Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween- Night of Magic

Halloween- a celebration based on chocolate! What better to unite us in these troubled times? We had quite a turnout for about 2 hours. The usual assortment of X-Men and Super-heros, along with a sprinkling of princesses and fairies. It's a great holiday to meet your neighbors, you know the ones you have nod and wave relationships with. Suddenly they are at your door and you confront one another in a face to face, verbal human transaction. And it's cultural,too.

We have some Indian families here in our community. They have had their homes decorated for about a week or so in celebration of Diwali, which is their Festival of Lights (kind of like Chanukah and Purim rolled into one!) and commemorates the death of the Evil King who kidnapped Prince Rama's wife. He returned after 14 years in exile to reclaim her love. It is also the beginning of their Lunar New Year and the tradition is to share sweets with your neighbors.

So we are all alike. I keep mulling it all over and always come up with the same answer. We are all alike- we all want some free candy and a smile from our neighbors. We all want to see the magic that we once felt, reflected in the eyes of the children at our doors. And we want them to pass that along to their children.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Children of Dust by Ali Eteraz

In a time when we have all become conscious of Islamic Fundamentalism it is a pleasure to read a book by a normal, run of the mill Islamic Man. How he has escaped the wrath that was shown to Salmaan Rushdie for his fictional writing is a conundrum.

This book is non-fiction and describes the authors journey from a childhood in Pakistan to his current residence in the United States. Along the way he has been an Islamic student in Pakistan and in America. This gives him a unique perspective on the subject of Fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian.

Enamored of Islam from an early age when he is taken to Mecca on a pilgrimage the story progresses to his youth in Pakistan and his wondering about the things that are forbidden to him- and why.

When the family moves to America they begin a journey that takes them across the United States. This offers the author, as well as the reader, an unusually frank look at Islam and how it relates to America and her values of religous freedom and thought.

By drawing comparisons to our differences Mr. Eteraz has shown us a mirror of our common values. The book is laid out in such a way that you needn't be a religous scholar to understand the rituals or practices that are the same in all 3 major religions. We share so much in our respective cultures yet the politics of discontent seem to have overtaken these similarities, pitting us all one against the other. Can this really be the Will of God?

Interspersed along the way is a story of a young mans journey to find himself. And in his self discovery the reader finds a piece of himself.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

Ever since the release of Kaffir Boy I have made it a point to read all of the African memoirs that I have come across. With their lyrical use of the English language these books have a way of reaching out to the reader and making you a part of the story. Coupled with the natural gift of storytelling these books can be enjoyable and informative at the same time. In “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba these assets are combined, making this book a joy to read.

Coming of age amidst the turmoil that is Africa today, Mr. Kamkwamba, with the skillful aid of Bryan Mealer, tells the story of his life in his village in Malawi, located in Eastern Africa.

Through the trials and setbacks arising from changing politics to the devastation of famine Mr. Kamkwamba persists in his quest for knowledge. When he can no longer afford to attend school he spends his time at the village library absorbing all he can about science and electricity.

His plans progress from the simple desire to hear music to the concept of what electricity really means. An extra harvest each year, no more carrying water several kilometers to water the crops. And so he begins a quest to find the materials he will need to make his vision a reality. He is going to build a wind driven turbine.

The most amazing thing about this book is having Mr. Kamkwamba, who had never seen a power plant, describe the basics of electro magnetism in a way that anyone can understand. And when his dreams become actions that reshape the way his family lives you simply want to cheer!

Another aspect to this book is the feeling that so much is wasted in our own lives- so many opportunities squandered. You read this book and feel the loss of ambition that plaques our own society.

A lyrical and exciting read by an author who takes you on his journey of discovery. And that journey leads you to examine your own life and what effect you have had, or not had, on the world that surrounds you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Old Black Guy

I entered the Steak and Eggs for a bite on a slow summer night. It was one of those sultry, sticky, Southern nights - like an old movie loaded with intrigue and suspense.

The restaurant was empty with the exception of the one guy working the counter and mopping the floor. There was also an elderly black man pacing up and down the aisle between the counter and the row of tables by the window.

I was working on the USNS Sirius during the day and driving the cab at night to ward off the boredom of Norfolk. Late at night I would go to the Steak and Eggs place located off Granby Street at the Greyhound Terminal for a bite to eat. The following events took place there one night in July.

I ordered my steak and eggs and noticed that the elderly black guy was really agitated, pacing up and down while opening and closing his fists. He was also talking to himself. He was dressed in the typical fashion for older black men of that time. Suit trousers pulled up high, almost to his chest and a white dress shirt with no jacket. On his wrist was one of those hospital bracelets that indicated he had just come from an emergency room or been released from the hospital after a stay.

His ranting was repetitive and consisted of one or two points- mainly that “Lord, Lord, I cain’t go home- no suh! They watching me- I tol’ dem I weren’t saying nuthin’- but Lord, Lord, they don’t believe me….” He was sweating profusely as he continued his pacing. The cook and I were beginning to get nervous.

Slipping from behind the counter the cook sidled over to the pay phone on the wall and I heard him call the police. The old man was too busy to notice this and kept on pacing and talking.

Within 3 minutes an unmarked car pulled up and 2 white men got out. They were dressed in suits- minus the jackets. They had what appeared to be some kind of walkie-talkie with them.

Walking up to the old man and with a nod to the cook and myself they addressed him, “Okay old man- time to go.” They put their hands on his shoulder and started to guide him to the door and their vehicle. The old man protested loudly, “I ain’t gonna say nutthin’- no sir- I swear!” The reply, delivered gently, in retrospect was chilling. “We know that old man, just come with us.” They steered him out into the parking lot and the waiting car.

It all seemed so natural- 2 detectives picking up this old man in response to a call from the cook…

As they loaded him into the car a marked Police cruiser pulled in and 2 uniformed cops entered the restaurant. “What’s the trouble?” they asked.

The cook and I exchanged horrified glances and began to yell, “Stop that car! Stop that car!” The 2 cops ran outside just as the unmarked car had pulled out of the parking lot and were stopping for the red light.

One cop ran toward the vehicle while the other got in the squad car. The driver of the unmarked vehicle took off through the red light with the cop car now in pursuit- lights and siren splitting the heavy air. The unmarked car headed straight for the tunnel to Portsmouth with the Norfolk Police car close behind. When they emerged from the tunnel in Portsmouth the unmarked car had vanished.

The police returned to the Steak and Eggs where they interviewed the cook and I. It was impossible for me to finish eating so I left and hit the streets for a couple of hours before returning the cab and heading back to ship.

The following evening I was watching the local news in the ships lounge when a story came on that chilled me to the bone.

“An elderly black man was found in Portsmouth this morning. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The body was located at the edge of the river near the entrance to the tunnel. No clues and no suspects have been located. Anyone with information on the identity of this man please contact the Portsmouth Police Department.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Packing the Court by James MacGregor Burns

This is a very controversial and thought provoking read. The author is the Woodrow Wilson Professor Emeritus at Williams College (no relation) and is widely regarded as the most leading authority on the Ethics of Leadership.

His previous 20 something books include the outstanding “Roosevelt: Soldier of Freedom” which won a Pulitzer Prize. I read it and found it most insightful- both as to the man and the politics surrounding him.

This book begins with a 5 page Prologue which is so enticing you just have to read the book to see where he is going with it all.

The biggest Court Packer in history was Roosevelt with his attempt to “stack” the court by adding 6 more judges. The idea was shot down and FDR had to find a new way to launch his NRA, which had been struck down by the court. He did so in the form of the WPA and other agencies.

Mr. Burns proposes that due to the lifetime appointment of Justices to the Court, that there is a disconnect between what the country needs and what the Courts will allow. The NRA and Franklin Roosevelt are good examples. Sometimes change can take too long.

He also questions the apparent lack of a Review of all legislation by the Court prior to something becoming the law of the land. He states that this lack of review amounts at times to a lifetime Veto which is in direct opposition to the Powers of Separation which make our country so unique. And remember, this is only the Prologue!

The book goes on to review the various incarnations that the Court has taken over the 200 plus years that it has been in existence.

