Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bicycle Memories, Part 6, The Problems and Solutions of Building a Single-Track Trail

I left off in the previous post explaining how my initial attempt at trail building turned out to be all for nothing. A strange thing is that I couldn't even recognize most of the route of it, much less see it. After just two days leaves and twigs had already covered over my efforts.

Then, while walking along over where my mislaid track should have been, I noticed something that switched on the old Eureka light bulb. There was one section that I still recognized as having been my intended trail. It was where I had to pick up a rather large rotten log and move it out of the way. Seeing it, I remembered that the path was parallel to it.

So maybe that was the answer! I could place branches and fallen logs end-to-end to mark one side of the path. I tried it and after 20 or 30 feet I knew it was perfect. There were plenty of fallen branches, twigs, and logs available; it was just for me to line them up. The first of many problems was solved—now the real trail making could begin.

Once I knew how to effectively delineate its course, I decided to make the initial trail head behind the massive Little Rock AFB commissary. There was a good spot at the commissary entrance cattycorner from the popular base Burger King. From the very back right parking lot it was just a matter of riding through a grassy area, turning to the right and into the woods where my trail would begin. From that point onward no one would be able to see the trail or me traversing it. Staying out of sight on my "unauthorized trail," especially while I was constructing it, was part of my goal.

Almost every day after work I’d head out to reconnoiter and trail build. The routine was simple: I’d figure out the general direction and then freeform the specific twists, turns, obstacles and jumps as I went along. It was hard, but it was a blast. Everyday brought new challenges and tasks. Three hours working on my trail went by like 20 minutes.

It was amazing that after riding back and forth over it a dozen times how the trail became quite traceable. My bike’s wheels rolling over the exact same surface over the identical inches-wide spot soon made it seem as if the trail had always been there rather than for just a few days.

I endeavored to make the single-track as challengingly difficult and therefore as “fun” as I could. I scouted ahead to find interesting bits of terrain to maximize the enjoyment by increasing the effort and adrenalin required to negotiate it. For instance, I never just followed a ridgeline; instead, I zigzagged directly down its slope before looping around a large rock or tree for the return back up. I never hair-pinned to lessen steepness like the Park Service does on its walking trails. I always sought to maximize gradient, never to lessen it. Doing that made for some hair-raising rides when flying directly downhill with trees, branches and foliage flashing past; while climbing straight back up caused the heart to pump and the breath to come in gasps. Awesome!

On my own tiny scale I felt like a road-building engineer as I came across new problems requiring new solutions. The terrain was amazingly varied in that relatively small area sandwiched between Flightline Drive and Arnold Drive. There were three different swamps, two large areas with dense patches of “Wait a Minute Vines,” three sorts of hill areas and a really cool stream that ran through a channel that in some places had 5-foot banks.

The three swamps and two thorn patches took the most time, effort and figuring to sort out and complete. One of the swampy areas ran through a thicket of 12-feet tall swamp willows. I had no choice but to figure out how to run the trail directly through it for about 100 feet.

You can’t just run a mountain bike trail through swamp mud. It ruts down ever deeper until it becomes impassable. Then it came to me: Rice paddies! I’d seen them on my visits to Southeast Asia and in Vietnam War documentaries. I remembered walking on narrow paddy dikes and realizing that they were made from the dried muck of the paddy. Could it really be so easy?

I bungystrapped a combat shovel and a pickaxe to my bike and headed to the swamp to see what I could do. Resigned to getting soaked and splattered, I wore my oldest combat boots. Right off the bat I ran into a problem with the willow tree roots. They were thick and matted, making it tough digging if not impossible. Shortly thereafter, I learned to search for semi-rootless pockets and dug as much of the free mud as I could from each one and began to pile it up on the embryonic dike.

It was slow going. I’d throw a shovel full of mud into the dike line and watch it melt back into the water. Eventually though it began to stack up enough so that I had a mound of oozing muck snaking through the shallow waters of the swamp. It felt like I was actually accomplishing something when it reached about a dozen feet long. Let's see, only about 60 feet to go! Yikes! A good thing about digging all the holes is that they began to drain the water away from the dike. Encouraged, I kept at it.

Then another idea came to mind. I got it after remembering how parts of the Great Wall of China had been built from layers of grass and earth. There was a pine copse not so far away carpeted deep with fallen needles. The next day I brought a heavy-duty hefty trash bag and began to use the pine needles between layers of muck. That did the trick.

In no time the muck dried into solid clay and in two weeks I had a perfectly rideable foot-wide foot-high dike meandering through the dank swamp. I was gratified that even during the wettest of times it held up and stayed at least several inches above the highest water level.I was proud of that problem/solution, but there were plenty more to come.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bicycle Memories Part 5, Making a Single Track Trail

After months of a double transformation—my hybrid into a true mountain bike and me into a mountain biker—an idea slowly took shape in my head. I was tired of constantly looking for decent trails to ride; so, why not just create my very own off-road trail right there where I lived on the base?

Why not indeed! Well, there was one very obvious reason why not: I knew that getting authorization would be next to impossible.

From my years in the service, I knew that asking permission to do such a thing would bring a big fat “No!” And even with a “yes” the red tape would have been overwhelming. I knew that the base commander, or more likely one of his minions, would be consumed with knowing the “risks” of such an undertaking. Risk aversion is the motto of the U.S. Air Force—"the royalty of risk aversion.”

Truthfully, the idea of actually trying to get permission was but a fleeting notion anyway. I decided to just go for it.

I knew exactly where I wanted to put the trail. There is a mostly undeveloped area right in the middle of Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB). It’s a fairly large block of land, just over ½ square mile, consisting of fields and woods. One side of it borders the flight line, while the opposite side is delineated by a main drag called Arnold Drive. Base housing, where I lived, was directly across Arnold Drive from it. The only structures in this, my chosen trail-making-area, are on its perimeter; the most notable being the base commissary, Arnold Drive Elementary School, the “cop shop,” Wing Headquarters, and the Base Lake Shoppette.

The exact route that the trail would take was still hazy to me. I didn’t even know how I was going to make it. Most trails exist in nature because of constant traffic, either by humans or animals. Therefore, natural trails exist more by accident than by design. So, how was I to form one artificially? I didn’t have a clue.

On a cold overcast afternoon in mid November ‘91, I took a ride on my mountain bike out to the area that overlooked the flightline. That was as good a place to start as any. There was a natural opening into the trees from a grassy area right next to a massive patch of blackberry canes that I thought would be a good place to experiment with trail building.

I pedaled to the spot by coming up a steeply meandering access road used by base police vehicles on rare occasions—I say rare since I’d never actually seen a vehicle on it. For years I had used that road to train on by running up and down it’s 150-yard length. I’d sprint to the top, recover my breath while jogging back down, and then sprint back up. I would do that for about an hour. Except for the very bottom, trees and foliage obscured me from view as I ran; yet it was just a few hundred yards from the organized chaos of the busy LRAFB flightline.

The trees, mostly oaks with assorted other broadleaf types sprinkled in, grew thickly in that area. The ground was covered with a layer of fallen leaves. They rustled noisily as I walked. The leaves gave me an idea: Could I use them to mark the intended trail?

But first there was the course of the trail to figure out. As a trial run I mentally mapped out a short segment of the intended path. For now, "as simple as possible" seemed to be the best bet. I knew I wanted to route it from point A to B, so now, how to do that so I could actually see it to ride it?

Scraping my feet along the ground, I spent hours kicking the leaves out of the way. If you can see a trail then it exists, or so I thought. As I progressed I realize that the course’s track was developing its line mostly as the terrain would allow. I hadn’t expected that.

At all costs I wanted to steer clear of cutting down trees or hacking off limbs, and over the next five months I never did. But from the outset there was a problem—many of the branches and saplings were simply in the way. Avoiding one set of problem branches and saplings would just take me into the path of a new set. Solving this “knotty” problem without reverting to sawing or hacking turned out to be fairly easy. The answer to my problem was what I came to think of as “tree shaping.”

The “tree reshaping” process I came up with resulted from the old “necessity being the mother of invention” thing. If branches poked out into the path of the trail I folded them back, taking care not to damage them.

Of course, green wood tends to snap back; to prevent this, I had to bend and braid them. Over the weeks and months I developed three or four different techniques to do this. For instance, sometimes I’d take branches from two adjacent trees and weave them together out of the way. For others, if I couldn’t weave them, I would tie the branches together.

Saplings were usually easy to deal with. For them, I’d pull them back behind other trees or saplings, and to make sure they didn’t return to their original position I’d combine that “pull back method” with weaving to lock them in place. In late April ’92, by the time I finished with the last leg of my trail, I easily accomplished that kind of “reshaping” several thousands of times.

But much of that was in the future. On that first day, all I really managed to get done was to kick a few leaves away down to bare earth for about 70 feet of pseudo-trail.

I wasn’t able to return for two days, but finally I headed back out to my 48-hour-old trial trail to see how it looked. But there was a problem. For the most part, I couldn’t find it. The trail had disappeared from sight. The blowing wind along with more fallen leaves had completely reburied it. All that leaf kicking had been for nothing.

So, it was back to the drawing board. Leaning against a massive 75-year-old oak tree I balanced on the seat of my bike with arms folded and pondered, ‘How do I make a trail?

The answer was surprisingly easy once I found it...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kids play


This one is at your askance. You asked about activities for preschoolers or for young kids on summer vacation.

You’re right. You won’t find here a whole lot of parks or libraries like those back home, especially not up to the same standards of safety and quality that you are used to. Of course I’m speaking generally and there are probably some towns and cities where you CAN find some nice playgrounds. I’m not sure where you plan on visiting, but its best to contact someone there and get the local scoop before you show up with your kids.

I just asked my wife about the subject as it applies to this area. We live in Angeles City and there are probably more places here to keep kids busy than in other spots in the country. I can think of three offhand, and I asked my wife about all three.

There is a playground park over by the Air Force City area on Clark that is grassy and has slides and swings. My wife says that is a fairly safe place to take kids so that’s one option.

A few years back the CDC (Clark Development Corp.) also built a pretty nice municipal style park in the huge open rectangular area in front of the main gate. At first it was an okay place to take your kids, but according to the wife, not so anymore. The “hold uppers,” as she calls them, have made that area not so family-safe these days. You will hear a chorus of “not so’s!,” but believe me, neither she or any of her friends will take their children there. You could try to go and act as security, but it’s just not worth the risk. Purse-snatchers, pickpockets, and gun-toting muggers use that area all the time.

She says the best place to take your kids to play is to the SM Mall located just inside the Clark Main Gate. My wife says the security is very good in the mall’s enclosed play area and she takes our two girls there all the time. Even so, watch your wallet and belongings.

There is a water park on Clark as well. I’ve never been to it, but my best buddy has taken his 10-year-old daughter there several times and he says it’s not bad. So that’s another option. Pretty much anything on Clark is safe. Once you leave the confines however, you MUST keep your wits about you.

Its Christmas time, and as my wife just reminded me, the muggers and robbers are working overtime to get money to buy presents for their loved ones. (Isn’t that sweet?) Along those lines, she just told me a “lovely” little story about what happened to her girlfriend a couple weeks back. The lady drove to her bank on Macarthur Boulevard to withdraw from her dollar account. Her next move was to drive up Main Gate Boulevard towards Checkpoint to exchange her bucks for pesos at Norma’s Money Exchange. She'd just pulled off Main Gate drag to make her way over to Field’s Avenue when a motorcyclist pulled in front of her, blocking her way. Another guy, also on a motorcycle, pulled up next to her window and fired one round from his handgun past her head to demonstrate that he meant business before aiming it at her face. He told her two things: “Give me the money you just got from the bank,” and two, “If you tell anyone about this I will kill you and your family.” She handed him the whole wad, and taking him at his word, never reported that she’d been mugged. And mind you, it all happened in broad daylight.

Much violent crime goes unreported here, especially that done to Filipino victims. People are easily cowed in these parts and their fear causes them to shrug off their outrage. I guess I can’t blame them. I could move away if I want, but most locals have no place to go. As for me, I’d rather die than give in to threats. Of course, if anyone ever threatened my kids I’d probably try to use my resources to track down those making the threats and try to kill them first, but that’s not the way the average person here thinks where fear is indeed the watchword.

No one EVER thinks it can happen to them, but eventually, it does. I’ve told my wife to have a “mugger’s purse” available with only a couple hundred pesos in it to hand over just in case; and even though she’s been held up at gunpoint herself once, she STILL has no fake purse. I can only tell her right? But that’s the way to go. Best advice: If a man points a gun at you give him what he wants—just don’t give him your REAL wallet or purse.

That reminds me:

Two years after I got here I got a call to get my ass over to the hospital. A fellow veteran had just been shot and needed my relatively rare O negative blood because his was all but gone. He and his wife had pulled into a quiet subdivision in Dau and were just getting out of their van when he heard her cry out. She did so at the sight of a gun being pushed into her face. The veteran rushed around the side of his van to her aid. The robber snapped off a round into the big American’s thigh and rushed off with his wife’s purse. The stricken navy vet, only about 6 months retired, made a tourniquet from his belt, and his wife was barely able to get him back into the van to drive him to a nearby small hospital. They took one look and turned her away. She then took him to the then PIH (Philippine Int’l Hospital) about 20 minutes away. I ran into the emergency room and begged them to take my blood but they shook their heads. I knew at that point he was gone. The wife, her jeans soaked in her husband’s blood, waited downstairs in our Veterans Service Office. Lucky for us, she had a good friend there to catch and console her when we told her that her husband didn’t make it.

Sorry for the doom and gloom, but that’s the way of it. It’s just that I see so many expats here that run around this place taking their safety for granted and that’s a huge mistake. Be paranoid, be wary, be ready for the worst-case scenario and keep your family and yourself safe.

Oh, I just thought of another possibility as far as activities for your kids—swimming. There are a lot of hotels that will allow you and your family to use their pool. Some, like the Clarkton will charge you a pretty stiff fee, but others will welcome you for your food and drink business. I believe the Swagman Hotel still falls into the latter category and it’s a good kids pool because it has a water slide.

