In Memoriam

I last visited Arlington National Cemetery right before my friend John Milkewicz shipped off to Iraq. I am very thankful that he came home. Memorial Day is for those soldiers who did not.

It began after the Civil War as Decoration Day, for decorating the graves of soldiers. After World War II it became more commonplace. I know many veterans, family and friends. I am grateful that they came home. The only family member I know who died at war was Nicholas Pucci, who served in the Korean War.

Let us remember the dead today, and the true cost of war, which echoes through the generations. The lost promise, the families left gouged by their absence, and the burden those who made it home must carry.

American Civil War 625,000
World War II 405,399
World War I 116,516
Vietnam 58,151
Korean War 36,516
American Revolutionary War 25,000
War of 1812 15,000
Mexican American War 13,283
War on terror* present 6,717
Philippine–American War 4,196
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Audie Murphy's grave
Audie Murphy’s grave
The Grave of Joe Louis
The Grave of Joe Louis
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Just one small corner.
Just one small corner.

We Were Intrepid, Once

I climbed onto the roof of my building today to watch the fly-by of the Space Shuttle Enterprise atop a 747, for its final air voyage before it becomes a museum piece on the deck of the USS Intrepid. I remember the sense of wonder, a tickle in the gut, when I watched the first space shuttle launch, the Columbia. I recall the emptiness when the Challenger exploded over the ocean. And worse, when we later learned it was avoidable, and that they burned up in the shuttle’s slow death spiral into the sea.

So there is another sense of loss, seeing the iconic shuttle fly for the last time. I know the space program will go on, with the Orion vehicles. At least I hope it will. The shuttles were what a car maker calls a “halo vehicle,” a money loser that drives other sales. The Dodge Viper never makes money, but those who can’t afford it might buy a sporty, affordable car from Dodge. The shuttle may have struggled to remain relevant, but it looked like what our dreams expected when we thought of futuristic space travel, and that made us interested in what NASA was doing, even if the science was a little dubious. Like when John Glenn flew up there to test zero gravity’s effects on an aged body. Hey, I was fine with the astronaut getting a freebie flight up there.

Will we watch the Orion launches with the same sense of wonder? I hope so. It’s a rocket based system. Not as sexy. I hope it will be much safer for the astronauts, though. 2 missions out of 135 failed, with loss of life. The engineers said the design would have a 1 in 100 chance of failure, and sadly, it looks like their math was correct.

We tend to think of the space program as a luxury, but I think President Kennedy was correct about its importance. We must dream big. We should not abandon our fight for the stars. It is not a zero sum game. Every space launch does not leave a child unprotected. And while we wage war with impunity, we cannot point a finger of blame at the rocket taking humanity to Mars.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
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The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands. Pigeonholed as a stoner band, they began as a punk act out of Oklahoma City before their single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” off their more indie-friendly Transmissions from the Satellite Heart album became a hit. Since then they’ve evolved into a more ambient sound collage that varies from sweet and introspective to heart-hammering rhythms, none of it ever boring or predictable. They do concept albums now, from the anime-influenced Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots to their latest, Pink Floyd-esque Embryonic double disc. And speaking of Floyd, they recorded their own version of Dark Side of the Moon for iTunes, and while that album is iconic, their version is quite interesting and enjoyable.
At the Wellmont in Montclair, their first encore was the end of that Floyd album, a minimalist emotional barrage of “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” with the audience singing along. They really are a band that must be experienced in concert. I was told this, but they mostly play festivals, which I normally loathe for their expense, remote location, weekend-long length, and the faux Woodstock feel of a place that charges $5 for a bottle of water. So when they booked a local show, I jumped on it. I ended up going with Firecracker and Milky, who’d both listened to the band but weren’t as big a fan as I am, but they also had a great time. I bet you’d have a great time even if you didn’t know any of the songs. Singer and front man Wayne Coyne is a charismatic and caring showman, and tells you straight up that they don’t do a lot of shows because they want each one to be a unique experience.
Before they played, he warned that the light show might be disorienting, and that he was going to crowdsurf in a giant hamsterball- an inflatable sphere he calls his spaceball- so get to the sides if you don’t want to hold it up. He got really close to us as they opened up and he rolled out. The show starts with a bang, with confetti cannons blasting, and a few dozen 3 foot wide balloons being released onto the audience, so you can play volleyball. They really engage the audience beyond all expectations, and make their show a memorable experience. There’s a video screen behind them, which they walk out of an image of a woman giving birth- embryonic indeed. The stage is full of singers and dancers in costumes wearing cyborg sunglasses, giraffe masks, and day-glo orange clothes, who’ll bounce the balloons back into the audience. Sometimes the band will pop the confetti-filled balloons with their guitars, or Wayne will put on a pair of enormous hands that shoot green lasers into the smoke-filled air. And they say thank you after every song, reminding you that they’re having just as good a time as you are.
They played a good mix of their repertoire, new and old, but few songs off their biggest albums: Yoshimi, and The Soft Bulletin. That album was a fave of mine for a long time, but I didn’t miss it. They did a sing-along of Yoshimi, a few acoustic versions of shorter songs, and a crowd-blasting rendition of last album’s “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” off of At War with the Mystics, a favorite. The final encore was possibly their most famous song, dedicated to a 16-year old friend of the band who lost his father to cancer last Christmas. It’s a song that’s been used at funerals in movies, and the one that made me a fan of the band: “Do You Realize?” It has truly beautiful lyrics that simply remind you of the fragility of life and to keep focused on what’s important.

