Golfing with Hugh

NOCONA, TX. – Playing golf with Hugh Martin was always as much an Easter egg hunt as a round on the links.

Hugh was frugal, and the idea of losing a golf ball was simply unacceptable to him. Which was why, in addition to the rifle he packed in his golf bag to shoot snakes, he also carted a telescoping aluminum pole with a scoop on the end to fish errant  balls from the ponds gracing the golf course here.

This being Nocona, Texas, population 2,856, getting a tee time was never much of a problem, and for the record, I never saw any snakes, though Hugh claimed to have shot a rattler once.

My theory of golf holds that you should use as much of the course as possible, so I spend at least as much time off the fairway as on it. If I find my ball in the rough, fine, I’ll play it. If not, I don’t waste time: take a drop and move on.

Not Hugh. I can’t recall him ever giving up on a lost ball. Indeed, once he made his way through 18 holes he invariably came off the course with more balls than he started with.

I’m sure I was something of a disappointment to him in this regard, my lack of persistence, my spendthrift ways when it came to my cavalier disregard for missing golf balls.

But I figure if you can’t afford a few extra balls, you shouldn’t be out on the course in the first place. Which may explain why I only play once or twice a year.

I love golf. I love the feel of making contact with the ball on those rare occasions when I don’t duff it. I enjoy the majestic arc of the ball as flies off the tee and gracefully banks to either the right or the left, rarely straight. It’s fun trying to guess how many times the ball will bounce on the cart path or where it will ricochet off the side of the house I just hit. I love yelling “fore”, and I get to do that a lot. It’s a scream watching players scatter on the adjoining fairway. And the thunk when the ball lands of the hood of a passing car is a sound not to be missed.

I’m afraid Hugh missed out on most of those pleasures as his shots flew straight and long. Boring stuff always being on the fairway like that.

Hugh was a strong man and he could hit the ball a country mile, even in his 70s. A lifetime of working with his hands — he was a plumber by trade — made him that way.

Being a plumber, Hugh was a handy fellow to have as a father-in-law.

I recall one time when the garbage disposal was clogged up and my wife Sandy suggested we call her dad for help.

There I was, on my back on the kitchen floor, phone in one hand, wrench in another, disassembling the disposal with Hugh guiding me by remote, like an air traffic controller talking down a hapless passenger who finds himself at the controls of a plane when the pilot keels over.

Got ‘er done, too.

I was working in the back yard when I got the call, pulling weeds by the stepping stones Hugh helped me lay.

Sandy had been in Austin at the nursing home with her sister when Hugh finally breathed his last breath. He outlasted the doctor’s predictions and exhausted family members who had kept a week-long bedside vigil.

The funeral home took Hugh’s remains to Nocona to be buried by his wife, Wanda, who passed away a few years before.

We all gathered at the grave site and told stories about Hugh, remembering the good times and what a wonderful friend he was.

When his next door neighbor’s house burned down, Hugh Martin put all the new plumbing into their rebuilt home — for free. He was always there for folks to lend a hand or lend a smile.

He loved his wife and his kids. He loved to go shopping at the Goodwill store. He was a pack rat who had more tools than any man I’ve ever known. And he loved to collect those golf balls.

So long, Hugh. Wherever you are, hit ’em long and hard and don’t neglect the 19th hole.

The judge who saved Christmas

Susan Dlott will henceforth be known as the judge who saved Christmas.

The U.S. District judge added new meaning to the expression “poetic justice” when she decided recently that Dec. 25 may remain a federal holiday. Dlott ruled against a curmudgeon who sought to declare the Christmas holiday unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.

“The court will address

Plaintiff’s seasonal confusion.

Erroneously believing Christmas

Merely a religious intrusion.”

That’s how Dlott opened her 24-page ruling. In rhyme and verse she argued that just because Christmas has religious roots, that doesn’t mean federal employees can’t be given the day off.

Why?

Because Christmas has become such a secular cultural event that it can no longer be viewed strictly as a religious occasion. After all, what do Santa Claus, elves at the North Pole, flying reindeer and Christmas trees have to do with the birth of Jesus?

“An extra day off

Is hardly high treason.

It may be spent as you wish.

Regardless of reason.”

Dlott’s heroic ruling in favor of Christmas harkens memories of a similar, but imaginary, courtroom drama played out in the 1947 movie Miracle on 34 Street.

In the film, Judge Henry X. Harper must decide whether a white-bearded old man who insists he’s Santa Claus has all his marbles. The judge is up for re-election, and his political adviser is worried:

“I don’t know a habeas from a corpus, but I’m telling you to get off this case.”

Harper doesn’t, and in the end he rules that Santa is real. He bases his decision on the fact that the U.S. Post Office, an arm of the federal government, delivers mail to Santa.

Now it seems that reality and fiction have blended and come full circle. Where postal workers appeared before a judge in the movie to save Santa, in real life, Dlott cited Santa as a secular symbol in saving the postal workers’ holiday.

I called the judge and asked her if she was inspired by the movie.

“Oh I loved it. Wasn’t he great?” she said. “I’ve only seen that movie about 5,000 times. But you know, I didn’t even think of that. To be honest, the first thing I thought of was Dr. Seuss and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

Which explains how she was inspired to rule in rhyme.

Dlott has become something of a judicial celebrity because of that. She’s gotten calls from Court TV, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other news organizations.

“I can’t get over this,” she said. “I just thought this would be a cute seasonal thing to do to show that judges aren’t as dry as everybody thinks. If you’re ever going to do poetry in a case, this is the one to do it.”

She may have yet another opportunity to rule in iambic pentameter. Richard Ganulin, the plantiff, plans to appeal her decision. Ganulin better plan on something else, too: A lump of coal in his Christmas stocking.

DLOTT’S DECISION IN FULL:

The court will address

Plaintiff’s seasonal confusion

Erroneously believing Christmas

Merely a religious intrusion.

Whatever the reason

Constitutional or other

Christmas is not

An act of Big Brother!

Christmas is about joy

And giving and sharing

It is about the child within us

It is mostly about caring!

One is never jailed for not having a tree

For not going to church

For not spreading glee!

The court will uphold

Seemingly contradictory clauses

Decreeing “The Establishment” and “Santa”

Both worthwhile “Claus(es)”!

We are all better for Santa

The Easter Bunny too

And maybe the Great Pumpkin

To name just a few!

An extra day off

Is hardly high treason

It may be spent as you wish

Regardless of reason.

The court having read

The lessons of Lynch

Refuses to play

The role of the Grinch!

There is room in this country

And in all our hearts too

For different convictions

And a day off too!

 

Hamming it up with Lasers and Potato Guns

I traveled to Hamvention reluctantly, dragged along by a buddy of mine who points to learning Morse Code as the crowning achievement of his life. If figured, what the heck, maybe I’d pick up some stereo gear. I nearly left with a laser cannon instead.

My friend’s apartment is filled floor to ceiling with hundreds of pounds – if not several tons – of radios, pulse generators (whatever they are) oscilloscopes and other electronics. If he dared to turn on all this gear at once, I imagine lights would dim all over the United States.

I had dabbled in ham radio as a kid, but I could never get the sense of banging out dits and dahs on a telegraph key when I could just as easily pick up a phone and call someone. What with the Internet, e-mail and Instant Messaging, Morse Code today is about as useful as smoke signals.

But I let myself get talked into hopping on a plane and four hours later we arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where the annual gathering of short wave radio buffs is held.

Hamvention resembles a giant yard sale for geeks. The convention center parking lot was jammed with booths and tables covered with stuff. There were even some radios. Mostly, though, there were antennas, computers, microscopes, cameras, electron tubes, tools, parts, T-shirts, stereos and the occasional Geiger counter, land-mine sweeper and . . .

“Hey, what’s that?” my buddy asked. “It looks like something off the Starship Enterprise.”

He pointed to an elongated, rectangular device, wrapped in cooling tubes and with all sorts of wires dangling from it. It was the size of a howitzer. The nameplate on the side of the device identified it as a copper vapor laser. The price tag read $350.

What is this world coming to, I wondered aloud, when a laser is a yard-sale commodity?

The guy selling the laser explained that he had a smaller one at home and that when he accidentally stepped in front of it his pants burst into flames. This baby was much bigger and more powerful. My friend and I concluded that it would make an outstanding fireplace starter and living room conversation piece, but his wife might not agree. So, with reluctance, we moved on.

At the next booth, a fellow was hawking potato guns. Jam a potato down the barrel, shoot hair spray in the other end, seal it up and ignite it. It fires a potato or other projectile over the treetops, we were told.

We instantly forgot about the laser cannon. We had to have a potato gun.

It was about then that I got a visual of my friend coming home and being greeted by the missus. She would be eager to hear about his trip to the ham radio convention and all we had learned about the world of high technology and international communications.

I imagined the look on her face when she discovered he had returned, instead, with a bazooka capable of hurling uncooked vegetables through the neighbors’ windows.

I’d seen that look before. Like when the cat threw up on her rug. That would be the cat that no longer lives there.

“Uh, buddy,” I said, “I’m not sure this would go over that well on the home front.”

He was bummed, but felt better after he got a high tech slingshot instead.

 

 

The Big Wind

Julie Weindel still has the two tickets to the Xenia High School play she bought for her parents 39 years ago. They never got to see her perform.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in April and Julie — then Julie Smith — and a handful of fellow cast members of “The Boyfriend” (described in the playbill as “A musical comedy of the 1920s”), had finished their mid-week rehearsal after a successful opening of the play the weekend before.

One of Julie’s classmates, Ruth Venuti, had left the auditorium to get a drink of water, and the cast was just “goofing off,” Julie recalled.

Suddenly Ruth came running back in. “There’s a tornado across the street,” she yelled.

“Well, we were all thinking, you know, a little itty bitty tornado across the street,” Julie reminisced.

“So we all ran out into the hallway to look at it,” she continued. ” And when we got to the hallway, you could see just a solid wall of black. I saw the roof of the gazebo (at Shawnee Park) go up. I remember a green pickup truck going up — like something out of the Wizard of Oz.”

The kids ran away from the front door and dove for cover. “And as soon as we hit the floor the lights went out and it hit the school. And, um, with us in it.”

I had spoken with Julie several years ago about that day in 1974 when the infamous F5 tornado destroyed most of her hometown. It was part of the second largest and most violent outbreak of twisters on record killing more than 300 people in 13 states, 32 of them in Xenia.

I was reminded of our talk this morning after reading about the horrific tornado that devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Now living in Tulsa and working for a television station there, Julie alerted her friends on Facebook that she and her husband were OK. She had spent the past 20 hours helping the station with its coverage of the disaster.

Nobody better than Julie to cover a storm. She lived through one of the worst.

What was that like? I asked when we had talked about it earlier.

“Oh God. Well, it was incredibly loud. It was a deafening, well, for me, literally, but a deafening sound – almost like a wall of sound.”

She was referring to her deafness in her left ear. The bones in her ear were literally wrenched out of place by the wind that swept through the school.

As Julie and her classmates endured the tornado’s rampage, “I accepted the fact that I was going to die.” she said. “I’m going to die in a tornado. Not a disease. Not a car. I’m going to die in this.”

The tornado sucked the second story off the high school and hurled debris down the hallways.

“I remember getting hit by tree limbs. The hallways became wind tunnels. I could hear the lockers being sucked out of the walls and going down the hallways. We were so lucky we were in the only hallway in that entire part of the building that didn’t have lockers in it. You were getting hit by birds. You were getting hit by tree limbs. You were drenched with water.”

Suddenly it was quiet and the students thought it was over. “We all got up. I remember one guy looking around the corner. And then it hit again. That’s when it kind of slammed us and I ended up halfway down the hallway.”

Finally, it ended.

“It got incredibly quiet,” she remembered. “You know we were all pushing tree limbs off of ourselves and getting up and trying to see who was alive, who maybe wasn’t. We were all incredibly lucky because nobody was seriously hurt. We were all pretty shredded up with glass, but nobody looked like they were that hurt.”

It took a while for the students to fight their way out of the debris. “We kind of pulled things out of our way. It took us a little while to claw out of that.”

What was it like when you finally managed to get out? I asked.

“The whole second floor (of the high school) was gone. I mean it was gone! And the water pipes – like little fountains where the toilets used to be. And we looked over to the theater where we had been. The school buses were right on the stage. I mean we could see the stage because the roof was gone.”

Then what?

“Well, everything in that area was pretty well demolished. And homes behind the high school were demolished; homes in front of the high school were demolished. It took about every tree in Shawnee Park. It was very disorienting to be standing in the middle of that.

“We all started thinking about our families and how far did this go, you know? Did it go all the way out to north of town where my family lived? You could smell gas and stuff like that, so it wasn’t exactly a safe place to be.”

Julie made her way on foot toward home along Route 68 not knowing what she would find when she arrived.

Meanwhile, her father, having arrived home from work in nearby Beavercreek, had driven back into town to pick Julie up from school, unaware of the extent of the damage.

“The closer he got to the high school, the more devastation he saw,” she said. “Then he got about three blocks from the high school and couldn’t drive any further because of all the trees and debris in the street. But he could see the high school wasn’t standing. The way he described it to me was he left the car running and got out and ran. He ran up to a police officer and said, ‘What about the kids in the high school?’ And you could just see it was trashed. He saw the buses on the stage and knew that’s where we would be and the police officer said, ‘No one got out of the high school.’ ”

Stunned, her dad tried to cross the police lines, but was turned back. Finally, he returned to his car and headed home.

“I was stumbling down 68 and he drove past me. And he stopped the car, got out and ran towards me. And he was crying and that’s when – when I saw my dad cry – then I cried. And he thought he was seeing a ghost. He thought I was dead. He and I were close before then, but we became very close after that. Very, very close.”

Julie confided that even after all these years those moments are still difficult to talk about.

“I remember when Dad got me home, he asked my Mom to take my little sisters to the neighbors because I was a mess. He tried to figure out where all this blood was coming from. And it was, at that point, I realized that not all of it was mine. That leaves me questioning, you know. Some of it may have been some of the other kids I was next to. Some of it may not have been. That, when you’re covered in blood and realize it’s not all yours — that leaves a mark.”

Among the events that come easier to recall, though, is Ruth Venuti’s heroism.

Had it not been for her warning they all would have been killed, Julie is convinced. “She saved our lives. No one would mess with Ruth after that. They’d have to go through all 12 of us. She was incredible.”

President Nixon gave her a citation in recognition of her bravery.

Julie shared with me her collection of memorabilia from that fateful day. Included were a copy of the playbill, autographed by her classmates. And the tickets she had bought for her parents that were never used. And a color photo of Ruth Venuti that Ruth had signed with two messages on the back. One was to Julie, the other was this:

“Hey, Big Wind. I hate you and love you. You destroyed our old lives, so we’ll start again. Some in one place, some in another. But you can’t destroy the love of a friend.”

The Talisman

This is the story of Marcus the Greatest. And young love. And heartbreak.

It’s also the story of a grandmother’s gift and the power of a talisman.

Marcus is 21 years old and lives in Cincinnati. Everyone knows him as “The Greatest” because that’s what he calls himself. And there’s some justification for that:

Marcus, you see, is one of these rare guys who you can count on to do what he says he will do.

Now, the general theme of men who keep their word is the stuff of heroic legend, literature and film. Guys who say they’ll go back for ammunition, and you know – freaking know – they will rejoin the firefight. When Wesley tells Princes Buttercup that “I will always come for you” and that death cannot stop true love. And it doesn’t. When Spenser and Hawk never even talk about this stuff because real men just don’t – it’s understood, it’s up to Susan to interpret it for us, because what we are talking about here is guys who would die before breaking their word.

That’s Marcus. Laudable. But the journey to become this person began in pain.

The story, as he told it to my son, Logan, began 16 years ago when Marcus was just 5 years old. Marcus loved his father more than anyone in the world. He woke up every day looking forward to making his father proud of him. He idolized his dad, like little boys do.

When you are little, your dad is your hero. When you grow up, you know better. And when you become a dad, you know that, eventually, painfully, you will never be able to live up to your son’s expectations no matter how hard you try.

Marcus faced all that too early, too young.

In addition to his father, Marcus’ household comprised his Cambodian mom, his maternal grandmother and his sister. He found his grandmother annoying because she kept trying to get him to wear a silly necklace that she had specially made for him.

Marcus, like most little boys, didn’t want to have anything to do with wearing jewelry of any sort, let alone a necklace.

But she kept pestering him about it, said the Buddha on the chain had been blessed by monks. Whatever they were.

Marcus just wanted her to leave him alone. And he might never have worn that necklace except for something that happened right about that time.

His dad left home.

Marcus loved his dad and he blamed his mother for him leaving. Blamed his grandmother, too. His loyalty was totally with his father. And he missed him terribly.

On Christmas Eve, having been gone for a while, his dad finally called. Told him to wait outside on the front porch for him at 6 p.m. That he wanted to see Marcus, but didn’t want to go inside and deal with the Ex and her mother.

As soon as Marcus hung up the phone, he ran in his room, packed his Spiderman backpack, put on his Lion King tennis shoes, and the shorts, T-shirt and hat his dad had picked out for him. At noon, Marcus was outside waiting for his dad in case he came early. Six hours until his dad was supposed to arrive, he waited outside in Ohio’s winter for him in nothing but shorts and a flimsy T-shirt.

The appointed hour came, he told my son, Logan, but his father didn’t. Marcus waited until well after dark, 9 p.m. Still no dad. His sister begged Marcus to come inside, but he told her to bug off. He didn’t care how cold it was, he was waiting for his dad, just like he told him to. After 11 p.m. it became harder to stay awake. It became much colder at night, but 1 a.m. came and he still sat on his porch. Keeping his eyes open became a struggle.

At dawn, a hand on his shoulder startled him awake. He snapped awake in excitement hoping to see his dad. After a night in the cold, it should have been the Grim Reaper. Or Child Protective Services.

But it was neither.  It was his grandmother.

Marcus recalls that he couldn’t fight the tears any longer. His grandmother couldn’t either. They both wept. But why was she crying? he wondered.

His grandmother then reached out and placed that annoying Buddha necklace around Marcus’s neck and said, “Marcus, this necklace will protect you. As long as you’re wearing this, there will never be anything you can’t do. If you desire something, your necklace will help you get it no matter what.”

A talisman. That’s what it was. Imbued with power to make Marcus strong. Blessed by a Monk and a Grandmother. Maybe the two strongest forces in the universe.

For it to work, all he had to do is one thing:

Believe.

And he did.

He wiped his tears away and told his grandmother, “I promise I will never take it off, no matter what.”

“I don’t want you to do that,” his grandmother replied. “I want you to take it off and give it to the one person who you’d wait all night on this cold porch for.”

And through the years, Marcus never stopped believing in the necklace, his talisman, and it never came off. It gave him confidence. He believed there was never a single thing he couldn’t do. If someone told him “you can’t do this,” or “this is impossible,” he went out of his way to do it just because he knew that necklace would power him through it. It made him The Greatest.

It took nearly 12 years of praying to that necklace every single night that he would see his father again, and at 17 years old, his wish came true, and he visited his father for the first time since he was 5 years old.

The power of the talisman. There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish.

Time passed. All was well. But now the power of the talisman is facing, perhaps, its greatest challenge.

Yes, you probably saw this coming: there is a girl involved.

Marcus was no stranger to the ups and downs of romance. But this girl, The Girl, she’s different. She is the woman his grandmother foretold, the one person he couldn’t live without, who he would wait for forever, who he would spend the night on a porch freezing half to death waiting for. The Girl the talisman was made for.

Which is why he decided to give her his necklace, his most important possession.

“Since I was 5 years old, I thought the only thing I couldn’t live without was my necklace,” he told my son. “Now I have two things I can’t live without, and I’m giving her my necklace, and I’m only accepting both of them back, not one or other, but the next time I wear this necklace is when she comes back to me. I will wait until I’m 50 years old, I will spend every night waiting on that porch for her, but no matter what, I’m getting her back and spending my life with her.”

This is from the guy who always does what he says he will do.

“She asked for space. I gave her space. I gave her my necklace. She’s too afraid to keep it. If I just had instructions on what to do, it would’ve been done already.  I have never not been able to do something in my entire life.”

Except fix this.

So far.

Marcus told my son:  “Some thoughts in my head are scary. If she was at the bottom of a volcano, and I knew she couldn’t be saved, and I knew there was zero percent chance I could survive, I know I would jump in anyways to try and save her. The way I feel about her, is literally scaring me — the things I’d do to have her back.”

What do you say to that? How do you help someone whose heart is broken after experiencing True Love?

Especially someone so young and still so vulnerable, for whom the scars of life have not hardened his heart, for whom True Love, the Wesley and Buttercup brand of True Love, is still possible?

My son called me and told me this story. How after three years together Marcus and The Girl are now apart. How stricken he is. How he hasn’t lost a girlfriend, but his best friend. And how not even the power of the talisman, the necklace his grandmother gave him, is helping him right now.

Where this story goes from here, I don’t know. But I would offer this:

I believe in True Love. And if this it, it will work out.

As for the necklace that has meant so much to Marcus, God bless your grandmother for that. For giving you a talisman to help guide your life.

But remember this: The power of the talisman comes not from outside, but from within. You are Marcus the Greatest, not because of a string of jewelry, but because of the man you are. And that ought to be good enough for anybody.

NORAD keeps eye on the sky

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – We were deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, buried beneath thousands of feet of solid granite designed to protect us from nuclear holocaust.

On the big-screen TV monitors at the front of the Command Center, a missile launched from the Korean peninsula arced its way across the Pacific Ocean toward a target in the United States. In this simulated exercise, American and Canadian officers of NORAD – the North American Aerospace Defense Command – used satellites to identify the infrared plume of the missile as it was launched. Using complex mathematical models, they quickly calculated the rocket’s trajectory and began notifying the president, the Canadian prime minister and American commanders in chief.

Then we watched the missile, perfectly tracked by astonishingly sophisticated satellite and computer technology, plunge into the heart of America.

“Uh, when did we intercept it?” asked a disbelieving member of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that was touring NORAD at the subterranean fortress outside Colorado Springs, Colo.

After a pregnant moment of silence, the gritty truth was told:

“We didn’t.”

That, of course, is why former President Ronald Reagan came up with his famous “star wars” initiative, a gauntlet that has been picked up by President George W. Bush, who, similarly, wants the United States to develop some sort of missile shield.

The unsettling reality is that the world’s remaining superpower has only one defense against an intercontinental ballistic missile attack: fear of massive, unforgiving retaliation.

Monitoring hostile rocketry is a prime responsibility of NORAD, but not its only role. The joint Canadian-U.S. effort operates a ring of radar sites around the boundaries of North America monitoring all incoming air traffic as well. Nearly 900 unidentified planes enter North American air space each year, drawing NORAD’s watchful eye.

The Space Control Center inside Cheyenne Mountain also keeps an eye on all man-made objects orbiting the Earth. There are more than 8,000 satellites and pieces of space junk circling up there, and within a range of 660 miles above the planet, the center can spot an object as small as 10 square centimeters – about the size of a large bolt. At 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface, where geosynchronous satellites live, the center can spot stuff as small as a volleyball.

Construction of this fortress began in 1961 and was completed in just six years. The idea was to build a bunker inside a mountain that could withstand atomic attack by Soviet bombers.

Air Force spokesmen admit that with the advanced nuclear weaponry of today, not even the miles of rock shielding NORAD would save it from a direct hit. It makes dandy protection from sniper fire, though.
Barbed wire and guarded checkpoints block the entrance to the facility at the end of a narrow road that snakes up the side of the mountain. By the time we were admitted, we were sporting two extra sets of ID badges.

Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center is actually a series of tunnels and wide spaces carved out of solid rock. Massive steel blast doors guard the interior entrance. Inside are 15 buildings, a dozen of which are three stories high, built out of plate steel by Navy shipbuilders and resting on 1,319 springs weighing nearly a ton each. If the Russkies had dropped the Big One, the theory was that the buildings would bounce around while the exterior of the mountain absorbed the brunt of the nuclear blast. It’s an engineering marvel and an anachronism rolled into one.

Inside the mountain the culture is purple, which is military-speak for multiservice. Representatives from the various American armed services work side by side with their Canadian counterparts. This is a prime example of interservice – indeed, international – cooperation. But the flavor is definitely Air Force as about two-thirds of the personnel are either uniformed or civilian members of that service.

Our journey to Cheyenne Mountain was the last stop of an eight-day tour of U.S. military services. The previous day had been spent at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

Eglin is the nation’s largest air base, claiming vast portions of the Gulf of Mexico for its bombing range. The Air Armament Center at Eglin reports to Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Eglin also is home to the 33rd Fighter Wing, and on a bright blue-sky morning we were bused to the runway to watch an F-15 Eagle demonstration. Daytonians familiar with the United States Air and Trade Show would have felt right at home.

Loudspeakers mounted along the tarmac blared out “Kryptonite” by 3 Doors Down as the powerful jet fighter rose into the sky.

If I go crazy, will you still call me Superman . . .

“Ladies and gentlemen, watch as the F-15 swoops into the sky and rockets straight up into the air.”

. . . If I’m alive and well, will you be there holding my hand . . .

“The pilot will now execute a perfect four-point roll.”

. . . I’ll keep you by my side with my superhuman might . . .

“Now for an inverted pass across the field.”

. . . Kryptonite.

“Next, the pilot . . .”

WHOOPS.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to stop the demonstration because a piece of the tail just fell off…”

The technical term, we were told, was “delamination,” but the upshot was that the pilot had to land in a hurry and the Air Force scrambled to find another F-15 with all of its parts still laminated.

Conveniently, this helped underscore a point we’ve heard many times: Our fleet of aircraft is aging and as these birds get older, they have more maintenance problems.

Nearly 60 percent of the Army National Guard’s helicopters are grounded for lack of spare parts. Last week, the General Accounting Office reported that at least 154,000 times a year, military mechanics cannibalize pieces from one aircraft to fix another because of the lack of spares. This costs a million extra hours of work a year, leaves aircraft unfit to fly and demoralizes mechanics, the report said.

In one example cited by Neal Curtin, GAO director of defense issues, about 400 pieces had been removed from one plane to repair others and the aircraft eventually had to be trucked to a maintenance depot to be entirely rebuilt.

Not only is that wasteful, the report said, it is unsafe.

The GAO findings mirror results of an extensive investigation into the cause of military plane crashes published by the Dayton Daily News in 1999 that concluded, among other things, “that hundreds of in-flight emergencies and accidents – some deadly – can be traced to parts installed improperly, engines overhauled incorrectly and other mistakes by mechanics or the people supervising them.”

But if that leads you to fear that the Air Force is falling apart, consider this: Since the end of World War II “there hasn’t been a bomb dropped on U.S. troops,” according to Maj. Gen. Michael Kostelnik, commander of the Air Force Armament Center. That’s what they mean by “air superiority.”

It could also be noted that there haven’t been any enemy bombs dropped on our houses. Or our mountains, for that matter, which brings us back to our last stop on the tour.

You enter and leave Cheyenne Mountain in buses that rumble along a tunnel nearly a mile deep into solid rock. As we emerged and began our trip down the mountain, a staff member ambled through our bus selling official NORAD souvenir coins for five bucks apiece.

Throughout our eight-day tour of the military we had been collecting coins like this. Officers and even high-ranking non-coms pass them out to friends like business cards. If you’re at a bar and someone flashes his coin, you have to buy the drinks if you can’t match him. If you can, he buys.

Having spent the day inside a mountain learning how America defends itself from the emerging threat of foreign nations such as China and Korea, I was eager to add a NORAD coin to my growing collection.
It came in a clear plastic bag on the outside of which were stamped these words:

“MADE IN CHINA.”

‘Remember we’re here’

How important is a strong military to the United States?

Ask Adm. James Loy, commandant of the Coast Guard: “Because of the collective might of our armed services, millions of  Americans can sleep well tonight, never fearing . . . a foreign threat.”

It’s easy to forget that you couldn’t make a statement like that until recently. Travel back a handful of decades in history, and Americans were waking up to the shocking news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of a war that would engulf the entire planet – a titanic struggle between good and evil that redefined America’s destiny.

My father fought in that war. He was the last member of my family to wear his nation’s uniform. Fewer than one in 10 people today have done so.

“The last 18-year-old to be drafted is now 46,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Charlie Cragin said. “We haven’t conscripted anyone for, essentially, two generations.”

With the end of the Cold War, we have grown comfortable in our sense of national security. And because so few of us have any direct ties to the armed services, we don’t often think about the people in uniform who stand ready to shield us from harm. Their numbers are relatively small. There are about 1.4 million officers and enlisted personnel on America’s active-duty roster. Add to them our reservists and National Guard, and the uniformed services still represent only about 1 percent of the American population.

What do they want? What do they need?

There are “two essential truths that all Americans should know about their armed forces,” Loy says. “First, we have terrific young people demonstrating incredible devotion to duty; second, we need to support them with proper equipment, training and compensation.”

Finding and keeping good people was a common theme among all the services during the eight-day Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

“Your Army is about recruiting good people,” Lt. Gen. Larry Ellis said. “We’re challenged with recruiting quality soldiers . . . and we need help in maintaining the Guard and Reserve.”

Pay, especially in the lower ranks, is often cited as an issue. An enlisted solider or sailor at the E-2 rank with less than two years of experience makes about $14,000 a year. He or she also would receive a housing allowance, medical and other benefits. It’s not all that bad, really, for a kid right out of high school, but only if you don’t look at the hourly rate.

The hours young enlistees face can be brutal and the living conditions tough. Aboard a ship at sea, you work and you sleep. Aboard a carrier, you stand in long lines, sometimes for more than an hour, to get fed. And be careful where you walk. Blue tiles mean “Officer Country,” so mind your place.

Young Marines with families at Camp Lejeune live in substandard housing. The system never was designed to support 18- and 19-year-olds married with children. It’s not unheard of that these young service members must rely on government subsidies, such as food stamps, to get by, we were told.

As soldiers and sailors move up in rank and experience, their pay and benefits tend to look more like the civilian world. But turnover also can be a problem in the upper ranks. Just ask the Air Force, where the lure of the airlines is a tempting siren call to experienced pilots.

“I think everyone would agree that we don’t pay our people enough for what they do,” said Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, commander in chief of U.S. Space Command.

Adding to the retention and recruitment challenges has been the robust economy. It’s a bit ironic: A big chunk – if not most – of the federal budget surplus is a consequence of the downsizing of the military, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. “The surplus is really a DOD (Department of Defense) surplus,” he said. “Not a Clinton surplus or a Greenspan surplus.”

We need to be mindful of cutting too much, of becoming complacent, Wolfowitz said. We may think of ourselves as the world’s only remaining superpower, but, he argued, “there is a danger in being smug.”
What makes military commanders lose sleep? It’s not the Cold War fear of a Russian missile salvo. Terrorism is at the top of the list. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, is up there too.

Some threats to readiness are internal, such as equipment that’s old and falling apart. Air Force pilots today are flying planes that were built before they were born.

“Just like your old car, we don’t know what’s going to break next,’ Eberhart said. “We’re working our people harder and harder to get the same results.”

And those people don’t get the respect they deserve from the American people, we were told time and again.

“These are not 12-foot monsters with ragged teeth,” one Marine general said. “Go home and tell America what this (the armed forces) is all about.”

It’s about hard work and discipline. It’s about endless training. It’s about being away from home and loved ones for extended periods. It’s about danger. And it’s about patriotism.

What’s the message the enlisted men and women of our armed services want you to hear?

I had lunch at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with a young airman who knew how to put it into words.
His name is Robert Spencer, and he’s an airman first class from Memphis, Tenn. Spencer enlisted after three years at Memphis State. “I kind of needed a little direction in my life,” he said. “I was always fascinated with aviation, so the Air Force was my choice.”

Unlike so many younger enlisted men and women, Spencer plans to re-enlist. And he hopes to join the Reserve Officer Training Program. He’ll deploy to Saudi Arabia this fall.

What’s the word you’d like me to take back from this trip, I asked him.

He thought for a moment, then said this:

“There is a military. Whether we’re in a time of crisis or not, we’re ready. We need the support of the country. We need people to remember we’re here.”

Military changes its stripes

We were herded from the rooftop of the American Embassy in the West African Republic of Nogoland. Gun smoke and dust filled the air as I approached one of the Army Rangers who had just rescued us from an armed and angry mob.

“I noticed you didn’t read those guys their Miranda rights before you opened up,” I joked.

“No, sir,” he deadpanned. “When we show up, it’s too late for that.”

Fortunately for me and my fellow “hostages,” Nogoland is a fictitious country and the bullets and bombs unloaded by the Special Forces troops were blanks. But the assault felt real enough at the time: the rapid staccato of machine-gun fire, the blasts of exploding hand grenades, the shouts of soldiers in combat and the beating chop of helicopters overhead. All that was missing was incoming fire. Thank God. The actual setting was Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the third stop on an eight-day tour of the active-duty military sponsored by the Defense Department.

The Pentagon puts on this show because it is worried about the growing disconnect between the American people and our warrior class.

Fewer than one in 10 of us under the age of 65 has served in the military. Ninety-five percent of the news media (including yours truly) have never worn a uniform, which may not surprise anyone, but here’s a statistic that might: Only 8 percent of members of the Congress have military service on their resumes.

So when the four-stars try to persuade politicians on Capitol Hill that it’s a bad thing they can’t afford spare parts to keep planes airborne, or when your friendly Army recruiter comes knocking at the local high school, the reception isn’t what it once was. Too many people haven’t been there, haven’t done that. And their fathers and mothers haven’t been there and done that either. In the span of two generations, we’ve evolved from a country where nearly everyone either served or someone close to them had served in the armed services to a nation where only a tiny fraction of its citizens has a clue what the military is about.

Consequently, the Pentagon grasps every opportunity to tell its story. It collaborates with Hollywood in movie productions such as Pearl Harbor, which it hopes will cast the military in a favorable light. It spends millions on television commercials. And it runs programs like the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference to put its best combat boot forward.

Like everything else military, the conference goes by an acronym – J.C.O.C. We quickly took to pronouncing it Jay-Cock instead of the more genteel Jay-See-Oh-See (as in Oh Say Can You See) preferred by Pentagon organizers. The Marines pronounced it Jay-Cock, so it was official as far as we were concerned.

The conference was mercifully light on Power Point presentations and exceedingly heavy on participation and pyrotechnics. This year’s was the 64th of these tours de forces since the end of World War II. I was invited to attend by Lt. Gen. Bob Raggio, commander of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The 55 participants paid for their rooms and meals, but everything else – incidentals like continuous air travel, the priceless time of countless soldiers and sailors, bombs, rockets, bullets and the use of Kevlar helmets – was picked up by Uncle Sam. That would be you, the taxpayer.

In return for this full-immersion experience, which one participant dubbed a military fantasy camp for civilians, the Defense Department hopes we will return home and spread the word about our armed forces.
As you would expect, the Pentagon’s story was well rehearsed. Time and again during our eight-day journey we heard these messages repeated:

* The young men and women in uniform are doing a splendid job under trying circumstances.

* The end of the Cold War has not made the world a safer place. Indeed, with the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction – coupled with the growing threat of terrorism – it’s scarier than ever out there.

* Money. Money. Money. There’s never enough.

* The military has changed its stripes. These days it loves the color purple.

Purple, we were told, is about being joint, as in conjoined, working as one (and not to be confused with the controversial “Army of One” ad campaign).

The Defense Department wants you to know that the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and even the Coast Guard are talking to each other, planning together and even manning important missions together. These joint commands fall under neither the banner of Navy blue or Army green, but purple, as a way of signaling their being joint – as in Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

Why this emphasis on purple? “This is an integrated force because we can’t do it any other way,” said Charlie Cragin, assistant secretary of defense.

Why can’t they do it any other way?

Downsizing.

Since the end of the Cold War, America has reduced the size of its armed services by a third, yet the number of missions – from brush fires in East Timor to major theater conflicts in the Persian Gulf – have risen 300 percent.

Downsizing has brought about some efficiency in the way the services interact, we were assured. But the cuts in military spending have been so deep the Pentagon now believes it can no longer fight two major wars simultaneously, a long-standing tenet of American military strategy.

And like a “right-sized” company whose overtime is out of control, the services are calling upon their reserves and even National Guard elements as never before to fill in for active-duty personnel.
Sustaining both the enlisted and officer rosters for the services has been challenging, especially during the recent economic boom years. Young people have many career options; even when the services can lure them, they often don’t stay long.

Which is why aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and among the most fearsome battle platforms the world has ever known, the captain told us the average age of his enlistees is just 19.

Throughout our journey we were continually encouraged to talk to these young men and women, and their work was frequently praised by their officers. “These kids are great,” we were told time and again.
And, indeed, during this tour we encountered many fine young men and women in the ranks:

* Frank Rupnik III, 22, of Troy has earned enough college credits that when he returns to civilian life in a few months he will be just two quarters away from finishing his college degree.

* At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, 24-year-old Robert Spencer of Memphis told me he feels the Air Force has given him the focus he needs to succeed.

The stream of accolades finally got to one of the more iconoclastic J.C.O.C. participants, however. Weary of the praise, he wondered aloud at a closing conference with a panel of Pentagon brass:

Of course they were great. What did you expect? A bunch of drug addicts?”

No. But I suspect most of us didn’t have a clue what to expect, which was why we were there.

While the Pentagon worries about the disconnect between civilian and martial cultures that has grown since the advent of the all-volunteer military, it has been during that same period that the wounds of the Vietnam war have healed.

America’s attitude about the military and its mission is more positive. Feel-good victories in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo have helped. We’ve emerged as the world’s remaining superpower (never mind all those Russian nuclear warheads). And our technology is so hot we could shoot a cruise missile through the keyhole in Sadaam Hussein’s outhouse – if only we could find it.

But the world is still a dangerous place and this tour offered an opportunity for an inside look at what are armed forces are facing.

Our journey began in Washington, D.C., in late April with briefings at the Pentagon, and then for the next week we were airlifted across the United States to see and, for a short time, experience life in each of the services.

First stop was Norfolk, Va., where we toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine (no, we didn’t get to drive it) and a cruiser. From Norfolk we took off on a thrilling ride to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic.
In the following days, we would find ourselves at Fort Bragg in the midst of a staged rescue operation and then on a rainy North Carolina beach where Marines would execute an amphibious assault. We would fire machine guns, sail with the Coast Guard, fly Air Force simulators and finally journey inside Cheyenne Mountain where American and Canadian forces monitor our borders from land and from space.

And in the end, we would have a deeper appreciation of the challenges faced every day by the young men and women in uniform who, for all of our sakes, stand in harm’s way.

Aboard a city at sea

They call it a COD. It’s a noisy, smelly, albatross of an airplane the Navy uses to shuttle cargo and sailors from shore to aircraft carriers at sea. On a perfect morning in April, three CODs cranked up their powerful twin turboprops on the tarmac of the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Va., and prepared to board a band of fidgety tourists.

It was Day 3 of J.C.O.C. – the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference – and the anticipation and anxiety surrounding our imminent takeoff was palpable. The previous day in Norfolk, we had toured a nuclear-powered attack submarine and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser at dockside. Now, we were about to embark on what the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt would later call the Navy’s version of a Disney E-Ticket ride.

The first part of this adventure would see us fly to the Roosevelt, 100 miles off the North Carolina coast, where the tailhook of the COD would “trap” the third of four wires sprawled across the deck of the Roosevelt, bringing us to a bone-jarring, but safe, landing.

But the best was saved for last when the COD – Navy shorthand for Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft; actually a C-2A Greyhound twin-engine cargo plane – would catapult off the deck of the carrier, reaching flight speed in just two seconds and subjecting its passengers to G-forces comparable to a space launch.

Before marching out single file to the awaiting planes, my fellow J.C.O.C. participants and I were fitted with “cranials,” floppy helmets with goggles reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker’s headgear in The Phantom Menace. We were told to stuff orange, spongy plugs into our ears to blunt the plane’s deafening roar, even though the cranials came equipped with ear covers.

We all wore inflatable life vests in case we landed in the drink. The vests came equipped with dye markers and flares. We were warned, if we splashed down, not to inflate the vests until we climbed out of the emergency exit in the roof of the plane lest the bulky vests jam us in the exit. Comforting thought, that.

We entered the windowless, dark interior of the COD through a ramp at the rear of the aircraft and found our way to our seats, all facing backward, where we struggled to buckle our four-point seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. Pull them tight, we were warned. You’ll be glad you did when you land.

We were.

The standard approach for a carrier landing required us to fly past the Roosevelt, then make a steep U-turn that pinned us to our seats with the force of about two times normal gravity. Slowed by this banking maneuver, the COD then dropped to the carrier deck. But on our first pass the deck was “fouled,” meaning it would be bad news if we tried to land, so we flew over, did it all again, and hit the No. 3 wire – thus earning us the title of “honorary tailhookers.”

After the infamous Tailhook Scandal, some of us were surprised the term was still bandied about. But I didn’t see anyone refusing the cool certificates presented to us. Sailors we met on board during the day expressed surprise and even envy that we got to fly onto the carrier. Sailors can spend entire careers in the Navy, even on carriers, and never get that ride.

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is the most dangerous work environment in the world, we were told. It was easy to believe.

As we clambered out of the COD, the blast from nearby engines almost toppled me. I looked to my left and there, a few feet away, was the Atlantic Ocean. Not a good place to lose one’s balance.

All about us, sailors, dressed in color-coded uniforms signifying their duties on deck, were positioning jet fighters for takeoff, signalling incoming aircraft and helping naval aviators climb aboard. It was a scene straight out of Top Gun.

The Roosevelt is immense. The flight deck is 1,092 feet long and 257 feet wide. It towers 24 stories from keel to mast top and is powered by two nuclear reactors that propel the carrier to speeds of more than 34 mph. It carries a crew of more than 5,500 and can handle 76 aircraft.

At 97,000 tons, the Roosevelt redefines the meaning of “heavy metal.” Surprisingly, the behemoth has only two anchors, but they weigh 30 tons each. Each link of the anchor chain weighs 360 pounds.

It is a city unto itself with more than 3,000 television sets, 2,500 telephones and serving 18,600 meals a day while at sea. It even has its own hospital and surgery suite capable of handling most emergencies, including pregnancies. Welcome to the co-ed Navy.

It’s also a far cry from the ships we had toured at dockside the day before in Norfolk. You can live on a carrier. You survive on a submarine (where, by the way, women have yet to be welcomed as crew members). Despite what we’ve seen in the movies, subs – even modern fast-attack submarines such as the Los Angeles-class Montpelier – are coffin-tight. Indeed, quarters are so snug sailors must share “hot bunks,” sleeping in shifts in the same beds squished into impossibly small crevices in the bowels of the boat. This is no place for anyone who gets nervous in crowded elevators.

Why anyone would aspire to spend weeks, even months, confined in these sardine cans is beyond me, but they are the top choice among Naval Academy grads. What’s it like being submerged for so long? “After four months,” Cmdr. Ron LaSalvia said, “outside air stinks to us.”

Talk to these “bubbleheads,” as the surface sailors call them, and you quickly realize the depth of pride they have in their combat capability. They carry 33 years worth of nuclear fuel on board, produce 10,000 gallons of potable water a day, have unlimited recirculated air and, consequently, can be anywhere, any time, undetected. Bristling with torpedoes and Tomahawk missiles, the nuclear sub is the ultimate weapon at sea.

What do submariners think of their “black shoe” counterparts topside? Not much. Ask them what they call surface ships, friend and foe:

“Targets.”

The biggest target of them all, of course, is the aircraft carrier, which is why, like a schoolyard bully, you never see one alone. Submarines such as the Montpelier prowl the waters surrounding carriers like the Roosevelt hunting for enemy subs. Destroyers, cruisers and orbiting aircraft provide a shield around the carrier and are coordinated by an admiral on board.

But while the admiral may run the fleet, the captain runs the ship, and he made that perfectly clear to all of us in a briefing before our daylong tour:

I am in charge of this ship. I command all 5,000 personnel on board. I am responsible.

The frequent use of the first person by the captain made me wonder if this is how they came up with the Navy’s famous “Aye, aye.” Was this ego running wild? In the civilian world, it is more customary to hear the word “we” in these settings, signifying the team effort of business.

But this isn’t ordinary business. Lives are at stake every day. Officers, I was told, are taught early on to take personal responsibility for their actions. Accountability is paramount.

Which is why commanders so often use the first person and why, among the Navy officers I met, there was so little sympathy for the commander of the USS Greenville, the American sub that collided with a Japanese fishing boat, killing nine people on board.

You don’t get to run a carrier or a sub for nothing. You get this job, you’re supposed to be the best. No excuses.

Capt. Richard O’Hanlon seems typical of the breed. Steely eyed and focused, he worked hard to be an affable host during our stay, but it was clear that the guy is all business.

During a visit to the bridge while Tomcats were busy taking off and landing on the flight deck below, O’Hanlon was interrupted by a bridge officer notifying him that radar had spotted an object 3,000 yards off the carrier’s port bow. “We have no visual, sir,” he told the skipper.

O’Hanlon casually swiveled his command chair away from us, glanced to his left, and pointed.

“There.”

In a blink, he had spotted a boat his younger officers had not. If there is one photograph I wish I had captured on this trip, it was the look on that duty officer’s face at that moment.

And that’s why O’Hanlon’s the boss.

While we watched the continuous stream of aircraft catapulting off the deck, we knew it would soon be our turn. But first we spent time below decks, touring the innards of this mammoth ship and visiting crew members.

At lunch, I sat with 22-year-old Frank Rupnik III of Troy, Ohio. He’s a petty officer second class, an intelligence specialist who has been deployed to both the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. I asked him what he did. He told me he’d have to shoot me if he told me. Actually, he didn’t quite. He’s far too polite for that.

Rupnik has only six months of service left before he returns to civilian life. He plans to finish his degree at Wright State University, then head off to divinity school.

How do you square your ambition to don the cloth with your role aboard a fighting ship? I asked him.

“I’m just doing my duty to God and my country,” he said. “I believe in my chain of command. And the Lord.”

Rupnik said he has been heavily influenced by conversations he’s had with the ship’s chaplain. And he explains that what he and his shipmates are doing is just and moral. “This whole job is about helping people,” he said.

Nonetheless, he’s a perfect example of the turnover problem the services are experiencing. Does he think his decision to enlist in the Navy was worth it?

“No matter who you are or where you’ve come from, you can use the Navy as a step in the right direction.”

The guy’s a walking recruitment poster.

Finally, it was time.

Once again we crossed the blustery flight deck and reboarded our COD. All day long we’d been told what a thrill the catapult off the deck of the carrier would be. Zero to 150 mph in two seconds. A kick in the pants.
If we’d strapped our seat belts on tightly before, they were doubly snug now. Crew members advised us to bend forward, presumably so our heads wouldn’t snap off when we shot from the deck. Everything loose was secured, lest it become a missile in the plane’s interior.

We felt the COD being positioned for takeoff. Long moments passed. Finally the signal: We were about to do it.

BAM!

Son of Beast has nothing on this ride. We were slammed into our harnesses like we’d been shot from a cannon, which, more or less, we were. How can two seconds last so long?

Then it was done. We were airborne. And we had lived to tell about it. We all looked up. And cheered. And high-fived. And, finally, relaxed.

It was beyond E-Ticket.

Storms in the dead of night

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – It’s the dead of night and we’re standing in a flatbed truck in the middle of a thunderstorm watching tracer fire streak past us on both sides.

The tracers glow a bright, luminescent green through our night vision goggles. In fact, everything is green, just like in the movies. Every so often, a bolt of lightning turns our green world even brighter. The bullets, rockets and bombs exploding around us are real. So are the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division who are staging this assault as a demonstration of a coordinated attack on an enemy position.

Their target is a bunker dead ahead. Camouflaged gunners pour on a steady stream of machine-gun and small arms fire. Bullets ricochet off the top of the bunker, arcing into the night sky. Rockets whiz past us, exploding in a shower of sparks, adding to Mother Nature’s own thunderclaps.

I slip the night vision goggles off, and the stream of bullets is reduced to an occasional red streak. A solitary crimson ember descends slowly from the sky, illuminating nothing to the naked eye. If there were bad guys out there without these devices, I think, they’d be obits before they knew what hit them. I slip the goggles back on, and the red ember becomes a flare transforming night into day, albeit a lime-colored day.

There should be more paratroopers dropped into this killing zone, but their mission is scrubbed due to the lightning. No sense risking soldiers’ lives.

That doesn’t keep the Army from trucking us around in the midst of the storm, though. We’re mere tourists.

It’s exciting, all these pyrotechnics. But the bullets are flying in only one direction – away from us. It doesn’t take much imagination to sense what it would be like if this were the real thing. It wouldn’t be exciting. It would be terrifying. You would want to run. You would want to hide. You wouldn’t want to be in this place. Playing soldier isn’t as much fun when the bad guys shoot back.

Earlier that day, members of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, of which I was a participant, had been briefed on Army Special Operations Command, seen a demonstration of a vertical wind tunnel where paratroopers practice free-fall, and toured an Army Psychological Operations center, where they print propaganda used both in warfare and peacekeeping. One such publication was a Superman comic book designed to teach kids in places like Kosovo about the danger of land mines. They also churn out leaflets, like the kind dropped on Iraqi anti-aircraft positions in the Gulf War warning them to.

Later, we witnessed an urban assault demonstration complete with flash-bang grenades and gunfire. Then we were taken to a firing range where we shot pistols and automatic rifles. After retrieving my paper targets, I concluded that any enemy falling in my gunsights was pretty safe.

Next, a few paratroopers dropped in – literally. They arrived via a HALO jump – that’s shorthand for High Altitude, Low Opening – meaning soldiers leap out of perfectly good airplanes from thousands of feet above ground then wait until the last possible moment before pulling their ripcords to slip in behind enemy lines, unnoticed.

Then, we were bused through throngs of raging anti-American demonstrators to the American Embassy in the fictitious African republic of Nogoland, where we scurried to the rooftop to await “rescue.”

The Army Rangers came by Chinook helicopters, storming the embassy compound with grenades and gunfire, attacking everything that moved. By the time the shooting stopped, nothing was left alive. I doubt even bacteria could have survived that assault.

“We do not apologize for swatting flies with a 16-pound hammer,” explained Lt. Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the Army’s Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

After evacuating the embassy, soldiers escorted us to the awaiting Chinooks for a simulated treetop level escape from Nogoland to Pope Air Force Base, where we met up with enlisted “Airborne buddies” who walked us through a series of “static displays,” meaning that nothing blew up or made noise. We saw communications gear, howitzers, mortar teams and armored vehicles – the tools of the trade.

More importantly, it was another chance to talk to the guys who meet the customer, the infantrymen. They were universally polite, knowledgeable, on-task and noncommittal when asked if they planned to re-enlist.

The biggest gripe I heard: The Army’s plan to issue black berets to all soldiers, robbing the Rangers of their unique headgear. The “Army of One” advertising campaign earned a few rude remarks, too.

Turnover at this level is high. Like the television ads used to say, the Army is a “great place to start,” and after a few years a lot of these young men and women move on. They have options. The service has trained them well.

There’s another issue, too:

How long can the service reasonably expect capable people to stick around as “trigger pullers?” as one Marine major called them.

Speaking of Marines, no tour of American military life would be complete without spending a day with the Leathernecks. After a day at Fort Bragg that began at 5:45 a.m. and ended at midnight, we were off to . . .

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.

We were standing in the driving rain, shivering and waiting for the Marines to land on Onslow Beach. Despite the camouflaged Gor-Tex jackets we’d been issued, we were soaked and freezing.

One of the J.C.O.C. members, in a moment of wimpiness, suggested the program should be moved indoors because of the inclement weather.

Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Berndt, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, was within earshot and his face screwed up in disgust as he heard those words. Fellow participant Ron Gunzburger, editor of HillZoo.com, recorded his incredulous response:

“The colonel told you the coats will keep you dry and warm. Well, they won’t. You’ll be cold. You’ll be wet. That’s tough. Suck it up! Get over it!”

And with that, “Suck it up and get over it” became our mantra. After all, we were with the Marines, and like they say in their recruiting ads: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Moments later, it was show time. Amphibious landing craft bobbed toward shore as helicopters bombed the storm-swept beach, clearing it for the assault team. Like a scene from D-Day, the landing craft hit the beach and young Leathernecks came charging out, guns ablaze.

The Army arrives by air, the Marines arrive by sea. Once they show up they both start breaking things.

The seas were choppy and the Marines had to travel from near the horizon to shore. I knew I wouldn’t want to take that trip without some Dramamine.

The ride is so miserable by the time the Marines land they really “feel like killing somebody, which is good,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Braaten.

“But you’re not feeling so good because of all that weight you’ve lost throwing up.”

Faster landing craft would help. The technology is there, the money isn’t. A familiar story from all the armed services.

Later that day, we would witness demonstrations of Marine river patrols, crowd control techniques and a bomb disposal exercise, the finale of which was blowing up a bomb via a gun-toting robot on wheels.

Like their Army counterparts the day before, the Marines staged an urban assault, equipped with helicopters lowering troops to rooftops, tanks, machine guns, the works.

I asked a Marine major if he could explain to me the difference between the Marines and the Army Rangers we had met the day before.

“The Rangers are very good,” he allowed. “I’d rate the best of the Rangers about equal to the average Marine.”

“I would have been a Marine,” a Ranger told me, “but I couldn’t fit my head in a jar.”

HOOOAHH VS. OOORAH

Rivalries between the services are legendary, of course, but the soldiers of the Army and the Marines do have one thing in common: They both make funny noises.

Which is endearing, because most of what they do for a living isn’t the least bit funny.

We were at dinner and a general was holding forth on the challenges facing the Army in the post-Cold War world, when from the back of the room came this grunting, coughing sound as if someone was struggling with a belch or was about to hurl.

“Hoooahh.”

One too many toddies before dinner, I assumed. Then it happened again. Another guy.

“Hoooahh.” Then another. And another.

I soon learned this is the Army’s equivalent of shouting “Amen, brother!” in church.

Depending on how you say it, “Hoooahh” means “right on.” Or it means “darn shame, ain’t it.” For all I know, it can also mean “pass the ketchup.”

Marines, likewise, do the same thing. Only theirs is “Ooorah.”

“Men, we’re going on a 20-mile run.”

“Ooorah.”

“Then, we’re going to do 500 pushups.”

“Ooorah.”

‘Afterwards, I’m buying the beer.”

“OOORAH!”

Since the Air Force was the next stop on our tour, I asked an Air Force major if members of his service were into this kind of noise-making. You guys have something you say? I asked.

Sure, he replied. “Fore.”