Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On the Campaign...

I think I’ll ramble on a little about campaign politics.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, all I know is what I read on the internet (and see on cable news).
Anyone who’s read me more than a few times knows that I am a modcon, or moderate conservative. Part of my conservative side is that I dislike big government-run social programs like the ones that LBJ foisted on us, although I DO believe we are all “our brother’s keeper.” If we MUST have government involvement in such things, then let them do it through our churches, synagogues and maybe even by way of some well-vetted mosques.

The environment is where I especially wax moderate, maybe even left of moderate. I give GWB credit for NOT signing Kyoto, which lets China and India off the hook, BUT I AM miffed that he’s done almost nothing to wean us off Arab oil. Even with my distrust of government programs, I think its time for a NASA style program to bring together our best and brightest to deal with energy, and that means NO BIOFUELS!

Normally, I believe in letting the free market deal with national problems like energy sources; but not this time, not that our national security is at risk because of it. The average American is not going to start driving more expensive “alternative fuels” vehicles, nor will they be willing to use mass transit; NOT without some kind of economic incentive.

And the mostly Republican push toward bio-fuels is just plain stupid. I’m sure our farmers love the idea of it, but it’s going to drive food prices through the roof. If you think Americans are pissed off about pump prices now, just wait till their groceries start costing Tokyo prices; and we WILL have ten dollar apples once we start putting more than half our field corn into our gas tanks.

I’m staunchly conservative when it comes to national security, then again, so are a lot of smart democrats; they just don’t happen to be running one for president. Pulling our troops IMMEDIATELY out of Iraq smells too much like 1973 when Ted Kennedy and crew pulled the plug on the South Vietnamese after we’d ALREADY won the darned war. What is it about these people? Defeat at all costs?

Concerning our national security, staying tough in Iraq now IS important and NECESSARY. The left, now apparently completely in charge of the Democratic Party, has decided that there IS NO terror war—that it’s a contrived Bush thing—that the Islamic extremists will simply leave us alone IF we leave them alone. Only one of the three presidential candidates still in the running seems to understand the danger of using this “kumbaya method” to win over Al Qaeda and Iran. I’ll give you one guess who that is. (hint: its not a democrat).

As for Barack Obama, he is still trying to have us all ignore the so-called “cherry picked” words of his pastor, the evidently deranged Rev. Wright. Obama’s anxious pleading reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, where the Wizard angrily demands, “IGNORE the man behind the curtain!”

I never would have voted for Obama anyway, he’s far too liberal for my tastes, but there might just be a few fence sitters out there who aren’t happy with his close association with this unhinged Wright character. I just listened to a very irate Bob Beckel, an Obama apologist, as he remonstrated against the Rev. Wright drumbeat on FOX News. Beckel likes to continually ask, “Would you say that any child that ever attended Trinity should now be considered NOT presidential material?” My answer is: “No, but I would definitely hold their parents up to some critical scrutiny for allowing their kids to be indoctrinated by someone who says “God DAMN America… The USA of the KKK… …our chickens have come home to roost (America brought 9/11 on itself) … Jesus was lynched Roman style by garlic nosed Italians… ad nauseum.”

Obama admits that he and his wife regularly attended Wright’s services ALONG with his children. Unless the Obama’s WANT their daughters to be just as ashamed of their country as Michele Obama admittedly is, then WHY did they subject their girls’ young ears and developing sensibilities to Wright’s virulent anti-Americanism?

Hillary Clinton has her own problems. She’s behind in the delegate count to the smooth talking “interloper” from Chicago and to make matters worse, she is now dealing with her own negative press as she fights to overcome her new title as “the great fabricator.” She was caught telling yet another chest thumping “tall tale,” not just once, but several times. Now, I’ve learned to take “combat stories” with a grain of salt after listening to a few, but none of those old yarn spinning vets was running for president.

