Friday, September 26, 2014

I’ve known TJ Whalen since 1967 when we were on the pre-commissioning unit for the USS Lapon. We were both Machinist’s Mates second class at the time. He was an auxiliaryman and I was a nuke. At sea we shared the lower level of machinery room #2; he nursed #2 O2 generator and I monitored the water inventories of the steam generators.

In 1968 we were both eligible for rotation to shore duty and also to take the exam for petty officer first class. We conspired, in a low level fashion, to avoid becoming PO1c because that rotation date would extend to near eternity. In order to take the exam one must complete certain course work, demonstrate competency in a standard set of “practical factors”, and submit a request to take the test.

We accomplished none of the above.

We were at sea for a “spec-op” the day the exams were given. I stood the 0000-0600 watch at that time and at 1000 I was comfortably asleep in my deck-level bunky-poo next to the hatch leading to the diesel generator space. The Chief of the Boat (COB) shook me out of my well-earned nap, “C’mon, Pete, time to take the first class test.”

“I don’t have a test. I didn’t submit for one.”

“There’s one with your name on it and the captain says you’re going to take it.”

Yes, our commanding officer was that way. Every man was expected to rise to the next level as quick as he could. My service record has entries that I successfully completed all of the requirements.

I dressed and made my way to the crews mess. Among the other crewmembers sat TJ. He gave me a confused, pleading look.

TJ was always smarter than me. Sometimes it is difficult for people who share a deep fraternal bond to admit a cohort is smarter. I have no problem bowing to TJ.

Three or four months later the results were in. I passed the test and was advanced in the first increment.

TJ failed the test and soon thereafter was transferred to shore duty in Ravinia, OH, not far from his hometown. As a first class, my rotation didn’t come up for another four years.

Over the years I kept track of TJ and a score of other Lapon sailors. We started having reunions in 2000, so I have seen TJ and his wife at least every two years.

TJ has fought ocular melanoma for fifteen years. His cancer metastasized, in predictable fashion, to his liver. In addition to the initial loss of his right eye he has survived twenty procedures to remove tumors plus various chemical treatments.

Throughout the fight TJ maintained a positive attitude and good spirit. Despite his optimism, those of us close to him have been holding our collective breath. He can’t beat the odds forever.

I got the call from another longtime friend who lives in TJ’s region and the word is the latest treatment didn’t work and caused deleterious side effects. Earlier this year we had discussed going for a visit before he dies.  It’s just 900 miles, and I can stay overnight with Jack and Ginny in Columbiana, Ohio.

I think it will mean more to TJ than if I waited for the memorial service.

Chuck Petterson’s passions are his wife, music, writing, and dogs. He is grateful his telephone no longer interrupts him to fly off to service clients and he can concentrate on his passions. He and his wife, Lynn, live on two acres in Washington Township, Harrison County, Iowa, with a varying number of permanent resident dogs and rescued Irish Red and White Setters and Gordon Setters. He plays with a variety of local and state-wide bands, which ensures he gets out of the house a few times during the week. He is a U.S. Navy Submarine Force veteran and active with local and national veterans’ organizations.

Friday, September 5, 2014


 From kindergarten through high school I only cut school once. On March 3, 1958, my fifteenth birthday, I awoke at 6:30 unwilling to face the long walk to the bus stop, the ride to the Forest Hills subway station, and the twenty-three stops on the GG train to Brooklyn.  I told my mother I had a terrible stomach ache and went back to sleep.  When I awoke again she was out shopping; she returned at noon, surprising me, and I had to double over and grab my stomach to maintain my act.
Justifiably suspicious, she insisted on taking me to Doctor Lamb, my old pediatrician.  I'd fessed up about lying so I could stay home from school, but she intended to teach me a lesson.  I sat for an hour in the doctor’s waiting room with an open window blowing March snow on my neck while an over-zealous radiator on the floor roasted my lower half.  I had a fever by the time Doctor Lamb examined me. In obvious cahoots with my mother, he rabbit-punched my kidneys.
“Did that hurt?”  When I couldn’t catch my breath to respond, he said, “Mmmm, this looks serious.”
It was.  Two hours later, my first failed body part lay in a jar of noxious fluid.  When I woke up in a hospital room, my cardiologist uncle was there. “If you hadn’t stayed home from school today your appendix would have burst and you might have died on a subway platform,” he said.
From then on, I resolved to always trust my gut feelings, though I did swear off cutting school. As for my surgery, I’d been the only male patient under forty on my wing of the hospital, which made me the focus of a dozen student nurses. I knew that would never happen again, so I decided to quit surgery while I was ahead and avoid surrendering any more body parts.
For the next fifty-six years I stayed out of hospitals. When I went to my doctor complaining that my shoulders always hurt, he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who told me I had a choice between complete shoulder replacement surgery and living with pain. 
(The following photos were "borrowed" from the website of the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons.)  A healthy shoulder:

 I pondered the decision for a couple of months, until the day I was holding my eighteen-month-old grandson and realized that a sudden, unexpected stab of pain might cause me to drop him.  It was time to discard another failed body part and replace my arthritic left shoulder with a new titanium one that looks like this:

The surgeon said it was a simple procedure.  Not to worry.  A month in a sling and two months of physical therapy and I’d feel eighteen again, and Medicare and my supplemental Blue Cross would pay for it. But he left out a couple of things.  No driving for a month (I only waited twenty-four days); learning to sleep on my back (which I’ve yet to master); having to bathe with a sponge sitting on a bench; being dependent on my dear wife for things I’ve always done myself; and the long list of things I’d always taken for granted that were impossible to do with one hand. But the horrible pain everyone predicted never materialized, and though I only met one student nurse this time, the experience turned out as well as possible.
It's now day thirty-two and my shoulder aches.  I’m recovering, but I still have questions. Should I go through it again to have the right shoulder replaced?  How many body parts can I replace with metal ones before I turn into a human lightning rod? And what about airport metal detectors?

AlanZendell spent more than thirty years as a scientist, aerospace engineer, software consultant, database developer, and government analyst, writing really boring stuff like proposals, technical papers, reports, business letters, and policy memoranda.  But trapped inside him all that time were stories that needed telling and ideas that needed expression, so with encouragement and cajoling from a loving baby sister he plunged into fiction.  Since then, he has written mostly science and extrapolative fiction with three-dimensional characters.  It’s the things they believe in and how much they’re willing to invest to preserve them that make a story worth telling.  It’s convincing interactions and well-researched credible plots that make a story worth reading. And, of course, like any writer, Alan loves having an audience.  You may find Alan’s books here.