Art, Your House Is On Fire!

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It’s a sad thing when a pop culture icon dies but it’s especially sad to us mid-thirty year olds who quoted their lines in everyday life for laughs and even just a common bond. Such is the case of the Canadian-born actor Rick Ducommun who we lost in early June of this year. If you are not familiar with the name you might be familiar with his character Art Weinberg in the dark comedy/cult classic, The ‘Burbs. I have to be honest, this hit me right in the feels even though we really haven’t seen much of him since the late nineties. I will explain.

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I first saw The ‘Burbs back in 1990, while home sick from school. On the way home from the doctor (who always gave me a damn shot no matter what I was in for) we stopped at the video rental store to pick up a couple of movies for the mandatory bedrest. The two picks for that day were Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course, The Burbs. BedKnobs because of the obvious ghost armies but I am not sure why I chose The ‘Burbs? Usually my sick movies are the old standbys like Return Of The Jedi or Iron Eagle.

I was adventurous and boy that was a mistake because I hated that movie. The dark themes and bizarre characters where just too much to take for a fever-laden kid. The Exorcist cameo didn’t help, either. No, it wasn’t until a few years later that I gave it another try when it was the CBS Friday Night Feature. Perhaps it was my age or maybe just the mood, but I loved it. Even my Dad, with the one-liners and musical score, became a fan of Joe Dante’s film. Since then on, it was the most quoted movie between the two of us and just about all of those lines came from Rick’s character, Art Weingartner.

The line “Listen to your wife? Who listens to their wife?!?” has gotten my Dad in more trouble with Mom than the time we stained the deck during a ten-mile an hour crosswind only to later notice we also stained her herb garden. We have many common bonds but the movie The ‘Burbs really is a language all our own. Even today I can say, “”Hey Ray, what are ya’ll eating in there?’ and he knows that means “what’s for dinner?”.

So now, fast forward to 2001. I was in a LRS unit, deployed to a little stinkhole of a town in somewhere-Bosnia. I really lucked out in this unit because we were pretty much left to our own accord without much oversight. Our missions were both clandestine and conventional which meant sometimes we were in civilian clothes roaming the urban areas gathering intelligence and sometimes we were doing target acquisition and reconnoissance for Special Operators who did spook operations. It was dangerous, exciting and beat the Hell out of a Korea deployment or large base operations. Still to this day, I take a break to think from the dull daily drudge of my current career and it is hard to believe that was my life at one time.

Sometimes, however, the downtime could get so boring it would drive a person to insanity. With a fire base smaller than my backyard, keeping ones self entertained was almost as challenging as the operations. We couldn’t carry many personal items but we did have a couple of laptops to watch DVDs so when it was snowing sideways or the smell of goat was too much to take we would hunker down and watch one of the ten movies we had to escape.

Our medic was one of my best friends on the planet and we shared a love for my contributing DVD, The ‘Burbs. I swear we watched it at least sixty times that deployment and trust me, that love was infectious. Before we knew it our whole team was dropping quotes like “If I find one more, I’m going to catch him and staple his ass shut!” to “It’s not us, Art! It’s them!”. The locals would look at us and nervously smile when our ‘Burbs talk would start to become more of a theatrical rendition. It helped make everything a bit more tolerable.

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We even took our ‘Burbs obsession a step further by actually incorporating it into a real code for an operation and believe it or not, I have proof. Many times we would use closer range radios when ops would require each team member to be in contact with each other and not have to use Army radio tact. That meant other people could possibly be listening since the personal radios didn’t have the code protection the bigger ones did so our intentions, locations and who we are had to protected. Enter The ‘Burbs quotes which were broken out in every possible communicative need you would need for a mission. And it worked so well, it was almost like pig latin. Once you got used to it, it flowed.

Here’s an example:

The crows are too big for the bird feeder“: Suspicious people or movement

Pop ’em“: Engage

I’d rather chew broken glass“: Do not engage

We broke down specific scenes for scenarios that would or could be experienced outside the wire. Not that we talked in 100% ‘Burbs talk but if an enemy or someone who is a bit nosey were to listen in they would definitely be wondering what the hell we were talking about. And it worked unbelievably well.

