Letter From Milo: A Soldier’s Comfort

May 29th, 2017

Memorial Day is a wonderful day for politicians. There are graves of fallen American soldiers scattered all over this country and the photo opportunities for Senators, Congressman and Governors are endless. No career political hack can resist the opportunity to wrap himself in the flag and be photographed at a soldier’s grave site on Memorial Day.

For other folks, the best thing about this holiday is that they don’t have to work on Monday. It’s an extra day away from the office or factory, another day free of the indignities that come with working for a living.

Memorial Day has an entirely different meaning for veterans, especially combat veterans. Military personnel who have been awarded the CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge), which is given to soldiers who have personally fought in ground combat operations, often have mixed feelings about a holiday that was created to honor the dead.

Chances are, if a person has a CIB, they’ve seen and done some terrible things. They have spent time in the Inferno. They have experienced true horror. And the absolute worst of those horrors was seeing friends die. The ghosts of Alpha Company still haunt my dreams.

Some combat veterans, including me, are uncomfortable with the overly sentimental veneration of America’s fallen soldiers. It’s too little, too late, and the sentiments are usually off the mark.

It makes me uneasy when I hear politicians exalt dead soldiers, or read editorials comparing them to saints, calling them God’s warriors, elevating them to the status of angels with assault rifles. The image of the American foot soldier as a noble warrior, different than all the cruel, heartless bastards that came before him, is a false one.

The truth is, the American foot soldier is a bad motherfucker, a dangerous, highly-trained, superbly armed, brutal and efficient killing machine.

A lot of the soldiers in my outfit were tough kids, urban and rural poor boys, before they went into the service. A few months in the jungles and paddies made them even tougher. Spending three weeks at a time on Search and Destroy missions, sleeping in muddy foxholes at night, waiting for the next bit of Hell to arrive, and wondering if your next breath will be your last, has a way of bringing out the beast in a man.

After three weeks in the bush we’d be sent to a relatively safe firebase to relax and unwind. Those seven days were spent trying to forget the terrors of the previous three weeks. We drank heavily, smoked copious amounts of weed, and visited the whores who set up storefronts near every American firebase.

The liquor and drugs helped us escape the grim reality of our lives. The intoxicants made it possible, for a short time, to forget some of the things we had seen and done.

The young whores made us feel human again. The act of love, the skin-to-skin contact, the primal connection between a man and woman, helped soften the rough edges of our memories.

True, these were coarse comforts, frowned upon by church, state and the general public, but they were all we had. A few drinks, a little weed, and a piece of ass made an intolerable existence somewhat bearable.

No, we weren’t knights in shining armor. I doubt we would have been welcomed in polite society. We were just common foot soldiers, flawed in so many ways. But we were young and valiant, and did the best we could.

Here are a few lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem called “Tommy,” about British soldiers. I believe it captures the ambivalence that some civilians have for the military, why dead soldiers are honored, and living ones not so much.

“An’ if sometimes our conduck ain’t all your fancy paints,

Why, single men in barracks don’t grow into plastic saints,

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute,’

But it’s ‘Savior of our country” when the guns begin to shoot.”

As I mentioned, I’m not a fan of Memorial Day. It brings back too many bitter memories. But I can understand how the holiday can be a comfort to people, especially those that have lost friends and loved ones in wars.

So, go ahead and celebrate Memorial Day any way you like. I’ll honor the occasion properly.

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Letter From Milo: Mystery Man

May 22nd, 2017

There is a mystery man in the history of The Third City, a shadowy figure who toiled briefly at the blog, but whose influence is felt to this very day. Along with Benny Jay, he was a founder of the site. He called himself Big Rick, but Benny and I referred to him as the Barn Boss.

Not only was Big Rick a pompous windbag, which is a requisite for any blogger, he was also ruthless, eaten up by ambition. And he was a master at navigating corporate minefields. In no time at all, he had taken over the company.

By the time I signed on as Society, Lifestyle and Religion columnist for The Third City, he was in total control of the blog site – and he ran it with an iron hand.

Big Rick and I butted heads immediately. One of the first pieces I wrote was about buying some reefer from a guy who was working out of the parking lot of at Dunkin’ Donuts on Ashland Avenue. Big Rick didn’t like it.

