I May End Up At The Poop Deck


I recently made a trip to Galveston. I love some Texas Coast, and I had never visited the most notorious of Texas wharf towns.

Each summer my daughter and I try to have some sort of water holiday before AISD takes over our lives and, if we were Libertarians, our Freedom. Since things have been kind of rough this summer in that  I have been  broke more often than not, we had a one night’s stay in Galveston, for which I begged for state rate.

But that one night at the Hotel Galvez provided a magical 28 hours…
There was the saltwater pool of my daughter’s dreams.  Ample time spent in the ocean (technically bay??) waves.  An expectation to eat fried fish twice a day.  And then….

The Poop Deck

The Poop Deck, a second story bar looking overlooking the seawall, was the setting for my Vacation Epiphany Moment.   You know how sometimes, when you get out of town and you are actually really relaxed, you have a realization that brings a sense of tranquility and optimism to your overall outlook?

My realization was that I could end up at the Poop Deck…

And it would be sort of bitching.

I could sling domestics and breathe in salty gulf air. I could look out at the ocean any time. I could wear outfits that were really pushing it for my age. I could drink on the job.

My Poop Deck epiphany has offered me a strange solace. I tend to worry about  never finding a life partner or not having another child. I’m pretty clear that Social Security will be gone when I’m old, and, even with compound interest, my retirement savings will most likely be a pittance.

But sitting on the balcony of the Poop Deck, drinking a Lone Star and staring at the sea, gave me the enchanting option of ending up in a gritty, pretty place, with plenty of canned beer and Texan coastal culture.

And it would be sort of bitching.

The Mick Hits Two

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs. As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter. While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee.
Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (right to left). image by Corbis.

Journalist  Jane  Leavy was an acquaintance of Mickey Mantle, having spent an Atlantic City  weekend with him (in separate hotel rooms) in 1983, during which time he propositioned her.  She says she declined.  If so, she may have been in the minority of the girls and women who received similar invitations from the Mick.  His many legendary home runs were not limited to the ball park.  Ms. Leavy, who says in the book’s preface that she fell in love with Mantle, did do something that none of those other women did.  She wrote a best-selling biography called The Last Boy  Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s childhood. Of the numerous Mantle biographies, hers, published  in 2010, is by far the best.  She does a beautiful job of reconciling the man’s basic honesty and innocence with his philandering, boozing lifestyle and occasional streaks of meanness, while at the same time writing in vivid prose a riveting history of the Yankees’ greatest era.

This is not a review of that book, although I  recommend it to anyone, sports fan or not, who would enjoy reading a masterful biography about a fascinating  20th Century American icon.   Instead this is a brief account of one Mantle fan’s recollection of watching him play in one game during the summer of 1961.  Leavy’s account of that year’s season re-kindled the memory.

During the summer of 1961, Mantle and his Yankee team- mate and room-mate, Roger Maris, each threatened to break Babe Ruth’s seemingly unbreakable 1927 record of 60 home runs.   As the summer progressed, nothing else in sports seemed to matter.   Years later the season was chronicled by a writer named Ron Smith in a book Entitled 61* The Story of Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and One Magical Summer. In that book, Smith wrote that “(Maris) stepped reluctantly into the New York spotlight in 1960, a naïve, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is small-town boy from Fargo, N.D.  (Mantle) had been auditioning for the role of New York icon for the better part of a decade, a handsome, fun-loving Oklahoma farm boy turned savvy sports star.”

In a forward to Smith’s book, Billy Crystal, a wildly enthusiastic, lifetime Yankee fan, declared that, “The summer of 1961 was the greatest of my life.”. . . “Maris started the season slowly; Mickey was on fire.  Then it happened.  Roger got going, Mantle matched him; Roger went ahead.  Mickey fought back.  We all started to take sides.  This was serious.  Someone was going to do it.  Two Yankees going after Ruth.  Perfect!”

While all that was going on, I was hitch-hiking  up the eastern seaboard with a friend named Gentry Lee. We were nineteen, somewhat foolish, and short of funds. We would stop and work for a few days, make a few bucks, and again hit the highways and byways, travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia to Washington D.C. and eventually all the way to Montreal and back to Austin.  It was slow going because hitch-hiking was difficult at times, and we frequently had to stop and find work.

Along the way we would get a newspaper now and then to read about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the “M&M Boys” as they had become known.  Mantle was our hero and had been for years.  We knew little about Maris other than what he was doing that summer for the Yankees.

By the time we got to Washington, D. C. on the Fourth of July, Maris had hit 31 homers, Mantle had hit 28, and we were almost broke.  Gentry finagled a job as a copy boy for the Washington Post.  I settled for a stint as an all- night hamburger cook at a downtown White Castle restaurant that filled up with rowdy and hungry drunks when the bars shut down at 2 am.

On the morning of Tuesday, July 18, the Yankees came to town, following a series in Baltimore, to play two games against the Washington Senators at old Griffith Stadium.  By then, Maris had hit 35 homers and Mantle 33.  Gentry and I must have made a few bucks because an hour or two before start of the July 18 afternoon game, we were perched in the cheap seats at Griffith watching the players warm up.  This was the first major league baseball game for both of us.

