Great War Wednesday: Vive La France!

The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

The face of a cowardly Frenchman?

When France collapsed after only seven weeks beneath the onslaught of Hitler’s blitzkrieg in 1940, the French people earned a reputation of being effeminate and impotent retreaters unable to withstand the harsh rigors of war. For seventy years now, many ill-informed militaristic thinkers and armchair wannabe warriors have derided the French as unwilling to fight and lacking courage and fortitude. I remember — upon hearing French troops would be fighting in the Coalition Forces during the First Gulf war — college classmates of mine who had no more experience of war than they had of space travel making grave pronouncements such as, “Be sure they put the Frogs behind us so they don’t trample our troops during their retreat,” and “They need to be careful over there; everyone knows the French Army’s battle flag is solid white.” To be honest, I didn’t think much of the French military capabilities. I’d been raised on the old lie that arose after we began numbering our world wars — France was weak; France couldn’t fight.

That was before I’d done any substantial reading or study on World War 1 in general and the Western Front in particular. No nation has ever been more unjustly ridden with a yellow saddle than France. If they seemed to be swept aside in 1940, perhaps it was less cowardice and more memory — memory of another war a generation before.

People who speak of French lack of military prowess are woefully untutored in the annals of history. Britannica may have indeed ruled the waves, but for a millennium following Charles the Hammer’s victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours, the Fleur de Lis, then the Tricolor ruled continental Europe. This was the nation of Charlemange, Jean d’Arc, and Captain d’Anjou. Just a fraction over a century before the Great War began, a young Corsican second lieutenant of artillery raised the largest army the Western world had ever seen and came closer to conquering the entirety of Europe than anyone since the heights of the Roman Empire. Only a horrible Russian winter and the combined armies of almost every other country in Europe managed to keep Napoleone di Buonoparte  from recognizing his dream of uniting Europe under the Tricolor.

Only the rise of a unified German Federation with Prussia as its core began to challenge French military might on the Continent. France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War a generation before the Great War marked the passing of the torch of rivalry from France’s traditional enemy ever since the Hundred Years War — England / Great Britain — to a new and newly powerful Germany. Still, the loss of one war does not a coward make for if it did, Great Britain would have crumbled after the American Revolution. Instead, France learned from its mistakes in the Franco-Prussian campaign and some of those lessons would stand her in good stead in 1914, but only at a tremendous cost.

I'm not going to call him a Frog.

I’m not going to call him a Frog.

Americans, by and large, have a skewed view of war and especially casualties. Here is a number — 2,756,150. That’s a huge number by any accounting. In this case, that huge number is the sum total of ALL casualties — killed, wounded, or missing — from every conflict the United States of America has been a part of since the American Revolution. Again, 2.7 million casualties from EVERY conflict — even the bush wars, “Indian Wars,” and “interventions” right up to the present War on Terror. Also, nearly 800,000 of those casualties are from the War of Northern Aggression, not any conflict against a foreign power.

2,756,150 casualties in 238 years. That works out to roughly 11,500 casualties per YEAR since this nation was founded. That’s not a small number and I understand every person who makes up that number is a representation of suffering and grief not only of that person, but that person’s family, friends, and community. Unlike Comrade Stalin, I do not believe one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. Still, 2,756,150 casualties in 238 years.

Over the course of a single day — August 22, 1914 — 27,000 French soldiers died in an early part of what is now known at The Battle of the Frontiers.

27,000+ Frenchmen KILLED, not casualties, DEAD. In. One. Day.

For some perspective on the matter, consider this. America fought the Vietnam War from 1955-1975. In those twenty years, we had 47,424 combat deaths. In twenty years, we lost fewer men than France lost in TWO DAYS on the Western Front.

What is even crazier is people are STILL DYING every year directly because of World War I. Some estimates say as many as 12 million shells are still “out there” in the fields waiting to be struck by an errant plow or perhaps some teens on a motorcycle. Here in America, we have NOTHING to compare. Unless one is foolish enough to wander onto a military bombing or firing range, one is not going to be killed by an unexploded piece of ordnance from a past war.

verdun cemetery

Ils ne passeront pas

In all, the French lost nearly six million killed, wounded, or missing during the four year war. That is almost 10% of the country’s population. When you extrapolate each casualty having friends, family, and other loved ones who would be devastated by deaths and wounds witnessed, over half the population can be said to have been DIRECTLY affected by the events of the war.

Think of it this way, a good chunk of the men in charge at the outset of World War II, the men who oversaw the collapse of France in those seven short weeks, had been junior officers or enlisted soldiers during the horror of The Great War. Military historians often state most armies are perfectly ready to fight the PREVIOUS war. Could it be that so many of those men who had survived the carnage of the Western Front could only envision another war of mud filled trenches and body filled shell craters? If they did, can one blame them for not wanting their sons to go to the same Hell?

The French are not cowards now. They are eccentric to be sure, but they are not cowards, and they were not cowards in the collapse of France during the salad days of World War II. It is not cowardice to have an excellent and accurate memory.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

An Anniversary that Won’t Be


EmptyClassroomBudge started back to school Tuesday. She’s got a week of meetings, preparation, and parents before the new crop of fourth graders arrive. I’ve helped her get her room ready for six years now, so she and I went up to her school a couple of days last week to get stuff on the walls and set the desks in order. As much as I enjoy my time with Budge, I always get a little melancholy when I’m helping set up though because the only reason I’ve been able to help her is I don’t have my own room or library to get ready anymore.

