None of us want to go to war over this, but the Russians certainly are culpable for the shoot down of the Malasian passenger airliner over Ukraine, using their missile launcher and Russian-trained crew, even if it was some sick sort of mistake.

I think the Russians should pay the airline and the passengers families reparations, at the very least, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, or perhaps a billion or more. There MUST be accountability for the loss of so many innocent lives, and there MUST be a way to extract economic, if not social, revenge for this needless, vicious tragedy. And yes, revenge is the correct word.

Afloat in the PR whirl of 1970s Chicago
By Charles Ebeling
Copyright 2012 Charles Ebeling

I suppose there are other examples of a shipwreck launching a career, but I can’t think of one.
Even less probable was that the snapping of strained mooring lines, in the midst of an unseasonably wild nor’easter, was likely to have clinched a career in the esoteric profession of public relations. But on reflection, it sure did.
When my boat went to the bottom after bashing against the Grant Park seawall in late September, 1974, any lingering thoughts I still had, of taking her down the Mississippi to the Bahamas and becoming an islands charter captain, were dashed as well. It’s as if I’d christened my revitalized career in Chicago public relations with a bottle of champagne across its bow. In fact, there were to be many bottles of champagne.
My craft, a stylish 27-foot Chris-Craft cabin cruiser with a deep navy blue hull and a white superstructure, was aptly re-named CHASE, partly because it was an acronym for my first and middle names – Charles and Edwin – but also because the word captured the presumed essence of my new bachelor’s life.
The boat’s previous name had been PatChas, and as my divorce loomed, the “Pat” part on the stern was painted away, and an “E” added. I’d taken a six-month personal sabbatical beginning early that year, when I experienced an almost simultaneous failure of both my job at a Loop PR agency and my marriage.
I had sold the furniture, sub-let the apartment, put my business clothes in storage, and planned to move aboard the boat by the early spring of 1974. My full-time work became readying the CHASE for launching at the boatyard in Kenosha, along the Lake Michigan shore just north of Chicago. Fresh paint went onto the hull and bottom as well as the topsides, canvas was repaired, the engine tuned and the electronics checked. I did the painting and clean up myself, living in a local motel across the harbor.
My goal was to take the boat to Chicago for the early part of summer, then cruise her down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, across the Gulf and into the Bahamas, where I would charter her and act as captain.
It was not to be.
I first sailed the CHASE south to Diversey Harbor in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, not far from my old apartment, where I could dock in the pre-season before my mooring was put in place in Grant Park Harbor, in front of Chicago’s legendary Buckingham Fountain. Mine was the first boat into the harbor that season, and some mornings there was frost on the deck. But, it was a comfortable feeling to be docked right in my old neighborhood near the shore, where I could visit familiar restaurants and tavern haunts and drop in on my new girlfriend.
In May, I weighed anchor and cruised the few more miles to Grant Park, where I tied my deck lines to the floating mooring, the nearest one to the park’s inner cement sea wall, in line with the harbor’s center entrance. There I set up housekeeping, bobbing in the light chop of the gigantic harbor, which was beginning to fill with moored sailboats of all sizes and a smattering of cruisers like mine, as well as larger yachts. I could row ashore aboard my 8-foot dinghy.
I joined the Columbia Yacht Club, a refurbished 100-foot working boat permanently docked next to the swankier Chicago Yacht Club, along the harbor shoreline, with the high rises of Michigan Avenue as a backdrop across two blocks of green park. Columbia gave me a friendly, convenient place to shower, receive phone messages and dock the CHASE to meet friends.
It was a little embarrassing to be drawing unemployment checks while living aboard my boat and hanging out at a yacht club, even a relatively tacky one like Columbia, but I reasoned that it would only be for a month or two, until I shoved off for my chartering career.
Don’t be overly impressed by my lifestyle then. A few years before, my grandfather had made me a gift of a paid up life insurance policy. Following my dad’s adage to put away half of any windfall, I’d done just that, and bought the used boat with the balance – for a little more than the price of a new car.
But as the summer dawned, with its soft warm breezes, life did seem good. My little boat had almost everything I needed, at least in a basic form. It had a double V-shaped bunk under the bow, with lockers and a dinette that would seat four aft on one side, and a head with sink and toilet and a small galley with sink, alcohol stove and non-electric ice box, on the other side. The nautical signal lamp on the dinette table had been on my father’s boats before, and sits today on the entrance table of my home – more than 45 years later. Up a few steps at the stern was the boat’s control station with pilot and co-pilot seats and deck space for chairs and a small table. There was a glass windshield and canvas top and side-curtains with flexible see-through windows all the way to the flag mast at the stern. She was a “nar” little ship, with a powerful single V-8 engine. The only electronics was a deck hailer and a transistor radio, because CHASE had no power generator or radio-telephone, and these were the days before cell phones. The lapping of the waves against her wooden hull was usually the biggest sound aboard.
A typical day for me began with rising at first light, dining on a half melon on the stern deck, then a quarter mile swim out to the long break wall separating the boat harbor from the outer harbor of Chicago. I’d jog along the break wall to get some exercise – I was then an energetic 30 year old. Many days, when the winds were low, I’d weigh anchor and slowly cruise the boat out to near one of the city’s water intakes, a mile or so offshore, then shut the engine down and drift, while reading a book or magazine.
Weekends, I’d drop by the bar at the yacht club, or meet friends there for a harbor cruise or bar-be-que along the shore. Evenings I’d often row ashore and browse the bars and clubs in the State Street nightclub area, such as The Store, the jazz club under the Maryland Hotel or Butch Maguire’s, or I’d visit my former Lincoln Park neighborhood. I stayed in touch with some of my old business associates, and we’d talk about the vicissitudes of the Chicago PR business.
In late July, I had lunch with Hank Robertz, principal at a growing graphic arts firm that I’d done a lot of work through when I headed Midwest advertising and PR for Toyota. He told me that one of his good clients, McDonald’s, of increasing hamburger fame, was looking for a new account executive at its national PR agency, Cooper and Golin. Hank designed annual and quarterly financial publications for McDonald’s, and worked through their PR firm. He said Carl Kay, a former sports marketing guru, and now the McDonald’s account VP, was a very good guy I should meet.
Hank suggested I give Carl a call, just to talk PR and perhaps hear what I was missing in the Chicago job market. I had been left with a bitter feeling about working for a PR agency, as my six months at Burson Marsteller had ended abruptly when the client, Sears, had internalized much of the communications work we were doing for them at the agency. I had sworn to myself that the PR agency business was too skittish for me. It was a false start in the agency world. I had enjoyed briefly meeting agency founder and PR legend Harold Burson, who I’d get to know better 20 years later when we hired his firm for some specialized work. Harold and I still email today, nearly 40 years on.
While I was still hoping and thinking of chartering in the Bahamas, where I had first taken in the boating scene on a college vacation, and then on my honeymoon in 1969, I had yet to make any solid plans for my next steps. So I gave Carl a call. He said to come over to their office to chat, at 360 North Michigan Avenue, on the Chicago River. Several floors above the famed London House jazz club, the building was just across the bridge from the Wrigley Building.
I remembered that my business suits were in storage at my brother’s in Naperville. Carl replied, “Just come as you are. It’s OK. I heard from Hank that you’re living on a boat. Pretty cool!” So, wearing shorts and a sweat shirt, I rowed ashore in the dingy, walked across Grant Park, and up the elevator on Michigan Avenue, not then realizing I was taking the first steps away from an imagined life of serenity in the Bahamas charter business and back into the frenetic world of Chicago PR.
An hour that changed my life
While I didn’t know it then, my ship had come in, and I would work and grow through five promotions on the McDonald’s account from 1974 to 1981, and set a course that would take me to retirement at the cusp of the Millennium. Between my agency years on the McDonald’s account, and later working directly for the corporation, I’d invest 22 years under the Golden Arches, building the brand, enjoying the fries, and benefiting as an employee and stockholder of the world’s largest food service company.
Carl and I hit it off immediately. He was curious, creative and appreciated my professional background. He also took note that my best friend growing up, Jeff Seeberger, was a budding franchising executive at client McDonald’s and that Mike Quinlan, a mutual friend of Jeff and I from our college days, was now a fast rising senior executive in restaurant operations with the fast food firm. As it turned out, neither was a potential key client PR contact, but knowing them gave me some familiarity with the company.
While I’d been skeptical about going to work at an agency again, I became intrigued with the idea of working for a single major client – McDonald’s — where I could have broad senior responsibilities for building all aspects of public relationships for a fresh national brand, fast becoming known to every household. But little did I think then that I’d come to play a key role in a long-term communications program, one that would help propel McDonald’s, already a billion dollar restaurant company, to within about another decade become one of the world’s leading businesses.
Carl asked how much I hoped to earn. I think I asked if the pay would be in hamburgers. I’d never been too aggressive on compensation, and I was still smarting from my previous short tenure with Burson Marsteller, so I named a figure 20 percent higher than my job there. Carl took me in to meet agency chairman Al Golin, who was the guy who had made a cold-call on McDonald’s corporate founder Ray Kroc in 1956 and got a PR retainer fee from him. Al had never looked back, as he helped McDonald’s establish its friendly brand name. Al was outgoing and jovial, though his body language told me he was looking askance at my un-professional dress.
Nonetheless, before I could fully assess the implications, I had the job, as an account executive on the prestigious McDonald’s corporate account. I started immediately, and my girlfriend took me up Michigan Avenue to buy my first 3-piece suit, along with ties and dress shirts. I began commuting to my new private office, overlooking the river and the Wrigley Building, from the boat. I must have looked like something out of GQ, rowing ashore each morning in my 3-piece suit with a briefcase, tying the dingy up and walking the half-mile to Michigan Avenue.
But there were two problems commuting from the boat moored off Buckingham fountain. First, the only lamp I could use out on the mooring was weakly battery-powered, and when the boat rolled, my work papers would often slide off the dinette table onto the deck. Second, sometimes it rained. Rowing a boat ashore, awkwardly holding an umbrella under my armpit, was a good trick. And by now, it was September, and with fall coming fast, it was time to think of moving onshore.
I started to look for apartments in the Rush Street nightclub area, because living there sounded like fun, and it was walking distance to my office. I’d sold my car, an unreliable Renault 15 sports coupe, before I’d left Burson Marsteller, so I needed to be close to work. I found a nifty studio apartment in a high rise at Two East Oak Street, at the confluence of Oak, State and Rush Streets – the nightclub district. It faced toward the Loop, on the 32nd floor, and had a wall of windows, with no shades or curtains. There were no neighbors within several blocks, so I didn’t add any. I moved in with my dad’s old boat lamp, a blanket, a folding chair I’d found in the hall, a duffel bag of clothes, and a few kitchen items from the CHASE’s galley.
I was camping out in a high-rise
But it didn’t matter. I was learning the client and working long days, and drinking and eating at pubs near the office or my apartment most evenings, with my new account group friends. I rented a car to drive once or twice a week to McDonald’s offices in Oak Brook, or went with a workmate.
Then, at the end of September, I received a devastating phone call. In a severe early fall storm, the weekend before, a fierce wind had blown down the length of the lake from the northeast, with dramatic damage to areas of the harbor that were open to the surge from that direction. The CHASE had been in the bull’s eye. My twin bowlines attached to the mooring had held. But the force of the wind ripped the decking around the bow chock, and the boat was dashed against the cement seawall. The bottom finally cracked, they told me, and the boat sank right there, in front of the great fountain.
They had raised the boat with a scow crane; it was now drying out in a sling alongside the Chicago Yacht Club, where they’d identified me as the owner. I went down, and didn’t even try to board her. The CHASE was a total loss. Any thoughts I’d harbored of a cruising career were over, then and there.
When the insurance check came in, which was for more than I’d paid for the boat three seasons before, my girl friend Robin and I went straight down to the Carson Pirie Scott department store on State Street and furnished the apartment. That was one of the last things we did together. I think Robin had already written me off when I’d previously announced my plans to go to the Bahamas. Plus, my new PR job was becoming so all- consuming, including frequent travel to franchisee meetings and special PR events across the country, that I had little time for a real social life outside of my new work friends. The last straw with Robin was during a party at my apartment, when one of my office mates, Pat Healey, said, “Let’s play darts,” and she opened my closet door where the board was mounted on the back. Robin said she hadn’t known it was there. We soon drifted apart.
My life was quickly re-centered around a compact agency account team that became like a family to me. At first there were half a dozen or so of us account people plus support staff, who worked full-time on the McDonald’s national corporate PR account and the local Chicago area franchisee PR account. Not to mention Al Golin, who had been a trusted confidant and advisor for 20 years, not only to company founder Ray Kroc, but president Fred Turner and other board members and executive management and key franchisees. Al’s agency partner, Max Cooper, a former comedy writer, had just left to become the McDonald’s franchisee in Birmingham, Alabama, where he would one day own more than 20 McDonald’s restaurants and “earn more than Bob Hope,” as we liked to say around the office.
Our McDonald’s account group of the 1970s was not much like the paranoid agency types portrayed in the TV series “Madmen,” which captured the Chicago and New York advertising agency atmosphere of the early 60s. Our account VP, Carl, now known as Bear, was a family man who often had the account group over to his sprawling Evanston apartment for all-day Sunday brunches with his wife and two young kids.
While our tight little account group was something of a revolving door, with some staying with the account or the agency for just a year or two, others grew professionally on the account for a decade or more, and several remain close friends four decades later. The ever-expanding group of account executives, supervisors and officers over the seven-plus years I served on the account included: Carl, Chuck, Cheryl, Susanne, Pat, Jane, Joe, Bill, Jim, another Jim, Rich, Bud, Sarah, Leslie, Cathy, Jonni, Henry, Bridget, Susan, Melissa, Kerry and a few others whose names allude me, plus another dozen or more administrative staff, headed by Naomi, the ultimate office manager and task master.
Working with and supervising creative people can be draining, because they often display passionate and quirky personalities. One very creative account executive, Lynn, the sister of playwright David Mamet, had once worked at Penthouse magazine. She told us she had written both the Penthouse Forum’s reader questions as well as the steamy, sexy “expert” answers, often while sitting in her kitchen dinette with her hair in curlers, wearing an oversized bathrobe and slippers.
We worked long, intense hours, often into the evening, at our Michigan Avenue office, with several us making one or even two rushed daily round trips on the crowded expressway to McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, 15 miles away. Some evenings, when we’d head down the elevator well after dark, we’d see famous jazz musicians like Ramsey Lewis tuning up on the stairs for their 10 o’clock show at the legendary London House jazz club on the first floor.
We had to blow off steam, and we’d often gather at night, with other young account people of the agency, at a hotel bar around the corner, or at the famed Wrigley Bar across the river, where we’d mingle with the ad types from McDonald’s marketing agencies, Needham, Harper Steers and Abelson/Frankel, or later, Leo Burnett. Bud Jones, the Ronald House coordinator, and I would close up the Greek Town restaurants, sometimes leaving 20 or more ouzo glasses on the table. Some lunch times, especially when the client had been yelling into the phone for an hour, we’d trip a few blocks to Ontario Street just east of Michigan Avenue to Ron of Japan, and make a two-hour lunch of rounds of saketini’s and sushi. Several of us were single, and between after-work gatherings and company parties, incidental romance among fellow workers and/or with young employees of our Oak Brook clients was not unusual. The fact that most of our circle worked 60 to 80 hour weeks meant these were the people I saw the most, and friendships outside that core were challenging to build or sustain.
Many Friday nights, I’d head home by 7 or 8PM, set the alarm for midnight, and get up to head around the corner to Mr. Kelly’s, where for a five dollar bar minimum I could catch Frank Sinatra or former Peoria comedian Richard Prior doing their late show. Other nights it was down a half block to Faces, where the dancing was just getting started. After all-night parties at my studio apartment on the 32nd floor, my friends and I would go downstairs and kitty-corner to the Oak Tree coffee shop for a dawn breakfast. On weekends, we’d head east on Oak to the Acorn bar, where they served a scrumptious big, bloody hamburger.
I first met Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corporation, at a luncheon fundraiser at the Conrad Hilton, where comedian Danny Thomas honored Ray for a large contribution to the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. We sat at a table with Ray’s personal physician, who was traveling with him because of his multiple health problems, including diabetes. Ray’s doctor caught the attention of everyone at the table when he speculated that anyone who could invent a device people could hook up to under the table, to urinate during long banquet speeches, could make a fortune.
Other opportunities to chat with Ray and his top executives were at Al’s annual Christmas party, which were themed formal galas of increasing ambition, to thank the client and retain the close bonds built over the years. Elaborate invitations would herald these affairs at major loop hotels, where Ray’s favorite band leader, Joe Vito, would lead the dancing, while Al would do his Joey Bishop stand-up routine with bad jokes and his wife June, a former professional singer, would entertain. As the wine flowed, we account people would mingle with the mighty. I recall the thrill on introducing my dates to Ray and Joan Kroc, and how warm and engaging they were.
Our public relations activity for McDonald’s was by and large a growing portfolio of long-term and one-off positive, pro-active programs that McDonald’s franchisees could implement within their local markets, within an umbrella of support and publicity executed by our national agency. We worked closely in support of the company’s national advertising and marketing staff, as well as directly for various members of executive management. At one point, just to prove we could bring public relations value to every function at McDonald’s, we created a portfolio of ideas and initiatives for every company department, including accounting, security, training, franchising, legal, information systems and even for the mailroom (future McDonald’s CEO Mike Quinlan had started in the mailroom, honestly).
Shortly after joining the agency, Carl brought me out to Oak Brook to meet our senior-most client, Paul Schrage, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. Paul was very gracious to me, and said he thought my consumer advertising and PR experience with the hot and fast-rising Toyota brand would be relevant to working in support of McDonald’s.
It was already fall, and the agency’s largest PR project for McDonald’s was swinging into the final phases of planning, and I was put in charge. The account executive who’d led the project for several years had left the agency just before I joined. My first experience on the account was with the 1974 members of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, plus band staff, who would be rehearsed over several days and cast into a unified band to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a program designed to enhance McDonald’s image as a youth-oriented national company with tentacles reading into every state and community. One piece of the complex logistics for the project was travel, involving putting together separate flight itineraries to New York City and LA, for 102 high school musicians, coming from 102 towns across every state.
Never been a detail person
I had a short attention span, which I’ve heard is a common trait of creative people. But that was no excuse, and as my first major assignment I had to put myself not only into the big picture of this PR project, but attend to orchestrating logistics and assuring that every detail was covered. Apparently I was successful at over-compensating for my inherent weakness on details, as to this day, when I meet one of my old agency associates, their greeting is often, “Check with Chuck,” which is what was often said when there was any question on details during the project.
The Band project was indeed a crush of detail. But the million bits added up to waves of local and national positive publicity and community relations for McDonald’s, ranging from school send-off events in 102 towns hosted by local McDonald’s franchisees, to hundreds of newspaper articles and TV and radio interviews of musicians selected by our national committee. This culminated in many minutes of valuable scripted network television coverage of the Band’s performances in the Macy’s Parade, as well as in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. The Band also performed in concert in places that ranged from Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center to Chicago’s Symphony Hall. It was a model community relations program, with a major national payoff in positive public relations.
