Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.



November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fanatics are losing it over the military

In 1982, anti-Constitutionalist fanatics took away my gun.

I was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps at MCAS Yuma, Ariz., and was living on base and in the barracks for VMA-513, a Harrier squadron based at the air station. I worked in the Avionics Shop, which took care of electrical systems of the AV-8A Harriers.

Like many people living in Arizona at the time, I thought it might be fun to own a gun. There was some hostility toward members of the military back then, and we were near the border with Mexico, and there had been a mass shooting in California. We had to be able to defend ourselves on base.

I bought a gun off someone in town, someone I knew from my weekends at Yuma Rollerland, and soon was going off into the desert with my comrades to fire off .22 ammunition and trying with no success to wing a rabbit.

We stored the guns in our barracks’ rooms, and one fellow even bought a whole kit for “reloading” his brass. Some nights, we’d have gun-cleaning parties where we’d sit down at tables in our rooms, drink beer and clean our pistols, pose for pictures with them and then store the weapons in our wall lockers.

Of course, we had all been issued M-16 service rifles, but the communists who ran the base insisted that they be stored in the base armory, not in our rooms, so we could not defend ourselves if enemies attacked the base or someone threatened our Constitutional rights. Only the military police were allowed to have guns and ammunition, but we had evened the score on that account now.

Once a month, we had to go to the armory and clean our M-16s. What a chore it was to stand outside for a half-hour and go through the drill we had learned at Parris Island. Then we’d have to surrender it to the Pfc. in the air-conditioned armory, and he’d inspect it and then let us know if we had to clean it again or if it was acceptable. Would you believe, they wouldn’t even let us have ammunition for our M-16s? Horror.

The Department of Defense apparently then was under the influence of someone named Barry Obama, because they wouldn’t let us have our M-16s and ammunition for the rifles in the barracks. Why, liberals might have invaded the base and we’d be defenseless until the MPs woke up.

I went on leave for a time and came back to the base to learn that while I was gone an old rule had started to be enforced on the base: no more personal weapons in the barracks. Now, today, we’d immediately be on the phone to Fox News and every conservative website in the land, howling about how we were being subjected to arbitrary enforcement of military rules, and who were our Marine commanders to tell us how to live in the barracks? And all because a Marine had committed suicide with his personal pistol while I was gone.

There’d be a hue and cry throughout the land, and maybe armed World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans would come out and guard the base for us, and bring us food and other comforts while teaching us about how the Department of Defense was run by morons. It was bad enough that we couldn’t wear our camouflage utilities off base, and had to either wear our Class-A or Class-C uniforms, or – horror of horrors – dress in civilian clothing.

I was advised that I had to give my weapon and ammunition to the officer in charge of the Avionics shop, and if I wanted the gun back to go shooting, I had to go through the unbelievable and illegal process of asking him. It was so degrading. I mean, even though if I asked him before he went home for lunch, he’d have the gun for me when he came back in the afternoon. The nerve of the Marine Corps for trying to dictate how I should live in its barracks. The nerve.

I suppose I was such a sheep back then, trained to obedience by the evil government, that I did what I was told. The officer seemed glad and I had no idea of the violation of my personal rights. One day, I found someone who’d buy the weapon and had to endure the humiliation of asking the shop officer if I could have it back.

Would you believe that this man, whose only authority over me was because he was a warrant officer in the Marines and the first officer in my chain of command, actually had the nerve to ask me why I wanted the weapon.

I told him I was going to sell it. The next day (I had to wait a whole day, even though I wasn’t going to town until the weekend.) my bag was there in the shop. I thanked the officer, but I should have taken him to task for limiting my holy rights to my gun.

That weekend, I sold the gun to someone who was allowed to live free and without communist government rules over his head. I still ache today when I think of my beloved .22, which I had to sell because the military had such silly rules about having weapons, and the violation of my holy, god-given constitutional rights.

Every day, in every way, the government degrades the military by passing down orders. Why, the other day, the Department of Defense had to insane audacity to recommend that Marine Corps recruiters not wear their uniforms for a couple of days until the hysteria dies down over the shootings in Chattanooga. Why, I’d demand that all Marines everywhere, no matter their billet, dress in the highest level of dress uniform they own, even if they’re going to be fixing airplanes or working in the chow hall.

Just to show the evil anti-Americans in our country who don’t worship the military that we won’t surrender, ever.

My surrender to the rules of the military pains me to this day. I’m just glad I have no oath to obey my traitorous military commanders or their superior, who hates the military.

Why, I may take up a shovel and go stand by a military recruiting station to show my loyalty, and maybe grab some Krispy Kremes on the way for the recruiters. Though I wonder: If we feed them too much, won’t they have to buy new dress uniforms?

July 24, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment

My very scary hospital adventure

It was all the fault of the Marine Corps. I ended up at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s emergency room on a Sunday morning at 9 a.m. because of the way I was taught to shave in basic training.

As recruits, we were instructed to shave as close as possible to avoid having late-afternoon facial hair. It’s the same today. Look at recruits in Marine basic training, and most seem to have facial skin that is covered in sores and cuts. That’s from shaving too close.

For most of us, our faces heal after basic training and we’re not shaving as often.

My adventure began one day when I was shaving my chin, and I accidentally nicked myself. I thought the bleeding would stop soon, and it did – after I went to work with a Band-Aid on my chin. Even then, blood still seeped out.

