Socotra House Publishing: Purveyor of Glib Words to the World
Socotra House Publishing is a small press dedicated to publishing and distributing the historical works of Vic Socotra, a non-mortal fellow who captures American and military history with aplomb.
(Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini He was a strange Dude.)
On the 18th of October, 1979, I noted the situation seemed bleak because the Bazargan Government in Iran had packed cheeks and gone away. This left Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council as the only decision-making unit in the country, even they did not seem to be on top of the situation. Khomeini himself does not speak any English, and thus all statements by our Government- and others- must be translated and presented to him by his councilors.
There appeared to be no one to negotiate with, even if we were amenable to that approach. The Carter Administration seemed willing enough. There were reports that Ramsey Clark (of Vietnam fame!) had been tapped to go and meet with the Iranians, but at the last moment the powers-that-be vacillated and Clark was stuck in Ankara. Such luminaries as Andrew Young made bids to get in, but all seemed to stumble on the fact that no one knew what was going on, or who could actually make the hard decision.
The students who held the Embassy seemed to be the only people who were confident of their position, and in the great tradition of students everywhere, were in a non-negotiable demand mode.
Strange motions were made by all concerns. The reports were out that the PLO had been responsible for the actual planning of the operation. Yassir Arafat sent a delegation to talk and was rudely rebuffed. The Students seemed to be playing the Race Card in an effort to split the American opinion at home. Suddenly they announced that the women and the African-Americans could go free. A few days later they did in fact release twelve or thirteen hostages. At this late date it is still unknown whether all the women have been freed, as Khomeini added the kicker that known Spies, regardless of race or sex might be retained for trial.
It began to resemble the Soviet Union in the thirties. Anyone not in favor of the regime was immediately branded a Spy; the tactic being to unify the country against the foreign bogey-man. It appeared to be a successful tactic.
The circus at the Embassy continued with ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations that appeared to take on a legitimate popular flavor. In fact, the place assumed a carnival atmosphere with street vendors, mass prayers, the whole shot.
All of this had a clearly dilatory affect on the hostages. Early reports had them bound sixteen hours a day, with intense psychological warfare tactics used against them. They reportedly gained several concessions from one of the women, and revelations of conspiracy to admit the Shah into the United States. Lillian Johnson was the lady in question, but I bear her no ill-will, as she never got even the rudimentary resistance training we got at SERE School, much less the water-board.
What was particularly galling was the use of real and bogus message traffic by the Students to justify the seizure of the Embassy and the ‘nest of spies.’
Khomeini has already pronounced them guilty, with trial to follow if the Shah goes anywhere except back to Iran to stand before his accusers. He further called President Carter “insane” and his advisors “buffoons,” certainly arguable points.
I’m sure this got great press back home for him, but to a room full of blood-thirsty military pilots it was greeted with angry mutterings. All we wanted to do was launch one of the contingencies everyone was working on so hard behind the little locked curtains. Turn the Holy City of Qom into a picturesque crater district.
Amid all this hoopla, the most devastating news came in. In response to it I wrote an ill-advised letter home, because I was convinced that it was war within the next day or so. It was more complicated than I could know from the sketchy first reports; but here is how it went.
The strange business at Mecca, Islam’s holiest of holies. We were flying nights for some reason known only to the Staff in its infinite wisdom.
Actually, it was all very simple. We called it “practicing bleeding.” The CARGRU Staff knew that when USS Kitty Hawk finally arrived they would be hopelessly out of qualification for night flying, and they wanted to make sure that we were ready. Same principle as the all night and day EXTENDEX: in the event of war, we might have to fly around the clock for a few days.
Therefore, to be ready to do so in time of conflict, you should try your damnedest to kill people in peacetime. The problem with all of the above is that the crucial adrenaline factor is left out. In our little contingency mind-set it wasn’t that hard to get up for it, but being still peacetime, the ship and squadron authorities didn’t think twice about going on with the usual daytime ship’s business.
Our ‘stand-down’ days on the 8th and 9th of November were even worse. On the “no fly” day of the 8th, we only flew five events. On the 9th, we started flying at 0200, which didn’t even stop the All Officers Meeting, Squadron Pictures, and all-hands Quarters events from taking up the blessed afternoon rack hours.
But I can see that I am jumping ahead of myself. The issue is Mecca, and the implications are dramatic and far-reaching.
When you look at the map of the Middle East you may as well put the numbers ‘8’ over Iran and ’28’ over Saudi Arabia. That quickly covers the number of barrels of go-juice- black gold- that comes out of the ground of those barren desert nations. I have always been fascinated by the use of the phrase “Our Oil” which comes from the Middle East.
Wait a minute, how come those freaking fundamentalists have all our oil trapped under their blasted sand? Why did we put it there in the first place?
Anyhow, I was getting the morning briefs together to delight the aircrew as they stumbled in at 0340, eyes still screwed up at the blinding florescent light, rack scars still prominent on the cherubic faces. Eddie Chow came in from his station up forward, monitoring the traffic we don’t talk about. He said casually “Did you hear the news about Mecca? Some bunch of gorillas (sic) took over the Mosque there.”
“Holy Shit!” I exclaimed mildly. Only one of the biggest stories of the decade! Certainly the biggest blasphemy committed against a major religion since the Romans tore down the Temple in Jerusalem. The preliminary reports had the Iranians responsible- Shia versus Sunni. Great News, if those idiots had acted against the Holiest of all Islamic shrines they would be isolated as never before.
I was ecstatic. I was confident this blasphemy of Shia versus the Sunni protectors of the most holy site in Islam would change everything! I envisioned the huffers (air-start generators) beginning to turn all over the Saudi Airfields, the invitation coming for the Air Wing to use all Saudi assets in an all-out strike against Iran already being received at the Department of State.
It was as good as over, I thought. We would go to war and crush them in a few days. Vie would return triumphant, and the national balls would be restored. The glow of that development lasted for hours. Unfortunately it was not true. As has been so characteristic of this cruise, the manic cycle began. We were way up over the prospect of getting it on against the Iranians. Very high indeed until the second shoe dropped.
The true story in Mecca was considerably more sobering, and had a most arresting implication. The fanatics were actually Saudi Shias, or at the very least, Iranian-inspired. They were well-armed, and had occupied the sacred precincts of the Grand Mosque and the surrounding the Ka’aba. Tradition goes that the Kaaba was ordained by Allah to be built in the shape of the House in Heaven called Baitul Ma’amoor. Allah in his infinite Mercy ordained a similar place on earth and Prophet Adam was the first to build this place.
The idea of pocking it with bullet scars was most astonishing in and of itself. The very gaze of an infidel is enough to give the faithful the vapors.
Further, it seemed that the occupiers were students from the Islamic college located at the Mosque, and that they had been preparing for the siege for months. The leader was apparently of a disposition to believe himself the latest Prophet, the Caliph whose coming was foretold. He had apparently convinced his youthful followers of that revelation. Below the precincts of the shrine exist a maze of passageways and chambers, from which it was going to pose no small problem in removing the attackers in the holiest of precincts.
Naturally, the propaganda began to flow out of Iran the nasty Imperialists had engineered the occupation with their lackies, the Zionists. This was a Kafkaesque turn taken with some surprise by we Satanic Plotters and Schemers, but the time had come around for the Big Lie to be credible to the unwashed, and the season was ripe for belief.
The climate for Jihad was favorable, and it seemed that the sap of Islam was waxing wroth, or whatever it is that sap does. The picture for the Saudis was not good, although it seemed that they were more than ready to deal with the immediate problem. What they were to do with a sizeable portion of their miniscule population who were being educated that the House of Saud was nothing more than the creature of the Devil himself? Who actively pursued such decadent habits as the watching of television and the listening of Radio? A ruling family so irretrievably corrupt as to play Soccer?
The entire concept of the Islamic 14th century revival runs contrary to the spirit of the West since our own middle ages, not coincidently of the same era that Khomeini’s followers would so desperately like to revisit.
I was fascinated to see what the Saudis were going to with a Shia threat in their midst.
For our part, Carrier Air Wing Five seemed to be of the unanimous opinion that if they wanted, we would be happy to help them go back a couple centuries at least.
The plague of religious violence was spreading across the region. In Pakistan, the Cricket Tests were underway. Whether the word was spread by the broadcasters of the matches, or whether the contagion of Radio Tehran was sufficient to spread the call to jihad is a moot point. What happened plunged me into the deepest depression. On 21 November, busloads of demonstrators showed up at U.S. facilities all over Pakistan after rumors swirled that the Americans had bombed the Ka’aba. Consulates were burned, American cultural centers ravaged, and the ubiquitous sign of US capitalism, the American Express in Rawalpindi, were burned.
But the worst event by far was at the Embassy in Islamabad. stormed the US Embassy in Islamabad and set it alight The fire killed Army Warrant Officer Bryan Ellis and Marine Steve Crowley along with two local Embassy Employees. Several American women were assaulted by the howling mob.
The messages as they flowed into Main Comm depicted the events in over-graphic detail; the buildings burning, rioters on the second floor, over a hundred Embassy Staffers trapped in the secure vault with air getting thin. The British Ambassador protested, but General Zia, the Pakistani strongman, could not be reached.
In the end, the Army did act. They swept the demonstrators from the roof and evacuated the staffers to the British compound. It was a little bit late for the two American military guys. Their charred bodies were found in the rubble the next day.
If there was a moment when I would have lashed out with all the force at my command, this would have been it.
But not our President, Mr. Carter. I have to admire his restraint (if that is indeed what it was and not some total paralysis of the lower bowels, which renders him unable to act under any circumstance). I would have had the Strike Force moving north and west within the hour. I know, intellectually, that such an action could only lead to the immediate demise of the hostages whose lives we were present ostensibly to preserve, but I think a fundamental stage had been reached in the crisis where the hostages began to become irrelevant.
Past this point we could no longer stick with the Embassy occupation in Tehran as the sole cause. Now, it appeared to be Jihad writ large, and our response could only be taken by the zealots as an assault of Islam itself.
The focus in Iran politics seemed to be on the matter of a Constitutional Amendment to existing law which would enable Khomeini (who we have taken to our vision of the evil vizier of the Arabian Nights) to assume the power de jure he has hitherto exercised de facto. It is interesting to contrast his version of moral authority with President Carter; but I wander from the issue. They have shown the Mike Wallace interview with the grand Ayatollah, and there have been some interesting responses.
I personally was livid with anger for hours, and I am not certain whether it is because I was burned out with fatigue, or because I was overcome by loathing for the ministers who surrounded him, refusing even to pose certain questions.
The logic of the situation runs something like this: the shortages incurred by the drastic cutback in oil production have forced forward the inexorable pincers of inflation, of the hoarding of rice, the limited supply of kerosene, the slow drying up of the availability to carry on the commerce which fed the growing bourgeoisie. That, lingering effect of the Shah’s profligate ways, have left them in grim shape economically. The oil is a finite resource. At the Shah’s pace of something well over four million barrels a day, it would have been exhausted by the late eighties.
Even the greatly reduced production of the new Islamic Oil Ministry (to something under three) placed on the lucrative spot market is barely enough to cover the lean essentials of public services.
Inexorably, Khomeini is faced with a no-win situation, much like the sorry nations of Pakistan and India, who add millions to already burdened populations each year. Scarce resources preclude reaching the light-off point for capital investment.
I think it is inevitable that the enthusiasm of the Revolution would wither before the re-emergence of the eternal plagues of hunger and cold. The indicators I read pointed to a consistent erosion of Khomeini’s authority. The answer, and an astute one in the short term, was to drum up the foreign bogey-man.
There could hardly be a better one than the U.S. I make no breast-beating case for the horrible crimes of stabilizing a nation, and paying it the going rate for what was then a non-essential commodity. Our interests were well served by the listening posts that constantly read telemetry from the Tyuratam Proving Grounds in the USSR, and as our national oil-aholism grew, so did our need for a steady and dependable source of crude.
That we could also build a powerful ally on the very flank of the Soviet Union also was of great utility. Most important, it stood as a powerful bastion between the Bear and the vital House of Saud in the thinly populated sands of the Empty Quarter.
But we did fuck it up. We were guilty of wishful thinking as a national policy. What we hoped was true we formulated in concrete, and in the blood of the victims of SAVAK. The truth was there all along, had we but taken the time to look for it. As far back as ’71 , my pal George traveled the region and brought back the news that Iran was a police state; that giant portraits of the Shah emblazoned all the custom’s gates, and that to walk his path brought no trouble, but the hint of criticism could bring the agonies of prison.
The Shah’s enemies disappeared, were worked over and exiled, But we still believed that a bastion in our favor was far preferable to uncertainty. The military contracts were good business. They brought down the unit costs on the F-14 to a manageable level, where we could procure more for ourselves. The cruise missiles are there today, and provide an element of unease never present in the waters of Yankee station. Four-engine state-of-the-Art P-3 Charlie patrol aircraft fly out to do maritime surveillance on us.
Well, they are actually Foxtrot-models different (slightly) than the ones we fly, but there were only six constructed, and they carry U.S. Navy Bureau numbers still.
(The hanging Judge, a Khomeini insider since 1955.)
Khomeini’s people are projecting the message that the “Iranian Government policy has never been one to condone terrorism,” which is nonsense. The rule of law is gone, as demonstrated by the appointment of Sadegh Khalkhali, the Hanging Judge as First Chief Justice of the Revolutionary Islamic Court. He killed hundreds of the Shah’s people in the early days of the Khomeini regime.
He was famous for ordering the executions of Amir Abbas Hoveida, the Shah’s Prime Minister, and Nemotollah Nassiri, the former head of the feared SAVAK.
According to one report in the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)reporting, after sentencing Hoveida to death:
“pleas for clemency poured in from all over the world and it was said that Khalkhali was told by telephone to stay the execution. Khalkhali replied that he would go and see what was happening. He then went to Hoveyda and either shot him himself or instructed a minion to do the deed. “I’m sorry,” he told the person at the other end of the telephone, “the sentence has already been carried out.””
That is the sort of scum we are dealing with. However one attempts to come to grips with the attractive self-flagellating argument of “How We Lost Iran,” that is not the issue. It isn’t even close.
I can grant the Iranians have many points. Some of them I heartily endorse, as a lover of Liberty in my own homeland.
But the real issue is so simple that in the last 37 days it has been entirely obscured. A civilized nation does not take hostages of persons under diplomatic immunity. It may, should it so choose, expel those who it considers active (or hyper-active, rather, as all nations engage in the collections of Intelligence in their embassies) and bid them good riddance as they pass through customs on their way out. It may not capture a sovereign building, on what is in point of law another nation’s soil, root about in it’s internal paperwork, and come up with evidence to run show trials.
Were that the case, I would dearly love to paw over the files the Soviets maintain at their embassies and consulates in the United States.
But there it was, and we are now in a strange new land where laws mean nothing, international custom is scrapped, and something medieval and savage is abroad
The big lie was again triumphant. They shouted ‘Espionage!’ and ‘CIA! and they shouted SO LOUD and so long that those two words became the issue, in part of the long self destructive retreat from Watergate that haunts us still. Even Ted Kennedy, damn his liberal hide, jumped on the bandwagon. It is the first time that a Presidential Aspirant has even had a hand in helping me lose my Christmas, and I suspected it would not be the last.
As it turned out, I was right.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
A ROUND FOR MY FRIENDS
Unvarnished and un-retouched. We were young, once, and out in a wild world.
03 February 1979
YOU COULD SMELL THE LAND THIRTY OR FORTY MILES OUT, if you had gotten up early enough for it. I couldn’t have; stupefied still from over-liberty in HONG KONG, I suppose, but here is how it would have been: the orange ball of the sun would have made you screw up your eyes after the nighttime of florescent glow. Brisk breeze as the Midway left off her night of circling off the coast. The green and black of the mountains would have been the first thing to strike you above the blue of the water. And the smell of the Philippines.
Musky, like the snatches of the thousands of little brown girls even now boarding the battered Victory Liners out in the tiny villages. Ready to greet the happy Midway crew.
Ready? Shit, we were- the first capital ship to call at Subic Bay since the Constellation pulled out for that crazy run to the Straight of Malacca before New Years. Guarding the rights of the Americans in Iran from five thousand miles away; defending Liberty by having the capability to bomb Singapore. Real gunboat diplomacy. They must be calling him whirling Teddy Roosevelt now, wherever that ace Imperialist finally fetched up.
It was a working In-Port. You know how that goes: you feel guilty as you bolt down a couple Cubi Dogs and a Special at the BOQ bar in the course of your official duties up the hill at the Cubi Point Naval Air Station complex above the field.
Having to hang around the ship all day, either nursing a hangover or plotting how to ravage and pillage Olongapo City again that night. We were docked by the industrious little tugs at 0900 sharp.
“All heads forward of Frame 47 are secured until further notice.” It is like using the lavatory on a train in the station, since plumbing simply exits to the great outdoors. It is important not to dump on the tugboat crew. Bad taste for all concerned.
The squadron was going to be flying this time, so there was no bullshit about the work part for us. The golf clubs started going ashore not long after the brow went across. After all, it was the P.I. The temperature was a balmy 87 degrees, the sky cloudless, the Bay a sparkling blue.
Two or three brushfires were raging out of control in the hills. It was great to be back. Naturally, I had the duty first day in. Not a snivel, mind you, as I would prefer to miss the ritual drunk-ex on the first night anyway. But I will confess to that distinctive feeling of loneliness on board as everyone you know throws on civilian clothes and races for the nearest fondly remembered club, bar girl, or rattan shop. Takes all kinds, I suppose.
I was able to work a deal with my boss about the duty. After he had a nice dinner and a couple cocktails, he came back and relieved me.
I was able to grab a cab and head for the Cubi O club for a couple non-Midway emergency burgers and an obligatory six pack. San Miguel: what a refreshing beer! Really a wonder-beverage. It has the capability to work as a thirst quencher, a mild intoxicant, and a purgative all at the same time. Back home it would run you a couple bucks a crack down at the bistro. Here, 45 cents at the Club and as little as 2 pesos out in the Ville.
Splendid! I believe I’ll have another. Rose early the next morning to discover that the Boss had an exercise associated with the Duty, commencing at 0500. Maybe there is a God, after all.
I hung around the ship until after lunchtime shuffling papers and plotting my escape. Finally discovered some vital Squadron business over on the Subic Side and logged myself ashore. Had a delightful burger over at the Chuck Wagon. And a couple beers. Paid off an overdue account at the Subic Club for some frolicking last time down. Duty done, I repaired to the ship to get ready to Alpha Strike the town.
Let’s see: watch and ring off the hand. Wallet purged of unnecessary cash assets. Placed in the front pocket, so it can be guarded with the left hand. All small valuables transferred to the security safe down in the Intelligence spaces. As the sun declined my spirits soared.
I walked down to the quarter-deck and reported that I did indeed have permission to go ashore to the bored Officer of the Deck. Free at last, I cruised to the waiting line for a taxi and prepared myself mentally for the rigors ahead. The mind-set is of necessity quite different than that called for in any other country in Westpac. Most anywhere else you can cruise around pretty much as you want.
In Japan, the chances of getting rolled are so slight as to be negligible, unless it is another American.
The Philippines Islands, or Pee-Eye in colonial-speak for the Republic of the Philippines- is another case altogether. Before Marshall Law, there were signs in the most fashionable nightspots requesting the patrons to deposit their firearms at the door. Not uncommon to see great bodily harm come to someone on the street; in fact. The Boss reports that his first time out in town a security guard got wasted in the very first club he was sitting in.
It is not quite that bad these days, but still among the weirdest places on earth.
A shared cab ride with one of the squadron Skippers brings us through the Naval Air Station grounds and out past the F-8 on the pedestal that marks the perimeter.
One of the Connie A-7 squadrons painted the hapless old fighter up like one of their birds. A shocking insult to both the memory and the mission of the entire Fighter community. Everyone knows the A-7 really looks like an F-8 that has been run hard into the hangar bay armored door.
Round the Bay we rocket: past the Air Force fuel receiving dock, past the JP-5 settling tanks and the huge fuel farm. A hard left by the new Exchange Complex and we scoot along the flanks of the supply depot warehouses, seemingly secure behind wire and lock. Amazing what the Filipinos can steal when they set their mind to it. I heard from some permanent party folks that it wasn’t unusual to have forty “intruders” every night roaming around looking for things to borrow.
Out in front of one of the warehouse go-downs are the guns of the Battleship New Jersey. Three to a rack the huge steel telephone poles are mute testimony to the days when we still used the islands as our own soil, which Subic still is. One of the funny little trappings of a former empire, like the old peso coins you still see with the legend “United States of America” on the reverse.
God, I wish I could have seen it: three aircraft carriers in off Yankee Station and the New Jersey taking on more ammunition for Naval Gunfire off the coast of Vietnam. Lobbing 2500 Ib. shells for a quarter of a hundred miles. Like throwing Volkswagens of high explosives at the strange brown people with their own funny dreams of imperium.
Into the Naval Station at Subic proper we cruise past the go-cart track and the skeet shooting facility. Past the baseball fields and the fleet supply ships. The flat black antennas of the escorts poke up into the night sky.
The aircraft in the pattern for Cubi roar overhead in a non-stop racetrack of flashing red lights, and suddenly there we are. Main Gate City. I can smell Shit River already.
We queue up for the ritual inspection at the gate. The Marines stand like ramrods and the.45s on their belts are loaded. We flash our ID cards and receive a crisp salute. “Good Evening, Sir!”
“Good evening,” we reply “and good luck tonight.”
No response. The Marine is already hunched over inspecting another party on the way out. We stand in disorientation for a moment and allow the crowd to carry us along. Already I have been asked to sell my watch and purchase some cheap shell necklaces.
Twenty feet beyond the gate is the real boundary: the famous vile smelling river the separates the shacks and gaudy neon from the prim American order of the Base. Shit River. No name could be more appropriate. A four-lane bridge connects the Base to the City, and the angels of the river beckon from the shoulder-to-shoulder outrigger canoes.
“Hey Joe! Look at me Joe!”
They stand precariously over the fetid water on stools set in the middle of the canoes. They wear long gay dresses that cover the stools, so they appear to be immensely tall. “For a quarter I show you my tits! Hey Joe!”
They carry wire nets scooped to catch flying change. Occasionally a sailor will toss whatever is in his pockets. Usually it is money. Above all, the scene is bizarre. The stench, the exhortations, and the pickpockets who stride through the crowd looking for the drunk, the naive, or the distracted.
Sixty yards takes you to the city. It is a riot of neon, a carnival of jeepneys, and a confusion of people. Beggars, chewing gum sellers and hookers.
Never mess with a hooker off the street; she works there because she cannot pass her medical examination to work in one of the clubs. Cute, still, and the eye cannot cover all that shouts out for attention. Money changing booths across Magsaysay Boulevard where the pretty girls bang the glass with pesos for your attention and patronage. Each club has a security guard outside exhorting you to come on in and start spending that paycheck.
Tee-shirt palaces to delight even the most jaded traveler: “I Love You No Shit” says one, concluding with “Buy your Own Fucking Drinks'”
And more bars and women than you could count. Taxis cruise the street and hiss at you from the curb. Hat sellers exhort their merchandise. And the women…. they call the P.I. the land of beautiful women and they are correct.
The centuries of Spanish rule were not wasted by the hardy conquistadors.
Short as a rule, with long glossy black hair and piercing black eyes under lovely lashes. It seems they are either ladies of Virtue here or of the lowest morals. After dark you will seem to encounter only the latter. It is a marvelous place.
The question at hand is where to enjoy that first ice-cold San Miguel. The Skipper wants noise and action and women. He heads for a place called the Cavern. It is dark and loud and the women know him. He buys her six drinks immediately (at 24 pesos per drink you could have twenty beers) and that serves to set her free.
I dance with the lady who sits by me, and buy her one drink before I slide on. I know a place where it is 2-and-a-half for a beer, and the same price should you care to provide liquid refreshment for a lady. I bid every one a fond farewell and head for the door. It is like hitting the Steelers line, but I win through and pass once more down the swarming street.
The Club Rufadora lies past the American Legion (with the deck gun from a Japanese Death Ship out front) and before the New Florida Club and the sordid pleasures of the New Jolo. I order several beers and relax. Part of the attraction of the Rufadora is the fact that there is no hustling allowed. The ladies are available, of course, but they don’t knock you down in the stampede to get at your wallet. I look around for Sally, a real beauty with a slim body and gold in her teeth. She is occupied, and I am momentarily at a loss for a goal. I see a helicopter pilot I know and we slosh down another beer in search of a game plan.
“How about a trip out to the Barrio and the Samurai Health Club? We could take some cocktails and still be back before curfew.” The hated curfew is a relic of Martial Law since lifted nearly everywhere else. Marcos, in his wisdom, has decided to retain the law in Olongapo to help contain the sailors.
Anyone still on the streets after midnight is subject to arrest, and the gates to the Base slam shut exactly at midnight. There are some great stories of survival in the darkened streets by shipmates who dallied for a rendezvous only to find (to their great fear & loathing) that their lady love got a better quotation later and abandoned them to their own devices ’till the gates to safety opened up again at 0400.
“Does the Samurai give specials with the massage?”
“You betcha. And for only 35 Pesos. ” At those prices it was impossible to pass up. We lurched out of the club, flagged down a jeepney, and were on our way.
A word about jeepneys: they are open long-bed jeeps with a surrey style roof.
The colors are gaudy and the hoods are decorated with chrome bars, horses, religious medallions, reflector lights, and any other bauble that strikes the fancy of the owner. They serve as the public transportation system, and for 30 centavos you may ride wherever they choose to take you.
This particular one deposited us at the Olongapo Jeepney Station, where you may book passage on a jammed Victory Liner for the exotic spas of Baguio, Angeles, or Manila itself. We negotiated with a waiting cabby and secured transit over the hill to the Barrio for IOP. We ground gears and commenced the journey in a cloud of unburned emissions and Tagalog profanity.
You gotta see the roads to believe them. No one has seen such things in America in two generations. Crushed rook and potholes are the main constituents of the paving, with an assortment of Wash-Outs, Craters, and Land Slides for diversion. We rattled and rolled for twenty minutes and came to the abandoned guard shacks of the check-point.
The Barrio is thinly populated in comparison with the ‘Po and very rural in appearance. No paved roads. The clubs tend towards open air. Sailors stand along the road in various states of repair looking for rides back to civilization.
We forge on into the middle of the place and come to a halt in front of a dark lane that runs generally uphill. We pay off our chauffeur and he wheels around to pick up a fare on the other side of the road. We amble on up the deserted lane and come eventually to a two story building that bears the legend “Samurai Health Club” on the front. Next door is a large private home with several cars in the drive.
A gaggle of children rush out to greet us, and they seem to recognize my companion: “Hello Joe! Rock n’ Roll Hoochie-Coo!”
My buddy digs out a peso piece and flips it to the first one to shout the slogan.
“You cultural imperialist” I observe.
“It passes the time. Ah! And here we are.” Behind the desk in the pink foyer is a cute little girl of about sixteen. We exchange amenities, haggle about the price, and order a cold beer while we settle the tab. “I’ll pick up the beers” says my associate.
”Yeah,” said I, “and a round of Blowjobs for my friends.”
It was 35 pesos, as advertised, and our hostess assigned us rooms and leaned back to speak Tagalog into an intercom. We walked through the portal to the large vacant bar and through the back to the numbered rooms. There was no one around that I could see, so we found our room assignments and prepared for the inevitable. “See ya out front” said my mentor.
“Later” I agreed.
I walked into my room, kicked off my shoes and stripped to my trousers. In a few minutes I laid down on the bed and watched the little gecko lizards dart around on the cracked ceiling. They eat them over in the attack squadrons, but it has always been my position that anything that walks around eating mosquito eggs is a definite ally. The Filipinos consider them to be good housemates and I defer to their judgment and experience.
I watched two circular evolutions and a near collision and a lady entered the room in a short white dress, severely tailored, like a nurses uniform. I got up, removed my trousers and dumped them on the floor. She went ahead and spread a sheet over the bedspread.
“Please lie face down” she said. Her tones were bored, but the massage was anything but. “Powder or Oil?” she inquired.
“Oil, I think. The sea air dries me out so.”
It is possible she could have cared less, though I am not sure how. I reclined and slid off into the zone. It was magnificent. She kneaded me, pummeled the muscles, and wrenched the joints. Finally she rolled me over and worked down to the main joint with careful deliberation.
When she reached the center of attraction she went to work with an experienced and enthusiastic palate. The Geckos ran circles on the ceiling.
“My God” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she said.
Copyright 1979 Vic Socotra
It isn’t all just knuckles and know-how out there in the Fleet. “Other duties, as assigned,” was part of it, and as the coffee mess officer for World Famous Medium Pursuit Squadron 151 sometimes writing detective stories and designing new unofficial squadron patches was part of it.
Considering the other stuff I could have been writing about this morning, I think I preferred 1979. Things were a lot less nuanced and much less complex. Heck, back then you could even mostly believe what the Government told you!
Join with us now for a thrilling trip to those days of yore…..
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
A LITTLE TRAVELING MUSIC
THE next morning the word was out. The port visit to Australia was cancelled. Some damned fool in the National Command Authority took it in his head that the deteriorating situation in the Gulf of Aden required our presence more than the fair ladies of Perth.
It was an obvious case of misplaced international priorities. The gloom was thick enough to stop a Land Rover. We now had to gird our loins for another thirty days on the bounding main. And in the same place, talking about Oman and Socotra Island, and the various flavors of people who infest the blasted desert of the immediate neighborhood.
I suppose we had done too good a job of impressing the Saudis when they came out to see our 35-year-old aircraft carrier. The immediate reaction was that there was absolutely no reason to conserve anything in Africa: neither money, sleep, or precious bodily fluids.
Jambo and I immediately booked passage on the celebrated Night Train to Nairobi, with reservations at the legendary New Stanley Hotel, and return passage by first Class plane tickets.
Jambo got his name from the Swahili word for “Hello,” since that is what he was doing with his toothy grin and handlebar mustache. He was convinced the babes needed him, and I think he might have been right.
Once that large sum of shillings had been lifted from our wallets, it left nothing to do but watch the rain, the girl from Spain, and the gin and tonics on the plain. No pain was felt as we drank by the pool watching the rain drench the hotel grounds.
The Spanish girl did not put her robe back on, and there were six Marines, and elements of three squadrons and two departments watched her throw darts. It was delicious to do nothing at all. All we had to do was kill time and watch the enormous spiders walk around there parachute sized webs. Quite a rude awakening for many a serious imbiber.
One guy looked up from his drink and saw one of the monsters crouched on the window behind the bar. He jumped about a foot very much like I did when I saw the huge pink snakes slithering over the sink that morning.
The beauty of the Night Train was that it did not leave Mombasa station till 1900. We were fabulously toasted by the time it came to pack and leave for the station. We passed the last moments getting smashed with some Brits who flew the 707s of Pelican Airways into Rwanda. The crew was a fascinating bunch of people.
One of the engineers had just returned from taking a piece of the hydraulic system down to the local garage to have some emergency repairs done to it. Perhaps not to Royal Aviation standards, but it would get them airborne for their two hops the next day. There are no roads to the little state of Rwanda, and everything from matches to petroleum must be flown in.
There is money to be made in a place where the gas lines are two days long. Also in ferrying bridges and military gear and weapons into little wars in Uganda. But that is a very different story indeed.
Much of what they said was just fantastic enough to be true. They had tales of American and British mercenaries leading Tanzanian teams against Idi’s troops. A war that contrary to the Western Media was very much still on. That particular morning the headlines of the Nation read that fifty civilians had been slaughtered on a train trying to get out of the north. Many Ugandan refugees in Kenya itself, and the Nation decried the loss of tourism entailed by the bad P.R.
All too soon our wristwatches chimed that it was time to be on our way. We cruised out-of the hotel and discovered the rain had let up. We negotiated a fare down to the rail station. It was outrageous; they wanted five shillings a kilometer, and it seemed like every place you wanted to go was about fifty kilometers away. The hell with it, we said. After all we were headed for action and excitement.
We agreed to the 65-shilling tariff and off we bombed in the back of a red diesel Mercedes, honking like a wild beast in search of its mate.
We scared pedestrians for about twenty minutes and roared up to a wrought iron covered archway in front of a ramshackle white building.
We hopped out, paid off our bandit, and walked up to the gate. We were surrounded by beggars, hangers-on, and fellow travelers. I had a bad feeling for a moment, but it vanished the moment the kind black man next to the gate waved us through.
“Don’t worry bout your tickets. You show ‘em on train. Come on ahead.” He smiled and nodded as we walked past him into another era.
The train waited on the siding next to a long platform of old wood and iron-supported roof. Cracked cement was under our feet. The vegetation gave off a delicious perfume, and the wet dirt and dark people scattered along the platform gave me a flash to Bogart and a hundred Hollywood sets, all beckoning towards mystery and intrigue.
What I flashed on about a second afterwards was the little open-air bar halfway down the platform, and it was there we adjourned to discuss the adventure to come. We ordered Tusker beers and scoped out the European women who were grouped at the end of the counter.
There was only one guy with them, and we liked the odds. The situation was calling for pandemonium on the part of two adventure-bound sailors. We drank and ogled till it was nearly time to depart. We staggered out to the train and found our compartment.
It was huge, and featured a big vinyl bench and another ready to fold down above.
We were almost settled when I raced from the train to grab just a few more beers. When I got back Jim was standing outside the car checking the situation. We stood in the moist darkness and started to laugh.
There were dozens of women on the train. It was better than the dream itself…while we were in that place a black man with an erect dignity came up to us. I have been panhandled all over the world but this man had them all beat.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” His dark face was indistinct in the darkness. “I hate to approach you in this fashion, but as it happens I am far from my home, and I am defeated. I have not the money to travel and I was hoping you could find it in you to help me” He spoke in curious precise English
His use of the word ‘defeated’ knocked me out. I dug out all the pennies and shilling pieces in my pocket and handed them over. I have never been so easily separated from my money. It just seemed like the tithe one had to pay for the journey.
They turned the power on in the train and the compartment lights began to glow softly. We climbed aboard and hung out the window with everyone else. Good-byes were exchanged up and down the line.
At last, and with virtually no warning, the train started to creep up the track. We passed out of the lighted area and watched the children who were lined along the roadbed to watch the train go by. We curved out of the switching yard and passed through an area of coffee warehouses. I went back into our compartment and watched out the other window. Jim demonstrated how to turn on the fan.
I played with the table-cum-sink. I drank more of my beer. The porter came by and brought down the upper bunk with a twist of a cold chisel. It was an old train; well kept up, but it had obviously been in service for some time. Jambo left to explore the train. I watched a refinery slide by to our right. The flame from the excess methane tower lit the night. It was visible for miles. We passed quickly out into an area of brush. I soaked it all in.
We would be passing by Mount Kilimanjaro in about six hours.
Jambo reported many more women on the train. Things were looking up.
The Porter stopped by again and inquired as to whether we would desire the first or second seating for dinner. I had a handle on the situation from my old Amtrak days; I asked for the second seating. The waiters would be in less of a hurry to get us cleared out.
It was delicious to sit and drink coffee and look at the people. In the meantime I had another beer.
At six-forty five we heard musical chimes advancing down the passageway. It was the porter with four tubular singing bells. He banged them with a wooden mallet and it was music. It had a syncopated beat and a lilt that belied the four notes. His music grew loud as he passed the car and diminished as he moved forward. The first sitting filed dutifully aft. Among them were two very attractive European women.
I caught only the long red skirt in detail, but it was intriguing.
Once, as I was packing to leave on an extended train trip my mother inquired as to whether I was taking any good clothes. I looked at her quizzically; I was still heavily into the blue jeans mode or all-purpose apparel. She looked at me with a smile. “You never know who- or whom- you might meet on the train,” she said with a knowing smile.
Well, I can testify that the only people you meet on Amtrak are retirees, hippies and sexual degenerates. But she was harking back to an era when you actually might meet an elegant someone on the night coach to New York. I had a feeling we had stumbled into the same era lingering on in Africa.
Pity we hadn’t selected the first sitting, I thought.
We explored more of the train during the wait for chow.
I continued my world travels with a trip to the head to off-load fully processed beer. Jim lurked the corridors for unattached women.
My journey was successful, his somewhat less so. At length the musical porter made his rounds again and we headed for victuals.
The restaurant car was worth the price of admission alone.
White ceiling, dark wood walls. Neat table settings. Tables for two on the left hand side of the aisle, parties of four on the right. We were seated with two African gentlemen. In the rear sat two older Americans. Jambo already knew them, of course, as well as everyone on the train and all their stories.
He informed me they were two oceanographers from the NOAA research ship in the harbor. We did not talk to the Africans next to us. They appeared very demanding of the service. We of course were too drunk to care, but keeping our ugly American masks off for use at a later date.
I was picking up some very weird vibes from therm. There was a gentleman in a camouflage bush jacket with short-cropped hair who kept giving me the fish eye. I hadn’t defiled anyone in his family, to my knowledge, so that left a series of possibilities. It was either political or racial, and I wasn’t sure that the two things weren’t the same thing in this neck of the veldt.
Remember, there is a war going on in Uganda. Kenya is a member of the Organization of African Unity, of which not all members have the enlightened policy of racial tolerance exhibited by the Kenyan government.
I kept getting a mental picture of the British overlords sitting in the very same car, doing all the great colonial things we have come to hate in these late decades of Uhuru. And seeing these same masters blown to pieces around the smoking wreckage of a Land Rover in 1960.
Maybe I was just projecting my American racism on a situation I couldn’t understand. Any time you are outnumbered like this at home you feel uneasy. Here it was of course the natural run of things. I had found most of the Kenyans very friendly but still there was a nagging feeling…
The service was first rate. We were catered to by a very dark man with a head shaved smooth as a bowling ball. His massive shoulders and neck erupted out of the white starched mess jacket he wore. The collar was vast and his head sat upon it like an eight ball on a white tablecloth. His movements were graceful. I had the feeling I should take what he served me.
We started with a fish course, very delicate, followed by a lamb curry.
Our table-mates were most demanding. Did we get better service because we were on the aisle? Tough question. I just enjoyed the food.
The rich Kenyan coffee was superb.
We lingered in the wood paneled luxury after the rest of the diners began to file out. We asked if it would be all right if we had a drink after dinner. We were assured that it would.
The porters began their sitting and Jim and I moved to a clear table to drink on.
We were almost immediately joined by the two oceanographers. They were also bombed. We had a splendid conversation as we piled up more of the little airline bottles of gin. One was a grandmother (speaking naturally of the oceanographers) and the other was a weather-beaten gent from Alabama who looked remarkably like Bear Bryant. We talked shop, and travels.
They emphasized the joys of overtime for sea duty. I admitted they had something there. What they also had was a bottle of vodka burning a hole in their suitcase back in the compartment. We decided to go into closed session with it and hope for a view of Kilimanjaro by the moonlight.
No small amount of urging was required once we found that immediately adjoining their compartment was the one occupied by our mysterious European ladies. The only note that clashed was the dude in the camouflage jacket who continued to eyeball us through our impromptu party.
I dunno. Maybe they keep people like us in cages where he comes from.
The silver moon hung in a cloudless sky as Kilimanjaro’s snow-crested peak came into view to the south. One of the local gals who had joined us for free drinks snagged her blouse on the fold-down bed, a couple buttons popped and her glorious brassiere-less bosom was on dramatic display. They were the first I had seen in quite a while, and I was very impressed. There was no false modesty- she deliberately buttoned herself up with great dignity and a gentle smile.
Between the blunt cone of the great volcano and the free floor-show, things were definitely looking up.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Out of Africa
A shipmate wrote to me about the Mombasa tale. He had joined the Foreign Legion after our last outing to the Indian Ocean, and the grand adventure of liberty in Africa with no immediate crisis in progress. He had not visited Kenya before, and he was determined to enjoy it, Hostage Crisis or not. He said:
“…after tooling around Diego Garcia, learning then about the seizure of the Embassy in Tehran, we were more than anxious…I predicted we would stay maybe a little longer in the Indian Ocean. It was only a scheduled to be a three month deployment and we were supposed to be back in Japan before Xmas in 79…did not turn out that way did it? But that port visit was what we needed, the calm before the storm, and my first East African port ever. Now the funny story. Five of us had paid for a trip to Outspan/Treetops resorts in Aberdare National Park. That’s where Queen Liz got the word her Father had passed and now she was in charge. Great, wonderful upscale resort. Our assistant Strike Ops buddy John S said “don’t worry about the transportation up there, I will take care of it…Well, he did. He just added a bus for us in the ships port logistics request. When we left Mombasa the Top Porkchop came to me and said what the hell is this $2,000 bus ride? Being the senior guy, I got the whiplash. As the dust settled, we chipped in and paid our shares, the XO was really pissed but it was all covered…May have been a different story in today’s Navy!”
That made me puzzle over the whole matter. It was less than a year since the last time I had been in Mombasa, and had been filled with excitement at the prospect. We were not supposed to be back- we were not even supposed to be in the Indian Ocean. We had picked up the requirement because the West Coast Show Boat USS Ranger had collided with a merchant ship in the Straits of Malacca, and instead of them, CINCPAC decided to send us. So, let me zig-zag back in the direction of 1978, and the first trip to Africa. We will get back to the crazy days of the Iranian revolution and the taking of the US Embassy in a minute.
Earlier that same year:
INDIAN OCEAN: Kenya
ONE DAY IS VERY MUCH LIKE ANY OTHER at sea. They pass one by one into a gray haze of work arid chow, and wake-up calls at odd hours. This cruise was punctuated by moments in the blazing equatorial sun. I would go up to Vulture’s Row each day Instead of lunch and sprawl in whatever un-shadowed section of deck was available.
In this manner I was able to determine to my satisfaction that the sun still rose, and grew huge, and eventually sank into the endless greasy swells of the Indian Ocean.
It was a long month. The last two glimpses we had of land were the shimmering towers of Singapore, and the low sand of Diego Garcia. These were fleeting and unsatisfactory.
‘Eyeball Liberty* is the euphemism we use for such transitory interruptions in the constancy of the seascape. We were ready to rock and roll in Africa, to kick back and not think at all. We left our seeing-eye Russian south of the Gulf of Aden.
We were tasked with a last thrust at the High Value Communist in the neighborhood. We did it in grand style. The sleek Krivak-class guided missile destroyer took off after hoisting the “Good Sailing” pennants from her signal bridge.
We muttered “So long, Sucker” and headed south. The Minsk mini-aircraft carrier and her protecting group lay a few hundred nautical miles to the southeast. We steamed through the night, and first thing in the morning a Flag musing turned into a juggernaut of activity.
“Wouldn’t it be nice” said our Admiral, “if we could get some good pictures of the Minsk before we head in to Mombasa.”
Your wish is our command, Sir.
Some of the Attack pukes had some range extension schemes they had been sitting on for a while, and the next thing the hapless air intelligence team knew, we were briefing an eight-plane fly-by at what was formerly considered “unreasonable” distance. I’m sure there were frantic Marxists scurrying to their publications. “See, Comrade, right here it says that the American A-7 Corsair II attack jet cannot be here at all! Nor the Intruder A-6E. It is all a clever ruse of the Capitalists.”
It was a hair-raising recovery on board when they got back, but we got everybody back alive, and we secured for the duration of our liberty, safe in the knowledge that we had defended Liberty, and once more confounded the Godless Commies.
We arrived outside the reef at Mombasa at eight. The hook rattled the chains across the foc’sle as it plummeted to hit the African sea bottom. Liberty fever ran rampant among the happy crew. I was flush with an extra hundred dollars from a late night poker game the night before. In the face of such omen I was confident of unparalleled outrages to come. Africa: Land of Uhuru, and Idi Amin, and a million stories, and it lay two miles outside the hanger bay!
It beckoned with palm trees and white sand. The water was a vivid light azure. There was a minaret in the cluster of little white buildings. There was a line you couldn’t believe to storm the accommodation ladder and swarm onto one of the little boats. We stood in line for hours.
The azure sea was battering the liberty boats against the massive slab-side of the carrier. It is the most excruciating of agonies to see freedom and to be prevented from reaching it.
Tempers, primarily mine, began to unravel. I saw a Commander cut in line ahead of our group and nearly laid him out. It was a clear case of ship fever. The gray walls. No smoking in the Liberty line.
Like Tantalus, we could see a small white boat come near the ship and then be waved away. I swore the whole operation was going to be scrubbed; it has happened. If the grim look on the Captain’s face was any indication of things to come, the news was going to be bad.
But no! At last a party managed to clamor onto a ship’s boat. We advanced onto the very approaches to the “Acom” ladder and in good time a small boat braved the swells and came near. It drew up to the ladder and a few frail-looking ropes snaked across.
The white cockleshell rose and fell about five feet with the waves. The Liberty Assistance Team in their orange kapok life-jackets began to hand the luggage across and one by one the party made the jump. I reached the bottom of the ladder and made my move.
It was timed flawlessly and I scarcely injured myself at all as I sprawled headlong onto the deck. It was the deck going ashore, though, so it was all right. I found a relatively sheltered spot and began to grin. It was a small one at first but it grew like Topsy. Soon I was a grinning idiot. Barring a collision at sea, I was practically assured of seeing Africa up close and personal.
I gave myself better than even odds of swimming to safety even in the direst of straits.
It took about fifteen minutes to overload the boat beyond legal tolerances. The gunwales were low and everyone was standing. It was a classic set-up for capsizing, but everyone was smiling. Catastrophe would have to look hard and long to find a more willing bunch than us, going ashore after a month at sea.
At last the skipper of the liberty boat waved his green golf cap and the lines were cast off.
We looked up the great gray walls covered with fist-sized rivets. The Officer of the Deck looked down on us in his whites, and the duty standers looked resentful. I imagined the other four thousand people still in line weren’t exactly thrilled either. But I was in the right place, and the devil with the hindmost.
We lurched out into the swells that showed whitecaps racing in across the reef. As we came across the trough the boat pitched and rolled ominously. Shoreward sat a large white oceanographic ship. “Hey, Vic, what Russian is that?” asked Robert-the-Fifth. We had Russians on the brain after our adventures in the Gulf of Aden.
“Robert, that is a classic example of the treachery of the Marxists. That Russian is flying the American Flag in a cunning attempt to befuddle our trusty sailors.” The ship appeared to be a survey vessel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the NOAA.
“Oh. That kind of Russian.” Robert didn’t even have the good graces to act embarrassed. You can see the kind of material we have to work with out here.
Once we got away from the Midway it began to look less like the side of a building and more like a ship of some kind.
About the same time we noticed a freighter outbound on our starboard quarter. “That fellow has us on collision bearing.” said Bronco. He was studying his ship-handling as a possible career move to enhance his chances for command later. He was looking at the white water around the freighter’s bow.
“No sweat” I said. “We have the right of way.”
Bronco looked over at me quizzically. “Well, maybe he’ll give way. But I think the law of Gross Tonnage applies here.” Our boat began to jog across the trough again- we heeled over at about a twenty-five degree list.
Things were interesting for a moment and the danger passed us astern by a good hundred yards. A mile ahead was the buoy that marked the channel into the harbor. To our right was the hulk of a freighter that didn’t make it. The waves broke between the huge chunk of her bows and the rest of her superstructure. On the green point of land that faced us were the remains of gray rock gun emplacements. They sat incongruously on a golf course. We wallowed to port and the intensity of the waves diminished as we passed inside the reef line. It no longer appeared that we were headed for imminent destruction.
I took off my sunglasses and attempted to wipe off the salt film. All I succeeded in doing was smearing the lenses. Ox was leaning over the rail and sniffing the air with the intensity of a hound on the track of a raccoon.
“Smell them flowers.’ It’s a goddamn hot house!” God, it is good to finally smell something besides the fucking jet fuel, hot oil, and unwashed humanity. It is a lot like musk perfume: it’s down-right erotic. Damn!”
We saw the radar arrays of one of our tin cans tied up at the pier inside the harbor proper. I don’t envy them at sea. While Ma Midway motors along in stately nonchalance the small boys are plunging and rolling. When they come alongside for underway replenishment, to take on fuel from our bunkers, you can see under their keels a quarter of the way back. But now I really lusted after their capability to drive right into port, throw over a few lines and drop the gangway.
We rounded the last little spit of land, covered with green vegetation and two huge signs reading “submarine cable.” We drove up to a floating dock and the lines went over. We had arrived. The only problem now was to survive the stampede off the liberty boat. The landing was right next to a ferry stop. A nice four-lane road dropped down from the bluff and into the harbor. Dozens of peddlers were hanging around selling masks, spears, and carved animals. Spears?
The reality was having a hard time penetrating. Still too close to the flight deck. Ed B was playing his usual roll as Beach Guard honcho, and with customary aplomb he directed us to a waiting VW microbus, the preferred method of transportation in the Third World. We stacked ten people inside and pressed our noses up against the glass.
Once out of the fleet landing area the crowds got thicker as the people could smell, American dollars coming. We sniffed the entrancing odor of burning clutch as our driver hung on the tail of a recalcitrant cement truck. Claustrophobia began to rise as the fumes penetrated the passenger compartment. When it finally seemed to be too much, the truck lurched forward and we popped up over the hill.
Welcome to Kenyan traffic.
We passed the mixer in a display of motorized élan, and roared with air-cooled power through the main drag of Mombasa.
The buildings were two-story. They featured long covered porches to protect from the heat, and needed paint.
Most seemed to date from the thirties. It seemed overgrown and colonial. It was great. Things reminded me a little of Southeast Asia; the verdant growth always a step ahead of things, but no one caring a great deal. The grass always grows back, doesn’t it? The driver pulled back on the stick and we did a few barrel rolls through the rotaries. More joie du vivre than similar structures in New Jersey.
We hit the built up section of town and dropped off a passenger. People walked under the long verandas, small shops were open to the air. Most of the signs were in English, but a Muslim influence was clear. Bright printed skirts and black veils on the women. A lot of Pakistanis, turbans, and big new Mercedes,
Like Thailand. The cars don’t go with the scenery. The quaint old buildings jar with a new 450SL parked outside. Which is not to say that everyone owned one; but of the percentage of cars actually on the street favored the big ticket.
After we dropped our rider, we engaged in another duel with the cement truck and came up victorious, luckily so. In a mile or so we came to the Nyalli Bridge, the one-time pride and current abomination of Mombasa. In structure the thing resembled one of the old bridges in West Virginia; silver painted steel girders and end-to-end plank paving. Here they had to build with the tide in mind, so the center span rose and fell in the ceaseless rhythm of the ocean. Which lead to an interesting situation. The buses had grown but the bridge hadn’t.
The metal luggage racks wouldn’t fit four times a day. I had been wondering why the urban behemoths all had a squashed look to them. No sweat. The “carry on” spirit of the Kenyans was amazing. Our driver handed a few shillings to the toll collector and off we rolled. When someone breaks down things are thrown utterly into confusion.
This crossing passed without event. Once on the other side of the estuary we really flew. The horn is as vital a piece of driving gear as it is in Korea. The pedestrians don’t flinch as some madman screams by at about a hundred clicks, honking madly.
We passed out of the developed area in a hurry and came into a district of fine new homes. We screamed past Jomo Kenyatta boulevard and broke hard into a ninety degree bend. Four-wheel drift all the way, a near side swipe, and over the palm trees we saw the signs advertising the Nyalli Beach Hotel. A last jog into the Hotel grounds and we came to the guard shack and a long cross bar across the access. The bored guard hoisted it up and we passed on the fly.
We arrived in state under the white portico. Bellhops waited eagerly for our luggage, but we were traveling light. I had my Foreign Correspondent’s suit, one pair of socks, cut-offs, and a tee-shirt. I was ready for action, danger and/or excitement. But above all I was ready for a drink.
“Well, er, ah, not exactly. Do you have a double?”
“I’m sorry. Sir. We have no rooms tonight.”
One becomes accustomed to the vagaries of traveling with 4300 intimate friends. I arraigned to occupy the softest part of Bronco’s floor and surrendered myself to the Oblivion Express.
Well, cold beers were first. Tusker Lagers in green bottles. Tusker Ale in brown bottles. Served with chicken broiled on kabob hanging from a hook over a black carved plate with rice and salad. The food was fabulous, but the alcohol was supreme. I shifted to gin and tonics at the pool. It was a swell set up.
The pool was Olympic, the sun was tropical, the palms danced above us in the monsoon wind. Over the wall was a lawn with white lounge chairs scattered around. Several had bronzed European women in bikinis sprawled on them.
The scenery was outstanding. One particular lady (Spanish, by consensus) was obviously part of a conspiracy to drive the air wing mad. She wore a black John Player string bikini, high heels that pulled her delicious buns up tight, and mysterious sunglasses.
Behind her, if one was able to break visual lock, was a brilliant white sand beach, blue water and that hulk of a freighter on the reef. Picturesque? Shit! We couldn’t imagine paying the bucks to have that ship driven up and scuttled in just the right position so it was perfectly framed by the palms. Quite the hotel. A little path ran from the pool down through the thicket of lounge chairs to the beachfront restaurant. It was open to the breeze, dark and elegant.
Well laid out.
(Natya-class MSF. Photo Socotra)
It even had Marxists.
We were strolling down to the beach when we saw a party of stocky individuals drinking beer and soaking up rays. I was wearing my cut-offs and an industrial strength bhat chain from Thailand. I felt instant lockup from the Russian eyes. One of them raised his glass and used what might have been his only English, “Cheers!” he said.
“How ya doin'” I responded and tipped my beer to them. Real intercultural communication. I had to wonder what their rank was; it was evident that it they were the masters or the political officers from the intelligence collection ships in the harbor that had been following us around. It certainly wasn’t the happy crew of one of one of the ships.
Not so with our egalitarian system. I found out later that one of our third class petty officers bumped the Air Wing Commander out of his room reservation because the CAG was late getting off the ship.
The joys of democracy. Freedom, even in the military, is a more valuable commodity than you would think. When the Russkies pull into port the enlisted guys get to go ashore with a political officer. No vodka or pussy for the trusty Comrades, It would be enough to drive an American bonkers. When we are ashore the sky is virtually the limit.
And thank God. When we hit the beach I began to realize why the hotel had guards at the gate. They had them on the Hotel beach, too. From the prices you pay for everything it is hard to believe that the annual income is a couple hundred dollars. The tourist is fully insulated from the reality. We strolled out of the private area and within minutes we were surrounded by some enterprising vendors.
They had the same curios as every other place in the country. At astonishing markups. The only difference that was evident from the Fleet Landing was the fact that these guys were also selling reefer. Ah, the sweet romance of south equatorial Africa!
We returned to the safe enclave of the pool and watched the Spanish lady walk around. Best show in over a month. Frank was looking at the elephant he had bought. I was looking at the four gin and tonics I bought.
Finally the lady slipped on a black robe and the show was over. We adjourned to the balcony of Bronco’s room and watched a spectacular sunset. The only thing unusual about it was that the sun was sinking at our backs.
Bronco marveled at it, because as a Californian it was 180-degrees out of phase. I explained to him about the “Green Berets” scene that had John Wayne walking down the beach in Vietnam with the sun sinking in the West. All depends on how you look at things.
This evening the clouds turned pink, the wreck lit up, the sky was blue, and a full moon was hanging over the whole event. The clouds were swirled by the wind into fantastic shapes. When it got dark it was time to don my suit, have more cocktails, and head down to the beach for dinner. The breeze was cool and the sound of the rustling palms was not at all like the sound of catapults or arresting gear. It was great.
When we dined it was very drunk out. The surf roared and the breeze blew briskly through the open windows next to our table. We watched the crabs who had taken charge of the beach in the absence of the guests. We were warned not to stray from the lighted areas after dark. It was just one of several things that tugged slightly at the back of your mind to make you realize that you were in a land where the Mau-Mau might include the distinguished headwaiter, or the taxi driver, or virtually anyone you met.
No one talks about it very much. Uhuru is great, but that bloody slice of history when the colonial age died in East Africa has been neatly excised, at least for tourist consumption.
Much has changed since the old days.
No hunting is allowed anymore.
I had naively assumed I could get a skin of some kind, perhaps a nice zebra for the wall back home, but it was not to be. Perhaps a good thing. I have always felt that most animals were happier on the hoof. Spears and a nice shield, though, were a possibility until the ship’s XO banned them. I suppose he didn’t want the crew bringing on a few thousand lethal weapons. In light of the bad news that was spreading like wildfire it was probably a good thing for all those concerned. All the cocktails were good with dinner, as were both varieties of the house wines.
The crabs were a real show. We chased them for a while after dinner and were not attacked by guerillas, of either kind.
Tomorrow: “A Little Traveling Music.”
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
(The Carnival Cruise Ship Magic, denied access to Belize. They say a cruise is a great way to get your mind off a crisis.)
You know why I have been plunging into the past. It is easy. There is no uncertainty back there, nothing to be afraid of. Plus, I know we all lived through it, except for the ones who didn’t. We have had time to get used to it.
What I have not had time to get used to is the muddled response to a disease that is spreading rapidly in West Africa, and which is now here in America. Ebola infection currently has a fatality rate of around 70%.
So sorry, I have been keeping my mouth shut but this is something on which I have direct personal experience and I am dumbfounded by what the government is doing about it.
Spending time with an assortment of Cabinet Secretaries in the days after 9/11, I had several sessions with then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson. He was a pretty cool guy who rode Harleys and enjoyed life. Part of our discussions were naturally about the sorts of biological threats we might be facing from al Qaida.
I was frustrated with the way the Rumsfeld Defense Department was handling the messaging about our conflict with the militant Islamists, and decided to send in my letter requesting to retire. At that moment, Tommy asked me to come over for my last few months on active duty and help set up an interface between him, his Assistant Secretary for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and the Intelligence Community.
I had close personal experience with The Station Nightclub Fire that killed 100 and tied up most of the hospital ventilators in the Northeastern U.S. I realized for the first time that even one relatively small disaster (smoke inhalation affected many more attendees at the concert) could literally stress the health care system to the breaking point.
At the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, we coordinated response to the deadly SARS epidemic and the response to the Anthrax mail attacks, and the disturbing but unheralded Monkey Pox outbreak in the Midwest. I do not claim to any particular epidemiological expertise, but did work closely with some of the best in the field. I have great respect for them. We worked hand-in-glove with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), then headed by Dr. Julie Gerberding, not to mention the Canadian and Chinese Governments and the World Health organization.
So, I understand the players, the roles and responsibilities, and contributed to the concept that formalized the legislative transformation of our Office the next year into what is now the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, with an annual budget of nearly a billion dollars to pass out in grants.
If you have heard anything from that office lately, please let me know. Ditto the Secretary of Health and Human Services, for whom CDC works. I assume this has something to do with the intensely centralized decision-making process of the Administration, coupled with the desire to keep HHS low-profile after the departure of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Have you have heard anything at all from current Secretary Burwell?
This morning was the moment I said “enough.”
Revelations are that a lab worker who tested U.S Ebola Patient Zero Thomas Eric Duncan’s bodily fluids went on a Carnival Cruise aboard the good ship Magic. The ship was denied entry in Belize. This comes on the heels of the news that the CDC permitted Nurse #2 to fly on commercial jets with a fever.
More troubling news this morning is that Nurse #2 may have had symptoms sooner than originally believed, and Frontier airlines is notifying up to 800 passengers linked to flights she took between Dallas and Cleveland may have been eposes Not to mention the people who sat in the seats in which she sat afterwards, before the planes were decontaminated.
So let me get this straight: Belize is taking action. We are not. We are concerned more about the economic impact of travel restrictions on Liberians than the health of the American people? We are allowing people with direct contact with the bodily fluids of Ebola patients to go on cruises and commercial transportation?
There is something really, really wrong here.
We are still dithering on travel bans. There is talk of establishing a “Czar” to deal with the situation- six months after the first cases were reported in Guinea.
Oh, wait. We have a Czar already. Maybe some people should start doing their jobs. Maybe we should get proactive on this deadly thing. Maybe take a lesson from world leaders like Belize.
Sorry- we can go back to Africa in a more fun way tomorrow.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
“Vic . . . I remember that night well. I was in the aft wardroom for a mid-rats slider. Don’t remember if I had been waving the last recovery. Perhaps. While sitting there we noticed that peculiar vibration from the out-of-balance screw/shaft that showed up when there were a lot of turns on. Hmmm . . . “WTF, let’s go up on the roof.”
On the flight deck, the first thing we noticed was the wind over the deck. Hmm . . . Lot of wind. Let’s check the wake. Wow, we are really hauling ass. Reprise WTF, “Let go to Intel and talk to the spooks,” which is where my story aligns with your’s. I remember the excitement and then the let down as we slowed, made a gentle port turn, and headed for Mombasa. “Shit,” I thought “maybe I won’t make it back to the States for Christmas.” How prophetic.”
Africa was exactly five days away. It was very nice to have a schedule. We had not had one since the crisis began in Iran much earlier that year. Between the emergency Yemen deployment in the Spring and the goddam Boat People, we never really knew where, when, or how long we were going anywhere, I had the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t going to be any different, and without a quick fix, this thing was going to fuck up my chances for going to Singapore.
But on the other hand, I might get to be at a point where the Balloon Goes Up. Never can underestimate the power that shit has. So we went through the motions of our exercises for the next couple of days as we moved west across the southern Indian Ocean.
(Ma’s Midway’s go-fast jets: VMFP-3, VF-151 Switchbox and VF-161 Rock River F-4 Phantom IIs on the flight deck).
We had a Passing Exercise (“PASSEX”) with the Kenyans before we pulled in. That is one of the tools we use to cement solid relations with our international associates throughout the military; give the developing powers a chance to perform against the Air Power of a Carrier. This one was almost done in our sleep. They sortied a couple patrol boats (the only ones they had in an Up Status that week) and we sorta worked them into the daily Air Plan. No big deal; we have to do that stuff anyway. At length, by the morning of the 8th found us outside the Mombasa Reef.
They set the special sea and anchor detail and after a while the pins got knocked out of the links and the giant chain snaked and crashed across the foc’sle deck and I woke up.
We were in Africa again (yawn) and I made preparations to go ashore. Last time we had treated this as high adventure- Kenyan rail to Nairobi on the Night Train, thirteen hours and the sight of Kilimanjaro shimmering under a silver moon to the south. The Message Tree at the New Stanley Hotel- the works.
Not this time. I was restless and considering the matter that we might be steaming to war when we pulled out. I packed a suit, as I had received an invitation to the Marine Ball that evening to commemorate the 204th Birthday of the Corps.
Actually, all I wanted to do was get smashed. I don’t believe in premonitions, but all the same, there was a definite dreamlike quality to this port visit. I am not sure why. Maybe Africa just affects me that way. The stark poverty and the eyes that look at you with a certain need. Still, it is a very beautiful place, and although expensive, it can provide a few good times for the discerning traveler,
Boating was not bad, for a change. They called the boats away as they were ready, and for once I wasn’t in a Liberty line for eight hours. Officers and Chiefs went first, of course, and we were in the motor whaleboat in twenty minutes. It was thoroughly uneventful. The sun was blazing and we pulled up at the Kenyan Navy Base after about forty minutes.
It was spooky. The base looked like it had been a typically squared-away Brit Colonial place about fifteen years before. Now, it looked overgrown and seedy. We got searched at the gate by some unsmiling tribal police. The inspection was a first in all my travels in Asia. The only other place in the world anyone had ever looked into my baggage was in the United States, which has done it to me every time.
We commandeered the airwing commander’s- the CAG- car, on the assumption that he wasn’t going to be off the ship until the afternoon and wouldn’t miss it. I was ensconced at the poolside bar of the Mombasa Beach Hotel by noon.
Very satisfactory logistics. I was drunk by two-thirty, and remained that way until the morning before the day we pulled out. It seemed like the only sensible thing to do. Shopped with the shillings I won at the Casino, bought some bullshit tribal brass pieces (a bracelet and curious little case with a neck strap I was told once held identity papers for local tribesmen during the Mau-Mau times, and was back in my rack on the ship eighteen hours before liberty expired.
In keeping with the novelty of being back aboard early, I was back sober. Consequently, I slept well and felt fine the morning we sailed. It was high comedy on the 08-level, watching the boatswain’s mates attempt to get the ship’s boats back on board with the big crane down for the count. We had hoisted restricted maneuverability (black diamond-ball-diamond) and drifted nearly a mile down the reef past the exclusive beach front hotels, At length, and only a few hours late, we forged on and left Africa behind.
Reading the message traffic that morning was only depressing. The schedule had us going up into the northern Arabian Sea for Exercise Beacon Compass with the Brits. This was the weak follow-on to the old MIDLINK exercise that had featured the Iranians and nations from all the relevant Cento countries. We now had no playmates except the Brits, and frankly, no one had their minds on it. The complicated LOI had a couple different scenarios, utilizing the carrier on one side, it’s own Fighter assets on the other, and the fleets shifting back and forth. No one really paid much attention to it; which is not at all to say that ‘much valuable training’ was not achieved, but rather that the Flag did not have his nose out of joint about each period and dot on the outgoing messages.
The exercise provided us with a cover for our presence in the Arabian Sea. The administration could, quite correctly, assert that it was all very routine operations. The sealed briefcases and mystery people coming aboard were quite beside the point. The first time I bumped into an Air Force Colonel in the planning spaces I knew that things were not business as usual. Meantime the news was getting worse. We briefed everything we could get from the podium during the cyclical briefs. Still, virtually everything seemed to get worse each day.
Very odd. Two of our Battle Group units called at Karachi, Pakistan, and their presence sparked a huge controversy in a native language paper, which claimed they were going straight to the gun-line off Iran.
It was part of something that I have not yet resolved in my own mind: is this all being orchestrated by some sinister force, or is the great unwashed mass of Islam just rising again? I suspect that it is more than a bit of both.
Subsequent events seemed to bear this out. Hell, I had no idea I would be dealing with this crap the rest of my freaking life.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Seventy Days (on Gonzo Station)
IN THE GULF OF OMAN
Reader’s Note: Second Case of Ebola among the health workers who treated Mr. Duncan. I choose to escape into the past for a few days.
NOV 79- FEB 80
04 November 1979
I was going to go to chow an eon ago. It was another of the series of grey identical days that make up any deployment, but particularly any Indian Ocean Deployment.
We were still sorting out the legacy of the visit to Perth; who did what to whom, why they did it, and how we would throw It All In for a good piece of land and a good piece of Australian Ass. Hangovers were lingering, and this was after the transit over to Diego Garcia. We had been paying the night-time dues to the God of Night Landings.
That Deity had been good, though, providing the Airwing with a fat Commander’s Moon and a decent horizon. We were starting to get everyone night qualified again, and Africa was looming up on the schedule less than a week away. So we were in that schedule interstice between beaches, heading for the warm beaches of Mombasa as the brilliant Australian sun faded into legend in the wake behind us.
I don’t remember what chow was that night. It would have been one of the ten standard menus: some sort of meat and over-cooked vegetables, relieved only by the prospect of lettuce barely wilted. “Grits” Wheatley came up behind me as I was descending the Officer’s Ladder back by the E-2 Hawkeye AEW turboprop that was going into corrosion control work way back aft in the Hangar Bay. He said:
“Have you heard, Vic? They took the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”
“Who did? Where did you hear that?”
“Some bunch of Ragheads. They took hostages, I guess. I heard it from Jim back in MSI.”
“Wonder if we are going to do something?”
“Dunno.” An aircraft snagged an OK-2 wire on the flight deck above our heads and the hangar bay echoed with the crash of the arresting grew rolling out and about fifty thousand pounds of jet tugging on it. I walked down the ladder, careful not to touch my knees to the assimilated grime on the treads. You gotta make these uniforms last more than a couple days, you know?
Chow was the usual. Some kind of meat, some kind of semi-cooked potatoes, and the lettuce wasn’t too gamey yet. Which is to say that you could avoid the black spots without making a public spectacle of yourself. The aft wardroom was full of the familiar crowd of dirty-shirts in flight suits and engineering coveralls, and a few khaki-clad fugitives from the Big People’s Mess up forward where you have to be attired in the full uniform of the day. I like eating with my airwing buddies, particularly when there is good gossip to pass out.
Midway’s two long dining tables are ideal for shouting and carrying on. The topic of this one was not hard to discern. Mostly it dealt with the possibility of getting Silver Stars, which are awarded to aviation types for flaming a MiG. Or, in this case, maybe the pride of the Grumman Irons Works, the F-14.
I had the feeling that things were going to go to high PRF for the evening, so I took my time over dinner, luxuriating in being the official Air Wing Gossip. I grabbed a cup of coffee and fed a couple quarters into the Space Invaders machine in the Officer’s lounge. The damned machines are amazing. They are arcade games that have made the S-5 Division (Wardroom Supply over $20,000 bucks since they were installed back in Yokosuka. Not much else to do out on the Bounding Main. Soon enough I had wasted all my quarters, and there was no hope for it but to go back to work.
I wandered back up the hangar bay and climbed the ladder to the 02-level where most of my two years on the grey lady have been spent. I cruised in through the camouflage painted door and saw Bedlam. The ship had received a call from 7th Fleet, Flag Privacy Channel, and about two minutes after we recovered the last airplane on the launch cycle we were northbound for the Persian Gulf.
As a direct reaction to that move there were more Commanders standing around than you could normally beat out of their racks with a stick. Apprehensive looking J.O.s were hanging around asking questions. The foremost dealt with the words AAA and Sam. I didn’t have any more than the superficial answers and felt inadequate, since I have learned my job well. Unfortunately, my Job has been all peacetime exercises and flight ops, none of which have much application to blowing the shit out of somebody else’s homes, ships and, airplanes.
It got so bad that they had to block off the front half of the room so the Marine enlisted kids and Frank Oxsen could work on plotting the Order of Battle for Iran. I soaked up what I could and got the Word back to Skipper Hughes. Never hurts to keep the Old Man informed. I grabbed Mr. Sluggo, the XO for this Indian Ocean deployment. He was normally the Maintenance Officer, but we were not supposed to be here and the pipeline for the real XO was such that he would not arrive for a couple months.
I like Mr. Sluggo a lot, and tried to keep him as far ahead of the situation as is possible from my humble position.
It also makes me feel important to grab the Heavies and drag them over to the corner and whisper the few facts to which I can get access, so shoot me. Unfortunately, the movie started and I watched a reel or two of Pretty Baby to see Brook Shield’s pre-pubescent tits before I went back to Mission Planning to see what had come in over the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. I was trying to get Main Comm to pipe us All-India Radio as an alternative to AFRTS, but not making much progress. People thought the Indian media was kind of strange, like the News from Mars.
Reports were starting to filter in, and the situation looked grim. The Embassy had definitely fallen, the staff there was definitely being held hostage, and the Planning Spaces were definitely deserted, because we got another phone call that declared in no uncertain terms that we were going to go on to Africa as planned and the folks back in Washington would work on the problem and get back to us, thank you very much.
I was somewhat crestfallen that all the excitement was over, and that the great United States was going to pussy out again, like with the Pueblo and the EC-121 and the tree-chopping incident all the other ones. I so reported to the heavyweights and the situation went back to normal. We returned to a westerly heading for Mombasa, I watched the end of the movie, and eventually everyone went to the rack.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
I was at Willow yesterday at Happy Hour time- big surprise- but I have an excuse. There was actual business to accomplish.
Old Jim and I have entered into an agreement in which he will review the 1100 pages of the manuscript I printed out a couple months ago that comprise the articles that make up the book about our pal Mac Showers.
It is time to get on with that, and I trust Jim’s literary sensibilities. He asked me what I thought the book was about, and I said I wasn’t quite sure- but it was about all of us, with Mac as a sort of moral compass in our collective life and times.
“You have too much Willow in it,” he growled, taking a sip of Bud from the brown long-neck on the bar in front of him. Jon-without sauntered in a few minutes later, looking cool and elegant as always. He slid onto the stool next to me.
“Happy Indigenous People’s Day,” he dead-panned.
“No shit,” I said. “Go Native Americans!”
He gave me his slightly lop-sided smile. “Who comes up with this lunacy? I mean, what was wrong with Columbus?”
“Well, the good people of Seattle elected a city council that thinks we should celebrate the advanced local cultures that were destroyed by the arrival of the Europeans.”
“Why did it have to be Columbus Day? Wasn’t that holiday the result of long hard work by the Italian-American community to celebrate their contribution to the American Dream? Weren’t they discriminated against?”
“The people in Seattle and Berkeley have moved on to higher things,” I said. “I mean, I take their point. We may not have been as bad as the Conquistadors in how we treated the locals but it was an ugly process. I remember the first time I flew into Santo Domingo, where they have the bones of Great Navigator. The Faro a Colon- the giant Columbus Lighthouse- was built by Dominican Republic to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the landing. They thought it was going to be a huge tourist attraction but it didn’t work out that way. The popular view is that the Europeans should have landed in China, where they intended.”
“That would have solved a lot of problems. But the whole thing is as insulting and ridiculous as the Purple Penguin thing,” said Jon, raising his vodka and lime.
Jim knitted his brow. “What the hell is that? Last Penguin I remember was Burgess Meredith on the TV Batman show.”
“It is more progress, Jim, said Jon, straightening his impeccably knotted bow tie. A public school district in Nebraska has told its teachers to refer to all children as “purple penguins” in place of gender specific adjectives.”
“Boys and girls.”
“Is that a relative concept now, male and female?”
“Well, some of the penguins might want to be other animals, and their wishes have to be respected.”
“Why? They are kids, for Christ’s sake. They are supposed to be taught some useful things and we are wasting our time on that? It’s as crazy as the controversy over the name of the Washington professional football team.”
“People have to be riled up about something,” I said, looking at the diminishing level of Happy Hour white in my glass. “They need to keep us distracted on crap that means nothing. I mean, this is much more important than barbarous jihadis beheading their was across Iraq, or a couple out-of-control plagues they can’t seem to get their arms around or anything of the other lunacy that is going on.”
Jim made an accurate demographic suggestion as to what they might call the Washington Football Team which was much more offensive than polite society is able to tolerate any more.
Jon reached into the pocket of his well-cut suit jacket and produced his smart phone. “I saw some suggestions for the new logo,” he said. “Some of them are pretty good.” He scrolled though his picture gallery and held the phone up so Jim and I could see the images. This first one isn’t accurate, but at least it only offends White Men, who don’t matter:”
“He looks sort of noble.” I said. “I could get behind that one- celebrate our Caucasian heritage.”
Jon swiped his finger across the screen and held up the phone to show us another:
“With this one they can keep some of the tradition and honor the folks downstate.”
“I think there could be a lot of support for that one.”
“Or one that reflects some of the important diversity demographics of the Capital:”
“That one I like. Celebrate diversity!”
Jon drew his finger across the screen again. “But the only one that actually makes sense is this one,” he said. “It reflects the quality of the team, their commitment to excellence and goes well lightly salted and with butter.”
“Perfect,” said Jim.
“Well I’ll be a Purple Penguin,” I said, and drained the glass of wine. Then I wagged a finger at Jasper for more. “At least you can do something useful with potatoes.”
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra
Riding With JEB
(The whole campaign, Fredericksburg to Gettysburg. Lee spent the winter of 1863 in Culpeper, to the lower left, with J.E.B. Stuart occupying Fleetwood Hill at Brandy Station to screen the main force of the Army of Northern Virginia from the predations of Union cavalry).
I made it through the weekend- it was an aggressive one- starting at the farm and then off to Maryland, remembering to remove the firearms from the vehicle in preparation. I was headed for a soiree in Westminster, in Carroll County. It was in the line of a wedding reception, a little delayed, being thrown by old friends in honor or their daughter, who met her new husband (an independence-minded Scot) while on deployment in Afghanistan.
That is the sort of world we live in now. “Oh, I met him in the chow hall in Bagram Air Base” is just as natural a place to meet a future mate as a campus mixer.
We were trying to figure out exactly how many wars we had been in since we met with a lady who had been on the Joint Staff. We stopped at six or seven- none of them but one officially declared. Wait, was DESERT STORM a war or a massive UN peacekeeping operation?
Never mind. I had started the day with a stirring sight: the “Potomac Flight” of 28 AT-6/SNJ WWII war birds finally came off. I stopped to watch them return from their ceremonial formation flight up the Potomac and over the Pentagon and Arlington National cemetery. I missed the B-25 Mitchell bomber- my chance to buy a ride in one of the aircraft Jimmy Doolittle took for a 30-second ride over Tokyo was washed out- and the P-51 Mustang was among the missing. But I caught all the Texans in the landing pattern.
Really cool. The roar of the radial engines over T. I. Martin Field was inspirational- and the precision of the aviators was impressive as they transitioned from their diamond formation and into “the break” for an evenly spaced landing was crisp. I gave them a salute and slid back into the driver’s seat of the Panzer for the next step in the trip.
The field is hard by Brandy Station, and the Garmin GPS on the dashboard was not cooperating. It kept telling me to drive to I-66 and take the freeway up to Westminster. I was having none of it. If I was going to be starting from Brandy Station, I thought I should follow the line of march that J.E.B. Stuart took on the way to Gettysburg, and see the land as they saw it long ago.
Stuart’s cavalry were supposed to screen the main body of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on his invasion of Maryland, heading for Pennsylvania. The sprawl of Washington was evident as I swung north on Rt 15 at Warrenton, where ‘Little Mac’ McClellan was relieved by Mr. Lincoln for timidity, but the hills abide and the foliage and dry corn standing in the fields was so pretty it hurt.
I crossed the Potomac at Point of Rocks, marveling that the lovely rolling mountains are exactly the same as what the troopers saw 151 years ago.
I was late for the reception, but that was all right. I was perfectly calibrated for the delightful sun and a vista that included the Catoctin Mountain Park and Camp David. We swapped several lies and caught up with old friends and met new ones over delightful fried chicken and chili and ziti and slaw and cornbread.
Sipping white wine on ice under the white tents, my pal told me about the events of June and July, 1863. Meade’s Union Headquarters was right here,” he said, pointing at the poster board he made of points of interest in his retirement town. “And it was part of J.E.B.’s wild ride. The house is adjacent to the land where Captain Charles Corbit and his1st and 2nd Delaware Cavalry rode into history.”
Over more of that fabulous chicken, he elaborated. “The Union horsemen had arrived in Westminster the night of the 28th of June. They were bivouacked here, and some of the men were having their horses re-shod at a farrier south of town and were dismounted. They were caught flat-footed by the arrival of the Beau Sabreur’s force.
Captain Corbit rallied the troops who still had their mounts and led them on a wild cavalry charge down Main Street towards the Rebels, meeting them at the intersection with Washington Road, virtually in the front yard of the house.
The Federals were quickly defeated by Stuart’s horsemen- despite the clear improvement of Union cavalry, the Delaware boys were no match for the Rebels. Captain Corbit, along with the other company commander, Lieutenant Caleb Churchman, were captured along with more than half of the other Union troopers. The encounter resulted in two KIA and eleven wounded for the Union.
Two Confederate officers were killed and ten more troopers were wounded. One of the Confederate officers, Lt. John William Murray, Co. E, 4th Virginia cavalry, is buried in the graveyard of Ascension Episcopal Church, an imposing stone structure less than a mile from my pal’s front door.
The battle prompted Stuart’s cavalry to stay the night in Westminster, delaying his arrival at Gettysburg and depriving Gen. Lee of important intelligence about Union troop movements, as 100,000 soldiers flooded out of Washington in a desperate dash to bring Lee’s force to heel.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I took the easy way home, on the freeways. They did not.
Copyright 2014 Vic Socotra