Saturday, February 21, 2009

You'd better be dead, smack!

I was watching TV the other night and listening to the stories of Minnesota National Guard troops who are soon to be deployed to Iraq. Old memories returned of my National Guard years, back in the ‘70s. As a 17-year-old kid who had just graduated high school, it most likely wasn’t a sense of overwhelming patriotism that spurred me to join the Guard. To be honest, I was sweating out the draft lottery. I wasn’t too thrilled about the possibility of being drafted and going to Vietnam, but weighing equally was the fact that I wanted to be in control of my life. I didn’t want to delay my plans for anything. I had just landed an interesting job in the graphics business, had a nice car and a sweet girlfriend, and the world was mine. So to maintain some degree of control and to avoid the chance that my draft lottery number would be low, I joined Headquarters Company, 47th Infantry Division on Jan. 17, 1970.

Within 3 months I was on the first airplane ride of my life, headed to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. I had no idea what to expect but will forever remember the evening I arrived. There must have been a hundred new, young soldiers, from all across the country, sitting or standing around and making small talk while we waited in a tiny, smoke-filled room for our name to be called. We were expecting to be told what to do next, where to eat, where to sleep, or whatever. Outside it rained cats-and-dogs. Finally, above the cacophony, I heard my name. The gruff looking sergeant, with a combination sneer/snicker facial expression bellowed, “Sterner! Your MAMA is on the phone!” My mother, concerned about her eldest son’s welfare as he left home for the first time, had somehow tracked me down to make sure I had arrived at Fort Lewis without incident. I laugh about it now but at the time it was no laughing matter. I was mortified!

Treated like grunts, we recruits made it through the usual boot camp activities. “Drop and give me twenty!” became a familiar command. If we weren’t up and moving at 4 a.m. as the drill sergeant entered the barracks, we were shouted awake with, “You’d better be dead, smack!” We learned quickly not to oversleep. We learned quickly how to become a team. This was my first exposure to other young people from around the country. There was a tough, muscular Texas ranch hand that everyone was afraid of. Lucky me – I was assigned as his partner in hand-to-hand combat training. There was a fat kid with a buzz cut from out east that was constantly teased. (He became a good friend of mine). There were even two guys, I think from California, who I found in bed together one night while I was on guard duty. That was a new one on me!

Throughout those 8 weeks of boot camp, and for the additional 2 months in OJT (on-the-job training), I had many opportunities to do art. I had a sketch book that I doodled in whenever I had a chance, drawing pictures of other soldiers, memories of home and odd looking “psychedelic” images. That was the era of anti-war, flower power, hippie counterculture, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix influence. Loud rock music was everywhere. It was quite an experience for this na├»ve, clean-cut kid from the east side of St Paul.

Once my artistic talent was discovered, I was often recruited by the sergeant of our platoon to make signs. I did everything freehand, probably breaking regulation because I didn’t use standardized Army stencils and lettering sets. I later bought a set of oil paints and brushes and did a commissioned painting for our commanding officer.

During my time at Fort Lewis, I experienced varying degrees of homesickness, fear, awe, and eventually great pride and honor. I got to know a lot of good men, most of whom were Regular Army. After our 16-week stint, those of us who were members of the National Guard or Army Reserves went back home to continue our service. For the other 150 men of our company who were transferred all over the world, including South Vietnam, I still wonder to this day what happened to them.

I salute all of you.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

It's a dog's life

As I was having my Saturday morning coffee and reading the newspaper this morning, our little dachsie was by my side, enjoying the sunshine and pestering me to pick him up. It occurred to me how pets are so deeply ingrained in our lives.

Schroeder is a relatively new addition to our household. We brought him home last June, and it didn’t take long for him to become a centerpiece of our “empty-nester” world. Since I am usually the earliest riser in the house, Schroeder is the first one that I say good morning to each day as I let him outside. Actually, I need to go outside with him, since he is so small and I don’t want the local owls and coyotes to discover a tasty breakfast in the early morning darkness.

Schroeder has now reached the age and appearance when I will do a graphite drawing of him to go on the wall next to his predecessors. Until the last couple months, his snout has been short and he hadn’t achieved the traditional wiener shape. He is really a good looking little guy, and will make a great portrait subject.

My wife and I have had a dog for nearly our entire 31-year marriage. I must admit that owning a dog was not one of my priorities in those early years, but it was to Pat, who wished for a dog since she was a girl. Within months of moving into our first house she found a for-sale ad in the newspaper for Cocker Spaniel puppies, and convinced me to “just go to see them.” As the seller opened the screen door, 8 little buff-colored ragamuffins tumbled out onto the front stoop. I was hooked! The only challenge was to pick one.

As newlyweds, Barney was our “baby,” but he adapted well to his diminishing place in the pecking order as human babies were added to our family. He was a wonderful dog! The kids loved him and he had fun following them everywhere. It was a sad day, 9 years later, when he was attacked and killed just outside our door, by a one-half German Shepherd/one-half wolf dog that had escaped from a neighboring farm. Even though the neighbor immediately got rid of the wolf dog, our children were traumatized by the event. I’ll never forget hearing our 3-year-old son say, as he placed a blanket over Barney’s lifeless body, “We need to let him rest now.”

For a couple of years we went without a dog, busy with our family, and hesitant to emotionally attach ourselves once again to a pet. Our son had developed a fear of dogs after Barney was killed, and the situation wasn’t improving as he grew older. Before going to a friend’s house to play, he’d ask if they had a dog; if he could hear or see a dog in the yard as we arrived, he didn’t want to get out of the car. It became obvious we needed to get a puppy to help him fight these fears. Buster was the answer. He was a playful Springer Spaniel with plenty of energy to keep up with 3 active children, and was “just what the doctor ordered” for John. All of our kids loved Buster and he loved them back, but it seemed like he formed a bond with John that was quite special. His fear of dogs disappeared and, today, John has his own big lug-of-a-dog in Simon, a beautiful and gentle Golden Retriever.

When Buster died after 14 years with our family, and with the kids getting older and starting to go off to college and career, we initially decided not to get another dog. But, for Pat, time without a canine companion while I was at work proved to be lonelier than we originally thought. Her days working from home had included warm, trusting eyes and a toasty lap for so long that it was obvious we would be getting another dog as soon as the right one came along. We discussed several breeds of dogs, and seriously considered another spaniel, but decided we didn’t want to deal with shedding and long hair anymore – especially while on a rainy camping trip! It was only after we had the opportunity to care for our “granddog” – a dachsie named Charlie who owns our son and his girlfriend, that we learned what personable, little clowns the somewhat odd-looking wiener dog can be. The hunt began, searching high and low for the next Sterner household family member, and Schroeder has found his way into our lives and hearts just like the others did.

So, here’s to Schroeder! And Buster. And Barney. And Charlie, Simon, Dubbies, Pete, Daisy, Cole, Eddie, Fuzzer, Powder, Crocker, and all of the other treasured pets our family and friends have lived with and loved over the years. You have all been special to us.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Toot Toot, Quack Quack, Dolly

I started two new paintings this week – one that led me to reminisce back to my earliest memories as a child.

Take a minute. Think back to your childhood. We have all had favorite toys, those that became something more than just an item to play with: a trusted friend in the form of a stuffed animal or doll, a soft blanket, or even a Matchbox car.

I clearly remember the days when my kids had their own special companions. Laura had a blanket that she lugged everywhere; and Petie, a small, stuffed puppy that was loved so much that by the time he accompanied her away to college he had lost an eye and his brown coat was faded and thin. John’s buddy was a bear named Radar, whose scratched and bare red velvet heart shows the effects of living with the boy who loved him. Mike, our youngest, had both bear and blankie, but he abandoned them at an early age when Legos became his world.

When I was a small child, there were three toys that I slept with each night and took with me everywhere. I named each of them, and my mother liked to tell the story of how I cried out their names one-by-one for fear of leaving them behind. These old, faded, worn and loved treasures today occupy a shelf in our home, almost as a monument to my early childhood.

“Toot Toot” is a wooden choo-choo train engine, made by Fisher-Price in around 1952, and it looks that old. While it is missing one wheel and the cow catcher on the front, the friendly painted face still smiles at me as it sits haphazardly on the shelf.

Donald Duck is the driver and Pluto the passenger of “Quack Quack,” a dull red, rubber car with dingy white wheels. Oh, the miles the little bird must have driven, until he lost his noggin! Donald’s rotating head was lost sometime during those early years, when our family moved from house to house for various reasons. Neglected, he sat in a storage box for decades until we established his new resting place in our home. Then, through my wife’s investigative powers (and eBay), she surprised me a couple birthdays ago. She had found another old Quack Quack, the car in rough shape but with a well preserved Donald head. With some careful surgery, my beloved toy was restored.

And last, but the centerpiece of my friends, is Dolly. Today, everyone would recognize him as Raggedy Andy. What a special guy he was for me! His faded and stained fabric is an indicator of the adventures we went through together. He has about as much hair left on his head as I do. The black paint on his brass button eyes is worn away, and there is very little stuffing left to hug. But the memories remain, and he sits on the shelf with honor.

Back to my newest painting, a still-life, with my three special friends as subject. The 18 x 24 canvas has its first layer of oil paint applied, building the background and the bench that they all sit on. Some drying time is now needed before I continue with the bodies and faces of my little friends. I will share some progress photos in future posts.

This painting will not be for sale when it is finished, but perhaps it will inspire others to think back to their childhood and put together a grouping of their special toys. If you ever want a painting commissioned of those items, I would consider it an honor to do one for you.

Until later,