Friday, July 10, 2009

Zaragoza-- Land of the Lisps

In May 2001 not too long after I had returned from Saudi Arabia with my squadron we were assigned a vacation like training deployment. We got word that the deployment was heading to Zaragoza, Spain and it was clear that the work would be very light so my boss got our crew on the list and off we were... in a C-130 HERC cargo plane sitting on nets... Not anybodies idea of a good time.

The HERC is a 4 engine turbo propeller aircraft that moves very slow. It took us around 6 hours to cross France and land in Zaragoza which is located in the norther part of Spain. The HERC's cruising speed is only about 330 MPH (540KPH) and the cargo netting is oh so not comfortable. We would take reflective belts we had to wear while in uniform after sunset and pass it through the netting and rest our foreheads in the other part and lean forward just to get some sleep. But having vehicles and other equipment needed for the deployment strapped down where your feet are supposed to be is something you can never get accustomed to. And pray that you don't feel the urge to relieve yourself.

When we landed in Spain and the doors were opened the heat and humidity entered into the plane instantly and oppressively while 90 odd bodies didn't help the situation. As the buses came we couldn't load our personal effects into the cargo bay quick enough. The air-conditioning was a Godsend and we were quickly on our way off of the Spanish military base that is attached to the public airport and into the middle of a modern, crowded and beautiful city.

We soon pulled up to a wonderful hotel in the middle of the city named Hotel Ramiro l. We were all given our own rooms and I remember speaking with some other friends on the trip about how nice the hotel was. On top of the nice hotel that we didn't have to pay for I think we were also receiving close to a hundred dollars per diem for being there.

Not long after we arrived we were all called into the conference room and were told by some OSI agents that I never saw before that there had been a political assassination that afternoon. They told us that we had nothing to worry about but to be more keen of our surroundings.

Here is the article from CNN about the incident.

Killing prompts Spanish rallies

ZARAGOZA, Spain -- Thousands of people have protested across Spain at the latest killing blamed on Basque separatists.

More than 300,000 people gathered on Monday to protest the killing of Manuel Gimenez Abad, 52, president of the local chapter of the ruling centre-right Popular Party.

Abad was shot on Sunday as he walked with his son to a soccer match.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the killing, officials immediately blamed it on Basque separatist group ETA.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and other Spanish politicians led the procession through Zaragoza, capital of the northeast Aragon region.

They were joined by Abad's widow Ana Larraz and their two teenage children.

Demonstrators marched holding a banner that read, "For freedom, against terrorism."

An official statement read at the rally, accused ETA of seeking independence through "suffering, injustice, fear and barbarity."

Similar rallies were held in Madrid and other Spanish cities.

Prior to the shooting ETA was thought to be observing an undeclared truce in the run-up to May 13 elections.

The last killing blamed on the group was March 20 in the Basque town of Lasarte.

Polls indicate the Popular Party, opposed to Basque independence, could win for the first time since the Basque country won limited self-rule in 1979.

Sunday's killing was the seventh blamed on ETA this year and the 30th since it ended a 14-month-old ceasefire in December 1999.

ETA has killed more than 800 people in its 33-year-old campaign for Basque independence.

Abad's funeral was held Monday afternoon in his hometown, Jaca, a village of 15,000 people at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains near the border with France.

At the service, the bishop of Jaca, Jose Maria Conget, said, "No ideology can justify terrorism. Terror is the enemy of humanity."

The killing was condemned by politicians, and all parties in the Basque elections except the pro-independence Euskal Herritarrok, widely considered ETA's political wing, suspended campaign events for Monday.

"We will defeat them with the rule of law," said Javier Arenas, president the national Popular Party.

"Basques have got to go and vote on May 13 and tell ETA that they are not wanted, that they have to disappear," said Carlos Iturgaiz, PP president in the Basque region."

So this incident caused the whole of the city to come to a standstill one day and the main boulevard in the city was packed with people marching down it. I remember I had to be to work around 2pm or so and I wanted to make a run to the McDonald's that was close by and unfortunately on the other side of the parade.

I was not going to let 300k protesters get in my way of a Big Mac! So I managed to weave in and out of the parade lines and make it across the large boulevard get lunch and then fight my back through it again... The worst part though was that my fries were cold by the time I walked back to the hotel. And I don't like cold fries.

