This Is Just Between Us, Right?

I’m going to admit it:  I miss being in the Army.

It’s heresy to admit you miss it once you’ve been retired from active military service.  Most people can’t wait to retire, take all their old uniforms to the post thrift shop for consignment and do something different.

I was like that at first.

When I finished my 20 years of active duty (jammed into a nearly 29 year overall Army career), I was ready to retire. Lucky for me that the law requires officers like me who hold Reserve commissions to retire when they rack up 20 active years of service.  This keeps the most senior jobs open for those officers with regular Army commissions – the professionals, as it were.  So even if I could have found another job in uniform, by law I couldn’t have taken it.  I had done and accomplished far more than I ever expected but there was really nowhere left for me to go. 

It had been a crappy couple of years.  Late in 2005, my marriage failed and failed spectacularly.  A few weeks after that, I changed assignments. (Changing jobs is reported to be one of the more stressful life experiences and a new assignment is essentially the same.)  Late in 2006, nearly a year after we separated, my spouse was diagnosed with breast cancer.   I became her caregiver throughout her recovery.  The day in August that I had my retirement ceremony was the day after she completed her last radiation treatment and was declared cancer free.  At the ceremony, she got a standing ovation when I shared with my colleagues and friends her courage and determination.  I had gained about 40 lbs. by then.

Those last nearly two years were just plain miserable.  I did my best at work, but I wasn’t all there most of the time.  I emerged from all that beaten and defeated.

I was a hot mess.

I retired on November 1st, 2007 and within a few months, took a government contracting job supporting an Army agency.  It took me awhile to make that transition from colonel to contractor, but I did it.   I only answered the phone as “Colonel Wolfe” once.

Time passed.  I grew apart from the Army in many ways.  I still subscribed to the Department of Defense news service to keep track of my friends and former colleagues who got promoted to general officer ranks.  I continued to receive and read the Army’s daily feature “Stand To!”   And I still sorta felt like a part of it.

After about four years of the contracting job, nearly two years of unemployment and near financial ruin, I got hired about two months ago to work as a government employee at another Federal agency.  A couple weeks ago, I turned off all the military themed news feeds and email blasts because I’m not reading them and when I do, the people, terms and acronyms are generally unfamiliar to me now.

I wore a uniform of some sort since I was high school.  By the time I entered the Army in 1979, I was well aware that I was a part of something that was way bigger than me.  Of course, as I navigated my very odd and by Army standards very unconventional career, I came to appreciate being a part of it and knowing that even when I was sitting in a TV production truck among my entertainment industry colleagues, I was still a part of the Army.  Still belonging.  Still immersed in a system of doing business that I understood and in which I was comfortable and successful.

There are still quite a few uniforms hanging in a closet upstairs.  Not like I even notice them, or take them out or anything quite like that.  But they’re there, just down the hall just like the military school uniforms I’ve carried all over the world since I graduated back in 1976.  More and more, I need the closet space, so that stuff is going to be out of there one of these days when I get the urge to reorganize.  But since they’re all stored in an out-of-the-way closet, it’ll probably be there for a while unless I make a honest effort.  The likelihood of that actually occurring is questionable.

Most of the time, I don’t give it much thought.  I don’t actively sit around wringing my hands lamenting that my Army career is done.  But I gotta tell you, there are days.  Usually when I’m out on post for some reason, all of the positive feelings about being a part of the Army come to the forefront of my consciousness.  I drive past old haunts on post, much as I do when I’m in my home town in Ohio.  Mom says I like to drive around and make sure that everything’s where I left it and I think she’s right.  And I think I do that for the familiar Army haunts as well.

You can say what you want about the Army and trust me, Soldiers do.  I know I did.  For me, the Army was my life long companion.  And like all long-term companions, our relationship had its ups and downs.  The Army provided me with more than a job and income and a title.  I carry with me so much experience and so many positive lessons that I learned in 29 years.  It’s a welcome part of me.

But there are days when I long to be back in uniform.  It’s not every day, and it’s not even most days.  Frankly, memories of the last two horrendous years of my career keep me from really savoring the success of the other 27.  I don’t like thinking about that.  But when I go on post even just to the commissary I find myself standing a little taller and walking a little more smartly. I find myself exchanging more smiles and everyday courtesies with everyone I encounter.  It’s such a strong, positive, shared professional and cultural experience.  I realize how much I miss it when I’m back on post and immersed in it like that again.

