Letters to My Granddaughter, No. 23 (Picking Up a Cigarette)
[September 10, 2023] Long ago, when I was a tween (not a child but also not a teenager), I was probably 12 years old; I was dropped off by Fanny, my school bus driver, at my home. Walking with my books under my arm, I noticed a used cigarette burning in the ditch out in front of my house. Most likely, it was thrown by a passing motorist, careless as so many of them tend to be. Wow, I thought, I can be like one of the cool kids in school and here is my chance to prove it right now. As a note on my personality, I believed in filling my head with useful, cool things to do, and smoking seemed like something I could easily add to my repertoire. I could quickly get a few puffs of smoke before entering my house, and Mom would not be the wiser.
I was wrong. The first “drag” from the cigarette sent spasms into my lungs and caused involuntary coughing while vomiting my lunch onto the grass. I was on the ground before I knew what was happening, gasping for fresh air, squirming in a jerking motion, and making the most terrifying noise. I’m sure all the nearby farm animals were scared, as was I. That day, I learned a valuable lesson. Never smoke tobacco; it’s not worth trying to be cool. There surely were other cool tools I could discover to make myself more “popular” as every 12-year-old wants to be. Cool like John Wayne — stoic, tough, witty, ready to clobber the bad guys, and never ever taking crap off anybody. But I did not know this at that age. Not smoking was a small decision but one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was not very interested in school (a mistake that took many years and much pain to correct), but I wanted to learn about science and girls. Those puberty hormones were starting to rage, yet I was awkward and socially inexperienced. I closely observed boys older than me and watched how they interacted with the girls. Looking back, I oversimplified their behavior and believed that being cool was the solution. “How do I do cool?” I could do a few things, and “cool” Doug would magically appear. Dress cool, walk cool, talk cool, puff on a cigarette cool (nope, strike that one), drink beer, and be aloof like I didn’t care one whit if I did that; even the women teachers might be interested in me (or so I thought). I was wrong, but you couldn’t have convinced me then. Maybe that was how to get the girls to notice me.
My Mom drove me to a store to buy a Nehru shirt. They were all the rage in the 1960s. It cost me 25 bucks, almost a month’s wages. I tried to walk with a swagger, and I’m sure it was entertaining. I even had a friend of a friend who knew somebody over 21 buy me a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I overpaid. And the taste was horrific. When kids in school came near me, I would look away like I was contemplating doing something cool. All this got me was beaten up once, one girl I had a crush on slapped me (darn hard), several teacher reprimands for failing to turn in homework, and a visit to see the Assistant Principal. Being cool, indeed, was overrated. Even my Mom asked me if I was sick or had trouble at school. If she only knew. My Mom was cool at her school, so why couldn’t I be?
I failed at being cool. And catastrophically so. I was so bad that even a few younger kids pointed fingers at me and smirked. After all that, one might think I was ready to hand it up and throw away the idea of collecting cool things to do. But, no. Learning how to make myself useful and appreciated was the only real alternative. That’s when I got farm jobs working with cows and pigs (pretty low for a cool kid). But I got fringe benefits like Linda, the farmer’s daughter and the first girl I kissed. Wow. Working became my passion. The farmer opened up to me and told me how he got started and became successful and how the business worked. His kids were all girls, so he was looking for young men good enough for his daughters. Ouch. I liked girls but wasn’t ready to go down that path. I told the farmer the truth, and he understood. Besides, I was 12. He laughed. I learned that hard work, honesty, a good attitude, and telling the truth were the most valuable things a boy could do. Screw being cool. Work beat that. And I had a lot more more money than the cool boys at school.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 19 (I Never Like School)
[August 19, 2023] I wouldn’t say I liked school. I never liked school. It’s not that I hated school or was disgusted by it. Going to class every day just wasn’t what I wanted to do. Of course, today, I disapprove of that attitude, it’s not very helpful, and it worked greatly to my disadvantage. Alas, I did not truly understand the benefits of the education system. Like so many kids my age, I was unhappy about being in the classroom (horribly dull for me) and studying (repulsive) and the teachers/professors (tedious and often lacking common sense). My longest-running, haunting life problem was my simple dislike for formal education. Yet, education has one small redeeming value; the many beautiful stories from education. And I loved listening to and experiencing good stories – letters to my granddaughter.
What I did not know at the time, but what I came to appreciate much later, was that the best stories were old, in fact, very ancient. And they did more than tell an exciting story but had something more profound — a message of wisdom for those who would closely listen. The greatest stories were often from the Bible. And while I appreciated them for those particular stories for their spiritual content, l loved them for the most incredible adventures ever told. I would sit as a kid, reading or listening to the teacher, often in awe, as I turned each page or as the teacher would tell us something no one else knew (often in a low voice), and they would excite me and make me smile.
For example, one of my favorites was the Exodus stories of the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt, across the parting of the Red Sea, and into the desert. After years in the desert, the Israelites began worshiping idols and became sinners. God saw this and sent poisonous snakes to bite them as punishment. They went to Moses and requested that he go to God and call off the snakes. Instead of God calling off the snakes, he told Moses to put a bronze snake on a wooden staff and instructed His people to come to see the staff. That way, they would become brave, and the snakes would no longer be feared. A classic lesson in life: look at what you fear, and you will be less afraid.
Success in school required something I found hard to develop in myself, and that was the discipline to conduct myself rightly and find the motivation to do those tasks. And I didn’t know discipline. I wanted the freedom to do as I wished and at any time. I didn’t grasp that only through hard work, study, discipline, and a proper understanding of the academic material could I free myself from the straitjacket of my own uneducated ignorance. I could look at the discipline that I feared and become less fearful. That realization was a lifesaver and got me to see my self-worth was based on adopting responsibility and telling the blunt truth. And that is where my life’s adventure began.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 17 (Sabine River Trip for the Boys)
[August 16, 2023] When my brother was five, and I was seven, my father took us on a three-day camping trip down the Sabine River on the Texas-Louisiana border. This would be a “man’s trip,” talking man things, my dad getting to know us better, fishing, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under the open sky, and floating downstream with a meandering river current. And it was to be our first time away from home overnight. It was to be our grand adventure. It was about our family; specifically, it was about learning to be a man.
For my dad, the family was everything, and that also meant teaching his two boys how to control our tempers and frustrations, behavior limits, how to treat women, how to protect yourself and others, to properly fight with your fists, to tell the truth, being a good Christian (and Biblical stories), and most importantly what responsibilities you had as a young man. Best of all, on this trip, dad was going to show us his secrets on how to catch fish, which was super cool. I could see in my mind, pulling a giant wide-mouth bass out of the river with my fishing pole.
And it certainly was an adventure. For us two boys, we were about to learn what camping was all about, the good and the bad. We were about to learn about ourselves too, unexpectedly so. My dad was a good planner. We had food, water, fishing gear, a flat boat (on its trailer), and various supplies. My dad brought it all. Yes, he was that good. Dad must have spent weeks planning our trip and talking with mom about it so she was fully on board, and so she would encourage us and tell us not to be afraid. And we weren’t scared at all.
The first day meant getting out of bed before sunrise, loading the car, and taking off westward across the state. We floated maybe 20 miles that first day, fishing off the sides of the boat, lazily drifting our way downriver. We saw people fishing from the bank and in small boats. And a few swimmers close to the banks of the river. There were a few small towns we passed. People would smile and wave at us. This was the life it was meant to be. It was relaxing and yet exciting because this was all new for us. I remember thinking, “Wow, dad is the best dad ever.” And I was right.
Landing on the river bank that afternoon, we stopped to prepare for the night. Dad set up our sleeping areas since neither my brother nor I knew how. Then it was time to gut the fish we caught (yuk) and cook them over an open fire. They were the best fish I ever tasted (yum). We must’ve fallen asleep right there by the campfire. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I remember it was hot. And then the mosquitoes came zooming in. We were eaten alive. We got precious little sleep. And it was the sunburn that was uncomfortable too.
Groggy from lack of a good night’s sleep and feeling like my mom’s pin cushion from bug bites, we were up early with the morning sun and drooling for the pancakes and bacon my dad was cooking over an open fire. We packed up and jumped in the boat. Two more days of camping, fishing, cooking, and talking. Lots of talking. I got to know my dad, and maybe that was the point. That was a great trip, and I’ll never forget the wonderful time with my dad and brother. As well, the trip helped change my view of the world in a positive way. And it took my dad’s desire and determination to take us an old-fashioned, traditional, “man’s trip” down the Sabine River.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 17 (Working on the Railroad)
[August 10, 2023] As early as I can remember, at least since I was a very young child, I wanted to be a Firefighter, and it was my life’s goal, yet I was young and terribly inexperienced and naïve. Like any kid with potential, I could be anything, but I knew I did not want to work with paper pushers and paperclip men in an office. I hated the idea of a 9 to 5 office job. That limited my choices because all I knew was working either on a Railroad Gang like my dad had done or putting out house fires and saving people in my community as a Firefighter. In traditional Southern families, the eldest son went the way of the father, and eventually, I did so by working summers and holidays on the railroad.
In my last year in High School, at 16 years old, I decided to work on a railroad Tie Gang. I thought these men were real badasses, and to me, that was super cool. These Gangs were typically composed of 12 strong men working around a motorized rail car that was stacked with large wooden ties, spikes, and rail plates (that held the rail in place), and they were always on the move. Such men were the “real men” of the railroad, and they were the ones that made it work. I envied them for what they did, and, of course, they were highly respected and also feared. In the old days, they were called Gandy Dancers, which I liked. I admired these men. It was a dangerous job, not very glamorous, and the crews were full of some of the meanest, most stubborn, most dangerous, and most fascinating people you can imagine.
I learned a great deal about manhood working with these gangs. First, I learned that you had damn well be mentally focused, pay attention to the rules, be a team player, pull your weight, work hard, and show the right attitude. If you did, you might succeed. Second, I learned that these men had to be tough because they ensured the trains stayed on the tracks. Sometimes, railroad management would call upon them to protect other railroad workers against local environmental protesters who picked against the pollution of trains. Tie Gang members were hard-working railroad men (there were no women), harsh and several were scary combat veterans who told stories of Japanese banzai charges during World War II. Third, laziness, sloppiness, and a lousy attitude were a form of betrayal. Too many of these repair gang railroaders were seriously injured or killed when in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a boxcar or caboose ran over them and chopped them in half or cut off a leg. If you were slacking off or mouthing off, one of the good-ole boys might whack you upside your head.
Gang railroading is a tough brutish, and often a thankless job, and the men who work the rails were dangerous SOBs. I was 6’ 2”, 190 pounds, “skinny,” and comparatively small. These were big men, like those you see today on logging reality shows. They saw me as a youngster who needed training and watching out for, and I got some good-natured ribbing for being “little.”. But I was also a quick learner. Pay attention to the older men and watch them closely was my philosophy. I would never be like them, or maybe I would never want to be, but they brought an energetic work ethic to the job that I can still admire. They gave me a nickname; “Stack.” I earned it because I was good at getting the crossties stacked on the motorized gang car. Another newbie was not so lucky. He had no nickname and was never considered a full gang member. That man, several years older than me, lasted only two weeks to eventually not show up one day.
To succeed at the job, I had to adopt the mental attitude of ruthless humility. I had to recognize that I was ignorant of the job, the lowly belly of a snake, wet behind the ears, and would never be as good, fast, or professional as these gandy dancers, and it was not easy admitting that to myself. I was not as disciplined. I was full of flaws. I was often afraid I might die that day. Maybe it was because I was young and ignorant about who I was. I was also humble about who I could be in the future, and there was some reward for my lack of talent as a newbie gandy dancer. I was smart enough to watch closely what these men did on the job and how they communicated with one another. And for them, telling the brutal truth was imperative. When you saw these men, what you saw is what they were, and they hid absolutely nothing about themselves, and this was refreshing and highly interesting. That is what I wanted.
This job is where I learned that I could also be a dangerous person. That is a story for another time.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 16 (Potato Farmer)
[August 5, 2023] In the summer of 1966, just before High School, I helped a local potato farmer with his crops. I don’t remember if I ever had a dirtier job, yet I both enjoyed and hated working the fields because it was a cross between picking cotton and cleaning pigpens; it was smelly, sweltering, filthy, humid, and nasty. I never understood why and so I spent some time before writing this letter trying to unpack those circumstances that led to my mixed feelings about a job in the potato fields. I usually loved my many jobs, pretty much without exception.
Potato farmer said, “Hey Douglas, want a job? It’s tough and dangerous, and I need a man.” Me, “Yes sir, no problem, I’m in.” And then I asked what he needed me to do. I was willing to try any job as long as it wouldn’t get me in trouble. But picking potatoes? I thought machines did that; oh, they do and are called “potato scoopers.” Don’t you have any of the potato-picking machines? No problem. That’s where me and my buddies came in. Start tomorrow? My first task with the potato farmer was not picking potatoes but guarding the storage shed from rats. That’s right! I was a rat guard.
My tools? One dog. One 22 caliber rifle. One empty flour sack (for dead rats) for my new rat-hunting duties. The first rat I killed was a bit of a thrill. I was doing my job, practicing my shooting skills, getting rid of vermin, and getting paid. This is the kind of job any teenager would like. But, after the first couple of dead rats, killing them was more of a chore, but the job I signed up for was not about killing rates. Now picking potatoes is what I wanted to do; that is where the money is. To pick potatoes, I had to bend over, walking along each furrow in the overturned field, picking up potatoes. Then sacked potatoes are carried over the shoulders and stored in a shed. Rats love potatoes; thus, the importance of rat guard.
Several friends worked the fields with me, and the farmer never checked up on us. At the end of each day, he would gather all the sacked potatoes and haul them to market. His hands off approach was new to me – I didn’t care because I worked hard no matter what. A hard-working, honest, and good attitude always opened opportunities for me. I couldn’t understand friends who said there were no jobs. No jobs? It’s too easy to make an excuse for failure to find a job. And, then it means getting my butt up every morning, no matter how I feel, to get to work and do what I said I would do I could have made all sorts of excuses for not working and some of them are good excuses, but I remember not having many things as a kid and I was not going to look back and use that as a way to forfeit my duties today. My philosophy is absolutely no excuse for not getting at the job. Move forward, always. This takes courage.
At the end of each day, I was sweaty and tired. I was also happy because I got paid daily, usually five dollars in cash. It wasn’t the money that mattered that much to me, but being around my buddies and laughing at our own stupid jokes, poking fun at the potato farmer, calling each other nasty but funny names, chasing an occasional rat running across the field, lighting off firecrackers (to scare the rats), and generally hanging out. Some of my friends smoked cigarettes, and they could do so openly. I chewed bubble gum and threw the gum at my friends. We had a blast picking potatoes. And it was fun for us. However, I do recommend picking potatoes for any young teenager but be prepared to work your butt off.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 15 (Fistfight)
[July 29, 2023] My first fistfight, the first of many, began with my best friend. He lived next door, was my age and in the same grade, looked a lot like me, yet we were always at odds, often angry at each other. Yet, looking back, I cannot recall a single reason for being angry or any reason for any of our fights. And, these fights were not simple or quick, but scrappy, full-blown knockdown drag out, rolling in the grass and dirt, with bloody lips, bruised faces and shins, and snot flowing freely as our tempers flared into overdrive.
