Friday, March 2, 2012

Farewell to Smitty

Hebron, Maryland – It’s a small cemetery set next to an old country road on a flat coastal plain. That it sits in a town named Hebron is compelling -- amateur Biblical types know Hebron as a city near Jerusalem which was a burial ground for prophets.

The day is clear, a strong wind blows cold, four soldiers in dress blue uniforms attend to the flag-draped casket, a volley of shots are fired and Taps sounds. Standing among the elderly family friends are eight current and former soldiers saying farewell to Smitty.

Smitty’s military career spanned the various phases of conflict – worldwide communism, European uncertainty, and Islamic Jihad – to which America unflinchingly answered the call. He’d been one of the millions of American servicemen engaged in the Cold war – recall the twilight struggle? -- serving as an enlisted man in Berlin in the mid-1980s with a detachment intercepting and decoding Soviet and East German transmissions. The fight against Moscow seems like distant history – but it was the gripping challenge of three generations.

Smitty left the Army, went to college, and joined the National Guard, where I met him in the famed 629th Military Intelligence Battalion which alas, exists no more. The First Gulf War passed over us, but then the need for troops – “peacekeepers” -- in the shattered Balkan States necessitated a call-up to police Bosnia. Smitty stepped up to the plate and deployed, leaving his job.

Then came 9/11 and the Guard and Reserve underwent profound change. Tempos increased, the need for troops of all kinds – from infantry to intelligence to quartermasters to truck drivers to pilots to mechanics – became acute.

Even with the needs for Iraq and Afghanistan, there was again a need to assist Europe in controlling its own backyard. In 2004, the 629th sent a company of soldiers to Kosovo, still reeling from the 1999 conflict. Smitty went.

All told, I knew Smitty for 20 years. In the platoon and battalion, he was another squared-away NCO – they all were, frankly – who didn’t say much and got the job done, no matter what it was.

I was an E-4, trained at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, and I genuinely enjoyed my 14-years of reserve duty. There was the regularity of mustering with the battalion on the gym floor on Saturday and Sunday mornings; the routine of working on vehicles and gear and paperwork. And, of course, my outstanding work as volunteer for KP – diligent kitchen pogue helping to make lunch for 600 soldiers.

There was also the melancholy of Sunday afternoon -- getting the armory cleaned up and the gear stowed, the final muster of troops and the dismissal, the curious emotion of knowing it was back to a regular job, after a weekend in fatigues and boots.

I retired from the unit but Smitty hung in there and in 2007, deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq for a year, serving as an intelligence guy – an assignment mirrored in the Berlin service more than two decades prior. Smitty died two weeks ago of natural causes at too young of an age.

The Guard isn’t like the intensity of active duty service. But what the two components share is a military ethic. Remember, the military is a volunteer institution, built around cohesion and loyalty and strict attention to accomplishing a mission – values which sometimes seem to be absolute outliers in a nation choked with self-absorption and instant gratification.

At the church service prior to the cemetery, I was talking to one of the guys there – an NCO I’d known for years. He said to me, “You know, Nellie, I’ll be frank. Smitty didn’t really like me at all and I didn't really like him. We had some scenes – some real run-ins -- in Kosovo and at Camp Victory. But he respected me, and I respected him.”

So this guy, who has never got along with Smitty, drives 130 miles on a winter Saturday morning, in his dress blues, to pay his respects. When you contemplate the military bond, you can’t more profound than that. Let that be the farewell for Smitty.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Politics and Sports: In the Arena

Reprinted with Permission of the Carteret County (N.C.) News-Times

Folks, I’m saturated with campaigns for the moment. Primary this, caucus that, nonbinding whatever. Three GOP Primary contests earlier this week and a thousand more to go. Being in the game for a quarter century as pretty much a bagman, I always marvel at the eternal lessons of politics.

Adversity, tenacity, victory -- and sometimes, alas, defeat. I grimace at them all and yet I've embraced them all for much of my young and adult life. They’re universal human experiences, but it seems they are particular American characteristics.

There’s another arena of life where these tests hit close and that’s the wide world of sports. While my days on a field and a court are long gone, I've tried to pass on resilience – but mericfully not my meager talent -- to my three sons. They may be too young for politics, but the old man has placed them firmly in the crucible of athletics.

Of course, there are countless parents who push their kids towards sports of all kinds. Heck, I see them at evening practices, at weekend games, in the early mornings driving to a pool or an ice rink. For example, this past weekend I was at a 7th grade rec league basketball game for young Darby and there were nearly 70 people in the stands of a cold middle-school gym at 9 a.m. on a grey Saturday -- parents, siblings, grandparents yelling around like it was an NBA game.

The night before no less, I was at a wrestling tournament for middle son Braden in a high school gym – stuffy and dusty and hung with faded banners of championships from the 1970s -- where there were 12 teams and more than 400 parents milling around.

This past fall I attended a high school football game -- featuring two sons -- in a Division I college football stadium that was three-quarters full. I recently went to a parents meeting for eldest son Devlin’s Varsity lacrosse team and in attendance were both parents for every single kid. Man, this is what we call “involvement.”

With three boys, there’s been a reflexive impulse to have them on teams, push them to compete hard, and most importantly, have them excel. Hey, here’s a fun stat: In 2011, my three sons were on a total of 23 teams (swimming, wrestling, lacrosse, football, basektball, and soccer) and plaed in more than 283 games and 840 practices. I know. I counted.

Yes, I plead guilty to riding my kids hard – and I know there are more than a few parents out there doing the same thing. You want the kids to excel at the sports at which they have showed real promise. And yes, I have urged them to either drop, or spend minimum time on, those sports at which they have no chance for stand-out play.

I recall as clearly today as eight years ago physically manhandling a kid into a car to go to a lacrosse practice. I get a bit disturbed today by my behavior then, but at the time I was adamant. Unnamed son was in tears, I was frustrated. I knew that to give in – to let him not go to practice -- would start a slide that might possibly never end. He went to practice, banged a bunch of kids around, and today he’s a premier player.

I also recall when one son got cut from a school basketball team. It was the first time ever a Nelligan had been cut from a team. Huge deal. But I knew then that even if he’d made the team, he would have ridden the bench (hey, just like Dad!), and that he never would have risen in talent – or in height – to be anything more than a third-teamer. He’d be on suburban teams that would get crushed by inner-city teams and what's the point or value in that? I've seen this movie over and over.

And yeah, he was good at soccer because he was and is very fast and very quick. But going far in that sport is a numbers game; again, there are teams made up of players for whom soccer is a national pastime and these teams beat the bejeebers out of suburban teams every time. Again, what's the value in that endgame?

Most importantly, all three boys were and are very good at lacrosse, and thus we've played and played – on weeknights and weekends, on fields everywhere, endlessly throwing the ball to one another, doing made-up drills, crouching in face-offs, not gently hitting each other while in full gear.

I’ve driven them both all over to practices and games and even tournaments in other states. There've been games in which their teams – and the boys themselves -- would get beat badly.

There were also a lot of victories. And through it all, I knew this was the sport they were mastering -- and they have. Now, we’re at the point where college coaches are recruiting the eldest, and the second will see his share of recruiters as well.

In all of this athletics saga, I never told my sons to have “fun” out there on a field or a on a gym floor or in a pool. Sports are about fun, yes.

But sports are really about satisfaction – doing your best, which is better than your best was a week ago. Sports are about gaining self-esteem through achievement.

In politics, as in these endless primaries, the cycles of preparation, practices, games, and victories and losses mirror that of the lowly 7th grade basketball game – or the clinching high school lacrosse championship.

Two bruising worlds, two arenas where you succeed or come up short, but where the eternal lessons about character and endurance are taught every moment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mechanics of a Campaign

Washington, D.C. – Today and thru Saturday, all eyes focused on the neighbor to the South. Because no matter where you are, it’s impossible not to follow the Presidential primary saga. Iowa and New Hampshire, yes – but the big noise is all South Carolina. It’s all politics, all the time.

