One by one the letters arrived in Florida, Washington and New York. They bore New Jersey postmarks, neatly printed but nonexistent return addresses, and a powder that proved to be anthrax, a bacterium that can cause agonizing death if inhaled. One person died, and dozens were infected.
If police, federal agents and postal authorities succeed in tracking down the sender(s) of these guided missives, they will require another type of detective to find evidence linking them to the deadly envelopes.
Using techniques pioneered in the nineteenth century along with technology so new that it's still evolving, sleuths called questioned document examiners will attempt to match the handwritten words on the envelopes with known examples of the suspects' writing. They will analyze ink and paper to determine their origins and perhaps link pen and paper to any suspect. And they will peer into invisible realms to ascertain if the anthrax mailer might have written something else on top of the envelopes he or she mailed.
Most document examiners work for government agencies, but others are in private practice. One of this unsung profession's landmark cases involved the so-called Mormon Will, purportedly handwritten by the mysterious, reclusive Howard R. Hughes. Dated March 19, 1968, it was three pages long, written on yellow legal tablet with the tops ripped off, and delivered along with two envelopes and a brief note to the Clark County, Nev., courthouse by an emissary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the will earmarked most of the money for well- known charities, one bequest was startling: Melvin Dummar, owner of a Gabbs, Nev., gas station, was to receive one-sixteenth of Hughes' $2.5 billion estate.
The so-called Mormon Will was just one of 30, most hilarious or pathetic, delivered to the court after Hughes died in 1976, supposedly without leaving a will. Unlike the others, it acquired a quick veneer of authenticity when a "handwriting expert hired by a television network peered at the lined paper under a magnifying glass and pronounced it "absolutely genuine." Lawyers representing Hughes' heirs, however, hired John Harris, the legendary founding member of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, who soon determined that, like the others, it was a fake. Charities that stood to reap megabucks from its bequests nevertheless went to court repeatedly to assert the will's legitimacy. Because Hughes was such a famously improbably character, the incident inspired a Hollywood move, "Melvin and Howard," and the Mormon Will remains among the most famous forgeries.
Disputed documents are far from rare: Virtually every day in America, someone goes to court to challenge or defend the authenticity of a will, check, credit-card receipt, ledger, contract, power of attorney, bill of sale, deed, medical record, insurance policy, lease, diary or other paper record. Questioned document examiners-the term dates to the early 19th century--are experts employed to authenticate disputed papers. Some are primarily handwriting specialists. Others are particularly adept in the use of laboratory equipment to detect forgery, including analyzing and dating of ink, paper, typewriters, computer printers, faxes and photocopiers, and in revealing erasures and alterations. A tiny cohort of the profession assesses the linguistic or literary qualities of writings as a way of determining authorship.
The art of authenticating a single document can involve an array of techniques, from the almost primitive (handwriting analysis) to such advanced technologies as lasers and carbon dating.
In North America only a couple of hundred qualified examiners are in private practice. To succeed they must have patience and encyclopedic memories. Other useful traits are a suspicious nature and an appreciation of the criminal mind: If there is a way to fake a document, someone will find it.
Most examiners deal with handwriting and hand printing, typewriting comparison and authentication of legal documents. Some specialize in verification of anonymous letters, disguised writing, the detection of erasures, and alterations o disturbance of paper fibers.
One such professional is Howard Rile of Long Beach, Calif. He learned his trade as a Colorado police examiner and mastered it under the tutelage of Jack Harris, now retired. Rile notes that while many cases involve forgeries, a great many of the documents he sees are genuine.
Wills are among the most commonly disputed papers. Rile recalls one scribbled scrap of paper that began with:
loaf whole wheat
coffee regular grind
I hereby bequeath my home and its contents to (her grandson).
My other real estate goes to [a nephew] And my stock- holdings are for [a sister]
"It was a genuine document," Rile chuckles. "Now, whether or nor the elderly woman who wrote it was of sound mind-that's not a question for a document examiner."
Documents are often valuable evidence in the courts. The primary reason that people turn to document examiners is to verify signatures. "That's the bulk of what I do," says Howard Rile. "Here we are in the 21st century, still trying to prove that a person actually signed a piece of paper."
