Putting back the pieces

I’m having an odd day in an odd year. Not really sure what direction this discussion will take, but what the hell. Hold onto my beer and watch this…

It all started with a beautiful cover of a Hendrix song.

Since I came home, music has been tough for me. Not sure why, it just makes me a bit sensitive (for lack of a better word). So I ration my listening fairly carefully and I turn it off if it gets to be too much.

Today was one of those days. I could barely stand to hear the soulfully played song.

No idea why this is, I’ve never brought it up with the VA people. I have only noticed this lack of control since Afghanistan, though.

I could go on at boring length about some of the stuff that plays in my head, but I won’t. Anyone can wikipedia some of the results of combat exposure and blast trauma, so if you feel like making yourself smart about this stuff, go right ahead. I won’t stop you.

I dunno, a lot of this thinking was brought about by the weather and the re-discovery of some old images hidden deep within the files of my old computer; I backed up the old MacBook when I busted out the new machine (Thanks, Prime Day!). Lo and behold I came across a couple of Power Points my old boss had me write.

I thought they were corrupted beyond any use, gone forever.

It turns out they were just outdated and inaccessible with the junky old software.

With some degree of trepidation, I opened the file called “Explosive Hazards of “x” Province, Afghanistan, October 2011.”

Good God, it was riddled with images I took and catalogued some nine years ago. Stuff I thought I had forgotten, like the blast crater below.

Just a dumb hole in the ground, you say. Yeah, it is that.

But there’s a story there. You see, I watched that hole being made. I watched as an Afghan Police truck passed over that exact spot. The IED with my name on it, but not that day, exploded violently.

The bomb was planted along a road I travelled daily, either on foot or riding as shown below.

Riding as the gunner on an 1151 Humvee.

Good God I shook like a leaf as we rode through that crater shortly thereafter. I nearly pissed myself as I felt the truck lurch while passing through the hole. That bomb. That Improvised Explosive Device. It sought to tear the life from me, to blast me and my friends to rags and red filth.

So yeah, maybe I should have never opened that file.

But that’s the hell of it. These days nothing electronic ever truly dies. Long after I have passed someone cruising the web or whatever will be able to search for images of the Afghan War, and there I will be, in living color. Maybe even rendered in a 3D hologram or something.

So the war will never truly die with us, its combatants.

It will be preserved, like a fly in amber.

I have my doubts as to whether this is a good thing. No, you know what? It’s not. But it doesn’t matter, the cat is out of the bag for good. Digital immortality is upon us, for better or worse.

For an eternity I will ride on top of my machine in my gunner’s harness, my right hand on my trusty PK. For uncountable years I will wait on the explosion.

This. As I sit behind this computer typing, my teeth chatter. I remember.

There is no forgetting. Likewise forgiveness. Understanding, the same.

All that is left is to endure.

A Prime Day

I’m not sure if I’ve ever specifically expressed this, but we live in an amazing world during exceptional times. A lot of stuff is good. Some of it is bad.

Today I’d like to mostly discuss good stuff. You can go somewhere else for politics, etc.

OK, so it’s kind of odd here in my house. Many large ticket items can be dated from various deployments.

Well, almost all of our electronics dated from the final Afghan trip, 2011. Do the math, that stuff was getting long in the tooth. For example, the laptop I’m typing on. The bluetooth has given out, several of the keys are illegible and some of the software is glitchy.

If I haven’t written five hundred thousand words on this MacBook, I haven’t written one. It is an amazing machine.

A big reason I didn’t replace it sooner was because of Apple’s dumb butterfly keys. They were notoriously unreliable. Hey, Apple! I buy Apples because they are reliable, not because they are cutting edge or cool. So for years I held off until they fixed the problem with the “new” Magic Keyboard. Ha. All this is is a refinement on the tried and true scissor keys.

But I digress.

Lemme get to the core of this post.

Amazon Prime Day.

They blew my doors off with the deals. Seriously. A lot of people don’t care for Jeff Bezos or the Beast. My response is that he saw an opportunity and took it. If he wouldn’t have, someone else would have and people would be cussing whomever instead.

In regard to the mom-and-pop stores, they are gone. In my little village the main street used to by filled with small shops. Empty storefronts or gap-toothed holes remain where lives used to be.

