Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Fourth

Happy Fourth of July!

It's been a fairly sedate weekend here at this end of the great Rift Valley.  The weather pattern here has entered the season of the "fifties" - this was described to me as temperatures in the 50's (Centigrade), winds gusting to 50 knots, and all lasting 50 days.  We're on day 5.  The wind is now a constant companion in any outdoor activity, and whistles and moans around the outsides of the buildings  at all hours.  I was grateful to the breeze at 0600 on the 4th when I was on the outbound leg of the Fourth of July 5K.  It was a well attended event - there was some fear that they would run out of T-shirts and they were thus promised only to the first 100 or so finishers.  As it turned out we all got one, but it was a near thing.  The outbound leg was to the east, so the wind was a gentle hand, planted firmly in the small of one's back and there was the sensation of near effortless skimming over the gravel of the running trail.  Just past the mile and a half marker though we turned and now the wind was both an impediment to forward progress - like trying to run through warm molasses - and the bearer of clouds of fine dust and sand.  I thought of drafting behind some other runners, but the only ones I could catch up to were shorter than me!  Rats.  Anyway, made it to the finish behind many and in front of quite a few and most importantly, got the T-shirt.  The picture today is of the crew from medical (the runners anyway) prior to the race.  I'm the guy in the white shirt.   All I can say is that from inside them my legs don't feel that skinny.

One of the larger contingents on the course was made up of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force folks, in their bright yellow PT shirts with the rising sun emblem on the breast, and JMSDF on the back.   I'm trying to figure out how to trade a US NAVY PT shirt for a Japanese one, but fear that ours are a bit less attractive and the swap may not seem all that tempting (and of course we can buy ours here on base).   Also, I'd need to speak Japanese.

Later on that day I wandered down to The Oasis - our sort of movie theater - where as part of the day of festivities various patriotic films were being shown.  It was now mid-afternoon, and the feature was "The Fighting SeaBees" starring John Wayne, Susan Hayward and featuring William Frawley in his pre Fred and Ethel days.  As our CO is a SeaBee (well, a Civil Engineer Corps type), there had been a good deal of ribbing about the film on e-mail in the days before the screening.  The film is perhaps not Wayne's greatest role - that would be  "The Shootist" I think - and was a mostly formulaic recounting of the founding of the Naval Construction Battalions in World War II.  What made the experience distinctly odd was the fact that about half a dozen of our Japanese colleagues wandered in as the movie started.  

Naturally, all the action in the movie takes place in the Pacific theatre of the war, and in keeping with the conventions of movies of that era, the screen resounded with casually racist references to the Japanese antagonists of the movie's central characters.  With each utterance of "Japs" and "Nips" I felt increasingly uneasy about things, and by the time statements like "we aren't fighting a human enemy"  were uttered by the cast, I was wondering how I might best slip out the door without tripping over too many feet.  I stayed, in the end.  And at the film's end the lights came up and we all blinked and stretched and smiled at each other and left.

 What an interesting world.  Of course the Japanese officers and men must know the conventions of genre films of the era, and naturally insults in a foreign language never really have the bite they do to a native speaker (this is why goyim casually call each other horrible names in Yiddish like "schmuck" - they may know what it means, but it has no real purchase on the English speaking mind).  And doubtless the Americans come off less favorably then we might wish in Japanese WWII movies (of course I don't know this).  Still, I felt obscurely embarrassed.  Good odds I was the only one - like poor old Basil Fawlty in the Fawlty Towers episode where the Germans come to the hotel, and Basil is so obsessed with not mentioning "the War"  that mentioning it is all he can do.  

Still I wonder what they made of it.   How odd it all seems, with these gentle, elegant, polite men sitting beside me in the mess hall, or running beside me on the Independence Day run, that two generations ago we would have been mortal enemies.  So may it be for our children and our enemies of today.

Can you name the 8 John Wayne films in which he dies (without googling it)?

In the evening I had the good fortune to attend a party given by one of the civilian folks who work with the Combined Joint Task Force here in the Horn of Africa.  She and her partner live in a lovely 3 story place about a mile or so from base.  This was another occasion on which Djibouti seemed to me like Sicily only more so.  For all of the wonderful Italian contributions to design and architecture, most of the new buildings in many Sicilian towns are utterly charmless from outside - concrete slab walls, shuttered windows, wrap around balconies crowded with unused furniture, and surrounded by high walls with barbed wire or broken glass on the top to discourage intruders.   Step through the double locked, steel doors though and you are in the Italy you imagined - tastefully appointed, full of fine and beautiful things and brimming with the warmth of  italian family life.  All this surrounded by the least appealing, most daunting outer walls and facades you can imagine.  Djiboutian construction  is similar, but the circumstances outside the gates are much more dire.

Anyway, it was nice to speak with a different set of folks - met two veterinarians who spend most of their time "down range" assisting folks in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and the like - and to eat with actual metal utensils.   American barbecue chicken served with croissants, and red, white and blue cupcakes with a superb bourbon flavored icing were the highlights.  It felt like I had been sitting at the kids table for the last 2 months - eating on paper plates with plastic forks - but got to spend a night with the grown ups.  A lovely Fourth.

Reckon I'll stop there today.  Our new contingent of medical folks arrive tonight at 0045ish.  They'll be the replacements for the 35 or so of the EMF staff who didn't change out when we got here.  Needless to say our colleagues have been a bit distractible of late.  Big case tomorrow at the Djiboutian hospital, and a party - in summer whites - at the embassy tomorrow evening.  Stay tuned for the latest in Djibouti's glamorous social whirl...


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