Title blurb

"From one LIGHT come many colors." ~GJ Dürrschmidt

Friday, October 14, 2011


 Once upon a time there were
normal people living normal lives
in a state of blissful normalcy.

They let others lead while they
purchased and played with a
naïve and blind complacency.

Then one day a rude awakening
came as they lost their jobs and
homes to greedy aristocracy.

They rose up in great numbers,
poured into the streets, with one
voice demanding fair economy:

“Of the people, for the people,
by the people,” they  cried out,
fed up with all the idiocracy!

“Occupy America, all you young
and old patriots alike, join the
call for a fair democracy!”

~ GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Long Island: Baiting Hollow Bliss

Down the steep
twisted hill we ride,
looking for water -
hope it’s high tide!

Bags full of goodies,
blankets and chairs,
Aunt Louise ‘n Laura
no worries, no cares.

Bologna sandwiches
with mayonnaise,
peanut butter ‘n jelly -
those were the days!

Animal crackers,
Squirrel Nut chews,
Kool Aid ‘n cups -
Who could refuse?

A sweet, juicy plum,
a succulent peach,
a handful of cherries -
lunch at the beach!

Tar in the water,
swimming in shoes,
too many rocks -
which to choose?

Flat skipping stones,
chocolate chip faces,
great big boulders -
fun climbing places.

Inner tube yachts,
paddling in style,
diving for coins on
the sandbar awhile.

Horseshoe crabs,
jellyfish galore,
seaweed dried 
along the shore.

Tall sandy cliffs,
driftwood ‘n shells,
bungalow houses -
Good Humor bells.

Creamsicle orange,
Fudgesicle brown,
smiles on a stick
no place to frown.

Soon it’s time 
to call it a day,
we pack it all up ‘n
go driving away.

Up the big hill,
wind in our hair;
oh what fun we
had again there!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Monday, September 26, 2011

My First Bike

“A bike!” I shouted inside my head. “I can’t believe it!” I clearly remember thinking those words as if it were only yesterday. We were living in Flanders then, a small hamlet on the Peconic Bay, out on the eastern end of Long Island. Had I not been so timid and shy, I’m sure I would’ve yelled from excitement, like everyone was expecting. It was not me to do so, and besides, the few who came to celebrate my eighth birthday, were making enough noise over it. There it stood: all red and white, with its shiny chrome fenders glistening in the hot, July sun. So stunned by the surprise, I didn’t even notice it wasn’t a Schwinn, nor was I aware how it was about to change my life. In a single afternoon, I was suddenly empowered with bragging rights, had a brand new door opened to me, and was one step closer to growing up.

My cousin Tom, six months my senior, held the trophy for bragging rights. He was first in everything that mattered to a young boy, like getting his own room, his own basketball backstop, and of course, his own Schwinn bicycle. My aunt and uncle owned a large potato farm and were quite wealthy compared to us. Their home was large, and had every modern convenience imaginable. I loved spending time there on weekends and over my summers, living the life of a rich kid, in want of nothing, and with parents who were not constantly fighting. They were the “have’s,” and we, the “have not’s.” But beyond material things, Tom and I were not only closest and best of friends, we were like brothers. And like a brother, I was always getting his hand-me-down clothes. Friends in school often complimented me on my nice clothes, but being second hand, it was nothing to brag about. But, there was nothing second hand about my brand new bike. I now had something to ride around on with great pride; something to brag about.

Having the bike to ride, opened up a whole new world to me. We lived in a small house on a dead end, dirt road. The nearest store was up a long, paved road that eventually met the main highway. The bay was the other way. Both destinations were too far to walk, so I rarely ventured beyond eyesight, or earshot of our property. With no friends my age around, I spent my free time with my imagination, off on wild adventures in the woods behind our house. I climbed trees and hid out in forts I built, until hearing the call for dinner. The bike instantly, and enormously, expanded my horizons. Little by little, I summoned the courage to venture further and further from home. Once out and about, I discovered there were other boys my age. Life in Flanders would never be the same.

I had a new life, and with it came a new identity. I was no longer simply Greg, but Greg from Pine Avenue. There would be no stopping me now. After all, I would be starting the third grade in the fall. I was growing up. Up to now, I had gotten toys for Christmas and birthdays. Toys were something you play with, and eventually grow out of. However, my new bike was not a toy, and not something that I would soon grow out of. It was, after all, an adult bike -- a means of transportation. It was the closest thing to a car someone my age could own and drive. I was no longer restricted to my yard and imaginings. I was now capable of going wherever my heart and mind desired. I had achieved the first right of passage along the road to manhood.

