Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Bergdahl’s lack of prison time offensive to veterans

It takes all types of people to make a military, and it’s just a fact of life that if you join the armed forces you’re going to run into a very wide variety of attitudes, from those who believe that the military is perfect to those who believe it’s an abomination they must escape immediately, and everything in between.
The recent sentencing of Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl to a dishonorable discharge is the right punishment for what he did, but the failure to attach at least some prison time is a slap in the face to every man and woman who has served honorably in the U.S. military.
When a service member goes AWOL or UA, it means someone who was scheduled to be off duty has to carry out the assignments of the absent service member.
In addition, Bergdahl’s disappearance triggered a massive and costly search for him, and raised fears that perhaps the enemy had infiltrated his base, abducted him and possibly was torturing him for information on the base’s security set future infiltration missions that could have left many more American troops dead.
The anger felt by those who searched for Bergdahl and were injured — as well as their families — is real and heartfelt. Bergdahl deserted his post in the face of the enemy. It wasn’t like he went AWOL from a stateside base and went home to his family or to Las Vegas.
We are told that he felt his mission was to tell high-ranking officers that the unit was not being run properly. There were countless other ways he could have brought his concerns to higher authority; leaving his post in enemy territory was the worst. The belief that he might not have been in his right mind is no excuse. Bergdahl’s actions exposed the whole base to a possible attack.
Bergdahl’s defense used the fact that the enemy captured him and tormented him to try to persuade that military that he had “suffered enough,” but there are plenty of other people still suffering because of that bad decision.
Bergdahl deserves a much more serious punishment. It upsets me that he probably won’t get it.
I served on active duty in the Marines from August 1978 to August 1982, and I spent the first year and a half going through basic training and the schools for my field of service (aviation maintenance). When I arrived at my squadron in Yuma, Ariz, in early 1979, I knew enough to realize that I wanted to be someone who finished his term of service, then returned to civilian life.
One of the first training films I saw soon after arriving at Naval Air Station Memphis for aviation training was about a young Marine who wishes to go on leave to apologize to his father for some verbal abuse, and is advised by a fellow Marine that with the unit about to leave for a few weeks of field training that the sergeant major is bound to reject his leave request.
“You’re better off just taking off and going UA (Unauthorized Absent),” the fellow tells the story’s protagonist, who leaves but is captured soon after, then brought back for disciplinary action that includes a term in the brig.
Training films in the military tend to not be Hollywood productions in terms of acting and quality, but the message was important. It’s all revealed to be a bad dream. The Marine requests his leave, and gets it, and goes home to apologize to his father.

At Parris Island, the drill instructors of my platoon warned us about being wary of the “‘birds,” who will try to persuade new arrivals that the unit is in disarray and the NCOs and officers in charge are inept and not worthy of respect and obedience.
“You’ll notice that they’re all privates even though they’ve been in the Corps for several years,” one drill instructor said.
“That should be warning enough. They’ve been in trouble and punished for it before. Don’t join in with their negativity.”
One Marine in my squadron was an example of someone whose career had gone off track. He had, over the course of four years, advanced all the way to sergeant (E-5) and re-enlisted for six more years. He got a nice five-figure cash bonus (serious money in 1979), a bump to staff sergeant (E-6) and a room in the Staff NCO barracks. He had a good job without heavy lifting and no more dirty mess duty or boring guard duty details in addition to his regular work.
According to a fellow Marine, this guy then went UA for several months and was caught, demoted and returned to the regular barracks. He kept going UA, kept getting caught, kept getting punished and finally was demoted to private and restricted to barracks all day except for work, worship services, visits to the chow hall or medical, and visits to the PX for health and comfort items.
He had a room to himself to keep his bad attitude from infecting everyone else. I was the Duty NCO on the night when two military police officers and the officer of the day came to the barracks and took him away for good.
No one was sad to see him go.
For when he wasn’t present to do his job, someone else had to pick up the slack. That’s something the media never tells in its stories about a military deserter: the impact on those in the unit who are left behind and have to take on extra duties.
There are two sides to every story, I’ve always been told. Unusually, we’ve been able to hear from those who did their duty and paid the price for Bergdahl’s disloyalty and misbehavior.
It’s time for Bergdahl to pay.
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November 8, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

Need a lift? Call me at Lyft

If it’s Thursday or Friday and you’re heading somewhere in the Bradenton-Sarasota-Tampa Bay area, now you can call on me and I’ll give you a “Lyft.”

I recently became a driver for Lyft to make some extra money (not to write a book, though that might happen), and on March 30-31, did my first drives for Lyft.

I’ll share my experiences and the tips I learned the hard way here.

Stay tuned.

April 1, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wildest Times of My Life: Catholic School Bazaars in the 1970s

For many people, Catholic school is nuns, confession, communion, getting rapped on the knuckles and being terrorized into submission by adults who have an all-powerful invisible friend that confers on them the ultimate superiority.

As someone who began to question the whole religion thing early on but kept conforming, I suppose I was part of the problem. Later, I would condemn superiors who I felt “pretended to be religious” out of the desire for personal gain – going to the same church as the boss in order to suck up to him or her – but I have to confess I did it, too, for a while.

