative, she'd say, "You're here for disciplinary actions." When Lieutenant V. left, her replacement, Lieutenant M., seemed like an improvement -- almost anything would have been. I was telling her about some kid who'd had the book thrown at him on the Kun -- Article 15, correctional custody, the whole nine yards -- who'd gone PCS to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina before the squadron thought of something else to charge him with, so they wanted to bring him back to court-martial him.

"It's like something out of Kafka," I said.

"Who's Airman Kafka?" asked Lieutenant M.

I was the bailiff at the court-martial of a kid from my squadron who got busted for calling his girlfriend at a phone booth in Brooklyn on a government phone. The funny thing was, I knew another guy in the squadron who used to call his wife, who was a GI stationed in Alaska, on a government phone every night. If they wanted to fuck with you, they would fuck with you. It wasn't exactly front-page news.

Kunsan could be a stressburger. It was really interesting seeing people I'd known there when we were back in the world. One of the senior NCOs in the squadron was famous for stuttering and saying things like "Mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek-mek me wanna p-p-p-p-p-put on a p-p-p-po'k chop suit...a-a-a-and run through the lion's den!" When I ran into him at Carswell, he was getting ready to retire and running the section that was responsible for base housing inspections. When I asked him if it made him wanna put on a pork chop suit and run through the lion's den, he looked at me like I was crazy. "What the hell are you talking about?" he said.

Another NCO, Sergeant Greene, was famous for an incident that occurred when the Chief of Air Force Security Police was visiting Kunsan. Everyone in the squadron who wasn't on duty was told they had to be at the Officer's Club at a certain time to meet with the general. After he made his remarks and expressed his appreciation for the "Wolf Pack Peacekeepers -- Leaning Forward In Our Foxholes and Ready Now," he asked if there were any questions. Greene piped up: "What it be like, General? You the reason why we all here."

Something similar happened when a visiting two-star walked up behind this Italian kid from the East Coast who'd been standing cordon guard for a weapons movement for several hours, in the rain. "How's it going, son?" the general asked.

"How the fuck do you think it is?" the kid said, without turning around. "Some fucking asshole general comes to visit, and we all get to stand out in the fucking rain all day."

There were a few malingerers or people who gamed the system. I heard one kid in tears one night at the hooch, telling the first sergeant that he was a sole surviving son, so he had to be evacuated if any shit came down. Another one, a military working dog handler, convinced everyone that he was this super-sensitive religious kid who couldn't do his job because he was afraid of dogs. A couple of guys from the squadron said they saw him in the airport in Japan after he got his assignment curtailed. They claimed he was in the bar, drunk, laughing about how he'd pulled one over on everybody at the Kun. Then there was the married couple that convinced the wife's brother, who happened to be a doctor, to write a phony letter saying there was a family medical emergency that required their presence back Stateside immediately. Knowing people like that made me more tolerant of people who were stupid or brutal or venal but otherwise pulled their weight and did what they were supposed to do.

I went home on midtour in December. I had $700 in my pocket in case I needed to buy a commercial airline ticket back. I spent four days in the terminal at Yokota trying to catch a military hop back to the west coast, getting bumped by every GS-12 civilian and retiree in the Pacific. There was a Japanese Elvis Presley impersonator at the NCO Club. Compared to Kunsan, Yokota was so clean I didn't even want to spit on the streets. I'd almost given up when I finally caught a flight back to Norton Air Force Base in California, and from there to Carswell. I got home right before Christmas. Kimie was six months old then -- a big, healthy baby. She slept ten hours a night for the ten days I was home, which is more than she's ever done, before or since. Leaving was even harder than it had been the first time. I wound up spending four days bouncing back and forth between Oakland Airport and Travis Air Force Base, trying to catch another hop. At Travis, I hooked up with an ARFCOS courier, Captain Tucker. He was prior enlisted, had been in the field artillery in Vietnam. Now he was carrying a bullshit Confidential package, but he was still authorized a guard, so he had me added to the manifest of a C-141 that was going all the way back to Kunsan.

The problem was, the aircrew was milking their per diem, stopping every place they possibly could to get those 12 important hours of crew rest. From Travis, we flew up to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, where it rained the whole time we were there and I watched Tony Dorsett run 99 yards on TV while talking to my wife on the phone and eating a hamburger I'd bought at the base bowling alley. After timely pause, the aircraft commander called and it was back out to the ramp again.

Captain Tucker had a routine he followed. As soon as the plane was airborne, he'd take sleeping pills and crash. Upon landing, he'd go out to party. When we got to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, though, something wasn't right. The guys from the courier station were supposed to meet him at the aircraft and secure the package so he could go do his thing. After waiting for 45 minutes on the freezing cold ramp (it was near zero Fahrenheit and I was wearing nylon socks and a light poplin jacket), he was pissed. We took a taxi to officers' billeting and he checked us both in, the idea being that I would stay in the room and guard the package while he went out to the club. At the front desk, I saw a guy I'd known in basic training, and I was shooting the shit with him when two Army E-6s from the courier station showed up, apologetic as hell. They took us to their office and locked up the package, then over to the NCO Club, where they bought us steaks the size of your life and lots and lots of booze. Captain Tucker must have drank a fifth of Napoleon brandy all by himself, on top of all the sleeping pills he'd been taking. Willie Nelson was playing in Anchorage that night and they offered to get us tickets, which were going for fifty 1983 dollars. We passed and went back to the room, where the captain crashed. No sooner had we arrived there than the phone rang: the aircraft commander. "Can you meet me at the aircraft in one-five?"

"Affirmative," I said, and proceeded to pick up our luggage and the unconscious captain for the trip out to the ramp. Somehow, we made it back to the aircraft. The weather was bad over Taegu, so the pilot overflew it and landed at Osan. I considered taking my chances, but decided that it wouldn't be good to get stuck in Japan for another four days while my leave ran out, so I jumped off the plane and got on the bus for Kunsan. Sergeant Bo was there. He was supposed to be gone by the time I got back, but he'd gotten drunk and left his plane ticket in his room back at the Kun. Bye-bye, Bo. A couple of months later, I saw Captain Tucker on the road to my squadron at Kunsan. I popped him a salute. "Cap'n Tucker," I said. He gave me one of those "Who in the hell are you?"-type looks and I realized that whole week was probably a blur to him.

I had about two months left on my tour when Lieutenant M. sent me TDY on a bogus out-of-cycle ration control run to Seoul. It was thirty minutes worth of work, dropping some papers off at the computer center at Yongsan Army Garrison, but the real reason for the trip was something Entirely Other. My friend Mac was the NCOIC of ration control (the office responsible for preventing goods from the BX from winding up on the black market) at Kunsan before he got fired for saying on Armed Forces Radio that it was OK to leave your Korean girlfriend a crock pot, refrigerator, or TV when you left the country. Mac had some carpets on layaway at the BX in Osan, and he needed a vehicle to pick them up. So I rode up there with John McClusky from Simi Valley, California, dropped off the docs and spent my entire advance TDY pay on the steambath and massage at the Naija Hotel. The masseuse was a pro -- she found muscles I didn't even know I had and made them all feel _guuuud_. After that, I was supposed to meet Mac and McClusky at one of the clubs in Itaewon, but I wound up crashing as soon as I got to my room and sleeping the sleep of the dead for 16 hours. After picking up Mac's carpets from the BX at Osan, we stopped at the steambath there for another massage. The woman there wasn't nearly as skilled as the one at the Naija, but she asked if I wanted "special massage."

When I declined, she asked, "You homosexboy?"

"Yes, ajima, I homosex every day."

"No problem -- I have little boy for you."

I left the steambath and waited outside for 45 minutes before Mac finally showed up.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, "but it takes a long time to get that baby oil out of your hair."

Our squadron commander extended everyone's tour as long as he possible could, and I was no exception, even though my replacement was there for two months before I was scheduled to rotate back Stateside. As a result, I left one day after my 26th birthday, which is why I tell people that I aged two years in a one-year tour on the Kun. When I got relieved of duty, I hid from my squadron for a week because I wanted to avoid being the recipient of the typical ritual of abuse short-timers had to endure -- being hogtied and covered with various condiments. Instead, I sat at the base swimming pool with four or five worthies from my squadron who'd gotten there after I had but were leaving at the same time. There was an alert one morning and we stood out in the rain in our skivvies with a gallon of vodka, laughing at the guys who were loading their equipment on trucks and getting ready to go to the armory to draw weapons.

At the airport in St. Louis, I kissed the tires of a red Corvette and a friendly bartender agreed to serve us, even though he was supposed to be closed. A couple of the guys from my squadron, whom I'd always known to be hard drinkers, had to sit outside and watch us because they weren't 21 yet. Later on we hooked up with some Army MPs who were coming back from Germany. One of them stole my camera while I was sleeping on my duffel bag outside the USO.

I got back to Fort Worth (where I'd somehow managed to get an assignment to Carswell) and Kimie walked for the first time about three weeks later. One night I took her outside her mom's grandparents' house where we were staying and showed her the full moon.

"Look, Kimie, it's the moon," I said.

"Muhhhhhhnnnn," she agreed.