I miss it.  There, I said it.  Out loud and everything.

“Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…”

This is another one of those “True Confessions” moments.  The names have not been changed to protect the irrational loser, in this case, me.

When I was six years old, we moved from a small nondescript house in a small nondescript subdivision on Glenwood Avenue in Fostoria, Ohio to an older house on Cory Street.  900 Cory Street to be precise.  Even though it was a distance that was easily walkable, when you’re six, moving is a big deal and it seemed like a long way away.


The Cory Street house today, sadly in disrepair. (Stolen from Google Street View)

The Cory Street house was older.  As I recall, it was about 50-60 years old back then which would make it over 100 years old plus or minus today.  It was a three-bedroom home with a tiny den downstairs.  There was no heat on the second floor, so we all experienced in our bedrooms the extremes of weather that existed over the six years we lived there.

The house also had a basement.  It was divided into two rooms.  The first was the laundry area and had enough room for a couch that was there for a while, but wasn’t a permanent fixture.  The Siamese cat, Samantha, lived down there and so did the associated lingering stench of the litter box, which later became my job to maintain.  I was really bad at cleaning up poop — a characteristic of my being which I embrace to this day.

The second room was the furnace room.  Dad set up his workbench in there and for a time, Dad actually practiced his mantra of “a place for everything and everything in its place.”  Of course, his self-compliance was cyclical and I recall the workbench being cluttered as much as it was orderly.

The furnace was a large, old coal furnace which some years before had been converted to burn natural gas.  It was a monstrous, roughly cylindrical presence, extending from ceiling to floor, with multiple cylindrical ducts jutting angularly out of the top on their way to the floor above.  Samantha used to hop up on top and sleep on top of the furnace for obvious reasons.

Next to the furnace was the blower.  We called it the fan box.  It was a strong fan encased in a large sheet metal enclosure.  When I think about it today, I wonder why it had to be so large but I guess that’s the way they built stuff back then.

When the thermostat upstairs got cold enough, it activated the furnace and fan.  The fan in the fan box roared to life and the furnace ignited warming the house and making my childhood memories of that house as warm and as cozy as it made the air upstairs.

I was downstairs in the basement with Dad as he was organizing the workbench for the first time.  My six year old self had never really given a lot of thought to the heating system in the house.  Unless it breaks, who the hell does that anyway let alone a six year old kid?  Anyway, there I was standing right next to the furnace when the thermostat kicked on the furnace.

When the heat kicked on, the gas jet on the front of the old coal combustion chamber activated.  It made a loud whirring noise, almost a screech as the methane gas roared and was shot into the combustion chamber.  The jet had three louvers on the side which opened allowing air to get in and my little six-year-old eyes could see the first controlled explosion of the gas as it began its way to the combustion chamber.

So put this all together.  You’ve got a loud fan, a screeching set of louvers opening up to reveal a fire-breathing dragon looking thing and the roar of the combustion itself ringing in my ears; all in the span of a second or so.  So naturally I did what any self-respecting six-year-old might do.

I panicked.

Well, I didn’t really panic.   I screamed first.  THEN I panicked.  Then I kept on screaming.  Loudly.  Then I ran.  The screaming alone probably would have scared me even though I was the one doing the screaming.

I beat feet out of there at warp factor eight, even though Star Trek wouldn’t be thought up for another four years or so.  (Even then, I wouldn’t see it regularly until it was well into syndication.  But that’s another story.)

I don’t remember what happened after that except to say that I must have calmed down before too awfully long.  But the sheer terror of that moment remained behind and I was scared shitless of that furnace for a long, long time.

I eventually got over the fear of that furnace room, eventually setting up my electric trains, my chemistry set and my own little version of my Dad’s workbench in there.  But it took a long time for me to make friends with that furnace.  I would slowly open the door and peek inside and announce myself out loud to the furnace as though it had been expecting me.  I talked to it, told it that I was a friend and that I knew it wasn’t going to hurt me, knowing secretly that this was a bald-faced lie.  Over time, though that furnace and I made friends and it wasn’t too long before I barely noticed the roar of the gas jet or the rumble of the fan box when the thermostat issued its orders.  I could play there quietly or with my friends in perfect harmony with that big, scary old converted coal furnace.

Earlier this week, I was trying to find the office gym and the locker room.  The locker room is in the basement.  To get there, you have to leave breadcrumbs so you can find your way back.  Much to my dismay, the path from the locker room to the gym leads…

<wait for it…>

… through the boiler room.


My nemesis. You can just feel the malevolence, right?

The first time I opened the door to the boiler room and I wasn’t expecting it, I about shit my pants.  In a split second, that moment of panic (less the screaming, thankfully) consumed me.  All of my smarts and education went out the window and I instantly transformed myself into 187 lbs of irrational panic.

There was NO WAY IN HELL I was going to go through that goddamn boiler room.


I slammed the door, eyes wide and pulse racing.  (And this was on the way TO the gym!)


Once I recovered a bit, I found a way to get to the gym by going around the evil boiler room which, like its distant cousin, the converted coal furnace on Cory Street, roared and rattled and screeched at me like it knew I was terrified of it and it was enjoying it.  I think it was laughing at me.

It was.  I swear it.  I’d bet a month’s pay on it.

Now, a week at the gym has passed.  I’ve discovered that I can get to the gym and back by going around the boiler room.  However, that means going from the Turner Building to the Fairbank Building and THEN around to the Annex building and ascending the sixty-six steps to the attic gym where my then elevated heart rate has some real use.

I’m getting a little better.

I can actually bypass the longer trip through the Fairbank Building IF and only IF I cut through a tiny corner of the boiler room.  Tiny.  It’s literally two steps and two doors.  I could do it with my eyes closed if the evil boilers weren’t there.  But they are and embarrassingly enough, I still have a hard time opening that first door and scurrying across the smallest part of the boiler room floor. If that second door is ever locked, I will have a heart attack and die right there.  Of course, maybe that’s their sinister plan all along.

It’s not any better when I come back from the gym.

I can do it now.  I can.  I really can.  I don’t like it, and I try not to look around.  If the lights ever go off in there mid scurry, you can bet your boots I’ll be reversing course and doing my exercise by way of LA Fitness or Gold’s Gym or something.

It’s embarrassing to think that here I am a grown man still unnerved by pipes and furnaces.  I mean seriously! What the hell?  But for that heart-stopping moment when I crack the door and I dash two steps to the other door, I am not a grown man.  I’m six and I’m in my new house on Cory Street.

And I have a new friend to make before it’s home.

Buy This Book: “Green Card Soldier”

Former Army Public Affairs colleague and outstanding public affairs practitioner Bruce Zielsdorf has penned “Green Card Soldier.”  It’s a novel that…  Well, duh!  It’s his book.  I’ll let him tell you about it:

GCS_cover_frontGreen Card Soldier is an historic adventure novel that follows the exploits of Andro Babich – a naïve, but inquisitive teenage soccer star frustrated by his mundane life on the family farm in Bosnia. In the early 1990s, Andro’s sporting hopes are drowned as the former Yugoslavia is battered by thunderous storms of religious and nationalistic disgust that rip apart families, villages and the vast Balkan countryside. Once-civil debate decays into hate mongering, land grabbing and ethnic cleansing on all sides.

‘This tragic tale is told by Heath Winslow – a cynical, yet self-deprecating, war correspondent who, for decades, has seen much the same in other locales around the globe. Both characters challenge readers with the question: Can life become richer – and people stronger – when we look beyond labels to appreciate one another for the unique individuals we are?

“In the years that follow, Andro escapes to Greece, sails to America and joins the Army. As a Green Card Soldier, he soon earns his U.S. citizenship. Andro then returns to Bosnia as a USAID worker. During these vexing escapades, he meets a multitude of dynamic people and faces a mountain of barriers to reaching his life’s goal. This swarm of forces tests his drive and attempts to skew his moral compass. Andro eventually has an epiphany about achieving his quest… his life’s goal. In the end, our Green Card Soldier identifies several simple, but universal truisms that he intends to plant as part of his former homeland’s rebirth.” 

You can see more about Bruce and his book by clicking through to the book’s website here.  From there, you can download a preview and preorder the book.

Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Come back when you’re done.

Good job and welcome back!

It’s being released in paperback on January 14th by Hellgate Press. I’ll be there to get my copy.

You should be too.

Congratulations on the book, Bruce!  All of us from Army Public Affairs are proud of you!