“You ignorant motherfucker,” he said. “What if the owner of the Dunkin’ Donuts reads this and decides to sue us?”

“The owner is a Pakistani immigrant,” I replied. “He only knows about 10 words of English. Unless someone translates the blog into Urdu, I doubt he’ll read it.”

A few months later, I wrote another blog that Big Rick didn’t like. It was a think piece, meticulously researched, something I spent a lot of time on. It was called, “Eating Pussy.”

Big Rick confronted me angrily. “Are you trying to ruin this fucking blog? How could you write a piece of shit like this? A lot of our readers are little old ladies. How do you think they’ll react when they see that we’re writing about eating pussy?”

“I’m hoping it will bring back some pleasant memories.”

When Big Rick wasn’t terrorizing the staff, he was busy pounding out his own blog posts. He wrote two or three a week and they were all pretty much the same – heavy-handed, hard-hitting screeds based on the latest news. Like 20 million other bloggers, he’d scan newspaper headlines and comment on them from his own political perspective. He didn’t attract many readers, but he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Despite his failings as a Barn Boss and blogger, we needed him. Benny and I had no interest in the day-to-day business of the blog site. If it wasn’t for his guiding hand, The Third City would have descended into chaos. At least that’s what Big Rick told us.

But after a while, Big Rick began behaving erratically. He’d disappear for three or four days at a time. not answering his phone or returning calls. When we needed him most, when important decisions had to be made, we couldn’t contact him.

I recall one time when a representative from Al Jazeera contacted us and asked about buying The Third City. They offered a small fortune. Benny and I were wild about the deal. But we couldn’t do it without Big Rick.

“Where the fuck is that worthless bastard?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in a week.”

“He’s probably whoring or laying up drunk somewhere.”

“Well, the fucker’s costing us a lot of dough.”

It became obvious that Big Rick was losing interest in The Third City. When he came to work, he’d arrive late, take a three hour lunch, and leave early. The only day he showed up on time was payday.

He didn’t even bother working himself into a temper about some of the blogs I wrote.

“Hey, Big Rick, how’d you like the piece I wrote about the history of Tijuana donkey shows?”

“It was okay.”

“Next week I’m writing about proper whorehouse etiquette.”

“That sounds good.”

One day Benny Jay and I received an e-mail from Big Rick. It was his resignation letter. He said he was bored by The Third City and tired of working with a couple of dumbasses like us. He felt we were holding him back, not allowing him room to grow.

Big Rick informed us that he had a new mission in life. He had found his true calling. He was going to move to Southern Indiana and blog about arts, culture and politics for the edification of ignorant Hoosiers.

We thought it was an excellent idea.

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Letter From Milo: Head Case

May 8th, 2017

A year ago this past Sunday, I fell down in my kitchen, hit my head, and ended up in a hospital for three weeks.

I had a subdural hematoma, which is bleeding of the tissues around the brain. The flow of blood was so strong that it moved my brain half an inch off-center.

The surgeon drilled two holes in my skull to drain the fluids. When the bleeding stopped, the good doctor patched the holes in my head with titanium.

I don’t remember anything of my first week in the hospital, but my family said I was a source of endless amusement. There was a bandage covering the top of my head, with two plastic tubes snaking out of the sides of my skull. My left leg twitched constantly. I had lost the power of speech and was reduced to unintelligible grunts and groans.

For the first few days after brain surgery, my arms and the leg that wasn’t twitching were strapped down to prevent me from ripping out the tubes and IVs that had been stuck to my body. As the doctors informed my family, I was an “unruly” patient.

When I came to my senses, I noticed that my sister was sitting by my hospital bed. Although I still had trouble speaking, I managed to ask her what happened to me, because I had no idea why I was in the hospital.

My sister explained that I had suffered a traumatic brain injury. “Brother, you got real lucky,” she added. “You could have died. You could have been a vegetable. Or you could have spent the rest of your life in a wheelchair, wearing diapers and drooling. The doctors said that unless something goes wrong, you should make a complete recovery.”

The hospital was going to release me after two weeks, but my wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, had other ideas. She spoke to one of the supervising doctors.

“I don’t want him home yet. He’d be like a caged wolverine. Can you keep him for another week?”

