Thursday, February 28, 2008

African Embassy Moments, Ambassador Carter

Seeing the president on his whirlwind trip through sub-Saharan Africa last week brought back a series of poignant memories to me—some darkly humorous, others sad and tragic. Follows is the first of at least two of them.

Early in 1978, I was having a splendid tour as a marine em
bassy guard assigned to our consulate in Monrovia, Liberia. Just 20 years old, life was good; the job easy, the partying and socializing profuse.

I’ll never forget our ambassador at the time. He was one of the biggest black men I’ve ever met. It’s easy for me to remember his name, since he had the same surname as the American president in power back then, Jimmy Carter.

Ambassador Carter must have been nearly 7 feet tall; well, anyway, he was well past 6 feet, probably 6 feet 9 if he was an inch. His height was imposing enough, but just as you’d expect from an ambassador, he was one dignified dude. To complete the ideal image of thoughtful diplomat, his forehead was broad and soaring, his hairline well receded to reveal an expansive intelligent noggin, and if I remember right, he had a Lincolnesque jaw line that made him seem broodingly thoughtful. A deep baritone voice matched his substantial physicality. His very size forced him to move slowly, and gave the impression that his every movement was well thought out before being made.

The marine at guard Post 1 wore, and probably still wears, the white wheel hat, khaki short sleeved shirt and blue trousers with the red blood stripe down the sides. Back then, we sat behind a Plexiglas window in the front lobby. Supposedly, we were the first line of defense against intruders or any other malefactor intent on doing no good inside the consulate. To this end we wore a holstered 38 caliber revolver on our right hip and a riot baton on the left. If we needed to escalate, there was an Uzi in an unlocked safe under the counter as well as a shot gun with assorted ammo available on top of the safe.

As soon as any of us marines at Post 1 spotted the ambassador walking past the big ceiling-to-floor picture windows on his way to the lobby entrance we’d spring to our feet to the position of attention. Funny thing is, he was so darned big that it seemed he sailed more than walked, exactly like a majestic tall-masted wooden sailing ship moving across the horizon; or perhaps a better image is a man floating by on stilts. He seemed that tall, like he was half man, half giraffe.

We came to attention at Post 1 only for a select few embassy people, maybe 3 or 4 in all, including the ambassador’s second in command, the Charge d' Affairs. The good thing is that they were both lofty fellows, so they couldn’t easily sneak up on us. Not that they would try, but sometimes after a hard night of “this or that;” well, all of us watchstanders were young and liked our off duty fun.

Speaking of which, I remember one “fun” event when the second biggest black man I’ve ever seen made one of the loudest fusses I’ve ever heard one man make. This very black fellow was an angularly towering Liberian, and to say the least, he was angry, and frighteningly so. He must have desperately wanted to go the US, because he sure was pissed off when the consular officer denied his application to do so.

I didn’t know any of this, but I was soon to find out when suddenly, from the consular office door directly behind me, I heard a man literally screaming death threats at the top of his lungs. Immediately, a jolt of adrenaline coursed through me as my world instantaneously went from dully routine to a matter of life and death. They told us it would be like that, 90% tedium and 10% terrifying.

“I’m gonna kill YOU! And I’m gonna kill YOU!... And YOU! And YOU! And YOU!”

Hurriedly standing, I pulled my baton, and stuck my head around the corner to see what all the commotion was about. My vantage from there was directly behind the consular officer’s counter. With his back to me I could see the consular standing away from the counter and gesturing with both arms up in a placating manner as the angry enormous African pointed at virtually every person in the room saying repeatedly, “….and I’m gonna kill YOU!”

He spotted me and started pointing at me too, but chuckling nervously, I muttered out loud, mostly to myself, “Oh NO you don't!” and ducked back behind the door. I glanced over at our receptionist, a large sweet tempered Liberian woman, and had to laugh at the horrified frightened look on her face. Seeking to calm her, I said smiling, “He almost GOT me there Masa!”

About then, much to my great relief, I saw my NCOIC, or noncommissioned officer in charge, approach the consular section from his office just down the hall holding a mace dispenser behind his back. He motioned to me to keep my cool and to stay at my post. I told Masa, who sat right next to me at Post 1, to call for our Liberian security guards in case the guy got around to actual violence.

In the meantime, my top sergeant took a position just outside the consular office and began to courteously inform the screaming man that it was time for him to leave. All that did was to induce a loud “I’ll kill you TOO!” from the mad man. So much for kind and gentle persausion.

