You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Chicago Literary Club’ category.

SPOKE SMOKE

By Charles Ebeling, for the Chicago Literary Club

Presented 1/29/18 at the Cliff Dwellers

Copyright 2018 Charles Ebeling

 

All of us have become casual spokespeople for others at sometime in our lives. As a youth, who hasn’t spoken out for another kid, or as an adult, for a family member or a good friend or colleague? Being a spokesman professionally just means a little more training, a little more study of the issues, a little more pressure, a little more often, and the chance to get paid at least a little for doing it.

John D. Rockefeller sort of summed up the business of spokesmanship when he explained, “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”

Over the past half century, I’ve served as a public relations strategist and spokesperson for the Army, on the staffs of four Fortune 500 companies, for two global PR consultancies, and since retirement, as a board leader and occasional spokesperson for a half dozen not-for-profits. Maybe after tonight at the podium, I’ll start cutting back. Just maybe.

Meanwhile, I’ll pull back the curtain a little on the smoky world of spokesmanship. I’ve titled this essay “Spoke Smoke” not because “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” though sometimes there is. The reputation of spokespeople has seldom been stellar, sometimes because they are not good at their job, and sometimes because the content they spout on behalf of others is nonsensical, deceiving or confusing.

As playwright George Bernard Shaw explained, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

What personal qualities make a good spokesman? Having the right title? Saying whatever the boss would say? Being theatrical? Not really. No one cares what the spokesman’s title is. Though some would like to hear from the chief executive officer directly, others would find a line worker in an organization just as credible. What they want is someone who knows and states the facts. As for content, a good spokesman isn’t just a shadow for the boss, he or she needs to be able to have a good grasp of the issues and put management’s views in context for the listener. As for theatricality, leave that for Saturday Night Live and the celebrity spokespeople.

Not every spokesperson has the celebrity quality of a Ronald Reagan for GE, nor William Shatner for Priceline or Flo the Progressive Girl, or even the peripatetic Geico gecko. In today’s world, a spokesperson should avoid the hype and simply be articulate and sincere.

A recent example demonstrates where a CEO might have better stayed home and let a competent professional spokesperson take the mike, armed with facts and humility. This was the case last April when United Airlines allowed a passenger to be dragged from their seat. United Airlines’ stock plummeted after videos of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked plane circulated on the Internet. At first, United stood by the forceful removal of the passenger but then issued a cold apology, with the company’s CEO saying, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” After intense backlash and boycott threats, United took full responsibility and finally made the apology that it should have made immediately.

By this point, it was too late for consumers and the public to be appeased. United’s consumer perception dropped to a 10-year low following this incident and the company’s handling of it. A meaningful company crisis communications plan would have identified that a sincere apology should have been made during the immediate aftermath of the incident. As Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to ruin it.” U.S. trust in business plummeted by eight percentage points last year, leaving us just five points ahead of Russia, the land of the oligarchs.

There is no larger reputation story than that being played out today at the pinnacle of national politics. It might have started, as the Washington Post reported, when back in the 80s and 90s, Manhattan journalists began to hear from a so-called spokesman for developer Donald Trump named “John Miller” or “John Barron.” They were purported public-relations men who sounded precisely like Trump — who in fact was Trump himself, masquerading as an unusually helpful and boastful advocate for himself, according to the journalists and several of Trump’s top aides.

Fast forward to the Presidential election of 2016, when we became painfully aware of some of the even deeper pitfalls of spokesmanship. A shadowy political operative named Sean Spicer emerged to become a household target of mockery — for many of us, with statements such as, “The President’s tweets speak for themselves.” His daily performances as White House Press Secretary, were topped weekly by Melissa McCarthy’s merciless, yet revealing transgender parodies of him on Saturday Night Live.

We don’t know whether Sean Spicer accurately reflected the views of his boss, the T-man, when he persisted with “alternative facts” on the size of the inaugural crowd, made an ignorantly inappropriate Hitler reference and later hid in the White House bushes from the President, among numerous other performances, eroding the image of a spokesperson in the minds of many.

It didn’t take too long before he lost his job, too. In a Monmouth university poll, 42% of respondents said Spicer hurt the President while only 28% said he helped. As for the President, as Harry Truman said: “All the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.”

Spicer’s successor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the minds of some, is even more a parody of a credible spokesperson, raging against the “fake news.” Maybe this depends on your politics, but my view is that the personalities of these spokespeople have often gotten in the way of the content, and their loyalties, in this case unfortunately, have gotten in the way of truth. Thanks to them, the reputation of spokespeople everywhere was taken down several notches, from a level that was already not very high. As Abe Lincoln himself put it, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives himself.”

Back when he was running for President, Dwight Eisenhower tapped James Hagerty, a former reporter for the New York Times to be his press liaison, thus becoming the first full time well-credentialed Presidential Press Secretary. Hagerty had previously served as a press secretary when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey ran for the presidency.

Hagerty’s experience as a journalist and skills in media relations helped him perform his role more effectively. The New York Times’ John McQuiston commented that having spent years as a reporter on the other side of the news barrier, helped his credibility.

At Hagerty’s first meeting with White House reporters on January 21, 1953, he laid down ground rules that are still largely a model for how a credible press secretary might operate. He said: “I would like to say to you fellows that I am not going to play any favorites, and I’m not going to give out any exclusive stories about the President or the White House.

When I say to you, ‘I don’t know,’ I mean I don’t know. When I say, ‘No comment,’ it means I’m not talking, but not necessarily any more than that. Aside from that, I’m here to help you get the news. I am also here to work for one man, who happens to be the President. And I will do that to the best of my ability.”

. Of course, in today’s world, what some call “spin” or more currently, “fake news,” is meant as an indictment of the news media themselves. I recently saw a photo of a fellow at a 2016 political rally wearing a T-shirt that read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” So perhaps I should not lament so much about the burdens of life of a mere spokesperson. Both spokespeople and journalists can often, these days, hear the refrain, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” running through their thoughts.

For tens of thousands of spokepeople in all walks of life – celebrity, politics and government, business, sports, not-for-profits, the military, and for the communications media, establishing credibility as a spokesman has become a greater challenge than ever. The concept of “spoke smoke,” a term I’ve invented for the sometimes questionable content of those who speak for others, has increasingly become the image that private citizens attach to the effluence flowing from the mouths of those designated the spokeman or spokeswoman for a cause, a party, a personality, an issue or an event.

“Spoke Smoke” equals “fake news” to many.

The role of those people selected to represent the views and news of others isn’t changing, but their generalized public persona certainly has suffered. Let’s take a closer look at spokesmanship, what it’s all about and how it is changing in today’s world of instantaneous communications. While some like to hear from the chief executive office, that’s not always such a good idea.

For example: A good spokesperson is vital to any business or organization. Still not sure? Then let’s take the well-used example of Tony Hayward who was CEO of BP during the Deep-Water Horizon oil spill in the Mexican Gulf in 2010 where over 87days the damaged wellhead leaked more than 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only did Mr. Hayward tell the media that the Gulf of Mexico was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean,” he also commented that he wanted the whole episode to be over, as he would like his life back. He was then photographed racing his sailing yacht in Europe. He showed an apparent disregard for the eleven men who lost their lives when the oil rig exploded and caused the largest accidental ocean spill in history. The lesson, as PR veteran Samra Bufkins put it: “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.”

Tony Hayward showed perfectly how not to do it, becoming in the process the then most hated man in America. He wasn’t prepared, he didn’t respond to the real issues and worst of all he showed very little sympathy. Mr. Hayward was heavily criticized for his comments about the tragedy and was repeatedly called to step down from his position as CEO. BP managed the whole crisis communications situation so badly that even President Barack Obama said that Hayward “wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements.” Hayward was soon replaced as CEO of BP.

The lesson? As historian and professor Daniel Boorstin says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.”

My first experience as a spokesman was a by-product of a surprisingly successful experiment in college politics, back in the mid-60s. My new college roommate was an old friend from back home who had transferred to Bradley University from the University of Mississippi. He was an articulate fellow who made friends easily, and over a conversation one evening about the new trend towards co-ed dorms, we hatched a plan. He would run for student council president, even though almost no one yet knew him, on a theme that Bradley ought to be more liberal about student rights. I would be his campaign manager, and create the messages, the speaking platforms and the printed materials to support his crusade. He would simply be the face of change.

