Saturday, January 13, 2018

End of an Era

For twenty years Terri and I traveled, several trips every year. Then, in 2017, we went nowhere. There were several reasons for this abrupt halt, none of them especially interesting, and only one that truly mattered: American Airlines radically changed their frequent flyer program. The old system along with regular fare sales tempted us to fly frequently and far; the perks that came with status (most years we were Platinum) made the ordeal of flying semi-bearable. 'Status' has unfortunate connotations of social arrogance, but in the realm of air travel it means an array of specific, highly desirable benefits: better seats with more legroom, boarding priority, lounge access, upgrades on domestic flights, and more award miles.

AA raised the costs (both of airfares and the requirements to achieve status) while significantly reducing the benefits. So we have to ask ourselves, having to pay much more for a lot less, why bother?

As luck would have it, Terri found cheap fares to Milan with a return flight a day before our current status expires. So, on Monday we're off for two weeks in Italy, with stops in Piacenza, Modena, Mantova, and Cremona. These are not tourist hotspots and the weather will be cold, but there will be plenty of things to see and do. And of course we'll be eating--as I've written before, eating is one of the main reasons to go to Italy. Who can resist a basket of puffy fried bread and a plate of cured meats? And that's just for starters.

Fried Bread and Cured Meats

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

This won't be our last trip but we'll never travel again as much as we once did. We'll be more selective about when and where we go, and how we get there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I Join the Army

On this day in 2017, I become undeniably old, because on this day in 1967--fifty years ago!--I joined the Army.

January 1968: WORWAC

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Fateful incidents customarily occur on cold, grey dawns, but it never was cold in Houston, and the grey, of a decidedly greenish cast, was only smog. So 'twas on the muggy, polluted morning of October 24, 1967, that I reported to the Federal Building in Houston to be shipped off to Basic Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana: slowly up, up the imposing granite steps, into the echoing hallways, up some more stairs, down another hallway, at last finding and entering the waiting room of the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station.

I was sitting there, waiting, alone (as were the twenty-odd others with me) in the assigned room by a few minutes before 7 a.m. I brought what I had been told to bring: a small overnight bag containing two changes of underwear (preferably clean, the sergeant had gravely told me the week before) and a few toilet articles (the Army's name for soap, toothbrush, comb, deodorant and razor; "No goddamn straight razors, either!"), and a small amount of spending money--$2.78. I also carried a copy of E. V. Rieu's translation of The Iliad; what could be more appropriate, I thought, to brace me for what was to come? No one had told me that I could or should bring a book, but then, no one had said that I couldn't or shouldn't.

The AFEES, on the third floor of the Federal Building, was absolutely characterless, much like any other office complex in the governmental bureaucracy. It was reasonably clean, neither pretty nor ugly, oppressively neutral. The clerks, civilian and military, seemed to do little work. Occasionally papers would be shuffled, typewriters typed upon, coffee drunk, moronic jokes quickly told and laughed at. It was drab. All the senses languished for lack of input, groping for some little bit of data, however insignificant, that could be sent to the brain for study, assessment, and storage. The place looked drab, smelled drab, felt drab, sounded drab, and, had I the temerity to bite a wall, would have tasted drab.

Around 8 o'clock the twenty or so of us who had shown up that day were taken out of the waiting room to a long hallway, where we sat on narrow wooden benches. Once in a while someone would come up and call out names, hand out pieces of paper, or lead one or another to still other rooms and hallways to sign forms.

At noon an officer guided us to a room that had a little podium and an American flag in one corner. He stood behind the podium, we faced toward the flag, he mumbled and we repeated some words about fighting and defending, we took a step forward. After the ritual was complete the first glimmerings of an expression showed in the officer's face, gradually taking the form of a thin smile at once full of both sarcasm and pity. He looked at us, shook his head from side to side, let out a sardonic sigh, and walked away. We were now legally, morally, administratively, and for-better-or-for-worse in the United States Army.

Between 12:30 and 12:37 we were served what I loosely call 'lunch.' Each person received a small white cardboard box containing what can be described as food only because we were told to eat it, which we did not. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the aforementioned benches, broken by trips to the water fountain or rest room. Once in a while my stomach growled.

About sundown (I guess the civilians decreed that we had better be out of town, or else) we were led out of the building and down the street a few blocks to the Greyhound bus station. There was a thirty minute wait, so we promptly raided the Coke and candy machines. The bus came, we boarded, and off we set for Fort Polk.

I remember very little of the trip even though it was several hours long and went through areas of East Texas and Louisiana I had never seen before. Besides, it was dark. I had a window all to myself out of which I incessantly gazed, musing upon Life in general and my own in particular.

We arrived, a bit drowsy, at Fort Polk a few minutes after midnight. Slowly stirring ourselves out of our seats, we were startled into fearful alertness by a young punk-faced corporal who leaped into the doorway of the bus.

"Awright you cocksucking goddamn motherfuckers! What the fuck ya'll think this is, a fuckin' resort hotel? You slimey-assed bastards got five goddamn seconds to get off this fuckin' bus! MOVE!"

Move we did. What his address lacked in delicacy it more than made up in vigor. We scrambled and clawed over each other to get off the bus, where the corporal directed us, in his own colorful fashion, to the far side of a very large, empty parking lot. Instead of being marked to accomodate vehicles, however, the asphalt had on its surface row after row of short white lines, about three feet long, each with a different number, starting with 1 and going on to four or five hundred. As last names were read off a list we were told what number line to stand behind. I was 23.

After we were settled in our places we received a formal greeting to the fort. The corporal had been merely obnoxious, a pubescent bully, whereas the sergeant who took his place in front of us was made, as they say, of sterner stuff. His lips were in a permanent snarl and his beady eyes never stopped glaring. This man was dangerous--he belonged on a leash. He turned to us to speak.

"What a bunch of pussies. Shit. First of all, don't talk unless spoken to. If you start talking without permission I will personally kick your fat ass. Clear?"

We mumbled understanding, adding quick affirmative nods.

"Well, goddamn it, is it CLEAR?"

Again the up-and-down nods, this time more energetically.

"Lookahere, you stupid little cunts, when I ask a question you answer loud and you answer quick, by saying, 'Yes, Drill Sergeant.' Once again, is it clear?"

"Yes, Drill Sergeant."


"YES, DRILL SERGEANT!" By this time, of course, we had all forgotten what the question was.

"I'll be back later for your first inspection, but right now just stay where you are and keep quiet. No talking!"

There were future fears, to be sure, but the immediate ordeal was over. We had to remain standing at our appointed white lines but were left alone on the asphalt with no one to harrass us. By now it was around 2 a.m., and the fort seemed eerily silent and dark. The only lights were street lamps around the periphery of the parking lot and, a hundred yards away, a clapboard office building illuminated from within. The night was clear and moonless; the sky was filled with stars, millions and millions of stars, benignly twinkling on me and my little numbered line. I reflected on the great forces swirling through the heavens, the galactic worlds so far away, the utter immensity of the universe. I looked down at my overnight bag: two changes of underwear (clean), my paperback Iliad, my brand new Py-Co-Pay. There was great profundity in the contrast between above and below, betwen Alpha Centauri and a 4 ounce Palmolive bar, a significance far beyond my ability to verbalize or comprehend, although centered, I was positive, in one overwhelming question: "What the fuck am I doing in the Army?"

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Momma’s going, quietly

When she first went into the nursing home, just before New Year's Day 2005, Momma still had her feisty side. On our frequent visits we would sit with her, asking her questions and helping her answer, when she would suddenly take notice of another resident. The change in her expression was dramatic: her lips would purse and her eyes flash raw anger, at someone whose name she could not remember and whose offense she could not explain.

Requiescat in Pace

The orderlies would struggle with her to take her medicine. “No!” she would announce, “no” being the word that she always had the least trouble with.

Then she had another stroke. Off to the emergency room, one night there, one night in intermediate care, one night in regular care, then back to the nursing home. One carotid artery was completely blocked but the other let through enough blood to keep her going. When she returned she was quiet and calm, at first.

She slowly regained her strength and her fight. She didn’t realize she had a left side but rehab gave it back to her. She didn’t like the wheelchair. She had to get up to walk, because she had places to go.

She didn’t know where she had to go, or why, but she did know that the staff and that damn ankle alarm were keeping her from getting there. Each time she made it out the door, just when she thought she was free at last, someone would catch up to her and take her back inside. She would try again. And again. And again. And again. At last the nursing home agreed that she could go, in fact had to go — to another nursing home.

We made the mistake of taking her to the new home ourselves. I drove while Terri rode in the back seat with Momma. It was a 45 minute drive, on freeways and through heavy traffic, and Momma panicked at the light and noise and commotion. She wanted out of the car even as we were doing 65 m.p.h. She would grab at the door handle, at the lock, at anything, unsure of how to operate any of it but very sure she had to get out. Terri would grab her hands and ask her to try to sit quietly. Momma would get that perturbed look on her face, clasp her hands in her lap and stare straight ahead for a few moments before again succumbing to the urge — no, the desperate need — to get out of the damn car.

The staff at the new nursing home helped us settle her into her new room. She was in Unit B, the lockdown area for ‘exit seekers,’ dementia patients at that stage in their illness where they feel compelled to get out.

A few months later, a bout of pneumonia and another trip to the hospital failed to slow her down. Then one day they found her lying on the floor on the shower room, screaming in pain. She had gotten out of her wheelchair, unnoticed, walked to an unlocked door, then slipped and fell, breaking her hip. Back to the hospital, this time for surgery, but there would be no therapy when she returned to the home.

Momma is not in Unit B any longer. She does not walk and does not try to. She does not seek exits, or entrances either. She doesn’t purse her lips any more, her eyes no longer flash anger. All her facial expressions are gone, replaced by a blank, uncomprehending stare. She opens her mouth obediently when they feed her. Sometimes she will say “yes” when I ask her a question, but mostly she just looks at me. She takes her medicine without complaint.

Momma died in 2007.

Momma's Room

Thursday, December 22, 2016


We traveled to Andalucía the last two weeks of November, visiting Córdoba, Granada, Ronda, and Sevilla. All in all, a lovely trip, with lots of interesting things to see and eat. Here's the Flickr album with all the snaps:

Spain November 2016

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Last Flight

November 3, 1969, 11 a.m. I was getting close. After 11 months and three weeks, I had only eight more days left in Viet Nam. Helicopters were loud and tempting targets; flying a Huey meant being regularly shot at. I had been in a few scares, seen a lot of the country, the usual ups and downs of a year in a war zone. I was promoted to CW2 the month before and now with over two years service was finally making some real money, almost $500 a month plus flight and combat pay.

In most aviation units, including ours, the tradition was that if you were still alive near the end of your year-long tour of duty, you could have the last week off. So, in another day or two I could coast, stay drunk, wouldn't have to fly, sleep all day, say good-bye to all this crap, go home and eat a real hamburger and some Twinkies and drink a real milkshake.

The Ops Sergeant came by and told me I didn't pull any missions that day. Good. But I'd be the A/C (aircraft commander) on call for night missions, should any come up. Bad. That meant I couldn't drink much. But I was another day closer.

1969:  Sunrise at Long Thanh North

Dull day. Hot. Beginning the boring dry season, same high humidity, high temperature day in, day out, just like August growing up in Galveston and Houston. Listen to some Big Brother, Country Joe, throw in a little jazz. Go to bed early; one, maybe two days left of fretting, then I coast.

After midnight, I get a wake up. I have to fly to Tan Son Nhut, the big base in Saigon, pick up a guy and some equipment, take him to Lai Khe, drop the stuff off, then bring him back to Saigon. Not a big deal, just an oddball little delivery, yet, going up at night, to the Iron Triangle of all places. Shit.

We get the crew together, the ship's already preflighted, crank it. We wake up the tower operator and tell him we're going, if we ain't back in 90 minutes, send help and lots of it. Cleared for take off. Keep it low, a foot or two off the runway as we accelerate to VNE 120 knots, pull the cyclic back hard for a quick climb up to 1500', pull more power to get even higher, be thankful it's one of the new H models. Head for Saigon.

Godawful night flying. Call Bear Cat Arty, the artillery radio net, to find out which way they're shooting. They have fire missions all around the compass, big artillery rounds going every which way. Fly over some, under and around the others, zig zag towards Saigon.

Five miles out, drop down to 500', kill the lights, look out for the usual odd tracer trail from the Saigon suburbs, get clearance to land. A Spec 5 signal technician is waiting with a couple of boxes. We get him on board, take off, head north for Lai Khe, the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division.

Lai Khe Arty is busy. It takes us an extra 10 minutes to fly around to avoid the artillery, we finally make it in, park our Huey right in front of the dinky little control tower alongside the runway, pitch down and roll the throttle back to idle. The engine stays running, the rotor beating rhythmically overhead. My crew chief helps the Spec 5 unload the boxes from our ship and into a jeep. Be back in 10, the Spec 5 says, hurrying, anxiety in his voice even as he shouts to be heard over the turbine whine. He's obviously more nervous than we are about being here, away from the safety of his home on a big air base.

We sit there, idling, listening to two or three radio channels. They're all fairly quiet except for the traffic on Arty, as they call out updates to their fire missions. It's a pretty, starry night, all things considered.

Long pauses. We hear a distant boom, a boom unlike a friendly howitzer, then the voice of the arty RTO, with a shade more energy in his voice than before. "Be advised Lai Khe has incoming! Incoming!"

Shit. Mortar rounds, rockets, who knows, I can see the stuff hitting far away but moving closer, the bad guys are walking in their shots from the outer berm, looks like they're adjusting the range, aiming for the runway, the tower -- and me. I quickly turn my head and see the Spec 5 jumping out of the returning jeep and running towards the ship. I get on the intercom and tell the crew chief, "Get his ass in now! We are outta here!"

Even before he jumps in I am rolling the throttle up and getting light on the skids. He's in, strapping down, and I pull as much collective as I can grab, push the cyclic forward, and the beautiful new H model with the shiny Lycoming engine vaults into the air as we escape into the safety of the night sky. I make my way out of Lai Khe at a sharp angle from the incoming so we don't fly into it. We get up and away, gain some altitude, turn to Saigon.

It's pushing 3 a.m. by the time we get back to Long Thanh North, gas it up, shut it down, fill out the log, put it to bed and head back to our hooches.

November 4, 1969, 9 a.m. I am catching up on my sleep, all the other crews are out flying, the hooch area is deserted. I get another wake up from the Ops Sergeant. "Mr Wegner, Mr Wegner! Get up, sir, you're leaving! Leaving Viet Nam!"

Yea, right, I think. But he wasn't kidding, I got a drop of a week, going home early, have to leave now, right now. I race around my room, hurriedly throwing stuff in bags, trying not to forget anything. I scooped up my .45 and M-16, chicken plate, classified signals book, tossed it to the sergeant with a plea to check it all back in for me. Luggage in hand, ready to go, I find out all of our ships are gone, I have to hitch a ride on a Huey from another unit that luckily happens to be headed my way.

I'm in a quiet rage. The fucking bastards made me fly on my last day. My last day! I could have been killed, a fucking night mission. No week of taking it easy, no good-bye party, no farewells, nothing. All the guys I had been flying with, living with, for a year, will come back from their missions, walk in, notice my stuff is gone. In another year they'll forget my name, I will forget theirs.

For almost a day I hurry up and wait at some transit barracks with a bunch of people I've never seen before. A few of us are waiting for a flight out, most are just arrived in country. Very few pilots, mostly Infantry lieutenants and Supply officers. For once I am proud of ratty, faded fatigues.

Finally it's time. Get on the bus, head out to the runway, climb the stairway to board the jet. A line of GIs ahead of me, a line behind, I stop at the top of the stairs, turn around and look. I pause, trying to scan it all in, hoping to imprint the scene on my memory forever. Viet Nam. It's over. I made it. I am going home.

The airliner is loaded, every seat taken, the doors are shut, the air conditioning vents are struggling to clear out the tropical heat and moisture, we taxi to the end of the runway, throttles to the wall, we're going, going, going, faster, faster, rotate for take off, wheels up, we head out to sea, to the east, ever closer and closer back to The World.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Chartres, Dijon, and Alsace

Most guidebooks recommend at least several hours, perhaps even a full afternoon, to visit Chartres, so of course we stayed three days. On prior trips to France we had planned to see the cathedral, but something always came up, we ran out of time or the weather turned cold and rainy. But this time we made it; a few hours after landing in Paris we were walking around the glorious Chartres Cathedral.

Chartres Cathedral / Day

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Chartres is a charming small town, very pretty and quaint, well worth the extra time we spent there. Besides sitting in the cathedral gazing in awe at the stained glass, we visited parks and museums and strolled along the river. From there we went to Dijon, not so small or quaint but still charming, with one of the nicest markets I've ever seen.

Les Halles

Dijon is the capital of Burgundy and has gained fame as the gastronomic heart of France. Unfortunately for us, we didn't eat very well. There were many restaurants to choose from but as luck would have it they ranged from average at best to downright mediocre. One place was even out of French wine, so instead tried to sell us a vastly overpriced bottle of common Italian red from Abruzzo.

From Dijon we went to Colmar in Alsace, and I had my first ride on the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), France's high-speed rail. There was a small electronic bulletin board in each car to display route and stops, and it also showed our speed: usually around 310-315 kmh, or about 195 miles per hour. The lovely French countryside whisked by, the train car barely swayed, and before you knew it we were at our destination. I love the TGV but should warn you, it is not cheap. Prices vary hour to hour and day to day, depending on demand, and last-minute fares can be outrageous. What a pleasant way to travel, though.

Colmar is exceedingly charming and quaint, and like many such places it is overrun by tourists. September is still high season and we had to wend our way through crowds to get to our hotel. Fortunately the throngs were concentrated in a few popular areas leaving us free to walk around quieter parts of the town. Crowds or not, Colmar is a very pretty place.


Many people relish Alsatian food, but I quickly discovered I did not care for it. A typical dish is choucroute, a big plate of sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, and five or more kinds of meat, big slabs of ham and scarcely cooked bacon and several sausages. Painfully overloaded with meat, we had the wonderful idea to try a fish restaurant on our last night in Colmar and had the best meal of the trip.

The last stop was Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. All things considered, this was my favorite of the places we visited. Strasbourg was charming and quaint in its own way but much larger and more energetic than Colmar. Again we struggled with the heavy Alsatian food but one night found a hole-in-the-wall pizza place with a good deal on a few slices and a small carafe of wine. The owner was from Rome and we all enjoyed chatting about how good Italian food is.

Given Strasbourg's years of being part of Germany, the architecture is decidedly Prussian. The city's masterpiece is, of course, its cathedral.

Strasbourg Cathedral

From Strasbourg it was TGV direct to Paris' CDG airport and the Ibis hotel, where we had an entire afternoon and evening to wander the terminals and find a place to eat. In Terminal 1 we saw some interesting staircases, giving me a chance to add more snaps to my Flickr staircase album.

CDG Terminal 1

There's more photos in the complete Flickr album: France Fall 2016. We're back in Fort Worth now, beginning to plan the last big trip of the year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Salamanca and Segovia

The second half of our trip to Castile began with a food find. We checked into our hotel behind Segovia's Mercado Central, put away a few things, then headed out to explore the neighborhood. We strolled around Plaza Mayor and off onto side streets, where we found an inviting sign outside a burger place: a beer and a hot dog for €1.50. Seriously?

TGB The Good Burger

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

Seriously. The beer was not one of those little glasses, a caña, that you usually get in tapas bars, but a big frosty mug. And while the hot dog was small, there were several varieties with toppings like garlic mayonnaise, bacon, red pepper sauce, or guacamole. We liked The Good Burger so much that we made it back every afternoon for our beer and hot dog.

Toledo is touristy, Ávila is quaint and provincial, but Salamanca is a lively university town. I immediately fell in love with the energy of the place: lots of people, young and old, families and students and older folks like me, and lots of pleasantly bustling activity. The architecture is stunning, especially that of the university and the cathedral, and we were lucky enough that first afternoon to catch the warm light of the setting sun on the red stonework.

Catedral Nueva (New Cathedral)

There was plenty to do and see to keep us busy for three days: palaces and convents, an incredible Art Nouveau collection, tasty cookies made by nuns, parks and a Roman bridge, even a film projector museum.

Catedral / Cathedral

From Salamanca we went to Segovia where our luck with the weather ran out. It was pouring rain at the train station, raining when we got on a city bus, raining hard when we got off the bus at Plaza Artilleria under the aqueduct, and raining as we walked to our hotel.

Then our luck returned. After we unpacked a few things and relaxed for a while, the sky cleared, the sun came out, and we were ready to discover Segovia. Our luck got even better as we realized what was going on: Titirimundi, the International Puppet Theatre Festival. The streets were packed with families enjoying the street performers and the squares filled with people finding a good seat for the scheduled shows.

Waiting for the Show to Begin

Like every other city in Europe, Segovia has food specialities, and I found two of them to be especially tasty: cochinillo (roast suckling pig) and ponche segoviano (a kind of sponge cake with pastry cream filling and a thin marzipan frosting). Segovia has beautiful churches and the famous Alacazar castle, and of course the Roman aqueduct that defines the city.

Acueducto / Aqueduct

We would have enjoyed Segovia in any case, but it was an unexpected pleasure being able to stop every block or so to watch a clown, a juggler, or a puppeteer entertaining a crowd. Most impressive were Los Animóviles, fanciful mechanical contraptions made of scrap odds and ends. A kid or two would hop on one of these clackety beasts and be pushed round and round by a grown-up.

Los Animóviles

Lazy, slow travelers that we are, we've gotten into the habit of staying near the departure hub airport the last night of a trip. The alternative is to get up really, really early and make it back to Madrid, Paris, or Milan, where the flights back to the U.S. generally leave just before noon. Instead, we can take it easy on our last night and get up at a reasonable hour in time to make it to the airport.

So we took our time leaving Segovia and boarded a slow train to Madrid, where we rode the subway to an Ibis hotel in the Barajas suburb near the big airport. Looking for a last meal, we walked to the little town square, which was fortunately ringed by tapas restaurants. We picked one, Lizarran, and had one of the best meals of the trip. Rather than simply displaying tapas on the counter, Lizarran has their waiters continually exiting the kitchen with trays of hot, freshly prepared tapas. They walk from table to table, proferring the little dishes, and each diner is free to pick one or not as they choose. After several tapas and a couple glasses of wine, I had one last sit in the plaza before the short walk back to the hotel.

Sitting in Barajas

There's many more photos and a couple of videos in the complete Flickr album: Spain May 2016. Next week, there's one more trip, of a different kind, and then we rest for a bit as the summer travel season begins.