Reflections on 31 Years of Military Service

Without people, you are nothing.

  • Joe Strummer, Punk-Rock Warlord.

On November 1st of this year, I retired from active duty ending more than 31 years of military service. It was a great run – starting as an enlisted man in the Army National Guard for 10 years and then following that with 21 years as an officer in the Air Force.

Along the way there were many adventures: Basic Training, in the Alabama heat where I was trained to be a cold warrior by sergeants who had fought in Vietnam; a transition to the Air Force after completing Officer Training School (again in the Alabama heat!); three trips to the Mideast; assignments all over the place as an intelligence officer; and finally, retirement for a return to small town America. I achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant with the Army and Lieutenant Colonel with the Air Force not that it really means anything but quite a climb from E-1 slick-sleeve private to squadron command as an O-5.

I suppose I could tell stories about Desert Storm or the ridiculously long struggle that Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom became. There were so many important tasks, jobs, struggles, assignments and missions over those 31 years. Yet, the memories of what we did seem the least important to me today.

No. When I get nostalgic – and if you ask my kids, they can tell you I am blessed (or cursed) with an acute sense of nostalgia – it’s the people I served with that dominate my memories.

*

I can still see, vividly in my mind, the 4th platoon barracks at Fort McClellan Alabama in 1984. It’s Basic Training and there are all my comrades. Tim Sapp, a John Belushi look-alike from West Virginia. Ed Sensel, the only guy who would talk books with me – the intellectual from Illinois. John Friant (Chattanooga Tennessee), Horace Johnson (also from Tennessee) who paid me one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me: “Cheetham, you are a man with heart, because you made it through Basic with a smile on your face,” he said to me when we said goodbye in December 1984.

There was Ricky Angle who tried to go AWOL when he got a “dear john” letter from his high school sweet-heart. Gary Griffin and I tracked him down in the woods outside our barracks and dragged him back.  The Drill Sergeants never knew what happened that night – but I can still show you the gouge in my old boots – that I acquired while tackling Ricky that night in the woods.

Griffin was my best friend, a Bill-Murray wannabe who had memorized all the dialog from the movie Stripes. And of course there was Bobby D. Wilcox, the tough black kid from Newark New Jersey who had the bunk below mine. We were inseparable throughout training and proved that the military knows more about team-building and race relations than any of the fools in politics do.

I remember them all – their strengths and weaknesses, their jokes – I remember their stories. In December on 1984, we all parted ways and I never saw any of them again; but I still hear their voices. I still remember conversations, fights, and most of all laughter.

**

I went to war in 1991 with the 772d Military Police Company. I was a squad leader and it was exciting. But I remember the people I served with. I can still name every single one of the men in my platoon from memory. These were the citizen soldiers of the Army National Guard: Cops, union workers, college students, and bartenders. They answered the call and went to war in a strange place called Iraq.

I could describe missions, I suppose. But I remember Paul Caraher, Pat Deyoung, Scott Hennessey, Chris Brown, and Larry Quinn. I remember playing whist with a lousy deck of cards waiting for the next mission. I remember playing pranks and telling jokes. Most of all, I remember how great these young men were. They did their jobs so well. My assistant squad leader, Larry Quinn was and is the most talented guy I have ever met. He was good at everything and he was humble. I spent the rest of my career telling Larry Quinn stories. When I became an officer, I always would teach my sergeants and subordinate officers to be more like Larry Quinn.

When I left the 772d Military Police Company to go to Officer Training School and transition to the United States Air Force, I never saw these guys again (with the exception of Larry Quinn that is). They are now memories – ghosts of times gone by; but I often think of them. I don’t think about what we did, I think about who they are.

***

Twenty-one years in the Air Force went by in a blur. So many duty stations and assignments! But as I sit here today the names and faces flood my mind. My first commander in Minot North Dakota, Ronnie Wright who was in his 40s but still was the best basketball player on base (I learned that the hard way). Bull Ternus a genuine character from Texas, who could bench press a school bus if necessary. Frank Dalmau, a graduate from the University of Puerto Rico who spent most of his time in North Dakota muttering “frio, frio!”

An assignment in Germany where I met incredible friends. Don Bridges, a bright, skilled leader who took every challenge in stride. Chris May, another one of those people who was good at everything and was able to laugh in any situation. Veltz, Thurgood, and Beldon – the law firm. I remember unplanned barbeques, children being born, ridiculous amounts of beer, and all of us together. I don’t remember 3 years of missions – just 3 years of friendship.

And so it goes.

A year of intelligence training in Texas? Let’s see what do I remember from all the lectures, training, and exercises? I remember Russ Powell and Kevin Pendleton and Alan Acree. I remember their jokes, their hopes, their dreams, and their outstanding characters.

In Florida, at Patrick Air Force Base, I worked a challenging national intelligence mission, but I remember a character named Les Oberg who would always say something funny when we needed it most. I remember Brian Lawson and John Dibert – two great Christian friends – and how we grew in our faith together.

Moody Air Force Base Georgia – an exciting job providing intelligence support to the Air Force Rescue Wing air crews and pararescue teams. I can recall playing ultimate Frisbee with the intelligence professionals that worked for me: the muddy fields of Georgia, the trash talk and how my team always won despite the best efforts of a gigantic sergeant named Tony Smith to stop me from winning. The intelligence team was full of talented, dedicated people – and after I left Moody AFB, we never crossed paths again.

An unforgettable assignment to Shaw Air Force Base South Carolina as a Major where I worked for a superb commander named Bulldog Slawson. He was tough and he loved the troops – and they loved him right back. That squadron the 609th Air Intelligence Squadron had without a doubt the most talented group of people I’d ever been around – Roberts, Long, Static Kling, Smaugh, LaFurney, Cooter, Spencer, Coleman… the list is long. Our mission was huge because we were part of CENTCOM and these were the dark days in Iraq 2004 – 2007. There were deployments, new mission sets, setbacks, and difficulties. So why do my memories get filled by the greatest Christmas parties since Old Fezziwig?

I spent 5 years in Virginia for two different assignments. The first time through I met the best officer I’ve ever served with, Cathy Jumper. She was smart, tough, funny and worked harder than anyone else I’ve known. We were tasked with training future officers and I remember all those cadets. It was a fun job and an important one. I think we did a great job because people tell me we did, but all I really remember is laughing with Cathy.

My second spin through Virginia led to Langley AFB where I got to work for two of the most outstanding people you’d ever want to meet – Keith Watts and Dan Johnson. Keith was my commander and boss. He was very bright and could explain anything to you if you gave him a white board and a marker. Our squadron mission was global intelligence – and it was a huge mission. I know there were incredible challenges for our intelligence team, but I cling to memories of late nights in Keith Watts’ office, drinking a “wee dram of the whisky” while he explained the intricate details of an intelligence sensor on a white board – whiskey in one hand, marker in the other.

Late in my career, I had my own chance to command an intelligence squadron, this time in Las Vegas Nevada. It was a great assignment; I loved it. Anyone who has ever served will tell you the best jobs are command jobs. They are also challenging, busy jobs with lots of long hours. I remember Burt Okamoto who like Larry Quinn, was great at everything; Grip Schnakenberg, possessor of a photographic memory that led to colossal baseball trivia battles; Ulysses Zeigler, the most loyal NCO I’ve ever encountered; Lisa Corley, Snow White, Bethany Brown, Rocket, and McFly. These are the people who did the job for America. There are many others. When I remember my command tour, I see all the faces of the Airmen who got it done every day.

****

You get the idea. Give me enough time and a glass of bourbon and I could regale you with tales of the best people on earth, the people I served with during my 31 years in the military. They are unforgettable; they are the best this country has to offer and I got to work with them for a really long time. Most of them, I have not seen in many years and may never see again.

Yet, not a day goes by where I don’t see someone from the past in my mind’s eye. Someone in a uniform, in a strange place, far away from home. It is hot and there is an awful lot of important work to do. And we are all laughing.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2015 cjcheetham

P.S.

Everything great that has ever happened to me was because I have such a supportive and loving family, that I don’t think I deserve. Thankfully, God often gives me what I don’t deserve. I would have never achieved anything without my wife Christy backing me all the way and making me a better person. My kids Emma, Eli and Lizzie have put up with the moves, the long hours, and the separations; always with dignity and dedication. In fact, truth be told, my kids are the best people I’ve ever known – and I’ve known all the greats.