Having been involved in this crazy game for too many years, I understand that we all tend to focus on the big media picture – who’s up, who’s down, what ads are running, what someone said at debate, or in a Main Street diner. A stream of candidate events crammed into days and weeks and months.

However, there’s a story you rarely hear about – it’s what I’d call the mechanics of a campaign. That is, how does just one event – let’s say a speech in a community center – actually come together?

The “how” is one of the few things I really know -- only because once I was one of those guys on the ground, who came to set up an event for a Candidate, and left right after – to go set up another event.

It works like this:

Long ago and faraway just three years ago, I was part of a team setting up events for a presidential candidate in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

Now, an event starts with five campaign operatives who come from the four points of the compass to a city which none of them have ever been in. The schedulers at Headquarters envision the Candidate in that city in 36 hours, speaking before 4,000 hysterical followers who are going to push him/her over the top in that city, in that region, in that state! The rally will build enthusiasm and show the state and national media that the Candidate is making it happen.

This takes place in Marietta, Ohio. The five guys meet in an airport lounge, jump in a rental car, and drive around looking at possible arenas – indoor or outdoor? Is the place too big, which would look bad to have empty space, or two small, which shows that the Candidate fears big crowds? A site is quickly chosen, local vendors are hired to build a stage with lighting and music affects. County political party chairman are rounded up so they can find enough volunteers to pack a 4,000-person college field house. , one of our guys heads to the local FedEx store to design and print up tickets, brochures, and placards for the rally; another guy drives different routes from the airport – which is across the Ohio River in West Virginia -- at which the candidate arrives; another is calling every reporter within 200 miles to say that this is an Event No One Can Miss.

Another is lining up volunteers, drivers, securing passenger vans for the campaign staff, the press, and hangers on who will all arrive in a chartered jet. That night, the five huddle over cigarettes and Red Bulls and think up every which way the whole event can fail – the Candidate stumbles, an attendee faints, a stage collapses -- and become a fiasco that ends up on a YouTube video getting a million hits.

Then suddenly it’s the day of the event – Game Day as it’s called. The Candidate arrives with police lights and siren escort, enters the field house from the back along the prearranged corridors, and pops out on an elevated walkway we designed, right in front of the school’s cheerleaders, who’ve been hired to get the crowd going.

As I watch from the side behind curtains, my phone goes off. It’s the campaign manager. He’s a Big Guy and Nellie is a Small Guy. I’m told that headquarters wants a non-media stop for 20 minutes at a “nice location” to accommodate a New York Times photographer doing a profile.
The five guys huddle and for once, Nellie has a brainstorm.

Earlier that morning, in going over the route for the eighth time, I’d passed the Marietta College football stadium and noticed a youth league football game on the stadium field. I suggest that venue, a guy is quickly sent to check it out while the Candidate is speaking. The stadium is old brick and picturesque in its own way. We envision the Candidate can stand on the sideline of the game or be speaking with parents in the bleachers for the photo shoot.

The speech ends, the ovation is large, and the police cars and vans head out to the stadium, about five minutes away. They pull up, the Candidate gets out with the New York Times photographer and they go through a tunnel into the stadium. I do too as the once-ever genius who thought this up.

It’s halftime and I quickly arrange with the team coaches to have the Candidate say a few words to the assembled teams -- these little kids with football helmets in these too-big pads. Thenit's a quick speech to the young cheerleaders, and a couple parents, to whom this is all a huge rush. The photographer is delighted with the dynamics of the photo; the Candidate is pleased to be around the kids. The campaign staff is pleased it took 15 minutes, not 20, and they can get back onto the plane for the next stop.

Now consider that this madcap kind of play is going on several times a day, for days on end. Each event, each staffer playing some role in convincing the public and the media that the Candidate is on fire.

That’s what is happening now as these five hopefuls surge through South Carolina, piling up event after event in a mad frenzy to get media and public traction. There are going to be electoral losers come Saturday. But I can tell you as a Game Day vet, none will lose for lack of effort.