It felt good to be home.

Monday, April 25, 2005


this is incredibly perverse but funny.

how the counterculture spawned the personal computer revolution

oh wow, man. it's in the san francisco chronicle, so it must be true.

Around the World with "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

The flight to Korea lasted a full 24 hours, starting at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, Gateway to the Pacific, with stops at Oakland (where we arrived at 2am and found that everything in the airport was closed), Anchorage (where all the airport signs were in Japanese and it cost eight 1982 dollars for a Coke), and Narita (where the terminal was full, so they wouldn't let us off the plane). I started out sitting next to a seven-foot-tall Army MP, who explained that he was the shortest guy in his unit, stationed in the DMZ. "Everybody is _at least_ seven feet tall," he said. "The North Koreans have all their biggest guys up there, too." At some point during the flight he disappeared and was replaced by somebody's kid. There weren't many kids on the flight; must have been a GI's dependent.

What I remember most about Korea: The way it smelled. In the summer, the whole country smelled like rotting vegetables. (When we in-processed, we were told that the local farmers fertilized with human waste, which is why we were discouraged from eating fruits and vegetables that were bought on the local economy.) After it rained, the land smelled like an onion. In the winter, it smelled like the charcoal heaters people there used to heat their houses, which killed people if their floor happened to have cracks in it for the carbon monoxide to leak through. Koreans used to brag that only GIs and other weaklings were killed by the CO2; their own robust constitutions were strong enough to withstand it.

Another thing: There were no powerlines. And it looked as though the country people had terraced every possible inch of land for farming -- probably a necessity in a country whose terrain was so rugged. Some of the villages we passed on the highway from Seoul to Kunsan looked as though they had been there for a thousand years.

During in-processing, I asked the Social Actions officer if I could expect any flak from the local populace because of my name. The Japanese had occupied Korea during the '30s and '40s and committed many atrocities there. (The "mountain of skulls" outside the capital city of Seoul was the subject of local legend.) "Oh, no," he assured me. "They're completely over that now." For the next year, anytime I tried to phone for a base taxi, or cash a check at the NCO Club, the response was the same when they heard my name: "Yoooou not American. Yoooou Japanese man." Followed by the click of the phone hanging up or the cashier's cage window slamming shut. Basically any Korean aged 50 or over could speak Japanese, and they'd all walk up to me on the street and start yammering away in my ancestral tongue. "Sorry," I'd tell them. "American." It should have been obvious from the uniform I was wearing and the tape across my chest that read "U.S. Air Force," but apparently it wasn't.

Besides the local nationals, my appearance got me in trouble with another group at Kunsan: the Hawaiians. There were loads of Hawaii boys who'd volunteered for Korea, assuming that it'd be easy to get home from there. Not true: You needed an unrestricted Philippine visa, which could only be gotten from the Philippine consulate in Seoul, to catch a hop on any flight that was going through Clark Air Base in the P.I., even if you didn't plan on getting off the plane there. So these guys would wind up getting stuck on the West Coast and having to buy a commercial ticket back when they ran out of days of leave. (Back then you had to show that you had enough money to buy a ticket in case you couldn't get a military hop before they'd approve your leave from Korea.) Anyway, the Hawaiians were a big presence on "the Kun" (as in "ain't no slack on the Kun"), roasting pigs, swilling Primo beer, and strumming ukeleles any clear weekend when there wasn't an exercise on. They'd see me walking by and greet me: "Hey bradda. You one of me?" Their welcome lasted exactly as long as it took for me to open my mouth and my still-audible, although diluted, East Coast accent to slip out. They didn't like mainland Japanese-Americans. I don't know why. Back in World War II, the Hawaii boys that had served in the 442nd (the famous regiment of all Japanese-Americans) had called the mainlanders in their ranks "kotonks," supposedly because of the sound their heads made when they hit the floor.

The 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, the Wolf Pack, was Robin Olds' and Chappie James' outfit from Vietnam. The year I was there, they were in the process of transitioning from Vietnam-era F-4 Phantoms to the new F-16 Fighting Falcons, which were built in Fort Worth by General Dynamics. They lost two aircraft in flight mishaps that year, and Wolf One, the wing commander, who didn't want to be the first commander of the 8th TFW not to win his brigadier general's star out of the assignment, extended his tour and requested an out-of-cycle Operational Readiness Inspection. He used to drive around in a clapped-out '66 Oldsmobile painted with what was supposedly very expensive F-16 paint. Whenever an exercise kicked off, Armed Forces Radio and the Giant Voice speakers positioned around the base would play the "William Tell Overture." As a result, I hate the fucking "William Tell Overture" and still can't stand to hear it, over 20 years later.

The funny thing was, the Koreans always knew when we were going on alert before we did, either because some smart boy from the plans shop let the exercise dates slip to his yobo (Korean girlfriend) or because they found the dates in the unclassified trash that the base sent out for recycling. Once, when I had a weekend off and five dollars in my pocket (which happened exactly twice during my tour -- partly because I took a $50 allotment and sent the rest of my pay home to mama, partly because we were on alert 150 days out of my just-over a year on station), I rode the bus up to Osan to gawk at all the American kids (because there were command-sponsored dependents there) and big American cars, eat shitty pizza at a "Straw Hat Pizza" that tasted like it was made from real straw hats, and order a leather jacket from one of the countless tailor shops outside the main gate.

"Where you stationed?" the guy at the tailor shop asked me.

"Kunsan," I replied.

"I am sorry," he said. For some reason, whenever you told Koreans anywhere else in the country that you were stationed at the Kun, they always said "I am sorry."

"When you come back?" he wanted to know.

"Two weeks," I said.

He shook his head. "I don't think so."

Two weeks later, the alert horn went of at exactly 0605, the same time it always did, and we stayed on alert for 10 days.

There was a comforting predictability to the way they ran exercises at the Kun. The horn always went off at exactly 0605. Once I figured this out, on days when there was rumored to be an exercise kicking off, I'd rise early, put on my uniform, and go to the chow hall without shaving to eat breakfast. That way, when the horn blew, I could make it to my office with the appropriate "sense of urgency" (e.g., at the run) without having to go hungry; stopping enroute to work to shave most definitely did _not_ demonstrate the proper "sense of urgency." On Super Bowl Sunday 1983, Armed Forces Korea Network was proud to broadcast the game at the same time as it was played "back in the world." Five minutes after kickoff, the horn went off and we were on alert for a week. It sucked, but it was kind of reassuring in a way: You knew that no matter what the circumstances, Wolf One was going to do anything he could to fuck up your entire day.

We were on alert a lot because while an armistice had been declared back in 1953, there had never been a peace treaty ending the Korean War. There were always flare-ups along the DMZ, such as the "tree-chopping incident" back in 1976, when North Korean troops had murdered an American soldier there. While I was there, in December 1982, a trooper from the 2nd Infantry Division supposedly left his post in the DMZ and defected to North Korea. You wouldn't have heard about most of the shit back Stateside, though, unless you read Pacific Stars & Stripes. We were always getting briefings about sappers they shot coming in from the Yellow Sea in rubber boats, with ROK (acronym for Korea, Republic of -- our nominal allies and hosts) uniforms and maps of all the American bases, or the tunnel the North Koreans were supposedly building under the DMZ. North Korea, we were told, had the world's 40th largest population and its eighth largest standing army, with more heavy artillery than either us or the Soviet Union. In 1950, it took them three weeks to seize all of South Korea from the DMZ down to the southern seaport town of Pusan before Douglas McArthur landed at Inchon and kicked their asses all the way back to the Red Chinese border (at which point the Chinese intervened and proceeded to kick our asses all the way back to the 48th parallel).

"You guys are here as a tripwire," the intel briefer at orientation said. "That means you're here so if North Korea attacks, enough of you will die to get the folks back Stateside pissed off enough to go to war." We heard stories about mass hangings of Americans at Kunsan back in 1950. The official history of the base denies it: "Records are scarce pertaining to Kunsan in the early days of the war," the historian writes, "but evidence seems to indicate that there were no Americans present when the North Koreans occupied the base. As mentioned, the base contained at most a small detachment at the outbreak of the war, if in fact there was a United States presence at the time. If there were Americans at Kunsan, they likely pulled back to the Pusan Perimeter before the North Korean People's Army arrived." It might have been bullshit, but it definitely got your attention, regardless.

At the time, the Air Force and the Army were in the process of negotiating who was going to be responsible for air base ground defense and perimeter security, so lots of guys who'd been spending the winters in trailers up in the missile fields were having to go through infantry training at Camp Bulliss, Texas, on their way to Korea. After years of such a sedentary lifestyle (the Air Force was the only service that didn't include physical conditioning as part of everybody's normal duty day), a lot of these guys weren't up to the physical demands of the training, and they washed out, but that didn't defer them from their assignment. Kunsan had been built by the Japanese back in the '30s, and there were a lot of fixed emplacements, all facing out toward the Yellow Sea. My friend Sergeant Clemens was responsible for ringing the base with new fighting positions, minefields and so forth to protect the base against an attack from outside. Later on, the Air Force would get more into the use of fences with electronic sensing equipment and "15-and-5" response forces (having a 15-man fireteam that could respond anywhere on the perimeter in five minutes). For the time being, everyone was caught up in playing soldier, digging bunkers and setting up interlocking fields of fire.

