Sunday, September 30, 2007

Three Things, First thing first...

After all these years in the Philippines three things, three seemingly minor and unrelated things have occurred to me as I go about my three-week visit back here in the States. Here's thing number one:

"Outside people..." These days there are almost none in the USA, not like there are in the Philippines. By "outside people" I'm referring to folks who tend to hang around in some fashion outside of their homes and work places so as to socialize with others, as opposed to "inside oriented" Americans, many of whom live their lives comparatively isolated from one another (at least compared to Filipinos) and almost completely indoors or in their cars on their way to their next "inside place."

In the Phils, people are everywhere you look OUTSIDE. Sometimes it seems that the entire population prefers to be out and about. I suppose its not just the Philippines that is that way. I've lived and passed through other countries where the streets teemed similarly with humanity. Its just that I have the immediacy of living there to compare it to the virtually empty streets and sidewalks of my American homeland.

I'm sure that one of the primary reasons so many Filipino folks are on the streets and hanging out has to do with economics. In the States, nearly everyone has a car, or two, but in the Phils and in most other 3rd world nations, almost no one owns a vehicle, but that's not the REAL reason for all the outdoors activity.

The real reason for the open air communal aspect of my adopted country is the Filipino penchant toward socialization. I've never seen anything like it. I first noticed it when I started college classes. I would go into a first day classroom where none of us yet knew each other and my American tendency was to sit away from everyone. On the other hand, all the young local students who also did not know each other would immediately cluster together and were soon chatting away and laughing like old friends. I found it amazing and still do.

Even the relatively newfound Filipino "sport" of texting involves the two prong societal features of hanging out and socializing. I think the most extreme example of this was the day I saw a trike driver tooling down Fields Avenue texting with one hand while carrying on a lively conversation with a passenger and all during a high traffic afternoon time. To make it perfect, his passenger was also texting on her phone at the same time. Only in the Philippines!

Based on this continuous outdoor cellphone action so prevalent in the Phils I even invented a game to pass the time while riding through the stop-and-go streets of Manila. The game takes two people, one on each side of the vehicle. Whenever one player sees a person doing cellphone activity, usually texting, the player calls it out. Whoever has spotted the most active cellphoners at the end of a predesignated stretch is the winner. In the old days my sister and I used to play a similar game while traveling on the American hiways of the 1960s as our parents drove from one duty station to a new one. Only back then, instead of cells we'd count windmills, which unhappily for me are nowhere to be seen against the country skies of the United States anymore. I suppose now you could do the same thing with cellphone towers though. The nice thing about the cellphone or windmill spotting games are they are much less painful than "slug bug," the spotting game where the first one to see a VFW "bug" gets to slug the other player in the shoulder.

My observation about the peopleless streets of America holds true whether its suburban Saginaw, Michigan or along the strip mall sections of Killeen, Texas. Sitting in my daughter's SUV yesterday I discussed it with her but she wasn't buying it. So, I challenged her to find someone on foot at that very moment. She accepted and her eyes darted back and forth searching for even one outdoor person. After a few seconds she pointed out one lone figure who happened to get out of his car on his way INTO a store. Even so, grudgingly she realized I was right, but still she couldn't visualize how the people from the Philipines half of her genetic component truly love to congregate and socialize outside and in the streets. The idea of doing so seems alien to her. In her life there are just too many fun things to do inside.

Living private indoor lives might be a uniquely American phenomena; I'm not sure other places in the world are nearly as indoorsy and as individualistically antisocial as the current USA way of life. Thinking about it makes me wonder how we got this way, how we turned into this "indoor nation." In the summer time some say its too hot and the central aircon just too welcoming. In the winter its the opposite. Aside from the weather excuses to stay indoors, TV, electronic games, PCs, the internet, it all beckons and keeps people inside where all the "action" is.

Discussing all this while driving IN her car with my 26 year old daughter, interestingly, she got very defensive about it for some reason, as if being part of the contemporary "indoor generation" is something to be ashamed of. Almost 40 years ago when I was a kid, when none of today's "fun" indoor stuff existed, we hardly ever went inside. We road our bicycles everywhere, played sandlot baseball and football or threw hoops in the driveway. We loved to camp out in each other's yards. In the evening we played kick-the-can for hours and actually found that simple game hugely thrilling as well as wonderfully physically exhausting.

But I guess none of that old fashioned stuff compares to the excitement of the newest video games and surround sound flat big screen LCD TVs. In fact, sitting in my daughter's livingroom on one of their five reclining chairs here outside Fort Hood, Texas watching her Army Blackhawk pilot hubby play the latest games on his Playstation and Sega I admit that I find it absolutely enthralling and I'm just watching HIM play. No wonder everyone over here can't wait to get back home and into their plushly comfortable high tech homes.

Somehow though, I don't think all the technology in the world would make Filipinos change their love of outside socializing. You could plop all the games, PCs and fun technology into their world and they'd just figure out a way to use it outside together. On the other hand, you could transport 60 million Americans into the Philippines and they'd just find a way to stay inside. Its all about the culture baby! And that's all there is to it...

"Things" two and three are coming soon... as soon as I finish writing it. Til then...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

You get what you pay for

My brother picked me up at the Detroit Metro Airport and immediately culture shock hit me full force. Everything moves so fast here. Yet, when we exited to the outside and stepped up to the marked pedestrian crossing area the fast moving cars came to an immediate stop for us. I'd forgotten its supposed to work like that.

Kevin grabbed my suitcase and in short order we entered an elevator for the parking garage. In seconds we were on the 6th level and at his car. No fuss, no muss. Without ever even seeing an attendant he paid at a little kiosk using a credit card and he did so before even climbing up into his 2007 Jeep. There was no waiting in line at all, not even a moment's hesitation to get out of the parking area. It seemed so unlikely.

Soon we were swooping our way around the airport looking for the right hiway exit. He missed the one he wanted, but no worries, he swooped back around in another loop and got into the correct lane this time. Even with the missed turn we were on the hiway heading home 5 minutes from the garage exit. That scenario is completely impossible in Manila where there is no uninterrupted "swooping" of any kind, where instead traffic moves in fits and starts. I'm trying to think of at least one advantage to this inefficient method of vehicular movement, but for the life of me nothings comes to mind.

He changed hiways several times during the hour and change trip north to my parents' place and it all happened so quickly that I lost track of exactly which stretch we were on. It was a good thing he was paying attention, or was he? A warning bell sounded and he casually commented that it was time to get some gas. Promptly, both of us forgot about it, so intent on chatting and "catching up" we were.

Only two miles from my old stomping grounds in Birch Run and my brother casually declares that we are out of gas. That's my brother, always understated and cool. Well, unless someone makes him mad, and that doesn't happen too often.

Putting it into neutral he let the Jeep coast along the shoulder, getting a full half mile of engineless travel. Now what? This isn't the Philippines where a trike or jeepney is always within hailing distance for hire.

Even better, he pulled out his cell and called information. He asked for a wrecker service close to the next exit and he was quickly connected. Soon help was on the way and in 15 minutes we were back on the road--minus the $55 dollar wrecker fee however. Things are more efficent here, but they are exponentially more expensive as well. Still, you get what you pay for.

Speaking of paying... I watched gallon after ring up on the pump and 23 gallons later his credit card was down another $65. I was beginning to feel guilty about him having to come out and get me. I need to buy him a couple steak dinners before I head back to my inefficient tropical wonderland.

Got to go... My grandson beckons!

Friday, September 28, 2007

My Trip Home

It's been a while since I posted anything. I've been flying about and "living on the good graces of others," which I suppose is a pretty common way for many in the world to live, especially back there in my expat country of the Phils. Thing is, I'm not used to it. It makes me feel like a little kid again, like a person with no means. I know its all in my head, so I'm just gutting it out and trying to enjoy this limited time I have with family.

The Northwest flight was okay. Ed Abbey is right though, that airline really seems to pack the passengers in tight. Lucky for me I was seated next to a young fairly slender Filipino fellow and not some rotund American. Not all of us United Statesians have prodigious bodies, but anymore there are plenty that sure do spread out and take up a lot of room. When I was still active duty Air Force I used to fly at least two or three times a month and more often than not I found myself sitting next to, or even worse, between two ample American dudes. Their arms would jut out into my space and we'd subtly joust over the armrest. I can't imagine having to do that for 12 hours from Nagoya to Detroit. Perish the thought, but it could certainly happen! [knock wood]

I got a pleasant surprise at the Manila terminal. The travel tax was the P1660 like I was told, but the exit/reentry permit was only P2170 instead of the P2700 that I thought I was told it was going to be. I handed the ACRI girl P3000 and she immediately gave me back P500. It felt like Christmas!

Aside from the close seat arrangements, the two segments--the 3 plus hour flight to Nagoya and the 12 hour continuation to Detroit--went very smooth and uneventful. No one pissed me off for once. No one took off their shoes with stinky socks. No one stood next to me while I was trying to nap while yapping at the top of their voices. And there were no crying whiny kids anywhere near my seat. I guess I just got lucky. I hope the return trip is as sweet, but I always expect the worst.

