Saturday, August 28, 2004

A Visit to the Rijksmuseum

A Visit to the Rijksmuseum
24 August 2004

Roland was unable to get off of work and Ilke was in school, so it was just Angelique and me making the trip into Amsterdam. I wanted to stop at the Anne Frank house to get a book and DVD for my neice and god-daughter. From there we went to the Leidseplein to pick up t-shirts at the Bulldog Cafe (no, I didn't stop to imbibe, inhale or ingest in any way!) and then onto the Rijksmuseum. After how many times I have been in A'dam, I can't believe that I never made it to the Rijksmuseum.

Very impressive! Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen and I especially enjoyed a piece by Ferdinand Bol. He painted a piece that was thought for a long time to have been done by Rembrandt. The portrait of Elizabeth Jacobsdr Bas is so real that it looks like it is a photograph. To think that it was painted in 1640, you'd have thought that she just sat for the portrait yesterday! The wrinkles in her hands and face have such a realistic quality, it is unbelievable that Bol's brush was able to capture and preserve the details from almost 350 ago onto the canvas.

The major highlight of the visit is, of course, Rembrandt's "Night Watch." It is really a beautiful piece that is probably 15 feet tall by about 20 feet wide. I also loved seeing "The Sampling Officials." Having played the board game, Masterpiece as a kid, I always remembered that piece by Rembrandt--and now I finally got to see the real thing-live!

We got stuck in traffic on the way home, but we were back by about 6. Angelique had bought the spiced meat, pita's and all the necessary sauces for Shawarma's that night. It was as good or better than I remember them to be all of those 17 years ago. Gotta say that I really have missed that too. There used to be a great shawarma shop just around the corner from t'Pumpke and The Bonta Os (Roland's parent's bars on Molenstraat) in Nijmegen. On the weekends that we would go into Nijmegen from Kalkar, we would always end up stopping for shawarma's and getting enough to take home for Sunday lunch.

You know, my parents never told me that I would spend part of my life chasing down the experiences I loved from my younger life. But you know what? It has been just as much fun finding those experiences again.

Willkommen an Koeln! (Welcome to Cologne!)

Willkommen an Koeln! (Welcome to Cologne!)
20 Aug 2004

Willkommen an Koeln! Wie fantastisch kann Leben sein? I ain't a "Berliner" (nor am I a jelly donut), but I really feel back at home. If you don't know my history, I was stationed but one hour north and west of Cologne back in 1984 through 1987. I had a fantastic tour and have always held my time in Germany as a special time for me. Fell in love again with the language, the people, the culture, the food, the beer....

Anyway, got a taxi right out of the Hauptbahnhof (train station) to take me to the Intercontinental. The "I" is a very nice 5 star hotel only about 1/2 mile from the cathedral. Although I was dead tired from the trip, I was too wired to sleep yet, so I took a walk down the shopping area and over to the cathedral. Ended up climbing the cathedral tower again for the first time in 17 years. I can't believe how fantastic it is to be back in Germany again. Just hearing and speaking the language again makes my heart skip a beat. For me it is like finding that old pair of comfortable running shoes in the back of the closet and having to put them on just to remember what made them so special.

After the climb and the walk, I got back to the hotel and finally crashed for three hours. I have been wound up so tight over the past few weeks, I haven't been sleeping but maybe three or four hours over the last few weeks. I wish I could relax some.

Got up at 5 pm and took a shower and started to look around for food. Found a nice restaurant near the cathedral and had a nice ribeye and fries (with mayo, thank you very much!) It is too nice eating off a real plate again and with metal silverware! The couple of great Koelsch biers didn't suck either. Am I just dreaming, or is this the life? Gotta call Roland and Angelique now and let them know I'm in country. Hopefully, I will see them on Sunday and will take the train out to Apeldoorn, Netherlands. I missed visiting them two years ago when I lost their address, so this will be the first time in 17 years since I've seen them.

Kann Ik Nederlands Sprekken?(Can I Speak Dutch?)

Kann Ik Nederlands Sprekken?(Can I Speak Dutch?)
22 August 2004

After two days in Cologne, I suppose I'm unwinding some. I called Roland and Angelique in Netherlands yesterday and they said that they would make the two-hour drive from Apeldoorn (just north of Arnhem in Netherlands) down to Cologne to pick me up. I told them that the train was no problem, but they insisted.

