Sunday, December 23, 2007
With that said, why would I suddenly go to what for me is such an objectionable location, and for a full quarter of a day, if I hate the dang place so much? Well, that’s easy. My two girls performed there in their annual school Christmas recital, and I wasn’t about to miss that.
Also, I signed on to watching a post recital magic show with them in the afternoon, also there in the mall. Once again, that’s not something I would normally want to do, except where it would be important to my girls for me to be there. After practically begging me, I wasn’t about to disappoint my two little daddy’s girls. Anyway, aside from not wanting to disappoint, I confess that I wholly enjoy watching their enthusiastic reactions to events never yet experienced, like when a magician pulls a dove out of his hat. I never get enough of seeing their joy inspired by such things.
Recently, in another blog, I read commentary by presumptively as yet childless blogger folk describing what they see as the “horrors” of parenthood. It was the predictable references to crying, puking, needy little poop machines. In some ways their negative descriptions are true. Rearing kids can be a trying experience, but, for every one of those supposedly “horrible” moments there are a multitude of really cool ones, such as what I experienced watching my girls up on there on the stage in the mall.
The 4-year-old, my youngest cutie, is a preschooler. She and her little classmates looked adorable in their recital outfits. As they patiently and bravely posed in their beginning dance stance, the announcer told us they were about to perform an American style polka. I grinned, knowing that polka originated in Europe, although it’s true that we North Americans, including the Mexicans, have certainly adapted the original Slovakian polka dancing into our very own. Always critical and tending to over think just about everything, I told myself to shut up and just watch the cute little kids do their American Polka!
I’m glad I did, because I was thrilled! Its difficult to explain, but seeing my little progeny up there on the stage, a little girl who just mere months ago was still in the occasional nighttime diaper, looking all serious as she concentrated on doing her steps with her equally cute boy partner made me mist up like a sissy. I wasn’t the only one. Glancing around me, I saw other equally delighted parents. To all you aforementioned baby-hating bloggers, I say you don’t know what the heck you’re missing!
My first grader was up next. There were too many of them to have any room to dance, but luckily for me, my sweety was right in the middle of the front row. Again, her face, so much like my mother’s, was set in studied concentration. They were going to sing a medley of Christmas tunes, but before starting, each was supposed to have their heads facing down and still. Half complied, including my girl, while the other half kept looking around like distracted puppies. I was proud that mine stayed focus and true to the many extra hours of practice. I was thinking that she gets her seriousness from her old man!
I didn’t appreciate all this daddy stuff the first time around when I was in my 20s. Here I am, 50-years-old, and every papa moment seems so much more important now. If I could only go back and do it right for my first equally precious “batch” of youngsters, I certainly would. As I've mentioned to my mom and dad several times, parenthood is mostly wasted on the young.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Based on that bit of homespun info, now I think that’s probably the reason the original denizens of the disappeared homestead also cultivated that particular kind of perennial. I find that immensely interesting, and now I’d like to know exactly what kind of bush it was. I’ll put it on my list of things to eventually find out.
And since the subject of irritating bugs and insects has come up, in this segment I’ll jump right to a description of my own continuous clash in olden days with the beastie bugs of Arkansas. Anyone who has ever set foot in the woods and fields of The Natural State in spring and summer knows about its prodigious creepy-crawlies and their bothersome nature. I’m NOT talking about snakes and tarantulas, although I saw those too. No, it’s the ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, horseflies, and spiders, among others, that make life absolutely miserable for anyone venturing off the roads and beaten paths. But, even keeping to the pathways will not necessarily prevent a personal invasion of the “buggy kind” unless elaborate measures are taken.
For me, taking those measures began as soon as the tick season started in late April. And so, before saddling up for the woods, I went through an elaborate pre-ride prep: First, before getting dressed, I sprayed my entire body with OFF bug repellant. Then, I put on my summer woods clothes consisting of combat fatigue pants and a long-sleeved turtleneck cotton shirt. Next, I’d tie the legs securely over my socks with the ankle drawstrings, after which I tightly wrapped long black elastic cloth strips at the ankles and lower legs to make it even more difficult for no-seeums to find a way “in.” After putting on the running shoes I specifically used for mountain biking, I sprayed myself down with a heavy duty anti-tick repellant that I managed to acquire from Air Force stocks. I knew it was toxic as hell from the caution label on the can, which warned against using it directly on the skin at the risk of dire health consequences. Evidently, it was poisonous for bugs AND humans alike.
So, that was how I suited up before every summer time ride or run through the woods of Arkansas. Keep in mind that the temperatures and humidity in the central part of that state are worse in my opinion than even here in tropical Philippines. Even so, after suffering a multitude of painful and itchy lessons, I never wore any less than what I describe above. It sounds like an uncomfortably warm way to dress in such a humidly hot clime, especially while doing something so vigorous; but surprisingly, I didn’t feel much warmer that way than if I wore just a pair of shorts and a tank top. The most important thing is staying hydrated, thus I always carried two full water bottles with me.
Even after taking all those anti-bug precautions, when I came in from a ride or a run, I was forced to go through an equally intricate “post-game” undressing ritual. I say “forced” because if I didn’t then I would certainly contaminate the inside of my home with a host of cast off bloodthirsty bugs.
First, out in the yard, I resprayed myself with the toxic military bug spray to stun my nasty little passengers. The next stop was an outdoor closet inside our carport where a supermarket paper bag and a pair of running shorts awaited. Quickly, I took off all my clothes, stuffed them into the bag, swiftly sealed it, and put on the clean shorts. My shoes I threw out into a far corner of the yard for a later thorough inspection and cleaning. Immediately I took the bag into the laundry room and dumped the bug-ridden clothes into the washer. Straight away I started the washer using the hottest water and plenty of strong detergent. As the steamy water rose above the clothes, I could actually see dozens of dying ticks floating on the film of fresh suds.
“Ha! Drown and die you little bastards!” I’d yell at them.
Finally, it was straight to the shower, where I gave “naked Me” a full visual and tactile inspection. During this “final phase,” at least once or twice a week, I’d still find a deer tick or two hanging off me with their little heads firmly buried under the skin. And that was despite all my defenses—the two kinds of repellant and all the clothing with all the openings virtually sealed.
A combat controller stationed there on the base with me once told me that he and some of his mates would go through countless cans of the noxious bug poison on every trip to the field. They found that the repellant didn’t work so well, especially against chiggers and ticks, so out of desperation, after hearing that wearing pantyhose was the best protection, they tried it out. These fellows pride themselves on being tough macho guys, so I can’t verify this myth; but I wouldn’t blame them a bit for wearing women’s under things if it works; for the damage that ticks and chiggers can cause is not only maddening when itching is involved, but deadly, when Lyme Disease is the outcome.
Once, I found a particularly deeply imbedded tick in the depths of an armpit. I failed in trying to remove it with its head still attached to its blood-engorged body. Unfortunately, the decapitated head stayed in and caused a horrible infection. The site of the bite swelled up and turned several shades of blue, yellow, red and black, all in concentric rings with the outer ring reaching a diameter of two or three inches. The lymph nodes in my neck and armpit blew up as big as golf balls and hurt something fierce. I finally relented and went to the clinic for antibiotics. I’m still not sure that I didn’t catch Lyme Disease, because I’ve had problems off and on ever since.
Arkansas chiggers, a type of bloodsucking mite, can drive an infested person nuts with the itching. These near-microscopic red devils seem to love to go for the ankles. I don’t how many times I came in from a run before I knew better and scratched myself raw for the next day or two. I tried witch hazel, rubbing alcohol, ice cubes, calamine lotion, anything I could think of, to try to get some relief from the maddening itching.
In the late summer and early autumn, Arkansas horseflies—I describe them as a cross between a honeybee and a fruit fly—seem to seek out the smell and taste of sweat-soaked human scalps, mine for example. One time, during a bushwhacking run through the forest, before I came up with a remedy for them, I almost knocked myself out running straight into a tree trunk, so distracted I was by the maddening buzzing and stinging of scads of horseflies. These fat winged biting insects will fly right into your hair, and when you try to swat them away, instead of that, you’ll find they have tangled and burrowed their way in all the way to the scalp. It’s a disgusting and disconcerting feeling to feel their plump vibrating bodies snarled up against your head. Ugh.
Ah, but there WAS one good thing about having all those nasty bugs to contend with out there in the woods and meadows encompassing the area of my single track mountain bike trail. From May through September, it seemed that I was about the ONLY human stupidly willing to brave the ticks and chiggers of the Arkansas boondocks. That alone more than made up for the spraying, itching, and swatting. In truth, I really miss it.
Don't miss Part 10 of Bicycle Memories: Yanking and Banking.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
So, here it is; the platform planks that I’d love to see proclaimed by MY nominee as his or hers, whether democrat or republican; although it’s obvious no democrat would likely support even one of my "wishes."
