“Hey, Milo! Let’s get together tonight for a few drinks.”
“What do you mean you can’t.”
“My doctor told me I can’t drink anymore.”
“What! Like forever?”
Jesus, man, that’s horrible.”
“I know, but there’s still hope. I’m actively seeking a second opinion.”
I don’t remember when I had my first drink, but by the age of 16, I was getting drunk once or twice a week, usually on weekends. A few like-minded friends and I would pool our meager resources and buy a case or two of the cheapest beer in Northwest Indiana. Then we’d find a quiet spot, somebody’s basement, a backyard, a garage, or go out to the beach, and drink until we ran out of beer or got sick.
That was the beginning of my life-long affair with alcohol. Drinking offered everything I wanted in life at the time. It allowed me to spend quality time with friends, escape reality, feel bulletproof, act goofy, and get up the nerve to approach girls.
After stints in the United States Army — where I added a few more vices to my collection — and Indiana State University, I relocated to Chicago’s North Side. In a short time I discovered the taverns on Lincoln Avenue and quickly became a regular at some of that street’s finer establishments.
Coincidentally, it was during that same time period, when I began acquainting myself with Lincoln Avenue taverns, that I slowly switched from being a beer drinker to being a whiskey drinker. My drink of choice was bourbon on the rocks, but vodka, brandy or rum would do just fine if bourbon wasn’t available.
I don’t know why I tapered off on beer. There was a time I could put away a couple of six-packs – even more if it was a long night and I started early. But as I got older, three or four beers filled me up, made me feel bloated and uncomfortable. That was a problem I never experienced with bourbon whiskey.
I’ve got my wife to thank for getting me started on red wine. She had always frowned on my whiskey drinking.
“You should try red wine for a change. Instead of guzzling bourbon like a degenerate, you can sip red wine like a gentleman. It’s supposed to be good for your health, too.”
I took the lovely Mrs. Milo’s advice and started sipping red wine. In a short time, I was sipping nearly two bottles a day.
And then I suffered a Subdural Hematoma and ended up in the hospital for three weeks. I don’t know if red wine had anything to do with my affliction, but I never had any problems when I was drinking bourbon.
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I was hospitalized for three weeks in the month of May. I had suffered a Subdural Hematoma, which is bleeding of the tissues around the brain, and had to have emergency, life-saving surgery.
Recovery was long and arduous. For a few days I had two tubes sticking out of my skull, draining the blood from my brain. The surgeon put a piece of titanium in my skull to replace some of the bone that was removed.
I don’t remember anything for the six or seven days after the surgery, but I was told I had around-the-clock care. Nurses hovered over me like anxious, first-time parents tending to a sickly newborn. Doctors stopped by a couple of times a day to check on their handiwork. Rivers of high-quality meds flowed through my veins.
When I came to my senses, I was put in the hands of therapists — physical therapists, speech therapists, respiratory therapists and nutritional therapists. When I went home after the three weeks, I still had to come back to the hospital two days a week for even more therapy.
In my opinion, the best thing about my hospitalization was that all of the services — CAT scans, x-rays, surgery, nursing care, medications, therapy, hospital bed, food — didn’t cost me anything.
I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars my treatment was worth, but I didn’t have to pay a cent. As an honorably discharged veteran of the United States Army, all of my medical care is paid for by the government.
I feel sorry for the chumps that actually have to pay for health insurance. They are screwed, coming and going. Even though they pay hundreds of dollars a month for health insurance, thousands if they have large families, they still get stuck with deductibles, co-pays, and pharmaceutical fees. It’s a racket, a scam Bernie Madoff would envy.
Even more pitiful are the dumbasses who don’t have any health insurance at all. They are what the Vietnamese call “Bui Doi,” which loosely translates to “The dust of life.” People without health insurance are subject to any ill wind.
For the uninsured, a serious medical issue can be disastrous. Even a short stay in a hospital can cost more that most people can afford to pay.
In 2015, there were almost 900,00 non-business-related bankruptcies in the USA, and it is estimated that more than half of them were due to medical expenses. People have had their savings wiped out, their homes taken away, and their futures obliterated because they had a run of bad medical luck. In the back of every uninsured person’s mind there must be the ugly knowledge that if they get sick enough, they can lose everything.
Of course, if a person happened to live in a country with a national health care program, he or she wouldn’t have to worry about losing everything because of an affliction. They would be taken care of, not taken for a ride. Even shitholes like Slovenia, Greece and Finland, countries with a fraction of the USA’s wealth, offer their citizens government sponsored health care.
Among people of a certain age, the subject of health is of extreme interest. I had lunch with an old friend recently and all he talked about was health, his and mine, and the health care system.
“Milo, you don’t know how lucky you are.”
“Not only did you survive life-threatening surgery, you also got free medical care from the VA.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly free.”
“When I was a young man, I risked my life, limbs, and sanity for this country. The ‘free’ health care is sort of a ‘thank you’ for my service.”
“Well, I’m envious. I have to pay $800 a month to Blue Cross, with a huge deductible and a co-pay on meds.”
“Here’s an idea. Go to Afghanistan and fuck with the Taliban for a year or two. If you make it back, Uncle Sam will be happy to provide you with ‘free’ health care.”
My friend gave it some thought. “No thanks,” he said. “I’ll stick with Blue Cross.”
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About two months ago, May 7th to be exact, I went to the kitchen to get a couple of ice cubes for my afternoon whiskey. When I got to the kitchen my head started spinning, I got dizzy and fainted — the first time in my life that I have fainted. On my way down to the floor, I banged my head, hard, on the kitchen table.
A while later, I was sitting on the couch, humming a weird tune, when my wife found me. A look of horror came over her face, and she said, “My God! What happened to you?”
“Ah, what do you mean?”
“Your face is covered with blood!”
I was still humming that weird tune when I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was surprised to see that my face was, indeed, covered with blood. When my head hit the kitchen table it opened a gash in my forehead that bled profusely.
I remember trying to wash the blood from my face and that’s the last thing I remembered for the next six or seven days. I’ll have to reconstruct those six or seven days from the stories my wife and daughters, and the health care professionals, told me.
According to my wife, while I was in the bathroom washing my face, I started talking crazy, ranting, making no sense. And then I started vomiting. My wife called my daughter, who immediately came over. After conferring, they decided to take me to the VA hospital. My wife drove while my daughter did her best to keep me awake.
In the emergency room, the doctors peppered me with questions. “Who’s the President?”
“Ah, Lyndon Johnson.”
“Where are you right now.”
I said, “Fort Walton Beach, Florida,” a place I had never visited in my life.
The doctors ordered a CAT scan, which discovered that the tissues around my brain were bleeding. I had suffered a Subdural Hematoma and my skull was filling with blood. The flow of blood had pushed my brain about two centimeters — more than half an inch — off center.
I was immediately sent to the University of Illinois hospital for emergency brain surgery.
After three hours of surgery, I ended up with two tubes in my skull to drain the blood from my brain, a piece of titanium to replace the piece of skull that had been removed, and 23 staples to keep everything together. Just to be on the safe side, they added eight or nine stitches after the drainage tubes were removed, a couple of days later.
By all accounts, I was a shitty patient. They had to strap me down and put some sort of mittens on my hands because I kept trying to pull the tubes out of my head. Every once in while I’d say something that the doctors and nurses couldn’t make sense of, but my wife and daughters clearly understood to mean, “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
After about a week, I started coming to my senses. I still had trouble talking, but I could make myself understood, and I could understand what was said to me.
When I asked a doctor what had happened to me, he replied with some medical mumbo-jumbo that I wouldn’t have understood had I been completely healthy and in my right mind.
When I asked my sister, who’s in the medical supply business, what happened to me, she told me exactly what I needed to hear.
“You had a brain injury. You could have died. You could have been a vegetable. You could have spent the rest of your life in a wheelchair, drooling and wearing diapers. But you got real lucky. It appears that you’ll make a complete recovery. The doctors are surprised you’re doing so well. So am I, to be honest about it.”
“How long am I going to be in the hospital?”
“As long as it takes. But when you get out, you’re going to have to make some lifestyle changes. And that means no smoking or drinking, especially no drinking.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”
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Editor’s note: In honor of the fourth of July, we’re re-running our tribute to one of America’s greatest heroes…
I guess I’m just an old rocker. My musical tastes were formed in the late 60s and early 70s. I still listen to the old warhorses – Dylan, the Stones, Janis Joplin, the Dead, Cream, Marvin Gaye, Traffic, the Doors, Otis Redding, Van Morrison. If I’m driving down the street and hear one of my old favorites on the radio I turn up the volume until the car vibrates.
That said, there is one musician I esteem above all others, a musician whose music still sends chills up my spine, someone who took the electric guitar to places it’s never been before and created sounds that have been copied but never equaled.
I’m talking about Jimi Hendrix, genius, guitar god and war hero.
I became aware of Hendrix in 1967. His first hit, “Purple Haze,” was all over the radio. The sound was like nothing I had ever heard before – big, bold, discordant, but undeniably different. It was alien to my unsophisticated ears. I just didn’t get it. But, you have to understand, I had not started smoking pot yet.
A year later I was in Vietnam and I got it. Boy did I get it. The Vietnamese conflict has been called the Rock ‘n Roll War. Music was everywhere. It seemed that every soldier had his own cassette player and collection of cassette tapes. I remember my first day in-country. I had just gotten off an airplane along with 200 other new fish and was standing on the tarmac at the Da Nang air base, listening to a bored 2nd Lieutenant welcoming us to Vietnam. While the 2nd Lt. was droning on about the noble mission we were about to undertake, I heard music in the background, coming from a collection of raggedy tents just off the runway. It was the Doors.
This is the end/ This is the end/ my friend
Welcome to Vietnam.
Just like in the good old USA, there were racial problems among the American soldiers in Vietnam. If you recall, the late 60s were when King, Kennedy and Malcolm were assassinated. There were riots in the streets of our major cities. Students were forming revolutionary cells and plotting to overthrow the government. Lines were drawn between the races, the generations and the body politic. It was a time of supreme tension and nobody could say with certainty what the future held.
What was happening in the States was mirrored in Vietnam. It was like a bizarre reflection of what was occurring on the streets back home. Lines were also drawn, political and racial. Black guys hung with black guys, white guys hung with white guys and Latinos kept to themselves. There were actually mini race riots in some of the division base camps like Chu Lai and Da Nang. We didn’t have these problems in the field because, as infantrymen, we had more pressing concerns, like trying to keep the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars from killing us while at the same time trying to kill them.
It was a different story back in the relative safety of the division camps. The REMFS (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers) had more time on their hands. And they spent some of that time fomenting racial discord. I’m not saying that all the soldiers were like that, but there were enough of them, both black and white, to create serious and often lethal problems. After all, when you mix young men, ethnic strife and automatic rifles together, there are bound to be a few, ah, misunderstandings.
Music played a role in the racial divide. The music you listened to defined who you were. Black guys listened to soul and funk from Motown and Memphis. White guys listened to rock and country. And some poor souls just paid attention to their own demons. There was one musician, however, who crossed all boundaries, someone who both blacks and whites idolized.
That was Jimi Hendrix.
Jimi — back in the day….
Whenever you saw groups of blacks and white partying together, sitting around bonfires, drinking warm beer and smoking pot, the chances are that the music blaring from cassette machines was played by Jimi Hendrix. There were several reasons for this adoration of Jimi. The first, obviously, was that he was a supernaturally gifted musician. He simply had no equal. His audacious combination of rock riffs, deep understanding of the blues and soulful stylings (he once played guitar in the Isley Brothers band) spoke to everyone.
Another reason he was loved by the troops was that Jimi had once been a soldier himself. Before becoming Jimi Hendrix, he had been James Marshall Hendrix, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. That simple connection made it seem that Jimi was one of us. We felt that he understood us and our terrible plights in ways that British fops like Jagger, McCartney and Clapton never could.
On Highway 1, near the South China Sea, there was a hill near the village of Sai Hyun called Hendrix Hill. This particular hill was strewn with huge rocks and boulders. On one of the largest boulders someone had painted, in letters that seemed 10 feet high, the word Hendrix. The boulder was easily seen from the highway and every time I passed it I couldn’t help but smile. It was our Hollywood sign.
When Jimi came out with his “Electric Ladyland” album, there was a song on it that became seared into the mind of practically every soldier who heard it. The song was called “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” There’s a line in that song that’s guaranteed to bring a tear to every Vietnam veteran’s eye. The line is:
Well, it’s too bad/ that our friends/ can’t be with us today
The line evokes memory, pain and loss. It brings back memories of old friends and comrades in arms, young men who died far too young, in a country 10,000 miles from home, often in circumstances too gruesome to relate.