The Band was selected, organized and led by maestro Paul LaValle (his assistant demanded we refer to him as the maestro), formerly music director of Radio City Music Hall. While Paul LaValle was of short personal stature, we liked to say that he was the tallest band director, when he conducted the band standing atop the “world’s largest drum” float in the Macy’s parade.
Other account staff from the agency acted as PR and logistical support for the project, which also involved entertaining a number of McDonald’s VIPs. This whirl of details all emanated from my little office overlooking the spotlighted Wrigley Building across the Chicago River. One of the key logistical supporters was our travel consultant, Vicki Edelston, who oversaw travel arrangements for the band members and staff from all over the country. She was manager of the Loop agency, Board of Trade Travel, which handled everything, and later owner of Victoria Travel, and one of the first suppliers I met in my new job. I was the client for her largest corporate account, and I remember the moment she first stepped into my office door. I didn’t have a clue then that the dark-haired, well-dressed young woman who smiled and caught my attention that day, and whom I worked with over the following several years, before we ever had a date, would in 1978 become my new wife.
The annual band trips at Thanksgiving and New Years, which I did for seven consecutive years, were grueling marathons. Myself and other members of our PR agency, along with Al himself and his family, would head into New York and LA several days ahead of band member arrivals to set up logistics with the hotel, meet with NBC network executives on parade coverage, and coordinate with the band staff. Once the band members came in, chaos reigned, as they went into rehearsals and local tours and we began to work the media coverage. Fifteen hour working days were topped with doing bedchecks at night and dawn wakeups for 102 teenagers, many of whom had never been away from home overnight, much less in New York City or the West Coast, without their parents. Our AE Pat was the “band mother,” bucking up the shy members, and keeping the more socially active extroverts in line. We had no desire to produce a “band baby” dividend from bringing so many diverse young people together.
One Thanksgiving eve as the band and staff sat down to a beautiful turkey dinner after grueling rehearsals at The New York Sheridan, I remember feeling quite sorry for myself, because I had to skip the festivities and spend that evening jumping in and out of cabs on the cold, rainy streets of Manhattan, delivering last-minute band press releases to the news media.
Another year, I remember the fun we had setting up at Carnegie Hall for a concert performance by the band. Jazz great Lionel Hampden was to be the guest musician. During rehearsal, my client Frank and I cajoled “Hamp” to play a number with us on the kazoo, and since then I’ve been able to say, “I played Carnegie Hall.” A decade later, when I’d gone to work on McDonald’s headquarters staff as director of corporate communications, I called “Hamp” and he agreed to appear in a PR film we were producing, called The McDonald’s Story, recognizing the public service value to communities and young musicians of the All-American Band program.
I also remember from the mid-70s visiting the breezy open rooftop of the World Trade Center, with the band members, and looking out across the harbor with them at the Statue of Liberty. It was a moving experience, one that became bittersweet in 2001. One of my last business lunches in New York, before I retired at the Millennium, was with a financial TV reporter at the Windows on the World restaurant near the top of Tower One.
The band program might have been enough, but it was only the tip of the iceberg of the PR responsibilities for megalith client McDonald’s. In the mid-70s, McDonald’s had only a single person on their corporate staff to manage PR, and he was an old-time marketing guy, not a PR expert. He was frustrated by his job, because company management would turn to the agency first for PR advice. It was because our agency chairman, Al Golin, had been retained directly by Ray Kroc to do communications for the fledgling firm, back in 1956, even before the company had ever run it’s first advertising. So, McDonald’s entire PR operation remained concentrated in our agency staff, even when I joined them in 1974.
One of my jobs was to do McDonald’s financial PR. McDonald’s had become a publically owned company in 1966. Because I had financial relations experience at Toyota, even though I was not otherwise schooled or even inclined towards finance issues, I became the financial publicist. Virtually every financial and corporate news release issued by McDonald’s from 1974 until I left Golin-Harris in 1981, was drafted, distributed to the media and otherwise handled by me. I came to think that the value-added I brought to financial relations was that of translating esoteric financial data into plain English, which was the only way I could understand it myself. On at least one occasion, I even conducted a corporate briefing for professional investors with no one else from the company involved. Not bad for an agency account executive with no formal training in finance, who had dropped out of Accounting 101 in college, and didn’t even balance my own checkbook.
Years before McDonald’s became a global top sponsor of the Olympics, I found a way to help the company elevate hamburger-flipping competitions among its restaurant employees, which McDonald’s called “crew members.” An executive in McDonald’s personnel department, who saw the morale and training benefits of these friendly competitions in making fries, hamburgers and shakes, challenged the agency to wrap it together into a program to introduce to the entire McDonald’s national restaurant “system.” I got the assignment, and poured through hundreds of pages of notes and reports to come up with a compelling program.
Finally, we implemented what later became an obvious theme, the McDonald All-American Team, modeled after the Olympics format, in which there would be a series of events at the food preparation and customer service stations where crew members would compete for gold, silver and bronze levels of achievement. The best of each restaurant crew would compete against the best of others in each market.
It came to me to create a brochure that laid out the entire program, and yet as the deadline approached I had produced nothing. The weekend before our proposal was due, I paced my new one-bedroom apartment at 455 W. Grant in Lincoln Park with a hand held voice reorder, for hours, and dictated the entire presentation brochure, which was typed up, illustrated and turned in to the client the following week. To this day, 35 years later, McDonald’s still conducts eliminations in McDonald’s Crew Olympics every four years, and sends the global winners to staff the McDonald’s restaurants, the only fast food restaurants permitted, inside and outside the summer and winter Olympics Games.
At the zoo
One of the first unsolicited ideas I’d come up with for McDonald’s came out of my enjoyment of zoos, like the one in Brookfield behind my old high school and the famous one in Lincoln Park. Our former family neighbor from Riverside, Les Fisher, who had taken over a few years before from Marlin Perkins, directed that zoo. The zoo had a special area called the Farm in the Zoo, which was a compound like the buildings on a family farm, where city kids could see cows and horses, and pigs and chickens in a setting to which few urbanites had access. I suggested to McDonald’s, in an early attempt to paint them with a quality, responsible reputation for food quality and integrity, that they offer to sponsor that area and rename it, “Old McDonald’s Farm.” It was too soon. My good suggestion was ignored.
In its early years, McDonald’s drive-ins were often seen as usurpers of homegrown local diners and restaurants, and so establishing genuinely sincere community relations became a priority of the company’s public relations efforts. New McDonald’s restaurant franchisees often were relocated to communities where there was good business potential, which made their credibility when settling as outsiders into new small towns and neighborhoods even more of a challenge. One way McDonald’s addressed this was through fund-raising for local causes, like funding jerseys for a high school team, or raising funds for a Rotary or Chamber of Commerce project. Restaurant owners were constantly bombarded with such requests from their neighbors, and yet, as small business people, their resources were limited, and they sometimes wondered if their support would in any way come back to benefit their business.
One of the things we did for our client was scan their own local markets and look for success stories that could be packaged and shared throughout the System. We called the process “Best bets.” We looked at dozens of local fund raising approaches that had varying success in helping local causes while supporting restaurant sales either directly or indirectly. We finally hit on a concept that seemed to have broad potential application, and one of our account executives, Susanne, came up with a name for it.
We called it McDonald’s Cares, and it involved creating a certificate that would be good for one dollar in food and beverages at a specified McDonald’s restaurant or restaurants. Upon application, a certain number of the certificates would be sold or given to a not-for-profit organization to sell to its supporters, who in turn could redeem them for full face value in McDonald’s products. If the McDonald’s certificates were given to the charity for 50 cents, for example, and their volunteers sold by them for one dollar, the charity would pocket 50 cents for their cause. McDonald’s, in turn, would bring in those customers with certificates, who often would purchase even more at regular prices. So, there were three winners: the charity would raise money, the customers would receive real value for their contribution, and McDonald’s would gain friends and business.
The young and upcoming McDonald’s executive I worked with to get the McDonald’s Cares program approved was company controller Jim Cantalupo, who, a little over 25 years later as chairman and CEO, would rebuild McDonald’s greatness after a slump. He helped us cut through accounting and redemption red tape to roll out the program to franchisees across the nation.
I sometimes think the term “public relations” is a misnomer, and has come to often imply something slick, like the negative image of political “spin”, or the cheap promotion of Hollywood or music celebrities. Sometimes, those interpretations are valid. But more often than not, authentic “public relations” is really all about “building public relationships.” A public relationship is different than the private relationships between people, or among family members, or with work teams. A public relationship is one that a person, an organization, or a brand, has with an entire large group of people, sometimes in the trade referred to as a “target audience.” Such a “target audience” may comprise customers or potential customers, or those “influencers” who guide public opinion. Today, social media like Facebook or Twitter develop even more personalized relationships with members of target audiences.
Using the broader definition of building legitimate public relationships, one of the best company examples of one was and is being created though a program I was fortunate enough to become involved with at its early stages – the Ronald McDonald House. A Ronald House is a housing facility, with all the features of a private home, available free or at low cost, to the families of seriously ill children to stay, while the child is being treated at a nearby children’s hospital. Today, there are some 330 Ronald McDonald Houses and related Ronald McDonald Family rooms near children’s hospitals around the globe. Thousands of community volunteers staff and support the Ronald Houses, and some 30,000 family members a night benefit from these sanctuaries, where they can temporarily stay near, or even with, their sick child.
In 1975, there was just one Ronald House, in Philadelphia. It had opened the year before, as a joint effort of the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, and their fund raising partners at the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team and the area McDonald’s franchisees. The house had been named after McDonald’s iconic clown because of the positive, hopeful image the clown character represented.
At Cooper and Golin, we were scanning the country for great new community relations ideas for McDonald’s to seed nationally. Our Chicago market PR account person, Pat, came across the case study of the creation of the Philadelphia house. She was looking for a big idea for the Chicago franchisees. I was supervising Pat and the local McDonald’s account, while I worked on the national account. We reviewed the concept with Pat, and decided to present it to the Chicago franchisees. They embraced it. When we made contact with Children’s Memorial Hospital, we found out they had already heard of the Philadelphia project, through a children’s cancer doctor. Soon, there was a Chicago not-for-profit forming to organize the 2nd Ronald McDonald House.
It was becoming clear we were onto an idea that had legs. And, even before that second house opened, we were getting queries from McDonald’s markets and children’s hospitals in other areas of the country about the feasibility of a local Ronald House. Within about a year, a group of children’s oncologists, parent volunteers, McDonald’s people and NFL executives, led by Jim Murray, general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, had been formed into a National Advisory Board to explore possibilities for expanding into more Ronald Houses. I was fortunate to be named to that original board, and to function as its first coordinator. I wrote the original manual on how to explore feasibility of creating a local Ronald McDonald House charity, and I put together the first national conference for those interested in exploring such projects for their communities. We were surprised when we filled the auditorium of Hamburger University with more than a hundred eager people. When we attended the rainy grand opening of the nation’s 2nd Ronald House, in Chicago in 1975, officiating were Ray Kroc, Chicago’s Mayor Michael Bilandic, owner George Halas of the Chicago Bears, along with visitor Leonard Tose, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.
A small squad from our National Advisory Board, usually consisting of myself, Dr. Ed Baum of Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, Charlie Marino, volunteer parent of a child with leukemia, and McDonald’s Chicago franchisee Bill Chunowitz, was already criss-crossing the nation, meeting with groups interested in creating new Ronald Houses. We presented our slide show about the creation of the first two houses in dozens of communities. As the house project was turning into a major national program for McDonald’s, it became clear we had to staff-up at the agency, so I hired Bud Jones as the first full-time national coordinator for the program. Bud was a fellow veteran, and had been the youngest major in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and had worked in PR for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He would go on to help dramatically accelerate the development on Ronald Houses everywhere, and became a good friend. He and I would often compare notes late into the night, closing the bars at the Wrigley or in Greek Town.
Soon I was attending the grand openings of new houses, beginning with the third Ronald House, in Denver. I flew to that opening on the corporate G2 jet accompanying rising McDonald’s executive Mike Quinlan, who was to be the grand opening speaker. I had met Mike back during college days, when he was a fraternity brother at Loyola with my best friend Jeff Seeberger. Jeff had then moved up to director of franchising for McDonald’s, and Mike was to go on to become CEO of McDonald’s from the late 80s to the late 90s, a period when we would work closely together as I served as chief spokesperson for the company. I must have written more than half a dozen news releases about Mike’s promotions over the years, plus arranged and accompanied him on hundreds of media interviews, and we still remain in contact, into the second decade of the 21st century.
1975 was also McDonald’s 20th anniversary, and our PR efforts ranged from 1950’s nostalgia to projecting how many French fries it would take to reach the moon. Company founder Ray Kroc spoke from the stage of the Chicago Civic Opera House over one of the first live satellite hook-ups to assemblies of McDonald’s franchisees, and a gala anniversary celebration was held at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel. We photographed Ronald McDonald balancing 20 Quarter Pounder hamburgers on a silver platter and designed a striking 20th anniversary logo for the firm. A record 30 million regular hamburgers were served at the nostalgic 1955 price of 15 cents each in a national promotion on April 20th.
Birthday for a billionaire
Ray Kroc’s 75th birthday was in 1977, and Gerry Newman, the company’s chief accounting officer, challenged Al Golin to have the agency come up with the perfect birthday gift for the billionaire, to be presented on behalf of everyone associated with McDonald’s. What do you give a person who has everything tangible he ever wanted? I came up with the idea. It was to create, in Ray’s name, a new charity that could help boost the development of the budding Ronald McDonald House program. It would be called the Ray A. Kroc Ronald McDonald Children’s Fund, and it would provide seed money to begin each new Ronald McDonald House. McDonald’s employees, franchisees and suppliers contributed millions. It became the charity for the entire McDonald’s System.
When Ray died in 1984, that entity was renamed Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities, and today it is known as Ronald McDonald House Charities, and is the third largest children’s charity in the world. It is supported not only by the McDonald’s System, but also by millions of McDonald’s customers and friends worldwide who make small contributions on a continuing basis. RMHC supports not only Ronald McDonald Houses and Family Rooms, but mobile Caremobiles and other activities related to children’s health.
Another big idea that sprouted from the mid 70s was the first united national marketing event for McDonald’s famous sandwich, the Big Mac, which had first been introduced in restaurants nationally in 1968. McDonald’s aggressive and far-seeing marketing director David Green wanted it to be a full “vertical” campaign, engaging all the resources of advertising, public relations, sales promotion and store displays. The McDonald’s franchisee for the Birmingham, Alabama market, Max Cooper, who had once been a partner in Al Golin’s PR agency, had been locally successful with an original promotion idea he called the Big Mac Attack. The idea was that a customer felt a hunger attack coming on, and only a Big Mac would satisfy his craving. We were charged with developing a PR campaign for the national promotion, and we adapted and expanded on Max’s idea.
I remember brainstorming with a couple of my agency associates in the empty bathtub of a freelance writer we’d brought on for the project. We created humorous radio “continuity” scripts for disk jockeys to read, when we delivered hot Big Macs to their studios while they were on the air. We created an editorial cartoon for the wire services, portraying a giant gorilla fending off planes from the top of the Empire State Building while holding a Big Mac in one paw to satisfy his “Big Mac Attack.” We created contests for customers to beat the clock reciting the Big Mac Jingle, “Twoallbeefpattieslettucesaucepicklescheeseonasesameseedbun.” Soon, the Big Mac Attack and the jingle were part of the media and the public’s contemporary vernacular.
On an even lighter note, and as a diversion, several of us on the account staff, noting that our questionable dining habits were beginning to show in our physiques, ginned up over some drinks a concept that we thought could become our own “Pet Rock” – a phenomenon that could become a popular rage, like some late-night TV promotions, even though of marginal real functionality. We called it “Love Handlers International.” Believe it or not, I found a yellowed, hand-written draft of ideas for a developmental plan for it in my basement files. Our objective was to somehow market “A social philosophy unlike any other weight-loss or fitness program — a unique comic – but generally viable – quasi-club that will capture the general public’s perennial fascination with weight-loss techniques as an emotional catharsis.”
We would meet at my apartment overlooking the park, often beginning with a “Friendly Athletic Time – or F.A.T.” phase, and go bowling, biking, walking or take a hike. We’d then return to the apartment for what we dubbed a “Weigh-ing Wall Session,” followed by brainstorming over wine and heavy snacks, the main event, which we called our “Lardo Lark.” One slogan for the campaign we came up with was, “What you’ve lost, the country has gained.” Could still have legs today? Our song would be called “Holding on to the Love Handles of Your Heart.” Our symbol would be a widened “heart” stickpin that resembled love handles. Promotional items we might market would be “foam love handles,” to demonstrate the “before” form, before achieving the happy slender of Love handlers International.
Back to reality, I’d been happy to join the agency in 1974 with the title of account executive. Some think it is the best title in the agency world, because it is associated with the pure bedrock of account work, I was just turning 30 then, and perhaps should have aimed higher. I’d also been happy with my starting salary, which as I mentioned was 20 percent higher than my previous position as an AE with the Burson Marsteller agency. But one day, arriving at the office, I chatted briefly with a city employee who swept the curb in front of our building, proudly wearing his big City of Chicago belt buckle. I asked what he made, and to my dismay, this political appointee, who usually disappeared for the day by 10 AM, was paid more than me, with my college degree and six years of professional experience.
After some jostling with management, recognizing that I had become something of a creative force within the agency, but was managing more and more of the staff, my own promotions and raises finally started to come along. I was soon a senior account executive, then an account supervisor and an account group supervisor. While the agency business is infamous for title inflation, the five thousand dollar or so raises that typically accompanied each promotion added to both my self-esteem and helped with my lifestyle. I moved to a larger apartment in Lincoln Park, with a fireplace and a walled patio, and I sold my grandmother’s old Olds, and bought a three-year-old Mercedes.
I remember driving into the garage under our new offices at 500 N. Michigan Avenue, across from the Tribune, and running into Al Golin. Al admired my classy-looking green sedan, and cautioned me to park in the back of the employee lot when I visited McDonald’s headquarters, so I wouldn’t put off anyone on the client’s staff. Al soon went car shopping himself, inspired by my handsome used Mercedes, but couldn’t bring himself to buy a German car, for reasons that were obvious to me. He wound up with a Jaguar.