There’s no going back; the changes are coming hard and fast.

In fact, there is a noticeable acceleration. Within my lifetime we have gone from rotary dial phones to cheap crappy Walmart phones that could literally build an atom bomb.

Which brings me full circle to where I want to go with this today.

For the full price of one laptop I got the laptop as well as a pile of other stuff to replace the obsolete/malfunctioning 2011 purchases.

So in practical terms I got electronics that are far more capable than the old ones for HALF the 2011 price.

For example. We bought a replacement sitting room TV for a ridiculous price. I won’t say how much, but it was stupid.

The TV is a full foot (30.4cm) larger than the old one, was much easier to set up, is far more capable, and the colors are intense, cinematic.

And it cost 60% less than the old TV in 2011 dollars.

I’m still shaking my head. See the remote above. If I want to watch (name the app), I push a button. Or (and I wasn’t aware of this when I bought the TV) I can push a button and have Alexa find me whatever.

I’ll bet a first grader could set up this TV. Ten or twenty years ago this would have been a mighty struggle for 1/100th the capability; I remember well.

My old TV is outclassed in every respect by this unit. It is simply amazing.

And that is but one item.

But look, this brings me back to the point of this post. We live in a world filled with amazing stuff; many of us exist at a level of comfort which would have been foreign to our grandparents. The world has so much potential. Seriously; the TV is an infinitesimal speck of the whole.

So why do many of us want to screw it up? Are people so bored or stupid that they want to tear down what our ancestors have built?

Stop it.

Leave your guns at home.

When the time comes, exercise your right as a citizen to vote.

This is a democracy. Compromise and imperfect solutions are part of the experience.

This is a peaceful and beautiful land; the vast majority of the residents have never known war or hardship.

Let’s keep it that way; let “Call of Duty” be the closest that many come to the sound of the guns; or a rainy camping trip be the worst misery that the vast majority see.

Look at your humble TV remote; you are holding the product of a thousand generation’s knowledge and wealth.

Me, personally? I am floored by this.

So if you feel like it, let today be the day that you take some joy out of simple things.

Let life be long. Live and let live.

And now I have a Netflix button and Alexa.

Life is good.

The Maternal Line

My mother, pictured above. The final link in the maternal line.

I have a bit of a different story for you all today. You see, I stand in awe of the knowledge that is transmitted through families, if only we keep an open ear.

Today I’ll tell you of my quest to chase down an ancient family recipe, and the odd chances and turns it took to be preserved.

I’ll cut to the chase. The recipe was transmitted by the woman pictured below, Imo. But it was her great-grandmother’s, name unknown.

She gave it to her daughter, Alice.

Alice is who I turned to for help in 1999, when my mother-in-law needed a recipe for pumpkin pie from scratch. I remember calling her. I said, “Grandma, how do you make a pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkins?”

She said “I don’t know. I always used canned pumpkin.” A pause. Then she said “I think I have a recipe from my mother, who got it from her grandmother.”

My Great-Great-Great Grandmother! Civil War era, at least. She read it to either me or my wife, not sure who. My wife translated the recipe into Dutch, then she gave it to my mother-in-law. It looked like this:

My mother-in-law baked the pies, we ate them. They were good, but they were really unlike any other pumpkin pie I have had before or since. Something about the proportions, maybe? But they were not as sweet as the modern pumpkin pies by far.

The years went by, I forgot about this incident, although I never quite forgot those lovely pies. Alice, my Grandma, died in 2016 after a full and very long life.

Fast forward to this, the year of the plague. I put in a big garden, and I ended up with ten pumpkins.

What, what to do with fresh pumpkins?

And then I remembered. My maternal line’s pumpkin pie recipe. I asked my parents if they could find it. Well, they found a recipe in my Grandma’s handwriting, but I didn’t think it was “it.”

See below.

In my Grandma’s careful hand, and undoubtedly old, but not the very old recipe she read over the phone to my wife.

Was it lost?

Then I thought to call my mother-in-law. Did she still have the recipe?

It didn’t take long for her to find it; she sent me an image of the recipe in Dutch. Fortunately my wife had transcribed the proportions in the old English measurements back then. All I had to do was convert the recipe back to the original language.

Via a very irregular method, it was saved. This one tiny chunk of knowledge from deep time, back a long way on the maternal line.

