That Time I Met a Four Star General
In my last year of high school, my friend and I were responsible for organizing the class’ grad trip. For many Ottawa-area high schools at the time, a grad trip consisted of a booze fest to Mexico in March. However, I went to a small private Jewish school and our grad trip consisted of nine students. After a few class meetings, we picked Washington DC as our location early in the academic year. The trip would consist of a day of travel from Ottawa to DC by bus, a day of travel back, and two days in the city visiting different sites. Every detail was meticulously planned down to the quarter hour. We also tried to figure out how we could reduce the cost of the trip for each person.
As a fundraiser for the trip, I put together a calendar that was a little “different”. It was a Hebrew calendar that listed the Shabbat and holiday candle lighting times and end times (18 minutes prior to sunset on Friday and dusk — when three stars became visible to the naked eye — the following day). It also listed for every week the times for different prayer services. How late in the morning could you say the Shmah, how late in the afternoon could you daven minchah, and when you could do Arvit. I used shareware software that had a halachic times (zmanim) calculator that calculated times based on lattitude, longitude, and elevation. Also on the calendar was statutory holidays in a Jewish-friendly way. Christmas didn’t exist (since we don’t believe in Christ) so it was just “Statutory Holiday”. I think I did the same for Easter.
The unique part of the calendar was that each month was dated by the Hebrew month, rather than the Gregorian. All the calendars I had seen before then had been normal, Gregorian calendars with the Hebrew date in the boxes. You’d flip the page every month. June, July, August… etc. The Hebrew dates would likely be split each in the middle of month. However, my calendar didn’t do that… it started in Tishrei, Cheshvan, etc. Amazing.
Slightly less amazing was that I got some dates wrong. I had been using WordPerfect on Windows 95 to make the calendar and manually entered the dates in the layout. It was a tedious process to do this for a calendar year, along with typing in the halachic prayer and candle lighting times, so naturally there were some data entry errors. Luckily, the errors balanced each other out. September ended up with 31 days but October was missing the 17th, so it was OK.
The idea was to sell the calendars for $20 each, making a cool $17 profit on each. If we sold 150 of them, we’d cover the entire trip.
Well, I didn’t really test the market for these calendars or the motivation of my distribution channel to push the product. Fellow classmates were reluctant to peddle the calendar and we sold in the single digits. Our school director with a heart of gold, said she had found a “buyer” in Montreal who would offload all the calendars for $200 to at least prevent it from being a total loss. I was naive and believed her but it spared my ego.
As a corollary benefit, I developed a huge fan among one PhD math student who loved the idea of a Hebrew month-first calendar and wanted to understand how I calculated the zmanim. I think I disappointed him immensely when I told him the truth that I had just entered the data from a piece of free software.
We next tried to fundraise by selling seats on the bus to and from Washington. I have no clue of the legality of this — it was long before ride sharing — but we had 8 free seats available on our bus ride. If we could fill those seats for $100 each, it’d reduce the trip price by half for each of the graduates. We posted flyers in all of the synagogues and decided to also post one in the only kosher place in Ottawa at the time, the Rideau Bakery.
That was a mistake. At least then, the downtown location was in an interesting area.
I remember getting one call from a man named Daniel. He saw our flyer and was highly interested in traveling in three months to and from Washington DC on a bus filled with high school students. He was open about the fact that we was in between jobs and wouldn’t likely have one during the time we traveled. That call sufficiently freaked out enough of my classmates to shut down the sale of rides.
We ended up selling two seats to retirees who we knew and were open to coming along. An we managed to also charge our school director and chaperone and her husband for their seats. Looking back, I am again amazed by this woman’s heart.
One of the highlights was arranging visits to the FBI, Senate, and Pentagon. Normally, this has to be done through your “Member of Congress”. Since we were Canadian and didn’t have one, the logical representative for us was Joe Lieberman because he was Jewish and observed Shabbat. We reached out to his office and were able to set up tours of all of the locations that normally required a congressman to arrange. Our contact there was Ted Timbers, who ended up being involved in Lieberman’s presidential bid.
The trip itself was phenomenal. Just the excitement after all of the planning was enough. We watched Speed on the bus ride down for the irony. Get it? We stayed at a Holiday Inn and visited kosher restaurants, which was a real treat for people keeping kosher in Ottawa.
And then there was the Pentagon visit. We were escorted around by a member of the president’s guard, an elite and heavily trained member of the Air Force who was entrusted with providing visitors with tours of HQ.
The tour started with a late nineties version of an airport screening. Then, walking through, the most striking thing was how much the Pentagon resembled a shopping mall. There were many different shops to cater to the thousands of employees who had no where close by to visit during their lunch breaks. It could take over 15 minutes just to get to from your office to your car in the parking lot.
Instead of being like the tour of NORAD from the beginning of the movie WarGames, the Pentagon started to slowly shed its magic. It was a big office complex. It was built quickly during World War II. The hut in the middle, targeted by multiple ICBMs, was a cafe. Biggest office building in the world. The biggest parking lot. The must pipes for plumbing, etc. Hallways built large enough to drive through.
Then, as we passed down one corridor, a man was standing outside his office looking like he was either waiting for someone or taking a break. Not too tall with a buzz cut, middle aged.
“Where y’all from?” he asked.
He seemed very intrigued that we were from Canada.
We weren’t really sure what to make of his title, “commandant”. However, we did notice that our tour guide had turned bright red and his face was shiny from sweat.
“Come on in”. We shuffled into his office and stood in the foyer. He quizzed us a bit on the marines and what we plan to do after we graduate. He urged us to move to the US and join the marines. It seemed like banter with a tour group that he had done before.
“Y’all take a look at this” (or something to that affect). He showed us a plaque on the wall. It was a keychain featuring a hologram of Yoda. It looked like something out of a cereal box. The words underneath it said:
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Thus passes the glory of the world. According the Wikipedia article, the phrase “served as a reminder of the transitory nature of life and earthly honors” when naming a new pope.
That commandant was Charles C. Krulak, 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps who served from July 1, 1995 to June 30, 1999. He was a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We saw him about a month before his retirement. To us, during the tour, he was a friendly person. To our tour guide, who knew who Krulak was, this was a highlight of his career. He beamed for the remainder of our tour.
Our trip continued as planned and was a buffet of all of DC’s highlights. It was exhausting but exhilarating.
It would only be many years later that I would understand that Commandant Krulak was a different type of leader. After reading about Krulak’s Law in Seth Godin’s Linchpin, you understand that it’s those who have ability to foster individual leadership down to the lowest rank who can affect the most change.
So, that’s the time I met a four star general.