Just a Pedestrian

Telling stories.

Amputate One Leg

Full disclosure: I am a retired U.S. Navy Cold War submarine force veteran, but this is not a parochial plea. I am writing to urge you to work against any proposal to upgrade the United States’ land-based nuclear arsenal. In fact, I encourage you to consider eliminating that leg of the nuclear triad altogether.
Reasonable people can agree that the missile silos in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming are obsolete. The equipment is old, vulnerable to attack, and prone to malfunction and accidents. Replacing this equipment with modern technology will be expensive, and we will have to borrow the money to pay for it. Estimates for upgrading this leg of the triad alone run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
The silos are buried in the ground, hence immobile. The silos are hardened targets. That means an incoming nuclear strike would have to burst on the ground to be effective. Such bursts would throw tons of radioactive dirt and debris high into the atmosphere where it will be subject to prevailing winds. The fallout would scatter across America’s northern breadbasket, the Great Lakes and Michigan, and beyond.
Bear in mind, not even Nobel laureate Barak Obama would ascribe to a “no first strike” policy as president of the United States. Historically, we would rely on the land-based arsenal to carry out such a strike due to their superior accuracy. The trouble is the enemies of the United States know exactly where to look to detect the launch of a U.S. first strike. They don’t even need a satellite warning system. A spy in a hotel room with a landline telephone could raise the warning.
Thus alerted, our enemies would have plenty of time to retaliate before our warheads could find their targets. Their launch would fully negate any usefulness we might obtain from striking first. Assuming we target their silos with our first strike, our warheads would arrive to find empty launchers. Our missiles, ours and theirs, would cross in the sky. Furthermore, if the enemy has committed to playing defense, their missiles would not have to be targeted at our silos. They could aim at cities, military installations, and command and control nodes, possibly preempting a second strike from us. This is why nuclear war is too horrible to contemplate.
“The only way to win is not to play,” from the movie WarGames.
If President-elect Trump also rejects a “no first strike” policy, which seems likely, our submarine- and bomber-based missile systems are accurate enough to carry out such an order. Moreover, their stealth technologies allow them to approach enemy shores and targets undetected, thereby shortening flight times and increasing the likelihood of mission success.
Upgrading or replacing our land-based missile systems is a colossal waste of money. We should phase out the land leg of the nuclear triad. So committed, we ought to be able to negotiate a simultaneous and verifiable reduction in Russian assets as well. Even without land-based ICBM’s, both countries would continue to maintain arsenals well above the level necessary to destroy each other, and the rest of the planet, too. Once we are rid of them, you can take credit for being on the right side of history as we work toward attaining a sensible size for nuclear arsenals world-wide.

Play Things, You Think?

The light and the heat and the shock pulsed in expanding waves of power. For miles around the hypocenters, structures disintegrated, and pieces, shards, dirt, dust, and debris vacuumed up into funeral pyre columns aloft. Enormous white mushroom clouds formed, rose, cascaded down at the cooler edges, bloomed, and rose, and rose. Orange flame in the center of the clouds burned for long minutes.

Bodies on the ground vanished in the light, their instant shadows burnt into the pavement, their epitaph. Where once one’s sight was obstructed by trees, shrubs, brick and masonry, now everything, everything, was flattened to the horizon. Distant purple mountains majesty shimmered in the residual heat. Windows shattered a hundred miles away. At some distant point, burnt bodies wandered in the dust. They would not stand for long.

There was no warning. The weaponry had advanced to that stage. Underwater, wire-guided, self-propelled mines. Call them drones, if you will. They were run up the rivers from submarines off the coasts, cut loose and left anchored to the bottom until the foreign national command authority detonated them with one extremely low-frequency radio signal that traveled through the earth’s crust. Not hard to do. The commanders of the submarines hardly earned the medals they received later.

Without warning, and with mere Twitter provocation: Boston. Groton. New York. Philadelphia. Washington, D.C. Baltimore. Norfolk. Charleston. Jacksonville. Miami. Tampa. Pensacola. New Orleans. Corpus Christi. San Diego. Los Angeles. San Francisco. Portland. Bremerton. Seattle. Pearl Harbor. A barge on the Mississippi hid Omaha’s bomb. Nobody fired a single missile. All the bombs detonated simultaneously. There was no retaliatory strike. The one general left in the mountain was too stunned to move. Who would he strike, anyway?

