July 7, 2007

Saudi Summer, Part II

The Geo Storm pulled out of the parking lot, and my girlfriend from Minnesota was on her way back to her base in Idaho.

On the other hand, I had a few days of leave remaining to kick back, relax, and just chill. The following weekend my parents were driving out from New Jersey, on their way to a family vacation in Grand Canyon. It had been over a year since I had last seen my parents, and my then ten and seven-year-old little brothers probably forgot that they even had an older brother in the Air Force. I guess every American middle-class family does the ol’ "Drive-Across-County with the Kids" vacation, and in ’97 it was my parents turn.

The following evening (a Friday), I called-up Rich-Dogg to see what he was up to. Rich-Dogg was "The Man." He worked in the adjacent shop and since I was incompetent at my designated Air Force job – and as such, essentially worthless to my assigned unit – I began to spend more time working with Rich-Dogg’s crew, doing odd jobs around the flight line and whatnot. (Basically I was killing time, until my enlistment ran out.)

Rich-Dogg was an Air Force "lifer," in his late-30s with a wife and two kids. I never actually got to meet his family, and he preferred not to talk about them. The life of an enlisted man isn’t exactly compatible with a normal family. He already had ten years of service in, and with another ten years, he'd be eligible for his pension. Like me, he was merely killing time.
We lived for the weekend. On weekends we’d hang out and drink. We’d go to bars off-base and drink. We’d go to the NCO club and drink. We’d watch pro wrestling on Monday nights and drink. We’d drive to Kansas City to see a Royals game and drink. I’m sure you’re getting the idea. (Among Air Force enlisted men, overindulgence in alcohol is considered acceptable behavior. I would even call it a hobby of sorts.) My dorm room became our mutual sanctuary. Many times, Rich-Dogg would crash at my place, rather then go to his government issued on-base home and face the woman he called "the battle axe."

Rich-Dogg hailed from North Carolina -- just outside Elizabeth City, if I recall correctly -- and when I lived there (about five years ago) I always meant to look him up. I never got around to it though. Last I heard he was in Honduras. That seems to be the story of my life when it comes to friendships and why I have such a difficult time retaining them long-term.

Late May 1997

Before I continue, let me hit the rewind button to tell you this story. The weekend before my girlfriend from Minnesota’s visit was the opening weekend of the College World Series. The "CWS" is kind of a big deal in Omaha, so me, Rich-Dogg, and a few other mutual friends/drinking buddies decided to check it out.

The College World Series is Decadent and Depraved

You know what I said about not taking your girlfriend to a sporting event? Well, there is an exception to every rule, and the CWS is one of them. The CWS is one of those events that transcend mere sport. Kind of like the Super Bowl, just not on the scale of "The Super Bowl." When my me and my dad went to Super Bowl, there were noticeably more females in Jacksonville then you’d see at your typical Eagles home game. And they weren’t all that hard to find either in those annoying pink Eagles jerseys. (Memo to all female Eagles fans: If you want guys to take you somewhat seriously as a football fan; then never, ever be caught dead in a pink Eagles jersey.) It’s pretty much the same thing in Omaha for the CWS. Oh sure, there are baseball games. But the real action takes place in the parking lot.

The College World Series is nothing but a ten-day long kegger, and, oh yeah, there just happens to be a few baseball games. It all begins when the first convoys of RVs arrive on the Wednesday and Thursday before the tournament begins. Since most of the dominant college baseball teams hail from the Deep South and California, it takes a few days for them to make the drive out to Nebraska. But when the RVs arrive at the Rosenblatt Stadium parking lot, the area becomes transformed.

The surrounding neighborhood only adds to the atmosphere. Rosenblatt Stadium is located in a working class area of southern Omaha the locals call "The South-O." (For the record, the band 311 is from this part of town.) Plenty of Czechs, Poles, Irish, Germans, Italians, and (in recent years) Mexicans abound. Think of it as the Omaha version of Northeast Philly. During the CWS, South-O reminds me a lot of Fenway Park before a Red Sox game. But South-O is just not a dense as The Fens, and there’s a heck of a lot more parking. About the only negative is that the Omaha Zoo is located right next door. Normally, this is not a problem, since the prevailing winds are out of the west. But when (not if) the wind changes direction, it smells like, well, the ballpark smells like a zoo!

