Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Power of the Pen            

Oh yes, we’ve long been told the pen is mightier than the sword, despite numerous instances when it wasn’t. We’ve yet to be told the pen is mightier than cell phone messages, e-mails, or tweets. Recent experiences at our place showed it might well be.

More than a year after disputing my 2009 real estate taxes, I was told my claim had been upheld and a settlement check would be sent soon. Six months later, despite numerous phone inquiries and e-mails, no cash had appeared.

I decided to sit right down and write those guys a letter--the old fashioned kind on real paper with a real signature, placed in an envelope, and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The only bow to today’s technology was typing it on my computer and printing it out.

I threw in a few legal-sounding phrases in the hope the Michigan Tax Tribunal and my local assessor might think I was benefiting from expert legal advice. (You can pick up all sorts of lawyer phrases watching reruns on TV of “Boston Legal” or the more recent “Harry’s Law” show. Both are entertaining, although they probably have little to do with reality.)

My letter worked. Almost immediately, the assessor presented me with a settlement document to sign. Shortly thereafter, a check arrived in the mail from the county treasurer.

During almost the same time span, promised utility company rebates for installation of a new heating system failed to materialize. Phone calls and e-mails to the contractor and the utility proved fruitless over several months. Each entity said the other was responsible; none offered any real help.

Remembering the “mighty pen” adage, once again I put computer to paper. The letter to the contractor’s vice-president included some nifty phrases like “time is of the essence” and “documentary evidence” and strongly implied that Small Claims Court was the next place we were likely to meet, although I carefully avoided any specific threatening language. Two days after I mailed the letter a sales agent phoned and asked what the company could do to make me happy. I told him, and he did it.

If letter writing has been removed from your communications arsenal, you may want to consider reviving it, if just for those special occasions when more modern techniques don’t get the job done.

My “mighty pen” is about to be dusted off again. Two months ago I sent e-mail requests for some routine information to two U.S. Forest Service research units. One, to the Forest Products Laboratory, asked a general question about the status of a long-running research program. The other, to the webmaster at the Pacific Southwest Research Station, inquired about the status of a history of the organization, which I knew was produced a few years ago. Neither organization responded.

When I worked at the Forest Products Laboratory back in the 70s, it was considered almost a sacred duty to quickly and accurately respond to any request for information. Every incoming letter, and there were thousands, was logged in and assigned to an individual or unit head for reply. A fairly high-level administrator followed up if replies were not made promptly; he also monitored outgoing mail to ensure responses were complete and of high quality.

The many good attributes of our ability to communicate quickly and effectively in the electronic age apparently are counter-balanced by a big, fat negative. If a potential correspondent doesn’t feel like working a bit to frame a reply, he or she simply ignores an e-mail inquiry and nobody seems to know or care.

As a tenacious geezer, I will get the answers to my questions, either with an old-fashioned paper letter or a lot of pesky phone calls. But why, oh why, do they make it so difficult when an e-mail response would be so easy?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The right mix for the USA
Dumb and Dumber             

A Cocktail Party

For several years, your Cocktail Party chairman had legislative liaison responsibilities for the U.S. Forest Service in research or management areas that included the State of Utah. There was a standard saying among legislative coordinators, including those who closely observed the Washington scene, regarding long-time Senator Orrin Hatch. It went like this:

“The only political people dumber than Orrin Hatch are his staff members.”

Now the Utah Senator is again proving his mettle by proposing a constitutional amendment to require balanced federal budgets. Rookie legislators in the House have passed a bill requiring balanced budgets; fortunately, it will go no further.

Mandatory balanced budgets work rather well at the state level, but there the stakes are quite different. Imagine a few scenarios should the feds have a strict balanced budget system:

1. Floods sweep over large parts of the Ohio River Basin. Several governors ask the President to declare disaster areas in their states and provide emergency federal funding to deal with the crisis. The President cannot comply; because it is late in the budget year and the government has insufficient funds earmarked for natural disaster relief, has no surplus funds in other accounts, and is not allowed to borrow money to cope with the unforeseen disaster.

2. North Korea without warning launches a massive missile attack on U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan. Military leaders urge immediate retaliation. The Commander in Chief says, “Sorry, boys, but we’re maxed out on the defense spending budget item right now. Your actions will just have to wait until next fiscal year unless we can quickly get three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution. We’ll probably have to eliminate Social Security next year to handle the extra military funding if we can’t get a substantial tax increase passed in a hurry.”

3. The State of California goes bankrupt. The Governor asks Congress for emergency funding to maintain the education, law enforcement, and prison systems while all the legal issues are being resolved. Congress has no funds budgeted for such bailouts, so it decides to respond by cutting 200 billion dollars from the authorization for defense spending.

4. Unprecedented forest and range fires burn huge acreages throughout the western States. The U.S. Forest Service asks Congress for a supplemental appropriation to pay for combating the blazes. To comply with the request, Congress cuts general disaster relief funds earmarked for such things as unforeseen flooding in the Midwest.

And round and round it could go. The federal government is where the buck stops when disasters strike us. That’s why the founding fathers wisely provided our government with the ability to borrow funds and didn’t say a word about balanced budgets.

We do need to reduce the size of the national debt in the near future, but removing the ability to borrow when necessary would be sheer folly. Borrowing is necessary right now, and will be for some time, to keep the good ship USS America from sinking and sucking the rest of the world’s economies down with it.

Senator Hatch is smart enough (just barely) to know that many Americans are dumb enough to think a federal balanced budget requirement would be just peachy-creamy. A balanced budget amendment would be horrible.

The Great American Cocktail Party is absolutely opposed to any requirement that the government of the United States be hamstrung by a balanced budget amendment or similar foolishness. Our representatives have enough trouble functioning rationally without that sort of impediment to effective government at the federal level.

To view the announcement of the founding of the Great American Cocktail Party visit the August 5, 2010 post titled “Coffee, Tea, or . . .” in the archive on the right-hand column of this Blog.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

In Grateful                 

Seaman Aaron D. Ullom (U.S. Navy, assigned as a hospitalman to a Marine combat team), 20, Midland, Michigan. Killed while on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, July 12, 2011.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Will Work for Taxes

We were among the fortunate. My wife and I both were born before 1946, so my pension continued to be exempt when Michigan Gov. Snyder and his critics “compromised” by phasing in new taxes on retirement income rather than taxing all seniors the full amount immediately.

Almost hidden in the hot debates were the other two legs of the proposal to raise taxes on seniors. One removed the homestead tax credit for residences with assessed values above $135,000. The other removed the $3,200 individual personal income tax exemption for all seniors.

Thank you, governor, for sparing the oldest Michiganders such as us from part of the tax increase. Unfortunately, the other two tax increases will cut our spendable income by about $1,000 a year. We have no prospects for recovering that amount in the future, other than returning to work. At age 75, I’m having a hard time finding employment.

Perhaps one of those businesses Gov. Snyder said will use my higher tax payment to create jobs will hire me? I’ll wait for the calls.

(This item was published June 26 in the Kalamazoo Gazette. The Geezer is still waiting for the first job offer.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In Grateful
Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Throckmorton
(U.S. Army), 28, Battle Creek, Michigan.
Killed by an improvised bomb during an
attack by enemy forces in Paktika
Province, Afghanistan, July 5, 2011.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Sgt. Einer Ingman at age 82.

A True Hometown Hero

Other commitments kept me from attending the Fourth of July weekend activities in my hometown--Tomahawk, Wisconsin. That was unfortunate for several reasons.

The parade is a good one. There’s plenty of music, lots of participants, and having a Harley Davidson plant in town ensures there will be enough high-volume roaring to suit those who appreciate Fourth of July noise. Many high school classes hold reunions during the weekend, so it is a good time to renew old acquaintances.

But most important, I missed a chance to see a real American hero for the third time, and there probably won’t be many more chances. Most people have never seen a Medal of Honor or met anyone who has earned one. Sgt. Einer Ingman, who now lives in Irma near Tomahawk, received one for extreme valor during the Korean War.

