A Walk on the Wild Side

A Walk on the Wild Side
 
Did you ever have one of those days where everything you tried to do went wrong?
 
Mitch, Scott, and I did in Alaska in August of 1976 and we accidentally discovered what to do about it.
 
Our radio repair specialist, Scott, was pacing back and forth across the control tower floor threatening a piece of equipment that he had been trying to fix all day, with destruction. Mitch, my controller trainee, was fighting with unusually heavy traffic and stressing out because he had to continuously make decisions at such a rapid pace. As the supervisor on duty I was responsible for everything that went on so I was listening to Mitch, watching Scott, and answering telephones that wouldn’t quit ringing. That was when the idea hit me.
 
At face value the idea was completely ridiculous. I proposed that we catch a ride up to the ski lodge for Arctic Valley, get off at the 2500’ level on the mountain, and hike down the other side into the valley. We would descend until we reached Ship Creek and then follow the stream farther into the mountains until we found a logjam where a friend said that he had built a log lean-to. That particular location was supposed to be unequaled for fishing and peacefulness according to this friend, Neil.
 
Granted, Neil was drunk most of the time that he was not at work, but he did know the area. He had a different outlook on life than most (OK, All) people and even the Alaskan trappers who wandered the bush thought that he was odd.
 
It could have been his constant drinking and loud singing as he walked the back country of the state that spooked them. Or possibly it was because Neil refused to camp within three miles of any other human, even to the point of breaking camp and moving in the middle of the night if anyone camped near him.
 
He hated being “crowded” and spent all of his free time away from humans. It wasn’t unusual for him to walk from Anchorage to Palmer (about 40-45 miles) through the wilderness, by himself. I had driven to Palmer to pick him up more than once and he always came out on the day he said that he would.
 
When couldn’t get away due to his work schedule or having duty, he would spend all of his extra time working out. The man was a living contradiction. A drunken physical fitness nut and a singer who couldn’t stand to have an audience. I liked him.
 
Neil had a single eyebrow that went from temple to temple and some people would call him “Neanderthal” but never to his face. He could walk up and down the steepest mountains like he was strolling down a sidewalk and it took no effort. His singing voice was a beautiful tenor (almost baritone) and he was really quite good. I had heard him singing (always under the influence of a bottle of whiskey) various things from opera to Irish ballads and was amazed. He just couldn’t tolerate being near people. I could only guess that his childhood contained the answers, but I never asked him.
 
We considered that anything was possible and Neil’s recommendation to go camp there was certainly a better option than staying locked into the rat-race of our jobs where even being off duty didn’t stop the telephone from finding you. The cycle needed to be broken and only getting to a place where we were unreachable would do that.
 
The thing that made this idea so ridiculous was the fact that we only had twenty-four hours between shifts to accomplish the entire trip. There were also minor problems such as not knowing specific details about the area, being unsure if our directions to the logjam were real or hallucinated, or how long it would take to get in and more importantly, out.
 
Our source of information (Neil) had never entered or exited from the point that we chose to leave “civilization” (that’s funny in Alaska) and enter the wild areas. He couldn’t tell us what to expect for a time table as he worked in days (not hours) when he hiked. It wasn’t really very far into the bush but in 1976 the bears and wolves walked through the airport and into base housing on a regular basis. You didn’t have to go far to get into trouble.
 
I believe that it was the absurdity of the situation that sent us up the mountain that afternoon in August. We should not have done it for any number of common sense or rational reasons. I am sure that it was just that kind of break from routine and rules that made the journey mean so much to us; it was breaking free.
 
By five o’clock in the afternoon we had started down from our jumping off point at the 2500’ altitude marker on the mountain. The three of us were hiking down an animal trail that we had only just learned about and hoped that it went where it was supposed to. There was quite a bit of discussion about what we had gotten ourselves into as we walked.
 
We descended rapidly through a cool meadow littered with tumbled down trees until we reached the first creek and our first decision. There was an unexpected fork in the trail and we faced that age old choice of whether to take the left or right path.
 
Instead of simply opting for the Robert Frost choice of the one less traveled, we made the decision based upon what felt logical. Following the right path as it continued to descend in the general direction we had been going, made more sense to us than the left which stayed level and appeared to wrap around the hillside. There was no fear of getting lost; we could back-track our own footprints in the soft earth of the trail if we needed to.
 
Continuing downward on our chosen path we soon passed through an area covered with more red berries (rose hips and high bush cranberries) than we thought existed in the entire state of Alaska. It was among those berries that we came to the second rapid drop in elevation. The trail was so steep that we had to run down it to keep on our feet and feared for a misstep that we were sure would cause a most spectacular tumble. Only Scott came close and slid the last few yards on the seat of his pants.
 
By that point we had crossed two small bubbling creeks containing clear, cold water and descended approximately twelve hundred feet into the heart of Arctic Valley. It was hard to decide whether to watch where you were stepping or gawk at the surroundings. I tried to do both.
 
As we descended the third steep drop we noticed that the tree leaves had changed to purple, gold, and crimson, and that the trees themselves were larger. The size change probably would not have been noticed in the lower forty-eight (U.S. states) but in mainland Alaska the trees were so small that any change was noticeable.
 
The biggest change to me was the quiet. The silence was not only external, but internal too. Quiet was no longer just the absence of sound coming to our ears, but the cessation of the voices in our heads. Even though our trek was strenuous we seemed to be resting as we walked. I realize now that it was relief from stress.
 
We crossed three creeks, a boot grabbing marsh, and descended about two thousand feet in elevation in the course of about six miles. By all rights by the time we reached that elusive logjam we should have been worn out, but we were not; in fact we felt great. The three of us had just done a forced march over rough terrain carrying forty pound packs that lasted two and a half hours without a break; and we weren’t tired.
 
The lean-to was right where our friend had told us that it would be and in far better condition than I expected. It was just a crude shelter of logs but it served our purpose well and I managed to quickly fix the few spots that had fallen in. Mitch and Scott gathered spruce boughs for cushioning under our bedrolls and then easily collected more firewood than we could burn in one night.
 
Our campfire was built on an open rock surface between the lean-to and the stream and there were already logs to sit on or lean against in place. It was a dream of a camping spot and we sat around the fire getting high on good company and fresh air.
 
Scott was suffering a little as he had lost his cigarettes somewhere along the way and the idea of not being able to smoke for several hours was working on his mind. Mitch told him to just sit downwind of the campfire and breathe deeply. We all laughed at the idea but I did notice that before long Scott had shifted his seat to a position where the smoke hit him.
 
The location was incredibly beautiful and the word “serene” comes to mind as a good description of our surroundings. The air and water were so pure and clean it that it amazed us and we hesitated to put our hands in the water for fear that we would “contaminate” it.
 
When we finally gave up and went to our bed rolls the tiredness of our bodies won out. I don’t think more words than “goodnight” were spoken before we were dead to the world.
 
The next morning we discovered that a good-sized bear and a huge moose (judging by their very fresh tracks) had battled their way past our camp without even disturbing us. We guessed that it happened during the early morning hours (by the dampness) and were both amazed and concerned that we hadn’t heard a thing.
 
The tracks told quite a story as it was evident that the moose had slid backwards at one point and the bear had dug its claws in for traction, possibly pushing the moose. Other places showed that the moose had dug up chunks of soft earth with its antlers. We were really sorry that we had slept through the event.
 
Scott was raised as a concrete jungle city kid. After seeing the large animal tracks he spent a great deal of time muttering about wishing that we had a “bazooka” in case one of them came back to “eat  him.” No amount of reassurances could convince him that the creatures were not interested in us. Mitch was from Hilo, Hawaii and while he laughed at Scott’s fears, I did catch him looking over his shoulder frequently. I hoped that we would see them again, but it was not to be.
 
We had awoken just after sunrise and that was supposed to be the magical time to fish our little stream so we quit looking at tracks and got our hand lines (no poles) into the water right away. The stories were true and in just two hours we had caught thirty Arctic Char big enough to keep. We caught more than that but we released the smaller ones to grow for another year before jumping into our frying pans. It was rather mystifying to me to be able to catch fish on nothing more than a shiny hook with a reflector (spoon) attached, but that was all we used.
 
We quickly reached the point where we had to quit so I cleaned the fish we had and packed them in plastic bags to go into our backpacks for the trip out. While I cleaned the fish, Mitch and Scott made sure that there was absolutely no trash and as little evidence of human interference as possible. Thinking that it might prove useful to some future traveler we stacked the collected firewood under the lean-to to keep it as dry as possible.
 
Our exodus went faster than we anticipated (with it being all uphill) and we walked into the parking area at the lodge in just two hours. I can only guess that knowing where we were going and feeling the pressure of having a definite deadline made us walk faster.
 
The three of us were early for our shift and slept very well for a week afterward. You might attribute that to fresh air and exercise if you hadn’t been with us.
 
Whenever things got hectic and demanding for any of us after that we would just take a mental journey back into that beautiful valley and the smile would soon return. That hike had definitely been worth it. We had each learned how to be at peace with ourselves and that was the most important lesson of all.
 
Epilogue
 
The fish that I had so carefully cleaned, bagged, and packed out didn’t fare well. There was no ice to keep them cool and the heat from our bodies caused rapid deterioration. But, the local wildlife on the airport was happy to have the spoiled fish so all was not lost.
 
We learned a fishing lesson from that experience too. Only catch and keep what you can eat on site, or have a cooler with enough ice to make it home again. We did the latter when we fished for salmon.
 
P. S.
 
The area we hiked 36 years ago is now easily accessible from Anchorage and part of a trail system. It is currently very popular with people who weren’t born yet when we walked that ground. I hope that they respect it and do their best to leave no evidence of their passing, just as we did way back then.
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From Innocent to Veteran

