Thursday, February 23, 2006


The Death of Youth in Africa

There was a particularly trying time in my stay in Africa when everything seemed to go terribly wrong at every turn. My project was having difficulties in supply compounded by difficulties thrown up by man made decisions. I was frustrated in interpersonal relationships, particularly with my girlfriend. I was falling under a long spell of melancholy brought on by homesickness and my erroneous insistence to myself that my problems were exacerbated by the remoteness of the location and the lack of development and education. My mood had deteriorated completely. There was no one or no thing that could grasp me by the heartstrings and pull me into the realization that life was good. There was no final arbiter of equity or worth in the professional, personal, or spiritual realms. I drew on the reserves of my enthusiastic naiveté and found that the reserve had been spent.

I got together what little I needed to sustain myself throughout a weekend away and decided to go to a friend to drink beer and talk it out. I walked up to the center of the village to wait for a tro-tro and I sat in a shaded spot scowling until the muscles in my head and face ached and wrangling with God. If life is fair, I asked him, if there is truly a set of parameters that guide behavior in the universe, if there is truly an argument to be made that there is a purpose to all of this, then give me a sign that it is so. It is the only time I ever asked for such a sign and I will not ask again.

There was a little girl, probably no more than four years old, who would follow me everyday as I walked to work and sing to me and dance along. She found great joy in my difference and shared that joy out to those who would have it, most of all to me. She was very, very cute. I saw her coming toward me as I sat there in the square, splayed out in her mother’s arms, limbs akimbo and dangling, lifeless head lolling to and fro. Her mother was wailing in anguish, crying and cursing God, asking why her baby had to die. When she reached the center of the road she began to try in earnest to crack open her own head, and had injured herself seriously before she could be restrained and dragged away. Some elders took possession of the tiny corpse and whisked it away for traditional treatment.

There were no sirens. There were no cameras, no reporters, and no markers trumpeting the cataclysmic event. The stinking, baking, remote dirt road went back to being a stinking, baking, remote dirt road. When I got on the microbus that would take me to the town, though, I was numb. I had asked my God for a sign and I felt that I had been given one. I had at the time seen it as a metaphysical event after which, psychologically, I would not be the same.

It took time for me to realize that every experience is to some degree a metaphysical event after which one will be forever changed, including the mundane experiences of being cut off in traffic and holding open a door for an invalid. Ten years after that numbing, soul crushing day I was back in that same village center. My own little girl was back in the house in the village “suburb” with her grandmother, aunts, and cousins. I was walking with my wife to buy a few things in the market. My wife was hailed by a cousin who was working on staging, plastering a building at the roadside. She exchanged a short laugh with him, acknowledging his cleverness in posing his request for a few coins. She tried to hand him a bill but it fell and was blown a short distance. Across the road there were some children who had gathered to watch us come into the village and who were calling to us, and may have been asking for a few coins too, I don’t recall now. I stooped over to pick up the bill to throw to my cousin-in-law and heard the sound of a car coming into the village too fast. Still bent over I looked up and just saw the blur of the young boy who had come running across the street to me, eclipsed by the moving taxi. The sound of the screeching tires and the sickening thump of the small body against the car were too close together. My wife stood shocked and I ran to the child, arriving just as his grandmother did. I looked him over. He was unconscious, but breathing. There was no significant swelling anywhere and there were no open wounds. I tried to look into his eyes to ascertain dilation, but it was instantly like a circus around us. I could not believe that people were trying to pull at the boy and jostle him around. The car started to rock. A crowd was pulling the driver out. I imagined a lynching about to occur. I put bass in my voice and spoke with force, telling the driver that he would have to drive the boy to the clinic because there was no other car. The people put him back in the car and the boy’s grandmother sat in the back. We put the boy lying flat along the bench seat in the back, with his head on his grandmother’s leg. A burly family member got in the front next to the driver, assuring that he was going to the clinic and nowhere else. I thrust a bill into the grandmother’s hand and told her to see to the child as best she could.

I was later to learn that the bill was large and that without this significant amount of money the child would not have received treatment at the clinic (I think it was about five dollars). The next day the entire family came to our house to express their thanks, and the following day the boy himself came to thank me. We sat him down and gave him cold water and a piece of candy, and I knew I was right to have stopped asking for signs. I had long since stopped asking and just started looking.


When you travel a lot in the modern world you are bound to take a lot of trips on planes. Some plane trips are memorable because they are good, others are memorable because they are bad. Almost every plane trip is memorable for one reason or other, but there are only a handful that really stand out for me. Below you will find some very short comment on a few flights I think bear reciting. They are not in chronological order.

St. Petersburg

I went to Logan to get on a plane from Boston to Vancouver, and then on to Hong Kong. We got snowed out and I had to fight my way home in a blizzard only to get up four hours later and fight my way back in to the airport. So instead of taking the western route the whole way we got a flight from Boston to London and London to Hong Kong. The trip over the water wasn’t a good one, and the layover at Heathrow left some people grumpier than they should have been. Everybody was happy to get into business class and to try to get comfortable for the long journey before our engagement even started, and everyone was soon asleep over the Continent. A few hours into the flight I had to use the restroom and when I was getting back into my seat I was amazed to see St. Petersburg from the air at night. I asked the flight attendant where we were, and she told me it was St. Petersburg. I asked why it looked so big, and she said that we had to fly low under the cloud cover, and that we were only about eighteen thousand feet high. The city was arranged like an old tinker toy set, it was a set of circles interconnected by major and minor thoroughfares. It looked a little like a dazzling white crop circle. There seemed to be quite a bit of activity, too. The vehicles looked like toys and the bright, frosted scene could easily have been set up in a child’s play room. I knew for certain that if I were to descend and join the Russians on the street that night that the city I would experience would be far different from the one I perceived from so high up. I sighed and reveled a moment more in the comfort offered by the idyllic scene, and then tried to rest up for the oncoming bustle of the tropical metropolis.

Oilean Aleut

I have flown the Great Circle over Alaska on several occasions, and when you can see Alaska it is impressive. There was one trip in particular in which the Aleutian Islands were clearly visible. They jutted out of the sea in massive, frozen majesty. They were like enormous snow-capped colossi with angry white surf outlining their base circumferences. It is said that the ideal of every thing exists hidden in its observable manifestation, but for these island-mountains the manifestation was the ideal. Truly the bones of the earth. Capturing and internalizing the vision made my mind actually reel. I was deflated when we landed in Fairbanks (or was it Anchorage?) and I found it populated by mere mortals.

Seoul to Minneapolis

Some flights are memorable because of the traveling experience and circumstance. The first time I had flown first class was such a time. I had left Pusan first thing in the morning and had spent the greater part of the day in Seoul trying to get checked in and squared away for a very long flight back to Boston. There were problems with the baggage and there were problems with the aircraft itself. The American based airline was falling far short of its customer service goals that day. I was one of a long line of disgruntled customers having a difficult time staying awake and alert in order to make my travel happen when most of the work should have been done without gregarious haggling and customer oversight. Not many of us were having any luck maintaining our sunny dispositions. Then one of the workers from behind the Northwest desk came out and asked me if I would like to fly with Northwest instead. I said that I already had reservations, and that I was signed up in the frequent flyer program. He said that they would honor my ticket on the other airline and that they would match my frequent flyer miles as well. I didn’t believe him. He said that, no matter what else happened, that I could get a first class seat from Seoul to Minneapolis, the hub. I knew he had to honor that, because he would be the one to put me on the plane. I agreed, and waited to see what would happen from then on. The plane left three hours earlier than the other, and I got on and was shown to first class. The entire way to Minneapolis I was able to have my feet stretched out and I was given all the food and beer I wanted. It was like having a personal butler seeing to your comfort throughout your journey. It was the experience of a lifetime, among many others. I recommend it to anyone who has to travel for more than thirteen hours in the air. They did match my miles, and that got them my business over and across the Pacific many times, and the miles were used to bring one of my brothers to Hawaii to visit.

Boston to Shannon, the Second Time

The second time I flew from Boston to Shannon was when I was going over to Ireland for my junior year abroad. I was traveling with a friend of mine. We had lived together in Hadley and were going to live together in Ireland too. Because we were college kids and were going on the cheap we got an itinerary that included a very long layover in New York City. We landed in New York and took our time finding the Aer Lingus desk. We were lucky enough to be able to check in for a late afternoon flight in the morning. We were nervous about traveling internationally and found the gate and parked ourselves near it so there would be no chance of our missing the plane. The thing was, we parked ourselves at a bar near the gate, and the bar was running a special on Budweiser such that you could get a twenty-four ounce beer for three or four dollars. It was a great deal and we had the whole day to kill so we sat there drinking beer and conversing about all of the important things in the world. We had solved many of the world’s problems and were bout to get yet another round. I ran into the bathroom to let some beer out and came back to find my friend had gathered up our backpacks and all of our accoutrements and was eagerly awaiting my return like the hare at the starting line. They had been paging us for half an hour, holding the plane for us. We sprinted onto the jetway and into the plane under the disgusted glares of other passengers. It was obvious that we had been drinking beer for some time, and they were not amused. We snapped back to the reality that we were relocating our entire lives for an entire year to a new continent and we adopted appropriate tones of behavior. I’ve got to tell you, though, it amuses the hell out of me now.

Not-So-Great Circle

I don’t know all of the science behind the dynamics of pressure, tension, and lift. I know very little about most of the things that affect me in real life, so there is very little I can do about what happens to me in many cases. I often affect a fatalistic attitude as a result, and this attitude came to my aid on one flight over the Pacific. After I had left the Peace Corps but before I married I was blown around the world for a while, mostly between America and Asia. On one flight taking me back to Asia I had, surprisingly, drunk some beer as a sleep aid and it worked like a charm. Serendipitously I had fallen asleep on the half full flight with my seat belt still around my midsection. I had loosened the belt as I stretched further and further across the bench seat in the middle, because it was unoccupied. I was not nervous about my destination or arrival because I’d been there before and was looking forward to going back, so I was in full snooze when we hit the low pressure pocket. Here are some of the facts of the occurrence as I was to learn after the fact. Sometimes, apparently, there are pockets of low pressure in the atmosphere, but they do not occur until one reaches a certain altitude. In our case we reached the altitude of thirty-five thousand feet, cruising altitude, before we hit the pocket. In cases where a plane hits such a pocket two things can occur; first, the plane can drop like a stone without tilting until its momentum carries it through the pocket and back to the correct pressure for cruising according to the attitude of the aircraft such as it was, or second, it can fall and tilt until the pilot adjusts the attitude and increases speed to compensate for the corresponding loss of lift and continue on. Either way there is no great danger of the plane falling out of the sky, but also either way the occurrence is absolutely frightening for the passengers. We dropped like a rock and leveled off on the other side of the pocket. What actually happened inside the cabin was absolute bedlam for probably two seconds. Luckily, very luckily, I was asleep and still had the seatbelt on. Everything and everyone who was not nailed down bounced off the ceiling and then slammed onto the floor. Some old people suffered some broken bones and a flight attendant was injured by the falling drink cart; I guess it gets pretty heavy when it’s loaded down with stuff. Worse than the impact, I was told, was the actual weightlessness. I had previously written about the seeming eternity of the split second as my body traveled toward the mouth of an open well. In this instance I didn’t realize what was going on until after it was over, but it took a full two seconds. If you think that two seconds isn’t very long then count one-mississippi, two-mississippi when you’re going down the highway and then look back and see how far you have come in those tow seconds. One other American told me that he saw the face of God in those two seconds. I’m glad I missed as much of it as I did. Some senior citizens got broken bones and stuff, and there were ambulances waiting at Kimpo when we got there. And it was just dumb luck that I had my belt on. Since that day I have always kept my seat belt on when I am on the plane.


I had written in the past about the trip around the Isle of Arran in Scotland. This is the tale of the trip over the North Sea from Dublin to Glasgow. The four of us mentioned in the previous story were packed into a prop driven plane. It was the first time any of us were on a plane so small. We were mainly very jocular and embroiled in the banter that accompanied the start of youthful journeys, except the young lady, who was exhausted from the trip so far. It was a short flight, but it was a bumpy one across the angry North Sea. In the front of the cabin there was a pilot from the airline who was not at work, but was being shuttled from one airport to the next. The young lady fell asleep lying across my knees. We approached the airport at Glasgow and began our descent, blown around by the wind more and more with each foot closer to the ground. We had dropped our bravado and had white knuckle grips on the arms of our seats. The plane came in for touchdown and literally flipped ninety degrees before touching down, but it happened so fast that it was over before you knew it. It went: SKY-GROUND-SKY-LAND. The three of us looked at each other as if we had just gone through the gates of hell together. The young lady woke up and began to come to, unaware of the close brush with the bug-and-windshield experience. The off duty pilot was the first out of his seat, going about business as usual and completely and totally unfazed. There was one nervy dude.