We were rooting for New York over Washington and for Mantle over Maris.  Odds heavily favored the Yankees, in first place with a 58-30 record, against the Senators, (later to become the Texas Rangers)  in 7th place with a record of 40-50.  Attendance, including Gentry and me, was 17, 695.

Pre-game batting practice was spectacular.  Both sluggers repeatedly blasted balls far over the fence and each time, as they say, “the crowd went wild.”  Drinking- age was 18 in D.C. then so we even had a legal cold beer or two in public  as the teams warmed up.  That, like the game itself, was a first for us two teenagers from Texas where the drinking age was set, sensibly, at 21.

On the mound that day for the Senators was right-hander Joe McClain. It must have been a daunting experience for him, a mediocre pitcher, to have to face the Yankees when the M&M boys had been hitting homers for weeks with seeming impunity.  McClain had only broken in with the big leagues on April 18.  He finished 1961 with eight wins and eighteen losses, and  only played in the majors for one more year.

Maris didn’t get a hit against McClain that afternoon; his fireworks all came in batting practice.  But in the first inning with a man on first and two out, the Mick strode confidently to the plate, took a couple of high inside fast-balls, and  on the third pitch slammed a towering two-run homer high over the right field fence.  The crowd went even wilder. It seemed that even the Washington fans were rooting for Mantle and New York.

Now Maris with 35 homers only led Mantle by one.  Nothing else spectacular happened until the top of the 8th when Mantle, again with two out but with no one on base, smashed an inside fast-ball deep over the center field fence to leave the two slugging team-mates  tied at 35 home runs apiece.   The Yankees won the game 5 to 3.  Mantle’s three RBI’s were the difference.

Mantle had been playing for most of his career with a badly injured knee (and often with a hangover).  After an infection put him in the hospital late in the summer, he faded somewhat and ended the season with 54 home runs.  On October 1 Maris hit number 61 to break Ruth’s record.*

The record book contains an asterisk pursuant to a controversial ruling by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick that Ruth’s record had to be broken in 154 games because there were only 154 games played when Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927.  Maris hit his 61st in the 162nd. Game of the 163 game season.

Getting to see Mantle hit  two home runs in that phenomenal  1961 season is a memory I have always cherished.  The game ended in time for me to make it to my cooking job at the White Castle.  After the bars closed, the 2 a.m. drunks seemed rowdier than usual that night.  Maybe they were Washington Senator fans who had been celebrating Mickey Mantle.

A Letter from Iraq

(Editor’s note: Dog Canyon writer and Austin resident, U.S. Army Captain Shaw Locke is winding down his second tour of duty in Iraq with a psychological operations unit in Baghdad.  As he prepares to leave the country in the spring, Locke is taking an over-the-shoulder look at what America will leave as its legacy in the wake of complete withdrawal.  He plans to contribute frequently to Dog Canyon.)

As a US Army soldier on my second tour of duty in Iraq, I began to see things with a bit more clarity. I became even more aware today of just how far removed the people of this country are from their government.  The Iraqi government, even now that Saddam Hussein is gone, still is not truly “for” the people or even remotely “at their service.”  The US is presently trying to teach the concept of “government service” to the elected Iraqis and their bureaucrats as well as the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) but the lessons haven’t gone very far. There is a deep and obvious disconnect between the general population and the Government of Iraq (GoI) and after all we have done here I am sorry to report that is likely to only increase after the US military’s final exodus in December of 2011.

A recent experience in trying to assist a young Iraqi national woman made me more convinced of how the GoI is failing to function on the most basic of levels.  A member of my Psychological Operations Team brought this young woman to my attention. SGT Rusk Smith, a California Native who is the team chief for the 344th Tactical Psychological Operations Company, was working in support of a Combined Medical Engagement Mission in the village of Al Abid, near Fallujah.  The goal was simply to engage the local population, gather passive intelligence, and get a sense of the atmospherics of the community, but the team also included an “advise and assist” element, which offered some health care provider support.  Iraqi Security Forces were working with American troops to establish a medical screening process where potential patients were triaged under security provided by both forces.

Iraqis Waiting for Basic Health Care from American Soldiers

While the villagers were waiting in line, the man used as a “local national” (LN) interpreter by the military began to strike up conversations.  One of those residents noticed that SGT Smith was also involved in some of the exchanges.  The man quickly ran off and returned with his sister’s identification and a series of images from an MRI machine.  Almost immediately, he was begging SGT Smith to examine the MRIs and see if his sister might be helped.  The story Smith was told, an odd one for a largely treeless desert, was that the man’s sister had suffered a broken back when a falling tree had crushed her.  He described a disabled woman with bedsores, unable to move or defecate properly for months, who suffered with painful gastro-intestinal complications.  A local physician had seen her and had provided a prognosis of only a few more months of life because of her injuries.

When he returned to our base, Camp Liberty, SGT Smith showed me photos of the man and his digital shots of the woman’s ID card and MRI results.  He asked me if I had any connections to the Iraqi Ministry of Health.  The woman, he insisted, needed treatment or death was imminent.  Obviously, I was inclined to assist but we are trained to be skeptical in these situations.  The “tree” part of the story left me wondering about the facts.  Trees in Iraq are sparse, as I mentioned, you don’t see them lying on the ground, and the ones that are growing have survived by withstanding decades of very strong winds.  When I looked at the MRIs, however, even as an untrained person, I saw the severity of her back injuries and began to wonder about the degree of pain she had endured for the past few months.

What bothered me even more, though, was trying to understand what might have precluded the United States Force (USF) or the ISF from scooping up this young woman and rushing her to Fallujah for treatment.  I had already become painfully aware, however, that the ISF in that area has no regard or respect for the citizenry, and the Iraqi soldiers that are sworn to provide them protection, instead, abuse the locals. In short, anyone with a crisis or a need has nowhere to turn.  SGT Smith described a narrative he had heard from one of the citizens that the Iraqi Police entertain themselves by placing locals in a corral and shocking them with electric probes.  In any case, I don’t think SGT Smith had much support from either side, USF or ISF.  Smith’s team was just a 2-man PSYOP support element and I can understand why he did not try to persuade the other units to get involved.  He might have confronted the team leaders with a problem that could have steered their overall mission off course and cause further military and political complications. He did the right thing by taking down all of the information available and getting it to me so that I might arrange assistance.

SGT. Rusk Smith and local national interpreter "Eddie" with Iraqi Children, Village of Al Abid near Fallujah

The next series of events, even in retrospect, still strike me as fairly miraculous, and they only took less than 24 hours to execute.  I immediately had a meeting with the 1st Armored Division Information Operations Section that evening.  Fortunately, the 1st Armored Division Surgeon, LTC Vincent Barnhardt, was in attendance and I took him aside before the more formal business of our officer corps.  After I described the situation to LTC Barnhardt, he was clearly concerned and asked me to forward the information to his office. I sent him an email later that evening that detailed everything I had been told and included the photos and cell phone number for the woman’s brother, whose named we finally learned was Sadwyn.  She is only 21 and her brother, Suha, who appeared to be about 30, was determined to get her assistance from the Americans.

The next morning LTC Barnhardt forwarded the email to the United States Forces-Iraq Headquarters to the USF-I Surgeon, COL Lisa Zacher of the Third Armored Corps. She contacted the US Embassy and was directed to a “Dr Daniel,” an Arabic- speaking physician assigned to the Embassy.  I do not know if he is Iraqi by birth but he quickly took ownership of Suha’s predicament and called the Director General of Health (DG) of Anbar Province.  The DG agreed to send an ambulance as soon as an affirmative location and hospital preference were confirmed.  Eventually, Sadwyn was contacted on his mobile phone and by noon his gravely injured sister was en route to Fallujah Hospital.

As much as I wanted to be pleased by our ability to assist Suha and her brother, I found it quite troubling that it took a call from a US Embassy physician to the Director General of Health for the entire Province of Anbar to provide emergency health care to a woman who had been in life-threatening pain for many months.  I was, obviously, ecstatic to see that this woman was helped and I know that SGT Smith and his team and the surgeons felt a sense of accomplishment but I could not escape the fact that it required the highest level of government intervention just to get an injured Iraqi citizen to a hospital that is only an hour’s drive distant from where she lay suffering.

Of course, this is only one incident.  There’s no way to know how many have ended less happily. Probably not something we want to know, I suspect.  But I think the American taxpayer needs more information like the story of Sadwyn and Suha to understand the deep level of dysfunction within the Iraqi Government.  If it is a large, uncaring monster, we have to take some of the blame.  None of us wants to be here any longer and we will be completely out of Iraq in fourteen months.  But I wonder what we are leaving behind.  I think I know but it’s a reality that I find hard to stomach after all of this sacrifice and I wonder why the American public is being shielded from the truth of what continues to happen in Iraq.

Adventures of a Young Man: That Time in Cuba

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Our delegation was supposed to be about culture and history but nobody ever went to Cuba without a political intent.  The organization was a Latino group from America and they had already made many public statements about normalization of relations with Cuba but they knew the chances were not good for that to happen during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  I did not want to think about the politics but when you walk around old Havana and visit the farms and talk to the people and see how they suffer then you know that everything in Cuba is related to politics.

Havana

“We have a problem here on our island.”  Our driver, who was more of a “minder,” began speaking as we rolled away from the hotel.  “This artificial sweetener is hurting our people.”

“What artificial sweetener?” I asked.

“They are beginning to use it in some of the Coca-Colas now,” Armando said.  “This is very painful.”

“I guess I don’t understand.”

“We grow and sell sugar here and it is bought by countries all around the world.  Now there is less demand.  These doctors are saying sugar is bad.  Do they know what this Nutra Sweet might do to people?”  Armando turned around to look at me when he finished his question and one of his eyebrows was arched and he had drawn his lips together so tightly that they exaggerated the wrinkles around his mouth.  He was surely in his mid fifties but his hair was suspiciously lacking any trace of gray.

“Yeah, probably ought to find that out, I suppose.”  I was thinking, however, that my own beloved country was a bit foolish to be worried about a small island nation that might have its economy brought to grief by an artificial sweetener.

Forever Summer City

Armando drove my cameraman Vicente and I along the low stone seawall that traced the curve of Havana Bay and toward the green fields to the east.  We were supposed to be getting a briefing from a Cuban government agency and then we all were to be taken to see a master cigar roller.  This job was one of the most honored in the island’s culture and required years of practice and accomplishment in turning a tight leaf around the tobacco.  I was wondering how I might construct any of this into some kind of meaningful news report but my main interest was in making certain I did not miss any single sight or taste or sound.  I had not ever been to such an exotic place and was determined to visit the Floridita bar where Hemingway drank and the Finca Vigia, his farm in the hills where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Vicente and I had been forced to share a room in the old Riviera Hotel and it towered above the Caribbean Sea and all of old Havana.  The rooms smelled of mold and decades of humidity and the paper was curling away from the walls where it had once been seamed.  Furniture in the lobby was discolored by time and the Formica on the tables and counters in the café was without color and worn thin. The Riviera, though, had once been glamorous and glorious and was filled with beautiful people with mysterious backgrounds during the years that the American mob ruled Cuba and ran gambling, drugs, and alcohol. I still had trouble envisioning women in low-cut beaded gowns gliding over these scarred floors carrying champagne flutes in their hands and gaudy jewels around their necks as men with greased hair chased after them in tuxedos. Those people shared their money with the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista, who also made the campesinos cut tobacco and sugar cane for pennies a day so he might get even richer.

“When do you think we might meet the premier?” I asked Armando.  Brightly painted buildings were passing behind us and giving way to open country that was outlined by low hills.

“This we cannot know,” he said.  “The premier moves about.  No one knows where he sleeps.  It is a different place every night.  Your American CIA tried to kill him, as you know.  We must be very careful.”

“But we are going to meet him, are we not?  It’s part of why we are here.  I think the delegation wants to personally express interest in trade; at least that’s what I was told.”

“Let’s hope this happens.”

Vicente was quiet and sat in the back with his bulky TV camera bouncing on the seat.  He had not spoken much since the first night because he had a Latino surname and everyone had expected him to know Spanish but he grew up in Texas during a time when Mexican-American parents were embarrassed to have their children speaking anything other than English.  Our first night in the hotel restaurant a waiter had approached our table and asked if two of our four chairs were taken.  The question had been spoken in Spanish and Vicente responded with an embarrassing answer.

“Si, dos cervezas, por favor.”

Vicente was wide and strong with thick arms and legs and when he pointed a TV camera at people and told them what he wanted them to do they obeyed his instructions.  His constant facial expression was confusion even though he seemed to be trying to make everything in his immediate vicinity fit to a vision he had of what he wanted to happen.  All of the Mohitos that were brought to us in government and business lobbies did not loosen him up and make him more talkative even though most of our hosts spoke fluent English.

“Where are we going? Is there a problem?”  Armando had suddenly turned into a dirt lane on the edge of a tobacco field, stopped abruptly as if he were in a hurry, dropped the car into reverse, and backed onto the highway to return in the direction of the city.

“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say, senor.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

“Hey man, we got a right to know what’s goin’ on.” Vicente had leaned into the space between the two front seats and was trying to be intimidating but there was no response from Armando.

“I told you we had to be careful.” Armando offered nothing further as he sped back toward the city.

“Should we just hop out when he stops at a light or somethin’?”  Vicente had lifted his camera from the seat and was holding it in his lap and he was ready to jump.

“I’m not sure what to do,” I said.  “We can’t exactly grab a taxi very easily out here.”

“Yeah, but this is a communist country, man.  And they mostly don’t like Americans and especially our media.  Who knows what they might be planning on doing to us?”

“You’re right.  I’m pretty sure they are going to take US reporters to a field and cut us down while they are traveling with a high-profile Hispanic delegation.  Stop being ridiculous.”

Down to thee Banana Republic

A long fence line appeared on our left and we drove along its length until a gate appeared and we saw that we were at the remote end of an airport runway.  Our delegation was gathered around a white, turbo-prop aircraft and a few of them were already climbing stairs to board.  I stepped out before the car had stopped rolling and went directly to the government official who served as our host.

“What’s going on?”

“We are going to Isla de Juventud.”

“Why the change in our itinerary?”

“I cannot say.”

“Of course not.  Nobody can say anything in this country.”

The island was mostly a volcano risen from the Caribbean that was covered with palms and long grasses.  Two dirt lanes crossed near what appeared to be the middle of the island and there were a few stucco-walled buildings standing in clearings.  I had the notion that Hawaii must have looked this way before the condo-builders arrived from California.  Fidel Castro’s government had decided to use the island off the southern coast of Cuba as a preparatory school for his country’s best and brightest and teenagers lived in cement block dormitories and took classes in rooms with three walls. The taunting sun beat out on the pathways that led to the mysterious jungle only a few feet from where they were opening their books.  Our gathering must have looked absurd to them as we shuffled along on a tour and sipped Mohitos and dark coffee and asked mundane questions.  There seemed to be no connection between this place and the contemporary world and I wondered if it were possible these young people had ever seen pictures of Los Angeles or Paris or even had enough information to formulate a dream that might lead them beyond Cuba. Castro had spent a few years here imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo before he began planning his revolution while in exile in Mexico.

“This place is fascinating,” I said to Vicente that night in our hotel room.  “But I’m getting tired of the games and I’m just going to bail out of the itinerary and go to the Floridita tomorrow if they won’t answer questions about when we get to go there.”

“I doubt we’re going to get there,” he said.  “Doesn’t seem like they want to emphasize an American writer or anything else American, for that matter.”

“Maybe not, but he was a hero to the Cuban people.  He drew a lot of positive attention to the island during the political change.”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that but I’m always up for another Mohito,” Vicente laughed.

In the morning, Armando gave us the news that we had a visit to a large health clinic on our schedule and then we were to stop at the famous Floridita bar where Hemingway was a habitué during his years in Cuba.  When we walked in a few hours later I saw several photos of the writer that were tilting awkwardly along the walls.  There were also framed articles that had been published by American magazines and newspapers that profiled the American ex-patriot.  I liked the photo of him with his defiant eyes and tight grin as he stared into the camera with his arm around Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous UPI correspondent he had seduced while married to his second wife.  All of the journalists in our delegation sat at the mahogany bar and drank to excess for several hours and ignored the pleas of Armando and our host that we return to the cars for a ride back to the hotel.  Each one of us thought we might be fine writers, too, and become best-selling authors if only we were able to get away from daily reporting.  When you are young and in Cuba and there is rum in your belly you do not think about mortgages and car payments and living on a cul-de-sac.

We finally met Castro a few days after we had stopped expressing interest.  My Spanish was not adequate to understand the conversation but he was as animated in the small conference as he appeared in the TV clips that were excerpted from his legendarily long speeches.  The premier refused to speak English on his home soil so there were only a few people in our group that were able to later talk about what he had said and how he felt about the current American president.  The deprivations of his people would disappear if the US were to simply buy cigars and rum and sugar from the island but he knew no such commerce was likely under a conservative administration.

Castro’s energy seemed to perceptibly change the air in the great anteroom outside of his office and I had no difficulty understanding how he inspired a small band of revolutionaries to cross the Gulf from Mexico.  I easily saw him at the helm of the “Granma” as it topped wave crests and he leaned his head in the direction of Che so that they might contemplate the form of their struggle and scenarios for success.  They went to the mountains, of course, and moved closer to Havana with each battle and they owned the hearts of the campesinos almost from the day they landed and stories of their presence spread across the land.  Che did not want to govern, though, and left for Bolivia for a new struggle but he was undone by his asthma.  He built great fires in the jungles each night to breathe warm, dry air and clear his respiratory system but the blazes enabled the CIA to track the revolutionary and kill him before he achieved another overthrow of a government friendly to America.

There were only three days left on the island for our trip and we had completed all of the interviews that needed to be taped.  My goal was to spend the remaining time as a tourist and walk neighborhoods with a translator or sit on the seawall and drink cold beer and contemplate how I might spend my years traveling to other locales like Cuba.

“We gonna shoot anything else, tomorrow?” Vicente asked as he plugged in batteries for charging in the hotel room.

“Nope.  Tomorrow we are going to Papa Hemingway’s farm.”

“Yeah, right; you know these guys aren’t going to leave us alone.  They damn sure have other plans for us.”

“I don’t care.  We’ll meet them at the car when we walk out and just tell them we are hiring a driver to take us up there.”

“Sure, pal.  Whatever you say.”

In the morning, Armando was sitting in the hotel lobby and sipping a tiny cup of coffee with a broad smile.

“Do you wish to see the Finca today?” he asked.

“Yes, of course, we do; we’ve wanted to see it every day since we’ve been here.”

“Very well, then; let’s go.”

“I thought you had two more government agency visits or something for us today and that we were supposed to see the sports training facilities.”

“No, no, that is not important.  Perhaps tomorrow.  We’ll go to the farm today, as you wish.”

“Outstanding.”

The Nobel Laureate’s residence was in a serious state of decline and vines were reaching out from the jungle to cover walks and fencing and they snaked up over the edges of the patio.  Our tour was not constrained, though, and I saw his bookshelves and the table where Hemingway wrote in longhand at the peak of his literary powers, sober and focused until midday and then drunk and complicated as the afternoon passed.  A picture of his boat, the Pilar, hung near his desk and there was also the inevitable photo of him standing next to a great swordfish he had landed with a gaffe somewhere near the Gulfstream.  A kind of magic had happened inside those four walls but the uninitiated would have seen only a crumbling farm nestled between low hills.  I still see that house some times in my dreams and it appears to be filled with words that are rusting and rotting from going unused.

The next few days I slipped away from Vicente and Armando and walked the old neighborhoods of Havana.  The streets were busy with people and 1950s era US automobiles; there had been no American imports since Castro had won control of the government.  I did not want to leave because there were endless things to know and life was outdoors and simple.  Everyone danced and drank in the streets and there was no place to walk without hearing music.  The air was wet and warm and tasted of the ocean and hills and cigars and cooking meat.

After the delegation’s farewell dinner the night before our departure, Vicente and I walked back to the Riviera and argued about socialism and capitalism.  Politics is never a good subject but it is even worse when you are debating with a professional colleague and opinions are inflamed by alcohol.  We were still bickering an hour later in the room as we packed our TV gear but Vicente had a greater concern than politics.

“We’re idiots, you realize,” he said.

“Yeah, but why?”

“How many weeks have we been here?”

“Several.  You know.  Why?”

“Because it’s one in the morning and our charter leaves at five and we have no rum or cigars……..”

“And who the hell goes to Cuba and comes back without rum and cigars?”

“We aren’t going to get any either.  It’s Sunday night or Monday morning or whatever the hell it is and there sure isn’t anything open at this hour.”

“Guess not.”

“Holy shit.  Travel to Cuba and forget to buy rum and cigars to take home.  Who in the hell is that stupid?”

“Us, I reckon.”

We finished loading the camera and batteries into Anvil crates and packed the tripod into its tube.  I went to the window and stared out at the lights down the shoreline from a vantage point seventeen floors above the surface of the sea.  I convinced myself I was to return and know Cuba and that my first impressions were to become a love of the culture and the people.  Sitting in the chair by the window I fell asleep for a few hours without undressing and I jumped when the wakeup call came from the front desk.  Vicente opened the door to begin stacking luggage and crates in the hallway and he nearly tripped over two baskets sitting outside our room.

“I don’t believe it,” he said.  “Look at this.”

“What?  I walked out from the bathroom.  “That is hilarious.  No way.”

There were four bottles of rum, two white and two dark, and two boxes of Montecristo cigars.  A small, white card was taped to each of the dark rum bottles.  I picked one up and read the words: “Republica de Cuba.  Fidel Castro Ruz Presidente Del Consejo De Estado y Del Gobierno.”

Fidel Castro's Calling Card

I still have Castro’s calling card.  I carry it in my wallet.  There are times when I take it out and look at it and wonder what might have been for Cuba.   Everyone doubts my story, though, and no one thinks the card bearing Castro’s name is real.  I do not care about that indifference but I wish that I had made another trip to Cuba.  I have not been back yet but I am going.

I know that I am going.

Collision Courses

Last week I was hit by a motorcycle and by a new language. I keep waiting to see if one of those will leave a mark. The bike accident wasn’t as bad as you would think, but I wish I could clearly remember what happened, where the guy came from. I’m paranoid that it was my fault and that after the driver flew off his bike and went head first into a tree and hopped right back up, helmet intact, he developed some terrible spinal injury and died, and now everyone in town knows I’m the stupid American woman who killed a young man. A couple of days later I was standing on my hotel room balcony and noticed a guy across the street taking pictures of the hotel, of me? I turned my back, but I could still see him there in the reflection of the glass, snapping away. I became convinced I was going to be called in for questioning, about the accident, about what I’m doing here. So far that hasn’t happened, but the worry lingers, long after the soreness in my back from the wreck has faded. I’m here on a tourist visa, which the local police know because they record the details from everyone’s passports. Research and journalism are not allowed on a tourist visa in Vietnam (little do they know that I’m pretty incompetent at both those things). In my worst moments, however, I worry about this a lot.

Bikes in VietnamDetails of the accident are fuzzy. I think he hit my front wheel and I flew off the bike backwards and landed flat on my back without a scrape. I managed to keep my head up and not let it slam into the pavement, causing minor neck soreness a few days later. My sunglasses traveled 15 feet.  I anticipated huge blooming bruises on my back and hip, but for reasons I cannot explain none ever appeared. I did suffer from agonizing back spasms for several days, and endured the long, painful, sleepless first night when I was convinced I had some ghastly internal injury, like a ruptured spleen, wherever my spleen is. But, since there appeared to be no real harm done, I got back on the bike gingerly the next day, and I just gradually got less and less stiff and sore day by day. But I was scared and hurt and lonely. And that, too, got better day by day.
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The San Antonio Missions

Since I moved here in November, I have appreciated that Seattle offers some amazingly diverse subject matter for photography.  Whether I am in the mood for urban street scenes or rocky beaches or temperate lowland forests, I can find a new place to explore from behind my lens every day.  That is, every day that it isn’t raining.  After two weeks of pretty much straight overcast and gloom, I found myself thinking about a photography trip I took to San Antonio last September.  My plan was to stay for five days and photograph as much as I possibly could, rain or shine.  So rain or shine, mostly rain, I went out every day, knowing I would enjoy seeing this history-rich city whether I got any strong shots or not.  Each time I set out to travel to one of the historic missions, the sun would shine and the clouds would let enough bright blue sky through to make mental shots I took in transit so stunning that my adrenaline pumped for fear that I would miss the opening by the time I arrived.  Crossing my fingers that the sun would stay, I rushed into the parking lot.  Every time and more specifically, five times, as I pulled in to the parking lot for each mission, the clouds would come together like they had just had the sudden realization that I was some naughty neighbor kid trying to sneak a peek at their lacy undergarments. The rain would pour as I would hide my camera under my coat, sometimes led on down the sidewalk by groups of stray-looking, soaked to the bone dogs. Yet, as I approached each mission, the clouds seemed to understand that I was there to genuinely appreciate the moment and to respect these stunning Spanish sanctuaries.  Abruptly, the fluffy white clouds would turn dark around the edges, would open up to blue sky in and allow the wet sidewalk to become a mirror for the arches and domes above. Continue reading “The San Antonio Missions”

I hate everyone and other sensitive cultural observations

Travel broadens the mind, but it also narrows it, especially when you are traveling alone as an invisible person, otherwise known as a middle-aged woman. In truth, it’s not really my mind that’s narrowing; it’s my patience and tolerance, and those two strands of my character are winnowing into a frayed spitty end of a short rope. Not my patience with and tolerance for the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and even the frightening, necessarily. I’ve been studying and trying to use a new and difficult language, weathering regular power outages, rats and roaches, and have even survived being hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike. What I can’t stand is the other travelers. Not every single one of them of course; far be it for me to make such broad and unfair generalizations.

VietnamI hate the fake raggedyness of the backpacker crowd, wearing their collection of tattered bracelets and “I went tubing in Laos,” t-shirts, but who never leave the safety of their movable cliques. I hate those stupid Hammer-Harem hybrid pants the women wear, imagining they’re dressing like some lost tribe (I’ve never seen a local person anywhere in Vietnam or Cambodia wear those things), the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus. I hate the shirtless men with their dumb-ass tattoos and stupid hats and sunglasses (yes — precisely the kind of folks who should be given cheap beer and motorcycles!). I hate how rude they are to the Vietnamese people in cafes and hotels. I hate also their callowness and ignorance. The rudest of a pack of insufferable English women in Sapa, sat reading a Judy Blume novel in the lobby of the hotel while her friend occupied every other square inch of the place with her gear and yelled loudly into her cell phone to some hapless Vietnamese driver. If you’re old enough to travel in Southeast Asia, you are too old for Judy Blume: go home. And I hate myself because I can’t help but envy their youth and beauty and unfettered fucking fun and their easy ignorance of the responsibility to think more deeply and complexly about the world and their places in it.

You know who else I hate? The older richer tourists in search of some Asian Resortiana, some unholy spawn of Orlando-Vegas-Waikiki-Cancun, Canlandowaicun, if you will, with “such cheap prices” and “nice people.” A very angry woman from California with whom I shared a cab from the train station to the airport in Hanoi, yelled at a Vietnamese man (who was actually trying to rip us off, but not by much) to fuck off. Then she launched into her critique of the whole country: “Vietnam is too scammy. We’re going back to Thailand!” Because the combination of low-wage service workers, tourism, and wealthy business interests appears to be going quite well there, doesn’t it?.Here in Hoi An, the men have their suits made for them and while the women get spa treatments, then they eat steaks and sea bass with knives and forks in fancy restaurants. Soon the central coast will be lousy with these people, although the actual residents of Hoi An town need hardly worry that they’ll spend more than a few hours here in its hot dusty streets filled with actual Vietnamese people. The road from Danang that runs south along the coast, past the beach now named for an American television show, past the beach where decades ago American helicopter pilots sometimes dipped the bellies of their machines low enough in the shallow waves to wash out the blood and mud and body parts, that road now blocks the view of the beach and is lined on both sides by enormous walled golf resorts where people can experience the exotic world of Vietnam without getting any of it on them. When these places are all open, beautiful Vietnamese women will wear ao dai and serve tea and cocktails, and small, wiry men will carry huge bags of clubs over what used to be sand dunes, descendents of the men who carried artillery piece by piece up and down mountain paths more than 35 years ago. On the day I came in from the airport, I saw an old woman in a conical hat stooped over with a short handled broom sweeping the sand and dust from a small patch of St. Augustine grass outside the wall.

And finally, I hate that the Vietnamese government – or someone – can’t or won’t do anything about this kind of crap. I shouldn’t blame them: They simply need the money. But these are the people who expelled the Chinese, the Portuguese (very briefly), French, Japanese, French again, and then the Americans. They fought off the Mongols, for crying out loud. I wouldn’t think bad-back Greg Norman and that little ill-tempered turd Colin Montgomerie could put up much of a fight.  But of course, they’ve probably never been here.

A Race Among the Roos While Stumbling Upon a Jerry Jeff Walker Fan in the Australian Outback

(I rode a motorcycle 4000 miles across Australia with my buddy Jack Holt.  A lot of improbable things happened but nothing as unexpected as finding a Jerry Jeff Walker fan in the furthest remote reaches of Western Australia.)

In the morning, we rode south to Cape Leeuwin, a long outcropping of rock that separates the Indian from the Southern Ocean.  (Only Aussies call it the Southern; the rest of the world knows it as the Pacific.)  A tall lighthouse stands up on the rock and broad rollers 10 to 15 feet high are breaking far off shore.  I cannot help looking off toward Africa and Asia.

We enter the Karri forests through what appears almost like a tunnel or a gate.  The wall of trees shows darkness in the sunny afternoon and as soon as we move past the first big trunks the road begins to course like a snake through the unusual stands and unrecognizable undergrowth.   The exit we make puts us back out on straight pavement through bright yellow fields and I roll the throttle back with joy.  The wind bounces against me and I am cruising through another countryside that is new to my eyes.

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Stirling Ranges at dawn

Camp is made that night along the King River outside Albany after we have dipped and rolled down the Southwestern Highway for several hours.  We find a spot with soft grass, put up our tents, and wander down to a pub where there is abundant drunkenness.  In the Bundaberg Tavern, set below an inexplicable rock mound and hard by a crook made by the highway and the river, we have a few cleansing ales.  On our way back to the tents we pass a broad, stout Aussie who is weaving across the floor.
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Report from Haiti

Traveling and working in the developing world, I’ve discovered that I’m a fairly positive person. In the cholera-ridden slums of Nairobi and the heroin-shooting galleries of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’ve managed to find things that left me hopeful that solutions were more a matter of will than way. And then came Haiti.

I arrived in Port au Prince on a search for how The Nobelity Project – and anyone who wanted to join us – could make a real difference in the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. I was prepared for bad, but what I found was worse. In a city of six million people, one out of two buildings destroyed or seriously damaged. A million people living in tents. Major fuel shortages. Disaster pricing for essential commodities. Schools that remain closed many months after the quake. Hurricane seasons coming fast. And never far from anyone’s mind – the Haitian’s continuing shock and mourning over the loss of 300,000 friends and family members. 300,000 – what portion of your city or county would that be?

I was in the company of  our partners, Architecture for Humanity, who have an office in the country and have emerged as one of the most-respected voices for understanding the long-term nature of this disaster. AfH’s knowledge has been hard won through multi-year perseverance after the Tsunami and Katrina, and they’re committed to a long-term school reconstruction effort here, and to providing advice, design and engineering services to help build it back better.

“Before the quake, there was only one seismic engineer in the whole country,” founder Cameron Sinclair told me as we tried to drive through the city’s rubble strewn streets. “That engineer reported that the only building in the country that could withstand a major quake was the Presidential Palace. And it fell down.”

Shortly after the quake, The Nobelity Project offered my film One Peace at a Time to Architecture for Humanity chapters around the world for Haiti fundraising screenings. The Austin screening at the Paramount Theatre raised well over $10k, with more funds coming from events across the country and as far away as Bangladesh. (That’s right, people in Bangladesh – one of the poorest nations on earth – are raising money for their brothers and sisters in Haiti. So there’s a little hope for you.)

Cam Sinclair had enlisted many other supporters. Ben Stiller’s foundation Stiller Strong and director Paul Haggis through the L.A. based Artists for Peace and Justice were partnering with AfH in Haiti. APJ has raised $6 million for Haiti, but I was equally impressed by their commitment to the idea that a star has to do more than just donate money to be a part of this work. Haggis, Stiller, Gerard Butler (of the amazing “300”) and House’s Olivia Wilde were on the ground working hard on APJ’s effort to build a new high school. And while visiting St. Julien’s Hospital, I discovered that Olivia has a real knack for producing smiles on kids who were very much in need of smiles.
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Staring into the Eyes of the Universe

The eyes of the man facing me opened wide, revealing a fathomless black depth ringed by his sparkling brown iris. The world around me was silent, as if the thirty men on the platform with me, the hundreds of spectators, and the carnival that filled the village of Tenganan had simply evaporated. I was alone suspended in the blackness. Time had taken a rest from its eternal and steady march forward, leaving me to drift free from the anchors of light and sound, suspended upon the delicate thread of now. With nowhere to go, nothing to see or hear, what had formerly been confined to “me” expanded to become “we”, reveling in the glory of connection. And then with the sensation of falling up from the bottom of an inky black well, I crashed back onto the bamboo and rattan platform. My glasses were knocked from my face and the music of the carnival, the murmurs and shouts of the spectators, and the breathing and heartbeats of the men around me flowed back into the world; and I found myself beneath a large man clothed only in a loincloth wielding a shield and a spiked weapon.

Double Ikat on a Little Girl
Double Ikat on a Little Girl

The eyes of the man facing me opened wide, revealing a fathomless black depth ringed by his sparkling brown iris. The world around me was silent, as if the thirty men on the platform with me, the hundreds of spectators, and the carnival that filled the village of Tenganan had simply evaporated. I was alone suspended in the blackness. Time had taken a rest from its eternal and steady march forward, leaving me to drift free from the anchors of light and sound, suspended upon the delicate thread of now. With nowhere to go, nothing to see or hear, what had formerly been confined to “me” expanded to become “we”, reveling in the glory of connection.

And then with the sensation of falling up from the bottom of an inky black well, I crashed back onto the bamboo and rattan platform. My glasses were knocked from my face and the music of the carnival, the murmurs and shouts of the spectators, and the breathing and heartbeats of the men around me flowed back into the world; and I found myself beneath a large man clothed only in a loincloth wielding a shield and a spiked weapon.

I had walked into the ancient and walled village of Tenganan on the eastern side of the island of Bali, Indonesia in 1996 wearing flip flops, shorts and a light shirt. On my back was a small daypack containing a water bottle, a Bali guidebook, a sarong, and the almost golden ceremonial sarong overwrap I had been drawn to purchase a few days earlier. At my side was my new friend, traveling companion and eventual girlfriend, Tracy.

Our heads were both filled with an excited energy fed by the stories we had heard and read in preparing to visit Bali. We shared a certain nervousness about what we were there to see. It was the second and most important day in the Usaba Sambah festival in this ancient, extraordinary village. A day when three ancient rituals all occur to ensure or celebrate the rebirth of the village for another year.
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