I want to make very clear about how these fights developed. We would disagree on something, often unimportant, and be really mad. Fighting it out with each other was the right thing. At its conclusion, we both felt good (and physically spent), and every fight ended with a handshake and a hug. We were buddies. A disagreement would not permanently come between us, despite the physical damage we did to each other. Nor did we ever cuss or use the Lord’s name in vain. And it was common that at the end of each fight, we could not remember why the fight started.
Nothing stood in the way of our friendship. Nothing at all. We were inseparable with the same likes (baseball, yo-yos, slingshots, hunting birds, running free, ice cream) and dislikes (school, homework, stinging bugs, snakes, reading, arithmetic). If there was a baseball game in town, we were there to cheer on the hometown and our team. We even braved the taboo against talking to older baseball players while the game was ongoing and asking them about the best way to hit a knuckleball. “Get lost,” was the usual reply. We didn’t care.
Our first fight began over something so innocuous that the reason didn’t matter. We were mad, and the hitting began. There are rules to boys fighting, and we had a strong incentive to abide by them. No poking the eyes, spitting, throwing dirt in the face, kicking the nards, or use of weapons of any kind. We all owned knives and guns, lots of them, but we would never ever consider using them on a friend. Typically, shortly after an argument began, we would be rolling on the ground, trying to figure out how to get in the next punch to the gut. Our moms cleaned us up afterward and always asked, “Now, what are you boys fighting about this time?” “Mama,” I would say, “I don’t know why we were fighting. We’re friends.”
Fighting was a way of life, except when the High School boys were out to beat the crap out of us. Not that we didn’t deserve an ass wuppin’ on occasion after scaring the older girls with frog guts or dead snakes. Sometimes we’d gross out the girls with live lizards hanging from our ear lobes. That lizard earrings tactic always got a hilarious reaction, even from our moms. “Douglas, get your butt in this house right now! And dammit, leave those lizards outside.”
With boys, the rules of a good fight exist, so their problem with each other does not linger. The fight was over. The fight was an end to the problem. We were no longer mad. And that’s it. No lasting grudge or nasty attitude. That’s how we remained friends forever.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 14 (Ugly Tomcat)
[July 24, 2023] From the earliest days of my young life! My Granddaddy Smith owned a large, mangy, ugly, tough, mean-as-heck tomcat. His name? “Tom.” More kittens were born because of his masculinity than any cat in that town. His harem of female cats was huge, but they all served a valuable function on Granddaddy’s property by keeping the rat population down. Never since have I seen so many kittens, and I learned how to help a female cat keep track of her newborns.
“Tom” was a cat you did not mess around with. Granddaddy told us kids to steer clear of him, or we might regret our encounter. I know I was afraid of that cat. “Holy cow, that’s one mean cat,” my father said one day while we played in the yard. If we played outside, look out for “Tom.” And never, ever, ever try to pick him up, or you would be wearing your claw marks for a long time. We would watch “Tom” walk slowly and confidently across the yard because his reputation was unmistakable and widely known. If he looked at us, we would run away screaming.
I wondered what happened to “Tom.” Years later, I asked Granddaddy where he had gone. “To cat heaven, of course,” Granddaddy said without hesitation, being a religious man himself. That ugly, mean male cat was gone one day, but his legacy remained. He must have sired hundreds of healthy little kittens, but none could replace “Tom,” and that was not unexpected. Only once in a hundred years does a cat or man come along that makes such an impact on those around him.
One day before Bigmama passed away, I asked her about “Tom.” She told me that he was Granddaddy’s cat, and no one even fed him or took him to a veterinary clinic for a checkup or shots. Maybe he died of rabies, a common ailment among small animals in those days. My cousin, who lived nearby my grandparents, said he was happy that the “stupid cat was dead.” On several occasions, my cousin got crosswise with “Tom” and has the scars to show for it. Everyone, it seemed, hated Tom.
I respected that big cat. “Tom” did what he wanted, and that was that. Looking back on those years, it’s easy to laugh off this ugly cat’s temper and strength. Sometimes size matters. “Tom” was massive; to me, he looked almost half the size of a human kid but was meaner than a half-starved hound dog. My mother asked Bigmama (her mother) what fascinated Granddaddy’s infatuation with that crazy cat. She did not know.
Granddaddy told a secret of his. He said he kept Tom around, not because that male cat was good at chasing mama cats or catching rats, but because he enjoyed having that ugly cat. He told me how important it is to enjoy the good things in life because one day, bad things will come knocking on your door, and the more good things you have in your life, the better you can withstand the bad times. Tom helped Granddaddy be the good man he was.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 13 (Baseball)
[July 19, 2023] My dad was a New York Yankees fan, and by default, so was I. To this day, I never knew why; we lived in the Deep South, where professional baseball was king, but my dad still insisted the Yankees were the team we would follow, and all three of us kids (later four) will always be big-time baseball fans. I visited my dad just before he passed away at age 93, and yet despite severe dementia, he knew nearly every player’s name on the Yankees’ 1958 winning World Series team. We watched the last game of that season on television; amazing media technology.
Of course, I would play Little League baseball, usually an outfield position, but occasionally infield at first base. I could field ground balls pretty good, thanks to my dad showing me a few tricks of the game, but I was not good at hitting the ball. Dad loved watching me play. Baseball was a genuine love of his. Interestingly, I never saw him play except one spoof game with friends on the back of donkeys. Dad would take me to all the local baseball games. While there, I would sneak off, hunt frogs, and not watch the games much; I thought baseball was too slow and boring for me, so like I often did, I just goofed off.
One year, I think it was 1961, we were playing the best team in the league that game. Those city boys were good; they had a lot of older boys to choose from. It was the bottom of the ninth, the last inning to play, and we were behind one run. My dad waved me back to the outer fence. Their best hitter was up with two outs, and, true to history, he hit a line drive directly at me. With my back to the fence, I jumped as high as possible with my glove. I looked into my glove to find the ball when I came down. That was their last out.
Now it was our turn at bat, and we were only one run away from a tie and two to win. Our two best batters were up but struck out – such a disappointment. I was next. It was up to me. The first two were fastballs over the outside corner, my weakness. Two swings, two misses, two strikes. I backed off the plate and collected my thoughts. I was ready to hit the next fastball as a home run. The pitch was a knuckleball, unexpected. I missed. The goat of the game. Strike three, we lose. There is one thing our coach taught us, and that was good sportsmanship.
He told us that winning every game is not winning. A tough concept for little boys to understand. As my father always said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Dads have been telling their kids this for generations. I thought that was stupid advice.
But a game is not just a game. A game is part of a series of games. Winning a baseball game was not really what we wanted (although we surely thought so). Our goal was to win the baseball season championship, and that was the result of a series of games. That is why good sportsmanship mattered. The strategy of winning the championship is not the same as winning a single game. For the championship, it is more important the team acts as a team.
If you play to win every game individually, the strategy is different, and you will lose the championship. We won the championship that year.
Letters to my Granddaughter: No. 12 (the Bully)
[July 16, 2023] He was an obnoxious, arrogant, self-centered, spiteful bully with a streak of hate running through his black heart. Our family had just moved to a new town, and I was academically transferred to my new Junior High, just a few miles from where I grew up but, in actuality, an entire world away. I hated my new school, with its “colossal” school buildings, and very easy to get lost in the corridors and where every class meant changing rooms. But it was the school bully that put terror into me. Like any new kid, I was about to be tested, and the result would not be pretty.
