Sunday, October 29, 2006

Technology and Capitalism

I set out to buy a digital camera and came home with something only a distinguished member of MENSA could fully operate. I wanted a Microwave to heat up my food, bought one and to this day only use about 3 buttons, even though it will decipher advanced mathematics and quantum physics, whatever that is. Remote controls? I got a whole herd of them and they are as much of a mystery to me now, as they were the day I unwrapped the plastic they came in. Gawd forbid I actually hit the wrong button!

K.I.S.S. is an acronym for “keep it simple, stupid” and its one manufacturers of electronics have long forgotten. Every company is attempting with success to pack as many features into their gadgets as is humanly possible and we, like the techno-geeks we think we will become, throw down our hard earned money like a crazed gambler at the horse tracks. It beats all logic I can muster, to figure out how we got in this predicament.

I recently decided I did not want to pay for cell phone features I hardly used. Bear with me please, because I know many people “just can’t live without my cell”, but I’m trying to make a point. My phone had all the gadgets, camera, text, blah, blah, blah! Phooey! I just want to make a phone call occasionally and maybe receive one. I called all the phone companies and told them I wanted a simple plan and simple phone, no extra stuff that I couldn’t figure out how to use and wouldn’t anyway and was told by all they could not give me what I wanted. I told them the Israeli’s have a “kosher” phone that comes free with the contract is about $15 per month…unlimited minutes. No cigar.

Is Google the Anti-Christ? Come on! I say that jokingly, but computers and the Internet are being forced down the throats of 75% of this country and before long, you won’t be able to buy, sell or trade unless you have the Internet. Sounds bizarre don’t it, but wait a couple of years and you can throw your cable modem bill away, because the Internet will be free. You will HAVE to have the Internet, because it will too expensive to talk to a computerized voice, so you will need to key it in…then you will get the computerized voice so you can repeat everything AND you will have the option to hear it in Spanish most likely.

My 1989 Honda Civic Wagon has 200,000 miles on it and I have the original manual, which has about 60 pages and 6 inches by 9 inches in size. My wife’s car, which is already 3 years old, has three manuals and each one has, oh, about a gazillion pages, give or take a few. I’m surprised her car doesn’t fly it has so many gadgets!

Back to my digital camera! My camera has close to 200 settings and I use maybe 5 of them and it takes fantastic pictures! I could have bought the entry model that was $200 less and only had 75 features, but I did not want the entry model, which incidentally has the exact same 5 features I use and looks pretty much the same.

A friend at work asked my advice because he was buying a new laptop for classes he’s taking at college and I’m the local PC guru. I asked him what his requirements were and since he has two desktop computers already, he told me he was pretty sure he needed wireless capability and maybe CD writing function and he was going to use it for college only, no music, no movies, just basic Office software. We pulled out the Dell catalog and the entry-level laptop was about 50 times more computer than he needed and would last him well through his college courses. I told him $399 plus shipping and the laptop would be his. Perfect, easy and simple. More than he could use.

He came to work today with news of his new $750 plus shipping laptop and he told me he decided to go with this one because it had so many more features and “was a better deal”. I told him “I surrender” and throwing my hands up in the air, I walked away laughing.

When is the madness going to stop? More features that no one bothers to use or learn are not a deal, nor is it needed. Technology and Capitalism are driving me to derision, folks.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Iraqi Freedom and the price of Freedom

On October 15th, my son, Sgt. Nicholas Marshall was wounded in Iraq by an improvised explosive devise, commonly called an IED, while commanding a 60 vehicle convoy south of Tikrit. This same day, the Baytown Sun ran a column I wrote on the meaning of being a Veteran, which included this quote: “my son is a U. S. Army Korean War/Iraqi Freedom/War on Terror Veteran and is most likely running convoy escort as I write this, in the Country of Iraq”.

The explosion sent fragments through the side of the vehicle, injuring all three soldiers and through training and fortitude; they were able to drive to a safe area where they exited the heavily damaged M1117 Guardian Armored Security Vehicle. All three will be awarded the Purple Heart “Red Badge of Courage” for the injuries sustained and will fully recover.

The Army M1117 Guardian ASV is armored to withstand a blast equivalent to 12 pounds of dynamite.

We greatly appreciate the prayers and outpouring of support, as I'm sure my son does.

The 15th of October was a Sunday and Nick’s name came up several times in prayer requests and the visiting Preacher told the congregation that a miracle would happen that day and it would be outside of the Church proper. I can’t help but believe God had his hand on my son and his soldiers. Some “expert” claimed recently that prayer has no recordable effect whatsoever. I guess he missed it this time.

I would like to say something. My son is no more important than any other son or daughter is to their loved ones and the injury of your children is just as difficult to you, as it is for Nick's Mom and me, when we received a call from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I do not like to hear about anyone’s child being injured or killed, as it hurts my soul.

Americans who answer the call to duty serve a higher purpose than many of us do on our jobs, as do fire fighters and law enforcement and that makes it doubly hard when they suffer injury or death. We should never forget this sacrificial fact. That is why my brother Terry and I attended the dedication service for Pvt. Wesley Riggs of Beach City.

Incidentally and on a lighter note, Sarnt (Sergeant spoken Army style) Nick was almost miffed that the Army made him call home. This kid has had his nose broken about 5 times in karate and Robert E. Lee HS sports and he was more concerned about his buddies’ injuries than his own. After a minute on the phone, he settled down and realized WE were worried and needed to know how he was fairing.

He reported 3 lacerations on his face, one requiring 10 “Army” stitches and bruises from the concussion. He will attend an EMT class for the next three weeks while convalescing and then only have about one month left of his one year tour in Iraq. The October explosion happened on his 65th mission and he told me early on, that running these convoy missions was physically and mentally the hardest thing he has ever done.

I have followed the war in Iraq from day one and am an avid reader of history. I realize all wars are fought over land and money and this war is no different and I've stated that many times. The sectarian violence in Iraq is not a civil war in the normal sense, but one between 2 religious factions (Sunni and Shia) and the vast majority of Iraqi's are caught in the middle, as are our troops.

Part of me says we need to pull out and another part tells me “circling the wagons” and letting the two sides shoot it out is the answer. 10 soldiers were killed in Iraq yesterday and 100 Iraqi’s are being executed or blown up every day and this news is being over-shadowed by a few school shootings and N. Korea posturing, amongst other things (not that those are not important).

Americans are tired of the war, so it’s not big money-making news. The whole effort is increasingly beginning to smell like Vietnam to me and our support for a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government, which fell exactly 44 days after we pulled out.

The Iraqi government needs to get off their duff and take control of their insurgent factions and get weaned of the United States military. Religion-based wars are the worst kind of fire to put out and we are finding ourselves in the same mess Winston Churchill and Lord Kitchener faced after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The English had no answer for it, just like the French had no answer for Ho Chi Minh and what makes us think we can do any better? We should fight the battles we can win, for whatever reason Governments fight wars, but this one needs some changes.

If we ARE going to stay on in Iraq, then we need to do something that truly makes a difference and do it fast.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

What exactly is a Veteran?

I was born in 1952 during the “Forgotten War” commonly called “The Korean War” or “The Korean Conflict”, a war that never ended. My aging Dad is a World War 2 U. S. Navy Veteran, I am a U. S. Air Force Vietnam Veteran and my son is a U. S. Army Korean War/Iraqi Freedom/War on Terror Veteran and is most likely running convoy escort as I write this, in the Country of Iraq.

Both of my Grandfathers served in the U. S. Army, one helped chase Pancho Villa across the Rio Grande River and the other as a soldier fighting in France, where he was wounded and walked with a cane the rest of his days. My sister is a U. S. Air Force Veteran and was a Communication Specialist at NORAD during the Vietnam War. Too many uncles and cousins to mention wore the uniforms of the Navy, Coast Guard and Army to list here. My father-in-law served in the U. S. Army on the island of Biak in the South Pacific during World War 2 and three of my wife’s distant aunt’s captured Yankee soldiers and turned them over to Rebel soldiers during the Civil War.

On the wall in my room is a signed commendation from Donald Rumsfeld for doing my part to stem the tide of Communism during the Cold War. It hangs alongside my Honorable Discharge and my son’s Army Commendations.

Am I a hero; are my relatives and son heroes? No and yes. Do we Veterans want people to make some kind of big deal about our service to this country? No, we do not. Do we deserve the benefits the Veteran’s Administration has promised those who serve? Yes, we do, in every way. Do we get angered when folks dishonor the American flag? Yes, we do, very much so. Do we look down with contempt on people who imitate military service? Absolutely. Do we love America? I would have to say yes.

