Friday, August 31, 2012
Thursday, August 30, 2012
On August 30, 2012, William T. Brown, Donald M. Shue, and Gunther H.Wald, three army sergeants first class, who have been missing since November 5, 1969, when their patrol was attacked and overrun in Laos, near the Vietnamese border by a numerically superior enemy force, were laid to rest in a heroes’ ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
The three men were Special Forces soldiers assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s super secret Studies and Observation Group, known as MACV-SOG, a unit that was responsible for reconnaissance behind North Vietnamese lines. Experienced recon soldiers, they were veterans of many such patrols, accompanied by nine ethnic minority Montagnard tribesmen. Only six of the Montagnards survived the attack. The survivors, when recovered, said that the last they saw of the three Americans, they were lying on the ground, gravely wounded; Brown, who was a staff sergeant at the time had been shot in the side, and the other two, Staff Sergeant Wald and Specialist Fourth Class Shue, had been seriously wounded by grenade fragments.
Inclement weather and heavy enemy activity in the area made it impossible made it impossible for US forces to enter the area to search for the missing men until November 11. During the patrol, gear belonging to Shue, the team’s radio operator, was found, but there were no traces of the men. Throughout the rest of the Vietnam War, the men were listed as missing in action (MIA), but the search to determine their fate continued. At the end of the war, they were declared presumptively dead (KIA) and promoted to Sergeant First Class, which was the practice of the Defense Department at the time.
In March 2010, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), based at Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii, found and recovered possible human remains, along with other evidence indicating the possibility that the three had at last been found. Working together with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Crystal City, Virginia, JPAC was finally able to conclusively identify the remains as belonging to Brown, Shue, and Wald.
The ceremony at Arlington Cemetery was attended by the men’s surviving family members, veterans of MAVC-SOG, and other active duty soldiers who came to pay their last respects. Soldiers from the Army’s Old Guard, stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to Arlington Cemetery, escorted the caisson carrying the remains after a memorial service at the Fort Myer Chapel. An honor guard fired a twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor that can be bestowed, and a bugler played a mournful ‘Taps.’
The sky was a clear, crystal blue, and even the birds were silent during the service at graveside. Folded American flags were presented to the family members. There were no tears, but many stood in somber reverence as their sacrifice was recounted, myself among them. I only knew Shue, a young soldier who was old beyond his years, but I remembered them, and the many like them, who, without hesitation or thought of praise, went into harm’s way in the service of their country; many who still remain unaccounted for, but for whom the search continues. They may be gone, but they are clearly not forgotten.
Their sacrifice, and the honor with which they lived their lives, will never be forgotten.
Monday, August 27, 2012
Nearly person on earth has some kind of phobia; a fear of closed spaces, spiders, or heights. I, for one, am afraid of heights. My knees get rubbery whenever I’m standing at the edge of a ledge or balcony more than three stories above the ground. That doesn’t explain how I was able to jump from perfectly sound airplanes for nearly 20 years in the army, but phobias often defy explanation.
I have one phobia, though, that’s even harder to explain than my fear of heights – I freeze up and become almost unintelligible whenever I have to talk on the phone. And, if there’s an answering machine or some other kind of mechanical voice (like a phone tree that asks you to punch in numbers to indicate your choices) I turn into a gibbering idiot. Now, this is not your normal fear of public speaking. I can talk to crowds of any size, and, other than the opening jitters which are just a signal that you’re doing something new or strange, and help to focus your mind (it does help me to focus), I have no problem. I once addressed a crowd of nearly two thousand Cham Muslims in a village in Cambodia, and I even managed to get over a couple of jokes that they understood and appreciated. Same thing goes for talking on the radio or being on TV. Once the prompter indicates my mike is open, or the red light starts shining on the camera, I go on auto pilot.
But, when I dial a phone and one of those mechanical voices answers, my brain goes into seizures. I forget my name sometimes, mumble, repeat myself, mispronounce words; in other words, I become a blathering, mindless idiot. And, no matter how I try to analyze it, I can’t figure it out. I can work through the jitters if there’s a human on the other end of the line. I’m not as glib as I am on the podium, mike, or in front of the camera, but I can at least manage to sound reasonably intelligent. I just can’t talk to machines.
There’s probably a name for it; some unpronounceable hyphenated phrase that describes the mindless terror I have for that metallic sounding voice saying, “If you wish to speak English, press one, if you don’t know what you’re doing, press the pound sign,” or something like that. I’ve usually forgotten what my choices are, or what button to press, by the time it finishes. Often, I’ve forgotten why I called in the first place. When I call someone, and their machine answers with, “I’m not at home right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number at the sound of the beep, I’ll get back to you,” my first instinct is to hang up. I think I’m afraid the darned machine knows who I am and is just waiting to laugh at my fumbling attempts to leave a message. And, the rare times when I don’t hang up, that’s just what I do; I fumble, I mumble, I forget my name and number. I just plain can’t think of what to say.
The funny thing is, when I’m on an Internet site and I encounter screens that ask me to enter numbers or other information, I have no problem. I don’t mind the written inquisition from a machine. I just don’t like having a machine question me; talk to me; analyze my choices, and then tell me, “Sorry, but I don’t recognize your answer, please repeat.”
Maybe one day, I’ll talk to a professional analyst about this hang up of mine. In the mean time, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do – hang up.
Friday, August 24, 2012
For those who were unable to attend my retirement/flag ceremony August 24, 2012, at the State Department Treaty Room; it was an impressive and moving ceremony. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Director General of the Foreign Service presided, and I must say, I was moved almost to tears by her words. It was also nice to see so many friends there from State, Defense, and other places. A truly nice end to a fifty-year public service career, and a day I will not soon forget.
I’ve never been one to try to be profound, but I felt that I should say something meaningful on my last ‘official’ day as a public servant. My final words were addressed to those who still serve:
(Beginning of Speech)
“What does one say to mark the end of half a century of service? I’ve been wrestling with that problem for the past few weeks, and for a Texas to be at a loss for words is something particularly noteworthy. I mean, after all, Texans are to talking what macaroni is to cheese, right?
Seriously, though, it has been a task trying to decide just what to say to mark this occasion. There are a few times in a person’s life that are memorable and worthy of celebration; birth, marriage, death come to mind – but, the culmination of fifty years of service to your country must, I think, also be included on that list. In fact, regardless of the number of years; when a person retires after serving the nation, the occasion should be celebrated.
Of course, that still hasn’t helped me determine what to say. Do I bore you with stories of all that I’ve seen and done during that time? I could, and it might not bore all of you – since I first took the oath of enlistment back in July 1962, many things have happened here in our beloved country, and abroad, and I have the fortune, or sometimes the misfortune; like the character in Forest Gump; to be in the vicinity of what was happening.
I could tell you that it has been, not only rewarding professionally, but a heck of a lot of fun. That would be true, but I doubt if it’s what you want to hear.
You see, that’s the pressure of having served for so long; people expect you to make some momentous and profound statement about it.
Well, I don’t have a reputation of being profound particularly – nor momentous for that matter. I have for fifty years been the type who calls ‘em like I sees ‘em and tells it like it is. With me, what you see is what you get.
And, despite the fact that the years went by, seemingly at the speed of light, I did in fact enjoy every one of them. If I had to sum them up in a phrase, I think I’d have to say, “out of control.” Now, for those of you wondering at that statement, I’m assured by a young colleague that for some age groups and in some regions of the country, that means, outside the box, unorthodox, unique, which can be negative or positive depending upon how you feel about it – and I always believe in thinking positively – and I can positively say that most of my career was ‘out of control.”
I also think that along the way I did some little good for others. As those of you who have served as diplomats abroad know, people sometimes seem to forget those who help them in time of need. So be it: as Mahatma Gandhi said, “That service is the noblest which is rendered for its own sake.” So, we, and here I include the newest junior officers as well as the old grey beards like me, have come forward to serve the interests of this great country of ours – many of our fellow countrymen will not know, and some will not care what we have done, but we know and that’s what counts. Be grateful that you have been given the chance to serve, and endeavor to always give the best of yourself to that service. Public service can improve things for other people; it can create a better environment for all; but the greatest reward is the new meaning and enrichment it gives to our lives – we who serve.
So, after a long conversation with myself, I said, “Self, you should talk about the importance of service, and the importance of giving our all in everything that we do.” Well, self, of course, agreed. Now, I’m not talking here to the oldsters in the audience; we old people never listen, and can’t hear all that well anyway. No, in keeping with Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on youth and their leadership potential. Of course, young people don’t listen either, but the can, at least, hear. I’m proof positive of that; I thought I was ignoring my grandmother all those years she was raising me, and trying to fill my head with wisdom. I had reached 50 before I realized that not only had I been hearing what she was saying, but I’d filed it away, and was using her words of wisdom to guide me successfully through two careers.
