As if being the Lifestyle, Society and Religion columnist at The Third City isn’t enough of a workload, now the editorial board wants me to take on the job of Military Affairs Correspondent. Benny Jay, who helps run this scabby crew of barely literate hacks, called last week to offer me the position.
“War is the hottest thing going right now,” Benny said. “We’re already fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and bombing Syria. And there’s a real good chance we’ll be taking on Russia soon. Every blog site in the world is writing about these wars. We need to get on the bandwagon.”
“I see your point. But why do I have to do the job?”
“You’re the only guy at The Third City with military experience. I’ve got your resume right here and it says you were a highly decorated Colonel in the Navy Seals and you’ve been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Victoria Cross.”
“Heh, heh, I may have exaggerated a bit.”
“Well, you were in Vietnam, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, but I barely rose above the rank of Private. It was something to do with character issues.”
“Okay, Milo, let’s quit fucking around here and get down to business. How much money will it take for you to run the Military Affairs desk?”
I didn’t want the job. I was a disinterested soldier at best when I was in the Army and my feelings haven’t changed much in the last four decades. But Benny is a stubborn fucker and refuses to take “no” for an answer, so I named a price I knew The Third City could not possibly afford.
I was shocked when he accepted. “Okay, we’ll give you the extra 12 dollars a month. But I expect solid reporting and analysis, not like the usual shit you write. And don’t try to sneak any of your stupid dick jokes into the stories, either.”
My first assignment was to write a general asessment of America’s military situation. I didn’t want to write from ignorance, so I spent a couple of days studying the subject. I watched a few episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy.” I reread Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.” I even watched a military-themed porno called “Stalag 69.”
Still, I felt my knowledge was incomplete, so I called my old friend, Bruce Diksas, who had once reached the exalted rank of First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I figured that as an officer, he had been privy to a lot of inside information that was inaccessible to me.
More to the point, Bruce used to lunch regularly with Colin Powell at our Division base camp in Chu Lai, in the former Republic of South Vietnam. Maybe Bruce picked up some insights simply from being in close proximity to the great man.
“Hey, my man, what’s going on?” I said, when he answered the phone.
“Ah, fuck, I’ve got a hangover.”
“You have my sympathies. Listen, I need to pick your brain about something.”
“I haven’t seen the Racing Form yet this morning.”
“No, no, I’m writing a blog piece about America’s current military situation. As a one-time officer and former gentleman I thought you might give me some tips.”
“I didn’t know anything then. I know even less now.”
“I thought you used to have lunch with Colin Powell. You must have learned something.”
“That was just a mandatory monthly brigade lunch. There were dozens of us there, mainly junior officers. Powell was a Major at the time. I don’t think we ever talked.”
“That’s it! That’s all you’ve got for me?”
“Well, one thing I do know is that officers love war. They need to cover themselves in glory. They have to prove that they are warriors before they can become leaders. Ambitious young officers will do anything to get a combat command. War is where reputations are made and promotions get handed out. You can’t climb the ladder in the Army unless you have combat experience. Even Colin Powell, as a young man, led an infantry company. I doubt he would have risen as high in the ranks without his Combat Infantryman’s Badge.”
“So, you’re saying that the military’s upper ranks eventually get taken over by scheming, brutal, bloodthirsty bastards who’d cook and eat their own grandmothers to win a promotion. You’re telling me the people who advise the President and set military policy, are a bunch of crazy, treacherous, gung-ho fuckers who owe everything they have to the glories of war?”
“I’d say that’s pretty accurate. It’s the nature of the military beast. War is what they do best. Ruthless, cold-blooded, conniving bastards make the best general officers. A well-developed mean streak is an asset to a combat officer. And it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit crazy. Nice guys generally don’t do well in life or death situations.”
“Damn, I’m glad the military doesn’t run this country.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”
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The other day, the lovely Mrs. Milo and I had one of our rare civil conversations. During this friendly little chat, my wife happened to mention the name of one of her girlfriends, a woman I’ve known for many years.
