Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Haditha Revisited

I've been waiting for the proper time to write this follow up post on the Haditha Marines. I think now will do. These fellows are the half-dozen Leathernecks originally accused of criminality for not following the rules of engagement (ROEs) during a patrol that erupted into havoc and mayhem in Haditha, a town in Central Iraq. The two-year anniversary of that tragic event is fast upon us, and what's prompting me to write this continuation is that the last of the sacrificial Marine lambs are about to have all charges against them dropped.

On June 14 of last year, I wrote a scathing post against John Murtha, the congressman from Pennsylvania who insisted on accusing the “Haditha marines” of basically committing war crimes before an investigation was even completed. Its turning out that he apparently lied about getting a briefing from his Pentagon “insider” and instead it looks like he just bought the pap fed to him by the TIME magazine article that started this whole farce to begin with. The “insider” was found to be an officer who states that "the briefing" he provided to the congressman was a full week AFTER Murtha’s accusations. At this point, the congressman has little to no credibility and still he stands by his original assertions by not retracting them or apologizing for them EVEN AFTER he has been proven wrong. (Why do people vote for this guy?)

At first, I planned to make this post a kind of “I told you so,” but I changed my mind after doing more Internet surfing and reading up on the current status of the charges. I haven’t changed my mind that the marines were unfairly treated, but there are still at least 15 dead Haditha civilians, including women and children, and with them in mind I don’t feel like gloating.

Over the weekend, I watched several TV interviews with one of the lower ranking marines, Justin Sharratt, now an ex-marine who at the time of Haditha was an E3 lance corporal. He sat book-ended by his dad and his lawyer.

The gist of his defense is that he and the other marines followed the ROEs to the letter and so no one should have been brought up on charges. What really upset Justin’s dad were Congressman Murtha’s instant accusations of murder by the marines and the lack of an apology since, especially now that most of the charges were either reduced or dropped.

Going back to the beginning, it seems that the reason the whole incident even made the light of day was a TIME article claiming certain things. Namely, that after the marine patrol was hit by an IED, which killed one of their number, they became so enraged that it touched off a firestorm of death resulting in the killing of at least 15-19 Iraqi “neutrals,” another word for supposedly uninvolved civilians. Altogether, 24 Iraqis died, including the known insurgents.

During the interview that I saw, Sharratt says that after the IED, his patrol took fire from insurgents, and at least one attacker took cover and fired from inside a residence. By the standards of the ROEs at the time, the marines “cleared” that building and others. Legally, as trained, they did it by throwing in fragmentation grenades and then bursting inside, firing their weapons until the building was “cleared,” which is a euphemism for “people inside the building were no longer able to fire at them.”

Some of the other stuff that supposedly happened, where a marine purportedly shot men trying to surrender or that another marine urinated on a dead Iraqi, I take all that with a grain of salt. If that stuff happened, or was reported to have happened, the unit’s officers should have investigated. It turns out that one marine’s testimony resulted in these charges but then based on conflicting testimony from other marines and civilians the charges were found to be groundless by the military judge.

After my reading, its fairly clear to me that these guys didn’t go on some berserker rampage as claimed by Jack Murtha, but perhaps they did push the envelope concerning their proper following of the ROEs. I refuse to judge them however, because no one was firing at me, and I was not there. Still, we can’t beat Islamic terrorism by killing 15 civilians to get 9 terrorists. By doing so we play into their hands. They WANT us to kill innocents because they know TIME magazine and Reuters will then do their work for them.

It seems to me that one of the reasons things are finally turning around now in Iraq is because of the new leadership and mindset provided under General Petraeus. His newly implemented counter-insurgency (COIN) manual has changed fundamentally the way our troops react to incidents like the IED and subsequent marine response that happened at Haditha two years ago.
Now, from my understanding, our troops have been directed to react with more delicacy and discretion than perhaps was used at Haditha. Destroying a house full of neutrals and inadvertently killing them all in pursuit of a single insurgent or two is completely counterproductive in trying to win the support of locals. No matter how closely those marines followed the ROEs, if it resulted in the deaths of all those civilians then it was wrongheaded. Just the same, Haditha is by no stretch of the imagination a My Lai or a Wounded Knee. No way. No how.

I believe the reason the charges have been dropped against the Haditha marines one-by-one is that the ROEs WERE indeed followed. If there is any real culprit it WAS the ROEs in place at the time, as well as the leadership on the ground that allowed the no holds barred assault on that home. But, if that was the standard at the time, then no one should be faulted for that. Marines do what they do—they close with and destroy the enemy. Unfortunately, we are no longer in an “all out war.” COIN, to be successful, must be a mixture of combat tactics and discretion. We can’t just “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out,” a phrase we used to jokingly use when I was still “in.” Well, it’s no joke.

It seems that the only charges still ongoing are against 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, who is being charged with negligence, for allegedly not properly reporting the civilian deaths. From what I’ve read this charge is a case of second guessing, since at the time of the incident it was determined that everyone killed was either an insurgent or died either at the hands of the insurgents or collaterally, during the “legal” assault by the marines. I’m certain that Lt. Grayson will also be found blameless. All the evidence points to everything being done properly at the time, from the post IED response, all the way up to the after action reporting.

General Petraeus seems to have a handle on a more effective “new way” of fighting terrorists now being employed during the current so-called "surge." The general knows that we are fighting people who have no compunctions at all in using the death of innocents as part of their doctrine to draw hatred against US forces. The general is a smart man--he’s trying to get our people to think ahead of the curve on this enemy ploy. Because of this, the collateral deaths our people used to cause so often are not such a common thing anymore. At least I hope it isn’t. Even if it means we put ourselves at a higher risk, we cannot afford to kill 25 neutrals to put away a single bad guy, or even to get 25 bad guys. If a doctor killed his patients every time he excised a few basal cells he wouldn’t be in business for long. Of course a doctor doesn’t have the cancer cells firing AK47s at him either.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Two Pit Bulls and a Dane

Last year, when my daughter told me that she was pregnant I was ecstatic. Then, it occurred to me that she then owned an American Pit Bull Terrier, or APBT, or just plain pit bull, as they are commonly called. My first response to her, or perhaps request would be more accurate, was, “So, now you’re going to get rid of your pit bull, right?!”

My request, which seemed totally logical to me, did not draw the response that I had hoped for. Evidently, suggesting to my daughter that she decide between her pit bull and new baby was an untenable choice. In effect, I was asking her to choose between children, and although the human child is important, so also is the "animal child."

I had never met her pit bull named Patches, but she assured me that Patches was a sweet tempered dog that would never hurt anyone. Naturally, being an expectant grandpa, I was not convinced. I was miffed that she would even consider keeping such an animal with such a violent reputation with a small baby in the house.

I had heard all the horror stories where infants and small children had been left alone with a large dog, the beloved family pet, only to find the child horribly mangled and even killed, perhaps with the face completely bitten off. Physically and physiologically, that is completely possible. The human face, particularly a small one, is not installed all that tightly to its moorings. A large dog with its big jaws can easily strip the face off a small child.

One of my Air Force mates, a fellow master sergeant, had a young son whose face was in the multiyear process of surgical reconstruction. Her boy, at the time I knew him he was about 12, had wandered into a neighbor’s yard when he had been 5 or 6. Waiting in ambush for the little fellow was a ferocious canine “man-eater,” I believe it was a German shepherd or a Doberman.

Before someone could get in there and pull the crazed animal off the lad, half the boy's face had been mangled and one ear destroyed. A face so young with so much developing and growth ahead of it cannot simply be stitched back together to a normal appearance. Plastic surgeons have to bide their time and let the facial features mature close to adult size before the really important final touches can be made.

Of course that’s unfortunate because children can be cruel. They will go after one of their own deemed “different,” and with the boy’s obvious facial deformity he was quite “different.” I think it was my father that told me how a flock of chickens will become mean and destructive to one of their own, exactly like kids. If one develops a bald spot where feathers have fallen out for some reason, perhaps because of some benign skin disease, the other chickens will become compelled to pick at that spot, and do so until their victim has no feathers left. Bet you never thought chickens could be as cruel as kids, did you? Ed Abbey, you’re a chicken expert; can you corroborate, or is all that just a “modern chicken legend?”

