Thursday, December 29, 2005

Now Who's Gonna Make the Donuts?!

29 December 2005

Not too much going on. We’ve been hearing some booms here and there, but nothing close to anything. Balad on the other hand, has had constant incoming mortars.

Took a trip today up to Liberty PX. I actually found some Kleenex (Yes, the registered trademark stuff!) I like to carry the pocket size and have the foil box close to me in the trailer. With all the colds and flu going around here, our PX and Slayer PX were all out for the past week. Like I’ve said before, if you see something you may need, better buy it while you see it. You know that when you want it around here, it ain’t to be had!

On the way out of the PX, I also stopped by the Turkish vendor. (Like I need more “things and stuff!”) I could never live under a viaduct unless they started creating two storey refrigerator boxes for under the viaducts with storage facilities. I’ve already bought a couple of hand carved boxes from him. You know, the kind with the hidden slots with the key. Shift this slat of wood that you wouldn’t know even moved. Or turn this floret on top to line it up with the indented dot so you can push a button of what you though was a decorative pattern in front to release the lid so it can be opened. Really nice stuff. So much of the stuff we see at the bizarre is made in Turkey or Pakistan or India anyway.

Tiff and Jen, two of my ITT coworkers should be back soon from their little African Safari. I am so envious. I want to know all the details of their trip when they get back. They flew into Nairobi and then had to catch a puddle-jumper into Kilimanjaro for their safari. That’s all I know so far. An African Safari is definitely on my short list of things to do before I retire. Why should I wait to retire to enjoy it? If I waited till I was old, I’d of never seen the Antarctic or this place.

Don’t know if you read it yesterday, but Michael Vale died. Who is Michael Vale, you ask? Only THE Dunkin Donuts guy! He was Fred the Baker in all the commercials back in the ‘80’s. Poor old Fred with sleep still in his eyes would wander in at 0430 and always say, “Time to make the donuts!” So now who’s gonna make the donuts?!

Ho, Ho, Oh, Never Mind

27 December 2005

A very belated Merry Christmas to everyone. Sorry, this year I just kind of lost the spirit. Back at home, I’m normally a Christmas FREAK. But this year, as the Big Day approached, I kept on expecting those magical feelings which make you tingle from your head to toe, but they just never arrived. No hankering for listening to Christmas music, no Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, no tinsel, no lights, no ho, ho, ho.

It wasn’t exactly a “Bah, hum bug!” feeling, but more a “yeah, so what” feeling. After talking with my sister Deb, we kind of figured it out. When I went home over Thanksgiving, Deb and Mark came into Chicago and we all got together with my other sister, niece and nephews and did the Christmas Thing on the Friday after Turkey Day. So I guess we just ended up with Holiday Hangover since we already did our Christmas three weeks earlier.

‘Course, I did end up over the week of Christmas watching the traditional Scrooge (1951), Christmas Carol (1938 and my personal fav, finally new on DVD this year!!Whoo-hoo!!), It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer and Call Me Claus (with Whoopie). So I did get some kind of a Christmas fix during the week, but the magic just wasn’t there.

I even had a nice turkey dinner with all the sides at the chow hall, but it just never clicked. It’s funny, cuz I was here last year for Christmas and last year I was bouncing off the walls. So if the cranberries didn’t do it for me, it must have been the early celebration. That’s all I have to blame it on.

But here’s a real Christmas story that will warm your heart. I was coming back from Christmas dinner and came upon the busiest intersection on base. A military SUV is stopped at the stop sign about three feet from the curb of this narrow street. The E5 or E6 who was driving it is standing next to some poor specialist on a bicycle who is getting his butt chewed out royally and getting his name, rank, serial number, commander’s name, etc taken down to add further insult to injury at a later time. His crime, you ask? To start with, he was stupid. But to be more specific, he was riding his bike at night with no light and with headphones on.

Now I know that doesn’t sound criminal to you, but in the military, it’s almost as naughty as smoking and walking in uniform, except it is more dangerous because you can’t hear the traffic around you to know your surroundings. But, that isn’t the tickler here. While this butt muncher of an E5 or E6 is screaming at this poor specialist, a convoy of six or so Humvees pulls up behind his vehicle.

The guy in the turret of the lead Humvee is yelling down at the bonehead MP to move his vehicle; he is blocking a convoy. Well, not to be outyelled, the bonehead MP yells back (and you can hear him down the block at this point!) “Go Around!!!” To which turretman yells, “Move your vehicle!!” “Go Around!!!” “Move your vehicle!!” “Go Around!!”

Well, the frickin convoy can’t go around because the right turn the six Humvees need to make past his vehicle is too tight to squeeze by the oncoming traffic at the other corner. I suppose they could have continued their debate eternally because we all know at this point this MP has the smarts of that vat of Christmas mashed potatoes that I opted not to have back at the chow hall.

I’d still like to know what the final outcome was of that poor specialist. I wonder if they crucified him for Boxing Day on the 26th.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

For Jasmin

17 December 2005

About 4am Baghdad time, I received some very sad news. Jasmin Kung passed away Wednesday morning after a massive cardiac arrest at work on Monday morning. Jasmin and I were stationed together for three years in the Air Force at Kalkar Air Station, a little GSU (Geographically Separated Unit) out in the middle of farm country about 60 kilometers northwest of Cologne. We were all of about 125 active duty Air Force people, so we developed a very close sense of community and continuity.

Within the last couple of years, all us former “Kalkarites” started reconnecting and reuniting with the introduction of the Kalkarites site. Our times at Kalkar, even though it is over 15 years past, still stuck in our memories and for most of us were remembered as very good times with people who bacame as close to us (if not closer in some cases) as our own brothers and sisters back home. That says so much about the people and the assignment.

So, where do I start? Jasmin was a German linguist in Kalkar and worked at the German/American Liason office. As she explained to us, her Mom was German and her biological Dad was Chinese. After her Mom divorced her Dad, she married an American serviceman. Both Jasmin and her sister ended up becoming American citizens and both went into the Air Force. In fact, some people that worked with Jasmin in Kalkar had also worked with her sister at Hickham AFB in Hawaii.

Jasmin was the one behind our field trips to different Chinese restaurants all over Netherlands and the Niederrhein areas. From Kleve to Nijmegen and S’Herenberg to Goch. We tried about all of them! Right from the beginning, Jaz insisted that if we were going to eat Chinese, we had to learn to do it correctly with chop sticks. Our group mastered the chop sticks quite well with her instruction. That was when I was first introduced to squid too!

Jasmin was just enthusiastic about life in general. She liked to have fun and shared her zest for living. I can still remember her getting the “Aunt Jemima treatment” from Bert (reminiscent of the scene from Stripes with Bill Murray) on the electric stove at that party in Oybaum. The party had migrated to the kitchen and Jaz was sitting on the stove in her pink blouse and black leather skirt. Bert grabbed the spatula and started to scrape her off the stove like a pancake.

To skip ahead in time, Jasmin recently retired from the Air Force. She married a guy that she was crazy about and they settled down in Brandon, Florida. She didn’t have any children, but she did involve herself in several groups working to help animals. In fact, she and another woman worked to establish a capture/neuter&spay/release program for feral cats. She never believed that capture and kill was the answer. She seemed to have really found what she wanted in life on all fronts.

I’m having a very hard time summing up the loss I feel inside right now. I guess we never really appreciate or realize the depth at which someone touches us and our lives until we discover that our opportunity to have that person in our lives again has been extinguished. For some, it is easy to let people go. I’ve always had a hard time letting go. The people I’ve had in my life are what has made me who I am today. The only way the world now can remember how Jasmin has impacted my life is for me to pass on in some way, shape or form, that part of her that she gave me. Maybe that means that I have to take my nephews and niece out for Chinese and teach them to eat with chopsticks…I don’t know. I only know that right now, I am sad inside.

Her husband, Derek sent this in his email that I received this morning:
“Jasmin worked selflessly with Linda Hamilton to open this first low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic in Tampabay by early ’06. This endeavor was to be Jasmin’s “dream job” as she would be able to dedicate even more of herself to saving innocent animals through TNR. Contributions can be made to www.actampa.com. (the Animal Coalition of Tampa, Project Lotto)
Jasmin has hit the front page of the largest cat organization in the US. I would be honored if you would go to www.alleycat.org to read the memorial written about my wife who has passed this week.”

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Round of Virgin Mimosa's For Everyone!!!

...or Non-alcoholic beer, whichever is your drink of choice. Whoo-hoo! ITT's won the contract, again. Okay, Okay, break it up, break it up, nothing to see here, folks. Now that we're over *THAT* excitement we can carry on with life around here. We're such company people, aren't we? Please excuse my indifference, but it's hard to get excited about something like this when we personally aren't gaining anything from the contract award.

It's kinda like your pimp (or Madame) getting a new Caddi. You're happy for him (or her), but you've still got your job to do to support that next new car. I've said it before; contract people are viewed by the corporate gods as nothing more than prostitutes. We are hired to do our job, bring in the bucks for "The Man" (or "The Madam") and when they are done with us (at the end of our contracts) we're tossed to the curb. And if you're profitable enough for "The Man," you get another contract offer to remain onboard. No big permanent job in the States, no retirement, no trickle-down bennies, no 401K.

I've been back almost two weeks now and am about settled back in. Already back into the Coffee Shop thing too. In fact, I force myself to get up on my nights off to go to the Coffee Shop for some socializing. Before I left, I'd been getting to know some of the Italian soldiers here, a couple Aussies and a couple of the interpreters too. Two of them live in Chicago on the north side, so that is kind of nice. When I came back from this last leave, I also made sure to bring back a couple of English/Italian dictionaries to assist in our conversations. I learned back during my travels in Chile that a pocket dictionary can get you a long way in trying to get your point across when you don't speak the language.

I really look forward to my Coffee Shop nights. Since we don't have bars and liquor here, the caffeine buzz is about the next best thing. A few double espresso's, the mixture of cultures and languages along with good conversation and laughter (which can get out of hand at times!) make for a good time a couple of days a week.

The weather has been somewhat flakey here. Some days the temps have run up to 80 and the nights get down in the 40's. Tonight, we have a warm south wind blowing in with gusts probably around 25-30 mph. At first I thought the sky was cloudy, but it is just all the dust blowing around. Hopefully, there won't be a dust storm coming in.

Just got an email from my friend Cheryl. She is asking me to describe how we get ready and celebrate Christmas here. It is by no means as commercial as back home. One of the buildings in the Mayor's cell put up their lights around the 30 foot palm tree like last year. The former tenants of the Mayor's Cell building had the fence around the lawn in lights and had a sleigh and reindeer lit up too. This year since Scrooge and Marley's moved in, the lawn remains dark. Other than that, I don't recall having seen any other lights around. The chow halls have put up their decorations and will have their big Holiday thing on the 25th. The PX will put up their faux tree to accomodate donations from the civilians and soldiers for charity along with assorted wrapped empty boxes to bring a festive appearance to the store.

Otherwise, Christmas is somewhat of a non-event here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Kuwait to Baghdad One More Time

07 Dec 2005

We finally pulled out of Kuwait airport enroute to the APOD at 7am Tuesday morning. As I guessed, I missed my reserved flight to Baghdad for which the roll call was at 0330am. Got myself lined up for a “Space A” or space available flight, but according to the boards there were no more scheduled flights to Baghdad today. Time for a good sleep.

I got checked into the billeting on the APOD. I’m assigned to tent H1, a cozy little 10 man tent complete with bunks that have mattresses. Naturally, I forgot my alarm clock at home, so made a quick trip up to the PX for an alarm clock so that I’d wake up in time for the required 1800 roll call. Didn’t even have the energy for a shower.

Just as I got back from the PX and was ready to hit the bed, Josh walked in. He just got in from a long and circuitous series of flights from Phoenix to Kuwait, so we were to be traveling companions again, this time on the way back to Victory. I was still really wound-up, so I took a couple of melatonin to relax me and next thing I knew, it was 5pm.

What a difference sleep, a shower and clean clothes will make. Went to the roll call at 6pm and to our surprise, a “pop up” flight to Baghdad manifested itself while we slept. Back onto a bus to take us all from the APOD to Ali Al Salem. So now here I am at 2200 sitting in a Quonset hut each of which holds probably 100 people, at Ali Al Salem awaiting Chrome 47 to take off for Baghdad sometime around 0030.

About ten minutes ago, a group of soldiers just came into the two Quonset huts connected looking for cots to crash on. I told then not to worry that we’d only be here another hour or so. She then said that they were told that no more flights are coming in or flying out tonight due to weather. More fog.

I went outside to see if I could confirm the rumor, but no one has said otherwise thus far. Our bags which we palletized when we got here are already gone, so I’m hoping that maybe our flight will still get out and onto Baghdad.

2300: We got loaded onto the bus, but in the 15 minutes it took to call roll and get us loaded on the bus, the fog rolled in quickly and as thick as pea soup. It was pretty unbelievable how fast it all happened. So while we’re sitting on the bus, we heard over the radio that the incoming flight was diverted and we are to return to the Quonset hut until further notice. So now we wait.

Well, it’s after midnight and now Wednesday the 7th and the old stomach is growling again. I had a chicken sandwich at KFC in the food court around 1830 or so, but both Josh and I are hungry again. No choice out here at the staging area but to dip into the MRE’s. Josh let me in on the secret of thoroughly enjoying the MRE dining experience: mixing.

He warmed up and mixed the mashed potatoes into the meatloaf. I ended up mixing the wild rice medley into the Tai Chicken packet along with that little itty bitty bottle of Tabasco. No way was I going to eat the crackers, but once I traded my plain M&M’s for Josh’s crunchy ones, I opened the peanut butter packet and stuck a few M&M’s onto the peanut butter and squeezed it out of the package into my mouth like a four-year old to complete this gourmet dining extravaganza.

Bob squared, (real name Robert Robert), one of the new NSC guys that I just ran into here who is also headed for Victory was relaying experiences from his Army days with MRE’s. He mentioned that one of the big challenges is to get the crackers from the veggie meals (for some reason they are drier) and bet someone $20 that they can’t eat them all without water over a two minute period.

The pound cake is also pretty popular. When you open up the package, it like springs to life as the air that had been previously vacuumed sucked out of it once more gasps for air and rejuvenates itself. As you rip the package open, you almost expect the pound cake to gasp for air like a person held underwater for 30 seconds!

Okay, full belly. Maybe it’s time for a nap. My makeshift pillow is my computer case and my jacket. They always tell you to take your sleeping bag along on the trip, but who the heck wants to lug along a sleeping bag around all over the world? I did have my pillow with me, but it was packed in the suitcase…a lot of help that was now!

It’s now after 1am and I don’t feel like reading and the computer is about out of juice. Looks like there aren’t going to be any flights out until the fog lifts in the morning. I should have bought a converter plug for Kuwait and only have my German converter plug right now. Guess I'll try to sleep some.

It’s now 5am. I woke up about every hour from when I laid my head down at one until now. I woke up to Josh preparing his breakfast…another MRE. Deciding that food didn’t sound like such a bad idea, I went out to the shelter area and looked over the choices. One guy out there just after me knows his box number that contains the one specific meal he likes. He was living on MRE’s for two months after the chow hall in Mosul was bombed, when was that now? I want to say sometime back in Feb or March.

I decided that the cheese tortellini sounded good and I wasn’t disappointed. Chef Boyardee couldn’t have done better. Josh had scrounged some more M&M’s during his search earlier, so I had something to mix again with my peanut butter packet.

Six thirty and now they are telling us we should be ready for an 0830 roll call. 0830 comes and goes and no roll call and no plane. At 10am, we get word not to expect a flight and that they were finding busses to take us back to the APOD; our flights were cancelled.

At 1030am, someone must have had a change of heart; roll call was to be at 1130 and we would be on a flight at 1330.

1330 and we’re taking roll call and getting on a bus to take us to the flight line. I’m not holding my breath on this one. We’ve been so close before, anything could happen at this point as it has before.

1415, we’re pulled up along a C17 at the far end of the flight line and loading. Next thing you know, we’re in the air on our way to Baghdad.

The normal one hour flight has now been extended. For no known reason, we are told that we will be held in a pattern above Baghdad for at least 30 minutes. At the end of that 30 minutes, it is announced that we will be held up to another 45 minutes while the flight line is checked for IED’s (improvised explosive devices) to have been reported.

Finally, at around 1630, we are landing back home on the military side of BIAP (Baghdad Intl Airport) and deplaning. As soon as we’re removed from the plane and walking around the rear side of the plane, another group is walking around the front side and preparing to board the C17 enroute back south and out of Iraq.

It’s now around 1815 local Baghdad time and I’m now back to the hooch and juicing up the computer and unpacking the suitcase. I want to take a shower before hitting the rack, but don’t have the energy. Boy, it’s nice to be back to my own “other” bed and my own “other home.” After all that, I…just (yawn)…want…sleep.

Monday, December 05, 2005

In a Fog

06 Dec 2005

The flights from Chicago to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Kuwait went without a hitch. Well, mostly without a hitch. The bonehead at the United counter in Chicago wouldn’t issue my boarding pass for the Frankfurt – Kuwait flight. This then required me to stand in another line to get a boarding pass once I arrived in Frankfurt. When I asked the agent about it, she advised that they should have issued that boarding pass at that time. But the good thing about it was that I was able to move from a window seat to an isle seat in the middle section of Business Class. How’s that for stylin’?

Now comes the challenge; the flight from Kuwait to Baghdad. Not very often has this leg of the journey gone without incident and tonight is no exception. When we landed at KWI, the weather was clear and about 70 F. The busses to take us to the APOD and then to Ali As Salem were all set to pick us up at 2330, but then the fog closed in.

As I write this in the airport food court, the fog is so thick that you can barely see across the street to the parking lot. And just my luck to have a show-time for my flight out of Ali As Salem of 0330. I have no idea at this time whether the flight line at Ali As Salem is also socked in with for or not. I’ve already had two cups of Starbucks, so another cup of java is about out of the question for now. We have loaded the luggage onto the busses, but they aren’t going anywhere until this damned fog lifts some.

So much for the plans to be back in Baghdad on time!

In a Blink

05 December 2005

So here I sit once again in the airport at Frankfurt, Germany. Only this time, I’m going the opposite way; back to Kuwait. I was telling a friend of mine just this last week that after the six weeks that I had at home in April and May, these two weeks home were like a blink of time. I accomplished the primary mission of relaxing at home with Phil and Cayenne, but also made time to meet up with my old MBA buddies at Rock Bottom one night (our former hang-out after our weekly study group meetings of the TMC2 [aka Tuesday-night Martini Club squared- cuz noone has just one martini!] during the Executive MBA program from NIU), dinner with Bob and Rae and their kids, visited with the sisters, the niece and nephews and even accomplished two days in Phoenix to visit my Gram.

Christmas came early wherever I went! The department stores would have been proud. My pent-up consumerism was working overtime over the last two weeks. I’m sure that you’ll notice my contribution to the numbers in the next month’s business report on the economy! But I stayed within budget and managed to even meet with the accountant and my banker to get the finances squared away. Retirement may be 20 years away, but you got to plan for it now if you’re going to be able to retire. Uncle Sugar may be your rich Uncle, but he ain’t givin you nothing he don’t have to.

Not to mention the trips to the doc to adjust the bp meds and the trip to the dentist to make sure the fangs were clean and operational. How on earth I squeezed so much into so little time is a real tribute to time management! I don’t know. I think that there must be something wrong with this whole scenario when you have to take vacation to spend time at home. If I remember correctly, it was HOME you take two weeks off a year to get a vacation *from*.

I have emailed with the folks back in Victory since I’ve been gone. Two people on my shift have left the company in the two weeks that I’ve been gone. Hmmm. Wonder if that says anything about what I’m going back to. I also told Eve that I’ll have to start walking with her on my running days off. Need to burn a few more calories if I’m ever going to get that boyish figure back. 

I must say that I had a really nice surprise on my trip out of O’Hare. (How many people can say that when leaving O’Hare?) An old Air Force buddy of mine, Priz works at the airport and we recently were able to get back in touch with one another. We were stationed together in Kalkar, Germany and also rented half of an old farm house near the site with another guy (Bert, you know who you are!) Between Classmates.com and the relatively new web site that Bill put together at Kalkarites.org, quite a number of us former “Kalkarites” are reconnecting and at least getting together virtually with email and a message board on the site. It’s almost romantic (in a European experience sense) that in our hearts, Kalkar will never be forgotten for so many of us. Having been such a small site, we tended to form very close bonds and really had a sense of family.

The weather was…well, what more can one say about weather in Chicago in November. If you want tropical weather in November, go to Hawaii. But home is still home and I went back to see people, not to enjoy the weather. As always, you just deal with the change of weather. Heck, even the two days I was in Phoenix was cool by their standards, so it doesn’t do any good to complain about the weather. That’s what you do when you don’t have anything better to complain about or need to make small-talk in a conversation you’ve been roped into that you don’t want to be in.

But since I’ve been in Iraq, I don’t get roped into too many weather conversations. It is usually more than likely that I’m pulled into political debate about the whole Iraq issue. So here it is; my view on this thing. Personally, I didn’t believe that Bush had a strong enough case to justify going into Iraq. But now that we are here, we must remain in place and continue on the path of reconstruction and training of Iraqi soldiers until the job is done. Period! No cut and run, no draw down until this has been accomplished. You may not like it and I may not like it, but the reality of this situation is that for us to leave now will only create a vacuum which will anxiously be filled by the Iranian contingency which is probably pouring millions of dollars as we speak, into the insurgency coffers.

The reality of this situation is that this is not a cocktail party that you blow out of when you’ve become bored with it. Our actions have impacted a people and a society beyond anything we may want to admit. Our time to speak up was long past once the tanks and troops rolled across the Kuwaiti border into Iraq. If we don’t like the way the party is turning out, then it is time to find more creative methods to accomplish the goal of establishing a stable government here in Iraq. At some point in time, we will need to engage the neighbors who have a vested interest in making sure that this ends up with a peaceful solution.

Nothing less than this solution is acceptable. All you pacifists out there may challenge me on this, but you cannot deny that a pull-out now is going to create a civil war in the Middle East of massive proportions. It won’t just involve Iraq and Iran. Everyone in the Middle East has an investment in making sure that this situation concludes in and maintains peace. You may want to stick you head in the sand and pull back, but keep in mind that the terrorist organizations are not going to take a vacation from their struggle to foster unrest and hatred.

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