The woman, who shall remain nameless, is a devoted wife, loving mother, and successful businesswoman. She is a pillar of the community. Her reputation is impeccable.
And yet, when my wife mentioned her name, I made a crude, totally inappropriate comment about her.
My wife shook her head in disgust. “Do you always have to be such a wiseass?”
“You knew I was a wiseass when you married me.”
“I thought it was just a phase you were going through. I was hoping you’d grow out of it.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
Being a wiseass is a mixed blessing. The joys are many, but the downsides can get ugly. I should know. I’ve been a wiseass all my life.
Sure, there’s nothing better than disrupting a classroom of high school students with a well-timed vulgar remark, but it’s hardly worth spending a week in detention hall.
Farting in church is always a crowd-pleaser, if you’re willing to risk burning in hell for eternity.
Introducing yourself as the guy who used to frolic with the bride, at her wedding reception, is usually good for a laugh, but you can kiss your friendship with the newlyweds goodbye.
Like most wiseasses, I discovered the pleasures of irreverence at an early age. By the time I reached adulthood, I had mastered the arts of the snide remark, smart aleck retort, nasty innuendo, and swinish comment.
Sadly, not everyone appreciates a wiseass. I have learned, through bitter experience, that there are some people who have no room in the lives for sarcasm, ridicule, derision or contempt. They have zero tolerance for wiseasses. That’s why I avoid drill sergeants, cops and judges like the plague.
There are two industries, however, where a wiseass is welcomed with open arms, where his unique skills are needed, valued and well-compensated. After all, when you need to sell a product or an idea that nobody needs, at a price nobody wants to pay, who better to do the job than a wiseass — a cynical, calculating, flippant bastard who’ll say anything to make an impression or achieve his goals.
The two industries are, of course, advertising and politics.
I’m glad I chose the ad business. I’m pretty sure I would have been a rotten politician.
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I’m worthless around the house. I have no mechanical aptitude or carpentry skills, and plumbing is a complete mystery to me. About the only things I’m good for are changing light bulbs and mowing the lawn, and sometimes those chores challenge my abilities.
My lack of handy man skills is an endless source of aggravation for the lovely Mrs. Milo. She refuses to believe that a grown man could have absolutely no interest in fixing things up, tearing things down, or playing with power tools.
In time, my lack of enthusiasm for do-it-yourself, home-improvement projects began to affect my marriage. Our relationship grew strained. Resentment, decades long in the making, came between us. I sensed my wife thought less of me as a husband, and as a man, because I did not spend my weekends with a tool belt around my waist, fixing sticky doors, repairing cracks in the wall plaster, making furniture or tiling floors.
Sometimes my wife would make snide comments that added to the tension. “Did you, by any chance, notice that Jim is building a gazebo in his back yard?”
“I don’t give a shit.”
“Well, I wouldn’t mind having a gazebo in OUR back yard.”
“Fine, go tell that ignorant fucker I’ll give him two hundred bucks to build us a gazebo.”
The lovely Mrs. Milo gave me an ugly look and stomped away, muttering vague threats and slamming doors. I figured there was a good chance I’d be sleeping on the couch that night.
Early that following Saturday, I was out on my back porch, enjoying a cigarette with my morning whiskey and basking in the peace and quiet of a weekend day, when the silence was suddenly shattered. The neighborhood’s handy men were at it again. The horrible sounds of hammering, sawing, drilling, sanding, chopping, and the roar of chainsaws, echoed up and down Eastwood Avenue. And I knew that the unholy racket would go on all day long.
I had to get away. The noise was driving me crazy. So, I drove to Swillagain’s Saloon where the noise — the tinkling of ice cubes, drunken laughter, and jukebox music — was more to my liking.