On illegal immigration. Stop it NOW! Do whatever has to be done to prevent it. Build a fence; make it effective and put troops on top of it and on our side of it. Put employers in jail for hiring illegals and for a long time—make it hurt so that they and other employers won’t dare do it again. To heck with playing the “their nice people just looking to make a living and besides, they contribute to society” card. I don’t care. I don’t care if they are nice and have families. It doesn’t matter to me. Try blowing off Mexico’s or Guatemala’s immigration laws and find out what happens to you. Families are broken up and hurt by criminality all the time; since when is that a valid excuse for not enforcing laws and punishing lawbreakers? Reverse the 14th amendment that causes pregnant women to give birth to "anchor babies" on US soil because they know that by doing so that they have just bred themselves a little American to which they can attach themselves to. No other nation ruled by sanity has such a stupid rule, so why do we? If we need workers, let them in to work then make them go home! Hire more INS people to make sure all this happens. I like Tom Tancredo. HE has the right idea when it comes to this stuff. Call me a racist, if you must, for wanting these things; but keep in mind that I want immigration rules to apply to ALL races who jump the line.
The War against Islamists. Give me a guy or gal who will scrap the nonsensical designation “War on Terror.” Admit that we are fighting jihadists bent on making the world conform to their strict interpretation of Islam; the version passed down from their founder stating that the rest of us can either convert, accept completely their authority, or be killed by them. I want a president who doesn’t shirk the responsibility to keep us safe by taking such measures as waterboarding, profiling, reading emails, and listening in on terrorist as they plot to kill us; and to do it no matter where these people are, whether they reside in Timbuktu or Fairfield.
Iran’s nuclear designs. I will definitely vote for the candidate who keeps the pressure on the biggest sponsor of terrorism on the face of the earth; as they lie, cheat and steal their way into achieving the acquisition of nuclear weapons. These are the same people willing to kill our military personnel every chance they get, whether it be our airmen at The Khobar Towers in ’96, our marines in Beirut in ’83, or for the last few years in Iraq. After taking so much crap from these murdering bastards for the last 25 odd years I want to bomb them so bad I can’t tell you how bad I want it—but its really, really, really bad! I want to bomb every nuclear facility they have, above and below ground, using wave after wave of our B2 Spirits. I want to bomb their navy, air force, and army installations until there is not one brick standing upon another. And finally, I want to bomb their oil refineries. Give me a president with the stones to do that and he's MY man. Give us some payback! Give us justice!
Out of control Legislators. Veto everything and keep cutting taxes! Stop allowing our weak willed congressman and senators to spend money we don’t have just so they can keep their self-serving butts in office. No more bridges to nowhere. No more farm subsidies to multimillionaire corporations. No more grants to support Woodstock Museums; and that one is aimed right at you Hillary Clinton. No more foreign aid to governments and nations that hate us—why are we trying to buy their affection when all it does is make them sneer at us? Close military bases that need closing, but aren’t because some senator is trying to keep constituents happy—it wastes resources and puts personnel and weapons systems where we don’t need them, and even worse, forces us to keep some we don’t even need anymore. Our legislators are spending us into oblivion and they don’t seem able to help themselves—So YOU must help them. Just say NO.
Supreme Court Nominees. Pick smart ones that respect life, individuals and national security. I hate the death penalty because I don’t want the possibility that even one innocent is put irreversibly to death. On the same note, stack the court until we can roll back Roe vs. Wade. We shouldn’t be killing fetuses, no matter what. A woman doesn’t have the right to kill her child out of personal convenience, or for any reason, so why do we allow fetuses to be slaughtered just because they are sheltered inside her? Choose your justices carefully. Make sure they keep individual freedoms and rights “as described” in the Constitution intact, but not to the point that we allow terrorists and maniacs to destroy us. For instance, national ID cards and multitudes of publicly placed video cameras are NOT the first step toward Big Brotherhood. Select court candidates who understand the nuances of maintaining our security and sacrificing privacy rights. And remember, ONLY lawbreakers have to worry about such things anyway! And speaking of individual rights, personally interview all potential justices and make them swear to you that they will stop the obscene spate of eminent domain cases where people are unfairly forced out of their homes and businesses not for bridges, schools and highways, but so some city council can create a higher tax base. Shame on them, and shame on anyone who allows this to continue!
I’m running out of breath, but that’s a start.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
One weekend afternoon I took a breather, after riding and tweaking a section of the trail where it wound through the dense woods directly behind the commissary just up the rock-strewn forested ridge behind the police shack. Where I sat on a small boulder I spotted a rider coming up my trail toward me. It was the first time I’d seen another rider on it—I was thrilled yet strangely upset, feeling like he was trespassing. He stopped and in conversation told me how great the trail was and wondered why he had never noticed it before. Shrugging, I agreed that it was indeed a great trail; feeling proud, but keeping my secret to myself.
But I wasn’t always pleased with other riders. The trail switched tightly back on itself in several places, especially in the hilly areas, and soon I noticed that some riders were taking short cuts. I could not allow this to happen. I needed a solution to stop alternate spurs from springing off my main trail due to the bushwhacking of these wrongdoing riders. If I didn’t figure out how to stop them, these uncaring riders would soon slice up the woods that I had now made so completely accessible and thus ruin its natural beauty. Damn, but sometimes I hate people. Present company excluded, humans ALWAYS find ways to take a good thing and ruin it.
There was only one way to fix the short-cutting problem, by dragging huge logs and boulders across the short-cutted areas. I also interlaced these barricades with spiny branches, blackberry canes, and anything else I could find that would painfully impede a rider from casually cutting through and sullying the areas directly around the trail.
It sounds like a ridiculous thing to get upset over, but trail shortcutting is a big problem for all trail maintainers. For instance, indifferent hikers cut between trail loops all the time and in many parks, because of the damage it causes, it is illegal to shortcut a switchback. It kills plant life and causes unnecessary erosion. By building these large seemingly “natural” obstacles I managed to nip the problem in the bud.
An interesting thing about the area that I put my trail is that it was basically a wild region right in the middle of a busy air force base. On the east side was the flight line; to the west, base housing; to the north lay the small base lake; and to the south were the commissary, Burger King and sports fields. Until they started purifying pollution-soaked soil in the center of it, I always wondered how that huge plot of nature never got built on over the years. But over time, I discovered that someone HAD indeed built on it, although many years before the Air Force had taken possession.
Over the course of my traipsing I found two springs where water naturally found its way to the surface from the aquifer. In days gone by, wherever spring water busted to the surface people would usually settle nearby. Sure enough, that’s exactly what had happened with these particular springs, although you wouldn’t have known it at first look.
The first spring I discovered was not all that enchanting. It slowly fed out of the ground and formed the mucky willow swamp through which I had to build the dike. This water eventually drained down the hill behind the cop shop. It was here during heavy rains a series of picturesque little waterfalls flowed over several small escarpments of flint and sandstone.
Out of curiosity one day I followed this bubbly stream to the bottom of the hill and was pleasantly surprised when I came to an ancient concrete watering trough studded with small smooth river stones. It sits there now in a small grove of trees hidden from view, but I could tell it was once part of a long defunct farmstead. The archaic cement and round river stones of its construction is of a crudely ancient vintage. I could be wrong, but if I had to venture a guess, it was probably put there by some frontier farmer in the late 1800s.
The second artesian spring is much more fascinating; not only in appearance, but in how I discovered it. The tale actually goes back four or five years before my trail building time, when I first arrived at Little Rock AFB. Being a runner long before I was a biker, I soon came upon a narrow sunken dirt road hemmed in thickly with trees. The road starts just behind the commissary, where it begins as a gravel lane through a large grove of pines. It continues in a mostly straight line north for almost a mile to highway 107 which parallels the base’s northern fence line. I figure the sunken road is original, probably well over a hundred years in existence, and was there long before the base came into being in the mid 1950s. How could I possibly come up with this figure in years? Well, I’ll explain.
As I mention above, the road, actually better described as a lane, was sunken. Wikipedia even has an entry on such thoroughfares. Sunken roads become that way through the action of many years of erosion and wear. In the old days almost all country roads were sunken. Most people are generally unobservant and uninterested in such things, so I doubt anyone else traversing the sunken woods road on the base, besides me, even realized its ancient origins.
Every March, as the weather warms in Central Arkansas, there is one unlikely spot along the old sunken road that sprouts thickly with bright yellow clumps of flowering lilies, white dogwood blossoms, wild redbuds, as well as some kind of yellow-flowering domestic bush, of which there are several. All of these flowering plants grow within a relatively very small area. At first, I marveled at the coincidence of it, that such a beautiful wild garden would develop there. In the spring of 1992, when I started work on the last leg of my mountain bike trail, I discovered that the lovely wild garden was not there through happenstance after all, but was the site of a long gone homestead.
Anyone with a mind to can see the stream that runs into the west corner of the small base lake. It usually runs at a trickle from a culvert passing under the street that runs directly in front of the base lake shoppette. I knew that I wanted to fully incorporate this stream bed as it meandered for several hundred yards through the northwest corner of the wooded region of my trail. In my explorations of the stream I casually followed it back to its beginnings, to its headwater. Fascinatingly, I found evidence of overgrown manmade ditches, as if someone had used them for irrigation purposes many decades before.
Where the stream channel ends, the ground becomes quite marshy. At the time, it was muddy in places, but mostly thick dead grass just starting to sprout new tendrils of growth formed a spongy sucking walking surface. Suddenly, I knew exactly where I was when I spotted not 25 yards away the out of place cluster of yellow lilies and flowering domestic bushes. It was the place along the sunken road with the improbable wild garden.
About then I heard the murmur of dripping water. I followed the sound to a tiny copse of trees a few feet away. There, amidst lush green moss and thick verdant grasses was a perfectly circular antique well. Gazing upon it, I felt a thrill go through me.