Today, readers, I am very glad to be able to share this recipe with you!

It makes a pumpkin pie that is different from the modern, store bought ones.

Here goes, from my family to yours!

What else has been lost? So much. But this little jewel was saved.

Enjoy!

The Compass

Another folksy, woodsy article. Why? Because I felt like passing along some arcane knowledge.

Alright, it’s been my experience that people are afraid of the common woodsman’s tool, the compass. I don’t know why. So today I want to do a quick and dirty bit about common sense compass use.

Look, it’s kind of a big deal to be able to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to go. I know, cell phones have an app for this, right? And what about GPS?

Too much technology, and always have a backup. I enjoy “Bitchin’ Betty” on an iPhone just as much as anyone, and it’s nice to have a precise ten-digit grid when you are utterly lost. But who says you’ll always have that stuff? No one, really. So learn a little about a compass.

First, a few basics. I’ll point them out.

You should always be able to find the cardinal directions by simply observing the sun. The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere, it tracks across the southern sky. South of the equator, the opposite.

What does this mean. Here is an example.

In Virginia, you face the rising, morning sun. You are facing east. Your left arm points approximately north, your right arm points south. Your back is to the west.

Just like that, you know your cardinal directions.

At night, in the northern hemisphere, find Orion. South. Look the opposite direction for the Big Dipper. Roughly north. Polaris, or the north star, is close by.

How useful is this stuff? It can be a life saver. For example, generations of runaway slaves navigated from the Deep South to the North using nothing but the above: a journey of a thousand miles. Talk about courage and resourcefulness, along with a pinch of fieldcraft.

Alright, now let’s up our game a little.

We have a compass and a map. See image below.

Above is a cheap, crude compass and a common road map. You can see the scale bar and the “north seeking arrow.” Note that the north arrow is roughly aligned with the compass. This is important.

Why. Because now you and the map are pointed in the same direction. Your body faces north, left is west, east is right, and behind you is south.

The pictured compass is crude and cheap. It is also surprisingly accurate, and is probably better than what the Spaniards used to navigate the globe. You can get from one town to another with such a device, look at the map. If you need to walk southwest to get there, turn your body until the compass, held flat, is pointing southwest. Look up. Find something in that direction. Walk towards it. When you get there, take another “sighting,” and continue walking. Repeat over and over until you get where you’re going.

This is where I must mention that I’m leaving a lot out.

For example, there is a thing called “magnetic declination” that throws off a compasses’ accuracy.

Here’s my take on that. If it’s less than ten degrees, and you are traveling short “legs,” don’t worry about it.

If it’s over ten degrees where you are (Google it), then read up on how to compensate for it. Not really hard. For example, here in Ohio it is 8 west. This means that for a true reading you need to add 8 degrees to what your compass says for accuracy. For east declinations, you subtract.

Also, it is helpful to know how far you must travel and approximately how far you have covered.

How do you know how far to go?

See image above. All maps have a “scale bar” that allows you to plot approximately the distance on a map. Mind you, this is “as the crow flies” distance, and not what you will actually travel because of terrain and obstacles.

Maybe go down to a football pitch and measure off your “pace count.” This is easy to do. Start at one end, step off taking normal steps. Count every time your left foot hits the ground. My walking pace count is 62/100M.

And like everything else, this has a caveat, too. Your pace count changes if you run, go uphill, etc. So just do like I do and keep it simple; use the walking count on average.

An example. Using the scale bar on the map, you know you have to walk southwest about five miles. Convert to kilometers right away, or you are in hell. So 1 mile= 1.5km. 5 mile=7.5 km. 620 paces per km. Start walking. After an hour and a half, you should be pretty close unless you had to swim a river or something else stupid (been there, done that).

A practical example with the cheap compass.

Alright, you have oriented your map to the north, you and your map are pointed in the cardinal directions. You want to move from Summitville to Augusta. Using your handy scale bar and guesstimating, you see it’s about eight miles away cross-country. Looking at the compass, you can tell you need to go almost due west. Close your map, turn until your compass and your body are facing west, and start to move.

Make sure that you periodically check that you are in fact moving west. When you hit a road about 12km later, look for signs. If it is Route 9, good. You will be fairly close to Augusta.

