Friday, August 21, 2009

Wes Gray's "Embedded" - A Book Review, of sorts.

I prefer to take the Pacific Coast Highway home from work. There’s something about this iconic stretch of southbound ocean highway. The summer-time commute comes at a perfect hour to reflect and be alone and witness the most dramatic part of a Southern California day…the time when the sun is low and the sky is the color of tangerines and plums and the sea is dotted with surfers you watch paddle past a white break into a natural lineup and perform their elegant ballet on top of prevailing swells. Beautiful girls also run along the beach and are as much apart of this inspiring seaside landscape as the sun itself.

The I-5 is faster than the Pacific Coast Highway, but I avoid the 5 and take the PCH home on particularly stressful or particularly beautiful days. This day was both stressful and beautiful. And now I was alone with my thoughts. These turned out to be bad thoughts of putting a stapler to my hand after a day spent behind a desk. Self-stapling thoughts are best for the I-5. You gotta have an edge when navigating the 5. The PCH requires a degree of ‘tranquillo’. It requires the windows be rolled down and a soundtrack carefully selected along the lines of a Joe Purdy ballad, a Bob Marley jam, or anything by Timmy Curran or the John Butler Trio. And all played at a tremendous volume.

I ignore my cell phone on these PCH drives, by exception. I’ll answer if it’s 1.) The person most important to my world (my mom), 2.) The person most important to my work (my platoon sergeant) or 3.) Anyone who might make me laugh or smile (in this case, I answered a call from the Naval Institute’s Mary Ripley).

I was somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas on a drive like this back in July when Mary called me about Wes Gray’s new book. “Alex, what’s going on?” she said, continuing with excitement and without waiting for my response, “listen do you know Wes Gray?” It was a Wednesday. My mind works slower (than usual) on Wednesdays. “Ehmm,” (Thinking hard, but slowly.) “Yes! Of course I know Wes. It’s been awhile. We went to TBS and IOC together. Terrific guy! What’s up?” “Excellent, here’s the deal, he just wrote a book about Marines and the Iraqi Army that the Naval Institute has published, it’s already getting great press, would you be willing to do an interview with him for the Blog?” (Shocked) “Mary, are you kidding me! That’s awesome, and of course I’d like to interview him!” “Great, I’ll send you the book out, give it a read, here’s his number (she reads his number), give him a call when you can, and then call me when you’ve got something good. Ok, gotta run, have a great day Alex.” (Dial tone) “Mary…Mary…hello?” (End call.)

I stared at the road ahead of me with my hands at 10 and 2. Wes Gray had written a book, “Embedded”, on his time in the Haditha Triad as an Advisor to the Iraqi Army. I had done my first tour in Hit and Haditha and explored that Central Euphrates River Valley in the year before Wes had gotten there for his. “Wes,” (I said to myself, but out-loud as I often do) “where the hell are you going with this one?” Neither the setting the sun over the sea to my right, nor the long legged brunette walking her dog to my left could snap me out of this thought. What did Wes have to say about Haditha? This was going to be interesting…

Getting a call that one of my old Marine buddies had just written a book (a relevant book) when I can barely put together a coherent (and hardly relevant) 1,000 words for this column a couple times a month is like watching your childhood friend open that one fantastic Christmas present you wanted, but didn’t get. Wes Gray had just poured his heart into 240 pages of lessons learned from a tour with the Iraqi Army and I had just spent the day at work typing a command investigation for a broken television set. Wes had the Red Rider BB Gun. I had socks.

I called Wes later that night. We talked for a while (in guy time, anything longer than 10 minutes is a “long call”) and exchanged those sort of (simple) questions men ask each other after years apart. Wes hadn’t changed. He was still optimistic, funny, smart as hell, humble and witty. I was proud of him and excited to get my hands on his book. I told him we’d meet sometime soon for the interview, he agreed and we wished each other well.

After our meeting (which I’ll describe later) I realized I didn’t want to write a review of “Embedded.” There are already some great book reviews out there – one (an excellent piece) by another one of my IOC classmates, Gabriel Ledeen. His review is published on National Review Online. You can also visit Wes Gray’s blog (below) for a host of other reviews or use the “Google machine” for further research. (

It’s not that I don’t know how to write a proper book review (I don’t), it’s just I feel like the readers here would get more out of sitting in on a discussion between old friends talking about war and women and a book written about a place far away known to few but known well to us and see how we started this journey together and are now in two very distinct parts of our adult life. But really I just want the reader to hear about the author Wes Gray as an introduction to the book itself.

