Saturday, February 21, 2009

I Beg To Differ

On February 19th, James Madison University’s local student paper, “The Breeze,” ran an article entitled “War, Studied Abroad.” The article, written by Gabriel Henriquez, is based off of interviews with an anonymous Marine-turned-student at JMU. This student, who refuses to give his name, uses his anonymity to address matters about which he knows nothing. The result was a printed article full of of flagrant lies regarding the professional conduct of the United States Marines. To further worsen matters, this anonymous Marine also provided offensive photographs to accompany his misinformation.

This article, only the first of three in the series, may be found online at,

What I wish to point out to all readers is that his conduct, attitude, and willingness to speak from behind a cloak of anonymity IN NO WAY reflects the predominant attitude of current or veteran Marines. In fact, all of those I know who have read this article find it personally offensive, and we have fairly deduced the job of this young Marine, his age, where he was deployed, his unit, and that unit’s purpose. All combine to leave a disgruntled young man with a notable grudge against the Marine Corps. And, insecure as he is, he now takes great satisfaction in berating the organization he voluntarily joined – from the safety of anonymity.

In giving this anonymous Marine an audience, “The Breeze” staff has indicated that its journalist standards are not at professional par and that they are more concerned with capturing attention than a rigid adherence to fact. They reveal their age, levels of professionalism, and personal agendas. They further harm their credibility with the publication of an inappropriate photograph that the anonymous Marine submitted to further convince us of his immaturity.

While some would argue that it is best to simply ignore his flagrant misinformation, this fails to consider that thousands of readers, having been presented no rebuttal, may very well come away convinced that the United States Marine Corps is a band of war criminals and habitually disregard international law, the Geneva Conventions, and basic rules of war. None of these statements are true.

Perhaps the more preposterous remark this anonymous Marine made is that when his unit switched from a humanitarian aid posture in Pakistan and moved across the border into Afghanistan, that they were somehow violating the Geneva Conventions by “violating” the border of a sovereign nation. This is wrong on several counts.

First, the Geneva Conventions are concerned with the treatment of prisoners of war, enemy sick and wounded, innocent civilians, and humanitarian standards in a time of war. None of these pertain to border crossings. Additionally, how is crossing from Pakistan into Afghanistan a violation of international border law? The United States, as well as NATO, is formally permitted, welcome, and invited by the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan to assist them in the fight again the Taliban and al Qaeda non-state aggressors within their borders. They have asked us for help, and I don’t see how helping them is a violation of some mythical border law. We were visiting at their request and with their approval. Not trespassing. When the article’s writer repeated the anonymous Marine’s false claims, he directly indicated how much research he is willing to do for his writing: NONE. He discredits the entire “Breeze” staff in the process.

This anonymous Marine also made the comment that he was living a terribly miserable life in the desert, showering once a week, eating MREs (Meals-Ready-To-Eat), and using the cardboard box itself as toilet paper. Let me start at the top here.

Going back to the old Marine Corps recruiting poster that depicts a grizzled Drill Instructor screaming at a boot camp recruit, “Nobody Promised You a Rose Garden.” Showering once a week isn’t that big a deal. During the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, infantry Marines went about 43 days. They will gladly tell you this. They remember. Years later, in 2006, I myself went a month without showering. These things happen. The most important thing to the Marine Corps is mission accomplishment. Troop welfare is second. This anonymous Marine should remember this.

While the writer of this article remarks that this poor Marine was forced to relieve himself in the desert, he overlooks that every time a person goes camping, he or she probably does the same thing. And people PAY to camp. This Marine is a paid employee of the United State. And furthermore, I have never in my life met a Marine who has been forced to use an MRE box as toilet paper. Frankly, I don’t think such things are even feasible. And for the record, each MRE box contains twelve meals, each of which has toilet paper included in it.

As for MRE’s being “notorious” for causing constipation, this is not the case. They are, in fact, DESIGNED to prevent loose stools. This improves field hygiene, reduces a Marine’s belief that he is filthy, and helps to ensure quick, simple cleaning. On a personal note, if this anonymous Marine was so grievously unprepared that he neglected to bring baby wipes, he has forgotten the logic and advice of truly thousands of his predecessors who have made deployment packing lists public information. I would refer to this using the Marine Corps “7 Ps.” Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. I would submit that this Marine lacks proper prior planning.

But what troubles me the most about this article is that it is written poorly in a manner that suggests the writer is so concerned with finding a story that he neglects to check his facts or in any way verify the information given him by the anonymous Marine. Rest assured, I will follow these articles carefully, respond to each as they are printed, and will do everything in my power to present JMU readers with truth, not sensationalism. Below are three pieces I have written in response to this article. The first and second are responses to the article as it appeared online at The second was a letter I sent to “The Breeze” Editor-In-Chief.