For a couple of weeks, I had tried to shave around the cut, then decided to stop shaving altogether. Still, I had a pimple of sorts there, and occasionally I would touch it.

On the day before my hospital visit, I drove to a local car dealer to buy a new car. On the way there, I realized that I had opened the cut again. I went into a men’s room and managed to stop the bleeding, but it might have just been bleeding into my beard.

I bought the new car and later left for work. That night, I came home and went to bed. The next morning, I awoke and realized that there was blood on my pillow. I raced to the bathroom and tried to stanch the bleeding, but it kept on going. Mind you, I wasn’t bleeding profusely, just in a way that meant Band-Aids were soaked in 10 seconds. I was going through towels, dripping some blood on the floor and finally reached the terrible realization that I had to go to the emergency room.

While keeping pressure on my chin, I managed to get dressed without bleeding on my clothing, then collected a couple of towels, checked my wallet for my insurance card and headed for the hospital.

Manatee Memorial’s configuration is such that I had to make a left turn at a long light, then go around the long way to get to the ER. I had a towel against my chin and bled on the seat belt as I drove to the hospital. Finally, I got there, parked the car, locked it and walked into the emergency room.

The nurses at the desk moved quickly, as my towel was very bloody. Soon, I had a bandage tied around my head, with gauze on my chin. After taking my information, the nurse moved me to a room to be treated. I was given a package of gauze and advised to keep pressure on the wound. Another nurse came in about 10 minutes later and we began the long process of getting me fixed up.

Efforts to stop the bleeding had proved unsuccessful, so the hospital wanted to do a blood workup on me. They were worried that if they stuck me on the arm for a blood sample, I might not stop bleeding. Finally, they decided to risk it. Needless to say, the blood sample taking went off without a hitch, and I soon stopped bleeding from the needle cut in my arm.

The “facial laceration” on my chin continued to flow, and I was getting worried. I mean, what if the blood test revealed something awful, like leukemia or another type of cancer? I have had very little contact with medical professionals in the past several years simply because I feel fine and haven’t had any injuries.

Finally, a doctor arrived and checked me over. I was given a choice to have cauterization or stitches, or both. I choose the latter. A nurse came in and gave me a couple of local anesthetics so I wouldn’t faint when she began cauterizing the wound and sewing it up.

“How is my blood?” I asked.

“Perfect,” she said. “No problems at all. You are in great health.”

That was a relief.

I lay back as instructed, and saw that she had a device like a soldering iron. I felt nothing, but smelled burnt flesh for a moment as she cauterized the wound.

She inspected her work, then asked again about the stitches.

“Go ahead,” I said.

So she put two stitches on there, and the bleeding was stopped now.

“You have to have your own doctor take out the stitches soon,” she told me.

I left the hospital after about three and a half hours and thanked my lucky stars for insurance.

About a week later, I had the stitches removed. I refuse to shave that area now, and am careful about how deeply I try to shave.

Believe me. Lesson learned.

May 21, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The beard chronicles, or facial hair and other atrocities of nature

I still remember when my first facial hair began to appear, and it was a terrible disappointment.

Under my chin, a hair appeared and soon was about three-quarters of an inch long. It was a terrible embarrassment, and I remember how happy I was when my father showed me how to shave, and how relieved I was when a stroke removed that scraggly bit of hair, along with the incipient beard that I was beginning to believe I had.

When it comes to beards, men are the original optimists. They fantasize about luxurious carpets of dark hair across their faces that shows them to be distinguished and intelligent. By the time they finally get around to it, they get this terribly uneven mass that looks like the camouflage of a jet fighter, with areas of darkness and lightness interspersed.

Men whose beards come in gray are called “graybeards,” and such growths are a sign of advanced age and probably irascibility.

For example, I was watching the movie “Moonrise Kingdom” recently and saw actor Bob Balaban, who plays the resident of an island who is also a sort of narrator of the movie and an island historian. He’s a comic figure with his gray chin-beard. Compare that role to his roles in such films as “2010” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when he was much younger and his beard was totally black. He looked like an intellectual in those films, not a figure of whimsy.

I am currently growing a beard, the outgrowth of an incident where I cut myself on the chin shaving and began showing up for work with Band-Aids on my chin from repeatedly opening the wound. I finally decided to hell with it and gave up shaving, then continued to shave my neck.

What I have now is terrifying, a mixture of gray with a little black thrown in. It reminds me of the old MAD magazine strip in which a man is told by a young woman that the beard makes him look so smart. So distinguished. So old. “I’ll shave it off tomorrow,” he says in the last panel.

I sometimes joke that my beard is a sign of religious conversion to Islam, but of course that’s not true. It is true that the first sign that young men are radicalized into an extreme form of Islam is that they stop shaving and try to grow a beard, but as I said mine is just an effort to stop cutting my face and stop the bleeding.

The first time someone noticed I was growing a beard was, oddly enough, when I was trying desperately not to grow one.

I had learned to shave at the hand of my father, and soon after was at Parris Island where I had to learn the Marine Corps way of doing everything. It amazed me that you could actually get something accomplished while wearing just a towel and struggling to get mirror space with 65 other guys who were also trying to shave, but there we were, and there I was.

