Monday, June 29, 2020

…BUT I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU – My Secret Life As a Morse Code Spy

What’s in a dot the size of that under the question mark at the end of this sentence? How about a tiny horizontal line as wide as this:  – ?

It’s lucky I’m such a detail person. That might not fit most people’s image of an artist, but I can be quite disciplined when I want to. And it never fails to amaze me what the human mind is capable of when one applies such discipline to the most trifling of details—like those little dots and dashes.

Morse code’s arrangements of those specks have shaped the way wars were started, fought and won,
connected nations, quickened the pulse of economies and even reportedly influenced the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln.*

                                                  ~  //  ~  //  ~  //  ~

In 1968, following graduation from college, I interviewed with the 523rd Army Security Agency (ASA), an Army Reserve unit out at Fort Snelling. The first thing the recruiting sergeant did surprised me: he handed me a copy of the German magazine Der Stern.

He’d noticed on my application that I’d taken German in both high school and college. So he asked me to read out loud the cover story—something about the escalating Tet offensive in Vietnam.

In the middle of my second halting sentence, he interrupted me. “Okay, you’re going to language school, Jeff.” Well, I couldn’t believe my luck; here I was enlisting in the reserves to take my service obligation into my own hands and not get drafted, and now they’re sending me to a really good school to learn something that might actually prove useful in peacetime.

And it didn’t hurt that my post-basic-training destination, the Army’s Defense Language Institute, is at the Presidio in Monterey, California, less than a mile from Monterey Bay.

Believing that sergeant was my first mistake. As it turned out, by the time I showed up for basic, the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had decided to quash my California dreamin’ and changed me from a Linguist to an 05G-20, a Communications Monitor.

In other words, a “ditty-bopper,” an expert in transcribing Morse code—alas, all in English. Our unit’s main job was to eavesdrop on our own forces’ communications and document any breaches of security protocols—for example, divulging individuals’ or operations’ code names, or positions. In other words, I was going to be a spy.

No surprise, the ASA was not popular with other branches of the Army. We made them look bad, got them in trouble. So their nickname for us was “buddy-
f- - -ers.”

For this sensitive work I needed what’s called a “top-secret crypto” security clearance. Yeah, right, just like James Bond, I thought. But over the next month, sure enough, Defense Department guys descended on my various haunts and interviewed nearly everyone I’d ever known: teachers, employers, clergy, friends’ parents, neighbors…

        The method was raw rote learning, driven
        by fear of punishment.

I must have passed the test, because I was soon off to basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, then to the ASA’s training center at Fort Devons, Massachusetts for my advanced training. There I embarked on a course of study almost as rigorous as that I would have seen at language school.

I learned all about radio communication, from the physics of wave propagation, to security protocols, to report writing. Security was so strict that we weren’t even allowed a scrap of paper or a pen in our classrooms.

After absorbing all those arcane rudiments of our specialty, it was on to the diddy bops: learning Morse code. From the start, the method was raw rote learning, driven by repetition and motivated by fear of punishment. The instructor would shout the vocalized character—for example, Lima! (for “L”), and the class had to scream di-DAH-did-dit (. _ . .), Lima! And then again…and again…and again…

If the instructor spotted anyone hesitating, or whose lips betrayed a mistake, it was down on the floor for 25 push-ups or outside to run around the building ten times.

For some reason I still don’t fathom, I responded well to this type of learning. In no time I was minding my Ps and Qs like a veteran.

        The poor soldier allegedly picked up his
        mill and threw it through the window…
        and then jumped after it.

After memorizing the dits and dahs, the next stage of our training was to learn transcription. We sat at long tables, each of us facing a huge, black, World-War-II-era manual typewriter. We wore headphones through which were played messages in machine-generated code.

We were to transcribe the code on our typewriters—the inside name for them was “mills.” Once any of us proved our accuracy at one speed, subsequent messages came at that man at a higher speed.

The few of us who’d learned typing in school had an advantage, but it was more about sound recognition and reaction time. Once again, this code stuff proved easy for me. Before long, I was leading my class, eventually transcribing 24 words per minute. (A competent operator is supposed to be comfortable transcribing 15 to 25.)

It was great! Nearly every day, leaving the other guys in my dust, I was declared “AOG”—ahead of the game—which meant I got out of class early to go drink beer and play pinball at the PX.

Legend had it that over the years quite a few ditty-boppers had flipped out from the pressure and the constant chatter of that code being driven into their heads. In the worst cases the poor soldier allegedly picked up his mill and threw it through the window…and then jumped after it.

Thank God for humor. It was a time when most of our cohorts were bound for active duty, likely in Vietnam, so understandably they were quite serious about their training. But for many of us reservists, the whole Army experience, especially during a controversial war, felt like an imposition turned lark. I'm not proud of that assumption of privilege; I guess it was our form of resistance, turning our energies toward skirting—or at least making light of—our duties.

Best of all was inventing ways to addle and mock the few non-coms who’d proven themselves to be mean, presumptuous or incompetent.

Though I never found the slightest practical application for my Morse code expertise, that rote learning did indeed stick; it would be years before I forgot my dits and dahs, even without the slightest bit of practice.
 . _ _ .    .    . _    _ . _ .    .      

* – “What the Digital Age Owes to the Inventor of Morse Code”

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

HOLD THE HIATUS – Keeping One’s Spirit Alive During the Pandemic

I’ve been journaling about this whole COVID 19 situation for nearly three months now. Besides simply documenting the experience for posterity, these jottings have served as my sounding board, my companion and, occasionally, the vehicle of my venting.

They convey spans of emotion from profound loneliness to a proud sense of community, from abject despair to guarded hope, and from mild concern to sheer terror. Even the occasional embarrassment of riches, finding myself so little affected by the crisis, and so…well…happy.

But I’m afraid it’s taken me all of these three months—even expressing those feelings, even doing other things right like maintaining daily structure and a sense of purpose—to realize I’ve not been doing as well as I thought.

   There’s an aspect of “survival mode” that’s not 
   serving me—nor anyone else for that matter—
   very well.

Yes, I do have routines, some of which entail a purpose: long walks with the dog; correspondence with family members and friends; volunteer letter writing to hospice patients; and, of course, my ever-present blogging and Facebook nonsense. 

But even with those pastimes keeping me busy, there’s a troubling undercurrent of inertia. An aspect of “survival mode” that’s not serving me—nor anyone else for that matter—very well. 

I suppose it’s something instinctive, a sense that in order to get through this prolonged uncertainty and “sheltering in place” I must somehow put my “real life” on hold. Like swimming the length of the pool underwater; basically everything stops but the swimming. Make it to the other side and only then can you come up for air.

Granted, we’ve all been, shall we say, encouraged to physically stay in the house, keep our distance and wear a mask. And, as one who’s especially vulnerable, that’s what my determination not to catch the C-bug tells me I must do. 

However, I’m afraid I’ve also let the virus keep me stuck indoors mentally and spiritually, and that’s what’s taking the greatest toll. It’s more about attitude than behavior. I guess when you’ve spent your whole life taking freedom for granted, even the slightest crimp in your comings and goings feels like a gradual suffocation. 

  These two-going-on-six months “on hold”…that’s 
  about one twentieth of my time left in this world.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these MAGA-dunce-capped idiots demanding their God-given right to catch the virus and pass it on to whomever they like. No, I won’t soon be getting any closer than about ten feet to anyone. And I won’t stop sanitizing my groceries when they’re delivered. 

What I have done, though, is to take a cold, hard accounting of what spending these two-going-on-six months “on hold” means to a 75-year-old man. And the bottom line is that If I’m lucky enough to live another ten years, that’s about one twentieth of my time left in this world. And that’s enough to make me think.

There’s a point, isn’t there, at which what it takes to keep oneself alive might be worse than the risk of dying.

Sure, there are periods in one’s life where you have to hunker down for a while. Extremely hot or cold weather for example. But even on the coldest January morning, there’s a way to outfit oneself to safely venture out of the house. 

That’s how I have to think about this surreal time of uncertainty and paranoia. As if the virus were a huge pocket of that minus-30-degree arctic air we’re famous for here in Minnesota in January.

Yes, it keeps me from running out in shorts and flip flops to walk the dog. But as long as I put on my parka and a good pair of choppers, pretty much anything’s possible. And if one keeps doing anything long enough, it no longer seems like an imposition on one’s freedom; it simply becomes part of life.

So, instead of my attitude clawing its way back to normal only when this crisis is over, I must unlink the change from the outcome and replace the denial with acceptance. In other words, accept that many aspects of what I’ve been seeing as deprivation have become the new normal.

Just like my parka keeps me alive on that bitter cold January night, these masks, this distancing, this heightened awareness are the new garments of survival. And it’s entirely up to me how well they fit.

    Part of my not knowing what to do with 
    my spirit during this time comes from grief.

So now’s the time to recalculate, to start taking those risks with the biggest rewards, planning, as much as possible, how to take the dread out of them. Going back to actually physically entering the supermarket. Riding in the car with Sally, even though maybe only four feet apart. Having friends or family over for dinner.

Armed with the few N95 masks I have, a stringent touching and hand-washing protocol, Sally’s thoughtful measures to protect me, and a fairly good understanding of how the virus spreads and what blocks it, I can do this.

Resetting the “hold” button won’t all be about logistics. Part of the process will involve forgiveness, recognizing that some of my not knowing what to do with my spirit during this time has to do with grief…and the attendant guilt.

Many of us are not just mourning the loss of our relatively carefree “normal” lives, but empathizing with so many of our fellow human beings, near home and around the world, who we know are fighting for their lives and losing loved ones—most often in the cruelest of ways—to this disease.

Who are we, I often wonder, to even aspire to any kind of “normal” when so many of our fellow human beings have seen their lives turn so abnormally tragic. But we must go on, each in our own way, living lives that, at least in our hearts and souls, are free once again to grow, to dream, to celebrate.

Monday, June 1, 2020

MY FATHER'S HANDS – The Kindest Bequest

I remember my father’s hands. They were more than ample for a man his size.
And strong too. Not farmer hands, but you could tell they were those of a fellow who rarely needed a handyman. The veins on the back stood up like so many purply little hoses running this way and that across a floor of bone and tendon.

Over the top, shrink-wrap skin which, as he aged, gradually morphed from leathery—toughened and tanned by seven decades of work—to something more like loose onion skin—thin, crepey, nearly transparent.

His palms changed too, the callouses softening, the skin turning shiny, buffed so long by steering wheels, axe handles and the insides of gloves.

And there were spots. What had been a few nice brown freckles inevitably grew and grayed into age spots. And then exploded into those outlandish, reddish-purplish blotches (senile purpura) that decorate the hands of the very old.

        Now and then it was more, an outpouring 
        of pride that flowed into me like a tonic.

My father was fair-skinned; he had to be careful about the sun. But somehow those hands always wore a tan. Generally he kept them clean—I still associate them with the smell of Coconut Castile soap. His nails too were well tended, though they did collect their share of soil, putty, grease and fish slime.

Dad’s knuckles never got gnarly from arthritis as Mom’s did. So I don’t think they were wracked with pain as hers were. He could still do just about anything with his hands, including playing golf until just a week before he died. I don’t know why, but I wondered if he ever had to use them in a fight. I doubt it.

I think of what those hands did over a 91-year lifetime. Once, they held me like some priceless antique; later, they spanked me when I deserved it, applauded me when I earned it, showed me how to toss a ball, pound a nail and reel in a fish.

They taught me how to replace bike chains and window panes and quite a few other tricks. After I’d flown the nest, they wrote letters to me…and the occasional check.  

My dad’s hands, though not accustomed to hugging, must have shaken my hand a few thousand times. I don't think a hug would have felt any better. His robust handshake spoke to me of his approval and assured me of his constancy. Often it was simply a Welcome home! or God speed, son. But now and then it was more, an expression of pride, a transfusion of well-being that flowed into me like a few milligrams of cocaine.

         The veins and creases etch a map of
         destinations quite different from his.

Dad was of a generation of men for whom a handshake meant a lot. More than simply a gesture of greeting or agreement, a man’s grip—along with a certain earnest kind of eye contact—was an indication of his integrity.

I don’t remember a lesson, per se, in shaking hands. It was more a matter of role modeling. As you reached for the other person’s hand, you opened the “V” between your thumb and index finger. You made sure your “V” got fully seated in the other’s “V.” At that precise moment, you squeezed. If one of you came up short you were left with not a handshake but an awkward, much-less-than-satisfying finger shake.

At least as important as the initial contact was how hard to squeeze. Generally, the firmer the better—up to a point. You had to gauge your own grip to the other person’s: less for folks with smaller or more sensitive hands; more for most NFL linebackers.


Now, at about the age Dad was when his hands were starting to put his affairs in order for “senior living,” I look down at my own hands. The veins and creases etch a map of destinations quite different from his. But all these journeys started in the same place his did.

For sure, I inherited many good traits from Dad...and a few not so good. I got his nose, his receding hairline and his build. But I don’t think you could pay me a kinder complement than to tell me I have his hands.

Yes, I remember those hands as if they were right in front of me…and, as I look down, I like to think they are.