Tagged: Misc

The Rental

The Rental is an older tale from the life of Ski. It is a tale of woe and deprivation, courage and cowardice, glorious ups and crushing downs, life’s bitter lessons learned, thoughtless preparation and ingenious improvisation, but ultimately, it is a tale of hijinks and tomfoolery.

The tale of The Rental was a series of events culminating on one weekend in the summer in the mid nineties. That year, I was a 19 year old soldier stationed in Germany, full of piss and vinegar and I was determined to make my presence felt in Europe. I was assigned to A Troop, 1st Squadron, 1st Regiment of Dragoons, otherwise known as the Alphaholics of 1-1 CAV. Only the leadership referred to us as Apache Troop, to the soldiers we were the Alphaholics and we were always “On the Warpath.”

You must understand that this was the early nineties and the days of the New Hollow Army of the early Clinton Years. Training, due to lack of funds, was an ad hoc affair of bullet counting, (we were only issued 87 5.56 rounds that year to qualify on our M16s) fuel limits (just enough to get to gunnery and back, so we could say we were “qualified”) and lots of studying (I can still recite the tasks, conditions and standards of every soldier skill level one task….backwards). The only issues we had to worry about army-wise were sexual harassment witch hunts (both kinds, remember these were the days of Tailhook and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell), whether the section sergeant was going to give you some “wall to wall counseling”, (no such thing as “physically abusing” a private in those days) and making sure someone in your group brought some ketchup to the chow hall (They always ran out two days into the month. To this day, I occasionally enjoy a hot dog with Thousand Island dressing on it).

Our post back then, Armstrong Kaserne, consisted of just our unit and a chemical company and could easily fit inside the parking lot of a high school football stadium. But that just meant that the big brass was 50 kms away and they were generally too lazy to make the trip to bother us. I can only remember the general visiting twice in in three years. Armstrong Kaserne was located next to the sleepy little town of Buedingen Germany. “Swingen Boo-dingen” was a one horse burg with a neat castle, a couple of bars, and unfortunately, a train station where the trains didn’t stop on the weekend. If you wanted to go somewhere on a train you had to catch the last train out of town on Friday at 1700 (5 p.m.) and the first train back on Monday morning at 0500 (5 a.m.) It wasn’t very conducive to the wanderlust of a 19 year old.

Now I wasn’t much of a looker back then, but I was in shape and what I lacked in comeliness I more than made for with perseverance and determination, combined with the courage that can only be brought on by copious amounts of hefeweissen. Every blue moon I’d pull off what amounted to coup d’etat on some unsuspecting European girl. One such coup occurred during the Nimegan Marches.

The Nimegan Marches is a yearly event in which militaries all over the world send any soldiers stupid enough to want to participate in the pain. It was a race that consisted of four days of ruck marching 25 miles a day through the Dutch countryside. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 100 miles. And at the end of those four days you got a medal, bragging rights, and all the beer you could drink at a party that lasted a whole weekend. It takes place in Nimegan, Netherlands (hence the name) of A Bridge Too Far fame. (Sorry, I am a history major)

Anyway, at the Marches, I managed to connive my way into the good graces of Dutch girl named Wilhelmina, while dancing my booty off at a random techno club downtown. It was fun while it lasted but definitely more than I bargained for. Back then, THE DUTCH LOVED AMERICANS. Willy, as she was fondly known, and her hot friend Uterus, would have bore our children had we so wished. By the end of the weekend, I had met Willy’s entire extended family, her whole street, had the keys to her parent’s house and could use them anytime I or any of my friends wanted. We ate the fridge clean and drank her dad’s bar dry and he thanked us for it. Then he restocked them for when we returned.

Now I don’t want anyone to think I was taking advantage of young Willy or her countrymen’s generosity. The feeling was mutual: I LOVED THE DUTCH. And I knew I was going to come back and the next weekend I did. (The weekend of my 19th birthday, coincidentally) Now you must be asking, “How did you get there? You bored us before with train schedules…..Ah, the title, you rented a car…” Wrong! I say!


Making just $600 dollars a month, there was no way any of us could afford a rental on a regular basis, so we did what soldiers in Germany have been doing for forty years: we bought a beater. It wasn’t just any ordinary beater, it was our beater. I still to this day consider it my first car just because I pitched in 50 bucks with 4 other guys to help pay for it. It was a beaut too, a master work of German engineering. It was a 1981 smurf blue Opel Astra, with 150,000 miles, 40 previous owners and didn’t have a muffler or a starter. What we lacked in essential parts we made up for with manpower. Ergo, we had to push start the “Smurfmobile” everywhere we went. This pretty much mandated that at least three people were in the car when it went anywhere. One to steer, one to push, and one to make sure the beer bottles didn’t spill. And as everyone knows, three constitutes a party. The Smurfmobile was four wheels of traveling fun. (For the record we were crazy careful about drinking and driving, we just never did it, it was the quickest way of getting kicked out of the army next to offending someone and for all the training we didn’t do, the army was still the best deal most of us had.) In Germany back then, drinking and driving wasn’t illegal, drinking and steering was illegal – the passengers could do shooters in the back seat just the driver had to be sober.

So after the second weekend of Willy, her family and all of her friends’ generosity, the word began to get around the barracks that Ski had a pretty good racket going on in the Land of Tulips and Windmills. It also got out that Willy was planning a party for us this coming weekend. It was going to be a super special weekend in the ways only the Dutch could think up. So like the good soldiers we were, we spent the week planning our next excursion.

We quickly deduced we had a problem: there’s no way we were going to get ten of us in the Smurfmobile, 7 max. It was a long three hours to Tulipland and we needed room in the trunk for ‘provisions’, specifically beer and bologna sandwiches. In one of his rare moments of intelligence, Mad Dog Mike D, a fellow Pittsburgher by the way, originally came up with the idea of renting a car. Under normal circumstances this would be dismissed handily, it was too expensive. But we figured the money we were going to save by ravaging the Willy family household for foodstuffs and nourishment would easily outweigh the expense of the car. So we fired up the Smurfmobile and trekked to Hanau to reserve a car at the Budget joint next to the big PX. Most summer weekends they quickly ran out of cars but our decisiveness and forethought paid off. We managed to secure a burgundy Ford Escort. We were in business.

All week, you could feel the excitement. Ricky Bell, our perceptive and mildly sadistic section sergeant, knew we were planning something big because we were extra good all week so we wouldn’t pull IC detail that weekend. (“IC Detail” was punishment for minor stuff that required more than push-ups or an ass beating but less than an Article 15. IC Detail involved showing up on Saturday morning with the First Sergeant so he can walk around going “I see cigarette butts, pick them up.” “I see that the wall needs painted.” “I see the grass needs cut”….you get the point.) We were so good that week that he couldn’t find anything wrong or if he did, it was so minor he knew we’d call bullshit and mutiny. The best he could do was threatening us with piss tests when we got back. Which didn’t bother us, we had piss tests all the time and we weren’t stupid enough to do drugs anyway.

The final Friday formation came and it seemed as if The Space Cowboy’s (Our troop commander) safety brief lasted forever. Don’t do drugs, wrap that rascal, don’t beat your wife blah blah blah, we heard it a thousand times before. He must have known we’ve been spending a lot of time in the Netherlands lately (he did) because he said wrap it and don’t do drugs at least four times. By the time the 1SG finished saying ‘fall out’ we were halfway up to our rooms to grab our stuff.

Five in the Smurfmobile and five in the Escort, (We picked it up during lunch) we divided up and we rolled dice for the unenviable position of driver. “One Slice” Soma from Oklahoma, was the driver of the Escort and I was the navigator. (Not that we needed one, we made this drive three times already and we were cavalry scouts for Christ’s sake) The other Escort passengers were my roommate Kingsley (a cow farming, basketball playing, Golden Gophers fanatic), Maddog Mike D, (Fellow Steelers fan) and Nascar Owen (Red Man, Budweiser, Nascar and big frickin hats was a pretty good description of Owen.) I was the proverbial Ski, if you haven’t figured it out yet. Stertz, Rathbun aka “The Axe”, Pope, Madcap Johnny F and Sal Sally would follow in the Smurfmobile.

We took account of our supply situation: Toothbrush, towel (very useful), 20 pack, and extra t-shirt per man, a full five gallon water can, two loaves of bread, 2 packs of bologna and 3 cases of Bud Dry. (Remember that experiment? It was $3 a case at the PX, we had truckloads of it stacked in our rooms that year) Deeming ourselves sufficiently prepared we took off, burnin’ up Autobahn 3 toward Tulipland and what we were sure was an orgy involving Willy and the Nimegan women’s soccer team. (We could dream couldn’t we?) There would be no stopping for the obligatory beer and photos at the border. We were on a mission. We lost the Smurfmobile relatively quickly in our accelerator induced frenzy to the Netherlands. It didn’t matter though, we would meet them there.

Now we might have been a hollow army, but we were still damn proud to be soldiers and even more proud of being AMERICAN soldiers. We just won the Cold War, kicked the livin’ shit out of Iraq, Somalia hadn’t happened yet, and the liberal guilt complex of the nineties was still in the future. Combine this with being young and indestructible and that made us just a wee bit obnoxious. Obnoxious enough that flying a full sized American Flag on a broomstick out the back window of the car was standard practice on road trips. So as we were toolin’ down the road in the left lane at 100mph, a big ass American flag hanging out the side, Mike D, Kingsley and Owen (riding bitch) enjoying a warm one, listening to Metallica’s Black Album on our sexy car stereo cassette player, we knew this was going to be one for the books. (The Necronomicron perhaps)

About halfway there, a car load of Gunters pulled up to the right of us. They were flying a German Flag! How dare they infer Germany was greater than America!?!?!? We beat the piss outta them in, not one, but two wars! We wouldn’t stand for it. The speed duel began. It was Ford vs. BMW. The New World vs. The Old. Then the insults began, quickly followed by beer spray on each other’s car, which in turn lead to throwing garbage at each other, and eventually empty beer cans. All at 100mph, it was a great time.

Now there was no way we were going to let them beat us but we were coaxing about as much out of the Escort as that Detroit Piece of Shit could muster. Nascar Owen, being the consummate back seat driver, and since he was stuck in the bitch position couldn’t do anything anyway, kept telling Soma how to drive. “Drop it into 4th, get the rpm’s up, then jam it into 5th and we’ll smoke them bastards!” he cried. We knew the Germans were screwing with us; the Beamer could leave us in the dust anytime they wanted. But it was a matter of pride and we were out of empty beer cans and trash so we got desperate. Soma, to his everlasting shame, implemented Owen’s plan.

Whether or not it would have worked was a topic of great debate, because unfortunately we will never know. Soma, in the excitement of the moment didn’t drop it into 4th gear, he dropped it into 2nd. A hideous and horrible sound emanated from under the hood, a mechanical sound so revolting that all future hideous and horrible mechanical sounds would be judged by it. (Two years later it was still, “That sounded bad, very Escort-esque.”) Soma immediately announced that he could not accelerate anymore and eventually we coasted to the side of the autobahn choking on the dust and laughter generated from the Beamer.

We got out, opened the hood and stared at the engine. And that’s about the limit of what we could do. I could take a Bradley apart with a Leatherman, but I didn’t know dick about cars. Eventually even Owen had accepted that we needed professional assistance. Remember this was ’93, there were no cell phones for the common man. Before we could do anything though, we spied the distinctive coloration of the Smurfmobile chugging up the autobahn at 65mph. We welcomed the big mufflerless lawnmower sound of our beloved Opel and heartily believed that they would tow us the rest of the way. (Yea, right) Once they stopped laughing, the Smurfmobileers said they would call ADAC (German AAA) for us. (Yea right) Just before they rolled off, Pope stuck his head out the window and said “We’ll take care of Willy for ya and tell her you said Hi.”

The idea of trusting our fellow adventurers to actually call ADAC proved to be very naïve. After an hour we went looking for one of those orange roadside assistance phones you see on the autobahn. We found one, yelled “kaput!” into it and waited for the cavalry to arrive. Another hour later a yellow ADAC station wagon pulled up and an old Gunter mechanic got out who smelled like he used schnapps for deodorant. You gotta love that sickly sweet old world smell. He spent all of 30 seconds looking at the car, pointed at it, and said “Kaput!” He then made the motions that he was going to tow us somewhere.

We all piled back in the car, assuming that he was going to tow us to the ADAC car hospital and in twenty minutes we would be back on the road. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case, maybe they don’t work on Fords? Anyway, he dragged us to the next ausfahrt (exit) and stopped in a castle parking lot on the outskirts of the town of Kervenheim. Everyone got out, assuming he needed to piss or something but all he did was stow his tow cable, point at the Escort and say, ”Kaputt!” then he waved and left.

Then, as if God was mocking us, it began to rain.


But we were used to adversity, we were Americans dogonit. We were gonna figure a way out of this and make our rendezvous with the women’s soccer team. So we put our brains together to come up with a plan: Unfortunately all we came up with was we’d call someone for help. But on the positive side if it worked we would be on our way and there by midnight, besides the real partying didn’t start until then anyway. There was still time. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was the best we had. But this plan had several prerequisites:

  1. We needed a phone. 2. We needed someone to call. 3. We needed change for the call. 4. We needed Soma to not start drinking.

We had none of these.

Once it started raining Soma started a Bud Dry I.V. He, being the Okkie that he was, already felt bad enough about messing up the trip but now he thought he was going to have to buy a new car for Budget. It was a situation that wasn’t conducive to sobriety. On top of that we only had guilders (Dutch money before the euro) and no marks (German money before the euro) for the phone. Speaking of phones, we couldn’t see any, anywhere near at least, especially through the rain and now fogged up windows. And finally, we had no one to call: ADAC already made their position very clear; Pope was probably shoulder deep in Willy by this time, and we damn sure weren’t going to call back to Buedingen for help. It’s bad enough the Smurfmobileers saw us. So we did what anyone would do in our situation:

We got drunk.

Once we had finished a few, the cramped conditions in the car became worse than the thunderstorm so we got out and had a regular par-te complete with wet T-shirt contest right there in the parking lot. The rain didn’t bother us much and eventually someone said lets go look for a bar. Hopefully, hope being a method in this case, the Burghermeister Meisterburgher bartender could tell us where an ATM was. Being optimists, we believed the good people of Kervenheim would take us in or at least their daughters would. But first we had to find a bar and it was getting dark fast.

It was immediately apparent that this wasn’t your Bavarian dorf which reeked of Teutonic beer laden merriment. Kervenheim was a dark and dismal place where the thunder felt at home and the lightning gave brief glimpses of the horrors not seen in the daylight. As we walked down the streets we could see and hear the Kervenheimers closing their shutters and locking their doors. “You can smell the fear, they must have werewolves here, or worse,” someone muttered. The aimless and ultimately fruitless wandering eventually brought us back to the castle:

Like it was calling to us.

The “Palace” at Kervenheim was a large late baroque mansion, but in the darkness, silhouetted by the lightning it could easily pass off in our blurred vision as Dracula’s Castle. Boredom, liquid courage, the natural aggressiveness of the U.S. Cavalryman, and not too mention a possible dry sleeping area, overcame any fears we had so we set off to explore the grounds of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim.

Dun Dun Daaaa!

Our exploration had an ominous beginning, almost immediately we met our first denizen of the mansion. A “man” walked down the steps towards us and as he passed, Mike D stopped dead in his tracks and whispered, “He had no face” then louder, “Holy Shit, he had no face!” I thought it was just a bald guy who was looking down at his keys on his way to his car, but the more I thought about it, Mike was right: He had no face. If he was messing with his keys, where was his car? There was nothing but emptiness between us and the houses beyond. We were the only car in the parking lot! The next strike of lightning sealed it. But we weren’t too freaked out yet, besides fear is natural and even welcome. If we saw another faceless demonic mansion dweller, we would confront it and send it back to Hell.

Our travels took us to a fork in the path; actually it was more like a chicken foot. Straight ahead went to the mansion grounds where we sure there were more faceless demonic mansion dwellers; left and right were winding forested paths that took us parallel to the moat-like stream that surrounded the mansion. We dared not go straight, hey diddle diddle right up the middle was for tankers and grunts, we were scouts. We needed to circuit our way around the evil place in order to get a good read on our opposition. Stealthy and Ninja like.


So we went left, (Cold War logic: right=east, the bad guys are always to the east and we were trying to avoid the bad guys, for now.) but now we were in the menacing shadow of The Haunted Mansion of Kervenheim: the source of the evilness. In addition, we were all soaked, it was pitch black, and we were sure we were being stalked by more faceless demonic mansion dwellers when alas, we came upon a small shrine. God had not forsaken us; it was like something out of Diablo. It was one of the small places of worship so common in the German countryside, just a statue or a cross with a trash can and bench. It was a place for lovers to snuggle, away from the crowds of the European streets. Except in the rain and shadow of the malevolent castle, this one didn’t look well kept. Was the cross upside down? It was tough to tell but evil reeked of the place, it was best to move on.

At this point Owen pulled out his buck knife, I grabbed a big stick and a couple small ones in case I needed to put it thru some hearts, Mike pulled out his Gerber, Soma his Leatherman, and Kingsley would only move forward in some weird Karate fighting stance.

That’s when we came to The Bridge. It wasn’t large, but it was wooden, it creaked, and crossed to the other side of the moat. The Other Side of the Moat was cloaked in darkness and it looked like it lead away from the castle. But it was either that way or back toward the evil place where they were sure to be cooking babies and sacrificing virgins. So we crossed.

Training took over, this was a danger area. In order to diversify our weaponry, Owen and I took far side security; the others took near side security and overwatch. A few tense moments later Owen and I were across. Under ideal conditions we would have been a bit more cautious but They were behind us, so speed, but not haste, was essential.

The others followed with Mike coming up last. Then it happened – The Splash Underneath the Bridge. Under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed it as a water rat (very common in Germany) diving into the stream to do whatever water rats do. But Mike, in a moment of terrifying clarity, yelled at the top of his lungs, “IT’S A FUCKING TROLL! A REAL UNDERNEATH THE FUCKING BRIDGE MOTHERFUCKING TROLL!” And we took off.