Ingman is one of only 85 men alive today who have earned a Medal of Honor. About half the awards were made during the Civil War, when the medal was established. Since the start of World War II, only 859 soldiers, sailors, and airmen have earned the medal, and half forfeited their lives doing so. Ingman is one of just three Medal of Honor recipients now living in Wisconsin.

The Medal of Honor is nothing like those ribbons you see covering the chests of generals and admirals. That gaudy stuff mainly consists of unit citations awarded just for being somewhere, not doing anything. Earning a Medal of Honor requires heroic action.

I never was personally acquainted with Einer Ingman, but because of him I can claim membership in the small group of people who have seen both the medal and a recipient. In 1951, Ingman was flown from a military hospital to receive his award from President Harry Truman. Shortly thereafter, he took leave from a military hospital to be reunited with his family in Tomahawk.

The visit was somewhat of a surprise to civic leaders, but they moved quickly to set up a parade and a program to recognize Ingman. I marched in the high school band during the parade. Immediately after that, the program was held in Pride Athletic Park. I was among the spectators.

Tomahawk people did themselves proud. They gave Sgt. Ingman a new Buick sedan and what is almost as essential in northern Wisconsin—a new boat. I was close enough to the hero to see the award he wore around his neck.

A few days later, I got much closer to Ingman. We were in a small group waiting for the doors to open at the Lyric Theater for an evening movie. Ingman had difficulty walking with a cane and support from his girlfriend, who he married a year later. Frankly, it was hard to look at his disfigured face. It was said he had a dozen operations up to that time. He ended up having 30, before surgeons could do no more for him.

I said “Hi,” and he said “Hi.” I think it was just a ritual hometown greeting. He joined the Army while living in southern Wisconsin, and thus probably made north wood’s visits only occasionally on leave. Two years earlier, I worked with his brother, Bobby Ingman, for two months at the Highland Egg Farm near Tomahawk, and that was my only direct contact with the Ingman family, I think the war hero was just saying hello to everybody he encountered, which is customary in small Midwestern towns.

In the 59 years since, I’ve never crossed paths with Sgt. Ingman. He and wife Mardelle, who had seven children, attended numerous patriotic events over those years, including 11 presidential inaugurations. I had to make a living during that time, and didn’t travel in the same circles.

Medal of Honor recipients are so rare because of the extreme courage they must exhibit to merit the award. Here is a summary of what Sgt. Ingman (then a corporal) did to earn his medal, and what happened to him as a result:

Ingman was in one of two lead squads of an assault platoon in Korea. While attacking a fortified ridge held by the enemy, the platoon was pinned down and both squad leaders and several men were wounded. Ingman assumed command, combined what was left of the two squads, and formulated an attack plan.

Than Ingman single-handedly attacked a machine gun crew that was firing on his group, tossed a grenade into the emplacement, and killed the soldiers with his rifle. He approached a second machine gun, and was knocked to the ground and lost part of one ear when a grenade exploded near his head. As he got to his feet, he was shot in the face by a Chinese soldier. The bullet entered his upper lip and exited behind his ear.

Ingman continued his attack on the machine gun emplacement, firing his rifle and killing the remaining crew with his bayonet. He then fell unconscious as his men captured the objective and forced the enemy troops to flee.

Ingman was sent to Tokyo for medical treatment; he regained consciousness seven days after the battle. He lost his left eye and the hearing in his left ear, and had severe amnesia. Memories gradually returned after emergency brain surgery, but he has experienced memory problems throughout his life since and has difficulty speaking clearly. He was transferred to Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, MI, for additional treatment, which spanned two years and included 23 surgeries.

What heroic action and what a horrible price to pay. I relate the details only to emphasize the huge sacrifices made by men who earned the Medal of Honor.  Ingman still carries the scars of battle, and now is wheelchair-bound.  The photo here was published recently by the Tomahawk Leader.

My hometown people saluted Sgt. Einer Ingman once again with a special ceremony on July 5, sixty years to the day after he earned his Medal of Honor. I wish I could have been there, if only just to say “Hi” to a hero.