Part of a document examiner's job is educating clients, most of whom are attorneys. "The legal profession still doesn't have a clue about how technology is affecting evidence," Rile says.. For example, he notes the "widespread and naive assumption that a photocopy is a reliable copy of a missing original. Yet it's incredibly easy to manipulate photocopies--at least three techniques can be used and only one, cut-and-paste, sometimes leaves evidence of manipulation." Examiners sometimes prove that a document came from a certain photocopier by analyzing the pattern of tiny dots left by random bits of dirt on rollers, photosensitive drum and glass.
"We can discredit a signature on a photocopy, but neither I nor anyone else can say for sure that it's a true copy without the original to compare it with," he adds. "A variant of this is faxes."
He cites a recent case trying to determine the authenticity of a signature and eventually disproved its legitimacy by determining the brand of fax machine used. "The people who presented the document asserted that it came from one of three types of machines," he explains. "(In my experience) it's generally not known, but the information at the top of each page is created by the sending machine. Particular fonts may be unique to a particular brand." Accessing a research database, Rile was able to prove that the fax did not come from one of the three machines. "That tended to discredit the document," he says.
To compare questioned signatures with proven exemplars, Rile often works from huge photographic enlargements. On a workbench covered with costly, esoteric devices, such as an infrared-sensitive video display for identifying ball-point pen inks, is a faded wood box--a 75-year-old camera, still used to enlarge signatures. "We sometimes use color photos, but otherwise this is exactly the kind of work that was used in the Lindbergh (kidnapping) case in the '30s," he explains.
Most document examiners constantly update their technological expertise. One who has made the leap from the archaic world of typewriters to the latest computerized printing devices is New York's Peter Tytell, who grew up in a family of document examiners. At the 1982 tax-evasion trial of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in New York, Tytell's mother, Pearl, testified that papers showing ownership of some $1 million weren't produced until a year past their dates. Peter's 86-year-old father, Martin, is a leading authority on typewriters, learning the intricacies of the machines in his father's repair shop. At 11, Peter worked on his first document, one of his father's cases, by counting the times a certain letter appeared on each page. At 55, he has been examining documents for more than 40 years.
When the New York Post ran a Page One enlargement of a letter accompanying "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski's manifesto in 1995, it caught Tytell's eye at the newsstand. "I took a paper and handed the dealer a dollar," he recalls. "Before he made change, I knew what the letter had been written on, and the year that this model was manufactured." The FBI later confirmed it.
When an attorney was accused of over-billing, Tytell examined his time sheets. He found that entries were made by the same typewriter, which had been repaired after the penultimate entry. "One character--the hyphen--had been resoldered. After that, it hit the paper a tad higher," he explains. Examining other time sheets, Tytell saw the same pattern: early entries with drooping hyphens, late ones by the repaired machine. "The problem was that most of the late entries bore dates that were months or even years before the repair," he laughs.
Tytell once tracked down the designer of a laser-printer type font to show that the apostrophe character appearing on a questioned lease was not yet available on the date it was signed. So the landlord had added a new clause, then used the original printer with updated fonts to make a new document that he claimed was the original.
"Many of the investigative principles developed for typewriters can be used for laser printers and other modern devices," says Tytell. "For example, marks made on paper edges as they feed through a printer can often be matched to individual machines."
Miami's Linda Hart also has met the past in the present. In reviewing Dade Registrar of Voter signatures she encountered citizens who had continued to exercise their franchise long after their obituaries were published. "Apparently dead men do vote in Miami," she sighs, pointing to several forgeries. In the 25 years since she left her position as a U.S. postal investigator to become an independent document examiner, Hart has investigated many forensic mysteries. While much of her work involves distinguishing individual handwriting characteristics to identify authorship, she also employs other techniques to verify claims.
"Recently I was asked to date bearer bonds offered as collateral for a million- dollar loan," she explains. Issued by three Latin American companies and bound into three books, each bore the date when the respective company was founded, a 24-year span between oldest and newest enterprise. Hart probed paper, inks and printing processes, but after days of toil, could not determine when they were printed.
Then she observed that one book bore diagonal striations along its unbound edges, the marks of an industrial paper cutter. "When the guillotine blade drops, any burrs or nicks create a distinctive pattern in the paper," she explains. "I stacked all three on top of each other and looked at them under focused fiber-optic light. The marks were identical. Since every blade develops tiny defects over time, it was plain that all three books had been cut by the same blade at the same time--and that made them fakes."
It can't be easy living with such a good spy. Not long ago Hart noticed erasure marks on her son's school attendance record. When confronted, the boy confessed that he'd changed the number of absences because he didn't want his parents to know he'd ditched a day.