Lest I go by the nation’s Bicentennial too quickly, it was clear to us that an American business icon like McDonald’s had to recognize the country’s 200th birthday, for the benefit of our customers and the McDonald’s family of employees and franchisees. The smoke was thick in our conference room as we brainstormed how best to mark the occasion. We decided that we wanted to introduce a forward-looking project, yet one that would harken back to enduring values and tradition. In the end, we created a PR campaign called McDonald’s Trees for America. The concept was bolted together by Susanne, a bright but low-key account executive. The program gained lots of tentacles from the creativity of the entire team.
McDonald’s would look to a green and growing future by planting 1776 trees in every state in the union, with the first tree planted by the governor on each state capitol grounds, with the participation of leading area McDonald’s franchisees, creating not only state-wide publicity but providing a good opportunity to solidify relations between state officials and their McDonald’s constituents. In actuality, we set an identical budget to buy trees for each state, based on the rough cost of 1776 good-sized typical tree seedlings, and then let the state’s department of forestry determine what trees were most needed, how many and where they could best be planted. AE Pat would travel to every state, except when schedules conflicted, with a silver shovel to coordinate the logistics and publicity for each state capitol tree planting ceremony throughout the Bicentennial year. She never forgave me for doing the Hawaii planting, but I reminded her that I also did Billings, Montana. We planted the very first tree with the company’s USA President, Ed Schmitt, at the Morton Arboretum, a major suburban Chicago botanic garden, and featured a photo of the ceremony in the company’s financial annual report to shareholders.
The Hawaii tree planting reminds me of what became my ultimate expense-account business trip. McDonald’s holds massive franchisee conventions every two years, and in 1976, decided to break them into four smaller meetings. One would be in Florida, and three held one after the other on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The meetings entailed large general sessions with McDonald’s management, many seminars, and a vast tented display floor where McDonald’s departments and suppliers would man booths and exhibits of their latest products and services. The agency was tasked with creating and manning such a display for the corporate PR department.
Because of the cost of travel and length of the meetings, we could only have a few of the agency group attend. So, Al Golin, of course, the new account director/VP Chuck Gelman and myself were selected (Chuck was a former J. Walter Thompson PR executive, as was Henry, who we hired after working with him on a Band project in NYC). We would need to spend nearly three weeks on Kauai, between the three-day meetings and set-up days in between. Because the convention hotels were filled with franchisees and company executives, we rented condos on the beach across the island, and cars for the commute. It was rough duty, manning an exhibit booth for a few hours most days, then heading back to the beach. After the meeting, the other Chuck and I, along with the company’s PR manager, took a hydrofoil ferry over to Honolulu to coordinate with the local McDonald’s PR agency and manage the tree planting ceremonies with the state’s governor. By the time we wrapped up, it had been nearly a winter’s month of PR work in Hawaii, all on expense account, and much of it part time, with plenty of opportunity for cavorting in the surf, discovering the islands, and making new friends. Tough duty.
Partly because McDonald’s business was so geographically dispersed, it was a company of continuous meetings, to keep its people aligned and up to date, and exchange information. Our agency team participated in many of these, including all the national advertising meetings, which often brought together nearly a thousand people, representing local and national agencies, corporate staff and local franchisee representatives. Several times a year, I made presentations to these groups, updating them on our national PR issues and initiatives, as well as the growing portfolio of “Bests Bet” projects from local markets. We spoke of the millions of positive “impressions” our programs created among customers and influencers, and it was gratifying to receive the applause of those who were paying the bills.
Another “tough duty” was working with Aye Jaye, the talented comedian and circus character who served as the “training Ronald” to all the people who played Ronald McDonald around the country. McDonald’s original Oak Brook office was in a modern seven-story building, about a block from the Butler National Golf Course and Polo Grounds. One of my early experiences working with Aye Jaye was at the Polo Grounds, which proved to be an elegant setting to entertain important McDonald’s guests. One such guest I was asked to host was Daniel Ng, McDonald’s partner for Hong Kong. We took him to the Sunday polo game, and there was a special photo session after, with the winning team captain, Paul Butler, Miss America, Daniel Ng, and Ronald McDonald. As the silver trophy was passed around and the photos taken, I found myself trying to shoo-off Aye Jaye from pinching the bottom of Miss America. Aye Jaye was known for his practical jokes, and part of our job was to see they remained private, and that the press never caught on to the real comedian behind the famous clown.
The original Ronald has been created by the Washington D.C. McDonald’s ad agency and played in early commercials by Willard Scott, a local DJ who went on to become the famous TV weatherman. Willard has always been proud of his McDonald’s lineage, and we included him in many later events, including some for Ronald McDonald House.
Many in the public, especially those who didn’t often patronize drive-in restaurants, had the impression we served what they called “junk food,” that they considered synonymous with “fast food.” The truth was, at least at McDonald’s, the food was tasty, pretty basic fare – meat, potatoes, bread, milk and soft drinks, from quality sources, simply prepared. The facts that it was served quickly – fast – and inexpensively, contributed to suspicions about its quality.
Then there was Chef Rene
Ray Kroc, when McDonald’s had its headquarters on Chicago’s LaSalle Street, before moving to suburban Oak Brook, in 1971, liked to dine in style. One of his favorite restaurants for lunch was the Whitehall Club, a private dining establishment in the prestigious Whitehall Hotel. The club’s classically trained European executive chef was Rene Arend, formerly of the Drake Hotel. Ray had kidded Rene for some time, telling him he could make a lot more people happy and share his talent if he came with McDonald’s. Eventually the idea sunk in.
For double his salary at the club, Rene finally agreed to come over to McDonald’s as its first executive chef. A special kitchen, which included both McDonald’s equipment and other gourmet and experimental cooking gear, was installed for Rene and his new staff on the top executive floor at the new Oak Brook headquarters. One of the first new menu items he completed was the Chicken McNugget, adapted from an idea of company president Fred Turner’s wife Patty. What Rene added, which made the McNugget famous, was the classical French concept of serving them with a choice of sauces, to add distinct flavor to the chopped and battered chicken entrée. What many don’t know to this day is that the hot mustard sauce available with McNuggets is based on a recipe Rene had created at the Whitehall Club.
At the agency, now named Golin/Harris, because of the departure of Max Cooper and the addition of Tom Harris as Al’s partner, my team came up with the idea of touring Rene to daytime women’s television shows. We’d previously done this with great success at Burson-Marsteller with kitchen-planning experts from Sears. But there was a problem, one that required a specialized public relations skill to resolve. Rene, though possessed of a charming European accent and a good sense of humor, had spent his life in kitchens and was totally unused to public speaking. In fact, when he spoke to another person, he usually stared at his own feet.
So, before we could even begin to work with him to develop at cooking/talking routine for demonstration cooking on TV, we had to build up his conversational confidence and skills through speaker training. Together with a professional specialist, one who often worked with political candidates and CEOs, I brought Rene into a TV studio at McDonald’s famous Hamburger University. We set up the kind of small, portable demonstration kitchen that might work on a commercial TV show, and went to work with Rene. The training, which with many executives might have run to two or three days, entailed two weeks of grueling effort for Rene, and us. But in the end, he was ready for prime time.
We retained an account executive, Cathy, especially to arrange Rene’s publicity tour, create recipe brochures, PR materials, and accompany him to local TV stations across the country. Rene went on to not only raise the culinary standards of McDonald’s, but to be a popular and credible national food quality spokesperson for the brand. In an era when food quality was more of a popular issue than nutrition became later on, Golin-Harris had helped make Chef Rene a star.
The Hamburger University management training center, then based in its own building in suburban Elk Grove, was not a cooking school. The students were new McDonald’s franchisees and restaurant managers, who were expected to already be familiar with the basics of how McDonald’s kitchens and service operations worked. HU, as they call it, was a place for refining management and organizational skills, and achieving a Bachelor of Hamburgerology degree was a requirement for a career at McDonald’s. Ray Kroc wrote about HU and the early days in his 1977 book, “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s.” When I joined the corporate staff in the mid-80s, one of the first requirements was that I earn that degree.
In the late 70s, HU was approaching a milestone – it would soon celebrate its 10,000th graduate. This would be another marker for the astounding growth and success of the business, and also demonstrate how serious the company was about the leadership in its universe of local restaurants. I came up with an idea to publicize the occasion, one that would require the personal participation of Ray Kroc, and Al Golin loved it. I asked Al if he would approach Ray to discuss it, and he said, “You call him.” While I had met Ray at the annual agency Christmas party, and at some company events, I had not yet worked with him directly. While Ray was a charmer and a natural salesman, he had a reputation for an explosive temper if an employee or franchisee disappointed him.
I shouldn’t have worried. Ray said, “Fine, great idea, just tell me when to be at HU and I’ll do whatever you want.” Ray had a profound sense of public relations opportunity. The idea was that Ray would have his photo taken congratulating the 10,000th graduate of HU with the school’s dean under the massive lighted Hamburger University sign, which stood between the building and the busy Northwest Tollway, and was seen by tens of thousands every day. The bottom of the tremendous sign mimicked the regular restaurant signs with the periodically updated wording, “More Than XX billion hamburgers Served.” I had that line replaced with the wording, “More Than 10,000 Graduated,” and the number would increase each time another thousand graduated. Wire services across the nation picked up the photos, and local TV and radio stations covered the ceremony. The Sun Times ran an entire page of photos of the event with Ray.
In the spirit of Ray’s commitment to “giving back to the communities that make us successful,” we were always looking for new charitable ideas. One we latched onto, and is still alive and well 40 years hence, is McHappy Day. George Cohon, McDonald’s legendary chairman in Canada, pioneered it in 1977 with his remarkably talented marketing and PR troops. On a designated day each year, McDonald’s Canada would close their business offices, and the staff and suppliers would go to work alongside the restaurant crews to serve customers and raise money for children’s charities. And community officials and media would be invited to work in the restaurants alongside the franchisees and their staff, serving customers and helping the charities. It was a McHappy Day indeed, and we tripped up to McDonald’s headquarters city, Toronto, to document and film the event, which raised millions across the country on that one day.
Back in the U.S., we liked the concept, not only because of the enormous charitable and customer impact, but because it gave new meaning to a traditional U.S. event, Store Day, in which McDonald’s office workers would work alongside restaurant workers on one day a year in recognition of the importance of serving the ultimate customer – the public. We set out across the country, training and motivating the local market McDonald’s Co-Ops of franchisees to embrace McHappy Day. Two key directors on the corporate staff, Kathy from marketing and Jeff from PR, traveled with us to make the sale. We produced films and training manuals to promote the promotion to our people. The day of the first national event, we set up a command center at the Golin/Harris office on Michigan Avenue to receive and tally the charitable contributions. It was a sort of internal telethon, and, after months of preparation, the U.S. McDonald’s System raised many millions, and created a ton of positive publicity, all while boosting employee morale, all in just one day, minimizing disruption of normal restaurant operations.
A decade later, while on a business trip to Singapore when I had become director of corporate communications for McDonald’s, I had the opportunity to work in a local McDonald’s on McHappy Day, inside the Singapore YMCA, alongside one of my old Golin/Harris account team staff, Pat, by then a senior vice president of the agency. We even cleaned that YMCA restroom.
McDonald’s had a lot of experience with one famous U.S. telethon in particular, prior to creation of McHappy Day. McDonald’s had become the first corporate sponsor of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Many McDonald’s markets across the land participated in raising funds in the restaurants for local MD telethons. Our job at Golin/Harris was to provide creative materials for our local markets, and to manage the relationship with the MDA and the national telethon, broadcast from Las Vegas. We would recruit and train franchisees and restaurant crewmembers to fly to Vegas, who presented contributions from their markets to Jerry on the live telethon. We designed a dramatic McDonald’s tote board on which to chart our donations as they were reported. I was lucky to be just off stage the night Jerry and Dean Martin were reunited at the Telethon after many years apart.
We made many trips out to Las Vegas for the telethons and planning events through the 70s. We even tied in the McDonald’s All-American Band, by having a breakout jazz band from the program appear on the national telethon. These occasions gave us tremendous television publicity exposure, nationally and locally, while building internal support for the program. Jerry would sometimes appear at McDonald’s marketing meetings with franchisees to promote support of MDA. But he was struggling with what some thought were prescription drugs and was difficult to handle, at best. I recall meeting his limousine backstage at a suburban Chicago hotel, and when we opened the car door, Jerry was kicking and screaming on the floor. I escorted the disheveled star through the back corridors enroute to the stage, where hundreds of franchisees waited in the audience. It was amazing to see him pull himself together as we walked and talked, under pressure to perform and become the Jerry we knew from TV and the movies.
Speaking of kicking and screaming
I have to say a few words about clients. Having been on both sides of the client/agency relationship on several occasions, I know how challenging the relationship dynamics can be. I started out my career on the client side, in jobs with Allstate Insurance and Toyota. At Toyota in particular, I had close, frequent and demanding relations with senior agency people at both PR and advertising agencies. I liked the agency people assigned to our account, and my personality default is to like people until or unless they give me reasons to feel otherwise. I felt the agency folks I dealt with were smart, fair and direct, and I hope they felt the same about me. They were also fun to be with socially, which certainly helped.
At Golin/Harris, some of the early McDonald’s clients directly responsible for the agency relationship were another story altogether. I won’t mention names, at least of those I disliked and distrusted. As I mentioned before, McDonald’s had not developed internal expertise in PR in its first couple of decades, relying instead on Al Golin and his account people to do it all. By the time I joined the agency in 1974, McDonald’s had named a former regional marketing manager as their first PR director. He was never comfortable in the assignment, and unhappy that he’d inherited an agency that had more credibility with his bosses than did he. He felt like a caretaker more than like a client in control of the budget and strategy. He had no internal staff at first, beyond a secretary, and could barely keep up with all the agency was doing, through its own many contacts throughout corporate management and the McDonald’s franchisee community. The most troubling thing about him to me was that, out of his own inadequacy and frustration, he undercut our account director, and through trumped-up accusations, cost him his job.
He would sometimes come downtown, demanding to immediately see the senior account staff at some restaurant near our office, and then have nothing to say. He’d demand we drive out to Oak Brook on a moment’s notice, and then ignore us for hours while we sat outside his office. He would yell and scream at us, and refuse to support our recommendations. He finally convinced the company’s U.S. president to require the agency to present its credentials and plans, as if it was “pitching” a new account, to the entire corporate officer staff. We prepped for weeks, and then rented space at a nearby hotel to make the presentation. Our client sat at the back of the room to watch us present our ideas and ourselves. When we were finished, and had answered questions from the audience, one of the senior management came to the front and embraced Al Golin, while the rest applauded. Our client quietly left the rear of the room and submitted his resignation the next day.
Chuck Gelman and I recommended his replacement, another regional marketing manager, but one with some solid PR credentials. He’d created a local all-star basketball program that we at the agency had spotted through our “best bets” efforts and transformed into the McDonald’s All-American High School Basketball Team, a program that produced such stars as Michael Jordan and also continues to this day. Our client was a sports fan and also an early supporter of youth soccer. We developed for McDonald’s a program called Side-Kick Soccer, and brought on an account executive to promote it nationally, but we were a little too early for the broad acceptance of soccer in schools.
But our client was also a troubled soul, and a morning was not complete until he had called one of us to yell and scream. Perhaps we were just too confident in ourselves to be compliant enough for him. While he understood PR and how it could mesh with marketing, he was not a good manager of people. He too left the company after a few years. His departure brought an end to an era in which I must admit one of my biggest professional motivations had been to outlast some despicable clients.
Our next PR director, who had been on the national marketing staff, was a different story. Jeff Franklin was creative, fun and thought big. He had been a champion of introducing McHappy Day to the U.S. system. He became a cheerleader, booster and partner in creating new ideas. And he was excited beyond belief in the potential growth of the Ronald McDonald House Program. At one of our national conferences for those operating and interested in developing Ronald Houses, we had Ray Kroc as our special guest. Jeff met Kroc as he arrived at our meeting, and standing with us, told Ray of the potential to develop many more houses. When Ray arose to speak at the meeting, rather than endorsing the rapid growth, he’d been so bowled over by Jeff’s enthusiasm, that he felt the need to caution the group about the risks of moving too quickly.
Needless to say, Jeff forged ahead aggressively on all fronts. But, unfortunately for Jeff, he developed a reputation for over-reaching, and in particular, for over-spending, and after a few years of excesses, even with strong results, his spending caught up with him. Then Sandy Silver came in from the D.C. region. Chuck Gelman and I had thought he was an intuitive PR guy, with a strong marketing bent and attractive leadership skills. Sandy went on to become an influential McDonald’s marketing VP, and then later headed McDonald’s national promotional agency, Creata. Dean Barrett came in from the Florida Region, and was strong on the Ronald House program growth. He went on to become a long-term senior international marketing officer with the company.
In that period, the company brought in its first experienced media relations director, to work with the press. McDonald’s, despite its proactive menu of PR programs managed by the agency, had been reluctant to deal with the press so proactively on corporate issues. Fred, by then McDonald’s CEO, and primarily still a restaurant operations guy, was notoriously suspicious of the press. Doug, who had been chief spokesman with a major airline, was cast in that role, but not with much support from top management. When the company had been accused, falsely, of using worms in its beef, Doug called a press conference, and in the process inadvertently drew more attention to the scurrilous charge. He didn’t last long in Oak Brook. Fred Turner still respected the PR sensibilities of Al Golin and company more than anyone inside the corporate office.
As my own experience with the client expanded, I took on additional responsibility for communications in the growing international area. I recall chatting with the agency guy for McDonald’s in Germany, who was looking for ideas to launch the first company restaurants in Hamburg. A light went on, and I suggested the theme: “the hamburger returns to Hamburg.” I explained that popular history indicated that when sailors from the port of Hamburg, who brought to distant lands the idea of chopped steak based on the steak tartare created by the Russian Cossacks, it became known as “hamburger.” I became the international “go to” guy at the agency, adapting U.S. program resources to other countries and cultures for McDonald’s international marketing department. McDonald’s was opening up new countries rapidly, and the strategy of Tom Gruber, the international marketing VP, was to launch public relations tactics to cost effectively introduce the brand to new countries prior to beginning advertising.
Another area of increased focus for me became public policy. We were increasingly involved in the issues of nutrition, ecology, safety and minority affairs, and I worked on creating educational and legislative and media positions and materials for the client’s public affairs division.
In the late 70s, the company then brought in a more conservative, strategic leader, already an officer from the marketing department, to head communications. Ray Caruso had then successfully marketed McDonald’s then new breakfast menu in its initial rollout. He was less interested in publicity and traditional PR programs, than in issues management, and while he was successful in bringing that perspective and expertise to the fore, his approach was not positive and proactive enough for a high energy global consumer brand like McDonald’s. His deputy, Dick Starmann, also a former marketing officer, went on to head communications and restore a balance between positive proactive PR programs and issues management, and especially crisis management. His leadership style would prompt McDonald’s to make him the first senior management communications officer in the company’s history, and take the company’s strongly growing communications staff and its PR agencies successfully through the 80s and 90s, almost to the door of the Millennium.