No one would ever know how many died in the blasts, the statisticians were among the victims. There was no one left to care, really. No one claimed responsibility for the attack. Only one other country on the planet could have carried it off, but they remained silent. No one would mourn the losses; the immediate families of those in the target zones were all ashes and gas, too. There would be no more strikes, either. The planet would cool just enough to offset the recent warming trend.

There would be plenty for the survivors to eat.

The Angry Sea

The sea had risen to greet them when they surfaced in the storm. Even a big submarine is small against the ocean. Giant cascading walls of water smashed against the hollow superstructure sending waves of shiver and sound down through the hull. Those who had been through this sort of thing before found the difference between submerged and surfaced operations exciting. Those who hadn’t found it terrifying.

Torrents of water fell through the bridge hatches and crashed into the “bear trap” and drained into a tank that had to be pumped almost continuously to keep it from overflowing. The control room was darkened to match the outside conditions after sunset. The whites of new guy eyes seemed to pierce the through the blackness like deer that had been shined. Their voices quivered as their stances sought purchase against the bucking deck: “Is this shit normal? Are we going to die? Shouldn’t we call away flooding?”

The officer of the deck reported that the last roll and tumble had slung him against the side of the bridge and he thought his arm might be broken. The captain ordered him to shift his watch below decks and to bring the lookout with him. They shut the the upper hatch on their way down the slippery ladder. The lookout came down ahead of the officer to break his fall should he injured man lose his single handed grip.

The corpsman met the men at the bottom and told the captain the officer needed immediate attention. The navigator relieved the officer of the deck and the conn and the corpsman took the injured man to his clinic. After a shot of morphine had worked its deed, the corpsman set the broken bone, wrapped it in gauze and plastered it stiff. The officer, shot through with pain relief, retired to his rack, grateful that the sea had been gentle with him this time.

Dentistry

The pain in my tooth hadn’t reached the point where I was asking the carpenter working on the house next door to take his pliers and yank it out, not yet anyway. The pain was a nagging thing, sensitive to heat and cold, mostly, not pressure. Rinsing out the toothpaste with cold water had become better than coffee for stinging the brain to life in the morning.

My wife couldn’t bear to see me frowning and rubbing my jaw at dinner anymore so she called for a dentist appointment. I would never have done such a thing. I would have suffered until the tears ran dry. But I went at the appointed time.

They took x-rays and the dentist said a recent crown looked good but that I might have an infection under it that was irritating the nerve. She recommended antibiotics and root canal. I said great, let’s have at it.

Right? Let’s get to drillin’, yankin’ and fillin’? Nope.

I needed an appointment at a root canal specialist twenty miles away. They needed to do two appointments, one for intake and another to do the work: drill a hole in the crown, pull the nerve, and fill the hole with a temporary filling. Then I would have to make a third appointment to go back to my dentist to have the crown permanently fixed.

In all, four appointments to permanently relieve the pain caused by the original dentist—whom I had fired six months earlier for being a jerk—who had ground my decaying molar too close to the nerve in the first place.

We have entered the age of specialized incompetence. Each procedure, medical or dental, has cultivated a following of doctors or dentists that do only that procedure. Anything else is shuffled off to somebody else. That might not be so bad if all these specialists worked under one roof, but they don’t. Still, having all these specialists might be a good thing if they weren’t located too far away from each other, and they were really good at what they do, but they aren’t. Not necessarily.

Every time I see a diploma hanging on a doctor’s wall, I want to ask to see their transcripts, too. They are oh so proud to display their graduation day bling, but ask them what kind of grades they got while they were in school and they get all serious and shit. Here’s the look I get from them: that ain’t happenin’, bro.

Why can’t we see how they did in school? Because of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Everybody’s academic record is protected from public disclosure by law.

That seems fucked up. I mean, I’m willing to show you mine if you’ll show me yours.

The Mirror

If the iPad is off, it becomes a mirror. Mine was sitting on my lap this afternoon while I was in a meeting. I looked down and I looked back at my self, as in a mirror.

