The Grammar Policeman

After a few conversations this week between me and others, I had to check into my grammar usage.  I’m not a professional writer – yet, but I always seem to think I know enough to write some decent articles and essays.  I researched some controversial grammatical errors to see if I might be wrong and I’m not sure I like what I found.

Split Infinitives

I have always tried my best to possibly avoid split infinitives.  Did you catch it?  I just split an infinitive.  The phrase “to possibly avoid” is a split infinitive.  I placed an adverb in between the infinitive “to avoid”.  I found out this week that sometimes, split infinitives are okay to use. 

How can a split infinitive be okay?  When is it okay?  Rephrasing that phrase above is clumsy.  I could have written “to avoid possibly using split infinitives”, but that doesn’t sound right, does it?  The rephrase actually changes the meaning of the sentence.  Or, I could have written “tried my best possibly to avoid split infinitives”.  That sounds worse and doesn’t seem to make any sense.  Even the way it is written, “to possibly avoid”, is awkward. 

The reason why spilt infinitives are considered to be inappropriate grammar is that you cannot split an infinitive in Latin.  I didn’t know that, and I took Latin I in high school.  Sister Isiah gave me a “D”.  The only thing I remember from my Latin days is “tempus fugit” – time flies.  However, I did understand Latin enough to know about root words and how to easily figure out the meaning of a word by working around the root word (I slipped another one in).  Latin also helped me as a paralegal.  A significant amount of legalese is based in Latin.

The most famous split infinitive is the notorious “To boldly go” from Star Trek.  I’m not a Trekkie, but if millions of people throughout the world understand and accept that famous phrase, who am I to inanely question it?

Dangling Prepositions

Ending a sentence with a preposition is another grammatical mistake I tend to avoid.  This isn’t only when I’m writing, but when I speak, also. 

I’m reminded of a joke you may have heard:

She: “Where ya from?”

Her: “I’m from a place where we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.”

She: “Oh, I’m sorry.  Where ya from, bitch?”

In researching for this blog, I discovered that it is now acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, under certain circumstances, that is.  What is this world coming to?  Oh, look what I did.  Perhaps it is appropriate at times to leave a preposition hanging at the end.  How else would you phrase that question of where the world is going?  “This world is coming to what?”  People might think you come from a foreign country speaking like that.  Or, perhaps they might think you were in another Star Trek planet in a far-off galaxy.

I had always thought this was Iowa talk.  However, I see that it is common language all over the world.  “Where you at?”  “Where you going to?”  Yes, the word “are” is implied, which makes it a complete sentence, even though the preposition is hanging.  But both sentences may be understood simply by leaving the prepositions “at” and “to” in the grammar box.  I think I speak leaving prepositions behind.  I rarely listen to myself.  And let me apologize for beginning a previous sentence with a conjunction (But).  Oh, my, I did it again with the sentence prior to this one.  Conjunctions should follow commas, not periods.


I have to admit; I have never been very good at distinguishing the difference between empathy and sympathy. 

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  Can you understand or share feelings if you haven’t been through the same experience?  For instance, when asked about whether Iowa would be a haven for immigrant children from Central American, former Iowa Governor-for-life Terry Branstad said the “first thing we need to do is secure the border. I do have empathy for these kids.”  Using that logic, that he knows what those children are feeling and sharing those feelings, could he then empathize with a woman going through childbirth?  Could he share that feeling?  If I should ask any woman, I think she would say unpleasant things to me to mildly insinuate that Governor Branstad could imagine such a feeling.  (This is not a test, but did you notice I slipped a split infinitive in there?)

Going back to the reference above about root words.  Empathy’s root word is “empath”.  “An empath is someone who is highly aware of the emotions of those around them, to the point of feeling those emotions themselves.” Or, an Empath is a creature on Star Trek. 

Sympathy has two meanings; 1. “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”  And, 2. “understanding between people; common feeling.”  I think it’s that second meaning that confuses people when attempting to properly use the correct word.  (I did it again; I used a split infinitive.)