Dick was a no-nonsense executive, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, and I made a personal mistake at the first account creative presentation we held for him at the agency’s Michigan Avenue conference room. I was presenting an update on an educational program on safety that we managed for local franchisees. The program used an animated human-sized robot called Officer Mac to give elementary school safety lectures. To introduce my update and break the ice, I’d programmed a small robot, called an Omnibot, from my home that I normally used to serve drinks to guests, to sit on the conference table and sing a somewhat off-color song, while wearing a Spanish policeman’s three-cornered hat. The robot sang out, “My name is Officer Mac. I make my living on my back. Etc, etc.” Dick didn’t crack a smile.
Dick later commented to my boss, Chuck Gelman, “I guess that’s what I should expect from your creative types.” Dick forgave my impetuousness, and he went on to become a great mentor and good friend.
The public service role of PR has often been under-played, but two important innovations in public service were the result of ideas we generated at Golin/Harris in the 70s. We would often send the company executives ideas we gleaned from the news media that we thought could have positive application in their business, even if the public relations value was limited. One of the best examples was in a memo I sent to the officers responsible for restaurant operations training in 1975. The memo attached news articles reporting that the American Medical Association had officially endorsed the “Heimlich Hug” technique for giving first aid to those choking on food. I wrote, “Perhaps this information…and appropriate ‘How To’ instructions should be operationally communicated to all restaurants as well as included in training for management and crews. The humanistic value of such life-saving techniques seems to be rather compelling.” Though the lawyers at first balked about liability issues, McDonald’s began saving customer lives soon after.
Seeing menus for the blind
Another first a few years later was creating a way to offer menus in brail nationally. We’d learned of a local McDonald’s that had their menu typed on a machine that could imprint brail letters on a heavy mat material. It was a franchisee’s idea to make McDonald’s more accessible to blind customers. We struggled with how to make this “best bet” more available to the U.S. System. After contact with some national organizations that serve the vision-impaired, we learned there was a new technology that would enable brail to be imprinted on a permanent piece of heavy plastic. After some experimentation, we figured out how to produce the basic McDonald’s menu, without prices, so it could last a while, on sturdy, cleanable plastic sheets and distribute them to every McDonald’s in the nation, along with instructions regarding identifying and serving vision-impaired customers. In one fell swoop, and for a budget of just over $8000, we’d made McDonald’s the first national restaurant chain to offer its menus in brail. That was a home run that went beyond conventional public relations to real innovation in public service.
The year 1978 was a very big and positive one for me, personally and professionally, despite a major conflict that arose between the two. On May 13th, I married my travel agent, Vicki, who was also the travel agent for the McDonald’s All-American Band and Basketball programs, as well as much of the other business travel coordinated by Golin/Harris. Under McDonald’s policies of that time, this created a conflict of interest for the agency, and me so she lost her largest commercial account. Vicki later confided to me, that after the dust had settled at her travel firm, it was a blessing in disguise, as our travel work was very time-intensive, and that the loss of the business freed up her staff’s time to serve more lucrative private travel clients.
Many of the guests at our Racquet Club wedding reception were friends and associates from the agency and client, and the wedding picture that has sat on my desk for years since, portrays us at our wedding dinner holding a McDonald’s French fry box. In fact, it was a prop, as rack of lamb was the entrée that night. Our next order of fries together was to be during our honeymoon trip, at the Champs Elysees McDonald’s in Paris. On return, we moved into a new apartment overlooking the lake and Lincoln Park Zoo, and bought our first new car, a yellow 240 series Mercedes diesel, a so-called doctor’s car because it was so basic, with the windows and even the sunroof opening with hand cranks. Vicki’s looming role in my world had calmed me down, and given me a new focus on the quality of living, rather than the speed of it. I was drinking less, sleeping better and putting things into more long-range perspective.
The other reason ’78 was important to me was my promotion to vice president of the agency and my addition to the creative review board and new business committees. Golin/Harris was rapidly becoming a major force among national PR agencies, and I was fortunate to be growing along with it. Ironically, another VP added to the account had been my client at Sears when I was with the Burson Marsteller agency. I was not happy with his addition and told my boss so, because I believed he was lazy and did not have many of the key communications skills needed. But his PR credentials with the Sears retail powerhouse, and his slick manner got him the job. In another irony, I found a way to get rid of him. When a Texas PR agency tried to recruit me for a senior position, I gave them his name, and he soon took the job, showing his total lack of loyalty to McDonald’s and Golin/Harris.
Not long after, I was approached by the chief marketing officer of McDonald’s arch rival and number two competitor, Burger King. He flew to Chicago and offered me the job as PR director of their Florida-based company. I turned him down flat. Less than two ears later, I was promoted to senior VP and co-account director on McDonald’s at Golin/Harris.
It wasn’t “fair”.
One of the biggest projects I’d had the chance to spearhead for McDonald’s also became the largest project we ever cancelled. Long-time McDonald’s franchisee in Knoxville, Lytton Cochran, was elected a director for what would become the 1980 Knoxville World’s Fair. Before the age of the Internet made them largely obsolete, world’s fairs were global expositions of technology, trade and tourism that rivaled and even exceeded the draw of the Olympics. Cochran was a good friend with Fred Turner, now Ray Kroc’s successor as McDonald’s Chairman, and he prevailed on Fred to think about creating a McDonald’s-sponsored pavilion at the fair.
Fred called Al, and we put together a feasibility team that I headed. We researched previous such fairs, flew in and out of Knoxville to meet with fair officials, and brainstormed endlessly about ideas that could advance McDonald’s reputation and justify a multi-million dollar investment in special staff, construction and a year of operations a the fair, not to mention global publicity efforts. We hired a talented account person, Bridget, to head up development and execution of the Olympics program. We brought in top graphics and exhibits people. The pavilion theme we settled on was one that we could promote globally. It would focus on fitness, including exercise and good nutrition. It seemed like a natural. We also envisioned creating a local Ronald McDonald’s House in Knoxville, which would open the same year as the fair.
Fred Turner and his people were thrilled with the concept we proposed. Then we ran into a wall we just couldn’t get over. When we further analyzed the projected attendance of the fair, and where visitors would travel from, we realized that their projections we exaggerated and unreliable. We concluded there was no way our projected expenditure would justify the likely attendance. The client had already invested $50,000 in unrecoverable planning for the fair pavilion design and program.
I went to Al and Chuck with Bridget and said we just couldn’t justify letting McDonald’s go ahead with the fair. It came to us to call a meeting with McDonald’s Chairman Turner to recommend we cancel the project and eat our losses. He agreed, and thanked us for our sincere efforts and candid evaluation. Bridget, rather than seeing her new job evaporate, had proven her worth, and went on to excel on the McDonald’s account. In fact, I was to hire her to come to work at the company as PR Manager not long after I joined it myself in 1985, and today she is senior VP and chief communications officer for McDonald’s worldwide.
The end of the 70s also saw us roll out McDonald’s first corporate film, highlighting the entrepreneurial spirit of Ray Kroc and his franchisees. We conceived and worked on production of the half-hour film, hosted by TV star Jack Klugman.
The agency partner and executive vice president who headed the McDonald’s account, Chuck Gelman, together with his wife Gay, had become great good friends with Vicki and I. It was they who had urged us to go ahead and get married. We often dined together, and traveled to Spain and Italy together on vacation. Back at the office at 500 North Michigan Avenue, across from the Tribune, when the client had us rattled, which was fairly often, Chuck and I would sneak around the corner to chat and down a few “Stolies” over ice for lunch. On such days, when we returned to the office, we’d usually close our office doors and settle into some quiet copy editing or speech writing, which seemed to go swimmingly after a few beverages.
One of the greatest contemporary conceptual innovations in modern public relations was the product of one such after-lunch reverie by Chuck Gelman. While Al Golin (see his 2003 book, “Trust or Consequences”) had pioneered the concept with Ray Kroc, Chuck came up with a name for it: the “McDonald’s Trust Bank,” which explained the rationale behind much that we did for this client. The idea is that every positive PR program and demonstration of corporate responsibility puts deposits in a figurative “Trust Bank” which builds the organization’s good reputation, and gives it some reputational resilience in times of challenge, when withdrawals of trust are possible. Al Golin gets the credit as the creator of the “Trust Bank” concept, because he put the strategy behind it in place, but it was my friend and close associate Chuck who gave it the articulation that is taught in schools to this day.
While I sat on the agency’s new business committee and would often prepare McDonald’s case history success stories or otherwise advise and confer on new business proposals, it was not until 1980 that I took the lead on a new business proposal for another big potential client. The opportunity that caught my imagination was a request for proposal from the Pet Food Institute, an organization of the major pet food manufacturers. Their premise was that pet ownership – mostly dogs and cats – was slipping in the U.S. and this was projected to have negative consequences for pet food sales. Increased urbanization meant more potential pet owners faced restrictive apartment covenants, and people just were not appreciating the social value of pets in their modern, demanding lives. The institute wanted a long-term program that would bring back American passion for pets and thus re-accelerate pet ownership.
I was intrigued by the possibilities. I had grown up with dogs, mostly Kerry blue terriers, and we had recently moved into a high-rise apartment across from the Lincoln Park Zoo. We could hear the animals roar when we got up in the morning, but at a recent condo board meeting, we heard residents argue for a restriction of pet ownership in our building. I passionately believed the pets deserved an advocate. The project to get the account was turned over to me, on condition that I continued to meet my personal responsibilities for McDonald’s.
But since I was committed to remain working full-time on McDonald’s, we recruited Rich, a senior VP who was moving off the McDonald’s account and Sarah, an account supervisor to act as the core team, while we brought in more than 10 other account staff across the agency to help with research and creative development. We conducted original focus groups, and consulted with veterinarians, psychologists and others with animal experience. We wanted to develop a strong program theme, and in an intense creative session, Sarah had a break-through idea. We would call our proposal the Pets Are Wonderful program – with the acronym PAW.
I spoke with author Alvin Toffler, who the Financial Times had dubbed “the world’s most famous futurologist,” about the importance of pets in modern society, and he validated what became a key concept to help build and sell our campaign. He said, in a “high tech” society that would become increasingly dominated by de-humanizing computers, there would be an increasing need for balancing “high touch” components to feed our emotional selves. “Would pets bring in that “high touch” aspect, I asked. “Indeed they would,” was his prophetic reply. That was the formula we were looking for: pet ownership would be an important balancing dimension in the “high tech/high touch” society of the future. A multi-faceted campaign was planned in detail, against a requested annual budget of $500,000.
When we made our presentation to the institute members, in direct competition with three of the largest PR firms in the business, they loved our PAW concept and ideas and proposal. They awarded the account to Golin/Harris, but then asked to double the budget to a million dollars a year, as a starting point. It was the largest new business, competitive account win the agency had ever had, and Al and Tom Harris, his partner, credited me with “having masterminded the entire effort.” Tom wrote about the campaign in his 1991 book, “The Marketer’s Guide to Public Relations.”
A few weeks later, as Vicki and I was preparing to leave on a much-needed European vacation with Chuck and Gay Gelman, Al and Tom called me into their office to thank me again for squeezing time from my work with McDonald’s to head the PAW project. They handed me five crisp new hundred-dollar bills and wished us happy landings on our trip. I put the office out of my mind for the next week of travel through southern Italy.
When I returned, after thinking about it some more, I went to Chuck Gelman and told him I didn’t understand the math. I had “masterminded” a new account that would begin billing at a million dollars a year, with the potential to grow and go on for many years, and my reward was a nice mention in the agency newsletter and $500. I said it just didn’t compute. I pointed out that several of the staff that assisted in the new business pitch would now work on the account and each draw annual salaries of much more than 100 times my little one-time bonus, not to mention the incremental profit to the agency.
Chuck soon came back to me with a $5000 salary raise. Not exactly homerun remuneration in my book. I had long thought the agency didn’t fully recognize my worth, despite my many promotions. By this time I’d been working on the McDonald’s account for seven years, with no near-term prospects for another big advance. My good friend Chuck, by then an executive vice president and partner, who headed the account, didn’t seem likely to be going anywhere soon, so I didn’t foresee any new growth and promotion potential for me on the horizon at Golin/Harris.
In early 1981, Ray Kroc was experiencing more frequent illnesses, and Ed Schmitt, then U.S. McDonald’s president, called in Al and asked him to have the agency prepare some contingency plans in event of Kroc’s death, as his own iconic status as a business pioneer had taken on the significance of a Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. I possessed a unique credential in such planning, as one of my last military assignments in the late 60s had been to maintain the Army’s contingency plan for the death of President/General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower. When the President died, I implemented the plan for the Kansas phase of the Eisenhower services, and served a briefing officer to the Army Commander. The confidential “Schmitt Plan” I developed for Kroc included family coordination, a notification plan with stockpiled, ready-to-finalize memos, press releases, memorial ads, videotape and photography. When Kroc died, three years later, after I had left the agency, Al called Fred Turner to discuss next steps, and in one poignant directive, Fred directed Al, “Implement the Schmitt plan.”
Later in 1981, my old friend, graphic design wiz Hank Robertz, who I’d known since my Toyota days, and who’d introduced me to Carl Kay at the Golin agency, told me another client of his, Baxter Laboratories in Deerfield, was looking for a communications director at their corporate headquarters. Hank had designed all of McDonald’s reports to shareholders, and as I helped create these, I’d gotten to know and trust him through countless late-night hours working alongside he and his staff in his studios and at printers. I met with Baxter.
I couldn’t play one employer against another
I thought long and hard when Baxter, a Fortune 500 health care technology leader, offered me the job. It turned out they valued my broad, high profile consumer PR experience, which was largely missing in their business-to-business marketing and communications organization. It was not only a significant salary increase, with excellent bonus potential, stock options and executive benefits, but it represented another opportunity for me to break through. I would be moving back into the corporate world as a member of senior management, where decisions get made and budgets created, and agencies hired. I’d be testing myself in the prestigious high tech health field – going from healthy food to health care, so to speak. I took the job.
One of my most difficult tasks was breaking the news to my direct superior and good friend, Chuck Gelman, who had been a mentor for me at the agency. He wanted to go to Al and develop a counter-offer, but I said no, it was time for me to move on.
Little did I think then, that three years later, when I’d done all I could at Baxter, and found myself reporting to an attorney with no imagination, that my old client Dick Starmann would offer me the job of home office director of corporate communications for McDonald’s. I’d have the public relations, media relations and internal communications departments of this industry leader reporting to me, along with the team at Golin/Harris and our other PR consultants. At the same time, I received a six-figure offer, my first at that level, to serve as VP of PR for a $12 billion food manufacturing company. Al Golin also offered my old job back at the agency. Al was the all-time ultimate McDonald’s PR guru, and I held him in the highest personal regard, as I do today, but he wasn’t in a position to offer me the wider palette of responsibilities I sought.
But I didn’t know the people, except by reputation, at the manufacturing company, and the agency wasn’t offering anything new. McDonald’s Corporation though, was offering me a wide canvas to work on, where I could build on my previous agency achievements. I knew, respected and personally liked scores of the McDonald’s people, from the very top to bottom. Now some of them, like talented and personable PR director Mike Gordon, who became a great friend, would even be reporting to me. As McDonald’s CEO Fred Turner sat on the Baxter board of directors, Dick Starmann had to ask him if it would be OK to hire me. He said yes. I knew McDonald’s to be an honest, ethical company, and even though I would not be an officer at the outset, I would still be near the top of PR decision-making, and even though the starting compensation was a little lower than what I was already making and being offered by others, the job did come with a company car, and so, I went with my instincts.
I would lead corporate communications for McDonald’s for the next 15 years, growing with the company as it became a Dow Jones Industrial stock and one of the world’s most-admired brands. I worked as a confidant to several Chairmen, CEOs, CFOs, CMOs and the Board, and retired at the very cusp of the Millennium as a vice president and chief corporate spokesman for brand McDonald’s. It had been a dream career topper with an organization I loved and respected, starting as an agency account executive, and rising to become one of the home office’s 30-some officers at the top of this 1.5 million-person McDonald’s family.
My odyssey with McDonaldland and into the thick of the 1970s Chicago PR agency world began with the sinking of my beloved Chris-Craft.
While my boat and prior life had gone down the figurative drain in a storm, by mid-decade my dreams began to set sail once more, both for a rewarding personal life and for building public relationships on behalf of what would become one of the biggest and most-respected ships of state in the universe of global corporations.
As the 1980’s were dawning, Vicki and I purchased a half interest in a little sailboat called the Mai Tai, just a few moorings away from the anchorage where the CHASE’s untimely end had sent me ashore nearly a decade before. Allegorically, I’d had to swim for my life in the frothy sea of the 1970s Chicago PR agency world, but the water had been warm, the sharks had been beaten back, and I’d learned how to stay afloat in an even larger pond.
When I was about to turn 40 in 1983, I told Vicki I felt awkward about such a mid-life milestone and wanted to be as far away from everyone as possible. So, for my birthday, we traveled to the village of Baden Baden, deep in the Black Forest of Germany.
When we entered our room at the famous Brenner’s Park Hotel and Spa in the remote casino resort town, having flown and then driven thousands of miles from home, I was surprised to find a table loaded with gifts, cards and wine from friends, associates and relatives back home, whom Vicki had tipped-off as to our vacation plans. It came to me then that I was having no success in hiding out from my world at this ominous birthday.
Instead, as I opened those presents, I was also opening a new chapter in my own life and in my career as what I call a PR-kitect, or builder of public relationships. Now, as I write this memoir a third of a century later, I’m seeing the transition that came to define my 30s with both the crisp clarity of hindsight, and a sense that there is much more story to tell, including my experiences building a fresh new public platform for health technology giant Baxter International, followed by 15 intense years leading McDonald’s corporate communications, behind and in front of the scenes inside of a global organization whose chief spokesperson has traditionally been a clown.
Going back to where I began this tale of my decade afloat in the agency whirl of 1970’s Chicago, there would be some other real boats to allegorically “float” me through my later career and life beyond — although never nearly enough boats — but only one called the CHASE, who’s timely sinking so neatly launched my McCareer, and whose name characterized a decade that that didn’t just float by – it flew.
The 1980’s and 90’s were to become the culmination of my working career, shaping communications strategies at the beating heart of giant corporations, building relationships and protecting reputation in response to soaring opportunities and deep challenges. It was to be the run-up to my opportunistic retirement from the business world at age 56, at the stroke of the Millennium, ringing in a second youth of freedom and learning. The fun had just