We lost the election to a more serious, well known and much more deserving student candidate, but the surprising thing to us was that we came in a very close second. The messages I created for him and the communications channels we exploited to deliver those messages almost put us over the top. My undergraduate major was journalism, with a specialty in public relations, and through that election experiment I learned a valuable lesson about the serious power of spokesmanship and the application of the communications tools that surround it. I also learned that PR and spokesmanship could be used for good, but also for not-so-good.

Many people don’t realize that at least 50% of news media coverage originates from public relations sources. After all, the news has to come from somewhere, and it’s nothing new that news media are chronically understaffed. In today’s age of exploding social media taking the place of traditional newspapers and magazines for many, it should not be surprising that editorial and news staffs at major news outlets have been further cut. Steven Colbert’s satirical show coined the word “truthiness” to describe something that someone believes without analysis, logic or evidence of support, as is often the case on social media. In this era, public relations people have become even more influential factors in the world of communications.

Here’s a CEO who made a big splash as his own spokesperson some years back. He became a pitchman who had a logical reason to convince people to buy a car. Once a Ford executive, Lee Iacocca took the job as Chrysler CEO and decided to speak for the company himself. His famous sales pitch: “If you find a better car, buy it.”

That’s some straightforward honesty, and it worked for Chrysler. They were struggling through the early 80s, but Iacocca and his frank TV spots helped the auto manufacturer regain sales and get out of debt. And celebrity spokesman Ricardo Montalban reassured consumers that “rich cordovan leather” awaited them in their new Chryslers.

My real life indoctrination into spokesmanship was a failed bargain I made with the devil himself, during the Vietnam War. I had earned an Army commission after graduation, and had been assigned to the staff of the Army War College, as an operations officer. I really wanted to gain some military experience in public relations, so I applied to the Department of Defense Information School for their officer’s career course in public affairs. This is the school where every military service’s communications people learn their craft. To be accepted, I had to volunteer to be assigned to Vietnam. I knew that when I graduated, I’d have only 6 months of service commitment remaining. A tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year, so I thought the Army would not even bother to send me over there. I was wrong, and after graduation was promptly assigned to serve as a press escort officer at the press camp closest to the border with North Vietnam.

While at the Information School we had been indoctrinated with the philosophy that our mission was to provide the press with “maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” The reality was that we were directed by higher headquarters to be more helpful as “connectors” between news media people who were friendlier to the government war effort. Our government sometimes had an agenda, and press officers as spokespeople were obligated to that agenda. I was lucky enough to come home safely from Vietnam, but I had learned a valuable lesson about the limits of spokesmanship. About what a later generation would come to know as “spin.”

Back in civilian life it was often just as challenging being a spokesperson. It involved much more than just speaking the words. A spokesperson is first and foremost someone who the top leadership of an organization trusts, and who can be relied upon to reflect both the tone and content of what that leadership wants communicated. A spokesperson must be both a resourceful internal reporter within the organization, but also someone with the judgment and experience to determine where, when, how and what information to present, and who to speak to, and have the presence, loyalty and maturity to handle it all well under pressure.

One of the first professional lessons a spokesperson learns is that a press conference is usually the last choice as a venue to communicate to the news media. Why? One question is: Is the news important enough to attract the press – will anyone want to attend? Second, is the information important enough that members of the press will come out to hear the same things at the same time their news media competition will hear it? Every reporter prefers an exclusive or private interview. And lastly, where to hold a press conference is a big issue. Where and why will the press be willing to turn up? The loneliest podium in the world is the one with no one in front of it.

The best way to hold an interview is to meet a reporter eye-to-eye, so personal rapport can be established, and nuance can be communicated. Next preference these days is contact by Skype or phone, for many of the same reasons. Least desirable is by text or email, where nuance is difficult to determine and intent may be confused.

But spokesmanship often takes place in crisis situations, in which events are rapidly unfolding, and something must be said, even with incomplete information or direction. This is where the spokesman is on the spot, and must come through.

Mike Love, who headed public relations in the UK and Europe for McDonald’s for 13 years, had previously served as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s spokesman. He ominously tells us, “When the voice on the other end of a mobile phone call starts by asking, “are you driving – then you should pull over” you just know this is not going to be good news.”

He continued, “The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came on the line. I listened. The call was brief, but more than appreciated at such a moment. I mumbled something about unswerving loyalty and everybody doing what needed to be done. A statement would be issued in 30 minutes confirming she had decided not to go forward for re-election in the second round of voting. She had informed the Queen and the Cabinet of her intention and within 30 minutes the public announcements would be made.” Mike was then Mrs. Thatcher’s political agent and his job was to manage the fall-out in her constituency from her announcement that she was stepping down from office.

He spent the next several days giving interviews to local, and then national and international media. He recalls that, for him, was an unusual moment in the spotlight. As a political agent, his main job had been to be a behind-the -scenes person who helped make things happen, who wrote the words coming from the mouths of others, to organize events and platforms, but not to speak his own words, as he put it. He recalls that similar experiences at a relatively young age were more than great preparation for his later career as a director of international communications for organizations such as McDonald’s, Microsoft and British Telecom. Each of those roles involved managing the media relations for high profile issues and crises.

Like me, Mike Love reflects that at McDonald’s almost everything in life happened every day somewhere in the world. There was the potential for a crisis almost every day, often requiring counsel from our corporate home office. He observed that crisis media communications work is more often than not concerned with the opposite of proactive consumer and brand PR, and that often no news really is often good news.

Another former associate of mine, Walt Riker, who succeeded me as global spokesperson for McDonald’s, was a former newsman who went on to become, for 13 years, press secretary to Bob Dole, long time Senate majority Leader and one-time Presidential contender. Walt comments: “Being a spokesman isn’t for the squeamish. It’s all about being ready to stand on the firing line 24/7, for good news, for bad news, tragic news or news you can’t even imagine. You have to be quick on your feet, creative, deeply informed on the issues, and willing to stand tall even as critics and tough reporters try to trip you up. It is pressure packed, unpredictable and filled with risk. One wrong quote and you will be second-guessed and criticized from every side, including your own. Believe me, there isn’t a spokesperson in the world who hasn’t made a mistake, or two. In fact, one day, working for Dole, a misquote from me crashed the wheat market.”

Walt recalled one night in Orlando, Florida, while working for McDonald’s at their global franchisee convention. He stumbled from his bed to the ringing phone. As he said, his job was “to answer that phone, every day, every hour of my seventeen years with McDonald’s. I soon heard a familiar company voice, saying ‘Walt. This is bad. Jim Cantalupo, who was company CEO, is dead.’ “ In a few hours, Cantalupo would have been addressing 17,000 enthusiastic members of the global McDonald’s family at the brand’s global convention. And instead, in a few hours Walt would be addressing reporters from around the world calling to get comments about this staggering and tragic event. For the next three days he answered countless questions but never wavered from McDonald’s core message – they were prepared to meet the challenges of this unexpected tragedy. The company had anticipated the eventuality of such an extreme disruption to its business. The board met within hours of Jim’s passing, and had elected a new CEO; a smooth transition was already underway and the board was moving ahead, not only with its convention, but also with McDonald’s business strategies and leadership in place.

You might wonder why people like Mike Love in the UK and Walt Riker here at McDonald’s headquarters, myself and dozens of other senior communications people were needed for what might be described as “just a hamburger company.” But keep in mind that McDonald’s employs some 1 ½ million people in more than 100 countries and interfaces face to face with 70 million customers, a day, in 37,000 retail locations. Not only does everything, from birth to death, from weddings to mayhem, that happens in human life occur at a McDonald’s every day, but the company is also a bellwether of the stock market, one of the Dow Jones 30 Industrials, and one of the best known, most ubiquitous and therefore most controversial consumer brands on the globe. That adds up to a lot of balls in the air.

One of the most challenging balls that were bouncing around and fluttering in the air when I joined McDonald’s corporately was the challenge of rebuilding a relationship with the surviving McDonald brother, Dick, who sold out to Ray Kroc in 1960 under a cloud of acrimony and mistrust, and then had no contact with the company for 25 years, until after Kroc’s death in late 1984. I joined the company to head corporate communications in early 1985, and was soon assigned to go to work to rebuild the non-relationship with the man whose name was on our door.

For the next 13 years, I folded Dick and his family back into the global McDonald’s family, often meeting him at his New Hampshire home, and honoring him through events at the Smithsonian, in Congress, at the Ford Museum, at the site of he and his brother Mac’s original McDonald’s in San Bernardino, at visits with company leaders and in tons of media interviews. Even the Wall Street Journal featured Dick and me in a front page center story discussing the new relationship. While he and I and our chairman Fred Turner became fast friends over that 13 years until his death in 1998, his family still continues the now ancient feud today, and received 7 million dollars to see their divisive version of the Ray Kroc relationship in last year’s Hollywood film featuring Michael Keeton called “The Founder.”

