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Friday, November 30, 2012

Getting Inside the "Bin"

Greetings to all,

We have been busy the last week with multiple trips to Reno and daily visits to see Mr S., or take care of some problem or detail concerning him.

I also got to visit the orthopedic specialist finally and his main concern is that I have a "frozen" shoulder (aka adhesive capsulitis). This happens when the fluid in your shoulder joint is not sufficient to keep it lubricated and it inflames and adheres to itself. 

His suggestion to fix it is that he will knock me out, manually rotate the joint to tear it loose and then I will do 6 weeks of physical therapy to keep it working while it heals. OR, I do nothing and it will heal itself in about two years (with no adverse affects).

All of my life I have been told by trainers, doctors and literature that "tearing" things is bad. Now I have a doctor wanting to intentionally tear things in my shoulder. This I will have to ponder.

These Tales from the Looney Bin stories are not in any historically chronological sequence, but rather as I remember them and write them down, so we will bounce around in the time frame of 1968-1971. This was a strange time of a very straight-laced "establishment" and reaching for new ideas among young people. Please enjoy.

Getting Inside the "Bin"

My first visit to a State Mental Hospital was an eye opener for sure.

It started simply enough with permission forms requiring parental signatures, which in my case was accompanied by the question, “Did you do something wrong?” from my mother.

I did have a history of rebellion and doing things my own way at school, which often lead to papers being sent home for signatures, so I could not even feign indignation with a straight face; something that my own children mastered and believed that I was not on to them.

My mother did make the wise crack, “Be careful or they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.” She was referring to my habit of correcting teachers and other adults if they said or did something that I knew to be wrong -- tact never being my strong suit.

That first trip to the hospital was taken in a school bus with two teachers as escorts; our Psychology teacher, and a football coach who happened to have free time and the administration thought would be a good addition for safety. It was never quite clear who the coach was protecting, the students from the hospital patients, or the hospital patients from us.

There were only twenty students total in the decidedly nerdy class (Psychology was not required for graduation.) And of those, five could not get permission to go -- four girls whose parent(s) thought it too unsafe for them, and one boy who was apparently already in therapy and was very afraid of being kept inside should he pass through the gates.

Of those who got on the bus, probably only five of us were actually interested in the how and why of mental illness treatment; the others were there simply to get out of school and/or away from home.

Keep in mind that this all took place before the era of cell phones, computers and the Internet.

I had read everything that I could find in our school library, as well as our limited textbook descriptions of various kinds of illness that required institutionalization. Care and treatment of these illnesses as described in the textbooks we had (which were written in the early 1960’s) were dubious at best, even to me as a teenager. Such things as electroshock therapy and cold water “treatments” were standard and often applied “cures”.

I was concerned that I would find something akin to Bedlam (the infamously storied London mental hospital) or Blackwell’s Island in New York City and would be moved to action, which would most certainly get me into trouble.

It was my objection to these “tortures” as I referred to the treatments in class, which earned me a front seat next to the coach on the bus. I was told when we got on the bus, and again when we arrived to keep my opinions to myself.

Of course I agreed, and just as certainly had no possible chance of stopping my mouth if I saw something wrong. I knew it, and so did my psychology teacher. The coach, well, there was a reason that he majored in physical education and went to school on a football scholarship, but he was happy in his world.

Getting through the outer gates was our first big challenge. As soon as we stopped the bus was boarded by security officers searching for weapons and contraband. Meanwhile, our documents were reviewed by the lead officer and we had to respond to the roll call by that man who appeared to have no sense of humor and only wanted to hear, "Here Sir!"

I was looking out the bus window to make sure the sign said “Hospital” and not “Prison” with our somewhat chilly reception. We were all feeling oppressed and dominated and hadn't even left the bus yet; I was already sympathizing with the “inmates.”

As I peered out the glass, a man carrying a clipboard and wearing a security jacket and bus driver style hat, and what appeared to be hospital pajama bottoms and slippers, climbed into a van inside of the compound. This van went past the bus on my side as the grinning individual used the automatic opener to activate the gate and drive through, waving at me as he passed by.

I had the feeling that I was watching an escape in progress. But, after the Gestapo tactics I had just experienced, I just waved back and said nothing.

Once through the front gate, we had to sign in at the admitting desk and have a large plastic coated VISITOR badge hung on our clothing with little metal clips. I got the feeling that they would have preferred to brand it on our foreheads instead. So far the place was pretty scary and we had only met the security people.

We were taken into a waiting room and lectured on safety precautions like not letting a patient touch us, and not touching anything or anyone -- no wandering away from the group, no asking questions of patients or staff not assigned to our tour, no opening doors unless we asked first, no drinking or eating anything. I wanted to ask just what it was that we were allowed to do, but decided against it as futile.

When the briefing was completed we were abandoned by the last security officer we should have to deal with and no one was sad. They seemed rather mean and sadistic, which we all supposed was required by their duties and we concluded that we did not want their jobs.

Several minutes went by and finally a bright and cheerful young man in his twenties, wearing a tweed coat and colorful tie popped into the room with an emphatic hello and a big smile. He said that his name was David and explained that he would be leading the tour and would gladly answer any questions that we might have.

As he spoke he continuously fiddled with his black framed glasses and occasionally tapped them on his clipboard, which strangely enough didn’t have any papers on it. He also did not appear to have a pen to write with, or a name tag. Looking down I could see that he had on PF Flyers sneakers, something that would be cool in today’s world, but just was not done in those days of polished leather shoes (and military looking haircuts and skinny black ties).

I made my observations quietly and waited for a moment to speak to the psychology teacher or the coach, but when I tried to get a word in they shushed me, both intently listening to David talk. I thought, “Well. OK. Let’s see where this party takes us.”

When we started to move forward with the tour of the facility we encountered a locked door and surprise, David didn’t have a set of keys. He was however very resourceful and said, “Wait a minute. I have to get the door opened,” and went back through the door he originally entered from. The smiling man wasn’t gone a full minute before he reappeared with a large key ring and started going through them to find the right one. “Well, I might have been wrong,” I thought, “Maybe they were more lax in their dress code here and I was just too suspicious.”

David was explaining how the routine went for the patients in the open ward, which was what we were approaching. There were two wire walls with gates and locks between us and the ward dayroom and on the other side was a very large black man dressed all in white, with a large key ring that had many keys on it secured to his belt, sitting at a table reading a newspaper.

As we waited for David to find the right key to open the first gate, two things happened: the huge black man stood up and started moving quickly toward us and another smaller black man, (also dressed all in white, but missing his keys) burst through the door behind us yelling STOP!

The girls in our group started to scream, which set off the patients in the ward and they all started to scream too. David put his hands up like he was under arrest and dropped the keys on the floor. I thought that it was all hysterically funny and started to laugh which made everyone look at me like I was crazy.

David was not an employee at all; he was a patient with identity problems and assumed the role of anyone that he saw that caught his interest. He was very good at his “job” and I personally was sad to have him taken away from us. They did so rather roughly, I thought, binding his hands and placing a belt like strap around his body trapping his arms against his sides like he was violent, which we saw no evidence of.

Our adults had been thoroughly duped and were not in a good mood when the nurse from Hell showed up to lead our tour and promptly chastised us all for leaving the waiting area with a patient. The two black men who grabbed and manhandled David came back and reported to our nurse saying that they had put him in the “icebox” to cool off and laughed at what we hoped had been a bad joke. They were ordered to remain with the tour so that we didn’t cause any more disruption.

The large orderly stared at us without speaking and made the skin crawl on the back of my neck with his unblinking eyes, one of which was gray all over and possibly blind. The smaller man was fidgety and picked at unseen things on his arms or on the wall and couldn’t be still. They were decidedly creepy.

Nasty Nurse led us away from the open ward where we had been headed and into a corridor with individual rooms (which looked more like cells to me) where people who were not yet ready to mingle with others were kept. Some were apparently sedated and some were restrained, even while inside their rooms.

As I lifted the flap and looked into the little window on the first door by the entrance hall I noticed the stare of both orderlies was focused upon me. So I took my time and took a good long look, knowing that I was pushing their buttons.

I nearly started laughing but managed to check my impulse before making any sound. At a casual glance nothing appeared amiss as you took in the body of a person strapped to a bed, other than I did not like to see anyone restrained in such a fashion personally believing it to be cruel.

As I was fully intending to irritate my escorts, I had taken a much longer look than I might have. By doing so, I noticed that the patient appeared to be wearing black combat boots and possibly blue trousers under the edge of the sheet covering his body. I don’t believe that would be the standard uniform of a patient undergoing such treatment, but hey, this was not my problem.

I dropped the flap on the window, smiling as I thought about what I had just seen and rejoined the group as we were shown the treatment rooms next. I can tell you that these rooms were the stuff nightmares are made of.

There was no one in the rooms which pleased me immensely, and the nurse would not answer any questions about the electrical equipment lining one wall, or why there was a chair with straps on it that obviously went into a tile pool of sorts. Or why there was a motel ice machine in the room.

I got really nervous when the two orderlies kept staring at me and grinning, as my mother’s words came back to haunt me, “…they will keep you locked up if you mess with them.”

Next up was the dayroom for non-violent (translation, severely medicated) patients.

We were supposed to be allowed to speak to this group, according to the paper from the hospital administrator that we had all read at school. It took a reminder comment to the teacher and then her insistence with the Gestapo Nurse to get this to happen.

Our cantankerous leader was not happy allowing us to speak directly with her “prisoners” and tried to monitor every conversation and stare down anyone that dared to speak. We countered this by making a concerted effort to spread our group to all ends of the room. By this time the entire group of kids was in on the underlying resentment and control issues and how crazy mean the “keepers” were to the patients.

I watched an elderly Asian man folding paper into swans and setting them on the table, only to have another, brown skinned man unfold them and smooth them out again and place the papers in a neat pile next to the first man; they had a smooth cycle going on. The orderlies observing this said that they were crazy and ignored them.

I got it and appreciated what they had going on. I sat down next to them and watched for a while before saying quietly to them, “It is good to be creative and productive and keep the mind and hands busy, isn’t it.” They looked at me and smiled, waiting for the orderlies to walk to the other end of the room before daring to speak.

The Japanese man said, “If we remain quiet and do this, they do not force more medication on us.” To which his Hispanic friend said, “Bah, those pills make you pee in the bed and then you have to sleep in it and they take you to the ice baths for treatment; the sick bastards!”

There were those in the room who had not found a way past the Thorazine or similar mind-numbing drugs and they sat and drooled as we tried to talk to them. At the time it was those poor souls who we felt the most pity for; now I wonder if those who still had their marbles had it worse. They knew what was going on.

We were invited to lunch with the patients but having spent hours watching them sputter and drool, it was more than we were capable of enduring on our first day.

As we were rounded up and herded down the hall to the exit point I noticed an emergency evacuation chart which I had not seen previously. On this chart I figured out that the door marked “towel supply” which was right next to the first patient room (the one I looked into), had an outside exit.

I asked a couple of the students to slow down the group so that I could check something out. They were definitely up for mischief by this point, having dealt with the true loonies (the staff) all day. I was able to zip on ahead as a couple of the girls asked to use the bathroom and took off back towards the ward we had just left, causing the orderlies and the nurse to follow them.

Just as I thought, the towel supply door was unlocked and on the shelf was a box full of new clipboards. I gently pushed on the outer door fearing an alarm would sound but none did. It pushed right on open and inside the hole where the latch bolt should go was a wad of paper, just like you would make swans out of. I laughed and eased the door back closed so it was ready for someone who had gone outside.

I hurried back to the group so as to not give up the secret, making sure that no one saw me. Fortunately, there were no video cameras or motion sensors in place in those days.

A huge deal was made out of turning in our VISITOR badges and accounting for each metal clip because a patient might use the little bit of flimsy metal to tunnel out with or something.

As we were loading up on the bus our security officer made sure that everyone who got off the bus, was now back aboard. Our driver was waiting on permission to start the bus and depart the area. But, our two adults were deep in discussion about missing their lunch and ignored him, so there we sat.

Coming down the long and lonesome road to this singularly unpleasant destination was the very hospital van we had seen pulling out when we first arrived. Our smiling driver was still at the wheel and he pulled up to the gate and again used the remote control to open the gate and drove inside.

The man got out, (still dressed in a security hat and jacket, with non-matching pajama bottoms and slippers), opened a side door and got several McDonalds bags out of the van. With a wave to us he went to the very door that I had checked out and pulled it open and pausing to pull out the paper plug, shut the door behind him.

What an amazing, resourceful, and considerate guy; he had made a McDonald's run for his friends! And outsmarted all of the professional keepers while he did it!

We had no doubt whatsoever that he would find a way to get each one of them a cheeseburger and fries without them being busted by the angry men and women in white.

This only furthered the decision (made by a consensus of the students on the tour) that the really crazy dangerous inmates were the ones with the keys. The patients only needed compassion and seemed infinitely saner than their keepers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tales from the Looney Bin

Greetings from the Tryptophan haze of post Turkey Day!

I hope that everyone has been successful in sharing time and meals with friends and family, and those traveling shall do so safely.

As far as traveling in a timely or quick fashion; hey, y'all took that part upon yourselves, I personally want no part of the airports or interstate highways between now and Monday!

I was asked if I was going to any Black Friday sales and the answer is decidedly not. I support the Walmart employees in their effort to receive fair and just wages and compensation and will not go there until the strike is settled. Furthermore I think the induced hysteria which has caused fights, riots and injuries is a sad commentary on our material mania. I do not believe that the financial fate of our country rests upon every person in America buying something on Black Friday.

You could say that our contact with the rehab care Mr S. is receiving brought back the memories being shared here. Dealing with people who you aren't quite sure which side of the fence they belong on is not unique to the inside of care facilities either; a trip to a local restaurant or shopping establishment shows that many of them have already escaped and we just can't tell anymore.

The years represented are 1968 to 1971 and I have written a second installment which I will release depending upon the reception this one gets. So if you like this story, please let me know. Enjoy! And may your medications be ever to your liking!

Tales from the Looney Bin

Twice before the age of eighteen I ventured inside the walls of care facilities for the mentally ill. Both instances were for education (Psychology classes), and not for the purpose of “curing” me from what “ailed me”, namely being a too-smart-for-his-own-good teenager.

I will not individually identify either the Florida or the Georgia hospitals, which then operated under the less politically correct titles of State Mental Hospital, as they were practically identical in operation and clientele.
I will attempt to convey what I learned, heard, and observed from these visits to the “other side”.

Outside of the Fence

The surrounding communities were scary in their similarities: in both locations the employees lived close at hand but not on the hospital grounds; in the coffee shops and eateries of both places the locals referred to the hospitals as the “Looney Bin”; and in both there was a constant fear that a “crazed lunatic” would escape and rape and murder his way through the community.

Even at my young age and experience level it seemed less than likely that any tortured soul who wandered away from the hospital would stand a chance against the armed and ready population surrounding them. Every man had a handgun on him, evident in either a holster or visible in their pockets. Every pickup truck had at least one shotgun in the window rack. I would not at all be surprised to learn that the women had pistols in their purses as well.

Stopping at a local eatery for lunch before my one o’clock appointment, and being curious about all of the armed citizens, I was primed for trouble; and it found me.

Being an outsider to their community I made the faux pas of asking, “Just when the last time was, that anyone had escaped from the hospital?”

This caused a flurry of tobacco spitting and unintelligible grumbling, culminating in a fat finger being pointed in my face as a red faced man in overalls shouted, “One time is three times too many!” And to emphasize his words he spat tobacco juice on the floor at my feet. As I looked around the diner it appeared as if I had wandered into a bobble-head convention with all of the heads going up and down.

I was quickly getting the impression that I had worn out my welcome; it could have been the odd way everyone turned so they were facing away from me, or it could have been the way that the large angry man who yelled at me was playing with his pistol. Either way, I finished my tea and went to pay my bill and leave before a lynching party was formed.

The waitress who served me also rang me up at the register and seemed less nuts than the rest of the people in the diner. I was obviously afraid to say anything else, lest I get shot; seeing this she took pity on me and said, “Meet me around back.” I just nodded my head and went out the front door.