As the U.S. considers if and how to react to the Sunni-led insurrection in Iraq, I have one comment: “We CANNOT afford it!”*

The conflict in the middle east across many nations between the Sunnis and the Shiites goes back over a thousand years. If we think that the U.S. or western nations can impose a political or military solution on what is one of the world’s most long-lasting social conflicts, we have another think coming.

*We CANNOT afford to intervene, economically, politically, socially. Let’s, for once, learn from the past.

Musing Above the Meuse

Taken by Vicki on the battlements above the Meuse River in Namur, Belgium, during our visit in April, gaining inspiration and ideas for my upcoming fall essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Mystery Along the Meuse.”


A quiet scene from a bridge over the River Meuse in Namur, Belgium in April.


Cider, who like all our cats past and present has an apple-linked name (except for Banner who came to us pre-named), is our senior feline at Applewood Lodge. Also, like his female friend Gala, he started out as a barn cat, and did well in life, so is now happily enjoying middle class retirement.

As we speak, Cider is lying down in front of the computer screen, hanging his head over the desk to watch me type. He is right out of “Central Catting.”

Lake Geneva Kennel Club June 2014

Pictured today is what is left of the long-closed Lake Geneva Kennel Club in Delavan, WI.

Snowden — here is my blog post of June 10th last year. I stand by my thesis that part of the price of democracy is transparency.

New revelations of vast NSA programs to monitor telephone use to intercept terrorist plans again raises the question of whether the effect of such whistle-blowing of top-secret security processes adds to the cleansing potential of democratic transparency or degrades the ability of our government to protect the population.

The answer is that such revelations result in both increased public oversight, or in other words, enhanced democracy, but also a possibly somewhat weaker security apparatus. In our post-1984 world, where our national politics have been accurately described as “a carnival of dysfunction,” the regular exercise of democratic oversight by the people, through intrusions by well-meaning whistle-blowers and responsible news media, is one way to preserve the fundamental principles of our democracy. My belief is that the cost of such “intrusions” into the inner sanctums of our government security establishment are justified by the balancing results of political and governmental accountability to a society of free people — a people who yearn to remain free in a complicated, dangerous information age.

Lyndon Johnson

Near the height of the Vietnam War, just before Tet in 1968, the USS Pueblo, a military intelligence ship, was captured by the North Koreans, and her crew of more than 150 Americans interred, starved and tortured. The Koreans claimed the ship was spying inside their territorial waters, which the U.S. said was not so.

The Pueblo was one of the smallest ships in the Navy, and was first built as a military freighter in Kewaunee, WI, in 1944. It was refitted as an intelligence-gathering vessel, and was very lightly armed. She was sent by the Navy in an ill-prepared condition on a dangerous mission to gather electronic info on Russian and North Korean defense systems. The crew was released after agonizing negotiations on December 23rd of 1968, just as I was flying home on emergency leave from my position as a combat press officer near Hue, site of the Tet offensive earlier that year.