Where I grew up on 80th Street in what was then called Elmhurst in the Queens borough of New York City (a Zip code change much later resulted in the area being relocated into Middle Village) there were three big Catholic parishes: Our Lady of Hope (OLH), on Eliot Avenue; Resurrection-Ascension (known to all as RA); at Eliot Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard; and St. Adalbert’s (known as St. A’s), on 83rd Street in Elmhurst.

I went to OLH, my friend John across the street went to St. A’s and some of the other kids on the block went to RA.

Catholics might have seem repressed, but their fundraising bazaars have to be the stuff of legend. I still recall being taken as a child to the “Feast” in Brooklyn, where you could eat Italian food, bet on horse races (in the days before OTB) and gaze with fear and wonder at the guys in see-through socks on the street corners.

Closer to home, all three parishes mentioned above ran their own fundraising bazaars, and in contrast to the image of the Church as strait-laced and repressive, they could and did literally turn into bacchanals of food, fun and frivolity for all ages.

I didn’t lose my virginity at a Catholic school bazaar, but I bet there are plenty of my peers who did. I did have my first – and last – bad experience with alcohol at the RA bazaar, though, in which I actually blacked out. I experienced fun, disappointment and a lot more, and regret sometimes not being back there to experience them again.

Let’s just say that people really cut loose back then, and maybe the pope wouldn’t have approved.

Fun and games – and a surprise – at OLH
At Our Lady of Hope, the bazaar’s preparations would begin and we students would lose access to the schoolyard, which is where the bazaar’s attractions were located. Workers would assemble the tents’ frames, then put up the tents, and the students in grades one to three who sat in classrooms that overlooked the schoolyard would lose much of their sunlight.

No one cared because the bazaar was coming and that meant seeing friends outside of school, fun food and rides, as well as the possibility of prizes.

Access to the schoolyard had to be severely limited, and security obtained, especially after the prizes for the games of chance were distributed in the tents.

I remember one opening day as a small child, and I was waiting outside and watching as some misguided eighth-grader was dared to climb the fence before the bazaar opened. I recall that he climbed the chain-link fence and came down on the other side, but when he tried to come back his friends kept preventing him. Eventually, he was caught, brought back through the gate and released with a chewing-out.

In addition to the games of chance, there was gambling and kids my age were allowed to bet. There also was a ferris wheel and a couple of other rides.

I still remember that great year when, on the final night of the bazaar, a grand prize drawing was held for a bicycle. My brother Patrick won the bicycle.

The thing was, we thought we’d get the bicycle they showed in the tent, but my father instead received a boxed and disassembled bicycle. I think dad paid a local bicycle store $25 to assemble the bike, and I know Patrick got a lot of use out of it.

Disappointment at St. A’s
St. Adalbert’s had its bazaar after OLH and RA, when it held one, but it was a disappointment. In any case, we were bazaar’d out by this time, and because St. A’s had such a small outside area, nearly all of it was indoors.

Going all the way at RA
There were some wild times at OLH’s bazaars, but the biggest of them all was at Resurrection-Ascension. RA had a huge land footprint, including a gigantic schoolyard, and the rides were pretty extensive. The gambling operation was in a recreation building and down a flight of stairs, which protected it from the elements, and whenever I think of the RA bazaar I can remember it being packed with people.

As a teenager, I can recall some pretty brutal disappointments with girls, including finding out that the girl I had a crush on was a smoker, but there were fun times.

On one occasion, a girl got on this ride where you basically were on the end of a line and spun around. I was standing near her friends and she got on the ride and realized that she was losing her shoes. She was wearing these chunky wooden platform sandals that girls wore back then, and I guess she decided that she’d better take them off and toss them before they landed in traffic in the street.

One shoe landed near her friends, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd behind me.

One of my fondest memories is the walk down the tree-lined Eliot Avenue to the bazaar, and sometimes running into school friends on the way.

But as my crowd got older, we began to get a little crazier. My last memory of the RA bazaar must have been in 1977 when me and my friends went to a liquor store up Woodhaven Boulevard and bought a bottle of some concoction called “Rock and Rye.”

We had beer, and passed around the “Rock,” and were having a great time. My memory starts to fade in and out. I remember being on the Woodhaven Boulevard side, then somehow we were on the Eliot Avenue side.

I was lying on the sidewalk, and I heard one of my friends say, “He’s really drunk. We have to get him home.”

I then sat up and announced, “Let’s go.”

The next thing I knew, I was in my bed and I had a fat lip.

As it turned out, I had tried to bite the curb and my father had not smacked me in the face.

He opened the door to my room, saw me awake, and said, “Boy, you put on one hell of a performance last night.”

I remembered none of it.

Now it’s nearly 40 years later and I live in Florida. But I’ll never forget those times.

Memories
I posed a question on the Facebook group “You Must Have Lived in Middle Village if You Remember …” and got a ton of responses. Here they are, unedited:

Frank Nagy OLH had the Bazaars, I remember Puking on the “Tilt a Hurl” ride

Frank Nagy And the rickety Ferris wheel ride..

