Saturday, December 31, 2011

Uncle Ho Would Have Been Mortified!

by Pa Rock
International Party Animal

The New Year swept into Hanoi  forty minutes ago - and was this city ever rocking!  There were thousands of people gathered downtown by the lake enjoying a sound-and-light show that featured musicians, dancing girls, and an out-of-control deejay.  The crowd was mostly teens and twenty-somethings, but there were also families with little children, and a few grandparent types.  It was mostly Vietnamese, but foreigners were also present in abundance.  All of the singing was in English.

The lights, the thumping music, the screaming deejay, the dancing in the was western youth culture at its zenith!  Uncle Ho would have been mortified!

Happy New Year 2012 from Vietnam!

New Year's Eve in Hanoi

by Pa Rock
International Party Animal

The New Year is still four-and-a-half hours away in Hanoi, but the streets are filling with people and excitement is in the air.  Actually, the streets of Old Hanoi are always filled with people and there can be few places on this planet any more exciting - at any hour of any day!  But tonight most of the locals are ending their sentences with "Happy New Year!"   One poor lady who was trying to sell me street food wished me "Merry Christmas!"

The  soundtrack of Vietnam is honking horns - a long, never-ending cacophony of honking horns!

An hour ago I was out among the cars and motorbikes, weaving my way through the tourists and street peddlers, when a woman approached me trying to sell a 3X tee-shirt.  I told her I might buy shirts for my littlest grandsons, because I saw that she had nothing small and would have to let me go.  But no, she persisted and told me that she had the perfect shirts at her store.  "You follow me."

I followed thinking that we were just going across the street.  We did cross the street, then walked a block, then took a turn and walked two more blocks, and then turned up a long dark alley with many peddlers lurking in the shadows.

(At this point I knew that I was probably in trouble.  It reminded me of the time a couple of years ago when Carla (Turnbough) Brown and I were in New York City, and she wanted to go into Chinatown to buy some knockoff purses.  We found a "saleslady" who led us to a side street where she told me to wait on the corner while she walked Carla on down the street and had her climb into the back of a van.  Ten minutes later my friend emerged smiling with a couple of fine bargains.)

So, back in the alley in Old Hanoi, my guide finally reached her "store," which turned out to be a couple of plastic bags hanging from a motorbike.  She pulled out two hand-embroidered shirts and told me that she and her poor teenage daughter had spent hours and hours making them.  I finally bought them - on the condition that she lead me back to where she found me.

Sebastian and Judah, I hope you like your shirts.  Pa Rock had to be very brave to get them for you!

I will be back out on the streets at midnight!

Happy New Year, Vietnam!

A Trip to See Uncle

by Pa Rock
Cultural Explorer

The Vietnamese refer to their famous political hero, Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), the man who brought the nation together and encouraged her citizens to drive out the French and later the Americans, as "Uncle."  The communist hero never married or had children, so many viewed him as an "uncle" to the struggling nation.

We began our tour of Hanoi this morning with a visit to the mausoleum of Uncle Ho where we viewed his body, a marvel of twentieth century taxidermy, lying in state in a large glass case with four very solemn Vietnamese military guards standing at each corner of the display.  Uncle Ho looked pale and colorless, certainly no match for the much healthier stuffed body of V.I. Lenin which I saw a dozen years ago in Red Square.

(I'm thinking about having my body stuffed when I die and put on display someplace appropriate...perhaps at the Macy's Store in Kansas City.)

After leaving the mausoleum, we walked the adjacent grounds past the palace built by the French for their dignitaries. along the lake where Uncle Ho used to clap his hands so the fish would know it was time to come and eat, and up close to two small houses in which he lived after he became politically powerful and famous.  Both houses were very compact and ordinary, the epitome of socialist utility.  But it was the second house that captured my imagination.  That little house was built on stilts, with a large conference table sitting on the cement slab beneath the house..  It was at that table where Ho held many important meetings.  Next to that house was an underground bunker where Ho and his friends could flee in the event of an air strike.

Further on down the lake on the same property was the famous "One Pillar Pagoda," a Buddhist shrine that sits in the air atop one pillar.  It is reportedly where couples go if they want to get pregnant, but we didn't see anyone attempting to get pregnant during our visit.

Our next stop was the infamous Hanoi Hilton, an old French prison built in the 1890's where Vietnamese patriots and prisoners were tortured and killed for decades.  After the French were finally driven out of the country, the Vietnamese turned it into a prison for captured American pilots.  Young John McCain was a resident there for several years.  One of the displays inside is a photograph of Senator McCain visiting the prison in 2000.  They also have the flight suit that he was wearing when he was captured on display, along with a large photo of the Vietnamese pulling him out of the lake that he parachuted into when his plane was shot down.

Most of the Hanoi Hilton has been torn down and the land given over to the city for commercial purposes,  but several rooms have been maintained.  It is a very grim  place.  One of the exhibits, in fact, is an actual guillotine used by the French to deal with Vietnamese patriots.  So much for the Rights of Man and the Citizen!

Murphy used to be a prison psychologist and had no interest in touring a prison, particularly not one with that much negative American history, so he walked the neighborhood while I did the tour.

Our tour ended after lunch, and we decided to take in the Vietnamese Military Museum on our own.  There were several very interesting exhibits at that museum, including a thirty-foot high sculpted pile of scrap metal made up of shot-down United States warplanes.  Inside we saw one of the actual tanks that broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April of 1975 - thus symbolically ending the war.

All of that was followed by a crazy taxi ride back to the hotel.  Tonight we will be on the streets seeing what a Hanoi New Year's looks like.

(Last night as I was walking around town by myself, a working girl on a motorbike pulled up to me and asked if I would like a massage.  I quickly told her "no," knowing full well that it was just a ploy to get her hands on my belly!)

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Lotus Flowers

Original Poetry
by Pa Rock

(Written along the road to Ha Long, Vietnam, and dedicated to Olive and Willow, my little Lotus Blossoms - with love.)

Lotus flowers float gracefully
Upon the peaceful river
Among the sunning turtles
And past the young men fishing.

They drift ever so slowly
Down through the waters of time
Serenely, eternally
Gathering strength and beauty.

Ha Long Bay

by Pa Rock
World Traveler

This was a very long day indeed!

We were on the road headed to Ha Long Bay at 8:00 a.m.  The four-hour drive north took us near the famous port city of Hai Phong and ultimately to our destination -  which was a mere 170 kilometers south of the Chinese border.  The drive, as with any motorized trip in Vietnam, was a harrowing experience.  As we got near Ha Long we came upon a a motorbike and its driver who had been crushed by a truck.  Our driver, himself a maniac, survived the drive up and back only because he had Happy Buddha sitting in the backseat.    (We learned this evening that the young man on the motorbike died at the scene.)

One of the most interesting sights that we encountered was two men riding down the highway on a motorbike.  Tied to the back of the motorbike where a third passenger could have sat was what appeared to be a young adult water buffalo.  The poor creature's head was hanging low over the edge of the seat while its other end was busy defecating!  Murphy was on the right side to get the photograph - but maybe I will luck out tomorrow when we are taken on a tour of Hanoi.

There are many funny postcards on sale here showing the types of things that people carry on their motorbikes besides water buffalo -  a dozen crates of clucking chickens, a large basket of live pigs, ducks, balloon displays, construction materials, you name it.  The bikes are ubiquitous and necessary for commerce.   Just about anything needed to be moved around the city can be balanced, tied, or stacked on a motorbike.  I've even seen street vendors stretched out and sleeping on their bikes!

Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  (Google it!)  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has over two thousand uninhabited limestone islands thrusting up into the sky.  Our tour company arranged for us to have a private cruise on a large boat that would have held twenty people comfortably.  A lady crew member prepared a wonderful lunch for us as we weaved through the majestic islands.  (Later the same lady brought out intricate pieces of embroidery showing life in Vietnam that had been stitched by members of her family, pearls, and postcards - all of which she tried to sell to her captive tourists.  (Molly and Erin, expect a beautiful piece of embroidery.)

Ha Long Bay would make a nice vacation destination by itself - in fact, that is where Mark Zuckerberg and his entourage spent a few days last week.  Of course the King of Facebook flew there in a helicopter.  He wasn't about to be slowed down by a pooping water buffalo on the back of a motorbike!

That was his loss!

There are many new luxury hotels going up at Ha Long Bay, and even a casino.  I asked Quan how the privately owned casino meshed with the concept of a socialist state.  He replied that Vietnamese citizens are not permitted to gamble - only foreigners may throw their money away in the casinos.  Somehow, I think Uncle Ho might have approved!

Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, and Hanoi seems to be gearing up for one helluva street party!  I'll be staying up late to enjoy the craziness!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thrice Blessed!

by Pa Rock
Object of Adoration

This morning we toured two final stops in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam.  The first was called the Pagoda, a monastery where an order of Buddhist monks live and work.  The second was the Citadel, an immense walled city where the emperor and his royal entourage (a thousand or more people) resided back in the day.

The Pagoda was a very moving experience.  The monks were working at a variety of tasks - meditating, teaching, shining brass - and taking care of children.  Children, in fact, seemed to be the focus of the monks' operation.  Orphans are left in the care of the monks, and those who happen to be male grow to adulthood in the monastery where they receive an education from the monks and do chores.  Our guide, Tuan, said that sometimes family members come to the monastery to visit the boys, and if they choose, they may take their particular boy our of the Pagoda and back to their family home at any time.  When a boy reaches the age of eighteen he may choose to remain with the Order or move out into society.

The young boys, called novices, whom we observed today were clearing tables, scrubbing a concrete floor on their hands and knees - while also playing on the slippery concrete, and having fun chasing and playing with one another as they did their work.

One older monk was walking around holding an infant swaddled in a baby blanket.  Tuan said the baby was a three-day-old female who was left at the monastery.  He said that after she has been nurtured at the Pagoda for a couple of months, she will be transferred to a nunnery where she will be raised by the nuns.  Several people were taking pictures of the jolly monk and his baby.  When he saw me he came over and patted my belly and said "Happy Buddha!"  Then, pleased with himself, he did it two more times and proclaimed "Happy Buddha" even more loudly.

I'm not sure if he was blessing me, or using me to bless the baby.  All I know for certain is that he made me feel really good!

The Citadel was not nearly as interesting.  It is immense and very elegant, but it is also aging with lots of crumbling stone and mold and mildew.  The government is slowly refurbishing the facility, but it looks as though they may never get caught up.   One of the things I saw that sort of encapsulated the entire experience of the Citadel was a large pile of bricks and stones that we came upon during our walk along the grounds.  It was obviously the remains of a building that had recently been torn down.  I asked Tuan what it had been, and he said that it was public restrooms that had gotten so nasty that the government had them demolished instead of trying to clean them.  That's what I call housekeeping!

This afternoon we flew into Hanoi.  The airport is several kilometers away from the city, so we got to view a lot of agricultural land and factories on the way into Hanoi proper.  Our hotel, The Medallion, is located in the heart of Old Hanoi - several blocks of craziness with the small streets crammed with motorbikes, cars, trucks, cyclos (rickshaw-type affairs that have a sedan chair pushed by a man on a half-bicycle), dogs, drunks, street vendors, people squatting and cooking over small braziers, and just about anything else you could imagine.  I even saw a couple of chickens navigating through the madness!

Next door to our hotel is a hostel for backpackers.  It appeared to be bursting at the seams with young foreigners.

Tonight Quan, our Hanoi guide, walked us down through the street chaos and onto a bigger boulevard where he placed each of us in a cyclo.    I felt like some foreign potentate who was part of the reason that  Ho Chi Minh went to war, but my knee was still hurting from the fall yesterday, so I sat back and let myself be carted around Old Hanoi in style.

Murphy, on the other hand, couldn't come to grips with his inner-proletarian, and soon abandoned his cyclo and was walking along beside mine.  Then a few minutes later I heard my driver shouting excitedly, and Murphy peddled by driving his cyclo with his driver sitting in the sedan chair!  He was quite a sight!

Our evening's entertainment was the Water Puppet Theatre, a venue with a Vietnamese band sitting above a small indoor lake.   A variety of puppets splashed around in the water and acted out various skits.  It was unusual and very interesting - but an hour was sufficient.

We ended the evening at a restaurant that Quan recommended.  Our seats were on a narrow balcony where we looked down the bustling street.  After dinner we took a long route back to the hotel, looking in a few shops and dodging vehicular traffic.  I was only clipped once, by the mirror on a sleek black car.  The driver glared at me like I had hit him.

I did make one purchase on the way back to the hotel.  We were in a shop that sells copies of old Vietnamese propaganda posters from the war.  The one I ended up buying has a bomb falling on Vietnam with Nixon's face painted on it.  Red lightening bolts are firing up from the ground toward the Nixon bomb.  The caption, in Vietnamese, said "Nixon has spilled our blood and now we must spill his."  It really spoke to me - or at least to the person I was in the sixties!

Another one that I really liked was a drawing of a young mother holding a baby in her arms with a rifle strapped over her shoulder.

Tomorrow we are taking a three-hour drive to Halong Bay where will go on a cruise through one of the most beautiful places in Asia.

More later from the city that made Jane Fonda famous!

(Please know that America is a capitalist country, so if you want to pat my belly when I get home, it's gonna cost you!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Fall from Grace

by Pa Rock
International Bumpkin

As we were leaving Da Nang this morning, our tour guide offered to take us by China Beach  - an offer we couldn't refuse.  China Beach is the Pacific at its most beautiful and ruthless!   There were no swimmers or surfers, but many locals and a few tourists were out walking along the free beach.

Our drive to Hue took us along many miles of the Pacific coast and then over the mountains.  At the top of main mountain that separates the Da Nang district from that of Hue, we pulled into a tourist rest and gift stop where we were chatted up shamelessly by women selling jewelry - a couple of whom patted my belly and called me "happy Buddha!"  (I'm getting used to that!)  Across the road we saw a cement bunker that was built by the Americans during the Vietnam War.  On a clear day it would have had a commanding view of the countryside all the way to the ocean, but today was cloudy - and we were actually in the clouds.

Our next stop was at the foot of the mountains on the Hue side where we pulled  over to take pictures of the water buffalo that were working the fields by the road.  There were six or eight of the massive beasts along with a water buffalo calf which was wearing a raincoat!  We crossed the highway at that point - a death-defying stunt - and walked along a mud path to a small row of houses.  Vietnamese children ran out to greet us with their hands out shouting "Hello, hello, hello!"  Tuan pointed to a plaque on one of the houses.  He said that it was constructed by the government for the mother of a young man who died fighting in the war.

As we were entering Hue, Tuan had the driver stop so we could cross the road and take pictures of an exquisite private family shrine.  The gate was locked, so we were taking pictures from over the wall.  As we were about to leave, the owner, a seventy-year-old gentleman, showed up and invited us onto the grounds.  A long cement ramp led from the sidewalk down into the base of the shrine.  It turns out it was actually a long, slick, cement ramp - a fact  that I noted mentally as I tumbled ass-over-elbows before landing flat  on  my back with my head bouncing on the hard and slimy cement like a spiked volleyball!  I survived pretty much intact, aside from a skinned elbow, twisted knee, and a probable case of TBI, but it was not my most graceful moment!

During our second royal burial site visit after my fall, I finally gave up and sat down on the cement railing of a quaint little bridge while Murphy and Tuan marched ever onward.  While I was sitting there licking my wounds, a very sweet college girl from Hanoi named Nhung came up and asked if she could practice speaking English with me.  She had a notebook with words that she was having difficulty on - "r" words like "born," "girl," and "world."   Nhung wants to be an English teacher.  Her primary goal is to make an income, but she also wants to be able to teach her younger relatives to speak English.  Our little encounter was the best part of the day - and it sure as hell beat seeing the grave of yet another dead emperor!

Tonight, knee permitting, I may take a stroll through the neighborhood that surrounds our hotel.  We will see some more historic and cultural sites in Hue tomorrow, and then fly to Hanoi in the afternoon.

Tempus fugit in the land where calves wear raincoats and old men fly!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Heading to Hue

by Pa Rock
Citizen of Planet Earth

Early morning in Da Nang.  I have just finished a good hotel breakfast and will soon be packing for our 9:00 a.m. departure to Hue, a three-hour car drive. Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam and promises much in the way of history and culture.

A word or two about our hotel in Da Nang:  The Ancient House Resort is very tropical and beautiful.  Again, it was a cheap-o three-star, but extremely nice according to my limited experience.  Each room has its own balcony that overlooks a very lush pool area with much greenery.  My extra-big king-size bed had rose petals strew across the white cover - all beneath a silk canopy!  The bath tub was long and very comfortable - much to the delight of my poor, sore legs that had recently trudged up and down Marble Mountain!

The Wi-fi, however, did not work in the room - forcing me to do email and blog from the lobby.  I can pull up the edit page for my blog and post new entries, but the local connection will not let me pull up the actual blog - so I am sort of flying blind hoping that everything publishes the way that I intend.  (Is Pa Rock's Ramble too controversial for Da Nang, Vietnam?)

Off to pack, to ride, and to walk, and walk, and walk!

The Happy Buddha Does Marble Mountain

by Pa Rock
Citizen of the World

Our Saigon tour guides picked us up at the hotel at 6:20 a.m. this morning and shuffled us to the airport where we boarded a full Vietnam Airliner for the seventy-minute flight to Da Nang.  Our guide and driver in Da Nang were waiting at the airport and immediately threw us into tour mode - no stop by the hotel, no restroom breaks - just run, run, run!  Sadistic bastards!