Harry was his name, his gruff looks and scowl on his lips were like saying, “Punk! I will beat the crap out of you, so be really scared.” And his three skinny cronies, who circled him like mad dogs, were icing on the cake. I would eventually have to face him and his sidekicks; being the school newbie, it was my destiny to do so, and a conflict could not be denied. The first week passed without incident.
The following Monday, I was confronted near the teachers’ parking lot after school. I was about to get on the school bus to take me home when Harry grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and pulled me down to the ground. If I was going to survive this encounter, I knew I had to do something unexpected, do it quickly and decisively, and do it now. My brain locked up, but I instinctively lashed out with my foot, striking him in his balls and dropping Harry to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I knew I was in real trouble and would get a savage beating. “Fanny, get us outta here!” Our school bus driver was Fanny, originally from the big city of New Orleans. Thank you, Fanny. Fanny gave us hell on the school bus daily for talking too loud and acting up, much like normal kids do. Not this day. We were all eerily quiet.
Was I scared? Sure, I was so scared I could barely walk or talk. But I drove home my foot to exactly the sweet spoke, temporarily disabling my attacker. As Fanny drove the school bus away, the occupants – all of us little school kids – sat transfixed for several moments, then broke into cheers. I felt damn good. I’d extracted retribution. I’d brought justice to a single point in time. Although I did the right thing, I did not act morally as I had been taught. Years later, I would understand better. Sometimes doing the right thing is not doing the moral thing.
I would attend three Junior Highs in three different states in three different school years. There was no getting used to any town. All of us kids just learned to deal with it. Losing friends is not good for a kid; it makes you emotionally numb and hardens you in unexpected ways. The school teachers did for us, my brother and sister, what they could do, given their limited resources. Bullying was just accepted in those days; kids were expected to deal with it on their own. Maybe that is the right way. Maybe not. In those days, kids, especially boys, were taught to be strong and to take a beating if needed. Today, kids are taught to be victims and report bullying to their teachers. We teach weakness and victimhood, and that will not work out well in our future as these kids become young adults.
I was surprised that Harry never bothered me again, even if his cronies occasionally ran into me in the crowded school hallways. And I thought that was tough going.
Then I went to High School.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 11 (Astronauts)
[July 14, 2023] I was sitting in church with my family in late February 1962, only a few weeks shy of my 10th birthday, with my favorite yo-yo in my front pocket. My friends and I ran outside to do the “John Glenn” trick when the sermon concluded. This yo-yo trick would be three loops around and then back again into your hand. We did this as our salute to American John Glenn, who, just a few days earlier in the week, had orbited the Earth three times in a spaceship (Friendship 7). To us kids, it was a great achievement despite the fact we could not fully comprehend the importance of the event.
We kids from rural Louisiana had a general idea that there was a space race between America and the USSR but no idea that the competition was white hot and that things were boiling. Winning the race into outer space seemed the right thing to do, even if we kids were nobodies who knew nothing about space and lived in an out-of-the-way little town in the boonies; we were in “Nowheresville.” However, we knew we were good Americans and proud of our country.
We all wanted to be astronauts. Moreover, we all wanted our town’s folks, like our schoolteachers, neighbors, and parents, to look up to us. I can still do the John Glenn yo-yo trick; I tried it out just a few days ago, one just like the yo-yo I had as a kid. That day that Sunday morning in 1962, in my back pocket was my slingshot, and I had my trusty Boy Scout pocketknife. Be prepared! A yo-yo, a slingshot, and a pocketknife; were the basic tools of the trade of the ordinary 10-year-old boy of the early 1960s.
Later that same year, I would break my left arm, zooming around the neighborhood with friends pretending to be astronauts, even if we had no idea what astronauts did. But we looked up to them anyway and wanted very much to fly into space. All of us boys wanted to be an astronaut, but that desire took a backseat to our yearning to be firefighters and army men. We now know how those childhood dreams worked out for some of us.
My broken arm would heal nicely. A year later, I would break my arm again, just in a different spot but doing the same thing and trying unsuccessfully to jump over an old clothing trunk that my friends stood on end. Later, after my arm was set and a plaster cast put on it to hold the bones in place, I discovered that a coat hanger worked best to scratch the itches that inevitably occurred underneath the cast. I give my mother credit for telling me how to do that.
We had an old black and white television set at home, but I never saw any astronauts orbiting the Earth. My dad controlled our television time, and besides, I liked playing outside in our yard more than watching the news. Shortly after my 17th birthday, I would watch the first man moon landing on a color television set. Technology was advancing quickly.
I was never an astronaut, and, in fact, I never really had the desire to fly after I grew up. I will attribute that to watching old war movies that changed my ideas of what I wanted to do as an adult. I regularly watched shows that convinced me leading soldiers in combat would be my real-life’s goal. I wanted to be an Infantry Sergeant just like the fictional Sergeant Chip Saunders (Vic Morrow) in the 1960s television series Combat!, the TV show of my youth. Many years later, I would be promoted to Infantry Sergeant and achieve my childhood dream.
The astronauts of the 1960s provided a spark for me to look outward from myself – as a hick from a small town – and that would allow me to follow my destiny.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 10 (Spare time)
[July 10, 2023] I was born in Arkansas, close to a line of small towns that ran south into Louisiana along what is now state Route 165, where all my relatives married, worked, raised their families, and died. My hometown is Mer Rouge, where I learned to be a young man. I lived in this little village, without even a traffic light, for a time longer than any location in my life, to this day. The town’s population is less than 200 families. It is intersected north and south by railroad tracks.
We routinely visited our grandparents and cousins, at most an hour’s drive along a winding two-lane country road. The folks that lived in these small towns were all the folks we knew. I’d not been in a town with more than two traffic lights until I was in Junior High School. The main streets were paved a few years before we moved into town, and it had two adult bars, a general store, a clothing store, a small diner, and a gas station.
Half my classmates were the farmers’ kids, and they were poorer than us, as they lived on dirt roads and often without running water, but they did have electricity. The real poor lived outside town, had no doors or windows and were all black families. Our grade school only closed when large thunderstorms rolled through because the dirt roads became impassable.
For entertainment, we played outdoors with our friends, went hunting, fishing, camping, or ran around town with our friends and dogs. I also had a few jobs along the way, like mowing yards, raking leaves (there were many leaves), sorting junk at the town dump and reselling what I found of value, and delivering newspapers. Most of the time, we would get friends together and play baseball, seeing who could run fastest, swim in local ponds, hunt rattlesnakes with sticks, throw dirt clods at wasp nests, and catch butterflies, frogs, and lightening bugs (at night). We always were on the lookout for poisonous snakes, poison ivy, hornets’ nests, and high school boys who would chase us off if they found us looking at older girls they claimed as their dates.
On Sunday mornings, we regularly attended Sunday school and church services. Mom ensured we were dressed up, suit coat and tie, polished shoes, black socks, and a white shirt. She gave each of us a quarter to put in the collection plate. I gave myself to Christ at ten years old, and the pastor baptized me by full dunking at our Southern Baptist church. That was really, really cool. I enjoyed Sunday school because the men running it taught us the stories of the Bible and their meaning. I wouldn’t say I liked sitting still in church; it was hard, the pastor was boring (I did not listen), my brother watched his shoes, my sister looked like she was paying attention, and I squirmed.
