Mission BBQ

Once a month, on the Friday before our weekly meeting, my American Legion post members meet for lunch at the local Mission BBQ. The restaurant favors military members and veterans. Its walls are filled with pictures of us in uniform (including one of me), its décor stressing everything military. From the look of the patrons, I assume they’re mostly active duty, retired, or former armed forces members. We go there because we’re proud of our contribution to our country and cherish the brotherhood we formed with other soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

The active duty and former combatant population is thinning. Since the end of the draft in 1973, our numbers have been on a downward tilt. Whereas men my age are virtually all veterans—if we didn’t enlist, we’d have been drafted—there are far fewer veterans among men fifty and younger.

That said, there are still enough of us to keep Mission BBQ in business. There are two different Mission BBQs that I frequent, one here in Columbia, Maryland, the other in Ellicott City where I used to live. No matter what time I stop by, the restaurants seem to be busy. And, as I just learned, the two Mission BBQs that I know about are not the only ones. There are dozens of them, all over the U.S.

The fact that the Mission BBQ chain is prospering is good reason for me to put aside my concerns about the diminishing veteran population. We may be becoming fewer, but we’re still numerous enough to keep a military restaurant chain thriving.  

Talking to Readers

Today I’ll be doing one of my favorite jobs, talking to readers. I’ll spend the day manning a table at the Fall Fest in Elkton, Maryland selling and autographing my books and conversing with readers about my writing. I am especially gratified when a reader who has enjoyed one of my books returns to buy another.

I was invited to participate in the Fall Fest because a bookstore/gift shop on Main Street in Elkton, the Palette and the Page, features my books as well as those of other local authors. I travel several times a year to Elkton, an hour and a half from my home in Columbia, Maryland, to join in events at the shop, usually including autographing my five hardcopy books. It’s one of the aspects of being an author that I enjoy the most.

My table during the Fall Fest will be close to the Palette and the Page located at 120 East Main Street, Elkton, Maryland 21921. Please stop by if you’re in the area.

Covid-19 Deaths

I am increasingly concerned that Trump and his Republican supporters are costing lives by their refusal to support vaccinations and other protections against Covid-19. Trump continues to maintain that the pandemic is a fantasy and fails to urge his followers to defend themselves.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the New York Times, unvaccinated people are dying of Covid-19 at eleven times the rate of vaccinated people. During the latest coronavirus wave, in July and August, at least 16,000 deaths could have been prevented if all states had vaccination rates as high as the state with the highest rate (Vermont). Further, Democrats are 59 percent more likely than Republicans to have been vaccinated. As a result of this partisan gap, undervaccination has allowed nearly 12,000 preventable deaths in red states during July and August, more than double the 4,800 in blue states.

When will all Americans wake up and recognize the Republicans for what they are and what they’re doing? How many people have to die before we come to our senses?

Onset of Autumn

Summer is due to end officially on Wednesday, September 22, some days hence, but, as noted here some days ago, it has already turned cooler. It’s now regularly down in the sixties at night and stays pretty much in the seventies during the day. With little rain, it has been clear and cool. Delightful weather if you like that sort of thing.

I’ve noted here before that I prefer hot weather. During the thirteen years (ending in 1975) that I spent most of my time in Vietnam’s tropics, I acclimatized to the heat and have stayed that way ever since. Left on my own, I’d run around in nothing but shorts and sandals, but nowadays when the weather starts cooling down, I gradually add more clothes until I find myself wearing sweatshirts and sweatpants and donning a light jacket when I’m out and about.

And the disappearance of mid-year warmth seems melancholy to me. While summer feels like laughter and joy, autumn is sobering and serious. It portends that winter, the time of sadness and mourning, is approaching. It’s time to let go of happy smiles and get used to more somber thoughts.

I’ve always believed that we humans invented Christmas and New Years at the beginning of winter to tide us over until the promise of spring in March, but the joy of those holidays is never enough to see me through the dead months of January and especially February—whose only virtue is that it’s the shortest month of the year. The cold feels to me like a reminder of my own mortality. March never arrives soon enough and always frustrates me with its promise of warmth and its failure to deliver.

So here I sit, chilly in nothing but shorts, hoping the warm weather will last just a little longer. Maybe the cold will inspire me to write, to get past the writer’s block I’ve suffered from ever since the death of my partner, Su, a year ago last March.

If so, the change will be worth the cost.

Thinking About Death

I’m getting old. That means that death is closer than ever. Whether I want to or not, I have to think about that.

As I’ve noted before in this blog, we Americans avoid talking or writing about death, as if hoping that silence on the subject will make it go away. We do the same thing with sex. Other cultures I’ve lived and worked in are much more open to both topics. They accept that death and sex are a normal part of living and speak of both casually. I wonder why we Americans are so wary.

I’m determined to live past a hundred years. My excellent health augurs well for that hope. I work hard to maintain a healthy diet consisting almost entirely of vegetables and fruits. I lift weights for a couple of hours every other day. I sleep a minimum of nine hours a night and nap each afternoon. It’s working. My primary care physician declares me fit.

But as the years pass, I feel my body declining. I’m less steady on my feet than when I was younger. I’m not as strong as I was in my youth. My hearing, damaged during combat, grows weaker. And my brain is less nimble and effective.

So rather than avoid thoughts of death, I must face it head-on. Since it is inevitable, how can I make the best use of the time I have left?

I know the answer: writing. I’ve known since I was six years old that I was born to write. And while my brain is weakening with age, my ability to think and create is, strangely enough, getting stronger each year. If I was put on this earth to write, my sacred duty is to do everything I can to preserve my health so that I can fulfill my vocation.

Yes, death awaits me. It’s pointless to deny or ignore it. Far better is to make the best use of the time I have. I have two books in my mind at the moment. How many more will catch my fancy?

Glenn the Forecaster

My discussion earlier in this blog of so-called “intelligence failures” brought to mind my own history as an intelligence operative and my skill at foretelling what was going to happen next. It started early during the thirteen years I worked as signals intelligence analyst during the Vietnam war. I learned that my target, the North Vietnamese, prepared carefully for each military move and always followed the same procedures: command elements move close to the target, reconnaissance begins, combat forces take their positions, a simplified signal plan is introduced for ease of communication during combat, and a forward headquarters—a tactical command post—takes control of fighting units. My detection of those moves allowed me to warn friendly forces of what the enemy was going to do before he did it.

My job was signals intelligence, that is, the intercept and exploitation of the enemy’s radio communications. I got so good at my job that I was able to accurately predict what the North Vietnamese were going to do, where they were going to do it, and when they were going to do it.

The problem I ran into fairly often was that U.S. military commanders and government officials sometimes didn’t believe my predictions or didn’t act on them. They couldn’t imagine why a civilian was masquerading as an enlisted man in a military unit and telling them all about what the enemy intended to do. That happened before the 1968 Tet Offensive which I foretold and again before the fall of Saigon in April 1975—which led to my escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I could tell similar stories about things that happened after 1975, but all that is still classified.

Another unfortunate outcome was that I was constantly away from home as my four children were growing up. I was so good at my job that I would no sooner return from a trip abroad than I would be sent on another one. My kids got used to the idea that dad was a fun guy and very caring but too often absent. Since what I was doing was classified as top secret codeword, I couldn’t tell them about it. Over time and as a result of my accompanied tours abroad where they were with me for as much as three years living in another country, I think they figured it out.

Despite the costs to my family and to me (permanently damaged hearing from being caught in shelling and relentless bouts of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury [PTSI]), I wouldn’t have done things differently. I had the required skills as a linguist (seven languages) and extended experience on the battlefield that allowed me to be of great and valuable service to my beloved country.

I am honored and rest content.

And What About Socialism?

Now that we’ve dealt with communism, that leaves socialism. Need we fear it?

Let’s start with definitions. According to Wikipedia, “Socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and democratic control, such as workers’ self-management of enterprises.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods,” that is, “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property.”

Again, as defined, socialism is congruent with democracy. But the only examples I could find of nations that call themselves socialist are tyrannies in which the ruler and his followers hold all the power and the people hold none. Like communism, the pretense of socialism is used by despots to disguise their exclusive dominion.

Probably the best-known example of a nation that calls itself socialist is Vietnam. Until 1976, its preferred name was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Vit Nam Dân ch Cng hòa), but then it changed its name to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Cng hòa Xã hi ch nghĩa Vit Nam). Its name notwithstanding, Vietnam is a prominent example of totalitarianism.

I come away from exercise in definitions with a renewed understanding that nations, like people everywhere, use words to create an impression which may be false. In everyday English, we call that lying.

Should I be surprised that autocracies lie?

The Meaning of Communism

For most of my life, “communism” has been the name of the enemy. To be communist meant to be hostile to the U.S. The leader of enemy forces was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), that is, Russia. Its satellite nations, under its iron control, were Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania. Opposed to the communist bloc were the U.S. and its allies, primarily the nations of western Europe—the U.K, France, Western Germany, Spain, Italy, and Belgium among others. The world, in short, was divided between the good guys—the U.S. and its allies—and the bad guys, otherwise known as “communists”—the USSR and its satellites.

Only when the USSR collapsed and the satellite nations turned toward democracy did it become apparent to me that communism’s day had passed. Now we were all good guys. Then Russia (and other nations) became dictatorships that were not communist. I came to understand that the enemy was not communism but totalitarianism. So what does “communism” mean?

According to Wikipedia, “Communism is a philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society, namely a socioeconomic order structured upon the ideas of common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed,” and as “a theory advocating elimination of private property.”

Given those definitions, communism is perfectly compatible with democracy and is the obvious answer to domination by the rich. The nominally communistic states like the USSR betrayed their foundations to become autocracies. I learned that dictators can call their form of government by any name they choose. All that matters is that they alone hold power.

So what we need fear is not communism but tyranny. Only when the people themselves hold the power is the world safe from autocracy.

And it doesn’t matter what name we use for it.

Addicted to Chewing gum

During the thirteen years I spent more time in Vietnam than in the U.S., I, like everybody else, smoked cigarettes. The non-smokers among us were so few that we considered them oddballs. And the Vietnamese smoked more than we did.

In 2015, I paid the price for my smoking: I came down with lung cancer that almost killed me. I underwent months of radiation and chemotherapy, then had the upper lobe of my right lung surgically removed. I wasn’t completely recovered until last year.

But I had stopped smoking many years before. Until the lung cancer developed, I thought I’d gotten away with all my years of smoking. It took me a very long time to wean myself off cigarettes and onto nicotine chewing gum. Years later, I gradually replaced the nicotine gum with everyday chewing gum. Eventually, I got to the point that I was chewing only regular gum. Now my problem is I can’t stop.

Yes, now I’m addicted to chewing gum. The next step is to wean myself off gum to . . . nothing. I’ll begin all that someday soon. Don’t want to rush things. What’s the hurry? Why not take another forty years to finish up?

So I’ll get to starting the process one of these days. Meanwhile, I’ve tried all the different brand names of gum. I’ve come to prefer Mentos, partly because they’re candy-covered gum balls. I don’t allow myself any candy on my diet, so the gum is my way of cheating.

Who says the life of an aging man isn’t interesting?