Goodbye to my eclectic friend –the world.

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As we crossed over the eastern seaboard of the United States, I couldn’t help thinking about all those places, all those moves, all the excitement, and all the loneliness that finally brought me to this point.  Looking at America below the horizon, I could almost hear her say, “Welcome home; we’ve been waiting for you for a long time.” And finally, for the first time in my adult life, I’d cease living like a rolling stone.

The track was long and exhausting, and took its toll on myself and my small family. Simply put—this diplomat was tired of the race.

My life—my race—had barreled through the following laps:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (North Side and Avalon)

Clarion, Pennsylvania (college)

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Belleview after college graduation)

San Antonio, Texas (Basic Training and Tech School)

Zweibrucken, Germany (air force—enlisted)

Limestone, Maine (air force—enlisted)

San Antonio, Texas (Officer’s Training School and Tech School)

Honolulu, Hawaii (air force—HRM)

Rolla, Missouri (ROTC instructor)

San Antonio, Texas (Military Personnel Center—Air Staff assignment)

Comiso, Sicily, southern Italy (CBPO chief)

Colorado Springs, Colorado (Air Force Academy instructor and commander)

Honolulu, Hawaii (Inspector General staff)

Izmir, Turkey (commander)

Norfolk, Virginia (Joint Task Force)

Fremantle, Australia (sabbatical for PhD)

Indialantic, Florida (retirement, sans PhD)

Washington, District of Colombia (State Department orientation and Foreign Service Institute)

San Salvador, El Salvador (regional HRM officer)

Manama, Bahrain (regional HRM officer)

Washington, District of Colombia (career counseling and assignment officer)

Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles (management officer)

Athens, Greece (HRM officer)Indian Harbour Beach, Florida (restartment begins)

So, my friends, the story of the nomadic Feeneys has ended. I am deeply touched by your willingness to stay with me through this outrageous project. I simply could not have toiled this hard if I didn’t believe I had something to say. I hope I guessed right.

I’ve written things in this book I’ve never said out loud. The changes along the way have been difficult to write down on paper. At times, I had to trick myself into thinking I was writing about someone else. But in the end, I tried to honestly tell my story, warts and all, because to do otherwise would be unthinkable. The very thing that made this book so hard to write is the reason I wrote it to begin with—the search for meaning, clarity, spirituality, and closure. And just as importantly, to expose this search to you, the coveted reader, for judgment. I hope you sensed this as well.

Finally, the power of thoughtful people like you—eager to learn and digest differences among us all—motivates me greatly. Although humans share many similarities, it has always been my belief that each of us is different. The vastness of the brain can lead me to no other conclusion. It’s time to listen to mine. And it is telling me the following:

Learn to live well, or fairly make your will;

You’ve played, and loved, and ate, and drunk your fill:

Walk sober off; before the sprightlier age

Comes tittering on, and shoves you from the stage.

—Alexander Pope

 

Home sweet home

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Shortly before it was condemned, mom and dad, us five kids, and a railroad worker all lived in this 2 bedroom, 1 bath duplex.

 

We spent our early–but happy–years on the north side of Pittsburgh.  In my book Gathering No Moss (Memoir of a reluctant world traveler), I detail the improbable path from this house full circle to finishing my career as a US Diplomat, serving in embassies and consulates from around the world. It’s quite a ride (check out some of the comments on Amazon.com). How many people do you know that have actually lived on 5 continents? Worked and played on 6?

I am dedicating 100% of all sales, not just proceeds, to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Check it out–I promise you’ll enjoy it. And I guarantee that every penny spent to read my book will go to the JDRF.  Help me with my passion to fight this horrible disease. (My wife has been a diabetic for over 35 years). Together, we can turn Type I diabetes into Type none!

I can’t do it without you.

 

 

Captain of the football team. My first leadership experience—Ugh!