Several times I have seen empathy used when a person means sympathy, and I’ve witnessed people using sympathy when they mean to use empathy.  I have now self-taught myself to be confused about the two words and their meanings, especially since it is now determined by grammar police that the two are somewhat interchangeable.  I give up.  The best suggestion I have to avoid getting empathy and sympathy mixed up is to never use either and look at both with apathy. 

Grammar is becoming a lost art.  So many of those English grammar skills that nuns taught me are passé.  It makes me feel that by just throwing words together that follow no rules could be the beginning of a career in writing Hip-Hop music.  Music?  Did I really put music in the same sentence as Hip-Hop?

Other grammatical tragedies

I don’t like it when authors use an incomplete sentence for effect.  I’m sticking to that objection.

Andy Rooney, of Sixty Minutes fame, once had a small segment on proper grammar.  I’ll never forget how he suggested some of us need to live in the real world.  He admitted that when he walked into the house he yelled to his wife: “It’s me”, instead of the grammatically correct, “It is I.” 

I learned a lot from Andy Rooney.

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I Went to School – Sometimes

Realizing that I have written a few things about my ability to question authority, I began to think many readers might want to know why I am, and why I have been somewhat of a maverick. 

The first memory I have that may lead one to think I was born a radical was in grade school.  I can remember where I sat in Sister Mark’s class when she showed us something in which Chinese children were saluting an image of Mao; arms out in unison and directed toward a big red flag with Chairman Mao larger than life in front of it.  I doubt it was a video or a movie.  It must have been an overhead projector.  Anyway, she made a comment that sounded like “how would you feel having to wear a grey uniform in school and proclaim yourself to a dictator?”  She was trying to make communism scary.

I was embarrassed to speak out and bring up the similarity of standing in a parochial school where the girls had to wear jumpers, we said the Pledge of Allegiance before class with our hands over our hearts, and later in class proclaimed ourselves to Jesus.  I was confused.  It became worse in high school when the girls still wore jumpers with white blouses, but now, the boys had to wear dress slacks and shirts that buttoned down the middle.  We still said “The Pledge.”

High school was a great place to challenge authority.  The first Friday of every month was called “dress-up day”.  Instead of the jumper and blouse staple of daily HS living, the girls were allowed to wear any dress, outfit, or skirt/blouse ensemble of their choice, as long as the hem was even with the knee, and the bodice was not revealing, or even close.  The guys had to wear a suit, or a sports coat with the dress pants, and a tie.  You received demerits for being “out of uniform”; not just on dress-up day, but every day.

One particular dress up day, I wore a Nehru jacket as a sports jacket, my corduroy pants with the cords running horizontal rather than the usual vertical, and a piece of rope as a belt.  My tie must have been okay because I don’t remember getting any flack for that.  I got 5 demerits for not having a belt.  Actually, I got the idea from Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies.  I should have received more demerits since I had asked, “just what IS a belt?”

The late Jim Schulte and I would walk around the perimeter of the school during lunch hour.  Since it was forbidden to leave the curb, we would take turns tapping one foot on the road to see if school authorities would run out with the demerit slips.  A few times we did walk off the curb and run to a small neighborhood grocery store up the street.  There were two of these stores in the area.  Spaens was the most popular.  Those of us who were looked upon as trouble-makers hung out at Spaens before school to smoke cigarettes, buy gum and candy, and the usual pen because you didn’t have one and everybody was weary of lending one to you.  The neighborhood groceries were no bigger than a living room, and they were part of the front of the house.

We avoided Spaens.  The authorities would think obviously that we might scamper off to it – only ½ block away to the west.  No, we often went to the one east of the school.  It was the backside of the school and the escape and return path were protected by overgrown evergreen trees.  However, we did get caught once.  That cost more than demerits.

After a 3-day suspension, we had to be admitted back to school by our parents.  My mother came with me one morning to reenroll me in classes.  I love my mom.  Like me, she couldn’t see why you would suspend a kid from school for the crime of self-suspension by the kid.