In 1982, while our pilots were transitioning to the state-of-the-art F-16, the ROK air force was still flying Korean War-vintage F-86s. I asked an old aircraft maintenance NCO why that was and he said, "Because if we sold them F-16s, those crazy bastards would want to go north and start some shit." The ROKs were like the Irish of the Pacific, only less humorous -- hard drinking and bellicose. Their army's Capital Division had fought in Vietnam, where it gained a reputation for liking to kill Vietnamese. Supposedly it was the most rank-heavy outfit in the ROK army, because they got a bonus for volunteering to go to Nam, so all the officers and senior NCOs wanted a piece of the action. Because I never received host-nation officer identification training worthy of the name, I spent a year saluting grizzled old ROK NCOs (who grunted and spat in disgust by way of reply) and waving to downy-cheeked ROK junior officers, who bemusedly waved back. For their own troops, both of those subspecies held the power of life and death. Kunsan was a training base for ROK reservists, and we'd see their NCOs beating the shit out of them as they ran around the base. Right before I arrived in-country, the ROKs at Kunsan had their operational readiness inspection, and some Korean sentry supposedly got shot on the spot for falling asleep on duty. They didn't even wake him up. They just told the American who was working the gate with him to take a smoke break, then blew the kid's brains out right where he sat. They said that's what would have happened if the enemy had come, and they needed to make an example.

Relations between GIs and the local populace were interesting. People who were never there don't realize how much of a colonial power America was in Asia as late as the '80s. There were a lot of times during my year in Korea when I felt ashamed to be an American. Basically, the Koreans thought that all Americans were drunken pigs, while a lot of GIs thought that all Korean men were thieves and all Korean women were whores. Junior enlisted troops got spoiled having houseboys to make their beds, do their laundry, and shine their boots. (Mine stole all of my socks and underwear when I went home on leave over Christmas.) And there was definitely prostitution going on in Silvertown aka "A-Town" and Kunsan City (a former Kunsanite has an extensive and well-researched history on his website), which command dealt with by basically looking the other way.

As part of my duties as the cop squadron's orderly room clerk, I got to visit Bioenvironmental Health once a month to check out the stats for the girls in all the clubs, and draw three boxes of condoms: one for issue to the new guys in the squadron, one for the town patrol, and one for the first sergeant. No doubt about it: The wing commander definitely had all the justification he needed to put all the clubs off-limits, but then he would have had a mutiny on his hands. Toward the end of my tour, one of the young guys came to see me, all excited because he'd gotten orders to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. "I'm gonna get me a _showgirl_," he said. I had to explain to him that there was no $20 short-time back in "the world." Going from mom's house to Uncle's house to mamasan's house definitely gave some of those young boys a distorted view of what one-on-one was all about. Thus, you'd have the spectacle of some newly-arrived teenager, bringing his "girlfriend" to the barracks to "introduce" her to his friends, all of whom had to do a good job of acting as if they didn't already "know" her, in the Biblical sense. Or guys like the one who used to send his parents and fiancee pictures of him with his Korean girlfriend, then wondered why he didn't get any mail from home.

Lots of GIs got used to the lifestyle. There were plenty of old heads who'd been in Asia for a decade or more and were hoping Thailand would open up again. Then 314th Air Division got a commander who was a born-again Christian and didn't want his troops "going native." He instituted a rule that you could only extend in-country for a maximum of three years. I knew a couple of lifers with 19 years in the service who owned property and supported large Korean extended families. They'd planned to retire at the Kun, but when the rule change came down, they both wound up having to rotate back Stateside. One of them even had Strom Thurmond on his side. No matter.

The barracks the junior enlisted stayed in had actually been broken down and transported out of Thailand when the 8th TFW unassed from there back in the mid-'70s. The rooms had fans built into the walls that we had to cover with plastic trash bags when the winter came. Otherwise, it'd snow into your room. I remember waking up a couple of times with snow on my pillow. (Winter on the Kun was brutal: When that wind started howling off the Yellow Sea, if you were smiling when you walked outside, you'd be smiling all day long.) The NCOs had slightly more upscale accommodations. The barracks where I stayed was home to guys from a bunch of different units: cops, civil engineers, flightline maintenance from the Aircraft Generation Squadron. We broke so many TVs that finally the first sergeant didn't have a replacement to give us, so we got a microwave oven instead. It took the guys in the dayroom weeks to figure out that you couldn't change the channels on it. They couldn't understand why the same show was always on: a bunch of guys in their underwear, sitting around eating "bag nasties," greasy fried chicken dinners from the chow hall.

My first roommate was a kid from Oklahoma named Sprinkles. He looked like he was about 12 years old. He used to annoy the fuck out of me by coming in with his friends after I was asleep and turning on the light, which was about three inches from my face. He used to build model airplanes and smash them to pieces against his locker with big rubber bands. One day I came back from the latrine and found him beating his clock radio on the floor. I paid a visit to the dorm manager, Doc Holliday, to see about getting out of the room. Holliday was a permanently-decertified cop from Phoenix. He had a fake divinity degree from the Cosmic Masters Church of Phoenix that he'd gotten by sending money to an address he saw in the Rolling Stone classified ads. He had the distinction of having received a one-sentence Airman Performance Report from our squadron first sergeant: "Senior Airman Holliday performs many of his duties when instructed to by the first sergeant." (The first sergeant was a former chaplain's assistant who spent three months of his one-year tour TDY with the base women's basketball team. The rest of the time, he occupied himself crusading to be allowed to wear a security policeman's black beret, even though he wasn't really a cop.) Doc Holliday was an operator. He'd brought his wife over from the States, even though there were no command-sponsored dependents on Kunsan. He'd just keep her in an empty room in one of the three barracks he managed for the squadron. I was surprised when he suggested I simply room with him.

"I'm the perfect roommate," he said. "I'm never there."


Sunday, April 24, 2005

Return of the Son of "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

I couldn't wait to get to Biloxi. I was looking forward to running on the beach every morning. That idea lasted about as long as it took for us to process into Keesler Air Force Base, where we were informed that the beach was covered with debris from a hurricane that had just blown through, churning the Gulf of Mexico to murk, and that we shouldn't set foot out there without our boots, because of the sizable quantity of broken glass and sharp metal objects the storm had washed up.

There really wasn't much reason to go downtown in Biloxi anyway. For one thing, the place was a dump -- I used to think of it as "Florida for Canadians." Between the base and Edgewater Mall, there was a strip of gambling boats which provided the area with pretty much its only revenue that didn't come from either Keesler or the Naval Air Station in nearby Gulfport. Considering so much of their money came from GIs, the locals didn't seem to like us much. Gulfport NAS had had standing orders for years, prohibiting sailors from going off-base in uniform, because of the hostility it provoked in the locals. There were no such orders at Keesler, though, so every weekend, some newly arrived tech school trainees would go downtown in their blues and wind up getting their asses kicked or at least chased back to the main gate by hordes of hostile Biloxi-ites.

Keesler was really no great shakes as a base, either, but after six weeks of basic training, having access to alcohol and members of the opposite sex made it a pretty interesting laboratory for human behavior, like the time I saw a guy at the Triad Club (famous for the three inches of fetid water sloshing around on the men's room floor at all times) slow-dancing with a girl who had already passed out. Before we were officially out of "Phase I," during which time the newly-arrived tech school trainees were supposed to abstain from alcohol, we used to fall by the base bowling alley, conveniently located across the street from our squadron, and buy 40-oz. beers, which we'd conceal in the pockets of our bluejeans before running back to our barracks in time for lights out. (The bowling alley is always the best place to eat on an Air Force base, and at most of the ones I used to frequent, it was also possible to buy a beer there at pretty much any hour of the night.)

Our prodigous consumption of alcohol led to scenes like the time I slept through having the door to my room kicked off its hinges by the irate occupant of the room directly downstairs, who was tired of hearing my roommate's futile tapping at the door at 3am. The irate individual in question was a strapping lad named Jones, who had been on station longer than most of the "permanent party" (non-student) types and held the distinction of having washed out of every tech school on Keesler. Not long after that, the new technical training center commander, General Richards -- who'd previously been commandant at both the Air Force Academy and the Basic Military Training School at Lackland, and bore an unnerving resemblance to the actor Jason Robards -- visited our squadron and did a cursory inspection of some training records. When he got to Jones' file, he demanded, "Why hasn't this man been discharged yet? He's washed out of every school on the base! He's been here longer than most of your permanent party people!" and summarily fired the squadron commander and first sergeant. Jones, however, was still there when I left a few weeks later, on "AFI" status -- "awaiting further instructions."

Parrish and I stayed tight and even went to visit Jimmy Boulet -- the lone patriot out of 50 guys in our basic training flight -- over at the electronic warfare school, where he was going to be studying for a year and a half (compared with our lowly clerical tech schools, which lasted a piddling six or eight weeks). "It's wicked hard," he said, "and we can't have homework, because all the stuff we do is classified." My old dorm chief and I stayed in different bays and went to different schools, though, so day-to-day, we were in totally different groups.

