30 Years Since I-Day

30 years ago this weekend was Induction Day (a.k.a. I-Day) for the Naval Academy’s Class of 1986. On the day, I and over 1,400 other classmates raised our hands in Tecumseh Court at the heart of the Academy’s Annapolis campus (which we soon learned to call “The Yard”), and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

In my half-century-ish on this planet, I’d only place my wedding date and the day my daughter was born as more important days than I-Day in shaping the course that my life has taken. It was that significant.

Practicing manual of arms in my room, wearing regulation P.E. gear, on the Fourth Floor of Sixth Wing, Bancroft Hall, July 1982.

I had just barely turned 17 when I took the oath, having skipped a grade in elementary school, and owning a late May birthday. I graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina in June 1982, then had just a few weeks of down-time before having to report to Annapolis right after the Fourth of July holiday for Plebe Summer, the Academy’s version of boot camp. My father, who had sworn the same oath I did many years before me, missed both my high school graduation and my I-Day, because he was well and faithfully serving his nation as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in and around Beirut, Lebanon, at the time. I missed him.

Because of the escalating hostilities in Lebanon circa 1982-1983, I spent most of my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy getting up early each morning and quickly checking the newspapers to make sure that my Dad was still alive. A lot of people he went over there with did not make it through the course of that year. It made a tough experience in Annapolis even more stressful, needless to say.

I did well the first set of Plebe Summer, because I had a huge jump on most of my classmates in terms of my knowledge of military arts and protocol, having spent most of my life on or near Marine Corps bases. By the second set of Plebe Summer, though, my innate difficulty with authority apparently kicked in, and my fitness reports quickly tumbled, putting me at the bottom, performance-wise, of Hotel Company’s 23rd Platoon.

When the full Brigade of Midshipmen returned that fall, 23rd Platoon became the Plebe Class of 23rd Company, and I quickly cemented my status as a “shit screen” for my cohort, meaning that I caught the trouble that otherwise might have flowed downstream and gotten stuck on other people. My academic performance was generally sound, sure, but my military performance left a lot to be desired. And this did not change much over the ensuing four years, as I spent huge swaths of time standing in restriction musters, or marching area tours, or serving room tours, or otherwise being punished for my chronic inability to comply with the rules that had been set before us.

A lot of my room-mates, friends and company mates left the Academy along the way, either deciding that it wasn’t worth being there anymore, or falling victim to academic boards, or performance boards, or honor boards. Somehow, though — amazingly enough — I scraped by, one day at a time. And then, one day before my 21st birthday (May 21, 1986), I officially became a Naval Academy alumnus, graduating alongside the  approximately 70% of our I-Day cohort who made it all the way through. Go figure!

Midshipman Fourth Class John E. Smith, Annapolis, Fall of 1982.

As rotten of a midshipman as I was, though, I can state categorically that I would never have finished college in four years had I gone anywhere besides Annapolis. And as much as I fought authority there, I still managed to develop an incredible collection of life skills that serve me well, to this day, every day, in both my personal and professional lives, three decades later.

About 10 years after we graduated from the Academy, largely on a whim, I reached out to our then Class President and offered to help him develop a website and e-mail list for the class, since I had those skills from work, and I figured that if I used them on behalf of the class, it would make it easier for me to get and stay in touch with the folks I wanted to communicate with.

But somehow that selfish act on my part actually blossomed into something legitimately charitable and powerful for me, especially after we lost two I-Day classmates on September 11, 2001, right before what should have been a joyful 15th reunion, in which I played a major planning role. I went on to serve as the Class of ’86’s Secretary, then President for five years, and now Treasurer, devoting and donating thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours over the years to helping maintain the relationships that were first forged between us on I-Day, 30 years ago this weekend.

I remain humbled by that experience of service to the class of ’86, giving back in a very modest way as a belated way of thanking my friends and peers for the role they played in making me the man that I am today. I certainly remain a flawed and erratic human being, but I know that many of the best facets of my personality and professional ability stem directly from my days in Annapolis, and I am deeply grateful for what the Naval Academy did for me — and to me — between July of 1982 and May of 1986.

As I write this, a thousand or so terrified young people are going through the same process I went through 30 years ago. On one hand, my heart bleeds for them and their families, because it is hard . . . it really is so, so, so very hard, in ways that words can’t do justice. But, on the other hand, I laud and celebrate those brave young people, because I know that they are at the opening phases of an extraordinary life experience, one that only a relatively small number of living human beings have shared. They will be better men and women for their efforts, and our Nation will benefit from their service and their commitment to causes greater than their own well being.

My thoughts and best wishes go out especially profoundly to those in the class of 2016 who swear their oath this summer while their own mothers and fathers are in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. I know what that feels like . . . though I can’t imagine how much harder that must have felt for my Dad, who wasn’t there on such significant days for me, as much as he would have wanted to be a part of them. That’s the terrifying part of the oath of office: you don’t get to decide when you will be called to fulfill it.

It awes me to be a small link in such an important chain, truly.

The Southeast Iowa Tour

I spent Monday and Tuesday this week in Southeast Iowa, driving 640 miles through 21 Iowa Counties (17 of them new to me), bringing the total number of Iowa counties I’ve visited to 54; more than half-way to a Full Grassley. Highlights of the trip included seeing dozens of bald eagles in and around Keokuk and on the lower reaches of the Des Moines River, unexpectedly visiting the northernmost Civil War battlefield, finding a few geodes in Lee County, watching sunrise over Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, and staying in a classic $30/night motel at the edge of a tiny town, under extraordinary winter stars, with a cornfield outside my window. I also visited the “American Gothic” House in Eldon, Iowa, which features in Grant Wood’s iconic painting of that name. Click the image of it below to view the full photo gallery of this trip with descriptions of what you are seeing, or click here for the silent slideshow version.

Weather Conspiracy and Other Matters

1. The first half of January in Des Moines was so nice, weather-wise, that I had become convinced that the tales of severe Iowan winters were just a myth cobbled up and promulgated by the locals to keep expat New Yorkers like us from moving here. I have ridden my bike, worn shorts and hiked more in the past three weeks than I ever did in any winter month during my 18 years in Albany. Nice! Unfortunately, though, yesterday the temperature dropped into single digits, the wind kicked up with 50 mile per hour gusts, and the dry, stinging snow started flying. Oh well . . . I guess they do have winter in Iowa. But with an annual average snowfall of only 33 inches, I can’t imagine it being worse than a typical endless, icy, sleety, dark Upstate New York cold season. Fingers crossed. Katelin and I did some really nice walks during the warm spells, including another trek out the Great Western Trail and a nice walk around Saylorville Lake, per pics below:

Beautiful rural cemetery in Cumming, Iowa.

Road between Cumming and its cemetery, under big Midwestern skies.

Creek on the Great Western Trail.

On the Great Western Trail. (I love the missing blades on the weather vane, and the bullet holes in its tail, which become more obvious and visible if you click to enlarge this shot).

Trees reflected in a frozen creek, on the Great Western Trail.

Katelin on the trail around Saylorville Lake.

I will eat your soul . . . . I want your soul . . . .

Uhhh . . . . I think we will pass, thanks . . .

2. When I was in sixth grade, our family lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while my dad attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College there. Last weekend, Katelin, Marcia and I went down to Kansas City for a night on the town, and on our way there, we popped over to Leavenworth to assess the old homestead. It didn’t look half bad, honestly:

We lived in the end unit of this apartment complex.

My bedroom window was the one on the second floor of the end unit, closest to the front of the house. When I looked out this window, I saw the distinctive dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. My next door neighbor was Rob Heinsoo, who went on to achieve a high degree of acclaim as a game designer, including serving as the lead designer for the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. His brother (another Eric) and I were among his very first dungeon victims, and it was an absolute hoot to read about his tentative first dungeons many, many, many years later in this interview. I still remember the School for Dragons . . . there was no going forward after we bumbled into that. The Napoleonic war game mentioned in the interview was based on the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt and to this day, the only things I know and retain about that battle are based on the game. That was also the year that I became a life-long Kansas City Royals fan. Needless to say, Fort Leavenworth holds fond memories for me!

Veterans Day

On July 7, 1982, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same, as had and have done all members of the United States military forces before and after me. By virtue of the relatively peaceful times in which I served, I never had to test my commitment to that oath in the face of live fire or combat, but many of the men and women who took that oath with me that day remain on active duty and are in Iraq or Afghanistan today.

My appreciation for them and for Veterans Day, when we honor them and all the soldiers, sailors, marines and aviators before them for their enduring service, is deepened by the fact that I am the scion of soldiers who actually did have to test their mettle in combat, and (fortunately) returned from “over there” to tell tales to their children and grandchildren.

I keep my late father’s miniature ribbons in a box on my desk; his full-scale medals are in a shadow box that my sister made. As I look at them, from left to right, I see that he earned: The Legion of Merit, The Bronze Star (with combat V), The Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), The Navy Commendation Medal (with Silver Star), The Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (two awards), The National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal (with four stars), The Humanitarian Service Medal, The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (two awards, with Silver Star and Palm and Frame), and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal. Not included in the miniatures are the Presidential Unit Commendation (one star), the Combat Action Ribbon (one star) and the Lebanese Order of the Cedar, of which my father is one of only a very, very small number of American recipients, for his work with Ambassador Philip Habib and his service as Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1982-83.

These medal were all earned in onerous situations, far away from family, but we were fortunate in that my father actually came home to receive them. I have a photo in my office of a four-year old me and my mother admiring my father’s Bronze Star on the day it was awarded. I saw him pin on many of the other medal over the years. In 2002, he was buried wearing an identical set of miniature ribbons in a cemetery reserved for those who had sworn the oath that he and I both swore, professing our willingness to sacrifice our lives for the Nation and its people.

My father’s father was also a warrior, who set off to serve in World War II shortly after my father was born. He spent nearly four years in North Africa and Italy, surviving some of the most storied and hard-fought campaigns in a truly brutal war. He returned with an utterly astonishing photo album, including pictures of the bombing of Algiers, the siege of Naples, and his camp, in which his North Carolina-based unit attempted to evoke their home by naming the aisle between their tents “Rue De Albemarle.”

My mother’s father and great uncle also served in World War II, and I have records of many of my forebears serving in the Civil War (foremost among them: Colonel Charles J. Colcock) and the Revolutionary War (where my direct ancestor Colonel Ann Hawkes Hay served the American cause before we even formally existed as a Nation). I believe in the importance of service to Nation on an intellectual basis, but I also think I feel it on a gut basis, as a part of my genetic make-up, a cultural, residual memory passed down as instinct from the warriors who served the Nation before me.

So I applaud and admire them on Veterans Day, as I applaud and admire all those who served with them, and all those who serve today. It is with awe and humility that I ponder the sacrifices they made and make so that I can sit here and type this missive to you today. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Falling Through A Time Portal

Like most folks in Latham, I live under the flight path into Albany International Airport used by planes landing from the east to the west, which typically occurs when the wind is up or the weather is stormy. Having an interest in airplanes, and having lived here for 17 years, I’ve reached the point where I actually recognize the sounds of the common airplanes flying into Albany (Boeing 737 variants, Canadair Regional Jets, Bombardier Dash-8’s, etc.), so when I hear something out of the ordinary, I generally go to a window or out to my porch and look up. Sometimes I’ll see a KC-10 Refueler doing “touch and goes” at the airport, or an Air National Guard C-130 heading for Scotia, or even a private P-180 Avanti II carrying some filthy rich person to our green and pleasant land.Those aren’t frequent visitors to our airport, but they land here often enough that it’s not too unusual to see them flying over our house.

This afternoon, though, something different happened. I was washing dishes in the kitchen after broiling four chicken breasts that I’d gently rubbed with olive oil and freshly crushed Himalayan salt and white pepper (yummy!), when I heard an unfamiliar hum above me, so I walked over to the window, looked up, and, Holy Crap!, I saw a World War II-vintage B-17 Flying Fortress roar by low above my house! Now, being something of an aviation buff, I know that the last operational flights made by B-17 variants occurred in the mid- to late-1950s. I concluded, therefore, after clearly seeing one above my house in Latham today, that the only viable explanation for such an experience was that I had inadvertently and unknowingly fallen through a time portal that had carried me back to the days when B-17’s routinely patrolled the skies. Huh! Who would have imagined, right?!

Taking a “When in Rome” approach to this most unexpected of situations, I quickly hired myself a buxom secretary with strong typing skills, had her make me a pot of coffee, and then sent her out to the market to buy me a carton of unfiltered Pall Malls. While she was away, I put some Enoch Light on the record player, shook myself up a batch of three martinis, and wondered why in the world I was cooking and washing dishes, given that I am a man, after all!!! When my secretary returned, I had her clean up the kitchen, then I dictated some memos, and then I carried my fourth martini back to my desk and looked at the pile of paper spilling out of the Telex Machine to see what was going on in the greater world around me.

Wait a minute . . . what’s this here? B-17 Liberty Belle Tour Comes to Albany??? Hmmm . . . well, I guess I didn’t fall through a time portal, after all. So, uh, what am I supposed to do with all these cigarettes, not to mention my buxom new secretary? Maybe another martini will help me figure it all out . . . pass me the cocktail onions there, will you, dear?

Mother’s Day in the Military

This photo of my mother, sister and I was taken in Prince William Forest Park near one of our short-term homes in Northern Virginia in the early 1970s.

It was framed and sent as a gift to my father, who was in the middle of a 13-month Marine Corps deployment to the Western Pacific, one of many stints abroad during his long military career. Mailed photos were about as good it as got for military families back then, before the internet and easy, affordable long-distance phone service. (The military’s AUTOVON phone system of the era left a lot to be desired, and I remember some nearly incomprehensible conversations with my dad where signal lag and poor connections left us essentially shouting atop each other).

This particular deployment wasn’t the only time that my mom served as sole caregiver for long periods of time, as my dad’s career took him to Vietnam, Okinawa, Beirut, Oman and numerous other exotic destinations for long periods of time over the years. He missed my high school graduation, and he missed me being sworn in at Annapolis, as I began my own military career. That was hard on him, hard on me, and hard on my mom.

We were not alone in those experiences, of course. So I respectfully request that you reflect, for just a moment, on how many moms are celebrating Mother’s Day with their children today, while their parenting partners are busy serving abroad, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Korea, and on other bases and ships around the world. And reflect, too, on the moms who are marking Mother’s Day on those ships and bases themselves, without their children and other loved ones at their sides.

My sister and I were so very fortunate to be blessed with a strong, principled mother, who was able to raise us on her own for long periods of time, while my father provided for us and served our country, sometimes at home, and sometimes not. I salute all the moms of the world today, but extend special fondness and appreciation to those who have raised their children in military households, like the one I was raised in, and the one that my wife and I brought our own daughter into.

Marcia (who is also a former Naval Supply Corps Officer) and I never had to endure any long deployment separations, thankfully, but I can still tell you that moving coast-to-coast on military orders with a three-month old was no picnic for anyone. So happy Mother’s Day, Mom, and happy Mother’s Day, Marcia. I love you both dearly, and you did a great job raising your little ones under challenging circumstances!