Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Yea, though I walk..."

A few days ago I heard a woman say something with great emotion. Real emotion, quietly and forcefully delivered. It took me a while to place the expression, as I had heard it before, under almost the exact same circumstance, but in a place so removed from my current reality that the bottom of Alice's rabbit hole would be more familiar. The woman said "I want to live again." The woman has cancer. Terrible, stage IV, cannibalizing cancer that is as terminal as such things get. I did not feel very much in listening to the words, and I was outwardly uneffected by the deep emotion that drove the expression from her lips. The words played over me, however, again and again, like occasional waves of icy water sweeping over a low concrete pier. And I am effected. Down here, in my well of souls, where I really live.

I have heard those five words before, and they were delivered to me in the same awful tone of pain and justice denied. Vietnam. I was a company commander there. One of the many responsibilities I had was to see to the last moments of Marines dying under my command. Choppers did not come in until dawn during those early years of helicopter medivac technology. My wounded-in-the-night boys, who could not make it to the dawn 'dust-off' spent there last few minutes with me. The only technology we had to ease their passing was called morphine. They waited, after getting the injections, and I waited with them. And they spoke. They spoke of home. They spoke of pain. But almost all said those five words "I want to live again" before they passed.

I don't speak of those days, those many hours, or about all those boys very much. The material does not seem to lend itself to 'war-story' fashioning of any sort. And, as the years have gone by, I have come to respect those boys memory by not making them a feature of my writing, unless it be here, where names and identities do not appear.

The woman who is dying does not deserve to die either. Her case is not quite as critically poignant because she is not as young as the kids who went into the night over there. She has been around for awhile. But she is still going early, and her years here have been years of great goodness, kindness and thoughtful compassion. And she does not want to go. That none of us do is no consolation to her whatever. That some of us don't want to hang on as badly as she does would never even occur to her. My own wounds, several times, took me to the very edge of that black abyss. I looked over. I even felt like I went over once. And it did not seem so bad at all. The intervening years have never allowed that feeling to leave me. And that feeling has kept me warm on many a cold night. I would give that feeling to this woman but that is not possible, and I know it. There is no way to verbally guide a person through her situation.

This wonderful woman is going to walk through that proverbial valley one day soon. There is comfort inside me, as, even with my twisted belief system about such things, I think that she will be joining some really great kids who went through there so many years before.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Prologue to "The Bering Sea," edit


Joshua Boatwright sat patiently, sipping from his small espresso cup, unsure of how he had come to be where he was, tucked into the back corner lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Crystal City. He looked out a floor-to-ceiling window onto a well kept courtyard. No, it was not his place to be there. Analysis was what he did, not personal liaisons. His calling in life was to assemble the smallest shards of data and form sweeping mosaics of truth, in a world filled with lies. Joshua was proud of his nickname, "Tevie," a shortened version of the motto he lived by. "Triple Verification" was that motto. Three sources to establish the veracity of each shard of data he added to his mosaics, to produce pictures of sanity in an insane world. His team of analysts, located four miles away, at CIA's Langley complex, had not conferred the nickname because of his work, however. Unknown to Joshua, they had given him the name because of their knowledge of his only recreation, which was watching television non-stop when not at the intelligence facility.

Diminutive and fidgeting, he sipped and fretted over the tops of his prescription glasses. They had jet black frames, for affect. He did not need them to read or drive. But they gave him a distinguished look, or so his ex-wife had told him, and they did help when examining the tiniest detail of photo intelligence. The Agency's electronic surveillance, although not legally allowable for personal use, such as tracking one's spouse, had proven ruthlessly effective, just after she'd commented on his spectacles.

A big man entered the lobby near its grand entrance. He wore an expensive blue suit. Its Italian cut did nothing, however, to disguise his morbid obesity. Joshua flicked his eyes towards the man, then grimaced. The man's florid complexion, bulbous nose and polished smile gave his identity away. The Senior Senator from Iowa stopped in the center of the large foyer, to take the place in. No assistants or attendants of any sort accompanied him, which did not surprise Joshua at all. The Senator noticed him sitting alone in the corner. Joshua glanced at him before looking down at a folder he had placed very exactly on his table. Noticing a slight tremor pass through his left wrist, he quickly tucked it down between his thigh and the arm of the chair. Never had he encountered anyone as an Agency representative, and certainly never a sitting senator, much less one who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"There's no shame to having a little bit of fear here," he whispered inaudibly to himself, breathing deeply inward as he heard the powerful senator's approaching footsteps. Joshua squared his shoulders imperceptibly, his back ramrod straight. He had the weight and reputation of the entire Central Intelligence Agency behind him. He would neither genuflect nor grovel before anyone.

"You'd be their man?" the senator inquired very calmly, stopping astride Joshua's chair. Joshua started to rise and raise his right hand. He quickly caught himself, however, putting it down and reseating himself. He was not there, at a clandestine meeting, to be social, or to appear social.

"Stay seated," the senator said, paternalistically, his voice soft and silky. He lowered himself with visible difficulty into the narrow chair Joshua had purposely placed at right angles to his own before a low coffee table.

"Got something for me?" the senator asked into the silence between them. His tone this time flavored with a likability that the analyst instantly hated.

Before any reply could be made, the senator picked up the unmarked but highly classified file Joshua had placed on the table. Neither man said anything while he read its contents. Joshua noted that the lobby was completely empty, save for two clerks working registration near the entrance. The waiter, who had brought his expresso to him had never returned. Joshua hoped he wouldn't, for fear of having to touch the cup and allow the senator to see him shaking. Minutes passed. A bead of perspiration ran down his hairline behind his right ear. Fortunately, it was the ear opposite the senator's position.

"Says here that you boys are gonna go ahead and help me out," the big man in the blue suit intoned, before plopping the file back on the table.

"The usual Agency drivel," the senator commented, acidly.

"You gonna tell me what the plan is?" he inquired.

Joshua cleared his throat to steady himself, then followed his instructions.

"Your nephew is being justifiably imprisoned by a foreign government. His violations, meriting that imprisonment, are in keeping with what we normally associate with serious criminal behavior in our own country. The Agency does not normally involve itself in such matters, particularly where such deviant and anti-social behavior is involved." Joshua halted, having delivered his own righteous version of the background information he had been given during his briefing. After a few seconds of silence he realized that something was amiss. Without looking over, he felt the heat of tremendous anger flow toward him from the direction of the senator's chair. Instinctively, he dropped his left shoulder a millimeter or two in defense, before he caught himself.

"Just cut to the chase son. Don't make me come after your career." The senator's threat was issued in a low tone, more akin to that of an oversized cat purring than of a human voice. Joshua's throat froze, a tendril of fear coursing through him at the mention of his career. He finally cleared it by swallowing several times.

"We're sending our best man," Joshua gasped. "He's resourceful, violently equipped and experienced. No expense will be spared in this operation. But we're sending him in alone. We can't afford, no matter what measures you may or may not take, to have this operation rise to the level of an international incident. Not now." Joshua averted his gaze from the direction of the man from Capitol Hill as he finished his memorized message. He waited for a response, again trying to fathom why he had been selected for the role he was playing. He was in the dark, but Joshua sensed the reason. It was about the fact that his analysis group had provided the data which sanctioned the mess-of-a-mission the so-called 'best man' had pulled off, against all odds.

He heard the senator arise from his chair. He looked up, but the man was already walking away, his manufactured smile once more plastered to his politician's face. He had made no comment at all, not even in dismissal.

Joshua's shoulders pressed inward, and his head sank to the point that his jaw nearly touched his chest. His trembling fingers grasped the espresso cup handle. He took a shaky sip. He thought of the 'best man' the Agency was dispatching, then smiled weakly for the first time that day. That 'best man' had just come out of West Africa under the bloodiest of circumstances, having improbably accomplished his mission. The skewed manner in which his mission had been conducted would no doubt have the Agency looking like a stone cold, heartless and uncaring beast, and no one in analysis was taking that lightly. His grip steadied as he pondered over what he'd just done. He'd sent a low-life field agent off to save a drug-dealing nephew of a corrupt scumbag senator. This time not the remotest possibility of the mission's success existed.

Joshua Boatwright stood up straight, tucked the classified folder under his arm and strode across the lobby. His mind was already lost in formulation of the final mosaic, as it would appear, when the details of an illegal and doomed mission crossed his desk.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


We have just had another of those strange flight travel incidents, which nobody seems to be able to explain or resolve in any way. It seems that a Continental plane pulled into Rochester, Minnesota because of bad weather, then sat on the tarmac, about fifty feet from a gate, for twelve hours. Everyone involved has diligently and rationally absolved themselves of fault in this situation. Again. The passengers suffered pretty badly, with just one bathroom. That bathroom was clogged up and inoperable. No food and no drinks were served by the one flight attendant, while all this went on. The Airport says that the terminal was open and available, but the crew of the aircraft would have had to request clearance to dock. The Airline says it knows nothing at all about any of what went on. The crew of the plane says that the terminal was closed and they had no place to dock. That someone's lying here is being totally ignored.

But it is vitally interesting to listen to interviews of the passengers after they were finally deplaned. The succession of lies that they were told by the crew of that plane is unbelievable. It is almost of daytime soap opera caliber stuff. They were told that the terminal was closed. They were told, time after time, that they would be flying out very soon, until they started to be told that a bus was coming to take them back to Minneapolis (60 miles away). Then they were told that the bus had broken down. They were served nothing by the lone flight attendant, but a pack of self-serving lies. There was no bus. There was no flight clearance. The crew never contacted the terminal to ask for docking privileges. There could be only one motivation for all the lying and misrepresentations. Money. Why else would anyone perform like that crew performed?

Flight crews start getting paid as soon as they pull away from the gate. That crew was well into overtime pay while that plane sat there on the tarmac. Not only that, but the crew was using up hours of 'air' time which would give them time off in the weeks ahead, because of the way flight rules are structured within the industry. The passengers were 'gamed' by that crew. The media allows this to continue by not letting the public know about the true motivation behind this kind of miserable flight violation.

And you might think that the passengers kind of deserved what they got because they did not get violent or complain to the point of intolerance? Think again. Post 9/11. Yes, think TSA. Think about the expressions you yourself observe on many of the near-moronic faces of airport security 'officers.' You cannot, as a passenger, encounter flight personnel, or security personnel, with an 'attitude' anymore. You will be charged with a felony, and our ridiculously skewed court system will find you guilty. It happens more than three thousand times a year in this country. The passengers had to do what they did. They had to stay quiet and take the lies. They probably even knew that they were being lied to. And there is the cell phone issue I heard brought up this morning. Once you pull away from the gate you are not allowed to use your cell phone on the aircraft. Only the crew could give you permission to do that, and guess what. Yes, you guessed it. The crew said no cell phones.

The crew will not be fired or punished for their behavior. Anymore than Officer Crowley will be punished for his illegal harassment, humiliation and arrest of Professor Gates. In fact, they will all be rewarded. The flight crew will get the off time and overtime pay, while Crowley will get promoted and have some badly written book published. Some injustices that occur in our culture are actually rewarded. I am not sure why, exactly. Maybe it is just that Jupiter is in transit, or Venus is trining Mars. But, if the airlines do not stop supporting outrageous behavior committed by their flight crews, there will be an occurance of violence at some point. One of these days, or nights, an overheated and fully stuffed aluminum tube is going to explode like a bratwurst left too long on the grill. That coming event is so easily preventable, but, sadly, I don't think anything will be done. Our whole culture is sitting on the dock of the bay, watching .....

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Ushuaia" A story of hope....


El Prat was never really finished properly, following the twenty-fifth Olympiad in ninety-two. Not the last part of the last terminal, anyway, where the tattered and beaten Montenegro Airlines plane had dumped me from the flight in. Barcelona was supposed to be one grand city, but I was not going to see it, and that didn’t bother me in the least. As cold and rotten as the rain had been at Golubovci when I had shambled aboard that morning, Barcelona’s warmer overcast sky, visible just beyond the terminal windows, seemed to offer little better.
All the other passengers had filed dutifully toward baggage claim, somewhere else, probably a long ‘somewhere else’ inside the vast facility. Instead of following along I had taken a nearby seat and fallen into it. I had no baggage. No checked and no carryon. Going home in disgrace did not require luggage, or belongings of any sort. Your body was required to take the journey, so you could stand and be told what a sad human being you had turned out to be, and, without it being directly said, how it was not their fault that you were such a miserable representative of species homo sapiens.
But I did have cigarettes. American, no less. The good stuff, not that cheap-burning Balkan crap. If I’d had drugs…well hell, I didn’t, so, as with the remainder of my life, it didn’t much matter. The people from the plane were mostly gone. Stragglers here and there, straggling aimlessly, like so many people do at airports around the world. I observed them by habit, as I didn’t care at all about them. No players among them, I knew. Even deep covered operations specialists were not difficult to spot, if you had been in the business, and the field, for awhile. I’d been both.
9/11, back home and so many years back, had changed everything I thought, as I began looking around for a place to smoke even part of a cigarette. Airports were hermetically sealed environments following 9/11, where smoking had gone the way of the pay phone and coin-metered parking out front. I watched a beautiful, but stressed out, woman head toward the opening to the washroom. Barcelona, not home, so it was one of those single unisex things I didn’t care for. Although the woman was dragging a seven or eight year old girl along with her I mostly noticed her. Tall, elegant, and wearing a beautiful knee length black dress. I noted that she walked powerfully, moved strongly, but she gave the appearance of somehow being wounded at the same time. I was a predator, and she had the look of prey. I smiled, turning away. Fortunately, for both of us, I was neither a predator of women or children. Unless it was required of the mission. And there would be no more missions.
I had a decision to make. The greatest decision of my life. The decision about my life. And I needed a cigarette to help me along. I looked back toward where the woman and her child had disappeared into the unisex bathroom opening. Just beyond that opening was a large metal door with yellow writing angled across it. Spanish was not one of my languages, not the writing of it anyway, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the message was a ‘keep out’ message. But I could not see any lock on the door’s surface.
Looking around carefully first I arose from the chair and headed for the door. I took out my pack of Marlboros, to use as a cover in case I was encountered. Even so, just trying to use a door marked 'not-to-be-opened' might be a huge violation, not explainable by a person simply wanting to have a smoke.
“Screw it, like it makes any difference at all,” I said to myself in disgust, pushing down on the European-style door lever. I pulled. No alarm. I opened it all the way, stepped into another world, and looked around in surprise. I gently closed the door behind me, leaning down to make sure that there was no hidden device or lock along the height and depth of its edge. I took out a Marlboro and lit it. I leaned against the hard concrete wall opposite the door. I suddenly realized what I was in. I was in a long walled off corridor open to the sky. At one time the corridor must have led somewhere, but the vagaries of construction, and probably security, had caused both ends to be walled off. I looked up at the gray sky. The walls had to be over thirty feet high.
I heard the sound of deep sobbing. I walked a short distance down the long enclosed length of the concrete box. The sound was coming from a vent just above my head as I stopped. I blew out a great puff of smoke and watched it swirl right into the vent. A child coughed lightly from inside the vent. The vent led into the bathroom I concluded. The woman was sobbing inside there, with her child nearby.
“What are we doing, Mom?” I heard the child say. I listened intently. After a moment of more quiet sobbing, there was silence. Then the woman spoke in a whisper loud enough for me to hear.
“Get on your knees. We’re going to pray to God. We‘ve been deserted here
and have no money. If the authorities take us in, it won’t be long before they have us
back in that horrid country with those horrid people.”
The accent was American I concluded. The world was a hard place. I imagined one of the countries the woman must be talking about. Saudi, Iran, Jordon.
Cultures that were implacable, with respect to their women and children. Rendition had been invented by them, and the Israelis, not by Americans. To be on the run from one of those countries was to be in terrible jeopardy.
I drew in more smoke, then watched it snake back into the vent. I heard no more coughing. Instead I heard praying.
“Please Lord,” the woman intoned, followed by the little voice of her child, repeating the same words. “We are in deep trouble. Please send someone to help us. Anyone. We can’t make it on our own.” I heard all the words twice, but it was the little girl’s that went in toward what was left of my soul. Then I shook my head, threw the cigarette down and ground it out with my foot. It was a cold cruel world.
It took its toll on all of us and I had my own problems. I tip-toe'd to the door, opened it noiselessly, then slipped back into the real world again. I moved away quickly until I was well down the terminal corridor.
It seemed like a half-mile walk to the main building where the counters were located. I had an electronic connecting ticket to Washington but I had made that decision. I wasn’t going back there so I needed a ticket. I picked the United line, as it was fairly short and my original connect had been on that. Maybe they had a flight to South America that did not connect in the United States.
I felt someone behind me, but then, I was in line at an airline counter. Instinctively, I glanced back anyway. I almost groaned aloud. It was the elegant broken down woman and her child. I quickly turned my head, but not quick enough.
The little girl spoke up at me.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” I grimaced down at her, in question.
“Huh?” I said, intelligently.
“You smell like him.” I stared, having nothing to say to that comment.
I looked at the woman, but her attention was on everything else around. Her eyes darted all over the place, like those of a cornered animal. The girl kept staring at me, waiting for something.
“I smell?” I finally asked, against my better judgment. She nodded, knowingly.
“My Mom and I prayed for help. I smelled you when we prayed. You’re him, the one God sent.” I stared, my expression one of total disbelief. The girl had coughed at the smoke from my cigarette while in that bathroom I realized, then
picked up the same aroma from my clothes. My mind raced. A lot of people smoked, especially in Europe. The girl could not possibly know that the smoke was from me personally. I started to comment, then stopped, looking into the steady deep pools of her eyes. She knew. I knew that she knew. She knew that I knew that she knew. No words needed to be said.
“Por favor?” a woman’s impatient voice said, from the side. I jerked toward the sound. I was next. The counter clerk was motioning toward me. I looked up at her, then back at the child, who smiled, her knowledge of my role total and complete.
“Jesus Christ!” I whispered bitterly, taking my wallet from my pocket, and then approaching the counter. I took out my personal Visa, the only credit care I owned myself. The Agency cards were not going to work to get me anywhere, I knew, not anymore. My last ten thousand dollars was invested in the Visa card. Or at least my only ten thousand, and it was all credit. I shrugged. What did it matter.
“Here,” I said, shoving the card across the counter, “fly these two people to anywhere they're going.” I pulled back. The woman moved to the counter.
“What?” she asked. “What’s going on? What are you doing?” The woman looked from the clerk to me, than back again. The clerk shrugged like I had, but with more meaning.
“Here, you need tickets out of here. Use my card. Take care of your child.”
I said the words in embarrassment, as the woman stood staring at me in silence.
I watched conflicting expression flow across her face like the surface of a river’s white water rapids.
“We needed help Mom, and God sent him,” the small girl said, in her penetrating little voice. She pointed up at my chest. I could tell that the woman did not know what to do.
“Take the tickets. Get the hell out of here,” I said sharply. The woman’s face broke, then she caught herself, thankfully stifling a sob. I stepped away to give her room. The little girl stepped with me.
“Where are you going?” she asked me, conversationally, as if what was happening was just a normal part of her everyday life. I sighed.
“Ushuaia,” I said, thinking that that would stop her, but it didn’t.
“Ushuaia?” she intoned, getting the pronunciation all-wrong. I didn’t correct her, preferring to wait until she and her Mom were out of my life.
“Why are you going there?” the girl went on, as I wondered that she had not even asked where Ushuaia was. I answered as if she had asked.
“Its in South America, down near the tip, in a place called Terra del Fuego.
There’s a bar down there I’m going to drink at. I’m done. I’m all done. “ I finished saying the last words with my eyes closed, imagining the total relief I would find down there, as there was just no point in living on anymore. The bar in Ushuaia was as good a place to end it all as anywhere.
“Can I draw you?” The little girl brought me back with her odd question.
“Huh?” I said, returning to my earlier intellectual response. I noted that the girl had produced a small notepad and pencil from somewhere.
“I don’t care what you do,” I answered, truthfully. I moved to the side to wait
Until I had to sign something. I did not have to wait long. The clerk gestured, the woman stood aside and I signed the credit card slip, then some other papers. I accepted my card back, but did not put it away.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” the woman began, as I tried to shake my head and stop her. “No, without you I don’t think we would have made it," she went on, "you saved our lives and I don’t know how to thank you.”
“I don’t need any thanks, just get your child back home or wherever you’re going.” The woman nodded. I knew she was aware of my discomfort. She took her papers, turned, then turned back and kissed me on the cheek. She smiled for the first time, as I shrank back in surprise, bringing my hand to my cheek. The woman grabbed the little girl by one hand and made to depart. The girl pulled back.
“Wait,” she yelled, then held up the other hand to me. I took the piece of paper she pushed at me, then watched as both she and her Mom half-walked and half-ran out into the main terminal area. I watched until they were gone.
“Por favor?” the United clerk said, once again.
“Connect me all the way through to Ushuaia, Argentina,” I said, pushing the Visa back across the counter. The woman went to work. I waited for almost ten minutes. All at once she looked up.
“The card’s no good. You don’t have enough money for that trip.”
I stared.
“What?’ was all I could say for a moment. “But I had ten thousand of credit on that card,” I said, in a shaky voice.
“Oh,” the woman said. “Now I understand. That woman and her child used up nine thousand dollars of your credit.” I stared, my eyes going round.
“Where the hell did she buy tickets to, Timbuktu?” I could not believe what I was hearing.
“Washington D.C.” the woman said, flatly.
“D.C.” I almost yelled. “It doesn’t cost that kind of money to fly from Barcelona to D.C.!” I waited for a reply, fuming.
“It does in first class. You said fly them anywhere. They were going to D.C.
At the last minute and with a full plane, first class is all that was available. Do you want to fly somewhere else?” I shook my head, still in total shock. I took out my electronically issued boarding pass. I handed it across the counter.
“Are they on that same flight?” I asked, knowing the answer. The woman checked her computer. She nodded, as I knew she would.
“Please tell me that they don’t have seats next to mine,” I murmured, all the strength of my voice gone.
“Oh no,” the woman replied, brightly. They’re in first class. You’re back in economy.” I just looked at her, slowly taking my boarding pass back. “You better hurry, you’re flight leaves in twenty minutes,” she finished.
I nodded, saying nothing. I stepped away, hearing “por favor” behind me.
I walked numbly toward the center of the terminal. I stopped under the flight display to find my gate. I remembered the piece of paper in my hand. I unfolded it. It was a wonderful little pencil piece of some expressed talent. It was a drawing of a smiling man bending over to talk to or accept something from a female child. Under the drawing was written the words “Not Done.”
I could not help smiling to myself. I didn’t believe in God. If I did believe in God I wouldn’t have liked Him. But I walked toward the United gate smiling, with a strange new purpose in my step. I talked to Him, whom I did not believe in, while I walked. Indeed, it appeared I was not done.
copyright 2009