So, my advice to you, as I prepare like Douglas MacArthur to ‘fade away,’ is to never lose sight of why we enter this profession in the first place. We do it because of a desire to make the world a better, one small piece at a time; and to make life better for people, one person at a time. My favorite boxer, Muhammad Ali, known for a lightning fast jab, and an even faster mouth in the ring, said it best – “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Young people, look to those who have gone before you. Emulate the good, correct the mistakes, and avoid the bad. Don’t be satisfied with doing a job that is just ‘good enough.’ Strive to be better than the best; better than the rest. Don’t worry about making mistakes, or be obsessed with success. Success is nothing but a string of failures you survive and learn from. Thomas Edison had hundreds of failures before he made the first working light bulb, and Abraham Lincoln had nearly two decades of one failure after another before becoming one of our most famous presidents.
Don’t be satisfied with following the trail others have followed; blaze your own trail, and scale heights your forebears couldn’t even imagine. While you’re doing all this, keep hold of your humanity. Don’t be seduced into believing that you deserve being called ‘excellency’ or ‘honorable.’ Never lose the common touch.
I’d like to leave you with a poem, one of the first poems I remember learning from grade school. In fact, I had to memorize it and recite it before the whole school. “If,” the name of the poem, is by British poet Rudyard Kipling, who according to historical records was imperialistic, sexist, and probably a little bit racist. The poem is considered doggerel by many critics, but I think they miss the point. It has a lot of wisdom if you close a critical eye and listen.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and disaster
And treat these two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them, ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk crowds and keep your virtue,
‘Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
It truly is just that simple. I stand before you as living proof. This is how I have worked and lived for more than the fifty years I have served in government.
I’d like to close by thanking all those who have helped me along the way; sometimes knowingly, sometimes unwittingly.
First my family; my wife Myung, who sometimes hasn’t had a clue about what I’m doing or why; my children, who had to grow up with a father who couldn’t always be around, or who was always dragging them off to some place with a name they couldn’t pronounce. Then there’s my extended family, some of whom are here today. They have always been supportive, helpful, loving, and understanding; always there when I needed them.
Outside my family there have been others who have been as close as family. The late Mary Ryan, long-time Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. Always there when I need her professional advice, or just someone to talk to. Career Ambassador Ruth David, a mentor and advisor, who, by the way, talked me into taking one last assignment, as ambassador to Zimbabwe back in 2009 instead of retiring. Colleagues from throughout the State Department, who have learned to tolerate my eccentricities, and mitigate their often disruptive impact, and still remain cordial. My colleagues and friends from the Department of Defense, especially the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, who continue to serve the country and American people in a largely unsung role of bringing closure to families who have lost loved ones, and honor to those who paid the supreme sacrifice for this country.
I could go on, but since I’m not feeding you, I have to let you out of here for lunch.
Thank you all for your professional assistance. Thank you for your friendship. Most of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve. I wish upon each of you, longevity, wisdom, beauty, happiness, wealth, and strength.”
(End of Speech)
As I said, not particularly profound, but those words came from my heart. It has been a wonderful fifty years, and I leave public service with some really fond memories.
Joan Mower of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Office of Strategy and Development did an interesting short piece on her visit to Zimbabwe. Read the entire article at:
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Check out this Facebook page. The initiative of Veneka Shumba, a Zimbabwean-American, it is just the type of project that can begin to make a difference with sufficient support.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
You don't have to be in a place for a long time to enjoy it, or really get to know it. I once thought you did, but after two short visits to Cape Town, I found the secret of getting the most out of a place in a short time. Read more here
Monday, August 20, 2012
Sunday, August 19, 2012
An Erie (PA) Times editor, recognizing the benefits of the Chautauqau Scientific and Literary Circle established by Sharon Hudson-Dean at the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe, penned this editorial: http://www.goerie.com/article/20120819/OPINION01/308199996/Our-view%3A-From-Zimbabwe-to-Erie-let%27s-readab
Saturday, August 18, 2012
I recently received the following piece from my friend, Paul Berg, who is not only an accomplished diplomat, but as you can see from this, a fantastic writer as well. Read and enjoy:
Foreign Service people en route to Afghanistan often overnight in Dubai. I knew in advance I’d be stressed and sleepless right up to the minute I boarded my direct thirteen hour flight at Dulles Wednesday evening, so planned to spend two nights in Dubai rather than just one. One whole day to sleep in as long as I wanted with nothing more than Gulf sunlight burning through my 16th floor window (plus that damn arthritis in my shoulders) to shame me awake this morning. And the lure of a full day to see some tiny corner of this desert fantasy of a city whose architecture every month seems to score a biggest, tallest, most bizarre, most unusual architectural record.