For instance, he reviews the Conservative Court of the 1920’s and compares them to the Liberal Court that reigned throughout the last 50 years until the current shift in the Courts’ decisions. Given the disparities in times and social moors I am not sure this is a valid comparison. To compare them is almost to refute the notion of having a “Living Constitution.”

At the end of the book he proposes changes to the Court and thus the Constitution, particularly Article 3, which outlines what the Founding Fathers thought prudent for a Supreme Court within the confines of a stable and workable government.

The book is fascinating and is wide in scope. It may take another read to fully comprehend all of the information imparted here before I rush to judgment on it’s merits or flaws. I am no scholar.

I do find that the idea of changing the way the Supreme Court operates disturbs me. Since the time of Marbury v. Madison this issue has never been entirely settled, although the decision remains undisturbed. Even with all of its flaws the Court represents to me the swinging pendulum of this Republic. At times we have swung too far left and at other times too far right. But we have never gotten stuck in either position. To me this is the embodiment of what is called the “Living Constitution.”

To add justices, or even have them elected to finite terms of office, appears to me as an attempt to politicize the Court as well as second guess what the Founding Fathers were trying to do when they left Supreme Court review of all legislation out of Article 3(This is Mr. Burns interpretation- not mine.)If I have learned anything of the history of this nation it is that the Founding Fathers aims can more often be discerned by a careful review of what they did not include rather than a focus on what they did include.

A very provocative read for anyone interested in the Supreme Court; where it has been and where it might be heading.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 27- Kids and Jobs and Donuts

Sept 1985 found me back in Baltimore with an instant family. Sue had, as I have mentioned, 2 sons. Keith was 10 and Shane was going to be 8. They were typical kids, a bit starved for attention, but overall just average, hell raising, boys.

I really didn't have any problems with them. The hardest part was that they were very competitive for my attention and at first I was overwhelmed. I had just come from a lifestyle in which I was responsible solely for myself. Suddenly,I had to worry about homework, baths, getting breakfast etc.

Playing with them was also hard, I had been in the company of grown men for the last 10 years. Children were something I heard about but seldom had any interaction with. How do you handle it when you play ball with 2 boys and one of them has to win and one of them is going to cry? I had no clues....

So I forged ahead, doing the best I could. I only hope that in their memories I was not an ogre, but perhaps a stabilizing influence as well as a pain in the ass! There were fun times too, especially when I would take them somewhere one on one. We were getting to know one another and I was becoming less afraid of the responsibility.

At the same time that I was trying to adjust to this "instant father" stuff I was also trying to find some meaningful employment. My only forte at the time was mathematics and Navigation. I had no idea what to do, so I answered all ads.

To begin with I had no idea what "minimum wage" was. It had been awhile since I made $2.50 an hour in the paint factory. It was now 11 years later and the minimum wage was now only $3.35 per hour! So I started at a Royal Farms Convenience Store as a clerk, working nights and waiting for a better job to rear it's head. It took 5 days.

The donut delivery guy came every evening at 7PM and the donuts were fresh. They were made at Donut Delite on the site of the present day Camden Yard Stadium in Baltimore. We were horizontal to Babe Ruth's birthplace. Nearby was where the circus train unloaded the elephants each year and I would re-arrange my whole day to go and see them walk to the Arena.

Anyway, back to the donut guy. He was paying $5 an hour for a 6 hour day which beat what I was making in 8 hours. So I got hired on and assigned to a route that took me through 3 counties. It was at this job that I learned all the back roads of the adjacent counties. I had alot of freedom and all the donuts I could eat. It was 7 days a week with no holidays off.

Donnie Laws was the boss. He owned several routes and had vans for each one. They were specially fitted with racks for the donut trays to slide in and out easily. My job was to deliver the fresh donuts and remove the "day olds." Everything was done by Invoice, so we carried no cash.

Each day at 2 PM I would load up at Donut Delite and head out for my deliveries. Donnie was the type of guy who would think nothing of sending you out in a truck with no gas and a broken gas gauge. This was a constant source of irritation. That and the fact that he constantly referred to me as "that New York Jewboy" behind my back.

At the end of each day I would return the "day old" donuts to a trash bin located outside Donut Delite and across Martin Luther King Blvd. from the "projects." The kids who lived there had drug addicted parents and didn't get much in the way of treats. So each evening when I returned there was a crowd of kids waiting to ask for some of the "day olds." I would always give some away and throw the damaged ones in the trash bin. This bin would get picked up every two days and transported to the rail yard where it was shipped out to somewhere as "hog feed." When Donnie would catch me giving donuts away he would climb up on the dumpster and piss all over everything so that the kids would not get any treats. This was yet another sore point between us.

I was paid each Friday with a personal check- I was collecting Unemployment out of New York at the time. One Friday I was forwarned by another driver that Donnie was going to lay me off the following week on Wednesday. His brother in law needed the job. Then he was going to stiff me for the 3 days pay, knowing that I couldn't file a complaint due to the Unemployment issue. He was right about that, but there are other ways to skin a cat.

Taking his check over to his bank I cashed it. Getting back in the van I thought to myself, "How can I hurt this guy?" Inspiration came in a flash as I realized that I had about $1,500 worth of fresh donuts. And I was now also one day AHEAD in pay. Driving around in the city a bit I noticed that there were a lot of people sitting out on porches after the long winter had finally broken. It was now late April.

I pulled the truck up on a street that ran adjacent to North Avenue, in one of the poorer areas of the city. Stepping out into the early spring sun I shouted out, "Donuts, free donuts, fresh and warm!"

It was like a scene out of one of those jungle movies where the natives swamp the plane with arms outstretched for food. The trays were flying out faster than I could count and people were shoving bills in my hand, although I had not asked for any money!

Within minutes the van was stripped bare of donuts and I had to jump back in and race off. The rear doors were swinging wildly to shouts of, "Jack it up- get the wheels!"

I now had about $60 and 2 trays of donuts that I had stashed up front. I took these to Keiths Cub Scout Troop which was meeting nearby at the Harborplace that day. I was a hero to the kids as I handed out the donuts. I then parked the truck outside Donnies as usual, placing the keys in his mailbox and got in my car and drove home.

The next morning the phone rang and it was Donnie. He wanted to know where the donuts were. I feigned ignorance and then he let fly with what a donut stealing Jewboy I was and how he was gonna get me. I told him that I had no idea what he was talking about and not to call me anymore. I hung up, thinking that was the end of it. Sometimes you can be so wrong...

2 weeks later, on Mothers day, I was out front washing the car when a police car passed up and then down the street in front of our house. This was very unusual and should have clued me in, but it didn't.

Stepping out of the patrol car I was approached by an officer who asked me if I was "Bob" Williams. This should also have clued me in as everyone ashore called me Robert. But I answered yes and then was asked to step away from my vehicle. This guy was going to cuff me for something but I had no idea what! He explained that Donnie had filed a complaint and though the warrant was not in the officers possession he had the right to detain me while the warrant was delivered. I was able to talk him out of doing the handcuffs in front of the neighbors and kids and then got in the back of the car and was taken away. Around the corner he stopped and handcuffed me.

We arrived at the local county station house to await the warrant. I was placed in a common holding area which had 6 bunks and 7 inmates- my addition bought the total to 8. There was a phone, which I was not allowed to use, on the wall just outside of the cell. It was very strange being locked up but I knew that things would work out. It was really a question of how long I was going to be here. To make it worse, I was scheduled to start working on a horse farm in Elkridge the next morning at 8 AM. So I was a little worried about making it there on time. It was now 7 PM on Sunday.

I was the only white prisoner and thinking of the movie "Hard Times" with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Particularly the "I'm bad" scene. Just then the biggest black guy in there comes up to me and asks, "What'd you do?" I replied that I had stolen some donuts. This produced some laughter and a scornful "We got us a creampuff motherfucker!" There were now some suggestions being tossed about concerning what could be done with a creampuff when the oldest guy in there, who had been snoozing on heroin, came to life. He explained that "The white boy ain't no fool- them donuts be worth duckies!" Then he went back to sleeep.

The dynamics immediatley changed with everyone wanting to know how the donut thing worked and could they get in on it? I explained that Donnie went to the Royal Farms store on Security Blvd and Forest Park Drive every night at 7 PM. I also added that he carried alot of cash. You can imagine my joy when 3 weeks later Donnie was beaten and robbed at that location by a "big black guy."

Now that we were all friends they showed me how to use the phone. I had been calling out "Guard, Guard" and alternating that with "Officer, Officer" to no avail. The big black guy started to laugh and said, "Man, you new to this- you gotta do this to get the phone." He took his shoe of and started beating it against the wall while shouting "MOTHERFUCKER!!!" loudly over and over. This bought several guards. My new friend told the guard that "Whitebread needs to use the phone." The receiver was passed through the bars to me and the guard dialed O for Operator, instructing me to leave the receiver dangling when I was through. Prison Etiquette 101.

I called Sue, who was very upset, and explained that I would undoubtedly be late that night so don't wait up. I would call her when I knew something.

Shortly after this call the Warrant arrived and I was transported, again in handcuffs, to a Paddy Wagon and driven down to Baltimore City and the Southwest Precint. This was a very old jail on Ostend Street which has since been razed. I was placed in a private cell next door to the only other prisoner that day- a drunk who had been urinating in public- at Harborplace on Mothers Day- in full view of everyone there. He had been arrested by a female officer and was highly intoxicated and pissed off. So it was going to be a lonely night.

Around 1 AM on Monday morning I heard the cell block gate open and someone was at the cell next to mine asking the drunk some questions. He began by introducing himself as the "Pretrial Release Officer." I could tell by his voice that he was black and educated. He began asking the other prisoner questions, like his name and contact info. For every question asked he received a scathing racist reply. For instance, to the question "What is your address?" he replied, "I ain't telling nothing to no nigger so he can go to my house and rob it." The Pretrail Release Officer went from question to question without pause and never reacted to the abuse being heaped upon him.

When he came to my cell I was on my feet at attention and answered everything with a "Yes,sir." This really surprised him and he started to leaf through my charging documents. He looked at me and asked for some contact info. I gave him Sue's number and address and told him he could also call Military Sealift Command in Bayonne, New Jersey to verify my identity. Although I was no longer an employee my security clearance was valid for 2 more years and I figured it couldn't hurt. He was impressed with my bearing as well as my response. He told me that the warrant should never have been issued as it didn't satisfy the who, what, when, where and why required by the law. He could not dismiss the Warrant but could get me out without bail if my responses were all correct and could be verified at this hour. He left promising to return shortly.

About an hour later he came back with a guard and my cell was unlocked. I was taken to the Magistrates Office where I was told that I had been unjustly confined but that I still needed to go to trial. Advising me to seek counsel I was then released at 3 AM.

I got a cab home and woke Sue up so we could pay the driver. I got a few hours sleep before getting up and beginning my new job at Mr. Perry's horse farm. I would be making $7 an hour.

Mr. Perry was 83 years old and married to a woman 15 years his juinor. They had met one day in 1934 when Mr. Perry saw her crying at a bus stop. He approached her and told her that there was nothing in this world that couldn't be fixed. She explained that she was pregnant and unmarried. He married her and raised the kid!

A little background on Mr. Perry is in order here. He arrived in Baltimore in 1917 at the age of 15 years old. He got a job as a Conductor on the trolley and then started the Baltimore branch of the Transit Workers Union. He became President of the Union during the 1930's and never looked back. He was an evangelical Christain with great respect for the Jews. We spent many hours talking politics and religion while I worked hoeing his 1/4 acre vegetable garden with a short handled hoe while he sat in the shade wearing a Panama hat. I also took care of feeding and watering the horses that were stabled on his property.

Mr. Perry had bought the farm in 1964 as a buffer against Route 95 on his West side and the Airport on his Southern side and Baltimore City 4 miles to the North. He was way ahead of his time concerning ecology. He was also a pain in the ass. He would start yelling at me just like my Dad had- telling me, "Use the other hand!" At times like these I would stand close to him and let my foot fall softly on the tube for his oxygen tank. He would get shortwinded and quiet down, or else panic and send me for a spare tank. Either way- things got quieter.

It was an idyllic job and Mr. Perry was one of those people you meet that you love and hate at the same time. He gave me a $1 raise within 2 weeks, remarking that for a city boy I was the best worker he ever met. His only complaint was that I "didn't know a weed from a rosebush." I still have trouble with that.

The donut trial came up 30 days after my release and so I took the day off from Mr. Perry's to face the music in court. I was charged with Grand Larceny so this was serious. I had gotten a Public Defender but we had totally opposite opinions on how to deal with the charges. He wanted a jury trial- I wanted the Judge to decide right then and there on my guilt or innocence. In my opinion it would've have been disastrous for a Jury to have enough time to ponder any future evidence against me, while the Judge would be under pressure to arrive at a decision with the little evidence currently at hand.

The trial began and the Judge was a mean woman who apparently knew Donnie, so she was ready to throw the book at me. Donnie had not expected that I would forgo the Jury Trial so all he had was the Warrant which did not satisfy all the criteria necessary to have been issued in the first place.

We arrived at a point where the Judge said that "you would admit that you have stolen a days pay from Mr. Laws?" I replied that I had and reaching for my wallet offered to pay him the $30 in question. The Judge then screamed at me- "What did you do with the donuts?" My lawyer said not to answer but I did- I said, "I don't know what happened to them. You have to tell me." She yelled some more about the lack of definitive evidence and found me Not Guilty "against her better judgement." And so I was free.

Sue and I were now 3 weeks away from our wedding date of July 4th,1986. We had also just found out that we were expecting a baby!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movie Review- Charlie Bartlett with Robert Downey, Jr.

This film is a unique look at today's high schools and the choices/pressures faced by todays students.. Think of it as today's "Rock and Roll High School" but on designer drugs. The big difference is that this movie has a message and draws a conclusion.

As seen thru the eyes of a former prep school boy suddenly thrust into a Public High School, Charlie Bartlett comes to understand power and the great responsibility that goes with it. At the same time he and the Principal, played by Downey, both come to understand that we are all equally screwed up. And that can be a strength, rather than a weakness, when we let it serve to unite us.

With crisp and clear performances by all this is a very unusual film and worth the time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Halsey's Typhoon by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

If someone were to tell you that Admiral Halsey, the great American Naval Hero of World War Two, had almost been Court Martialed at the height of the war, you would not believe it. I know I didn't! And I am a big fan of history- Naval History in particular.

In December of 1944 Douglas MacArthur was due to return to the Phillipines, just as he had promised 3 years earlier. Admirals King and Halsey had made this possible through a series of "island hopping" invasions. They were highly sucessful in their endeavors and so by the time of these events all was in place for that return.

But a seies of lapses, most notably in the weather predictions, led the fleet into one of the worst typhoons in history. Almost 800 men from 4 different ships perished in this storm. Aboard one of the vessels was a young Seaman named Gerald Ford, who would later go on to become President of the United States.

This book will have you white knuckled all the way through. And leaves me wondering, once again, why I bother to write about my own life at all. Any of my worst experiences pale in comparison to what these men went through.

As an interesting aside, this book describes in great detail, the events that were later captured in the best seller by Herman Wouk, "The Caine Mutiny." Mr. Wouk served in the Pacific during the time of these events. His experience certainly led to the realistic description of that storm. As a matter of fact the chapters describing the mutiny on the ficticous USS Caine are right in line with what actually took place aboard the USS Hull at the height of the real typhoon.

This book is a must read for all Naval History buffs. And also for those looking to see beyond the legend of Admiral Halsey. Written with great energy and style, this book is a page turner.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 26- Victory at Last

If peace was what I had hoped to find after my Mom’s passing I was mistaken. It would be almost another 2 years before I was able to resolve the problem of Sue’s fiancĂ©e. At one point I actually found her engagement ring, which she never wore around me, and hocked it. I used the money to take her out for dinner.

In September of 1984 I resigned my position with Military Sealift Command. I still remember the wording of my letter;

“In order to pursue a more meaningful lifestyle I hereby resign my position with Military Sealift Command. I do so without coercion and of my own volition.”

I bought a used Ford Pinto for $500 and headed to Baltimore where Sue had already rented me an apartment. With 2 small boys she did not want me moving in right away.The apartment was around the corner from Ben’s place and I spent a good bit of time driving by to see if she was over there.

By November I had enough and so I headed to New York. This was two fold- I would get away from the situation in Baltimore and fulfill the promise to my Mom that I would work for my Dad after she passed. Big mistake!

I took an apartment on the 5th floor of 1310 Avenue R where I had grown up. My Dad still lived on the 2nd floor in our old apartment. Each morning I would go down to his place and we would drive into Manhattan together.

My Dad’s business was Pollution Controls for incinerators. Back then all of the thousands of apartment buildings in New York City had incinerators in order to burn the trash. The resultant smoke was becoming unbearable. We would modify these incinerators by installing smoke “scrubbers” and a by-pass tunnel that would allow the trash to be burned by a gas fired burner. The smoke would then be channeled through the by-pass where a series of shower heads would dampen the smoke causing all the pollutants to fall down into an ash pan. The rest of the smoke, now clear, would go through the by-pass and up the chimney.

Most of our customers were the buildings along 5th Avenue along Central Park. We also had all of the buildings on the West side of the park, including the Dakota. The thing was arranged so that we did about $3,000 worth of work in 2 days to alter the system. We billed $20-30,000 per building. In order to get the contracts we had to go through the Super and the Co-op Boards.

These Supers were unlike the ones in Brooklyn who fixed things and kept the building in good repair. These guys were elected by the Co-op boards and together handed out the contracts for any work needed. Our system was to bribe the Board and the Supers. I was really taken aback by all of this- particularly as my dad was paying me lousy wages compared to what I had been earning aboard ship.

Whenever there was a mechanical failure the local Inspector would issue a summons and I would go to the EPA Court located across from the World Trade Center. At these hearings I would listen to the judge read the Violation and I would then hand him an envelope. Case dismissed.

Meantime I was still managing to see Sue about 3 or 4 times a week in Baltimore. I would go from work to my apartment, shower and change clothes and then make the 4 hour drive from Brooklyn to Sue’s place. I would often arrive at about 9 or 10 at night, stay until 2 and then head back home, arriving at about 6 AM. During this time I amassed a pile of speeding tickets that if placed end to end would stretch from Brooklyn to Sue’s house. I still have them all.

The only way I got through this without a License Suspension was by having 2 licenses. I had one in Virginia and another in Maryland. The whole trick to this was not to get a License in your home state- in my case New York. When I applied for a license I would check “No Previous Driving License.” At 30 years old this was hard to believe so they would send away to New York and ask for my record. It always came back as “No Previous Driving License.”

The only time I really had a problem was when I didn’t pay a ticket in let’s say Delaware and then get stopped again in that state. At times like these I would be made to follow the Trooper or Sheriff to the station where I would have to pay both the old fine and new one in cash before I was released. A few times I was caught with some pot but the officers only made me dump it out and rub it into the ground with my foot. For that I am still grateful.

By September of 1985 I had enough of both my Dad and the incessant driving back and forth to Baltimore. There was also a slight “sea change” in Baltimore and Sue was beginning to come around to the notion that I was not going away. So I packed up again and moved back to Baltimore- taking a furnished basement about 8 streets away from Sue’s. I used it 3 nights in as many months- but it made Sue feel better knowing that if things went bad between us I had a place to go. I just felt it was wasted money.

She was still working at Social Security in the same division as Ben. This was the last hurdle to overcome if we were to make it as a couple. By October I was living at Sue’s almost full time- I even had drawer space in the dresser! The kids couldn’t believe it! Not even Ben had been granted that privilege! So I was making progress.

One afternoon in October I was getting out of my brand new Nissan when Ben sprang out from behind the bushes! Using the heel of his hand he made an attempt to push my nose back into my skull. This would have been a death blow had I not been trained in the Navy to do this exact same thing. Seeing it coming I was able to pull back enough to minimize the blow.

Scooting across the front seat and out the passenger side I was able to put myself in a better position. Ben was 6 foot 2 and weighed at least 30 pounds more than I did. He also had about 2 inches more in reach. But I was not in the mood to “handicap” the odds of this thing that had been brewing for so long. I just got in there swinging, mostly at his head and face. He was tiring quickly but would not go down or even just away! He wanted me to hurt him so badly that he could run to Sue and say what a crazed and violent person I was.

When it became apparent that this stupid bastard wanted me to hurt him real badly I went to the other side of the car and got back in. This infuriated him and he went back to his car and got a tire iron to smash my windows. Again I was out of the car in a flash. Disarming him was easy but now we were back to me beating him about the head and face. Everytime I would stop he would charge! Finally I got back in the car and turned on the radio pretending to ignore him. He got in his car and rammed me! Then he sped away.

I made two calls- one to the Police, giving his name and address etc and one to Sue. The police took my report and then drove to his place where they issued him some citations. My attempt to file charges was unsuccessful due to the fact that only my hands were cut and bleeding while his face was a mess, making me the aggressor. I am not sure he had this in mind when he staged the initial assault, but that is the way it would’ve played out in court.

I remember thinking that we were finally done with him. But bad pennies keep turning up and he made one more attempt to screw things up for us. He called Sue and asked her to meet him for lunch to say “goodbye.” She went. I found out and was furious! It was now time for her to quit her job at Social Security or I was leaving. The situation had now grown so intense that it was likely someone (Ben) was going to get really hurt. Also, it was likely that someone (me) was going to end up in jail.

So in December of 1985 Sue quit her job and went to work for one of the private insurance companies as an Underwriter. It had taken 2 years and 3 months for this drama to play out and I was tired. I was also very happy.

I have often thought back to those days and wondered why I hung in there. I can only surmise that after being rejected by my parents for smoking pot, and later being rejected by Leslie for I don’t know what, I was not going to be rejected again. I knew that Sue was in love with me- but this guy was using her status as a single mom as a weapon against her- exploiting any insecurities that she might have had at the time.

So I had won, and it would take many years to overcome the humiliation of having to compete for Sue’s love. But it was worth it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 25- Licensed

By February of 1984 I obtained my Third Officers License for any tons in any ocean. I went to New York for a week to finish up the Radar Certification before shipping out for what would be my last voyage. I would be working once again on the USNS Sirius.

It was hard to leave Baltimore as Sue and I had been enjoying our new relationship. We ate at Danny's, the best restaurant in Baltimore at the time. I wore ripped jeans and a tee shirt but the old couple that owned the place graciously seated us anyway. Our waiter was a bit odd, being drunk the whole time he served us. At one point he even sat down with us! A few days later we saw the ad in the paper looking for a new waiter at Danny's.

Just before I shipped out we saw "The King and I" with Yul Bryner. This was before his last tour a few years later when he was ill, so he was still in top form. We had 10th row center seats. It was truly wonderful.

But still, lurking in the background was the fact that Sue was engaged to this other guy named Ben. I had been aware of him since Sue and I spent our first weekend together and he lent her his car. Since that time they had become engaged. But we were still spending all our spare time together.

On the 2nd of March I flew to Alicante, Spain on what is known as the Costa del Sol. It was a peaceful little town and there was an historic aspect to my arrival as well. Franco,the Dictator, had died several years earlier and now Juan Carlos was King.

Due to the proximity of Spain to Morocco (the Straits of Gibraltar are less than 10 miles wide)there had always been a large amount of hashish and heroin available on the streets. This caused some problems for law enforcement and so Juan Carlos decriminilized the possession and use of these controlled substances. My arrival coincided with this change.

It was like a huge street party- everyone was smoking everywhere under the watchful eyes of the Federal Police, who at that time wore 3 cornered hats similar to the ones worn during our Revolutionary War. It lent a Sgt. Pepper aspect to the occasion.

We left Spain and worked the Med again for several months. The highlight of this trip was our stopover in England. We were to be at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth for 2 weeks. Ironically this was the original homeport of our ship. The United States had only purchased her 3 years earlier from Britian.

England was wonderful. It was early spring, April, and all the gardens were just blooming. The cottages and houses along the shore of Portsmouth were absolutley beautiful. There was a fish and chips place that stayed open until 2 in the morning and they made quite a bit of money serving all the hungry sailors returning from liberty after a night of drinking.

I arranged to take a trip to London by rail. To do this I had to switch watches with a couple of guys. Doing this would give me 4 days in London to walk about and see things.

The train trip was pretty cool- we had one of those compartments like you see in "A Hard Days Night" or "The Lady Vanishes." I was with a couple of other crew members and we were smoking some hash when an English fellow came in and sat down. We were stymied- surley he could smell that we had been smoking, and also he had to notice the cupped hands holding barely concealed pipes. Breaking the awkward silence I asked. "Do you mind if we smoke?" He replied that he did not mind. I asked again, "Well, we're smoking hashish- do you mind?" His reply was classic- "Young man-you will find that in Britian we don't care what you do as long as you do it quietly."

When we arrived in London I split from the group as they planned on roving the Pubs which didn't hold that much interest for me. I wanted to do my usual walk about town and see and hear and smell the place. So I did.

I took a room at the Savoy on the Strand which parallels the Thames. My first surprise was no shower in my room- just a bath! The other surprise was that everything closed by 1 AM. This was a shock as I had always heard about "Swinging London" and expected it to be different.

The walks about town were wonderful and I bought some gifts to bring home at the shops near the Strand. I also got my haircut. This was at the time of Punk Rock and green Mohawks. The woman who cut my hair asked me "What color will you be having then?" I replied, "Mousey brown" and so nothing needed to be done.

After 3 days I was ready to head back to Portsmouth. Due to my trading watches I would have the midwatch on the eve of our departure. This would turn into one of the most magical nights I would have for a long time.

Arriving back at Sirius I slept a bit, ate and then at midnight I took the watch on the Quarterdeck. In about 5 minutes the phone rang and I answered it, "USNS Sirius, Quarterdeck, Williams speaking, this is not a secure line, may I help you?"

A womans voice answered and asked what time the ship was leaving. I told her that I was not permitted to say. We bantered back and forth for a bit and long story short, we spoke for the entire 4 hours I was on watch. At 3:45 AM I was relieved but stayed on the phone a few minutes longer. The woman wanted to meet! Her husband was an engineer working in Saudi Arabia and she was lonely.

Now I had heard of this sort of thing before- women calling the ships and teasing a guy into taking a fruitless and expensive cab ride to nowhere, or to a place where you could be robbed. But I figured that I would chance it. We were due to leave at 8 AM and this would be my last chance to go ashore for another 2 weeks or so. So I went down the gangway and woke the cab driver at the gate to the Navy Yard and off we went into the English countryside. Tallyho!

I spoke with the driver and he agreed to wait a moment or two after dropping me off just in case this was all a hoax. I had figured all along that if it was I would still get to drive around a bit before sailing and maybe snag a quick English breakfast before heading back to the ship. Nothing ventured, nothing lost- or gained. When we arrived after about 20 minutes of driving I got out. As I did the door to the house opened and silhouetted in the doorway was a beautifully proportioned woman! (I only remark on this as she had told me on the phone that she was overweight.)We spoke for a moment at the door and she invited me in. I signalled the driver that it was okay to go.

We chatted a bit, she was a Chiropodist, and then I heard movement in another room and was a little bit worried. She sensed this and informed me that it was her son. Her son was about 17 and huge! So I decided we should go for a drive. She asked if I had seen the sunrise on the beach and I said I hadn't. So we went for a drive and sat in her little car on the beach and by the time the sun was coming up we were both very contented.

Looking at the time I grew frantic! I had no idea where we were in relation to the ship and knew that 8 AM was only a mere 30 minutes away! I explained this to her and she said not to worry as we left the beach and headed to the Navy Yard.

I was out of that car like a shot! Running through the gate and showing my ID I could already see that lines were being singled up and the ship being readied for departure. I got aboard just as they were preparing to raise the gangway and hurried to my post at the helm.

Phone lines were about to be disconnected when the phone rang. The Captain picked it up and listened a bit before saying, "I'm sorry Miss but Williams is at the helm." After a bit of silence he spoke into the phone again, "Yes M'aam, I'll be sure to tell him." Hanging up the phone he turned to me and said, "That is the first time in 30 years of sailing that I have ever had a woman call to say thanks! Now, Mind Your Helm!" Within minutes the tugs would have us in the channel and we were headed back out to sea and our return to the States.

After a 2 week working voyage we arrived in Norfolk and Sue came to visit. This would become a habit- she would fly down to Norfolk every few weeks and we would spend time together.

Around this time- May of 1984, my Mom began to deteriorate at a rapid pace. She had battled so many illnesses for so many years that she was now about 80 pounds. There was nothing further that could be done to prolong her life. It was, as they say, just a matter of time.

I was driving a cab at night in Norfolk, mostly as a way to kill time between watches aboard Sirius. I was sleeping very little and it showed. One night I was driving through Virginia Beach when I was pulled over for swerving. I was high and tired looking so the cop assumed I was stoned. I told him I always looked that way. When he saw my license he exclaimed, "You really do look like that!" He gave me a verbal warning.

At the beginning of June I went to visit my Mom in New York and we settled any remaining differences between us. There were not too many left. Over the years at sea I had called her from many of the ports in the places that she loved and during those conversations all our past differences were erased. 5 weeks after I saw her last I received a call via Police Radio in my cab that my Mom had died.

Getting home should have been easy. But it wasn't. I had a Captain who was a prick. He actually tried to stop me from going to the funeral without prior Red Cross authorization, which is usually asked only of Active Duty Military personnel. His remarks to me that "It's not my fault that your people bury so quickly" inflamed me!

I called Congressman Steve Solarz office, he represented my Congressional District and was a family friend. I had worked for his earlier campaigns for State Assembly. A call from his office to Military Sealift Command Atlantic got immediate results, as I knew it would. But I can't tell you how the Captain reacted to it- I was already on a plane to New York.

At home for the funeral I was comforted by the fact that my Mom had finally found peace. And now, with her death, I was expecting to find peace too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It's Only Me -Chapter 24- Meeting Sue

I arrived back in New York and stayed briefly with Mark and Lois. I wanted to get back to school quickly and obtain my Third mates License. By October 8th, 1983 I was back in Baltimore, this time renting a one room “flat” on the corner of Eager and Calvert Street. This was still on the edge of the gay neighborhood and just 3 blocks North of Peabody Institute and the Washington Monument. With a kitchen alcove area and a main room for sitting and sleeping it was all I needed. It was also just a half story above street level.

I set about, as usual, in making friends with my neighbors. These included two girls who were studying Chamber Music at Peabody. Their names were Mary and Mary. So I called them M and M. On Sunday mornings around 11 AM they would come down to my place for brunch. I would make stuffed mushroom caps with crab meat and pour the wine while they played Cello and Violin for me. Not too bad a trade when you think about it.

I had been seeing a girl named Mari before I left and had bought her back a beautiful enameled 20 karat gold ring from Turkey. But things were kind of “not there” between us and so I found myself looking at a lonely birthday in Baltimore. And to make matters worse I was without weed and had stopped drinking. This was going to be a lot of fun….

Walking around and hoping to meet someone to celebrate with I started drifting toward the “bad” side of Eutaw Street and into the area where pot was sold openly. I asked around a bit but nobody wanted anything to do with me. I was in good shape, well fed and they decided I was a cop! So I finally went into my birthday spiel-“Hey it’s my birthday and I just got into town, don’t know anyone etc.” No one believed me and I finally had to show someone my ID with my birthday on it in order to get some grass!

School was good and I was making a lot of progress. I had to get my CPR certification and some other Red Cross stuff so I signed up for the classes at the local Red Cross. I forget what the exercise was but you had to pull someone around on a blanket. My partner was some Jewish girl who was about my age and had a ticking biological clock. You could actually hear her planning the wedding and everything. But that didn’t prevent me from asking her out and we saw each other a few times but “no spark” for me.

It was getting near to Halloween, which was at that time one of my favorite holidays. The parties and costumes all added up to some fun and I was looking forward to it. The Thursday night before Halloween a short chain of events began that would have a serious impact on my life.

I was walking by the old Greyhound Station on Howard and Monument Street when I noticed a woman being hounded by an older black guy. He was obviously following her and she was obviously uncomfortable with it. He was talking to her in a lecherous way and you could see her fear.

Crossing the street I walked up behind them both from an angle and slipping my arm into hers I smiled and said to her, “Sorry I’m late.” Fixing him with a glare I said, “Thanks for watching out for my girl, bro.” And then I walked her around the corner and out of sight.

Dropping her arm I apologized and she assured me there was no need to, as she needed the rescue. Her name was Mary and as we walked along a bit I let her know we should split up now as I could be part of a scam. She seemed pretty unconcerned but agreed. She also suggested that I meet her on Saturday night at an activist Church nearby that was hosting a Halloween Party. I agreed and we parted.

I decided to go to the party at the Church because I was kind of sick of the bar scene at the time. And the fact that Mary would be waiting for me was a definite enticement. The big question was what to go as. I finally decided to go as a Tom cat- you know- looking for a kitty. So I took a wire hangar and stretched it out to an acceptable length- then I added a grey scarf which I wound around the hangar/tail and topped that off with some swirls of masking tape. Attatching the wire hangar to my rear belt loop and adding some whiskers to my face with a blackened cork, I was off to the races.

The Church was one of those “activists” ones. By that I mean they were really not that religious- they were kind of a gathering spot for political activists touting such causes as El Salvador, Legal Defense Funds, Battered Women, and After School Care etc.

Mary was there waiting with some friends and the party was already started. There was a band playing and they had some really tacky disco lights going. The biggest surprise of the evening was when Mary and I were dancing and she started doing cartwheels and all sorts of splits to the music. Turned out she was a gymnast and I started thinking of all the fun we might be having later on utilizing her skills…

Her friends were a group of 6 really nice looking women- some doing post graduate work, some still working towards degrees and a couple of guys who were reading Law in prep for the Bar. A very interesting crowd…

Some slow dancing began and Mary and I enjoyed the closeness and we shared a first kiss. The night was progressing nicely when at about midnight Mary got ready to go. I was confused by this. She was leaving alone and passing me on to her friends. We agreed to call one another etc.

Around 1 AM the friends, none of whose names I recall, invited me to accompany them by van to another party at the Activists Lawyers League. This party was being held at the old Enoch Pratt Free Library on the corner of Kirk and Gorsuch Streets in East Baltimore. There were lawyers and aspiring lawyers everywhere. There was lots of liquor and music, too.

I set about dancing with the ladies who had brought me there. Then I started dancing with women who asked me. I was having a great time when I spotted a woman who was standing off by herself and looking like she was not having the best of times. So I approached her and asked for a dance. She turned me down, flat and cold. “No, thanks.” The Iron Curtain. So I went back to dancing with this one and that one. But it really bugged me that this one woman wouldn’t dance with me. So I asked again-same results. “No, thanks.”

After about the third time I’m thinking, “What’s her problem- it’s just a dance, not a commitment!” So I asked her again in a different way. “I’ve danced with every woman here tonight and you’re the only one that said no. Dance with me and I’ll leave you alone forever.” Reluctantly she began to dance- with me talking as we did. I was telling her that I had just got back from Turkey and Lebanon and when the music stopped we kept talking. Her name was Karen. As we were talking she told me, “I have 2 kids so if that’s a problem let me know.”

After a bit some friends of hers were going outside to smoke a joint and I readily agreed. We went and huddled at the bottom of the basement steps and smoked a few before heading back in. Karen had gone to the party at the urging of some neighbors and friends.

A little while later I felt a finger trace up my back and turning around I was looking at Karen who said, “My name’s in the book.” She gave me her address and left. It was about 3 AM. I left shortly afterward and passing a phone booth I looked her up. The address was incorrect and the name didn’t quite match. It said K. Sue Hart. Still I walked home in the frigid early morning air, warmed by the evening and the dancing.

The next day I called the number in the book, which was now changed, so I called the new number. Turned out to be the right one- her name was Karen Sue. She went by the name of Sue and used the name Karen as a way of confusing the jerks and would be stalkers. We talked for hours and then agreed to meet for Chinese food on Tuesday night. She would get a sitter. After explaining that I had no car she offered to pick me up at my apartment.

Tuesday arrived and the day seemed interminably long as I waited for the evening to arrive. I was waiting at my window when her car turned the corner of Calvert and Eager Street. She parked and rang my bell.

I opened the door and there she was- blond hair with green eyes. Looking shyly down she handed me a bunch of flowers! We left for dinner almost immediately and walked to Tony Cheng’s which was only 3 blocks away.

We had Peking duck and talked about ourselves. She was divorced with 2 boys, 8 and 6 years old. Their names were Keith and Shane. She was originally from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and had left because of the small town atmosphere. They actually listed the divorces in the local newspaper. This kind of stigmatized the ladies in certain ways. Also the job market would be easier to crack in Baltimore so she moved down 2 years earlier and took a job at Social Security Headquarters. She had put a down payment on a small house nearby and began her life anew.

We went back to my place after dinner and talked a bit more. There really was no place to sit other than on the edge of my bed or at the tiny kitchen table. We chose the edge of the bed. It wasn’t long before I kissed her. We lay back on the bed and kissed again. Things were going well when she suddenly sat bolt upright and told me she had to go- the sitter was only staying until 10 PM and it was 9:30 now.

We made arrangements to meet on Saturday morning at her place to drive the kids to their Dad’s for the weekend. We spoke on the phone every day that week while waiting for Saturday to arrive. When it did I took a cab to her house and met the kids for the first time.

They were typical kids, running and shouting. They seemed uninterested in me, like I was just one of many passing through. We drove up to Chambersburg, dropped them off and then Sue showed me around her home town and introduced me to some friends. I got the feeling she was showing me off!

We were driving a borrowed car which belonged to a “friend” named Ben. He also worked at Social Security and I remember feeling uneasy about this “friend” and asked her straight out what this friendship incurred. If there was anything other than "friendship" going on then I needed to know. It was, in my opinion, only fair that we be honest with one another.

We arrived back in Baltimore that evening and I made my famous NY Strip Steak covered with Back Fin Lump Crabmeat and then topped with Muenster cheese. Dinner was about ready when Sue suggested we have dessert first…

Today Is My Birthday!

This is me the day I was born. At 3 AM my Mom woke my Dad and they had to get a cab to take them to the hospital. We wouldn't have a car until I was about 3 years old. My Dad, having waited on my older brother's arrival for 12 hours, figured he had enough time to go out and get something to eat and pick up a present for my Mom. He got back and fell asleep in the waiting room, waking up at about 10:30AM and wondering how my Mom was doing.

Approaching a nurse, he asked, in that timid way that only expectant Fathers can,how my Mom was doing. She looked at him as if he were the dumbest thing she had ever laid eyes upon when she informed him that my Mom had given birth to me several hours ago at about 7:47 AM.

I know this story as my Mom told it to me every year for the 30 years of my life that she was here. I never got tired of hearing it and I never get tired of telling it. Hell, I was almost born in the taxi! And to top it off I was a full breech baby- arriving feet first- ready to hit the road. You can see it in the picture, my fists are all balled up and I'm leading with my left, holding back that right until it's needed.

Here I am today, at 55. I don't see much of a difference. However,feel free to draw your own conclusions. I just know that I wouldn't be who I am if it hadn't been for all of the colorful,and not so colorful, people that I have met along the way.

So, from all of me to all of them- Happy Birthday to all of us! And thanks...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Movie Review- Nanking with Mariel Hemingway and Woody Harrelson

This is a movie that needs to be seen. The Rape of Nanking has been covered in many books and documentaries before. But never with the intensity of this one.

Mariel Hemingway and Woody Harrelson potray the 2 American Diplomats who refused to close the Embassy and flee. Along with Stephen Dorff playing the Nazi businessman who also found himself morally bound to remain and help, this documentary reaches out and draws you in. It becomes real to you.

The insanity of war aside, the horrors of war crimes are particularly applicable today, when all sides seem to have lost their collective reason.

Remember, this is a documentary, not a movie as I had expected. The stars mentioned appear only as characters reading from their own diaries and letters. It is an intensley researched film. Also of note is that the Chinese witnesses and diplomats speak in Chinese with English subtitles. This adds to the multi-national color of the story.

And the back story is the co-operation betwen the Nazi run German Embassy and the United States as they try to avert the impending tragedy. A strange alliance considering what would take place in only a few short years.

A worthwhile experience, this docu-drama will affect you. And that's what makes this film so important.

Monday, October 5, 2009

It's Only Me- Chapter 23- USNS Sirius and Mississinewa- Strange Days

In August 0f 1982 I closed up my apartment on Park Avenue and left Baltimore for a position as Able Seaman aboard the USNS Sirius. She was a refrigerated cargo and replenishment ship. In addition to fuel we carried all sorts of frozen provisions for the fleet at sea. We were a clothing store as well, carrying all sorts of foul weather gear and tropical uniforms. We also carried movies to distribute to the fleet, which always made us a welcome sight.

First I took a few days in New York, staying as usual, with Mark and Lois Shorr. I even had a friend with me, Frank bell, whom I had met aboard Jupiter in 1981. We partied at Mark and Lois’ for a few days. We ate lots of good food and just relaxed before we each headed out to sea again. One time we bought lobsters for dinner. Mark and I had picked them out with Frank and we completely forgot to get one for Lois! But they were huge lobsters and so none of us went hungry over it.

Leaving was the usual rushing around at the last minute. I had a bad habit back then, which would never work today, of arriving at the airport at the last possible second, frequently as they were closing the aircraft door. Many times I boarded with my sea bag because it was too late to load it as baggage. This time I pushed it way too far. It was like the episode in Greece with the tanker truck.

Unlike today back then your friends could walk, or in some cases run, with you to the gate. My flight was scheduled for 7:00 PM and I was just arriving. The gate was closed, with only one person at the desk. Showing my orders and ticket I was whisked through the door and down to the field. A passenger bus was produced and once again I was carried out to the plane and lifted aboard. No one cheered when I went down the aisle this time. Just some quizzical looks and a few dagger like stares.

I flew to Italy,landing in Rome. From there I went by rail to Naples. Naples was like a second home to the fleet. It was a main port for recreation and sightseeing. With Pompeii so nearby and the old Castle at Fleet Landing it really did have a lot to offer.

We worked the Med again, refueling ships and transferring personnel. We made several trips to take on stores in Sicily and then back to sea.

The best part of this cruise was a trip to Taromina, a beach resort on the Northern end of Sicily. It is a quaint and family oriented town with an arts colony and spectactular views of the bay. It is a favorite with German and even Japanese tourists. It is also the coast below Mt Etna.

It was here that I met a young Italian woman who attended an art college. She was with her family from Catania, also located on Sicily. This was their vacation. The girls name was Flavia and she could sketch anything. She did this drawing of the new York Skyline from memory on a piece of graph paper. It still hangs in my den.

I had dinner with her family at a restaurant one evening. I was in my usual state of inebriation but the family was very accepting of their daughters friend and we all communicated through the use of 2 small dictionaries. The wine flowed and I hope that their memories of me are as pleasant as mine are of them.

We were anchored in the Bay and our ship was constantly buzzed by small speedboats manned by vacationing Europeans. I had made friends with a woman and her 2 male companions while ashore one day and told them to buzz by the ship the next day. They did, causing quite a stir.

Taormina was a clothing optional beach and this extended to the boats that were buzzing about. At about noon my new friends approached the ship, hailing it in Italian. “Ciao! Ciao!” They tied up at the bottom of the accommodation ladder and one of the crew on watch went down to greet them. The woman was topless and the whole crew was manning the rail, salivating at this sight. The watch came back up and passed the word for me to come to the gangway and receive visitors.

Coming topside I was already dressed and waiting for them to show up. I went down that gangway and into the boat as my astonished crewmates watched in awed silence and we sped away.

We spent the day exploring the caves along the shore and taking in the warm sun. It is a great memory and warms me even when I remember it all these years later.

The Sirius had been purchased from Britian the year before and refitted to the needs of our Navy. We worked hard, as always, venturing into the fracas of Beirut. The conflict between Israel and Lebanon was at crisis proportions and only getting worse. We were getting extra pay to fly supplies in by helo to the Multi National Peacekeeping Force. Kidnappings were not uncommon and so in addition to my Navy issued .45 I always carried a small.25 in the small of my back. I was determined not to be chained to a sink for 7 months or more like some of the others who had been kidnapped.

Whenever we went into Beirut by 24 foot boat to get our mail we had to check our sidearms with the Marine Sentry, or wear them. With my long hair and quasi uniform I felt that wearing a sidearm would mark me as a mercenary and put me in harms way. So I stashed my .45 beneath the thwart ship seat and carried only the hidden .25 for my protection. I always said that if taken hostage the last sound I wanted to hear was the F-14’s screaming overhead as they took me out along with my captors.

While in the area we dropped into Haifa, Israel and I went to visit some family friends. Helene and Jerry Dinerman were old friends of my parents. As a matter of fact my mother and Helene were best friends from the age of 6. They were neighbors at 3619 Bedford Avenue, where I was born. In 1971 they moved with their 2 sons, David and Seth, to Israel. They lived in Herzilyah and I stayed with them for about a week.

Israel is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, not so much physically but spiritually. It is hard to describe what it is like on a Friday evening when everything stops for Sabbath. The only comparison I had was Brooklyn on Yom Kippur.

While there I saw the Wailing Wall, the Dome of the Rock and all the other Biblical landmarks we read about daily. It was awe inspiring to walk where the Prophets had walked. It was also the first time that I really began to understand the Middle East.

We had an older black man whom everyone called Lenny Bruce for some unknown reason. He was a Cuban born man of the Catholic faith. He had been a minor league baseball player in Cuba before Castro took over. His only real ambition was to get to the Promised Land. When we did he rushed to the first boat ashore and as we stepped off onto the landing he had a heart attack and died. He was smiling as he went down.

Next we pulled into Alexandria, Egypt for a week or so in February and I got to go on a couple of trips to some of the places I'd always wanted to see. Alexandria is a really poor and run down port. It is also a bustling place with a myriad of Arab Bazzars where you can purchase all kinds of things. The only limit is your imagination. They did a booming business in bootleg CD's and so we all stocked up on those.

We took a horse drawn cab ride and were offered the chance to buy some hashish. We readily agreed and the driver took us on a roundabout journey leaving us disoriented as to our location. When we arrived at an alley we went down in it and the driver took out a small piece of hash. He told us it was $200. We told him what we thought and he said that we should think again. Looking back up the alley we saw 8 guys advancing towards us- scimatars and all! I had my pistol at the ready but the wise course was to give up the cash and go. Which is what we did. Praise Allah!

I wanted to see some more of the country-most notably the Pyramids and the Nile River. I found a cheap tour package run by an old Egyptian fellow and his sons. They would transport you to the Nile and from there pole you down to Giza where the Pyramids are. The cost was $25 for 3 of us. It would be a 12 hour trip and food would be provided.

The trip was tough- the sun blazing down even in February took it's toll on us. We were weary. The old man and his son's worked like mules, poling and steering the raft like boat down river to our destination. The food provided consisted of compacted balls of couscos and some fish. It wasn't bad. We didn't drink the water as it was cloudy and had a foul smell. We opted for Cokes and beers.

Arriving at Giza we went to the Pyramids and took the tour. It was breathtaking and sad at the same time. Breathtaking in the visual sense and sad when you thought of the slaves that were required to build these elaborate monuments to Death.

From there we went on a trip across the desert by camel and driver to Cairo. This was really roughing it but looking back I am so glad to have had the experience. The camel was weak and dirty. The driver was the same. At night we stopped and a meal of lamb was provided along with some Arabic music. With the addition of the hash the whole experience was magical!

In Cairo we saw the great Museum and had a look about the city, which was surprisingly modern. After that my memory fades and I honestly do not remember the return trip and arrival back at Mississinewa. C'est la vie!

Syria was also active as a base for Soviet jets that would buzz us continually. The effect was chilling, especially when you saw the rockets loaded and ready beneath their wings.

The Sirius had some bugs to be worked out and so we headed home in March of 1983 for some yard work. We arrived in Norfolk and I took three weeks leave which I spent with Mark and Lois as usual. I often wonder how they put up with having me coming and going from their home at will. And staying for months on end! I believe I was a good guest, I cleaned, did my own laundry etc. We also ate out alot. Lois and I would stay up late and talk for hours into the night. Those memories will alway stay with me.

3 weeks after arriving, Mark and Lois took me on another break neck ride to the airport for a short flight to Norfolk, Virginia where I joined the Mississinewa. I was never sure if they were just glad I was leaving, but I know I wanted to stay forever.

The USNS Mississinewa was the sister ship to my first ship Neosho. Neosho was number 143 and Mississinewa was 144. It was very familiar and felt like I was back on the Neosho. We went back to the Med- this time we worked the Eastern end supporting the activities in Beirut. This was a very tense time and the crew was very much on edge. At nights we would get within ¼ mile of the West Beirut airport. We would watch the fighting ashore, marking the difference in the size of the explosions. Big ones were trucks and cars, little ones were buildings.

We lost one man overboard as the result of a fight in the middle of the night. We also suffered a loss in Italy when one crewmate knifed and drowned another on the way back to the ship from liberty. He was taken into custody by The Italian Cabinieri, and as the crime took place there our Status of Forces agreement was not clearly valid.

We were making many trips to Iskenduran,Turkey on the Syrian border to obtain our fuel. We would spend several days there waiting for a call to action. This was at the time the Russians were coming out of Afghanistan after fighting what would later become Al-Quieda. They were trading their rifles for hash! And brining in poppy seed from Afghanistan, which the Turks would grow in the valley.

The gold bazaars were fascinating.For a price they would make you anything you wanted, or so I had been told. One day I walked into one of the Gold Markets and not seeing any Stars of David I sketched one out and asked if it could be made. The next thing that I remember is running down the street being chased by a knife weilding anti-semetic goldsmith cursing me in Turkish!

I never did get the star but I did buy several rings and chains made of 18 or 22 Karat gold which was impossible to get in the States. I took it all out through customs later on and sold it back in New York for 3 times what I'd paid. I actually wore it so that I wouldn't have to pay duty on it.

At this time my contract of 6 months was up and I asked to be sent home. They said they could not fly a replacement into a war zone and simply extended my contract. I asked about the 25% tax free bonus pay that we were supposed to receive while in war zones. But this was not a declared war- so in spite of the bombs and bullets going off all around us, we would receive no extra pay. This pissed me off. The Captain told me that as long as I was under his command there was little I could do about it. So being me, I did something.

I packed my sea bag and went down the gangway to the 24 footer tied up at the bottom. I then took the boat over to the USS Eisenhower-“the Ike”- and tied up. After logging aboard I went to see the Officer in charge of travel. This turned out to be a LtCdr. Goldstein from Brooklyn, NY. A fellow New Yorker and a Jew to boot! He got me a spot on a C-130 flying to Turkey. I landed in Adana and thought nothing of it when I left that base on foot to begin my journey back to the States. I was about to begin a month long trip that I will never forget! The travel orders were issued after I got back to the States.

Turkey is an unusual place when it comes to politics. They have a secular government. It is clearly an Islamic country but ever since Ataturk ruled the government has been mandated by law to remain secular. The Fez and Veil were both outlawed in the 1930’s. They can still be seen in the remote parts of the country but not in the cities. Ataturk wanted to bring Turkey into the 20th Century and saw religious factions as a roadblock to that end.

In 1977 the military took control of the government when the people elected an Islamic fundamentalist as President. They promised that they would let the people rule again when they could vote in a responsible way. I remember laughing at that. But I was about to receive an education.

By 1983 the people were ready for an election and so the whole country shut down transportation wise in order to eliminate any terrorism during the election. So I could not get a plane from Adana to Istanbul.

The first thing I did was get a room. Something should have tipped me off when the hotel guy asked for and kept my Passport. Thinking nothing of it I went up to my room. I was enjoying the evening view and the Minarets and unpacking a few things when there was a knock on the door. Opening it I was faced with 2 very serious looking policeman. They spoke no English and I no Turkish. So communicating in gestures they signaled that I was to go with them and take my sea bags!

Now I was scared, I had some very potent marijuana from Iskendurun, which is on the Syrian border in one of my sea bags along with some hashish. I had also seen “Midnight Express” and was sure that I was going to be in some serious trouble!

We went to the police station where there actually was a bench just like the one used in the movie to beat the soles of your feet! I was sweating bullets!

I was seated along the wall with my bags under the eyes of a guard. There was nothing I could do. At last I was summoned into an office. The Commandant was a woman! I couldn’t believe it! She spoke English and we chatted a bit before she tossed my Passport on the desk in front of me asking, “How did you get into my country?” I explained who I was and where I had come from and where I was trying to go. She listened and then asked me to open my bags.

My heart was in my throat as I opened the first one. And her eyes lit up when she saw my portable stereo. This indicated that I was a possible black marketeer intending to sell the radio. I told her that this was not the case. She asked how could she know the truth? I replied that if I made it a gift to her I would not miss it and she would not have to worry about me selling it.

So we searched my bags no further and I watched her write in my Passport. I have no idea what she wrote but the rest of my journey would go unhindered. She then had me escorted back to the hotel! I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke to the sound of the Call to Morning Prayers mine had already been answered!

Somewhere along the way flights were reinstated and I took a short flight to Istanbul. At this time I met an American woman who was just getting out of the Air Force and traveling alone. We decided to travel together. As an unmarried couple traveling through Turkey we were getting some strange looks but nobody bothered us. We shared hotel rooms and had some fun along the way before flying to Frankfurt, Germany where we could get a flight to N.Y.

It was my intention to get back to Baltimore and finish my exams for Third Mate. I didn’t know it but I was about to enter a phase that would change my life forever.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Movie Review- A Man For All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw

I'm not much of a fan of old English Royalty type films. This movie however is an exception. It explores the battle of wills between Sir Thomas Moore and King Henry the Eighth. The battle, of course, stemmed from the King wanting his childless marraige to his wife Anne annulled.

Sir Thomas' silence on the subject was tantamount to a rebuke of the King as well as the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. Retribution was sure to come. And come it does.

With strong performances from Shaw as the King (he positively roars at times)and equally matched by Paul Scofield as his quiet but firmly defiant Royal Adversary,this film will keep you engaged and interested.

The direction keeps the film flowing and the portrayal of Oliver Cromwell by Orson Welles will chill you with it's utter ruthlessness.

This film was first released in 1966 and won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. I don't know how I missed this one...

And I hope you don't.

It's Only Me- Chapter 22 - Concerning Navigation

It occurs to me that much has been left out so far in my narrative concerning Navigation. It is at once an art and a science which has derived from 3,000 years of man studying the heavens.

It is the means whereby a man takes a sextant and measures the altitude of a star or planet. That measurement is between 0 and 90 degrees, from the Horizon to the Zenith.

The altitude is then reduced to a horizontal line of position which correlates to a compass bearing, referred to as an Azimuth. By pretending that the bearing represents an object on the Horizon(such as a lighthouse) a line is drawn from it to your ship. Where three or more of these lines cross, the intersection, or small triangle which results, is your position on the terrestrial plane.

There is mothing more peaceful and serene than dealing in the science of mathematics while gazing at the heavenly bodies. It is,I believe, as close as one can come to God. And the early dawn, or evening's dusk, surrounded by ocean and sky, is as near as you can get to Creation.

Also I have not addressed the cultural aspects of this lifestyle. In just a few short years I had seen 3 continents, lived in 2 cities and witnessed my first Volcano at Etna. I had also seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a bicycle tour from Livorno to Florence, where I saw the great works of all the past masters. I had been living alot of my dreams and getting quite an education along the way.

I was seeing the world as it was never represented to me in school. It was an eye opener to realize that we are all connected by the mutual needs of food, shelter and employment. It was a lesson that I would never forget.

But some of my greatest trips were yet to come. I would shortly be poling down the Nile and crossing the desert from Giza to Cairo. And be chased from gold bazaars in Turkey by knife wielding Islamics when I asked them to make me a golden Star of David. But all that is still to come...