When our daughter was about half a year old we went back to Africa to begin building our house in earnest. When it was time to say our goodbyes we got on a plane late at night. There was something wrong with the plane and they tried to fix it while we sat on the tarmac. The plane was overfilled with people heading back to Europe and the US with loads of stuff from home, and it looked like a lorry at the lorry park with wings. We were crammed in on top of each other, and any queuing skills acquired abroad were instantly forgotten in Africa. It was a brutal scrum to get on the plane and once we were on it we were very far from comfortable. Then the pilot tried to get the plane started and it kept conking out like my first car. We were stuck on the tarmac in the heat without hydration or relief of any sort. Our baby started to overheat and I thanked the Lord that my wife always provisions herself to be able to care for anyone in her charge under any circumstance. The baby had enough fluid to keep her going, and we wiped away her sweat and changed her diapers. The people on the flight got more and more raucous as we sat and sat and no information was forthcoming. Hours passed. The sun went down. Eventually a flight attendant came into the cabin and told us that there were so many problems with the mechanical systems that they would still be working on it for some time. I worried more that we would be flying over the ocean and the Alps in a plane that they couldn’t get started than I was about waiting. One was uncomfortable; one could be the end of my family. Finally they gave up trying and told us that we had to change planes very quickly. I don’t know why we had to do this quickly, I still can’t imagine why- perhaps we had to populate the next plane before it was claimed by squatters. We disembarked into the blinding light of morning; we had sat in that plane all night. We got into the next plane and after the hurried rush we had to resettle. There were people complaining so hard that other people had to quiet them before they upset everyone else. There were people getting quite vociferous about how detrimental it was to be deprived of water in the heat, and how we not only were not given food, but were not given the opportunity to deplane to find food. I was proud of my wife for not getting caught up in the complaining, and I was proud of my baby for being so good through it all. Once we were in the air the staff didn’t want to come back into the body of passengers because of the grief they were handed, and when an old man died somebody had to bang on the first class cabin door to get attention. By the time we landed in Holland our connecting flight to New York was long gone and our connection to Boston was a distant memory, and there was absolutely no assistance on the ground; in fact, there was not even a desk for the airline. It was an exercise in resourcefulness for me to get my infant daughter, completely dependent spouse, self, and all six of our huge bags all the way back home. Shortly thereafter the airline went out of business and has still not come back to life.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


While I was still in high school I went with a group of older friends to a Grateful Dead concert at Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center. There were a lot of us, about a dozen I think, and we rented a large minivan to make the drive. We drove pretty much all day and into the night and finally arrived where we were going to camp. That ride was up until then the furthest I had been west. I thought the Buffalo area must be the Middle West because it was so flat and there were farms everywhere. Lake Ontario looked like the ocean to me.

We camped, and drank beer, and sat by the fire and eventually ended our long day by crashing out in the tents. The next morning we got up and prepared ourselves as best we could for the coming day. We piled back into the van and joined the long line of hippie traffic into Saratoga, and when we parked we joined the throngs of brightly colored, brightly lit people spinning in galactic arms around the vortex of the stage. We vied for a good vantage point to stake out our spot, and when we found one we put our backpacks and stuff in a central point on the ground and we hung out around the pile. People came and went throughout the duration of the show, jaunting off to get a better view or to share some of what they brought with someone new, and returned back to the central hang out. By the time the show was over and it was time to find the van we straggled back to it in twos and threes. When I got there a couple people had it opened already and were reclining and soaking in the atmosphere. I went to the open tailgate and was fetching a refreshment when suddenly I was accosted from behind. I was clutched heavily by a cold but sweating guy who was obviously in great distress, but who was doing me physical harm. I heard soothing words coming from inside the van, saying that the speaker understood the way the assailant felt, but it was unacceptable for him to have grabbed me like that and then, BAM! The guy went flying off me back into the parking lot and I stayed right where I was. George, a big football player who had accompanied us had launched himself out of the rear of the van and knocked the guy about ten feet, after explaining its necessity in dulcet tones. I didn’t feel bad that the guy got nailed back into the parking lot. He obviously didn’t feel at all bad about choking me.

The rest of our party dribbled back over the remainder of the afternoon, and that was fine, because there was no way we would get out of that parking lot before dark anyway. We hung around the van drinking our cold beverages and playing hacky sack and Frisbee when the space permitted. When we eventually took the final headcount and piled into the van, we all had a post-adventure, job well done feeling. It was easy to find the campground; all you had to do was follow the line of hippies right to the only place to crash out there in the country. Finding our camp site took a little longer.

Once we had singled out our clutch of blue and tan dome tents from the sea of other blue and tan dome tents we restarted the fire and went about cozying into our site for the night. I had run off to a convenient thicket to release some of the beverages and was called away by a voice in the dark. It was a good friend from our site who had happened to see me skittering by. He asked if I wanted to join him for a last relaxing smoke to round off the night, and I did. As we lit up we found a dry spot in the thicket and shouldered our way through. The noise, and campfires, and movement, and drumming were suddenly all behind us. What lay ahead was a pristine night meadow, quiet, serene, and populated by a cloud of blinking fireflies. It was spectacular.