The middle-aged woman was sucking on a cigarette and gulping down coffee by the time I walked around the building and found her.

She said that there had only been one escape in the ten years she had been at the diner, and that one was a woman who had “gone off her rocker” (now known as dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s). I asked if the woman had harmed anyone during her escape and she replied, no.

I was now really curious, and asked, “So why all of the guns and fear?”

The old woman had embarrassed the director of the hospital by just walking out the unlocked door and away from the facility with no one noticing.

A call to the local sheriff had been exaggerated to say that an extremely “agitated” patient had “broken out” (to save face) and that an armed man-hunt was needed immediately.

The sheriff having only two deputies (and a total of three cars) went to the diner to round up a search posse. Needing to inspire the usually less than enthusiastic crowd to help him, he told the men to arm themselves and lock the women and children up in the house to prevent the “deranged and dangerous lunatic” from hiding in their homes.

The ploy worked, possibly a bit too well, and the party-lines were buzzing before the sheriff got back into his car and fear was running through the community like a wild fire. A bloodthirsty murdering rapist was in their midst and the death toll was sure to be high!

Men with guns converged on the mental hospital grounds and dogs were loosed to flush out the mad man as the search was conducted in a fury. Every home, shed, and bush was being checked.

Every person of color in the area was terrified because it looked like the Klan was out in force, in the daylight, and without their sheets! I can't say that they were wrong.

The search resulted in the shooting of one dog who resented the intrusion of strangers onto its property and the demise of one black & white (Holstein) calf which had the misfortune of scaring an already nervous armed searcher as it bolted from an out building.

As the search party reached the far end of the sheriff’s jurisdiction he called the state police to report the situation as he saw it; namely that an armed and dangerous escapee was now their problem.

It seems that the Troopers had been notified by the hospital personnel already as they were both state agencies and that was standard operating procedure, so the response that the sheriff got was laughter; they were not about to call for a statewide armed response for one confused elderly woman.

This greatly upset the sheriff, who had visions of ridicule by all and an end to his career, so he said nothing to the still searching posse of armed vigilantes.

I had to ask at this point, “So did they ever find the poor woman?”

My waitress friend actually cracked a smile for a brief moment, as she continued the tale.

The old lady was sitting on the sheriff’s front porch the entire time, naked as the day she was born, and no one ever came by.

She had taken off her all-purpose cotton nightgown as she left the hospital building and an employee had found it; not knowing where it came from, she picked it up and put it in the laundry.

The old lady had walked the two miles to the sheriff’s house, where she had lived many years before the sheriff, in the predawn darkness and took up her position on the front porch swing with an old cat.

No one bothered to search the sheriff’s house because; he started out there, and well, he was the sheriff! Nobody in their right mind would hide there!

In all fairness, with the typical plantings surrounding an old porch in country where rainfall is sufficient to make things grow, you would have had to stop right in front of the house to see her sitting there.

I can just imagine the shock and surprise the sheriff felt as he stopped in front of his house, (rather than pulling into his carport around back as usual), and found this elderly naked woman sitting in his porch swing with a stray cat. He knew right away that she had to be the missing woman and he also knew that he had to get her out of there before anyone else came by and saw her.

The man grabbed his own large monogrammed bathrobe and wrapped her up in it and put her in his personal pickup truck to drive her back to the hospital. As it was now dark it was easier to sneak her through the still searching few men who had not gone home to protect their families.

The next morning the sheriff held a meeting with the volunteers to thank and dismiss them, saying that the escapee was no longer considered a threat to their community and would be dealt with elsewhere.

It was never made public that it was a woman from their own community who escaped, and her being returned was also not common knowledge, even among employees of the hospital. The community was essentially still on alert, ten years later.

Our waitress had been the only one at the diner when a newly hired (and promptly fired) hospital orderly brought the sheriff’s robe by there because he didn't know where the sheriff’s house was and he had been told not to take it to the police station. Not knowing any better, the orderly spilled the entire story, (as he overheard it), to the woman over a cup of coffee.

The wise young woman took possession of the robe and called the sheriff to come and get it, knowing that she would never get a ticket for the rest of her days in that town if she kept her mouth shut.

Her disgust over the treatment that I received made her tell me, but even at that she was still keeping her mouth shut around the locals as she now owned the diner and wanted to stay in business.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Up in Smoke

Greetings fellow riders of the merry-go-round,

We have been busy trying to get all of our "To-do's" done before we scoot over the hill to attend a gathering in the San Francisco area. We are nearly ready and will be after a couple of errands tomorrow.

Mr. S. continues to recover and is getting grumpier by the day about having to be around other people and do things like eat all of his meals with the group. He is faking not feeling well and then sneaking back to his old room when the attendants aren't looking. He may be losing his memory, but he can still con the staff pretty well.

Anna had a pretty good birthday today and is still playing with her new 24" computer monitor. I didn't realize how bad her old one was until I saw the new one in operation. Going from 15 inches to 24 is also a major bonus.

In response to a very special request I have just written the story you are about to read. It has been told a few times but has never appeared in print anywhere prior to this. With a nod to the movie title of the same era, I give you:

Up in Smoke

The year was 1974 and all of us in this story were in the U.S. Army stationed at Ft. Benning, near beautiful Columbus, Georgia.

This story is about two draftees from Minnesota; Spruel and Jorgensson. Both were my own age (21 Years old), and both educated, pale-skinned, church going Scandinavians. They were also both talented air traffic controllers who worked for me.

“Spooky” Spruel stood five feet eight inches and was so skinny that everyone wanted to feed him, but the boy must have had a tapeworm because he ate more than anyone else and never gained a pound. He had brown hair that stuck out in multiple directions on top of his head like he had just gotten shocked. Military issue black frame glasses with a fairly large nose under them rounded out his looks. This city boy was a bookworm and science fiction fan equal to anyone that I have ever met. Now days he would be considered a trivia master.

“Jorgee” Jorgensson seemed taller than his five feet ten inches and had a solid athletic build from growing up on a working farm, but was not a sports player in spite of his body. He was a handsome blonde haired, blue eyed Swede that was always laughing, even when it got him into trouble. The girls called him "adorably goofy" because he laughed at everything they said, but got tongue-tied when a pretty girl spoke to him directly. He also had the deepest red blush I have ever seen on a man. His “friends” would often embarrass him just to see the pale skin go bright red, except for Spooky, who always defended his pal.

As I said, I was 21 years old myself, but had the added responsibility of being a supervisor with my own crew. I had qualified very quickly and passed all of the requirements for duty officer plus Non Commissioned Officer (enlisted) Academy so I advanced quickly. I had a good reputation and worked hard to live up to my responsibilities. I was the off-going watch commander on the day in question.

IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) in the Car

I was just finishing a scheduled review of an incident tape for another crew (you couldn't review your own) when I received a call from a friend at the Military Police Station regarding a radio call from a patrol crew that he felt might interest me.

The Military Police patrol the base constantly, just like civilian police do in cities, only more intensely as it is a secure area in most respects. This particular unit just happened to be cruising through the back parking lot for the enlisted barracks where two of my crew, Spruel and Jorgensson lived, along with several other single air traffic controllers.

As the MP's rolled through they noticed a bright orange VW bug parked in a spot close to the sidewalk that seemed to possibly be on fire, based on the smoke they could see, but there were no flames in evidence. The MP Sergeant stopped his car behind the smoke filled pumpkin and could plainly see two guys inside of the car singing along with the radio, which he could also now hear. The sergeant got out while his private called in the license plate to see who owned the car. Once the officer got close to the car he knew that he wouldn't need the Fire Department.

Both MP's approached the VW, one on either side, and when they were even with the front seat occupants, knocked on the windows, trying to get the guys inside to open the doors.

Inside of the car were my boys, Spruel and Jorgensson, and yes, the smoke was indeed, happy weed. The car was filled with so much smoke that you couldn't see through it. This obstruction to vision must have lead to the words uttered by Spruel who according to records said in a very loud whisper, "Shhh, don't make a sound man, they can't see us, the windows are tinted" (They were not.)

The MP Sergeant again rapped on the glass with his nightstick and said, "Come on boys, open the door like nice fellows so we don't have to break your window."

Spruel says to Jorgensson, "Shrink down really small man; they won't be able to see us!"

Whereupon the 5'10" Jorgensson tried to make himself smaller somehow and crawled into the leg space of the passenger side and attempted to get under the seat. If you have ever been in a VW bug you know how well THAT worked. Of course, Jorgensson was giggling the entire time like a bus load of ten year girls on a sleep-over, and Spruel was doing all kinds of gyrations in the driver's seat including getting the bright idea of taking his glasses off, because if he couldn't see, naturally the MP's wouldn't be able to either!

Having gotten the telephone call right after the initial license check, I was already on my way when the first attempt to get the boys to respond was tried. I arrived as the gymnastics show was in progress and fortunately the MP Sergeant was someone that I had stood watches with at the NCO Academy. I asked to be allowed to retrieve my men without any window breaking or more units being called in to make it any more of a mess than it already was. My request was granted provided that I could get them out right away and could guarantee cooperation from them. I agreed to both. What choice did I have?

I walked up to the driver's side window and said, "Earth to Mr. Spruel, come in please." He popped up like a prairie dog out of a hole with his glasses crooked on his face and his hair looking like he was part porcupine. He says, "Sarge, is that you?" And then turns to his partner and says, "Jorgee, Sarge is here, get big again so he can see you!"

We (Spruel and I) had to discuss how to do it for a minute or so, but I finally got him to open the door and the MP's stepped in and pulled my two space cadets out of the car.

It was late and the two patrolmen had already been on duty for more than hour past the end of their watch, so it wasn't real hard to get them to agree to let the two offenders be taken into the barracks and put on "quarters arrest", thereby becoming the responsibility of the duty officer there and getting them out of the booking paperwork (which would have to be done before they could get off duty).

The barracks duty NCO signed for the two young men who were so saturated with weed smoke that people were getting high just standing next to them. It was funny how quickly they had a crowd wanting to stand next to them! We got them up to their room (they roomed together) and put them to bed for the night and told them that they were not allowed to leave their room. They both collapsed into a pile of giggling goofballs on their beds and I thought that everything was under control. I had NO idea how I was going to get them out of this mess, but at least I could drive the 30 miles home to my house now.

I had just walked in my door and laid my hat and keys down on the counter when the telephone rang; I immediately put my hat back on my head and picked up my keys as I went to answer it; I knew it couldn't be good. It was the company First Sergeant and to say that he was not a happy camper, would be accurate, if understating, his mood.

After a short nap, my stoned friends woke up, still high and looking for amusement. Spruel, (ever the resourceful one) had a stash of bottle-rockets hidden among his possessions and it took no effort at all to get Mr. Happy (Jorgee) to play. They lived on the second floor of the barracks and there was a long and straight (something needed to be) hallway down the center of the building.

They each took an end of the building and proceeded to ignite the little fireworks rockets one at a time and fire them down the hall at each other. Evidently there were some "screamer" rockets in the pile too, which brought people out of their rooms and into the line of fire. As they did "combat", they drew an ever increasing crowd and anyone who tried to stop them was "fired upon". Spruel opened the window at his end of the hall and knocked the screen out, which allowed the next rocket shot his way to continue out into the front parking and across to the Command Headquarters (HQ) building.

That is where the First Sergeant came in.

As "Top" (the senior enlisted person or "top" sergeant as it were) left the HQ building to get into his car, a bottle-rocket went past one of the junior officers walking by, scaring him into screaming like a little girl who just saw a spider. This caused immediate embarrassment to the young Lieutenant, who looked around to see who noticed and spotted the gray-haired veteran First Sergeant. Being young and inexperienced in how the Army really works, he immediately lashed out at him. 

The image of a young, (very pink around the edges where his too-fresh haircut met his too-new uniform), white boy trying to intimidate the large, grizzled, middle-aged black man who had many, many combat service hash marks on his sleeve, was beyond ridiculous. If "Top" was momentarily amused by the nearly pants-wetting fear shown by the Lieutenant, I would bet my paycheck that he didn't show it. As anyone with any time in the service knew, you never, ever, get on the bad side of the thirty-year veteran senior enlisted men. THEY, run the Army, not the Generals. Sure the Generals play politics and issue the sound bites, but it is the "Top Sergeants" who make it all happen, just as the secretaries really run the offices in the civilian world.

The Lieutenant tried to be a tough guy, briefly yelling at the First Sergeant about the "missile that nearly killed him and how he (the First Sergeant) better handle it or else", and promptly got his ass handed to him by the older, more experienced man who didn't appreciate being yelled at. I tell you all of this to explain the mood that Top was in when he called me.

I was automatically standing at attention in my own home while I listened to the First Sergeant rip my head off on the telephone and I do remember quite clearly being thankful that I was not within arm’s reach of the man. When he got tired of yelling, I was able to respond, "I will be there in 30 minutes and handle it, First Sergeant." He said "See that you do!" and slammed his phone down.

It was a fortunate fact that eventually the guys had to run out of rockets to ignite. By the time that they did, the barracks was in turmoil as people were running down to report the disturbance and others were joining in on the merry making; any excuse for a party, as it were.  The two young men were still in their fatigue pants and boots, with t-shirts on, so they looked just like everyone else. Without their fatigue shirts with the name tags, no one had any reason to stop or identify them as they wandered down the stairwell at the back end of the building.

I made the thirty minute trip in twenty-three minutes and was just parking in the front lot when the Duty NCO who had signed for my stoned troops came running out of the building in a panic; he had lost them! "What do you mean lost them?" I asked seeing my stripes disappearing along with theirs as I imagined the court-martial convening.

The poor man was sweating profusely from running up and down the stairs searching rooms for two guys who were barely able to stand when he signed for them just over an hour earlier, but he shivered as he looked over my shoulder and spotted Top walking towards us. He whispered, "I can't find them anywhere. They're gone like a puff of smoke!" His choice of words provoked an involuntary laugh from me (I thought of their car) just as the senior sergeant reached my side, causing Top to ask if my laughter was something that I wished to share, because he definitely needed cheering up.

Did you ever have one of those moments where you were totally on the spot and wishing for a miracle? I was there. The light went on just as my mouth started to attempt to form words for an answer and saved me.

"Top, Sergeant Smith has just reported that the building is secure and my men are out of action."  I didn't lie; they were out of the building and had quit terrorizing the occupants.

The First Sergeant turned to the Duty NCO and asked him if this was true. All Smith could do was stand there with a blank look and nod his head. The poor man probably saw his career passing before his eyes too.

Top said, "Alright then", looking at his watch and back at me again, "I am late for dinner and the Mrs. is pissed off, so I am going home to eat and I will be back at 20:00 hours to read your report. I will also be calling your Command Sergeant Major (CSM) to discuss what will be happening to your boys." With that he turned around and got into his car and drove off.

Sergeant Smith collapsed onto the hood of my car once the senior man was gone and rolled over to look at me and say "now what?" I replied, "one miracle at a time my boy, one at a time."

I had a good idea where the two smoke warriors had gone and took off around the building with the Duty NCO reluctantly following me at a distance. He obviously just wanted to go back in time and return things to the previous TV watching status quo in his barracks.

My hunch was correct and as I rounded the corner of the building the two knuckleheads were visible in the once again, smoke filled VW. Being very resourceful, young Mr. Spruel had hidden a supply of his favorite Cannabis in a plastic bag under the passenger seat in the coil springs. It took them no time at all to get happy and start singing as the smoke filled the car.

Sergeant Smith had gone into self-defense mode and called the MP's to come after the guys this time; and who could blame him. I knew that they weren't going to cooperate and so did he.

As we waited for the paddy wagon to arrive I had to reflect upon who these two men were and what they believed. Both were draftees and had lives back in Minnesota that they were taken away from when their numbers came up in the Selective Service lottery. Both were formerly long-haired peace-nicks (their words) and really didn't want to be a part of the War Machine. To their credit, neither man had ever given any reason for criticism of their behavior, nor shirked any duty or responsibility until this event.

The van arrived and four (a bit too eager for my liking) young military policemen piled out with batons in hand ready for a brawl. I was between them and the car and their leader told me to get "my ass" out of the way as they advanced towards my unknowing men. I felt the presence of Sergeant Smith as he came up behind me as I stared at the Corporal with the big attitude and waited to see if he would side with them (he called them) or me. He didn’t say a word but he did take up a position next to me, as we waited to see which way this tense situation would go.

By normal rules, as we outranked the young Military Policeman, it should have been a cut and dried situation where we gave the orders and the junior people carried them out; but dealing with a slightly power-mad young man who felt like his authority trumped rank, it took a little more people skill to control the situation.

It was a little bit distracting, (although in a very funny way) to have my two stoned goofballs in the car singing “Give Peace a Chance” at the top of their lungs. If I had been a spectator I would have been laughing at their antics.

I tried to explain to the Corporal that I had no intention of interfering with the two men being taken into custody, but I was also not going to allow a violent apprehension of them. I asked them to “stand down” while I got the men out of the vehicle. While I was making this plea for reasonable behavior, the driver of police van had called for backup.

Unbeknownst to me, one of the other controllers had returned to the barracks and seeing the standoff taking place in the parking lot, had quickly made some telephone calls for help from our side.

As military police cars with lights and sirens descended upon the parking lot from all directions including across the grass between buildings (the call made had been; “officer in trouble”) the smile on the Corporal’s face broadened.

He stepped towards me and said, “You are going to get your ass kicked and then arrested boy…”

A booming voice from behind me said, “Oh, I don’t think so. Sergeant Wright, do not react to the threat. Corporal back away and stand down before this man kills you in self defense.”

There was no mistaking the voice of the First Sergeant and no denying the authority of his words. Pretty quickly both he and my own Command Sergeant Major passed by on either side of me walking towards the Corporal and the arriving MP Duty Officer.

Taking this chance to peek back at the VW I was rewarded with two “moons” showing in the windows. Would they never stop adding fuel to the fire?

A quick and quiet exchange of words took place and the officer spoke to the Corporal who jumped into the van and sped off. I did hear one loud sentence as Top ripped the MP driver (who was summoned) a “new one” regarding the car driving across his grass. He ran back to his car, drove very carefully off of the lawn and also sped away.

One military police sedan remained as all of those who responded cleared the area and my CSM looked at me, pointed at the VW where my two grinning idiots were peeking out the windows at me, and then pointed at the MP sedan. His meaning and instructions were abundantly clear to me and I headed for the orange bug immediately.

Sergeant Smith walked to the car with me and apologized for calling the MP’s; I told him that it was OK and not to worry about it. He continued on into the barracks from there, to begin his lengthy report.

I tapped on the glass and Spruel rolled down the window and with a big grin on his face said, “Hi Sarge!”  Looking past him I could see Jorgee asleep in the passenger seat with an empty bag of potato chips on his head like a hat. There was no energy left to be mad at them; all I could do was shake my head and think what a mess they were in.

Both guys got out of the car and loaded into the MP sedan with no further incident and were taken away into the night, bound for the jail at MP headquarters.

Unknown to me, while I was getting the two men out of their car and into the police vehicle, our CSM had driven ahead to the MP booking desk. There he spoke to the senior enlisted man for the jail and arranged for the two to be kept together and away from the general population of tough guys who would harm our wayward hippies. He was a very kind man beneath the gruff exterior.

I finally got a chance to call home and inform my wife that I was not dead or deployed and would indeed be there on this same night. It was after 8:00 p.m. and I had been on base since 05:30 a.m.

I am sure the question is; so what happened to them?

Naturally multiple charges were brought against the two, including possession and use of drugs, fireworks, resisting arrest, etc.; it was a veritable laundry list.

Both Spruel and Jorgensson were; demoted to Private First Class, had to serve thirty days of community service labor (painting and trash details) during what would have been their off duty time (but still report for work), were suspended from air traffic control duty pending clean blood tests and re-certification (which wasn’t going to happen) and after an A.C.L.U. lawyer got involved, were discharged from the service on a General Discharge (not a Bad Conduct one) citing inability to adjust.

I credit both the First Sergeant and Command Sergeant Major with keeping them out of prison. It was the right thing to do and unusual at that; such charges usually brought at least thirty days of jail time plus other punishments. Both men made convincing written arguments against incarceration and spoke to the Judge on behalf of the offenders.

Spooky and Jorgee never wanted to be in the Army to start with and when they were drafted they both elected to serve rather than run off to Canada. They did their best to adjust and get along but they were both total pacifists and hated killing anything. They could just no longer tolerate what they stood for in those uniforms (no disrespect for the soldier, just the war machine itself).

On the day they left the base and the U.S. Army, Spruel and Jorgensson confessed to me that they had done the whole smoke and rockets episode on purpose hoping to get out early; even if it meant jail time and a Bad Conduct Discharge. They had picked the day to do this based upon when I would still be on base to keep them from getting killed by the MP Nazi’s (their words). They had tremendous belief in my fairness and ability to somehow protect them.

I asked if the whole “too high to think” thing was an act and they laughed and said, “Oh Hell no, we were higher than Cheech and Chong on payday!”

Spruel and Jorgensson went back to Minnesota as fast as that orange bug would carry them and when last I heard from them Spooky was teaching at a Lutheran Church primary school and Jorgee was still farming family land.

Some people are just not meant to be soldiers and that doesn’t make them bad citizens. Give Peace a chance!


The names used in this story have been altered to avoid problems, however the events are accurate as told.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Grumpy the Wide Awake Bear

Hello my friends,

It has been a crazy couple of weeks with Halloween preparations and making decorations for friends, birthdays for daughter and grandsons, a huge election for the country and a lot of issues with Mr S.

Anna's dad had several falls that we only learned about after he banged himself up good. And it wasn't until he was discovered on the floor of his apartment, claiming to be "getting dressed", that it all came to a screeching stop. He got yet another ambulance ride to the ER, this time to be admitted to the hospital on October 31st. He was just released today, November 8th, to go back to his living accommodations, but for now into the rehabilitation unit. We shall see if he can improve upon his ability to care for himself and thus continue to live independently. The alternative is to move into the nursing home wing and I don't think he will like that very much.

Also during this period we received word that our local Mensa group newsletter the Neva-Mind (Anna being the editor), has once again won best newsletter in the entire country. A total of four awards for the Neva-Mind, plus one (national award) for yours truly for best non-fiction essay for "I'm Not Throwing Them Away" also featured on this blog back in May. We also won the award for best small group web site, (webmistress Mindy take your bow).

One humorous note; a comment (criticism) from one reviewer complained that I didn't combine the sequel "More Valuable than Gold" with the first story. I didn't write the second part until 12 years after the first one, and that in response to readers who wanted to know the rest of the story after the first was published in the Neva-Mind. Both stories have now been published (with permission) in other newsletters and all of this, still wouldn't buy me a cup of coffee.

The story for today is from 1975 and my first winter in Alaska. I hope that you all have vivid imaginations and can picture the events as I describe them, and rest assured, they were even funnier in person! Enjoy!

Grumpy the Wide Awake Bear

It was early winter in 1975 and the ice was finally frozen hard enough over Mosquito Lake on Fort Richardson to go ice fishing. We had been talking about it and waiting for the right conditions for months. A couple of the more experienced guys (from Michigan and Minnesota) that I worked with decided that it was a good day for it and went to Recreation Services and checked out an ice auger to cut the holes with while the rest of us brewed up some coffee and made some sandwiches for a day of fishing.

Now I don't know why, but the below zero cold never bothered us when we were going fishing (as opposed to the whining when it was work related). Maybe because we expected to be cold and knew that it was just the way it was, or our youth prevented us from caring (lack of good sense); whatever the reason we dressed appropriately (warm and in layers) so it was no big deal. There is a certain perversity to the idea of sitting on a block of ice and putting your hands into cold water when you spend the rest of your days trying to stay warm. But hey, it’s fishing!

It took a while to drive out the snow covered dirt road to the lake, even with my four wheel drive vehicle. You didn't want to get going too fast because you would slide into a ditch, or get hung up on the snow banks on the side of the road; even with four wheel drive it could ruin your day. When we got to the intersection with the only other road around the lake we saw tire tracks which were wiggling and sliding from side to side and figured that we would see that vehicle stuck somewhere before long.

As we neared the lake itself and could see the actual frozen surface, we thought that we could see lights reflecting repeatedly off to one side of the area where you entered to fish. We pulled into the parking area, (which was just a clearing in the brush, almost at the lakeshore itself) and sure enough there was a sedan from the base police, according to the lettering on the door and confirmed by the red and blue lights on top which were going full tilt.

The sedan was kind of "parked" at a funny angle, with the front end and driver's side higher than the rest of the car. We guessed that the driver was playing and tried a real fancy pursuit slide or something, based upon the marks in the snow, and got hung up on the brush pile.

That was just the minor problem as we found out, because right then an MP holding onto a radio microphone with a cut off cord, went zooming around the car with a really grumpy looking brown bear chasing him! The whole time he was running, the young fellow was still talking into that microphone, calling for backup!

His partner was still inside the car with his seatbelt jammed and for some reason, probably the lack of a microphone, he was having a dickens of a time getting through to the police base. He was yelling into the speaker that they needed assistance... I guess the poor fellow didn't understand how speakers work, or something.

When the vehicle slid to a stop, it just happened to land on top of Mr. Grumpy's bedroom; which was a cave of sorts in the thick brush pile where he had settled in for a snooze and got interrupted. I don't know if you are at all familiar with the habits of bears, but waking one up from his winter nap is a BIG No No. They have absolutely no sense of humor and want to shred whatever caused the disturbance.

Our two heroes were dressed for being inside a warm cozy office, and probably were assigned to exactly that and thought they would go outside and play "Patrolmen in Pursuit" or something. They did not have on long johns, they were wearing uniform dress shoes, and no parkas or gloves; they might just as well have been naked out there in the ten below zero winter weather. It was obvious that they were very cold, even the guy running from the bear, as he had been outside long enough before Grumpy showed up to get some minor frostbite on his fingers.

We were guilty of laughing ourselves silly before we got out and threw a couple of cherry bombs... er, fishing aids... at the bear and all four of us walked towards him yelling and waving our arms, presenting a kind of "united front" and got him to reconsider his options. He finally did move off in search of a better neighborhood, where the humans didn't park on your roof!

The police vehicle was not operable as it had a branch stuck into the oil pan and the belts were gone (I suspect that they broke from the sudden stoppage of the engine). The body had been severely hammered by Grumpy as he took out his anger and it looked like it had been in a rollover (it had not) with its buckled hood and crushed fenders all around. So after we cut MP number two out of his seat belt, and convinced him that the bear was gone, we loaded them up in my International and hauled them back to the main base where they reported to their Duty NCO. We got out of there as fast as possible, lest the MP D.O. might think that we had anything to do with their misadventures.

We never did go back out there to fish; it was getting too late in the day and besides Grumpy was still around there somewhere, and he was probably still really cranky about the unscheduled wake up call. It was best to give him a year or so to forget.