So here’s the capper: not only did my daughter NOT get rid of Patches the pit bull, she got ANOTHER pit bull puppy, named Riddick, after the boxer. Now I was REALLY upset. I couldn’t imagine how she could be so irresponsible. And to make matters worse, a few months after my grandson was born they brought home a Great Dane puppy. WHAT! And what really drove me bonkers is when I asked her if they mostly kept all the animals in the yard and her nonchalant answer was, “No Dad, all three are house dogs.” Again, from me: “WHAT! Are you kidding?”

Well, since I had already vociferously made my reservations known, I decided to keep my mouth shut and hope that she and her husband knew best. Still, it didn’t stop me from worrying. I just kept imagining that tiny defenseless little bundle of pink humanity and all the horror stories and it gave me fits.

I was quite expectant last month, (and not in the pregnant way) when my daughter picked me up from the Killeen airport terminal. I was anxious to meet my new grandson and see how it was with him and all the big dogs in the house.

My daughter went in ahead of me through the garage and into the kitchen. Inside, she sternly ordered her furry crew to calm down. Hesitantly, I entered behind her, hearing the telltale sounds of 12 huge doggy-paws excitedly ticking on linoleum along with the energized panting dogs make when they are “happy to see you.” My first impression: Dang! These are three HUGE dogs!

They were indeed big animals. The Great Dane is technically still a puppy but already he towers over the two Pit Bulls and they aren’t exactly midgets. All three were curious about me. They inspected me in a friendly non-threatening way, doing lots of snuffling and bumping against my legs and reassuringly for me, with lots of heavy tail wagging. Once I realized they weren’t going to eat me, I just stood there and rubbed the tops of their constantly bobbing heads as they drew in my scent and memorized it. They seemed more like small affable jumpy ponies than dogs.

Then, my son-in-law brought out my grandson. Wow! I was even more impressed. My son-in-law is a 6-foot tall handsome devil and my grandson is a smiley good-looking chip off the old block, both from his daddy’s and mine. I couldn’t have been happier. 'Now, to see how it goes with those three canine monsters.' I had a hard time imagining how such a small human could possibly coexist safely in the same home with three such gigantic furred creatures.

At first, my fears were half-realized when the little guy—not quite a year, and still just pulling himself along by the furniture—was felled by the excited movements of Riddick, the teenage pit bull. The clumsy thing had backed up without looking and bumped the little guy into a full on header. I was immediately angry, with a “see, I told you so!” aimed at my daughter; but truthfully, during my five day stay, that was the only time I ever saw my grandson in anything that looked remotely threatening, except when he would get an occasional hard slap from an unmindful tail wag. I took a couple of those myself from the Dane, and it HURT.

I soon learned one thing—my grandson will never be bitten or mauled by any of the three dogs. And amazingly, he lacks all fear for any of them. He doesn't try to hurt them as babies sometimes do, and they look at him as a tiny version of one of the other larger human "masters." Actually, I was pleasantly shocked at the sweetness of them. They are so big and yet so starved for human contact and affection. If one of them comes over for a tummy rub, which is constantly if you let them, the other two look over in complete jealousy, and have to be told to stay away. Otherwise, you'll be mobbed by about 240 pounds of doggy love.

My daughter and her husband have done an excellent job of establishing who is in charge and the order of exactly "who is boss." Its a bit like the military chain of command. Its crucial, as dogs MUST know who is number 1, who is Alpha, and all the humans in the home MUST be that. Even the baby has "rank" over the biggest dog and EVERYONE knows it. Patches is the doggy matriarch and she understands that she is prime among the dogs, followed by Riddick, and at the end of the hierarchy is the big Dane puppy. With animals that large, its important that they know and understand this. I’ve got to give her credit, my girl is on top of the psychology required to handle these animals. Without these “rules,” you end up with anarchy and probably with dogs that have to be put to sleep at the shelter.

I did a little reading on pit bulls and I learned a few things that put my mind at ease concerning my grandson. First, these animals have been bred to NOT be aggressive toward humans. And although they have been bred to fight other dogs they will not necessarily be aggressive against other dogs if they are not trained for it. In fact, my daughter tells me that Riddick, despite his huge size is a bit of a coward when it comes to conflict with other dogs. Once, during a walk, when a much smaller dog made a charge, Riddick whined and hid behind his mistress. Imagining it, I had to laugh at the big softy.

Remember, pit bulls are the breed that Michael Vick made infamous with his cruelty toward his own dozens of fighting pit bulls. Also, the gangster rap community uses these animals as status symbols and representative of their aggressive “culture.” I read that many cities in the US and in other parts of the world, such as the UK, have actually made illegal the ownership and breeding of these misunderstood animals. I find this to be very unfortunate and unfair, especially since learning more about these loving animals and after actually experiencing how sweet-natured they truly are.

Again, remember I wrote earlier of my friend’s boy who had been mauled? Well, it wasn't by a pit bull. If any animal is likely NOT to maul a human it’s the pit bull; its just not in their genetics. Other animals like German shepherds are much more likely to attack people, yet these dogs are not generally banned. Sometimes legislators make laws based more on gut reaction than on reality.

I’m certainly a believer now. My mind has been changed. Every time I sat down one of the pits would immediately come to me for some affection and then would lie down on the floor and purposely act like a canine ottoman. These animals, with their huge heads, broad chests, and giant jaws, are more interested in being close to people out of apparent love than to bite and fight.

If you want an aggressive guard dog get a German shepherd. You’re wasting your money going for the pit bull, which is more likely to lick than bite you. Seeing the four of them together, I'm absolutely certain that my grandson will be just fine with his three buddies.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Spontaneous Combustion in the Wild?

My Blog friend Katana remarked in my last post about the California fires that dead plants can generate gases, and then, when the desert heat gets to it, “poof,” up in smoke it goes. I’m not sure anything in nature works exactly like that, but Kat says that all Californians know this. Hmmm. Perhaps its just Southern Californians that know it, since I lived twice in that state, but mostly in Northern California.

Regardless, being an extremely curious fellow, especially when it comes to nature and natural phenomena, I could not let Kat’s assertion go unresearched or unchallenged. The more I thought about what she said, the more doubtful I became. Within minutes I could stand it no longer. I had to scratch this darn itch planted in my brain by this Kat woman. I was compelled to get up and sit back down in front of my buddy, Mr. PC, and vigorously “hit the Net.” I search-engined the heck out of spontaneous combustion and soon, I came to a conclusion.

Even without Dr. Google I know that plants and animals can generate their own heat during decomposition. When I was a kid in Michigan I gloried in making rich humus in our compost heap. I’d mix in grass clippings, kitchen waste, leaves, sawdust, coffee grounds, whatever I could find, as long as it was of plant origin and biodegradable; and then I’d throw in a couple shovelfuls of sand and clay, add water and toss liberally.

Once the decomp started, even on frosty autumn mornings, the heat built up on the inside of that heap of rotting compost was surprisingly warm, even hot. The thing is, I never once saw a decomposing plant—or a whole heap of them for that matter—erupt into flames, no matter how hot out it got. So I have to say Kat, I have my doubts on your claims that rotting plant life in the wild can spontaneously combust.

Nope, there’s only one way in the wild that dead cellulose—which basically is what all plant material is—can burst into flames; and that’s by way of a spark introduced by some outside source. UNLESS! I say that because I WAS able to find that SOME biological materials CAN indeed ignite by themselves. Here’s what Wikipedia lists as SOME natural materials that CAN spontaneously combust:

· Haystacks and unprocessed cotton may self-ignite because of heat produced by bacterial fermentation.
· Grain dust in a hot metal silo can explode violently, destroying the structure.
· Boiled Linseed oil in a partially confined space (such as a pile of oil soaked rags left out in an uncovered container) can evaporate leading to a subtle tremendous buildup of heat and thus ignition. Experiment by Rob Bicevskis
· Tall stacks of rubber artifacts, such as tires and some types of mattresses, can spontaneously combust from heat buildup caused by friction.
· Coal can spontaneously ignite when exposure to oxygen causes it to react and heat up when there is insufficient ventilation for cooling.
· Pistachio nuts are highly flammable when stored in large quantities, and are prone to self-heating and spontaneous combustion.

Okay, so I was unable to find any instances or claims of spontaneous combustion in the wild. Therefore, I must assume from my own experience with rotting plant life, and I have plenty, that such a thing in nature is an extremely rare thing, if it ever happens at all. The haystack example is the closest thing, and of course that is manmade.

For bacteria to have a chance to build up the kind of heat and combustible gasses that would result in ignition there must be both moisture AND dryness—moisture on the inside of a very dense amount of rotting cellulose, along with dry conditions on the outside to overcome the dampening effects of the internal moisture. It’s just not something that would normally happen in nature.

Actually, I did once witness something similar to spontaneous combustion, although it wasn’t by definition "spontaneous:"

In Japan one still, extremely sunny February morning I sat relaxing on my rear porch drinking coffee after a hard night of repairing Air Force cargo aircraft on the Yokota A.B. flightline. We lived in a quadplex and our place was on the end on a corner lot, so we had a huge yard. At that time of the year that vast expanse of grass was brownishly dead, very short, smooth and dry. It was still early enough so that the morning’s dew had not yet evaporated from the ends of each miniscule blade. The temperature was in the mid 50s, so it was pleasantly refreshing out there on my little garden porch.

Strangely enough, I remember the sun being so bright that it actually hurt my eyes to look at the grass, since the millions of dewdrops on it were reflecting the sun’s light like I had never seen before. Even sitting in the shadow of the house I had to shade my squinting eyes, so painfully dazzling the reflection.

Then, I thought my long night was making me see things. First, I saw an unlikely wisp of smoke at the far corner of the yard over by the sidewalk near the street. From that tiny wisp the grass began to turn from light tan to a patch of dark black. Subsequently the black patch began to spread out from near the sidewalk as fast as a man can jog. I didn’t see any flames at all, just that flow of charring grass growing outward like spreading water on a flat surface.

I got up and cautiously walked out to investigate. The charring flow approached me like a liquidless black flood. I could hear it quietly whisper as the tiny dead grass tendrils were consumed in this flashover phenomenon. In less than 10 seconds my entire yard and all my neighbor’s yards were blackened. I looked around me and saw the same thing happening up and down the street. Thousands of square feet of inch-long dead grass, as far as the eye could see, had turned to charcoal in a few minutes, yet there was no smoke and no flames—just this blackness that quietly flowed across the ground.

Of course I figured out fairly quickly what had caused it. The drops of dew had acted as millions of magnifying lenses, and when one would focus the sun’s rays perfectly on a dry piece of grass, “poof,” it would ignite.

The interesting thing to me though, is how the grass burned, without flame and smoke. At that time of the year it was more tinder than grass, which is why it ignited so easily in spite of the cool temperature and the morning wetness. In fact, the dew did two things: it started the flashover AND kept the grass from burning too hotly. It could only get hot enough to ignite, char and move on. Definitely one of the darndest things I’ve ever seen.

But, as I said, it was not spontaneous combustion.

“That’ll teach ‘em!”

I don’t normally write about things that “don’t concern me,” and I try not to speak of things that I know little about, but sometimes I figure I might just as well “let it rip” and let someone tell me where I’m going wrong.

The conflagration in Southern California is one of those subjects that don’t necessarily concern me, other than the fact that the people affected are fellow Americans. Also, I’m no expert on the subject of the fires; BUT, some things are just common sense.

Amadeo recently posted on the California fires from the aspect of the wind and how the wind’s considerable energy has been the prime offender in the stoking of these incredibly costly fires and this is mostly true, however….

I commented that these fires might never have started at all, if not for the malicious arsonists that set them. These foul pyromaniacs, these murdering terrorists, should be hunted down and kept along with their brothers-in-terror down in the holding cells of Guantanamo.

What Al Qaeda has not been able to do in 6 years of trying, these homegrown terrorists have managed to accomplish with very little effort at all. And, as long as the conditions continue to allow it, these punks can keep on setting fires with very little chance of ever getting caught.

One of Amadeo’s commenters stated that Nature uses fires to prune her forests and Amadeo agreed, stating that he’d seen exactly that while driving through the thousands of burned over acres in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Everything both of these fellows say is true, but… Yellowstone, and in fact Wyoming, neither, are anything like Southern California. The “rules of nature” they speak of, totally valid as they are, don’t apply to San Diego County and its millions of residents mixed in with its thousands of acres of undeveloped park and brush land. It’s apples and oranges.

People in California can't simply move their homes out of the way of a fire, and because of that, many—desperate to save their most valued possession, their homes—will end up putting themselves in extreme danger trying to save those homes. Some have already died trying.

Several mindsets must change. Californians are going to have to stop doing stupid things that set themselves up for these continued exposure to fires, mudslides and earthquakes. For now though, lets just talk about wildfires.

There are ways to build homes so that they do not lend themselves to easily catching fire from flying embers or even to be resistant to casual near fires. Thing is, it costs more; so many folks opt not to do it. Perhaps code should be rewritten to make fire resistant homes the law and not an option.

But there’s another set of culprits. I like to call them “conservation purists.” These folks believe that people and nature shall ne’er the twain meet. These persons are almost as bad as the monsters that are setting the fires, because through legislation, they have set the conditions making it possible for the arsonists to be so effective.

Just as Amadeo and his commenter state, forest and brush land must be cleared or “pruned” to keep the really big fires from happening. This is even truer in the heavily populated areas of California where huge swathes of dry brush land are interspersed with equally large tracks of housing located in and around the dry brush land. One of the primary problems is that the “purists” have made it impossible for the land to be made safe from the current kind of conflagration style fires.

There are several ways to make land more “inferno resistant.” Small control fires can be set during windless cool rainier times to get rid of the years of windfalls and brush build up. Fire trails can be bulldozed to allow access to firefighters and to brush clearing crews.

Sometimes, the brush just needs to be cleaned up. As much as “the purists” don’t like the idea of it, still, it’s as simple as that. You go in, gather it up into huge piles with heavy equipment; and during less arid, non-windy times, safely burn it up. However, to the purists, doing such a thing to “pristine land” is anathema.

Southern California is not Wyoming. The people there need to start realizing that they must now manage their brushy wildlife areas, and not wait to let Mother Nature have her final say.

I know this is cynical and probably mean on my part, but I think secretly many of the conservation purists are delighted to see all those homes burn up. “That’ll teach ‘em!” I can hear them cackle while rubbing their hands together gleefully.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Turkish Barbery

Ed Abbey posted a piece on the 18th of October called “Stories of Iowaville: Jake the Barber.”

“…Jake spun the chair around so that I was facing the mirror, eyed me up and proceeded to cut my hair with a very sharp pair of shears. I kept an eye on my ears wondering if that would be the last time I saw them whole.”

That excerpt elicited a stinging memory of my own going back to about 1966 when I was just 8 or 9 years old. Our family had recently moved to Turkey, where my dad, a master sergeant in the Air Force, had found a really neat second story flat for us to live in until a place in base housing came open. Much to my boyish bliss, the flat overlooked a canal in Yalova, which back then was just a sleepy Turkish town on the Asian side of the Marmara Sea. From what I’ve seen online, these days, Yalova is anything but sleepy, and probably rates full-blown city status.

For the exploratory little kid that I was, living across the street from a waterway chock full of frogs, newts, snakes, turtles, tadpoles, fish and ducks was a wonderful thing. Sliding down the slightly sloping 6-foot walls made of large smooth stones to the slim mucky banks of the canal; I spent hours crouching among its reeds checking out the multitude of creatures teeming there.

Water life and the wonders of nature being one thing, my experience with Turkish humanity in Yalova was a mixed bag at best. I found out that the adults were okay, but I soon learned that the boys around my age were a community to be very wary of.

Before finding out about the menace of Turkish kids, the very first week I was in country I went for a ramble up the canal. In a patch of woods the locals used for grazing goats and sheep I found the perfect stick. Sounds weird right? Finding a perfect stick? Well, it WAS perfect. Straight and true, about 6 feet long, it had a heavy knob on one end, and still had all of its bark. I decided it was a wonderful stick and that it must be mine. I took it home and carved rings in the bark over its entire length, making it even more wonderful and quite visually appealing.

When I had it just the way I wanted it I proudly carried that stick like a shepherd does his staff, high in my right hand letting the bottom end spear the ground with every other step. I experimented with it. I figured out how to use it to vault over small creeks and large puddles by taking a few running steps, planting it in the middle of the water and then pushing against it to achieve an extra few feet in the air. That stick and I were inseparable.

One day, I was further from home than I had ever wandered before. I still wonder that my parents allowed me to do that. I spent hours unsupervised, by myself, exploring my surroundings, always pushing further and further away from home. I’m glad they gave me that kind of leeway, but thinking back as a parent I don’t think I would have given myself nearly that much latitude. Still, I’m glad they did.