And I saw lines and furrows and wrinkles and baldness and circles around my eyes that were all puffy, and I thought, God, I look old.

How did I get that way?

My birthday is in March, so when we all enter the new year, my birthday is but a few weeks away and I start thinking about my age.

I’ve heard all the generous platitudes: Age is just a number, you’re only as old as you think you are, etc. But I think that’s all they are, platitudes, combinations of words somebody made up and had a ring about them that caught on and they went viral, so to speak. They are not real.

What is real are the feelings I have that differentiate me at this age from the me that existed years ago. I can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do, at least not as well, nor for as long, for example, my strength and stamina are diminished from years past.

I seem to be able to function mentally as prolifically as ever, but I wonder for how long, as I gaze at my father’s face in the iPad mirror. Nobody has told me yet that I can’t hang with my peers in a scholarly discussion of academic and pedagogical importance. I can still write.

And writing is thinking, after all, right? If I can write, then I can think, and if I can think, then I am OK. So I keep writing. And writing. And, you know, writing.

Discipline?

I am running these days, but the hardest thing to do is to get started, and once started, to stay in motion for longer than an hour. Fitness has nothing to do with the issue; I can run for half a day given an impetus, a catalyst, a race. The problem is in my mind, rather, is my mind, the will, the consciousness that animates the body. I am a head case.

The resistance to go long (like for five or six hours) is real. My mind has formed an army against me. The army is strong. It has many soldiers with guns. The army is spread out on a broad front. It has sly and audacious leaders. It can infiltrate the tiniest opening in my defenses, exploit my tender most weaknesses. I have to be strong to fight it off, and sometimes, like now, I am not strong.

The last race might have something to do with it – the lethargy, I mean – or this past year’s portfolio of races. I’ve been on the comeback trail. Plantar fasciitis had me off my game for a couple of years. I got sedate and gained weight. The couch was comfortable, long and cushy. It invited nap-taking. One can eat potato chips upon it you know, and cookies with chocolate chips in them. Peanut M&M’s. Diet Pepsi to chase it all down. I went to hell.

Last year at this time, we were visiting my daughter and her family in the Baltimore area. She mentioned that she had always wanted to run a marathon with me. I told her I would try and get in shape. I made a commitment.

I was almost 59 years old; I had a “now or never” moment. I trained hard, but fitness was more fleeting than in my younger years. Progress this time was slow. But kept at it and we ran a weekend series of trail races at the end of April: a half-marathon on Saturday and a 50K on Sunday in the Pinckney State Recreational Area in Michigan.

The combination race was called the “No Wimps Challenge.” I may not have been a wimp, but I was feeling mighty puny at the end. Leslie, my daughter, on the other hand, found out she had deep reserves of energy after 26.2 miles, reserves she didn’t know she had until then. She ended up having a great year running three marathons and three ultras.

PF still nags me a bit, especially in the morning right after getting out of bed. I use ultrasound to promote blood flow in an area of the foot that doesn’t have much. I use too many non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs. I’ve tried all sorts of shoe brands, from Hoka One Ones to Teva sandals. Regardless, I was able to run 146.8 miles of races this year; 76 miles worth of DNF’s. All that got me through a decent comeback year. Oh, and I lost forty bothersome pounds. Still, all the training was taxing.

This week between Christmas and the New Year would be a perfect period for rest. Or, it might be the perfect time to run one’s ass off. It all depends on the status of other commitments, if there are any. Why not plan some bold running exploit during this week? Something like the workout I read about recently in Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet by Jesse Itzler. Run four miles every four hours for 48 hours. December 31 and January 1 sound like good days to do that; symbolic. End one year running and start the new one running.

Why might I not do something like that? Because of the Resistance Army. Because I have doubts. Because I can come up with excuses for not doing it. The idea seems rather abhorrent today. It might take too much discipline.

I can’t count the number of times people (invariably non-runners) have told me they admire my discipline – that strange personal quality that keeps me training all year for years at a time and in all kinds of weather, or on a treadmill staring dead ahead. They have no idea how often discipline fails me.