There are few things worse than being caught in a lie. What makes it worse for Clinton is that it makes her seem desperate to the point that she’ll say ANYTHING, so long as it gets her back even with Obama. Until she was called on her fib, Hillary was recollecting how she and Chelsea had landed under “sniper fire” during a first lady trip to Bosnia in 1997 while under the protection of the US military. Turns out she was perfectly safe, and now a lot of military personnel who made sure she was VERY safe are VERY pissed off at her right now. The result: Obama lovers and Republicans are crowing a collective, “See! She’s a big fat liar!”

People who love Hillary and Obama will not be dissuaded by “little things” such as hate speech from their pastors, or even getting caught telling a few bald-faced lies. For the left, almost anything is forgivable if it will get their people elected. But, to repeat, there just might be a few “undecideds” in the middle to whom this unseemly stuff DOES make a difference.

Watching the two democrat wannabes stagger along towards what looks to be a very turbulent democratic convention is making John McCain seem more and more palatable to me. He certainly wasn’t my first choice; I’m not happy with his stand on waterboarding and his desire to close Gitmo, BUT I CAN live with those things. I was very angry with his proposed amnesty program for illegals, but now that he promises to close the border I can forgive him that earlier misstep. I really like what he says about the environment and getting us off foreign oil. On the environment specifically, he SOUNDS like a tree hugger, just like I tend to be. And above all, I REALLY love his aggressive stance against Islamic extremists. On that note, we MUST see Iraq through to a successful conclusion, another primary plank in the McCain platform.

No fence sitting for me; John McCain IS my man.

Mr. William; Soldier, Cook

Here’s another tidbit of memory from my tour at the US embassy in Monrovia, Liberia from 1977 to 1978…

Upon arrival, one of the first things the non-commissioned officer in charge of us six watchstanders did was to assign me my very own responsibility. Every marine had at least one additional duty besides standing watch. Mine became managing the mess, a naval term for kitchen or galley, a very strange thing for me to be in charge of, since the only thing I knew about cooking was the eating part.

But, I needn’t have worried, for the REAL man in charge of meals was Mr. William. No, that’s not a typo; that’s what he wanted us to call him. I don’t know what his actual last name was; we just called him Mr. William, as in Mr. Bill.

Mr. William was an amazing fellow; and the longer I knew him, the more amazing I found him to be. In 1977, according to him, he was already 65 years old. So, counting back, he was born around 1912. I would like to think of him as still alive, but chances are he’s long gone.

As the marine in charge of the mess, my job was to make sure Mr. William had what he needed to make us breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week; not to mention lots of cakes, pies and cookies to keep all our sweet tooths satisfied. On that note, he was a hell of a baker, a real pastry man.

Probably the hardest part of running the mess was the tedium of doing inventory. Every few days I counted every box of cereal, sack of flour and can of condensed milk. I did this supposedly to check for pilferage. Of course, the only ones who could possibly pilfer anything were me and Mr. William, since we had the only pantry keys.

Truthfully though, after a few weeks I learned that Mr. William, whose integrity I found to be above reproach, didn’t really need any supervision; especially from a snot-nosed 20-year-old like me. Just the same, I inventoried once a week (or so!), and gave him cash from the mess fund whenever he asked for it. For instance, he’d tell me in the morning that he wanted to make barracuda steaks that night; so I’d hand him a 20 out of the money box. For only a quarter U.S. he’d catch one of the hundreds of tiny taxis that plied the streets of Monrovia and head over to the fish market. A half-hour later he’d return with 5-dollars in change, cradling in his tiny yet muscular arms a 5-foot barracuda wrapped and twined in old newspaper.

It was an amazing thing to behold, to see the diminutive Mr. William turn a giant barracuda, that was every bit as long as he was tall, into a stack of thick round fish steaks. With cutting board and cleaver he didn’t chop the fish up so much as he attacked it. The first time I saw him do this I dared not approach too close. His glinting eyes and violent demeanor kept me well away, not to mention the flying fish scales that stuck to everything they touched. When he started to hack on one of those monster fishes he became almost feverish with the effort of it. I figured out decades later that he was probably in the grip of a combat flashback that took him mentally back to the jungles of Burma during WWII.