If you spend just a few dollars more, you are capable of much more precision. The compass above has a ton of good features, but not so many that it overwhelms. Also, note that it is partially luminescent. Handy if you need to move at night.

Once again, we want to move from Summitville to Augusta. Using the scale bar and the ruler, we can do a better estimate of our traveling distance. Also, instead of an approximate heading, we can nail this one down to degrees. See how the compass is centered over Summitville? Look right and you will see Augusta. 268 degrees, map heading.

You could go ahead and add your 8 degrees here for the declination, which would give you an adjusted true heading of 276. This would be accurate and would potentially land you in the center of Augusta.

But I said don’t bother with that. So move out at 270ish degrees, you’ll be close enough for rough work.

After all, we aren’t calling in artillery.

And buddy, I sure am glad!

There you go, rough and dirty. This is how to use a compass. Just make sure it’s roughly flat when you take a sighting and check your heading early and often.

Piece of cake.

Now go spend your five bucks and put the compass away somewhere. Forget about it. And when your car is broke down by the road, cell reception is lousy, and you need to get to the next town, you’ll remember.

There’s a compass in my glovebox, and I know how to use it.

Cast Iron Recovery

Cast iron pans are amazing to cook with. Since I was a small child, I’ve enjoyed who knows how much food, healthy and otherwise, that was prepared on black, oily cookware of indeterminate age.

The pans are pretty much immortal if maintained properly. We use cast iron almost daily around here, and the pans are over a hundred years old.

Why am I talking about this today. Well, something I would like to do this year is to discuss the use of the produce from our vegetable garden; I would like to practice my campfire cooking. It’s been a while. I thought about it and I didn’t want to use our kitchen pans for this. Then I remembered that in a hidden corner in the basement there are a whole stack of cast iron skillets.

I think my mom picked them up at a garage sale or something. I’m not sure. Took a look at what was there and I decided upon a large, deep and heavy No. 8 skillet. It seemed perfect for campfire cooking.

But there was some work to be done.

See below.

What a piece of junk, many would say. Some would shake their heads and plant daisies in this fine piece of cookware. Not I. I’ve done a lot of metalwork, and I could see past the rust. This was one solid pan with tons of potential. I cracked open the newly cleaned and ready garage and went to work.

What you see above is called an angle grinder with a wire-wheel attachment. This is the quick way to deal with crusty, ancient rust.

A note of caution: These tools, while useful, are potentially dangerous. The wires can and will let go as you clean a surface. You can and will be struck by the sharp wires. Wear eye protection, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. Also, the grinder is powerful. Hold on tight! Finally, the grinder can cause sparks. No flammable materials nearby.

If the thought of using an angle grinder now freaks you out, you can also do this with a wire brush and steel wool. It will just take forever, that’s all.

With an easy half-hour of work with the wire wheel, this is what I had.

Looks much better, right? Well, it is. However, it is not yet ready to fry stuff up. As-is, this pan will rust again in a heartbeat. What it needs now is “seasoning.”

This isn’t hard. Lemme explain.

First, wash off the pan with boiling hot water to remove rust dust and other debris. Once you’ve done that, wipe it dry with paper towels. The pan will be a dull gray, and it will be dry.

Now you need shortening or vegetable oil. Either will work. DO NOT use non-food oils. Very, very bad idea. Edible oils only. Wipe the pan down with a generous coat of oil. Place it upon the cookie sheet that you have prepared with tinfoil. It should look like this:

Another note. Maybe it’s best if your family isn’t home for the next step. It stinks more than I remembered!

Set oven to 375F, (190C) set timer for 45 minutes. Once oven has pre-heated, stick the pan in. After about fifteen minutes it will start to really stink like something is baking. Do not be alarmed, but maybe do turn on the range fan and open a window. Wait.

Once the time has past, the pan is done. Note that it is now a shiny black color, instead of a dull gray. This is good, and desirable. The pan will smoke a little when you first open the oven. Let it cool down. Once it is cool, wash again with hot water and wipe it down with paper towels or a clean rag. Never use dish soap on cast iron, this will cause it to “lose season” and rust.

Now the moment of truth had arrived. Time to cook!

I chose to make pierogies, a regional favorite, as this aged pan’s first meal in decades.