“Mrs. Wolf,” the priest would say, “we have reviewed Marty’s file and discovered an absent note that looks different from the rest.”  Oh, shit, I thought.  I knew what was coming.  Mom asked, “What’s wrong with this?” 

“Is that your handwriting, Mrs. Wolf?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“Well then, whose handwriting is this?” he said, holding a stack of excuses. 

Mom didn’t hesitate: “That’s Carol’s handwriting,” she said matter-of-factly.

I rode home with Mom.  Three more days of suspension.  She didn’t think it was funny.  Neither did I.  Nothing was done to Carol.  She was a grade ahead of me and did no wrong, at least, as far as school authorities and Mom was concerned. 

The first time I was called to Room 207 (no one wanted to be paged to Room 207), Mr. Galatich asked if I was Kathleen’s brother.  He never mentioned Carol.  I was doomed from the beginning, having to be compared to Kathleen rather than Carol. 

I may be the first and only student at Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll, Iowa, to flunk shop.  Industrial Arts class had a teacher whose nickname was Gomer, but not to his face.  Gomer would take attendance and then have us disperse to other areas of the huge classroom.  I remember it looking like an oversized garage.  There was a door in the back.  I used it a lot.  I was counted as being in attendance, why not?

Electricity and I are not good friends.  I have been wary of it for a long time.  So, when it came time to be graded on our welding projects, Gomer showed my piece to the class and explained how beautiful it was.  “Ryan, show the class how you did this?”  I didn’t even know how to plug the welder into the socket.  I made a fool of myself, and that was Gomer’s goal.  I had paid Ray Julich $10 to do my project.  He was the best damned welder I’ve ever seen.  My bad.  I should have paid someone $5 to do a mediocre job.  See, I did learn in high school.

Out-of-class activity included being an altar boy.  This paragraph comes right from our website where this blog is posted:

He first questioned authority when an old-fashioned priest insisted that he cut his hair or he couldn’t be an altar boy.  Marty realized he had a choice and opted for the latter.  A cadre of altar boys that numbered close to 40 soon diminished to less than 20.  Not only did he learn that he could question Catholic dogma (altar boys must have short hair), he discovered that he had the ability to lead.  Fortunately, Marty was not excommunicated and graduated from Kuemper Catholic High School in Carroll with a thirst for social justice.

Because I worked after school and on weekends, it was only natural that I might be tired at times.  Putting my head on my arms and trying to sleep was an occasional distraction to teachers.  One afternoon, I popped my head up during the class, Contemporary Problems, to ask a question.  Mr. Galatich, yeah, that guy, made a big deal out of me rising from the dead – or something like that.  But he was glad I had a question that pertained to the class.  “What does ‘Contemporary Problems’ mean?”  The class laughed, but Galatich looked around and said, “good question.  Who can answer that?”  He asked several know-it-alls who failed to answer properly.  Finally, Ann Malloy gave a description of the class that pleased Galatich.  He told me I could put my head back on the desk. 

I did learn a lot from high school, but it wasn’t the one I wanted to attend.  My desire was to go to public school.  I may be better off having gone to high school where I did.  Catholic school taught me to push the envelope, to challenge that which may not seem right, and to challenge myself. 

Since leaving high school, I no longer stand or recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag.  And I rarely leave anything early or skip out.  But I still question authority.

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“Ryan, You Cheated!”

In a May 8 (Run, Ryan, Run) article, I wrote about some Army Basic Training events that attempted to carve me into the man the Army wanted me to be.  I hope my readers don’t think that was the end of it.  The U.S. Army truly tried to mold me into a fighting machine.  However, it’s difficult to make steel out of rubber.