If my life had worked out differently, I’d be starting my 20th year in education. I was a late hire taking over for a woman whose part-time job had worked its way into a full-time job at double the pay she made as a teacher. I’d pretty much given up on ever getting a teaching position by then. I’d been out of college for eighteen months and spent a mint on stamps and nice paper sending out my resume’ all over the state without so much as a nibble at a job.

Luckily, one of the boys I’d grown up with had a father who worked in the personnel department of Greenville County Schools. He dropped my name when that late position opened up and the principal called me in for an interview. When I got the call, I was at my job in a local textile plant soaked in an indigo dye. She wanted to see me RIGHT THEN. I asked her if I might go home and change first, but she was adamant I come STRAIGHT OVER. So I did — dyed skin, work boots, and all. I looked like a giant mutant Smurf, but after that seriously awkward interview, I was a teacher at Woodmont High School near Piedmont, SC.

I spent nine and a quarter years at WHS as an English teacher teaching mostly sophomores and seniors with a smattering of freshmen and juniors every now and then. At that time WHS was a pretty small school — about 625 students in 9-12 — so I taught several students more than once. In fact, I had three runs of students while I was there whom I taught 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English. At one point I started asking them for their Social Security numbers telling them, “I’ve been with you so long, I figured I might as well claim you on my taxes!”

I coached wrestling, a little football, and even a year of soccer. To this day, I have the best single season record at WHS in soccer — of course, they haven’t had another player like Bruno the Brazilian since my one season either. It was a good time and I enjoyed it. Then, some bad things happened. I let my mouth, pride, and ego write a check my ass, resources, and connections couldn’t cash. A six-week suspension and one school board hearing later, and I was doing time on the unemployment line.

I figured my teaching career was over. I’d never heard of anyone getting hired after being fired from another position. Providence had other plans for me though. My high school alma mater needed an English teacher on short notice and the principal and two assistant principals had been my teachers back in my glory days. They hired me without references and a week later, I was teaching English again in the same room where I was a senior in AP English . . . the job was welcomed but the memories were not.

I had an awkward year that year. Among other things, I discovered several teachers I’d thought were raging assholes when I was a student actually WERE raging assholes no matter which side of the desk I was on. If I’d had sense, I’d have stayed at LD55HS for at least a few more years to repair my resume, but I’d just finished my MLIS degree at USC and I wanted to be a librarian — the career I’d dreamed about as a child. So, when Laurens 56 posted a middle school librarian’s position, I leapt on it and got hired because the then-principal knew me . . . and, I found out later, I was the only applicant.

I worked five good years at Bell Street MS. Turns out later other people didn’t think they were so good. I revamped the collection, overhauled the computer lab, and got the parent calling system to work when the IT department couldn’t. I worked with the IT department every summer without pay to help them get caught up. I had a wonderful assistant named Chris, a terrific office, and a mural on my library wall I loved. Oh, and I broke my back for my teachers and administrators. Unfortunately, I didn’t know my broken back was also acting as a sheath for a couple of knives.

The simple story is the district shut a school and gave the librarian my job since — in the grand tradition of the union-less South — I was the last hired so the first to be let go. The IT department head offered me a job as a computer technician at a fraction of my teacher’s pay scale. Again, if I’d had sense, I’d have taken it, kept my mouth shut, and waited for better times. By then though, I was too far gone mentally and emotionally. Papa John hadn’t long died, I’d had my first trip to the mental hospital, and Mama was starting to decline as well. In the heat of emotions, I said some impolitic things to my principal, an assistant principal, AND the superintendent of the district. By impolitic, at least in the case of the superintendent, I mean, “You know what you can do with that f%&*ing iPad and I’ll be glad to help you!”

It did not end well. I finished the year on suspension, again, and that was all she wrote for my career in education. After six months of trying, I faced the fact that I was a broken man with way too many emotional issues. I applied for my SS Disability and I qualified. So that’s where I am now. The very last students I ever had any contact with are graduating this year. I knew them as 6th graders at Bell Street where some of them were my library helpers. As sad as it makes me, I know in my heart, I have no real chance of ever teaching or being a librarian again. My certificate expired June 2013.

Anyway, love y’all and keep those feet clean!

Great War Wednesday: Belgium Shows Her Backbone

The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege's forts

The Liege Medal awarded to the 1914 defenders of Liege’s forts

Germany had been spoiling for a war — with France especially — for over twenty years leading up to World War I. Unfortunately, given her position in the middle of Europe, any war was likely going to be a two-front affair and anyone who studies military history knows two-front wars are the nightmare of any nation’s military intelligentsia. With such a dire prospect looming,  the German military’s High Command, led by mostly Prussian aristocracy (think “Von” this and “Von” that), had developed a plan designed to make a two-front war not only winnable, but relatively simple. Officially, the plan was called Aufmarsch I West but those who study The Great War usually refer to it by the name of its principle designer and call it “The Schlieffen Plan.”

As several libraries worth of books and articles are floating around about the Schlieffen Plan, I’m not going into any great detail here, but the gist of the plan was thus: all along the border with France, Germany would maintain a token force to keep the French honest. Meanwhile, a huge force several armies strong would march from Germany’s heartland through neutral Belgium and come crashing down on the flank of the entire French border. This “sledgehammer head” force would push down all the way to Paris too quickly for the French forces on the border to react, Paris would fall, and France would be knocked out of the war at which point the bulk of German troops would pile on trains and head across France and Germany to engage the Russian Empire’s forces which would be just beginning to mobilize . . . theoretically.