Do You Realize – that you have the most beautiful face
Do You Realize – we’re floating in space –

Do You Realize – that happiness makes you cry

Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes –
let them know You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last

You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round

They also kept their promise of playing “Taps” at every show until the Iraq War is over, showing the audience a mechanical bugle that the military now uses for funerals, because there aren’t enough trumpet players to keep up with the demand. I liked that even seven years later they kept to it, reminding us that we have soldiers overseas in harm’s way. May they all come home safe and soon.
Amusingly enough, they sell a silvery t-shirt that reads, “I saw the Flaming Lips in concert and it made me a better human being!” And I think they mean it without irony, because it truly seems what they want to accomplish by making their music and playing it for us. There are a lot of gracious showmen out there, but Wayne Coyne seems the most authentic. I’m glad I finally got to see them perform, and I hope to catch them again the next time they come around. It may not make you a better human being, but you’ll want to try, at least for a couple of days. Then play one of their albums to remind yourself again.

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

We don’t need no stinking badges!

When I go hiking, sometimes I see a couple loitering around a boulder looking suspicious. I used to think they were looking for a place to take a dump, but it turns out they were Geocaching. What’s geocaching, you might ask, and how is it pronounced? It is the hobby of seeking out hidden containers in the woods, using an overpriced gadget that has since been replaced by an iPhone app. The container is anything from a surplus ammo can to a waterproof plastic box, and treasures unheard of are held inside. And like geoduck, it is pronounced gooey-kaching, for the amount of money you’ll spend on a GPS to get into this amusing hobby, for which they are now awarding a Boy Scout badge.
Milky and I got into geocaching while hiking the wilds of northern New Jersey and seeking out strange locations depicted in Weird NJ magazine before a bunch of teenagers could burn it down, or cause such a nuisance that police officers began patrolling them to rake in lucrative trespassing fines. We both bought Magellan GPS units that are now horribly uncool and obsolete, despite still working fine. The new ones have the internet, so you can download new caches while you’re sitting in a port-a-potty near the Appalachian trail. Maybe there’s a cache in the toilet? As we would learn, this wasn’t that unlikely. You locate nearby geocaches by looking them up on Geocaching.com, where cache planters will post hints and coordinates to the nearby area. After that, it’s a treasure hunt fit for a pirate with an annoying, clumsy device instead of a cool map. And instead of doubloons and blunderbusses for the treasure, you usually find toys from gumball machines and Happy Meals. The real treasure is the logbook, where you record your precious victory and sickening internet neologisms such as “TFTC” (thanks for the cache) and “RMcDMMAAC” (Ronald McDonald molested me as a child).