Vincent F. Safuto At the last RA bazaar I attended (1977, I think), I got so drunk I blacked out. Good thing my friends got me home.

Marty Muller I remember all the fights at the RA bazaar! Every year same shit ! Lol

Lawrence Burns My Dad worked the gambling tent and the poker games in the brothers house on Eliot ave..Those games went on all night till the early morning…..R.A. good times….

Teresa Grogan You could hear the shouts from the other end of the block “UNDER!!!!!” “It’s UNDER!!!!” LOL

Tony Marine My uncle also dealt poker there!

Jay Scahill Remember the ones at RA. Wish I had pictures

Christine Blondel Maddalena Lots of beer pot and fights lol

Maria Puglisi Definitely “Here comes the rollllll …Under!” lol & the Swinging Gym.

Lydia Bellafiore Best times of my life with my gramps

Debbie Hoffman-Silvagni RA bazaars, the best! Looked forward to it every year!

Doris Tavella I took all my allowance savings ($40 +) and gambled it away at over- under tables. Dang… my Dad was annoyed by my irresponsibility! That was odd, however in the 70’s that minors could gamble at RA ?
All good memories and my losses were like tithes to the church 🙏🏻

Vincent F. Safuto Back then I liked to gamble at the tables, but I had slightly better luck. I know that you could gamble at OLH and no one even bothered to stop you.

Doris Tavella Yes, I recall the tables and probably gambled at OLH. Got it out of my system before I turned 18 and as an Adult in Vegas, I usually go to the shows instead. Thanks RA and OLH… you taught me at a young age that I did not like to loose $

Ken Lenczewski Man, I was young but I remember the OLH bazaars. Lots of fighting and I heard someone was stabbed there

Doris Tavella PS…. I also puked after tilt a whirl and told my Mom it was because I ate belly bombers from White Castle on Queens Blvd. uhhh, oops, did I forget to tell her what I drank that night before the rides….LOL !

Vincent F. Safuto I heard about the dances at OLH that ended in fights and drug ODs, etc.

Ken Lenczewski There was some serious gambling going on in the cafeteria.

Vincent F. Safuto I remember at the RA bazaar one year a girl went on one of the rides and realized she was about to lose her shoes, so she reached down and tried to toss them to her friends.

One shoe landed nearby, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd. And remember, this was when teenage girls wore clunky platform sandals, not flip-flops like today.

Doris Tavella Ha ha, those platforms and clogs are back in style … especially the hard wooden ones like Dr. Scholls.

Vincent F. Safuto Doris Tavella All I can say is I was glad I wasn’t the one who stopped the shoe with my head.

Jeannie Opitz Hernandez Always went to RA

Carolyn Specker Cerrito Not the 70s, but the early 80s

Chris Kiernan Sure do
Worked them for years OLH

Tony Marine My family and neighbors worked the RA bazaar for years. My mom and aunt worked the stuffed animal booth, my grandmother used to sell paper chances that you would peel and read to see if you won. My uncle dealt poker. So many great memories. My cousin and I would buy a bag of zeppoli’s (sp?) and eat them behind the booth my mom worked in. I have a special memory too – my friend and I were riding the ferris wheel. It stopped at the top and we had a great view of the whole bazaar. We looked over across Woodhaven blvd, and there was a large, naked young woman walking across the street. She was wasted. She made her way across the street and started to mingle with the crowd until she was finally grabbed by the cops! True story.

Vincent F. Safuto Love these stories and they’re all great. Doesn’t anyone have photos?

Ken Lenczewski I love these stories, brings back so many memories

Joanne Stankovic Sorry, I would go to St. Margaret’s.

Maureen Zahn Scotch OLH bazaars were the best. I was young when we moved but it seemed like we would get a bag of zeppolis??, lots of powdered sugar!!

John Camilleri My Dad ran a lot of the OLH bazaars for years. I would work in the change booth. All everyone has commented is true, the rickety Ferris wheel, the gambling and what not. The big prize in one of the booths was a 12 inch BW TV!

Jeri Calvaruso Knobloch I went to OLH and I remember the carnivals well but don’t have any pics.

Denise Orphal Baietto I went yo the RA bizzare and won a bottle of wine when

Denise Orphal Baietto I was 16 lol

Martha Tambini I went to RA and just remember having to sell those chances for the bazaar.

 

March 22, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | 1 Comment

The ever-forgetful Publishers Clearing House

They keep forgetting how to get to my house.

They fail to move online stickers.

They forget my prize choices.

They even lose my address and need to have it confirmed. Over and over.

They are the Publishers Clearing House.

For decades, and even after tons of legal action, the Publishers Clearing House has persevered. Its famous (or infamous) “Prize Patrol” is nearly legendary for its supposed surprise arrivals at people’s houses, presenting them with giant cardboard checks and life-changing sums of money.

