In a way, this column is a continuation of one I wrote weeks ago, in which I paid tribute to “Old Carl”, the venerable maple sugar-maker who not only shared with me the arcane secrets to be found in the shadows of a steam-filled Vermont sugarhouse, but gifted me with an insight into how to live life deliberately and meaningfully, even in the wake of ill fortune.
When I left for overseas duty in a combat zone several years later, my father and older brother – both Marine Corps veterans of prior wars -- gave me the same piece of advice: “Find yourself an old-time Non-com who has ‘seen the elephant’ before, and attach yourself to him. Do what he does and pay attention to what he says. It is your best chance of staying alive.” Sergeant Steinbarger, the man I eventually replaced, got me through my first crucial weeks in Korea, but an unexpected assignment tossed me back into unknown territory shortly after his departure for stateside. Although my training and experience equipped me for a wide range of Military Police duties, orders to fill the need for a Criminal Investigator in a multi-service area embracing many miles of jurisdiction in what was a military “hot zone” seemed overwhelming.
At that point it was my commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Lenton D. Roller who saved me from grief by arranging for me to “go to school” in Seoul under the unofficial tutelage of a reserve officer who had been an old-time New York City Homicide Detective (whose name I have forgotten, to my shame). With limited time and exigent circumstances due to an active enemy campaign, he pushed me to the limit, creating every conceivable kind of crime scene and scenario possible in the bombed-out buildings and abandoned classrooms of our home-made “campus”. He was a rough and tuff “old-style” city cop who was all business, with no time to waste on military protocol and sophomoric platitudes. In one week that grizzled veteran taught me things it might have taken several years of investigative routine harnessed to a typical chain-of-command to experience. His continuous emphasis on developing and practicing the powers of observation not only got me successfully through my first homicide case at the age of 18, but has served me in all my pursuits to this very day, and lies at the center of my chosen craft as a story-teller.
In a later chapter of my young military life, it was Master Sergeant Mike Rathsack who became my “father-in-chief”, as I suddenly found myself stateside, with a brand new wife, and the day-to-day operational responsibility for the security of a Fighter Interceptor base at the age of twenty. Adjusting to life in the extraordinary closeness of the military-married community can be a challenge all by itself, but to have your “six o’clock” protected by a 6’7”, 250- pound “graybeard” who had served as Chief Bo’sun of both a PT boat, and a PBY amphibian in WWII was a double blessing for me and for Shirley. He and his wife literally took us under their arms, enticing us to find housing in the Puget Sound community of Mukilteo, Washington, where Mike was Commander of our crash boat. (He also taught me how to fish for Crappie in the Snohomish lake country.)
Still later, I served a brief, but somewhat dangerous “undercover” assignment in the very early days of what we now call “the drug war”, and there it was another old-timer, Master Sergeant Walter Koreyvo, an OSI Special Agent, who was my stalwart partner, teacher and protector. And the “old timer” who taught me that very few “bold” pilots get to be “old” pilots, was a soft-spoken instructor named Edmondo Roberti, who had grown both old and wise in the days of biplanes and dead reckoning.
My first serious forays into the field of wilderness travel and serious writing were inspired by the best-selling author and founder of “The Wilderness Society”, Sigurd F. Olson, who was a friend right up to his death in 1982, while it was Scott Nearing, dean of the back-to-the-land movement who was building a stone wall by hand around his half-acre garden at age 97 who left an indelible respect during my visit to his Maine homestead, where even his new stone home had been hand-crafted by him and his wife Helen, stone-by-stone, with mortar mixed in an old wheel barrow. (When asked, he informed me he thought it might take 13 years to complete the wall!)
And if today I want to know what kind of fruit will grow best here in Rockville, and the best date for planting corn. . . I will ask my friend and neighbor Orell Hirschi whose family roots and local knowledge go back to pioneer days.
Yes! I have learned over the years to pay attention to the “Old Timers” of life here on planet Earth.
Late in his life, prominent author and outdoorsman Sigurd F. Olson shares canoe route strategy with a younger Al Cooper in Minnesota’s Border Lake country, circa 1980.