At first, I roomed with Segura and Rivera, two genial Mexican boys from Texas who were always arguing. After a few days, I moved in with Princena, a Filipino cat who was older than me and had a wife and kid back on Luzon. He'd been working for an American company in Saudi Arabia for years and enlisted so he could get his citizenship and bring his family over to the States. He'd grown up in an area where the Philippine government gave the farmers weapons to fight off bandits, so he couldn't understand why we didn't have weapons. "All the time march, march, march," he said. "When we get guns?" I had to explain to him that this was the Air Force, not the Army, and he'd have to get used to the idea that his principle job for the next four years was going to be typing and filing. He seemed puzzled by that, almost as puzzled as he was when he drew CQ duty, even though his English was probably worse than anyone else's in the squadron. He knew just enough to answer the phone, "_Thair_tyfourohseh-condschool_squad_rontheeseesairmahnprincenamayihelllpyou?" then mutter "Hokay" in response to whatever the caller's request was before hanging up and going back to playing with the pencils on the desk while humming the theme from the Spiderman TV cartoon show. Princena's favorite off-duty pastime was going downtown to Fiesta at the Fiesta, the biggest of the gambling boats, where he'd hustle the locals at pool and occasional get in fistfights. When I'd see him taping up his hand on Saturday morning and ask if he was OK, he'd always say, "Chure. I win."

The dorm chief was Nakano, a Japanese kid from Hawaii. There were lots of Hawaii National Guardsmen at Keesler, including Nakano's buddy Lester, who insisted he was a kamaiina in spite of having a haole name. Lester's deep disdain for the entire white race came out any time he imbibed alcohol, which meant every single weekend, and he was always getting picked up by the SPs for fighting at the clubs. Nakano wasn't nearly as radical, although he did take offense at one of the STAs -- student training advisors, really glorified babysitters with none of the authority or mystique of basic training TIs -- who persisted in calling him "Airman No-Can-Do" at morning formation, until one day he corrected the guy, in his best command voice, "NA-KA-NO!" after which the fella at least learned to pronounce his name right. I used to play guitar around the barracks with a Christian-rock guy called J.T. Manstis, whom the Hawaiians typically delighted in calling "Praying Manstis."

Nakano's roommate was Jordan, a black kid from the East Coast who used to get a royalty check every month from one of the big fast-food chains for writing a radio jingle that we'd all heard. Down the hall were Dietz and Higginbotham, two dumbass whiteboys who could each type about 200 words a minute and so figured they had admin tech school whacked. Dietz was so goofy I once saw him trip over a doormat and he wound up washing out academically, which I'd thought was impossible in a field as intellectually undemanding as admin, but really sucked because he'd told us that he was scheduled to be the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade in his bumfuck town in Pennsylvania.

The good part of living where we did was being right across the street from the award-winning 3403rd School Squadron dining facility, where I once ate a pork chop two inches thick that was the size of a T-bone steak during a visit by some inspection team from Air Training Command. My favorite part of the award-winning '03rd chow hall, though, was the Next On Eggs lady. She was a nice, middle-aged Filipino lady who worked the breakfast line at the '03rd, whose trademark phrase, in shrill, Tagalog-accented Eengleesh, was "NEX' ON AIIIGS!" One morning, while we were at rest prior to morning formation, one of the guys made the great conversational faux-pas of asking one of our STAs, "Hey, Sergeant D--------, you know that lady over at the '03rd, the one that says 'NEX' ON AIIIGS?' "

"Yes," Sergeant D--------- replied.

"I do.

"She's my wife."

We got to march lots of extra laps around the base theater on the way back from school that night. We marched to and from school every day, and got to do a fake pass-in-review everytime we crossed the flightline. Occasionally, there'd be an actual officer standing on the reviewing stand, not that it made a difference -- we always marched like shit. One particular time, the reviewing officer o' the day turned out to be none other than the technical training center commander, General Richards, he of the great Jason Robards resemblance, and when we did "Eyes, Right," I was so transfixed by his basilisk-like gaze that I forgot to turn my head and eyes back to the front when "Ready, Front" was called. The other really bizarre marching moment was the time when we had to march to Sousa's "Liberty Bell March," better known as the theme music from Monty Python's Flying Circus, and the 10% of the trainees who recognized it from the TV show had to do everything we could to avoid pissing our pants laughing while we were marching.

As graduation approached, guys started getting orders to their first permanent duty stations. I'd filled out a "dream sheet" requesting Carswell, Texas, Southwest U.S., etc. -- no overseas bases. My wife said that my recruiter had promised I wouldn't go overseas immediately, and while I knew better, I was still hopeful. Nakano and Lester were going back to their Guard unit in Hawaii, of course. Parrish got orders to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, where he made staff sergeant before getting discharged for using drugs. Jordan got orders to Minot, North Dakota ("Why not Minot? Freezin's the reason"). One day I was in the orderly room, going through the same stack of orders I'd seen every day for the past week, when I came upon a new set I hadn't seen before. "Hahahahaha," I thought, "some sap is going to Korea." Then I looked at the list of names on the back. That sap was _me_. I'm somewhat proud that I was able to achieve "honor graduate" status in spite of the fact that I stayed drunk for the entire last two weeks of my school. I'm less proud of the habit I developed of calling my wife long-distance while I was drunk and arguing about money.

Reading the regulations pertaining to assignment of Air Force personnel, I discovered an interesting loophole. In one chapter, the regulation stated that it wasn't Air Force policy to assign members with pregnant spouses to remote locations overseas, like the place I'd just learned I was going in Korea. In another chapter, it listed "normal pregnancy and complications" among reasons that _wouldn't_ prevent a member from being assigned to a remote location. Later on, I found out that such seeming disparities have a purpose: allowing the service to do whatever it wants, depending upon the situation. In the moment, I wrote a letter to the assignment gods, citing the first chapter and failing to mention the second chapter, requesting a humanitarian deferment from the assignment to Korea until after my wife had delivered our child. I was surprised when it came back approved. Then I thought it through: She was too pregnant to travel, and I couldn't take leave until she actually had the baby. That meant I could be sitting at Keesler in AFI status, raking rocks or pulling weeds, for up to two months (since her due date was in July and I was graduating the second week in May).

So, I manfully bit the bullet, declined the deferment, took my 30-day delay-enroute leave, and reported to the 8th Security Police Squadron, Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, a week before my 25th birthday.


Saturday, April 23, 2005

office space

so some magazine recently reunited the cast of office space, mike judge's 1999 sleeper comedy about life in cubicleland. missing from the reunion was jennifer jane emerson, a featured player in the flick (she played the annoying temp who said somebody had "a case of the mondays"). back then, jenn actually occupied the cubicle next to mine at my soul-destroying job in corporateamerica. while she was there, she actually had a couple of experiences worthy of inclusion in the film.

the first came after someone had told our boss (the guy who fired me, later on, whom i'll refer to as "numbnuts" for simplicity's sake) that he needed to spend more time getting to know his subordinates. so, he'd come out of his office and visit with each of the people in our department in turn. numbnuts was an interesting fella, with an mba from a baptist seminary, to give you some idea of what he was about, but kinda short on social skills. when it was jenn's turn to get up close and personal with him, he walked into her office, sat down on her desk, and farted. "i couldn't believe it," she told me later. "it was disgusting."

his predecessor as head of our department, who was kinda anal-retentive and controlling but whom i basically liked and respected, was famous/notorious for conducting the longest pre-employment interviews in the known world -- so much so that when she was interviewing a prospective new hire, we'd have a pool to see who could guess the closest to the interview's actual duration. (her record was three and a half hours.) numbnuts had a similar quirk: whenever somebody walked into his office to quit, numbnuts would invariably spend an inordinate time bullshitting with them about something completely random before they were able to drop their bomb and get the hell out of there. when jenn went in to quit, numbnuts spent a half an hour blabbering inanely about losing weight before she was finally blurted out, "numbnuts, i quit."

i didn't learn about this last one until a couple of years after the fact. at the time, it didn't even occur to me to suspect that something was up, but everytime our administrative assistant -- who looked kind of like dame edna, sat at an island in the middle of the department and absolutely _hated_ to miss a phone call -- got up to use the restroom, her phone would ring just as she was rounding the corner to the women's facilities. hearing it, she'd dash back to her desk, yelling "i'll get it!" what was really going on was this: jenn, whose cube faced our long-suffering assistant's, would e-mail another co-worker (this was before the advent of office im's), who sat in a corner of the office where he couldn't even see the administrative island. he'd wait a designated interval, then call her phone and let it ring just long enough for her to traverse the space between the ladies' can and her desk, then hang up. proof positive, as if any more were needed, that corporateamerica can be a cruel place.

according to the imdb, jenn is also in judge's new movie, fat girls, now in post-production. good on her.

