Friday, November 29, 2013

Toy Soldiers

Every other day, at exactly 11:30 AM, a procession of toy soldiers marches down Buckingham Palace Road in London, England, just as they have for centuries. There are dozens of toy officers on horseback, a full marching band and scores of toy foot soldiers all stepping in unison to some music meant to glorify the British Empire and save the Queen. This nonsense takes 40 minutes and is called the Changing of the Guard.

The British are big on tradition. They still have a royal family, living in the same old royal palace, wearing the same old royal jewelry, frolicking at the same old royal vacation retreats, attending the same old pompous ceremonies and living royally off the fat of the land as if they were actually special people.

Hundreds of toy soldiers are employed by the British government to “guard” the royal family. They spend endless hours standing at rigid attention, along the fenced perimeter of the palace grounds, while tourists from Iowa snap photos of their grim expressions and try to make them laugh. When not on duty at their guard post, they are kept busy marching, polishing boots and shining various metallic objects on their uniforms.

Even in wartime, the British refused to stray from tradition. During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers, dressed in bright red uniforms, would march down the road or across the battlefield, side by side, like a bunch of slow moving targets lined up to be slaughtered. They were always led by a couple of musicians, usually a drummer and a piccolo player, flanked by some poor soul carrying a flag instead of a weapon -- three toy soldiers marching in the front row, shielding the real soldiers with the real guns.

It’s really hard to sneak up on the enemy in bright red uniforms while a drummer and a piccolo player are hammering out a tune. At some point, adhering to tradition becomes a form of insanity.

Unfortunately, America was built on many British traditions, such as the judicial system (12-man jury), the dual parliamentary system (the House of Lords and the House of Commons became the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives) and the Dewey decimal system. We also inherited toy soldiers.

In spite of allocating zillions of dollars every decade or so to “modernize” the U.S. Armed Forces, we still can’t seem to eliminate the need for toy soldiers. Every time the President boards or disembarks a helicopter or Air Force One, there is a U.S. Marine stationed at the boarding ramp whose sole function is to stand at attention and salute the President as he passes by. Whenever the President enters the White House, there are a couple of U.S. Marines stationed at the door whose sole purpose is to salute the President as he passes by. None of these soldiers is actually protecting the President – you can’t guard someone if you’re standing at attention, looking straight ahead at all times. Turning a soldier into a useless human manikin is an insulting waste of manpower.

Every military installation of any size has a military band -- dozens of toy soldiers spending their military careers marching in parades.  There are many other military occupations that have absolutely nothing to do with defending our country as the military budget continues to grow far beyond reasonable necessity.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been "guarded" 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, by an active duty soldier ever since July 2, 1937. The absurdity of military tradition is a long history of pompous ritual nonsense and misguided human energy. It may be considered honorable, but it is also highly wasteful of human resources.

I was drafted in 1966, during the Vietnam Conflict. I spent two years at Third Army Headquarters in Atlanta working as a data processing analyst. I lived off-post with three other draftees. John Valentino from Chicago ran the post gymnasium where he lifted weights all day and made sure the lights were turned off at the end of the evening. Frank Berrnardi from Cleveland worked in the post library as an assistant to a civilian employee. John Ballas from Brooklyn was a lifeguard at the post swimming pool where he worked mostly on his tan.

The four of us were drafted because our country supposedly needed us in a time of crisis. While I was doing something of a military nature, basically shuffling paperwork, my three roommates were clearly wasting their time. Once a week we would be required to watch a training film, usually about the evils of communism or how to properly brush your teeth.

We weren’t protecting our country -- we were too busy trying not to go insane.

Let the British waste public funds on toy soldiers -- our military forces deserve to be utilized properly.

Quote for the Day -- "The average bright young man who is drafted hates the whole business because an army always tries to eliminate the individual differences in men." Andy Rooney

Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and remains busy trying not to go insane.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Accidental President

On November 9, 2013, Susan Ford Bales, daughter of former U.S. President Gerald Ford, broke a champagne bottle across the bow to christen a new $13 billion nuclear-powered next-generation aircraft carrier to the U.S. Navy fleet called the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford.

Gerald Ford was the 38th president, the only person to serve as vice-president and president without being elected by the Electoral College. Basically, he was simply in the right place at the right time.

Leslie Lynch King, Jr. was born on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Neb. His father, Leslie Lynch King, Sr., a wool trader, and his mother, Dorothy Ayer King, were separated 16 days later and divorced the following December.

In February of 1916, Dorothy King married Gerald Rudolff Ford, a paint salesman, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Soon thereafter, Dorothy began calling her son "Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr." and the name stuck. When Gerald Rudolff Ford, Jr. legally changed his name in 1955, he used the more conventional spelling of his middle name.

As a young lad, Gerald Ford joined the Boy Scouts of America and became an Eagle Scout. As an athletic teen-ager, he was captain of the Grand Rapids High School football team.

While attending the University of Michigan (1932-35), Ford washed dishes to earn money for expenses. He played center and linebacker for the school's football team which won national titles in 1932 and 1933. After his senior season, he participated in the 1935 Collegiate All-Star football game against the Chicago Bears.

In 1935, he earned a degree in political science and economics. After graduation, he turned down contract offers from the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, and applied to Yale Law School.

While attending law school, he often worked as a fashion model. For example, he appeared in the March 1940 issue of LOOK magazine and on the cover of the April 1940 issue of COSMOPOLITAN magazine.

After he graduated from Yale, Ford returned to Grand Rapids in 1941 and opened a law practice.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Ford enlisted in the Navy and received a commission as ensign in April of 1942. In 1943-44, he served as assistant navigator on the carrier Monterey in the Pacific, received nine engagement medals and two bronze stars, and was discharged in February of 1946.

In 1948, Ford was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and married an ex-dancer named Elizabeth Bloomer Warren (Betty Ford) shortly before the election. He held the seat for 24 years, representing the Grand Rapids district from 1949 to 1973.

In 1963, Republican members of the House elected him Minority Leader.

Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, succeeding Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Spiro Agnew became the new Vice President. Nixon and Agnew won a second term in office in 1972.

In October of 1973, Agnew was accused of accepting bribes and income tax evasion. He promptly resigned in disgrace and was later convicted.

Nixon chose Gerald Ford (the first person ever appointed to the Vice Presidency) to succeed Agnew. Ford was confirmed 92 to 3 by the Senate and 387 to 35 by the House.

The following summer, the Watergate affair began to unfold and it became clear that Nixon had been part of the cover-up. Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9 and Gerald Ford became our 38th President.

Ford pardoned Nixon, a highly controversial decision, survived two assassination attempts, and served out the term with his usual low-key dignity. He kept the ship steady and on course during a tumultuous period.

He reluctantly agreed to run for the presidency in 1976 but narrowly lost to Jimmy Carter.

Ford was the only U.S. President to become an Eagle Scout or to have been a magazine fashion model.

He was also the only U.S. President to stumble down the staircase when disembarking from an airplane, tumble down a ski slope and clobber a spectator with a golf ball, all within the same six months. Combined with his charisma, which resembled a potted plant in slow motion, he was great fodder for TV comedians.

But he wasn't full of himself, was more conciliatory than confrontational, and believed in teamwork. He never sought the power of the presidency which is perhaps a positive trait for the job.

Basically, he was a decent man.

In a certain sense, he was a great president. He took over after the dread of Vietnam and the paranoia of Watergate, a time of deep divisiveness in America, and brought some civility back to the White House.

Gerald Ford was the right man for the time.

He died on Dec. 26, 2006 at age 93.

Rest in Peace.

Quote for the Day -- "If Lincoln were alive today, he'd be turning over in his grave." Gerald R. Ford

Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and was a runway (catwalk) fashion model at age 5-6 for a department store in Stevens Point, Wisconsin -- (my mother got store discounts).

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Being a Teacher

When I was in college, back in the 1960’s, I spent lots of time trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be an architect or a mining engineer or a treasure hunter, depending on the mood of the day. Then I stumbled onto a brand new profession, called computer programming. It sounded technical, mysterious and lucrative. I decided to give it a try.

It was a great way to make a living and lasted about 35 years.

Then at the turn of the century, known as Y2K in the computer world, my career as a computer programmer was coming to a grinding halt. What once had been technical had become mundane. Programming was no longer mysterious or lucrative as thousands of programmers had flooded the job market and, after Y2K, many of the programming jobs were outsourced overseas. A thriving profession had become a dead end. So once again, I spent lots of time trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

In the spring of 2001, my life took an unexpected left turn -- Ozarka College in Melbourne, Arkansas, was looking for a person to teach computer courses. Such person was required to have a master’s degree in the discipline and some related experience. Since I was indeed such a person, this caught my interest. I also had a B.S. (business) and an M.S. (management information systems), plus plenty of related experience, thus I appeared to be qualified for the job. Even though I had no teaching experience, except for tutoring junior programmers, I applied for the position.

The job interview went well. I talked to the Vice President of Academic Affairs and the head of the business technology department, detailing my work history. They were two of the nicest people I’d ever met. My first reaction was to check to make sure I still had my wallet. Having been a city slicker most of my life, my instincts around overly nice people are that they want to sell you something or swindle you out of something, or both.

For whatever reason, I was offered the job and started in the fall 2001 semester with one night class called CIS1303 – Computer Information Systems. I gave it my best shot, the students appeared to learn things, and no one got hurt.

I went on to be an adjunct instructor at Ozarka for the next six years, teaching a couple of differing night classes each semester.

Being a teacher had been one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. First of all, it fit my lifestyle. I taught in the evenings (or late afternoons), which accommodated my night owl existence. Plus, I only taught a few nights per week, which fit my ambition level at the time of taking life easy. While being a teacher is not the road to riches, it kept the lights burning.

Teachers are a special breed. When I worked in the corporate world, particularly in larger companies, being adept at office politics was often more important than doing a good job. Workers tried to please management by making themselves look good and making others look bad. In order to survive in such an atmosphere, you had to join the action or be trampled in the process.

However, teachers generally tend to be cooperative and helpful. They’re more focused on what’s best for the students than what’s best for themselves. It may be different in larger colleges, but everyone at Ozarka was so nice that I was constantly checking to make sure I still had my wallet.

The greatest benefit of being a teacher was the satisfaction that came from helping others gain knowledge. Computer skills have become a basic necessity in much of everyday life these days. The more I was able to help students improve their skills, the better I felt about myself and my new profession. There’s no greater reward than the sense of fulfillment that comes at the end of a semester when my students confidently scatter into the real world.

Being a teacher is a lot like being rich -- it’s a wonderful way of life, just in a lower tax bracket.

Quote for the Day -- “Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” 14th Dalai Lama

Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and occasionally has to get his nephew Jon to help him with the latest computer technology.