April 26, 2005

a pea rolled off the table, and killed a friend of mine

Quote of the day, from a taxi driver: "Anything is normal in Germany." This explains much.

What I never appreciated about the military before is that once inside its protective shield, once you wave your magic ID card, all manner of things are provided for you. Some things are free (snacks, coffee, Internet, some transport, some accomodations, the gym) and the rest highly subsidized (nearby hotels, phone cards, everything in the base's restaurants and well-stocked shops). It's downright communist. In a "from each according to his orders, to each according to his rank" kind of way.

No local laundromat though. Right now that is my most compelling need. I'm sure you're fascinated.

I feel kind of redundant blogging the space-a experience, what with a friend of mine having already written about it compellingly, but what the hell else am I going to talk about, right? Also, the AMC space-a passenger-service people seem to have gotten their act together considerably since he was here; they can now tell you about flights to Balad well in advance, and seem to stick to their story no matter how many times I ambush them at their desk. Meaning less uncertainty and much more freedom to wander.

Not that I'm actually getting there any faster. This morning I was #20 on the list. There's a very slim chance of tonight, and a better but far from guaranteed chance of tomorrow. Oh well. It's not like I'm in any kind of a hurry, and even if Wired spikes the article, the kill fee will cover all my costs.

The fitness center here is pretty impressive. A soccer field and running track outside; inside, a full-size basketball court convertible into three smaller basketball/volleyball courts, a weight room, squash courts, and, believe it or not, a gymnastics training room. (Hey, it is the Air Force.) They even offer a Yogilates class, albeit only once a week. The weight room, in terms of both equipment and population, could have been anywhere, except for the sign on the exit: This emergency door opens to perimeter fence, potentially exposing personnel to small arms fire. Do not use unless directed.

The sign was blithely ignored.

Today between space-a flight denials I ducked into Frankfurt for a couple hours. Didn't bring my camera and didn't much regret it. It's not ugly, exactly, just a forgettable modern city of skyscrapers and concrete plazas. I did like the belt of parkland around the city center, and the river was nice, and the obviously-rebuilt-since-WW2 cathedrals and castles and bierhauses were pretty in a DisneyGermany way.

I never appreciated before that English is not so much Germany's second language as its one-and-a-halfth. English-language posters dotted the streets, fully a third of every bookstore was devoted to English books, and even Starbucks' menu was written in (sort of) English, with German subtext1. I finally found a copy of the German translation of Dark Places, which was not on sale in Frankfurt airport, which made me sad2. But I rediscovered that I share a publisher with Umberto Eco, which made me happy.

Airport bookstores here order books by publisher rather than author. Wacky.

All your base are belong to me

For no particular reason, other than to flex my descriptive muscles, I will now take you through an example sojourn in Rhein-Main space-available. Prepare to be bored.

The taxi drops you outside the main gate that says RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE; only a few prescreened taxi companies are allowed within. The Steigenbergen InterCity Hotel, a modern four-star hotel, is just opposite the gate. Otherwise this grassy belt of land between the airport proper and a major highway is wasteland.

A high fence with angled three-strand barbed wire surrounds the entire compounds. The gate's vehicle entrance and exit are two-lanes, with a grassy median between. Concrete barriers with an Atari-logo cross-section alternately block one lane and then the other, to prevent an intruder from speeding into the base. Incoming vehicles are waved into a bay off the side to be searched (a sign threatens dogs, but I haven't seen any). As a pedestrian, you walk up to a little hut in the grassy meridian and show your ID card3. The guard checks your face against the card, smiles, and waves you on.

The road stretches on for some ways ahead of you, lined by warehouses and low but large office-type buildings - actual houses are unheard of. It looks a little like an office park, everything painted in bland colours. There's really nothing but roads, paved footpaths, and buildings, widely spaced by close-cropped grass. Oh, there are occasional signs that helpfully identify buildings. To your right, cargo planes nest on the tarmac, behind another fence. To the left, past a warehouse full of various incomprehensible machinery, is a strip mall: ATM, post office, food court (Subway and two more obscure fast-food bands) mini-Wal-Mart-esque department store, and commissary aka grocery store. Behind this building there's allegedly a bar and a bowling alley.