As you can see on the first image, it did more than fine. Pierogies, loaded with potato and sharp cheddar, browned up nicely on the elderly iron.

I served them up to my kids. Success!

Not bad for a morning’s work.

If you come across a cast iron pan in need of some lovin’, don’t be scared. As long as it isn’t cracked, pick it up and recycle it.

It will be just as good as, or better, than new. Probably cheaper, too.

Put that old iron back to work!

The Jeep

The vehicle in question is pictured above, a few weeks before MkI of the restoration was completed. It’s not the best picture, but you get the idea.

It’s a real 1955 Willys CJ-5, a direct descendent of the Jeep of WW2 fame.

Why am I talking about this today.

Because at long last the Willys is headed to the shop for the MkII restoration.

You see, the MkI version was damaged by some fairly extreme trail riding with an old friend; the engine did not survive the experience. Because the old Buick V6 was obsolete it could not be economically repaired. So I had to install a Chevy engine. To install the Chevy engine, the Jeep had to be converted to a hydraulic clutch. And BTW, it needed a new exhaust.

The list went on.

To make a long, sad story short, I burned out on the Jeep. I literally locked the garage and walked away. I knew that I had reached the edge of my competency, and funds were tight so I couldn’t pay for the repair.

I went back in the house and started to write. I published one book, then a whole trilogy. In the meanwhile, the CJ-5 slept. My garage was a cobweb strewn mini-museum.

It always bothered me, that fun little Jeep.

Then one day my former commander and friend came down to the house to check up on his troop.

We went out to the garage to look at the Jeep. You see, my journey with the CJ-5 was his fault.

How?

Well, for that we need to step back in time. To Afghanistan. To the valley.

He and I were standing there talking. Smoking or something. He mentioned that he had once had a Jeep but he never got around to fixing it, so he sold it. He told me of buzzing around the desert with the Kuwaiti Army in their Jeeps before the War kicked off. It was a pleasant memory for him.

Then some jerk shot at us.

A couple of years later, and I was going through the hell that is the Army Medical Board. I was under medical supervision and I lost my driver’s license. It was rough. The Colonel called, he asked if I knew where an old Jeep was. I said I didn’t know, but I could find out.

I located two. He came down and inspected them, they were too far gone for his tastes. But I looked at them and realized I could combine them into one good vehicle. After the Colonel left, I called the seller and proposed a trade.

A hunting rifle for the two Jeeps, a 1958 and a ’55.

They said yes. A few days later and I had both vehicles parked in my driveway. The fun began. Within one hundred days I had one complete and functional Jeep. Then I trashed it and the sad part of the tale began.

Fast forward to now, readers.

Now the time has come for the Jeep to get back on the road.

It’s the Colonel’s fault, again.

The Jeep isn’t getting back on the road because I’ve suddenly struck it rich. That is not the case. No, it’s because the Colonel visited and he came up with a plan.

It seems he finally wants a functional Jeep back in his life, but he doesn’t want to pay a fortune. Neither do I. So he says to me, “Hey, let’s go co-owner on this thing, get it to a shop and get it fixed.”

As we looked over the forlorn abandoned project, this struck me as a great idea. Upon further reflection, it was the only idea. Otherwise the old wagon would never get back on the road.

So it’s a win-win. The Colonel gets his Jeep and a place to store it (he lives in the city and room is tight), I get to see my project completed.

The restorers are coming this week with a flatbed. After some unknown period of time, the Jeep will come back fully functional.

The old ’55 model. Born of war in a couple of respects, serving in retirement and peace.

I’m cleaning the cobwebs from my garage; this is exciting stuff.

Kind of like this fall’s writing. The wait has been long, but worth it.

On Teamwork

I guess before I wrote about leadership in an earlier post I should have written about teamwork. Because if you aren’t a good team player, you will be a bad leader. Just my two cents.

Ike would agree. That’s why I posted his picture.

No man in history, with the exception of Marshal Zhukov, ever controlled a mightier military force. Surely General Eisenhower could have called his own shots, done what he wanted, right?

Actually, no. To study Ike’s history is to look at a long chain of compromises and coalition and team building exercises.

Put simply, General Eisenhower was a supreme team player and eventually a mighty commander. But on many occasions it almost ended badly. Look, I’m not going to talk about Eisenhower at length; I cite his example because it’s a good one.