From Innocent to Veteran
This is a fictionalized account of a true story. Names* have been changed where necessary to protect individual’s privacy. The information contained within is as true as I can make it, given that it did not happen to me. The tales were told to me by Sam White* himself.
==================================
Sam White didn’t always want to be a photographer, but then he wasn’t sure just what he wanted.
Not having many job prospects beyond manual labor when he graduated from high school, Sam got sweet talked into the U.S. Navy by a smooth operator of a recruiter. The recruiter promised a girl in every port and barely enough time to rest in between ports. It sounded like a dream job to Sam.
Drinking beer and chasing women filled his thoughts and free time throughout navy basic training. It was pretty much like his high school years, only with more money and some status as a military man. Not that being a sailor opened doors for him, but it did give him an identity.
Of the choices offered to him as he prepared to complete basic training, photography sounded like a better job than being a cook or engineman to him. It was certainly less physical and you would get to see the outside world more than the other swabbies stuck below decks.
Sam did well at photography school and finished at the top of his class, earning him his Photographer’s Mate designation and a step up in rank at graduation. Earning that designation put him in line to be promoted again if he did well at his first duty station. That was the story given to him by his head instructor at school, who encouraged Sam to immediately volunteer for sea duty. That was the real key to success he told him.
Full of plans to be promoted to Chief Photographer’s Mate by the time he was twenty-one (less than two years away), Sam filled out his request for sea duty and was sent to the U.S.S. Mister Rogers* right after graduation. He was on his way up the ranks; he was sure of that.
The number two in his class went to shore duty in beautiful Hawaii, the most sought after assignment in the navy. Number three also got shore duty, but in exotic Yokosuka, Japan. All of the rest of his classmates went to sea duty on various ships.
Sam spent a lot of time thinking about how much either classmate number two or number three had paid the instructor to convince him (Sam) to ask for sea duty, thus moving them up to the choice they wanted. He even talked to himself out loud about it when he was swabbing the decks of the photo lab or the adjoining passageway.
When test time came around, Sam proved himself capable and “sewed on” (got promoted to) Photographer’s Mate 3rd class. PH3 White had become a naval Petty Officer and once again had a spring in his step. There was now someone else to push that mop around as he took on more responsibility.
Flight operations aboard an aircraft carrier were always dangerous and everything that happens is filmed by either video camera or still photography. PH3 White had proven himself adept at running the flight deck camera and captured many critical images of aviation problems and accidents.
He had once filmed the wheel of a fighter aircraft coming off during a bad landing and had it (the wheel) take the camera tripod right out from under his camera while he continued to roll with the camera in his hands. Those images were extremely useful in solving problems and briefing aircrews.
Armed with shining recommendations from his superiors, he once again took his rating exams and advanced to Photographer’s Mate 2nd class. That latest success nearly got him booted out of his job as he (along with friends) made some celebratory “hooch” from alcohol and other items in the photo lab.
After drunkenly serenading some senior officers in only hula skirts and their sailor hats while underway from Hawaii to Japan, Sam and his friends were placed in custody until they sobered up and then faced the captain for punishment. They were all docked a month’s pay and would not be allowed liberty in Japan. Sam was also given extra duty (like high school detention, only with chores) because he was the senior person involved.
That cruise with Admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet aboard proved to be a problem for many of the crew and by the time they reach the “land of the rising sun” the entire floating city was restricted to the ship. Many of the senior ship’s company tried to intercede for at least a couple of days of liberty, but the Admiral wouldn’t budge.
There is a saying that bad things happen to those without compassion.
The Admiral traveled with his own personal military Cadillac sedan stored on the ship in the hangar bay. His aide had sailors assigned to wash and wax it at least once a week and then cover it back up with its fitted car cover. It was said to smell like expensive Cuban cigars and single-malt whiskey inside. When the car was uncovered to be cleaned and polished, the Admiral insisted that his flags be displayed on the fenders. They even had wires in them so they would stand out and show the star.
The entire crew hated that car. It was a symbol of everything that they couldn’t have being flaunted in their faces.
What happened next was only natural given the fact that the ship was on its way to extended sea duty and this was their last chance at a liberty before the grind began in earnest. From the captain to the lowest seaman they were all frustrated and upset.
Sam was scrubbing floors (extra duty) with a Marine guard watching him when the event took place, or it would have been easy to point the finger at him for what happened. It was still believed, and told in whispers behind closed doors, that he engineered the whole thing. He had a reputation for being creative like that.
A naval vessel is never really idle, even when parked in a port. The flight deck crew was doing drills and working on a forward catapult. The catapult (or cat) is a steam powered device used to help aircraft reach speed sufficient to fly off of the flight deck. Without the boost from the catapult, airplanes would drop off the end of the ship into the water.
When they test fire the cat it is done either in a no-load, or loaded status, meaning that it either has no weight to move, or weight equal to a particular aircraft type. Like a firearm, it is generally not seen as a good thing to dry fire it (no bullet in the cylinder). To that end “dummy loads” are made up with equivalent weights for the aircraft aboard. We could spend a lot of time discussing dead weight vs. rolling weight and representative equivalents, but rest assured that they knew what they were doing.
On that day the number 1 cat had been taken all the way down (disassembled) for a new steam cylinder installation and that always required firing at least one dummy load to recertify it as safe for real aircraft launches. During the early morning hours the dummy load had been prepared and while it was still dark it had been moved to the elevator just forward of the island. That elevator was still in the down position making it level with the hangar bay.
At approximately 08:00 with great fanfare (and certainly numerous one finger salutes) the admiral accompanied by his aide and the ship’s captain departed for meetings on the base. That these “meetings” would be full of fine food, quality drink, and most likely pretty girls, was not lost on anyone stuck aboard.
The Executive Officer, the Navigator and CAG 9 (commander of the embarked airwing) announced over the ship’s 1MC (P.A. system) that all department heads would meet in the officer’s mess for a working breakfast at 09:00. The ship’s “Chief of the boat” (or senior enlisted man aboard), broadcast a similar meeting for all ship and airwing department Master Chief Petty Officers to meet in the Chief’s mess, also at 09:00.
Next up was the Flight Deck officer announcing an “all available hands” F.O.D. (foreign object debris) walk down on the flight deck. That would normally only be done in the case of flight operations, which were not scheduled as far as anyone knew. But, being sailors, they just grumbled and did as they were told. Men poured onto the flight deck from every hatch (door) and ladder (stairs.)
Meanwhile “forces unknown” were busy in the hangar bay preparing the dummy load for its ride up the elevator and subsequent flight through the air. By 08:45 the flight deck was full of sailors walking around looking for a stray piece of anything and finding very little.
The announcing system once again sounded asking the men to remain on the flight deck, but clear of catapult #1 for the test firing. The deck crew brought the large covered mass off of the elevator and using one of their yellow tugs, dragged the palletized load into position on cat 1 and hooked it up.
Since there was little else to do and it was nice outside, the sailors moved forward on the flight deck to watch the show. As the checklist was run between the flight deck crew and the operators below, the person on the P.A. system gave time updates, which in itself was odd.
At 09:00 on the mark the call came to stand clear of catapult #1 and then a second announcement of “maximum power, all eyes on cat 1!”
With a rush of steam and the thumping sound of the catapult firing, the load very quickly went forward and into the air. Instantly there were thunderous cheers from everyone on the flight deck, and then the yelling from the rest of the crew below decks was heard throughout the ship. Those on deck had a front row seat, while those below decks watched on the ship’s TV.
The fact that they set a new distance record with that shot was barely noted, indeed almost forgotten. The odd circumstance of having a tarp secured to tie downs and remaining behind when the load fired off was brushed aside completely.
Nothing known to man could have been better, or sweeter, to that crew than the sight of the admiral’s Cadillac sedan flying through the air as it sailed far out into the blue water of the bay.
The cheering went on for several minutes on the flight deck and the camera operator ran the video over and over on the ship’s TV. That few seconds was undoubtedly the happiest moment of the cruise so far. The only thing better would be homecoming, and that was many months away.
When the admiral returned and learned the fate of his beloved car he was apoplectic. He tried to scream at his orderly and could only squeak such was his rage. The ship’s doctor was called to stand by, in case of a stroke. Those within view said that they had never seen anyone turn that particular shade of purple before, and that the man tried to speak but could only spit and drool on himself.
The prepared dummy load was found “parked” in the same spot as the admiral’s sedan usually occupied. When the cover that normally protected the automobile was pulled off, the flags that traditionally adorned the car’s fenders popped up (via springs) into full salute.
There was an investigation conducted to be sure, but everyone with any authority was in a meeting and didn’t know anything about the launch. Everyone else seemed to have been on deck, except for PH2 White and his Marine watch dog. To a man nobody knew anything.
The crew stuck to their stories and since A) The admiral wasn’t really supposed to have a personal automobile aboard and B) There wasn’t anything he could do to them. The cruise went on as planned.
1961 Vietnam
Newly elected President John F. Kennedy was still holding to the idea that the puppet South Vietnamese Head of State Ngo Dinh Diem, would have to defeat the communists on his own. Kennedy had too many irons in the fire to add solving Viet Nam’s internal strife to the list, but he also feared what was called the domino effect if he did nothing. The domino effect stated that if Viet Nam “fell” to communism all of the surrounding countries would as well.
At the time of this story, Diem who was a fanatical Catholic, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was head of the secret police, were busy killing off Buddhists and destroying their temples. He believed that only Catholics would truly resist the communists. The problem was that the vast majority of both North and South Viet Nam were Buddhists. It was these murderous attacks more than any political agenda from the communists that created the NLF (National Liberation Front) aka the Viet Cong.
In May of 1961 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Saigon and made the famous enthusiastic statement that Diem was the “Winston Churchill of Asia.” This convinced the people of Viet Nam that America supported and condoned the murderous activities of Diem.
When asked later why he said that about Diem, someone that they all considered weak and ineffective, LBJ said “He’s the only boy we got out there.”
Immediately following V.P. Johnson’s visit the clandestine insertion of “flood relief” and “aid workers” tripled. The promise of military and financial aid had been made but officially the U.S.A. was still side-stepping direct involvement. Everyone knew that the situation was about to change.
After leaving Japan the top brass didn’t identify Viet Nam as a destination for the carrier battle group (aircraft carriers don’t go anywhere alone), just putting out a generic “Westpac” (Western Pacific ocean) on the itinerary. The feeling was that they didn’t want to call attention to the American war ships lurking off of the Vietnamese coastline.
Mekong Delta and the easy boat ride
The south (there are two: north, and south) monsoon season was just ending in the southern end of Viet Nam and the days were hot and sticky, but the sun was out most of the time. During the rainy time there could be get ten inches of rain or more in a single day making life miserable for those who wanted to be dry. Ph2 Sam White liked to be dry. In fact, he liked to be clean and dry; it was one of his favorite things in life.
When they had crossed the equator and did the famous “Shellback” initiation, conducted by none other than “Davy Jones” himself, his PHC (Chief Photographer’s Mate) had made it a point to make Sam crawl through the nastiest and most vile concoctions he could find. Sam took three showers after the ceremonies were over and then wiped himself down with alcohol from the photo lab.
There was great debate as to why PH2 White drew the assignment to go on the boat ride up the Mekong River. Some said that it was because he was the best man for the job… others believed that it was because his chief knew that he would get hot, sweaty, and indescribably filthy on the trip.
The mission was supposed to be a piece of cake; just a simple boat ride up the Mekong River to photograph the power plants for “flood control” assessment. It was all in keeping with the stories in the international media (written by the U.S. State Department) about helping with flood relief for victims of the huge monsoonal flow of water that had inundated the area.
Sam saw the task as a way to get off of the ship for a little while and see something besides grey walls. He gladly accepted the job when he was volunteered by his PHC. That was the way things were done in the navy, you could voluntarily go along with assignments… or you could do them anyway.
A young Ensign from Naval Intelligence came to the photo lab right away to get Sam and handed the chief a written order that said for the duration of the mission PH2 White belonged to them. That put the chief in a bad mood as it meant that he would have to fill in wherever his petty officer had been scheduled to work. He hadn’t planned on his underling being gone for more than a day when he volunteered him. Who will eventually get the last laugh remains to be seen.
The briefing for the mission wasn’t exactly like what the PHC had said. Sam was briefed by several enlisted men and a few different officers who each seemed to have a specialty. He was allowed to take notes during the briefings, but those notes would not be making the trip with him; they were classified.
The bottom line was that he was to photograph anything of a military or industrial nature, including any power plants, but to even include such things as overhead power lines where there was no plant. It had become clear that the navy (and others) wanted a ground level view of everything on the Mekong River.
Petty Officer White was coached each day on his role as an assistant for flood relief operations whose job was to photograph the power plants to assess them for flood protection. He was told to forget any words of Vietnamese that he might have picked up and when in doubt play dumb. Sam waited for a few seconds expecting to hear his chief’s voice say that he wouldn’t be “playing” dumb, but of course it didn’t happen, the man wasn’t in the room.
To continue his cover story and not draw any more attention to the aircraft carrier than possible, he would be flown by helicopter from the ship to the area of Soc Trang during the pre-dawn hours. From there he would be taken by local fishermen (really ARVN soldiers in civilian clothes) in native fishing boats up river to Can Tho.
At Can Tho he would switch to a transport truck and be driven to Vinh Long where he would meet BMC (Chief Boatswain’s Mate) Black and his crew at the main channel of the Mekong River. Chief Black usually had a crew of five ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) aboard his converted sport fishing boat.
Chief Black was also really a Navy Seal working on missions of his own and Sam was cautioned not to ask him any questions about what he was really doing there. Their joint objective was to get through the Hong Ngu District and briefly cross the border into Cambodia, and return. Extraction point at the end of the mission was Bien Hoa airport near Saigon. Chief Black would get him there, somehow.
Departure day arrived quickly and Sam was glad. It meant that they would quit giving him shots for this disease or that fever and there wouldn’t be any more tests to take regarding briefing materials. He was ready to go in his own flight deck gear fifteen minutes before show time.
This was supposed to be a simple run on fast boats and with few stops to make along the way. It would only be forty miles by native boat, twenty miles by truck and then another eighty on a fast boat. Of course, Sam was thinking American speed boats and trucks, and had no idea about “Asian time.”
The big ship had arranged to be close to the shoreline at departure time to cut down the flight time and distance. When the helicopter launched it rapidly dropped down to the surface of the water from the height of the flight deck. That reminded PH2 White that he really should have gone to the head (bathroom) one more time before take-off.
A fast thirty minute flight (that seemed to be low enough to pull water-skiers) had them flying over the coastal fishing fleet and then “feet dry” (over dry land) in no time. The crewman flying with him kept his goggles on and his hands on his machine gun, even though the door was closed to hide the weapon.
Sam had been told that there would be many people reporting their flight and if he delayed at the airport he would be approached by government officials or even the NLF. Everyone would want to know what he was doing there and detain him until someone told them what to do. He was not to hesitate.
The naval intelligence guys had given him an additional camera for night shots, which made a total of three in his borrowed army backpack, along with waterproof bags and film. He wasn’t sure why they had insisted on extra socks and antifungal ointments along with boots, fatigues and field jacket he had been given by the Marine detachment aboard his ship. This was just supposed to be a fast run on a fast boat and then he was out of there!
The helicopter barely slowed down to let him out before they took off and flew farther inland before turning towards Saigon and from there back to the ship. Sam supposed that they didn’t want to help anyone pinpoint where they might have dropped him off, assuming that anyone would think that.
The monsoon might be in its waning days but it still had some water to drop, as he found out half way to the nearest shelter. He had not seen it rain so hard since he was in south Florida. Visibility was less than ten feet, which was a good thing as two soldiers walked out to where he had just stepped off the helicopter. They had their heads down and missed the decidedly white Sam White, as he ducked into a shed.

After the soldiers made a half-hearted (and thoroughly wet) look around the pavement they went around the building out of sight. Sam took the opportunity to quickly walk the other direction and caught a ride on a passing delivery truck. He wasn’t sure where it was that he had been dropped off, it certainly wasn’t the airport, but he was sure that it wasn’t safe there.He spotted the river during a short break in the rain and banged on the side of the truck to be let out. There tied to a stick jammed into the bank was the fishing boat with two men waiting for him as planned. Sam was proud of himself for making his first connection and avoiding detention. This mission was quite the thrill so far.

Once on the fishing boat and underway Sam had checked his gear to make sure that all was still dry and undamaged. It was all still safe and ready. He wished that he could say the same for himself. The rain had drenched him from under his hat to inside of his boots. His clothes were so wet that he felt like he was sitting in hot mud, and it was still morning. It would get hotter.
His guides spoke to each other but never made eye contact with Sam. He wondered if that was so they could say that they had never seen him. He desperately wanted to ask them when they were going to speed up as it seemed that they were only going at about a fast walk (4 mph). That rate would barely get them to Can Tho by nightfall. He was learning about Asian time the hard way. They would get there, when they got there.
Back at the ship the admiral had directed the captain to turn seaward and put some distance between them and the country of Viet Nam. He did not want to be the reason for any more international press coverage. It was said later that he expected the worst from the mission that young PH2 White had been sent on and never expected the man to return.
Sam made the decision to save the military ration chocolate bars for later and just share food with the Vietnamese men. Had he tasted those candy bars he would have traded them at the first opportunity. That way at least he would have gotten some revenge.
To say that the food of Southeast Asia can be hot is like saying that gasoline can catch on fire. The simple appearing meal of rice and fish with green and red “seasoning” that they willingly shared with the young photographer had “consequences.” The immediate short term effect was intense searing pain on his tongue and lips as the peppers burned his mouth. It was the second, long term problem that nearly did him in.
Sam wasn’t sure how long he rode with his butt hanging over the side of the boat as the explosions in his insides happened over and over again. He didn’t immediately catch on to what was going on when one of the men flipped the tail of his shirt over his very white posterior. He was flying the pale butt flag of an American, which anyone along the river would recognize as a foreigner.
Arriving at Can Tho around 18:00 they were met by two more ARVN soldiers driving what Sam understood to be a stolen truck. Those men were very insistent that they depart for Vinh Long immediately. He hoped with all of his remaining body fluids that the ride would not be bumpy.
As he tried to thank the men who brought him up the river he was grabbed and pulled into the truck by his new guides. Panic nearly consumed him at that point as he thought that he was on his way to interrogation for sure. Once they had sped away from the river he was told in Queen’s English that the men he had just left were NLF and were about to hand him over to their superiors. He once again felt the urge to be sick but held on and it passed.
Sam told the man sitting in the non-driving spot (he was in between them) that he had eaten food with the river men and he had been in distress ever since. The man reached into his bag on the floor of the truck and pulled out a piece of root of some kind. He said, “This will help you. Chew it up and then spit out rest.” Then he bit off a piece, took it out of his mouth and handed it to Sam. By then Sam was ready to die from the cure, rather than continue to suffer. To his surprise his problem was gone before he spit out the chewed up mass of root. He never did learn what that root was.
Once within sight of the river they drove parallel to it for a short distance until they spotted the converted sport fishing boat. They had Sam get out on the road and they kept going, again hoping to disguise his movements. He was able to say his thanks before he hopped down from the running board of the truck and nearly broke his ankle stepping into a pothole.
Chief Black looked like a grizzled old fisherman with his short grey beard and Greek fisherman’s cap. The hard steel gaze that met Sam’s eyes belied the soft voice that came from his mouth. He grabbed Sam’s bag and helped him aboard, while simultaneously calling to his crewman in Vietnamese to get underway.
As the young photographer looked around the boat in the fading light he could see .50 caliber machine guns mounted forward and aft, plus machine guns stowed on either side abeam the steering wheel. He began to worry that maybe this was going to be more of a challenge than he wanted.
Sam asked the chief if they were going to keep going up river as the darkness fell, noting that they couldn’t see anything. Chief Black then pulled a pair of Russian night vision goggles out of a cabinet and said that night was his favorite time as he could see everyone and they couldn’t see him.
There were only four ARVN crewmen aboard as the chief wanted his crew number to stay the same. Villagers and fishermen reported the number of people on his boat every time they saw it and adding an extra would arouse suspicion.
The chief had his first mate take Sam below to put camouflage paint on his face and hands, to hopefully help disguise him. They couldn’t do much to hide his 6’1” height and 180 pound frame, so he would have to go below when they encountered people.
They moved cautiously up river under the cover of darkness with a crewman on the bow, one on the stern and one each on the port and starboard sides. Chief Black said that he knew the river in this section and there was nothing to photograph so he suggested that Sam go below and sleep while he could.
That was where Sam was at 05:00 when the fire fight began.
The chatter of the 50 caliber gun going off above his head rolled the young man out of his bunk and onto the floor. It was fortuitous that he had reacted in that way as a round came through the hull of the boat and knocked the blanket roll that he had been using as a pillow off of the bunk. He most certainly would have been shot in the head had he not moved.
The twin diesel engines roared as the chief pushed the throttle and spun the boat to the opposite bank and then quickly back down the river out of range. The boat had taken damage and would need repairs before they could try again.
Finding a side channel that looked good about thirty minutes downstream, they pulled in and assessed the damage. No one was hit, which was a great thing as far as Sam was concerned. He had survived his first fire fight and was scared and exhilarated at the same time. It was like the time when he rode a motorcycle off of a pier and realized that he wasn’t dead when he bobbed up in the ocean. His adrenalin was still pumping.
Chief Black barked orders to his crew in Vietnamese and had them scrambling all over the boat checking things and fixing holes that were low enough to possibly leak. The river was pretty high and fast with the monsoon drainage still running hard. He didn’t want to chance taking on water.
When all was in readiness on the boat, they stopped what they were doing long enough to eat a small cold meal. Two of the crewmen were gone for a few minutes going to the bathroom and looking for some kind of plant to either eat or use for medicine. Sam wasn’t sure.
Chief Black sat watching the men, the sky, the water and smoking his hand-rolled cigarette that smelled awful, until he felt that the time was right. Whatever he had been waiting for happened and he gave a couple of quick, gruff orders to the men. They pushed off and the diesels came to life.
Everyone was on full alert with weapons at the ready as they approached the place where they had been attacked earlier. Sam felt the need to go to the bathroom but doubted that he could get anything past his clenched butt cheeks if the opportunity to go presented itself. It was then that he realized that he was actually shaking.
As they passed by the farthest point they had yet attained on this journey Sam felt a sense of relief and said so out loud. That was one of those times where you think back and say, “I never should have said that; it jinxed everything.”
The words had barely cleared his lips when the engines began to sputter and cough.
The chief cussed and yelled to his first mate to take the helm while he checked the engines. For some reason the other, crewmen didn’t seem upset or even look back at what was going on. Sam thought that they must just be staying alert for an attack.
Before Chief Black could even get the engine housing open the motors conked out, causing a lot of excitement. More orders were barked out and the first mate spun the steering wheel bringing the craft around to go back south with the current.
Sam was told to grab a machine gun from storage and to watch the river bank on the starboard side. His instructions were to shoot anything that moved. They were really vulnerable as they drifted along without the power to get away or even maneuver.
Crawling back to his feet, the chief went quickly forward again and tapped the fuel gauge dial with his finger. It was sitting on zero. Flipping a toggle switch on the dashboard next to the gauge he again tapped the dial and got the same results… zero. Both of their fuel tanks were empty.
The boat drifted with the current and everyone maintained their positions of watchfulness while their leader continued to investigate why they had no fuel. Only he (Sam) seemed nervous, he thought, as he looked around.
Sam was sweating so much that he got dehydrated and nearly passed out. He didn’t even realize that he was thirsty. The older American told him to eat a couple of salt tablets and drink some water from his canteen. That helped a lot and he felt better.
The chief eventually found a puncture in one tank that he thought was a bullet hole. But, as he thought about it he changed his mind. “Bullets don’t make square holes” he said to himself. The discovery of a fuel line that was not only disconnected but routed so that it poured the fuel out through the back drain, made the old Seal see red.
Both tanks had drained into the muddy brown waters of the Mekong and the smell of diesel fuel had been masked by the ever present stink of the river. There was an automatic crossover between tanks to avoid running the engine dry and it had worked. The distance they had covered was on what they got from the leaking tanks together.
The river was running swiftly and there was no further incident as they drifted back to a place where they could get diesel fuel from a large farm that actually had a tractor. Most farms used either people power or had a water buffalo that they harnessed.
The farmer was not very trustful of the several 1 dong (currency of Viet Nam) coins that the American gave him for the fuel, as he was afraid that the government money wouldn’t be any good. The chief being an experienced horse trader brought out a good steel axe from the tool box on the boat and the old man was all smiles.
Sam saw that the navy man treated the elderly farmer with respect and that the farmer seemed to like him very much. He also noted that for some reason the ancient man would not even look at the boat crew. Again he figured that it was so he could say that he never saw anyone.
He said that he felt odd sitting exposed at that small dock out in the open, like everyone could see them and was reporting them as they sat there. He was no longer sure who they would report to, as he was not sure who the good guys and bad guys were any more. It was all very confusing.
Once again they found a side tributary to hide in and the chief cut a piece of wood to roughly fit the hole in the second tank and hammered it into place until it sealed the puncture completely. Then he had a crewman pump diesel from the 55 gallon drums into the tank with a hand crank device. He explained that the fuel would cause the piece of wood to swell inside of the tank and it would be locked into place and completely leak proof.
They decided to spend the night at that location and try again at first light the next morning. The Vietnamese men went ashore and made a fire to cook fish that they caught and smoke what smelled like hashish or something to Sam.
The old farmer had given Chief Black a cloth with some cheese and peppers and other vegetables that Sam didn’t recognize in it. He thought it odd that the old man had specified that it was for the chief and Sam only.
The young photographer wondered if they should be afraid to eat it, but trusted his leader with his life and so just followed the older man’s lead. The chief was kind enough to warn him away from the peppers which would have burned him up, again. Sweat poured from the Navy Seal’s head and face as he ate the hot morsels proclaiming how good they were. Sam was happy to pass them up still remembering the suffering he endured from the first meal he had in Viet Nam.
Sam was awakened by a nudge from the chief’s boot as he lay sleeping on the deck of the boat. It had been too hot to sleep below decks in the bunks, and he still had visions of that bullet knocking his pillow off the bed. He was just fine on the deck.
With the sun just beginning its climb into the sky and the chief confident that his fuel tanks were full, they once again powered out into the main stream. The chief had Sam take a turn at the wheel of the fast boat as they cruised at about half speed. He liked it and felt good about their day; everything was falling into place finally.
Chief Black made the rounds of the mounted weapons, checking that were loaded and ready and speaking with each crewman briefly. He wanted to be sure that none of them were still high from the previous night. The man seemed to Sam to be smiling more than usual. What he really didn’t understand was why that made him so nervous.
After they cleared the narrows where they attacked the first time the chief told Sam to see to his camera gear while he took over the helm and increased their speed. He felt that there could be photo opportunities a few miles ahead and wanted to be ready.
No one saw the log submerged just below the surface, or the green ropes or vines that held it in place, until after they hit it.
All four Vietnamese crewmen were thrown from the boat by the impact. The chief was knocked over the side but had a rope around his wrist which was tied to bulkhead next to the steering wheel. Sam had been standing in the cabin below decks facing aft towards the opening and was thrown towards the bow.
Everything happened in a split second but seemed like slow motion to Sam. He was trying to get up when the second bump hit as the boat went over the log and struck the propellers. That jolt sent him face first into the ladder coming down from the main deck. Once more he got to his feet and was dizzy but recovering.
As the fog cleared he had an image stuck in his head of the crewman at the rear machine gun standing on the rear wall of the boat and jumping off right before the first impact. He couldn’t make any sense of it and kept shaking his head trying to clear it out.
Sam and Chief Black made it back to the main deck of the boat at the same time. His Navy Seal training had served him well as he held onto the rope that secured him to the boat and was able to clamber back aboard with only minor bumps and scrapes. Once standing he looked at Sam and threw him a cloth.
The younger man had no idea what it was for and said so. The chief actually laughed and said, “You’re bleeding on my deck son.” Sam had struck his nose and lips and had no idea that he was losing blood.
As the younger man saw to his injuries the chief scrambled forward to the machine gun and held onto it as he scanned the river banks and the jungle beyond. He quietly called out to his crewmen in Vietnamese but got no answer.
Sam was a little faint as he realized how much blood he had lost, but felt alright in general. What amazed him was that he wasn’t scared. He really should have been, they were in a nasty spot if the bad guys attacked. As his eyes were able to focus he could see their four crewmen still swimming with the river and moving farther away from them. “Why don’t they make for the bank?” he recalled thinking to himself.
The log had lifted the rear of the boat clear of the water as they balanced there, still hung up on it. That precarious position gave the chief a chance to inspect the drive shafts and see that while their propellers were damaged, the drivelines were still good.
It looked like another drift down the river was in order as they had to get replacement propellers in order to make it to their destination. They would be able to fire up the motors and use them sparingly to control the boat, but wouldn’t get much power from them as they were.
When Chief Black stripped off his boots and shirt to get in the water to check the boat Sam saw scars on his chest, back and arms. The man had been through Hell and never spoke of his past. He gained more respect and understanding for the older man’s sometimes gruff ways that day. He was a survivor; he did what he had to do.
The chief had Sam go all the way forward to the point of the bow to use his weight as a counter balance while the extremely strong old veteran stood on the log that had stopped them and lifted and pushed on the stern of his boat. In just two tries he had them clear of the log. Once they were clear he took a machete and hacked through the ropes holding one end of the log. He had thought of just cutting the rope before but he was afraid that the freed log would strike the propellers again and make things worse.
Sam watched the log swing to the side of the river and thought again about what he had seen just prior to impact. As the chief swung the craft into the current with little bursts of power from the engines, Sam told him what he had seen. He added, thinking out loud, “He couldn’t have seen the log from where he was all the way aft. The boat would have blocked his view.” A very dark scowl came over the old veteran’s face as he nodded and remained quiet.
About a mile down the river they caught up with the four crewmen who were just climbing out of the river onto the bank. The men called out to us in Vietnamese and moved to a good spot on a sheared off bank. As the chief maneuvered the boat next to the bank the men jumped back aboard and they were able to continue on down the river at drift speed.
The chief was strangely quiet and seemed to be doing a slow boil. When they reached his private dock up a small hidden side tributary well clear of the villagers, the ARVN crew got off the boat and got in smaller craft and paddled off.
Chief Black brought a bottle of whiskey up from below decks and a canteen cup. The older man poured Sam a healthy amount of the brown liquid into the canteen cup and then tilted the bottle up and drank deeply.
Once that ceremony of survival was completed the chief said what was on his mind. “It could be bad luck or just freak accidents, but I got a bad gut feeling” he said. Sam asked what he meant by that.
The man continued, “No one but my crew knew that we would be going up the river that first night and the attack came at the narrowest part of the river.” He added, “I think my crew was shooting high (intentionally missing) too.”
The fuel line and the hole in the tank were no accident; he had found a pick that matched the square shape of the hole in the tank.
Chief Black had been up the river past where they hit the log just a few days earlier and it wasn’t there. The crewmen jumping off the boat before they hit the log and then swimming away from either an explosion or an attack that they expected to happen clinched it for him.
These were not random occurrences, they were sabotage.
Sam had orders to complete the mission and there was no time limit set. He just thought that it was because he would be done so soon it wasn’t an issue. The latest developments proved that theory was out the window. He wasn’t sure when he would finish his task, but he wasn’t as fearful as he had been. The bad guys had thrown a lot at him and he was still in one piece. He could do it.
Chief Black took Sam below decks, opened a locked chest and withdrew a Colt automatic pistol and handed it and a box of bullets to the young photographer. “Keep this on you at all times,” he instructed.
They set about replacing the bent propellers and repairing some bullet damage as best they could with the materials on board and salvaged from a nearby similar boat. Sam had no idea if the other boat belonged to the chief and wasn’t about to ask. The older man brought a couple of pieces of plate steel from a shed and installed them on either side of the engine housing as a kind of armor plating. Sam was thinking that he might like some of that plating to get behind if bullets started flying on their next attempt.
Occasionally a small boy would come to the boat and speak to the chief in Vietnamese and then leave again. After the third time Sam had to know and asked the chief what the boy was doing. The older man smiled and said quietly that the boy was his adopted son and was keeping watch on the road for anyone coming their way.
Prior to that Sam had not entertained the idea that anyone might be actually coming after them. He wasn’t at war with anyone, but he was no longer sure that the other guys knew that. The young sailor really didn’t have a clue about the politics of Viet Nam.
Chief Black satisfied with his repairs and alterations, took a small canoe out to the main watercourse to send a message to his crewmen via a passing fisherman. It was a system that they had used many times over the last year that he had been in country.
The message was simple: come to his landing in three hours. All the way back the old veteran was upset because he had that nagging gut feeling again. He had stayed alive for his entire twenty-two year military career by always trusting his instincts.
Sam had decided to take it easy while the chief was away and lay down on the grass above the boat dock to take a nap. It was nearly a permanent nap.
The chief glided back towards the dock silently on the water, easing around the larger boat and stood up to throw his knife. Standing over the sleeping photographer was an assassin about to drop a poisonous snake on him. As the Navy Seal threw his knife he leapt from the boat and ran up the dock pulling a machete from behind his back.
Sam woke up when the big knife hit the ground next to his head, severing the head from a Krait, also known to locals as a “step-and-a-half,” because that is how far legend said that you would get before you died if bitten. The bite was always fatal; how far you could walk was unimportant.
The younger man could barely speak as the veteran stepped across him to retrieve his knife from the body of the man he had just killed. “We need to get ready to go,” the chief said calmly. All Sam could do was nod his head and scramble to his feet. He barely dared to look back as the Chief Black drug the dead man into some tall grass out of sight.
When he had pumped his fuel tanks full and topped off his extra 55 gallon drum on the deck the chief gave Sam a flak vest to put on. He also told him to make sure that his Colt was loaded with one in the chamber and ready to go. The younger man could only nod his head as the feeling that something drastic was about to happen lay heavily on him.
Chief Black went out of sight around a bend in the trail and was gone several minutes before returning at a trot with his adopted son Nyuen running along behind him. Both of them grabbed lines and cast off as they jumped aboard the boat. Sam sat on a bench seat on the boat with his Colt .45 in his hand awaiting orders.
It was nearly time for his crew to arrive and the old chief decided to go across the main channel and tuck the boat into the reeds out of sight and wait for them. A few minutes before the ARVN boat crew would be at the landing they heard a tremendous explosion, followed closely by two more.
Nyuen smiled at his father as the chief said, “I thought so” and nodded at the boy. Sam was at a loss as to what had happened and started to question his benefactor but kept quiet as the chief held a finger to his lips.
Around a bend in the river came a motor launch filled with NLF soldiers towing a smaller boat with his crewmen in it. As they reached the tributary the head man in the launch said to the crewmen (in Vietnamese) “If anyone is still alive join them like nothing has happened and report to us later tonight.”
Chief Black watched the motor launch go out of sight down the river and then idled his powerful boat out of the reeds and into the tributary following his crewmen. Once he had all four of them in sight he whispered to Sam that they were going to have to kill those four traitors or they themselves wouldn’t make it through the night. It was a terrifying prospect but events left them little choice if they were to succeed and survive.
Not wanting to make any more noise than necessary in case there were reinforcements nearby, the veteran Navy Seal once again used his weapons skills and killed the back two men with thrown knives. While he did that Nyuen shot a third man with his crossbow killing him instantly.
When the last villain turned with a gun in his hand Sam had no choice but to fire his pistol. The bullet ripped through the man’s head and he fell from the boat.
Sam was in shock and scarcely believed what he had just done. He had shot guns all of his life, but never at anyone. Chief Black and his son were scrambling to strip the men of their soldier uniforms and throw the bodies in the river. They threw the clothing into the bushes where the body of the assassin he killed earlier lay bloating in the heat. There was no time to spare; they had to get away from there.
As the boat eased out into the river current in the afternoon sun, the chief was able to push the throttle and make good speed away from the area. Sam still sat on his bench with a blank expression on his face, not comprehending what had just happened to them.
Feeling safer now, Chief Black had Nyuen take the wheel while he readied the machine guns both forward and aft. As he did so he explained to Sam that he had rigged his own living quarters with explosives in case he was correct in his gut feeling that his crewmen were actually NLF (Viet Cong) and had informed on him. First the assassin, and then the explosions they heard, were the proof that the bad guys were after them. Had they not acted as they did, none of them would have survived.
When they reached the point where they had been fired upon on their first attempt, Nyuen was manning the forward gun and Sam was stationed on the aft weapon. Chief Black was all eyes as he scanned the river itself for log traps, and the river’s edge for assailants. Nothing at all happened.
Beyond that point Sam was reminded that he was there to take pictures and he got out his camera and stood by. The young photographer used all three cameras before he was done on that trip and shot all of his film.
He never really told me what all he photographed but he did say that there were power lines across the river in weird places and concrete landings on both sides of the river like heavy military amphibious vehicles might use. There were power plants and strange installations in the middle of nowhere and he shot them all.
Chief Black left the boat briefly inside of Cambodia and when he returned he was carrying a black bag the size of bowling ball. As they left the area heading south again, several loud explosions were heard. When Sam looked at the older man questioningly, the chief said, “Don’t ask.” So he didn’t. He didn’t really want to know anyway.
Sam just hoped that all of his photographs and whatever the chief did, were worth the lives that they taken. He justified the killings by saying to himself, “It was them or us.” But he never really convinced himself.
The Navy Seal had completed his assignment and worn out his welcome in the area so he was leaving too. He was able to arrange for a truck above Vinh Long and sold his boat, machine guns and all, to another American who was helping the Buddhist refugees escape from Ngo Dinh Nhu’s secret police.
Wars have always done unseen damage to people.
That quiet American with the shy smile that Chief Black gave the keys to the boat to was a Korean War veteran who never went home. He said that he couldn’t, not after what he had seen and done. The man felt that he wasn’t fit to be among innocent, unsuspecting people who would think that he was a decent human being. Sam understood what he was saying and wished that he didn’t.
The old chief jokingly told his friend that he should probably paint the boat a different color and avoid the area he used to live in as it might prove “unfriendly.” The other American said that it wasn’t a problem, he was used to not being popular.
It took them nearly four hours of driving as fast as possible on roads with huge holes and clogged with farmer’s carts, to reach Bien Hoa airport. Within thirty minutes, an all black C-130 showed up which was to carry Chief Black and his son (all though they didn’t know that part) to Thailand.
A message had been sent to the aircraft carrier by some means unknown to Sam and a mail plane was sent to pick him up and return him to the ship. He and his precious cargo of film were safely extracted from Viet Nam and returned to the relative safety of the big grey floating city.
As soon as he stepped foot off of the aircraft he was divested of his bag by the same young Ensign from Naval Intelligence that had first contacted him in the photo lab. He was allowed to shower, eat and sleep for eight hours before he was taken to a viewing room to be debriefed on every photo that he took. They kept at it for several days which angered his PHC to no end because he still had to cover the duty roster without PH2 White.
In a ceremony held at sea and with no press release or notification of next of kin, Sam was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. He was also instructed to never discuss the mission he had been on and what he had photographed there.
We didn’t discuss it…he talked and I listened; there was no discussion. He never said a word until twenty-three years after it happened and the war was long over.
P. S.
On the next deployment (of his carrier) that was heading towards Viet Nam, PH2 White managed to get himself drunk enough to pass out on the beach in Hawaii and get badly sunburned. He missed ship’s movement and didn’t get out of the hospital for six weeks (that took a lot of sweet talking.)
Subsequently he was in big trouble and got demoted to Photographer’s Mate 3rd class and did 30 days in the ship’s brig upon arrival back on the carrier. He managed to miss all of the Viet Nam duty station activity and wasn’t sad about that.
Rumor had it that Sam and a certain Marine Sergeant that had a fondness for flying Cadillacs, were running a nightly crap game in the brig. I don’t know for sure as I wasn’t there… but I wouldn’t doubt it.

Hate is not the answer

The Truth about the KKK 

 

Let me begin this tale by posing two true or false questions for consideration:

 

Is every Southerner a member of the Ku Klux Klan?

 

Does every Southerner believe that the KKK is really out to do good, and is simply misunderstood?

 

When I was 13 years old in 1966 I needed to know what the real story was in regards to the “Invisible Empire.” The two questions stated above were two of many that were going through my mind far too frequently for a young boy.

 

In light of the events of the 1960s with riots, abductions, and murders happening all over the country (not just in the South like some people seem to remember it) it really wasn’t strange for a young person to be trying to figure out what was true, and what was false.

 

Background

 

South Florida was not the hotbed of racial tension that other areas were at that time. Not like Montgomery, Birmingham, Cleveland, or just about any large city with sufficient media coverage to make national news.

 

I still think that political advantage and profiteering had more to do with the riots than we knew. It wasn’t just about anyone’s civil or human rights. Injustices were happening, and change was coming slowly, but there was too much violence. Violence wasn’t the way that the church going, God fearing people that I grew up with would even think of behaving. It certainly wasn’t what Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching.

 

 

I grew up with kids of every color, nationality, religion, and income level that you could imagine. If you know South Florida, you know that is not an exaggeration of the society found there. Black, white, brown, red, yellow… only meant colors from a Crayola Crayon box to us.

 

I knew three boys named Larry, and we had to call them something slightly different to tell who we were yelling at to throw us the ball, etc. One was called “Lawrence”, one was called “Larry”, and one was called “LT”. OK, you got that?

 

Now add to the mix; one was Catholic, one was Jewish, and one was Baptist. To further confuse the issue; one was black, one was white, and one was Seminole. Can you tell by the names, which was which? Does it matter anyway? It didn’t to us; they were just three guys named Larry.

 

If curiosity is killing you; Lawrence was black and Catholic, Larry was white and Jewish, which made LT a Seminole of the Baptist persuasion… and none of this mattered, and it shouldn’t.

 

Enter Curiosity

 

Why did these people (the KKK) gather together and hold rallies; and what’s with the burning cross?

 

These questions are what prompted four of us to go out into an orange grove in Davie, Florida, one Friday night when we were supposed to be at a school dance at the Junior High School.

 

It was a foolish thing to do and a much greater risk for my three Seminole Indian “brothers” than it was for me. Seminole Indians have “mixed” with slaves at times in their history and the KKK has a special hatred for those of mixed ancestry.

 

At least that was what we had heard and that was a big part of the problem. We didn’t have any first-hand knowledge and the opposing sides were extremely opinionated in their own behalf. So who should we believe? What was the Gospel in this matter?

 

The Rally

 

“Friday night in “X’s” orange grove, ceremonies to start at 8:00 PM, sharp. Come early and bring your own supplies. The Exalted Grand Dragon will Honor us with a speech and sermon.”

 

There was more to the flier, but you get the tone of the message. That was how we found out where and when the rally was being held. We were determined to find out the “why.”

 

Larry, Ralph, Sam and I really did start out at the dance. We didn’t lie (to our parents) about going to it, we just didn’t stay long. One of their cousins had agreed to give us a ride out to the orange grove for a half-pint bottle of Vodka.

 

They had already taken care of the payment, and obtained his promise not to drink it until we were safely back at the dance and he had driven home. The “no drinking” restriction was necessary because we had to be back at the school before 11:00 PM when the dance got over and we didn’t want this cousin getting into a wreck or getting arrested (or leaving us out there with the Klan.)

 

The rally location was a big shock to me. It was in a grove owned by a prominent family of church going folks with a very good reputation. I recall saying that “Maybe they didn’t know that it was being held there.” “And maybe pigs fly,” was the response and general consensus of opinion about that idea. I knew that the guys were right…I just didn’t want them to be.

 

We knew that the main road into the grove would be watched and they weren’t likely to let us in to satisfy our curiosity. They might have let me in by myself, if one of their number would speak up for me. But, I wasn’t interested in being alone with the Knights of the KKK, betting on them being understanding “Good Ole Boys.” So that approach was out. There was another road which connected this grove to the next, but it was a long way to the other end where you “might” have been able to enter, and it could have been padlocked too.

 

The only logical choice for us was to cross the big canal next to the paved county road that bordered the grove. Then hike in through the trees in the dark without flashlights, and hope that we didn’t encounter snakes, etc. There were also the man made obstructions like barbed wire and irrigation hardware. Yep. It was the best way, they would have to figure that nobody would be crazy enough to do that and not worry about posting guards or lookouts on that side.

 

We found a place for the cousin to park the car and go to sleep. He promised to wait and not drink the Vodka until the agreed upon time and if we weren’t out by 11:00 PM he was to go get the entire tribe to rescue us. We didn’t think that the cops would be of much use for some reason… a hunch that proved to have merit later.

 

The water was deep and cold, and there were alligators and Water Moccasins in those ditches, especially big canals like that one. Those minor details made it even more comical that we had to get naked and wade across with our clothes held over our heads to keep them dry. The running joke was about where you might get snake bit; and that nobody was going to suck the poison out, etc.  We were very loony, that much is obvious now, but at the time it was just another thing that we did. We could see an alligator farther up the canal, but we were too large for it to bother with.

 

We found a good spot to get out and quickly got dressed again. There was a minor planning problem; we had to use our underwear to dry off with. Not wanting to put wet underwear back on, we left them hanging on the bushes to dry. I wondered for a long time if they were still there. We didn’t go back for them, that’s for sure!

 

We actually made good time through the trees and were being very careful where we put our feet, both to avoid hazards and to prevent making unnecessary noise that might alert the Klansmen. We wanted this to be a “private” viewing of their rally and not for us to be “part” of it. The thought of what would happen to my Seminole brothers if we were caught made me very careful. The idea that I would be the reason for harm coming to them suddenly terrified me.

 

It was 7:45 p.m. when we got to the edge of the clearing where there was a bonfire and a lot of “White Robes” moving around. That meant it took us 30 minutes to cross the canal and hike in to that spot. We moved along the trees, keeping them between the crowd and us until we found a likely site to watch from.

 

The four of us then climbed a tree almost all the way to the top. Orange trees were not my choice for climbing with their thorns sticking out everywhere. I was scratched and bleeding from several places by the time I reached my perch.

 

If we had hesitated at all, we would have been history. We had no more stopped moving than two guards in white robes and hoods, carrying shotguns, walked right up to where we were and stopped. I was afraid to even breathe!

 

The rally was called to order and the ceremonies began at 8:00 p.m. on the dot. Those boys were punctual, I’ll give them that much.

 

The head guy of all of them, the “Exalted Grand Dragon,” was sitting in a lawn chair behind the stage, out of sight. He didn’t get up or even appear to pay any attention when the “Wizard” was on stage working the crowd into a frenzy. I supposed that it was much like what the opening act did for the headliner at a concert or a Las Vegas show.

 

This hooded bozo (the Wizard) had already answered a lot of our questions concerning the attitudes and intentions of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If you weren’t just like them you were wrong for their future and a danger to their children; and you had to be eliminated. Peacefully if possible, but however was necessary, if that was what it took.

 

The speaker professed to be a God fearing man on a mission to save his race from contamination and extinction. He said that he was doing it all for his children and their children. Using children and God were his main hooks to work the crowd, and work them he did! These robed figures were agitated, animated, and aggressive (just to use the “A’s”.) However you wanted to describe it, they were pumped up and ready to receive the message from their “main man!”

 

As good as the Wizard was at stirring the crowd up, he was nothing compared to the Exalted Grand Dragon! That man had people crying, shouting, and dumping money into a barrel. The donations were to keep up the fight against the government and all the others who would deny them their God given right. Of course, maybe a little of it would have to be used to pay for the stretch limousine that the big guy had arrived in; and would go on to the next rally in, riding in comfort.

 

I got the feeling that I was witnessing Adolph Hitler working on the plan for the Aryan race. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that genocide was too singular for what these crazies had in store for the rest of us.

 

When I was able to take my eyes off of the stage and look around us, I just about spoke out loud. Damn! The rally with all those fanatics was in front of us and their cars were parked behind us, with armed guards patrolling all around them. There was no “sideways,” the bonfire was so large that it illuminated everything around us. We were in an ugly fix, but still safe in the tree top for now.

 

The ceremony of lighting the cross would usually have begun the rally I was told later on in life. On that night it had special significance and had been delayed until that critical point. I had never seen so large of a cross before; it was made from telephone poles and was at least 40 feet high.

 

The Grand Dragon said a prayer that got a lot of “amens” all through it and had everyone focused on him. At a wave of the hand signal from him, one of the attendants lit the cross with a forty foot burst of liquid fire (like napalm) from a flame thrower. The screams, squeals and applause of the masses gathered there were thunderous!

 

The KKK will tell you that the lighting of the cross is a sacred religious tradition honoring the Light of God and Jesus for dying for our sins. All completely Christian and only meant as a good example of their faith.

 

So why then did their leader say, “All of the unclean, and the mixed curs had better take warning from this cross burning brightly in the night. We will take what is our right by any means necessary and they can perish in its flames if they get in the way.”

 

The crowd again responded with riotous and righteous clamor, not unlike a hound pack hitting a strong scent trail. I feared that the Dragon was going to send them out to harm people right then. In their present state of mind I believed that they would do anything that he ordered.

 

The man with the flame thrower was so moved that he unleashed another burst of fire on the already burning cross, causing more screams yet.

 

That “re-lighting” of the cross served a better purpose for us. It brought the guards in from the parking area to witness the burning and increasing level of excitement. Their movement drew them in far enough that we felt that it was our best chance to get out of the tree and slip out through the cars. Again we went with the logic of doing the least expected. No one would expect us to come out through the cars and down the main road of the grove.

 

Those trees ate us alive with scratches and cuts, but not a sound was made, at least not out loud. I was truly screaming inside my head from all of the pain. I almost fell out of the tree, but a hand reached out and grabbed me. Larry was looking out for his “brother,” as always.

 

We made it to the ground and staying low, moved as quickly as possible to get to the cover of the vehicles and darkness. Fear was a great motivator and we had plenty to be afraid of from those nuts, especially in the frenzy that they were riding on right at that moment.

 

As shocking as the words had been, and as disheartening as the supposed “moral conviction” of these robed figures was; the real pain and hurt lie ahead.

 

When these Knights of the Klan were just anonymous figures in robes, it was bad enough. But, when we got among the cars and recognized the vehicle of our Sheriff, the personalized plates of the Mayor’s car, the car of a banker who was the father of one of our friends, the truck belonging to the owner of the local hardware store (complete with the sign on the side), and other vehicles of people that we knew by the car or license plate… it went past bad, it was gut wrenchingly painful. How could they act this way here at this rally, and then smile to our faces when they met us on the street?

 

And then came the real crusher. The unmistakable car of the preacher whose church we had been attending! It serves no purpose to identify what religion he represented; none of them would condone what he had done here tonight.

 

The sinking realization that we now knew why the Wizard who “opened” for the main speaker sounded so familiar, and why he could talk for an hour and a half without letting up. We never set foot in his church again after that night.

 

We moved quietly through the cars and down the road towards freedom and fresh air. It smelled like sulfur and brimstone where we just were.

 

The Escape

 

There was a checkpoint to pass and even though it was dark, we could smell their cigarettes and hear what they probably considered a whisper, a long way from them. We just slipped off to the side and went through the trees until we were clear of them and then got back on the sand two-track road and in no time we had reached pavement.

 

Upon gaining that asphalt pavement, we allowed ourselves (for the first time) to run, and run we did, all the way to the car about a mile down that county two-lane. We ran like the Devil himself was behind us, and I’m not so sure that he wasn’t.

 

When we woke the cousin up from a sound sleep in the back seat of his car, scaring him with our emotional insistence to hurry up, he no doubt thought that the Klan was after us. It was worse, it was demons in our minds, screaming about what we had seen and heard!

 

The clock showed 10:30 p.m. when we walked back into the dance; we had been gone a lifetime. It was a sad, hard lesson to learn that things are seldom what they seem and people are capable of unbelievable extremes and such hatred that I couldn’t yet comprehend.

 

It would take many years and experiencing war to make me know the depths of the human soul.

 

Right then, at thirteen years old, I was in shock. If this was what it meant to be white, then I was glad to be a “brother” to the Seminole People, maybe they would claim me and I wouldn’t have to be white anymore.

 

I was sure embarrassed by what we had experienced on this night and apologized to my brothers for the color of my skin. They were wiser than I was, and told me not to worry, that I had a good heart and would always know the right path to take. I don’t know if I lived up to that, but I was glad that they were still my brothers.

 

Finally

 

Whatever color, nationality, or religion that you may be… whatever differences that you may have… whatever problems may arise in your life… we learned that night that: HATE IS NOT THE ANSWER.

 

Potholes and Attitudes

Potholes and Attitudes 

We have all experienced a violent storm of some kind; torrential downpours, sandstorms, violent electrical storms both wet and dry, hurricanes, and even tornadoes. One thing that they all have in common is their humbling power. Humans are so puny in comparison. 

When I sailed to the North Atlantic Ocean aboard the USS America (CV-66) in 1982 for joint NATO exercises United Effort and Northern Wedding 82, I had already experienced all of these described storms. I would say that I was admittedly jaded in my opinions about what a storm in these waters would be able to show me.

I was comfortable with the rocking of the ship, which being 1,047 feet in length and a displacement of 89,000 tons wasn’t much, most of the time. Growing up I had bounced around the Florida coastal waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in every conceivable kind of small craft. Motion generally didn’t bother me, whether it was in a swaying tree, or an airplane, hanging from a parachute, or on the water.

 
My shipmates related tales of “big water” and violent storms that rattled the ship on previous deployments, but I had not experienced any of it, yet. I had heard many of their varied stories on a range of topics as we worked our way across the “pond.” It was hard to tell what was BS meant to rattle new guys, and what was just exaggeration. They were quite good at both.

The men (and now women) who serve on the “small boys” (which is naval slang for anything smaller than a battleship or aircraft carrier) are amazing. The crews on the guided missile cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts and supply ships are real seamen and deserve admiration for the service they give, under seriously scary conditions.

 
On the day that the storm began, I was working on our position plotting chart, which we updated every fifteen minutes. That chart was used for planning flight evolutions and airspace clearances. Airspace is not as simple as you might think. Some countries claim three miles from their shore line, some the international standard twelve miles, others a ridiculous two hundred miles. You have to know and abide by the rules of the area.
As we approached the west coast of Ireland, the Captain turned the ship to a heading of north by slightly northeast making for a passage to the east of Iceland, and west of the Faroe Islands. It was as we turned to that heading, that I got a message from the Navigator with heading updates and projected weather problems that didn’t look right.
 
I knew that I had to call him back, something which I rarely did as we worked well together as we plotted ship positions and headings for our flight operations. But, this had to be a mistake; his message said 70 mph winds and 40 ft seas expected. 

To be sure, I wasn’t the only one calling about that message, but the “Gator” was a great guy and gave me a minute of his time. He repeated the information and said that we had better tie everything down because it was going to get rough. That would prove to be one of the greatest understatements of my naval service. 

The original plan had been to conduct flight operations as soon as we got within range of Ireland (so there would be an alternate landing spot should we have a need for that) but this plan was quickly being modified. 

A helicopter was ordered to be launched to get an aerial perspective of conditions. That order was met with my unrequested and frowned up comment, “That’s a stupid idea!” Saying that got me into instant trouble with the Air Operations Boss, who turned to me and said, “It’s the Admiral’s idea!” Already in trouble for speaking up and unable to keep my mouth shut I added, “Stupid is stupid, wherever it comes from.”

 
That little tirade got me relieved from my chair as the enlisted guy directing operations in the tracking section of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center.) A chief petty officer assumed the chair to suck up to the boss and try to make it all better. I was sent back behind the status boards to write backwards on the board viewed via ship’s TV in all aviation offices. 

The H-3 helicopter was given the green light and lifted off the deck as we watched on the TV. It nearly crashed on the deck from the wind encountered immediately upon lifting. I really don’t know how the pilot held it together. They went out of sight below the flight deck momentarily and I found that I had been holding my breath until it reappeared on camera, going sideways and struggling to gain some altitude to get away from the raging ocean waves.

 
We were steaming directly into the storm and a violent rain was just ahead of us. I yelled out to one of the guys in the radar room to flatten the angle on his radar and look at the storm cell. These navy controllers didn’t even know that they could do that. I had learned to manipulate the equipment in the civilian world and knew the onboard equipment from conversing with our technicians every day.
 
One brave individual risked being fussed at by our boss and did as I suggested and saw that the cell was massive and very dense. I yelled out to the Air Ops Boss that he had better recall that helicopter, or we would lose them for sure. 

As he was about to yell at me for daring to speak up, we heard the pilot telling the Air Boss up in the small tower attached to the superstructure of the ship, that he had to land now or they were going to end up in the water. Permission was granted immediately and we witnessed one of the greatest feats of airmanship that I had ever seen. I am still not sure how that guy managed to get his helicopter back on our flight deck without crashing. 

 
Once on deck, the flight deck crew couldn’t move it from its landing spot and put 28 chains on the aircraft, each going to a separate tie down point for strength and security. The flight crewmen were each grabbed by other men with safety lines on them, as they exited the helicopter, as the wind was blowing them off their feet.

I had mentioned that we were on an 89,000 ton, 1,047 ft long aircraft carrier. Our flight deck was 63 feet above the surface of the water. The ship was a floating city of 5,000+ with its own airport. This was a very big vessel and under usual circumstances you felt kind of dominating, like you owned the sea. As we sailed north we felt less and less powerful and in control of our world. 

If you have been in a small boat in choppy water you know how you get bounced all around and go up and down, and side to side. I had never felt that on this big ship as we steamed around the oceans and seas encountering storms in the Caribbean and Atlantic, and definitely not in the Mediterranean where the weather is generally calm. 

I was feeling it now, as we bounced off of the wall and everything around us was dancing like during an earthquake. If you have ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck going fast down a gravel road full of potholes and had a driver that found all of the big ones, you would be there. A few times the ship shuddered like we hit something solid (like an island), but it was just big waves.

 
To stay in one spot I had to brace myself between the wall and the status boards as we waited for instructions and to see what the storm would bring. Sailors who had “seen it all” were headed for a toilet or a trashcan to lose their lunch. We could feel the mighty ship shudder repeatedly as the power of the storm met the steel made by man. 

The Aircraft Handler (responsible for the physical positioning of planes on deck) had a full crew tying down aircraft all over the ship. They did the flight deck first; putting extra chains on everything parked there, and then went to the hanger deck and put more chains on the stuff inside. If it could move, they secured it. Everyone required to work outside, had safety lines on them. Several were knocked off of their feet and would have gone over the side if not for those ropes.

The TV camera operator was on the job in the Flight Tower up on the island (superstructure) and kept the film rolling as we progressed. The room was silent as we watched waves breaking over the flight deck, some 63 feet above the surface of the water. The steel catwalks on either side of the bow were peeled back from the hull like they were so much rolled up paper, for about 20 feet before that stopped and the rivets and welds held. 

Remember those “small boys” described earlier? They were in the same water as we were and their size would be like a “big wheel” tricycle next to a semi with a 70 foot trailer, in comparison to the aircraft carrier. Those ships were in and out of visibility on the TV screen as the camera man attempted to track each one of them to make sure they were still with us and on the surface.

 
One of our submarine hunting sonar men next door said he could hear the ships “screaming” as they were twisted and tormented by the storm’s power.
 
I saw the smaller ships sliding down waves with their vertical axis horizontal and beyond. If you take a toy ship and turn it out its side and then tilt it even a bit more, that is what the sailors on those ships were dealing with. That is why they have hand rails on the ceilings and everything is fastened in place. Their operating position chairs have seatbelts and they use them.
 
Imagine trying to play “Angry Birds” while you are on a rollercoaster. And the ride keeps going on and on and you can’t quit playing for hours, even if you want to. 

Now just for giggles, consider the Vikings in their tiny craft facing these same waters. OMG indeed! 

We rode out the huge storm and didn’t lose any human life. There were four men injured on the small boys from getting thrown around inside their ships, and plenty of metal to repair, but everything remained fully functional.

 
Surviving the storm with all ships still combat ready, made our little rooster of an admiral strut around like the ridiculous person that he was and brag about what he could do with our battle group. 

The rest of us knew that we had faced Mother Nature’s fury and were lucky that she didn’t feel like drowning us all that day, because we felt her power and knew that she could have done so. I completely lost my cocky “seen it all” attitude towards the weather. This had truly been a storm to remember! 

 
For those who travel by sea, September is a month to avoid when you plan your trip to go around the British Isles if you happen to be in anything smaller than 89,000 tons… that wasn’t big enough.

Drill me!

Drill me!

  

Put your hands over your head!

 

No, it was not a stick up, at least not of the regular kind. It was the 1960 version of paranoia, visited upon elementary school children daily in their classrooms.

 

During the time period of 1960 through 1962 those of us attending West Hollywood  Elementary School, of Hollywood, Florida, were daily participants in the “Stop, Drop, and Cover” drill, as well as the “Duck, Cover and Wait” version. Both drills were the result of adults being afraid of “The Bomb” and that Castro was going to shoot missiles at us.

Looking back now I can have a bit more sympathy for the adults of the day. They had experienced the horrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the continued bomb testing going on in Nevada and at Bikini atoll. They were also the first generation of adults to see disasters on television, happening in more or less real time. We must not underestimate the shock value those images had, nor the emotional distress they caused.

 

In my opinion, falling to the ground and curling up in a ball, with your hands over your head, did nothing but frighten young children and created a generation of “Doomsday Children,” always waiting for the “Big One” to drop. That was the era of building bomb shelters and stockpiling supplies in them. In Florida we couldn’t dig without hitting water so shelter building wasn’t as big of a deal there.

 

At the time of this story I was in my second grade class with Miss Wright (no relation) as my teacher, and we were being instructed in how to properly “take cover.” They were afraid to say what we were really doing because it would cause panic for sure, so they called them tornado drills.

 

I had lived in south Florida for years and had never seen a tornado by itself, except on television—happening somewhere else. They sometimes spun off of hurricanes either over land or as waterspouts, but those are not the same size and intensity as the monsters that plague the rest of the country.

 

We were young and inexperienced, but we were not stupid. Kids weren’t generally deaf then either. We heard our parents and other adults talking about what was going on with Cuba and the Russians, and we overheard the teachers talking among themselves. What little television we were allowed to watch usually included the evening news and at that time, especially in south Florida, the missile crisis was always being talked about.

 

There were some advantages to these drills, besides the obvious disruption to the education process which kids were always ready for. We usually had to work at getting the teacher off track, so as to break the monotony of all of that learnin’.

 

My desk was at the back of the row by the windows, located farthest away from the door to the classroom. It was an alphabetical arrangement to make taking roll and lining up to go anywhere easier for the teacher. Sometimes I thought that it was really done that way in an effort to keep me from escaping.

 

As the drill began, the teacher had to first go over and shut the door. After securing the door she had to take roll again. “Duh, she just did that an hour earlier!” I thought, but the rules were the rules. Then she had to sit down in her chair and put her head down on the desk.

 

I think that modification to the “Duck and Cover” drill was just because she was so old that she couldn’t get under her desk without getting hurt. She was eligible to retire long before I was born, but she didn’t want to give up teaching. Her wanting to stay was really funny thinking back on it, because she always called us brats and was grumpy each and every day.

 

When they rang the bell to start the drill on one particular day, we all hit the deck just like we had been shot, much to the displeasure of Miss Wright. She shook her finger at us and made noises with her mouth to indicate to be quiet. We thought that what we did was hilarious and started laughing, incurring further wrath from the drill sergeant.

 

The girls really didn’t like lying down on the floor and getting their dresses dirty, and yes, in those days all of the girls wore dresses. Remember also that these were seven year old girls. If they were having a bad day anyway for some reason, they were likely to start crying. Depending on which girl it was, it could start a regular chain reaction. Just like going to the restroom together, if one cried, they all cried.

 

It was during one of these drills the very next day that we decided to see how long we could make the drill last. We wanted to see just how long the teacher would play the game until she had enough and called a halt to it on her own.

 

When the drill signal sounded we all hit the floor and stayed there, watching the teacher, but very quietly this time. She thought that we were being good because of her fussing at us last time. When she was done with roll taking and satisfied that we were down and in the proper position (curled into a ball with our hands over our heads) she sat down and put her head down on her desk.

 

As soon as her head came to rest on her desk I slipped out of the window next to me (the windows went from the floor to the ceiling with no screens) then ran around the building to the other side. I was going to slip back into the classroom through the window, but the windows were all closed! A girl that sat by the windows had closed them because she was cold.

 

Even as a child I wasn’t one to panic easily, and I saw another option. I walked around to the door to the classroom and went in, just like it was the most normal thing in the world. The teacher never moved a muscle. 

 

I walked all the way through the room to my desk and as I was about to get back on the floor, I thought, “Why not?” So going with my now plan “B,” I walked over to the other side of the room, stepping carefully over the bodies sprawled all over the place (you could only stay curled up in a ball for so long.)

 

Once there I moved a chair over very, very quietly, climbed up on it and unscrewed the nut on the center of the red alarm bell enough to loosen the bell. Then I stuffed the bell full of paper towels until no more would fit and screwed the nut back in place.

 

Just as I got off of the chair I heard the muffled rustle of the striker inside the bell, but nothing that could be heard from more than a couple of feet away, so we were in business. I went back to my spot and lay down with a book under my head and my arms crossed to wait out our “how long?” game.

 

The “random and spontaneous” (as written in the teacher’s instructions) sounding of the alarm always happened at 9:00 a.m. on the dot and was over just as precisely at 9:15 a.m. every single day. You could set your watch by it, except that I didn’t have a watch.

 

We all struggled to suppress the giggles and were each determined not to be the one that ended our “drill.” I was truly surprised that the girls went along with it.

 

9:30 a.m. came along and still no movement from the teacher. At just fifteen minutes into the overtime part of the game we were getting restless. Kids can only be still for so long and then they have to do something or explode.

 

By 9:45 a.m. one of the girls, who was pretty bold for her age, came over to me and said that two of the girls had to go to the bathroom. What was “I” going to do about it? I said, “Who made me bathroom monitor?” She said this thing was my doing so I had to tell them what to do. Boy, it was lonely at the top!

 

I figured that Miss Wright probably wouldn’t remember if she did it or not, so I eased the “bathroom pass” (a key connected to a piece of wood with “Miss Wright” burned into it) off its hook on the side of her desk and gave it to the two girls. I could only hope that they wouldn’t encounter anyone who would challenge them and scare a confession out of them as to what we were doing. Kids under duress were often spontaneous confessors.

 

The game had suddenly gotten serious. Recess was approaching swiftly, and we weren’t going to miss our favorite “class” of the day. Normally we went out at 10 a.m. and returned to class at 10:30 a.m. It wasn’t looking good.

 

My mind finally clicked and I thought,”Hey wait a minute! What’s wrong with me?” I whispered to everyone to be completely quiet and line up on the sidewalk and we would march out to the playground just like we did every day, only this time we would be ten minutes earlier.

 

Oh yeah, extra play time and first dibs on the baseball field and the basketball court. I had no idea why didn’t I think of it sooner. Everyone did as I said and out they went, quiet as happy little mice.

 

Miss Wright had been lying there for a long time, and she was VERY old. A momentary flash of newspaper headlines, “Teacher dies at desk, while children play joke…” crossed before my eyes. The thought, “How would I get out of that predicament?” started churning in my over active brain as I stood there staring at her.

 

Just then she let out a raspy, gurgling snore that would do a bear justice, and I knew that she was just “sawing logs” and not “joked and croaked.” And out the door I went.

 

On the playground the teacher that usually snuck out early to recess (and always grabbed the fields for HER students) was pacing up and down. She was obviously not happy that someone had beaten her to the punch for once. The angry woman wanted to speak to the teacher responsible for those children who had “violated the recess starting time”. What a big hypocritical baby!

 

She approached several members of our class, but the kids kept moving, afraid to have to answer any questions. It was getting to the point where she was going to blow the whistle at us… and you couldn’t disobey the whistle. It just wasn’t done!

 

So I moved to intercept her without being obvious and “let” her capture me and demand to know where our teacher was. That would be OK, I had a plan and I hoped it worked, because plan “B” for this one was run like mad!

 

I said to the grand inquisitor, “Oh, Miss Wright wasn’t feeling well and had to go to…”, and gave it a little turning red and bashful look, “to the…” She said, “Out with it, son!” And I answered, “To the facilities.” Yeah, good and vague, no real direction given and I never said to the bathroom. And followed up with, “And we are worried about her, she didn’t look well, kind of all sleepy looking and red in the face.”

 

And that’s exactly what she looked like when the teacher and Mr. Sullivan (the principal) found her still asleep, face down on her desk, with her hands still over her head.

 

She was so flustered and confused about being asleep, and getting caught that way by the principal, that the subject of the bell not ringing (or the early recess) never even came up, not on that day or any day afterwards.

 

The principal escorted Miss Wright down to the school nurse to have her temperature taken and get her a glass of orange juice. Miss Queen of Angry hustled back out onto the playground to regain her dominance over everyone there. I used the few minutes where no one was in the classroom to remove the paper towels from the bell and throw them away. I was happy to have survived the game, but definitely sure that I wouldn’t do that again.

 

As far as their stupid drills were concerned, I’d much rather have gotten blown up by a missile or bomb while I was playing ball instead of hiding under a desk. Have you ever seen what is on the underside of a school desk? Not a pretty sight!

 

And that’s the way it was in 1960, when the known world was “smaller” and so was I.   

 

By strtwlkr

It can get better

It can get better

The year was 1991 and I had been medically discharged from the Navy and working for the USPS as a letter carrier in Fallon for three years by then. One of the medical issues that I was dealing with was pain in my right shoulder, for which I had been treated while on active duty and was a chronic problem.

Being a veteran and with the price of medical care being what it was even then, I was encouraged to seek treatment at the VA Hospital in Reno. I must tell you that it was not a good place to go in those days. At best the chance of actually getting treatment was unreliable, and the delays for everything that you did get were legendary. Horror stories were rampant and true.

I was sent to the VA Hospital to see the Orthopedic Specialist for evaluation of my shoulder for surgery. Would it (surgery) improve my condition or not, was the $64,000 question of the day.

In those days (1991) they played a weird scheduling game at that specialty clinic. You had to report in between 08:00 and 09:00 a.m., regardless of when your appointment time was. Then you would wait in a kind of “stand by” mode until your scheduled time arrived.

 
This oddball process was initiated and enforced by the lead doctor, and the man that I was to see, Dr. F. (He whose name must not be spoken, for he will sue.) He felt that his time was too valuable to have any blank spots in his day, but obviously felt that the veteran’s time didn’t matter.
 
With Dr. F’s plan the patients were stacked up like cans in a soda machine waiting to move forward should a cancellation happen. Of course the doctor could (and had done so in the past) walk out the door at any time and cancel the rest of his day, like if an emergency golf game popped up. No, I am not kidding.

This meant a five hour wait for me with my 1:00 pm appointment. I was already angry from having to park a mile away from the hospital and hike in as that day was Tuesday which was “clinic day.” People in the know, arrived there early to get a parking spot.

It was my first visit to this particular clinic and I didn’t know the hospital very well at all. Parking was on the opposite side of the hospital from the main entrance, so I was coming in through the back of the hospital, which had me all turned around. Fortunately, by habit I always arrive early for any appointment. Otherwise the walk in and then wandering lost through the building would have made me late. I was hustling to make 08:00, but I found the main administration area and check in desk, and got my name in by the hour.

I plopped down in a chair with my back to the wall to wait and sat there observing the activity around me. I never heard anybody called for “Ortho,” or any other clinic for that matter. After thirty minutes of being patient, I asked the guy sitting across from me which clinic he was waiting for. I don’t know if he was a jerk, or just deaf, because he moved his paper up in front of his face and said nothing.

 
Fifteen more minutes passed and I got nervous. I got out of my chair and went back to the desk where I checked in to ask the lady there why no one was being called.

The shock of being told that I was in the wrong waiting area jacked my blood pressure right up! I really had to focus on the instructions as to which hallway, and how many turns, etc., would get me to the orthopedics waiting area. It was almost 09:00 and I was in the wrong place! I would say that I was having an anxious moment, or adrenalin spike, or something. Making a mistake like that upsets me, even though it may not have been my fault.

Feeling slightly better armed with my new instructions on where to go, I walked away from the desk directly towards a glass wall with doors to the outside. That was where I had to turn and proceed down a hall.

 
Coming through the door from the outside, was an elderly man wearing a WWI veteran cap being pushed in a wheelchair by a young black man wearing hospital scrubs. Not being in so much of a hurry that I couldn’t show respect and help, I stopped to assist with the door. The orderly didn’t pay any attention to me at all, but I got a smile and a nod of thanks from the old vet, which made me feel good.

As I turned to hurry on while looking at my watch, I heard the old man say to the orderly, “Please, I have to pee, can you take me to the bathroom?” To which the young man said, “You will have to wait” as he parked the wheelchair against a wall and locked the wheels. As I looked back while still walking, I could see the orderly going back outside. I seriously regret not having gone back to the old man’s aid at that point.

I was immediately lost again and in a frantic hurry. I’m sure it was because I was still thinking of being late and losing my appointment. If I had been thinking logically I would have realized that with a 1:00 p.m. appointment, I had several men ahead of me and was in no danger of being dropped.

 
To explain: If they called your name and you were not there, you were removed from the list and had to reschedule. The appointments in that plan were set for one every fifteen minutes. This doctor was a civilian with a contract, not a VA employee, and got paid by the body count. This was truly factory assembly line medicine!

I found the clinic and checked in with the gum popping young lady behind the counter. She told me to have a seat and do not under any circumstance, leave the waiting room without telling her or my appointment would be cancelled and I would have to reschedule. I resented the Hell out of her attitude and instantly wanted to slap the gum out of her mouth. But I did not.

 
There was no doubt that I was angry with myself for not helping the old man get to the bathroom before being placed in this holding pen. It just felt like I had done something wrong, again.
If you add that to the stress of finding a parking spot in an unfamiliar area, getting lost in the building twice, being in the wrong waiting room, etc, I was agitated. It had not been a good morning. Going to the doctor was proving to be harmful to my health.

Finally, it was 1:00 p.m. and my turn. Obviously being there hours early had done me no good at all. The doctor was observed sauntering slowly back in from lunch like he had nowhere important to be. As I listened to him interact with the staff, it was apparent that he was just as arrogant and abusive with his receptionist as I had been told that he was with patients.

 
I was his first appointment after lunch, so I thought, “OK, he should be in a good mood and we could get through this.” For sure, I was not looking forward to the manipulation of my shoulder that I had learned to expect from other examinations. It hurt when I was required to push the rotation to the range of movement limits and then for hours afterwards. That was part of why I was there, something was obviously wrong with the joint. Rotating your arm was not supposed to hurt.

My name was called and I fairly shot out of my chair, such was my preconditioning to not miss my turn. I was escorted back to the examination room by the young woman I checked in with. Which I thought was kind of odd; to have a receptionist leave her post was unusual. That task was usually done by a nurse.

 
The gum popping girl complained all the way down the hall that the nurse didn’t come back from lunch with the doctor and now she had to do her work too. I can remember thinking to myself, “Honey, you couldn’t empty a bed pan without screwing it up; you could never be a nurse.”

When I moved towards a chair to sit down I was told (rather than asked) to sit on the exam table and wait for the doctor. Again I had the urge to smack the gum out of this rude young woman’s mouth as she popped a bubble for punctuation to her order. I recall thinking, “Yeah, you had better stay at your reception desk, you wouldn’t make it one day as nurse.”

 
Being the well conditioned soldier, I complied with my orders and sat on that uncomfortable examination table with my legs dangling and nothing to rest them on. I spent my waiting time studying all of the medical posters with joints and bones exposed showing the workings. At least that was interesting, and didn’t chew gum.
 
After a few minutes, Dr. F. burst into the room, kind of flailing like he was tossed in there. He was steadily writing in my chart and didn’t glance my way or even speak to me as he went to a desk at one side. It was as if I wasn’t even there.

Tossing my chart on the desk, he picked up the telephone and dialed a number. “Oh damn,” I thought, he saw something in that chart and is ordering some kind of immediate procedure. Will they admit me and keep me here?” You always expect the worst case scenario when you go to a doctor’s office; it is some kind of bizarre conditioning thing.

That fear bubble burst when the doctor started talking to the person on the other end of the telephone line. He was arranging a golf game! He completed that call and instead of turning to address me and apologizing for the delay, he immediately dialed another number and spoke to another golf buddy. This repeated until he had arranged his golfing foursome.

 
Finally done with his priorities, he picked up my chart and wrote in it once again. He then looked up at me and said, “Come back and see me in two weeks.” Throwing my chart in the “completed” bin, he got up and turned to leave the room. The man was so impersonal, that I felt like he completely disrespected me as a veteran or even a human being by his actions.

I was way beyond angry at that point and fairly jumped from my seat on the examination table, to a position blocking him from leaving the room. I got nose to nose with this medical “unprofessional” and was probably spitting on him as I spoke, I was so mad.

“How dare you use my fifteen minutes of time for your golf date calls after I have waited all damn day to see you! How dare you write in my chart without ever even looking at me, much less examining me you arrogant quack!” I know that this is exactly what I said because the receptionist wrote it all down and I was presented with the details later in a written “denial of service letter.”

The doctor went “bug-eyed” and started screaming for the receptionist, alternating between “Get out!” and “Help, get security!” I did turn and leave at that point, as I knew that I was never going to let this guy work on me, even if he would have.

 
The fortunate thing for both of us was that he did not put his hands on me. It would have ended very badly for him. I was completely calm by that point, which I knew from experience, could be very bad. It was a precursor to physical violence.

I left the orthopedic clinic and not knowing how else to get out of the building, I retraced my path back to the main administration area where I first checked in. It was probably the longest possible route to exit the hospital, but it was the only way that I knew.

As I walked I could see the old man sitting in his wheelchair from down the hall, exactly where he had been “parked” hours before. When I got closer I could see the man visibly sobbing and that there was a puddle under his chair, which made me walk faster.

 
Almost to him, I could now see and hear the young orderly approaching from the doorway. Speaking in a very harsh and menacing tone he said to the old veteran, “Now look what the Hell you done did! I am gonna have to clean up that mess you made! Sorry old…” and was raising his hand, as if to strike.

That was as far as he got, as my fingers closed around his throat and I slammed him against the wall, lifting him just off of the floor by his neck. His eyes were bulging as I choked his windpipe and I quietly said to him, “You owe your freedom and your very existence in this hospital to this man. Is this how you repay his service to our country?”

That orderly truly owed his life to the very man that he abused. As I was closing off his airway, the old man said, “Please don’t kill him, he isn’t worth it.” I just said, “Yes Sir” and dropped the younger man to the floor.

Could I have killed him? Yes, easily. I am well trained to do so. Would I have killed him? I don’t know. I was very angry, but was still under control or he would have died instantly.

Hospital Security was already walking through the building looking for me after my run in with the orthopedic Doctor. They wanted to locate me, although they couldn’t really “do” anything to me for just yelling at that creep. So, they were right there on the spot when I made that latest “crazy man” scene.

Given the circumstances and hearing from the witnesses who sprang (if one can spring from wheelchairs and crutches) to my defense, the security guards were very nice to me and asked me to please accompany them. I expected handcuffs and some shoving around and was already embarrassed by what I considered as “losing control” on my part.

By that I mean, I should have at least warned/threatened the guy first, before putting my hands on him. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t how I was trained to react to a perceived threat. The orderly was advancing upon and threatening the elderly veteran in my eyes. So, I just reacted and moved by instinct to counter (or remove) the threat.

I was taken into the administrative office and questioned by the security supervisor as we waited for the Reno PD to show up. Their procedure was understandable, because I had laid hands upon another person the police had to be called.

 
The hospital security guys kept coming to the door and speaking to their boss. They were repeatedly relaying more witness statements and information. Their comments including saying Dr F’s name and laughing (when safely out of earshot of the supervisor) at what a jerk he was to them. Even though they greatly disliked the doctor they were still afraid of the clout he had with the hospital administration.

I must confess that as I waited in that office I had scoped out the exits and planned how I would get out of the building to my vehicle should they want to arrest me. I was NOT going to a jail cell. My severe claustrophobia would have required full time sedation to lock me up.

The Reno PD guys arrived with one slender but hard looking blond white guy, and one very large black man that filled the doorway with muscles. Both of them had serious haircuts and their deportment confirmed my evaluation of their background, at least to me. You could almost see the “thread marks” on their skulls; they were “jarheads” (Marines) all the way. Semper Fi!

 
I sat still and behaved myself as the officers conducted the business they had to do. The two men smiled at me as they listened quietly to what was being said by the hospital security supervisor. They also interviewed the other security guards and all of the witnesses who had stayed around to the last man to be heard.
 
Finally, the orderly that I had choked was brought forward for his statement. He sneered at me when bopped into the room like he was a gangster with an entourage following him. The policemen were watching me for a reaction, but I showed no emotion. In truth I thought that the man was pathetic and didn’t warrant any further effort on my part.

The young man mistakenly figured that he could play the “race card.” He started off his case all wrong by calling out to the black officer, “Yo homey, we got to stick together when whitey tries to put us down. You need to bust cap in that honky’s ass. Or I WILL.” (Verbatim, from the transcripts) and then started towards where I was sitting.

Both officers moved as one to intercept and stop the possible confrontation. The black officer almost cat-like, was instantly in front of the young orderly. His partner positioned himself to block me should I attempt to engage. The blond officer smiled as he saw that I was not moving and that I was unimpressed with the bravado and noise. He nodded at me and turned his attention back to his partner. I suspect that they had served together in the Marines or at least had been partners for a while, because they were very much in tune with each other’s actions.

The bigger officer leaned slightly forward from the waist with his hands on his hips, in a fashion reminiscent of a drill sergeant, and addressed the young man saying, “First, I am NOT your homey, I am Officer “X” and I just heard you make a threat of violence. Should anything happen in the future what you said will be a matter of record and I will personally come looking for you. Second, I think that you had better be careful what you ask for, you may not be so lucky next time,” and looked in my eyes and nodded to me.

There was another, much older, white orderly (either a union rep, or a supervisor) trying to quiet and restrain the young man, without much success. The man finally grew exasperated and said, “Will you shut up and come with me! We need to get you checked out.” He then led him away.

The RPD officers asked me to come with them, and we walked out the doors on the opposite side of the building. When we got outside, the white cop said, “What you did was assault on one hand, and justifiable prevention of assault and continued abuse on the other. No way are we going to charge you for defending a helpless old veteran. If any law suits happen from this we will testify on your behalf. Now it’s probably a good idea if you go back home to Fallon in case this guy has any hot headed friends in the area. We don’t need any more trouble.” His partner smiled at me and chimed in, “Or any bodies should my mouthy “homey” jump up in your face.”

I gave them a departing “Semper Fi!” to which I got “Ooh Raw!” in unison from the officers.

It was more than twenty years after that event before I even considered utilizing the VA services that I was entitled to. I was thoroughly convinced that the Veterans Administration was just another screwed up government agency and not worth the trouble.

It was not until a field clinic was opened in my town, staffed by people that I respected that this changed. The personnel of the Fallon VA Clinic were able to convince me that it was worth another chance. I have known the doctor who works there for more than twenty-five years. He used to be my civilian physician. The girl working the reception desk used to work with me in the Navy. The office manager worked at another medical office and I encouraged her to take on the VA Clinic job when it was offered. They were all friends that I trusted.

I am happy to report that the Reno VA Hospital is a far better environment today. Veterans of all ages are treated with dignity and respect. Every effort is made to serve the patient. You are no longer treated like an inconvenience that they have to put up with, but as the very reason for their existence. Care there is excellent.

It was worth the twenty plus years it took to return, it is better place today.

P.S. 

I always get asked this when I tell this story, “What happened to the orderly?”

The word got around pretty quickly of his abuse of the old WWI Vet and by the end of that day, no one wanted to work with him. I mentioned to a neighbor who worked in the top administrative office at the VA hospital what had happened (so that she heard it from me and not rumors) the same day that it took place. I know that she made telephone calls when she went back inside, because I could see her on the phone through the window. The next day when I delivered her mail she informed me that the man in question no longer worked at the VA Hospital in Reno, having sought employment elsewhere due to a “hostile work environment.” I never saw him again.

I also learned later (from my admin. friend) that the old man, who was an inpatient there, passed away a few months afterwards (in the hospital) from complications from his war wounds. He had been shot multiple times and had been gassed in the trenches in Europe. The man had every medal there was (except for the Medal of Honor), including three purple hearts.

He had entered the service at age 16 and didn’t come home until it was over, over there. The old soldier had lived his entire life carrying metal fragments in his body and dealing with damaged organs from his service. He was buried with honors in the Veterans Cemetery in Fernley, NV.
 
I am glad that I defended him and I am still sorry that I didn’t take action to prevent his humiliation of wetting himself. Lesson learned; never hesitate to do the right thing.

Break dancing in Nice

Break Dancing in Nice

 

I was a sailor in the US Navy in 1984, stationed aboard the USS America (CV-66) which was home ported in Norfolk, VA. We were deployed on a six month cruise at the time of this story.

After a rigorous and trying tour of duty in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea which had cost us both aircraft and lives lost, we passed back through the ditch (Suez Canal) and made for Naples, Italy.

 

We concluded a very short port visit there and then sailed for another “spin” around the eastern Mediterranean. These exercises maintained the required “military presence” that influenced diplomacy and brokered deals beyond the visage of the public. Finishing whatever the real purpose of that exercise was, we were finally ready for the destination that this story is about; Nice, France, by way of Monaco. 

Aircraft carriers are too large to dock pier side at most port facilities, and it was considered bad planning to put your primary warship in a “compromised” position in a foreign port. So, you “drop the hook” (sailor speak for park them at anchor) close enough to ferry the crew to the land, but in deep enough water to be able to get underway without the delay of having to maneuver through narrow channels. 

The anchorage at Monaco was quite close and afforded a lovely view of the city, the castle, and the Monte Carlo casino. Their harbor held many very expensive yachts belonging to the rich and famous from all over the world.

 

Our close proximity also allowed Princess Stephanie to ride around the ship on her personal watercraft, topless, and drive the sailors crazy who had duty and couldn’t leave the ship. She had a great time teasing the American sailors and made multiple circuits around the huge vessel wearing only tiny bikini bottoms, sunglasses, and a beaming smile. The Princess was definitely a sailor’s idea of the perfect goodwill ambassador!

The Monaco port call was unusually long at nine days and there are multiple stories to be told, but only one takes us to Nice, France. Like many of the stories I tell, it is complicated and winds around itself as it is revealed. 

My friends and I had originally planned to go to Cannes on the train, maybe even on to Toulon. That city (Toulon) was where one of our small escort ships had docked many times, and the crew told stories about how wonderful it was.

 

We were as flexible in our destination, as we were resolved to get away from the port city where 5,000+ sailors were making their presence known. I had done a tour (8 hour shift) as a Shore Patrol supervisor the previous night and I was definitely ready to be in a different city. Americans are brash and rude in general as guests in foreign lands, but sailors work hard at earning their reputation as ugly Americans.

Having gotten a few hours sleep after being relieved from my watch, I joined the others in line to get off of the ship. On a vessel carrying so many men getting ashore from anchorage is a much longer process than you might imagine, sometimes taking hours from getting into line until your feet hit dry land.

 

Once ashore, our journey took us to the Monaco train station, where everything is neat and organized and everyone is in a hurry. As we found out, French trains are the exact opposite of the Italian ones. Not only are they clean, but they are extremely punctual, running to the second. French train conductors will not tolerate any delay; if you were three steps away when the second hand on their watch hits 12, they would shut the door in your face. That exacting precision by the train system is how we ended up in Nice. 

Two of our party went to the restroom (never go anywhere alone!) and were just late enough returning to have the train doors close in front of them. Our plan should we get separated, was to go to the next station and get off and wait for our friends to arrive; which was precisely what we did.

 

You would think that we would be mad because of the inconvenience, right? Wrong, we were as happy as can be! Considering just such a problem in our discussions while waiting in line to get off of the ship, we had reached a deal that whoever caused such a delay would be required to buy the beer for the others that night. Hurray for punctual trains! 

When we got to the next stop, which was Nice, we got off of the train to wait. We knew that we had exactly 30 minutes to kill, so we decided to walk around the immediate area.

 

Nice was much friendlier than Monaco already, and we had only just stepped away from the train station. People would say hello to us and everyone returned our greetings. It was great to be away from the impact that so many sailors made on an area.

 

By the time our mates arrived we were sold on Nice and quickly convinced them to stay there. It wasn’t very hard to do really; I just mentioned that women sunbathed topless all along the beach there. Americans are so easy to amuse. 

It was getting late so we made our way to a hotel that was close to the beach (priorities you know) but not on the expensive boardwalk, and had vacancies. The proprietor was leery of allowing six Americans to stay in his hotel, having heard horror stories of property destruction and debauchery by our sailors in other ports.

 

I wish that I could say that the stories he heard were fabricated, but the sad truth was that they were based largely on fact. Our smiling faces and sincere reassurances that we were not “like that,” plus (mostly) the hard currency that we offered for three rooms, made our case. He did require us to go to the local bank and exchange our U.S. dollars for French francs to pay him though, as he was afraid of the exchange rate and possibly losing money. 

The next morning we woke to knocks on our door, which was the maid bringing us continental breakfasts. For Americans who traditionally eat such massive amounts of food at breakfast, the European version of the morning repast can be quite shocking.

 

Those “continental breakfasts” were puny little excuses for food all wrapped up in a cloth inside of a basket. In the basket were two croissants and two muffins, with two little pats of butter and some jam. Also on the tray were a little glass of juice and cup of coffee for each of us.

 

One friend said, “I don’t know why they bothered to tease us, if they weren’t going to feed us.” My roommate asked me if I was going to eat, and I said I would drink my juice and coffee. He didn’t hesitate for a second and scarfed down the bread, barely taking time to remove the little paper cup thing from the muffin.

We all met up in the lobby as planned and one of the guys asked the desk clerk where the best beach for “girl watching” was. The poor man looked at us kind of funny as he tried to process American English into French in his mind.

 

All of a sudden the light went on in his brain and he made the motions depicting a woman’s curves with his hands. The nodding heads indicated that he had the right idea, and it set him off into a barrage of French that none of us could follow, at all. His hands were gesturing this way and that way, and I am sure that he knew exactly what and where he was describing. We didn’t have a clue.

 

Looking at each other and reaching an unspoken agreement that it was no use trying to decipher his instructions, we backed towards the exit. Taking our leave, continuously nodding our heads and smiling our faces off, we hustled out the door. Our new friend just kept on talking and waving his hands like we were getting the picture.

 

We needn’t have worried, the beach was only a block away and the sun was shining. To sailors who spend so many days in the dark, everything is perfect when the sun is out!

This was the Cote d’Azur after all; the French Riviera. Nice was a jewel of beautiful landscapes, sparkling water, and ornate and elegant buildings. All along the coastline of the city ran a boardwalk for strolling, which the French do very well at all hours of the day and night. On the land side of this walkway were a couple of rows of parking, then a street and magnificent buildings housing hotels, restaurants and shops. The proprietors lived above their businesses we found later as we strolled in the evening and all of their lights were on and windows open.

 

It was the sea side of the walkway that interested my friends the most though; it was what swung their vote to stay in Nice after all. The beaches there are tiny compared to any U.S. beaches. There was a seawall all along the beach, with steps every one hundred feet or so for access. Morning was a good time for sunbathing it seemed, as there were many people all lined up in rows on the sand when we got there.

 

Of the six of us, only two had grown up in beach country; myself in Florida, the other in southern California. The remaining four were all from the inland cities. It was a full time job to keep these guys from drooling over the seawall as nearly naked bodies were on display everywhere.

As you are probably aware, many European women go topless on the beaches and the men are wise enough to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the “scenery.” Not so with young American males. They had their cameras out snapping away and whistling at the ladies. More than once a disgusted woman grabbed her things and left. I was embarrassed by my friends’ actions, but they were unfazed by anything that I said to them about their behavior. Evidently admiring the view without being obnoxious was not encoded in their DNA.

 

People in Nice would come to the beach from work or wherever, in their regular attire. It was not the custom to wear bathing suits everywhere like it is in the US. So they changed right on the beach. The modest ones were very skilled at wrapping a large beach towel around themselves and changing clothes. Some only covered their lower half as they weren’t putting on a top anyway. A few were unconcerned about who saw what and just got naked. 

 

It was a member of that unconcerned category that finally broke the trance.

 

A very pretty, dark haired sun worshipper wearing a nice business skirt and blouse walked past us as we sat on the seawall. So graceful and slender was that new arrival that four of my companions (the city boys) fairly floated along in trail (reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew of cartoon fame), whistling and snapping their cameras. 

 

A spot on the beach sand was obtained and with back to the audience, the clothes started to come off. Out of a bag came a light blue towel with “Cote d’Azur” emblazoned upon it, which was quickly and expertly wrapped around the hips. Turning to face my friends, the top was playfully removed revealing no bra, and a very small chest. 

 

These young American sailors were actually leaning forward, cameras at the ready, full of anticipation as the towel was untied and the opening was teased, but not done. They called out for more, yelling “take it off” like they were in a strip club. Asking sweetly if they really wanted to see, the object of their lust took a couple of steps closer to them, and whipped the towel wide open.

 

Their cameras were flashing away, as they finally realized that dangling in front of them was a very large “man part” in all of its glory. The crowd of locals roared in laughter. What they had thought was a pretty lady, was definitely a pretty man, who dressed like a lady. Life was truly full of surprises for my young friends.

 

That very public education of my over eager shipmates somehow created a sudden craving for alcohol. My mates felt the need for beer and wanted to “get out of the sun.”

 

I believed that it wasn’t the sun that kept their faces red, but rather the thought of how to explain the photos they had just taken when they got their pictures back.

 

Our group split up at that point as my roommate and I did not want to get drunk, nor did we want to pay the high prices charged at beachfront drinking establishments. So, the two of us wandered inland, in search of a dining spot with better prices.

 

One thing is certain in France; you can always find good bread. We had not walked a mile from the shore when the aromas of freshly baked bread lead us by the nose (also a very cartoon like image) down a side street to a corner store.

A store by name, it was really a house with a room set up to sell goods out of. Mama baked bread in her kitchen and sold it, along with some fruits and vegetables from her garden that were sitting out on a counter. A small variety of cheeses and sausages were on a wooden block table along one wall. They had some generic wine (no labels) available by the glass or the jug. It was barely a store, and even less of a restaurant, but the place smelled delicious! I wanted to take a bite out of the air.

 

We purchased the best food that I had eaten in all of Europe, at that little store. The smell of the bread had me starving. They asked for 18 francs (the equivalent of two dollars) each (we gave them 20 because we thought that it was too little) and had all the bread, cheese and wine that we could consume as we sat at a table outside in the shade.

 

Papa kept refilling our wine jug and bringing out more cheese to “try”. Mama brought out more bread for us to take with us, because we “looked starved.” Eventually we had to cry “enough!” I felt like we were being adopted.

 

Before we took our leave from these delightful people, we asked them for a recommendation for where to get our evening meal near our hotel. They talked excitedly back and forth in French for a minute and apparently Mama won. The instructions were given and we were admonished repeatedly to not go there before 8 pm.

 

Rejoining our friends, still in the same bar that we left them in earlier, we hauled them back to the hotel for a nap and to clean up. They had mightily contributed to the local economy, settling a bar tab of three figures. All of their expenditure was for hard alcohol (not beer), which they had consumed in the same time frame as we had spent getting our four dollars worth. Just standing was a challenge for them; they definitely needed showers and a bed.

 

I was glad that we took the walk and not just for the monetary difference. In general, in bars the people who run them prey on those with addictions and weaknesses for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, prostitutes, etc, it’s how they make their money. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for me and doubly so as an American sailor; we seemed to have targets painted on our backs.

 

The people that we met running their little store were genuine and welcoming, making us feel at home and like we were almost family. Leaving them I felt refreshed and happy, instead of used and abused like my friends felt as we dragged them from the bar.

I was so eager to follow our dinner location instructions to the letter, that we didn’t even leave the hotel until 8:00 pm. The route to follow was easier than I had feared and we had no difficulty locating the small diner. The place was filled with locals and very busy.

 

The very attractive waitress who met us at the door was an aggressive “take no prisoners” type and seated us at an outside patio table for eight, telling us that if she needed the space, she would seat others with us. No one gave her any backtalk or made rude comments, which made me happy. I thought that perhaps they were still sufficiently humbled from earlier events. Or, maybe it was just that they didn’t recognize her from the beach that morning. She was one of the first girls we saw and did look different with her clothes on and her hair up in a twist.

 

Based on the recommendation from Mama at the store, I already knew what I wanted, even though I had never even heard of it before. I got the Spaghetti Carbonara with an egg on top. It was so good that I could have rolled in it! 

 

The others ordered different things, and some wine with their meals (I had water with lemon.) It was hilarious to watch the waitress at work. The guys would order the wrong wine for their meal and the young woman would throw her hand up in the air and say, “what, are you insane!” or call them “stupid little boys” and tell them which wine to order. She was having fun and the guys were in awe of her.

 

When I paid my bill, the waitress asked if I had had a good day. The quizzical look on my face made her laugh and she said that her mother (Mama from the store) had told her that some Americans boys were coming to dinner after 8:00p.m. She was very pleased to hear my praise of her mother’s bread and compliments about her family’s store in general.

 

She also remembered us from that morning at the beach and commented that I had hung back and kept my mouth shut while my friends acted like naughty children. Her laughter at the memory made me blush so much that my face was still red when I went back to the table. It was silly for me to be so embarrassed, I had done nothing wrong.

 

We left the little (in size) restaurant at about 10:00 pm, and the people were still coming in to eat. They did a booming business and were open from 6:00 pm until midnight, with mostly tourists eating early. The waitress said that they had to put people out at midnight every night because of their operating license which required them to close at that hour. To be open later required negotiating a new license which was very expensive.

 

As we left the noise of the restaurant, our ears picked up music that sounded strangely familiar. We followed that sound until we located the source of the music. It was coming from a dark structure in an even darker alley.

 

The beat was definitely coming from inside of what we guessed was some sort of nightclub for lack of a better description. Since there were six of us, wearing our badass big boy jeans (Americans are so full of bravado) we felt OK risking going inside. 

 

I half expected a panel in the door to open like the “speakeasies” of the 1930s and almost jumped backwards when a door that was fully half of the wall opened. A large young man with a hoodie sweatshirt and dark pants opened the door and shined his flashlight on us. 

 

“Americans!” he shouted into the building and we had dozens of instant new “best friends.” The tiny place (really a garage I guessed) was packed with at least fifty young French people and a few visiting Europeans who were in the know about where to find such clubs.

 

“Crank it up, crank it up, they dig it!” was shouted out by our doorman and the dance music that lead us there rattled the walls. This was a break dancing, hip hop Mecca for kids who loved American music and dance. Our blue jeans also made us instant celebrities.  Levi Strauss is a god to the youth of most of the world.

 

A couple of our American six were actually decent break dancers and did “bust a move” as the saying goes. The rest of us just kind of bopped along with the music and tried not drown in the free beer that was continuously shoved into our hands.

 

A competition was held and I have not seen better break dancing, even in the movies like “Electric Bugaloo”, etc. One guy had gloves on and his hood up with the drawstring pulled until you couldn’t see his face. This guy was incredible and had ALL of the moves, even spinning on the top of his head. He won first prize.

 

I asked a general question of the group around us as to why he covered all up. The hushed reply was that he was a gendarme, a policeman, and if he was caught here he would lose his job. It was strictly forbidden for him to participate and it was against the city ordinances to even have such dance parties. I had to ask as it was such a shock to me, “Do you mean that it is against the law here to dance?” They said, “Oui, the break dance is considered immoral. It is not America.”

 

We stayed with the illegal dance party until four in the morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After we left the party we went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and went looking for an American sized meal for breakfast. One of the big hotels on the boardwalk had what we wanted, albeit for a large price.

 

Our train trip back to Monaco later that day was quick and easy and I had more adventures on other days.

 

I could not get over the idea that kids having fun dancing was against the rules, and it became “Break-the-law” dancing to me from then on. Some laws are just insane! Dance on kids, I’m with you! 

 

Pride is chewy

 While in the U.S. Navy I did have occasion to visit the city of Santiago de Leon de Caracas, or as we know it in our country, Caracas, Venezuela. 

 

Pride makes a strange meal 

It was the spring of 1984 and I was an air traffic controller aboard the USS America. We were participating in “Exercise Ocean Venture” in the Caribbean Sea in preparation for our departure across the Atlantic for duty in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.

 

This phase of the big exercise was over and we were scheduled to go to Cartagena, Columbia for a port visit. At least we were, until just a few hours before we dropped anchor. It was a purposeful ruse; there were groups who wanted to cause us trouble waiting for us in Cartagena and we needed to fool them.  

 

I knew that we didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened in Greece in 1982 where 10,000 members of their communist party met us at the port city of Piraeus. That was a very ugly and dangerous time for both the American military crew, and the local Greek citizens who were just trying to make a living.

 

Along with a few other members of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) crew, I had decided to risk the local bus trip through the mountains from the port of La Guaira to Caracas. It was only seven miles or so, but had been known to have bandit problems, (or so our Lieutenant claimed). There was also the concern about being able to catch the right bus coming back, which was always a concern in any port visit.

 

Being the only person in the group who had any knowledge of South America at all, I was looked at as the “local expert” and questioned on the dangers.

My first caution to them (knowing this group as well as I did) was to tell them, “ALL of the hookers in Caracas have diseases!” After visiting the port of Mombasa, Kenya in 1983, and witnessing one of our own lose his manly bits to disease, you would think that they would listen to advice. Would hearing it from me make a difference to them? Probably not, they had their “sailor image” to live up to.

 

I had also warned my friends to heed the well published, “don’t drink the water” instructions, taking it further telling them to not drink any water that wasn’t from a bottle opened in front of them. It was common practice in many areas to “refill and serve” bottles of water from the local tap. This gave the illusion to tourists that they were drinking purified water, while saving the vendor money.

 

I stressed to them that it was vitally important to stay out of the water, be it swimming, wading, crossing, or splashing. The local rivers and streams were known to harbor blood parasites and they were serious business. You couldn’t see them, or feel them, but within twenty-four hours or so they would make their presence known in most unpleasant ways.

 

The waters were also rumored to host a tiny fish called the “toothpick fish” or more properly candiru. This tiny fish is well known to the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin (farther south) and you do not want to be introduced to it. If you want to know more about it, just search for “candiru” and I promise that you will have your legs crossed by the time you finish reading.

 

Today the area has efficient buses and even a subway in the city. At the time of our visit in 1984 everything was perpetually under construction, (according to the locals.) Many of the projects were started in 1983 and with the usual politics and conflicts delaying progress; it took years to finish them. 

 

The motorway (similar in appearance to USA Interstates) from Guairá to Caracas had multiple lanes for traffic, but at that time (due to construction) only one lane each way was open for business.

 

Our bus was barely a step up from the rural “chicken bus” that you see in movies (and is a very real thing, I have ridden them.) Fortunately we didn’t have to share our seats with livestock on that trip, but it was still a smelly experience. I don’t think the bus had been cleaned in a long time.

 

Because we had learned our lessons the hard way in other countries, we questioned the bus driver before we got off, about the where and when to catch a return bus.

 

We got the Venezuelan version of a definite maybe, “Quiza.” Which translated meant, perhaps. OK, so “maybe” we could find a bus back, and maybe we could catch a cab. Quiza indeed!

 

Not letting minor details stop you is something I learned early on in my travels. We scattered out across the city with a plan to meet back at the location where we “debarked” (got off the bus), at a set hour. We did have enough experience in wandering about in strange places to always travel in pairs or more. There truly is safety in numbers, it isn’t just a saying.

 

My amigo and I set off for the Las Mercedes district, known for its shops and galleries and the newly constructed Paseo Las Mercedes shopping mall. That’s right, a shopping mall, American capitalism had invaded Caracas! 

 

We walked for hours up and down city streets, talking with those people who easily recognized us as Americans and were willing to speak English to us. We both spoke a bit of Spanish, but I was very hesitant to give up my “edge” by making it known that I understood their words. It had served me well all over the world to operate this way. My companion on the other hand, was sure that he knew a lot more Spanish than he actually did. 

 

Along the way we picked up an “escort” of sorts, two gentlemen in dark suits (in 90F+ heat) who stayed well back, but went everywhere that we went. They also spoke to everyone that we did. Given my former life in the army, this made alarm bells go off for me. I found myself looking for exits and things to use as weapons everywhere we went.

 

My buddy Frank was oblivious to our “tail” and far more interested in trying the local beer. I knew that the local government “suits” (government and/or police) at least had sense enough to wear light colored clothing and hats. So that begged the question, “Who were these clowns?”

 

There is much more to tell about this adventure than I can put in a short daily blog, so I will cut to the title event and perhaps if there is sufficient interest I will write a longer, more complete version.

 

We were hungry and in search of a meal, preferably one that we could sit down to enjoy and had reasonable expectations of being safe to consume. To that I end I suggested the restaurant inside a big hotel that served international guests, the Intercontinental. 

 

Our dining attire was a bit “understated” shall we say, being blue jeans and sneakers. At least we had button up collared shirts on, which helped soften the look “a little”. I was just glad that we were not there at evening meal time. 

 

Americans feel that they can go anywhere looking like they just stepped off of the ball field, or the beach and that should be good enough. The common gringo attitude being, “Hey, you want my money, or what?” Never mind, it would take too long to explain.

 

The gentleman who greeted and seated us was tre elegant! He was the Maitre d’, and superbly dressed in a tuxedo with not a speck of dust on it, and not a hair on his head out of place. His manners were impeccable, and his accent barely perceptible as he spoke perfect American English (there is a difference) to us as he held our chairs and handed us menus.

 

Frank never heard a word that either of us said as he was lost in his own world, gawking at the décolletage of a beautiful woman seated at the next table. Our host deftly maneuvered himself around to hand Frank his menu and blocked the view, as much for the young lady’s comfort as to bring my companion back to earth. 

 

I ordered two bottles of agua con gas (carbonated water) for us to drink, as it was apparent that Frank had had enough beer already. The menu had different sections with different languages in it, the primary being Spanish, as that was the majority of their clientele’s language. 

 

My friend took my ordering of the water in that way, (agua con gas) as a requirement for speaking Spanish, and proceeded to ONLY speak his version of the language. A version which I am afraid would make his teacher want to issue a retroactive failing grade. I was embarrassed, but a little stuck too. So I ordered a carne dish and smiled my apology to the waiter as Frank took over. 

 

I looked around at the fabulous decor when Frank was speaking, really trying to look anywhere but at the waiter to hide my embarrassment. That was, until I heard the word anguila spoken as my friend read it off of the menu. “Medallones de Anguila“, the waiter read back questioningly, and Frank nodded his silly head like a bobble-head doll. 

 

I asked Frank if he was sure that he knew what he had ordered. He loudly said, “Hell yeah, Steak!” Frank then pointed to the listing under “Pescado“, which generally meant fish, but also related to other things from the sea which are caught and served. I debated trying to point out that beef steak entries would not be found listed under a seafood or fish heading, but it just didn’t seem worth the effort at that point.

 

A few minutes more and the Maitre d’ came to our table and speaking in beautiful English (one of the seven languages that he spoke fluently), asked us again if my friend knew what he ordered, as he did not want us to be unhappy with our meal. Frank puffed up like a peacock and got indignant at the idea, asking if our host thought that we were ignorant and could only speak “American.” The gentleman, obviously never one to get ruffled smiled graciously and said, “As you wish senor,” and walked away.

 

And so it was a far greater surprise for Frank than it was for me, when his plate of eels (anguila) arrived, on fire and being escorted by the Maitre d’, along with most of the other waiters, and a couple of guests who had heard about the order and wanted to see what happened. 

 

With great ceremony the creatures were expertly beheaded, split in half lengthwise, and served onto a plate of noodles in front of my, to use a British slang term, “gob smacked” friend. His mouth was completely opened as if in a scream that wouldn’t quite come out, and his eyes were fixed in that “deer-in-the-headlights” stare. My world for a camera! 

 

Being an American and never willing to admit defeat in any circumstance, my friend took up knife and fork and stabbed a piece of anguila and cut off a big chunk and plopped it in his mouth like he meant to do this all along.

 

The crowd around us cheered him on and walked away to go back to what they were doing. Frank chewed that piece of eel for a few minutes and finally got it swallowed. His eyes told the story that his mouth would not.

 

I ate my quite excellent meal in silence, and tried not to look at the ghastly eel mess on my dining companion’s plate. After letting Frank push his meal around the plate for a while I asked him if he was ready to go. The boy nearly turned his chair over in his haste to depart.

 

We paid the bill, which was very little money by American standards (less than two meals at McDonald’s.) I also left a generous tip on the table which is seldom done there I am told (not the custom), and we left the building. Around the very first corner that we turned my friend lost his lunch in an alley, and a lot of beer with it. Ah, the joys of traveling with sailors!

 

I guess anguila didn’t agree with him. 

 

We have all heard the saying that it is tough to swallow your pride.

 

It appears that pride truly does make for a strange meal and is very tough to swallow, and apparently, it’s even harder to keep down.

 

Epilogue

 

The return trip to our rendezvous point was largely uneventful and mostly required dragging a now lethargic Frank along by the jacket. He “decorated” the bus floor with more foul smelling eel and beer on the way back to port, just to add to the ambiance. I truly felt sorry for whoever had to clean that bus, assuming that they ever did so.  

 

There were other things about that trip that could be written, but that would require a “reader’s request” to get me to tell the rest of the story. The tale about being too proud to admit that you don’t know something has been told.

 

A Taco with feathers

A Taco with Feathers

I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico during 1980-81, and my life was full of cultural diversity and wonderful smells and tastes. The lifestyle of the area was a beautiful mixture of Native American and Mexican influences which brought flavor to the very air. Albuquerque was a large, modern city, but still had a distinct individuallity.

One of my very favorite places to go was “Old Town” where San Felipe de Neri church has been guarding the square since 1793. Shops full of art and treasures border all four sides of the square and extend down all of the narrow streets. Several excellent restaurants were to be found there, including my favorite, La Hacienda, which sadly has burned down and been replaced since those days. I found myself going there frequently for dinner.

This restaurant was such a pleasure to eat at! It had excellent meals at decent prices, a welcoming atmosphere, easy parking behind the building, and musicians playing every night. Most of the time there was a flamenco guitarist named Stanley performing. He was a man who played so beautifully that I found myself sitting with fork in hand and food untouched while I listened, mesmerized. I recorded his efforts on an old cassette tape player, people noise and all.

There are also stories to tell about the tormented artist, John Yazzi, whom I befriended at this restaurant and believed in enough to purchase several of his paintings. But, I will leave those stories for another time, when you have asked to hear them.

On the way to Old Town from where I lived, the road took me past a newly opened pet store. Like the old “muscle car” saying from the past, “It can pass anything except a gas station!” I never saw a pet store that I could drive by without stopping. This one was even worse, because on the sign were the words “Bird Store.” Who could pass by a “come on” like that? Not me!

I should have hit the gas and sped off to the restaurant. It would have been far cheaper and less time consuming. Oh yeah… I was hooked from the moment that I walked in the door. It had only been a little more than a year at that point since I was a pet store manager. As I walked in I found myself taking “inventory” and assessing the displays for position and sales effectiveness.

Each direction I turned, there were more beautiful birds looking back at me. The bulk of the live feather dusters were little birds; finches, canaries and parakeets. Those species are the bulk of the commercial retail bird trade. There were also cockatiels, conures, love birds, and Quaker parakeets in good numbers. Then I saw the parrots.

The owner of this shop had a very impressive array of birds. There were multiple species of cockatoos; Umbrella, Greater and Lesser Sulphur Crested, a Major Mitchell, and a Moluccan just that I could see. Macaws were well represented with Blue Hyacinth (like “Rio”), Blue and Gold, Scarlet, and Military all out on perches. A black Mynah bird sat in a cage by the cash register, letting out a disagreeable screech occasionally.

That added up to thousands of dollars, even in 1980! No wonder the supplies on the shelves were only two or three deep and well spaced, all of their cash was in feather goods (live birds.)

The owner and his wife were soft spoken and in their late fifties, both having just retired from 30 year careers; his in construction, and hers in a school office. George was tall and lean, and Mary was short and small, both were grey haired and tanned.

They had been raising finches, parakeets, cockatiels and love birds at their home as a hobby for several years. Unlike most hobbies which are endless money pits, theirs became so profitable selling all the birds they could raise to bigger dealers like Hartz Mountain, that they were able to save a good amount of money. This cash was used to add more walk-in flight cages, which again increased bird production. As the baby bird numbers grew, so did profits.

George and Mary had a dream, and the bonus income allowed them to reach for it. It was a big leap for them to open a store of their own, and one that they were very nervous about. They knew about raising and caring for their birds, and how to ship them safely; that they had done for years. What they didn’t know about was dealing with the bigger birds, or how to run a shop that dealt directly with people.

So one day, in walks a person (me) crazy enough to volunteer countless hours of help, for no pay. I taught them retail business procedures like how to set up displays and organize inventory so that they could see what they had, or needed, at a glance.

They were selling the usual pet trade products that were designed and marketed to make the wholesaler/manufacturer money, but not the retailer. For example: birdseed for the little birds was offered in prepackaged boxes marketed by Hartz Mountain, which contained just a few (6 or 8) ounces, and was priced like gold. I convinced George that we could do better and both make a profit, and serve the customer better.

To accomplish this we went to the feed store and bought 50 lb bags of seeds and mixed up our own packages of birdseed in zip-lock bags. These packages we then sold by the pound (usually two or five lb bags) and saved the customers huge amounts. They got real value for their money and sales went wild! George still carried the Hartz Mountain boxes and a couple of little old ladies bought them anyway. They didn’t trust change of any kind I suppose.

I also taught them what I knew about the various big birds they purchased, calling upon what I had read and what I had picked up from working in pet stores. Trimming toenails, beaks, and wing feathers on parrots takes experience and a willingness to endure the occasional nervous bite.

I knew something about animals of all kinds, but I was really more of a reptile expert. It felt kind of like a post-grad student trying to teach someone about to complete their BS degree. I knew a little more than they did, but they were closing in on me fast!

George and Mary had a great sense of fairness and no “get rich quick” delusions to ruin the feeling. If you bought something from them it was at the best price around and they stood by the sale. There were a few times that they took a loss, knowing that it was a scam or unjust for them, but they felt it was better to take a couple of losses and be seen as fair dealers than fight over it. They were right. Business prospered because of their policies.

After a couple of “boom” months, George felt like he had to buy something to show “prosperity” in his shop. In other words, that he was doing well and investing back into his business. I was of the opinion that maybe some fancy parrot cages, or bird fountains would be nice (and they didn’t eat or die), but I was just an unpaid volunteer and didn’t really have a say. He did commission a metal smith in Old Town to build a grand wrought iron cage for the Blue Hyacinth macaws, but that was already in the works before his latest idea.

It was a good thing that I didn’t have a voice in his plan, because I would definitely have been against it. George purchased a “crate” of wild caught African Grey parrots, to be shipped directly from Africa.

I was not then, and am not now; a fan of wild caught “anything” being sold in the pet trade. The argument continues today, and I still believe that captive breeding is the only acceptable way to supply the pet industry.

As I walked into the store on the day that the crate arrived, my first reaction was that I was appalled at the size and shape of it. That crate looked like it held an oil painting. In fact, I had recently received a painting in just exactly that kind of box. It was about 24″ x 36″ and no more than 8″ or 10″ in depth. The crate was marked “FRAGILE” in bold letters and from the black marks and dings in the boards, I was sure that the freight guys had “carefully” thrown it with both hands.

George and I picked it up off of the floor where the delivery man had unceremoniously shoved it off of his hand truck, and carefully placed the crate flat on a counter top. There we hastened to undo the nails, prying carefully not knowing how the squawking birds inside were contained.

The sight of a burlap bag gave George confidence and he ripped the side panel up quickly, causing me to move backwards to avoid being hit in the face. Just as fast as that, his hammer went flying forward with a resounding whack on the counter top.

Wow! That was a weird way to deal with a loose parrot I thought.

Looking down at where his big framing hammer had landed, I saw a very large baboon spider (which I now know as a species of tarantula) with his hammer head driven completely through its body. Wow again!

We were a lot more careful (and nervous) as we found and cut the twine holding the bag shut. I think that if anyone had sneakily touched either George or myself at that point we would have screamed like little girls, as images of giant brown spiders played in our minds.

As we proceeded with freeing the parrots, Mary stood by with a large fishing “dip” net, just in case a bird got loose. She had also temporarily locked the front door, to make sure that no one opened it at just the wrong moment.

There are two varieties of African grey parrot; Congo and Timneh. They are nearly identical in appearance but the Timneh is smaller, calmer, and learns quicker at an earlier age. These grey parrots are considered to be the “Rolls Royce” of talking parrots, with seemingly endless capacity for learning.

The purchase order was for six baby Timneh grey parrots at $500.00 each, making this a $3,000.00 order. The baboon spider was free. By that point I was more apprehensive about what we would find in the bag, than worried about spiders.

Inside of that bag were six grey parrots alright, one with an eye missing and in a very weak condition. It was also the only Timneh. We placed it, unresisting, in an enclosed cat carrier, which Mary departed with for an immediate trip to the vet. It later died from shock and dehydration the vet said.

The other five were adult Congos and they were not happy campers. Their eyes were dilating and shrinking like a junkie on a needle (injecting drugs.) Rapid pupil fluctuation is a sign of extreme distress in parrots.

George had put welder’s gloves on and I had on regular leather work gloves, in an attempt to protect our hands from the bites that we knew were forthcoming. We both ended up with multiple punctures and bruising like the hammer had been used on our hands.

All five of the remaining birds ended up in individual cages and sat there shaking and making weird noises from fear and shock. I started filling water dishes and covering cages with whatever cloth I could grab. We moved them to the back room where it was warmer, quiet, and away from drafts and bright lights; and hopefully to let the birds relax. I could not imagine the horror of being crammed into such a dark and restrictive box for days for such intelligent creatures. It was a wonder that they survived at all.

One bird was particularly aggressive and was not in the least afraid to make eye contact. He actually growled at me. Him I liked right away. What a wise guy!

George called the shipper and got nowhere. The man on the other end (in Africa) made excuses and vague references to possible substitutions at various locations on the journey. The problem was beyond his control he kept saying.

One thing was abundantly apparent; he (George) was stuck with these grown, aggressive, expensive birds. Mary had already sent the half payment in advance to the shipper, as was customary. At my insistence that they were being taken advantage of, she did not send the remainder. What were they (the sellers) going to do about it? It was obviously a scam operation and they would just move on to the next victims.

What should have been highly marketable birds, had just become a big problem.

It was during that first period of adjustment that I somehow was convinced that I needed to own the bird that had taken such a liking to my flesh. A “half of the cost” deal was offered to me and in a moment of weakness I forked over $250.00 for a crazy, grown parrot. Since we were in Albuquerque and my favorite things were all connected with the local culture, I named the bird “Taco.”

Taco and I had many, many battles until he figured out that I wasn’t going to hurt him, and that no matter how many times he bit me, I was coming back for more.

I spent another couple of hundred dollars on a cage and supplies, all at wholesale cost, of course. I got the bird habit bad and “Bird-vana” was created. Over the next few months I also brought home parakeets, canaries, finches, love birds, a Nanday conure, and a Senegal parrot. All of them were rescues or rejects from one place or another. We rehabilitated them and got them healthy and happy, and then found them other homes.

My house looked like a zoo with dogs, a cat, birds and the human caretakers. Of course, my daughter thought it was great. She had a red Doberman that was nearly as tall as she was that slept at the foot of her bed (or on the couch) and a parrot that growled. She giggled constantly, we were having a ball.

Once, Taco stopped eating for a few days and just sat on his perch. I took him to a veterinarian who would see a parrot (they don’t all do all animals, which surprised me) and had him checked out. She couldn’t find any parasites, disease, or reason for not eating and was puzzled too.

The doctor suggested that I make a mixture of peanut butter and honey and tempt the bird with it to see if it would “jump start” his appetite. When the stubborn bird refused to try it, I put some in a large syringe (without a needle) and squeezed it into his mouth and onto his tongue. That did it and the battle was won.

Taco learned a new word from that experience, “some”. I kept asking him if he wanted “some” of the mixture as I was trying to tempt him and the word stuck in his mind. He would ask for “some” frequently after that and I would mix him up a little batch of it. It was just too cool to have a bird actually “ask” for something, to refuse him.

Through constant attention Taco turned into a nice guy and would willingly step up onto your hand and accept treats without taking your finger too. He also learned a few words, (no cuss words, I was careful) and sounds, including wild bird calls and cat noises. I thought his best trick was “growling” in the dark. When Taco growled, the Dobie would leave the room. It was truly one of the scariest sounds that I have heard.

The success with Taco encouraged us, and through a lot of hard won battles with the other African Greys, we got them into shape to sell. We sold two of them to advanced bird handlers in the area. These guys had demonstrated the ability to handle a nervous adult parrot and we saw them regularly. George sold and shipped the other two birds to a pet store in Los Angeles, and I can only hope that they fared as well.

The PATCO (air traffic controller) strike of 1981 cost me a lot professionally, financially, and personally. One of those losses was Taco. When I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and feed my family, I had to sell the birds off to make some money. I held onto Taco as long as I could. Even the Doberman was given away (so we didn’t have to buy as much dog food) to a lucky college student who enjoyed her tremendously.

I sold Taco back to George for double what I paid him, which bought food for my family and allowed us to stay in the house another month. He was immediately sold for twice that to a retired physician who knew all about Taco and had wanted to buy a grey earlier, but didn’t like any that he found. I have no doubt that the crazy bird is still alive and growling, maybe even still in Albuquerque, but I’m not sure. The old doctor who bought him has since passed on and I don’t know who inherited the bird.

The usual question that I ask myself whenever I have owned anything and want to evaluate its worth is simple, “Would I do that again?” In the case of that feathered Taco, the answer is definitely, yes!

Roadblock

Roadblock!

It was the summer of 1973 and at the time I was in the army stationed at Ft Benning, Georgia. We lived in a little town called Smith Station, Alabama which was about thirty minutes drive from the base. The road I traveled to get to work brought me in through back side of the military reservation, on the opposite side of the Chattahoochee River from the Lawson Army Airfield. 

The airport control tower was my destination on this slightly damp day and I had reached the Alabama side of the base, just across the river from the NW end of the runway. Ahead of me on the two lane road which was lined by Kudzu vines making it tunnel like (but with an open top), was a sedan blocking the road. 

I slowed down to a speed which didn’t even register on my speedometer, because ahead of me the car was backing, and pulling forward, then backing again. It was like they were attempting to do a three point turn around, but had omitted the turning part.

 

When I got closer I could see that it was a military police (MP) vehicle with two soldiers inside of it. At about two car lengths away I came to a complete stop in my travel lane and waited. That is what one does when an official vehicle is blocking the road in front of you on a military base.

The driver finally noticed me sitting there and brought his vehicle into the opposite lane. He sat there with his window up and his face mashed against the glass, looking for all the world like, (and forgive me my police friends) Porky Pig. That nose smashed upward so you could see the nostril openings, his fat pink cheek jowls, and that bus driver style hat pushed back on his head. I had to shake my head to clear the image.

 

He looked at me and waved me forward, then pointed down at the road next to his car. I crept forward and leaned out of my open window to look, much to the horror of the MP driver who had his window rolled up tight. As I pulled alongside his vehicle I noticed that he even had his door locked. This guy was really scared of something. He kept gesturing and wildly pointing downward. I looked and looked and all I could see was a bicycle inner tube with a red patch on it lying on the center line of the road. 

By gesturing like I was operating a window crank, I finally got the frightened MP to roll his window down a couple of inches so I could hear what he was saying.

“SNAKE!” he said, and pointed down, nodding his head “yes” vigorously for emphasis. 

I looked again to be sure and then leaned back into my vehicle, struggling hard not to laugh. I made a motion like drawing a pistol out of a shoulder holster and Porky nodded, then turned and spoke to his right seat partner, who pulled his sidearm. I gave the OK sign and saluted. Officer Porky-in-Charge returned my salute with a snap. 

Continuing on to work, I looked in my rear view mirror and was not at all surprised to see the MP patrol car continuing to kill that bicycle inner tube snake. They are very dangerous you know; they can leap straight up off the pavement and through car windows if you give them a chance. 

I suppose that I should have felt safer, knowing that our Military Police were on the job, but somehow all I could see was Porky Pig killing an inner tube when I closed my eyes. 

Ken 

 

Again, no disrespect intended towards any police force military or civilian. People have all kinds of very real fears to deal with and I know this first hand. But, when a situation is funny, especially absurdly funny, it is also wrong to not be allowed to laugh at it. So forget the guilt trip, laugh at funny stuff. You will live longer.