April 29, 2005

diesel and dust

Random images from the last, lessee, 18 hours:

0400. (German time, GMT+1). Stepping out of a van onto the Frankfurt runway. The looming C-17, its high wings oddly twisted, looks enormous against the night. The interior is an enormous tubular cave, its ceiling covered by wires, duct tubing, crawl spaces and access platforms, the metal walls full of racks of odd tools, anchors, buttons, controls, nooks, crannies. The only windows are a few tiny portholes. The floor is all rollers, on which pallets averaging twenty cubic feet are stacked and secured by a mesh of seat-beltlike straps. It's hard to tell exactly what most of the cargo is. Passenger seats line the walls. Most of them are blocked by cargo, but there are enough free for tonight's four passengers.

We listen to the lecture about our oxygen masks, life jackets, and fireproof breathing hood. I strap myself into a seat beneath an axe. The axe is mounted next to a sign that says 'FOR EMERGENCY EXIT CUT HERE'. Tonight, judging from the pallet in front of me, the mighty American war machine needs files. Boxes and boxes of 9"x17" manila files ordered from INDUSTRIES FOR THE BLIND, INC. At the very front of the cave, next to stairs leading up to the flight deck, the loadmaster sits in a cubicle, surrounded by mysterious buttons and controls. We are given lunchbox-sized Air Force meals, which turn out to be not-bad.

1030. (Iraq time, GMT+3). Woken from my sleep on the C-17's steel floor and advised that we will soon begin our 'tactical descent' into Iraq. Better known to the milcognoscenti as the 'death spiral'. I fasten my seat belt. The plane begins to lose altitude, gently at first, like a passenger jet, and then the pilot pushes the nose down and lets it plummet.

The white noise drowns out everything, earplugs are pointless. My stomach first lurches, then feels just weird - not queasy, exactly - and I realize it's because I'm not used to massive sideways deceleration. We start to level off and bank, hard, at the same time, and when the banking ends, the nose goes back down, we're diving again, screaming downwards. From where I'm sitting all I can see is daylight through the portholes. For this I'm a little grateful. The nose eases back up, up, and suddenly we make a perfect three-point landing, we don't even bounce, and then we're braking hard, my bag would go flying forward if I didn't corral it with my feet, then slowing to a gentle taxi. Welcome to Iraq.

1100. The rear gate won't open. The crew chief is fiddling with it. "Just remember," the loadmaster says drily, "we're the superpower."

1115. The rear gate opens. Out into the heat and the light, neither quite as intense as I feared. The landscape is flat as a pounded pancake, baked mud and gravel and pavement, but with more trees than I expected. The first things I see are the surreal hangars; they look like colossal igloos, built out of desert-coloured bricks the size of SUVs, through which huge arching tunnels run. The vehicles nestled within look like Tonka toys. We drive to the arrivals tent, where I sign in, try and fail to connect to my contacts with an ancient field telephone, and am left to my own devices. The arrivals tent is dominated by a massive TV showing CSI to dozens of uniformed troops sitting in rows of chairs. At the other end of the room, posters fail to explain the Byzantine procedure of signing up for departures.

1200. Picked up and taken to the trailer that will be home for the next few days (though I might try a billeting tent tonight.) Most of the buildings here are temporary, thanks to a law that requires an Act of Congress to build so much as a single new permanent building on a military base. (Rebuilding old Saddam-era buildings that were smithereen-bombed, however, counts as 'refurbishing' and is OK.) The resulting temporary structures are impressive. Vast segmented tents that look like giant caterpillars. Huge ovoid domes, seamed like circus tents, with gleaming chitinous skins and massive wedge-shaped doors at one end. Countless trailers surrounded by sandbags, walled by intermittent rows of concrete barriers. Massive trapezoidal bunkers from the Saddam era, brutalist and windowless. Everything is pale, low-contrast, all colour drained away by the scorching desert sun.

1300. Off to DFAC 1 for lunch. DFAC = Dining FACility. A huge cafeteria-like structure, where sour-looking Sri Lankans serve surprisingly good food to anyone with a DoD badge. It reminds me of summer camp.

1400. Exploratory drive around the base. Pennsylvania Avenue, the main drag, is thick with Humvees, minibuses, Pathfinders, weird armoured military vehicles adorned with .50 caliber machine guns, truck cabs, huge construction vehicles that can carry entire shipping containers with their scorpion-like arm. Troops wait at wooden bus stops or walk up and down, most of them armed with M-16s and wearing helmet and armour; that last is unusual, but the threat level has been ratcheted up today for Saddam's birthday. We pass parking lot after parking lot where vehicles of all kinds are arrayed in neat rows. A lot where hundreds of Porta-Johns are arrayed in neat rows. Barriers, fences, razor wire, concertina wire - but that mostly near the airfield proper; it's easy to walk most anywhere in the populated part of the base. Buildings and trailers are often identified by unit names and numbers, sometimes with murals painted outside. The base is littered with weird unexpected bits of Americana - a US Post Office box, a Subway logo.

We pass the single most extraordinary thing I see all day, the trash dump, massive piles of scrap metal, charred twisted wreckage from the US bombing of this base, and I don't even know what else. It looks like the end of the world, like a jagged rusted Hell, and it goes on and on, and at its far corner the 'tire fire' - it's not clear to me whether this is deliberate or not - releases a constant plume of smoke into the air.

Along the fence, which looks flimsy, just chainlink topped by barbed wire, with watchtowers every so often, some low and wooden, some high and metal and camouflage-netted. To the airfield, where a C-17 is taking off, past where a Marine helicopter bulbous with weaponry is parked next to a long, long line of Blackhawks and a collection of Chinooks. Past the Iraqi National Guard enclave, past the KBR enclave, back 'home.'

1500. Exploration on foot. The base seems much bigger this way. Twenty minutes in the heat and I start to get a little fatigued. Already the churning cornucopia of traffic, the clutches of Army and Air Force troops, the trailers and sandbags and fences and helicopters above, all seems almost normal. To the movie theater, showing THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. The huge, high-ceilinged recreation center, where the electronic games room is full and the library empty, alas (and very weirdly stocked). The main PX, which is a combination grocery, electronics, clothes, and tools store, prices comparable to Back Home, with a Burger King and Pizza Hut out front. Instead of real change you get bright little circular pieces of cardboard with their value written on them; it's suggested this is to prevent pocket-jingling. Back 'home' via minibus, which comes promptly and moves quickly. I suppose a base this size needs remarkably good public transit.

1700. A jarring thump shakes the trailer. Mortar? Controlled explosion? No alarm, so probably the latter. Mortars apparently still hit the base every couple of days.

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.

April 25, 2005

Hurry up and wait

Outside a heavy rain falls on Germany. Let's hope it's not pathetic fallacy.

I suspect I'll be typing at you a lot over the next few days, out of sheer boredom. But you never know; the gods of space-a may smile on me; I may be en route in the near future. I almost gave you a time there, but you know, security. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Frankfurt Airport was cavernous, gleamingly clean, ghostly quiet. I guess Monday afternoons are not a thriving time. After some of what I expect I will grow to call "the usual military confusion" I hopped a bus to Rhein-Main AFB, on the other side of the shared runway. Taxiing after touchdown, I saw it to our left: a grid of huge bulbous cargo planes perched on the tarmac, all dull gray, opposite the sleek bright-logo jets across the way.

What's most noticeable about my time so far in the military world - one hour - is how unmilitary it seems. If it wasn't for all the guys in uniform this could almost be a slightly down-at-heel civilian American airfield with unusually tight security. Rental cars, travel agencies, security guards dressed in blue suits, vending machines, public phones, CNN, a shop, a cafeteria, check-in desks and gates. A Harley-Davidson on display in a glass case, a dealer's name posted next to it.

