Nine Ways to Say I Love You

1. Last week’s Navy vs Notre Dame game was a heartbreaker, made more painful when they showed David Robinson (arguably Navy’s most famous athlete, with the possible exception of Roger Staubach) wearing Notre Dame regalia. David was in my Naval Academy company his plebe year (he and his room-mate and I and my room-mate used to play a lot of acey deucy late at night, when we were all supposed to be sleeping or studying), and I like, respect and admire him. I am also delighted that his son is an accomplished football player with the Irish, since I know that the younger Robinson will be every bit the fine scholar-athlete that his father was. But, you know, maybe neutral colors for the Navy-Notre Dame game, huh? Just saying? Nicely enough, Notre Dame followed up on their success by tanking in a game against Pitt, while Navy pummeled Hawaii at home. Good bounce back, Mids. Very proud.

2. Just for the record: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds deserves to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner of college football’s most famed award. What he does week after week after week with a small offensive line against major college programs is just remarkable. And knowing what he has to cope with, week after week after week, in terms of his academic and military responsibilities makes him all the more everything that a great student-athlete should be. Are you watching and listening, Heisman Trophy voters? You should be.

3. Andy Prieboy‘s “Bands” is one of my favorite songs of recent years, since it does a brilliant job of describing the obsessive mindset of the serious music geek, and also sounds just gorgeous in terms of the language, words, rhymes, alliterations and rhythms that Prieboy uses in telling his tale. He’s an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and storyteller, right up there with my other long-time favorite tune-smith, Jed Davis. This band, that band, every damn band, every damn band know to either God or man, indeed . . .


4. Robert Fripp is one of my favorite musicians, and also one of my favorite philosophers and writers. After a period of retirement as a performing player, he is bringing back King Crimson in 2014 with a new seven piece lineup. I very much loved this quote from his online diary (which I read regularly) about part of the reason why he is re-embracing the venal world of the professional player: “Simply put, my life is closer to Paradise than I might reasonably hope for. The danger with Paradise: we fall asleep in the wonderfulness of it all. At that point, time to bring out The Pointed Stick.” I like and get this. It helps explain my masochistic tendencies.

5. One of the nice things about having Katelin living nearby is that we can get together when we have something special to do, or we can get together when we just feel like hanging out and being lazy. A couple of weeks ago, she was here in the afternoon while we just slugged about and watched football. She was sort of paying attention, while also reading a book, and it occurred to me that I had never actually seen her actively watch or had a conversation with her about football. So I asked her if she had any idea as to what was actually happening on the television. Here’s what she told me:

So the kicker kicks the football, and then they all run after it, and if they catch it, they generally run faster. And the kicker wants to get it as far away from scoring a touchdown as possible, but they want to get it to the touchdown. A lot of tackling happens, and there are four downs, and the downs have to do with when they’ve been tackled the most often. And when a touchdown happens, the kicker gets to do this again, to kick the ball to get it, I am blanking on what the thing is called, the pointy thing, and if that happens then they get an extra point, and the defense players are bigger than the offense players, and they don’t really look like humans. And the positions are quarterback, linebacker, kicker, running back. I don’t know what they do, but I know the linebackers are defense and they are the biggest guys. I know what the quarterback does: he is the head of the team, so he does the huddles and does the counts and tries to get the ball across. Oh, there is a center, too.

6. I have really been enjoying listening to some of the classic Little Feat albums recently. As I was looking for footage of them at the peak of their live capabilities, I found the great version of “Dixie Chicken” from Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special linked below. It is interesting how many times a search for great live performances from the ’70s bring up links to this amazing television show. With forty bazillion cable channels now, how come we can’t have nice things like this today?


7. G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been on hiatus for several months now while he works on other projects, but he’s started producing new Sunday strips in recent weeks, and plans to come back to his full daily schedule in the next month. I miss his his insightful daily takes on our modern times, but am glad to have strips like this one again, even if they only come once per week.

8. So let’s say you are lucky enough to have Dale Crover (he’s on the left in the linked video) as the drummer in your band for 30 years, even though he did not participate in your very, very earliest demo works. So then let’s say that your original drummer from way, way back in your pre-Crover days turns up and wants to play with you again. Obviously, the answer is to kick him to the curb and tell him he missed his chance. Unless, of course, you are the Melvins, in which case you switch Crover to bass and let prodigal drummer Mike Dillard handle the skins again. That should be a recipe is futility, if not disaster, but in true Melvins fashion, they make it work brilliantly on their new record, Tres Cabrones . . . which is the best thing they’ve done since their last counter-intuitive move of incorporating Big Business into the band for their brilliant 2006 album (A) Senile Animal. “Civilized Worm” from that record is one of my favorite live clips ever, even if it didn’t appear on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special.

9. The title of this post comes from an album by the legendary Albany band Section 8, who I interviewed and wrote press material for back in the ’90s. They played one of the ten greatest live shows I ever saw, at the late lamented QE2 in October 1997, then broke up soon thereafter. In January, they’re playing a two-night reunion stand in Clifton Park, and the tickets for the event sold out almost as soon as they were released. I just wish the bastards had done it before I moved to Iowa.

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.

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.