More scathing remarks will certainly appear as more untrue information is published.

Ben Shaw on February 21st, 2009 4:04 am

Both the writer of this article and the Anonymous Marine source should verify their information before spreading flagrant lies. The Geneva convention does not pertain to International border law. It is concerned with the fair and humane treatment/protection of unarmed civilians, prisoners of war, and the wounded and sick. There is no mention of border violations.

Additionally, how is a legitimate combat mission in Afghanistan an unlawful crossing of a border? The United States, and NATO, have been invited and welcomed by the democratically-elected government of Aghfanistan, Hamid Karzai, and his associates, to assist in the efforts to eradicate the Taliban and al Qaeda non-state aggressors (terrorists) from within their borders. We are welcomed guests and friends, not trespassers.

The Breeze should be more careful to avoid printing baseless information. It discredits the publication, moving it from unbiased campus news agency to sensationalists seeking an audience (with a pronounced agenda of their own).

This Anonymous Marine should be more mindful of his service, since it was HE that volunteered to serve. Troops are only required to obey LAWFUL orders, and they are welcome to contest any perceived non-lawful orders through the “Request Mast” process, wherein a Marine of any rank is given legal right to directly speak with any superior from directly above him/her all the way to the Commandant of the Marine Corps. If what he was doing was such a violation, he should have brought it up using this legal right. Failure to do so indicates some level of guilt by negligence. Herein he reveals his youth and immaturity.

As a whole, this article, just the first of three, greatly diminishes the status of “The Breeze,” and does potentially irreparable harm to its credibility.

As a pre-military-educated college graduate, three-time Marine combat veteran of the Global War on Terror, infantryman, tactics and foreign weapons instructor, senior non-commissioned officer, and former student of James Madison University, I strongly advise readers to approach these three articles with skepticism. Do your own research, and form your own conclusions. Please disregard the muddled rantings of a young man who is dissatisfied with his service experience. He is not deserving of a “thank you” for his service, but a sharp rebuke for turning his back on a unit he volunteered to join and resorting to lies to gain attention.

Ben Y. Shaw

Ben Shaw on February 21st, 2009 1:46 pm

Readers, please be aware of several other incorrect statements contained in this article. First, I have never met a Marine who felt it necessary to resort to using an MRE box as toilet paper. Each box, in fact, contains twelve meals - each with its own toilet paper (and some have wet wipes). Most combat Marines also know the importance of bringing baby wipes with them wherever they go. Failure to do so indicates poor planning

Second, MREs are not “notorious for causing constipation.” They are, in fact, intended to harden the stools. This makes cleanliness in field conditions a more readily attainable goal, improves morale, and helps make up for lack of regular shower facilities. That, also, is another common occurrence.

While this anonymous Marine is lamenting his one shower a week, Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 frequently went more than 40 days between showers. I, on my second tour in 2005-2006, went a solid month without showering, too. The fact is, you make do, and when you get a chance, you clean up. Daily showers are nice, but in no way a guarantee in combat arms.

In a more serious note, the remarks that this anonymous Marine makes regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not rooted in medical and psychological fact, and he indirectly suggests that every Marine who has suffered with PTSD does so because he (or she) is of reduced character. I submit that this is a blatantly inaccurate statement, and would encourage him to consult any one of a number of professional psychological sources on the topic of PTSD. Furthermore, shell-shock is an ambiguous term used to describe psychological and physiological responses to direct encounters with catastrophic explosions, but also applied (in previous wars) to describe combat stress, battle fatigue, and other related terms. It is also considered an archaic term, since not even a universal definition can be reached.

I know plenty of young men and women who have had a very firm “basis of reality,” yet still struggled with readjustment to civilian life. Statistically, after 60 days of continuous combat, a staggering 98% of troops will show signs of pronounced combat stress and other psychological problems. The 2% that do not are enjoying themselves, and are exhibiting the behavior patterns of aggressive sociopaths. This anonymous Marine paints with a broad brush. MOST combat troops will have some psychological matters to address and they will be necessarily challenging to overcome. It is when they do NOT struggle that we must be most concerned. It indicates a contentment with killing, which is contrary to innate human instinct.

I can personally relate to the matter of readjusting to civilian life, just as did this anonymous Marine, but his apparent overcoming of his struggles should in no way suggest that others who continue to struggle are somehow defective or weak. According to the Veterans Affairs, 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year. Are we to simply write them off as weak, or lacking a “firm basis in reality?” Such a contention would be odious to their memories, their surviving loved ones, and does nothing at all to assist them in rehabilitation.