Did the Patriots Use Sasquatch to Deflate Footballs?

Bad TV that insults me freely; still I know what I’m dyin’ to see

-Iggy Pop

***

Announcer: This…..is Sports Center.

Skip Grayness: Good evening everyone, welcome to Sports Center. There were lots of athletic events tonight but let’s get straight to breaking news. Our own Chip Morgueworkersson has breaking news on the latest Patriots scandal! Chip, what have you got and just how sensational is it?

Chip: [Speaking in grave tones] Well, Skip it doesn’t look good for Bill Belichick. I’m told by highly placed sources that the Patriots actually used a Bigfoot – a Sasquatch – to deflate balls before the AFC Championship game.

Skip: Whoa, Chip… this is big.

Chip: Yes it is Skip. I have looked into this extensively and the ceilings in the men’s room at Gillette Stadium are 10 feet tall. My sources tell me that that is clearly a high enough ceiling to handle a Sasquatch which I’m told on average runs between 7 and 9 feet tall. There was a report in the 1940s of a Sasquatch that was over 10 feet tall, but my sources stress it would be extremely unlikely that such an animal would still be alive. Even if he was alive, he’d be almost 80 years old and it would be extremely unlikely for him to live in Foxboro at that age.

Skip: Wow, you’ve done your homework. That’s why you’re the best in the biz, Chip! How exactly did Sasquatch deflate the footballs, thereby giving known cheaters Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots a huge advantage en route to their narrow 45 -7 victory over the plucky Indianapolis Colts?

Chip: Skip, I am told that they pre-positioned the Sasquatch in the men’s room. When the ball attendant brought the bag of game balls into the men’s room, the Sasquatch went to work. I don’t think I have to tell you, the Squatch, as the experts call him, has massive hands and is enormously strong. It could easily squeeze the air out of 11 balls.

Skip: Why only 11 balls, why not 12?

Chip: Well Skip, and I’m speculating here – you know I don’t like to do that, I like to deal with facts; but purely speculating I think it is safe to say that most Bigfoots have trouble counting any higher than 7.

Skip: So this Sasquatch exceeded expectations with 11?

Chip: Belichick wouldn’t have it any other way, would he? I mean he can coach. He obviously has a Sasquatch that knows how to do his job.

Skip: Great work as always Chip. This is truly BREAKING NEWS! Now, let’s turn to our panel of unbiased experts. Joining me are Michael Bonbon of the Chicago Press, and some guy wearing a New York Giants shirt named Coco. Coco, let me start with you. What are the implications of the Patriots using a Sasquatch to doctor balls and steal victories?

Coco: Well Skip, my first thought is how long have they been using giant mythical primates to win football games? And this goes beyond deflating balls. The NFL will have to investigate if the Sasquatch was using its giant leathery hands – I’m told they are like sandpaper! Were they using those big meat-hooks to scuff footballs? And don’t get me started on game prep – because a 9 foot tall primate on the practice field is a huge advantage for a QB like Tom Brady when he walks through how to cheat, I mean beat, a defense.

Skip: Fascinating. Bonbon, what do you have?

Bonbon: Look, the Patriots are always going to push the line. Is there anything in the NFL rule book that states explicitly “You cannot use a Sasquatch”? No. The NFL has got to get the integrity of the game back under control. The Patriots should not be allowed to hide a Sasquatch at Gillette Stadium to affect the outcome of games.

Skip: Bonbon, and I want to stress right now the league is still investigating, but when they reach the obvious conclusion that Belichick used a Bigfoot – what does Roger Goodell do?

Bonbon: Make Belichick confess! Right now, TODAY, the NFL has the authority based on what we know from Chip’s report to put Belichick on a bread and water diet! So what haven’t they done so already? And I don’t want it to be french bread and bottled water. Give him white bread, WITH high fructose corn syrup, and room temperature tap water.

Skip: And after he confesses?

Bonbon: Well look, we don’t need to go overboard. Just bury him up to his neck in the Arizona desert, cover his head with honey and let the ants have him.

Skip: Seems reasonable considering how much damage the league is taking as a result of rampant Sasquatch usage by the Patriots. What about Brady?

Bonbon: Let him play in the Super Bowl. But wrap his thighs together with some heavy duct tape. Force him to shimmy around the pocket or hop like a rabbit to avoid the pass rush.

Coco: Skip, I’d like to jump in here. Did you notice Belichick’s answer on media day to the question about the Sasquatch?

Skip: Wait… he was asked about Sasquatch?

Coco: Yes, when the cute little 4 year old girl asked Belichick, “what is your favorite stuffed animal?” Belichick said he liked a monkey that you can put your hands inside to control – like a puppet. First thing I thought was this. He is positioning himself to say he was referring to the Sasquatch he has been using, FOR DECADES, to win football games. A primate puppet? Come on! It’s obvious.

Skip: Old Belichick is always trying to stay one step ahead isn’t he?

Bonbon: He should be publicly executed.

Skip: Before we wrap up – anything else from you Coco?

Coco: Will you be showing anymore highlights of the Giants this week?  I’m used to you showing highlights of the Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl at least 19 times a week since 2008. I’ve noticed that this week, you have only showed it 12 times. It really makes it more fun for me to caress my Michael Strahan bobble-head doll when you play those highlights.

Skip: Coco, great lead in! It’s coming up right after the break!

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2015 cjcheetham

Enjoy the Christmas Present

In our home each year, Charles Dickens plays a central role in Christmas. I can’t explain it, but even as a child, I was enthralled by Dickens’ tale of the corrupted and redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps it was the ghosts that first attracted me as a boy. Regardless of the tradition’s origin, it has become a central part of my Christmas each December. Over the years, I’ve come to make it a habit of reading the short novel annually. And of course, there are no shortage of film versions, which my family and I enjoy arguing over which we like best. Who was the best Scrooge? Which screenplay was the cleverest?

There are so many obvious lessons in Dickens’ tale that it can be taken for granted. Of course, we all get it – be kind to one another; provide for the poor; love one another; pay your employees a decent wage; don’t forget to go to your nephew’s house for Christmas dinner; and most of all: stop being a miserable old bastard, because you are ruining everyone’s Christmas!

There it is in a nutshell. Nothing left to discuss.

Except, this year I’ve learned something new while reading A Christmas Carol.   I learned what I would call the central lesson of the story. And that lesson is this – live in the moment; live for today.

Scrooge’s essential problem as a man is clear: he never lives in the moment. While on the surface, he appears to be living in the present, as he counts his money or lambasts his employee, Scrooge is plagued by his past and troubled by his future. In other words, Scrooge is like every man who has ever lived. He is riddled with sadness over lost joys, bad decisions, and loneliness. He is deeply morose over memories of a father who never loved him, a sister who died too young; and a love affair that was lost. Likewise, Scrooge is fearful of a future that will inevitably include aging, slowing down, and yes, eventually death. Will he have enough money? How will he survive? What of his business?

**

Have you ever analyzed your typical day? Here’s an example of one of mine: The alarm goes off at 4:15 am, but I don’t hear it, so my wife pokes me (gently and kindly, mind you) in the ribs. I am up and running. Make the coffee and oatmeal and wolf it down while catching some news. I have to be out the door by 5:15 so I can get to the gym by 5:45. What am I doing today? Let’s see – I have a meeting to discuss something and I think someone is calling me about some problem. Shoot! Better get moving or I’ll be late.

My day is filled with interactions where I am either thinking about something that happened yesterday, anticipating my next meeting or daydreaming. It goes like this all day – a near obsession with everything except the present. Someone is telling you something important, and you are thinking about next week’s reports that are due. What happened yesterday and what happens tomorrow – all day long, every day. Mix in some concerns about finances (when can I retire? Will I have enough to live on? To help my kids?) Then you drive home around 6pm and recount what has transpired with an eye on next week, next month, and next year.

The electronic revolution certainly hasn’t helped any – because when we get home, we can watch television while surfing the web in between exchanging texts on our phones. All the while we are having some kind of disjointed “conversation” with our family members. Thank God for these electronic devices which make us so efficient.

It’s enough to make me wonder sometimes – am I alive?

***

When we meet Scrooge, he is certainly not living a full life by any stretch of the imagination. He is in fact quite miserable. He is living the Hobbesian lifestyle – solitary, nasty, and brutish (although not short). It is clearly going to take a miracle to wake him up. And in this case (and every case for that matter), it is the ghosts of Christmas that create the miracle to set Scrooge straight.

