Archive for October, 2010

  • Blog
  • October 4th, 2010

Paying the piper

By Joel M. Vance

It’s time for me to unburden my soul and hope that the Celestial Tallyman will cross my name off the list of divine rejects.  So, here it is: I cheated the United States Government out of eleven dollars and 86 cents, willfully and with malice aforethought.

It happened like this: In the spring of 1956 I was a freshly minted second lieutenant in the United States Army, courtesy of the Reserve Officers Training Corps. I was to report for active duty Oct. 13 at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and learn to shoot obsolete antiaircraft guns at airplanes flying faster than the speed of sound and considerably faster than any bullet we could shoot at them (everyone else was in the age of missiles and jet planes; we were stuck in the era of the Red Baron).

Perhaps it was the knowledge of the uselessness of this training, the wasteful expense of it, that motivated me two years later when I was a civilian to ignore an ominous letter that said the government had paid me for Oct. 12, the day before I officially became an officer and a gentleman in the United States Army.

“The Department of the Army has been directed and this office is required to take the necessary action to collect the amount due the Government.  Your indebtedness must, therefore, be paid promptly.  Failure to do so will compel us to initiate procedures to effect collection from you as authorized by law.”

This icy letter was signed “for” Col. F.E. Gerfen by somebody named “McGee.”  Immediately I thought of the old 1940s radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly, where Molly would growl, “T’ain’t funny, McGee.”

There is implied in that cold paragraph the Army’s conviction that I deliberately got myself overpaid $11.86 and if I didn’t cough it up posthaste they had weapons of war designed to collect it along with several pints of blood.

But by then I was a sportswriter on a small town daily newspaper with a wife and incipient child.  The dictionary, at least mine, listed “penniless” as a synonym for “small town sportswriter.”  Besides which I figured it was the government’s fault.  I did not ask the Army to shower me with riches and the $11.86 was long gone, paying for pre-natal care for Marty and beer for me.

So I filed the letter under “Things to Do When I Become Rich” and it has moldered in that file for 50 years until I recently unfolded its browned creases, much as one would carefully reveal a priceless letter from Gen. Washington informing a hapless Minuteman that he owed the government a day’s pay.

What to do?  Not that I’m rich (actually my dictionary now lists “penniless” as a synonym for “retired small town sportswriter).  I suppose I could scrape together $11.86 and wash my soul clean, but the way government is going today I’d rather not.    Besides, there is the matter of interest.  I know the Internal Revenue Service piles up interest on unpaid bills faster than Mafia loan shark and I assume the U.S. Army has some similar method of driving its deadbeats into the soup kitchens.

I’m no mathematical genius, but I fear that $11.86 has ballooned into something resembling the annual gross revenue for Microsoft, even with a recession figured in.  And there is the specter of Ft. Leavenworth, a favored vacation site for military malfeasants.

I began to research the penalties for ignoring a military overpay.  After all, the letter was signed for a lieutenant colonel and if there was one thing I learned from the Army it was that you don’t ignore a lieutenant colonel.

I’d settle for a chewing out by a senior officer, like those I used to get with some regularity when I was an undiscovered offender still in uniform.  My hope is that there is a statute of limitations, plus a softening of the collective military heart.

There is a final possibility so remote that it’s probable.  The Army often picks out the least viable option and runs with it.  Could they decide they need a 75-year-old ex-officer with a reluctant spine that looks like the drive shaft on a deuce-and-a-half truck and call me back to active duty?

I don’t think I’d make much of a soldier today.  I have forgotten my serial number, the serial number on my M-1 rifle and the General Orders of Guard Duty, not to mention how to spit shine my boots (I do remember the taste of Shinola, however).

Maybe I should just send a check for $11.86 to the Secretary of the Army and watch the whole military-industrial complex implode with shock.

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  • Blog
  • October 4th, 2010

America the beautiful … sometimes

By Joel M. Vance

It was the Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women.  “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”

Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities.  I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard.  But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.

I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.

The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale.  The first number was a medley of patriotic songs.  “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”  I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.

And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet.  This is a beautiful country, not like any other.  It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.

Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful.  Others choose to be saintly.  Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it.  Some who go to church would screw you sideways if they got half a chance while some who do not attend the weekly (or daily) services are the Golden Rule personified.

Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.

We are a nation founded on civil disobedience, which makes the long-ago shooting of Kent State students all the more heinous, not to mention the maltreatment of 1960s Freedom Marchers, the bludgeoning of the Chicago Seven, and any subsequent harassment of those who don’t think things are just peachy.

My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.”  And it’s not “my” country.  It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.  And we don’t do things right all the time.  We torture, we abrogate civil rights, we are intolerant, selfish, mean-spirited and sometimes universally unlikable.

We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better.  It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.

But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them.  There is no anthems called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is.  Sure, we have much that is wrong with the country and most of it is of our own making. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life.  We just don’t try hard enough.

It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia.  There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol.  The only solution for social malaise is within ourselves.  When I get the environmental heebie-jeebies, I go outdoors, preferably on a crisp autumn day during the leaf change, and I just enjoy.  And then I go home and write a check to an environmental lobby group.

I hang around with working bird dogs and if we find quail to shoot at I am enriched, but if we don’t it still is a good day afield and I feel better.  I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school, college, got married and we had our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.

Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today began, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap.  Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed our family farm with a corporate farm, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.

We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so.  For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it.  For every sodbuster who would upend the last native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.

While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is.  It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.

So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.

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