If I didn’t find running fun, fulfilling, and euphoric (at times), then I wouldn’t do it. When too many bad running days stack up on me, sometimes discipline can’t pull me through. I’ve been known to stop running for long periods of time, like I mentioned with the PF, only without the injury. My mind can make me stop.

What I do is keep a log of miles run. That’s it. Just a number in a square in a pocket calendar. Nothing about the weather, if I ran outside, or about how I felt, or anything of the sort. Just a number. I try not to “rest” for two days in a row.

If I don’t run today, then I won’t likely hit my goal for the week, as esoteric as that goal might be. I find it incredibly hard to run in accordance with a plan. I only know that I have to run a long way every week if I’m going to be in shape enough to finish anything longer than a marathon. If I don’t hit my goal for the week, then I may not be ready, and not being ready for a race feels bad.

Worse yet, I feel bad during the race. The race itself becomes a struggle, not that they’re ever very easy. It’s just that I hate being out there suffering over every step. I like to be able to run easily for a long distance, and I can, as long as I put in the work. I don’t like feeling bad about myself, or my resolve.

Usually, I don’t have to rely on discipline to get moving, or to keep moving once I get started. I look forward to the challenge and the motion and the exertion – and their consequences: the ache in my muscles the next day, and the day after that. It’s when thoughts of the challenge and the exertion and the fatigue that follows conspire against me that discipline comes in handy.

But it ain’t easy, yo.

The admirers of my discipline don’t see me struggling to don my gear on those days. They don’t hear the gun battle in my brain, one side fighting to run while the other refuses. The side of my brain that fights to run has to win decisively to get me out the door. If that side loses, or even settles for a draw, I end up sitting in the recliner looking out the window as the weather blows by. And if the running side loses battle after bloody battle, I worry about getting to the point where it could lose the war, go back to my sedentary lifestyle. I start wondering if I have a disorder, or worse: I might start writing about how hard discipline is to come by on days like this, during weeks like this.

I don’t want you to tell anyone I have these difficulties, though. I want people to believe I have the power of discipline. Big hulking power. Power unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. I have a reputation to uphold. I can run a long way. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day.

Because I have discipline, you see.

The Wall

I grew up playing organized sports. I love sports. Across the street from the house where I spent my youth was the Catholic school where I went to school and played CYA sports of every kind: baseball, football, basketball, dodgeball, you name it, golf. The school had a large paved parking lot in the back because it rested on the same property as the teaching nuns’ convent, the pedophile priests’ refectory, and the Catholic church I was forced to attend and where I served as an altar boy.

All because of my mother.

The parking lot was paved right up to the red brick walls of the school and one of those walls was huge: twenty feet tall, thirty feet wide, with no windows. I thought I could teach myself how to play tennis against that wall. I thought I might be good at tennis. Rather, I hoped I might be good at tennis because the property also had a football field and three baseball fields, plenty of open space on which to learn the rudiments of a basic golf swing. I would try to hit short irons from one goal post to the other on the football field, about 120 yards. As I grew stronger and my swing improved, the club I needed to hit the ball that distance went from a seven iron to an eight to a nine and finally to a pitching wedge, sometimes, when the wind was right. Anyway, I wasn’t very good at golf. I might have hit one or two decent shots out of every ten until after I graduated from high school. 

The Catholic high school closed just as I was about to enter it, a victim of faulty preferential tuition arrangements made by the Monsignor with his favorite po’ families, like my mother and dad’s. In my neighborhood, disposable income went down as a function of the number of kids present in a Catholic family whose parents practiced the rhythm method of birth control and who insisted their children get educated by the cloistered nuns and the pedophile priests in the Catholic school across the street. That meant very few of those families had the wherewithal to finance their children’s education at the private, parochial school without the help of the kindly Monsignor, who was too willing to let all those kids come to his school. 

I never got good at tennis, either, mainly because I couldn’t make the transition from beating a tennis ball against that huge brick wall to smashing it into a (tiny) painted square on a court, especially when there was somebody on the other side ready to smash it back at me.