First, Jacob Marley arrives, plagued by incessant regret over the way he lived his life. Doomed to eternal agony, Jacob warns Scrooge – not only about what lies ahead for miserable sinners, but more importantly he shows Scrooge the most vital thing he is missing every day: human interaction. Jacob allows Scrooge to see the spirit world, full of tormented moaning souls. When Scrooge asks his old partner, “why do they lament?” Jacob replies, they seek to interfere for good in man’s affairs but have lost the power to do so.

That is Marley’s curse. He wasted his life on the intricacies of business while ignoring the delicacies of friendship, kindness, and love.

I’ll not recount the well-worn details of the three spirits of Christmas as they take Scrooge on journeys through his past, present and future. However, I must say that during this year’s reading, it struck me quite clearly, that the only joy in the entire tale occurs in the present. When we travel back to Scrooge’s youth, his joy comes from being with his sister. He is overcome with happiness as he watches his old boss Mr. Fezziwig throw a Christmas party that is so great, everyone forgets their cares. Scrooge sees the joy of loving his fiancé and how he loses her when he becomes obsessed with the future rather than the present. Scrooge begins to realize that the best parts of his life came when he focused on living in the moment.

While traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge visits his nephew’s home and discovers that like Old Fezziwig, Fred knows how to throw a party full of laughter and fun – and that Scrooge has been missing it every year. Most importantly, Scrooge visits the home of his employee, Bob Cratchit. Cratchitt, despite making a tiny salary, is able to enjoy a richness completely foreign to Scrooge. In terms of the love of family, Cratchit, like Frank Capra’s George Bailey, is the richest man in town.

In the Cratchit home, Scrooge is introduced to Tiny Tim, the youngest of Bob’s children. Tim is a sickly boy, doomed to die within the next year. Scrooge is deeply affected by Tim’s sad fate. Over the years, I’ve often wondered why Tim became such a popular Dickens character. This year, I’m convinced that Tim is popular because he is the embodiment of living today with joy. Tim is thrilled by his mother’s cooking, by the Christmas pudding, and by attending church with his father. He loves it all and he never once thinks of his illness. Tim is simply thankful for today and there is an exquisite beauty in that.

****

Simply put, the message of Christmas is: LIVE FOR TODAY. Your past, while a part of who you are and how you got to today, doesn’t matter at all. But, you protest, I’ve done terrible things in my past! The Author of Christmas responds, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.”

But I’ve been hurt by others. They’ve left me sad and alone! The Child in the manger reminds you, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Ah, yes but I have so much pressure on me – you see with work and bills and worries about the future. But Jesus answers, “don’t be anxious asking what shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Don’t be anxious about tomorrow. For tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

*****

We have another tradition in our home. Our dear friend Santa Claus visits each year – with presents. Through no fault of his own, old Santa has become an enemy of living in the moment. As early as October, people point at Santa and start their countdown clocks. Only so many days until Christmas! So much to do, to buy, to plan, to make, to cook. It is go, go, go!

Maybe we should all remember to slow down and not make gifts the enemy of Christmas.

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” (G.K. Chesterton)

******

Christmas is about the present. The past no longer matters because Christmas brought the gift of forgiveness. The future is assured because Jesus conquered the grave. Old Scrooge was a bawling mess when the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him the grave marked “Here Lies Ebenezer Scrooge.”

The cold, cruel grave was the fate of all men. If not for Christmas.

Christmas is the perfect liberation of mankind from the past and the future. Only when we understand Christmas can we live for today; loving each moment and carefree knowing that in the words of Tiny Tim, “God has blessed us, every one!”

I think that is what Dickens was after – the simple joy of living. Christmas stands alone against a world of sorrow, shame, sadness, stress and strife and shouts “Come in! Come in and know me better, man!”

– cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Address to Veterans Day luncheon, Newark Delaware – November 11, 2014

FIRST, LET ME SAY THANK YOU FOR THIS OPPORTUNITY TO SPEAK IN HONOR OF AMERICA’S VETERANS. I AM TRULY HUMBLED TO BE IN THE COMPANY OF THE HEROES WITH US TODAY AND COUNT IT A GREAT BLESSING THAT WE LIVE IN A NATION WHERE SO MANY HAVE SACRIFICED IN THE DEFENSE OF FREEDOM. I ALSO WANT TO SAY THANK YOU TO MAYOR SIERER FOR BEING HERE TODAY AND ALSO THANK YOU TO ALL THOSE WHO HAVE PUT THIS EVENT TOGETHER.

THE FIRST VETERAN’S DAY, THEN CALLED ARMISTICE DAY WAS CELEBRATED 95 YEARS AGO TODAY. IN 1919, THEN PRESIDENT WILSON SAID, “TO US IN AMERICA, THE REFELECTIONS OF ARMISTICE DAY WILL BE FILLED WITH SOLEMN PRIDE IN THE HEROISM OF THOSE WHO DIED IN THE COUNTRY’S SERVICE AND WITH GRATITUDE FOR VICTORY, BOTH BECAUSE OF THE THING FROM WHICH IT HAS FREED US AND BECAUSE OF THE OPPORTUNITY IT HAS GIVEN AMERICA TO SHOW HER SYMPATHY WITH PEACE AND JUSTICE IN THE COUNCILS OF NATIONS.”

PRESIDENT WILSON GOT IT JUST RIGHT. VETERANS DAY IS BOTH A TIME OF REFLECTION ON THE HEROIC ACTS OF OUR ARMED FORCES AND ALSO A TIME OF HOPE. A HOPE THAT AMERICA CAN ONCE AGAIN ACHIEVE A LASTING TIME OF PEACE; FOR AS ANY VETERAN CAN TELL YOU – NO ONE WORKS HARDER FOR, HOPES MORE FOR, AND PRAYS MORE FERVERENTLY FOR PEACE THAN OUR VETERANS. FOR IT IS THE VETERAN OF WAR, THE PERSON WHO HAS SEEN THE EFFECTS OF WAR FIRST HAND – IT IS THAT AMERICAN THAT HOLDS PEACE MOST DEARLY.

THE JOURNALIST TOM BROKAW WHEN WRITING ABOUT THE WORLD WAR II GENERATION SAID, “IT IS, I BELIEVE, THE GREATEST GENERATION ANY SOCIETY HAS EVER PRODUCED.” BUT, WHILE THE WORLD WAR II GENERATION WAS INDEED GREAT – I UTTERLY REJECT THE NOTION THAT IT WAS SOMEHOW THE GREATEST AMERICA HAS SEEN; THAT IT WAS A UNIQUE GENERATION. I SAY THIS CONFIDENTLY BECAUSE NO GENERATION OF AMERICANS HAS BEEN SPARED THE RESPONSIBILITY OF DEFENDING OUR LAND. FROM VALLEY FORGE TO SAN JUAN HILL TO KHE SAHN TO BAGHDAD, AMERICAN GREATNESS HAS BEEN CONSISTENT – AND IT HAS BEEN CONSISTENT BECAUSE OF THE DEDICATION OF AMERICA’S PEOPLE; SPECIFICALLY EACH GENERATION OF AMERICAN WARRIORS HAS PERFORMED ACTS OF HEROISM AND GREATNESS. IT IS A CONTINUUM OF GREATNESS, HANDED DOWN FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION IN OUR ARMED FORCES. A BELIEF; AN IDEAL THAT STATES: AMERICA IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR AND THAT AMERICANISM IS WORTH PRESERVING.

I HAVE HAD THE PRIVILEDGE OF SERVING IN AMERICA’S ARMED FORCES FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS – FIRST AS AN ENLISTED MAN IN THE ARMY AND TODAY AS AN OFFICER IN THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE. DURING MY TIME IN THE MILITARY I HAVE HAD THE HONOR OF SERVING WITH SOME OF THE BEST PEOPLE YOU’LL EVER MEET – PEOPLE WILLING TO PUT THEIR LIVES ON THE LINE FOR OUR FAMILIES, OUR HOMES, AND OUR WAY OF LIFE. I AM CONSISTENTLY AMAZED AT THE GREATNESS OF OUR MILITARY MEN AND WOMEN. THEY DO NOT SEEK FAME AND FORTUNE. RATHER, THEY SEEK A BETTER WORLD WHERE PEOPLE ARE FREE TO LIVE AS THEY WISH; WORSHIP AS THEY PREFER; ORGANIZE THEIR LIVES AS FREE PEOPLE WITHOUT THE THREAT OF VIOLENCE FROM THOSE WHO TRAMPLE ON THE RIGHTS OF MAN. THAT MOTIVATION TOWARD A BETTER WORLD IS BORN OF A SELFLESSNESS THAT IS INDEED A CREDO OF THE AMERICAN MILITARY. THAT IS GREATNESS – AND THAT GREATNESS DWELLS IN THE HEARTS OF THE AMERICAN MILITARY IN EVERY GENERATION.

IN LATE MAY 1991, MY ARMY UNIT WAS RETURNING FROM OUR DEPLOYMENT TO IRAQ DURING OPERATION DESERT STORM. WHEN WE LANDED AT WESTOVER AFB IN MASSACHUSETTS, A CROWD OF AMERICAN CITIZENS WAS THERE TO GREET US. AS THEN SGT CHEETHAM DEBOARDED THE PLANE AND WALKED TOWARD THE HANGAR, WE COULD ALL SEE A MASSIVE CROWD OF AMERICANS, CHEERING WILDLY, WAVING OLD GLORY AND SHOUTING OUR NAMES. IT WAS A WONDERFUL HOMECOMING. AS I ENTERED THE HANGAR (LITERALLY ON A RED CARPET) THE FIRST HANDSHAKES, THE FIRST WARM EMBRACES CAME FROM VETERANS OF THE VIETNAM WAR. THEY WERE THERE, SOME IN WHEEL CHAIRS, TO TELL US THAT WE WERE LOVED AND THAT THEY WERE PROUD OF US. I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN AMAZED BY THAT EVENT. THE VIETNAM GENERATION, SO UNJUSTLY VILIFIED IN THEIR OWN TIME OF WAR, THE MEN WHO HAD BEEN IGNORED OR WORSE BY THEIR COUNTRY, ROSE ABOVE THEIR OWN BITTER EXPERIENCE TO WELCOME US HOME TO AMERICA. THE VIETNAM VETERANS, HEART-BROKEN BY THEIR OWN REJECTION IN THE 1970S BUT DETERMINED TO RIGHT THAT WRONG, WERE SAYING “NOT ON OUR WATCH. WE WILL NEVER LET ANOTHER GENERATION OF VETERANS FEEL ANYTHING BUT LOVE AND RESPECT AND HONOR WHEN THEY COME HOME.” I LOVE THE VIETNAM VETERANS.

IS SOMEONE GOING TO TELL ME TODAY THAT THAT GENERATION OF VIETNAM VETERANS WAS NOT GREAT? OF COURSE THEY WERE.

THE TRUTH IS, THE AMERICAN MILITARY IS MADE UP OF SPECIAL PEOPLE. NOT SUPER HEROES…NOT PERFECT…NOT EVEN 100% VICTORIOUS IN ALL ENDEAVORS. BUT SPECIAL PEOPLE – WHO WHEN THEY SEE A WRONG – THEY WANT TO RIGHT IT. WHEN THEY SEE SUFFERING – THEY WANT TO ALLEVIATE IT. WHEN THEY SEE INJUSTICE – THEY WANT TO RECTIFY IT. THAT IS TRUE OF ALL AMERICAN VETERANS, IN ALL TIMES.

RATHER THAN ASCRIBING A GREATEST GENERATION LABEL TO OUR HEROES, CAN’T WE ALL AGREE – HERE TODAY, THAT THE AMERICAN VETERAN FROM ALL GENERATIONS DESERVES OUR LOVE, HONOR, AND RESPECT?

OFTEN IN THE COURSE OF MY DAY, I HAVE CITIZENS STOP ME AND SHAKE MY HAND; THEY SAY “THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.” IT IS HUMBLING AND IT IS AWE INSPIRING. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE ARE SO GOOD TO OUR MILITARY. LET IT ALWAYS BE SO. BUT I HAVE DEVELOPED MY OWN RESPONSE TO THOSE CITIZENS. WHEN THEY SAY “THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE” I ALWAYS REPLY RIGHT BACK “THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING US. THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AND OUR HOME TOWNS ARE WORTH DEFENDING – IT IS AN HONOR TO SERVE A GREAT NATION.”

ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS, ARTHUR KOESTLER WROTE, “THE MOST PERSISTENT SOUND WHICH REVERBERATES THROUGH MAN’S HISTORY IS THE BEATING OF WAR DRUMS.” HOW I WISH THAT WERE NOT TRUE. WE MUST ALL WORK AND PRAY FOR PEACE. BUT THE HIGHER IDEALS OF FREEDOM, JUSTICE, AND DECENCY MUST BE PLACED ABOVE OUR DESIRE FOR PEACE; BECAUSE PEACE WITHOUT THOSE OTHER THINGS IS NO PEACE AT ALL.

IT IS THE AMERICAN VETERAN THAT DEFENDS THOSE HIGHER IDEALS. I AM BLESSED TO BE AMONG THOSE VETERANS AND I AM HONORED TO SAY TO THOSE VETERANS HERE TODAY AND ACROSS OUR NATION: “THANK YOU. YOU ARE IN WORD… AND IN DEED – THE GREATEST.”

-cjcheetham

The Man Who Hated Cupcakes

Author’s note:  When you see:  ________  in the story below, I have edited out a vulgarity.  Please feel free to imagine the vulgarity of your choice in order to get the full effect of this tale.

I recently spent a weekend in Washington D.C. with my family.  After a long and great day touring the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and some of the monuments at the National Mall we retired to Georgetown, where our hotel was located.

It was a beautiful evening so we went took a stroll down M Street looking for interesting shopping and a good place to eat.  As we were walking my oldest daughter said, “I’d like to see the DC Cupcakes place.”  When I said I had no idea what the DC Cupcakes place was, she told me about the wildly popular TLC television show of the same name.

“Sure, let’s check it out.  I love cupcakes,” I said optimistically.

“Well, it will probably be crowded.”

“Let’s see.”

*

As we approached the Georgetown Cupcake shop there was an enormous line down the street.  If I had to guess, I’d say people were waiting more than an hour for a chance to buy gourmet cupcakes.  We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so waiting in that line was not an option.

“Let’s take a look in the window and see if Sophie or Katherine is working in there,” Emma suggested.

Why not?  We walked over to the main window and I peered in.  All I saw was a kid wolfing down a chocolate cupcake.   I have to admit it, even though I have never seen the show, the cupcakes looked great and that kid inside licking scrumptious icing annoyed me; like she was mocking my lack of access to sugary pastries.

“Nope.  They’re not in there,” Emma said cheerily.

“Well, let’s find someplace to eat dinner,” I suggested.  We crossed the street with my son and me in the lead; my wife and daughters trailing behind.

Then I saw him.

Leaning against a street lamp was a man in his late thirties; perhaps a little overweight but in all ways just an average guy.  He wore jeans and a black t-shirt.  He was visibly and obviously very upset.  He was not crying but his eyes were full of tears, about to flow in torrents at any minute.  He was muttering bitterly and in a high-pitched, incredulous way, “What the ________?  How the ________?  That is ________ unreal!  What the _______?!”

As he spoke his words were soggy from the tears in his throat.  There were great gobs of spittle in his mouth forming heavy white webs in the corners of his lips.  It was as if he were witnessing a great tragedy – a house fire; a murder; a suicide.  But his eyes were fixed on only one thing:  Georgetown Cupcake, home of the hit TLC show DC Cupcakes.

After I had passed the man, I turned to my son.  “What was that?”

“I guess he really doesn’t like cupcakes,” Eli suggested.

**

We had a great dinner at the nearby Leopold Café.  It’s a great and authentically Austrian/German restaurant in Georgetown.  I highly recommend it.  The food was excellent and we took our time with the schnitzel all the while pondering:  what was the issue with the sobbing cupcake guy?

“He probably just thinks it’s ridiculous that people line up for cupcakes,” Eli suggested.

Then I floated this idea – “Maybe his wife was in line, and it was driving him nuts waiting?”

“No.  He’s probably just strange.”  “He wasn’t even looking at the cupcake place,” others said.

I let my mind drift – to tell myself a story (I do this way too often).  As my family conversed, I travelled back in time to imagine that same cupcake storefront years earlier.  There was our weeping cupcake guy; but in the good old days, he was happy and joyful.  He was the owner of his own bakery in the very same building now occupied by television cupcake makers.  He had quit his job, invested his life savings to start his own business – Arthur’s Bakery.  It had been a constant struggle; hemorrhaging his life savings trying to keep the place afloat.  He was a great baker – everyone knew that, but for some reason he couldn’t make a living at it.  In the final year, before the foreclosure, Arthur had watched as Barbara had left town with the kids, unable to deal with the financial catastrophe any longer.

“Not a bad explanation,” I thought.

And now Arthur was standing with tears in his eyes remembering his bakery, incredulous that a cupcake reality show had the place booming – and most of all weeping over his broken life and lost family.

Not a bad story at all.

“Are we getting dessert?” My wife asked, bringing me back to reality.

“Yes let’s do that.”

***

After settling up the bill at Café Leopold, we started the walk back to our hotel.  It was a beautiful evening and Georgetown was bustling.  We all joked and moaned about how full we were from our gigantic dinner when it happened.

I saw him again.

The man who hated cupcakes had moved to a different corner.  He was still inconsolable.  He was still muttering.

“Hey Eli, that’s that same guy,” I said in a low voice.

Eli nodded as we were within 20 feet of him.  He stood at a street corner, his arms folded defiantly oblivious to the pedestrians around him.  He was still muttering.  As we got closer I could hear him once again blathering in distress.

“What the _____?  WHY?!  What the _____ is that?  How the _____?”  He was once again staring, single-mindedly across the street.

I looked at the object of his disbelief, misery, and sorrow.  There on the opposite side of M Street I saw exactly what was destroying this man’s psyche.  He was looking directly at the bustling activity at a business called Sprinkles Cupcakes.  Another cupcake bakery!

I was a bit unnerved by this turn of events.  Suddenly the story I had woven in my imagination had taken a darker turn.  How was this man tortured by cupcakes? Had been forced as a child to eat cupcakes by a sadistic parent?  How would Stephen King handle this turn of events?

Before I could tell myself a new story, Eli interrupted me and simply said, “See Dad.  I told you!  That guy really hates cupcakes.”

I guess so.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

 

5 Enemies of Problem Solving

There is hardly a day that will pass in anyone’s life where he won’t encounter problems.  This is the nature of life.  You wake up and walk into the kitchen expecting a bowl of Cheerios only to discover the milk has gone sour.  On the way to work you get behind a rolling road block being orchestrated by someone who apparently has a car that can’t do more than 32 miles an hour.  Then when you arrive to the office 15 minutes late, you find out that two of the three key people working your most important project have called in sick.  Just as you are about to let your emotions get the better of you, your boss pops in to let you know that your department’s budget is getting cut 25%, but he’ll still need 100% performance.

An extreme example?  Hardly.  There have been days when I wished that I could have such a smooth start to the day.

Due to the staggering number of problems faced by any organization, a premium must be placed on developing problem-solvers.  The people who can dissect a problem, develop a reasonable alternative or new solution, and then present the improved way ahead to your team.

Unfortunately, problem-solvers are not as common as problems.  In fact, most organizations are plagued with enemies of problem solving.  These are people, often well-meaning people, who are not only incapable of solving problems, but actively obstruct problem-solving efforts.  In essence, the enemies of problem-solving become another problem!

*

During my career I’ve been on multiple teams dedicated to “problem-solving.”  In some instances, I was the most junior member of the team.  In others, I’ve been the commander who was able to direct action.  I’ve observed as teams and organizations have wrestled with difficult problems.  I’ve watched as people huddled around white boards and brain-stormed like champions.  I’ve listened as impassioned advocates of change cited reasons for dramatic initiatives.  I’ve been blessed to be around some great men and women of action, who could actually fix things.

But in those same organizations, I have seen the others: the enemies of problem-solving.  These are the people who take an almost morbid pride in saying how it can’t be done and why it can’t be fixed.  You’ll recognize them by the hats they wear, because the ball caps they wear have an upside down Nike symbol proclaiming:  “Just Don’t Do It”

Avoid these people if you can.  But since you can’t, at least familiarize yourself with the 5 enemies of problem-solving.

**

1. Problem Complicators:

Problem complicators will spend most of their day debunking solutions to problems.  No matter how straight-forward the solution, the Problem Complicators are willing to dig in and have a weeklong discussion about it.  The Problem Complicator can usually be identified by his liberal use of trite sayings such as “I wish it were that easy” or “There are no simple solutions, guys.”

But there are simple solutions.  If some of your employees are having trouble getting to work because they have to drop their kids off at school – try this:  change their work hours. The Problem Complicators hate such solutions.  They are far too clever for their own good.

A common move by Problem Complicators is proposing an unnecessarily elaborate solution.  For example, if a dead-bolt on a door is broken, the Problem Complicator will suggest a laser-driven security system with a retinal-scan authentication device in order to keep unauthorized people out of the store-room.  Of course, this will require an incredible amount of money, training, legal advice, and an environmental impact study.

Typically the boss says something like “I have a better idea, buy a new dead-bolt lock.”

Then the Problem Complicator sniffs indignantly and talks about how “these Neanderthals never listen!”

2. Problem Identifiers

When I was stationed in Las Vegas, I often told the people who worked for me, “It is really easy to identify problems.”  I would tell my squadron, “I could go down to the University of Las Vegas and grab some freshmen who have never even been on an Air Force Base in their lives and bring them in here to this squadron; I bet that within 5 days they could identify almost all of our problems.”

Identifying problems is very easy to do.  Don’t get me wrong, some problems are more difficult to solve than others, but identifying problems?  It’s easy.

Problem identifiers are a particularly insidious enemy of problem-solving.  Problem Identifiers actually think they are part of the solution because they are identifying.  I’ve even heard people brag about this supposed skill.  They literally spend all their time identifying problems that need to be solved without any intention of actually solving them.  But we know that identifying superficial problems is easy.

For example, let’s say when you get in your car tomorrow morning and you turn the ignition, your car makes an awful knocking noise and won’t start.  When you get out of your car, you see a black pool of oil forming on your driveway.  Then along comes your neighbor, a Problem Identifier named Digger.  And then you have this conversation:

Digger:  You’ve got an oil leak.

You:  Yeah, I wonder what is causing that.

Digger:  You know, you’re not gonna be able to drive it like that.

You:  Yes.  I realize that.  I wonder if I blew the main seal?

Digger:  You’ll need to clean up that oil, ya know.  If that oil gets into the water table – wow!  I’d hate to think what that’ll do to the water table.

You:  Gee, thanks Digger {your anger is building}

Digger:  I think your left rear tire is low on air

And then you kick Digger out of your driveway.  You have learned to hate Digger.

Problem Identifiers can have a very nice career doing what they do.  Many are not as obvious as Digger.  They actually sound helpful when they say “you know the tech team just isn’t producing like it used to.”  Be very wary of Problem Identifiers.  They will not solve problems.  Remember, you can get five freshmen out of UNLV to identify problems; but those same college kids probably can’t fix anything.

3. Problem Diverters

Problem Diverters spend most of their day avoiding the problem.  There are two sub-classes of Problem Diverters – the conscious and the subconscious.

The Conscious Problem Diverter spends an inordinate amount of time intentionally trying to get the boss to focus on anything but the problem at hand.  This is a skill that they learned as children.  When their parents would ask, “Tommy, why didn’t you mow the lawn?”  The young Problem Diverter would say something like this, “But Mom, Joey never does anything!  Besides he’s been sneaking out of his bedroom every night to see that new girl down the street that wears the tight jeans and Metallica t-shirts.”

And it worked too; because Mom would refocus on the “Joey Problem.”

The Subconscious Problem Diverter is a different animal.  He is physically incapable of focusing on the problem.  So when the Boss asks someone why the shipping department is not meeting any of the established timelines, the Subconscious Problem Diverter is interested in talking about getting new office furniture or looking for clarification on the company’s “Vision Statement.”

Both variations of Problem Diverter are dangerous to your organization – but, be particularly wary of the Conscious Problem Diverter, because he actually thinks he is fooling you (and sometimes he is).

4.  Problem Reiterators

Problem Reiterators make their living restating the problem in a variety of ways.  They can be identified rather easily because they use terminology like “At the end of the day…” or “The crux of the matter remains…”

I consider Problem Reiterators to be among the vilest of all enemies of problem solving.  Why?  Because, they use already identified problem as a tool against all proposed solutions.  Let me illustrate:

In the Air Force, officers are highly encouraged to earn “Joint Credit” at some point in their careers.  Simply put, joint credit is given for jobs in which officers work with other branches of the military.  For example, an Air Force officer might get joint credit for working at the Pentagon or might get joint credit for working for a sister service, like the Navy.

A few years ago I had a very talented Captain who worked for me and was deployed to Iraq.  This Captain worked almost exclusively with the Army and actually served in the “J2” job, meaning she was the joint (Air Force and Army) lead for intelligence.  However, she didn’t get “joint credit” on her record for that job.

When we inquired with headquarters as to why she didn’t get “joint credit”, we were told “the policy is you get joint credit for only designated joint jobs.”

Me:  Can we designate the job this Captain did as joint?  I mean, it was inherently joint – she worked exclusively as the J2”

HQ Problem Reiterator:  I don’t set the policy; the policy states which jobs are joint.

Me:  can we change the policy then.  This seems like a no-brainer.

HQ Problem Reiterator:  At the end of the day, your real problem is the policy doesn’t give joint credit for that J2 position…

Problem Reiterators are tough.  You identify the problem as “the company policy or regulations need to be changed.”  Then Problem Reiterators tell you company policy or regulations prevent you from fixing the problem.  You tell them – this policy is stupid and should be changed.  They tell you, you know the real problem is that policy doesn’t allow for that.

Problem Reiterators are quintessential bureaucrats and as such “at the end of the day” they will tell you “there is really nothing I can do.”

5. Problem Accommodators

Problem Accommodators are sometimes difficult to identify because they give the superficial appearance of being actual problem solvers.  Make no mistake, a Problem Accommodator is an enemy of problem solving, but the camouflage used by the accommodator is brilliant in its inefficiency.

Problem Accommodators are most easily identified by their elaborate “work-around schemes.”  I’ve encountered these guys multiple times.

For example, your headquarters comes up with an automated database to track all employee training.  Headquarters believes this database will streamline accounting and reporting of training.  There is just one problem – the database that headquarters came up with doesn’t work.  In fact, it is terrible.

The Problem Accommodator creates his own local tracking system.  He creates a better database and uses that to track training.  Then every month he loads the good information into the bogus headquarters database.  He does this manually because the headquarters product is terrible.  Result:  The Accommodator has never had a late report; no one knows there is a problem and headquarters renews the contract for the Training Database 2.0 that will be even less efficient than the original.

Problem Accommodators have real potential.  You need to find them and help them actually solve problems.  Typically the Problem Accomodator has been emotionally scarred in the past by a Problem Reiterator (boy, I hate those bastards).  The Problem Accommodator tells you how they came up with a great solution to “problem X” 10 years ago, but after fighting with the Problem Reiterators for weeks, he gave up.

You ask, “why did you give up when you were right?”

Then he tells you, “Well, the Problem Reiterators told me that at the end of the day, the policy was complicated…”

***

Look we are all guilty of this stuff from time to time.

However, there are more than a few enemies of problem solving that are going to get in your way all the time because they live there.  These people need to be identified and rectified.  You simply cannot allow enemies of problem solving to go around souring the milk and setting up road blocks.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Barber, the Botanist

I suppose when you go to college you can learn a lot of important things. After all, professors are paid pretty nice salaries to stand up in classrooms across the country and blather about the fishing industry in Peru or the marginal propensity to save in Italy. These enlightened educators will wax poetic about mitosis, malaria, Monrovia, mercury, metadata, and militarism; and then remind you that’s alliteration.
When I was in college I suppose I learned a few things from the professors, but I think I learned a lot more from my barber.
*
In 1989, I found a little barber shop in South Dartmouth Massachusetts, not far from the campus of the University I was attending. It was a little white building with the requisite barber pole in the window. The barber was a man named Frank. He was a nice old gentleman and as he cut my hair he would occasionally hum or sing along with Al Martino or Frank Sinatra playing on his small radio that he kept on the counter in his shop.
Frank had a classic pair of barber chairs, although he only used one of the chairs. I guessed that the second chair was from a partner who had long since left the business. Unlike many barbers today, Frank rarely used the electric clippers. He was a maestro of the scissors and the comb. The scissors hissed in a rhythmic scat – almost a form of jazz, as Frank breathed heavily through his large nose; getting my hair cut “just right.”
Every day, Frank’s wife would sit with him in that barber shop, knitting away. She looked to be in her late 70’s which is what I pegged Frank’s age at as well. It was tough to tell with Frank – because he always was smiling and happy, which hid the years. He probably could have passed for 65, if not for Millie sitting quietly with her needles creating beautiful things from balls of yarn.

Frank and Millie rarely talked to each other when I was in the shop – but they were together every day. It amazed me.
**
Any guy will tell you that when you first go to a barber – there is a “feeling-out” period. During the first few cuts, the conversation between barber and client will center on weather, sports, and local events; nothing too heavy. After all, no guy wants to make an emotional commitment to a barber until he sees proof that this man can actually cut hair. It would be a disaster to move too fast and really like your barber if he ended up butchering your head. Great conversation will never make up for a Three Stooges haircut.

The rule applied to my relationship with Frank. We kept it light and easy: “Are you a student?” “How about this weather?” “There’s a good new sandwich shop on such and such street.”

It wasn’t long before Frank proved he could really cut hair and cut it well. Then I decided to really talk to him.

***

One day, as Frank was clipping away at the back of my head I noticed on the wall a black and white photograph of a young Frank standing by a barber chair. There was an older man standing by a second chair.

“Who is that in the picture, Frank? Your Dad?”

“Yes! Yes, that’s my dad. We had a shop in the north part of town before they built the shopping mall on route 6.”

“Cool. Hey Frank – how long have you been cutting hair.”

“Seventy Years.”

I must have heard him wrong. Seventy years? “What? When did you start cutting hair?”

“When I was 14.”

“Wow! So you are 84?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t believe it – you look so young. Did you always know you wanted to be a barber?”

Frank stopped cutting and paused for a minute. Then he started the scissors again, “I never wanted to be a barber.”

“What?”

“My father made me become a barber.”

“What did you want to do?”

Frank stopped cutting again and he gestured with his comb and scissors like a master conductor, “I wanted to be a botanist! I always wanted to study botany and become a botanist!”

I was stumped for a minute. I realized that Frank was the first person I had ever met who ever expressed a burning desire for botany. I knew nothing of botany. I tried to remember – wasn’t there something about xylem in botany?

Then Frank continued talking. “My father came to me when I was 14 years old and said ‘I have to pull you out of school.’ I asked why and he told me he needed the help and the family needed the money. So I quit school to become a barber.”

“Just like that?”

“Oh I tried to argue with him. I said, but dad – I really want to be a botanist! I was good in school too. But, I was the oldest, so I quit school and learned to cut hair.”

“Wow, Frank. And you’ve been cutting hair for 70 years now?”

“Yes, 70 years of cutting hair. My father and I had a shop together and now it’s just me.” He was finishing up the hair around my ears and the back of my neck.

“Frank, did you ever go back to school? Did you ever get a chance to study botany?”

“No. I never went to school; never studied botany. My younger brothers finished school but I never went back.” He said it all without a trace of bitterness. “That’s just how it was. The family needed help and so my father told me I had to help.”

“And you did.”

“And I did.”

****

I deeply admired Frank. I couldn’t get his story out of my head. Here’s a 14-year old kid with all these dreams of becoming a botanist and he ends up a small town barber; cutting hair for a living in a tiny shop.  Yes, I admired him but I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of sadness about his story.

A few weeks later I returned for my haircut. I walked into Frank’s shop and there was Millie knitting away quietly. Perry Como crooned in the background. Then Frank smiled brightly at me, “Hello! I have something to show you before I cut your hair!”
Frank went over to a table in his shop and grabbed a three-ring binder full of pictures. He beamed and said, “Just look at these for a minute!”

The binder was full of photographs of rose bushes; Beautiful rose bushes.

“What’s all this Frank?”

“My roses!” These are all roses I’ve grown. Some of them I’ve cultivated myself. I’ve created my very own hybrids.”

“Jeez, it looks like a lot of work.”

“It’s not work because I love it. I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

“Frank you know what this means don’t you?”

“What?”

“You are a botanist!”

He laughed and grabbed me around my shoulders.

*****

It is people like Frank that made America a great place. I learned so many great things from him.

I learned that dreams are wonderful things but family is more important than dreams. I learned that honest work and decency are precious commodities. I learned that there is no higher calling than working to help your family succeed. I learned that if you found the right mate, the right woman; that late in life when your world is slowing down, she will always be at your side, supporting you every day. I learned that if you keep a song in your heart the scissors aren’t heavy and there is a lot of joy in every task.

What college ever taught anyone that?

“I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

Thanks Frank. You are the most beautiful botanist that I have ever met.

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Something Worth Remembering – Memorial Day 2014

In the fall of 2009, I was on the back of a C-17 in Kabul Afghanistan when the aircrew announced that our flight would be conducting the first leg of a “dignified transfer.” In other words, traveling with us out of Kabul that morning was an American who had died in the defense of our nation.
We all stood solemnly as the aircrew carried the flag draped coffin into the fuselage. The crew reverently strapped down the coffin; just a short distance from where I would sit on this flight. I took note of the crisp, clean and beautiful American Flag. There have been many times when I have admired the beauty of that flag, but on this day it was different. The flag seemed to be saying, “take a long look at my colors and whenever you do, remember the fallen who I symbolize.”
For that entire flight, I wondered about the American in that flag-draped coffin. He was most certainly no different from you or I. He had a childhood; he had friends, family; he had dreams for the future and plans for all he had yet to accomplish in life. That was all over. He was returning home in silence, a hero fallen in battle. I thanked God for this man and prayed for his family.
**
This past Saturday, I was in Annapolis Maryland with my family. It is a beautiful city. We spent a great deal of time in the Maryland State House. It is a tremendous building, constructed (starting) in 1772 and still home to the Maryland legislature.
Annapolis served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1783-1784, and so I found myself imagining the conversations that took place in the historic halls. Certainly, the most significant event to take place in the senate chamber was the day General George Washington stood before congress and tendered his resignation as commander of the army. The representatives, many with tears streaming down their cheeks, accepted his resignation thereby establishing the supremacy of American civilian legislatures to the American military. Washington also fought back his emotions as he resigned. After years of war, brutal war against the world’s mightiest army, Washington could finally lay down his sword. I have no doubt that as the General stood in that chamber before his countrymen, he thought of the fallen. The many who had fought and died by his side in the great war of independence.
***
Outside the State House, there is a tremendous memorial statue in honor of revolutionary war hero Johann De Kalb. The statue is large and dark; depicting De Kalb with a sword in his hand, imploring his troops to fight on at the tragic Battle of Camden.
De Kalb’s story is a great one and uniquely American. Born in Germany, De Kalb served in the French army. He was an experienced battle-hardened veteran when the government of France sent him to the American colonies in 1768. De Kalb’s mission was to determine the mood of the colonists. However, De Kalb instead developed an admiration for the American colonists desire to create a new nation, conceived in liberty and the rights of man.
By 1777, De Kalb had returned to Maryland, this time in order to fight with the colonists. De Kalb eventually was commissioned as a General in the continental army. In 1780, Washington dispatched Johann De Kalb to South Carolina. The British were having some success in Charleston and Washington needed to act. De Kalb marched the armies of Maryland and Delaware to South Carolina. On the 16th of August, 1780 De Kalb’s forces would join with General Horatio Gates (the victor at Saratoga) and do battle against British forces on a battlefield near the small town of Camden, South Carolina.
The American plan devised by Gates was deeply flawed. In essence, Gates entrusted the left flank to the untested North Carolina militia. To make matters worse, that inexperience militia would face the infamous Raiders under the command of England’s skilled General Tarelton. Not surprisingly, the colonial militia was routed and retreated at full speed. General Gates mounted the fastest horse he could find and road all the way to Charlotte North Carolina.
De Kalb, leading the Maryland and Delaware troops on the right flank was unaware that the American left flank had dissolved. In fact, De Kalb’s troops were making gains on the right flank until the militia retreated. After Gates and the militia retreated, Cornwallis was able to redirect Tarelton’s forces to attack De Kalb’s forces from his unprotected left.
The result was a disaster for the colonists. The Maryland and Delaware forces were routed. De Kalb, by all accounts including the British, fought valiantly that day. The great German urged his troops to fight against withering odds. Eventually, De Kalb had his horse shot out from under him. Refusing to quit, he continued to fight on foot until he succumbed to a swarm of enemy combatants. De Kalb was shot three times and stabbed seven times by enemy bayonets. Tarelton’s account of the battle records that de Kalb could not comprehend the defeat of General Gates.
De Kalb lay dying for some days. The British out of respect for this great soldier gave him medical attention, but De Kalb’s fate was sealed. He hung on for three days. He would never return home to Maryland nor would he ever see France or Germany again. He would never see his family again. A British officer expressed his condolences to De Kalb. De Kalb, mortally wounded and dying responded simply:
“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”
****
Memorial Day is a time of remembrance. It is not a time to thank veterans but rather to remember those who never returned from the battlefield to become veterans. Every American who has fallen in battle deserves our respect and admiration. These were and are real people with real stories. When they died, it left a hole in the lives of family and friends. The dead will not return to us; therefore they must never be forgotten.
The man in that coffin, who I was honored to fly with in a C-17, wasn’t all that different from Johann De Kalb. Like De Kalb, he answered his nation’s call to battle. Both would tell you that the fight was worth it. Bless them both and all who have died in battle. I pray that Americans commit to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.
*****
Our current conflict reminds us all of the heavy cost of war. It is a brutal thing; this thing called war. Yes, but it is a necessary thing. There is so much sadness when an American serviceman dies on the field of battle. It is wrenching to think of that catastrophic loss for a family. Yet, we can take solace in this: our troops fight because they want a world in which the people of New York can go to work without the fear of some maniacs flying a plane into their building. They fight to stop despots with monstrous visions of a Thousand Year Reich. They fight so that totalitarian monsters, with half-baked ideas of global communism led by madmen hell-bent on creating the “New Soviet Man,” never achieve their goals. In short, the American military fights to protect the American ideal of freedom and rights-inalienable. It is an awesome task. There are enemies everywhere. Many have fallen in our history and sadly, many more will fall in the future.
This Memorial Day, remember the fallen. It’s okay to be sad, but try not to focus on remorse or sadness. Just remember the cost of your freedom and be very, very thankful.

“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”

-cjcheetham

The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

In August of 1987, exactly 8 days before the start of my sophomore year of college I faced a personal crisis that threatened to undo my entire life’s plan.  It was music, specifically the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, that miraculously provided a timely solution to an impossible situation.

*

In the winter of 1982, during my senior year of high school, my father suffered a tragic economic collapse.  His life’s work, as an independent supermarket owner on the South Shore of Massachusetts, dissolved under a mountain of debt in early December of that year.  As a result, my parents went into a financial tailspin that they would never fully recover from.  I was the youngest of 4 children, the only one still living at home, and I immediately knew this turn of events would change my plan to attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1983.

After spending the subsequent two years unsuccessfully saving for college by working as a landscaper, roofer, and other manual labor jobs, I had joined the Army National Guard.  Thanks to the glorious G.I. Bill, I finally managed to get to an affordable college in the fall of 1986.  In order to save money that first year, I commuted from my home town to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (a 50-minute one-way drive on a good day). For the entire first year of college, I borrowed my brother’s car to attend school.  That car was available only because my generous brother, a member of the US Navy, had training requirements and deployments that entire year and didn’t need his car.

However, in the summer of 1987, my brother had returned from the sea, picked up his car and headed off to a naval base.  This left me with a dilemma:  how was I going to get to school in the fall of 1987 for my sophomore year?  Sure I was working and yes, I was pulling in a small monthly check from my one-weekend-a-month National Guard duties, but I’d never been able to save enough cash to cover room and board at college.  Likewise, a combination of youthful irresponsibility and low salary had left me with no real hope of buying a car either.