As soon as I got down to the lobby, I saw Angelique--she hadn't changed at all. She and Roland look about the same at 17 years ago. As we both stated, maybe a bit more gray and a few more...wrinkles, but otherwise no worse for the wear! Seventeen years is certain to have some impact on the body, but we don't want to harp on the obvious! The important part is that our personalities and memories are still intact.

We drove first out to their new home going up near Arnhem, so I got to see the new location. It is a very nice three story red brick townhome. The garage wasn't up yet, but the house was locked up now. I guess that is new from when they were there last week. Guess I'll just have to pay another visit when it's done so that I can see it from the inside. Then we went out to Hoenderloo where we got some great soft-serve ice cream. People drive in from all over Netherlands to this little stand just for the ice cream. Being the ice cream hound that I am, I was happy. Then out to Apeldoorn. We did Italian for supper at Pinnoccio's. There is another one in Nijmegen near where Roland's parent's bars were on Molenstraat and oddly enough, Roland knows the restaurant manager from there. He now works at the restaurant in Apeldoorn.

We had a great time catching up again. You know that you are life-long friends with someone when the years apart mean almost nothing and you can pick up where you left off.

Their daughter Ilke is great. She is almost nine years old and will start learning English this year. Since she couldn't speak English, she wanted to teach me Dutch. So we went through a barrage of words in Dutch and Roland, Angelique and I would repeat and translate what it was in English. Actually, Dutch is very close to German, so I really have never had too difficult of a time listening or reading Dutch; pronounciation is another story.

Over the next few days, we were all learning and quizzing Ilke on the Dutch provences and their provential capitals. Having traveled the Netherlands some, I may have had a little advantage over Ilke in learning some of them, but she is a quick study--Limburg-Maastricht, North Holland-Haarlem, South Holland-Den Haag, Groningen-Groningen.... I always liked history and geography.

So I am ready to get into bed the first night and Roland was somewhat apologetic for the accomodations. They have been packing for the move, so their study is packed with boxes. But they were able to squeeze in an Army cot with a four-inch foam matress. I laughed as soon as I saw it because that was exactly what I had been sleeping on for my first three months in Baghdad! I have to say that I slept like a baby for the first time in three weeks. I have been wound up so tightly lately that I had only been sleeping for three or four hours at a stretch for the last few weeks. Maybe being in a familiar bed did the trick, because I didn't even sleep that good in the four star hotel in Cologne! Ten hours of sleep later, I could honestly say that I have unwound some.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change
20 Aug 2004

Made it in one piece to Kuwait and to Camp Doha, but it seems like the flight out of Baghdad was the only thing that went right. Since Ron and I were the only civilians on this plane, we got dragged along all over creation by our generous Army hosts. I'm used to the usual "hurry up and wait" mentality of the Army, but yesterday seemed a bit more pronounced than I had patience for. Once we got to Doha, we were waiting on a bus while fifty soldiers were to turn in their flack jackets and kevalar helmets. That's when we had had enough. Ron and I finally asked if we could leave the party early and head out since we didn't have to do any of the fun Army stuff.

Finally got over to the Red Cross to use the phone. Called the ITT rep, but he was already off duty for the day, can't incur any overtime to move us around and said that there are busses running to the airport. If we couldn't get a flight out, who knows how long it will take to get over to Arifjan. I say Arifjan since ITT no longer maintains any lodging etc on Camp Doha. Tried to go over to SATO to see if we could get any help with tickets, but since it was after 6:30pm, they were only doing emergency arrangements. Our options were quickly running out and no ITT reps around to help. The military doesn't help any since we are considered no better than step-children to them, so we were kind of on our own at that point.

Ron and I decided to catch the bus to the airport and try to see about any flights out. Well, it seems that the schedule our management gave us back at Camp Victory doesn't begin until after September 15th. The next bus was now in 1-1/2 hours at 10pm. If we can't get out of Kuwait then, we decided we would catch a taxi to a hotel and forget about expecting any help from our employer. Pretty sad that your own company doesn't even want to help you on leave. Do they really want us to come back after they treat us like this?

I was able to get a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt at 1:30am for about $300 more than I would have paid if I could have made the arrangements three days earlier. Problem is that you never know if you are going to make the flight out of Baghdad to get to Kuwait in time for the flight. Screws up any chance of getting reasonable costs on flights. Ron didn't make it out and ended up going back to Kuwait City to make it out the following day.

Running on 5 hours of sleep over the last 48 hours. Landed in Frankfurt around 7am. Went straight over to the train station after customs and was on the first train out to Cologne. Once in Cologne, I knew that I could finally start to unwind some. I have not really been able to sleep for more than 4 hours straight for two weeks. Maybe it's just the excitement of getting away from Baghdad. Bring on the sleep and bring on the beer!

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Day After Ground Hog Day

Day After Ground Hog Day
19 Aug 2004

Just sitting here in the rack in the belly of a C130 enroute from Baghdad to Ali Al Salem, just outside of Kuwait City. Working 12 hours shifts with no days off over the past ten days has really made the time fly by. I've been so wound up, it's been hard to sleep. Night before last, I think that I managed 3-1/2 hours and then another 2-1/2 today before flight manifest.

On Tuesday night, we had heard rumors that a group of Iraqis breached the wall and were shooting at helos. Of course, I didn't find this out until after I made a field trip across post to the nice bathrooms over by my trailer at 2 am. Then again, I think it was just a rumor. I didn't hear any shooting and didn't see any vehicles searching for any "lost" Iraqis in the middle of the night. Only the usual TCN's in their trucks filling the potable water tanks.

Ron (one of the guys I work with from bldg 8) and I came up to BIAP on Wednesday morning to get ourselves on the flight manifest for Thursday. You're allowed to sign up max 24 hours ahead. When we pulled up at the military end of the airport (on the backside of BIAP), a car full of Iraqis were in front of us at the check point to the airport. It started looking a bit suspicious when one of the three guards was standing with his finger on the trigger. They were either lost, or on a mission to check out security. Ron started backing up the truck some 20 feet to give some space between us...just in case. Although we haven't had to deal with suicide bombers, this is no time to learn about them. The guard ended up guiding them around the barriers and out with his finger on the trigger the whole time.

After that, Ron and I decided to take a little trip over to the civilian terminal at BIAP to see if we could do some "shopping" over at the duty free shop. To our great surprise, duty free was no longer accessible! There were real people waiting at the terminal for a real airline flight! Westerners and Middle Easterners. Don't kow who is flying out--maybe Air Jordan--no! Not Michael!! Jordanian Air.

So on the way back, we figure, what the heck, let's check out BIAP PX and see if it's still open. The Bob Hope Chow Hall has been down for weeks now, so there is no telling how much of BIAP support is left. As soon as we pulled in, we knew the answer. Absolutely NO military vehicles around. They have close up shop-lock,stock and barrel (so to speak). I told you that the changes were getting drastic around here. After we got back, then we are hearing rumors of mortar threats and suicide bombing threats at BIAP since the turnover of the airport. Well, I guess that is one place I won't be visiting any more.

This morning Eve and Joclyn took Ron and me to the airport. I think that Eve was surprised at how desolate the back side of BIAP has become. It was almost like a ghost town. Almost all Iraquis and very few military now.

As Eve was driving, she was telling us that she spoke to Dan in Babylon yesterday. Both Babylon and Balad got mortared on Wednesday. One guy in Dan's group was slighly injured and nicked by shrapnal when it went through the comms center. Nothing too bad, but torn pants and the nick in the leg. Enough to put the fear of god in you and thank your lucky stars.

I guess it knocked down a circuit that was later restored. Balad lost a shot too, but it wasn't due to the mortars. Something far more dangerous--a Humvee backing into or over guidewires to a tower!

So much happening in such a short period of time. Only a week ago, it was Ground Hog Day! I'll be writing more as my trip progresses. We've been in the air for about an hour now. The flight has been good--noisy as usual for a C130, but would we expect it any different? It's as close to first class as we're going to get. Red nylon mesh racks strung along the sides of the plane and a double row of racks down the middle lengthwise, leg to leg across and next to you, some 60 of us deep. A number of them on emergency leave; marriages in trouble, houses blown away in Port Charlotte, Florida, another soldier's Mom diagnosed with cancer. Almost all are getting back to the States for the first time in 6-7 months. Ron and I are the only civilians on this flight. It's a short flight though and the reward will be for them to be back with friends and family in the US, but for me, a cold beer in Germany. More later...

Friday, August 13, 2004


14 August 2004

We get an insert every so often in the Stars and Stripes called the Scimitar. I gives a basic run-down on what the Army is doing throughout the country here in Iraq. It always includes some "feel good" stories that don't get coverage in the States. Check it out.


Just Call Me Rip Van Winkle

Just Call Me Rip Van Winkle
13 August 2004

I guess that more than I realized has been happening around here; I've just been sleeping through it all. I kind of knew that something was going on during the day on Wednesday. I woke up or got woke up several times to hear jets far overhead and helicoptors buzzing the trees and trailer-tops of Dodge South. It didn't let up any on Wednesday night, Thursday day or Thursday night either. All this stuff going on in Najaf has to be supported from somewhere somehow.

Today, Lee was telling me that a stray bullet went through his trailer and another trailer next door to his about midnight last night. He lives at the far end of Dodge South. Then, just a little while ago, Thomas was showing me a picture of a trailer that was hit by a mortar or rocket last night over at ISG (across the highway from Victory). Originally I heard that 4 KBR people were killed. Now I hear that only one was injured, no deaths.

Then this afternoon, as I stepped out of the trailer to go to shower, I heard what sounded like a rocket or rpg go off. It sounded like it was off to the west of Victory, probably over at BIAP. Whatever it was must have found its mark because by the time I got out of the shower, there was a black cloud rising from the area over by BIAP. Come to find out that a fuel bladder was hit by a rocket. They put out the fire quickly as the smoke went from black to white.

I don't feel like I'm in danger, I'm just surprised at how quickly things have escalated. It is almost a sure bet that the Iraqis would rather us not be here. Just our activities lately seems only to incite anger and riots. Even at the Haji shop (you know, the antique one with the cool antiquities (like that cuneiform bowl about the size of a small cereal bowl) that I wanted but didn't buy (General Order # whatever) and metal plates that I did buy before I left for Qatar) last week, the woman that is usually so friendly was a bit cold and distant to us when we walked into the shop. But, the powers that be believe that our soldiers need to be seen to remind the free people of Iraq that they are still an occupied country.

Since we have backed off today in Najaf, we will have to wait and see if the rioting and mortars calm down some. I guess the one good thing about working nights is that I'm in a brick/block building while all or most of the projectiles are flying. I'm just surprised at how oblivious I have been to this sudden escalation until now. I've just been sleeping through life with no cares in the world. Maybe that's the only way to deal with this whole thing right now. I'm leaving on vacation in five days...don't even think of screwing with my vacation!

Monday, August 09, 2004

Laundry, Lunch, Sleep, Dinner, Sleep, Run, Sleep...

Laundry, Lunch, Sleep, Dinner, Sleep, Run, Sleep...
08 August 2004

Well, it's Sunday night and I'm back to work. Got off work on Saturday morning at 8 am and went over to ISG (Camp Slayer) with Scott and Shane to do laundry. Had lunch again at that new Camp Slayer Restaurant. I had the chicken shawarma plate--chicken meat spiced and cut off a spit like gyros with tomato and cucumber with pita bread and mayo. Pretty stinkin good! Shane and Scott also got some hummus that was great. I bummed some of theirs from them. This hummus had like peanut or sesame oil in it, so it tasted a bit different than what I've had at the Ishtar. Still, really great stuff. I hadn't had any hummus in awhile since I haven't been over to the Ishtar in forever, and I've really had a taste for it too.

We made a quick trip out to the big PX at North Victory and by the time we got back to the trailer and I made my bed (with clean sheets), it was already after 2pm. I was bushed, but I promised Eve that I would go out with the group that night to the Ishtar, so I only ended up getting about 3-1/2 hours of sleep in the afternoon. On the trip out to the airport, I'm noticing that things are starting to change already. Preparations for opening the highway to BIAP are becoming more noticable. As I mentioned earlier, 18 foot blast barriers have been added to the sides of the highway along Camp Victory down to the curve around the airport. Now add to that, they have taken down the Bob Hope Chow Hall by BIAP and the place almost looks abandoned. At the airport, we could no longer drive around the upper deck by the departures area. Now you can only drive to the lower level of the parking garage on the far end and park at the far end away from the terminal. The lighting is less than adequate--there is none. Wasn't a problem when we arrived as we still had daylight, only when we were leaving.

The food and the company were good. The restaurant was quite a bit slower than it usually is for a Saturday night. We were the only group in the place. By 11pm, we were ready to beat feet. Making our way down the unfamiliar areas in the dark garage was interesting, but most of us have these tiny micro flashlights on our keychains. You need it even around the post since street lighting is kept off at night to discourage accurate mortar attacks. Several in the group were exercising more caution now and insisted that we check over the vehicles prior to getting in. Look underneath for any tampering or extra wires. This might be one of my last trips out there. Even though we are still in a green zone, the changes are becoming too obvious.

Stopped by Jay's trailer for a little more conversation and such, but I was dead tired and left to get back to my trailer. I had a bed with clean sheets calling my name and was back to sleep within ten minutes of hitting the pillow. I slept like a log until 730 and then got up and ran. Did a lap around Lost Lake. I was only good for 2.5 miles today. At first I thought that I would be up for the day, but after I showered, I layed back on the bed and was out again until 4. These midnight shifts might just kill me yet. I never know when I'm supposed to sleep and when I'm supposed to be awake. I guess if I am working I'm supposed to be awake and if I'm not working I"m supposed to sleep. Eat, work, sleep, eat, work, sleep. What a life.

With all the sandbags around our trailers finally breaking down and collapsing, KBR finally placed six foot concrete blast barriers around our trailer about three weeks ago. Today, they were placing blast barriers around the shower and bathroom trailers. These blast barriers are about six foot tall by ten foot long and about two feet wide with steel eyelets at the top. They are lowered and guided into place next to the trailers by cranes. They look like hell, but as long as they do the job they are supposed to do if we get more mortar attacks. We ain't looking for yard of the week here.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Burning the Midnight Oil

Burning the Midnight Oil
03 August 2004

Nothing too earth-shattering happening here. I've started running in the morning when I get back from work because the heat is still so oppressive even at 5:30 pm when I was trying to run. Haven't really been doing much more mileage than 2.5 miles. The Lost Lake run is scenic and quiet enough to enjoy the 20-30 minute run.

Saturday, Scott and I did our usual laundry run to ISG. Shane from the RSC and a new guy who is a buddy of Scott (from their MCI days back in California) came along. Shane has more clothes than Imelda Marcos had shoes. He must have a full 4 week change of clothes. After laundry, we all went over to the Haji shops and found that they have a new Kabab restaurant. Pretty tastey.
We didn't get back until about 2 pm, so I was beat. I thought about joining a group going up to the Ishtar at the airport for dinner and refreshments, but ended up sleeping until 10 pm. Maybe this Saturday I'll join them. I haven't been to the Ishtar in eons. They haven't opened the road to the public from Victory to the airport yet, so things are still safe. They've been putting up a 18 foot concrete blast wall with cyclone fencing topping it off another 10 feet up. So, who knows? Maybe our trips over to BIAP and the Ishtar are to be a thing of the not-so-distant past.

Once the highway is opened up to civilians, field trips will be a bit more risky...even with the checkpoints and Abrams tanks. The new chow halls are getting somewhat better, but they don't compare to being able to get off of Victory and away from the familiar and everyday environment here. Maybe the routine-ness of it all is mind-numbing. 17 more days till vacation.

Been on mids now for almost three weeks. Working midnights definitely has its advantages. It's nice not having to put up with the LT's fits of rage over the cables being strung through our open windows by the contractors (causing temps inthe facility to reach near-boiling levels). We have more people passing through here than the Tunnel from the airport in Boston. Don't miss the parade of idiots who have been deciding that they want to shoe-horn more equipment into this shoe-box sized room with more environmental issues (ie. electrical and a/c) than the I-355 extension to I-80 back home in Chicago.

One of the disadvantages however, is trying to sleep when it's light out. Let's face it, it's a daytimers world out there--even if the temps are soaring near 130F. So yesterday morning, I get back to the trailer by 820am, listen to some music, play a little solitair on the computer and am ready to turn in around 945am. Just as I'm dropping off to sleep, I'm awoken by a tiny little hammer next door. "Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap." Then it gets louder and more obnoxious until it sounds like Geppetto next door is building a whole friggin army of Pinocchios!! At this point, I have to get up and find out what the heck is going on. KBR is fixing the lockset on my neighbor's door.

So, I crawl back under the covers and just as I'm dropping off again, what sounds like the gestapo is pounding on my door. What now!? Two soldiers from KBR housing taking a census. I am so tired that I can't even remember Scott's last name. They just want to know how many open beds they have so that they can move people from tent city over to trailers. Alright, now I'm ready to go back to bed.

Well, you've guessed it. Now I'm staring at the ceiling and can't sleep. I finally dropped off to sleep around 2 pm - something like 2 am your time if your a daytimer. Let me tell you, 630 pm comes really quickly.

I'm dead, probably overtired by now. Kinda reminds me of the scene from Beetlejuice when Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are dressed in designer sheets as ghosts trying to scare Delia out of the house. Lydia looks at them and says something like, "And even if you guys are real ghosts, you're not going to wake her up. She's sleeping with Prince Valium tonight!" Mother's little helper would be kinda nice right now, but Tylenol Sinus PM should do the trick. Pleasant dreams. I'm off to a little trip to slumber-land.

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