And as I sat back in the hotel room of my crew-member eating cold fries and watching the news coverage of the protests (in Spanish) we noticed just how strong the lisp of the locals was. The name of the city we were visiting went form Zaragoza to Thaaragothah. Apparently most of Spain has this linguistic trait but it is the strongest in Zaragoza.

Other that I just did a lot of shopping and sight-seeing around the old beautiful city. And showed up for a few hours in the afternoon to do a little work. And I assume we flew back on a C-130 to Germany but I cannot remember. I need to talk to some of my old pal that went with me...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Dangerous 4th of July Vacation

I wrote back in May about how I had been sent to an American base in Italy for Operation Allied Force (OAF) in which NATO aircraft were bombing Serbia for a total of 76 days not to long after arriving in Europe.

Looking back on it, the deployment there was probably my most memorable time in the Air Force. I was young and so new to the Air Force I didn't realize that the state we were operating in was only temporary and acceptable during 'war' circumstances. As it was all I knew I imagined it was supposed to be like it was. A situation where a lot of standards were overlooked or forgotten about because of the pressure involved in 'war-like' operations.

After we were sent back home in late June 1999 we were given what was called CAD days (contingency appreciation days) which were accumulated at the rate of 1 day off for every 6 days in a combat zone with a maximum of 14 days. These were great because they were not charged as leave and were designed to allow families to refamiliarize themselves and single guys like me to travel around Europe.

I think we had attained about 6 or 7 CAD days and then with the onset of the 4 day fourth of July holiday weekend it was a jackpot of time off.

And as I had met a girl while deployed to Italy I had a free place to crash at and it didn't take much for me to convince my best friend Angel to tag along with me. He had just arrived in Germany while I was in Italy but we knew each other prior to that from tech. school where he was about a month behind me. We had the same job and got orders to go to the same base and even the same squadron strangely enough.

As it was a 4 day weekend it was impossible to find a rental car on base on such short notice. My car was barely trustworthy enough to drive to work everyday let alone to Italy. But I had enough courage to drive it to the largest Air Force base in Germany named Ramstein AB where there was some cars available to rent. We picked up an Opel Astra four-door and parked my car on in parking lot close by bought some gas coupons and set off with nothing but a European map to get us to our destination in Italy.

We set off headed towards Munich and planned to head towards Innsbruck, Austria then south through the Alps towards an Italian town named Bolzano and then some back roads towards Pordenone which is about 115 km or 70 mi north of Venice.

We set off on the afternoon of Tuesday the 29Th of June and were thrilled that we didn't have to be back to work until the Monday the 5Th of July. It was a pretty uneventful trip through Germany and until we got to Austria. There was quite a bit of road construction through the Alps and we had to get off the autobahn and use detoured back roads. It was quite a pain but some of the scenery we saw was incredible. I remember being on this winding mountain road and seeing a large Austrian castle on the side of another mountain lit up only by the faint light of the night moon.

As Angel and I were only using a road map to guide us and now we were heavily detoured off our original path we decided to stop for the night and sleep as it has become to difficult reading the map in the car with the interior lights. We awoke the next morning to the sun coming over the crest of the mountain at around 9am and continued on our journey.

We had not been driving too long when we found ourselves on a construction marked dirt road and then at an intersection with no signs or indications as to which way we should proceed. We sat there on the smooth dirt road that was awaiting concrete to be laid on it and we decided that we would go left. Off we went down the smooth dirt road leaving a trail of dust behind us. As the road was so smooth and there was nobody insight I decided to increase my speed and soon was hitting 100 kph (60mph) when I noticed a red BMW a ways back flashing me with his lights.

I told Angel and he looked in the side mirror and said that he thought we should slow down and see what he wanted. I had other thoughts and kept going but noticed he was gaining on us very quickly and I could now hear him honking his horn at us while still flashing his headlights. Angel became much more adamant that we stop to see what he wanted and I finally relented and came to a stop. The man in the red BMW started speaking German to us and I sheepishly asked him if he spoke English to which he said that he spoke a little.

He then carried on telling us in heavily accented and slightly broken English that this road we were driving down was new and the bridge connecting it with the mountain on the other side was not finished and if we continued down it at the speed we were traveling we would have surely driven off the cliff dropping to our deaths.

Sweet... because it was definitely my and Angel's dream to re-enact Thelma and Louise with an Austrian twist.

We thanked the man profusely and he told us to follow him as he would take us back to the main road which we did and soon found ourselves stopping in Bolzano Italy for some food. By the time we set off again it was beginning to get dark and it was not too long before Angel and I realized we didn't have much money left.

The problem was that payday wasn't until the 1st (the very next day) and the rental agency had blocked off $250 on my bank card for the guarantee on the car. But more importantly at the time it meant to autostradas as they are littered with tollbooths and most importantly we didn't have anywhere enough gas to make it to Pordenone.

Off we set through the back-roads of the Italian Alps and of course we managed to find probably the only toll road in Italy that is on a small road and not the highway. We pulled up to it but there was no one there. You were supposed to put the money into an automated system similar to a candy or soda machine and the arm would them apparently lift up for you to continue on your journey.

So we sat there. I was thinking we should turn around and backtrack a little and go around it when all of a sudden Angel jumped from the passenger seat and ran up to the arm, lifted it up over his head and waved me through. He dropped it back down and jumped in the car and we took off.

Not long after that the warning light came on indicating that we were almost out of gas. I knew we probably had 50 km (30 mi) before we would stall out so I told Angel we were going to shoot for the nearest town center and wait until the morning when we would have our pay deposited into our account and then gas up.

We stopped at a gas station in the middle of a small town and decided we would wait there and keep trying our bank card in the ATM on the wall of the station as there was a machine in the middle of the 2 pumps where you could insert some lira and get gas similar to the candy or coke machine. Angel decided for some weird reason that he was going to see if he could get any gas from the pumps now. He took the nozzle inserted it into the slot and pulled up on the handle... And diesel flowed out! A total of 20,000 lire (almost $15) worth of gas poured out into our empty car. All we could think was that someone had put the money in and couldn't figure out how to get the machine to work or tried the wrong pump. I don't know. But we had go-go juice.

Between the 20,000 lire worth of diesel we were gifted and the minor amount we had left in the car we were able to make it to my friends apartment early the next morning. We didn't do to much while we were there in Italy that I can remember. I remember taking Angel to the disco I mentioned in my other Italy post as the absolute most beautiful disco I have ever seen and my friends taking us to another disco that I hadn't been to.

Angel and I also went on the base to buy some gas coupons but ended up going up a one-way road on base and getting pulled over my a military cop and thanking God he didn't give me a ticket as that would have gotten back to my squadron and Italy is quite a distance outside the 6 hour rule we are allowed to be distance wise from the base without being on leave.

I believe we left back for Germany on the Friday evening and didn't have as many problems going back like we did coming. Although we were amazed to find out that we were supposed to have a road-tax sticker for driving on any Autobahns in Austria and would have received quite the fine if we were pulled over or found out by the police.

A few weeks after returning I was called into my section chief's office and asked if I knew why OSI (The Office of Special Investigations) would be calling me over to see them. All I could think of was that I had been out of the 6 hour rule distance and maybe that cop had reported me. So, I told the section chief I had no idea why and then stopped off for some lunch before making my way to the OSI building.

I was sat in an interview room and importantly was NOT read my rights. I was asked if I had been traveling anywhere over the past week by the agent and told him that yes I had. I had travelled down to see Munich. He asked me about my driving habits overall and then specifically during that trip. I told him that in general I drive fast when there is no limit on the autobahn but obviously follow any road signs indicating speed limits when I come across them.

Apparently a woman had reported my licence plate as a car that had run her off the road somewhere between Mannheim and Munich. I have to this day no idea and never drove that erratic but I wasn't sure if that was all they had or not. So I told them that I wanted a lawyer and off I went never to hear anything about it again...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Impressions of Turkey Pt.2

So work isn't to pressing and Turkey is a mysterious and cultural challenge to unwrap. I had done all my shopping in 'the alley' right outside the base's main gate buying up carpets, tailored suits and gold jewelry. On with the exploration...