Like me, you may have heard about some things that occur in Basic Training that have been passed down for years.  The first example is that the Army has “NO GUNS!”  No.  Guns are those big things on battleships that fire massive pieces of ammunition toward shore or other ships.  In the Army, we call our handheld defensive machine a rifle.  Prior to being drafted, I had heard of the shameful act of having a soldier stand in front of everyone with his pants’ zipper down, holding his manhood with one hand, his rifle in the opposite hand, and reciting over and over and over again:  “This is my rifle; this is my gun: This one’s for fighting; this one’s for fun.”  I never thought it was true.

Yes, it is true.  One of the guys in my platoon had to do it.  It was disgusting.  They made him stand out in front of the Mess Hall as we were entering for a meal.  He was a native-American from a reservation in South Dakota.  He got the last laugh.  He was medically or generally discharged because he could not adjust to military food.  Actually, I think he was discharged before the guy in the wheel chair.

I don’t know much about the guy in the wheel chair.  He was in our company, but not my platoon.  Members of the platoon with the wheel chair guy told us that he was drafted, even though he couldn’t walk, and hadn’t for years.  You have to wonder how someone like that made it through all the stopgaps.  It is, nonetheless, the government.  I suspect it was a grudge, or something like that.

Then, there was Hovey.  Hovey disappeared one day, his bunk stripped of blankets and sheets and his footlocker empty.  The barracks in Fort Lewis, Washington, were wooden.  Recruits were allowed to smoke, and many did.  Used Folgers’ coffee cans were painted a bright red, and served as ash trays.  Because a combination of smoking and wood might cause a fire, one person walked around the two-story barracks each night on “fire watch”.  Each soldier was scheduled for one hour.  When your hour was up, you woke up the next person on the schedule and so on and so forth.  I happened to be the one on watch one night when I turned around to see Hovey right behind me.  ‘What was he doing on the second floor in his briefs and T-shirt?’ I asked myself.  Both of us had bunks on the first floor; his was next to mine.  “Hovey?” I whispered.  He said, “It’s alright, I got my cap.”  He walked back and forth down the middle aisle of the second floor and went back downstairs to bed.

In the morning, those on watch are to report any strange activity.  I had to report Hovey.  He was sleepwalking.  That will get you a medical (or administrational) discharge faster than being in a wheel chair, supposedly. 

The wheel chair guy, the native-American, and Hovey.  Three people I didn’t get to know.  They accomplished something Corporal Klinger and I couldn’t get done – a quick way out of the Army.  But I didn’t envy any of the three, I thought I could be a good soldier.  Staff Sergeant Green’s attitude toward me was misunderstood.  I just don’t know why he didn’t like me.

The day no one looked forward to was the day in which recruits have to run 2.5 miles over rough terrain with a full pack, weapon, helmet, field jacket, etc.  There were approximately 40 men per platoon, and our company – Charlie Company (or “C” Company for non-slang conformity) had 4 platoons.  Although I was in the 1st Platoon of Charlie Company, we went 2nd.  Another platoon took off ahead of us.  After a 30-second wait, it was our turn.  I was in the front row.  I passed a lot of people, and when I came across the finish line Sgt. Green ran right over to me and said, “Ryan, you cheated!”  I didn’t realize that I came in first and passed an entire platoon.  While I lit up a cigarette, I told him that I passed each and every checkpoint.  He could check to make himself feel better, but I finished running the entire 2.5-mile course.  Oddly, no one came across the finish line while we were chatting.  He checked.  I was better at distance running than I was aware. 

I continued to run after Basic Training, and into my early 20s.  I still walk to this day, but running – no thank you.  It’s hard on the knees, feet, and lungs.

Let me squeeze in one more story about running in Basic Training.  About halfway through the nine-week term, we were lined up one Saturday morning to march across the street to get a haircut.  The PX was across the street with a barber shop.  We had to pay for our own haircuts this time.  “A little off the top” was not funny.  We were told that we would be allowed to purchase anything we could afford in the PX, including beer.  I don’t remember the order in which we were to receive haircuts, but I was toward the end.  I didn’t have more than one beer. 