I’m not sure to this day how far we ran, but our “tactical displacement” took us to that most unfortunate of places for a scout to find himself: in the middle of a field. There was nowhere to hide, neither cover nor concealment. We were dead smack in the middle of The Fiery Plains of Gehenna. We heard something barking to our back left and surely it was pack of Hellhounds hot on our trail. As we moved through the blackness in what was hopefully the direction of the parking lot, we heard a mighty “Neeeeyyyy,” from what could only be Death’s Pale Steed.

Once back at the parking lot and the busted Escort, we prepared to defend ourselves….but ended up passing out.


The next morning, the sun peaked out over the horizon in one of the most beautiful sunrises we’d ever seen. We were happy to be alive and no one talked about the hellish events of the past evening….ever. However we had to keep our strength up for when the wolves came, so that we might die, not of hunger, but in combat. Bologna sandwiches all around. Soma, being a bit older and a bit more frugal, knew we had no clue how long we would be here. He knew we had to husband our resources. “Damn you all, just one slice. I don’t care what you assholes want, in Okmogee, you only get one slice of bologna per sandwich. One slice!” he said with a trembling index finger in the air. Soma was known as “One Slice” from then on.

Rested, pickled, and fed we set off to find money and a phone. Kervenheim was much easier to navigate in the daylight and we found a nice little guesthouse where we had a beer and relaxed a bit. Then in what drunks call “a moment of clarity”, we phoned Budget Rent a Car from the bar.

That afternoon they sent someone to look at the car. I’d come to the conclusion all German mechanics are old, stink, and don’t speak any English. When he finally asked through sign language and broken English “Why the auto was kaput?”, we did what any good private would do when in a situation where telling the truth could get you more work, more explaining, or more trouble.

We shrugged our shoulders.

Well, after his autopsy, he hauled the Escort away and left us standing there on the curb, like Alice with all our worldly possessions at our feet. We felt abandoned and even contemplated calling Buedingen. So we did what anyone would do in our situation: We got drunk.

Except One Slice, formerly known as Soma, he was so relieved he didn’t have to buy a new car, that his simplistic Midwest optimism took over and he and Kingsley went back to the guesthouse to get a good meal and call Budget to see what was up. We’d make the date with our soccer team yet. In the interim, we pondered our future over a nice warm Bud Dry.
About an hour later, One Slice and Kingsley came running back yelling, “They’re bringing a car! They’re bringing a car!” And not ten seconds later the most beautiful black BMW I’ve ever laid eyes on pulled into the parking lot. That car was gorgeous, a brand new black BMW 318i with all leather interior. It had to be the rental guy’s car. A green Opel pulled in with it and we assumed that was our new rental. But alas we were mistaken: The BMW was our new car and we could return it in Hanau. The Budget guy apologized for our inconvenience, that we were valued customers and “please accept this alternative in compensation for your trying ordeal”. Thirty seconds later we were on the autobahn doing 270 kms per hour. I never had gone that fast on a highway before or since.

We finally made it to Nimegan but the racket ended the night before when one of those jokers pulled an Ugly American and ruined it for everyone. The details aren’t important but needless to say we weren’t welcome in the Willy household anymore. Oh, they didn’t blame the Kirvenheimers, but something was just….different. It was all for the best though, we had a brand new Beamer and two days to show it off. (Three day weekend) And parking lot parties became our thing for a while.

Life went on.

Eventually Willy got married to some English guy and the entire group never got together again unless it was a special occasion. But we were much the wiser, and a bond was formed in a way only shared horrors can create. The lessons learned were enlightening, the experience unduplicated, the bond was for a lifetime, but it was the unspoken rule between those of us who survived Kervenheim that truly became the guiding light that represented everything that was good in our lives. It……………………well, it’s unspoken.

THE END

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

On 7 May, 1824 Ludvig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 was performed for the first time in Vienna, Austria. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was his last full symphony and is the first example of a symphony that uses a chorus and vocalists. The Symphony used Frederich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” as the basis for the vocal and choral presentations in the final movement. Beethoven’s Ninth was popularized for modern audiences as a Christmas song in America (by its inclusion as the basis of the score for the Greatest Christmas Movie of All Time, Die Hard?) and was coopted by the European Union for its anthem.

The Kosovo War: NATO Bombs the Chinese Embassy

Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, May 1999

In the spring of 1999, NATO began the first combat operations since its formation in 1949 by conducting an air campaign against Serbian militias and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) troops in Kosovo in order to try and stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Albanians there. After weeks of fruitless bombing in uncontested air space, the Milosevic regime refused to come to the negotiating table, and even accelerated their program of ethnic cleansing.

Despite being another historical example of air power failing to win a war by itself, NATO doubled down on failure and expanded their air campaign to include targets inside Serbia and Montenegro. On 7 May 1999, while attacking infrastructure targets in Belgrade, NATO accidently bombed the Chinese Embassy, killing three Chinese diplomatic workers, wounding 30 more, and created a massive international incident. In June, only the threat of NATO land power brought the Slobodan Milosevic and the FRY govt to the negotiating table after his Russian backers offered no counter. In June, the UN authorized peacekeepers to the region, to include Russian and NATO troops, to stop the ethnic cleansing and allow the return of refugees.

The Bishkek Protocol

Armenian woman clutching AK-47 (photo by
Armineh Johannes)

Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.

Leonard Dawe, MI5, and the Daily Telegraph Crossword Puzzles

Leonard Dawe, Daily Telegraph crossword editor

In the 2 May 1944 morning edition of London’s Daily Telegraph, the British Secret Service, MI5, saw “Utah” in the answers for the daily crossword puzzle. This was only days after the disaster at Slapton Sands, and troops killed there were slated for “Utah”, the secret code name for their landing zone on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. In April, other secret landing zone code names, “sword”, “gold”, and “juno” (the British and Canadian beaches), had also appeared in Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles, but they were common puzzle words and deemed coincidences. But the word “utah”, coming so close after the Slapton Sands incident, surely could not be a coincidence. MI5 immediately placed Leonard Dawe, the paper’s crossword puzzle creator under surveillance. Dawe was headmaster at a prestigious English public (read: private) school. He did the puzzles for the paper on the side as an intellectual exercise for himself and his students, and then gave the puzzles to the Telegraph. MI5 considered bringing him in but decided to wait.

During the war, MI5 had an extraordinary amount of success in finding, capturing, and turning German agents in Great Britain. Virtually all the information the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency, was receiving from the British Isles was planted by MI5. They planned to continue this with Dawe.

But for the next month, they could find nothing sinister about Dawe. This was despite more secret code words appearing in the puzzles: On 22 May, “omaha” appeared, the beach on which the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were supposed to land. On 27 May, “overlord” appeared, the code name for the invasion of France. On 30 May, it was “mulberry “, the code name for the artificial harbors that were developed in great secrecy to supply the Allied armies over the beaches. And on 1 June, 15 down “god of the sea (7)” was “neptune”, the naval operations in support of Overlord. In spite of constant surveillance, MI5 had no idea how Dawe was receiving his information. With the invasion scheduled for 5 June, a mere four days away, they decided to dispense with the subtleties.

MI5 arrested Dawe, and ransacked his home and office. They found nothing incriminating. Needing evidence, they then forcefully interrogated him, and still the headmaster kept professing his innocence. MI5 still didn’t believe him but he refused to change his story. As a precaution, MI5 kept him in isolation until well after the invasion began even with the school wondering where he went.

Eventually Dawe was deemed innocent and released, and only years later, were the reasons discovered for the coincidences. In creating the crossword puzzles, Dawe only came up with half of each puzzle. He asked his students to come up with words to fit the rest. Once he had the words complete, he would then write the clues and submit it to the paper. The code words were appearing because the children frequently interacted with the soldiers and listened in on their conversations while they were on leave in London. Although the specific location and timings of the landings were not common knowledge among the soldiers and sailors, the code names themselves were. The students heard the soldiers talk about “Sword”, “Gold”, or “Omaha”, and if they fit, incorporated those fascinating words into Dawe’s puzzles.

The First ANZAC Day

ANZAC Day 1916

On 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli, the British Commonwealth commemorated the Australian and New Zealand troops that fought and died on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during the First World War. The original commemoration set the format that we still follow today: the day’s activities started off with a dawn parade (to signify the traditional time of the landing) and sunrise mass, followed by a boozie coffee breakfast, a mid morning non-denominational service with a two minute moment of silence, with sports, a bit of gambling, and a march in the afternoon.

The Rwandan Genocide

Rwandan National Genocide Memorial (Photo by author)

After Germany’s loss in World War I, the mostly ethnically homogeneous colony of Rwanda (now a very small nation in east central Africa bordering Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo) was given to the Belgians for administration. The native people of the area had two social classes: the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu. The only distinctions between them were the number of cows a person owned. When a Hutu man obtained ten cows, he and his family became Tutsi with certain social privileges. If they dropped below ten cows, they became Hutu. Over the next 50 years, the Belgians favored the Tutsi minority and used them to rule over the colony more effectively.

Eventually, the race obsessed Belgians (and Europeans and Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries in general, and even today) assigned the Tutsis and Hutus tribal/racial status and forbade any social movement, ending centuries of social mobility between them. Identity politics (exasperated by “tribal” ID cards) eventually led to resentment of the ruling Tutsi from Hutus. When democratic reforms were introduced in the 1950s and 60s, the Hutu majority made sweeping gains. The Hutu used their new found political advantage to secure state structures and resources, legislative and executive powers, and seek revenge on the “oppressive” Tutsis. For the next 30 years, the history of Rwanda is scarred by reoccurring cycles of violence as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda fought each other in a series of civil wars, wars with Tutsi dominated Burundi, and tense cease fires between the tribes and countries of the region, as they all prepared for the next cycle to begin again.

On 6 April 1994, the tentative peace of the early 90s was destroyed when the moderate presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated. On 7 April, Hutu extremists in the Rwandan government and military rounded up all prominent Tutsis and murdered them. Once all Tutsis in any Rwandan official capacity were dead, the Hutu unleashed their gangs and militias to exterminate all Tutsis and Twa (pygmies) in the country and extolled all loyal Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbors. The militias and Hutu gangs widely distributed machetes to Hutus so they could kill any Tutsi they found: man, woman or child. Any who did not do so were killed with the Tutsis as well. Over the next 100 days 1.1 million Tutsis, Twa, and moderate Hutus were massacred, the majority by machete.

That’s 11,000 people a day for the next three months, or one person murdered every eight seconds.

The international response was tepid at best and complicit at worst. The United Nations Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, was established to oversee the most recent cease fire and transitional government, but was powerless to stop the genocide. Some of the first murders of the Rwandan Genocide were ten Belgian peacekeepers guarding the Tutsi interim prime minister after they were ordered to surrender when there was confusion whether they were allowed to use force to defend their charge. Most of the Rwandan staff were specifically targeted early in the genocide which paralyzed UNAMIR. Several impromptu safe havens for Tutsi and moderate Hutus were established, most notably Kigali’s football (read: soccer) stadium where Dallaire had his headquarters. However, most were abandoned by UNAMIR troops when the UN Security Council ordered Dallaire to concentrate on evacuating foreign nationals. Tens of thousands were left to their fate.

After decolonization in the 1960s, the Hutus fell under France’s “Françafrique” special relationship with its and Belgium’s former African colonies. Despite reports of mass rape and genocide, this special relationship bled over into the United Nations’ and the world’s response to what was happening in Rwanda. France sent troops to assist UNAMIR in evacuating citizens, but refused to evacuate Rwandan nationals with Tutsi identification cards, even if they were married to a French citizen. Hundreds of Tutsis were detained by French troops and turned over to Hutus to be killed. Furthermore, France and the United States blocked all efforts to assist Dallaire. Two weeks after the start, they pushed through UN Security Resolution 912 which reduced UNAMIR from 2500 troops to 270, barely enough to protect the stadium. The United States had lost soldiers during a UN mission in Somalia the previous October (“Blackhawk Down”) and President Bill Clinton refused to become involved militarily in Africa again. Clinton was quoted as saying “Leave it (Rwanda) to its fate”, and didn’t permit his staff to speak the word “genocide”.

The Tutsi had to save themselves.

Paul Kagame, the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi organization based in Burindi resumed the Rwandan Civil War after it was obvious that the UN would not stop the killing. The RPF invaded Rwanda on 8 April and made steady progress toward Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, while chasing the newly formed Hutu government across the country. Kagame’s forces received a steady influx of new recruits and captured the city in June. Later that month France launched Operation Turquoise, ostensibly to stop the genocide, but actually to prevent Kagame from seizing the southwestern fifth of the country and protect Hutu genocidaires and Hutu refugee camps in Zaire.

30% of the Twa (pygmy) population and 75% of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was murdered between April and June 1994.

The Rwandan Genocide was the opening act of the Great African War, which killed an additional 5.4 million people in the Congo and the African Great Lakes region over the next 14 years.

Dungeons and Dragons

In 1969 and 1970, friends Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson regularly played a miniature based Napoleonic tabletop wargaming system at the Lake Geneva Wargaming Conference (GenCon). However, their games in those years became smaller and soon revolved around special individual soldiers and their stories. In 1970, they transferred the concept to a medieval setting because Gygax, a Dark Age enthusiast, found the appropriate miniatures. They used the rules from the game “Chainmail”, which Gygax had written with a friend, to resolve individual actions. Together, they developed a generic fantasy wargaming system that focused solely on individuals and their stories instead of armies and groups of soldiers.

In 1971, Arneson added a storytelling role to the referee, a fixture in the contentious world of tabletop wargaming, who was usually a neutral observer and adjudicated disputes. The “Game Master” guided the players on quests and played the monsters. At Gencon that year, Arneson and a few of his friends ran Gygax and a few of his friends through a “six level dungeon” where the big bad at the end was a “troll in magic armor”. Gygax was enamored with the “funhouse” aspect of the game and immediately saw the creative and commercial possibilities. Over the next year Arneson and Gygax developed the rules for their game, which then went by the working title “Blackmoor”, and created a fictional and vaguely Tolkein-esque setting centered on “The Great Kingdom” for use with the system.

In December 1973, they formed Tactical Studies Rules with two other friends to self-publish their new tabletop gaming system because no established gaming company was interested. The first run of the newly named “Dungeons and Dragons” was only 1000 copies that were assembled in Gygax’s garage. On 26 January 1974, Gary Gygax invited everyone over to his house for the first session of Dungeons and Dragons which only became available to the public that day.

The Historical Profession Is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

The Historical Profession Is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

“…Yet as the historical discipline (like much of the American academy) became more professionalized, especially after World War II, it also became more specialized and inward-looking. Historical scholarship focused on increasingly arcane subjects; a fascination with innovative methodologies overtook an emphasis on clear, intelligible prose. Academic historians began writing largely for themselves. “Popularizer” — someone who writes for the wider world — became a term of derision within the profession…”

“…The result of these changes is a discipline that feels remarkably parochial to students or anyone outside the ivory tower. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore, the profession’s leading exception to these trends, recently pointed out, “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”

The second issue, closely related to the first, is the hostility toward certain kinds of historical inquiry. Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline. That focus had its costs: Issues of race, gender, and class were often deemphasized, and the perspectives of the powerless were frequently ignored in favor of the perspectives of the powerful. During the 1960s and after, the discipline was therefore swept by new approaches that emphasized cultural, social, and gender history, and that paid greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups. This was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field. Yet what was initially a very healthy impulse to broaden the field ultimately became decidedly unhealthy, because it went so far as to push the more traditional subfields to the margins.

Two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, have noted that “American political history as a field of study has cratered … What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” Political history, however, is a growth industry compared to diplomatic history and military history. Scholars who study strategy and statecraft, diplomacy and policymaking, and the causes and consequences of war are often labeled as old-fashioned, methodologically unimaginative, and ideologically conservative. As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained to us, the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative. Not surprisingly, those who study these subjects are a dying breed within major American history departments…”

The Battle of San Pietro

The Battle of San Pietro. In 1941, Director John Huston was basking in the limelight of his Hollywood blockbuster, “The Maltese Falcon”, a ground breaking masterpiece that starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre and brought film noir into the main stream. 27 months later, in December of 1943, US Army Captain John Huston and his film crew were attached to the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. The division was trying to force its way through the Bernhardt Line via the Mignano Gap into the Liri Valley. The last obstacles were in front of them: the village of San Pietro Infine and the flanking mountains of Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo. The battle raged from 8 to 18 December, 1943.

CPT Huston was there to make documentary films for the US War Department. And in December and January 1943 he would shoot the controversial “The Battle of San Pietro”. If you have an extra half an hour, it’s worth watching.

The film does an excellent job explaining the battle to civilians. The film was originally 55 minutes long but was ruthlessly edited by Gen George Marshall down to 36 minutes so it could be shown in theatres prior to the actual movies. He wanted to make it mandatory viewing so American civilians at home would understand what their Army was doing. However, it was never released to the general population during the war. The War Department suppressed it because of its gritty realism (for the time), the dead bodies, and its “anti-war” tone. Huston replied that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. It was quietly released to the public in 1946.

Some notes:

-Gen Mark Clark’s intro was filmed while the battles for Anzio and Cassino were fought in January 1944. Was he trying to justify something?

-The failed Italian attack on Monte Lungo was highly publicized because it was the first use of Allied Italian troops fighting alongside Americans. The Italians were rushed into the fight so they could be part of the overly optimistic expected breakout and capture of Rome. They weren’t ready and paid for it.

-About 30% of the film was shot after the fact using “dramatic reenactments” by 36th Division soldiers and Italian civilians in San Pietro Infine. Most of the recreated shots are of soldiers walking around, the shots in the town, and of the civilians. The difference between the actual footage and the recreated footage is obvious.

-All the dead bodies are real.

-The civilians were actual citizens of San Pietro Infine, but they had to be cleaned up first. It took several weeks for them to recover from their hellish ordeal living in the caves outside of town before they were ready to film.

-The only factual inconsistency was the name of the church. In the film it is said to be “St Peter’s”, but the church is actually St Michael’s. John Huston didn’t want to break up the flow of the film with the difference.

-Almost all of the American soldiers in the film would be killed, captured, or seriously wounded during the 36th Division’s failed assault across the Rapido River a month later in January 1944.