I used to have a photo of Mr. William and myself posing side-by-side with my arm over his shoulders. I towered over him; the top of his head barely reaching my chin. In the picture he wore a pair of my cast off trousers. They were practically new; I’d worn them maybe twice, so I thought, ‘Why not just give them to Mr. William?’

At the time, at just over 5’7,” I weighed all of 132 pounds. The pants were 29 at the waist and a bit snug on me; plus, I thought they looked a little short at the inseam. When I first broached the possibility of giving them to him, I could tell Mr. William really wanted those pants. I told him to go try them on first. Soon he called out from the bathroom that they fit just fine.

“Well, come on out and let me see how they look on you,” I told him.

I had to stifle a laugh when he shuffled sheepishly out the door. The tan slacks, flared below the knees in the style of the 70s, were so loose on him at the waist that he was forced to hold them up discretely with one hand by clutching at the waistband behind his back. He had cuffed them up at the ankle so that a full 12 inches of pant leg were folded back up almost to his knees. They didn’t fit him at all, but I could tell he REALLY wanted those pants. I chuckled at the silly sight and told him with a friendly slap on his back, “Mr. William, they look great on ya. They’re all yours my friend, but I sure hope you know a GOOD tailor!”

Over the months of my Africa assignment Mr. William and I became good buddies. I constantly learned new and astounding things about him. It turned out that he wasn’t originally from Liberia at all, but had lived throughout much of Western Africa over the six plus decades of his long and turbulent life. During the course of his travels and working scores of different jobs he had picked up more than six languages. Besides English and French, he also spoke several tribal dialects. At his age of 65, his youngest kid wasn’t even a teenager yet.He once told me that he thought he had sired more than 20 children in all; although he couldn’t be sure of that figure.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but back then, when it came to oldsters, I was probably typical of many of my then tender and insensitive years. Initially, upon meeting a senior, that immature me would see only the obvious—the worn out bodies, the feebleness, the lack of vitality. I hadn’t yet developed the imagination or insight to envision them as they’d been decades earlier—before muscles had gone slack; when hair was still thick and rich with color; and when vocal cords still produced sounds clear and vibrant. My time with Mr. William taught me that all those white-headed withered ancients that I tended to take for granted, had all once been just as young and as vigorous as me.

It’s a given, right, that energetic youth grasp that the frail elderly haven’t always been like that? Perhaps intellectually they know this, but for most self-absorbed young people, old people are invisible, or at least inconsequential; and back then, I suppose I too used to discount seniors in this manner. For instance, meeting a person like Mr. William—a man long past his prime, small in stature and with little means—I just assumed he had not done much in his life, never imagining that he might have accomplished remarkable deeds, traveled afar, and seen fantastic things. Soon, I learned otherwise.

I spent hours talking with and listening to the old guy. He was a great story teller, acting out his tales with great physical animation. He hadn’t always been a cook, although in earlier times he had cheffed in fancy restaurants, and had even taken cooking jobs on ships and boats of all sizes. Aside from food preparation though, he had done all manner of things, mostly involving physical labor and soldiering, since starting his working life in the 1920s. He’d spent most of it in various African countries, but he’d also worked for a time as a butler, handyman and cook in Europe. Whenever possible, he said he had sought employment with foreigners, because according to him, we paid more than his fellow Africans, and treated him better to boot.

Mr. William’s most fascinating stories and the ones he most enjoyed telling were about his time as a sergeant with the British army during WWII; first in Eastern Africa against the Germans and Italians, and later against the Japanese in India and Burma. I hadn’t realized it until he told me, but evidently the Brits had recruited units of black Africans to conduct desert operations in the arid East African theaters, and once those battles had been won, against the Japanese in the malarial jungle climes of Southeast Asia, mostly in Burma and thereabouts.

