Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Life Changing Deployment

Ten years ago today I was sent with my Air Force squadron to a super secret squirrel base in the middle of the Israeli desert for the majority of the month of August and it was the single most life changing trip of my life. I saw and heard a lot of things that reminded me of very unsavory parts of my life prior to that while also seeing and hearing things that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

Before leaving Germany we had to attend a mandatory briefing in which the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations ( OSI ) told us to take the batteries out of our cell phones and place them on the desk in front of us. The briefer then went on to talk to give us a briefing telling us of the hazards in the area. The strangest part of what he relayed to us was that we had to be extremely careful about where we discussed any information that was sensitive in nature because the Israelis are the forefront at collecting intelligence. We were told to never speak about sensitive information in our quarters or any other place other than a huge 10' X 8' vault that we flew in with us.

I left Germany towards the end of the first week of August 1999 flying on a military C-5 cargo plane and arrived on an airstrip in a desolate looking surroundings. My flight was the second of two flights so we were met on the tarmac by our comrades who had arrived the day prior in old Chevy pick-ups painted light brown. We loaded our bags up into the bed of the pick-ups and then jumped into the beds ourselves and headed off to our accommodation.

Our accommodations were large aluminium cans that held 6 of us in 3 bunk-beds if I remember correctly. I don't remember them having AC and it was very difficult to fall asleep at night because it was so hot. The flight training we did with the Israeli Air Force ( IAF )was pretty mundane. It was actually so easy compared to the amount of flight training we did in Germany that I don't remember too much about it.

The life-changing events on this trip took place away from work but not necessarily away from the base we were deployed to. Because the work was not time consuming we had a lot of time to mingle with the IAF members around a small mini-mall type of building that had a bakery, a small convenience store and a arcade/pool hall type place.

The Israelis were very keen to speak with us but for the most part the Americans didn't want to hang out and talk to the Israelis. Not sure if the OSI briefing before we left had put them off or if it is just a normal American tendency but I would say that there were only about 5 of us that really hung out and spoke with them in great depths.

I can't say I had any special feeling for or against the Israelis at that point in my life. I really didn't understand why they were fighting with the Palestinians nor did I really care. But that was soon to change.

I remember a few of the conversations I had with some of the IAF members and it is was very strange. I felt like I had been transported from the year 1999 back to the Alabama or Georgia of the 1950's. The outright racism and hatred for the Arabs as an ethnicity is/was no different to what some white Americans in the south of America felt about black Americans. I had experienced some racist speech from my paternal grandmother who was born in 1921 and lived in Florida. I remember when she had to have an operation done and they were telling her about a blood transfusion she made a point to tell them that she didn't want any coon blood.

I got the same types of speech from the Israelis I spoke with. In fact, I put the the blood transfusion question to them and one told me fiercely that he would 'rather die than take the blood of an Arab.'

We were allowed off of the base a few times while we were there. A couple times we were allowed to drive the 20 or so kilometers to a nearby town that had a McDonald's and another time to the small city nearby named Be'er Sheva that had a large mall.

We also has the opportunity to go to Jerusalem one Saturday which was a really special moment for me. It was such a wonderful experience being able to explore Jerusalem and Bethlehem (after making it through the Israeli checkpoints) as an 18 year old. To crouch down to enter the manger turned church where Jesus Christ was purportedly born. To see the Mount of Olives, the Wailing wall and the golden domed mosque in the skyline of the city was inspiring.

And on the following weekend while the majority of the squadron went to party in Tel-Aviv to part in the discos and on the beaches myself and a small group of maybe 9 others went on a trip to the Dead Sea. We drove down some winding type roads with markers on the side telling us how far below sea level we were with each drop.

We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea and pulled into a parking lot where we got out and trooped up the side of Mount Masada. We walked around for about an hour and half exploring the mountain top before descending sown in some sort of cable car for a small fee.

After we had all loaded up into the van our guide drove us a short distance to a Dead Sea spa. I remember going into the Dead Sea and as I had slid down a small drop off up on Masada I had a series of scratches down the side of my shin that stung like you wouldn't believe upon entering the water. They were actually scabbed by the time we left the spa.

Walking out into the Dead Sea is a very special experience. You get to a point where your feet our no longer touching the sea bottom but you are still standing up right. The water is that dense because of the salt content.

Most of the squadron had left by the last week in August but I was due to leave on the last flight out and for some reason to which my mind cannot recall now our airlift was diverted for some reason so I ended up being bored out of my mind stuck on this base in the middle of the desert with no one except an officer and a handful of Senior NCO's.

Upon returning to Germany I started to research about Israel and Palestine and the problems surrounding them. I found out that most of the Israelis were not from the 12 tribes of Judea but were Europeans who had migrated to that part of the world. That is why I saw some Israeli Air Force members who were extremely Arab looking and others who were as pale as a pearl and said that they were originally Russian or Lithuanian.

I guess I was very fortunate to go when I did because a year later the sister squadron at Spangdahlem went to the same location and never got to step foot off base because the second intifada had started up.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Froggin Alps

Last Friday I flew into Frankfurt-Hahn airport on ol' RyanAir (who did me another solid by the way!!) from Birmingham to go and visit some family and friends. As I believe I have said before Hahn airport is an old American airbase that they gave back to the Germans after downsizing sometime in the 1990's and it is very remote as most American military bases in Europe tend to be.

I landed and raced to be first through customs of course to call my ride and find out that they were still 20 minutes out. As it was coming up to 8PM when we arrived in the Kaiserslautern area and we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow my friend and I grabbed a quick bite to eat from the absolute best Turkish restaurant in Germany and took the food back to his place.

Early the next morning we woke-up and threw our bags into the car and headed out down the autobahn in the direction of Basel Switzerland. For my money Switzerland is the most beautiful country in all of Europe but it actually was not our destination on this occasion. From Basel we turned southwest in the direction of Geneva only to cross the border into France and continue on our way to our Saturday afternoon destination of Grenoble.

I first visited Grenoble back in 2000 or 2001 with my friend Angel and discovered it to be a very cool city indeed. It is said that it is the Silicon Valley of France and has a world-class university all set in some of the most dramatic scenery in France. To understand the grandness of it you need to imagine a capital letter 'Y'. The letter 'Y' is the plain or basin that the city is set across while along the perimeter of the letter 'Y' is all very large mountains.

My friend Tory and I checked into my usual hotel when I visit Grenoble and after picking up my son we were off racing around the hairpin turns heading up into the mountains in the silver Audi A4 that Tory had rented. The elevation on this particular mountain gets up to about 6000 feet (1900 meters) and the views of the city and the river that runs through it are really quite amazing.

We stopped off on the winding road a few more times that we had planned because my 6 year old son didn't really take to the ride too much and felt a little car-sick. After some fresh air and photographs in the much cooler weather (than below in the city) we were on our way through the mountain before reaching the little village of Saint-Nizer-du-Mouncherotte and turning around to head back down towards the city.

After that short trip up the mountain and because of the lack of sleep from the night before we had to crash at the hotel for a couple hours and grab a siesta while my son watched some weird French cartoons. Upon awaking we drove towards the areas largest shopping centre 'The Grande Place' and walked around before dropping my son of back to his mother at sunset and heading with Tory into the city centre so give him a little tour.

The gem in the crown of Grenoble is what they call 'The Bastille'. It is a fortified structure (that some might call a castle in the nontraditional way) on the side of a mountain just outside the city centre and has bubble like cable-cars taking you up to it unless you choose to take the long walk on the marked pathways. The signs say that this is where the French 'resistance' attacked from but I can't help but imagine it is where they hid form the Germans.

As you can see from the weather it was not so nice on Sunday in the Frog Alps. The mountain range you see here is where we had drove the previous day and taken the previous photo of the city from.

We didn't spend long up on The Bastille as we were hungry for breakfast/lunch and the restaurant up on The Bastille didn't have anything I wanted to try so we came back down the bubble like cable-car and found a nice Lebanese restaurant in the city centre.

We had lunch and then dropped my son back off to his mom before hitting the road again. A seven hour one-way ride to stay 24 hours in Grenoble would have been worth it but the most beautiful and charming town in all of Europe is on the way back towards Geneva so we had to stop.

Annecy is about 40 km southwest of Geneva and boasts the largest Bastille day celebration in all of France, or so I have heard from a frog. Nevertheless, I absolutely adore this town although I must admit on this trip it was the most crowded I had ever seen it. And that was with the weather smelling worse than the formage aisle at Carrefour.

We walked around periodically stopping for coffee when the rain would start to come down especially hard and made our way through the throngs of people for about an hour before stopping off to have simply the best pizza I have had on the entire time I have lived on this continent.

We departed Annecy around 6PM and began our journey back towards Kaiserlsautern. It seemed like there was one gigantic storm cloud over the entire country you and I call Switzerland and that cloud even was generous enough to share itself with southern Germany. We arrived at Tory's house at midnight and went straight to sleep as he had work in the AM and I had a bus to catch back to Hahn.

And here is my (Top Gear) top tip. It took me 6 and a half hours from the time I left my friend's house to when I stepped through my door. It only takes 8 hours to drive from my house in Birmingham to Tory's house in Germany... Airports suck...