But, during this particular “walk about,” as the Aussies call it, a group of 6 or 7 Turkish lads about my age and older suddenly appeared. They surrounded me and began aggressively talking among themselves and to me in Turkish. I felt like a trapped rat. I tried to appear fearless and self-assured, but it wasn’t working. I was scared and I’m sure they could tell.

One of the bigger boys walked up to me and looked at my stick. He reached out for it and I snatched it back. Then another boy made a grab for it, but I jerked it away from him too. I didn’t know if they just wanted to examine it or what, but I suspected that once they had it that I’d never get it back.

Suddenly, three of them grappled at once for the slender length of wonder wood. I yelled, “NO! It’s MINE!” and held on to it for dear life. I lost my footing when a larger fellow grabbed it with all his might and yanked it hard and me off my feet. Even on the ground though, I continued to hang doggedly on with all my strength. I wrapped both my arms around it hugging it tightly to my prostrate body. I was being pulled bodily through the dirt and grass as two of the boys at the same time continued their quest to savagely wrest my walking stick from what had become my death grip on it.

At last, a deeply loud adult male voice interrupted the hooting and hollering of the Turkish kids, which caused them to let go of me. Slowly, I stood up still clutching my precious stick. Brushing off my clothes I sniffled and tried not to cry, and felt pretty good when I realized that I wouldn’t.

I looked with great relief and gratitude at the older Turkish man who seemed to appear from nowhere. He was grizzled with short gray hair and two days worth of gray stubble on his darkly worn face with, of course, a big gray moustache under a large aquiline nose and sad baggy eyes. He wore equally baggy old-fashioned clothes common to the older generation of Turks at the time, topped off with a soft flat cap, the kind with the small brim in front.

I couldn’t understand my rescuer but he really laid into that pack of bullies. He gestured at me like a teacher might point at a map in geography class and he went on like that for a good minute or two. The boys began to skulk away and he gave them one last dressing down as they disappeared around a grove of trees even as several looked sullenly back at me over their shoulders.

The good Samaritan Turkish man spoke a few encouraging words directly to me, at least I think they were, then slapped me on the back and with a shooing gesture bade me to head back the way I had come. I thanked him in some of the only Turkish I yet knew, “teşekkür ederim effendi!”

He beamed at me and waved me on, almost clucking as he did so. I think he wanted me to get away so that the boys wouldn’t be able to circle back and finish their “work.”

After that, I never really trusted any Turkish boys thinking that perhaps they had to first grow up into adult size before they could be safely approached. I decided it was better to stay away from them, especially if they were in groups. When they were in ones and twos they were fine, but in clusters they seemed to develop a mob mentality. Subconsciously, after that, I think I developed an affinity for grownup Turks, associating them all with that guy who had come to my rescue. Soon, that affinity, imagined or not, would come into play when I received my first haircut in-country from one.

Not long after being mobbed and rescued over my self-made walking stick, a friend of my Dad’s who was also in the Air Force, I believe his name was Mr. Curtis, recommended a local Turkish barbershop that he always visited. The shop wasn’t far from Mr. Curtis’ house, which wasn’t far from our place. In fact, he said the barbershop was walking distance, just across a nearby bridge that spanned the canal down the way from us.

So off we went for a trim. The three of us walked languidly from our flat, first turning right along the canal toward the bridge that we would have to cross about 100 yards up the street. I hopped up on top of the 3-foot-wide canal wall while my father and his buddy chatted and walked a few feet below me.

I greatly enjoyed our little walk. I can’t remember if it was spring or summer, but a lot of rain had fallen over the weeks and the result of all that precipitation was life, and lots of it. I think all 9-year-old boys must instinctively be naturalists. I know I certainly was, because I was drawn to nature and nature is drawn to water. So, naturally, guess where I was drawn to? You get one guess as long as it’s “to water!”

The shallow drainage ditches along most of the streets were full of runoff, and everywhere deep puddles, more like small ponds, were profusely alive with wriggling life, both above and immersed in the water. Insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, you name it, it was there, but the most conspicuous creatures of all were the hundreds of toads.

I was thrilled to see every tiny pool and ditch abound with large toads, dark grayish green on top and lighter on the bottom; and all of them absolutely absorbed in breeding. Many were lifeless females, mated to death by over-amorous males. These deceased mommy toads floated and bloated in the still water, their long rear legs outstretched in death, their blanched bodies decomposing and snarled up in long tangles of their own ropy strings of toad eggs. I suppose such an image could be considered poetically ironic to some.

Along with the hundreds of adult amphibians preoccupied with the various phases of the toad reproductive process, seemingly millions of tadpoles in various stages of development also held my rapt attention at every turn. I had never seen anything like this toad and tadpole extravaganza. I was like a curious young pup on its first walk in the great outdoors, my attention being turned this way-and-that, all the while being pulled away from each new enthralling sight by the ambling adults just ahead of me.

Alas, we arrived at the barbershop. It had two or three chairs and at least a couple of different barbers. My dad was in a different chair off to my left while I was in the last chair on the right. Mr. Curtis didn’t get a haircut and just sat and continued a lively laughing conversation with my father as he had his ears figuratively shortened while I was about to have mine done literally. From the time I climbed up into my chair I was pretty much ignored by them, just as most adults generally disregard little kids.

Down at my end of the shop the Turkish fellow cutting my hair seemed like a pleasant enough guy. He didn’t speak much English, and in spite of my youth he treated me with the same flair that all barbers over there treat their customers. Soon, he had a pair of scissors clicking away as he snipped and snapped them continuously around my head.

Before I go into what happened next, I’ll tell you about my right ear. It was deformed—at least it was back then. You see, on the top backside of it a 1/8th inch point of cartilage stuck out, kind of giving my ear a little horn. I was used to it, but I’m sure it was quite unsightly.

Anyway, I had never worried about my ears, or parts of them, being cut off by a reckless barber before, but perhaps I should have. Because next thing I knew, right after a snip and then a final fleshy snap of his click-clacking scissors I felt a sharp searing pain at the top of my right misshapen ear.

I could see my face and that of the barber in the mirror to my front. As if looking at someone else, I saw my eyes widen in shock. I could also see that the barber was silently horrified and panicked at what he had just done. Quickly, he grabbed some cotton from his barber stuff and tried to staunch the wound.

Oddly detached and yet fascinated by what had happened to me, I watched rivulets of blood begin to flow down the side of my face and neck despite the furtive efforts of the barber come surgeon, or should I say butcher? All the while he worked on repairing his bloody handiwork he continually drew air over his teeth, making a hissing sound without ever once actually uttering a word. I sensed he was embarrassed and that he felt utterly horrible, so I decided to keep my terrible pain to myself and just suck it up. I felt bad for the guy.

Still staring into the mirror I realized that I could no longer actually really see anything because huge salty tears had involuntarily formed in my eyes and clouded my vision. I felt them gather and drain continuously down both cheeks, but with my arms trapped beneath the sheet I could do nothing about wiping them away. Eventually, the barber noticed them and wiped them away for me too, just as he did the blood. When he saw the flow of silent tears his remorseful intake of air over and through his teeth redoubled, as if the noise he made was a form of apology. I accepted it as such and just as wordlessly forgave him.

The surreal thing is that my father and Mr. Curtis continued to chat away together across the room, seemingly in their own universe as far as I was concerned. They were completely oblivious to the bit of drama happening between me and my barber just a few feet away. I remained mutely stoic in my agony never saying a word, never whimpering or even wincing.

If that Turk had ever entertained the idea that Americans are soft and spoiled I think my 9-year-old display of silent self-possession dispelled him of that notion. After a few minutes of tightly squeezing my wounded ear he managed to stop the blood from flowing. He continued to carefully cut my hair after placing some salve and a small Band-Aid over the top of the raw sliced edge.

I tried to hide the injury from my father and Mr. Curtis, and managed to do exactly that, but eventually Mr. Curtis noticed the Band-Aid and figured it out. I’m not sure if my dad paid for that haircut or not, but that wasn’t my business to worry about anyway. My parents tell me now that Mr. Curtis went back to the barber and gave him holy hell. I do know that I don’t ever remember going back there for another trim. Regardless, I owe him, because he managed to snip off that unsightly plug of cartilage that I probably would have eventually tried to carve off on my own anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Scooter Stop; just when you think you KNOW people...