Like other examiners, Hart draws on a host of resources. One weapon in her forensic arsenal is a device invented by Scotland Yard in the 1950s. The Electrostatic Detection Apparatus reveals faint impressions left in paper by writing on the sheet above it. In the fiction of espionage, secret agents burnish the paper with a soft pencil to create a negative of the imprint. The ESDA accomplishes this without altering the original by creating an electrostatic field on the paper. When fine particles of ink are sprinkled across it, they create a permanent record of the latent impressions.
Jerry Brown, who heads the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations Laboratory, worked as a criminalist supervisor and document examiner for many years. He once used an ESDA to examine an anonymous note threatening Pope John Paul 11 during his most recent visit to the United States. In this case, the criminal mind wasn't operating on all cylinders. Impressions from the sheet above revealed a letter to the writer's mother. "At the end of the page he gave Mom his new address and phone number," chuckles Brown.
The constituents of paper often tell tales. Diane Tolliver, a 29-year veteran document examiner at the Indiana State Police Laboratory in Indianapolis, had a case involving a lawyer charged with embezzlement for cashing a check intended for his client. "The lawyer admitted taking the money, but offered a power of attorney granting him check-cashing authority," says Tolliver. Her microscope examination of the watermark, a faint, translucent impression embedded in the expensive bond paper's fiber during manufacture, revealed a code enabling the paper maker to prove the sheet had been manufactured months after the document was dated. "No way it's genuine," concluded Tolliver. A jury agreed.
The most esoteric specialty among forensic document examiners involves linguistics, the critical, qualitative and comparative analysis of language within a document. Maybe half a dozen experts practice this art in North America, one of whom is Professor Gerald McMenamin of California State University, Fresno. "A writer's choice of words, use of punctuation, spelling, grammar and sentence structure reflects his class and education," McMenamin explains. "Among the more educated, there are fewer differences," he adds, noting that these disparities often betray claims.
McMenamin recalls a case involving a man accused of molesting a child. Reviewing an unsigned letter to the victim an comparing it with other samples of the man's writings, he spotted an oddity: While writing in English, the man sometimes used Latin grammatical constructions such as "Your friend loyal." McMenamin attributes this to the man's education. "He grew up speaking Bengali, learned to speak English in India, then spent several years … studying Latin," explains McMenamin, whose insight was used to confirm the suspect's identity.
McMenamin has traced many offenders to their writing through such oddities as distinctive punctuation The text of a bomb threat, for example, contained an extra space after commas, and added two after semi- colons and periods. "When I examined one suspect's other writings, I found the same pattern," McMenamin says. Once able to focus on this suspect, police uncovered further evidence that led to a conviction. "Some who learn English as a second language may use unusual phonetic spellings," he continues. "A woman who grew up speaking Spanish was angry at her boss. She sent (anonymous) typewritten letters to several co-workers, each attributing disgusting behavior to the supervisor. In each she used the phrase, 'A beseen ya,' meaning 'I'll be seeing you.' The writer also sent a letter to herself, which is very common in this kind of case. Police never found the machine used to write the letters, but when I read her personal letters, all handwritten, several contained exactly the same phrase," McMenamin notes. Confronted with this and other similarities between her private letters and the missives to her co-workers, the woman confessed.
McMenamin once examined threatening letters that had been produced on an anonymous word processor. He noted that one suspect's business correspondence always contained exactly four paragraphs and used "boilerplate" topic sentences, with phrases such as "I have enclosed" and "I wanted to follow up." McMenamin found the same format and phrases in each offending letter. The findings became part of a case of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors used to obtain a conviction.
In one of McMenamin's more unusual cases, an Oregon man murdered his wife and disposed of her body in the Columbia River wanted police to believe that she had been abducted by a mysterious Canadian. He sent authorities a ransom note in which he effectively disguised his handwriting but still left clues. "People speaking aloud may imitate an Irish accent for a few sentences, but they can't keep it up. The same is true when they try to fake a writing style," says McMenamin. "For example, the husband spelled 'color' like a Canadian, 'c-o-l-o-u-r,' but he used American spellings everywhere else. I took that for a red herring."
In the page-and-a-half document, McMenamin found 60 "style markers"-deviations from standard usage. Among them: "to late" (for too late), "bossiness" and "confidentuality." "That was a very high number of markers, and it allowed me to demonstrate conclusively that the husband had written the letter." A jury agreed.
