Saturday, April 25, 2009

High Country, Part II

*If you have not already done so, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I"


Sometime around noon Diggy trotted forward to Tim and bluntly spoke: “Ain’t no way in hell we’re gonna make it by dark at this rate.”

“It’s possible. I still know the way.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.” Tim exhaled a cloud of smoke and turned in the saddle to look at me.

“See that mountain that a’ way?” He tossed his chin east to a single, long, low disruption on the landscape.

“I do.”

“That’s Sleeping Ute Mountain. I sort of figured he looks dead – what with his arms cross over his chest, but what do I know.” He looked forward again and seemed to have forgotten that he even spoke. He dragged hard on his smoke and I was amazed how his horse seemed unconcerned by the ash accumulating in her mane. Only his horse, I suppose.

The mountain did look like an Indian, but the exact nature of his repose (permanent or temporary), was difficult to determine. To our north was our destination, at any rate, and a much more profuse assembly of hills. Compared to the current dry, sub-desert around us, it was green up there. It received no more rain than did this parched section of southeast Utah, but the snow melt running from high on the peaks was ample to support grazing vegetation – however scant. Down here, they used hay all winter, which annually drained every penny of savings and placed the success or total failure of the year in the hands of a volatile meat market. They would never say it, but they prayed a lot. One year of high-priced hay would finish them, as would one particularly harsh winter that killed cattle, or disease in the herd, or a low per-pound market price. What anybody would relish this constant instability was beyond me.

Carl had explained it to me sometime in the past, with limited success. “They don’t do this because they ever get rich. In fact, most just get poorer at varying rates. But it’s just what they do. As hard as it may be, as thankless at it may be, and as ever near as total poverty may be, they still love it. It’s real work to them, and they pride themselves in doing something that most everybody else is afraid to do. God knows I didn’t want to do it, which still bothers my dad. He was expecting that I’d be the last generation. Nope. It was him. They’re dying out, really. Everywhere. Literally and figuratively. The older ones can’t get their kids to take an interest in it, so they sell the farms, cash in, and spend the rest of their days complaining about how nobody wants to work. It’s sort of true. More than that though, nobody wants to work their body to death and barely eke out a living. They’d rather be chubby, lazy, and have a little more luxury. Hell, I’m one of those folks, too.”

It still made little sense. I look around out here and I saw rugged beauty. It was a good place to visit, but not live. Tim, Diggy, and maybe even Carl all saw head of cattle per acre, sustainability, or calculated how many bales per winter. I imagine it detracted from the enjoyment of the landscape. Home is boring to those that live there, but they always miss it when they’re gone. What do these men miss? Long days, long winters, and sunburns? Tending cattle? The view? I hesitated to ask.

As I ruminated about cattle per acre, we drew abreast of a mid-sized river which, at this late in the year, was low but still steady. Tim dismounted and tied back the reins. Diggy did the same, and Carl and I followed suit. The horses wandered over and began to drink deeply. This was the first water we’d encountered since we left. But color was wrong, though. Maybe too much blue. I looked at Carl.

“Are the horses going to drink that? It looks like it has chemicals in it.”

“It DOES have chemicals in it. Sulfur. It’d make a show horse sick – if you could even get them to drink it. But these guys are used to it. Upstream, near the Colorado border, a few volcanic hot springs feed into it. It may still be a little warmer here, but I doubt you’ll notice it. You’ll notice the smell instead.”

He was right; it smelled like bad eggs, looked particularly caustic, and I wondered if it had any negative, cumulative effects on the horses. At any rate, I trusted Tim’s judgment. He knew this place. I also presumed the horses knew better than to drink something that was poisonous to them.

Tim kicked some larger river rocks out of the way and lay down in the pebbles of the bar. For the first time since breakfast, he’d paused his smoking. “There’s no way they can drink enough in a few minutes; we’ll follow this upstream for about an hour and then cut north again. It ain’t that much extra distance, since it runs mostly north anyway. We’ll let ‘em stop and drink whenever they want to, though. We got at least 15 miles still, and there’s no more water for at least 10 of those.

“Tim, it’s gonna be plenty dark by then.”

“Well thank you, Diggy. I hadn’t considered that. You want to lead the way? Actually, since I know you don’t, why not just burn a smoke here and relax. We’ll be fine.”

Diggy made no audible reply and responded with a gesture instead. His message clearly conveyed, he wandered off into the bushes to relieve himself.

A mile up the river we were confronted with the atrocious odor of rotting flesh, though the source remained unidentified. As it intensified we began to grow accustomed to it, though the horses were clearly more sensitive to it than we were. Within five minutes, it was evident: somebody had lost a calf – not even a yearling – a few feet back from the water’s edge. At least three or four coyotes trotted off in different directions when they spotted us. My horse, which had been otherwise behaving beautifully, acted like he would bolt at any moment. Using whatever soothing words came to mind, I reined him tightly, and hoped the total lack of concern from Tim’s horse would rub off on him. It appeared to work. The smell was atrocious.

“Well folks, let’s not do that with ours. We don’t have many that small anyway. Maybe a dozen.”

“Damn shame,” was all Diggy muttered and spat. Moving well beyond the carcass and out of the abysmal odor, we watered the horses one more time and cut north. We had at least ten miles remaining, and it was starting to cool off quickly.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

High Country, Part I

By the time the sun hit the frost on the fence rails, we were already tightening the saddles and buckling the bridles. The horse’s snorts jetted fast tendrils of fog in the cold. Though they didn’t particularly like this long ride, they, too, were eager to not be stamping around in the cold. Breakfast had been cooked, the fires extinguished and the house shut tightly. We had at least twenty miles to go before quitting, and that was only as the crow flies. Between the buttes, the washes, and deeper basins, it may have been as many as thirty. We’d need every ray of daylight we could manage.

To complicate matters, nor was there any trail. Our path was the one we would make as we steered the horses over rocks that would all day pull at their shoes and slow our progress. It was amazing that, despite the modern world, moving a herd of cattle was still more efficient on horseback than by trailer. But, winter was coming soon, and they needed to be rounded out of the high country and fenced for the winter. At least here, sparse as the grass may be, they wouldn’t get lost in the snow, and they could find moderate shelter from the elements in the barns amongst companions.

Tim, who had done this run through at least a dozen late autumns, unconsciously scratched at his horse’s neck and smoked. His mount had to be the only one in the group that felt more comfortable with a rider that smoked like a chimney. The rest would spend the day behind him laying their ears flat and being bratty and uncooperative. To anybody’s recollection, his horse had known no other rider. She liked her smoker.

The rest of us: Carl, Diggy (I didn’t even know his real name), and myself, were all new to this. It wasn’t a dude ranch by any means, but something he needed help doing, and had enlisted the help of a few friends for the three day weekend necessary to bring back 250 head of cattle from the hills down to the low country. Carl had done this as a teenager working with his father before running off to college and landing a job in real estate – much to the frustrations of his father. I presumed Carl and Tim had met as teenagers, but neither talked about it much. Knowing I’d wanted to someday doing this, Carl had invited me of his own accord, and only with the begrudging permission of Tim. Diggy intimately knew this life, but from the perspective of a neighboring farm. They had brought their herd down the week prior, with Tim’s assistance. Just as farmers used to pool their resources for large equipment, they also pooled their people. They weren’t in competition these days; they were only trying to survive the razor thin beef market profit margin and rising operation costs. Horses and manpower, however, still came relatively cheap.

Diggy had already ridden from next door, and was impatient for the rest of us to mount up and leave, remarking at least three times that, “we’re burnin’ daylight, folks.” We knew this, but it was cold out, and early, and after a breakfast with far more fat and calories than I typically eat in a day, Carl and I, at least, were ready for naps, not a day of riding. We moved as quickly as we could. We were moving by 7AM, which I hoped wouldn’t be too late.

At least there wasn’t any wind that morning. As it was, my fingers, frigid in stiff leather gloves, felt encased in ice. I shoved them between the horse’s back and the blanket under the saddle. He didn’t need any directing with the reins at any rate. Unlike most of us, he’d done this trail before and knew the drill: follow the leader: Smoking Tim and his horse.

“Diggy, you wanna lead for a moment? I’m going to see if that washout down to the right is still open. If it’s no worse than last time, it’ll cut a good thirty minutes off getting to the bottom of this cut.” He rode off at a trot without waiting for Diggy’s answer, which from what I heard of it centered around bullshit and piss poor planning. The horses, free from the constant trail of smoke from the front, seemed to quicken their pace slightly.

We heard him whistle a minute later and adjust our route accordingly. Pushing down a terribly narrow path that ran diagonal to the slope of a deep basin, I found myself imagining what a fall would look like. If the horse lost his footing against the slope, I’d be pinned in the stirrup against a bunch of rocks (and in pain). If he lost is step the other way, I had at least a 50 foot slide/tumble through large rocks into even larger rocks. If he pitched forward, it would just hurt. Now I understood why people wore helmets. I, of course, had none. Tim would probably say that if I fell and hurt myself, it was clearly my fault for being a a novice. I admonished my horse to be careful, and I suppose he listened.

As we approached the bottom, the path’s angle decreased and soon opened into what they called basins but I always thought were just dirt canyons. The far side, a good quarter mile away, looked even more vertical and imposing, but Tim walked directly towards it. Diggy seemed unconcerned, so I pretended it was all good. Carl also remained silent. I was the only one here completely new to back country navigation.

An hour later, the basin behind us, after walking the horses up the slope, we could see the distant green of the mountains through the clear morning air. It was beautiful out here, and between the walking and the slow-rising sun, the temperature was cool, but pleasant. They call it God’s country out here, and I can certainly see why (until it snows). Nobody talked; it might have ruined the view. They lived with this scenery, but I wished dearly for a camera. This land was breathtaking.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Skinny Living

In a recent e-mail exchange between myself and a well-traveled friend now residing in Europe, I revealed just how little I actually knew of European culture. I had spoken admiringly about how most Europeans are content with smaller houses, few cars, a less avid a pursuit of grandiosity, and seemed generally content with a less luxuriant lifestyle. I was quickly corrected: “Ben, if they had the money and the means to pursue such things, they would. Every one of them.” Apparently their “preference” for simpler living wasn’t that all; it was a matter of necessity. With higher income taxes and less to-pocket profit with their occupations, most have been forced to settle for less. I stand corrected.

But this segues into the concept of the American Dream, what it really is, if it truly exists, and if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Despite its vague definition, most would probably describe it as home ownership and a little piece of earth to call their own. While certainly a fine pursuit, it has the potential to quickly run amok. Americans like big things, luxurious things, and opulence, perhaps to a fault.

I am in no way criticizing those that have the money and resources to buy large tracts of land and build large houses. Nor am I saying that I have no aspirations for such things. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that there should be limits on these ambitions. In fact, such a measure would stand to encroach on what I define the American dream to be: the freedom to make our own decisions, as silly as they may be.

What I find unfortunate, however, is the notion that a palatial home, new cars, and lavish living are the norm here. They should not be. Especially since striving to obtain these things comes with a heavy price. We all know people who live big, work tirelessly to maintain their extravagant lifestyle, but appear to have little time remaining to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Not to say that basking in a large home on the weekend isn’t nice, for it is, but are these expensive tastes truly worth their sacrifice?

For more than limiting one’s time to enjoy these possessions, they limit the opportunity to pursue something of much greater and lasting value: people. Even the fabric of the nuclear family is threatened with both parents working long hours to maintain their lifestyle, children away in school or with babysitters or daycare will into the evenings, and little time left to play with a child, read a book, converse with friends, or simply delight in someone’s presence. There’s no peace, but instead a frenetic effort to keep up with bills. And it’s a shame.

Granted, working, responsibilities and bills are all facts of modern day living that few can escape (those in jail have done a good job of it, however). If we want to eat, we need to work. And unless we wish to be turned out into the streets, we need to pay our rent or mortgage. But must everything be so big? Was that third car really an essential expenditure?

Stuff, without a doubt, is nice. But in the end, it is only that: stuff. Aren’t people a wiser, more savory investment of our time? Sure, they come with their fair share of difficulties and aggravations, but to know another and love another is far nobler than building a monument to our financial success (especially if we are left with no time to even appreciate it).

What, for example, makes a big dinner so perfect? The matching napkins and ornate silver? The expensive plates? The exotic food? I would suggest the company. Some of the best meals I have ever eaten were cooked over trash fires or boiled to death, and served on rickety plastic tables (if there were tables at all). The meal? Maybe Pop Tarts or instant macaroni and cheese. It was the people that I remember, not the food. The same applies to living in general. People, the relationships we have with them, and the friendships we have fostered through difficult times and amazing circumstances, are priceless, however intangible.

In the end, few of us are remembered for the monuments we built or the possessions we accumulated over a lifetime of hard work and dutiful labor. We are remembered for the love we exhibited to our family, the words we spoke to friends, and the joy our mere presence brought to another’s life. Our relationships, and others’ memories of them, are the most lasting, impactful legacy we will leave. Houses are bought and sold, gardens overgrow quickly, cars age and break down, and a new fad will soon replace whichever one we have so desperately sought to appeal to.

More than a grand estate and elaborate grounds, I would prefer A home, and one filled with people: friends, neighbors, family members, loved ones, barefoot children tracking in dirt, and a simple table upon which sit heaps of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on paper plates. Nobody’s there for the food, at any rate; they’re there because they enjoy the company and they love each other. And none of us are too busy to relish that. We would be wise not to pursue plentiful living, but purposeful living. Let’s trim the fat a bit, and instead of keeping up with the Joneses, let’s invite them over for dinner.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Please Enjoy The Music...

Until you sat in a college friend’s dorm and listened to George Carlin making a joke about Pago Pago, you had no idea such a place existed. Nor did you expect to be flying to it today, or learning that the United States owns it – American Samoa, the only US territory south of the Equator, a miniscule 76 square miles comprised of five, rocky volcanic islands. The flight from Honolulu was miserably long, and you’ve been awake for most of the night, but it’s time to smell the salt air.

Though simply the pride of saying you’ve been to a place named Pago Pago is pretty impressive, the reason for your visit is actually another accidental discovery: that the US National Park Service maintains a park in American Samoa, and you have the opportunity to see it. Sure, getting there is a nightmare, but more than worth it for the sunrise view as the plane makes its final approach to the single runway of Pago Pago International Airport. An hour later, you step onto the rattiest, privately-owned tour bus you’ve ever seen and prepare for a jolting ride down narrow streets, straight through Pago Pago and out to the peripheral village of Fagatogo. The bus abruptly deposits you in the market place, a wash of women in colorful outfits and children playing the way they still should in the states – with soccer balls and sticks. You have a boat to catch, which will take you out towards the remotest corners of the park to your home for three days – a coastal hut facing east on the second-most distant island in the chain.

While living in a completely primitive hut for three days isn’t what many could consider a good vacation, this one will be different. After years of busying yourself with pots and pans and vacuuming carpets, it’ll be nice to simply pick the lizards off the rickety plastic table, set them on the porch, and go back to your travel book about the history of the area. One beach, for example, has sufficient archeological evidence to prove more than 3,000 years of continuous habitation. That’s near Ofu beach, and you intend to see it when your boat guide Peter, who speaks excellent English (and only charges 11 dollars a day) motors his canoe around that side of that island tomorrow. Later in the day he will teach you to snorkel, and after years of taking photos of people and plants, you’ll be using an underwater camera to capture the most brilliant clown fish you’ve ever seen – erratically swimming through the rocks in the azure waters. In fact, under the water is more beautiful than above it. The colors are truly stunning.

What’s so amazing is that even though the Pacific is known for its fierce storms and unpredictable currents, this little clump of islands is remarkably calm. Pete (as he insists on being called) navigates small swells expertly, keeping the bow in the waves and chugging along with an antique outboard engine you pray won’t quit. Though the sea life scatters at the sound of the propellers, peering over the front, they haven’t heard the sound in the water just yet and you’re treated to a myriad of small fish, tiny sharks, jellyfish, and clouds of sand that indicate a ray just fled the scene. You’ll undoubtedly see one this afternoon when you get in the water. There’s no rush out here. There’s a bright blue sky, a deep blue sea, banana trees on the beach, and Pete won’t even let you carry your own bag. This is home to him, and he loves it. He’s excited to introduce somebody else to it.

You chug through the water towards your island hut. Once your bags are delivered and you’re changed into more tropical attire, you have a paradise to explore…

After two days out in the water, with Pete sailing you around the islands, you figured a day at the market on Fagotogo would be a nice relief from peering over the front of a small dugout canoe and floating in the shallows. Besides this, the more you ask Pete about the area and the culture, the more you wanted to see it, too, not just tropical fish, and the volcanic islands and azure water. Instead of sailing that day, he'd pick you up from your hut at 9AM and transport you back to town. As much as you hated to do it, you needed to get a couple souvenirs for people. You'd promised.

On the way back, you asked Pete more about how he found himself supporting the tourist trade. "Well," he sort of paused, "I grew up fishing with my dad, but he got tired of the water and only barely making enough to pay for fuel and a little food to put on the table. When he decided to give me the business and do other things, I refitted the boat for touring. I still get out on the water, I still see the fish, and these islands, and the water. I love it out here; and I love showing it to people."

It made sense. This was home, and he loved it. You asked a little about his family. He and his wife, Belga, had been married for fifteen years. It would have been at 18 if her father had allowed it, but he made them both wait. "You need a better job," her dad had insisted. When he started the tourism bit, Belga's father had relented. He’d waited five years for her, and it was worth it. They now had 5 children; the eldest being a 15 year old son (who Pete occasionally enlisted for extra help with large tour groups), and four younger siblings ranging from 8 to 12. When they weren't in school, they were raising holy hell around the house and in the surrounding streets. They sounded like normal kids.

"Can I meet your family?" you asked. It seemed more interesting than hunting for souvenirs - and more meaningful.

"Nobody's asked me that before," he remarked, surprised. "But yes, that would be nice. Certainly. Would you join us for lunch today then?" You immediately agreed.

As you stepped off the dugout, Pete, as usual, grabbed your bag and wouldn't let you carry it, despite your protestations. It's just what he did. "Follow me," he said, and you could see a bounce in his step...

Despite it being him that was carrying your bag, it still seemed like a long walk. You humped past the marketplace, which didn't really look that interesting anymore. You could stop for souvenirs some other time. Pete's family would be more memorable, and far more interesting that trinkets probably made in China anyway. Thirty minutes later, after wending through dirty, mud streets and through rows of ramshackle homes, you arrived at his. Four barefoot children were kicking a soccer ball off the walls and between each other in the street. A curious aroma of something spicy greets you from inside their small shack. It can't be more than four rooms - which you quickly confirm when you walk in. There's a main bedroom, a kitchen, a common area and one final bedroom. That's it. The seven of them all lived there...

You meet Belga, who is a plump happy woman adorned in bright colors and singing to herself as she bustles over a gas stove and a mess of ancient pots. You have no idea what she's cooking, but it smells fantastic, and it looks like it goes with the rice. You ask if you can help, but she shoos you out of the kitchen. “My dear, I cook for a crowd every day!” This will be good.

Silea, his eldest son, is a bit shy, but warms up quickly when you ask him about helping his father out on the water. "Yes! I got out sometimes, in the other boat. My father takes the rich people, but I get to take the curious people. I show them places even HE doesn't know about. Like the shallows along the far island where all the starfish and urchins are at low tide. The water turns gold in the sunsets." You see Pete smile, like maybe he does know about it, but he lets Silea THINK it's his special find. Let him have his fun.

As Silea gets called to help Belga in the kitchen, Pete introduces you to the rest of the children, who have been peering in the open door frame, their faces set in curiosity. You quickly forget the names, since they're fairly long and not like any language you've ever heard before. But they're eager to play soccer with you, and they're surprised that you actually know HOW to play. They thought all Americans played either football or hockey, which you explain is actually more of a Canadian sport. Before long, you, too, are barefoot in the street and running after a ball you're convinced they kicked poorly just to watch you chase it. It's still a great experience.

As Pete calls everybody in for dinner and you pull up benches and a few rickety chairs to the table, the most amazing thing happens. For the first time since you've met them, the children all quiet down. They all hold hands, quickly grab yours, as well, and Pete says a blessing, in his native tongue. Somewhat confused, you just listen...but then he repeats it in English. It was beautiful; a prayer to bless the food, the hands that prepared it, and the guest who honored them with her presence. It was touching, to say the least, and heartening to learn that you're among Christian brethren.

As you had anticipated, the rice dish was amazing. It tasted like curried fish served in a red sauce over rice. It also made your nose run a little, but spicy food is better when there's a bit of a zing to it. Dessert was some unidentifiable tropical fruit, though you can't pronounce the name of it and they didn't know the Anglicized word for it. It tasted like a mango, but less juicy, sweeter, with a hint of pomegranate scent to it. But it was yellow, not orange or red. Very sweet, too... After eating, you had to fight the urge to roll up in the corner for a nap.

As the table was cleared, the children were tugging at your shirt again to go back to soccer outside. Today was a Saturday, so there was no school. Silea told his father he was going to go out with friends and disappeared, and Belga kicked you out of the kitchen while she cleaned up.

After a little time with the children, you figure that you'd give Pete a break. Rather than motor back out to the island and your cabana that night, you'd just walk back to the market (it was a pretty straight shot), and meet him in the morning at the harbor. You had some shopping to do. Since Fagotogo was the staging point to the islands, you'd just stay at one of the many hotels in town. Pete assured you there were at least five.

At the market, most everything looked like trinkets, and more or less confirmed your hunch that it was all made elsewhere. But, you promised a souvenir for your family, so you settle on a stone chessboard with "hand carved" pieces. You assumed they were made in China, but they still looked nice. Of the many sets, the one made in shades of grey was most interesting. There was a dark grey side, a light grey side, and the board was checkered red and gray. It was intricate, but probably made elsewhere. It would suffice, though. Your family would cherish it as exotic.

Checking into the first hotel you came upon, you were given a room where the last occupant had to be a 400lb fat man. The bed sagged horribly in the center and looked dirty. You slept in all your clothes and used your pack as a pillow. Not very comfortable, but after a day of walking and playing soccer, it didn't matter. It worked, and you slept well...

The morning was gorgeous on the island, and the profusion of oxen and mopeds in the street gently awakened you soon after sunrise, getting you moving early enough for breakfast in the lobby downstairs. It wasn't much more than cereal and coffee, but it was ample to get you moving. You paid your tab and walked out to the harbor to meet Pete. This was your last full day. He would be boating you to your hut to pick up the remainder of your provisions, sailing you around the far island (the rockiest and roughest, but perhaps the most beautiful), and returning you to Fagotogo for the night. You'd bus to Pago Pago in the morning for your flight...

The more you thought about it, the most memorable experience you'd had during your stay wasn't the fish, or the islands, or the exotic little cabana on a remote beach, but spending time with Pete and Belga, and meeting a family that you found to be fascinating, happy, though definitely lacking in material provision. You decided to carefully broach that subject with Pete on the way back.

"Is there anything you guys really need down here that you just can't get?"

He sighed. "Not really. We don't have much, but I have beautiful wife, and five great children. We get by."

"But is there anything you guys really need but can't get?"

"Not really." He brightened as he thought of something. "Our radio broke this rainy season. It was sitting on the table and the roof leaked one night, and it hasn't worked since then. We used to listen to the music from Western Samoa, which is pretty nice. They don't really have good stations over here. I'd like to get a new one that can play..what do you call them? Tapes?" You fought the urge to laugh.

"Well, we have discs now that play music."

"Discs?" You didn't bother to explain. At any rate, he wanted it more for the radio.

"Anything else you need?"

"Oh no. God has been good to us. I work, my family is fed, my wife is maybe a little chubby, but she's more beautiful to me that way. We're happy." You vowed to send him a radio, somehow.

You explained that you'd really had a great time out with him and meet his family, and you wanted to send them all a thank you card when you returned home, so you asked if he had access to a post office. He did, though it was in Pago Pago and he typically stopped by there only once a month, but didn't get much of anything except tourists trying to ask him strange questions. You promised you wouldn't do that. You just wanted to say thank you more formally with a letter. He recited the address for you as you motored slowly into the harbor.

"Unless you have plans this evening, we have a gift for you," Pete suddenly announced, as he tied off the boat. He elaborated that his family wanted to take you out to dinner. He would not accept no for an answer, so you eventually relented and agreed to meet him in the market at dusk.

"What time is that?" He didn't know. Just dusk. Maybe 8PM? After he insisted on carrying your bags for you back to the hotel, you promised to meet him later. You needed a nap, anyway. The Pacific sun was wearing you thin after days on the water, repeated exposure, and probably not enough water to drink. An afternoon of soccer didn’t help much, either. It was time to relax. After the trip around the outside of the far island today, and photographing of some of the most colorful birds you'd ever seen, you were ready to take it easy.

At 8, you walked up to Pete and Belga sitting on a bench near the square. They rose to greet you enthusiastically. "We're glad you could come. My brother owns a restaurant here that has the best, I think you call it shawarma, on the island. He never really liked fishing, which is why I have the boats and not him."

He walked 50 feet to a long table and sat down. "My brother will bring out the food in a moment. They're gathering the dishes."

Sure enough, Jone walked out, arms laden with bowls and dishes, and his wife carried pitchers, and three dark-eyed daughters were carrying silverware and napkins. He, too, had beautiful children. They were all smiling, and after quick introductions everyone took their seats. After another bilingual blessing, you began another delightful, albeit strange meal. No WONDER they were all well-fed. As little as they may have had, their food was fantastic. Dessert was a candied pastry, similar to those in the middle east. You caught yourself wondering who invented it. Just like the shawarma, it was probably claimed by several cultures: the Arabs, the Indians, and the North Africans. At any rate, it was superb, and filling. Chatter throughout the meal was about work, about the children, and how Jone didn't like how boys were starting to stare at his daughters. Pete assured him he smacked Silea every time he caught HIM staring at a girl that way. "He may be the only gentleman on this island" lamented Jone. “And he's a cousin, so it is unfortunate.” You listened and laughed. Parents, it seemed, were the same everywhere.

After coffee to stave off a sugar coma, they asked you questions about America. Even though they were US nationals in American Samoa (a territory), they didn't have nearly the federal protection or oversight that the states enjoyed. Nor even the cultural exposure. You dispelled as many myths as you could, and tried to ignore the fact that you lived in a land of unhappy yet fortunate people, while here they were mostly impoverished, yet content. It had more to do with faith, anyway; not wealth.

As the even wore on and the children started to look tired, they let you help them clear the dishes and move them to the kitchen. They'd clean them tomorrow. Jone would be up early, anyway. It was Sunday, and they'd have a huge lunch to prepare before they went to church. As much as you now wanted to join them for that, you had to a flight to catch. Your trip seemed too short, as they always do. But a busy, hectic week awaited you after another 18 hours of grueling travel. This time you asked for a photo, and Pete said he wanted you in it. "You treat us like family, so you need to be in it, too!" He asked Jone to take it, who quickly figured out the focusing and took several of the whole family - smiling, tired, but happy."

You readied to leave for your fat-man's bed at the hotel down the road.

"Did you buy your souvenirs today?" inquired Pete. You told him you got a chess board for your family, but you weren't sure if it was actually made locally.

"My father makes some of them. What color are the stones? Grey and red?" They were.

"Yes, then my father made it. Promise me, when you get back home, and not UNTIL you're home, look at the king, okay? But not a moment before you're home, okay?" You promised, more curious than anything about what was possibly there. You hadn't seen anything, but really nor were you looking. Fair enough. You'd wait.

As you hugged his whole family, you handed Pete his payment for the three days of travel in an envelope; a meager $11 a day. You told him it had a thank you letter in it, so wait until he got home. You didn't tell him, but there was an extra hundred in there. They needed it more than you did. Maybe the kids could get a new soccer ball or something. Either way, you were sure he'd find something to do with it.

You slept in your clothes again in the fat-man bed. Heaven only knew what little things were on the sheets. You slept well, though. It's been a long week, and you had a lot of flying left to do, which was always terribly exhausting.

After more cereal and unimpressive coffee in the morning, you waited for another rickety bus to take you back to Pago Pago, negotiated security at the airport, and tried to settle into your seat to sleep away the long flight to Honolulu. Sleep or not, it would still be unpleasant

20 hours later, after a delay in LAX, you were finally trudging to your car in the parking lot and paying the ridiculous parking fee. You wanted nothing more than to simply sleep, but the short ride to the house came first. You'd throw down the windows, crank the music, and try to sing along so you didn't slump over the wheel in exhaustion.

As you locked the door and dragged your luggage up to your room, you found yourself missing Pete's irritating insistence on carrying your bags. You flop onto bed and look at the time. The sun was out, barely, and you needed sleep. As you prepared to drift off, however, you remembered Pete's admonition about the chess set and started rummaging to unwrap it from all the clothes you'd bundled around it to protect it during transport. Thankfully it appeared unscathed. Opening the bag with the individually wrapped pieces, you eventually found the king. Inspecting it, you found nothing at all. Strange. No markings, no text, just a stone king, though a beautifully carved one. You dig for the other one - the light gray piece.

Again, nothing. Was it a joke? Pete didn't seem the type. You check again, running your thumb over the green felt on the bottom. The light gray one had a divot! Carefully peeling back the felt, you expose a small hole, with what appears to be a paper rolled up inside of it. It looked like parchment. Grabbing it carefully with a pair of tweezers, you pull it out and unroll it gently.

"The Lord bless thee and keep thee,
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee
And be gracious unto thee.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee
And give thee peace."

It made sense now. All of it. Pete's faith was from his father's strong faith. You could picture him slowly carving each piece and praying over each set, and blessing the purchaser and his or her family and life, much like an old Hebrew builder prays over the door posts to a home. This was the man's ministry, and you were the honored recipient. Now you understood why Pete always looked asleep when you strode up to the boat. He was praying. And you suspect it did that quite often anyway in the back of the boat. YOU sure were - that the boat wouldn't capsize in the swells. But he knew it wouldn't, so he was praying for his occupants. He was blessing you, too, just as his father did in his own way.

Amazed, exhausted, overwhelmed, and missing Pete and Belga and Jone and all their children, you curled up to sleep. It was light now, and you were overdue for rest. Whenever you woke up, whatever time that may be, you would go radio shopping. Pete missed the music, and you intended to make sure he heard it. His story, his life and his family and faith, were certainly music to your heart....

*The above is a fictitious account, a mental hiatus from my norm, and probably reflects poor writing. Hopefully, however long, the story was worth the read.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Like It Here

Nearly every time I turn on a television, read editorials, or browse the internet for interesting blogs, I am immediately confronted with several articles and reports that I not only believe to be false, but whose allegations are sufficiently far off the mark to be odious, offensive, and potentially destructive to my way of life if enthusiastically practiced. Their content, however, as well as their sources and purpose, are totally irrelevant. I mention them to illustrate that somebody (in fact MANY) have opinions profoundly different from mine.

As my anger rises at the absurdity of various claims or the sincerity with which propaganda is peddled, I will turn off the TV and throw the remote, discard the magazine, close the computer, or even storm about the house in a juvenile tirade about how stupid people are, how ignorant of facts they choose to be, and how their very existence jeopardizes my sanity. In truth, my life would be easier if they would shut up.

The same applies to strangers I have met who have audaciously and rabidly opposed my viewpoints, who resort to insults, name-calling, and what I consider to be even more preposterous claims in an attempt to discredit my convictions. It is a wonder I even venture into public at all. It often ends in my frustration, weariness, and occasional insult at the brazen remarks of others. My social life would certainly be simpler if I didn’t have to listen to these people, and if talking hairdos, self-professed experts, and propagandists would go away indefinitely. As before, the subjects of these conversations are completely irrelevant.

No doubt, however, many feel the same about me, or what I write, or the moral philosophies I pontificate as essential to robust and upright living, a successful country, national defense, international diplomacy, and so forth. Frankly, I’m fairly certain I irritate them no end. It’s somewhat humorous, really, to consider how divided the public remains on key issues, politics, and social virtues. But this is America…

What I have been doing, just as much as any whose viewpoints I oppose, is simply exercising my 1st Amendment rights under the US Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Inasmuch as my rights are thereby defended to speak, worship, and believe as I so choose, so also are the rights of my opponents. Furthermore, any attempt on my part, or the part of anybody else to squelch the publication of such radically differing ideologies is a direct violation of the principles of our national, self-governing creed. As much as people disagree with me, or I with them, let us all speak our minds. We’ve purchased this inalienable right at high cost.
I was recently asked to participate in a documentary on the subject of growing up a Muslim in the United States. Among other questions posed by the Muslim interviewer, it was asked what I thought of Muslims in America. “Do they have a place in the US?” The answer, obviously, is an emphatic YES! Why not? Because I disagree with them? Because a few radicals adamantly oppose the United States and have armed themselves with the intent of killing all those not like them? It is unfair to target Islam as the sole progenitor of violent, anti-American sentiment. Just as violent and abhorrently wrong are the actions of a single veteran (Timothy McVeigh) to take innocent lives in Oklahoma City, or a man who feels compelled to murder abortionists because he is opposed to their actions, or a man (Theodore Kaczynski) who mails bombs to those supposedly encroaching on human freedoms through large-scale organization, or an animal rights activist (Daniel San Diego) that bombs biotechnology businesses because he opposes advancement in science. The lists are exhaustive, and represent a diverse (and deviant) set of ideologies gone awry. Every group, unfortunately, has a few of them. Muslims are by no means the only ones.

What makes this nation great is the fact we are free to disagree openly with others, free to worship differently, and even free to speak in direct opposition to the behavior of our government. We are free to do this without fear – from either our neighbors, our law enforcement, or our government. Few in the world have such opportunity. Political dissidents (those who dare speak their minds) in China and North Korea are routinely imprisoned and even tortured and executed. The wife of an opposition leader in Zimbabwe had her hands chopped off with machetes and was burned alive. A crowd of peaceful female protestors in Afghanistan was stoned by the opposition for daring to disagree with a marital rape law. Indeed, there are few places in the world besides America where we may openly disagree without fear.

And I fiercely defend that right. Although many veterans come home and hear hurtful and destructive remarks from the public or even families, it is the right of those persons to speak as they so desire (though it at times does betray their ignorance and misplaced anger). Similarly, as much as I wish to pull my hair out with a daily inundation of incorrect material online, in print, and in the news, I stand by their right to say as they wish. What makes this nation so great is that there are many men and women who have volunteered for difficult, dangerous and potentially deadly service to defend the right of those back home to adamantly disagree with them. They defended their own opposition, to put it bluntly.

If either the right, the left, or any other group were to make any effort to shut down the opposition, they would be directly infringing upon the rights we all enjoy as permitted and even celebrated in the Constitution. Actions to silence an opposition are unconstitutional, un-American, and truly destructive to the fabric of our country. If such a thing happens, we are in peril of national disintegration. What, then, are we to do about opposition? We present a more appealing alternative.

The fundamentals of good argument are for both sides to state their convictions, and then take turns briefly rebutting the other’s argument and provide additional reinforcement for their own. There is no place for silencing one’s opponents. Nor does simply negating the opposition function to advance the claims of the other. They must present a better argument, not just weaken their opponents.’ In fact, an attempt to silence an opponent’s argument simply betrays the weakness of their own.

For all its aggravations and difficulties, for all the needless debate and the creation of an argumentative culture, this is the better way, the RIGHT way, and the American way. For far more dear than having everybody agree with each other is the critical right to disagree without fear of harm. Billions worldwide truly ache for this luxury, yet we so quickly forget its significance to the foundational to this country.

So to the opposition: keep talking, keep arguing, and keep disagreeing. So will I, and may the better argument win. Just as you are in no danger for disagreeing, neither am I in any danger. We will settle our differences as civilized adults, as neighbors, and as Americans. For all you may yell, I, too, will yell. For all the ad campaigns you undertake, there will be others to disagree and present an alternative. When our government does something we disagree with, we will unite temporarily and yell at them together. And at the end of the day, we will still open doors for each other, still greet each other as neighbors and friends, and still cherish the one beautiful document that enables us bicker with each other. It would behoove us to do so courteously, for we are ultimately united in appreciating the same freedoms.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dormus Interruptus

To continue documenting the process of admitting a “behavioral health” problem to the VA medical system, undergoing various general practitioners, social worker, psychologist interviews and most recently a sleep study, below is a description of the lattermost ordeal.

*To review the progress thus far, please refer to these two posts: "Walking Past the Guard," and "Into the System."

Due to some other planned events, I found myself in downtown Richmond Saturday evening prior to my appointment across town at the VA Medical Center (VAMC). My meeting ran late, and I didn’t even find myself attempting to LOOK for the highway again until several minutes after 9PM – the time at which I was supposed to be stepping into the sleep chamber at the VAMC. Naturally, I couldn’t find the highway – or at least the connector road that would have allowed me to get ON it. I knew exactly where it was: directly overhead or to either side of me, and totally inaccessible. There were no entrance ramps, and I don’t know Richmond enough to find a parallel road and follow it. With concern increasing that I would be too late for my appointment, I called the VA to inform them that I was running late, lost, and didn’t know how to get back to the highway. Nobody answered. And then nobody answered again. And again.

When I finally connected, I explained the situation, and a small team of nurses and late-night staff rallied around a computer, rummaged for maps, pulled up Mapquest, and began to realize that as long as they’ve lived in and around Richmond, they never really learned the road names. “Where are you?” I’d indicate my location, they’d start searching frantically, and a moment later they’d have directions – and I’d be ten blocks away by then and would immediately further lost myself attempting to reorient to their directions. Finally, another lady grabbed the phone.

“Ben? Where are you?” I indicated my location.

“Okay, take your next left, drive across the bridge, and lock your doors.”


“Just lock them.”

“I’m not concerned about it, ma’am. I’m legally armed.”


Twenty minutes and one police crime scene detour later, I was crashing through the doors into the behavioral health clinic it the VAMC and meeting with perhaps one of the nicest ladies I’ve ever encountered.

A soft-spoken, grandmotherly woman, she indicated, “I was one of the people on your navigation team. I was the one that said lock your doors.” I released my long list of apologies for being late, she consoled me quietly, and pointed me towards my bed. “You just lay here and as soon as I’m done wiring up the other patient, I’ll come back and get you set up.”

Despite my irritation at being lost in downtown Richmond, I nearly fell asleep during the brief wait, and was stirred again by two technicians going to great lengths to untangle an impressive knot of wires that would somehow be soon affixed to me.

One Velco band wired to each ankle monitors movement of one’s legs – indicating Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS). I envisioned them wrapped around my ankles PREVENTING movement. Two elastic bands wrapped my chest to monitor breathing, and a pulsimeter affixed to my left hand. To my chest were attached two EKG monitors, and the technician taped over them liberally to prevent their falling off.

Two more electrodes attached behind my ears, two more on the front of my forehead, two on the temples, two on my cheeks, and a final pair on either side of my neck. To get around the matter of electrodes sticking to my scalp, the technician simply rammed them there firmly with a high power glue. “I’ll take these off in the morning with acetone.” Oh thanks.

The most obtrusive device, however, was the canula rammed into my nostrils and a small loop of sensors that also crossed over my mouth. “We want to make sure you’re not forgetting to breathe.” Armed thus, I was beginning to wonder if I’d be able to sleep at all. It was the nose/mouth senor that bothered me the most, and a growing concern that I’d wake up a few hours into the night unable to move, bang on the wall, or even shriek for help. Despite being tired, the prospect of sleep in this condition was diminishing rapidly.

“If you need help for any reason, we’re recording you, filming you – there’s the camera – and monitoring you all night. Just call my name, bang on the wall, or something. We’ll come and help you out. And if you need to go to the bathroom, here’s the bottle.” So they’re going to film me miturating into a cup now? Some job…

“Well, sweet dreams,” and she killed the lights, shut the door, and it was quiet again. Wires notwithstanding, I was asleep in ten minutes.

I slept like I always sleep – lightly, restlessly, and with frequent waking for inexplicable reasons. Save from one rather frantic ordeal in the early morning wherein I had to untangle my hand pulsimeter wiring from the face wiring (I have no idea how this happened), it was relatively uneventful. My ankle bands also fell off, greatly reducing the likelihood of tying them in a knot.

“Good morning,” said the nice lady, wandering in and switching on a low light.

As she started ripping taped electrodes from my face and dousing my hair in acetone, I asked, “did you observe anything?”

“Well, you don’t have apnea, we registered minimal leg movement, and you’re a restless sleeper.” I was so fixated on not losing my face to electrode tape that I neglected to inform her that the leg sensors had fallen off before I had even fallen asleep. I’m confident the sleep study technicians aren’t allowed to make any on-site diagnoses, so I wasn’t expecting much more from her. I am currently waiting for a trained medical doctor to analyze the 1,000 pages of compiled sleep data and reach any solid conclusions on what may be happening – in addition to what may be done to mitigate the problem (preferably without drug intervention).

Perhaps the greatest frustration was that I was kicked out of the sleep facility at 6:20AM Sunday morning and banished to wander downtown Richmond until I caught up with a friend for coffee. Yet 6:20AM is about three hours after I typically go to bed, and about three and a half hours before I typically wake up. The radio was playing some awful hymn and the sun was rising beautifully. As I called my friend to determine where we would meet, one thought, above all others, hit me powerfully: I needed a nap. Instead, I pulled over and commenced peeling tape glue off my forehead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

The Final Guy

As promised, below is the address for my good friend and true brother Jay Thompson, who recently began a four-month tenure in Iraq. In addition to Paul VanSant and Nate Foersch, Jay would benefit from our prayers, encouragement and support. I am unaware of any specific needs at this time, but I will certainly forward them should they be made known to me. More importantly, he could use our prayers and a few letters from home. Below is his address:

MAJ Jack Thompson
464th MED CO
Camp Bucca
APO AE 09375

In addition to this opportunity and need, Jay leaves in the states a wonderful wife and two young children who miss him dearly. They, too, could use some encouragement and mail indicating such. All mail sent the following address will be forwarded directly to his family:

Amy Thompson
C/O Ben Shaw
P.O Box 1072
Troy, VA 22974

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Coming Soon

1. "Dormus Interruptus"

2. "I Like It Here"

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved