Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Running with the Bulls - Part One

My first Easter in Spain, I went to Arcos de la Frontera for the running of the bulls.  This is unlike the event held in Pamplona in some important ways.  Instead of letting loose a stampede of bulls, they release one bull at a time.  A stretch of the main road is blocked off with barricades at both ends and at each side street.  The bull is released at one end of this thoroughfare and before they release it, the handlers get it really riled up.  The angry bull charges down the street after the foolhardy and the brave.

Arcos de la Frontera is a gorgeous town of white buildings in a typical Andalucian style.  Most first floor windows have bars on them and for running of the bulls that means they have men hanging on them as well.  The barricades are generally made of large horizontal beams with occasional man sized gaps for escaping runners to get through.  Behind these barriers, there is usually a mass of people packed solid with blood crazed spectators.

When the first bull was released, I was off to the side but inside the barricades.  I figured, if this bull was giving his life for people's entertainment, the least I could do was give him a chance at mine.  This is not a popular choice with the military, and drunk US military are often casualties at the event, with severe disciplinary repercussions ahead of them for reckless endangerment of government property.

I watched the bull charge off after all the men wanting to challenge their manhood.  I followed along trying to stay close enough to see what was going on.  The bull charged back and forth for a while and eventually he and I ended up in about the same place.

It is said to be good luck for a year if you can touch the bull, and good luck for three years if you touch his blood.  Yes, unfortunately, this is a tale that ends in blood.  I am far from immune to the cruelty of taunting an animal until it makes its heart burst from the running and then spearing it to death.  On the other hand, the bull led a better life than the millions of animals slaughtered in the United States to feed the hungry masses.  We should clean up our own messes before pointing fingers at others.

After a while of staying close to the action, I decided to see if I could give myself some luck.  As I approached the bull and the mostly drunken men who were taunting it, a strange thing happened.  Suddenly, I was face to face with an angry, tired bull turned sideways to the road.  There wasn't another person within five meters of us.  I was standing only two meters in front of the business end of a pair of horns.

I should reiterate that this was Easter weekend.  The weekend before Easter, they hold a procession through the streets with everyone holding candles.  The roads were all cobblestone.  After the procession, the cobblestones are covered in wax.  This is an important detail for the ongoing action.

Standing two meters from 800 kg of angry cattle with only air to protect you can be a defining event.  Handled poorly, it can mean severe injury or worse.  As far as I could tell, most of the men there countered the intensity of the moment with copious amounts of alcohol, and were never that aware of the danger they were in.  I hadn't been drinking that day, and I was crazy enough sober to put myself in harms way.

I stared the bull down for a precious few seconds, and then, decided to act.  I feinted to the left before dodging to the right.  The bull started to follow my initial movement, then tried to reverse with me.  Waxy cobblestones are slick.  This is less of a problem for running shoes than it is for hard hooves.  When the bull tried to reverse direction, it lost traction on the slick, waxy stone and fell over onto its side.  I took the golden opportunity to place my hand firmly on its back and then got away.

I was running with my friend Jon.  Jon and I stayed close to the action while the bull charged this way and that.  Drunk men taunted it ceaselessly, sometimes paying for their disrespect, usually not. After a bit, Jon and I moved off into a cul de sac formed by the barricade at one of the side streets.  We intended to let the action pass us by.  Unfortunately, a drunken teenager chose this exact moment to startle the bull into that cul de sac.  Jon and I sprinted for the gap at the side of the barricade.  It was only large enough for one person to go through at a time.  It was obvious there wasn't time for two of us to get through the barricade and the thronging mass of people behind it, so while Jon hit the gap, I jumped as high as I could and grabbed the top of the barricade.

I must have looked like a pinata to the angry bull.  I cleared his head, just as he initially rammed the barricade.  From there, he proceeded to try to gore me for the next twenty seconds.  I must have made quite the comical sight there, sitting on the head of an angry bull, between its horns, feed uselessly kicking it in the nose as it thrashed its head from side to side, failing only by relative position to gore me.  I like to say that I touched the bull and then he returned the favor.  Finally, either through frustration at my continued existence, boredom at the lack of blood, or from a well placed kick, the bull decided to try his luck with some other brave soul and moved along.

When the bull had run itself out, a matador came along to kill the bull in the usual fashion, with a sword thrust through the heart from above.  My friend Jon was at its side and earned his three years luck.  The end of this bull's life did not do it justice in my eyes.  I was honored to share the street with this noble creature.  I did not return to Arcos de la Frontera in the coming years, but I will never forget this animal.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tango Down?

My last serious deployment in the Navy was as an Arabic linguist in support of the SEAL platoon attached to the Eisenhower battle group.  I did a full 9 month deployment with them, 3 months of workups and 6 months in the Med and Persian Gulf.  Many of my stories are from this period.

One of the reasons a SEAL platoon is assigned to a battle group is for ship interdiction.  This means that the SEALs need to practice ship takedowns a lot.  Unfortunately, letting the SEALs really take over ships without cause is out of the question.  The next best thing was simulating a takedown of smaller Navy ships.

I had the pleasure of being one of the bad guys for a practice takedown.  We flew over to a frigate and I played bad guy while the SEALs fastroped onto the ship and proceeded to take it over.  My senior chief and I were the terrorists.

In the passageways of a military ship, there are regular bulkheads crossing the passageway, with neat ovals cut into them.  These holes have a significant lip.  I saw the SEALs come around a corner to take my senior chief.  I hid behind one of those bulkheads until they were fully engaged, only a few feet away from the action.  Once their attention was off the rest of the passage, I jumped out and yelled, "What do you think you are doing?," to the back of the largest SEAL in the platoon. Needless to say, he was not amused.

They used flex cuffs on me and took me out to the marines who were acting as the rear guard for the secured portion of the ship.  I was wearing a flight suit.  They patted me down, but they didn't do a very good job of it.  You see, a flight suit has a survival pocket on the inside of the right thigh that is the perfect size for a leatherman.  While I was under the supervision of the marines, I pulled out my leatherman and cut off my flex cuffs.  When the SEALs finally came to let me out, I handed them my flexcuffs.  Again, they were not amused.

As much as they hated me for what I did, I like to believe I helped prepare them for the action to come.  While I was deployed with the platoon, they took down 5 oil smugglers out of Iraq.  This was 1994-1995.  You might have heard about it.  It made the news.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Next Flight to Korea

I joined the Navy to be a Cryptologic Technician.  If you have no idea what that means, we are pretty much on the same footing.  I didn't have any idea either.  Between my junior and senior year of high school, all it meant was a cool name, a fun test, and not worrying about college applications.  It also meant that I signed up for 5 years instead of 4 and by graduating from school, I would get a $5000 bonus for that extra year.

I actually signed up to learn Chinese.  When I got to DLI in Monterey, I found out they taught Mandarin and not Cantonese.  In my youthful naivete and ignorance, I didn't want to learn Mandarin, the language of the Chinese government.  I wanted to learn Cantonese, the so called language of the Chinese people.  Believe me when I say that the pretension of such a position does not escape my notice today but back then, I thought I was being idealistic.

They asked what else I would like to learn and started offering choices.  I'd heard that Arabic was the hardest language for English speakers to learn, so in my arrogance, I chose that.  Arabic was a 67 week long course and was followed by 5 months at Goodfellow AFB for C school.  The second course required a Top Secret / Special Compartmented Information security clearance but was essentially what to do with our language skills once we had them.

I spent the next two years learning nothing but Arabic 8-12 hours a day, 5 days a week.  This was the most intensive language training you are ever likely to receive, and I swear, I didn't appreciate the opportunity at all.  I was a terror to my instructors, mostly native Arabic speakers.  I challenged their culture, their foibles, and their values on almost a daily basis.  Three separate instructors threw things at me in the course of class.

The day I graduated from C school, I got my bonus check.  A check for $4,000 isn't something I saw every day.  I converted it to travelers checks and started a month of leave.  My parents and sister had come to see my graduation.  They took me to the airport.  I planned to take military hops to Korea to visit my girlfriend who was a Korean linguist and graduated from school ahead of me.  She was stationed in Pyongtek Korea.  Military hops are space available flights that are dirt cheap (usually less than $100) but have a waiting list and are first come first serve, with some exceptions due to rank and/or status.  Unfortunately, space available and first come first serve turns out to be a bit of a problem with only a month off.

You see, a lot of people want to fly to Korea.  Some, like retired military, don't have anywhere to be and had been waiting for months already.  I didn't have that kind of time and I had brand new play money burning a whole in my pocket.  I did something that very few people ever get to do though many dream of it.

I walked up to the ticket counter and asked for the next flight to Korea.  There was a flight leaving in a few hours but tickets cost $1700.  No problem to me and my recently flush wallet.  I counted out $1700 in travelers checks and I was on my way to an actual, honest to god, world spanning adventure.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Not Afraid?!

My first Christmas in the Navy, I stayed at the school over the Christmas break.  I spent a lot of time in Big Sur over those two weeks.  Big Sur is less than an hour south of Monterey down Highway 1 in California.  This is one of the most spectacular sections of road in all of the United States, with cliffs down to the Pacific ocean to your west and cliffs and hills up into the mountainous forest to your west.  I first heard Enya on that stretch of road and the beauty of her voice juxtaposed over the beauty of the scenery was enough to make me cry.

Big Sur is a magical place.  Deep in the California forests, far from the bustle of city life, it boasts some of the most gorgeous locations in the world.  Over that Christmas break, I explored Pfeiffer State Park and Pardington Cove.

To get to Pfeiffer State Park, you turn west towards the coast and drive down a quiet road with ferns carpeting the ground to either side under the giant trees. Five minutes later, you spill out into a humble parking lot that doesn't even begin to prepare you for the wonder you are about to behold.

From the parking lot, you walk another few minutes up the trail before the majesty of nature reveals its full splendor.  As you step out of the treeline, the beach opens up before you, framed by a swiftly climbing ridge on the south, the crashing pacific on the west and cliffs running up to the north.  Directly before you are two giant monoliths jutting up from the sand at least 30 feet, one barely in the surf on one side and constantly barraged by waves on the other, while the other is too far from the sand to reach without a hairy swim.

I used to climb on those massive boulders, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night.  I once climbed over the top of one and stood on an outcrop of rock five feet above the crashing waves just appreciating the power of the ocean.  Suddenly a huge wave crashed in, sending spray a good ten feet over the top of my head.  I was so overwhelmed that my mind blanked and the next thing I was aware of, I was stepping back onto the sand on the other side with no memory of climbing back over.

Another time, I hiked up the south ridge while my friends went to the beach.  I climbed up at least 100'.  I could see miles of ocean and steep drops to the water.  Somehow, I got it into my head to climb down to the water.  I scampered across sandstone ledges and slopes until finally, I slipped down a smooth 15' slope and realized I couldn't climb back up the featureless stone I had just slipped down.

At the bottom of this one way stone slide was a sheer drop 60' onto jagged rocks and cold surf.  Unable to go back up and unwilling and probably unable to call for help, I surveyed my situation.  There was a small chimney breaking the smooth expanse.  As I slipped into it, I knew there was no way for me to go back.

I climbed down about four feet before the chimney opened up on both sides leaving me a good six feet above a tiny blade of rock, coming up along the face of the cliff.  With barely two inches to land on and a sheer drop to a bloody, cold, lonely death on the rocks below, I continued to work myself lower and lower until my feet, my legs, my waist, and even most of my upper body was below the edge of the stone and the only support I could find.  With at least another four feet to go, no way to climb back up, and quickly tiring, I suddenly realized I was going to die on the rocks below.  I thought about it for a couple minutes as I hung in my final predicament, and what I realized was I didn't care.  I was not afraid of death.  It didn't matter to me.

Having come to this stunning realization at only 18 years of age was quite an eye opener.  I still don't know how I managed it but in my contemplation, I managed to slip down even farther and finally dropped to the ledge below.  The rest of that climb is a blur.  My thoughts had turned inwards and I navigated the rocks around the cliff face until finally I made it back to the beach from the most unlikely direction.  For weeks, even months, I was haunted, not by my near death experience, but by the stark, cold fact that death didn't frighten me.  You aren't supposed to be aware of your own mortality in your teens.  And certainly, if you are, it should hold more fear than it did for me.