And so Wes and I had our meeting and, as I said, we talked about the things that matter most in this world – things like family, this America and Marines.

It’s good we met at a bar. Coffee shops are boring and no place to discuss war and women and the way of things. Old friends should not meet for a strong coffee when they are still able to meet for a stiff cocktail. A bar was the perfect meeting place for us after all these years. I picked a dark and wooded and isolated sort of place – a place we could talk for hours over Jameson (for me) and cold beer (for Wes) and never be bothered.

I started by asking Wes how the hell he has been. Wes said he was doing well in school, excited about a life in academics and most importantly that he had a new daughter and a beautiful wife and then asked how I was.

I told him I’ve stayed in the fleet all this time and am tired but excited about my work. I told him that I was balding now (but he could see that for himself). I told him I couldn’t keep a girlfriend and had love, but lost it, and that I owed $25,000 to a Lebanese bookie with a pencil thin mustache who kept an apartment in Reno but lived in Sacramento. Wes laughed deeply at this (and me, I think) and so I didn’t tell him that this was a joke because it made the story more theatrical and who was I to mess with good theatre anyhow?

I waved to the bartender and motioned for another round and one old friend asked another old friend how what happened, happened…

ASM: You’re married now since we talked last years ago?

WG: Yes, a husband and a father now!

ASM: How’s that going?

WG: Amazing man.

ASM: No seriously, you can be honest. This part will be off the record. How’s the married life?

WG: It’s great – seriously.

ASM: I don’t believe you.

WG: (Quiet, but smiling.)

ASM: (Now also smiling.) And you have a new daughter?

WG: Yes! Alice Mae Gray – she’s gorgeous!

ASM: That’s amazing. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Wonder Years.

WG: (Laughing.) Dude, you need to get a family – it’s like nothing else.

ASM: I’ll get there one day. Absolutely. So I read your book, Wes. (I like using people’s first name in a conversation like that with a straight face, it’s very ironic and funny I think.)

WG: Yeah, what did you think?

ASM: It was a piece.

WG: Ohh, c’mon! (Yelling, his hands now in the air.)

ASM: No, I’m kidding. (Pause) But seriously. It was a disaster.

WG: (Silent.)

ASM: (Breaking into laughter.)

WG: (Now also laughing.)

ASM: No, Wes, great read. Congratulations!

WG: (Blushing like a little girl.)

ASM: This is going to feel like you’re on Larry King, but I’ve got some questions. Wes, (again with the first name lead-in) let’s start with the basics man – what is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?

WG: The Intelligent Investor, Lord of the Rings Series, and a Long Island Ice Tea (great bang for the buck).
ASM: Wes, “Lord of the Rings” do you seriously want me to write that down?

WG: What?

ASM: Nothing…wow, that’s incredibly dorky Wes.

WG: I know (his head bowed) – but it really is a great series.

ASM: Riight. So what’s your story before entering the Corps?

WG: I was a PhD student in finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. At the 2 year mark in the program (after passing all our tests and research requirements) there is a natural break in the program and a transition from “school-focused” to “research-focused.” I saw this natural break as an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do–serve in the Marine Corps.

ASM: When did you get the idea for “Embedded?”

WG: While I was out there I kept a very detailed journal of day to day operations. Upon return, I put the journal in a more readable format so my wife and family could read through it. Eventually, they suggested I turn the journal into a book.

ASM: What are 5 things every U.S. service person should know when working with Iraqi army?


1. Iraqis are survivors and will beg, steal, and cheat if their future depends on it.

2. Iraqis are very judgmental–they assume Americans are selfish, Christian, and believe Muslims are second-class citizens.

3. Iraqis will die for you–IF you become part of their family

4. Patience is mandatory–everything takes 2-3x as long, so factor that into your planning cycle.

5. The Iraqi soldiers will never be US Marines–they don’t have the money, training, and cultural infrastructure to be a 21st fighting force…but all they need to be is better than the insurgents.

ASM: Explain man love Thursdays.

WG: Iraqi men are very touchy-feely. The soldiers will hold your hand, rub your belly, caress your shoulders, and make you feel very uncomfortable at times. The vast majority of these actions are not homosexual in nature; however, Iraqi soldiers do engage in homosexual activity and frequently joke about the practice.

