It’s Memorial Day Weekend. The television, radio, stores, & social media are flooded with reminders. The BBQ’s are all but fired up, and it won’t be long and the celebratory photos will make their way onto facebook. MY “exciting” plans involve weeding the backyard and planting a few flowers around the patio, and then perhaps to sit back in my chair and enjoy the beauty of the rosebush Dad & I planted about 14 years ago. Dad loved rosebushes.
But I can’t start enjoying the Memorial Day weekend without thinking of three of my favorite veterans, and closest of friends. I’d love to tell you about them! Why? Because they have been significant people in my life, who the very thought of makes me laugh out loud. And, well, because I think they are pretty cool, and I think you will think so too! Let’s start with how I met Steve, Ken, and Skip, shall we?
It was a 22-hour flight to Seoul, Korea, most of which I spent in tears, seated next to a woman who was knitting almost the entire time, and her needles poked me constantly during the entire flight. I didn’t want to go to Korea. I wanted to go to Italy. I had just finished an intense year-long course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California , learning how to speak, write, think, (and eat), Italian. (Eating Italian was, of course, my favorite part). But for reasons that would involve an entirely “different” story (for another day) – my orders to Naples, Italy, had been last-minute changed to Seoul, Korea (and that was, shall we say, “final!”). So off I flew across the “wrong” ocean…….. in tears…..
For a year I anticipated with excitement the sounds of Italy, the smell of spaghetti sauce, the romance of the Italian men… (Yep, I sure did). But as I made my way onto the bus that would take me into Yong San, the smell of kimchi reminded me of the year I wasted learning how to speak Italian, and all I could think of was counting down the days until I could return to the United States…..365……
My job in Yong San was doing administrative work for a Military Police Brigade Headquarters. Much of that work would be done on a machine called a “magnetic card reader,” which made an obscene amount of noise, which annoyed my boss, Captain Duncan, so badly that he eventually moved me AND my machine into a bathroom. In about a 7-day period, he had managed to send me home in tears every day, and to this day, 29 years later, he remains the example to me of how NEVER to treat someone. You see, he was an officer, and I was an enlisted person. He spoke to me as if I were not worthy of being in the same room as him. He had the AUDACITY to “snoop” into my medical records, and he would demand information from me that was none of his business. Eventually, he wanted me moved out of his office to any location other than where HE was – With, of course, the continued use of my time and job skills – so long as he did not have to see or hear me.
When Ken Campbell and Skip Kouis, also from the same MP Brigade, got wind of this, they spoke with their boss, Captain Nihiser, and requested that I join the three of them. All the way across the street meant Captain Duncan no longer had to look at me, or listen to the annoying clatter coming from that magnetic card reader. It also meant he could “send” my work across the street to me.
So both Ken and Skip helped me lug my big machine across the street, into the hut, and then further into a small office inside of that hut. (Yes, you may picture the MASH show at this point!)
The door to that little office opened, and the adventures began…….. And believe me, there is not enough room on this blog for them. So, I’ll just tell you a few.
Meet Captain Steve Nihiser (now Colonel Nihiser). He was “The Boss.” He had the work ethic of my Dad – and there’s not many people I can say that about. Like the Captain who had me sent away from his office – CPT Nihiser was also an officer. But he treated me with an incredible amount of respect. My desk would face his for the next two years. (Yes, 2 years – Because I loved working with these 3 guys so much, that I begged to stay an extra year!) CPT Nihiser was a WORK-A-HOLIC, and we often had to MAKE him go home. He had an awesome sense of humor, loved playing jokes on people, and by the time I left Korea, I had typed for him an entire wall of plans and exercises for the US Army in the Repubic of Korea. CPT Nihiser (“Steve”) always brought Korean candy to the office, was always buying us lunch or bringing us gifts. And he put yellow sticky notes EVERYWHERE!!!! EVERYWHERE!!! One day, we got underneath his desk, taped it shut, and could hardly keep from laughing as we watched him try to get in all of the drawers to find his sticky note pads…. He was the best “boss” I have EVER had in my life, always pushing us to improve ourselves, pushing us to continue school, making sure that we had a place to spend each holiday while away from home, and never, ever treated us as though we were “less of a person” because he was an officer and we were enlisted. And for THAT reason alone, 29 years later, he is someone I will always respect. CPT Nihiser taught me how to look at people as people, and to treat them how I would want to be treated. He taught me how to treat people with respect, and how to appreciate them and show them that appreciation. The fact that I compare him to my Dad, should speak volumes of him, because my Dad was the best guy that ever lived. 😉
And now, I would like you to meet SSG Campbell, “Ken,” or “the team.” (I’m not sure why we called him that) Ken and I became good friends, like brother and sister. He was always playing jokes on me – Jokes that ranged from filling my desk drawer with dead locusts to secretly slipping a mouthful of kimchi into my hamburger at one of our office BBQ’s. Ken would frequently call people and play jokes saying he was a guy named “Sam” and get us into all kinds of trouble! And months after I moved across the street into that office, Ken and I would sit on the floor and evesdrop through a hole in the wall, and listen to CPT Duncan talk about the plans he had to sabotage my work day so that I would have to do HIS work in MY office. (Ah, but we were on to him!) CPT Duncan would frequently open the door to our office and threaten to report us for the door being unlocked, and having secret documents in our office. So Ken and I were forced then to create an “alarm system” that consisted of pop cans tied on strings, and then swung up onto the ceiling. From then on, when CPT Duncan would boldly and arrogantly open the door hoping to catch us with our feet up on the desk, just loafing around, (which rarely was the case) – the pop cans would come violently falling down, loudly clanging and hitting CPT Duncan, causing him to become frustrated, and yes……. highly embarrassed. (Then, we would secretly laugh our butts off!) (Steve – Did you know about these shanannigans of ourse???) Ken and I have remained in touch, and always stayed close friends. We have been back and forth to see each other several times. He knows my sons pretty well, and I was even able to promote Ken to SFC when we were both stationed in Northern California back in the late 80’s.