Bruce Zielsdorf, author of "Green Card Soldier"

Bruce Zielsdorf, author of “Green Card Soldier”

Early Review of 2014: Meh.

So 2014 is here.

Big whoop.

So far, it doesn’t feel any different than 2014. Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations or fantasies that the world will suddenly be a better place when the New Year begins. But really, the New Year is nothing more than an arbitrary moment. It could have been a day before, a day earlier or anytime really. Yeah, there are big celebrations, but the world so far has continued to spin at a relatively constant rate and the orbit of our planet around our star is undisturbed – all really, really good things.

So why should I expect something different?

Tradition. Convention. The manufactured expectation that the media places upon the changing of the calendar. Like most people, I DO expect something different, but as every year past, I don’t get anything different. I know why, too.

It’s all my fault.

I recognize that the passing of a year, another birthday or another seemingly significant day doesn’t affect change. I have to do that. I have to make decisions and choices. I have to be willing to affect that change instead of waiting for some random sidereal moment to make it all better. It’s up to me to make those changes.

People often quote or misquote the last few lines of the poem by William Ernest Henley.  (It’s pretty clear why people only quote or misquote the last few lines; those are the uplifting lines.  The rest is kind of depressing.) Here’s the whole thing titled “Invictus:”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am, dammit. It’s all on me. All.

Though being an Army guy, I prefer to think of myself as the colonel of my soul.

Good Riddance, 2013

Welp, it’s almost over. 2013 is quickly coming to a close and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled. In fact, if I had my ‘druthers, I do a cut and paste on the whole year and forget to paste it.

Yeah, 2013 kinda sucked for the most part.

To be fair, however, 2013 did end on a positive note, so I’d prefer to just write off from say January up until November. The last two months were a vast improvement owing in no small way to getting hired after nearly two years of being out of work. That alone has made the whole of 2013 eminently redeemable.

I don’t mean to come across as cynical and sour, though many days I still feel that way. It’s going to take a while to erase some of the angst of looking for work and not finding it, disillusionment being the key word for all those months. And make no mistake; it’s hard to break the habit overnight of feeling like ten tons of crap. So I’m taking this step to help move away from the negativity and into a more positive place.

Here’s my list of things for which I am grateful. Now, these are in no particular order, nor is there any priority involved. Unless there’s something funny in there, which I don’t know ‘cause I haven’t written it yet. But funny stuff goes in where it works best.

Off we go. Things for which I am grateful:

–  My sense of humor. Lord knows I’d not have made it through this without one. Thank goodness mine came standard issue. Some think my sense of humor is… well, defective. Fine. You can think that. Sometimes I do too, but I hit more than I miss, so you naysayers can bite me. (See? Still cynical and sour. I’m working on that.)

–  Being hired. Of course, I am VERY grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the workforce and stop screaming at the radio every time the job numbers described people who have given up looking for jobs. I DID give up for a while when I was sick and didn’t realize it back in 2012, but in 2013, it just pissed me off to hear that. Being back in the workforce and being blessed to work for the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center is something really cool. While I’m still new here and learning the ropes, everyone here has welcomed me and made me feel at home. So to all of my new colleagues and bosses, thank you for hiring me and thank you for making me feel so at home.

DVR–  My DVR. Holy crap, my DVR has 3 TERABYTES of storage for high-definition TV shows alone! While much of that is consumed with reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” and Seth MacFarlane’s animated shows, being able to watch “Person of Interest,” “Elementary,” or “American Horror Story” whenever I wanted to was a godsend. (On a related note, I just binge watched ten episodes of “Person of Interest” some from many, many months ago. I recommend the show. However, I do NOT recommend binge watching ten episodes.)

–  Credit card companies. Yes, while I was unemployed, I used my credit cards to pay bills. Far, far more than I should have, but hey, when your back’s against the wall and you’ve got kids for whom you’re responsible, you do your best with what you’ve got. So I’m grateful that no one cut me off. Of course, now 2014 will be the year of worrying about how the hell I pay this all off. But at least we’ll all be fed for the foreseeable future.

–  Speaking of kids, I’m grateful for them. All of ‘em. Jon and Andy, my two grown-up kids who are scattered across the continent. You can read more about them here. I’m immensely proud of them both and love them like crazy. Nate and Garrett are my significant other, Beth Geyer’s kidlings and they have made 2013 bearable. There’s no greater comfort than a small child’s hug or having them fall asleep next to you while watching TV. As heavy as they are, it’s never a chore to carry them upstairs, dead asleep and tuck them into bed. There’s no greater gratitude for me than knowing that circumstances I’ve tried to create permit their sleep unburdened by the things that keep me awake at night. That’s my job. Whatever it takes.


–  The dog.

Nope. I lied about that.

–  I’m grateful to the online community for keeping me company when I can’t get out of the house, which is pretty much always. Thank you for entertaining me, engaging me and giving me an outlet for socialization even if it is virtual in nature. I recognize that you’re all real people on the other side of my screen, and I value your friendship, your candor and your confidence. I’m extra grateful that I DO get to see many of you in person from time to time. Thank you for being so welcoming and so supportive.

–  I’m grateful for politicians.

Nope. I lied about that, too.

beth–  Beth Geyer. She allows me to be a real parent to her children, and I try my best to do a good job. I’m grateful for your support when I succeed and for your kindness when I fail. I am grateful for your boundless beauty and your sense of humor. You are extraordinarily clever and your wit and impeccable comedic timing are the stuff of legend. Timing like that you can’t teach. (Nate’s got it, too.) I am grateful for your presence in my world. I’m also grateful for your Sub Divines – the singularly most delicious sandwich recipe ever brought to a relationship ever. Did I say “ever?” Oh, and for your love of beer.

–  My Toyota Prius. It’s paid off.

photo–  Jeff Tobin. Jeff and I go back to 1972.  Last week after a server crash, I sadly lost a terrific essay I wrote about our long-standing disagreement about who’s the better drum major. He’s been a good dude for well over 40 years, and I have always valued our friendship, perspective and the rapport we’ve shared for a year or two now. Specifically, though, I am VERY grateful for you introducing me to single malt scotches. Yes, that was a 2013 thing. I was visiting Chateau Tobin in May near our birthdays this year (we were born 16 hours apart) and Jeff set us up with a scotch tasting. Changed my life. I am grateful for you and for your liquor cabinet.

–  HD Radio. Not satellite, but HD Radio. It’s a form of digital terrestrial radio that no one knows about except geeky guys like me. Living near a big city I can get a whole boatload (yes, it’s a large boat in case you were trying to quantify a boatload) of HD Radio stations you can’t receive on the regular FM band. Relatedly, thanks to Best Buy for having an open-box desktop HD Radio for $29.99 that was going for nearly $100.00 on Amazon.

That’s about it for now. I’ll have more later, I’m sure. Baby steps, you know.

Oh, and to you, my reader. Thank you for reading this. And thank you for commenting, liking it or whatever. Maybe you could think about the things in 2013 for which you are grateful. Tis the season and all that, right?

Jeff Tobin's Gingerbread House (Used shamelessly without permission.)

Jeff Tobin’s Gingerbread House (Used shamelessly without permission.)


P.S.  If you speak binary, you’ll get the message.

Ten Things I Learned During My First Week at Work

1.) How to spell “FHWA” correctly.

2.) How highly automated hiring a new federal employee is. (Good thing I’m a computer nerd, otherwise who knows where I’d have wound up.)

3.) Commuters in Northern Virginia have neither changed nor improved in two years.

4.) HOV lanes + Prius = relatively pain free commuting.

5.) The difference between RD&T and R&T.

6.) Where the gym is.

7.) That the pop machines in the break area take credit cards.

8.) What I used to call a CAC card is now a PIV card.

9.) All bureaucracies have much in common.

10.) Dry erase markers bleed through a notepad’s next two sheets below the one on which I’m scribbling.

Ten Things to Do Before Going Back to Work After Two Years

1.  Adjust attitude.

2.  Learn how to get dressed BEFORE noon.

3.  Take suits to the tailors to be let out 2″.

4.  Catch up on prime time TV shows on the DVR.

5.  If it’s a government job, wait 48 days.

6.  Review wardrobe for fashion faux pas.  Wear anyway.

7.  Stop unemployment checks.  (Oh wait, they stopped on their own.)

8.  Help the dog get over her separation anxiety issues by hiding in the closet daily for 30 minutes.  (There are those who still believe I’m in there, but that’s another discussion.)

9. Get vintage Starsky & Hutch lunchbox and matching Thermos out of storage.

10.  Express gratitude for your good fortune.