The old well was only 4 feet in diameter and constructed of indigenous flat rocks mortared loosely together. At some point someone had filled it in with large rocks so that it was only a foot deep. Whoever had built it all those decades ago did so right over a spring. The sound that drew me to it was spring water dripping off the mortared rock face and into the shallow pool of crystalline water in the well.
The sight of the old round manmade structure fascinated me. It was a serene and yet haunting spectacle, because now I realized I was standing in the remains of the home of some long ago farmer or frontier family. With that in mind, I began to kick and paw at the dense foliage, roots and vines covering the earth around the well.
Over the next week or so, before it got too hot and bug-infested with the approach of summer, I searched for vestiges of the former occupants. The first things I found were large once-molten clumps of old-fashioned blue-tinted glass that I suppose had been used in the disappeared building’s window panes. At that point I reckoned that a fire had burned down whatever wooden structure had once existed there; all that melted glass had to signify a devastating blaze. I also found the remains of footings of crumbling mortar and native stone. The only other remnants were bits of broken chinaware and vintage bottles.
I had jogged, biked and strolled past that spot hundreds of times over the years and never suspected that a family had once lived there maybe a hundred years before; though I do remember one early evening run that I took about two years before I had taken up mountain biking. It had been still out, completely windless, without even the hint of a breeze. The sun had already passed below the horizon, but there was still another 15 minutes of twilight left. Jogging along the sunken lane something caught my eye in the trees exactly in the area of the long gone burned down house.
Something was there. I stopped running and stared at the place where I had seen it, but now it was gone. Turning away I felt a shiver go through my spine as it reappeared in my peripheral vision. Whatever it was, it made no sound and that I knew to be impossible. Nothing moves through those woods absolutely soundless like that. Whenever I moved it moved, but when I stopped it also stopped. It continued to do this. Once, as I stared directly at the misty white “thing” I could still see it obscured behind some trees. It was there!
The white misty phantom thing only went out of my side-vision when the road bent around away from it. Just to make sure, I turned around and went back. Sure enough, now it followed me in the other direction. Never approaching me, it always stayed exactly the same distance away to my flank perhaps 20 yards distant. It only moved when I moved, but never followed when I looked directly at it.
I’ve only seen something similar once before in the woods and fields behind my family’s home in Birch Run, Michigan. Anyway, I only saw that particular “thing” that one time; although I never stopped looking for it over the years. I was a bit stunned though, when I realized years later that the apparition I had seen years earlier had appeared directly in the area of the long gone house. Strange, huh?
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Over the last year, in several posts, I’ve complained of the increased local criminality, but at least with robbers and pickpockets you can take precautions and guard against them. However, there’s nothing to be done about the double edged sword of the falling dollar and the rising cost of living.
Another concern is medical care, especially for American military retirees. When I first arrived five years ago, medical availability was impressive. Tricare paid for everything and life was good, certainly for those of us who needed lots of treatment and medication. Unfortunately, that’s mostly finished. Now, except for a few hospitals, we pretty much pay as we go and send the receipts to Wisconsin for payment. This means its best to have at least a healthy credit card to pay your medical bills up front, or better yet, have a hefty savings account balance. Either way will work, although I know a lot of folks who have neither. Woe is them.
So, the depressing trend I referred to at the top of this post is the negative buzz I’m hearing from a lot of my fellow expatriate retirees trying to live here among all these bad developments. In the last couple of days I’ve spoken to 10 retirees, and 7 told me they are seriously thinking of leaving Angeles City, either to go back to the US, or to try to find a more suitable place here in-country. One confirmed that he will be leaving as soon as the VA in Manila finishes adjudicating his claim for disability compensation. Only one of the ten mentioned nothing about leaving and he happens to be well-to-do.
Just today I spoke to a fellow Air Force retiree who cited the typical difficulties. His problem is that he only has his retirement, with no social security or VA disability to help him meet his living requirements. He got out as an E7 with 23 years of service, which provided a decent living back when the dollar was getting upwards of 50 to 58 pesos. Now it’s only worth just over 40 and from what we can see, the actions of the federal government will do nothing to help those of us living overseas. If anything, we expect the dollar to become even weaker right up into next year’s general election. Gulp!
The cost of living is soaring. Gas and transport prices have gone through the roof just as they have all around the world, but housing is what has really hurt quite a few of us. For instance, rent for a 3-bedroom house now goes from P25,000 and up, mostly up. In 2002, the year I got here, even 4-bedrooms went for much less, perhaps starting at P10,000 to P12,000. Of course, back then the dollar was getting close to P55, so decrease that by the 25% to 30% that the dollar has lost in value since then. Combine the higher costs with the lower dollar and you might as well rent a house back in the USA. From what I’m seeing, its cheaper to rent a nice place in Jacksonville, Arkansas where my kids live than it does to rent one here in Angeles City, Pampanga.
A lot of what’s driving up the housing market is the influx of Koreans. For some reason the word has gotten out up there that this is the place to start a Little Korea.
My only complaint about Koreans before was that they had driven many of us off the local golf courses. They come down by the score and deluge the couple of courses we have here, which should be no problem if they were normal players. But they are not normal. Most of them do not know how to play by the accepted rules and they are too arrogant to learn. They do stupid things like tee off the fairway, and play in groups of 5 and more, and generally clog the courses up. There are no marshals to keep them moving and the caddies do nothing to threaten whatever little tip they might get. I know several guys who decided to simply stop playing when it started to take 6 hours to play 18 holes. I am one of them.
But aside from the Korean penchant to mess up golf course play, the real damage they have done is to the housing market. As I said, the costs have skyrocketed. Generally Koreans are harmless and they keep to themselves. Most of them even bring their own women and families. I don’t blame them for coming here, but here they are, and with their numbers going up daily so does the cost of housing. I shrug as I write it.
I get a lot of hits from folks looking at the cost of living in the Philippines, from military retirees and other pensioner types looking to live here. To you folks, I say that if you can come up with at least $2300 a month and have about $15,000 to spend on getting a household started, you SHOULD be okay to live here in AC. That is unless the dollar continues to slide, in which case you should increase the above figures accordingly. It all depends on what living standard you want to exist in. The numbers I quote above are to live like an enlisted person is used to. Keep in mind that the average Filipino lives on much less, but most Americans I know wouldn’t want to live the way they do.
A final note is that I am speaking of life here in Angeles City. My best friend, who through good investments is independently wealthy, told me just today that he is thinking of moving to Cebu City. He says costs are lower there than here. Personally, I have no idea. I plan to stick it out here for a while. My income and investments have kept me somewhat above the fray, but if things continue, I might just consider getting out of here myself. If only it weren’t so darned cold in Michigan!
Monday, December 10, 2007
Dear 1970 Phil,
You are 13 now; enjoy it. You'll only be a baker's dozen once, and soon you are going to be filled with hormone driven angst and bad temper. No worries; it will only last, oh let's see, about 5 freaking years! It'll get better after you meet and start dating. Oh, here's a tip: don't wait until you're half way through 20 before you get over your shyness with girls. And then, don't fall in love right off the bat and get married. That would be a bad plan. Hot tip: when you are 18 you will meet a much younger girl named Marie. Wait for her and marry that one. Couldn't hurt.
You are about to take up running as a personal sport and unknowingly, as a form of emotional therapy. It will be good for you, but be careful, because you will tend to over do it and cause yourself a lot of future serious physical damage. Don't run so far, or so fast, or so often. Always, always, always, buy the best shoes to limit the damage. Otherwise, run like the wind!
You have already made your mind up to join the U.S. Marines. When the drill instructors and later on, other marine comrades start to speak ugly idiocies, just ignore all that derogatory drivel. Don't let it get to you. Maintain the respect your parents taught you to have for women, don't start using the "f word" just because everyone around you uses it, and continue to be the innocent person you are right now. Stay idealistic and true to your religion and its morals. If you can maintain your ethics even as all around you seem to have lost theirs, then the Marines can probably be good for you. On second thought, don't join the Corps, go ahead and serve your country in the Air Force. Dad was right about that all along.
After you marry, and the babies come, cherish them IMMEDIATELY. They are babies for mere split seconds. Before you know it, they are confused teenagers much like yourself, and then, poof, they are gone. Never put yourself ahead of them, not even when you're tired after a long night working on the flight line, or because you think you have something more important to do. Nothing is more important than those babies. You were put here for them, not for you. Don't wait until you are 40 to learn that.
Take care Phil. You do those things and you'll be all right. See you in 37 years.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
My MP3 was cranked up to drown out the disgusting hip-hop playing on the gym’s loudspeakers when Roland, an 80-year-old Chinese-Irish-American retiree, who had just arrived for a workout, stood directly in front of me. His lips were moving so I knew he was probably speaking to me. Ronald Reaganesquely, I pointed to my earphones to beg deafness, but he insisted on continuing to get me to converse. The old fellow was not going to leave me alone, so I relented and took my earphones out. Normally he leaves me alone when I’m “not in the mood,” as signified by my wearing of earphone inserts.
“What’s up Roland?” I asked him.
“Heya Phil. You know Michael Barrett don’t you?”
“Maybe,” I responded. “What’s he look like?”
“You know; the older guy who walks with the bad limp.”
“Oh yeah. He drives that old brown Filipino-made jeep, and he always has a bit of body odor about him.”