The captain and crew of the Pueblo were put through the ringer of hearings and suspicion by the Navy, and never to this day heralded and rewarded for their sacrifice and loyalty to a Navy that treated they and their little ship like unwanted step-children. To this day, the Pueblo, the second oldest commissioned ship in the Navy after the USS Constitution, lies captive in the harbor of North Korea’s capitol.

That, my friends, is 46 years a captive commissioned U.S. Navy ship, a long forgotten son of Kewaunee, and a crew of brave once-young sailors, now aging veterans, that deserves at least the kind of Federal recognition afforded pro basketball and football teams.

Tonight on PBS, Ken Burn’s new program about perpetuating  the meaning of the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address premieres. It holds personal meaning for me, because I was there, so to speak, as officer in charge of most of the 43 military funerals I participated in there from 1966 to 1968, in the new section of that National Cemetery dedicated to the Vietnam-era dead. Our funeral detachment (pallbearers, riflemen and bugler) was comprised of headquarters unit soldiers from my staff at the U.S. Army War College, down the road from Gettysburg at Carlisle, PA. Each of these services was a wrenching experience for me and my young soldiers, many of whom along with me, would be headed to war in Vietnam before too long. Learn more about Ken Burn’s meaningful program at My own reflections on military life in the Vietnam era are below, in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “All That Glitters.” LOGO





                                  All That Glitters…


                            By Charles Ebeling





           Presented before the Chicago Literary Club

                        At The Cliff Dweller’s Club


                            November 21, 2011





                Copyright 2011 Charles Ebeling (all rights reserved)  






It was the fall of 1963, and I was commuting from my parent’s home in the western suburbs to the campus of the University of Chicago, where I was briefly a student at large.

Just recently, I found a folder of notes dated from that time, and on a corner of one sheet was the following hand-written bit of verse I’d doodled, which seemed to somehow presage events that would unfold over the following several years. And, I’d suppose, the spirit of my words might apply to many of us.

The verse is titled:



                              All is grand. All is free,

                               And bound by relativity –

                               The concept brackets fools, kings,

                               Not least of all, the world of things;

                              So, I’m most humble, yet proud to be,

                               Somewhere between, relatively.



It was a cold late October night, four years later, as I hopped off the back of a military truck, my M14 rifle was handed down, and I reported for guard duty, marching the muddy perimeter fence at a mysterious place, the fabled United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.

A few months before, I’d completed my degree in journalism, at Bradley University. As I trudged shivering along the barbed wire-topped fence surrounding the dimly lit vault building, 50 yards over my shoulder, I could barely imagine how my own path had brought me to this odd place.

Absentmindedly, I wondered if the inside of the nearby vault looked anything like it had been portrayed in the newest James Bond film, Goldfinger, filmed right here at Fort Knox just the year before? And, were there still mountains of 27-pound solid gold bars, some 4,600 tons worth, stacked only yards from my humble guard path, or had those billions long since been trucked away and dissipated into the world’s coffers, as had been rumored? I wondered what was true, and what was just illusion. I was so far from any answers.

In another seven months, I’d leave Fort Knox, bringing along two very small gold bars of my own — worn on my shoulders. My little war story had begun.

Over the following two years, those shiny gold-plated bars would turn silver at the military’s highest bastion of learning, then, a world away, be painted dull black. Ultimately, a bar of each color – gold, silver and black — would be set in a frame, with a little bundle of medals and insignia. That boxed set of personal history now, some 40 years hence, rests behind the knotty pine door over my home office desk, in the woods of Wisconsin. The author of a long-term Harvard study on happiness, that included veterans of World War II, observed that, “with the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous.” That has not been my experience.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

My military “adventure” began quietly enough, when I set the theme for a mock magazine article at the end of my junior year, as a journalism student at Bradley U., up on the Main Street hill in Peoria, Illinois. Given the fixation of the daily headlines in 1965 with reports of gathering student anti-war unrest and demonstrations on campuses across the nation, I’d decided to probe that topic in my own backyard, and so the headline for my article became, “Vietnam and the Corn Belt Campus.” I’d not taken much interest in politics up to then, and it seemed to me there had been only a little agitation on my campus in this quiet river town between Chicago and St. Louis, so I decided to reach out, and visit three additional campuses here in the heart of the Corn Belt.

As I was a reporter for our student newspaper, the Bradley Scout, I began by researching the past year of editions of the Scout, then proceeded to visit the other colleges and interview the editors of their student newspapers and a handful of students at each, to see what had been going on regarding the Vietnam situation. Running late on my assignment, I jumped into my little red VW Beatle and drove off through the seemingly endless cornfields, and visited Illinois State University at Normal, the nearby Illinois Wesleyan University, and the sprawling University Of Illinois campus at Champaign.

On my way back to Peoria, fresh from my first-hand research at those central Illinois campuses, I checked into a roadside motel, and banged out the story on my portable typewriter. My premise was that midwestern students like myself, surrounded by vast prairies of tall corn, grazing cattle and entrenched conservatism, were only modestly agitated about reports of America’s escalation of its involvement in Vietnam. Those few students who protested too loudly were characterized as left wing stooges of radical organizations like the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society. Most male Midwestern students, at least in the Corn Belt, were politically inert. They were much more nervous about how the military draft might affect their post-graduate plans, or, more often, their lack of plans. I was squarely of the latter group.

And my concern about the future had grown by the next academic year, ending with graduation in May ’66 – as the Vietnam Conflict escalated into a full-blown war. My final article in journalism school would be an analysis of the military service officer’s candidate school options available to new graduates, like myself, who had not participated in ROTC during their undergrad years. There had been no military tradition in my family, and I had never given the services a second thought.

My research for the article became a checklist for my own OCS potential. I learned from the draft board back in Riverside that I had a very low number, and would likely be called up for service within a few weeks of graduation. So I sought what the troops sardonically came to call a D.I.E. – or “draft-induced enlistment.”

I first applied to Navy OCS, as I’d always enjoyed boating on the Great Lakes with my dad and family, and was the navigator, guiding our cruiser with the help of a radio direction finder on courses from port to port, sometimes through the night and even in rough weather. I yearned to learn more about life at sea. I went through the Navy’s battery of physical and mental testing and interviews, and was almost qualified, when the service determined that my eyesight was too poor to earn a waiver, and therefore not good enough to meet officer requirements.

Then I looked into the Army, where I thought the Transportation Corps might give me added experience if I were to join my father in the trucking business. The Army responded positively, but at the time of my graduation, the closest I could get to transportation was the Armor Corps – tanks. I thought that riding in a tank might be preferable to marching. They promised me that through their College Option program at the Armor School at Fort Knox, that after training I’d serve just two more years on duty as a commissioned officer, with no active reserve obligation thereafter. Plus, and this was a key consideration, I didn’t imagine there to be much call for tanks in the wet rice fields of Vietnam.

Fort Knox was the home of the Patton Museum, preserving the history of the most famous American armor commander. The Army is thick on tradition, and Brigadier General George S. Patton IV, son of the legend, would serve as Deputy Post Commander at Knox in 1972, after serving with distinction in Vietnam.

I’d first go through eight weeks of ordinary basic training at Knox, just like any draftee, and then receive eight more weeks of advanced training in Armor, to become a member of what retired General Bruce Clark called “that elite group who are tank commanders.” We’d then immediately go on to six more months of Officer Candidate School. There was no guarantee, but if I were successful in that ten-month marathon of training, I would qualify for a Presidential commission as an Army Reserve second lieutenant of Armor. We’d be what the troops called a “Shake’n Bake officer,” in other words, a novice OCS grad without combat experience.

The same month I graduated from college, the class of ’66 was graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. They would be immortalized in Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Long Gray Line,” subtitled  – “From West Point to Vietnam and After – the turbulent Odyssey of the Class of ’66.” That West Point class produced a little less than 600 lieutenants. I would join soon them as one of about sixteen thousand new second lieutenants commissioned in the Army reserves between 1965 and ’66. The rest of us were ROTC-ers, those who took military training while in college, and my fellow OCS, or Officer Candidate School grads, who had no military training until they entered service.  

So, I signed on, and skipped my college graduation ceremony to take a last cruise on the family boat, this time up to the North Channel of Canada. Upon returning, I completed the Army swearing-in, and began what I later facetiously styled as my “military MBA,” and boarded a train from Chicago to Louisville, enroute to Fort Knox. I shared a compartment with a farm boy from mid-state, Illinois, also just out of college and also headed to OCS. We would be close friends through many months of training, until one day he unexpectedly cracked and quit, unable to any longer handle the unending pressure and harassment that OCS then shared with West Point.

I had shed 40 pounds of baby fat by the time I entered the OCS portion of training, and then began to gain muscle weight in the dawn to dark rounds of calisthenics, marching, tank maneuvers and escape and evasion training in the steaming summer hills of Kentucky. When I entered the Army I could only swing from a couple of rungs of the overhead horizontal ladder, and then I’d tear skin off my hands. By the time I graduated OCS, I was swinging through 76 bars and maxing the test. Officer training was not all about riding in tanks. OCS was calculated to be a true test of the ability to react under stress and to endure the demands of leadership. I’ll always remember the nighttime evasion course, in which each soldier had to make his way through miles of murky swamp and forest to avoid capture and reach an objective. No one made it, and every soldier captured was taken to an enemy “prison” camp to be questioned. I was surprised to learn that only one soldier in our unit had managed to escape that camp and reach the final objective – me.  

Whenever I’d waver in one of the unending fitness challenges, I’d think of what my 11-year-old sister might think if I gave up. Something else that helped me get through the 6 months of OCS harassment and physical rigor, on top of the full-time classroom and field training, was the toughness, the ability to tune out discomfort, that I’d developed pledging a fraternity at Bradley. The last days of the fraternity’s five-month weaning process to become an active member was still justifiably called Hell Week. Since that time, many college fraternities have transformed this time of agony into what some now call Help Week, which involves a marathon of working to benefit some worthy cause. I’m not sure Help Week breeds the same psychological toughness as the old Hell Week, but it does show that college fraternity life can stand for something more tangibly worthwhile than eating goldfish and standing blindfolded and naked in a cold basement all night, or reciting the Greek alphabet three times on the burning of a match.

OCS was like college in at least one way – we’d often order in pizzas late at night, except we’d have them delivered to the trunk of a car outside to pick up when we took out the trash, so the tactical officers who oversaw our every move wouldn’t find out.

The grand finale of OCS was something called Military Stakes, a combined test of physical stamina and military knowledge, one that must be passed with high marks to gain graduation. The Stakes course involved running cross-country against the clock in the intense Kentucky heat for seven miles in military gear. We would stop at stations to demonstrate proficiency in weapons, ranging from the officer’s personal sidearm, the 45-caliber automatic pistol, on up to the mighty 105-millimeter main gun of a 50-ton M1A1 Main Battle Tank. The course also tested field proficiency in various leadership strategies, tactics and calculations of battle. For a kid who was overweight and under confident when I entered the service, I passed with a respectably high score. Seventy eight percent of the young men accepted to my six-month OCS marathon made the final grade; hence 91 of us received our commissions. My mother and little sister pinned on my new gold bars, while my father and grand parents looked on with pride, and apprehension.  

In the West Point class of ’66, 807 cadets started the four-year training, under the command of Brigadier General William Stillwell, who I would serve under in the field several years later. He would tell them: “Men of ’66, your great adventure is underway. Now raise your hands.” Only 567 graduated with their bachelor degrees and commissions. Of them, 30 would be killed in Vietnam and 100 seriously wounded.

Before OCS graduation, I had written to the Commandant of the Department of Defense Information School, where press officers earn their credentials, asking if I might attend, given my recent degree in journalism with a specialty in public relations.  But that didn’t work, at least not as I intended. Almost all of my fellow OCS graduates were assigned to Armor units headed to Vietnam or West Germany. I found myself assigned to duty as a junior staff officer at the headquarters of the Army War College in bucolic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  The War College – what an oddly oxymoronic name – is the military’s most senior strategic training institution.

I felt so lucky, and I guess in a way, I was. It was starting to look as if my hope of making the most of my military obligation was turning into a sort of golden opportunity. The War College, located at the historic site of the old Indian School, home of football legend Jim Thorpe, was now known as “The General’s School.” That’s because the students – generally with the rank of colonel — were tagged as promotable to general officer posts in the Army and other armed services. There were also students from military allies of the U.S. and civilian students marked for high-level positions in the Departments of State and Defense.  The commandant was a two-star Army general and the head of the faculty was a Foreign Service Officer first class, holding the rank of Ambassador. Much of the curriculum was based on the strategic premise that communism must be contained, at all costs.

I was to spend more than a year there, first as a platoon leader at the headquarters, responsible for leading our troop of enlisted men who staffed the blue collar jobs of operating and protecting the War College campus. I also served as a VIP aide for visiting dignitaries and speakers, ranging from reserve general officers to the Russian ambassador. Though just a lieutenant, I took special pride in my uniform and training, proudly wearing the War College and Armor insignias, along with special dress “tanker” shoes, made of shiny black leather with a single strap and buckle instead of laces. I had my dress green uniforms hand tailored with pegged pants and custom gold anodized buttons, and my formal blue uniform carried golden pant stripes and traditional shoulder epaulets of rank.

Later, with the new silver bars of a first lieutenant on my shoulders, I was promoted to serve as deputy operations officer, planning and overseeing special events and functions across the War College campus, including support of General Eisenhower’s small military staff down the road at his retirement home in Gettysburg. In 1961, President Kennedy had honored the ex-President by restoring his permanent active duty 5-star rank of General of the Army. I was also responsible for crises and survival planning for the War college staff and post dependants. In the event of nuclear war or other contingencies, many of the faculty, staff and students would assume their alternative roles as back-up to the Pentagon, from a web of ancient, stockpiled underground command caves beneath the War College campus. I identified weaknesses in planning and recommended solutions. The appreciative major to whom I reported thought I deserved a Regular Army Commission, something usually reserved for West Pointers.

I would also serve as the officer in charge of 43 military funerals, most at Gettysburg National Cemetery, many for those who died fighting in Vietnam. It was a somber and maturing duty for a 24-year-old.  I trained and led the squad of pallbearers, riflemen and the bugler who, with a chaplain, were part of each ceremony. And, I presented the folded flag to the next of kin, in one family at three consecutive military services over a matter of months, to the mother of two fallen soldier sons and their military father, who had died in separate incidents. I made a small tradition of taking the often shaken soldiers of our honors detail out for a relaxing ice cream at a rural drive-in on the way back to the War College in Carlisle. 

My year at the military’s senior service school was one of pomp, ceremony, along with some angst, some delight and even some insight. Part of my job involved shuttling back and forth to Washington, with a driver in a real limousine of Army green, as a temporary aide, briefing, assisting and having engaging conversation with leaders of governments and the military who were to be guest lecturers and consultants to the College.

Contingency planning became a game of chess, and I was off to Virginia to be trained in surviving chemical or biological warfare, or fly out to Sandia Base, New Mexico, with our intelligence officer, somewhat ironically a Japanese-American major, to be trained as a nuclear public affairs officer for the North Eastern U.S. nuclear emergency team. We’d not yet had a major nuclear emergency in the U.S. – this was more than a decade before the Three-Mile Island incident – but part of our job was to anticipate the unthinkable. In my later business career, contingency planning was to become one of my specialties.

But we didn’t anticipate everything. One weekend, while I was off duty on an early summer evening, and while I was standing in for the Military Police Chief who was away for training, I got a call to rush to the helipad on the golf course. General William Westmoreland, Commander in Vietnam, was landing for a surprise visit to the War College. I had no time to change into a uniform, so I rushed over, still wearing a sweatshirt and my Bermuda shorts. Standing out of sight at the back of the small welcoming throng of officers, I directed my military police escort unit over a short wave radio.