Like the Reader’s Digest and Time-Life contests, which used direct mail, the Publishers Clearing House was a legendary user of “junk mail,” filling mailboxes with notices that the recipient was about to lose his or her “special status” because of failure to return an entry, and hey, an order would be appreciated even though ordering something did not improve your (massively low) chances of winning anything.

The movie “Nebraska” shows how seniors could be fooled by their clever language into thinking they had won the big money. Bruce Dern plays a sadly deluded man determined to walk to the headquarters of a company, letter in hand, to collect a non-existent prize.

I remember that people would show up at the Tampa airport, expecting to be presented with a big check for the Time-Life contest.

I once read that a big reason why the Reader’s Digest’s parent company is now a shadow of its former self was that it had to stop running its contest, which brought in tons of revenue, but also lawsuits over the wording of its mailings.

Publishers Clearing House has stopped sending me mailings, but I still get email, and the “official” certificates and other palaver have migrated online. I still recall, though, getting mailings telling me to sit down and then saying that my number was in the final run on the computer, and I might want to consider what I would do with several million dollars. I actually thought I might really have a shot, but noticed that the envelope it came in was mass-mailed third-class mail. Probably everyone on the mailing list got that one.

I’d get scripts I’d have to read, telling me that the last winner had not been enthusiastic enough.

I’d get maps and itineraries, showing nearby florists where the Prize Patrol would buy flowers for my wife (I’m single) and all I had to do was confirm the directions to my house.

Now it’s all online, and I’ve confirmed my address, confirmed the itinerary and “transferred” enough virtual stickers to make me want to hurl.

I read somewhere that in some states, Publishers Clearing House is enjoined legally from many of these activities. Not in Florida, apparently.

But before they finally “process” your entry, there’s the last thing. You click through all the sales pitches for all the goodies you don’t need, and “Wonderful Children’s Stories from the Bible” and so forth, and there’s the reminder that you haven’t ordered anything.

But you can pass that and then you are shown a fake progress bar and finally you’re done. You’re entered yet again in their contest, several months from now, to win the big grand prize.

Tomorrow you’ll get another email telling you the Prize Patrol lost your address, or the directions to your house or you need to transfer more stickers.

Sometimes, people actually win.

One time, out of a mailpiece, I was asked to write why I hadn’t ordered anything. The answer was pretty simple. I didn’t have the money to buy anything. Give me the big prize, I said, and I’ll order everything.

They never responded.

I never ordered. And won’t, until that check lands in my bank account.

In the meantime, I have to again confirm my address.

The Prize Patrol is so forgetful.

March 11, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

Another economic development scam falls apart

When times are tough and you have millions in grant money sitting around for economic development, it’s easy to fall for the lure of the economic development con man.

He rolls into town and promises everything to everybody.

Want jobs? You’ll have them.

Need a tenant? I’ll sign a long-term lease.

Got cash to give to me? I’ll take a check.

I don’t seem to have enough cash to get started? Fear not, I have investors in Minnesota, oh, I mean, investors in Singapore, or maybe it’s Albania?, whose identity I can’t disclose who’ll lend me $20 million.

You insist that I meet your requirements before you disburse the money? Oh, if you want to be “that way” about it, I’ll still do the deal.

I think the word is getting out about the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, and it’s that they’re the biggest bunch of suckers since that lollipop truck overturned on I-75.

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the EDC, gushed like mad over the wonders that Major League Football would bring to the area. As I mentioned before, and before, and before, this bankrupt pseudo-football league is run by people who are adept at making economic development jumps to different parts of the country, making wild and vague promises, and then walking away, leaving vendors and lenders in a pinch and seeking legal relief.

It was hardly a surprise when the league, after holding tryouts, canceled its inaugural season and then announced that it was all part of the big strategy, and then this past week it was revealed that the league has been living “on the arm” at Lakewood Ranch, and the landlord decided to make a move and file eviction papers.

(You can follow the story at the newspaper where I work, the Bradenton Herald.)

The Bradenton EDC managed to avoid being taken in the Sanborn Studios scam, but remember that they fell for the Gulf Coast Swords hockey team deal, the rowing competition and now Major League Football.

What’s next? Cat racing?

June 25, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Postal Service’s incompetent management can’t even train its employees

My comments are not statistically valid in any way, since they are based on experiences that happened more than 22 years ago, but maybe they’ll shed some light on what the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General is trying to do, which is discover why the Postal Service is spending tens of thousands of dollars for each new hire and why they are nearly all quitting soon after starting work, and why the IG will write a report that’s ultimately ignored.

I was a mailhandler in the Postal Service from January 1983 to June 1994. I was eager at the start, as most postal employees are, to become good at my job and to advance my career. I had heard that the Postal Service was a bad place to be an ambitious worker but was determined to be different. Even when I discovered that the mailhandler craft was disdained as “the strong backs and weak minds” of the system, I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Having worked for United Parcel Service, I had few fears of the prospect of postal privatization, which I saw as a steppingstone to advancement opportunity. I had thrived at UPS, where I was a Christmas-temp, and had even been advanced from unloading large trailers to pre-loading the famous brown trucks that drivers took on their routes. I worked in a facility that had 40 workers on the night shift and one supervisor, and the workers pushed hard to get the job done because they were paid for a full night even if they got done early.