A phrase from Army OCS. “Never ‘get married’ to your plan, because it isn’t your plan. It is the commander’s.”

What does that mean?

OK- this is very important to the discussion. Everyone has a boss. Even Eisenhower had a boss- Churchill and Roosevelt. Eisenhower may have been responsible for the development of Operation Overlord (the invasion of Europe 1944), but his bosses owned the plan. They could, and did, attempt to modify the plan. Churchill was particularly bad about this, and Eisenhower clashed with him.

Eisenhower knew, however, that his civilian bosses were responsible for strategy and political considerations, and that if they offered changes to Overlord that he could not tolerate, he could remove himself from the team.

This is teamwork, too. Letting the person in charge know they are about to screw up. Eisenhower mastered politeness and discretion, but he would bring his point across, especially when dealing with sensitive subordinates such as Charles de Gaulle, among others.

Eisenhower’s extensive staff developed Overlord, and Eisenhower himself reviewed it and approved the Operations Order (mil speak for plan). But Overlord itself belonged to the politicians, and they would have answered to the people of their countries for its failure.

Eisenhower would have gotten the sack too, of course. That’s part of being a leader and team player as well.

But he knew that his failure would be paid by thousands of his dead washing onto France’s shores.

Leaders and team players are accountable. Where there is no accountability, there is no team. When you let your end drop, everyone else pays as well.

Real leaders look their people in the eye and say, “This is on me, and I need your help to make our plan work.” The leader needs to invest his or her people in the job at hand; they need to place a value and a face on what is going to happen.

Teams work best in small groups; the military has long known this.

What do I mean.

OK, let’s think about our ancestors. They had fleas and were nomadic, they were capable of enormous work performed in bursts, and everyone was related somehow within the average group of thirty to fifty.

About platoon size, actually.

And within the group there were families and friends. Groups of about ten.

Squad size.

Within the family were couples and surviving children, there were two or so dominant voices.

Fire teams.

It is at the fire team level that people are the most comfortable. This is no accident. It’s how our deep social structures operate. So let’s translate this into teamwork.

I’ve been told that no-one should ever really be in charge of more than three to five people.

I believe this to be true. Teams need direction; they also need delegation. A leader who tries to control every member of his team controls NOTHING!

Trust your people! If you have done the right thing as a leader, your team will do the right thing, too. Everyone goes into something with a good attitude, usually. The leader and the team need to find what motivates each person and get them to do that thing that they are good at, that they enjoy.

Do you really think that our 2000x ancestor Og the Magnificent was particularly skilled at cave paintings? Probably not. But Og identified a need for drawings of aurochs with massive genitalia, so Og figured out who had the keenest eyesight and the ability to make the desired mural. No more than three people were involved; Og did not need to control every step of the process.

Og was an ur-leader. Even though there was no word for leadership or teamwork at the time, our ancestors figured it out and passed the basics down to us.

A team:

  1. is small
  2. is cohesive
  3. uses delegation
  4. understands the job at hand
  5. knows who is boss
  6. is trained or trainable
  7. is self-aware
  8. uses good-natured competition
  9. has a clear goal
  10. attacks bite-sized problems
  11. finishes the work
  12. values quality, takes pride and ownership.

These are the very basics, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some stuff.

But I think you all get the idea.

A leader must FIRST be a successful follower, a team player. People will follow such leaders into the worst sorts of hell and emerge out the other side successful.

“Don’t get married to your plan. It’s not yours.”

No, the plan belongs to the team!

21 SEP 2011…2020

Above are our goats, they amuse me.

Today I could use a little amusement. I could post some stupid Army picture, I could talk about soldiering and how it left a mark. I think I’ll devote one paragraph to the subject, and then I’ll move on.

On this day in the past, I huddled with my team in the darkness, the Colonel was giving a combat brief. I chewed on an MRE hamburger, guess that was my equivalent of the traditional steak n’ eggs. He sliced the total mission into chunks, each of us received an assignment. The job at hand? A deliberate attack against a fortified hilltop structure. I swished the beef patty down with some water, I made my contribution to the plan, and the party broke up.

It was show time. The evening of the twenty-first. I shivered in the cold, I looked up and beheld the Milky Way with no light pollution.

Magnificent.

Below, the humans struggled in the dark.