Because the town where we were was home to Carlisle College, we also had to plan for the contingency of student anti-war demonstrations and attempts to illegally enter our facility. So, while I was a platoon leader, I trained our cooks and drivers and office workers on how to don their gas masks, handle their vintage World War II M1 carbines and stop anti-war activists from such transgressions. But fortunately Carlisle was as placid a campus as had been Bradley in the Midwest. We were never called to such facedown situations, to my great relief, as I might well have emotionally sided with the protestors.

I also learned to play golf on weekends on the War College course, with the handful of young officers on staff. Weekends were for occasional dating, too, like the young nurse I’d met at a military ball and developed a crush on, whose father was the White House red-phone operator with the Soviet Union. After work in the evenings, I’d unwind, riding my small Italian-built Harley over the hills and down the winding roads of Pennsylvania. A few times, we did a summer’s country outing with male and female officers of the medical center. They’d inject a watermelon with grain alcohol using a giant surgical needle, and then cool it in a mountain stream before slicing and serving it up with a picnic feast of cold fried chicken.

When I wasn’t briefing visiting lecturers, doing planning, or leading my soldiers in graduation parades or other drills and ceremonies, I was spending evenings at the bar of the officer’s club, where a colonel who wore a medal of honor around his neck led rousing sing-a-longs while his wife banged at the piano. The War College was a bastion of old school military garrison life. The commanding general had a homely daughter, and I was constantly dodging his aide-de-camp, a decorated young captain, who kept trying to invite me to escort her to military receptions. The college maintained a regular periodic tradition called ‘Dining In,” at which all officers would don their formal dress blue uniforms with the golden epaulets of rank, and dine at a grand communal table, with seemingly endless toasts in brandy to the Commander-In-Chief and those in his military chain of command. These experiences reminded me of movies of the genteel life enjoyed by some American soldiers in England in World War II, before being shipped out to meet their fate across the Channel.

Those were the golden moments.

Towards the end of 1967, I decided to try to further my civilian public relations career ambitions by applying for the officer’s career course at the Department of Defense Information School. The military called the public affairs function by the ubiquitous title of “Information.” But the profession, then as now, was much more about nurturing influence, than merely providing “information.” DINFOS, as the school is known, is the training center for military journalists and public relations people for all the armed services as well as the Pentagon public affairs staff. It is where students learn to translate military policy into print and electronic media “messages,” and to build interactive relationships with the press.

In order to be accepted to the school, to earn the Army specialty Public Information Officer, I was made aware that I could potentially be assigned to Vietnam after graduation. But I didn’t think the Army would actually send me to war, as I knew by the time I graduated, I would have less than six months of active duty commitment remaining, and the standard tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year. But, of course, the Army called my bluff and surprised me again.

I took a leave over the Christmas holiday in ’67, and trekked to Green Bay to shiver through the legendary fifteen below zero Packers’ play-off victory known as the Ice Bowl. I attended with my grandfather, then the same age I am now, who in 1923 had been a founding investor in the team. 

In the summer of 1968, I learned that indeed I’d be assigned to Vietnam. I wrote to the Information Officer of the Military Assistance Command in Saigon and told him of my military and university training in PR, and asked if I might be posted as an information officer on arrival in late November.

1968 was a turbulent, defining year in America. Martin Luther King was assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy. President Johnson had beat anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, then dropped out of the race as public support for the Vietnam War began to wane following the Tet debacle. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic candidate, but the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago saw Mayor Daly brutally suppress anti-war riots in the streets, perhaps scuttling Humphrey’s chances.

Republican Richard Nixon became the next president, just after his representatives, directed by Henry Kissinger, secretly motivated the South Vietnamese Thieu government to boycott the newly launched peace negotiations in Paris, suggesting they would get a better peace deal under a Nixon administration, according to recently released Presidential documents. The real motivation may have been to deny the Democrats the election advantage of ending the war on their watch. Whatever the intent, this had the unintended effect of extending the war for another four years, with 20,000 additional American deaths, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.  It was the year of the My Lai massacre. And, partially due to the escalating costs of the Vietnam War, Congress began action to repeal the requirement for a gold-backed currency, leading to what came in 1971 to be called the Nixon Shock to global currency markets.

But this is my own story, and it also was anything but a golden year for me. My life had been pretty strait forward until just before I left for Vietnam, when two difficult issues arose. First was my father, who had lost his career job at age 55 due to an acquisition, descended into alcoholism and was being treated for clinical depression. Then, the girl I’d been in love with for some months told me she was pregnant. At that time I wasn’t sure how long my tour of duty would last. As I departed from my parent’s house, my father was despondent and in tears. My girlfriend and I did not have even the slightest grasp on what we wanted for the future.

Meanwhile, I arrived in Saigon shortly before Thanksgiving, 1968, traveling alone, not as part of a military unit on a chartered World Air 707 jet from Travis Air Force Base at San Francisco, via a frigid stop at Elmendorf Ari Force Base in Alaska, taking a left across the Pacific, then, after refueling at Yokota, Japan, in the hands of an empathetic pilot, making a touristic, lazy turn around Mount Fuji in Japan, before landing on the burning tarmac of Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base. I stepped into a world of broken concrete and hurriedly assembled rough buildings of wood and canvas. The compound for the general officers that commanded the Vietnam War was a semi-circle of gray mobile homes, with air conditioners humming behind barbed wire. I had checked into the ramshackle transient officer’s quarters and launched into a standardized two-day orientation program for new in-country officer arrivals. Off duty, I used the MACV headquarters swimming pool, and even dined with an Air Force Captain at the Vietnamese Air Force Officer’s Club on the other side of the air field – it was a still a classic French restaurant, a holdover from the old French colonial days.

I quickly painted my silver bars a flat black, as we’d been told that North Vietnamese communist snipers looked for the glint from American officer’s marks of rank.

Recently thinking back over some 67 Thanksgivings on my watch, I realized that I have little but the dimmest, non-specific memories about any, though I am overwhelmed with a generalized gamut of warm senses of turkeys being displayed and carved, of my quest to get a leg, of how the special gravy tasted on the mashed potatoes, of grandparents being present, of a series of seldom-used family dining room tables, of an uncle reciting prayers, of hovering cats and dogs, of too much wine, and then that lethargic half-sleep amidst forgotten televised football games. All my Thanksgiving memories merge into a vague, soft tumble of such feelings.

Except for one.

I vividly recall Thanksgiving 1968. It was a hot, dusty day with slivers of sun slicing through to the earth. There was the throaty roar of jets in the background. There was a jangle of dishware and muffled voices in the low, slatted wood building. A holiday menu card was at each place, and that little printed menu, with it’s greeting from the commander, and a prayer from the Chaplain, survives to hold in my hand today, and trigger ironic memories. I remember that wonderful dinner so well. Every dish seemed perfect to me, and though I was sitting among strangers, the conversation was lively, friendly and full of thoughts of family. I can recall where I sat, and the look of the plump turkey leg and colorful fixings on my plate. It was the 28th day of November, and I was so pleased that it seemed such a briefly warm and wonderful Thanksgiving respite, even for an hour, in that sanctuary mess hall at the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, or MACV headquarters, in war-torn Saigon. 

I looked forward with mixed expectations. On October 31, the U.S. had announced suspension of bombing in North Vietnam. On November 2nd, just 3 days before our Presidential election, South Vietnam Premier Thieu pulled out of the Paris peace talks in which he had previously agreed to participate. Nixon then beat peace candidate Hubert Humphrey by just 500,000 votes. November 14 was National Turn in Your Draft Card Day, accompanied by acceleration in more anti-war rallies and protests at college campuses across the country. I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was still two years before the leak of the Pentagon Papers.

And so, here I was in Saigon, about to go to war, despite my dashed hopes that it wouldn’t come to this for me.

I would remember this Thanksgiving, not just because of the exotic location and circumstances, but because in many ways I then could not imagine, it would very soon represent a momentous turning point for me. Within a year of that time, I would ricochet onto a wholly new course that would carry me, unlike the 58,272 dead whose names are chiseled into that long, low wall in Washington, D.C., through the decades as one who survives, and even prospers, to this very day. As George Bernard Shaw said, “War is not decided by who is right, but by who is left.”  Of the 3,346 OCS graduates commissioned at the Fort Knox Armor School in the two years of its existence in the late 60’s, most of those who were killed in action in Vietnam died in 1968, the year I was there.

I reported to a Colonel at the MACV Information Office, and was indeed told that I was to be assigned as the public information liaison officer on the U.S. advisory staff of a Vietnamese General, in command of one of their Army divisions.  It sounded like an exotic, challenging and even frightening assignment, as I would be in the field and close to enemy action.  But there was an operative, apprehensive phrase in my briefing – “WAS to be assigned.” The Colonel explained that “unfortunately,” as he put it, the Vietnamese general had a falling out with my predecessor over some unstated issue, and had personally shot and injured the officer. I sat speechless.

Our Army, in it’s wisdom, the assignment officer resumed, had decided it would be prudent not to immediately replace that officer, so therefore, my assignment was also figuratively, shot out from under me.

“Then what?” I asked, beginning to feel a new and even greater apprehension. Well, the normal procedure would be to assign me to the officer replacement pool, he said. “And?” I pressed. He said, in all likelihood, I would revert to my primary combat arms specialty and likely be assigned to command a company of 17 tanks, probably in the Delta region of South Vietnam, one of the few geographies that would support the heavy M48 and M60 main battle tanks I was trained to lead. He seemed to think this would be a good opportunity for me to qualify for rapid promotion.

Years later, I was to learn that the life expectancy in 1968 for an Armor lieutenant in the Vietnamese Delta was about 2 weeks. No wonder promotions opened up quickly. In this year of 1968, the height of the war, more than ½ million U.S. troops served in Vietnam, and more than 16,000 of them died there. 

Then the Colonel paused, after I’d reiterated my public relations background and ambition to make a contribution in that field. He said, “Son, I can give you a few names and phone numbers, and you can call around country to see if some unit has an opening for an information officer like you, but you’ve only got 2 or 3 days before the repo pool grabs you.”

I asked to borrow a phone and went to work. It took anywhere from minutes to hours to even get a call through in Vietnam, and often the line went dead, or the person I needed to talk with wasn’t there. It was like ducking for apples in a barrel, blindfolded, with false teeth.

But, the second day, over a scratchy line, I reached a Major Jones at something called 24th Corps Headquarters at a place I’d never heard of called Phu Bai, and he said yes indeed, he dearly needed an added press escort officer for what he called the U.S. military’s Northern press camp, closest to the border with North Vietnam. He would dispatch orders for my assignment if I could promise to find my way in a few days. I packed my duffel, checked out of the BOQ, or bachelor’s officer quarters, strapped on a loaded 45, and stepped out to a dingy bus stop at the edge of the air base, to hitch a ride on a transport plane north – some 400 miles north. We flew, strapped into webbed slings, near the plane’s open rear ramp, and landed at a dusty field a few hundred miles away, where there would not be another plane north until the next day.

I checked into an officers quarters tent and then walked to a combination bar/mess hall that looked like what I would later come to know, in a time and theatre far, far away, as the Star Wars bar scene. Amidst the smoke, beer and whisky, I soon recognized one of the young medical officers I had befriended back at the Army War College. “Small world,” we each said over and over.  I’d never see him again, and in fact to this very day, I’ve never again seen or been in touch with anyone I met in Vietnam – it’s as if everyone there had only existed in my imagination. If I hadn’t kept a few scraps of notes and crumpled orders, and some letters from my girlfriend back home, and some I’d sent to my mother back then, it would be as if none of it really happened. I took not a single photo, though I was a trained photographer, as I was saving up to buy a good Japanese 35mm camera, and left Vietnam before I had enough money to buy one.

As I was flying into Phu Bai, I found out that it was a stone’s throw from Hue. The world remembers February 1968 for the infamous Vietcong offensive on Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. First built by Emperor Gia Long early in the nineteenth century, Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945. It is located on Highway 1 about 420 miles south of Hanoi and 670 miles north of Saigon.


For the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, Hue was a city with tremendous historical significance. Being the former imperial capital of a united Vietnam, the center of Vietnamese cultural and religious life, and the capital of Thua Thien Province, Hue became an important symbol in the struggle for dominance of Indochina.


It was also a difficult city to defend. Isolated by the Annamese mountain chain and bordered by Laos to the west and the Demilitarized Zone to the north, Hue was without access to a major port for resupply. Still, before the Tet Offensive, Hue was considered secure for South Vietnam. That all ended on January 31, 1968.


At 3:40 a.m. that morning North Vietnamese Army (NVA) artillery began pounding the city. Elements of the NVA 6th Regiment simultaneously attacked Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) headquarters in Hue and ARVN 1st Division headquarters. Other NVA troops blockaded Highway 1 north and south of the city and attacked several hundred other sites in the city. By daylight, the Vietcong flag was flying atop the Imperial Citadel of the Nguyen emperors. Hue had fallen to the Communists.


The American and ARVN counterattack on Hue began almost immediately with huge volumes of artillery, naval bombardment, and air strikes, while forces engaged in house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat with NVA troops and Vietcong.


The Imperial Citadel was not recaptured from the Communists until February 24. Hue had been devastated. More than 50 percent of the city had been totally destroyed, and 116,000 people of a total population of 140,000 had been rendered homeless. Nearly 6,000 civilians were dead or missing, and several thousand more were assassinated outright during the Vietcong occupation. The North Vietnam Army and Vietcong suffered 5,000 dead; the United States, 216 dead and many wounded; and the allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, 384 dead and many more wounded.


Like the Tet Offensive in general, the battle for Hue was a tactical defeat as well as a strategic victory for the Communists. In taking control of the city, if only for several weeks, they had proven that MACV predictions of an imminent Communist collapse were totally groundless, undermining American faith in the credibility of its political and military leaders. Hue in particular, and Tet in general, was indeed the turning point in the war. Walter Cronkite, the iconic U.S. newsman of the era, growled, “We are mired in stalemate.”

To consolidate its position, MACV established a provisional corps, and then re-activated the 24th Corps of World War II fame, in Phu Bai, a small city just outside of Hue, with responsibility for pacifying the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. The Corps consisted of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Marine Division, the Army’s newly consolidated Americal 23rd Infantry Division, the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force based at DaNang, and an air wing.

I guess I was shocked by my first view of the Corps Headquarters, driving up in a jeep from the airfield. I saw a high-walled wooden stockade, like something right out of the old southwest, except for the steel-helmeted sentries with their rapid-fire M16 rifles and jeeps with machine guns.  Inside the walls was a beehive of activity, a regular little ramshackle city. Along the dusty streets were structures large and small, usually made of wood on the bottom, with screening and canvas overhead, and piles of supplies seemingly dumped haphazardly everywhere. The commanding general’s office, a three-star Army guy, was the only all-wood building, except for the newly built, air-conditioned racket ball court next to it. The general liked racquetball.

The Press Camp, where I’d live and work, was a little compound of 17 structures. Sixteen of them were what we called “hootches,” wood and canvas huts built about 2 feet off the ground to protect them from the frequent tropical rains. Most were four-man barracks, with mosquito-netted bunks and a small Japanese refrigerator for food and drink, and often hiding small supplies of marijuana, too. One was our tiny air-conditioned office and one was for supplies.  The larger structure was our press club, where there was a seating area, a briefing section and a dining room and bar furnished compliments of the Associated Press out of Saigon.