ASM: Yes, I remember this (now taking a long drink). In the book, you have some stories about a wise interpreter you had, Moody. What was Moody’s view on power and democracy?

WG: Moody’s view (and most of the Iraqis I spoke to) is that democracy is a great idea in theory, but is unrealistic in Iraq at the current time. One of the beauties of democracy is that the majority rules and the minority follows. In Western societies, the minority accepts their position and peacefully tries to gain power via established political venues. However, in Iraq, the minority fights back with AK-47s and RPGs in their attempt to regain power. This is just how politics are done–via violence and domination. Unfortunately, democracy is dysfunctional when the minority is always shooting the majority in their attempts to get power.

ASM: What’s the difference between a young jundi (soldier) and a young Marine?

WG: Lot’s of similarities: love chow, love food, love complaining, brave, etc.

A few differences:

-The “young” jundi is typically 25-30yrs+ whereas the young Marine is usually 18-20

-less training

-less discipline

-more family pressure–jundi are usually the breadwinners for their entire family

ASM: What’s the biggest cultural difference between the U.S. and Iraq?

WG: The biggest difference that affects mission success is a fate-based viewpoint on life. Iraqis tend to have a belief–reinforced via Islam–that their path in the world is set and how things play out in their lives will not change based on how hard they work or the actions they take. This viewpoint makes it very difficult to motivate Iraqis–anything from convincing them to wear their protective gear to planning for a convoy mission.

ASM: What’s the most important lesson you learned in Iraq?

WG: My biggest takeaway is that cultural differences create huge frictions and costs that go largely unnoticed by strategic planners. I think it is easy for planners to quantify the costs and benefits of 50 tanks and 100 Special Forces soldiers, but it’s difficult to quantify costs/benefits of culture so this gets pushed under the rug. In the end, planners will systematically compare the benefits of a particular mission against a cost estimate that is underestimated because the cultural costs are not properly accounted for. My guess is that if strategic planners redid the cost/benefit analysis of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan AFTER proper accounting for the costs of dealing with culture, we would have chosen to not engage in these conflicts.

ASM: Huh?

WG: (Laughing.)

ASM: Seriously.

ASM: One last question buddy, and then I’ll let you get back to your family…do you miss the Marine Corps?

WG: I miss it all the time, but I also enjoy seeing my family everyday and thinking about non-military issues.

ASM: What’s next for you?

WG: I thought you said that was the last question?

ASM: I lied – just like I lied about the Lebanese bookie.

WG: Haha! Got it, ok…

ASM: What’s next for you?

WG: I have my three F’s: Family, fun, and finance. I hope to spend as much time as possible with my family. With respect to fun I hope to play as much golf as possible. And finally, for finance I hope to go on the academic job market this year–hopefully, I’ll be a finance professor at a top business school next year…Insh’allah.

ASM: Thanks Wes.

WG: Thank you Alex.

And then we stood in unison like it was the end of a great meeting of the Sheiks back in Haditha after hours of chai and circuitous banter. And then we gave each other that hand-shake that becomes the half hug that men like to do when they feel that something greater than a handshake is necessary – which after Haditha and a new daughter and running from Lebanese bookies, certainly was.

And the next day, on the way home from work, somewhere between Carlsbad and Encinitas, I called Mary Ripley…

“Mary, I talked to Wes Gray. I’ve got something good for you…”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Fundamental Wisdom of Mason Phelps.

Most military investigations I’ve read reveal that the mistakes we officers and staff NCO’s make can be traced to ignoring the fundamentals. Commander Scott Waddle, the skipper of the USS Greenville, as an example, ignored the fundamentals of boat-handling back in February 2001 when he conducted an emergency ascent demonstration without coming to periscope depth and clearing his surface waters. Those on the fishing vessel Ehime Maru paid dearly for this commander’s carelessness to the tune of 9 civilians killed.

Six months later the Greenville ran aground entering Saipan, and five months after that to the day, and less than a year after the Ehime Maru, the Greenville collided with the Ogden. I’m not sure of the details, but if I was a betting man (and I am, when the situation requires), I’d say each incident could be linked back to missing the fundamentals.

Some mistakes we make are deadly, others embarrassing, but most all mistakes can be altogether avoided by remembering the fundamentals we were taught day 1 in the forests of Quantico, on the bridge of our first ship, in the classrooms of Charleston, the beaches of Coronado, or the air-space of Pensacola. Why does something as easy as this slip our minds so frequently? Ego, complacency, insecurity, over-confidence, and negligence play a part. But ignoring the fundamentals is always at the heart of it all.