Over the years I served as head of media relations worldwide for McDonald’s, I didn’t carry home a crisis plan each night, but a briefcase filled with phone numbers and later, email addresses. I had on hand all the corporate key contacts, the security people, the medical, legal, political, financial and public relations advisors available to the company, whom I might notify and seek advice from in the event of disaster.

My staff and I never hesitated to wake up or seek out, the CEO, CFO, CMO or even the Board Chairman, if there were an event or development they should know of, or provide direction. One time among many, I had to track down the CEO regarding a critical, urgent question from a prominent publication. He was on vacation somewhere in Mexico, and his assistant had been directed not to bother him under any circumstances. I insisted and persisted, and after I had roused him from a nap by the pool with a call to his private cell number, and received the answer I needed, he said to me, in total sincerity, “Chuck, sometime in the future, I want you to track me down again, to the ends of the earth like you just did, and instead of assaulting me with a horrendous question, just tell me a dirty joke.” We laughed.

I’m reminded of another time our CEO Mike Quinlan had a good laugh at my expense. He was warming up a room of key security analysts in New York City, before leading a financial presentation about future prospects for our global company. He commented to the august group, “Sometimes I wonder if you take McDonald’s seriously, since our chief spokesman is a clown,” referring implicitly to McDonald’s mascot, Ronald McDonald. As the crowd snickered, one of the news media people assembled to cover the event in the back poked me, and cajoled, “He must have meant you.”

While I did serve as corporate communications officer for the company, my business card also said I served as chief spokesperson for the brand. I was very proud to have been acknowledged that way, as that was back in the day before the most credible spokesperson for many organizations became the lowliest line employee, and before CEOs enjoyed declining credibility.

In a world where companies have more credibility than governments and the news media, communications group Edelman has found only 44% trust the word of CEOs. There has been a surprising resurgence in trust in technical and academic experts. And while trust in journalists has recently increased in the double digits, trust by the general public in social media and search engines has plummeted in the past year.

Simply telling the truth can sometimes be a challenge while serving as a spokesperson. One old friend, who taught me much about how to communicate for a publicly- owned company, later went to work doing PR and investor relations for a prominent publically traded Florida development company. Management asked him to tell some lies about their growth prospects. He refused, and lost his job. Then one day, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and read about him telling the story of the company’s skullduggery, on the front page left column. Revenge is sweet, but I don’t think his career ever recovered.

My own career hit the bumps when my working relationship with an investigative journalist turned sour. He covered the food industry for the Wall Street Journal, and had taken issue with the company over concerns raised by some former franchisees and a handful of anonymous sources within the current franchisee ranks and some security analysts. His writing was so inflammatory and inaccurate that we eventually decided only to deal with him in writing, and make our case through other less-biased journalists. It took years, but we finally convinced his editor and publisher to come out to our Oak Brook home office to share a burger, fries and some straight talk with our CEO and myself to clear the air and reset our relationships.

In another situation, I caught a so-called trusted newsperson in their own deception, when my secretary told me the editor of a prominent Chicago business journal had called to ask the birthday of our CEO. It was a seemingly innocent question, but my curiosity was sparked. So I called him back myself and asked what was up. He acknowledged then that he was indeed writing an editorial, claiming our CEO was disconnected with Wall Street, and thus not doing his job. I immediately ran through details of our CEO’s recent active schedule of calls and direct meetings with security analysts in New York, some of which I had attended. But the editor ran the critical editorial commentary anyway, as if we hadn’t even talked.

A few weeks later, I was speaking to a graduate class in corporate PR at a prominent Chicago university, when a student asked me if I ever experienced unfairness from the news media. I told him the story, and suggested that the editor had acted in a “corrupt” way, because I had given him information that obviated a story line that someone had fed to him, and he had the temerity to run it anyway. My comment about the editor “leaked” because someone in the room with the students reported it to the media, and the next thing I knew, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and other media were writing about how the McDonald’s PR guy had called a high level editor corrupt.

My board of directors compelled me to apologize, assuming a major publication must be placated on such a hot issue. On a flight to New York with the CEO on the company plane, I offered him my resignation. He paused for a second, and then said, “Forget it.” I later took the offending editor to breakfast to clear the air, and he asked me why I described him as corrupt. Speaking earlier to a class of graduate communications students, I had explained that I considered him to be intellectually corrupt because he wrote lies when he knew better, just to please one of his regular “sources” who perhaps wanted to short the stock. His reply: he said he could live with “intellectually corrupt.” It was then I remembered this adage from media training class: “Criticizing the news media is like wrestling with a pig. You are going to get dirty and the pig is going to love it.”

Most of those selected as spokespeople have experience and training that prepares them for the role. At McDonald’s we had hundreds of trained spokespeople around the world, dispersed to represent their local nationalities, geographies and areas of expertise.

Before I became McDonald’s chief spokesperson, I had 17 years as a public relations spokesperson with other companies. At Allstate Insurance, I was a company advocate for driver’s education and anti-drunk driver legislation. At Toyota, we promoted car safety. At Baxter Labs, we helped clarify complex medical therapies for the press.

Part of my own self-imposed portfolio at McDonald’s was to maintain more than 100 personal, first name relationships with key business writers, editors, on-air personalities and producers, meeting with them often at their offices around the globe and hosting them at ours, to tell the ongoing McDonald’s story, even when there was no breaking news.

We employed former news people and spokesmanship experts to train our top managers, board members, franchisees and suppliers on how to speak for and represent the business. We conducted these sessions all around the world, in small one-on-one situations to recreate the stress and atmosphere of real encounters with news media and consumers.

One of the most generous compliments I received when I retired was from an Australian, Charlie Bell, then president of McDonald’s Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa group, and later global corporate CEO, when he wrote, “You might remember when we met during a media training session. I listened intently to your words of wisdom and those words have served me well. In fact, I’ve built my entire McDonald’s career off what I learned from you.” Despite his hyperbole, the truth is that media spokesmanship training incorporates many of the elements of the kind of strategic “thought leader” training that has benefitted generations of successful organizational leaders in all walks of life.

But, there are also some media spokes-types who are not even people, yet can warm the hearts and convince millions to support their brand. Anheuser-Busch’s famous Clydesdales can’t use words to sell their product but that hasn’t stopped them from selling millions of beers and becoming iconic representatives of the Budweiser brand in the process.

The thumping Clydesdale spokes-horses made their first appearance in 1933 as a gift from the Busch sons to their father in celebration of the repeal of Prohibition. The sight of Busch Sr. and his two sons moved to tears over the gift of Clydesdales inspired the “crying in your beer” phrase still heard in bars around the world to this day.

Since that tear-provoking debut, the champion Clydesdales, most frequently in a six-horse hitch, have appeared in countless commercials, appearances across the country and even alongside U.S. presidents, notwithstanding the current one, in inauguration parades. Marketing author Seth Godin summed it up well when he said, “People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic.”

Speaking of magic, my old friend and PR guru Tom Harris tells the story of the greatest spokesperson who never lived. Back during the Second World War, she was even named the 2nd most popular woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was reportedly born in 1921 at a small town mill, later to become General Mills. Gold Medal flour was running a recipe contest, so the ad manager dreamed up a person named Betty to answer the many questions from entrants. The name was picked because it sounded, “cheery, wholesome and folksy.” The name of a beloved former company director was Crocker, so the invented spokes-baker became Betty Crocker. By the way, Ray Kroc, who bought rights to the McDonald’s brand from the brothers of that name, decided to keep the name for the business McDonald’s, because he felt it sounded like a good All-American name.

I decided the time was neigh to apply for an early retirement, after nearly a quarter century as a McDonald’s spokesman. Over that time, I had negotiated with Coretta Scott King, introduced franchisees to President Clinton on the White House lawn, played the kazoo at Carnegie hall in rehearsals with Lionel Hampton and shot miniature basketballs with a young Michael Jordan. I spoke every day with news people around the globe, cut ribbons at Ronald McDonald House openings, chaired annual shareholder meeting press conferences, launched new products alongside the Rockettes at Radio City Music Center, and routinely picked up the phone in the middle of the night during crises.