And speaking of water, you can never go wrong with just spending a lot of time at one of the hundreds of seaside resorts in the country. I’ve been to Puerto Galera several times and my girls love it. I don’t know of any kid that doesn’t like playing on the beach. Just bring plenty of sun block.

For the most part, my girls stay pretty close to home. We live at the end of a quiet dead-end street and they ride their bikes with their little friends out in front of the house where we keep an eagle eye on them. I also put a little swing set and slide out in our yard, which they and their playmates also frequent.

Then again, if you are ever in the area you are welcome to stop by. We can chat and have libations while the kids play…

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Playing at Nepo Mall

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bicycle Memories, Part 4, from hybrid to mountaineer

Before I could REALLY get into the sport of mountain biking I knew that I would have to modify my inadequate hybrid mountain/road bike adequately for safe use on off-road trails and tracks, at least to the point that I could ride it downhill without crashing. Lord knows I didn't want to do THAT again.

The bloody crashing fall from my previous post was never repeated again, at least none ever as painful or dramatic as that first one. The primary reason I had fallen in the first place was the improper setup of my bike. The arrangement of my seat and handlebars put my body too far forward and my hands way too low on the steering. The thing is, I didn’t know this intuitively; what I needed was an expert to help me figure out how to fix it. My friend, Rich, got me started on the right track, but finding genuine expertise was the next step.

In short order and quite by accident, I managed to find just the guy I was looking for—he was in a new bike shop that I happened to stop in at while looking for some new knobby tires for my bike. He was the manager, a "kid" in his early 30s who had spent most of his life riding bicycles competitively on the BMX circuit. Lucky for me, for the last few years he had taken up mountain biking as a way to stay in shape for BMX. Right off the bat I could tell he knew what he was doing and over the course of the next few paydays he fixed me right up. I had found my bicycle guru.

Based on my new riding mentor’s recommendations I bought several new components to affect a more suitable off-road ride, especially for negotiating my nemeses, those steep rugged descents—as far as I’m concerned the most difficult type of riding there is.

Over the next several months, as I transferred my mindset from street riding to mountain biking, I also strove to transform my “partner in crime,” my heavy red “confused” hybrid. She was more expensive than a new girlfriend. I bought "her" a score of new components, most of them elective, like knobby tires and water bottle brackets; but to get my “baby” where it really needed to be to effortlessly handle those steeply nasty descents I made three crucial component purchases.

First, I got a significantly longer handlebar stem. The longer stem put it higher and allowed me to extend my arms to keep my bodyweight as far away as possible from the front wheel. I've seen downward tracks so precipitous that I had to actually push away from the handlebars. As a street rider for 20 years I never had to worry about such a thing before, but mountain biking is a different animal. Its much more extreme, but then again, its also much more exciting. Draping one’s body over the handlebars is how it’s done on pavement to reduce drag, but try that off-road on a mountain bike and you WILL fall. Just ask me.

Perhaps the most important modification was changing out my seatpost and seat. The new post was cantilevered so that the new seat, also improved, hung an extra inch or two further back. That allowed me to sit back closer towards the center of the rear wheel for better control and stability.

As a matter of technique, on exceptionally steep long downhill runs I would sometimes stop at the top of the hill, release my seat and lower it almost as far as it would go. This gave me an even lower center of gravity, although sitting lower sacrificed peddling leverage--it was like trying to ride a child's bike. But the way I looked at it, descending a crazy-steep hill requires little peddling anyway and when climbing most mountain bikers stand on the pedals anyway.

I include the seat with the seatpost, but technically they are two separate components. Eventually, I swapped out the original seat for a beefier, better-engineered one; because once again, I learned the hard way what happens to a normal seat when an inexpert rider (me!) does not always properly use the knees to absorb the G-forces when “bottoming out.” The worst one I ever screwed up caused my seat to break a weld and very nearly broke my lumbar spine along with it. So, I found it was better to have a seat with heavier springs designed for idiot riders like me.

The third and final vital component needing replacement was the pedal set. One of the reasons I crashed my first time out was the lack of a means to hold my feet to the pedals. All that jouncing over the rocks and ruts shook them right off. There are newer and supposedly superior pedal systems, but I went for the old-fashioned toe clip and strap arrangement. That way, I could ride wearing my running shoes, which I liked to have on just in case I broke the bike and had to hoof it out of the woods for a few miles. It happens.

Truthfully, by the time I got "Hybrid" squared away into a real mountain bike, or almost so, I was totally hooked on the sport. My riding buddy, Rich Fucci, and I could not get enough of it. We lived and breathed trail riding, exploring every patch of woods we could find, both on and around the base. I don’t think there was a road or deer trail within 10 miles that we hadn't tried. We searched for promising trails and unimproved dirt roads until there was no place left to search. Often, when the trails petered out we simply put our helmeted heads down and bushwhacked to prevent from having to double back.

On that subject, bushwhacking can be a lot of fun. Bushwhacking is when a biker rides through the trees, fields and undergrowth without regard to trails or paths. When doing this sort of riding bring along plenty of tools, a patch kit and pump, and oh yeah, extra chain links. Flat tires and broken chains are par for the course, especially once bushwhacking is in your blood. I learned it the hard way.

I should say that most mountain biking lessons ARE learned “the hard way.” It can be a very tough sport. Depending on the difficulty and wildness of the trail, it certainly is not an activity for the faint-of-heart or weak-of-will.

And now that I think of it, I’m reminded of another mountain biking lesson:

A good reason to have a lightweight bike is because there WILL come a time when you’ll have to carry it over your shoulder. Why not just push it along on its wheels you say? Well, sometimes the damage to the bicycle is so bad or the trail so muddy or impassable that the wheels won’t turn. Believe me, it happens.

So, after turning my red hybrid more mountain than street, I felt like I was turning into quite the rider. I knew this because Rich Fucci could no longer beat me. I bought my bike a month after I got back from the war in May or June of ’91. It took two more months to get it “right” by upgrading it.

As I mentioned, by the end of the summer, Rich and I had ridden every nearby (and not so nearby) trail and dirt road at least a dozen times and I was bored with them all. I wanted something more challenging and closer to home. Soon a hazy plan came into my brain housing group. I’ll tell you about it in my next post…

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bicycle Memories Part 3, Mountain Biking the Hard Way

When I transferred into the QA shop in 1989 I got my first glimpse at mountain bikes or rather into mountain biking. I had seen them around of course, but being an inveterate road biker I never understood the appeal of riding bicycles on trails and dirt roads.

My boss, Chief Master Sergeant Lutes, was a "boy into his toys,” things like cameras, crossbows, and mountain bikes. Whenever anything struck his fancy, he REALLY got into it. For instance, one camera wasn’t enough for him. He had untold numbers of them and that included even more lenses. He never went anywhere without at least one camera and two lenses. His trademark was his camera vest. With his penchant for weightlifting he looked like an outsized National Geographic photo guy.

A single hobby was not enough for Gerald Lutes, or even two for that matter. In his typical fanatical style, he soon became every bit as passionate about his mountain bikes as for his cameras. Before long, he had a collection of bikes too, and on weekends would take them all over Northern Arkansas to ride the trails. Naturally, he combined his two passions so that along with his skintight biking shorts he also wore a camera vest bulging with camera stuff.

At first, I just listened to his “ravings” feigning interest. After a while though, he dragged me into it; not into the camera stuff mind you, but inevitably, thanks to his constant badgering, I too became a mountain bike enthusiast. It didn't happen overnight though.

Less than a year after joining the ranks of the group's QA inspectors, I ended up doing 7 months in Southwest Asia, doing my part as a military cog in the war machines of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I returned, things had changed drastically in the quality world. One of the pleasant changes for me was the onset of a much less intense environment. This gave those of us in the QA shop more casual time. I loved it and adjusted to it easily. (Yes, I AM being facetious. "Adjusted" is an understatement!)

One day the chief brought in a couple of his mountain bikes and during a break he demonstrated how he could easily peddle into and out of the alarmingly steep six-foot deep concrete drainage channels out behind our building. He bade me to hop on a bike and try it out. At first I felt foolish when I pushed the gear shift levers forward into “granny gear,” the lowest of the mountain bike gears, because I was peddling like crazy and yet the bike was barely moving.

I changed my mind about it being ridiculous though, when I steered the bike down into the smooth-sided channel and was easily able to peddle right back up the other side of the steeply angled ditch. That was the moment I became hooked and the beginning of my two-year love affair with the sport.

Before long, I figured it was time to splurge on a mountain bike of my own. So, I went to a bike shop, and wouldn't you know, I bought the WRONG dang bike. I should have brought someone along who knew something about them, but I didn't. I ended up purchasing a "hybrid," which has the half-assed characteristics of both mountain bikes and street bikes.

The problem is that my hybrid wasn't so great on off-road trails OR on pavement, but to its credit it WAS able to handle both, just not very well. For one thing it was too heavy, I suppose because I didn't splurge enough--the super lightweight bikes are made of expensive alloys and I just opted not to do it. The other problems were not so obvious, but would soon make themselves known, and painfully so.

The lesson, or one of them, I was to soon learn is: If you want something or someone to do something "special" then go for the "specialist;" but, as the saying goes, "Live and learn;" and Oh boy, did I ever learn!

The very next weekend after my acquisition I went riding on the base perimeter trail with another sergeant from my shop, Rich Fucci, a fellow avionics inspector. He had an honest-to-God mountain bike, or at least more so than my half-assed hybrid. On the rough dirt roads and single-track trails he easily out rode me on it. Trailing him, I felt hugely unskilled and decidedly unhappy.

I didn't get it. I knew I was strong and in better aerobic shape. I could out-run Rich in a foot-race, and on a road surface I had more endurance than he did peddling a street bike; but riding over rocks and rills on these big-tired heavy-duty mountain bikes I was sadly unable to keep up, and that was maddeningly frustrating for a competitive madman like me.

My aggravation soon took a turn for the worse when my foray into the world of mountain biking almost ended just as it was starting. A narrow stream passed through the southeast corner of the base and a 60-foot section of the dirt road fell steeply down to it. Rich stood on his pedals and glided down the dusty rough track, easily avoiding all of the extra-nasty sharp rocks and precarious ruts.

I paused at the top of the daunting drop-off to watch his downhill technique. He made it look relatively effortless and he said as much from where he waited far below, looking up at me by the edge of the creek. After his words of encouragement, I began my descent and hoped for the best.

Ten feet after letting go the brakes I was in bad trouble. I was hopelessly out of control and crashing seemed certain, especially as my speed increased shockingly. Near the bottom was a patch where the rocks became more plentiful and larger. They went from occasional potato-sized stones near the top to stacks of ham-sized small boulders near the bottom.

Too late, I desperately pulled both brakes, but doing so put me into a position over my handlebars that made me feel even more unstable. Changing direction to avoid the worst of the rocks and ruts seemed impossible—I felt I had no control over the steering—the bike and the hill were now in charge.

I held on for dear life knowing that I was way over my head and waited for the inevitable with great foreboding. In a matter of seconds, it happened; it might have been a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, but regardless, I crashed, and it was every bit as bad as I had envisioned.

It might be clichéd to say so, but as the crash unfolded, time slowed to a crawl, and right when I would have preferred that it speed up so that it would all be over with! One of life’s little ironies the way that works.

Clattering in a vibrating rush down the deeply-rutted rocky trail, I managed to make it to within 20 yards of the creek bed when my bike, operating under the anthropomorphic principle of “a mind of its own,” spitefully jammed its front wheel between two large rocks, causing it to abruptly stop. Physics doing what it does, my back wheel was compelled to continue its onward travel, resulting in it flipping up and over its partner to the front.

Just in case you forgot, I still had a roll in this mini-drama, and taking my cue from gravity and momentum, my body, unmindful of any input from my well-intentioned yet paralyzed brain, tumbled over the handlebars in an awkward midair forward roll. If only I were a cat I would have sensed my position in the air and twisted my body to lessen the painful effects of my hard "single point" landing. Alas, what actually happened is that I thudded into and skidded across the rock-strewn ground like a sack of Idaho potatoes--the extra big ones. I heard my body slam into the rocky ground more than felt it.

As the impact dust settled and as both “up” and “down” resumed their normal aspects, the two of us, my bicycle and me, lay stricken on our sides. We made the expected aftermath sounds, with me gasping and groaning while my bike's rear wheel ticked slowly around to a stop.

Rich dropped his bike to the ground and scrambled up to me to find out how bad the damage was. He called out concernedly: “PJ, are you all right? Man, that was ugly!”

I couldn’t answer immediately, my breath was knocked out, not to mention that pain was then flooding into those areas of my body where it had just been cruelly traumatized by its punishing reception with rock and earth. There had been little pain during impact, only a slamming sensation; but as awareness came round so did nerve endings.

My right hand was the worst; two fingers oozed blood; they felt broken or badly sprained, as did my right wrist. The rest of my body was just bruised and bloody, nothing serious. The real damage was to my ego and confidence. At that moment mountain biking didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Between groaning breaths I told Rich exactly that.

Ignoring my remarks, he righted my bike and looked it over declaring, “Your bike looks okay. These things are tough, you know? As long as you didn’t break any bones you should be able to keep riding it.”

With sarcasm stemming from pain and humiliation I answered, “Oh yeah? Ya think?”

He paused, “You know, I believe I know your problem. I didn’t want to say anything before, but now, after what I just saw…”

“Really, what?” I bid him to continue, hoping he had “the answer.”

“You’re out of balance, especially going downhill. The seat is too far forward and too high, plus, your handlebars are not high enough. Once you get all that fixed you’ll feel a lot better trying to ride down these steep trails.”

He was right. After I determined that nothing was broken (too badly) we continued to ride the perimeter trail. At the next downhill track he asked me to ride his bike so I could see what he was talking about.

What a difference! With my body weight lower and further over the back tire, along with the higher handlebars, I felt in total control. I was actually able to steer rather than just being along for the ride.

That week I made a trip to the bike shop and bought everything needed to modify my crappy hybrid into a semblance of a real off-roader, although it was always going to be too heavy. There was nothing to do about its weight except to get a new bike, but after putting over $400 into my “piece of crap” I decided to go with it for a while.

Soon, thanks to Rich Fucci's advice, I became pretty good at that mountain biking stuff. After all, you can hold a "natural" athlete back for only so long before inherent ability comes to the fore. Yeah, right! The real truth is that it just goes to show:

“Sometimes it's not the man, it’s the machine!”

(Next post, if interested, will be on how my mountain biking “hobby” became a near obsession).

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The State Department in Iraq: One More Strike and You're OUT

The last couple of days I’ve been knowingly sniggering and sneering while reading the latest Iraq War news stemming once again from the State Department, its reputation only getting worse with each passing day.

Now, it seems that many in the diplomatic corps of that organization are
howling over having to serve in a dangerous assignment like Iraq. My first thought was, “YOU Pussies!” After a shrug, my second thought was, “Well, it figures!”

That’s strike two. It SHOULD be three strikes and “you’re OUT!”
The Blackwater transgression of a few weeks ago being strike one. It looks like that private security firm was merely acting out the policies set by faint-hearted Department of State officials who would rather assure their own complete safety rather than "risk a few collateral civilian deaths." That assertion appears to be fairly well born out by a recent assessment by the FBI stating that at least 14 Iraqi civilians died unjustifiably at the hands of State’s "private army."

Strike three, when it comes, should result in the ejection of all State Department officials from Iraq and Afghanistan until the military makes it “safe enough” for these lily-livered civilian bureaucrats to safely coordinate and attend their nightly dinner parties (which is all that they really care about anyway).

Sounds like I don’t have much respect for the State Department. If you think so then good guess. My first run-in with State Department workers was watching a bunch of them scurry away from my comrades and me as we approached them on a bus one evening many years ago. It was about 5 pm and my entire class of about 100
MSGs or Marine Security Guards was just pulling up in front of Condoleezza Rice’s current place of business, the State Department building in Washington D.C.; only at the time, the “head honcho” was The Honorable Cyrus Vance under then President Jimmy “peanut farmer” Carter.

Part of our training before being assigned to any of the hundreds of American embassies around the world was to actually inspect offices at least once for possible security violations. Out in the field that is part of the duties of Marine Embassy Guards. There is a technique to it, and after learning the theory in the classroom they sent us into the lair of “the enemy” to get a feel for the real thing. (Actually, we didn't think of them as "the enemy" so much as they did of us!)

It was funny. As our two Marine Corps buses pulled up to the fancy front glass entrance doors we could see State Department workers—diplomats, FSOs and secretaries—do U-turns back into the building. Some of them actually ran back inside when they spotted us 100 young Marines in our
"C" dress blues descending upon them like the avenging angels that we KNEW we were (grin). It’s a huge building and we would only be able to inspect a comparatively few of the offices, but they didn’t want to take the chance of getting busted and finding a career ruining “pink slip notice of violation” on their desk the next day.

Right away, that made me think little of these people. It told me that they probably didn’t have a very high level of security attentiveness if just our presence made them spin on their heels back into their warrens of paper.

After graduation once I got out into the embassy world, my negative opinion of State people did not waver much except to become even more negative. If you know Marines then you know we can tend to arrogance, but no one is more arrogant than Foreign Service Officers. It seems that they start off this way and become more so the longer they “serve.” I never met an FSO that wasn’t egotistical, absolutely convinced of their own importance.

These people have like four primary jobs—to gather intelligence, to take care of consular matters like passports and visas, to represent the USA in a positive manner, and supposedly to take care of Americans who live or pass through their country of obligation. But there is a fifth "job," and they take it the most serious—to live WELL!

What does that mean? Just like it sounds—to party hardy, to acquire “for free” the best furnishings possible for their “free” luxurious apartment or house, and to save up and invest most of their more than adequate salaries.

I have to laugh whenever I hear statements praising Foreign Service officials for their “service” in backwater and dangerous places throughout the world. The fact is that diplomatic duty is the best-kept secret in the US government. It is rare indeed that any of them ever has to truly suffer or “serve,” because that’s not their style. I dare anyone to honestly compare the living and working conditions in Iraq of any of the “lowliest” FSOs to that of the average US military personnel over there. Believe me, there is no comparison.

I can attest to this since I have first hand knowledge. As an embassy guard, operationally assigned to the State Department, I never touched a penny of my military wages. I lived completely off my State Department allowance, and I didn’t draw even half of what the average FSO gets. I was stationed in a supposedly dangerous backwater country, yet we managed to find a party to attend almost every night, if we weren’t throwing one ourselves.

I couldn’t believe how expansive and plush the typical abode was of my fellow State Department workers. Each drew allowances for carpeting, furniture, appliances, even for drapery, yet they didn’t have to spend a dime of it for any of those items since they had access to a State Department warehouse chock full of some of the nicest stuff you could ever want to outfit your home with. I don’t know if they still have this scam going, but a scam is what it was.

What really sealed the deal on how I felt about these oblivious prima donnas was an encounter I had with a young FSO one weekend afternoon. I was standing duty at Post 1 right at the front entrance of the embassy. The bearded young FSO was there to learn the very basics of my job as a Marine watch stander.

I doubt if it’s done anymore, but back then none of the Marines had to stand watch in the embassy during the annual Marine Corps Ball every November 10th, which believe it or not was the embassy’s most important social function of the year. FSOs voluntarily stood watch for one-hour increments, allowing all of us Marines to attend our Birthday Ball.

During my briefing to the young pup, although he was probably a year or two older than me, I explained to him some of the complaints we Marines had with the security setup. It was totally inadequate and obviously so to us. The window to our front was mere Plexiglas, cars could drive up within yards of the front door, and a side door to our left was secured with a chintzy cypher lock that could be easily breeched. I told this guy that if someone wanted to take out the lone Marine on duty then it could be done with only a couple guys with minimum weaponry in all of about 2 minutes. Then I told him exactly what I would do to correct the situation. He shook his head and said something that I think is typical of the thinking of many of the liberal-minded folk working in the State Department.

“Your job is to die,” he declared nonchalantly.

He explained. “The United States has an image to project and turning our embassies into fortresses is not the image that we want the world to see.”

I heartily objected, "Sir! My job is to stay alive so that I can protect Americans, including YOU, in this building. How the hell can I do that if I'm killed in the first five minutes of an attack!" But in his righteous conceit he was not to be dissuaded.

See what I mean? Arrogance! This was just a year or so before the
Iranians took our embassy in Tehran and not too long before Pakistanis almost did the same thing in Islamabad, and in doing so shot and killed a Marine Guard as he stood watch on the roof.

I learned something else from talking to and being around various FSOs; many of them have swallowed a form of anti-Western liberalism and have done so hook-line-and-seeker, probably to the toon of at least half of them to one extent or another. Evidently, left-leaning professors teach a lot of political science in our universities, so it only makes sense that a lot of their students who eventually become FSOs would be thusly "tainted." Therefore, it really doesn’t matter who is Secretary of State, these bureaucrats with their “peculiar way” of looking at the world stay on forever and they know it.

Here's what I know about these folks: they are great at pie in the sky theoreticals, but when it comes to the cold hard reality that IS the real world that's when they fall flat. It's why so many of them can't stomach REAL service in Iraq; as long as they can BS each other during their nightly soirees during one of their normal cushy non-threatening assignments then all is right with THEIR world. They don't do so well though when they get into a place where all the diplomacy in the world won't make people stop wanting to kill them.

So naturally, with the news hitting the wire about these “dissatisfied diplomats,” my dislike for them, for their prima donna arrogance, for their luxurious style of so-called “service,” and THEIR willingness to put others in harm's way even as they protect their own pampered asses from danger, all of those thoughts came roaring back to me while reading about their little “uprising,” their ridiculous treasonous tempertantrum against their boss, Secretary Rice.

How dare she! How dare she ask them to ACTUALLY serve where we really NEED them, and in a place where they might be hurt or killed. Imagine that? Finally, some overpaid American diplomats actually earning some of those inflated allowances and “hardship” pay!

I say fire the whole bunch. Who needs these wimps? Ship the whole timid lot back to the safety of the States, or to some cushy consulate in Europe or Asia. Give General Petraeus the whole kit and caboodle. Hell, bring me out of retirement. I volunteer General, to replace one or two of them Sir. Anyway, with me, at least you couldn't do any worse.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Coloring For Free

Like most kids their age, my girls constantly seek to be creative. They love to draw, color and paint. They go through coloring books like candy. Boxes of crayons and marker pens last only a couple weeks before its time to resupply.

Their creativity as of late has expanded into the pc world. It seems that now they can’t get enough of their online computer games. Even now they are begging me to hurry up so they can go online to their favorite kids sites. I’m always on the lookout for new learning games and puzzles so we can combine "getting a little education" with their artistic endeavors.

On several of these free kids sites you can print out coloring pages, but soon we had exhausted even those freebies. Then it occurred to me, why not make our own coloring pages?

I was playing around with Paint Shop Pro when I had my "coloring epiphany" while experimenting with the “Flood Fill” function. This feature is represented by an icon that looks like a spilling paint bucket. It works very much like that as well.

First toggle the color palette into view on the right side of the screen and select the color you want to fill into the photo.

The moment I had “my bright idea” is when I chose to start filling the photo in with white.

As soon as I saw how a few clicks of white “fill” vacated big blocks and swathes of the photo and yet still left outlines of what was there THAT’S when I knew I had come upon a way to make as many pages for coloring that my girls could ever want.
I started out with this photo of my youngest girl. I asked her if she wanted me to help her color herself and she was all for it.
Oops. A problem--the white fill bled into the face area.

The solution: Using the "paint brush" feature and dialing the tip to a proper shape and size I outlined the face to keep white from bleeding into it.
It works. I began to fill in the rest of the photo with white to turn it into a coloring book page.
I ended up having to outline other areas as well when the white fill would completely obscure their original shape. In the above case I had to outline the arm.
Let the coloring begin!
Here's another we did together. We took a picture of me standing in front of a tank at the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Hood, Texas.
From that to....
Notice how we left the faces untouched, although we did moderate the tone of my youngest's face to give our work of art a kind of toned down "colored" look. If you've got kids give it a try. Mine love coloring themselves and their daddy too. I admit, I helped 'em color. Couldn't resist it... xx

Monday, November 12, 2007

Grandpa Ray

Ray Spear was my grandfather, my dad’s dad. We are mostly sure that he was born on June 23, 1897, exactly 60 years to the day before I was born.

In 1971, he died much too young at the age of 74 of a heart condition that these days would probably have merely slowed him down for a while. Had he been born just ten years later he might easily have lived into his 80s. After all, his own dad died in 1937 at the age of 87.

Ray Spear was 20 in 1917 when the United States began canvassing the country for recruits to go and fight “the Hun” in France. The story goes that he was rated 4F due to flat feet and rejected for military service. Perhaps it was fate; otherwise the family tree branch from which I was derived might well have ended before it even had a chance to sprout.

His full name was Ray, not Raymond, and he was always known as the mechanically gifted one. He was the second oldest of his six brothers and one sister. Oddly enough, five of them had three letter first names—Glen, Ray, Irl, Leo, Dor, Bud, Florence, and Seth. Being the youngest, Seth’s nickname was Bab, pronounced “Babe,” and also spelled with just three letters, I suppose to carry on the three-letter tradition.

My dad, Eugene, explained what it was like to live on a family farm in the middle of “The Thumb” of Michigan a hundred years ago:

“Let's see...Glen; my dad, Ray;...Irl; Leo; Dor; Florence; Bud...and...Seth. So they had 8 kids. That's what all the farmers did back then: they had big farms, so they needed plenty of kids to work the farm, clear stumps and such. My dad remembered his dad making him get up every Saturday morning to dig out big old stumps so they could clear out another 4 or 5 acres to plant the following year…"

Their father, George, born in 1850, married Hettie Green, their mother, who was born in 1869. Old men marrying much younger women was common back then, which is why the last Civil War bride might still be alive today, or only just recently died.

Being extraordinarily resourceful, whenever the family farm required a new wagon or if any of the other myriad contraptions on the farmstead needed repair, my grandfather was the one the family depended on to either fix it, make it, or to invent it.

After several of his business ventures failed in automobile brake repair—sometimes because advances in technology passed him by, or simply due to the punishing role of the Great Depression and once due to a fire that destroyed his garage—Grandpa Ray at last found his life’s work with the Michigan Highway Department in vehicle maintenance. He stayed more than 30 years with “Roads and Highways” from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid 1960’s.

By the time I knew him he was an old man, but pictures exist of my grandfather back in his “hey day” in the “Roaring 20s” when from the seat of his motorcycle he courted my grandmother, Elizabeth Metzger of Marlette. Back then, with paved roads being the exception and dust and mud being the rule, riding a motorbike took a tough and adventurous sort. In the old photo from the 20’s, he is quite the snappy dresser; the way he is attired reminds me of The Great Gatsby.

Right up until the time of his myocardial infarction Ray was strong and productive. In fact, at the very moment that he was struck down he was right in the middle of building a good sized two-story combination shed and workshop for his cottage on the lake (see below).

I remember exploring the large garage that he had also built out behind his house. It was a musty brick structure that—although forlorn and dingy looking—still exists today on Gratiot Road. Over the decades he continued to expand it with more rooms and additions. I was in awe of the hundreds of tools and mysterious devices that he had either built or was tinkering with that I found throughout the expansive building.

It seems he always had a new undertaking in work that either involved welding, mechanics, carpentry, masonry or all four. Ray came from the generation directly after the Wright Brothers when self-schooled men developed their own engineering skills, sometimes, as with the Wrights, “on the fly.” They were amazing people from whom the term “American ingenuity” originated, and Ray Spear was right there amongst them.

Not long after his retirement, he bought property overlooking a lake west of Saginaw in Central Lower Michigan near the town of Edmore. My dad described that particular project to me a few years back:

“You know—that was fabulous what he did there. It’s not like he went down to the lumberyard and just bought what he needed. He went downtown in Saginaw and bought an old house that was going to have to be destroyed and removed. He hired a couple of teenage boys for a few bucks per hour and with hammers and wrecking bars they tore the house apart, board by board. He and those kids worked hour after hour removing the nails. The house was so old—2x4s today are actually 1 3/4 by 3 ½, because they’re planed, but these were the full-sized original 2x4s. It was old-fashioned rough-hewn lumber. So he planed all that on a planer that he built from scratch. He put the blades and motor, everything, into it. He’d just take a board, run it through, and it came out planed to the dimensions of a modern day "2 x 4." And then he took a big carbide saw and used it to slice raw rock to make the fireplace facing and mantle from from different types of large stones he’d found on his property. Now that’s REALLY building from scratch.”

An 8 mm home movie exists of my brother and sisters and I walking with Grandpa Spear down to the small wooden dock on the lake below his cottage. Being the oldest, I wasn’t quite 10 years old at the time. He was already 70 and yet he’s easily carrying in one hand an outboard motor and a full can of gas in the other. Its only now that I’m starting to feel old and achy that I realize how amazingly robust and vital he still was.

In fact, his strength and reflexes might well have spared me a broken neck during that same trip out to his cottage. I wasn’t paying attention when I entered through the back door and suddenly I was falling. I had stepped through a trapdoor going down into a small utility room. My grandpa was standing at the bottom of the ladder and easily caught me before I could land and break something. Thinking back, now I remember Grandma giving him holy heck for not closing the trapdoor and “almost killing me.” I think he knew she was right and he just let her fret about it for a very long time. He stayed silent, but I could tell he felt very bad about it. Usually when she fussed at him like that for more than a few minutes he would just tell her quietly and sternly, “Hush woman.”

My grandparents became Baptists in the 50s. Grandma Spear’s forte was cooking and once her tantalizing fare was spread out in front of us on the table, Grandpa would intone a pre-meal grace of thanks. Being raised Catholic and used to the venerable and wonderfully brief “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty; through Christ our Lord. Amen;” I was always intrigued when my grandpa would go into his extemporaneous Baptist style of prayer. Whereas our Catholic grace was said and done in less than 5 seconds, Grandpa Spear’s prayers could go on for a seemingly interminable 45 seconds and more.

Thinking back on Grandpa Ray’s personality, he tended toward strong and tranquil, his speech always slow and measured. I don’t remember him being a chatterbox or allowing anger or emotion to get the best of him. I think if he’d served in the military that he would have easily advanced through the sergeant ranks. People who knew him respected him. He was a natural leader. Even today, 36 years after his passing, people still speak well of him.

In fact, his reputation was so solid that it might be the reason my mom married my father. When Grandpa Haley heard that his daughter was going on a date with a young man from Shields, he was NOT happy. “Shields boys” were known for being rowdy and quick with their fists. But once Grandpa learned that my father was Ray Spear’s boy, now THAT changed everything; and it was probably a good thing too, since my father admits he really WAS a typical rowdy Shields boy! Well, my mom tamed him of all that and the rest is family history.

Whenever I visit my parents’ Michigan home I enjoy relaxing out on their little back porch. It’s a great place to have coffee and watch the birds flit about among the flowers and bushes. Inevitably, my eyes stray from that natural splendor to the simple exquisiteness of a modest plant stand made long ago by the hands of a kid—that kid being my Grandpa Ray. Seeing that crude yet sturdy ancient stand pulls my thoughts 50 miles east to what used to be the Spear family farmhouse and to the room in that house that no longer exists, except in my mind, where that three-legged little stand sat for close to 70 years.

The Spear farmhouse was located five miles east of Kingston. By the time I remember it, it was a creaky moldering relic of its once vibrant self. By the 60’s only two of the original “boys” still lived there, and soon it was only one. Glen and Leo were very old, although not as old as the house, and didn’t have the know-how or the time to keep that ancient edifice from falling ever deeper into ruin.

One of the wonderful aspects of that hundred-year-old dwelling was the formal parlor. My dad said during its prime it was filled with his Grandma’s plants and flowers. Basically a sunroom, its large bay window faced south and east overlooking Route 46.

The parlor was the place Grandpa George sat in his rocker for the last 20 or so of his 87 years. From that room he could watch out the big window at Hettie as she worked in her famous garden (folks from miles around would stop in to see it) and he'd see what was coming and going out on the road. Occasionally he would call his boys and have them prune back a tree branch or two when they blocked his view of the outside world.

My dad, just 9 at the time, told me of the last days he saw his Grandpa George. After he died, the old fellow lay there in that sunny parlor in his coffin for three days before finally being laid to rest in the nearby Marlette Cemetery. My father clearly remembers his grandfather sporting his full white beard and wearing his very best dark suit. Hettie pulled a cot into the parlor and slept there every night next to her deceased husband.

Near my great grandfather’s coffin, as he lay in state there in the parlor, was the plant stand. By 1937 it was already about 30 years old, having been constructed around 1910 by my Grandpa Ray. The fact that he built it nearly 100 years ago causes me to marvel every time I see it.

For most of its existence as furniture the plant stand was indoors. When Uncle Leo, “the last brother,” died in 1979, my father acquired the stand at auction from the old farmhouse. Even though he’s lacquered it every spring since he got it, I’m afraid its outside life these past 30 years has taken its toll.

When I first saw it and had a chance to pick it up I was surprised at its heft—it’s basically just a tall three-legged stool, but it is heavy. My grandfather used green cherry wood branches and slender nails to put it together. I don’t know if he pre-drilled the holes before nailing the pieces together, but I assume he must have since none of the wood has split at the nails. He didn’t remove the bark, which to me always made the piece seem that much more charmingly roughhewn. Remarkably, its only now after being left outdoors these past few decades that the bark is beginning to come loose.

Also remarkable is its steadiness. It sits perfectly level, and the very nature of having just three legs instead of four makes it very stable. Try building anything with four supports and you’ll see how hard it is to get it to sit firm without rocking. A few years back my dad added a topmost platform, but as far as I know, apart from the yearly coats of lacquer, that’s all that’s been done to it.

The fact that the old plant stand was made by my long gone grandfather and all those years ago before he was even a man, makes it all the more special and precious to me. Way back then—almost a century ago—I wonder as he constructed it if he had any inkling that it would still be around in a hundred years, still doing its simple job and even more significantly, reminding his descendants that he existed.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe Plant Stand

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mukasey's "tap-dance" on Waterboarding

I just read something thought provoking--even slightly entertaining--in the Yahoo opinion section. It was by Katrina vanden Heuvel. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything by her before, but she’s typical of the modern day haters-of-all-things-Bush.

Katrina’s column is called “Waterboarding Justice,” an almost clever play on words referring to the president’s nominee for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey. She’s not happy with Mukasey’s “tap dance,” as she calls it, around the possible legalities and illegalities of waterboarding as he interviews for the job with the various senators, all the democratic ones much intent on tripping him up.

She wants the probable future AG to come out against this relatively mild, yet extremely uncomfortable (and effective) method of interrogation. As she says, “it simulates the feeling of drowning.” If you’ve ever had water pour into your nose and mouth then you know the panic you’d feel while going through it. The mind shuts off and craves air. No one has ever died from it nor has anyone been seriously hurt. The "beauty" of it is that everyone who has gone through it has broken--no exceptions.

Even so, the CIA reports that it has only used this form of “torture,” as Ms Heuvel needs to call it, just three times in the past four years. I could add the caveat “that we know of,” but to what end? As far as I’m concerned our people should be allowed to use it as often as necessary to continue to keep the world safe from the human beasts that wish to destroy it. Read of life in Afghanistan during the Taliban to find out how they would rebuild it.

Mukasey's answers to the question of waterboarding was indeed a tap-dance, but a necessary one if he wants to be confirmed by certain key legislators. He knows good and well that keeping our war-fighting options open is what is going to continue to keep us free from more attacks. Has anyone noticed that since 9-11 we haven’t had any more terror attacks on US soil? That was due to some luck, but mostly the credit goes to this administration and its lean forward posture of preemption.

It seems that people like vanden Heuvel prefers to look at the CIA and The Justice Department as rogue organizations keen only on freewheeling torture and gratuitous spying on its citizens, all in the name of keeping us safe—banish the thought! I think Katrina has seen too many movies like Syriana and the Bourne series, all of which is mostly unadulterated anti-CIA crapola.

Mr. Mukasey understands all too well that every case requires a different level of understanding before allowing or disallowing the use of waterboarding. We waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, the brains behind 9-11, as soon as we could get our hands on him. To wait even a day to do it might have caused actionable intelligence to evaporate with time. Yet unbelievably, people like Ms. Heuvel, and even John McCain, would NOT have allowed it. Americans who understand the threat have no problems with what our people did to this guy to squeeze him. The word is that he broke in 2 and ½ minutes and what we got from him was very actionable indeed. Your comments Ms. Heuvel?

A lot of very nice people will sputter and moan over "losing our souls" as we go about using “horrible” methods of interrogation. I agree with them for the most part. We shouldn’t use it wholesale—but the thing is, we aren’t.

Here’s how I would analogize the decision-making behind when we should waterboard. On 9-11, four airplanes flew above our nation taken over by terrorists looking to kill as many of us as possible. Yet, also onboard those planes were several hundred innocent passengers, all of whom had Constitutional rights. The president had a decision to make—does he impinge on the rights of those captured citizens by killing them when ordering their planes shot down; or, does he hope for the best and continue to honor their right to live, and by doing so, possibly condemn to death thousands more? This kind of situation is exactly what Mr. Mukasey is referring to as he “tap-dances” around the senators' questions. But to Ms Heuvel everything is black and white, Bush is evil, waterboarding is wrong and always wrong, regardless of the circumstances.

I do admire Katrina’s desire that we not “damage our values” in the name of our security, and I share her concerns that we not harm relations internationally, and above all, her concern for the safety of our captured soldiers is commendable.

The fact that we are even discussing the ethics of waterboarding already speaks of our high values, and that we’ve only used it on occasion says even more. Internationally, other nations use far more physically and mentally damaging methods of extracting information, only they don’t speak of such things publicly. To do so destroys the effectiveness of the methods. The fact that we quibble over it causes them to snigger at us behind their hands. Other nations, including those in Europe claim all day long that they don’t condone torture, but they use it when they deem necessary, just as we should, when necessary.

As far as the safety of our captured soldiers, our people already know that to be captured by Al Qaeda means hideous torture and an eventual brutal death, for that’s been the way of it. If we could only talk Al Qaeda into waterboarding our people instead of cutting off their fingers, toes, feet, hands and finally, their heads; now THAT would be a great accomplishment! Now, if only someone could talk Katrina vanden Heuvel into writing THAT article. How about it Ms. Heuvel?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Blackwater, State Department's Blackmark

R. J. Hillhouse of the Christian Science Monitor just wrote a piece called “Don’t blame Blackwater.” If you haven’t been following the news closely from Iraq then you might not have heard of the security contractor called “Blackwater” employed by the U.S. State Department to keep their people “safe” as they go about their duties in Iraq.

Back in September, Blackwater personnel shot up a Baghdad street when they determined the State Department motorcade they were guarding was "under fire from several locations." What has the Iraqi government upset is that 17 civilians, including a policeman, died in the “crossfire” resulting from that shoot ‘em up.

(As it turns out, the dead Iraqi policeman fired on the convoy when he perceived that the Blackwater security people were killing bystanders around him. I probably would have fired at them too if I were him.)

The incident smells an awful lot like Haditha to me. I just posted the other day a follow-up on the Haditha incident of nearly two years ago where a Marine patrol similarly claimed that as they lawfully defended themselves going after attacking insurgents that a multitude of civilians died collaterally. Some 15 non-combatants, including women and children, perished in that mêlée.

Hillhouse is of the opinion that the reason Blackwater used the apparent aggressive firepower that it did on that crowded Baghdad square is because “State” has developed a culture of zero acceptance for American Foreign Service casualties. I’m sure Blackwater is even doubly on guard to prevent capture.

So, The State Department’s security policy has been to protect -- at all costs -- all of their diplomats and Foreign Service Officers serving in Iraq, EVEN if it means Iraqi civilians have to die at the heavyhanded tactics of the mercenary security forces doing the "protecting." Blackwater evidently took this guiding principle to heart, and when their convoy became stalled in Baghdad traffic and they felt threatened, they basically reacted full force with stun grenades and massive assault weapons fire laid down almost like a final protective fire on anyone within range outside of their perimeter.

Security "professionals" don’t “spray rounds,” not unless they perceive themselves under some kind of overwhelming attack, and "professionals" don't panic. Of course all this leads to the obvious question: Exactly HOW "professional" ARE these Blackwater security people anyway?

Blackwater’s chief and founder, Erik Prince, claims that his people in Iraq ONLY do what they do under the direct supervision of the State Department’s security heads. Prince says that if State wants an aggressive style of security then that’s what Blackwater gives them. If he’s right, then the State Department is trying to blame the security firm for simply following orders.

From my own experiences with the State Department, both as an American citizen “customer” at several embassies in the world, as well as having worked for them operationally as a U.S. Embassy Marine Security Guard, I can comfortably say that by and large our diplomats and FSOs are arrogant, insensitive and many are even a bit dimwitted, and that’s putting it nicely.

In other words, knowing the mindset of our embassy and State Department people, I’m giving Blackwater a partial benefit-of-the-doubt on this one, although I’m having a hard time believing that these supposed “security professionals” can truly justify the massacre of those 17 innocent Iraqis.

The fact that the State Department let go without charge all these Blackwater “hired guns” tells me that these contract trigger-pullers were probably following policy and State doesn’t want that to come out in an investigation and trial.

As I said in my last entry, we can’t win this counter insurgency by wiping out everyone in sight whenever our people come under attack. The fact that many of Iraq’s tribal leaders are coming over to our side has more to do with their perception that U.S. military is the lesser of two evils, the other “worse evil” being the even more brutal members of Al Qaeda.

I think of it this way: If I were an Iraqi and had lost a family member in that Blackwater assault, or at Haditha, I would probably join the insurgents myself, just for the opportunity to kill an American. Revenge might not be all that sweet, but it’ll do until something better comes along.

General Petraeus understands this simple human visceral reaction for personal justice and has dictated that our people no longer destroy entire buildings full of non-combatants in order to kill insurgents hidden among them. Evidently however, the State Department doesn’t believe that any of the general's new COIN tactics applies to them, even though this approach is now helping to turn this war around.