MIA families bear wounds that won’t heal

History too easily tallies the price of war. It blithely numbers the dead, allowing us to close the book, walk away, and fight the next war.

But the families of those missing in action can’t close the book. We can’t walk away. We’re bound by cruel uncertainty to keep churning through a tragic past which grows hazier and more unreachable with each passing year.

My Uncle John was an aspiring boxer whose career was sidetracked by a knockout in the NYC Golden Gloves Tournament. He coasted for a few years, working odd jobs, and falling for Alice. Until in March 1941, realizing a great war was imminent, he asked Alice to marry him and enlisted in the Navy, at 22. 

In May 1941, he came aboard the USS Pollux, a 459-foot supply ship, as a Storekeeper Third Class. That year his dreams of boxing glory revived, and he began training for a return to the ring, this time as a professional. 

In the early morning hours of February 18, 1942, the Pollux was off the coast of Newfoundland plowing through 40-foot seas and blinding sleet driven by a hundred mile an hour gale. She was running a zigzag course to avoid Nazi U-boats known to be in the area. Because her captain was relying on an unfamiliar radar system, the Pollux was, incredibly for a Navy ship, thirty miles off course when at 4:17 a.m. it slammed into and impaled itself upon a huge boulder a hundred yards offshore from a small beach backed by 70-foot ice covered cliffs. 

After several unsuccessful attempts to launch lifeboats, and just after the Pollux’s bow was torn off by the mountainous waves, their stricken captain gave permission to abandon ship, shouting above the tempest, “May God go with you!”

You can almost see John standing on the frozen, windswept deck looking out at the beach, so tantalizingly close, as his ship was being ripped apart beneath him. He measured his youthful vigor and boxer’s strength against the distance and was sure he could make it to shore and back to Alice. So, he leapt into the paralyzingly cold sea and vanished forever. 

Or so I thought. 

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) was created in 2015 to make good on the American warriors’ ethos: Never leave a fallen comrade. Its mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for the 81,477 U.S. personnel missing from World War II to the present. 

Each year, DPAA conducts investigation-and-recovery team missions throughout the world to pinpoint last known locations of missing Americans and attempt to excavate their remains. Recovered remains are sent to the largest forensic anthropological skeletal lab in the world for analysis and identification. 

DPAA advised me about a year ago that they’d located remains which may be associated with John. They requested a DNA reference sample, which I provided. I’m still awaiting those DNA test results.

Last month, I was invited to attend my first DPAA Family Member Update Meeting. More than 200 families from Texas and nearby states met in Dallas to receive the latest information on the searches for their missing service members.

For the first 90 minutes, attendees were offered the opportunity to take the microphone and share memories of their loved one, what was known about their final mission, and to describe the effects of the loss on their family. 

The rawness of their emotional wounds, in some cases 80 years after the fact, was simply devastating. It was clear from each story that the impact of the loss had been greatly exacerbated by the torments of hope, which are the particular cross of MIA families. I quietly wept for the entire hour and a half.

Rendered an emotional dishrag by the opening session, I skipped the rest of the day’s events and headed back to Corpus Christi.  

On the long drive home, I kept thinking that, as our world again sleepwalks toward­­ – this time probably nuclear ­­­­­­– war, the gut-wrenching witness of our MIA families demands careful consideration by us all.

(Uncle John is second from left in photo.)


Give your heart a little rest in 2023

What sense can any of us make of life’s crazy twists and turns?

In the winter of 1977, I was very, very surprisingly, accepted by a prestigious college. In the summer of 1977, I was very, very unsurprisingly unaccepted by that college. Very, very angry, I tore up the rejection letter, threw it behind the back seat of my VW Bug, and, without telling my parents what happened, resolved to continue working in Houston and forego college. 

As fall approached, my parents often asked if I’d heard what date classes would start, but I’d quickly change the subject. This worked until one early September day when my red-faced mom came crashing into my room waving the rejection letter she’d carefully taped back together.

“What’s this?” she screamed as my stunned father walked in the room behind her. 