In addition to the anthrax-contaminated letters mailed to news organizations and lawmakers following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, since 1998 more than 200 abortion and family-planning clinics in the U.S. have received letters containing white powder and threatening notes. All proved to be hoaxes. The handwriting, paper and ink of these threatening notes, however, have given law enforcement document examiners a trove of valuable evidence.
Despite new methods of creating documents and a shift to email for much personal and office correspondence, the venerable document examiner remains in the forefront of efforts to apprehend and convict those who mail terror.
© 2011 Marvin J. Wolf
Ron Hale was in the middle of a residency in dermatology when his friends and neighbors decided that it was time for him to serve his country. This was 1965, the start of the Vietnam War buildup, and Dr. Hale accepted his draft notice and joined the Army Medical Corps.
He was sent not to Vietnam but to South Korea, where some 50,000 American soldiers were deployed to prevent resumption of the hostilities suspended in 1953. If a young doctor has not yet completed a residency, the Army almost invariably assigns him as a battalion surgeon. In wartime that would mean running an aid station where battle wounded get immediate first aid. In peacetime it means seeing patients with runny noses, sprained ankles or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Hale might have completed his service uneventfully ─ except one day several battalion officers called his attention to the unusual behavior of the battalion commander. Hale determined that this colonel urgently needed psychiatric treatment. When he refused to accept such treatment, Hale had him strapped into a straitjacket and sent to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital.
The colonel's replacement decided that he would prefer the services of another battalion surgeon. No other battalion commander would accept him, so Doc Hale became the Assistant Venereal Disease Officer for US Forces, Korea, a job where he was unlikely to order anyone put into a straitjacket.
For decades those who preceded Doc Hale in his new position had limited themselves to statistical analysis of reported disease. Hale, however, took his new job seriously. While he studied disease reports carefully, he also traveled all over South Korea to visit aid stations and speak with Army doctors and Korean physicians in communities adjacent to bases. He was shocked to discover that a quiet epidemic was raging throughout the country. US soldiers were contracting syphilis, a highly contagious and potentially fatal STD, in record numbers.
Syphilis is easily cured with penicillin. But Hale discovered that because the Army classified this inexpensive drug as a controlled substance, only a physician could prescribe it. Every dose had to be accounted for.
At the same time, Hale learned from Korean doctors, syphilis was running rampant, virtually out of control, among the local populace. There were thousands of cases, few of them reported to authorities. Because penicillin, which had to be imported from the US or Japan, was too expensive for most Koreans to afford, few cases were treated. Worse, unlicensed medical practitioners often dispensed diluted dosages of the wonder drug, creating penicillin-resistant strains of the disease.
Hale waited a few weeks until his boss, the Venereal Disease Control Officer, went on leave. As acting head of the department, he sent memos to every US Army doctor in Korea repealing all controls on penicillin. He suggested that aid stations hold sick calls in their local communities and offer penicillin to anyone who tested positive for any STD. He also shipped large quantities of penicillin to Korean hospitals and health clinics around the country, and let it be known that any doctor who wanted penicillin had only to ask at any US base.
In a month the epidemic was over.
Hale completed his military service and returned to his residency. Today he maintains a private dermatology practice in Santa Monica, California.
© 2002 Marvin J. Wolf
Softball Can Be a Great Equalizer When You're Short and Lack God-Given Skills. But You Can't Play Forever, Can You?
I toe a corner of the rubber with my cleats and bend forward, squinting to peer at the holy trinity: batter, catcher and umpire. It is a late afternoon in early winter; until my eyes adjust, the banks of lights towering above Rancho Park have little effect. Time was when I could see a camouflaged soldier turn his head at 500 yards in twilight--but that was 1959, when I was a 17-year-old grunt with 20/10 vision. Now it takes enormous concentration to focus on home plate only 50 feet distant.
It's a long time and a long way from when I picked up baseball's rudiments on the streets of Chicago. Long before Little League came to the inner city, I spent sweltering summers on vacant lots, picking glass, rubble and defecation from the weeds before each game. Bases were cardboard swiped from the corner market. Usually someone brought the essential equipment, but often we swung a broomstick at a worn tennis ball.