Son of "Guarding Freedom's Frontier"

The big fear throughout basic training was getting kicked out. We were constantly being reminded that the Air Force was looking to lose 3,000 people and we were the most likely candidates, since there was less of an investment in us than in people who'd actually been trained to do something besides march, salute, and polish their boots. I had a pair of boots that didn't fit right. Although I lost all the hair on my shins (which never grew back) and had things growing out of my toes that looked like asparagus, I never went to sick call for treatment. A guy from our flight who broke a tonenail during a fire drill went to sick call once and wound up getting discharged; I didn't want to risk it.

Our squadron was strategically located between the school where they trained the new TI's and the one where they trained the military working dogs. We were told that if we encountered one of the dogs, which occasionally got loose while they were being trained to attack people or sniff out drugs or bombs, we should stand stock still -- definitely not try to run away. I'd seen one of the dogs attacking one of its trainers, who was wearing a protective wrap on his arm. I wasn't so sure about the wisdom of the idea of standing still while it used my arm for a chew stick. The freshly minted TI's were an interesting bunch. They would play the whole macho (including the women) intimidating routine as if they were reading it off of cards: "W-w-where you f-f-from, s-s-son? the way from [insert recruit's home of record here]" Not very effective.

Also pretty ineffective was Second Lieutenant Michael J. Fluty, our squadron's Deputy Commander for Operations and Training (read: "I just graduated from Officer Training School, and I'm waiting for someone to find me a _real_ job"). We were having academics one day when he came in and told us a long and pointless story about a bird and a cat in a barn in winter, the point of which was supposed to be something along the lines of "Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy, and not everyone who gets you out from under a pile of shit is your friend." It was intended to inspire us to great heights of respect for authority, I think, but managed only to confuse us.

Our real instructor that day was Sergeant Soler, a Puerto Rican from New York who deconstructed for us the recruiting ads that had brought us there, and he was bad-ass. Sometimes I wondered whether anybody ever monitored the things the academic instructors used to say to us. A lot of the NCOs were really impressive, and a lot of them were Hispanic, like Sergeant Bara, who used to amuse himself by greeting us, when we fell out for Reveille at 5am, with "Como esta usted?" delivered in his best Command Voice.

The most truly intimidating of all the TIs was also Hispanic: Sergeant Colunga. I first encountered Sergeant Colunga when Robert Miller and I were pulling dorm guard for a baby flight. I suppose some explanations are in order here. A "baby flight" was one which had just started the training cycle. "Dorm guard" was a silly and pointless duty that involved walking around the barracks after lights out, carrying a flashlight and wearing a white T-shirt and silver helmet -- exactly like Joker in Full Metal Jacket, hopefully minus the homi/suicidal maniac with the M-16. Sometimes the TIs would come and fuck with the dorm guards by trying to gain entry with a fake ID. If you let them in, you'd have to fill out a 341 -- basically a demerit slip; accrue enough of them and you were on your way out the door for "failure to adapt to military life." Most of the time, though, dorm guard was uneventful duty, consisting of making an endless circuit of the barracks, interrupted at intervals by the sound of the latrine door opening and closing. It was while pulling dorm guard for my own flight that I discovered that this guy Mincey never slept. He just sat up all night in his rack. At the time, we'd been there for almost three weeks. "I just can't sleep here," he said.

Robert Miller was a kid from Wisconsin, an earnest, sincere fellow whom I was convinced wasn't going to make it. I'd developed some quirks in basic training. Anytime I heard a sentence of seven syllables, I'd say "doo-dah, doo-dah" afterwards. I continued doing this for months after basic. I knew people that kept making hospital corner beds and folding their underwear in six-inch squares long after they didn't need to. Creepier were the ones who developed a form of "Stockholm syndrome" that caused them to model their TI's behavior, calling everyone "Son" and speaking in a Texanized form of Unaccented Military English. My other quirky habit was making up songs about people. Every time I saw Robert Miller, I'd sing, "Robert, Robert Miller, he's from Wisconsin I hear" to the tune of the Davy Crockett theme. I saw Miller a lot because we were on laundry detail together. Once, while he was venting his teenage anxiety and frustration to me in the laundry room, he accidentally put a load of whites in the washer that included somebody's squadron athletic T-shirt, which was bright red. As a result, all the guys in our flight had pink underwear for a week. Surprisingly, they didn't kick our asses.

The baby flight Miller and I were pulling dorm guard for was Sergeant Colunga's. They were an odd bunch. They seemed afraid, and very religious. Before lights out, the guys in our flight tended to occupy themselves with polishing their boots, clipping strings off their uniforms, writing letters. These guys were having a _prayer meeting_ in their dayroom, in their skivvies. A bunch of shaven-headed goons in GI T-shirts and tighty whities, getting down on their knees to pray. "Weird," I said to Miller. He nodded. As lights out approached, they scrambled to their racks. These kids were wound much too tight, Miller and I decided. Just then, the squawk box clicked on.

"GOOD EVENING, LADIES!" the intercom thundered. "I...AM...SERGEANT COLUNGA AND I...TAKE...NO...SHIT!!!" Apparently, Sergeant Colunga was the CQ that night. The CQ -- charge of quarters -- was the NCO who had to sit up in the orderly room all night, drinking coffee and watching TV, in case any of the flights called down on the intercom with a problem. He may have been a mere mortal, but he possessed the voice of an angry god. I, at least, was convinced, and made a mental note to endeavor to never give Sergeant Colunga any shit.

By the time I met Miller, I'd already experienced the event that every basic trainee feared the most (besides being kicked out): I'd been recycled. I'd already passed on the chance to bail on the third day of training, when they called in all of the guys who said they'd "experimented" with drugs and offered us the opportunity to get out with an honorable discharge (a favorable characterization of service, _not_ the way a Japanese addresses his clap symptoms). But on the 15th day of training, I'd committed an act so egregious that the powers that be decided it warranted "washing back" all the way to Day 3.

It happened like this. There was a kid in our flight called Andre. Andre was from Florida. He was 23 years old -- almost as old as me. You got the feeling that the Air Force was the end of the line for Andre. There was a problem: He couldn't do anything right. He was like our very own version of Full Metal Jacket's Private Gomer Pyle. He'd fuck up, and we'd all get punished. Because it wasn't the movies, and Vietnam had been over for a long time, and it was the Air Force, not the Marines, we weren't as brutal with Andre as Pyle's movie-cohhort were with him.

Still, I was surprised when the female TI, Airman Dubois (who'd done so well herself as a basic trainee that the powers that be elected to keep her there, pushing others through basic training, even though she'd never had a real job in the Air Force), called me into the office and told me "I want you to stick with Andre like white on rice. I want you to follow him into the shower to make sure he doesn't hang himself with his belt. Then, I want you to help him carry his bed down to the orderly room. He's going to sleep there tonight, where the CQ can watch him."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, and went to find Andre.

"Listen, man," I told him, in almost the exact words Matthew Modine would speak to Vincent D'Onofrio in Kubrick's flick five years later, "you've got to stop fucking up. Everytime you do, we all get punished. It's not cool."

"I know, I know," Andre said. He was a big hulking lump of a kid. A few days before, while we were running on the track, he'd fallen out and had to go to sick call.

"Run, Andre!" Sergeant Carr, the male TI, had exhorted him. Sergeant Carr had been a wireman in the real Air Force. "You think you've got what it takes to climb up those poles?" he'd ask us.

"But sir," Andre said, "I can't!"

"RUN, Andre!" Sergeant Carr insisted, standing there with his hands on his hips and an extremely pissed-off expression on his face.

"Ahhh, my knee!" Andre exclaimed, and fell over in the grass. It was the fakest-sounding thing any of us had ever heard, but he limped off to sick call and came back with a note from the medics putting him on quarters (meaning he didn't have to march or do any strenuous activities).

So now, I watched Andre as he took a shower, making sure not to let him hang himself with his belt. Then, after he'd dried off and put his uniform back on, I helped him carry his bed downstairs to the orderly room. As we manhandled his rack down the stairs, I tried to be positive and encouraging. "Just take it easy, man," I assured him. "You'll make it through just fine."

As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard a voice from behind me. "What are you men doing?" it said.

I was preoccupied with trying to help Andre with his problem. Without thinking, I replied, "What does it look like? We're carrying a bed down the stairs."

It was the wrong answer. Standing behind me in his most authoritarian stance was my favorite, Second Lieutenant Michael J. Fluty, the Deputy Commander for Operations and Training. I immediately realized that I was in Deep Shit. After filling out my 341 for Lieutenant Fluty and depositing Andre and his rack in the orderly room, I returned to the barracks to pack all of my shit, brief each of the 50 other guys in my flight individually, explaining and demonstrating the proper method for saluting and reporting to a commissioned officer, and haul ass back downstairs, where I got to stand at parade rest in front of the section supervisor's office for 45 minutes, thinking that I had really and truly fucked up and wondering what was going to happen next. While I was waiting to get my head chewed off, the Who's song "Bargain" came on the radio, and I thought about my wife.

At the end of 45 minutes I was ushered into the presence of the section supervisor, Master Sergeant Davis, who proceeded to rip me a new asshole before reassigning me to another flight that had just started training a couple of days ago. It wound up being the best thing that had happened to me in the Air Force so far.

With a couple of exceptions, the guys in my original flight were all scared and stupid. There was a mean-spiritedness about them. One of them was actually at the same base I was in Korea, in a different squadron, but we never spoke to each other there. We had nothing in common. My new flight was a little more cohesive and a little less chickenshit. Some of that I attributed to the personality of the dorm chief, Airman Parrish, a handsome black kid from Rhode Island. (I used to joke that there were three black people in Rhode Island, and I did basic training with two of them.) Parrish and I went to tech school together in Mississippi, before I got shipped off to Korea and he -- lucky bastard -- went to Hawaii. Later on I heard that he made staff sergeant before getting kicked out of the service for drugs. Actually, several of my best friends from basic training and tech school wound up leaving the service that way. In fact, a guy I officed with much later, while I was teaching at the SAC NCO Academy in Louisiana, told me he _started_ taking acid while he was working in a nuclear weapons storage area.

Also from Rhode Island was Airman Richmond, one of the squad leaders, who had enlisted with the idea of joining the Air Force boxing team and seemed as if he had already been hit in the head too many times. Besides Richmond, the guys in the flight all seemed pretty even-keel and down-to-Earth. There was Jones, who'd been recycled from another flight and appointed himself "co-chief" with Parrish, but not in an obnoxious or overbearing way -- he just wanted to share the benefit of the stuff he'd been through already with the other guys, which seemed a sane and sensible idea to me, so I endeavored to do the same.

I was on laundry detail with Miller, but my best friends were the two guys who bunked nearest to me: Goolsby and Hamlet. Goolsby was from Tennessee, the only guy in the flight who was older than me: 27. He'd washed out of a commissioning program, and was just under the maximum age to enlist. Every night before lights out, he'd do 200 situps while cracking us up with his "folksy wisdom." Hamlet was from Massachusetts, a rock'n'roll teenager and consummate wiseass. Together, the three of us formed a triad, the kind of subgroup you always find in small units. We looked out for each other. Being in the military taught me to value stuff like that. Before that, I'd always been kind of solitary.

The TIs' strategy was "breaking you down, then building you back up," so as things went along, they theoretically got easier -- unless you had five TIs in six weeks, like one of the co-ed band flights in our squadron. The males and females didn't stay in the same barracks, and they had to learn to play military music and march in addition to all the bullshit everyone else had to do. They had it so rough that after we graduated, the squadron commander came down and apologized to them for the unremittingly shitty six weeks they'd just endured. I don't know if that'd still happen today, now that we're at war again.

You learned how to work the system. Lots of guys who weren't religious went to chapel, because that meant you didn't have to take part in the "GI party," when all the guys who didn't go to chapel had to wax and buff the floors in the barracks. Myself, I liked the GI parties. I got pretty proficient at running the buffer, plus you got to listen to the radio while you were GI'ing the floors. Otherwise, we were completely cut off from the outside world, except for mail (which was opened and censored by the TI) and the rare and coveted opportunities we got to phone home: no newspapers, no TV, no radio. It was during one of those parties that I heard the first new song I'd heard since I swore in: "The Other Woman" by Raydio. I thought it sounded like Steve Miller.

I actually liked marching to appointments by myself. The enforced silence of the position of attention was like meditation to me. I'd focus on objects in the distance and let my mind drift, startling myself back to consciousness when I'd pass an officer from some African country in a brightly-colored uniform with no recognizable insignia of rank. For some reason, they didn't seem to care as much as Lieutenant Fluty when you didn't salute them.

Other relief from the dull monotony of training came in the form of base details. My favorite: KP. We worked our balls off, but it felt good to get sweaty and wet, and we felt like a team. The other base detail I worked was at clothing issue, where we got to see the new guys just off the bus with their fresh skinhead haircuts. While we were working there, I found a newspaper in the trash and hid it under my uniform to bring back to the barracks: contraband. That night we read it and discovered that John Belushi from Saturday Night Live had died from a drug overdose, and Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Randy Rhoades had died in a plane crash.

One by one, we passed the milestones for our training. We got to wear our blue uniforms (we'd only gotten to put on the shirts, jackets, ties and hats over our fatigue pants and boots to take pictures on Day 3). We got to shoot the M-16 (I failed to qualify but graduated anyway; I had to shoot again in tech school to qualify for my overseas assignment) and run the obstacle course (which reminded me of Six Flags; you spent more time waiting in line than you did on any of the obstacles, several of which were closed). We got to go to a San Antonio Spurs basketball game and watch George Gervin's crew defeat the legendary Lakers dynasty with both Kareem and Magic still onboard.

On our town pass, we walked around in the piss-pouring rain, saw the Riverwalk and the Alamo (and a homeless guy wearing a discarded Air Force overcoat doing a dance in a market square). We wound up at some Mexican restaurant near the Alamo, where we'd finished our meal and were about to leave when what appeared to be the cast of Fame walked in: a bunch of girls in leg warmers and those little skinny headband thingies they used to wear. Probably a dance team or gymnastics squad. Goolsby, Hamlet, Miller and I looked at each other, then sat down and ordered another meal, just to give us a chance to enjoy the scenery.

Finally, we graduated. At our graduation parade, the TIs somehow managed to "park" us on top of a mound of fire ants, which caused a frenzy of itching and twitching before they finally figured out what was going on and moved us up a few yards. Afterwards, we swore life-long friendship with guys we'd never think about again.

Parrish and I got orders to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. On the bus from San Antonio to Biloxi, they gave us five dollar vouchers to use at this Furr's Cafeteria in Shreveport. I've never been a fan of cafeteria food, but at the time, it was the tastiest meal I could remember ever having eaten. I can't attest to the verity of the rumors you used to hear about the food in basic training being laced with saltpeter, to keep the guys from jerking off, but I do know this: if there was saltpeter in it, it was the only "spice" the cooks there used. Purina Geriatric Chow has never tasted so good.


let us now praise famous canadians

been listening a lot to an album called melville, by a band called the rheostatics. they're from canada, and proud of it, too. their songs are loaded with references to rolling prairies, hockey, and lotsa canadian history that's less than meaningless down here. the main guys have been together for over 20 years. one of them's a published author, another is a graphic artist who's done some of their album covers. the cbc declared their whale music the greatest canadian rock album, but you can buy it used on amazon for a dime.

canadian musos have it pretty sweet, at least in their own country. their government mandates that 30% of the music played on the radio has to be canadian in origin. (picture a radio station that played 30% gordon lightfoot, joni mitchell, neil young, ann murray, bruce cockburn, rush, triumph, barenaked ladies. hahahahahahaha!) it also provides loans and grants to canadian musos of all stripes. imagine being able to get a grant from the federal government the next time your band was about to get in the van for a circuit of the rock toilets! the state of texas' ineffectual "music office" should do so well.

these rheostatics are good, though. they're great players, not in the grandstanding virtuosic "look-at-me" manner of most sophisto musos, but in a very subtle way that takes awhile to stir your consciousness. they write great lyrics, too, which actually scan as poetry (or even prose), something beyond the reach of most dumbass lyricists. in "record body count," f'rinstance, you have to be listening very closely not to miss the suicide at the end. "sasketchawan" and "horses" are drawn from canadian history (a battle and a strike, respectively -- i've already confessed my ignorance of the specifics). "when winter comes," based on a letter from a fan, contains my favorite lines: "what about the band, what about the guess who / the day they made the charts in billboard magazine / all the irish armies couldn't teach you / about independence, peace and brotherhood." their melancholic music is tinged with wistful regret, but they can rock out, too.

damien stewart turned me on to the rheostatics, just like steve gray turned me on to the psychodots and geoff ginsberg turned me on to the yayhoos. all of these bands reinforce my faith that it really is worthwhile digging around to try and ferret out obscure music.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Guarding Freedom's Frontier: a sort of memoir in progress

I was old when I enlisted: 24. It happened like this.

I was in Memphis at the beginning of 1982 opening a record store when I got shitcanned. I'd been there since the fall. I'd gotten married in April and it seemed like the thing to do: to get a more responsible job for more money. So I commuted from Fort Worth to North Dallas every day for three weeks, working in the warehouse and writing orders for a store in a market I'd never seen. My company flew me and my wife up there for one day to househunt. I knew nothing about houses; I'd only lived in one all my life. I rented one that cost half of my take-home pay every month, before utilities. As a result, we were starving the whole time we were there. Plus, the place had heating ducts that were way up by the ceilings, which were 15 feet high. When it got cold (and it was amazing how cold it could get in Memphis), it cost a lot of money to heat the ceilings enough to melt the snow off the roof while we remained freezing down below. We ate a lot of beans and cornbread that winter, and spent a lot of time playing cards and watching The Tonight Show when I wasn't working, which was most of the time. (That's the dirty little secret of retail: When they make you "a manager," what it really means is that you don't make overtime, and you work as many hours as they say you have to.)

