Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Athenians Leave Sicily

In 415 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War, Athens sent a large expeditionary force to attack Syracuse, in Sicily, believing they could conquer the entire island and finally win the war against Sparta. They failed, and few survived.

He sat on the beach, legs drawn up, his heels making sharp indentations in the moist, sucking sand; the water seemed limitless before him, the land limitless behind. He watched the cumulus clouds on the horizon grow and recede, exploding to immense heights before dissolving into wispy remnants.

There were moments of absolute stillness, when even the insects paused, between the blasts of wind from offshore that blew the greasy strands of hair from his face and dried his sweat while depositing a fine grit in the corners of his eyes and mouth.

He looked to the east. He could almost smell home on that wind from the east, almost see, if he squinted just so, the cloud-topped mountains to the east, even hear, ever so faintly, the echoes of sounds from beyond the horizon. As the yearning quickened, the defeat became manifest; Athenian moderation could not manipulate Syracusean excess. He picked up his bronze from the beach — there would be more battles, on other shores — and walked toward the ships. It was time to go home.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Going to Vietnam

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of my joining the Army. Thus this year, today, marks the fiftieth anniversary of my arriving in Vietnam.

The year in between was hectic. First there was two months of basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Then ten months of flight school, at Fort Wolters, Texas, and Fort Hunter-Stewart, Georgia. On October 21, 1968, when I was all of 19 years old, I got pinned with my warrant officer bars and the next day received my Army Aviator wings and my orders to show up at Travis Air Force Base, California, a month later.

November 1968, home on leave in Texas before going to Vietnam Headed to Vietnam

For a year drill sergeants and TAC officers had berated and humiliated us, calling us the vilest of names. Then I showed up at Travis AFB and it was all "yes, sir" and "no, sir" and politeness and deference. They even said "please" when they asked me to be there two hours before my flight to Tan Son Nhut.

I am old and have forgotten so much in my life, but I remember quite distinctly the unsettling mixture of anxiety and resignation I felt as I boarded the airliner. Of course I knew before I joined that all Army helicopter pilots went to Vietnam but now I was facing the stark reality that it was my time to go.

It was to be a long flight. Travis AFB to Alaska. Alaska to Wake Island. Wake Island to Japan. And finally Japan to Saigon. Lots of time to think, and many of my thoughts came back to a poem by W. B. Yeats, about an Irish pilot in World War I, that distilled my confusion of emotions and feelings into 16 short lines. I've read this poem hundreds of times, before, during, and after my year in Vietnam and each time I marvel at how well Yeats laid out my state of mind.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
 by William Butler Yeats

 I know that I shall meet my fate
 Somewhere among the clouds above;
 Those that I fight I do not hate
 Those that I guard I do not love;
 My country is Kiltartan Cross,
 My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
 No likely end could bring them loss
 Or leave them happier than before.
 Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
 Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
 A lonely impulse of delight
 Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
 I balanced all, brought all to mind,
 The years to come seemed waste of breath,
 A waste of breath the years behind
 In balance with this life, this death.

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.