On the sandlots of my youth the pitcher was inevitably the tallest boy or the best athlete; but early on, I knew I would never be either. Still, I persevered. In my ninth year I went to summer camp, began to learn the intricacies of the game and came to idolize Nellie Fox, the diminutive White Sox sparkplug.
At 12, a ball smashed the bridge of my nose. The resulting twin black eyes horrified my mother, who locked away my glove and forbade me to participate until I could "play with boys your size."
My vertical growth ended at 64 inches. I went from Fairfax High School--my family moved here when I was 16--to the Army, served 13 years and did not swing a bat or throw a ball again until I was 40. I joined a group of freelancers who challenged some editors from the Herald Examiner (former daily newspaper, long since closed) to a softball game. Nobody wanted to pitch, so I tried. We lost, but by the end of the game I knew that I could become a pitcher if I worked at it.
More importantly, I realized how much I had missed the game.
This was related to a matter that I had never dared confront. When I left the service, I was married briefly, then divorced. New relationships were elusive, and I wondered if it was because I was short and tubby in a society that equates tall with good, taller with better. I thought being a soldier in Vietnam had settled the issue for me: I had made sergeant before I turned 19, won a battlefield commission, rose to captain, commanded a company of troops. The chevrons on my arms or the bars on my collar proclaimed me a man among men.
But few women seemed to care, and going without female companionship undermined my sense of manliness. Between the white lines of the diamond, however, players are what they do. I returned to the game not to meet women or to recapture the spirit of my youth, but for the feeling that comes from playing well, of being accepted by peers. Of liking myself as a man.
I know. It's crazy. And I put a lot of pressure on myself.
Softball is a hitter's game, but even in slow pitch a good hurler can keep his team in the contest, and a poor one can lose it. Rules require that balls rise above the batter's head and land in a rectangle 17 inches wide by 30 inches deep that includes home plate. For two years, several nights a week, I tossed softballs into a box. Meanwhile I found a Sunday morning pickup game. Eventually I was invited to join a coed team, the Brewjays. I practiced endlessly in my alley, but it was not until I took the field that I learned to pitch.
I began carrying a softball everywhere I went. At night I dreamed of becoming the ball, soaring out of my fingers into the wind, rising into the sky, falling toward the strike zone. I thought about each game for days afterward. For years, I hardly slept Saturday nights. In the morning I was exhausted and wanted to stay in bed.
Often, just before taking the field, I wanted to puke. I kept it all inside, put everything I had into every pitch. My teammates socialized between innings, but I coached runners or sat alone, immersed in the game.
In a late inning of my first championship game, I choked. Tired after pitching two previous games, with irresistible bubbles of fear welling up within me--fear of failing, of revealing that I was a fraud--I walked several batters, forcing in runs and putting our opponent ahead for good. Afterward I apologized to my team. "We would never have gotten this far without you," replied one teammate.
I learned to wall off fear, to stay in the moment. A year later we played the same team again for the championship, and in the final inning of the last game, with the bases loaded and no outs, I induced two pop-ups and struck out the last batter to seal a victory. Weeks later I ran into a man against whom I had often played. Tall, handsome, muscular and 20 years my junior, he shook my hand and volunteered to his wife that I was the most intimidating presence he had ever faced on a ball field. I never knew. After that I learned to relax, to stay within myself, to savor every moment.
The Brewjays wore beer T-shirts and Toronto Blue Jays caps; as years slipped by we played under different names and sponsors, two seasons a year, April to July and September to December. Players came and went, but our corps of regulars remained intact. My life shaped itself around the team--not just games but practices and trips to the batting cage. As a prolific author with several published titles, I made sure that my books were released between softball seasons.
In the spring of 2000 we won the league championship for the third time. Afterward, most of the veterans quit to focus on family or medical matters. Our new teammates were in their 20s and 30s, with little playing experience. The Mixed Nuts, as we were now called, won only one game. I hit .669, my best season ever.
In slow pitch, a hitter has an eternity to swing a bat almost 3 feet long and weighing nearly 2 pounds. Aided by graphite composites or aluminum/titanium alloys, even an average player can swat a ball well over 100 mph. It can reach the pitcher in less than the blink of an eye.
My teammates once said that I had the fastest glove in the West. Well, at least in the Westside Entertainment Softball League. I snared anything within reach, leaping to capture line drives, bounding off the pitching rubber to scoop up a hot grounder.