The action would take place so fast and with such precision the British Empire would not have time to field a force and once France fell and Russia was neutralized, Kaiser Wilhelm II was certain his favorite first cousin King of Great Britain George V would figure any attack would be a waste of lives, resources, and –most dear to “a nation of shopkeepers” — money, and the two grandsons of Queen Victoria could divide the Old World amongst themselves. The plan was quite thorough, right down to timetables of trains leaving from thus and such a station and this or that corps arriving at just such spot in France. It was a fantastic plan, theoretically, but German High Command chose to overlook the sage advice of one of their country’s greatest military minds of the previous generation, Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who famously said, “No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”

For the Schlieffen Plan to be successful, German forces had to get through neutral Belgium with alacrity. In all the wargaming  and planning leading up to 1914, High Command felt 48 hours would be sufficient to traverse the little country. What’s more, they counted on using Belgian roads, bridges, and railways to speed the sledgehammer head’s advance into the French heartland. Unfortunately for Germany, in all their years of careful planning, they’d failed to let the Belgians know they were expected to lie down and allow the jackbooted German war machine to pass unhindered through their homeland. Germany would pay for that oversight in blood.

On August 1, 1914, Germany sent Belgium a diplomatic ultimatum announcing Germany’s intention of passing through Belgium and demanding the Belgians not resist militarily, leave all bridges and railways intact, and get all civilian traffic off the country’s roads to expedite passage of German soldiers. The Belgian government responded with some awesome variation of “up yours” and proceeded to dynamite all the bridges over the rivers and all the locomotives and tunnels in the country before putting up barriers all over every road leading into Belgium from Germany. Then, the Belgians manned their ring of forts leading into the interior and waited.

As soon as German troops entered the country, Belgian reservists and even some civilians began harassing the columns during their march. Many German soldiers fell to snipers in the thick hedgerows and along the stone walls of the farm country. The first real test of the German war plan came on August 6 when the German forces attacked the heavily fortified city of Liege. Before attacking, German commander General Otto von Emmich sent an envoy to the commander of the forts under a flag of truce. He demanded the Belgians surrender the forts and stand aside. The fortress commander’s name has been forgotten, but his ballsy reply has not, “Frayez-vous le passage, Messieurs!” (“Gentlemen, you must fight your way through!”)

The Germans started the attack with a good old frontal assault figuring the Belgians wouldn’t have the stomach to repel such an attack. They found out it’s pretty easy to stomach any attack when you’re behind two foot thick concrete and steel walls and you’ve got a plethora of machine guns at your disposal. In a surreal scene which was to repeat itself all too many times in the following four years, German soldiers charged uphill at the forts and Belgian machine gun positions opened up on them. Thus the Germans were the first in the war to discover the equalizing power of Mr. Hiram Maxim’s invention.

The gallant Belgians held the German advance stalemated until August 15 knowing all the while help was not coming from France or Britain. They might have held on longer, but on August 12, the Germans brought up huge artillery pieces like 17 inch coastal battery guns via railroad. Once those guns were in place, it was just a matter of time. The forts of Liege were designed to repel any caliber of small arms fire and even the standard field pieces of their era, but the guns the Germans brought to bear were anything but standard. Within hours of setting the guns up, they began raining shells the size of small cars down on the brave defenders. Some of the forts caught fire and those that didn’t had their walls systematically reduced to flat rubble. The Belgians had fought bravely and punched far above their weight in this opening act of the war, but in the end they had no answer for the super-heavy artillery and the country fell to the invaders on August 17, fifteen days longer than the Schliefen Plan demanded.

The Belgian resistance wasn’t in vain. The fifteen days they held out enabled the British Expeditionary Force to land and dig in in good order just across the border and the French had precious time to mobilize reserve forces and move better troops into position to blunt the coming assault. The tiny country of waffles and chocolate may have been overlooked by the German war planners, but they gave their allies a precious commodity in war — time.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean!

Go See Guardians of the Galaxy


GotGBudge and I went with Deuce, Cameron, and the kids to see Guardians of the Galaxy tonight. Since Sunday is our 18th anniversary, we decided to make it our “anniversary date.” All told, it turned out great. Guardians may very well be one of my favorite movies ever. What made this movie so special is it grabbed me by the feels in the opening scene and for the next two hours and change, it did something only a tiny cluster of movies have ever done — it made me forget.

I am a worrier. My therapist says it’s difficult to help someone like me raised with worrying about everything as a family value, but it’s what I am — except during this movie. For the entire film, I forgot about bills I can’t pay, money I don’t have, sick family, the national debt, and impending asteroid crashes. Unless your entire waking life is spent in a miasma of varying strengths of fear, I can’t really describe what it feels like for the lights to come up and you realize you haven’t thought about anything for the last two hours. If the movie did nothing else for me, it gave me two hours of peace and tranquility and, folks, that doesn’t happen much.

I may get some disagreement on this one, but I liked the movie as much or more than Avengers. For one, the creative team managed to build a team with real chemistry and fairly complete backstories on the fly. In contrast, before we watched the splendor which was Avengers, we saw Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Iron Man I & II, and The Incredible Hulk. That’s around eleven hours, give or take, of character building. Guardians managed to accomplish the same thing in just over two hours.

Another reason I feel this film is superior to several other Marvel Studio films is it was cut from whole cloth. Everyone knows who Spiderman and The Hulk , a great number of people know Captain America and Iron Man, and Thor is pretty well known too, even if only as a lesson from Norse mythology. I would submit to you, however, that few outside the brotherhood of hardcore comic geeks had the foggiest idea who Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Dax, and — not to be forgotten — GROOT were. These are characters from the B and C list of the Marvel Universe, but after this fantastic film, I doubt they’ll be also-rans for long.

