It’s evening, on the 9th of October. I’m scribbling this in my tiny pocket notebook while sitting in 61G, a seat almost all the way to the back of this thrumming Northwest Boeing 747. We are currently at flight level 30 (that’s 30,000 feet for all you non-aviation types) and the way Northwest has these coach seats crammed into this giant aluminum tube, I’m feeling like one sardine in a can filled with them.
Here’s a note: Northwest appears to be the only airline that still uses the archaic, not to mention anarchic, “free for all” method of seating their coach passengers. This happens after the usual initial boarding of all “special needs types,” the “Ritchie Rich 1st classers, the business class hoity-toities,” followed by the lowly frequent fliers, who are still higher on the passenger totem pole than us back-of-the-bus tourist travelers.
American and United does not do it like that (they board the aircraft progressively from the rear), and it could be that Northwest only does it "Filipino style" on flights involving Manila as a destination, since anyway, from what I saw, the “Manila travelers” almost universally were want to ignore ALL verbal instructions from the Northwest people in charge of the boarding process. The typical near bum rush of Manila bound (or those coming from Manila) passengers would happen as soon as any boarding is called. This mass of impatient humanity causes all the pre and initial boarders to have to push and “excuse” their way through them to the gate. (I don’t know why this happens, but the same “every man for himself” attitude exists on the roadways as well.)
In fact, my point was underscored yet again when we at long last landed in Manila. I shook my head knowingly as we speed-taxied toward the terminal, when the Filipino-only flight attendants had to spring to their feet, putting themselves at risk by the way, and rush forward up the aisles actually yelling at the dozen or so miscreant travelers, and right in their faces, to get them to “PLEASE sit down!” as the aircraft was still only barely midway to the terminal.
One disgusted Pinay-American seated two rows behind me loudly muttered as her Fil-Am husband shushed her, “That’s right, that’s the Filipino style!,” she said bitterly. I think she was just embarrassed by and for her countrymen. But she’s right, the Phils mind-set seems to be to disregard any rule, regulation or instruction, and to do so until they are forced to comply. Truthfully, I think many foreigners living here eventually embrace this way of thinking as well, and wholeheartedly—and oh yes, sometimes myself included.
But I’m way ahead of myself. About two hours ago, upon embarking the plane, I took my seat near the back on the inside aisle on the right side of the 747. I hoped desperately that my one seat neighbor to my left was going to be small (unlike me!). My hopes were encouraged when a tiny Pinay took her seat there. Yes!
Then, tragedy… She was in the wrong seat. The guy who was supposed to be there was also in the wrong seat. I guess I was the only one in my row able to decipher the proper seat location on our individual boarding passes. What’s up with that? I mean I’m no genius.
By the time the seating was sorted out, the person firmly planted next to me was a wide body artillery soldier on vacation from Fort Drum, New York, where he is stationed with the 10th Mountain Division. He sits there now as I scribble this, and after chatting a bit he seems quite the fellow with his high-and-tight haircut and—unfortunately for me and for the guy sitting to his left—extremely broad shoulders. He is so wide in fact, that the outside edge of his well-developed arms extends at least two inches into the adjacent seat spaces, including MINE!
Anyway, he’s a good guy, and I can see he’s doing his level best to try and keep himself tucked into the middle of his own area, although with little success. The man is not tall, he says just 5’10”, but he’s brawny from hours in the gym, which has added lots of beef to his already ample bone structure. The result is that he spills out on both sides of his seat. It feels like a warm slab of muscular beef is pushing into me from my left. It’s giving me the screaming willies and I STILL have more than 10 hours to deal with it!
His name is Jon or John. He’s been in the army for 5 years now. He joined up out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just as I was getting out. Can that really be? Dang it, but time flies! Attempting to draw him out—in other words, being my normal nosey self—I offered some bits about my own military past in the Marines and Air Force.
John has opinions on both of my prior service branches saying that the Air Force is good because it seems to offer a lot better and more options when it comes to assignments, compared to the Army that is. And as far as my Marine past, he says that the ex-Marines he knows in the Army make very good soldiers, and, are highly respected… (I have to like that; I’d say he buttered me up pretty good with those comments! If he were running for something, I’d vote for him…)
He’s done a tour in Afghanistan, having returned more than a year ago, saying “it wasn’t that bad.” As an artillerist, he spent more than a year at a tiny FOB, or forward operating base, where he and his mates whiled away the endless string of days providing artillery support to the grunts engaging Taliban fighters among the peaks and valleys of Eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. I asked him what it was like trying to provide accurate shots on sheer mountain faces. He said as long as the spotters could give them a good grid then they could drop rounds dead on the enemy, the only consideration being that they had to use a very high firing angle because of the towering peaks between them and the target.
According to John, compared to what the infantry (whom they supported) went through in the same war fighting theater—where those unfortunate fellows spent weeks at a time climbing up and down the steep Afghan mountainsides in their quest for the enemy—compared to them, he and his artillery soldiers “had it made.” In the relative safety behind the wire and walls of his permanent outpost, he spent his months working out in their “gym” or surfing the web and emailing by way of a satellite internet hookup. (Sounds like war in the new millennium!)
Just the same, he became slightly animated (for him, since he’s a very low-key guy) talking about the almost monthly duels they had on nights lit up by the full moon. That’s when the Taliban would fire rockets at them from the surrounding mountainsides. Spotters would follow the fire trails back to source and an immediate firestorm would be the soldier’s delighted response to the poorly aimed impudence of the backward Taliban. He was very blasé talking about it, as if it were no big deal.
“Most of the rockets they aimed with their eyeballs and would impact harmlessly in the hillsides around us. They hardly ever hit inside the camp,” he claimed.
John joined the Army at 22, already having spent three years after high school working mostly in construction. He said his life was not progressing well as far as a career path was concerned and thought he’d give the army a try. I asked how he ended up in “arty” and he said he told the recruiter he just wanted a military specialty that would get him “in” as soon as possible. Joking I asked, “John! Why didn’t you play at least a LITTLE hard to get?!”
He plans to make the Army a career and do 20 years, possibly longer. If anyone was made for a life in the army it’s this guy. Especially considering his response to one of my bantering questions, “Hey, looks like you bought a brand new pair of running shoes in honor of your trip to the Philippines, eh?”
He admitted as much, “Yeah, normally I never wear civilians clothes anymore. I wear my uniform all the time, for years now. I had to buy these shoes or I wouldn’t have had anything to wear besides my combat boots,” he answered unpretentiously.
“Shoot man. So I take it you don’t have a wife then? Do you live in the barracks? You’re an E-5 sergeant, would the Army pay you to live off base?” I asked.
“No. I’d either have to be married or make E-6 before they’d pay me housing allowance. If I live off base it would come out of my own pocket.”
I tried to fire him up a little by pointing out the injustice of his situation: “John! You do realize that you ARE being paid that housing allowance, but it’s going to the base to maintain your room, right? Does it seem fair to you that some E-2 who happens to elect to get married, perhaps to another E-2, is PAID to live in THEIR own place, while you, as a single E-5 are forced to forfeit YOUR allowance? What kind of room are you getting while the Army SCREWS you out of your BAH (housing allowance) money?” (Am I an instigator or what? I'm almost ashamed as I read that now. Almost!)
“I have my own room big enough for a single bed and a desk and I share a bathroom with the guy in the room next to me,” he answered diffidently.
“And how often does someone come into your room and inspect?”
“Oh, once or twice a month….”
“Now SEE! That’s always pissed me off John. The military takes YOUR money and forces you to live like that while rewarding some private for making the PERSONAL decision to get married. Doesn’t that piss you off too?”
John just grinned and shrugged, saying quietly, “Yeah…, I know, but nothing I can do about it…” (Dang! Does this guy sound like a Filipino or what?! He chuckled when I told him as much. He didn't have a clue as to what I was talking about, which made me chuckle too.)
I stopped hounding him with a laughing remark, which brought on a silent grin and a nod of agreement from the serene soldier, “John, you have the PERFECT attitude for the military, ESPECIALLY for the Army. I predict, that if you manage to live long enough, that you WILL go far my friend!”
After a bit I changed the subject to one more solemn and asked, “Speaking of which, did you guys lose any men during your time in-theater?”
“Oh yeah, we lost several people.” He fell silent, and that’s all he had to say about that…
More to follow on “My Phil-ward flight” part 2.