Our first geocache was a puzzler in a Bloomfield cemetery that tried to teach you some World War 2 history, by making you find the grave marker of a veteran awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and then using his birth date as coordinates. This was fun, until I located what should have been the spot, got frustrated and grumbly, and began kicking the tree stump in hopes that the treasure of the Sierra Madre would fall out. Milky instead looked inside the large stump and found the cache, a plastic waterproof case, suspended inside. He didn’t even have a GPS at that point, which infuriated me. I had been betrayed by technology! The Happy Meal toys were rightfully his! Once he got his own GPS, I had to resort to giving him incorrect coordinates to get a fighting chance, as he was as crafty as a bloodhound in sniffing out these hidden coffers of treasures. And he still holds that against me.
Our next puzzle was a series of caches hidden in the parks of Nutley, our hometown. Best known as the butt of Futurama jokes, and the hellhole from whence decorating demon Martha Stewart sprang in a puff of brimstone and potpourri, it’s the kind of place that if you walk with electronic devices looking under the bridges that span its many babbling brooks, it’s likely someone will report you as a terrorist. Just try to explain geocaching to a small town cop, a few years after 9/11. Luckily we never saw the inside of the local jail, but our behavior elicited a many stares and awkward questions from dog walkers and parents who wanted to make sure we weren’t trying to blow up the Mud Hole, the affectionate local name for Mill’s Pond. Which when seen up close, looks like an open sewer populated with carp, turtles, and enough geese to cover the county with green poop, which they do nightly.

The problem with caches in populated areas is the chance that the average person will find your Tupperware container full of Happy Meal toys and a logbook, and mistaking this treasure for garbage, toss it in a trash can. So, many urban geocachers place what they call “micros” in tiny 35mm film canisters or prescription bottles everywhere from cracks in a building to behind false bolts in telephone poles. We tired of the constant subterfuge required to keep kids from hanging around until you’re done and tossing the cache- and the precious logbook where you record your victory- into a storm drain. So we opted for caches near hiking trails, because I thought it would be fun to mix hiking and geocaching, to get some exercise for the feet and the brain, by solving puzzles deep in the Jersey woods. Maybe the treasures would be greater than little plastic soldiers and battered Matchbox cars, and the odd Where’s George? dollar that Milky would inevitably pocket.
Instead of combining two activities into one, this ended up making our “hikes” consist of a drive to the parking lot closest to the caches, hiking as directly as possible toward it, and then stumbling around the woods for a half hour or so before we gave up and went to the nearest diner for pizza burgers. Oh, we found some caches. Many actually led us to interesting areas we might not have discovered while hiking, otherwise. Master New Jersey explorer and cacher Brian Sniatkowski stumped us many times with his deviously hidden treasures, but he also shared peaceful and interesting spots in the woods with us. Oh, how we cursed “briansnat” as he’s known on the internet, for hiding his ammo cans and film canisters with such cunning! I think we found one, total. And when we cracked it open, we found… Happy Meal toys! But as they say, the real treasure is in the journey. At least the Boy Scouts will get a colorful badge at the end of their journey. Maybe they’ll leave it in a cache? I sincerely doubt it.

