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I Wonder What My Grandfathers Would Think
I need a pass and I am grumpy. My brain is frustrated and scattered. Constantly running through my head is this equation that tries to balance the number of days and hours leading up to September 6th against all my required writing. Currently it is not adding up because within this timeframe I must complete one more edition of this newsletter, a three-part assignment on supply chain management, and most significantly, a master’s thesis on coworking.
I am sure only the most scholarly types enjoy writing a thesis, but I have cursed this project more than my divorce papers. At least then I knew what the heck I was doing. That project had more emotion and heartache but ultimately it came down to sending emails, manipulating a spreadsheet and editing a legal document. All things my counter-party and I were trained to do. A childless divorce between two businesspeople is a cold but tidy transaction.
Developing the ideas and writing the story on coworking is not my struggle, for I am an expert on this topic, but rather it is the academic nature of it and caring about something that began in a previous life. Getting my MBA was part of a grand vision that I had for myself but this would eventually get beaten down. In these situations though, perseverance is required because I still see value and I want to do good work.
So, I’m grinding, but my time did get crunched down even further this past month. Unfortunately, I got hit simultaneously with Covid and dealing with the side effects from my second vaccine shot. A case of dumb luck, but for posterity reasons I wanted to make it the topic for this edition. The banality of it all though had me drafting this allegorical story that related Covid to pursuing a desirable woman. After running this by my editor (dad), he said, “Let's not get too far out there Tommy.” Fair enough, but I still liked the thought of Covid giving me Elizabeth Hurley.
Quarantine was a drag, but I am completely recovered now. My grumpiness though keeps hanging around. To accomplish all my goals, I have shut down all pleasures in life like travel, social affairs, and rigorous exercise. My diet is pathetic because I eat the same thing nearly every day. It’s warm in my apartment and I have no proper table and chair to write from. I miss my twin sister, for next month it will be two years since being together. This is not a natural state to be in as a twin. And to boot, I am totally dialed into what is going on in Afghanistan, which brings me to the main topic for today: war.
I must write on war because I have found myself shaking this past week with frustration over the commentary regarding the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. I dare not wade into the thorny issues of what is going on now, but instead tell a couple stories from my past. I can only scratch the surface here, but it begins some ninety years ago and only two miles away from where I sit now.
Today, Prinzregentenplatz 16 is a local police station, but from 1929 to 1934 it was where Hitler lived. I find this interesting that the building is now a police station. It makes sense that it has a high security function to ensure the site does not become a magnet for neo-Nazis. But to turn it into a police station after housing mankind’s most horrific police officer is curious. What it tells me is that Germany has done a good job addressing its past horrors and that there is enough trust across society to allow a police force to reside within Hitler’s old home.
Now this gets more personal because my grandfather, Ed Houts, was in the United States Army and fought in World War II. Hitler didn’t act alone of course, but generally speaking because of him, my grandfather in 1945 was sitting on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific with death staring right at him. His life though was likely saved by the two atomic bombs we dropped forcing Japan to unconditional surrender. A 1946 article from The Altantic reports that General MacArthur informally said that it would have taken a million American soldiers and ten years to finally resolve things in Japan if the bombs had not been dropped. My grandfather would have been part of any invasion, but fortunately he became part of the post-surrender military police force.
This did not mean he made it out of the war without facing the demons of battle. As I understand it, while on a routine police mission he suddenly came face-to-face with an armed young Japanese boy and had to quickly decide who would live. He chose his own life and shot the boy. This affected him deeply and sought out the boy’s parents. I don’t have the details, but he did meet with them, and I can speculate it was a terribly sad experience and did little to sooth his sorrow. This is all secondhand from his wife, my grandmother Polly, because he did not speak about this war experience.