While Sgt. Bill Bostic shouted us through our shaving – “You have exactly 45 seconds.” and soon counted down to “You’re done, you’re done. Clear the head!” – I tried to follow the instructions he had given, which involved basically taking a Trac II razor and using it to not only remove the dreaded “five o’clock shadow” that emerged overnight but also the hair that was beneath the skin.

The eradication of all hair was a Marine Corps goal in basic training, and one interesting side note is that if you look at Marine recruits early on, their faces and necks look like disaster areas from the deep shaving.

Mine certainly did.

Still, I recall that Bostic wrote on an evaluation card for me that I was “growing a beard.”

Well, it might have been that I had lightened up on the razor because the pain was getting to be a bit much and it was not fun falling out for morning chow bleeding from shaving cuts on the neck.

Some Marines’ faces never recovered. African-American Marines had an especially hard time because of an affliction called “razor bumps.”

According to the unreliable source known as Wikipedia:

“Pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) is most common on the male face, but it can also happen on other parts of the body where hair is shaved or plucked, especially areas where hair is curly and the skin is sensitive, such as genital shaving (more properly termed pseudofolliculitis pubis or PFP).

“After a hair has been shaved, it begins to grow back. Curly hair tends to curl into the skin instead of straight out the follicle, leading to an inflammation reaction. PFB can make the skin look itchy and red, and in some cases, it can even look like pimples. These inflamed papules or pustules can form especially if the area becomes infected.

“This is especially problematic for some men who have naturally coarse or tightly curling thick hair. Curly hair increases the likelihood of PFB by a factor of 50. If left untreated over time, this can cause keloid scarring in the beard area.

“Pseudofolliculitis barbae can further be divided into two types of ingrown hairs: transfollicular and extrafollicular. The extrafollicular hair is a hair that has exited the follicle and reentered the skin. The transfollicular hair never exits the follicle, but because of its naturally curly nature curls back into the follicle causing fluid build-up and irritation.”

The solution?

Again, according to Wikipedia:

“The most effective prevention is to let the beard grow. For men who are required or prefer to shave, studies show the optimal length to be about 0.5 mm to 1 mm to prevent their hair growing back into the skin. For most cases, totally avoiding shaving for three to four weeks allows all lesions to subside, and most extrafollicular hairs will resolve themselves in about 10 days. Permanent removal of the hair follicle is the only definitive treatment for PFB. Electrolysis is impractical and ineffective because the needle may not reach the hair follicle. Laser-assisted hair removal is effective. There is a risk of skin discoloration and a very small risk of scarring.

“Some men use electric razors to control PFB. Those who use a razor should use a single blade or special wire-wrapped blade to avoid shaving too closely, with a new blade each shave. Shaving in the direction of hair growth every other day, rather than daily, may improve pseudofolliculitis barbae. If one must use a blade, softening the beard first with a hot, wet washcloth for five minutes or shave while showering in hot water can be helpful. Some use shaving powders (a kind of chemical depilatory) to avoid the irritation of using a blade. Barium sulfide-based depilatories are most effective, but produce an unpleasant smell.”

Here’s the treatment:

“The easiest cure is to let the beard grow. Existing razor bumps can often be treated by removal of the ingrown hair. Extrafollicular hairs can usually be pulled gently from under the skin, with tweezers. Complete removal of the hair from its follicle is not recommended. Severe or transfollicular hairs may require removal by a dermatologist.

“Medications are also prescribed to speed healing of the skin. Clinical trials have shown glycolic acid-based peels to be an effective and well-tolerated therapy which resulted in significantly fewer PFB lesions on the face and neck. The mechanism of action of glycolic acid is unknown, but it is hypothesized that straighter hair growth is caused by the reduction of sulfhydrylbonds in the hair shaft by glycolic acid, which results in reduced re-entry of the hair shaft into the follicular wall or epidermis. Medications containing Allantoin and Azulene have been shown to reduce swelling, redness and itchiness. Allantoin is a natural soothing skin protectant and moisturizer that increases the water content to provide structure support to skin cells. Azulene is a blue colored oil derived from flowers in the Asteraceae family and can be used to moisturize and soothe irritated skin. Salicylic acid peels are also effective. Prescription antibiotic gels (Benzamycin, Cleocin-T) or oral antibiotics are also used. Retin-A is a potent treatment that helps even out any scarring after a few months. It is added as a nightly application of Retin-A Cream 0.05 – 0.1% to the beard skin while beard is growing out.

“Exfoliating the skin before and between shaves using an ingrown hair brush or bump brush effectively frees trapped hair out and teases it away from the skin before the hair has a chance to embed itself.”

The trouble was, as I mentioned, you had to dig into the skin to get the facial hair, the very thing that caused the problem. I can still remember an African-American sergeant with his special clipper in maintenance control at the squadron, going at the hair on his neck. They even sold special clippers at the PX.

It was nearly impossible for African-American Marines to get a “no-shaving” chit, and the result often was a face and neck that was a horror. Even some white Marines had these problems. I still remember one fellow, a white corporal in administration at the naval air station in Millington, Tenn.

It was the morning after we reported to the base for school, and we were all there in our winter service alphas with our shooting badges and either one stripe on our arms or, like me, a slick-sleeved private (no ribbons were handed out back then for finishing basic training. We weren’t at war.). We were sitting in an ante-room talking and awaiting the start of business when this corporal emerged from the room beyond a pair of doors and announced, “Keep it down out here. I’m in a bad enough mood as it is.”

What silenced us was the sight of his face. He literally looked like the surface of the moon. I guess that was why he was so angry. In a way, I really felt sorry for him.

My second attempt at beard growing actually happened in 2006, when I decided to stop shaving. I have a photo of myself with astronaut Ed Mitchell of Apollo 14 fame, and I actually have a nice, dark beard. But I shaved it off.

I probably will keep this one for a few weeks longer. I don’t know. If I’m going to look like an irascible old man, I want to get a few more years under my belt.

In the meantime, it is fun to stroke my beard and feel it getting longer. And I am really just rebelling against my Marine Corps training.

Take that, Sgt. Bostic

April 15, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island Memory: The Transition

I had seen the films shown in the recruiter’s office, which showed young men like me as Marine recruits, but I worried about something.

How would I handle the transition from 17-year-old civilian to Marine Corps basic trainee? Would it hurt? Would I be hurt?

A fellow who had been drafted into the Marine Corps during Vietnam lived in the neighborhood where I hung out with my friends, and he had said that on his first night at Parris Island, he had apparently ticked off someone in supply and spent the next couple of days with a fat lip. I was determined to avoid getting hit, if at all possible.

As the days of July 1978 passed and then August began, it was a really scary time for me. I was putting up a good front, but was scared of what was ahead, but didn’t want to look like a coward. My friends had put up a nice party for me, and on the morning of Aug. 2, 1978, my father drove me to the recruiting station. The recruiter picked me up and took me to the Armed Forces Entrance and Examining Station at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. I had been there before, for my initial physical exam, and lined up with my paperwork.

The Army corporal looked over my papers, and said to me, “You’re a day early. Come back tomorrow.” I was taken into an office, where after a few minutes an Army sergeant walked in, looked through my file, then opened a drawer and tossed me a subway token.

I went home and called the recruiter, who said it was a mess-up, but that Aug. 3 would be the real day. My parents saw it as a sign, but I figured it was nothing.

Sure enough, the next day when I showed up and handed in my folder, I was taken to a room with other recruits heading to all the services. After a while, we were given our oath, then sat in a waiting area for buses to the airport. I noticed that the Army, Navy and Air Force recruits had suitcases with clothing and other items. We who were bound for the Marines were told to bring nothing at all. In fact, I think they would have preferred that we show up naked so we would have no reference to our former lives at all.

Arrival at Parris Island was a surreal experience. It was something like 2:30 in the morning, and I remember sitting at a desk in a classroom doing paperwork, signing this and that, and watching as two Marine recruits walked in. I was shocked. They were wearing sateen utility trousers, white undershirts and helmet liners, also known as “chrome domes.” The drill instructor of the receiving barracks said something to the two, they said, “Yes, Sir” and walked out of the room.

I realized I would soon turn into them, and wondered about the transition.

One aspect of the transition that I always found interesting was the first breakfast. Before we were relieved of our hair and our civilian clothing, we were allowed to eat in the chow hall. We stood out like nothing you can possibly imagine. The drill instructors were, of course, totally squared away and sharp; and even the first-phase recruits looked like they had it going on, but we civilians in our jeans and T-shirts, with a growth of beard on our faces (those of us old enough to have facial hair) and a look of exhaustion in our eyes, stood out like sore thumbs.

Everyone stared at us, and we stared back but then looked away in fear. This was our fate. It scared me so much.

After breakfast and a trip to the head, the real fun began. I still remember lining up for the first haircut. “Tell the man if you have any lumps on your head,” we’d hear from receiving barracks recruits who had arrived before us. I didn’t, but guys who did were bandaged up and moved on. I looked in the mirror and there was a bald, scared gnome looking back at me.

Then we were issued our uniforms, and our civilian clothes disappeared into bags for storage. By 3 p.m., we were Marine recruits with fresh buzz-cuts and sateen utility uniforms that hung on us. We wore boots on our feet, and were told that someday, if we were worthy, we could “blouse” our boots. In the meantime, our trouser legs hung down, signifying to all that we were at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.

We heard talk about something called “graduation” from the place, but that seemed an eternity away.

And that’s another Parris Island memory.



August 6, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island Memory: Early Morning Blues

It was really the weirdest thing.

I was listening to a Led Zeppelin album, and I remember that the song was “Ramble On,” and it sounded so sweet and beautiful to me.

Suddenly, through my closed eyelids, a flash of light erupted.

“Get out of the rack!” Sgt. William Bostic shouted, and I joined the rest of Platoon 2066 in erupting from the sweet embrace of sleep, slipping my feet into flip-flops and rushing to get “on line.”

My life had, in the flick of the lights, gone from memories of hanging out on the corner and listening to rock radio to the brutal routines of another morning in Marine Corps basic training. We were herded through morning urination at the giant communal urinal (no sit-down head calls allowed), showering, shaving (seven guys to a mirror and sink) and then, sooner that you might think, Bostic’s shout of “Clear the head!”

We’d line up to leave the head, and return to our spot in the squadbay. Piece by piece, we dressed ourselves, then began to clean up the barracks. I could still hear the melody in my head as I looked out the barracks window into the night. It was maybe 5 a.m., and still pitch dark outside, and I thought I could see the water and the ocean in the distance from the third-floor squadbay. For a second, I allowed myself a thought, then it was back to the brightly lit squadbay and its endless demands, as well as Bostic’s constant yelling that we were way too slow.

We’d tumble down the stairs and fall in for chow, our flashlights marking our path as we marched to the chow hall, lined up, went through the line and finally sat down to eat. I was tired, and the day had not even begun yet.

And that’s another Parris Island memory.

August 5, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island Memory: Fun with Guard Duty and Firewatch

A couple of days after my platoon met its trio of drill instructors in August 1978, we learned that there was a fun activity that we had to participate in every night: firewatch.

Basically, every night during the sleep time, two recruits would spend an hour patrolling the squadbay and head and keeping an eye out for fire or smoke. The firewatch was an hour long, though you’d be awakened 10 minutes before your tour of duty so you could get dressed and relieve your fellow recruit on time.

It wasn’t so bad if you were on the first firewatch since you would only lose the first hour of sleep. The worst was to lose sleep in the middle of the sleep period, though truthfully most of us were so exhausted we could fall back to sleep. The worst firewatch was the last one, because you were getting up and not going back to sleep for another 17 hours. And you had to wake up the drill instructor by slapping the red square by the DI hut and announcing, “Sir, the time on deck is 0430, sir.” You then had to wait for the acknowledgment and resume your patrol.

During your hour on firewatch, you might encounter another drill instructor or an officer checking the barracks, so it was important to walk your post and not sleep or goof off. Getting caught usually got you an all-expenses-paid trip to the Correctional Custody Platoon, and no one wanted that.

I have two memories of the guard duty we had. Firewatch rotated, so you caught it several times during basic training, but the bigger guard duty usually came around only once or twice.

One night, I was on firewatch and came into the squadbay from the head to find a ruckus going on. Two guys had gotten into a fight, and there was a lot of “shh” and “lock it up” because if the noise woke the drill instructor, there would be hell to pay.

The larger guard watch was really something else. I was named corporal of the guard and got to walk outside and check posts. I remember walking to this one area and it was 3 in the morning, humid and I was on Parris Island. It was quite a moment for me. I felt really disconnected from everything for the first time in my life. It was like, this was my new life and what came before was an illusion.

The things you think about on Parris Island.

And that’s a Parris Island memory.

August 5, 2014 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island memory: Attending Catholic Mass

Yesterday was the 36th anniversary of my departure for Parris Island for Marine boot camp, and while the memories have mostly faded of that time when a scared 17-year-old kid from New York City plunged into the maelstrom of the Marines, there are some memories that stay with me.

Basic training, once it began in earnest, was not the most conducive place for any kind of thought. As a recruit, you were basically marched from place to place, subjected to an experience – a training session, a medical session, a supply session, feeding, close-order drill – and then marched to the next one.

Lose yourself in your own train of thought, and you might miss a pivot or a command, and bring the platoon to a shrieking halt, to the dismay of the drill instructors. Even in the squadbay while shining your boots, a moment of inattention could bring down the wrath of the drill instructors. As drill instructor Sgt. William Bostic would say – and I can still hear him saying it – “Woe be unto the privates.”

So Sunday religious services were an escape from the hour-to-hour hell that we lived in, and while I lost my faith years later, I still remember how much I enjoyed the break. Catholics made up a pretty good portion of the recruit population, as I recall, and we marched as a combined unit of several series in different phases of training to the chapel on Sunday morning.

We were sort of let off the leash. Of course, we couldn’t talk to the Woman Marine recruits, who were on the other side of the chapel and protected – or so it seemed to us – by a lake of fire. But we could look, and talk amongst ourselves as we waited for the chaplain to arrive and begin the Catholic service.

Well, I guess one Sunday we got a bit boisterous because I was sitting and talking to the guy next to me, and I realized suddenly that someone had taken the microphone, and began yelling in an enraged voice. It wasn’t the chaplain.

A man in civilian clothing who I realized must have been a retired Marine had stepped down into the area where the chaplain walked around while he gave his sermon, unclipped the microphone, turned it on and began berating us as being the worst-behaved group of recruits he had ever seen in all his 40 years in the Marines.

The place grew quiet as he vowed to tell the drill instructors about us and our behavior. Then he put the microphone back in its place, turned it off and walked back to his seat. I swear, after that, you could have heard a pin drop.

I don’t recall any fallout from this incident. But that I can still remember it all these years later, and see in my mind’s eye the guy holding the microphone and yelling at us, shows that some events stick with you forever.

And that’s a Parris Island memory.

August 4, 2014 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Military misconduct affects those who follow orders, too

It was a weekend morning, possibly a Saturday morning, and I was sleeping in my room in the barracks when someone knocked on the door.

I got out of the bottom bunk and opened the door a crack to find the duty NCO of our barracks at the door. I wasn’t in trouble, he said, but he was sure glad to find me, he said, because he needed me to relieve him.

“I don’t have the duty this weekend,” I said.

“I know, Vince,” the corporal replied. “I’ve been trying the doors of every NCO in the building and you’re the first one who’s answered. I need to be relieved now.”

“What happened to your relief?” I asked.

“Jenkins never showed up,” he said.

It was sometime in early 1982. I was a corporal in the Marine Corps at the airbase in Yuma, Ariz., and was starting to count down the days until my discharge in August of that year. A couple of months earlier, my ineptitude at being the duty NCO in the barracks had gotten me relieved of the detail, and I was sent off to mess duty instead. But now I was needed.

Could I shave and shower? No, the duty NCO said. “Just get dressed, come to the office and relieve me. I called the OD (officer of the day). They’re trying to find Jenkins.”

I did as instructed, and the officer of the day assured me they’d get it all straightened out. Of course, we all knew that if and when Jenkins – not his real name – was found, he’d probably be in no condition to take over as duty NCO of anything, so I might be stuck for the rest of the day looking like I had been awakened suddenly and put in charge of the barracks.

The outcome is lost in the mists of time, but I guess I eventually was relieved and thanked for coming to the aid of a fellow Marine. If there is one lesson I learned in the Marines, it was that military misconduct affects a number of people, and not just the person committing the offense.

Jenkins was basically a drunk who had a habit of disappearing to the enlisted club or going out of town to drink, whether he was supposed to go off base or not. If you were on “duty section” on the weekend, you had the run of the base, but could not leave the base. People could and did leave, though, but most made sure to be reasonably sober when called upon to serve on duty.

Jenkins’ behavior was a problem for the squadron and its personnel who had to cover for him while he explored the wonders of mind-altering liquids. I’m sure that today he tells great stories about how the Marine Corps screwed him over and gave him a bad discharge, and doesn’t tell about the times other Marines had to cover for him.

A recent piece in The New York Times detailed the sad story of the hundreds of thousands of former military personnel with “bad paper”: discharges that are less than the top one, the honorable discharge. “The Vets We Reject and Ignore” seeks to gain sympathy for those who “were discharged ‘under conditions other than honorable’ and so do not qualify as veterans under federal law.”

For them, life after the military is difficult, the article notes. “According to documents separately obtained by the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Army discharged 76,165 soldiers between 2006 and 2012 with bad paper. Of these recent Army discharges, only one in seven were kicked out following a criminal conviction for a serious offense. The rest were discharged for smaller breaches of military discipline like missing duty or abusing alcohol or drugs. For many of them, their misconduct was likely related to the stresses of war,” it says.

Be that as it may, in the military abusing alcohol or drugs or missing duty is a major offense. I wonder how many people had to change plans or cancel events because they had to cover for those 76,165 soldiers who didn’t show up ready, willing and able to do their duty.

Nowadays, narratives of military discipline are told almost exclusively from the perspective of the person being disciplined. The person under court-martial or non-judicial punishment gets to tell all about how unfair the process is and receives a sympathetic hearing from journalists and liberal activists.

An article in Harper’s described AWOL and UA troops who considered their fellow troops to be psychopathic baby-killers, while they were sensitive people who were thrown into a situation with crazy people. Their stories were presented without any effort to hear from those others who obeyed orders and deployed without going AWOL.

I ask, what about the people who are inconvenienced because someone goes AWOL, UA, deserts the unit or misses a unit movement? The work still has to be done, and there are many, many more people who will do the work and silently curse the offender who self-righteously goes around bad-mouthing the military and accumulating charge sheets and disciplinary actions, while they have to give up their off-time to fill in.

There are plenty of services available to those in the military who are having trouble after coming back from the war zone. If they fail to avail themselves of those services and instead drink to excess or do drugs, absent themselves from their units and misbehave while on duty, they have no one to blame but themselves. Everyone knows the consequences of bad military service and “bad paper” discharges. I was taught the importance of obeying orders and getting a good discharge soon after reporting to Parris Island in August 1978, and those lessons were reinforced throughout my four years of service in the Marine Corps.

The lesson really was driven home to me when I reported to my squadron, VMA-513, in Yuma, Ariz., around the start of 1980.

A Marine meltdown
I was told of a Marine who had been a well-respected member of the squadron but had seemingly gone “crazy” at some point. Most people who go AWOL do so early in their service time, when they are of low rank and status, and perhaps are disappointed that the well-ordered world of basic training isn’t replicated out in the “fleet,” as the real Marine Corps is called.

Marine drill instructors then and I suppose now were models of what a Marine should be; oftentimes there’s disappointment when you find out the “brotherhood” includes people in leadership positions who don’t measure up to that standard.

My first real verbal encounter with a Marine NCO was a corporal in civilian clothes who looked like a gas station attendant. He was shorter than me, his hair was long and mussed, and he walked over to me in my unadorned (save for a Marksman shooting badge) winter service alpha uniform that was maybe a slight bit wrinkled, and said, “Private, do you own an iron?”

“No, Corporal,” I replied.

“Then you’d better shit one,” he said.

Most of the NCOs I met had better leadership skills than that one, but there was the one who had basically self-destructed, according to what I was told. I believe most of the story because I actually encountered this person near the end of his time at the squadron.

(Maybe my fellow ex-squadron-mates could enlighten me on the details and correct any errors I might make in the description that I remember hearing.)

He had been a fast-advancing Marine who had reached the rank of E-5. The sergeant had been offered a chance to re-enlist for six more years and had taken it. Back then, you could re-enlist for six years and get not only a nice cash bonus but also another stripe. He had taken both the cash and the stripe, becoming a staff sergeant (E-6) in a pretty short time frame.

Of course, it might be up to a decade before he would have a shot at gunnery sergeant (E-7) but the compensations included living in the staff NCO barracks, the very nice pay that a staff sergeant got and a chance to show off his leadership capabilities, plus not having to serve on mess duty or the other “details” that came up from time to time.

I don’t recall what his job was in the squadron, by the way.

I was told that before I had arrived, he had just returned to the squadron after going UA (unauthorized absence). At some point after re-enlisting and cashing his bonus check, he had gone UA for the first time and eventually returned to base. The military didn’t try actively to catch UAs and deserters. Their names were put in the “wanted” files and the police computer dispatch systems of the time, and often they were captured after being pulled over for a traffic infraction.

He had been demoted and sent back to work, but then he continued to go UA. He was gone for about a year at one point, I think, then came back again. Finally, he was reduced to the rank of private (E-1), served some time in the brig and then was restricted to barracks. That meant he could only leave the barracks for work, religious services, meals at the chow hall and trips to the PX for health and comfort items. He also had to report to the barracks’ duty NCO at a set interval, or the duty NCO had to check on him to make sure he hadn’t left the barracks.

I never learned why this fellow did what he did, which to me seemed very self-destructive. Still, going from a staff NCO to a private had to be quite a fall, even if it was self-inflicted.

Besides the stories I was told, my main encounter with this person was during a time before I left the Marines when I was detailed as duty NCO in the barracks. Let me say right out that my ineptitude at this rather simple job got me relieved of it after about two weeks. The sergeant major chewed me out, told me I didn’t deserve to be a corporal and I think recommended me for mess duty.

He was right because I simply was not applying myself at the time, though I should have known better. I think I was lucky that my superiors didn’t just decide to get rid of me.

The demoted fellow was on barracks restriction, and I was advised to check on him regularly. My big, hairy, gigantic screw-up was that one night the MPs came for him and took him away. I made a note in the log and that was it.

The next day, the sergeant major was furious. “Why didn’t you call the officer of the day to tell him someone had been taken from the barracks?” he demanded, and I didn’t have a good answer to that.

In the meantime, my encounters with the restricted Marine had been pretty negative. He refused to do any of the work I assigned and pretty much treated me like a non-entity. In a way, I was glad to get off duty NCO because getting heavy with fellow Marines was simply not something I was good at.

I never saw the restricted Marine again, and his fate is lost to my understanding.

In the realm of the shitbirds
The late 1970s and early 1980s were kind of rebuilding years for the U.S. military. The service had a bad reputation
in light of the Vietnam war, and civilians saw the military as a waste of men and money.

Still, there were people in the military of varying motivations. The force had become all-volunteer but some of the troops’ attitudes left much to be desired. There was at least one occasion, when I was at the naval base in Millington, Tenn., for electronics training, when the Navy offered commanders the chance to rid themselves of sailors who just weren’t contributing to the mission.

They could break enlistment contracts and boot out those whose performance wasn’t up to snuff. I don’t know how many sailors got off-loaded but it seems to be a good way to keep up morale.

In his book “The Generals,” Thomas E. Ricks noted that one U.S. Army commander in Germany in the late 1970s used an authorization to rid his division of shitbirds. He kicked out more than a thousand soldiers, and said that the rest would cheer as the buses carrying the shitbirds left the base for an American airbase, where they would board planes to bases in the U.S. for discharge from the Army.

Even though getting out of the Marines was difficult, I had heard of “convenience of the government” discharges, in which you’d get out if the Marines decided they didn’t want to keep you around. Of course, not everyone who was eligible to be kicked out wanted out, and those who really wanted out didn’t seem to care about the quality of their discharge.

An integral part of basic training, aside from marching and drill, weapons training, customs and courtesies, and disciplinary actions, was the ways that one could leave the service. You could retire with honor after at least 20 years or receive an honorable discharge after a term of enlistment was completed.

The honorable discharge is the gold standard, though a service member who does his or her duty and avoids trouble can get one. This is the kind that I have, and I’m proud to have received it.

The discharges below that – save for medical, disability in service and psychological (which are honorable discharges) – confer less status and fewer to no Veterans Affairs benefits. It has saddened and frustrated me to read the stories of people who joined the military, especially after the 9/11 attacks, and then became so determined to free themselves of the military that they would accept “bad paper” to get away.

I knew guys when I was in the Marines who were willing to take any discharge just to get out, and later regretted it. Reading about folks nowadays who are willing to have the blackest of black marks on their records makes me sad, too. People need to realize that a military commitment is a very serious matter, and breaking it has major consequences.

The trouble can find you years later, when you need the VA but don’t qualify and then have to go through the long, hard process of getting a discharge upgraded. With brig or prison time, that’s pretty hard to accomplish.

So the moral, I guess, is to do what I did: stick with it and get out clean, then move on to something new. And don’t be so desperate for a change that you’re willing to sacrifice your future to have it.

November 24, 2013 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Living with the paradox of compliance

It may sound like I’m really going off the deep end, but I have to admit that sometimes I have these thoughts:

  • I wish I had done more drugs as a teenager.
  • I wish I had been less obedient and compliant as a teenager and young adult.
  • I wish I had gone “wild” as a teenager, and caused more trouble.
  • I wish I had attracted more attention to myself.
  • I wish I hadn’t been so focused on a good future for myself.
  • I wish I’d been more focused on being considered a “bad boy.”

I grew up in the 1970s and my teenage years in the mid-part of that dreaded ’70s decade were years of frustration and loneliness. Girls had zero interest in me and I tended to fade into the background in school. I was a decent student, and in some ways school was a refuge into which I could lose myself. I had a few friends, but was terribly lonely and frustrated.

Still, I believed that through conformity, obedience and accomplishment I could break out of that rut. And when that didn’t work, I tried nonconformity in one of the most conforming ways imaginable: I decided to go into the military.

At the time, military service was considered the least-preferred outcome for a high school graduate. The memories of Vietnam were still strong in the late 1970s and the perception that the military was a waster of human lives and tax money was prevalent, and a cause of condemnation of the service. (Today, the military is still considered a waster of human lives and tax money, but the military is worshipped. Go figure.) The draft had ended, and no one was being forced to sign up, but there were still those of us who saw that the military offered something different from the college grind and the presence of parents. The fact that I’d be trading one grind and one set of parents for another grind and set of “parents” did not yet register in my mind. I was young and naïve.

Looking back from my early 50s, I am sometimes amazed at the boy of 17 who decided to challenge his parents in late 1977 and do something they didn’t want him to do. I wanted my parents to sign the papers that would let me enlist early in the Marine Corps on the delayed-entry program, and set a course for my life in the late summer of 1978 before the Christmas decorations were even up in December 1977.

I wanted to get away, and see something new, and become someone new. All my obedience and conformity had gotten me was more criticism. I had friends who did drugs, failed all their classes and were defiant in school – if they were still in school – and they didn’t care what anyone thought of them. Caring about what people thought of you, I learned later in life, gave others ammunition to use against you because they could withhold good evaluations in order to control you and make you more obedient, and then criticize you more.

It was ironic – and very, very frustrating.

I won that battle with my parents, my very first victory, and eventually found myself – after basic training at Parris Island – at the Naval Air Station in Millington, Tenn., which is about 20 miles outside Memphis.

What struck me as odd was that while I was still hiding in the background there was a definite pecking order. Of course, the officers were on top, then the sergeants and at the very bottom, we the “slick-sleeved” and “shower-shoe” Marines (privates and privates first class, respectively) who were attending our first training schools after Parris Island.

There were others, though, corporals and sergeants who had re-enlisted from the infantry for retraining in aviation fields. They often were put in charge of the rest of us, though like us they were in training for aviation.

The thing was that in that mass of male humanity, only those who were less obedient and compliant really stood out as individuals to those in charge. I was nearly invisible, with one exception.

I was known to one staff sergeant at the barracks for a pretty odd reason. I was stuck in receiving because after arriving at NAS Millington I had been put on mess duty, and had not moved into one of the training squadrons. One day, I noticed that he had a chessboard set up on the desk, and I asked him if it was his. He said it was, but that no one wanted to play chess with him.

I started playing chess with him, mainly to pass the time while he was on duty and I had nothing to do. Suddenly, I was known to someone in authority as more than just another “boot” Marine.

But there was this one fellow called with the last name of Eustace – we dubbed him “Useless” – who was everything you weren’t supposed to be at this point in your military career. He was defiant, disobedient, loud and had minimal respect for superiors. Those superiors, in turn – loved him.

He stood out, got lots of attention, had one-on-one meetings with officers and senior NCOs who tried to straighten him out and was known to everyone in authority. Those of us who obeyed and complied might as well have been invisible. We were heavily reprimanded, even when we were obedient and compliant, though the group anonymity meant there were no individual punishments, mostly, just group punishments.

More annoying was the fact that Eustace lorded it over the rest of us that every officer and NCO knew him by name and talked to him a lot. He was flooded with attention and his “efforts” to improve got him a lot of positive reinforcement. At a time in life when some of us were reprimanded even if we did something right or well, or just for being alive and collecting a government paycheck, it can cause serious resentment.

But in fact this kind of resentment has always existed because people in a position of authority tend to gravitate toward those who refuse to conform in an effort to get them to conform. In the process, they isolate themselves from those who are conforming and conclude that young people are all totally disobedient – because those are the only young people with whom they come into contact.

When you’re in a system where only those who make great strides in improving their behavior are noticed or rewarded – and those who are already performing as they should are ignored – the result is that those who are obeying are not only ignored, they may be blamed for problems and condemned as part of the problem, not the solution.

On a recent episode of “This American Life,” a segment on twins who had become co-principals of a high school noted that two students who were always being sent to the principals’ office were twins who didn’t get along.

Naturally, the principals saw the twins as extraordinary students despite their lack of respect and discipline; had they behaved themselves, the principals wouldn’t have even given them the time of day. Instead, they had prolonged contact and attention, and the resultant “turnaround,” for which – of course – the adult twins took the credit.

But had those two girls remained obedient and stayed in the background, they never would have come to the attention to the principal, and their supposed good qualities never would have been noticed.

It’s the same way that local elected officials will gravitate toward organizations that mentor “troubled” youths, and talk on and on about the success stories while ignoring the fact that plenty of young people don’t get in trouble and get zero attention or recognition.

It’s a paradox. If you’re operating at “A” you just don’t seem to be achieving as much as someone who’s gone from “F” to “C.”

It’s a shame that there are so many people in the world who are doing so much good, and their work is never noticed because they never get in or cause trouble. Then again, as I’ve always heard, life is unfair.

June 25, 2013 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , | Leave a comment