Because it was a Veterans Administration hospital, not in league with insurance companies, the doctor didn’t have to ask permissions or navigate red tape to extend my hospital stay.  He said,”Sure, no problem. It’ll give us a chance to start therapy. We want to work on his executive decision making process.”

“Great idea. His decision making has always been questionable.”

 

 

 

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Letter From Milo: Bon Appetit

May 1st, 2017

When I was in the U.S. Army’s basic training program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a Drill Sergeant told my training company that we were the most privileged soldiers on earth. He said we were the best dressed, best paid and best fed military men in history.

The fucker lied.

Years later I discovered that the Canadian military is paid better, the Italian army’s uniforms are much more fashionable and, of course, the French army is much better fed. Now that I think about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Ethiopian army ate better than we did.

After a hard day of keeping the world safe for democracy, my comrades and I would set up a night bivouac and rummage through our rucksacks to see what we had to eat.

“What have you got, Bob?”

“Ah, shit. All I’ve got left is processed pork slices in petroleum gravy. How about you?”

“Chile sans carne. What have you got, Tim?”

“Some kind of noodle thing.”

“Spaghetti?”

“I don’t know if spaghetti is the right word for it.”

“Milo, what are you eating.”

“The label’s gone and it’s hard to tell just by looking. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to taste like chicken.”

I thought my days of wretched dining would be over when I left the army. Of course, I was wrong. I had forgotten the fact that in order to eat well one has to earn well.

I wasn’t making much money in the mid-70s and what I did earn was mainly spent on liquor and drugs. Food was an afterthought.

Still, unless you’re Keith Richards, you can’t live on booze and drugs alone. A normal person has to eat every once in a while.

When money was tight and my dining options were limited I would go down to Sterch’s Tavern on Lincoln Avenue, where there was always a pot of chili bubbling on a hot plate. Sterch’s chili was hit-and-miss, to put it kindly.

Fortunately, one of the proprietors, a gentleman named Harlan Stern, who was always sensitive to the needs of his clientele, generally gave a straight answer when asked, “Hey, Harlan, how’s the chili today?”

If Harlan nodded, it meant the chili was edible. If he made a wiggling, so-so gesture with his hands, it meant the chili tasted terrible but was safe to eat.

If Harlan replied to your question by asking, “Do you, by chance, have any other dining options today?” then you ordered the chili at your own risk.

No matter how Harlan replied, my usual response was to say, ‘I’ll have a bowl of chili, a pint of beer and put it on my tab, please.”

Another questionable dining establishment I patronized was a greasy hot dog stand on Armitage called Doggie’s.

I lived about half a block from the place, in a coachhouse on Burling, which I shared with some like-minded friends. We were in the same sinking boat, financially, but when hunger could no longer be denied, we were somehow able to come up with enough money to pay for a few hot dogs, Polish and fries from Doggie’s.

Words fail me when it comes to explaining how greasy and unpalatable this food was.

It was served in brown paper lunch bags and in the minute or two that it took to walk back to the coachhouse, the brown bags were soaked through with grease. The hot dogs and fries tasted old, slick, stale and funky. I doubt they’d changed the oil in their fryers since the Truman Administration.

Every time I ate from Doggie’s I got a stomach ache. But I kept going back. It was handy. The price was right. And I was stupid.

Many years later, my daughter went to high school at Lincoln Park, which was right across the street from Doggie’s. One day I asked her, “Honey, have you ever gone over to Doggie’s for lunch?”

She answered by saying, “Eww, Dad, that place is disgusting.”

“Well, I’m glad to see that they’ve maintained their standards.”

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Letter From Milo: Two Cases of Poor Judgment

April 24th, 2017

1. I’ve got a friend, let’s call him Joe to spare him any embarrassment, who made it pretty big out in Hollywood. Joe struggled for years before finally finding his niche. He worked as a script reader, tried his hand at acting and writing, before achieving success as a producer.

By way of explanation for you clueless, pathetic losers who aren’t privy to the inside Hollywood shit like I am, the title of “producer” is meaningless. Being a producer is like being a Kentucky Colonel. It’s as much a joke as it is a genuine honorific.

A person doesn’t have to produce anything to be a producer. The only criteria for being a producer is having the audacity to declare yourself one. There must be tens of thousands of people, probably more, calling themselves producers, but only a small fraction of those people have ever actually produced a movie or TV show.

