Monday, May 23, 2016

In the Field

“My first day in the field in South Vietnam I’m leaning on one of these pipes when I notice writing inscribed on it: ‘U.S. Steel, Gary Sheet and Tin.’ I exclaimed, ‘Look, I worked there.’  But nobody gave a shit.”  Omar Farag
 Omar Farag (2nd from left) skinny-dipping in water probably contaminated by Agent Orange
Omar Farag got sent to Nam in the fall of 1970, by which time the war was basically lost.  On patrol, he told me:
  My squad members liked me walking point because I altered our mission to search and avoid.  My attitude was, “Fuck, we’re going slow.”  After all, the purpose was to survive.  If I thought the enemy went one way, I went the opposite.  We all agreed; we didn’t even have to vocalize it.
President Obama with Vietnamese leader Tran Dai Quang

Barack Obama became the first sitting President to visit Vietnam, some 42 years after the end of America’s most disastrous war, and announced the end of the American embargo on selling arms to the Communist regime.  One reason for closer ties with the Hanoi regime is alarming Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

In “Operation Homecoming,” edited by Andrew Carroll, is an article by First Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker, who in 2004, after playing varsity basketball for West Point, led her platoon on security missions and trained Iraqi police.  After three months in the field, her four-truck convoy came under attack.  She recalled:
  An RPG smashed through my truck’s engine block. Ripped my right arm from its socket, splintered my torso with shrapnel, broke eight of my ribs, and severely burned my lungs. With God on his shoulders, our driver Specialist Hill averted the kill zone and raced our mangled truck back to the police station.

In an induced coma for two weeks, Halfaker awoke to find herself at Walter Reed Hospital, where she’d remain for nine months.  She overcame self-pity at losing her arm by observing the grit of comrades with more grievous wounds and by remembering Omar, a prisoner who once facilitated the birth of a child by a pregnant detainee who would not let a U.S. doctor touch her.  Halfaker wrote:
  The local religious and nationalist authorities didn’t appreciate Omar’s brazenly pro-Western attitude, so they framed him for selling hashish to juveniles and had him arrested.  With no due process to depend on, Omar was convicted of nothing but remained incarcerated for over a year.
  One of Omar’s favorite pastimes was watching us soldiers play basketball on a small makeshift court we threw together outside the jail.  He would stand in his cell and peer through the bars of his window, shouting enthusiastically as though it were game seven of the World Series.  He always cheered the most for my team, mocking my opponents, claiming that no one could stop me.  The more he rooted for me, the more I wanted to prove the pride of his smack talk.
  As I recovered at Walter Reed, I learned that Omar took my injury extremely hard.  One day he became so angry and frustrated that he tore down the makeshift basketball hoop he helped us build and wrote, “No LT, no Play” on the backboard in big bold letters.  When the soldiers tried to put it back up, Omar wrestled it away from them and insisted that if I were not going to be part of the game, no one would be.
Halfaker’s description of Omar reminded me that Portage grad John Migoski, assigned by the army to Mogadishu Somalia in 1993, gave the name Omar to his son because a man by that name saved his life.  It also caused me to remember Mehmet, a helpful and sociable student at Bogazici (Bosporus) University in Istanbul when in the summer of 2000 I attended an oral history conference there.  A devout Kurd who hoped to study in Boston after meeting a girl from there the previous summer, Mehmet took me sightseeing one day to the Grand Bazaar, Suleyman’s burial mosque, and Istanbul University.  We had yummy pita bread filled with cuttings from a huge revolving piece of veal.  I’d seen them all over but hadn’t gotten up the nerve to order one.

NWI Times marketing columnist Larry Galler compared managing a business to running a farm.  A good harvest depends on plowing, planting, nurturing, protecting, and cultivating the field.  Similarly, Galler wrote, “The businessman uses other tools to cultivate, plant seeds of interest, nourish and protect the relationship with great service and ultimately produce a harvest.  The businessperson also knows that there is no harvest, or a very thin one, without cultivating the relationship.”

After a torrid start, the Cubs have cooled off, losing their last three series.  In the field Jason Haywood ran face first into a wall in the process of making a spectacular catch.  Their latest loss was on a two-out, walk-off home run by Cardinal Randal Grichuk.

