By Tom Demerly.

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Statistics say I will die 9,563 days from today. On Tuesday, March 11, 2042. Sometime before midnight. That seems like a fine time to go.

That is 229,514 hours and 5 minutes from now.

It is likely I will die from a heart problem or a stroke. I’ve had heart surgery and I am a stroke survivor. Those two factors predispose me to that death. There is no history of cancer in my family, so I probably won’t die from that. Although I ride a bicycle on the road and do other things considered risky, I probably won’t die in an accident. I’ve already survived things you would not believe. I have a proven track record of moderating objective risk.

So that is how, and when, I will probably die.

Knowing that, the most important thing to consider is, what should I do with those 9,563 days remaining? And, what will happen to me after I die? Since today is my birthday I thought I should devote some thought to those two things over coffee before I go to work.

I learned a long time ago a simple way to manage life. Divide everything into two categories:

  1. Things we can control, things that lie in our “Sphere of influence”. 
  1. Things we can’t control, those that lie outside our sphere of influence.

Spend all your time with number 1, and never worry about number 2.

Having learned that I spend almost no time thinking about what will happen after I die. Frankly, I have no idea. None of us do. Instead, I think about what is going to happen for the next 9,563 days.

There are specific things I want to accomplish; goals, activities. They aren’t some tick-mark “bucket list”. I deplore that concept because I think people who make those lists get about as far as making the list, but never accomplish anything on them. Instead, I make decisions that steer me in the direction of things I aspire too. They range from small decisions, made throughout the day against a set of personal priorities, to the big decisions we face only a few times in our lives.

I’ve gotten a couple of those wrong.

People ask, “If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?” Some people are wise, lucky, lie or are stupid and say, “Nothing”. I would do a couple of things differently. Knowing that I can make better decisions over these next 9,563 days.

It took 19,354 days to figure that out. Obviously, I’m a slow learner.

There are a few things I’ve gotten right. I’ve traveled the world. That changed my life. I joined the military. I went to school. I loved a girl. I developed an appreciation for animals. I did what Steve Jobs said in his landmark speech on June 14, 2005 at Stanford University, “…Follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

I’ve also learned that Steve’s quote was made by a man who usually enjoyed the luxury of choice. Sometimes, we don’t have that luxury. So we have to spend time doing what we need to just to survive. But all the while, we must remain faithful to our heart and intuition.

In 2002 I stood in John McCain’s prison cell in the Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” in Vietnam. It was a dreadful, horrific space that made your skin crawl. I stood there for less than a minute, enough to survey the walls, the floor, the ceiling. Then I stepped into the prison courtyard and looked up to the sky. Freedom. Freedom.

In Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school in the military I learned a lesson John McCain employed in the Hanoi Hilton. Every day no matter what, do something small to prepare for the future you want. No matter how small it is, no matter how seemingly insignificant, do something. Move forward. Advance toward the life you want. We may never survive to see that life, but we lived in pursuit of it. And then, live we did.

What happens when we die? I have no idea. I’ve seen several people die. Some die pleading for another moment, regressing into terror and panic. One man died quietly in front of me, slipping away, his last words unintelligible. I tried to help him, it did not work. I’ve seen others die in an instant so that, to this day, they have no idea they are even dead. One second fully alive, the next second… poof. It makes you marvel at the fragility of our lives. I won’t be around after I die, so I don’t worry about it.

Instead, I worry about what good I can do for the next 9,563 days. Starting today.

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.

Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

Native American Chief Tecumseh, Victor in the first Siege of Detroit in August, 1812.

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By Tom Demerly.

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Every morning I go for a walk, and this is what I see. I live in Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

I’ve been everywhere. All seven continents, lived around the U.S. and outside the U.S. But this is home. For better and for worse, this is home.

Dearborn Heights is next to Dearborn, an oddly shaped city that surrounds Dearborn itself. I wanted to live in Dearborn when I moved back here from California, but I missed Dearborn by about four city blocks. I can see it right up the road. Dearborn is generally considered a slightly better city than Dearborn Heights. Better city services, larger city government (which isn’t always good) and hometown to Ford Motor Company. Having Ford in Dearborn is important because they give back so much to the city. They built a community center, maintain vast areas of real estate and contribute to The Henry Ford, a large museum complex in the center of Dearborn. Dearborn is also home to one of the largest Arab-American populations in the U.S., another thing that adds to its diversity and uniqueness. It’s an international small town.

In Dearborn and Dearborn Heights everyone knows each other. When I moved back I called a good friend named Mark, who is a local teacher and the most solid of guys. He knows everyone. I told him I needed a place to live. He called a friend, the friend called me, and half an hour later I had a big house to live in for half of what I was paying for a three room apartment in California. There was no paperwork, no application, no red tape. That’s a big part of why I live here. We get stuff done here.

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My neighborhood is strange. It has one foot in the recession that destroyed Southeastern Michigan and drove Detroit to bankruptcy and another foot in the economic recovery. We were first to enter the recession and are slow pulling out because we hit bottom so hard. The two houses you see above are an example. They are right across the street from one another. One is a new, beautiful house with a Cadillac in the driveway, the other pretty run-down with an older Ford F150 and a Saturn, one of the companies that went bankrupt, in the driveway. One foot still in the recession, one foot in recovery.

Houses can be cheap here. Some sold for $30,000, which is about what mine might have been worth. They were mostly sold out of foreclosure. Some still remain, but property values are climbing and old houses are being fixed up or torn down, and new ones built.

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We like flags here in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights. Lots of flags. Mostly American flags, but some others too. People fly flags for a few reasons. When you fly the same flag as your neighbor you are putting up a sign that says, “I share your beliefs and values. This is a place we can live together in shared understanding.”

Some people fly flags simply because they look nice, or the other neighbors are doing it. The man up the street from me flies one because he is a U.S. Marine who has been to Iraq twice. For some, the flag brings us together. For a few, the flag is a sign that says “These are my beliefs, do not challenge them.”

There are more than a few Gadsden flags here. The Gadsden flag is a historic U.S. flag from the American Revolution in 1775. It  symbolizes what some people feel is a need to return to older, more original American values. It has a clear message of defiance on it: “Don’t Tread On Me”. The Gadsden flag isn’t particularly endearing. It suggests rebellion. These people don’t want government telling them what to do. The Gadsden flags are a little ominous. A little… too much. I worry that the people who fly them may be so connected to older ideas they aren’t willing to consider new ones. But they still fly here, not too many, but enough to notice.

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The yards in my neighborhood are enormous. There is plenty of room between houses so no one feels cramped, and when we see our neighbors we actually value chatting with them since we aren’t all crammed together.  In California so many of us lived so tightly packed together all we wanted was privacy and solitude. Here we have room to breath.

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Because we have a lot of room between houses and nice trees we have two kinds of friendly squirrels, the exotic black squirrel and the more common red squirrel. They are quite tame and if you feed them long enough on your porch they will let you pet them. My cats sit in the window every morning to check on the squirrels.

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A lot of people here work in the car industry, mostly for Ford Motor Company because their huge manufacturing facilities are close to here and their world headquarters is nearby. Because of that we mostly drive Fords here. There are three kinds of Fords you see commonly: The old, used Ford like I have. People usually paid cash for these. The very new, super nice Ford that someone gets from their job at World Headquarters as a company car. That’s a big perk around here. And there is the new Ford that someone bought and is paying through the nose for.  Those are the ones we make money from, so God bless those people.

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This is what our houses mostly look like. Mine isn’t this nice, but pretty close. Depending on where you live this is either a pretty modest house, if you are reading this from Los Angeles or Mission Viejo, or it is an absolute palace if you are reading this from Mogadishu or Bangladesh.

The truth is, this is all the house we need. People raise three and four kids in these. I live in mine with just my two cats because I like to have plenty of room to myself. I often tell myself that when I am earning big bucks as a famous author I will still live here, but travel around the world frequently and hire someone to come to my house and look after my cats when I am away on trips. I used to do that, and my friend Mario looked after my cats, before I lost everything in the recession.

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We rake our leaves into the street during fall and men in trucks from the city come to pick them up. When I was a kid we would have huge bonfires in the street but we stopped that because of the smoke. This year the snow came before the leaves are all down so it looks like we will have another long, cold, snowy winter.

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The streets and sidewalks here are wide and spacious. We don’t have traffic jams. When people need to pass in a tight spot going opposite ways, one person knows to stop and let the other through. Since there is not much traffic it is a great place to run and ride outside. When I run I just run right out in the street, like I were in a race. That is impossible in a lot of places.

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Winter is here in Dearborn Heights now and it is cold and grey, which I like. Having seasons is important since it places clear boundaries between years. Our lives are delineated in time segments that are synchronized with the seasons; in summer we spend time outside, in the fall we have Halloween and Thanksgiving. The leaves turn and the first snow falls. Kids go back to school and business quiets down before the holiday rush. The winter settles in, and it is three rough, cold, dark months. Then spring comes. In spring 40 degrees feels like 70 degrees. We look forward to the sun because we don’t see it all the time. Rain falls, thunder comes, the moon shines and the grass grows. Leaves come out and trees fill in, absorbing light and sound and making our neighborhood quiet and restful.

That is the extent of what I see on my morning walk. It is neither exotic nor exciting. It is home and it is filled with real people living a real life that makes up the fabric of the American Midwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

The single biggest factor controlling our endurance athletic performance is our weight. Most recreational athletes are overweight. I am.

You can still race and be overweight but it makes your racing less pleasant and harder on your health.

There is a psychological component to our participation in triathlons and especially long distance events like Ironman when we are overweight. Our inner voice tells us, “If I can get through Ironman and still be overweight I get a pass on being overweight because I finished Ironman.”

That is shortsighted and dangerous. The reality is we need to be healthy first, and being overweight and doing Ironman is not just slow, it’s dangerous and unhealthy.

There are two truths to losing weight:

  1. The motive must be entirely and exclusively internal. You have to want it. 
  1. It isn’t easy because it is a long, gradual process that never ends.

Here are the steps (not quick tips) for losing weight, especially in the off season:

1. Start Today.

Don’t put off weight loss. Start now (right now, as you are reading this) and adopt small, tangible steps toward controlling your weight

2. Recognize the Two Factors in Weight Loss.

Weight loss is simple: You must burn more calories than you consume. When you do, you will lose weight. That’s it. Start there. Your weight loss needs to contain two simple components: Knowing how many calories you eat and knowing how many you burn. The first number needs to be smaller than the second. It’s that simple.

3. Keep Track.

If you keep a simple, easily accessible record of your weight on a daily basis you will hold yourself accountable. Better yet, you will see the progress you are making and it will further motivate you.

Using a written graph is most effective when it is on the front of your refrigerator, and your scale is next to your refrigerator. This links the two activities: food and weight. Having your scale and a record of your weight in your kitchen is one of the best decisions you can make toward losing weight.

4. Make Weight Loss a Priority.

You will only succeed if this is a priority. That means putting it before everything else. You have kids and a career you say? Everyone does. And that inability or unwillingness to prioritize weight loss first is one of many factors that keep us fat. When you re-orient your priorities to weight loss you will see benefits in every other aspect of your life from weight loss and a healthier, more disciplined lifestyle.

5. Don’t Get Weighed Down by Superfluous Details.

Your mission is to lose weight, and losing weight is simple. You could read this article, make a decision and start losing weight today without spending a penny or reading anything else. You can, Just Do It.

Avoid distraction by the incredible number of gadgets, foods, programs, books, diets, videos and other distractions that make weight loss appear more difficult than it is. You already know the difference between healthy food and junk food. Don’t eat junk. It’s that simple. You know exercise burns calories. Exercise. Do something. Don’t do nothing.

You don’t need tons of gadgets, coaches, fitness routines. You need to go outside and go for a walk. Then another. Then another. Then another. And keep walking until you are seeing the weight come off. Then start running. And riding.

Are there disclaimers and exceptions? Yes. But you likely aren’t one. So stop the excuses and focus on possibilities instead of limitations.

That’s it. Loose weight and triathlons will be easier and you will be faster and healthier and enjoy the sport more.

 

By Tom Demerly.

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The Pro-ser

Prosers race as a “pro”. They may have won Ironman Istanbul and the attendant $184.23 USD prize money after spending $5000+ to get there. They never go more than five sentences in conversation without mentioning they are “racing pro” or “used to race pro”.

Prosers complain incessantly about how the pros are treated by WTC. They remind you they always get a discount- since they’re pro. They have a day job, but did I mention? They are a Pro… And by the way, they are looking for sponsorship, a home-stay and a free meal- and they coach, here’s their website. And Twitter. And Facebook. And Instagram. And Pinterest. So you can see how Pro they are.

Prosers have weighed down the sport with their Walter Mitty, self-feeding super reality. Festooned in sponsors’ logos they never give anything back to, the proser is to the selfie as Van Gogh is to the landscape. It is their medium.

What good can you say about the proser? Well, every triathlon community has one, and usually only one. Except for Boulder, Tucson and San Diego, prosers are territorial. Those places are their winter mating grounds. Prosers are like a living, breathing Strava segment since their over-the-top countenance makes you want to catch them on the bike, beat them in the pool and stay with them on the run. Say what you will about the proser (and I have) but they push us. They keep the bar up for the rest of us while reminding us of how incredibly lame we can truly be without an occasional ego check.


The Pro

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Pretty obvious: Races for the win. Has won. They’re not like you and I. They are so otherworldly fast it’s tough to imagine. The bike speed of Andrew Starykowicz at Ironman Florida: 112 miles in 4:02:17. That’s an average of 27.73 miles per hour- for over a hundred miles. That’s alien. The courage of Sebastien Kienle; going off the front at Ironman on the bike- and never looking back. With courage like that he probably needs special tri shorts.

If you put previous winner Chrissie Wellington between the sun and you, the light would shine through her she is so skinny. The miles Pros put in would be fatal for us. Phenomenon Mirinda Carfrae makes running in Kona look so effortless it is weird to remember how awful we feel off the bike. Most of us couldn’t get our knees that high on any run, let alone at Ironman with a 6:30 pace.

The downside of being a pro is triathletes don’t remember anyone but the winner. Ask a triathlete who won the Ironman World Championship last year. Ask who was third. Because triathlon is a participant sport the people who finish often have no idea who won overall. Triathletes are participants, not fans. We don’t give our pros a very high pedestal. We prefer to have one of our own.


The Warrior

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Something bad happened to them. Lost a leg. Lost both legs. Lost a family member. Had a disease. When they cross the finish line at Ironman it will cast away their demons of affliction, addiction, depravation, crucifixion. Ironman is the filter through which they must pass. It sets them free. A Warrior is just as likely to win their age category as they are to barely make the midnight cut-off. Never, ever count out The Warrior.

The Warrior deserves most of the credit for the success of our sport in the modern era. Without their use of Ironman as a medium of exposure our sport would not be where it is. No other sport has Warriors like Ironman does. Their stories have inspired us. They serve as an adult version of the speech your parents gave you about children starving in Africa. Their message is clear and relevant: Use what you have while you have it. Life and vitality are ephemeral gifts not to be squandered. When you see a warrior, thank them.

An Olympic Gold Medalist may mention a charity, may have overcome a tragedy, but that is an accessory to their performance. For the warrior, their Ironman performance is an accessory to the cross they bear. For the Warrior, it is all about what brought them to the start line, and getting to the finish line. The Warrior reminds us that Anything is Possible, and Ironman is the filter through which they must pass to achieve redemption.


The Super-Grouper

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The soft-spoken, amazingly fast people in the age groups: The Super-Groupers. They surprise us with their results. Races because they love the sport. Probably been doing it for a while, may have been to Kona before. Reserved about their accomplishments but turn in great races while trying to balance their racing and training against that ephemeral annoyance called “normal life”. You never know how fast they are until one day you look for them on the results page, and then you’re blown away. This is the unassuming girl or guy who kicks butt and finishes in 9 hours, 10 hours, 11 hours, 12 hours, 13 hours.

When you go on a training ride with them, you bleed through your eyes. They are often unassuming in appearance. I know an average looking lad who went 9:50 something at Ironman Arizona while he kept his day job. Another Player I know is a top-level exec for an automaker. He kicks butt at Ironman and seldom mentions it. I saw him out on a training ride one day and had a tough time catching up to him on his bike. In my car.

Super-groupers often ride an inexpensive bike from five model years ago, use off-brand aero wheels, have served as President of the local tri club and volunteered at races when they weren’t racing. They are givers and quiet local heroes contributing to athletes around them in ways we often never realize. And they still kick butt on race day.


The Struggler

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They may not belong in Kona, but they are in Kona. And God bless them. Julie Moss is the original Struggler, and she put our sport on the map. Without enough training, with bad equipment and even worse race nutrition they somehow make the cutoff. These are the real “Ironmen”, and by God, they earned the tattoo. The citizen athletes. They will take 40 electrolyte tablets in a race but not drink more than a water bottle per hour and then wonder why they cramped on the run, but run they will. All the way to the finish. They finish in the hour before the cut off, the best hour of the day at Ironman.

When you ask, “What did you eat on the bike?” They answer casually, “63 salt tablets, a can of tuna, a bottle of NutraSludge, eight soggy Fig Newton’s and a GU.” And they wonder why they had G.I. issues that rival an above ground nuclear test.

Ask them how their race went and they’ll tell you, “I shit, peed, barfed, cried and even high fived myself. It was awesome!”

You think the pros are tough? They have been showered, eaten a meal and had their feet up for five hours by the time these girls and guys drag their pee, barf, mucus, energy gel and poop encrusted bodies across the finish line. They are the real Iron(wo)men. And the next morning they line up to register for next years’ race.

The Strugglers are the finishers who make our sport great. The Strugglers are the everyman with so much passion in their heart for Ironman they make it on almost entirely guts, really weird race nutrition and very little training.

 

By Tom Demerly.

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I collect promotional e-mails. I love the medium. I’m fascinated by it. I love the good ones and am entertained by the bad ones. Every once in a while, but rarely, I’m inspired by one. Here are 4 promotional e-mails, 3 are very good, 1 is a disaster that will drive away customers and take the fast lane to the “spam” box.

Here is the idea: We’re looking at these the way they view on my iPhone. Most people see promotional e-mails on their phone now. Soon, nearly everyone will view them on a portable device with a screen oriented more vertically, as with a phone or phablet, as opposed to a computer screen, which is wider than it is tall. That’s important to realize when you write your e-mail copy and design your e-mail, as we will see.

Next, think about the real-word ergonomics of how people interact with their e-mail on a mobile device. Where are they? How long is their attention span at the moment they will see it? What are they doing when they see it and how does it initially view? This goes a long way toward driving that golden BB metric, the “open rate”. If you have a high open rate, you’ve cleared the first hurtle.

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Here is a great one, and I love this e-mail and the headline it came with. “20% OFF”. No bullshit. No poetry. No extra words. This is brilliant. It will convert to orders on their website.

This is how: I subscribed to the list somehow so I am already interested in the product category. That step is done. Now all I will act on is a deal on something I’m interested in. And, since people only see this e-mail for… a maximum of 2 seconds (that’s right, only 2 seconds- and that is the max) it says what it has to say, big, bold, short and to the point and gets out.

My behavior that follows is to quickly click through to the site. If there is anything there I want and 20% is enough of a discount, and, as a consumer I have the discretionary income to create “open to buy”, chances are I will dump something in the shopping cart. The e-mail worked. Short. Fast. To the point. Bam. Winning.

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Here is an anomaly, and these are rare and brilliant. Patagonia and Orvis both do a good job with this very difficult type of e-mail promotion that may not convert to sales within a few seconds of opening it, but it sets a mood and establishes my set of beliefs surrounding the brand and their products.

Retailers usually don’t use these- and they usually don’t work for retailers. Brands usually use these to help establish what their brand is all about. What they mean, what they stand for. Again- this usually doesn’t convert immediately, but it will plant an effective brain seed to bring a customer back later. And, the other brilliant thing about this medium, a kind of visual “haiku”, is that it doesn’t mention prices. It only establishes image or cache’.

This e-mail will make me look back at Orvis again. If there is a good follow-on promotion, I may order. They got my attention, they did it with mood and imagery, and they kept price off the table for now. Winning.

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Here is a train wreck. And it is real. This is from a big-box triathlon retailer. It is hopeless. Remember, 2 seconds… You’re driving your car, you’re sitting in an airport watching your flight get updated, you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, you’re at a drive-thru line and you’re quickly checking your e-mail. This shows up. Delete. Junk Mail.

This is words. Words, words, words, words. This is the guy who just talks too much. It plathers on about… something (I didn’t read it, it has taken less time to write this blog and I’m a busy man) and it has no point. It. Is. Just. Too. Long. Period.

Remember, this is how the e-mail showed up on my phone screen. This is one of the worst sales/promotional e-mails I’ve ever seen. This company has fallen into a trap of sending these and I collect them for just this purpose; to show people what NOT to do. I keep them because soon they will be bankrupt, again.

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OK, get your mind out of the gutter. I know it’s tough, but try to focus on something other than the boobs. Just try.

Consider that you are selling a product category to a strong buying demographic: Young, affluent, high percentage of discretionary income, very fast moving, using lots of mobile gadgets and very connected. You need visuals. Rich visuals. Also, the product you are selling is visual-based. Sports cars, fashion apparel, anything with appearance as its key appeal. Like boobs. So you serve the visual of the product first and foremost. Copy??? Is there even copy on this page? I can’t remember. All I saw was pastel colors and appealing round things. I remember this from when I was born. I was screaming and hungry, and this fixed everything. Still does.

They could be boobs, they could be wheels, they could be food. It is a visual play for a visual product. And it sells. The brilliance of this approach by Frederick’s is they realize that men are a large percentage of their customers, buying apparel for their wives or girlfriends and, in the case of their better customers, both (at least temporarily).

This won’t sell to everyone. Some people will take offense. It is sexist. It is. But that customer isn’t a Frederick’s customer anyway and wouldn’t have received this e-mail. This e-mail shows the goods (literally and figuratively) and it will convert. Another thing about Frederick’s e-mail marketing is frequency. They keep boobs in your in-box daily. You never forget them.

That’s the quick and dirty on promotional e-mails, because promotional e-mails are a quick and dirty business. Especially when done right.

 

By Tom Demerly.

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Left: Me at a training exercise in Northern Michigan with Co. “F”, 425 INF (AIRBORNE) Long Range Surveillance Unit. Right: My “Get Out of Jail Free” card for REFORGER.

25 years ago my phone rang at home. “Are you seeing this?”

“What?” I asked. “You better turn on your TV.” The Berlin wall was coming down. We won.

During my brief and very non-illustrious military “career” (if you could call it that) part of what my unit did was trained to conduct “stay-behind surveillance” on Eastern Europe, mostly along the Warsaw Pact/NATO dividing line. Especially East and West Germany. And the Berlin Wall.

We were a special operations long-range surveillance unit. Our unit trained to infiltrate deep behind the wall and watch things. Counting. Observing. Classifying. Reading. Installing sensors called “SID” or Seismic Intrusion Devices to monitor the movement of armored vehicles along key roads, aircraft movement and anything else the Warsaw Pact was doing. Then, if all went well, we would enter the intelligence into a device we called a “dumb-dog” or Digital Message Device Group (DMDG) attached to our radios and send a burst transmission with our S.A.L.U.T.E. report, a kind of outline that classifies Size, Activity, Location, Uniforms (or Unit), Time and Equipment. After that we’d quickly change positions to another hide site since the Soviets and East Germans had a nasty habit of calling in air and artillery strikes when they detected a burst radio transmission, knowing that they were being spied on in their own back yard.

Every year we participated in an operation called REFORGER or “REturn of FORces to GERmany”. Part of our unit would go to England to cross-train with the British Special Air Service, another part would go to Germany to their special Long Range Surveillance School, and a third part would go to REFORGER.

At REFORGER, business was serious.

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Construction of the Berlin Wall showing open kill zones, the early installation of the anti-scaling barrier and the raked areas where mines were installed.

We flew on a C-130 from Selfridge ANGB in Mt. Clemens, Michigan to Lajes, Portugal. In Portugal we landed to refuel, stretch our legs, and receive a briefing that, once in Germany, we were “at war”. Equipment was changed. Uniforms were sterilized of insignia that identified our unit. And we were given a yellow “get out of jail free” card to hand to friendly forces when our own units captured us and they had no idea who or what we were. We, of course, were not allowed to say a thing to them. Only, “Call the number on the card”.

During the time we were deployed to Europe near the East/West German border espionage was the national industry. A briefing told us “1 in 8 East Germans are involved in some form of espionage”. “While inside West Germany you will be under constant East German surveillance.” There was no way to shake it. And the East Germans weren’t subtle about it. An apartment building across the street from the former WWII German barracks we lived in constantly had observers in the window. They took our photos as we came and went. We went through ridiculous rituals to evade surveillance. Following one incident we were forbidden to wear uniforms off post.

The place we were staying was built before WWII and it hadn’t been updated since. Especially the plumbing. It was build out of quant stone and concrete and had low ceilings and iron bars. The basement, really a dungeon, was where our equipment masters kept our armory. Drawing your equipment down there was like a scene from a Bond movie or “Where Eagles Dare”. The only thing missing was “Q”, and we didn’t have any Aston-Martins. Or fancy suits. Or watches that shot missiles.

Our surveillance patrols consisted of six-man teams, sometimes less, sometimes more depending on what we were doing. Sometimes other members of different services, and even different countries joined us.

I was our team’s “Scout Observer”, the guy who looked at stuff. I had to be able to identify things. Part of the reason I landed this job was I had an encyclopedic knowledge of military equipment, theirs and ours. Especially aircraft. Another reason is because I had graduated as honor graduate from my schooling at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

The Berlin Wall was different in different places depending on where you were along its length. Sometimes it was simply a bricked-up building booby-trapped with mines. Other times it was a brightly lit open expanse, the “kill zone”, with mines and dog runs on each side of the wall. Where we visited this day it was actually a series of barriers; a barbed wire topped, chain link fence, a carefully raked pea-gravel kill-zone with anti-personnel mines and interlocking fields of sniper fire, the wall itself- a tall, concrete affair with what looked like a horizontal row of large diameter pipe on top of it. The sinister thing was, if a person lived crossing the minefield and the sniper kill zone, and actually managed to scale the wall itself, they were greeted on top by these rotating cylinders. They would simply spin backwards under your desperate grasp until a sniper’s bullet found you. In this spot, many people had tried to get across. None made it.

We were observing an interesting phenomenon. The East Germans had closed a factory near the wall and taken it over as an observation post to look on our side of the wall. The OP was located atop a high smoke stack that used to be part of the now abandoned factory. At the top of the smoke stack was an East German observer.

The intel we had was that this observer would change at regular intervals. It was freezing up there in the smoke stack observation point, and the poor East German border guard, or whoever he was, must have been miserable. He surveiled our side of the border through rifle scopes and powerful binoculars.

But he was not entirely without creature comforts.

One day a rickety-looking Lada compact jitney of a car pulled up near the base of Red Smokestack OP. It jerked to a halt. Oddly, a woman dressed in a huge, poofy white fur coat climbed out, carrying a cylinder from which steam was rising. Nerve gas? Radioactive isotope? It was soup to be delivered to the man in the tower. Two border guards accepted the soup canister and one appeared to try to make progress with the woman in the fur coat. He failed, she returned to her decrepit little car, reversed away from the kill zone and left. One of the guards spent the next few minutes carrying the large thermos of soup up to the top of the guard tower.

We later learned that observation assignment to the guard tower OP was a kind of “punishment detail”. That the border guards who watched from the tower got there because they had screwed something up, been late to report to duty, etc. It must have been miserable up there in the freezing wind. And it is no wonder East German morale among their supposedly “elite” border guard units was reported to be poor just before the wall came down.

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While observing the wall, I learned a profound and sad lesson about humankind. Ducks had flown into a river on the NATO (free) side of the border. They paddled around as ducks do. But then, in complete contravention to all official doctrine surrounding border activity, the ducks took to wing, flew a brief circle over the pond on the West German side, and then flew directly over the Berlin Wall into East Germany. The ducks crossed the border without a thought or a care. No clearance, no identification, no checkpoint, no shooting. They just flew across the border.

My concept of freedom was forever altered in that moment. My respect for the wisdom of man was also. The ducks could come and go. We built artificial barriers to separate ideas and ideals.

Of course, The Wall didn’t work. And one day my phone rang. And the war that never started, a war that Tom Clancy wrote was, “A war with no battles, no monuments… only casualties” was over. And while I always stop short of declaring a “winner” in any war, I was quietly pleased to see that the cause of freedom and liberty had won the day the wall came down.

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Our unit was one of the smallest and least known of the entire U.S. arsenal. To this day, even its modest Wikipedia page is short and light on details. In the records of units who participated in REFORGER, our unit is buried deep inside another. That I know of, there is not a single photo of us in Germany. An unofficial unit insignia we made had the inscription, “Around The World, Unseen.” We were, as my Patrol Leader was fond of saying, “Like smoke in a hurricane”.

What we learned from the Cold War and the Berlin Wall coming down served us well. In the first Gulf War Long Range Surveillance Teams, now part of a new secret U.S. Army Special Forces unit, penetrated deep into Iraq to survey routes for armored invasions, find Scud missiles and direct airstrikes and rescue downed U.S. airmen. Long Range Surveillance and its value was more than proven. Again, as it was by the reconnaissance teams before us, the LRRPs in Vietnam and recon and intelligence units in WWII.

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

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Private E-2 Jerome Davis from Corpus Christi, Texas is 18 years old. It is his eighth day of basic combat training at the U.S. Army Infantry School, Sand Hill, Fort Benning, Georgia. It’s 88 degrees out today with 71% humidity and only 5:00 AM, or 05:00, in the morning. Private Davis is on the PT (Physical Training) field doing “mountain climbers”, sit-ups and push-ups. Lots of push ups.

He hasn’t written a book about himself, but he is a Veteran.

Specialist E-4 Lashonda Davis of Mobile, Alabama is 20 years old. She is at Ft. Rucker, Alabama learning how to work on helicopters. She studies manuals, checklists, written procedures and maintenance schedules from 06:00 to 21:00 every day. She wants to be a crew chief on a $6.2 million dollar Army Blackhawk helicopter. In less than four years, she will achieve her goal.

There are no movies about Specialist Davis. But she is a Veteran.

Lance Corporal Alan Mayfield, United States Marine Corps, from Madison, Wisconsin says he gets up in the morning, does PT up on the flight deck, holds map reading, communications and weapons maintenance classes with his squad between breakfast and lunch, does more PT in the afternoon, then “sits around and watches movies or plays games” the rest of the day on the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) in the Pacific during a long deployment at sea. “It’s pretty boring,” he says. When he is not at sea he is stationed at Camp Pendleton, California as part of a U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Force.

Lance Corporal Mayfield has never been paid to give a speech about himself. But he is a Veteran.

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Maurice Fregia is a police officer in Houston, Texas now. He was in the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He parachuted into Grenada on 25 October, 1983 to help secure the airport at Point Salinas. He went on to be a part of an intelligence unit attached to the 82nd at Fort Bragg before leaving the Army to be a police officer in his hometown.

There are no video games with Maurice Fregia in them, but he is a Veteran.

According to Wikipedia there are 1,369,532 people in the active U.S. military and another 850,880 in the reserve components. Less than 0.5% of the population of the U.S. serves in the military but they provide security for the other 99.5% of Americans. Only half a percent of the population, many of them young and with only a basic education, provide security and enforce U.S. doctrine in nearly 150 countries around the world. All for the rest of us. So we are safe.

But while one-half of one percent of our population assures our security, that small minority makes up 40% of our homeless population. A fact that is perhaps our greatest national disgrace.

There are no books, movies, TV shows, video games, documentaries or speaking tours about any of them. Every day, around the world, they do their difficult, long, cold, tiring, tedious, complex, boring, hot, wet, uncomfortable, lonely, frightening jobs without recognition, with minimal praise except from their peers and family, and with modest and humble character.

They do this so that we can remain insulated from a world where security and freedom is granted to only a privileged few, and often on the backs of a subjugated many.

Today is Veteran’s Day and we recognize the efforts of this quiet culture of humble sentinels.

So while you may enjoy a book about chiseled men from stealth helicopters on daring raids in foreign countries, those books never tell the millions of stories of hard working Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen that we recognize on this day.

Today, you may be well served to reflect upon their contributions to our liberty and freedom. Their story will never be on the big screen, the game console or the bestseller list. But it is no less heroic and selfless.

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In a great national tragedy Veterans make up almost 40% of the entire U.S. homeless population.

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