Granted, there are other hints at where you are. Like the "Rules of Engagement" on the wall (#1: All weapons must stay inside your designated gate at all times). Or the way that the convenience store - sorry, PX - upstairs includes a wall full of camouflage gear, combat webbing, rank chevrons, compasses, Maglites, holsters, all-weather notepads and M-16 cleaning kits. (They're out of the one thing I wanted, an armband ID holder, dammit.) A whole spinning rack of D&D books, and another of comics. There are also bins full of free books on tables outside the USO, where I now type. Those will be welcome if I stay more than a couple days. I contributed Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom already.

I'm going to have to kick my habit of referring to men behind desks as "sir" out of politeness. Here they call me sir. That was odd. Everyone military I've actually interacted with - OK, that's three people, to date - has been friendly and sharp and relaxed. And I liked the way their example authorization letter, amid their information sheets, was signed by one "Major Havoc".

I do get a sort of sense of ambient purpose, that I'm inside a machine that may constantly falter and sputter and spit smoke from rusty parts but is endlessly doing something, even if no one is sure exactly what or why. Maybe I'm romanticizing. It's easy to do. When I saw a Richard Roundtree lookalike shepherding fifty kids in uniform - kids I tell you - into their gate, off to Kuwait I think, I did briefly feel more like an extra in a movie than me in my life.

April 14, 2005

A reminder: the mass-market paperback of DARK PLACES hits Canadian bookstores on May 4th (which, appropiately, is also my sister's birthday.)

I'm pleased to announce that I've come to an agreement with DTV re the German translation of BLOOD PRICE, which should go on sale in Germany sometime in 2006.

Oh, and the UK paperback release for BLOOD PRICE has been moved up to October of this year.

winged beasts of procrastination

Airlines I Have Flown with destinations and amusing anecdotes, if any

Spurred by the realization that I've somehow never flown Lufthansa.