Yes, getting that bike worked wonders in boosting my self esteem and sense of person. Until the bike, no gift had ever given me such a strong sense of pride, of ownership, and of personal empowerment. Over the rest of that summer, the forts in the woods slowly fell into disrepair. I rarely had time for them. I joined the local Cub Scout den and biked to meetings. Come rain or shine, and as long as there was air in the tires, I was off exploring, getting to know new people, places, and things. But, more importantly, I was getting to know myself.

 ~GJ Duerrschmidt

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Warheads to Ragheads: An Old Soldier's Rant

I have a sick feeling growing more and more in the pit of my stomach. I invested, sacrificed, twenty years in the military -- what should've been the best twenty years of my young adult life. I did without a lot, and forced the same upon my family as well, as I dedicated my time, energy, and talents as a soldier fighting to make the world a better, safer place in which to live. Many times I found myself placed in harm's way in the crusade to stop the spread of communism, and bring the evil Soviet empire to its knees.

My duty to God and country began back in grade school when I drilled along with the whole school on taking cover quickly beneath our desks, and how to hit the ground huddled and tucked away from a nuclear blast. Every day thereafter, I had been held hostage, along with the rest of the world, by the constant threat of a global nuclear holocaust, and the total destruction in hours, of a world that took millions of years to create. I went to bed every night resting on the hope that the powers that be would remain cool headed, be prudent, and exercise restraint.

As an adult, I was willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary, and place my life at risk, so that one day my own sons would never have to dive under a desk at school, and live well into their adult lives, daily under the perpetual threat of total world destruction.

Vietnam Era veterans, like myself, who served in the armed forces during the Cold War, lived under that hideous threat minute-by-minute, day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, in an ongoing battle; sometimes engaging in short duration, adrenalin pumping, front line confrontations, but more often engaged in the very mundane, tedious, persistent economic and technological exploitation of the Soviet regime, and its military machine. No sacrifice was too great. We believed it to be the ultimate form of world terrorism, but time would eventually prove us wrong.

In the end, or what was perceived as being the end, we were ultimately victorious over our enemy. Communism failed. The Berlin Wall crumbled. The Iron Curtain was no more. And, along with it all, the Soviet Union was finally defeated. Democracy and the free enterprise system ruled victorious. We in the military did our duty, to God and country, but I'm still not convinced the same can be said for the politicians and corporate power moguls, whom, we all believed were “minding the store.”

Once cleverly veiled from the public by the ever ongoing Cold War of ideologies, the greed and selfishness traditionally behind western political decision making, and specifically that of the United States, had suddenly been laid bare before the public. There was never a great and powerful Oz, but men in very expensive suits hiding behind the curtain, calling the shots in the name of "growing the economy" and massing personal wealth.

Let's face it, world bad boys like Noriega, Bin Laden, and Hussein didn't happen overnight, and solely on their own merit. No longer needed, these once prized puppets of the western military industrial machine, fell from grace, and were eventually disposed of. Was it to protect the guilty? You decide. But, one thing for sure, it wasn't before one, Bin Laden, got to lash back at those who had once empowered, and then betrayed him. We all painfully know the rest of that story. He successfully, and unchallenged, went on for decades to recruit and train a wide reaching fanatical following, with a mandate to unleash a new form of terrorism upon the west.

With all the great minds in all the super think tanks in this country, how could this present day Islamic extremist-based terrorist threat have gone unnoticed, and for so long? Or, had it? What's been taking place in the world since the turn of the millennium has many, if not all, of we old servicemen filled with guile and rage! It shamefully undermines the decades of collective sacrifice made to insure a safer, more peaceful future for our families, our nation, and the world. While we were out in the trenches taking the proverbial "bullet,” one has to wonder who was here at home minding the store?

Today, we find ourselves in a whole new ball game, and all the old bets are off. At least with nuclear warheads, we knew what, and where, the threat was. We knew when one was being fired. We could set up defenses. We had reasonable confidence that we could destroy it. But now that warheads have evolved into ragheads, we no longer know where the threat is, or when, where, or how it might strike. When you’re up against an enemy who is so fanatical, he/she is willing to lodge a bomb in their ass in order to inflict death and destruction upon innocents, we’ve become embarrassingly defenseless.

When we turn on the evening news and hear high level government officials telling us to exercise vigilance, and to embrace for  acts of terrorism here at home; when they tell us to expect any possible form of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, or combinations thereof, to be employed, and to expect mass casualties; and that it can happen in any city, any day, at any time; I say to these government officials, what are we old soldiers to do? Where do we report for duty? Where are our weapons against this new enemy? Where do we direct the battle? How can we save our children, families, neighbors, and communities from this heinous threat? How did you let this happen?Why were you not minding the store?

