A Long Day At Work

Fair warning. This post will be a tough read for some. It does not have a happy ending, and illustrates one of the many unpleasant experiences of a work day in Baghdad 2004.

We had been lucky…again. My team had missed its third IED by seconds. The checkpoint we had just driven through exploded. We were the first team through, and the lucky ones. The team directly behind us had their luck run out.

Thirty minutes prior to all hell breaking loose in the checkpoint we had been to yet another meeting at the Ministry of Oil. A large, mostly intact, building that housed all the oil honchos in Iraq. It’s main entrance was next to a highway overpass. I had always thought that if we were going to get hit it would be at that entrance. Waiting to be let in left us vulnerable to pretty much anything from the highway above.

Once inside the compound we had large walls that gave us the illusion of safety. The stark reality was that no place was safe for us, and we behaved accordingly. Despite being in a “secure” compound we set security for the vehicles. So while the team leader and 4 shooters took the client into the building, I stayed behind with my Kurdish coworkers and watched the vehicles.

We parked in a secluded corner of the lot, and set up a loose perimeter. We made it very clear to potential observers that were anyone to approach the cars they would pay dearly. As harsh as it sounds the only people that mattered were my teammates, and our protectee. Everyone else was a bad guy. That’s the mentality required when keeping someone safe in a combat zone.

We had probably been to this venue six or seven times, and each time was a different experience. On this particular day we enjoyed quiet. No mortars, no rockets, and no gunfire. We all laughed and speculated that the reason for the quiet was that the bad guys didn’t want to hit their friends working inside.

There were two other teams there that day. They made their drops, parked their vehicles, and went inside. They didn’t leave security with their cars. After baking in the sun for two hours, the radio squawked and our team leader informed us they were coming out. Our curbside pickup went flawlessly, as did the pickups for the other teams. We all left the compound together.

The ride back to the green zone was uneventful. By the summer of 2004 the Iraqis were used to seeing security teams, and gave us a wide berth. Nonetheless we rolled windows down,rifles out, safety off. The message was very clear. Approach us at your peril. Nobody approached us that day. It turned out there were easier targets to hit.

I dont remember the nationality of the team that came up behind us. I do remember their Nissan Pajero guntrucks, and their armored land cruiser. They had their windows rolled up, and rifles in…low profile.

Checkpoints into the green zone were the most dangerous part of any excursion. It doesn’t take a whole lot of smarts to figure out that the best place to kill Americans is at the entrance/exit of where we were living. Much to the chagrin of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps guys manning the outer portion of the checkpoint, we blew right by. We didn’t stop for anyone but American Soldiers. The ICDC guys made a fuss but none of us cared…fuck ‘em. The American soldiers waved us right through. They knew we were targets, and nobody likes standing next to a target.

The shockwave hit us about six hundred yards past the checkpoint. The bomb must have been enormous. I’m not sure how many people it killed but it was a lot. The team behind us died. All of them. Several Iraqis waiting in line for work inside the green zone were also killed.

Apparently the bomb was attached to one of the guntrucks of the team coming up behind us. They had not secured their vehicles, and it cost them their lives. As we drove back to the palace in the relative safety of the greenzone, I watched the cloud of black smoke billowing into the blue sky and remembered the advice I received from my friend Geno. He told me “never let your guard down, walk softly, carry a big stick, and use it”. My resolve was strengthened by those words.

I had just witnessed complacency kill a lot of people, and I resolved to not become a casualty of complacency. Twenty minutes after the checkpoint exploded found me with my team in the chow hall eating mango ice cream, gearing up to go out on another run…

Cuts,Stitches, and Other Fun Saturday Activities…

We have really sharp knives in our kitchen. We received a really nice set of knives a couple of years ago, and we treat them like holy relics. They never see the inside of the dishwasher, they are always sharpened before use, and they are hand washed. That should read they were always hand washed. Hand washing ceased on Saturday when I was startled out of a nap by a very loud “OUCH” coming from a suddenly pale Jamers in the kitchen. She had that look on her face…the look that you get when you see your own blood.

Not wanting to exacerbate the issue by losing my mind, I held it together as I calmly walked towards the kitchen. I caught a quick glimpse of a pretty nasty cut as Jamie walked past me to the spare bathroom. I knew a hospital visit was coming, and I said as much. By virtue of being a scientist, Jamie analyzes everything completely. Where I see cut+blood=emergency room (or reasonably sober friend with sutures in his med kit),Jamie looks at it from all angles. She emerged from 5 minutes of cleaning/stopping the copious blood flow from her finger, and gave the go for a hospital run. The iphone is a wonderful thing for finding the closest medical facility.

The intake person didn’t look at me once while she asked Jamie questions. She didn’t glance in my direction until she uttered the words “Now we have to do an accident report”. While uttering those words she locked her gaze with mine, as if to say “I know what you did”. Jamie laughed as she recounted her tale, but this woman stared at me with her all-seeing scary hospital person eyes. At least that’s how it felt to me. I would have stuttered had I opened my mouth in my defense. I am sure she hears all the excuses from folks who actually do beat up their spouses. I had nothing, my head hung in shame.

The triage nurse greeted us with a loud “OK what stupid thing did you do?”. I momentarily forgot the interrogator behind the reception desk, and cracked a smile. I was about to join in the laughing,when I was brought back to reality by a quick glance toward the receptionist. She had that “you better not smile Mr. spouse beater” look on her face. I averted my eyes and concentrated hard on the floor. I followed Jamie into triage without smiling.

The deck was stacked against us. One of us had on a t-shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of a stripper on a pole proclaiming “I Support Single Moms”. One of us had a beer with lunch (2 hours prior), and we are not married. The only thing missing was a mullet, and there would have been an episode of COPS right there in triage. I feel that my unfortunate fondness for mildly offensive shirts is a sufficient substitute for the fabled dirty white tank top with or without a mustard stain. I bet we were the walking incarnation of “where there is smoke there is fire” to that receptionist.

Bill, Jamie’s nurse was like watching a stand up routine. He prepped everything for the doc, and kept us both laughing while he did it. I have to admit the doctor was tough for me to watch. He took an ENORMOUS needle and stabbed Jamie’s finger repeatedly, without mercy. He held the syringe overhand like a prison shank…it was terrible. Had Jamie been watching him, I am sure she would have said something. He stabbed like a novice knife fighter. 6 stitches, and two hours after arriving we were walking back out in the oppressive heat towards the car laughing. Jamie makes me wash knives now. I’ll do a good job…or else!

3,2,1…CYA! My First BASE Jump

“Dude you got this…this bridge is like 75ft higher than your first cutaway…”-Skoodler

Those were the words that ended my internal debate as I took the BASE rig from my friend Barry’s hand. Never mind that I didn’t come to jump. I was only here to watch. Shaking hands made it hard to tie my boots as the enormity of what I was about to do started to settle in.

Bridge Day 2000. Shortly after watching a guy in a chicken suit spin into the trees, I found myself donning a borrowed rig and my friend Tres helmet.  I didn’t know squat about BASE jumping,but that wasn’t going to stop me. “Just remember to arch, and throw this when you’re scared” was Barry’s entire first jump course. The “this” that he was referring to was the pilot chute now held firmly in my right hand. Barry’s simple instructions were easy to remember. A two-step process that I could not possibly screw up. I was number 7 in line…I had the sudden realization that survival was not a forgone conclusion, and I got scared.

There is nothing natural about jumping off of a bridge for the first time. Truth be told, despite  the fact that I was indeed 75ft higher than my first cutaway (8 months prior), I was terrified. I was 60/40 on whether or not I would live, but it looked like a ton of fun. As I stood on the ramp receiving my final gear check I received a bit of advice. He asked if it was my first jump, to which I responded in the affirmative. “Since it’s your first jump and you’re scared…I suggest you don’t dawdle.”…wise words indeed.

I was very fortunate to share the ramp with my friend/skydiving mentor Dave Swanson. Two years prior to this chilly October morning Dave had been my first jump instructor. His father, Dick Swanson, had departed the ramp a couple of people ahead of us. “Dude, I’m pretty scared” were my words to Dave. His reply…”yep”. Three second later I was in the air.

I don’t know if anyone can accurately describe exactly what it feels like to jump off of a fixed object. Euphoria is the end result. I had originally intended to throw my pilot chute immediately after exiting the ramp. Those plans changed as soon as I experienced freefall from a standstill. To say I enjoyed it would be an understatement. I took a solid four second delay before I got rid of my pilot chute. The parachute opening sounded like a shotgun blast in the valley below that bridge. The only thing I could think about was getting back up so I could jump again…

Mildew, Gasoline,Starting Fluid, and Footpower…My Earliest Porsche Memories

A heartfelt thanks to all of the people who read, and shared my post on Goldrush. I was pleasantly surprised to wake up to my stats going bonkers. This is not a car blog, but cars definitely resonated on a worldwide scale. So, I want to share some of my early experiences with cars.

My father has always owned a Porsche. I inherited my love of all thing Porsche from him. His current Porsche is a mid 80′s 911 SC, and it is by far the nicest one he has owned. His will states that it will go to either me, or my brother. Who gets it is decided by his demise falling on an odd or even year. The catch is neither me, or my brother knows who is odd or even. Pop is covering his bases should he find himself incapacitated. We cant pull the plug if we don’t know who gets the Porsche. I admit, this sounds like a pretty morbid topic but this topic is laughed about extensively during family discussions. As my father often says…we are a family that celebrates life.

My father used to drive us all to school in the morning in an old blue 356. I still remember the smell of that old car fondly. Mildew, leather, and gasoline…I loved riding in that car. We would all pile in, and wait patiently for him to complete the start up ritual of pumping the gas, starting it up, and the warm up. Some days that wait was longer than others. Indeed, on some cold Washington DC mornings the start up ritual was extensive. Occasionally no amount of accelerator pumping would get that old blue bomb to turn over. I learned my first cuss words sitting in the shotgun seat.

On days that it wouldn’t start there was an extended ritual. My brother and I would argue about who got to hold the fire extinguisher while my dad emptied half a can of starting fluid into the carbuerator. We would all stand off to the side shivering while my dad muttered and tinkered. If the starting fluid didn’t work, he would take out the big guns.

The big guns consisted of one of us in the drivers seat while the rest of us pushed it out of the garage. Getting to sit behind the wheel of any moving vehicle at 8 years old generated as much excitement as Christmas morning …even at 8 I liked to go fast. A half a mile per hour in reverse is not fast by any stretch but in my mind I was doing warp factor 8. At least that’s how I remember it. Once it was out of the garage my father would reclaim the pilot seat while the three of us pushed.

Our house was situated in the middle of the block,and we had an alley in the back with a slight incline. The incline allowed the three of us (8,7,and 6) to get it up to a respectable speed. Usually about halfway down the alley my father would pop the clutch, and it fired up! We must have been a sight…three little kids pushing with all our might while running behind an old blue Porsche 356. I’m sure there were days when it just fired right up in the garage. But, in my memory the starter motor consisted of my brother, my sister, and me.

I dont remember what happened to that Porsche. My guess is that my mom (being the voice of reason) insisted on a ride with a bit more reliability.There were a succession of other Porsches, and a short break from Porsche in favor of a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Convertible. I can surmise that the break from Porsche had something to do with driving-aged boys being in the house. Although that did not stop us from going fast. My brother can attest to that. Just not as fast.

The break from Porsche was short lived, and before long there was another old Porsche dripping oil in our garage. That Porsche lasted a few years. I think DC potholes, combined with rust brought about the dramatic demise of that unfortunate car. If I am not mistaken the engine literally dropped out of that one somewhere on a DC street. My father had already sold it by that time, but the owner is still a family friend.

My mother insisted that the Porsche to replace that one be nice…ok nicer. He searched for, and found his current automotive masterpiece…his gorgeous 911 SC Cabriolet from the 80′s. It’s not a multi-million dollar super car by any stretch but it’s reliable, gorgeous, fast, and my parents love it. My father,who drives like an old lady in any other car, transforms into a formula one driver in that car. He drives it the way it’s meant to be driven…fast and in total control. They have put many happy miles in the scenic Virginia countryside. Driving with the top down, radio on, and a nice fall breeze…not a bad way to get from point A to point B. Not bad at all…

232…How I Made Death My Bitch

I knew I was in big trouble immediately. The left side of my parachute stopped flying. I felt the slack in my lines, looked up, and beheld a truly terrifying sight. The perfectly inflated 149 square foot canopy had been reduced to what can accurately be described as resembling a wadded up ball of paper. I heard the sound of wind get louder as if gravity itself was whispering “silly boy don’t you know you are earthbound?” I felt the acceleration in the pit of my stomach, as I spun helplessly under my once flying parachute. I had choices to make, and none of them were good. I was low, on my back, and getting lower.

I was not scared, fear wasn’t going to help. I started the malfunction at around 1000 feet, so my choices were very limited, and quite frankly I was positive that death was the inevitable conclusion to my predicament. I knew that kicking out of the line twists was not an option, I would impact while kicking. Dumping my reserve into the mess above my head was the recomended option (I was low). But, that didn’t hold a lot of appeal to me. Again, I was pretty sure that that option would kill me as well. My inner voice screamed “CUT THAT SHIT AWAY!”

Chop, rapid acceleration, flip over onto my belly, pull reserve handle…a sequence of events that happened in about a second. Time slowed, and I could clearly see the spot on the ground that I was going to hit. I saw my friend Joe running to the spot, and felt overwhelming sadness that he and the rest of my friends would have to deal with the trauma of watching a friend die. The sadness was followed by a sense of tranquility that I had never experienced before or since. I had done everything I could do to preserve my own life and now all I had to do was wait.

I got rid of the malfunctioning main at around 800ft, so I knew my wait would not be too long. I felt the reserve leave my back. The transition to feet to earth seemed to stretch for an eternity, and I watched my inflating reserve with a detached amusement while thinking that there is no way it is going to open in time. I was going to die. I knew it. I was OK with it. I felt peace. There was no way it was going to hurt for long.

I felt myself settle into the harness as the reserve started to arrest my descent. I looked up again, and saw the slider working its way down the lines, as the parachute struggled to inflate. I looked at the ground. Joe was there waiting for me. I looked in front of me, and saw people turn away. Turning away is how to avoid the nightmares. I looked down again, Joe was closer. I looked up.

Time sped back up, and the parachute snapped open…150 ft. I grabbed the toggles, and laughed thinking that I had successfully cheated death but the jury was still out on horrific injury. I flared, and landed standing up,unhurt, next to Joe. He was standing next to my reserve handle crying. He hugged me, and I watched my freebag, and main land next to us. My walk back to the hangar was punctuated by friends hugging me tightly, and telling me that they were glad I was alive.

I borrowed a rig, and got on the next load…

The Cleanest Place on Earth

Getting me to spend any amount of time in an enclosed tube with a bunch of people requires a lot. The destination has to be awesome, or someone should be paying me a lot of money to subject myself to commercial air travel. In this case it was the destination combined with the fact that Jamie would be waiting for me at said destination that allowed me to spend 18 hours on aircraft yesterday. That, and the fact that driving to Singapore would be a hell of a challenge. Now that I am here I feel compelled to share a couple of things.

This country is clean…really clean! So clean that I went for a walk today to find litter. Yeah, I went searching for litter rather than do tourist things. I am just so struck by the cleanliness I had to find out if it was just confined to the area around my hotel. I found nothing. Not a speck of trash, not even a cigarette butt. I did find a sign that said if you get caught flicking cigarette butt it costs 300 dollars. Every shop I visited had at least one person with a spray bottle, and a clean cloth cleaning something. It’s like a competition to see who has the cleanest shop. I am pretty sure it would be perfectly safe to do an invasive surgery on the floor of the 7-11 across the street from my hotel. This country is a clean freaks wet dream.

After my failed attempt at finding litter, Jamie and I went out to find some food. There is no shortage of good food in Singapore. Strike that…great food. We stay away from restaurants in favor of the food carts/open air dining. We wound up at a seafood place in Chinatown where we could sit outside and watch people. The food was awesome, and we left full. Our adventure continued in the Marina where we strolled through the largest mall I have ever seen. The roof had a city park, and a 150 meter swimming pool on it.

We always have something odd happen to us when we travel, and this trip has not disappointed. We were approached by a young man who was obviously panhandling. Not outright panhandling…he actually had merchandise to sell, but his sales pitch was a bit odd. OK, more than a bit odd. He was trying to turn his life around, and apparently selling little key chains with rape whistles attached to them was his path to salvation.

He opened his pitch with “I stabbed someone when I was 13, and I just got out of prison.” Now I have been all over the world, and have seen the best of scammers and panhandlers…I have NEVER had one open with “I stabbed someone when I was 13, and I just got out of prison.” I took a quick scan to make sure we weren’t being setup for a strong arm attempt, and continued to listen to his story. My guess is that people hear his pitch, and it scares them into giving him some cash so he would go away. I was just entertained. I didn’t even think of giving him any cash, and he walked away eventually. I have to give him props though…his line was original as hell.

Couple that with our cabbie who fell asleep at the wheel while we were stopped at a traffic light, and you have a completely normal Jamie and Rob travel experience. Not just dozing by the way…the dude was full on snoring. He must have had a long day because we hadn’t been at that light for 30 seconds before he was out. You can get caned in this country for a variety of offenses but apparently it’s not against the law to be a cab driver with severe narcolepsy. So that’s my first 24 hours in Singapore. This place is awesome! I am sure I will have more to write about later!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…remix

I had a pretty interesting day. Jamie and I flew to LA yesterday…kinda. We are in LA, and we flew in a plane almost all the way there. Our bags flew all the way…

The day started like a normal day. We packed, had a minor moment when we couldn’t find a house/car key, dropped off the pooch, and headed to the airport. We changed our connecting flight because we knew that our connection was tight, and the United ticket person upgraded us to first class…which would have been mad cool had that plane even arrived in San Fransisco. Little did we know storm clouds (figuratively speaking) were on the horizon.

Security was security…a bit creepy. I was groped by a nice TSA man, who took an agonizingly long time explaining every little thing he was going to do. When he was done with his “I’m going to violate you and here’s how I am going to do it” speech he asked me if I wanted a private screening. I tried to let him down gently but he looked absolutely crestfallen when I refused. He then took an agonizingly long time groping the hell out of me, all while narrating his actions all over again. It was like having David Attenboro jam his hand in my crotch. Yes…I went to my happy place…

I don’t think United in San Fransisco had a very good day yesterday. I know people flying United didn’t have a good day. I know there are people in San Fransisco this morning who are waking up sore, and angry from sleeping on an airport floor. Why airport floors? Because all the lucky United passengers filled up the hotels early.

The sea of humanity waiting in line for United customer service didn’t register as we happily ambled off the plane in search of lunch. Then I looked at a flight information board. What followed was reminiscent of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Our connection flight that was supposed to leave at 3pm was now delayed until 9:30pm. Yes…you read that correctly six and a half hour delay. One ticket agent said weather, one said mechanical issues, one just shrugged and didn’t say a word. But, every single United flight on the board indicated “awaiting aircraft”. They booked us on no less than three flights. None of them took off.

We finally got on a flight, got seated, pushed back, taxied a little bit, and then the captain came on. I didn’t even need to listen. The tone in his voice said it all. That flight cancelled as we taxied. A flight attendant handed out little post cards apologizing, and offering some kind of compensation. She came on the loudspeaker and promised that there would be four agents waiting at the gate to take care of everyone. Instead, there was one guy who asked us what flight we were arriving on. He looked a bit like a deer in headlights when his desk was flooded with pissed off travellers.

At this point I was ready to get the hell out of the airport. I had already called Avis and had a car standing by. So as we sat in yet another line I made the command decision.

I had had it up to my eyeballs with United, and even if a plane came I was not going to get on it. I’m a big fan of customer service. If I treated my customers the way airlines treat theirs I would never work.

Another couple was as frustrated with United as we were. They heard “rental car”, “LA”, and “let’s bounce” in the same sentence. Quick introductions, another short wait in the United club lounge to cancel our tickets, and a short train ride from the terminal to the rental agency found us booked on Air Avis on flight Chrysler 300 rolling like a bat out of hell down I5.

I relaxed as soon as we got mobile, and the 5 hours from San Fran to LA flew by…at about 100mph. A completely enjoyable road trip salvaged an otherwise awful travel day. Compatible road trip partners are hard to find…we scored huge!

Defying explanation, our bags made it to LAX at 6pm. I’m not too sure how they got there since flights were cancelled and delayed. But, they were there and I was happy about it. So air Avis flight 300 came through and our excercise in complex problem solving came to a close.

Jamie and I are taking our act international this month. Singapore will never be the same again…stay tuned.