Cheers, kid!

Dear Cougster:

I don’t know what to tell young adults about their 21st birthdays, other than “don’t expect too much.” Like New Year’s Eve or bachelor parties, it’s often an occasion more gleefully anticipated than fondly remembered. Basically, if you get through it without hurting yourself too badly, scrawl it loopily into the “win” column with your shaking hand, swallow an Advil or three, wash your face and drive on.

Also you should know that one of these days I plan to buy you a drink – one of those nasty little Red Bulls, if you insist – and tell you just how absurdly proud I am of who you’re becoming. Note: not “who you’ve become.” You don’t stop becoming at legal majority, or at any other milestone whether artificial or authentic.

Becoming is a lifetime sport.

I’m proud of you because you loyally support your friends, because you bravely face your demons, and because the decisions you make are SO MUCH BETTER than many of mine have been. Yeah. I’ve got receipts.

For you, on the hallowed and dubious occasion of your full, alcoholic majority under the laws of Washington and these United States, I banged out a tiny memoir of my own 21st birthday. You’ll find it below.

Your mother doesn’t think I should send it to you. She thinks it will come off as one-upmanship. I don’t think you’ll see it that way (although you may find it boring), based on my Cougster whom I know is a somewhat different person than her Cougster, because that’s how people work and fit together: from different angles of view. Besides, back in the day we really did walk to school in the snow, carrying rucksacks and machine guns, and no part of that makes us old farts smarter or tougher or better than you.

Especially not smarter.

There’s a cornball saying of pellucid accuracy that goes kinda like this: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of experience comes from bad judgment.” Your mother’s warning is probably good judgment, but I’m firing this at you, anyway. That may be bad judgment, but at least I’ll have experienced it. Maybe that experience will change me.

I don’t think it will change you. You’re already quite busy changing yourself. Remember that your old man serves as less of a role model than a warning, and we’ll both be fine.



I got an early start on my 21st birthday, which happened 37½ years ago. That’s so far in the past that it exists for you only as distant history like World War II, the Berlin Wall, or representative democracy in the U.S. – just memories of nightmares, and rumors of dreams.

The early start was how my birth went, too, so maybe it was appropriate. My birth certificate records time of delivery as 0155, which is just about exactly the hour at which my 21st birthday kicked off – and in a similar fashion, too.

Back in 1964, an obstetrician would hold you up by your newborn feet, not yet even inked and stamped onto the natal data card like some kind of infant jail processing, and smack your narrow behind until you squalled. On that same day, transported 21 years forward to 1985, I didn’t get smacked.

Instead, a canvas tent the size of a city bus and smelling strongly of MIL-SPEC mildew crashed down on our faces while we slept under it, lined up on cots only slightly softer than the dusty Texas cobbles we had shifted around to try and level our sleeping slabs before we racked out.

There was some squalling then, too.

The tent collapse wasn’t too surprising. Winds at Fort Hood blew steadily at 58 mph that night, which according to the NWS is just above “gale force” and edging into “whole gale,” and gusted to 75 mph. That’s a Category 1 hurricane.

Our tents had been booming and flapping since around 2200, but you can ignore that if you’re tired enough. The army operates on a time-honored principle of ensuring that you’re always tired enough to sleep. On account of such kindly conditioning, soldiers can sleep just about anywhere. However, drop enough heavy canvas on them and eventually they’ll give in to the inevitable, grumble foul epithets, and crack open an eye.

Unusually, none of us could see anything when we slowly opened our eyes to reluctant slits, nor even when we opened them wide after realizing we couldn’t move our arms or legs. Couldn’t see a damned thing but we could definitely smell something, and what we could smell was Eau de Tent. Once most of us had crawled to the edges and wriggled out under the flickering half-light of a gibbous moon prancing behind clouds that were sprinting across the sky, we met a contingent of officers. Deus ex machina, they were recently dismounted from combat card-sharping inside the five-ton expando vans.

“My” expando was a very slow, loud motor home with six-wheel-drive, a long table for corps-level planning conferences, and randomly distributed rifle racks. Once hooked up, it featured air conditioning, lights, power outlets, and heat – in the back only. Enlisted personnel, consigned to the cab, got full rations of noise, backaches, and prevailing climate.

That afternoon I had pulled it into the formation layout, realized my rear double-duals were jacked out of place by a protruding boulder, and spent six hours beating chips off that rock with an eight-pound sledge until I could park my van level in its assigned space. That created a safe space for officers to fire up a radio and play poker.

Poker is an officer’s game that pairs nicely with cigars. We filthy ground soldiers smoked Camels (white guys) or Kools (black guys), and played spades. It’s a living.

After reducing the boulder, leveling the expando, connecting to power, and bringing up the systems, I set about camouflaging my truck. Army camo nets came in a big roll approximately the weight of a young man, with aluminum poles and triple-armed, fiberglass spreaders to hold it up and disguise the profile of a vehicle.

The net itself was a diabolical snaring device consisting of an infinity of knotted cords, interlaced with rubberized canvas feathers alleged to possess radar-scattering properties. Simultaneously heavy and fragile, it could and would catch on everything from vehicle mirrors to antenna mounts to its own damned spreaders, requiring endless iterations of gentle de-snagging as you rolled it out over the top of your truck and spread it out, hoisting it away from the rig with the aforementioned poles. It was a solid workout for the upper body AND great cardio. If it weren’t for Class 6 liquor, smoke breaks, the mess hall and field rations, soldiers might just live forever.

Assuming inaccurate enemy fire, of course.

Took me nearly an hour to hide that big ol’ truck, since my erstwhile supervisor Staff Sergeant Winkler had jumped into his jeep and bailed out for the cantonment area (main post) to run important errands like hitting the PX for a roll of dip. The infantry chewed their Skoal loose leaf, but Wink was a Bandits man.

Camouflage netting covers a mess tent set up on Hemphill Field by the 513th Military Intelligence Group.

By the time my boss got back we’d nearly finished setting up the tents. Covering all the bases, he promptly ordered us to “set up the damn tents!” A little post facto leadership never hurt anyone.

Those tents were GP Mediums, which at 648 square feet are better than half the size of our house. They weigh, without exaggeration, about 800 lbs. That’s a lot to have on your face in the middle of the night, but we hadn’t thought of that.

The spec for a GP Medium says that four people can set one up in 36 minutes flat. That’s accurate, providing that the four are experienced soldiers, and that they have four or five equally experienced helpers. Send four buck privates out to erect a GP Medium, and a week later they’d still be swearing at an uncooperative pile of canvas while busily attending to various minor fractures.

And that’s before they got around to putting up camo.

It was dark by the time we got the last of the tents together (this was a BIG exercise, performed once a year and involving the Air Force and Marines as well as we artillery tourists from Fort Sill), and the wind was kicking up. Wink celebrated by telling me to go camo his jeep. In the dark. With the wind howling.


Between sledge work, setup, camo and tents, I was crusted in about a week’s worth of dirt-caked sweat by the time I shook out my fart sack onto a cot and laid my head down on a gas mask (the consensus pillow choice among Cold War field soldiers), let out a long sigh in harmony with the outside wind, and slept for about six minutes before the tents jumped us like angry mastiffs.

It was at that shining moment that our officers – remember the officers? There’s a song about officers – put their heads together, formed a hasty plan, and issued a clear directive: the tents were to be re-erected immediately.

“But sir, the wind is still—”

“YOU HEARD THE MAN! Gitcher asses in gear, ASAP!” That was my own, personal, fearless leader, Wink.

Sarn’t Winkler then veritably leapt into action, grabbing a single jack and showing us lower enlisted turds how it was done. He was heaving on lines and driving in pins like a man possessed. Our officers beamed approvingly before ascending the steps back into the poker parlors we’d set up for them. Deus redit ad machina.

After the last door slammed, separated the enlightened from the enlisted, Wink dropped his hammer and collapsed to the ground, rolled onto one side and groaned like an overstrained guy line.

You see, Wink displaced about 135 pounds of pro wrestling fandom — which is qualitatively as well as quantitively different from comprising, say 200 lbs. of actual wrestler — and waving that hammer around pulled pretty near every muscle from his egg-shaped skull to his tiny little ass bone. I went to our command and got authorization to tap out and take him to the hospital. Then I poured him into his own jeep and headed out for main post.

This being my first visit to the balmy climes of Ft. Hood, I was wholly dependent on Wink for navigation. That went somewhat well, as he was an experienced shammer who spent as much field time as possible getting out of the field. We got to the hospital quick-time and I waited a couple of hours, trying and failing to nap under the fluorescent flicker while he was treated, given restricted duty, and released under the influence of a solid dose of narcotics.

Made him right tractable, it did.

Back at the CPX area, Wink dismounted and snapped a Cyalume alight so he could ground-guide me to a parking spot, per regulation. Our navigation went much more poorly this time. We snaked slowly through the dark, threading between vehicles and generators for about half an hour until, on our third stately lap around a particular oak grove, I stopped suddenly and reversed quickly into some brush.

“Lewis! LEWIS! Where the hell did you go?” Peering out through the brush, I saw his light stick gesticulating frantically. I dismounted and homed in on the green firefly, smiling.

“Parked your vehicle for ya, Sergeant.”

“Told you to camo my jeep,” he mumbled.

“Right, Sergeant.”

“Well, did you camo it? You better camo it. Major said everything gets camoed.”

“Can you see it?” I knew he couldn’t see past the green ball of light around his hand. Also, he was too dopy to argue.

“Don’t fuck with me, Lewis.”

“I would never do that. Let’s get you to bed, boss.”

The dawn was showing its first finger wave over the horizon. It was Sunday morning. I hadn’t slept since the night before I woke up one state to the north. I’d wait by my station in the van, off the corner of the planning table, under our big wall map, to brief the general after he ate breakfast, demonstrating to him a system I’d learned two months before and had never used since.

And that, my daughter, is how I didn’t realize I’d turned 21 until a week later, after we’d convoyed back to Oklahoma (changing a few re-capped tires along the way), washed and maintenanced the vehicles, cleaned our weapons, and turned in gear.

Once I figured it out, I didn’t bother going out for a drink. I’d spent a year in Korea at 19, and that was enough drinking to last me pretty much until my university days on a campus where your particular college didn’t exist yet.

I’m damned sorry that your 21st is going to fall on a Monday filled with class assignments and story deadlines and stress and anxiety. That sucks, but I’m here to tell you:

I think Sundays might be worse.

Congratulations on being all grown up now. If I’m still around by then, I’ll probably tell you the same thing when you’re forty. Old guys tend to repeat ourselves. A lot, actually, but I repeat myself.

Let me just mention this one more time, then: I love you, kid. Happy birthday.


  1. Stone Bear says

    Dang, that SUCKED as a 21st. Cougster, I hope yours goes better….

    (Mine? I remember two things about it… one foreshadowed the person I’ve finally gotten around to working on becoming. A friend with whom I happened to share birthdays with had gotten her car stolen the night before, and I was the one who passed the hat amongst my cohorts … when she finally showed up (on foot, of course) at our usual Friday watering hole (I got lucky, 21 fell on a Friday) I handed her an envelope with enough dead presidents to make good the car. She burst into tears. Good ones. The other one was that Mom bought my first legal drink – a rum and coke.)

    I’m trying my best to make a habit of causing happy tears… Or other positive results. I’m hoping I can also learn how to ruin tory politicians’ days. Though if a certain cub reporter takes that up as a career goal, I will have no regrets…

  2. Carl Lincoln says

    No recollection

  3. Dave Halperin says

    Thanks, Jack! I look always forward to your posts!

  4. Hmm… Probably on swing shift patrol without a training officer. I’d been hired, went to ALETA, and done about a month of accompanied patrol before I could legally be sworn in, while my boss was chomping the bit to kick me out in the field solo. I *do* remember my first solo dispatch, which I won’t subject you to without consent. When the dispatcher calls you and gives you a location, but not the nature of the call, instead saying ‘report to the Sargeant on scene’ it’s probably a Bad Thing. It was. I just don’t remember if that was my actual birthday.

    May you have a less /eventful/ beginning to the Next Phase of your life. You are AMAZING, Cougster, and have been since you were a babe in arms. I look forward to seeing who and what you become!


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