Whenever he spoke of his desert and jungle warfare experiences the years seemed to fall away from him like old spider webs. He would get down on the floor in a low crawl and show me how he and his mates snuck up on the enemy, throwing imaginary grenades, and then graphically demonstrate how they fired their weapons, even how they hacked and stabbed the enemy with machetes and fighting knives. He always used to proclaim proudly, “It was kill or be killed and you notice I’m still here!” As a young marine yearning to prove myself someday in battle, I must say that I loved his combat stories, and lucky for me, he took great delight in telling them.

He did confess one thing though that didn’t settle all that well with my idealistic side. In the jungles of Burma, to instill as much fear and dread as possible in the hearts and minds of their brutal enemy from Japan, he said that they endeavored to “out brutalize” them. They accomplished this psychological terror ploy by not only killing their adversaries, but took it to the next level by chopping the bodies of the dead, and almost dead, into tiny bloody bits of meat and bone.

Mr. William claimed that this practice of post combat butchery caused the Japanese to avoid contact when they knew they were facing Africans. After hearing that, whenever I watched old Mr. William violently chop giant barracuda into plate-sized hunks of fish flesh, with his biceps impressively flexing and tendons mightily straining, I imagined him doing the same to slain Japanese soldiers 30 years before. Once, I asked him about that exact thing, but refusing to answer, he merely shrugged and toothily grinned.

Even so, or perhaps because of his violent deeds of yore, Mr. William had a deeply spiritual side. As a faithful fellow churchgoer, he was very impressed that I attended Mass once and even twice a week at the local Lebanese Catholic Church staffed by, off all people, an Irish Missionary priest. One day he asked me to come to his church the following Sunday to be his guest of honor. I readily agreed to come.

That Sunday Mr. William and I caught a taxi to his church located on a dusty dirt road in a settlement on the north side of Monrovia. It was of some kind of local protestant extraction. The chapel building was surprisingly large and lofty, built of reinforced concrete blocks painted in bright whites and yellows; although it was not as large as some of the other church buildings I’d seen in Monrovia. Because of his limited means, I’d just assumed that Mr. William’s church would be just as impoverished as he was.

I was shocked to learn that I was to sit in a place of prominence right in the very front of the congregation. I sat next to my host and with eyes wide with nervousness looked out a sea of smiling and nodding African faces. I could see that they were all quite curious about me. The only non-African there; I was the proverbial grain of salt in a pile of pepper corns.

Soon, Mr. William stood and took his place at the podium. As a senior elder of his church he began telling the worshippers about me, what a nice young man I was, how I’d volunteered my time and donated money to help needy local Liberian kids, and finally asking them all to give me a warm round of welcoming applause. I nodded back at everyone, smiled and waved self-consciously. Without having provided even a hint of what was to come, Mr. William beckoned me to come forward and address the people.

Today, if someone were to ask me to come forward and speak off the cuff to a large unfamiliar audience, after having learned to do it from years of giving briefings and conducting classes in the military, it would be a piece of cake. In fact, I’d jump at the chance these days to get up, cut up, and yack it up. Back then though, not having yet done such things, I was aghast.

I didn’t have a clue as to what he expected me to talk about. I had nothing prepared. What do I say? Do I talk about Jesus? Do I tell them about myself? What do they want to know? What are they expecting? I approached the podium and looked out at the mass of upturned expectant faces, all waiting for my “words of wisdom.” It was a living nightmare. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began timorously speaking…

“Thank you Mr. William. Thanks A LOT! Well, everyone, I appreciate the warm welcome, and to be honest, I have no idea what to say to you all. So, how about if I tell you a little about my life as an American, and what its like being a Christian in the United States Marine Corps?”

I looked over at Mr. William and found him nodding vigorously in approval.

‘Yes! Go with that!’