One of the schools that made it to the College World Series in 1997 was LSU and a guy in Rich-Dogg’s unit – Cajun Joe – grew up just outside of Baton Rouge. Everyone in his family all went to LSU, and after his hitch in the Air Force was up, he’d be joining them. They were all big time LSU fans (then again, what LSU grad isn’t), and with the Tigers being the defending CWS champions, Joe’s family packed up the RV and drove up to Omaha.

I had a bit of a rooting interest with the Tigers as well. There was this guy who went to Audubon High School that I played against named Brett Laxton. He was, arguably, South Jersey’s best high school baseball prospect, and was selected in the 4th round of the ’92 baseball draft by San Diego. The Padres offered him a six-digit check to turn pro, but he turned them down to go to LSU on a baseball scholarship.

In the 1993 College World Series championship game, Laxton (a true freshman) pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout, striking out 16 Wichita State Shockers in the process. (Got to love a school that has the nickname "The Shockers.") Yes my friends, Brett Laxton could BRING IT! Then midway through his sophomore season, he blew out his arm and was never quite the same again. He eventually made it to the Majors with Oakland and Kansas City, but was out of the big leagues by 2001. I distinctly remember him pitching for the Camden Riversharks for a while, and when I Googled his name, I found out that he’s still pitching professionally in Taiwan.

The Six-Man Beer Bong and my Induction into "The Century Club."

The Series began on a Saturday afternoon, and LSU’s first game wasn’t until that evening, so when we arrived, Cajun Joe, Rich-Dogg, and myself made a bee-line for Cajun Joe’s RV.
Let me tell you something, college baseball fans have made tailgating into a science. It was hard NOT to find acts of public drunkenness and full-frontal (female) nudity. It was almost like I was transported back to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras! Technically, all this debauchery was against Omaha city ordinances, but the cops – what few of them I saw on patrol – could care less.

On the way to Joe’s RV we ran into a group of Mississippi State fans that had the most amazing, and ingenuous, piece of tailgating equipment I’ve ever seen. A six-man beer bong! Picture this: Take a run-of-the-mill Rubbermaid wash pail, similar to what you’d find in the household cleaner aisle of the supermarket. Now take said pail, drill six holes in the sides and super glue six flexible tubes into the holes. Now, tie a rope to the pail’s handle and attach it to a pulley that’s on top of a small "flagpole." Presto! You have yourself a six-man beer bong. A triumph of Redneck engineering if there ever was one.

After viewing six MSU Bulldog fans take a mutual hit off the big beer bong, we finally made it to Cajun Joe’s RV. Before he could introduce me to his friends and family, a big mountain of a man throws us all cans of Natural Light. The next thing I know, this mountain of a man comes up to me and Rich-Dogg and says in a stereotypical Cajun drawl, "Hey you! Yeah, you two! You in `The Club’?" To which I replied, "Umm, no sir." "Well, guess what? Today’s your lucky day!"
Before I knew it, Rich-Dogg and I were seated across a folding card table. Cajun Joe and "Mountain Man" (who I am later told is Joe’s father), open up four sleeves of Dixie Cups and spread out a couple hundred of them on the table. We were both about to be inducted into The Century Club.

One of the few things I actually learned at Rowan was this drinking game called "Power Hour." The object of the game is to drink a shot glass full of beer every minute for one hour. The Century Club is the same concept, except instead of 60 shots in 60 minutes, you drink 100 shots in 100 minutes – hence the name. Whereas Power Hour is all about getting fucked up, Century Club is a matter of survival and sheer will. If you can accomplish 100 in 100 without throwing up or passing out, congratulations, you’re in The Century Club.

Cajun Joe and his dad then brought out four 24-packs of Natty Light from out of their RV, and began to pour their contents into the Dixie cups. With Cajun Joe manning the stopwatch, we begin.

I have absolutely no recollection of anything that happened after the 70th minute. The next day I’m told that, yes indeed, I made it into The Century Club.

Arena Baseball

The next day, May 31st, was two days before my 23rd birthday. Rich-Dogg’s "present" were a pair of $5 general admission bleacher seats, to see Pat Burrell and the Miami Hurricanes take on UCLA.

As soon as you enter the grounds of Rosenblatt Stadium, you'll immediately know why there so much partying in the parking lots. No beer allowed. Would you believe that those fascists at the NCAA don’t allow alcohol to be sold any ANY NCAA-sanctioned events? Whoever heard of a ball game without beer!

But the lack of adult beverages is not the only difference between college baseball and "real" baseball. PING! The use of aluminum bats make a mockery of the game of baseball, and with the winds blowing out (as it usually does), there’s home runs a plenty. PING! College baseball is to "real" baseball as Arena Football it to NFL. In fact, with all the home runs and artificially inflated ERAs, until they switch back to wood bats, they ought to call it "Arena Baseball."
For the record: LSU would eventually defend their national title. In fact the day of the Championship Game was the evening of the Minnesota banana pudding adventure I described in part one.

The Biggest Surprise of my Life

Mid-June 1997

Now, fast forward back to my girlfriend’s Geo Storm pulling out of the parking lot. I had a whole weekend to do nothing. And since nothing is what I do best, nothing is what I did. Sloth may be one of the seven deadly sins, but dammit, if it ain’t the best!

On Monday morning, leave was over and I reported back to duty. Back to the ol’ 6:00-to-2:00 grind (that’s 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM, for you civilians). At about five-after-six on Monday, my supervisor Airman Troy gave me the bad news.

Airman Troy: "Airman Harris."

Me: "Yessir?"

AT: "Congratulations, you’ve been volunteered."

CH: "Volunteered for what?"

AT: "Well, we got orders to send someone to Saudi Arabia for a 120-day TDY. Guess what?"

CH: "What?"

AT: "We volunteered you! You’re shipping out on Friday."

And with that, my Summer, and my life, took a most unexpected turn.

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June 22, 2007

Saudi Summer, Part I

This is the beginning of a series that commemorates the tenth anniversary of my 120-day deployment to Saudi Arabia. I figure, I'd better write this shit down now, while I still (vaguely) remember it.

Part I: … but I’m Feeling Minnesota.
Early June 1997

I was stationed in Omaha for a little over a year when I decided to take some time off, or in Air Force-speak "take leave." When I was in Biloxi I had struck-up a very serious relationship with this girl in my training unit -- who for the sake of this piece shall remain nameless. Although we went our separate ways (she to Idaho, and myself to Nebraska) we still kept in touch, calling each other every week or so. And although we were seeing other people, somehow, someday, somewhere, we planned on being together again.

After year-and-a-half of maintaining a long-distance relationship, we made plans to each take a couple of days off and get back together. Since I didn't have a car (then, as now, I spent most of my disposable income on baseball cards) she agreed to pick me up in Omaha, then we’d visit her family in northern Minnesota. I still have no idea why she insisted that I meet her parents; I guess she wanted to show off their potential future son-in-law. We had talked about the "M word," but it was exactly that: talk. For some reason, people in the Air Force, especially those stationed in Biloxi, have a tendency to get hitched.

She left Idaho on a Thursday night and sixteen straight hours of driving later, arrived at Offutt A.F.B, in beautiful downtown Bellevue, Nebraska. Sixteen hours of non-stop driving in the era before speed-in-a-can energy drinks (a la Red Bull) was, and still is, a most impressive feat of endurance. I led her up to my dorm room, where she crashed on my bed while I went to work. (We don't have "barracks" in the Air Force; we're too good for that. We have "dormitories.") As soon as I got off-duty, we packed up her tomato red Geo Storm, buckled in, and headed north up Interstate 29.

We -- make that, I -- drove all night. Believe it or not, I was able to receive The Big Talker 1210’s 50,000-Watt blowtorch signal all the way out in Iowa and South Dakota, so I had the voice of Harry Kalas to keep me company for part of the long and lonely drive. (For the record, Pittsburgh -- with their young ace Jon Lieber on the mound -- shelled the Phils 9-2. Don’t ask me how I still know that!) When we got to Grand Forks, I hung a right onto highway 2, and drove east until we got to within striking range of her hometown. I pulled over, woke her up, switched seats, and she drove the Geo the rest of the way.

We pulled into her parent’s driveway at around 6:30 on Saturday morning. Her parents were still asleep and probably weren’t expecting us until later that morning. So we unpacked, and I took a nap on the living room couch.

At around 1:00 PM that afternoon, I came to, and she formally introduced her parents to the stranger on their couch. You know, Minnesotans are a funny bunch, and not just because they all sound like the cast of Fargo. (Although not her. She must have lost the accent back in Mississippi.) They’re just something, I don’t know, "weird" about them. I mean, for God sakes, this is the state that elected a pro wrestler to be their governor! I don’t know if it’s the Nordic heritage, the over-exposure to Garrison Keillor, or the cold weather, but Nebraskans – at least Omahans – are NOT like that. And it’s definitely not something that this Jersey boy was used to.

A Night on the Town, Minnesota Style, Followed By A Surreal Experience.