About then my heart sank as the ambassador strolled in through the front entrance. Upon entering the lobby, of course he heard the commotion, and to his credit he fearlessly made a beeline right for all the noise. My job at that point was to make sure the giant malcontent did no harm to my giant ambassador.

I spoke up, “Sir, we have a situation here. I suggest you let us handle it.”

“It’s all right Sgt Spear. I’ll be careful. Let’s see if we can’t calm things down a bit,” he said in that deeply resonant voice of his.

As he passed, Ambassador Carter calmly nodded his head at me and gestured for my own calmness by putting both hands palms down, moving them up and down twice to give me a “slow down, keep it cool marine” signal.

“What seems to be the problem here?” he said with masterful disarming diplomacy. I watched the ambassador engage the angry fellow in a calm respectful manner and almost immediately the screaming threats stopped as the two of them settled into an earnest discussion.

My NCOIC, a skinny master sergeant with a prominent Adam's apple who weighed all of 130 pounds, if that, took a new position directly behind the now seemingly gentled giant. He now held the mace in front of him, his finger on the trigger. With a nod to me he mouthed the words, “Get ready.”

Not wanting to cause him to reerupt, I averted my eyes from the big man, but nonchalantly sidled several paces closer. I tried not to seem ready to pounce, even though my entire body was tremblingly locked and loaded to do so. Instinctively, I knew that if he saw me looking at him he would probably be able to read my mind, and he wouldn’t like what my thought cloud was saying, which was basically, “Damn, that guy is big! If he makes one move on the ambassador, I’m going to ram this stick as far as I can into his solar plexus as hard as I can. Then, I’m going to break both his clavicles, and then…

But incredibly, within a moment or two, Ambassador Carter and the angry man were strolling out the front entrance together like old friends. The ambassador had one arm around the man’s shoulders while quietly chatting with him and leading him out to the front sidewalk, my top sergeant never more than a few protective steps behind. I thought for sure Carter must know the guy, but he told me later that he had never seen him before that day.

When the ambassador came back inside as if nothing had happened, I snapped him the tightest, most respectful salute that I’ve ever rendered anyone. After buzzing him upstairs with the secret button under my desk I poked my head back into the consular’s office to see if he was okay. He just shook his head on hunched shoulders and grinned at me over his clipped moustache while vigorously cleaning the spittle off his glasses with a Kleenex. I don’t think the guy actually spat on him purposely, but his furious screams had caused spit to fly everywhere nonetheless.

A few years later, after I had joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan, I ran into an old buddy that I knew from the embassy in Monrovia. He had transferred to the American embassy in Tokyo. Sadly, he informed me that not long after returning from his ambassadorship in Liberia that Ambassador Carter had either slipped or had suffered a heart attack while in the shower. I was sorry to hear that he had cracked his head open and died before help could arrive.

He was a good guy.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"For the first time... I am proud of my country..."

“For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country …”

Obama’s running “mate,” his wannabe first lady, Michelle, uttered those revealing words the other day at a campaigning gig for her hubby. She was speaking from a written speech; praising the stirring affect her husband has had on his adoring electorate in his quest to be the “change” president.

At first glance, a listener might think she misspoke, that she simply uttered, or read, a throw away line that just came out wrong. Some might think, ‘How could she possibly be serious?’ I mean surely, over the past 15 or 20 years, there must be something she’s found to be proud of concerning her country?

Conversely, the implication is that she doesn’t think much of it, except for now of course, since as she goes on to say in her speechifying that the USA has become worthwhile only NOW that so many of us have decided to follow her wonderful guy over the dreamy Obama cliff.

I can assure you, the sentiment behind the words is exactly as she said them. She’s given the same speech before and didn’t change a thing the second time around, so she said what she meant. She’s trying to hopscotch around it now only because so many finally noticed the actual words.

The average citizen might not understand the apparent bitterness and disgust behind those words, but I “got it” right off the bat. As soon as I saw and heard the sound bite I nodded knowingly thinking, “Aha! I know you!” I recognized her attitude immediately. I know who she is and where she comes from. I’ve met her ideological brothers and sisters before; they are hard corps and they are legion.

Michelle’s words weren’t the result of an honest slip of the tongue or a typo. Believe me; its spot on that the only thing she truly finds redeeming about this country is that her silver tongued hubby is actually being taken seriously by a huge contingent of Americans. (For the life of me I have no idea why so many people feel this way, but then I couldn’t and can’t figure out why so many voted for Slick Willy; but that’s for another post).

You see, the Obama’s are unabashedly liberal. In fact, he’s probably THE most liberal legislator in the senate. It’s no secret that Americans who choose to be on “the left,” especially those who have attended and are products of our universities, have developed a huge distaste for their own country.