“Oh, yeah,” I stammered backing away from a charging mom, “I forgot to tell you I’m not going to college.”

“Oh, yes you are!” my mother – who bitterly regretted her own foreshortened college career – declared as she spun on her heels and gestured for dad to follow.

Dad was a traveling salesman who enjoyed visiting college libraries on his trips around Texas. The week before, he’d visited a tiny school, the University of Dallas in Irving (I know, I know), and thought they just might be desperate enough to accept a nonapplicant the day before classes started. 

The next morning, with only the shirts on our backs, dad and I flew to Dallas. The plan was that, if by some miracle they accepted me, I’d return to Houston, quit my job, pack my things, and fly back to Dallas to start school.

At first, the admissions officer laughed at our loony proposal, but my supersalesman father persisted until she reluctantly agreed.  She did, however, insist that I not return to Houston because I needed to start classes the next day. So, my father drove me to a nearby store to buy underwear, socks, and a toothbrush. 

Back at UD, my father shook my hand and wished me luck. I got out of the car and stood there alone in the gathering dusk holding two shopping bags. As he rushed to the airport, I shouted after him, “What’s the name of this school again?” But he drove on. Forlorn, I turned to walk into my dorm with my head hung low absolutely convinced that no good could ever come from this screwy deal.

Naturally, my four years at UD were among the best of my life. I, also, met and married my beautiful wife of forty years while a student there.

I remembered all this recently as I gazed upon my perfect nine-month-old grandson. I also recalled a million other unplanned, unforeseen, and unwanted events in the lives of his parents and grandparents that miraculously stitched together the circumstances that resulted in the birth of this baby without whose luminous presence the universe would be infinitely diminished.

I always think I know exactly what my family and I need, and I get angry when things don’t go my way. But what if St. Theresa was right when she said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones”? 

Maybe this new year instead of getting angry when we don’t get what we want, we should look at the people we love and their incalculable worth and appreciate the fact that there’s a plan far beyond our reckoning that somehow resulted in the miracles of their existence. And, after acknowledging the undeniable miracles that plan has wrought, perhaps we should consider a peaceful surrendering of ourselves to its wisdom going forward? 

Because the events of our lives often seem so random – and sometimes even cruel – in real time, trusting that plan is about the most difficult thing you can do. Frankly, it’s something I’ve only been able to do in the last few years and sporadically at best. But after fifty years of searching, it’s the only way I’ve found to achieve true peace in this fallen world. 

 Have a Happy New Year.

Family Life Is Not For The Fainthearted

Holiday TV commercials are filled with images of happy families reveling in scenes of peaceful contentment: joyfully opening perfectly wrapped presents under perfectly decorated trees; rushing out in fresh snowfalls to beam at new, non-snow covered, perfect cars; et cetera ad nauseam. The holidays joyously serve as the yearly crescendo to their perfectly peaceful family lives.   

All this peacefulness seems odd to those of us who are members of actual families. That’s because we know family life is far from a peaceful idyll. In fact, having a family is life’s wildest ride. If you’re looking for hair-raising adventure, forget lion hunting in Africa or running with the bulls in Pamplona and try paying off a thirty-year mortgage with one hand while raising kids with the other.

Soon after your first baby arrives, you realize you’ve permanently strapped yourself to a runaway rollercoaster. It quickly becomes clear that you’ve lost all control because your focus has permanently shifted from your own life to your child’s, over which you have frighteningly little control. So, your goal becomes to keep driving forward despite being unable to steer, which often lands you in a ditch. Here’s one vivid example from a personal catalogue of hundreds.

Due to the higher IQs of all the other parents, I became a Cub Scout Den Leader in 1999. I scrupulously avoided any further leadership positions for the rest of my life.

After having to be airlifted from our first meeting, I realized these seven, ten-year-old boys were far too rambunctious for any ordinary meeting format. So, I decided to bust out of our meeting room and take them to an Astros-Cubs game at the Astrodome.

It was the year after the great home run derby between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, and Sammy was on another homer hot streak. My plan was to have the kids witness baseball history and, also, catch the attention of national TV cameras by having us wear eight, single letter t-shirts which together spelled out, VIVA SOSA. I borrowed a new Suburban from one of the parents and headed for Houston from Corpus Christi with all seven kids onboard.

I knew that cooping the boys up in one vehicle for the seven-hour roundtrip was sheer madness, so I’d picked the Suburban mainly because it had a video player. I’d carefully selected several movies guaranteed to hold the attention of ten-year-old boys, leaning heavily on the Star Wars trilogy.

Thanks to George Lucas, the drive to Houston was largely uneventful. However, on the long walk from the parking lot to our cheap seats, I looked like a man trying to herd soap bubbles in a high wind. 

The game itself was completely lost on the boys who spent the whole-time eating cotton candy and wrestling with each other over preferred seats. And, despite my frantic efforts, the closest we got to spelling out our tribute was VISA VOSA.

After the game, I somehow managed to herd them through the sellout crowd back to the car. Jerry had proven to be the rowdiest boy, so I put him in the passenger seat next to me for the long drive home. As we passed two teenage girls in the parking lot, Jerry suddenly rolled down his window and yelled at them, “I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch.”

The girls were shocked that a ten-year-old boy wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a large “V” had yelled at them. I was shocked that a ten-year-old boy wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a large “V” had already developed a fashion sense.

“It’s from a song,” Jerry explained as I rolled up his window.

We stopped for fast food on the way home, and – nightmare of nightmares – the video player broke. The last thing I remember was Jerry yelling, “Food fight!” as the air filled with ketchup covered french fries.

It’s undeniably true that raising kids is the most exasperating, excruciating, and exhausting thing you can do. So, someone please explain to me why, while taking my oldest child to her freshman orientation at a faraway college, I suddenly started crying uncontrollably while speeding along the freeway in a driving rainstorm. Trying to hide my emotional collapse from my family, I stupidly opened my window so the raindrops would mask my tears. No one, not even my teenage son who was getting drenched in the seat behind me, said a word. 

Another Way to End the Ukraine War

Here we go again. Another European madman murdering his way toward another world war for the sake of lebensraum (living space). Countries around the world arming up in response. Violent rhetoric – including nuclear threats and President Biden’s warning about the “prospect of Armageddon” – elbowing out diplomacy. The people of the world grimly awaiting the casus belli triggering NATO’s “an attack on one is an attack on all” doctrine and hurling us all into a hellish World War III.

The inevitable end result: Millions of us dead. Millions of us refugees. Millions of families broken. Millions of lives destroyed.

Are we as a species really willing to do this again? Are we willing to wage world war, particularly when we know that this time there are hypersonic nuclear missiles? Missiles that can travel at about one mile per second and change direction enroute, rendering them invincible to antimissile systems. All of which means that if a country detected an incoming hypersonic missile, it would have no time to do anything other than consider it a first strike and immediately unload its nuclear arsenal on the attacker: A real-life Doomsday Machine. Somewhere, Dr. Strangelove is sneering.

Is humankind really willing to play species-wide Russian roulette again, only this time knowing there’s a bullet in every chamber?

I don’t think we are. Ordinary people throughout the world learned the loathsome lessons of the twentieth century and know perfectly well what’s coming. We see that governments are responding as they always do in these circumstances, and that this will lead where it always does: wholesale slaughter and destruction on a global scale.

But maybe this time there’s an alternative. Maybe ordinary people can short-circuit the insane game of thrones their leaders have always found so irresistible. What if millions of Russians united against the war and refused to go to work until Russia withdraws from Ukraine? Such a national work stoppage would be an act of civil disobedience beyond any government’s ability to control.

Polls show that most Russians favor the war. But the government’s brutal treatment of Russians who oppose the war should make us skeptical that they’re an accurate reflection of Russians’ sentiments. 

This is particularly true in light of the fact that the situation on the ground has changed. The Russian Army has suffered serious setbacks which, Mr. Putin has acknowledged, will prolong the war. In response, 300,000 underequipped reservists have been conscripted to fight in Ukraine. Are Russians willing to continue their blood sacrifice indefinitely for Mr. Putin’s misbegotten war of aggression against the freedom fighters of Ukraine? 

Are the Russian people willing to stand by as Mr. Putin’s merciless attacks on civilian targets and the discoveries of more mass graves turn Russia into a pariah state?

Are Russians willing to risk further isolation from the international community by denying Europeans the fuel needed to heat their homes through the coming winter? 

Russian citizens will be putting themselves at risk by declaring a general work stoppage. But they need to understand that at this pivotal moment, they’re in a unique historical position. They can potentially end the barbaric war in Ukraine and announce to the governments of the world that an attack on a peaceful neighbor will no longer be tolerated by the aggressor nation’s citizens.  Let’s pray the Russian people do what’s necessary to save untold millions of us from ever again being crushed under history’s horrific wheel.

Corpus Christi Beach to Bay Relay Marathon: A Crucible For Runners

If Aging Racefully, my 2022 Beach to Bay Relay Marathon team, were a horse, it would have been scratched from the race. If it were a building, it would have been condemned. An airliner, it would have been grounded. And yet, inspired by our perpetually sunny, 84-year-old, triple bypass and cancer survivor team captain, Herman Vacca, we somehow hobbled to the finish line.

My five teammates and I are all over sixty, so our replacement parts outnumber our original equipment. And while our rate of decay is accelerating, so is our determination to face down aging’s deleterious effects: Two of us delayed lower body surgeries until shortly after the race, and I was having great difficulty breathing after running three miles. Not exactly the makings of a dream team. 

So, what’s behind our mad compulsion to finish our four-to-five-mile legs against all medical advice? What gets our creaky joints out of bed to train through South Texas’ pea soup summers and gazpacho winters? Why do we care so much about a meaningless race?

The answer is our ten-year captain, Herman Vacca. How can we bow to the ravages of age and quit training knowing that Herman, who is at least fourteen years older than any of us, runs five miles every other day to prepare for the race? How can we not finish our legs knowing he always finishes his? And how can we ever thank Herman enough for inspiring us to keep running when it would make so much more sense to stop?

All that’s true, but it’s still up to each of us to finish our leg despite an underappreciated phenomenon about Beach to Bay that needs to be more, er, appreciated: While four or five miles might not sound like much, the grinding heat and humidity of mid-May Corpus Christi make it a bucket list test for any runner.

Several years ago, after completing the five-mile last leg, I was sitting on a curb, semi-conscious, struggling to catch my breath when I was joined by a much younger, Austinite runner in a similar state. For several minutes, we were incapable of speaking to each other, but after we regained our faculties, he looked at me and asked between gulps of air, “What’s the deal? I can run a marathon in Austin and not be this beat. I don’t know if I can make it to my car.” 

I squinted up at our white giant sun in our blowtorch blue sky and answered, “It’s always like this.”  

“Do you ever get used to it?”

“No,” I replied and pointed him toward the beer tent. 

This year, because our team was slowed by medical issues, I ran the last leg from about 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. After three miles, there was a physical sensation of pushing against a wall of heat and humidity. There was also a menacing pinprick sensation along the top of my head as my feet burned on the asphalt. Unable to breathe the soupy air, I stopped for a minute to retch and then began walking while struggling to catch my breath. 

I was forced to intermittently run and walk the last two miles. The saintly volunteers at the water stations provided me much needed kind words and desperately needed hydration. A few of the many people who drove by shouted encouragement, and a few die-hard Ocean Drive homeowners endured the sauna-like conditions to douse me with water. I thanked each of them profusely; I’m not sure I’d have made it without their support. While I understand the impulse to cheer on the winners, if you’re looking to help people who are really suffering, stick around to root for us in-over-our-heads nonathletes struggling to finish our legs in the midday sun. 

Slowed by our medical issues, my team completed the race in 6 hours and 25 minutes, a mere 4 hours behind the winners. Overtaken by several glaciers along the way, we finished 974th.  I couldn’t help but think how proud my father would have been; he always told me whatever I do in life, strive to finish 974th.

As lousy as our time was, we were okay with it. We knew we’d done our best under difficult circumstances. And the satisfaction that comes from that is what all those postrace Beach to Bay revelers are celebrating. 

It’s a well organized race with a fun atmosphere that every runner should experience at least once. 

But be prepared. 

Retirement Diary: The First Seven Seconds

 I accomplished my main retirement goal within the first seven seconds of the first day. At precisely 5:30 AM, as it had for forty years, my despised alarm clock blared Monday morning mayhem into my sleepy skull. Eyes still closed, I reflexively reached over to spank the snooze button when I realized with a start that this day was different. Today, this work dog had slipped the leash: I was free! Free to do whatever I wanted for the whole day. Free in a way I’d never been in my entire life. No parents, no boss telling me where I had to be and what I had to do. Free as an eagle sailing an updraft over a high mountain lake. Free as a lion slinking through the tall grass on a broad African savannah. Free as a dolphin leaping along big surf off a black Hawaiian beach. Free! Living for the pure joy of it. No longer waking every weekday and having my first thought be, “Is there any excuse I can use to get out of going to work today?” Not tethered by mid-year reviews, yearly evaluations, customer ratings, puny raises, or my boss’ scowl. Never again driving to work ruminating about all my long overdue projects while praying that I wouldn’t get sidetracked by the crisis du jour, only to get hit as I stepped into the office by two hellish crises du jour. Not looking over my shoulder at computer savvy younger employees or an ambitious subordinate. No longer one email away from disaster. Free of the weight of my boss’ expectations and my own petty ambitions. No longer having to make good impressions each time I interacted with every single person up my supervisory chain. Free of the burden of having to always say the politically correct thing and of constantly editing my speech to avoid giving any, even dimly perceived, offense because that was absolutely verboten. No more awkward small talk with my fellow nobodies as we waited for the important people to show up late for meetings. Not having to make everyone laugh at some halfwitticism during and, most critically, at the end of meetings. No more pretending that something of great consequence had been accomplished during a meeting and solemnly discussing it with another employee as we exited the conference room. No more spreadsheets.  No more PowerPoints. Never again having to sit through any presentations of any kind. No more charts. No more fiscal years. Never again having to live under the tyranny of a supervisor’s moods. Never again counting to ten before responding to a provocative email. No more heart palpitations as I frantically search my crashing computer for the CYA email that will exonerate me from responsibility for some misbegotten project that has finally exploded into the flaming fiasco it was always destined to be. No more weekends and holidays ruined by a work crisis. Never again staring forlornly out my office window at sultry summer, crisp autumn, snowy winter, and balmy spring days. No more Microsoft Office updates. No more searching for lost files and documents. Never again fearing that the last thing I’ll see in this beautiful world are life-sucking fluorescent lights as I’m gurneyed feet first out of my office. No more thermostat wars. Never again feeling your heart thud against your chest when you’re suddenly ripped from the deepest REM sleep by the horrifying realization that you screwed up something crucial at work in some unfixable way. No more Human Resources, Accounting, IT, or Legal. No more impatiently waiting for vacation requests to be approved. Being free to drink a beer with lunch – or breakfast. Not having to answer calls I don’t want to take. Never again filling with dread while watching the lengthening shadows of another mournful Sunday sundown as I pondered whether this will be the week that my ineptitude will finally do me in at work.

As I lay in bed with my hand poised over the snooze button, all these memories and more swept over me in a tsunami of regret – and pride –because, even when weighed in the scales of the Old Testament, forty years is a long time to persevere through suffering.

And so, on the seventh second of my retirement, I fumbled in the dark for the alarm clock’s power cord and gave it a yank. Then I slowly rolled over and dreamed my way into the Promised Land.

An Army Civilian Remembers Afghanistan

I wrote this in 2013 shortly after returning from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan as an Army civilian.

I was still half-asleep when the first rocket hit just before dawn. It sounded far off, but what did I know? It was my first.

It may have been my first, but I had no doubt what it was. Things bang and boom on a military base in Afghanistan all day and night, but there was an unmistakable, percussive finality to it that shook awake some primitive, previously dormant part of my brain.

As a new federal civilian employee and 53 year-old, loyal citizen of Recliner Nation USA, I simply couldn’t get my mind around this disturbing fact: People were shooting powerful explosives in my direction, and they’d rejoice if they managed to kill me.

The next one, maybe twenty seconds later, hit closer. Wide-awake now, I realized that the base warning system had been blaring out an alert to take cover and put on our bullet-proof vests and helmets. I pulled the covers over my head

The third one was nearer still. I was surprised by how powerful the explosions were. Based on my experience shooting July 4th fireworks, I’d assumed that all rockets were mostly propellant. But these things sounded more like big bombs.

The fourth and fifth marched even closer. I remembered that at lunch the day before, a tired veteran of three deployments had told me, “You’re OK, unless you hear one whistle. If you hear that, it’s close.”

And then I heard a whistling sound.

“No freakin’”, I shot under my bed faster than when I was six and saw something ‘move’ in my closet, “way!” The huge explosion shook my quarters so violently that I thought it was going to collapse.

When the all-clear finally sounded, I asked myself yet again, “What the heck am I doing here?” I’d only been a Fed for a few months when I got the recruitment email. I’d been planted in Corpus Christi for 25 years, and out of nowhere I was being asked to volunteer for six months in Afghanistan. But then I thought, if Uncle Sam put up the Bat-Signal and I was the best he could do, then count me in, never thinking for a second I’d actually get picked.

So, why send civilians into a warzone? Years ago, the military decided that soldiers would do the fighting, and civilians would serve in support roles. We cook, clean, and clerk for the troops.

The hours are brutal: 12/7/365. Basically, if you’re awake, you’re at work; if you’re asleep, you’re not. The days pass in a blur of similarity. You go to the same place, do the same thing, and see the same people: Groundhog Day. We don’t check our watches to see what time it is; we check them to see what day of the week it is.

What does Afghanistan look like? Picture the lunar surface, but all the moon dust is blowing around.

The whole country makes me edgy. I don’t trust the air, because you can see it; I don’t trust the mountains, because they frequently disappear in the dusty air; I don’t trust the birds, because they skitter around as guiltily as informants; and, at a time when I never needed a beer more in my life, the place is dry.

But it’s all worth it to serve our troops. For an older guy to be treated with such courtesy and respect by young Americans is unusual. Their goodness breaks your heart.

Make no mistake, they’re lethal. They carry their loaded automatic weapons everywhere they go on base, to the point that I constantly feel underdressed without an M-16. And they’re brave enough to volunteer to go outside the wire and fight a war against an army of kamikazes.

But they’re also just kids. At Thanksgiving dinner, they argued happily about the Cowboys and Redskins while they ate facsimiles of turkey and all the trimmings. But you could see it in their suddenly stony expressions as each in turn was overwhelmed by memories of home. And then to see their buddies jolly them out of their sad reveries….It was beautiful.

This is an impressive group of young people. They’re hardened by more than a decade of war, strengthened by their discipline and sacrifice, and painfully aware of the real price of foreign policy. From what I’ve seen, we could be looking at a truly transformative generation. They deserve a warm welcome and our lasting gratitude and respect when they finally come marching home.

A First-Time Trucker’s Cross-Country Odyssey

When your daughter gets married, it’s hard not to think about all the things you should have done and said over all those years. I like to think I did the best I could, but still….

So, when my New Yorker daughter called and said she wanted some of my dear departed mother’s antique furniture for her new house, I eagerly volunteered to rent a truck and drive it all up there over the three-day July 4th weekend. 

She also asked for her car. “No problemo,” I replied airily. “I’ll rent a car trailer and pull it behind the truck.”

I hung up and googled the distance from Corpus Christi: 1,900 miles, a mere 29-hour drive in three days. I gulped and wondered what kind of MPG those big ol’ trucks get?

At the truck rental place, I quickly signed the usual reams of incomprehensible paperwork. Then, without looking up, the salesclerk offhandedly told me how to secure the car to the trailer. 

“I can’t do that,” I replied.

Perplexed, she looked up and asked, “Why not?”

I explained I was so inept that if I fastened the car to the trailer, it would wait for the single most inopportune moment to free itself and turn I-95 into a bowling alley.

After she finished securing the car, I climbed up into the cab. I’d always dreamt of being a truckdriver and beamed as I started it up and shifted into gear. 

There was an empty trailer in my path that I turned to avoid. But as I drove past it, I heard a loud crack. I looked in the mirror and saw that my car trailer had somehow hit the empty trailer. I put it in reverse and whacked it again. As the salesclerk came running out of the building yelling, “Stop!” it occurred to me there may be more to truck driving than I thought. 

She lifted the front of the dented trailer and rolled it out of my way. Then she pantomimed turning a big steering wheel and shouted, “Turn wide!” I gave her a thumbs up and drove toward the exit.

“We’re not even out of the parking lot,” my long-suffering wife moaned, “and you’ve already managed to hit two things.”

“It was one thing twice,” I snapped. 

Except for the time I nearly took out a gas pump outside of Baltimore, there were no further calamities until we got to New Jersey. I would, however, like to report that there are long stretches of our interstate system that are rough enough to churn butter, at least in a rental truck.

While barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike on our last night, both headlights suddenly failed. I exited and pulled into the parking lot of the only hotel around. 

It was so rundown and filthy that my freaked-out wife slept in her clothes on top of the blanket. Bone-tired, I climbed in bed and immediately fell asleep. 

About midnight, a wild party broke out in the adjacent room. The loudest of the partiers became so rowdy that the others threw her out. She pounded on the door and screamed profane threats until they finally let her in. 

My wife opened one eye and glared at me. She didn’t have to say a word.

At 2AM the same thing happened. When it happened again at 6, we made a break for the truck.

There was a tollbooth at the end of the turnpike. It was our first on the trip, and I pondered what the toll would be for our rig. 

The toll taker gaped at us like he’d never seen a truck and trailer before. Then, with furrowed brow, he grabbed a pencil and made meticulous calculations until finally pronouncing, “$89.35, and I can’t give you a receipt because the printer’s broken.”

“Welcome to New Jersey,” I whispered to my wife as she rifled her purse.

The next tollbooth was less than five minutes away. 

“That’ll be $92.75,” the toll taker said cheerily.

“But I just paid $89.36 a few minutes ago,” I whined.

“Oh, that’s New Jersey. This is New York.” 

We finally arrived at my daughter’s house around noon. Her neighbors and my new in-laws also greeted us. They said the Long Island Sound was only a block away and invited us to walk there with them.

Completely exhausted and permanently frazzled, I stared out at the shimmering water, kicked off my shoes, and, without a word, walked fully clothed into the sound.

“As far as my daughter’s concerned,” I mused while backstroking, “we’re even.”


I committed financial hara-kiri last November by retiring at 62. A major reason for my decision to retire early was that over time my job had disappeared through the looking-glass and into the digital world. A world in which I function about as well as a duck in medical school.

I’m not entirely sure why I can’t work with computers, or why every single young person in the office is a whiz with them. But I think it comes down to the fact that the common sense I developed by living in the analog world for 62 years doesn’t mean much in the digital world. There, a different common sense with different rules prevails. Those rules are apparently learned while playing with a laptop in your playpen. Those same rules are incomprehensible to many of us who played with Lincoln Logs in our playpens. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, roughly one-third of internet users ages 65 and over describe themselves as only a little (23%) or not at all (11%) confident in their ability to use electronic devices to do necessary online activities.

We Lincoln Loggers get lost in the virtual world. No matter how carefully we proceed, we keep running into digital dead ends. And we respond to them by backing up and repeating minor variations of our mistake over and over again in the vain hope of proving Einstein wrong who defined insanity as doing precisely that.

So, in desperation, Lincoln Loggers call IT for help. We can practically hear their eyes roll over the phone when they realize it’s one of us. And as always, with more than a hint of exasperation in their voice, they offer an easy, two-step solution that instantly sets us right. To them, it’s simple and obvious and mundane. To us, it’s as though they pulled the Empire State Building out of a top hat.

On the days we can’t bear any more IT attitude, we waylay a passing young person and describe the problem as offhandedly as possible. And they, too, intuitively know what keys to push. When we ask how they knew what to do, they invariably answer, “Just play with it.”

Just play with it? Are you kidding me? Just play with it? I was on the verge of bitter, hair-pulling, head-banging tears of frustration after wasting a miserable hour struggling to figure it out, and young people regard that as playing? PLAYING? There’s no better illustration of the two different playpens theory than that.

But last year was the worst; our employee evaluation software refused to cooperate with me. Desperate to appear at least somewhat competent to my already dubious boss, I spent a frantic hour trying everything I could think of to submit my self-evaluation form, but each thing I tried lured me down one digital blind alley after another. Finally, my young boss came by and asked how the form was coming.

“Oh, I just happen to be looking at that,” I replied airily, “but I’m a little stuck.”

He reached over my shoulder, clicked on something, and instantly submitted my form.

Staggered by the brute power of Darwinian forces, I gulped loudly. He smiled down at me in the same hopeless way Sister Paula did while she was laboring to teach me long division.

From that moment on, I might as well have worn a beanie with a propeller on it at work.

It’s obvious to all Lincoln Loggers that Silicon Valley could care less about the culling of many of us from the workforce due to our digital ineptitude. We thought their goal was to make computers more intuitive and user friendly; that nerdy secret computer handshakes were on the way out and breezy, Star Trek-like interaction with normal people was the wave of the future. Instead, user hostility and nerdiness are at an all-time high.

Someone needs to tackle Apple, Microsoft, et al. and explain that a significant percentage of a large and formerly super-productive segment of the workforce is being forced out. They need to be told that older workers’ productivity is diminishing because they share IT’s eye-rolling attitude toward our digital struggles. Everyone who works knows this ageist digital divide exists, but it’s treated as quaint, acceptable collateral damage from society’s inevitable march toward a glorious digital future.The fact that computers enhance younger workers’ productivity and reduce many older workers’ is fundamentally unfair and needs to be addressed. And to that end, I have a suggestion. I hereby and herewith volunteer for Silicon Valley’s first Lincoln Logger Board, which will review any work-related software for the presence of digital dead ends and virtual blind spots. Thanks to you tech geniuses, I’ve got tons of time on my hands.


As rabidly as everyone else hates them, we Astros fans still love them. Why?

After the sign stealing scandal broke in 2019, I was ashamed of them and reluctantly renounced my 50 years of loyal fandom; I wished they’d just slink away.

But they didn’t go away. They did the opposite: They went from town to town, night after night humbly bearing all the fresh taunts, bean balls, and trash cans thrown at them, never denying the weight of their collective sin yet determined to play on.

Before the scandal, Jose Altuve was one of the most beloved players in baseball. But now, you can tune in to any away game and watch as, stone-faced, this fallen hero is mercilessly mocked by a maniacal mob momentarily freed from the weight of its own sins. Leaving you to wonder, “Could I handle that with such grace? Could anyone I’ve ever known?”

And so, I forgave them. I started watching Astros games again this year and noticed that their shared suffering through the nightly tidal waves of humiliation had led them to pass through a veil beyond mere winning and losing and forged a real brotherhood among them. You could see they were determined to pull each other through whatever abuse was thrown at them.

They came up two games short, but all season long it was inspiring and enlightening to watch them persevere – and excel − together.

Let the mob jeer, we Astros fans know real greatness when we see it.