None of these characters is invincible or irreplaceable. You KNEW no matter what happened, Steve Rogers wasn’t going to die in his eponymous movie. It was the same with Tony Stark  and Peter Parker, but in Guardians of the Galaxy, you really didn’t know going in who was coming out the other side. As viewers, we could form real attachments to these unlikely heroes only to see them in real peril and realize our favorite person . . . or rodent . . . might actually die. It was almost as bad as watching an episode of Game of Thrones.

All hyperbole aside, this is a movie to drop the money on. It’s big, it doesn’t drag, exposition takes place as we move along. In short, the writers follow the oldest rule in writing for page or screen: “SHOW us; don’t just TELL us!” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack is full of songs I loved as a kid. I mean, come on, who can’t fall in love with a movie that features “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in the midst of a crucial action scene? That’s solid gold stuff right there. Easily my favorite movie this year and depending on how The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies turns out, it may still be my favorite on New Year’s Eve.

Go watch it and see if it makes you forget, too! Love y’all, and keep those feet clean.

Some Damned Foolish Thing in the Balkans

Gavrilo Princip, the man who lit the fuse.

Gavrilo Princip, the man who lit the fuse.

“Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”
German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, Congress of Berlin, 1878

One hundred years ago this week, the explosion the Iron Chancellor predicted occurred, right where he said it would, in the Balkans. The young anarchist Gavrilo Princip had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand a month earlier in Sarajevo and thirty days of frantic diplomatic activity had come to nothing. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on its tiny neighbor Serbia. From there, the decades old web of interlocking treaties of “mutual defense” and “promises to defend” ensured matters could only progress one way — war — the bloodiest, costliest, most destructive war mankind had yet known. World War II gets most of the press nowadays, but its safe to say World War I changed civilization in a much more fundamental way. It destroyed the old orders and old traditions in a storm of blood and fire; what emerged would be barely recognizable to men of just a generation before.

The last time all the major European powers gathered to make war, the young Corsican corporal cum Emperor of France was the opponent and ever since Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo a century before, only minor skirmishes, fights for territory, and border conflicts flared up. The Great War was altogether different. It would be unlike any previous conflict both in its scope and its misery. After a brief period of lightning fast battles, the war turned into a stalemate and a new word entered the popular lexicon — trench warfare.

“The trenches” are the iconic image of World War I, but the grainy black and white photos of the battlefields cannot truly portray the hideousness of the conditions. For one thing, one cannot smell a photo. Accounts of the men who fought and died in the trenches make constant mention of the stench pervading the battlefields. Bodies lay strewn across No-Man’s Land for months or even years. Often those who died in the trenches would be entombed in the trench walls. Pictures that get much less exposure in the centennial celebrations show trench walls studded with hands, arms, and legs all poking out from the walls of mud. Men dug holes in the trench walls, shoved their comrades into the open earth and walled them up again. It was gruesome and ghoulish and eminently pragmatic. The corpses rotting under the Flanders sky point to the primary point which made World War I so revolutionary — dealing death had become industrialized. trenches

Over the course of  military history from the earliest battles with sticks all the way up to the Great War, weaponry had changed slowly, but tactics were basically the same. In Alexander the Great’s time, a bunch of men with long spears lined up shoulder to shoulder and charged another bunch of men with similar spears. Under Roman rule, the gladius and the pilum carved out an empire, but the basic military mindset remained the same — two armies lined up with similar weapons and tried to kill each other. At Agincourt, the English longbow replaced the javelin but the two lines of combatants still converged to the final slaughter. Even gunpowder hadn’t really changed things so much. Instead of lining up with spears, men lined up by rank and column with horribly accurate muskets and closed with the enemy amidst fire and smoke. Massed infantry charged massed infantry and whoever broke ranks first would be wiped out by the cavalry waiting in the rear.

Hiram Maxim changed all that around 1885 when he took the advice of a dinner companion who told him, “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.” Maxim did indeed make a pile of money and the invention which was the cornerstone of his fortune made an even bigger pile of bodies. Hiram Maxim invented and perfected the first portable and fully automatic machine gun. Along about the same time, Alfred Nobel perfected dynamite and TNT which enabled artillery to destroy larger targets at longer ranges than black powder cannoneers could have dreamed.

"Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not"  But, alas, they did.

“Whatever happens we have got / the Maxim gun and they have not”
But, alas, by now, they did.

Unfortunately, no one bother to explain to the generals in charge of this new warfare that times had changed. As a result, they used the same tactics on the Western Front that had defeated Napoleon. Massed groups of men with bayonets fixed to their rifles sprinted across fields towards the enemy, but this time, the enemy wasn’t running towards them in response. Instead of spears or muskets, the masses of infantry met the Maxim gun. A famous simile from the time said “men were scythed down like corn and wheat” by the hail of bullets which were deadly — not at the 100 yard range of the musket — at 1000 yards. Before long, sensible men began to dig trenches to avoid the machine gun fire. Still, the generals were an unimaginative group and slow to learn so every so often great clouds of men — Allied or German — would be rousted from the relative safety of their rat infested and waterlogged trenches to run screaming across No Man’s Land at the machine guns of the other side. Most of them would add their bodies to the great masses of corpses rotting on Flander’s Field. This madness went on and on with generals on both sides sacrificing the lives of an entire generation of their nations’ young men for gains which were measured — literally — in feet or sometimes yards.