Stepping down from the Golden Arches on the cusp of the Millennium, I felt like a little like a 16-year-old going on summer vacation, but with a bigger allowance. I also shifted my energies into several not-for-profit causes, one of which was the Geneva Lake Conservancy, a regional land trust that protects natural habitat in the Lake Geneva area. The Conservancy also speaks out on local environmental issues that affect land and water. One such major issue became the fight to preserve Yerkes Observatory, America’s first astrophysical laboratory and still home to the world’s largest and still operating refracting telescope, the kind you look straight through like an old fashioned telescope. The revered University of Chicago, which created the famed observation facility at the time of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, decided to sell it off for development of a hotel/spa and home sites. The Yerkes property includes nearly 100 beautifully groomed acres running down to the lake, and has the last 550 feet of undeveloped shore land and woods along the lakeshore. It is both an environmental and historic treasure.

We at the Conservancy helped light a fire of community protest that mobilized lake residents and reached far beyond. As Conservancy chair, I found myself doing interviews with a score of newspapers and magazines, and appeared before the editorial boards of the Chicago Tribune and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The bottom line is that after a long year of this well-coordinated effort, the University reversed its decision, canceled the sale contract and fired the university executive who had been in charge of engineering the deal.

Now, more than 10 years on, the University continues to operate the observatory with a staff, including astronomers, as a unique educational site, and has reinvested in the facility, and its historic lakeside grounds, once trod by Native Americans. The facility remains today in pristine condition. Many people were involved in the complex choreography of saving Yerkes, and I take small credit for coming up with one line that said it all: “The University of Chicago has been accidental conservationists of this site of rare beauty and historic importance for more than 100 years, and it ought to stay that way.”

Not so successful have been my recent attempts to stimulate some remorse and a change of heart at my old employer to save the restored site of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s restaurant in suburban DesPlaines, first opened in 1955. The building and its iconic road sign were slated for demolition, ostensibly because of flooding issues, but more likely because of a company hyper-focused on reinventing itself, even at the expense of some of its heritage. I found myself defending this way station of post-war roadside history, even being interviewed in print and on WGN radio, where the host commented that President Trump is a big McDonald’s fan, and wondered if he might help spur renewed historic preservation. I responded that McDonald’s could do that themselves with the support of “their own orange-haired clown.” The host then noted that I was quite clearly a “happily retired former spokesperson” for the brand.

As in all professions, it is an honor to be able to stand tall for people, products, organizations and issues that we value. Trying our best to tell the truth in the process, while not being just another Siri or Alexa chatbot, can be most challenging, and sometimes satisfying. To paraphrase what Mark Twain said of public relations: “It is about a good story, well told. That’s why I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

The arc of connectiveness is indeed integral to the human condition, and spokespeople play a key role in realizing that in today’s world. At times we even deliver on opportunities to bring new clarity to vital issues and disperse that foggy “Spoke Smoke,”

Fifty years as a spokesperson have flown by, and that makes me think it’s about time for a break, as we used to say at McDonald’s. And for that I’ll be most grateful.

————————————————————–

Chuck Ebeling earned a degree in journalism from Bradley University and also studied at the University of Chicago. He served in Vietnam and Chicago as an award-winning Army press officer, served on the corporate PR staffs as a strategist and spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, Toyota, Baxter International and McDonald’s Corporation. He has served in not-for-profit board leadership roles in the hunger relief, health care, environmental, historical, and literary fields.

Chuck also created the Ebeling PRize through which he supports and recognizes student community programs in cause-related communications at Bradley and Loyola of Chicago universities. In 2011, he was inducted into Bradley University’s Centurian Society, recognizing graduates who have become national or international leaders in their field.

“Spoke Smoke” is Chuck’s 14th essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club, of which he was President in 2016-17.

 

 

Advertisements

The fast erosion of big game conservation in Africa may indeed be a canary in the coal mine for humanity. The world gasped at the callous shooting of Cecil the lion. Last year, 600 lions were shot for sport. Now the facts are out. The lion population is down 50% since 1993. Ten years ago, 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. Last year, it was a thousand. A rhino horn is worth more than gold; they sell for up to $500,000 a tusk in Asia. Stupid people believe the horns have “special powers,” while these rare animals are disappearing from the face of the earth. A decade ago, visiting the red oat plains of the Masai Mara, on the site of the great annual migration trail through Kenya and Tanzania, our guide pointed out Mary, a famous and extremely rare white rhino, calmly grazing near our safari vehicle. I shudder to think what may have become of her and her like since then.

Study after study has shown that photo safaris are more economically beneficial to local economies than gun safaris. But modern land development and social change are likely even greater threats to the natural habitat of the great and small animals of Africa and other areas. Not making greater effort to conserve habitat for these fellow travelers on planet earth not only robs us of our humanity, but risks unbalancing the nature that sustains life itself. True conservation is difficult and expensive, yet so much easier to accomplish before all the worst is done.

Eight years ago, after Vicki and I made two safari trips through Tanzania and Kenya, I wrote an essay for the Chicago Literary Club, called The Masai Mara Hood Ornament, about the natural wonders of East Africa and the challenges of big game conservation. The most dire predictions made then are coming true. Come along with me, and visit the beauties of Africa once again, where you can believe what you see with your own eyes. If you doubt me, visit for yourself, and see…

The Masai Mara Hood Ornament

Conservation Meets Big Game Tourism in Kenya

An essay Presented to the Chicago Literary Club – March 12, 2007 By Charles Ebeling

Copyright 2007 Charles EbelingP1000427_edited

In an expressive Swahili greeting, spoken since the Arab seafarers of old first opened commerce with the coastal tribesmen in that part of east Africa now known as Kenya, I’d like to say to you all – Jambo na karibu – “hello and welcome.”

Even from the surface of the moon, you can see the 3,500 mile scar in the earth’s crust. It is one of our planet’s most notable features, extending from the Mediterranean Sea to South Africa. It is East Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

It’s difficult to picture this natural landmark from here in Chicago, much less the wonder of abundance at the mid-point of the valley, the great Kenyan plain known as the Masai Mara. But I’ll try to help.

The Masai Mara’s great migration was recently named by ABC-TV and USA Today as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, and the only moving wonder. It is the annual destination for the world’s most diverse migration of grazing animals. From horizon to horizon, some 1.3 million wildebeests, 1⁄2 million gazelles and 200 thousand zebra, accompanied by armies of predators, move in an endless 700 mile circle with the seasons, following the rains, as they’ve done for millions of years.

They course in their clockwise arc from Tanzania’s fabled, trackless Serengeti Plain, northward into Kenya, to forage in the rolling open savannah grasslands and wetlands of the Mara River, at the foot of the great rift escarpment.

USA Today’s Bruce Feller says, “The Masai Mara transports you to a time when humans were secondary on earth.” Indeed.

We once breakfasted shortly after dawn out on the Masai Mara, landing in a hot air balloon, as thousands of migrating wildebeests politely streamed around our field table, lowing in unison with a deep rumbling noise, said to resemble the growl of a fleet of Harley Davidsons.

3

As you may already know, safari is the Swahili word for a journey, a journey that began after young Scottish geologist Joseph Thomson ventured where an army had refused to probe, and in 1883 became the first European explorer to pass through Maasai country. Our safari tonight begins in this area that was the birthplace of the big game safari. The area’s first recorded hunting safari took place in 1929. Today, the Masai Mara Game Reserve, a little smaller than Rhode Island, is Kenya’s most celebrated game park and is locally known as the Mara.

An extended expanse, generally referred to as the “dispersal area” stretches north and east of the reserve. Maasai tribal communities, with their beloved cattle, live within the dispersal area, along with wild game of the Mara. This former warrior tribe of tall and red-robed people lives a pastoral existence. Their lifestyle often seems at odds with modern western traditions, as they tend to scorn the concept of agriculture and land ownership, and live in an ages-long symbiotic relationship with wildlife.

The Mara Triangle, on the valley floor beneath the towering escarpment, in the hazy distance, is home range to one of the widest varieties of African game. For example, the scarce and beautiful Greve’s zebra, graceful Masai giraffes, extended African elephant families and bellowing black rhinos. Then there are grazing antelopes of all sizes and descriptions, what children on safari often lump together as “gazantelopes.” In particular, we see the blue wildebeest – sometimes called the gnu. It is a land of graceful gazelles, puppy-sized dic dics, furry waterbucks and the mighty eland, six feet tall at the shoulder.

The Mara’s rivers teem with hippos and Nile crocodiles. The stomping secretary birds and ever-present warthogs and scavenging hyenas and jackals cover the ground, while chattering monkeys, stoic vultures and swooping storks inhabit the trees.

It is known as the kingdom of lions. Cheetahs abound and even leopard can sometimes be spotted, dragging their prey up into a tree for safe keeping. We’ve even seen a rare and famous white rhino named Mary, chomping on the tall, red oak grass. That, along with statuesque red thorn acacia trees, gives the open plain a golden hue.