I opted to handcarry my single suitcase which turned out to be a smart move. I won't be able to do it on the way home, but at Detroit, even though I was in the back quarter of the plane I was the first one out of the terminal. My brother had only just taken a seat in the waiting area and I spotted the top of his salt and pepper head behind a newspaper. He was a bit surprised at my quick appearance. It helped too that a new line in front of the Homeland Security Immigration booths happened to open up adjacent to the long one I found myself in. I made an un-cool dash into the new one and fought myself into the third position. Some obtuse Chinese fellow with a green card failed to have his declaration card filled out as we had all been clearly instructed to have done more than three times on the flight and he was made to step out of line. I snuck in ahead of him and sailed through. I've never been through customs that quick. It was slick.

So far I'm missing a few things about my life in the Philippines, but I'm also realizing a lot why the USA is such a wonderful country in its own right. More on some of those observations soon. I think I'll go play with my grandson now. At the moment I'm looking out at a Central Texas mid day sky from my daughter's computer table where she lives in Killeen Texas. Seems like a nice place, but I don't think I want to live here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A lesson in chicken catching

I feel my best in the early evening just after the sun goes down. I’m definitely not a morning person; I’m more an end of the day kind of guy. That's when the aching joints ache the least and when I have the most energy.

This evening during that "good time" I was outside enjoying the cooling temperatures with my girls when they rushed up to me with their typical preamble of "daddy, daddy, daddy!" Tugging at my legs they begged me nonstop to play hide 'n seek. Lately, they seem to be on a hide 'n seek binge; they just can't get enough of it. I never actually say yes, I just cover my eyes and start counting, “One, Two, Three…” As soon as I begin the countdown they scream in delight and scramble away to hide in a trail of little girl giggles.

I let them go until they are out of sight behind a corner of the yard or on the other side of the kubo and then I give it the old, “Ready or not, here I come!”

My oldest girl is 6 the other is 4. At that age just about every response and reaction involves tons of giggling and heaps of screaming. I love doing my part eliciting it. When I find them in their obvious hiding places I make a tiger noise, “Arrrrrrggggh! THERE you are! I found you!” causing a joyous chorus of more happy screaming. I love it; they love it; we all love it!

After a half-dozen rounds of that my 6 year old pointed at the far side of our walled yard at a young rooster that had found its way in through the bars of a side gate. I called for my wife’s nephew to come and scare it away. I hate the fact that its even around since we have park rules forbidding chickens, but like most rules here that one is ignored by many.

My nephew works for me as a houseboy. He’s 20 without an ounce of fat on him. He plays basketball for hours out in the street just down the way from us. I don’t think I was ever as slender as he is. He should have captured that bird no problem, but all he did was fruitlessly run it around the yard.

I’d just watched a TV show about a Michigan family from Traverse City trying to fit in with a family out in the wilds of Guyana and the two teenage suburban boys from my home state had tried to catch a rooster for dinner. They couldn’t. Finally, a young local girl hardly in her teens snatched it up, making it look easy.

When I interviewed my father about his growing up years on the farm back in the 1930s he told of how his grandma would send him and his brothers out to catch a rooster for chicken and dumplings. Here’s the excerpt:

Dad xxx I'll tell you what the biggest treat ever would be... a Sunday dinner, and she'd [grandma] say, "We're gonna have chicken and dumplings with homemade gravy. You boys catch me a rooster." And we'd run out there...and we were young...and FAST!

Phil xxx You were quick back then, right? I've seen your pictures. You guys were all skinny and quick! Huh?

Dad xxx Yeah. And we'd run that rooster to death...till he couldn't run any further. We'd just run him down. Finally he'd get up against the fence. (Dad pants like the tuckered rooster and chuckles). We'd grab him by the neck...! (Phil laughs aloud) ...we'd pick him up and cut his head off.

Phil xxx (still laughing) He knew his number was up, didn't he?!

Dad xxx That's why we raised 'em. They were our meal. In the mean time, grandma would make a white cake with most delicious frosting I've ever had.

Now, unlike my father I’ve never tried to catch a chicken, so I thought I’d give it a shot before I get too old to try. I told my nephew to stop chasing it and get out of the way.

I could clearly see that quickness wasn’t going to do the trick, but I figured surely I am just a little smarter than a bird. I set about my work of rooster catching with the idea that I would just use my human smarts against the rooster’s wildly desperate instincts to self-preserve.

I approached it from 20 feet away with it doing that bobbing-headed chicken walk up against the far wall. He had trapped himself basically into a corner of the yard. I decided to use it to my advantage. I held both arms wide apart waving my left one while also sidling slightly in that direction as I moved forward. This caused the bird to continue to move to my right toward the northeast corner where our Blessed Virgin statue in her bathtub grotto stands. The nightly candle was already lit and glowing at the statue's feet.

I continued to move slowly, always using my fluttering left hand to make the rooster move toward the Virgin in the corner. When the bird was in front of the statue with me only a few feet away I started using my right hand to prevent it from getting past my right where it was now trapped against the wall. Now that it had reached that wall it could no longer move right, so instinctively it wanted to bolt back to the left. I had moved to within three feet of the frightened thing and was bent as low as my back would allow. As it made the bolting move to retreat to my left I snapped my left hand fingers without moving my feet. That made it reverse back and forth in a two-foot track while I inched ever closer, always with arms stretched wide and low.

When the rooster knew it had no where to go and was about to be grabbed up by me, it made its great escape attempt in a final furious flurry of feathers and clucking past my right side. I took one speedy step in that direction and brought my hand down on it catching it by a leg and a wing. I had it!

‘What’s all the fuss?’ I thought. ‘This chicken catching stuff is a piece of cake!’

I carried the game little fellow down the street to its owner, but before doing so I told my housekeeper who also cooks that next time it came into our yard to call me, “…because next time, I want you to pluck it and turn him into tinola!”

She laughed nervously, knowing that I was completely serious. My girls just thought it was way cool that their daddy could catch a chicken when their kuya couldn’t.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Old Age Thing

When I was young, or at least a little younger than I am now, I regarded old folks as if they were a different species, different from me anyhow; and it really wasn’t all that long ago that I felt that way. I just couldn’t imagine that their frailties would someday trouble me as well.

It’s like The Grim Reaper, I know he’s waiting for me, but I try not to dwell on his lingering over there in the wings. See! He knows I’m talking about him—he’s grinning that fleshless toothy smile at me from under the blackness of his hood and beckoning with that skeletal hand.

This new way of looking at oldsters happened fairly recently when I realized that I could no longer truly categorize myself as middle-aged. Technically speaking, isn’t it true that a person’s age category can only be classified as middle-aged when the doubling of their current years derives a product to which they can expect to live? I’m certainly not going to live to a hundred, hardly anyone does, and there definitely have been NO centenarians in my family. I won’t kid myself and expect to be the first—not with my problems.

This “getting old” discourse didn’t just happen. Once again I was at the gym today, as usual, and this time I observed an old guy that also comes in almost everyday. I’ve never actually had a word with him, but a couple months ago a pal of mine who is 79-years-young pointed out this other old guy, telling me that believe it or not, he was is in his 70s.

Why would my buddy point out this other guy and declare his age? After all, there are lots of retirees in the gym in their 70s. Well, at first glance you would never think the guy was that old. For one thing he was put together pretty well, certainly better than me; and he was strong! He lifts heavy and can do a dozen chin-ups, and does so two or three times a workout.

Okay, so the guy has stayed in shape and was blessed with good genetics. That’s cool—I can respect that, but even at that I would say that he’s mostly unremarkable, and I would never think to comment on him EXCEPT for a short conversation I had with his wife today.

The guy had just finished a set on a leg machine just across from me that gave me the opportunity to study his face. I was impressed that he had no long wrinkles anywhere on it, NONE! He had plenty of age related things happening on the rest of him—all other exposed areas were duly liver spotted, freckled, and slack, just as what would be expected of anyone over the age of 65.

He keeps his hair short, but long enough to keep easily, and in my opinion, hideously darkly dyed. If I were going to give him some advice on hair coloring it would be to do what I do. I color my hair too, because I am now completely white-headed, and folks, I’m NOT yet ready for “Q-tip” status! (My parents say that old folks in Florida are called “Q-tips;” I thought that was cute.) I use a color that is a light enough so that as the white hair grows in, it blends in for that natural salt-and-pepper effect. Some people don’t even realize I dye it unless I go too long between haircuts, as I ONLY color it AFTER getting it cut. There’s nothing phonier than an obviously old face framed by jet black or dark brown hair. Some might even consider it pitiful, but not me; I just think it’s pathetic. [chuckle]

While he had been pumping out his leg reps I noticed him speaking quietly to a young lady sitting in the shoulder press machine next to me. I figured it was his wife or girlfriend. He went to the other side of the room and during a lull in our workout I asked her if that was her husband. Very shyly, she nodded yes. Trying to sound disarming I casually asked her how old he was. I hardly finished my question when she hurriedly answered. At first, I thought she’d said “Fifty-one,” but I wasn’t sure, so rushed did she blurt it out.