A story I was told recently about the fisherman’s $10 hook reminded me not to over think things and that everything in life – from fighting for a piece of some enemy’s terrain or a piece of some girl’s heart – comes down to the fundamentals. And this wasn’t my wisdom (it never is); this was the wisdom of Mason Phelps.

This story is not about our great fleet, our Marine Force, or logistics or terrorism or anything that specific or topical. This is a story about how I came to be reminded about the fundamentals at a very important time in my own career, at that dangerous time when we think we have our job figured out. This story reminded me how we must stay humble and hungry and eager to learn more and more and remain on-edge and that we must never fail the troops or sailors we work for in any instance that could otherwise be avoided. This is that special trust and confidence part. This story is also a reminder to our Navy’s leaders the importance of finding your own mentor or life coach. I’ve found this matters a great deal.

Ironically, (and in classical naval fashion) this story starts with a cold bottle of booze and laughter among friends. For these reasons, especially the part about never failing our Sailors or Marines, I wanted to share this story here; a brief account of Mason Phelps, the fundamentals and the $10 hook…

On Saturdays I drink an ice cold bottle of Sancerre at noon and eat fresh shrimp roasted in garlic and salt and a mahi steak served on a toasted bialy loaf with shredded lettuce and a sweet Cajun sauce. I order a bottle of Pellegrino, but usually only drink half. This restaurant is first a fish shop, but it feels like a provincial seaside café. It’s a small market, a perfect sort-of small and inside are black-and-white pictures of La Jolla’s fishermen legends and sailors and there are menus written in colorful chalk and also sturdy wooden chairs and tables that customers share when they sit down to eat, even if they don’t know each other. The employees here are the friendliest staff I’ve ever encountered – all local surfers or divers, and all ocean enthusiasts. Joe makes beautiful pottery he sells far too inexpensively. There are a few more artists that work here too, I think. There are also some students.

I usually eat Saturday lunch in this place with my friends Andreas and Sid. We ridicule each other and talk about girls and the night before and plan for the night to come and drink icy-dry white wine and laugh and silently feel very happy we have each other as best friends to spend Saturdays with but never mention it because that would be far too sensitive a thing for young men to say. And so we ridicule each other and laugh and talk more about girls and the good lives we lead and how lucky we all are.

Light lunches go best with light conversation.

By one o’clock the icy-dry Sancerre has quenched my thirst and slowed my heart rate and for the first time that week I relax. By this time the sun is always over-head and bright and has burned away the last bit of morning layer fog which is this sea town’s natural blanket that visitors complain about, but that I love. Sid goes to swim or to box and Andreas to accomplish tasks he hasn’t the time for during a busy week or to Bikrams Yoga, and I go to Mason’s house to learn. Saturdays are best spent with close friends and icy-dry white wine and even better if you can learn a thing or two.

Mason Phelps is my life coach. He has also become one of my very best friends. His house is high on Mount Soledad, which is an impressive place in the world, in a wooded draw not far from mine, but on a much more inspiring street lined with enormous trees (I’m not sure which kind) and wildflowers and villas. I always use the side entrance, which I think over the years has become the front entrance, as is often the case when kind, easy-going, down-to-earth people find themselves in beautiful homes with many ways inside. I don’t have to ring the doorbell anymore, but I always call before I visit.

Mason greets me in the hallway. He extends his strong, tattooed arm for a handshake. I grab his hand and pull him to me for a bear hug. This feels more like two wrestlers clashing on the mat than a comforting exchange between friends, but it’s nice, nevertheless. Our hug is followed by some expletive (or series of expletives). I remind him he is a dirty-scum-bag-enlisted-Marine and he reminds me that I am a weak and feeble and worthless-aristocrat-Marine officer. We laugh, curse each other’s mother, and I follow him to his patio. That sort of banter is Marine-speak for “I love you.”

His patio is my classroom for the afternoon, though on other afternoons my classroom has been his office, or his garden, in his art galleries, or on his favorite tailor’s shop floor; of course there is the bar at the La Valencia Hotel, and the red leather booths of the Manhattan Room. These have all been my classrooms. And there is always wine or scotch to be had during class. But as is the case in any school, the classroom isn’t as important as the teacher. On this particular day my classroom was his patio and he poured me a rich, dark red wine and he knew that what he was going to teach me this day was going to change my life, but I didn’t know that yet. What I did know was how much I loved Saturdays. And that my teacher was a force of nature.