In the valley.

OK, that was a little over a paragraph. But that’s alright, it’s my website. Other things are happening, of course, few remember or were even ever aware of the nameless struggles in those foreign crags. The writing continues apace, this lurks in the background as well. Words are like trauma. If you stuff the bag too full, eventually something will leak out.

I think there’s something like 300,000 words hanging out in the archive, waiting to see the light of day. For reasons financial and tactical they have built up, layer upon layer, like sludge in a tailings pit. The dam strains to hold back the words.

The peaceful village, populated by my faithful readers, sleeps in the valley below. As I write, I am heedless of the consequences of my actions.

One final sentence, one last manuscript, and the dam breaks.

All of the creative good stuff gets dumped on the placid hamlet.

Right now, I am not sure of when this moment will happen. I want it to be within the foreseeable future, and I think it will be. The ultimate test of an author’s work is what the readers think; you are important. An integral part of the process.

This is one of the reasons I love John Birmingham’s Patreon site- it’s two parts entertainment and one part master’s level class on creative writing.

I know I’ve said this before, but I strongly suggest you pay the two bucks and join up. Yeah, JB’s stuff is featured. Of course, it’s his website. But there’s other stuff in there as well, including some of the material I’ve kept behind the dam and he graciously posted on his site.

On these sunny, cool days, thank God for the outlet of writing, entertaining. As I chewed my BBQ sauce and cheese packet smeared cold ration burger back then, I could have never imagined all of this.

So I guess what I want to say is thanks, readers.

At some point the dam will break. When it does, you all will be the first to get wet.

Promise.

Ancestral food

Alright, readers, you may have picked up on the fact that I kind of dig old school gardening. Yeah, at times it can be a pain (like with years of failure to grow cabbages). But overall it’s pretty fun, rewarding.

Something I have gotten into for the past several years has been cultivating Native strains of corn, colloquially known as “Indian corn.” Why.

First, it’s so darn handsome. Each and every ear is unique, and if you catch it just right, it’s very good “on the cob.”

Also, it is tough and the critters don’t like it as much as the hybrid sweet varieties. While it is true that Indian corn isn’t sugary sweet, you can at least eat it, which is NOT the case if raccoons get into your sweet corn patch. Those raiders will leave you with nothing.

Finally, it is a link to our ancestors, whether you are ethnically European, African, or Native, or a mixture of the above. In the past, everyone ate some variety of field corn. But we have strayed from our roots.

It has gone so far that people believe that Indian or field corn is “poisonous” or only fit for hogs.

Nonsense!

But it took some digging to figure out how to enjoy flint, field, or Indian corn. Lemme let you all in on what I have found.

First and foremost, you CAN eat field corn “on the cob.” But getting the timing right is tricky, trust me. There is no sweet spot to eating dried field corn, however, it simply must be dry. But there is a trick to eating it, you’ll lose teeth if you try to bite it.

Today I will teach the trick to you, and show one treat that you can make yourself.

There is a bare minimum of equipment needed for this, and you can actually do everything I will show you with no equipment at all.

Let me begin.

First, you must have a few ears of dry field or Indian corn. See above. (Note: even after a field has been harvested, there are always a few ears laying around.)

Then you must shell the corn. I always thought you needed some cast iron brute of a machine for this, along with a flour grinder, etc.

Nope.

For small batches, all you need is two hands. Grasp the ear of corn in both hands and make a wringing motion, preferably above a bowl or something. The kernels will pop off the ear, some of them vigorously. Before you know it, you have a lot of kernels. See below.

Now you need a pan of some sort, I used a century-old cast iron Griswold No. 8, an excellent fryer. Layer the kernels in the pan, place the pan on low heat. Remember how I said you could do this with no equipment too? That’s right. An alternate method is to chuck the kernels in hot ashes. Messy, but it works, and the ash won’t hurt you (unless you are doing this in some jacked up post-apocalyptic trash fire. Common sense rules, people).

Pretty, aren’t they? With the cast iron slowly heating, wait. You will smell something like popcorn. This is basically what is happening, so no wonder. With field corn, though, you won’t get big white blooms. The kernels will pop and jump a bit, though. This is perfect, stir the kernels from time to time on low heat.