I responded with an incredulous “What?” and she quickly answered again with, “Fifty-one!” only louder and more insistent this time.

“Are you sure?” I asked her in spite of myself.

Immediately I realized what a stupid thing that was to say. She looked like a trapped animal and made a quick getaway. I knew she knew that I knew she was lying. Poor thing.

I don’t know if he’s putting her up to it, or if she’s just not wanting to admit that her husband is 50 years older than she is. I suspect it’s more the latter.

Then I began to doubt myself thinking, ‘Maybe she’s right. If he’s 51 then he’s about the same age as me. I HAVE to be sure!’

So, I started sidling nearer to get a closer look. He was intently benching about 150 as I walked slowly past. I noticed the skin on his face was mask-like and artificially taunt. Aha! He’s had surgery there, but I also saw small telltale vertical lines around his mouth. He’ll need to get Botox injections to take care of that I guess. I checked out the hairline as well and it seemed not quite natural for even a guy of 35, much less one of 51. It was too thick and even. So he’s had some “work” done there too. There was no loose skin around his eyes at all, and even someone in their 30s has that going on. Another clue to his real age is that when he forgets himself he allows his mouth to go slack and fall open, which is something that happens to oldsters—it just does. And finally, as he left the gym I watched him walk. His back hurts him, and hurts him a lot; he tries to hide it, but the pain betrays him. Also, he walks a bit bowlegged and stiffly on hurting knees and hips. Oh yeah, he’s definitely 70 something.

Until his wife lied about his age I never really bothered to check him out all that closely, but once she got my curiosity up, I couldn’t help myself—I became a man on a mission, and soon it was “mission accomplished.” After he left and ended my little game of “find the old guy clues,” it got me to thinking of how we age and what a lot of us do to stem the tide of that aging. Is it vainly wrong to even TRY to hide our true “old” age, and if not, is it sadly pretentious to try to conceal THE THINGS we DO to hide it? Here’s what I think: do what you got to do to stop the old age clock, but DON’T lie about it.

I say, why be ashamed of it? To me, it’s not sissy to dye your hair, or to get surgery or hair transplants; what IS unmanly is denying it. I knew a guy here in his late 50s that obviously colored his hair to a yellowish shade of blond, definitely from a bottle. I made the mistake of asking him where he bought his color and he indignantly refused to admit that he even dyed it. His girlfriend had already told my wife that he did, so the cat was out of the bag. After that, he ignored me if we passed on the street or in the bars. I don’t know, maybe he was ashamed at being “outed.” Heck, all he had to do was pay me off and I would have gladly kept my big mouth shut!

I rather respect the old guys and gals that don’t “give in” and keep trying to maintain some level of fitness and “looks” in spite of the pain and drudgery. I’m not so sure about spending the bucks on plastic surgery, but in these parts it’s really not all that expensive. What costs a couple thousand dollars over here typically costs two or three times that in the states. If you can afford it, why not go for it? On the same note, why not just admit it?

What’s more pathetic, …

…trying to hide the things we do to camouflage our gray thinning hair and wrinkled wattling faces, …

…OR, getting some “nip and tuck” done, while dying your hair plugs, and going on a slimming diet, and THEN… REFUSING to admit it?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Olfactory uh oh's

Sometimes my overdeveloped sense of smell is a miserable affliction. I guess you could say I have a case of olfactory over sensitivity.

I’m sure this is mostly a mental problem since it isn’t just odors that "get under my skin;" certain things I HEAR can ALSO drive me to distraction, like gangster hip-hop, ceaselessly barking dogs, and badly done karaoke, which pretty much describes 95% of All karaoke.

Anyway, getting back on track, this post is about my never-ending issue with the malodorous, particularly stinky armpit people like those that have been accosting me lately at the gym. Ugh!

But before I get to that bit of smelliness, allow me to go back to another stinking time; because if I must, I know that I CAN tolerate bad smells with the best of them. Thinking back, I remember a particularly reeking incident at Chanute AFB in 1980. I was a month into avionics school learning how to work on autopilot systems before heading out to my first Air Force assignment.

Air Force schools were, and probably still are, taught in blocks. It had been a stiflingly hot summer that year on the plains of central Illinois, so hot that my AMC Pacer had just about melted into the sprawling asphalt parking lot in front of the TDY dorm where I was billeted. And now those long intolerably hot weeks interspersed with some of the most violent storms imaginable was about to negatively affect one of the teaching blocks I most looked forward to, the one covering the basics of soldering and safety wire.

It was a late August mid-morning. My fellow students and I stood around restlessly in the hallway waiting for the female SSgt instructor to show up and open the soldering room. Most of my classmates were new to the military. These folks fresh from basic training were required to march in formation to school—these people were E3s and E2s, while I was the ranking guy at E4. Being prior-enlisted with 5 years in the Marines before transferring to the Air Force, I joined my new service branch with a little more rank, and better yet, I was allowed to diddy- bop* to class on my own. There was one other prior enlisted fellow there, an A1C; he was an older salt-and-pepper haired fellow who had done some time in the army and army guard. The group of us waited eagerly about the locked door anxious to learn the magical ways of the soldering iron.

Right off the bat I found that my status as “ex marine” meant that more was expected of me, or perhaps I expected more of myself. Regardless, I liked it that way. I enjoyed “the looks” of respect I got from the others when they learned I had been a sergeant in the marines less than a year before. I wore my new AF uniform as a marine would, tucking my shirt in with a sharp military tuck and held tightly down into my trousers with four elastic garters attached at the other end to the tops of my socks. I looked stupid as hell with my pants off, but sharp as hell with ‘em on—well, take my word for it! Anyway, strangely enough, being “the marine” was about to come into play once again as we prepared to practice melting solder and twisting safety wire.

The instructor finally showed up with the keys and unlocked the door. The old brick building had no air- conditioning in the classrooms. For summer time relief the doors and windows were opened wide for the occasional cooling breeze. Upon opening the door the room felt like an unbearable dank furnace. Several of us rushed to the decades-old counter-weighted windows and began shoving them up and open. As soon as the first one creaked upward on its ancient tracks a chorus of groans and “oh my Gods!” cascaded through the room.

It was the smell of death, and yes, even worse than worst foulness that often wafts from the armpits of the nastiest of the body odor specialists that work out at my gym.

On the wide outer ledge of one of the windows a large nest of four nearly full-grown fledgling pigeons had recently drowned during the last heavy storm. Now the nest contained a sickening soup of putrefied mushy carrion and filthy feathers, all well into the liquefaction stage, and utterly squirming with hundreds of obese white well-fed maggots.

Two airmen retched and bolted from the room. The others held their noses and were not far behind. I was the only one to hold my ground. I laughed and said a marine thing, something like,

“Ah come on you guys. It’s not so bad. Don’t you love the smell of rotten flesh in the morning? It smells like…. Victory!”

The instructor had hurried down the hall to call for help from the char force but soon returned with a worried look on her face. There was only one janitor and he was not immediately available. Now, she knew she was about to fall behind schedule—a big time no-no for the instructor corps. I felt her pain and stepped up.

“No problem Maam, I got this!” and I gave my rendition of the Marine’s battle yell, “Arruh Rah!” growled at about 25% full volume.

I grabbed a small trashcan lined with a plastic bag and with a great show of cheery bravado and with bare hands started shoveling into it nest debris soggy with wet rotten bird parts and wriggling maggots. The others stood well away at the other end of the room, most of them outside in the corridor. All of them watched me with looks of disbelieving horror. Honestly, I have never been more pleased with myself. The ex-soldier decided he better not let himself be shown up by a scrawny ex-Marine and came over to assist. He also affected nonchalance.

The two of us looked at the cringing horrified airmen and smirked while we bantered and played with the rotting birds and lively maggots. We had saved the day and showed the young troopers how veterans act when things get unpleasant. They probably learned more that day than they ever did up to it.

It’s funny, with my hypersensitive nose I never once felt sick that day, all because I was showing off. Maybe I need to figure out how to incorporate that kind of bluster into my workouts at the gym of late.

At least every other day or so a guy will come in smelling like skunky road kill on a hot summer day in Texas. I’ve been trying to figure these guys out. Why do they go out in public smelling so bad? Why would they subject the rest of the world to that kind of personal stink? It befuddles me.

I think a lot of them must not have been athletes in their younger lives, because we learn very early that you ALWAYS take a shower before hitting the gymnasium. These guys must figure, ‘Hell, why shower when all I’m gonna do is sweat anyway?’

The problem with that rationale is that the bacteria in those pits and in those day-old shirts is just waiting for a fresh dose of sweat to set off a fresh round of stink. One older American in his 60s, who ironically enough drives a brand new very expensive SUV, smelled so BAD that one of the gym workers followed him around the room continuously spraying air freshener trying futilely to beat back the old guy's fetid air. Whenever that smelly old man came near me or passed by I quickly put my towel over my nose and mouth. Even with all the spraying and covering of lower faces he never gave a hint of acknowledgment. I even made it a point to speak practically at the top of my voice how horrible it was that some people would deign to wash, change their clothes and deodorize before going to their workout. Incredible.

I approached Rob, one of the two brawny shaven-headed owners, about the ongoing BO problem. I suggested they integrate the use of the yellow and red “foul” cards like they use in soccer. I proposed that they print on the yellow cards a warning that states unless a shower and change of shirt is carried out that a red card will be forthcoming. The red one removes the offending player from the pitch, and in this case from the confines of the gym. Rob chuckled and agreed that it was more of a problem than even I know, but blew me off just the same.

It’s a common problem here that when bad manners, bad form, and bad acts occur that rarely is anything done about it. Here’s a for instance for you: I stopped playing golf here years ago partly because the course managers and especially the caddies will not correct the discourteous play of the hordes of Koreans who have taken over the courses. Perhaps they don’t know any better or they just don’t care, but when it started taking 8 hours to play 18 holes it just wasn’t worth it. The same is true in the gym; instead of telling the rancid smelling few to clean up their act or else, all that happens is some complaining and shrugging. It drives me nuts.

One of the loveliest things about Filipinos is that generally speaking they are the cleanest smelling people I’ve ever been around. Their food doesn't befoul their breath and sweat and they must take at least two showers a day because few of them ever smell of BO. It’s only from among the ranks of Americans, Aussies and Europeans that I’ve had to endure emanations of foul smelling armpits in the gym. When it comes to smelling pleasant while working out, Filipinos seem to be completely on board with it. Well-done folks! I APPRECIATE that!

* military slang: diddy-bopping = walking carelessly

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Americans “know” little, but “feel” a lot.

I’m amused every time I see a TV pundit display some poll result supposedly reflecting how Americans “feel” about certain current important matters. Why my amusement? Because most US citizens pay little attention to anything in the world other than what directly interests or affects them, such as the cost of gas, work or school, or pop culture items such as what happened at The MTV Awards (Tommy Lee and Kid Rock act “ghetto,” while Britney Spears flops).

Knowing the above, as far as I’m concerned, polls SHOULDN’T be all that important, except for perhaps as a gauge to show how uneducated, misled or purposely-ignorant most Americans are.

For instance, I saw some polls today taken before and after General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker gave their progress reports on Iraq. The poll stats were a joke, just as most polls are these days. I say that because I guarantee that if you ask folks on the street if they know the identities of those two gentlemen that only 1 or 2 out of 10 could answer correctly. Indeed, I maintain that most poll respondents know little about what they are being asked about.

Therefore, to administer poll questions with even a modicum of credibility, as part of the survey pollsters must first carefully inform the poll answerers what it is they are about to be questioned about. In the Petraeus/Crocker poll, poll givers must explain WHO the two gentlemen are, what they do, and where. Then, once carefully prepped (and probably skewed), the respondents are asked ridiculously loaded questions like “Do you believe Petraeus and Crocker are lying?” and “Are they just spouting party line?”

I despise polls, primarily because they are too easily manipulated. More important to me would be other data. For example, I’d like to know on what the respondents based their opinions, or more fittingly, their “feelings.” I’d like to ask if they have followed events in Iraq, and if so, through what medium? Do they know anyone over there? Are they familiar with the careers of the general or the ambassador? How much do they know about Iraqi culture and history? On what specifically do they base their positive or negative stances—is it their politics, stuff they read in blogs or saw on FOX or CNN? Or, is it just based on how the two men in question presented themselves?

President Clinton was the king of governing by poll—a personable and ostensibly smart fellow, in effect he was a will o’ the wisp commander in chief who conducted his entire presidency by survey. He made few presidential decisions according to his own compass, instead using the fickle finger of public opinion. He might as well have been governing by referendum, which in fact would reflect true democracy, although as such would be a miserable failure, but I digress.

Speaking of U.S. opinion polls—for quite some time now they have reflected a definite lack of national spirit and resolve for continued American involvement in Iraq. This nationwide angst against the war is probably mostly attributable to our well-known cultural impatience and need for immediate fulfillment, as well as from the continual bombardment of “bad” news from our politicized media. What these polls actually show is that Americans “know” little, but “feel” a lot.

What follows is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.

Weeks ago, I met a nice young fellow from the San Francisco area. A 20-year-old, he emigrated from the Philippines when he was 10. We struck up a conversation pedaling side by side on stationary bikes in my gym. I heard him speak to one of his Filipino cousins with an American accent and asked him where he was from in the US.

Getting to know each other, we played the typical conversation game. We asked questions about each other’s background, which brought forth comments and more questions. My personal “way” is to never ask anything controversial about politics, war or religion, at least not until I know a “thing or two” about with whom I am conversing. However, in this case my new young friend was the one to open the debate box, and I dare say that for him it was a horrible thing.

By his third query he knew that I had spent many years in the military. Most people at that point will ask things like which service branch was I in, how long did I serve, and what job did I do, but not so this guy. Truthfully, I don’t think he knew enough about the armed forces to even begin to know what kind of questions to ask about it conversationally. Instead, he sighed and made a comment that “got me started.”

He said offhandedly, “It’s horrible what’s happening over in Iraq. I feel so bad for all the military people over there. They should all just be allowed to come home now.”

I looked at him sideways and smiled saying, “Can I ask you exactly what you think is happening over there that makes you say that our people should all come home immediately?”

“Ah, you know, bad things are happening. It’s not right. We shouldn’t be over there.”

“Okay, you DO know that everyone in the military is a volunteer, right? And you know that it’s been more than four years since we deployed to Iraq in 2003, correct? That means that hardly anyone in uniform today enlisted BEFORE the war started. Do you understand why that’s important?”

“Ahhh, no?” he answered, unsure of himself.

“Because the Americans over there doing the hard job of trying to help the Iraqis secure their country against terrorists and insurgents have all HAD the opportunity to quit. Many of them aren’t getting out; they are reenlisting. If you think about it, that should tell you something, right?”

“Like what?”

“Like maybe they believe that they are doing something that NEEDS to be done. May I ask, do you even KNOW anyone in the military?” I watched him carefully as he answered and knew from his facial expression and demeanor that deceit was coming.

“Ah…, …yeah.” He said haltingly with averted eyes, obviously lying. I let it go.

“Okay, lets say you do. Now what do you think would happen if we just up and left Iraq the way you want?”

“What do you mean? If our troops leave then the killing will stop. It only makes sense. All they are doing is just making more people into terrorists anyway. We never should have gone over there in the first place.”

“You just folded three different arguments into one there buddy. Let’s start from the top.”

Taking a breath I started, “I won’t argue with you on whether or not we should have invaded in the first place. You might not even remember why the president sent us in anyway, but I’ll just say that it wasn’t a problem UNTIL the insurgency turned it all sour. In case you didn’t know or don’t remember, but virtually every member of congress including most of the democrats voted to give Bush the go ahead before we attacked. So enough said on that. If you want to say, “Bush lied and people died” then that’s up to you. If he did lie, he damn sure was convincing.”

“I think it was for the oil man,” he tossed out nonchalantly.

I chortled, “You think so? I don’t think you’ve thought about that very much, because we could have gotten oil a lot easier and cheaper if we’d just continued to deal with Hussein. You know, just like the French and Germans did with the “oil for food program.” Remember that?”

Haltingly, he answered, “No, …not really…”

I continued, “O…kay, so much for that. So then, why do you think that the killing, as you say, will stop once we leave? Who is it that you think is DOING all the killing? Do you think its us?”

“Well, yeah. With all our bombing and attacks. Like that.”

“Let me school you up a little my friend,” I said good-humouredly. “Virtually ALL the killing is being done by the terrorists and insurgents, and now a lot of murder and mayhem is being done by Shia on Sunni and Sunni on Shia. You know what Kurds, Sunnis and Shia are, right?”

“Ahhhh, not really,” he said self-consciously.

“Well friend, I suggest you find out if you are planning on having an opinion on Iraq. You know?” I was having a hard time at that point hiding my condescension.

I continued, “Do you even know WHY we are there? You said something about oil and actually, you are mostly right. A huge chunk of the entire world’s oil supply comes from that part of the world. If we simply leave now, without ensuring stability, the whole region could go up in smoke.”

I asked him suddenly, “Do you have a car?”

“Yes, I do. …just bought it last year.”

“Cool, because if you want to be able to afford to put gas in it then I would think you would want us to make sure the Persian Gulf area stays secure. If we declare defeat and go without leaving an Iraqi government in place then you can kiss goodbye affordable gasoline. If Iran starts something and Hormuz closes, or if the pipelines close, then expect to pay 10 dollars per gallon my friend.”

He shrugged. I think he was getting a bit tired of not being able to answer my barrage of questions and assertions. Knowledge is a terrible thing when you DON’T have it. Too late now, he was ALL mine.

Turning my recumbent exercycle setting higher, I mopped my brow with my towel before going on, “Hey buddy, you said something about us MAKING more terrorists?”

“Yeah. All we are doing is pissing off a lot of people and making them hate us.”

“Okay, let me understand what you’re saying. You say if we weren’t there, then Al Qaeda would STOP hating us? So why do you think the 9-11 hijackers attacked us? At the time we weren’t even in Iraq or Afghanistan yet.”

“I don’t know. I guess because we support Israel. What they are doing to the Palestinians is terrible.”

“Oh man! I don’t want to get into the Palestinian thing, but I can tell you that Al Qaeda would still be trying to get rid of us even if Israel disappeared tomorrow. The Palestinian problem is a diversion my friend, just one bogus excuse among many. Al Qaeda wants to make the whole world into a Taliban state, like what they had in Afghanistan before we helped the Northern Alliance kick them out of power.”

I asked him if he knew anything about the Taliban and the atrocities they committed but once again he knew nothing of them. I sighed.

I finished up my one-sided debate with one more crack at trying to explain why we were in Iraq to this person who “felt” so much while “knowing” next to nothing. Keep in mind that at the time of this “debate” the surge had not yet kicked in and the Sunnis in Al Anbar and Diyala had not yet risen up against Al Qaeda with our help:

“One last thing man, and I’ll stop. Did you know that our presence isn’t so much making terrorists, as you claim, as attracting them. Bin Laden has already declared that the new war against America is IN Iraq. In other words, they are coming in from all over the jihadi world to try to defeat us there.

Now, the reason that’s good is because we are killing them as fast as they are coming. The bad thing is that out of evil desperate spite they are killing more Iraqis than they are blowing up Americans. But the fact that our sworn enemy, which Al Qaeda is, is there in Iraq is one of THE primary reasons we CANNOT go UNTIL we destroy them there, otherwise, we will have to go back and its going to be even harder the second time. So whatever we do, defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq HAS to happen first. Are you feeling me?”

I grinned over at him and apologized, “Sorry about that, but you have to admit you asked for it. Anyway, I can tell your heart is in the right place. You just need some insights that you’ve never been exposed to before.”

I reached over to him with my left hand and formed a fist. He hit it with his right fist and smiled saying, “Hey man, you’re a good guy. It was nice talking about ugly things without getting mad at each other. That’s always a good thing, you know?”

I nodded and had one last bit of fun at his expense as I kidded him, “You’re damned skippy dude, especially when I'M right!”

We both laughed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Computer glitch

I was out of the saddle for the past few days, once again due to my computer’s tendency to occasionally sputter, and hiccup, and even worse in this last instance, to lapse into outright electronic unconsciousness.

My computer guy, a local fellow who is quite good at reviving sickly pc’s like mine, put me on the hook from Friday night until he finally came over early Sunday evening.

He’s always apologetic and very respectful when he finally shows up; and even though, like always, he made me sit in the house all weekend waiting for him, I didn’t dare upset him with even the hint of a grumble. He’s just too damned valuable for me to alienate like that.

(But I SWEAR here and now, as soon as I find a better, or at least a more RELIABLE pc fixer dude, I’m going to give this guy holy hell along with the heave ho….

Then again, maybe not. I just MIGHT need him again, so I better not burn that bridge? Dang it…)

As a matter of fact, less than five minutes after he booted this puppy up he had the glitch nailed down to a mischief making RAM card. Windows spit out some mysterious code and he knew immediately what it meant. He turned around and told me it was a memory problem, probably the RAM. I told him that I happened to know that I had two of them in there, "So you got a 50-50 chance of picking the right one, or maybe its both," I offered.

He snaked his 90-pounds of 5-feet-nothing under my computer table like a contortionist fitting into one of those tiny transparent acrylic boxes and dismantled my pc without so much as a grunt and nary a groan. Without a flashlight, seemingly with bat-vision or perhaps with experienced fingers from having done it hundreds of times before, he dismantled wires, removed panels and screws, and within seconds pulled out and showed me the probable offending cards—so small and yet so vital.

With RAM cards in hand and before uttering another comment he intently studied their style, type, and size. He showed me the one he “knew” to be bad telling me that it was a low frequency card while the other was high, whatever the heck that means. It looked just fine to me, but he said knowingly and without a hint of doubt that it was the malefactor.

He gave me a quote and I gave him about $44 including labor—can’t beat that I guess, at least not until I learn how to fix it myself, and there’s little chance of that ever happening.

Arriving back at my house the next morning, only two hours late this time, computer man pulled a new replacement card from his magical knapsack. He slipped back into his lair under the table, fiddled around inside my pc for a few seconds and popped back out like an irrepressible ferret, pressing the on-button as he slid smoothly into my wheeled computer chair. Windows popped up as if it had never NOT done so and he turned around and grinned victoriously.

“See, all better!”

He didn’t even have to reformat or correct any corruption in my Windows. Lucky me. I HATE when that happens.

So I’m good to go, for now. My fingers are crossed.

I’m thinking back on all the parts and pieces I’ve had changed out on this thing since I bought it in 2003. That was the year I bought this now obsolete dinosaur. I needed it for all those college classes I took thanks to my Vietnam era GI Bill college benefits. The only component still original in this four year old "ancient" hunk of junk is the motherboard.

I really should just buy me a new computer, but with the cost of parts so cheap and labor even cheaper, I just keep putting it off. What’s the point? After all, I only use this thing to surf the web, answer emails, write in PhilippinesPhil, and oh, let's not forget to write causticly longwinded comments in Ed Abbey’s and Katana’s blogs et al.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Permanent Resident Soon to Fly Home

In less than two weeks I fly back to the states for a three-week visit. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been home now. Let’s see, it’s been over two years, not since the whole family and I went home for my father’s bypass.

This time I’m going back solo, mostly because the girls are in school. In 2005 when we made the trip home with the entire family my wife had paid all the fees and taxes that we Philippine permanent residents “get” to pay.

I’m glad she did pay them then, otherwise it might have ruined the first leg to Japan for me on that Northwest Airlines 747. The reason I say that is because as a holder of an ACRI (permanent resident) card, when you fly out of here you have to take a bucket full of money with you to the airport, and I’d really had no idea.

My little rude awakening occurred a couple days ago when I stopped by the Angeles International Travel Center to ask Danny for a few tips on what I needed to do for a smooth trip. If you have travel or immigration questions or needs, by all means, go see him. He’s a great guy, charges fairly for his services, and won’t let you down. Everyone in the office is like that, but Donny is the “go to guy,” especially for immigration questions and problems. When it comes to that stuff, Donny “knows” people. In this country THAT’S the thing.

I have only ONE problem these days with Angeles Int'l Travel Center, which is in the white building directly "on the point" of that "slice of pie" shaped corner just down from the Petron Station on Perimeter Road. At the moment they’ve stopped taking credit cards. Danny said that it’s a matter of taxes or problems with card payments or some vague thing. He was sort of evasive when he answered the question so I doubt I got a straight answer—it was the typical “avoidance” method commonly used in these parts to get around uncomfortable questions.

Anyhow, I complained that no one in their right mind in this country walks around with the kind of cash needed to pay for international travel, at least not without a bodyguard. I told him I didn’t quite understand how they expected to do business that way. Paying with anything but a credit card is so 40 years ago!

I would have had Angeles Travel book my tickets, but seeings how the travel agency wouldn’t take my MasterCard I bought mine online through Expedia. I think I paid too much at $1350 for the round trip, but what the heck. Next time, I’ll try another site and see if I can’t do any better. After playing around a little it looks like Mobissimo offers some cheaper fares.

I also wanted to ask Donny about my E-ticket. I printed out what I thought was the Expedia E-ticket, but it wasn’t clear that that’s what it was and I wanted to make sure. He looked it over and told one of the travel agents working the counter to print me out a good one, which she did free of charge.

Still needing to know what to expect at the airport terminal using my “new” ACRI card, Danny filled me in on the unkind details. He said to go to the right after checking through with my luggage and pay what I believe he called a travel tax, which only we permanent residents are required to pay. That one runs about 1700 pesos.

After checking in the luggage and entering the immigration area Donny told me to look for a ACRI CARD holder window. There, I will pay my exit/entry fee that goes for a cool 2750 pesos or so.

Finally, there’s the terminal tax, which goes for a comparatively tiny 750 pesos.

I guess its not all that bad, in dollars its not even 100 bucks, but if I were taking both girls and the wife home it would add up to a pretty substantial amount.

My other significant travel expense is paying for the 2-½ to 3-½ hour trip to the airport from here. The van service I use is now charging about 3000 pesos, and it costs the same amount to get home.

We went through a lot to get our permanent residence status and I was considering for a short time—as it turns out, a very short time—giving it up and just doing what many of my buds do, and just go through the hassle of living here as a tourist. But, after talking on the phone just now to one of these fellows I think I’ll just hold on to my present status as a permanent resident. From talking to him I can see that the Philippines really makes residing here as a tourist a total pain in the neck. I still think I have the slightly better deal, but not by much.

He told me that as a tourist it’s costing him about 9000 pesos a year in fees, which he has to pay at the immigration office here in town every three or four months after his first 21 days in-country is up. After 21 days you live from extension to extension. Supposedly, tourists no longer have to leave the country once a year and can stay for two years, although he said he wasn’t sure how that was possible since an onward ticket is required and there are none that are good past 1 year. My pal likes his trips to Thailand though, so he just goes and comes the way the bogus system has always forced him to do. In his case, he flies to Pattaya three times a year claiming it’s a refreshing change of pace.

A lot of American military retirees have chosen Thailand over the Philippines, but most of the guys who enjoy both places and yet have chosen to live here say the primary reason to live here are the women. (That’s right Kat, the WOMEN!) It doesn’t surprise me; I’ve heard it many times over the years. (Filipinas communicate better, they are sweeter, and don't eat HOT food!)

But everyone claims that what IS superior in Thailand are the medical and dental care. The costs are comparable to here, but the expertise and care are purportedly better in Thailand. There must be something to it, because I know at least a dozen guys who go to Thailand every year just to get their annual checkups done. They swear by it.

When I was online checking prices to the US, I checked out fares to Thailand too. It looks like Cebu Air has the lowest tickets going—they run from $250 to $450 roundtrip, and they fly direct from Manila. Not bad.

Oh before I forget, one last thing on ACRI cards. It took us more than two years from the day we paid for and applied for ours before we finally got them issued to us. My wife called the Philippine Immigration Office in Manila and asked why no cards so long after we’d paid for them. Both times she called she spoke to snooty bureaucrats who simply blew her off. We’d gone to the VFW more than two years before when the immigration people had come to Angeles City on an outreach. At the time we were very grateful, as it was a marvelous thing to do for those of us with small children who didn’t want to make the trip to Manila. Jim Boyd, the local US Embassy Warden had arranged it.

We’d completely given up on ever getting those darn things until I asked Danny at the Angeles Int'l Travel Ctr about them. He said he could have them for me in a matter of two or three days; all I had to do was pay him about $50(?) for his time and he’d take care of it. Sure enough, after fighting with those officious unresponsive ninnies for months, we had our long awaited permanent residence cards. Like I said, Donny KNOWS people!

When he handed me ours I asked him how long before we were going to have to go through all this all over again. The “all-knowing” Donny has “heard” from his “contacts” that the cards will probably be good for 5 years. Man, I sure hope so!

If you need to contact him, Donny's number and email address are here at the ANGELES INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CENTER website.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Part 3 of QA, Mr. Touchy Feely goes "TQM"

parts 1, and 2

When the Air Force put all of its eggs into the TQM basket in 1991 most QA shops simply stopped doing any more inspections. Happily, the Logistic Group commander at Little Rock did not instruct us to stop, even though it sort of went against what the rest of the Air Force C-130 world was doing. In fact, as far as I know, we were the only QA shop not to lose manpower at the inception of the Air Force's reckless dive into the shallow pool called Total Quality Management.

WE continued to inspect, but with a radically different mindset than before. Previously, we had a schedule of inspection tasks basically designed to police our maintenance force, to keep them on their toes through intimidation.

Then, after TQM became the watchword, we inspected NOT to maintain compliance, but to gather data points. Instead of inspecting we “measured.” In keeping with the hottest “quality” tenants at the time, our new job was to identify our organizational processes and THEN work on improving them.

Continuous improvement,” another famous TQM phrase, meant that nothing was EVER good enough; but the only way to actually know if improvement was at hand was to measure the products resulting from our processes. “Products” meaning those items and services provided to our “customers” like “mission capable airplanes” for instance, and all the logistics that went into making those planes mission capable. Oh, and “customers” were defined as those availing of our data products, such as pilots, aircrew and maintenance personnel, and especially decision makers at all levels. Anyone making use of our measurement products were our customers.

Part of what all this meant is that I got me a new title, two to be exact. In the Air Force, everyone has one or more of them. It’s a requirement if only to be able to fill the “duty title” block on enlisted and officer performance reports, and by the way, having a good duty title is almost as crucial as the rating—the “fancier” the title the better chance at picking up the next higher rank. Previously, I had been a lowly inspector; now, I was a “quality manager” as well as an “avionics advisor.”

I still think getting rid of all those “keep ‘em on their toes” inspections was a bad idea, but honestly, my job in the nouveau quality shop was amazingly gratifying. Now, making workers feel uneasy by my very presence was no longer in play. In my new persona I was there to help make things work better, and I took on that assignment with total seriousness.

Our “big” headquarters boss, called Air Mobility Command, or AMC, was located “up the road” in Illinois at Scott AFB. AMC went right along with our commander’s decision to allow QA to continue inspecting, probably because of Little Rock’s unique position in the command—in several ways we were like no other C-130 base anywhere in the world.

For one thing, we were the “school house” for anyone in the world who flies the C-130, including many foreign air forces. Of our wing’s four flying squadrons, I'm not sure anymore but I believe two were devoted entirely to the purpose of training new pilots, navigators, loadmasters and flight engineers.

(Keep in mind that almost everything I describe here organizationally has now changed and changed again--THAT is the United States Air Force!)

Another LRAFB distinction was the sheer number of C-130s on our flight line. All together, including the Air Guard squadron, there were 5 squadrons of those big planes with as many as 16 to 18 “birds” per squadron. Imagine 90 gigantic Hercules lined up 4 deep. On days when most of the planes were at home it made for quite an impressive display.

With all those C-130s in one place, HQ AMC used to reach out and “use” Little Rock quite a bit for various “projects,” and when there were projects you would ALWAYS find QA people involved in their coordination, if not in their outright management. I loved it, because being in QA, I was constantly right in the middle of “the action.”

An additional significant uniqueness at Little Rock was the CFT or contract field team. The CFT at LRAFB set up shop there in the late 80s, and might still be there now for all I know. A division of Lockheed Martin provided our CFT. Their job was to modify C-130s with various upgrades, all most all of them involving electrical and avionics modifications.
What made our CFT different from others in the AF was the unusually long time it stayed in continuous operation there--at least 10 years. It became institutionalized and was considered an asset to the wing because of the knowledge stored in all those "old heads" working there. I was considered an avionics "expert" by the wing, but I knew the real corporate knowldege was over there at the contract field team and I never hesitated to consult with them.

One of my “hats” in dealing with the CFT was QAR, or Quality Assurance Representative. Yep, another title, and one of my most favorite. As QAR, I kept an eye on virtually everything the field team did. For instance, I signed off on all the man-hours they expended, especially those designated as “over time.” But primarily, my job as QAR was to accept C-130s back into the USAF after they had been upgraded.

When an aircraft goes “under the knife” with a contract field team it goes into what’s called depot status. By going “into depot,” even though it never actually left the base, the plane no longer is counted on operational rolls. That’s important to the owning wing since they jealously measure the downtime of all their birds, and downtime is not good time.

I did more than simply sign the acceptance documents. I had a pager and I could expect to be called in to sign off “areas” about to be paneled up at any time between 6 am and 11 pm. I didn’t have to do that, but I insisted on it. As part of the mod plan—which was another rather extensive document that I signed off on—I inspected every “disturbed” area on the C-130 in work before it was “closed up” by the team. That’s because once some of those panels went on, many with as many as several score screws, no eyes might see that area again for years.

In other words, I never “bought” anything back for the Air Force unless I first saw, touched and felt every wire bundle, connector, tie-strap, splice, terminal, lacing, and clamp! That’s why they called me Mr. Touchy Feely.
Just as important was my fetish that all wire harnesses be separated and routed correctly so as never to fail due to chafing or exposure to heat sources. I could go on for paragraphs on all the ways an installation can fail. My guys installed so as NEVER to fail.

I wasn’t exactly unique in the way I did my job as QAR. Eventually, I met nearly every other Air Force C-130 QAR scattered at bases throughout the world. Almost all of them did their jobs exactly as I did, although not all of them insisted on inspecting every single area.

An interesting sidebar to all this is how I ended up getting a “free” trip to Ogden, Utah. I went there at the request of an air force colonel whom we immediately nicknamed “Colonel Burly Man.” Now that was an interesting trip. I think I'll write more about it and that burly colonel in part 4…

Monday, September 03, 2007

Conversation with a "dinosaur"

I had an extended conversation the other day with a retired marine, a grizzled old fellow ten years my senior. We see each other occasionally, maybe twice a week, but we aren’t really friends. Actually, I don’t think I COULD be friends with him. His attitude, although fascinating to me, is also very disturbing. I’d forgotten people like him exist.

Usually, we just speak of mundane and comfortable things, like veteran’s benefits or recent dealings with Social Security. We started out that way, but then we got into other slightly more sinister subjects.

Like most marines he’s been married multiple times; lets just say more than five, actually, many more. I asked him about his kids. He hasn’t kept in touch with any of them. He claims its been 20 years since he spoke to his daughter and even longer to his two other children.

“What about grandkids? Do you have any?”

“I have no idea.” He said.

“How can that be? Don’t you want to know?”

“I don’t think about it. They all know where I am. If they want to talk to me, it’s up to them.”

In disbelief I shook my head and commented, “I can’t imagine at least not trying to reach out every so often. I try to send an email to my 26-year-old boy at least once a month. I tell him I’m thinking about him. Even if he doesn’t answer he still knows I love him. ... And I’m going to go visit my two grown girls and my grandson later this month in Texas.”

He shrugged. “MY boy probably hates me, if he even still thinks of me. I treated him like I did all my marines and I was a hardass as a boss. You know, I haven’t been in touch with ANY of my relatives for a long time, over ten years. The only family I have now is the wife I’m married to now.”

Like a lot of older gentlemen over here, his wife is considerably younger than he is. I think she’s 35 years younger.

I smirked. “You ever going to take her to the US?” I asked him, already knowing the answer.

“Hell no!”

“You’re smart,” I said. “She’s a cutey. Some young guy would try to take her away in a heartbeat. You can’t be with her ALL the time, and those young studs would just be lurking for the chance to swoop in.”

I continued my tirade, “And no matter how much the little ladies declare their love for you over here, THAT all changes when some young buck starts to tell ‘em lies over THERE.”

“Yup,” he said matter of factly, “American guys have absolutely no respect for another man’s wife. I’d be crazy to take her back there…

He continued…

...Besides, I spent nearly my entire career over here in the Pacific, and after a while, over here became more home than back there. I really don’t have any reason to go back; not since my mom passed away.”

Nodding, I agreed, “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like we don’t have anything in common with civilians back home. It seems like they don’t know what we know, because they haven’t been anywhere or done anything that matters. They are weak willed and just don’t get it. Sometimes I watch the news and just feel sick with disgust.”

His turn to nod, “Yup. We don’t fit in back there. That’s all there is to it.”

Our conversation bounced from one disparate subject to another. As I said, the guy fascinates yet repulses me. His hard heart and innate meanness intrigues me. It brought back memories of other guys I used to know like him all those decades ago when I too was a marine. Believe me, Air Force people and marines are two totally different creatures and whenever I talk to this guy I am reminded of that. He has several purple hearts from combat action during at least two tours in Vietnam and he served in several skirmishes and wars all the way through Desert Storm, more than 24 years in all.

The disgraced senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, came up and we joked about the weak explanations he gave for his encounter with the vice cop in the public toilet stall. My former marine friend explained to me with apparent inside knowledge that when a man bumps another’s foot that he’s letting on that he wants to be the one to “give.”

I laughed, “What! How do you know so much about that stuff? What’s up with that?”

He shrugged without a hint of embarrassment, “I’ve got law enforcement experience after my time in the Corps. We learned all the “tricks” sickos use to troll for public sex. That’s how you catch them. That senator is as guilty as sin.”

I joked, “I guess Craig is a true believer in that old saying, eh? The one that goes it’s better to GIVE than to RECEIVE!”

Some how we started talking again about what a hardass he was as a boss in the Marine Corps. He came up with an example of just how hard his ass truly was,

“…It was legal to wear them but I NEVER let any of my marines wear those sissy ass high gloss patent leather low quarters. They either wore spit shine shoes or they took a lot of shit from me until they did wear them.”

After I graduated bootcamp I used to wear those pansy ass patent leather dress shoes and I told him so, trying to goad him a little…

“You ARE right man. I would have hated having you as a boss. I bought my first pair of Bates Corfram dress shoes as soon as I could. Spit shined shoes look like crap after you try to walk around in them. Besides, I volunteered to be in a color guard when I was stationed at Alameda and we ALL wore the high gloss shoes with our dress blues because they LOOK so good. Damn man, you WERE a hard ass weren’t you? Sure glad you weren’t MY boss!”

“Maybe so, but that was my policy.” He harrumphed.

The last of our longer than usual exchange took place in the parking lot. He stood at the door of his car while I took the rain cover off my scoot. We started talking about Iraq and that’s when he REALLY started to make me feel uneasy.

His eyes became as lifeless as a shark’s as he started to talk,

“I spent a lot of time in that f***ing place and as far as I’m concerned I hate all those bastards. I say kill them all and let God sort ‘em out.”

I watched his face for any clue that he might be half kidding, but no, he was deadly serious. And he went on in the same tone.

“I don’t blame those young marines one bit for killing everyone they see. Sometimes you can only take so much. You take explosions from inside a village; you blow everyone away in the damn village. F**k ‘em all! You lose buddies and all you can think about is getting payback”

That’s the moment I began to see signs of unwarranted anger and I realized his PTSD was kicking in. I’ve seen it dozens of times from other combat vets. Still, I tried to reason with him.

“Dude. You can’t fight an insurgency that way. If we actually do what you’re talking about we lose before we start. You’re not serious right?”

Oh, but he was.

‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I’m glad this guy is out now. I wonder how many more of these obsolete old dinosaurs still think this way on active duty? Man, I hope not many!’

I tried to deflect his seething anger in another direction.

“You were in-theater for the 1st Gulf War. I still say that Powell and Bush the 1st ended that one about a month too soon. Nothing of this bullshit insurgency would be happening now if ONLY we’d taken Baghdad back then…”

He didn’t let me finish. Looking up he shook his head and interrupted me,

“No, that wasn’t it. The war ended when it did because we had no more ammo to expend. It was ALL used up. We scraped the bottom of the barrel as it was. We had to stop shooting because there was nothing left to shoot.”

He’d mentioned this bit of inside knowledge to me before, but it still evoked a strong reaction nonetheless…

“Oh my God! That just seems so impossible for the mightiest military in history,” I nearly exploded. “We had five freaking months to get the factories churning out bombs and shells, and get the supply pipeline going, so how the hell did we run out?”

“I know, but I’m telling you we had virtually nothing left. We shot our entire load.”

I jammed my hands into my hips and kicked at a pebble in disgust at the thought of it. He continued…

“You know, twice we had the tactical nukes on deck prepped and ready to fire. We all knew if the Iraqi’s used chemicals on us that we had the go ahead to use tactical nukes on them. We were fired up! The whole crew knew we were just waiting for the word. We were PSYCHED! Then we got word that it looked like the Iraqis HAD used chem on us and we were ready to retaliate. But then, goddamn it, the captain came out and gave us the thumbs down sign and told us to put ‘em away. It really pissed us off.”

He’d told me that story before, but I hadn’t noticed so much animation from him the first time he told of the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons for the first time in war since 1945.

Holding his hands a couple feet apart to show the size of a tac-nuke he exclaimed, “Hell yeah! One of those little babies will take out a square mile.”

I grinned awkwardly, and suddenly unaccountably felt embarrassed. I was having a hard time believing a person, much less a group of them, could really be so filled with anticipation at the thought of using nuclear weapons. At that moment an article popped into my mind that my brother had forwarded to me by Robert Kaplan called “Rereading Vietnam.” At the end of the article Kaplan writes:

"…The Iraqis and my own men saw how broken the system was, and some felt it was easier just to kill these guys the moment we apprehended them. After all, it would have saved lives. But," he continued, "I told them, 'oh no. Here is where I have to draw the line.' It was important to have an officer in charge who had studied ethics." The enlisted chief petty officers of his SEAL team—reminiscent of some of Larteguy's centurions for all intents and purposes—were the finest men he had ever commanded. But they required supervision.

A frustrated warrior class, always kept in check by liberal-minded officers, is the sign of a healthy democracy."

Until talking to this crusty old retired warrior the other day I thought Kaplan's comment about needing "liberal-minded officers" to keep frustrated warriors in check was so much baloney. After all, I thought, in this modern “enlightened” age I didn’t think soulless men still served who could possibly think it a good idea to wipe out entire villages for “revenge,” or that the idea of using tactical nukes could be exciting. I HOPE people like that are not the rule!

I suppose I’ve changed my mind. Now I say thank goodness Kaplan's liberal-minded fellows exist, for without them we are no better than the beastly people we seek to defeat. We DO need to come up with a better phrase to describe them though; one that doesn't include the word "liberal." Sheeeesh!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Michael Vick, off with his head?

The dog fighting controversy swirling around Michael Vick has got me thinking. Allow me to talk this thing out while I freewheel some thoughts on the matter…

Until I met some dogfighters the only thing I knew about their “sport” was what I'd read in the Jack London novel, White Fang.” London dramatizes the horrific stomach turning violence and yet makes the reader unable to STOP reading. There is one chapter about a fight between White Fang, the wolf dog mixed breed, and Cherokee, a bulldog, that absolutely mesmerizes. Just now, I finished reading it again, and STILL it captivates. Check it out here if you dare.

With Vick, the dog fighting charges have turned into a “black thing,” at least for some African-Americans, and they just might have a point, albeit a feeble one. It seems that in recent times dog fighting has become common fare in the hip-hop culture as some kind of twisted status symbol, but all the guys that I knew who fought dogs are white.

In rural Birch Run, which was once as Caucasian as anyplace could be, kids used to talk about the rumors of dog fighting that “might” be taking place thereabouts. Once, a buddy and I made a bicycle trip to an abandoned farmstead in an overgrown woodlot where it was said that fights took place on occasion in the dark of night. We found the perfect spot for a dog-fighting ring in that spooky place within the three-feet tall foundations of a long demolished weed grown ancient outbuilding.

I’m sure a lot of the appeal of such a thing is its forbidden nature. Want to make something popular? Tell people they can’t do it.

The fellows I knew who train fight dogs, as unlikely as it sounds, they love their animals. There’s a macho element to it—the breeding, training and fighting of muscularly fearsome creatures. There’s no appeal in it for me, but I can see why it might to others.

It’s been some time, but they spoke of their animals like coaches referring to athletes. I asked about dogs getting hurt or killed and they scoffed, saying there’s no way they’d let their animals get too injured. The fights are supposedly stopped before anything too damaging happens, or so they claimed.

I HAVE seen cockfights though. Well, just one; because one is all I could take once I learned that its more about gambling than chickens, and I can’t think of anything more boring than gambling. I once went to a horseracing track with a fellow marine someplace in the Bay Area. After the first race I went stir crazy. I hated it—I spent most of a day at that track; but without the gambling, there was no real reason for me to be there.

I CAN tell you this—people who engage in fighting roosters or dogs are very passionate about it—that’s the commonality. They are obsessed with the training, feeding, and breeding of their animals, and continuously think ahead to the next matches. For these guys, animal fighting becomes a habitual lifestyle. They make bets with each other, go on trips together, and it’s all they talk about. They enthusiastically go over past matches as if speaking of the World Series or NFL playoffs.

The stuff Vick was supposed to be doing—the killing of his losing dogs—I’ve never heard tell of it. That seems to be a special kind of gratuitous cruelty reserved for meaner circles. Such a thing would seem unlikely for most, because those dogs are not cheap. Only someone with a lot of bucks would ever consider destroying their animals so nonchalantly. Vick probably did it to show off his wealth and how “bad” he is. Some men think the more cruelty they show the more street credibility they rate. It’s that “gangstah” thing again.

It’s now a foregone conclusion that Vick’s going to go to jail—perhaps for years. The way law enforcement works they start loading up on laws and statutes violated, in this case for such things as transporting fight dogs across state lines, illegal gambling, conspiracy, or any one of the other dozens of illicit possibilities of which he came within smelling distance. Once the feds “want” you, they WILL get you.

Here’s where all those comparative morality and philosophy classes I’ve taken over the years start to kick in. Those courses taught me to look at matters more than just on the surface. For instance, because of the “animal life” that Vick destroyed, his own “human” life is now finished. He KNEW he was breaking the law, but did so anyway. Even more damning is that it’s certain that he knew of another sports figure, another NFL player, who was imprisoned a few years back for similar offenses and STILL Vick did it. So, its cut-and-dry right? Well, not so fast...

Now for the tricky part! I personally don’t understand the existence of laws with penalties that can put a man in jail for years, in Vick’s case as many as five, when it’s for killing or being cruel to animals. It seems disproportionate and hypocritical. I’ll explain.

I’m not belittling laws prohibiting animal cruelty, but there seems to be a proportionality and duplicity issue when there are scads of other legal activities that involve the killing, maiming and “torture” of animals.

Is it that only “certain” animals are deemed worthy of society’s protection and ONLY in certain situations? For instance, we eat chickens by the millions, so why is it against the law to fight them? Would it be illegal to fight other non-human animals, such as beetles, crickets, mongoose, snakes, etc? No one will ever go to jail for trying to get two mice to fight. Why are dogs different than, say, crickets? Is there some kind of animal kingdom hierarchy written into law decreeing that we imprison people for certain activities involving only specific animals? It seems that there is. My question is why?

Think about this: It’s legal to fish and hunt. If you’re familiar with hunting you know that many animals don’t die directly after being shot by bullet or arrow. Many are gut-shot or wounded non-lethally and so escape the coup de grĂ¢ce, only to die a slow agonizing death elsewhere. It happens a lot.

When fishing, anglers don’t kill the fish as soon as they catch them. To keep them fresh, they put them in a creel or on a stringer where they linger on in apparent agony for hours. Shouldn’t we start sending people up the river for that? I’ve heard people claim that fish don’t feel pain, that all that flopping around as they die is just involuntary muscle spasms. Is that not a ridiculous assertion?

Those who scream for the head of Vick for his cruelty and “murder,” are just as likely to be completely comfortable with defending a woman’s “choice” to end the life of her fetus. As long as it’s sheltered unseen within the woman’s body then it must not be a living being. Science shows with utter certainty that a fetus IS living. Within a few weeks of conception it looks, moves and reacts like a human. In fact, to many of us it IS a little human and every bit as important, if not more so, than ANY of Vick’s dogs.

The "choicer’s" sputtering retort goes, “Well, THOSE are just unconscious “reflexes,” and do NOT reflect the presence of cognizant life!” My answer: Okay, so YOU say, and the law is on your side at this point. Still, the abortion controversy provides one more example of how subjective ALL these “life” laws truly are; including those Vick is charged with.

Every year, animal shelters and pounds across the nation “put down” hundreds-of-thousands of unwanted pets. Why aren’t all the people seeking the scalp of Michael Vick also up in arms over the slaughter of all those innocent animals? Admittedly, many of them are, but society as a whole is NOT.

If it’s the violence that is objectionable, shouldn’t we also end organized fighting sports between humans as well? Men die every year in the ring trying to beat each other’s brains out. Why is that legal while cockfighting and dog fighting is not? Boxing aficionados say the difference is free will, but put two fighting cocks together and they WILL fight; the same is true for fighting dogs. At least with chickens, if they die in battle we can eat them. In fact, that’s EXACTLY what I did—though it was a little on the tough side.

Obviously, Vick is being made an example just as Martha Stewart was. When the opportunity presents itself, prosecutors seek to take down celebrities. By doing so they become celebrities themselves. I don’t believe the feds are going after Vick so earnestly because he’s black; nope, it’s because of his celebrity status. Prosecutors are primarily politicians. How do you think Rudy Giuliani began his political career?

Personally, I hope this case causes society to reexamine all aspects of this issue. I eat meat, but I don’t hunt for the same reason I don’t collect firewood. That hunting is called a “sport” shows the true nature of its current place in our culture. Simply put, MOST people hunt for the “pleasure” or the “sport” of it. They feel empowered by the act of killing. They argue that “they eat what they kill” as if that makes it okay. They also contend that they are conservationists because without hunting, animals would over populate and starve. Those aren’t strong arguments but weak excuses designed to rationalize the same sort of bloodlust that drove Michael Vick to do what he did.

“But it’s not the same thing!” I hear hunting proponents protest, but I beg to differ. History shows that it’s easy to justify just about ANY wanton behavior, from killing whales, to slavery, to genocide. I’ll be honest, I’m not totally against hunting—it would be unreasonable to even attempt to ban it; but I AM against kidding ourselves as to WHY people hunt. NO one NEEDS to hunt anymore. We can get meat at the grocery store.

The idea that we allow thousands of amateurs with firearms—which most are—to stream out into the woods during certain “seasons” to theoretically winnow out populations of wildlife is ludicrous. I can’t imagine a more inefficient and dangerous way to do such a thing. If we must cull animals then it should be done professionally by people who are not just as likely to shoot each other ala Dick Cheney.

Heck, in Cheney’s case, he was on a “preserve” where birds are bred for hunting—so much for “hunting for conservation.” Watching a bird fall dead from the sky is what drives hunters like Cheney. I’m sorry if this offends hunters, but I only address these issues in the context of speaking argumentatively to the charges against Michael Vick.

Vick, and animal cruelty violators like him, shouldn’t serve time behind bars, at least not until we come to grips with all the other social discrepancies involving the way “we” treat “nonhuman life.” I despise his cruelty and his conceit, but to end his career, and thus his life this way is every bit as wrong. Considering the millions he’s made and could make, why not fine him instead of jailing him? Let him play ball; and let him continue to earn his millions. Then fine him for at least half of the millions he would make while he would have been jailed. How much more good could be done by giving those millions to an organization like the SPCA? Now that would be real justice.

In my opinion, effectively ending Vick’s life is more of a tragedy than what he did to those dogs. Come on, he didn’t murder people; he killed animals. Society LEGALLY kills millions of animals every year in all sorts of horrible ways. Until animals have the same rights as people then we need to rethink how we punish misguided idiots like Michael Vick.