Once everyone had their haircut, and spent time buying cigarettes and books and radios and beer – lots of beer, we were told to line up outside.  There was some noticeable staggering.  Thinking that we were going to be ordered to do an about face and march across the street, we were surprised by the command that made us left face and march up the street.  About one-minute into the march Sgt. Green yelled “double time”.  I hope you know that “double time” means run.  We double-timed for about one-half mile before we came to a stop (excuse me, that would be a “halt!”).  We lost about half of the platoon.  They were bent over vomiting in consistently segmented proportions to how much beer they had drank.  A few more began heaving once we stopped.  I can’t recall how few of us were standing there waiting for the next order with no adverse effects of the haircuts, but it wasn’t more than eight of us.

I have a few more Basic Training stories, but it’s too much for this blog.  I may have one more blog on Marty’s Basic Training.

By the way, it is NOT boot camp.  That’s what you do in the Navy and Marines.  I hear it’s not as strenuous. 

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What IS the Age of Maturity?

A recent question in CityView, a Des Moines alternative newspaper, asked readers: “Should the minimum age to purchase tobacco products be raised to 21 in Iowa?”  All sorts of answers ensued.  One reader said tobacco should be outlawed and marijuana should be legalized.  Another said that tobacco should be outlawed, altogether.  And, of course, someone compared purchasing cigarettes to buying guns.  Whatever.

The age of maturity should be consistent – for everything.

Whether buying cigarettes, purchasing an alcoholic beverage, voting, being tried in criminal court by a panel of your peers, entering the armed forces, gambling, or becoming married without parents’ permission, a person should know that the absolute legal dividing line is a particular age.

On July 1, 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified and placed into effect.  Section 1 of the 26th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”  I couldn’t vote in a Presidential race until the fall of 1972, although I was already 22 years-old and a veteran.  I voted for Angela Davis (Communist Party candidate) out of spite.

I turned 21 three months after the 26th Amendment was ratified.

I was drafted into the Army at the age of nineteen.  I was told by the government at the age of 19 that I had to involuntarily commit to possibly sacrificing my life for the sake of this country.  But I couldn’t drink legally, and I couldn’t vote until after I was discharged from military service at the age of 21.  I had very little control over my own destiny.  The Amendment did little good for me.

The Iowa Legislature, under a heck of a lot of pressure from many of us who could now vote, succumbed to the mob mentality of our generation and lowered the age for drinking beer and intoxicating liquors from twenty-one to nineteen in 1972[1].  It was too late to affect me.

Cigarettes are good for no one.  I smoked most of my adult life.  I have since quit (15 years ago – and it wasn’t easy), but I remember the power of nicotine over my body and soul.  I could always buy cigarettes at the age of eighteen.  If I wanted, I could buy them at the age of 14 – and sometimes I did, but I didn’t smoke regularly until I was 18.  Actually, I began chewing before smoking.  There was never a tug-of-war over what age we should or should not smoke.  The tobacco lobby was too strong.  We now get to experience how the tobacco lobby has lost its power in the state Capitol and the halls of Congress.  If it can happen to the powerful tobacco lobby; it can happen to any lobbying monster.

If I can ruin my lungs at eighteen, get killed in a war at eighteen, have the mature and responsible thought process of getting married at eighteen without going through parental permission, have the power to get a tattoo, an abortion, enter into a contract, and all those other things that are legal for normal adults to acclaim, I should be able to drink a legal beer, gamble, and, when I was 18 – vote!

Well, as I recall, those were some of the arguments we used in 1972 when we weren’t happy with the age nineteen decision.  We wanted more.  And we got it.  The following year after the Iowa Legislature succumbed to lowering the drinking age to 19, it reduced the legal age for drinking once again.  Eighteen was now the legal age for a person to walk up to the bar and say give me Bud Light[2].  But not really, Bud Light wasn’t invented – yet.