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My Grandmother kept all my old military items. From uniforms to awards to paperwork, she has bins and bins of it. Slowly, now that I am settled, I have been transferring them down to the house and when I am feeling a bit nostalgic, I peak inside to remember some great times and some down right terrifying times. That’s when I came upon a few field pads I “forgot” to  destroy when we left country. Usually, you had to burn anything that had sensitive material before you reticulated back to the States but I managed to forget these notes because somehow I knew I would be sitting in my living room showing people that The ‘Burbs actually did play a part of something besides cult film history.

Going back through the history of what this film has meant to me might be silly to most and that is understandable. Maybe that is why Rick’s passing has been a tear-jerker to me?

What am I talking about, of course it is! He was one heck of an actor and we are so lucky he shared his talent with us. I always love the actors who never had any serious roles but somehow managed to be more memorable than the Sean Penn’s and Al Pacino’s of our time. Actually Sean Penn is a bag of dicks but still. I love the ones like Rick Ducommun who made us laugh, and ad-libbed his way into our hearts with lines that you could mumble in an elevator and if someone responded, they were your friend for life.

Goodnight, Rick. Good show.

VeggieMacabre! But What Does It Mean???

I think it’s about time I share with the world where the devil I came up with the name “VeggieMacabre”. After all, it’s only seven years old. What am I waiting for?

In order for me to explain this one we need to get into the way-back machine and travel to the year 1997, in a small camp nestled way up in the North Georgia mountains which trains some of the most elite soldiers at the art of mountain warfare and survival. I found myself there working, training and being screamed at by some of the toughest people the United States military has to offer. Although I was constantly cold, wet, exhausted, hungry, sore, stressed, bloodied, bruised and nervous, I don’t think I have ever been happier because I belonged to something so much bigger and apart of the best. I fit and there wasn’t a day that passed where I wasn’t expected to give over 100%. My hands were callused, my mental acuity was at its zenith and it was not abnormal to be awake for three days straight with little to nothing to eat and asked run ten miles as fast as we could only to return back to the woods for more combat exercises. I loved it. And at 36 in my civilian life, I am certain I would absolutely die living that life again.

One particular evening, I was tasked to stand guard outside a makeshift firebase we constructed and challenge anyone approaching with the what is known as a “challenge and pass”. In order for someone to come into my area without getting shot, I had to issue the secret challenge word in the form of a sentence and they had to respond with the password also in a sentence. If they failed to do so, deadly force was authorized and I was a pretty high-strung kid so I have no doubt I would have shot the shit out of anyone who screwed this up. And it could easily have been done.

You see, back then we still used a lot of Vietnam war era technology including a secret code book that depending on the day of the week, month and year would reveal secret code words, numbers, and other combinations for soldiers to use when communicating over the radio, calling mortar fire or simply finding out what a password to pass through a friendly base. But you had to know how to use it because if you screw up, it could cost you your life. Not only that, if it fell into the wrong hands it could cost your buddies’ lives as well which is far worse. That’s why if you thought you were going to be captured, you had to burn it or eat it. Yes, it’s able to be eaten.

So, before leaving the perimeter to take up my post, I flipped through the small blue paper book in the secret combination of ways to find the challenge and pass as well as the time when we change frequencies on the radio. I still remember most of it however I am not entirely sure if they teach or use this in the Army today. It was classified back then so I have to keep that one on the down-low.

Anyway, the challenge for that day was “Veggie” and the password was “Macabre”. I remember thinking to myself that “macabre” was going to be strange to use in a sentence especially in response to a “veggie” question but really didn’t give it much of a thought after. I packed my Prc 77 radio in my rucksack, locked and loaded my M16, and my SCOUT buddy and I headed out to set up shop in the woods outside the perimeter to meet the scheduled Recon team who was due to come back from patrol with the next few hours.

The craziest thing about standing guard in the middle of the night, especially severely sleep deprived, is the way your mind plays tricks on you. I have so many stories of hallucinating things that were never there through sheer fatigue. One time I thought I saw a pizza roll out of the back of a military troop carrier only to come to and see it was a spare tire that had shaken loose and was wildly rolling down a hill. Another time I thought I saw a horse galloping across a pond. Then there was the time I saw a soldier try to put a quarter in a tree thinking it was a vending machine. Very true. All of these were just my brain’s fight between consciousness and straight up REM. Guard duty was the worst for this. Especially when you haven’t slept much in a week and you’re constantly pushed to the physical limit to now, in the darkest part of the night, sit silently and keep your ears and eyes open for not only the enemy creeping toward you but also friendlies coming in from a night patrol. It’s a fight just to keep your brain from screwing you.

As we laid there, sketching our fire lanes for the platoon leader, my buddy asked me what the challenge and pass was for the night. I could tell I was one of the few who was well versed in the term “macabre” from a childhood loving Freddy and Jason but to meathead jocks, it was a new addition to their vocabulary. I explained its definition and used it in probably a dozen sentences but it was soon decided that I was to challenge the incoming patrol. It was easier that way. No one wants to die in a macabre way over the term macabre.

After a few radio checks and what felt like an eternity, there was a faint movement in the dark. Over the radio crackled the familiar call sign of the recon patrol asking permission to approach, “Romeo 1 this is Stalker 6, break, about 400 mikes november whiskey from your alpha alpha, break, requesting permission to approach, over“.

That means “Hey you this is me (say break to un-squelch the mic on the radio to keep the enemy from breaking the frequency code) we are about 400 meters northwest of your area, don’t shoot.”

I responded “Stalker 6 this is Romeo 1, advance to be recognized and challenged, over.

They responded, “Roger Romeo 1, we are advancing, out.”

So with my SCOUT buddy behind the M-60, I prepared to meet the patrol thinking of a sentence to use “veggie” and so very curious how they would respond.

Soon I could see the patrol, looking beat up, tired and overall ready for MRE’s and cigarettes. The biggest and dumbest one passed in front of their Ranger file formation and approached to be within whisper distance.

“Halt!”, I whispered. Advance to be recognized.” The kid did and obviously exhausted from a night in chin-deep ponds and steep mountain terrain. I challenged him.

“It’s almost time for dinner, what veggie do you want with your meatloaf.”, I asked. He responded.

“Anything on the macabre would be nice.”

There was snickering from the patrol but not only was I flabbergasted from the response and the utter shock of stupidity but I had no idea what to do! I had spent over a year being drilled to follow everything to the letter I didn’t know what to do when the password was right but severely misused in a sentence. Half of me wanted to let these guys in for well needed rest but the other half was terrified by the possibility of compromising the base. It was a moment that led me to draw my weapon and stating “INCORRECT”.

Confusion.

In an instant the NCOIC took control and blurted the word “macabre” in a sentence which made sense. I looked back at my SCOUT buddy who was hidden in defilade behind me hoping he wouldn’t unleash Hell but thank goodness he absorbed my explanation of the word earlier that night and laid off the trigger.

After we indexed the training mission, the NCOI who jumped to the rescue of his patrol put in that I was to be (and did) awarded the Army Accomendation Medal for…almost shooting up his platoon over poor vocabulary.

It was a bit embarrassing but ever since then the challenge and password Veggie/Macabre has been burned into my brain. In 2007 when I was inspired to create a site of all things stupid, I could think of no better name than VeggieMacabre.

And now you know.

 

 

 

 

 

Rock, Flag and Eagle

( September 12, 2001 – Bosnia )

So Veterans Day has come and gone and if it wasn’t for my channel surfing I probably would have been none the wiser. The irony is that I served six years in the Army with two combat tours and one NATO tour, so while technically I am a vet, I just don’t feel like one. To me a veteran is a lot older and wiser. They are the fathers and grandfathers who have seen Hell but you would never know it by meeting them. They are the backbone of America and I just don’t feel that I am someone who can or should fill those shoes. My service isn’t something I like to talk about because I have lost some friends in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I have also had friends come back severely injured. This alone will keep me from boasting vet status so to me, these guys are the vets and really they are my heroes. Thanks Chris, Steven, Chuckle, Dwayne, Brian, Tee Dum, SSG Lynn and B. Berserk. You are never forgotten. That’s all I have to say about that.

So, just like how I deal with everything and the constant running theme of VeggieMacabre, here’s a little humor to lighten to mood.

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