To this day, when I hear that line, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and spend a few moments recalling those who made the supreme sacrifice. Faces and names run through my mind – Captain David Walsh, Sweet Jimmy Ingram, Stony Deel and many others whose names are etched on a granite wall in Washington D.C.
I’m going to wrap it up now. I’m going to put on “Electric Ladyland” and try to find some comfort on this rainy day. Jimi had a way of comforting a lot of souls. That’s what heroes do.
In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I had a little problem with cocaine. I wasn’t the only one. In my social circle the drug seemed to be everywhere. At the parties and gatherings I attended there were more runny noses than in a classroom of first graders during cold and flu season.
At the time there was a lot of misinformation being spread about cocaine. It wasn’t addictive (bullshit). It was great for your sex life (occasionally). It was as harmless as reefer (what a crock of shit). The truth of the matter is that cocaine ruined lives and killed people. And when some genius figured out how to distill the essence of cocaine and turn it into crack, well, you’ve read the papers.
My coke connection was a guy I’ll call Gary. He had been a pot dealer for years before adding coke to his inventory. He had an apartment about half a block from Wrigley Field, and I used to spend a lot of time there, getting high, listening to Gary’s extensive record collection and chatting with his clients when they stopped by to pick up an ounce or two of weed.
I met a lot of characters at Gary’s place. He had been around a long time and had collected an interesting customer base. A lot of theater people and musicians were regulars, as were a contingent of Lincoln Avenue hippies and barflies left over from the 60’s.
The only thing that changed when Gary started dealing coke was that he began making more money. He still liked having people around and was very generous with his product. There were always joints available and a few lines of white powder and a rolled-and-taped hundred dollar bill on a small mirror he kept on his coffee table.
One of Gary’s customers was a guy named Walt, who tended bar at popular local jazz club. I happened to be at Gary’s one day when Walt called and said he was going to stop by. When Gary got off the phone, he was as excited as I’d ever seen him.
“Man, oh, man. Guess who’s dropping by?”
“I heard. It’s Walt, right?”
“Yeah, guess who he’s bring with him.”
“Dexter fucking Gordon.”
“The saxophone player?”
“One of the greatest ever. The fucking guy’s a legend. Fuck, man. Dexter Gordon.”
It just so happened that I had read about Dexter Gordon in the Tribune that morning. He was making his first American tour in 30 years. Like many American jazz men, Dexter had been an expatriate for much of his career. The expatriates left the country for many reasons – racism, greater financial opportunities, drug problems. Sadly, in Dexter’s case, it was drugs. America’s drug laws were brutal in the 40’s and 50’s, when Dexter was in his prime. Instead of treatment, addicts were locked up for years, doing hard time just for having “marks,” which are the scars left by hypodermic needles. For a better idea of the drug hysteria of the time, read “Straight Life,” the biography of another brilliant saxophone player, the great Art Pepper.
Dexter Gordon was an impressive looking man. He must have been in his late 50’s or early 60’s, but looked younger. He was about 6’5″ tall, a light-complected black man with freckles and closely cropped red hair. He looked a bit like the photos I’d seen of Malcolm X. When he spoke, his voice had a growl like Louis Armstrong.
Dexter was warm, open and talkative. We discussed all sorts of things, the upcoming Chicago Jazz Fest, baseball (he was a Mets) fan), a recording date he was planning, his performance that evening. He spent about three hours with us. I don’t recall everything we talked about, but I do remember that Dexter snorted about two grams of coke.
The man was snorting coke as quickly as Gary could dish it out, and, as I mentioned, Gary was generous with his drugs. I did my share but couldn’t keep up with Dexter. He wasn’t a Hoover, he was a Black and Decker Industrial Strength Wet/Dry Vac. Even Gary was impressed by the amount of coke Dexter was putting away.
It was a pleasant afternoon, one I’ll never forget. When it came time for Dexter to leave, he thanked Gary profusely for his hospitality and invited us to his show. He said he’d leave comps with the bartender.
