Friday, November 6, 2015

Christmas at Nick's, Iraq, 2010


Nick came from Lebanon, but he’s American, my age. He used to own a restaurant across from the fallen Twin Towers. He told me he called it the Cedars of Lebanon. Nick was my best friend in Iraq, and for him alone, I was sad to leave the war. He would watch Lebanese television for Christmas cheer and tune in to the ceremonies in Arabic. In the midst of radical Islam here was a man whose culture had completely eluded me.

Nick’s family had to leave their home in Lebanon and he wanted to eventually return to reclaim it from Hesbollah, which had overran his little village in an earlier fight with Israel. I had known, from a safe distance, that from time to time the rage between the cultures again will turn violent, but this was the first time I had met someone who was directly affected by it all.

Christmas 2010 was near, and Nick was already thinking about what to cook. Of course, as any soldier or wartime contractor knows, you never really cook in Iraq. The Indians did, and they served you at the DFAC (mess hall). That’s where you ate, unless you wanted to heat up that innocuous noodle soup in little plastic tubs. You could eat so much fried chicken there you could come back weighing 300 pounds.

The local Iraqis who came to work on Delta loved Nick. At least the Christian ones. When I arrived I was put into their area of CHUs – or contractor housing units – a defacto segregated section just a short walk from all the others with whom I was to work, but culturally speaking, it could have been eight thousand miles away. Because of housing shortage, my CHU was to be a temporary location before moving to the "regular" housing units, because that is where they put the "foreigners". I call them that because most of them, while American, were there because of their Arabic language abilities. The Army regarded them as a necessary evil and they gave them the accommodations to suit their commanders’ prejudices. The sand bags that surrounded the concrete bomb and rocket bomb shelters in our section were so worn that the sand was falling out of the broken bags. It was one of the first sections put there, and it showed. I loved staying there, before I had to move to an “appropriate” section where everyone spoke just English.

Nick asked me what I wanted for Christmas dinner. He had decided on everything else besides the main dish, and he announced he was leaving that to me. Outside his CHU stood a small homemade steel grill next to the small, carefully tended herb garden he had cultivated for months in a small wooden slatted frame. I had to say something. I felt like half the world was waiting a response, or at least the dining ghosts of the Twin Towers, all of Lebanon, and most important, a Manhattan chef.

“Nick, whatever you think I will like, I know I will!"

“Well that’s solved then. Souvlaki, Lebanese style”, Nick replied. I could already smell it, and dinner was still three days away. He had read my mind about my preferred course, of course.

Speaking of smell, I had completely lost my sense of smell and taste just a couple weeks before. I was in a quandary. Nick had just invited me to one of the most important meals I would surely ever eat, and I was unable to taste it. I googled my situation and was comforted to know that sometimes taste buds would reappear and "reactivate" on occasion, but it was a known indicator of the possibility of an early onset of Alzheimers. So I resigned myself to take the good with the bad, and the bad was really bad because my father died of that awful disease.

However, Nick's souvlaki was much more important to me than whether I had found out how I might die. I was already in a war zone. I was determined to taste Nick’s food, no matter how many times I ate at the DFAC or ran to the shelters while the sirens blared, “incoming, incoming”. If my sensory loss was triggered by some form of PTSD in real time, I was absolutely determined to beat it this Christmas. 


And, on Christmas Day, for a very brief few minutes, I did. The lamb was stupendous. My sinuses suddenly opened wide and told my taste buds and brain what an extraordinary Arabic culinary delight I was having on my most special Christmas ever. The spices Nick had just picked, the potatoes he made with them – they soothed my body and slaked my thirst for taste for that brief moment. Then, too shortly after, my head closed up again, not to return to sensory consciousness until a week after I returned, seven months later at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury.


A Great Spirit

Amid the din of sound, someone whispered that Forward Operating Base (FOB) Delta (Al Kut, Iraq) was on a communications blackout. I was told this quickly because I was important. I had the clearance to know that before most of the soldiers did. But being civilian, new to this war, I remained a lost tourist.

A young soldier was just killed by a sniper a few hours earlier on a mission from the place I was just arriving. It was twilight, almost dark. Another Chinook landed just behind us a minute or two behind ours. They were ready for his body, but I didn't have a clue. The Chinook set down right next to us just as the giant ramp was lowered from our bird. We all filed out.