For these folks, nothing we’ve ever done as a nation is legitimate. In fact, to them, starting from day one, we are anything but legit. I’ve had conversations with these types and their drumbeat is we are “bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad… and anyone who believes otherwise is stupidly dim-witted or “uneducated.”

When I’ve debated these “lefties” it hasn’t mattered what I might bring up that we as a nation have accomplished, they pick it apart, trivialize it and in a loud snooty voice declare it foul. They look at the broad picture of our history and find it nothing but wicked. It’s truly amazing. I call it the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” syndrome.

Bring up the loftiness of Washington and Jefferson and they hold their noses and shout slavery. Point out the hundreds of thousands of valiant Americans maimed and killed for freedom, including the white men who died ending slavery, and still they cry out that war is not the answer and describe those who gave “the last full measure” as misguided racist pawns. Point out our scientific and technological advances and breakthroughs and they scream global warming while venting their spleen on the evils of globalization. It goes on and on. When it comes to the United States their views are forever jaundiced.

The framework of this self-hatred is learned from professors at first and later reinforced from each other at cocktail parties and in their blogs. I went to a Superbowl party at a psychologist friend’s house back in New Jersey. He taught at a state college there not far from Atlantic City. I’d met him during a rainstorm on a mountain top in the Philippines back in the mid-80s. We ran into each other 15 years later during my last Air Force assignment at Fort Dix. I think as a psychologist he liked to invite a “mix” of people to his parties to make conversation more “interesting.” I’m sure he “observed” the resulting interactions, or in some cases, “conflagrations.” I guess I was the token traditionalist military attendee, and without even trying, I played my “role” to a T.

My sense is that most of the others at the party were liberal academics, but when they found out who I was, most of them clammed up or shied away from talking of “sensitive” topics, which was fine with me; all except for one bigmouth.

He was a typical know-it-all and I picked up immediately that he didn’t like the idea that someone “like me” would dare question his “brilliant” analysis and commentary. Being a bit of a know-it-all myself, as well as being willing to challenge and mix it up with anyone, no matter how many degrees they have, I girded for battle, closed with the blow hard and fought it out. My psychologist host buddy just watched and grinned throughout.

I couched my repartee in my knowledge of history and from the perspective of my travels. Not being able to persuade or convince me is not what upset him so much; what truly burned his ass was my debate style, which was to ask pointed questions. Continually, I quizzed his knowledge of subjects on which he so snidely spoke of so “expertly.” The trick was never asking a question that I didn’t already know the answer to.

The problem is that his poor answers obviously showed him lacking. At almost every turn I embarrassed him; and worse for him, right in front of his friends. I’m sorry to say that I loved every moment of it. Funny thing is—his colleagues seemed to love it too. I rarely had to make a point. All I did was ask a series of questions that he could not well answer; and when he did respond faultily, I’d point it out. By the end of the two matches—the football game and our own verbal contest of ideology—that was one pissed off professor.

He got under my skin only once. It was when I first mentioned my 5 years in the Marines. His response was almost violent. This guy hated the US Marine Corps’ guts. His first comment was almost choked out. He wanted to see the marines disbanded since he claimed that they were overrated and obsolete. “Not only that. Look at the Iwo Jima picture. It was nothing but a sham. They staged the whole damned thing!” he declared at the top of his voice.

I didn’t quite explode on him, but I jumped on him with both figurative feet. “Staged! You realize that two of the marines in that Mount Suribachi photo died before the week was out? And also, keep in mind that thousands of photos were taken on Iwo Jima over a month’s time in February of 1945 by reporters and combat photographers. You really think in the heat of a month long pitched bloody battle that someone conspired to dupe Americans with a photograph? The picture was nothing but a snapshot, no more, no less.”

I went on to explain that all marines are schooled in the story of that photo, that a small flag was replaced by the bigger flag; that that’s all there was to it—there was no staged photo. It didn’t matter what I said to the guy. He was blindly confident in his vitriol.

When I first came across this sort of liberal mindset in my teen years I was totally bewildered by the deep down disgust that fills these people. Some of them, perhaps like Michelle Obama, really have to control themselves to keep their deep feelings under control—and at times, hidden. But then, thinking back, it begins to make sense why and how they got this way. I remember when I too almost fell under the sway of America-bashing.

In junior high school I read a series of books deemed essential reading by several of my teachers. To name a few, they were paperbacks like “The Jungle,” “Black Like Me,” “Slaughter House Five,” and “I Buried my Heart at Wounded Knee.” Each time I finished another, I couldn’t believe those things happened in my country, that Americans could do such mean things.

Also, about the same time I was reading these controversial tomes, the Vietnam War was in its final throes. Our environment was in tatters as could visibly be seen by looking into the bilge-like waters of any river running through any US city at the time. It seemed that everything I heard and read and was told in class was a condemnation of my country. Combine this with normal teenage angst and youthful idealism and you have a witch’s brew of self-condemnation.

Now, whenever I come across a blog written by a USA-flagellating progressive, wherein they basically claim that nearly every problem in the world today is our fault, I recognize myself in my development years. And that is my point; these American hating liberals, like the Obama’s—and now that I’ve heard it from her own lips, that IS who they really are—are adults that never outgrew their teenage angst. They sucked up all the negativity and internalized it into their adult psyche. It’s who they are now and most cannot change. Hell, they don’t want to.

So what changed me? How did I escape the liberal trap that is our education system? For one thing, I grew up and realized that there were other books and views out there that didn’t concentrate ONLY on the ugliness. I traveled the world and was able to compare American culture and our mindset to how the rest of mankind sees things and does things; and believe it or not, our way really is not all that bad. I realized that the kind of ugliness I learned from my grade school teachers about the United States exists in ALL societies; that ALL nations have their historical skeletons in the closet.

I know it sounds arrogant, but that’s MY truth. I don’t see us as the bane of the world; I see us as a force for good. There might be times when we are like a bull in a china closet, but ultimately, we want to make things better in the world, not just for Americans, but for everyone. And because I truly believed it, THAT is why I served.

I want to change the bad things in our society too, but from my vantage point, much of what I find distasteful in American culture is BECAUSE of the self-indulgence bred from the secular humanism that the Obama’s want to foist on us from the presidency.

Change? There has NEVER been a nation that has seen more voluntary change in such a short period of history. As my buddy Alec always says, we are THE most self-corrective society in the history of the world. As a people, we love that we feel empowered to make change for the good. I’ve never appreciated that more than now, because believe me; I live at this moment in an oligarchic country where NO one except for a select few feels even slightly empowered. The common man here knows the only way to effect change is to go to the United States! Change indeed Michelle.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Movie Review: D-War

This is a MUST see, IF you are a 12 year old boy

In a word D-War is goofy. In another, it’s silly. Almost as soon as it started, probably within the first 10 minutes, I groaned
and wished I’d opted for one of the Jessica Alba movies also showing at my theaterplex. I’ll give Jessica a shot tomorrow. I’m a bit smitten with her anyway.

The D in D-War stands for dragon. From the theater poster I was hoping it would be a wild end-of-the-world type ride like Cloverfield or I Am Legend. Instead, it was basically Godzilla meets Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings; and all leavened with a hokey helping of unconvincing sappy love story.

I guess a primary problem I have with the flick is that it’s written and directed by a Korean and obviously so. His efforts just do not translate well into a film that takes place mostly in modern America with American actors. This thing FELT like a foreign movie to me. It wasn’t comfortable in its own skin. They should have kept it all Korean with Korean actors and on Korean soil.

It’s supposedly based on an ancient Korean legend. Of course, in the movie it’s not a legend at all; it’s real. Unfortunately for the moviegoer, the supposed legend is a decidedly corny one. I’m not even going to describe the plot line. It’s just too juvenile to waste time on, but basically it’s about two Korean star-crossed lovers and a giant evil snake. And yes, in the film they actually use those words—star-crossed. When I heard that phrase used by Robert Forster’s character, I audibly groaned.

Of course, groaning is what you mostly do during this whole movie. Is there such a thing as a “groaner?” Let me check? Okay, I see it in, but not with the same meaning I’m looking for, but that’s what this movie is—a groaner.

The main characters, the so-called “star-crossed lovers,” are Ethan and Sarah. They are the re-born Korean lovers from “long ago.” Some how they get reincarnated as white Americans on the west coast. How convenient is that? I’ve never seen the actors that portray them before, and chances are I’ll never see them again. The guy LOOKED like he was acting. He’s a skinny pretty boy with about as much pizzazz as a rutabaga. The girl was okay. She was just the victim of a poor script.

I noticed that the producers filled up most of the other parts with about a dozen notable American character actors. The kind you see all the time in small supporting roles in TV shows and occasionally in films. The most noteworthy of these supporting actors is the guy who played the big bald bailiff on the old TV show Night Court. In D-War he plays the super evil wizard guy in charge of the giant snake you see on the poster, which brings up the question: Why do they call this Dragon Wars, when the real monster is the giant snake? It should be called S-War.

Anyway, the Night Court guy doesn’t really have any speaking parts. Wearing ominous black robes he proclaimingly screams in this guttural language that has obviously been modified to make it sound even more evil than he looks. I feel kind of bad for the guy, if this is the best he can do these days. But as I’ve heard a lot of actors say, “Work is work!”

The one good thing about the movie is the special effects. It’s just that they’ve all mostly been done before, although the part where the giant snake shakes the zoo elephant in its giant jaws before throwing it bodily to the ground is pretty cool. The other neat thing they had it do was slither up an LA skyscraper exactly like it does in the advertisement representation. That was pretty fresh.

The US military of films once again fights the creatures in its typical futile movie fashion, albeit bravely, as they tend to do in these type movies. The ridiculous things they had them do reminded me of the old Godzilla movies. I’m surprised they didn’t have a platoon of army troopers lined up on one knee firing bazookas at the swarm of Korean dragons and Lord-of-the Ring-like-monster fighters. They should have done it in homage to the old Japanese movie monster of the 60s.

Speaking of hokey military scenes, some 20 minutes of footage consists of a fleet of Blackhawk helos flying against a “flock” of killer dragons. It provided some of the most ridiculous segments of viewing. They had these badass helicopters zooming at about 150 mph between corridors of Los Angeles skyscrapers all while making these physically impossible 20G 90 degree turns around the sides of buildings. Aside from the fact that choppers can’t fly like that, I didn’t know LA has that many skyscrapers, mostly because it doesn’t. Oh well, that was the least of this flick’s problems.

Let me go look at how much money this thing has made. Dang! People have flocked to it! You have GOT to be kidding me! In fact, it’s cleaned up. What a bunch of suckers; now, including me. Five million Americans saw it in the first week alone.

Geez! You know, a buddy in the gym told me today that he’s convinced that Obama WILL win it all in November. If 5 million of us will flock to a clunker like this; then sure, he’s probably right.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Eight legged neighbor

Stretched out in my hammock last week, I gazed idly up into a murky gray sky through the branches of my two mango trees. I closed my eyes, enjoying a gentle breeze. It was relatively cool out with the sun hidden behind the thick cloud cover. An occasional raindrop fell, a very unlikely event during this, the dry season.

Sighing contentedly, I stretched my entire body, lacing my fingers behind my reclining head. I opened my eyes and went back to staring vacantly upwards. However, almost as soon as I opened them, out of the blue, or out of the gray is more like it; I sighted something so eerie high above that it caused me to strain my neck and squint my eyes.

“What the heck is that? Look up there. Am I really seeing that?” I said to a friend sitting nearby at a picnic table in the yard.

We both peered up. It was a spider web over three feet in diameter strategically placed almost at the top of the 25 foot tree in a round opening in the leaves. Right in the middle of it was one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen.

Even from that considerable distance, or especially knowing that it was so far, I knew that it was quite exceptional in size. It looked like a chicken’s egg with legs. The web, the spider and its outstretched legs were perfectly silhouetted against the sky, like some menacing logo. I tried to go back to relaxing in the hammock, but knowing that huge arachnid was hovering almost directly above me creeped me out.

So, no longer able to relax, I got up and got my Cybershot camera. Using the zoom and the highest resolution possible, I took some photos of my newfound 8-legged neighbor. Unfortunately, I lost all the shots when the memory card when bonkers before I could download them. Ehhh!

Just the same, I enjoyed the sight of her up there. Part of what I like about living here is that things are so different than back home—exotic is the word I’m looking for. Seeing that big ol mango spider suspended high up in my tropical fruit tree was delightful for me. I added it to one of the things that makes living here special.

Then, a couple mornings ago I went outside to observe the latest goings on with my home improvement efforts. My little work crew had arrived and was just starting to work on making concrete tiles as part of my landscaping vision. I carried my camera out to capture the work in progress. Sadly, I also ended up taking crime scene photos of the body of my now deceased spider friend.

She was on the ground right side up as if resting. I asked the guys what happened to her. All they knew is that she was there already dead when they showed up a half hour earlier. More than a dozen of the big red ants that live in my mango trees were pulling on her legs and body. I couldn’t tell if they were stinging her or trying to dismantle her. I suspect they were instinctively attacking her since I don’t think they are carrion eaters, but I may be wrong.

The dead spider looked totally intact and undamaged. I could see nothing obviously wrong with her. Her body didn't appear crushed and her legs all seemed normal. So what had killed her?

The one good thing is that I now had the chance to examine her magnificence from up close. From the photos you can see she had wonderful coloring, and what a massive body! Her legs were each over three inches long, while her body from end-to-end was close to three inches. I felt sad looking at her still form.

“Are you sure she’s dead?” I asked my guys. “O O,” they answered. I shook my head and sighed.
I’m thinking it might have just fallen. A much smaller run-of-the-mill spider has virtually no mass and can freefall from any height with no harm to itself; but this thing! It was so substantial that if it fell I’m sure its insides ruptured just as a small bird’s egg would, which back when the spider still lived is exactly what it resembled resting in its web way on high.

Then again, maybe the big red ants swarmed it and stung it to death. Indeed, they were still teeming all over it as it lay dead on the ground. Perhaps the two creatures are mortal enemies up there in the world of that 25-foot-high ecosystem.

I just hope there are more. Maybe she left behind some baby spiders. I’ll be looking for them, even if it’s just to make sure they don’t fall on me while I’m swinging lazily in my hammock.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Movie Review: Cloverfield

I recommend it, mostly.

I just came in from seeing “Cloverfield” at the local quadplex. My other choice was “American Gangster,” which I plan to see later this week.

I opted for Cloverfield based solely on the cool poster. It shows a wrecked Statue of Liberty with her head missing.

‘Oh cool! Another disaster movie about the city I love to hate!

My disdain for NYC is not as bad as all that. I’m just sort of ambivalent about the place. Everyone I know from there has the same hard-to-take arrogant boastful manner and it’s just difficult for me to have much sympathy for a place that can spawn such people. Do I take some small, or not so small, satisfaction in watching them get their theatrical comeuppance? Maybe a little, but its pretty much on the same level as how a baseball fan feels while watching the hated Yankees get their overpaid butts waxed. I know the New York Giants just accomplished the unlikely and won the Superbowl, but I don’t hate them like I do the Yanks, so I’m pretty much apathetic concerning their success. Anyway, I digress, about this movie…

I had never even heard of it until I saw it on the marquee poster tonight. Before I got there I didn’t have an inkling as to the story or the genre. Getting to the last first; am I glad that I opted to see it instead of American Gangster? The answer is a “hesitant” yes. I enjoyed it and just as I recommended for “I am Legend,” this movie should also be seen on the big screen.

As fair warning though, you might find yourself getting queasy watching it. In the spirit of The Blare Witch Project, Cloverfield is supposedly filmed by the people IN the movie. It jumps around, pans too fast and is out of focus and blurry—a lot.

Read no further if you plan on seeing this movie.

The writers were clever in the way they put this thing together. They say there is no plot that hasn’t already been written and done on screen, but they come pretty close to achieving at least some level of originality in Cloverfield.

The real hero of the movie is the video camera itself. It starts out with its owner, Robert Hawkins, taking shots of Central Park from his girlfriend’s apartment high over the city. From there we see them on a trip to Coney Island. Then, it gets confusing.

We watch preparations of a going-away surprise party for the camera’s owner who evidently is soon leaving for a job in Japan. I don’t think we ever really know what that job is, and soon we realize it’s not important. We watch and hear the camera being given by Robert’s brother to one of their buddies, a goofy average Joe named Hud. He is told that his job is to film congratulatory testimonials throughout the party for Robert's later enjoyment. At first, Hud's unsure he likes the idea, but soon, he really gets into the task, especially when he understands that he will be able to use the filming "angle" to talk to a girl he really likes. I think her name is Marlena.

In fact, Hud gets so into the idea that by midnight, as the party really gets going, he seems to have developed this unlikely sense of responsibility to get on film all that happens. This over-developed sense of responsibility to document all that happens continues on even as the stuff hits the proverbial fan.

And boy, do things happen! There’s a huge jolting explosion in their high-rise building and THAT’S when this movie really begins. They are under attack by “some thing,” and it’s a doozey!

To make a not-so-long story even shorter (the movie is only about 70 minutes long), four of the partygoers end up together on a quest to find Robert’s estranged Coney Island girlfriend, Beth. This is after they try to make it across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, only to have it dramatically collapsed by “the monster” and fall into East River. That’s when we see Robert’s brother killed on the tape. He’s crushed into unseen oblivion by a piece of the falling bridge.

Hud films it all. The four of them go against the human tide toward Beth’s apartment, which is also towards the monster. In the harrowing trek they are attacked down in the darkness of a subway tunnel by baby monsters about the size of large mastiffs. Marlena gets chewed up pretty good while the others are spared. They end up at an army aid station where Marlena’s condition takes a horrible turn for the worse—she starts bleeding from the eyes, and then, while being hustled away by army medics; she explodes in a bloody mess. Again, Hud catches his love interest’s demise on cam.

Three of them, Hud, Robert, and some girl, of whom I lost track of whom she is exactly, since she wasn’t all that important anyway; these three all manage to make their way to Beth’s high-rise. The monster has pushed it over into the adjacent building. Hud has the crazy idea to get to Beth’s building by crossing to it from the unscathed one. They make the long climb up the stairs, cross over, and find Beth skewered to the floor by a piece of rebar. We see a foot of it poking up through her shoulder.

Hud puts the cam on the floor and we see only her supine legs as they lift her from the metal bar on the count of three. Unaccountably, she is then able to move on her own two legs with only a little help. ‘Nice recovery!’ I think.

They make it to an evacuation site where for some unknown reason only the uninjured girl takes off in the next helo. (I TOLD you she wasn't important!) ‘Why didn’t they evacuate Beth,’ it occurred to me, ‘She’s the one who’s hurt!’

Much of the coolest action involves the US Army troopers bravely fighting a losing running battle against these impervious creatures. Our valiant “boys in green” mostly get killed while firing everything in the armory. ‘Where did all these troopers come from in such a hurry? It should mostly be police doing the first of the fighting, since it can take most of a day or two to round up that many infantrymen; even in this post 9-11 world.’ Still, I was proud to see that the filmmakers showed our armed forces in the best light, doing their job with fierce bravado even in the face of certain death.

In fact, the final three lead protagonists—Robert, Hud, and Beth—watch from high in their evacuation helicopter as a B2 bat-winged stealth bomber drops a huge bomb, probably a fuel air explosive, on the beast. The monster falters, struggles and at last disappears into the smoke and dust. They scream exultantly.

But not so fast! The thing suddenly rushes at them from within the enveloping black smoke and smashes them hard. The helicopter has been mortally damaged and from within it we see it spin out of control down into Central Park. Big crash! Then we see a section of the helo’s passenger compartment from where the camera has fallen next to Hud. Slowly, they stir. Robert and Beth pull the stricken Hud from the wreckage.

Again they have cheated death, but have they? From no where the gigantic monster, looking like a hideous cross between a bat and a praying mantis, appears out of the morning mist and stops directly above them.

Hud is unable to move, only able to point the camera at the monster high overhead. At first, we think perhaps it doesn’t notice them. Then, it sees Hud (us!). The humongous ugly head comes closer and closer, pauses, and then darts directly at the camera and Hud, in other words, at us! We see rows of jagged teeth, big as buses, and as they snap together in a final lunge, we hear Hud’s final screams. The camera drops to the ground next to his face and we know from his unblinking eyes that he is dead.

Robert retrieves his camera and he and Beth sprint for momentary cover under one of the many Central Park tunnels. Robert speaks into the camera knowing his life is probably about to end; he leaves a final message. Then, another smashing sound as the monster crushes the tunnel onto them. We watch as bricks and stone fall onto our final two characters. They disappear from view as the camera falls. We see no more as rock and debris covers the lens. We know they are dead. The movie ends.

Not exactly a message of hope, but what else would you expect from a film poster showing a decapitated Lady Liberty?

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Rift

I don’t know how widespread it is or how deep and broad, but from my own casual observations I sense a definite rift between the military and the citizens we serve. I was reminded of it yet again the other day during one of my “gym conversations” with an American civilian who has never “served.”

The things he said, the resentful unsympathetic feelings he espoused towards veterans remind me of some of the conversations my dad brought home with him from his fellow GM factory workers after he retired from the Air Force in 1971.

My dad got out after 20 years, returning to his home state of Michigan. After a lot of sweat, tears and more than a little bit of self-exaggeration, he managed to wrangle a position as a journeyman electrician in Saginaw Steering Gear. Back then that giant factory still fell under General Motors.

You would think that a bunch of blue-collar red-blooded American factory workers would have respected my dad’s years in the armed forces after having done his part to keep America safe while they paid off their homes, bought cottages “up north,” put money in the bank, and accrued lots of toys like snowmobiles and speed boats. But no, it wasn’t like that all.

Instead, he continually had to listen to many of them disparage him for “double-dipping;” accusing him of having sat on his ass and drinking coffee for 20 years while still being able to collect that GM paycheck too. They actually resented him his small military pension and free “medical benefits.” Once they had him fired up, he’d get up in their smirking faces and tell them the crap he had to put up with during those “easy” 20 years—the asshole bosses, the tense working conditions, the low pay, the nonstop yearly moves from base to base, to name a few. Few of them could figure out why he was so angry. They'd shrug uncomfortably, wondering why he took so seriously what they saw as simple good-natured kidding; and now that I've been through it after my own long military career, I too know EXACTLY why he took their jibes so personal.

As for me, I’ve tended to avoid civilians over the years. Generally, I tend to seek out friends among my fellow vets. This is because I don’t understand nor can I relate well to my fellow non-military citizenry. They seem wrapped up with petty unimportant things. They haven’t been “anywhere,” haven’t “seen what I’ve seen,” and for the most part aren’t interested in “the big picture.” What’s more, many refuse to acknowledge the evil in the world waiting to rise up and destroy all they hold dear. Yet some, too many, are willing to belittle what we do, demean our sacrifice, and begrudge us the pay and benefits we’ve earned.

As I said up top, I got into this exact subject with a fellow gym rat the other day. He wasn’t even talking to me but I couldn’t help but to overhear his snide comments. With great derision he vocalized his “problem” with vets, saying they draw disability pay even as he KNOWS: “Many of them are in better shape than I am!”

I looked over to see if it was really worth my time and effort to confront him. Normally, we get along famously, so I was a bit surprised at the profundity of his umbrage. Although not directed at me personally, his ire was palpable and when he continued on in the same cantankerous tone I decided, ‘Okay, that’s enough!’

I spoke up, “Hey, Jake; what’s your problem Man? I don’t get you. Can you explain this bitterness you have for me and people like me? Why exactly do you think we don’t deserve our pensions and disability compensation?”

He came over and stood a few feet from me, which suited me just fine.

“I just don’t see why my tax dollars should go to paying all these guys all this money. I don’t get paid anything for MY physical problems. I worked too and got hurt. It ain’t right!”

“Jake, you CHOSE not to enlist. It seems to me that you really don’t know what you’re talking about, because you didn’t do what we had to do. Do you think military service is easy? If it was all cake, why aren’t people signing up in droves to do it? I’m not saying my 27 years was all hard time, but a lot of it wasn’t easy; and it CERTAINLY wasn’t easy on my family. Just the same, it’s all I ever wanted to do since I was four years old.”

He hemmed and hawed a little. “Well, I know this guy. He brags about being 100% disabled and makes all this VA money, yet he’s a scratch golfer! He’s a big fraud man. There ain’t nothing wrong with that asshole. Why should my taxes go to paying him when he’s just fine?”

I’d heard that one before and knew exactly what to say: “I have no idea what this guy’s conditions might be. Not everyone’s disabilities are even physical. Still, if you think he’s a fraud, turn his ass into the VA or to Social Security. Hell, I’ll do it. They’ll investigate him if they deem it a possible fraud case. I hate guys like that too, IF they are frauds. They give all of us a bad name. In fact, what’s his name? I’ll do it myself!”

More hemming and hawing: “Well, I haven’t seen him for a while. But still!”

He went on, “If I’d have known about all these great benefits and all this money you guys make after only 20 or so years, I’d have signed up too!” he laughed uneasily.

I chided him. “I wouldn’t have wanted your sorry ass in the suck with me anyway Jake. Do you think when I was 17 years old I said to myself, ‘Man, I can’t WAIT to join the Marines, do my 30, and THEN, get all that free medical and that FAT pension!’ That’s the kind of thinking you get from the damned officers Man! If I really cared a crap about money and my long term future I would have gone to college and became a lawyer or a damned dentist; or hell, I would have become an officer for all that BIG zero pay.”

I was cleaning his clock, so he changed tack: “It’s not just the pension and the money Man. I’m tired of all this hero stuff. No one makes anybody serve in the military, so why all the hero talk? It’s the same for cops and firemen; no one tells them they HAVE to do that work.”

“Exactly! Maybe you don’t realize it, but the REAL heroes, like the guys awarded Silver Stars and Purple Hearts; THEY don’t refer to themselves as heroes. So don’t get mad at them for being labeled AS such by OTHER people.”

I had him on the ropes; he was relenting and I heard “surrender” in his voice as he continued: “I’m not saying that everyone doesn’t deserve the pension and such, but some of them don’t. I probably worked as hard as some of these guys and I don’t get squat.”

“So, let me get this straight. You’re mad because you didn’t know any better? And if you HAD known, you would have enlisted too? My God man! Who are you REALLY mad at, veterans like me who did 27 years doing a job that most Americans DON’T want to do or are UNWILLING to do; or are you mad at yourself, for not putting yourself through the same hell that I went through so you could be where I am today?” I cuffed him on the shoulder and grinned.

He just laughed.

I ended his tirade with my own finishing clincher: “You know what Jake? Basically, I think YOU are full of bovine kaka!”