Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.

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Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

Checkpoint Charlie

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

Checkpoint Charlie

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

At Checkpoint Charlie

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

My brain screamed, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy. I managed to mumble, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons to qualify Bobby for a job he no longer wanted. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


This is this post’s fourth appearance: May, 2007; January, 2012; July, 2014, and today. I’m re-running it in response to the WordPress.com daily prompt, “Passport.”

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Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

PICT0455 sm

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

PICT0646 sm

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

PICT0647 sm

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany to Krefeld.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray Chevrolet sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

I thought, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy, but I said, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley. He used to e-mail me complaints about the traffic out there.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons since Bobby no longer wanted that job. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


Originally posted in May, 2007, and again in January, 2012.

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Personal

12 years hence

My family was spending most of the week living in an extended-stay hotel while a crew of plumbers were replacing all the pipes under the money pit we called home. My wife was leaving the hotel late in the evening to sleep in the house to keep our dogs and cats company.

I chose a hotel across the street from work. As I started the family minivan for the short drive that morning, the radio came on. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, the disk jockey gave a preliminary report of an accident, of what was thought to be a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe the disk jockey. This was a funky free-form radio station not known for its news coverage. But I sat there in the parking lot listening anyway, and soon the disk jockey turned the mic over to a reporter from a news service the station used. As he read wire reports and related what he was seeing on television, I started to believe this was real.

I got out of the car and ran into the building to my desk, where I brought up the Web sites of the local TV stations, hoping to find a live stream. That was pretty new technology in 2001. Two stations’ sites wouldn’t load, which I learned later was because they were overwhelmed by people trying to find out what was going on. I can see now that it was amazing luck that I was able to bring up the local ABC station’s site and watch coverage there for several hours. Co-workers crowded around behind me.

My ex was frantically calling my cell phone, which I forgot to turn on, trying to find out from me if I had heard the news and whether it was true. She had recently left military service, and was highly emotional because just a short time before she would have been part of a greater mission of protection for our nation. But stripped of her status, she felt helpless and useless. Worse, one of the fellows working on our home had served in Vietnam and was clearly still twitchy from the experience; upon seeing the news he had a full-on meltdown in our living room. My wife finally remembered my desk phone number and reached me there, crying. That’s when the emotion of the morning finally hit me, too. By then, both towers had been hit and it was clear that this was no accident.

My company’s entire executive team was offsite that day in strategic planning. I learned later that they instead spent the day watching the news. It was a turning point in the company’s history. We had become a public company only a couple months before, a risky venture at any time but, it turned out, especially so given these national events. It seemed like the executives lost their will to lead for a while, and then our company’s fortunes began to flag. By the following January my company could no longer afford to pay me, and let me go. The entire software and technology industry experienced difficult times in the months following September 11. The dot-com bubble had burst, and it was harming the entire industry. The attack didn’t cause the burst, but it seemed to accelerate its impact, and so I still trace my unemployment to that morning in September.

Please tell your September 11 story.

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