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

I got 25 problems but a Burger ain’t one

My Friend Brian the Friendly Irish Giant saw this joint and told me about it- so I found a cool hiking spot nearby, drove down with Firecracker and Milky, and burned some calories before devouring one of their 25 varieties of burger. We hiked at the Sourland preserve, climbing up to some rocky perches, then hurtled down before sundown to grab some good eats.
25 Burgers has a large menu, and they also sell hot dogs. I’ll try one of those next time, perhaps- the burgers are pretty good. The selling point here is the array of toppings, and their good-sized (8oz) juicy burgers, which while average in flavor, are a notch above Red Robin or chain restaurants like TGIFriday’s. They don’t smother the burger with their toppings, and they have thought out their combos well. They have plenty of grilled chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, buffalo and a veggie burger for all tastes, and you can get any patty on any combo.
I had the Six Alarm Burger (oddly, #7) which registered as perhaps a 2 alarm fire in my mouth (where I don’t normally allow firemen, even if they’re cute). It has fresh salsa on it, jalapenos, pepper jack and habanero sauce. I wasn’t impressed with the heat, and to be honest, I’d have preferred my go-to burger at Five Guys with fresh jalapenos, but this wasn’t a bad burger. It wasn’t overcooked or dried out. Firecracker liked her Chili Chili (#11) much better, and their smoky, Texas Weiner-style sweet chili amped up the beef flavor of the burger. Their cheese fries- made with queso- are a winner.
Milky went for #19, the Cholula Buffalo burger marinated in chipotle. He loved it. I didn’t get a bite, but it looked good and juicy, with a nice sear on it. They have a selection of 3 buns- multigrain, Miami Onion, and plain- and all 3 were pretty good. The onion rings were good quality and well battered, and fresh. The sweet potato fries got Milky’s endorsement as well.
So, while I wouldn’t go out of my way for 25 Burgers, they are worth stopping at if you get the craving. Service is fast, the food is good and fresh, and the walls are spackled with Star Trek and movie memorabilia, making for a friendly atmosphere. When we return to the Sourlands or hike Black River, we’ll be back for a hot dog and maybe a custom burger with pineapple and jalapenos!

Most of the 25 burgers

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

The Running Man

SubZero… now plain zero!!

I love bad Arnold movies. This is miles ahead of Raw Deal but behind Commando. In a prescient future, the government depends on reality shows to distract us from the horrible economy, and when chopper pilot Ben Richards refuses to fire upon a food riot, he is framed as the engineer of the massacre, and of course gets pulled in to the biggest game show on TV: The Running Man, where criminals run from maniacal stalkers with flamethrowers, chainsaws and operatic voices, to gain a chance at a jury trial. Arnie’s one-liners are at their worst, some of them barely make any sort of sense, but the TV satire with Richard Dawson from Family Feud is just too good to miss. It’s not a bad movie, but like most futuristic satires it has to wink at the camera instead of playing it straight like the original Rollerball (the James Caan one) or just going with it like Commando. It’s definitely worth seeing once, and bares little resemblance to the Stephen King story it’s based on, but this ain’t Arnie’s best. It’s also a lot far from his worst. This is probably the best example of an Arnie movie, come to think of it- it’s the median.
The movie has a lot to like. Arnie may be running around in yellow tights like Bruce Lee in Game of Death, but he gets to cut a guy’s nuts off with a chainsaw! Dweezil Zappa plays a leader of the revolution! Old grannies say they want to see him kick some ass! And best of all, Richard Dawson plays it completely straight, playing a real sonofabitch of a TV host and loving every minute of it. If you ever wanted him to say Survey Said… FUCK YOU! This is your chance.
It goes crazy to the camp side, with an opera-singing Hunter named Dynamo driving around in a dune buggy covered in Christmas lights. Even Arnold’s jokes on him make fun of how awful this concept is. “Aghgghg!! you big light bulb!” Jesse Ventura has a small role as a former gladiator, but we don’t get to see them really fight; that’s too bad, it would have been awesome. The Running Man remains a guilty pleasure in the Arnold compendium, but it shows that he can make a hit even out of a ridiculous, campy ’80s flick.

All the entries in The Arnold Project

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: This movie came from Milky’s Netflix, and he watched it with me, and farted on my couch a lot, and did slap my belly with glee. There, now quit whining.

RIP, Pretzy

Arnold Stang, “Pretzy” from Milky & I’s beloved Arnie film Hercules in New York (full review), has died at the age of 91. He was most famous as the voice of “Top Cat” and Catfish from “Jabberjaw,” as well as the bespectacled Ray from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. He had serious roles too, such as Sparrow in The Man with the Golden Arm, alongside Sinatra. He was a likeable character, and may he rest in peace. Maybe he’s selling pretzels in Olympus.