4

Recent efforts to privatize land in the Mara are changing the way people have interacted with wildlife over the millennia. Since the 1970’s, these changes have caused a 60% decline in wildlife in the region, both inside and outside the game reserve. The great savanna of Eastern Africa – cradle of mankind, home to traditional nomadic pastoralists and their livestock, and last refuge of some of the most spectacular wildlife populations on earth – are in trouble.

Notwithstanding 20 years of highly committed wildlife conservation, more than half of the big mammals of the Masai Mara have disappeared in this time. Incredibly, most could be gone in the next 20, if much more isn’t done.

Tonight, we’ll take a close look at the interwoven relationship between big game tourism and conservation efforts in Kenya. You will join me as we come face to face with a troubling dichotomy — magnificent beasts in their ancient natural habitat encountering modern man and his machines.

Of course, these days, at least in Kenya, such meetings are generally with camera in hand, rather than a gun. We’ll see some of the ironies of wildlife tourism and human development, both threatening and giving hope to the perpetuation of man’s natural heritage. And we’ll meet some of the magnificent creatures, human and animal, that make up an unforgettable visit, in these early years of the 21st century.

Let’s meet some of them now, in what might be described, in a total departure from humility, as a truly charming, yet charmingly true, story of a memorable encounter.

A “game drive” into the Masai Mara, the backdrop for the film, “Out of Africa,” is nothing – nothing — like a commute back home in the States.

Evidence: the fleeting hitchhiker we picked up in an area of scrub brush a quarter mile off a dirt road, one afternoon. Our Land Cruiser driver had spotted, through his binoculars, what he thought was a solitary cheetah, resting in the grass.

But our untrained eyes saw nothing in the distance but undifferentiated bush.

5

Yet, our safari guide concurred that something of interest lurked out there, so our vehicle lurched forward across the rough turf.

And there indeed, a graceful cheetah reclined, little more than her head visible above the tall grass, some 50 feet from us.

The world’s fastest animal was concluding a little rest stop in the shade. Our safari party proceeded to grab snapshots, standing up through the dual sunroofs to get a clear view.

Thirty feet to our side, another vehicle pulled up, three serious photographers popping through the roof, training their professional long lenses on the same resting cheetah.

Soon, our new spotted friend, probably roused by all the attention, stood and stretched. Like a giant living caricature of a house cat, she slowly sauntered toward the open plain.

The mysteries of the Masai Mara beckoned her. But, our driver had an idea.

He looped out onto the plain and carefully settled the vehicle into a position right in the walking trajectory of our cheetah. When the confident, tall cat cleared the brush, we could see she was quite large, maybe 130 pounds.

She moved our way, then stopped close by and looked directly at us. Our cameras clicked away, along with the beat of our hearts.

After a thoughtful pause, she seemed to take a skip or two in our direction and then, silently and swiftly, and to our utter amazement, bounded directly up — onto the hood of our vehicle!

We were stunned, and all ducked down for safety. There, through the windshield, we saw the long legs and lower body of an enormous spotted cheetah, barely inches away.

6

It was later said that she was the progeny of a cheetah matriarch, who had developed the habit of occasionally hopping onto hoods, roofs and spare tires of safari vehicles. She had likely watched her mother do it from time to time.

“Why?” we quizzed. “Well, cats like to get up high to find their prey,” our driver speculated, “and the hoods are warm and cozy.”

We collectively mumbled, “Could be.”

Taking a breath, one by one we again began to photograph her.

She sat down, and soon lay down on the hood. We ducked in again to look through the windshield, and as our guide tried to capture her on his camera phone, our cheetah turned and gazed directly at him.

Her giant round reddish-orange eyes seemed almost soft.

While we were all thrilled, our new short-eared friend, the cheetah, remained oddly calm and even non-threatening.

Like the delicate truce we maintain with our housecats back home, we, both in and on the Land Cruiser, seemed to respect one another’s occupancy of this same small space.

There she rested for some five more minutes, as more than a half dozen safari vehicles, probably alerted via radio by the photographers we encountered earlier, circled our location. A dozen heads popped through roofs and cameras clicked away.

Was she – posing — for us, and them?

Our driver again had an idea. He cautiously waved over another driver he knew, who slowly pulled his vehicle alongside. We handed over my camera.

His friend pulled away with the camera, and then, as “our” cheetah again sat up on the hood, he snapped away at us.

Thus, the brief, glorious immortalization of that furry “Masai Mara Hood Ornament,” and her fellow passengers.

7

“Our” cheetah soon stood again, wiggling her behind, and sprayed our green hood to “mark” her new mobile territory. She silently hopped down and quickly disappeared onto the plains of her Masai Mara, in search of things unseen by us human interlopers.

Back home, near Geneva Lake, Wisconsin, looking over the photos of our lucky encounter, I decided to Google for images using cues like “cheetah sitting on Land Cruiser.” Yes, there were indeed a few shots to be found of cheetahs in various stances on safari vehicles, but not the hundreds of search engine references one might find, if this was a Disneyland photo op.

Our breath-taking experience with the lady cheetah was not, after all, a “first” among East Africa wildlife encounters, but it came close enough, even for our seasoned guides.

At, as I reach down from my computer keyboard to stroke one of our own needy little housecats, I say to him, “You’re our little cheetah.” Full of indifference to my intercession into his routine, he too saunters off, in the style of his African relative, in silent search of things unseen by this human interloper.

But much, much more seriously, and speaking of another, vastly more sinister and deadly breed of interloper, it was less than a decade ago, in 1998, when Kenya snapped into the world’s attention, as a distant and mysteriously dangerous place. It was then that Al Queda terrorists blew up the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Nairobi, killing hundreds. It was an early omen of the 9/11 attacks in America three years later.

Nairobi, the largest city in all of east and central Africa, with the world’s second largest slum, has sometimes been called “Nai-robbery,” because of a lingering reputation for street thefts and car jacking. But, the mile-high city, still considered the “safari capital of the world,” has grown into a teeming metropolis and economic center. Its imposing skyline boasts some 46 skyscrapers, and the city offers a vast international airport, magnificent hotels and ultra-luxurious suburbs.

8

And recently, Kenya hasn’t seemed quite so distant. Last fall, we watched as the live TV morning shows broadcast Chicago’s own U.S. Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, visiting his grandmother at his family’s village near the shores of another great lake, the world’s second largest, Kenya’s Lake Victoria. For a few moments, via satellite, we all joined Obama in the dirt streets of a Kenyan village, as this bright new political force came face to face with his own ancient roots, a world away, yet as close as our morning coffee.

But neither global terrorism, nor American politics, begins to define Kenya and its people, who are today grappling with that dichotomy of a naturalistic heritage and an accelerating modern world. All of this is brought into collision by jet fueled transportation, globe-wrapping CNN broadcasts, Hollywood reruns on local Kenyan TV, the intimacy and immediacy of the internet, bundles upon bundles of confused human traditions and aspirations, and, of course, Kenya’s own brand of controversial national politics.

So now you see some of the ironic symbolism I felt when we reflected on the curious cheetah that briefly leaped onto the hood of our Toyota Land Cruiser. That rare experience of a living Masai Mara Hood Ornament could have become a tragic encounter, for us and our guides, or for the roaming cheetah. But this time, it turned out all right. Confrontations between big game in their natural habitat and the growing omnipresence of our modern world are increasing in frequency, velocity and risk.

And so it is in Kenya, or “Keenya,” as the British called it, in the colonial days after it was known as British East Africa. The size of Texas or France, Kenya lies along the Indian Ocean on Africa’s east coast. War-torn Somalia is to the northeast, Ethiopia to the north, Sudan to the northwest, all in the Greater Horn of Africa. Uganda is to the west and Tanzania, formerly German East Africa, to the south.

My wife Vicki and I made our first visit to the Masai Mara in 2004, as an extension into Kenya of a safari organized by Abercrombie and Kent, the renowned Oak Brook and London based expedition company. That safari was called Wings over Tanzania, and included visits to several of the great game reserves of Tanzania, including the vast migratory Serengeti Plain.

9

We were lucky to have as our guide the recently retired Warden of the Serengeti National Park. Our visit to the Masai Mara, itself a northern extension of the Serengeti into Kenya, included game drives through the Masai Mara Reserve.

Last year, when we decided to return to see more of the 55 game reserves in Kenya. My interest and knowledge of the conservation of scarce natural resources had grown, largely through my involvement as chairman of the Geneva Lake Conservancy in southeastern Wisconsin. So I asked A&K if they would make some conservation connections for me in Kenya.

Upon our arrival in Nairobi, we breakfasted with Asgar Pathan, the Executive Director in Kenya of Friends of Conservation, a global not-for- profit organization founded by A&K. Conservationists in Africa face many issues. For example, advancing droughts of recent years there, which have impacted the food supply, have introduced new calls for a return to legalized big game hunting in Kenya, where it has been banned since 1977.

Asgar describes the wealth of much of the African continent, and certainly Kenya, as being in its “mega-fauna,” the teaming herds, predators and scavengers, and the colorful monkeys and birds. Yet in 2005 there was a “Big Game” bill tabled in the Kenyan parliament on “Consumptive Utilization of Wildlife,” to re-introduce big-game hunting. It proposed to boost the food sources for locals, but also to boost the local economy. Those opposed argued that lifting the ban on hunting could jeopardize survival of Kenya’s wildlife and negatively affect the tourism industry.

Recently, U.S. hunting interests have again sponsored tours by members of Kenya’s parliament from wildlife dominated areas, along with Kenyan journalists, to countries in South Africa that permit big game hunting. Asgar brought out some compelling facts to support the thesis that photographic safari’s are of vastly greater local benefit than hunting safaris.

This was just one of many opportunities Asgar cited for the conservation of what he termed “natural heritage resources” in Kenya. Big game tourism provides Kenya the opportunity to communicate and interpret the values of these living resources to visitors, helping to create a new, more informed and responsible generation of travelers.

10

In a study in Botswana, where the two safari formats are both legal, it was determined through a comparative study, that photo safaris created 10 times the local jobs and wages as hunting safaris. Photo safaris accommodated nearly 100 times the guests, and vastly increased local safari revenues, as compared with hunting safaris.

With a population of 30 million, to this day Kenya relies on big game tourism for the “lion’s share” of its economic trade with the world. The earnings from Kenya’s tourism sector will hit $1 billion within a year. Tourism is and has been for some time the largest foreign exchange earner for the nation, after tea exports, and is the second largest contributor to the local economy, after agriculture. Nearly 15% of employment is in support of big game tourism.

Today, ten percent of Kenya’s land is set aside for conservation of wildlife and biodiversity. More and more, agriculture is replacing traditional nomadic grazing, which serves to crowd the game reserves and wildlife refuges that sustain the economy. Organized poaching is still a problem, both for local illegal sale of meat, called “bush meat,” and international trade in hides and tusks.

The country has insufficient tourist beds, some lingering security issues and an insufficient internal transport infrastructure, according to the World Bank, which results in daily tourist spending less than that in neighboring Uganda and Tanzania.

Last fall, my wife and I served on the steering committee for an event called the Conservation Ball. It is held annually in Chicago by the not-for-profit group, the Friends of Conservation. They used the event to launch a one million dollar Global Climate Change Challenge. It is a fund-raising initiative to try to deal with some of the climatic issues in East Africa and other areas around the world.

The guest speaker was Richard Leakey, the renowned paleoanthropoligist, former director of the National Museum of Kenya and of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Yes, he is the 64-year-old inheritor of the legacy of famed fossil hunters Louis and Mary Leakey. Richard has devoted his life, as did his parents, to helping conserve the habitats of wild species in Africa and elsewhere.

11

He shared an increasingly familiar concern when he said, “I think the most threatening crisis facing us and our descendants is climate change. No single thing is going to do more damage or wreak more havoc than the climate change cycle we are now entering on.”

He observed that many byproducts of human activities, such as carbon spewing into the atmosphere, have a negative impact. But he went on to share his view that the human race, our very species, might not be what and where we are today but for naturally caused climate change, in earlier prehistoric times.

The first of such changes was 2.6 million years ago, when the response to fairly rapid desiccation or drought was the development of the earliest record of technology – the first time primates started to use sharp edges to access a meat diet.

The second sweep of climate change took place in Africa about 1.8 million years ago, when early humans first left Africa, and we began to find their fossils in parts of Europe and later in Asia.

Some of you may have participated in the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, a landmark DNA study of the human journey out of Africa to populate the world. Vicki and I sent our DNA samples in, and found the portions of Africa from whence our earliest descendants moved on into Europe.

The last major pre-historic climate change, and one that still affects us, occurred just 8 or 9 thousand years ago, when humans around the world underwent pressures from desiccation that led to the domestication of plants and animals.

Leakey concludes, “Had there not been such climate change in three separate episodes, we probably would not be where we are today, as a species.”

12

The difference is that in previous times there were relatively few people to be effected by climate change, but today it can affect an enormous population – some 6 to 8 billion people across the continents. He believes that today there are far too many people on the planet to absorb such change, particularly if we go through a period of years when rainfall patterns change dramatically, mean temperatures rise, and most significantly, ocean levels also begin to rise.

Regarding the implications for Africa, if the continent’s great wildlife is to be saved, we have to mitigate and deal with some of the issues that will threaten it. Droughts and floods of historic proportions are becoming more commonplace in Kenya, perhaps as a consequence of global warming.

As climates dry, people will move increasingly to forests and wet areas. Leakey commented that many of the rivers that used to flow when he was a boy no longer flow, because people have settled in the catchment areas. I saw this underway, as I visited parched areas of the Masai Mara last March, when the annual spring rains failed to materialize.

Over the next five years, Leakey believes the Mara River, site of the great wildebeest crossings, could dry out for at least six months of the year. If that were to happen, the future of the Mara, as a part of the vast Serengeti/Mara ecosystem, would be dim. Planting trees and educating teachers and young people are steps that, in part, could help arrest the current trend. It’s not going to stop climate change, but such steps could enable the environment there to be less affected.

Last March we visited the Friend’s of Conservation Environmental Learning Center for the Greater Masai Mara. It’s a compound at the edge of Talek Village, just outside the safari reserve. It is operated by bright 20-something Masai officers of the Friends of Conservation. One young leader was the daughter of a local Masai chief, and another was a bright young man who had returned from Oxford to help his tribe deal with climate change.

They were operating a reforestation demonstration project, and gave us the chance to join in the planting of a tree in their nursery. They showed us a model Masai hut of the future, made with more clay and less wattle, reinforced windows for fresh air, and a new simple design for a clay cooking fireplace, that uses 70% less wood for fuel than the age-old model.

13

Young women were learning to produce and sell honey to generate household income, while young men were learning why they should sell off some of their prized cattle when droughts are expected, so they would not be so financially decimated by drought, as often happens now. Production of biogas fuel using cow dung was being demonstrated – fortunately downwind of our location.

In addition to Leakey’s comments that the rivers are increasingly drying and oceans rising, he noted that lakes are disappearing. Western Kenya’s Lake Victoria, the second largest fresh water lake in the world after Lake Baikal in Russia, is now about 15 feet lower than its typical recorded heights over the past 100 years.

We flew in to Lake Victoria, which is the source of the Nile River, and visited a beautiful, remote small resort on Ruzinga Island. Their gently sweeping lawn down to the lake had grown by some 50 feet in just a few years and their fishing boat dock now had an equal extension out into the receding lake. It’s increasingly likely that Lake Victoria may no longer be able to generate sufficient electricity in the hydroelectric falls that supply portions of Uganda and Kenya. The implications are enormous.

Global warming will also have some terrible consequences in Africa’s great mountains. Kilimanjaro, the highest mount in all of Africa, of Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” fame, has always had snowcap ice on its 19,000 foot summit. The last remnants of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro, as well as on Mount Kenya, this country’s highest peak, will likely, if current trends continue, have melted by 2020, or sooner.

Leakey believes that for the first time in 10,000 years, there will be no permanent ice on these iconic mountains.

When we made a game drive across the plain at the base of Mount Kenya, high atop the equator, I photographed a lion, lying in the grass, with the glacier-topped peak the indigenous peoples call Mount Kirinyaga, or “white mountain,” in the background. The local Kamba people pronounce the extinct volcano Kirinyaga as “Kiinyaa,” which ultimately lent its name to the mountain, the nation and even to its first president, the legendary Jomo Kenyatta.

14

One of the stops on our recent trip was to a remote retreat made famous by its owner, movie star William Holden, and his Hollywood friends. The Mount Kenya Safari Club sprawls as a complex of low whitewashed buildings amidst vast lawns and golf links on the approach to the great mountain. While there, we toured the adjacent Animal orphanage, founded by Holden and currently chaired by actress Stephanie Powers.