If the bombs had not been dropped and if in fact it did take another ten years to defeat Japan, then most certainly my younger grandfather, Bob Vyhanek, would have been called to duty. But again, the bombs did not save him from war. Several years later he went to Korea as a United States Marine. My grandfather Bob was part of the Frozen Chosin campaign and found himself on his 21st birthday, dug into a trench with frostbite and completely surrounded by Chinese soldiers. The Korean War is at times called The Forgotten War, but what the Marines lived through that winter by the Chosin Reservoir, should go down in history as one of the most valiant efforts of the U.S. Armed Forces like the Battle of the Bulge or the storming of Iwo Jima. He also never spoke of his war experience, and only recently did I learn that he suffered from PTSD.
My grandfathers may have been silent about their war experiences, but they were both proud of serving their country. They passed many years ago after a full life, but I still always think of them and their courage. I wonder though what they would say about their grandson, who has taken all the privileges that they bestowed upon me, to live in Munich, Germany. Neither of them were spiteful men, but good Christians who knew forgiveness, so my guess is they would have supported and still loved me.
DVDs, WMDs and Anti-Depressants
September is my favorite month of the year. The hot Midwestern weather begins to break, it is the month Cathy and I celebrate being twins together, and back in the day it was the beginning of a new school year with fresh supplies. On September 11, 2001, I was sitting in Astronomy 101 at the University of Kansas when it was announced that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and multiple events were occurring to suggest this was something much bigger. For the rest of the day, I sat in the fraternity house watching the Today Show as everything unfolded. Beyond this, I have no recollection of how I felt when we went into Afghanistan a month later. My guess is I believed then, as I still do today, that the initial strike was the correct response.
Two Christmas’s later I received as a gift the HBO series, Band of Brothers. I remember watching this series with much intent while also beginning to pay more attention to global events. Upon reaching the ninth episode titled, Why We Fight, a scene opened with U.S. soldiers walking into a concentration camp, and I began to cry. I had never wept over a movie before but was overwhelmed with emotion because saving the Jewish people and Europe was reason to fight. It was in stark contrast to the reasons Bush et al were trying to make for invading Iraq during those early months of 2003.
It was over that next year I became the voracious reader that I am today. My extensive readings on history and the unspoken war stories from my grandfathers somehow supplanted enough anti-war sentiments in me that I developed into more of a dove than a hawk.
Not long afterwards my roommate Zach and I were sitting in our apartment watching CNN with a “Breaking News” subtitle of “Shock & Awe.” The Iraq War had begun, and I was not happy about it. I never protested and put myself out there but clearly something inside me was percolating. This was also at a time in my life that I was far from thinking clearly. Chemically speaking, I was drinking heavily but also taking an anti-depressant to address sadness over a lost first love. This combination ratcheted up the sloppiness and blackouts. I’m not blaming the therapist, but she had to have known I was a heavy college drinker. To quickly hand out anti-depressants was a bad idea.
Well, one night I must have had a special mixture of anti-depressants, booze and angry feelings over the Iraq War because I packed a bag and started driving to Canada in protest. It was completely irrational, stupid and thank the Lord, nobody got hurt. I didn’t even make it to I-35 North because I swiped a construction barrel at the interchange of I-435 and K10. This took out my sideview mirror and knocked enough sense into me to stay on I-435 and grab the Roe Avenue exit to my parents’ house in Prairie Village. As penance for this idiotic move, I had to paint the exterior of their house during that sweltering Midwestern summer heat.
It has now been nearly twenty years since then and my views have sharpened. Thankfully for all of us, I don’t have the bandwidth right now to parse my current thoughts on foreign policy. But I do want to avoid ending on such a bleak moment because I am a happy guy. I might be a little grumpy this week but as an old work colleague once told me, “Tommy, keep your bobber up.”
Rest assured my bobber is still up because I know my MBA will be done in three weeks, the mountains are not going anywhere, and my friends will still be around for some big dinners under the stars. The best balm for my soul right now is to take a refreshing dip in the Isar, keep reading, and to pray for peace.