“A little!?” Roland exclaimed.
“Well, you know,” I explained. “Sometimes I like to understate, especially because other than his stale smell, he seems like a nice guy.”
My old gym pal continued: “Well, the day before yesterday, he was in a barbershop getting his haircut…”
About then, I thought Roland was going to continue on with the body odor theme. He knows how much I hate to smell other people’s pits. I figured maybe Roland was about to tell me that the barber had a rude comment or something to say about Mr. Barrett’s BO. After all, Filipinos are as sensitive as I am about smelly unwashed armpit odor. I listened on.
“…So anyway, he fell out of the barber chair dead as a doornail!”
Immediately, I stopped doing my wimpy chest presses and cocked my head at Roland. “Roland! You jerk! Why the hell did you let me start talking sh*t about a guy that you KNEW just died?” Feigning anger, I raised my voice at him, “I don’t think I’m going to forgive you for that.”
Roland just grinned. “That’s okay. I thought it would increase the drama of what I was about to tell you.”
Then changing emotional gears on me, he reminisced, “You know, I was the only guy who called him Doctor Mike.”
I raised my head up from where I had been looking at the floor in disgust with Roland’s cute little ruse to make me look bad, while considering the old, now dead guy with the pronounced limp. I saw him in the gym virtually every day I’ve ever been in there. Unlike me, I doubt if he had ever missed even a day. Now, he was gone. In spite of myself, I had an image of him lying in his coffin, still and quiet. No more limping for him.
I asked Roland, “Why did you call him doctor? Don’t tell me he was a doctor!”
“Oh yeah, big time. He was a cosmetic surgeon for all the rich and famous jerks of Europe. In fact, he practiced out of Monte Carlo.”
“You’re kidding! I always took him for some ordinary pensioner out of Australia. He looked more like a sheep farmer than a physician.”
“Nope. Doctor Michael Barrett was a plastic surgeon and he was English.”
“I never would have guessed that. I don’t think I actually ever said anything to him, but if we passed and I had even a hint of a grin going he’d respond with a crooked smile of his own and a friendly nod. I never would have thought him a doctor, especially one that probably made a lot of bucks in his life. I mean, what the heck is he doing living here Roland?”
Roland laughed like the joker he always is, “Why are you here? Why am I here? Why are any of us here! I think you KNOW why!”
“How old was he?” I changed the subject. Roland can be irritating at times.
I kidded "old" Roland, “Whoa! He was WAY too young, wasn't he? How old are you now again, 80 is it? Heh. Heh.”
He laughed me off, “I hear you. Me and my one lung have at least a few years left. As long as I have my 19-year-old girlfriend to keep me happy, and as long as Pfizer stays in business, I’ll be around to make them BOTH a lot of money!”
“Good point old man... Oh well, I guess it’s just the end of another era. Seems like “another era” ends just about once a week around here anymore.”
I put my earphones back in and continued my workout.
Sighing, I thought, ‘Anyway, at least I’M still breathing! ...for now.'
Saturday, December 08, 2007
One of our most remarkable ancestors is Samuel Lount of Toronto, Canada. He is my great x 3 grandfather hung in 1838 by the British and their Canadian Loyalists in 1838 for treason. I won’t go into the details here of his righteous life and unjust death, but I will say he was a remarkable man. Thanks to Ted, I’m learning that he was one of several extraordinary people to whom I am directly related.
Just as Jose Rizal wrote “My Last Farewell” the night before he was executed for his beliefs here in the Philippines in 1896, Samuel Lount wrote his own poignant final farewell while waiting to similarly die for having acted on his own idealistic values.
I can’t imagine trying to write something beautiful and important knowing that death awaits just moments away; and that makes Samuel’s last prose all the more amazing, especially considering how truly lovely and heartrending it is.
Please read and appreciate my grandfather’s last written words, all devoted to his family and to his high ideals. And so, here is Samuel Lount’s Farewell…
Read o'er my sorrows with a tear;
Though all my foes may strive to stain,
There is great Honour to my name.
My soul from heaven with love was blest,
My pain gave way to peace and rest;
My God removed the load I bore,
I rest where Crowne can do no more.
My mortal life to man I gave,
Though thousands prayed my life to save;
But pray'rs and tears and groans were in vain,
To save my life from tyrant's chain.
I trust my blood will satisfy,
The thirst of same should bleed and die;
But oh! My blood will not atone,
For griefs unseen, unheard, unknown!
Farewell fond wife and children dear,
Although we part with many a tear;
Still trust in God and still maintain,
My blood that's spilt is not in vain.
May God look down with pitying eyes,
And lend His ears to hear your cries;
And all your grief may Jesus see,
That came from heaven to comfort me.
Dear babes, sweet treasures in my eyes,
May you from earth to heaven rise;
In heaven may God record your name,
That bore away my grief and pain.
Dear brother, how thou wert distressed,
For days and nights thou would not rest;
And when thou sawest me near to death,
Thou fellest and gavest me thy breath.
May God reward thee for thy pains,
Thy brother's freed from binding chains;
The nights I saw, the grief I bore,
Shall unto me return no more.
Farewell! To all that round me stood,
To all earth's joys, 'Tis blest and good;
To give my life by God's command,
Farewell! I leave this troubled land.
Written By Samuel Lount
The night before his execution
By hanging April 12, 1838
Thursday, December 06, 2007
The premise of the movie "Crash" is that people move through their modern lives like cars in heavy traffic, so many all together and yet so isolated from meaningful human contact that, on occasion, they purposefully crash into one another just for the sake of the interaction—supposedly it makes the crashees feel more alive and vital. That MIGHT be true in the USA where people probably ARE more remote from one another, where human contact IS less likely to be meaningful; but in no way would that CRASH premise fly in this place. No, when people “crash” here, it’s more likely to be because of culture or frustration, or like today, both!
Today, for example, I witnessed a “little crash” between an Englishman and a Filipino. Once again, it was in the gym. It seems most of the “fun” things that happen to me and around me happens there.
A few minutes before “the collision” I was on the curling machine when I noticed a Josh Groban song being played on the stereo. I love that guy. He’s great. I was thrilled and excited to hear it. Then, a second Groban song came on, and I realized they were playing one of his albums. Awesome! I finished my current set of reps, and while I shook them off getting ready for the next set, I took a step over to the counter and asked the girl about the music. Right away she got defensive. She’s new and I have this reputation for asking the music to be changed forthwith if, and only if mind you, rap is being played.
“Oh, you don’t like this sir?” She almost looked scared.
“No. This is Josh Groban right? He’s wonderful! I love all music EXCEPT rap. Cos you know why?”
“No, why sir?”
“Cos rap is crap! And when I hear it, I just want to SLAP the SAP out of the person who plays THAT PAP!”
I said also laughing. “See, I told you rap sucks. Now do you believe me? Hey, thanks for playing this album. Where did it come from?”
“That guy over there in the corner,” she said pointing.
I went back to my machine to finish my reps and an older (than me) shaven headed bespectacled Filipino was standing there looking impatient. He asked me, “Are you still using this?”
“Yes sir. Almost done. I’ll give you the high sign when I’m finished.” I said respectfully.
He gave me an annoyed look, which is very un-Filipino and therefore I got the sense that he wasn’t from around here. Him doing that was very uncharacteristic of a local. Besides, his accent, what little I heard of it, sounded a bit American too.
A few minutes later and I found myself next to the fellow foreigner who provided the Groban music. I thanked him for bringing it in and we both agreed how utterly talented the man is. From his accent I took him to be from Great Britain and he verified that when he mentioned how much cheaper it was to buy a Josh Groban CD here in the Philippines than in the UK. He had just bought his newest one in one of the big shopping centers in Angeles City.
Not 15 minutes later and I was by the water cooler and introducing myself to the impatient American-acting older Filipino. Sure enough, he told me he had just arrived from the US two weeks ago where he had been living for many years. His name is Eddy.
I remarked, “Eddy, I knew immediately that you were NOT a local. I kind of pride myself on my observations and you even carry yourself more like an American than a Filipino.”
“Oh really?” he responded warily; “Is that good or bad?”
“It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just an observation. Of course, if you don’t like that I spotted your Americanisms within 20 seconds, then I guess that would be bad, wouldn’t it?” I kidded him. He grinned back, so I knew he got the humor.
About then I heard an angry English voice. It was my fellow Josh Groban fan and he was mad hot.
He came over to me fuming, “Some other guy working out in here doesn’t like my music and made her stop playing it,” he told me angrily.
“What! No way! Who?” I craned my head toward the counter. I couldn’t believe anyone would hate such righteous tunes to the point that they needed it yanked off the stereo; especially considering the rap crap that I’ve had to suffer through in there before.
The irate Limey pointed furiously at a younger Filipino fellow, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s. It’s hard to tell ages over here.
I shook my head feeling myself getting upset and maybe slightly enraged as well, although not nearly as hot as this guy was. I informed him, “No way buddy. The rule is that they HAVE to play out the whole CD if you request that they play it. I’ve had to suffer through crappy rap music before and THAT is what I was told then. THAT’S the rule!”
That was a mistake if I was looking to cool the dude down, because now he charged back to the counter loaded for bear.
I stood and watched the ongoing crash while Eddy spoke up to me, “You know, you guys really shouldn’t be like that. This isn’t your country. Why do you want to piss off the local Filipinos like that? It’s a huge mistake. They are NOT going to like it.”