We began the day at a museum of Cham artifacts (google it), follow by a trip to Marble Mountain - which is, not surprisingly, a mountain of marble.  At the foot of the  mountain are many shops with marble souvenirs carved from the mountain's marble.  There was a new elevator ascending the mountain, but I elected to climb the uneven and very slippery steps to the top.  That was a huge mistake.  Each time my left foot landed on a step I heard the word "broken," and the sound of my right foot striking the slick marble steps was "leg!"  Broken leg, broken leg, broken leg!  How, I wondered, would they ever get me off of the mountain with one or more broken legs?

But somehow I made it up and down Marble Mountain.  I spent the rest of the day looking for a tee-shirt to hail my accomplishment - but never found one.

Marble Mountain is home to a couple of nice caves and several Buddhist shrines, some with enormous  marble statues of the "Enlightened One."  From the top of Marble Mountain we had a fantastic view of China Beach - the place where American troops used to go to relax and surf during the Vietnam War.  The waves at China Beach are immense!

Most of the afternoon was consumed with walking the streets of a vast Vietnamese open-air market.  I ran by many interesting things trying to keep with the long-legged Murphy and Tuan, our energetic guide.  One continuing irritant was several Vietnamese is the shops who would pat my belly and say, "Happy Buddha!"  I decided not to be insulted.  (The "happy" Buddha is the pot-bellied one who is always laughing.)

Da Nang is beautiful.  Our hotel, the Ancient House Resort, is beautiful.  The Wi-fi at the hotel is not beautiful and does not work - so I am typing this missive from the "Guest Relations" desk in the lobby.

More tomorrow from the ancient capital of Hue where we will spend two nights.  Until then I remain your "Happy Buddha!"

Monday, December 26, 2011

Saigon and Vicinity by Day

by Pa Rock
Citizen of the World

Our guide and driver picked us up early this morning at our hotel and managed to cram two or three days worth of tourism into about nine hours.  We began by driving through the hustle and  bustle of Saigon and out into the countryside where  we spent the morning visiting the famous Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi (pronounced  "koochie").  While there we viewed one of the propaganda films that Uncle Ho had his troops watch back in the day, watched rice paper being made, and saw lots of weapons and displays from the war.  The area that we were in had been defoliated by the Americans with agent orange, but everything had been replanted after the war and it is now back in its natural state.

Our lunch was close to Cu Chi at a riverside restaurant called the Ben Nay.  I had a large bowl of chicken noodle soup that looked wickedly healthy but tasted wonderful.  We ate on the veranda overlooking the river where we watched large lumps of water lotus floating by.  It was truly beautiful!

We were back in Saigon by early afternoon.  Our first stop in the city was the enormous Chinese Market.  If anyplace could be crazier that the motor scooter infested streets of Saigon, it has to be the Chinese Market.  People where stumbling all over each other, throwing things, driving down the alleys and aisles on scooters loaded down with merchandise, playing, handling the food with dirty hands, and smoking.  Loc said that one of his teachers once told him, "Where there's smoke, there's Chinese!"  So true!

Next we visited the Thien Hau Buddhist Temple which was build in 1760.  It was quite impressive - and packed with worshipers and tourists.

Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent at Independence Palace, the former home of the Presidents of South Vietnam.  A nice young couple from New York City joined our little group so they could listen to Loc's  excellent  presentations on the history of the palace, the presidency, and his country.  Murphy made the visit to the palace memorable when he leaned out of a window on the top (fourth) story to take a picture and his glasses fell off of his nose.  They landed on a sealed-off ledge ten feet below.  Loc, ever the hero, managed to get permission to go into the restricted area and retrieve them.

Our final two stops were at the Saigon main post office - a building designed by Mr. Eiffel of the Tower fame - and Notre Dame Cathedral.   A bride and groom were posing for pictures outside of the cathedral, and a mass was being said inside.   Two beautiful white doves were sitting on the head of the large statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the cathedral - and pooping!  Loc said that the Protestants and Catholics both wanted to build a church on that site, and they finally resolved the issue by shooting craps.  The Catholics won the right to build their church on the spot - proving that God works in mysterious ways, or maybe that they are just better with dice than Protestants!

The post office was decorated with a large ornate Christmas tree and a large ornate painting of Ho Chi Minh - communism with a commercial and religious bent!!

Some other things that I learned today:  There are no McDonald's in Saigon.  There were a few at one time, but they pulled out because the street food was so plentiful and good that it hurt the burger business.   Horn-blowing is constant, but it does not mean that the drivers are angry - only that they are coming through - and they do!  Wood from Vietnam's numerous rubber trees is used to make furniture.  And AH1 (Asian Highway 1  which we were on part of the morning is 21,000 kilometers long and runs from Korea to Turkey!

Tomorrow we are up early catching a flight to Da Nang!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saigon, Christmas Night

by Pa Rock
Citizen of the World

We are safely in Saigon, Vietnam, and have been out walking the streets most of the evening.  It is a beautiful night, about 80 degrees with balmy breezes.  The whole city appears to be up and partying.

The  guide who met us at the airport is a twenty-three-year-old young man named Loc.  He and a van driver got us to our hotel which is about half an hour from the airport.  We are staying in the center of Saigon.  It is an amazing place, and I am so glad that I decided to make this trip.

One of the things we read before arriving was how dangerous it was to cross streets in Saigon.  I suspected that warning was just for dramatic effect, but getting anywhere downtown on foot is a challenge.  There are rivers and streams of motorcycles and motor scooters - I mean thousands upon thousands - some transporting mom, dad, and two kids!  Loc told us that there are currently 33 million motorbikes in Vietnam, and three thousand new ones are added to the streets of Saigon every day!  I feel certain that we saw most of the 33 million htis evening!  Interspersed among all of the cycles and scooters are cars, trucks, and even some bicycles.

Except for Uncle Ho Chi Minh's picture on all of the currency, one would never suspect that this is a communist country.  Brand name stores and luxury hotels abound.  There  are even Santa Clauses out among the tourists.  Christmas decorations are up, and we were told that they would remain up until after the lunar new year in February.   As we walked by a pretty girl posing in front of a Louis Vuitton storefront, Murphy noted that in retrospect, the capitalist forces actually won the Vietnam War.

Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the forces of the north won the Vietnam War - but Loc told us that most of the Vietnamese still call it Saigon.  He said the communists changed the names of many places, but the people still tend to use the historic names.  Saigon is home to over seven million people.

Dinner tonight was at the Lemongrass Restaurant, a nice place that serves an international clientele on three floors.  Our meal came to 770,385 dong - or $36.69 USD.  (Half-a-million dong is approximately $25.00.)

We are staying at a three-star hotel called the Asian Ruby, within walking distance of the Saigon City Center and their famous Saigon Opera House.  My room is exceptionally nice.  We chose three-star rooms through the travel agency to save money - and it looks as though that was a good idea.

Loc will be here early in the morning to get us started on our only full day in Saigon.  There is so much to see and do, and so little time!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Day 2011

by Pa Rock
World Traveler

My bags are packed, breakfast is in the planning stages, and I am just killing time waiting for my ride.  The day appears to be dreary and overcast on Okinawa - just perfect for going someplace else!

I have no idea what the Wi-Fi availability will be in Vietnam, so this blog will feature updates on a catch-as-catch-can basis.  Sometime after my return I will post photos at:

I am trusting all of my friends to keep the world running smoothly while I am on vacation.  My best to everyone for the happiest of holidays!

Christmas Eve on Okinawa

by Pa Rock

This is Christmas Eve, the third and probably the last that I will spend on Okinawa.

My first Christmas Eve on this lovely island was in 1972, just a few months after it went from American to Japanese control.  I was a newly married 1st Lieutenant in the United States Army living in a duplex on the edge of Naha.  I had no kids then, but my wife was pregnant with Nick who would be born on Okinawa the following July.  We had a tree up and were also house-sitting for a friend's Siamese cat while he was back in the States visiting family for the holidays. The cat, of course - being a cat, loved to climb in the Christmas tree.  He also liked to eat the foil icicles and then vomit them up in various places around the house.  It was a little chilly, but we had our trusty kerosene heater to keep us warm.

My second Christmas Eve here was the most recent one - in 2010.  I remember running up and down the island that day in shorts and a tee-shirt, so it was quite warm.  The next day, on Christmas, the weather changed drastically and the long pants came out.  The temperature dropped into the fifties and we were all freezing!

Today, my third Christmas Eve on Okinawa, the weather is again chilly.  I did my morning running around the island in blue jeans and a tee-shirt getting the last few necessaries for tomorrow's trip to Vietnam.  We head to the Naha Airport at about 8:30 a.m., fly to Taiwan at noon, and then on to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where we will arrive in the early evening.