As time went on, I learned how to drive a car in the parking lot behind the Catholic school across the street from where I grew up. I bought a 1969 Chevy Nova for $125 from a family friend. It was a nice car until I got drunk one night driving around town and drinking beer and crashed it into an oncoming car when I made an illegal and ill-advised left-hand turn. When the cops arrived I had thrown all the empties into the nearby ditch and when the po-po asked if I had been drinking, I said, no, and he must have believed me because nothing ever came of that. I was cited, however, for making the illegal turn and wrecking that poor lady’s rear fender and my bumper, grill, and hood.

Some weeks later, I was passing through the parking lot behind the Catholic school across the street from where I grew up in my now beat up Nova when I passed a kid I happened to dislike at the time and who was smaller than me and who happened to be walking in the parking lot. I hit the brakes and bolted out of the car to chase him and beat him up when he stopped and pointed in the direction of my car. I stopped and turned to see the Nova rolling toward the huge red brick wall. I hadn’t put the vehicle in ‘park’. I dashed off trying to catch the car, which seemed to be speeding up with each stride I took. I got to the door just as the car struck the wall, which popped the hood and shoved the radiator into the fan, which geysered coolant all over the place. 

AS THINGS TURNED OUT, I never took up tennis, rarely play golf, have driven hundreds of thousands of mishap-free miles. The red brick wall still stands as a monument to the architectural strength and resiliency of brick and mortar.

A Dog Day

Sarah and I were riding in a car with the top cut off. The scene was bucolic. Bucolic sounds like a disease.

I pulled over carefully as the road gave way to a steep grassy hill, not a cliff. We got out to look at a placid lake at the bottom of the hill. Not Lake Placid. The sun shone on the rippling surface like diamonds spread across blue velvet.

We were not in New York.

“Let’s walk down to the lake and put our feet in the water,” I said.

Sarah said no, but you go; I’ll watch from here.

So I walked down the hill. I fell once and hit my tailbone on a rock. I writhed in pain but I did not look up at Sarah. I did not want her to think I was hurt.

About halfway to the lake I stepped in some dog shit. I said, “Shit.” I tried to scrape it off, but you know how dog shit is; it sticks.

When I got to the lake I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pant legs and stepped into the water. It was freezing. I tried to get the dog shit off my shoe without getting any water inside. I failed. I turned back to wave at Sarah, but she was gone.

I got panicky, so I grabbed my things and ran up the hill barefoot. I stubbed my big toe. I heard the knuckle crack. That hurt a lot.

When I got to the top I was completely out of breath and light-headed. There was a piece of paper under the driver’s windshield wiper.

Dear Billy, it said, I left with a guy who stopped and asked if I was ready for a change. I said I was. Sarah.

Getting Near Dawn

When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t tell. I was lying on my back in a ditch with no water. Otherwise, I might have drowned. Then this would all be a dream. That’s the way some stories go, but not this one.

Stars came into focus, but no moon. The ditch ran alongside a road. Two lanes, no traffic. The road was asphalt, not concrete like you see everywhere in Michigan. I turned round and round and saw no lightening of the sky anywhere.

I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I remembered Joe Walsh playing “Rocky Mountain Way” on stage in an open-air amphitheater. We were second row, just off center. We had brought a cooler packed with ice and beer. It took two of us to carry it. I had a bag of pot laced with something, a packet of papers, cigarettes, and a lighter. I made serious efforts at self-destruction back when the self was never quite enough.

I had come with people, but I was alone now.

Two low headlights appeared below Polaris. They didn’t move left or right. When their cone of influence reached me, I stuck out my thumb. When the headlights passed me, I turned to see brake lights. I ran to catch up, opened the door, and got in the passenger seat. The car was factory-made, domestic, iron, steel and rubber, like God intended.

The driver was a guy, older than me, probably wiser, too. His hair was not longer than mine. He asked me where I needed to go, not where I was headed. I appreciated that. I told him I needed to go to the house where my parents lived. He seemed to know where that was, approximately, but it must have been a long way from where we were.

I rolled a joint. I could do it in the dark. We smoked it and I dozed, I think. It was hard to tell. He was soft spoken – when he talked. He presented most of what he said in the form of questions. I talked about the concert. Joe Walsh was in exceptional form, I said. He turned the radio’s volume down. “What?” he said.

“‘Joe Walsh was in exceptional form,’ I said.”