After I was assigned to the pre-loading, a second manager was brought in for the holiday rush, and part of her job was to help me learn ways to become more efficient in my work. Through her, I learned the importance of putting items in the truck in the correct order so the driver could deliver them. On a few occasions, I’d see a box with the dreaded “OOP” notation, meaning “out of place.” That meant that the driver had found the box but had passed the package’s destination and could not backtrack. I would have “made my book” at UPS but for the bad economy in early 1983. Still, I learned that it was important to train everyone fully in their jobs.

Needless to say, the Postal Service was a culture shock for me. I had taken the test for several crafts shortly after my discharge from the military, but was not betting on getting hired anytime soon. Indeed, I was beginning to pursue educational opportunities and when the Postal Service did hire me, I spent a couple of days wondering what I should do, as I had just started school and the schedule was going to be impossible for me to do both. At the time, I made the least bad choice and took the postal job.

Unlike the UPS facility, the postal facility had a horde of supervisors and managers, and training was not a priority. You learned as you went – if someone wanted to teach you – and while I was criticized for being to eager to learn outside my immediate work area I soon became good at my job. I was working in the Long Island area, where the union was pretty strong and management pretty laid-back.

But I couldn’t afford to live in that area, and eventually moved to Florida. Here I could see the challenge of massive growth – part of the reason I moved there – and the desperate need for change. Supervisors were less tolerant of new-hires and some were very abusive toward workers. Sexual harassment of female employees was rampant and, despite the promises made at orientation, usually accusations were dealt with through threats and extreme abuse and retaliation.

Again, training was never conducted for mailhandlers or casuals. (There was training for LSM operators, and that had to go continually because management seemed to have a goal of 100 percent turnover on the LSMs. They came close, especially with new-hires, very few of whom made their probation.)

I made it clear to my bosses that I wanted training to advance into management, and was basically shot down. Still, I managed to learn that there were correspondence courses I could take, including an introduction to postal management. I was warned that taking correspondence courses could actually hurt my advancement chances, but decided to take them nonetheless, figuring I’d learn skills that I could use outside the Postal Service.

The basic postal supervisors’ course, which no one else took in my facility, was an eye-opener. I really worked that course hard, learning how to deal with people and how to talk to them. Needless to say, reality was quite different but I have always found theory to be a good place to start. I was advised to stay away from the local community college but found that some of the bosses were teaching classes there in postal operations, so I took them and was not afraid to express my views. I probably destroyed my advancement chances in the Postal Service but it was worth it.

The funny thing was that – especially after the violence that broke out in facilities – I was mainly parroting what the postmaster general had been saying. Employees were reporting abusive work environments and often paying the price in severe retaliation despite promises of no retaliation. I learned that postal management was a good place if you were a liar, a sex harasser, an abuser, a practitioner of “creative postal math” and an all-around bad person.

When I finally got a chance to put theory into practice, the reality was that I was a terrible postal manager, as bad or worse than those I criticized. I was relieved and sent back to the mailhandler craft.

At this point, I had a decision to make. My first instinct was to quit. I have always been a deliberative person, though, and in my late 20s was too mature to act impulsively.

So I decided that the Postal Service was not the career for me, but decided to stay and use it to further my own goals. Despite the warnings, I trekked to the community college and began the long process of applying to become a student there. It was a lot of paperwork, and I had to take the ACT, but in the summer of 1988 I began my first course, Introduction to the Social Sciences.

I was advised repeatedly by people in and out of the Postal Service that college was a waste of time, and everyone had a Cousin Harvey who had a fancy degree and was working the drive-through at McD’s but I also learned that when people are afraid of your ambition, they’ll do anything and tell any lies to try and stop you from achieving.

College was like a dream come true for me. Not needing to take out loans or use Pell grants, I eagerly took classes and in three years had a two-year degree. I transferred to the state university and finished my college degree there in April 1994.

I was unusual. The Postal Service had then and has now very, very few college graduates, especially in its management and executive ranks. The facility I worked at in West Palm Beach had almost no college graduates in management, several high school dropouts in management and even a person with just a seventh-grade education in a management position. I had stopped even applying for postal management jobs, knowing I’d be rejected out of hand, and was soon searching for a new job outside the Postal Service.

I was gaining work experience through volunteer work and soon I realized that the best way to escape the postal handcuffs was simple: quit, then I’d have to be more aggressive in my job search.

To make a long story short, I did just that and soon was landing jobs. The confidence gained was immeasurable, and I feel sorry for those who are having a hard time and lack that confidence. I hear “no” a lot more, but that’s age discrimination, sadly. Too bad. I’ve been working and improving my skills and it saddens me that I might soon have no place where they will be wanted. The skills will be needed, but by someone younger than me.

The Postal Service has again abandoned the idea of training, from what I hear. New hires are thrown into work and fired if they cannot figure out the job. It’s a waste of money to hire people just so you can fire them, but as I saw 22 years ago, it’s the only way the Postal Service knows.