To this day I don’t remember what I yammered on about, but I must have gone on for more than an hour. I’m pretty sure that I told those nodding smiling faces all about my young life traveling the world, first as a military brat, and later on with the Marines; and of course, being in church, I explained how important God was to me, especially being so far from home and family. I kept talking along those lines until Mr. William finally got up and relieved me from the torture that he had just brought down on me. I must have done all right though, because I got a standing O after concluding my unplanned speech by telling everyone how much I thought of their very own Mr. William; and how he had become such an important influence on me spiritually, even though we were from two very different faiths.

Then again, maybe they were just clapping so hard and joyously because I was finally done talking!

A few years later I ran into another marine who had been stationed at the embassy in Monrovia a year after I had left. I was dismayed to learn that they had let Mr. William go purely for economic reasons. A new policy was put in place that all Marine House employees were to be rotated out after a year to prevent having to pay them retirement and medical benefits. What a shame; hell, I WAS ashamed and still am.

The marine told me that Mr. William had managed to find work as a handyman cook for a private American household; but after that, who knows? Even after all these years, thinking now about how it played out for him totally depresses me. Surely, he deserved better than that. Considering the uncertainty of what Mr. William went through during what should have been his golden retirement years, most Americans just don’t realize how good they have it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Deadly Streets

Okay, one more try at writing this darned thing… Perhaps I keep avoiding it because it’s such a difficult thing to recount, even though hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about it; especially when I’m afoot on busy streets with my kids.

A couple of posts ago I wrote of
an encounter I had with an infuriated Liberian during my time as an embassy guard. The man’s fury over a denied visa was matched only by his gargantuan size. If you read it, then you might remember that our very own Ambassador Carter well handled that situation—he gentled the menacing giant, thankfully preventing us from having to resort to force.

It could be said that the initiator of that unpleasant incident was the counselor officer. A nice man with a tough job, in many ways he was THE most important fellow in the embassy, since he was the one to approve or disapprove applications to enter the United States. I can’t imagine having that sort of power over people’s lives.

But, aside from stamping “yes” or “no” on passports, the soft-spoken bespectacled counselor had other duties as well. I was on duty at the main desk one evening when the mustachioed low-key fellow returned from one of his grimmer tasks. After unlocking the door and letting him enter I noticed he looked shaken, physically ill even; and no wonder, since he had just come from putting his seal on a young American boy’s travel coffin.

Just days before, the dead little boy sealed up in that under sized aluminum casket had been a healthy rambunctious 8-year-old. I knew this first hand from having coached him along with his little league baseball teammates. Once, at a dinner party, I had played Ping-Pong with him at the home of a mutual friend.

It was during the evening of that same dinner that I’d met the rest of the boy’s family. I wish I could say that it went well, but alas... The kid was one of four brothers, and being normal healthy boys they made for a pretty wild assemblage. In jest, during dinner, I flipped a comment about their clamorousness. Unexpectedly, what I considered a harmless little remark turned out to be a major faux pas, when their father, a career US AID employee, took exception to it.

Not much more than a kid myself, I learned a lesson—“Watch what you say about a man’s kids, especially when he’s there to hear it!” He made quite a scene; actually standing up at the table and announcing angrily that if he was going to be insulted that he and his family would just leave.

I continued eating, saying nothing in response, and just stared at him. Truth be known, I was irked at his outburst and didn’t feel like offering an apology for an innocuous joking comment. The host intervened, putting words in my mouth to the effect that he was sure that I hadn’t meant to be insulting. Looking directly at me with cocked eyebrow he prompted me with, “Isn’t that so Phil?”

I shrugged, figuring an apology seemed now expected of me. So, I offered one, of sorts. “Yeah . . . , that’s true. I really didn’t mean to make you mad. I THOUGHT I was being humorous. Anyway, I like your boys . . . they’re good kids.”

I took a swig of wine to wash away the bad taste; just the same, it WAS true; I DID like them. The boys had a lot of noisy energy, but THEY were all right. Too bad their dad was an oversensitive self-righteous ass.

Not long after that bit of “fun” President Carter came to town. We knew about it for quite a while in advance. A week before he arrived, a team of Secret Service agents showed up to prepare for the president’s 6 or 7 hours on the ground. One of them was an ex-marine and hung out with us quite a bit at the Marine House.