I turned my attention to him. “Dude, I’ve been here a long time and I know exactly what you are saying. I’ve already been through similar situations where I was expected not to confront a local because I was in HIS country, and besides, I’m ALSO supposed to fear what they can do to me when my back is turned. That IS what you’re talking about, right?”
He nodded wryly.
I went on, “Okay, rationally, I know that you are right. But for many of us, a moment comes along where you just say, “NO WAY! I AIN’T TAKING THIS!” and I’m sensing that that fellow over there is having a moment like that. And besides, this gym is owned by a foreigner, a majority of the people that come in here are foreigners, and we don’t think we should have to keep kissing local ass even in here! This is supposed to be an international place, you know?”
I could tell Eddy wasn’t convinced by my tirade, and all the while I’m talking to him I’m watching the English fellow get even more riled up. He got right in the face of the Groban-hating Filipino fellow and things got so heated that the two gym boys, both big muscled fellows, were now playing the role of physical peacemakers. I’ve seen dozens of fights and I’ve seen hundreds of confrontations that seemed about to erupt into fights and I knew straight away that this one was NOT going to involve fisticuffs. They were just growling and snapping, neither really interested in tangling.
So, instead of a CRASH! it was more of a piddling fender-bender; interesting to see, but nothing worth calling the cops and ambulance over.
Just another day in “paradise...”
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Almost 20 years ago I took a class or so every semester toward earning my Associates Degree in Avionics Technology. I wrote the following paper for an English class taught by one of the best teachers from whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning--Mr. Bill Garvin. This little paper was the culmination of that class. I knew I couldn’t go wrong writing about mercenaries, and everyone is fascinated with Gurkhas and Legionnaires. For all you out there looking for info for a school project on Gurkhas and The Legion, this little research paper is somewhat dated; so I highly suggest further reading using more recent sources. Note: There also exists the Spanish Foreign Legion, but in practice it recruits almost exclusively from Spaniards.
Professor Bill Garvin
November 11, 1988
Thesis: How do the French Foreign Legionnaires and the British Gurkhas compare and contrast as the last two important mercenary military outfits still actively part of any western power’s army?
I. Legion and Gurkha beginnings
A. French Foreign Legion origins
B. The Carlist Campaign
C. British Gurkha origins
II. The Motives and background of the men
A. The Legionnaire
1. Where he comes from, his outlook
2. Why he fights
B. The Gurkhas
1. His personable outlook
2. Where they come from, why they fight
III. The training of these mercenaries
A. Gurkha training
1. The innate mountain soldier
2. Special training requirements
B. Legion Training
1. The brutal indoctrination
2. The men who train them
IV. Pivotal battles in their histories
A. The battle of Camerone
B. The Bengal Army Mutiny
V. A final analysis
Comparing the French Foreign Legion with the British Gurkhas is like comparing two brothers: one saintly and responsive, the other ornery and self-destructive. Both outfits have been in existence since the early 19th century, and both have been important units in their respective country’s army in every major conflict of the 20th century. Both French Legionnaires and Gurkhas are elite mercenary fighters that would have been disbanded long ago, if they hadn’t proved their worth in scores of wars and skirmishes since their inception.
I. Legion and Gurkha beginnings
The Foreign Legion was founded by King Louis Philippe in 1831. He did so in an effort to keep thousands of unemployed foreigners in France from further unemployment and mischief. They were shipped in mass across the Mediterranean to the new French colony of Algeria. There they performed miserably in battle and were relegated to road building and well digging (Mercer 4).
In 1835, The Legion was loaned to Spain for almost two years to fight the Carlist rebels for Queen Christina. They were rarely paid and had to forage for food. Out of the thousands that went, less than 200 rag-clad Legionnaires crossed the mountains to France. Those not killed in battle or by disease had deserted.
Near the end of the Carlist campaign, The Legion found itself in The Battle of Barbastro against Carlist mercenaries, most of which were deserters from the French Legion. The Spanish on both sides paused fascinated, as the two groups of mercenaries struggled to destroy the other. The bitter fight lasted from dawn to dusk, and most of the combatants ended up dead or wounded. This was the beginning of the compelling myth of The Foreign Legion (Mockler 135).
The Gurkhas became part of the British Army after being defeated by a British force of 39,000 from 1814-16. They fought bravely, and the much-impressed British didn’t wait for the war’s end before starting to raise Gurkha battalions. In April 1815, the first Gurkha battalion was authorized and serves still (Farwell 33).
II. The Motives and background of the men
By examining the motives for enlisting, the training, and the outlooks of the individual “mercenaries,” we can get an idea how they established themselves as fighting legends. It’s important to understand why the individual riflemen fought to the death so many times for countries not their own (Mockler 20).
Over the years, The Legion has picked up its soldiers from the lost causes of Europe. After WWI, ultra-nationalist Germans joined in great numbers. As Hitler rose to power, Jews, Austrians, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians signed on. The end of WWII began the era of Nazis and fascists recruitment right out of prison camps (Mercer 7).
When trying to describe the individual soldiers, few have said anything positive about Legionnaires. Kipling described them as the “The Legion of the lost ones and cohorts of the damned” (Bocca 34). It’s not surprising that the Foreign Legion has appealed to so many with suicidal tendencies. In the same vein, the slower suicide of alcoholism is the pride, tradition and vice of the Legion (Mercer 5).
Yet, it is impossible to generalize the Legionnaires. To some, The Legion is their love and family. On the other hand, thousands have deserted and describe their experience as hellish. Modern Legionnaires can be described as tough young men, used to hardship and looking for adventure. They see fighting as a good career, and some may feel the mythological past is too emphasized (Mercer 322).
The Foreign Legion is renowned for its toughness and admired for its fighting skills, but few have loved them. Herein lies an acute difference with their French Legion counterparts. Where the Gurkhas are known for their physical toughness, they lack the brutish Legion traits. Harsh discipline is not found in Gurkha regiments. They charm and are admired by all they meet but their enemies (Farwell 14).
If you were to meet one of the pleasant little Gurkha mercenaries, you couldn’t imagine that in a firefight this little fellow is a quick and vicious killer. So personable are they, many people have become confirmed Gurkhaphiles after going on a single patrol with them (Weller 50).
Most of the Gurkha mercenaries aren’t of the warrior castes such as there are in India to the south, even though many generations have served father to son. They come from the trader, farmer and herdsmen castes (Farwell 21). Most are family men. They marry young, usually between 15 to 17 years of age (Farwell 147).
Why these pleasant little mountain men join and fight so hard for England must be examined. It’s been said they fight for the money, but that has been the solo reason for very few. One Gurkha said, “The army is the easiest way to demonstrate one’s braveness to the world.” Others want to leave the confined and restricted life of the village. All of them it seems, simply love battle and excel at it (Farwell 82). An old Victoria Cross winner, retired to his native village in Nepal, was asked why the Gurkhas are so brave. He answered, “Only that we have such bad tempers when something makes us angry” (Farwell 280).
III. The training of these mercenaries
We’ve seen that both mercenary groups have two different kinds of recruits to train, which explains the wide difference in training regimens.
At the time of the Gurkha beginnings, the British regiments were filled with society’s rejects, and it was felt that fierce discipline was required to maintain control. But that didn’t work with the Gurkha recruits. They were already naturally enthusiastic soldiers, requiring little disciplinary action. For instance, Captain F. Young, a battalion commander, recorded in seven years only one court martial. This is an unheard of statistic in any other army in the world. Desertions are almost nonexistent, although nothing would be easier (Farwell 48).
In Gurkha basic training there is no bullying or intimidation. No Gurkha has ever been flogged, even back in the 1800s. The NCOs in charge of recruits use humor, example, persuasion and great patience (Farwell 84).
Things most of us take for granted, all must be introduced to the young Gurkha recruit. The toilet is a curious idea to them that there should be a particular place to defecate. Time is a concept that must be learned in more than general terms. Eating utensils, furniture and boots are all new. The first month is agony for him as he gets used to wearing boots after a lifetime of bare feet (Farwell 84).
The Foreign Legion uses the traditional method of stress and hardship in its recruit training. The recruit must be 18 to 42 years old and at least 5 feet 2 inches tall (Mercer 34). An interesting irony is that many Gurkha soldiers, renowned as they are, wouldn’t even make the Legion height requirements.
As the Legion developed, a fixed indoctrination process also developed. A recruit learns that the Legion is all, and the individual is nothing (Mercer 33). The 16 weeks of initial training on the island of Corsica is unbelievably brutal, and beating up the recruits is traditional (McLeave 156). The brutality is a constant part of a legionnaire’s career. To cure a man of cracking up under the stress of combat, he is beaten so badly, he realizes death is better than being a coward (McLeave xvii). This is the make or break period. The training is so intense that the authorities expect desertions within the first six months (McLeave 156).
At the initial processing center at Marseilles, recruits are launched into a depressing atmosphere for the psychological effect. Once they pass their physical, they are met by the grim quote attributed to General F. de Negrier, a Legion officer from the last century, “You are soldiers in order to die, and I’m sending you where one dies” (Mercer33).