Life was easy, overall. The pace of things was slow. Sometimes I would go down to the cotton gin to watch them bail the cotton and prepare it for shipment. The bales were moved by hand, and the workers had to be tough. The cotton was shipped out of town by train, and went to places I had no idea where. My favorite pastime was fishing in the lake nearby using a pole, hook, bobber float, and worm. I dug my own worms, and they were good bait. Mostly, I caught sunfish. My dad made me clean and gut them, and only then would my mom fry the fish for dinner.
I never really liked school. Oh, I did okay. School never challenged me, and some teachers scared me because they were “mean” (actually, they had high standards). I never got a butt-whupping, which was a source of pride, but the school principal came close one day when I was caught talking in the lunch line. No talking. You ate and got out. The lunch was 10 cents and included a small carton of milk. And you ate everything on your plate, monitored by the teachers. The best part of school was recess, school plays, my friends, and the teachers. I was not too fond of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I also did not do well on my citizenship marks.
Our doors to our home were always open and unlocked, even at night when we were asleep. There was essentially no crime. Sometimes, town drunks were violent, but as kids, the adults hid that from us. The town adults were wonderful. The local combat vets would tell us scary stories. The volunteer fire department gave us rides on the one firetruck they had. And the stores were run by their owners, who always gave us kids a nickel to spend on candy. Small-town life there was not just easy; it was good too.
Then we moved to the big city.
Letters to my Granddaughter, The Introduction
[July 5, 2023] Granddaughter! Perhaps you are now wondering why I’m writing these letters to you, a growing, beautiful young lady. You are the oldest of my grandchildren. And like your father and like me as your grandfather, we are each the firstborn and with that position comes special privileges and also expectations. While I am confident that your father and mother will help you, I am also responsible for giving you something to treasure and love. In the “old days,” we wrote handwritten letters and put them in the postal system for delivery. Today we text or videoconference. I am doing something in between; I’m writing letters to you electronically through the Internet.
I’ll give you some ideas about life; that is my responsibility and a noble undertaking, and I take that task seriously. And although your parents are doing a great job, there is nothing like a bit of help from the outside. Here I am, your Poppy (your name for me, your paternal grandfather), and I’m ready to do just that. I am writing 365 letters just for you. Others will read them too, so I will be sure not to reveal anything that might embarrass you, but since I know you, that will be no problem. I hope to give you some ideas about the good life using events from my lifetime to the present.
What these events will do is give you lessons that helped me be a good person. No, not the finger-pointing kind of moralistic rules that make you want to puke (like gross anchovies), but the kind of ideas that make you smile, the ideas and ways of living that guarantee you a proper life, a life that attracts good people to you, the kind that some folks call the secret to a good life. And believe me; you do want them. Maybe you don’t know it yet, but you will, and you’ll like it too.
Granddaughter, hold onto your britches, big girl. You’re about to take the ride of your life. A ride into my life. I know that you will be asking yourself how in the world can my Poppy, that old guy who moves real slow, talks with a Southern slang, and walks holding my hand like a mangy tired old dog. How could my Poppy have a life that was anything but stale and boring? Surely, his life is like watching paint dry on the bathroom wall, really slow and anything but thrilling. Do you like a little excitement? I hope so.
365 letters! What in the world could my Poppy find to write to me about that could possibly take so many letters? You might think there is nothing Poppy could write of interest or useful. And perhaps that is true. Maybe if you think that way, you would be just barking up a tree and getting nothing done but wasting your bark. 365 letters, full of the life of the man who’s raised your own Daddy and helped make him the father he is to you. There might be something to the stories explaining your Daddy and why he is so good to you. One day you will treasure these letters. At least, I hope you do.
Now, I have a dog too. And my girl dog, all 90 pounds of muscle and grit, a Yellow Labrador, she keeps me young. I got her at the insistence of your Nonna, my wife and the most gracious and wonderful woman I ever knew. I walk my girl dog twice a day, three miles, all weather, rain, shine, snow, heat, cold, sleet, and at least one tornado going by. Was I scared? No! Never! And here is your first hint at what you will discover in my letters. I ain’t scared of nuttin’.
Then, there is Nonna. I know you love her as well. I’m sure you are attracted to her as you always ask for her when we speak on the phone. Nonna has wonderful traits you can copy and be guaranteed success as a young lady. She also has a particular kind of beauty, very much like the kind of natural beauty you possess. Moreover, Nonna loves you more dearly than ever imagine and wants to hug you close. Call upon her any time. She will always be there, ready to talk and laugh with you. Nonna also helps me be who I am and ensures I do not stray too far away.
Once you read my letters, you will see they are not really about me. Oh, yes, I’m in the stories. Every one of them. But these letters are stories about how to live, about how to “really” live with your eyes wide open. These letters also help you not follow the false narratives pushed on young folks today or the false idols and quasi-religions of those who falsely believe they are saviors of the world, those who believe they know best and who think they are superior to everyone. These false prophets go by many names. Do not be confused by them or misled.
I will tell a story in each letter. There is a lesson to learn from each or two: living, good times, freedom, duty, and fulfillment. Sometimes the letter tells about tragedy or evil; these two are distinguishable, and you will see that difference. You will find in each the idea that life is both good and tragic and life sometimes deals us a difficult hand to play in life, but what makes life all worthwhile is that you can find yourself to be a good girl by adopting responsibility and telling the brutal truth, always the truth.
Okay, let’s get on with it.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 9 (Combat)
[June 28, 2023] I arrived at The Boathouse in Baghdad, Camp Victory Base, eager to get into the war. Mid-year 2006 was the beginning of the fourth year of the war, and things were going badly for the Coalition. This tour would be when I lost 13 of my good friends on the battlefield, but I didn’t know it yet. Unsurprisingly, their loss still haunts me today.
I was assigned to what is called a “fighting corps,” the highest military organization directly responsible for fighting the battle. I would again be part of III Corps (based out of Fort Hood, Texas). The fort’s name was recently changed to Fort Cavazos at the direction of “woke” bureaucrats in the Department of Defense.
Arriving in Baghdad by a C-130 Air Force cargo plane that Monday afternoon was perfect timing. Newly assigned to the Corps engineer staff, I got to work immediately. Because I would be responsible for all construction throughout the country, I needed to establish my network with haste. Good quality, reliable networks are how you get things done. Ordering people around, particularly those of your same rank does not work.
I met my new boss, a one-star General who gave me a big welcome, and we’d served together previously in Iraq as Army Engineers. Right away, I went to see the Corps’ money man (C-8), the Country-wide contracting officer, KBR’s top man (contracted U.S. civilians), the JAG officer, the C-4 Logistics Officer, and the Chaplain; I was going to need some serious higher spiritual help for what I was about to get into.
Years after the war, I had a buddy who was having trouble with a strong case of PTSD ask me, “What the heck were you thinking, going back into combat so soon?” Frankly, I’d not given much thought to it. I was single, had no girlfriend, lived alone just off base, and had a few friends I liked, but something was still missing in my life. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Yes, I was busy with work as a full bird colonel, working 60 hours a week, often much more, plus traveling across the nation for the Army.
Looking back, I think maybe I was emotionally numb. I’d returned from Iraq in early 2005, which was unknowingly affecting me somehow. I felt little emotion except for wanting to do more and be more. And, now, with a year under my belt in combat, I had the experience to “get ‘er done.” Furthermore, I had a complete lack of fear. Now that was intellectually scary. When the mortars, rockets, and bullets are flying, and there is no fear, these can be a risk-prone, dangerous, stupid, and deadly combination.
