My First Executive Decision
Was A Solid “No”

nerdy girl shockedLooking back on life, I can see pivotal moments. Some are more pivotal than others, but all of them in some way have made an impact on my conscience.

Such is the case when, as a senior in high school and serving as the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, I had to tell another student that a certain word was inappropriate for an article we intended to publish. I can’t remember the word now, but it was clearly a word that most students in the school would have scratched their heads over. And I didn’t care if it hurt her feelings.

The student wasn’t even a part of the newspaper staff.

I don’t remember her circumstances, but for some reason she couldn’t take the journalism class that made students a part of the newspaper staff. Maybe it was a course scheduling conflict. What I do recall is the newspaper advisor, a tall redheaded woman named Mrs. Walker, allowing this student to submit an article for the paper despite not being on the staff. It was my job to edit the article.

Lucy was an average-looking girl in most respects, but she walked with a limp due to her wooden leg. She wasn’t what I’d call attractive, even had the wooden leg been made of flesh. But she was smart. I at least admired that.

Nevertheless, the article she submitted was a good article, as far as high school newspaper articles go. Except for one thing. It had this three-dollar word right in the middle of it.

Again, I don’t remember the word. But it was multi-syllabic. At least three, probably four.

It was the kind of word George W. Bush would have stumbled over had he tried to pronounce it, which is why newspapers don’t print such words. In newspaper parlance–this I knew even as a high school newspaper editor–articles should be written on a sixth-grade reading level. And this clearly wasn’t. I could see my fellow students all through school scratching their collective heads, wondering just what it was this person wasn’t trying to say.

She brought the article to Ms. Walker on deadline and Mrs. Walker read it through then asked me what I thought.

“I think this word has to go,” I said.

“You think so?” she asked.

“Of course. You know the rule. Sixth-grade reading level.”

“But it’s such a good article.”

“Yes, it is,” I agreed. “But that one word just doesn’t fit in with the rest of it.”

That was the conversation Mrs. Walker and I had in private. The next day, Lucy came to the class to see if the article was going to pass muster. Mrs. Walker had told her that I had the final say.

Mrs. Walker was a Christian lady and didn’t like hurting people’s feelings. She had in fact selected me to be editor of the school paper in my senior year when I was only a sophomore. She had selected me because in my application to join the school newspaper staff I had mentioned that I wanted to someday own a newspaper. She admired my ambition. In truth, it was a silly high school boy’s dream, which has since been realized (somewhat) because I do own an online publication over which I have total control of the content.

So, Lucy came into Mrs. Walker’s classroom while I was there to see if her article was going to make the paper. Mrs. Walker pulled it out and went through it.

“It’s a good article, isn’t it, Allen?”

I nodded. “Yes, it is.” I looked at Lucy. “Nice job.”

Lucy got a big smile on her face. I grimaced behind a mask. I really wasn’t keen on a non-staff member submitting an article, but I didn’t want to upset Mrs. Walker. I felt like I was being gracious. Mrs. Walker scanned the article down to the word I didn’t like.

She inhaled then let a burst of hot air escape as she forced herself to look Lucy in the eye. “But I’m not sure about this word,” she said. “It fits. It seems like the right word.”

“Yes,” I interjected. “For an academic assignment, I would say it is definitely the right word. But we have to consider our audience.”

Lucy’s grin disappeared. I watched, nursing a small dose of schadenfreude as her shoulders dropped.

“But, I like that word!” she declared. “It’s the right word for the context.”

“I think we can come up with a less threatening word that would fit the context,” I suggested.

Mrs. Walker winced. “I like it, too.” I could tell she really didn’t want to tell Lucy her baby must be aborted. She looked at me with sad puppy eyes. “It’s up to you.”

No hesitation. I was emphatic. Not gloating, but firm. “No.”

I took no pleasure in saying it. But I knew it had to be said. The word wasn’t right for the audience. Our ninth graders would scratch their heads. Our seniors would ditch the paper and run for ice cream. I knew it, Mrs. Walker knew it, and I think Lucy knew it.

Still, the girl with the wooden leg huffed and stormed out of Mrs. Walker’s classroom faster than she had entered. Mrs. Walker glanced at me as if to say, “You crushed that poor girl’s dreams.” I shrugged with a hint of self-satisfaction on my smug face. In that deep place within one’s soul where the right decision must be made and somebody has to be the one to make it, I knew this was the best decision for the school even if for the wrong reason.

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Stories About Getting Naked
Are Immoral, Too

party nakedWhen I was a junior in high school, I took a class in drama and speech communication. The class syllabus had us spending about half the class reading plays and scripts (mostly Shakespeare) and performing little skits in class. The other half had us studying debate techniques and rhetoric. I loved the class.

But there was one assignment in this class that tied me up in knots, not because it was difficult but because I didn’t understand the teacher’s reaction to it.

We were to write a play. Simple enough, I thought. Write a script and read it aloud for the class.

When it came my turn to read my play, I stood at the lectern in front of the class and cleared my throat. Then I began to read. I don’t remember what the play was about, but I do remember one scene had the cast hiding themselves behind a sofa and stripping off their clothes. It was juvenile, to be sure, but I was 16 years old.

Immediately, the class broke into uproarious laughter. It was intended to be funny, so I hit the mark. But I was not prepared for the teacher’s reaction.

Ms. Cally, a beautiful black woman who liked having me as a student because I was quiet and respectful and turned in good work, stopped my reading on the spot.

“Go sit down,” she ordered. I did, but I don’t know why.

Later, she pulled me off another assignment she had given to me–and only to me–for extra credit. I was to research a topic and deliver a speech on it. I got two research days into it before she killed it–all because she didn’t like characters in my Woody Allenesque one-act play taking off their clothes.

I was not confident enough of myself at the time to challenge her reaction. I simply let it ride. But I’ve often thought back on it and wondered, What’s the big deal? They were characters in a story. It wasn’t as if I was stripping off my clothes in front of the class. It was fiction. Artifice. Nothing more.

It’s dawned on me since then how deprived I was in my lower middle class upbringing. I graduated in the top 10% of my class in a suburban high school in the state of Texas. Since then I’ve realized that my status as honors student is sullied by the fact that Texas schools are ranked near the bottom of schools nationwide. To top it off, my community was rather conservative and they didn’t much care for the antics of 16-year-old boys.

It seems odd to me now. I had teachers who were very encouraging to me about my writing, but Ms. Cally delivered a blow to my confidence. I still don’t know what I did wrong.

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Company Commander: The Hardest Thing I Ever Had To Do

soldiers listening to bad newsI was not ready for the position when my battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness, summoned me to his office one day to offer me a company commander position. In truth, I was considering leaving the National Guard and, in hind sight, I probably should have. I had discovered that it just wasn’t for me.

Still, he offered the position and I accepted it. I still don’t know why. My thought was take on the challenge, do the time, and then leave the Guard on an up note.

A few months went by and our unit was hearing rumors that orders were coming our way for a mission that was yet undisclosed. This was in the summer of 2004, after the start of the Iraq War. We were performing our summer field training exercise, the required two weeks of active duty every National Guard soldier commits to when they join the Guard.

The night before we were to pack up and leave El Paso’s Fort Bliss, which isn’t so blissful, Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness called me and my first sergeant, Sergeant First Class Brooks, into the darkness between the buildings of our training area to have a word with us.

Bravo Company was Sergeant First Class Brooks’ native unit. He had risen through the ranks there, served his entire time in the National Guard in that unit. He knew the soldiers and they knew him. I was transplanted, as officers often are, from another unit – Charlie Company in Weatherford, Texas, a half an hour drive west of Fort Worth.

Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness inhaled and exhaled, preparing himself for the bomb he was about to drop on us.

“I’ve got some bad news,” he said.

I glanced at Sergeant First Class Brooks and back at Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness. What could be that bad? I thought. We already knew we were going to war. It wasn’t if, it was when.

“We’ll have orders to deploy within a month,” he continued. Sergeant First Class Brooks and I knew that much. The rumors had been flying all week. “The battalion will undergo a restructuring. To make room for another company, a cohesive company, to take with us, we’re breaking up Bravo Company.”

Sergeant First Class Brooks and I exchanged glances. We both knew what that meant–for ourselves and the soldiers who had trained together for years.

“You,” he pointed to me, “will become the battalion adjutant, and you,” he pointed to Sergeant First Class Brooks, “will become first sergeant in Charlie Company.”

That last part blew my mind. I had been platoon leader with the senior platoon sergeant in Charlie Company, Sergeant First Class Williams, and knew that was going to bust his chops. Charlie Company was going to war with a first sergeant they hardly knew. But what was going to happen with the soldiers in Bravo Company?

I glanced at Sergeant First Class Brooks and back at Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness. What could be that bad? I thought. We already knew we were going to war. It wasn’t if, it was when.

“Your soldiers will be redistributed throughout the rest of the battalion to fill deficiencies in the manning within those company rosters.”

Anyone who knew anything about going to war–and I didn’t know much, but I knew this–knew you didn’t want to split apart men who had trained together their entire lives. Not only would that break up unit cohesion, but it would destroy morale. Still, it was my duty to trust the chain of command.

I knew that wasn’t Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness’s decision. He was on his way out as battalion commander. We would be getting a new commander for our deployment. In fact, Lieutenant Colonel Hall had spent the two weeks of our training observing our unit and getting to know it.

“Your unit will survive this kind of transition better than the others,” Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness said before his voice faded into the dark.

He was right. Bravo Company, being in Arlington, dead center of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, probably had more soldiers through the years rotate in and out than either of the other two line companies in the battalion, Alpha and Charlie, both of which were located in small rural communities.

“Any questions for me?” Lieutenant Colonel Hammerness’s voice broke into my drifting thoughts.

We had none.

Silently, Sergeant First Class Brooks and I slinked back to our unit and turned in for the night. It was late. That news struck me so hard I couldn’t sleep that night. The next day was going to be the longest day of my life.

It started early. The first order of business was to get everyone’s personal belongings packed up. Then we’d eat breakfast and clean our area of operations before our transportation–a bus–arrived to take us home.

I thought about it all the way home. How was I going to break the news to the soldiers?

When we arrived at the armory, I allowed the soldiers to meet with their families when exiting the bus. They had ten minutes to get reacquainted then it was time to regroup. After getting all their personal gear into their private vehicles and taking care of a few armory details, I called everyone together for a huddle.

All the men in the unit gathered around in a semicircle. I stood in front of them, dead center. I caught a glimpse of Sergeant First Class Brooks standing at the back of the semicircle.

I turned and dropped my notebook, an analog version–spiral notebook and daytimer version–on the armory floor. “I have some bad news,” I said.

The semicircle closed in. It nearly shocked me as every solider in the unit took a step forward, showing their eagerness to hear what their company commander was about to tell them. This was going to be the worst news I’d ever had to deliver. I looked around for Sergeant First Class Brooks, but he had disappeared. I took a deep breath and exhaled.

“You all have probably heard the rumors that we’ll be under orders within the month.” Heads nodded. “When that happens, this unit is going to be broken up and redistributed throughout the battalion. You guys are going to have different jobs in different units.”

A moment of silence.

“In fact, on your next scheduled drill, you’ll report to the armory of your new duty assignment. Before then, you’ll receive orders in the mail and know where that is.”

After a few minutes of reflection, the questions started rolling in. I had answers for some but not for all.

I let the shock wear off and tried my best to give the unit some encouragement, a little sense of hope, before calling our final formation and letting them go home to their families. That was the last moment I had with them, my company, the men I had commanded for almost a year. I hoped their final memory of me was not as grim as my last memory of them.

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My Communication Dilemma

Are you ashamed of us,” he asked.

My parents came up to visit this past week. They arrived on Friday before my daughter’s wedding and left the next Wednesday. While they were here, my wife and I took them to Gettysburg and New Oxford to show them the antique shops and give them the short tours. Then we spent a half day in Lancaster County. While there, we took them on a buggy ride, which toured an Amish farm, and ate dinner at a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant. We managed to make it through the week without my father and I exchanging choice words. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

A part of the issue is, I’ve never been able to communicate with my parents. Dad never made it easy. If there was something to be said, he always managed to say it in the most negative way possible. It’s just the way he is. As a result, I learned to protect myself by not saying anything all, even when something should have been said. It’s a bad habit I still carry today.

One day, out of the blue, Dad asked me, “Are you ashamed of us?”

It didn’t shock me that he asked. It unnerved me that he just spit it out right in the middle of the void of silence. Dad has always hated silence.

I know why he asked.

As a young man, I didn’t bring girlfriends around to meet the parents. One reason was because many of the girls were girls I knew they wouldn’t approve of. Why put myself through the lectures? I just went about my business and let them go about theirs.

They didn’t meet many of my male friends either. I tried hard to keep my personal life from interfering with my dysfunctional relationships.

On top of that, I didn’t visit them very often even though I lived only an hour’s drive from them throughout my twenties and thirties–the hey-day of my life. Like I said, I was busy doing things they wouldn’t approve of, and that was certainly more fun than listening to the negative talk, which mainly consisted of how I would never amount to anything. What reason Dad had for that pronouncement I could never figure out. Maybe it was his way of projecting his own fears and failures onto me. I knew I didn’t like it, and I knew I wanted to avoid the endless confrontations, which I thought were just attempts to control me. I’d have none of that.

So what was I doing that was so bad, that Dad would not approve of?

College was one of them. I attended. After all, I considered it a mark of good character to want to better oneself. I still do today.

Unfortunately, I dropped out of college just before my senior year because I found it increasingly more difficult to make ends meet when my veteran’s educational benefits ran out. Employers didn’t want to work around my course schedule. And I had made a couple of bad career and financial decisions, allowing myself to get sidetracked. I felt ashamed and didn’t want Dad to know that.

Avoidance became a habit. There were things I wanted to say to him that I couldn’t find the courage to spit out. So I said nothing. I went on about my business of trying to be somebody. And finding myself. Trying to wash the redneck out. I never did succeed at that last one.

Sometimes I think back on that sunny summer day in Texas, when I raised up from an afternoon slumber on the sofa in my parents’ living room and Dad plopped himself onto a chair in front of me. “Are you ashamed of us,” he asked. I said nothing.

I wanted to. I wanted to say, “No, Dad. I’m not ashamed of ya’ll. I’m ashamed of you. I don’t like you.”

But I didn’t say that.

I looked my Dad in the eye and said nothing. If I’d said what I wanted to say, it would have led to a fight. Dad could never take negative feedback. He didn’t mind dishing it out. But me, I wanted to avoid the hassle of having to defend myself against the man I thought should have been my biggest advocate.

I was nearly 40 years old the first time I heard him say he was proud of me. Too late. I didn’t need to hear that then. And I couldn’t tell him. I could never tell him. And I don’t know why.

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Walking My Daughter Down The Aisle

Dad-daughter dance with LeahCreating memories is one of life’s greatest treasures. I got to participate in what I’m sure will be one of my favorite memories this past Saturday as I walked my step-daughter Leah down the aisle and helped give her away to her new husband.

The Beginning Of My New Adventure

When I married my wife in 2003, I had no idea that I would be walking any of her daughters down the aisle. As far as I was concerned, they belonged to another man. Their ages were 12, 13, and 17. The oldest had a 1-year-old son named Dylan and a newborn daughter, Savannya.

At 37, I was a confirmed bachelor. I was well prepared to play the part of grandpa, but with regard to my wife’s children, I had no intention of replacing their father. If they accepted me as the man married to their mother, that would be good enough. As events would turn out, however, I got much more than that.

Today, two of them call me Dad. Leah is one of them.

My Greatest Honor To Date

Leah graduated high school in Texas and moved to Pennsylvania to live with me and my wife in 2008. Little did I know then what that would entail, but I have no regrets.

Among other things, I have driven Leah back and forth to work on a number of occasions when she had automobile problems. I was also the one who taught her how to drive a stick shift, prepared her for the drivers test, and went with her three times to the Department of Transportation to take the test. Each time she failed, the test administrator told me what she did wrong and I had to work with her to correct those issues, which I did, gladly.

Through Leah’s several relationships, moving her in and out of our home, and, whenever necessary, playing the part of father in Leah’s life, I did my best to treat Leah as my own. When it came time to plan her wedding, I was honored that she even considered me worthy.

But I didn’t do it alone.

Leah’s was the only wedding I’ve ever seen where there were two ministers officiating AND two men giving away the bride. Her father flew up from Texas to share in the honor.

During the wedding rehearsal, the lead officiant was going to place me on the right and Leah’s father on the left. I insisted that we do it in reverse because the right is usually considered the place of honor. It’s the reason the Bible says Jesus sits on the right hand of the father. It’s also why, in the military, the highest ranking officer always walks on the right. I thought Leah’s father should have that position. I was happy just to be there.

I don’t know how we did it, but the wedding and the reception went as smoothly as any event could. There were no major snafus, the bride was beautiful–and happy–and everyone had a good time in the celebration afterward. I am now a proud father-in-law, which makes me kind of nervous.

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A Newspaper Editor Never Knows What He’ll Hear Next

i love tittiesBefore starting my freelance writing business online I spent a year as a combat officer in Iraq and six months preparing for it. Before that, I was a newspaper editor. I worked in that capacity from 2000 to 2004 when my National Guard unit was activated for service that August.

Professionally, those were the best four years of my life — until I went freelance. But we sure had some wacky writers.

It’s no secret that journalists don’t get paid much. Especially staff reporters for small weekly newspapers, which are a dying breed anyway. Some people might say that’s a blessing, but let’s not go there.

Reporters didn’t stick around for more than a year. They got the clips they needed to move on to a small daily and work on building their career. Some were good at their jobs and others were just filling a chair in the office. One man was a heavy drinker and turned out to be a creative quoter. We had to fire him for making up quotes for his stories.

Such incidents just go with the territory, I suppose.

One of the most colorful characters I met as a newspaper editor, however, was a young twenty-something hormone factory who worked with me for all of two months, if that. I don’t remember his name. I’ll just call him Ralph. That’s as good a name as any.

At any rate, due to our production schedule, Wednesday was the day of the week we editors (there were five of us) and staff writers would go to lunch together. Wednesday was a planning day so it worked out that we all would be in the office at lunch time, and it was a morale booster to have that opportunity to get to know each other better as we checked out our local restaurants.

One of our favorite places to eat in town was an oriental grill. It was one of those places you went through a buffet and filled your plate up with uncooked items and then handed your salad to the chef behind the counter, who tossed it onto a massive grill and gave it back to you in short order.

On this particular day, there were five of us having lunch together. Four male editors and Ralph, who was in his second week of employment with the company.

We had female writers and one female editor on staff and they frequently had lunch with us, but on this day it was just the guys.

We all walked through the buffet, filled up our plates, and waited as the crew of chefs cooked up our meals and handed them back to us. Then we took our seats at a large round table.

I love titties,” said Ralph with a deadpan face.

The conversation that day was like any other. We discussed events going on in each of our small towns, a little bit about pop culture, and the big political issues of the day. In the news business, political issues are polite conversation and often make up small talk time. One of the other editors, a progressive by the name of Steve, and I would entertain the others by seeing who could outpun the other. We were the local version of William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

At one point, there was a lull in the conversation. No one was speaking. We were all reflecting. And chomping.

All of a sudden, to break the silence, Ralph spit out — as if this was the most profound and necessary proclamation of the century — “I love titties.”

My head spun.

If there had been talk going on, it would have stopped short on that note. You’d have heard a pin drop in the vacuum of the silence. But of course, it was already silent and there was no pin. In utter shock, each of us editors glanced at each other and back at Ralph.

I was thinking, that’s news?

No one had ever questioned whether Ralph was the sort to enjoy the company of boobies. No one had ever doubted that he might like the presence of the ladies. It had never entered my mind, and I surmise that it hadn’t anyone else’s either. But what a revelation!

No one said another word until we got back to the office. Mark, one of the other editors, might have shattered the silence with a “Wow!” But that would have been it.

In fifteen minutes, we were back at the office and my managing editor, a cutesy young lady named Kristi, who was also dating Mark, came up to me and said, “I heard you had an interesting lunch conversation today.”

Grinning ear to ear, she was dying to hear my side of the story. I could tell. So I gave it to her.

Not long after that incident, Ralph was pegged for plagiarizing news stories from the competition. We fired him. But we let him keep the male hormones. After all, he came to the table with those.

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My One Day In VBS

Mommy, I got to make a bird feeder

I was six years old when neighbors invited me and my younger sister Tammy to go to church with them. Tammy was two years my junior. By most counts, we were normal young children. I was a student at the local elementary school — first grade. I can’t remember if Tammy was in preschool or not, but my mom at the time was a housewife, so little sister would have spent the day at home if not in school. But it was summertime, so school was out.

Our neighbors were two little girls. The older one was a year older than me. The younger one was Tammy’s age. One of them was older by just a few months.

Mom and Dad had never gone to church, as far as I knew. They were typical lower middle class parents. Dad worked and mom stayed at home. This would have been in the early 1970s. Dad made good enough money to support the family so that we could live in our typical brownstone suburban home.

So we got the invite and our parents were gracious enough to let us go to church with Rhonda and Melissa. One afternoon, a bus stopped in front of our house and took us to a Baptist church. Tonya was just a baby, so she didn’t get to go.

I don’t remember a lot about Vacation Bible School (VBS). We made bird houses out of popsicle sticks and a few other crafts. We listened to stories about Jesus and sang songs. If I remember correctly, there was a clown. At the very least, there was some form of entertainment as is typical of VBS. The design was to tell us how much God loves us by getting our endorphins to dance.

When the day was over, and I think it was a half day, we got on the bus and headed home. Again, it dropped us off in front of our house.

Rhonda and Melissa jumped off the bus and ran around the front to their house. Tammy and I jumped off the bus and ran toward ours, directly across the street from the Leidig girls’. Our parents were waiting for us at the front door.

“Mommy, I got to make a bird feeder,” Tammy yelled as she sprinted across the yard.

“We learned all about Jesus,” I said, jumping onto the front porch.

“You did? Did you have fun?” Dad asked.

“Yeah, it was real fun!” Tammy and I said in unison.

“Good,” Mom said, giving us hugs. “On Sunday, you’ll go to church with us.”

That sounded odd coming from Mom’s mouth. Dad repeated it. It sounded just as odd in that musical range, as well. What were they talking about? I’d never seen either one of them go anywhere near a church. But sure enough, when Sunday came, we got dressed, packed into the family vehicle, and headed to church. It wasn’t a Baptist church.

I didn’t know at the time just how pivotal that day would become in my life, but after that day Tammy’s and my life would never be the same.

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My First Freelance Gig: Interviewing Gamblers

internet gambling interviewsI returned home from Iraq in December 2005. My wife had moved from Texas to Pennsylvania, so I had a new address. But I’d saved $10,000 while I was away and was determined to start my own business–freelance writing.

My first customer was the owner of an Internet gambling website in Costa Rica. He found me through the bidding site Guru.com.

The job was to interview successful online gamblers, people who lived all over the world, and compile those into a book. I would be paid $5,0000 for the effort, a price which I now understand was not enough. He wanted to pay with cash.

My instincts said, “No way!” But I was hungry. I needed the work.

Our deal was, I wouldn’t start on any interviews until I got $2,500 in the mail. The other $2,500 would be delivered after all the interviews were completed and before I sent the manuscript. I gave him my address, and in one week there was a pile of cash in my mailbox.

He concealed it well. He placed the money inside a #10 envelope, which was then placed inside a 7″ X 10″ manila envelope. I couldn’t believe the post office delivered it. I took the money out and counted it. Twenty-five hundred dollars in $20 bills.

It took me about a month to conduct all the interviews. Ten of them. Thirty to forty hours, total.

They were interesting people. One was a doctor in Kentucky–an illegal gambler. Another was a horse trainer in Nevada. Another guy was a multi-degreed (Cornell University graduate) math whiz living in Oklahoma. There were a couple of guys who lived overseas in places where online gambling was legal. And they all gambled on different sports–golf, boxing, various ball games. But all the interviews were fun and informative.

My client provided the names and contact information for the gamblers. All I had to do was call and interview them. Then put the interviews into a book.

At the end of the gig, I e-mailed the client and said I had a book ready to deliver. He should send me the remaining $2,500. I waited. I really didn’t think he would do it. Then again, I didn’t think he would send the first wad of bills. A week later, I opened my mailbox and there it was–$2,500 in $20 bills. Spectacular!

I sent my client his manuscript. He was happy.

A couple of years later, he wanted me to do it again. My business had grown and I was busy. By that time, I was a full-time blog manager. I declined the work. That kind of work is too risky.

He’d have probably paid. But I’d have wanted more money, and he might not have been willing to pay the $10,000 I’d wanted. I’ll never accept cash payments by mail again.

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When Dad Asked What I Thought About Divorce

I was fourteen years old when my father asked me what I thought about him and Mom getting a divorce. We lived in a small town outside of Dallas at the time. It was so close to Dallas it could have been considered a suburb but for the fact that it had its own legal paper of incorporation.

Balch Springs. A redneck hole in the ground.

Mom and Dad had been fighting for years. There was a pall of oppression over the whole family. We all felt it.

My mom has often said it was all my father’s fault. She’s probably right, but she tried hard not to put me and my sisters in the middle of their spats. I can’t say that about Dad.

He plopped himself down on an easy chair sitting in the corner of the dining room. I don’t remember why the easy chair was in the dining room, but there it was. I watched from the kitchen, staring at him through the doorway. His face was flush with anger.

“Your mom and I are getting a divorce. What do you think of that?”

I didn’t answer. I stared with curious wonder, but I thought it was a good idea. All they did was fight. They weren’t love spats. They were all out bouts of anger and vituperative spurts of artillery. I can’t remember how many days of peace we had. It wasn’t many.

He must have grew uncomfortable with my watching him. He stood abruptly and marched out the back door, pushing himself through the door between the dining room and the kitchen, flying past me without a word, without so much as eye contact. I watched as he slammed the door and disappeared into the driveway. Curious, I maneuvered my way to the window and watched him lift the hood on Mom’s vehicle, a Toyota short bed pickup.

It didn’t take long. He removed the spark plug wires and stormed his way to the tool shed, returning a few minutes later. His need for control overshadowed everything important about family. I watched until he lifted a spark plug with one hand and dove in for the alternator. Then I quietly crept my way past my parents’ room where Mom sat on her bed crying and into my own room. More than thirty years later, not much has changed. They’re still married.

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Nothing Like A Tank To Make You Feel Powerful

mowing down trees at Fort HoodThere isn’t much that will make you feel more powerful than commanding a beast. In my case, the beast was an M1A1 Abrams Tank, courtesy of the United States military.

I still don’t know what possessed me to want to join the National Guard after 10 years of military service, but I can tell you the thought process. I went something like this:

My experience with the active duty military was mostly positive. Stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington and attached to the First Special Forces Group, I had one of the best assignments in the military. I got the ease of cushy office job that wasn’t physically strenuous but was important in terms of impacting troop morale. I was a personnel administration clerk, which meant my job was to ensure soldiers got paid, their benefits were taken care of properly, and they got the additional training, awards, and other career enhancement attaboys necessary to keep them motivated.

On the other hand, being in a special forces group and Airborne qualified, I still had to do all the gung-ho training required of every other soldier in the unit. That meant …

  1. I made my mandatory Airborne jump every month
  2. I had to qualify on the 270-meter swim every quarter
  3. I had to complete a 12-mile ruck march each quarter
  4. And I was required to qualify on the 10-kilometer run quarterly
  5. Oh, and there was a minimum pull-up requirement, as well

In addition to the physical training regimen, I got to participate in some pretty cool field training exercises, including a couple of trips to South Korea and extreme cold weather training in Alaska. Other than a few hiccups in my two months shy of three years, I enjoyed the adventure.

However, I mustered out and went to college rather than make a career of it.

My Struggles As A Civilian

I struggled as a young man trying to make it on my own. College was a challenge, but I got through it. I didn’t fit into the corporate world too well. I tried my hand at a few businesses without much success. Eventually, I landed a job in journalism and that proved to be the most rewarding four years of my life up to that point.

In 1997, I was getting antsy. I hadn’t completed college yet though I was making my way back to it after dropping out for a few years due to financial stress. I was ready for a new challenge, but I didn’t want to go into active duty and spend my time on missions like Kosovo and Somalia. I thought with the National Guard I’d get to be of service to my state and local communities. Boy, was I wrong.

Little did I know that shortly after graduating from the state’s officer candidate program and obtaining my bachelor’s degree George W. Bush would be elected to the Oval Office and a band of terrorists would hijack four planes and use them to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The string of events that followed would turn my world upside down.

Nevertheless, one of the highlights of my military service was training as a platoon leader in an armor unit.

Tank Commander: The Day Of My Maximum Personal Power

I had attended the Armor Officer Basic Course in Fort Knox, Kentucky. My home unit within the 49th Armor Division trained one summer for our annual two-week required field training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas, the largest active duty military base in the country. I was a platoon leader in an armor battalion.

We were training with another unit in a mock tank war. We weren’t supposed to mow down the trees, but in the heat of the moment, I commanded my driver to plow into a treeline in order to sneak up on a mock enemy tank – another unit within the division. He did so and we began mowing down trees. Meanwhile, I commanded my gunner to take aim and fire upon the enemy tank. A direct hit would register on the laser equipment we had attached to our tanks that morning.

As we mowed through the trees to sneak upon the enemy tank, we gave off a signature that alerted the enemy crew of our position. It’s difficult, after all, to conceal a forest of trees 30-50 feet tall, each falling down like blades of grass under tractor wheels. We did our best.

“Hold your fire,” I yelled at the gunner.

He kept pulling the trigger.

“Cease fire!” I yelled into my helmet mic. No response. “Goddammit, I said stop shooting!”

What? I shot those bastards in the ass.

Within a certain distance, we were supposed to use arm signals instead of actual simulated gunfire, for safety reasons. I threw my arms in the air and crossed them, giving the kill signal, as my driver crested a ridge and rolled back down on my command. On the ground, the battlefield judge pointed at me and yelled, “You’re dead,” and immediately pointed at the tank we had been firing upon. “Dead!”

Stop, driver.

My driver, a short stubby E-4 we called Otter, stopped the tank.

Shut it off.

He did.

What happened, sir?

My gunner.

We got killed.

“What? I shot those bastards in the ass.”

I know you did. That’s the problem.

“What?”

I told you three times to stop firing. We were too close. We’re a safety kill.

“Oh.”

I could hear Private First Class Rumsey’s breath leaving his lungs as his ego deflated.

It was adrenaline, sir. I just got wrapped up in the excitement.

“Yeah, I know,” I said, thinking to myself that I had too. “I guess we sit here and wait for the war to end.”

I’ve never felt more powerful than I did that day mowing down trees at Fort Hood. It’s not often a mere man can have that kind of influence on his environment.

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