I am traveling with my good friend, Daniel Murphy, a psychologist who works with me at Kadena.  Murphy and I and a mutual friend, Kelly, all went to Korea together last year.  Kelly was supposed to go with us to Vietnam, but she backed out at the last minute due to a family issue.  Valerie, the friend who went to Guam with me over Thanksgiving, is on a special trip to the Philippines this holiday season.  Two other friends in our group, Stephen and Stacey, are spending the holidays in Hong Kong.   There is so much to see and do in the Far East!

This afternoon as a way of putting off packing, I have settled in for two good holiday movies:  the original Miracle on 34th Street (which is chock full of Macy references) and the Jim Carrey version of A Christmas Carol.  As soon as they are over, I will put some serious effort into packing.

My best to you all for the happiest of holidays!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Michelle Obama: A Beautiful and Elegant Woman

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Jim Sensenbrenner is a flabby old white man with weight issues.  He is also a Republican member of Congress from Wisconsin who has been has been feeding at that particular public trough since Jimmy Carter was President.

Congressman Sensenbrenner has caused a bit of a stir lately over remarks that he made regarding the First Lady.  While chatting with a group of church ladies back in his home state, he got off on a Limbaughesque tirade about Mrs. Obama where he implied that she was being a bit hypocritical in her campaign against childhood obesity.  He apparently told the ladies that the First Lady herself had a "big butt," or words to that effect.  Sensenbrenner thought that he was delivering his remarks to fellow crackers, but, alas one of those present took great offense and told him so.

Ann Marsh-Meigs, a 72-year-old member of the church, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she was appalled by the Congressman's characterization of the President's wife.  She said that it appeared as though Congressman Sensenbrenner assumed that his remarks would be taken as humor, but she was not amused in the least.    She looked the congressman in the eye and said, "I think Michelle is a beautiful and elegant woman, and she dresses beautifully."

Yes, Michelle Obama is a beautiful and elegant woman, possibly the most beautiful and elegant woman ever to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  She is a great wife and mother, and is not afraid to wade in on issues that she feels are important to America and her families.  It is, in fact, the First Lady's beauty, brains, and political activism that cause flabby old white men to hurl insults at her.

Sticks and stones, Jimmy Boy - and you, too, Rush!

And Michelle, just for the record, this flabby old white man thinks you're a hottie!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Marty Atencio Dies In Phoenix

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Two days ago in this space I wrote about the latest victim of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.  Forty-four-year-old Marty Atencio of Peoria, Arizona, was arrested by officers of the Phoenix Police Department on assault charges and for exhibiting bizarre behavior.  Phoenix PD turned him over to the sheriff's office for processing and detention, and then things got truly bizarre.

The sheriff's people say that Atencio was unruly and had to be tazed.  Family members say that he had a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder - going back to his days in the military - and was probably off of his meds.  They also said that the sheriff's office was (or should have been) aware of his mental issues.  Some are saying that Atencio may have been tazed up to six times.  Whatever the number, after being shocked he was placed in a solitary cell, called a "safe" cell, and left alone for fifteen minutes.  When someone finally came to check on him, he was not breathing and had no pulse.

Sheriff's Joe's people got Mr. Atencio quickly resuscitated and shuffled off to St. Joseph's Hospital where he lingered in a vegetative state on life support until family members made the sad decision yesterday to remove the machines that were keeping their loved one alive.

Marty's brother, Mike Atencio, called his brother "the most patriotic guy on the planet," and he speaks openly and angrily about Marty being "murdered" by the sheriff's office.  He said that the resuscitation and removal of his brother to the hospital was just a political ploy by the sheriff's department so that they would not have to count him as a jailhouse death.

As predicted here, the family is suing Maricopa County over the actions of Sheriff Arpaio and his department in what they regard as the wrongful death of Marty Atencio.   They have hired attorney Mike Manning who has brought five other successful lawsuits against the county over wrongful deaths in Arpaio's jail facilities.

Attorney Manning is already hard at work trying to put rumors about Marty to rest.  Some have claimed that he may have been high on drugs or drunk when the incident occurred.  The lawyer said that the hospital took two separate blood tests on Atencio which prove that he was not using illicit drugs or alcohol at the time of his death.   Autopsies are also planned by the County Medical Examiner as well as by a coroner hired by the family.  Manning is asking for the jail videos of Marty Atencio being tazed - but he said that Arpaio's people are stalling.

The Phoenix Police Department is also conducting its own investigation of the incident, and they too have requested to see the video tapes.

Attorney Manning said that of the five death cases that he has handled, no detention officer has ever been disciplined as a result of their actions, and indeed all of them received promotions after the deaths!

The US Department of Justice said last week that the administration of Sheriff Joe Arpaio has shown a systematic, discriminatory treatment of  Latinos.  The death of Marty Atencio is yet one more example of the culture of cruelty, especially against Latinos, that appears to be so pervasive in the sheriff's office.

That cruelty has to stop.  Sheriff Joe's reign of terror has to come to an end.  Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously remarked, "The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons."  Civilization in Maricopa County, Arizona, is by that definition, at rock bottom.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greyhound Rolls On

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

The last time that I had much to say about the Greyhound Bus Line was back in the summer of 2008 when one passenger, Vince Weiguang Li, killed and cut off the head of his seatmate, a young carnival worker named Tim McLean, late one might while traveling across the Canadian prairie.  Shouting passengers got the bus driver to pull over and stop, and everyone rushed off after Mr. Li began waving Mr. McLean's head around for all to see.  Li also managed to cannibalize part of his victim while waiting on the Royal Canadian Mounties to show up.

The two men had not known each other prior to that fateful night in July.   The perpetrator was later judged to be not guilty by reason of insanity and remains institutionalized as of this date.

A couple of months later one passenger aboard a Greyhound, again in Canada, stabbed and seriously injured another passenger.  Since that time, as nearly as I can determine through a search of the Internet, the Greyhound Corporation has had a fairly uneventful ride.

But now comes Alec Baldwin spitting snide snippets of slander at poor Greyhound.  Baldwin made national news last week when he went to war with American Airlines after being removed from a Los Angeles to New York flight for failing to follow the directives of a flight attendant and turn off his phone.   Baldwin said that even though the airline plays his television show, 30 Rock, on their long flights,  he will not fly with them again.  (And neither will I - and I don't even own a cell phone.  I just resent American's high-handedness and lack of cordiality.)

I also have a modicum sympathy for Mr. Baldwin.  We all know there are some people in America for whom rules and laws do not apply - bazillionaires, professional athletes - especially if they are white, members of Congress (Sheila Jackson-Lee, I'm looking at you!), reality television stars, and some lesser celebrities like Alec Baldwin - aka the one-percent.  (Just kidding, of course!  No one in America gets special treatment!)

While Baldwin was barbecuing American Airlines, however, he stepped over a line - at least that is how the head of Greyhound felt.  Baldwin said that the airline's flight attendants "have made flying a Greyhound bus experience."

Greyhound President and CEO David Leach was not amused.  He sent an open letter to Baldwin saying he was "disheartened" to hear what the actor had said about his company.  He invited Baldwin to join him on a bus ride from New York to Boston in the hope that he might learn more about how modern and comfortable Greyhound has become.

Leach said the company has hundreds of new buses on the road, and they are equipped with leather seats, more legroom, power outlets, and even free Wi-Fi.  In his letter to the actor, Leach informed him that Greyhound will never ask a passenger to turn off their electronic devices.

I doubt that Alec Baldwin has ever been on a Greyhound bus, but I have had the privilege on numerous occasions.  I usually found my trips by Greyhound to be interesting beyond measure.  My fellow passengers were always a true slice of Americana, real people with complex issues which they were eager to share. I learned so much riding the bus!    Of course, I did have the good sense to never fall asleep next to a stranger!

Hey Alec, life's too short to suffer the rudeness of bitchy flight attendants.  American Airlines can fly empty for all I care.  From now on let's you and me take the bus and leave the driving to Greyhound!  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

More Deadly Abuse in Sheriff Joe's Jail

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

The ink was barely dry on the U.S. Department of Justice's stinging rebuke of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's law enforcement outrages when another tragedy occurred at one of his jails.  It is the type of story that keeps coming out of Phoenix with mind-numbing regularity.

Ernest  “Marty” Atencio, aged 44, is lying near death at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.   He is being kept alive by machines until his family completes their heart-wrenching good-byes.  The family, in fact, is already speaking of their loved one in the past tense, stating that he was murdered  by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

Marty Atencio served his nation proudly in the Gulf War, but his service left him with some mental disabilities that continued to plague the veteran in later years.  Late last week Marty was arrested in Phoenix on an assault charge, and while he was being booked at Joe Arpaio’s infamous 4th Street Jail,  he became agitated to the point where Sheriff’s deputies felt the need to taze him.  According to local news reports, it appears to have been a particularly brutal tazing that was followed by deputies placing him in a “safe” cell.  Atencio was left alone, unobserved for fifteen minutes.  When the deputies finally came back to check on him, he was not breathing and had no pulse.

Family members noted that Atencio had been in the 4th Street Jail before, and his mental disability should have been a matter of record at the jail – which would have perhaps given rise to a more humane form of treatment.

After jail personnel belatedly reengaged with Marty Atencio, he was given CPR and transferred to the hospital.  The medical attention was too little and too late.

Mike Atencio, the victim’s brother, updated the press on his brother’s condition.   “(Marty) is hanging on by a thread, machines are the only thing keeping him alive.” 

Family members will make the decision to unplug those machines in a few days and Marty Atencio will slip quietly from this life.  He will be gone, but not forgotten.  His family will bring suit against the government of Maricopa County and at some point a judge or a jury will agree with their claims of criminal mistreatment of their relative, and the county will pay out a large settlement to atone for the abuses of Joe Arpaio and his staff – as the county has had to do so often in the past.

Will the taxpayers of Maricopa County ever tire of bailing out the sheriff’s office?  Will they ever say that enough is enough?  Will they ever give their reality television star the boot and replace him with a law enforcement professional?

Mike Atencio makes no bones about who he holds responsible for the impending death of his brother.  “The sheriff’s office murdered my brother.  That’s what I want to get out to the public right now."

It is not the first time that an aggrieved relative has lobbed that charge at Joe and his overzealous deputies, and, sadly, it is unlikely to be the last.  The carnage will continue as long as the voters stay blinded to the reality of the brutality and keep fawning over their infamous sheriff.

Too much is too much!   Sheriff Joe needs to go!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Monday's Poetry: "Merry Christmas, My Friend"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Today's selection is a timely update on Clement Moore's Twas the Night Before Christmas which I have previously featured in this space.  This version was written by a young marine, Lance Corporal James M. Schmidt, twenty-five years ago.  It has been previously published in the Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck magazine.

The last United States fighting troops left Iraq today.  May all of our young people serving in harm's way be home safe and secure in the warmth of their families by the time the next Christmas rolls around.

For your holiday pleasure:

Merry Christmas, My Friend
by Lance Corporal James M. Schmidt

Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
In a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney, with presents to give,
And to see just who in this home did live.

As I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
No tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand,
On the wall hung pictures of a far distant land.

With medals and badges, awards of all kind,
A sobering thought soon came to my mind.
For this house was different, unlike any I'd seen,
This was the home of a U.S. Marine.

I'd heard stories about them, I had to see more,
So I walked down the hall and pushed open the door.
And there he lay sleeping, silent, alone,
Curled up on the floor in his one-bedroom home.

He seemed so gentle, his face so serene,
Not how I pictured a U.S. Marine.
Was this the hero of whom I'd just read,
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed?

His head was clean-shaven, his weathered face tan,
I soon understood, this was more than a man.
For I realized the families that I saw that night,
Owed their lives to these men, who were willing to fight.

Soon around the Nation, the children would play,
And grown-ups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day.
They all enjoyed freedom, each month and all year,
Because of Marines like this one lying here.

I couldn't help wonder how many lay alone,
On a cold Christmas Eve, in a land far from home.
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye,
I dropped to my knees and started to cry.

He must have awoken, for I heard a rough voice,
"Santa don't cry, this life is my choice.
I fight for freedom, I don't ask for more,
My life is my God, my country, my Corps."

With that he rolled over, drifted off into sleep,
I couldn't control it, I continued to weep.
I watched him for hours, so silent and still, 
I noticed he shivered from the cold night's chill.

So I took off my jacket, the one made of red,
And covered this Marine from his toes to his head.
Then I put on his T-shirt of scarlet and gold,
With eagle, globe and anchor emblazoned so bold.

Although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride,
And for one shining moment, I was Marine Corps deep inside.
I didn't want to leave him so quiet in the night,
This guardian of honor so willing to fight.

But half asleep he rolled over, and in a voice clean and pure,
Said, "Carry on, Santa, it's Christmas Day, all's secure."
One look at my watch and I knew he was right,
Merry Christmas, my friend, Semper Fi and goodnight.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sad Plight of Arizona Prisons

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

"The humanity of a society can be judged by the treatment of its prisoners."  Winston S. Churchill

I wrote a couple of pieces for this blog in May and June of 2009 that dealt with prisons.  The first article was about a new prison that a community in Montana self-funded in an effort to bring an economic boost to their small town.  The folks in Hardin, Montana, followed the "Field of Dreams" philosophy that "if you build it, they will come."  Unfortunately, the state decided that it didn't need a prison in Hardin, and the brand new, ultra-expensive structure was sitting empty while some shysters from Texas were partying-down on the profits that they made from promoting that boondoggle.

At some point in that article I noted that Arizona had prisons owned by private corporations, and those seemed to be working well.  Several readers immediately took me to task and explained in lurid detail that Arizona's private prisons are cesspools of abuse against convicts as well as against staff.  I have since learned that the lobbyists for their private prisons slather their money all over Arizona legislators.  It must be a highly lucrative business.

In a follow-up post I wrote about Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old woman who was serving time for prostitution, a victimless crime, at the prison in Perryville, Arizona.  She was left outside in a holding cage and essentially forgotten for four hours when the temperature was over 100 degrees.  There was no shade and no water.  She was dead by the end of the day.

I also used that post to write about Officer Brent Lumley who had been overpowered and killed by inmates at that same prison a dozen years before.  In memory of Officer Lumley, some of his co-workers started an underground newsletter called The Lumley Vampire that provided the inside scoop on  what was going on in Arizona prisons as well as those nationwide.  It was called the Vampire because it was printed in secret, late at night, and then placed on employee car windshields.  The prison officials were able to quash the printed version, so then it was taken to the Internet where it eventually reached a much wider audience.

The reason that I am taking this walk down memory lane today is that I have just received a response to the old post on The Lumley Vampire.  It was actually the fifth response that I have received in the two-and-a-half years that the article has been up on the Internet.  This response is from a reader who chose to remain anonymous.  She states that she is a former resident of the prison at Perryville.  Her remarks follow:

"I was incarcerated in the Perryville Women's Prison on the Santa Cruz Unit for two-and-a-half years.  Because of overcrowding, they put beds in laundry rooms, classrooms, side rooms, and two condemned kitchens!  I was one of many minimum custody inmates who were housed with high-mediums (murders, rapists, child molesters) because they had nowhere else to put them. 

In Arizona the summers reach 115-118 plus degrees and the only source of cooling is swamp coolers.  During the summer monsoons, the power goes out and we are locked in our rooms with no air and no windows, for hours!  My whole pod (48 of us) did not have working toilets so we had to use an outhouse - after we finally banged on the doors loud enough for the CO's (correctional officers) to pay attention and unlock our doors. 

My first Bunky was four months pregnant with twins and she started to cramp.  Finally they took her to the hospital where she lost one.  Six hours later she was back in our room.  The same night she started cramping again and was told to lay down (because) it "was normal."   She started to bleed and after three hours of banging for help, they came in just as she caught her second baby in the toilet.  All that I could do was wrap her up in a towel and hold onto her until medical took my screaming / sobbing Bunky and her still-born daughter out of our room.  She was back by morning.   

I'm home now, but those two-and-a-half years will take a lifetime of therapy to make the nightmares go away.  I wish that I could be a voice for the ones who will never leave there."

There are those who would scoff at this woman's remarks about life in hell, saying that she must have committed a crime and thus got what she deserved.  I wonder, though, if inflicting experiences that will require a "lifetime in therapy to make the nightmares go away" does anything to strengthen us as a society.   Does swift and ugly retribution make us better, or is it a way of pleasuring ourselves by kicking the shit out of someone while they are down?

Somehow that just doesn't feel like something Jesus would do.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Annual Holiday Party

by Pa Rock
Party Boy

Last year my friends Kelly and Nefredia and I went to Murphy's apartment for a Christmas gathering where we ate soup and pie - and played cards.  It was on Christmas Day and into that evening, and the weather was starting to turn cold - well, cold for Okinawa.

This year we held the party a week early because Murphy and I are going to be on a plane headed to Vietnam on Christmas Day.  Nefredia was the hostess.  Kelly couldn't make it, but Valerie was there.  The party also included two of our co-workers, Steven and Ron, and their better halves, Stacey and Carolyn.   Merriment was the order of the day.

The food was plentiful and very good.  Valerie brought groceries to my apartment and cooked here before we left.  She created a couple of pasta dishes and a pair of meat sides.  Murphy, who rode to Nefredia's with us, provided fruit salad and some dip that he made himself.  My contributions were all store-bought:  pecan pie, egg nog, and cashews.  Ron and Carolyn brought a big salad, and Steven and Stacey showed up with bread and wine.

It was such a nice night.

We have decided to do a movie night in January, and I will be the host for that.   We will be premiering a great new feature-length film months before it is available to the general public.  The menu for that affair will be popcorn and soft drinks.  More than that I cannot say!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Feds Finally Thump Arpaio

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist 

I awoke to great news on the radio this morning.  The US Department of Justice, after a painfully slow three-year investigation, has finally come down with a list of findings against the most narcissistic and shameless cop in America, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.  In a detailed list of abuses, the DOJ hammered Arpaio on his department's pervasive practice of racial profiling, routine mistreatment of minority (Latino) inmates, and knee-jerk retaliation against those Arpaio sees as opponents to his onerous law enforcement practices.

Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, herself a victim of Arpaio's political revenge, viewed the release of the DOJ report as a God-given Christmas miracle.  She said, "Let this be the start of the end of Joe Arpaio and his reign of terror."

Some of the findings in the report were:

  • Latino drivers are four-to-nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.
  • A fifth of all the immigration-sweep traffic stops violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures.
  • Arpaio's anti-immigration squads responded repeatedly with enforcement patrols to complaints about people with "dark skin" or Spanish speakers.
  • Jail guards punished Spanish-speaking inmates for failing to understand their commands in English, sometimes putting them into solitary confinement for that reason.
  • Jail guards refused to accept grievance forms and "tank orders' which allow inmates to request basic daily services, that were written in Spanish.
  • Guards pressured Latino inmates to sign voluntary deportation forms.
  • Arpaio's office responded to critics by subjecting them to "retaliatory detentions and arrests without cause, unfounded civil lawsuits, and other baseless complaints."
After the report was released today, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that it was taking its 287(g) cross-training program out of the county's jails - and prisoners held on immigration charges were also being removed to other facilities.  DHS is headed by former Arizona governor and long-time Arpaio foe Janet Napolitano.  Arpaio will no longer be able to strut his stuff as a junior G-Man.

Joe Arpaio, in his best bulldog manner, held a news conference today and declared the whole thing a "witch hunt," and said it was orchestrated by President Obama who is picking on him for the benefit of Obama's upcoming presidential campaign.  That, of course, is a baseless charge, but one that is almost amusing considering that Joe is always in campaign mode and has a habit of leaking his department's upcoming raids and theatrics to friendly members of the press.

Mary Rose Wilcox is right.  It's time for the Arpaio reign of terror to come to an end.  Old Joe needs to go - now more than ever!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shiva is Ten!

by Pa Rock

I received an email this morning from Millie Crossland, a good friend whom I see way too seldom.  Millie wrote to let me know that her dog, a beautiful Great Pyrenees named Shiva, turned ten-years-old today.  She was also thanking me for giving her Shiva a decade ago.

Shiva was born on my little farm down in the Ozarks, a place that I lovingly call Rock's Roost.  The "farm" is actually less than four acres of pine trees and brambles scattered along a rocky hillside.  It has a small farmhouse that is barely big enough for one person, and a few out-buildings.  It was my happy home for several years, but today sits sadly vacant.  However, to quote an old fascist, it is a place where "I shall return" someday.

Back when I was living at Rock's Roost, I maintained a small petting zoo that was home to several small goats, some guineas and chickens, a couple of pot-bellied pigs, three emus, and even a fighting ostrich for a time.  The most important residents of the farm were Paladin and Paloma, a pair of beautiful Great Pyrenees dogs who oversaw the place and kept varmints at bay.

Shiva was born to Paladin and Paloma on the dirt floor of the barn.  I came home for lunch that day and knew that Paloma was in labor - with a couple of pups already snuggling up next to their mother.  That evening it was dark by the time I got home, so I took a flashlight out to the barn to check on Paloma and see how she was doing.  (It was not her first litter, and I knew that she could handle the situation.)

Great Pyrenees are big white dogs that are bred for watching sheep and goats.   It is not unusual for them to have large litters.  Their puppies are white with tan patches that fade to white as they get older.  When I went into the barn I was greeted by the sight of a fatigued Paloma nursing a pile of little white puppies - but in the center of the pile was one that was coal black.

It took a few minutes to get my bearings and figure out exactly what was happening, but soon my light drifted over a few feet on the ground where I spotted Mama Pot-Bellied Pig who had just given birth to a pile of black piglets.  One of the brood  had wiggled around on the floor and wound up in the wrong pile!  (I had not even realized that the old sow was in a motherly way.)

Shiva was the runt of Paloma's litter, and I knew when I saw her that she and Millie would be perfect for each other...and they have been!  I wish them a many more years of enduring friendship as they enjoy life together and take care of each other.

Happy birthday, Shiva!

Me and My Big Mouth!

by Pa Rock

Yesterday I used this space to praise the folks at Armed Forces Network because they had the good sense to replace some of their more angry radio talkshow hosts (Limbaugh, Hannity, and Colmes) with Christmas carols.  It was such a pleasant change of pace.  Unfortunately, as I learned today, it was also painfully temporary.

While I didn't get to tune in during the Hannity or Colmes time slots this afternoon, and don't know what was playing at those times, I did crank up the radio on my way home expecting some more seasonal merriment - but the Grinch had been at work and Rushbag was back on the air spewing fecal matter and hate at warp speed.  It was such a disappointment.  Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, AFN decided to replace the National Public Radio morning programing with seasonal songs today - so I did get my fix, but a such a cost!  That's what I get for bragging yesterday!

The weather is misty and chilly, and the days are too short so I am driving to work and home in the dark, and somebody needs to send me some holiday cheer!

(And to my old friend in Kansas, I am going to take your advice and increase my listening options.  That will make me infinitely more merry!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas!

by Pa Rock
American Abroad

It never snows on Okinawa, and a cold day here will be in the fifties, so it's hard to really get the sense that the holidays are upon us.  People buy trees and decorate their houses - but the military wants those Christmas lights off by 10 p.m.  It's just not the same experience that our friends and families are having back home.

But something nice has happened the last two days.

We only have two American radio stations on the island, and both are run by the Armed Forces Network.  The FM station has a playlist of about a dozen pop songs that they play over and over - with an occasional country tune thrown in for the older crowd.  The AM station is primarily talk, with shows ranging from NPR's Morning Edition to more odious offerings like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Alan Colmes.  Hannity is usually on during lunch, and Limbaugh spews his stuff during the drive home.  That is the only station that I can get in my car, so my radio is normally off during lunch and when I am headed home.

Starting yesterday, however, something wonderful has happened.  Both Hannity and Limbaugh have been replaced by Christmas carols.  It is such a terrific experience to be able to actually enjoy the trip home in the evenings.  I find myself singing along, much to the amusement of the Japanese drivers in the neighboring lanes!

I wish the holidays would last forever!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sheriff Joe Needs to Go

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona - which includes the city of Phoenix, is an intentionally controversial and combative character who thrives on hogging the public spotlight.  Old Joe is known for such outrages as bragging about feeding his prisoners green bologna, making them wear pink underwear, and limiting their television to a couple of channels that no one wants to watch.  He is a real tough guy and wants everyone to know that it doesn't pay to mess with Joe.

Arpaio is also known for other scurrilous stunts including his immigrant sweeps which tie up vast amounts of sheriff's department personnel and equipment - as well as local commerce and traffic- for hours on end, but seldom result in more than a handful of arrests, conducting political vendettas against those who dare to oppose him, setting up or condoning situations where people wind up dying in his jails, and costing the county millions of dollars in lawsuits when the courts ultimately do the right thing and hold his office responsible for the false arrests and injuries - or deaths - sustained in his jails.

But the people in and around Phoenix like their tough cop and revel in all of the glory that his theatrics bring to the Scorpion State.  He is currently in his fifth term as sheriff, and plans to run for a sixth in 2012 - at a time when he will be eighty-years-old.

The worm, however, may finally be ready to turn.  There has been a recent story in the national news about how Joe's office failed to investigate hundreds of sex-crime cases, many involving children, between 2005 and 2007.   Around 400 cases were either not investigated at all, or only given a cursory examination.  That was reported locally in 2008, but the people who live in Maricopa County are subjected to an almost daily barrage of bombastic Joe stories and are basically inoculated against his blatant abuses of power and dereliction of duty.

Now the story about the neglected sex crimes cases has re-emerged, this time on a national level, and more people than ever are beginning to focus in on the state of law enforcement in Maricopa County, Arizona.  Recently I received an email invitation asking me to sign an on-line petition requesting that Sheriff Joe resign, and my decision to add my name took all of about two nano-seconds.  I proudly cast my vote at the ballot box against Joe Arpaio in 2008, and have never regretted that decision.  It was the right thing to do.

Now Old Joe should do the right thing.  With the scandals that Joe has brought to Arizona, his wanton disregard for the rights of certain classes of individuals, and the outrageous amounts of money that he has lavished on his department as well as the millions of dollars paid out in lawsuits as a result of his department's actions, Joe really should do the honorable thing and resign.

I am not, however, holding my breath expecting a miracle like that to happen.  That is why I added my name to the petition, and why I will once again vote against Joe Arpaio in 2012.  Sheriff Joe needs to go.

You may view and sign the on-line petition that is seeking Joe's resignation here:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday's Poetry: "That Spotted Sow"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

It's been awhile since this space was used to highlight any cowboy poetry, a favorite genre of mine.  I came across "That Spotted Sow" by Carlos Ashley recently and instantly knew that it was something that I would like to share.  As someone who once ran a small farm (petting zoo, actually), I occasionally came into contact with the odd animal that felt he controlled me, and not the other way around.  (A particularly bossy goose comes to mind!)  The old sow in the poem that follows has a big streak of independence and will not be tamed.  She is the type of character who is easy to "root" for!

That Spotted Sow
or The Ballad of Cedar Mountain

by Carlos Ashley
Did you ever hear the story
   Of that famous hog of mine?
She’s a razorback and spotted
   Black and white from hoof to spine;

With a snout made outa granite,
   She can root just like a plow;
And the fence ain’t been invented
   That can turn that spotted sow.

Born and bred on Cedar Mountain
   She is wilder than a deer;
And she’s known by reputation
   To the ranch hands far and near.

Though a sow of mine had raised ‘er,
   On that mountain she was free;
And I always kinda doubted
   That she really b’longed to me.

She didn’t claim no owner—
   Save the God who put ‘er there—
And for mortal man’s relations
   She just simply didn’t care.

She preferred the solemn silence
   Of her Cedar Mountain home,
And most of all she wanted us
   To let ‘er plum alone.

Ever Fall I’d try to mark ‘er
   But she’d get away agin;
And I reckon that my cussin,
   Though artistic, was a sin.

Well, I sold my brand in ’30—
   Moved out ever hog and cow;
Rounded-up…yea…all but one head,
   All but that blamed spotted sow.

So we organized against ‘er—
   Got the best of dogs and men;
But we never got good started
   Puttin that hog in a pen.

Now we really went a-huntin
   When we tried to catch Ole Spot;
We left the ranch at daylight
   And her trail was always hot.

She might be pickin acorns
   On the banks of Sandy Creek.
Or in somebody’s turnips
   Cultivatin, so to speak.

But let the foot of dog or man
   Disturb the morning dew.
And you might as well a phoned ‘er,
   Cause somehow she always knew.

She’d light out for Cedar Mountain
   Where the land and sky divide—
There ain’t no spot on earth nowhere
   A better place to hide.

We’d hear the pack a-bayin
   Up the mountain loud and clear.
But before we rode up to ‘em
   That ole sow would disappear

Or she’d rally ‘gainst a boulder,
   Bristlin like a porcupine,
Till a dog forgot his caution—
   Then she’d cut him into twine.

Killin dogs was just a pastime
   To that hog; I’m tellin you
With them long, curved, knife-like tushes
   She could slice a houn in two.

She could whip most any critter
   On four legs I ever saw,
And she had a perfect record
   'Cause she never fought a draw.

Now the more I tried to catch her,
   And the more I give it thought,
I begin to get the notion
   She’s opposed to bein’ caught.

I couldn’t help admire that sow,
   When all was done and said;
For, to tell the truth about ‘er,
   She was really thoroughbred.

She had character and courage
   And the heart to do the right;
And when it come to fightin
   Now she shore as hell could fight.

Well, the Fall froze into Winter,
   And the Winter thawed to Spring.
April watered hill and valley;
   Maytime painted ever’thing.

Late one evenin just at sundown
   I was ridin home right slow,
When I passed a lonesome waterhole
   And saw… was a show.

Ole Spot was trailin down the hill
   And right behind her trotted
Ten baby pigs not ten days old,
   And ever one was spotted.

I stopped and stared; she studied me;
   My eyes filled like a fountain;
And there I gave ole Spot a deed—
   A deed to Cedar Mountain.

Now I was taught that folks who try,
   You oughta help and praise em;
So, “Boys,” I sez, “Ole Spot's got pigs,
   And, damn sure gonna raise ‘em."

She’s still on Cedar Mountain
   Though I seldom see ‘er now;
You can bet that’s one dominion
   Where the Queen’s a spotted sow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The High Cost of Dissent

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Bryan Gonzalez was a Border Patrol agent in Deming, New Mexico, who lost his job over some remarks that he made in private to a co-worker.  Mr. Gonzalez expressed his opinion to the co-worker that if marijuana was legalized, drug-related violence across the border in Mexico would cease.

That is a view held by many citizens of the United States, and probably many Mexicans as well.  But it is not a view that is held in high regard by members and the leadership of the United States Border Patrol.  Why, in the weird event that Mr. Gonzalez proved to be right and drug violence began to come down, whatever would become of the Border Patrol.

What would become of job security?

Mr. Gonzalez probably drove the decisive nail in his employment coffin when he went on to tell his co-worker about an organization of current and former law enforcement officials that is fighting to decriminalize marijuana.  That group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), has seen its membership numbers explode over the past few years.  It now has an email list of over 48,000, including members (past and present) of law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, and even prison guards - all people in positions to clearly appreciate and understand the massive impact that the flood of marijuana "criminals" has on the nation's police systems, courts, jails, and society in general.

So what became of Bryan Gonzalez?  After his "friend" passed his comments up the food chain, a letter landed on his desk telling him that he was terminated for his "personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication, and espirit de corps."

A man who loves his country enough to risk his job by stating an idea that he believed would reduce warfare along the border and undoubtedly save millions of dollars in the process is unpatriotic?  Clearly something is wrong with that characterization.  Mr. Gonzalez is currently in court fighting a flawed system.

Joe Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County, Arizona, has filed a suit in Federal District Court, after he was fired for signing a letter from the aforementioned LEAP.  His employer also attempted to keep him from drawing his unemployment, but that mean-spirited effort failed.

A third law enforcement official, Jonathan Wender, was fired as a police sergeant in a small town in Washington, due in part to his support of the decriminalization of marijuana.  He went to court and was awarded $815,000 and given his old job back.  He has since retired and now teaches a course at the University of Washington entitled "Drugs and Society."

It's not easy to fight the system, as anyone who ever protested a dismissal or had to fight to receive unemployment benefits will readily attest to,  but things are slow to change in a bureaucratic organization without someone occasionally stepping forward and putting his or her neck on the line.   What seems extreme today, will often be seen as common sense tomorrow.

Reason pulls us ever onward, though sometimes the pace is painfully slow.

(Parts of this piece were taken from an article by Marc Lacey titled "Police Officers Find that Dissent on Drug Laws May come with a Price."  It was published in the New York Times on 2 Dec 2011.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Notebook

by Pa Rock
Movie Aficionado

The Notebook, a 2004 movie that was based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, is proof that Hollywood does not have to destroy a good story in order to adapt it to the screen.  And it also serves to remind me that there are hundreds of really good movies out there of which I am sorely unfamiliar.

This is a sweet and simple story.  An old man (James Garner) shows up at the rest home every morning to read to one of the residents, a lovely older woman (Gena Rowlands) who is suffering from dementia.  Each morning he has to be introduced the the lady, Allie, because during the night she has forgotten him.  The old man is known as Duke, and the handwritten story that he reads from an old notebook is the tale of a young man and woman falling in love.  He reads the story to her over and over, day after day.

It becomes fairly obvious early on that Duke and Allie are in fact the young couple in the notebook.  Duke doesn't just show up at the rest home each day, he is actually living there to be near his wife, the woman he has adored for decades - and the woman who has now forgotten him.

Much of the film is focused on the couple as they were just meeting and falling in love - the story in the notebook.   Ryan Gosling plays Noah (as Duke was called in his youth), and Rachel McAdams is the young Allie.  They meet, Noah charms Allie with his outlandish behavior, they fall in love, her wealthy parents intervene and pull them apart, World War II happens, Allie falls in love with someone else, and then the fates kick in.

Yes, the story is comfortable and maybe a little too predictable at times, but it is also very, very good.   It is a tale of ordinary life played out on a canvas of extraordinary love.  It will leave you in a good place.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Holiday Greetings from Japan!

by Pa Rock
Globe Trotter

This morning I sat down to create a newsletter to place in the few holiday cards that I send out - and since not that many people get an actual card from me during the holiday season, and since it is cold and rainy today on Okinawa and my creative spark has come, fizzled, and gone out - I am choosing to memorialize the holiday message in the Ramble as my daily offering.

Holiday Greetings from Japan

As hard as it is to imagine, another year is on the verge of slipping away.  2011 has been an eventful and satisfying time in my life.  The most important happenings this year have been the births of my granddaughters, Olive Noel Macy on October 12th in Overland Park, Kansas, and Willow Midnight Seraphina Files on November 30th in Stayton, Oregon.   Olive and Willow are both bright-eyed and healthy – really sweet additions to our family!

My friend, Valerie, arrived on island to work at Kadena in January.  She stayed at my apartment for a month or so while getting settled and finding a place of her own.   In February I made my second trip to Seoul, Korea – this time for training, but I was able to get out and explore Seoul some more.  It is unbelievably huge and modern.

March brought us the earthquake and tsunami that rocked northern Japan.  Although we did not get any physical repercussions down in Okinawa, that event stirred environmental and political issues that impact us to the present.  Tim and Erin were supposed to come for a visit in April – and also go to Tokyo, but they postponed their trip due to the radiation alerts in the Tokyo area.

Three friends and I spent Memorial Day weekend on Yoron, a small Japanese island that is about 10 miles beyond the northernmost point of Okinawa.  We stayed in a nice hotel and did a lot of exploring and bike-riding, and also weathered a powerful typhoon while we were there.  In September another group and I went to Tokashima, a small island in the Kerama’s that is close to Okinawa, for the Labor Day weekend.  That was also fun, and we didn’t have a typhoon to deal with.

Later in September I made my first trip back to the States since arriving on Okinawa in July of 2010.  I was there three weeks, got to see all of my kids and grandkids as well as my sister, Gail, and all of her kids and grandkids – and a few old friends, to boot!   One of the highlights was being able to be at the hospital when little Olive was born.

A couple of friends and I went to Guam for Thanksgiving week.  It is a small island also, about half the size of Okinawa, and we were able to see most of it in four days.  Christmas Day a friend and I will be leaving for a week in Vietnam, and we will return on New Years’ Day.  We will travel from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Da Nang, and on up to Hanoi.  It should be very interesting.

So 2011 has been a year of travels and babies!  I have made it my mission while out here in the Pacific to have a good time and try to see as much as possible, and I think that I am being fairly successful in that effort.  I should be moving back to the States (probably Phoenix) this July and will hopefully see all of you in the weeks and months that follow.

You can see pictures of my travels on the Internet at:
My best to each of you for a joyous and happy 2012!

Messing with the One Percent

by Pa Rock
Registered Voter

Sitting out here on the world's elbow makes it difficult for me to be very active in the political and socio-economic movements that are occurring at home.  I  mean, I guess that I could go sit in a park, but the Japanese police would eventually show up and make me leave - and any message that I might be promoting would get lost in translation.

Today, however, I got an email from my election authority in Missouri that gives me a good opportunity to share my concern through the ballot box.  Missouri is holding a presidential preference primary in February, and my local county clerk wrote to ask which party's ballot I would like to have sent to me.

The Democratic Party ballot had four names as well as an "uncommitted" slot.  The candidates in order of appearance on the ballot were Barack Obama, Randall Terry, Darcy G. Richardson, and John Wolfe.   Terry, of course, is a long-time anti-choice advocate who is "running" as a Democrat just to give any rigid fundamentalist Democrats who refuse to vote Republican a place to cast their vote.  I have never heard of the other two candidates.

The Republican Party ballot has ten names as well as the "uncommitted" slot.    Those candidates are, in order of appearance on the ballot:  Gary Johnson (former governor of New Mexico who has been excluded from most, if not all, of the Republican debates), Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Michael J. Meehan, Rick Perry, Keith Drummond, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul.

Oddly, Newt Gingrich is not on the ballot - making it look as though the Newster may have some organizational deficiencies.

Having no doubt whatsoever that Barack Obama will sail to an easy victory in the Missouri Democratic Presidential Primary and will go on to become the national nominee, I have decided to use my vote to give a boost to one of the Republican candidates because I know they will appreciate my meddling participation in their primary.

But now the question becomes which weasel to support.  Should I act honorably and try to help one of their better angels - Johnson or Huntsman - or should I be a problem voter and support somebody completely unelectable like Cain, Santorum, or Bachmann?   I could also vote for Ron Paul whose numbers are always just high enough to give the leaders heartburn, but continually falls short of victory.   It is really a difficult decision.

What do you think?  All advice appreciated!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The New Massachusetts Witch Hunt

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

I guess if you were of a mind to conduct a witch hunt, the state of Massachusetts would be a good setting.  It is, after all, where sanctimonious Christians went on a rampage four centuries ago and burned a couple of dozen housewives at the stake as the result of some malicious ramblings by a few adolescent girls.

Over the past few days there has been another witch hunt occurring in the Bay State, this one involving an annoying television reporter who is hellbent on getting a high school teacher fired over his past involvement in a few porn movies.   Reporter Mike Beaudet of Fox Boston received a tip that the Chairman of the English Department and crew coach at Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts, had once acted in some gay porn movies.   The teacher, Kevin Hogan, is by all reports well respected by his students who regard him as a good teacher.

Beaudet, in a typical Fox ambush move, had some still shots made from one of the movies and then tried to confront Hogan on camera.  He then began interviewing members of the community to find out what they thought of this teacher's past vocation.

But that wasn't enough for the dogged reporter, he also went on Twitter and contacted a female student of Hogan's.  "Would love to know what you and other students think of him."   The student responded, "I think you blew this story way out of proportion and single handedly destroyed a man's life."  Another student of Hogan's chimed in:  "Hogan is the best thing that has happened to my crew team.  Students now have more respect for him due to what you did  #thanks"  And this from another student:  "My English teacher is a gay pornstar  #nbd"  (no big deal).

And my personal favorite student response to Beaudet:  "Reporters are so fucking annoying."  Are you listening, Mike?  That student was speaking directly to you.  Surely in a city the size of Boston you could find some real news to report.

There is now a page on Facebook dedicated to keeping Kevin Hogan employed and firing Mike Beaudet.   It has only been up a few days and has already been accessed over 25,000 times.  The site is:

Sadly, even though the kids are supporting their teacher, many parents are not.  Forgiveness is a hard concept for Christians.  It is much easier to pass the matches and chant "Burn witch, burn."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Eat More Kale!

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Bo Muller-Moore is a folk artist in Vermont who hand-screens tee-shirts as part of his strategy to eek-out a living. One of his better sellers is a collection of shirts that declares this healthy sentiment:  "Eat More Kale."  Nobody, one could suppose, would take offense at a positive message like that.

Nobody, that is, except the folks at Chick-fil-A who seem to think that it is usurping their message of "Eat mor chikin."   The gigantic corporation told the Vermont working man in a recent cease-and-desist letter that his tee-shirt slogan "is likely to cause confusion of the public and dilute the distinctiveness of Chick-fil-A's intellectual property."  (Can it get any more intellectual than "Eat mor chikin?")

So once again in America we see the ugly reality of one of these obscenely big corporate "people" running around trying to stomp a little guy into the ground.  This is a perfect example of why Americans have taken to the nation's streets and parks in an angry rebuke over the disparity of wealth.

Chick-fil-A, if you remember has been in the news before for its support of anti-gay activities.   Searching the terms "Chick-fil-A" and "homophobia" in a reputable search engine will produce thousands of hits.  In fact, Chick-fil-A's financial support of many Christian fundamentalist organizations and activities has led some wags to refer to their main product, a delicious chicken sandwich, as "Jesus Chicken."  To underscore the devout faith of management, all of their stores close on Sundays so that their employees can go to church and spend time with their families.

I love the sandwiches at Chick-fil-A, even if their corporate attitude and policies make them hard to stomach.  But if company sees fit to maintain its air of intolerance, I may just have to pass on the "chikin" and begin eating more kale.  God knows it would be better for me!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Monday's Poetry: "Georgia Dusk"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

I have recently begun reading the Library of America two-volume collection entitled Harlem Renaissance.  The first volume consists of five novels of the 1920's, and the first of those novels is Cane by Jean Toomer.  It is built around short stories, character sketches, and poetry from his experience as an educator transplanted from Washington, DC into rural Georgia just after World War I.  Toomer was the son of a former slave and the grandson of a governor of Louisiana.  He was an astute observer of the poverty and class struggle that was prevalent in America during the years that he was writing.

This piece, as with  most of the material in Cane, is very descriptive of rural Georgia in the 1920's as seen through the eyes of a black man.

Georgia Dusk
by Jean Toomer

The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, to indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night's barbecue,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.
Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.
Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp
Their voices rise...the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain...
Their voices rise...the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars. 
O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.