Rather than speak from judgment, this anonymous Marine should speak from grave concern for his brothers and sisters in arms. For the moment, however, he seems content to begrudge every aspect of his service, discredit himself, and indicate that “The Breeze” is not holding itself to high journalistic standards in the material they gather and publish. I strongly recommend they consider dropping this series of articles from print. It would do wonders to redeem their reputation as a professional news agency. Shame on Mr. Henriquez for not investigating the claims of his source. And shame on the source for offering them without any guarantee of truth.

Ben Y. Shaw

*The document below was submitted to the editor:


I wished to bring to your attention the quality of the February 19th article, "War, Studied Abroad." The article is not at all in keeping with the journalist standards of "The Breeze," and speaks volumes about its writer (and also the editorial staff that allowed it to "sneak" past their thorough examination). The material contained within the piece is such a far cry from the fact and it serves to weaken the character of the entire "Breeze" staff that permitted it run.

Consider, for example, the statement that the Geneva Convention(s) somehow pertain to international border law. They do not. They are concerned with the humane and universally agreed treatment of prisoners of war, innocent civilians, uniformed and non-uniformed combatants, and care of enemy sick/wounded. There is nothing about border crossing. When the writer repeated such a baseless remark, he proved just how little research he is willing to invest into his presentation.

Given the unprofessional nature of this initial article, and unprofessional (anonymous and "safe") manner in which the writer is gleaning his information, and given the fact that the writer's and source's credibility are already severely damaged, no further redemption can be found in running the next two articles. I strongly advise you consider withdrawing them from the schedule. This is not for the sake of the dignity of the article's writer and his source, but for the sake of the credibility of your publication. It would also behoove "The Breeze" to issue a letter of apology for stooping to unfounded sensationalism for the sake of headlining perceived controversy.

These series of articles will damage your reputation severely - and speak volumes to indicate the bias (or perhaps editorial apathy) of your staff. Articles of this low quality have the potential to effect a future job-seeker. Those hiring will not see a professional writer; they will see one who has permitted or even sanctioned poor journalistic standards. This article disrespects your personally.

If you would like a formal rebuttal or more information regarding the conduct of individuals and units in the United States Marine Corps, I gladly, with name attached, volunteer to provide you as much information as I am able. Since I have only done and seen so much, I have only limited information to provide. Nevertheless, what I do provide, I will gladly attach my name to it. What I have seen and done are actions of which I am proud. Feel free to contact me personally.

At the very least, I strongly suggest that you make an effort to hold "The Breeze" to the high standard that I, you, and thousands of other readers have come to expect. If it no longer provides us news, we will no longer read it. You may be certain that my remarks to this article will not be the last. There are many veterans at JMU, and they are inclined to keep in touch with their fellow vets. None of us are pleased with this article. In fact, everybody to whom I have spoken about it is offended that the USMC would be falsely portrayed as a band of war criminals. As for the thousands of combat missions we represent, we conducted ourselves in a manner that preserved our personal honor, the honor of the Marine Corps, and the high expectations of our nation. This standard, now passed on to our juniors and the next waves of troops, is still rigorously upheld. Ask any Marine but the anonymous one to whom your writer is speaking. He represents a very small, misinformed minority.

Feel free to quote me if you wish, to use my name, to browse my website, and contact me personally with questions.


Ben Y. Shaw
Freelance Writer | Photojournalist

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 20, 2009

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Not long ago, I called the Veterans Affairs hospital nearby and followed their automatic system through a series of lengthy prompts until I was finally placed in touch with their mental health department. I was not “suffering a mental health crisis,” so I did not push the button that indicated I was. I would wait in line like everybody else. If somebody actually needed help, I wanted that line open, at any rate.

After the line rang unanswered for a few minutes, the system automatically spit me back to the main operator switchboard, where I told them that I was trying to reach their mental health department. Very apologetic and friendly, the lady transferred me over yet again. More ringing.

Ten minutes and a few more “spit backs” later, somebody finally picked up the phone and informed me that I needed to speak with the chief secretary of the department for my question. They would transfer me to that number. Nobody answered, so I left a message. I’m glad my matter wasn’t urgent.

The reason for my call was this: I am attempting to gain access to the VA mental health staff for a series of interviews wherein I inquire what they have found to be the greatest challenges (mentally and emotionally) facing readjusting to civilian life, and what are their treatment solutions to best help them with the transition. Not only am I curious, but more importantly, I am concerned. I have friends who are struggling, and the facts show many more that I do not know do as well. Were this not the case, the VA itself wouldn’t estimate that 5,000 veterans will take their own lives this year.

In addition to learning what the VA is doing to best help these men and women, I am also interested to determine what we, as family members, loved ones, friends, fellow veterans and Americans alike may do to best assist the VA in their treatments and also best support our veteran friends. Certainly there is something more that we can do – and what better way than to hear the suggestions from the professionals devoted to assisting them? It seems like a good use of my time, potentially productive, and also potentially helpful to the numbers of men and women that need it most.