My friend, Joe, is one of the lucky ones. He actually produces films. About 20 years ago, he ran across a good script, found two bankable actors willing to do it, and rounded up the financing for production.

When it came time to discuss his compensation, the money men offered Joe a flat fee or a piece of the action, whichever he preferred. Now, Joe is no country boy. He is a Chicagoan, born and bred. He understands that making movies is a crapshoot. He also understands that Hollywood bookkeeping is an art form, every bit as creative as writing, painting or musical composition.

Joe opted for a flat fee.

As luck would have it, the movie turned out to be a huge hit, making several hundred million dollars. Had Joe taken a piece of the action, his payday would have been 15 times larger.

The movie did so well that the money men decided to make a sequel. They figured it was a can’t-miss proposition. So did Joe. This time he took a piece of the action. Of course, the sequel turned out to be a huge flop, making about 20 bucks worldwide. Joe claims he didn’t even make expenses.

“The only good thing that came out of it,” Joe explained, “is that now I’m able to produce more movies. You see, making two movies and having one of them be a big hit is an astounding track record in the film business. Now all I have to do is figure out how to make some fucking money.”

2. I have a good friend, let’s call him Bruce Diksas to spare him any embarrassment, who was hanging out in the Pacific Northwest around 1980. He had followed a woman to Seattle in the hope of keeping a romance alive. The woman had enrolled in graduate school and spent most of her days in class or studying, so, Bruce found himself with a lot of time on his hands. And, like any ambitious, industrious, hard-working young man, Bruce decided to spend his free time in one of Seattle’s many legal poker rooms.

Now, Bruce is a pretty good poker player, but, like all of us who enjoy the game, he thinks he’s much better than he is. He’s probably lost more money than he’s won. Despite the ebb and flow of his poker luck, Bruce enjoyed his time at the Seattle tables. It was a pleasant way to pass the time.

One of the topics of conversation at the tables was a small business located in a storefront across the street from the card room. It seemed that the business was a source of local pride. It was growing rapidly and would soon be going public. A few of the players at the tables discussed the pros and cons of investing in the company, buying a few shares to help out the local boys.

Out of curiosity, Bruce stepped outside to check out the storefront. Maybe he’d invest a few bucks. As soon as he saw its name on the storefront window, however, Bruce, knew that the company had no chance of success. It was a stupid name. It made no sense. Shouldn’t a company’s name say what it does? Shouldn’t it at least be catchy, something that sticks in the mind? Why even have a company if you can’t give it a decent name? Any company with a name like that was doomed to failure. He’d be better off investing in lottery tickets.

The company’s name was “Microsoft.”

“I still say it’s a stupid name,” Bruce said to me years later.

“A lot of those internet companies have dumb names,” I replied. “Look at Yahoo or Google.”

Pouring himself another drink, Bruce said, “You’ll notice I didn’t buy any shares in those companies, either.”

 

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Letter From Milo: All in the Family

April 17th, 2017

A few days before Easter, I began cleaning my weapons, sharpening the cutlery, shopping for mace and pepper spray, stocking up on first aid supplies, refilling fire extinguishers, and Googling the phone numbers of bail bondsmen and criminal lawyers in the Chicago area.

We were hosting the family dinner this year and I wanted to be prepared.

This is the first time we’ve celebrated Easter at our house in several years. We usually spend the holiday at my sister’s house in Northwest Indiana. I prefer going to my sister’s place because she and her husband are pretty well off and can afford to hire security guards.

I asked my wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, how she was preparing for the occasion. She said, “I’m going to roast a leg of lamb, prepare carrots, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy and a salad. We’ll have apple pie and ice cream for dessert.”

“Sounds great, babe. While you’re doing that, I’ll go down to Home Depot and get a chainsaw, a Taser, and some sandbags.”

I slept poorly the night before Easter. I kept having nightmares about previous holiday disasters.

I remember one Easter when my sister pepper sprayed her husband, Bill, when she caught him putting ketchup on his lamb chops.

I also recalled the time we had to take my 82-year-old uncle, Marko, to the emergency room when he threw his back out doing the Limbo with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon balanced on his head.

Then there was the 4th of July party where all of the men decided to have a big dick contest and each of us put 20 dollars into a pot as a prize for the winner.

My wife was disgusted. “I can’t believe you pulled out your dick in front of everybody.”

“Honey, I didn’t pull it out all the way. I just showed enough to win the contest.”

I was prepared for the worst when everyone arrived – daughters, niece, assorted boyfriends, sister and brother-in-law.

To my utter amazement, the evening went off without a hitch. There were no disagreements, arguments or fights. Except for my wife and sister overindulging on Bloody Marys and nearly ruining the gravy, everything went smoothly.

Oh, sure, there were a few tense moments. When my brother-in-law started telling a long, pointless and boring story about the many and varied pleasures of philately, my sister began eyeing her purse, where she keeps her blackjack.

And when I took off my shirt, got a Sharpie, and began playing connect-the-dots with the scars on my chest, which, I explained, had come from the many knife fights I had been involved in as a youngster, my wife gave me her ugly, sleep-on-the-couch stare. I quickly put my shirt back on.

I suppose most families have holiday traditions, rituals that have been passed down through the years. The traditions may involve serving certain foods, gift giving, religious observances, songs and dances, relating family histories, or seating arrangements at the dinner table.

Our family has a holiday tradition, too. We just hope to survive.

When the dinner was over and everyone was preparing to leave, my sister thanked me for hosting this year. “Great dinner,” she said, “but things were kind of tame for my taste.”

“To be honest, I thought it was boring as hell.”

“There wasn’t a fist fight, or even a decent argument all night. It was like a dinner party at Martha Stewart’s house.”

“I know. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days.”

“Thanksgiving is at my house this year. Maybe we should invite Uncle Marko, or your friend, Bruce, he’s a loose cannon, or a few of those wild Serbian boys from East Chicago. They know how to liven things up.”

“Sis, that’s an excellent idea.”

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Letter From Milo: Dispensary 33

April 10th, 2017

As soon as my medical marijuana card arrived in the mail, I jumped in my car and rushed over to the weed dispensary to do some shopping.

The dispensary is located on Clark Street in the Andersonville neighborhood. I’ve passed it dozens of times but never gave it any thought. The name, Dispensary 33, meant nothing to me.

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in the door. I hoped to see Grateful Dead posters on the walls and hear Jimi Hendrix music blaring from speakers. It would also have been nice to see a group of happy stoners sitting on the floor and passing joints.

But it didn’t happen like I had hoped. Since it was a state-run facility (Illinois Dept. of Public Health), Dispensary 33 was as dry, sterile and characterless as any government building.

The reception area was a narrow corridor, the walls painted a stark white, with chairs along each wall, and a receptionist’s desk at the end of the hall. I figured the place would be crowded, but the only people in the waiting area were a thuggish looking guy, who I assumed was the security guard, and the receptionist.

After filling out some paperwork and agreeing to abide by a few legal stipulations, the receptionist admitted me to the holy of holies, the inner sanctum — the marijuana sales room.

Again, I was disappointed. The sales room was a sterile environment, just like the waiting room. I might as well have been at Walgreen’s, picking up some deodorant and Preparation H.

An earnest young clerk came up to me and asked if I had any experience with marijuana.

“A bit,” I replied.

He then showed me a display of the various strains of marijuana available, nicely arrayed in a glass case, and explained the effects and properties of each. One strain helped with pain. Another was for rest and relaxation. There was one that induced euphoria and one for anxiety.

I listened patiently to the clerk’s pitch, then ordered an eighth of an ounce each of Sativa Hybrid and Indica. The cost was $60 per eighth.

The clerk apologized because Dispensary 33 didn’t take plastic. It was a cash only enterprise.

“No problem,” I replied, reaching into my pocket. “I understand that marijuana has always been a cash only business.”

I had mixed feelings when I left Dispensary 33. I liked having access to hassle-free weed, but I didn’t enjoy the process of acquiring it.

Although it was the first time in 50 years I was able to purchase marijuana legally, I preferred the traditional, time-honored method of buying pot. I missed going to my neighborhood dealer’s place, hanging out for a while, sampling the product, listening to music,  having a beer or two, and chatting with other customers. It was a more civilized way to do illicit business.

As Edmund O’Brien said in The Wild Bunch, “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”

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