Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thank You Rusty & Marn't Smith

I mentioned once before that we have tables inside of our building that are known as Freebie areas.  The table for my unit has a few standard items are always on it. Paperback hardback books are aligned on the back side of the table closest the wall. It is the simplest form of library, you take a book and read it then you bring it back and put it on the table again. If you have a book that you have read, you put it on the table for someone else.  The same holds true for magazines, which are piled at one end of the table. I must say, I had no idea that so much a variety of magazines even existed anymore. I have seen everything from basic sports magazines to Crocheting Monthly. The table sits out in the open, where everyone walks past at least once or twice a day.  It is kind of funny, when you catch a big muscular soldier trying to slip a book on a table unnoticed and when you walk past you notice it is the latest romance novel by Jude Devereaux.

Other things go on the table too. For example, when someone is leaving they will often put leftover cleaning supplies, uneaten packs of Ramen noodles, writing paper, and other things that they had left on hand that might be better utilized here been taken home. Occasionally, you will see things that people have gotten in care packages that they wish to share with everybody. Cookies, Kool-Aid mix, and other things that friends may have shipped to them that were excess.

The Chaplain will also put things on the table, usually puts small booklets about dealing with being alone or how to maintain long-distance relationships.  Occasionally, he will put out crosses -- not just your basic cross but Catholic, Protestant, Celtic, Orthodox, and Unitarian crosses. A  Chaplain in the military has a duty to all faiths not just his own -- -- which explains why on 1 May our Chaplain will be conducting a Fertility Rite for the local Wiccan Coven.  We live in an unusual world.

The First Sgt. will slip boxes onto the table that are full of things shipped by supportative members of the American public. If you've ever taken part in any donation program that said they were going to ship things to service members in the war zone they probably wound up on a table just like this. The boxes hold lots of different kinds of goodies. Sometimes Girl Scout cookies, toothbrushes, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, skin lotion, and body wash to name just a few. Normally, I don't take any of these items preferring to leave them for the GIs who need them when they go forward or who can't get off base the way I can. What I normally do take from these boxes -- -- well I really just borrow them because I put them back -- -- are the letters that come from schoolkids.

I will usually grab one or two of these is that walk by and when I get back to my office I will sit and read them when I have an idle moment. It is really cool to see how much of a grasp of reality third-graders have.  Usually, all the letters start out the same and have a paragraph or two that was probably written by the teacher. The final paragraph of each letter tends to be a little bit different and probably authored by the child. I read a letter from one child who said he wished he had a dinosaur he could send us to help us get the bad guys so we could get home sooner. Another one talked about how he hoped that the snacks he sent would not make us feel too homesick since they were form the USA.  I also read one letter which was obviously written by military child, that asked that we tell his mom "Hello" when we saw her and that he missed her and wanted her to come home.  It is letters like that that get you.

Last Friday, there was a distribution of small bags that came in from Operation Shoebox. Everyone in the unit got one, to include us civilians. It was a small cloth bag that had things like bubblegum, assorted toiletries, the crossword puzzle page out of a local newspaper, and a small note from the person who would put the package together. One of the people in the office got a note from an eight-year-old that included a neat drawing of airplane. My bag came from Rusty and Marn't Smith.  I kept that note from them, and it went up on the wall of my cubicle. It is nice to have people like that remember and support you.  

When I was on active-duty, I was part of the Cold War era. Those of us who were veterans of that period, got no parade, no medals, no monument, and the American public basically ignored us even though we won the war.  I am so glad to see that the men in uniform today have the support of the American people and that they are not being ignored but are being noticed and remembered.

If you feel like doing something, but are not sure what to do Operation Shoebox does take donations in a variety of forms and you can get to their website by going here Operation Shoebox


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Flags in the Sand

Friday night, I went to see a movie at the theater on base. It was the new Three Stooges feature and having been a fan of the Stooges since I was a boy I was really looking forward to seeing this remake. I had seen several of the previews prior to leaving the US and the casting of the lead roles seemed to be spot on. 

If you've ever seen an old war movie or an episode of M*A*S*H you may have watched a scene where the soldiers go to see a movie in a tent In most of those old shows you had a large group of GIs sitting in a very small tent sitting on folding chairs or benches watching a movie shown by a projector that was using a sheet as a screen.  The air would appear to be thick with cigarette smoke and quite often the troops would complain about the number of times they had seen that particular movie. Things here are a bit different.

The theater on Arifjan is located inside a building that also houses the recreation center.   Movies are shown in a large multi-purpose auditorium. One of the nice things about it is that there are movie theater style seats, but every other row has been removed to make getting in and out quick and efficient -- probably for security reasons. The screen is not a real screen, but movies are shown on the back wall of the building that has been painted white.  The films are changed every couple of nights and some nights they even show a double feature.

Movies on a military base start differently than those shown anywhere else. They start with the playing of the National Anthem. I will guarantee you that when the Star-Spangled Banner started playing that night everyone in the theater came to attention when it started and did not speak or move until the last note was sounded when they sat back down. It is an awesome feeling to realize you're sitting in a room full of people that are just as patriotic as yourself.

Instead of previews, we were treated to a safety film. I really think I would rather have seen previews but I wasn't given the choice.  But I do know how to put out a grease fire now.

The movie itself was great, after a while I could completely ignore the fact that there was an electrical outlet in the middle of the wall that served as a screen. People laughed, applauded, and generally enjoyed the film. It wasn't that the movie was that great, although I would give it 8 out of 10, it was the fact that it was something different and something from home. Those couple of hours we were no longer sitting in Kuwait, we were all in her hometown theaters watching the film.
When the film ended, everyone filed out quietly and went back to whatever duty it was that they had to accomplish at that point in time. For me, I jumped in my car and headed back to my apartment.

The next day, one of my brigade's battalions was heading home. In that same theater, I attended an awards ceremony and medals were presented to those soldiers who had done a great job in the war zone and supporting those that were in the war zone. That particular ceremony started with a single female soldier singing the Star-Spangled Banner. She did so without music and it was obvious she was fighting back tears by the end of the song.

There a lot of things to think about here on a day-to-day basis -- what I do  -- the beneficiaries of my labors. I'm closer now to the Warfighters I support than at any other time since becoming a government civilian.  Patriotism is always right under the surface. Sometimes you feel it more than others -- -- but one of the things about being here that is surprising is that you can feel it while doing something as simple as going to a movie or attend an award ceremony.

As far as the movie goes:  If you're a Three Stooges fan -- -- go see it. They have managed to fit almost every gag that the Stooges ever did into one movie. If you squint your eyes a little bit, you will swear that you're watching the original Curly and not actor Will Sasso. His performance alone was worth the price of admission.

By the way,  I did figure out how to tie my sehmaugh!  Bring on the dust!


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sand Day! (Like a Snow Day but Without the Fun)

When I was a kid I really enjoyed snow days. There was nothing like waking up and finding out that school was canceled. For some reason, even though you'd be rising at the same time there was a new motivation to jump out of bed, get dressed, and run outside. Hours would be spent sledding, building snowmen, and of course helping with the neighborhood snowball fight. Even as an adult I enjoyed snow days. On days where work might not have been canceled, if school was canceled I might give in to the temptation to take the day off and spend it sledding and being outside until chilled to the bone when I would head back inside in search of hot chocolate. There is absolutely no chance of any natural snow here, but this week I experienced my first Sand Day.

My alarm went off on Tuesday morning as usual, but when I open my eyes I noticed something a bit different. My apartment has windows on all sides and I leave the ones in the living room open all the time.  With the days getting longer, I am used to waking up and things already starting to get brighter; but what I was not prepared for on Tuesday was the fact that everything was a bright sandy Orange.  I did not have much time to contemplate this oddity because my phone started ringing almost immediately. When I answered I found out that I was going to experience a Sand Day since the roads were condition red.

I've mentioned before about the fact that the ground underfoot here is not actually sand would very fine dirt.  In March and April, Kuwait experiences ground-level winds that causes a condition called rising dust.  If the winds last long enough the dust can raise in the air several stories where it is caught by the natural trade winds which move it forward. From a distance this almost looks like a wall as it moves along. There's a great scene in the Mummy movie where the sand appears to be moving across the desert like a tidal wave. It is really something to see, however being trapped by one is not so much fun.

From one of my windows I can normally see, between the buildings in front of mine, a barge that sits on the Persian Gulf. I'm not sure what the barge is there to do but it hasn't moved in the entire time that I've been living here. On Tuesday, I could not see the barge -- -- or the Gulf -- -- or the building in front of mine. It was just that bad. However, because the sand had an orange tint to it all of outdoors has an eerie glow. I realized I was trapped inside. 

That was when it occurred to me that the only food I had in the apartment was some Triscuits, Diet Coke, some butter, and several packages of Pizza Hut ketchup. Not a balanced meal but a smorgasbord when pressed to become survival rations.

When the dust rises this badly, most people men wear a shemagh which is the full head wrap you may have seen in the movies that only leaves the eyes exposed. Go out during a dust storm and that whole look suddenly makes a lot of sense. I have not been here long enough to learn how to tie a shemagh yet so I use the more Americanized version known as a surgical mask. I back this up with a pair of sunglasses to protect my eyes and a hat to minimize glare. In the end, I look a little more like the Invisible Man instead of Lawrence of Arabia.  
By sunset, the roads were clear again and a little evening rain was supposed to clear the rest of the dust out of here. The treat you get here when rain occurs is that during the first 10 minutes or so there is mud falling out of the sky as opposed to water. The raindrops on their way down clean the dirt out of the air and bring it all down in a mixture that leaves everything dirty but the filthy air gets clear.

In the end I didn't build a sandman -- -- I didn't build a sand  fort -- -- I didn't participate in a sand ball fight and I didn't make any sand angels; but I did survive my first Sand Day.

The pictures I've included are not only mine but some are from the Kuwaiti weather site which apparently holds a photo contest every time there is a major dust storm. I wish I lived a little higher up in my building so I could capture some of the images that the other photographers have.  I also included pix from the base, but I am not sure who took it.

Until next week...


Sunday, April 8, 2012

No Flying Monkeys...Yet

Over here, people transition in and out very quickly.  In the month that I've been here I've gone to five going away lunches and welcomed three new people on board. It is a constantly changing landscape of people and personalities. In some ways it is actually better that way because there is constant stream of people with new ideas and energy looking at problems that tend to be the same day after day. Quite often, people compare working here to the movie Groundhog Day   because most of the time it is the same thing day after day.

People combat that feeling of sameness by personalizing where they can, and show a sense of humor when they can. I've said before that I work in what used to be a large warehouse. Inside that warehouse things are divided into cubicles and few walled offices. As a result, as you walk through the building you can actually see the workspace of most people. They are all decorated  differently and the personality of the occupant shows.

Almost all desks have at least one family picture -- -- parents, wives, kids, grandkids. About 60% of the booths have a photo of a motorcycle, either one they are preparing to buy when they depart or one that they left back home. Almost all desks have at least one stuffed animal on them. Some of the stuffed animals were sent from anonymous folks in the states while others are gifts from loved ones. A lot of desks have religious symbols as an outward sign of faith that the occupant has. Some have cartoons that are tacked to the walls -- -- most of which relate to life in the war zone.  It is having a continual sense of humor that helps most people get through the days.

At various places throughout the building are what is known as Freebie Tables, I will discuss those at length later. The other day I was walking by one of the tables and I noticed a small stuffed scarecrow on it. A short while later, I walked past the table again and noticed that someone had placed a sticky note on the scarecrow that said "Have you seen a Cowardly Lion or Tinman? I am so lost".  That gave me a smile. My smile got bigger a few hours later when I noticed that someone had placed a stuffed lion next to the scarecrow and crossed off the reference to Cowardly Lion on the Post-it note.

The following day, as I walked past the table on my way in the building, I laughed out loud when I saw that overnight someone had constructed a Tinman out of a Mountain Dew can and paperclips. The sticky note was missing as the three had been reunited at this point. On my way out of the building that night I saw that the trio had disappeared. In their place was a final sticky note: "Tell Dorothy we went on without her.  We will catch up with her in Emerald City.  Off to see the Wizard!" 

It is bright spots like this that make every day interesting and more bearable. Although, I have yet to see a Yellow Brick Road around here -- -- I hope the three of them found their way okay.

These altered warning signs that appeared in the building. They are used when the floor has just been mopped to warn people that the floor is wet and slippery.  You probably see them all the time.  What makes these unique, are the add-ons that were pasted to them. These were here long before I arrived, so I know that someone having a really foul day may have happened to walk down a hallway where these were being used and maybe it gave them a much-needed smile or just a slight diversion for a few minutes.

By the way, adding to the uniqueness of these is the fact that the humorists are usually anonymous.

Happy Easter!


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ya Can't Eat Sand

It is said that an Army travels on its stomach. For those civilians who work with the Army, we get the fringe benefit of that as well. I said before that we work in 11 hour day shift, six days a week. Because of that and because of the time to commute to and from work and the time spent going through security to get on base, it is just easier to eat a lot of meals at the military dining facility.

