Veterans Day observations upon returning home to states
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Veterans Day observations upon returning home to states

AFAN newsletter on West Point grad Col. Rick Steinke: "Go ahead, America, fly the W!"

Photo: Photos: 1) Cubs fans cheer for marriage proposal accepted; 2) Col. Steinke and his daughter Maria at Wrigley Field; 3) Col. Steinke and his wife Susan with Captain Cubbo outside Wrigley Field.

NOTE: U.S. Army Colonel (Ret.) Rick Steinke, my long-time friend from Big Rapids, Mich., is a West Point graduate that has been teaching at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. He wrote this story based on many observations on a return trip to the states.


By Colonel Ralph R. “Rick” Steinke (U.S. Army, Retired) 

As a U.S. Department of Defense civilian and retired U.S. Army colonel serving in Germany, I try to get back to the United States at least every year or two. On a glorious fall day in late September, after having just arrived at East Lansing, Michigan, from Germany, my wife, our Michigan State University sophomore daughter and I headed for the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. We were off to see an afternoon Chicago Cubs-Cincinnati Reds matchup which marked the first game of the Cubs’ last home stand of 2017.  From across the Atlantic in Germany we had been hearing a lot about the racially-charged and culturally divided atmosphere in America, so I did not know what to expect on this trip stateside.

 

A baseball fan and once-upon-a-time Big Rapids, Michigan high school player and lifetime Detroit Tigers fan, the last time I had been to Chicago was over 28 years ago, for a Tigers-White Sox game. I was on leave from the Army at the time and brought my parents up from Indianapolis for the game. Thanks to my daughter Maria’s love of the Cubs, this would be my first visit to Wrigley Field.

 

What I learned was that the friendly confines were just that: friendly…and displaying a beautiful piece of the colorful human tapestry that comprises America, not to mention an idyllic place to see a baseball game. I also learned – or relearned after 14 straight years overseas – that in the midst of our political polarization, cultural discord, racial tensions and other challenges, Americans still rank among the most approachable, friendly and inclusive people on the planet.




After picking up my daughter Maria from her MSU dorm, with about an hour of Interstate 90 behind us, I spied a rear window sticker which read, “I was a Cubs fan before it became popular.” My car deserved no such sticker, although my teenage daughter, Maria, started rooting for the Cubs from Germany in 2015.

 

Arriving at Wrigley Field about 35 minutes before game time, our first order of business was to find an Anthony Rizzo jersey for Maria. The stadium concessions were out of her size, so after some inside advice from a very helpful Cubs concessions employee, Maria and my wife Susan took their ticket stubs and headed just across the street to the Cubs Store. Meanwhile, with about 10 minutes to go before game time, I went and got a Chicago hotdog and draft beer.

 

As I emerged from the tunnel with both hands carrying the Chicago dog, beer and ticket, I noticed that the Cubs had taken the field…and that I had missed the national anthem. It had been my goal for several weeks prior to make sure we were at our seats for the anthem. With my embarrassing brain cramp having passed, it then hit me: 1:20 pm was the game start time for the opening pitch, not the national anthem. I had, unfortunately, after many years away, miscalculated the timing of the game’s opening events.

 

Within a few minutes of taking my seat several rows behind the first-base dugout the gentlemen - as it turned out, a season ticket holder - who had seated himself next to me cheekily said “Hey, I didn’t get the memo on the down jacket!” I had worn a jacket (it was not down and hey, c’mon, it’s Chicago, right?) and he was ribbing me about overdressing before I even got to know his name. “Hi”, he soon said while extending his hand to me, “My name is John. Welcome to America!”

 

Slightly taken aback that John had somehow divined that I had just come from overseas (I am from Michigan, for Pete’s sake!), I clumsily said, “Hi, my name is Rick and as a matter of fact, I recently flew in from Germany”.  After a bit of a pause, I had to ask him: “How did you know (I was not from around here)?” To which John grinned and upping the ante, responded with “You look jetlagged!” I then thought, “How the heck does he know? Was it the non-American logo on my jacket? Did I, having set off from Michigan for West Point as a teenager, and then spending the majority of my combined 39 military and civilian service years overseas, now look less American for having been away for so long?”

 

Shortly thereafter, in the top of the first inning, my wife and daughter returned: mission accomplished! Not only did Maria find a “RIZZO” jersey that fit but a Cubs “Champions” hat as well.

 

Later, in the second inning, John introduced me to Dale, who was seated to John’s left. Dale, as it turned out, was also a season ticket holder and the “third-generation owner of a bowling alley in Muncie, Indiana”, according to John. I then learned from Dale that during a three-week period this summer a movie was filmed in his bowling alley. The movie is called – or will be called - “When Jeff Tried to Save the World”, and is due out next spring. Dale served as a technical advisor of the movie.

 

Somewhere around the third or fourth inning the announcer referred to the big screen in the outfield which featured a 20-something Marine sergeant waving to the crowd. The Wrigley Field crowd responded with much applause. I then asked John if this was some kind of tradition. “Yep, they do it for every game”, he answered, “representing a different military service for each game.”

 

An inning or two later there was some chatter, growing ever-louder, about 15-20 rows behind me and slightly off to my right. I saw an African-American man on his knees apparently proposing to an African-American woman standing before him. I recognized that she was wearing an old U.S. Army field uniform top (the former Cold War “BDU” - Battle Dress Uniform - with the darker camouflage pattern). On her left sleeve I spotted the largest – and “most expensive”, as soldiers jokingly deride it – shoulder patch in the U.S. Army, that of the 1st Cavalry Division. I then heard more commotion and then she apparently said “yes”, because the mostly white crowd around her began to clap with much enthusiasm. And then, from afar, it was confirmed: the two embraced and kissed, and the newest-engaged lady in Chicago happily waved to the crowd. Louder applause, cheers and happy faces could be seen everywhere.

 

On the field, there was more activity. Venezuelan-born Cubs relief pitcher Hector Louis Rodon, after hitting a dribbler in front of home plate, was thrown out at first base by the Reds catcher, Tucker Barnhart. Or so it seemed. From my somewhat distant view on the first base side, I thought Rodon was safe. So too, apparently, thought Rodon, as he decided to hang around first base rather than head back to the Cubs dugout. The next thing I saw was a gathering of umpires looking at a small, black box over by the third baseline. While the umps were watching the screen, I noticed a grinning Rodon, still standing on first base, joking and gesturing to his teammates in the third base dugout. “There must be some kind of inside story or joke going on here,” I thought. A couple of minutes later the chief umpire finished viewing the replay and signaled to the players and crowd: Rodon was indeed safe at first…and it was his first major league hit.

 

Between innings my born-in-Germany and U.S. citizen daughter, born on Veteran’s Day and having lived all but five of her 20 years overseas, said “Hey Dad, a player in each lineup, Schwarber and Schebler, must be of German heritage. The ‘Sch’ is a clear indicator.”

 

Sitting right in front of us were a father and son. Having had the honor and privilege of serving with some great Americans of a variety of cultural and social backgrounds, I wondered where they were originally from: Sicily or the Maghreb, maybe? No matter. The young man, who was probably in his late teens, had a baseball glove on his hand and he gave us assurances that if a screeching foul ball was launched in our direction, he could handle it.

 

At this point, Wrigley Field was beginning to feel familiar – like the America that I once knew, or like the well-integrated U.S. Army in which I had proudly served for 28 years.

 

During the 7th inning stretch I decided to grab an Italian sausage, by this point completely obliterating my predominantly vegetarian diet. On the way back from the concession stands, I noticed that in the shade it had gotten so chilly that some hard-core Cubs fans had actually broken out Cubs blankets. Earlier, my seat neighbor John let it slip that “just two weeks ago, we would have been sitting in a blazing afternoon sun”. In fact, just three days prior, Chicago temperatures had reached 93 Fahrenheit. Now I was looking for John to see if he might have caught a bit of a chill with only his button down, long-sleeved shirt to protect him.  Trying to think of some quick-witted and cool words like “How do you like my jacket now!” when I would next see him, John was nowhere to be found. Nor was Dale. Had they left because this game was not a big deal (the Cubs had already clinched their division) …or had had they gotten cold? I chose to believe the latter and even though I kinda missed them both, I mentally pounded my chest thinking that maybe even this Michigander knew a little something about the Windy City!

 

In bottom of the eighth inning, with the Cubs losing 4-2 and Taylor Davis and Tommy La Stella (meaning “the star” in Italian) on second and third base, respectively, and two outs, a 23 years-young rookie named Ian Happ from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania stepped up to the plate. In a split-second Happ swung the white ash club he is gripping in his hands at the 3-inch diameter sphere launched at him, at 98 miles per hour, by Reds pitcher Michael Lorenzen. Evoking one of the most beautiful and mystical sounds in all of sports, wood collided with stitched cowhide and the ball was rocketed 387 feet over the center left field fence. Home run! Happ circled all three bases and firmly touched home plate. The Cubs took the lead, 5-4. Euphoria erupted in the stands with “high fives” – many among absolute strangers - exchanged everywhere in the friendly confines.

 

A half-inning later it was game over and the “Cubs win!” The public-address system blared that catchy “Go Cubs Go!” tune and everyone, with the exception of a few Reds fans, sang along. I then observed the very symbolic blue “W” on a white background displayed throughout the stadium, hanging from railings, held up by pairs of people, displayed by individuals, draped on chairs, whatever worked. My simple jelly-beans-in-a-jar estimate, although I could not see most of the upper deck, was that hundreds - maybe 300 to 400 or more - of these Ws were displayed around Wrigley Field. I then learned that in a tradition dating back to the 1940s, “Fly the W!” announces a winning day for the home team. Driving through Chicago neighborhoods earlier that afternoon, my family had indeed noticed many a Chicago residential window and balcony proudly displaying the W.

 

After the game, the victory celebration continued outside the stadium. Out of the milling crowd a stadium attendant suddenly yelled “Clear the way!” and within a Chicago-minute the highly talented, disciplined and spirited “World Famed” marching band from historically black Grambling State University marched up from literally around the corner of the Cubs Store. Nearby, Captain Cubbo, a young man of Puerto-Rican origin who grew up “right across the street” from Wrigley Field was there, too, having his picture taken with anyone who desired, which we did. As we headed for our car, we passed Harry Caray’s statue and the historic Murphy’s Bleachers bar, established circa 1903, with more people of various backgrounds overflowing outside and celebrating the Cubs’ victory.  

 

After stopping at Pizzeria Uno in downtown Chicago, we then departed Chi-town (with that “Go Cubs Go” tune constantly replaying in my head) for the four-hour drive back to East Lansing. During the drive I realized that in and around Wrigley Field, I had sensed none of the social discord or racial dissent I had been hearing about from Germany. I felt reassured that our national “melting pot”, while perhaps not yet ubiquitous in America, was in plain view in and around Wrigley Field. I also understood why Wrigley Field had established such a great reputation for watching a major league baseball game.

 

I am not naïve, though. I know America has, perhaps more in some corners of the country than others, serious challenges and issues of race - seen, unseen or subtle- and of cultural divisions. I also know we must do better.

 

However, from my humble foxhole and as someone who has served in or traveled to over 40 countries, from Afghanistan and Albania to Ukraine and Uzbekistan, my Wrigley Field experience confirmed for me that we Americans still rank among the most approachable, friendly and inclusive societies on the planet.  Let me suggest that sometimes we just need to pause, look around and celebrate that. Just like Hector Rodon’s first hit, Ian Happ’s game-winning home run and the African-American couple’s life changing engagement before a cheering crowd, I know there are still Ws - small and large - every day in America.

* * *

Colonel (Ret) Rick Steinke currently serves as Associate Dean at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a German-American partnership located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The Marshall Center is dedicated to building capacity and networks among international government officials and partners for countering terrorism, transnational organized crime, cyber threats and other national security challenges. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and only the author.

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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