  • Aero Continente: Lima-Iquitos, Iquitos-Lima, Lima-Cuzco. Run by a notorious drug dealer and officially declared unsafe to fly by the USA.
  • Air Canada: Bazillions of trillions of times. Have gone seriously downhill.
  • Air China: Bangkok-Taiwan-SF. Only time I've had five seats to myself. And thank God for that, it was a transpacific flight and I was in rough shape. I forgave them the four-hour delay in the wee hours in Taiwan's airport where I was forced to reread Crichton's Timeline.
  • Air France: Toronto-Paris-Toronto, back in '87.
  • Air India: London-Delhi-Bangkok. Shabby but serviceable.
  • Air New Zealand: LAX-Auckland-Sydney and back. Excellent.
  • Air Niugini: Cairns-Port Moresby-Mt Hagen and back. Not bad by Third World standards. Mt Hagen was raked by a freak lightning storm as we approached, so we had to abort the first landing with the wheels lowered and the flaps up, only time that's happened to me.
  • Air Transat: UK-Canada several times. Tiny 'cattle class' seat pitch. But cheap.
  • AirTran: aka ValuJet. Cross-country once. Shrug. Standard discount airline.
  • All Nippon Airways: Narita-Kai Tak. Very civilized.
  • America West: SFO-PHX-NYC and back. I like 'em cause they upgraded me to first class once.
  • American Airlines: Many a time. Miami-Lima probably the most memorable.
  • British Airways: Several times, esp. Cape Town-London. Nice but the bastards gave me food poisoning last time I flew them.
  • Buddha Air: Jomsom-Pokhara. The lesson learned here is "do not fly an airline named after a man whose first credo was 'Life is suffering.'" No, actually it was a great ride. Prop plane carrying apples and people from the nonexistent airport in Jomsom, high in the Himalaya. They passed out balls of cotton to stick in your ears before they started the engine. If not for that I'd be deaf right now. Amazing scenery.
  • Cameroon Airlines: Douala-Kinshasa-Harare. Hoo boy. Where to start? The security guards having a keg party at the airport? The single sullen one on duty who refused to search my day pack? The broken metal detector and X-ray machine? The open thievery of luggage on the tarmac? Or the unscheduled stopover in Kinshasa to offload something, in the height of a civil war, just a week before the rebel army reached the outskirts of the city? Boy was I glad to see Harare.
  • Canadian Airlines: Many times, esp. student standby Ottawa-Toronto or back. I was kind of appalled when they got bought out.
  • Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong-Bali. Very civilized. First time I had my own seat-back monitor.
  • Continental: Toronto-Newark and others. Shrug.
  • Delta: New York-Florida and others. Shrug.
  • Dragonair: Shanghai-Hong Kong. They fed us a great meal during a 45-minute flight.
  • Eastern: Toronto-Florida. I was insanely excited. Of course I was eight. (On reflection, I'm not sure how excited I was; family legend has it that I was asked after my first flight what my favourite thing about it was, and after sober reflection I responded "Breakfast.")
  • easyJet: Several times, esp. London-Barcelona to go skydiving. They all but push you onto the plane with cattle prods, but at these prices how can you complain?
  • EgyptAir: Athens-Cairo and Cairo-Athens. Would have been a nicer ride without the handcuffed prisoner who shat his pants with fear/defense mechanism and was dragged off the plane before we took off.
  • Emirates: Paris-Dubai-Mumbai and back. Very nice. Their movie channel played "The Maltese Falcon" and "Wait Until Dark", and their chess program, really weirdly, played the Alekhine Defense every time.
  • Greyhound Air: Winnipeg-Toronto. Because I couldn't stand the thought of going any further across the prairies overland.
  • JetBlue: NYC-Buffalo etc. Best American airline.
  • Jetsgo: Toronto-NYC and back. Gone and unlamented.
  • Lan Peru: Juliaca-Lima. Lengthy delay, but still beats Aero Continente.
  • Monarch: London-Gibraltar, where you actually have to drive across the runway to leave the airport. A red light nobody ever runs.
  • Northwest: A few. Always through Minneapolis.
  • Olympic Airlines: London-Athens and back. Shrug.
  • Pan Am: Toronto-Florida, I think. Alas, how the mighty are fallen.
  • Qantas: Ayers Rock-Sydney and Sydney-Melbourne and back. No crashes! Also I've been to the little Outback town where they were born.
  • Ryanair: London-Dublin, Dublin-Manchester. They all but push you onto the plane with cattle prods, but at these prices how can you complain?
  • SkyEurope: Paris-Bratislava and back. Long mechanical delay, but cheap, and hot scantily clad stewardesses.
  • Southwest: LAX-OAK-SEA corridor. They run like a charm, they're cheap, and they make money.
  • Singapore Airlines: London-Sydney and back. Best. Airline. Ever.
  • Sri Lankan Airlines: Trivandrum-Colombo, Colombo-Mumbai. Ultraparanoid - you get searched as you enter the plane - but I suppose with good reason. Otherwise fine.
  • TACA: SFO-Belize and back. I remember nothing.
  • Thai Airways: Phuket-Singapore. Very civilized. Good food.
  • TWA: SFO-Nawlins-NYC-SFO. Another unprovoked first-class upgrade. Annoying stopping in St. Louis wherever you go though.
  • United: A zillion times. Bleah. The tapioca of airlines.
  • Virgin Atlantic: NYC-LON and back. My preferred way across the Atlantic.
  • Virgin Blue: Brisbane-Cairns and Sydney-Brisbane-Darwin. Excellent cheap option.

I have never flown US Airways. Their hub is in Pittsburgh and my sister has this recurring dream which indicates it might be wise to stay out of that city for, like, ever.

I'm probably forgetting some.