When I was in the Air Force to recall chow halls, before that they were mess halls but now they are called dining facilities or DFACs.  The food really hasn't changed, only the name has gotten classier.

Camp Arifjan has at least two DFACs and they basically mirror each other but on different days. For example, one facility will have Chili Mac on Tuesday and the other one will have it on Friday.  There are differences though in the way the food is prepared and served. For example, only one DFAC uses real china and silverware and one DFAC makes cornbread Southern style while the other makes it Northern style (with sugar).  Anyway, I've never had a bad meal at either facility although there've been items that I just couldn't eat.

One day, I got a chicken patty that broke two knives and a fork before I gave up trying to eat it. I began to get worried about what it might do inside me if it was breaking knives.  I'm not sure why the push on fish.  Baked, fried, poached, -- you name it and it has been on the menu but I've never been a big fish fan.  On those days I opt for chili or a hamburger. That is one thing that is always available is a short order line that has hot dogs and burgers as well as a sandwich line where you can get peanut butter and jelly if you really want it.
Once a week at each DFAC they have what they call a surf and turf night. This is where you can actually get a nice steak and some shrimp or a very small lobster tail (or maybe it is a really big crawdad tail). 

On base it is actually possible to get pork as part of your meal. So with breakfast you can order bacon and be reasonably sure it came from a pig. Likewise, with the pork chops or ham that might be served.  When I want to prepare a meal myself I can go shopping at the BX. The exchange on base sells most essentials that are needed, like the exchanges in the US.  Additionally, they sell frozen meats and dairy items which can be very costly off base. So it comes in handy. 

Off base, food takes on a different dimension.

Kuwait, being a Muslim country, does not serve pork products in any of the local restaurants. What they do serve, for restaurants that cater to expatriates, is something called beef bacon. It is thicker than regular pork bacon, the flavor is much stronger, and it is also very chewy. I think the only thing I can compare it to may be greasy beef jerky. When I was first served it I questioned what part of the cow bacon came from. It is not something I would seek out, but occasionally when I want a bacon cheeseburger it is tolerable.
There are a lot of fast food places available here. The variety is kind of surprising. Chili's, TGI Friday's, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Burger King, and of course things like Cinnabon and Krispy Kreme are also here. The menu differs little from the states, partially because of the pork thing but also because of the way things have to be fixed to avoid using any pork products in preparation or serving.  Also, all of those nasty Trans fats -- -- the stuff that made food taste very good -- -- that they took out of food in the United States are still in the food here. So, McDonald's fries taste like they used to in the good old days as does Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Thanks to a Kuwaiti contractor who works for me, I have also sampled quite a few Arabic dishes like kebabs and mixed grill.  Saad is actually an American citizen but he was born and raised in Kuwait and takes pride in showing off his country to those of us who are not familiar with it. The fact that he speaks and reads Arabic also helps us avoid ordering something too bizarre off the menu.  Although he is pushing all of us to try Camel's milk -- I have not been here long enough.

I have not really cooked since I've been here. I've fixed a few sandwiches for myself and also a bowl of soup or two but I have not made a full meal. I am still waiting on the stuff I shipped from the US and in with it are the ingredients I need to make both chili and spaghetti.  I also included a lot of spices and add-ons that you cannot get here. 

At least once a week I treat myself by eating off base from that something called 6Alabat.  They are a delivery service who will bring you food from a dozen different restaurants and you can order it all online with an English menu. Since I've been here a month I've used it about four times. The first time I ordered just a hamburger -- when the guy delivered it he gave me several packs a ketchup to go with a hamburger and fries. The next thing ordered was a steak sandwich, likewise I was given ketchup. When I ordered fried chicken I was still given packets of ketchup, but I've actually seen someone eat it that way so I kind of let it go. Then I ordered a pizza, from Pizza Hut, and it came with -- -- you guessed it -- -- ketchup. Not only did they give me catch up it was actually Pizza Hut Ketchup.  I have no idea why anyone would ever put ketchup on pizza.

Due to the nature of my job, I will not be discussing or talking about it that much. I work for a transportation unit whose job it is to move things in and out of the theater that the Army needs moved in and out. I am the director of IT for that unit and it is our mission to provide support wherever it is needed to include satellite communications and other gadgets that are a lot of fun to play with.  I am proud of what I am doing and I know the mission essentiality of it.  So please forgive me if I have to omit the details of what fills my day.