I knew I could do the job I’d been assigned; Facilities Chief of MNC-I. Hands down, I knew more about military engineering planning, design, funding, the construction process, quality control, and how to get things done in combat than anyone I knew in Iraq, except for very few. At the beginning of this tour, I was bored. Initially, I worked a steady 80-hour workweek at a leisurely pace; no rushing things at this point. This pace continued for about five months as I got to know everyone involved at the key decision-making level. As I gained confidence in them, I was fortunate to call many a friend, and we worked together well, much like a well-oiled machine.
During this tour, I stayed in touch with my parents, siblings, and kids. As well, I communicated with some friends back in the States. I was getting the job done, feeling much better now that I was back in action. I was particularly thrilled to be away from the dull military garrison life.
In December of 2006, as suddenly as my life changed when I arrived in Iraq, we got hit upside the head with a Presidential Directive. We would do a 180-degree turn and start getting ready for the most significant surge of troops of the war to regain control of the war and do it on our terms.
I was alive again.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 8 (Cleaning the Pigpen)
[June 27, 2023] It was my first day cleaning a pigpen, and I knew I had stepped in it big time. Yep, that’s me all right, taking on a job that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or getting into. But I was also too hard-headed to admit I was over my head, thinking I could do anything anyone else could do and do it with little effort. I was wrong. And I will admit that my personality has never changed that much. For good or for bad, I’m still too hard-headed for my own good.
Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, we moved away from the town I grew up in and where all my friends lived. I was distraught for leaving my friends and everything behind, including our two dogs that I loved dearly, beautiful Rough Collies and both emotionally close to me. Our move would be one of many, moving almost every year, making and losing friends, finding new summer jobs, and involuntarily learning to be mentally tough.
A man showed up the same week we moved into our newly rented house and said he was looking to hire a teenager to make some cash and “learn the trade.” The following day was my first day cleaning pigpens. I’d never even seen a pigpen before.
While I cannot remember his name, I was attracted to this happy-go-lucky pig farmer with his outgoing nature and bubbly personality. It was helpful that he had three daughters; one named Linda – about my age – the first girl I’d ever kissed. I fondly remember that kiss. It was like an electric charge that ran through my body. It made us both smile widely. She was so cute.
I also remember that first day in the pigpens. It was memorable, and for a 13-year-old boy, it took plenty of grit to get through it. Pigs are powerfully built and intelligent, big animals, and they remember how you treat them. I think their memory is better than elephants, and pigs will hold a grudge. Don’t ever get on their bad side. You might be crushed up against a side railing or knocked over unexpectedly from behind and stomped on. They are crafty creatures. Respect them. Treat them well.
That first day, my task was to clean two of the pigpens, I think to prove I was up to the job. Cleaning the pens is a job that is important because that’s how you raise healthy pigs. It controls roundworms which pigs are prone to get, keeps the bacteria down to a manageable level, and helps prevent diseases. A clean pig is a happy pig. My job, keep the pigs happy.
The pens I was to clean were slippery with solid pig waste and urine, hay to absorb the moisture, a concoction of wet anti-bacterial disinfectant, and rainwater that dripped through the barn ceiling. Maybe that’s why I fell face-first into that dirty pen that day, and I was stunned, more by landing in the pig poop than by the fall. Oh, did I mention that pig poop has a strong recognizable stench. I didn’t know it then, but pigs like to poop on wet spots. Of course, the entire pen was wet. I also learned, that first day, cleaning the pens while wearing tennis shoes was figuring things out the hard way. Typical of me. I swear the pig farmer was dying from laughter, watching me struggle, get filthy, tear my pants at the knee, ruin my shoes, scrape my forehead, and vomit.
At the end of the first day (actually a half day), I was exhausted, and I remember little else after leaving the pig farm other than my mother making me take off all my clothes in the backyard and hosing me down before I was allowed in the house to get a “real” bath. The pig farmer paid me five dollars in one-dollar bills for my efforts. I had a real job. I was rich. The pig farmer liked me. And I kissed a girl.
The Summer would be one never to forget. My mother, a wonderful woman, helped me more than I realized at the time. She cleaned my clothes and had them ready for me every day. She fed me a full breakfast and packed my lunch, usually a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, an apple, and a cookie (my favorite) and placed them in a paper bag for carrying. My dad was happy because I was a “man” since I had a job and contributing to the family.
I did learn one big lesson. Don’t work on pig farms. I joined the Army.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 7 (Growing Up)
[June 23, 2023] Looking back on my time as a kid, I’m not so sure I was using my thinking abilities properly. Yeah, the men in my town were nearly all combat veterans. I was enthralled by their harrowing experiences, cool demeanor, pretty girlfriends, tales of growing up in the boonies and swamps of Louisiana, great physical strength, and fearlessness. And in school, my teachers were stable, married, smart middle-aged women teachers who understood little boys and took our rambunctious behavior as normal. Both knew how to deal with my friends and me. I was lucky. Despite the advantage I gained with their help, I did things that made me ask myself, what was I thinking?
Hey, watch this! There was when my friend jumped 20 feet off the train trestle railroad bridge into the river below, and I thought he had died. Running to get help in town, my vivid imagination had the town Sheriff throwing me in jail for murder or just shooting me on the spot and then telling everyone in town what a lowlife coward I was by abandoning my best friend to the watery depths. There was no scenario I was getting out of this. My friend lived, and I was not thrown in jail. We often laugh about this incident to this day. The old Sheriff has passed along, but after I grew up and visited my hometown, he still remembered the event and how I was in full panic mode when I found him.
Or the time I ran away from home. I don’t remember why; it doesn’t matter anyway, and it was likely a conflict with my dad (mom was too easy to push me that far). I had my maternal grandparents “only” a 20-minute drive away, but on foot, a nine-year-old stride would take far far longer, and I was lucky to get about a third of the way by walking the railroad tracks; I knew where the tracks went because my dad was in charge of that area. Looking down the tracks, I could see forever and no end to my trip. I thought I would die on these tracks and no one would notice. I turned around finally, as it was getting dark and headed back home. My parents acted as if they even noticed I was missing. I didn’t dare to ask, and they weren’t telling. A few years ago, before they passed away, I thought about asking but decided to let it go. I should have asked.
The year before my grandpappy got me my first real job, my grandmaw Satterfield decided to teach me about life. It was a hot summer day in southern Arkansas when at the meager age of six, it was my turn to catch, kill, and prepare one of her chickens for our supper that evening. Killing the chicken would be a first for me, but it would forever remain a defining moment in my life. This coming-of-age event was supposed to be an adventure of sorts. If you’ve never caught and killed a chicken (the proper way, so my grandmaw says), then you have not lived the life of hardscrabble or are sufficiently close enough to “God’s green earth” for it to matter. Such
virtues were not just ordinary but also expected if you grew up before the 1970s. To do those things necessary to live and do them correctly and morally and with grit is a lesson that a young boy or girl would learn early and then carry through life.
These adventures were all part of growing up.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 6 (A “Real” Job)
[June 20, 2023] Picking Cotton. My first real job was picking cotton at my Grandpappy’s home in southeast Arkansas. I learned many valuable lessons, including that I was not cut out to be a cotton picker. I was ten years old in the Summer of 1962 when I picked cotton for the first time.
A “real” job meant that you worked for someone else and were paid for the work you produced. There was no minimum wage, no health benefits, no free meals, and no union, and if you were hurt and couldn’t work, you did not get paid. There was no workers comp. You see, when you turned ten in the Satterfield family, you were expected to work and contribute to the family. Period. My Grandpappy cotton fields needed picking, and that was that.
Harvesters got most of the cotton, but at the time, they were inefficient and left too much cotton in the boll. The solution? Send pickers in behind the machines. Late in the summer of 1962, I joined a team of about a dozen pickers. All were adults except me. The most experienced and most able pickers were blacks who lived nearby. The unofficial leader of this team was Mama Ida. She was a large black woman who couldn’t read but was the most wonderful person I’ve ever met.
“Douglas, now you just follow me.” She said that every day. And I did exactly what she told me to do. I was a “city boy” (I lived in a town of 300 folks and had no traffic lights), but because I wore shoes and had soft hands, I was weak and needed “tending to.” I learned from her to be a good follower, pay attention to what you’re told, and follow the directions of the other pickers. An important lesson was they showed me how to avoid cutting my fingers on the sharp cotton boll. If you don’t pay close attention to picking cotton, you could get infected and be out of work. No work, no pay.
Mama Ida was a fast picker. So was everyone else. I was slow, embarrassingly slow. But I quickly learned that teamwork can accomplish more than individuals working separately. People had different jobs in the cotton fields, and none were unimportant. I was often the “water boy” and was proud of it. Carrying water in two tin buckets was crucial to their well-being. And the cotton-picking team was honest. Mama Ida made sure of that and never allowed rocks or dirt in our 10-foot cotton sacks, and pay was based on the weight of the cotton you picked. You were paid cash daily. My Grandpappy paid me my wage that first day, 10 cents. I was devastated.
Arkansas in late summer is hot, windy, humid, dusty, and buggy. The cotton fields exposed you to the sun all day long. I suffered and sometimes cried. But I would not quit, no matter what and no matter that I wanted to quit desperately. I had so many cuts on my hands; I couldn’t count them. And my feet hurt. I wore a baseball hat and got sunburned on my ears and cheeks. The other pickers wore rimmed hats, white shirts or dresses to keep the sun at bay.
At the end of each day, I was exhausted and fell asleep after the dinner my Grandmama had made. The usual evening meal was fried chicken, black-eyed peas or butter beans, spinach or corn, and watermelon for dessert. It was good eating. Breakfast was eggs (from the chickens she tended), toast and homemade jam. Lunch was hardboiled eggs you carried with you into the fields. You could take a lunch break, but you earned less if you did so.
Mama Ida would say, “You be careful now, Douglas.” She was telling me to pay close attention to the Harvesters. They would run you over before you even knew one was even there. In two weeks, we completely cleared the fields of cotton. Now it was time to go home to my parents. Picking cotton may not be ideal, but it helped me learn about people and made me appreciate the value of those who do the grudging, hard, often ignored work that makes America great.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 5 (the Army)
[June 17, 2023] Work or Lazy. I was young, but I was an adult. Now was the time I chose Army life over railroad work. It was a time to choose between two radically different paths in life, one that would mean the life I know today, the other the way of my father. There was one other future for me, not drugs or alcohol but one of academia (I would be pushed out of that dream, a dream of little responsibility and little need of courage). This letter is Number 5 of a long-running series of encouraging letters to my granddaughter.
I joined the U.S. Army after working on the railroad for two years. The Missouri-Illinois Railroad was owned and operated by the Missouri Pacific RR (MoPac), which is how I got the job. My dad worked for the MoPac, and they needed a relief agent. I was it. No one else wanted the job, but it paid well and wasn’t too dangerous, except I traveled at least an hour to work and back six days a week. And, bi-weekly, I switched job locations. I was paid an extra $7 a day for travel expenses.
The standard six-day workweek plus travel interrupted my freedom, so I quit and joined the Army. I joined out of exasperation from too much RR work. The recruiters told me I could guarantee an overseas assignment or occupation skill. I just wanted overseas to spice up my life a bit. My first assignment as a Private was Basic Combat Training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I hated it. Then on to Military Police school, which was sheer luck and good for me. Better than the Infantry… the horror. Now, a seven-day workweek.
The day before graduation from MP school, we all got drunker than a skunk. I woke up the following morning on a bare mattress under a row of bathroom urinals and couldn’t remember anything. And it was daylight. We were always up before daylight. I was scared. Staggering out into the open sleeping bay, I found everyone still sleeping. What a relief. Next thing I knew, the Drill Sergeants came in screaming for us to get our asses out of bed and into our Class A dress uniform.
At the large theater where we would hear an MP Colonel talk, we all felt sickly from our hangovers. I have zero memory of anything that day at the graduation. That was that, no more drinking alcohol for me ever again. Well, at least not drinking until I was introduced to German beer two weeks later. “Ein Bier bitta.” I never let alcohol influence my behavior ever again. As an MP, I would catch U.S. troops drunk driving nearly daily. We were hyper-strict on drunk drivers. If caught, you were out of the Army.
At the end of two years in Germany, I changed my job skill to Infantry Mortarman and remained in the Army as an enlisted man for almost seven years. I got out as an Infantry Staff Sergeant, a pretty good position for an uneducated kid from a small town in Louisiana My long-term goal was to attend college, get a degree in Chemical Engineering and get a good job. I’d had just enough money for in-state tuition. However, that was not to be.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 4 (Family)
[June 9, 2023] Family. Family. Family. I’ll update my letters to my granddaughter in an ongoing series for future reading. My granddaughter is the oldest of my grandchildren and the only girl. And she is a very active child and smart as a whip. Today’s topic is family. Regular readers know my stance on families and will not be surprised by this “letter.” But I give a bit of background; that is the point. I’m pro-family. There is no doubt about that.
I grew up in a family of four kids and both parents, mom and dad, mainly in the Deep South. I was the oldest of the kids, and although that came with extra responsibilities like taking out the trash, it also gave me more freedom because my mom spent more time caring for my younger siblings. Looking back upon that time, my freedom probably was more a disadvantage than not. At times, I would be “too big for my britches” – a know-it-all, a less humble than I should be, yet all my friends were just like me … carefree and always out of the house.
Remember that we were “rich,” at least by the standards of those times; doors and windows on our home and a roof that did not leak, usually. And the family was at the center of everything we did. Going to church, visiting relatives, and seeing adult friends of my parents, all of this was local or within a 20-minute drive. We all participated. Grocery shopping was a mom-and-kids affair. Camping, hunting, and fishing were a dad-and-boys affair. Going to see train wrecks (my dad worked on the railroad) was just me and dad. But we all talked about it at home.
Visiting my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were always fun. The “grandkids” were running free. My favorite pastime was throwing dirt clods at wasp nests (never at hornet nests; it was essential to know the difference). The boys would wear short pants, and that’s it. No shirt, no shoes, and maybe no brains. We did it for the thrill. If a wasp caught you, it would be painfully unpleasant, and it was usually one of the moms who applied a thick baking soda paste to the sting.
At my paternal grandparent’s home, there was a fantastic swing set made by my grandfather’s hands. He was a jack of all trades and a great welder. The swing set was anchored into the ground by concrete, and impossible for us to turn over if we swung too high. My favorite was getting the swing to the horizontal apex and jumping high from the ground. I would hit and roll, a skill that later would be of value in the U.S. Army.
Ultimately all we did was about our family. The family was at the center of what we did. Our family was our refuge, our medical care, and the center of our universe. Divorce was unheard of. Single parents only existed if one of them died and left the family with one. In that case, we all helped out because, well, that is what we do. Family!
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 3 (Summer Jobs)
[June 3, 2023] Summer jobs, side jobs, and odd jobs. This article is my latest update to letters to my granddaughter. Growing up in the 1950s was good for me.
By now, you know that we were rich (by local standards), and that meant my parents were married, my dad had a steady job on the railroad, my mom stayed home and helped other wives, our maternal grandparents were nearby as well as aunts, uncles, nephews, and a great aunt, and we went to church services every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.