I still remember one holiday season when we had a mass of temporary employees milling around, and a supervisor who reprimanded me for showing them how to do their job. “It’s a waste of time to train these stupid assholes,” she said. “They were looking for a job here, so I know they’re idiots. We shouldn’t train people who are just going to quit or be fired.”

I tried to explain that part of the reason the new hires were having problems was because no one was explaining how to do the job, but she was a postal supervisor and I was a worker. I mentioned the postmaster general’s comments, and she said, “Fuck him. The supervisors run the Postal Service and not the postmaster general. Listen to us and not him.”

That attitude is alive and well in today’s Postal Service, and why its grand strategies will always fail.

June 20, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, Uncategorized | , , | 4 Comments

When committing astronomy can get you killed

Get a bunch of amateur astronomers together and eventually, after the tall tales of seeing the Horsehead Nebula and the wisps of the Veil Nebula, you’ll get to the strange encounters we’ve had.

It’s hard not to notice an amateur astronomer, alone or in a pack. We have this weird looking object that may or may not look like everyone’s definition of a telescope; we perform weird rituals around it, peering through a smaller scope or looking at a book or magazine; and we might be seen punching numbers into a handheld device, smartphone or laptop and then watching as the telescope mount points the telescope.

There’s the weird language, too. “Go from Enif in Pegasus and then across the Great Square, and you’ll see M31.”

Or, “I swear, I saw a star flare up in the Double Cluster. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

We in the U.S. might meet up with bad guys while observing the stars – though a look through the telescope might mollify them – or even law enforcement.

A story steeped in legend is about the time a group of amateur astronomers gathers on a hill overlooking their city on a dark, clear night, and soon had their array of telescopes set up.

Most telescopes of that time, and today, bear quite a resemblance to mortar tubes. It’s not intentional. The Schmidt-Cassegrain design is compact and easy to transport, and offers some pretty good-sized apertures up to 14 inches. They do look like mortars in the dark and at a distance.

The group noticed that there were several cars of law enforcement racing on the road up the hill, with lights flashing and sirens wailing. They felt a sense of relief. At least someone was out there protecting them.

Soon, though, the police arrived and cautiously approached. It turned out that someone had called 911, thinking that a group was assembling mortars and about to start raining shells on the town. A few minutes later, after the police were shown that the telescopes were for extracting secrets from the sky and not harming anyone, the officers left and the amateurs resumed their work.

That story had a happy ending, but for some people the very act of not only looking at the sky but knowing about it can be a death sentence.

Carl Sagan once said that you never know where the seed of knowledge will sprout. Sometimes, in the most unexpected places, you will find people with a driving desire to know how the universe works, he said.

We know of Afghanistan as a place of endless war and tumult, murderous religious fanaticism and where young Americans have died to protect a government that seems incapable of supplying toilet paper.

And yet, among all that, there is a dedicated group of amateur astronomers. According to a story in Newsweek and other sources, the Afghanistan Astronomy Association has an 11-inch telescope and other gear supplied by Astronomers Without Borders. Its members try to find locations to observe and often are harassed by the local police, religious leaders and military troops who all believe they are up to no good.

In a society where the only knowledge worth having seems to be religious or military, and the only skill you should show is how to plant an IED, these men want to learn about the sky and teach others.

Here’s an excerpt from the start of the story:

“In most of the world, an amateur astronomer can drive to a dark place, set up a telescope and enjoy the beauty of the sky above.

“But in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 36 years of war, a few men gathered around a telescope pointing toward the sky, in the middle of nowhere, looks pretty suspicious.

“From a distance, the police thought the telescope might be a rocket launcher.

“After careful inspection, the police still couldn’t comprehend why anyone would sit in a field, in the cold, to look at stars. Although they’d never seen a telescope before, they conceded that this probably wasn’t a weapon.

“Calling the astronomers halfwits, the police left. Spooked, most of the stargazers took off too, leaving Bakhshi and two others.”

Religious leaders aren’t helpful, spreading wild stories about eclipses and other superstitions.

But the amateurs keep at it.

“On another late afternoon, as the sun disappears and the evening call to prayer echoes across the city below, Bakhshi, Amiri and a small group of men gather on the outskirts of Kabul.

“As he sets up a large telescope, cigarette dangling from his lip, Amiri recalls the first time he saw the moon up close. In an old schoolbook, he had discovered a guide to making a telescope and managed to fashion one out of an old chimney pipe.

‘I couldn’t move my eye away from the telescope that night,’ he says.

“One by one, the men peer at the moon through the telescope. The clarity is remarkable; the moon luminous and rugged with craters and mountains.

“For those who are looking through the telescope for the first time that night, each has the same reaction: astonishment and wonder, followed by a barrage of questions.”

Maybe there will be a time when amateur astronomers the world over can live and work in peace. In the meantime, there are those who are willing to risk it all for a glimpse of the moon or Saturn. It definitely makes you appreciate what we have here.

 

 

January 11, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Wonders of science no longer reserved for a select few

On Saturday night, Dec. 5, I took out the 14-inch for some driveway observing.

