Remembering the Draft

Sometime back, during the Vietnam-war-torn year of 1969, a young California man named Dwight Stone went to his mailbox and opened a letter (much like this one) from the United States Selective Service. The letter began:


You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States…”

Similar letters were received by more than 1.7 million other young men during the Vietnam War era of  1965 – 1973. Needless to say, such letters were met with varying reactions, ranging from quiet submission to fleeing the country for life in Canada, or Sweden. If you were a U.S. citizen, and a young man between the ages of 18 and 25 you had a draft card (unless you burned it as a few did in protest to the war), you were well acquainted with your local draft board, and you had plans to either volunteer for service, or to postpone service by obtaining a draft deferment. In any case, the thought of being swept off to fight in what was fast becoming a very unpopular conflict was a real possibility.

Mr. Stone, being little different than many young men his age, was less than enthusiastic about military service. As a man of little means, Mr. Stone lacked the funds to leave the country. In the words of Mr. Stone himself:

“I [sic] ain’t no Rockefeller.”

In the African-American, inner city community in which Mr. Stone lived, the war, by his own account, was not popular. As a poor man of little influence, he felt that his odds of ending up on the front lines, and returning to the States in a body bag was great indeed. Much greater than those whose families could afford to send their sons to college, thus gaining them an educational deferment, or to buy them a ticket out of the country.

So he did what he could. For three years, he attempted to avoid induction at all costs, including a failed attempt at a student exemption. When that didn’t work,  Mr. Stone went into hiding. Finally, with the U.S. Government nipping at his heels, an exhausted and frustrated Mr. Stone called his local draft board and turned himself in.

On June 30, 1973, Mr. Stone was inducted into the U.S. Army, thus earning him the distinction of being the last man drafted into the U.S. Military. This Sunday, we ‘celebrate’ the fortieth anniversary of Mr. Stone’s induction. Perhaps all for the best, no young man has been ordered to report since. One has to wonder if it were not for the unpopular Vietnam War, if we would not be calling young men (and perhaps young women) up today for service.

While young men have been drafted since the Civil War, the draft that spanned the Vietnam War period had actually been in place since 1940. Throughout the peacetime years of the late 1950s, men continued to be called for service, including perhaps America’s most famous draftee, Elvis Presley. Elvis reported for duty on March 24, 1958, after receiving his “Greetings” letter sometime around Christmas of 1957, while celebrating the holidays at Graceland. Of course there were few bullets flying in those days. The Cold War was in full swing though, and with the threat of global nuclear annihilation looming over us all, The King packed off to basic training. After basic, he shipped out to Friedberg, Germany where he served honorably in the 3rd Armor Corps’ 32n’d Tank Battalion, Company D.

By the time Elvis mustered out of service on March 2, 1960, to return to the recording career that had been kept alive by Col. Tom Parker, he had achieved the rank of sergeant, met a young girl named Priscilla Beaulieu, who he would eventually marry, and become a role model for countless young men who would come to view military service as a patriotic obligation.

In the years since, much has been made of Elvis’ off-base life style, where he lived with family, and entertained in comparative luxury compared to his fellow soldiers. While this is true, I still find it difficult to imagine any of today’s recording artists (think Justin Bieber), reporting for duty and shipping out for Iraq, or Afghanistan (no disrespect to ‘The Biebs’ intended). Times have changed far too much, and while we rightly rush to thank our servicemen and servicewomen for their service, a draft that would conscript a young person of Justin Bieber’s celebrity would be almost unthinkable.

So I am thinking about the draft today. Actually, I have thought about it on other days too, especially during the early days of the Iraq war. For a time, as it became increasingly evident that the rationale for this conflict was being framed using some very shaky facts, I wondered if the public would be more questioning of our involvement, if the draft were still in place. I remembered a saying I once heard that describes my feeling succinctly: “Let’s fight. Here, I’ll hold your coat”.

Oh yes, getting back to Mr. Stone. It seems he actually came to enjoy military life. He did his basic training at Ft. Polk in Louisiana, and after further training went on to become an electronics repairman at Ft. Richie, Maryland. Mr. Stone served honorably, and was discharged after serving 17 months. Today Dwight Stone works with disadvantaged youth in Sacramento, California. In a 1993 interview with the Seattle Times, Mr. Stone said:

“Serving your country is not a bad idea, as long as you include everybody,”

I have nothing more to add to that statement.



Thoughts on Government surveillance

“If this government ever became a tyranny … the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government … is within the reach of the government to know.” – Senator Frank Church

If you are not wondering what the hell is going on with our government these days, or what the hell the government is doing to us, or where the hell all of this is going to lead, then you haven’t been paying attention. But make no mistake about it, this Big Brother, Big Government, Snoop/Spying/Prying into our lives started a long time before a 29 year old Booz Allen Hamilton hacker copied off a stack of his employer’s classified documents and flew west, leaving both his clandestine job and glamorous girlfriend in the jet vapors.

Citizens are now blogging, commenting, tweeting, and using all forms of media to express their shock and disdain for the apparent intrusion of the United States government into their personal lives. The scandal rages. Techie type analysts scramble to educate the masses about the nuances of government eavesdropping, hoping that perhaps a better understanding of ‘metadata’ will help assuage the concerns of The Public. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, the aforementioned hacker, remains ensconced in a luxury Hong Kong hotel room, sitting high atop his stack of stolen documents as he lashes out at  the Obama Administration for its failings:

“Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge…”

So how could such a condition come about? What of those great ‘checks and balances’ that we learned about in our tenth grade American Government classes? Aren’t those supposed to save us from tyranny? Or, perhaps it was the Bush Administration that set us upon this road to Orwellian doom.

Perhaps a good place to begin to understand our recent condition is by reading “The Puzzle Palace”, by James Bamford, an amazingly insightful and well researched book about the National Security Agency (NSA). This book takes the reader inside the NSA’s Ft. Meade, Maryland facility and documents in detail, the NSA’s intrusive, albeit effective, role in monitoring, if not influencing, international events, including the Iran-Contra affair, the downing of KAL flight 007 over the Kamchatka Peninsula by the Soviets, and the first Gulf War. It is important to note that this book was published in 1983.

Have our God-given rights been taken from us, in one fell swoop. Did the erosion start with a Republican President riding a nationwide ‘save-us-at-all-costs’ attitude that came about as a result of  the worst terrorist attack on our soil in history? Were those same policies given a wink and a nod by our current POTUS?

I think that the march of the government into our personal lives has not happened suddenly. It is just that are many more opportunities today for governmental abuse of power. In 1983, the internet was, for the average citizen, non-existent. Today we have cellular phones that revel our whereabouts, Facebook pages that record the minutia of our daily lives, and Linkedin pages that document business associates, and organizations. Mysterious magnetic strips on credit cards, and driver’s licenses, hold facts about us that sometimes even spouses do not know about. Our medical histories, where we spend our money, and where we travel to from the assumed anonymity of our computers, is all meticulously recorded and available for tracking should the ends justify the means.

This did not happen overnight. Many of us have remained silent for decades, not taking the opportunity to lash out when we could. Perhaps requiring urine testing as a condition of employment for even the most low-level, non-governmental position, was an intrusion we could have stopped had the outrage been great enough. But as a friend of mine smugly told me after submitting to such a test in order to get a relatively mundane clerical position, “I have nothing to hide. They can test me all they want.”

Meanwhile, in a report that I read today, Mr. Snowden still remains in hiding in his Hong Kong hotel, doing what he believes to be right and waiting for the fallout. Interesting, in a brief description of his days in hiding, it is reported that when he logs into his laptop, he does so under a hood, so as not to give the prying eyes of the NSA the opportunity to discern his password. And so the paranoia shall grow.



Thoughts on Hurricane Season 2013

I have not blogged in a few days, having been tied up with paying pursuits. Before I went away though, I’d started a piece about the beginning of hurricane season 2013. It is quite an event for us in the tropics, so I guess I shall continue…

At that time, tropical storm Andrea was forming off of the West Coast of Florida, churning up deadly rip-currents, tornadoes and floods. Andrea has sinced passed across Florida and raced up the East Coast toward the recovering shores of New Jersey, after which, she went on up to New England before finally crossing into Canada, where she snuffed out power to about 4000 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Here on Florida’s Gold Coast – a good distance from Andrea, there was considerable storm damage. Considerable if you were one of the unfortunate few whose homes were destroyed by the Andrea spawned tornadoes. From Loxahatchee up in Palm Beach County, to Marathon down in the Keys, people felt the effect of Andrea, and it has caused plenty of us in this part of FLA to think back to 2005. We think about Katrina, who passed us by with just a slap of her hand across our cheek, before turning hell-bent into the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength in the warm Gulf waters in order to do her nightmarish dirty-work on the low lying Gulf Coast, before she destroyed New Orleans.

A few months later in that same year, we felt the brunt of Wilma, a particularly nasty storm that churned up out of Jamaican waters in October, becoming the fastest Atlantic storm in recorded history to reach Category 5 status, going on to leave 62 dead and 28.8 billion in damages in her wake, making Wilma was third worst hurricane to hit the U.S.

Of course there were others – like Ophelia, the little tease that sat offshore for days, leaving South Florida beaches in tatters before finally turning her fickle attention to the Carolinas where she, in her own good time, devastated the coast from Cape Fear to the Outer Banks, racking up 70 million in damages and leaving three dead.

There are so many hurricanes rattling around in my recent memory it’s hard to keep them straight. There was Rita and Charlie, and Dennis, and a score of others. And then there were those  who didn’t touch our U.S. shores, but went on to devastate our neighbors to the south, in the Caribbean, and along the coast of Mexico. And then of course, as some of the ‘old timers’ will tell you, often in hushed tones — there was Andrew — the first storm of the 1992 hurricane season — Andrew the stalker, who waited until August 24 of that year to unleash his deadly fury, coming ashore on Elliot Key, before taking deadly aim on the mainland Monroe County cities of Florida City and Homestead.

So I was thinking of all of this the other today, as I was tinkering with my generator, gapping the plug and checking the fuel filter, digging in the junk drawer for D batteries and wondering if I have enough drinking water stockpiled should one of the projected 13 to 20 named storms head this way. I was also thinking about climate change and why we still have people who deny that such man made change is occurring – in spite of the fact that NASA and NOAA and the vast majority of the scientists in the friggin’ world agree that man made climate change is real and ongoing.

Of course, I realize that terrible storms have lashed the earth for eons. The Caribbean is, in fact, awash with sunken 17th and 18th Century Spanish gold, the ships carrying such treasure having gone down in dreadful hurricanes then unnamed. So there have been powerful hurricanes forever, but could it be that things are becoming more extreme?

In my native Midwest, a 700 hundred mile long ‘derecho’ recently formed. A terrible windstorm that wreaked havoc from the Mississippi River all the way to the East Coast of the U.S. A derecho (derecho being Spanish for ‘straight’) is somewhat the opposite of a tornado, which is a twisting wind.  Derechos are, therefore, a big straight wind – sort of a land hurricane. Derechos are  nothing new either, the first recorded one occurring in Iowa in July of 1877. I am sure that there were countless ‘big-straight-winds’  in the countless centuries that followed the last ice age, some fierce and deadly. But I don’t recall 700 mile long derechos. Nor do I recall tornado shelters in Des Moines shopping malls like they have today (not that it’s such a bad idea).

So now, those of us in the tropics turn a wary eye to the Weather Channel’s Tropical Update. Later in the season we will watch the tropical waves tracking off of the coast of Africa, each wave micro-analyzed with the latest high tech equipment and satellite imagery, and we wonder how we ever survived without 24 hour cable, let alone television itself.

Meanwhile our friends in the Heartland remain vigilant for more deadly storms dipping down from the clouds, recent memory of the tragedy in Oklahoma fresh in the minds of all, while along the Jersey Shore our family and friends now draw an uneasy breath in Andrea’s wake, the painful memory of Sandy still fresh in their minds.

Keep an eye to the sky and stay safe.



A technical writer looks at fiction…

A few years ago, at a Society for Technical Communications (STC) conference, I ran into a colleague who has achieved a good deal of success in the field of technical writing. My friend started her own technical documentation business, and the last time I spoke with her she had a number of writers on staff at her Atlanta, Georgia office, offering not only technical writing services but technical training as well. She had clients from Fortune 500 companies, and provided in-house training classes to clients around the world. In addition, she had gone on to author a number of commercially available books directed at technical writers.

On the last day of the conference, we met for coffee at an outdoor cafe at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. After talking about her most recent project, which was authoring one of the famous ‘____ for Dummies’ books, I told her about my latest fiction writing project. Awkward silence descended upon the espressos.

“So, how is your project going?” she asked.

I told her that I had done an outline of the opening chapters and I had found some good info on the internet on how to format a novel. Then I told her that I had started a milestone chart in Excel and that things were on schedule. After that, I noticed that she was smiling at me.

“I’ve never been able to do it,” she said to me (finally).

“Write fiction?”

“Yes,” she said. “I have tried many times but I just can’t do it. I go for one or two pages and then I start formatting, and then I go back and read it and I don’t like it. Finally, one day, I gave up. I realized I couldn’t do it. When I went back to writing technical documentation, I felt…so at home. I need bullet lists and procedural steps…you know, don’t you?”

I said that I did understand, but needed to press forward writing fiction.

“You are wasting your time,” she said to me as she got up to leave. “But give it your best until you get it out of your system.”

A few hours later, I flew home to Florida, reading Alice Orr’s book, “No More Rejections” the entire way.