Over the years, I’ve spoken a lot of disparaging words about the local gendarmes, mostly speaking to my bitterness towards their apparent dislike and resentment for us foreigners. But, sometimes I run into one or two that seem okay. I must emphasize, “seem,” because you just never know.

Late yesterday afternoon I was on my Chinese-made scooter chugging home up the back road towards my subdivision. I was just about to the gate when I saw a bevy of my favorite boys in blue situated on both sides of the street prominently carrying shotguns and assault rifles.

Immediately, I slowed down knowing that I was doubly in their sights; first, I was a foreigner and therefore an excellent shakedown candidate, and second, I was riding a cycle and cycles seem to be their preferred victim when it comes to checking for proper documentation.

Sure enough, when I was within 100 feet, one of the Philippine National Policemen put his hand up and waved me over with as much severe authority as he could muster. By that I mean glaring at me as if he was already convinced that I was a reprehensible criminal fit only for shooting on sight.

I’ve learned to suppress any sense of irritation at this continuous harassment, and that’s exactly what it is—a form of persecution. They rarely pull over cars, especially expensive cars with dark mirrored windows. No, they mostly go after cycles and scooters because they can easily see the operators. In other words, they don’t mess with people who might have “connections” and power. Those kinds of people don’t put up with the harassment, and with every bit of haughtiness that comes so easily to folks with power in these parts, they just throw it right back at the police who stopped them.

A large part of my irritation is that the same cops pull me over all the time. After all these years, I know that they know me, and they know I’m good to go. I always am, yet stop me they always do. I don’t know, maybe they just “like” me, or perhaps they just enjoy employing their power over me.

Years ago—only hours after the first time I was stopped—a different set of police pulled me over yet again. At the time, I hadn’t quite come to grips with how routine this process was going to be. In fact, if I had 5 bucks for every time I’ve been pulled over by either the PNP or LTO agents, I’d have a lot of 5-dollar bills for sure—dozens of them.

Anyway, that was then and I was irked, and unfortunately for me, I allowed my annoyance to come blazing through with a marked sullenness. Big mistake. The policemen counteracted my overt display of grouchiness with their own unconcealed exhibition of antagonistic power. I don’t know what I thought I was going to achieve acting surly, but I soon learned it was counterproductive.

From then on I’ve been the most respectful “yes sir, no sir saying” SOB possible. And yesterday afternoon, as soon as I knew I was visible and saw the officer’s wave down, I nodded my head exaggeratedly to acknowledge his authority and that I was indeed ready and willing to be pulled over. To complete my obsequious posture I put the biggest smile I could possibly fake onto my face, which for me looks like a smirky toothy grin. Nevertheless, I did my best to look completely agreeable.

“Good evening Sir!” I intoned cheerily, as if I could think of nothing better than to be stopped by this man.

He seemed a bit taken aback by my joyfulness and was immediately disarmed. Now fully into my “part” I asked him with total sincerity how he was doing that evening. In no time we were both into the “act,” with him asking questions and me answering his every question in sentences all ending in “sir.”

He took a quick look at my license plate and remarked that since it had a 2007 sticker he’d only need to see my drivers’ license. As he examined it he asked what country I was from and then what service branch I had “resigned from.”

“I was a marine for 5 years and then did 22 more with the Air Force,” I told him.

He asked me if I knew a fellow, giving me his name, since that guy had also been in the marines and was his brother-in-law by the way. I told him I didn’t recognize the name, but I wasn’t all that well connected with the other retired marines.

Soon, we were talking as equals. As he released me to move on, he introduced himself as a sergeant from the police post just up the street and told me that I should stop by anytime. In fact, he invited me to come out to the firing range and he would get approval for me to fire with them when they practiced out there.

“Are you serious!” I asked incredulous. “That would be great. I’ll probably take you up on that Sir.”

We ended our tête-à-tête with him telling me, “Sir, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you will come by the post and visit us whenever you have the time.”

I hate that. Just when you think you know people, one of them is nice to you and ruins it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

My "Phil-ward Flight" End of story

As I revealed in the previous installment, as soon as we learned that our gigantic metal flying tube—due to be our cramped home for another 10 or so hours—had lost an engine, the mood of the passengers around me changed palpably. Even though the pilot assured us that a fully loaded 747 can easily fly on three engines not everyone was completely confident in his assertion.

I leaned over to John and told him, “Well, he’s right; we can fly just fine with one engine out, but if we lose another one for some reason, we won’t be looking at trying to get back to Detroit. We’ll be looking for the nearest airport that can land a jumbo jet.”

“Oh yeah? Why do you say that? Do you think we might lose another engine?” He asked.

“Knock wood man. But whatever problem caused the number three to go tits up might not be isolated to that one engine. If we lose another one, our situation will go from bad to very bad in a heartbeat. It could be worse though…”

“What do you mean?” he asked worriedly.

“When I was a toddler coming back from Japan in 1959 our Constellation lost an engine just like this 747, only that one was on fire. Lucky for us we were close enough to Hawaii to make it back to the ground before the wing exploded. My parents told me that they weren’t much comforted by the fighter planes sent up to escort us in, but they were very happy to see the fire trucks waiting for us on the ground. Flying is so much safer these days than back then; there’s just no comparison.”

I noticed that people were now looking at each other nervously with every bump and new mechanical sound, where as before the captain’s announcement no one had paid any mind at all to all the same jolts and noises.

There was a definite morale shift. We had already covered a significant chunk of distance toward our destination and now we were going to have to cover the same distance just to get us back to where we had started from. And the question on everyone’s mind was: “Now what?”

John, ever patient and filled with acceptance, or maybe just a little snockered, simply leaned back and closed his eyes. I marveled at his serenity even as I cursed him when, as he fell asleep, he allowed his arms to spill out once more into my space. "Damn it."

I’ve never been like that. My little mind was already mulling over all the possibilities. Like: How long would it take to fix the broke engine’s oil quantity system? Even if it was a quick repair, chances are they’d have to tow the airplane to a hardstand where the repaired engine could be run through its myriad checkouts. All that takes time. It would take another 2.5 hours to get us back to Detroit before they could even begin to work on it. The crew was finished. They’d have to be replaced before we could take off again no matter what. Could they find a new crew that quickly? The best scenario would be a replacement aircraft, but what were the chances of a spare 747 just sitting around Detroit? Not likely, I thought.

And so my mind chewed up and spat out each possibility as John just napped and didn’t worry about any of it—the big bodied bastard. I envied him.

The pilot spoke to us again. He explained that as we approached Detroit that “we” would have to dump most of the fuel to get the plane down to a safe landing weight. I knew he was talking about spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation gas into the air, and I marveled at the knowledge of it. I thought of the expense, it would cost Northwest tens of thousands of dollars to do such a thing. And then there is the environment—jet fuel is a toxic chemical soup of cancer causing agents and all manner of other nasties, and here we were spraying it in the air like a giant mosquito clouder.

It struck me that the pilot used the collective “we” when telling us that we were dumping the jet fuel. Perhaps it was his way of spreading the blame among us 400 plus passengers for having to do such a monstrously foul thing? How dare he!

I shrugged. Perhaps the pilot was correct. I broke out my book on President Lincoln and resigned myself to being part of an operation that was at that very moment releasing a huge misty fog bank of potent carcinogens into the Canadian North. And yet, I tried not to feel guilty that I felt even worse over the hours that I would be inconvenienced waiting to board a replacement flight. I realized that I was a horribly selfish person—one of millions. With people like “us” in the world, no wonder it sucks.

The hours we spent going in the wrong direction passed a heck of a lot slower than they did going the other way—funny how that works. I think one of Einstein’s theories covers it. Eventually though, we made our approach into Detroit and finally, one good thing came out of our situation. With one engine wasting space on its wing we had direct access to the runway. We landed with a straight in direct approach. Thank God for small favors.

A few minutes before our quickie landing, a very harried stewardess, or flight attendant as I hear they prefer to be called, made one more pass down my aisle to collect trash from all her little “piggies.” I asked her what she thought our prospects would be. I was delighted when she offered the possibility of a spare bird.

“Oh yeah? You think so? I didn’t think these airplanes stayed on the ground long enough to be a spare.” I remarked.

“You’re right,” she agreed. “These airplanes are almost NEVER on the ground. They fly more than they sit.”

“I was involved with aircraft maintenance for a long time with the Air Force and its more amazing to me that the airlines don’t have more problems than they do with keeping these things flying.”

“Yeah, you got that right,” she assented.

I continued, “Looks like Northwest lost any chance of a profit on this trip, don’t ya think? They have to pay you flight attendants and the aircrew for a flight that didn’t go anywhere, and then there’s the fact that we just used up tens of thousands of dollars on the aviation gas. Bummer, huh?”

“Yep,” she concurred, “and I know you all are upset about this, but believe me, we are just as upset. This is hard on us too.”

I didn’t respond to that, since I wasn’t feeling a whole lot of sympathy for her or for any of the aircrew at that moment. I smiled and let it go.

After the “stew” continued her non-merry way up the aisle, the pilot made one last announcement. According to him, the best of all possibilities was in fact in the works—a spare jumbo waited conveniently on the tarmac for us. We would be back on the ground sometime around 9:30 p.m. with the hope of being back up and on the way to Nagoya by 11.

I did a quick calculation. We originally took off at 4. That meant we would be getting into Manila at least 7 hours later than planned. I had prepaid a driver service to pick me up in Manila at 11, but that was all a bust now. I needed someway to contact him and let him know not to show up until the next morning. Now how in the heck was I going to do that?

Our 3-engine landing was completely normal yet people were visibly worried during the approach. I found it amusing, especially when as the wheels hit with a thump and as an extended noisy shudder gripped the aircraft, applause began to ripple toward us from the front of the plane. I looked at John and grinned. Instead of clapping I made a quiet raspberry with my mouth, stuck my index finger in the air twirling it and gave it the old, “Whoopdeedoo!” Sorry, but I just wasn’t impressed.

As soon as John and I found ourselves back in the Detroit terminal we each had our own private missions to accomplish. I didn’t realize that John had his own “must do” until I looked over at the sturdy young fellow and saw a clenched look on his face. I recognized it immediately.

“You need a smoke, don’t you?” I accused him laughing. I found his obvious apprehension funny; because it was the first time I’d seen anything like it from him since I’d met him. “Aha! I found your weakness John! Now I know!”

He grinned and replied, “Yeah, I got really drunk before I got on the flight, but now it’s worn off and I need a cigarette, bad…”

“Ahhh… All you addicts are all the same!” I teased him. “I’ll see you later. I’m going to find an Internet café and try to get a message to my driver in the Philippines. I’ll see you soon. Good luck finding a smoking area…You crack baby!” I said waving.

It turns out I was extremely fortunate. I was soon to find out that airline terminals the world over tend to close up shop at 10 p.m. and Detroit is no exception. I pulled my wheeled bag up to a computer and a girl, the attendant/waitress, asked me if I wanted something cold to eat, since the kitchen was already closed. I told her I just needed to use a computer and she said I had just 15 minutes before they closed and that would cost me $5.25.

There was no Yahoo IM loaded on the computer, so I decided the best thing I could do was to send an email to several people in Angeles City and hope that at least one of them would open it in the next few hours and call my driver, Roger, and tell him of my delayed arrival. I had just enough time to send it and to check for anything important in my inbox. For that money I was determined to use up every minute.

It worked. Of the four people I asked, three of them called Roger. Sometimes I guess, things just work out.

John’s “mission” took a good while longer than my little task. Nonetheless, by 11 he joined me near our continuation gate looking a whole lot more relaxed. I asked him how it went.

“Well, I found a bar with a smoking area.”

“Oh I see, so you took care of two birds with one stone. Good going John!” He laughed.

I decided to ride him a little on his nasty little habit: “You really need to find a way to quit one of these days buddy. For the last four years I’ve been helping a lot of old vets with their disability claims and I’ve seen closeup what two or three decades of smoking will do to the human body. I know you already know this man, but it ain’t pretty. It ages your skin, yellows your teeth and fingernails, makes your hair fall out, gives you bad breath, and eventually, it takes away your ability to breathe, period! If you’re lucky it’ll just be a slow horrible way to die; if you’re not so lucky, it will take you down quick with a heart attack or cancer.”

“Yeah, I know…” He said almost sullenly, not looking at me, with that “I’ve heard it all before” look.

I chuckled, “Too bad men don’t get pregnant. That’s how most women give up smoking these days.” This time he laughed, probably trying to imagine himself in his third trimester.

We didn’t take off for the second time at 11 as promised, but we did go at midnight. So, we ended up being a full 8 hours behind schedule. Nevertheless, we landed in Manila only 7 hours late having made up the hour by leaving sooner from Nagoya.

We got into Nagoya later than I’d ever been there before—I think it was after 2 in the morning. There were no stores, bars, or coffee shops open—nothing to do but wait impatiently. With the Japanese men being inveterate smokers though, John had no problem finding a place to indulge his aching need for nicotine. But without any alcohol to “wash it down” with, he was soon sitting next to me once again at the far end of our waiting area.

“John, I don’t think you know what you’re in for when you arrive at your friend’s home in Rizal. Do you know if they are very rich, or just so-so on the economic scale?”

“I don’t think they are all that rich. Why?”

I snorted and sniggered, “Dude, you’re single, and the word is gonna get out in your pal's neighborhood. There’s going to be a veritable PARADE of available females from miles around, all with the express purpose of getting a look at you and trying to get you to get a look at them. I wish I could see it. You’re either gonna love it or you’re gonna hate it.”

“Oh really?” he seemed delighted. I realized then that he wasn't going "to hate it."

“That’s why I asked if your buddy’s family is rich, because the very rich folk there look down their noses at people like you and me. On the other hand, the rest of the population, which is most of it, look at bagging an American son-in-law the same as winning the lottery. Can I ask you something John?”


“Are you interested in meeting a girl for a possible serious relationship or are you just going there to meet girls for fun? The reason I ask is that the Philippines is a very conservative country. You’re going to find some of the sweetest, most beautiful girls in the world there, but most of them want nothing more than to meet the love of their life and settle down with an armful of babies. Then again, if you want to meet some “pok pok” girls and just "fling fling" during your whole trip, then you can easily do that at Boracay. My point is, don’t confuse the Boracay girls with the dozens of girls you’re going to meet in Rizal.”

He smiled, continuing to be delighted at BOTH prospects.

“I think I might very easily be ready to meet a girl and start a family,” he admitted shyly.

I chuckled, “Dude, there will be a lot of very happy young ladies to learn of that!”

In Manila, I felt beat and groggy standing in the long line at the immigration booths. It took a half hour for my turn to come and I saw that the immigration lady behind the glass looked tired too. I asked her if she had waited long for us. She frowned and said yes. I apologized for her long night and was rewarded with a pretty smile and a final stamp on my passport.

I wished John good luck on his three-week vacation and bade him farewell after pointing out the taxi kiosks.

After a wave through at customs I wheeled my two small checked bags down the sweeping curved ramp to the “pick up” area and searched in vain for my driver. If only I had a cell phone. 'From now on, I will have one,' I promised myself.

A uniformed young lady working in an information booth asked me if she could help me. I told her I needed to send a text or call my driver. At first she showed me how I could buy a phone card out of a vending machine to use in one of the phones lining the wall next to her booth. I didn’t have the correct local currency and finally she just asked me what my driver’s number is. Using her own cell phone she called him for me. I tried to give her a hundred pesos for her trouble and she wouldn’t take it. I was touched at her small bit of compassionate generosity thinking to myself that she had just made me fall in love with the country all over again.

By mid-morning I was back at my house in Angeles City. My Phil-ward journey and my overall USA trip back home was over.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My “Phil-ward Flight” Part 2

My flight back to the Philippines with Northwest turned out to be less than pleasant, but certainly not because of my seat neighbor, John, a 25-year-old soldier on leave from the 10th Mountain Division. In part 1 of this short series I describe him and a bit of our conversation concerning his 5 years in the army as an artillery sergeant. Within minutes, I liked him. And even though his right shoulder and arm would bulge over into my side of the armrest despite his valiant efforts to prevent it, I didn’t regret that he was there in the least, as his easy-going personality and quiet courtesy overcame all else. After spending most of a day with him I can say that I hope the ranks of the U.S. Army are filled with the likes of him—the man is a total gentleman.

Now, I have heard of a few incidents of love interest between Iraqi women and American servicemen, even of the occasional marriage, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening in Afghanistan. So, I asked John if he had ever met any Afghan womenfolk during his months there. He grinned as if that was the stupidest thing anyone could ever imagine. He said that where he was the women only rarely came outside, and when they did it was after sundown when they moved around in the shadows always covered from head to toe.

Since we were on the subject of women, and with him being a single good-looking young fellow, it was only natural that our conversation turned to possible “romantic” pursuits while he visited the Phils. Ever the wet blanket, I told him that there were no sweeter women anywhere in the world, BUT….! There’s always one or two of those floating about, and when it comes to this place there are MORE than a couple. I decided I’d better clue in my new young friend on some of the dangers lurking out there for unsuspecting foreign tourists like him. I was happy to see that he took great interest in everything I had to say about the possible perils involved.

He already knew all about the young American marine “found guilty” of rape last year in Manila. I told him that most of us living here are highly suspicious of the verdict, mostly because so many other outsiders are being pulled off the street all the time here by corrupt cops for supposedly committing rape. I told him that I knew of a tourist just last week that sat in a jail cell for two days, also for an alleged rape, when the only real “crime” he committed was paying a girl’s barfine in good faith.

Tourists think that paying a barfine is a safe way to avoid being taken in on the old “rape con game,” but it seems that these days nothing can prevent "the shake down" once marked for it. In fact, the tourist in question was never actually charged with any crime. He did exactly what they cajoled him to do and paid off. Then, he got his butt on the first plane he could find out of the country. In the marine’s case, if the U.S. State Department and the Marine Corps had been smart, paying off is also what they should have done in the first place. It's how things are done here anyway. I doubt seriously if that mistake will ever be made again by the Marine Corps or by anyone else affiliated with the U.S. government in a similar situation.

And evidently, the word I heard as of last year is that Middle Eastern and Indian businessmen are finding themselves similarly targeted in the “high rent” Manila nightclub district as well. The ploy goes like this: The tourist picks up a girl in a club and all seems well until he gets the seemingly willing woman into his hotel room. Suddenly, the girl rumples her hair, tears at her clothing and screams rape. At this point, the bewildered tourist finds a platoon of men in uniform booming at his hotel door. Usually, in short order, the stunned and frightened fellow is given two options. Immediately, he chooses the one involving paying a lot of money to make the whole thing go away. None of this makes it into the news, much less on a blotter and never on a report. So, ignorant tourists continue to stream in, only to be “harvested.” It’s a great cash cow, yes?

After my myriad of scary stories, all of which I meant to serve as a warning to the young fellow, he looked quite shaken, shocked even. He shook his head alarmed saying, “Sounds like maybe I should never leave my hotel room!”

I laughed, “John, what kind of a guy would I be if I didn’t clue you in on what to watch out for over there? You are particularly vulnerable, because if you get picked up on one of these scams, as an active duty soldier, you have NO choice but to pay, no matter how innocent you are. In fact, last summer a marine having some fun in Balibago on leave from Okinawa was picked up on a bogus charge and ended up paying up after several days for that exact reason. The Army won’t care if you ARE innocent; all they want is for your happy ass to be back at the base when your leave is over. So you just be careful, okay?”

John told me that once he gets to Manila he’s meeting up with two buddies from his hometown in Central Pennsylvania, neither of which is in the military. They chose the Philippines to visit because one of the guys has family in Rizal, which is where John is heading as soon as the plane lands in Manila. After that, the plan is for all three of them to fly on to Boracay for the rest of their stay.

“That’s good. If one of you is from the Philippines then you will be that much safer,” I said, trying to sound more reassuring.

“Well, not necessarily,” he said hesitantly, “he went to the States when he was 7 and this is his first time back.”

“Oh? No kidding?” I sucked air over my lips and teeth with a pained expression and agreed with his misgivings, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s not so good after all.”

Knowing that we would be landing in Manila just before midnight I cautioned John not to jump into any old taxi that would probably just rip him off upon seeing he was a “virgin tourist” and thus ripe for the picking. Instead, I urged him to use one of the taxi services registered at the terminal. An American guy sitting in the seat to John’s left, who had been listening in and nodding, now weighed in and agreed with me.

This new guy has an interesting story. He’s heading to Quezon City to meet with his fiancée, a girl he met online when she was 17. He’s probably in his early to mid-40s, typical I’ve found of the relationship ages between foreign men and Filipina women. He says this is his fourth time back since he met her some three years ago. His intent is to petition her to the US on a fiancée visa. I wished him good luck, but inwardly smirked, thinking that she’d probably dump him as soon as she could. Sorry for the cynicism, but that’s normally how it goes for those types of liaisons.

By this time the flight attendants were cleaning up after we had finished our predictable in-flight meal of chicken or beef. We were more than two and a half hours out of Detroit and well over Northern Canada.

At this point I’ll write verbatim from my notebook:

“There’s a Problem!… according to the pilot on the loudspeaker we just lost oil quantity in our number three engine so they had to shut the engine down. He says we are heading back to Detroit. G** Damn it! So, looks like an overnight stay in Detroit before heading to Manila. Oh, JOY!”

That’s enough for now. I don’t want to bore Ed Abbey. Part 3 coming up in a day or two.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Armenian Genocide

Even though it happened way back in 1915 throughout much of Eastern Turkey, I’m not surprised in the least that the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks is still today such an inflammatory topic (although the Turkish state denies genocide per se) almost a century after it took place.

By happenstance many years ago, I once painfully withstood an example of the long-smoldering ire firsthand from one of the surviving genocide victims, an aged Armenian grandmother. I still remember her bitter rage when, due to my own youthful imprudence, she misdirected her vitriol at me.

Getting to how this unpleasant confrontation happened in the first place begins with the irate old Armenian woman’s grandson, who happened to be one of THE best men I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling friend. He was a dark haired, dark featured fellow with a face punctuated with huge Byzantium-like eyes that gave him a childlike innocent look, along with a substantial nose common to many from that part of the world. His name was Michael Boloyan, an Armenian-American Marine reservist.

It was my good fortune that he had signed up for a stint with the U.S. Marine Air Reserve. Subsequently, he was based at Alameda Naval Air Station, where I too was stationed. I say “my good fortune,” because his enlistment in the Marines provided me the opportunity to get to know him.

Mike’s innate goodness almost single-handedly kept me from falling headlong into the iniquitous mire that can be the U.S. Marine Corps. As an impressionable 18-year-old still not entirely sure of my place in the world, I found myself sinking into the same wicked habits that I was seeing around me in the older marines, many of whom displayed a self-indulgent foulness of word and spirit that I never dreamed existed just weeks before during my previous comparatively naive schoolboy existence.

Mike Boloyan NEVER used foul language, and even when I last saw him when he was already in his early twenties, believe it or not, I honestly think the unmarried fellow was still a virgin. If you know Armenians, then you know they are a deeply spiritual Christian folk and do not take their beliefs lightly as many US Christians tend to in these post-modern times. He had never been to Armenia, but within the walls of his family’s modest home located on a quiet street in Berkeley, California, he was very much within the culture of the old country. He wholeheartedly wrapped his traditional Armenian way of life around him like a comfortable old blanket.

Michael’s goodness was infectious. When around him, like him, I never used coarse language. He had that affect on people. In fact, when other marines were not so inclined to watch themselves in his presence I felt obliged to step up and ask them to mind their potty mouths. Mike would just shake his head and grin shyly saying, “Phil, you don’t have to do that.”

He was an auto upholsterer and had been since before turning 16. I believe he worked in his chosen trade in a small shop in or near Berkeley, and the years of stretching fabric had made Mike’s hands the most powerful I’d ever seen. The saying “he doesn’t know his own strength” definitely applied to Mike. You shook hands with him at your own risk. Without realizing it, even what he considered to be a gentle squeeze of a handshake felt like a vicious death grip to mere mortal-handed people like myself. For such a sweet guy, his otherwise gentle paws were unintentional metacarpal crushers.

Several times, during the years I knew him from the late 70s to early 80s, Mike invited me into his family’s home for dinner. There were other family members around whom I’ve long since forgotten, but I still vividly remember Mike’s feisty grandmother, who was already very old then—I think well into her 70s—when I first met her in 1976. I only wish he would have given me a briefing on what NOT to say around the old girl, because as far as she was concerned I made the ultimate booboo, and I don’t think she ever forgave me for it.

I had never heard of Armenia before meeting Mike, but I was very familiar with Armenia’s western neighbor, the country of Turkey, having lived there twice for a number of years during the 60s. My Turkish experiences were mostly pleasant, and still quite fresh in my mind having last departed from there just 5 years earlier. My eagerness to speak well of my Turkish experiences had never betrayed me before, but my enthusiasm for things Turkish was about to get me into some very deep doo-doo as Michael introduced me to his diminutive old grandma.

With enormous enthusiasm and affection, she shook my as yet unblemished teenage hand with both of hers. Her own tiny hands were shrunken, wrinkled and mottled, yet cool and pleasant. From a face ravaged and withered by a lifetime of difficulties she smiled up at me with eyes filled with interested friendliness. Cocking her head in curiosity, she seemed to peer into my soul. All the while, she spoke rapidly in Armenian, while Michael answered her in turn, I presumed telling her all about me. It all sounded like Greek to me. By this time I felt great pressure to make a good impression, but alas, it was not to be… Soon, unwittingly, I was about to make one of the biggest gaffs of my young life…

The old woman led me into a formal parlor and Michael followed. The first thing I noticed were portraits and family photos that very nearly covered all four walls of the small room. All the photos were very old and in tones of faded black-and-white. Michael explained to me that these were photographs of long dead relatives from when his family used to live in Turkey many decades before.

Aha! An opportunity! I practically blurted, “Oh really! I used to live in Turkey. I really enjoyed it and met some nice people there!”

As I started gushing about Turkey and Turks, Michael attempted to interrupt me and waved his arms at me urgently behind his grandma to try make me stop, but at that young age I was too obtuse to understand that I was totally messing up. I started to get the picture, but it was too late.

The old woman’s sweet demeanor did an immediate 180-degree turnaround on me. I was no longer a nice young man to be esteemed; now, I was someone who had consorted with the devil himself. Her face hardened with hatred and heated words erupted like machine gun fire from her mouth. I had no idea why she was suddenly so furious with me, but I knew it had something to do with Turks. I was stunned and mortified. Only a few months before, I had learned to shrug off and withstand the barrage of artificial fury from a horde of marine drill instructors, but I had never encountered this kind of actual visceral hatred before. It was disconcerting to say the least.

Michael did his best to soothe her but she was having none of it. I stood there completely helpless, not yet even knowing what I had done wrong. She continued to assail me in heated Armenian, while I assumed Michael apologized for me as he attempted to smooth things over. I told him to please tell her that whatever I had said that I was very sorry.

In a voice filled with regret he said, “It’s okay Phil. I’ll explain later. Just please, don’t talk about the times you lived in…” he paused and continued, “…that country… Okay?”

Eventually her anger waned, but still she insisted on pointing out to me each of her dead relatives enshrined on the walls around us. I was to find out with plenty of horrific detail that each had been murdered by the Ottoman Turks during the convoluted happenings of The Great War, now known as World War I. I remember vividly that after all those years since the mass killings—by that time more than 60 years—that there was no apparent grief left in the bosom of the animated old woman; instead, I saw nothing in her but unadulterated fury. I realized too late that even though she could not speak English she certainly understood enough to know that I had been speaking well of her sworn enemies.

Regrettably for me, I didn’t know it then, but learned later (beginning on that day!) that the Ottomans did not make many friends during the centuries of their empire. They tended to cruelty and slaughter in all the regions over which they ruled, and apparently, the religion of the people they dominated did not much matter. In fact, even though the Ottomans were Muslim, they committed the same sort of heinous acts in the Islamic lands they controlled as they did to the Christian Armenians.

Indeed, the Arabs under the Englishman, Lawrence, exacted with great relish many acts of gory revenge against the Turks as they drove them ignominiously from Arabia and from all of the lands of the Middle East. Now it makes sense that all that "Lawrence of Arabia" stuff happened during the same period of Ottoman colonial collapse that caused the Turks—in their time of desperate defeat—to expel and kill Armenians by the hundreds of thousands from Eastern Turkey.

Michael’s grandma saw my discomfiture and calmed somewhat, but only to the point that she stopped her verbal assault on me. She went from that to trying to convince me that there could be nothing virtuous about Turkey, or from any Turk for that matter. I was reduced to chastened silence and quiet nodding as she explained the deaths of each of her long departed family members. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even after 60 years, to her, all those people on the wall had died just the other day. She went to her grave not long after that still filled with loathing and seething detestation. It was the most abject history lesson that I’ve ever received.

On the other hand, when I lived in Japan in the early 80s not too many years after my encounter with the unforgiving Armenian woman, I met another woman who had also experienced the cruel loss of family to callous murder, yet she had an entirely different outlook toward her enemies. Her name was Lonnie. She had been just a young girl living in the Tarlac area of the Philippines during the time of the Japanese occupation of 1941 to 1945. Learning of this and always interested in speaking to people of their wartime experiences, I asked her what it was like.

Speaking slowly with great sadness she shared with me a horrendous story. When she was 6 and her brother just 3, a Japanese patrol passed by their modest nipa house where they had been playing outside. Suddenly, one of the soldiers impulsively grabbed her tiny brother by a leg and tossed him high in the air causing him to wail in fear. Before the little lad could hit the ground the cruel soldier caught the tiny tot on the tip of his bayonet, killing him instantly and abruptly ending the toddler’s plaintive screams.

Horrified and sickened, I asked her, “Lonnie, how can you live in this country knowing that these are the people that did that terrible thing to your little brother? Some of these old guys around here actually served in the Philippines during the war, you know that don’t you? You know what? My landlord TOLD me he had served there. How do you do it? I don’t think I could.”

I’ll never forget what she said: “Phil, you can’t hate forever or it will destroy you. Eventually I forgave them, because that’s what our Lord would want us to do. My brother is gone, but now he’s in a better place with God.”

As a Christian, I knew that technically, Lonnie was right, still… I think Michael’s grandmother’s response of continuing her hatred over the decades is probably the more normal of the two women’s very different responses. To forgive, especially to forgive murder of family, is not natural and is probably the most difficult thing anyone can do, especially considering the nature of what both of those women experienced in their lives.

Lonnie died of an aneurysm not long after she shared her story with me. She’s buried in the American cemetery out on Clark these past 23 years. I used to wonder if she didn’t die from the emotional strain of what she witnessed all those years ago as a young girl. I’m sure she was in the throes of PTSD, the bodily stresses of which can really mess with the human physiology. I hope that like her brother she too is now in a better place.

As far as the immediate furor over Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional insistence on declaring that our ally, Turkey, committed genocide against the Armenians almost 100 years ago, I wish she wouldn’t. For one thing, we can’t force any country to feel remorse when they aren’t willing to do so. To tweak them now, when we are so utterly dependent on Turkey’s cooperation in keeping supplies flowing into Iraq makes me think that she is knowingly trying to sabotage our current good relationship with this fellow NATO nation. If Al Qaeda and the Shia militia cannot cause us to lose perhaps she thinks she can personally make it happen through this backdoor method.

Aside from the international considerations of the Armenian genocide, I personally wish the Turks would do what Germany did long ago concerning its own considerable misdeeds during WWII, and just admit that the transgression happened and apologize. It wouldn’t cost them anything but pride, as I’m sure we are long past any possibility of reparations. We can't punish a country for things done more than four generations ago. It just isn't feasible or right.

Unfortunately, the belligerent attitude of many contemporary Turks toward the 1915 massacre has done nothing to heal old wounds. I foresee the current standoff between Turks and Armenians concerning this issue continuing for at least another 100 years. That seems to be how they do things in that part of the world.

Even so, many modern Armenians want to put this ugly history behind them so that they can move on and normalize relations with the Turks. After all, Armenia is landlocked and shares a vast border with Turkey. The Armenian economy could stand a dose of normalization with their ancient enemy, and most modern Armenians know it. Yet, this probably cannot happen until the Turks take the first step and admit that the wrong happened all those decades ago.

To my practical American mind, I have a difficult time understanding how this has not happened already. I mean, my own family has long since forgiven the English for what they did to my Irish and Scottish ancestors; and we’ve also pardoned the Canadian Tories for murdering our grandfather, Samuel Lount, way back in 1838 in Toronto. How long do you hate people for what their dead great great grandfathers did?

Eventually, as my friend Lonnie reminded me, forgiveness is the only way to go.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"My Phil-ward" Flight" part 1

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.