Every season I took a shot or two off a leg from a ball that I could neither catch nor avoid. Once my sternum stopped a liner. It voided my lungs and I blacked out momentarily. Another time a horsehide bullet crushed my groin. Woozy and rubber-legged, I retreated from the field, asked the ump for a few minutes and returned to pitch--and win.
I never thought much about it: Injuries are part of the game, I have a high tolerance for pain and my bruises heal in a week or two. But in the spring 2001 season, I was hit almost every game. After several weeks I wasn't even flinching anymore--I had accepted the inevitability of being hit. I saw then that my glove was no longer fast, that my body could not respond as once it had, that I could no longer will myself to perform. Near season's end I was hit twice in one inning. In agony, I took myself out of a game for the first time. Then I noted that my bruises took longer to heal.
Realizing that I was no longer afraid of getting hit, I knew it was time to quit. A shot to the breastbone could precipitate a coronary. I could lose an eye. I could need a new knee joint. There were books I wanted to write, places I wanted to visit. To continue playing amounted to a death wish. I was not ready to die for the sake of my manliness.
But knowing how hard it is to find a pitcher, I decided to play one more season, to try and pass along some of what I had learned to my young teammates.
Back on the field in the uncertain twilight of December 2001, I straighten up, glove high, right arm behind my body, feeling the breeze from that side. I grasp the ball palm downward, fingers along the seams, thumb below. I bring my arm up rapidly through the dull soreness of my shoulder. Despite the ibuprofen I swallowed an hour before game time, an electric jolt zaps through me as my weight lands on my left leg, residue of an injury suffered months earlier. Wincing, I slide into a crouch, gloved hand in front of my chest, watching the windblown ball's curving descent toward the plate.
Now it is the last game of that season, and the ball hurtles out of the dark to land on the front inch of the plate, an un-hittable called third strike. The batter turns away in disgust. We go on to win; I get two hits, knock in three runs, snare a line drive, make three other solid defensive plays and am awarded the game ball.
Driving home, I consider playing another season. Maybe I'll find an over-50 league. Then I remember the agony of getting out of bed on Monday mornings. I think about going hitless in my first four games, of finishing the season with a batting average barely above .300--more or less the bottom rung for softball players. I recall nearly getting thrown out at first on a single to left field and the humiliation of legs so sore and bruised that I required a pinch runner.
Safe in my driveway, I wipe my eyes and decide to listen to my intellect, let go of my emotions. The boy inside me must shut up and sit down.
From my first day, I was the oldest in the league--including umpires. In 27 seasons I missed no more than four games; no one played more. I struck out more batters than anyone and gave up fewer walks per-inning-pitched. No one pitched or won more games. Hell, nobody lost more games. I had nothing left to prove. Gehrig quit. Ryan hung 'em up. Ripken was gone. I didn't play in the majors, but, hey, I was 60 bleeping years old.
Two weeks later the playoffs begin and I return to pitch what is likely my last league game. Before we start, league commissioners Adam Rosen and Vince Crooks--both veteran players--assemble the teams. They say nice things about me and produce a cake. Atop its frosting is an icing rendering of a photo: me, my arm thrust skyward to launch the ball.
Below the picture it says "Ironman."
Players I hadn't seen in years, including Richard Martell, our former manager, turn up to say farewell. Richard takes me aside. "I've never seen anyone with less ability play as well," he tells me, not for the first time. "You don't have much talent, but you got the most out of it." It reminds me of what Yankees skipper Miller Huggins said about 1923 rookie first baseman Lou Gehrig: "Only this kid's willingness and lack of conceit will make him a ballplayer."
It's been a year since then. I wear glasses now, and while I often join a Sunday morning pickup game, I haven't returned to visit my old team. I know that I'd want to play, and that I can't. But I'll always remember my last league at-bat, when I singled to center.
Take that, Ripken.
January 12, 2003|Marvin J. Wolf | Los Angeles Times Magazine. Marvin J. Wolf last wrote for the magazine about the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The truck lurched off into the twilight, and we gathered in the road, eleven recruits in the last week of Army basic training. Self, the squad leader, handed me a map and compass.
"You get this land navigation stuff, right, General?"
I hated the nickname, but it was my own fault. After years of high school ROTC, from day one in the real Army I acted like I knew everything the other recruits were struggling to learn.
Everything except when to shut up.
I spread the map on the ground. As men gathered around, I oriented myself on the terrain. "We’re here," I said, pointing.