The opposition to the eighteen argument by the terrible teetotalers was that seniors in high school would be going to school drunk.  Yeah, that was a possibility (and in very few circumstances – reality).  But think of it, they could be going to high school married, legally smoking (at the time, smoking was an acceptable societal habit), entering contracts, and “Oh, my God!  Voting!”

As predicted, alcohol in high school, or at least as soon as school let out for the day, was an occasional problem.  But it was a legal problem.  And it wasn’t as bad as people claimed it to be.  But my generation had yelled about as loud as we were going to get.  Those now entering the age of eighteen had taken everything for granted.  So, in 1978, the law of a legal drink reverted back to the age of nineteen[3].

I can’t remember the age of maturity for drinking going back to twenty-one, but the Iowa Code Annotated tells me it was 1997[4].  I thought it had happened at least 10, if not 15, years prior to that.

Today, legal and scientific scholars tell us that the mind does not fully develop until the age of 26.

In Miller v. Alabama, Associate Justice Elena Kagan relied upon three “significant gaps between juveniles and adults” in two previous cases [Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. 48, 68, 74 (2010)] that set precedent for declaring that life sentences without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment.

First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Id., at 570.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 471 (2012).

You can drive at the age of 16 and a car can be a potentially dangerous weapon.  You may enter the Armed Forces on your own at 18 and be handed a dangerous weapon.  However, you cannot drink or gamble legally until you are 21.  Is driving a car or carrying an assault weapon less dangerous than having a social drink and playing a game of blackjack?  I don’t think so.

Although legal, people my age cannot properly drive; they cannot seem to maneuver those middle turn lanes without having the rear of the auto block the traffic lane.  Some people my age cannot drink moderately.  Some cannot gamble without getting carried away.  Few still smoke, damaging their bodies and those around them.  I’ve seen horrible tattoos on several people my age.  Many, including myself, have been divorced – often the result of an immature decision.   And, oh my God, some adults vote for idiots.

I know many teenagers who make better decisions than a lot of folks in my generation.  Let’s face it, there should be one age of maturity.  I don’t care if it’s 16, 18, 21, 26, or 65, but let’s be consistent.

The age restriction that bothers me the most is the one in which a prosecuting attorney can try a minor in adult court.  What is so magic about a kid who cannot drive, get an abortion, wear a tattoo, enter the Marines, marry, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, gamble, or enter into a legal contract being tried as an adult in district court?  If we’re going to have juvenile court, let’s have juvenile court.

Kids are kids, one way or the other.  Justice is a difficult term to define.  Everyone has their own opinion of what they perceive as justice.  But justice must include equality.  If a kid cannot be conscripted into the Army, he or she should not be drafted into the adult judicial system.

This blog is dedicated to a woman who knew justice and fought for juvenile justice to her end.  Sister JoAnne Talarico.

[1] Acts 1972 (64 G.A.) ch. 1027, § 54, changed the legal age definition from twenty-one to nineteen years or more (later amended; see 1973 and 1978 amendment notes, post).

[2] Acts 1973 (65 G.A.) ch. 140, § 10, reduced the definition of “legal age” from nineteen to eighteen (later amended; see 1978 amendment note, post).

[3] Acts 1978 (67 G.A.) ch. 1069, § 1, substituted nineteen years for eighteen years in the definition of “legal age”.
[4] Acts 1997 (77 G.A.) ch. 126, § 1, in subsec. 19, substituted “twenty-one” for “nineteen”.


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Run, Ryan, Run

It’s hard to believe that only forty-nine years ago this month I was in Basic Training in the Army. The Vietnam War had peaked just two years earlier with the Tet Offensive, but the war was far from over. Every one of us in Charlie Company thought of the possibility of going to Southeast Asia with targets on our backs. About a decade ago, I checked The Wall in Washington, D.C. Not one of my fellow draftees in my platoon from that May had his name on the monument. We were fortunate.