As time went on, however, men began to devise ways to break this awful stalemate situation and those who thought the machine gun and the Bertha gun were the worst weapons man could dream up realized they were only glimpsing the tip of what was to come. As bad as it was, things were going to get exponentially worse.

I’m going to write more on World War I events over the next few months so if you like history, watch out for those posts. It won’t be all I talk about, but I believe World War I really was the most pivotal moment in history since the birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It created wounds on our collective souls that have not healed to this day and likely never will.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.


Life According to Statistical Probability


flippingCoinChanging therapists resembles remarrying after a divorce or a spouse’s death. You lose someone who knows the most intimate details of the inside of your head, where all your buttons are to push, and the roots of all your issues lie and must start over from “Hi, I’m . . . .” with a complete stranger. It’s difficult at best and psychosis inducing at worst, which — come to think of it — really does make the marriage analogy apropos.

Early last year, my beloved therapist survived a hideous drawn out divorce from a man so thoroughly odious, so far beyond fecal-esque that monkeys wouldn’t fling him in a poo fight; as the dust settled, she got a butterfly tattoo over her heart, bought a little red Mazda Miata, sold “the scene of the crimes against humanity,” and relocated to a cute beachfront bungalow and a home office in the lower latitudes to start her life over. I completely understood, but was still devastated emotionally and not a little terrified because I was without her for the first time in seven years.

I have been most fortunate, however, to end up with an equally sage and compassionate — if not quite so flamboyant — new counselor. He helped me through the early days after my life’s greatest tragedy to date — Mama’s death — with coping techniques, good advice, and empathy. For the last fourteen months, I’ve managed to forge a bond with him similar to and maybe even more helpful than the one my last therapist and I enjoyed. In today’s session, he put a finger on the root of my core issue and the ramifications have kept me ruminating on his illustration ever since I left his office .

It started with our discussion of patterns.

We were talking about how our minds — in striving for maximum efficiency — seem hardwired to look for patterns in everything around us. It’s why we can read passages containing strings of words with jumbled or missing letters without much trouble. Whenever our minds encounter new data, we immediately see if we can fit it into something we have experienced before so we can make an informed and efficient decision on a course of action. Unfortunately, this automatic pattern-seeking has a dark side and, sadly, the same mechanisms our brains use to maximize efficiency in most things can also derail us emotionally.

For example, you know if you have a fair coin like the ones referees use before the Super Bowl or World Cup matches, the odds of it landing on heads is 50/50. That is a mathematical, statistical fact. Now, if you flip that same coin nine times and it lands on tails every single time, what are the odds of it landing on heads the tenth time you flip it? Well, it’s still 50/50. Flip the coin 999 times; even if it comes up tails every time, the odds on that 1000th flip? STILL 50/50. Take the example as far as you like. Go off into the millions of flips, but no matter how many times in a row that coin inexplicably lands on tails , the odds of the next flip will always be 50/50.

The implications for how we view situations in life are profound in some ways because the entire time we’re flipping that coin, the rational “us” knows the chances are 50/50 every time, BUT if we hit a string of tails or heads the pattern-seeking function in our brains starts to falsify documentation with some sort of interior monologue:

Pattern Brain says, “It’s been tails seventeen times in a row!”

Rational Brain says, “Right, but it’s a fair coin. The odds have to be 50/50″

“You’re an idiot!”

“Why am I an idiot? It’s MATHEMATICAL and even though you hate math, it still doesn’t lie.”

“You’re still an idiot! Can’t you see the freaking OBVIOUS pattern? It’s stuck on tails! OBVIOUSLY this coin is different from every other coin. It’s going to land on tails next time as well.”

“What logical reason can you give me for a fair coin defying the mathematical axioms of the universe and NOT having 50/50 odds? I know it looks like a pattern, but it’s not!”

“Piss on your logic, piss on your axioms, piss on you, AND piss on the freaking HORSE Y’ALL RODE IN ON! IT’S A PATTERN!!!”

“Look, Patty –“

“DON’T! Don’t you get that smarmy, condescending tone with ME! I KNOW WHAT I SEE!”

“Okay, take it easy. Listen, I know how it looks, I really do. We are seeing through the same eyes, you know? Big Dude’s only got the one set. I realize it LOOKS like a pattern has developed, but you HAVE to let go of the past flips. Each flip is a brand new event and no matter how the past flips turned out, there’s STILL the same 50/50 shot this time it’ll land on heads . . . let’s watch, Big Dude’s about to do the 18th flip.”

The coin leaves his hand. It flips over and over in the air, lands on the table, and rattles around. He smacks his hand down to stop it, slowly moves his hand away, and reveals the coin has landed on . . . tails . . . again.


“But . . .”

“SHUT UP! Stop telling me to ‘ignore the pattern’ or ‘ignore the past events.’ It happened that way. It’s a pattern. IT’S ALWAYS GOING TO BE LIKE THIS.”

That’s life in a nutshell. We do something and fail miserably. Our pattern seeking brains log that data. The next time a similar situation comes up, even though the setting and players may be totally different, we stand predisposed — some more so than others — to believe we’re going to fail because “we ALWAYS fail when we do ____!” The most serious consequence is if we do enough things and have enough experiences to log a LOT of pain, blues, and failures, our brain starts to remove the “_____” and we run the danger of telling ourselves simply “we ALWAYS fail.”