"We need to get there." I pointed again. Folding the map, I used an edge as a straight line between spots, about 14 grid squares—8.5 miles—apart. I laid the compass along this line, turned the map until the arrow settled.
“Azimuth 32 degrees," I said. A little east of due north. “That way.”
"Let's go," said Self, and we moved into the woods. Soon we came to a clearing; as the point man plunged ahead, I called "Halt!"
We’d been trained never to cross open spaces without checking the far side. "Might be Aggressors over there," I said.
Armies train to re-fight their last war; a few years earlier, in Korea, many US units had been cut off by a surprise Chinese offensive. Soldiers survived in small groups that stealthily picked their way back through enemy lines. That was our exercise: Escape from behind “enemy lines” by applying land navigation techniques. Barring our way were "Aggressors"—GIs in distinctive uniforms. They carried a license to be brutal. Anyone caught went to a kind of “training” POW camp; Aggressors wouldn’t kill or maim us but they could do almost anything else.
"Someone should recon the far side," I said.
Self glanced around. "You go," he said.
He took the map and compass and I low-crawled across the clearing, edging into the woods, listening and looking. When I was sure that it was safe, I walked back.
The grove was empty. I searched quietly, listening, but my squad was gone.
Captured by Aggressors, I assumed, wondering why I’d heard nothing.
I was alone in a wilderness of rattlesnakes, mountain lions, coyotes and 200 Aggressors.
I had no weapon, no compass, no map, no food.
Fighting panic, I took several deep breaths, then sat down and went through my pockets, as my dad, a Scoutmaster, had taught me. I had a folding knife, a handkerchief, matches, a full canteen and a poncho secured with a bootlace.
Waiting for darkness, I told myself that I would be fine if I didn’t surrender to the terror within me. When stars became visible, I used the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star. My azimuth lay just right of that, a hair east of north. I did the math in my head: I had to cover 8.5 miles. My stride, I knew from high school, averaged 30 inches, 2.5 feet, so forty paces was about 100 feet.
I set out; after 120 paces—a hundred yards—I stopped to listen and tied a knot in the bootlace. A mile was about 18 knots; at 150 I should be near my objective. A full moon rose, casting eerie shadows. Nearby a coyote howled. Then another and another. Chills tap-danced up my spine. Would coyotes attack a lone man? I didn't want to find out.
As I hiked the hills flattened; pine and redwood gave way to scrub oak, chaparral and sage. I avoided game trails, detoured around clearings, trail junctions and other danger spots, always returning to my azimuth. When I’d tied 17 knots, I came to a road and stopped to listen.
Halfway across I heard an engine’s muted throb. A shaft of light stabbed the brush. I went flat under a sticky canopy of chaparral as a darkened jeep rolled by. Laughing, Aggressors probed the hillside with a searchlight.
I had no watch, but the moon's arc gave me a sense of time. On and on I went, counting paces, tying knots—until a sudden breeze brought the odor of burning tobacco.
I knelt on rubber knees, scanning the darkness, hearing myself breathe, listening to the kettledrum in my chest. I heard the clatter of metal on metal, the murmur of voices. A man screamed—one long, continuous cry.
Then raucous laughter.
My blood ran cold.
I crept forward. The silence was shattered by the ear-splitting yammer of a machinegun. Muzzle flashes silhouetted nearby gunners in ridged Aggressor helmets.
I went flat, stopped crawling. Suddenly it was quiet.
I heard the clink of belted cartridges: a gunner reloading. A dark shape left the gun pit, stopped near where I lay. A sloshing sound, then the acrid stench of urea filled my nostrils.
When the gun resumed its stuttering roar, I crawled as fast as I could, skinning elbows and knees on my way to a copse of stunted pine. Shaking, I stood, then edged forward. To my left was a barbed wire enclosure with guard towers, searchlights and Aggressors screaming obscenities at men doing sit-ups and pushups in a muddy quagmire.
In movies this is where the hero rescues his buddies. I never considered it. Unarmed, alone and scared, I felt that I’d be lucky to save myself.
Circling the camp, I crept between two more gun pits. A cigarette glowed in the dark. I smelled after-shave. When the firing stopped, I heard the distinctive click of red-hot metal cooling—the gun barrel.
I crept toward a rise until a shadowy man and leashed dog appeared on the crest. The shepherd barked, rousing a canine chorus behind me. I froze, praying that they wouldn't catch my scent.
I moved left, upwind, bent double, running hard.