Chesterton Tribune reporter Kevin Nevers encapsulated three generations of downtown entrepreneurship in “Framing Concepts to Close.”  Nevers began:
  For more than three-quarters of a century, a Baur has been doing business in downtown Chesterton and once every generation reinventing it.
  Walt Baur, Sr, the original entrepreneur, in 1938 opened the Ben Franklin five-and-dime at 133 S. Calumet Road.  In 1959 Walt, Jr. bought out his father and, looking to expand, moved the store into the 10,000-square foot space of what had been the Aron Theater at 219 Broadway.
  There Walt, later joined by his son ken, continued selling the usual stock-in-trade of a five and dime – toiletries, shoes, stationary, household items – until, by the early 1980s, the rise of the big-box discount retailers had shifted the commercial center of gravity from the downtown to the frontage road, from storefronts to strip malls.  Mom-and-pop operations had no hope of competing against such aggressive economies of scale.
  The Baurs responded boldly with a sidestep and counterthrust.  They became a specialty store, liquidating much of their traditional line and replacing it with arts and crafts supplies.  Ken completed the transition in 1989 when he bought out his father, outfitting, with wife Pat, serious artists and crafters as well as kids (and parents) grappling with social projects, birthday parties, and rainy afternoons.
  By the 21st century, however, Hobby Lobby and Michael’s were doing to Ken’s Ben Franklin what Kmart and Target had done to his father’s.  So Ken doubled down on specialization and opened Framing Concepts gallery, where for 15 years they’ve been providing high-end customized framing and display solutions for art work, family heirlooms, and personal mementos.
  Now though, Ken and Pat (above) are retiring.  The time is right, Ken says. They have had a good run in the niche business in a small town.  The decision hasn’t been forced on them by circumstance.  “We’re lucky,” Ken says.  “It’s never become a daily grind.  And we can pick and choose.”
  Not that it’s been easy though.  It took sweat and imagination.  “You build up layers in a frame shop,” Ken says.  “It’s not just residential jobs.  It’s also commercial and interior decoration.”
Nevers reported that last year Chesterton lost Smith Motors, a family-owned dealership for over 50 years, and that the Port Drive-In owners are soon retiring.

In 1996, hearing from high school teacher Susan Abbadusky, reprimanded in Monmouth, Illinois, for assigning “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
  The first story of mine to arouse censors was about time-travelers who go back to the Holy Land at the time of the Crucifixion.  It turns out that the Bible had it right, the 3 crosses, the crown of thorns, and so on.  As long as they’re back there, they decide to measure Jesus.  He is five feet and three inches tall, the same height, incidentally, as Richard the Lion hearted.  Outrage!  Pandemonium!
 “Mistress America” (2015) is about Tracy (Lola Kirke), a lonely Barnard College freshman bonding with stepsister-to-be Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a vivacious 30 year-old veteran New Yorker.  Their parents met on an Internet dating service.  Richard Brody in The New Yorker described Brooke as “a brilliant talker and aphorist, a fast-walking, fast-talking fount of gossip and insights, cutting wit and grandiose dreams, wild impulses and crazy projects, incisive observations and boundless audacity.”  Brody added:
  As soon as Tracy lays eyes on Brooke, who sashays down the red staircase at the TKTS stand in Duffy Square with a wild shriek ("Tracy! Welcome to the Great White Way!”) and a theatrically ironic eye roll, Tracy recognizes that Brooke is a character, in both senses of the word – an idiosyncratic, overflowing, even overwhelming personality, and someone made to be represented in fiction. The next day, after a night of adventures with Brooke, Tracy writes a story, “Mistress America,” about a woman named Meadow who says and does what Brooke said and did when they were together.
Tracy labels Meadow “all romance and failure.  The world was changing, and her kind didn’t have anywhere to go.  Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.”  That was selling the resilient Brooke short, as Tracy later realized.
Our bridge group dined at Ivy’s Bohemia House and came back to the condo for cards and cheesecake.  Sunday at Memorial Opera House we attended “The Bobo Show,” a fundraiser for Porter County Animal Shelter.  Becca and James sang “PETS” with Anne Carmichael to the tune of “YMCA.”  Afterwards we celebrated Tamiya’s turning 21 at Applebee’s, followed by Angie’s homemade chocolate cake at the condo. 

Good buddy David Malham passed away, wife Shelley informed us, two years after contracting ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  A master storyteller with a warm heart, he was my first A+ student.  Once for Rhiman Rotz’s class project he decided to cook a medieval meal (mainly onions and potatoes) and asked Toni and me to be on hand for moral support.  We had a hilarious time playing a dictionary game later marketed as Balderdash.  David described my demeanor in front of the classroom in the early 1970s thusly:
  Lane needed a plumed hat and rapier like D’Artagnan in “The Three Musketeers.”  He had a goatee, mustache, long hair, and a habit of making circular hand motions.  When he wanted to make a big point, the gesture would take on a particular flourish.
Malham earned an MA at IU before becoming a grief counselor for MADD.  In a class with pompous historian Robert H. Ferrell, he pronounced Valparaiso, Chile, like the city in Northwest Indiana, emphasizing the long “a” in the third syllable rather than the “i,” drawing Ferrell’s ridicule.  In 2000, after Dave, Angie, and I were victims of a home invasion, David held a cathartic debriefing session.  Often deliberately the butt of his own stories, he once described an appearance on the Jerry Springer show as an expert on troubled teens.  Right before airtime he noticed that his pin-stripe jacket didn’t match the pants.  His first chance to speak, he wasn’t succinct enough, so Springer cut him off.  An attractive black girl was getting the most camera time.  David broke in but got her name wrong.  I think of David whenever I sneak candy into the movie theater, which embarrassed son Michael.  His Assyrian mother for many years refused to give up her house in Gary behind Sears despite her children’s urging.  David took her along on a business trip to Washington, DC. 

Years ago at a gas station a reckless driver ran Malham down and severely injured hom.  Depressed and feeling like a burden, he divorced Shelley, his soul mate, but later they remarried.  Though unfailingly good-humored in correspondence, the emails tailed off.  I was not surprised that he declined heroic measures to keep him alive.  I’m grieving but cherish many humorous memories we shared.

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