Mason Phelps is in his early 80s and built like a bare-knuckle Irish prize fighter. He has strong, broad shoulders, a square jaw, considerable hands with rugged knuckles and lean legs. His skin is a firm, tan leather and his eyes are crystal blue and sea grey and wise and set deep into his head. He walks with a natural toughness and confidence that reminds me of Churchill’s gait. He speaks in gruff cadence and with such unique inflection I find him captivating and stage-worthy. He is quick with a big smile, a big story and a perfectly placed (big) curse word.

He is not like most of us who are (not sadly or apologetically, but truly) nothing very special. Mason Phelps is a character you would expect from the pages of the Great Gatsby, or better yet from the Green Hills of Africa or The Sun Also Rises; but Mason is much better than any character in those works because they are characters of fiction and Mason is a real character and the truest spirit I know or could ever hope to know in a man that is real and not my own father or the creation of Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, or Ernest Hemmingway himself.

Beneath the scars that 80 years of hunting, football, the Marine Corps, war with the Japanese, bar-fighting, factory work, mountaineering, business, adventure skiing, world travel, deep sea fishing, and living life hard and fast and with deep passion and meaning, (as man was intended to live), beneath the buckskin tattooed arms, and the strong back and barrel chest…beneath it all, is the most perceptive, kind, buoyant, magnificent and complete heart in all the world. And certainly the finest on all of Mount Soledad.

Life’s education always starts beneath our scars.

Throughout his 80 some years Mason has balanced his rugged and aggressive and restless leanings with a natural kindness, a powerful intellect, an enthusiastic disposition and other soft traits that are necessary for great men to possess, but not appropriate to write about or discuss unless in the company of only close friends and family, or with the permission of the man himself; permission which will never be granted so long as that man is a Marine and has tattoos and buckskin and a barrel chest.

But it is true that Mason did change throughout the course of his life, as some of us do; while some of this change was his own doing, most of this change was the result of the love of an even more powerful and impressive woman, his wife Elizabeth. And though the story of how a petite and beautiful and amazing Greek American women from Pittsburg and her equally wonderful and beautiful daughters helped to calm and captivate this restive man’s heart is one of my favorites, the story of what happens after I drink icy-dry white wine and the fog burns away and I climb Mount Soledad to his home on a particular Saturday afternoon to learn about the fundamentals is the story I set out to tell.

To tell this story completely I have to go back to my first deployment to Iraq where I first saw a battle-hardened battalion march through the dust on the edge of our empire. Returning from this place, a place then lost to time and Western ethics and virtues, was a life-altering experience. I did not return cynical or defeated. I did not return angry or resentful. I returned older and with stories of adventures of what was not everyone’s experience in that war, but what were certainly mine. There was sadness too, but a man’s life is nothing without some kind of great sadness. And this is how my heart felt when I met Mason for the first time…older, and just a little sad.

Meeting a life coach at a time when your heart turns older and becomes just a little sad is necessary, though I didn’t know this at the time. And what I felt on that Saturday when I first met Mason Phelps is the same thing that I have felt every Saturday since, and luckily (but by choice and perhaps by no luck at all) my heart has become less and less sad.

Mason does not teach me how to be a father or a husband or even a man. He is not instructive or didactic with his life lessons. That has been my own father’s job, and he has been a masterful mentor to his two sons and is my hero for it. Mason teaches me in the Socratic manner and all about life’s other things. The answers are always mine to discover, though he knows the outcome and never tells.

In this way, Mason has taught me about art and literature and politics and history and friendship. In his garden we discuss government and culture. In his kitchen (and with Liz in the other room) we rant about the Marine Corps and beautiful girls. In his office we discuss history and religion and the American West. On his patio we discuss love and life and all things pertaining to the exploits of deep-sea fishing, hard-nose business, Mark Twain and a man’s strength of character. No matter the subject, and no matter the place the subject is discussed, the moral of the lesson Mason wishes to teach me remains the same: it’s all about the fundamentals.

This particular Saturday, after I was done with the icy-dry white Sancerre and after Niko had left to box and Andreas to accomplish the tasks at hand and after I had climbed the hill to Mason’s house, the subject and the moral of my lesson were the same. On this day the story was the $10 hook.