The next day, having received no call-back, I tried again and spoke with the chief secretary. She told me that I needed to speak with the department head, and forwarded me to that number. No answer. I left a message, grew impatient soon thereafter, and tried again. At last, I spoke with the right person. Well, not really. She directed me to their Public Affairs office, and I was connected with an agent who quickly informed me that I needed to submit the entire proposal to them via e-mail. Oh dear, now I needed to write things down, which I had not yet done.

Nevertheless, I got my act together, wrote something up, had a friend edit it and offer some good suggestions, and then submitted the entire package to the hospital’s public affairs office. A day later, she e-mailed back that the proposal had been sent to regional headquarters for further examination and approval/denial. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Readers may recall that I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my positive experience at my local VA clinic, wherein I dealt with a very competent, friendly, and concerned doctor with an outstanding memory. Towards the end of that piece, I also indicated that I was considering sending them a thank-you letter for their professional and caring service to veterans. And I did just that about a week ago.

Yesterday, I received a phone call from the doctor herself, thanking me for my letter, which they found encouraging, and also thanking me for the humorous post (which I boldly included) regarding VA facilities and my good experiences at her particular clinic.

“We all really enjoyed it, and you write well, so I went ahead and forwarded it to the Richmond. I hope that’s okay.”

It was not, but I didn’t tell her that. It was VERY not okay.

This is the same place to which I just submitted a serious research proposal, and now another document, also replete with my name, as arrived on their doorstep, this one making comparisons of their facilities to Russian sanitariums. The two documents – one written seriously with an eye towards professional research, and the other geared towards poking fun at a massive government entity – are almost completely contradictory.

I have no idea if the same people will see these documents. Nor do I know if it will make any appreciable difference. It’s rather disturbing that a mere eight months after beginning regular writing, some of my material is already potentially biting me in the butt. For the moment, all I can do is hope that one group reads on piece and finds it humorous, another group reads the other piece and finds it inspiring, and that never the twain shall meet. Ever. And in the future, be more careful about what I write.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Forget It

When my friend neared the end of his first term as a Marine, after several meetings with the career planner, much discussion with his wife, and careful consideration of all his options, he elected that, given his circumstances, reenlisting would be the best course of action.

A good friend was aiming to go to a unit that didn’t deploy in bustling area of the Northeast, and it would be fun to reenlist with him, train other Marines, enjoy the uniform far from a large base, and remain a part of the brotherhood. Besides all this, reenlistment bonuses were fantastic at that time. You get a huge sum just for showing up, plus even more for staying in a specific field. The opportunities for a large nest egg were tangible. It would be a down payment on a house. With dreams someday of a family, it seemed like a great idea. All he had to do was some brief paperwork and go get a signature.

This signature, however, was that of the company first sergeant. While he was usually fairly welcoming to his subordinates, he was a busy man, so my friend scheduled a time when he could meet with him, get the signature he needed, and prepare to raise his hand again for the oath for his country. He was excited. Nearly four years in the Corps had taken him twice to Iraq as an infantryman, seen him shot at and mortared repeatedly, taught him many things, and transformed a teenager into an instructor, skilled tactician, and leader of Marines – whose purpose was mission accomplishment, advocacy of his troops, and perpetual concern for their well being, safety, and combat preparedness. He had chosen his career well, conducted himself professionally, and had high accolades and decorations to prove it. The Marines would benefit from him remaining. He, too, would enjoy the continued relationship.

At the agreed-upon time, he appeared in the company office to get the 1st Sgt’s signature for the go ahead. It would be brief. “You’re reenlisting? That’s excellent news, devil dog. God speed! Let me sign that paper, and you have yourself a find career as an infantry NCO.” They never said no to a reenlistment. He was delayed in his meeting on account of the 1st Sgt being busy counseling (yelling at) somebody. No worries. Ass chewings never take long.

Four hours later, he was finally called into the office. My friend, though extremely patient was annoyed. This was a decision that was carefully-considered, and it would influence the next four years of his life, and perhaps even more of it. Marines were always eager to retain their own. He was a good Marine on all levels, a multi-time combat veteran, and carried with him the survival skills that his juniors desperately needed to know. The war in Iraq wasn’t going anywhere for the immediate future.

After he reported in, he explained his intentions to the first sergeant and handed him the paper. The first sergeant glared back up at him, took the paper, and frowned as he read it. Setting it down, he looked squarely at my friend and asked, “Why on earth are you reenlisting?”

It was the final nail in the coffin. Reenlisting was a decision he had made boldly, but with the hopes that the next four years would be smoother than the first. Having somebody question his character and inquire why on earth he wanted to reenlist was insulting.

“You know what, first sergeant, I think I’ve changed my mind.”

He walked out, tore up the papers, and a few months later got out of the Marine Corps like almost all of us. The Marines lost a good man that day. After years of being treated like a useless underling, it appeared the next four would be simply more of the same. Forget it. Not long after this, his friend, who DID end up reenlisting and going to the non-deployable unit, found himself once again in Iraq, feeling like he’d been completely screwed.

My veteran buddy, longtime friend, fellow fighter, driver, companion, and coverer of my six, has since joined an outfit that was downright eager to accept him. He’s now a cadet in the Army ROTC, providing them with essential training in counterinsurgency operations, and preparing his fellow cadets for inevitable deployment to the middle east. At heart, he’s still a Marine, and he’s still annoyed that a single first sergeant would do so little to retain the nation’s finest We both know for a fact that this man singlehandedly discouraged several others from reenlisting, myself being one of them. For his sake, I hope the Army does him better.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Event

After years of considering myself the hero, the highly trained and brave guy that always solves problems and saves the day, my current lot is all the more an insult. I am in fear – for my life, and with selfish and total disregard to all those around me. I am hiding. And I am scared. What further worsens this is that it’s entirely my own fault that this even took place. I pick up my phone and beg for help again. I’ve already hung up on them twice already, but I was afraid somebody would hear me. Maybe I can talk this time and give them more information…

When I saw Jordan, I thought she was attractive, but I didn’t think much more of it. She was a subordinate, a coworker, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that personal relationship. Besides, I saw the ring on her finger so I just assumed she was off-limits. I’m not trying to mess with anybody’s marriage. She had a great smile, though.

But after months of being on my best behavior, of avoiding awkward situations with just the two of us in the lounge or the break room, our conversations inevitably extended beyond mere professional discourse. Come to find out, she was in a bad marriage. Her husband, Rick, was a walking disaster. Not long back from the war, he was irritable, jumpy, drank entirely too much, and was perpetually drifting further from her, and from most everybody else for that matter. And then he lost his job, which was probably the only thing holding him loosely to reality.

She’d be at work all day, actually earning money, and Rick, having lost his single purpose, gave up altogether, sat at home on the couch, drank from about noon onwards, and yelled at her when she came home. Why she told me this is still beyond me, but maybe I seemed trustworthy, as a supervisor and professional associate. What I did next began a series of missteps that, six months later, has me hiding in a small bathroom and cowardly begging for help.

Her honesty was alluring, as was even more so were her looks, and I began looking forward to her coming in and chatting with me again. I wasn’t particularly interested in what she had to say, but with spending time with her. And with being trusted, which I found flattering. But when she started talking about being lonely, I took it to heart and leapt at the perceived opportunity with impropriety. I betrayed her, for my own entertainment.

Rather than offer as much encouragement as I could and perhaps point her to somebody better suited as a confidant, I took the opportunity to paint myself as the concerned, caring, true friend that will listen and understand. And console. And the power of my consolation, the lie I fabricated that I actually gave a damn about her situation, endeared her to me all the more. Before long, we were seeing each other outside of the office. We had dinner a few times under the guise of a professional meeting or subject, but I soon cut to the chase and simply invited her to my house. I lived alone, while she obviously did not, and my home served as a peaceful escape from a verbally abusive, distant, and deadbeat husband.

What followed was a descent into gratification, the abuse of another’s vulnerability, and the enjoyment of futile trysts that could have no good ending. Everybody knew about it at work, but nobody talked about it. I guess they didn’t want to throw any more fuel on the fire. We, and mostly I, had already set that ablaze completely.

I have called 911 three times and tried to explain where I am here. I have told them that he’s here to kill me, and he may kill her too. He may have shot her already, but I think he’s only shot the guy outside in the hall He’s a coworker, and as I huddle here in the bathroom, I’m listening to him bleed out. He’s been screaming for what seems like forever. “He shot me in my legs,” he keeps screaming. He’s begging for help, but I’m afraid to go out there and help him. He wails that there’s blood everywhere and I imagine the hallways looks like a butcher shop. I’m paralyzed and can’t move. If her husband sees me, I will die. Every time my friend in the hall grow quiet, I’m terrified he’s finally died from his wounds. I told the 911 people about it, but they didn’t seem very concerned about it. “As long as he keeps making noise, he’s okay, sir.” This is all my fault. Somehow he found out, and he’s going to kill us both.

Soon after I heard them drag my injured coworker out to safety. They’d yelled at him to pull himself along the floor to where they were, but he didn’t have any strength left. I think he was crying. He has a wife and kids. He wanted to see them, he was saying.

When the SWAT team came storming into the room, I heard the through the door, so I started telling them, “don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” I didn’t want them to think I was armed. I was not. I was too scared to even move. I just wanted to be out of there. I feel like a coward, and I probably am one.

They threw me on the floor and searched me, then handcuffed me. I heard them talking into their radios as they half dragged, half guide me outside. I asked where Jordan was. Had they seen her? Was she safely outside? They wanted to ask ME questions, though.

Rick, they said, was inside with several hostages, to include my coworker, lover, and HIS wife. He was threatening to kill all of them if they didn’t send me in. “Are you really going to do that? He’ll kill me for sure!” They told me they would not, and I was thankful. But then I hated myself for being a coward. This entire situation is all my own doing. They’re going to get killed. One man almost died already, and now Rick was probably going to shoot the rest because they wouldn’t send me in. I started feeling so badly that I asked if they would. At least they wouldn’t hurt the other people. They were all my friends, too. I would probably die, but at least I wouldn’t face my maker responsible for the death of half my coworkers. As it was, I still had a lot to explain to God. I doubted He would understand. This was unconscionably wrong.

For some reason, they kept us close to the hostage negotiation van, and we saw and heard everything. I saw the spy camera in the room where Rick was, screaming at people, banging on things. And I heard the officers yelling at him and asking him what his demands were. He wanted water. He wanted safe passage out. But he mostly just wanted me. I begged them to go. This would eat me alive if I lived and they didn’t. But, the negotiators still wouldn’t let me. Jordan was going to die – mostly because I wasn’t a friend, I was instead a predator.

I asked a hostage negotiator for a cigarette. I hadn't really ever smoked, but I needed one now. I think I wanted it to somehow make my feeling of guilt and total responsibility go away. Of course, it didn't help. I just felt sick and coughed a lot.

After awhile he stopped yelling and started lining people up. When he sent out one hostage to get the water he asked for, she ran instead and he started screaming again. And then he put poor Jordan on her knees. “He’s going to kill her!” I started yelling at the negotiators. He’s going to execute her. And they knew it, too. Almost every one of them started yelling into their radios. “Go, get in there now. Take him down. GO!” I heard gunfire. I couldn’t look at the TV screen anymore. One of the officers led me off.

Jordan is dead now, and Rick shot himself before the SWAT guys could push through the door. They caught it all on camera – forever recording the consequences of my predacious behavior. Her best friend is yelling at me and crying. “It’s your fault. This is because you’re a pervert and evil.” She was the hostage that escaped. The cops are going to have to handcuff her just to keep her from attacking me. I can’t believe this is happening. What started as fun and simple attraction became immoral. What was immoral became evil. And there are now two people dead. I did this. And I cannot live with myself.

*Yup… I spent the day training with the local SWAT team as a role-player, alternating between hostage, coward, armed aggressor, and helpless victim. The one scenario I have recounted was scripted and planned. These situations were all purely fabricated, but such things do happen, and SWAT, highly trained, stressed out, and concerned for everybody’s safety, are called in to undo the selfish behavior of a character like mine. It’s certainly pause for thought.

At any rate, I preferred being the shooter. I’m good at it. Not so good at being a wimp. But then again, I haven’t been in such situations. And I hope never to be. Good training, indeed…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spring Come She Will

There are evenings when you can actually smell Spring approaching. A damp chill cut with the aroma of vegetation returning to life, fattening buds, and a promise of warmer weather. The light’s longer, too, and I’m getting antsy.

For reasons I can still not explain, I am still fascinated with the idea of finding an old 1950s pickup, red paint faded from half a century in the sun, rust spots here and there, a heat-cracked dashboard and a hard, plastic steering wheel. I don’t care if the seats are ripped; in fact, it’s better if they are. Luxury isn’t savory, at any rate.

With pickup truck acquired, I will don my straw hat, blue jeans, and white t-shirt, and continue seeing the country I only began to explore on a motorcycle last year. I will tune the old-fashioned radio to some tinny station in the middle of a Kansas cornfield and hope that Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline are the only music they play. Maybe Glen Miller in the evenings.

There’s much more yet to see, really. There are people that need knowing. I want to meet the older lady that’s won the county fair pie-baking contest for the last ten years. I want to taste her baked goods. I want to talk to the farmer, dip spit running dribbled from his deep-creased chin. The man who knows a hell of a lot about roping cattle and doesn’t give a damn about much else. It’s his, huge, arthritic hand that I want to shake, too.

Rodeo season starts in the spring, bringing with it huge crowds of talented, enthusiastic young men and women who have found sport even in the most mundane of agricultural activities. The kids that paid for their saddles by working long, summer hours getting laid less than their worth. Kids who know what a western saddle is actually for.

There are deep south churches to see, where every Sunday the richest singing pushes through their sanctuary walls and courses enticingly down the street in both directions. Where, in unconditioned buildings, they suffer the oppressive heat in their Sunday best and fan themselves with bulletins and shush whomever’s kid is making a ruckus beside them. I’d like to share their joy with them.

And then, having met but a few here and there, had a hundred “Betties” serve me a hundred burgers in a hundred different small towns, I will get back in the old truck, throw my bag in the truck bed, and take off at sunset, underneath clouds threatening a brief spring rain. I will ride with the window down and feel the tinge of cold still in the air and listen to old music, and roll my own cigarettes and beat out the rhythm on the wheel as night falls and I find a place to sleep.

There on those roads, in small dales between huge ridges, nestled in hills, at arbitrary points in the middle of miles of corn, I will see the small town parade with the fire trucks and the Shriners, the local mayor and the local beauty queen. I will photograph the kids playing in the open fire hydrant and streets lined with US flags, and happy faces regaled with July 4th fireworks displays. I will pause in respectful silence at the memorials each town has – honoring the oft-disproportionate number of men their community has sacrificed in the protection of liberty. I will remember how thankful I am that I’m here to enjoy it, and live life to the fullest on their behalf and in their honor.

I will get lost a lot and not care where I wind up. I will find an old filling station where an old man with a rag in his back pocket emerges from under an equally old car and pumps my gas for me while talking about the weather. I want to meet Americans – the true salt of the earth. Who never had an interest in the busy life of cities, and are content to have smaller lives with richer relationships. Who grow old with their spouses and watch their children have a few of their own. I will see a real rotary phone, and meet a lady with horn rimmed glasses, and talk with a man who castrates his hogs by hand, and help the local guys who’ve tossed hay bales in the sun for days, and get a sunburn on my neck in payment. I will drink Coke from a glass bottle, and somehow it will taste better.

There was a pretty girl in a dream the other night - with smooth skin, dark eyes and long hair. She wasn't happy, she told me, as she leaned against the fence railing. She didn't much like it where she was. I invited her to travel with me and we left soon thereafter. I haven't met her yet, but I'd like to...

Spring is coming soon, and I can’t wait. The adventuring bug is afflicting me, and it needs satisfaction. I want to travel the back roads in an old pickup. I want to see America. I want to MEET America, too, and I want you to come with me.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Neurotic

A full twenty years since our days of dodging peas scattered about the floor by our Saint Bernard, we still find ourselves with an unimproved collection of needy, eclectic, and perhaps downright retarded pets. Some things have changed, certainly. After years of squishing used food between my toes, I, like my mother, have taken to wearing slippers – regardless of how silly they may be. There are also fewer numbers of pets as whole. But those we do have are not without their share of problems, phobias, and irritating habits.

The present cat, eleven years ago replacing the one that uniformly hated every last one of us, is entirely the opposite. She needs us – desperately so. At eleven, she is the fittest “senior” cat the veterinarian has seen in years. But she still hates him.

She, like a normal cat, will hunt around for little animals to kill, disembowel them, and leave various unrecognizable organs on the doormats as a gift. I suppose we are to thank her for the contributions – now small pools of gore glued to the porch paint. A few she’ll bring back alive, somehow sneak in the door, and proceed to release these injured, cute little furry things inside the house for our viewing pleasure. They, and she, are recaptured and thrown back outside. From what I understand of cats, though, this is relatively normal behavior. They spend 99% of their time pleasing themselves, and the other 1% trying to please the master, yet succeed in only being irritating and gross.

What is NOT normal behavior, however, is her lack of cleanliness. I have always presumed cats to be tidy creatures that divide their days equally between grooming and sleeping. This one focuses her energy on competing with the dog for bringing in as much dirt as possible.

If the weather is nice, she’ll be outside. She will find dirt, roll in it, and immediately be stricken with the urge to come back in. She will alert us to this by hanging by her claws on door. The screen, suffering from years of her pull-ups, is beginning to sag at the top corner. And then she’ll come in, leaving a visible trail of dirt from the door, all the way to her food bowl, or wherever else she elects shakes off. Consequently, there are always two, dark heaps of dirt lying about the house. The gap between them is where she stood. Every couch, chair, and bed has been littered with her filth – even more frequently as the weather warms. She just likes dirt, I guess, and keeps us all terribly interested in vacuuming the house on a near-daily basis. She is an utter slob.

At her age, one would expect that she would invest most of her time sleeping and seeking laps, but her time inside is instead on being as much of an irritant as possible. When she’s not leaving dirt, she’s fussing for somebody to open a closed door for her – usually into a closet. Or she’s scratching random patches of the wall. Or generally being as loud and obnoxious as she is able. She’ll make a racket to go out, then do pull-ups on the door until she is promptly let back in. When in, she’ll follow people around the house demanding attention and dropping dirt, and hop onto whomever occupies any couch or bed – and leave an obligatory ring of debris where she landed. During the several months when she sheds, the filth is mixed with large clumps of hair that always end up on pillows.

“Normal” cats chew on garbage bags. This one chews up groceries – but only bread bags. Nor does she much like tuna, but chicken will send her into a frenzy that has her clawing at the legs of anybody in the kitchen for a taste. She is, to say the least, a total nuisance.

The dog, now a shaggy husky/Newfoundland mix, weighs in at just under 100lbs, and carries in not only a profusion of dirt clinging to his coat, but an assortment of sticks, briars, leaves, mud and sand. Everything sticks to him and his behavior does little to prevent it.

He is, for lack of a better way to put it, intellectually challenged. Newfoundlands, by their nature, love water. So does ours, but he’s afraid of swimming. He will never go into the “deep end” of any body of water, and usually won’t even get his head wet. If his feet (complete with webbed toes for superior swimming) can’t touch the bottom, he won’t go in. This is despite multiple efforts to lure him into deeper water, including people holding treats. His terror of swimming leads me to believe that a far shore littered with disabled, ground-restricted squirrels would be completely safe, so long is the water is deeper than his chest. His lack of swimming is an embarrassment.

And he has other odd habits, too. He never jumps or even licks people – ever. He just leans on them and knocks them over. He’s unaware that he’s not a lap dog.
His desperation for attention sends him chasing cars whenever they leave, which resulted in an expensive invisible fence being installed around the perimeter of the house and yards. All good and well, save for the fact he largely ignores it. While otherwise an incredibly sweet (albeit stupid) animal, he will jump said fence in pursuit of other dogs. Perhaps it is territorial instinct, but he would eat other dogs given the opportunity. This aggression and the apparent ineffectiveness of the invisible fence necessitated the construction of an elaborate real fence to keep him from giving chase to hunting dogs (and cars). While this is fine, but I’m the one that usually ends up assigned these projects, and I have spent more time preparing dog confines over the recent years than any other chores around the property. In the absence of real grandchildren, I suppose he and the cat have become the adopted ones – just as spoiled and useless as real ones.

And this doting means that whenever he goes on a walk, there is an aversion to leashing him – in part because he’s almost 100lbs and barely controllable, but also because it’s just nice to let him run free to wade up to his chest in streams (never swim), and dutifully pee on everything he can find. But to avoid him eating other dogs, he now wears a muzzle.

He doesn’t much like it, naturally, and it looks particularly stupid on him, but it’s effective. He can’t bite anything, so he just nudges them to death. Otherwise, his activities remain unfettered. He still chases things, still goes carefully wading, still rams his nose into the dirt and continually crashes through the woods in search of more things to ferociously nudge. His “magic face,” as well as his fur, come back stuck with full branches, briers, and a bits of nature that would otherwise be left to decompose in peace.

That applies also to carcasses and bones he finds throughout the area. Despite being muzzled, he will furiously punch at something until a large enough piece sticks through that he can bite – and he will come wandering home with something gross hanging from his mouth – through his magic face. When he drops them, he is put inside, and the decaying flesh is thrown on top of the woodshed roof. Following a particularly robust hunting season, there will be a heap up there that will one day corrode through the roof itself and fall onto the wood pile. Better that, however, than having these things strewn far and wide across the yard. It would look like a horrible crime scene.

The poor dog also appears to have troubles with stress. Maybe he needs doggie meds. Whenever he is fenced in his real fence with nearby goats to keep him company, he seems perfectly content. But when he is left free to roam his invisible fence domain, the pressure of defending it may be too much for him. He routinely gets diarrhea, a tasteless addition to the sticks and other debris clinging to his fur. I become all the more conscious of how gross he truly is when he then tries to lean on me and sit on my feet. I usually flee in disgust.

Despite his penchant for aggression against other dogs and a burning desire to collect dead things, it seems he’s learning about the invisible fence – at least better than he did in the past. While he may have been shocked a time or two on his own, I think what really drove the message home was when my mom forgot to remove his “magic collar” and lead him right through the fence. He was, of course, zapped.
For the moment, he will go nowhere without her directly leading him and the muzzle firmly on his maw. Remarkably, he still trusts her – and his magic face – to lead him safely through the DMZ.

There are other pets, yes, but the dog and cat both seem to be engaged in serious competition for the greatest collection of neuroses. Some days, it’s a tossup. Between their dirt, their dead animals, and their constant need for attention, these two adopted grandchildren receive far more doting than any real grandchildren ever will. Why get real ones when the ones you have already keep you thoroughly exasperated, entertained, and busily cleaning your house after each visit? And you know what’s best? I’m allergic to them both…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


I apologize for the lack of a post today. My time was primarily invested in my web page.

As of about ten minutes ago, the following two sections are nearing completion:



Each page now links to some of my favorite writings on these subjects. I am still editing out all the kinks and typos on the writing itself, so thank you for your patience. This is definitely a work in progress. Please report any glaring errors or browsing problems to my via email.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved