a brief history of the Fleming clan

My daughter started asking me questions about our family’s ancestors this evening. I don’t know much, but I told her what I know.
 
fleming_largeThe Fleming family name obviously originates in Flanders, a region that was at various times controlled by France, Spain and the Netherlands, but it got its start as part of the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar called the region Gallia Belgica, including it as part of Gaul, and called its inhabitants Belgae.
 
As the Roman Empire went through its lengthy dissolution, Flanders was part of mainland Europe known colloquially as the Saxon Shore, mainly because it was frequently attacked by the Saxons from across the Channel in England.
 
It should come as no surprise, then, that when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, put the word out in 1066 that he wasn’t pleased with the ascension of Harold Godwinson to the throne of England following the death of King Edward and planned to invade England, the natives of Flanders – known as the Flemish – eagerly stepped up to support William’s initiative.
 
(William felt his claim to the throne was stronger than that of King Harald of Norway (Harald Hardrada). King Harold defeated King Harald’s army, killing Harald in the process, but Duke William subsequently defeated (and killed) King Harold, taking the throne of England for himself after the famous Battle of Hastings… but you probably already knew that.)
 
After William – now called the Conqueror instead of the Bastard – successfully consolidated power in England, he distributed land grants to his loyal followers, including the nobles from Flanders who helped him.
 
Henry II (Plantagenet), who was William’s great-grandson, invaded Ireland in 1171 to counteract moves being made by Richard de Clare, known as Richard Strongbow. Henry won the short war, but let Strongbow live and even granted him territory to help bring the other Irish nobles in line under his control.
 
When the Irish kingdom of Meath refused to submit, Henry II simply acknowledged their steadfastness and granted that territory to Hugh de Lacy, a prominent Norman noble. Baron Lacy spent the rest of his life (d. 1186) trying to gain military control of Meath in the name of the king. It depends on who you talk to as to how successful he was.
 
Now, you may wonder why I’ve taken this sideways spin into English-Irish history. Well, patient reader, here’s why you’ve stuck it out this long.

The Flemish, being the loyalists they were, answered Henry II’s call to arms for the invasion of Ireland. Their reward for their loyalty and lives was land grants across Ireland, and indeed, there are Flemings in nearly every county of that fine land to this day. However, my particular branch of the family was loyal to Baron Lacy and set about helping him attempt to pacify Meath.

Other branches of the Flemish clans stayed in England, and still others migrated to Scotland over the years. As the centuries progressed, Flanders became a center of European textile technology and manufacture, with Flemish weavers in high demand across the continent – and especially in England, Scotland and Ireland, leading to a wave of people named Fleming coming to England. Of course, they didn’t get the name Fleming until they got there, because once the King of England established the Poll Tax (a kind of income tax), everybody had to have a last name.

The Flemings loyal to Baron Lacy found themselves on the outs, royal-favor-wise, when they backed James II in his bid to unseat William (of William and Mary) in 1690, but by then the Flemings were well entrenched in Ireland.

It’s entirely possible that my branch of the Fleming family traces its roots back to one John Fleming, who attended a church rite in 1435 in Slane, County Meath, and signed his name spelled with one ‘m’ to an official document. This was not the normal spelling at the time, the common spelling having the distinctive ‘mm’ in the middle.
From what I remember from my Grandmother Fleming’s genealogical research, a number of Flemings fled Meath during the Potato Famine and settled in the Midwest, spanning from western Pennsylvania, through Ohio and on to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

It was at this point that my daughter – remember why I started telling this story in the first place? – declared that she is going to tell people she is “Ohirish with a little Mexican thrown in.” I told her I can live with that.

Now, besides me, you may have heard of a number of Flemings. My clansmen and women have made great contributions to the world. Here’s a rundown of Flemings You Should Know.

  • Peggy Fleming – figure skater who won Olympic gold in 1968, but perhaps most well-known as the object of Snoopy’s love from the late 1960s through the early 1970s
  • Ian Fleming – creator of James Bond. Duh.
  • Valentine Fleming – Ian’s father and a casualty of World War One; the major was a close friend of Winston Churchill and died as a result of German action at Gillemont Farm in May 1917. He was a Member of Parliament at the time, and Churchill wrote his obituary.
  • Alexander Fleming – Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin
  • Renée Fleming – opera singer (and a damn good one)
  • Thomas Fleming – the Archbishop of Dublin from 1623 until his death in 1655
  • Valerie Fleming – two-time Olympic gold-medal winner in the 2-person bobsled in 2006; she also earned 8 silver medals and 8 bronzes over the years
  • Richard Fleming – USMC/USN Captain, KIA in his Vindicator dive bomber in action against the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma during the Battle of Midway and subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor
  • Williamina Fleming – astronomer who discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888 (we claim her even though she married into the clan)
  • Lord David Fleming – a prominent Scottish judge and author of the Fleming Report, which led to public funding for elementary schools
  • John Fleming, the 2nd Lord Fleming – killed in a duel by a guy called Tweedie in 1524
  • Michael Anthony Fleming – a Franciscan monk born in Ireland who became the first Catholic bishop in Newfoundland
  • Dave Fleming – contender for rookie of the year for the Seattle Mariners in 1992
  • Victor Fleming – directed Treasure Island, Captains Courageous, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Joan of Arc, The Wizard of Oz and won an Oscar for Best Director for Gone With the Wind
  • Nancy Fleming – Miss America 1961

letter to the editor of Airmail and the board of the Airheads Beemer Club (ABC)

Letter to the Airmail Editor
From Wes Fleming, #3120

Re: June 2015 issue and the apparent feud between the Editor and Joe Glowacki

The kids today, they have this acronym they use whenever they’re perplexed by something. Like “dude,” it’s a catchall for a variety of emotions and reactions, and it can be applied to many situations.

Even though I’m not a kid – though many Airheads might consider me so at the tender age of almost 46 years old – but after reading (eagerly, from cover to cover) the June 2015 Airmail, I have to invoke the kids.

WTF!

While I think many of us can figure out what that means, I’ll relay the kinder, gentler version – WTH, or What The Hell! As in WTF is going on between B. Jan (Hofman) (editor) and Joe Glowacki (chair)?

When I opened the June issue and started reading, I found myself quickly confronted by five (5) – FIVE! – pages of Editor Hofman defending himself and blaming current leadership for spending/cash flow problems. I wasn’t aware until that moment that the editor received a stipend at all.

After perusing the Board of Directors Minutes covering meetings from September 2014 to March 2015, I found myself asking myself WTF have I gotten (back) into? People getting removed from their positions and booted from the club? Disappointing to say the least. I’d also like to know where the financial report mentioned in the November meeting minutes is – the comment “upon the submission of his report” is vague, and there’s no further mention of that report. If finances are an issue, then where is this report and why hasn’t it been made public?

The capper, though, is page 17, on which Chairman Glowacki makes aspersions against Editor Hofman and lays out a pay schedule that (apparently) clearly shows that the $1,000-a-month stipend schedule isn’t what’s being paid to the editor at all. I’m pretty sure $1,000 a month means $12,000 a year, and the $16,688 paid in 2014 isn’t $1,000 a month. Now, of course, there could be other expenses built into that amount (and the others) that aren’t being relayed, but that’s beside the point right now.

First of all, I don’t know nor have I ever met Mssrs. Hofman or Glowacki. It’s clear that Glowacki has no fucking clue how much work goes into the production of a monthly magazine – even one of just 24 pages. A thousand dollars a month is a paltry sum, a mere drop in the bucket, for doing a job with relentless deadlines and little in the way of thanks.

Having said that, for $1,000 a month, I definitely expect a higher-quality publication. Pages 2-11 of the June issue could have been laid out by my 13-year-old daughter using Microsoft Pages. While this reflects the club canon “Airheads believe that the simplest [engineering] solutions are best,” there’s no reason to pay somebody (anybody) even 12 grand a year for this kind of amateur product. I’m not generally one to toot my own horn, but in this instance, I’m going to do just that and encourage every Airhead reading this to visit the website for the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington and check out a recent issue of Between the Spokes, the monthly newsmagazine that I produce for the club – AS A VOLUNTEER. I know exactly how much work goes into releasing a monthly publication at the club level and I know what an amateur in his off hours can produce with some dedication and effort. I’d gladly take $1,000 a month for the work I do for BMWBMW, but because I care about my club, I stepped up as a volunteer and receive no payment whatsoever.

I let my ABC membership lapse for a long time, and when I came back, I find the ABC in turmoil. It’s one thing to see this kind of crap on the Internet, where you expect trolls to go after each other, but quite another to see it in our signature publication.

Reading this issue, I find that the club’s leaders are violating several canons, to wit: “Airheads appreciate function over form, fact over fiction, and friendship over friction,” “Airheads regard money as a tool, not a status symbol,” and “Airheads don’t take themselves, religion or life too seriously.” This issue is filled with fiction (Hofman and Glowacki can’t both be right, can they?), friction, money issues, and Airheads taking themselves far too seriously.

It may be indifference that kills publications, as Hofman writes on page 5, but controversy is what kills clubs. B. Jan Hofman and Joe Glowacki are killing the ABC, and they’re doing it in the pages of Airmail.

Everybody involved in this kerfuffle should be ashamed of themselves and given just my short exposure to what is clearly an internal power struggle, it’s clear to me that the best solution is for EVERYBODY involved to switch from German to Japanese traditions and fall on their sword. I’m calling for the Editor and all current Board members to RESIGN, followed by a snap election to seat all-new Board members and a new Editor as well.

Sincerely,

Wes Fleming, #3120, Fairfax, VA

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a resolution for 2015: eliminating guilt, regret and forgiveness

This is the time of year when a lot of people engage in resolutions – promises they make to themselves that they hope will, in some way large or small, improve their lives.

Some promise to eat better, to lose weight, to read more, spend less time on the computer, pay better attention to their family/kids, drive less, exercise more, quit smoking (or some other bad habit), go back to school, find a new (more satisfying job), save money, reduce stress, eliminate debt, practice piano/guitar/tennis/chess more, take an epic vacation, volunteer more, dry out, get organized, clean out the basement/garage/attic… there’s as many resolutions as there all people.

Including me.

You know me, though. My resolutions aren’t going to be on that list because, frankly, none of those things are challenging. All those things require is simple will power. I’ve seen the world, I’ve studied history, and I know that the vast majority of people have no will power. Sure, some folks do, no doubt about that, but those folks tend to be at the extremes – Josef Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi had amazing amounts of will power. What I’m saying is that if Stalin wanted to quit smoking, he would have. If Gandhi wanted to … well, I was going to say lose weight, but that seems kind of tasteless. Too soon, I guess.

Anyway.

Here’s my resolution for 2015, then:

I resolve to eliminate guilt, regret and forgiveness from my life.

Wait – what?

OK, most people can understand why eliminating guilt and regret from one’s life would be beneficial, but that’s pretty selfish – totally focused inward. But forgiveness? That’s something you do that helps other people, right? Forgiveness is something that eases the minds of others, and that can’t be a bad thing – or can it?

Let’s start with guilt and regret.

Guilt is the most destructive psychic force in the universe. It leads to more bad decisions and poor behavior than anything else – more than avarice, lust and all the other so-called deadly sins wrapped up together in a nice little package. Many of our lives are wrapped up in guilt cycles, though, and I’m not going to allow myself to suffer from guilt any more.

Guilt comes from thinking you’ve done something wrong, so the solution is simple: Determine if you’ve done something wrong. If you have, apologize, correct it, and vow not to do it again – then don’t do it again! If you have not, refuse to apologize, refuse to accept responsibility for it, and vow not to do whatever it is. That doesn’t mean you can’t help repair the damage done by whatever it is, but it does mean that you understand it’s not your fault, nor is it your responsibility.

Guilt comes from making bad decisions. Eliminating guilt is only possible if you make good decisions, which means you must decide deliberately in everything you do, every day. Choosing a path to follow in a deliberate fashion means that you are steering your life with purpose and determination.

Does that mean every decision will turn out to be a good one? Of course not! I fully realize and accept that I will make mistakes in the coming years of my life. By refusing to feel guilty for the outcomes (or consequences, as we refer to negative outcomes), I am empowering myself to objectively analyze my decisions and decision-making processes. This will allow me to identify errors in judgment and alter my life in a positive direction.

Guilt clouds judgment. I refuse to be clouded. I refuse to feel guilty. If I make a good decision, then yay. If I make a bad decision, guilt will only prevent me from identifying the reasons behind that decision, and furthermore, guilt will prevent me from changing my behavior.

Guilt, then, is an emotion that promotes suffering in the present. If I’m constantly in a state of suffering, I cannot grow or move forward. I refuse to feel guilt.

(Having said that, it’s often difficult to control emotions. This will, I recognize, require work on my part. You know, will power. There, see? Everything comes down to will power!)

Now let’s move on to regret. Regret is just sublimated guilt over decisions made in the past that you’re convinced have conspired to make your life miserable. More suffering in the present, but this time the suffering is precipitated by wishing you’d done something different in the past.

Regret often comes from feeling like you missed an opportunity at some point in your timeline, and if you’d only made a different decision in 1990, your life would be filled with joy in 2015. If you hadn’t broken up with that girl, you think, you’d be happier now and have better kids.

The problem with that line of reasoning is that you could also be miserable now and have two kids in prison. There is no way for you to know what your life would be like now based on a fork in the road you took 25 years ago. Regretting that decision prevents you from living in the present and making good choices now.

The underlying cause of your happiness isn’t your decisions, it’s you. If you’re miserable, it’s because you’re miserable, not because your life has been a series of bad choices. Apples and oranges. I know plenty of people who I think make poor choices, yet they seem perfectly happy. I know plenty of people who make great choices, yet they remain the most miserable human beings on Earth. It’s not your decisions that make you happy, it’s your decision to be happy that does so. Just as you can choose joy and happiness, you can choose suffering and misery.

Regret, then, allows you to focus on the past and engage in a cycle of “what if” thinking. You cannot improve the present if you are constantly focused on the past, and since regret is focusing on the past, I refuse to feel regret over my past decisions. I will accept them for what they are and analyze their effect on my present, thus improving my decision-making abilities now, when it truly matters.

This brings us to forgiveness.

I have never been a fan of forgiveness, and this is something I’m quite open about. The chances are high, if you know me well, that you’ve heard my anti-forgiveness rant at least once. It’s time to codify it, because I think it plays into this resolution to eliminate guilt and regret.

Forgiveness does one thing, and one thing only: It assuages (or relieves) the guilt of another person.  I hereby affirm or avow that doing such a thing is not my responsibility!

If I’m not engaging in guilt on my part, why the hell should I engage in guilt on your part? If I can abandon guilt, then so can you. If you can’t abandon your feelings of guilt, that is your problem, not mine.

You do something that wrongs me. Ignore my feelings for the time being and deal with your own. You feel guilty about it? Identify the bad decision, engage in analysis of your decision-making process and vow to make better decisions. Give up the guilt and work to avoid regret about the choices you’ve made.

Asking me to forgive you absolves you of the responsibility to examine your decision-making processes. You get to feel better about making a bad choice, while now I’m left to feel miserable about the shitty thing you did to me. Forgiveness shifts the responsibility to the victim, and we already have too many victims in this world.

Instead of asking for forgiveness, acknowledge that you’ve made a bad choice that harmed other people and STOP DOING THAT. Instead of offering forgiveness, acknowledge that you’ve been wronged and work on not hating the person who has wronged you.

By refusing to forgive, you’re helping to short-circuit the guilt/regret cycle. You’re forcing the person making bad decisions to reflect on those decisions, rather than letting them feel better after hurting you.

My resolution for 2015, then, is to give up guilt, regret and forgiveness.

To eliminate guilt, I will make more thoughtful decisions.

To eliminate regret, I will live in the present.

To eliminate forgiveness, I will hold people – including and especially myself – accountable for their actions and refuse to be responsible for making them feel better about their poor choices.

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after two weeks of going light on Facebook

Since 1 August, I’ve made 6 posts to my Facebook page.

1 photo of my kid (uploaded via iOS)
1 thanking somebody for sending me a book
1 email from a student
1 photo for a friend
1 Kickstarter link
1 comment on Robin Williams’ death

I didn’t make any at all (I think) in the first week of my little Facebook sabbatical, and it wasn’t nearly as difficult as you might think it would be.

My plan is to keep this up for the rest of August. I still look at FB a couple times a day, comment on some friends’ posts, that kind of thing, but the obsessive looking-every-ten-minutes shit had to come to a screeching halt.

I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate why I’m doing this and what it’s doing for me. It’s hard to put into words, but I’ll try.

What it’s doing for me is giving me the opportunity to really read what my friends are posting. I’m far less concerned about what I’m going to put up, and more concerned with what I can tell my friends that will help, inform or amuse them. I love making people laugh – I’m not particularly good at it, I don’t think, but I sure love trying. What I’ve found is kind of like when you stop talking and start listening – you learn things about people, and quite often those things are interesting.

It’s also created a lot of “extra” time for me. Time, for instance, to really focus on a couple of work projects that I was slacking on. Time to rewrite all my syllabi for the fall semester, and really focus on them to update them instead of desperately just changing some dates at the last minute. Time to hang out with my kid. Getting to bed at a decent hour.

I think, though, and perhaps more importantly, what my FB sabbatical has done for me (and kind of my hope when I thought of it), is that I feel better about myself. Simply not reading everything – frankly, there’s no way I can keep up with everything posted by everybody if I’m not spending hours on FB – is improving my self-esteem.

I don’t feel like a rapist. I don’t feel like a racist. I don’t feel like a sexist. I don’t feel like I’m ignoring the moral implications of the riots in Ferguson. I don’t feel like I’m wrong for thinking Israel (or Gaza) is right (or wrong) in how they’re dealing with Gaza (or Israel). I don’t feel like a filthy xenophobe or an asshole homo-hater. I don’t feel like I’ve abandoned my faculties because I don’t support (or oppose) Obamacare or any of a hundred other hot-button semi- or pseudo-political ideas.

I like the way I feel when my Facebook feed isn’t telling me I’m a horrible person because I’m not doing enough about THIS ISSUE RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. I really do.

I can’t change the nature of Facebook, but I can certainly change how I interact with it. Instead of burying myself in FB, I’ve actually been talking to people. Instead of sending a FB message to my cousin, I called her. Instead of posting a photo of my kid on FB, I sent it to my mother just for her.

It’s freeing, and I feel like I’ve taken a big step towards controlling Facebook, rather than having it control me.

I suppose I’m lucky, in a sense, that I don’t have a particularly addictive personality. I never got involved with drugs or tobacco, and once upon a time when I felt like I was drinking too much, I just quit doing it that much. I’ve walked away from toxic friendships and even destructive family relationships. I was never one that pined away for years over lost loves. Caffeine? Well, that’s about as close as I think I get to anything resembling an addiction, and I periodically give that up for long periods of time, too.

Anyway, and I know this is getting long, there’s still two weeks to go. We’ll see how it all pans out. In the meantime, give me a call 🙂

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summer book exchange #7: How To Be a Woman

I am not, nor have I ever been a woman. I have, however, known many women, slept with a few, married one and fathered two.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I ever really knew anything about what it takes (or means) to be a woman. After reading it, I probably don’t KNOW – but now I have a bit of a clue.

photo 3How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran (2011)

This is, without doubt, a feminist manifesto and Moran’s test to determine if one is a feminist is quite simple.

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist,” she writes. “Put your hand in your underpants. A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why the hell would Wes read a feminist manifesto?” and “Once he read it, why on earth would he write a review of it? After all, he said he was only going to review the Summer Book Exchange books he LIKED.”

Liked it? LOVED IT. This is hands down the funniest nonfiction book I have ever read in my life. Ever. Nonfiction. Period. I started laughing – and learning – on page 1 of chapter 1 and while the laughing peters out late in the book, Moran’s style is so easy, so free and so utterly funny that you can’t help turn the page to see what kind of mischief she’s going to get herself into on the next page.

Her approach to feminism is what appeals to me. It’s not about separating the sexes, it’s about bringing them together.

“Don’t call it sexism. Call it ‘manners’ instead. When a woman blinks a little, shakes her head like Columbo and says, ‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil,’ a man is apt to apologize, because even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defense against a charge of simply being rude.”

In Chapter 1, 13-year-old Moran gets her first period and explores the relationship she has with her sister Caz and her mother. We meet most of her family – all 7 or 8 of her siblings and her clearly tired parents. Neither her mother nor her father are particularly helpful (or useful) in her journey to learning how to be a woman, but we certainly can’t hold that against them. They’re also fat, as is Moran, something which she reminds us of quite often.

Chapters 1 (I Start Bleeding!) to 14 (Role Models and What We Do with Them) are funny and poignant, and it’s easy to follow Moran’s feminist narrative throughout. I feel it’s important to note that she’s not a man-hating feminist – she says so herself – but that’s because she feels a man-hater isn’t a feminist, really, and needs to figure out better their place in the world. The funny comes to a screeching, crushing halt in Chapter 15, when she discusses her abortion and the final chapter isn’t really a barrel of laughs, either, though it is a reprieve from the rather loaded topic of abortion. If I’d stopped reading after chapter 14, I’d give this book 5 stars easy. As it is, I have to pull back to 4.75, because even though I think abortion needs to be discussed more openly in our society, it really is a total bummer to do so and the previous chapters are so funny that it’s a real left turn as far as the book goes.

I think the abortion chapter is so …abrupt… simply because Moran has brought us along so merrily and willingly in her free flowing style that when it stops (and it DOES stop), it’s just hard to see it as a cohesive total. The last two chapters of the book stand out, stand apart from the rest of the material, so much so that they give the last quarter of the book a disjointed feel. This doesn’t mean they’re not well written, because they are. For example:

“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong, grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.” (author’s emphasis)

Not even George Carlin could have said it better, and it’s a sentiment that somehow has more power coming from a woman. Perhaps that’s because women are the source of life, sanctified or not.

Humor aside, the two best chapters in the book are the companion chapters 12 and 13 – Why You Should Have Children and Why You Shouldn’t Have Children. Moran’s insight into the human condition – for men AND women – is so acute and powerful that these two chapters alone make the book worth reading.

The most powerful chapter, however, is 14: Role Models and What We Do with Them. In this chapter, Moran viscerally excoriates somebody called Katie Price, of whom I had no knowledge until I read this book. (I had to google her to get a basic rundown.) Moran holds Price up as the worst kind of woman, or at least the worst kind of feminist – one who has turned her looks and her marriages into her “career.” She contrasts Price’s existence with that of Lady Gaga, who – if you’ve been paying attention to the book up to this point – is clearly the best kind of feminist, male OR female. Not being a fan of Gaga’s music, I developed some respect for her just reading about some of the things she’s done and the way she expresses herself. It’s an eye-opening part of the book for a lot of reasons.

The joy and laughter in reading the books comes from Moran examining her own life and describing how it all comes together even while it’s falling apart. Her description of the 48-hour labor leading up to the C-section that brought her older daughter into the world is horrifying, but you barely have time to be horrified because you’re so busy wiping tears off your cheeks because you’re laughing so hard you can hardly breathe.

Yes, that’s right, I just said her horrifying description of birth is side-splittingly funny. This is how Moran reaches you – man or woman, child or adult (not that I’m recommending children read this book). She lays open the human condition so well that you follow her right down the rabbit hole, holding on for dear life, and the book is so good you’re compelled to ride the wagon all the way to the bottom.

I highly recommend this book – for adults. Maybe older teens if they’re very mature. There’s a lot of frank discussion of risky behavior, including smoking (heavily), drinking (heavily), and sex (um… heavily?) of all sorts and Moran’s vocabulary is quite vulgar (of which I heartily approve). I think men especially could benefit from reading this book – it may not turn a man into a feminist, but it will certainly allow a man to gain a little insight into how many women are affected by bras, menstruation and bridesmaid’s dresses.

tom clancy dead at age 66

539945Tom Clancy is dead. He was 66. While few articles are speculating as to the cause of death, Clancy was well known to be a heavy smoker; that no doubt contributed to his early demise.

I never met the man, but his books meant a whole lot to me. As I say to my students, I have to tell you this story to tell you that story.

You see, I’m a child of the Cold War. I wasn’t just a child during the Cold War, I was a child IN the Cold War.

In 1976, the US Air Force saw fit to station my father in Germany, at an air base called Sembach. We joined him there a year later (going to see Star Wars was the last big thing I did in the States before we left – thanks, Uncle Brian & Aunt Julie!).

This means that my father was attached to the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing, part of the 17th Air Force. I was too young then to grasp whatever it was he did, but I knew one thing – we lived near a base where they had OV-10s, and as a fourth grader, I was absolutely captivated by those slow, ugly bastards. I used to sit on the hill behind my elementary school and watch them take off and land, over and over. We lived in a little town called Otterberg in an apartment above a nice German family.

GermanyAfter Sembach, we lived near Hahn AFB for a short time. I traded the turboprop OV-10s for on-their-way-out F-4Es – still one of the coolest-looking fighters the USAF ever flew. I’m not sure which unit my father was part of, but it was either the 10th, 313th or 496th Tactical Fighter Group. Much to my ultimate dismay, we moved to another base before Hahn got its F-16s in 1979.

From Hahn, we took kind of a weird turn, as my father was sent to Neubrücke Kaserne, a tiny-ass Army installation not far from the border between Germany and Luxembourg. This was the first time since we left the States that we lived on base, in a shitty Army apartment building.

When we lived at Neubrücke, I lost all connection with what it was my father did for the USAF. “What’d you do at work today?” I’d ask. “Nothin’,” he’d say.

Every. Day.

The weird thing about Neubrücke – beyond its very small size – was the buildings.  Nearly every major building had a hallway that clearly went underground, but was blocked off by a locked gate.  Sometimes I could see equipment stacked up on the other side of the gates, but usually it was just kind of ghostly.  I learned later that, in the event of war, our little installation would quickly be converted to either a fallout shelter or a hospital, whichever was needed more. It was stocked to do either – or both.

I remember being excited one day when my father brought something home from work. It was a printout – you remember those big, roll-fed dot-matrix printers? They fed this wide paper that was striped with a pale green for readability. He showed me the printout. I thought I was finally going to get some insight into what he did all day, every day in that mountain he worked inside. Instead, what I saw was the printout of a text-based computerized Star Trek game – he’d finally beaten the Klingons, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he brought it home to show me.  (Imagine Zork, but with the Enterprise.)

A fucking computer game. Who’d’a thunk it.  Star Trek to boot.

It was several years later when I finally figured out that’s when he started his career in intelligence work, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Neubrücke, we moved to SHAPE HQ in Mons, Belgium. We lived in a tiny hamlet called Harmignies. Our bus driver and his backup were always armed. It seemed perfectly normal to us – after all, we’d been living on or near military bases nearly our whole lives at that point. I didn’t even blanche when I saw some knucklehead racing to get into an NBC suit, an Uzi or 2 certainly wouldn’t have phased me.

Sorry, I’m digressing.

The whole time we lived in Germany, we were never more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, which means we were never more than about 150 miles from Fulda, which means we were within just a few minutes’ flight time of the Fulda Gap.

“What’s the Fulda Gap?” I hear you cry.

The Fulda Gap is where NATO fully expected two entire Soviet tank armies to invade when the Cold War got hot. The air bases we lived at were forward support for US tanks (3rd Armored Division) and infantry (8th Mechanized Division) that were in place specifically to plug the Fulda Gap when World War 3 started.

Yeah. Lay that on a 10-year-old and see how he does with it.

By the time I was 14 years old – in 1984 – I had regular nightmares about exactly what a tactical nuclear weapon would do to me. I knew more about fighter planes and main battle tanks than any 9th grader should, and all of it scared the living shit out of me.

In one of his rare instances of paternal insight, my father realized that he could do something to help his oldest son. He came home from work one day and sat me down at the kitchen table. Very dramatically, he put his briefcase on the table and snapped open the latches.

“I’m going to give you something,” he said. “You can’t take it out of the house, and you can’t ever tell anybody you have it.” He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Nobody. Ever.”

No pressure, right?

To this day, I don’t know if he was being melodramatic or if he could have really gotten in trouble, but he’d never shown that level of trust in me before, so I was nearly apoplectic trying to figure out what was going on.

soviet military powerHe opened his briefcase and brought out a crimson-red book. It was 8.5 x 11 and the title – “SOVIET MILITARY POWER” – was all that was on the cover, along with a tiny “1983” at the bottom.

“This is for you,” he said, “So you can understand what we’re up against. You know what we have and how we’ll use it if we need to, so I want you to see what the threat really is.”

I probably didn’t come out of my room except to eat or go to school for three days after that. I was so afraid of somebody finding this book that I hid it between the mattress and box spring of my bed.

(Yeah, I know. I should have been hiding Playboys there, but you already knew I was a nerd, so is this a big surprise?)

The book broke down in meticulous detail the stats, specs and capabilities of every piece of Soviet hardware, even fessing up when US/NATO intelligence knew very little (or nothing) about a weapons platform. It went on to detail how many of this or that were stationed where, even making some attempts to predict what Soviet strategies would be if a war started.

My father was right – having that book helped. A lot. The nightmares didn’t disappear, but they did lessen in frequency and intensity. The dreams lost their persecutory atmosphere as well, the idea that the Soviets were coming after ME.

I found out several years later that later volumes of this series (they put one out every year) weren’t classified – but they were hard to get. My father was able to nab a copy each year, at first due to his position working for the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – a guy called General Bernard Rogers at the time) and later through his job on the bottom floor of the Pentagon. I filled out my collection – 1989 & 1990, the last 2 years of them, of course – at a library sale in the late 1990s.

Less than a year after giving me that first one, he brought home a book from work. It was an advance copy of the first work of fiction ever published by the Naval Institute Press. He read it in a couple of days and gave it to me – “You’re going to love this book,” he said.

The advance copy’s cover used a similar stark typeface to the Soviet Military Power reports, and it read, simply: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

He was right – I loved that book. As soon as it was commercially available, I got my own copy, the first hardback book I ever spent my own money on.

Clancy’s next novel, Red Storm Rising, was even better. I later learned it was actually the first book he wrote, but “Red October” was the first he got published. If you read Red Storm first, you can see a lot of the sub chase sequences from Red October in them.

Red Storm Rising was epic in scope – World War 3 on land, at sea and in the air. It had some clunky characters (the clueless Air Force weather man in Iceland comes to mind), but the plot was solid and it was a fantastic read. I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.

Clancy went the James Bond route after that, developing the character Jack Ryan (the hero of Red October) on and on until Ryan actually becomes the president of the United States. Patriot Games, The Cardinal in the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – all solid spy books.

What attracted me to Clancy’s writing was its military precision. He described the technology with loving detail; his description of stealth fighters in Red Storm will give you chills. He seemed to know as much (if not more) about military hardware as I did, and I always felt like he was writing those books just for me, that scared kid who grew up in Europe just a short drive from the Fulda Gap.  You could tell he totally geeked out on the hardware, and I just ate it up.

After those books, though, I kind of lost interest in Clancy’s work. Without Remorse was OK. I found the climax of Debt of Honor (published 1994) to be completely implausible – what kind of crazy person would commandeer an airliner and crash it into a building? Debt also made me uncomfortable because it rode a wave of Japan-bashing that was sweeping the US at the time, and I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, its people and their culture.

Executive Orders was also an OK book, as was SSN, but neither was great. Clancy seemed to get some of his zing back when he brought back John Clark, a character from Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse, and put him in charge of the book’s eponymous Rainbox Six counter-terrorist group.

I read The Bear and the Dragon and Red Rabbit, but that was pretty much it for me. I felt like Clancy lost what had made him great – the techno-spy-thriller aspects of his writing weren’t shining through like they did in his first few books. I never read his last solo book, The Teeth of the Tiger, because I couldn’t get into Jack Ryan’s son picking up his father’s mantle. This probably had something to do with the fact that, by 2003, my own father and I were quite distant from each other – we never had much of a relationship after 2001, and frankly, not much of one before that, either.

I wasn’t interested in reading any of the books Clancy co-wrote with other authors. I’m not a fan of co-written fiction books, so I just didn’t bother.

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October will always hold a special place in my heart because they helped me be less afraid of nuclear war. I saw in these books the intense ways in which the commanders of US & Soviet forces wanted to avoid throwing nukes – even when it seemed like the only possible option for victory.

One of Red October‘s main characters, the Captain Marko Ramius, astutely realizes his new submarine is – as we now call them – a WMD, purpose-built to sneak up on the USSR’s enemy and launch a devastating attack. He takes it upon himself to even the playing field and drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war.

That always meant a lot to me.

lions and tigers and anxiety – oh my!

I have these seemingly random anxiety attacks from time to time that really, truly freak me out.

They start pretty much the same – I break out in a thick sweat, but it’s not particularly hot wherever I am, nor am I exerting myself at a high level. It’s mostly a head sweat, coating my forehead and dampening* what little there is of my hair.

Next, my chest starts to hurt. Sharp, piercing pains in my upper left or right chest, ones that I had to learn are not indicative of a heart attack because no matter what you see on TV, the vast majority of heart attacks in men do not start with a sharp, shooting pain. (If you feel like your chest is being crushed, that’s very likely to be a heart attack, unless something is actually crushing your chest at the time.)

The chest pain is what really gets my attention, but it’s the next part I really hate.  My bowels get real loose, real fast, and that causes all sorts of running around. Yeah, yeah, I know – TMI (Too Much Information for y’all that don’t know).

After my 3rd or 4th trip to the bathroom, I’ve worked myself up into a pretty good frenzy, and it’s super hard to come down from this whirlwind of pain, sweat, discomfort and emotion. These attacks, when they happen, are really scary.

This morning, I woke up like that.  Drenched in sweat, running for the bathroom, sharp pains on both sides of my chest. Intellectually I know this is not a heart attack, but emotionally I’m scared to fucking death that it is.

After a couple of hours, I called my doctor to see if they had any cancellations so I could get a same-day appointment – they’re on vacation. After another couple of hours, I decided to go to the closest urgent care clinic. I reassured them I wasn’t having a heart attack; they subsequently assured me I wasn’t having a heart attack. You’d think that would be enough to calm me down, but you’d be wrong. The doc said my heart & lungs sound just fine, but they ran an EKG (ECG?) anyway. The doc said it wasn’t fine, it wasn’t even good, it was “perfect.” She sent me home with a prescription to “chill, man.”

These episodes are really starting to bug me, which certainly can’t help but cycle them more often. I imagine they’re stress-related, but I can’t think what in the hell stress is triggering them – especially the one today because I was asleep when it started!! That’s not even fair!

These things suck and I wish they’d stop. Now.