May 29, 2016

100 Words -- Will The Past Be Prologue?

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both have long-festering legal problems dogging their campaigns. Trump is being sued by former students of a failed real estate school. Clinton is under investigation for using a private e-mail server while Secretary of State.  Both are there because of who they are. Trump is an inveterate huckster. He can’t stop over-selling himself. Clinton runs with her shields up. She lives in a Faulknerian world where the past is not dead, it’s not even the past. When cornered, Trump attacks. Clinton defends. Is this how they will govern? One way or another, we’ll find out.

May 27, 2016

100 Words -- The Rules Of The Game

It used to be there were rules. If you laid out a policy position you stuck to it. If you wanted to trash an opponent, you had surrogates do your dirty work. The candidate could then maintain a facade of respectability. Donald Trump doesn’t play by the rules. He enjoys making up names to mock his opponents. His policy positions shift with his whims. Here’s the thing. In showing his disdain for the rules, Trump is showing his disdain for the voters. He is gambling that we prefer spectacle over substance, playground taunts over gravitas. Sadly, so far it’s working.

May 22, 2016

Missing Pieces

Donald Trump is full of bluster, a loud mouth saying whatever pops into his head. He changes policies the way I change my socks. Bernie Sanders believes passion can overcome reason. Revolutionaries don’t sweat the details. They figure it out after they’re elected. Hillary Clinton believes reason can overcome passion. She has yet to convince people she has enough heart. Instead of the best and the brightest, we got the lion, the tin man, and the straw man … each candidate missing something vital. Not ideal, but as a friend of mine would say, you gotta go with what you got.

May 12, 2016

Some Hard Truths

(1) The last candidate to win the presidency who WASN’T a Democrat or a Republican was Zachary Taylor in 1848. Many have run as a third party candidate, but none have been chosen.
(2) So it follows that casting a vote for a third party candidate (or Mickey Mouse) is a historically futile choice, the usual result being to guarantee victory for the guy you don’t want.
(3) Despite the talk of attracting new voters to the revolution, Republicans are winning the battle of turnout in the primaries. Turns out disaffection cuts both ways.
(4) Whoever wins the Republican and Democratic nomination … one of them will be our next president, the betting at this point being on either Trump or Clinton. If one doesn’t win, the other one will. And that’s a hard truth we all will have to live with.

May 11, 2016

100 Words -- Replace The Electoral College

Folks are frustrated with the political system. Many voters want open primaries. Just about everyone wants to get rid of the Electoral College. Open primaries can be voted in by the states, but the Constitution mandates an Electoral College. The framers weren’t big fans of direct elections, and they didn’t want small states to have a disproportionate influence. I like California’s approach: the winner of each congressional district gets a delegate. It’s modernization that preserves much of the Framer’s intent. Amending the Constitution is a huge deal, but it’s the job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.

May 8, 2016

100 Words -- Mother’s Day

My mother grew up in the Depression. Her generation had to work for everything they got, and no one worked harder than my mother. Idle hands were not her thing. She was always busy doing something: refinishing furniture, braiding rugs, or digging for Indian artefacts. That didn’t count the part-time jobs or the time she put in running the household. Gardening was her passion, a shovel and wheelbarrow her constant companions. Life blossomed wherever she went. Through her example, we learned how to live a rich and full a life while never forgetting our responsibilities. Thanks, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

May 6, 2016

100 Words --The Big Liars

CNN will report that the FBI has thus far found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe. That won’t slow Donald Trump’s march to the White House via the low road. The one aspect of Republican orthodoxy he has embraced is the relentless drumbeat on Benghazi and the e-mails that have driven up Clinton’s negatives. Why stop doing what clearly works so well? Trump will just be the latest in a long series of politicians cynically heeding Hitler’s doctrine of the big lie. Shame on those who do it. Shame on those who fall for it.

May 4, 2016

Vietnam -- Would I Go Back?

I occasionally work as a background extra on local TV productions. It’s something different, and when you’re retired different is good. In the Army, there’s a saying, “Hurry up and wait.” That pretty much sums up life as a background extra. Most of the time on the set is spent waiting to do whatever it is you were hired to do, whether it’s being a patron in a bar or a restaurant, a pedestrian, or just a face in the crowd. Sometimes it’s more involved than that, but mostly it’s not. I once spent five hours sitting on a bus waiting to be driven to a set location fifteen minutes away. So much time waiting around means there’s lots of time to chat with other extras. On my last set, the conversation wound its way by very devious route to my service in Vietnam. I was asked if I wanted to go back, what with Vietnam being a hot tourist spot these days and so many old soldiers going back for one last tour.

I thought back to my first day in country. I remember stepping off the plane and being overwhelmed by two immediate sensations: a smothering blanket of hot air and the stink of a thousand years of unwashed laundry. A week later I was flying into Quan Loi, a base camp about sixty miles north of Saigon, the tip of a spear pointed at the infiltration routes coming out of Cambodia. I stared down at a red landscape pockmarked with leech-infested craters. My new home was a working rubber plantation, the center of which had originally been the plantation offices and housing for the French managers, but which now hosted a landing strip, helicopter revetments, artillery emplacements, and hooches. (When the rubber workers left in the middle of the day, you knew trouble wasn’t far behind.) So began a year defined by six inches of mud or six inches of dust, depending on the season.

Months later I was in a remote area populated for the most part by Montagnard tribesmen. A small clearing surrounded by a berm was base camp. It was the height of the dry season. Even the “yards” were feeling the heat, not to mention the cooks who worked in an open tent over hot ovens. Looking back, I’m not sure why we merited a field kitchen. Maybe it was because the senior officer was a light colonel, a very nice man who lectured me on the differences between the war in the plains of Europe he was trained to fight and the war in the jungles of Vietnam he actually got to fight. Clearly, this was not what he signed up for, something we shared in common.

My office was a hole in the ground scooped out by a Rome plow, an enormous bulldozer equipped with an equally over-sized blade. (They were used to clear swathes of jungle alongside a road being built, our reason for being there.) You walked down the slope to a flat area at the bottom where a couple of tables held our radios. Overhead was a roof of corrugated metal. We shared the space with foot-long poisonous centipedes. The area was infested with mosquitos and some kind of weird flying scorpion critter we would swat at ineffectually with baseball bats. Laundry was done in whatever mud holes the mama-sans could find. It was without doubt the worst place I was in during my year there. I remember walking out to the berm one afternoon, staring out over the jungle, and thinking, “A man could put down roots here, build himself a home.” Uh, no … this isn’t a John Wayne western. (That’s another story.)

About twenty years after I got back, I started having a recurring dream about how I was re-drafted for a second tour in Vietnam. God knows what part of my psyche dredged up that particular scenario. Maybe every veteran feels there is unfinished business from the war, something left behind that you’d like to have back. I don’t know. But I do know the answer to the question about would I want to go back to Vietnam: “Hell no, I won’t go.”

May 3, 2016

100 Words -- Springing Back

There's a bond that slowly forms over time with plantings that you've had for a long time. You  watch them cope with the vicissitudes of heat and cold, drought and downpours. You fret when a hard winter hits them hard. Your heart leaps just a bit when you espy new shoots emerging from the dead-looking branches. Plants can't run from whatever threatens them. They must stand their ground and grit it out. Each spring teaches again the lessons of toughness and persistence and faith rewarded. It’s a lot to put on a humble plant, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got.

May 2, 2016

100 Words -- Feeling Burned

Superdelegates! Turns out Bernie can’t live with them and can’t live without them. Here’s two reasons Bernie is having trouble attracting them. One, he is a Democrat out of convenience and everybody knows it. Superdelegates are life-long Democrats who value party loyalty. Two, he isn’t winning. He’s losing the vote count and the pledged delegate count, but he expects superdelegates to support him at a “contested convention” because he’s the better candidate? Whatever. Those “Bernie or bust” folks too pure of heart to be sullied by mere politics, remember this: If Trump wins, you’ll get exactly the government you deserve.

May 1, 2016

Vietnam -- A Close Shave

When I talk to people about Vietnam, the one thing they can’t get over is how primitively we lived. Life in Quan Loi was particularly Spartan: no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no air-conditioning, no hot water … no nothing except three hots and a cot in a tent. Shaving was particularly irksome. You’d go to a nearby spigot and fill your helmet with cold water, lather up as best you could using a brick-like bar of GI soap, and then scrape away with a double-edged razor while peering at a small mirror hanging from a nail. Perhaps that’s why one day I decided to try one of the Vietnamese barbers operating on the base camp. 

It started well enough, a nice hot towel to soften my beard. My moment of doubt came after he lathered me up, tilted my chin back, and stood poised to make that first stroke along my neck. Only then did I think to ask myself just how sure was I that he was on my side. We all knew that anyone could be VC. Could this be the moment his long-festering hatred of Americans came to a full boil and he decided to strike a blow for Ho? Talk about too late wisdom arrives. Luckily, he chose to take his revenge in a more subtle way, by using a very dull razor. My skin was scarped raw, but at least I lived to tell the tale. After that, I never complained about cold-shaving again.

(This is the first in  a series of brief look-backs at my time in Vietnam. Many soldiers had it a lot tougher than I did. I get that. I was lucky to serve most of my tour in the rear doing a job that gave me a top-to-bottom understanding of how the war machine is put together. Like most things in life, people outside the box really have little sense of what it was like inside the box. My sole purpose here is to share those bedrock memories -- often small details -- that have withstood the erosion of time.)