Due to extenuating circumstances, I didn’t make it to the show, but I made it a point to read the Tribune the next morning to see if there was a review of Dexter’s show. There was indeed a review. I don’t remember the exact wording of the review but it went something like this.
“I am in awe of Dexter Gordon. His career, once derailed by drug addiction, is back on the fast track. The show he put on last night was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Now that Dexter has put his drug problems behind him, his playing is better than ever,”
It did my heart good to read that Dexter Gordon had given up drugs and straightened out his life. Good saxophone players are hard to find.
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I once knew a boy named Sue. He was an Asian kid who went to my high school. His actual name was Soo, but I’m proceeding phonetically here.
There were a lot of funny names in my school. Many of the students were immigrants or children of immigrants, whose names consisted of odd combinations of consonents and vowels, strung together in ways that the Anglo-Saxon mind had trouble deciphering. I don’t have a copy of my high school yearbook but, if memory serves, the roster of students’ names would have baffled a Harvard linguist. I doubt if William Safire could pronounce half of the names correctly.
My name, Milo Samardzija, was near the top of the list of tongue-twisting appellations. It wasn’t the worst, by any means, but it was close. There was only one teacher that ever got my name right on the first try and that was because she was descended from the same part of the Balkans that my family escaped from. The rest of the school’s staff mangled my name for weeks or months before getting it right. One old fart, a drunkard who to tried to teach English, never got it right. He eventually gave up, resorting to saying Hey you or pointing at me when my participation was required.
It was during high school that I grew to hate my name. I envied people with names like Smith, Jones, or Johnson. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have a name with only one or two syllables? I had a distant relative in Milwaukee who changed his name from Rade Samardzija to Rudy Summers. I remember asking my dad if he had ever considered changing or shortening our last name. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That’s a stupid fucking question if I ever heard one.”
As bad as I felt about my own name, I felt almost as bad for other students who had unpronounceable or awkward names, like Aphrodite Baffalukis, Predrag Bielopetrovich, Shlomo Finklestein, Scotty Queerman, and George Shitz. We were brothers and sisters united in humiliation, fellow travelers on the road to ridicule. How we got out of high school with our sanity and self-esteem intact is beyond me. In my case, I don’t think I did.
Things only got worse when I was drafted into the US Army. If educated high school teachers couldn’t pronounce my name then what could I expect from barely literate drill instructors? But, again, I wasn’t alone. There were plenty of others in my basic training company with terrible names. I remember one guy in particular, an Armenian, with a name so complicated that it took the combined efforts of two sergeants and a Second Lieutenant to just come close to pronouncing it. In the end, they resorted to calling him Alphabet. The poor kid was so traumatized that he eventually deserted, defecting, I believe, to Huimanguillo, Mexico, Ikaluktutiak, Canada, or somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I caught a huge break a couple of years ago when the Chicago Cubs drafted a young pitcher out of Notre Dame named Jeff Samardzija. When he made it to the big leagues last year and radio and TV announcers began broadcasting his name, it changed my life. Suddenly, people began pronuncing my name correctly – on the first try. I was no longer a Hey You, Alphabet, Whatchamacallit, or That Guy. I was a somebody, with a real name, a name that, at least on the North Side, was not so strange after all. It was a life-changing experience, liberating me from the purgatory of the bad-name-afflicted. I hope Jeff Samardzija has a long and successful career with the Cubs and never does anything to dishonor the noble name of Samardzija. After all, if someone with the fine, upstanding name like Bartman can be brought down, it can happen to anybody.
One thing about having an odd name is that it made me appreciate other odd names. In fact, I’ve become a connoiseur of awkward appellations. I’ve even compiled a short list of some of my favorite names, in various categories, that I take pleasure in hearing and saying. I’d like to share them with you.
- Politics: Dick Devine
- Football: Terdell Middleton
- Baseball: Pete LaCock
- Exotic Dancing: Ineeda Mann
- Statesmen: Zbigniew Bzrezinski
- Rock ‘n’ Roll (tie): Howard Futterman and the Amish Playboys and Skid Marx and the Excrementals
If you, faithful readers, have any favorite odd names, feel free to suggest them in the comment section of this blog. We just might post them someday.
Milo’s still recuperating from his operation, so we’re re-running his Memorial Day classic…
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 uneasy 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 uncomfortable 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 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 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, and I’ll celebrate it in the old military tradition.
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