From my Psychology Today blog
From my Psychology Today blog:
Part 3 of 4
THE MISTAKE OF VOLUNTEERING
“Are you busy right now? I can use your help,” Arata said.
“I have a class in a half-hour.”
“This won’t take longer than about fifteen minutes.”
* * *
My brother, who had been in the army band, warned me, “Never volunteer for anything in the army.” Not everyone heeded this sage advice, though. Just before the first weekend pass during basic training, our company sergeant, Torres, asked who played an instrument. A number of hands went up. He told them to bring their instruments from home, for he was creating a marching band. From then on, the musician soldiers marched through the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the summer, not only with rifles and packs, but also with their musical instruments.
Once, the bass drummer, trying to balance himself on a log as he crossed a creek, stumbled and fell in. Maybe Sgt. Torres had shouted a warning to him. But, even if he had, there was no way to know what he meant. Everything in “this man’s army” was a grunt—haa, huu! or huu, haa! With his thick Spanish accent, it became impossible to understand anything he said.
Another time we were in formation in front of our barracks, ready to break at the end of the day. Since this was basic training, we had been trained to respond to orders the split second they were issued. So, when Torres barked and our platoon sergeant repeated the same “Haa, huu!,” some of us thought we were ordered to fall out, but others thought he said “Huu, haa!,” and stood at attention. There was a crash and clang of steel and rifles, helmets and bodies piled up quickly.
Nothing stopped the marching band, though. Wherever we went, they went, too. While other soldiers marched to the cadence of left-right, left-right, your-left, your- left, we double-timed to the beat of the bass drum. Other troops waited quietly in front of the mess hall, but we arrived in style and did the bunny hop to the chow line.
I violated the “never volunteer” advice once. My company was going to the field, a dirty day when we might again be exposed to tear gas. A deal was offered: Donate blood, take the rest of the day off. I raised my hand.
Cots filled a large gym. Mine was somewhere in the middle. Orderlies began inserting needles at one side, moved to me, then to the end of the line. By the time they were finished putting the needles in, they returned to the beginning to take them out. By now, the bags were filled. Mine had little in it, though. Thin veins, I think they said. They reached the end of the line and returned to me. Only a trickle collected. Now they took out the needle and stuck it in again, in another part of the arm. Five minutes later, there was no more blood than before. They put the needle in the other arm. Same results. Finally, the doctor came over. He looked down at my pale face and saw that the tube to the bag had a knot in it. He untied it, the blood flowed. Only when I’m feeling sufficiently guilty for not doing a good thing do I now donate blood to the Red Cross.
* * *
“What do you need?” I asked Arata.
I thought that maybe he wanted me to read something he had written.
“I want you to be part of the panel.”
Was I going to make a mistake by volunteering yet again?
* * *
The first year after active duty, at summer camp in Ft. Drum, I was directed by my commanding officer to run the projector for our weekly meetings. This prospect didn’t appeal to me because it meant coming early to meetings to get things ready, then staying late to pack away the film. But my CO was sending me to projectionist school, so I could receive a license. The army wouldn’t let anyone touch a projector without a license.
“Don’t worry,” the teacher said, reassuring the class. “By the end of the day, everyone will have a license.” Not me, I thought. Most of the mornings, I sat diligently writing not notes but letters to Lyn who by then was my fiancé. At first, the instructor was impressed with my eagerness to take down his information, but he grew suspicious as the morning drew on. He’d walk by my desk, and I’d put my arm over the paper so he couldn’t see. Finally, he insisted, and I had to show him my love letter. He didn’t find this amusing and issued me a warning. I put away the paper. After lunch, I decided to ask questions. I wanted to know how the picture appeared on the screen; I wanted to know how to get sound from celluloid. I continued to ask technical, obscure questions, and all he wanted to do was show us how to thread the film and fill out a packing order.
At the end of the day, he gave out certificates to everyone but me. “You’re going to the CO,” he told me.
The commanding officer sat imposingly behind his dark desk. This wasn’t a reservist, like my reservist CO. Perhaps I had gone too far this time. “I’ve heard about what you did today, private,” the colonel said. “I’m going to report you. Your commanding officer will discipline you.” He dialed the phone as I left. When I returned to my barracks, a group was outside, including my CO. They cheered and congratulated me. My CO, it turned out, had no more military discipline in him than anyone else in my reserve unit.
Arata likes giving orders. I don’t. He can also take orders, something I also have trouble with. This is partly the fault of my small learning problem—mixed-brain dominance, an educator friend called it, when I explained that, although I’m a righty, there are some things I prefer doing with my left hand, such as shooting a rifle. This makes me naturally clumsy. Once, when my mother saw me play basketball, she wanted to know why I spent so much time on the floor.
I met Arata because I was working on a book of applied ethics that included moral dilemmas, and I wanted a military response to one of the questions. One day, he was in the hall with an inspector general. I introduced myself to them both and asked the white-haired senior officer if he would agree to answer a question for the book. Arata, afraid I was a lunatic anti-ROTC professor, like a good junior officer, deflected the request and said he would like to see the question himself.
ROTC and The New College, where I teach at Hofstra, were uneasy neighbors housed in one building. The New College began as an alternative to traditional education in the 60’s, and by the 1990’s contained the rump of progressive causes, a place sometimes identified by the rest of the university, and the local press, as a bastion of feminist and Marxist ideologies. For years, my only association with ROTC was looking at a display on the ground floor, trying to remember which ranked higher, colonel or major.
Arata read the scenario I presented to him about a West Point cadet caught between the honor system and loyalty to a cheating friend and asked if he could contribute to the book. Arata, it turned out, wasn’t like any professional soldier I had known before, and, over the next several months, we developed a fondness for one another.
During the Vietnam War, I declared myself a conscientious objector. This was largely a symbolic gesture, since I already had finished my military obligation. When I was a teenager, it was simply assumed that you would be drafted. It was only later that young men drank quarts of honey to raise their blood sugar to dangerous levels or had their doctors write reports on their delicate constitutions. In 1961, when I joined the army, these options were beyond consideration.
My friend Joel Feldman told me that, if we joined the army reserves before we were 18, we would only serve three-and-a-half years attending weekly meetings and two weeks of active duty during the summer, instead of the usual six years required of reservists. There was no way we could escape six months of active duty, though, and, for that period of time, I would have to be a real soldier.
The added bonus of joining the reserves so young was that we could choose whatever unit we preferred. We heard about a Special Services company, a unit that during WWII ran the R&R (Rest & Recreation) center at the French Riviera for American troops. The group also met in an office building in midtown Manhattan, and no one wore uniforms. The company required that its members take an audition to demonstrate a talent, but none of us had any. Still, because of our youth, we had to be accepted.
Joel, Marty Schlow, and I signed up and joined a company of soldiers who were opera singers, musicians, athletes, dancers, and directors. Some of the reservists were also comedians and TV comedy-show writers. One night, someone instead of using a training film showed the Hollywood movie Picnic, running it backwards, so we saw it from end to beginning. Another night, we watched a first-aid demonstration in which the instructor, explaining how to treat a cut, swathed a companion in bandages from head to foot like a mummy.
During summer camp, a ballet dancer led our PT exercises in the quadrangle in front of the barracks.
“OK, men,” he said, with no authority whatsoever. “Take your positions. Now, hands on hips,” and we bent our knees, feet straight ahead—one-two, one-two, now one foot at a right angle, up-down, through all four ballet positions, thirty Tinkerbells in combat boots. Soldiers from other companies stopped their exercises to watch us place our arms over our heads and position our feet now splayed 180 degrees.
Another day at camp, we had a lecture on camouflage. One of the men found a tree limb and stuck the limb taller than himself into his belt, wrapped a roll of toilet paper around his head, and sang an Israeli song as he charged around as if crazed from a blazing desert sun.
These antics didn’t sit well with our supervising officer, an earnest soldier from the Pentagon who had apoplectic fits, which only further undermined whatever respect the others may have had for him. In exasperation, our commanding officer issued dire warnings: If we kept this up, our reports to the Pentagon would be so bad that we were in danger of being disbanded.
During our second year in the reserve unit, we were told that we had to wear our uniforms to the next meeting. Despite the protests that some didn’t even know they had a uniform, that morning we lined up in the hall of the office building in which we met. There were dress green trousers that weren’t hemmed, patches sewn upside down on sleeves, loafers with fatigues, sport shirts with khaki field jackets, argyle socks, and silk ties. Soon after this costume ball, the unit was disbanded. I was transferred to a company of journalists and issued typewriters at meetings to men who sat and wrote stories about fictitious battles.
I didn’t make any better soldier than I did a Boy Scout, an affiliation that lasted through one week at summer camp. I cried so bitterly when my parents visited on the weekend that they had to take me home. I hated wearing a uniform. I hated being told what to do. I hated washing dishes and scrubbing pans in the mess hall.
I also cried the first time they visited me at boot camp in Ft. Dix. One Saturday, they found me behind the mess hall scrubbing the underside of a removable walk-in refrigerator floor. I had KP duty thirteen times during eight weeks of basic training; I lost weekend passes because my blanket didn’t fit tight enough on my bed. During advanced infantry training, I was tossed out of the color guard because my boots didn’t shine sufficiently; I never learned to put my rifle back together in the dark, and the machine gun always wound up with extra parts after re-assembly. When I received my honorable discharge in 1965, I hadn’t made PFC, an amazing achievement since Private First Class is a rank usually achieved by simply not expiring.
Arata wears a uniform most of the time. You can’t avoid uniforms in the military, even at night, as this time calls for boxer shorts and T-shirts. I always slept in pajamas and saw no reason why I should give up the practice now that I was in the army. Mine were red polka dot. My bunk was at the far end from the hall, so when the commanding officer came in just before lights out, we jumped to attention and stood mutely at our bedsides. He inspected the troops as he walked by solemnly in his paratrooper-starched uniform. Finally, he reached my end of the barracks and, for the first time, saw me. He walked past, then returned. He stared and said, shaking his head, “Dobrin, I’ve been in this man’s army for twenty years, and I’ve never seen anyone wear pajamas before.”
Guns Were Forbidden in My Home
“I need a favor from you,” said Steven Arata, a man too likable to be a professional warrior. But that’s what he was the commanding officer of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at Hofstra University and a veteran command officer in Haiti.
Being friends with Lieutenant Colonel Arata, even for a short time, was something that surprised me since the military and I were never on good terms. He went to West Point and made a career of the army; the moment I joined the army, I knew the date I was leaving. Arata went to West Point partly for a tuition-free college education but also as part of his family tradition. The only military tradition in my family was running from it. It began with my maternal grandfather who fled from being conscripted into the Czar’s army. I was proud of having served in the Peace Corps; no one in my family was proud of my military service.
Having a toy gun in my house was as forbidden as pork in my grandparents’ home. As far as I know, my father had never touched a gun. He had been too young for WWI and too old for WWII. Although he wasn’t in the military, he did serve, as an air raid warden, watching Brooklyn skies for German planes during blackouts. My father kept his gear after the war and stored it in a box of assorted galoshes and old coats on the floor of his closet. I often played with his heavy white helmet and gas mask with the crack in one lens, imagining shooting down German bombers over my school.
When an aunt bought me a cap gun as a present, my mother and her sister argued about its appropriateness, and the gun went into the garbage as soon as my aunt left. This didn’t put a stop to my attraction to guns, though. I used my forefinger and thumb to kill bad guys and put myself in the comic book ads for Daisy rifles. I played with a real BB gun in Junior’s basement when I was about ten. One of us took target practice as another ran past an open doorway with a pillow across his face. I also used a handmade gun made out of wood that used a rubber band to shoot small squares of linoleum.
Another difference between Arata and me is that I don’t put much stock in patriotism. Possibly I can trace this to the time when a relative gave me a small silk Japanese flag. I took it out to the street. Junior thought I was a traitor for carrying a flag of America’s recent enemy. He insisted that I grind the flag under my shoe. I refused. He took it from me and did it himself, thereby ripping a hole in it. Junior and I parted company when he went from guns that shot BB’s and cut-up floor covering to zip guns that used real bullets.
At that time, I didn’t know that my neighborhood was a Mafia center. That prosperous church by Linden Boulevard? Mob hangout. The weedy marsh by the abandoned waterworks? A burial ground. The candy store, the one I wasn’t allowed to go to? Headquarters for a numbers racket. I went to Mr. Flicka, the Jewish barber, but the other barbershop? A bookie joint. Some of the boys who frightened me from walking one block away, on Crescent Street, became infamous as mobsters. When, as an adult, I heard about all this for the first time, I thought about Junior’s father who was a bricklayer and parked his vehicle in front of his house, a black van that looked suspiciously like a hearse.
My mother didn’t want me to go to the local high school because it was a rough and dangerous place full of switchblades, black leather jackets, and engineer boots. I didn’t confront a real gun until years later, when at the gate to the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi one night, a soldier stopped our two buses on an unlit road. Lyn and I were leading a safari to Kenya, and after two weeks we were heading home having safely taken care of thirty anxious Americans. He told Lyn to get out of her bus and opened the luggage bin.
“Out with the bags!” he ordered. “All of them.”
She talked to the soldier in Swahili.
I talked to him in English. I explained that we wouldn’t get to our plane on time. The bus owner began to berate him, as he began to examine the bags. I knew what his automatic rifle could do. It was more sophisticated than the M1 I had been issued in the army. After a bribe, we reloaded the luggage and just made it to the plane.
From Psychology Today
From Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/am-i-right/201412/torture-safety-vs-moral-values
Tagged: Senate report, torture
I am writing this column after attending a meeting with clergy colleagues planning a Black Friday action at a Walmart store in North Bergen, NJ. Black Friday is the name given to the day after Thanksgiving when people, having consumed vast quantities of food the day before and stockpiled leftovers to see them through the weekend, get a jump on their Christmas shopping. Prices are marked down, shoppers line up before dawn, and stores hope to make a profit, ending the day “in the black,” as opposed to “the red” of non-holiday losses.
We clergy and our members, Walmart workers and social justice activists, as well as union workers will congregate in the parking lot to hold an interfaith service with plenty of preaching and singing about the human right to earn a living wage and the responsibility of consumers to choose ethically. Deeply discounted products are important to families on tight budgets, and it’s a “hard sell” to ask them to support store owners who respect their employees, instead of those who provide information about how to get food stamps and find the nearest homeless shelter. Ours is a call to action, awakening and quickening the conscience of people who celebrate the holidays by purchasing gifts for family and friends that sometimes put them into debt. It is a consciousness-raising action about the meaning of holidays. What is it we celebrate and why do some people believe they are occasions for waging war or imagining that war is being waged against them?
I grew up celebrating Christmas. We cut down an evergreen tree from the back lot and hauled it to the house on a toboggan. It dried out and warmed up in the basement near the wood-burning stove until we took it upstairs to the living room, plunked it in the tree stand, and started the nostalgic and raucous activity of decorating. We also put out milk and cookies for Santa and attended midnight mass at St. Anne’s church where we had all been baptized. And, of course, we woke up early on Christmas Day to open the presents that had appeared under the tree overnight.
I shared this tradition with my children and, because ours is an interfaith family, we also celebrated Chanukah by lighting candles in the menorah, spinning dreidels, and eating potato latkes. At the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, we added Winter Solstice and Kwanzaa to our festivities. What a wonderful time of year with all of these diverse holidays, each with its own stories and symbols, rituals and music. We learned so much and respected those for whom these traditions held such profound meaning.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that there was a “War on Christmas.” At first I thought it was a campaign to raise awareness of rampant consumerism, of store doors being ceremoniously opened on Black Friday and people trampling over bodies in their haste to enter. I thought it was an effort to restore meaning to a Christian holiday. Instead I learned that it was invented in the early 2000s by conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to denote what they claimed were Christmas-related controversies, the most egregious being store employees wishing customers “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I was dumbfounded. According to them, Christmas was being censored, avoided or discouraged by retailers, schools and other public organizations. Other holidays were being recognized – and advertised. Yes, people other than Christians were celebrating winter holidays other than Christmas, and some didn’t celebrate anything at all: this was the “War on Christmas.” Conservative religious groups and media, e.g., the American Family Association and Fox News have called for boycotts of retailers that don’t explicitly use the term “Christmas” in their advertising and in-store marketing.
And this new tradition has taken hold. There are websites dedicated to it, and some people are passionate about spreading the word. I’m spreading a different word: Diversity. Let’s embrace it and celebrate it this season in all its glorious array. Let’s learn about other traditions and create new ones that emphasize compassion and generosity, community and understanding.
When I was a child, we sang a song about Christopher Columbus and his crew, who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue to open up a new trade route to India and instead “discovered” America, naming its inhabitants Indians. We celebrated with a long holiday weekend the arrival of the first immigrants. We didn’t sing about the people who were already here, who cherished the land of their ancestors, and whose lives were forever changed by the greed and aggression of European immigrants.
Years later I learned that the Haudenosaunee, whom the French called Iroquois, dwelled in the land where I grew up and formed a mighty – and peaceful – confederacy of six nations centuries before Columbus landed. Their constitution is often described as the oldest participatory democracy in the world, blending law and values; society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role. Although the U.S. Constitution used the confederacy as a model, it included neither nature nor man’s other equal partner – woman. The Declaration of Independence referred to them as “the merciless Indian Savages.”
Songwriter Nancy Schimmel updated the song we sang as children in these verses excerpted from “1492”:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
It was a courageous thing to do
But someone was already here. . .
It isn’t like it was empty space,
Caribs met him face to face. . .
Columbus was lost, the Caribs were not;
We are all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Since humanity originated in Africa, even indigenous people migrated here, and people continue to arrive for myriad reasons. If we are to continue calling this “our” land, then we must acknowledge that reality and commit ourselves to welcoming those who wish to make our home their home, too. Embrace people from other lands who want to throw their lot in with ours to make our shared home a better place.
One way members of the NY Society can make a difference is to support the New York State Immigration Coalition (http://www.thenyic.org/), whose mission is to achieve “a fairer and more just society that values the contributions of immigrants and extends opportunity to all.”
From my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/am-i-right/201411/no-one-dies-they-just-pass
Psychology Today selected by blog as essential reading.
From my Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/am-i-right/201410/family-or-doctor-who-speaks-dying-patient
From my Psychology Today blog:
Tagged: race, sperm bank