When the camp was far behind me, I found Polaris and resumed my course.
After a long while I topped a grassy slope. The low moon lit a dirt track. I went prone in the tall grass as I fingered my bootlace, counting: 147 knots. To my left, near the track, stood a large tent with a jeep in front, hood raised.
I crept forward until I could read the white stenciling on its bumper: HQ-9-3.
HQ Company, Ninth Battle Group, Third Brigade.
A pair of legs protruded from the jeep’s hood. Then a trunk and head emerged from the open engine compartment. The man turned — and jerked backward in fright when he saw me.
"Where the hell did you come from?" said the sergeant. "You scared me half to death!"
I held the flashlight while he attached wires to the jeep's generator. He started the engine and the tent glowed.
"There’s coffee inside," he said. "A debriefing team will be along soon."
Before midnight I’d showered and was asleep in the deserted squad room. The rest of my squad arrived at sunup, exhausted, filthy with mud, cursing the Aggressors.
Nobody said a word to me about the preceding night.
After graduation we dispersed to units and schools worldwide. Along with others from my company, but no one from my squad, I went on for advanced infantry training.
I rarely thought about that night until an afternoon in 1967 when I encountered a captain outside the Ft. Benning Officers Club. There was something familiar about him; as he returned my salute, I glanced at his name tag.
We turned back at the same time.
"General!" he said.
It was my old squad leader, Self.
Over beer we reprised our respective careers. He’d gone to OCS, made captain three years before and was headed for Vietnam. I’d finished my first hitch as a sergeant, left the Army, returned three years later as a private. Now, just back from Vietnam, I was a second lieutenant.
He asked what OCS class I attended; I said that I never went; I was commissioned from the ranks. In Vietnam.
"A battlefield commission?" he gasped. “The Army still does that?”
I nodded, yes, then confided ambivalence about my new status. War had altered my perspectives; I wasn't sure if I was up to an officer’s responsibilities.
Finally we talked about Basic Training.
"Some of us were a little worried when you didn't turn up at the Aggressor POW camp," Self said. "How did you get back to the barracks?"
"I found the objective and the debriefing team brought me back," I replied.
Self stared, incredulous.
"They didn’t get you? You made it through alone?"
I nodded, yes.
“I guess we underestimated you,” he sighed, then finished his beer in one long swallow.
"It was the swagger stick," he said. "At the Open House."
Because of my ROTC experience, I’d been put in charge of a drill team; we strutted our stuff in front of hundreds of visiting family members. Swagger stick tucked under my arm, I was a celebrity for ten minutes.
But now I was mystified. "What about it?"
"The stick was the last straw. That's why we ditched you."
It had never occurred to me that I’d been abandoned.
"You were like Joseph with his coat of many colors. You knew everything better than anyone else. And then that stick. You were just a kid—what, 18?"
"And so full of yourself—insufferable! You crawled off and someone said, 'We've got the map and compass, let's split.’ We thought you’d get caught and the Aggressors would fix you good. Couple of times before, we’d talked about giving you a blanket party. This was better."
Throw an Army blanket over someone so he can’t identify the men kicking and punching him. That’s a blanket party.
I didn’t know what to say.
We shook hands and went our separate ways.
And when I calmed down, I realized that Self was right. My first months in uniform, a soft, baby-faced, five-foot recruit in an Army of tough six-footers, I was terrified of failure. How could I compete with bigger, stronger men? So I played know-it-all, too dumb to know how others saw me, insensitive to their feelings, unable to imagine that they could feel just as scared and inadequate as me.
Performing under pressure on that night alone in the wilderness did wonders for my self-confidence: When I left Ft. Ord, I finally felt worthy of my uniform.
At 17, Joseph flaunted his gifts and his ten jealous brothers sold him into slavery. When he realized his shortcomings, he forgave them and accepted his ordeal as necessary to prepare the way for his family's survival.
I forgave my Army buddies, who, like Joseph’s brothers, forced me to prove myself.
And long years later, reading the Bible, I discovered the importance of names. In Hebrew, Joseph means "to put in." He put all 70 Hebrews into Egypt.
Moses means "to draw out." He drew the Hebrews, by then a nation, out of slavery. Out of Egypt.
Could it be only coincidence that, at that turning point in my life, when I sought to find myself, the man who revealed my secret past, pointing the way to understanding, acceptance and self-confidence, was named Self?
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.