THAT is the point I’ve lived at for over seven years. I’ve always struggled with “living in the past,” but somewhere around the time Papa John died, the pattern-seeking part of my brain went into overdrive and discerned an obvious pattern of failure, pain, and rejection. Even though the circumstances were unique almost every time, I’ve processed a lot of accurate data but drawn false conclusions from it. As a result, I’ve become deeply emotionally crippled. I just can’t seem to get my life into gear because my mind is screaming at me to not do anything else that’s going to HURT.

So, that’s where my journey’s brought me . . . now the question is “Where do I go from here?” At the moment, my honest answer is, “Damned if I know.” Love y’all and keep those feet clean!



My July 4th Memory – “The Rick Camp” Game

My Rick Camp 1978 Topps baseball card.

My Rick Camp 1978 Topps baseball card.

Independence Day isn’t grilling burgers or franks, shooting off loads of fireworks, or fun in the Sun on the water; it’s baseball. One game in particular recalls everything which makes baseball the greatest of games — a game where anything can happen on any given pitch and any player from any position can change the history of the game. I watched my game of all Independence Day games with my beloved Papa Wham on Thursday to Friday, July 4 – 5, 1985.

That night, the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets sent their aces — Dwight Gooden for the Mets, Rick Mahler for the Braves — to the mound. Instead of the advertised pitcher’s duel, they were both chased by the fourth inning. Fifteen MORE innings, THREE long rain delays, and a BUNCH of pitchers later, the game would become known in baseball lore as “The Rick Camp” Game.

By the time the final rain delay was over, the game was in the bottom of the 8th with the Braves losing 7-4, which was pretty typical for the 1980s Braves. Finally, however, the Braves’ bats came alive; they scored four times to take an 8-7 lead.

Then things started to get weird.

The Mets tied the game up in the top of the ninth by rocking famous Braves closer Gene Garber for a run. The home team failed to push anyone across in the bottom half of the frame and the free baseball began. It looked like things would be decided in “typical” extra innings when the Mets scored twice in the top of the 13th, but the Braves managed to knot the game up again when Terry Harper jacked a two run homer. Harper came to the plate TEN times in the game and managed five hits. That’s something not many baseball players can boast about.

The game went back to deadlock for the next five innings and then the Braves ran out of position players as pinch hitters. With nobody left on the bench to hit for him, and behind by a run, the Braves sent right-handed PITCHER Rick Camp, a lifetime .060 hitter, to the plate. With Camp behind in the count 0-2 — just as pitchers are supposed to be — Mets reliever Tom Gorman grooved a fastball “right down Peachtree Street” and Rick Camp sent it over the left field fence and into baseball history, tying the game.

What most people, including me, tend to forget after such a huge event is the Braves ended up LOSING the game in the next inning when the Mets got five runs in the top of the 19th. The Braves would get two back in the bottom of the inning, but Rick Camp couldn’t make the lightning strike twice and struck out to — finally, mercifully — end the game. It was 3:55 AM, July 5, six hours and ten minutes after it began.

The box score from the game took almost an entire column in the paper. Both teams used seven pitchers and combined for 46 hits. In a terrible bit of irony, Rick Camp proved a worse pitcher than hitter that fateful night, working three innings giving up 5 earned runs and going down as the losing pitcher.

The handful of remaining fans got to see the July 4th Fireworks Show start at 4:01am. Papa and I watched the entire thing; we both slept late the next morning.

Hope y’all had a great July 4th!

Love y’all; Keep those feet clean.




I’m Not Sick, But I’m Not Healthy Either

Dr. Lopez after my visits.

Dr. Lopez after my visits.

I recently had my summer checkup with my GP, Dr. Lopez. Even though I think the world of Doc, I don’t hate many things on Earth quite as much as I do going to see him. It’s definitely a top ten pet peeve of mine — nowhere near as loathed as Weed-Eating the yard but quite a ways above a slight paper cut. It’s not that Doc is a bad guy, because he’s not; I simply despise repetitive activity for the most part and my physicals are always extremely repetitive.

First, regardless of when my appointment time happens to be, I’m going to sit in the exam room for at least an hour. I wouldn’t mind if I was confined to the main waiting room. It’s much larger and cooler and the reading material is of a better selection. No, I have to cool my heels in the tiny, windowless exam room with the paper covered table and box of tongue depressors. I’m claustrophobic and after about ten minutes alone in there, I start hyperventilating and the walls begin moving towards me. Then, just as I am about to go bat-poop crazier that I already am, Doc comes in and wonders how my blood pressure can always be elevated no matter what hypertension meds he has me take.skeleton

I could endure the waitings, though, if the consultation wasn’t so negative. Doc always starts with the lab results from the blood I had drawn the week before. (Just as an aside, if you want to see your doctor flip completely out, instead of going in for labs fasting, eat three Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnuts and chug a pair of Mountain Dews about thirty minutes before they draw blood — they’ll send an ambulance to get you as soon as the results come back.) Now all I care about from my lab results is my A1C level and my PSA level. The A1C tells if I’m diabetic or not and the PSA lets me know all is well with Mini-Me down below. He could give me those numbers and the visit would last five minutes — tops. Instead, he starts off with my CHOLESTEROL and TRIGLYCERIDES. I take meds to reduce both and he still isn’t satisfied. Unfortunately, no matter how much I try to convince him I don’t give a tinker’s cuss what my LDL and HDL levels are, I still get The Speech.

The Speech is a variation on “you need to exercise; you need to lose weight, you need to eat healthier.” Depending on the time of year or his particular mood, one of the three will get more emphasis than the other two. The latest iteration focused on diet. Every time he starts the “getting healthier” spiel, I ask him why I need to be so concerned with cholesterol. He always says it’s so I won’t have a massive heart attack and die. That’s when I ask him the same question every time: “What is the single biggest indicator of longevity in humans?” Usually he mumbles a bit then comes out with “Family history,” at which point I say, “Okay, forget cholesterol and tell me my A1C.”