A variety of animals and birds, cheetah, chimps, dwarf rhinos, giant tortoise and ostrich, which were brought in injured or orphaned, roam the grounds in a sort of African touching zoo. It is supported by guests to the Safari Club and counts a worldwide membership.

More than 100,000 Kenyan students have had a chance to visit this animal orphanage. They interact and learn about the animals, develop a respect and appreciation that abates poaching, and increases chances of such wildlife surviving in their modernizing world.

One species that really caught our eye was the exotic bongo. These spectacular mountain antelopes have vertical white stripes on a brilliant russet coat, horns that may reach 40 inches and large soft multi-colored ears. Bongos are a threatened species, partly because they became a prized hunting trophy by sportsmen, even more than the famed “Big Five” of Africa – elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, rhino and the elusive leopard. The natural predators of the bongo include lions and hyenas.

When the bongos were threatened with extinction some 35 years ago, William Holden set to capture 20 young mountain bongos. A decade of planning and executing went into his effort to save the animals from extinction. With the Kenyan government’s help, he sent them to a group of U.S. zoos to form the nucleus of a breeding program, to establish gene pools for eventual safe return to their natural habitat.

The first herd of bongos with Kenyan ancestry was returned to Kenya in 2004, and the animals have been bred locally since. They are just now being re-aclimated to the wild foothill forests of Mount Kenya, which are now free of both hunters and lions.

15

While visiting the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, we saw several bongo families being raised, and decided to sponsor a big-eared and curious young male, born on the mountain in January 2006, which we named Raha, the Swahili name for Joy.

As we traveled across the country, our hostelries, beyond the grand old Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, were tented camps, and set in the midst of the habitat’s we were visiting. From our sleeping tent, we would often hear chimps scampering overhead during the night, or hippos bellowing in a nearby stream, or on one occasion, a lion roaring as he strolled through the camp, under the watchful eyes of armed Masai warriors serving as our security contingent.

The tents were usually set up “Hemingway” style, and included an outer waterproof tent and an inner tent with zippered screens. There’d be a shaded porch at the front, with safari chairs and a shaving bowl. Inside were two wooden mattressed beds with mosquito netting, solar lights and rugs. Then another connected tented chamber featured a mirrored sink, mahogany carved toilet and a separate zippered shower, served by a hand-filled canvas bucket overhead.

Meals were taken at a communal outside table, but at night or in inclement weather, a dining tent, complete with bar and buffet and native paintings, served as our social center. Of course, a semi-circle of canvas chairs around a roaring fire under the stars, with gin and tonics or a glass of excellent South African wine, is where most evenings began and ended. Sometimes the night’s entertainment included elephants grazing or hippos splashing in the background, or some leaping and dancing demonstrations by the local Maasai in their native dress.

One night, an armed guard escorted us to our tent via a circuitous route, because a giant horned cape buffalo was lazing along “our” path. One morning, we rose at dawn, but were delightfully delayed in departure for the breakfast tent by two young elephants, busy pulling at tree branches for their own breakfast a few feet in front of our sleeping tent.

16

But I must add the perspective that in our two safaris to east Africa, everything has been professionally managed for us by competent, well- prepared escorts. We’ve never had a serious incident nor felt unprotected. If travel arrangements are made through a professional organization with local expertise, risks can be minimized.

Meanwhile, back at the Mara, the local ecosystem is now under growing stress. According to rangers, roads are in serious disrepair in places, animals are being harassed, as perhaps our otherwise charming encounter with the cheetah illustrates, and off road driving is damaging grasslands. During heavy rains last December, roads became impassable, and some tourists were stuck for many hours in bogged-down vans, surrounded by wildlife.

The highly popular Masai Mara Game Reserve may soon be put off-limits to budget travelers, through higher charges for park entrance fees, hotels and taxes. This is to reduce the influx of tourists, restoring a “high yield” reputation to the area, while reducing the impact of man.

Biodiversity for the benefit of mankind requires legislation and policies in place. In contrast to earlier conservation policies, ecosystem management is based on a paradigm of nature in flux, or change, rather than balance, and a view of people as part of, rather than separate from nature.

Politically, Kenya is still a young nation. It was only in 1894 when it first became a British protectorate, and came under the influence of colorful Lost Lions of the Empire, such as Cape to Cairo Grogan and Lord Delamere. The giant capital of Nairobi in the year 1900 was little more than a whistle stop at the end to the western terminus of the rickety rail line, known as the Lunatic Line, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.

Lord Hindlip, an early settler, was convinced that Nairobi was the result of some “momentary mental aberration” a dismal site that had greatness thrust upon it.

Nairobi was a dust bowl in the dry season. When the rains came, the whole place became a swamp, “the home of innumerable frogs,” and a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. In some ways, not everything has changed, because on our latest trip, when we checked into a delightful room on the inner court of the Norfolk Hotel, the garden outside the window was echoing to the groans of a thousand frogs.

17

After 50 years of largely blundering British rule, the infamous and bloody Mau Mau independence movement was underway, led by the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta went on to become the first president of Kenya, and in 1964 the country became fully independent. But Kenya’s current multi-party system is still plagued with inefficiency and graft.

Competition for scarce natural resources is resulting in resurgence in tribalism and even regional loss of life. Graft, bribery, patronage and embezzlement are still too much of what I call the “baksheesh” way of life in Kenya. Some diplomats estimate that Kenya has lost a billion dollars through official corruption over the past three years alone. A Transparency International survey of perceived corruption last year rated Kenya 142, just ahead of Kyrgyzstan, out of 163 countries. The U.S., by comparison, rated 20th, tied with Chile.

Current President Kibaki was elected in 2002 on a pledge to clean up Kenya, but diplomats say that “massive looting” is still underway. Kenya’s anti- corruption czar recently resigned his post amid reports that his life has been threatened. This February, the U.S. issued another in a series of recent travel warnings to U.S. citizens planning to visit Kenya, citing current risks of criminal attack and terrorism. Kenyans deny any risks for tourists.

There you have some reasons that over the latest two years, neighboring Tanzania and even Uganda, attracted 10 times the foreign investment. Yet the government of Kenya is optimistically pushing forward for greater industrialization, aiming at achieving newly industrialized nation status by 2020.

As I observed at the outset, Kenya is a complex society, and as you now see clearly, a much less than perfect one.

The Serengeti – Masai Mara ecosystem is one of the last in the world in which human impact is still less than 5 percent. Their endless arrays of ecology are the staging ground for natural cycles of life, death and regeneration as old as the planet itself.

18

Kenya provides a natural and ancient habitat to the great beasts of the wild, and to proud native peoples who are struggling with a dangerous and puzzling overlapping dependence on modern and ancient cultures. Eco- tourism is gaining ground, just as modern agriculture is invading big game habitats.

To help deal with a continuing poaching problem, a Global Wildlife Coalition of conservation organizations and governments has just been announced. The UN also just announced that the global headquarters for its environmental program, with more than 7,000 local employees, would remain in Nairobi and retain a regional focus.

Sustainable tourism in Kenya can only flourish if even more ways are found to take care of the valuable and fragile environment, and adjust to inevitable climate change. The tourism influx is expected to top one million this year, after lagging for decades. Nearly 100 thousand Americans will visit Kenya as tourists in 2007, less than a decade after the U.S. embassy bombing. This is good news for the local economy, and adds resources for conservation, yet at the same time puts added pressure on natural habitats.

In the episode which I related at the outset tonight, I shared with you our close encounter with a cheetah, which led me to call this essay “The Masai Mara Hood Ornament.” That analogy expresses my delight in seeing such great creatures, alive and up close. But it also expresses my growing concern that man and his technology create a danger of crowding out these living, moving wonders. In fact, locals in the big game reserves of Kenya sometimes use the term van-de-beasts, to refer to the ever-increasing “herds” of tourist mini-buses.

Before the van-de-beasts descend tonight to spirit me away, I’d like to conclude this cautionary, but I hope informative, status report on far-away Kenya. It is a magical land, deserving of accelerated conservation and an honored place in the complex world order.

It is certainly worthy of a visit, to meet the bright and friendly people, and understand firsthand the value and primal beauty of fantastic wildlife in its awe-inspiring natural habitat. Kenya has earned its place as one of the world’s fastest-growing eco-tourism destinations.

19

If and when you plan to go on safari, please tread lightly, because Kenya’s many challenges and dichotomies are not just Kenya’s alone to solve – they are also the world’s problems and the world’s opportunities.

So, using the Swahili expression for “thank you very much,” I’ll say, Asante sana, and in their words for “good night and good bye,” I say to you, Usika mwema na kwaheri.