When the corn looks like the image above and it stops popping, the corn is ready to eat, it is “parched.” Note the subtle color difference in the uncooked corn and the parched corn. See it? Another big difference? You can grab a parched kernel and chew it up, it’s an ideal trail food. If you do that with an uncooked kernel, you’ll probably break a tooth. There’s a reason that another name for field corn is “flint corn.”

Now the parched corn is ready to grind. Scoop by scoop I fed it into a mortar and mashed it up. If you have no equipment you can improvise a set-up like this.

Dump the ground-up mixture into a sieve or an old window screen. The fines will pass through, this is corn flour. Use it like, well, flour. The coarse particles that are left behind can be re-ground or be soaked in water to make grits, a US Southern specialty. Grits aren’t for everyone, but they are filling.

Now we have what we really want, corn flour or meal. There are so many things you can do with this, but today we are going to make johnnycakes, an old-fashioned specialty.

Above you can see the flour and a bowl of parched kernels. I kept dipping into the kernels for a snack, they were unlike anything I had had before. Truly a flavor from the century before last. Cool.

I took the meal and mixed it in with an egg, the result looked like cat puke. However, when I dumped it in the pan and it started to cook, it smelled great. A few minutes later and I had a real 18th century style johnnycake, made from 1/4 cup field corn flour and one egg with a bit of butter to fry in.

It tasted better than it looked, trust me. But then again, I’m hardly Gordon Ramsey.

The only regret I had was that I ate the pancake plain, with only a pinch of salt. It would have been awesome with maple syrup.

This experiment was well worth doing! Now I’m starting to get an idea how inhabitants of this land would set out on months long expeditions with literally nothing but a bit of fat, a baggie of corn kernels, and some dried fruit.

Field corn kernels are like knowledge.

Easy to find if you look for it, and a little bit goes a long way.

Give this a try!

“You are never leaving this place…

…alive, motherfucker.”

So said Pete the Ranger to me one fine evening.

Why am I bringing this up today.

Because of several things. One, it’s yet another anniversary of horrible 9/11, a day that changed (and ended) many lives. Two, spent some quality time with the combat trauma counselor today. Three, I was reminded of the vivid “in the moment” thinking of combat due to the excellent writing of a friend. Four, it’s September, a bad month where bad things happened.

Why did I use the above image? Well, it shows me at a real low point. Also, you can see the cement patio with the fold-up chairs in the foreground. When I used to have nothing better to do I would sit in one of those battered, dusty chairs and chain smoke. As the blue noxious plume lofted heavenward, I would behold the mountain from where the Taliban would occasionally shoot wildly inaccurate 107 rockets at us.

The mountain was purple, the sky was red. I smoked away. Night was coming.

Pete walked up, I drew in another drag. He spoke. I exhaled from my nose.

“You are never leaving this place alive, motherfucker.” He paused. “You know that, don’t you?”

I pulled another cheap L&M from my pack and lit off the old cherry from the previous. I drew in and looked at him.

“Yeah. I know.”

There. I confessed what I knew, in my darkest heart. I let it out, into the open. Ten years later, and I still remember this conversation. Word for word.

Pete just looked at me and nodded. He walked off.

There. In his own way he acknowledged the truth of soldiers in combat. To function, one must abandon all hope. To live in the moment, to concentrate only on what is in front of a person. No plans, no dreams, no loved ones, no home.

It was all gone, washed away in moon dust and acrid smoke. I quit writing or calling. I was dead anyway, so maybe people could get used to the idea. Mission piled on mission. Events led to events. I didn’t care about anything but doing my job.

And then, poof! It was over. The mission, complete. The pain, intense. My comrades, betrayed. I was going home, they had to stay and fight.

Our battered little team made it to Bagram AB outside of Kabul. What happened there was really a blur to me, all I can remember is that we eventually filed into a C-17. I held my breath until we leveled off, the Taliban didn’t have anything that could hit us at 30k or so.

Then I felt an unnerving outpouring of relief, grief.

How. Why. What?

This. This is today’s struggle. Pete was right, although in a twisted sense.

Physically, I left. Gone. Touched down around midnight in a base in Central Asia that wasn’t Afghanistan.

But I didn’t leave. Part of me was still there. Will always be there. Until the grave claims me and I forget.

“You are never leaving this place alive…”

He was right.