Here’s my line of thinking and it infuriates him to no end — I’m not scared of a massive heart attack. If your heart explodes, you die. Simple. Pour water on the fire and call in the dogs boys because this night’s hunt is OVER. On the other hand, I am terrified of Type II Diabetes or, as we say in the South, “The Sugar.” Diabetes doesn’t kill you — at least not outright. No, first they cut off your toes; then your feet, followed by your legs to the knee, then to the thigh. Before long, you end up looking like an extra from the 1932 Tod Browing film Freaks. Plus, the entire time leading up to your butchery, you have to stab yourself with needles two or three times a day. Needles are the main reason a Skittlesques pack of pills was my drug of choice rather than heroin or morphine when I was a young and reckless lad.

Getting back to family history, though, Granny Matt (my great-grandmother on Daddy’s side) had six sons: Uncle William, Uncle Bob, Uncle George, Papa Wham, Uncle David, and Uncle Jack. Of the six, FIVE died of massive heart attacks sometime between 72 and 76 years old. Daddy has already had one and a half heart attacks and he’s 63. On the other side of my family tree, however, diabetes and cancer, sometimes both, run roughshod through Mama’s side of my family. I’m trying to get Dr. Lopez to see I’m not fatalistic or reckless with my health, I’m just playing the averages and trying to help skew them in my favor.

Eat RightI could cut out everything I love to eat — red meat, ice cream, starches, sweets, cheese, etc — and I could exercise religiously like I see so many people doing around here, but WHY would I want to? Perfect health is simply the slowest possible rate at which you can die. In most ways, we’re dead already. Luke the Drifter said it best when he sang, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

I go see my precious Granny every Tuesday. She can’t talk to me anymore. She can just barely feed herself and not even that some days. She can’t walk; she’s in diapers. I love her more than words can describe, but I don’t want to end up that way. Many of the inmates in the nursing home where Granny lives are the last members of their family. No one comes to see them. They are just taking their time dying in a warehouse of obsolete humanity, and there’s not a thing wrong with that, I just don’t want it to be me. Anyway, I was raised all my life to believe this live is just a dress rehearsal for what comes next. That’s where Mama is. That’s where I want to be. Right now, the only thing keeping me here is my Budge. I won’t leave her alone if I can help it.

So, see why I drive Dr. Lopez to distraction? Love y’all; keep those feet clean.

Papa’s Day plus 70 years

Papa wham

Frank B. Wham, Sr. circa 1944

Today more than any day of the year, I think of Papa Wham. More than his birthday (July 7), more than Christmas or Thanksgiving, more than Father’s Day, more than the anniversary of his passing (July 17), the anniversary of the D-Day invasion is my memory of Papa. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Operation Overlord invasion that finally opened up the second front in Europe the Soviet Union had been so adamantly insisting upon for years. Seventy years since the beginning of the end for Hitler and his 1000 year Reich. For Papa Wham and thousands of young men like him, it was another day away from home and the people they loved. I’ve seen the news coverage of the ceremonies in the Normandy cemeteries and I’ve marveled at the large number of veterans of that day who made the trip back to those stormy cliffs to remember. None of them are younger than their late 80s, but every single one of them stands as straight as age and appliances will allow as the colors troop past and the national anthems play. These are not young men and for many of them, this will be their last tour of the battlefields of their youth. It’s nearly a cliché now, but this is the flower of America’s Greatest Generation and those flowers are quickly fading.

If Papa were still with us, he’d be 97. This year will mark twenty years since his passing. It’s been two decades since I’ve seen his gentle smile and heard his sweet voice. To have known my papa when I did and as I did — as my beloved grandfather and one of the two greatest men I’ve ever known — was not to picture a warrior primed for battle. Papa ran a service station then an auto parts store. He vacuumed the house for Granny Wham on Saturday mornings and dozed off sometimes in church on Sunday mornings when Preacher Jeff wasn’t holding his attention. He loved baseball — especially his Atlanta Braves. He loved me and each of his three other grandsons (though I’m pretty sure I was the favorite.) I just never viewed my precious Papa Wham as anything other than my papa.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve often wondered what Papa thought about “his” war. I never asked him for any details. I was too young to know how to gently and politely ask an older man about his service and Papa never volunteered his thoughts on anything but the most innocuous incidents, the funniest stories. I wonder about things now though. Papa was in his middle 20s when he went to fight the Nazis. He was a small town South Carolina boy riding to war on the Queen Mary ocean liner. What was he thinking 70 years ago today as his LCI splashed towards the narrow strip of sand? If I’ve heard correctly, Papa was in the third wave of the invasion, which meant the beach was still “hot” in terms of enemy action. Was he scared? I can’t imagine Papa Wham being scared any more than I can imagine Daddy being scared, but having watched the invasion scene of Saving Private Ryan time after time, I can’t see anyone in one of those boats not being terrified.

I know from his service record that D-Day wasn’t Papa’s first rodeo. He’d landed in North Africa during Operation Torch. He had been at Anzio and had taken part in the Sicily campaign. Still, this was attacking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall of Fortress Europe. I wonder how many friends he’d made in the two years of serving with the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” I wonder how many he had seen maimed or killed in terrible ways. Had he ever killed anyone? I simply can’t see Papa as a killer, but it was a war and a terrible, bloody war at that. I know he could shoot because I’d seen him do it, but did he ever shoot a man? If he did, I never knew and I was brought up to well to ask.

What did he do in England during the build up for the invasion? What about during the days on the road in France when every American soldier was a liberator and a hero? Papa was dashingly handsome; especially in his uniform. Did he turn the head and catch the eye of a pretty English shop girl? Did he spend a quiet hour with some lovely French maid? To me, it’ll always be “Papa and Granny” but Papa wasn’t married to Granny yet and he was a long way from home with the possibility of being killed dogging his every step. I know it would seem scandalous to some — especially my Aunt Cathy — but I would hardly think less of my precious Papa Wham if he’d spent an evening with a European girl. He was kind and sweet and if Granny Wham loved him, why couldn’t a red-headed Scottish lass have been taken with him as well? I think entirely too much of Papa and his steadfast integrity to even entertain the idea I may have some kin on the other side of the Pond I don’t know about. That’s just not the kind of man Papa was . . . but if it did turn out I had a Belgian relative or two, I certainly wouldn’t think any less of Papa. It was a war.

A war he fought 70 years ago thousands of miles from home. Oh the questions I wish I had asked.

Rest in Peace, Papa, and Rest in Peace to all the brave fallen of that terrible war.

Love you all and keep those feet clean!

The Last First Episode Is Coming


Star-Wars-Episode-7-VII-LogoA long time ago at a drive-in theater long since buried under an I-85 interchange, a great adventure took place. It was the summer of 1977 and I sat on the roof of Mama’s 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix hugging a speaker and watching the huge Imperial Star Destroyer Devastator inexorably close in on the tiny, defenseless Tantive IV. Three years later, Daddy and Teresa took me to the now defunct Astro Twin on Pleasantburg Drive where I watched Luke Skywalker battle the evil Darth Vader right before the greatest plot twist surprise in cinema history. Then, as a high school freshman, Robby and I sat in the — once again, defunct — Oaks Theater in Laurens to see Luke reunited with his friends amidst a sea of dancing teddy bears.

Star Wars played a MONUMENTAL role in my childhood and the childhoods of a big chunk of my generation. To give you an idea of just what a cultural touchstone those films are to Gen-Xers everywhere, when I called one of my college roommates to tell him I was marrying a girl born in 1978, the first thought out of his mouth was not “Congratulations” or anything like it. Instead, Chris Hoppe shouted at me, “1978! Good God, Wham! She’s never seen Star Wars at the movie theater!” He was right, of course, so as soon as Budge and I left the theater in the summer of 1997 after watching the re-release of Star Wars: A New Hope, I called him up to let him know my beloved was now bona fide.

Now, if George Lucas had possessed the sense to get a prenuptial agreement with his wife, the Star Wars universe would probably have remained the exclusive unsullied cultural icon for Generation X. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Mrs. Lucas took ol’ George to the cleaners financially leaving him in relatively bad straits — no small feat to nearly bankrupt a man responsible of Luke Skywalker AND Indiana Jones. So, rumors started flying around the newly-burgeoning internet about something none of us Baby Boomer Babies ever dreamed we’d live to see — George Lucas was going to MAKE THE PREQUELS!!

Whatsa pissa poopsa!

Whatsa pissa poopsa!

So it was I sat in Theater 6 of The Hollywood 20 Theater with Budge on May 19, 1999 and watched the familiar opening crawl wind its way up the screen. I was more excited about a movie than I’d ever been or ever would be . . . at least until 2001 when I waited in line for hours to get tickets to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I quickly lost myself in the film’s first fifteen minutes; I was a kid again on the roof of that ’73 Grand Prix. Then, out of the murky green depths of one of the many planets in the Star Wars universe, disaster overtook my beloved franchise. Jar-Jar Binks appeared on the screen. Since Jar-Jar hate is widely documented, I’m not going to waste your time adding my opinions, but let’s just say, when it comes to all the negative things said about the bumbling Gungan, “I concur and then some.” I was delighted and crushed when the movie ended — delighted it was finally over and crushed that I’d waited 22 years for such a turd to plop onto my lovely memories.

After Phantom Menace, I realized Lucas was just going for money so I didn’t bother to see Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. I figured it would be a waste of time. In all honesty, I do wish I’d seen RotS on the big screen though, just to see the climactic fight on Mustafar between Obi-Wan and Anakin, but since that’s the only part of the movie I care anything about, I’ve just learned to content myself with YouTube. As a side note, if the prequels hadn’t shown Lucas’ money-making bias, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved to me he had completely blown up the refrigerator.

The cast . . .

The cast . . .

Well, Lucas sold the beloved space opera franchise to the ONE entity more concerned with money than he is — Disney. Less than a year after the sale, The Mouse has announced Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are in the works with Episode VII to be released next year, probably around Christmas. Today, the official casting announcements came out. The good news is Han, Luke, and Leia are all back aboard although I wonder if Harrison Ford will live long enough to finish all three films. The bad news is JJ Abrams is directing and co-producing Episode VII. So, this movie could be absolutely amazing with incredible visual effects and only slightly less boom and bang than a Michael Bay CGI-fest OR we could end up at the end of Episode IX discovering the entire nine film series actually took place in the imagination of some homeless Earth kid playing with broken action figures someone left lying in the park. To anyone who thinks I’m being silly and overreacting I can only reply with two words: Lost finale.

Hopefully though, the number of original cast members along with the addition of Gollum will pull the final three movies in the Star Wars nonology through. At least John Williams is doing the scores!

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.