January 28, 2015

Tosca

Ravishing Russky soprano Tatiana Serjan as Tosca

Due to the good graces of the USO, I received 2 free tickets to last night's superb performance of our Lyric Opera's production of Tosca which introduced me to Russian soprano Tatiana Sarjen but more on her later. My original intention was for the Den to be a Man About Town feature only a little vexing issue with our IRS intervened just as I started the blog and now I almost have that painful matter behind me so the high steppin' will soon begin. I only consider last night a school night tune-up for what is to follow.


The Civic Opera House is an Art Noveau-Art Deco masterpiece.
Here is a wall inside the theatre that shows some of the detail.


Mr. DG, aka Our Man in Edgewater, is a fine fellow I formally met only 3 or 4 days ago. Much to our amusement we were on the same schedule and crossed paths several times each day with McDonald's at 7ish, for coffee and wifi, library when it opens at 10 and next to the library our little lunch spot Patio Beef.. I had only pleasantry variety interaction previously but noticed he was quite friendly, articulate, and all these bookish older ladies were always having a word with him over Dickens, Austen, and the like.  My friend Terry who I normally go to the Opera with was a late scratch and I do hate seeing a good seat going to waste so just asked DG if he was interested as it was a free ticket. His eyes lit up just as I suspected and he has long been a devotee of Opera and Theatre and has far more technical knowledge than I do so he was more than up for it.
I love the people watching during intermission.



I have another little money matter to clear up after I square up with my buddy JC on Friday. I'm also on the boot bounty...you know those gorgeous hunks of cold steel that put your car out of business.
I'm into the city for a pretty penny over some past due parking tickets. I always urge any robbery victim not to bother calling 911; that's too slow. Just park your car a foot past that sign with the arrow pointing the other way and watch how fast they appear. It's like they fall from the sky. Then they go get a hot dog, come back, and write another ticket. They drive around the block. BAM! Another.
Then they have these burly bastards that flunked out of Seal Team 6 school that drive around looking for cars with TWO tickets past due. That's right TWO! They should be wearing black hoods when they affix those clunky hangman's nooses. GSL's tickets number well past two btw...but his car remains unshod of said boot. For the last few months, I've been in a little cat and mouse game with the boot crews and this is where being clever is helpful. The trick is you must stay a moving target. Never park near where you live and I've got 3 or 4 cubby holes where they'll never find me. I've got guys posted on street corners letting me know when they're on the move. Smoke signals, carrier pigeons, tweets, and texts. Low Tech and High Tech. They can't find me. They won't find me. But I do need to settle up so I called the ticket lady to cut a deal. She said they don't cut deals. I tried low-balling her....she wasn't amused. I'll call her back in a couple of weeks after she's had time to think about it.

The Denver Boot: These boots make for walking

Mr. DG and I shared a giggle over my boot crew troubles and then enjoyed a splendid night of great music and drama with wonderful sets and great actors in addition to beautiful voices and music. Mr DG is a great companion to attend these cultural excursions with. We were in almost complete agreement on how good the sets were, the superb acting by everyone, how well staged it was overall, and the exquisite aria that Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) delivered to close Act I and marveled at how the night flew by. It was a marvelous night in good company and look forward to getting out more now that the dust is starting to clear.

There is of course that famous scene and aria that hit close to home where Tosca proclaims:
                                       
                                                         I live for Art.
                                                        I live for Love.

I'll endure money troubles, a boot crew posse, and a higher cost of living if I can live in a city that supports great cultural institutions like Lyric Opera of Chicago. Thank you USO!
While I know our dear Cynthia does far better, this is GSL's idea of a well laid table
Post performance cocktail at The Red Lion Pub. That's a Famous Grouse on the rocks at 11 o'clock.
At 1 o'clock is an empty mini bottle of  Baily's Irish Cream aka 'Irish Maalox'
I took 3 of those into the Opera as $14 is a little steep for this pauper's purse

January 26, 2015

Operation Unified Response Part 2


Effected area from 2010 Earthquake


After 4 long days and nights my turn had finally come and I was directed to back my up-armored humvee onto the hold of a C-17 with a troop transport truck. The flight crew was from the Kansas Air National Guard who had been activated full time for Iraq and Afghanistan supply runs but were diverted to Pope AFB for a few Haiti missions.

I asked the flight crew if they had heard any guidance regarding our mission and they were as astonished as I was at how little information we had all received. After 4 days of waiting on the tarmac, we didn't get any updates, briefs, or anything in the way of information on what to expect in Haiti. I was assuming this was mostly a humanitarian effort with an armed presence deterring bad actors from misbehaving. I assumed if there were actual bullets flying, I would have heard something but couldn't be certain. We were wearing body armor and had a full combat load of ammo (210 rounds with 7 magazines at 30per) for our M-4. The 19yo female soldier with me who had never deployed was understandably nervous as nobody had told us a thing about our mission which is against everything we've ever faced in an Army that loves nothing more than to give briefs and where the term: "Death by Powerpoint"has its origins. After a smooth landing and as the flight crew unchained our vehicles, I told Private Female we were going "Amber Status" with our weapons which means fully loaded magazine in rifle but no round in chamber and weapon on 'safe'.  This didn't exactly sooth her nerves so I starting busting on our new Platoon Leader, a Lieutenant who had to be the biggest joke in the Army. He wasn't evil but a tone deaf Star Wars nerd who not only was thoroughly incompetent but strutted around with an air of naive pomposity that would make Barney Fife look like James Bond. During the previous 4 days of waiting on the tarmac, I told everyone there was no way in hell this Lieutenant would last a month before getting fired.

He was relieved of his command in less than a week.

Everywhere in Port au Prince looked like this

We drove off the back of the C-17 into complete darkness about 3am having no idea what the situations was, where to go, and if we'd be able to link up with my unit or where they were. Some guy ground-guiding me with glowsticks told me my unit was bedding down next to the runway so they were easy to find. Since tents had yet to arrive everyone was in sleeping bags out in the open with a few guards posted at the perimeter.

Every building in Haiti looked like this except...

The following day we found out that the threat level was quite low and our mission was primarily humanitarian relief by helping to distribute food, water, help remove debris, and our medics were tasked with helping tend to the hundreds of thousands of sick and injured.


...the American Embassy which didn't have a scratch....

As the new day dawned, I made the unpleasant discovery that the most coveted delicacy of the Haitian mosquito is a 45yo paratrooper of Scots-Irish descent and word soon spread there was a fresh one braising on a bed of lettuce in sticky 95 degree heat and soon every mosquito in the Caribbean was falling on me like a lion at a kill....I had welps on top of welps and a body acclimatized to sub-freezing temps was now beet red and blistering in stifling heat with absolutely nothing to provide shade since we were next to a runway.

...nor did the Canadian Embassy as both were built to withstand the big earthquake everybody knew was coming or
what I like to refer to as a 1st World Solution to an expected problem. Blame the corrupt Haitian government for
not performing proper inspections and allowing shoddy construction practices.


Also adding to our discomfort were those charming Navy helicopter pilots (living in luxury aboard ship) flying about 30 feet directly over us every 5 or 10 minites off-loading cargo nets full of supplies from the port to a staging area nearby. This sudden blast of sand and other debris disrupted The Feast of the Mosquitoes only momentarily .  Since our Lieutenant wouldn't know how to handle it, we went to our company commander and told him the next helicopter that buzzed us was going to be shot down.
The helicopters thereafter came in much higher and not directly over us.

The first few days were spent getting a staging area organized for all the supplies arriving and taking convoys of our troop carrier trucks down to the port to help offload the navy ships. We were astonished at the degree of devastation the 7.0 earthquake had wrought turning nearly every building to rubble with now hundreds of thousands of survivors without shelter and food and clean water supplies also greatly diminished.

Our equipment was slow in arriving as we didn't receive our tents and cots until about Day 14 and the happiest day of my life was Day 17 when I was issued a mosquito net. About Day 25 our Field Kitchen and showers arrived allowing us hot food and not having to rely on baby wipes for personal hygiene.

I spent several weeks over at Petionville Country Club which was converted into a medical clnic with huge tent villages set up on the fairways of Haiti's only golf course. We put our tents up on the tennis courts. Hollywood actor Sean Penn was there and spent months in Haiti on his own dime working tirelessly on behalf of people in great distress. I didn't much like Sean Penn but now hold him in the highest respect. He was there long after the media left and many NGO big shots departed after getting their photo op and knoshing on gourmet food and chilled chardonnay at the Embassy parties.