But one night we thought the base was being over-run as we were woken to the sounds of gun shots and horns honking... But in fact it was a large celebration because the Turkish team Galatasary had beaten an English football team in the UEFA cup final. Weirdos.

Angel and I found ourselves along the main river that runs through Adana on a beautiful and warm day in May. We are strolling along looking the part of curious American Air Force members watching the families sitting along the river bank in a park drinking Turkish tea and eating a variety of foods I can't readily identify. As we stuck out like Michael Jackson at a tanning salon many a Turk came up to us trying to get us to sit down and drink tea with them.

After refusing a few offers we were approached by an individual who made us feel obliged to sit with him and his family and we did so. It was an interesting conversation as his English was not that great and he seemed to be very opinionated. He had 3 children, all of them daughters, there with him and his wife and the conversation turned towards the kids he told us that his youngest child who had flowing long hair and a beautiful pink dress was actually a boy.

Angel and I thought he was joking with us or that something was being mistranslated but he reassured us that the child was a male but they dressed him up as a girl because he was their first son and they were fearful that an evil spirit would take him from them since he was their first born son. So to trick the evil spirit they dressed up the little boy as a girl... Go figure.

So after parting ways with this family we made our way towards this huge mosque they had recently completed building. It was so huge that it could be seen from the flight-line off the base some 10 miles away but it was even more grand once up close As Angel and I walked around the perimeter of the building the prayer let out and we were stuck in a throng of people for a few minutes when a kid looking around 8 years old came up to us and asked in slightly accented English if we would like to go inside the mosque and look around.


We had been told that this was off limits for us to go inside mosques by the military for our own safety but hell, we were invited in by a little Turkish kid! He took us over towards the main entrance and after telling us we had to take our shoes off he said his dad was there in the mosque and he would introduce us to him.

So we entered inside the mosque and were utterly struck by senses overload. The smell of some sort of incent burning and the noise of some people still praying. Seeing the vaulted ceilings with large beautiful chandeliers and the carefully crafted carving on the walls in Arabic script.

As Angel and I tried to stay out of the peoples ways the young boy had found his father and brought him over to introduce us. He was a short skinny man with a moustache and when he smiled I noticed he was missing quite a few teeth. He told us how he had worked on the base at the supermarket and he really liked it talking with the Americans. I did find it a bit questionable though due to his appearance but placed it in the back of my mind.

He invited us on a personal tour of the city and we took him up on it thinking we would buy the guy some lunch or maybe throw him some cash for his time afterwards. We walked around different parts of the city and he told us about the history of certain things and helped us buy some stamps to send some postcards. After a couple of hours it was past lunch time and Angel and I were definitely hungry so the man took us to a restaurant nearby. It was nothing fancy and the menu contained traditional Turkish food.

While sitting there eating our food the man from the mosque was talking to us about how he had been in the Turkish military and had fought in the Cypriot war between Greece and Turkey in the 70's and even lifted up his shirt to show the 3 bullet wounds that he received for his trouble. All the while pushing back a whole bottle of Turkish Raki. When we were finished Angel and I had no qualms about paying the bill for the boy and his father so I asked the father how much the bill was and he got up to find out at the place where you ordered. He comes back and says 25 million lira for everything so Angel and I gave him the money to pay and as we were walking out I just happened to glance at the prices for the food listed on the board behind the counter and I saw that our meals had only been 2 million lira each. At the time the rate was around 650,000 lira to 1 US dollar and we had paid over $38 for 4 people in Turkey!

I asked the guy at the counter how much he had paid him for our table and he said 15 million lira. I asked him how it could have been so much when the means were 1.5 million to 2 million each and there were only four of us... The Raki... It had cost 5 million alone. So i ran outside and started chasing the guy down the street yelling at him to, 'give me my f*#$in money!'

By now the kid is gone and the dude is walking at a really quick pace. I am still behind him telling him that if he doesn't give me my money I am going to stick my hand down his throat and make him regurgitate everything he had put into his stomach when he begins to run down a side street and then I saw why. There were 3 cops sitting in the intersection looking our way due to my yelling and hollering. I asked the cops if they spoke English to which they said no so I took off running after the dude down the side street. To which the cops started chasing me.

I saw him in a carpet shop off the side street and when he saw me he started running to the back of the carpet shop and I followed him up a pair of stairs and then out a side door down a fire escape. 2 of the cops had stayed outside while the other had gone inside the carpet shop and the cops outside made me stop but never even tried to stop the Turkish dude.

One of the guys in the carpet shop spoke English and translated 'everything' to the police and told us that this guy was a known scammer type and we weren't the first to be had by him and the kid. The cops told us to go back to base and report it there... The kid and the man were not related and the man had never worked on the base.

As we were in the taxi back home I saw the kid through a window on a bus in traffic. This little shitbird waved a 10 million lira bill at me with a big smile on his face....

Chalk it up to the game...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Impressions of Turkey Pt.1

In May of 2000 I touched down in the south of Turkey with my squadron for a training mission at a local Turkish bombing range. Going off on these short trips was a welcome break for us as it was nice to get away from the day in and day out training taking place in Germany but also it was an opportunity to go off and visit new places on the government's dime.

When we went on these temporary deployments we were paid an extra allowance depending on the setup of where we were sent. In Turkey the amount wasn't so great because we were on an American base in tents with a chow hall. But for some other locations I was sent we got over $100 per day extra allowance.

We landed and had a day or two off before any work was to take place so my close friend named Angel and I wondered off base and into the nearest city to the base. Most Americans only visited the road right outside of the base nicknamed 'the alley' to get any taste of Turkish culture and the wares they had to offer us.

But Angel and I decided to catch a taxi to Adana which was about a 15 minute taxi ride in traffic and cost a couple million lira but that was okay because it only equated to a few dollars at the time. We were dropped off in the city center area and just wandered around. The weather was muggy and overcast when all of a sudden the skies opened up and the rain poured down as I have never seen it do before. The streets were flooded up to my knees in a matter of minutes and we along with the rest of the people we saw were utterly soaked... We packed it in and went home to change.

Incirlik Airbase is owned and by the Turks and jointly operated by them and the U.S. Air Force and it is the only base I ever went to that had a curfew. You had to be on base between 11PM and 6AM as the gates were sealed and you were unable to enter or exit during those times unless on official business. If you were caught off base by the Turkish police or the American military police you were up the creek. You could basically kiss your privilege of going off base goodbye.

Work was very light and we didn't have to put in many hours so that left a lot of time to discover and roam as we pleased. My friend Angel had his eye on a Turkish girl that worked for a military sponsored business that took military members on tours around Turkey in their spare time. She worked alongside a young Turkish kid who couldn't have been older than 18. While Angel was off talking to the girl I would sit there and talk to the kid asking him about Turkey and other things that came to mind.

One day he invited us to go out with him around Adana on the coming Saturday night. We were leery of his proposal as we didn't want to jeopardize our gate card that allowed us to go off base if we were caught out after curfew particularly as we had just recently arrived in country and it would be difficult to be stuck on base for the rest of the time.

But he relented and we agreed to meet him somewhere in downtown Adana in the late afternoon for some coffee and we would hang out form there. Around 11pm as the gates on base were being locked and we were still in the city with no way to make it back in time if we wanted to we were digging into some Adana kebabs and rice with our friend and some acquaintances of his.

After we finished eating he took us to a discotheque and realized found it astonishing how unbalanced the male to female ratio was inside. And our Turkish friend made it abundantly clear that we should under no circumstances approach any of the minuscule amount of woman we did see. He said that we should only talk to the ones that approached us as this was their custom and the best way not to find yourself in a fistfight.

We eventually left and went to eat again before making it back to his parent's apartment where he promised us it was no problem for us to stay until the gate opened back up in a few hours. Angel and I crashed in his bedroom on the floor and awoke around noon time to his mother cooking us eggs and sausage for breakfast. We thanked him for the wonderful time and caught a taxi back to base were nobody was any the wiser that we had not come back through the gate the night prior.

I guess this is my positive impression of Turkey. And I started with the positive because the negative side of it took me a long time to get over. Angel never did get too far with the girl and last I heard the boy who took us out on the town was attending a university somewhere in Germany.

Wait until you hear me chasing people through the city with the cops chasing me... next time.