My store was on Elvis Presley Boulevard, near Graceland. Every day, I'd drive past the Rev. Al Green's Hair Salon on the way to work. When we got there, there were three of us on the payroll: me, my boss -- a real right-on leftie and jazz fan from Dallas who carried his deceased father's service .45 wrapped in a towel to work every day, "just in case" -- and some loser who used to work in the warehouse and had been in the Army. When the container trucks full of fixtures started arriving, I'd cruise the strip looking for carloads of teenagers I could buy beer for in exchange for helping us unload the trucks. It was pretty dire. Opening stores sucked. You'd be so fatigued from hours of heavy physical work that you'd find yourself doing things like walking across the store, forgetting what you'd come there to do, walking back where you came from, remembering what you'd meant to do before, walking back, forgetting again, etc. The kind of stuff that tends to happen when you've been working for 20 hours or so. My future ex-wife was pregnant and throwing up for two weeks before I could get time off to take her to the doctor. It was that kind of job.

Somehow we got open and got through Christmas. Then, about three weeks into the New Year, I got a call from the store one morning. I'd closed the night before, and the deposit was $200 short. Could I come down to the store? It seemed intuitively obvious what had happened, considering the guy from the warehouse had disappeared in the night, leaving his rented TV on somebody's front steps, but I didn't do well on the polygraph they made me take -- the result, I told the guy administering the test, of having been held for four hours on suspicion of robbing a store in Binghamton, NY, when I was 13. My buddy and I didn't do it, but we just happened to have the exact amount of money that was supposedly stolen in our pockets. In the end, they let us go, but right before they did, one of the cops, who looked just like George C. Scott, told me that my buddy had confessed already, so I might as well come clean. I didn't like being in situations like that.

Anyway, I was shitcanned on the spot. My right-on-bro boss told me I was lucky they weren't getting the police involved. Fuck him. I called my future ex-father-in-law, who was unbelievably understanding. He rented a U-Haul truck and drove up that night. The next morning, he helped me load all of our belongings in the truck, and we drove back to Fort Worth. The next day I was at the unemployment office in downtown Fort Worth. Downtown wasn't much in those days. Everything had moved out to the suburbs. There was no Sundance Square, Caravan of Dreams was just getting started. I sat there for six hours waiting for them to call my number. Finally I got hungry and asked one of the clerks where I could get something to eat. He gave me directions to a barbecue place that was supposedly right around the corner. I had no sense of direction. I walked around and around and couldn't find any barbecue joint, but I did find a big military recruiting office. I figured what the hell: The baby was coming in six months whether or not I had any shit together. I'd been a disaster as a college student, quitting just as the axe of academic termination was about to fall. I'd been selling records for almost eight years, since I was in high school. In other words, I had no marketable skills. We weren't at war. I'd seen Bill Murray in Stripes. Military service looked like a pretty good option.

(A funny thing: Ten years later, when I got off active duty, I found myself back at the same unemployment office. I sat there for six hours waiting for them to call my number. Finally I got hungry and decided to go look for that barbecue place again. It was right around the corner. I walked in and bought a sandwich. Then I walked around some more. Two blocks later, I found the recruiting office. If I'd only turned one way instead of the other on the way out the door, ten years before, my whole life could have been different. Oh well.)

I talked to the Army recruiter. He had a one-question test, administered verbally: "Use the words 'ain't,' 'shit,' and 'motherfucker' in a sentence."

"Motherfucker ain't shit," I said.

"Da-amn, son, you're _officer material_," the Army recruiter said. "How'd you like to be a loo-tenant in the _infantry_, the Queen of Battles?"

Actually, that's bullshit. That never happened. I've just been telling that story for so long I thought I'd put it down here.

What really happened was this: I talked to the Air Force recruiter. He had a harelip. He didn't mince words. "N'look," he told me. "N'your ol' n'lady is m'regnant and you really don't have any n'marketable skills. Why not try the Air Force?" (You have to imagine the harelip.)

I took their battery of tests, and was informed that I could have pretty much any job I wanted. I asked the recruiter, "What job can I start, say, _tomorrow_?" He suggested I go in "open administrative." Woo-hoo: I was going to be Radar O'Reilly. My ex-wife claims that the recruiter I talked to afterward, to fill out all the paperwork, assured her that there was no way I'd be assigned overseas out of training. I believe that's possible, only because all recruiters are detestable pathological liars. I felt that way about them when I was on active duty, and I feel that way about them now. The ones in Fahrenheit 9/11 are basically representative of the whole reprehensible sub-species. At any rate, one week later, I was sworn in at the Military Entrance Processing Station in Dallas, along with 50 or 60 other worthies, many of whom actually said "I, state your name," when they were administered the Oath of Enlistment. The night before, we'd all stayed in an east Dallas motel, run by Vietnamese people, where we watched a TV movie called World War III, about a Soviet invasion of Alaska. We all sat there in our cruddy motel rooms with our eyes glued to the tube, contemplating What We Had Got Ourselves Into.

After swearing in, those of us who were joining the Air Force boarded a plane to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where we were introduced to our home for the next six weeks: an open-bay barracks with 50 other guys. (Actually, the Air Force doesn't have barracks anymore; it has "dormitories." It doesn't have chow halls anymore: it has "dining halls." Ah, the power of language. What I really liked was the fact that everyone in the Air Force spells "endorse" with an "i," probably because the person who proofread the regulation was an illiterate.) Two sounds I will never forget: the squeak of the latrine door at the end of our bay, where the lights stayed on all night, and the sound of 50 pairs of feet hitting the floor in unison when the strains of "Reveille" were played electronically over the intercom. The first morning, we were relieved of our "individuality" by the happiest and least-skilled barbers in America and issued our uniforms. We were among the last sets of trainees to get the old green fatigues before the Air Force, chasing the Army and Marines, switched over to woodland-pattern BDUs as standard issue. Since then, those have, in turn, been replaced by desert camouflage. So, pictures of us in those days look absolutely antique. We were from another age: before the Iron Curtain came down, when the bogeyman was a known quantity with identifiable features, not some amorphous entity like Global Terrorism.

As I said before, I was older than most of my cohort, born at the ass-end of the Baby Boom, and I could remember when the Vietnam-era draft ended: right before my 18th birthday. It was like somebody had thrown a switch. With the threat of involuntary conscription lifted, we were relieved of the burden of having to display any sort of political consciousness, and were free to just party. Our parents had the Depression and World War II; our older brothers and sisters had the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam. We had drugs and rock'n'roll. Within a couple of years, campus bohemianism had been replaced by materialism and careerism: the Yuppies were born, and the stage was set for the orgy of greed that the '80s would become. Myself, I bounced around Texas, Colorado, Texas again and then Memphis until unemployment and imminent fatherhood forced me to do something else. Out of 50 guys in my original basic training flight, there was _one_ who said he enlisted because he wanted to serve his country: Jimmy Boulet, from Boston. I hope he's Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force now, but in reality, I'll bet he got out around the same time I did. Most of us joined for selfish reasons: travel, adventure, college. For security. To grow up. To learn a skill. It was a different world then, and that's how the marketing was pitched.

Talk to an older generation of recruits, and you'll hear that we really had it easy. The training instructors -- TIs -- couldn't hit us or curse at us. They could still dump out the contents of our lockers and force us to put them back together, but soon that would stop, too. By the time I left the Reserves around Y2K, I heard that recruits could actually "pull a stress card" and take a _time out_. I suspect that changed after 9/11. Air Force basic training is a lot less demanding than what the Army and Marines go through, but it seemed like a big deal at the time. Keep in mind, if you're an average American 18-year-old, who's never had to deal with any kind of structure or discipline worthy of the name, having a guy in a Smokey the Bear hat yelling at you for not making hospital corner beds or folding your underwear in six-inch squares can be stressful. I know it was for me, and I was older, had been out on my own making a living. In the moment, I was determined to erase the ignominy of having been shitcanned -- _unjustly_ shitcanned -- from the only kind of work I'd ever done for pay, the very first time I'd ever had a family of my own depending on me.

We learned to march and salute, and not to go outside without our hats on. We marched to the chow, dining facility, where you had to stand until there were four people at a table and the minute the first guy finished eating, the last guy had to get up too. Since getting married, I'd been training myself not to bolt my food (a habit I'd acquired working in retail and eating all my meals standing up behind a counter), but now I had to learn to pack in max calories in minimum time, and put on 20 pounds that I never lost in six weeks. We ran and did calisthenics. I'd been pretty sedentary for years, walking only as far as I needed to go to buy more beer and cigarettes, but I'd spent my teenage years walking or riding a bike everywhere, and the medic at the induction center told me I had good lung capacity (I'd quit smoking 10 months before, around the time of the wedding) and blood pressure.