Veteran’s Day is celebrated every November 11th and incidentally this is the day my Sergeant son was born. Veteran’s Day is set aside to honor those who have served and in my book, those presently serving. It’s one of the most important days of the year to millions of “Vet’s” and should be a day all Americans hold dear.

The Veterans of Desert Storm reaped the praise and adoration we Vietnam Veterans desperately needed and some VV’s could still use an understanding word or three. My hat is off to all who served in Desert Storm, as is it off to all Vietnam/Korea/WW2 Vets. I love the Marine Vets and their hard-charging, beach-landing, Devil Dog yells. I’m grateful and extremely proud of our young men and women in uniform in this time of war, which put on the uniform of our military, as support for Iraq’s cause has started to cool.

I “take a knee” for all Veteran’s who bear the physical and mental wounds of wartime. I will always vote to secure their Veteran’s benefits. I “take a knee” for their caregivers and for those who will welcome home the freshly broken and maimed soldiers, Marines, sailors, Coasties, and airmen. The good both will contribute to America will far exceed the “issues” they will sort over and over and over till peace of mind comes.

Every Veteran is a hero in my book, but like most, I do not feel I did anything heroic. Every man and woman who wears or has worn the uniform of our Armed Forces deserves the respect of our countrymen, as do our fire fighters and police. Truth be known, many Veterans fill the ranks of our most dangerous professions and deserve double the accolades. My hat is off to them all.

I bow my head and shed tears for PFC Wesley Riggs and his family in Beach City, Texas. He is not forgotten and I wish we could honor him Veteran’s Day instead of Memorial Day. I personally thank every parent, wife, brother, sister, child, aunt and uncle who takes the time and money to send a package or email to someone presently serving our country, or for phoning a Vet and telling them thanks. “Thanks” is all most of us want to hear. We don’t feel special, we feel proud. I salute you Veterans.

Note: The day I published this article, unknown to me, my son's vehicle was hit by an IED in Iraq and he suffered shrapnel injuries to the face. He is okay and convelescing at Camp Anaconda, Iraq and I want to thank everyone for their prayers and support.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Baytown: Pros or Cons? Nope; just Pros!

Lately I’ve had my ear to the ground and I must tell you good Baytown folks, I find the entire pro and con talk about our area to be stimulating. Some claim real living is somewhere other than here. The reason for this is many of us see life from the inside of our car as we rush to work and then back to our couch. Throw in all the extra activities we are involved in and we can effectively steal the enjoyment out of our lives. We haven’t learned what Europeans learned years ago and that is to truly live, you must savor the moment.

Home is that place where you hang your hat and for some, where you hang your head. Home, that place you go to relax, where family is, where friends congregate, where you raise or welcome your children. My home is in Baytown and it is by choice.

There is so much history in this area, but most do not recognize it. My bride of 29 years great grandmother was Amanda Barber and I remember years ago seeing the “Barber House” on the far side of Barber's Hill or as we now know it, Mont Belvieu. My bride’s grandmother’s sister, whom I met, was known by all as “Rab”, but her maiden name was Dimple Dee Darlin’ Barrow and was of “relations” to Clyde Barrow.

My bride’s mother’s first husband, Leroy Russell was killed in the Texas City explosion and with the little dab of insurance money; she built a home on Bowie Street in Pelly and raised beautiful daughters. She later married Willard Reneau who became famous (in amateur fiddling circles) and won many State Fiddlin’ contests. When Willard “Reno” wasn’t fiddlin’, gardenin’ or barberin’, he often rode his bike or walked up and down SH146 and picked up odd things he always ‘found’; a piece of wire, a button, an old knife or a spoon. He knew how to live and it wasn’t going 85 mph over the Fred Hartman Bridge so he could park his bottom on his living room couch.

Many of us have family, church, neighbors and memories that make living here what it is for us. The thought of living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, may sound like the paradise some seek, but if it means leaving all our friends and everything behind, it wouldn’t be much of a paradise, now would it?

Baytown is not the Utopian end-all, never will be and never can be. It is however, what we, who love it, make it. I start each day at work telling everyone that it is a beautiful day. I rarely hear a positive reply. Usually it is invectives and derogatory dialogue and sometimes, they don’t bother to reply.

This doesn’t stop me from enjoying my life, any more than my city of choice drags me down because it doesn’t have the white crystal beach of Pensacola, Florida. If a person has no vested interest in this city, then they may choose to bash it rather than make it better. That’s fine, but please don’t try to drag us, that love this town, down with you. We know what we love and it is deeper than appearances.

It’s a community built on blue-collar sweating workers, who travel to far away countries and build giant complexes. It’s a city on the move that will add 150,000 people inside its borders in the next 15 years. It is Lee College brains and white-collar people with a vision, who return to Baytown to help the city of their childhood.

It’s Pelly, Goose Creek, Brownwood, Baytown, Lynchburg, Highlands, Wooster, Cedar Bayou, Barber’s Hill, Beach City and McNair and we call it home. It’s Hog Island and the South Main Cafe. It’s the Interurban and Jack’s Hardware on Defee Street. It’s Humble Oil Company and Mobay and Gulf. It’s Brown and Root and Wilkenfield Furniture. It’s “The Tunnel” and “The Loop” and scary stories about Evergreen Road.

It’s being born in the San Jacinto Hospital on Decker Drive or Gulf Coast Hospital on Garth Road. It’s skinny-dippin’ in Slap-Out Gully or kiddos eating popcorn at the Bronson Theater on Texas Avenue. It’s 12 hour rotating shifts in chemical plants; hard work, sweat and late night call-outs to fix a malfunctioning instrument… and drag racing on Texas Avenue before “the Snake” was installed and it is two high schools that battle it out every year in “the Game” to see who is King of Baytown Football and let’s not forget the famous REL Marching Band!

Nope, I can’t take the tuck-head when I talk about my city; there’s just too much I’m proud of.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The day I learned humility from “an old man”

Ever since I was a teen reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucider series, I wanted to study martial arts. I finally got my chance in 1972 in Thailand under a hard case Korean black belt. Mr. Burroughs’s character was a Judo man and my instructor was a Taekwondo man fresh from Vietnam where he taught guerrilla tactics to soldiers. Training was realistic in the tropical heat and we frequently sparred full-contact with bamboo-reinforced pads covering our arms, legs and chest. In my first rank test, I ‘chopped’ a real brick successfully with the open hand.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWith an honorable discharge in my pocket, I left the Air Force and having the usual long term plans of most 22 year old Veterans, I moved back in with my parent’s right here in Baytown while I got my feet on the ground. My 3 younger brothers were all active in Kim Soo’s ChayonRyu in Houston and my number two brother was now living here in Baytown also, so we located a ChayonRyu school and joined.

The Baytown Karate School was located in an old building tucked neatly out of the way on Kilgore Road and we were in the Whitehall Apartments on Ward Road, so off we went to our first lesson. The School was owned by an old fellow with a ponytail, droopy mustache, a red t-shirt under his uniform, and truth be known, he was small in stature and being 22, I thought he looked, well…old.

Before class started, I looked at the pictures on the wall of the school and noticed an action picture of the instructor getting the better of Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace. I made a mental note.

Now let me back up a bit and add some history. Martial Arts in the USA were not something children studied back in the early 70’s. Karate classes often had brutally exhausting workouts and were run in a military fashion. It was common to leave class with a bloody nose or lip and limp out to your car, only to limp back to class the next night. This school had some impressive black belts and soon to be black belts. Baytown Fire Chief Shon Blake, Herbie Hathorne, movie star Eddie ‘Blue’ Deckert, Lionel Jagnanan, and the Head Instructor was none other then ChayonRyu Master Conrad Pickens.

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Conrad had double 3rd degree black belts at the time and was 46 years old...an old man. He led us in warm-ups that first class and as we did 50 slow push-ups on our knuckles, he talked steadily. We would go halfway down and he would pause us to make our muscles scream. I was used to heavy work-outs, doing 160 sit-ups, 200 push-ups and my 9 minute mile and a half every day, but this work-out was exhausting! I made another mental note.

After about a week of adjusting to this new form of combative art, sparring day arrived. Digging around in my bag, I pulled out my bamboo-reinforced equipment much to the consternation of my fellow students, who were wearing the latest cloth-covered neoprene gear. Conrad inspected my gear and pronounced it serviceable and asked me whom I would like to spar. Now, I’d never been accused of being shy when it came to being a smart-mouth, so if I remember correctly, I sparred his black belts and top students in rapid succession totally 5 strong men and taking ten minutes of non-stop action. I did okay, I thought and feeling rather cocky I proclaimed the only person I wanted to spar next was Conrad himself.

You could have heard a nunchucka made of balsa wood drop, as I faced the man with the peregrine falcon eyes. He said, “You want to spar me”? “Yes”. “Okay”. I’m told Baytown martial artists have recalled this act of extreme act of temerity, stupidity and arrogance for years and recently while retelling it, someone said “Oh, so you were the guy, eh”? We shared a laugh.

The ‘old man’ and I squared off in usual Karate duel fashion and to make a long story shorter, I flailed about like the spastic no-skilled fighter I truly was, never touching the ghost-like image of Conrad Pickens, as he made an absolute fool of me in front of his students. First my legs went and finally I couldn’t hold up my arms and then came a surprise left punch, which flattened my solar plexus. I dropped like a 170-pound blob of boneless flab onto the mat, helpless to defend myself against this…old man? “Get up”! “I can’t”, I wheezed. “Had enough”? “Yeth”.

This was the day I learned humility from an old man.
 Updated 2-8-15  RIP Conrad Pickens

© Bert Marshall 9/8/2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Did you hear what happened?

“Didja hear that our local Chemical Plant had an explosion in a unit that makes some kind of bad stuff and a bunch a people were taken to the hospital”? “Yea, I hear they make all kind of poisons and stuff out there and they’re telling folks its no big deal and not to worry”!

I’m being deliberately vague, not to make light of the trauma and injuries, but to make a point. I pray each person involved will make a speedy recovery.

The very next day after the above incident, a Dallas law firm jumps in with a full-page advertisement to help injured people (read: sue the ‘dickens’ out of a chemical company). It was a good Ad and I’m sure they paid plenty for it.

That said I want to make a suggestion. If this or any Chemical Company is found guilty of needlessly endangering lives and livelihood, then I sure as heck-fire hope the injured would use a local Baytown lawyer to represent them, like my brother did when he was seriously injured by a Chemical plant that was proven to neglect the safety of its workers. Glen Vickery was the lawyer.

Businesses should be held accountable for actions that injure people and for violations of OSHA and EPA laws.

Next, large Plants attempt - attempt - attempt to get correct information out so the public can take action and during the incipient stages of an emergency often reported information is pretty confusing. I don’t for one-minute think this local company was trying to cover up an explosion that had many witnesses. The Public Relations people who do the reporting are not smooth-operators brought in to bamboozle ‘Joe Blow, the stupid and ignorant citizen’, so they can dupe them time and time again, but people like you and I who know they will be held accountable for what they tell the EPA and local networks.

Many of us earn our livelihood in these Plants and without their continued prosperity, we both will be moving away. We who work for these companies live here, raise our kids here and we would be the very ones covering up wrong doing and I'll be honest with you, loyalty to companies is not what it was 50 years ago, so the truth be known, we won't cover up wrong doing on the part of the Plant we work for. We won’t.

I’ve told people for years “I don’t want to die here, I just want to make a whole lot of money and go home each evening”.

What the citizens of Baytown want is when something happens (explosions, injuries, etc.), the responsible Plant’s Public Relations department needs to add the Baytown Sun to their list of contacts, along with the EPA, TNRCC, etc. etc. and drop the 'facts' as they know it immediately. This keeps the Sun from unknowingly reporting incorrect data and will inform the community.

After 911 most companies are faced with the frightening burden of dealing with additional threats and to be honest, there are a lot of bugs to be worked out. Times have changed and citizens demand explanations for loud noises and weird scary smells. They want to know if uncle Billy is alive and well. Chemical Companies must respond to this need and changes must be implemented in their approach to community response time.

It’s going to take teamwork between the Chemical Companies, the City, the local networks, and the Baytown Sun to get the facts out in the open. The toughest nut to crack is going to be citizen trust. If citizens really feel the Chemical Companies have their health and safety in mind, at that point, the citizens will give the companies the benefit of the doubt.

We Baytownians shouldn’t speculate and spread rumor over something that has already injured and shook people up, but in the absence of clear information, it will happen every time. I would personally love to have a dedicated AM radio station which information is broadcast when trouble comes around, or maybe tap into Channel 16 television.

Chemical Plants need us as much as we need them and it’s time for a few changes.

Customer service is not what it used to be

I was called by a local business today to pay for a maintenance service on my in-ground pool. My debit card on file had expired. ...