That evening we did what most young couples do on a Saturday night in small town Middle America, we went out on a date. Dinner and a movie. We drove 30-miles west to Crookston, a small prairie town that just happens to be the location of a University of Minnesota campus. The first Austin Powers movie was playing at the four-plex, so we saw that. And afterwards we dined at that Mecca of All-American cuisine, Pizza Hut. For some strange, peculiar reason, it seems that, wherever you go in the Upper Midwest, even in the most remote corners, you’re no more than 20 miles from a Pizza Hut. I don’t know what it is, but Minnesotans, Nebraskans, Dakotans, Iowans, etc. love their Pizza Hut.

We returned, and with her parents away for the evening – if I recall correctly, they went to the opening of a new Indian casino – we had the run of the house. It was on that evening that I had one of the most bizarre experiences in my life.

We had just done something that Sarah Silverman tactfully calls "The Real Way" (if you’ve seen Jesus Is Magic, you know what I’m talking about) and I was lying, alone, buck-naked in the middle of her four-poster canopy bed. I was staring at her collection of stuffed animals and a poster of that kid from Home Improvement -- Jonathan, what’s his face. The smell of banana pudding and Astro Glide was in the air, and she was in the shower cleaning up. (Astro Glide is a pain-in-the-keister to scrub off.) And then, a revelation came to me.

I had just experienced "that position" for the first time. Somehow, I had convinced her to try it "the other way," without the use of adult beverages – or any other mood altering substances, for that matter – and in her parent’s house no less! You’d think I guy would be proud of such a triumphant conquest? But no. My only thoughts were: Is that all there is? Really, I waited 23 years for that? It was the most surreal experience I had had in my life to that point. Needless to say, from then on, my love live has gone right down the crapper (no pun intended). Chalk it up to bad karma, I guess.

The Day After...

The next morning we awoke around 10:00 and set out for our next adventure: The Twin Cities. Believe it or not, she had lived in Minnesota for much of her life, and had never once been to Minneapolis or St. Paul. She, and by extension I, wanted to see that vaunted monument to American capitalism, the Mall of America, and so we used it as a ruse to get away from her parents – who were really starting to get under my skin.

But first, a side trip. About an hour’s drive east on highway 2, lies the town of Bemidji. While looking at the Rand-McNally map of Minnesota, I noticed a red dot over Bemidji called the "Paul Buynan and Babe Statue." I’m a sucker for roadside tourist traps, so I just had to see it. It’s an 18-foot tall lumberjack, with an accompanying ten-foot tall blue ox. Major disappointment. I thought it would be something along the lines of Lucy the Margate Elephant, so I was not all that impressed.

While we were sidetracked in Bemidji, visiting Paul Buynan and friends, we had the opportunity to do something really, really, cool. We walked across the Mississippi River.

Yes, we both walked across the Mississippi. About thirty miles southwest of Bemidji, off Highway 71, lies the Itasca State Park: source of the Mississippi. If you slide a boat into Lake Itasca, you can float the 2500 miles all the way to New Orleans. (I bring this up because I distinctly remember seeing something on CBS's Sunday Morning a few years ago about a guy who tried to do that.)

Unlike downstream, the river in Upper Minnesota is only ankle-deep, and about fifteen-to-twenty feet across. It's not unlike the Platte River in Nebraska; although, unlike the Platte, the Mississippi eventually gets wider and deeper.

What's cool about Itasca is, you don't even have to step in the River if you don't want to. There are stepping stones across the length of the river, and you can use them if you wish. Or you can just step right in and walk across. Pretty cool, and something you can tell the grandkids.

After another five-hour drive, we arrived in the Twin Cities, checking into a Red Roof Inn just down the highway from the Mall of America. Immediately, we were off to America’s largest shopping mall to do that what the female of our species was evolutionary programmed to do best: shop for clothes.

Fear and Loathing in Bloomington, MN.

Oh sure, she was in her element, but myself? Ehh, I really wasn’t all that impressed with the place. It was only a shopping mall. The Mall of America has the same crap they have at any other mall in America. Granted, it has over 500 stores and an indoor amusement park, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t see at King of Prussia. But the "MOA" does have one thing over "KOP": more Victoria’s Secret stores. Yes, the Mall of America has, not one, but two Victoria’s Secrets. And yes, I know this for a fact first hand. Believe me, there’s nothing I’d rather do then spend a day-and-half at the Mall of America, shopping for underwear with your kinda-sorta girlfriend.

Do get me wrong, underwear shopping with your kinda-sorta girlfriend can be a good experience. But after a while, it just gets boring. Let me try to explain it this way.
There’s this principle in economics called the "Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility," and it goes a little something like this. Everything you consume has a level of utility. (Think of utility as the amount of personal satisfaction you receive.) But the more of that item you consume the lesser amount of utility you receive.

The textbook example they teach in Econ 101 is hamburgers. You eat a hamburger. Hamburgers are good. So you get a high level of utility from eating a hamburger. Then, you eat another hamburger. That second hamburger is good, but you don’t get the same level of utility as that first one. Keep repeating that process, until you get to a point where the sight of another hamburger is physically nauseating, and if you eat it, you’ll throw up. At that point marginal utility has diminished to zero. Get it?

Now let’s apply it to the current scenario. There is a certain level of utility in shopping for lingerie with your on-again-off-again girlfriend. But there are only so many attractive young women in their knickers a guy can look at before the level of marginal utility reaches nil. Granted for some men, this number is pretty high. For me, it’s about three-and-a-half hours. But eventually, after a while, every guy just wants to move on to something else.

She Pops "The Question." No, not that Question.

So get this; while we were at Nordstrom’s she was trying on (another) pair of jeans, when she asked the question every man dreads hearing:

"Chris, do these jeans make my butt look fat?"

This from the mouth of a woman who wore a size 8!

Now, if you’re a guy, and you’re asked "the fat butt question," what exactly are you supposed to say in response? Let’s suppose that, yes, those jeans really give her a badonkadonk butt. You can be honest, and say "Why yes, they do." On the one hand, you’ll have a clear conscience. But the only action you’ll be getting for the next week or so is with your right hand. On the other hand, you can just lie and say, "No." If you choose this option, she can take this one of two ways. 1) She knows you’re lying through your teeth – in which case, you’ll be doing the five-knuckle-shuffle anyway. Or 2) She’s just too stupid to figure out that, yes, indeed, you are in fact lying through your teeth. Or sure, the chances of you getting your freak on will increase. But then you have to suffer the consequence of dating a girl who’s dumber than a box of rocks.

Fortunately for me, she was neither fat, nor stupid, and that particular pair of pants actually looked good on her. If this is case, you’ll be able to have the best of both: tell the truth, and still have a chance of getting it on, later on. So I responded with:

"Why no hun, they don’t make your butt look fat."

Problem resolved.

Because Baseball was not Meant to be Played Indoors.

After two days, we were both Mall of America’d out. Finally, it was time for a little "me-time." One of my life’s goals is to see a game in every Major League Baseball stadium, and in the summer of ‘97 I was able to cross The Metrodome off the list. I scored a pair of tickets to a Twins-Rangers game on a Monday evening.

I’m sorry, but baseball was meant to be played outside, especially in the summertime. I can see the practicality of a dome in April or September, in Minnesota; but not in June. The fact that The Metrodome was two-thirds empty, and the Twins were bad team didn’t help much in the atmosphere department. I vaguely remember the Twins winning, but not much else.

One piece of advice: never, ever, bring your girlfriend to a baseball game. Unless, of course, she’s that rarity: a girl who actually likes – let alone understands – the game of baseball. (In that case, you’ve got yourself a keeper!) Trust me on this one, it’s a no win situation and neither of you will enjoy it. Taking your girlfriend to a baseball game is a lot like, well, a lot like shopping with your girlfriend at America’s largest mall.

A Final Farewell.

All in all, the Twin Cities are nothing more that a super-sized Omaha. There ain’t shit to do there except shop (The Nebraska Furniture Mart is the world’s largest furniture store.), and wait for winter – which in Nebraska begins around Labor Day. So after a few days in the big city, it was time for her to drive me back to Nebraska, and for her to go back to Idaho.

After another six-hour drive, we arrived back at ol’ "Awful Offutt." She was nice enough to help carry my bags back into my dorm room, and when it was time for her to leave, I saw a look in her eyes. It was a look of finality. I sensed it -- and I had the feeling that she did to -- but I just couldn’t muster the courage to actually say that one simple word: "goodbye."

We would continue to call each other, and send each other messages on that new-fangled piece of 1990s technology called "e-mail," but they would not be as frequent as they were before that week in Minnesota. In February 1999 I left the Air Force and moved back to South Jersey. A few months later, she left and moved back in with her parents. Last I heard she’s working at an airport somewhere in North Dakota. I didn’t know it then, but the sight of her Geo Storm pulling out of the parking lot would be the last image of her I’d ever see. But I’ll always have the memories of the Mall of America. That, and the banana pudding.

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