And of course, our Skip. Oh Skip. Skip was like a Dad to me in that office. He was as much of a jokester as Ken, but when we were alone, he was serious, and would talk to me like a father talks to a daughter. He was a teddy bear. Skip’s wife would give him only about $5 a week. He was THEE most frugal man I’ve ever known. He would take that $5 and stick it in the safe in our office (in between top secret documents :), in an envelope labeled “Skip’s Mad Money.” He would save all year until our yearly trip to Pusan, where he would take his “stash” and he and Ken would go out on the town and have a little bit too much fun 😉 During the year, he would be the source of loans for many soldiers, and would charge interest. (You didn’t think he would get far with $60, did you?) He would also eat left-overs, “re-pop” popcorn kernels, and would take hand-outs of food from everyone. He would NOT TOUCH his weekly allowance. Pusan was the goal…. the prize….. He had to save for it. Two of my favorite memories of Skip are once during an alert when I was sitting next to a window, he went outside, stuck his hand in from the outside and tried to grab me. (Yes, I wanted to kill him!). My other favorite memory was a day we spent driving for hours around Seoul looking for a Korean base, only to realize we had never gone anywhere, so we drove in circles at the end of a street about 30 times while a group of old men watched us and laughed. We just looked straight ahead, no smiles. (Yeah, you had to be there). Skip was silly.
Skip passed away a couple of years ago, but called me at work just hours before. He wanted to know my Dad’s first name, and said that he wanted to tell him that I was okay, when he got to heaven. He also told me that he knew Jesus, and said he wasn’t sure why we had never talked about him before, but that he wanted to make sure I knew Jesus too. I assured him that I did, and that I wondered why we had never talked about Jesus before too. We just laughed, and Skip promised that we would talk about Him the next day when we spoke. But Skip died the next day. I’ll never forget that conversation. Skip was a true friend. He wanted to make sure I knew Jesus. Wow. (You know what? I want to be as good of a friend to MY friends, as Skip was to me!)
Decades later, and I can tell countless stories, recall some of my most cherished memories from these three guys. They are truly the finest (and yes, the goofiest too).
But in those two years, in that tiny little office, I learned how to work very hard, and to enjoy my work. I learned how to treat people. (And I learned how NOT to treat people). I learned how to lead, and not push. And I learned how to have a really good time. There simply is not enough room to include all of the memories. But I cannot let this Memorial Day weekend pass by without telling Steve and Ken how much I love and appreciate them, and to tell Francine, Skip’s wife, how much I loved Skip, and love her too.
We have shared ups and downs over the years, marriages, divorces, births of our children, illnesses, and deaths. In 2008, we all gathered together one last time in Honolulu, Hawaii where Steve now lives. Skip even made the trip despite going through chemotherapy while battling his cancer and fighting off a pneumonia.
In this life, sometimes we get to meet some mighty fine folks. And in 1986, I met three of the finest friends God has ever blessed me with. And that tearful 22-hour flight on my way to Seoul? Yeah – The 22-hour flight home was the same – Sad and tearful…. And I NEVER would have anticipated THAT when I stepped off the plane two years earlier.
Time for another reunion…..
I’ll probably have to edit this 100 times……..
This is me, promoting Ken to SFC. (I still have his old rank!)
Circa 1986 – Skip (left) and CPT Nihiser (middle), presenting me with an award (a silly one), in our teeny tiny little office.
Skip. He gave Steve this photo, and signed it, “Sometimes, all you can do is salute and say, ‘Yes Sir!'” Miss you Skip ;(