“What did you expect?”

I stared out the window at the neon lights making trails. Country had turned to city, rural to suburban. I waved and the driver increased the volume. It was a little early for “Rock n Roll,” but who can quiet Led Zeppelin?

I thought about what I had expected of last night, hours ago. Not this, certainly. I thought about the natural aesthetics of language, light, music, performance, color, excellence, hitchhiking alone in the dark, and gratitude. That’s how I rolled back then. I might not have said “aesthetics” aloud around my friends. They might have confused it with anesthesia.

When the driver pulled in front of my parents’ home, I recognized the place: a white brick tract house with a big picture window and a carport, second from the corner of Granger and Marr, in a post-war era subdivision built on what was once a horse farm. Now it was a burgeoning suburb of the Motor City. Motown. Martha and Marvin and Aretha and Diana and The Supremes singing on a transistor radio under my pillow at night. I’d wake to static. Dead batteries. That was always the case.

I asked the driver if he needed some money for gas. Prices had soared to seventy cents a gallon, and wages hadn’t caught up. I didn’t know they never would. He shook me off. I thanked him for the ride, and wished him well. He half saluted, accelerated, turned left at the stop sign, and vanished into the morning’s night.

I smoked another joint alongside the house opposite my parents’ bedroom, and away from the streetlamp’s yellowish cast. I became paranoid, part of the dues I paid for smoking so much weed. I didn’t think it was an extraordinary amount at the time. I tried to stay wasted, but only when I was awake. I kept roaches. I drank anything cheap.

Two steps up to the concrete porch; I sat and lit a cigarette. I inhaled and exhaled and waited for the sun to come up where it always did, subject to the planet’s axis.

It was late summer when it dawned on me.

Flying Against the Tide

This will be a vague beginning. There are papers to read and diagnose, and students waiting to treat them to their exclusive attention, I’m sure. There are books on the shelves, all bought and paid for, patient, stoic, and still, thick fiction by the world’s greatest writers, waiting for my eyes to read their words, my fingers to turn their pages. There are stories to write, whirling in a tired brain, ready to bust out in print if only I could sit and think and write. I am here, faced with so large an elephant to eat, so long a walk ahead, that I feel stymied, like a tee shot trapped in the roots of a tree.

I have faced large tasks before, and I have completed them, well and early. You (I regret using the second person but I feel like I know you and can trust you to understand) should see the number of signatures I have collected alongside the knowledge requirements for operating a submarine at sea. Four submarines. Four sets of signatures. Yet they were all collected, every last one of them, by demonstrating I knew what I was talking about, could do what was demanded of me should an emergency arise. They’re sitting in a box over there, waiting for my kids and grandkids to rummage through when I’m gone. They will have fun arguing over who gets what. There’s enough for everybody, though, and then some, I’m sure.

So this task should not seem so big. Not as big as living the life of a sailor for thirty years. Not as big as packing up the house every three or four years and moving. Not as big as moving overseas, learning a new (foreign) culture, standing against an Atlantic wind that would not die.

This is not as big a task as studying for my own degrees. This is one semester; they were many, and endlessly streaming, coming at me like the wave over the nuke plant in Japan. Tons of water coming down, weighing heavy, and leaving a wastrel – hot, steaming and spent – behind.

The dogs have to go out to relieve themselves. The puppy rings the bells on the door to let us know. She’s Weimaraner, and smart, and kinetic. It’s not freezing out, but the wind howls in an irritated fury. A plane’s flashing navigation lights fly through Orion’s knees, damaging both ACL’s, I’m afraid. Out for the season, poor guy. The pilot probably faced a mountain of qualification studies and tests and drills and simulations, like I did, only different. He is flying. What I did was called “punching holes in the ocean.”

The jet stream seems too close to the ground tonight. Too wild for us earthbound souls. All we need is a little lift and thrust to overcome our weight and drag, and we would be flying too. Fuck the planes, baby, let’s fly. We could use our arms like wings, our feet for rudders. We could glide in the stream a few hundred feet up where it’s fifty below zero. But we’d be warm, you and I, my friend, because this is my story, and I can do anything I want in here.

And here, right here, I’m afraid, the ending will be vague as well.