The first day, all the guys with prior service or ROTC were made squad leaders, until they fucked up and got fired. That took about a week. Then all the guys with college were made squad leaders, until we fucked up and got fired. That took less time. Then the natural leaders started to emerge.


the backhands

my gtr buddy jim crye has a new band, the backhands, that tones down the heaviosity of his previous outfit, lifesize, without lowering the rawk quotient. to understand what that means, you gotta listen to their mp3s.


proof positive (as if any more were needed) that real life is much, much stranger than anything you could imagine: today's example is matisyahu, the hasidic reggae superstar, "combining the sounds of bob marley and shlomo carlebach." even better, the cat can really sing, has a good band, projects the proper attitude of spiritual positivity, and has actually performed in texas (his live cd was recorded at stubbs in austin). so, when is he coming to fort worth to play with pablo/kulcha et al.?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

terry chandler

inasmuch as i try to avoid reading the fw weekly these days, well, even a blind squirrel gets a nut sometimes. the proof: this week's ish, wherein dan mcgraw does right by terry chandler, fort worth's very own outlaw chef of fred's cafe fame. y'all dig him, now. we sure do.

some cool streaming music

got this link from paul boll. it's to kcrw, a very eclectic public radio station from santa monica -- my new fave background work noise. all day long, the station shifts seamlessly from genre to genre, without the annoying dj yammer that makes most d/fw radio (notable exception: paul slavens' sunday night slot on kera) unlistenable. generally, i listen super-low at the j-o-b, but yesterday while everyone was at lunch, i heard "aloneagainor" from love's forever changes and had to turn it up for a minute. after all, one can't live by the streaming music on alone. or can one?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

some movies

been watching a lot of movies lately. saw sideways, a silly, self-indulgent movie about silly, self-indulgent people that made me think that it's not necessarily an unalloyed good thing when people no longer have to worry about how they're going to eat, and the fact that paul giammati is american cinema's new everyschlemiel (replacing steve buscemi).

a couple of nights later, watched hotel rwanda, a totally different experience -- true story of an african hotelier (played by don cheadle, who shoulda won the best-actor oscar imo) in kigali, rwanda, who used his position to rescue 1200 of his countrymen during the hutu-tutsi genocide back in '94. i remember sitting in italy around that time at the behest of the u.n. and nato, watching bosnia (while my buddy jay was performing in sarajevo, where citizens dodged snipers to go hear the symphony) and wondering why the u.s. would intervene in the former yugoslavia to prevent further serb-croat "ethnic cleansing" while not lifting a finger to stop a similarly egregious orgy of bloodletting in africa. it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out -- same reason my dad (who served in the post-world war II u.s. strategic bombing survey while _his_ father sat out the war in an internment camp) used to tell me the u.s. would never have used the atomic bomb on germany. that and the fact that we'd just gotten our asses kicked over in somalia (a fact the filmmaker, through cheadle's character, points out). one good thing about being the biggest kid left standing on the block: you get to choose your battles. i also dug how the screenwriter talked (in a "bonus" dvd interview) about starting out with a sprawling, traffic-like script with a multiplicity of subplots which he had to pare down in the event to the essential, and how he chose cheadle's character to focus on rather than nick nolte's u.n. soldier or joaquin phoenix' journalist. this wouldn't have happened a few years ago; maybe we _are_ improving when it comes to race cards.

last weekend, we went to dinner at the home of one of kat's ex-students, whose brother was leaving for the marines the next day. they're a beautiful family; the father crossed the border a few years ago because it wasn't possible for him to make a living or obtain services for his multi-disabled daughter back where he came from. he's worked hard to make a place here for his family. over the past couple of years, the son who's joining the marines -- a great, smart, strong, loving, respectful kid -- really pushed hard and did a lot of legwork to get legal immigration status for his sister, so she can continue to receive therapeutic services after she ages out of the school system this year. between his academics and financial aid, he'd be a shoo-in for college, but he wants to give something back for all the benefits his family has enjoyed from living in america. (it's funny how really advantaged kids never seem to have this sense of obligation.) he's overwhelmed with the opportunities the marines are offering him now. they're telling him he can have his citizenship in three months, so he can get a top secret clearance and go to intel school. i knew a dozen guys like him on active duty; adult men at 19. i can see him in a couple of years, being the young sergeant everybody looks up to. he's aiming higher than that, thinking about college and a commission, but he's really focused on the next 13 weeks of boot camp; we couldn't help thinking about what'll come after that for him. it reminded me of jesse sierra hernandez' painting that we saw on gallery night: a short-haired, bare-torsoed, brown-skinned kid with aztec tattoos, wearing what appear to be desert bdu pants and combat boots, surrounded by the detritus of his history -- a conquistador's helmet and sword next to a kevlar one and m-16. i'm not about to put a magnet on my car, but i'll be thinking about that young man when i read the news, and hoping for his safe return.

Friday, April 15, 2005

this is cod-patriotism at its worst

did you like neil young's "let's roll?" how 'bout lee greenwood's "god bless the u.s.a.?" if you liked those two, or go for post-9/11 flag/angel/firefighter imagery in general, you're gonna absolutely _lurrrve_ this video. at first i wasn't sure whether it was serious or a goof, but i finally decided that the kevin cronin/david coverdale lookalike who sings it is so painfully sincere and the visuals are so baldly literal-minded that it just _has_ to be real. "a-mer-uh-cuhhh" indeed.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

my new favorite rock read online

steve steward, bassist for fw punk-skasters darth vato and a fine gent to know and associate with, now has his own blog. it's boss. let's hope he updates it more often than my other fave local blogger does his.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

flipside, ghostcar, yeti, when faith fails

went to the black dog to see paul unger's flipside trio a coupla weeks ago. paul's the assistant principal bassist for the fort worth symphony (does that mean he gets to give misbehaving basses detention?) who's also played with guitarist tom reynolds and dave and daver, among others. flipside has been together for about a decade, playing a brand of "free" or "outside" improvisational music that you don't hear much in these parts (unless dennis gonzalez' yells at eels is holding forth). recently i was surprised to hear flipside music on kntu. unger's a great player with an unmistakable sound, particularly when he picks up the bow, and his band is a lot more versatile than i'd expected -- in the course of an evening, they might play anything from straightahead to fatback to funk to circus music to stripper-blues. dave monsch plays the fire out of tenor and soprano saxes, as well as percussion and "little instruments." he'll cue the band with hand signals, blow two horns at once a la roland kirk, or pick up a slide whistle for some art ensemble of chicago-like hijinks. drummer dennis durrick is built like a fireplug and kicks up a polyrhythmic cyclone with a physicality that's a joy to watch.

on this particular night, they were joined onstage by two members of ghostcar -- trumpeter/guiding light karl poetschke and bassist chris perdue. ghostcar, unfortunately, is no more. guitarist daniel huffman was also supposed to put in an appearance, but failed to show (probably too busy with comet/day of the double agent bizness). karl has given up playing music professionally (no more six-month jaunts on a cruise ship for this boy) in favor of a dayjob and hadn't played in three months, but sounded great in his usual milesian spacey-lyrical way. he said his chops hurt; he shoulda picked up a maraca like late-period dizzy gillespie; there were definitely enough small instruments onstage for that. perdue, who used to do the two-bass thing with tony chapman in ghostcar, played simple-yet-melodic counterpoint to unger and held down the groove when paul left the stage. he says he has a new project in the works which might involve him singing. looking forward to hearing it, and hoping clay stinnett is able to overcome his recent difficulties.

my junkie alarm was buzzing that night like it hadn't in 30 years and i realized why when i saw three kids doing the familiar shuffle. when they took a place at the bar next to us and one of them bummed a light from me, i scoped them out. two of them were harmless, phased-out, cancelled, but the one that bummed the light, who couldn't have been more than 20, had eyes like a wounded animal. a little later he stumbled into me and i started thinking "if i put my foot behind his and push him, he'll fall into that table over there." when shaggy finally bumrushed them, i kept watching the kid's hands, half expecting him to go for a knife. people like that are usually harmless in those situations, but you never know. while the heroin plague never goes away entirely, it'd been awhile since i witnessed a scene like that. fuck william burroughs and his "algebra of need" bullshit -- i don't want that in my town.

we checked out the final yeti show at the wreck room. it was a weird night. there was a guy in the audience who looked uncannily like yeti's deceased founder/leader doug ferguson. the band (kilesa?) that preceded yeti was noteworthy for being the first band i've seen in a long time that caused my stomach to go into oscillation to the point where i thought i might vomit. and eric and tommy seemed kinda, um, _detached_ from the whole thing. they played one note for what seemed like half an hour. tommy spent a lot of time with his hands behind his back. jon teague was in good drum form, though. he says he's got a couple of projects in the works, and that he'll probably be ready to gig in three months. again, i look forward to hearing.

last weekend, we fell by the wreck to hear darrin kobetich (who's been working a lot more lately, both here in town and elsewhere -- he told me he was driving to houston for a gig the next day) and wound up staying to hear an underaged metal band of mostly hispanic kids called when faith fails. i love being surprised. i saw the guitar player ordering _a soda_ at the bar and asked him if it was his first time at the wreck. he responded in the affirmative, and we decided to stick around. i'm not the world's biggest metal fan -- i _loathe_ the glossy sheen of most '80s metal; so much hair, so much spandex, so much masking tape, so little musicality -- but these kids reminded me more of the bad brains or living colour (both of whom i dug), only with screaming. they could actually _play their instruments_ -- even the bassplayer, who had _braces_ -- and their song titles ("american warhead," "sex and masturbation," "breakin' shit") were indicative of some wit and intelligence, although i'll be damned if i could understand anything the frontguy was singing. they had the correct spirit, though, and what really endeared them to me was watching them grabassing before and giving shoutouts to their friends (and dedicating a song to one of them's recently-deceased dad) during the show. and hearing that they had to go to a quinceanera afterwards.

live local music: the best candy bar your money can buy.