It was the summer of great discomfort.  I was already 3 years behind my high school friends, most of whom graduated college months earlier in the spring of 1987.  Now I was faced with the bleak prospect that I would not return to the University in the fall.  Barring a miracle, I would be home in September without a car, without any hope of completing my college degree, and without a future.  I skillfully navigated awkward conversations with friends throughout June and July, pretending that everything was fine; and “yes, I was looking forward to returning” to school in September.  Despite my charade, by mid-August I was sure of one thing:  there was no way on earth I was going back to college in September.  Sure, I was enrolled – but I knew, with certainty that I would not be in class on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.

**

On the last Sunday in August, reality loomed just 8 days away.  Reality, a monster that plagues all men, was shadow boxing and eagerly awaiting his chance to knock me out cold.  I was resigned to my beating, hopelessly playing out my remaining summer days.

Music has always been an important part of my life.  It has always brought me joy; and more importantly it has brought me escape.  So, on that last Sunday of August, I did something that defied logic.  I went to the record store to buy an album.  It was completely irrational; it was futile; it was stupid.  But with Otter’s voice in my head, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” I headed to the mall with the intent of buying Black Market Clash by Joe Strummer and the Clash.

I lingered in the “Musicsmith” a (now defunct) music sanctuary in my local mall.  I spent an hour flipping through vinyl LPs, which was the best way to shop.  You poured over the vinyl selections and then you bought a cassette for the boom-box in your bedroom.  Of course, on that day I knew exactly why I was at the store.  I needed a new cassette of Black Market Clash because, as anyone who has owned tapes can attest to, they get eaten from time to time.  Black Market Clash a collection of killer non-album singles and B-side tracks by Joe Strummer and the boys.  Soon, I’d be home listening to Armagideon Time with the lyric apropos to my predicament:

“No one will guide you, through armagideon time.”

As I waited in line to pay for Black Market Clash, I noticed that the guy ringing the register was a classmate from high school days, Dan Heggerich.  Dan was a good guy – lots of fun; we were friendly in high school but I hadn’t really talked to him in years.  I dreaded the inevitable conversation about college.  To make matters worse, last year I’d seen Dan on campus at the University of Massachusetts (he was an engineering student) so it was a guarantee that he would ask something like “ready for school?”

I considered putting back the Clash cassette and quietly escaping.  But I had to hear Joe Strummer sing.

“My daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt nobody…”

I decided to fake one more conversation.

***

Dan:  “Cheetham – good choice with the Clash.” He took the cassette from me.

Me:  “Well, they are my favorite.”

Dan:  “Ready to go back to school?”  (There it was.)

Me:  “Yeah.  How about you?  You going back too?”

Dan:  “Yup.  But I am not living there this year.  Need to save money so I am going to commute.”

[What?  My mind clicked and whirred.  Did he just say, commute!?]

Me:  “Commute?  You mean you are driving to campus every day.  A 50-minute commute every day?”

Dan:  “Yeah – kinda sucks.”

Me:  “Actually it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”

****

Dan and I drove to school together every day that year.  We became good friends and had lots of laughs. The Heg-Man, as he came to be known by me, saved my sophomore year.  When I reflect on that day – even today I can’t believe it.  It was/is a miracle.  If I had not gone to a record store when it made absolutely no sense to do that, I would have never made it through college.

Go figure.

Yes, Dan Heggerich is a hero in this story – I can never repay him.  And yes, I agree, God works out beautiful chance encounters for us all on a daily basis, and I can never thank Him enough.

But when I look back on August 1987, I still say it was the day that Joe Strummer saved my life.

R.I.P.  Joe

-cjcheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

P.S.

Here’s The Clash with Armagideon Time from Black Market Clash

http://youtu.be/6enAv2SEA38

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about that “Otter” quote:

http://youtu.be/_h4DZeBleLs

Cheerleading is not leadership

The problem with our Potemkin village is not that we don’t have a good enough tour guide. – Anonymous

*

From a fan’s perspective, there is nothing worse than a one-sided game, the dreaded blowout. And in the world of blowouts there is nothing worse than the High School basketball blowout.  You know what I mean, the games where the talent disparity is so high that there is no chance of the lesser team even competing, never mind winning.

I recently attended such a game.  The score at halftime was something like 51 – 6.  I was seated among the family and classmates of that losing team, and the mood was utter despair and silence.  However, during timeouts, the school’s cheerleaders trotted merrily out on the floor and implored the catatonic fan base to “fight fight fight!” or shouted rhymes about how our squad was about to win because we had heart and spirit.

At first I was amused by the juxtaposition of the basketball team being blown off the court and these cheerleaders enthusiastically jumping and shouting.  It was absurd.  Yet, as the game went on I found myself craving more cheerleading and less basketball.  It was a form of torture to deal with the reality of disheartened boys getting blown off the court; it was sweet relief when smiling cheerleaders were doing high-flying stunts. 

During the second half, as the opposing team repeatedly made easy buckets the score grew worse.  Despite the rout, whenever our boys managed to score, even a single point via free throw, the cheerleaders would jump about, shaking pom-poms and executing impressive high leg kicks.  By game’s end, the boys had lost by 71.  The team left the court confused and dejected while the cheerleaders shouted “good effort” and “nice try!”

But the boys aren’t stupid; they knew despite the shouts from cheerleaders, they just got crushed.

**

Part of a leader’s job is certainly encouragement.  A leader has to find ways to motivate his team to attack challenges and problems with confidence.  It is a good leadership trait to exhort your team to greatness.  The troops want to be rallied.  They want a leader who says “it can be done!”

However, when exhortation crosses the line and become cheerleading, you are no longer leading.  Instead you have replaced reality with fantasy.  Your team knows this; and you will end up losing your credibility as a leader. 

Once the leader compromises on honesty, he will quickly lose his credibility with the troops.  When your team is walking off the court following a 71-point blowout, resist the temptation to add insult to injury by offering up platitudes about “good effort” while shaking a pom-pom.

 

***

The military is facing another year of bad budgets and manpower cuts this year.  More than a decade of war with (at best) mixed results has been rewarded with planned deep cuts of uniformed personnel.  All branches of the military are being cut, manpower will be lost, experience will leave, and weapons systems will be eliminated or moth-balled.  Oh, and for those who remain, your retirement is on the chopping block.

It has the feeling of a high school basketball blowout.

Yet, the sloganeering and empty rhetoric of how “people are our most important resource” continues unabated.  Leaders at all levels are executing high leg kicks and shouting “we have spirit, yes we do!” 

Spirit, we may have, but do we have uniformed personnel to accomplish our mission?

There is a way for a basketball team to respond to a blowout.  First, you honestly assess how badly you played; you accept reality.  Then you get to work in practice.  The coach, as a leader, doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to find bright spots in a 71-point loss.  Instead he puts together a plan to address shortcomings and overcome failure.  The situation requires honesty.  Slogans simply aren’t going to cut it.

Cheerleaders might tell the team they are wonderful, but a cheerleader isn’t going to solve the problems of that team.  Problem solving requires a leader – a coach.  The coach is going to get back to basics.  He will focus on basic skills and the most important skills.  A back to basics approach focused on mission accomplishment.

****

The troops aren’t stupid. 

They doubt our sincerity when leaders say “our most important resource is our uniformed personnel.”  The troops have seen budget cuts gut training and readiness.  They have seen the projected troop strengths going south.  The troops see vital resources diverted to social engineering efforts and CYA programs designed to placate media firestorms.

The troops aren’t stupid.

They watched as the entire DoD went into freak-out mode when DoD civilians were furloughed for 11 days (which was eventually only 6 days) last year.  Those same troops can’t help but notice there is no similar outcry when the military announces huge cuts in uniformed personnel.  And yes, the troops see that there are approximately 750,000 civilians working for the DoD.  There are 750,000 elephants in the living room, eating peanuts, as uniformed manpower gets cut.  The troops know that 750,000 civilians in the DoD is almost the same size of the Army and Navy combined.  They also see that there is no major cut planned for civilian personnel in DoD.  The troops know that Mr. Putin isn’t concerned with civilian DoD employees as he calculates his next move in the Ukraine, yet civilian manpower in the DoD is untouchable. 

The troops aren’t stupid.  They see the stories and speeches calling for cuts in EARNED benefits to military personnel. 

****

We do have a great military.  The people who serve in our nation’s defense are great people and they do great things every day.  They need advocates and they need resources and they need leaders. 

But they don’t need cheerleaders – because they can see the score.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham

Thoughts on Everything