I worked alongside several genuinely committed NGO workers who had little good to say about most other NGOs who are all about the fancy website peopled with Ivy League or Oxbridge former campus radicals who are also genuine but never care much about the follow through and determining whether they are actually helping. After about Day 6 there wasn't a water issue at all but one Minneapolis based NGO guy told me CNN was falsely reporting that Haiti was desperately in need of drinking water and the NGOs just sent ship after ship of water with no place to put it. Rather than face the prospect of criticism over having their funds spent on unneeded supplies, they pulled strings to get those ships offloaded (by us) and there was no place to put all that unneeded water. Furthermore, bottled water is palletized for transport in trucks or ships and offloaded and stored in modern well designed warehouses. When moved overground in rough and bumpy disaster areas, those pallets start becoming unstable after being jostled around as shrink wrapping can only do so much. We spent so much of our time moving water nobody needed around 6 or 8 times and then having to repack by hand which was very labor intensive and time consuming. The water nobody needed continued to arrive via those earnest well intentioned NGOs that mustn't have their self-congratulatory updates and fundraising efforts exposed as being wasteful, mismanaged, and actually causing major problems for the relief effort.  After hearing from that NGO guy and seeing it firsthand, I'm always skeptical of those cause du jour philanthropys with Radical Chic hipsters on the websites.


Hollywood actor Sean Penn (at the Petionville Club where I also was) who actually did make a huge difference in helping the people of Haiti. He was down there for months on his own dime,, contributed and helped raise lots of money, and continues to do so. I now have the highest respect for him.
The biggest surprise was learning how hated the United Nations is by the typical Haitian. These wouldn't be the Haitians rubbing elbows with the NGO swells at Embassy parties over wine and brie but the Haitians who are dirt poor and had to come stand in line for hours to wait for a sack of rice that Sean Penn and I among many others helped distribute.  What the locals were telling me was that the 5,000 UN troops in Haiti prior to the earthquake did nothing more than empower local thugs who fattened themselves up off of UN, USA, NGO  largesse while only distributing food and aid to political allies and depriving rivals of food or aid. I was just as surprised at our reception as American soldiers were treated like rock stars by the dispossessed Haitians as apparently the UN troops had to behave themselves when we were around. Again, I suspect that many of the UN administrative staff are genuine well-intentioned types who just are clueless and easily manipulated by the local thug powerbrokers.

UN soldier from Nepal. As this pic demonstrates, their aggressive posture and behavior was all wrong as holding a weapon at the 'high ready' is provocative rather than the much safer and less threatening 'low ready' with rifle muzzle pointed downward. When dealing with crowds they were bullies and treated people waiting in line for food like animals by pushing even women and children with riot gear shields which my fellow soldiers and I did with polite and respectful hand gestures without the slightest problem.


Most of the UN soldiers I encountered were from Nepal who were a little in awe of 82nd Airborne paratroopers. I hated to see how they handled crowd control at food distribution sites as they treated the locals like common criminals. I could easily imagine a local thug powerbroker using these soldiers to intimidate and reinforce his own power.  One day one of these local thug politicians tried to prevent us from setting up a food distribution site in a rival's neighborhood and put the word out to the locals there would be reprisals if they showed up. I'm not sure how and who handled it but we managed to get the thug to stand down and distributed food at that location the following day. Our role was just to be a presence behind the Nepalese UN troops with about 4-6 US paratroopers behind the 30-40 UN troops who were up front right against the crowds. I didn't like just standing around and saw the many frail elderly women there to get rice couldn't possibly lift the 50lb sacks (such as what Sean Penn is carrying above) so we organized groups to assist and instructed elderly women or young girls to bring baskets or buckets to carry what they could that we poured from those 50lb sacks.

I was a great favorite with the Nepalese soldiers for reasons I can only speculate at but they all knew me calling out my name when they arrived via bus at distribution sites and they all wanted a picture with me and I must have been asked to pose with over 100 different Nepalese soldiers. I'm almost sure this was because I'm only 5 foot 6 inches in height which is above-average for a Nepalese male and the other paratroopers with me looked like outside linebackers. I loved telling all the guys that Pappy's mug is going to be on every refrigerator in Nepal.

We were in Haiti for 2 months and made a terrible situation much better. The Haitian people are kind, warm, and endure severe hardship with an inspiring spirit and expressed nothing but gratitude towards American soldiers. They deserve a far better future than their leaders will provide.

Colonel Chris Gibson was my Brigade Commander in Haiti. He is now better known
as Congressman Chris Gibson of New York's 19th District


The newest member of the Den's Rapid Response Team who may soon be parachuting into Woodcock Pocket
to aid our co-conspirator, Bebe, from American Alconleigh as what may be 3 feet of snow has begun to fall.




January 22, 2015

Operation Unified Response Part 1

C-17 Globemaster which I drove an up-armored humvee off of in total 3am moonless darkness
 into Haiti 5 years ago last week.
Last week marked the 5th Anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti that killed nearly 200,000 people and caused severe hardship for hundreds of thousands of survivors. I was in my final year of active duty military service (I joined up just prior to my 42nd birthday in 2006) and my platoon was out in the field on maneuvers in a remote part of Fort Bragg where there was no cell phone signal when we got an urgent call on the radio at 2:00 am to shut everything down and report back to HQ ASAP! I was in the on-deck circle about to get my bi-annual night fire 50 caliper machine gun (M2) qualification done and was pissed as I'd been out there for 2 days freezing my ass off in 28 degree F (minus 3 Celsius) cold with high winds and knew I'd have to be out there again the following night fighting off frost bite.  When we got in, we were just told to bed down and check in with leadership soon as we woke up. I was awakened by my alarm clock at 8:55am the following day to race to the chow hall before it closed   I saw a couple of soldiers in there scurrying around looking for people with talk of getting to the green ramp with all our gear along with a mention of "Haiti".

Since I had been out in the field for several days, I had no idea what was going on in the world and figured there was a training mission to Haiti I hadn't heard about. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team which was designated as the Army's "Ready Brigade" for 2010.  In case of any national security emergency, we were tasked to be the first ones on scene. The 82nd Airborne  is world famous as the most *elite military division that trains to deploy via "forced entry" (parachuting into areas where at least some of the locals aren't happy to see us)  and be anywhere in the world on 18 hours notice.

I soon got word that we already had 2nd Brigade Soldiers en route to Haiti ready to parachute in if need be (in case of a coup or civil unrest making landing an Army Transport plane dicey) but suspect that any would-be coup d'etat perpetrators were discouraged once they knew 82nd Airborne was in bound which was the main purpose (if unstated) of this mission. President Clinton deployed the 82nd Airborne to Haiti back in 1994 to encourage the military coup leaders to stand down and reinstall President Aristide. When the coup leaders saw live news reports showing paratroopers boarding C-130s and were in the air about to drop in, the coup collapsed, the military junta scurried away, and democracy was restored.

I provide this little history lesson because it was so critical to the success of our mission which eventually became known as Operation Unified Response. Since my unit had been out in the field, we were not among the first to depart but waited for word next to the runway.  Every 2nd Brigade vehicle was staged on the massive tarmac of Pope Air Force Base which adjoins Fort Bragg (imagine an area of cement about 10 football fields in size) with vehicles of various capabilities lined up in neat rows. C-17 Globemasters were diverted from ferrying people and equipment to and from Iraq and Afghanistan to now transporting troops and equipment to Haiti.

There was just one big problem which is there is only one runway in all of Haiti and they were having problems at the Port au Prince (capital of Haiti) airport getting organzied so planes en route had to circle and wait for the green light to land. By Day 2 of the relief effort, every NGO (Non-Government Organization such as International Red Cross) known to man, woman, or child was en route to Haiti with the best of intentions using their political clout to jump to the front of the line to land.  As I've come to realize NGOs almost always have wonderful intentions but also happen to be the worst managed organizations on earth who too frequently not only don't achieve their intentions but actually worsen situations for the people most in need of help which I'll go into later.

The massive amount of air traffic pouring into Port au Prince caused delays made far worse by the fact that those planes having to circle for hours were out of fuel by the time they did land and couldn't refuel and leave as the fuel depot had been heavily damaged by the earthquake. Therefore, the stranded planes were soon blocking the runway as well.

Meanwhile I'm back on the tarmac at Pope AFB waiting for the Sergeant Major to receive his list sent from leadership already on ground in Haiti on what to put on the next plane such as troop transport trucks, bulldozers, up-armored humvees, etc. Also we were under very strict guidance to have precisely 3/4 of a tank of fuel in our vehicles as more caused big problems at flying altitude and fuel would be in short supply once we did land. We sat still on that tarmac for days on end waiting our turn. Since we were geared up for Haiti, we didn't have our winter uniforms so froze at night while sleeping seated in our vehicles whose heat we couldn't turn on as we couldn't burn fuel. Our fuel trucks were either already en route or being sent to the port for ship transport..

Many soldiers in the 82nd with more seniority than I had deployed 3 or 4 times and this would only be my 2nd deployment with my first now known as The Surge in Baghdad in January 2007. I had a female soldier with me and Army practice is always to keep females with other females or in my unit let 'Pappy' (as I was often called by my fellow soldiers usually less than half my age) babysit the new female arrivals since they knew there wouldn't be any fraternization issues. I was famously quoted in Iraq for saying: "Pappy's not even attracted to women under 30" ...which was met with not even a hint of protest.

Finally after about 4 days of waiting the Sargeant Major knocked on my humvee window in a cold rain and said "Pappy, your next..."

...to be continued

*I am always quick to point out that while the 82nd is very highly regarded, and deservedly so, the Army's very best are in Special Forces (designated by Groups of which there are 7) and Rangers divided into Regiments which are far smaller than a 'Division'.  Both the Special Forces and Rangers draw from the 82nd's very best and it was always every good male soldier's ambition to eventually make it to SF or a Ranger Regiment. The HQ for Special Forces is also on Fort Bragg as is the most elite SF Group known as 'Delta Force' in which several of my former colleagues now serve.

January 02, 2015

Staff Announcement

Anthony Blanche (played to perfection by Nickolas Grace) from Brideshead Revisited.
Colin over at The Red Lion always has 4 Brandy Alexanders
at the ready for the Den's Senior Artistic Advisor.

The Den is delighted to announce we have recently added Mr. Anthony Blanche to our illustrious roster. What?! You've never heard of Anthony Blanche?!?! Shame on you, my dear!  He is none other than that flamboyant aesthete from Evelyn Waugh's brilliant Brideshead Revisited who GSL only recently visited (the novel) for the first time. I have listened to Jeremy Irons' brilliant narration of the unabridged Brideshead twice through on audiobook and recently watched the 1981 production with Irons as Charles Ryder now available for free on youtube...all 11 hours!

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited from 1981.
Anthony Andrews as Lord Sebastian Flyte with Aloysius

The 1981 Granada production (not done by rival  BBC as often assumed even though Castle Howard owned by then head of BBC allowed them use and advised) is as scrupulously faithful a literary adaptation as I've ever seen. After hearing Irons do the audiobook, I was a little miffed that John Mortimer (Emily Mortimer's father btw) was given a writing credit as they really only condensed it with every scene not even slightly altered from what I could see. I read where Mortimer only got that writing credit due to prior contractual obligation.

'Bubbles by Sir John Everett Millais


Spoiler Alert! disregard next paragraph if you aren't familiar with Brideshead as I'd hate to deprive you of taking in this literary masterpiece and perfect screen adaptation without prejudice.

Anthony Blanche is the most interesting character for me and I am certain he was speaking for Waugh in many of those scenes. Blanche's assertion that the English have a "keen zest to be well bred" and his devastating assessment of Ryder's paintings, and life, as nothing more than "simple, creamy, English charm" and how that 'charm' really only exists in the British Isles along with how 'charm' "kills love and Art". The scenes at the gallery and then in the Blue Grotto were sublime.

GSL &'Sam-Sam' circa 1968
Memory a little hazy but I don't think this was at Oxford.
As noted below in comments, Sam-Sam follows in a long line of cuddly literati
starting with John Betjeman's Archibald Ormsby-Gore, Lord Sebastian Flyte's Aloysius
and now the Hattatt's Edward & Teddy the Beguiling Bears of Budapest
Ladies, watch how retro GSL vanguards a high-waist revival.


I also love Waugh's novel Scoop and consider it (as do many others) a comic masterpiece. I'll be working my way though the Waugh canon in 2015.

This is what "simple, creamy, English charm" looks like. Notice how this milquetoast
candy ass arranged those lucious locks just so...isn't that cute! Hugh Grant is our official
Den Whipping Boy. I wish him no harm but the prospect of slapping him around
in the alley behind the The Red Lion has great appeal.
All pics from Pinterest

Please share with the Den your feelings regarding Brideshead, Evelyn Waugh, or cite a public figure you wouldn't mind giving a smack.