After serving our nation, protecting our way of life, and defending the Constitution, what has become our just reward? Now we can no longer sit openly in a public place, in hometown America, sipping a latte with friends and loved ones, without the fear that at any moment, some raghead may walk up carrying a backpack, and blow all of our beloved asses to kingdom come! Well, we certainly didn’t see that one coming. Good job!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Hamptons: G-L-O-R-I-A...Gloria's!

Seeley’s on Main Street Westhampton Beach has always been “Gloria’s” to me since I can remember. Gloria Seeley, along with her sister, owned and operated the quaint, little Long Island newspaper stand and general store. It was such a special treat whenever Dad would say he was going to Gloria’s, and asked if anyone wanted to come aloong. Silly question, we always wanted to go! 

Dad went for nostalgia more than the newspaper, coffee, and cigarettes he felt obliged to purchase each time. Gloria’s reminded him of the small store he once owned as a young man, fresh back from the war - the "big one." It didn't work out for him. But, it would have, could have, should have, if only he had the least little help from his new bride; but he didn't, and then I came along. 

I know, because he spoke of it often to Gloria, and even after so many years gone by, and so many other failed ventures, he missed that opportunity the most. The two of them, without fail, would get into one friendly argument after another, over the changes he would make to her place, if it were his.

My sister and I would wander off, away from the dueling entrepreneurs, and explore the heavily cluttered, dimly lit aisles. It was an adventure: like being on an archeological dig. We passed the hours, or so it seemed, rummaging through shelf after dusty shelf, hoping to unearth some new, exciting find. We were seldom disappointed. When it was time to go, Gloria would offer us Dum-Dum suckers from the stash she kept hidden behind the counter. The coconut ones were my favorite. On days she was feeling extra generous, she’d point out the five and dime toy rack and invite us to take something. “Just one, mind you!” she would scowl, and then do her best not to smile.

Many things have changed with the passing of time. Gloria and her general store are no longer with us. Seeley’s has changed ownership and has been transformed into a hustle-bustle gourmet bakery/coffee shop in the upscale Hampton’s hamlet. The storefront is smartly decked out with a bright yellow and white striped awning. Aluminum siding masks the old, worn building that I knew as a boy.

Stepping inside today, I’m greeted by an unnatural spaciousness -- the tall shelves with their mountains of clutter once crammed wall-to-wall, are gone. The wooden floor has been sanded and refinished. I never knew the place had a floor! Small bistro tables and chairs scarcely fill the new wide opened space. The place is buzzing with pastry-eating, latte-sipping summer vacationers, hoping by chance to catch a glimpse of a Baldwin, or the like. Nothing of the original store remains, or so it seems.

The sound of the murmuring crowd, cups clattering on saucers, flatware clinking against plates, all suddenly fade as I drift back in time. The old wooden counter and cash register suddenly re-appear. I see Gloria hunched over, and peering down at me with her hands loosely clasped. Our eyes meet, and a hint of smile breaks through her stoic expression. Rising to shift her weight, she gruffly barks, “Hey, boy, how’s your dad doing?”

Catching myself before answering her out loud, I snap back to the present. The unexpected ghostly welcome sends a wave of goose bumps up and down my body. I'm more surprised by it then in any way frightened. With so much that has changed, I’m pleased to know the old girl has decided to stick around. 

Yes, those were truly the days. It was a simpler, happier time. Seeley’s, and the world as we knew it, were both so rich in mystery and discovery; and the future, still so very far away, held such promise. 

~GJ Duerrschmidt

 Gone, but never forgotten!

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Hamptons: A Fall Homecoming

The old place looks much the same as the image
I’ve kept in my mind and heart since leaving
for military service several years ago. The giant
maples lining both sides of the road still form a
noble archway to the bay. Cloaked in bountiful
greens weeks earlier, their naked limbs now
cast shivering silhouettes against a gray Long
Island sky.

Like I had remembered, the fallen leaves have
become a patchwork quilt of oranges, yellows,
and browns, now blanketing the yard of the old
homestead. Beyond the pale green house, toward
the inlet, a sea of dry reeds sways to and fro in
the blustery wind gusting inland off the Atlantic.

Occasional surges of fresh, ocean breeze barely
mask the pungent odor of the Moriches bay –
a definite sign of a low tide. The summer renters
and droves of tourists have long since migrated to
their distant winter retreats, leaving behind a
conspicuous absence of noise. 

With the welcomed silence, returns the rhythm of
pounding surf in soothing whispers across the bay.
As daylight ebbs, I stop to fully absorb all of these
cherished sights, sounds, and smells, as they begin
to tranquilize my body, and lift up my weary soul.

Screeching gulls gracefully glide overhead, all
scavenging for that one last meal before dark, while 
thousands of sparrows and clattering blackbirds
chaotically swarm the barren trees, gathering
for their annual journey south. My own journey
is about to end, as I cross the deserted street,
and brush my way through piles of leaves,
past the pumpkins, and up to the front door.

Light from the television (that I would bet no
one is watching) frolics upon the sheer living room
curtains. Though I have walked through this portal
countless times in years past, the long awaited
anticipation of this moment triggers a surprise rush
of emotion, as I feel the worn doorknob in my hand.           

The sounds of fluttering fowl and rushing wind
cease with the closing of the door. Scents of
autumn leaves and salty sea air quickly yield to
those of aged wood and eucalyptus. The chill that
entered with me, suddenly vanishes into the
warmth of returning childhood memories. 

With my shoes off, I feel the old oil burning furnace
coarsely vibrating the hardwood floor. I surrender
my tired, aching feet to its soothing massage.
Ahead, at the end of the darkened hallway, a thin
frame of light seeps through around the edges
of the warped oak door. This light has a deep,
spiritual quality to it, and rightfully so: it radiates
from the very heart of this place – Mom's kitchen.

My heart beats faster as I near the entrance to
this most holy, sacred chamber. An intoxicating
aroma permeates the air, growing stronger with each
step - pot roast! My mouth begins to water. I can
already taste the savory, tender, beef smothered
in onions, carrots, and potatoes. Only seconds from
now, I will touch the aging hands that prepared it,
and be wrapped once again in an embrace I have
sorely missed for far too long. 

At this very moment, I feel as though a million
miles separate me from the rest of the mad world
and all of its senseless perils. In this place, I know
I am safe from all danger and harm. Tonight, I’ll
finally know peace; for tonight I sleep at home!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stranded - The Bitter Taste of Homelessness

We found ourselves stranded in Biloxi, Mississippi with barely a week's worth of food left on board Vintage van Go[gh], eleven dollars between us, and three weeks to go until payday. In the movies, miracles happen right about now in scenes like this, and to our amazement, one did! Out of the blue, Stephen's parents called to see how the cross-country adventure was going. Of course, he lied. Thrilled over the opportunity their son had to travel and see America, they insisted on sending him some "mad money," from time to time, via Western Union.  Any other time he would've insisted they not be so generous, but this time he accepted with gracious enthusiasm. It was like winning the lottery! To us, it was enormous, and couldn’t have come at a better time. The moment he got off the phone, we laughed hysterically, and carried on like two little kids on Christmas morning. 

Our celebration was short lived once the soberness of our situation set back in. With a grand total of sixty-one dollars, we had a tough choice to make: 1) stay put in Biloxi, where we didn't feel safe, had nothing to do to pass the time broke as a joke, and where the beaches sucked compared to Florida, but where we’d have all of the cash to buy food, or 2) fill the gas tank to take us back to Florida, where we felt safe, had gorgeous beaches with crystal clear water to enjoy in poverty, but then only have twenty bucks left to eat between now and June 1st. Considering the trip already taught us how to be creative when it came to stretching a dollar, and since we were already in retreat mode, we opted for “creativity.” We searched and found a Western Union at a Shell Station, conveniently topped off the tank, and made a late afternoon beeline to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Crazy, we realized, but we were pleased with the decision. After all, it would bring us 150 miles closer to our retreat destination – Key West.

We first began the road trip in the Keys with great excitement and a wild sense of adventure over the trip’s boundless possibilities, in meeting and experiences new people, places, and things. Just 1,000 miles into the trip, and after a few simple calculations, it became painfully clear then that the trip was doomed. High gas prices, low VW bus MPG, unexpected mechanical issues, quickly consumed our means to proceed much further than where were then - Panama City Beach, Florida. The fantasy bubble had burst. Stubbornness and stupidity had driven us onward to Biloxi. There had been signs all along the way from day one we chose to ignore. We were in denial since first setting out, blinded by the romance of the road, and how cool it would be to travel America in a vintage VW hippie love bus.

The bus had been tricked out for sleeping in and living out of along the way. We fully intended to overnight in it most of the trip, on short stops, and break out the tent and camping supplies for the longer stays. I told Stephen before we left the Keys that we would be enjoying some of the most pristine beaches in America as we made our way up the western coast of Florida. I told him of the endless miles of beaches with public access where one could simply park and spend the night anywhere one so chose. When we were ready to pull in for the night on day one, we couldn’t find a spot. Endless miles of beach and no place to park for the night! Thirty years back, when I passed this way in my youth, I did it all the time. 

Not so now. Now we were greeted everywhere by foreboding “Thou Shall Not” signs: No Overnight Parking…Beach Closed 11 PM until 8 AM…No Public Access…Enforced by Law...Violators Will Be Towed. The insult of signs repeated the whole 1,000 miles to Panama City, and then on to Biloxi, Mississippi. So with overnights along the beaches in a big, bright orange VW bus no longer a viable option, we were forced to seek less exposing shelter, like behind hotels, in the dark recesses of their parking lots.

Back in Ft. Walton, we soon discovered that the town, as well as all the hotel parking lots, were heavily, almost obsessively, patrolled by police. In fact, it was so extreme, it easily made one think that the President of the United States, himself, was in town! Though we felt safer being back here in a hotel lot, we also feared that at any moment we would get a knock on the window and told to move on. I dreaded that scenario, because in such a small town, once the word got out, there would be no place to hide, and we had no means to leave for another three, long weeks. 

Stranded in Ft. Walton Beach, it became quite clear that the area was infested with indigents, with hoards of homeless, with street corners and sidewalks littered with panhandlers. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go we! But, why oh why, did we have to be driving a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell can we ever truly be inconspicuous?

Needless to say, I didn't get very much sleep constantly vigil, as Stephen snored away, peeking out the bus curtains each time the headlights of a patrol car appeared in the parking lot. Though were knew full well we were not, the situation we found ourselves in began to make us feel as though we were criminals of some sort, forced into becoming unwanted trespassers, like some homeless vagrants. 

Here we suddenly were, in a predicament where we unwittingly became something less than model first class citizens. Our days were filled with plotting and conspiring to come up with where we could go, and what we could do, to blend with the normal flow of tourism here, and avoid any appearance of indigence. The homeless, we soon discovered, were the reason behind the heavy police patrols. It was quite fitting, almost poetic, to find that the Florida panhandle was so infested with panhandlers. Just like you know a home has a cockroach infestation when you see the insects everywhere in the daylight, so it was in Ft. Walton Beach with the homeless. 

Everywhere one looked one would see hoards of homeless milling about, seated on sidewalk benches, and street corners littered with panhandlers. They were pests, stopping traffic, begging handouts, and creating a general public nuisance. They created an eyesore for a town that depended on tourism as its main source of revenue. The summer tourism season was quickly approaching with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. We saw new signs being installed by the day. The homeless were the cockroaches. The police were the Raid. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go Stephen and I! 

Why oh why, did we have to be stuck here for the next three weeks in a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell were we ever truly going to be invisible, or at least inconspicuous? Just like the homeless, we too, found ourselves out of line with the established materialistic system that ran off of consumerism. We were no longer capable of “purchasing,” of contributing, to the local merchants, the restaurants, the hotels. Like the homeless, we had to hide for the night. We had to “be somewhere” during the day. We had to survive the best we could, even if it meant sacrificing personal dignity. And, like the homeless, we were not criminals; we were just down on our luck, doing without, but still human beings! Our predicament was about to teach us a new lesson by thrusting us into a whole new lifestyle paradigm.

Who were Stephen and I, after all? I was a retired military officer. I held positions of responsibility at levels of high national security. I married and successfully raised five sons. I was active in the community and church. I worked as a consultant to clients in the defense and intelligence communities, and became a college professor. I’m now a writer living on a meager retirement pension, but once I had been a mover and shaker, a money maker – a “contributor” to the system. My traveling “boy Friday,” came from a stable, upper middle-class family with two graduate-level college educated parents. His dad is a thirty year veteran of prominent federal service in Washington, D.C. Stephen, himself, is a third-year college student, extremely academic, and a hard worker. But, right now we were homeless, and except for the big orange bus, no different than the other cockroaches look upon as a nuisance to the local community, and law. Our life took on new priorities: survival priorities.

The homeless wandered each night into the parks and surrounding wooded areas hoping to evade discovery, and possible arrest. We wandered each night behind one hotel after another, discreetly rolling in after 10 PM, battening down, and attempting to sleep, also praying we’d not be disturbed. At daybreak, the homeless would roll up their bedding and hide it somewhere, and hasten out of the areas they knew would be patrolled. Each morning without fail, I would be up and behind the wheel, pulling out of the hotel lot by 7 AM, before the hotel staff morning shift change. While Stephen slept in the back of the bus, I would drive to MacDonald’s to use the restroom, and just hang out for a spell. Outside were the rusted bicycles laden with personal effects. Inside were the homeless seated at tables, perhaps sipping a coffee, but always reading the free newspapers and simply hanging out.

Next on the daily agenda we would head to one of several town parks, because they were there, it was legal to be there, and like the homeless, we had to be somewhere! One park on the water’s edge was a great place to cook and have dinner. But, this great spot soon lost its charm. We just wanted to be left alone, to sup in peace, to commune, meditate, comfort one another in our miserable plight, and to make it through another day toward deliverance - payday. But no, they wouldn’t leave us alone. Each day, the problem grew worse. Daytime was not as bad, but come dusk the parks were like a scene from some zombie movie: tattered, worn souls toting satchels, back packs, pushing a shopping cart, massed in numbers. Food! They saw, and smelled our food!

We had so precious little, and rationed every meal to survive the three weeks. The homeless came to us begging meal, and we had to keep turning them away. It was awkward to say the least. We felt horrible, but we were no better off than them. Most were understanding, some were just downright indignant. The word got out amongst them. Before long, there was not a park we could visit where the sight of the bus didn’t bring them running, begging food, money, or a ride to “work” - their personal street corner. After three days of this, Stephen and I abandoned going to any parks. This was a good thing – a clean break. 


We discovered an awesome public beach to hang out at across the bridge on Okaloosa Island – too far for the vagrants to walk, or want to bike in the heat and humidity. We were so relieved! However nice, the beach had its “Thou Shall Not” signs as well. Go figure. It opened at 6:30 AM and closed one hour after sunset. So, we would roll out of our nigh time hiding place early each morning hence, and hit the beach. We spent each day tanning and playing in the surf. We ate a lot of bread with peanut butter and drank Kool Aid, saving our one good meal for dinner. Late afternoon, we drove across Highway 98 to a little used beach on the bay side. There we washed up in the bathroom facilities and picnicked. The Coleman stove came out, and we would conjure up a hot meal, clean up, and be packed up and gone before the ranger came by to lock up.

The challenge became what to do from 8 to 10 PM. We solved this need with visits to WalMart, which, incidentally, was air conditioned and provided a cheap form of entertainment - people watching. Some nights we would just sit inside a MacDonald’s, share an ice cream cone, watch TV, and charge our phones and laptops. Of course we were not alone. The some of the brethren would naturally be there as well. We were beginning to be acknowledged with nods and waves. How odd, and strangely cool.

The beach began to get somewhat monotonous, so we looked for an alternative. The public library became our new hangout, in between the beach and MacDonald’s. It, too, was air conditioned, and offered a sense of personal dignity. Stephen and I walked in each day carrying our laptops, and I, my trusted notebook, like I was there for some lofty academic pursuit. But, again, we were not alone. Outside were the rusted, heavy laden bikes. Nearby on benches and laid out on the lawn in the shade…they were. Inside filling many chairs, hither and yon, hidden behind daily newspapers and magazines…they were... and, yes…we were also.

Well into our second week in Ft. Walton, we embraced that were had become fugitives, spending our thoughts and energies running and hiding; not simply from the law, but from hotel security staff, and most of all…the homeless. We were they, and they were us, and we were all together. See how they run like beggars in the sun…we’re crying. But, coo-coo-cajoo, we were never able to fully embrace them. We were in a temporary plight. Theirs was more permanent. To embrace them, we feared, would doom us to forever be them.

The word was eventually out on the orange bus. With roughly 10 days to deliverance, the local law stepped up their surveillance. Now when we pulled into MacDonald’s in the morning, within a minute, or so, a patrol car would enter the parking lot and come directly to the bus and stop… just sitting there…waiting…observing. We chose to ignore this, and went about our business. After awhile, the police would drive off. This became the daily routine. No, we were not becoming paranoid.

When at the beach, thereafter, the same thing happened, but only it was a sheriff’s patrol car there. A huge parking lot, and the Sheriff vehicle would come stop by us, linger a long while, then leave. I also began to notice we were being tailed by police while driving between our daily venues. At no time were we ever pulled over, or approached, but it was obvious that the cops wanted to make their presence known to us, and make send a clear message that, whatever we were about, we were being watched. We were not doing anything illegal, but nonetheless, this whole ordeal was adding to the level of stress in an already stressful situation. Sleeping peacefully at night was next to impossible.

The police presence stepped up as time marched on. I decided to use up the last few gallons of gas to travel 16 miles west to Navarra Beach. The bus was not known there. I felt that we could buy a few days of peace, and anonymity. It worked! The beaches were superb, and the public park just over the bridge allowed for overnight parking. We felt that we had found the perfect place, but, even though overnight parking was legal, each night we received preferential attention from the local law. Patrol cars came by all night long, and when they did, with a least a dozen vehicles scattered through the huge parking lot, they would choose to circle the bus, park by it, and wait. Our last night, I risked running out of gas, and drove back onto the mainland and parked behind a Comfort Inn. It was very secluded, and no patrols came by. I slept like a rock, and rightfully so: there would be a long day of driving ahead in the morning.

At daybreak, the morning of May 31st, and one day before my scheduled payday, deliverance was at hand! I fumbled around for my phone, and went online to check my bank account balance. For twenty six days it had been a pathetic $1.21. Today, I woke to find that Stephen and I had finally been saved; direct deposit had been made a day early! 

As Stephen slept (I’m sure you’re realizing a trend here by now), I hurriedly dressed, drove to the nearest gas station and filled the tank. With a rejuvenated debit card in my pocket, I headed back to Ft. Walton Beach to the MacDonald’s for coffee AND a big breakfast. Like clockwork, a patrol car appeared and stopped. I didn’t care anymore, and did like always - ignored it. Screw the police. This was going to be our best day ever!

After catching a bite, we headed off to WalMart to stock up on food supplies for the journey home. I parked in the shade away from everyone. A security vehicle immediately appeared out of nowhere, and pulled up alongside. So the fuck what. When I returned with the groceries a half hour later, the security guard was still at the bus peeking in the windows. Stephen was still sprawled out in the back asleep. I startled the guard. It was an awkward moment. With my best sarcasm, I suggested that he go chase after shoplifters, or members of Al qaeda, rather than snooping around my bus. He left not saying a word. After Stephen dressed and used the store facilities, we headed out.

Approaching downtown Ft. Walton Beach, we passed the park along Highway 98 where we first hung out before realizing it was a homeless enclave. Driving by the library, we passed our former brethren seated on the benches. One made a peace sign, others waved as the orange bus rolled by. At the intersection before the bridge to Okaloosa Island, traffic was slowed. We waited three lights to get through due to those pesky panhandlers, blatantly ignoring the posted signs.

Once over the bridge, we passed the row of hotels we had once hidden behind. We drove by the Boardwalk where we had rudely been reminded at 3 PM in the afternoon that there was no overnight parking. We drove onward passed the beach where we spent days tanning, and one day found ourselves eating pizza from the trash can. There was the remote beach we enjoyed our peaceful dinners and outdoor showers at. Within minutes, it was all behind us. We were on the road. We had money. We opened all the windows to allow our dignity to come blowing back in again. No longer were we the fugitives, the unwanted, the undesirable dregs of society we had become over that miserable three weeks in the Florida panhandle. Once again, we were consumers. Again we were exemplary members of society. Unlike so many we had met along the way, we had a home, and were never more grateful to be on our way to it!

~GJ Duerrschmidt

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Narrow Sidewalks - A Cold War Healing

The early morning Missouri air feels cool and crisp as I step onto the deck at the military guest quarters. The cloudless sky comes as a welcomed surprise. The last two weeks back in Washington D.C. had been steadily overcast and depressing. The warmth of sunshine upon my face lifts my spirits even higher than they already are on this special day of days. Full of excitement and anticipation I decide to brave the April frost and walk the mile to the ceremony.

There’s an exaggerated quickness to my step this morning. I first attribute it to the chilling cold, but realize it may be due to the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Off in the distance come the voices of hundreds of soldiers shouting marching cadences in unison. Competing cadences echo out of the red brick buildings, making it difficult for this old soldier to keep in step. I should’ve worn a warmer jacket, but there’s no going back now.

Being on a military post once again has a sense of home in an odd sort of way. I never thought I would miss it, but the connected way I feel says otherwise. God knows I’ve walked many military installations back in the day. Except for a few topographical differences, they all look about the same. Fort Leonard Wood differs in that its open spaces consist of barren, rolling hills, strewn with jagged rock. To facilitate walking its great spans, raised sidewalks had been laid. They’re narrow and I find I must look down often not to step too near the edge and risk a twisted ankle -- the last thing I need on a morning as important as this. Moments from now, I’ll see my son for the first time since he enlisted in the army. Suddenly I’m covered in goose bumps on top of goose bumps. Perhaps it’s colder than I first imagined.

Cresting yet another hill, I see that the sidewalk goes slightly out of the way toward the Post Exchange, but I’ve no choice. I stop for a moment to catch my breath. My pace, despite the rhythm of the cadence, is a disappointment to me. I used to cross open spaces like this as if they didn’t exist. Hell, I was only nineteen then. Good lord, my little boy will soon be twenty. How did that happen? How did that cute little toe-head in Pampers grow up so soon? My, how far we both seem to have come along life’s pathway. With the theater still a good distance away, I try to quicken my step. My thoughts drift back to when I was my son’s age. 

 I was in the military assigned to Tempelhof Central Airport (above) in the divided, island city of Berlin, Germany. As one Cold War memory after another returns to me, an anger wells up inside that I burn off by walking even faster. Rounding the corner at the Post Exchange, all the horrid memories suddenly become concrete. Towering right before me are remnants of the icon of death. I have trouble accepting the reality of this bizarre encounter. I stand once again in the shadow of the Berlin Wall! Is this some kind of cruel joke? I’ve traveled a long way to have a joyful reunion, certainly not for this! 

(Pictured are similar slabs displayed at CIA Headquarters. I can't seem to locate the Ft. Leonard Wood photos)

I don’t wish to be late for the ceremony, but can’t seem to pull myself away from the three stone monoliths arranged in an open “Z” formation. The gray concrete slabs now bear colorful graffiti: “Freiheit...PEACE...Freedom...TEAR DOWN THE WALL,” and a bright yellow smiley face. I remember nothing of the sort when I last stood in its evil shadow -- only drab shades of gray, as dismal as the colorless skies above the city and peoples it divided -- a sinister wedge driven deep between two diametrically opposed ideologies.

I spent hours upon observation decks in the West staring into the Garden of Death in the East with its miles of mine fields, tank traps, heavily armed guard towers, floodlights, barbed wire, and vicious dogs. Standing here now, I see it all again. I hear it. I smell it. 

Despite the new art, they still represent death -- death to democratic ideals, and death to the desperate souls who courageously risked life for a chance at freedom.

These very concrete slabs challenged the ideals of my youth. Like the razor sharp wire that surrounded them, they twisted the image of the world in which I wished to live and raise children. I never understood the killing. Surely those who guarded the Garden of Death had families. How could they be so intent on killing, even their own children, for nothing more than wanting to come to freedom, a distance less than one hundred yards from where I stood?

I met the enemy face-to-face for the first time crossing through Check Point Charlie, along with three other soldiers, into the heart of communism’s official show place -- East Berlin. The absence of color is striking. People are dressed in grays, blues, browns, and blacks. What few cars there are look the same. There are road crews everywhere, their jackhammers pounding - nothing unusual, if ignoring the fact that many are women. There are no billboards, marquees, or neon lights anywhere. No matter where we walk, all eyes seem fixed upon on us. The stares are uncomfortable and make me wonder what thoughts lurk behind them. By orders, we’re forbidden to communicate with anyone during our visit, so we may never know. 

The streets are wide and the sidewalks narrow. I find this extremely odd since there are so few cars and so many people walking about. We venture down a side street taking us to a rusted, iron bridge. There are repairs underway on it as well, with only one side open for passage. At the top of bridge, we spot four Russian soldiers approaching us. They’re young like us. I remind my buddies that many people are watching the pending confrontation with great curiosity. As envoys of the United States of America, it’s crucial that we not yield an inch of sidewalk to the enemy. From the gestures we see the Russians making, it appears that they’re arriving at the same conclusion.

Conversation ceases as each military force sizes up the other. Nearing impact, nervous tension spontaneously breaks into wide nervous grins. The grins almost immediately erupt into laughter as three Americans and four Russians recognize the rules of the game, and are about to get real up close and personal.

Contact! The heavy wool uniforms of two opposing cold war super powers press tightly against one another. The coarse fabrics rustle and metal buttons clack as our bodies rub together. The ultimate fate of two world powers hangs delicately in the balance, or so it seems to all of us at the time. Each force gallantly struggles, grabbing and tugging at the other to insure that no one steps onto the roadway, and that we all walk away from the encounter saving face.

In one brief moment the Cold War changes forever. I smell my enemy’s strong, cheap cologne. I feel his hot breath on my face. I see his big, broad smile, rosy red cheeks, and the sparkle in his eyes. Above it all, I hear his laughter. I can never forget his laughter. He’s just like me!

I’m snapped back to the present by the loud Jody calls coming from the graduating platoons passing nearby. The big event is about to start. Families and friends crowd onto the narrow sidewalk eagerly searching for a first glimpse of their special someone. Today, they all look special. Their gleaming brass out-shined only by the look of pride in their eyes. I feel my eyes begin to tear as I see my special soldier marching by. 

If asked, I would try to blame it on the frosty morning. But, the growing lump in my throat would probably prevent me from speaking. The frantic aiming and clicking of cameras reminds me that I had left mine behind. Pictures would’ve been nice, but somehow I don’t think I’m ever going to forget the images and events of today. 

I take a moment from the jubilation, and walk up to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. I realized that I had been harboring a deep bitterness and hatred ever since that time in my life. What purpose could it possibly serve now? I touch my hands to the lifeless, cold slabs. I feel no evil within them. The chilling touch of the stone brings a strange sense of warmth...of inner peace. I wonder what became of those young Russian soldiers from that day on the bridge. With any luck, they too are now proud fathers with sons of their own. With that thought, I step away from this ghost from the past, render a sharp salute, then hustle the last hundred yards to the graduation ceremony at the theater. 

~GJ Duerrschmidt