You'll recall I entered through the side of the house (as I always do), and that I had met Mason with expletives and a wrestler’s hug and more expletives which meant “I love you.” And that today I followed him to our classroom which was his patio and that there he poured me rich, red wine which always tastes good in the later part of any afternoon. And you’ll remember that my heart was older now, and still sad, though not nearly as sad as it was before I had met Mason Phelps. This is the way that Saturday was – the day his lesson was the most uncompromising and honest and simple and important of them all.

Mason started by telling me about shapes and forms and proceeded to discuss all quantity and space and structure and change. He told me that these things are best understood by mathematics. He told me that mathematics was the mechanism by which the complexity of nature became plain. He said the fundamentals began here, at that unique point in the universe where the confusing could be reduced to the unconfusing, to integers and symbols, and 0s and 1s; except he said all of this differently and in his unique way which I cannot recreate in prose because I am not that good of a writer. He told me that this understanding of things only began here, because life was never as easy as integers and equations, even though I told him I thought it ought to be.

He agreed, and we laughed, though I was quite serious, but didn’t say anything because it wasn’t my place to say anything during this lesson. I had too much to learn.

Mason looked into the afternoon sky and he told me that everything that matters in life – from the men I now lead, to the love I will one day love; from economics, religion, politics, family, philosophy and culture, to war, literature, health, friendship, art, and science – must be approached from the most fundamental angle, and understood by the most fundamental method…

And then he looked me into my eyes and asked me if I understood and I said that I did.

To illustrate his point further, he told me a wonderful story. (No one tells good stories anymore, except for Andreas’ older brother Niko, who is one of the best story tellers I know.)

“A guy starts tuna fishing off San Diego,” he said as he sank back in his chair.

I poured myself more wine and listened closely.

“And he spends half a dozen years and tens of thousands of dollars learning how to catch these tuna so that one day he can hunt big marlin. Soon enough he is ready for big marlin and for Mexico and all that went with such an adventure. This guy spends thousands of dollars on first class plane tickets, and even more on new reels and rods and even more still on the finest boat and crew and a captain who knows exactly where the marlin swim. And he goes to sea and spends days on the boat, and finally the marlin come, and he catches one, and wrestles it for hours…until his hook snaps, and the marlin swims away, along with all of the other marlin. And as the boat turns about and they make their way back to the harbor, the ship’s captain tells him what he already knows to be true, ‘so many thousands of dollars spent, so much time and money wasted, when all that really failed was a simple $10 hook…a fisherman must never forget the fundamentals: the quality of his hook.’ And the fisherman said: ‘Yes, yes, I remembered so much, but I forgot to check the hook.’ ‘And that’s the thing about life,’ he continued to say, but this time to himself, ‘so much time and money spent on so many things – I too often forget to check the hook.’”

Mason looked at me, and I told him I understood the story of the hook and the importance of checking the foundation and of the fundamentals. And he told me that was good, though his eyes told me that he knew I was still going to screw up later in my life something that had to do with the fundamentals, but that this was ok, because making honest mistakes was how I was going to grow.

Later that month, and on a different sort-of Saturday in a different sort-of place, I told the fine men in my platoon Mason’s story about the hook after returning from a 30 mile hike into the Sierra Nevada Mountains in which a few forgot to bring their ponchos and it hailed and rained and they were without the most simple piece of equipment despite their two hundred dollar boots and millions of dollars of training and weeks of preparation…the poncho was this mission’s “hook” – and it was all about the fundamentals.

We agreed, as a family during our mission debrief, that we couldn’t afford to make any more mistakes when it came to checking our hooks or with the fundamentals.

I think the boys liked Mason’s story which has become the foundation of my life and most importantly the foundation of this Force Reconnaissance Platoon. And I think this should be the foundation of every section, squad, division or platoon in the Navy and Marine Corps.

I haven’t told Mason this part of the story yet, but I think when he hears it he will laugh and not be surprised at all; I think he’ll call me names with curse words and try to put me in a head lock for not telling the guys the story of the hook before the long mountain patrol. (This will be another way for him to say “I love you.”) But really I think he’ll be happy that I have listened to his wisdom, even though he would never call it that.

I’m not sure what there is to learn this Saturday (there’s always something), but nothing could ever be as important as the fundamentals and hearing the simple story of the hook after icy-dry Sancerre and laughing with my friends.