It was not the most propitious night to gaze at the universe. No planets are visible in the evening sky right now – you’re better off looking east before sunrise – and there were pesky clouds to contend with, but the night went off well.

The folks across the street from me are moving soon to a new house that they’ll own, and perhaps I’ll have new neighbors across the street in a month or so. They came by for a last look through my telescope, and we talked about the latest discoveries in space.

There’s so much going on out there. The Cassini probe – in orbit around Saturn since the mid-2000s, soon will send back its last pictures and then begin its final death plunge into the planet. Entire libraries of books on Saturn are now quaint museum pieces thanks to the discoveries made of Saturn, its wondrous rings and its amazing moons. In a photo that almost brings tears to my eyes, a crescent Enceladus seems to hover above the rings.

It’s sad to say that Cassini must die eventually. It’s running out of reaction control fuel. A mission that began at first proposal in 1982; launch on Oct. 15, 1997, atop a Titan IVB-Centaur rocket; gravity assists around Venus in 1998 and 1999; and the Saturn insertion burn on July 1, 2004, will end as follows, according to Wikipedia:

“The chosen mission ending involves a series of close Saturn passes, approaching within the rings, then an entry into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017, to destroy the spacecraft. This method was chosen because it is imperative to ensure protection and prevent biological contamination to any of the moons of Saturn thought to offer potential habitability.”

I hope that, like the Galileo probe that went to its death in Jupiter, the Cassini will tell us even more about Saturn as it plunges to its fate. We will miss Cassini.

The year of Pluto
I was telling a neighbor, “All our lives, Pluto was a dot of light with an arrow next to it. Now, it’s a world of wonders. And we’re seeing it as it’s never been seen before.”

On the night of July 14, people around the world watched as NASA TV broadcast live the wait for the first signal from New Horizons. For years, since the Jan. 19, 2006, launch, we had waited for the spacecraft to make its long, long journey to Pluto.

The Atlas V rocket accelerated New Horizons to an amazing speed, and after a Jupiter encounter in September 2006, the probe went to sleep – with periodic awakenings – until it was time to get to work.

From a dot, Pluto and its moons grew in size. On July 14, we received the greatest signal in the history of space science. New Horizons had survived its close fly-by of Pluto and had acquired all the data it was expected to acquire, and now would begin the long, long process of transmitting it all back to Earth.

The other day, we got the best pictures we’ll ever get of Pluto. What a wonder it is.

And now, New Horizons is heading out for a Jan. 1, 2019, flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. If funding is achieved, we’ll be seeing a world so distant as more than a dot again.

Ceres and Vesta
The Dawn probe has achieved some amazing results around to minor planets in what used to be called the asteroid belt. As with the above missions, the data is put out to the public on the Internet, and we have a chance to see pictures of worlds we could only just imagine a few decades ago.

Abandon exploration?
Some say we need to focus on Earth, where we have plenty of problems that need solving. While we in the “West” wonder at the discoveries that are being made, others are in thrall to their favorite deities and obey the commands of self-appointed representatives, who seem to be ordering mass death and destruction.

Fighting them is a tall order, but we should not abandon our efforts to learn and discover. We have plenty of resources to fight and learn.

What Vesta is made of might not help us beat ISIS, but it shows that we’re able to focus on the cosmic issues.

Let’s close with a reading from the book of Sagan. “Cosmos,” episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”:

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.”

 

December 6, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The purpose of college

When I first began considering attending college, my main focus was not to be any kind of activist or rebel – save against postal authority – but to create opportunities for myself beyond what I realized I could reasonably achieve in my current situation.

To me, college was about change, self-improvement and enlightenment, plus a chance to expand my personal contacts.

I suppose because of my relatively advanced age – I was in my late 20s – and my experience – I had served in the military and worked full-time for several years – I was in a better position than an 18-year-old undergraduate, also known as the “traditional” student.

I had had my adjustment to being away from parental authority and had taken on a whole set of responsibilities – job, car payments, mortgage, utilities, etc., that were outside the experience of many of my peers in community college. Others in the college were my age or slightly younger or older, and were also there for the purpose of improving themselves and acquiring knowledge.

Maybe I’m out of step with the current generational thinking on college but something seems to have gone wrong.

Today’s undergraduate, regardless of age, seems to be more concerned with making sure that the college or university administration is aligned with their views rather than pursuing an education.

What I mean is that when I was in college, I knew I’d encounter people with views and opinions different from my own. I was eager to hear other views and was not going to college to shut other people up. In the free and open exchange of ideas comes enlightenment – if not agreement.

I remembered one woman at the post office who told me about her first day at college was her last day. She’d been young and naïve, and had started her first day of classes with great excitement and anticipation. But in a class, she said, the instructor had mentioned evolution. She said that since evolution was against her religion and her views, she had to quit college immediately.

It was sad. She never achieved anything personally or professionally because she quit college on the first day.

In my days at community college and university, I often encountered views opposed to mine. Sometimes people did not bow before my holy body because I was a veteran of the military. Others didn’t agree with me politically.

Instead of marching in protest and demanding that others conform to my views, I listened to them and defended their right to speak out and present their views.

Today in colleges, students want “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to avoid opinions and news that might upset them. Well, going to college means going where you will become upset and even frustrated. In the real world, you can’t just declare “safe space” and remove those who disagree with you.

I actually found that I learned more from those with whom I disagreed than with those I agreed with.

College was a totally enlightening experience for me. Much of what I knew and believed was challenged or held up for close examination, and I loved it.

I feel sorry for the kids today who are so closed-minded to ideas and insights that are not their own. I might still disagree with some views but they all have to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

I know it’s just a few students who are making it bad for the rest. But the overall view of college is being sullied, and someone has to defend the academy.

College was a great experience for me, one that I will always cherish. I miss the academic atmosphere sometimes, and wish to someday return there.

But if it’s to protests because students don’t agree with a speaker’s or a professor’s views on an issue, then I’d rather avoid the whole place.

College is where you become open to knowledge and ideas, not closed to them.

November 14, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | 1 Comment

The lost world of PC games

A new book has proclaimed 1995 as the year the future really began for us, and lately I have been immersing myself somewhat in that culture.

I just finished a book from my personal collection on the 1996 presidential campaign, watched the film “The Martian,” where Matt Damon’s character uses an artifact from 1997 to help himself survive on Mars and now am reading the late Richard Ben Cramer’s spectacular 1992 book, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” which is about the 1988 campaign.

I have to confess that in some ways I miss the late 1980s to 1990s. I was in the middle of my big effort to rework my future, I had money in my pocket and it seemed like every week there was some new innovation in technology that made life so much more interesting.

I have always been a big fan of computer games on the IBM-compatible PC, and in the late 1980s to 1990s it seemed like the floodgates of innovation and creativity had been opened up.

Every Sunday afternoon, I’d go to my second cousin Angelo’s house, and we’d go to the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic College in West Palm Beach for the free live broadcast of Craig Crossman’s Computer America show. Craig always had great guests on his show, and they always came with free stuff you could win.

Sometimes we’d meet Angelo’s brother-in-law, John Martin, at the show. They were always fun to be with, and I miss them more than I can tell you.

If I went by myself, I’d stop at CompUSA at one of the big shopping centers on Okeechobee Boulevard and check out the computers, software displays and other technology for sale. CompUSA was a big chain then and the store had a lot of money. I know because I put it there. Its software department was epic in size, with countless games for the PC in long rows on display shelves. Truly, it was the golden age of PC games.

Getting them to work on your machine was another matter, of course. Still, I learned a lot from the technology of the time.

On the night of Aug. 24, 1995, a big tropical storm was threatening the West Palm Beach area, but people still lined up at CompUSA and other stores for the first shot at buying Microsoft’s Windows 95 upgrade. The hype was insane. I was working part-time at The Palm Beach Post, and we were putting together special feature sections on computers. The Internet was starting to be a big deal and there were big plans that somehow never came to fruition. Still, we were putting news online there and it was the beginning of something amazing and awesome.

Nonetheless, it was the games section that to me always was a barometer of the health of the industry. Today, computer games are a big part of the shelf space, but the hardware is from consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox series. I’m a PlayStation 3 man myself, and enjoy games like “NHL 14” and “MLB 13: The Show” (too cheap to upgrade), but there’s a special place in my heart for PC games.

The new distribution channel of the Internet means that games can become big deals without filling store shelves, and the game “Kerbal Space Program” has become a phenomenon since 2011. Now that it’s been formally released – and you have to pay $40 for the game (though updates and mods are free, for now, at least) – it’s really shown the potential for PC-based games, and is being expanded to consoles.

I always was on the lookout for a space program simulator, and Kerbal lets me not only run and direct a space program, but also design and control the rockets. The genre of “god games” was always a popular one in PC games, and Kerbal really lets you let your imagination run wild, with a sandbox mode, where everything is available at once, as well as a career mode, where you have to earn advancement and new technologies.

We’re far from a new golden age of PC games, but I guess this is as close as we’ll get.

CompUSA died several years ago, and electronics retailer Circuit City also bit the dust. In Bradenton, the old Circuit City was taken over by HHGregg, which seems to be doing fairly well. The granddaddy of them all, Best Buy, seemed to be a goner but had made somewhat of a comeback despite the fact that shopping there can be very unpleasant.

One day, I walked in and I guess the new “advice of the week” was for employees to chase customers, shouting out recommendations.

The PC game section is mostly shovel-ware now and occupies a segment of a shelf. It’s so sad. There was a time when you would have seen rows and rows of games, even at Best Buy, and it’s reduced to this.

I sometimes go through the boxes in my garage and find those old game I bought years ago. They probably still work, but I just prefer to mourn over the lost old times.

It was fun, though, to take home a new version of “Civilization” or “Rail Tycoon” or “SimCity” and wonder at the new worlds you’d get to rule. I suppose we have to move on, but let’s never forget that those games gave us hours of fun and insight.

Kerbal does that now. For that, I suppose, we should be grateful.

October 11, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment