Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Tawanda Chronicles-Part II

Oath of enlistment:
“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

An old Air Force buddy and I were recently discussing our fond memories of the time we spent at DLI- The Defense Language Institute, at The Presidio of Monterey (POM).  We talked about how challenging language school had been, the types of people we met there and just how unique and extraordinary our military experience was.  We also talked about what a beautiful place the Presidio and the entire Monterey Peninsula was.  So gorgeous in fact, that it required an enormous amount of discipline to fight the urge to spend all our spare time cruising up and down the coastal highway seeking the next adventure.  Studying exotic, foreign languages paled in comparison to the sunsets at Pfeiffer Beach.  Somehow though, we all managed to study enough to pass and enjoy everything northern California had to offer.

In those days, The POM was an open post considered a sub-installation of Fort Ord, located across the bay. (Open Post-meaning that access to the general public was not restricted- no guard gates/access points/fences etc…) Another unique feature was that although it was technically an army post, it was one of the few joint service schools that all 5 branches of the armed forces attended together, along with DOD civilian contractors as well as embassy personnel.

Language education and training was The POM’s primary mission and the open post fostered more of a collegiate atmosphere rather than that of a military base.  There were days I almost (but not quite) forgot I was in the Air Force.   Until the day the “Mad Bomber” as he came to be known, showed up. 

We had plenty of warning. 

Terrorism had not yet become the buzzword that it is today.  It had not entered our vocabulary in any of the languages we were studying.  All we knew was that some idiot kept calling in bomb threats to our barracks, on and off for weeks.  Apparently the idiot's wife, who roomed down the hall from me, and he were having some sort of domestic dispute.  No one in the barracks had a personal phone but there were two payphones in the stairwell entrances for us to use.  If the phone happened to ring when you walked by, you picked up it and banged on the door for the person they asked to speak with.   After his wife refused several times to speak with him, we all got tired of answering the Mad Bomber’s calls.  He would let it ring forever so eventually we learned to take the phone off the hook.

Mr. Mad Bomber then brilliantly figured out a way to get everyone’s attention including his wife’s.  That was when he discovered that he could disrupt our sleep by calling in bomb threats to the barracks.  It seems strange now but we became more or less complacent about hearing alarms go off at 2 am.  We’d drag ourselves out of bed and stand out in the cold for an hour or two while we waited for EOD crews (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and their sniffer dogs to give us the all clear.

One particular evening while doing our homework, my roommate and I heard a scream from down the hall. That we heard anything at all is noteworthy as doing homework mostly entailed sitting at our desks with our huge cassette tape players turned up to 11, while feverishly translating whatever we managed to hear.  In the days before iPods and ear buds we wore the old school, standard issue, monster headphones.
The tone of the scream was chilling and in an instant I was up and running.  I saw a woman burst out of a room down the hall shrieking as she ran.  When I arrived at the door that she’d fled from, there he was- The Mad Bomber, except I didn’t know that yet.  He wasn’t a huge man but he was standing over his wife’s bed slapping her helpless figure around.  All I knew at that moment is that someone was bullying a woman and his was back towards me. 

Enraged, I charged into the room hitting him like a linebacker from behind as I grabbed him around the waist.  It startled him and like bucking bronco he tried scraping me off by taking one or two quick steps backward in to the nearest solid object which happened to be the door of the wall locker.  It dropped me to the floor, was quite painful and yet, it was simultaneously empowering.  At that moment I experienced something that was beyond ordinary anger.  It roused in me a real live, Bill Bixby-becomes-Lou Ferrigno’s-Incredible Hulk transformative fury. 

He must have presumed he’d knocked me senseless and turned his attention back to beating up on his wife.  To this day I am not exactly sure what happened next as the rest of the encounter in that room is a blur.  I know that I must have grabbed him again and that I somehow got him out of the room.  My roommate and others later reported that they saw him hurled through the air out of the room stopping only when he slammed into the far wall of the hallway. 

My memory of what happened re-engages there and all I remember thinking at the time was that somehow we had to get him under control.  I recall that by this time a crowd had gathered in the hallway and there was screaming as he stood up again.  I was hitting him everywhere as hard as I could and my roommate had pitched in by angling for his genitals.  Something was odd in his responses-he was unresponsive to the pain he should have been feeling.  I began to worry that he was high on drugs and could get completely crazy on us.  It was time to end this fight.  He was bent over a little bit and I hit him with a vicious upper cut to his abdomen.  One of my knuckles hit something with a “thunk” that I thought was his belt buckle.

 We’d find out what it was soon enough.
The blow caused him to rise up to his toes and then he finally collapsed to the floor.  I cranked his arm around behind his back, put my foot on his neck and locked his elbow in place.  This pain submission move finally stilled him. 

At that moment the CQ (Charge of Quarters) arrived.  He was a good friend and looked at me, standing there with one leg on top of this guy and said something to the effect that he might have known it would be me getting things under control.   

He and another guy grabbed him up off the floor and carted him down to the duty office to call the MP’s from Fort Ord.  I followed behind. 

It may seem unbelievable in this post 9/11 era, but no one in the entire Air Force barracks actually had a weapon or even handcuffs.  All we could do was call the military police to come and take care of things.  He was pretty badly beaten up so they sat this guy in a chair while waiting for the MP’s to arrive.  That’s when he reached into the top of his pants and pulled out a Molotov cocktail.  What I had thought was a belt buckle bruising my knuckles had been the edge of the bottle. I saw bullets taped to the outside of the glass and I knew that if he lit that thing the bullets would be flying as well. 

This time the bomb was real and I turned and pulled the alarm.   Others started running, banging on doors to get people out of their rooms and outside to safety.  We had no idea if he had more than one or what else he may have had strapped to his body.

Later on I found out that he had managed to ignite the cocktail and bullets did fly around the room, although no one was injured. The fire was quickly put out, but according to a friend of mine who is stationed there now, there is still a bullet hole in one of the windows of that room.

Later that evening, C.I.D. (Army-Criminal Investigation Division) and O.S.I. (Air Force-Office of Special Investigations) officers interviewed us for details about the incident.  I was standing there with my roommate as they questioned us. We talked about how we heard screaming, ran down the hall, beat him up, etc... 

Then they asked me, “How and at what point did you manage to take the knife away from him”?

“What knife?” I replied, and that’s when the shaking started.

“Well, he continued, “Mad Bomber’s wife reported that he came in to the room and threatened her and her roommate with a knife.  We found the knife on the floor by the bed and we want to know how you managed to get it away from him”.

A knife explained the blood curdling screams we heard and why the roommate looked so terrified when I saw her running away. 

I told the detective that I didn’t remember seeing a knife.  Suddenly I was dizzy and my knees buckled.  I passed out momentarily, partly from the shock of the entire incident and partly from the realization that I had just fought off an armed attacker.

My roommate picked me up off the ground and we finished answering their questions.  The next night a group of us went out for drinks and celebrated our “bringing down of the Mad Bomber”.   And that was the end of it.

We were never asked to appear as witnesses in a civilian courtroom or military tribunal and we have no idea if any charges were pressed at all.  Many of us have often wondered what became of the “Mad Bomber”.  We do not know if it was reported in the local press.  Considering that CID and OSI conducted an investigation it may not have been reported to the public at all.  What began as a domestic dispute became the focal point of a slew of federal offenses committed and yet…we never heard a word about it afterwards. 

For all we know he went back to his life in West Virginia (where we heard the couple was from) and still brags about the day he threw a bomb into the Air Force barracks at DLI.

A few months later Desert Shield evolved into Desert Storm and more precautions regarding access to the barracks were put into effect.  ID’s were checked, barricades were put into place and parking became restricted nearby in order to prevent a repeat of incidents such as the truck bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut.  

Fast forward to 2012- if this had happened today there would have been a firestorm of media coverage, and no doubt there would have been a lengthy trial involving charges of domestic terrorism. 

The POM has since become a closed access post due to military restructuring in 1994. There are now fences, limited access guard gates and the general public may no longer use the roads through The POM.  The Mad Bomber would not have such an easy time getting in to the post, much less the barracks.

After the incident my friends and I went back to studying our respective languages; Russian, Korean, Chinese, Arabic etc… as though nothing much had happened.  We did not yet appreciate that we were only beginning to comprehend the full meaning of the English word, “terrorism”.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Past Perfect

We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.” 
Anaïs Nin

I can remember sitting in English classes years ago learning about “tenses”.  My eyes would cross while my brain performed exotic, snake-eating-its-own-tail type of maneuvers, as I struggled to fully appreciate concepts such as, Future in the Past.
“I knew you would do it.” is a sentence that conveys somehow, that in the past, you were aware that something would happen in the future, and yet the sentence happens all at once. For me, it was as much a study of Einstein’s relativity theory as it was English grammar, but I suppose both can only be truly understood intuitively.

The tense that seems to command attention these days is Past Perfect.   Ever since the past happened we haven’t been able to go backwards fast enough.
We worship the past so much that nothing from now seems to count. We admire the past and its perfective state through the haze of mass media filtered nostalgia.   

“Retro” is the rage and we have jumped through the rear view looking glass.

 Take the car companies for example.  They are recycling old name plates on vehicles that bear no resemblance in form or function to the originals because of the marketability of the brand.  When you see new versions of the Chrysler K Car, the Chevy Chevette, or Ford Granada, head for the hills, for surely the end of the world is nigh.  Certain things were meant to be sacrificed to the trash heap of history.   Some of the new cars with old names have been designed in ways that suggest their former glory, (Seen the Dodge Charger lately?) but it is becoming politically incorrect and downright expensive to own a real muscle car.

Despite all of the wistful longing for past perfection, we now actually live our lives in Present Continuous. 

History has stopped happening.  

Thanks to the internet, and websites like Facebook and YouTube everything that has occurred may perpetually continue to occur, on demand.   
Attention spans have shriveled because we are so distracted. Past and Present exist simultaneously and history is easily manipulated merely by updating a Wikipedia entry. George Orwell lives among us. Big Brother doesn’t have to spy on us as we once feared. Now we report in voluntarily. 

I first knew for sure that the time continuum had become distorted when a recently deceased friend posted something on my Facebook page.  Whether he had been reincarnated or resurrected was hard to determine but it has become apparent that though we may die, our digital souls have infinite half lives.

Shifts in the scale of time have blurred the edges of our own epoch as well.
Usually when I watch a movie determining the setting is simple.  One image of a panoramic scene, a close up on the technology or clothing and the century, continent or planet is revealed.  Each decade from the turn of the 20th century through the 1980′s all had their distinct and clear iconic images. 

That no longer seems to be the case.

What if you were to film a movie today? How would you establish the time and place visually?
 So much time has been spent retro-fitting our lives, we no longer have much of a present.

 How would you make a distinction between a movie from 2007 or 1995?  Noting changes in cell phone technology or perhaps the widespread use of ever smaller and sophisticated computing devices is about it.  Will saggy pants and tattooed everything be our legacy?  When it comes to this generations’ stamp on our visual memory, there’s nothing that really sets apart the past 20 years.

1970’s fashions weren’t my favorite.  I didn’t like bell bottoms then and I didn’t like them when they were recycled in the 90’s.  I’m not asking for disco to stage a comeback either, but at least those years had a unique character and flavor. 

My parent’s generation had the humility and honor to call their music from the late 50’s - the dawn of the rock and roll era, “oldies".  It was at least a full acknowledgement that their childhood was over and in the past.  Starting in the early 1970’s movies like American Graffiti, the TV shows Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley signaled the beginning of our backwards longings and regression. 
 Baby Boomers managed to create a protracted adolescence for themselves and are now refusing to grow up.  They cling to their childhoods and label every artifact that defined it as “classic”.  Ah, The Wonder Years...The word classic has been dragged around so much lately it’s lost its true meaning.  I’m not sure how they decided that their memories are particularly precious and set some sort of standard.
My personal definition of “Classic Rock” is any popular band that has at least 1 dead member.  Somehow baby boomer stuff never gets old; the past is perfect and present all at once.  You can turn on the radio and  “Classic Rock” from the 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s  still dominates commercial airwaves, even though that music is further in the past now, than my parent’s late 1950’s era music was in the early 1970’s.   During the 1980’s the Woodstock generation did their best to continually rehash the 1960’s, pun intended.  The drugs obviously affected their ability to properly mature.
Surely I was not the only person to note the irony when The Who performed “My Generation” at the Super Bowl in 2010.   I was deeply embarrassed for myself, as well as Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend while they sang the lyrics, “Hope I die before I get old” as both were well into their 60’s at the time.
I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think getting older is a negative thing.  I’m all for a healthy, mature outlook.  I would just like to see a more graceful means of embracing the changes wrought by age.   What was edgy and rebellious 40 years ago now sounds like the pathetic refrain of denial. 

Perhaps it is well past time we all grew up, looked to the future and changed our tunes just a bit?