When the wide main road you're on ends at another lawn, you turn right, pass another set of buildings, and turn left at a six-foot-high wall, approaching a parking lot. You've walked about ten minutes, maybe one kilometre, from the gate. On the other side of the parking lot is the passenger terminal. You'd know it immediately just by its shape. Arrivals to the left, Departures to your right. If it's midday, the parking lot is full, and people are waiting outside Arrivals, for the shuttle bus around the base or to the airport. A huge one-way spinning door, like a large version of NYC's one-way subway turnstiles, thick with rust, prevents access to Arrivals. Automatic double doors lead you into Departures, down an exterior hallway parallel with the front of the building.

The security check is just like any other airport's, except you go through it going in, and the first thing you have to do is (once again) show your military ID card. Got a laptop? Turn it on. Then you're in. A big room with a tiled floor, racks of padded blue seats, a check-in counter on the other side, another countery to your left beneath a PASSENGER SERVICE COUNTER sign. Monitors up ahead display the non-sensitive (ie non-Iraq/Afghanistan) incoming and outgoing flights. Only a few a day. There are vending machines, phones, a computerized information booth. A corridor leads past a rack of lockers, and an ATM that spits both euros and dollars, to Arrivals and the exit. To the right, stairs and an inoperative escalator lead to gates and services. Everything is clean, pale, faded. Clocks hang on the walls, one of them, behind the PSC, labelled 'ZULU' and then in smaller letters 'GREENWICH MEAN'.

If it's midday, the place is thronging with Army soldiers in desert camo gear, families in civilian clothes with small children, and a much smaller number of harder-to-classify people. You'll occasionally see others in green camouflage in blatant violation of the No Weapons Outside Gates rule. At morning or night this whole area may be deserted, or there may be soldiers sleeping on the seats despite the hard plastic dividers between. There's someone at the PSC regardless. Go to the Space-Available Sign-Up desk, at the end of the PSC counter, show your ID card and orders, get your orders stamped - that timestamp, in the absence of other factors such as rank and urgency, is what dictates your place in the space-available queue - and wait. But not here, this place is just too boring, the upstairs is more alive.

Uh. I hope you didn't expect dancing girls. A long gray corridor. To your right, lead to gates for those lucky souls who actually have a confirmed flight to catch. Signs warn you that you need both ID and a boarding pass to get into a gate. To your left, many AT&T phones (all DSN - dedicated worlwide military network - phones are on the ground floor), several TVs showing CNN and Eurosport, washrooms (the graffiti in which consists of countless unit names and home towns scrawled in the grid around the wall tiles), the well-stocked 24-hour PX, the fast-foot court with the somewhat odd hours of midnight to 4 PM, a video arcade, the Family Lounge and the USO. The last two are sort of a single entity, with a buffer zone of seven broadband Internet stations between. A fierce old Germans ensures that you sign up for the Internet and don't exceed your time if there are people waiting. Another TV, wide-screen, sits in front of several plush chairs and couches. There are bookshelves for children and adults, colourful children's toys, a table of cookies and coffee, a Crib Room for babies, USO donation jars, copies of Stars & Stripes (actually a pretty good newspaper for what it does) lying around.

Eventually your number comes up, your name bubbles to the top of the list, your flight gets called. What happens next? Haven't the faintest. I'll let you know. But probably not tomorrow.

1By 'subtext' I mean descriptive text written in a smaller font, not some kind of mysterious symbolic clues from which the Starbucks customer might divine the allegorical meaning of the menu. Though that would be cool too.

2Actually 'vengeful' is probably more le mot juste. "No wonder they've only sold 7,000 copies here!", I mentally groused. (Of course when I first heard that number it sounded extremely respectable. But, you know, easy complacency, diminishing returns, getting used to good news in embarrassingly short order, always needing ever more of a jolt for the same hit of happiness. Which in turn kind of explains what the heck I'm doing waiting for a flight to Iraq, don't it?)

3Incidentally the most flattering photo I've ever had on government-issued ID.


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