I had always thought that I didn’t go to Vietnam because I kept volunteering to go anywhere in the world, including Vietnam, while I was stationed in Virginia. When people asked me if I was stationed overseas, I said, “yes, I am stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia.” Not many people understood what I was saying, or perhaps they did believe like me that Virginia was a foreign county. In my opinion, it is possible to believe Virginia is a foreign sovereignty; it’s called a commonwealth, and many Virginians who I came in contact with thought that Iowa was a place where potatoes grew on trees.

It was many years after I was honorably discharged when I figured out why I was not sent to Vietnam, or any other foreign country besides Virginia. During bivouac (pronounce BIV-wack), I was assigned to guard a traffic barrier with a couple of other privates. We were given a password and told not to let anyone through unless they had the password.

Shortly after we were strategically positioned around the simple barrier, a cadre of staff, known to all of us, walked up the hill to our position. I yelled: “Halt, who is there?” An assistant drill instructor said, “that’s not how you do it. Here, give me your weapon.” I gave it to him. That little incident was most likely the reason why I didn’t get to see the world beyond Hopewell or Petersburg, VA. Hopewell, home to several chemical plants that stained the water black, and Petersburg, where the Civil War continued into the 1970s.

As I look back at my Army career, I notice a couple other incidents that may have led to my exile to Virginia. Physical training is an essential part of Basic Training. The military used to grade a soldier on his ability to perform certain physical accomplishments. The incentive for this scoring is an automatic promotion from the rank of E-1 to E-2 upon leaving Basic Training. I blew my perfect 40 score. No one in my platoon received a perfect 40.

Not an athlete in high school, I shined brightly in physical activity in my nine weeks of hell in Washington. There are four physical activities in which each soldier was measured at that time. A draftee (I refuse to call us recruits) had to make it through the low-crawl pit and back within a certain time period. If the (unwilling) participant could make it down and back without raising his butt to a level ripe for a sniper attack, he received a perfect 10 points. If the time was less than required, a private would have points deducted. The low-crawl pit was also used to punish. I actually had more practice than the other guys. It shouldn’t be surprising that I earned a perfect score of 10.

There was a second test in which the participant had to zig-zag around some wooden structures. I might compare it to orange cones that college football players avoid while participating in the NFL Combine held in Indianapolis every year. But of course, these structures were not orange, they were camo and hard to see (tee-hee). I think the ideal time for a perfect score of 10 was something like 27 seconds. I made it in 23. Are you adding up these scores? So far, I’m at 20.

The third obstacle was a line of bars hung about 10 or 12 feet off the ground. There’s no doubt you’ve seen these things on playgrounds everywhere. We were to move from rung to rung in 60 seconds and accomplish 76 rungs. I slipped off the 60-something rung. Observers help you up when you begin. If you slip off, it’s up to you to get back on. I can’t jump 10 feet off a sand surface and grab a bar. I had to take a score that was something like an 8.

The final event was the mile run. Two tall guys who claimed to be Nebraska track stars were offered a case of beer each if one of them could break the mile run in fewer than 6 minutes – the time for a score of 10. The drill sergeant who made the offer told them he had never had one of his recruits run the mile in fewer than 6 minutes and he saw this as a great opportunity. We were allowed to take off our button-down shirts and run in T-shirts, but running in army boots and fatigues with a belt was a challenge.

The track was a quarter of a mile. Four times around was a mile. I started in the middle of the pack. On the first pass, the two Nebraska guys were way out front. I may have been 5 or 6 guys behind them. On the second pass, both of them were in front of me, but I was gaining. On the third pass, I had left them both behind me and was out front. As I came around the final turn, I could hear the captain yelling at me. “Run, Ryan, Run. You can make it.” Aside from comparing myself to Forest Gump, I thought he meant that I could make it without falling down. I began to sprint, surprising myself. I didn’t know how close I was to the 6:00 minute mark.

5 minutes and 56 seconds. That was my time. I walked up under the lone shade tree, lit a cigarette and asked the drill sergeant if I could have a case of beer. Sgt. Green (I’ll change his name from Greene to protect his identity) did not think I was funny. Now, I believe that these confrontations I had with Drill Sergeant Green may have been recorded for future Army brass to read. That probably didn’t help me in my quest to be stationed in the Bahamas.