An honor guard had assembled near the other bird on the eerie, dark tarmac. The soldiers had not yet come to attention; had they been, perhaps the lost tourist might have noticed in the hazy and gas-fumed desert night. I arrived just on time, to a place at the edge of eternal darkness, the darkness of quiet despair. As history has it, not one other American serviceman was killed in Iraq that month, December, 2010. But that day, that night, the war penetrated the wire inside which I landed. Giant Goosebumps in armor, I was.

Private First Class David Dustin Finch was 24. He married just before he deployed, and he was very well liked there, I found out. I’m still not sure if a child was in his future, but one of his friends told me that he thought his wife was pregnant. I thought about that a lot, and I went to his memorial service a few days later. The sprawling DFAC (mess hall) was jammed with soldiers and civilians alike. The service was somber, graceful and true, and I tried as hard as I knew how to pray for David, and his wife, and myself too. 


I had finally arrived in my new home, Iraq. I sometimes  think of David still, though I never knew him. If there really are heroes and Great Spirits, surely David must be among them. RIP, David.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

La Cubana Verdadera

It was in Miami, 1961. Maria Elena Prio, was beyond beautiful to me. Her family had been exiled not once, but three times from Cuba, twice by Batista, in 1952 and then again in 1956, and, after they returned again, Castro booted them out for good in 1959. They finally settled in Miami Beach. 

I was too young, too naive, to understand she came fleeing from anyone. I couldn't think about anything else other than her for a too-short 1950-60s adolescent eternity. She was my world. An inveterate vinyl collector even then, I brought my very first LP album to her birthday party. The Ventures played, and as I dropped the needle on the platter on her back veranda, the world stopped as we danced to Walk, Don’t Run. For me, that was an anthem to the future.

Miami is another country now, only you don’t need a passport to get in. I found out only this year that Maria’s father had taken his own life years ago, according to reports. That news was very hard to take, even after all these years. I finally mustered the courage and talked to her a few months ago. It was very good for my spirit. Maria took law to be her life's work.

Maria’s dad was the last elected president in modern Cuban history. I didn't know all that in 1961. We were in puppy love; at least I knew I was. Maria didn't know what the future would bring any more than I. We were far too young; what else need be said? Batista pushed the Prio family out of Cuba and later the Castro came in to push them out again. That part we all know about. The rest, as they say, is history. People get lost in it. But as often happens, and for some it takes decades, reality sets in, and only the love endures.

Star-Mangled Manner

Strobe (noun)

1. A strobe light.

2. A stroboscope.
3. A spot of higher than normal intensity in the sweep of an indicator, as on a radar screen, used as a reference mark for determining distance. 
- American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

(Verb)

To give the appearance of arrested or slow motion by using intermittent illumination
- Collins English Dictionary - Complete and Unabridged


Not many people have ridden atop an elevator cab in full speed descent, but like clockwork, millions pour out of elevator high rise doors to the lobby at rush hour to the taxicabs and limousines outside and the subways below.

Few have dug a half mile tunnel (or a fifty foot well) by hand, but there are millions who travel the subways with daily precision. They ride sitting or standing with a grasp, one hand to the bar-hold, the other to a cellphone beamed to the window - inured to the ride but never injured from it - allowing a few feet from the stationary metaphors in motion on the other side of the glass. The windows dull the strobe-like view of the tunnel walls, as old bricks, metal signs and protruding spikes speed by in arrested staccato beat. To the eye, if it doesn't blink, the existential delusions speed alongside beyond the glass in a ceaseless, rapid and dull intensity. People inside are as still as a still shot while the earth races alongside, mangled in motion. No one really notices. The train’s natural manner might beget waves of emotion, but, oh say, can you see them?

Ding, Ding. Two for down. Doors will open. You wait. Doors close. “Next floor, Lobby.” Finally. You can almost feel it. The bodies within the cab issue a collective exhale, then inhale as the doors open. Out we go.

These elevator and tunnel life arrhythmias are silent to the eye and mind, drummed into the body with the irregular strobing pace of movement, the stops and starts, of “next floor - 46”, “next stop - Broadway”. They are the vertical and horizontal movements of the masses at building floors and at streets and in levels below. Vertically and horizontally coordinated, it’s a daily crucifix of human motion.

Vice President Joe Biden likes to reminisce when his life is temporarily out of recovery from any one of his over-sized portion of family disasters. In 2008 he returned to Union Station to bid farewell to the Amtrak redcaps, a farewell to 30 years riding. He had always gone home that way. During the farewell, he stopped to see the ticket agents, the shoeshine man, and of course, the conductors. They all knew him.
Libby Copeland, the Washington Post reporter who covered the event, reports, “He throws parties for retiring conductors, and once had a crewman serenaded by bagpipes. For Biden's first day back at work following two operations for brain aneurysms in 1988, he took the train, naturally. ‘The engineer saluted him with a longer-than-usual toot of the train's whistle,’ UPI reported at the time.” The event made perfect sense. No ride was better for the soul.

Fifteen years earlier, and for five years, (1962-1967), from ages 15-19, I took that train from my Washington DC home to school in Delaware. As if it were yesterday, I recall one particular conductor who always seemed to be there, almost as if he was on shift only for a single student boarding in Middletown. His voice was that of an announcer, megaphone in volume, and it bellowed with a booming melodious bass which signaled the approach of Baltimore, the first stop out of Washington’s Union Station. The endless, dilapidated row houses rolled by, noting the proximity of the upcoming station. The bellow seemed to come directly from the houses through the windows, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack, and Baaaay-Bee RUTH!” 

Sold! Out came the money. How could any teenager resist such a call for candy? By the time the products had been consumed, the train was arriving in Wilmington, my stop.

Upon approach and in sight of the station, the booming bass reappeared, resounding down the aisle: “Wilmington, Wilmington, Wilmington - home to DuPonts, and kin.” The Star Spangled Banner always waved its welcome. I’d bet it was still waving for Joe on his last trip. At least, one would hope.

That was not so long ago, but oh, how it’s now so far away.

Living by the Wayside

Paul Wells was the son of a slave, and he lived in Markham, Virginia. Paul was 80 when I first met him; and 5 years later he and I were neighbors. I lived in a shack down the hill, and he lived in a bigger one a football field up the steep hill. Paul was born in 1894, and his father made the development plans for nearby Delaplane and Paris, home to iconic weatherman Willard Scott. 

Paul’s home was bequeathed to his family during Reconstruction, and he loved to tell anyone who listened he was part Apache, and had they known THAT, “I’d have never gotten the darn place”. That’s the toughest word I ever heard him cussing. 

On the bare walls of his unpainted drafty clapboard house hung a framed certificate of appreciation from the owner of Marshall Hardware, noting his regular on-time payments for half a century. Paul’s 19th century clapboard house still stands today, the oak boards now split and popping out nails, naked of paint, and falling in on itself. Paul is buried a few miles away, not far from the Episcopal church in Hume.

“He sure is a handsome young man. Looks like he’s pretty rich too. I’ll bet he has a house out here. We have a lot of city people from up north out here now.” I had just marched up a recent copy of the New York Times and hauled it up the snowbound hill to his house. There it was: a picture of a young Donald Trump.

“Paul, he might be rich, he might be happy, but he’s still a damn developer. I hate developers,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. I got away from that crap.”

“You shouldn't hate anybody, George. Especially because you two are the same.”

“Why the heck do you say that?

“You both sell things.” 

He had me there. I had a short but highly successful run in the real estate hustle before abandoning the work in suburban Washington. My sales manager, delighted with the mountain of money rolling in from my work, gave me the highest compliment he could muster for an inexperienced 25 year old agent. “George, you could sell the president a pubic hair.” The compliment had a reverse effect; it convinced me to quit that work, and leave that world. I bid a permanent adios to The World of The Donald, and moved to Markham.

Probably taking a cue from his uncanny ability to read a face, Paul interrupted my Trump anxiety.

“George, take me to Front Royal for some Kentucky Fried Chicken,” disposing of both Trump and my anxiety at the same second. “And can we pick up a pint of Kessler’s on the way back?"