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 http://www.learntheaddress.org. 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:

                               BETWEEN

 

                              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.    

       

 

 

 

 

With the death yesterday of William Clay Ford, Sr., last grandson of Henry Ford, I’m reminded of a memorable event that I had a role in creating that brought together two great names, Ford and McDonald. Baseball owner and automotive tycoon Ford, who had been long-term design chief of the company his grandfather created, served as chairman of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn from 1951 to 1983, and as chairman emeritus after. He was the museum’s largest donor, and the museum’s core exhibit, the Hall of American Innovation, was named after him. It was there we brought together some great innovators at the hall’s grand opening, as I recounted in my essay for the Chicago Literary ClubP1010939, “Breakfast with Mr. McDonald’s” in the following excerpt:

“Another milestone of excitement and recognition for Dick came about in 1987, crowning several years of effort. The event benefitted both his reputation and the place of the company in the history of a mobile America. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, Michigan, is a historic icon of the automobile industry and of American industry in the 20th century. It not only features Ford’s history, but the history of the entire automotive industry, and displays hundreds of historic cars of all brands, locomotives, Thomas Edison’s original laboratories and so on. But the structures that house the cars and trains were antiquated themselves. Looking like a bleak indoor car lot, row upon row of largely black autos seemed to go on forever. Determined to refurbish the place, museum staff envisioned a Midwest Smithsonian, with the auto as the star, creatively displayed in context with dioramas of the roadside culture they had spawned. They had contacted me, seeking assistance in obtaining and rebuilding a 50s era McDonald’s inside the museum, along with full scale antique gas stations, diners, motel rooms, road signs and other such mementos of time past.

“Unfortunately, we found that by then almost all of the early red and white tile drive-in McDonald’s had been replaced by the then current mansard roof building designs, and that the few remaining red and whites were either too modified to represent the brand or would be too expensive to tear down and move. But our luck was to change. Right in the Detroit market, we learned that a franchisee was about to replace a 50s era giant road sign, illuminated with pink and white neon and with an animated Speedee chef character, which was an early symbol of McDonald’s fast service. If we wanted it, we could have it, said franchisee Dan Shimel, if we could shoulder the expense of moving it, right away. In some hurried communications with the Ford Museum they agreed it would be a perfect giant artifact for inside the entrance to their new display building. I was able to put together the funding, with the help of McDonald’s Detroit regional office, and the sign was moved to the museum for restoration and installation.

“The big reopening of the Ford Museum, and its “Automobile in American Life” exhibit hall was scheduled for 1987, and it was to be a national media blow out, with a gala black tie opening fund-raising event attended by the automotive elite. William Clay Ford was to be the event chairman, and McDonald’s CEO was to among the special guests. Then we thought, wait, this historic event, all about roadside history, would be perfect for Dick McDonald, so Fred Turner agreed and Dick was invited to represent the company. We decided to make it memorable for him, which led to a lot of positive publicity.

“We worked out the program carefully with the Ford people. The grand opening moment in the vast museum, that mimicked the floor plan of Henry Ford’s first factory, would be the lighting of the giant restored McDonald’s road sign inside the museum’s entrance. As veteran Chicago auto writer Jim Mateja would write in the Tribune, “As you walk in the door, the McDonald’s sign set the tone.” Beneath the sign is a classic 1955 Chevy convertible and alongside it, the recreation of a room in the first Holiday Inn.

“At the opening, on the podium beneath the sign would stand Bill Ford, Dick McDonald and Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn. The sign would be lighted by the three pulling a large switch that was used by Thomas Edison to illuminate his first light bulb. They did, and as the McDonald’s sign sprang to life again, the thousand-plus black tie crowd roared its approval, as the cameras flashed and the videotape rolled. Dick McDonald was in the headlines, and in seventh heaven. His wife Dot stood next to me, tears rolling down her cheeks. The event had been filled with glamorous receptions and a dinner in Dick’s honor at one of his favorite old haunts, the London Chop House. My associate Susan McBride, who still heads internal communication for McDonald’s, was there to help coordinate all the arrangements and make sure everyone in the McDonald’s system knew about this historic event and Dick’s role in it.

“Dick wrote Fred Turner after the event, saying he found Bill Ford “very pleasant” and “he told me he is an avid customer of McDonald’s. It was a memorable evening for Dorothy and me,” and he concluded warmly, saying, “Fred, I would like to quietly slip into Oak Brook to see you and hash over the old days.” He wrote Vicki and me saying, “Chuck, congratulations on the fantastic way you handled the entire affair.” A record 1.3 million visitors would tour the new museum in the next year. Indeed, we were now on a roll.”
l

Cheetah Masai Mara '06

It’s been said that the real meaning behind photography is that it creates a “transfer of energy” across time and space. It is a way of capturing a bit of the dynamic content of the cosmos in a portable form. As in this photo of a cheetah that had spontaneously joined us on the hood of our Land Cruiser on the plains of the Massai Mara in Kenya several years ago.

And speaking of New Year’s resolutions, I’m reminded of the voyage mankind is taking, in this excerpt from the conclusion, of all things, of an essay I did called “French Fried, From Monticello to the Moon,” for the Chicago Literary Club.

“I’d like to take that long ladder of moon-bound French fries just one last step further into the future, as I wrap up this voyage through history. Albert Einstein thought that perhaps the greatest challenge facing mankind is to “widen our circle of compassion” across both time and space. Our ethnic and geopolitical squabbling might pale into insignificance if our compassionate circles were wide enough, he reasoned.

So let’s not longer worry whether the little fry is French, Belgium, American or Russian, but take it with us into the future, even into space, as a tasty treat for our frail band of wandering humanity, and continue to enjoy the good little things in life.

John Calvi, in a 1982 poem called “French Fries,” perhaps said it best, in his final stanza, when he wrote:
“Some think the army, the bombs and the guns
Will one day save all of our lives,
I don’t believe it — heat up your pans
Make peace, and lots of French fries.”

Happy New Year 2014!

My essay on fries can be found at http://www.chilit.org and then under, Roll of Members.

Here are titles of the 8 essays I’ve written and presented to date before the Chicago Literary Club, since joining in 2005. I will present a new essay related to the use of colors in the world of power and politics on this Election Eve, which I will then also post here. Those of you concerned about the risks of the Electoral College in this year’s elections might take a look at my essay, One Collage Too Many, cited below, for insights and ideas. All my essays are copyrighted.You can pull up the full text of each by searching for the title at the website of the club at http://www.chilit.org

French Fried – From Monticello to the Moon, October 31, 2005
Masai Mara Hood Ornament, March 12, 2007
Samuel Johnson and His ‘Clubbable’ Friends, January 21, 2008
One Collage Too Many, November 3, 2008
Breakfast with Mr. McDonald, October 26, 2009
Acceleration, November 8, 2010
All That Glitters…, November 21, 2011
Bozzy’s Last Lap, James Boswell, The Great Biographer – 1789-1795, April 23, 2012

Memorial Day is always a mixed bag for me. I do weep for those who served and suffered. But most of them were followers, even the officers, of political leaders who had made life and death decisions on their behalf, sometimes for very bad reasons. Of late, especially since Vietnam, those reasons have been somewhere on the scale between questionable and dead wrong.

When we had the draft, in the Vietnam era, one could have great compassion for the young who sacrificed their options in life to serve their country when called. Even those who dodged service gave up option then. Since the end of the draft, many who have served have done so just to get a job and some training that was not otherwise readily available for them. We can have sympathy for them that they made such a Hobson’s choice.

Today, as we honor those who served, and especially those who suffered and died in place of ourselves, and as we remember their families, we might best respect their loyalty to their nation  by questioning the motives and the thinking of those who are our political leaders today, as to their military strategies. Do these strategies justify the continued use of our military might, and are the American people being served well by these strategies and the people behind them?

The loyalties and sacrifices of generations of Americans who have served and supported the military are best served, I believe, by an engaged, questioning, demanding public,  that holds our leadership accountable for their strategies and decisions, and speaks out boldly on behalf of those who have served, are serving and those yet to be called.

America has too often been a nation of Forest Gumps, being led to the slaughter by cynical, distant leaders. Memorial Day should be about honoring those who serve by questioning those who lead. It’s not just about memories, but accountability. For a personal story about questioning and service, see my essay, “All That Glitters,” as presented to the Chicago Literary Club. http://www.chilit.org/Papers%20by%20author/Ebeling%20–%20All%20That%20Glitters.htm

December 2018
S M T W T F S
« Oct    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 621 other followers

Advertisements