I did not make E-2 out of Basic Training. 10 guys in my platoon of Charlie Company were given promotions. None of them scored more than my 38 on the physical agility tests.

There’re so many more interesting things to tell you about my Army life, particularly my problems with Drill Sergeant Green. Perhaps I was his problem because he didn’t intimidate me. However, ever since I can remember, I have not been good at conforming or taking orders. The person who coined “question authority” had a groupie in me.

Again, please don’t thank me for my service. I often claimed that I single-handedly ended the draft. The Army really didn’t want any more men like me. But I’m proud to have been able to fulfill my duty to my country, no matter how hard we both tried to understand each other.

Believe me, there’s more to come.

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It’s a Matter of Taste

Twice a year, we like attending the Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines at the Fairgrounds. This past visit we acquired a shopping cart full of books for less than $10.00.

Some people exclusively use Kindle, and many more buy recent books from Amazon or local book stores. Used book stores like Half Price Books is a good source for reading material, too. However, there are some things you can get at the semi-annual book sale at the Fairgrounds that you cannot find anywhere else. I suppose it’s a matter of taste where you find and purchase your favorite literature. Some of the best cookbooks we have bought came from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

One of the bargains we picked up this spring was a collection of recipes from a cookbook put together by “The Tall Corn Chapter of Club Managers”. Inside Private Club Kitchens (Jumbo Jack’s Cookbooks, Audubon Media Corporation, 301 Broadway, Audubon, IA 50025. Printed 2004) contains recipes created by chefs and culinary teams from some of Iowa’s top country clubs. Some of the recipes will feed sixty, and some will serve 2-4.

We perused the book prior to Easter, looking for a meal that is not traditional such as ham, or lamb, or popcorn and toast (oops, wrong holiday). We found a simple recipe for Chicken Marsala. The recipe called for “2 oz. clarified butter”. Normally, I would use regular butter. However, I remember making clarified butter (also called Ghee) in the mess hall while I was in the Army. I didn’t make it, but my particular mess hall had two Army cooks who were chefs on the East Coast before enlisting in the Army. One of them made it.

I Googled the process of making clarified butter and found out that it is really easy to make. Another discovery was that clarified butter is 100% butterfat – simply, an oil like vegetable oil, canola, coconut, and peanut oil. Clarified butter has a “higher smoke point, a longer shelf life, and [is] a more versatile substance for making everything from stir-fries to sauces.” It’s butter without the water and milk solids that burn easily. I made some.

Since making the Marsala Chicken on Easter, we have been using the clarified butter in many dishes we prepare. My favorite use is to pop popcorn with the oil. No need to add butter; the flavor is incorporated into the final product. With the milk solids that were left over, I made honey butter.

The clarified butter, the leftover milk solids, etc., may seem very fattening, and I won’t pretend that it isn’t, but it’s not that much more fattening than the oils I mentioned above. In my opinion, it’s more flavorful.

Here is the recipe we used for Easter dinner. It is easy to make, doesn’t take long, and when it’s finished – it looks fantastic on a plate. It may become a tradition in our house.

Marsala Chicken

Chef Alan Clark, Sioux City Country Club


8 oz. chicken breast

2 oz. clarified butter

1 oz. salt & pepper

1 pt. sliced mushrooms

6 oz. Marsala wine

4 oz. heavy cream

1 oz. brown sugar

Dredge chicken breast in flour. Sauté in clarified butter on both sides until browned, season with salt and pepper. Continue to sauté: add sliced mushrooms, Marsala wine and brown sugar. Reduce by ¾. Add heavy cream and reduce until consistency becomes a caramelized glaze. Yield: 2 servings.

We served it with fresh steamed asparagus from our garden, wild rice salad, and hard rolls with honey butter. Because we have leftover Marsala wine, we will have to make this dish at least 3-4 times a year.



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