Avalon
Avalon High School

            Book excerpt: 

In 1971, by the time our senior year came around, everybody in the North Boroughs was picking Avalon to win the conference. We had a predominantly senior-based tem, with lots of really good players. I was mildly surprised and really concerned when I was selected as one of the tri-captains, primarily because things were getting tougher on the home front. (Dad’s emphysema was very bad, and his first lung operation was fraught with complications. In addition, as the oldest at home, I became the designated driver to take my mother from medical hospital (dad) to mental hospital (grandma) on a regular basis. A teenager’s dream, right?) These were among the toughest years of my early life. I was angry that I had to spend countless hours in hospital rooms, watching my dad suffer, or worse, watching my grandma struggle with sanity. Looking back, I probably took a lot of anger out on my mom. I think both of us were overwhelmed with different kinds of responsibilities, which could have contributed to the aloofness that grew between us. With all of these things going on at home, I was crushed when Coach Sullivan removed the other two tri-captions for cause just before the season started. That left me, and Coach Sullivan, to run the team. I was scared shitless.

            All I wanted to do was to play football. If being one of the tri-captains was in the cards, fine. I would have been happy to take a backseat behind either of the other two. But being “the” captain was never in my plans. This position placed too much responsibility on me. I could barely keep my attention on football with all the other issues eating away inside me. Plus, I already had more responsibilities than any other player. I played every down, offense and defense, snapped punts, returned punts, was on the kickoff and kickoff return teams, and called all the defensive signals. This meant that I never left the field, not even for one play. Pile the captain’s responsibilities on top of me as well, and it was too much.

            We ended up with a record of four wins and five losses. Devastating. As the captain, I accepted some of the responsibility. I was no motivator—I wasn’t Coach Isenberg. But on the positive side, I was very proud of our defense. We shut out four teams in a nine-game schedule. Our defense adjusted well to my signal calling and made me look good with excellent execution. If our offense had been anywhere near as good as the defense, we would have been very successful.

“Steering the Blob” in Izmir, Turkey

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The gold souk in downtown Izmir

Book excerpt:

Back at the Akin Building, things couldn’t have been better. As Izmir’s NATO Support Commander, my staff was located on two different floors. My office, the command section, was on the third floor. It was a small five-person office.  The main administration and personnel area, with thirteen employees, was one floor below us. From the beginning, we clicked. We worked hard, and we played hard. Since almost everyone lived within walking distance, we ended many a day on the First Kordon (seaside street) enjoying a HA (Hemingway Afternoon). We took blue cruises together on the Aegean Sea (sailing, snorkeling, and dining), and formed a bowling team in a downtown league. Every Friday at 3:30 p.m., I held our staff meetings. They lasted fifteen minutes or so, and then the party would begin. Out came the dominoes, along with the beer and food. These games were serious. I have so many memories of those staff meetings. I didn’t see it then, but I now realize how rare that kind of camaraderie really was. I would never experience anything like that again.

We were a team and worked very well together. I liken our staff unity to a Vesta A. Kelly quote: “Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile creatures, but just look at what they can do when they stick together.” With my boss in Germany, I was free to implement all those management and leadership principles I had been teaching for years. Izmir was my petri dish, that is, a place where I could grow the office culture at my own pace, using my own style.  For some reason, I have never been afraid of making mistakes, or of failure. The way I looked at it, true leadership required you to make many hard decisions. It’s unrealistic to assume every decision would be a flawless one. That’s why I like the steer-the-blob mentality. Let’s face it—in a blob, there will always be less-than-perfect decisions. It’s how you steer through the imperfections that counts. Reflecting back, what surprised me more than anything in my career was the large number of peers who couldn’t make a decision. I think Lee Iacocca said it best: “If I had to sum up one word that makes a good manager, I’d say decisiveness. You can use the fanciest computers to gather the numbers, but in the end you have to set a timetable and act.”

Ahhh… Those golden days at Clarion.

 

Gathering no moss back
Back of the book

Excerpt from the book:

When the summer was over, I headed back to school with some serious cash in my pocket, minus my union ID card, which was blowing around somewhere on Interstate 79.  It was time for fun again, and I wasted no time finding it. I moved into an old restaurant, called Cherico’s, just off the main street in Clarion. It was an eclectic place, with restaurant tables, large open areas, and a kitchen full of refrigerators and ovens. The only heat came from one giant ceiling blower, so all the prefab rooms didn’t have ceilings. There were five of us, and only four bedrooms. The kitchen was huge, so I strung up some rope in the corner and attached a few blankets—my bedroom was complete.

Cherico’s was a fantastic place for parties. It was right in the middle of town and had an unusualness that was very popular. We had some legendary events there. By now, I had fine-tuned my skills at the library checkout counter, so our turnouts were huge. Drinking, dancing, smoking, meeting girls—it was a long way from the paper mill. We had a friend; I’ll call him Paul, who was quite the womanizer. He had a fiancée at home, but managed to date constantly at Clarion at the same time. I asked him during one of our parties what he would do if he got caught fooling around. I’ll never forget his response:

“Three things, Don,” Paul said. “Deny, deny, deny.”

“But what if you get caught red-handed, in bed, with another woman?” said I, with an acute interest in his reply.

“The same. I’m sure I’d be able to deny it happened.”

You can guess what occurred next. A few months later, his girlfriend, call her Martha, drove up to Clarion to surprise him. Two guesses where she found him—in the sack with another woman. What did he do? He spun a story about comforting the girl because she was sick, and that he accidently fell asleep; he then convinced her that the girl was dating one of his roommates, and he would never turn on his roommate. Finally, he feigned disappointment that she didn’t trust him, which really hurt his feelings, and so on. You get the picture. She was apologizing to him by the afternoon.

When the summer was over, I headed back to school with some serious cash in my pocket, minus my union ID card, which was blowing around somewhere on Interstate 79.  It was time for fun again, and I wasted no time finding it. I moved into an old restaurant, called Cherico’s, just off the main street in Clarion. It was an eclectic place, with restaurant tables, large open areas, and a kitchen full of refrigerators and ovens. The only heat came from one giant ceiling blower, so all the prefab rooms didn’t have ceilings. There were five of us, and only four bedrooms. The kitchen was huge, so I strung up some rope in the corner and attached a few blankets—my bedroom was complete.

Cherico’s was a fantastic place for parties. It was right in the middle of town and had an unusualness that was very popular. We had some legendary events there. By now, I had fine-tuned my skills at the library checkout counter, so our turnouts were huge. Drinking, dancing, smoking, meeting girls—it was a long way from the paper mill. We had a friend; I’ll call him Paul, who was quite the womanizer. He had a fiancée at home, but managed to date constantly at Clarion at the same time. I asked him during one of our parties what he would do if he got caught fooling around. I’ll never forget his response:

“Three things, Don,” Paul said. “Deny, deny, deny.”

“But what if you get caught red-handed, in bed, with another woman?” said I, with an acute interest in his reply.

“The same. I’m sure I’d be able to deny it happened.”

You can guess what occurred next. A few months later, his girlfriend, call her Martha, drove up to Clarion to surprise him. Two guesses where she found him—in the sack with another woman. What did he do? He spun a story about comforting the girl because she was sick, and that he accidently fell asleep; he then convinced her that the girl was dating one of his roommates, and he would never turn on his roommate. Finally, he feigned disappointment that she didn’t trust him, which really hurt his feelings, and so on. You get the picture. She was apologizing to him by the afternoon.

Tora Tora Tora and Mr. Lee

View from my apartment in Halawa Heights, Hawaii.
View from my apartment in Halawa Heights, Hawaii.

Excerpt from Pearl Harbor:

The next several weeks went by fast. I found a nice house in Halawa Heights, overlooking Pearl Harbor and Aloha Stadium, positioned just below the southern perimeter of Camp Smith. (Camp Smith is a US marine installation, and the headquarters for the US Pacific Command.) My backyard had several fruit trees and a view you couldn’t believe. The filming of the Pearl Harbor attack in Tora! Tora! Tora! took place just above my back fence. If you remember the scenes, then you’ll know what it was like to stand in my backyard. The landlord, Mr. Lee, was ninety-two years old when I met him. He worked at the Pearl Harbor Shipyard and had every other Sunday off. That Sunday, December 7, 1941, he watched the whole thing from his backyard. It must have been very frightening when the Japanese Zeros split the Waianae and Koolau Mountain Ranges, and buzzed directly over his head to begin the surprise attack.  It must have been worse to watch as the bombers killed 2,117 people, with fifty-seven of the dead being fellow employees of his. (The awakening of the sleeping giant changed the face of America and the world. The quick American ascent from an isolationist country to world superpower probably started on that very day.)

It took me 35 years to finally understand this…

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Excerpt from Gathering No Moss:

For the first time since I was seventeen years old, I was going to live where I wanted to, not where life took me. Full of expectation, the winding down of my professional career in Athens was very therapeutic. Since I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and was lucky enough to have a loving spouse sharing the same dream, I realized an astonishing fact—I was happy! Past medical catastrophes were just a memory, and I was bound and determined to enjoy our lives together while I still had healthy years left. I was fifty-eight, and gambling that I’d already had my share of bad luck (brain surgery and colon cancer) for a while. I felt like karma was on my side.

We weren’t interested in going-away parties or retirement dinners. Andi and I decided to get together with our friends on our own terms, and begin the distancing process away from the black hole of the US embassy. I did, however, take my entire staff out to lunch (we didn’t return that afternoon—what can they do to me, give me a bad performance rating?). We were hoping to keep in touch with many of our State Department friends, but were not optimistic. It’s hard for them to look back when they’re constantly moving forward. No one knew that more than us. Pledges to get together in the future eventually became wishful afterthoughts. We understood this and were okay with it.

After all, like Thomas Jefferson said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Suicide–is it God’s way to free us from our own demons?

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Al Malero (left) with me on his wedding day.  Alas, he would commit suicide  a few months later.

 

Excerpt from Gathering No Moss:

But Errol’s story pales in comparison to Al’s. In early 1993, Al met a lady we’ll call Karen, who was on vacation from the states. They became inseparable. She traveled back and forth from Kentucky several times to see him, and eventually moved in with him. A few months later, they decided to get married, and Al asked me to be his best man. The wedding was nice, and he seemed very happy. Shortly afterward, everything changed. I had a friend living in the same Pearl City high-rise as Al. She called me one day frantically screaming about his behavior. He had cut Karen’s face out of a wedding picture and stuck a knife into her abdomen (in the picture)! I scrambled to his apartment and found him crazy with anger. I had never seen this side of him. He was always the “too cool for school” type. Karen was back in the states visiting family, so we spent hours talking him down and making him promise to see the base psychologist. He apologized for his ranting, said he was okay, and promised this wouldn’t happen again. He also assured us that he would definitely get some help.

Two weeks later, after missing his appointment with the psychologist, Al called his wife in the United States from his apartment. He told her he was going to kill himself and that it was her fault. Then he threw down the phone and jumped from the twenty-third story of his building!

Since he had no family, Al identified me as his next of kin. I had to identify his body. Have you ever seen a body after it landed on solid concrete from twenty-three stories? I hope not. The first gruesome thought that came to my head was strawberry marmalade. The second was anger. How could you do this to yourself?  Your new bride?  And the third was pity. What was going on in Al’s head? Was the loneliness of being an orphan too much for this life? Did the movement from foster home to foster home break his spirit?  The mental and physical images were too much to handle. I didn’t sleep for six months.

I was charged with escorting the body, in full military regalia, back to Puerto Rico, where a distant relative (actually a maid from one of his many foster homes) would receive the remains. It was brutal. I traveled 17,000 miles in five days. I stood for hours at parade rest on the tarmac in Los Angeles and in Dallas, baking in the hot sun. Our regulations required that I never leave the casket. I was the first one off and the last one on each plane. The burial was uncomfortable. Karen flew down, and we hung close. Neither one of us really knew this man (or each other for that matter). The whole affair was an eerie experience, almost like a Hitchcock movie. We never told the guests what Al said when he dropped the phone and jumped. Karen was a widower, scarred for life by his death, just months after her wedding. And I had lost a friend I never really knew …