All training is administered by NCOs. This is to keep the officers out of sight and above the men. The French officers are one of the most important aspects in creating the Legion spirit (Mercer46). After WWI, France began to assign only its best officers to the Legion, as it proved itself worthy in one battle after another (Bocca 73).
IV. Pivotal battles in their histories
In each of their histories, the Gurkhas and Legionnaires can look back on a single battle that defines them as two of the world’s premiere fighting elites. It would be remiss not to look at these crucial pivots in each outfit’s past.
On April 30th of each year, The Legion stops what it’s doing and throws a huge orgy of drinking, eating and singing Legion songs as they celebrate the battle of Camerone.
At Camerone, Mexico, on 30 April 1864, 59 Legionnaires in the service of Emperor Maximilian found themselves facing 2000 Mexican Juarista troops. The French legion detachment was led by Captain Danjou, who had one hand made of wood designed to grasp the reins of his horse that he might stay in the Legion. He pledged each man to fight on to the death, and each man agreed. They fought for over nine hours in the searing heat and dust of a farmhouse that was to be their final redoubt. There were just four wounded men left standing, when the Mexican commander asked for their surrender. They answered by charging with fixed bayonets into the massed Juaristas (Mockler 137).
A legionnaire explains, “The Camerone appeal to us is as natural as instinct. The Legionnaire reaches out to it with his heart, because it is part of his pain. It is a great reminder that sand is always in the eyes, of the battleground ill-chosen, of the odds too great, of the insufficient cause to justify death, and the tools always wrong. Above all, nobody cares if we win, lose, live or die. Camerone gives the Legionnaire strength to live with his despair. It reminds him he can’t win, but makes him feel there is dignity in being a loser. It is an expression of his desolation” (Bocca 8).
As Camerone defines the despair of the Legion, the Bengal Army Mutiny at Delhi, India, in 1857 separated and defined the Gurkha soldier from the rest of Britain’s ethnic units. In this fateful rebellion virtually every ethnic group of Britain’s supposedly loyal Indian army rose up to hack their surprised British officers to death. The Gurkhas faithfully helped put down the rebellion and refused to allow religious scruples to interfere with duty. That fact made them important and versatile to the British.
At the siege of Delhi, no sooner were the Gurkha loyalists in position, then a large body of mutineers attacked them. They fought in extreme heat and dust for almost 16 hours. It was only the first of 26 determined attacks beaten back over a week’s time.
After the amazing display of bravery and loyalty, the Gurkhas were recognized as truly special, and the British officially styled them as riflemen rather than as sepoys. The highest compliment paid them was that the British considered Gurkha troops interchangeable with British troops, and only the best British officers were allowed to lead the amazing little fighters (Farwell 139).
V. A final analysis
In the final analysis, it can be stated that the British Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion are more fundamentally different than similar. The Gurkhas are culturally and physically homogenous; while the Legion has had 101 different nationalities serve in their ranks over the years (Mercer 6).
But, an important similarity is that both outfits are products of different values and societies than those of the 20th Century (Beaumont 1). It was typical of the times that the French Legion and the British Gurkhas were used by their countries to help in colonial expansion and keeping control of those colonies.
The despair and loyalty of the French Legion both contrasts and compares to the cheerfulness, good humor and loyalty of the Gurkhas. The motivations of both groups are on the extreme ends of the scale; yet both have finely honed, well-disciplined troops absolutely faithful to their units.
Legionnaires and Gurkhas have demonstrated repeatedly that death is preferable to defeat, and that is why both mercenary outfits have been so successful. It looks as if they will continue as uniquely elite forces in this century and probably well into the next, until men learn for good the folly of war.
Beaumont, Roger A. MILITARY ELITES. Indianapolis, New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1974.
Bocca, Geoffrey. LA LEGION! New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1964
Farwell, Byron. THE GURKHAS. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984
McLeave, Hugh. THE DAMNED DIE HARD. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973.
Mercer, Charles. LEGION OF STRANGERS. New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Mocker, Anthony. THE MERCENARIES. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1969.
Weller, Jack. FIRE AND MOVEMENT. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1967
Mr. Garvin, my teacher for that class, wrote the following remarks on my paper:
Fascinating paper. I have acquired McLeave’s and Mockler’s books for further reading on the subject. Excellent paper in both content and construction. You have been an integral part of the class, Philip. It isn’t every semester that I have a student with such insight and perspicacity. I have, at times, found myself teaching to you. Best always in your further academic endeavors. If I can be of assistance, give a big, Southern yell.
Just call ME perspicacious! .... grin....
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Only just over ½ mile square, I meandered the trail around the area's perimeter, always seeking to double and S-curve back where possible to make full use of all interesting terrain assets. I needed to try and keep the path hidden by thick foliage so that no casual observer would be able to spot me from the street or from the huge rectangular clearing that took up much of the central area.
When I first started the trail, the middle region consisted of 5 or 6 acres of uncut wild grass with a seldom-used gravel road encircling and bisecting it; but by mid ’92, the authorities started using the field to air out contaminated soil. For months, that aerating dirt totally stunk up the place until the pollutants in it slowly evaporated out. First, they formed dirt berms to prevent out-leaching, then they spread out huge thick sheets of black plastic, and finally they covered the plastic with that smelly dirt excavated from construction sites around the base. (By the way, some of the most polluted areas of the country are located on military bases.) In a way, having that odious process going on “right under my nose” was a blessing, since for a time it kept people out of my hair and away from my trail.
In my last post I write how I continually solved new problems as I continued through various types of topography. At the risk of being tedious, I’ll cover some of the other engineering tribulations that presented themselves for solution. For instance, as soon as I finished the 70 feet of "wandering dike" through the willow swamp, I ran right into a huge patch of thorn vines. I had no choice but to go directly through the middle of it. To the right was open field and around to the left was more dank swamp. The open field was out of the question because it was in sight of the people working on the soil purification project. So, there was only one thing to do—burrow straight through the briar patch.
A good thing about that time of year (November-December) is that the vegetation was less dense than it would have been during Arkansas’ long hot humid growing season. Just the same, the thorn vines of “The Natural State” are as bad as in any tropical rain forest, maybe worse. The thorns can rip human skin like a razor blade and the vines grow thick and tough. I built the trail right up to the edge of the mass of impenetrable vines and just stared at it thinking it was going to be one heck of a job.
The first day tackling the massive thorn patch, I came equipped with a pair of thick leather work gloves and an old hand-pruner I normally used to trim my rose bushes. One snip at a time, I began to carve away at the thick mass of razory growth by removing two or three feet of vine per snip. I’d cut a piece and toss it carefully to the side. After an hour I realized that I would in effect be constructing a tunnel lined with perilously sharp thorns looking to slice up the unwary rider. It was going to be “exciting” to ride through. I realized that I couldn’t afford to leave even one stray piece of vine on the ground or I would surely be dealing with one flat after another.
Surprisingly, it took just over a week to tunnel through the 50-foot mass of thorn vines, and that was working about an hour or two per day. When I emerged at the other end of the patch, I had nipped out a passageway that I could ride fairly easily through by keeping my head down and elbows in. At its highest and widest it was just over six feet high and four feet across.
Months later, during the summer, when the trail was long completed, I had to continuously work to keep that tunnel of thorny foliage free and clear of new growth. The vines never stopped trying to sprout back into the middle of the passage; but instead of cutting them back, what I did was redirect the new vines back into the tunnel wall.
A remarkable thing happened one day when I pulled my bike over to do some maintenance on the vine patch passage. I always skulked around first to reconnoiter the area before going to work on any part of my trail. I’d freeze my body for at least a minute, and then, slowly turning, I'd scan a full 360 degrees.
On that day, I walked out to the edge of a meadow not far from the north entrance going into the thorns. My eyes spotted a place in the 4-foot high grass that had been disturbed by something or someone bigger than a dog. Visually, I followed the trail of displaced grass to a spot that seemed even more depressed. Slowly and as quietly as possible, I made my way to the tamped down area.
There, only a few hours old, rested a pair of dappled fawns, resting in the spot where they had been born. There was still some slightly bloody remnants of their birthing on the grass beneath them. I decided my trail could wait till another time and I left them to their momma; I’m sure she was waiting anxiously for me to go away.
My time in those woods, either working on or riding my single-track, was continually punctuated with wonderful nature moments like that. Its no wonder that I was out there almost every chance I could.
As I said up top, sorry if this series is starting to get a bit tedious, but that two-year period from November ’91 until August ’93, when I developed, maintained and rode that delightful trail is the source of a lot of really cool memories that I feel a need to capture here. So, bear with me, coz there’s more to come…
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Then, while walking along over where my mislaid track should have been, I noticed something that switched on the old Eureka light bulb. There was one section that I still recognized as having been my intended trail. It was where I had to pick up a rather large rotten log and move it out of the way. Seeing it, I remembered that the path was parallel to it.
So maybe that was the answer! I could place branches and fallen logs end-to-end to mark one side of the path. I tried it and after 20 or 30 feet I knew it was perfect. There were plenty of fallen branches, twigs, and logs available; it was just for me to line them up. The first of many problems was solved—now the real trail making could begin.
Once I knew how to effectively delineate its course, I decided to make the initial trail head behind the massive Little Rock AFB commissary. There was a good spot at the commissary entrance cattycorner from the popular base Burger King. From the very back right parking lot it was just a matter of riding through a grassy area, turning to the right and into the woods where my trail would begin. From that point onward no one would be able to see the trail or me traversing it. Staying out of sight on my "unauthorized trail," especially while I was constructing it, was part of my goal.
Almost every day after work I’d head out to reconnoiter and trail build. The routine was simple: I’d figure out the general direction and then freeform the specific twists, turns, obstacles and jumps as I went along. It was hard, but it was a blast. Everyday brought new challenges and tasks. Three hours working on my trail went by like 20 minutes.
It was amazing that after riding back and forth over it a dozen times how the trail became quite traceable. My bike’s wheels rolling over the exact same surface over the identical inches-wide spot soon made it seem as if the trail had always been there rather than for just a few days.
I endeavored to make the single-track as challengingly difficult and therefore as “fun” as I could. I scouted ahead to find interesting bits of terrain to maximize the enjoyment by increasing the effort and adrenalin required to negotiate it. For instance, I never just followed a ridgeline; instead, I zigzagged directly down its slope before looping around a large rock or tree for the return back up. I never hair-pinned to lessen steepness like the Park Service does on its walking trails. I always sought to maximize gradient, never to lessen it. Doing that made for some hair-raising rides when flying directly downhill with trees, branches and foliage flashing past; while climbing straight back up caused the heart to pump and the breath to come in gasps. Awesome!
On my own tiny scale I felt like a road-building engineer as I came across new problems requiring new solutions. The terrain was amazingly varied in that relatively small area sandwiched between Flightline Drive and Arnold Drive. There were three different swamps, two large areas with dense patches of “Wait a Minute Vines,” three sorts of hill areas and a really cool stream that ran through a channel that in some places had 5-foot banks.
The three swamps and two thorn patches took the most time, effort and figuring to sort out and complete. One of the swampy areas ran through a thicket of 12-feet tall swamp willows. I had no choice but to figure out how to run the trail directly through it for about 100 feet.
You can’t just run a mountain bike trail through swamp mud. It ruts down ever deeper until it becomes impassable. Then it came to me: Rice paddies! I’d seen them on my visits to Southeast Asia and in Vietnam War documentaries. I remembered walking on narrow paddy dikes and realizing that they were made from the dried muck of the paddy. Could it really be so easy?
I bungystrapped a combat shovel and a pickaxe to my bike and headed to the swamp to see what I could do. Resigned to getting soaked and splattered, I wore my oldest combat boots. Right off the bat I ran into a problem with the willow tree roots. They were thick and matted, making it tough digging if not impossible. Shortly thereafter, I learned to search for semi-rootless pockets and dug as much of the free mud as I could from each one and began to pile it up on the embryonic dike.
It was slow going. I’d throw a shovel full of mud into the dike line and watch it melt back into the water. Eventually though it began to stack up enough so that I had a mound of oozing muck snaking through the shallow waters of the swamp. It felt like I was actually accomplishing something when it reached about a dozen feet long. Let's see, only about 60 feet to go! Yikes! A good thing about digging all the holes is that they began to drain the water away from the dike. Encouraged, I kept at it.
Then another idea came to mind. I got it after remembering how parts of the Great Wall of China had been built from layers of grass and earth. There was a pine copse not so far away carpeted deep with fallen needles. The next day I brought a heavy-duty hefty trash bag and began to use the pine needles between layers of muck. That did the trick.
In no time the muck dried into solid clay and in two weeks I had a perfectly rideable foot-wide foot-high dike meandering through the dank swamp. I was gratified that even during the wettest of times it held up and stayed at least several inches above the highest water level.I was proud of that problem/solution, but there were plenty more to come.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Why not indeed! Well, there was one very obvious reason why not: I knew that getting authorization would be next to impossible.
From my years in the service, I knew that asking permission to do such a thing would bring a big fat “No!” And even with a “yes” the red tape would have been overwhelming. I knew that the base commander, or more likely one of his minions, would be consumed with knowing the “risks” of such an undertaking. Risk aversion is the motto of the U.S. Air Force—"the royalty of risk aversion.”
Truthfully, the idea of actually trying to get permission was but a fleeting notion anyway. I decided to just go for it.
I knew exactly where I wanted to put the trail. There is a mostly undeveloped area right in the middle of Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB). It’s a fairly large block of land, just over ½ square mile, consisting of fields and woods. One side of it borders the flight line, while the opposite side is delineated by a main drag called Arnold Drive. Base housing, where I lived, was directly across Arnold Drive from it. The only structures in this, my chosen trail-making-area, are on its perimeter; the most notable being the base commissary, Arnold Drive Elementary School, the “cop shop,” Wing Headquarters, and the Base Lake Shoppette.
The exact route that the trail would take was still hazy to me. I didn’t even know how I was going to make it. Most trails exist in nature because of constant traffic, either by humans or animals. Therefore, natural trails exist more by accident than by design. So, how was I to form one artificially? I didn’t have a clue.
On a cold overcast afternoon in mid November ‘91, I took a ride on my mountain bike out to the area that overlooked the flightline. That was as good a place to start as any. There was a natural opening into the trees from a grassy area right next to a massive patch of blackberry canes that I thought would be a good place to experiment with trail building.
I pedaled to the spot by coming up a steeply meandering access road used by base police vehicles on rare occasions—I say rare since I’d never actually seen a vehicle on it. For years I had used that road to train on by running up and down it’s 150-yard length. I’d sprint to the top, recover my breath while jogging back down, and then sprint back up. I would do that for about an hour. Except for the very bottom, trees and foliage obscured me from view as I ran; yet it was just a few hundred yards from the organized chaos of the busy LRAFB flightline.
The trees, mostly oaks with assorted other broadleaf types sprinkled in, grew thickly in that area. The ground was covered with a layer of fallen leaves. They rustled noisily as I walked. The leaves gave me an idea: Could I use them to mark the intended trail?
But first there was the course of the trail to figure out. As a trial run I mentally mapped out a short segment of the intended path. For now, "as simple as possible" seemed to be the best bet. I knew I wanted to route it from point A to B, so now, how to do that so I could actually see it to ride it?
Scraping my feet along the ground, I spent hours kicking the leaves out of the way. If you can see a trail then it exists, or so I thought. As I progressed I realize that the course’s track was developing its line mostly as the terrain would allow. I hadn’t expected that.
At all costs I wanted to steer clear of cutting down trees or hacking off limbs, and over the next five months I never did. But from the outset there was a problem—many of the branches and saplings were simply in the way. Avoiding one set of problem branches and saplings would just take me into the path of a new set. Solving this “knotty” problem without reverting to sawing or hacking turned out to be fairly easy. The answer to my problem was what I came to think of as “tree shaping.”
The “tree reshaping” process I came up with resulted from the old “necessity being the mother of invention” thing. If branches poked out into the path of the trail I folded them back, taking care not to damage them.
Of course, green wood tends to snap back; to prevent this, I had to bend and braid them. Over the weeks and months I developed three or four different techniques to do this. For instance, sometimes I’d take branches from two adjacent trees and weave them together out of the way. For others, if I couldn’t weave them, I would tie the branches together.
Saplings were usually easy to deal with. For them, I’d pull them back behind other trees or saplings, and to make sure they didn’t return to their original position I’d combine that “pull back method” with weaving to lock them in place. In late April ’92, by the time I finished with the last leg of my trail, I easily accomplished that kind of “reshaping” several thousands of times.
But much of that was in the future. On that first day, all I really managed to get done was to kick a few leaves away down to bare earth for about 70 feet of pseudo-trail.
I wasn’t able to return for two days, but finally I headed back out to my 48-hour-old trial trail to see how it looked. But there was a problem. For the most part, I couldn’t find it. The trail had disappeared from sight. The blowing wind along with more fallen leaves had completely reburied it. All that leaf kicking had been for nothing.
So, it was back to the drawing board. Leaning against a massive 75-year-old oak tree I balanced on the seat of my bike with arms folded and pondered, ‘How do I make a trail?’
The answer was surprisingly easy once I found it...
Saturday, November 24, 2007
This one is at your askance. You asked about activities for preschoolers or for young kids on summer vacation.
You’re right. You won’t find here a whole lot of parks or libraries like those back home, especially not up to the same standards of safety and quality that you are used to. Of course I’m speaking generally and there are probably some towns and cities where you CAN find some nice playgrounds. I’m not sure where you plan on visiting, but its best to contact someone there and get the local scoop before you show up with your kids.
I just asked my wife about the subject as it applies to this area. We live in Angeles City and there are probably more places here to keep kids busy than in other spots in the country. I can think of three offhand, and I asked my wife about all three.
There is a playground park over by the Air Force City area on Clark that is grassy and has slides and swings. My wife says that is a fairly safe place to take kids so that’s one option.
A few years back the CDC (Clark Development Corp.) also built a pretty nice municipal style park in the huge open rectangular area in front of the main gate. At first it was an okay place to take your kids, but according to the wife, not so anymore. The “hold uppers,” as she calls them, have made that area not so family-safe these days. You will hear a chorus of “not so’s!,” but believe me, neither she or any of her friends will take their children there. You could try to go and act as security, but it’s just not worth the risk. Purse-snatchers, pickpockets, and gun-toting muggers use that area all the time.
She says the best place to take your kids to play is to the SM Mall located just inside the Clark Main Gate. My wife says the security is very good in the mall’s enclosed play area and she takes our two girls there all the time. Even so, watch your wallet and belongings.
There is a water park on Clark as well. I’ve never been to it, but my best buddy has taken his 10-year-old daughter there several times and he says it’s not bad. So that’s another option. Pretty much anything on Clark is safe. Once you leave the confines however, you MUST keep your wits about you.
Its Christmas time, and as my wife just reminded me, the muggers and robbers are working overtime to get money to buy presents for their loved ones. (Isn’t that sweet?) Along those lines, she just told me a “lovely” little story about what happened to her girlfriend a couple weeks back. The lady drove to her bank on Macarthur Boulevard to withdraw from her dollar account. Her next move was to drive up Main Gate Boulevard towards Checkpoint to exchange her bucks for pesos at Norma’s Money Exchange. She'd just pulled off Main Gate drag to make her way over to Field’s Avenue when a motorcyclist pulled in front of her, blocking her way. Another guy, also on a motorcycle, pulled up next to her window and fired one round from his handgun past her head to demonstrate that he meant business before aiming it at her face. He told her two things: “Give me the money you just got from the bank,” and two, “If you tell anyone about this I will kill you and your family.” She handed him the whole wad, and taking him at his word, never reported that she’d been mugged. And mind you, it all happened in broad daylight.
Much violent crime goes unreported here, especially that done to Filipino victims. People are easily cowed in these parts and their fear causes them to shrug off their outrage. I guess I can’t blame them. I could move away if I want, but most locals have no place to go. As for me, I’d rather die than give in to threats. Of course, if anyone ever threatened my kids I’d probably try to use my resources to track down those making the threats and try to kill them first, but that’s not the way the average person here thinks where fear is indeed the watchword.
No one EVER thinks it can happen to them, but eventually, it does. I’ve told my wife to have a “mugger’s purse” available with only a couple hundred pesos in it to hand over just in case; and even though she’s been held up at gunpoint herself once, she STILL has no fake purse. I can only tell her right? But that’s the way to go. Best advice: If a man points a gun at you give him what he wants—just don’t give him your REAL wallet or purse.
That reminds me:
Two years after I got here I got a call to get my ass over to the hospital. A fellow veteran had just been shot and needed my relatively rare O negative blood because his was all but gone. He and his wife had pulled into a quiet subdivision in Dau and were just getting out of their van when he heard her cry out. She did so at the sight of a gun being pushed into her face. The veteran rushed around the side of his van to her aid. The robber snapped off a round into the big American’s thigh and rushed off with his wife’s purse. The stricken navy vet, only about 6 months retired, made a tourniquet from his belt, and his wife was barely able to get him back into the van to drive him to a nearby small hospital. They took one look and turned her away. She then took him to the then PIH (Philippine Int’l Hospital) about 20 minutes away. I ran into the emergency room and begged them to take my blood but they shook their heads. I knew at that point he was gone. The wife, her jeans soaked in her husband’s blood, waited downstairs in our Veterans Service Office. Lucky for us, she had a good friend there to catch and console her when we told her that her husband didn’t make it.
Sorry for the doom and gloom, but that’s the way of it. It’s just that I see so many expats here that run around this place taking their safety for granted and that’s a huge mistake. Be paranoid, be wary, be ready for the worst-case scenario and keep your family and yourself safe.
Oh, I just thought of another possibility as far as activities for your kids—swimming. There are a lot of hotels that will allow you and your family to use their pool. Some, like the Clarkton will charge you a pretty stiff fee, but others will welcome you for your food and drink business. I believe the Swagman Hotel still falls into the latter category and it’s a good kids pool because it has a water slide.
And speaking of water, you can never go wrong with just spending a lot of time at one of the hundreds of seaside resorts in the country. I’ve been to Puerto Galera several times and my girls love it. I don’t know of any kid that doesn’t like playing on the beach. Just bring plenty of sun block.
For the most part, my girls stay pretty close to home. We live at the end of a quiet dead-end street and they ride their bikes with their little friends out in front of the house where we keep an eagle eye on them. I also put a little swing set and slide out in our yard, which they and their playmates also frequent.
Then again, if you are ever in the area you are welcome to stop by. We can chat and have libations while the kids play…
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Playing at Nepo Mall
Friday, November 23, 2007
The bloody crashing fall from my previous post was never repeated again, at least none ever as painful or dramatic as that first one. The primary reason I had fallen in the first place was the improper setup of my bike. The arrangement of my seat and handlebars put my body too far forward and my hands way too low on the steering. The thing is, I didn’t know this intuitively; what I needed was an expert to help me figure out how to fix it. My friend, Rich, got me started on the right track, but finding genuine expertise was the next step.
In short order and quite by accident, I managed to find just the guy I was looking for—he was in a new bike shop that I happened to stop in at while looking for some new knobby tires for my bike. He was the manager, a "kid" in his early 30s who had spent most of his life riding bicycles competitively on the BMX circuit. Lucky for me, for the last few years he had taken up mountain biking as a way to stay in shape for BMX. Right off the bat I could tell he knew what he was doing and over the course of the next few paydays he fixed me right up. I had found my bicycle guru.
Based on my new riding mentor’s recommendations I bought several new components to affect a more suitable off-road ride, especially for negotiating my nemeses, those steep rugged descents—as far as I’m concerned the most difficult type of riding there is.
Over the next several months, as I transferred my mindset from street riding to mountain biking, I also strove to transform my “partner in crime,” my heavy red “confused” hybrid. She was more expensive than a new girlfriend. I bought "her" a score of new components, most of them elective, like knobby tires and water bottle brackets; but to get my “baby” where it really needed to be to effortlessly handle those steeply nasty descents I made three crucial component purchases.
First, I got a significantly longer handlebar stem. The longer stem put it higher and allowed me to extend my arms to keep my bodyweight as far away as possible from the front wheel. I've seen downward tracks so precipitous that I had to actually push away from the handlebars. As a street rider for 20 years I never had to worry about such a thing before, but mountain biking is a different animal. Its much more extreme, but then again, its also much more exciting. Draping one’s body over the handlebars is how it’s done on pavement to reduce drag, but try that off-road on a mountain bike and you WILL fall. Just ask me.
Perhaps the most important modification was changing out my seatpost and seat. The new post was cantilevered so that the new seat, also improved, hung an extra inch or two further back. That allowed me to sit back closer towards the center of the rear wheel for better control and stability.
As a matter of technique, on exceptionally steep long downhill runs I would sometimes stop at the top of the hill, release my seat and lower it almost as far as it would go. This gave me an even lower center of gravity, although sitting lower sacrificed peddling leverage--it was like trying to ride a child's bike. But the way I looked at it, descending a crazy-steep hill requires little peddling anyway and when climbing most mountain bikers stand on the pedals anyway.
I include the seat with the seatpost, but technically they are two separate components. Eventually, I swapped out the original seat for a beefier, better-engineered one; because once again, I learned the hard way what happens to a normal seat when an inexpert rider (me!) does not always properly use the knees to absorb the G-forces when “bottoming out.” The worst one I ever screwed up caused my seat to break a weld and very nearly broke my lumbar spine along with it. So, I found it was better to have a seat with heavier springs designed for idiot riders like me.
The third and final vital component needing replacement was the pedal set. One of the reasons I crashed my first time out was the lack of a means to hold my feet to the pedals. All that jouncing over the rocks and ruts shook them right off. There are newer and supposedly superior pedal systems, but I went for the old-fashioned toe clip and strap arrangement. That way, I could ride wearing my running shoes, which I liked to have on just in case I broke the bike and had to hoof it out of the woods for a few miles. It happens.
Truthfully, by the time I got "Hybrid" squared away into a real mountain bike, or almost so, I was totally hooked on the sport. My riding buddy, Rich Fucci, and I could not get enough of it. We lived and breathed trail riding, exploring every patch of woods we could find, both on and around the base. I don’t think there was a road or deer trail within 10 miles that we hadn't tried. We searched for promising trails and unimproved dirt roads until there was no place left to search. Often, when the trails petered out we simply put our helmeted heads down and bushwhacked to prevent from having to double back.
On that subject, bushwhacking can be a lot of fun. Bushwhacking is when a biker rides through the trees, fields and undergrowth without regard to trails or paths. When doing this sort of riding bring along plenty of tools, a patch kit and pump, and oh yeah, extra chain links. Flat tires and broken chains are par for the course, especially once bushwhacking is in your blood. I learned it the hard way.
I should say that most mountain biking lessons ARE learned “the hard way.” It can be a very tough sport. Depending on the difficulty and wildness of the trail, it certainly is not an activity for the faint-of-heart or weak-of-will.
A good reason to have a lightweight bike is because there WILL come a time when you’ll have to carry it over your shoulder. Why not just push it along on its wheels you say? Well, sometimes the damage to the bicycle is so bad or the trail so muddy or impassable that the wheels won’t turn. Believe me, it happens.
So, after turning my red hybrid more mountain than street, I felt like I was turning into quite the rider. I knew this because Rich Fucci could no longer beat me. I bought my bike a month after I got back from the war in May or June of ’91. It took two more months to get it “right” by upgrading it.
As I mentioned, by the end of the summer, Rich and I had ridden every nearby (and not so nearby) trail and dirt road at least a dozen times and I was bored with them all. I wanted something more challenging and closer to home. Soon a hazy plan came into my brain housing group. I’ll tell you about it in my next post…