Our family had enough essentials like a used car, a rented house, and clothes for school and church. But, like so many kids my age, we didn’t have our own spending money; our independence depended upon it. So, my friends and I did things for extra cash. Since there were no stores to work at in town (only adults had real jobs), we had to figure out what to do for some spare spending money. And it wasn’t any “job”; we had to do what we did properly.
I had many jobs, but that’s not what I called what I did. I never worked directly for an hourly wage until Junior High. In Elementary and during summers, I worked odd jobs for local families, mainly on the south side of the railroad tracks, the tracks splitting the town from north to south. If we kids had an extra penny, we occasionally put it on the railroad tracks right before a train came by. If lucky, we found the flattened penny and showed it to our buddies.
The earliest money-making scheme was to find clovers, tie them into a necklace, and sell them for a nickel. I could easily make 50 cents a day. I spent my money on candy at the local general store. I was 4 or 5 years old. Only later did I figure out a better scheme: collecting used Coke bottles. I would get 2 cents for each bottle.
You could earn a few dollars if you were lucky, thoughtful, and would work hard. Was I privileged to work these odd jobs? Yep! No one ever asked me to work for them or do a job. There was no minimum wage or guarantee you would get paid, even if you worked. Sometimes you did work to do the right thing by someone who was part of your town.
I was always busy. If I wasn’t running around “playing army” with my friends or watching baseball on television, I was working. My school grades suffered, but I was too busy enjoying my labor’s fruits.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 2 (the Transfer)
[May 29, 2023] This is my follow-up letter to my granddaughter. Shortly, I will be expanding this series to all my grandchildren. Today, I discuss the beginning of one of the most significant points in my military career and where I learned more about human nature than ever before. This is only a start. Feel free to comment.
I walked into my Commander’s office with my transfer papers. It was a year since I returned from the Iraq War in January 2005 with the 1st Cavalry Division. I was now leading a large-scale Army Corps-sized exercise, this one at the exercise center at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. At the time, the war in Iraq was evolving into a far more dangerous phase. I wanted in, more responsibility and more time with those who do the actual fighting.
At the end of my tour in January 2005, I had been promoted to full Colonel (“O-6” in military parlance), and this was my first promotion where I knew I could handle anything the army threw at me. At 53, my physical condition was exceptional, except for arthritis in both knees that would come back to haunt me. Training senior commanders and staffs for war had not been a challenge, nor was it very satisfying.
My commander, Brigadier General Bill Monk, was not pleased. He never approved transfers. I would be the first, but I had to do something none of his dozen Colonels had achieved, a Corps exercise with 100% satisfaction of participating senior commanders and computer simulation contractors. I could see the disappointment as he signed my transfer papers, but a small smile was also on his lips. I’d known Bill Monk for nearly ten years. He is an honorable man; he keeps his word, and he is someone who can see the big picture, a rare and valuable trait.
I called a friend at Engineer Headquarters, Washington, DC. This was Lieutenant Colonel Scotty Schrader, one of the finest minds in military engineering and highly skilled in organizational design. “Hey Scotty,” I said, “Get me back to Iraq.” Scotty would again say I should be careful what I ask for. A few days later, he would say Multi-National Corps- Iraq (MNC-I) had an opportunity in their C-9 shop, Civil Affairs. I would be the Corps’ Subject Matter Expert in Engineering.
A few weeks later, I was at Ft. Bliss, TX, near El Paso, to get a physical, draw personal gear, do some paperwork, and be manifested on a flight to Kuwait. This would take almost five days. I met a gaggle of other Colonels slotted as replacements at Army Headquarters, Multi-National Forces – Iraq (MNF-I). The chartered commercial aircraft comprised roughly half senior military personnel (no Generals) and Department of Army civilians and contractors. By sheer bad luck, I was assigned as aircraft commander.
We landed in Kuwait on July 16 (Sunday at 0545 hrs) and were transported to transient VIP tentage and then to a video briefing. The plan was to spend two weeks getting briefings and acclimating to the weather. It was late July and hotter than most Americans ever see, except somewhere in Death Valley National Park. I told some of the other Colonels that I was not staying here, sitting around twiddling my fingers. They laughed when I said I would be in Baghdad by the end of the next day. I walked off the back of a C-130 cargo plane at Baghdad International Airport early Monday afternoon, July 17.
Waiting for me at the airport was the C-7 Engineer Staff Secretary. I politely said I was headed to the C-9. She said there had been a “trade.” I was to replace the led C-7 Facilities Engineer sent home with a severe illness. I was back with the Engineers. I was back at war.
Years later, I would be asked if I missed war and not knowing how to answer, yes, now I know the answer. I do not miss the war. I miss the troops. I miss the brotherhood. There is nothing to compare. I was not afraid of dying. Of course, any sane person would hate war and not want anything to do about it or be near it. That is an appropriate response to war.
I went to work immediately before securing my accommodation. I was to be in charge of all coalition military construction throughout Iraq. There was no “budget” in the classic sense, but the plan was to spend about $65 million that year; several pots of money were included.
In six months, life in the Iraq War would change radically. The “surge” was coming, and we didn’t yet know it.
Letters to my Granddaughter, No. 1 (being Rich)
[May 20, 2023] If there is one thing I would want from my grandparents today, it would be letters they wrote to me, telling me about their lives, what they believed in, what made them good men and women, and how they saw the world. Those letters would be more valuable than any token, money, or property. So, I decided to write my grandchildren letters for that reason.
Let’s be clear from the outgo. None of my relatives had much money. They lived modest lives, traveling little, doing what they thought was right for their families, going to church, believing in God and his principles, scratching out a living from what was around them, and hanging on tight to their family because that was what made them who they were. They were not politicians, robber barons, professionals (in the modern sense of the word), formally educated, or money rich. Still, from everything I know, they were happy with their existence and humble to their very core.
Here is my first letter to my eldest granddaughter. She is seven and the only grandchild who can read. The title might be a surprise.
I was rich growing up.
Yes, I was rich growing up. By the standards of that time, some 70 years ago, we were among the rich in the small town we grew up in. I was the oldest of four children. We lived in a tiny town in Northeast Louisiana with a population of about 300. We lived in a small house with a roof that did not leak when it rained. There were no traffic lights, no movie theaters, and no grocery stores, but we did have three bars and two churches (one Southern Baptist and one Catholic).
How did I know we were rich? The difference between rich and poor was clear for everyone to see. The rich had wooden doors and glass windows in their homes. The poor had screened doors and screened windows (no glass). In the poor’s’ homes, you could look through the walls and see from the front of the house into the backyard. We also lived on a paved one-lane road. The poor lived on dirt roads. Also, the rich had electricity and running water. The poor had lanterns and pumped their water. We lived in the Deep South, and there was no such thing as air conditioning; the summer months were always hot and humid. Both rich and poor suffered from the heat.
We were rich because there was one playground in town, and we could use it. We had a grade-school playground with a metal slide, a small merry-go-round, and a swing with two seats. The ground was dirt, which helped cushion any fall we might make. We also had a Little League baseball team, and we had uniforms. You had to bring your own glove, but the town’s working men provided the bats, baseballs, and ballfield.
Everyone went fishing, rich and poor. My dad would take the extra catch to some poor single mothers he knew, and we kids would go with him. They were very poor, especially by today’s standards. I never gave it much thought but was thankful for what we had. My dad worked on the railroad, and my mom stayed home like all the other mothers. We ate dinner every night together, and, yes, I hated leftovers. We were a happy family, and I got to see my grandparents and cousins nearly every week. The family was most important. I saw the poor every day.