On the big day, hundreds from the American community excitedly gathered along Monrovia’s main drag into the city to see and to be seen by the president as his motorcade passed by. I chose not to go, having already learned the hard way years before
how hectic it can be trying to catch a glimpse of a visiting president. Besides, I had duty that evening and didn’t want to risk not making it back in time for watch. I knew the roads would be jammed with traffic and screwed up with security barricades.

Speaking of traffic, Americans are always amazed when first exposed to how much of the rest of the world drives. For the most part, we are trained to follow traffic laws until it becomes instinct; not to mention that the prevalence of so many cops scares us into compliance. On the other hand, rules enforcement in most non-first world nations is spotty at best—in Liberia it was nonexistent. Consequently, Liberian driving was as bad as any. When I lived there the basic rule was: “Go fast until something in your way FORCES you to brake.” Come to think of it, that’s how they drive here in the Philippines as well…

Along with scores of others, the hothead dad described above took his family out to see “the boss” that fateful day. They found a spot along the boulevard leading past the presidential palace and eagerly waited along with the rest of the throng. The 8-year-old, being second youngest, was led about by his protective father who tightly held the lad’s hand to keep him safe, just like any loving father would. The youngest was in his mom’s arms.

As the crowd grew and individuals sought the best vantage points, those closest to the street were pushed forward. The father held his son’s little hand even tighter. In the crush they found themselves standing in front of a parked car, and the boy being a short little fellow was unable to see over its hood. Hearing someone call out, “I think he’s coming!” the doomed lad leaned forward, craning his head out to peer around the corner of the vehicle.

At that exact moment, a van taxi flashed past the car at nearly 50 mph, barely missing it by mere fractions. That sort of reckless speed was typical of Monrovia traffic. The split second that the ill-fated boy moved his head forward is the same split second that the van passed through that same bit of space.

Suddenly, the horrified dad found his boy snatched from his grip by the hammer blow of the van against his son’s head. In shock, the father looked down to where his boy had stood a split second earlier, but now, all that marked the spot where his son should have been was his two little tennis shoes, still neatly tied. Instantaneously, his tiny body had been violently jerked out of them. His body was literally smashed through the air, exactly as a croquet ball is launched by a hard swung mallet. Now a lifeless rag doll, the boy’s body ended up more than15 yards away from his now hysterical father.

From that awful moment none of the Liberian Americans cared a fig about Carter’s visit. For weeks the entire community was gripped with the boy’s untimely end. To this day, when I think of Jimmy Carter I associate him with that little boy’s tragic death.

Before sealing the coffin up for the trip back home, the counselor was required to inspect the body. The sight of the young lad’s disintegrated head and torso deeply affected him. Directly afterwards, when he came in that night to finish processing the paperwork, I asked him about it. He willingly told me, I think because he needed to share it with someone. It took quite a while before he returned to a semblance of his previous normality; and after he described what he’d seen to me, I wished I hadn’t asked. Some things are better left unknown.

Out of the blue, the memory of that dead young boy came crashing back into my consciousness some five years later. My wife at the time and I were traveling one evening through Metro-Manila. We got off a jeepney and walked along the edge of one of the boulevards towards a friend’s house as the last of evening faded to night. Approaching a group of 20 or 30 milling Filipinos, I spotted in their midst on the ground what looked to be a mound of greasy trash. I remember them chatting and laughing. A couple vendors had stopped opportunistically to sell popcorn and drinks. But soon, the festive air seemed utterly incongruous and disturbing.

My wife asked what the commotion was all about. Turns out it wasn’t trash lying there at all, but three freshly dead bodies strategically covered with old newspaper. An hour or so before in the failing light, a squatter mother with her two children, a baby and a toddler, had tried unsuccessfully to cross at that spot on the wide busy boulevard. In an instant, a fast-moving semi had crushed them into gory oblivion.

Feeling sick, I approached the pathetic sight. The newspaper covering their heads and upper bodies was soaked through with dark red dampness, although in the evening gloom it no longer showed as red. Syrupy blood, looking like thick dark motor oil in the limited light, had drained from the mangled corpses forming a ghastly blood puddle in the trash strewn gutter.

With head bowed, I stood there for a time praying for the wretched little squatter family. They were so still. Arranged side-by-side next to the curb, their bodies were tightly positioned against the other. It struck me that that’s probably how they had slept each night before that, their final night. The blood-soaked newsprint sagged so that I could see the shape of their upturned faces. I could see that the mother’s mouth was wide open as if locked in a final scream.

Sadness and doubt—it was a moment where if one was ever going to question God’s plan then that was the time it was going to happen. Standing there, I resisted the urge to rush immediately back home. I wanted to clutch all three of my kids in a fierce embrace, and NEVER let them go. In my mind it was my children lying there under those gruesome newspapers.

To this day I cannot walk with my children along any street that has even a modicum of passing vehicles without thinking back to that lost boy and that shattered family. Panic wells up in my chest, and I feel compelled to pick them up. Usually, that’s exactly what I do.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Back to Africa; Learning my "Americanness"

Now THIS is the story I started to write for my previous post. At least I hope it will be. Often, I start out intending to write about one thing only to end up writing about something else, so maybe I’ll end up doing that again. Truthfully, I’m never really certain where I’ll end up.

It’s been more than two weeks since the president made his whirlwind visit of Sub-Saharan Africa, including to my old stomping grounds in Monrovia, Liberia. Whenever an American president makes an Africa trip I think back to 1978, when then President Jimmy Carter stopped in to visit Monrovia for a few hours while I happened to be stationed there.

Naturally, the American community in Monrovia was excited that the president chose to stop in. I hadn't voted for him, but at the time he seemed harmless enough as commander in chief. At that point many of us in the military didn’t have the visceral dislike that we felt for President Clinton 20 years later, although some began to look at Carter as a bit of a blundering boob after his wishy-washy inept responses during the Iranian hostage situation.

Before Carter’s visit I had already been in Monrovia for months. Within a short time I had made plenty of friends in the large expat American community. We were a close-knit group and many of us knew each other, or knew of each other, even though we numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Liberia had not yet reached the complete basket case status that it soon attained after the indigenous uprising of 1980, an unexpected coup led by a master sergeant in the Liberian army, a power-hungry bloodthirsty fellow named Doe. But while I was there in 1978, even though the country was desperately poor it was still fairly safe and stable under the reign of the “Americos,” the descendents of freed American slaves that had started returning to the “mother land” in the 1820s during the administration of James Monroe; thus the name of their capital, Monrovia.

Being a single lad of 19, I spent many of my evenings at various fellow Americans’ homes. They'd invite me over for dinner or just to visit and have a few drinks and chat. It was during that time that I really began to feel American. It’s hard to explain, but until I was outside of my country as an adult, I took the wonderful uniqueness of my particular citizenship for granted. Being amongst an enclave of fellow citizens outside my country’s boundaries, now that really brought home the feeling of what I like to call my “Americanness.”

Here I go again; I’m about to digress. I’ll try to get back to the intended story in a bit, but I’ll make no promises.

The best way to make my point on the concept of Americanness is from what I observed of the African Americans in our tight community of expat Americans. Almost as soon arriving, usually in spite of themselves, in short order each soon discovered their complete Americanness. In other words, no matter how African they might look outwardly, they quickly found out they were American to the core.

In the States, Black Americans tend to define themselves and each other by skin color or racial features, while as far as the Africans are concerned, those traits are definitely NOT a defining factor, since they all share similar characteristics. No, Liberians, and probably most other Africans, almost exclusively identify themselves by tribe or clan, certainly not by color.

On the other hand, I noticed that Africans tended to lump all of us together; Black, White, Latino, it didn’t matter, because to most Liberians we were just Americans, not Black, not Latino and not White Americans.

And its true, being American marks a person forever, regardless of ethnicity or even original country of origin. I watch a person here in the Philippines or any place else in the world, and I can tell you within 5 minutes whether or not they are a US citizen or have lived there or not. I don’t know, there must be something in our water.

In fact, I learned much of what Africans thought from my literally thousands of hours of conversation with Masa, the Liberian receptionist who sat right next to the Post 1 Marine at the front desk. She made constant observations about us. I remember one she made while observing how we reacted to children:

"You Americans; why is it you all love children so much..."

I often wondered what she meant by that until after decades of world travel I got to see that she was right. Compared to folks from other places, speaking generally, we do seem to love kids, especially those that need help for some reason. For example, if there is an orphanage anywhere near a US military post anywhere in the world, you WILL find American GIs visiting it.

Masa never said, "You White or Black Americans really are a certain way..." That's because she saw that we ALL had the same tendencies, no matter what our ethnicity.

What surprised many of the African Americans is that the Africans exhibited no particular affinity nor felt any special relationship with those of us who were of African descent. Interestingly, on a personal level, many Africans seemed to prefer to make acquaintances among those of us non-Blacks. I don’t know why, perhaps because of some flawed sense of resentment. It was a mystery to me.

Many don’t like to admit it, but there is always some level of tension between Blacks and Whites in the States. As an 8-year-old I learned my wariness after getting slammed to the ground by my blond hair by an angry black mom who had mistakenly thought that I had just harmed her little boy, my playmate. Perhaps my very whiteness brought on her raging over reaction. Regardless of the cause, whether personal, historical or institutional, there is always an underlying uneasiness.

The funny thing is that I felt none of that USA type of black-white awkwardness in Liberia. In fact, at first, I thought these pleasant folk that never glared at my whiteness like I get all the time back home, with their wonderfully lilting accents, were just pulling my leg, like it was all an inside joke on the white guy. Turns out, that was just me and my own American-originated racial baggage.

For instance, we had a staff of three locals in the Marine House where we marine watchstanders lived. One of these Africans was a big guy who did all the heavy lifting jobs. When introduced to the tall heavily muscled fellow I found him gentle as a puppy, totally unintimidating, and in no way did he posture or try to show that he was not to be pushed around. When he called me "boss man," I thought for sure he could not be serious; but no, it was just how they refer to those they see as being in charge.

I felt horrible when Liberia descended into utter violent chaos just over a year after I left it. I had developed quite an affection for the place. I learned so many things there about life and about myself. One of the most noteworthy is the realization that the racial animus so prevalent in American society is completely artificial. Even so, I don’t see the distrust and ambivalence between Americans of different races going away anytime soon. Our history seems to have cursed us with its continuance for at least another couple of generations.

Although, perhaps there is one way of easing the racial edginess in the worst of those suffering from it:

When still young and impressionable send them for a while to a place in Africa like Liberia.Intolerant Whites will learn what it’s like to be the only one of their kind in a sea of Black faces, where not one of those Black faces shows even a hint of displeasure or resentment towards them.

On the other hand, perhaps angry alienated young Blacks will learn how lucky they are to be American despite the troubles they perceive back home; and more importantly, they will see how American they truly are. It can be quite an epiphany for many to learn that they have more in common with a Caucasian kid from Alabama than they do with an African from Kinshasa.

I remember reading a quote by Muhammad Ali while he was in Zaire for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman in '74. He appreciated the adulation of the Africans, but he was also struck by the deprivation and injustice he saw around him. I forget his exact words, but he said something like, “I love Africa, but I sure am glad my great great grand pappy got sent over on a slave ship…”

Only a guy like Muhammad Ali could get away with saying something so obtuse, but there is truth in his directness; and I’ll bet every African American who has ever gone over secretly thinks the same thing.

So I did it again. I STILL didn’t tell the story that I originally intended. Okay, next time for sure.