Many reporters skipped the military mess hall, and dined at the Press Club, where the menu was simple:  charcoal-grilled steak and potatoes, with Coke, beer and bourbon to drink, and ice cream. Once every two weeks or so, frozen steaks from the officer’s open mess in DaNang would be trucked in by a team of Navy volunteers, who had to drive the treacherous, frequently mortared Hai Van Pass in the mountains south of Phu Bai. The driver and his guards would be honorary overnight guests at the Press Club whenever they trucked in that frozen bovine gold. We even had a drive-in movie theatre of sorts at the Press Camp — six logs lined up in front of a bed sheet suspended from two poles. I remember my first night there, when a giant of a reporter from Agency France Presse taught me how to use an Asian toilet – a wooden hole with footprints alongside it – a humbling experience.

Like every new officer, within a few days I reported personally to the Corp’s commander, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, combat hero of World War II and Korea, at his wooden office next to the racket ball court. There were 3 or 4 of us nervously doing so that day. I shuttered when he wished us well, fixing his tough blue eyes on us, saying, “I know you boys are itching to get into the fight, and I’ll get you out there as fast as I can.”

In the months before my arrival, the ever-optimistic General Stilwell, who had been commander of cadets at West Point when the class of ’66 began their studies, had responded to written questions from President Richard Nixon. Always the optimist, he reported to the President that the war was going well, writing: “Our field commanders are reporting significant strides made this year in the strength of (our allies,) the Army of Vietnam.”  

I never made it into the actual fight, unless you count occasionally being mortared at night, when I’d dive into a water and rat-infested bunker next to my wood and canvas hootch.  At the press camp, I was initially put in charge of registration and briefing of arriving news media people. They were required by the military to stay at the camp, and then be escorted by press officers to cover approved units and activities, as arranged by our staff. These were the days before journalists were “embedded” within military units, as began in Iraq three decades later, when they could accompany platoons and companies of soldiers into action, without press officer escorts.

By 1968, there were almost 700 accredited foreign correspondents in South Vietnam, and close to half were non-U.S. media, often highly critical of U.S. actions. Some 80 journalists were women, but I never met one at Phu Bai. Many of the reporters seldom, if ever, left Saigon. They were among the hordes that took the daily handouts of Westmoreland’s PR people, at the briefings that came to be known as “The Five O’clock Follies.” Said Michael Herr of Esquire Magazine, “Only 50 of those journalists gave journalism a better name than it deserved.”

Most reporters arrived at our Phu Bai press camp via the nearby airfield aboard military C-130s, the planes often flown with the gaping rear doors.

However, inveterate Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett arrived a novel way – riding a motor scooter with his new Vietnamese wife sitting behind him. Peter, then 34, was one of the most independent reporters in Vietnam, and had written a highly controversial story in which he quoted a U.S. officer as declaring, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Even President Johnson and General Westmoreland tried to get the AP to remove him for that report, but the wire service refused.

Twenty-two years later, not having seen or heard him since our press camp days, I recognized Peter’s voice on television. He was reporting live for CNN, as the only reporter with a link from Baghdad as the U.S. launched the Gulf War. Peter would later get an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein. The military would soon succeed having the intrepid reporter fired from CNN because of a perceived excess of candor of his reporting, threatening that the network would lose all access to the Pentagon unless they dismissed him. While many war correspondents seem to thrive on the acrid smoke of battle, unfortunately Peter ultimately choked on it.

The Johnson administration employed what writer Stanley Karnow in his 1991 book, “Vietnam: A History,” called a “policy of minimum candor” in its dealings with the media. At DINFOS, we had drilled into us that military media relations policy was based on the principle of “Maximum disclosure with minimum delay.”  If that had once been true, things had changed. Said Karnow, “Military information officers sought to manage media coverage by emphasizing stories that portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media’s coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap developed.”

Still, much about the press camp later reminded me of the TV series that began in 1970, MASH, about the antics and drama of a mobile surgical hospital unit in the Korean War. I was the designated “scrounger” for the press camp, patrolling the corps compound for non-authorized supplies, from cocktail glasses to seat cushions. As we had guest quarters for journalists, one of which I got to use myself, a reporter who’d stayed a few days began calling the Press Camp “Holiday Inn East.” Our real job was to keep the press comfortable and safe, not necessarily to expedite their candid news coverage of the war.

I also became the weapons officer for the press camp, which also seemed like an oxymoron of an assignment. Because I’d learned to take apart and reassemble a 45 automatic pistol and an M16 automatic rifle, while blindfolded, they seemed to think I was an expert. We did need to carry weapons when we went out to Hue with news or TV crews, or visiting others divisions of the corps, for our own protection and that of the news people, but they were almost never fired except in training exercises.

I do recall once being fired upon, riding in an open jeep with an ABC-TV camera crew, while crossing rice fields on the highway enroute to Hue. I was so nervous that day that I’d chambered a round in my 45, and was riding with only the safety on. When shots rang out from the rice patty, we stopped and all dove under the jeep. After 15 minutes or so of quiet, we drove off. That’s the closest I ever came to firing my weapon in anger. We stopped along the way to visit the press officer at the headquarters of one of our Corp’s divisions, the 101st Airborne. My counterpart there was about to leave for Japan, to supervise the printing of their divisional magazine. I was jealous of his impending escape.

That afternoon, just outside of the wreckage of Hue, on a tip, we pushed through a scrim of overgrown jungle and came upon an incredible sight – the cool, clean marble floor of a hidden Buddhist Temple. It had survived the virtual destruction of Hue, buried in the nearby jungle, and was being meticulously maintained by monks. It was a stark contrast to the ruins surrounding the city market we later visited along the pulsing Perfume River of the old imperial capitol.

Back at Phu Bai, given the steady consumption of steak, Coca-Cola and scotch at the Press Club, plus the snacks we’d bring back from the mess hall, I had to go on a diet. While it was often steaming hot, and we certainly didn’t have air-conditioning or many other creature comforts, it was a far cry from living in the jungle battlefield and carrying a heavy backpack and a rifle everywhere. Life in the Press Camp was pretty much like desk-bound administrative work anywhere, except for those occasional fieldtrips, and of course the possibility of being shelled anytime. My diet, preserved on a signed and dated scrap of paper, called for “no peanuts, a little popcorn, one slice of bread or a small potato with each meal, two meals a day, max, and two cans of sweet soda a day, max.”

The time flew by, with reporters from all over the globe coming and going. While Vietnam was the first, and probably the last outwardly uncensored war, a sort of unofficial censorship took place, observed Australian journalist Paul Ham.  “Let’s just call it lies. Most facts passed around, from head counts to talk of ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ were either bald-faced whoppers or misinformation based on misunderstanding of the complexities of the conflict.” America’s quest to contain communism in Southeast Asia was not going very well.

I was corresponding almost daily with my parents and old best friend and with my pregnant girlfriend. I’d just sent them all Vietnamese Christmas Cards. My girlfriend wrote me, explaining that her unplanned pregnancy had ended at an early stage.

I was just settling into something approaching a routine, when one night, as I sat on a log at our improvised outdoor drive-in movie theatre, in the midst of a western, a civilian from the Red Cross detachment tapped me on the shoulder. “Lieutenant Ebeling, we’ve just been advised that your father has died.” It was December 22nd, less than a month after I’d arrived in Vietnam, and only a few days before Christmas.  I was stunned. It was only a matter of weeks before that my father had waved a long tearful goodbye as I’d pulled out of the driveway back in Riverside, and yet it seemed like a lifetime ago.

The Red Cross fellow said he could look into a compassionate leave for me, as my father’s death was violent; an apparent suicide. A chance to go home would enable me to assist my distraught mother and young sister. We worked through the night, getting emergency orders approved. I’ll never forget the Red Cross for that. Early the next morning, I donned a tan summer uniform, and boarded a C130 transport. As we flew over DaNang to head for the Philippines, a crewmember pointed down, and there in a ramshackle stadium, was a holiday USO show underway for thousands of GIs and sailors. I was later to learn it was Bob Hope’s 1968 Christmas tour. 

At a Philippines Air Force base, I boarded a C141 Starlifter, then America’s largest airplane. It was a massive transport, with a fuselage big enough to drive tanks into. I was returning from Vietnam the way I’d arrived, alone. Swinging in a seat made of belting material, I looked out along a row of low lights that stretched from nose to tail. A member of the crew soon came down a ladder and invited me up to the flight deck. He said the only extra space was in the crew bunk, up and behind the pilots and navigator. I could look down over them and out the front windshield, getting an occasional view of Arctic ice flows below, as we flew over the top of the world.

After nearly a full day aloft, we approached our landing at a New Jersey air base. I knew we were back when, as we banked to land, I spied a familiar symbol of America along a rode near the field, a glint off the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. I got a lump in my throat at this first recognizable symbol of home, an occasion I’d remember years later when I became the chief spokesman for this quintessentially American brand.

Transferring to O’Hara and then directly to Green Bay, Wisconsin, I arrived, in my tropical short-sleeve uniform, in the snow swept winter north, just in time to join my family at my father’s funeral.

In the weeks that followed, I applied for and received a compassionate reassignment to the press office at Fort Sheridan, just outside of Chicago, so I could help out my mother. I wrote to the commander of the press camp I had left, commenting that it was, “a sort of surrealistic experience in that all-to-real war. The officers of your unique command must be not only soldiers, but nurse-maids, inn-keepers, wardens and emotional and ethical sounding boards to the transient members of the Fourth Estate.”

My best friend Jeff later told me that when I shipped out for Vietnam he had thought he might never see me again. Now I was a survivor. I was no hero, but the war did cost me three years, and did bear at least some responsibility for collateral damage within my family – likely contributing to the final despair of my troubled father, and the later realization that I’d never know the child I might have had.

I moved on with my life, and I knew how lucky I was to have a life to live. The military, which once seemed to hold out golden opportunities to me, quickly faded from my aspirations. I turned down an expedited promotion to captain, to resign my Army commission. I was later invited back to Ft. Sheridan to receive an Army Commendation Medal, personally approved by the fifth Army Commander, for outstanding public affairs work in my final posting. Soon after, I was married, if only for a few years, to the girl I’d left behind when I was shipped to Vietnam.

My civilian career in public relations began on the headquarters staff of an insurance company still known for its good hands slogan. The executive who hired me made a comment that was both ironical and yet, not at all unusual in those times of controversy about those who served in the war. He said to me, and this has stayed with me over the years, “Young man, we won’t hold your service in Vietnam against you.”

Three decades later, not long after the onset of the Gulf War, I surprised to hear, for the very first time, a quite different comment from a fellow guest at a dinner party, after something had come up in conversation about my brief service in that distant, fruitless war. She said, “Thank you.”  Times were changing.

Even back in the Vietnam era of a military draft, most American men had managed, either through dumb luck, political connections, inactive reserve service, medical issues, serial educational deferments or even escape to Canada, to dodge active military service. I had embraced my bad luck, as it were, and sought to make the most of it. In some ways I’d succeeded. In other ways, my own experience was a microcosm of the futility, the waste and the lies of war. America didn’t finally end the bloodshed in Vietnam until 1975, delayed in large part due to those cynical 1968 election maneuverings by Nixon and Kissinger.

America had lost its first war. But it had lost more. I was reminded of a quotation from writer Issac Asimov I’d seen at the foundation museum in Gernika, Spain, site of Franco and Hitler’s carpet-bombing atrocity during the Spanish Civil War. Said Asimov, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” My experience suggests that the gold bars I once worked so diligently to earn, and proudly wore, were carried in the service of incompetent, if not opportunistic and even “treasonous” political maneuvering, to quote recently released tapes of a private 1968 characterization of candidate Nixon and his people by then President Lyndon Johnson.

Whatever our feelings, then or now, about U.S. militarism, young soldiers remain the blunt instruments when government leadership decides to go to war, and stay at war. Their early adulthood, if they survive it, is profoundly affected, as is that of those around them. Over 11 years of Vietnam combat, U.S. troop causalities mounted, including the youngest in the officer corps. Seventeen hundred lieutenants had been killed, versus only nine colonels and just three generals. As Rick Atkinson tells us, in the Civil War, before senior ranks migrated to the rear as combat units became smaller, the chance of a general being killed had been 50 percent greater than that of a common soldier.

By Thanksgiving Day of 1969, just a year after my arrival in Vietnam, my life was already looking up, but still a mixed bag. As I lamented at the beginning of this story, I was still, “Between.” I had completed my active duty commitment of three years, yet found myself forced to serve 16 additional months in the active reserve, including countless weekends buried in an armory basement and weeks of duty in summer encampment, before a senator’s intercession compelled the Army to live up to its original agreement. The State of Illinois paid me a generous $100 Vietnam bonus, and the GI Bill paid for a correspondence course in coastal navigation. I still keep, as a relic of that time, a classic navigational aid, a handsome boxed sextant, which the course provided to me.

Significantly, I’d benefitted from maturing leadership experiences and costly taxpayer-funded professional training while in the military. I was well launched, unlike many veterans, on a fast track to a successful business career. I was back living in Chicago’s lively Lincoln Park, biking along the lakefront on weekends, and watched in awe with the world, as a man stepped onto the surface of the Moon on July 20,1969.  Later that fall, I enjoyed a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner with my new wife, my mother and little sister at my grandparent’s home in Green Bay, and I was lucky enough, like the Thanksgiving before in Saigon, to again get a turkey leg on my plate.

Meanwhile, what ever happened with all those gold bars back at Fort Knox, which I thought I was protecting so long ago? No thorough, independent audit of the gold at Fort Knox has occurred in the 50 years since I walked that guard path. The government says some $200 billion in gold bars is still there, though no one is allowed to inspect it. Some have said there is little if any gold left at Fort Knox, at least that is pure enough to be traded internationally. Two years ago, a U.S. Congressman formally called for a new audit of the Federal Reserve, including the gold vaults in New York and Fort Knox. To date, only the emergency loan programs of the Fed have been audited, not the gold vaults. Even if all or part of the billions of dollars in gold bars remained in good order, what difference would it make to today’s economy, when the national debt is now counted in trillions? Truth and perspective still eludes us.

So, where did all my golden opportunities go? I gave up years for a lost cause; one history now teaches was never a meaningful American cause at all. This country achieved nothing, lost much, and learned that living with communism, and even doing business with communists, is apparently not at all a fatal option. And yes, our government learned that if we could conduct future wars without a mandatory draft, and with an all-volunteer Army and thousands of mercenary contractors, the general public would become less politically engaged and outraged, and students in particular, would be less likely to object. Progress indeed?

As an adult touching older age, I now see warfare for what it is:  the most abominable form of wholesale natural selection. Wars are nothing less than dangerous cracks in the frail veneer of civilization. I’m bitter that the politicians and counselors who commit us to war almost universally remain exempt from real personal consequences of their decisions, besides obligatory consolation of the bereaved and contending with the next election cycle.

Instead, these “brave” leaders invariably commit new generations of excitable, under-employed youth as proxies for their own complex, super egos. They weave plots to maintain foreign loyalties, secure more and more military bases and needed oil inventories, responding to pressures from military brass and corporate Washington to sustain the military/industrial complex and protect our economy. Young warriors always lead the way, suffering death and incapacities, plus personal and family sacrifices, as their rewards. Meanwhile, the nation’s leadership continues to politic, govern, prosper and then move on to honored, gracefully reflective retirements, often discussing their “difficult” decisions in written memoirs and on endless media and lecture tours.

Let me leave you tonight, as I left my time “between” college and career, by making a simple observation. Whether wondering what happened to the gleaming, fabled treasury of real gold at Fort Knox, that once helped underwrite an economy, or reflecting on my own mix of adventures with the symbolic gold bars worn on my shoulders, I can only close with the observation that: “All that glitters, when the final measure is taken, may not after all, be gold.”

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and may you soon relish your favorite part of the bird, be it turkey or tofurky, again this year.    






July 2014
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