Truth is that quite a few of the most-written-about places in Dubai are located at the Dubai Mall, including the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world), Dubai Waterfall, Dubai Ice Rink, and the famous Fountain. The Mall itself is the perfect place to fill an empty chillout day; it’s enormous, with plenty to distract, and the most varied selection of luxury retailers you’re likely to find anywhere on earth (can’t believe there’s another mall on earth anchored by Bloomingdale’s at one end and Galeries Lafayette at the other), plus plentiful dried fruit, Middle East carpet and Muslim apparel shops of a sort you’re not likely to find in Singapore, London or the Mall of America. It’s Ramadan and it’s Dubai’s oven-hot August, locals are fasting and immobile while foreign tourists are waiting til the more temperate autumn to visit, so only a few international odds and ends like me were poking around seeing if our credit cards work as well over here as at home (they do.)
Ramadan means restaurants do not serve until sunset, although a few fast food joints at the mall offered discreet takeout packages to be eaten at home. The nice young Iranian man at Casa Pons de Importaco, Treenut General Trading L.L.C. (since 1945) told me that he could not let me sample dried fruits and nuts from his open vats because of Ramadan, but pointedly looked the other way when I sent him off on errands (“find me a little sack so I can scoop in some of these pistachios, okay?”) so I could taste what I was buying: exquisite dried figs, two kinds of dried corn nuts, pistachios, remarkable dried kiwis, strawberries and cherries, dried watermelon seeds. I woke up too late for breakfast at the hotel, so the rest of the day at the mall I carefully slipped fistsful of these dried fruits and nuts from the bag into my mouth while keeping a lookout for mall security people enforcing the Ramadan rules, like the mall cops I saw getting stiff with some Europeans who sat eating their “takeout” at a food court table.
Several corridors of the Dubai Mall are devoted to an “Arab Court,” meaning stores selling ladies’ Islamic apparel. To one side, though, was a men’s fragrance store selling Arab perfumes to Arab men. I was sure Khaled was Iranian because of his accent, but he turned out to be Syrian. I asked him to start with the most powerful, masculine scent he had on hand but, like an Indian chef who ignores your instructions to cook your tandoor chicken spicy and brings it out bland instead, he drew out something called “Ehsass” (“Emotions” or “Feelings,” as you’d know if you’d spent a year studying Pashto with its many Arabic cognates) which, he said, Western men could wear. Bland. Way too bland. Let’s try something with a bit more muscle, I said, feeling like Lawrence of Arabia meeting a wary Sherif Ali for the first time. He starts explaining about the mixture of musk and amber and having me smell flasks of each, then brings out something that he says is the strongest he’s got, “Flagon Desert,” which is actually “Desert Falcon” and smells like burnt over cigar ashes. It’s clearly a scent to repel the strong and intimidate the weak, but he insists that it will smell better if I leave it on for a few more hours.
I’d told Khaled, 27, how much I like Syria and Syrians and how beautiful I find Aleppo and Damascus, which led him to lament how much of Syria is being destroyed by the civil war. “The Syrians are stupid people,” he said, “so stupid that we have let that family rule us for so long. Everyone in Syria thought it was normal to not talk about the Government over the phone, normal that spies are listening everywhere.” He added, “But how can it be that we Syrians all get smart once we leave Syria? Every Syrian I know who lives outside is smart.” He said he was from Daraa, and recounted the story of how the current movement started there, when the authorities found and arrested citizens who had painted anti-government graffiti. He said he had seen a lot that disgusted him during his two years of military service in Homs, which is always a pressure point. “Did you have to kill anyone?” “No,” he said rolling his eyes, “it was a quiet period when I was there.”
But he also believes that the uprising will change nothing, and that Assad will remain in power. “How can it be otherwise?” Then he brings out what he says is the best and most popular perfume he sells, Majestic, which, he says, both Arabs and Western men can wear. “It is for a special night, or for a businessman going to an important meeting.” This one smells a little better; Khaled sprays a little more onto my upper arm, and it smells better yet. He is realistic about emigrating to the U.S.; “of course I want to go, everyone does, but I’ve asked around and I’m sure they would not give me a visa.” “Have you tried?” “No, but I know the rules already.” He smiles and nods his head as I recite the U.S. “sufficient ties” language, which he knows already. Majestic turns out to be pricier than I’d expected, so I tell Khaled I’m going to walk around the mall a bit but may come back later. He sprays a big draft across the front of my shirt; “this is guaranteed to work, and after you’re worn it all day you’ll come back.”
Luckily I arrived at the entrance gate to the Burj Khalifa Tower just when there was an opening on the tour schedule; had to leave my fruit and nut bag at the reception because no food is allowed on the Observation Deck during Ramadan. It’s a dramatic view up there, but somewhat less interesting than the view from the Empire State Building or whatever they call the Sears Tower these days because there’s less to see; brown desert in one direction and the flat obscurity of the Gulf in the other. Still, Dubai’s rapid pace of construction constant offers more for the Observation Deck viewer, and Khatik, a 26 year old Indian engineer, marvels that so much, including the Burj itself, has been built since he arrived from Tamil Nadu in 2005. “When I got here, this was all sand and water,” he said.
Khatik is from Rajapuram, not far from Chennai, so I tell him how much I like Tamil Nadu, and ask him about the famous temple at Tiruchchirappalli. Turns out his family lives just across the street. We talk about how the Tamil Nadu beaches are so much more beautiful than the Dubai Gulf coast, and of course how much he misses home. Khatik and his four visiting buddies are Hindus, just had lunch, which means they are smiling and enthusiastic, not slightly ghostlike like the fasting Muslims. Much to criticize in Jayalalithaa’s government, but who wants to get onto politics? It turns out that Khatik is a Scorpio with a lot of planets in Aries and, since I’m a Pisces with a lot of planets in Aries, we have much in common. (On the other hand, Jayalalithaa is a Pisces, too, which explains a lot about her dismal political style, successful though it’s been with her fellow Tamils.) Khatik says that surely I must have visited many astrologers when I worked in India, since Indian astrologers are the best in the world; I tell him about some of the Gujurati and Sindhi astrologers my Bombay businessment friends referred me to. Khatik beat me to the punch; Gujuratis and Sindhis are interested mostly in money, so Gujurati and Sindhi horoscopes always focus on how much earning power you have and how your personality will allow you to get rich.
A morning spent eating dry corn seeds and pistachios will make you crave something sweet and, since current American diet legend teaches us that dark chocolate is virtually a weight loss pill, I headed into the Buteel Chocolate Shop for (takeaway) dessert. Rakeel, a cheerful 22 year old, asked me to guess where he is from. Couldn’t be Iranian judging by the name; tall, slim, with a burst of black hair falling onto his forehead, didn’t seem Egyptian or Palestinian, either. Lebanese?, I offered. Wrong on all counts. “I’m an Uzbek!,” he announced proudly. “From Samarkand!” Where else? He found me the darkest chocolate in the store, a 75% cacao ganache in praline. Rakeel’s English is close to accentless, which makes it all the more remarkable that he began studying from TV and books about six months ago. A Sagittarius, he also speaks Uzbek, Tajik and, of course, “a little Russian,” meaning he was born just at the end of the Cold War. The Commies always dumb down the language once they take over, and his speaking “a little Russian” reminds me of the Tajik filling station attendant I met in Whippany, New Jersey last fall. Asked him to write his name in his native script rather than in English, so he wrote it in Cyrillic. “It’s the only native script we have.”
Rakeel still has a bit more English to learn. He asks me about jobs in the U.S. and tells me he wants to go to New York City. Brothers or relatives there? I ask. No, just buddies, he said, but they want me to come to see the big yellow taxi.
I buy four pralines, delicious, then head back to Khaled and the colognes. He is sleeping head down in a chair when I arrive, the Ramadan fast is taking its toll. He’s happy to see me again, and I ask him whether this Majestic stuff will ensure that I am irresistible. He assures me that it is guaranteed, absolutely guaranteed to make me irresistible. Fists up, I reply that I will return and beat him up if even a single person resists me in Afghanistan; we both laugh at each other. It turns out that he is a Cancerian astrologically; he is not surprised to learn that I am a Pisces, and he notes that, like many another Cancerian, he has a round face and many Piscean friends.
Then, while he’s looking for a box, he apologetically asks why George W. Bush had to make things complicated by invading Afghanistan. I tell him that I was in New York City on September 11 and watched from a distance while 6,000 innocent people were fried alive, so saw it as Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda making things complicated. Yes, he said, but Bush did not change anything, everyone knew Bin Laden was an idiot, and something similar will happen again. I said that, thank goodness, nothing similar has happened since September 11, perhaps because of our action in Afghanistan. He apologized again for bringing up politics; I told him there is no greater act of intimacy between friends than talking openly about their differences.
Finally scored a Pushtun on my way back to the hotel! My driver, Mohammed Badal, is 43 years old, a Peshawari who has lived in Dubai 21 years. Our conversation turned quickly from English to Pashto but I lament that, four weeks after getting a very respectable final Pashto score, I have to search to remember even the simplest verbs. He asks me if I speak Urdu (no) but we carry on in Pashto. He was a construction worker before becoming a taxi driver and has three kids “but only one wife.”
If the Saudis see the sun tomorrow, Ramadan will be over and I will arrive in Afghanistan just as Afghans are getting their energy and spirits back. A good time to arrive.
My new novel, Pip's Revenge, the sequel to Child of the Flame, is now available in paperback on Amazon, and will also be available on other book retail sites in the US, UK and Europe. The Kindle version is in process and should be available soon.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
I’m over jet lag now; the cable guy came, so I have Internet access at home, and my lungs are finally adjusting to the pollen and gunk in the air, so I’m no longer coughing my lungs out. I’m home.
I can now get back to doing what I love doing, when I’m not writing or some other activity, riding the Washington Metro Rail observing my fellow passengers. That’s right; like most writers, I am a notorious snoop and eavesdropper, and some of my best characters, plots, and descriptive have come from subway rides. In fact, the subway is probably one of the best places for a writer to observe the human condition. I’ve ridden subways in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco (not to mention London, Paris, and Stockholm), and each of them has its own unique characteristics. But, for me, the Washington mass transit system has been a gold mine.
Let me explain. The ideas for some of my favorite characters have come from the metro. Winston Lee Nesbit, the hapless 40-year-old loser who is bedeviled by the spirit of his departed grandmother in Angel on His Shoulder and She’s No Angel came to me as I watched a slightly overweight, meek commuter one day get pushed around by every other rider in the car, and he just suffered in silence, despite being bigger than two of the average jerks who kept nudging him aside.
Al Pennyback, the hero of my mystery series (the latest is Till Death do Us Part) prefers getting around the Washington, DC area via subway to driving. The Metro system is also a good way to get to know Washington’s history and character. The different stations, from Shady Grove out in Montgomery County, Maryland to Vienna in Virginia, are as different as the regions in which they are located. I often take a train at random, observing passengers on the platform and in the car, and then get off at some randomly selected station on the route and just exploring the neighborhood in the station’s immediate vicinity. Good way to soak up local color and see the difference between areas. Woodley Park, near the National Zoo, is completely different from Takoma Park to the east. I think this helps add some verisimilitude to my descriptive passages and helps put the reader more into the picture.
The Metro has also been a source of inspiration and an aid to combat a writing slump. When I was working on my first book, Things ILearned from My Grandmother About Leadership and Life, I had a real hard time trying to decide what direction I wanted to go in describing my leadership philosophy. One evening, on the way home, two young school girls got on the subway, and began making noise and being profane, much to the discomfort of the other passengers. Just as I was about to cause an incident by going over and telling them to ‘pipe down,’ a little, frail looking old lady approached them. I couldn’t hear what she said, but her wagging finger reminded me of my grandmother. The outcome of her intervention also brought back memories of the woman who raised me. The girls dropped their heads shyly, and not another peep was heard from them for the rest of the ride. That was it, I thought; what I know about leading people, I learned from my grandmother. The rest was easy.
I have also featured the Metro in some of my stories. In Deadly Intentions, the bad guys plan a terrorist attack in a Metro station, and our heroes have to thwart it. I took some liberties with schedules and the like, but anyone who has ever ridden the subway in DC will recognize the scenes.
So, there I am; or here I am; after three years in southern Africa where they speak almost 19th century British English (is that a redundancy?), my English she too good. I’m getting my groove thing back, though; dropping my ‘g’ and running words together like a real ‘Murican.
Man, it’s good to be home.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
I have decided to renew the availability of some of my titles for Kindle users to download free for a limited period. The following titles are free for the times indicated:
"Good Day to Die" - - August 18-22
"African Places: A Photographic Journey Through Zimbabwe and Southern Africa" - - August 18-19
"Deadly Intentions" - - August 17-21
"Die, Sinner" - - August 19-23
Get 'em while they're hot!
"Good Day to Die" - - August 18-22
"African Places: A Photographic Journey Through Zimbabwe and Southern Africa" - - August 18-19
"Deadly Intentions" - - August 17-21
"Die, Sinner" - - August 19-23
Get 'em while they're hot!
After three years, I’ve finally moved back into my Maryland house; this time, with the prospect of staying put for a while. Well, maybe not really staying put, but at least not having to pack more than a suitcase for a good long time. Because, after fifty years, I have decided to leave public service and experience life as a private citizen; for the first time in my adult life.
I can now look forward to spending as much time during the day writing as I wish, and not have to cram in writing time in the early morning or after work until the wee hours of the evening. These last two weeks, as I prepare for my retirement ceremony, track down my household effects which are somewhere between Zimbabwe and Maryland, and do all the other things you have to do when you leave an organization, I have had more unscheduled time than I ever remember having. I’ve been able to surpass my thousand-word-a-day quota by a large amount.
Even more important, without the tug of government business creating unnecessary tension, my thoughts as I sit at the keyboard have been more lucid and lush than ever. I’m working on several projects; a sequel to my sword and sorcery, ‘Child of the Flame’, a new leadership book, another Al Pennyback mystery, and a sequel to ‘Wallace in Underland,‘ that are in different stages of completion, and it feels great to be able to move from one to another without worrying about the phone ringing with yet another bureaucratic emergency that simply cannot wait until morning.
It’s great, too, being back where, despite all our shortcomings and blemishes, the Internet is fast and reliable. Oh sure, you have to wait until the cable guy decides to come out and install the system, but once he does, you’re golden. No more having the system go blank on me in the middle of uploading a 200-plus page manuscript. The electricity in my neighborhood is the exception to this; for some reason, whenever the wind blows, the land line phones go out, and the power goes off for a few minutes. Fortunately, we don’t have frequent high winds – so it’s only a minor nuisance.
I’d forgotten the joy of being able to drink water from the tap, too. I know you do that at your own risk in some places, but I’m lucky enough to live in a place where the tap water isn’t filled with lead or sediments, and it doesn’t come out of the tap a reddish brown. No typhoid or dysentery from my sink.
I know I’m rambling here, but that’s the way I feel today. I’m almost home free – no more government deadlines, no more government restrictions on what I can say, when I can say it, or who I can say it to. I feel like a prisoner who has just received a pardon; standing before the prison gates waiting for them to be flung open so that I can walk out into the sunshine of freedom; like a kid at Christmas, standing in front of the tree looking at that big box that I just know is the American Flyer I’ve always wanted.
Last month I celebrated 50 years of public service – well, I didn’t actually celebrate; more like I paused for a moment of stunned silence. In two short weeks, I will end that chapter of my life, and start immediately on the writing of the next. Stay tuned as the pages unfold here.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
My last meeting with the media in Harare. What I find interesting are the venomous comments at the end - makes some of the online commenting in other countries look tame by comparison. That's what happens, though, when people are fed propaganda and vitriol for most of their lives - they cease being civilized beings.
Now, pure selfishness that benefits only the individual, or worse, disadvantages others is not a good thing. But, consider this; when you do something because it makes you feel good about yourself is this not a selfish act? Acts of charity that help others also make the givers feel good. Acts that enhance our reputation or cause others to view us with greater respect benefit us personally. These are all selfish acts; but, they are what I call selfless selfishness. They are the kind of selfishness that is outer rather than inner directed.
So, don’t beat yourself up for that feeling of self-satisfaction you get from giving a hand to some less fortunate person. The feeling is natural, so go with it. Keep the feeling alive by doing more. Try to commit at least one act of selfless selfishness each day. Not only will it make you feel better, but it will contribute to making the world a better place.
Charles Ray is a writer of a number of works of fiction, including the popular Al Pennyback mystery series, and is a featured travel writer for Yahoo! Voices. He is also Diplomatic Editor for Asnycnow Radio.