After a few drinks, however, I began to reconsider my position on the handy man thing. Was I being unreasonable? What was so wrong about doing a few odd jobs around the house? If I fixed a couple of leaky faucets, caulked the tile in the downstairs bathroom, or painted the cabinets, it would probably make my wife happy and restore harmony to my home. Besides, I would save quite a bit of money by not calling a plumber or carpenter every time there was a problem. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I had a couple of more for the road and then drove to Home Depot. When I got to the store I asked one of the clerks where I could find a tool belt.
“What kind of tool belt?”
“I want the best damn tool belt in the store.”
The clerk found me a beauty — dark gleaming leather, metal rivets, sturdy loops and deep pockets. It was a professional craftsman’s tool belt, made for someone who was deadly serious about do-it-yourself work. When I strapped the tool belt around my waist, I felt like a gunslinger.
Buyer’s remorse set in as soon as I walked out of the store. “Dumbass,” I said out loud, “who are you kidding?” I had just wasted good money on something that I knew, deep in my heart, I would never, ever use. I was a lot of things, but I never was, and never would be, a handy man.
When I got home I put the tool belt on my easy chair. When my wife saw it, she gave me an odd, questioning look, but didn’t say anything.
The tool belt stayed on the easy chair for nearly a week. I must have walked by the tool belt 40 or 50 times a day and every time I saw the damned thing, I felt a twinge of guilt. It should have been hanging low on my waist, loaded down with tools, while I went around the house fixing everything that needed fixing.
But, no, it just sat on my easy chair, gathering dust, a grim reminder of my failings. I began to resent the tool belt’s presence, and eventually I grew to hate it. I hoped it would disappear, or that my wife would stash it away somewhere. I just wanted to be rid of it.
One day wife said, “You do know that the tool belt is still sitting in your easy chair.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Well, are you ever going to use it?”
“I doubt it.”
“That’s what I figured.”
The next day, I returned the tool belt to Home Depot and got my money back.
There are people in this world that better hope I never get diagnosed with a terminal disease. If a doctor ever tells me I’ve got just a few months to live, there are a lot of rotten bastards I’m taking with me.
I’ve got a shit list, and it’s a long one. It goes all the way back to grade school.
A while ago, having discovered several new aches and pains, and realizing I wouldn’t live forever, I decided it was time to start settling scores. I was sitting at the kitchen table, making an enemies list, when the lovely Mrs. Milo came by and asked what I was doing.
“I’m making a list.”
“What kind of list?”
“I’m writing down the names of all the low-life sons of bitches I’m going to shoot, stab, strangle and run over with my car in the next few weeks. I’m also planning on chopping up a couple of these cocksuckers with a machete.”
“Milo, have you been drinking?”
“I may have had a smidgen of red wine with lunch.”
“Let me see that list,” she said, and grabbed it off the table. “Are you crazy? What have any of these people ever done to you? And why in the world is your brother-in-law, Bill, on this list?”
“My sister heard about my plans and asked me, as a personal favor, to run over her husband with a car.”
With the possible exception of cats, human beings seem to be the only creatures to commit, and take pleasure from acts of vengeance. There’s something deeply satisfying about hearing that something terrible has happened to someone you despise, someone who’s treated you shabbily, abused you, and made your life miserable.
Just imagine how great it would be to find out that someone you truly hated — someone who embezzled your retirement funds, killed your dog or ran off with your wife — had come to a bad end.
Then imagine how much better it would be if you had personally caused this despicable person’s destruction.
Vengeance, after all, requires a personal touch. Random accidents don’t count as proper vengeance. It’s not enough that a person slips on a banana peel and breaks his neck, gets torn apart by a pack of pit bulls, or gets crushed by a falling piano. You have to be the person that leaves the banana peel on the sidewalk, lets the dogs loose, or drops the piano.
And, finally, the object of your vengeance has to know that you are responsible for his or her predicament. Ideally, in the moments before the ambulance arrives, there’ll be enough time for you to walk up to the bleeding, mangled victim and gleefully take credit for their misfortune.
“Hey, Mrs. Shimkus, you remember me?”
“Maybe next time you’ll think twice about giving someone an F in algebra and making him go to summer school.”
I was sitting at my computer, surfing legal aid sites, when I got a phone call from Benny Jay, my esteemed colleague at The Third City. He seemed agitated.
“Milo, your wife just called me. She thinks you’ve lost your mind. She says you’re planning to commit some sort of wholesale mayhem.”
“That is correct.”
“I’m sure you’ve got your reasons. But I have to tell you that, in my opinion, this might reflect poorly on The Third City.”
When I explained my reasoning to Benny, he grew uncharacteristically quiet. After an awkward silence, he said, “Well, I can see your mind is made up, but while you’re at it can you do me a huge favor?”
“Put Hue Hollins on your list.”
“The NBA referee?”
“Yeah, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the bastard called that ridiculous foul on Scotty Pippen in game 5 of the 1994 playoffs.”
A couple of hours later, I got a call from my dear friend, Bruce Diksas. I believe he had been drinking. “Hey, Milo. You remember Carlos Rivera, the rotten fucker who hit a king on the river to beat my flush?”
“Consider it done.”
Just before I went to bed, I got a call from my sweet, gray-haired, 91-year-old mother. “Do you remember Mrs. Popovich…”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll take care of it.”
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When Benny Jay had the brilliant idea to start a blog site, his intention was to provide a showcase for the best writers in Chicago. Unfortunately, no writer in town wanted anything to do with The Third City. Most, in fact, wouldn’t even return Benny’s phone calls. The few that responded to his calls just told him to fuck off.
Out of desperation, Benny called me. “Hey, Milo, how would you like to write for The Third City?”
“Come on, man. This is important to me, and you owe me a few favors.”
”What’s the pay?”
“Heh, heh, we can discuss that later.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
“Great! Now, what are your areas of expertise?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You must be good at something. Everybody’s good at something.”
“Well, I’m pretty good at drinking, smoking and whoring. I can shoot a decent game of pool and I know a few card tricks.”
“Excellent! You’re now officially the Society, Lifestyle and Religion columnist for TTC. When will your first column be ready?”
“I don’t know, maybe in a couple of months.”
“I need it by Monday.”
Despite my misgivings about the blogging business, I discovered I had a real gift for it. In a short time, my blogs became wildly popular. The Third City’s readers came to rely on me for sound advice, brilliant insights, and spiritual enlightenment. I was doing so well that in less than a year I was promoted to the exalted position of partner.
But best of all, the money was rolling in, an obscene amount of money, more than I had ever earned honestly. I was rolling in the dough. I felt like I had won the lottery.
It was a life-changing experience. I quit shopping for clothes at Sears and started wearing bespoke suits made by the same tailors who dressed Sidney Korshak and Irv Kupcinet. I quit hanging out in dive bars and began frequenting the finest watering holes in Rush Street’s Viagra Triangle. I leased a Cadillac. I bought gold chains and a pinky ring. I acquired a long-legged, busty mistress and set her up in a Gold Coast apartment. I invested in several fried chicken franchises. I got season tickets for…
This is Mrs. Milo. I saw what my husband was writing and chased him away from the computer with the can of pepper spray I keep handy for occasions like this. I can’t believe the crap he writes for that stupid blog. The Third City doesn’t have an office on Michigan Avenue or any other place. If those other losers who write for the blog are anything like Milo, they spend all of their time in dingy basements, dressed in a ratty bathrobes, drinking Old Crow, and sitting in front of cheap computers. In fact, the only time Milo leaves the house is when he sneaks out to the garage to smoke pot. There is no Cadillac. There are no season tickets. As for the mistress, if any woman out there wants him, they can have him and good riddance.
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According to a recent investigative report by a major Chicago newspaper, 98.3% of Chicagoans who die of heart attacks, while shoveling snow, are males above the age of 50. I live in a neighborhood that has a large population of older males. Needless to say, they dread the coming of winter.
About the middle of October, a palpable sense of gloom blankets the neighborhood. Men walk the streets with dazed expressions on their faces, muttering to themselves, sometimes stopping in mid-stride to stare at the sky, searching for any sign of inclement weather.
By mid-November, the local taverns, normally places of good cheer, become grim watering holes where anxious men of a certain age gather to watch the Weather Channel, drown their sorrows, commiserate, and assess their chances of survival.
Late Wednesday evening, the City got hit by a couple of inches of what professional meteorologists call “heart attack snow.” This type of snow is wet and dense, as weighty as clay. The snow was so heavy I could almost hear the individual flakes hitting the sidewalk. I knew, from bitter experience, that each shovel load would feel like it weighed 50 pounds.
Thursday morning, I was standing by my living room window, enjoying a cigarette with my morning whiskey, waiting nervously for the storm to blow itself out. I knew what to expect when the storm ended. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Shortly after the last snowflake fell, the lovely Mrs. Milo came into the living room and said, “Will you be a dear and shovel the snow this morning? And don’t forget the walkway in the back yard. I need to be able to get to the compost heap.”
Once again, I made the mistake of thinking I could reason with my wife. “Darling,” I said, “you do recall that I’m over 50 years old?”
“I’m aware of that.”
“And you still want me to shovel snow?”
“You don’t expect me to do it, do you? Shoveling snow is a man’s job”
I was totally and completely fucked. My wife’s last comment, about shoveling being a man’s job, left me no wiggle room. I finished my drink, put on my parka, popped a couple of aspirin, just in case, and went out to deal with the killer snow.
That morning, Eastwood Avenue, the street where I live, looked and sounded like a war zone. When I stepped out of my front door, shovel in hand, I heard ambulance sirens and the piteous groans of damaged men, guys who had thrown out their backs, pulled their hamstrings, or suffered some sort of internal injuries.
Two of my neighbors, Pete and Artie, were lying face down in the snow, unmoving, but still clutching their shovels. Another neighbor, Fred, had seemingly sustained a serious injury and was slowly and painfully crawling in the general direction of the corner bar.
Normally, I would have dropped everything and rushed to my injured neighbors’ assistance, but I had to contend with 45 feet of snow-covered sidewalk. If I wasted time, the temperature might drop and the deadly accumulation of snow might turn into an even deadlier accumulation of ice. I simply could not allow that to happen.
If, for example, Big Reggie the Mailman slipped on that particular patch of ice, hurt himself, and couldn’t make his daily rounds, most of the ladies on the block would never forgive me.
I had no choice. I had to shovel the sidewalk. But, unlike most of neighbors, I wasn’t going to be a dumbass about it. I wasn’t going to ruin my health or blow out my main gasket by rushing through the job. I was going to take my time, pace myself. I had a system.
I’d shovel for a couple of minutes, rest, shovel for a few more minutes, then take a break for a smoke and a nip from my half-pint, just to stay hydrated and regulate my nicotine levels. That was my routine and I stuck to it.
It took a while but I finally got the job done. Best of all, I had incurred no significant injuries. I was proud of myself. I had lived to shovel another day.
When I strutted into the house, chest puffed out, head held high, the lovely Mrs. Milo said, “I see you made it.”
“Piece of cake, babe. Real men don’t worry about shoveling snow.”
I had acquitted myself honorably. I had beaten the elements and prevailed where lesser men failed. But I was an old hand and knew better than to underestimate Mother Nature. If I was going to survive the rest of this winter and, hopefully, a few more to come, I had to remain vigilant. I had to keep my edge.
So, I changed into some comfortable clothing, made myself a stiff drink, sat down in front of the TV, and spent the rest of the day and evening watching the Weather Channel.
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As an army veteran, I learned, a long time ago, never to volunteer for anything. You may think you’re being asked to perform some sort of heroic act for your country when a sergeant asks for volunteers and you step forward. But most soldiers learn, through bitter experience, that they’ve probably volunteered to scrub toilets.
So, when Dr. Betsy, my psychologist at the Evanston Vet Center, asked me to volunteer to help at Stand Down — which is a charity event held twice a year for down-and-out veterans — my initial impulse was to say, “No! Absolutely not! There’s no fucking way I’m going to volunteer for any fucking thing.”
But I didn’t say that. I didn’t want Dr. Betsy to think less of me than she probably already did, so I fell back on the usual thing I say when I can’t make a decision. I said, “I’ll think about it.”
I was in a funk that evening, just moping around the house. My wife, the lovely Mrs. Milo, noticed my rotten mood and asked about it. I was going to lie and say everything was peachy, but, over the years, I had learned, the hard way, that she would hound me unmercifully until she got to the bottom of things.
When I explained my concerns about volunteering for Stand Down, she said, “But you like being with veterans. You tell me you feel comfortable around them.”
“Yeah, but this is different. Many of the guys coming to this event are truly fucked up. They’ve got serious issues, mental problems, physical problems, and a lot of them are homeless. It breaks my heart to see these fuckers in such bad shape. I don’t know if I can handle it.”
Smiling prettily, my wife said, “I know you’ll do the right thing.”
About a week later, I was at the National Guard Armory at Kedzie and North Avenue, handing out warm clothing to down-on-their-luck veterans.
The Armory was a huge building and it was crowded with hundreds of people, with dozens more lined up at the doors, waiting to get in.
The main room, the size of a high school gym, was packed end-to-end with long tables, each loaded with cold weather gear. There were piles of underwear, boxers and longjohns, socks, t-shirts and sweatshirts, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves, trousers, boots, winter coats, and sleeping bags. Behind each table were large cardboard boxes containing more clothing to top off the tables when supplies ran low.
And behind each table was a volunteer, handing out clothing to needy veterans.
I was assigned to a table that was piled high with thick cotton socks. I was supposed to hand them out, but the vets just helped themselves, taking as many as they wanted or needed. Basically, I was useless. Aside from re-stocking the table, there was not much for me to do.
I did, however, have a great opportunity to observe some of my fellow ex-soldiers. And I didn’t like what I saw. Some of the men — and they were 99% men — seemed somewhat normal. Some looked deranged. Some of them appeared to be dangerous. And a lot of them were truly fucked up, dirty, unkempt, skinny, under-dressed, and in dire need of a long, hot shower. Some of them stunk so badly that I had to step back from the table.
I hated seeing vets in such bad shape. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, but it did. I had heard and read about the problems many vets were having. But seeing it up close and personal is a heart-breaking experience. They deserved better.
There was one guy in particular that got to me. He was about my age, so I figured him for a Vietnam vet. The way he dressed and smelled also made me think he was homeless. He went through the line a couple of times and didn’t take anything. His third time through, he took one pair of socks and stuffed them in his coat pocket.
“Hey, brother,” I said, “take some more socks. You’ll probably need them.”
He glanced at me for a moment, just long enough for me see the long-gone and far-away look in his eyes. “No, man, this is all I need,” he said, and then walked off toward the exit.
I left about five minutes later.
As I walked toward the North Avenue bus stop, my mind was churning with what-ifs and could-have-beens. I thought about things that had happened in my life, my military experiences and decisions I had made, good, bad, and stupid.
I realized that with a couple of wrong turns and a bad break or two, it could have been me on the other side of the table, looking for a warm pair of socks.
I was thinking about things I hadn’t thought about in years, painful memories that I hoped were lost and gone forever. My stomach was upset and I could feel the beginning of a headache. “Serves you right, dumbass,” I muttered. “You knew nothing good ever came from volunteering.”
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